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'Icons Among Us': What we talk about when we talk about jazz

December 7, 2010 |  9:00 am

Blade350It's a little hard not to feel like a cheerleader when discussing the jazz documentary "Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense,"  a feature-length examination of 21st century jazz condensed from a four-part series that aired last year on the Documentary Channel. Screening  Tuesday at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatreas part of the Jazz Bakery's "Movable Feast" series, the film offers a stirring portrait of some of the most exciting musicians in jazz with a mind-boggling array of interviews and performances that include Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Nicholas Payton, Bill Frisell, Brian Blade and recent Grammy nominees Vijay Iyer and Esperanza Spalding.

Functioning as a none-too-subtle response to the so-called traditionalist view of the music that looks to define jazz as an art form (represented here by Jazz at Lincoln Center's ever-thoughtful Wynton Marsalis), "Icons" highlights a wide variety of  musicians who have little use for treading a familiar path or attaching a label to what they do.

Gifted pianists Robert Glasper and Matthew Shipp fire off some of the film's strongest lines with occasionally profane insistance that the works of Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Keith Jarrett may be remarkable but aren't the end of the line. In Shipp's case this view of the past comes across with an almost combative intensity, but what inspiring figure who has dedicated his or her life to a discipline doesn't strive to be the best?

The film also takes a refreshingly inclusive view of musicians commonly associated with the "jam band" circuit, such as Marco Benevento, Medeski Martin and Wood and Garage a Trois saxophonist Skerik. While some musicians shrug off or even try rejecting that scene given its implications-- a supposedly aimless musical direction, an audience too zonked-out to know good from bad -- Benevento argues that the difference between the third-rail term "jam" and the more accepted label "improvisation" isn't much more than the number of syllables.

Although "Icons Among Us" isn't perfect -- it's fairly New York-centric apart from intruiging detours into Europe and New Orleans, and it could be guilty of fanning the ultimately pointless "jazz wars" that have blessedly died down of late -- it's still a joy to watch. It's hard not to wonder, just for fun, what stature would any given number of these players enjoy if the term "jazz" weren't sometimes loaded with certain baggage? If nothing else, the documentary is exactly the sort of hard evidence you want to put in front of anyone who believes jazz is anything less than alive and flush with exciting talent.

-- Chris Barton

"Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense,'" Barnsdall Gallery Theater, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.  7:30 p.m. Tuesday. $20. (310) 271-9039. www.jazzbakery.com. Q&A follows the screening.

Photo of Brian Blade courtesy Paradigm Studio.

Comments () | Archives (1)

Jazz simply is Modern music. As Miles said, jazz is a white mans term, he just made more music. And could go in whatever direction he felt was needed. And that is key, Purpose in our art. There is a definite rift from Contemporary music, and that is where the confusion comes in, caused by the academic contemporary movements in both visual art and music to confuse the two.

Ruth has done a wonderful job in supporting and presenting new Modern music. The problem is the same as with visual art, being trained by the Academies puts blinders on us, limiting us to that tiny and insulated world. And a degree is strictly for career, mostly in teaching. And so the Academies protect themselves, and their jobs. Art is always of the streets, and Jazz is the advanced form of the Blues, as James Brown said.

Without the connection to quality people, and the decadent ones too, outside of academic settings, real music simply isnt possible. Neither Wynton nor Branford ever finished their degrees, they werent necessary. And would finely hone them into a more limited and older language, art is out here with the living and struggling, artists are neither better nor worse than anyone else. And missing so much if restricted to their gilded ghettos.

I hope Ruth gets that new home for the Jazz Bakery soon, it is needed. People are tired of the same old things, appropriation and cut and pasting replacing skill and exploration of our world. The music world is in disarray, and the time where constructive self criticism can take art into new directions.


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