Jazz oftentimes seems as much about the rich history of the music as it does those looking to further the form in new and creative ways. By pushing the boundaries of the form, they simultaneously seek to honor its rich heritage. This is accomplished through either direct collaboration with previous generations or stylistic nods or solo quotes that show these new players know where they’ve been as they look ahead to where they’d like to go. As jazz has precipitously dropped off the radar of most listeners within the half century since its prominence as a form of popular music, it has, in a sense, become increasingly insular and self-referential to the point of near alienation to those not well versed in the language. There are, however, those who continue to seek to make accessible music that both honors the form and appeals to a broader audience. And it is in these stylistically recognizable exercises that contemporary jazz musicians are able to best succeed with a modern audience; if you can move your ass to it, it doesn’t matter if you “understand” the music itself.
Having been himself what would now be considered a jazz crossover artist at his commercial peak, organist Lonnie Smith has always known how to toe the line between creative expression and broader appeal. Gravitating early to a more R&B-influenced approach, his music became a cornerstone of the funk and soul-jazz movements, pushing the form without sacrificing commercial appeal. Not necessarily needing to be any sort of musical alchemist to accomplish this, Smith, having since rechristened himself “Dr. Lonnie Smith” for no reason other than he could, managed to tap into that fine line between accessibility and creative exploration.
It’s not surprising then that in 2016 the good doctor is still at it and, on Evolution, his first for Blue Note since 1970, employing the equivalent of this generation’s jazz ambassadors to the general public. Opening track “Play It Back” offers a funky, strutting jam that sprawls over 14 minutes yet never feels it. Stepping back, Smith allows guest artist and current jazz cause celebre Robert Glasper to take over. In Glasper’s hands, jazz has been updated for modern audiences unfamiliar with its history of stylistic assimilation. Himself incorporating elements of hip-hop, neo-soul and modern electronic music, Glasper represents the 21st century version of what Smith and his soul-jazz peers sought to do by fusing their jazz chops with the commercially viable funk and soul then dominating the clubs and airwaves.
Given this, Glasper is the perfect opening foil for Smith in his willingness to be all-inclusive without sacrificing creativity or pandering to the lowest common denominator. In this, Evolution proves an apt title as the pair represent separate tiers of the same evolutionary path within jazz, each incorporating the prevailing trends within popular music into the jazz idiom and giving back something as accessible as it is forward thinking. By doing so, both have sought, in their respective times, to further an often publicly branded “dying form”, enlivening the music through their singularly creative approach and leading it out of the puritanical doldrums and offering a more accessible approach to the country’s one true indigenous art form.
Similarly, Joe Lovano’s presence on follow up track “Afrodesia” offers yet another musician intent on bridging the gap within the music to make it accessible without compromising any of its artistic integrity. As with the Glasper track, “Afrodesia” adheres to a more traditional notion of soul-jazz while still carrying with it a contemporary feel. There are no gimmicks in either, only solid performances redolent of both jazz’s past and its imagined future. Serving to further the connection between past and present, Lovano’s performance of “Afrodesia” mirrors that of his debut appearance with Smith on 1975’s album of the same name. As if coming full circle, Smith’s ushering in of Lovano is returned in kind as they reteam to reinterpret the song within a more modern context. Stripping the song of its original Blaxploitation production and arrangement while maintaining its funky underpinnings, they update the sound without appearing revisionist or like that of a nostalgia act. In this, they explicitly show the vital and evergreen nature of jazz as a form and its potential to always sound contemporary through nothing more than its contextual interpretation.
Further on, “Talk About This” finds Smith and company again incorporating contemporary music trends with a rapped/sung intro that devolves into a funky, trumpet-driven instrumental and settling into a Roots-worthy groove. Similarly, perennial jazz standard “My Favorite Things” is given a wild makeover that begins with a slow, haunting string arrangement before exploding into a gloriously funky, swung recitation of the melody. As throughout, Smith is in top form, showing himself to still be on of the best B-3 players around.
While Evolution doesn’t necessarily offer any great, for lack of a better word, evolutionary strides, it serves as a direct through line from the music of the 1960s through to the modern era, showing the continued vitality of the form while also becoming one of Dr. Lonnie Smith’s best overall efforts. This is not music to be curated or kept on a shelf in a museum. Rather it here shows itself to be little more than sophisticated dance music. Bottom line, these tracks are funky and as much indebted to the past as the here and now, exhibiting the continued relevance of what may well be perceived as an increasingly irrelevant art form. Stop thinking so goddamn much and just let the music move through you. As a wise man once proclaimed, “free your mind and your ass will follow”. Truer words have never been spoken.
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