Hybrid musical genres are hardly earth-shattering in the second decade of the 21st century. I would even posit that they are normative. But every now and then some music comes along containing a clash of sensibilities that forces listeners to confront head on the limitations of listening to music within the context of a genre, whatever genre, as well as attempting to listen beyond genre. Take, for example, the seemingly innocuously titled Modern Music, recently released by Nonesuch. While it is ostensibly a series of duets performed by jazz pianists Brad Mehldau and Kevin Hays, the disc’s digipack cover and spine contain the additional credit “composed and arranged by Patrick Zimmerli.”
Brad Mehldau has established himself as one of the leading jazz pianists of our time. But he has also accompanied classical vocalists such as Anne Sophie von Otter and Renée Fleming. While his Trio performs his original compositions as well as skewed takes on jazz standards, they’ve garnered a great deal of attention for their interpretations of music by Radiohead, Soundgarden, and other rock bands. Kevin Hays’s career to date, on the other hand, has hewn closer to jazz traditions. He has worked with such living legends as Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Ron Carter, and Jack DeJohnette. In addition, he has recorded three albums as a leader for Blue Note Records, which for generations has been something of a jazz seal of approval.
Patrick Zimmerli, whose role on Modern Music is more amorphous, perhaps requires a slightly longer introduction. An impressive saxophonist and band-leader, Zimmerli’s quartet session Twelve Sacred Dances, released in 1998, was one of the discographical highlights of the Chriss brothers’ late lamented A&R tenure at Arabesque Records. While the compositions on the album were clearly platforms for a heady interplay between Zimmerli’s tenor sax, percussionist John Hollenbeck and two thirds of The Bad Plus (pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Reid Anderson), the music’s harmonic vocabulary—as well as its frequent contrapuntal layering of timbres—might occasionally fool less-than-completely-attentive listeners into thinking they’re hearing a new music ensemble reading through a complex contemporary score. A later Arabesque release featuring two piano trios (that is, the classical piano trio of violin, cello, and piano as opposed to the jazz piano trio of piano, bass, and drums) reveals Zimmerli’s thorough adeptness at bona fide score-based composition for performers other than himself (on the recording Scott Yoo, Michael Mermagen, and John Novacek). On close listen, though, the music has a recognizable jazz tinge; in fact, at times it’s ironically more overtly swing-oriented than Twelve Sacred Dances. But if those two albums revealed a creator who was at the same time a jazz-inspired classical composer and a contemporary classical-minded jazzer, the lines get even more blurry on Phoenix, a Songlines disc from 2005. Therein Zimmerli combines his saxophone (this time a soprano) with a jazz piano trio (the one that’s piano, bass, and drums), a string quartet, and electronics to boot, creating music that’s at times contemporary jazz, at times a chamber orchestra, and at times techno-sounding.
As with the aforementioned album of piano trios, Zimmerli does not play at all on Modern Music. Rather, every note uttered herein has been performed by Mehldau and Hays, who are both formidable improvisatory pianists, and that’s where Zimmerli’s exact role starts to get confusing. Unlike in classical music where the composer of the music being played remains the auteur even if he or she (sadly more usually he) has been dead for hundreds of years, jazz inverts the paradigm: the performer is the auteur no matter what he or she is playing. No matter how much larger Herbert Von Karajan’s name looms over Beethoven’s in his endless series of recordings of the latter’s music, listeners to these recordings are still supposedly hearing the music of Beethoven, whereas John Coltrane’s performances of “My Favorite Things” ultimately have very little to do with Rodgers and Hammerstein. So what exactly is the role of a non-participatory “composer” on an album by two jazz improvisors? For starters, this particular project was instigated by Zimmerli even though Mehldau and Hays—who had never previously appeared on record together—have traveled in the same circles since the late ’80s and wanted to collaborate for a very long time. In addition to producing the session, Zimmerli also determined what repertoire Mehldau and Hays recorded, although to describe his contribution above all else as the person who “composed and arranged” the music seems slightly misleading to me. Originally the idea was for Mehldau and Hays to perform arrangements by Zimmerli of pieces of modern classical music. The project began with them performing an arrangement of Richard Strauss’s late composition Metamorphosen. Other pieces originally intended for similar treatment were Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa, Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, and Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 5. In addition, a jazz standard was chosen (Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”) and each of the pianists were also asked to contribute an original piece. In the end, the Strauss, Pärt, and Gorecki wound up on the proverbial cutting room floor, and Zimmerli composed a total of four originals for the project. However, since there are a total of nine tracks on the final album, that means that most of the music herein was not composed by Zimmerli.
But if one is to assign an auteur to this project it would probably still have to be Zimmerli since the curating of the repertoire is perhaps the single most important ingredient here. There is a remarkable consistency of compositional voice throughout, despite there being six composers involved in total. Zimmerli’s own compositions, in particular the title track and the disc’s opener (“Crazy Quilt”), prove that a musical goldmine can result when minimalist compositional processes are subjected to improvisational whimsy. Although perhaps there’s no more undeniable evidence for that than to hear what Zimmerli gets Mehldau and Hays to do with the opening chord sequence of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Robert Fripp once commented that while he enjoyed Reich’s music, its preconception lacked “the random factor, the factor of hazard.”
By further blurring the lines between composition, performance, and authorship, Mehldau, Hays, and Zimmerli have certainly added that hazard factor. Whose music it is will ultimately depend on what context you bring to it, but wherever you’re coming from it will change the way you think about things.