Modern Jazz for Beginners

There’s been much chatter in the jazz blogosphere of late about why young people (apparently) don’t go to see live jazz any more.  One of the more interesting consequences of all the hand-wringing is an interesting project by Patrick Jarenwattananon, who is the editor of NPR’s jazz blog, A Blog Supreme.  He has asked all sorts of hip young cats to name five recent jazz releases that they would suggest to a young person who did not like jazz as the best way of introducing them to the genre.

Josh Jackson, who hosts the uniformly excellent podcast the Checkout, has been teased for being over the hill when it comes to this sort of stuff, which was quite amusing until I realized that he is younger than I am.  So far in this post I have typed the word “young” four times, which gives you a flavor of where all this is coming from.  Recognizing, then, that at five months shy of my fortieth birthday I have no business talking about this, here’s my proverbial two cents’ worth.

Many people who have answered Jarenwattananon’s call seem to have assumed that young people are not going to respond to any sort of “traditional” jazz.  Hence much name-checking of artists who meld their music with newer forms such as hip-hop, etc., and employ unconventional line-ups and instrumentation, and so forth.  I love many of these artists, but I also sense a presumption in this approach which seems a trifle patronizing: why suppose that simply brilliant playing of “old fashioned” jazz won’t be enough to win newbies over?  Of all the gigs that I went to last year (which included the Bad Plus, Miguel Zenon, Charlie Hunter, and the like), the most enjoyable was 86 year-old Frank Wess swinging his ass off.  (Which was no mean feat, since he was sitting down all the way through the gig.)

Of course, the fact that I take this deeply unfashionable view is all the evidence you need that I’m past it.  I get that.  Indeed, I’ve probably missed the point of this exercise entirely.  So, with that understanding in mind, here’s my grumpy-old-man list of five recent recordings I’d suggest.  They are in no particular order.

1.     youngatheartGrant Stewart.  Young at Heart.  Not a gimmick in sight, just good old-fashioned, big-hearted tenor playing by this young player who channels generations of saxophonists into his horn and comes up with something fresh and invigorating.  Cool, swinging, brilliant.  It helps that he’s got some of the best players in the world in his quartet, too.

2.     Avishai Cohen.  After the Big Rain.  Well, well.  After all that huffing and puffing, here’s something maybe just a little bit edgy, after all.  Cohen has produced something quite spectacular here – an intoxicating fusion (dangerous word in jazz circles) of jazz, world music, and lord knows what else.  afterthebigrainBenin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke makes a massive contribution, adding other worldly textures in addition to his beautiful, mournful singing.  Cohen often plays his horn through a wah-wah pedal, but this is no throw-back to 70s Miles.  His trumpet is lyrical, ethereal.  This is one of the most beautiful CDs I’ve heard for ages and it stands as a compelling example of some of the interesting directions in which this music might go.

3.     Maria Schneider.  Sky Blue.  This record won a bagful of plaudits when it was released, and rightly so.  I’ve included it not only because the music is breathtakingly beautiful, skybluebut also because it stands in illuminating contradistinction to what I suspect many people think of when they think of big band jazz.  This is not a collection of wheezing geriatrics kerplunking through ancient charts of “Tuxedo Junction”.  The music doesn’t swing that much, but it casts spells.  Schneider is a master at creating textures, and she writes wonderful tunes, to boot.  Her musicians are some of the best anywhere – especially in the horn section.  The pieces repay repeated listening, throwing up fresh gems on each revisit.  Simply blissful.

4.     Tom Harrell.  Light On.  A wonderful surprise.  Harrell has been round the block a few times and has had to contend with a few demons along the way, lightonbut he can still delight with stellar improvisations and inspired compositions.  This is a pretty straight-ahead outing by the veteran trumpeter’s standards, and he’s backed by a cracking band featuring Wayne Escoffery, a terrific, assured tenor player whom I enjoy a lot (and not just because he was born in England.)  The music on this CD is tough but lyrical, and although I suspect the charts are much harder to play than they sound, it’s an accessible and rewarding listen.  The mood is mysterious and compelling.  Nothing ground-breaking here, perhaps, just a perfect band playing great tunes – really, really well.

5.     Hank Jones and Joe Lovano.  Kids.  Duet albums, when done well (as this one is) illuminate much of what is special about jazz.  kidsThe improvisational dynamics between just two musicians are particularly compelling – especially, as here, in a live context.  Any jazz musician will tell you that you don’t just need good chops to play well, you need good ears.  Listening is everything.  Lovano is one of my favorite musicians and Jones is a legend, still going strong at 90.  Together they create glittering mosaics of beautiful sound, full of love and respect and humor.  You hear history in every note they play.

It looks as if people are allowed a few honorary mentions to go along with their top five, so here goes:

So there it is, gimmick-free and gorgeous.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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