Thoughts on European Jazz

As each european country seem to reflect a specific cultural and musical identity, the shape of european jazz seem to get clearer and richer with artistic circulation.

Thoughts on European Jazz

The last 50 years have witnessed a gradual development of a strong European identity in jazz.  Up to the 1960s jazz in the different European countries tended to follow the American model and musicians were judged on how well they came up to the ‘American standard’.  There were exceptions of course, Django Reinhardt being a notable example, but the inspiration in the first half of the 20th Century were the American legends, the Duke Ellington and Count Basie Big Bands, the small swing groups that came out of those and other big bands, the beboppers and hard boppers such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins.  In this context I always think of the great English saxophonist Tubby Hayes who was a leading figure in British jazz in the 1950s and 1960s playing at the first Ronnie Scott’s Club in London and touring UK with various small groups and an occasional big band.  He eventually got to play in New York and was a great success there and we were very proud of the fact that he was ‘as good as the Americans’.  I do not write this to criticise Tubby, but rather to point to a particular attitude that was current in the period.
From the 1960s onwards players in different countries began to develop approaches that we are justified in regarding as reflecting their national identity. So, for example, in Poland Krzysztof Komeda’s writing for his quintet showed that his was a voice significantly different from the American model, and Komeda’s trumpeter and saxophonist, Tomasz Stanko and Zbigniew Namysłowski had similarly distinctive voices. Komeda’s album Astigmatic recorded in 1965 drew on Polish musical traditions and the British critic Stuart Nicholson has described the album as ‘marking a shift away from the dominant American approach with the emergence of a specific European aesthetic’.

In Norway Jan Garbarek has drawn on Norwegian musical traditions and in the Nordic countries as a whole there is a strong tradition of jazz that similarly draws on the folk traditions of those countries. Interestingly, there is also a Nordic movement of free jazz that draws on the energy and groove of rock music; I am thinking here of bands such as The Thing, the improvising trio with Mats Gustaffson, Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten and Paal Nilssen Love, or Krokofant, a younger group with Jørgen Mathisen , saxophone, Tom Hasslan, guitar and Axel Skalstad , drums.

France also has a large and very interesting scene that definitely has its own aesthetic. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what that aesthetic is, but when I listen to bands led by, for example, drummer Sylvain Darrtifourcq or saxophonist Robin Fincker, I find something distinctly French about their music.

I could continue pointing to the scenes in other countries, e.g. The Netherlands, Italy etc. but I wish to point to a developing phenomenon in European jazz. That is, the increasing focus on groups that bring together players from different countries and create a more general European aesthetic rather than a specific national one. I believe that this is the now the most important trend in contemporary jazz. I am thinking, for example, of groups that I heard last year at the Ljbubljana Jazz Festival led by Slovenian players but featuring players from other European countries. A good example was Bowrain, an excellent piano trio with the pianist and bass player from Slovenia, but a German drummer. Similarly, at the October Meeting event in 2016 at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam most groups had players from different countries, so. For example Slovenian Kaja Draksler played with the Swedish bass player Petter Eldh and German Christian Lillinger and then Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen played with Argentinian saxophonist Ada Rave, Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler and Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva.

This coming together of players is a great tribute to the Europe Union’s Freedom of Movement policy which enables musicians to relocate to other countries, either temporarily or permanently. Berlin and Amsterdam have as a result become centres where players gather and exchange music and ideas.

The British scene is very interesting in this regard. Britain has always leaned towards the USA, politically, socially and musically, and jazz in the 50s and onwards was strongly influenced by the New York scene which UK players had witnessed through touring on the Atlantic liners. But players such as John Surman, John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler, the latter Canadian, but London based, began to develop a distinctly British (or English?) voice in the 1960s as did the Loose Tubes and Jazz Warriors generation in the 1980s and the players from the F-Ire and Loop Collectives in 2000s. Moreover, from the 1960s the British improvised music/free jazz movement with Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, John Stevens et al. has played a major role in Europe in the development of that strand of the music.

Today there is a strong London movement of young bands attracting young whooping audiences, e.g. Shabaka Hutchings’ Sons of Kemet, Ezra Collective, who are being featured at European festivals as well as at the Winter Festival in New York. Players like Kit Downes, Alex Hawkins and Scotland based Tommy Smith link up with players of European countries. I think it is fair to say that jazz musicians with one notable exception are strongly opposed to Brexit and fear that the opportunities to tour in Europe and to play in pan-European groups may be affected by UK’s leaving of the EU.

However, the Jazz Connective Project brings together promoters from France, Finland, Poland, Slovenia, Ireland as well as two promoters from Britain. It provides a wonderful opportunity to enable bands to tour in different countries and to create future collaborations.