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Archive for June, 2012

The Imaginary Divide: Bela Fleck and Marcus Roberts

Not long ago saw the release of an album calculated to take the average listener by surprise: a joint effort between banjoist Bela Fleck and pianist Marcus Roberts and his trio featuring Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums. Yes, that Bela Fleck, of the spectacular, idiosyncratic jazz/blues/bluegrass/fusion/world band the Flecktones. And yes, that Marcus Roberts, known in part for his collaborations with Wynton Marsalis and his association with the currents of neo-traditionalism that have very vociferous opinions about what is and is not “jazz”. In other words, this is a collaboration between Roberts and a major proponent of all he sees wrong in the current scene. Indeed, the drummer on this record, the undeniably talented Jason Marsalis, is better known in some circles not for his musicianship, but his conservatism, and outbursts like this one, in which he decries the trend of young musicians breaking the conventions of jazz:

After a brief plug for the local scene, Marsalis takes issue with such modern staples as chromaticism in solos, odd time signatures, a lack of emphasis on standards and straight feel. What should one do if one is caught in a situation when such music is played? “Run for the door.”

This is an ongoing debate in the jazz community and it is fundamentally about traditionalism. Marsalis sees an inherent value in the perpetuation of the tradition as it is; his emphasis on learning and playing standards and studying from past masters suggest how strongly he believes in perpetuating the tradition. Fleck, on the other hand, could rather be seen as an anti-traditionalist; in style and sound, Fleck’s music is often radically new, melding styles and instrumentation that had never previously had anything to do with each other. As if in recognition of the apparent contradiction, the album has the thought provoking title of “Across the Imaginary Divide“, as if this album presented the consolation between two seemingly opposed conceptions of the music. So, does this album bridge the divide?

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New Stuff: Linda Oh and Return to Forever Returns

Chick Corea with the Five Peace Band at the Bluenote, November 2011

More new albums for today. The latest iteration of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever came out with a live two disc set and bassist Linda Oh’s excellent sophomore album “Initial Here“. Posts on the new Ravi Coltrane album (assuming I can find a copy) and Bela Fleck, Marcus Roberts and traditionalism upcoming, but the Linda Oh and Return to Forever albums should provide plenty to talk about for now.

Linda Oh, an Australian raised Malaysian-Chinese bassist now operating in New York, released her first album as leader, aptly titled “Entry“, in 2009. In between she’s been making waves in the live scene, although from what I can tell she’s been on only a handful of recordings. One of those was Dave Douglas’ “Orange Afternoons” which was a fine album with a great band: Dave Douglas on trumpet, Vijay Iyer on piano, Ravi Coltrane on saxophone, Linda Oh on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums. It was extremely enjoyable, but Oh’s bass was not really on display there. Fortunately we have her new album to remedy that: it is an album on which both her playing and compositions shine.

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Some New Stuff: Harrell, Fly and Unity

There have been a number of recent albums worthy of a few comments. I suspect that Pat Metheny’s “Unity Band” which just came out is likely going to garner a lot of attention; just look at that band. Also recently come out is the Fly trio’s overdue new album “Year of the Snake“. In addition, I’d like to say a word or two about Tom Harrell’s most recent album, the aptly titled “Number Five“, which has been out a few weeks now. Chronologically, Harrell is a good place to begin.

“Number Five” is so named because it is the fifth album Tom has put out with this band, which I saw augmented with strings earlier this year. Tom is pretty dependable as both a musician and composer and as I believe I said when I saw him live, I love this band, and I’m glad to see it producing records. While maintaining a working band over a longer period of time has its advantages, it does suffer one potential pitfall in that the albums can start to sound alike as years go by. I found 2008’s “Prana Dance” utterly compelling; last year’s “Time of the Sun” was some how not as exciting. This time round, Tom and the band seem to be trying to mix the sound up just a bit and the result is a very satisfying full album.

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The Future of Jazz part 3: Esperanza Spalding

Before really getting into the meat of my review of Esperanza Spalding’s “Radio Music Society“, I think a word or two is needed about Esperanza’s budding role as an ambassador for ‘jazz’. When she won the grammy for best new artist, beating out inexplicable pop sensation Justin Bieber no less, it raised hopes among jazz commentators that jazz would gain a wider audience. In some ways, it was a strange hope for traditionally minded commentators to harbor, for, despite her association with Joe Lovano in the ‘Us Five’ band (which is excellent), only in the loosest conceivable sense of the word can her solo music be described as ‘jazz’. Esperanza represents something of a tension within the jazz community. The message seems to be that jazz can be relevant in the contemporary context, and even popular, but just not the jazz we’ve been used to.

If this sounds a bit harsh, it shouldn’t. I’m pretty sure Esperanza Spalding is the love of my life, and this album is really spectacular. Pre-release, I was skeptical about it on concept, as self-conscious blends of musical styles, particularly those aimed at a broader audience, tend to be just that: self-conscious. Jazz homage to the popular radio hit is a concept that flirts with disastrous execution. Spalding pulls it off with ease and aplomb though. The songs are somehow both easy and engaging melodically while being simultaneously involved and personal. This is music that works on every level: you could sit and analyze the counterpoint or you could turn it up and dance with equal ease. That’s no mean feet. For the way it pulls together the intellectual and dance strains of the tradition and delivers what is both an artistic statement and a really engaging pop album it is an easy front runner so far for jazz album of 2012. And, as I’ve said, it’s barely jazz.

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