Friday, August 6, 2010

The State of Jazz

Originally written for and posted on Indaba here

For those of you who have read my posts before, you'll know that I am unapologetically a jazz musician. It's what I've played and studied since I was a youngling. Though lately, and I don't think I'm alone, defining exactly what "jazz" is has become difficult. Is it a style with rules, or is it a music in which "there are no wrong notes" (as the common standby goes)? Is it fair to call jazz "America's classical music", or is it more of a music born out of the African diaspora, as prominent jazz critics like Stanley Crouch like to tout? It's almost impossible for it to be both, though undoubtedly the African diaspora had a large role to play in American music coming into its own. Still, this has been something of a struggle lately as I gear up to put some music I've written onto tape, which is probably more inspired by bands like Blonde Redhead and modern gospel artists like J Moss than it is by the traditional music of Armstrong and Ellington. So, I'll try to parse some of my views on the state of modern jazz below:

I. Rebellion

Let's start with irony, ironically it's often a great place to start. In certain NYC jazz circles, the word "jazz" has a negative connotation. I've given it a bit of thought, and I think I've come up with a reason why (for me, at least) it would have one. Most of the younger musicians my age trying to break into the scene nowadays came up through the traditional channels. We studied our instruments with teachers, played in school and church, learned according to the rules we were given. In music school we were fed the generally accepted jazz curriculum where be-bop is king, and Miles and Coltrane are gods. This is where we were told, "this is jazz, this is what you're here to play". Surely, there were teachers who were much more enlightened than this, but as a general rule, the hard asses among them felt a personal obligation to force the idea that jazz was the holy grail of music into our souls and make us penitent musicians.

Then, school is out. And in descending upon the world, the classes of academia begin their identity crisis. Armed with the technical know-how born of hours of practice, new generations take the world by storm, even by flipping the bird at the purists and embracing the new and explosive. One only needs to listen to a Human Feel album to understand the points of rebellion, and how far outside the tradition new classes of musicians bring the music from the hallowed halls of academic life.

Still, jazz today begs the question "what is jazz?" Best I can surmise: jazz today is a double-edged sword: a rebellion against and an embrace of the lexicon.

II. Romantics

I like to equate the current trends in jazz with the Romantic movement in classical music in the 1800s. For, it was at this time that composers really started looking outside the confines of the church and previous incarnations of their genre. Also, the romantics (probably starting with Berlioz) began to spite the former "traditional" ways of treating harmony, and so, began to spread their harmonic and contrapuntal wings. So too do modern jazz musicians look outside of the holy legacy of Art Blakey and Miles Davis and seek to cut the "jazz" ties of the ii-V-I. Also, Romantic composers began to shed the stigma of the age or reason and began to explore more emotive expression. In modern jazz music, Balkan rhythms, hip-hop, and even indie rock have been increasingly showing their influence in an attempt to diversify the genre and find true expression through true influence.

There's the renewed need to emote. I think I would cite the Rosenwinkel album Heartcore as one of the premier examples of expressive modern jazz. From start to finish Rosenwinkel presents sprawling compositions and solos. The intricate interplay between him and Mark Tuner on Heartcore provide some of the most emotionally invigorating music you're bound to hear. The layers of textures are perfectly balanced, and create an incredibly affecting soundscape, especially on tunes like "Heartcore" and "All the Way to Rajasthan". Throughout, there exists live performances enhanced by the addition of overdubs and lush synths which add enormously to the vibe.

On the lighter side of things, pianist Robert Glasper's album Double Booked showcases A perfect dichotomy: Glasper's acoustic trio graces the front half of the album while the back-end of the album is his more hip-hop/gospel/electronic influenced "Experiment". The inspiration Glasper draws from hip-hop and gospel music is tremendous. His piano lines are saturated with church experience and decades of listening to music other than jazz. Glasper has the ability to translate that experience through the jazz idiom, and is effective in his pursuit.

We modern jazz musicians have, like our Romantic counterparts, looked to broaden the content of the music and reach past the party lines of drawn by the lexicon. For example, trumpet player Roy Hargrove worked closely within the Soulquarian collective while they were busy redefining the sound of R&B. The Benevento/Russo Duo has even assimilated the jam-band mentality into their music and has put an intellectual spin on it. The Bad Plus have even covered the 90s anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit", putting their own energetic twist on the song. Perhaps most famously, world renowned pianist Brad Mehldau has been recording Radiohead tunes for ages, and professes to be inspired both by not only Radiohead but Brahms, Richard Wagner, and even folk legend Nick Drake. In fact, Mehldau has released two albums produced by rock super producer Jon Brion.

Through all these different genres and the search for true expression, we jazz musicians have been seeking release from the ii-V-I and the proper voice-leading rules drilled into our fingers from day one. However, like the romantics of old studied in the great European conservatories, we've studied how to run the changes of a standard. We've studied how do to it properly so that we don't have to if we don't want to, and that's an important distinction. Have the knowledge first, then put it on the top shelf of the bookcase and forget about it until you need to call upon it.

III. Reaction

By, let's say, 1993 the novelty of the computer had worn off. By then, most American homes had their own personal home computers, and the internet revolution was right around the corner. As the digital age came into its own so too did the world of modern jazz music. Synths had taken the world of jazz by storm, and every artist (except maybe Keith Jarrett who spent a large portion of the 80's playing solo concerts, performing with his standards trio, and recording classical music) had succumbed in some way to the glamor of the new. Even Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers band tried to incorporate electric piano to disastrous results (check out the album Child's Play if you dare). There were some glimmers of jazz from artists who had gone electric in the 80's, like Chick Corea's Akoustic Band, but even Chick strapped on his keytar and blazed through "Got A Match". Eventually, the novelty of the synth wore off, and that's when the jazz world's reaction kicked in.

The first to react to this movement were the so called "young lions". This group of musicians were members of an elite club whose ranks included musicians like Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Jeff 'Tain' Watts, and Marcus Roberts. Armed with the weight of Stanley Crouch behind their movement, they were probably the first to look completely back to where Miles had left off in the 1960's. Though many in the jazz community love to hate Wynton (and also Stanley Crouch, but that's a whole other can of worms) due to his often controversial comments, I think his most successful projects were those within his "Standard Time" series of albums. It was his way of saying, "It's still hip to play standards, and moreover, we can do it in some different ways." Similarly, groups like Joshua Redman's landmark early 90's Quartet with Brian Blade, Christian McBride, and Brad Mehldau started playing standards in different time signatures; but unlike clumsy attempts to play in seven and five in the past, they made the time feel natural, internalized, and intentional. By the time Mehldau's Art of the Trio 4 appeared in 2000, with the trio's now famous rendition of "All the Things You Are", playing in seven had become firmly embedded in the lexicon.

IV. Revolution

As the jazz community forges into the future, there are several trends to observe. First, different influences are permeating the music from all angles. If I may speak frankly, splang-a-lang is a dying art. I love to swing with a really killing drummer as much as the next person, but as jazz moves forward splang-a-lang on the ride cymbal and 2+4 on the hi-hat become more and more irrelevant. Furthermore, labels in the 1960's and 70's tried to make jazz music commercially viable artificially; in today's jazz climate "commercial viability" has grown naturally. For example, pianist Aaron Parks, who some consider to be the next important link in the jazz piano chain, has absolutely no straight ahead swing in his last album Invisible Cinema, but looked toward the current Brooklyn rock scene for inspiration. Same with trumpeter Christian Scott. Unlike Wynton Marsalis, Scott, also a New Orleans native, doesn't avoid music with a backbeat, he embraces it and assimilates many styles into his original music. Vijay Iyer on his amazing album Historicity does an absolutely convincing cover of MIA's "Galang". Robert Glasper and Chris Dave have been busy this past year traveling around with R&B darlings Maxwell and Jill Scott.

To conclude, I think my friend Adam Schatz, the man behind Search and Restore Jazz, put it well when being interviewed about his "Undead Jazz Festival" on, saying, "we’d prefer to accept that jazz died, and now is back from the dead with a stronger drive than ever before." Though, I think if Louis Armstrong were to rise from the dead he would pitch a fit about the state of jazz. Miles and Coltrane would probably be cool with it.

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