Part Five 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: K. Leander Williams
Hey cats. Happy Holidays and all that...
Cheers to Nate on yet another smashing roundtable. Here’s me trying like hell to maintain the high level of discourse thus far.
As Nate said up front, I actually asked for the end slot because these days I’m not as engaged with the community as I was when weekly assessments were my gig. What I’ve found surprising is that I’m not quite as out of the loop as I’d initially surmised, and to be absolutely honest, that frustrates me somewhat. The controversies don’t seem to have changed much since I started doing this for a living in the early ‘90s, and even at that time they were tired. I mean, Miles Davis went electric in 1969 or so, right? What his bands did brilliantly was followed by a whole lot of electrified music the punk fan in me doesn’t have much use for, but that’s not really the issue here.
The bigger point may be that jazz’s popularity has been in decline since maybe the late ‘40s; well before I got here it felt a lot like an economy in freefall — and yet we still haven’t hit bottom. (Think Sonny Rollins at the Kennedy Center, with Jason Moran waiting in the wings.) The difference, thanks to music schools, is that there are tons more jazz-identified folk sharing that pie. Is Esperanza Spalding this generation’s Grover Washington, Jr. or George Benson, jazz-educated but poised to reach folks well beyond the community? Is Robert Glasper? When Glasp hit the Blue Note in February, Kanye and Lupe Fiasco sat in.
So, to me, as much as the discourse aboveground turns on the moves of NARAS, Spalding and now Nicholas Payton, those years I spent regularly scouring the scene remind me that somewhere below the radar there’s always music in which sheer creativity and invention trump the symbolism and optics of a Grammy nomination, a superstar guest cameo or the latest “jazz-is-dead” screed. Who’s making that music? Where can it be found? Actually, the better question these days might be, where can a general-interest audience read/hear about it? For all the activity in cyberspace, my sense is that the realities of “search-engine optimization” (SEO) are particularly merciless in regard to any newness that lacks outsized marquee status. Once Spalding starts trending, we end up with 50 articles, blog posts, whatever, that say the equivalent of, ‘Yay, our girl’s a maaaaddd fly bassist and she bested the Bieb, but, um, isn’t that record kinda so-so?’ Meanwhile, there’s next to nothing on the conceptually-gifted unknowns toiling in the trenches, unless, of course, they’ve written it themselves? Hmmm... self-promotion as a way into (or in Payton’s case, out of?) the canon. Let’s see how that shakes out.
At the risk of turning into the bummer patrol, there’s another jazz survival mechanism that crystalized for me near the end of the year. It came by virtue of a weird juxtaposition: The announcement that Jazz at Lincoln Center was building bridges to luxury hotels in Qatar (y’know, over there near the Arab Spring), while scores of the people we’ve come to call “the 99%” are out in the streets worldwide attempting to “occupy” everything. I’ve wondered about the symbolism of it ever since. I happened to be downtown at the Occupy Wall Street protests just weeks before the J@LC announcement, on the day that hundreds of local musicians, many union-sponsored I think, marched in solidarity with the happenings in Zuccotti Park. (Yes, my heart swelled when at one point some random brass band spontaneously broke into Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t.”) I’m not mad at J@LC’s initiative (like them, I’m fanatic enough to want jazz to be heard everywhere), but it certainly made me wonder if jazz’s premier option was to become the music of the 1%. That kinda puts me in mind of the days of swing at restrictive country clubs and the like, but from a musician’s standpoint it’s probably better than waiting on the .001% who actually purchase jazz product.
All this said, there were a few things I caught live this year that blew me away, though I can’t say they represent trends of any kind.
Marc Ribot’s Sun Ship Ensemble with Mary Halvorson, Chad Taylor and Henry Grimes. In theory it was a twin-guitar Coltrane tribute, but that was merely the jumping off point. Sonically, the music was raucous, more other-planes-of-there than sheets-of-sound. It’s also where I finally understood the growing Halvorson cult. She was on fire that night. I don’t know how to say it delicately, but I generally tend to feel that jazzers of her generation need to spend more time improvising on melodies they didn’t write. I’m well aware that might be the geezer in me talking. (Holy shit, am I the oldest cat in this roundtable?!? Geez, that never used to happen.)
Matt Shipp and Darius Jones. Still haven’t heard their duo disc Cosmic Lieder, but no matter(hint, hint to Aum Fidelity’s resident new papa Steven Joerg... actually, I’m kidding; I never asked for a copy). When I caught Jones earlier in the year with the trio on his other 2011 disc,Big Gurl, it was kinda lukewarm, but at the Jazz Standard he had a soothing effect on Shipp’s key shifts, which in turn brought out the warmth in Jones’ alto.
Bill McHenry Quartet with Orrin Evans, Eric Revis and Andrew Cyrille. The set was fantastic, but like Aaron said, it was bittersweet for me as well. I knew Paul Motian was in the hospital, but didn’t know details. That was the night Lorraine Gordon of the Village Vanguard used the word “dying” to describe his condition. Paul and I had had a several funny conversations since I first interviewed him for Down Beat in the early ‘90s, so I was doubly sad that I’d missed his last gig in town with pianist Anat Fort in September — basically, because I didn’t wanna brave the rain, I think. Yeah... hindsight...
There was plenty of good information, and at least one terrific cosmic gag, that couldn’t make it into today’s feature about Pi Recordings. Some of that material was too granularly, and would have been a drag on the flow of the piece. Some of it was of dubious interest to a civilian readership. But you’re here now, so let’s get into it, after the jump.