From: Nate Chinen
First, a word of gratitude: thanks to all for such a lively first round. I’m honored that you guys accepted my invitation, and have already brought so much to the table — and so much to respond to! OK, let’s do this.
Jim, you ended your excellent post by suggesting we all take a moment to tip our beanies to the Tim Berne-Matt Mitchell hookup on Snakeoil. Since I pegged that as the best album of 2012, I’m perfectly happy to pick up the thread. The first time I heard Mitchell in person was at a Berne mini-festival of sorts in Philadelphia, three years ago: he was executing a complex script of Berne’s invention, brutish and gnarled at some points and cathedral-still at others. And while it was a solo piano piece — i.e., no interaction between the two players on an instrumental level — the depth of engagement was already there in nascent form. (For a simulacrum of the more reflective moments of that performance, here’s a clip filmed earlier that year, in what appear to be meat-lockeresque conditions at the Stone):
Mitchell spoke with me about the process of unpacking Berne’s compositions, back when I was gathering materials for a piece in JazzTimes. “Compared to a lot of contemporary classical music, it doesn’t necessarily look like it’s ultra-complicated on the page,” he said. “Then you sit down and try to play it, and it’s got all these little potential snags. So you have to play these charts accurately, and it has to groove.”
When I got my advance of Snakeoil, I was struck anew by the level of mind meld between the two musicians, whose dynamic might skew a little too mentor-pupil if not for the expansive liberties taken by Mitchell (who, it should be noted, commits all of the written material to memory). Sometimes, too, their altopiano — shades of Bru and Des in that portmanteau? — forms a fulcrum for the rest of the group. (Clarinetist Oscar Noriega distinguishes himself on the album too, and Ches Smith does some exceptionally strong and subtle things on percussion.) Then there’s that last word in the Mitchell quote above: this music really does groove, even when the pulse gets atomized, as is often the case.
Speaking of liberties, I absolutely loved your account of the deconstructive Tyshawn Sorey and Ben Gerstein performance, Jim. One thing it called to mind for me was some of the A.A.C.M.-inspired experimental fiction of Nathaniel Mackey, especially in his mind-bending epistolary trilogy. (There’s this one riff involving an onstage telephone, from the first volume, Bedouin Hornbook. I won’t spoil it for you.)
But it also reminds me of the DIY efforts Gio brought up in his first post. Did you all know about Music Factory, a sort of performance-art endurance marathon presented last weekend at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in the Chelsea gallery district? It was scheduled to last 96 hours, continuously, with some 70 improvisers drifting in and out of the mix, and earning an “extrapolated wage” based on pay-what-you-wish admission. (There was a point being made, I think, about the intrinsic “value” of the artistic process vs. its explicit “worth” as determined by market forces. Yay?)
On a similarly enterprising but (much) less esoteric note, I spent a recent afternoon dashing about Central Park for Jazz & Colors, which featured 30 ensembles and the same two sets of standards. Just as was presumably the case in Music Factory, the artist and audience were encouraged to interact meaningfully with a physical environment; in both instances the organizers played around with notions of scale. There are pitfalls to making this the hinge of your endeavor — Jazz & Colors was more of an enjoyable blur than a deep musical experience, which also tends to be my chief critique of Winter and Undead fests — but I’m all for tweaking the interface. Greg, as I registered your understandable concern about the incredible shrinking jazz-club engagement, I thought of 40Twenty, a post-bop collective so enamored of the two-week run, as a chimerical ideal, that it went out and created one for itself.
Not to suggest that everything’s peachy, since the shrewder jazz musicians have learned to write grant proposals by day and pass the tip jar at night. (Doesn’t that sound like a description of the world’s least empowered superhero?) I think we should continue to care about the fate of the aboveground jazz economy, under extraordinary circumstances as well as those that pass for ordinary. What I’m saying here — what I think everyone else has implied, in one way or another — is that the preponderance of options is an essential boon, and a good way to expand the base beyond those who think a $40 cover and a $10 minimum represent an acceptable transactional cost. Jason Moran has obviously been kicking around this liberated notion, and I see hints of it in the programming of a place like Shapeshifter Lab.
Let’s get back to Top 10s for a moment, shall we? And in so doing, we’ll sidle into some of the points that y’all have already raised. Like everyone here, it seems, I felt this was an extremely strong year for jazz. My best-album list, open to all genres, reflects that conviction: in past years it has included more pop or hip-hop or indie-rock or whatever, and while there were certainly good options out there this year, I couldn’t justify losing the real estate when there was so much jazz to be touted. (Among the albums I loved that missed the cutoff: Billy Hart Quartet, Dave Douglas, Fly, the Brad Mehldau twofer. Probably a dozen others that escape my mind at the moment.) Peter, I’m with you on the Gil Evans Project: it squeezed in at No. 10, because even though I have a natural critical bias towards newness (not to be confused with novelty), that album struck me as a triumph of concept and execution, and probably would in any era.
I’ve said this before, but I’m not the sort of critic who lives for quantifying: the act of ranking interests me far less than the art of explanation. That said, I am always fascinated by the differences in opinion that lay themselves out for inspection. In a few weeks, Ratliff and I will be discussing the year in jazz on the NY Times Popcast; for now, I’ll note that we had more overlap this year than ever before. And there are albums on Ben’s 10 that I didn’t consider for inclusion but can happily endorse. (Every recent album by Jeremy Pelt has made a strong case, but Soul may be the derby winner.)
Gio: I agree about the visionary qualities that bind ERIMAJ, Karriem Riggins and Rafiq Bhatia, bursting out beyond the jazz frame. (I also agree that Bhatia’s album is a head-turner; haven’t seen him live yet, but I’m looking forward to it. “Summit-seeking and fastidious” strikes me as a great thumbnail description.)
But I’m not entirely convinced that 2012 was some kind of tipping point, or even “the year when we got a full picture of how well jazz’s foundations can undergird eclectic ventures.” The album that received the most jazzcritical consensus, Accelerando, was a refinement rather than a breakthrough; likewise Christian aTunde Adjuah. The eclecticism of scope and taste represented by someone like Justin Brown is marvelous, but not an especially new wrinkle, either.
As for the crossover traction of Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding, I’m totally on board, but we’ll see. Radio Music Society seems to me an ennobled but weirdly hermetic exercise, even with all the guests; Spalding’s influence in the world, which I hailed in this space last year, won’t have much to do with the album. And Black Radio has resonated with a stylish constituency that maybe embraces jazz more as a signifier than as a process. I don’t think Glasper moved the needle so much as he rightly spotted which house the party was at. (As I write this, I’m waiting to see what Ratliff had to say about his Stevie Wonder tribute at Harlem Stage.)
Late the other night, after a long evening that included one crowd-pleasing set at the Vanguard — and I use that modifying phrase without a touch of the pejorative — I checked in on the live stream of 121212: The Concert for Sandy Relief. The cause was eminently worthy, as Jim can attest, and the assemblage of talent was impressive. (I tuned in just in time to witness Sir Paul McCartney beckoning Lady Diana Krall to the stage. I didn’t pay any attention to what she was wearing.) But as I caught up with the show on my DVR the following evening, it seemed to me like a dispatch from a distant and rapidly fading ghost world.
The old monoculture that a benefit like this is designed to mobilize — you’ll know what I mean if you slogged through the concert, or read the bullet-pointed recap by Sasha Frere-Jones — really no longer has a sustainable future. Forty years from now, what will we all hold up as the epochal pop of this here moment? Bruno? Mumford? RiRi? Taylor? I doubt that you could poll 10 random people and get a quorum. So Gio, you talked about jazz finally accepting its position on the fringe, and there may be something to that. But I’d counter that it’s almost all fringe now. Jazz just got there first.
Enough for now; I’m looking forward to the next few choruses. Greg, we’ll expect a full report from that Chris Botti gig. Wonder if he’ll call up another famous guest to do his “Nessun Dorma” shtick?
On to the next one,