Jazz Modernized

When you have an art form that has existed for well over one hundred years, with roots to that art form going back even farther than that, you undoubtedly end up placing many different interpretations of that art form all under the same umbrella. There may be no better example of that than jazz. Because of the freedom and progression of jazz, a musician could conceivably call anything jazz if they find some ground to justify it on.

Jazz can be broken down by eras, styles, and about a dozen or so other fields. Debates and arguments happen over which era or style is the best, or what really made jazz what it is. And it seems that as time goes on, many artists try to offer their own performance of a traditional tune with as much respect to the original as possible, write new music, or completely transform old recordings into something completely different, with the vaguest hint of the original.

It is the latter that has my attention today. There are some musicians who are doing a wonderful job creating new modern works, or offering new looks at older compositions. Trumpeter Russell Gunn might be a perfect example of that. His original recordings, and his covers of older recordings both offer the same thing: personality. And not just personality in general, they offer his personality. You can hear one of his recordings, and whether its an original or not, it always has a little attitude and a little bite. It becomes very Russell Gunn.

Some vocalists have taken to putting lyrics to old instrumental tunes, and some have made it work. It took guts for Norah Jones to put lyrics to the Duke Ellington tune Melancholia, but she did, called it Don’t Miss You At All, and the end result was wonderful. On the flip side, you won’t see me banging down any doors to get to the Manhattan Transfer vocal interpretation of the Weather Report hit Birdland.

One of the things that stirred these thoughts more vividly recently was hearing more and more songs “remixed”, and hearing them everywhere. Not so much the radio, but in department stores and elevators. These “recordings” are classic songs chopped up by a DJ, who with the help of a couple turntables (used for scratching, not playing) and a $99 music software program turn it into something you could easily hear at a techno music club. The only resemblance the final product bears to the original is one or two lines that Sarah Vaughan or Nina Simone sang that didn’t hit the DJ’s cutting room floor. The rest is purely electronically produced, almost always with a trance-like robotic drum beat.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve spent hours in dance clubs that featured music produced entirely with electronics. And as a modern day employee of a radio station, there is no more reel-to-reel editing, thank goodness, as everything is done quicker and easier on computers.

But when do we hit the point where we realize, in some ways, that the wonderful modern technology we have in front of us might be a tool that robs us of personality? Is it bad that someone tries to recreate Nobody’s Fault But Mine with one or two lines from the original, plus a recycled drum beat and a heavy bass line, all at five times the original tempo? The majority of the lyrics and anything resembling a solo are completely gone. Maybe it isn’t bad, but it can be unnerving at the very least when someone hears it and assumes it to be the original.

I’m not some old stick in the mud that has anything against modern technology. In fact, it is quite the opposite. But to me, there comes a point where you simply rob music of its originality and personality. And it was that personality that got us all interested in the first place. One might have seen Coltrane in concert and spoke of his 45 minute solo, or heard a recording by Ella Fitzgerald and mentioned how “you could even hear the piano bench Ellis Larkins creak as he rocked in the background, while she sang that heartbreaking tune”.

Give me personality any day, especially when it comes to music…especially when it comes to jazz. Give me something interesting and creative to listen to, and leave the computer and the canned drum beat at home.

Thelonious Monk’s Advice to Musicians

A friend recently sent me this document claiming it to be written by Thelonious Monk, but it’s actually written by saxophonist Steve Lacy. These are notes he took from his time playing with Monk in 1960, and Steve uses these notes extensively in his introduction to the book Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music. I find it an inexhaustible fountain of wisdom. This was posted around the beginning of the year at www.1heckofaguy.com. I’ve also added a cool youtube video of Monk playing “‘Round Midnight”. Enjoy!monks-advice2

Jazz and Trendiness

If someone calls you “trendy”, you can assume that you have managed to stay current and up-to-date on things that might include fashion sense and style, pop culture, attitudes, lingo, and current events. To stay trendy, you have to adjust as the trends do. If you don’t, or haven’t, it’s possible that you may show a slight resemblance to these guys:

Flock of Seagulls
Flock of Seagulls

Jazz has survived for over one hundred years, and its likely that it will always survive in some fashion. We can find countless books and recordings on how it has changed over the decades, thanks in large part to not only those who were brave enough to experiment with their own unique thoughts and ideas, but also to great classic recordings that kind-of-bluehave withstood the test of time. Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis, sold 5,000 copies a week in 2008, roughly a half century after its creation. When you ask someone who isn’t a huge jazz fan why that CD happens to be part of their music collection, a collection filled with rap and country and rock, they usually just say “because its cool”. “Jazzheads”, on the other hand, will give you a twenty minute response on its modality, tonality, and improvisation and how it changed the world. Both are right.

Today, “jazz” is rarely used in the same sentence as “trendy”. For younger generations, jazz concerts are not as much of a must-see event as they are a random, occasional novelty. It’s far less likely that a high school cafeteria would be buzzing with discussion about what Coltrane’s best album was during lunch hour, and more likely that it will be buzzing with the latest Brittney Spears gossip.

The question is though, does jazz need to be trendy to survive? Will a younger generation find jazz and buy records and go to concerts without jazz being the main headline in pop-culture publications? Some jazz purists feel that it’s not necessary for jazz to be the headline. But doesn’t a younger generation need to be exposed to jazz somehow in order for record companies to not only invest in new jazz artists but to also afford to invest in printing copies of older albums for sale? Isn’t anything that needs to remain trendy, or even viable, or to even have a pulse, in need of new audience members year after year?

Will younger generations find satisfaction in old recordings, or will they need newer, more modern sounding recordings to enjoy. Will artists be willing to take that step and record them, and will jazz radio stations play the new stuff that might appeal to “the kids”?

There is always hope and promise. Artists like Norah Jones, Herbie Hancock, and Michael Buble over the last few years have definitely given jazz record sales a boost. But at the same time Norah Jones and Michael Buble have received criticism for not being “true” jazz musicians, while Herbie recently has teamed up with pop superstars, drawing his own critiques from jazz purists.

Whether you think that the days of jazz appealing to a younger audience are still possible or not, or which way you think the jazz industry should go about marketing to a younger audience, or if jazz needs to be or can be trendy at all, it is safe to say that jazz has to find its way into the hands of every new generation.

Below, see some “trendy” videos of musicians of today.

Norah Jones singing Cold, Cold Heart:

Herbie Hancock with Corinne Bailey Rae performing River:

Michael Buble in a Starbucks commercial:

And the Grammy goes to…Disappointment

Does anyone remember how fulfilling the Grammy Awards were last year for jazz fans? Of course we never get to see the jazz awards given away on television, but the recordings and artists who won the awards last year was certainly something to get excited about. The late great tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker takes home two Grammy awards posthumously, one for an album that could be the best jazz release of the last 25 years. Herbie Hancock takes home an award in the “Contemporary Jazz Album” category, legitimizing the category and keeping the trophy out of the hands of smooth jazz artists. Trumpeter Terrance Blanchard took home an award in the big band category for his emotional Requiem for Katrina release, and Patti Austin and Paquito D’ Rivera each receive Grammys for excellent work in the vocal and Latin jazz fields.

And then when the televised portion of the program arrived, a time dedicated almost solely to rappers, rock stars, and country singers, two fantastic things happened. Pianist Eldar took the stage and wowed the audience. And as the ceremonies came to a close, Herbie Hancock stunned the music world by taking top Grammy honors, while artists like Kanye West had to keep their respective seats.

Following the Grammy Awards, the sales of Herbie’s album shot up over 800 percent. Jazz, to at least some degree, had been put back on the mainstream map.

Then last night, the nominations for the awards given for work over the last year were released. While no one might expect a year for jazz like 2007 again for a long time, the nominations this time around, with a few exceptions, left a lot to be desired.

The Yellowjackets (a band who has tried to label themselves as everything but a smooth jazz band, even with the likes of Robben Ford and Bob Mintzer passing through, are simply that, a smooth jazz band), arrive back on the nomination board for the Contemporary Album award. In the vocal category, Karrin Allyson, Stacey Kent and Cassandra Wilson all get nods, but for albums that all might sound a little too similar to recordings they have released in previous years.

Some very respectable nominations go to Terrance Blanchard in the Instrumental Solo division, a nomination each to Brad Mehldau and Pat Metheny in the Instrumental Album category, and Joe Lovano for his recording with the WDR Big Band and Rudfunk Orchestra in the Big Band division. These are all deserving recordings that should take home awards, with a coin toss deciding the winner between Metheny and Mehldau.

The best album of the year happens to be missing from the list, that being Roy Hargrove’s live release Earfood. Hargrove is a musician who seems to keep getting better and better when it seems not possible, and with respect for the other nominees, Earfood dwarfs any jazz album released in the last 12 months.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that any of the nominated recordings aren’t good, because they most certainly are. I suppose I feel that maybe its similar to receiving a brand new car for Christmas in 2007, and then in 2008 receiving a gift of a nice pair of pants. While not a bad gift at all, it just doesn’t compare to how spoiled we were last year.

This poses the question: Will we ever be as spoiled as we were last year? Will the public ever have the same buzz about jazz as they did after watching the Grammy Awards last year? I suppose that is up to the musicians and the nominating committee, so we shall see.

On an interesting note, Miles Davis was nominated for a Grammy this year…sort of…for Best Album Notes. Francis Davis, the writer of the liner notes for the 50th Anniversary release of Kind of Blue appears to be the likely candidate in the Album Notes category.