Folk Music & Jazz - Confrontation or Cohabitation?

Why have the rhythmic, stylistic and melodic qualities of folk music had an increasingly strong influence on jazz musicians and composers in the last twenty to thirty years?

Swedish pianist Jan Johansson, now deceased, believed he was drawn to folk song because they reminded him of certain characteristics of jazz. He was tempted by the contrast between the “blue” sounds and the closed, strict sounds, and thought he could identify a suggestive rhythm built into the melodies; it suffices to play them in their original form – they need no help from drums or bass. The fiddler himself takes care of the rhythm, the way he plays a tune, combined with a fairly advanced use of his feet as a rhythm instrument, provides sufficient background for the dance.

In the mid-60s, jazz began to gain a foothold in Norwegian churches, and visiting groups of black gospel singers surprised and shocked many congregations with their unorthodox, ”swinging” homage to their faith. An increasing number of church choirs experimented with a more rhythmical, popular repertoire and, in site of many setbacks, traditionalists were forced to admit that the music was good, well sung, and attracted young people to churches and Christian communities in their thousands.

Experiments combining jazz and classical music had been going on since just after the turn of the century, but very little that was durable or sustainable had emerged. Debussy’s and Stravinsky’s attempts were more obvious in their titles than in their music, and Gershwin only half managed to unite the symphonic concept with live, improvised jazz. Around 1960, the term “Third Stream Music” emerged – experimental music said to be somewhere between jazz and classical music, and jazz musicians who began to work on the new style primarily sought new points of contact and forms of expression. The improvising minds and souls of jazz musicians tried everything that seemed impossible at the outset - a string quartet combined with a jazz piano trio, where the string players were given long sections for improvisation, or perhaps more correctly, a certain number of bars marked “ad lib”. Large and small groups with totally different abilities and experience were allowed to hone their techniques against each other’s understanding of style. Serious singers had to use their voices in ways they would previously have rejected in horror, and jazz musicians learned rules about form and content they had previously been unaware even existed, or had simply ignored.

The melodic strength of folk music was naturally a source of contemplation, imitation and harmonic experiment. In Scandinavia, Jan Johansson and Bengt Hallberg were the pioneers, and on his Collaboration disk, Hallberg combines his own trio with Lars Fryden's string quartet and mixes elements from Bartok with improvised jazz. On the same disc, he also experiments with the various tones of folk music, processing this material melodically, rhythmically and harmonically. Jan Johansson had long since aroused attention with his respectful, carefully rendered arrangements of folk music, and he seemed to understand better than most that folk songs needed no help, only an open mind and sensitivity.

Arne Domnerus wrote after his death, “Many of us had the privilege of experiencing his uniquely gifted improvisation. Sometimes making music in a restrained ‘excuse me for intruding’ spirit, surrounded by a shimmering atmosphere like fragrant poetry...”. In a discussion of jazz and folk music and their mutual effect on each other, it is important to stress the pioneers - those who listened, learned and saw the diversity and the possibilities. In his record Jazz på svenska (Jazz Swedish Style) from 1963, Jan Johansson captures light and shade, harmonic shifts and rhythmic changes that make his audience listen - he arouses awareness and curiosity. The winds of change crossed the border and whirled up dust in Norwegian musical circles.

Was it only the Norwegian admiration for Swedish jazz musicians that caused musicians and composers to cast their eyes on the Norwegian folk music tradition, or were they just out of ideas? There is no doubt that Swedish jazz musicians were very much admired, but the desire to work with music and musicians from a different musical tradition was probably less a matter of a paucity of ideas and inferiority complexes than an attempt to try out new forms of expression and avenues of contact. Jazz musicians found elements in traditional music that appealed to their inquisitive natures, and they did not have to struggle with problems of prestige that might hinder their acceptance of “new” ideas and musical expressions. So which similarities or points of contact do we find in the jazz and folk music idioms?

At first glance, it seems easy to find points of contact, since folk music sources have frequently been tapped by disrespectful dilettantes and fortune hunters who have picked up melodies of suitable difficulty relatively easily and thereafter dressed them in clothes that revealed only bad taste and tailoring (see above). Collections of folk music that seldom contain notes longer than a semi-quaver must take much of the blame, but the folk musicians themselves have done surprisingly little to remedy these aberrations. Jazz musicians picked up folk tunes, both simple and complicated, sniffed them and felt them, changed their rhythms and times, and gave them a harmonic expression that was often interesting from the jazz point of view, but took the music by the hand and got lost. You had to get lost to approach this “new” music properly - it was necessary to cut into it to learn more about its anatomy. Jazz musicians in Norway received one of their first warnings when Jan Johansson in 1965 allowed folk-singer Måns Olsson to open and end his Lapp-Nils Polska - a song so rhythmically effective that the musicians could play on top of the original recording, using it as a basis for improvisation. It would nevertheless take a long time before the harmonic aspect of jazz began to give way to the horizontal lines. “Exciting” chords had to be used for the simplest songs, and musicians spent at least as much time finding their way in and out of harmonic mazes as developing melodic lines suitable to the special characteristics of the songs.

1976 saw the release of the record Østerdalsmusikk (Music from the Østerdalen valley), initiated by musician Torgrim Sollid. He writes that the music was collected and published because he and his colleagues felt a desire to return to their musical roots - once again proving that young jazz musicians were searching for something, this time in their own country.

The sources were fiddlers and folk-singers, and although there is a noticeable tendency towards harmonic excess, the light of the folk music clearly shines through. This is one of the first Norwegian efforts to combine jazz and traditional music but the musicians have gone a long way to accommodate the premises of folk music, both melodically and rhythmically. Imitations of buckhorns and lures are structural elements of this release, and it demonstrates a dawning interest in modal scales. On the record Rosensfole, arranged and played by Jan Garbarek and sung by Agnes Buen Garnås, the different types of scale are an important part of the musical content, and control of the area between major and minor seems complete and unfettered. Here we find only a limited amount of harmonic thinking - both saxophonist and singer move through a landscape of sound.

Bass player Arild Andersen's co-operation with Kirsten Bråten Berg led to the release of Sagn (Legends), a work commissioned for the 1990 Vossajazz festival, and later Arv (Heritage), commissioned for the Bergen International Festival in 1993.

If they influenced each other, was this a rich fusion of jazz and folk music, or was it music that had arisen from a desire to listen to and respect tradition, a way of thinking and an understanding of style? Arild Andersen does not have much faith in the Big Synthesis. He has very consciously avoided every form of “refined” harmonisation of the music, using instead basic tones from which all the other tonal material emerges.

He had heard Kirsten Bråten Berg sing a folk song many years ago and understood that closed doors had to be opened. But it takes time to chop off trolls’ heads. He probably experienced his most exciting, but also his most nervous moments in the meeting with a tradition so old, so finely honed and so intractable. Arild Andersen speaks with pride of the intractability of the Norwegian folk music tradition. “What is folk music supposed to gain from the American jazz tradition? Is it to be improved by drummers like Elvin Jones or chord artists like Bill Evans?”

Sagn is based on the horizontal rhythmic and melodic energy of traditional music - improvising on rows of intervals and dynamics instead of rows of chords. Kirsten Bråten Berg sings the melodies close to their original form and improvises more rhythmically than melodically. At the same time, this is an experiment with sound and tone colours where the musicians have a very free hand with the music, but where they use their freedom with respect and imagination in “blue note country”, somewhere between major and minor.

It is difficult to draw conclusions about the mutual influence of jazz and folk music at a time when much seems to remain in the melting pot. Only two things are certain; that mutuality and respect have been established, and that, for once, all roads don't lead to Rome.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.2 - 1994 No. 1
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