17 July 2010

Icons Among Us

Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense

"The truth never remains the same... The truth is now." So says Nicholas Payton at the outset of the DVD version of Icons Among Us, the documentary of modern jazz which has sparked much discussion in the jazz world over the past year. The film searches for an answer to the question which has sparked so many blog posts: What is jazz, or more specifically, what is jazz today? Those looking for a definite answer to this question will be disappointed by the film, but the meandering discussion, culled from interviews with about fifty different musicians, says a lot.

Jazz has become a music that is united not by certain stylistic tendencies, but by a broad range of traditions which inform, rather than define the music (that, at least, is my best attempt at a definition). The major arguments suggested by the documentary are united by one theme: the limits of codification. Well, almost. Wynton Marsalis, a figure present in any debate about the nature of jazz, makes a few appearances throughout the film, though he doesn't say much that anyone familiar to the debate hasn't heard before. At the beginning of the film, he laments, "We [jazz musicians] try to get as far away from that art as possible." He makes a facile analogy to other recognized art forms, saying, "We're the only people who created an art form and then tried to figure out how to make it not have a definition." While people are still trying to get into what Homer or Dante did, according to Marsalis, modern jazz musicians are running away from the past. Of course, we do not expect modern novelists to write something like The Iliad.

But let's not dwell on Wynton. Though at first glance, Icons Among Us seems like a convention of Nextbop artists, we hear from a number of musicians who you would never expect to share a bill at a festival, including Matthew Shipp, Wayne Shorter, Skerik from Garage a Trois, and Esperanza Spaulding. Unlike Marsalis, most of these artists eschew a reductive take on jazz, and instead argue that in a world where geographic and stylistic boundaries have been collapsed, what matters more than adherence to certain bedrock principles inherent in jazz is a pure expression of the unadulterated self. Most of the musicians in Icons Among Us don't care so much about defining their music. They know that it accurately reflects themselves and that it is not mainstream, and that seems to be enough.

Indeed, it seems the only rule in jazz to most of the musicians we hear from in the film is the emphasis on improvisation. Through improvisation a musician can channel both historical precedents like Bill Evans and Wayne Shorter in addition to other styles that appeal to that particular musician, be it hip hop, Americana, or whatever. By the end of the film, you can listen to performances from Roy Hargrove and the Brain Blade Fellowship, and even though they sound worlds apart, you can't really either of them anything but jazz. Is the argument (such as it is) in Icons Among Us successful? I can't tell, since I am clearly predisposed to this kind of heterodox definition of jazz. But it does show that, small(ish) audience to the contrary, we can at least say that jazz is alive and well, if nothing more.

See also: The Jazz Indie: an icons among us blog

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just love jazz.. :)