How healthy is jazz? Is it, like some critics and musicians contend, an art form that has run its course? Or is it still a dynamic music that continues to evolve in new and interesting ways?

Sydney’s Jazz Now Festival aims to demonstrate the latter. Its premise is that jazz remains contemporary and relevant, in part, by melding with other genres, from rock to Latin, folk to electronica.

Exhibit A and the Festival’s international guest is New York drummer Jim Black, an artist whose wide-ranging interests make him the epitome of the modern jazz musician.

Black studied music at Berklee College and moved to New York in 1991 where he immersed himself in the city’s downtown scene, working with, among others, Dave Douglas’s Tiny Bell Trio, Ellery Eskelin, Laurie Anderson, Tim Berne and Uri Caine. He also records and performs with his own band AlasNoAxis, a quartet that draws as much from rock as jazz improvisation.

The drummer says he is ultimately concerned with how the music sounds, irrespective of stylistic boundaries. “What you call it in the end doesn’t really matter until you take it to that business level and have to find a way to promote or market it in terms of labels or clubs or touring,” he said. “That’s another story but it’s really important for myself and a lot of my friends to make music that we enjoy regardless of style or genre and then figure out what to do with it.”

This year Black will also be working with Japanese jazz pianist Satoko Fujii, Portuguese composer and bassist Carlos Bica and electronica/dub exponent Raz Mesiani. Is there an attitude or approach that links this diversity?

“Somewhere in the process improvisation plays a large part,” explained Black. “Whether I’m working with Laurie Anderson, where we basically improvise pieces together that become very fixed and song-like and where I would play the same thing night to night, or doing an improv set with [violinist] Mat Manieri, it’s got the same energy and the same feel even though it’s drastically different in terms of sounds and resolve and intention. It’s still linked by improv somehow.”

So where does the idea of jazz fit into all this? A decade ago, British guitarist Derek Bailey wrote in his book Improvisation that jazz now only seems capable of looking backwards, that it “seems to have changed from an aggressive, independent, vital, searching music to being a comfortable reminder of the good old days”.

Black seems to suggest that in relation to his work, at least, jazz is an antecedent rather than the defining form.

“When I hear the word jazz I think of more classic jazz, more of something that is a picture of what jazz was, what made it great,” he said. “You think of Parker, Monk, Duke Ellington and Coltrane and, yeah, you can almost cap it off there.”

“I’ve never been hung up on that word … If it’s called jazz it doesn’t bother me that much, although my band AlasNoAxis doesn’t really play anything that’s jazzy. But everything that we’re playing somehow is informed completely by our past and by the things we know and hear. So, while you wouldn’t call it jazz, it definitely comes from there.”

There are also elements of rock – one reviewer said a track from the band’s third album Habyor “begins like a Black Sabbath concert gone horribly wrong” – although the New Yorker is quick to eschew any relation to that most maligned of genres, jazz-rock fusion. He prefers to say that AlasNoAxis is his chance to be “a singer-songwriter without a singer”.

“I know that doesn’t make all the promoters very happy or even some of the magazine writers very happy when they realize that we might have left the jazz boat or entered something the rock guys can’t grip either,” he said.

In Australia, Black will be playing with musicians whose own search for personal expression has seen them stray across the borders of musical category. In Melbourne he is collaborating with Steven Magnusson (guitar), Julien Wilson (tenor sax) and Scott Tinkler (trumpet); in Sydney, Philip Slater (trumpet), Carl Dewhurst (guitar) and Lloyd Swanton (bass).

Black freely admits he knows little about the musicians with whom he will work.
“Actually, I don’t have a clue. I‘ve got some emails and I know some names but that’s about it and that’s fine. I’m completely into chance meetings and letting the music work itself out in real time on stage in front of an audience. That’s great.”

And the material? “I don’t know yet. I’ll bring a couple of songs but I’m curious to also see what they’ve got and also to do a lot of improvising as a well because I think that’s really the best way to meet another musician. In the game we’re in, improvising is a great business card.”

In addition to working with local players, Black will perform solo, something he says he found difficult at first. “It’s the ultimate challenge to get up on stage with just that instrument. You’re either doing improvisation or performing pieces and I’ll do a combination of both but trying to make an hour’s worth of music that is listenable somehow or that I would find interesting if I was watching and listening.”

Whatever the context, Black says he aims to discard the reflex gestures that come from a rigorous musical education, in favour of something more authentic that reflects the artist’s true voice.

“I think every musician has to hit that wall at some point … to realize: look, you can play really well, you can do things that are great, you sound very good, but how much of this do you really hear? How much of it is yours? Is it your music? … I need to hear a certain percentage of something that smacks of originality and soulfulness and integrity.”

Check the gig guide for details of Jim Black’s Australian performances
Peter Jordan is a Sydney writer and editor. He can be contacted directly at cinefile61@yahoo.com.au