As it often does, something that Corey Mwamba said on Twitter got me thinking…



A few times recently it’s been noted with a small amount of surprise how music with improvisation in has been well-received by “non-jazz” crowds. A common reaction to early Beats & Pieces gigs was “I don’t normally like jazz, but this was great!” Indeed, my girlfriend Toni said the same thing about Led Bib, Polar Bear and more (to the point where I think she might just have to accept that she likes jazz…).

Aside: What I don’t want is to turn this into a debate on what “jazz” means. So if you think Led Bib, or Evan Parker, or whoever aren’t playing jazz, then please replace the word “jazz” with the phrase “music that heavily features improvisation” and read on…

Moving on, this isn’t a new revelation by any means, but there’s definitely a lot to be said for playing music to audiences who aren’t expecting to hear music played a certain way. The trick is how to get in front of different types of audience. On paper it’s quite difficult, and I’ve certainly struggled with how to pitch certain projects that are on the cusp between genres, which unfortunately is where I find the most interesting material to play.

Chris Sharkey has said that in the early days of Trio VD and Lima, rather than play the established local jazz gigs, they started to hook up with the Leeds hardcore scene, and play gigs with those bands, based on a shared energy rather than preconceived notions of genre.

Likewise, in Manchester, a brilliant new night has sprung up run by the Magic Hat Ensemble, featuring three different acts from three different backgrounds. From their website: “The Mix-Up kicked off in October 2011 as a way to celebrate the diversity of Manchester’s music scene without being tied to a style or genre. Drop the idea of scene, genre and demographic, and simply enjoy great live music and good food in a positive and relaxed atmosphere.” And it really works, there’s been a great buzz about the gigs, and last month they even managed to put an entire big band together on the day for visiting composer Paolo Dias Duarte (sounded awesome if you’re wondering).

So maybe the moral is ‘get off your backside and do it Anton’, or maybe the moral is we should all stop caring about genre. Having said that, as a promoter I know genres can be helpful for targeting interested people. I don’t know what the answer is, any thoughts on the subject would, as always, be very gratefully received. Any places you’ve found unsuspecting listeners quite welcoming/any good cross-genre projects you’ve seen or been involved in and so on.

The Magic Hat Mix-Up takes place on the first Thursday of every month in the Klondyke Club, Levenshulme, Manchester and only costs you a fiver. 5th April is the next one.

25 thoughts on “Cross-contamination

  1. An artist or musician should try to realize their ideas.
    Genres are only helpful in so far as they make available a scaffolding for those ideas, and can certainly facilitate ideas that the artist would have not had otherwise.
    Is it useful for the artist to define themselves in terms of a genre? Creatively, no. The only benefit this has is its easier to market that individual/group. If you consider yourself a classical pianist and close yourself off to the ideas that playing jazz might open yourself to, then that is a problem. (Apparently in the University of Manchester the pianos have signs on them saying that no jazz should be played on those pianos, which is an unbelievably absurd idea.).
    I think there are people interested in exploring the limits of their own practice, trying things, seeing what works, challenging their ideas and output again and again. These people are artists.
    And then there are people who play jazz.

    • “Is it useful for the artist to define themselves in terms of a genre? Creatively, no. ”

      Someone like Quentin Tarantino might argue with that; his films usually take a specific genre as their starting point. For example, Pulp Fiction is ostensibly a gangster movie, Kill Bill basically a martial arts flick, From Dusk Till Dawn a vampire movie, Inglorious Basterds a war film, etc. Yet what he achieves within the expected parameters of each genre is often unmistakably his own.

      The point here is that Tarantino uses the idea of genre as a creative stimulus, and he’s not the only one: John Zorn is famous for adopting a similar approach to composition, often overtly referencing easily recognisable styles or eras of music and combining them in novel ways.

      This modus operandi has been very influential for a whole generation of musicians who have grown up listening to an incredible variety of music from all over the globe (myself included, not to mention Chris Sharkey), and while we must each ultimately find our own way of dealing with the notion of genre, many find it useful to be aware of the associations audiences are likely to make between one’s own work and that of other artists they may have encountered.

      Anton’s point that “the trick is how to get in front of different types of audience” is bang on, and relates back to the grievance currently making its way around the London jazz scene that many musicians seem increasingly to be playing to audiences consisting chiefly of other musicians.

      I believe audiences are generally more open to experimentation than we give them credit for. The key is in finding a way to present it that allows for the expressiveness of the project to come to the fore. After all, human beings are conditioned to respond to artistic communication on an intrinsic level (see the parallels between linguistic and musical cognizance for example), and the transmission of this expressiveness, suitably packaged, will always transcend the concept of genre.

      • Is it useful for the artist to *DEFINE* themselves in terms of a genre?

        Neither Q.T. or J.Z. do this. The fact that they *specifically* don’t do this is responsible for all the projects you listed. They are able to cross genres across projects and in a lot of cases, within a single project.

        • That depends to whom you consider the definition of genre “useful”. I certainly think Zorn (and perhaps even more so Frank Zappa) had pretty clearly defined concepts of genre when discussing their work with their musicians. FZ was known to shout out names of musical styles during live performances of his songs and the band would have to change to that new style at the beginning of the next bar. This would only work if some predetermined definition of genre had been in place prior to the performance.

          So whilst they and others may not define their entire oeuvre in terms of a single genre, there are in many cases overt references to specific styles that would have required prior consideration (definition).

          And Tarantino DOES refer to his movies in terms of genres (read his Time Out interview from a few years back) – but as you rightly say, he jumps from one genre to the next from film to film (as does Zorn in his music). It’s this fluidity of style that marks them out as post-modern artists as opposed to experimental ones (if you take “experimental” to be a genre of its own), and I think this is an important distinction.

          I am also inclined to think that QT, JZ and FZ would take this whole issue with more than a pinch of salt; their job is to create work, not to talk about it. Ultimately, as Zappa might have said, talking about music is like dancing about architecture.

          • Re: I’m not talking about “the definition of genre”, or whether this or that project can be categorized easily into a genre, or even if the artist found the existence of a genre helpful. I’m saying its not constructive for *an artist* to defines *themselves* in terms of genre. Said it three times now.

  2. I guess specifically searching out opportunities to play in front of different audiences, rather than just accepted “usual” jazz/improv gigs. Like TSC playing art galleries and conferences and gig-gigs.

    I also liked your other comment. You’re right, I am thinking entirely about marketing here. Possibly precisely because a consideration for genre doesn’t enter into my creative process, it can then be hard after the fact to find an audience/outlet for it. And why nights like those described above are a good idea. Artists who’ve developed their work then get to play it in front of a varied audience.

  3. Another point: I think this is also why I like festivals (as in the proper ones where there’s mud and stuff), the sheer variety of music at places like Glastonbury/Green Man/All Tomorrow’s Parties etc. means that I’ve made some great discoveries over the years. I’d love to play more of these sorts of festivals if any promoters are reading… ;-)

  4. And which of your groups would you want to receive a new type of audience? HAQ, Skimel, solo stuff, TSC? Ask yourself what you’re doing that merits a ‘crossing over’. HAQ is 100% jazz and would you say Skimel is ska? Is there anything in them that’s undefinable or that requires redefining (a little wiggle room where a new audience perceiving it won’t perceive it as just that one specific genre? I think you working solo is most like this–and of course TSC because all that is is wiggle room. There is no genre for that. There is no audience (ha! as we’ve found)…no, I mean there is no ‘default’ audience. So we need to inject ourselves where we fit even a little. Art galleries? yes. Improv nights? yes. Electronic symposiums? yes. Your solo stuff is improvisation, but that isn’t a genre. The genre there is experimental, which is a huge blanket which just means, doesn’t fit anywhere else. So I think, you would be most successful if you tried to think about where you, as an artist, would like to place yourself to perform…and maybe don’t start from a set audience you need to cozy up to. Put yourself somewhere, and let’s see who shows up for that. Just a suggestion, and I don’t know if its a dumb thing to say, but I think its the thing that invites the most exploration.

    • I’m not sure that’s the point Ang, I wouldn’t say that HAQ are 100% jazz, or Skamel only ska. Because that’s not a consideration at the writing process, often stuff comes out that doesn’t fit easily into one thing or another. With HAQ in particular, we’ve played some gigs where the promoter has put us with jazz bands and it’s not fitted at all, I really wanted to put together a tour with an interesting rock band (was actually wondering about DTVGE before that went south).

      The thing that makes the nights good/interesting above is that they don’t feel the need to define themselves as just one thing, so, in theory, you get an audience that worry less about that too.

      Also, with this: “Is there anything in them that’s undefinable or that requires redefining?” I think the thing is I want to define things less, not figure out how to define them more. Undefinable = good.

      • Restate. Its not that you want to define things less. I think its desirable to create/find things that are not easily definable. There’s a difference. Its useful to know how your work fits into the larger context and its important to reflect on work produced.

        I concede to your points about HAQ and Skamel. If you framed either group within a certain setting, people will make those connections (if they’re there to make).

  5. For me this idea of cross contamination isn’t super applicable/important because it almost require each element to be thoroughly defined, to able to be put into juxtaposition with something.

    For example, what kind of show would TSC have to do to have a mixed audience? It’s all mixed as far as I’m concerned, because it doesn’t fit anywhere to begin with. I think the same is true with experimental music & improv in general, though it often doesn’t manifest itself that way. Usually there are more clique/scene dividers rather than musical ones driving that kind of audience.

    Even the notion of audience is dangerous when it comes to experimental music. Caring (or worrying) what people think is not a good way to make things that haven’t been made before.

    Also to be noted is that this is being framed, fundamentally, in terms of jazz. I think that changes things drastically as then we’re talking about a (pretty much) period music, that most people don’t enjoy listening to (me included). It’s being done by musicians for musicians, rather, it’s being done by musicians, for musicians who are only waiting their turn to make the other musicians listen instead.

    Nobody wants to listen to that…..

    • Ok, in order:

      “because it almost require each element to be thoroughly defined, to able to be put into juxtaposition with something.” – I think you’re right, at the moment, maybe I’m aiming for some kind of utopia where we don’t have to.

      “Usually there are more clique/scene dividers rather than musical ones driving that kind of audience.” – Interesting, I hadn’t thought of that before. So I’m looking for a way to transcend cliques?

      And lastly, the bit about jazz, I put a proviso in with specifically you in mind ” please replace the word “jazz” with the phrase “music that heavily features improvisation” ” But you couldn’t resist a dig could you? ;-)

      • Hello. As the person quoted it might help if I explain exactly what I meant, and the context.

        I can’t seem to post without replying to a comment, so I thought I’d start here.

        It was for a Radio 6 Music thing. It was free, so it was absolutely packed. The audience was very mixed. I did Cerys Matthews’ set, and she asked me to do a solo piece. I initially asked if she was sure, and she said that she was, so I just played. And the audience really liked it. I had to explain how I made the sounds that I got from the instrument, and that got another round of applause.

        My points in making the comment were:

        1. the above situation shouldn’t be unusual – if people hear things they like, they will respond positively.

        My early years of gigs were spent up and down different areas of Derby, playing music to people who hadn’t heard it before – either solo or in a group. I wasn’t acting as a “missionary” – I was presented as a musician, and people of all descriptions came along and listened, of their own volition. And quite a few of them enjoyed it. That’s how all gigs work.

        However, the perception of totally improvised music/jazz being a music that no one wants to listen to is prevalent, even though the fact that it’s music means that someone in an audience WILL want to hear it, or hear more of it.

        I actually find this attitude ["no one will like it because it's weird/boring/for musicians only"] elitist, placing the potential listener as an inferior entity. This attitude exists in narrow-minded promoters, musicians, magazines, critics. But not anyone I’ve done a gig in front of.

        This leads me to

        2. the potential listener – the person that has not yet heard your music but may do so in the future – is more intelligent than specialist magazines/critics/promoters/musicians naturally assume. If that person doesn’t like it , that’s actually fine: what is most important is the ACCESS to the music. Shaping your taste in music only happens when you can listen to music. So why would anyone put up a barrier? What those barriers are is a slightly different conversation, but well worth having.

        [and there was a personal point: I didn't kill anybody at that gig - so the chances of my killing anyone if I get booked elsewhere are equally slim - so it would be nice if I got booked!]

        Genres are useful – they help people locate where things are in a shop; or can help a band locate where they see themselves on the scape of music – but for presenting newly-created music it can be a poisoned chalice.

        Far better to **just present music**; allow the musician to define themselves as they wish; give people the ACCESS to listen so that they can like/dislike/appreciate the music; and allow that listener’s own intelligence to decide where he or she wants to place you in their heads.

        The listener/musician is a really special and important relationship, whether that listener is yourself or 1000 people. For me, the idea of gigs is to nurture that relationship. If the marketing or gigs don’t exist for you then you must do it yourself, your own way, which can be harder: but it is work, after all.

        But it’s important to care about the people that want to listen to you; know who they are; not exclude those you don’t know about; and have the self-belief in the work you produce.

        • wow–quite thoughtful and genuine. I think you hit the nail in the head, and really outlined a great attitude to take with regard to creativity and producing work. What a nice thing to have read :o )

  6. @Anton.
    Yeah I put that dig in just for you, as I’m sure the jazz line was aimed at me….

    I think it’s an important distinction between jazz and (free-)improv though, as ‘jazz’ comes with all kinds of baggage (both bad and less bad) that separate it from improv/experimental music.

    That is to say, I don’t think you can use those as synonyms in an argument as there are many facets which don’t run parallel.

    My comment about “nobody wants to hear that” refers more to jazz as a form of ‘practicing in front of people’, which it often is.

    For the many problems I have with jazz, I very much like Coltrane, Monk, Davis, and all the guys who carved what the music was back in the day because they were inventing art. The piano trio playing at a restaurant is not. They are there for the pizza and the £ (how many jazz guys get out of bed for less than £100?), and it sounds like that. In that sense no-one wants to hear it, including them.

    • But all the people from back in the day you mentioned did gigs in bars and clubs where food was served and audiences talked over them; and in their more popular period earned $70-100 per musician at those places.

      If you get to listen to any of the Monk live album that Columbia “started finding in the vaults” – like Live At The It Club, or Live At The Jazz Workshop, you will hear an environment quite a bit like Matt and Phreds [except for the fact that they were better paid!]. We have the perspective of time and distance to hear that they created art – but the use of their music at the time would suggest exactly the “piano trio playing at the restaurant” thing.

      I think – and please correct me if I’m wrong – the point you’re trying to make is that when you hear some people playing in these places, they are not trying to create the best music they can.

      The successful piano trio in a restaurant is a prime example of functional music – the music is created to produce an atmosphere that is conducive to the environment of the diners. And I am saying quite plainly: there is nothing wrong with that.

      If they get that right – and there are very few people that actually can – they WILL make money. And there is nothing wrong with making money from playing music. In fact, I’d actively encourage it!

      HOW they get it right is up to them. But for functional music, it HAS to be right. The parameters are totally different to a music-as-art or music-as-entertainment focussed gig.

      If you can play functional music regularly, successfully, and with integrity then you’re literally doing one of the fundamental jobs of music. It goes back much further than music-as-art. So yes, these people should earn, and think about the money. Hell, we all should. It’s WORK. If they sound like they’re just practising, they really won’t work in that environment for long.

      Let me talk about money. The answer to “how many jazz guys get out of bed for less than £100?” is several, including me on occasions. And I know this wasn’t the thrust of your question, but I’m just going say this – what I do is WORK.

      It’s certainly work for me – it’s my main job. I didn’t study at a college – I’m self-taught, with years of learning on the job and refining my skills and reflecting on my craft/art. And I have a professionalism in my craft/art – I hope people can hear the work that’s gone into my music. And I also have bills to pay.

      So yes, I think it’s quite right for me to say to a promoter, “thank you for offering, but it’s just not enough” if I need to pay those bills and the promoter is selling my efforts at £10-12 per ticket, earning several extras from food and drink and is heavily subsidised.

      But the reason WHY I make music is not money – so, yes I do leave the house, wheel my 90kg instrument down the road to the train station, buy a ticket for £30-60, head to wherever and play – genuinely – and then find that I’ve earned -£80 for the venture. It’s speculative work and it always has been.

      Sometimes I’ve been on gigs where I know the bandleader hasn’t made the money they thought they would, and I just let it go. This is not ideal. But it happens and I do it, and I believe in my choice when I do it.

      Making money from music and making music because you love making music are not mutually exclusive. It just comes down to making and accepting choices and situations.

      For me:
      I want to make real, innovative, creative, expressive music.
      I’d like to make some money where possible.
      I don’t want to struggle to live. So based on the demand for my work, I’m going to have to earn in a different way [I work in a book shop two days a week - it's minimum wage. I could teach, I guess, or do pop session work... the list goes on].

      No one else has to do that. I had to decide for myself.

      That was quite a bit longer than I’d intended.

      • There is tension here because we need to be sure everyone’s talking about the same thing. There is this aspect of it: “functional music”–and there is this aspect: “trying to create the best music [you] can.” Rod absolutely wasn’t talking about functional music, and I’d have to agree that if your focus is on originality, concept, innovation, etc. workshopping material in an environment where the music also has to be functional (i.e. serve a purpose like a DJ has to read a room and keep the party going for instance), probably isn’t going to be the most effective course of action *for that*. Now, if you’re content making ‘the best [functional] music you can’ then that’s fine. There are those types of musicians too. The approach a person takes to creating art, and their own philosophy to how it is best done, is a very personal decision. Some people want to make as many people as possible happy, some people only want to make a certain group happy, some people only want to make themselves happy. Then there’s Marcel Duchamp (sorry if I sound like a douche for bringing him up but this thing he says is awesome) “I force myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.” I can only hope to one day be that bad-ass. He wasn’t worried about anyone (including himself) and he made some of the best art the world has ever known [arguably].

        • I think the tension arises when you *compare* functional music with the non-functional.

          If you talk about people like Monk playing back in the day then there has to be a realistic perspective as to what they were doing, and where. They were creating art, yes [and I think only with some hindsight/retrospective do we say that]; but sometimes it was as functional music [in a restaurant], and for money. It really does depend on the artist.

          I’d not really heard of Marcel Duchamp [not visually-oriented - although having done work with visual artists before you'd have thought that I'd have got better!]. Will try to find out more about him later today – thank you!

  7. When I’m talking about music I’m almost exclusively talking about ‘music as art’. Just like if I start to talk about art, I’m not talking about the layout of the Tesco ad on the back of a newspaper.

    The names I put out are dangerous examples as they kind of lived in that world of restaurant stuff too. Push it later (Coltrane’s later stuff etc..) and you have a music that was no longer in line with the (general) public interest. That shit would not fly at a restaurant.

    Either way, just by the nature of where the discussion has gone (though I did kind of prod in that direction), is illustrative of why I’m not into the original ‘cross-contamination’ thing. If we’re now talking about functional music, that doesn’t belong on a bill with people making art (that term used loosely here, as an indie band “playing their hearts out” are making art in that sense).

    I also wonder if jazz (or improvised music) was more popular, if there would be interest in cross-contaminating then. (If punk/hardcore were the smaller shows/scenes, would trioVD still have wanted to do gigs with them, to use as an example). Basically, would you “play down” an audience level? And if not, what happens to the altruistic/community vibe of the original post/argument?

    • I’d say that although you may not think that functional music doesn’t belong on a bill of people making art, there are people that think it IS art. I also think it’s entirely possible to present music in a functional setting and for it to be appreciated as art [e.g. Erik Satie's salon music].

    • And: finally subscribed to the comments feed.

      “I also wonder if jazz (or improvised music) was more popular, if there would be interest in cross-contaminating then.”

      Really interesting question: I’d say yes, based on seeing popular artists experiment with other forms outside their usual [like Damon Albarn, Paul Simon, et al.].

      I mean, when I think about it, that’s exactly what happened when I did the 6Music gig. Cerys is a popular artist. But she wanted a mix to show the audience a range of music. And the place was packed. There will have been a whole group of people in that room who hadn’t heard of a vibraphone before, much less attempt to listen to improvised music. So they got to sample and find out if they liked the little corner of improvised music on the vibraphone that I inhabit, as well as listen to some blues and folk.