“Tin Pan Aliens” (“2004)
“Believe in Spring” (2008)
On their last CD, this Danish/American trio called itself Tin Pan Aliens; partly in acknowledgment of their fascination with the 32-bar, AABA song form developed in New York’s so-called Tin Pan Alley area (around 28th Street) in the early 1900’s – and partly due to their somewhat deconstructive approach to the same song form, which is the marrow of virtually all American popular music, as well as the backbone of the repertoire we call jazz standards.
However, while the material on the last CD consisted exclusively of original themes, which borrowed their form from the Tin Pan Alley tradition, this time the trio presents tunes out of this tradition. And that is not all. The three musicians also demonstrate how this tradition affects the way new music is composed in jazz and pop music from continents outside North America. Thus, we are made to focus on what the term ‘jazz standard’ really means: A jazz standard is not just a Jerome Kern or a Gershwin tune written for an early 1900’s musical. Jazz standards can also be themes composed during recent decades, as is the case with Steve Swallow’s ‘Falling Grace’, which is included in this selection. The tune may easily be termed a standard. Its melodic line and harmonic development make for captivating listening and challenging improvisation, and it is often played by other jazz musicians all over the world.
And this is what jazz is about: juxtaposed over the existing theme, the musician must create new melodies and harmonic expansions, which engage the listener – not only because the improvisation is of ‘equal beauty’ as the original tune, but more specifically because it tests our tolerance of something new.
Experience shows that our tolerance is greater when presented with something new based on something well known – greater than when the foundation is new or unknown. Thus jazz standards are a suitable and legitimate place to begin. The challenge to the audience is minimized, as he can easily follow the harmonic foundation and melodic form, on which the improvisation is based. A recognizable condition to any jazz aficionado, but not basic knowledge to the other 90% of the world’s population, who hardly ever listen to jazz, or take exception to it, because they don’t ‘understand’ it.
The music on this CD is understandable – but it is also challenging, because the musicians allow themselves to go out on a limb. Musicians that don’t take chances are not jazz musicians. This music is jazz with a capitol J, played by musicians who choose to work together because it is natural to them, despite the fact that they (if we include the two guest musicians) represent three different nations. This collaboration was not planned by government financed, national institutions, whose goal is always to ‘export’ their nation’s music. Nor did it emerge in the A&R office of a large record company attempting to get big stars make smaller stars twinkle brighter. This collaboration was born because the musicians themselves have met in other musical constellations and discovered that they felt an affinity – that they shared an inclination to approach music from the same common ground. In this case, it can be boiled down to the following: They enjoy creating something new without betraying the tradition.
The basic ensemble behind this music includes Steve Swallow – internationally admired American bassist – and two Danes, saxophonist Hans Ulrik and drummer Jonas Johansen, whose international fame is limited to Europe. However, in jazz the term ‘international fame’, is based on a number of non-musical factors. If there are any differences in the artistic prowess in the three musicians, it is not measurable in the extent of their individual fame. The same goes for the CD’s two guest musicians – two Swedes – pianist Bobo Stenson (who has a career as trio-leader for the German ECM label) and guitarist Ulf Wakenius, a wonderful instrumentalist of international acclaim through his work with Oscar Peterson.
In the world of jazz, it is not uncommon that young European musicians ‘buy’ a willing American star for a tour or recording with saved-up money or government grants. The fact is, that in the nation where jazz was born, a musician, who enjoys star status in Europe, may find it hard to find enough work on a daily basis. If such a thought strikes you, forget it. First of all, Johansen and Ulrik don’t need to buy musicians. And Swallow and the two Swedish guests are not for sale for projects that do not meet their own high artistic standards.
Actually, this is the third time the trio has met for a recording, and they are in fact already established on the international jazz scene with tours in Europe and North America.
None of the musicians on this CD can be persuaded to join a project for other reasons than music, and it is the music and the chance to play as equals from a common point of departure that has lured them to meet for this recording session.
And finally, allow me to point out that despite the trio’s previous play on words, there are no ‘aliens’ here – only mature and curious musicians playing exciting and earthy music.
Peter H. Larsen
Danish Broadcasting Corporation