16 April 2010

Christian Scott and a New Jazz Orthodoxy

It has been a long time since Wynton Marsalis made the cover of Time Magazine. Twenty years ago, actually. Though he had risen to the top of the jazz world by that time, the October 20, 1990 issue of Time served as Wynton's unofficial coronation as the most well-known jazz musician in mainstream America. With that, of course, came his role as the major tastemaker in the jazz world (and the accompanying backlash which still lingers). But in the intervening two decades, we have yet to see another jazz musician rise to the top of the heap, as it were, and become the new face of jazz for the mainstream.

Enter Christian Scott. His latest album, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, was released last month, and Scott has made a media blitz which is rare for a jazz musician. Scott has appeared on late-night talk shows and NPR, sat in with Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and been featured in Vibe, New York Magazine, and the Village Voice, just to name a few. None of this matches Wynton's Time cover, but Scott could very well add a few more high profile notches to his belt before the year is up (it should be noted that Maralis had been leading his own groups for almost a decade before the Time cover). On top of that, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow could very well make everyone's year-end lists of the best albums of 2010. I will not predict that Scott will become the Marsalis; such predictions rarely end up being true. But whether or not he gets noticed by the rest of America, he could very well play an important role in the ongoing evolution of jazz.

The question "What is jazz?" is beyond cliche, but Christian Scott is fast becoming the embodiment of an answer to this question (though not necessarily the answer), whether he likes it or not. Though I suspect he may like it. Having read and watched a number of different interviews of his lately, it is plainly evident to me that Scott is not afraid to share his feelings on jazz. Case in point, in his recent All About Jazz interview, Scott recounts his own disagreements with Marsalis, and criticizes his narrow conception of jazz, "He got to this place where he's at the top of the pile, and then he decided he was going to tell everyone else in the country what to listen to and how to play jazz." Scott goes on to dismiss the idea of recording a standards album, as well. None of this is, of course, anything new for a jazz musician to say. However, Scott and a number of his contemporaries, to me, embody a conception of jazz that moves beyond the Jazz Wars of the 1990s (Marsalis complaints notwithstanding).

Musicians like Christian Scott, Vijay Iyer, Robert Glasper, and Jason Moran (just to name a few) seem to experience jazz as an oral tradition, one that is adaptable to various external forces and one which can incorporate new strands without losing its identity as jazz.1 You can find ample evidence of this relationship with jazz in the music of these artists. For one, they seem to fill out their repertoire with both nonjazz tunes (from genres as diverse as classical, rap, alternative rock, and gospel) and standards written by some of jazz's universally-recognized masters, like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, or Andrew Hill. They are reverent of the past, but they value individual expression over belonging to a certain school (as Davis, Monk, and Hill did).

As for the nonjazz tunes, they run the gamut from M.I.A. to Radiohead to Ligeti and beyond. What's important is not the specific music but the fact is that far from jazz, yet these musicians love it enough to bring into the fold. This is obviously not the first generation to listen to other kinds of music besides jazz, nor is it the first to incorporate it into its own music. Rather, Christian Scott and company draw heavily from one strain of jazz tradition that is ecumenical in its source material. Some forebears in this strain would include Lennie Tristano, Anthony Braxton, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock.

So Scott has made a powerful argument for bridging the gap between Marsalis' neoclassicists and his detractors, who maybe were a bit too preoccupied with denying boundaries (or maybe not, and their resistance to Marsalis was less about boundaries in general than Marsalis' specific boundaries). Regardless, though Christian Scott may become just another jazz musician who occasionally pops into the popular consciousness, he has made his position on what is jazz quite clear, and he is not alone in his artistic choices.

Note: Moran and Glasper appeared on my Jazz Now list last year, and two of the three other groups on my list, The Bad Plus and Happy Apple, I would say share this relationship to jazz I am describing.

Jason Parker on jazz and cultural relevance (I'd say Jason and I are on a similar wavelengths)
Time's 1990 cover story on Marsalis
Christian Scott's AAJ interview
A Blog Supreme's Jazz Now project

1 Of course, calling jazz an oral tradition is somewhat anachronistic, as the music can be preserved in a number of physical forms (recordings and sheet music most prominently) which are vastly more efficient means of propagation than oral transmission. But even so, because of the existence of recordings, we can experience music in its historical moment well after it was created, allowing up-and-coming musicians to become familiar with a vast musical history in a relatively short amount of time. We can arrange our introduction to the past in such a way as to learn the tradition chronologically, as if witnessing a century of history in order. In other words, we can comprehend jazz as an oral tradition through artificial recreations of the past (i.e. recordings).

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