Music

Is a Different Kind of Paradigm Driving Jazz These Days?

Photo: Nikki Birch (courtesy of Jonathan Greenstein)

Jazz musicians are releasing their music in smaller batches. An interview with rising saxophonist Jonathan Greenstein and Mack Avenue Records President Denny Stilwell about how EPs fit into jazz creativity and jazz economy.

Jonathan Greenstein: Vol2
Jonathan Greenstein

Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit

10 Nov 2017

Too. Many. Notes! All that noodling. Honking and screeching. Borrrrrrring.

As a jazz critic and fanatic, I frequently hear what people do not like about the music. Chief among their complaints is this: jazz is indulgent—music for other musicians that just goes on and on with all that playing, all that complicated music. I might deride folks for lack of patience or appreciation, but what's wrong with jazz being more accessible, more digestible, shorter? After all, what we admire about The Beatles or Stevie Wonder might be an ability to compress so much great music into a classic pop song length with the impact that comes with brevity.

In the early decades of jazz, of course, the music as recorded came in short form. Until the LP became common in the '50s, almost every recorded performance was less than four minutes. Duke Ellington, to use just one example, could fill three minutes with a universe of creativity. In the most recent past, jazz musicians have tried to make their art more accessible by writing tighter tunes and recording shorter, "poppier" material, and there are examples of some success. But dumbing the music down to compete with real pop—hooks and choruses and all that—meant erasing the beauty that made jazz special.

In the last few years, however, we are seeing a new brevity arrive from jazz musicians who are thinking differently about getting their art into people's ears. Specifically, we are seeing the release of EPs—"extended play" recordings that contain fewer tracks then a traditional full-length "album", which usually means about 20 minutes of music.

Most notably, in 2017 saxophonist Kamasi Washington released Harmony of Difference, an EP containing music written for an installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Washington's previous recording was his three-CD debut, The Epic, a recording that utterly defied the notion that the hipper jazz audience requires something brief. It was released on Brainfeeder, an imprint associated with Flying Lotus rather than mainstream jazz. Yes, Washington's latest work was inherently shorter, but the move remains intriguing and savvy. And he's not alone.

More and more, jazz artists across the spectrum find that releasing EPs makes sense. Often, these shorter collections of tunes are being released digitally rather than in a physical format, quite often through Bandcamp. How and why this makes sense in the 2018 commercial climate for jazz is an intriguing question that I explored with saxophonist and composer Jonathan Greenstein and the president of Mack Avenue Records, Denny Stilwell.

Up-and-Coming Artists and EPs: Saxophonist Jonathan Greenstein

How does a 14-year-old who's been studying classical music in Israel have his head turned in the direction of jazz? Jonathan Greenstein had his 8th-grade after-school music teacher give him a cassette of Charlie Parker's classic Bird with Strings album. "This will really convince you," he told the young saxophone student. "It was the opening phrase of 'Just Friends'—it was so different from anything I'd heard before, anything I'd heard on the radio," Greenstein says, with wonder still in his voice. "I was listing to a lot of Pink Floyd at the time, a lot of Metallica."

Today, Greenstein is in his early 30s and living in New York, and the lessons of Bird with Strings are still paramount. What Greenstein heard in Parker's art in 8th grade was simple: he heard a story-teller at work.

Greenstein studied music in Israel out of high school and played in the IDF military band as part of his mandatory service. But the lure of coming to the birthplace of jazz was strong. "I wanted to give it a try. I figured I'd regret not trying, even if I tried and failed. I visited The New School in New York then headed up to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. There, someone told us to go a free concert with alumni, and there was a student who was a songwriting major, and she sang a country song."

Greenstein aspired to play jazz, but at some level, the real lure was storytelling. "I thought, if there is someone who can sing something like that, a pop hit, that's the place for me."

After music school, says Greenstein, "I thought, I am ready. I moved to New York and nobody cared." He and a few friends went out every night "trying to cut each other" but "New York is very expensive, and I ran through my money quickly." He moved back to Israel for a time but didn't feel at home, at least not musically. And so in 2011 he returned to New York and developed a new way of thinking about his music. "I'm thinking, I don't like the supper club experience. I didn't want to play at Dizzys [expensive jazz club that is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center] and have people pay a $30 cover, $50 for a meal, more for wine. That was not the experience I wanted for my music. You play differently for those audiences."

Crafting a New Way of Telling a Jazz Story

Greenstein wanted out of jazz clubs and thought about a place where the audience would be standing up. "So, I thought, what if we play at a rock club—at Rockwood Music Hall? I convinced them to let me play even though they don't usually have instrumental music. We played on a Wednesday at 1.00 AM. On our first gig there was one guy, drunk, who yelled, 'Jazz at Rockwood, I can't believe it!' We played there every week for a year and a half. It completely changed what I was trying to do. Because the audience is standing up, a certain groove has to be there. Everything has to have closure, a concise story. It has to be short or otherwise people will pull out their phones. If we started with something that sounded too 'jazzy', we would lose the audience right away."

Recording his music in the EP format, then, was simply a way of following the lead created by a new audience. "On an artistic level, making an EP is more like writing a short story. I think of it as a story rather than a bunch of tunes with solos. Form became the thing for me: how does the form of one tune tell the story? I want there to be closure at the end of the track.

You hear this in Greenstein's music. On Vol2, the second of his two EPs, with Michal King and Takeshi Ohbayashi on keys, bassist Joshua Crumbly, and drummer Jonathan Pinson. Consisting of five tunes over 20 minutes, Greenstein creates music that is approachable and tonal (that is, not edgy or avant-garde) and that makes a statement through atmosphere and groove. There-s improvising and interesting form—this is not some poppy, smooth jazz—but the tunes aren't structured as bebop melodies, strings of solos from all the players, then the melody again. The opener, "Once You're There" sets out a tenor saxophone melody in ballad form and then sets up a hip-hop-type groove ... but one with alternating bars of four beats and six beats. The original melody doesn't return as a ballad. "Retrograde" features a haunting minor melody that transitions into an unusual, somewhat military sounding drum groove just as a ghostlike electronic keyboard begins playing figures and washes behind Greenstein's improvisation. The melody does return this time, with just the tenor and Wurlitzer piano remaining.

"The idea," Greenstein said of this recent recording, "is this: if you have one subway ride, can you go through this transformative experience in that time. It's connected to this idea that you are holding someone's hand and saying, this music is okay, it won't bite. It's not a complex, through-composed thing that will exhaust you. Hopefully, you hear it, you might think you didn't need it, then you realize how much you needed it.

"I think that's what Bird with Strings did for me. I thought he's talking to me. He's bringing me into the song. I'm trying to do the same thing. So you as a listener can enter this story, a whole world of sound and texture. Hopefully, this music stays with you, and you can grow with it, through the closure, through it being a full statement. Too much jazz lacks that full statement."

The EP Can Be Many Things: Mack Avenue and More Commercial Possibilities

Denny Stilwell runs Mack Avenue Records, one of the most successful independent jazz record label of the last 20 years. Founded in 1999, the label has steered a course between mainstream jazz and what remains of smooth jazz, with musicians such as Rick Braun and Yellowjackets sharing space with guitarist Julian Lage, saxophonist Tia Fuller. In 2018, Mack Avenue will have 20 new releases with artists including Stanley Clarke, Christian McBride, and Cecile McLorin Salvant.

Stilwell describes the label's philosophy as starting "with the music and the musicians". Despite entering the market at the exact moment when the record industry started to be undermined by downloading and file-sharing, Stilwell says, "we've been trying to grow the business. Until recently, we've been trying to stay in a lane we know, with jazz and its various forms. Smooth jazz, straight-ahead jazz and vocals, or more modern jazz, more left of center." Recently the company has also blues, gospel, and R&B.

For Stilwell and Mack Avenue, the EP is also a new way to increase the exposure of the music. "We're using the EP in a post-major-release way to refresh the project with the fan base. Here's something new and different, similar to what you know, but it costs less. The EP, in the way, refreshes an artist's prior release. It might have a track to two that weren't released on the album, while others were already released but are now presented from a live concert."

If for Greenstein, the EP was a short story rather than a novel, Stilwell sees the EP as a magazine piece between novels. If Greenstein is creating EPs as tapas rather than an entree, then Mack Avenue is serving up small courses between meals. "It extends the life of the full release," Stilwell notes. "And it gives the artist something to promote at shows and on social media."
The first EP Mack Avenue created was by guitarist Julian Lage. The label decided to film Lage playing live in Los Angeles, and "the audio was so good that we could use it. It was kind of an accidental EP." The result was Live in Los Angeles, with just six tunes over 34 minutes—all songs from Lage's previous full-length recording Arclight and using cover art that echoes Arclight too.

Stilwell sees the EP as a product that depends on and serves full-length release. "We haven't thought of it as its own project. We're trying to use it as a marketing tool with music that is related to the album but that fans haven't heard before.

Something Extra for the Biggest Fans

What has been the response? "EPs are probably designed for the uber-fan. The response so far has been good enough that we want to do more of these. We're not going into the studio and spending a lot of money to do these. Instead, we're using live sessions or tracks that didn't make the original release that the artist still loves. So, with an EP, we're not going to get features or magazine covers of lots of reviews. Our marketing is going to be limited and mostly online, so our expectations on the number of streams and downloads have to be realistic." Stilwell notes that the marketing Mack Avenue needs to sell enough recordings are "magazine covers, NPR Tiny Desk Concerts, mentions in The Wall Street Journal. You can't get that with an EP, at least not yet."

Mack Avenue has an EP by pianist Cameron Graves coming out soon, for example, consisting of tracks that didn't make the album or of live performances. Stilwell still sees it as special though: "We want it to be unique, something you can't get anywhere else."

Mack Avenue, of course, is dealing with artists who are at "the next level" of commercial success and, typically ones who have either a mainstream sound or some commercial appeal. Their first instinct may still be to follow the model from 20 years ago. "The artists we work with still want to record albums. No one is saying, 'I want to release three songs every three months.'" That said, he also notes that the trend in full-length recordings is easing to fewer minutes and tunes than it had been. When CDs emerged in the '90s, and it was possible to extend a full-length recording to more than 70 minutes from the old LP maximum of 45 or 50 minutes, expectations about making a very long record increased. In the new environment, Stilwell said, "that the old 70-minute CD length can now be scaled back to the old LP length again. Twenty years ago I thought that providing 60 minutes of music was required. But we are back to place where it doesn't matter as much."

A New Era Rising?

I suspect that the full-length recording will remain a kind of gold standard, the historical record of what an artist is doing and has accomplished. But even with very successful musicians, a different paradigm may be driving creativity. Even in jazz, there are now YouTube stars. Just look at the astonishing singer and player Jacob Collier, whose fame was built on a series of social media videos in which he played and sang multiple parts on tunes such as "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" and the "Flintstones" theme. Collier has made albums, and he has won Grammys, but his natural milieu, perhaps, is in the mind-blowing one-off video rather than in the long-form course of an LP.

Who knows if Jonathan Greenstein will ever make it Mack Avenue as an artist, but if he does, will Mack Avenue start releasing more EPs or will Greenstein discover that he's an album artist after all?

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