Bill Douthart for The New York Times
Arts & Leisure, July 22
Bill Douthart for The New York Times
Arts & Leisure, July 22
From: Nate Chinen
Dear Aaron, Angelika, Joe, and Kelvin,
What was jazz in 2011? A righteous cause? A rigid custom? An inexact science? An irrelevant marker? How about a brave frigate in a roiling sea? Or a gray lump of clay, endless in its reshaping? Or a rotting plantation “haunted by its own hungry ghosts”?
One thing I can say with certainty is that jazz, or whatever you choose to call it, was something to fuss over. Blame Twitter, blame the Republican primary, but this was a year of meta-argument and counterargument, leaving many of us with, as they say, all this stuff twirling around in our heads. This was true even beyond our own scrappy guild, which busied itself with questions of qualification and inclusion (and, while we’re at it, unqualifiable exclusion).
No, the debate(s) reached much further this year, piquing the interest of those who would identify themselves as casual jazz fans, or maybe not even go that far. Given the usual in-house caviling about jazz’s dwindling support network, you might reasonably ask whether this uptick in public disputation — about the meaning of jazz, the meaning of “jazz,” and the issue of who gets to play and/or cover it — reflects some sort of inverse correlation. In other words: jazz today has fewer patrons but more partisans. Its base is constricting and getting meaner, as with polar bears on the melting floes, or diehard fans of Glee.
And yet the Year in Jazz was effectively book-ended by two significant broader-culture moments, the first of which we fondly recall with the image at the top of this post. As you all remember, Esperanza Spalding shocked Bieber Nation (and the rest of us) by winning Best New Artist at the Grammys. In the moments before her coup was announced, watching the telecast with my laptop open, unwisely T.U.I., I registered the stark implausibility of a win. Some hours later, chastened, working with the mirthless benefit of hindsight and sobriety, I registered the plain rationality of said win. What changed during that sleepless interval was merely my perspective, along with Spalding’s Q rating. What about the visibility of jazz, on a national platform? Eh.
Jazz in our present age is desperate for saviors, and Esperanza’s breakthrough stirred hearts and hopes. (How else to account for the fact that she just became the first-ever female Jazz Artist of the Year in the DownBeat Readers Poll? Jason, any insights? Angelika, any thoughts?) But this ambassadorship is complicated slightly by her music — especially on Radio Music Society, due out in March — and more than slightly by her pronouncements on the subject. I recently reread her New Yorker profile from March of last year, and came across a scene in which she name-checks Alex Ross’s invaluable 20th-century classical survey, The Rest is Noise. See here:
In particular, she was galvanized by something that Richard Wagner wrote in a letter to Franz Liszt. She dug out the Kindle that she’d been given for Christmas and read aloud: “‘I have felt the pulse of modern art and know that it will die! This knowledge, however, fills me not with despondency but with joy.’ She read on to the end of the passage: ‘We shall live only in the present, in the here and now and create works for the present age alone.’
“I relate that to how I feel about jazz music,” she said. “Music is intended to be for people. And circumstances and people change with the decades, and that’s O.K. And I think that’s what Wagner was saying, too. It was, like, ‘Let it go, let it breathe, let it move, you know? We’re trying to make music for the people.’”
Here’s where we come to the heart of the matter. So much of our recent discussion and debate was fed by a mounting anxiety — heh, I almost called it “panic” — over the art form’s alleged senescence.
Yet it’s telling, somehow, that Spalding’s interpretation of the Wagner note translates “die” into “breathe.” Isn’t this what jazz musicians do — what they’ve always done? An antiquarian repertory is routinely revivified in their enterprising hands. Under the best of circumstances, an established set of practices forms the basis for startling innovation. Jazz feeds on tradition, and ultimately, to some degree, on itself. Which might seem to justify any number of cautionary screeds.
I haven’t yet mentioned Nicholas Payton outright in this post, though he’s obviously been lurking in the shadows. No one in our world was a bigger provocateur in 2011, with the heat sharply intensifying in the last month. Whether making his original argument, combating general dissenters or taking umbrage at specific ones, he’s been ruthless about his assertion that “jazz,” as most of us understand it, embodies a kind of systemic oppression. I’m not going to get into a granular analysis or rebuttal here — others have done it, exhaustively, and we only have so much time — but I do want to point out that even at his most incendiary, Payton seeks to ground himself in the lineage of what he calls (reasonably, if impracticably) Black American Music. “What do Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Gary Bartz and myself share in common?” he asks. Another way to put it: ain’t no Bitches without Bitches Brew.
Am I alone in feeling that Payton’s main point is a weaponized version of Spalding’s? He seeks communion with the ancestry of his art form, while rejecting both the premise of due tribute and the burden of received wisdom (not to mention acceptable behavior). Spalding doesn’t distance herself nearly as much from “jazz,” but she does take pains to emphasize the fluidity of her relationship to it, and the breadth of her nonjazz interests. This is not unusual in 2011.
Which brings us to the cheers-and-jeers portion of this exchange. The year-end lists are starting to burble up to the surface — my favorite so far this one, by Seth Colter Walls — and I can’t wait to hear what you all found most impressive on record and in real time this year. (Also: most frustrating, most disappointing, most unexpected. Feel free to bring your own modifier.) My own Top 10 albums/songs will go up later this week, so I’ll save that for a later post. It’s a general-interest list, slightly different than the one that I sent in to JazzTimes and the Rhapsody poll, but if we’ve learned anything of late, it’s that genre isn’t a walled garden anyway, so much as an open field. (Joe, I suspect you have something add on that point.)
Earlier I alluded to two larger-culture events that bracketed the year, Spalding’s win representing the first. The second, with all due respect to Paul Motian, can best be summed up with this image:
I’d leave it there, on a note of inarguable splendor, but that wouldn’t much suit the tenor of this post, would it? So instead, allow me to tie up some strands with a resonant quote — from you-know-who, about you-know-who, with a hard jab at you-know-what:
From Riches to Rags to Riches....
She was a Pop artist when she received the Best New Artist award and a Jazz artist when she was playing bass and they started talking over her.
Esperanza’s one hell of a musician, fuck Jazz!
- Nicholas Payton
Which is not to imply that Mr. Payton gets the last word here. Aaron, you got next. Feel free to come out swinging.
Arts & Leisure, Sept. 11
From: David Adler
Dear Nate, Chris, Shaun and Jen,
Greetings, and what a pleasure to join you!
I’m finishing up a very atypical year -- yesterday marked the end of my first semester teaching jazz history at Queens College. Rewarding but stressful -- I need to sit down with a six-pack of that Dogfish Head. (Figured I’d get it out of the way.)
To answer the old question -- “Have you been living under a rock?” -- I have to say yes, partly. Just counted up my live show intake, and seems in the midst of juggling coursework and my one-year-old daughter, I was out hearing music 52 nights in 2010 -- down from a peak some years ago of well over 200 (and I’m sure Bill Bragin puts even my peak completely to shame).
Mostly, though, I was woodshedding prewar jazz. Anyone want to talk about John Nesbitt’s radical 1928 arrangements for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers? Seriously, heed Gunther Schuller’s advice in The Swing Era and check that shit out (“Put It There,” “Crying and Sighing,” “Stop Kidding”). I’m on a wild tangent but there’s a point: Nesbitt (pictured below, seated far left) was arguably a half-century or more ahead of his time, and yet he is completely, utterly forgotten. It got me thinking anew about canon formation, about winners and losers in the critical sweepstakes.
I did still manage to keep up on current listening -- my picks of the year are here, though I regret not giving list-props to Dan Weiss’s Timshel, the Claudia Quintet’s Royal Toast, Frank Kimbrough’s Rumors, certainly Fred Hersch’s Whirl and plenty others. And since Chris heaped well-deserved praise on the Bad Plus, and we all seem to agree 2010 was the year of the piano, shall I mention Indelicate, Dave King’s one-man piano/drums project? An item I’m itching to revisit.
I’m a big no-boundaries proponent, as much as anyone. But back to the teaching thing: I’ve always believed in some notion of canonicity in jazz, and after this year I believe in it more. The argument that jazz students are too wrapped up in the tradition -- maybe it was once true, but today I think it’s poppycock. More of them are palpably, howlingly disconnected from the tradition.
Shaun, you mentioned Jason Marsalis’s salvo in support of the canon, so I thought I’d quote Wynton on the “what is jazz” issue in 1994: “Because no single criterion applies doesn’t mean that no criterion applies.” That’s the kind of statement we wave away at our peril. (Oh, check out Wynton’s new and compelling Vitoria Suite, btw).
Which brings me to the Crouch/Mtume fight over electric Miles, cited by more than one of you. I don’t share Crouch’s view at all, and yet I found myself disagreeing just as much with the pompous Mtume. “Allow me the latitude of completion,” Mtume admonished Crouch, and yet the editor of this video allowed no such latitude to Crouch, whose responses were deliberately truncated while Mtume’s went on at length. And yet the video caption tells us that Mtume “destroys” Crouch. Uh-huh. In the age of new media, intellectual honesty still applies. We have to insist on it.
Mtume also erred when he stated that Miles, in turning to electric instruments, felt there was nothing left to be said on a saxophone. Miles continued employing saxophonists until the end.
As a teenager first coming into jazz I felt this, and I still feel it today: There’s no need to choose. You can find a place in between the stark partisanship of a James Mtume and a Stanley Crouch, and you can stand there firmly.
Who better to illustrate this than Ethan Iverson? In mid-October I had Ethan visit my class to talk about boogie-woogie, Count Basie and Lester Young (bouncing off his mammoth Lester centennial blog series). After demonstrating the finer points of boogie-woogie bass lines on piano, he dissected Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and “Swingin’ the Blues.” To close, Ethan sang Pres’s classic “Lady Be Good” solo, but he didn’t just sing it -- he acted it out, like a piece of dialogue in a play.
Allow me the latitude of gushing: It was awesome. And it showed my students -- I hope -- that there’s no conflict between being a cutting-edge pianist and composer and a passionate student of the 1930s. The one feeds the other.
Prompted by Nate, I’ll close with a shout-out to my home during 2007-2008: the fine and underrated city of Philadelphia. Here’s to 10 years of Mark Christman’s Ars Nova Workshop. And here’s to the memory of Sid Simmons, who shouldn’t have been reduced to playing that hideous piano at the now-defunct Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus. Shaun, I miss you all down there. Hopefully this spring I’ll have more time to hop down the Turnpike.
That’s Round One. Back to you, General Nate.
From: Jennifer Odell
Wow, it’s pretty cool when writers agree on something, whether it’s that this was the year of the pianist or that naming a beer after a Miles Davis record is the jazz version of Katy Perry selling music to tweens by wearing nothing but candy. But since we seem to have a consensus on Ten and Dirty Baby, I’d like to swing the conversation in a somewhat different direction.
I actually do see a narrative thread in the story of jazz in 2010. In the Mtume-Crouch video, Mtume says that fusion was Miles’ way of battling “technical exhaustion.” In some ways, 2010 was a year when the jazz industry acknowledged its own technical exhaustion and tried new things: from Orrin Evans’ jam sessions in Philly to broader booking habits by George Wein, to New Orleans music finding a platform for promotion on TV. In each case, the common denominator was a locavore aesthetic.
2010 began with Wein boasting online about how he was hanging out late at night in Williamsburg, trying to get a handle on Brooklyn’s music scene so that his reincarnated CareFusion festivals would be more accessible to a younger demographic.
Sure, Wein was “discovering” acts like Brooklyn’s Mostly Other People Do the Killing, which topped critics’ best new artists lists back in 2008. And yes, MOPDTK got an early New York CareFusion slot that coincided with the NBA playoffs, while Herbie and Wayne headlined at Carnegie. But I’d argue that Wein’s overall interest in representing local music, offering it for lower ticket prices and collaborating with Brice Rosenbloom, the Jazz Gallery and Revive Da Live still signaled a change from the norm.
On the label side, this year’s buzz was focused more around Clean Feed than Blue Note and Verve. You even got the sense that Brad Mehldau’s output smacked too much of the establishment for some critics. The author of a post exemplifying the Mehldau backlash Chris referenced felt that Bill McHenry and Trombone Shorty, both of whose followings used to be pretty localized to New York and New Orleans, respectively, delivered better albums than Highway Rider this year. Just like what’s happening in restaurants (has anyone visited Portland, OR lately?) we’re seeing a shift to the more nationalized celebration of what’s happening on local levels.
Shaun, I’m willing to bet this can be traced in part to the explosion of Facebook and Twitter, which has made geography less of an issue than ever before. (For the record, I haven’t logged into my Twitter account in a year or two, but probably will re-up the account now because this conversation’s made me curious.) If there was an ethical quandary two years ago about having artists you might review as Facebook friends, that issue was diluted in 2010 by sheer numbers. George Porter and I are online buddies but the “likes” I send his way gets lost in the massive fold of his ever-rising number of “friends.” (I’m skipping over a response to the Bad Plus dialogue because Ethan Iverson and Reid Anderson are, unlike Porter, real-life friends.)
Another artist whose local following grew a little more national this year was Mary Halvorson, whose graceful nods to pop and rock earned Saturn Sings top billing on Shaun’s Top 10. I’d also put some of the year’s most head-turning sax players in that category: John Ellis, JD Allen, Andrew D’Angelo and Tony Malaby.
There was also Chris Lightcap’s addictively gorgeous Clean Feed release, Deluxe, which year-end critical praise hopefully brought another wave of attention to the New York scene staples in its lineup. Finally, it can’t be a coincidence that all of these artists gave top-notch performances at the new Undead Jazzfest, produced by boomBOOM Presents and Search and Restore.
Robert Wright for The New York Times
Which brings us to December, when the big underdog story was Adam Schatz’s successful push to raise $75,000 for Search and Restore to expand the jazz audience and, specifically, to get younger listeners involved. The fact that Schatz on one end of the spectrum and Wein on the other, share the goal of bringing jazz to a younger, more localized crowd tells me this is a mobilized effort.
2010 was also a huge year for the New Orleans music scene. John Ellis’ Puppet Mischief was a creepy, groove-infused yet cerebral experiment in sonic joy, which I’d rank high in my picks of the year. By the spring, a former child prodigy from the Crescent City named Troy Andrews debuted his Backatown release at the top of Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz charts, where it stayed for nine weeks (it’s been in the Top 10 for 27).
Troy probably had some help in the sales department from his recurring role as himself on HBO’s Treme, which also debuted in 2010 and turned out to be like “American Bandstand” for the New Orleans music scene.
National audiences never sang the lyrics to John Boutte’s songs the way they did this year when Big Easy bands regularly broke into renditions of the HBO show’s theme song at shows across the country. Donald Harrison, Davis Rogan, Kermit Ruffins and his drummer Derek Freedman (also a bandleader in his own right), Terence Blanchard and John Cleary also made appearances on the show. Depending on when season two wrapped shooting, I’d be willing to bet there will be scenes involving jazz funerals for a great jazz photographer and a legendary member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
As for where a modern day Miles cameo might turn up, let’s not rule out the silver or small screens -- the guy was in Scrooged, after all. I like to think that in a year when even the industry bigwigs were trying to get down with the underground, Miles would have rejected a major label offer from Kanye so he could sit in with Trombone Shorty’s band on Treme. And with that weird visual... I hand the baton to David.
From: Chris Barton
Dear Shaun, Jen, David and Nate:
Greetings and happy year-end to you all -- and we’re off and running, I’ll do my best to keep the torch upright.
First off, thank you for putting that Mtume v. Stanley Crouch face-off in your kick-starter post, Nate. I saw that video make the rounds awhile back, but never made time to watch. For what it’s worth, I had to take a second to make sure this was a new flare-up and not something that had surfaced recently from some roundtable years ago when that argument seemed to peak, like some long-lost outtake from an old album. Needless to say, this argument about Bitches Brew and acoustic music and what makes jazz *jazz* and all that blah blah is still raging somewhere just makes my teeth ache.
But that aside -- and may such border-wars fall quiet in 2011, if that’s possible (is it?) -- I want to follow your lead about two of the pianists you mentioned in Mehldau and Iverson (and I completely agree about this being a great year for pianists -- Aaron Goldberg’s another that turned my head nicely). Being at a paper that adheres to the ‘star system’ with album-rating, I hung a four-out-of-four on Highway Rider, something I’ll stand by even after listening all year. It was the sort of record that once I heard it I wanted to pass around to so many people I knew, and that’s even before seeing what happens with it live next month.
Interestingly, however, in the fractious Internet/social-media/insta-react-o-tron space your mentioned, a backlash hit that album fast, with a vigor that reminded me of the one that fell all over Franzen’s Freedom, another one that earned so much early praise. On one hand that seems to be some branch of human (or at least critic-human) nature, to throw up a ‘hold on a second’ when rave reviews start piling up, but on the other I wonder if Highway Rider took some heat for not sounding like either Largo or how anyone supposed it should have -- as if it was a sort of classical-inclined Bitches Brew, if I may strangle the transition. Or maybe since Mehldau gets slapped with some kind of pretentiousness badge here and there people react against that too. Then again, maybe some people simply thought it stunk and whattayagonnado. Still, it was interesting how heated the response to that became.
As for Iverson, and maybe this is simply the difference in being on the West Coast, but along the lines of the ‘mainstream conversation’ you mentioned it strikes me how little (present company excepted) the Bad Plus gets talked about anymore. Maybe after 10 years they’re just “that trio that does wacky stuff with the ‘120 Minutes’ songbook,” which would be a shame because I’m right there with you, Never Stop was their strongest record yet. Maybe there’s something in the ever-fractured promotion machine of 2010 that’s not serving them right, or maybe it’s a byproduct of not fitting into one category or another (whatever he might think of their songs, surely ‘Brother Stanley’ above would approve of how many things they plug in every night). It’s probably the sort of ‘what if’ talk that might be better left in our few remaining record store stockrooms, but I wonder what would happen with those guys if they landed an opening slot with like the Black Keys or something, where would the public consciousness go from there? Could that kind of bill-mixing even happen at this point? I’m guessing If anyone could or would even want to do something like that it would be Kanye, which might cause the internet to collapse.
(One more thing: after seeing the Bad Plus again in a tiny club in West LA last week, I hope New York at least had some period in the last 10 years where ‘Dave King is God’ was tagged on subway platforms across the city. Too far-fetched?)
Speaking of virtuosi, that brings us to Nels, someone else who enjoyed a 10-year-anniversary with the Singers’ Initiate (maybe there’s some kind of ‘the year of the 10 year’ list that should come together). On top of that record’s madcap dip into ‘70s fusion in its own right, yes, Dirty Baby was really something. Though its message got a little heavy handed in spots, musically it was remarkable seeing all the moving parts all come together, something that didn’t happen so easily for me on paper. So, I’d say about a level 8 out of 10 kicking yourself, if there was a possibility of catching it, though I’m betting we’ll hear echoes of Dirty Baby in where Cline goes from here.
One surprise late this year is how that show set the table nicely for Cline’s appearance at an Alice Coltrane tribute months later, one that surprised me by not being a showcase for a galaxy of effects and sonic splatter-art (which, to be clear, I completely love) and instead again going someplace further inward that was more composed and orchestrated. I don’t know where iPhone Nation was during Cline and his crew’s cover of Charlie Haden that night, but I’ll settle for the Singers’ (w/ Yuka Honda) doing a Tiny Desk concert for NPR by way of example:
Having said that, most of you all may now tell me the 10-out-of-10 level kicking myself I should be embarking on for not seeing that Undead Fest, to say nothing for just about any given night at Ars Nova. I hope someone somewhere is working on an effective way to fold the country in half.
And did anyone try Dogfish’s ‘Bitches Brew’? Will they make more or will I have to wait 40 years until it’s remixed and reissued?
From: Nate Chinen
Joe Kohen for The New York Times
Dear Chris, Shaun, Jen and David,
Well, here we are, closing the lid on another year in jazz, and I can’t decide what narrative to impose. Was this a time of mortal reflection, with the departures of Hank Jones, Abbey Lincoln and James Moody, among so many others? Or a season of triumph, as we observed the endless vitality of Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman and Roy Haynes? Was this the year that proved, with a horde of hard-charging younger talent, that jazz is -- in the words of a certain upstart summer festival -- not dead, but Undead? Or was it just another 12 months of hustling, out in the clubs and concert halls, and in the cloistered spaces where we do our solitary listening? Maybe Option E, for all of the above?
Whatever it was, we tracked and chronicled this year in real time (or, as our social-media metabolism might have it, hyper-real time), and I’m wondering how it looks to you now, with a wisp of hindsight. So to keep up a tradition of sorts at The Gig, I’ve asked you all to engage in a bit of year-end banter. Thanks for joining me -- this should be fun.
At this point you’ve probably sent in your ballots and compiled your lists, and it’ll be fascinating (to some of us, at least) to see where consensus forms. My Top 10 will be posted later this week, so for now I’m going to change the subject slightly. I recently appeared on BBC radio to air my conviction that pianists came out in full force this year. It would have been startlingly easy for me to construct a Top 10 of just pianistic efforts. Others might do the same for guitarists, or drummers.
But consider: Geri Allen, Vijay Iyer, Benôit Delbecq and Matthew Shipp each released a provocative solo disc. Keith Jarrett took the duo route. For trios, try Fred Hersch, Dan Tepfer, Frank Kimbrough, Delbecq again, Kris Davis, Russ Lossing, etc. Larger concepts? Try Myra Melford, Randy Weston, Danilo Pérez, Brad Mehldau. And then there were Jason Moran and Ethan Iverson, each with a band commemorating a decade of strong, unmistakable work.
About that commemoration: we like anniversaries and round numbers. It’s a way of organizing time, reselling material and sifting winners out of the historical mess. (We jazzbos are not alone in this.)
There was nothing perfunctory or contrived, though, about Ten, the album released this year by Moran’s Bandwagon, or Never Stop, the one put out by Iverson with the Bad Plus (above). In both cases you heard the cumulative weight and wisdom of the last 10 years, and a clear sense of intelligent artists taking the measure of their art.
A similar sense of purpose lit up several other commemorative moments this year. (I refer you to the aforementioned Rollins and Haynes.) Shaun and David, I’m sure you both paid close attention to the 10th anniversary of Ars Nova Workshop, the nonprofit Philadelphia presenting organization run by my friend Mark Christman. (More on that in a future post, perhaps.) We commemorate because we care.
And, in some rare cases, because we can make a lot of money. (I’m using the Royal We, in case there was any doubt.) Remember Bitches Brew? Perhaps you know that it turned 40 this year. Perhaps you noticed the all-out promotional push, the shiny new product, the unreleased live footage, the licensed Dogfish Head brew. I never said I was opposed to all of this, by the way.
Why bring up Bitches Brew? I’ll blame Kanye West. (Stay with me here, people.) In the musical world beyond jazz, which most of us also cover in one form or another, this is shaping up to be Annus Kanyebilis, with his new-school media strategy a proven success and his recorded opus landing rave upon rave. No one in pop was more compelling to watch this year, whether you believed you were witnessing aesthetic genius or riveted by a car crash. At times West himself seems unsure about which is which; you all saw the Runaway movie, I presume.
Thinking about how West conquered every room he entered this year, I drew the only parallel that seemed really apt: to post-Bitches Miles Davis, another frequently bedeviled African-American sound-sculptor drawn to aggressive reinvention, unbridled ego and rococo indulgence. This parallel doesn’t entirely flatter either artist.
But jazzfolk often complain about how their music gets left out of the mainstream conversation. Miles would have none of that, for better or for worse. If the timing had worked differently, I suspect he might have put in a cameo on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, even if that title is more Mingus-esque in syntax and scope. Look at how much steam can still be generated by Bitches Brew, all these years later. That level of cultural cachet seems to be precisely what West is reaching for.
Speaking of reaching, I believe this exhausts the air in the room, for now. I gladly pass the baton to Chris, out in Los Angeles. Take it in any direction you like, good sir, but just answer me this: was the Nels Cline Dirty Baby premiere as unmissable as it seemed? (Sub-question: how hard should I be kicking myself, still?) cheers to all, Nate
Highline Ballroom, June 22
Forty years ago this month, Miles Davis opened for Neil Young at the Fillmore East. I wrote about their intersection a while back for an EMP Pop Conference, and now the piece has finally been released into the wild, thanks to the intrepid online magazine At Length.
One animating idea in the piece is the power of unknowing. At one point in Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, by Jimmy McDonough, Young offers probably the single best analysis of Crazy Horse: