History was briefly reversed for an evening last year when one Monday shortly before Christmas a temporary and very localised electrical problem cut the power at our regular gig at the Bee’s Mouth here in Brighton, leaving us with our instruments untouched but our amps redundant. Stalwarts that we are, we carried on jamming regardless, but a certain amount of readjustment was necessary as we were suddenly plunged back into a sonic landscape hardly seen since the 1940s where the trumpet was by far the loudest instrument in the room and the guitar by far the quietest.
Nowadays popular music is often categorised as either electronic, electric or acoustic, and jazz is usually placed firmly in the latter category, but that hasn’t been strictly true for decades. Ever since Charlie Christian started taking single-line solos on his electrified instrument, the amplifier has become as essential a part of the guitarist’s set-up as the instrument itself, and even the most conservative of Django’s acolytes will play their Grand Bouches into a microphone. With respect to the double bass, amplification has changed the game so significantly that the role of the bass has expanded since the days of Wellman Braud to the extent that a whole new technique has become possible. When interviewed in 2003, maestro Ron Carter was asked “What do you think of bassists who play using only a mic with no pick-up?” and replied “I think they’re making a mistake. They want to sound like we did in the 50s, but I don’t know any bassist who played back then who would want to go back to that set-up. They had no chance to be heard.”
The advent of the microphone changed jazz singing from the stentorian bellowings of Bessie Smith to the intimate croon of Chet Baker; the saxophone and the trumpet, both designed to be played at stirringly martial volume in military marching bands, soon needed microphones of their own to ride the tide of ever-increasing volume. And no-one embraced the possibilities of electricity as enthusiastically as the keyboard players, from Hammond organ to mini-moog, while even the acoustically sympathetic Verdict here in Brighton puts a mic to its grand piano.
Jazz, of course, arrived at the beginning of the Age of Electricity, and jazz musicians were always at the forefront of modernity and quick to embrace new technology in the eternal search for the New Thing that has characterised the music. Or they used to be. The quote above from Ron Carter is telling in that his was possibly the last generation to accept the notion that newer meant better- more advanced, more relevant, more full of artistic possibilities- so that Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter spent much of the 80s touting Keytars and EWI wind synths respectively, and Ron himself became instantly recognisable on recordings for his super-sustained, direct input pick-up sound. But some time during the 90s a gradual but profound cultural shift started to occur. Recordings like Herbie’s Headhunters or Miles’ Bitches Brew no longer sounded cutting-edge and futuristic but “classic” and “retro“, and it became apparent across the board that nothing dates a sound as quickly as the latest effects pedal or studio processor.
In this context, and with a big input from the Lincoln Jazz Centr, jazz began to be seen as something that eschewed the commercial mainstream in favour of more deeper rooted values. Central to this new identity was a return to an older style of instrumentation, in which "acoustic" instruments seemed to embody qualities of timelessness and authenticity, quality and taste. Most would now agree that while electric basses and pianos necessarily sound better the more you amplify them, an acoustic double bass or piano actually sounds worse, as more of its essential timbre is distorted or lost.
Is it the advent of digitisation, with its limitless possibilities for sound manipulation, that has made the unmodified timbre of the instrument more sought after nowadays? The shift from looking forwards to looking backwards for inspiration is not limited to jazz; it’s become common to see young rock bands touting instruments older than their parents, seeking out ever-more obscure catalogue-sale-only guitars and pedals from the 50s. When I saw Herbie’s Headhunters re-united at the Jazz Cafe, none of the signature analogue gear that defined the records was to be seen; by contrast, Charles Bradley’s backing band is composed of young hipsters playing ancient gear. Film makers seek out 35mm stock, designers look for traditional fabrics and construction methods, chefs source forgotten foodstuffs from aged recipe books. In the ever-increasing feedback loop of popular culture, anything from audio cassettes to 90s video games can acquire cultural weight once the magic label of "retro" is applied.
Jazz has re-positioned itself by defining itself as a uniquely "acoustic" musical form, with this rather loose, uniquely contemporary definition of "acoustic" becoming essential to its identity. But to what extent does this curatorial approach limit how far the music can grow and develop, and to what extent does it gradually reduce it to a set of recognisable cliches so that its broadest appeal becomes more a matter of retro kitsch? Robert Glasper has been notably disaffected of late with the accepted narrative of the tradition. but is his Fender-Rhodes-and-vocoder approach any less of a selective re-interpretation of the past?And how will the next generation of players incorporate the next wave of technological innovation into the developing tradition? Maybe a future wave of power cuts will help determine a direction.