For this year's International Songwriting Competition, the judges in the jazz category will be John Scofield, Cassandra Wilson and Medeski, Martin and Wood. At first, I was puzzled that so few talents would be representing such a respected enterprise as jazz composition. Then it occurred to me that I should be glad that our music is represented in the first place, especially by such vaunted contemporaries.
This also got me thinking: Gershwin, Kern, Arlen, Rodgers, Hart, etc. are revered as composers today because their songs have endured so many climatic shifts in the jazz world. The Great American Songbook seems so readily adaptable to contemporary styles and can still retain what makes them special and emotive. These writers all have their own compositional "signatures," but it seems as though songwriters' voices have become more pronounced through the years. Writers like Monk, Diz, Bird or Mingus, for instance, have been canonized for their conspicuous, innovative styles of writing. One could pull off a version of "The Man I Love" without sounding "too Gershwin" or sounding like one's playing is a throwback to the '20s. It would be more difficult to play songs like "Blue Monk," "Confirmation" or "Groovin' High" without conjuring up the spirits of their authors and invoking the musical era in which they were written (by nature of the language itself). Today, it seems like "great" compositions are those that not only accomplish what all pieces must accomplish but also are unique to that composer, something inimitable and inherently, inextricably linked to that composer's voice and performance.
As I interviewed Aaron Goldberg last week, he expressed admiration for guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel (Goldberg is currently Rosenwinkel's go-to pianist). He pointed out that Rosenwinkel's writing was inseparable from his playing; performance and pen are one and the same. I imagine it would be rather difficult to play a Rosenwinkel composition and achieve the same goals the original does. (Listen to "Brooklyn Sometimes" from Deep Song. Is that feeling duplicable?).
One could say the same thing for Charlie Parker. The similar language of the "head" and solos of a Bird tune make it difficult to tell where composition ends and improv begins. In a previous interview I did with Dave Douglas, he talked about examining the work of Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor and Gil Evans and "understanding a little more deeply the profound decisions that they made relating to how an improvised language was going to interact with the composed language."
Is the goal of modern compositions moving towards meshing improvisation with composition over time? If so, this could help explain why compositions today are becoming increasingly exclusive to the singular players who write them. Writers of showtunes were writing songs for others to perform; many jazz musicians today write for themselves and their groups. The idiosyncracies of the composer proudly become part of the piece. Could Rosenwinkel's pieces be convincingly played by Scofield? Could Douglas's compositions be covered by Jeremy Pelt? (No matter what the answer is, I personally see no reason for a player to duplicate something someone else can do.)
I know I'm not exactly saying anything new here, and I'm not entirely sure what this means yet. Naturally, today's players still play standards; bebop and Monk are still staples in the modern jazz lexicon; even our contemporary performers borrow from each other's songbooks (though often the composer of that tune is on the date). And perhaps my assertion that the writers of standards have a less noticeable personal style is off base; perhaps I'm not as inclined to notice their signatures as readily as those of the composers of "modern jazz." And, of course, in a few years, honoring the tradition may indeed mean revisiting the compositions of the aforementioned players of today.
Still, it's interesting that when we think of the "great" compositions of the past, we often value them for their universal "playability"; when we think of "great" compositions today, they are the ones that, in spirit, belong almost exclusively to the person who created it. And as always, time may also play a role in determining whether or not this holds true.
I should add that I ponder this with no intent of maligning today's composers. I can't guess their intent, and they're by no means selfish to write songs for themselves and to avoid writing songs that "just anyone" can play. The fact that they can write in way that almost defies or denies translation or transmutability means we can hear more vibrant sounds than ever. Forging ahead is just as important as honoring the tradition, something that seems to happen in jazz no matter what the intent of the composer is.
P.S.: Since I mentioned them earlier: Sco reunites with MMW (for the first time on record since 1998) on their new album, Out Louder, which hit the streets on September 26th.