Is Innovation Required in Jazz Today?

Branford Marsalis Quartet
Four MFers Playin' Tunes
Emarcy / Marsalis Music

It’s inelegant and silly for arts critics to pick fights with each other. And goodness, it’s hard to imagine a dust-up between jazz scribes making much difference in the world.

So, although I’m going to use the PopMatters review of the new recording by the Branford Marsalis Quartet as my straw man here (sorry, Max Feldman, brother—it ain’t personal), my point is not to take issue with a tepid and curious review of a recording that I very much like. Rather, the question I’m interested in is whether art—and specifically jazz—becomes irrelevant if it isn’t evolving or stepping into innovative ground.

Put another way, does a jazz musician become pointless, is each individual jazz performance or recording lesser, if it is not in the vanguard?

A Premium on Novelty?

Feldman seems to think so. His review of Branford Marsalis’s new Four MFers Playin’ Tunes is cheekily dismissive. Not because the recording stinks. “It’s not a bad record by any means,” he writes. The problem, rather, is that the music contains “not very much to set [it] apart from everything else that’s just like it that you’ve probably heard before.”

Feldman’s review makes this point over and over again. “It’s the same old studious conservatism that we know and loathe—it stands its ground and doesn’t look outside of the sadly deforested jazz jungle for inspiration.” The review ends with this broadside:

“[T]he same sort of musicians have been putting out the same sort of records for the best part of 20 years. Where some of their peers have explored the stranger outreaches of afro-tech-jazz, or shown us just how darned dialectically integrated jazz and hip-hop are, Branford Marsalis and his crew have firmly entrenched themselves in a past long gone. And on this evidence, they ain’t budging.”

It’s hardly a surprise that a critic writing about jazz would complain that a record seems insufficiently avant-garde. The jazz histories are written as paeans to innovation. Armstrong liberated the soloist from the New Orleans ensemble, breaking free. Ellington had the audacity to incorporate elements of classical form, and Parker and Gillespie were practically radical bomb-throwers, breaking down the tyranny of the bar line and conventional harmony. To the jazz critic, Ornette Coleman—he who basically threw out conventional harmony entirely—is a shaman of major proportions.

And who can disagree? Each of these musicians was an architect of change, guiding a young art into its future. They deserve the plaudits.

But not every fine—even great—musician has to be a revolutionary, certainly. Or is there something about jazz that puts a special premium on novelty?

In classical music, for example, innovation can be defined in terms of many centuries of evolution from baroque to classical to impressionistic music, sure. But it’s hard to imagine anyone slapping down a new recording by Yo-yo Ma because he “makes absolutely no attempt to rethink—let alone move beyond—the great innovators” of classical music. That, however, is Feldman’s take on Marsalis and Four MFers Playin’ Tunes.

In pop music, there may be a special place of honor for a band like Radiohead that rethinks the form of the rock song, but no one seems to think it is vapid or even fatal for a band simply to write and sing a song with a killer chorus and a strong hook.

Are jazz and pop essentially different on this point? Is classical music inherently different than jazz for some reason?

The Jazz Emphasis on Variation

Should jazz require a higher degree of innovation than its erstwhile colleagues in musical invention? It is, after all, an art premised on improvisation; musical invention in the moment.

The argument goes like this: by being an art rife with improvisation, jazz rewards and requires risk. Playing it safe as a jazz musician isn’t just lazy—it’s an abandonment of responsibility. In its relatively short history of less than a century, jazz has moved from one style to another: New Orleans, swing, bop, cool, free, fusion, and so on. This kind of restless history is only possible because the standard in jazz is one of near-constant innovation, variation.

So who does this Branford Marsalis guy think he is? He’s no Coleman Hawkins, teaching the world how to create long-form improvisation over complex harmonies. He’s no Charlie Parker, fracturing the music’s standard swing rhythm and extending chords into the upper reaches of abstraction. He ain’t Coltrane or Rollins neither, nope he ain’t. I mean, all Branford’s ever done is play very sophisticated modern jazz at a very high level, right?

And the opposing view is simply: well, that’s enough. Not every musician changes the form. Not every superb musician incites a sea change or a rebellion.

In many ways, my heart cheers for the view that demands innovation. Without it, the music dies, certainly. And the music that I often love the most is always pushing to break new ground. Bands I have loved the most in recent years, such as Vijay Iyer’s trio, manage to extend the jazz tradition into new areas—finding a use for hip-hop rhythms in an acoustic piano trio that want to cover a Michael Jackson song, for example.

But if innovation is critical on the jazz scene as a whole—and even if I confess that forward-thinking music is usually my favorite in any given year—does that mean that music that operates wholly within the existing tradition at a very high level is, by its omission of the novel, not good?

That simply isn’t true.

Art, Even Jazz, Needs to Be Practiced, Not Just Advanced

Evolution is a wonder, and the progress from sea creature to reptile to mammal to primate to human is a true wonder. That nature can provide for such variation and advance is miraculous. But our existence doesn’t make a peacock less beautiful or a cheetah less graceful.

And that’s true in the arts too, and in jazz. Every art needs to be practiced. Not every artist is destined to be an innovator, and that’s as it should be.

Charlie Parker was a genius, without a doubt, but Sonny Stitt was a hell of a great saxophonist. Indeed, Stitt may well have come up with much of his own bebop style independent of Parker’s influence. But should we criticize Stitt because, during the bulk of his career (he died in 1982 at 58, outliving Parker by almost 30 years) he did not evolve significantly beyond bebop, that he did not, say, embrace jazz-rock fusion or experiment with “afro-tech jazz”. (Side note to Feldman: What is “afro-tech jazz”? Is it any good? Can you recommend some afro-tech jazz innovators for me to check out?)

Indeed, within the relatively more sedate realm of practicing existing styles of art, many masterpieces are created. There was nothing particularly revolutionary, for example, about the 1965 album Maiden Voyage by pianist Herbie Hancock. Hancock had been playing in Miles Davis’s quintet for a few years at the time, and several of the tunes on Maiden Voyage had a modal quality reminiscent of the Davis classic Kind of Blue (1959). Putting aside its extra-musical nautical theme, the Hancock album was pretty standard post-bop modern jazz of its period… except that it was very very good, producing a handful of new jazz “standards” and cementing in place “classic” status.

Maiden Voyage didn’t push the envelope of jazz atonality like other albums of its era; it didn’t experiment with unusual instruments or forms; it didn’t incorporate pop music elements or funk rhythms. All it did, all it did was be a very fine record of the kind that was being made at the time, standing on the shoulders of prior innovations and working within established forms to make something fresh but familiar. And that was more than enough to make it wonderful.

Hooray for the Status Quo

Which brings us back to Brandord Marsalis’s Four MFers Playin’ Tunes—a very good but not great record that sits firmly astride the stylistically broad manner of most modern jazz players in 2012.

Though Feldman’s review would have you believe that Four MFers is bland, that’s hardly the case. Like all good working jazz groups these days, Branford’s quartet is fluid in a series of styles, most of which are given expression on this recording. “The Mighty Sword” swings aggressively, with new drummer Justin Faulkner crashing and splashing all through the proceedings, which find the soloists challenged by a cool set of chord changes. “Maestra” is an impressionistic ballad built around an undulating piano rhythm.

“Brews” is an off-kilter and quirky theme that lurches forward like a Thelonious Monk construction—almost a blues but not quite. “Whiplash” has a winding but brief-‘n’-quick melody that unleashes the band on even more freedom, with the playing capable of going any direction. “Teo” puts Branford on tenor to indulge his penchant for Sonny Rollins-style muscular and thematic playing, working with less harmonic restriction and a greater range of options. And “Endymion” is a free-time ballad in the style of Keith Jarrett that is simultaneously ravishing in its beauty and outside standard jazz time, with the players all working outside of a single tempo and blurring the lines between their various “solos”.

To Feldman, all this is dull. “Nothing interesting happens”, he writes. Which, to my ear, is hard to square with the record itself—unless you just don’t happen to like the state of mainstream jazz today. It cover lots of ground, the playing encompasses the post-bop mainstream and healthy dashes of the avant-garde, and the technically brilliant players combine both virtuosity and imagination. If you would prefer all free playing or callback swing, if you demand a dose of funk or a layer of Balkan influence, sure the standard modern jazz record may “sound the same” as lots of other modern jazz records. But this is like someone who doesn’t like opera saying “it all sounds the same—all that screeching”. That’s correct and that’s soooo wrong.

Specifically, Feldman complains that Four MFers is too long and rambling: “At nine tracks and more than 66 minutes, it seems overloaded, like it wants to baffle you with its numerous, but ultimately quite empty, ideas… [T]he quantity-over-quality policy means that Marsalis opts to show off those ideas in a way that sacrifices any authentic exploration of themes or moods… [S]omehow we’re supposed to swallow all their twists and turns and suave use of apostrophes as if they’re a sort of high-minded musical dialogue.”

In short, Feldman longs for something he can’t define—“authenticity” or “exploration” or maybe originality. But “authenticity” is subjective and personal. And to my ears hearing these four men—motherfuckers or otherwise—sound passionate and thrilling as they dive and swim and splash in the waters of modern jazz. Goodness knows that Marsalis was born to this tradition, and he has lived it, from his earliest days playing with his brother, to his pop forays with Sting and the Grateful Dead and on his own with Buckshot LaFonque, to his longstanding quartet and it’s eclectic, muscular approach. This is not monochromatic music, but neither is it in the vanguard. But is it authentic to Branford Marsalis? You bet.

And within the tradition of jazz, this kind of personal expression is what it’s all about. Jazz doesn’t demand innovation. Instead it says to every player: “BE YOURSELF!”

So, I would suggest, Max Feldman isn’t into Branford Marsalis. Fair enough. Max’s problem, not Branford’s.

The glory of the jazz status quo, in fact, is that it’s so broad and so rich with possibility in 2012. It allows for swing and bossa nova, bop and pop ballad, Ornette Coleman-style freedom and the tricky complexity of Wayne Shorter, with or without electric instruments or funk rhythms. The playground of jazz in this era is huge, with see-saws and slides and jungle gyms that go every which way. The innovators who are making this playground even more eclectic are indeed essential. But to suggest that others should not be inventing new moves on the existing equipment is to be grumpy and over-demanding.

To decry the fact that Branford Marsalis is not Ken Vandermark or Robert Glasper is to be awfully conservative in your call for more liberation. Jazz needs as many Branford Marsalises as possible to occupy its central territory. And when a musician is doing that with the energy and invention of this quartet, a complaint that the music is too full of “twists and turns” seems churlish. You bet it’s full of twists and turns. This quartet has a ton of moves, and they’re all in play on its latest record—a fine recording, even a strong one, if no masterpiece.

Jazz critics ought to demand that the music look ahead, no doubt. We also should stand ready to celebrate the full breadth of the music in its mainstream. The whole point of innovation is to expand what’s allowed and possible, to build a more joyful playground.

And then we should cheer while folks, MFers or otherwise, play.

RATING 7 / 10
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