Robert Wyatt And The Need To Classify : A Blog Supreme The English musician has a new album largely made up of jazz standards, played with jazz instruments. So does that make it jazz? And if it's good music, why does that question matter?
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"Laura," from Wyatt, Atzmon, Stephen, For The Ghosts Within (Domino). Released 2010.

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Robert Wyatt And The Need To Classify

Robert Wyatt And The Need To Classify

Robert Wyatt (left), Gilad Atzmon, Ros Stephen. Tali Atzmon hide caption

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Tali Atzmon

Robert Wyatt (left), Gilad Atzmon, Ros Stephen.

Tali Atzmon

"Laura," from Wyatt, Atzmon, Stephen, For The Ghosts Within (Domino). Released 2010.

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Robert Wyatt has new music out, and if you've ever liked a piece of jazz, you should be at least intrigued by that prospect. Wyatt's work, often associated with progressive or experimental rock, has always embodied values central to jazz: Musicianship, invention, reinvention, open-mindedness, collaboration. Not coincidentally, he's worked a lot with jazz sounds and musicians too.

Also, his voice. Who else could do that?

His new album, For The Ghosts Within, is a collaboration with the saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and the violinist Ros Stephen. There are many other instruments in the mix: A rhythm section, a string quartet, even a Palestinian rap group. (Atzmon is an outspoken anti-Zionist -- an anti-Semite, believes David Adler -- and Wyatt is also a big supporter of Palestine.) Jazz is highly prominent; among other selections, Wyatt takes on a number of jazz and songbook standards. The group's take on "Laura," in particular, is redolent of the Charlie Parker with strings version, down to the opening string quartet introduction and a Bird-like alto sax solo.

I wonder about this question: Is this jazz?

Ok. Let's be clear: I'm not particularly interested in the specific answer of "yes" or "no." Worrying about genre labels is pretty silly, and untrue to many musicians' lived experiences -- Robert Wyatt's especially. If a piece of music is good, it belongs to that category -- good music -- much more than any other.

Rather, I wonder about the question itself. Why are some jazz observers who should know better, including me, still curious to ask it? It happens a lot in situations like these, which sit on the fringe of the mainstream jazz conversation. Here are some related questions:

  • When the name "jazz" finally falls out of fashion and/or relevance -- and it will, whether in 80 or 800 years -- will people still be singing the blues and improvising over a groove?
  • If so, then why do many generally feel there is something worthwhile in having something we can unequivocally identify as jazz?
  • That is, why are people protective of the status quo of a "jazz community" and a broadly-defined style of music we can refer to as jazz? How do having these things benefit people?
  • Why are jazz communities often uncomfortable when people from outside those communities appropriate elements of jazz? Why is "jazz crossover," or "jazzy" (vs. jazz itself) a pejorative?
  • Is it just that we get angry (i.e. jealous) when that which is only partly jazzy takes resources and attention away from that which is mostly or "completely" jazz?
  • What about when borrowing from jazz isn't a bad thing? How does an artist outside the jazz community manage to win the wide respect of that community?
  • If this isn't jazz, then what else would Robert Wyatt and his collaborators have to do to make it so?
  • Would Robert Wyatt care about this discussion at all himself?

In other words, there must be underlying reasons other than basic psychology which drive us classify music like this. What are the narratives and infrastructures bolstered when we say "this is jazz" -- or "this is not"? I'd appreciate if anyone would take me up on any of these questions.