In the early 1970s, I recall picking up Rolling Stone magazine and seeing the end of year headline, ‘What A Long Weird Trip It’s Been. I thought of that headline yesterday because it felt relevant. It referred to many things, to the psychedelic music which had fuelled a movement, Miles’ fusion band or The Jefferson Airplane, to the out-prose of Hunter S Thompson and Alan Ginsberg, but mostly it referred to the seismic upheavals of a troubled interregnum when the old order cracked open. A time when the planet was searching for a different axis.
It was a time of collision between an old-world order and a hyper-energised counter-culture movement. The combatants on both sides had grown weary as the pitch battles grew uglier. Bullets flew at Kent State U and the Vietnam War stumbled on pointlessly as the death count rose; and back on the west coast of the USA, Manson drove a dagger through the summers of love and hope. In turbulent times tidy resolutions are evasive, and so it’s been these past few years.
Then, as now, the arts flourished and improvised-music especially so; interpreting the sounds and moods of the times instinctively. Improvisers will always find fresh ways to examine the world about them because change is what drives them; to succeed they must be open to the endless possibilities of the moment. They will guide us to havens, to secret Islands on the margins if we listen with care.
I spent much of the recent lockdown listening to music from the wider Jazz diaspora. Initially, the musicians fell silent, then, as they came to terms with their new reality most reached out, connecting digitally with the like-minded, or with those they didn’t know at all.
Language barriers and visa issues quickly faded into irrelevance as cultural connections were navigated between living rooms. The independent recording labels also stepped up and digital review copies of lockdown albums hit my inbox daily; arriving from Iceland, Poland, Ethiopia, Russia, Belarus, Czechoslovakia and many other countries. Most of them were from well outside of my usual orbit. Cultures were colliding and assimilating new ideas at speed.
Around that time I was contacted by a Jazz Studies pupil who asked if New Zealand had a recognisable Jazz voice. That is a hard one to answer. I hear individual players with distinctive voices, but that is not the same thing. It is inarguable that Jazz arose as an American art form over 100 years ago and that it arose out of oppression, slavery, and a collision of cultures. But as it spread adaption was inevitable and in each country, cross-fertilisation occurs. In this age of hyper-connectivity, that process is accelerating at warp speed.
As I listened to the many albums from elsewhere there was a jazz sensibility, but I also fancied that heard elements of indigeneity, of improvisers referencing their folk music, native anthems and landscapes. This gave me pause for thought. What constitutes an original voice in the modern Jazz world? We hear it or think we do but how is it defined? And isn’t musical nationalism a contentious topic? I am inclined to Dave Hollands point of view in this regard, that musical nationalism should be acknowledged but not over analysed. The negative consequences of nationalism are everywhere about us and the extreme forms are seldom healthy. Jazz is a humanistic, hybridised and multi-lateral entity.
Aotearoa is a colonised land filled with a great many cultures. In the past, Polynesian voices were sidelined by dominant European cultures, but the indigenous voices grow stronger every day. I only have my ears to guide me, but if I was asked to highlight an authentic Kiwi Jazz voice, it would most likely come from our ever-growing underground free-jazz movement and it would probably reference indigenous music in some form. Musicians like Jeff Henderson and Jim Langabeer come immediately to mind, but there are others as well.
I have included a few clips which invite people to form their own opinions. Included is a track from Secret Islands, Jim Langabeer’s extraordinary album, a telling of Kiwi stories. Also, a beautiful Ethiopian clip, a French genre-busting improvising band that could hardly have come from anywhere else, an extraordinary offering of Spiritual Jazz from Lahore, and some current Nordic folk-Jazz.
The journey through the pandemic feels interminable right now, but the music will guide us through, and if we listen well enough, the time will not have been wasted. Search Bandcamp or wherever for something unknown, let the music paint pictures as you study new landscapes through your ears. Is this the new travel? We will hopefully emerge better informed, and what a long weird trip it will have been.
You can purchase many of these albums on Bandcamp; the place where interesting music lands.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.