Part Four of a year-end email conversation with Peter Hum, Jim Macnie, Giovanni Russonello and Greg Thomas(Jump to: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5| 6| 7| 8| 9| 10| 11 )
From: Giovanni Russonello
Hi Nate, Peter, Greg and Jim,
It’s been a joy reading everyone’s posts so far. First off, I
have to thank all of you, my “elders” in this jazz writing game, for all the
inspiration that your work has provided me over the years. It’s a thrill to be
hashing this stuff out with you folks.
I’ve been thinking lately about how jazz has a way of
conveniently marking itself off by decades. How considerate it was of Coleman
Hawkins, say, to record his bebop-auguring “Body and Soul” right as the 1930s
were giving way to the ’40s. Or of all
those luminaries who happened to wait until 1959 to give jazz a
full-body makeover. Or of Miles Davis to release Bitches Brew in 1970, guaranteeing
that the next decade would be given over to jazz-rock fusion. Then there was
Wynton Marsalis, in early 1982, issuing his debut album and ushering in a
decade of phoenix-like bop playing. You get the point.
To me, 2012 was that kind of year. A lot of forces converged to
renegotiate jazz’s place in American culture. I think the 2010s will go down as
the time when open-armed symbiosis with all sorts of art — mostly other music,
but not exclusively — became the governing paradigm. Musicians are crossing boundaries
at a fast clip, yet almost always avoiding the mainstream. That can be both a
good and bad thing.
Nate, in your
wrap-up last year, you noted the “stealth jazz influence” in a lot of the
creative pop music that’s been coming out recently. I think you
were right on in saying that this has the markings of jazz education’s
influence all over it. There’s something else at play now, too: Spotify
memberships became a commonplace this year. So we have to reckon with the
impact of an unprecedented global aqueduct of musical dispersion; it can seem
like everyone is listening to everything.
Most young jazz performers are reaffirming the postmodern
definition of jazz that’s now more or less indisputable, as far as I’m
concerned: Jazz is whatever jazz musicians play. But that hasn’t totally
changed what it means to be a jazz musician; you have to know the
tradition. The music’s finest fruit will always come from those who understand
West African-born rhythm from the inside out, and who understand jazz as
expressing some sort of insurgent ideal. (That’s part of why the #BAM discussion,
which spilled over into 2012, was very much worth having, even if tempers on
both sides — and a blackout from major media — prevented it from blooming.)
Photo: Mike Schreiber
This was the year when we got a full picture of how well jazz’s
foundations can undergird eclectic ventures. To some degree, that’s what was
happening on this year’s two most talked-about records made by jazz musicians:
the Robert Glasper Experiment’s Black Radio and Esperanza
Spalding’s Radio Music Society. The common word in those titles is a
tip-off; I’d argue that the records will end up having a more important effect
on the future of commercial music — principally hip-hop and R&B — than on
that of jazz. But it was still good to see some prominent jazz musicians draw
attention for their interest in other “great American art forms.” Plus, it
points to another upside to all this cross-pollination. A friend of mine said
she came across Black Radio online, when clicking through Erykah Badu’s
catalog. From there, Spotify’s “related artists” feature guided her to a
Christian Scott (aTunde
Adjuah?) record. Who knows where that will lead her.
But when I look back on this year’s harvest, I’m convinced that
albums like Rafiq Bhatia’s Yes It Will (which snuck onto my
top 10 list),or ERIMAJ’s
Conflict of a Man, or even Karriem Riggins’ Alone Together actually tell us
more about the direction jazz is going. These discs, all debuts by musicians
under 40, don’t force any dualistic conceit about fusing two genres; listening
to them can feel like drinking up an ocean of influences.
The goal of Bhatia, Riggins and Jamire Williams of ERIMAJ is
fundamentally the same as any classic jazz player’s: to throw light on the
ironies of struggle, the productive partnership of pain and joy. Sometimes it
can just be easier to evoke those contradictions when your music encompasses
John Coltrane, Soft Machine, Sunn O))), Flying Lotus. (I’m thinking especially
of Bhatia here. Both in concert and on record, I am thrilled by how his music
can be so simultaneously summit-seeking and fastidious.)
If this is where we’re headed, it makes sense that Jason Moran
seems to be the hottest name on the lips of jazz fans these days. After Dr.
Billy Taylor died, Moran took over as artistic advisor for jazz at the Kennedy
Center here in D.C. This past October marked the beginning of his first season
as a jazz curator, and its scope has been something to celebrate. So far, he’s
held an election night jam session with bluegrass musicians and opera singers
sharing the stage with his own sextet; converted an area of the stately center
into a dark-lit dance hall for a Medeski, Martin & Wood show; and presented
a “KC Jazz Club” concert by Christie Dashiell, a young, adventurous singer from
D.C. who’s relatively unknown on the national stage.
It takes a while for fundamental changes in the music to seep up
into major performing arts institutions, so when you see the Kennedy Center
already opening its arms to Moran’s experimental approach, you can almost watch
the Young Lions vanishing from the rearview. (I wrote
a piece for CapitalBop comparing his vision to that of Jazz at Lincoln
Center; it might have felt like a potshot, if the differences weren’t so
In a JazzTimes profile of Moran earlier this year,
I thought about why he seems ready to bear the music’s standard in an age of
artistic crossbreeding. A big part of it is his embrace not just of varied
musical influences, but of multimedia; at the recent Whitney installation that
you mentioned, Nate, Moran and his wife — the opera singer Alicia Hall Moran —
incorporated music, video, performance art and much else. That’s status quo for
them, and for a growing number of jazz players.
The price of such wide-ranging artistic exploration is, of
course, that you separate yourself from the mainstream. But a place on the
fringe doesn’t connote stagnation. I think it works the other way — freeing you
from certain commercial considerations and making room for straight-up
expression. For once, I feel like jazz is learning to accept those advantages.
The “jazz is dead” conversation now feels like a crude joke that’s been told
too many times: The punch line doesn’t have any bite left. Even the awkwardness
of the suggestion is gone. Jazz isn't dead, it's just spreading its wings.
Nate, to respond to your question, people now seem at peace with the idea that
the jazz tradition is itself a constant innovation.
I don’t mean to suggest that jazz lives in some distant, utopian
world where all mercantile worries vanish. I don’t want to paint the internet
as an absolute plus, either. A struggle for donations and the
technology-triggered decline of radio have quietly eviscerated jazz on the
airwaves in Boston,
Angeles and D.C.
Radio is a force that brings us together, gives people a touchstone, invites
listeners to hear things they wouldn’t otherwise. For those reasons, the medium
is a boon to any marginalized music (or
strain of thought), and it's jarring to watch it disappear.
Still, the web has also empowered folks to think and work
outside the box in helping the music thrive. You guys are right that the
attrition of venues is a serious problem, including in D.C., where U Street
(Black Broadway, as it’s long been known) is down to just two bona fide jazz
clubs. To help make up for that, and build an audience for future clubs,
CapitalBop puts on DIY
shows at non-traditional venues, and we get the word out through our
web presence. We’re far from the only ones. House Party Starting in Chicago,
Search & Restore in New York,
and a handful of similar organizations across the country are filling a need
vacated by disappearing clubs, while showing how the web can help corral young
listeners who are oblivious — but open — to contemporary jazz. (Just before the
Undead Music Festival’s nationwide Night of the Living DIY in June, I wrote
something for A Blog Supreme about the importance of DIY jazz
And as long as we’re talking venues: Greg and Nate, I’m
definitely concerned about the downfall of St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem, and
the future of Lenox Lounge. But as you observed, Greg, there are still a
handful of spots there. And what matters most to me is that the
neighborhood is again a hotbed where a bumper crop of young stars lives, works
and practices together.
I was in the pianist Gerald Clayton’s kitchen a while
back, talking to him for a JazzTimes story on the Harlem
scene, when he got to raving about his roommate, the drummer Justin Brown. He
was talking about the endless wealth of music that’s liable to gust out of
Brown’s computer speakers on a given day: singer-songwriter stuff, Indian
classical, gospel — the gamut. The best part is that when the urge strikes
them, Clayton and Brown get to call any of the dozens of young, professional
musicians living in their neighborhood and convene a living-room jam session.
I’m eager to see how the partnerships between these Harlem players — Clayton,
Brown, Moran, Jamire Williams, Ben Williams, Fabian Almazan, Taylor Eigsti,
Kendrick Scott and plenty more — help them churn something new and intimate out
of their vast collective ken.
All this talk of the future reminds me that I need to pause for
a moment, as you guys have, to recognize the great ones we lost this year: Dave
Brubeck, David S. Ware, Pete La Roca Sims, Pete Cosey, Ted Curson, Shimrit Shoshan,
Austin Peralta and so many others. I only had the chance to experience the
first two of those names live (Brubeck with his quartet, and Ware in a
heart-stirring solo soprano saxophone show), but every artist on that list
calls up a distinct and enthralling sound in my brain. Which reminds me why we
fight for this music: It shows us how to communicate, cooperate, construct,
without ever compromising the essence of what gives us freedom.
Part One of a year-end email conversation with Peter Hum,
Jim Macnie, Giovanni Russonello and Greg Thomas (Jump to: 1 | 2 | 3| 4 | 5| 6| 7| 8| 9| 10| 11 )
From: Nate Chinen
Dear Peter, Greg, Giovanni and Jim,
Have you all heard Jazz at Storyville, the Dave Brubeck album? Recorded for Fantasy at the
Boston nightclub Storyville, mostly on a single October afternoon in 1952, it’s but a glistening fleck of foam in the oceanic expanse of Brubeck’s recording career. No
surprise that it didn’t turn up in the acres of coverage of that venerable
pianist’s death last week*, though I’ll confess that it’s one of the Brubeck
performances that always springs to my mind, for the urbane and offhandedly searching
aspects of its style.
Brubeck and Paul Desmond, his peerlessly sympathetic melodic partner, were both in their 30s at the time of this recording, which was
made under somewhat larkish circumstances. According to Nat Hentoff, Brubeck’s
bassist had to miss the afternoon set; moreover, “the bulk of the audience had not yet arrived and so they were playing entirely
for and between themselves.” Brubeck’s delicate but impassive abstraction of “Over the Rainbow” would seem to bear out that point. As would this gorgeously mentholated version of “You Go to My Head,” a near-perfect distillation of the Brubeck-Desmond hookup, negotiated on absolutely casual terms (complete with the whistling of a patron):
You may be wondering why I’m hitting you up with these stirrings from a sparsely attended club set 50 years ago. For one
thing, I was determined not to open our exchange with a mournful or
valedictory tone — despite the enormity of Brubeck’s passing, less than a week
ago, and despite some other flickers of finality. This weekend we saw the
last of Zebulon, an important way-out incubator in Williamsburg, Brooklyn;
we also received word of the change of ownership at the Lenox Lounge in
Harlem, the same neighborhood that bid farewell to St. Nick’s Pub
in the spring. (Greg, given your deep history in the area, I’m hoping you have some thoughts on this topic. Gio, you call D.C. home, but perhaps you do too.) I should add that the recent devastation of Sandy meant a temporary inconvenience for the Manhattan jazz-club ecosystem but a real game-changer elsewhere — Jim, as a native of Red Hook, Brooklyn, I know this was painfully true for you.
More farewells: It was just weeks ago that we
lost Pete La Roca Sims and Ted Curson, a pair of musicians largely underestimated
by the public, if not by their peers. It’s been a couple of months now since we
lost David S. Ware, who reached his stature partly by making underestimation impossible. Unlike Brubeck, these were artists who might not have had the opportunity
to say everything they wanted to say. Which brings me to pianist-composer Austin
Peralta, whose death at 22 (and just barely that) must be the year’s most heartbreaking jazz story. I have no in-person frame of
reference for his playing, which makes me feel both derelict and deprived. Every indication pointed toward a promising future.
But! (you knew there was one coming) I honestly can’t assess
the past year with anything other than a sense of renewed wonder. Since we’re
on the subject of promising young pianists, consider the wealth of talent currently fitting that description: Fabian Almazan, Bobby Avey, Jonathan Batiste, Kris Bowers,
Gerald Clayton, Aaron Diehl, Eldar Djangirov, John Escreet, Lawrence Fields, Aaron Parks, David Virelles... and that’s just guys under 30, each with his own spin. Surely I am leaving some people out. This week I’ll be seeing Christian Sands at the Village Vanguard, about a year after he knocked me out in the same room.
What I love about this moment in the music is its openness, the sense of possibility that rumbles out in almost every direction. I witnessed a lot of things this year reminiscent of that Brubeck-Desmond expedition, and I’m not talking about style so much as feeling.
Consider one blessed three-day span from my calendar, back in April. On Tuesday I heard the Billy Hart Quartet, with Mark Turner on tenor, Ethan Iverson on piano and Ben Street on bass; their interaction was even looser and lighter than on the fine album they released this year. On Wednesday I heard alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry, with a band that featured Mike Rodriguez on trumpet and Pedrito Martinez on congas and Yoruban chant. On Thursday I heard the Vijay Iyer Trio (more on that in a moment). And all this during a week in which I was writing a Tim Berne profile for JazzTimes, on the occasion of his superb outing Snakeoil. All of you have similar stories, I know: Jim, you get out in NYC as much as anyone, and Peter and Gio, you cover scenes outside that scope. Greg, I have a hunch your highlight reel will differ slightly from mine, too.
Curious to hear whether you all agree that the old arguments about “tradition” vs. “innovation” ring so
obviously hollow now. (Maybe so?) One of my indelible experiences of this year was hearing
Cecil Taylor at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, as he served up an art he has been
steadily refining for an eon. One of the most mysterious was hearing a sextet
led by the aforementioned Clayton — not a vanguardist by reputation — work
through its new variations on post-bop form. I’m leaving the Top 10 analysis
for a later post (you’re all welcome to get an early jump), but it strikes me
as salutary that Vijay Iyer, one of Cecil’s children, gathered so much critical mojo this year, cleaning up in an unprecedented five
categories in the DownBeat Critic’s Poll. I rang
the bell when Accelerando was about
to drop, but even in armchair-prediction mode I wouldn’t have
expected that. Then again, that album features the fondest Ellingtonian sendoff of any I can think of this year.
(One of the many shows I was sorry to miss, btw, was Iyer and Mike Ladd premiering “Holding It
Down: The Veterans’ Dream Project.” I’d be curious to hear
your take, if you were there. And speaking of intertextural art by concept-minded pianists, scheduling woes kept me from catching Jason Moran at the Whitney Biennial, an omission that the review by Ben Ratliff instantly made me regret. I did hear Moran with the Bandwagon a couple of weeks ago, though, and left with plenty to chew on.)
There’s so much else to say, but I want to wrap up my chorus
before I lose the crowd. Guys, thanks for taking part in this year’s roundtable
— can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to your responses. Take the
conversation in any direction you like. (And you at home, don’t hesitate to add
your thoughts below.) So with that, I hand the mic to Peter. Every ending holds a
new beginning, or so I’m told.
*(There’s an indirect allusion to Jazz at Storyville in Ratliff’s excellent
obituary in the NY Times: “By the time of an engagement in Boston in the
fall of 1952 they had become one of jazz’s greatest combinations,” he writes,
referring of course to Brubeck and Desmond.)