Part One of a year-end email conversation with Andrey Henkin, Peter Margasak, Ben Ratliff and Hank Shteamer. (Jump to: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7| 8)
From: Nate Chinen
Dear Andrey, Ben, Hank and Peter,
Thanks for taking time out of your perennial list-making to kick around a few ideas about the year in jazz. (I’m not going to capitalize that phrase.) I’ve always been a big fan of the Slate Music Club, as spearheaded by Jody Rosen, and after complaining for some time about the absence of a jazz equivalent, I thought it would be fun and fitting to cobble one together. Just one thing, guys: this is a No Lady GaGa Zone. Unless you also mention Sun Ra.
Thus stipulated, I’ll open with a rhetorical question. Which did you expect to see first in this lifetime: Barbra Streisand at the Village Vanguard, or Esperanza Spalding at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony? Somehow we got both this year, and I’m not sure which event had the tougher guest list. At the Vanguard, Streisand made a nervous quip about the tight dimensions of the stage. In Oslo, our 44th President made a (nervous?) comment about being “at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage.” Can’t help but wonder whether Spalding felt a twinge of recognition there. Also, can’t help but share this, courtesy ofJimmy Kimmel Live:
Tabloid angle aside, this was a gate-crashing year, whether we’re talking about the White House, where Spalding has appeared at least twice, or the House of Swing, where I witnessed several thunderous ovations for the eminent Ornette Coleman, a once-unthinkable season opener for Jazz at Lincoln Center. (It was his first-ever JALC concert, a so-what fact except that it seemed to mean something to all parties involved.) And up in Newport, George Wein effectively crashed his own festival, or at least that’s how it felt.
This was also the year that George Lewis, from his perch in the music department at Columbia University, finally published A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, a book about the challenges to convention made by a highly individualized collective. (Or maybe that should be “highly collectivized individuals” -- past a certain point, the distinction blurs.)
My two top jazz releases happened to be by Steve Lehman, an occasional teaching assistant to Lewis, and alto/flutist Henry Threadgill, a member of the AACM’s first wave. Coming in at a close third was Vijay Iyer, who could safely be pegged as part of the association’s extended family. (And I know that as regards admiration for Iyer’s record, I’m not the onlyone here.)
Maybe I’m just thinking about institutions and incursions because of another big piece of reading: Last week I popped into the Strand and bought Pops, Terry Teachout’s long-awaited Louis Armstrong biography. Really good so far, as expected, but I find it striking that Page 1 presents a survey of New York’s changing “cultural map” in 1956, vis-à-vis high-art complexes like the Guggenheim and Lincoln Center. It’s a strange way to begin a Satchmo book, except as a form of orientation: Teachout really knows that landscape, and he understands the tensions inherent in Armstrong’s presence there.
Speaking of important jazz books and once-inscrutable jazz heroes, you could argue that the year began and ended with revisionist Monk. Back in February we all braced ourselves for Jason Moran’s In My Mind, a conceptual gamble that turned out to be soulful as well as smart. Moran gave us a Monk of lucid ambition and shrewd humor and tangible Southern roots -- a humane vision of the man that Robin Kelley has now articulated evenmoreclearly.
What else? Ben, as you’ve noted, there was also something in the water this year that gave us one outstanding saxophone trio record after another. Marcus Strickland and J.D. Allen both found admirable focus in the format (though on further reflection, Allen’s entry was the sequel to an analogous 2008 release). I reviewed both Allen and Strickland live, and damned if I know which show wins. I do know that another tenor trio, FLY, which earned a spot in my Top 5 album berth, practically levitated at the Jazz Standard during an April stand. (That set made yet another list of mine: Top 10 gigs, for JazzTimes.)
I haven’t mentioned jazz’s incipient rhythm revolution, or the crumbling media infrastructure (and attendant blog awakening), or the postmillennial big band renaissance, or the great jazz audience debate. I haven’t mentioned any Norwegians. But take this in whatever direction you like, guys. No one will be calling the Jazz Police (not literally, in any case).
I recently referred to Kurt Elling as a “consummate insider,” in a Gig column (and, by inference, in this related post). Well, it turns out that he’ll be performing at the White House tonight, for the first official State dinner of the Obama administration. His accompaniment will include not only pianist-sidekick Laurence Hobgood but also an orchestra conducted by Marvin Hamlisch. The guest of honor is India’s prime minister, but you can probably bet that Elling will not perform his Hindu-relevant lines from John Coltrane’s “Resolution.” (For the record, they are: “Vishnu! Preserve us all along the way; keep us clear of the final thunderbolt of the judgement day.”)
There’s a fascinating personal twist that I first learned
through Ted Panken’s Elling
interview at Jazz.com. Here it is via a Concord press release: “Both
Chicago natives, Elling first met then-state senator Obama in the course of a
real-estate deal: when the Obamas moved to the Chicago house they now own,
Elling and his wife purchased their Hyde Park condominium.” So the conversation tonight could conceivably involve favorite takeout restaurants from the old neighborhood, though I imagine all parties will exercise due restraint.
This morning brought
news that pianist Arturo O’Farrill has been commissioned to write a piece for judge Sonia Sotomayor, premiering in November. To
the best of my knowledge, this will [NOT] be the first time a jazz musician has
composed new music inspired by a Supreme Court Justice nominee -- though I
suppose Don Byron could have an acerbic “Clarence Thomas Suite” stashed in a
drawer somewhere. [Oops. See comments below.]
The selection of O’Farrill for this commission makes all kinds of sense from an institutional perspective. He has experience with arts
commissions, and a former affiliation with Jazz at Lincoln Center. His Afro-Latin
Jazz Orchestra is one of the city’s eminent large ensembles, with resident
status at Symphony Space, which is sponsoring the new work in partnership with
the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
But unlike, say, Eddie Palmieri, who has also been known to
roll out a dynamic big band every now and again, O’Farrill doesn’t share Sotomayor’s
Puerto Rican heritage. Born in Mexico, he hails from a different substratum of
Latino culture. So while there are in fact jazz musicians forging rigorous new
hybrids out of Puerto Rican music -- the best examples are saxophonists
Dávid Sanchez and Miguel Zenón -- O’Farrill holds a less literal (i.e.,
ethno-political) claim on Sotomayor: La Celebración. (Need I point out he’s also not a woman?)
So, that happened.[Update: Ben Ratliff's NYT coverage.] And you can carp all you like about the Marsalis Monopoly on Jazz in High Places, but the fact remains that this worked. In choosing a “jazz studio” to kick off her White House music series, Michelle Obama reinvigorated a cultural assumption of jazz as the quintessential American product. It’s a viewpoint that Wynton, as much as anyone out there, has kept in mainstream circulation.
Much has been said about the idea that jazz mirrors an ideal of democracy. When we talk about jazz as a fundamentally “American” product, those sociopolitical assumptions are always somewhere in play. Marsalis can speak eloquently and impassionedly on this subject, and he often does, to great effect. A few years ago I mulled this over in the context of a larger profile, about his role in Jazz at Lincoln Center: