Monday, September 3, 2012

Gosh, What Happened to Jazz?


The winners of the Down Beat Critics' Poll provides a window into trends jazz, and is a place to check out some of the better players and promising young talent. There are some terrific jazz musicians on the list like Gary Smulyan on baritone sax, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and the very talented Anat Cohen on reeds. Most of the other top-notch players have been around for quite awhile, like Branford Marsalis and Christian McBride.  

Anat Cohen
There were other outstanding musicians in the top tier, but many of them don't seem to be jazz musicians, or minimally so, which raises the question why they appear on Downbeat’s Jazz Poll.  A surprising number of their recordings seem to have little to do with jazz.  It's a given that I'm an old curmudgeon and stuck in my ways, but I do expect music of a given type, say Indian Raga or Spanish Flamenco, to actually be what it claims to be, in this case jazz.   Many of the sides I sampled were discursive, introspective, highly self-absorbed solos more in common with Gy├Ârgy Ligeti or John Cage than Ellington, Monk, Parker or Coltrane.  They were usually accompanied by bass or drums, providing a nodding reference to jazz, with otherwise, lacking its basic elements.

Charlie Parker
Jazz is perhaps the only uniquely American music, rooted in gospel and blues traditions. Its African roots are evident in its use of blue notes, improvisation and syncopation.  Jazz has always incorporated music from American popular music, most notably ballads as the framework for improvisation.  Inherent to jazz is "swinging" and coordinated improvised group interaction.  Early blues was commonly structured around a repetitive call-and-response pattern, a common element in the African American oral tradition. These features are fundamental to jazz.  If music doesn’t refer to that tradition, as far as I'm concerned, it isn't jazz.   It is difficult to find these jazz roots in many of the Down Beat Critics' top rated musicians' pieces.

Many of the latter recordings were composed by the performers.  With a few exceptions, there are no jazz standards on albums.  I recently reviewed Charlie Parker's discography and found most are standards that he improvisationally and by arrangement turned into his own compositions, or were pieces by Monk, Gillespie and other Bop era musicians.  There are few of his compositions.  These mostly younger musicians are virtuoso masters of their instruments, which apparently lead them to assume whatever improvisation they decided to perform were worth someone's listening.  For example, pieces by Rudresh Mahanthappa, on Alto Saxophone and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, were technically very skilled and some pleasant, but after listening to them, I understand why many of today's "jazz musicians" are struggling to make a living playing jazz. 

Quite a few songs on the last two years Down Beat lists had non-referential titles, while others have one word exotic or mysterious titles, like "Aroca," and  "Dingmandingo, "Tirtha," "Mehndi," or "Parakram."  Odd titles aren't new in jazz.  Thelonius Monk titled his songs strangely, like "Epistrophy," but most of Monk's songs made at least some semantic sense, like "Nellie's Crepuscle," and "Yardbird Suite."   When every song on an album has a one-word title in a language unfamiliar to English speakers, who are likely a major audience, or is intentionally opaque, that's a bit different.  Some songs might as well be assigned numbers or dates on which they were recorded.  Eric Dolphy often played recognizable songs written by others, though he started the trend of meaningless song titles, like “245”, “G.W,” and “Number 5.”   Occasionally titles on the 2012 list cleverly allude to other music or literary sources, but that seems to be the exception. Titling songs this way implies that it is an inside joke, disrespectful of the listener, who the player assumes couldn’t possibly get the joke.  

One gets the feeling much of this music was intended for the performer and some of their musician friends.  I would guess the audience for most of this music is other musicians or people who have studied music, especially classical music or other cultural traditions in music.  It is not user friendly to others, including to me, to whom jazz is an integral part of my life.  I try hard to imagine people listening to most of this music 20 years from now and referring to them as classics, but my imagination fails me.

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