Monday, August 11, 2014

Jazz: Overrated?

It’s been widely noted by now that the recent Washington Post editorial declaiming the death of jazz was written by someone (Justin Moyers) who knows very little about jazz. In any case, any “think piece” that purports to tell us in what direction “jazz” as a whole is going is obviously painting with a very broad brush.

Moyers' first specific point, that “Jazz takes great songs — and abandons the lyrics that help make them great,” draws our attention to one of the many veins of musical interpretation that call themselves “jazz.” I number myself among those listeners who would argue that most “vocal jazz” isn’t really jazz at all, though it’s a near relation, and often pleasant to listen to. The problem is…the words. Even the most inspired lyrics grow tiresome with repetition. The singers know this, of course, and do all they can to keep the phrasing interesting, then step back and let the band strut its stuff.

Though Moyers likes lyrics, he doesn’t think much of improvisation. No wonder he doesn’t “get” jazz. That’s what it’s largely about. He shares that handicap with most listeners, to judge from the fact that jazz hasn’t been widely appreciated or “popular” since the early 1950s, when it ceased to be “dance” music.

Moyer argues that jazz has stopped “evolving,” but the point is immaterial. Evolution is overrated. In any case, the concept is misleading when applied to jazz idioms. Big Band music didn’t “evolve” into bebop, though bebop's creators cut their teeth in the big bands. The two genres are distinct, offering different thrills, and they’re both being performed today. 

By the same token, modal jazz didn’t evolve out of the small combos of the 50s, nor did fusion evolve from modal jazz, though we’ve been brought up to think that way. The music has gone in many directions, without rendering its predecessors uninteresting or “extinct.” What has remained throughout is a distinctive lilt or pulse and an exuberant urge to extemporize. Once those elements are gone, we’ve entered a new domain.

A few nights ago Hilary and I went to St. Paul to pick up a family friend who was arriving from Chicago on the train. The train was due to arrive at 10:03 p.m. We showed up a half hour early and parked at the first open meter we could find. It happened to be directly in front of the Black Dog Coffee House. 

We wandered in to find that a very young trio was playing some darned good jazz. They looked like high school kids, but they were probably college juniors. The drummer looked like my nephew, Paul—scruffy beard along the jaw line, a little overweight, a little shy, but also funny and exuberant. He did the talking.

The bassist was a wiry dude who crawled happily all over his instrument during his solo. The pianist was a clean-cut kid who probably had a closet full of Bill Evans’ records back at the dorm—his harmonic sense was already remarkably advanced.

They were working hard, and were great fun to listen to. There might have been five people sitting at tables nearby. Some were fiddling with their phones. The ones who were listening might have been the musicians' parents.

I never caught their names, but at the end of the set, the drummer urged us to return the following night to hear the trumpeter Steve Kenney. And so we did.

Kenny is a seasoned trumpeter, and he brought some other veterans with him: Brian Courage (bass), Babatunde Lea (drums), and Christopher Thomson (tenor sax). They played a set of standards ranging from “Summertime” and "Bye Bye Blackbird” to “Maiden Voyage” and “Caravan.” 

The intros were often slow, dissonant, and only vaguely rhythmic. The tune would emerge by fits and starts, then the band would step up the beat on cue and head into the arrangement, exchange solos, and then return to familiar ground.

It’s a standard formula, and it’s a kind of music I love. There is seldom a dull moment, and there is very little distance between performer and audience—maybe twenty feet. Kenny’s solos were often fierce, though I sometimes found Thomson’s saxophone riffs more musical.

Kenney took the time to point out that "Maiden Voyage" is a modal piece but very "chordal," which presents a challenge to a group without a piano. They pulled it off nicely.

That Herbie Hancock tune holds a special place in my heart: the version I listened to when I was about the age of those kids up on stage was on an album called Happenings by the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, with Hancock on the piano.

The odd thing is, Hancock's slow and meticulously developed solo on that track is associated in my mind with the slow movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, with which I was equally infatuated in those years. Whither jazz? Hancock's recent album The River, devoted largely to Joni Mitchell tunes, has all the harmonic ambiguities of impressionist French piano music... but also the probing and inventive forward thrust of genuine jazz.

I've heard other, and sometimes more exciting, versions of "Maiden Voyage" since, including one at breakneck speed by alto sax Justin Robinson on The Challenge, a bouncy and irreverent one by an ensemble led by Fred Hersch, and a largely unrecognizable one by the pianist Robert Glasper.

The Kenney-Thompson version was also very good.

These talented men were twice the age of the youngsters we'd heard the previous evening, and they drew twice the crowd--maybe twelve avid listeners. We stayed for the entire set, grooving the whole time while nibbling on a well-designed hummus plate.A glass of wine from Catalonia was also involved somewhere. At one point I dropped a ten into the donation jar (cheap skate!).

No, jazz is not dead! Nor is it over-rated. It's the best. And it lives. It's just that most people don't "get" it, and it bothers them.

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