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Feature [Issue #6]
: Jazz Present
By Jason Sklar

With holiday spirit in the air, it seems the right time for the Ebeneezer Scrooge traditionalists of jazz to appreciate the transitional period that jazz and the music industry are in. As jazz future is unknown and jazz past is already established, jazz present must be appreciated for both its musicality and exploration.

With holiday spirit in the air, it seems the right time for the Ebeneezer Scrooge traditionalists of jazz to appreciate the transitional period that jazz and the music industry are in. As jazz future is unknown and jazz past is already established, jazz present must be appreciated for both its musicality and exploration.

Jazz musicians want to be in the now. They break from traditions while still keeping them in sight. To reflect the times, artists are summoning new standards to voice their expressions on more than just Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein classics. In 1995, Herbie Hancock's The New Standard emerged with coverage of Lennon and McCartney's "Norwegian Wood" and Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair" directly stating the evolution of the jazz standard. Other piano trios have followed this trend, too. Brad Mehldau has covered the Beatles and Radiohead and recently the Bad Plus has done up bold trio versions of Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and Kurt Cobain's [Nirvana's] "Smells Like Teen Spirit." On the saxophones, Joshua Redman's Timeless Tales featured tunes by Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and the Gershwins right alongside the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Prince.

Who is to say what constitutes a "standard?" The tradition follows that artists ought to be able to play material they find to be contextual so that their music reflects the times. These modern covers not only expand the living laboratory of the jazz musician, but also invite non-jazz heads into the scene. These intrepid jazzmen fearlessly wage uncharted waters. Traditionalists need not frown. Jazz musicians may be breaking with the mold in jazz present, but they retain the sophistication and creativity of jazz past.

"Change is a slow moving thing," says Ravi Coltrane, saxophonist and son of John and Alice Coltrane. "There is not a whole lot of support for people to be creative. Guys end up making the same records over and over again with the same sort of formula that people recognize." Record companies are more reticent to produce records that break from the past. "The shift is not as rapid as during the 1940s, 50s and 60s," says Coltrane, "where every two years everyone was changing. Having your own voice was more important. As jazz is a more set crystallized thing now-the music is kept in one place." Coltrane feels that young guys are copying the styles of old music. "We don't need replacements, we need a progression," remarks Coltrane. "John Coltrane's technical ability was in proportion to his drive and ideas. Today, guys just try to play well." In his own music, Ravi Coltrane supports playing "new" standards. "Most music we're exposed to is not jazz. Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire and funk music are styles I grew to love," says Coltrane. "You grow tired of covering Autumn Leaves, so why not do Stevie Wonder?"

"(Thelonius) Monk, (Charlie) Parker, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson were such individuals," lauds Coltrane. "They were just trying to be themselves to do something that stemmed from themselves. They had a really deep understanding, love and knowledge of the music."
Dave Holland, bassist, composer, arranger, and leader extraordinaire possesses this understanding, love, and knowledge as one of the best in modern jazz. At age 56, Holland charges full steam ahead with a sensational quintet composed of saxophonist Chris Potter, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, trombonist Robin Eubanks, and drummer Billy Kilson as well as a 13-piece big-band that masterfully grows the sound of the quintet. Like Coltrane, Holland has found that individuality was more encouraged in the past. "Increasing analysis does not necessarily bring increased creativity," says Holland. Some players sound as if doing a "paint-by-numbers sort of thing." But while Coltrane finds jazz to be largely stagnant, Holland is more optimistic. "The scene is healthy," remarks Holland. "Large numbers are still coming through the music and are emotionally inspired despite the standardized approach to learning."

"Whether in music, art, theatre, or writing, the artist must create an emotional and intellectual stimulus," explains Holland. "We need to stay in touch with our own feelings and emotions and make sure not to be so absorbed with the technical. Music has to say something-to tell a story." Through music, Holland communicates his life experiences along with his fellow band members. "With the generosity and support of the other musicians, I am not only playing for my own expressiveness, but also for group expressiveness." The interplay in Holland's band reflects a long tradition of signals and hidden messages. Holland recalls how Louis Armstrong and King Oliver would play identical riffs during performance that had not been rehearsed. As a bassist for Miles Davis in the 1960s, Holland remembers listening for little things they would play to indicate a change. Holland's quintet expresses the same intuition with the utmost awareness of flow. Even when not playing, they are still listening and connected. Their keen sense of time and control allows Dave Holland's group to epitomize individuality just as they define unity. Extended Play, Holland's latest release of live performances at Birdland, yet again confirms that Holland's music has just as much intensity and meaning on the first note as the last.

While the complexities of acoustic playing leave Holland and his audiences completely satisfied, other artists have diverged down a hybridized path of acoustics and electronics. In the same way that Holland crafts songs around the personalities of the group members, Nicholas Payton's recent Sonic Trance allows the personalities of the group to come through by "exploiting the whole technique of recording." After more structured projects such as Nick @ Nite and Dear Louis, Payton explores the art of "how not to compose." "I didn't want to get into bags," says Payton. "I wanted to write music that allows the musician to compose on a nightly basis." Payton's use of wah-wah pedals and synthesizers may have some traditionalists shaking their heads. But jaztronica and remix albums really have traditionalists saying that producers have crossed the line.

In 2000, Verve's catalogue was opened to down-tempo and dance DJs to expose songs to a new generation. Dahlia Ambach Caplin, co-producer of the Verve Remixed projects sees these DJs as "producers" who have musical talent, but use technology as their instrument. "We wanted to keep the essence of the song in production," says Dahlia. "It was important that the listener be able to recognize the original. We used as much of the lyrics and original music as we could, so as not to overshadow the original, but with a new twist." While the Verve projects aimed to retain as much of the original as possible, Bird Up, the recent tribute to Charlie Parker, only sought to "retain one note of Bird's horn," says producer Matthew Backer. He saw the DJs as "beat scientists deconstructing art in the name of progress." Though this album was produced in tribute to Charlie Parker, it is not a jazz album, but a hip-hop endeavor with diced sprinklings of Parker wedged in there. 8-stringed guitarist Charlie Hunter comments that these recordings are like "the colorization of movies. Why usurp someone else's thing?"

Although remix and "tribute" projects are based on jazz, they fail to represent jazz present. Just as a square is a rhombus, but a rhombus is not necessarily a square, jazz music can incorporate hip-hop, soul, pop, and electronic influences, but none of these genres will ever constitute jazz. With so many ranging influences, jazz becomes harder to define. Still, for music to be considered jazz, there must be creative improvisation, a swing-feeling, and syncopated rhythms. If jazz present holds on to anything from jazz past, it is Duke Ellington's saying, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

Jazz Present

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