Is that old adage true – “Jack of all trades, master of none”?
To a limited degree – and certinly within a musical sense – I don’t think so.
Fair enough, if you have a formula that works (think the Rolling Stones in the last 30 years) and you’re happy to carry on with that particular idiom, then go for it. However, even the most enthusiastic performer must grow tired of the, well, sameness of it all.I can’t imagine their fans are that far behind (though some do seem to live drenched in nostalgis. Again, I reference the Rolling Stones in the last 30 years).
Why do I bring this up? Well, my new project, JazzBaby (Twitter handle – @jazzbabyband) has already recieved bookings in a wide variety of formats and guises. Some may feel sticking to one style is best in order to hone a tighter sound, not to mention a stronger reputation, but I beleive otherwise. Where jazz is concerned, surely ‘mixing it up’ is the name of the game?
JazzBaby started out as an acoustic duo, Em on vocals with myself on guitar, and not strictly 100% jazz. Stripped down covers of contemporary tunes, such as Todd Rundgren’s ‘Can We Still Be Friends?’ still make frequent appearences into our sets at these gigs. The joy here is in the interpretation.
Now we have grown into a 4/5 peice band (vocals, guitar, bass, kit and sometimes keys) which perform different music to suit the gig. For example, restaurants get standards, performed both with vocals & instrumentally, along with the more tame jazz instrumentals and limited – gentle – improvisation. Weddings get the same, with more uptempo numbers and a fair bit more soul/funk thrown in (such as ‘Streetlife’ and ‘Young Hearts Run Free’).
At our Lindy Hop nights, we perform straight Lindy/Balboa/charlston (think swing and very early rock’n’roll from the 1940’s). We go out with a small horn section and perform all dancable tunes, as these events are usually put together by local dance societies, and in some cases, are competitions. Do you see the common thread here? We are giving the client what they want.
We also have straight Jazz gigs booked up at specialist venues – again, both with and without vocals – and here we are free to let loose. The only standards we play are usually heavily distorted into new creations and we perform a lot more of our own compositions, which include extended jamming and improvisation in them when flexed live. It looks like we are going to get invited to play some Jazz festivals in the UK this year so – depending on the mood and prefered style/theme of the festival – we will perform a mix of all of the above, but with more fpcus on improv and original material, or at least our own unique take on other people’s work.
The final ‘hat’ we have to wear is a markedly different beast: Electro-Swing. A lot of retro jazz and lindy fans HATE this style, but personally, I love it. For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, they take elements (usually old recordings) from the swing era (1920’s-1940’s) and add modern dance beats. Esseentially, this is music to be danced to. At the time,Charlston was looked at as cutting edge, and even a little naughty, so why not carry that tradion on with hip hop?
(I will post examples of the Electro-Swing genre in the near future simply because I think this music needs to be heard & shared)
As a five peice live band (and sometimes even larger), gigging this sort of material can be impractical, but we plan to record more uptempo, original, retro-styled tunes and pass the tapes over to well-known Electro-Swing DJs and mixers to see what they come up with. If the collaberations go as well as hoped, there may be specialist live dates in the future.
So how does performing all of these styles affect the band? Especially when switching from one gig to the next?
As the year goes on, I’ll let you know if any issues (or humorous imcidents) ossur, but personally, I beleive it will make the band sharper, tighter, better when dealing with new music and above all, more exiting for an audience to listen to. As a player, it’ll certainly hold my interest, not to mention my concentration! It will also bring us out to a far larger mix of audiences, some of whom may enjoy the crossover. They’ll always be purists to upset, but I’m sorry to say that can’t always be helped.
That’s not to say that doing once thing is a bad thing. My other band, covers outfit Grace Under Pressure (Twiiter – @GUPband) perform rock/soul covers primarily for weddings and functions. The set changes very little and the emphasis is on creating a great party atmosphere for the guests (something I beleive we do very well). Our bookings are mostly on word of mouth, or by people who’ve seen us play and want the same thing for their event, which leaves little room for wild experimentation or an unusual meshing of styles but as working musicians, you do what the client wants. The tip, as always, is to know your audience!
Finally, the expression ‘jack of all trades’ is hardly genre-specific. MUSIC is my trade. The more of it I play, in all of it’s inumerous styles and forms, the better.