Eastman


These thoughts developed as a response to a great post by Robyn Linden of 11:11 Theatre Company in Boston, dealing with engaging audiences. I’ll be home in October and am looking forward to catching their upcoming Poe project!

My two cents, or twenty-five cents, starts here: I think artists of the future will have to wear multiple hats in order to remain successful and relevant – the art of promoting art is a tricky one, and generally isn’t something taught in art, theater, or music school. Yet let’s consider the possibility that confronting these issues is in itself a fundamental part of what it means to be an artist in the world, ca. 2010! Where I went to school (Eastman), this notion that we might actually have to worry that audiences wouldn’t automatically fall into our laps was just starting to catch steam when I graduated, and thankfully art schools seem to be tackling this problem more and more within curricula. Due in part to the pervasiveness of mass-mediated culture, it now seems there’s a full-on crisis in terms of reaching out to audiences – especially younger folks – and getting them involved and engaged. So how must an artist operate within that system?

I’m of the mindset that if we want our audiences to come in and stay engaged, we first and foremost MUST be making relevant work. Apart from producing rather bland art, the old paradigm of “appreciate art because it’s good for you” isn’t cutting it in the marketplace anymore – we have to be able to demonstrate and articulate to audiences WHY our work is relevant to their lives. Many young people don’t attend theatre because they don’t feel connected to the world of artists and the creative process – I think that “cliquey-ness” can be a big turnoff – so we need to find new ways to MAKE them feel welcome and involved in the process. So I don’t think a passive audience who just sits and “receives” art – the paradigm of the past – is the way to go. Shouldn’t being in the theatre feel like a truer, richer experience than lining up for the latest Hollywood blockbuster? Sadly, often times it just isn’t, and we can’t blame audiences for that. Mass-mediated culture succeeds partially due to mega-advertising budgets, certainly, yet it also provide a sense of shared community and currency that I think we lust for in the theater. How do we create that within our local communities? We want our work and our ideas to be discussed at that proverbial water cooler, and I think presentational ideas which challenge standard forms (flashmobs come to mind, even if they can get gimmicky) might open some of these avenues.

Ultimately we need to be willing to ask ourselves the tough questions about what it means to make art amidst what might appear to be an unconcerned citizenry. Yet as artists we must believe we’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to tell the stories and weave the myths of our generation. It’s a tough position, yet therein lies the challenge.

Some fairly random thoughts, sure. Anyone have further ideas they’d like to share?

One challenge of being a fledgling wordsmith writing about an ephemeral art like jazz seems the near-impossibility of the task. No combination of words and keyclicks, however artful, can put you, gentle reader, in the lion’s den where the music is taking place. Yet this desire remains to transcribe, translate and transmit experience, quite literally, for the morning after – to reconcile that imprint of felt energy and push it out further and deeper into the world. Amidst a sea of empty trends and half-assed cultural mediocrity, I want to advocate for things that are genuinely fresh and real and dare-I-say essential, and hopefully to carry some of the flavor and attitude gleaned from one artistic plane (music) into another (writing). So let’s get to it, already.

Now let me do what I can to spread the good word on the thrillingly hip and vital, LA-based (really?) jazz-funk-new music aggregate Kneebody, collectively dropping unprecedented sounds and exciting audiences in a way I’ve rarely witnessed. Dust off the Encyclopedia Jazztanica and find Kneebody listed under “Future of jazz, hope for the…” As part of a 4-night booking at the new and impossibly cool NYC music venue 45 Bleecker, presented by finger-on-the-pulse, please-let’s-show-them-some-follow-love new jazz series Search & Restore, Kneebody presented two sets last Saturday night: the first featuring vocalist Theo Bleckmann singing unorthodox, jarringly gorgeous avant-jazz renditions of songs by that often-namechecked-but-rarely-understood, Spiritual-Forefather-of-American-Iconoclasticism, Charles Ives, all from a recent Grammy-nominated album; the second, a remarkably heated, intense-yet-loose, set of Kneebody originals. If music is, as Keith Jarrett claims, like nutrition, I feasted in New York. (And not only on Mahmoun’s Falafel.)

In fact, I drove up to NYC from DC with the sole purpose of hearing this show. Having also graduated from that ballyhooed (and much-discussed on this blog, go figure) late 1990s Eastman School of Music jazz program, I remembered the Eastman-bred Kneebodiers well (80% of them, at least – drummer Nate Wood’s playing was a new revelation), and the chance to hear Ives (probably my favorite composer) in a jazz context sold the deal. Neither set disappointed, and the fact that the energy from the two sets felt radically dissimilar is a testament to Kneebody’s musical flexibility.

Y’all know I’ve been trying to write about this “new current” in jazz, about the direction certain modern players are taking in an attempt to keep this music fresh and relevant, and not, as most schools would have it, a mere copy of something that sounded better 50 years ago. I’ve described this as “that Brooklyn sound” – but as discussed with Jason Parker previously, as well as old friend Brian Drye on the phone the other night – this new flava is not geographically bound to NYC – it’s springing up all around the country and even the world. (So who wants to come up with a catchy new name? Jazz needs new branding! Incidentally, the fantastic Rachel Maddow recently ran a fun competition to rebrand the boring “filibuster,” and decided on “The Tarantino” – as in the maneuver that “kills a bill.” Not sure if I buy it, frankly. And “Tarantino jazz” seems a non-starter.)

The new jazz (whatever we call it) Kneebody plays seems to have little to do with academic, textbook approaches (or at least, transcends mere technical matters) and lots to do with tapping into a dual trajectory of unstoppable innovation and contemporary relevance. In the context of jazz history, the ability to touch both of these poles stands as perhaps the sole, consistently unifying characteristic of all of jazz’s major voices; at least up until the 1980s “media darling” phase, the cobwebs of which mainstream jazz seems just beginning to shake off. (The ascendance of Dave Douglas comes to mind.) Kneebody presents one of the most concrete, distilled representations of this new energy, and their whopping artistic and even commercial success (how many avant-jazz groups have been nominated for a Grammy?) proves that this new thing is connecting with listeners. Let’s talk numbers for a second here, not generally something we get to do in jazz circles: over a four-night residency collaborating with a remarkably diverse array of improvising artists, Kneebody packed in close to 200 PER NIGHT. For a music whose harmonic and rhythmic complexity quite simply has no business attracting those sorts of numbers, not to mention young hipsters with cultural cache (and cash) to burn. Take this photo as my Exhibit A.

So what’s going on? We’ve discussed the idea that people want to feel included in the art of their day, and similar to a few daring and commercially successful classical ensembles, this is where the new jazz stands a chance to compete in the cultural marketplace. That said, I can’t imagine 200 people a night coming out to hear someone regurgitating Bird licks, which remains the primary pedagogical approach toward jazz within the academy. (OK, OK, I’ll stop harping on the schools, I swear. It’s just that I think there could be so much potential in well-funded institutions lighting a fire under this music, while in reality I’ve witnessed attitudes that actually extinguish musical innovation and exuberance.)

To its benefit, there’s something in the new jazz which encourages collaboration across multiple artistic platforms. (I recall learning Indian ragas in improvisation classes with Ralph Alessi, and listening to rapper Ice Cube in the first day of Michael Cain’s graduate jazz history class at Eastman.) Kneebody has tapped into this and embraced it as part of their aesthetic. Each evening of their four-night residency at 45 Bleecker featured a different collaboration with a wide range of artists. I saw the Ives show, but was informed about their Friday night show (featuring skullslappingly virtuosic rapper Busdriver) by a former student of mine who had driven up from Virginia solely to see one of his rapping heroes, who, accordingly to Endsley, “cordially meets us more than halfway on our jazz-nerd turf.” Notably, the exposure to new jazz came to my student as an unexpected bonus, and jazz gained a new fan in that transaction. How many modern jazz groups are collaborating with such a wide and diverse array of creative musicians, regardless of whether their music comes from the so-called “jazz” world? Too often today, jazz musicians play within a cocoon of familiarity, seemingly uninterested in expanding their music beyond the safety of their swing and bebop models, yet jazz, historically the ultimate pluralistic music, must compete within a pluralistic society, and I think modern jazz which draws upon non-jazz sources is a very good thing for all involved. And from a historical perspective, if Charlie Parker can play alongside Stravinky’s Firebird, and Coltrane can fall hard for Indian raga, why would jazz musicians NOT be expanding the parameters of their art beyond the limited scope of bebop and hard bop? Regardless of the milieu, collaboration is (or should be) the very purpose of the artistic transaction – connection, community, co-existence. As an actor and director, I experience this in theater all the time, yet all too often, jazz musicians insist on a stultifyingly insular, navel-gazing musical world for themselves.

Enough jazz politics. What of the music?

What struck me during the Charles Ives set was the ways improvised music might mirror that great universal cacophony which Ives loved, perhaps, to a more precise degree that classical musicians forced to play “the notes on the page” could approach. Apart from its blistering polytonal soundscapes, Ives’s musical aesthetic plays most poignantly with psychological memory and the passage of time. (For Ives uninitiates, a good place to start is “The Unanswered Question,” which superimposes musical statements of “the Silences of the Druids—who Know, See and Hear Nothing” with “The Perennial Question of Existence” and “The Invisible Answer.” Obviously, deeply conceptual stuff, and way ahead of its time in terms of innovation.) Forward-thinking classical musicians and musicologists like myself are drawn to Ives – as Kyle Gann offered, “Like flies to roadkill are the musicologists to Ives” – yet notwithstanding an excellent, largely unheralded recording by the NYC-based, avant-jazz group Sideshow a few years back, instances of jazz musicians covering Ives are rare. Thus, forgive my over-spilling of words on this portion of the evening – hearing Ives alongside the creative music of college friends presented a sort of overload of musical interests for me. If Ives was, as his excellent biographer Jan Swafford contends, “the Walt Whitman of sound,” then certainly his aesthetic could be a natural fit for the free-ranging, Whitman-esque sampling found in modern jazz. But how does it sound?

Bleckman’s set opened with the Ives song “Serenity,” featuring glacially moving, repetitive chordal accompaniment from pianist Adam Benjamin, hewing close to Ives’s original arrangement. Sort of a bold choice to begin the set with such a lugubrious song, but I think it helped the audience to become immediately immersed into Ives’s strange, winter-like sonic landscape. “The Cage” quickly turned funky, transforming Ives’s already serpentine melody into a pseudo Middle-Eastern sounding repetitive groove, assisted by Bleckmann’s use of a filter which doubled his voice a 4th above. Though they never got around to playing the gorgeous early Ives song “Feldeinsamkeit” (it’s on the CD!), they did play “Weil’ auf mir.” This song, written by Ives as a student exercise, allowed Bleckmann to display his mastery of German, one of many indications that this singer’s aesthetics borrow as much from classical training as from jazz. Accompanying Ives’s sinewy melody were the bulbous electric bass tones of Kaveh Rastegar, polytonal insinuations from Shane Endsley’s muted trumpet, and light mallet fills from Wood. Perhaps most “Ives-ian” of any of the pieces was Kneebody’s arrangement of Ives’s hymn-based “Shall We Gather At the River,” where Bleckmann’s use of a processing sampler enabled a stunning reflection of Ives’s fascination with non-linear dreamscapes of memory. Beginning the piece by recording himself singing wordless open vowels, Bleckmann deftly blended the tones through his processor into a polyphonic stew, then continued with the strangely disembodied hymn melody, stark in its simplicity. The musicians picked up with portions of the original Ives accompaniment behind the hymn, and the piece ended with Bleckmann reprising the initial loop (-soup?). Hearing this non-linear, inescapable “playing with memory” within the timeframe of one song in a way allowed the audience to experience time tumbling back upon itself – a perfectly modern microcosm of Ives-ian re-interpretation. Similar to the snakey funk treatment of “The Cage,” Kneebody’s madcap version of “The New River” took advantage of the already modern harmonic implications of Ives’s original piano accompaniment, turning the piece into an exploratory free-jazz romp. (Do take in my shoddy camera work on this one.) Nate Wood’s arrangement of “In the Mornin’” (the only Ives song of the set not included in his infamous 114 Songs) began with Endsley’s imaginative off-stage trumpet soloing, then dropped into a slow, fairly standard pop groove, the ease of which allowed the old “Give Me Jesus” hymn to shine through via Bleckmann’s stellar singing. “The See’r” presented a fun, metrically off-kilter exploration of the range of Bleckmann’s “bag of tricks.” Although a lesser singer might easily allow this to easily slip into gimmickry, Bleckmann’s performance aesthetic is always buttressed by a great musical sensitivity and flexibility. “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” (or, “Who’s a Tonic?” in Bleckmann’s jokey dog voice?!) pushed the boundaries of polytonality in a way the cranky Yankee Ives, who once said “You won’t get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds!,” might have approved of. (Though the jury’s still out on how much Ives actually fancied the jazz contemporaneous to his own time; musicologist Charles Hiroshi Garrett recently wrote a fascinating study of how Ives borrowed elements of ragtime, while at the same time denigrating the genre in published comments.) Ben Wendel’s arrangement of “Songs My Mother Taught Me” began by superimposing Bleckmann randomly tuning the dial on a small transistor radio to various FM stations (perhaps consciously inviting Ives’s great conceptual heir John Cage to the musical seance?), set over Adam Benjamin’s lullaby-inspired waltz accompaniment. The piece built in intensity by Nate Wood’s propulsive, martial snare drum work in ¾, reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero (anyone remember this great performance?), later assisted contrapuntally by Shane Endsley on cymbals, and sounding for all the world like a march to the gallows. Bleckmann continued to fiddle with the random sounds of the radio while singing the melody, creating a Ives-ian mélange of R&B wailing, Top 40, talk radio, and I swear at one point a man speaking “the planets are with us.” As an encore, the group played Ives’s “Waltz,” which splattered each and every musical technique we’d heard so far into a grand Charles Ives meets Jackson Pollack, Franz Schubert, Stephen Foster, and Ornette Coleman promenade.

Kneebody continued the second set with original compositions, all impressively memorized and internalized by each member of the group. Packed with dissonances, horns smacking around like snare drums, snare drums smacking around like gunfire, drop-on-a-dime changes of feel, meter, and tempo, all abounding. (More shoddy camera work here.) This ain’t your Grandma’s swing music. Yet again, there’s that connection to modern sensibilities – I might offer that rhythm is jazz’s most outwardly underdeveloped component (notwithstanding innovations in swing feel, etc.) – but modern players like Steve Coleman (certainly a major influence on this group) have stretched the boundaries of the ways music can flow over time, and in this sense, the new jazz shares much with hip hop, arguably the most compelling and dynamic pop music around today from a rhythmic perspective. What’s more, the fresh, easy virtuosity of the sort of improvisation practiced by the Kneebodiers draws listeners in via its very newness; although these players most likely grew up on 1950s-60s era jazz, they’ve transcended those influences to create what is very much music of today, and I think that’s a very appealing characteristic for potential listeners.

Each musician within Kneebody brings a highly distinctive voice to the music, and I’m reminded of the ways musicians trained within the Eastman jazz program were encouraged, above all else, to develop an individual perspective and sound. Shane Endsley’s focused, precise trumpet sound, crinkling and snapping like a rattlesnake opening a bag of chips. Comparisons might be made with the intervallic prowess of fellow trumpeters Booker Little or Woody Shaw, but perhaps even more fruitfully, outside of the realm of trumpet players; the polyrhythmic percussiveness of a drummer like Elvin Jones, translated to the horn, comes to mind. (Endsley also switched off to play some fierce drums during the set.) Birthday boy Ben Wendel’s tenor saxophone shrieks with passion and commitment, sharing much with modern players (Bennie Maupin, perhaps?), his rich harmonic vocabulary extending throughout all ranges of the horn. Nate Wood bringing the thunder on the drums, dropping metronomic landmines, rhythmic complexity like dropping a bag of marbles on a porcelain counter. Adam Benjamin’s keyboard playing, groovy and supple, in-the-pocket bursts of smooth energy, extending the vocabulary of Herbie Hancock’s 1970s-era funk. And blogging. (Do check out his legendary, hilarious, tongue-in-cheek standards record, a bullet aimed directly at the hearts of anyone who would dare take this music too seriously.) And finally, Kaveh Rastegar’s unusually prominent electric bass, providing a rudder to the ship, kinetic authority and a deeply felt presence throughout all phases of the music.

As should be expected, the new jazz makes new demands on listeners, yet a distinct, perhaps richer way of hearing and experiencing music is beneficial for both the future of the music and for audiences who (whether consciously or not) actually do want to be challenged. One friend of the acquaintance I brought to the show said that initially she hadn’t wanted to come to the show, which had been billed to her as “experimental” jazz, yet she enthusiastically mentioned she wasn’t finding any of the music “experimental” – which, of course, it unquestionably was! Cloaking this experimentalism amidst forward propelling grooves, rock-solid ensemble lines, and virtuosic, daring improvisation seems to provide an anchor which allows non-specialists to groove right along. Dig?

Phew, long entry. But lots to say. We’re almost done.

Finally, kudos to Nate Chinen of the New York Times for coming out to hear some of this music, and writing about it. And to TimeOut NY. If this music is to prosper, it will need not only institutional support (which if major outlets like Lincoln Center are any indication, tend to be years behind the artistic curve) but mainstream media coverage as well. Kudos to Kneebody for helping to point the way toward an unlimited, thrilling future for this music we all love so dearly. And finally, kudos to you, gentle reader, for reading this far. I imagine you might be the only one?

It’s probably a good sign that my immediate impulse for an opening line to this post are the three words “Caught the excellent…” With the exception that I’m fairly sure I used this same killer opening (ha) in my recent post on Erik Deutsche at Velvet Lounge! The second week of January must be killing-jazz-piano-players-in-DC week, as this wayward blogger in fact did catch the very cool (hmm, enough variety?) Baptiste Trotignon Trio at the French Embassy in DC (natch) this past Tuesday night. Still can’t believe this one was free – and if you live in the DC area do check out some of their other upcoming (free!) offerings; it’s really a gorgeous acoustical space and they program neat things (like the Suspicious Cheeselords singing Renaissance music of French composer Jean Mouton in 2008.)

In front of a packed house, Trotignon’s trio (feat. two highly melodic, virtuosic players in New Zealand-born, NYC-based, big-fan-of-Burgundy-wines Matthew Penman on bass, and groovelicious veteran Gregory Hutchinson on drums) swung effortlessly and joyfully through a set of mostly Trotignon originals. I was struck by the strong emphasis on melody inherent in Trotignon’s writing. (Dare I say catchy?) And although there was a really terrific piece in 7/8 (Trotignon had the luxury of speaking exclusively in French, but YouTube tells me it’s titled Grey), most pieces stayed within a dependable metric groove and things never went too far out in terms of form. (Although amidst the overwhelmingly positive post-show buzz in the lobby, I think I overheard a few society ladies who had just witnessed the outest music of their lives.) Outside of the originals, the trio offered up a smashing rendition of Thelonious Monk’s classic off-kilter “Trinkle, Tinkle,” and as an encore, played their only standard of the evening, the gorgeous “I Fall In Love Too Easily.”

I hadn’t heard of Baptiste Trotignon prior to seeing the post on this event, so wasn’t quite sure what to expect – but I think the only thing I needed to sell me (outside of the coolness of the venue and afore-mentioned freeness!) was reading an Amazon review of one of his albums which compares him to Keith Jarrett. And having written on Jarrett (have I plugged my thesis enough? yeesh) I’m obviously interested in pianists who filter forward Jarrett’s rather dominating, if perhaps unconscious influence – so it’s personally fascinating for me to try to pick up traces of Jarrett in young musicians.

Sidenote: I spoke briefly with Trotignon after the concert and he seemed to not have much use for my Jarrett comparison. Certainly, listeners make free associations which might not always have a basis in terms of real-life influence, at least on a conscious level, and also I understand how young musicians looking to break out with their own thing probably get tired of being told that they “sound like” whomever. That said, Jarrett is the pianist who comes to mind in terms of offering a performance comparison to Trotignon – which obviously, is high praise – and further solidifying the connection is Trotignon’s relationship with great Italian drummer Aldo Romano, who the young Jarrett worked with in the late 60s. I’ll try to depart from comparisons henceforth, but ultimately I heard this trio reaching for an improvisational freedom similar to the one Jarrett’s trio mastered long ago, even more so with regard to their frequent use of vamps to end or segue between tunes.

One thing that good jazz can offer is the excitement (and implied danger of failure!) of hearing top-skilled players manufacture chemistry on the spot – and although this trio hasn’t been playing together all that long, their interactions felt easy and truly integrated into a compelling musical whole. That jazz as “international language” thing – usually I blanch at easy metaphors like this, but in this case it’s true – among modern musical forms, it seems jazz best offers a context within which musicians from three unrelated parts of the globe (Trotignon, from the Loire region of France, Penman from New Zealand, and Brooklyn-born Hutchinson) can “dialogue” within a common language without having to use words. American-born, but embraced by the world. Nice to know we’re known for more than just starting wars, right?

Similar to Jarrett, Trotignon carries lots of American gospel influences heaped in with his Bill Evans-inspired harmonic shading, obvious traces of bebop, and a palpable, driving sense of swing, displayed on a few brisk uptempo pieces. Technically, he seems the equal of any of the current reigning champs of the mainstream jazz piano world – outside of Jarrett there are obvious affinities to Brad Mehldau, and perhaps even more accurately, Trotignon’s sort-of-countryman Jacky Terrasson, who I remember watching from the front row of the Village Vanguard with my entranced, non-musical father a few years back. I imagine Trotignon, already a young star and award-winner in Europe, will continue to break through the American jazz market.

On a different level, continuing my recent fascination with audience “behavior” and the presentation of art music, and notwithstanding the high calibre of the music, I must say the crowd struck me as subdued, especially after the enthusiasm of the young crowd at the Erik Deutsch show. Obviously a concert at the French Embassy is going to attract a different crowd than Velvet Lounge, but the difference in tone couldn’t have been more striking, seeing these shows in close proximity to each other. There’s this habit I picked up at Eastman – for lack of a better word I’ll call it “wooing” – a high-pitched call which musicians would frequently shout out both during improvised solos and during post-tune applause. I hear it all the time at concerts attended by young-ish jazz players and fans and practically speaking, it seems a neat way for listeners to let musicians know they’re actually listening and engaging with the sounds. Shouldn’t surprise me, but somehow it did – out of hundreds of people at the Embassy, no “wooing.” (Except from me. And I think I urged some on during the final bows.) I’m not sure if this is significant, but for me it underscored this dynamic of presenting jazz (or any other improvised music) at the concert hall, in front of how-shall-we-say less “hip” (is that what I mean?) audiences. Again, there’s that very clear dividing line again between performer and audience, perhaps set in bolder relief in this environment – I know in theater circles this is a hot topic, but I wonder if in jazz we have any way of breaking down this barrier? I think it’s one of the things that keeps audiences intimidated, and ultimately, away from our music. Thoughts? Anyone? Bueller?

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!

Since I created this blog about a month ago, I’ve been sort of sitting on my hands and waiting for opportunities when it “feels” right to write. On the political angle I could write about the thrill of standing about two feet away from President Obama on Saturday evening as part of the Halloween at the White House celebration, but that’s just content-free star-struckness!

In my travels on Twitter today I came across this email composed to Marc Myers’ JazzWax blog, by a young student of jazz at “a rather prestigious university in New York with a world-class jazz program,” in which the young writer takes to task his school chums for their alleged interest in what the writer sees as a too-far modernized version of jazz. I also attended a “prestigious jazz university” which dealt with the ever-present problem of jazz academia: how to learn how to “speak the language” while promoting originality in an institution (remember, it’s called a classical conservatory) which isn’t predicated on that dual model, so this email brought up lots of experiences from that period of my life.

Saith the writer: “Your points really reflect a lot of the frustrations I’ve been having with many of my fellow students in school here. Most of them love playing outside of the chord changes, but they have a hard time or barely can play inside them convincingly. They tell me they love the ‘freedom’ of not playing inside the changes. But to me, not only does what they’re playing not sound good, there’s nothing really ‘freeing’ if they can’t play inside the changes in the first place.”

Hmm, lots of misconceptions right from the start. First off, the phrase “doesn’t sound good” would be torn apart by any cultural anthropologist worth his/her credentials. “Sounding good” is probably the most general, overused, and subjective term floated out there by those who don’t have the open ears to catch up to what forward-thinking musicians are up to. And “they have a hard time” playing changes “convincingly” – well, perhaps that’s because they’re not meant to be “playing changes!” Would you hold up playing their type of music, which probably demands a different set of skills than you seem to be prioritizing? Straight-ahead players often incorrectly assume that free improvising is just a bunch of random noise; in actuality it’s a style of playing which at its best demands lots more sensitivity, listening, and response than regurgitating some tired licks you memorized out of a book.

Plus, defining musical competency in jazz solely based on the “ability to play chord changes” isn’t only narrow-minded musically, but also historically inaccurate. (Why are we still fighting the bebop wars, 50 years after Ornette?) Look, I think it’s a terrific goal to want to hear harmony on a complex level, and it’s something I continue to work very hard at, however I don’t think it’s an over-assumption to guess that what this writer in fact wants in his (or her) own music is to emulate the harmonic approaches of “heroic players of the jazz canon,” rather than originate new modalities of his/her own. What I find mystifying is that these players don’t seem to connect to the idea that almost all of the major “heroes” in jazz were ground-breakers! Miles, Bird, Trane, Duke, Monk, and the list goes on. Did Bird learn how to play by playing over Aebersold records and memorizing II-V patterns? Heck no! He let his ears be his guide, studied the begeezus out of harmony, but he wasn’t content to be a carbon copy of Lester Young. If I want to hear Lee Morgan, Lester Young, or Bud Powell, I can go listen to their records, which I already own! Why would anyone want to listen to someone do a bad imitation? (Including young (non-musician) music fans, many of whom do value innovation and freshness, but who find jazz’s exclusivity and elitism off-putting.) But this is what happens when jazz is taught in the conservatory, whose methods are geared toward preservation, rather than discovery.

And significantly, Parker was also interested in other, non-jazz based forms of music (you’ve heard the story of Bird practicing over Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite), as are many jazz musicians today who experiment with American roots-based music, pop, music from other cultures, and contemporary classical techniques, amongst other influences. In my narrative of jazz history, the finest jazz musicians in jazz history have been the ones with the most wide open ears, the ones who didn’t cling to jazz orthodoxy so tightly that they shut out the rest of the world around them. All of the names I mentioned above fit that mode, as do major voices in modern jazz like Charlie Haden, Bill Frisell (both finding inspiration in American country and roots music! Scandalous! But perhaps not, once you know that Armstrong recorded with Jimmie Rodgers?), Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, John Zorn, Vijay Iyer, John Hollenbeck, and Dave Douglas, just to name a few.

And finally, Parker had something to say. (Like that famous story of Lester Young admonishing a young player: “You sound great, but that’s not enough – what’s your story?”) Same with Trane, whose all-knowing critics called his music “anti-jazz” once he stopped playing music that sounded like the bebop they were familiar and comfortable with. And again, I’m not saying I don’t think it’s wise to study harmony and changes in a disciplined manner; only that a pedagogical approach which focuses so much energy on these attributes to the absolute exclusion of other elements (e.g. sound, texture, ensemble interaction) is bound to be limited, caught up in one historical period (a tired regurgitation of 1950s-60s bebop or hard bop), and doesn’t place sufficient emphasis on what jazz is and always has really been about: creating an individual, original voice in the music. It’s really pretty simple.

And I take issue with the author’s contention that forward-thinking modern jazz musicians don’t know history; in fact I find quite the opposite to be true. In my experience, free-thinking modern jazz players tend to know more of the history than straight-ahead players, who tend to focus on an extremely limited and self-selected periods of jazz history (1950s-60s). As a trumpet player, I grew up listening to Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, both of whom have shaped my playing infinitely (I’m also well familiar with Erroll Garner); the difference is that I’m also quite content to let those musicians be who they were, in their times without trying to copy them in my time!

From the email: “While many of my teachers display great emotion in their playing, emotion and taste are rarely discussed as part of the curriculum. And other students never bring it up. I sometimes get the feeling that discussing emotion with them is almost wimpy or something.” The writer goes on to discuss what he/she views as “more emotional traditional jazz players.” I think it’s really dangerous to speak of “emotion” as a quantifiable musical attribute and a quality that is solely the province of traditional jazzers. So-called “avant-garde” players might also claim they’re playing with “emotion,” so whose “emotion” is better? Scott Hamilton’s, or John Zorn’s? Dexter Gordon’s, or Steve Coleman’s? My point is that this word “emotion” doesn’t mean anything in strictly musical terms and is completely subjective; some of the deepest “emotional” experiences I’ve felt while playing music have occurred in some really out-there musical contexts. I get “emotional” (in the sense that I hear and appreciate sonic beauty and sensitivity) when I listen to Charlie Haden play the bass, but he’s hardly a “traditional jazz player” – so why try to equate emotion with trad jazz?

I’ll close with a story. I remember being at a summer institute in CA years ago, prepping for an audition for a “solo spot” in the orchestra; chatting with my roommate just prior to the audition, I said I didn’t want to go in and play the same tired bebop everyone else was trying to play (in most cases, poorly). He said “Well, what do you feel like playing right now?” I answered I “felt” like playing Ornette’s classic Lonely Woman, then improvising over the song. (At this point in the festival I had sort of been drowning in commercial sounds and wanted to play/hear something simple and focused on tonal intensity.) But I wasn’t going to play it because I had a sense the adjudicators wouldn’t be interested in that approach. My wise roommate (whose name was Miles, ha!) said “go for it.” Which is what I did, and it felt great. And I felt like I said something in my playing that only I could say. The great irony? The classical “judges” in the room were cool with it (and I did get that solo spot!), but when I finished playing, the one so-called “jazz expert” in the room dismissively said “Yeah, uhh, but can you play something with some CHANGES to it?” As if to say that only improvisation based on chord changes was a valid form of expression in jazz! Which obviously is an extremely historically limited perspective, and speaks to the continued prioritizing of bebop or straight-ahead swing as styles which can be learned and easily taught, and importantly, one in which the practitioner is playing either right or wrong! Which is perfect for a “conservatory approach” to playing music. If you’re playing a concerto, there are clear right notes and wrong notes – but jazz doesn’t work this way! (At least not jazz that I’m interested in engaging with.) It’s troubling to me that this guy actually led one of the major jazz schools in NYC, because this close-minded perspective obviously trickles down to creating cookie-cutter students who play boring, cookie-cutter jazz. But I also remember something else happening – the next day, one of the other faculty members, a well-known LA studio musician, cornered me in the hallway and said “Hey, man, I dug your playing and your approach a lot. You sound like… YOU! Don’t ever let ANYONE tell you how to you have to play.” I remember how exciting that felt, the knowledge that not every trumpet player had to sound like a carbon copy of Clifford Brown or whoever, and that some people, even studio musicians who made their living off of playing commercial music, could find beauty in an approach that went against the grain.

Phew.

Finally, please check out this video made during Ralph Alessi’s wonderful SIM sessions; Ralph is a jazz performer and educator dedicated to furthering jazz, and I feel lucky to have been exposed to his ideas while a student at Eastman years ago. I think the SIM approach to teaching improvisation represents a possible answer to the question “how can jazz education keep jazz relevant?”