Categorisation of Jazz Styles: A Road To Madness

Listening to Peter Kronreif’s Wayfarers new album Aeronautics, due out on 5th February 2021 on the Fresh Sound New Talent label, set me thinking about the various categories we use to define and classify jazz and related musics.  Aeronautics is an enjoyable album that features a quintet led by the Austrian drummer Peter Kronkief with a double saxophone front line (alto and tenor), piano and double bass. Kronreif is now based in New York, and the album features his regular quintet there, plus guest spots for two guitarists.  All the musicians on the album are new names for me.

The album is definitely a jazz album, and in a blindfold test listeners would almost certainly classify the music as being firmly based in the traditions of modern jazz. But is it modern jazz or contemporary jazz?  I see modern jazz as referring to the developments in the music from the mid 1940s, that is bop, hard bop and to so-called cool jazz emerging largely on the West Coast of the USA whereas contemporary jazz refers more or less anything that followed from the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s, that is modal jazz and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, late Coltrane and Albert Ayler plus all the various developments outside the USA. 

As free playing has developed and moved away from the harmony and rhythms of jazz, many free players have preferred to refer to their music as improvised music, emphasising that it is quite distinct from jazz.  While I accept that improvised music often inhabits a different sound world and approach from free jazz, I also notice that many players and bands move between passages that might be defined as free jazz into other passages that we would probably define as improvised music.  Another aspect of this is that many bands today also move between a structured approach and a free approach.  Tim Berne’s music for his Caos Totale and Snakeoil groups is an excellent example of music that is based on written material, but moves in and out of that material into free improvisation.  In the UK music by Kit Downes and Tom Challenger provides another example.

There is an increasing tendency to refer to all this music that moves between structure and freedom as creative music.   I like this term; it has positive connotations, captures the innovation of much of today’s music that draws on other genres of music, for example contemporary classical or various forms of black music, hip hop, grime and Afrobeat.    

Nonetheless, it strikes me that there is a problem with the use of the general term creative music for a number of specific styles of music.  This is apparent when I listen to and think about the Aeronautics album.  It is a good and listenable album, which has excellent written material and solos.  It is fresh, has a good rhythmic feel and introduces some variety in the format thereby avoiding the formulaic approach of head + solos + head out.  In all this it is creative, but it is not innovative and would probably not be classified as an example of creative music.  It is a jazz album faithful to the traditions of jazz, but creative within those traditions.

Perhaps I’ll stick to Duke Ellington’s definition: there are simply two kinds of music, the good and the other kind.  

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