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“I consider the interplay in jazz one of the highest performing arts”
The term "interplay" can have various meanings. We may say there is always a degree of interplay in any ensemble music, given that the end result depends on the relation established between all the instruments involved.
In the sphere of jazz, however, it has always referred to a precise musical concept whereby the "roles" of the instruments give way to a work of reciprocal exchange, in which each player influences the other. By "role" we mean the traditional function assigned to each instrument, consolidated over time. This is most true of instruments such as the bass and drums, which have traditionally been relegated to an accompanying role.
The swing era consolidated an organization of the musical ensemble whereby the rhythm section tended to perform the function of generating the rhythm and carrying the beat. In be-bop the role of the rhythm section didn't change, but the rhythmic approach of the solo instruments changed radically, becoming more self-sustaining, and they too became generators of rhythm through be-bop's new improvisational language. For the piano it was a real revolution, with the right hand coming into its own, becoming self-sufficient and also propelling the rhythm.
It is hard to determine exactly when an initial form of interplay was born, and indeed it probably first took place without any clear awareness of a change in conception, but rather through an expressive impulse and need. There was certainly a cultural influence which favoured its birth. In the America of the fifties the prevailing cultural climate was one of great attraction towards European artistic forms. Classical music saw a downright colonization by European artists. The great musicians and performers of the Old World came to give concerts in America and made it their country of adoption, holding courses and founding schools. The influence of Rachmaninoff on American culture is enormous. Not only was he the incarnation of the idea of the great Russian pianist, becoming an object of cult worship; above all, the effect of his music, especially that of his piano concertos, would pervade the musical imagination of Americans for years to come. His example was to be followed by others, including Vladimir Horowitz, who settled in the States to become a living legend. Others include the French pianist Robert Casadesus, who went on to teach on a regular basis in America, as did Rosina Lhevinne, repository of the pianistic art of the great Josef Lhevinne and teacher at the Juillard School, whose pupils included Van Cliburn, the only American pianist to win the famous Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow.
Meanwhile, a little further north in Canada, the genius of Glen Gould was being detonated; in 1955 he sent shockwaves through the musical world with his recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, and in 1957 he went on tour in the Soviet Union publicizing and doing much to popularize the work of the great Baroque composer. The same thing was happening in the sphere of cinema. European composers were moving to America and gaining employment in the film industry, contributing to what would become known as the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Jazz was breathing the air of this climate and starting to develop an interest in various forms of classical music. In particular, Baroque counterpoint, revisited in the light of the new generation of classical performers, was starting to look very familiar to the eyes of the jazz musicians of the "cool" movement which was making its impact on the West Coast, in its to its harmonic linearity of conception. The Gerry Mulligan quartet started to practise a form of interplay in the contrapuntal-type interweaving of the two solo instruments. In this sense, the lack of a piano facilitated the purity of exchange between the lines of Mulligan's baritone sax and Chet Baker's trumpet. A much more open reference to Baroque counterpoint was made by the Modern Jazz Quartet. Here the interplay, although preordained, often also involved the rhythm section, which participated in the counterpoint and carried the beat. The idea that the basic time, the so called straight four, could now be abandoned started to take form. The rhythmic articulation of the improvisation, which was becoming increasingly elaborate and rich, allowed the rhythm section to break away definitively from its old role, interacting with the soloist in a sort of two-part counterpoint.
But it was the Bill Evans Trio which tackled this new musical conception in a systematic fashion and laid down the foundations for its development. For Bill Evans, the decisive year was the one after his final exit from Miles Davis's group. After a few experiences of adjusting with various trios, Evans remet the young bass player Scott LaFaro, with whom he had played during a recording with Chet Baker. The pianist remembered the sensation he'd had of the bassist at their first meeting, that of a talent that was creative and original, but somewhat unfocused. Now his original style had matured and taken on well defined contours. LaFaro's idea was that of substantially abandoning the marking of the beat in favour of a sort of comment on the soloist's line. This idea tied in perfectly with Evans's quest for a more expressive, free and richly nuanced style, with which to move beyond the old be-bop clichés and draw upon the sophisticated harmonic language that was part of his background. It gave rise to a kind of simultaneous improvisation which depended on the instruments' ability to listen to each other and interact. All this entailed a revolution from a rhythmical point of view. The time was sort of implied and not always laid down continually, and the interplay took place in this rarefied space, with the instruments in a close relationship, taking it in turns to suggest what rhythmic ideas to develop.
The first Bill Evans Trio, comprising Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, was short-lived due to LaFaro's premature death in a road accident. He was replaced by Chuck Israels, and Larry Bunker went on to take Motian's place. Israels was working in the same direction as LaFaro, and he wasn't the only one. He himself cites at least two other bassists who were active in the same area, illustrating how the "interplay movement" was growing. With the second trio, and later on with the third (Eddie Gomez and Marty Morrell), this language was consolidated, adapting to the musicians' personalities. In the third trio the dynamic and virtuoso character of its members helped to create a rapid, sizzling interplay where the reciprocal exchanges become extremely dense, while at the same time maintaining a lyrical quality rarely noted in a jazz formation.
Other trios in jazz have worked towards developing interplay, partially at least, in the footsteps of the Bill Evans trios. This experience has doubtless left an indelible mark on the rhythmic approach of many successive formations on the jazz scene. The famous trios currently in vogue, including the Keith Jarrett's very popular trio, are certainly indebted to this experience. It must be said, however, that the philosophy of the conception has been substantially abandoned, and in a certain sense defeated. The end of the seventies and the advent of the new decade saw a cultural change of course. The contamination of jazz with pop music and rock shifted rhythmic interest towards polyrhythmicality, and interplay's adumbrated, implicit rhythm was washed out by a pulsing, explicit rhythm deriving from other musical cultures. We can only hope that a perception will soon return - in a desirable cultural shift - of the need for a deeper musical experience.