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Press photo of Takuya Kuroda from Blue Note.com

Some will tar a record with being “commercial” because due to preset notions of what one might think an artist should be doing rather than listening for what he actually is doing.


Categories, definitions, labels, marketing, oh boy. When you are writing about jazz, to mention these things is somehow to ignore or taint the music. But how can a curious and responsible listener ignore the influence of the market on this beautiful art? It’s rare for jazz musicians to make a living from creative, improvised, instrumental music without some consideration of getting and keeping an audience.


cover art

Takuya Kuroda

Rising Son

(Blue Note; US: 18 Feb 2014; UK: 18 Feb 2014)

There’s an inevitable relation between the extent to which a jazz musician chooses to “sweeten” his music and how we evaluate that music. To pretend that every musician makes every choice in making a record on purely artistic grounds is to ignore reality.


The Critic’s Dilemma


As a jazz writer, I can’t escape my own point of view, a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t position. To ignore the larger picture of how a record was made or how it fits into the larger culture is irresponsible. But it’s also true that too many critics will tar a record with being “commercial” in the pejorative sense because they are tied to upholding some preset notions of what one might think an artist should be doing rather than listening for what he actually is doing.


Lately, there has been a slew of jazz that is both artistically ambitious and flatly commercialized, by which I mean not only that it incorporates some elements of US pop music (what doesn’t, these days?), but also that it was made with some genuine intention of selling itself to folks beyond “jazz purists”.


Recently I reviewed Robert Glasper’s Black Radio 2. In my mind, it wasn’t really a jazz record (it’s predecessor,Black Radio , won the Grammy for Best R&B Record), so at the start of my review I wrote: “[T]he honest question is not whether [this] is a strong work from a jazz artist working with pop music but whether it’s a great pop record, a pop record that is fresh, creative, compelling, beautiful… I don’t know if Black Radio 2 is “jazz” or not or whether that’s even a question worth debating.”


The review produced a series of email responses that said, in essence, “Thanks for not running this down as a too-poppy jazz record and just hearing it as music.” The praise wasn’t for my liking this recording, but rather, for not insisting on hearing it as “jazz” diluted by pop. As “jazz” it wasn’t much, maybe. Whatever that might have meant.


But this got me thinking. Maybe I should have thought more about Glasper, undoubtedly a jazz pianist when he wants to be, using pop music to sell records. Maybe Black Radio wasn’t jazz, but there is a huge swath of music like Glasper’s that, mostly, is. What’s fair in writing about it? By what standards should we think about it?


Let’s start by acknowledging that this is an old problem, and commercialization isn’t always bad for the art. Though it can be.


This Problem Is Not New


Once upon a way-back time, jazz was the pop music of the world. Benny Goodman didn’t think about diluting or sweetening his music. He was a pop star who played a clarinet. More to the point, he helped to define what was popular, not the other way around. He was Kanye West for the late ‘30s – not bending to popular opinion but maybe bending it as he did something new.


But since jazz got more modern and thorny in the ‘40s and ‘50s and then was popularly eclipsed by the rock and soul revolutions (which, yeah I know, it helped to create), the question has come up again and again. Are you a fan of the Charlie Parker or Ella Fitzgerald recordings with strings, or are they gloppy pop stuff that stifled the fiery improvisational genius of these dazzling artists? Before the Beatles ever hit American TV and well before Kenneth Bruce Gorelick starting selling records under the name “Kenny G”, jazz was starting to maneuver for market position by using healthy doses of pop sensibility. But, you bet, competing with “rock” upped the stakes considerable while also making critics more likely to raise questions of “purity” in ways that were sometimes fair and sometimes narrow-minded.


Let’s look at some examples.


The Brilliance and Sell-Out of Wes Montgomery


In the ‘60s the innovative jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery – a guy who perfected the modern jazz guitar sound and is in the top-three of the jazz guitar pantheon – starting making records that were blatant attempts to move units in a marketplace where jazz musicians were trying to compete with chart-toppings artists like Frank Sinatra and rock groups. Montgomery was a purist’s delight—and then a sell-out.


From his early years in Indianapolis with his brothers, to his association with Lionel Hampton’s big band, through a series of early ‘60s recording sessions, Montgomery played with fire, with soulful jazz power. His session from 1960 with pianist Tommy Flanagan, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, is the kind of record that’s hard to resist on purely jazz terms: swinging, inventive, but somehow still raw. The story goes that John Coltrane asked Montgomery to join his band after a particularly amazing jam session.


But a musician must make a living.


And so Montgomery’s last album for Riverside in 1963 was called Fusion (long before that term meant ‘70s jazz-rock that attempted to sell records in a slightly different way) and featured “All the Way”, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”, “Somewhere”, and “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” among other Sinatra-esque “standards”, all delivered against string-heavy orchestral arrangements.


A year later, Montgomery had moved to the Verve label and was recording the Barbra Streisand hit “People” and the Broadway hit “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof. The year 1965 had him recording “The Shadow of Your Smile”, with the quotient of improvisation on the records fading a bit year by year. The next year brought more pop tunes, and more success, with Tequila, Goin’ Out of My Head, and California Dreamin’, the title of each album making pretty clear what was going on here. He was a star. He was on pop radio.


By 1967, Montgomery changed labels again, now to A&M where he covered the Beatles (“A Day in the Life”, “Eleanor Rigby”), had a hit with “Windy” (the #1 hit by the association, which reached #44 on the pop charts for Wes), and finally made the almost purely forgettable Road Song in 1968, playing two more Beatle tunes, “Scarborough Fair”, and even Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”


This was mediocre music: flavorless Don Sebesky arrangements of songs that were compelling as pop, rock, or folk became little more than “easy listening”. The music sold like french fries at the beach but, while I’m more than capable of defending “The Road Song” or even the hip conga groove on “A Day in the Life”, it was neither good jazz nor good pop music as the original versions of these songs were. And Montgomery’s heart was hardly in it. Out on the road, when he could, he was still playing live with the likes of Jimmy Smith or Wynton Kelly.


With a musician as towering as Montgomery, selling out was selling out. The bad kind. The kind that a jazz critic would be right to criticize – not because pop music influence on jazz is inherently bad but because watering down soulful music into fluff is bad. A good jazz critic in 1967 would have written about this stuff, making all the right associations and distinctions.


The Brilliance and Not-Really-Selling-Out of Miles Davis


A good jazz critic just a few years later in 1969 or 1970 would have also written about the pop music influences on the music of Miles Davis. But the conclusions should have been different.


Mostly, however, Davis took critical flak (even as the records sold well with folks). Critics tainted it in various ways: as noisy (which it, gloriously, was), as simplistic (which it was in some limited ways, but not in the ways that really count), as too “white” (with more white musicians than Davis’s bands usually had – not that he cared when he hired Bill Evans – and as white because it didn’t swing and was a caving in to white record company executives), and as too “black” (not harmonically sophisticated, like some new kind of jungle music, add your own racist angle here)... you name it. Some critics did get it – dark, new, daring, free, collective, complex in new ways.


What is clear: it would have been silly to write about Davis’s incorporation of electric instruments and funk rhythms into his music during 1969-1975 without considering his public statements about wanting to communicate more directly with a young black audience, his hiring of a bass player from Stevie Wonder’s band, his surging record sales, and his relationship with the president of Columbia records.


That attention on “commercialization” in Miles music wouldn’t have to result in condemnation. Montgomery and Davis may both have been after market share – indeed, that’s just a fact. But a good critic hears something different in how Davis did it or, perhaps, just in the result of his pursuit of record sales. In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson used heavy doses of rock and funk influence, but these recordings made Davis’s music both more relevant to its time and more challenging. Rather than make music that was pandering to a wide swath of folks not interested in “jazz”, he was infusing his strain of jazz with a fresh challenge.



So, early ‘70s Davis utterly required a critic’s consciousness about the fact that he was using elements of rock and funk in his music and, yes, that he was trying to follow the paths of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix in reaching more young people. But that awareness should have led to different conclusions than with Montgomery.


And So This Issue Never Goes Away…


In the following years the question would come up again and again. Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters was a remarkably hip take on funk. Sell-out or fantastic? Either way, you can’t really discuss it without knowing about James Brown. Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay (1970) contained a batch of tunes that set the mold for CTI Records in the decade to come, but its title track was a canny blend of hard bop and soulful, swaying funk. That blend of Fender Rhodes and brassy punch is only discussable if you know about how Ray Charles  influenced Cannonball Adderly’s band. How about the pursuit of radio play that took brass player Chuck Mangione from the Jazz Messengers to 1977’s colossal hit “Feels So Good”? Jazz and AM radio were combining ten years earlier in a guy named Montgomery. Let’s talk about it.


Yes, the question is the music, not just the fact that it contains some pop. But a critic ought to look at all of it. And a full understanding of whether a jazz recording succeeds involves some knowledge about context and consideration of intent.


...Right Up to Today


So then there was that Glasper record, Black Radio, that I decided wasn’t jazz at all. Maybe that was also true of those crummy Montgomery records and they also deserved a pass on the “jazz purity” test. And “Feels So Good” too. No one really reviewed that first Norah Jones record as jazz, did they? Should they have?


It’s trickier than it seems. It was relatively easy to hear the new Glasper disc as R&B. After all, in addition to the R&B Grammy, it featured soul singers on many tracks. But what about the new record by trumpeter Takuya Kuroda, Rising Son?


On the one hand, Kuroda out to seem like a pop guy, coming out of the horn section that has been backing up singer Jose James for the last year or so. (Though, to be fair, James is a jazz singer and met Kuroda in the jazz program at the New School of Music in Manhattan.) On the other hand, Kuroda’s debut is on Blue Note, jazz’s premiere label.


What about the content of the music? James sings on one track, and if the whole disc were like that, well, I’d review it as a soul record (as I did review – and love James’s 2013 disc). Six of the record’s eight tunes were written by Kuroda (very “jazz”!), but the other two are covers of songs by jazz-turned-funk artist Roy Ayers.


Finally, the disc is mostly instrumental, featuring a quintet or sextet of trumpet, trombone, piano, (guitar,) bass, and drums. The horns and pianist take improvised solos between statements of melody just like on an old bop record, mostly. Sure, there’s no walking bass line, the rhythm section gets into Afro-pop grooves, and the melody statements are more Tower of Power than Dizzy Gillespie... but anyone’s gut would call this a “jazz” record.


And, again, here’s why that matters. If music is just music, no categories, no labels, then how do we write about it with any intelligence? I understand why Kuroda doesn’t or shouldn’t care. Just do your thing, baby! But history tells us that he’s probably not just doing his thing. He’s making art in context, in the context of a history of jazz, of Maceo Parker instrumental funk, of modern soul music, of hip-hop, of Freddie Hubbard deciding to leaven his hard bop sound with some “Red Clay” at the urging of producer Creed Taylor, of decades of jazz guys trying to find an audience despite the fact that jazz today sells fewer recordings than any other genre category, including classical.


I happen to like Rising Son. That’s my subjective opinion, I guess, which is maybe all that a critic ever has in the end. But I try to ask myself why I like or don’t like a recording, and in doing that I consider how the music fits in the world, how it compares to other things that history judges to be valuable, and how the result matches the purpose or ambitions of the artist.


This is why my judgment about Takuya Kuroda’s Blue Note debut is going to discuss the relationship of jazz to pop music, is going to mention the interesting history of the band The Crusaders, who made compelling jazz that felt organically melded to the southern soul tradition and are maybe a cool benchmark for the kind of thing Kuroda is doing on Rising Son, and is going to note that Kuroda’s trumpet playing itself kind of reminds me of the flugelhorn work of… Chuck Mangione.


It’s also true that I don’t like it half as much as I like the new recording from his fellow Blue Note trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere. Is that because Akinmusere’s disc conforms more to jazz’s “serious” side, with more harmonic complexity, more acoustic instruments, less “pop” content? But Akinmusere also uses singers on several tracks and incorporates non-swing and funk rhythms. Akinmusere is trying to appeal to modern audiences too, and he mixes non-jazz elements. I just think that he gets a better result, takes more compelling risks in his playing and writing, challenges me in a more invigorating way as a listener.


Ultimately in reviews of both records, I will have to discuss the ways in which both artists mix jazz tradition and pop elements. There’s just no dodging it. Nor should there be.


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.


Tagged as: jazz | takuya kuroda
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