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Synthetic Jazz

by admin on April 24, 2017

When speaking of jazz, “natural” is a term that is thrown around rather frequently, often to ex-nominate things people don’t want to think of as jazz. By the time the Bebop era came to a close, synthetic electronic instruments could no longer be ignored by the jazz community. Could these “unnatural” instruments find their way into a genre so closely aligned with metaphors of the primitive, wild or “natural” musician? Or would they have to invent a genre of their own in order to be taken seriously?

The late 50’s and early 60’s witnessed the invention and popularization of dozens of new synthetic instruments. Electromechanical instruments, on the scene since the early 30’s, were becoming more and more widespread. The Rhodes-style electric piano used electromagnetic pickups to amplify the sound of metal strings or tines, struck by piano-like hammers. The Hammond-style electric organ contained spinning tone wheels that would generate a tone within the field of an electromagnetic pickup. The fully electronic subtractive synthesizer became massively popular with the rise of the Moog synthesizer in the early 60’s. Such an instrument used analog oscillators to create sounds that were then shaped by analog envelopes and filters. These synthetic instruments rose to popularity alongside the electric guitar and bass, together creating an entirely new palette of electronic sounds for jazz musicians to utilize.

Much like the dawn of jazz itself, the appearance of these synthetic instruments was both a dividing and a unifying cultural force. Many that remain loyal to the purist jazz canon will claim that real jazz is made with real instruments. That kind of thinking often is reflected in the semi-official genres given to the synth jazz musicians. You’d be hard pressed to find a song with synthetic instruments listed squarely within the genre “jazz.” The dismissive, hyphenated labels Jazz-Funk or Jazz-Fusion indicate the difficulties synth jazz artists have encountered when trying to be taken seriously.

And yet some of the most unique voices in synth jazz come from the same African American musical communities that are identified with the origins of jazz. Herbie Hancock’s iconic bassline from his hit single “Chameleon was performed on an ARP Odyssey, a notorious duophonic analog synth. The song also strongly features an electric organ. Avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra ventured further away from the jazz canon with his noisy, atonal, free jazz style. Listening to Sun Ra’s music feels otherworldly in a way; he was certainly not afraid to search for the quirky and strange sounds, frequently using the iconic Minimoog, and adding to the long list of respected artists to use Moog’s portable wonder machine. Miles Davis also explored synthesizers in the early 70’s, most famously collaborating with synth artists Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, and Herbie Hancock. His gold album Bitches Brew used an impressive amount of electronic instruments. African American synth jazz would later give birth to Funk, inspiring artists such as James Brown, George Clinton, Stevie Wonder and Prince.

Europeans have found an entirely different niche for synthetic jazz. Arguably one of the most famous groups to use a synthesizer, Emerson, Lake and Palmer was an English jazz-rock group to be founded in 1969. Their music spans genres from classical to prog-rock. ELP laid out a respectable foundation not only for British rock, but for the synthesizer itself. Eventually, the synthesizer would find a secure home in Europe with the Trance, House, and Techno crowd and—later—with jazz audiences. An excellent example of a someone who bridges the gap between Euro techno and jazz is Till Brönner. A well-regarded German jazz musician, Brönner’s tracks frequently feature synths and electronic percussion, blended with a more traditional jazz piano and trumpet.

What then, happens when you give electronic instruments to distinctly American jazz artists? One of the most popular standards of synth jazz is Birdland, an up-tempo chart filled with synthetic tones by American jazz group Weather Report. This brand of American synth jazz reunites African American and European influences into one melting pot. This idenitification of synth jazz with “American” melting pot ideals holds interesting implications for the jazz canon. Whereas African American and European jazz communities used synth jazz as a stepping stone for funk and techno, synth jazz is developing as genre of its own through the efforts of numerous modern fusion bands like Snarky Puppy and Hiatus Kaiyote.

by Kyle Muench

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Will Peterson April 27, 2017 at 12:24 pm

I think these new sounds coming into play in jazz is related to serial-ism in musical composition, because they are straying away from the roots of the music and all that is considered acceptable. New sounds and ideas will more frequently come about when there is more pushing of the sound envelope. Let these sounds be “stepping stones” for new genres, but also see the traditional beauty still maintained even though the instrumentation is so no longer your typical jazz combo of piano, bass, guitar. and drums.


Kaleb Owens April 25, 2017 at 12:51 pm

I think as with all genres, music is bound to evolve. I find it interesting how Jazz has embraced electronic instruments in some aspects and rejected it in others. There seems to be a divide when it comes to the place of electronic instruments in Jazz. Modern fusion bands like Snarky Puppy has taken this to the next level and in my opinion has helped people that don’t know anything about Jazz break into the scene. I really enjoyed your article.


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