Rant: American Nu-Jazz

For the most part Europeans, and especially Scandinavians, are miles ahead of Americans when it comes to the seamless integration of jazz with sampling, beats, and electronics that is Nü-Jazz. Nils Petter Molvær brought out Khmer in 1995, while Bugge Wesseltoft, Jazzanova and St. Germain have been working this territory easily as long. Guitarists mining this particular type of fusion also seem to reside on the east side of the Atlantic: Eivind Aarset, Bram Stadhouders, Jeff Beck, Stian Westerhus, and Nguyên Lê have been long at home with the grooves of EDM and/or the sounds of experimental electronica.

West of the Atlantic, American jazz artists have been known to dabble with the form. The video above is a relatively successful attempt by the Harriet Tubman Trio to meld their distinctive brand of fusion with a couple of DJs and the trumpet that seems to be omnipresent in nü-jazz bands (i.e. the aforementioned Molvær, Arve Henriksen, Jon Hassell, Cuong Vu, Mathias Eick, Ben Neil…the list goes on).

Other notable American guitarists attempting this concoction are Nels Cline (when not spicing up Wilco), John Scofield with his Uberjam band, and former Shadowfax guitarist G.E. Stinson. Unlike Tubman’s Brandon Ross, these guitarists blend their guitars into the mix with the creative use of effects. Still, save for Stinson, who consistently works with beat loops, they are representative of the reason American nü-jazz lags behind its European/Scandinavian counterpart—lack of commitment to the form.

Sco’s electro-funk experiment is a sometime thing; Cline’s work outside of Wilco only occasionally nods to club sounds, and Tubman leans more towards modern fusion most of the time.

None of this is to say that nü-jazz is better than what they usually do. This is only an observation as to why, when Americans venture into this territory, the results can sound at best full of unrealized potential, and at worst half-baked. It would be great to hear some American jazz musicians embrace the world of computers and beats as a long term, exclusive relationship, rather than a one-night stand.

Any thoughts?




10 thoughts on “Rant: American Nu-Jazz

  1. Sorry i’m so late with this comment. To be honest (and this may raise some hackles) I think there is a very prevalent prejudice and arrogance in many american “jazz” musicians about using beats and repetitive rhythms in improvisation. Much of the Jazz community can be extremely doctrinaire often to a fanatical degree. (Witness the recent backlash regarding the recent recreation of “Kind of Blue.”) Some of this is based in fear of being perceived as trying to be commercial. Fusion created a huge blowback and the stench still lingers on the nostrils of the acolytes. Let’s face it, quite a bit of the Jazz world is fairly conservative and parochial. Even the so called free jazz scene is incredibly uptight about adhering to a specific definition of “free” and the criteria for improv is often rigid. When I began using a DJ in Splinter Group back in the 90s, it was clear that many musicians did not understand why I was interested in using beats in improvisation. The answer was simple if anyone would have bothered to ask me. Basically, Steuart Liebig, my longtime collaborator, both came up in the Blues and R&B world and we wanted to do grooves. If we are even more honest, many jazz and improv musician do not know how to groove. In fact, for many of them their grooving skills are sorely lacking. For the most part, the ordinary listeners who were familiar with hip hop, drum&bass, techno, garage, etc were much more open to what I have been doing than most improvising or “jazz” musicians.

    • Much truth. In America it seems to be coming more fro the other side, with hip-hop artists adding jazz elements. If anyone has good examples of America jazz using electronics , please chime in.

  2. As to American Jazz vs. EuroJazz, I think for some inexplicable reason Europeans seem to be drawn to “beats” in just about everything. I lived in Berlin for six months last year, and the spectre of Ableton Live seemed to be everywhere, providing a backdrop to everything from live concerts to car commercials. Why? Maybe a set of cultural memes that I didn’t quite connect with, but I don’t know!

    However, I think American Jazzers like to keep the swing that is naturally inherent in the music, and maybe it’s just too hard to swing to computer driven beats.

    I do use Ableton Live a lot, but mainly as a composer’s tool. I personally haven’t found a way to use it for concert performance yet for my own music, but ya’ never know!

    • The Kraftwerk influence perhaps? I think Hip-Hop ultimately proved that programmed beats and loops could swing. I had hoped that would encourage American jazz artists and it seemed to be happening with the Rebirth of the Cool project and then it died out. Also Herbie Hancock’s Manchild era stuff had promise, but he moved on and no one seems to have taken up that mantle either.

      • Yes, there is a long legacy with the influence of Kraftwerk in many European musics. It also had a lot of influence on Hip Hop here in America in the 80’s, as well, e.g. “Planet Rock”.
        And although Hip Hop has its own “swing”, I think computer generated beats can prove to be a bit unforgiving to play with, whereas humans can be much more elastic in improvisatory Jazz performance. This is not to say that I think it is impossible to be interesting using laptops live, it just seems to me a bit far removed from American Jazz traditions.
        But then again, who wants to be stuck in traditions?

        • True, it is a different thing. My point is not that more Americans should incorporate beats or loops, just that when they do it, it is more dabbling than seriously exploring. It is fine if it becomes a European specialty.

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