From: Greg Thomas
Dear Nate, Peter, Gio and Jim:
I too thank Nate for the chance to pitch in some musings for our literary jam session about jazz in 2012.
I can’t help but begin with some reflections on Dave Brubeck: when someone of his indelible cultural and musical import departs earth, it’s always a blow to those of us remaining who care. But I lean to the ancestral tradition of celebrating the life and accomplishments of a great man such as Brubeck more than mourning his death. No, Nate, I wasn’t hip to Jazz at Storyville but thanks to you and Spotify, I’ve added it to my storehouse of musical memories of what must be one of the greatest musical partnerships in jazz history.
Through Brubeck’s recordings I fell in love, as a teen beginner playing a Bundy alto sax, with Paul Desmond’s sweet and dry tone, his graceful melodicism, his beautiful counter-statement to the fires of Bird-derived bebop, and even his sense of humor. I recall once reading that Desmond claimed not to practice too much because when he did, he began to play too fast!
Yet, of course, Brubeck was for me more than just a bridge to the glories of Paul Desmond; for example, his 5/4 and 9/8 time experiments on “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk”— both from the classic Time Out record — stretched my sonic perception, while strengthening my appreciation for the ground of swing being never too far away, no matter how “further out” Brubeck experimented with “time.” Furthermore, the social and political significance of Dave and Iola Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors cannot be overstated, particularly when considering the social and political era of its creation during the Civil Rights movement. His greatness extended to mastery not only because of his designation as a NEA Jazz Master in 1999, but because of the establishment of the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific a year later.
When I had the great fortune to interview Mr. Brubeck preceding a double bill with Ramsey Lewis at Jazz at Lincoln Center a few years ago, his palpable pride in the educational achievements of the institution bearing his name was inspiring.
That’s a good word to sum up my overall feeling about jazz in 2012: inspiring. I confess that I’m an eternal optimist, but no matter the usual mainstream media blackout of jazz, no matter the sad closings of iconic, down-home venues such as St. Nick’s Pub and the Lenox Lounge in Harlem, and no matter the attention on the Internet to yet another jazz obit, this time in The Atlantic, jazz music not only survives but thrives. Although I’ve been writing about the music for about a quarter century, my newfound media perch at the New York Daily News has given me a perspective from which to see the exciting developments in the music, especially on record and in New York City.
But over this past summer, I experienced more of the music away from the media, financial, and (so-called) jazz capital.
For instance, I had the good fortune to visit Joburg, South Africa for the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival. I witnessed the open-arm receptivity of a native African audience, who drank in the music —without the consideration of strict genre demarcations — like it was the nectar of the gods. (I must admit, though, that, as a black American, it was very strange staying at a five-star hotel with toiletries that had the brand name “Plantation.”)
At the Montreal Jazz Festival, the world’s largest, an eclectic gaggle of ensembles presented music that festival founder Andre Menard calls “cousins and neighbors” of jazz. Unless one is a member of the genre police, I think such diversity is cool, as long as what some call “mainstream” jazz is represented in due measure. (Please, don’t ask me what that proportional measure should be, because I candidly don’t know.) I especially appreciated the chance to hear pianists making waves in Europe such as Tord Gustavsen and Jef Neve. (Peter, since you hail from Canada, I’m curious about your take on the Montreal Fest.)
The largest jazz festival in the U.S., the Detroit Jazz Festival, was another joyful summer excursion, where a felicitous pairing of Lew Tabackin and Randy Brecker was one of many highlights. And a road trip with fellow jazz scribes Howard Mandel, Laurence Donahue-Green, Terrell Holmes, Ted Panken and Kelvin Williams to the oldest jazz festival, in Newport, Rhode Island, was just plain ol’ fun.
The snapshots of these events were proof positive to me that a plethora of great music is being written and played under the banner of jazz and related forms. (And, as per usual, there’s also a heap of so-so and not so great music being produced, jazz and otherwise.) Now, I realize that as a native New Yorker, I’m prone to the myopic, misguided view that what’s happening here is indicative of the state of jazz overall. So my travels, as goes the cliché, broadened my horizons.
Yet some of my most expansive and thrilling experiences this year happened right in the Big Apple.
Take Brian Lynch. He gets my vote for Most Valuable Player on trumpet this year. I saw Lynch kickin’ it with Phil Woods at Dizzy’s, Charles McPherson at the Jazz Standard, and Eddie Palmieri at the Blue Note (and in South Africa). In each case, not only did he hold his own; he elevated the music with his intensity and power. I witnessed a wild concert by Donald Harrison at Symphony Space, and I mean wild in a good sense. He and his young charges — Zaccai and Luques Curtis, Christian Scott, and others — tore up the stage in the first half with standards and the progressive new style Harrison ambitiously calls “quantum jazz,” yet followed up in the second with imminently danceable New Orleans and R&B styling. Instead of sounding schizophrenic, the music seemed part of an organic whole with Harrison at the center.
In Harlem, shows at Harlem Stage (on the campus of City College) such as the tribute to Cecil Taylor featuring Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, and Amina Claudine Myers bristled with a spirit of creative experimentation and free improvisation. (“Holding It Down: The Veteran’s Dream Project,” Nate, was spoken-word and poetry-driven with a musical backdrop that at times over-powered clear hearing of the words. Vijay’s piano playing, however, respectfully took a back seat to the scenes depicted by the words and filmic images.) I had a whooping good time at the Apollo Theater for the second year where Wycliffe Gordon led an old-style music variety show for the Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival that maintained high artistry and entertainment value in comparable measure.
I regret the aforementioned closings in Harlem, as I feel sad about the closing of Mobay Uptown on 125th Street near Fifth Avenue, where the ambrosial Caribbean and Southern cuisine would often be accompanied by a live jazz band. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Showman’s Café, Bill’s Place, Creole Restaurant, Londel’s, and Ginny’s Supper Club (below Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster) are still presenting jazz in Harlem, as the National Jazz Museum in Harlem offers (mostly) free public programming every single week. As well, a re-opening of the historic Minton’s is planned for next year under the leadership of corporate titan Richard Parsons and restaurateur Alexander Smalls.
There’s always much to lament about the human condition generally and the state of jazz specifically, most surely, but I tend to accentuate the positive, such as the release by the young saxophonist Brandon Wright, “Journeyman,” a straight-ahead session that fired up my ears through a Bose Wave System and continues to please upon repeated plays.
I’m not much bothered, Peter, by Jarrett’s Sleeper and Truesdell’s Gil Evans Centennial Project being classed as two of the best of 2012, based on the criterion of release date. But if today’s music, say, pales in comparison — not an argument I’m making, and not you either, I suspect — then I think we should question the music of today, not fret over fears of being retro.
By the way, I’m going to hear Chris Botti at the Blue Note for his upcoming three-week run, Peter. Some feel about him as I do about Kenny G — nice sound, but damn, man: do you make music with the elevator and your bank account as the primary considerations? — but I’m reserving judgment so I can feel his integrity (or lack thereof) in person.
And as far as the tradition vs. innovation debate, it’s always rung hollow to me because of how it’s framed. To me, it’s both/and rather than either/or. I’m strong on the fundamentals of jazz as a form serving as a basis of innovation, and as indicative of a continuum of artistic growth. But an emphasis on innovation as a be-all and end-all, I think, is immature and flirts with the risk of decadence. My postmodern friends may disagree, but, paraphrasing Yeats, if there’s no center, things fall apart and anarchy reigns.
But I’m prayerful that we’ve transcended such debates, and can, instead, focus on how jazz, as a musical practice and value system, has suffused the consciousness and identity of people globally. On that I hope we can agree, especially in light of Herbie Hancock’s International Jazz Day initiative.
Lastly, have you noticed a trend toward even less long group runs at clubs where you live? I have here, with Dizzy’s changing from a 6-night a week policy to a usual, now, maximum of four days. At the Kitano Club a two-night run has become hard to come by. If this is a trend, is this because most groups these days, aside from the biggest names in the jazz biz, have inadequate drawing power to make such runs an even break-even proposition? Perhaps I’ve answered my own question just by asking.