From: Greg Thomas
Dear Nate, Peter, Gio and Jim:
I too thank Nate for the chance to pitch in some musings for our literary jam session about jazz in 2012.
I can’t help but begin with some reflections on Dave Brubeck: when someone of his indelible cultural and musical import departs earth, it’s always a blow to those of us remaining who care. But I lean to the ancestral tradition of celebrating the life and accomplishments of a great man such as Brubeck more than mourning his death. No, Nate, I wasn’t hip to Jazz at Storyville but thanks to you and Spotify, I’ve added it to my storehouse of musical memories of what must be one of the greatest musical partnerships in jazz history.
Through Brubeck’s recordings I fell in love, as a teen beginner playing a Bundy alto sax, with Paul Desmond’s sweet and dry tone, his graceful melodicism, his beautiful counter-statement to the fires of Bird-derived bebop, and even his sense of humor. I recall once reading that Desmond claimed not to practice too much because when he did, he began to play too fast!
Yet, of course, Brubeck was for me more than just a bridge to the glories of Paul Desmond; for example, his 5/4 and 9/8 time experiments on “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk”— both from the classic Time Out record — stretched my sonic perception, while strengthening my appreciation for the ground of swing being never too far away, no matter how “further out” Brubeck experimented with “time.” Furthermore, the social and political significance of Dave and Iola Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors cannot be overstated, particularly when considering the social and political era of its creation during the Civil Rights movement. His greatness extended to mastery not only because of his designation as a NEA Jazz Master in 1999, but because of the establishment of the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific a year later.
When I had the great fortune to interview Mr. Brubeck preceding a double bill with Ramsey Lewis at Jazz at Lincoln Center a few years ago, his palpable pride in the educational achievements of the institution bearing his name was inspiring.
That’s a good word to sum up my overall feeling about jazz in 2012: inspiring. I confess that I’m an eternal optimist, but no matter the usual mainstream media blackout of jazz, no matter the sad closings of iconic, down-home venues such as St. Nick’s Pub and the Lenox Lounge in Harlem, and no matter the attention on the Internet to yet another jazz obit, this time in The Atlantic, jazz music not only survives but thrives. Although I’ve been writing about the music for about a quarter century, my newfound media perch at the New York Daily News has given me a perspective from which to see the exciting developments in the music, especially on record and in New York City.
But over this past summer, I experienced more of the music away from the media, financial, and (so-called) jazz capital.
For instance, I had the good fortune to visit Joburg, South Africa for the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival. I witnessed the open-arm receptivity of a native African audience, who drank in the music —without the consideration of strict genre demarcations — like it was the nectar of the gods. (I must admit, though, that, as a black American, it was very strange staying at a five-star hotel with toiletries that had the brand name “Plantation.”)
At the Montreal Jazz Festival, the world’s largest, an eclectic gaggle of ensembles presented music that festival founder Andre Menard calls “cousins and neighbors” of jazz. Unless one is a member of the genre police, I think such diversity is cool, as long as what some call “mainstream” jazz is represented in due measure. (Please, don’t ask me what that proportional measure should be, because I candidly don’t know.) I especially appreciated the chance to hear pianists making waves in Europe such as Tord Gustavsen and Jef Neve. (Peter, since you hail from Canada, I’m curious about your take on the Montreal Fest.)
The largest jazz festival in the U.S., the Detroit Jazz Festival, was another joyful summer excursion, where a felicitous pairing of Lew Tabackin and Randy Brecker was one of many highlights. And a road trip with fellow jazz scribes Howard Mandel, Laurence Donahue-Green, Terrell Holmes, Ted Panken and Kelvin Williams to the oldest jazz festival, in Newport, Rhode Island, was just plain ol’ fun.
The snapshots of these events were proof positive to me that a plethora of great music is being written and played under the banner of jazz and related forms. (And, as per usual, there’s also a heap of so-so and not so great music being produced, jazz and otherwise.) Now, I realize that as a native New Yorker, I’m prone to the myopic, misguided view that what’s happening here is indicative of the state of jazz overall. So my travels, as goes the cliché, broadened my horizons.
Yet some of my most expansive and thrilling experiences this year happened right in the Big Apple.
Take Brian Lynch. He gets my vote for Most Valuable Player on trumpet this year. I saw Lynch kickin’ it with Phil Woods at Dizzy’s, Charles McPherson at the Jazz Standard, and Eddie Palmieri at the Blue Note (and in South Africa). In each case, not only did he hold his own; he elevated the music with his intensity and power. I witnessed a wild concert by Donald Harrison at Symphony Space, and I mean wild in a good sense. He and his young charges — Zaccai and Luques Curtis, Christian Scott, and others — tore up the stage in the first half with standards and the progressive new style Harrison ambitiously calls “quantum jazz,” yet followed up in the second with imminently danceable New Orleans and R&B styling. Instead of sounding schizophrenic, the music seemed part of an organic whole with Harrison at the center.
In Harlem, shows at Harlem Stage (on the campus of City College) such as the tribute to Cecil Taylor featuring Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, and Amina Claudine Myers bristled with a spirit of creative experimentation and free improvisation. (“Holding It Down: The Veteran’s Dream Project,” Nate, was spoken-word and poetry-driven with a musical backdrop that at times over-powered clear hearing of the words. Vijay’s piano playing, however, respectfully took a back seat to the scenes depicted by the words and filmic images.) I had a whooping good time at the Apollo Theater for the second year where Wycliffe Gordon led an old-style music variety show for the Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival that maintained high artistry and entertainment value in comparable measure.
I regret the aforementioned closings in Harlem, as I feel sad about the closing of Mobay Uptown on 125th Street near Fifth Avenue, where the ambrosial Caribbean and Southern cuisine would often be accompanied by a live jazz band. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Showman’s Café, Bill’s Place, Creole Restaurant, Londel’s, and Ginny’s Supper Club (below Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster) are still presenting jazz in Harlem, as the National Jazz Museum in Harlem offers (mostly) free public programming every single week. As well, a re-opening of the historic Minton’s is planned for next year under the leadership of corporate titan Richard Parsons and restaurateur Alexander Smalls.
There’s always much to lament about the human condition generally and the state of jazz specifically, most surely, but I tend to accentuate the positive, such as the release by the young saxophonist Brandon Wright, “Journeyman,” a straight-ahead session that fired up my ears through a Bose Wave System and continues to please upon repeated plays.
I’m not much bothered, Peter, by Jarrett’s Sleeper and Truesdell’s Gil Evans Centennial Project being classed as two of the best of 2012, based on the criterion of release date. But if today’s music, say, pales in comparison — not an argument I’m making, and not you either, I suspect — then I think we should question the music of today, not fret over fears of being retro.
By the way, I’m going to hear Chris Botti at the Blue Note for his upcoming three-week run, Peter. Some feel about him as I do about Kenny G — nice sound, but damn, man: do you make music with the elevator and your bank account as the primary considerations? — but I’m reserving judgment so I can feel his integrity (or lack thereof) in person.
And as far as the tradition vs. innovation debate, it’s always rung hollow to me because of how it’s framed. To me, it’s both/and rather than either/or. I’m strong on the fundamentals of jazz as a form serving as a basis of innovation, and as indicative of a continuum of artistic growth. But an emphasis on innovation as a be-all and end-all, I think, is immature and flirts with the risk of decadence. My postmodern friends may disagree, but, paraphrasing Yeats, if there’s no center, things fall apart and anarchy reigns.
But I’m prayerful that we’ve transcended such debates, and can, instead, focus on how jazz, as a musical practice and value system, has suffused the consciousness and identity of people globally. On that I hope we can agree, especially in light of Herbie Hancock’s International Jazz Day initiative.
Lastly, have you noticed a trend toward even less long group runs at clubs where you live? I have here, with Dizzy’s changing from a 6-night a week policy to a usual, now, maximum of four days. At the Kitano Club a two-night run has become hard to come by. If this is a trend, is this because most groups these days, aside from the biggest names in the jazz biz, have inadequate drawing power to make such runs an even break-even proposition? Perhaps I’ve answered my own question just by asking.
From: Peter Hum
Hi Nate, Greg, Gio and Jim,
First, thanks to Nate for asking me to chip in from the Canadian jazz hinterland. Is there freezing rain pelting down where you are too, turning cars into giant ice cubes?
Let me give a jazz-related shout out to my Ottawa Citizen colleagues. Good on them — good on us, the major daily newspaper in Canada’s capital — for putting the obit for Dave Brubeck on the front page of last Thursday’s arts section. I didn’t even have a hand in that bit of stellar news judgment, I swear. Granted, Brubeck had played twice in the last five years at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, packing Confederation Park in the process. But judging from the chitchat in the newsroom, and from what I saw on Twitter and Facebook (where news, alas, happens first), I think that Brubeck’s passing really resonated at large, and not just with people like me who heard “Strange Meadowlark” decades ago and were forever hooked on jazz by that Ab7#11. What I saw spoke to the power of great jazz — especially when it’s a gateway into the music for an impressionable mind — to lodge itself, inextricably so, in someone’s memory as a treasured, sentimental favourite.
I’d love to extrapolate from the outpouring of attention to Brubeck’s passing — and, for that matter, in response to Austin Peralta’s sad, sad death — that jazz, whatever that means to everyone else, still matters beyond the jazz bubble, despite all the nay-saying. It’s not that the music’s dying yet again (Seriously, The Atlantic?), or riven by feuding clans, as if the Hatfields and McCoys were in some kind of tradition-vs.-innovation cage match. Brubeck’s death might remind civilians and us alike that jazz, while admittedly large, loose and even monstrous (as Henry James famously said of 19th-Century novels), can indeed inspire a sense of renewed wonder (as Nate almost as famously wrote in his kick-off letter).
In case you’re thinking that glasses in Canada are overly rose-coloured (sorry – colored), I’ll add that yes, it’s a drag that Taylor Swift is worth two Ottawa jazz festivals. It sucks that as much as everybody we know loves Vijay Iyer, someone else might write him up as a poster boy for jazz-that-can’t-be-popular. It’s a kick in the jewels that Café Paradiso, the leading (some would say only) jazz club in my city of a million or so — the way station for folks like Dave Liebman, Ben Monder/Theo Bleckmann, Sheila Jordan, Marc Copland, John Abercrombie and Steve Kuhn, not to mention innumerable Canadian players I’d love to hip you to — shut its doors in June after a dozen years or so of fighting the good fight. It pains me that when they name a street after Monk in New York, they can’t spell Thelonious right. It can be rough out there for jazz, but how significant are these setbacks and slights? I’ll side with Lee Konitz, who affirms that “as long as there are people trying to play music in a sincere way, there will be some jazz.”
My highlight reel from 2012 won’t be the same as yours. To get to the Vanguard or the Jazz Gallery, Korzo or Carnegie Hall, it’s a seven-hour drive from my house. But as admittedly very anecdotal evidence that great music is taking place beyond the coverage of the New York Times and the jazz periodicals, I’ll mention that, for example, I saw Dave Douglas play his ass off twice this summer. He was ass-less and practically leaping off the bandstand with the Sound Prints group he runs with Joe Lovano at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, and then igniting things in a decommissioned church’s basement with a quartet that includes Steve Swallow and two Canadian youngbloods, Chet and Jim Doxas, at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival.
This summer, I twice saw the Fellowship Band turn a big park audience into a Vanguard-like congregation (although in the second instance I had to travel to France). I almost saw Dave Holland three nights in a row, playing pristine duets with Kenny Barron, with the sublime Thimar trio, and the inaugural gig for his visceral, molten Prism group with Craig Taborn, Kevin Eubanks and Eric Harland. Take that, bifurcating traditionalists and innovators.
Oh — I twice passed on Chris Botti.
I was able to catch Jack DeJohnette’s hard-thrashing group without having to go to Newport, hear two burning sets of Liebman’s group without going to the Deer Head Inn. (Aside: does Lieb, even with his NEA Jazz Masters award, get all the love he deserves?) At jam sessions in Ottawa, I saw Eric Harland, Taylor Eigsti and Dan Tepfer (on melodica) put “Solar” through the wringer, and I saw Kneebody play “Epistrophy” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.” If someone were to come up to me after hearing any one of these concerts, and say, “Ah yes, but I pined for more tradition or innovation in that music,” I would have smacked them for completely missing the point, which is the wonderment.
I want to ask you about two recordings that dropped this year and that I thought were wonderful. No points for guessing that I have in mind Keith Jarrett’s Sleeper and the Gil Evans Centennial Project release from Ryan Truesdell. How did you gauge those discs with the best of 2012, given that Jarrett’s European group made its incandescent music in 1979, or that some of the Evans material was older than Birth of the Cool?
What I’m inclined to take away from these delayed gratifications is that arguments about jazz styles evolving or decaying themselves shrivel up when time-defying music is pulsing through the Sennheisers. The power of those discs makes me hopeful that in 2042 or 2062, some freshly unearthed music by Iyer or Rudresh Mahanthappa, or Brad Mehldau or Kurt Rosenwinkel, or Ambrose Akinmusire or Robert Glasper, or someone none of us have heard yet, will be making heads spin.
From: Nate Chinen
Dear Peter, Greg, Giovanni and Jim,
Have you all heard Jazz at Storyville, the Dave Brubeck album? Recorded for Fantasy at the Boston nightclub Storyville, mostly on a single October afternoon in 1952, it’s but a glistening fleck of foam in the oceanic expanse of Brubeck’s recording career. No surprise that it didn’t turn up in the acres of coverage of that venerable pianist’s death last week*, though I’ll confess that it’s one of the Brubeck performances that always springs to my mind, for the urbane and offhandedly searching aspects of its style.
Brubeck and Paul Desmond, his peerlessly sympathetic melodic partner, were both in their 30s at the time of this recording, which was made under somewhat larkish circumstances. According to Nat Hentoff, Brubeck’s bassist had to miss the afternoon set; moreover, “the bulk of the audience had not yet arrived and so they were playing entirely for and between themselves.” Brubeck’s delicate but impassive abstraction of “Over the Rainbow” would seem to bear out that point. As would this gorgeously mentholated version of “You Go to My Head,” a near-perfect distillation of the Brubeck-Desmond hookup, negotiated on absolutely casual terms (complete with the whistling of a patron):
You may be wondering why I’m hitting you up with these stirrings from a sparsely attended club set 50 years ago. For one thing, I was determined not to open our exchange with a mournful or valedictory tone — despite the enormity of Brubeck’s passing, less than a week ago, and despite some other flickers of finality. This weekend we saw the last of Zebulon, an important way-out incubator in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; we also received word of the change of ownership at the Lenox Lounge in Harlem, the same neighborhood that bid farewell to St. Nick’s Pub in the spring. (Greg, given your deep history in the area, I’m hoping you have some thoughts on this topic. Gio, you call D.C. home, but perhaps you do too.) I should add that the recent devastation of Sandy meant a temporary inconvenience for the Manhattan jazz-club ecosystem but a real game-changer elsewhere — Jim, as a native of Red Hook, Brooklyn, I know this was painfully true for you.
More farewells: It was just weeks ago that we lost Pete La Roca Sims and Ted Curson, a pair of musicians largely underestimated by the public, if not by their peers. It’s been a couple of months now since we lost David S. Ware, who reached his stature partly by making underestimation impossible. Unlike Brubeck, these were artists who might not have had the opportunity to say everything they wanted to say. Which brings me to pianist-composer Austin Peralta, whose death at 22 (and just barely that) must be the year’s most heartbreaking jazz story. I have no in-person frame of reference for his playing, which makes me feel both derelict and deprived. Every indication pointed toward a promising future.
But! (you knew there was one coming) I honestly can’t assess the past year with anything other than a sense of renewed wonder. Since we’re on the subject of promising young pianists, consider the wealth of talent currently fitting that description: Fabian Almazan, Bobby Avey, Jonathan Batiste, Kris Bowers, Gerald Clayton, Aaron Diehl, Eldar Djangirov, John Escreet, Lawrence Fields, Aaron Parks, David Virelles... and that’s just guys under 30, each with his own spin. Surely I am leaving some people out. This week I’ll be seeing Christian Sands at the Village Vanguard, about a year after he knocked me out in the same room.
What I love about this moment in the music is its openness, the sense of possibility that rumbles out in almost every direction. I witnessed a lot of things this year reminiscent of that Brubeck-Desmond expedition, and I’m not talking about style so much as feeling.
Consider one blessed three-day span from my calendar, back in April. On Tuesday I heard the Billy Hart Quartet, with Mark Turner on tenor, Ethan Iverson on piano and Ben Street on bass; their interaction was even looser and lighter than on the fine album they released this year. On Wednesday I heard alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry, with a band that featured Mike Rodriguez on trumpet and Pedrito Martinez on congas and Yoruban chant. On Thursday I heard the Vijay Iyer Trio (more on that in a moment). And all this during a week in which I was writing a Tim Berne profile for JazzTimes, on the occasion of his superb outing Snakeoil. All of you have similar stories, I know: Jim, you get out in NYC as much as anyone, and Peter and Gio, you cover scenes outside that scope. Greg, I have a hunch your highlight reel will differ slightly from mine, too.
Curious to hear whether you all agree that the old arguments about “tradition” vs. “innovation” ring so obviously hollow now. (Maybe so?) One of my indelible experiences of this year was hearing Cecil Taylor at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, as he served up an art he has been steadily refining for an eon. One of the most mysterious was hearing a sextet led by the aforementioned Clayton — not a vanguardist by reputation — work through its new variations on post-bop form. I’m leaving the Top 10 analysis for a later post (you’re all welcome to get an early jump), but it strikes me as salutary that Vijay Iyer, one of Cecil’s children, gathered so much critical mojo this year, cleaning up in an unprecedented five categories in the DownBeat Critic’s Poll. I rang the bell when Accelerando was about to drop, but even in armchair-prediction mode I wouldn’t have expected that. Then again, that album features the fondest Ellingtonian sendoff of any I can think of this year.
(One of the many shows I was sorry to miss, btw, was Iyer and Mike Ladd premiering “Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dream Project.” I’d be curious to hear your take, if you were there. And speaking of intertextural art by concept-minded pianists, scheduling woes kept me from catching Jason Moran at the Whitney Biennial, an omission that the review by Ben Ratliff instantly made me regret. I did hear Moran with the Bandwagon a couple of weeks ago, though, and left with plenty to chew on.)
There’s so much else to say, but I want to wrap up my chorus before I lose the crowd. Guys, thanks for taking part in this year’s roundtable — can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to your responses. Take the conversation in any direction you like. (And you at home, don’t hesitate to add your thoughts below.) So with that, I hand the mic to Peter. Every ending holds a new beginning, or so I’m told.
*(There’s an indirect allusion to Jazz at Storyville in Ratliff’s excellent obituary in the NY Times: “By the time of an engagement in Boston in the fall of 1952 they had become one of jazz’s greatest combinations,” he writes, referring of course to Brubeck and Desmond.)
The topic of race, in jazz as elsewhere, has often been framed as a binary: literally a matter of black and white. We saw this in many of our intraweb debates last year, though of course the issue goes farther back than any of us can recall. The implicit dualism is understandable, and there's obviously still much work to be done along that divide. I stand with both Nicholas Payton and Ethan Iverson, among others, in the conviction that we can gain something vital by talking about it.
In that spirit, I've been thinking a lot this week about what doesn't fit into the binary, and how we might enrich our jazz-and-race conversation by acknowledging it. Before we proceed, two quick homework assignments. First, watch the clip above -- one of the smarter, subtler pieces of sketch writing we've seen from Saturday Night Live in ages. And while I'm assuming that you need no briefing on the subject of Jeremy Lin, "Linsanity," or sports-media Foot in Mouth Syndrome, I'm also going to insist that you spent a few moments with this excellent essay by Jay Caspian Kang.
OK, done? Now bear with me; this will get a little personal.
(With Jon Pareles, Jon Caramanica and Ben Ratliff)
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.
From: Aaron Cohen
Just wanted to add that reading all the posts here reaffirm how fortunate, and humbled, I am to converse with this group.
I couldn’t agree more with Angelika that Jason Moran’s Kennedy Center appointment can only mean great things for the institution, and for jazz itself. I didn’t know that his family established a scholarship named after him, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. His family has always supported his dreams, and I’m so glad that they’re also supporting the dreams of so many other talented music students. Also, I had forgotten to include Orrin Evans among musicians who give me confident hope for the future — although I just heard his discs, and his part in Bill McHenry’s group and haven’t seen him lead his own band. I’m looking forward to having that opportunity in 2012. I went to his blog posting on Angelika’s recommendation and he also makes astute points about the music business.
What my fellow Midwesterner Joe writes about genre boundaries being ignored among contemporary jazz musicians in Chicago is so true. This was also a big part of Danish scholar Fabian Holt’s book, Genre In Popular Music, a few years ago, where he gave considerable attention to Jeff Parker (pictured at top) and Thrill Jockey. I’d just add that there is a significant history to all of this in Chicago, particularly among musicians and arrangers for Chicago’s classic soul music in the 1960s and 1970s (like jazz arranger Tom Tom Washington, who worked for the Chi-Lites and Earth, Wind and Fire as well as Lionel Hampton). Anyway, that history is, hopefully, part of my next book (knock on wood there).
I had no idea about the Qatar jazz initiative until reading Kelvin’s post — that sure is a world away from what has been happening with the Occupy movement. Definitely all of these political, economic divisions are something to watch in 2012, and if/how these larger issues are reflected in the music. I also hadn’t jumped into the Mary Halvorson fan bus until this summer when I saw her perform an exciting set in a band with Ingrid Laubrock at the Chicago Jazz Festival.
Glad to see Tune-Yards’ Whokill in Nate’s year-end list. There’s another artist who ignores boundaries and is most certainly bringing jazz ideas into her take on what individualistic pop music should be (can’t remember the names of the saxophonists in her band). Anyway, my wife Lavonne and I loved the Tune-Yards show at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall a few months back. It ended with her offering to hug anyone in the audience who would donate at least $5 to African famine relief. Now that is beyond cool!
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.
Double bill: Robert Glasper Trio + Vijay Iyer Trio. Wrote about it.
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...