Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

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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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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Future of Jazz: Part Two, Vijay

Now on to the Vijay Iyer trio and their new album “Accelerando“. If you haven’t been paying close attention, the Vijay Iyer trio, consisting of Vijay, Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums, made quite a splash back in 2009 with the release of their album “Historicity“. In the time since, they’ve been in high demand as a touring group, and with good reason. “Historicity” was a pretty captivating album and “Accelerando” delivers just as its predecessor did. If, perhaps, lacking the element of surprise that “Historicity” had, the new album is, if anything, an even better, even more tightly constructed work.

If I felt that the recent Robert Glasper album was a surprisingly static affair, and unfortunately so, I cannot make the same criticism of Vijay. If anything, the Vijay Iyer Trio is a group with an overabundance of dynamism. Part of what makes the group so fascinating is simply the way in which the band members interact with each other. As a group they largely eschew the traditional model of melody-somebody solos-somebody else solos-melody-the end for a much more nuanced approach. One moment one member of the band will be up front, the next somebody else will suddenly step forward and take the lead; ‘solos’ will blend together in such a way that sometimes it’s hard to tell where one person’s solo begins and another’s ends.

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The Future of “Jazz”: Part One

The last month or so has seen three releases by artists who are sometimes held up as the “new thing” for jazz going forward. I’m talking about Robert Glasper, Vijay Iyer and Esperanza Spalding. I’ve been busy and haven’t had much of an opportunity to review things as they come, but with a bit of free time right now, I’d like to take a moment to talk about these releases and what they say about the state of the music. Each of these releases says, not always with the same amount of success, something different, and if we want to continue talking about ‘jazz’ as a community or type of music or even a group of related musics, we need to address what exactly is going on. First, a few words about these albums, starting with Glasper. I’ll cover Vijay and Esperanza and the general message in following posts.

Before I attempt to review Robert Glasper’s “Black Radio” I want to start by saying that Glasper is one of my favorites of the younger crowd of pianists and probably the young pianist whose future I most excitedly look forward to. I’ve seen the trio live and past albums have been great. And, on top of that, I think the melding of jazz and hip hop that he’s looking into is an exciting way to incorporate new elements of popular music culture into the framework of jazz. I say all this so that no one will get the wrong impression when I say that I found “Black Radio” incredibly disappointing.

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Further Explorations: Chick Corea album review and thoughts on tributes in general

This last week saw the release of Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez and Paul Motian’s “Further Explorations“, a tribute of sorts to piano great Bill Evans with two alumni of Evans’ groups. As tributes go, it’s pretty good, in no small part I think because it’s only sometimes a tribute and as often as not it’s own album. As a pianist who’s had a lasting impact on the language jazz, Bill Evans has had no shortage of tribute, and we, the listening public, have never wanted for mediocre takes on ‘Waltz for Debby’ as a result. This album may not be truly groundbreaking, neither my favorite of Chick’s nor of Paul’s albums, but it has a sound its own and more than a few interesting moments.

This was basically a pickup band for two weeks at the Bluenote in early 2010, but the pieces fit together pretty well, which is not always a guarantee when people with as idiosyncratic a bent as Paul Motian or Eddie Gomez are put together. Strike of luck that they aren’t stepping on each other’s toes but actually give each other just the right amount of space. Ethan Iverson’s wonderful tribute to Paul Motian has a section which discusses Paul’s personal reminiscences to Ethan, some of which are in regards to Bill Evans. Paul, it seems, tried to get Bill to hire ‘earthier’ bassists, while Bill largely refused. Eddie Gomez, Bill’s bassist for many years, does not have what you would describe as a particularly ‘earthy’ sound. I have mixed feelings about Eddie; he has undeniable technical prowess, but so often his work sounds sort of dry and flat to me. And he is a wordy player; it’s a sound that doesn’t always play well with others. Paul Motian, despite his own proclivity to earthy bass players (see long time partner Charlie Haden) has a sound that is open and spacy enough to actually accommodate Eddie. Chick too knows how to work with Eddie, offering him counterpoint rather than chord-filled comping. Times during Eddie’s solo on the second track, “Gloria’s Step” sound almost like Eddie and Chick trading solo space. It’s the only way to work with someone as constantly active as Eddie and it works well. All in all, a fine album. Not the essential album, perhaps, but the Motian solo on ‘Hot House’ is worth the price of admission alone.

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