From: Nate Chinen
I write to you from the suburbs of Houston, where wintry climes are but a faraway rumor, at least for now. Seems like we’re nearing the end of this here roundtable, and I wanted to reiterate my thanks to you for taking part. The other night I ran into our own Jim Macnie at the Jazz Standard — he was on his way out, and I was on my way in — and we agreed that this has been fun. I hereby resolve to keep the conversation going, on some level, in the new year. Preferably in person, and with less cause for solemn reflection. I believe I owe each of you a beer, at the least. (A couple of years ago, Bitches Brew, a commemorative release from Dogfish Head, played a supporting role in this exercise; you may be interested to know that the brewery recently reissued said elixir, so to speak.)
Thought I’d just lob a few closing thoughts here, mainly as an Amen chorus. For starters, I’m grateful that Greg brought up the issue of female instrumentalists, since the evidence of their critical mass shouldn’t be taken for granted. Frankly, this was a vexing year, in the culture at large, for conversations about women — see “war on...” and “binders full of...” and “...can’t have it all” for starters — but a heartening year for women making advances in jazz. It bothered me a little that my Top 10 didn’t reflect that, despite strong work by the aforementioned Fuller and Spalding, along with violinist Jenny Scheinman, guitarist Mary Halvorson, clarinetist Anat Cohen, trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Kris Davis. And Luciana Souza! Greg, I spent so many hours in thrall to the first Brazilian Duos album that I probably haven’t given the sequels their proper due.
Speaking of proper dues: Initial Here, the self-possessed sophomore release by bassist Linda Oh, was in the best-of running for me — as was Be Still, the Dave Douglas album on which she appears. (More on that in a sec.) My mind flickers back to this year’s Monk Competition, and the Kennedy Center concert in which Oh fearlessly grounded a confab featuring Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. No big deal. And it’s not that I was impressed by how easily she handled herself in that context as a young woman; I was just impressed, straight up, no stipulations for age or gender required. (I’m now recalling that the concert had a “Women in Jazz” subtext, and featured some others fitting that description, including Monk adjudicator Terri Lyne Carrington. No female competitors, tho.)
Gio, you brought up Branford Marsalis as an exemplar of against-the-grain traditionalism this year. His was another album that just missed the cutoff for me, and who knows — were I compiling my Top 10 today, it might come in under the wire. I got an early vinyl copy of Four MFs Playing Tunes in the spring, and was so taken with it that I had to sound the alarm right away.
But as for Branford’s whole spiel about this music not coming with a concept — well, I’m calling BS, to borrow his own lexicographical shorthand. If you’ve heard much of the Branford Marsalis Quartet over the years, in its original incarnation as well as this one, you’ll recognize Four MFs as gloriously true to form. He’s working within a post-bop tradition (call it post-Coltrane, if you prefer) but the tradition he really upholds here is that of his own proprietary small-group syntax: his concept, basically. Which is not so different from what Vijay Iyer does in his trio. As with a few touted albums in the non-jazz realm this year — your Dylans, your Springsteens, even Nas — Marsalis built on a structure he’d already established. But calling Four MFs an album without a concept is like calling Seinfeld a show about nothing. And we all know how cleverly that one can be debunked.
Greg, I appreciate the “gut-heart-head” check that you mentioned as an implicit litmus for listening. I’d wager that each of us (and the better of our colleagues) has a similarly intuitive process for evaluating music. But what stirs my soul or stimulates my cerebral cortex could leave somebody else entirely unmoved. (Obvious, but it bears repeating every now and again.) I don’t really know where I stand, anymore, on the subject of a left-leaning critical bias in jazz — I still see a lot of love for the standard-bearers, and often not enough for those expanding the frame — but I agree that we run up against a baby-with-the-bathwater quandary if we’re no longer interested in the fundamentals. I think about that often, in fact.
Last week I had a terrific experience with the Christian McBride Trio, which reminded me at times of the forthright splendor of Peterson, Brown and Thigpen in 1964. And one of the albums that did make it on my list, at a pretty high berth, was the latest from guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, which happens to feature Branford’s rhythm team. I loved Reflections, Kurt’s standards album, too — but I was glad to hear him bring that ease and mastery to bear on his own smart compositions.
By the way, I have it on good authority that when I pick up the Houston Chronicle tomorrow morning, I’ll see a feature on drummer Reggie Quinerly, whose recent debut is as straight-ahead as they come, but also a meditation on the history of his native H-town, and specifically the African-American enclave that once thrived in its Fourth Ward, where he grew up. I saw Quinerly play this music at Smoke a few weeks ago, and it was tight.
I’d like to close now on an album that uncannily weaves together so many of the strands of our conversation: traditionalism and innovation, mourning and succor, that “renewed sense of wonder,” Linda Oh. I’m speaking of course about Be Still, the exquisite album that Dave Douglas made out of some old songs and a new band, along with a deeply personal motivation.
I love this album — for its outright beauty, for its reverence in the face of the divine, and for the way in which Aoife O’Donovan inhabits a modern jazz setting so easefully, without losing sight of her own aesthetic coordinates. And in light of recent events, I thought its message incredibly pertinent. A moment ago I glanced at the Greenleaf Music website and saw that Douglas had posted some thoughts along these lines. “We are all united as we begin to take those difficult next steps,” he writes.
After what happened in Newtown, a handful of people I know dusted off a famous quote by Leonard Bernstein; unless I’m misremembering, Douglas did so too, on Twitter. The statement: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
There are countless different ways to make music intensely; likewise, beautifully and devotedly. I’m sure I am not the only one among us who takes some comfort in that. And I know I’m not the only one who looks forward, with every kind of hope, to whatever lies ahead.
End transmission, and happy holidays to all,