New bands—are they always worth the hype? Is the advantage of youth a fail-safe way of making exciting music? Or is it a double-edged sword more often than we would like to admit? When it comes to jazz music, all this crap about young musicians becomes even more suspect. The longer you live, the more blues you log into your life. The older you are, the more respect you have for your elders, who got it right the first time, damnit! We live in an age where, despite our intrepid adventures within the genre, some curmudgeon in Europe will demand his money back after seeing Larry Ochs perform live, and somehow Wynton Marsalis winds up rewarding the dude with a big vinyl collection of trad jazz. When new talent hits the stage, aficionados will find the talent guilty until proven innocent. Positive opinions are dismantled before the first note, and if said artists can impress these people bit by bit, then they are on their way to becoming acceptable.
The NEXT Collective’s debut album Cover Art represents where our young jazz lions are right about now. When you first hit (or click) play, you are greeted with backwards saxophones. This goes on for a good nine seconds before the main theme of “Twice” is stated. The sax lines dance on top of one another in brief high-fives, sometimes dipping down to an emphasized lower note for a boppily-funkified effect. The drums propel this with a skittering pattern, but not for long. At the 1:12 mark, we are in Bad Plus territory with a straight-up 4/4 drumbeat and some chunky triads on the piano. So you see, less than two minutes into the album and we’re already off to a great start. Fortunately for us, it doesn’t peak there. Cover Art just steams ahead like it’s in everyone’s blood, bending the jazz barriers like it’s business as usual.
This new band is made up of Logan Richardson and Walter Smith III on saxophones, Matthew Stevens on guitar, Gerald Clayton and Kris Bowers on the keys, Ben Williams on the bass and Jamire Williams on drums. And one other big deal is the appearance of trumpeter Christian Scott, aka Christian aTunde Adjuah, on half the album. There are plenty of modern influences at work, even within the conventional makeup of the band. Stevens’ guitar isn’t always going for the hard bop fluidity of those who came before him, while Clayton and Bowers take turns on the Fender Rhodes, giving passages of Cover Art that Bitches Brew flair. And Williams’ drumming can throw you for more than one loop, giving a smooth jazz groove to Stereolab’s “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse” one moment and a bitching solo at the start of a cover of N.E.R.D.‘s “Fly or Die”.
Covers in jazz today are often interpreted as big, unsubtle gestures that scream “look at me!” I never spoke to anyone who complained, but I’m sure there were many grumblings when Brad Mehldau was on his Radiohead kick. But like Mehldau and the Bad Plus, the NEXT Collective have found a batch of songs that translate into modern jazz pretty well; Pearl Jam’s “Oceans”, Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild”, Drake’s “Marvin’s Room” and Bon Iver’s “Perth”. You must be thinking, ‘man, give up the gimmick already.’ I am being genuine when I say this is no mere gimmick. These tunes stand together without blinking. For fun, find an old school jazz fan and play him or her Me’Shell Ndegéocello’s “Come Smoke My Herb” or D’Angelo’s “Africa”. And of course, don’t let them in on who they are listening to or what kinds of covers these are. I bet they’ll dig them.
The NEXT Collective’s Cover Art isn’t just bold and new, it’s also great. It’s a modern album that complements the modern times and comes highly recommended, whether you want something just for surface shine or if you want to pop in the earbuds and really plunge in.