An Analysis of Squarepusher: Is This Jazz?

by Elijah Brown on April 28, 2015

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The acid house scene spawned many electronic musicians during its apex in the mid-nineties. One of the more unique artists to come out of this scene would be Tom Jenkinson, known by his artist name, Squarepusher. Since 1996, Jenkinson has released albums continuously, composing new LPs every one or two years. In that time, he has explored many different sub-genres of electronic music from breakbeat to IDM. In 1997, Jenkinson released an album Entitled Hard Normal Daddy. This album, and his subsequent, somewhat lesser known album, Music Rotted One Note, mark his first departure from pure hard-hitting breakbeat to what some critics, such as Sean Cooper, of AllMusic.com, describe as his “jazz roots.” So then, is this jazz?

In an interview with The Redbull Music Academy, Jenkinson shared his thoughts on the concept of Hard Normal Daddy in relation to jazz. From the interview:

For me, Hard Normal Daddy, for example, I daresay has been accused of having references to that kind of music, to these kind of fusion-y type records, but for me the references were more like the Death Wish soundtrack from Herbie Hancock, or something like that.

In other words, at least from the artist’s perspective, this album is not meant to inspire thoughts of jazz despite being influenced by an accomplished jazz musician. If however one listens to songs found on the album such as “Beep Street” and “E8 Boogie”, there are obvious influences beyond funk. If there were any doubt that jazz became an important inspiration for Jenkinson by this time, this is put to rest in his subsequent record, Music Rotted One Note, which, as Jenkinson stated in an interview with Perfect Sound Forever, uses Miles Davis as a direct influence.

In addition to the Euro-jazz feel that songs like “Beep Street” have, there are other elements that link Jenkinson’s personal style at the time to jazz. When playing live, Jenkinson even today has a tendency to improvise during his performances. Also apparent is Jenkinson’s use of long, complex bass melodies and drum tracks. While in previous material Jenkinson stuck almost exclusively to jungle-inspired, faster-than-light drum tracks, in this album there are markedly more “comprehensible” rhythms. Most of the percussion was still complex enough to fit with his established style, but had more genuine-sounding instrumentation, and just slightly less overwhelming speed. These changes from previous material make the songs on this album playable by actual musicians, albeit ones of considerable talent. All of this in effect makes the influence of jazz in Hard Normal Daddy apparent.

Since the release of Hard Normal Daddy, Jenkinson has delved into a much more expanded musical territory. He’s created an entirely acoustic album, performed modern harsh sound-scape jams and even lead a genuine jazz trio. In terms of musical evolution though, it seems to start with Hard Normal Daddy whether Jenkinson sees it that way or not. His marriage of jungle beats with European-influenced jazz marked the beginning of what has shown to be not only an important aspect of Jenkinson’s personal style, but also an important step in the development of electronic music in regards to jazz, as critics in the field reference it time and time again.

In the end, Jenkinson’s fluctuating style has consistently utilized elements that are decidedly of a European-jazz nature. His incorporation of over-the-top, mechanically intense percussion, complex chord changes, and at times improvisational lead parts lend to a sense of postmodernism that is commonly associated with European jazz. Even the common Euro-jazz narrative is at play here. In several interviews, when asked about his influences, Jenkinson states that he wishes to continue on and further develop the work of musicians like Miles Davis in terms of establishing fusion genres like electro-jazz as musical genres. This post-colonial, High-art outlook of musicianship is ostensibly the definition of the European jazz narrative. Though some could see the individualistic nature of his recordings more indicative of an American jazz style, overall Jenkinson’s modus operandi seems to stray further toward a European jazz influence than to any other direction.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Zac Fischman May 1, 2015 at 12:03 am

I definitely agree with the notion that Squarepusher’s music follows the Euro-jazz narrative. I feel like the fact that he improvises definitely make’s it arguably jazz. It’s good to see an electronic artist who finds influence in a sound that goes far beyond the realm of pop and dance keys but maintains tonality, clarity, and funkiness. I don’t think I would consider him a jazz producer but there is no denying the influence of jazz on his music. I really like the things you discussed in this article in relation to Squarepusher. BEEPSTREET!

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