Back to the Future: Jazz Edition
Written by Daniel Witter
The author reflects on his time being the world/jazz music director at KAMP Student Radio - the University of Arizona's student run radio station. This blog serves as an observational piece on the current state of jazz music, as well as a call to action for new jazz musicians to find their own talent rather than relying on cover songs.
I had the privilege of being the world/jazz music director at my university’s radio station for a couple of years. I managed the mail we received from various independent artists and promoters, and observed a very distinct character to the sort of music we received: the prevalence of albums that were purely covers of previous works.
Every week, I’d get enough cover albums out of which I could make a decently-sized suit of armor. Before taking the position, I had no concept of the mountain of plastic-sheathed disks portraying new artists and old tunes. Perhaps it was a function of where we were as a station, and the contacts and opportunities we had, but a staggering majority of the jazz-related mail I received during my time was simply covering classics. It’s no shame to give proper due to the masters of the past or to put a fresh spin on an old favorite, but if this is a widespread phenomenon, then it’s no wonder that casual listeners far and wide believe that jazz is either stuck 40 years in the past, or dead.
Now, let’s think about why this is happening. It’s certainly not from a lack of skilled players. These now-overdone tracks are played with obvious technicality, the musicians of significant caliber, comparable to or even exceeding the skill of their jazzy ancestors. Many of these talented individuals attended some form of music school, or certainly had formal lessons at a minimum, and what else is there to learn but that which exists already? Having never taken jazz-focused music lessons myself, unfortunately, I couldn’t say what is covered in these, but no up-and-coming musician ignores past works when honing their craft. A violinist will explore at least briefly the works of Mozart; it would be too much to ask that a growing jazz musician ignore Mingus or Armstrong, similarly. There is also the necessity to learn how to play notes in context, whether or not to luxuriously extend a sonorous note or keep it short and snappy, and this has to be derived from prior knowledge and existing examples of well-written pieces. As is the case for learning just about anything, it is nearly impossible to learn in a vacuum, in refusing to draw from the successes and mistakes of those who came before. But to skirt entirely around the creation process of music? That is a bit different.
Judging from the landslide of tribute CDs that engulfed me every time I attempted to manage my mailbox, this problem is rather rampant. It is true that learning inherently tends to skip out on teaching the creation process. You can’t “learn,” in the classical sense, something that doesn’t exist yet. Writing music is hard; creating most things tends to be pretty difficult. Writing something as technical as jazz is staggering. But even so, when these modern-day maestros of their chosen instrument sent me the recorded fruits of their labors over a particularly tricky piece composed decades ago, I wondered: did this person, skilled as they are, try to write? Ever? Have they set pen to paper, fingers to keys, to eke out a line? Perhaps many have tried, and considered themselves unable to create something to their liking. Talented players would not want to play mediocre acts, and would hardly be pleased with a piece that in their opinion isn’t worth playing at all. Perhaps, out of respectful deference, some would rather not sully the still-gleaming surface of the past, and prefer to pay homage to the old masters rather than expand the genre in fresh directions.
Aside from my dismay in receiving so many cover albums, what is the problem? Is anything really being hurt here? I contend that there is a lot of danger. Attempting to reinvent or venerate the past too long gets stale and uninspired, which leads to the loss of what originally made jazz so great: the expression of new ideas and feelings in a new way, with a distinct sound. Expressing the feelings of another for too long is hardly more than mere imitation, which without fail does a disservice to the imitator in removing what special uniqueness they could have brought. There are too many flawless musicians today that are able to make their and their instruments’ voices heard for this to be permitted. I encourage music makers to certain acknowledge and honor the past, but I urge them more strongly to let jazz live in the present, and to work towards crafting an equally-powerful future.
Below are some quick recommendations for current groups that go astray from the beaten path and reinstate the artistry of modern jazz music:
The Kandinsky Effect
The Kandinsky Effect has been out to revitalize the modern jazz music scene for some time. They're certainly not avant garde, but I don't quite think you'll find them hearkening overmuch to the days of jazz yore. They play themselves....and that's more than can be said for many bands. Smooth but not smarmy, rich but not creamy, the Kandinsky Effect bring a refined and energetic touch to the modern jazz scene.
Dan Moretti and crew can play a mean, upbeat and poppin' tune. The tone and pace hearkens back a bit to more orchestral fast jazz pieces, but with a threadbare enthusiasm that simply screams of cast-off dinner clothes and crushing out a tune in undershirts at the local club, to the delight and surprise of somewhat older patrons and younger up-and-comers. Rife with talent and always fun, I've yet to hear a downbeat Moretti tune.
Dave Holland comes as perhaps a bit of a surprise--not exactly a modern musician, insofar as to mean a "recent addition" to the jazz family. With amazing hits since the 70s, Holland continues to bring fresh thoughts to the jazz scene of today. A hoarse and impatient guitar accompanied by frantic drums dominates this track, and will likely leave you searching for more.
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