Jazz and Radiohead
It was a brilliant album that didn’t receive the accolades it deserved. (I put it on my 10-best list that year, but I can’t think of any other critics who did.) Listening to the two albums back to back raised a larger point—which is that the lines and barriers between “pop music” and “art music” are breaking down, and, for the most part, this is to the good. Those who maligned jazz-rock “fusion” in the late ‘60s and ‘70s did so, in the main, with good reason; but the drek was drek not because it was fusion but because it was bad fusion—because it combined the least imaginative elements of both genres of music. Jazz has always been a hybrid art. From the beginning, it fused African rhythms and European harmonies. Jellyroll Morton spoke of “the Latin tinge.” Songs that we now regard as “jazz standards”—“Body and Soul,” “Embraceable You,” “My Funny Valentine,” and so forth—started out as the pop tunes (mainly Broadway show tunes) of their day. Yes, it was a dreadful thing to hear a monstrosity like Sarah Vaughan Sings the Beatles or Duke Ellington doing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” But those were cases of dreadful mismatches, not evidence against the case for crossing breeds.
We have Herbie Hancock feting Joni Mitchell in River: The Joni Letters (Mitchell’s own jazz-inflected excursions of the ‘70s, Mingus and The Hissing of the Summer Lawns, deserve a fresh re-hearing); Dave Douglas playing Mary J. Blige and Rufus Wainwright; Cassandra Wilson singing “The Wichita Lineman;” Jason Moran incorporating hip-hop, gospel, the cadences of Turkish phone conversations (as well as Monk, standards, Chopin ballads, and every other thing he wraps his mind around); and on the list could go.
The best of these latter-day fusions combine the most imaginative qualities of the music’s various elements—complexity, soul, wit, and swing—and the distinctive flavorings of the artist at the helm. (Listen in particular to Mehldau’s take on “Martha My Dear;” he turns it into a Bach fugue while staying true to the song’s essence.) More than this, the best fusions exude authenticity. Young musicians like Mehldau and Moran grew up listening to rock and hip-hop, as well as to Schubert and Monk. They’re not pandering when they dip into more popular genres. The Bad Plus isn’t winking and nudging when they cover Bjork or Nirvana. This is their music; and by melding it with jazz, they’re being true to the jazz tradition.
There are still those—a smart critic like Stanley Crouch among them—who argue that jazz is music in the African-American tradition and that music derived from other lineages isn’t really jazz. I’m more in tune—and so is much of the creative jazz of our time—with John Zorn, who, when I interviewed him for a New Yorker profile nine years ago, noted that Tower Records (and now, he would add, the Internet) gives us access to music from all over the world. Why shouldn’t modern music absorb and reflect the world in which it breathes?