Everything Old Is New Again

Everything Old Is New Again

The first tune on the recording is called “Regret?” and opens with a harpsichord solo that’s touched with more than a bit of melancholy. Is it a lost Bach composition? No, the entrance of the vibraharp, answering the harpsichord, dispels any notion that this is Baroque music. The next tune, “Blues in B Flat,”with its twisting vibes and piano, bass and drums support, leaves you with no doubt. This is jazz. The players are the Modern Jazz Quartet and the recording is the seminal Blues on Bach.

“The Short Mesure Off My Lady Wynkfylds Rownde,” an English Renaissance tune, jumps off with a piping recorder dancing over tinkling support by the virginals—this iscertainly a historically informed performance. Then the big drum kit kicks in and is answered with tight little fills by the electric guitarist. The performers are the early music specialist Philip Pickett, the guitarist Richard Thompson, and the Fairport Convention rhythm section.

“The Agincourt Carol,”a fifteenth-century hymn of praise, is intoned by a pure-voiced soprano, but suddenly she is also singing counterpoint with her own voice—two voices at once are clearly the result of some electronic doodling. Is this early music? The singer is Anna Peekstok, who, with her husband John, form Telynor, a Seattle-based duo blending old and new acoustic music of Europe, the British Isles, and America.

As we’ve already seen, early music inspires contemporary composers and performers. The unique sound of early music instruments and the specialized talents of early music performers open up new worlds of sound in what is loftily called “serious music.” But, as these examples show, old music and instruments have made an impact in the world of jazz, rock, and folk.

If generations of jazz musicians could find something beautiful and challenging in improvising on some of the most banal pop tunes ever written—Charlie Parker on “I’m In the Mood for Love,” Miles Davis on “Time After Time,” John Coltrane on “My Favorite Things,” and Lester Bowie and Brass Fantasy on “Da Butt”—why wouldn’t John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet be attracted to Bach?

“My first memorable contact with J.S. Bach’s music was a radio performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra of the D minor Toccata and Fugue, arranged and conducted by Leopold Stokowski,” Lewis stated in the liner notes to his recording of excerpts from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.”I was later impressed by a radio performance of the slow movement of the orchestral suite in D major…I heard wonderful opportunities for improvisation using the wonderful, logical chord progression and using the melodic line as a cantus firmus, as a basis for improvisation.”

This makes so much sense that it’s surprising that there’s something of a paucity of ensembles and recordings fusing jazz and early music. Two recent projects offer challenging variations on the theme that was perfected by the MJQ-Bach marriage. There’s Officium, a mega-hit recording by Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and British early vocal music specialists, the Hilliard Ensemble. Garbarek’s saxophone weaves in and out of the sonic fabric provided by the four singers of the ensemble. The Spartan beauty of the twelfth-century composer Perotin and the more ornate splendors of Renaissance masters like Pierre de la Rue and Cristóbal de Morales provide the ideal foils to Garbarek’s improvisatory fancies—the disc sold over a million copies. Five years later, the same musicians joined up for Mnemosyne, a recording that explores even more Medieval and Renaissance repertoire.

There are few sources older than ancient Hebrew melodies. The saxophonist John Zorn, fronting a band named Masada, draws inspiration from these oldest of old melodies and, in the best downtown New York free jazz style, whirls and whips through these tunes. The melodies are used as points of departure for some spectacular playing by Zorn and soloists who include trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron.

In the world of rock and folk, English groups like Fairport Convention, the Albion Band, and Steeleye Span were once the standard bearers for fusing genres. They performed Medieval carols and traditional tunes and introduced instruments like recorders and the weird, ancient wind instrument called the serpent into a sonic mix that also included the Fender Telecaster guitar. The musicological research of these groups might have been thin, but their performances were exuberant and they introduced early music to many audiences.

“All of the music recorded here was popular throughout the various strata of Renaissance society—and most of it was well-known all over Europe,” says Philip Pickett, director of both the Musicians of the Globe and New London Consort, in the liner notes to the recording of The Bones of All Men. Pickett performs on recorder, crumhorn, shawm, curtal, and symphony, and is joined by Paulo Beznosiuk on Medieval fiddle and Sharona Joshua on virginal, clavichord, and regal—pretty much a cornucopia of period instruments. What makes this project unique is Pickett’s exhaustive research into music of the Renaissance period and the fact that the period instruments go nose-to-nose with the electric guitar of Richard Thompson and the electrified rhythm section of Fairport Convention.

The English certainly don’t have a monopoly in this area. Americans John and Anna Peekstok are two musicians who, in John Peekstok’s words, “soon discovered a shared passion for European and Appalachian traditional music, rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, and Medieval music.” The Peekstok credo: “When we select a piece of music to perform or record, we don’t worry at all about trying to play it in some particularly historical or traditional manner. We find the historical information interesting, but it’s just not something that we want to impose on our music. One of my jokes is that we are reasonably well historically informed, but our music is not.” The duo play dozens of old and new instruments, have three self-produced recordings, have garnered a stack of glowing reviews from a host of publications, and are knocking down the walls of elitism.

As more and more early music repertoire is uncovered, it’s inevitable that musicians will improvise and rock on these old tunes. As more and more “serious music” composers discover the unique tonal qualities of old instruments, their rock and jazz counterparts will be doing the same. Who knows, someday we might hear a rap version of a Machaut chanson!

From Everything Old Is New Again
by Craig Zeichner
© 2001 NewMusicBox

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.