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Jazz 2002: DOA Or Music in Growing Pains?
Review by Sam Pryor
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  As corporate record company mergers reach an all time high and record sales plummet to frightening lows for artists and CEOs alike, jazz, typically relegated to bastard son status, takes it on the chin but keeps on slugging with a condensed, combined record company presence now represented by five major entities, musicians from master jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson to trad dad Wynton Marsalis suddenly finds themselves without a record deal. While such rockers as Sheryl Crow and Don Henley ban together to fight the powers that be, jazz musicians are much less unified and infinitely less powerful. When in doubt, scatter.

With jazz currently holding something like seven percent of total market share, the music, which was so vibrant and influential for more than half of the last century, now seems at the edge of its grave, looking over into the abyss. At least that is the popular perception at a time when most record buyers didn't even know who Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong were until Ken Burns' recent PBS series, Jazz, helped connect the dots for both newcomers and old fans alike.

If you believe the Marsalis-sponsored Burns' message, jazz is already dead, assaulted by fusion in the '70s, killed off by smooth jazz in the '90s. While the series practically launched a telethon for Ellington and Armstrong, it treated contemporary jazz artists as frauds and interlopers squatting over hallowed jazz tradition (ahem ahem). With a condescending nod to Miles Davis, short shrift (say ten minutes each) was given to the music of Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, David Murray, Dave Holland, and Herbie Hancock, forget other groundbreakers like Michael Brecker, Misha Mengelberg, Joe Lovano, John Zorn, Dave Douglas or even Branford Marsalis. But Burns and brother Wynton have got it wrong.

As happened with indie rock in the 80s, smaller labels that can afford to take the time to develop newer artists release some of the most interesting jazz currently being made. Some of these under-the-radar, risk-taking musicians include saxophonists Chris Speed, Mark Shim and Greg Tardy, drummer Susie Ibarra, bassist Scott Colley, vocalists Luciana Souza and Bebel Gilberto, and conductor/composer Maria Schneider. Struggling major label offshoots like Verve, Impulse!, RCA, ECM, Blue Note and a revived Sony are also getting back in the game with records by Jeff "Tain" Watts, Norah Jones, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Wayne Shorter, Tom Harrell, Joe Lovano and Suzanne Abbuehl, to name a few.

As Frank Zappa once said, "Jazz isn't dead, it just smells funny." That axiom may be as true today as when Zappa uttered it in the '80s, but somehow jazz seems in greater need of a true star. And while jazz may have an undeniable star in vocalist/pianist Diana Krall, her monotonous tempos, overtly balladic material and glamorous packaging all market her closer to the showbiz slickness of an idealized blonde bombshell, and farther from the spitfire and grace of Ella Fitzgerald or Carmen MacRae. With almost no jazz radio across America, and even less of a presence on televison (thank God for Tony Benett), jazz needs more musicians wiling to stake their claim and kick out the jams. A few musicians to consider are singer Jane Monheit, pianist Jason Moran and drummer/leader Jim Black.

 

Jane Monheit's Never Never Land
Jane Monheit's Never Never Land

Twenty-two year old singer Jane Monheit has a talent that is rare at any age, in that she can literally make people stop and listen. And we're not just talking about casual listeners, either. Accompanying Monheit on her debut recording, Never Never Land, such grizzled jazz veterans as Ron Carter, Lewis Nash and Kenny Barron are obviously bedazzled by the newcomer, supporting her honey-hued voice like a delicate jewel with tender care and immaculate good taste. But even without their backing Monheit still makes time stand still, as she does on the acappella intro to "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)." Singing the little heard opening lines to the song, Monheit shows why she is an important new voice; her sure grasp of swing, lilting phrasing, and spacious sense of style and dynamics a rare thing. Monheit sings the blues of "Twisted" with obvious touches of Joni Mitchell, and she swings like her other major influence, Ella Fitzgerald, on "Please Be Kind," "My Foolish Heart," and the gorgeous title track. A little experience will only add sheen to Jane Monheit's already accomplished artistry, which was recently on display on Late Night with David Letterman.

"I was very nervous, and I don't normally get nervous," says Monheit. "I wasn't sure how to deal with it. I thought it was the best I could do under the circumstances. Dave asked me a lot of questions, and he seemed to enjoy it. He said he did anyway. I was very happy." A cherubic brunette with large eyes and a long mane of hair, Monheit even agreed to be photographed as a leopard-wearing jungle Jane for the cover of Jazziz. Does she think people are responding to her sex appeal or her skill?

"I hope it is my voice cause I never thought about the other thing in my life," she replies. "Any talk of that is a surprise to me. I never look at myself that way. I always thought of myself as a musician and I still do. I didn't think that people in jazz would be so concerned with that. But I really know that my record company and my manager are working with me for my musicianship and for no other reason."

 

Jane Monheit Come Dream With Me

Monheit's latest, Come Dream With Me, avoids diverse tempos and material in favor of a more vampy, Krall approach. Saying that she simply did not want to avoid the slower tempos, Monheit even indulged herself with a cover of 70s soft rock standard, "If," by Bread. Does she consider herself a traditional jazz singer?

"I think of myself as being a lot of different things," she says. "Traditional jazz singer is one of them. But I grew up with a lot of different kinds of music and it has all influenced me in many ways. There is really a lot to what I want to do as a singer. I love jazz and standards more than anything really, but there are so many great songs in the world, some written within my own lifetime. It would be hard for me to limit myself just because of what genre a certain tune falls into."

With an impressive confidence balanced by her naturally self effacing personality, Monheit still considers herself a student, of sorts, and that can only bode well for her long term survival. "I work so fast in the studio," she says regarding her recording process. "I like being very prepared, and it is very important for me to capture a good performance that gets an emotion across rather than a vocally perfect performance. I would rather have something be flawed and meaningful than perfect and bland. I mean flawed as in maybe in places there will a note that is off key, or I will phrase something that afterwards I realize could have been better, but the whole performance as a take means something. I don't like to do cutting and pasting or any of that. I like to keep it as absolutely natural as I can."

 

Facing Left With Jason Moran

Facing Left With Jason Moran

Calling himself and his fellow Manhattan jazz musicians, "the anti young lions," pianist Jason Moran is following a distinctive path in the jungle of the new jazz millennium. Not for him is the slavish imitation of yesteryear's greats. Along with such jazzers as Greg Osby, Stefon Harris and Mark Shim, Moran's jazz reflects a broad panoply of influences, from traditional bop to Icelandic techno artist Bjork to contemporary classical and beyond. But his is not some studied attempt at a new music, or a stab at solo stardom created by labels and producers. Moran's Facing Left, like the New Directions group and Stephon Harris' Black Action Figure, is emotional, evocative, exotic, gripping and exploratory new jazz. Moran covers so much stylistic ground in his feverish music, you can't help but be caught up.

With support from drummer Nashiet Waits and bassist Taureen Mateen, Moran begins Facing Left with the delicately erotic maze of "Later." Moran's love for beauty and his absolute mastery of mood is a charm throughout Facing Left. "Thief Without Loot" darts over funky grooves with both acoustic and Rhodes piano, kind of a twinkling tightrope walk. Moran covers Bjork's moonlight missive "Joga" with elegance and a touch of Monk. In fact, Monk surfaces often on Facing Left, mostly in his touch, which recalls the Hoboken master, as well as the luminous grace of Keith Jarrett, the logic of Hancock and the lush romanticism of Debussy or Ravel. Using rhythm like a conjurer's wand, Moran employs weird, stumbling beats in "Yojimbo" and "Battle of the Cattle Acts," while "Murder of Don Fanucci" rides a staggering military march. Throughout the album's thirteen tracks, Moran challenges notions of where jazz is heading with music that is not always an easy listen, but which always demands and commands your attention.

Moran has spent much time studying and playing with the old jazz masters, and he sees a difference. "There is no right or wrong way," he allows, "but my whole development has been being under the wing of someone older than me. My closest friend is Greg Osby who is 41, and Jaki Byard, who was 77. I always like to talk to them and Andrew Hill and Henry Threadgill to get some of that old energy.

"It is not the same for my generation, we are much lazier and less focused. We have too many distractions. I think there were fewer distractions in the '50s. Not only were black musicians then trying to think about music, they had things going against them, and they could still focus hard on their music. That is why you had so many different musicians into so many different bags. We have a shorter attention span. Now there is a conglomerate of about ten musicians who you hear most of the time for each instrument. You don't hear vast amounts of different styles of jazz piano or drumming. They are pulling from the same resources so you get the same results usually."

For Facing Left and his earlier Blue Note releases, Moran developed unusual songwriting methods for a jazz musician, such as playing his records backwards and finding obscure mathematical formulas to aid in composition.

"It came from when people used listen to Black Sabbath backwards," he laughs. "We used to listen to records backwards just putting your hand on the turntable and spinning it backwards. In college I would mix Coltrane with Archie Shepp on a turntable. I would have them blowing together. I was always into that kind of audio work. So for a while I listened to music backwards just to simulate that sound on the piano that is almost impossible. It is easier now with computers, but the point is to always find new ways to listen to things. Maybe just listen to one speaker. Or turn all the treble off. That is the way I look at music."

"Sometimes, he continues, "if someone is playing something in the next room and you walk in and you realize you were hearing the bass in a different part of the groove. It sounds really strange and you can't figure out what is going on although it is really simple. But that totally alters the way you will hear the bass, so when you hear the entire piece you are hearing it in this backwards way. It is fooling your brain and not letting it make all the assumptions for where the beat is. I have tried to compose that way, and it is difficult, but fun. On my first record one of the pieces was based on hearing an Andrew Hill piece, "Smokestack," played backwards. I just played it backwards."

As inspired by rappers Ghostface Killer and Slum Village as Bjork and Andrew Hill, Jason Moran is an astute musician with an ear tuned to the sound of the cosmos, and the sound of chaos.

"I want my career to look like a great stock," he concludes. "It is always rising, it shouldn't be like one year I went up 30 percent, then the next year I didn't do anything. I want it to slowly increase over years. It keeps getting better, and the amount and quality of work I get to do is phenomenal. I am just blessed to have a career playing music."

 

Jim Black Alasnoaxis

Jim Black Alasnoaxis

A mainstay in New York "downtown" bands led by Laurie Anderson, Ellery Eskelin, Tim Berne, and Dave Douglas, drummer Jim Black is the kind of ear-to-the-ground musician known to foment change. Lately, Black has taken to composing, and the far-flung results have been as interesting as his drumming, which owes as much to Led Zeppelin's John Bonham as to Elvin Jones and Ed Blackwell. On Splay, with bassist Skull Sverrisson, guitarist Hilmar Jensson and saxophonist Chris Speed, Black spews out impressionist pieces that sound like a wordless Radiohead jamming with a late night free jazz outfit.

"For my first album with [his band] AlasNoAxis," says Black, "I wanted textures to change, nothing to last too long. It's about extreme ranges. On Splay, through repetition and a minimalist approach, I wanted to affect the listener differently. It is more song by song vs. chopped up ideas throughout the album."

Black's tunes are just that, tunes that you can hum along with, get lost in, or even dance to. At times, such as on "Cheepa vs. Cheepa," the music recalls '70s art rockers Hatfield and the North. Conversely, the acoustic-guitar driven "You Were Out" recalls the sensuous ballads of tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd. For Black, it's all fair game, whatever you call it.

"I like things that pare down to just one note or a solo, or something that has this chaos element to it," he says. "As my moods would change I wanted the disc to do that also. On college radio they will spin things back to back that make no sense at all. It can go from Brahms to Ornette Coleman. I love that whole idea of radio culture that is a big influence. The style doesn't always matter."

And Black's inclusion of styles he hears as he travels the globe with the ethnic folk/jazz group Pachora or his own AlasNoAxis is just another ingredient, another sound to be manipulated on laptop computer and regurgitated through standard instrumentation.

"Splay revolves around a certain range. It is not jazz at all, there is no real swing on it. But it moves around songs and textures. Not a lot of improv, more about collective zones and songs. The next album is even more extreme."

Like a small but growing army of musicians, Black is taken with using the computer for radical rethinks of the jazzman's usual improvisational process. Radiohead get props for reviving The Beatles' tape loop fetish, but such musicians as Ikua Mora, Evan Parker, Fennesz, Andrew D'Angelo, Dave Binney, Nels Cline, and Kurtis Hasselbring are meshing the quick edits and sampling technology of computers with pure improvisation to great, if not widely acknowledged success.

"Where this music is crossing over, explains Black, "is between improv and electronics, people like Jim O'Rourke are an influence, people who have nothing to do with jazz but they are improvisers. It is just the same. This is where these lines cross, we are all fans of labels like Mego with Pita, and we all use acoustic instruments with electronics.

"One difference between Sonic Youth, Bjork and Radiohead's Kid A and what we do is that we improvise more. We don't have the vocalist, but we are still dealing with song forms and how to stretch them differently. But the colors and the instrumentation are somewhat the same."

Jazz in the year 2002 is at a turning point. With corporate dollars funneling into an ever-smaller musical pot, guerilla tactics are needed, and musicians ready, willing and able to ride whatever design the future brings. And as unrest seems to permeate the outside world, these musicians will surely reflect the discontent, beauty and hopeful resolution in their music. Call it jazz, call it what you will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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