30 July 2010

Juke Joint

This color photo of a juke joint in Belle Glade, Florida comes via the Denver Post's photo blog, which just ran a post featuring 70 color photographs from 1939-1943. The photos are from the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information archives. Be sure to check out the full post.

27 July 2010

The Latest Iteration of the Jazz Audience Debate

In addition to treating music as sound rather than art, Generation F rarely listens to an entire track, let alone an entire album. The record industry has been grappling with this album problem since the arrival of the digital download. Buyers cherry pick what they want for 99 cents rather than purchase entire albums. Which means most personal iTunes libraries are vessels for thousands of individual songs. Melody fatigue sets in fast and fingers commonly click for the next song before a track is through. 
"...and its history is too deep for a casual relationship." I could say the same about heavy metal. But I wouldn't, because I'm not a snobbish idiot. Music is music. Each work should be taken or left on its own merits. This is the single thing I hate most about jazz people—their fixation on the idea that jazz is a course of study, not a world of music there to be enjoyed. Not studied, though you can do that if you want to. Enjoyed. Jazz musicians, like all musicians, make music in the hope that it will give people pleasure, not in the hope that it will give people subjects for monographs and symposia decades later. This is why I say that if you want to convert a non-jazz listener into a jazz listener, don't say "You should listen to jazz." Instead, figure out what they already like, and say, "You should listen to [specific jazz album]."

It's a good thing Myers' complaining is mostly directed at people his own age or older. If people in their twenties read his whiny bullshit and reductive generalizations of their generation, they might wind up turned off to jazz, rather than mostly unaware of it, as they are now.
Myers' logical leap is his assumption that my generation will never approach music listening in any other way. Just because you treat music as white noise at times, or have an itchy trigger finger at others, certainly doesn't mean that you're incapable of close listening. (If nobody ever shows us how to do that close listening, it seems like the fault of music education rather than technology.) After all, the same innovations that Myers believes to encourage bad things in listening — the MP3, Apple's music software, tiny portable players — also make it possible to pay more attention in more ways and means than ever too.
There's not much that I feel the need to add here, except to echo Freeman's and Jarenwattananon's assertions that when discussing the state of the jazz audience, technology is a double-edged sword. Pick a medium, and you can point out advantages and disadvantages over other media. If anything, the rise of digital media has been a net positive for expanding the jazz audience, for these reasons (among others):
  1. Digital media lowered the price of jazz albums. Music that would cost $17.99 at Barnes and Noble in the late 1990s can be purchased on iTunes of the Amazon mp3 store for $9.99 or less. During the CD era, jazz albums were largely priced and marketed as kind of a luxury good, since most of the audience was middle-aged (or older) and relatively affluent. This made it more difficult for younger audiences to get their hands on as much music as possible.
  2. Illegally downloaded music, while bad financially for both record companies and artists, nonetheless put jazz music in more young people's collections. When I was in college, I noticed that more than a few non-jazz fans I knew had some jazz on their hard drives. It cannot be a completely bad thing for more people to have access of the music, even if it took illegal means to achieve that end.
  3. Digital media gave projects like Nextbop a chance to succeed in convincing young people that, despite what preconceived notions they have about jazz, they may actually like it. Nextbop could not exist in the LP era.

Something Different

No jazz today, just Best Coast. Fuzzy, lo-fi shoegaze with a nod to the Beach Boys and the Ronettes:

Their new album drops today.

26 July 2010

Under the Radar: The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers

Jack DeJohnette featuring Bill Frisell
The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers

When some albums go out of print, I mourn for those who will miss their chance at hearing them. Such is The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers, an exploratory gem from Jack DeJohnette and Bill Frisell. Fulfilling his reputation as an adventurous spirit, DeJohnette masterminds an effort worthy of its own entry at destination: OUT. The album was recorded at the 2001 Earshot Festival in Seattle, with bass lines, effects, ambient sounds, and loops added by DeJohnette and sound engineer Ben Surman in post-production.

The tunes on The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers fall into two categories: grooves and explorations. The title track falls in the former. Leading off the album, Bill Frisell lays down a spooky extended blues over DeJohnette's heavy rhythms. The effects in the background give the tune a darker, more animated mood which really enhances the tune. Frisell and DeJohnette play so well off each other, with one seamlessly filling the gaps left over by the other. The song is followed by Cat and Mouse, a tune in the latter category on which DeJohnette plays various percussion and finger keyboards while Frisell picks some free banjo. It is very outside, I think Frisell plays banjo here the way Don Cherry plays trumpet. It is nonsensical in a way but also very fun to hear. Frisell's playfulness shines through.

Another such sound exploration comes on Cartune Riots. I really can't tell who is doing what on this track, but it sounds like an alternate universe in a Marvin the Martian tune which may or may not give you nightmares and maybe flashbacks. It will turn off many listeners, to be sure, but I appreciate the effort.

One of Frisell's strengths is his sense of melody, which allows him to craft solos full of little ideas from the same harmonic palette. This is evident in Ode to South Africa, the highlight of the disc. Frisell plays about six minutes in F major, but he doesn't repeat himself and doesn't dwell on one motif for more than sixteen measures or so. Under him, DeJohnette demonstrates that the drumset was originally a recreation of an African drum ensemble. He moves from an exploration of the toms into a robust 4-4 groove on ride cymbal and open snare. Frisell's solo builds up to a feeling of euphoria which accompanies a loop of African voices that echo through the final ninety seconds of the tune. Of all the Frisell solo's I've heard, I think this one is my favorite.

The album closes with John Coltrane's After the Rain, and DeJohnette and Frisell accomplish the feat of reworking a Coltrane tune so well that I prefer it to the original (which rarely happens). Switching to piano, DeJohnette augments the melody with some whimsical lines on piano to give the tune a dream-like haze. Combined with Frisell's spare comping, it's the perfect cool-down. Like a post-coital nap, it is a calming restoration of the senses which leaves the listener completely at peace. Serenity now.

Track listing: The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers...; Cat and Mouse; Entranced Androids; The Garden of Chew-Man-Chew; Otherworldly Dervishes; Through the Warphole; Storm Clouds and Mist; Cartune Riots; Ode to South Africa; One Tooth Shuffle; After the Rain
Personnel: Jack DeJohnette: drums, percussion, vocals, piano; Bill Frisell: guitar, banjo; Ben Surman: additional percussion

25 July 2010

Chart of the Day

Via Jason Parker:

Related (baseball): Flip Flop Fly Ball.

Sunday Morning

In case you missed it, Karen Michel interviewed Dave Holland yesterday for NPR's Weekend Edition yesterday. The story is worth the time, covering Holland's "discovery" by Miles Davis, his development as a bassist, and his mentoring of younger musicians.

I recently got my hands on Holland's new album, Pathways. I've enjoyed it both times I listened to it so far, but may not be returning to it too much. Not because the music isn't good. It is. I'm just not in a mood for an eight-piece ensemble at the moment. Regardless, the rendition of How's Never on the album is pure bliss, and Nate Smith is an absolute titan of a drummer, and when is Chris Potter ever boring? (hint: never). Holland has become such an institution in jazz that he can release a quality album like Pathways and I will take it for granted. You have to make some incredible music for a really long time to make that happen.

23 July 2010

Friday Album Cover: Rubber Soulive

This week I learned via Nextbop that acid jazz trio Soulive will release a Beatles tribute in September titled Rubber Soulive. The cover for the album (above), is a wonderfully minimalist homage to the distinctive psychedelic font found on the Beatles' Rubber Soul (below). While I don't yet know whether I will like the album, I wholeheartedly approve of the cover.

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

12 July 2010

Music Monday

Earlier this year the jazz blogosphere was abuzz over a single (rare in jazz) off the new Christian Scott album. Scott's take on Thom Yorke's The Eraser is a pretty mellow affair, with Scott using a harmon mute to create a wispy, airy tone that I don't think I've ever heard before. Yorke dug it, if we can make that assumption based on the fact that he invited Christian to sit in on one of his side projects recently.

10 July 2010

It's Funny Because It's True

Comedian Paul F. Tompkins on jazz:

Paul F. Tompkins - Jazz is Lousy
Futurama New EpisodesIt's Always Sunny in PhiladelphiaRussell Simmon Stand-Up Comedy

Whether you like the bit or not, this guy has clearly listened to some jazz, otherwise he wouldn't know about musicians laughing on stage. Not for nothing, this is Exhibit A in my case for rebranding jazz.

06 July 2010

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Louis Armstrong died 39 years ago today. Shortly after Armstrong died, Dizzy Gillespie penned this obituary for Satchmo (click to enlarge).
Never before in the history of black music had one individual so completely dominated an art form as the Master, Daniel Louis Armstrong. His style was equally copied by saxophonists, trumpet players, pianists and all of the instrumentalists who make up the jazz picture.

One of the significant factors in his art was the ability to sing exactly as he played. Before Louis, too, the role of the trumpet was to lead. He established the trumpet as a solo instrument. The distinctive quality in his style was POWER. He was known to have hit hundreds of high C's, one after the other, each with the same level, and to end on a high F or G. This was unheard of before. His melodic concept was as near perfect as possible, his rhythm impeccable. And his humor brought joy into the lives of literally millions of people, both black and white, rich and poor.

When the State Department sent me on a cultural mission to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and South America in 1956, the band did a musical history of the various innovations that had been created in our music. Needless to say, Louis was prominently displayed.

Louis is not dead, for his music is and will remain in the hearts and minds of countless millions of the world's peoples, and in the playing of hundreds of thousands of musicians who have come under his influence.

The King Is Dead ... Long Live the King!
Here are the two playing Umbrella Man:

Image via Columbia University

02 July 2010

Struttin' With Some Barbecue

I'm off on a mini-vacation to the Eastern shore of Maryland this weekend. I'll be seeing you again next week. In the meantime, drink up, eat well, and remember to celebrate the paterfamilias: