Jazz May Be Reeling in Terms of Record Sales, But It's Thriving As an Art Form

Jazz musicians play on tubes via Shutterstock.

What if today’s jazz is a little bit Bill Frisell and a little bit Ornette Coleman?

Jazz is in the midst of a dramatic conversation and a reshuffling these days. There’s a good argument that this has always been the case, that “jazz” has always been slippery of definition, and I agree. But there has never been a time when the leading voices in this music were more widely informed by varying traditions or when the “mainstream” of this music was more wide open.

But times are hard for creative musicians, and there’s an equally compelling claim that the media and the public see jazz as a piece of history or an elitist/ intellectual affectation. For all the thrilling dynamism in what artists are creating, folks trying to defend the place of the music in our culture seem kind of lost.

The result, particularly in the last few months, has been a riveting series of events and conversations about just what the music is, what makes it great, and how it relates to its own past as it rushes forward with such fire and creativity.

”New” Coltrane: Jazz from the Past, Heard for the First Time

A major jazz event of this month is the first (decent-quality, non-bootleg) release of a very-late concert performance by John Coltrane: Offering, Live at Temple University. Critical reaction to the recording has been mixed, which is a continued reflection of the troubling way that Coltrane challenged jazz convention in the last several years of his life.

Coltrane was a majestic and daring saxophonist. He became part of the pantheon of “jazz giants” because he was an essential part of Miles Davis’s first great quintet/sextet (the band that made the iconic Kind of Blue in 1959 — more on that below), because he helped to redefine how the saxophone was played and how jazz improvisors work, and then because he became a vital and important bandleader and composer after his time with Davis, leading a quartet (with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums) that recorded a series of definitive albums and altered how jazz groups operate as a whole.

But perhaps the most significant thing about Coltrane’s music and legacy is that he was the most prominent musician of his generation to embrace and lead the development of the avant-garde movement of the '60s. The same year that Coltrane and Miles were recording the highly listenable Kind of Blue, Ornette Coleman was recording music that would more obviously dispense with standard harmony and other elements of jazz convention. At the same time that Miles was dismissing these “New Thing” musicians (despite the fact that he would adopt many of their practices just years later), Coltrane was recording with Coleman and beginning to drive his own music in a similar direction.

And critics did not universally approve. Coltrane was both an uncompromising artist with a taste for the daring and a beloved figure who made music nearly anyone could love. Ballads and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, both released in 1963, are gorgeous albums that almost anyone’s highly conventional grandma could love. A Love Supreme from 1964 was a more challenging suite that stretched boundaries but also remained attractive to the ear. That is, it used mostly conventional jazz time (swinging drums plus a walking bass line, ballad tempo) and the players improvised without undue dissonance.

But in these same years, Trane was pushing his music beyond jazz convention, as well. Even as the band continued to play Coltrane’s hits (such as his eastern-tinged, modal take on “My Favorite Things”), the music was in radical flux.

Offering presents late Coltrane in poor sound quality but still clear relief. Tyner, Garrison, and Jones are not here (though Garrison remained in the band), replaced by Alice Coltrane, Sonny Johnson, and drummer Rashid Ali. They are additionally joined by saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, two young Philadelphia players sitting in, as well as a group of percussionists.

The concert is decidedly wild, with three staples of the Coltrane repertoire (his great ballad “Naima”, “Crescent” and “Favorite Things”) a short theme, “Leo” and the title ballad, each presented in the manner of free jazz, with Ali’s drums tumbling beyond conventional time, Alice Coltrane’s piano playing swirls and clusters as much as chords, and improvisations (particularly from Sanders) that utilize the language of screams, squeals, and honks that had been opened up by “New Thing” expressionism.

With the percussionists on board and some solos (by Steve Knoblauch and Arnold Joyner on alto sax) sounding inessential to the band, this concert is blurry at best. The sound, captured by an engineer for Temple’s radio station WRTI, comes entirely from a single microphone, so it favors the saxophones entirely when they are playing, with little sense of the true band sound or the interactions between instruments.

But it remains that the playing by Coltrane himself is largely impeccable and fascinating, the farthest thing from chaos of “mere” wailing. It is, in fact, extraordinarily disciplined, developing motifs and connected sets of notes that come plainly from the blues vocabulary of jazz as it had been developed up to that point, with Trane making harmonic connections like a magician. Listing to his solo, for example, on “Leo”, the notion that he is playing with thoughtless abandon is impossible to entertain. Coltrane, even in this context, even this late in his explorations of harmony and sound, remains a giant — precisely because his passion and fire is plain but so is the almost mathematical drive and logic of his playing.

But even today, 50 years after this “New Thing”/avant-garde style was pioneered, this kind of playing is still heard as revolution, trouble, disruption. How can that be? Well, in the

60s the style was legitimately new and unsettling, challenging the grammar of jazz that had been well-established over decades. Then, in the '80s, the style was attacked as anti-jazz by the folks who were defending jazz’s honor; that is, by the people selling us a “young lions” movement of handsome young players in suits who were looking back to the “real jazz” that was played just before all that crazy avant-garde stuff came along and made heroes of guys who “couldn’t play”.

But the larger truth is that this '60s revolution spawned a long and intricate new branch of the music, one that blossomed in the loft scene of '70s New York, with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago, all across Europe, and ultimately with the current generation of jazz leaders who take for granted that a fine jazz player can always choose whether to play “inside” the bebop harmonic rules or “outside”, depending on what the art requires.

Yet here is the writer Geoff Dyer (whose But Beautiful, a book of fictional meditations on classic jazz musicians is pretty wonderful) on this music: “Offering: Live at Temple University offers further evidence of the catastrophe of the last phase of Coltrane’s work” and "free jazz had run its course”.

My purpose here is not to butt heads with Dyer, whose writing is excellent and who has every right not to like this record or, for the matter, the sound of this frenzied music. I cringe, too, at points in the recording, particularly as Sanders leans into his horn so hard that it becomes shrill and caustic, or as Alice Coltrane spins wild solos that sound less daring and original than merely simulacrums of the kind of more disciplined work I had admired so much from Tyner. It's not a question of placing my personal taste against Dyer's.

The problem with this kind of critical reaction to Offering — or to any more challenging or revolutionary artistic statement, for that matter — is how it categorically rejects a “difficult” or “unpretty” artistic development for reasons that are mostly unstated. What are Dyer’s actual criticisms? That "Coltrane’s playing became increasingly frenzied and the accompaniment more abstracted”. That there is "shrieking, screaming, and wildness—the ferocious anti-silence”. In short, Dyer doesn’t provide any analysis other than his generalized distaste for there being so much “noise” on the recording. Dyer prefers lyricism in his jazz, which is utterly fine for Dyer.

But those 50 years are now on the table, too. The years during which Coltrane’s method, his thinking, and his influence have been processed and pursued by several generations of musicians, from contemporaries (Coleman, Sanders, Archie Shepp, even the reluctantly free Davis himself), to the players of the '70s and ‘80s such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Henry Threadgill, to the next generation of imposing thinkers about the music such as Steven Coleman (recent MacArthur grant recipient, see below). In the decidedly astonishing jazz of today, the importance and blossoming beauty of what Coltrane was pioneering at Temple University in 1966 ought to at least immunize it from words like “catastrophe”.

There’s much more to be written about Offering, of course. In two places, Coltrane uses his voice — his wordless singing voice — amidst the improvisation to cry out motifs and themes. This makes clear the way that Trane’s horn was, naturally, an extension of himself and his most human sound, and it suggests some of the primal place that this music was coming from. But it should also be clear that these are not the moans or cries of “a primitive”, which I fear some reviews might suggest.

Coltrane sings specific motifs, and these are themes discernible in his playing on the same tracks, themes that his astonishingly resonant saxophone turns over, spins in place, transposes, and analyzes. Dyer writes that he doesn’t hear anything “spiritual” in this music (a word raised by writer Ashley Kahn in his liner notes to Offering), which seems like another slam on the music, a denial that what it has to say is important.

I don’t know that I can hear “spirituality” beyond the merely metaphoric in any kind of music, but I do know this: Offering, for all its sonic imperfection as a live recording, captures perfectly the beautiful voice of a great artist who is grappling with the power of his actual sound, the power of the vibrations he can get from his horn and his throat, and it is no more a bunch or catastrophic noise than Kandinsky or Miro is just a bunch of paint thrown at a canvas.

”New” Kind of Blue: Jazz from the Past, Recreated in the Present

The second most intriguing bit of the jazz past to emerge in this month is the latest recording from Mostly Other People Do the Killing (MOPDTK), a band of relatively young jazz players who have taken a wildly inventive, sometimes humorous, always thoughtful approach to jazz in the new century. MOPDTK’s latest is called Blue, but it is not quite like any “jazz” record ever made.

Blue is an exact-as-we-can-make-it recreation of Davis’s Kind of Blue, often described as the greatest, most influential, most loved, or best-selling jazz album of all time. That is, on Blue MOPDTK does not merely play the tunes from Kind of Blue but they play the exact notes that were played by the musicians on the days Kind of Blue wa

Mostly Other People Do the Killing (press photo)

s recorded (March and April 1959), and they play them at the same tempo, attempting to achieve the exact same attack, the same timbre, even the same studio approach to recording.

Just to be clear, this is a strange and unique undertaking. For folks who may not know how 99 percent of jazz performances are structured, not only are jazz improvisations not “written out”, but very few accompaniments beyond big band charts or string charts are precisely written out, either. That is, the musicians who performed Kind of Blue did not have anything written out precisely other than the basic melodies of the tunes and the chord accompaniments for each, most likely without specific voicings.

As a result, Davis himself never tried to play his own Kind of Blue precisely as it was recorded. MOPDTK is not “covering” Kind of Blue, it is trying to play it — this thing that was improvised from a bunch of loose sketches 54 years ago and has since sold quadruple platinum and been heard by countless millions worldwide (and memorized by countless jazz students and jazz fans over the years) — exactly, nuance for nuance.

This, well, this is wrong. Or so goes the reaction in your heart, and in most jazz circles.

When I heard about the project, I assumed that MOPDTK was going to give Davis the gonzo treatment. This is a band known for their antic style, their covers parodying classic jazz album art, their mock liner notes by Leonard Featherweight, and their version of “A Night in Tunisia” in which the “song” is played as quickly as possible in the middle of ten-minute unaccompanied solos for drums (plus puppet show), alto sax, and trumpet. I assumed they would transform Kind of Blue into something utterly individual or even unrecognizable. And while I have loved MOPDTK’s often zany approach to jazz, some critics have wondered whether they are serious, whether what they do is respectful of the tradition.

Blue, of course, goes in precisely the opposite direction. It attempts to do for a classic jazz “text” what classical orchestras do for Mozart or Beethoven: to play it precisely in a standardized way, or at least by the “standard” that the actual recording sets up. Moppa Elliott, MOPDTK’s bassist and leader, wrote about this in the PopMatters interview, "Kind of, Kind of Blue", noting that treating a jazz performance like it was a classical performance raises all sorts of interesting issues, including the ironic notion that, if a jazz performance is not improvised and is really precise recreation of a previously improvised work, well, maybe that means it’s not really jazz at all.

Some folks have decried the project at its core. What’s the point of it? Is MOPDTK now some kind of “tribute band”? Are they doing this so they can license the recording to folks who want to use Kind of Blue in movies or TV shows? Are they insulting Davis and his band by proving that a bunch of smarty-pants younger musicians can play just as well?

I won’t recreate Elliott’s arguments here, but I want to suggest that the essential insight of Blue is that the past is essential to art, yes, but that it is also never enough to sustain the present of that art form. I have listened to Kind of Blue a thousand times, I suppose, and when I hear it, I hear the lives of the men who produced it, I hear their culture, I hear something very specific. The original was recorded about a year before I was born, and I sense that it somehow reflects the culture that helped to produce me, too. It’s personal in both ways.

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