Even though no one has ever come up with a precise definition of the word jazz, many of its most dedicated lovers jealously guard its borders, often to the exclusion of any other music. Paradoxically, whatever jazz is, it is indisputable that its origins, as well as much of its development, are rooted in eclecticism and blending of various traditions. Indeed, its quintessentially American character is due precisely to its mongrel origins, a combination of music from three continents and untold numbers of individual local musical traditions. In the twenty-first century many of jazz and improvised music's more adventurous practitioners return, as it were, to its roots, eschewing narrow adherence to convention and combining, in postmodern fashion, the whole world of music, no matter how it may be labeled.
Many contemporary improvisers grew up listening to rock and world music but are also conservatory trained and therefore move easily in the classical world, which until recently had a troubled relationship with jazz. Experiments such as Igor Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto, written for the Woody Herman Orchestra, or the short-lived Third Stream Music movement of the sixties had interesting elements but little lasting effect. In our time, though, the boundaries between musical categories are being erased; interaction, integration, and blending are simply part of the landscape and no longer have a forced episodic quality.
The Deep End Ensemble is a perfect example of the eclectic, open nature of certain trends in contemporary improvised music. The four musicians who make up the group are finely trained, and they are at home in many different settings from classical to rock. As is often the case today, the instrumentation is idiosyncratic. The leader, Ian Ash, plays a variety of percussion instruments, primarily the marimba, which is rarely heard in jazz. Most listeners will be more familiar with its electric cousin, the vibraphone, which has metal bars and can sustain sounds; the marimba's bars are made of wood and produce only short notes. The marimba is often used in late-twentieth-century and contemporary classical music but is rarely heard in jazz. The oboe and English horn, played here by Eddy Rollin, are also rarely heard outside of the classical realm (although Yusef Lateef has recorded some mean oboe blues). The ensemble also uses an acoustic bass (Wilbo Wright) and an electric guitar (Bruce Eisenbeil).
The instrumental combination of the Deep End Ensemble guarantees a sonic individuality, but the core of its musical expression lies in the conceptualization of the group and in the manner in which these instruments are played. In the musicians' own words, the intention is to blend "twenty-first-century music theory, experimental counterpoint, exotic harmony, global rhythms, dimensional music elements, spontaneous improvisations, and authentic emotions to form evolving sound structures." The quartet achieves this by combining composition and improvisation, exploiting various instrumental techniques and alternating between different rhythmic forms, but also by means of a strongly shared sense of ensemble interaction. This is group music in which deep listening is the key.
The Deep End Ensemble performs at Kerrytown Concert House on Tuesday, June 3.
[Review published June 2008]