I've been talking to other colleagues lately about the idea of really owning one's music, or owning a song. The idea is hard to qualify, necessarily: it's one of those "I know it when I hear it" sorts of things. It's the sense of conviction and belief in the art one is creating, that comes across on record or from the stage. To my ears, it often comes across as the sound of exploration, a personal musical quest.
To be fair, I don't claim to own everything that I play. But I do endeavour to try. I can't lay claims to authenticity, really - Indigone covers everything from Bjork to Ornette Coleman, Bulgarian Women's Radio Choir tunes to Stevie Wonder. Hell, I lead a Brazilian group and I'm not Brazilian in the least. As a composer, improviser, and performer, every song has its own world that it inhabits and all that I try to do is live in that world for the time that I need to.
To me, the idea of cultural significance and relevance is just a signifier for "honesty." When a soloist plays a lick and it obviously sounds like they're deploying a lick, it rings false. Hearing the stitching within a solo has become a big pet peeve of mine. I think we, as critical listeners and musicians, can tell when a pop tune is in a performer's repertoire because they truly identify with it or because it's a ploy to appear hip. Or if someone uses a non-swing beat.
The progression of "fusion" music has become truly seamless, and that music - I'm thinking of Rudresh Mahanthappa's Kinsmen, Miguel Zenon's Esta Plena, the Gilfema +2 record, Maria Schneider's use of Afro-Peruvian rhythms - is some of the most thrilling and engaging, to my ears. Zenon's record, and the music of Guillermo Klein, is to me what "Latin jazz" always should have been - modern jazz coming from a set of Latin influences without necessarily having to exhibit all the trappings of its Latin heritage. All these artists are "culturally relevant" - they are embracing their life experiences and communicating them through music. That's all any of us can ever hope to achieve. Making "Body and Soul" culturally relevant doesn't necessarily mean turning it into an R&B slow jam - it means truly understanding what that lyric, that melody, is about and evoking that emotion however one can. What seems to deter a lot of non-aficionado listeners is that mediocre jazz - irrelevant jazz, if you will - reduces music to chord changes and scales. It can become a display of craft and science, rather than an expression of art.