Despite What You've Heard, Jazz Lives
On this page in the May 2011 issue of Stereophile, Steve Guttenberg became the latest in a long line of prophets of doom who periodically announce that jazz is deceased. Guttenberg argued that "Digital audio mortally wounded recorded music's creative mojo in 1982" and was "stifling creativity in rock and jazz."
I bring glad tidings to Stereophile readers. When it comes to jazz, Guttenberg is dead wrong. The jazz art form today is rich, diverse, deep, and international.
Digital audio could not kill jazz even if it wanted to. Digital technology has made jazz albums easier and quicker and cheaper to record than ever before. If there are downsides to this capability, they are sonic and economic, not aesthetic. Jazz recordings made at home or in small project studios usually are not sonic masterpieces. And at a time when CD sales, certainly including jazz CD sales, are in the toilet, jazz CDs are flooding the market. But the ready ability to document their projects has not messed with the "creative mojo" of jazz musicians. Quite the contrary. What is remarkable about the current torrent of jazz releases is how strong so many of them are.
There are towering figures still operating near the height of their powers: Sonny Rollins. Ornette Coleman. Wayne Shorter. Charles Lloyd. Keith Jarrett. There are the major keepers of the flame now in their prime: Joe Lovano. Brad Mehldau. Bill Frisell. Jason Moran. But the true core of strength in the art form comes from young players. A disproportionate percentage of the world's most adventurous and creative musicians pursue jazz because it is an unsurpassed vehicle for spontaneous acts of freedom. In no order, here is a partial list of young jazz artists who, based on my current listening, have recently released searching, uncompromised, intelligent, inspired recordings: Warren Wolf. Omer Avital. Mathias Eick. Eric Harland. Gilad Hekselman. John Escreet. Wolfert Brederode. Assaf Kehati. (Ever hear of Assaf Kehati? Me neither.)
Jazz in the new millennium is wide open. Earlier styles like bop and hard bop and avant-garde and various derivatives of electrified fusion are still productively practiced. There are even people keeping big bands going, like Maria Schneider, Charles Tolliver, Jason Lindner, John Hollenbeck, and Darcy James Argue. At the same time, experimentation is exploding on many fronts. Jazz today is about prolific cross-fertilization. Unlike earlier eras of the 20th century, it is not possible to identify our current moment in terms of a single dominant mode of expression. Guttenberg laments this trend and calls the result "fragmented." I call it wildly, creatively eclectic.
The most significant development of the last 20 years is that jazz has gone international. Until recently, all but a few European musicians were pale imitations of the American masters whose records they learned from. Now Europeans are some of the most important players in jazz on instruments like trumpet (Tomasz Stanko, Enrico Rava) and piano (Stefano Bollani, Enrico Pieranunzi, Bobo Stenson). Other cultures, especially European cultures, are revitalizing jazz by infusing it with their own imagery and forms. Jazz has been permanently altered by the incorporation of content and procedures from European classical music. The nerve center of this movement is the ECM label of Munich, Germany. The ever-expanding, continuously excellent ECM catalog, all by itself, refutes the claim that jazz has lost its "mojo."
As I write, I have recently returned from a festival in Krakow, Poland, one of scores of jazz festivals all over the European continent last summer. In Krakow's stately Filharmonia Hall, an ambitious project was performed for the second time in public. (The world premiere had taken place on the night before, in Katowice, 70km to the west.) It was a jazz concerto, called My Polish Heart, by Wolf Kerschek, a German composer with Polish roots. On stage were 100 musicians, the combined forces of the NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk) Big Band of Hamburg, Germany, and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. A featured soloist was Poland's greatest jazz musician, Tomasz Stanko, whose ECM recordings are among the permanent bodies of work in turn-of-the-century jazz. The other featured soloist was Vladyslav Sendecki, also Polish, now based in Hamburg. A world-class pianist with classical erudition and jazz chops, Sendecki has a fine new album on the German ACT label, Solo Piano at Schloss Elmau.
My Polish Heart was an epic hour-long journey with many digressions. It began with a held note in a whisper from all the violins and violas, into which Sendecki spaced abstract treble intrusions. Then, over the long sighs of the strings, Stanko's trumpet called, a sound of chilling existential loneliness. But My Polish Heart was not always pensive. Sometimes it blared and heaved and shrieked, four or five themes recurring and commingling. It built to a gigantic, shattering, discordant climax that suddenly fell away to leave Stanko alone for the denouement, in lines that were broken or smeared and hung in the air, too ambiguous for any simple reconciliation.
In a concert hall half way across the world from where jazz was born, a composer and two orchestras and two fearless soloists blended classical forms with jazz in the moment. Only thus were they able to plumb the depths of their human heritage. Filharmonia Hall was full of people who knew they were witnesses to something extraordinary.
The jazz audience will never be large enough. Jazz is music of the night, music from the far edge of the grid. But there will always be people who need it. They will seek it out and find it.
Oh, by the way, I checked into Assaf Kehati. It turns out he is a young guitarist from Israel who now lives in Boston. His new album, Flowers and Other Stories, is airy and melodic and floating and free. Kehati will probably be lucky to sell a few hundred copies. But I bet he keeps on playing and making nice records.