The New Feeling of Jazz:Setting The New Standards By
Since the 1930s,
jazz has thrived on commonly known standards a shared lexicon
of tunes that unify jazzmen the world over. From George Gershwins Summertime
to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammersteins Hello, Young Lovers,
jazz has continued to breathe new life into songs made famous by legends such
as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. These melodies continue to receive new treatments
by players like Joshua Redman and Bill Charlap. With the evolution of the standard
came the transformed role of the rhythm section, reshaping the genre to become
the boundary-pushing, yet reverent jazz we find today.
Golsons Killer Joe, Miles Davis So What and
All Blues, John Coltranes Giant Steps, Herbie Hancocks
Watermelon Man, Wayne Shorters Footprints, Paul
Desmonds Take Five, Antonio Carlos Jobims Girl from
Ipanema, and Charles Mingus Goodbye Porkpie Hat have all
received numerous treatments by jazz players. Duke Ellington was a bastion of
jazz composition. He partnered with Milt Gabler, Irving Mills, Juan Tizol, Manny
Kurtz, and Billy Strayhorn to produce Caravan, In a Mellow Tone,
In a Sentimental Mood, Solitude, Sophisticated Lady
and Take the A Train, greatly contributing to the backbone
of modern jazz. At a certain point, a song becomes so standard that a horn player
or bassist need only play the first few notes of one of these songs, and the rest
of the band can join in.
While jazz musicians have long played songs from the American Songbook, todays
contemporary musicians (as they are disdainfully referred to) have invited new
standards into the lexicon covering the likes of Radiohead, Bjork,
and Nirvana. Since the 1960s, coverage of Lennon/McCartney Beatles tunes, Stevie
Wonder, and James Brown have increasingly appeared on jazz recordings. These
songs not only serve up new terrain for improvisational exploration, but also
create a way to introduce those less familiar with the genre by relating to
audiences through more mainstream numbers.
Musicians are trying to find some new pieces, simplifies Marcin
Wasilewski, a young Polish piano player for Tomasz Stanko, Manu Katché,
and leader of his own trio. He plays a wistful version of Bjorks Hyperballad
on Trio. My reason was simple, he says. I was inspired by
Bjork. In the same way Brad Mehldau interprets Beatles compositions in
his piano trio, Wasilewski enjoys incorporating the popular songs of our time
into his repertoire if only to find some new music. John Coltrane and
Duke Ellington were widely influential in the 50s and 60s. It doesnt make
sense to record it again and again, he says.
Gerald Wilson, who began his career in jazz in 1939 as a trumpet player and
arranger for the Jimmie Lunceford orchestra, is still blazing along at 87 years
old. He agrees that the catalogue of standards is expanding to embrace more
recent songs. In his own bands, he has recorded the Beatles Yesterday
and James Browns Feelin Good (I Got You). I enjoyed
doing those numbers. I feel theres good music there, he says. But
with all his years (nearly spanning the lifetime of jazz), Wilson makes clear
that the real backbone in jazz is the blues. Its okay to play the
blues, he reassures. You cant play jazz if you cant
play the blues. Its just impossible.
Tenor saxophonist extraordinaire Joe Lovano cites the work of The Modern Jazz
Quartet to convey how jazzs recent history has thrust jazz to where it
is and where it is headed. The MJQ was really collective and very full
of intimacy, he comments. They exemplified the most spontaneous
form of jazz within the ensemble. Nobody just plays the role, so
its a freer approach and a more creative way of improvising as a group.
Lovano observes that it depends on the group and the conception behind the music.
On one hand, a musician explores where he yearns to find the right notes and
settle into a way of playing. On the other more commercial hand, there is a
technical conception that is not quite as organic. Depending on the mix of personal
and technical requirements, a piece may come together over a few hours or over
several years. On bassist Marc Johnsons Shades of Jade, Lovano teams with
guitarist John Scofield, drummer Joey Barron, and pianist Eliane Elias, fellow
musicians hes known and played with for the last few decades. When
you have a relationship with people, you can not play together for years, but
when you do come together theres magic, Lovano remarks.
Sometimes a musician will approach a piece from a more technical standpoint.
In that vein, Lovano pursues a Birth of the Cool Suite in an expanded
ensemble setting on his upcoming album Streams of Expression. The inclusion
of a familiar song like Cleo Henrys Boplicity among Lovanos
originals helps welcome the listener to this new music while heightening the
vivacity of this revamped bop offering.
The jazz standard diverges greatly from classical etudes and fugues. A classical
performance requires playing the music as it was composed. The beauty of songs
that become standards is that they encourage exploration - new interpretations
that redefine the genre as they reconfirm what the idiom represents.
26-year-old pianist Robert Glasper approaches piano trio jazz with a hip-hop
slant. Were playing the music of our times, he affirms. The
same way Trane played My Favorite Things and others played songs
from Broadway. Im just playing the standards of my time. Why play shit
thats old? Our shit will be our old standards. Glasper is mature
in his youth. He recognizes a need to make a mark to one day look back and one
day to see this is where we were in this time period. You cant keep
going back and back, he urges.
A more experienced pianist who has lived a life in jazz - Ramsey Lewis, age
71, echoes Glaspers remarks. Its good to bridge the gap to
a younger generation, Lewis says. When a musician plays his own
music it might be easier for the listener to get their footing after hearing
a familiar song. If they like an arrangement, they might get hooked and listen
to something unfamiliar. Lewis is a modern day advocate for the music
and focuses on growing the audience in the under-40 crowd. We definitely
need to show these kids jazz is truly an American art form that has soaked up
idioms and styles outside of the traditional genre, he says. Jazz
has to be performed. If it is never in front of people to see, you will never
see how ideas form. Musicians and audiences arrive at an original voice by playing
While developing artists often hear the bell tolls of teachers reminding them
to practice, practice, practice, Lewis calls out that at the end of the day
it is performance, performance, performance that really matters.
In concert with his performance mantra, Lewis undertook production of Legends
of Jazz, a 30-minute television series introducing viewers to some of the greatest
living legends in crisp, tightly edited High Definition with 5.1 digital surround
sound. This decision came after learning that 5 million people were listening
to his Chicago jazz radio show every weekend. This show wasnt the best
of; it wasnt the greatest hits. Lewis attracted audiences by playing artists
ranging from Charlie Parker to Roy Hargrove, not limiting his sessions to a
Larry Rosen, Executive Producer of Legends of Jazz, explains that they felt
that by bringing on players in the setting of studio recording discussions,
jazzs finest could speak as well as play with an added historical perspective
to open up the door more easily. The music is pretty inclusive if people
would just give it a chance, says Rosen. Just as Ken Burns turned a spotlight
on the history of jazz, Lewis and Rosen have brought the spotlight on a jazz
music that looks and sounds alive and well today. Performances include solo
and duet presentations of: Al Jarreau, Kurt Elling, Marcus Miller, Chick Corea,
Jane Monheit, Dave Valentin, Dave Brubeck and Billy Taylor, just to name a few.
The level of playing and musicianship on the program leaves one simply breathless.
Drummer Ignacio Berroa, who for more than 25 years has held down the drum kit
with an array of straight-ahead and Latin jazz kings including Dizzy Gillespie,
McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, and Tito Puente, defines the different styles
of jazz that allow one to access and play the music as codes, the
title of his latest album. On Codes, Berroas first as a leader, he teams
up with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Danilo Perez, and David Sanchez to integrate the
swing and Afro-Cuban feeling. He strongly supports playing songs of the past.
But when he reached into the pot of jazz past, he arose with a handful of less
familiar, yet equally tasty standards including Chick Coreas Matrix,
Wayne Shorters Pinocchio, and Dizzy Gillespies Woody
n You. What makes a song a standard is when a tune becomes
famous, Berroa explains. Use in movies, Broadway, or just the fact that
a song gets played a lot helps songs gain traction to stand the test of time
in the jazz world. But as a member of the rhythm section, Berroa can attest
to the notion that a band is only as good as its drummer.
When present, the drums and bass are arguably the most critical members of any
jazz ensemble. A bass player or drummer can make or break a band. The shaping
force of these instruments can not only raise or diminish the level of a performance,
but it has also propelled jazz into new rhythms, styles, and genres. From Gene
Krupa to Roy Haynes, drummers have had their own feeling of what swing was,
what it is, and what it could be. Larry Rosen remarks there has been a huge
change in the role of the drums. The environment that they have grown
up in is so complex, so the level of playing has never been at a higher standard,
he says. On Canvas, Robert Glasper epitomizes the direction jazz has headed
by discarding the ching-ching-a-ching. Like other modern jazz musicians,
he frequently composes in 5, 7, and 9 time signatures and explores groove-oriented
jazz without relegating drummer Damion Reid to the role of the timekeeper.
The bass cannot be quite as adventurous as the drums because of the nature
of the instrument, but it can be much more stylized and take many more chances,
says Ramsey Lewis. From Charles Mingus to Christian McBride, It has to
execute like that of frontline players with taste and feeling, says Joe
Lovano. It has to support and contribute ideas.
Gerald Wilson reminds us of the roots of the Kansas City Jazz style that first
took shape in the early 1930s with players like Bennie Moten, whose namesake
lends itself to the song Moten Swing. If a song was said to swing
in this time period, it meant it was a real smooth ride, Wilson
says. Pianist and band leader Count Basie came out of Motens group playing
standards of the 30s including One O Clock Jump and Jumpin
at the Woodside. Basies drummer and bassist, Jo Jones and Walter
Page, respectively, were doing an entirely different thing than rhythm players
today. They served as constants - walking scales on the bass four beats per
bar and accenting the two and four on the hi-hat cymbals.
Juxtapose that with Marcin Wasilewskis remark that his trio, rounded out
by Slawomir Kurkiewicz and Michal Miskiewicz, is more like conversation. In
our way, we try to converse - just talk in music language because we play such
a long time, he notes. The music is changing all the time, but it
cant stop. Its hard to say in words. We are feeling very well together
and the music is living with us.
The music is changing all the time, but so is the world that surrounds it. Jazz
is evolving to catch up with contemporary culture to be relevant, yet more challenging.
It longs to relate to larger audiences as it searches for more freedom than
ever before. It is alive and well with living legends, up-and-comers, and historians
all doing their part to preserve, promote, and most importantly, perform, perform,