_
_
_
_

Twisting the six strings: Guitars are once again electrifying jazz

The instrument continues to power new sounds for up-and-coming performers. In particular, on these three musical projects that reject the central role of soloist in favor of communal creation

Jakob Bro
Press image of musician Jakob Bro.COLIN EICK (ECM RECORDS)

While swimming through the flood of new recordings currently being released by independent jazz labels, we discovered several projects that are reviving the role of the guitar within the genre, going far beyond its classic status as soloist. The electric guitar continues to be relevant in jazz, not just as the absolute protagonist of outfits going back generations, but also as the catalyst for authentic, high-grade musical moments that revolve around its six strings. Out of all the players in contemporary jazz guitar, we are highlighting three recent projects, each quite different from the others, but that share a series of essential themes in their approach to 21st century jazz: non-conformism, collective creation, harmonic freedom and, perhaps most importantly, the importance of sound: not only that of the guitar itself (as a transversal and intergenerational voice), but of the collective as artistic laboratory.

Ava Mendoza
Guitarist Ava Mendoza plays a song off her album ‘Gravity’ in a concert with Fred Frith’s band, at the Moers Festival in Germany on June 8, 2014.Bernd Thissen (picture alliance / Getty Images)

Mendoza Hoff Revels is the name with which guitarist Ava Mendoza and bass player Devin Hoff baptized their group, which unites four of the most brilliant musicians from the North American scene. Its other integrants are the extraordinary drummer Ches Smith and saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, who is building an astonishing career based on, among other factors, his participation in projects like this one. Despite the saxophonist’s overwhelming charisma, here it is Mendoza who sets the tone and determines the pulse of the band’s sound, as demonstrated on its portentous debut, Echolocation (AUM Fidelity).

The guitarist is not particularly well-known outside certain circles, having arrived to the scene just a few years ago, but recently Mendoza’s voice has begun to be recognized for its power and originality. She is heir to the star power of Jimi Hendrix, her one-time teacher Fred Frith and powerful players like Sonny Sharrock and Nels Cline, among others. Her guitar playing is carnal, dirty and resounding, and Mendoza is a master of texture, with an expressiveness that has roots in the old blues guitarists, which she unceremoniously drags into the 21st century, creating a vibrant music that draws not only from the avant-garde jazz of Mendoz, Hoff, Smith and Lewis, but also from the tradition of Black music, from rock to blues and even funk.

In a completely different tongue, and with perhaps a freer — if more arid — approach, is a group that shares its rhythm section with Mendoza Hoff Revels. Devin Hoff and Ches Smith are two-fifths of Sunny Five, a kind of star-less super-group insomuch as, despite boasting real totems of contemporary improvisation, it’s safe to say that none of its players are currently considered stars, largely due to their underground, non-conformist careers. Saxophonist Tim Berne and guitarists David Torn and Marc Ducret have all written memorable pages in the book of musical creation over the last decades, on occasions coinciding in different projects led by Berne. But never have Torn and Ducret’s guitars played the same role as they do on Sunny Five’s debut album, Candid (Intakt).

Despite the fact that the quintet’s music is completely improvised, what emerges on the album as its most fascinating and revealing factor is the duality of Torn and Ducret’s guitars. The former is a creator of textures, more couched in electronic notes and with the power of suggestion that can only be wielded by one who knows how to use sound to build landscapes in which accompanying instrumentalists might camp. Ducret, who is technically more hard-edged, is responsive and incisive, yet always fits into the framework being drawn in real time. The group’s musicians create in unison, listening intently to each other to move in the same direction. Although Berne might appear to be the leader of the session, such is the personality of the two guitarists that the saxophonist’s sound is possessed by a fierceness seldom found in his other projects.

jazz Palle Mikkelborg
Press image of jazz musicians Palle Mikkelborg, Marilyn Mazur and Jakob Bro.JAKOB JEPSEN (ECM RECORDS)

On the other side of the world, completely divorced from the sounds of these North American groups, guitarist Jakob Bro leads a trio that brings together three generations of Danish jazz musical icons: the octogenarian trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, an authentic European legend, and the percussionist Marilyn Mazur, an indispensable name in contemporary jazz who has had a dazzling trajectory. Though Mikkelborg was already a luminary of European jazz in the second half of the 20th century, both became internationally known at the end of the ‘80s, courtesy of the Miles Davis album Aura, a work that was composed by Mikkelborg for the U.S. trumpet player. Mazur, for her part, was so compelling to Davis that he brought her on tour, giving an enormous boost to her career.

The meeting of the two veterans with Bro — who is, without a doubt, the most promising Danish musician today — was recorded live for the delicious Strands (ECM), which displays a kind of language that is radically different to that of Mendoza Hoff Revels and Sunny Five, although the three projects do have certain things in common, such as the importance of interaction between players and the creation of acoustic textures over an essential linear or soloist approach on the part of their players. In Strands, all is space and contemplation, with Bro’s guitars and Mazur’s percussion creating aerial backdrops, woven with pure peace, on top of which Mikkelborg’s trumpet glides gracefully and fluidly. The epicenter of all this lies in the guitar and Bro’s compositions, which set the tone of each piece by raising magnificent scaffolding of sound, rooted in a Nordic tradition that is far from the Black roots and free jazz heritage of his American contemporaries, but with the spirit of decentralizing the figure of the soloist as the axis of jazz interpretation, and the fondness for sound and texture as its primary vehicles.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
_
_