Put it this way: if jazz is dead, it does a great job resuscitating. The deluge of releases by a groundbreaking cast of emerging and accomplished talents is so astounding it makes records reviewing feel like a Sisyphean task. Everywhere you turn, a new gem sprouts. Yours truly has learned it the hard way. Whenever I get around to reviewing a new favorite of mine, I realize it has already been extensively reviewed, blogged about and shared on social media on a massive scale. And a month ago…Fair enough. At least the music does get talked about. But it is really the place where it’s happening? At its core, jazz is live music. At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, this is an important no-brainer to keep in mind when evaluating the quality of this music.
My point is this. No matter what label you want to put on it – and there is no shortage of post-bopisms out there – there is something about the essence and evolution of jazz that transcends its documentation on record. And that is the element of surprise that’s anchored in the art form and that appears so blatantly when you go hear musicians perform live. You can hear that on albums of course, especially the live ones. But at best they’re only a one-night snapshot of a much more eventful process, a process of mutability that doesn’t have anything to do with studio production but instead with the varying levels of inspiration and interaction happening during a collective performance. How does the drummer choose to drive the music, are they playing behind, on or ahead of the beat? How fast does the band react if one member stumbles? Is the piano comping during the sax player’s solo? Does that interfere with the solo? In a good or bad way? Is everyone improvising collectively in the moment or taking solos in turn? How effective is the drum and bass connection? Etc. On records, whether or not the wrong notes, the skipped beats, the fluffed starts, the misunderstandings in the form, the solo overlaps, and the whole range of unpredictable twists and turns will be left in the final mix is a matter of production discussion. Oftentimes, producers choose the polished sound over the rough edges of human imperfection. Pick an old classic from the 60s and enjoy all the kinks. It’s really fun and educational to hear the masters fumble their way through their art and get away with it. It humanizes their artistry. Has Miles Davis’ enormous contribution to jazz ever been questioned because he played wrong notes? Put on any record by Miles from any period and there is at least one big glitch, often intentional in his case as the man was reportedly temperamental.
I’m no nostalgist for a bygone era I wasn’t even born to experience. I didn’t go hear Coltrane and co stretch out for 35 minutes on “My Favorite Things” in a smoke-infested club or Monk breaking into dance during bass solos. In a sense, yes, that era of jazz is gone. That nighttime club culture is dead. Replaced by a lounge-oriented culture that too often misrepresents the art form as background mush it never was and never will be. So there’s solace in having this music available on tape as it provides a time capsule of a bygone era, in all its glorious and occasionally embellished mythology. I also acknowledge the invaluable sonic and graphic contributions that definitely helped sell jazz to the general public. The bulky catalogues of original and reissued Blue Notes and Impulses are the treasure trove of the art form. Thank you Rudy Van Gelder for acknowledging Elvin Jones’ genius with that beautifully crisp ride cymbal.
Like most aficionados, I love Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme or Money Jungle and consider them sublime works of art in their own right. I cherish my copies like the collector’s items that they are. But at the end of the day, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Compare those records with their recorded live renditions when they exist and it’s not even the same music. Consider this: how many nights have the masters played amazingly well to utterly inattentive audiences and produced music that makes their resulting albums look like tepid rehearsals? Records have a way of taming down the music sometimes. At any rate, they will never convey the full picture of the precarious art of live improvisation. Don’t get me wrong, they need to exist and be heard – and the Internet has helped tremendously to make them more widely and easily accessible – but if there is still such a thing as “jazz”, it’s happening on the bandstand, not in the museum.
Enough ranting. You got the point.
For your interest, let me give you two examples to illustrate what I’ve been rambling on about. It occurred to me on a train ride recently. On “Evidence” off the live album Monk At the It Club, drummer Ben Riley finishes his solo after which time Monk is supposed to restate the theme (the melody if you prefer). That’s how classic jazz is done. Head-chorus-head. Well, what Monk plays at this critical moment (the song please!) is the melody of another Monk tune, “Straight No Chaser”. When I heard this I almost jumped off my seat with laughter. I could just imagine the band exchanging puzzled looks and wondering how in the world they are going to take the tune out. Luckily they segue back into “Evidence” pretty seamlessly. Phew! Now, put on the blues “Sid’s Ahead” from Miles Davis’ Milestones. And pity the poor Paul Chambers, who, along with Philly Joe Jones’ indestructible hit-hat shuffle, has been bravely chopping down thumping quarter notes like a diligent lumberjack through Miles, Coltrane and Cannonball’s solos respectively, wondering when the hell he will be able to take his spot. He tries repeatedly, and sure enough 12 more bars follow. Listen to how he almost makes it, at the 8:10 mark, and shoot!, it’s not now yet, Paul! Jazz can be merciless.
These examples may sound esoteric, anecdotal and not even funny at all to the uninitiated, but they’re at the core of what makes this music so engaging and unpredictable.
So yes, today’s major jazz artists release well though-out, nicely produced records by the ton but the sad truth is they are not selling! Sure, we have to keep those albums coming and people need to keep buying them. But if today’s jazz performers have any chance to survive in an increasingly competitive market, with young kids coming out of schools with kick-ass chops, there needs to me more venues to hear them perform. The masters of the past had a tough time living off their art, for different reasons. It’s always been hard. Today is a different kind of hard. Ideally, we should check out the music live and buy the records afterward. What a peculiar irony that jazz seems to be everywhere, except where it should be. On a bandstand. We only need to look a little harder to find them (the bandstands!).
Thelonious Monk, Live at the It Club (Columbia), “Evidence”
Miles Davis, Milestones (Columbia), “Sid’s Ahead”
For contradiction’s sake, here is a short list of albums you and I should be checking out now:
Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter Three, River Run Thee (Constellation). Jazz is clearly a reductive term for the multi-talented artist. Matana Roberts keeps weaving her “panoramic soundquilt” on her third installment. A fascinating agenda.
Vijay Iyer Trio (with Stephen Crump and Marcus Gilmore), Break Stuff. No drawn-out soloing here. But a potent rhythmic machine that keeps pushing ahead.
Mark Turner quartet (with Avishai Cohen, Joe Martin and Marcus Gimore) Lathe of Heaven (ECM): Same drummer, very different music. Cohen’s trumpet is the perfect lyrical match for Turner’s approach.
Matthew Shipp Trio (with Michael Bisio and Whit Dickey) To Duke (Rogue Art)Haven’t listened to this yet. But looking forward to hearing the trio’s deconstruction on the jazz master.
Steve Lehman (with Mark Shim, Drew Gress, Tyshawn Sorey, Jonathan Finlayson, Jose Davila, Tim Albright, Chris Dingman), Mise en Abîme (Pi Recordings). Don’t ask me what spectral harmony is. I’m clueless. But I’m curious to hear their take on Bud Powell.