Part Eight of a year-end email conversation with Angelika Beener, Aaron Cohen, Joe Tangari and K. Leander Williams. (Jump to: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 )
From: Nate Chinen
What a terrific way to wind down the year. I’m grateful to all of you for agreeing to take part in this roundtable — and for bringing so much of substance to the exchange! You really made this a pleasure. Here’s my grasping attempt to close shop. Hang tight, this may be a #longread.
The issue of Arts & Leisure now sitting on your doorsteps (right, guys?) contains my Top 10, along with those of Ben Ratliff and the indefatigable Jons (Pareles, Caramanica). Aaron, you noted the inclusion of tUnE-yArDs’ whokill on my list. Merrill Garbus, the in-your-face dynamo at the center of that band, crammed so much into this record — Afropop rhythm, jangly harmony, vocals that bark or purr — that it can be easy to miss its jazz moorings.
Her bassist is Nate Brenner, who was raised by an old-fashioned boogie-woogie pianist and then trained at Oberlin; he’s the only other full-time member of tUnE-yArDs, and had a hand in writing some of the songs on whokill.
This stealth jazz influence was a big feature in some other highly touted releases this year: Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, which is up for Album of the Year; St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy; The Roots’ undun (dig that Don Pullenesque freakout by D.D. Jackson, with attendant ?uestlove fire); even, as Angelika noted, the gilt-armored hip-hop opus Watch the Throne. My current JazzTimes column (analog edition) discusses this phenomenon at length. You can also hear me discuss it with Ben Ratliff on a year-end Popcast. (He begs to differ re: tUnE-yArDs.)
Speaking of Ben and lists, did you notice what he did this year? High up on his Top 10 is an hourlong set recorded live at 713-->212: Houstonians in NYC, the 92YTriBeCa show that Angelika also mentioned as a highlight. “When it ended,” Ben writes of this high-kinesis jam, “I felt that it said so much about where jazz is now — inasmuch as it is black music, popular music, regional music, improvised music and a philosophy of play — that I didn’t need to hear any more for a while.” (Parenthetically, he adds: “If we can call it an album, it’s a better extended statement than most I heard this year.”)
Which raises a good question: is the album, as a discrete delivery system, still the best way to adjudicate success in jazz? Do the top-albums lists that we all pore over (Kelvin, you’re the rare exception) really tell us what happened over the past year? Obviously I don’t entirely think so, which is why we’re all here. But I want to use Houstonians in NYC as a springboard for another assertion, about how jazz at its best is the direct product of a social context, a cultural milieu, a moment in time. A scene, in other words. This may sound obvious, but it’s something we (critics and musicians) often take for granted. The music doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. Our perceptions of the music don’t, either.
This point was born out time and again in 2011. Consider the bonds of brotherhood on Captain Black Big Band, which some of you have mentioned; consider the spirit of inquiry on Miguel Zenón’s Alma Adentro. Consider the vitality of the Chicago scene, invoked by Aaron and ratified by Joe. Or look no further than the wise and pointed assertions made by Geri Allen, in that Alternate Takes interview.
Well, maybe look a little further. Aaron has a great new book out as part of the 33⅓ series, in which he lays out the social climate and cultural environment surrounding Aretha Franklin’s landmark album Amazing Grace. (I really am preaching to the choir here, so to speak.)
Another new book that smartly unearths the context around the music is Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, by Will Hermes. Its subtitle is “Five Years in New York City That Changed Music Forever,” with a timeframe of 1973 to 1977. Most reviewers have naturally fixated on the Modern Lovers, Patti Smith and Grandmaster Flash (not to mention Springsteen, Dylan, Byrne) — but there’s a lot of good stuff in there about the loft scene, the post-Coltrane avant-garde, and the early stirrings of salsa. David Murray figures into the narrative. So does Lester Bowie, and Eddie Palmieri. Jazz folk should know about this.
I think the issue of social context is one reason why we all feel a little weird about Jazz at Lincoln Center hanging a shingle in Qatar. What could be less organic than that? I’m not implying that good things won’t happen; as we know from many years of State Department subsidy, jazz has a way of winning people over across the globe. Still, this is the work of an institution expanding its footprint on luxury terms, which is why it feels less like Pops at the pyramids than like the opening of a new Bulgari flagship. Or, worse, like this:
Sheesh, I’ve gone on too long. One more thing: if we weren’t all invested in the notion of a jazz community, why would the challenges posed by a Nicholas Payton register so strongly, and spark such heated response? Why would we all argue so intently about so much? I’m among those who feel that the Year of the Cannibal, as I tagged it at the beginning of this exchange, actually reflects a defiantly thriving culture, with all the crosstalk and controversy that comes with it.
Last night I saw the Claudia Quintet +1 with Kurt Elling at Cornelia Street Café, unpacking material from their scintillating album What is the Beautiful? (Cuneiform). At the beginning of the set, drummer-bandleader John Hollenbeck dedicated the evening’s performance to Bob Brookmeyer, one of the dearly departed elders of our tribe. It was heartfelt and true.
And on that bittersweet note, I’ll simply add that this roundtable has been edifying and inspiring — and totally free of name-calling! — and that I hope to resume the thread in person sometime, with each of y’all. See you out there on the grid, and here’s wishing everyone Happy Holidays, and all the best in 2012.