I caught the excellent Erik Deutsch Quintet Friday night at DC’s Velvet Lounge. And I was really pleased to see so many (40-50?) young folks there to hear this music (standing, no less) – certainly more than any other jazz concert I’ve attended in DC – even more surprising given that the musicians weren’t local. (Although pianist/leader Deutsch is originally from Potomac, I believe.) Probably a testament to good local press and a steady Friday night crowd at Velvet.

Some observations. I think young crowds aren’t always sure to how to receive purely instrumental music. This American Idol culture has made us so dependent on lyrics and the power of emotive (or over-emotive, IMHO) voices to ground us and provide “meaning,” and I think without words listeners get confused. Could there be a greater challenge for jazz – historically, a predominantly instrumental music – to overcome? What’s more, we don’t live in a particularly “listening-friendly” culture, at least not from a purely musical perspective. (Opinion, sure.) Anyone know the best-selling purely instrumental band in pop music history? (Here you go.) The fact that this is such an obscurity (their fairly tame hit song notwithstanding) is an indicator of how tough it is to get by on instruments alone. It’s almost shocking to consider how exclusively “vocal” popular music has been over the course of American history.

So in that context, it was interesting to gauge audience reaction. I first sensed a touch of hostility, as if it was going to be a drag to have to “pay attention” – which might distract from the actual focus of the evening – which for 20 or 30-somethings is of course having fun, chatting with friends, being social. Et cetera. But the easy virtuosity of this group – Deutsch is really a sick player – won folks over quick, and I observed lots of murmurs running along the lines of “oh man, they’re great!” Outside of jazz, the major colorative element in his compositions is probably funk, which during the 1970s brought layers of rhythmic complexity American pop music hasn’t seen before (or since, frankly). I hope I’m not coming off as elitist now, but the problem with funk (in addition to its primarily non-vocal focus) is that is tends to demand really well-trained musicians – a level which most pop musicians generally, for whatever reason, aren’t inspired to pursue. Don’t hate me for being biased-full, but jazz players tend to be the most well-rounded musicians from the perspective of music theory, ear training, and obviously improvisation. (Deutsch studied for over 10 years with legendary-within-the-community, Boulder, CO-based jazz piano guru Art Lande, who I’ve had a few lessons with as well. Art’s music is HIGHLY recommended for those interested in the Keith Jarrett/ECM/Brad Mehldau school of harmonically rich, exploratory piano work.)

Another really impressive element of Deutsch’s group is musical flexibility – which I intuited, and old friend/incredibly versatile reed player Michael McGinnis later verified – the idea that this group will play “to the crowd” depending on the performance context. (A phenomenon which occurs most dramatically in improvised music.) Listening to a few cuts from Deutsch’s excellent new CD really gave very little indication of the music the group played live – for one, Deutsch played an amplified electric Wurlitzer with control over loops, which filled the space much more than an acoustic piano might have. He has also toured in the trio of “jam-band”-influenced jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter. But listening to some further tracks online reveals a sensibility deeply rooted in delicately scored, exploratory jazz, yet at times touching the realm of the avant-garde. Deutsch recently referred to this as “cinematic chamber pop” – I’ll also call it “that Brooklyn Sound,” if you will.

And I hope to write more on this later, but there is absolutely something going on in Brooklyn which bears attention. Although I’m not an active musician on the NYC scene, I do feel I come at this from a sort-of-insider’s perspective. On the way to a post-gig party, I had a long, edifying recollective conversation with McGiniss, who I played with in a group called “Hee Hee She” at the Eastman School of Music, ca. 1997, initially formed to play the compositions heard on this brilliant recording. (HHS also featured the terrific Anna Dagmar on piano, now tearing it up as a NYC-based singer-songwriter. I really wish we’d recorded more, as these guys provided what still stands as one of the musical highlights of my life.) Mike touched on an awareness which, according to him, many NYC-based jazz musicians have about the goings-on at Eastman during the very years we happened to be there. An enormous amount of individualistic, technically-complex-in-a-vital way (damn Shane!), hysterically irreverent, commercially successful (even recently Grammy-nominated!), stunningly virtuosic and brilliant music continues to come out of musicians (a few of whom blog too!), who were involved (OK, who did I miss?) in the ESM jazz program during that fairly brief time period (roughly 1995-2000), yet the politics of the academy ultimately proved a completely overwhelming stumbling block – all of the most directly inspirational faculty members were summarily dismissed (or left of their own free will), and the program returned to its conservative, safe origins. (At least from what I’ve heard.) I remember certain old-guard instructors, cozy and cocooned in their academic careers (but from an artistic perspective, numbingly safe), offering stern admonitions that “no one will ever pay you to play like that!” (Cue ominous low piano drone.) But ultimately I think the music moves where it needs to move, and jazz doesn’t grow (or matter, frankly) when it’s more about developing the skills to dutifully play a lifetime of wedding gigs then about having something vital and urgent to say. Wasn’t it Charles Ives himself who said if you always had to depend on your “art” for your source of income, your expression will always suffer at the whims of the marketplace?

So I think what’s happening in Brooklyn – musicians including Erik Deutsch, but many others as well – poses a potential “way out” for jazz. A creative approach to music-making which I honestly don’t sense an awareness of in the extremely prevalent academic, textbook approaches to jazz – something having to do with living and sharing with a dedicated community, struggling, yet somehow maintaining a joy for making music – traits which the most vital jazz has always held. And yet importantly, not feeling bound up to “re-create” stuff that sounded better when it was first played in 1959. And I think this is true of new classical music as well – not surprisingly, many of the most forward-thinking jazz players I know are also well-versed in modern classical music. I think that what many modern classical chamber groups (e.g. Bang On A Can, eighthblackbird, the ESM-based Alarm Will Sound, and certainly Kronos Quartet, the spiritual forefather of ’em all), playing to packed houses in sleek, hip venues like NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge, stand as a more useful comparative model for the future of jazz than does the concert hall, which reeks of classicism, elitism, all those -isms that (for good reason) turn off potential audiences.

And you’ll hear me say this many times, but I don’t believe an approach to jazz which privileges a predominantly historical approach – the well-funded, corporate-sponsored “museum jazz” heard most prominently at Lincoln Center – does very much for the creative sustenance of the art. (Regardless of what a great job they do with marketing or how many tickets are sold.) The art – ever-changing, never predictable – will always move wherever it wants to. Jazz history unquestionably bears this out. But to maintain its vitality and relevance in a public sphere, to keep its heart/beat alive (metaphorically and figuratively), jazz needs to court new, young audiences eager to be reached with art that springs from their times, and in strict musical terms, also get them turned on by rhythmic density, fresh, challenging harmonies, and the thrill of improvisation which only jazz can offer. Without question Deutsch’s approach – and music made by others like him – offers a sustaining charge for that heartbeat. So czech it, peephole!