Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Incomplete Communion: Engaging Contemporary Post-bop

Tommy Turrentine
I’ll admit it – while I find a lot to enjoy in straight-ahead jazz, it’s really hard to review straight-ahead jazz CDs. Part of this is a result of questioning where tradition and the mainstream fit in together, and if indeed they actually parallel one another in creative music. Bill Dixon had a way of putting this conundrum that I appreciated, paraphrased thusly: “tradition is something which surrounds you. You start from where you are, and you’ll get to the rest in time.” For example, one could say that, if one plays the tenor saxophone, Chu Berry, Dexter Gordon and Arnett Cobb will be part of what one plays, even if where one places oneself might be within a language of circularity and flutter-tonguing.

To me, it seems like the mainstream in contemporary improvised music more greatly embraces what would have been called (and might still be called) the avant-garde. Whether they’ve been turned out through jazz education or through the “university of the streets” (which now seems less common), jazz musicians today are both technically proficient to an amazing degree, and startlingly aware of a wide range of aesthetic / structural developments from the 1960s forward. The music of AACM-related composers-musicians like Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, the chamber freedom of Jimmy Giuffe and Paul Bley, and profound developments in Europe all seem to be part of the core curriculum for young improvising composers. If one were to get instrumentally specific, with brass instrumentalists for example, rather than taking the crackling hard bop trumpet as a model/signifier, the significant languages dealt with have been formed by figures like Dixon and Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith.

In this climate, where does tradition fit in? Sure, it may be something underfoot, but what about directly engaging it through hard bop or standards? Why deal with an older model of “swing” when the very notion of “swing” has been in a continual redefinition for longer than many up-and-coming players have been alive? There are a number of things that have been needling my thoughts in this direction. First, through speaking with musician-composers who are invested in instrumental specifics as well as broader structural concerns, the question of “tradition” has come up multiple times – especially in my conversations with Anthony Braxton. Braxton is someone whose compositions encompass areas of sound, physics and experience that seem unmatched by any other musical thinker of our time. Yet, he’s also someone who just as much reveres the jazz tradition as he seeks out linkages between multivalent individual and collective experiences (i.e, traditions in humanistic generalities rather than specific aesthetics).

On occasion I have had the opportunity to speak with the drummer Alvin Fielder, who is a treasure trove of historical information about jazz drumming going back to its very beginnings – he listens, he plays, and he knows. Now based in Jackson, Mississippi, Alvin has worked with figures like Sun Ra, Roscoe Mitchell, Clifford Jordan, Ronnie Mathews, Dennis Gonzalez, Kidd Jordan, William Parker, Joel Futterman, the list goes on. With Futterman and Kidd, what they often play is totally improvised, yet one can hear the breadth of “tradition” in almost every set of phrases they create. Fielder is “free,” but he’s drawing linkages to Max Roach, Vernell Fournier, Kenny Clarke and the foundations of the music. When I sent him some CDs by the young drummer-bandleader Mike Reed, he was immediately able to hear Reed’s influences. Alvin has heard many currently active post-bop drummers, and figure out what they are trying to do as well as wax enthusiastically on the subject of playing music that swings. If Alvin, who also has an extraordinary critical ear, can find nuggets of clear importance in contemporary post-bop, why should it be difficult for someone who appreciates that same tradition to draw a comparable set of conclusions?

Lately I’ve received a sizeable stack of CD’s to review from artists who represent a decidedly “in the pocket” sub-sphere of this music. I’ll say again that my love for the music of Hank Mobley, Jackie McLean, Elmo Hope, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, or Duke Pearson – not to mention Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt, or Coleman Hawkins – is something that while not well documented in print, is pretty much a constant. Yet I find it very difficult to find the appropriate mental or verbal hook to begin dealing with younger practitioners of this approach to music. I can see the talents of these improvisers – people like Jacam Manricks (alto), Orrin Evans (piano), Eric Alexander (tenor) and Steve Davis (trombone) can surely play. They can also compose, and the results are uniformly vibrant, swinging, colorful and kinetic. But I come back to a basic question when listening to the newer crop of hard boppers – why?

There seems to be no problem engaging the space just to the left of post/hard-bop, occupied by improvising composers like Mike Reed, Joe Morris, Amanda Monaco (guitar), Jakob Sacks (piano), and Jason Adasiewicz (vibes). The work of artists like these seems vital and doesn't need a second guess. When giving drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s latest disc a preview spin the other night, it was clear what he and his compatriots were doing and what their reasoning was, even if it didn’t always hit on all four cylinders. I trust him and I trust his music. Sadly, I’m not sure I can say that about the otherwise clear music of contemporary hard-boppers as I’ve experienced it, which is strange – there aren’t too many obfuscating knots, and for that matter knots and contradictions can seem problematic even when they are at the same time objectively “interesting.” It's a question that as a critic, I ask myself as much as I ask the music.

Initially, this post was going to be a way of reviewing a slew of contemporary post-bop CDs by a number of promising blue-chip players, most of which I liked well enough. Now, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve over-thought it, perhaps. But at the same time, I don’t want to be one of those people who says that musician X’s life work, at the tender age of 37, is invalid JUST BECAUSE he or she is writing their own AABA compositions in 4/4 while instructing the pianist to take a 96-bar solo on the changes. Telling someone else their work isn’t “hip” still seems like it could be keeping food off their table. But I’m looking inward because I want to know why asking "why" seems necessary with contemporary straight-ahead jazz, and at this point, the result is a paucity of "swinging" review copy.

I’m looking forward to your responses.


  1. I want to know why asking "why" seems necessary with contemporary straight-ahead jazz

    The problem is not with the musicians; the problem is with you. I find this kind of thinking all too prevalent lately, and just as damaging to the music's vitality as rigorous traditionalism.

    I come back to a basic question when listening to the newer crop of hard boppers – why?

    Why not? I'll speak for and about myself briefly - I listen to new mainstream hard bop stuff all the time. I find releases on Posi-Tone Records every bit as thrilling - much more thrilling most of the time, if I'm being honest - than the stuff I get from Clean Feed. And I think the reason it works for me is that I just put it in the stereo and listen. I don't think about context or history until later, because none of that matters, not really. The whole 20th and 21st Centuries exist in digital simultaneity. Dexter Gordon alongside Anthony Braxton. Evan Parker alongside Steve Lacy (though I don't listen to either one, because I find the sound of the soprano saxophone infuriating). Miles Davis alongside Bill Dixon alongside Nate Wooley. You know how you can tell if a piece of music is genuinely new? If you've never heard it before. If it's new to you, it's new music. Period. So listen to what's coming out of the speakers, and judge it on its own merits. How was the solo? Did it hold your attention? Did it fit within the context of the piece as a whole, or did it disrupt the momentum of the music? Don't labor to put it in context; if the person reading your review hasn't heard all the same records you've heard (let alone taken what you did from those records) all your contextualization will mean nothing.

    The idea that jazz must evolve is absurd and can even be (has been, I'd argue) harmful. Swing is too valuable a discovery to be abandoned for the (to my ear) arid wastelands of "extended" technique, where the majority of practitioners sound like they're dusting their instruments, not playing them. Frankly, I find it much more difficult to "trust" players of that ethos and methodology than you apparently do.

    True freedom isn't just freedom from, it's also freedom to. Freedom to swing, freedom to play the blues, freedom to be conventionally melodic and to play something that will please the ear of a child, or a random stranger off the street.

    Why deal with an older model of “swing” when the very notion of “swing” has been in a continual redefinition for longer than many up-and-coming players have been alive?

    Because the notion of swing hasn't been redefined; it's been expanded. There are more ways to swing now than there were in the 1950s, but that doesn't invalidate the old ways. Indeed, I would argue that it's up to the new-schoolers to prove the validity of their approach, and as far as I'm concerned, most of 'em haven't done it.

  2. Yes, swing has been expanded and I agree that it doesn't invalidate the "old ways." To me expansion is part of redefinition. Sure, I spend a lot of time trying, when receiving music and thinking about it, to let it breathe in its own context. "Free jazz," "non-idiomatic improvisation" and "hard bop" all have baggage and I agree that in many cases, baggage should be left in the closet.

    However, I disagree with the notion that evolution in some way goes against the music - yes, if I haven't heard it before, it's new (to me). But I have to say that whether something is "good" to a degree results from its relationship to surrounding contexts, both current and historical - in that it stands at all. And I enjoy growth and change as well as the frustrations inherent in complexity, in not-knowing and of not having the answers.

    Of course, improvisation doesn't have to have "expanded" or "extended" technique to be valid. I hope I don't come across as saying that - there is certainly a lot of music that isn't particularly enjoyable within the "vanguard." I am saying that I am having difficulty with a significant amount (though not all) of the contemporary straight-ahead jazz that I have been exposed to through recordings. If I lived in a more jazz-heavy live environment my opinion might be different, but geographic/cultural milieu is what it is.

    At the same time, asking questions about the doing or the not-doing doesn't negate or harm what is being or has been done. I totally and patently disagree with that notion. If one is seeking, through word and thought, to understand, and looking for an intersection without finding one, that is not only on the seeker's dime.

    I don't think it's as simple as preferring Harris Eisenstadt to Jim Rotondi (okay, they don't play the same instrument, but that's not my point). There is something that does not click among a pretty sizable amount of music patterned on an approach that at its most basic level I do enjoy (how is that for self-contradiction?).

  3. @Phil - added a clarifying sentence to the second to last para. Yes, this IS about my own difficulties as much as it is about the music.

  4. This is an interesting discussion, gentlemen. Clifford, thanks for getting the ball rolling.

    As far as the initial post, I've definitely had similar thoughts re: not really understanding the value of playing contemporary postbop in a very traditional mode. Same goes for free jazz that seems to simply reproduce vintage strategies.

    The contemporary jazz that means the most to me is the stuff that falls in between the two poles identified above. The trick is to be respectful and aware of history without being shackled by it. People often refer to inside-outside jazz, and I'd categorize my favorite jazz of all time—’60s stuff by Andrew Hill, Grachan Moncur III, Jackie McLean, Booker Little, Eric Dolphy, etc.—that way. Weirdness within coherent structure. Traditional notions of swing utilized but not overly depended on, etc.

    This inside-outside tradition is alive and well today, and to me, it's where the truly great stuff is happening. I love some of what I would call straight-up futuristic jazz (I think of Steve Lehman's "Travail, Transformation and Flow" in this regard), produced by artists who are mapping out a whole new blueprint for the form. But what really gets me is the stuff that feels both classic and new at the same time.

    Some recent-to-new records I think of in this regard are Billy Hart's "Quartet" (2006, w/ Mark Turner, Ethan Iverson and Ben Street), Jon Irabagon's "Foxy" (2010, w/ Peter Brendler and Barry Altschul), and Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green's "Apex" (2010, w/ Jason Moran, Francois Moutin, Damion Reid and Jack DeJohnette—I cite the record here, but live is where the band really grabbed me). These are very different projects, but what they all have in common is that you can't readily classify them as inside or outside—they take what they need from each realm and move on with the music-making.

    Another thing they all have in common is that they're intergenerational collaborations. I've been noticing a lot lately how this practice yields some of my favorite contemporary jazz. Ethan Iverson has obviously been a huge proponent of intergenerational team-ups, but tons of other folks are hip to it as well. In his new Burning Ambulance piece on Darius Jones, Phil discussed Jones's recruitment of Cooper-Moore and Bob Moses, and how it gave the "Man'ish Boy" record an extra spark. Such a move isn't the only way forward, but it's almost always worth a try.

    The trick is to find jazz that works, regardless of its allegiance to this or that subgenre. I've been listening a lot to Dave Holland's quintet records from the ’80s and to me, these fit right into that concept. It's not free jazz; it's not straight-ahead jazz; it's just good jazz. It swings when it needs to, grooves when it needs to, comes off the rails when it needs to. It takes neither a reverent nor a defiant attitude toward the history of the music. I think that more than anything, that's the kind of jazz I want to hear.

    Who else is working today on this inside-outside wavelength? I'd be curious to hear thoughts from Clifford, Phil or anyone else.

  5. I haven't read the Darius Jones piece but I'm looking forward to doing so. It was interesting to see his name / hear him on the much more straight-ahead Mike Pride AUM release.

    My friend Karl had a very interesting post that somehow got lost here. I've asked him to resubmit it. He was talking about evolution of the music, and I don't want those ideas to get lost.

    To me, what I find most interesting among the younger crop of inside-outside (or whatever) players is not necessarily their instrumental technique, though it is often powerful and "restructural" in and of itself, but the way that that technique expresses itself compositionally. I'll throw out Harris Eisenstadt's "Canada Day" as a sterling example of contemporary post-bop that is both compositionally and improvisationally intriguing, nodding to Wayne Shorter and the challenging mid-60s Blue Note music but also setting up its own rules. That's just one of a number of interesting bands in this idiom. I respect Steve Lehman, too, but his music hasn't clicked with me yet. It might happen and it might not. Can't wait to hear Irabagon's new one.

    Of the Posi-tone crowd, Manricks had the best disc of the bunch in my opinion. I'll probably review it. His sound is really fantastic, even if I wasn't totally juiced by all the material.

    You know, I came to this music about a dozen years ago chiefly from a historical perspective. History is great, but it can also be a shackling prospect if you let it. Immediately historicizing something contemporary is an urge that I have to constantly fight, while at the same time respecting that impulse in order to more completely grasp the work and position of someone like Lehman, Eisenstadt, Fujiwara or Manricks. I want the music to present problems and solutions that I didn't expect - that's part of what makes it so exciting. Sure, one can hear a Ben Webster solo anew 100 times, and that's fantastic. But I also want to hear contemporary players that are lean, hungry, and pushing the music.

  6. I think I'm getting more conservative in recent years, because overtly retro stuff is holding great appeal - players like Matt Wilson (drums) or Wayne Escoffery (sax) and a lot of "post-jazz" improv stuff is just making me want to slap the instruments out of the players' hands. So the urge I have to constantly fight these days is to turn into Stanley Crouch.

    A great inside-outside record from this year is Snuck In, by David Weiss & Point of Departure; it definitely owes a lot to Blue Note's class of '64, Andrew Hill in particular - note the band name, plus they do a version of Hill's "Erato" on the album, as well as a version of Miles Davis's "Black Comedy," from Miles in the Sky.

  7. I don't think that the problem is with Clifford or the music, really, but rather with the notion that, even subconsciously, anyone involved in creative music/jazz/whatever of any stripe would have to validate their aesthetic predilections.

    Jazz won't die. Genres don't die--they just occupy historical outlets or become curiosities, the stuff of maybe a handful of manic enthusiasts. Great jazz--your Lester, Bird, Louis, Coltrane, Ornette, etc.--is there and will continue to kick ass until the end of time. I do wonder why so much ink has been spilled trying to figure out how to save jazz and why the demographic mapping has looked so depressing. The goalposts have shifted. It's more worthwhile now to care about Music than Jazz--because, hell, everything is in trouble.

    (This doesn't speak to why jazz must be saved as technical scaffolding, which IS a big issue. The mechanical components of the music are versatile and easily applicable to any number of musical/artistic situations, so rock on, jazz education.)

    Whether or not you nominally write for a jazz publication, an improv publication, whatever, Clifford (or anyone else), I don't think there's any need to apologize to the phantom cognoscenti or yourself for simply not "feeling" something. It sounds terribly wishywashy, but I honestly believe that pure enthusiasm for the music will find the people that it needs to--and that will happen because love transfers, rather than duty.

    Keep in mind I love jazz. LOOOVE jazz. Almost all I listen to is jazz or improvised music with at least some connection to "the tradition." BUT--as an artist/creative spirit/musician--and I think these thoughts may apply to many of my peers, though I'd rather not speak on their behalf--they key is to make something with personal resonance. This is the reason for jarring innovation, for doing something no one else does--because, sometimes, the spark of creativity DOES have to do with aspiring toward something out of reach. Not all the time, but sometimes, you need freedom to seek freedom from. If you can't try this, you're earthbound, and the creative spark dies when that world goes gently into the night.

    "Study music"--study being the active word there--Roscoe Mitchell would say in lessons over and over again. I would much rather see a sloppy band "working" something different and yet unformed out than a virtuosic example of the jazz idiom these days, for my part. (And this isn't a blanket endorsement of raging free music, either; as everyone concerned everywhere has observed in every way, that music can and often is subject to its own habits and hang-ups.) Different--REALLY different--is a rare breed.

    -Karl Evangelista

  8. For me, the problem/question is, regarding the artist and their work(s)is one of intent: is the intent revealed in the work, is the intent (as a goal/problem) realized/solved in a significant way? Taking a broader focus, one (as a practicing artist, at least) wants to ask how the new work contributes to/moves ahead the 'tradition' from which it springs and to which it makes (obvious or less than obvious)reference to. Is the work (are the solutions)instructive to those of us who are engaged in creative problem-solving.

    And who gets to decide the validity/significance of anyone's work? Where does subjectivity (not a bad thing, and likely inescapable) enter into all this. And where does this urge to create commentary arise from? What purpose does it serve? Don't assume that everyone writing/reading has asked/answered/apprehends this essential question.

    You could just choose to write about what you dig deeply, you know. But that might be too easy, after all. Good to see/hear/read the writers engaged in the struggle like the rest of us are.