Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dancing in your head

Some videos from Gary Schwartz's LettingO performance at Théâtre La Chappelle in January have gone up on YouTube. I'm thrilled to be part of that project, playing with fantastic musicians and getting to write for some non-traditional instrumentation. Thanks to Fred Salter for helping us to sound good, and to the videographer (whose name I unfortunately don't know).

Gary Schwartz - guitar; Ron Dilauro - trumpet; Erik Hove - alto saxophone; Alex Côté - tenor & soprano saxophones; Frank Lozano - tenor saxophone & bass clarinet; Josh Zubot - violin; Joe Grass - pedal steel; David Ryshpan - keyboards; Nicolas Caloia - bass; Claude Lavergne & Thom Gossage - drums & percussion.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Front lines

The flame of the jazz wars has been rekindled, both from an economic and aesthetic point of view.

In the Terry Teachout corner, we have Nextbop contributor Jared Bailey and his essay about the trials and tribulations of being a young jazz musician. In the glass-half-full corner, we have NPR's Patrick Jarenwattananon positing how we can fund the Everyday $200 Gig. These essays are not entirely in opposition to each other in the sense that they tackle a few different issues, but to me they represent two ways of thinking about the state of the music (or anything, really): Bailey addresses the problem, while Jarenwattananon attempts to come up with solutions. Frankly, I'd rather hang with guys like PJ. I'm not so interested in bemoaning the current conditions of being a musician (or any kind of artist) in this climate; yes it's tough, yes it's gruelling, but I'm not sure it's any easier or harder than it was 10, 20, 50 years ago. I'm sure each generation has its own challenges to overcome. I'm much more concerned with finding ways to operate in the world as it is - finding alternative venues, different sources of income, different ways of presenting my music.

Those who have spoken to me this week have heard me joke that I might go on hiatus for the entire hockey season, because there really is no way to compete with the Habs for attention and dollars in this city, especially during their current playoff run. But having a pity party about people not coming out to gigs is not fruitful - figuring out ways to get people to the next gig is. It seems absolutely vital for artists and presenters to work together collectively, whether it be the novel programming Search and Restore is pursuing in NYC, or even something just as simple as floating an e-mail out before booking a gig to see if you're directly competing with your own scene. Like-minded artists need to band together to further our cause; we need to look out for each other.

Onto the aesthetic end of things - namely, Jason Marsalis' "nobody swings anymore" rant currently making the rounds of the Jazz Internet. Josh Rager's XYJazz is hosting a good chunk of the debate. Saxophonist Becky Noble sums up my feelings pretty well with her comment:

What bothers me about the so called "jazz wars" (popping up online all over the places these days!) is the idea that there are two camps; the purists and modernists. I think the reality is that most people actually fall somewhere in between on the spectrum. To be quite honest, I just don't buy the idea that a significant percentage (at least significant enough to be ranting about) of young musicians are shunning the history, abandoning melody, refusing the learn the standards, playing 30 minute solos void of meaning. Please, tell me where these people are???!!! Because in my experience studying and playing, I don't think I've met one.

In my opinion some of the more successful "jazz" musicians today have been able to meld the art form's history with modern influences, to create their own unique voice. I mean, that's what Bird did. Miles. Coltrane. Bill Evans. All of them. Let me cite five contemporary examples, off the top of my head: Brad Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dave Douglas, Brian Blade, Seamus Blake. All four are "hip". You can clearly hear the entire history of their respective instruments when they play. They can swing like crazy, they aren't afraid to play a blues or in 4/4, and they also play chromatically and often in odd meters. They play standards and they also compose beautiful music. The don't sound like anyone else, and they just happen to be some of my favourite musicians.

I've made my stand very clear, both here and elsewhere: like Becky, I think it is absolutely necessary to be able to deal with everything, from swinging standards to the Ornette and post-Ornette language, odd meter complexity and free improvising, and whatever non-jazz influences anyone cares to bring into their music. Many of the students and recent graduates I meet and work with are cut from this cloth: we look up to people like Mehldau, Blade, David Binney and Maria Schneider - all composers who tie in many disparate influences into their work but also have a firm command of the "tradition." We're as likely to be listening to J Dilla and Milton Nascimento as Cannonball, Andrew Hill or Duke. Influences from outside the jazz sphere have been part of the traditional jazz repertoire for decades, from bossa nova to gospel to Indian music.

I agree that there is a lot of "insider jazz," to use a term from Kurt Rosenwinkel, that is more concerned with its own hipness than with any sense of emotional connection. However, that doesn't mean that every multi-metric, harmonically knotty, straight eighth tune is devoid of emotional significance. I can be left cold by tunes overstuffed with Giant Steps changes, or by rhythmic mind-melters that have no relationship to the tune being played; in other contexts those same elements of craft can astound, impress, and deeply move me if played with conviction and understanding. It's about cultivating a relationship to what you are playing, and again, a broad knowledge and respect for music is key.