Table of contents

Dissections and Intersections of the Jazz Scene: An Interview with Aaron Goldberg

piano keysAaron's hands playing
drummer's hand
  1. Andrew Berish: Do you feel there is a coherent jazz tradition, a coherent practice or body of music that you are a part of? And if so, what are your feelings or attitudes towards that tradition? In New York, for example, there are people who play downtown in the Knitting Factory world, lots of local musicians, and then there are people like Medeski, Martin & Wood who do a kind of jazz but much more on the pop/funk side. Where do you see yourself in that? Do you think it is all jazz?

  2. Aaron Goldberg: I think that there is definitely a coherent body of music comprising the jazz tradition. Of course, you find differences of opinion over what actually fits in that tradition, what fits in the so-called canon. I think it is probably safer not to even use the word “canon” just because it is a fluid body of knowledge, and the “canon” might different according to each person. Nonetheless, there would probably be many common elements cited by members of the jazz community or by practicing jazz musicians. All who might claim authority on these matters would probably be in agreement about 80 or 90 percent of the stuff that belongs in the tradition. You would have wild and passionate disagreements about the other 10 to 20 percent.

  3. My personal take is that almost everything fits in. I’m not one of those people who say, “oh this is not jazz because it’s not this, it’s not that.” In general I tend to find most of those arguments kind of petty. I will certainly take a position about what’s better and what’s worse, but I’m not going to put my foot down and say, “goddamn it, Medeski, Martin & Wood is not jazz because it is too popular, or because it is not swinging, or whatever.” I think they themselves would call what they do something like funk/jazz or jam band-jazz, definitely jazz-influenced. I heard those guys with Randy Weston playing some straight-up, indisputable jazz when they were at NEC [New England Conservatory] and those guys still play straight-ahead jazz all the time for fun. They might not be playing music that everyone agrees is jazz, but they are definitely jazz musicians.
  1. I think that’s similarly the case across the board with a lot of people who are in these kind of borderline areas. Many of them are jazz musicians and think of themselves as jazz musicians even if what they are playing isn’t necessarily always called "jazz." And I think that jazz ultimately, in addition to being a canon or a set of traditions, is also a set of tools that you develop as a musician that allows you to approach other jazz musicians with a kind of shared jazz sensibility. What that boils down to is basically improvisational skills as well as the idea that good music is always creative and flowing and changing. You can bring that jazz sensibility to hip-hop, you can bring that jazz sensibility to a whole bunch of different kinds of music, funk definitely...

  2. AB: When Ornette Coleman started getting attention for what he was doing, some people became angry
    Ornette Coleman playing saxophone “Blues Connotations”
    performed by Ornette Coleman
    because they hadn’t heard him play rhythm changes. They didn’t feel like he had demonstrated any technique and they thought he was a fraud. You mentioned that you heard Medeski, Martin & Wood play in an indisputably jazz context, playing standards or jazz tunes, swinging or whatever. If you didn’t know that, would it be an issue? Is being a jazz musician fundamentally about a certain kind of technique and approach? Say, if you couldn’t play competently on a blues, or something like rhythm changes...

  3. AG: I think, again, we’re going to have differences of opinion over the definition of “competently.” However, the principle that being a jazz musician is having a certain set of skills is one that I buy. I would say you don’t have to be able to play rhythm changes and sound like Wynton Kelley or sound like Bird. But, you have to be able to play rhythm changes: you have to know what the chords are and sound convincing. It doesn’t matter necessarily how you sound stylistically—it’s not your choice of style that makes you a jazz musician, it's your body of skills and knowledge. I didn't mean to imply that I only think Medeski, Martin & Wood are valid because they can play jazz, I was just saying that they are actually jazz musicians and they would think of themselves as such. Especially right now, the boundaries between styles are getting more and more fluid. Joshua Redman is playing a lot of jam band kind of funk-jazz stuff, Nicholas Payton is about to have a record that has hip-hop and electronica and all kinds of stuff, and Brad Mehldau is playing some electronica stuff. All sorts of stylistic boundaries are being crossed by a lot of people who would absolutely consider themselves jazz musicians and whom I would absolutely consider jazz musicians.

  4. It is certainly possible that someone might consider themselves a free jazz musician and have no idea what the fuck rhythm changes is, but I would be surprised if they were good. I think that most people who consider themselves any kind of jazz musician would have run across those kinds of tunes in their lifetime and would have taken the opportunity to learn them.

  5. AB: I wanted to follow up on genre mixing. There is a little bit of this in the OAM Trio stuff you do. Do you think that if you mix things too much, it gets to a point where it stops being jazz? For instance, jazz and blues have always seemed like they bleed into one another and there are some players who are sort of jazzy but also definitely bluesy.

  6. AG: Like who?

  7. AB: I think of early players like T-Bone Walker. He has long lines and sort of makes the changes but he moved, became more and more a blues player.


    “Don't Leave Me Baby,”
    performed by T-Bone Walker & His Guitar with Jack McVea’s All Stars

  8. AG: He was probably always a blues player—I think it is fair to say that if you were to do interviews with all these guys who are on the borderline, they would very accurately self-identify as either blues guys who like jazz, or jazz guys who like blues; or salsa guys who play jazz, or jazz guys who play salsa. I think if you let people just tell you themselves what they are, they would pretty accurately give you a portrait of where they’re coming from and it would probably match up with what minimally knowledgeable listeners would say if they heard these people play.

  9. As far as genre mixing—jazz has always been influenced by all sorts of different kinds of music: of course blues, but also latin music of various kinds, African music. I think all good jazz has some kind of influences from outside of jazz. All jazz is in some way genre-mixed a little bit. I think real serious genre mixing is when you start getting away from the improvisational nature of jazz.

  10. If what you are talking about is stuff like the OAM trio where we’re improvising with jazz forms and jazz types of tunes but we add some non-traditional jazz instruments like tabla, or we use some scales and flavors and rhythms that come from other types of music like flamenco or Arab music: that’s just normal jazz.
    flow CD cover

    performed by the OAM Trio

    There have always been cross-currents pollinating jazz from left and right and I think we are just continuing that trend, perhaps adding new elements not explored before. I wouldn’t call that "genre mixing," I would just say that we are bringing in influences from around the world into a jazz context. Genre mixing would be something like that last Herbie Hancock record Future to Future. There is not that much improvisation and the grooves are kind of electronica and hip-hop based stuff. After you hear it you’re kind of like, “was that jazz? Or was it electronica?” It was maybe electronica with a jazz flavor, or maybe a little jazz with an electronica flavor. You’re really not sure which one it is. So then you’re really in the territory of bending definitions of stuff and crossing boundaries.

  11. AB: I heard a record Matthew Shipp made with DJ Spooky. You often couldn’t even tell when it was a record playing, pre-recorded music, or when Shipp was actually playing. That strikes me as similar…

  12. AG: I think that, for me, jazz has ultimately always been about improvisation: if it wasn’t improvisational, it wasn’t really jazz. You could be mimicking jazz and have pre-recorded jazz-style grooves, but if there wasn’t any improvising I would just say that’s kind of “fake jazz.”
    Optometry CD cover
    I would say improvisational music that has non-traditional jazz grooves but is still improvisational is still jazz. It’s just jazz with hip-hop beats, or funk beats, or turntable guys or whatever—you can add in anything into it and, if everybody’s improvising I would say that it qualifies as jazz. I think that that’s where the idea of a set of jazz skills comes in, because being a jazz musician capable of improvising, capable of putting yourself in new kinds of contexts, making music with all different kinds people, that’s going to allow you to investigate all these foreign realms, and bring them into your music in a kind of “jazzy” way, it’s going to allow it to work

  13. AB: Do you see yourself moving more in that direction?

  14. AG: Depending on what I’m doing at the moment I might be working with completely traditional ensembles, or through varying degrees of experimentation. I’m about to do some stuff with Nicholas Payton’s band which is a mixture of all kinds of shit that doesn’t sound like any of his former music. But you know, it’s definitely still jazz. He’s just interested in experimenting with new types of materials but using them in a very jazz way, very creatively.


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Berish: Dissections and Intersections

Review Essays

Carson: El Niño

Courtier: Long Road to Freedom


Grigg and Murphy: Opera’s Second Death

Niebur: The Film Reader

Jorritsma: Amandla!

Conference Report

Garrett: Criss Cross


Aaron at the piano