Lately, I re-cultivated my love for Jazz. Historically, I spent years exploring different varieties of Jazz and studying the respective history. The last couple of years, however, witnessed much musical turmoil in my listening repertoire.
Initially, as I was settling in Brazil and many months prior, I listened to Brazilian MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) with severe fascination, in addition to some traditional Samba and Bossa Nova. The practice heavily facilitated my cultural immersion and the early language development. Later on, despite years of no active interest in British Rock, I retroactively acquainted myself for the first time with the music of David Bowie, shortly after his death in April, 2016. This discovery owes itself, actually, to one Brazilian podcast that I had a tendency to consume - another example of how one purpose can lead to entirely unpredictable territory.
Having particularly appreciated the late-70s and mid-90s electronic experiments of David Bowie, I gradually incorporated other electronic music into my listening, including composers to the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Vangelis, Cliff Martinez, Daft Punk, and others I may have inadvertently stumbled upon in those pseudo-random Spotify excursions. (My principle-oriented and exaggerated disapproval for this music listening medium, in actuality, only marginally surpasses utter indifference.)
Notwithstanding, I had severely deviated from most forms of Jazz. It was not until reading a number of Haruki Murakami novels that I re-cultivated my appreciation for this genre. Murakami-san, beyond his impressive capacity as a writer and marathon runner, also stands out as a notable Jazz connoisseur, record collector, and (Jazz-)writer even. In fact, all novels of his I have read contained Jazz references exhibited through various characters. (He also demonstrates a similar appreciation for Rock and Classical music, all contributing factors for why his novels feel “close to home.”)
In addition, upon arriving in Poland for the second consecutive year, I felt a stronger urge to re-explore Jazz. Something about Poland speaks to me of Jazz motifs, in a way that Czech Republic spoke of classical music and Germany spoke of electronic and industrial rock. What precisely in Poland provokes Jazz I struggle to define, but certainly not potatoes or Żubrówka.
It would take the mind of someone like David Bowie to bridge an environment with conceptual art, and ultimately with music. For one of the more powerful compositions of the album Low, titled Warszawa, he found inspiration in only a brief train layover in the Soviet-influenced Warszawa of the late 70s. Similarly, the album Heroes features Neukoln, inspired by his walks around the respectivelly named Berlin neighborhood. I too explored this neighborhood, but failed to capture any musical identity. Alas, I’m not David Bowie. Today, the neighborhood features a strong Turkish presence, stronger than average in Berlin. Perhaps I should have leveraged other musical genres. But I digress.
What aspects of Poland evoke a Jazz sensation?
Beginning with the most abstract, Poland is one of the principle apple exporters around Europe. Something in the textural variety of apples manifests in me a yearning for Jazz exploration.
The ubiquitous presence of literature, cinema, and musically-themed cafes plays a role. Despite the impressive range of motifs among these already varied categories, I tend to naturally expect Jazz accompaniment in such settings.
The tension among neighboring forces. Poland is known for a turbulent history in presence of competing powers all around, the Russian empire to the East, Prussia and Germany to the West, the Austria-Hungary empire to the South. Even today, tension arises in the conflict between the Eastern and Western inner identities.
Jazz, similarly, is characterized by much tension throughout it’s evolution: the tension provoked by elements of swing, the tension between Blues on one end of the spectrum, Ragtime on another, and further competing elements among the traditions of New Orleans, African rhythms, Rock fusion, Funk, and Latin.
I embrace Poland more as a Western personality with Slavic roots, rather than an Eastern nation with Western inclinations. The difference is subtle. (Interestingly, I felt something strikingly similar in Austria, a receptor of much Slavic influence from the times of the Austria-Hungary empire.)
Analogously, my Jazz preferences lie among the more modern, avant-garde, fusion, and experimental forms, rather than the traditional Bebop influenced Jazz.
The Polish language also speaks to me of fusion. It goes without saying that I absolutely adore this variant of Slavic languages. It maintains the Slavic language construction and much vocabulary, but also assimilates more Western terminology than the Russian language, for example. The key ingredient, however, lies in the phonetics, pronunciation, rhythm, and cadence. The matter treads on subjectivity, granted, but to my ear, Polish has always sounded more French than Russian, as well as calmer and more measured.
I re-embraced my habits of listening to the Miles Davis electronic and fusion experiments from the period of the late-60s to the start of his hiatus in the mid-70s. Some of my preferred albums in that period include the revolutionary Bitches Brew, the heavily rock-influenced A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Live Evil, the compilation Big Fun, and even the mismarketed one-chord based funk experiment On the Corner, this last of which I managed to cultivate an appreciative relationship with. Most of the albums I mention here, in fact, required a number of listening attempts to first develop a tolerance, and later, an appreciation. I prefer such music.
I wish to write more on Miles Davis. He was an innovator and chameleon in Jazz and other less-clearly-identifiable variants, in a way that David Bowie was also a cross-genre chameleon. Miles Davis would as far as reject the term Jazz in his later periods, and not strictly to avoid typecasting, but to reach wider audiences in general and explore the freedom to incorporate the trumpet in any genre to his pleasing. The move made logical sense as far as I’m concerned, as many post-60s albums of his could arguably be classified as Rock or Funk albums with the presence of Jazz instruments (and occasional signs of Jazz form). Many critics considered the transition as a “sell out”, but I maintain a more liberal viewpoint.
Other products of Jazz I find provocative and inspiring include John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Ornette Coleman’s Jazz avant-garde manifesto The Shape of Jazz to Come, Miles Davis’s post-bop albums Nefertiti, Filles De Kilimanjaro, Miles in the Sky and E.S.P, Yusef Lateef’s Eastern Sounds, Charles Mingus’s Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters and Man-Child, McCoy Tyner’s Extensions and Echoes, and Wayne Shorter’s Odyssey of Iska. I might explore one of these to greater depth in a future post.