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"In Order to Find The Way, You Must Leave The Way"

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The young musicians in this film are almost universally seeking a kind of liberation from the past. They grew up in an era—which is still the norm today—in which “jazz” meant playing music the same way it was played 50 years ago. The film gives some voice to the “Young Lions” movement of the ‘80s, when Wynton and Branford Marsalis seemed to be reviving jazz by renewing its interest in the past.  But, while today’s younger players are super-informed about jazz history, they seek to honor it by breaking free of it.


Pianist Robert Glasper, who is making brilliant and accessible music that feels informed by hip hop as well as tradition, is hilarious on this topic.


“If Charlie Parker got out of his grave today, he would not want motherfuckers playing the same shit he was playing when he was alive. He’d look around, ‘What the fuck are you doing? I played that already!  Why are you playing this?  I’ve been dead for a hundred years—I’m back now and you’re still playing my shit. Move on.’ That’s a smack in the face to people if you keep shit the same way. You’re supposed to continue on a legacy.


CAPTION

Bugge Wesseltoft


“There’s a whole movement of cats from Europe that play jazz. But there’s something missing. They’re classically based and trained. Jazz isn’t based on classical music—it’s based on blues and church and spirit…”

“That was some bad shit back then. Loved it. Killin’. Now let’s do this. Move on. Accept. John Coltrane was a human being. I’m a human being.  He’s not God. I hope to one day be badder than he is. And it’s possible. He started some of this shit, but you’ve got to realize that we’re all human, and it is possible to move on and be great just like Trane was. And if you don’t think it’s possible that it’s not going to be possible.”


Matthew Shipp, who plays beyond mainstream jazz yet has garnered attention from some rock audiences, is also knowingly flip about tradition. “I don’t have to look at it through the prism of ‘Bud Powell played this way’ or ‘Bill Evans played this way’ or ‘Keith Jarrett played that way’. Fuck them. They’re just people. I do it my way.”


The point is not to reject the past but to honor it with a kind of independence. Payton puts it in a wonderfully Buddhist manner:  “In order to find the way, you must leave the way. You have to be open.”


Selling the Sound
The truth is, there is no lack of appeal in new, young jazz musicians. There is power and sex and groove in so much of this music. However, Icons Among Us acknowledges up front that people aren’t yet buying it, presenting these statistics: The most robust jazz record sales since the advent of rock peaked at only five percent. Today that total is only three percent, with half of that generated by a small handful of artists.


Well… record sales aren’t everything.


Icons Among Us features a wow performance by bassist (acoustic) and singer Esperanza Spalding at the Newport Festival. Spalding has performed several times for President Obama and, after she appeared on The Late Show, David Letterman said, “You are the coolest person we’ve ever had on the show!” Her rendition of the Betty Carter classic “Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul” at Newport is so full of charisma that you would think the conversation about the music’s new popularity should be over.


Other featured performances are less polished but even more daring and explosive. The band Garage a Trois, featuring the saxophonist Skerik, puts on an antic/noisy/joyful groove show at Tipitina’s in New Orleans that makes most punk shows seems tame and stupid. The daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra corrals a big band, strings, and a team of MCs who rap with the feverish wit and syncopated zip of bebop. Several performances by musicians identified with the “jamband” movement—Medeski, Martin and Wood (with John Scofield), Marco Benevento, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey—make the case that this kind of jazz is already speaking directly to larger masses of young people.


John Medeski sees the connection. “There are a lot of young people out there looking for something out there other than the mainstream shit. But nobody’s giving it to them—so how do they even know that it exists? We realized we have to find people looking for the spirit, the real thing. Not just an imitation. The thing being an energy. There are people who want that feeling that only comes from improvised music.”


Again, though, terminology is an issue. “MMW” isn’t always seen as real jazz, which the musicians who work in that vein realize. Despite rejecting “jazz” as a boundary, other boundaries don’t work, either. Pianist Robert Walter says, “No one is comfortable with being a ‘jamband.’ It’s a term that is just is related the crowd—kids that used to follow around the Grateful Dead or Phish, and are looking for somewhere to go to hear improvised music that is unique every night.”


Pianist Marco Benevento says that “jamming” is just another word for improvising. “It doesn’t have to mean noodling. I’m not going to let one word, ‘jamband’, ruin what I do. We’re all using twelve different notes. Call it what you want. It’s twelve notes. It sounds easy, but there are a million combinations.”


The tension in this war of labels, certainly, gets us back to Paul da Barros’s challenge. The “jambands” seem to have connected because, culturally, they mean something. What they mean, perhaps, makes the musicians uncomfortable. Kids who are grooving to the “energy” (and, well, maybe to some other substances) seem more like fans of a scene than a music.


In short, what about all the other powerful new jazz that doesn’t invite that old-fashioned swirly dancing?


Spreading the Beats Around
Icons Among Us finds that a critical mark of the new jazz is its international flavor. Musicians from other countries—bassist Avashai Cohen, for example, and Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma—are captured bringing influences into the music from beyond the usual American sources. Pianist and producer Bugge Wesseltoft talks about wishing that he were born in the Bronx so he could be a more authentic jazz player, and then realizing that he would have to bring his own culture to bear on the music if it was to be authentic to him.


Wesseltoft notes that the American jazz scene is very small—and that the music may be more alive now in Europe, sustaining the “non-static-ness” of jazz. No doubt: a certain gauntlet gets dropped.


The live footage of Wesseltoft playing his piano, then using a computer and looping program to create a groove is intoxicating—custom-made for explaining to a new generation how improvisation can mesh inventively with modern production.  Popular (English) jazz pianist and singer Jamie Cullum says, “Bugge makes the beat-heads go crazy and the jazz-heads go crazy. I don’t know why he’s not an international superstar.”


It’s intriguing that Icons Among Us uses this opportunity to show how even the hippest modern jazz musicians remain, despite their own rhetoric, hung up on categories.


Glasper says, “There’s a whole movement of cats from Europe that play jazz. But there’s something missing. They’re classically based and trained. Jazz isn’t based on classical music—it’s based on blues and church and spirit. You can play all the shit you want, but if you don’t have none of that… “


Wesseltoft replies:“You can’t separate things and say, ‘This is exclusively our art form.’ Once you mix two cultures together, something new will come out. I love that possibility. I think the only problem for jazz is when you stop developing it, when people say ‘This is jazz, that’s not jazz.’  I say, fuck them.”


Jazz’s Future Power Source
So, when great musicians who ought to be rowing in the same direction are indirectly trading put-downs, what’s the chance that jazz finds a new audience? Some among us hopeful.


Trumpeter Terence Blanchard sees it coming if jazz fans can drop their obsession with the past. “There’s a movement about of young guys that is the quietest revolution I’ve ever witnessed. They have vision, and the jazz community hasn’t caught up to it yet because the community is still trying to be the jazz community of old. Things have moved on and changed and we’re not going back. So just let it go. It’s gone. Poof.


Paul da Barros believes that the “connection to the culture” is critical because it gives the music a critical power. “We understand the relationship between Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman with black freedom. We do not understand the relationship is between Bill Frisell and the society.


“The big subject is: How can the music can get back into the culture in a meaningful way?  How can we perceive the meaning of this music?  What they hear might be great. They might hear Charles Gayle or Dave Douglas or Bill Frisell or Robert Glasper and they may love it. But they’re going to forget it immediately if it doesn’t mean anything to them, if it doesn’t have a place for them in the culture, in the society.  Right now it doesn’t seem to have any meaning that somebody can attach to it.”


Where does da Barros feel that this connection is best being made today? “The one person out there who has sold a social idea that makes sense to people is Wynton Marsalis. He has put the music in the context of a cultural, social and historical meaning. He has said, ‘This is the accomplishment of African Americans and white Americans working together.’”


The problem is that Marsalis—as brilliant and articulate as he is—is probably the one musician in Icons Among Us who is captured playing music that sounds wholly cocooned in the past. Which is not to say that there is not a critical role for his Lincoln Center Orchestra, but only to say that his role is curatorial, not popular.


No matter how good Marsalis is at cultural connection, it is the other musicians in Icons Among Us who have shot at getting the heart of the future racing. The pulse of today’s music tends to take you off the tracks of jazz. That, of course, is how today’s best jazz musicians will get the music back on track again.


If Charlie Parker rose from the dead—if Bird did indeed live again—I have no doubt that he’d cheer on the hip hop orchestras and Bugge’s piano thumping electronica. He would definitely be a fan of Esperanza Spalding.


Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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