Three music-obsessed chums took a near-sellout, foot-tapping Payson crowd on a sly and ecstatic tour of a century of musical innovation and improvisation Sunday.
The Jesse Lynch Trio conducted a witty, tender, two-hour summary of the century-long evolution of jazz, from its roots in the songs of slaves to the sometimes inaccessible delight of the most sophisticated of musicians.
The Tonto Community Concert Association filled the 800-seat Payson High School Auditorium with an enthusiastic crowd that grooved to the big band swing that ruled the musical world in the 1940s, but knitted their brows at the free-form, dissonant, melodyless styles of modern jazz.
“Jazz has been a living organ that has evolved over the century,” explained pianist Jesse Lynch, of the ceaseless shift and innovation that has marked jazz, distinguished in large measure for its reliance on musical improvisation without a loose framework.
Lynch, Joe Michaels on bass and Matt Smallcomb on drums served as the intent, but genial tour conductors — high school friends that snuck away during lunch hour to secretly play improvisational jazz in Pennsylvania. In a triumph of friendship, trust and passion, they’re now on an 80-city tour trying to illustrate the mysteries of a distinctly American form of music that has persisted with startling originality.
Started with slave songs
Jazz started by adapting slave songs and African music to European forms and instruments, absorbed a dose of Cuban music and picked up and played with everything that came along for 100 years, like a delighted child in a tipped over toy store. In the process, jazz influenced most other forms of western music in the past century, including rock, rap, hip hop and even country through its connections with the blues.
A gifted pianist who never looked at a sheet of music or a song list in two hours of wide-ranging play, Lynch originally went to New York determined to convince some big-name musician to help him launch a band — only to realize that what he really wanted to do was to continue riffing and improvising with his childhood friends.
Like all musicians, they’ve had to scramble and adapt. But the concert made it clear that jazz remains their first love, along with the playful interchange made possible by their deep knowledge of one another.
The trio tackled a huge topic, given the complexity and relentless changes in jazz. They made the effort without trumpets, saxophones or sultry singers — which limited the range of sound and feeling they could explore.
Music from Africa, Cuba, Europe
Jazz emerged at the start of the 20th century, combining key elements of African American elements with European harmonies and elements of form. Jazz has always relied on complexities like expressive, low-pitched blue notes, open-ended improvisation, surprising, disruptive polyrhythms, off-beat syncopation and the headlong, almost impossible to define swing note.
Black musicians in New Orleans fused these elements into the first strains of jazz, starting in the early 1910s, where it incubated along with the blues.
The birth of this remarkable and adaptable musical form launched a century of improvisation and debate. Jazz always existed in a state of tension between purists and popularizers. Fierce innovators explored the frontiers, followed by musicians and composers anxious to harvest the most striking elements and then adapt them to popular tastes to seek commercial success. As a result, jazz advanced and veers — consolidated and receded all through that century.
Just as Elvis Presley would later draw on the gospel and blues of black bands to launch rock and roll, white composers and musicians adopted jazz.
Ragtime makes its appearance
This led first to ragtime that dominated between the 1890s and 1910s, with classical trained pianist Scott Joplin perhaps the best known of its practitioners, with his complicated right-handed syncopations and adroit use of patterns from both African and Cuban music.
But jazz came into its own in the 1920s and 1930s with prohibition. Jazz became the music of the speakeasies and the roaring ’20s. Cultural conservatives were aghast at its black roots and sensual rhythms, but brilliant musicians like Louis Armstrong won the day. Major composers took up the form, which dominated the musical scene in Chicago and elsewhere.
Swing bands dominate music scene
This led to the popular triumph of jazz with the arrival in the 1930s of the huge, brassy, big swing bands of people like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw in the 1930s. Initially, the terrifically popular dance bands that took advantage of the development of radio included only white musicians. As color barriers weakened in the 1940s, black musicians began to join the enormously successful swing bands.
In the next great shift in this restless musical style, bebop jazz musicians in the 1940s and 1950s begin to compose and improvise their own music, with giants like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie leading the way. This marked the start of “modern jazz” with more intense creativity, innovation and a focus on individual musicians — but also a shift away from the domination of popular music. These musicians expected people to sit and listen to the songs, not jump up and dance. So they used faster tempos, the drumming shifted to a more subtle and unpredictable style — leading to more highly syncopated and complex compositions.
Commercially, jazz fell back before the onslaught of rock and roll, but still drew avid followers and brilliant musicians.
The Rock and Roll of its time
“Jazz was the rock and roll of its time,” said Lynch. “Then we had the Beatles.”
With music that mirrors the abstractions of the art scene, jazz musicians freely drew on Africa, South America and the Caribbean for new sounds and rhythms.
Jazz fusion even drew in elements of rock and roll.
Near the end of the show, the trio played cuts off the two best-selling jazz albums of all time — one by Miles Davis the other by David Brubeck.
That’s hardly all of it, of course.
The trio dropped names, played tributes, traded jokes all through the show, trying to condense an explosive century of innovation into a handful of songs.
In the end, they succeeded, although the audience struggled with the complexities and vanishing melody of the modern jazz. Still, what emerged with perfect clarity was their love of the music — and the soaring effort of this great extended family of musicians to find the thing they loved.
Call it jazz.