Jazz of the '00s: Jumping Past the Great Divide

The jazz of the '00s jumped past the great divide of earlier years, obliterating the distinction between tradition and avant-garde, jazz and pop, letting the genre blossom.

Above Image: Vijay Iyer

Jazz, it could be argued, has evolved in 20-year surges. In the '20s and ‘30s, musicians invented the blues-based improvisation style and arrangements of the most popular musical entertainment of its day. The ‘40s and ‘50s saw that form grow more complex and diverse as it established itself as high art beyond the pop charts. The ‘60s and ‘70s saw the form in revolution: avant-garde expansion and riveting collision with the musical surge of rock and soul music.

The last 20 years of the century were a form of retrenchment, arguably dominated by two strains: the “neoclassical” work of Wynton Marsalis and others who reclaimed the passions and strengths of “classic jazz” of mid-century (swing, bebop, and acoustic postbop), and the “smooth jazz” players who took the adventure of “jazz-rock fusion” and turned it into a marketable form of instrumental R&B that stood in as “jazz” for lots of people during the Reagan/Bartles & James/Clinton years. (Of course, this is all a wild over-simplification, as the music flourished in every era in various interesting ways, but these were arguably the major trends.)

What, then, was rung in by the new millennium, the start of a new 20-year cycle? The ‘00s, or “aughts”, were a remarkable decade of creativity for jazz, 10 years that saw the music move away from smooth jazz (essentially a radio format that died as a commercial force beginning around 2003 or so) and shed the increasingly pointless debate between the “Marsalis camp” that stressed the jazz tradition and the avant-garde camp who found neotraditionalism to be a straightjacket. What emerged, instead, was a decade of reconciliation and multivalent creativity. The decade from 2000-2009 was marked, more than anything, by a new generation of musicians finding ways to weave together various strands of the art form and make it clear that divisions and “camps” were no longer relevant. The future of jazz as an art form was going to be one of brilliant merging and synthesis.

Letting the Divisions Pass

First, the jazz musicians of the ‘00s seemed to let the divisions of the prior years fade away. Emerging musicians such as alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa were coming out of music schools steeped in the tradition (in his case Berklee in Cambridge, MA), but Mahanthappa was equally influenced by the pop music he grew up with and wide-ranging influences such as music from India, where his parents were born. Mahanthappa’s frequent partner in the ‘00s, pianist Vijay Iyer, initially studied math and physics at Yale and University of California Berkeley before moving over to music and apprenticing with Steve Coleman, whose MBASE music in the '80s and '90s was already fusing advanced structure with funk and freedom.

These artists were never going to be “purists” who would choose a path of jazz classicism or a path of slash-and-burn avant-gardism. What would be the point of re-fighting those battles? The tradition was a grand one, hardly to be abandoned. Hadn’t Marsalis’s incredible jazz oratorio of the '90s, Blood on the Fields, proven how “new” and searing and beautiful the tradition, carried forward, could be? And hadn’t jazz mavericks like Henry Threadgill used the end of the century to demonstrate that there were countless new directions for the music beyond tradition?

Not only were musicians seeing room to glide past divisions, but the market for jazz was starting to get less rigid too. “Smooth jazz” was by far the dominant market force in jazz (if you want to call it that) at the end of the century, and it sidetracked the artistic lives of some musicians who might have made more interesting music but for the draw of big paydays. But the radio stations playing sax-and-synth dominated lite funk faded in the first decade of the 21st century. 2008 marked the death of the smooth jazz stations in both New York and Washington, DC, and dentists all along the I-95 corridor panicked. The link may not have been causal, but adventurous musicians seemed a little more likely to turn to “fusion” music around that time, incorporating electronics and funk a little more freely into the art of the music.

The New Eclecticism —Jazz Piano to Start

The best music to emerge in the ‘00s, then, reflected this elegant finessing of old divisions, divisions that a new generation of jazz musicians obliterated with ease. This brilliant new blending occurred in various ways and among various strands of the music. Some of the finest new music came from a group of brilliant piano trios who heard that venerable jazz institution in new ways.

For many music fans outside the jazz world, this was particularly refreshing news. The Bad Plus is a trio that played often enough like a rock band, particularly with its bashing rhythm, a sense of adventurous musical storytelling, and a taste for the extreme. With Ethan Iverson on piano, Dave King on drums, and Reid Anderson on upright bass, The Bad Plus is strictly acoustic and instrumental, yet it plays songs by Nirvana, Aphex Twin, The Police, and Blondie—not to mention its own originals—and it did so in a new and invigorating way. This can be seen especially on its breakthrough record is 2003’s These are the Vistas; the band wasn’t “swinging” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or doing some “fusion” version of “Every Breath You Take”. Rather, this was a band that approached all its material like an authentic piano trio that nevertheless played with bold backbeat even as they incorporated great rushes of atonal melody or flurries ripped-through with the precision of classical piano.

Lesser known pianists were just as original in mowing down fences. Matthew Shipp came from New York’s avant-garde family of players, coming to folks’ attention as a member of saxophonist David Ware’s quartet, via the New England Conservatory, and his playing has just as much energy as The Bad Plus. However, he uniquely appealed to non-jazz ears through its sprawling spirals of aharmonic intensity. Listeners interested in the moody experimentation of Radiohead’s Kid A or the squalling rock of various underground scenes would find much to like in Shipp, a jazzman who was never going to be “pretty” just for the sake of it—even though his music is often beautiful.

Shipp's opposite, in some ways, was Brad Mehldau, a pianist who came to attention partly by actually covering Radiohead. While Mehldau recorded “Exit Music (for a Film)” in 1998, it was his 2002 recording Largo that had the greatest impact, with a cover of “Paranoid Android” and instrumentation beyond the standard jazz trio (as well as arrangements by rock producer Jon Brion) that had other musicians taking clear notice. Mehldau could sound often enough like a young Bill Evans, playing beautifully inside the “jazz tradition”, but his freedom to venture beyond tradition while seeking the perfect melody, feeling, or texture was self-assured.

Three other pianists made a huge impact in the ‘00s, working as keen assimilators of different sounds and traditions. Vijay Iyer, another son of Indian immigrants, brought influences from his culture, but that culture included not only Indian music but also classical music, so-called “minimalism", the complex systems of his mentor Steve Coleman, and also hip-hop. His trio, with Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums, made a landmark record in 2009, Historicity, that covered M.I.A.’s “Galang” as well as Stevie Wonder and Leonard Bernstein. Just one of many great Iyer records from this period, Historicity solidified the band’s ability to incorporate the fresh rhythms of hip hop without straying from their trio of acoustic instruments.

Recordings on the same path during that decade came from Robert Glasper (In My Element [2007]), Jason Moran (Artist in Residence [2006], among several others), and Uri Caine (Bedrock 3 [2001] and The Othello Syndrom [2008]). Skimping on descriptions of these artists and their work is utterly unfair, but I place these four astonishing pianists together because they brought the new “soul” music into jazz while also finding places for influences such as world music, classical music, Tin Pan Alley, and, of course, the rich history of modern jazz.

Small Labels Flourish — in Musicians’ Hands

A good portion of this amazing music was coming to our ears through small labels, imprints run by musicians or huge music fans who were willing to get behind uncompromising new art. Caine’s Othello came out on Winter & Winter, a small imprint out of Munich run by Stefan Winter, who also started JMT, by then belly-up, that did such great work in the '80s. Iyer's Historicity came out on ACT Music and Vision, an even more obscure label. Shipp’s work in the ‘00s was largely released on Thirsty Ear, an imprint mainly associated with independent rock until Shipp became the artistic director of its “Blue Series” in 2000.

Increasingly, the business of jazz in the ‘00s became one of musicians taking over their own means of production. The daring and eclectic trumpeter Dave Douglas—a huge player of the ‘00s leading a plethora of different bands working in many different styles—started Greenleaf in 2005 to release his own music, but he has since been signing other creative musicians. John Zorn’s Tzadik label is home to a plethora of amazing releases by so many in the ‘00s, including Caine. Bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, and many others went the same route.

In the meantime, other small jazz labels not only became the primary purveyors of creativity in the ‘00s, but they also started to develop their own signature sounds. Pi Recordings started in 2001 with twin releases from the great Henry Threadgill, and its sound followed suit with many albums of iconoclastic but highly structured music. Cryptogramaphone was founded by musician Jeff Gauthier and really took off in 2006 with music by Myra Melford, Nels Cline, and Jenny Scheinman—defined by the sound of a particular set of wonderful musicians from the west coast. Again, there are too many others to enumerate fully, but with the likes of Sunnyside, AUM Fidelity, Cuneiform, Palmetto and (still) ECM, the major labels barely seem necessary.

A couple of the majors have still hung in there and were important in the ‘00s. Inevitably, we are talking about Blue Note, which had a good but increasingly irrelevant run. Glasper was on Blue Note making great music, but one imagined that the label saw in his music the Grammys that were up ahead for his more commercial (but still excellent) music. Jason Moran was recording for Blue Note during this decade as well. But if Blue Note or Verve, the two most prominent “major labels” who were releasing jazz, are honest, they will tell you that the most important “jazz” records they released in the ‘00s (at least to their bottom line) were by singers. Diana Krall recorded for Verve and become an excellent but maybe too-palatable-for-her-own-good crossover star; see The Look of Love (2001) and, less successfully, an album of quirkier originals from 2006 called The Girl in the Other Room. In 2002, a then-new singer named Norah Jones released a record called Come Away with Me for Blue Note, which brought the label an actual number one hit in “Don’t Know Why”.

But beyond the major labels, jazz singing was making a turn in the ‘00s toward independence and originality.

Jazz Singing, at Long Last, Leaves Ella and Sarah Behind

While there have been exceptions, it’s fair to say that jazz singing had gotten stuck in a rut for decades. The excellence and originality of the greats, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae put such an imprint on younger singers that it seemed like things would never shift. Vocalists like Diana Krall might be very good, but they were largely mired in the repertoire of another age, with maybe a Joni Mitchell song snuck in around the edges.

But, again, the ‘00s brought a new generation that shook off old divisions, such as those between jazz singing and pop singing. The two most influential vocal albums of the '90s were surely Cassandra Wilson’s Blue Light ’Til Dawn (1993) and New Moon Daughter (1995), after which Wilson sung in Marsalis’s Blood on the Fields. On these discs, an adventurous and distinctive vocalist (who also broke in with Coleman’s MBASE style) took on songs by Hank Williams, Van Morrison, Robert Johnson, Neil Young, and U2, using a band built around acoustic guitars and hand percussion, cornets and violins, pedal steel. The reverberations of these records took a while to arrive, but they came in the ‘00s.

Norah Jones came from a jazz program but made the most pop-friendly version of this music. But without knocking Jones, who ultimately abandoned jazz altogether (as is her or anyone’s right), it’s easy to point to a string of essential vocal records from the ‘00s that saw Cassandra Wilson’s bet and then kept raising the stakes. Rebecca Martin started as a collaborator with Jesse Harris (the guy who wrote “Don’t Know Why”) but once in New York found herself singing on a Paul Motian album and addressing jazz standards in new and more minimal ways. Married to bassist Larry Grenadier (from Mehldau’s trio), she has ventured into original music and much more. Martin herself has collaborated with the sinuous singer Gretchen Parlato, who manages to weave together sensuous bossa nova-style singing with keening modern jazz harmonies. She recorded with Terence Blanchard and Kenny Barron among many others in the ‘00s leading up to her 2009 LP In a Dream, a significant breakthrough.

Parlato has also recorded with the most striking and still successful new jazz singer of the ‘00s, young Esperanza Spalding. Her self-tltled second recording in 2008 was a milestone, and on its strength she won the Grammy for “Best New Artist” in 2011, beating out Justin Bieber, Drake, and Mumford & Sons, if you can believe it. Spalding, again, exemplifies the jazz singer of the new millennium by being freed from the old repertoire of Gershwin/Ellington, etc while still swinging like crazy. Spalding, Parlato, Martin, and their peers (let’s mention Jen Chapin, Becca Stevens, and Luciana Souza as well) fuse jazz, soul, folk, bossa, rock—but in the end it comes out as a new kind of jazz because only that category allows them the freedom to mix and match genres with such creativity.

Finally, the jazz singing of the ‘00s can’t exclude Dee Dee Bridgewater’s utterly superb Red Earth from 2007, in which she collaborated with musicians from Mali to create a near-perfect blend of jazz and African music. That the decade should also bring us the singer Somi, whose 2007 Red Soil in My Eyes also blended jazz, soul, and African grooves, is noted. Jazz singing of the ‘00s was a whole new game, and it could now go just about anywhere without anyone feeling compelled to do “Autumn Leaves”.

And, at Long Last, Wit Returned to Jazz in Force

While early jazz found a place for clowning, for humor and wit and satire, modern jazz had become a pretty grim affair. No more Slim Gaillard “MacVouty O-Reeney” or Louis Jordan's jumping jive from about 1960 onward, thank you very much. But the ‘00s were about opening up jazz in so many ways that even this tradition of seriousness and severity started to pass.

Two excellent examples are the work of the band Mostly Other People Do the Killing and the recordings from trumpeter and arranger Steve Bernstein. Mostly Other People Do the Killing formed in 2003 and debuted on the leader Moppa Elliot’s Hot Cup Records in 2007 with Shamokin!!!. Each album not only contained originals strictly named after towns in Elliot’s home state of Pennsylvania but also featured a cover design that playfully aped a jazz classic. This is Our Moosic, of course, mimicked the classic Ornette Coleman album in design—but so was the quartet a playful piano-less group that relied on the ragged but wondrous interplay between saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Peter Evans. Did Elliot pen fake liner notes written by “Leonardo Featherweight” for a later album? Of course, he did. But the music itself exhibits wit and playfulness too, and it’s not just silliness. In the way that the musicians play with each other, in how they quote old songs, in the way the rhythm bounces and shifts, in the way the whole band continually surprises the listener: this makes MOPDtK a continual expression of fun and wit and musical virtuosity. These guys use avant-garde freedoms to express joy more than pain. And that is a joy and a release in the new century’s jazz.

Steven Bernstein is the mad genius behind the band Sex Mob and the Millennial Territory Orchestra. He creates bands and arrangements and records that are both pranks and dead serious — music that reaches back to the early jazz tradition of taking unusual and popular material and de- and re-constructing it for its own mad purposes. The ‘00s were a great decade for Sex Mob, with 2001’s Sex Mob Does Bond (yup, tunes from James Bond movies, like great versions of “Live and Let Die” and “Goldfinger”) and 2006’s Sexotica parodying Martin Denny-style “Exotica”. I love Bernstein just as much in his role as the mastermind of the Millennial Territory Orchestra, whose 2006 classic MTO Volume One put his nine-piece band ‘30s-styled band behind the wheel of a roaring vehicle for both “Pennies from Heaven” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”, both Prince’s “Darling Nikki” and “Happy Hour Blues”. It’s hard to say that this music is “funny” but, rather, it is FUN and without boundary—it is smart and tricky and intelligent, to be sure, but also joyful. It throws aside divisions in search of maximum expression.

Jumping Past the Great Divide

And that description of Steve Bernstein is a fine summary of what was good about jazz in the ‘00s generally: the music jumped past the great divide of the previous 20 years to find a more comprehensive, more free, more satisfying expression of joy and humanity. Jazz became more multicultural just like our country—tradition and avant-garde together, African and American and Brazilian (and so much more), serious and playful, hip hop and folk and rock and swing, all.

The best jazz musicians simply no longer respected or cared about the camps or debates of the prior century. They took off and flew. And the five years since the decade ended have found that trend continuing, blossoming even more.

Which is why, like the folks used to say back in the 20th century when radio and TV actually meant something, . . . stay tuned.

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