Friday, September 18, 2009

Jazz populi

By now, you have probably seen or heard of A Blog Supreme's efforts (or, more specifically, Patrick Jarenwattananon's efforts) to catalog a list of new-ish (within the last decade or so) "albums you would recommend to somebody looking to get into modern jazz." Note that this differs from a pure "best of" list in that its purpose is (hopefully) proselytization -- and so the albums chosen should contain jazz that is not only great, but accessible (and inspiring) to those who are not already inclined toward the stuff.

That word "accessible" is a little controversial, of course -- at least to the extent that one assumes it's meant as a pejorative. For the record, when I use it, it's not. But I guess when Henry Powderly uses it (as he did in a comment appended to Lucas Gillan's list), it is:

I have to disagree on Largo. [Brad] Mehldau is indeed one of the most influential modern artists but Largo is a stain on his discography, a watered-down record that clearly put "accessibility" in front of artistry. I own every record he ever made, and deleted that one.

We should definitely celebrate the young artists that are carrying the torch of jazz, but we can't forget what that torch is, what jazz is: Unapologetic, spontaneous and above all honest music. The rest of the drivel coming out of the record industry may not value those, but jazz must always if it intends to evolve.

Tellingly, Mehldau never made another record like Largo.

I guess I understand the point here. Why try to sell jazz to people who are not already into it by changing it into something it's not? Rock fans (for instance) may end up liking the hybrid thing you create merely to the extent that it is not jazz. And how exactly is that motivation for them to get into the "real thing"?

Of course, this idea of "accessibility" is pretty slippery when you look at it closely. One could argue that a jazz musician who employs the sort of extravagant studio-intensive production that usually characterizes rock releases (as Mehldau does on Largo) is "watering down" his or her art. But what if he or she happens to like extravagant studio-intensive production?

Or, to put it another way: who the fuck am I to say whether Brad Mehldau is or is not being "honest"? There is only one person who really knows that: Brad Mehldau.

(I'm sorry. I'm a natural-born hybridophile. And I love Largo. One man's "watering down" is another's water-on-fertile-ground, I guess. But I digress...)

* * * * *

What about my own selections? Well.

Since I haven't seen a lot of love (so far) extended toward west coast musicians on any of these lists, I'm going to have to represent a little. (Apologies in advance.)

Fair warning: most of the folks I am going to mention have some kind of connection to the Industrial Jazz Group. (Apologies in advance for that too. Is it my fault that many of the best musicians on this coast have played in my stupid band?)

Also: I have circumvented the request for a list of albums (since one could argue that albums are in fact becoming increasingly irrelevant to "the youngsters"), and have focused instead on bands.

Finally, I made my selections, in each case, based on what I perceive as hard evidence, personally witnessed, of crossover appeal. In other words, I'm not just listing these bands because I love them. In fact, there are other west coast jazz bands that I love just as much, but that I'm not listing here, because, in my estimation, they don't offer the same seductiveness for the neophyte. (Which is not necessarily a bad thing.) But I know for a fact that the following folks are all very good at creating new jazz fans. In each case, I've seen it with my own eyes.

1. Kneebody

I know it's a crude measure of their impact, but I have personally witnessed these guys make "the ladies" swoon. How many jazz bands do you know who can do that?

2. Nels Cline Singers

Is this not the 21st century jazz version of Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire? And, besides: Wilco.

3. Spaceheater's Blast Furnace

It's hard to find a YouTube video that does justice to how exciting this band really is. (Try their MySpace page for streaming samples.) Suffice it to say that in the hands of bandleader Evan Francis, the jazz/hip-hop/Cuban thing is a winner.

And, speaking of San Francisco:

Having to turn 200 people away from a concert by a large ensemble? If that's not bringing jazz to the masses, I don't know what is.


The crossover here is less with the Balkan music crowd than with the metalheads. PLOTZ! is loud, and, at their best, kind of sinister. (As an added bonus, it turns out this band was the only way I was able to get one of my System-of-a-Down-loving students to even think about listening to jazz.)

5. Wiener Kids

A video featuring the original incarnation of this group, with Steini Gunnarsson. Note the use of film as a part of the overall artistic expression. (Does it "water down" the music, I wonder?)

So: the first five bands that came to mind. There are more (way more, actually), but you get the idea.

* * * * *

One other (minor) thing:

If, as Jarenwattananon suggests, the problem jazz faces is primarily due to lack of "exposure" (and I happen to agree with that assessment), then it seems odd for any of these lists to include something by, say, the Bad Plus, or Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, or Medeski, Martin, & Wood. I admire these groups as much as the next indie-jazz afficionado, but whatever you think of them, it's hard to argue that they haven't had enough exposure. (Fer crissakes, I first of heard The Bad Plus on LA's hippest of hip radio stations, KCRW.)

Maybe none of these groups have yet performed on the US equivalent of the Mercury Prize award show, but most have been turning up in the usual indie rock haunts for a while now (MMR at Bonnaroo, for instance, or Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey at SXSW (the same year IJG was there, ironically)). So unless I seriously need to re-calibrate my sense of how the music business works, I'm pretty sure that "the kids" are going to hear about them whether we include them on our lists or not.

It's a quibble, I know. And I don't like to quibble, so I'm gonna sign off now.

* * * * *

Nothing to quibble with here: the Industrial Jazz Group is having a fall fundraiser, in support of our October tour! You can find out more, and contribute to the cause (for as little as $1!), here.

Plus! Check out the remix contest.


AccuJazz said...

Thanks for the post! And thanks for getting my back on the Largo comment. I think it is a little bit suspect to presume that any artist's work is "dishonest." I happen to think Largo was an "honest" work, because Mehldau had been living in LA for a while, networking with rock musicians and checking out the Largo scene, and that's the music that was in his head.

In regards to the exposure question: in the initial Jazz Now crew emails going back and forth among all of us, the point came up that to the average young music fan, Andrew D'Angelo's name is about as familiar as Christian McBride's (and Brad Mehldau's, for that matter). Yeah, the really hip kids have heard of TBP, but a lot of really hip kids probably still haven't even quite gotten in to whatever the next hot indie band is, let alone the jazz superstars. Now I know that it's a little presumptuous to think that our little blog postings will reach an audience that TBP's mass media exposure hasn't yet, but we're also thinking of this on a personal level: "Hey, Mr. Jazz Enthusiast, you should take your Bad Plus records and show your only-kind-of-hip friends how awesome jazz can be."

I was aware of the exposure question, however, and that's why I felt the need to include some way under-the-radar Chicago acts on my top 5 and in the honorable mentions.

Also, my word verification for this comment was "woogens." I thought that was pretty funny.

gtra1n said...

I think "Largo" is completely honest, it's just not very good. It's a shallow, trite rock instrumental record that not only is not good Mehldau, but is not good compared to other music that fits the idiom better, like Tortoise. Some things just explain themselves!

Patrick Jarenwattananon said...

1. Thanks for such an insightful response. Plus, West Coast-ers. I know admittedly too little about what's coming out west of the Mississippi.
2. I had forgotten there was such a controversy over 'Largo.' I do think it's honest and totally artistically valid -- whether or not it's good or not ... I remember liking it anyway (it's been a minute).
3. TBP and a small handful of other groups make the circuit, sure. And they have lots of fans! Of course, it will take a quorum -- of musicians, of sustained coverage, of touring -- to make people realize something is going on with this whole jazz thing at large. (Music education in the general populace notwithstanding.) But what about the IJG? Do you feel that if you were just given a brief writeup and mp3 in Stereogum or The Fader or something -- that if your music didn't come with this unfortunate stigma of "not for me" that accompanies most things jazz -- a sizable spike of people might get it?


Andrew Durkin... said...

Hey guys, thanks for reading / commenting.

On Largo -- I guess I never even considered measuring it against a Tortoise record. I have no idea what Mehldau's intentions were, but to me, Largo sounds more like he was channeling Martin Denny, with modern digital studio sizzle in place of jungle sounds.

Ahem. I realize that that comparison won't redeem it for the haters, and that's fine. Maybe I've been living on the left coast too long, but I find a certain quirky charm in that kind of thing.

But what about the IJG? Do you feel that if you were just given a brief writeup and mp3 in Stereogum or The Fader or something -- that if your music didn't come with this unfortunate stigma of "not for me" that accompanies most things jazz -- a sizable spike of people might get it?

I guess I'm counting on that, to some degree. But as you say, critical mass is the thing. The success of (relative) superstars is probably as problematic in jazz as it is in the rest of the music business: it's certainly better than nothing, but it doesn't do much to ensure the longevity of the music as a whole.

Maybe too I was theorizing that younger music fans are often resistant to "big" or "commercially successful" artists (however unfairly), because they are not "underground" enough.

In any case, I have been finding all of the lists great so far, particularly in cases where I haven't heard a given artist before. And I actually do believe that these "little blog postings" (as Lucas put it) have a very important role to play!