In his liner notes to the NYJAZZ Quartet‘s new album Blue Divide, soprano saxophonist Rob Derke, the ensemble leader, begins with a quotation from playwright Bertolt Brechet. “Art,” Brecht says, “is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” In effect the artist does not copy nature, the artist gives it form. Nature, reality is chaotic, formless; art gives it shape.
Jazz, on the one hand an improvisatory art, could seem to be copying the chaos of nature. On the other hand, when that improvisation is based on conventional patterns, changes, and rhythms, it is shaping that chaos. If there is a conflict here, it would seem to focus on some of the newer directions jazz has taken as musicians have sought to explore and expand the limitations of old school improvisation. Is the music of an Ornette Coleman, for example, holding up a mirror? Is it hammering a shape? Indeed, what should modernist music be doing?
Blue Divide, Derke says, aims to explore and debate these issues, but in some sense the album seems to resolve the issue. It begins with an “open improvisation” called “Prelude.” It is the kind of free-form piece that works because these are four musicians who have worked together and know each other. It is shaped by that knowledge and experience: free jazz, yes, but free within limits. Indeed, this might well define the whole album. Like much great jazz, it is open improvisation with at least some formal constraint.
Take, for example, Derke’s composition “G’s Waltz,” written for his daughter. He calls it a “playful waltz” reflecting a childlike simplicity. While a listener may well find an ominous note in the improvisation reflecting perhaps some uncertainty about the future, it is more a reflection of thematic complexity than a free-form digression. His “Dispossession,” he tells us, is based on his travels in the Middle East and the turmoil he experienced there and is shaped by “varied time signatures” as well as the improvisatory dialogue between his sax and the piano of Aruan Ortiz. Here, it seems, content determines form. As it does again in his “Takism,” which reflects anti-government protests in Turkey.
Bassist Carlo De Rosa’s “Pasillo Azul,” Derke says “captures the essence of the blues” but, “through the use of altered chord changes,” unsettles expectations. “Davey’s Dream,” another original Derke composition, written for bop saxophonist Davey Schildkraut, is another blues that seems one thing and morphs into something else. The NYJAZZ Quartet seems to delight in at least tweaking convention, if not completely destroying it.
Derke, Ortiz, De Rosa, and drummer Eric McPherson have put together an album that manages to combine both elements in Brecht’s dialectic. If there is a debate, Blue Divide is the kind of album that should resolve it.