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 Three 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: 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
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.
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.)
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.
Photo: Tomoji Hirakata
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
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
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.
Let’s get this out of the way first: I don't think T.S.
Monk could have won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition,
which I covered here. But I think he’d be the first to make that
disclaimer. (Well, one of the first.)
Monk fils, who served
as an emergency feed of personal history and family lore during the
logistically complex semifinals on Saturday — you’ll be grateful to learn
that his father gulped Pepsi, smoked Camels and pinched pennies — gave the first
performance at the finals on Sunday. His unaccompanied solo, played on an
electronic drum kit, was OK, and, under the circumstances, the essence of
chutzpah. But then this is a guy who had no qualms about starting an
invocation, on both days, with “Let’s get ready to Drumble!”
The drumble, as it were, came late in the game, well after
the competition had been settled. As I observed in the paper, it involved a
round robin of every member of the judges’ panel, along with Tipper Gore
— and most importantly, Jamison Ross, whose strong, untroubled swing feel
helped put him in the winner’s circle.