I recently was assigned the arduous task of picking finalists for a jazz piano contest of sorts, the winner of which gets the honor of joining an elite, high-profile band of students at a prestigious university next semester on full scholarship. I listed to close to thirty audition CDs, and it was indeed difficult to pick winners as all the pianists truly sounded very good. The only thing that bugged me...which brings me to the title of this post...is that with the exception of a couple pianists, they all sounded EXACTLY the same. What was the same-ness? The lack of groove. Good original compositions all around, chops galore, interesting harmonic and melodic devices... but no "pocket", not even a nod and wink to anything resembling blues, funk, or soul. Not even four quarter notes in a row played in a steady rhythm. It's the "new thing" apparently, the so-called "European" jazz style, which uses as it's jumping off point 1970's records made by a label called ECM. ECM recorded some famous artists such as Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea & Gary Burton and many others of that era, and that style - a kind of free-floating, improvised Classical music - caught on, especially with European jazz fans that found it easier to relate to music that had all vestiges of "African-ness" removed from it. Don't get me wrong - I grew up listening to a lot of those records and still love them.
What's being missed - and this is a major point - is that most of those original ECM artists, like Jarrett or Corea, had a solid foundation of more traditional jazz playing before branching off into the more floaty realms. I've heard from reliable sources that Keith Jarrett sounded just like the Wynton Kelly trio when he was a student at Berklee. Chick started out playing with Blue Mitchell in the 60's. Even today, great pianists who make the conscious choice to work in the "Euro" style, such as Brad Meldhau or Fred Hersch, have a solid background in blues, swing, and bebop. And they can pull that stuff out at any time and swing your ass into the ground, if they want to. Most students today can't, or aren't willing to. They seem to think that it's old-fashioned, or at worst irrelevant. It's sad, and annoying. I like all styles of music and have an open mind (for crying out loud, my last 2 records had almost nothing to do with jazz!), but if you're going to call yourself a jazz pianist and make a career out of it, do yourself a favor: drop the attitude that anything you're playing is "new" (it isn't), go back and listen to Count Basie and James Brown for about 6 months straight, figure out how to lock in your quarter notes, eighth notes and sixteenth notes, be able to really NAIL the changes on Confirmation or Countdown or Moment's Notice or Inner Urge (not just meander chromatically), and for God's sake play some blues once in a while. Then you can go do whatever ECM floaty "broken time" stuff you want.
Listen to Herbie Hancock's album "Maiden Voyage" with Ron Carter and Tony Williams. There's that "broken time" all over that record, yet on a dime those guys can break into the deepest groove you ever heard. It's all there, all the history, and the music is innovative and forward-thinking at the same time. Yes, that record is more than 40 years old. There's nothing new under the sun.