Music

The Shape of Jazz That Came...

The awake, aware folks who make and receive these offerings celebrate an ever-evolving music that resists boundaries, the sort capable of communication that transcends language and explanation.

The year 1959 was a watershed for jazz music (arguably the greatest single year for jazz in all history -- which is saying a lot). Here’s a taste: Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, John Coltrane's Giant Steps, and Charles Mingus' Ah Um. That is like the holy trinity of jazz music, all from the same year. But in the not-so-silent shadows a young, relatively unknown alto saxophonist was poised to cause a stir that still reverberates today: Ornette Coleman, who created the provocatively titled The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Kind of Blue is correctly celebrated for establishing modal music and as a genuine evolution from bop and post-bop; Giant Steps is the apotheosis of the “sheets of sound” that John Coltrane had been practicing and perfecting for a decade; Ah Um is an encyclopedic history of jazz music, covering everyone and everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington. Each of those albums were immediately embraced, and remain recognized as genuine milestones today. But The Shape of Jazz to Come was incendiary and complicated; it inspired as much resistance as it did inspiration. Some folks (Mingus included) bristled that it was all so much sound and fury, signifying…little. But what Coleman (along with trumpet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins--representing as solid a quartet as any that have made music, ever) achieved was, arguably, the most significant advancement since Charlie Parker hit the scene.

Of course, Parker was also misunderstood and dismissed when his frenetic, almost incomprehensibly advanced alto saxophone assault began to cause scales to drop from audiences’ eyes (if not their ears). Like any genuine iconoclasts of the avant garde, Parker and Coleman were not being new for newness sake; they had to fully grasp and master the idiom before they could transcend it. Tellingly, what was revolutionary and almost confrontational then seems rather tame and entirely sensible now. Of course, it didn’t take 50 years for Coleman to resonate: he not only found his audience, John Coltrane -- the all-time heavyweight champion -- embraced his compatriot. He endorsed, and, crucially, he imitated. The Book of Revelations that Coltrane’s mid-’60s Impulse recordings comprise did, in many respects, grow directly out of the opening salvo fired by Coleman in ’59.

Flash forward ten years. Miles Davis was once again at the vanguard, nonchalantly picking up the baton dropped when free-jazz avatars Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane had their comet-like lives come crashing way prematurely to earth. By '69, Miles had "plugged in", augmented his quintet, and went about the inconsequential task of changing music (again). To say that his endeavors were met with similar resistance as those of Coleman a decade before is putting it mildly. Indeed, while Coleman was eventually recognized, even lionized (witness his most-deserved 2007 Pulitzer for the masterful Sound Grammar), the work Davis did in the late '60s and early '70s was met with a combination of incredulity, indifference, and outright hostility (it also was warmly embraced by people with the ears to hear it). More of my commentary on this era and the culmination of experimentations which resulted in Bitches Brew is available here.

Suffice it to say, Davis led the charge that led to (depending upon one's point of view) either a radical expansion of jazz music's possibilities or its lamentable bastardization. Certainly the (inevitable, unfortunate) proliferation of watered-down fusion which resulted in the artistic stillbirth known as Smooth Jazz has little (if anything) to do with the shock heard 'round the world that Davis sounded off circa 1970.

What happened next is -- again depending on one's perspective -- the languid death march of America's music or a continuation of an art that seamlessly integrates virtually every noise and culture from around the globe. A certain, and predictable, cadre of critics submerged their heads in the sand and bitched about better days. The awake and aware folks who make and receive these offerings celebrate an ever-evolving music that resists boundaries, music that is capable of communication that transcends language and explanation. At its best it is an ideal synergy of expression and integrity.

Anyone who knows anything understands that some of the best jazz music ever was created in the '70s (no, really) and a great deal of amazing music was made in the '80s (seriously). But in the '90s and into the '00s we've seen jazz music consistently -- and successfully-- embrace other forms of music (rock, rap, electronica, etc.) and end up somewhere that remains jazz, yet something else altogether. There are myriad examples, of course, but this small sampler of five selections might be illustrative, and enlightening. The uninitiated may be surprised, even astonished, at how alive and accessible this "other" music really is.

One could (and should) say more about artists such as Lester Bowie, Jamie Saft, Marco Benevento, the Bad Plus, Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois, and Mostly Other People Do the Killing, all of whom have incorporated our (increasingly) info-overload existence into their sound. Slack-jawed and stale-souled haters may demur at even calling this jazz, or course. Of course the last laugh is on them because most of these musicians would care less than a little what you call it. They understand that the shape of jazz that came is always turning into what we'll be listening to tomorrow.

1. DJ Spooky (with William Parker, Joe McPhee, and Guillermo E. Brown), "ibid, desmarches, ibid" (from Optometry):

2. Material, "Black Light" (from Hallucination Engine):

3. Matthew Shipp, "Cohesion" (from Equilibrium):

4. John Zorn, "Giù La Testa (Duck You Sucker!)" (from The Big Gundown):

5. Medeski, Martin, and Wood (with DJ Logic), "Start-Stop" (from Combustication):

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image