‘Playing Changes’ and the Enduring Strength of Jazz

Nate Chinen's treatise on the subject of jazz in the 21st century, Playing Changes, is erudite, passionate, and downright inspiring.

Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century
Nate Chinen
Aug 2018

It’s unclear who coined the term, but somewhere along the line, someone referred to jazz as “America’s Classical Music”, and it stuck. Tweed-clad scholars took this quote and ran with it, treating jazz like a delicate Faberge egg, with little to no room for exploration beyond the exhilarating bebop of the Blue Note heyday of the ’50s and ’60s. In Ken Burns’ worthwhile-yet-flawed multi-part PBS series on jazz, primary consultant Wynton Marsalis seems to insist on waving off the wild paths of dissonance and modernity. This is why jazz music in this day and age is largely trivialized and there seems to be a consensus that the works of Miles, Coltrane, Ellington and Armstrong are the pinnacle of the art form.

As for this, Nate Chinen calls bullshit. His new book, Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, is a loud, clear refutation of the misguided opinion that “jazz is dead”, preserved in amber like an archeological artifact. In fact, the 21st century holds some of the most exciting, groundbreaking artists in the genre’s history. What’s even better is that these artists are not necessarily blowing up the past and hitting the reset button; rather most of them seem to be building on the strengths of the genre’s past, acknowledging their roots while creating new subgenres. In other words, today’s jazz musicians aren’t knocking down the house; they’re adding new rooms to the existing structure.

For the most part, Playing Changes acts as something of a selected index of contemporary jazz artists, with many chapters serving double duty as both a feature piece on a specific musician as well as how their work impacts the overall genre. “Change of the Guard” fittingly kicks things off as an examination of saxophonist Kamasi Washington, one of the best-known and most acclaimed jazz artists of today. His style — in both music and fashion — is a throwback to the dashiki-clad, soul-influenced jazz of the ’70s, while still leaving plenty of room for bebop-derived soloing and improvisation. It’s the ultimate example of today’s artist looking to the past for inspiration while still keeping a firm grasp of the future.

In “Gangsterism on a Loop”, pianist Jason Moran is profiled as one of jazz music’s most accomplished polymaths, an artist who creates music as well as music-themed art installations – several of which are currently on display at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. As a musician, visual artist, and educator (he’s on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music), Moran represents today’s jazz artist bringing together a variety of art forms and wrapping it in an educational package.

But while the educational aspect of jazz music is thoroughly examined – the chapter “Learning Jazz” dives into the conservatory communities as well as the origins and popularity of the Real Book, which Chinen describes as “a gateway resource for many thousands of aspiring and working jazz musicians” – it hardly paints the genre as an “eat your vegetables” art form. If anything, many of the artists spotlighted in Playing Changes exhibit outside-the-box thinking that is inspiring and liberating.

In “Exposures”, bassist/vocalist/composer/bandleader Esperanza Spalding is portrayed as an irrepressible wunderkind who shocked the mainstream music world with her Best New Artist upset in 2011 while maintaining her insistence on creating art in unique ways – the writing and recording of her limited-edition 2017 album Exposure was livestreamed on Facebook. In “Style Against Style”, the idiosyncratic guitar stylings of Mary Halvorson are examined, with her unusual, clipped style at odds with more mainstream execution. It’s earned her critical raves and put her in the company of the likes of Nels Cline and Marc Ribot – musicians who easily straddle the worlds of jazz and rock.

Chinen’s elegant, evocative writing – a mesmerizing staple of this essential book – beautifully describes a 2017 Halvorson set at the Village Vanguard: “She ended some notes with a wobbly hiccup, and stopped others short, as if biting them off at the ends. Her flinty but resonant tone, produced with a hard attack and just a hint of digital delay, had the spiky, alien beauty of a sea urchin.”

Playing Changes is a book that demands the reader’s time and attention, not necessarily due to the density of the words and subject matter – although it does cover a lot of ground – but mostly because it will inspire the reader to seek out the artists described in its pages. Helpfully, Chinen has created a 110-track Spotify playlist that goes a long way toward bringing these pages to life and it’s a vital companion to the book itself. However, like the book, the playlist merely scratches the surface. Like the best nonfiction, Playing Changes will motivate jazz diehards and neophytes alike to discover what’s out there and what’s on the horizon.

RATING 9 / 10