29 December 2011

The Transient Repertoire

I've forgotten where exactly, but somewhere or other among all the blogtastic drivel I've consumed over the past couple of weeks was an archetypal lament of the lack of recent compositions by living jazz artists which have truly entered the repertoire. It is indeed unfortunate in a sense, and yet at the same time, one wonders if this is simply a paradox inherent in the jazz tradition itself. Jazz is creative music, and as such, most everyone who plays it also composes for themselves (and rarely, if ever, for others; that's another interesting discussion). Performer-Composer is much more than a "traditional" mold towards which most musicians gravitate; it is essentially demanded of you by all kinds of circumstances inherent to this tradition. The inhibition of repertory momentum is built-in, paradoxically, by this emphasis on multi-faceted creativity.

You could say that there certainly is still a repertoire, and that it certainly has begun to ossify, but I can't help but wonder if this isn't the most incisive way to look at it. For one thing, the basic unit of currency in jazz repertoire has always been the particular performance, not just the lead sheet: Coltrane's and Hawkins' performances of "Body and Soul" are, of course, discrete items for today's players and listeners to tackle. In addition, within the most traditional circles, one could argue that the highly derivative nature of the compositions simply represents a different slant on repertoire, one by which the unit of currency is, again, a smaller one than the lead sheet: in other words, licks, chord progressions, and song forms. Perhaps this work doesn't so much enter the repertoire because it is the repertoire ground up and reconstituted with less new material added than might be expected in, say, the classical compositional tradition. By this logic, neo-traditionalism can be understood as a necessary "sausage-making" process that each generation (perhaps each musician) is tasked with, and as long as the "innovation" is happening concurrently somewhere else, this in and of itself cannot be a bad thing.

Having said all of that, I hereby nominate Buster Williams' "Christina" and Dave Holland's "The Balance" for repertory status. Damn it would be nice to be able to call either of those at a session...

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