Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 6, No. 3, 2007

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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
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Bernard Dubé
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Robert Rotondo
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
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Lydia Schrufer
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Marcel Dubois
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Tommy Emmanuel
John Stetch
Susie Arioli
Coral Egan
Diana Krall
Stacey Kent
Carol Welsman
Aldo Romano
Denzal Sinclaire
Madeleine Peyroux
Bireli Lagrene
Sonido Isleño
Provost & Lachapelle
Kevin Breit
Sophie Milman
Annie Poulain
Badi Assad
Donato & Bouchard
Ingrid Jensen
Montreal Jazz Festival 2006 EMI Classics







Piano Keyboard


by Robert J. Lewis

Featured artist: JOHN RONEY
© Marcel Dubois

What generally distinguishes the jazz musician from the rocker is that he is a musician, that is fluent in the language of music. This fluency allows him to express himself easily and spontaneously on virtually everything, and if need be, with musicians with whom he has never played – such is his mastery of the language and his instrument. However, this great skill, this fluency does not always serve him well if it leads him down the musical path of least resistance. There is a case to be made that, especially during the past 25 years, jazz has suffered as a result of a surfeit of marvellous musicians who have defaulted to soloing over the long and hard work required of composition.

Since rockers are rarely musicians, their single access to the privileged world of music is usually via original material that requires no more musicianship than what is necessary to perform it. If it’s an unspoken conceit that most jazz musicians look down upon rockers, the latter can rightfully claim that since the late 1960s they have produced more enduring and memorable music. Mention the names of real songwriters and the first thing that comes to mind are their best known songs: Duke Ellington, Carlos Jobim, George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, and from rock/pop, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Sting. But how many songs can you name from Herbie Hancock, Larry Coryell, Michael Brecker, John Scofield, Joe Zawinal, the later Miles Davis?

Far too often in jazz, a musician, posing as a songwriter, decides to immortalize a catchy sequence of notes or simple chord progression by inverting, converting, colouring, varying, flipping and reformulating it. But however dazzling is the musicianship, the acrobatics are not to be confused with composition. Branford Marsalis states unequivocally, “One of the problems I have with a lot of today’s jazz is the lack of melody and overemphasis on harmonic associations.” To put it unkindly, too much jazz writing has degenerated into the technique of looping where a sequence of notes is introduced and repeated ad nauseam; chord and key modulations strictly verboten. And no matter how inventive and even deeply felt is the improvisation, all the harmonics in the world will not relieve a monophonic Drone & Variations of its monotony.

This trick-writing trend reached its apogee when fusion cowboys Coryell, Clarke, the Breckers and gang, with their vastly superior musicianship, decided they would move into and co-opt rock, but the power play stalled in its single track because for all the marvellous playing they couldn’t write worth a damn. Beating back a quick retreat, they instead brought their own genre to its nadir to the effect that for the past 25 years fusion and the like have served as mostly filler or ballast for CD quotas. Make no mistake about it, for those for whom fusion quickly tires, it’s because its architecture is as flat as the minds that went into its creation. Which is why we’re never surprised to learn that jazz musicians -- for whom the quick write has become a rite of mediocrity -- at some point in their careers usually return to the standards or classical music in order to reacquaint themselves with the art of composition which they themselves have not been able to supply.

It’s difficult to say when monophonic composition (pardon the oxymoron) gained currency, but like with abstract art that requires no drawing skills, it opened up the category of songwriter to include almost everybody. After Miles Davis embraced it, the easy write became the founding principle of fusion and then new age music. One can’t help but notice that as jazz flounders compositionally, all other genres are now able to easily mix with it (hip hop, groove, rap), a development that threatens to peripheralize the serious jazz that is being written and performed to shrinking audiences.

Fighting upstream against this tidal wave of mono-tonality is the music of pianist John Roney, who, for the most part, in Rate of Change (Effendi, 2006), avoids the easy write and pitfalls of being fluent in the language of music. Despite his young years (he just turned 30), Roney is able to make his sensitivity and world view the substance of his playing and especially unassuming song writing that from one track to the next reveals his natural reticence and vulnerability. He instinctively stays away from the flourishes and arpeggios associated with the lush sound that is often soulless and depersonalized, because keeping it straight and simple best guarantees the transparency that is the affecting issue of his music. And while his improvisation rarely astonishes, throughout Rate of Change there is an abundance of fecund moments when partially disclosed meanings or moods suddenly congeal into the articulations we associate with style: those DNA-like intervals the musician forges as he transforms his experience into art. No surprise that he has been quarterbacking the Montreal Jazz Festival’s late night jam sessions for the past few years, and has recorded on Montreal’s distinguished Effendi label -- that for the most part will have no truck with lightweight fusion’s heavyweights.

One of the first things that strikes a note with Roney’s music is that it is informed by his background in bebop and classical. The track “Piano Segue” not only pays tribute to Romanticism (Beethoven, Chopin), but what the era stood for: composition whose cathedrals continue to tower over everything else. Like the classicists, Roney aspires to make his inner voice and vision reflect life’s largest categories, which oblige him to create structures that can support and cohere a complex range of feelings and impulses. He achieves this by discovering in the infinite permutations of music a particular cadence and scale that defines him in his encounters with the world. What emerges is the voice we recognize as John Roney’s.

Listeners who have long felt cheated by jazz’s dereliction of compositional duty will be rewarded by Roney’s dedication to the blood, sweat and ears required of song writing. In Rate of Change, we have a pianist whose personal vibration and expressive operations combine to create music that does honour to the life that that has been lived and contemplated, for audiences for whom his music articulates what would otherwise remain unexpressed. Such is the power of creation, and if a few of the tracks on Roney’s highly recommended CD fall short, it is because he has aimed high.

© Jim DoxasIn the probing, introspective, sometimes wistful journey that characterizes Rate of Change, Roney is greatly abetted by his exceptional drummer, Jim Doxas, who, through the power of his startling invention, makes the case that percussion can be every bit as performative as a lyrical instrument. He achieves this result on a minimalist drum set because he possesses a maximalist imagination.

What distinguishes Doxas’s approach to improvisation is that he refuses to play it safe, allowing the moment -- and not received wisdom -- to dictate the kind of framework that will contain, shape and guide the piece under consideration. He is astutely committed to the belief that significant music is always distinguished by what it leaves unsaid, the gaps of which inspire him to produce a highly original vocabulary of accents, sound swells and silences that speak to his keen ear and very special touch; unlike most drummers, he’s able to personally engage an audience while leaving the group dynamic intact. And if he has caught the full-time attention of piano great Oliver Jones, it’s because he is able to flawlessly negotiate the demands of tempo and concept by supplying a structure of sound that may completely recast or resize a song or section of it, which he then colours and fills in: the effect is nothing less than edifying. Even when producing a whisper on the cymbals, the perfectly weighted sequence of taps attains the breadth of the human voice. © Marcel DuboisDoxas persuades us that percussion can flow like water, sometimes like water over sharp rock, like ice fog over freezing water or a gentle breeze cooled off by water. He epitomizes the bold and inventive drummer who isn’t afraid to go out on a limb where he risks losing it on occasion. What more can you ask of a percussionist than to reveal the potential of his instrument so the listener leaves wiser and with whetted appetite.

Doxas has recently recorded with both the Effendi and Justin Time labels. The former gravitates to an immaculate, studio-shaped sound, the latter toward the acoustics we associate with analog. Either way, neither can rival Jim Doxas live, already one of Canada’s very best.

From Rate of Change, listen to John Roney and Jim Doxas perform the very beautiful and deeply felt "Older Now."

Related articles:
Melody & Mind
Rap Music: Truth & Consequences


John Coltrane
Miles Davis
Thelonius Monk
Charlie Mingus
Oscar Peterson
Charlie Parker
Dizzy Gillespie
Wes Montgomery
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