Monday, August 10, 2009

"Saving" Jazz

Terry Teachout asks, "Can jazz be saved?" here. Blowhard Donald Pittinger has a few thoughts on the matter ("Jazz Goes Geriatric"), generating commentary over here.

My ten centavos? I have to wonder about the parameters of the survey, as formulated by the National Endowment for the Arts. I can't help but suspect that the focus of the survey was indeed, "Geriatric Jazz" of whom the most contemporary act might be Diana Krall -- precisely the sort of station my parents have pre-set on their FM tuner. If you go to a Medeski, Martin & Wood concert, the hall is usually full and the median age is 30, possibly younger. As danceable as their music can be, I'd still have to call it "jazz." Then there's all this other weird stuff the kids are listening to: Acid, Ambient, Bebob, Funk, Fusion, Hip Hop, Trance and a few other sub-genres I know little about. Purists will argue these genres might contain elements of jazz, but they aren't the thing itself. But I'd say the only time jazz has ever been the thing itself is when it crossed the threshold into smarty-pants music -- the kiss of death for any genre. Nah, kids are listening to jazz music. It's just that geezers like Teachout, the NEA and myself prefer the older stuff.

Speaking of which: The Bright Mississippi by Allen Toussaint is quite a find. Toussaint is one of the genre's elder statesmen who's proved himself adept at keeping the music fun. This time, with Joe Henry sitting in the producer's chair, the music is bathed in a different, almost unsettling aura. The album is definitely not as creepy or dissociative as a David Lynch film, but that's who first comes to mind. When I first queued up the disc and stepped inside Henry's muffled echo chamber, I felt like I'd cleared through a hallway of cobwebs and discovered a nearly empty, amber-lit dance hall. Here's where Toussaint and his mates are playing, and as the disc proceeds the life force within their music gets stronger and stronger. This is marvelous music, especially for those of us who want "traditional" jazz to stay around just a little longer.

Post-Script: I was so pleased with myself I went ahead and posted the bulk of my argument on Pittinger's post.


DarkoV said...

Dead on about Mr. Toussaint's latest. I've been enjoying this cd for the last few months, especiallly with Mark Ribot's understated guitar work. I Love Ribot's work, but find his solo releases, like Nels Clines' stuff difficult to deal with past the initial 2-3 songs. He shines on The Bright Mississippi as do all of the other lucky musicians who were asked to accompany one of the last American musical geniuses, Allen Toussaint.

DarkoV said...

Once again Nonesuch proves it is THE premier American recording label. You simply can't go wrong with any of their output.
As regards Mr. Henry's latest, I've changed my tune. It's a fine addition to his previous release, although it is not for the feint-hearted of listeners. Darkness. Throughout. Great backup musicians, once again.

DarkoV said...

Geez, I'm an opinionated ???. Dead on, again, Sir, as regards the breadth/scope of jazz. I'm a bit surprised that you termed the navel-gazing windbag Teachout a "geezer". Careful there, Sir! I once posted something critical of the in-his-own-eyes great scribe in my dinky blog and he actually took me to task in his edifice of a blog. While I do admire his wordy skills, his pontification is a bit much. I hop, especially since you are linked on his site, that he doesn't seek you out for a verbal flaying. When you have a pulpit, bullying seems to be too much a temptation for some.
But, back to your comment. Aside from Medeski et al, Bad Plus, Galactic (and all of its side projects), Jenny Scheinman, Bill Frisell (whose excellent recent release is well worth the acquisition....yes, Nonesuch...again)all attract a mixed age of listeners.
As it seems with all musical genres these days, jazz is being stretched and influenced by other genres. The only thing is, jazz has always been open to affect. That's one of the beauties of jazz, its ever-unwinding flexibility.

DarkoV said...

My profuse apologies for being a windbag (what, perchance, is the mot juste for a windbag writer as oppposed to talker?) here on your blog. After reading Michael Blowhard's piece and specifically the comments to the piece, my reaction was, "Don't people leave the inclusive comfort of their homes?" Go thee to a live jazz performance and then make a judgement. It IS the live interplay of musicians with the audience, with the weather conditions, the current (as in the day of the concert) political timbre, even the meal that the band had before playing that all affect and liven up the performance. A jazz band/musician will sound a tiny bit like their recording; it is the live playing that makes jazz, yes, alive.
Sitting in one's palatial home listening to recordings and passing judgement on an entire musical genre seems especially close-minded and sloth-ish to me.

Whisky Prajer said...

DV - I seem to have hit a few nerve clusters. Re: TT -- neither he nor I enjoy being lumped in with the socks-and-sandals set, but we might as well face the facts. If it helps remove some of the sting, I'll admit I'm nearly a decade younger than Teachout is.

When it comes to jazz, or any other musical genre, the venue is the thing, as you point out. TT seems like a guy who enjoys walking a lively street and opening doors on whim, so I'm surprised to see him reach the conclusions he has. I'm guessing he's concerned with jazz reaching a level of near-universal acclaim -- i.e., popular music that generates an income a jazz player should be able to retire on. Ms Krall qualifies in this regard, as might one or two of the Marsalis family. But nobody gets into jazz, or any other art form, to secure their pension. There are still a few dozen survivors from the 50s scene who would say as much.

Whisky Prajer said...

I should also add: when it comes to comments, there is absolutely no need to apologize for wind-baggery. I consider it all grist for the mill.

And as for Nonesuch, well ... I'd begrudge them the number of purchases I make from their catalog if it weren't for the fact that they're the only label out there with physical product that is several worlds' removed from mere downloads. (I'm also kinda sentimental about the name.)

DarkoV said...

One thing that I find it hard to swallow these days (they being the last 5 years or so) is any pronouncement on any musical genre. Whether it's their demise, re-birth, or popularity.
The reason I ignore these pronouncements is due to the lack of objective measurements acting as a base for these comments. In the past, record or cd sales were a fairly solid indicator of the direction a genre was taking, (although the borrowing/lending movement of music was never easily trackable).
These days, how do you track popularity? Is it simply iTune download figures? That seems self-delusional as there's a subjective qty (i.e., limited) of items to pick from. The qty of ports to obtain music from is so great now that tracking them is an impossibility, IMHO.
More people are listening to music, it seems to me, and yet sales of music are downtrending with each passing year.
So, how does one make a pronouncement when it's so easy to dig around and find gems that never make the meter?
I read and listen to opinions about specific albums, songs, or cd's. My eyes glaze over, however, when a happy fool tries to pontificate about the nebulous genres. The least these people can do is to at least inject some humor into their ridiculous scribblings.

Cowtown Pattie said...

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing...dooo dah.

Whisky Prajer said...

CP - "amen" to that!

DV - It's a weird and frequently wonderful time for us all, especially those of us who make and absorb music. These grand pronouncements you decry are a little wearing, but were I to make one, I'd say "The Penchant For The Grand Pronouncement" can be singularly summed up as "A Cry Of Panic Over The Vanishing American Middle": Middle-Class, Middle-Culture, and any other "middle" "moderate" quality a commentator would care to identify.

So: we're not buying CDs anymore. But by the same token, we're increasingly surrounded by performance, to the point where our children think of their lives as performance art. Like any concerned (and, I'd like to think, attentive) parent I could enumerate potential dangers to this cultural shift. But, since I participate in it as well, I'm really quite keen on its potential.

On one of our trips into the city, we wandered into a high-end furniture store, for no other reason than that it looked incredibly funky. As we moseyed around the product, we noticed a young guy setting up a pair of speakers, then his bass guitar to a bass amp. His speakers were hooked up to a Mac lap-top; from this he generated an ethereal sounding synthesizer loop that had its own random algorithm. He played his bass in response to what his Mac was kicking out. I'm guessing most newspaper types wouldn't call that "jazz" and they wouldn't call a foofy furniture store a "venue." But, really: what else is it? And who couldn't help but be excited by it?