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Classicist and Neoclassicist Jazz Series III, Comparison and Synthesis



Welcome to our third post in the Classical and Neoclassical Jazz Series! In this series of posts, we analyze the emergence of classical and neoclassical jazz in the 80s, from the point of view of a jazz critic using Berendt and Huesmann's The Jazz Book as our reference. Let's start!


Neoclassicism jazz was based upon the jazz tradition from free jazz, the late 60s, to the 80s. This strictly did not mean neoclassicism used only free jazz, mainstream music, and fusion. One main characteristic of neoclassicism was viewing the jazz tradition as a whole. One can easily notice the attempt to use different traditions in a neoclassic sound. The name of Beaver Harris's neoclassic album pretty much sums this situation up: "From Ragtime to No Time". However, one fails to notice a similar attempt of viewing jazz history as a whole in classicist jazz. Classicist musicians are inclined to use the jazz tradition before free jazz. This makes the classicist jazz as an emphasis or the attempt to revive the classic modern jazz from bebop to the late 60s.


In the 80s, the idea of referentialism, quotations, and attempt for contemporary dialogue was the primary basis for these movements. However, this fundamental difference guides the sound of neoclassicist and classicist jazz in different directions. The mainstream neoclassicist musician quoted the jazz tradition as a combination of jazz styles with its wholism in jazz. On the other hand, the classicist musician quoted personal styles. For instance, Ricky Ford succeeds to remind the audience first Dexter Gordon, then Ben Webster and Don Byas, and then Sonny Rollins in a single song. As a consequence, the greatest concern for a classicist musician was to grasp an individuality in this endless referentialism.


However, as we mention in the appendix of our second post, the concept and the reality of individuality is highly ambiguous and differs from originality. The sound of Ford was never the musicians he quoted, his sound was always unique to himself. The classicist musician becomes more unique and develops more individuality while quoting more and more. Our understanding of the ambiguous concept of individuality is unable to make sense of this paradoxical situation.


Other differences in sound and technique are more obvious. Neoclassicists used the structures and innovations from free jazz as dough to impaste its wholism in the jazz tradition. With free forms, dense textures, atonal collective improvisations, neoclassical jazz tried to show that the sound of jazz constantly renews itself. Classicist was completely in opposition to these ideas. Their conservative view led them to keep the tonality and rhythm the same, as what it is in bebop to neo-bop. This technical difference also affected the sound of the two movements. While the sound of the neoclassic earns meaning with its "dirtiness", clear sentences are essential for classicist jazz.