Like Barry Guy’s larger groups (the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, the Barry Guy New Orchestra and The Blue Shroud), Tyshawn Sorey’s (I must stop confusing him with Tyson Fury!!) musicians on Pillars are broken down into smaller configurations across the expanse of the recordings (a methodology that can perhaps be methodologically backdated to Derek Bailey’s Company, at least in the realm of free music?) Listeners are encouraged to listen in parts: “small subgroups over relatively short distinguished sections”. The symphonic pretentions are obvious, everything held together under the overarching concept (which makes it somehow not ‘free’?). The London Jazz Composers 1993 ‘small-within-the great’ work Portraits is just one example of this modus.
Derek Bailey’s name will always come up when one is debating categorisation. He is in good ‘company’, as such greats as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy, to name only a few, regularly questioned whether ‘jazz’, with its dubious and rather unsavoury backstory in the brothels and stews of early 20th century New Orleans, was an appropriate name for black America’s moist/most creative music of that time period: but no-one has really come up with an alternative name that doesn’t sound lame. Listening to the FJC’s list of the 101 best jazz albums has merely reinforced my doubts as to what one should really call this music, without potentially misleading the listener. Most of us have an idea of what ‘jazz’ sounds like - perhaps a choice of Hard Bop or Swing? Louis Armstrong as the ultimate avatar? I’m aware that there are a lot of question marks in this blog, but John Corbett’s apercu should ultimately stand the test. Much of the 101 list features individuals/bands that seem to originate from other genres - hiphop, electronica, contemporary classical, drone, noise, minimalist, which is fine, as jazz has always been a welcoming home. But today’s maestros are usually from university-level training, and will inevitably have soaked up other speciality genres, jazz being but only one. And it shows.
There have been many attempts to pin down exactly what ‘proper jazz’ is, especially from the 1980′s ‘jazz revival’ onwards, i.e. it being the work of the pre-1970 period, with the Miles Davis Quartet and the John Coltrane Quartet being institutionalised as the music’s non plus ultra. Definitely NOT the work of post-’electric Miles’ and his cursed spawn! The 101 list clearly proves that the definitional battle is far from complete. There is some great music out there, but is it jazz? 100 years on, the word is still controversial, but resolute.