The term "chamber jazz" has risen steadily in prominence in recent years and dealing with its essence is not a simple matter. Jazz seems to constantly involve itself with terms (swing, hard bop, fusion) that defy meaningful compartmentalization. I spend hours discussing some of these terms in my jazz class at Pace University and often fail to give my students word pictures of these terms that are precise enough for their needs.
I have referenced "chamber jazz" in past columns. Paquito D' Rivera's Panamericana group utilizes some classical instruments i.e. harps and cellos and I have used the term to describe the experimental nature of the music played on the band's new CD Paquito D'Rivera's Panamericana Suite (see last month's New York Beat).
In addition to the classical instruments, when I wrote the review, I was thinking about the intimate sounds created by the band which hearken back to those produced by The Modern jazz Quartet and similar aggregations. It is music originally intended for the parlor in the classical tradition but jazz has little affinity with parlors as performing venues. It is usually played by small string ensembles, but jazz has rarely relied on strings to make its major statements. How then can the term be helpful in analyzing such jazz creations?
I was mulling this over recently and came upon a British CD from a quartet dubbed Neon. Catch Me on Edition Records features four musicians playing music which comfortably fits into the term "chamber jazz." With Kit Downes on piano, Stan Sulzmann on saxophones, Jim Hart on vibes and marimba and Tim Giles on drums, Neon captures much of the essence of what I think of when I use the term chamber jazz. The music features the themes and variations and contrapuntal melodies typical of classical chamber music but encases these in call and response motifs punctuated by the rhythmic textures of jazz. The intimacy and cohesion of the classical music is omnipresent but it is, of course, expressed improvisationally albeit with the same sense of unity heard from the string quartets in the parlors of old King George.
Selections such as "Cloak and Dagger" and "Torino" best epitomize the efforts of Neon, a group which will hopefully be on display in stateside festivals this summer.