Category: jazz

Are you a 'jazz nerd'? Jason Marsalis revisits and clarifies the term

Marsalis300 In the wake of causing a minor firestorm in the online jazz community last month with a playful video decrying the influence of "jazz nerds," drummer Jason Marsalis e-mailed me a clarification this morning that both expands on the definition, shares his inspiration for the video and offers further talking points that amount to a calling for a truce in the so-called Jazz Wars.

As a few commenters on the post argued, the crux of Marsalis' issue with so-called jazz nerds isn't necessarily the use of complicated structure, multi-genre influences or odd meter (citing his own work with adventurous young saxophonist John Ellis as an example, a point also made by by Pop and Hiss commenter nash61ce). In one part of a four-page statement, Marsalis argues that his point was a question of adding those elements without a working knowledge of jazz's rich history and instead opting for complexity for complexity's sake in composition.

"[A jazz nerd, or JNA for short] will hear groups lead by Dave Holland and Wayne Shorter and will marvel at the complex musical structure but ignore the historical substance behind their music. JNA saxophonists will listen to and worship the music of Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Michael Brecker, and other modern players but ignore the musicians that have influenced their music such as John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Warne Marsh, and Sonny Rollins.

JNA will hear the music of James Brown and say that it’s no big deal because it only has two chords. JNA looks down on blues as 'simple' while wanting to play endless non-melodic eighth and sixteenth notes over 'All the Things You Are' in 7/4 straight feel. By the way, a slow blues is boring. Better yet, swing is actually uninteresting and straight feel is actually more 'challenging' and 'exciting.' Instead of embracing both, the JNA worships one while ridiculing the other. Speaking of that, 4/4 is 'old' while 9/8, on the other hand, is 'new.' A basic drum groove is boring unless you fill it with lots of notes. To the JNA, that’s modern music. So to recapitulate, JNA reduces music to as many complex notes as possible while ignoring the simple elements and history behind the notes. This kind of music will have audience members sitting on their hands suffering boredom."

Interestingly, Marsalis goes on to argue against what he believes is another troubling trend in modern jazz,   "innovation propaganda." Couched in part as a defense of the "young lions" counter-revolution of the 1980s that celebrated jazz of the 1950s and '60s (a movement vigorously championed by his family), Marsalis writes, "Starting from 2000 up to now, the majority of today’s music started to reference rock, hip-hop, pop, R&B, and world music. That’s great except there’s a catch. Almost NO music before 1990 is referenced in the majority of music played today."

More, including the full text of Marsalis' statement after the jump.

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Playboy Jazz Festival has the Bowl jumpin'


"Who's got some extra suntan oil, man?" asked singer and unflappably cool customer Kurt Elling from the stage Saturday at the 32nd annual Playboy Jazz Festival. Marking his first appearance at the festival, the sharply dressed Elling had just finished a spry cover of Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out," and the temperatures were climbing.

"You look good in the light of day — most of you," he added with a smirk.

Though the persistent sun may have clashed with the ever-chatty Elling's generally nocturnal aesthetic, it's all part of the package at Playboy, an L.A. tradition that's as much a rite of early summer as the purple haze of jacaranda blossoms.

And while the festival has maintained a large following with a big-tent approach to jazz, the first day of this year's installment also offered a bit of a youth movement. Something of a YouTube sensation for a wild cover of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro was an early highlight with instrumentals that touched on flamenco and a sort of pop-classical guitar style, providing a breezy backdrop for the coolers and picnic baskets still winding through the Hollywood Bowl grounds.

Also no strangers to viral video world, the a cappella group Naturally 7 later appeared with their signature cover of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." Featuring a nice bit of subway-ready theater with each vocalist pantomiming live instruments as they replicated the sound of bass, drums, strings and — most impressively — electric guitar, the group had fans jumping with a mix of hip-hop, soul and funk delivered with a near-gospel fervor.

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Album review: Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden's 'Jasmine'

Keth_jarrett_240_ Given Keith Jarrett's decades-long tradition of either performing solo or with his “Standards” trio of Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, the simple fact that the mercurial pianist recorded with a new collaborator is newsworthy. Of course, when that collaborator is Charlie Haden, the news gets that much bigger.

Recorded shortly after Jarrett reconnected with the bassist for the 2007 documentary “Rambling Boy,” “Jasmine” is not the sort of album where two veteran improvisers stretch out into raw expression. Instead, Haden and Jarrett push inward, searching for undiluted beauty in standards and romantic ballads, many of which extend past the eight-minute mark.

In a typically thoughtful essay in the liner notes,

Jarrett hopes that the record can be heard on “a good system” (preferably with a loved one, he adds), but this isn't one of his patented knocks on modern technology. “Jasmine” is such an intimate, subtle record that much of what the two musicians are doing can easily pass without notice, like a whisper in a crowded room.

With the exception of a jauntily (but gently) swinging take on Redd Evans and David Mann's “No Moon at All,” “Jasmine” stays in a contemplative, nocturnal mood. Peggy Lee's “Where Can I Go Without You” features Haden on a lilting yet melancholy solo punctuated by Jarrett, and the classic “Body & Soul” gets taken for a ride by Jarrett's cascading piano, with Haden following stride for stride.

Though a somewhat repetitive listen if not in the right frame of mind, “Jasmine” is ultimately satisfying. Beauty, particularly in the hands of players like this, is always worth exploring.

— Chris Barton

Keith Jarrett / Charlie Haden
Three stars (Out of four)

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Jazz war, anyone? Jason Marsalis vs. 'Jazz Nerds International'


Have you, as a listener, been suffering under the influence of Jazz Nerds International?

Jazz critic and blogger for the Ottawa Citizen Peter Hum wrote a terrific post Thursday on the latest installment in what's become known as "the jazz wars," a long-running culture clash pitting the music's traditionalists -- personified by nearly any member of the gifted Marsalis family -- versus what could be considered jazz's new guard.

A little background: This new guard encompasses some of the most acclaimed, adventurous artists in jazz today -- Christian Scott, the Bad Plus, Vijay Iyer and the Claudia Quintet, just to name a few who have been featured in this space -- as well as anyone who followed in the footsteps of late-period John Coltrane and "Bitches Brew"-era Miles Davis. A hardcore traditionalist would argue that these musicians, though talented, may be playing interesting music but it's certainly not jazz.

Recently examined in the documentary "Icons Among Us," there's a lot of remarkable stuff going on in modern jazz that incorporates influences from across the musical spectrum, stretching into odd time signatures and generally treating jazz as the boundlessly creative, free-thinking genre it is. While on the opposite side, the traditionalists argue that truest form of jazz involves all-acoustic instruments, a swinging rhythm section and, if possible, some really sharp suits.

In the video posted on Hum's blog (and after the jump), drummer Jason Marsalis offers an amusing warning against "Jazz Nerds International," his term for young musicians who have a "selfish" view of jazz, eschewing the standards of the genre in favor of "abstract solos" and odd-metered straight rhythms. The end result, in Marsalis' view, is music that alienates its audience and exists only for the appreciation of fellow musicians.
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Album review: Claudia Quintet's 'Royal Toast'

Claudia_quintet_royal_  A year removed from an unexpected (yet wholly deserved) Grammy nomination in the large ensemble category, jazz drummer and composer John Hollenbeck returns to what ostensibly makes up his day job.

Under Hollenbeck’s complex yet always inviting compositional lead, the Claudia Quintet’s fifth album continues the group’s moving-target aesthetic. Touching on enough influences to resemble an expertly curated corner record shop — a thicket of Steve Reich-informed vibraphone here, a dash of knotty chamber jazz there — the Claudia Quintet is one of the more adventurous jazz ensembles working today. Often built around the unique harmonic interplay of saxophonist-clarinetist Chris Speed and accordionist Ted Reichman (who quickly dispatches just about any stereotype listeners could have about his instrument), the group is also joined by guest pianist Gary Versace, who adds new shading with the elegantly atmospheric “Crane Merit” and “Keramag,” which finds the quintet dancing circles around Hollenbeck’s restless rhythm.

Frequently mining a trebly, contemplative territory, the album can initially feel somewhat monochromatic, but unexpected pleasures lie below the surface. “Paterna Terra” rises out of wild, electro-junkyard percussion from Hollenbeck that approaches drum-and-bass, only to have an expressive saxophone solo from Speed spur the band into a joyful race toward the finish.

Rich with ambition and empathetic interplay that never allows one player to rise above any other for long, the Claudia Quintet doesn’t entirely sound like anybody else. Which is exactly what makes them worth seeking out.

— Chris Barton

Claudia Quintet
“Royal Toast”
Three Stars (Out of four stars)

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Live Review: Dave Fiuczynski at the Baked Potato

Fuze300 As the Baked Potato steams toward its massive 40th anniversary jazz festival next weekend, there was something perfect about East Coast guitarist Dave Fiuczynski's performance Thursday night.

Revered as a home for musicians' musicians and those who love them, the Baked Potato is a cramped, warm little clubhouse hugging the 101 Freeway between Studio City and Hollywood, the sort of place where crinkled posters of musicians great (Larry Carlton) and obscure (Damn the Machine) frame a small performance space where the genre-blind lessons in progressive rock and jazz fusion from Miles Davis' electric period and the Mahavishnu Orchestra often rule the day.

Welcoming the room to an evening of "eastern Exotica groove-jams," Fiuczynski (pronounced Few-zhinsky, or "Fuze" for short) is the sort of wildly gifted guitarist right in the Baked Potato's wheelhouse. Leader of cultish prog-jazz group the Screaming Headless Torsos, Fiuczynski is a professor at Boston's Berklee College of Music and has performed with a host of experimental-minded musicians, including Stewart Copeland and keyboardist John Medeski, who teamed with Fiuczynski on the aggressively adventurous 1994 album "Lunar Crush."

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Vijay Iyer to stretch out with Idyllwild Arts Orchestra at REDCAT

A month removed from the vivid, Electric Miles-inspired excursions with Wadada Leo Smith at Barnsdall Gallery Theater, jazz pianist Vijay Iyer returns to L.A. Sunday, but not in the capacity fans of his critically lauded 2009 album "Historicity" might expect.

While Iyer's remarkable trio is scheduled to return later this summer with a performance at Pasadena's Levitt Pavilion, this weekend's show at REDCAT will showcase Iyer's classical leanings with the West Coast debut of his "Interventions for Improvised Piano, Electronics and Orchestra," a 15-minute composition that will also feature him as a soloist. First performed in 2007 and commissioned by the American Composers' Orchestra in New York, Iyer will be revisiting the work with the help of Idyllwild Arts Orchestra's conductor and composer-in-residence Peter Askim, who played music with Iyer in college. 

While its not hard to hear the influence of classical music in Iyer's rich and evocative playing, the shift from his typically improvisation-heavy process with jazz to something more regimented didn't require a drastic change in his mindset.

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Live review: Bill Frisell Trio at Largo at the Coronet

Frisell400 Not many words were said from the Largo at the Coronet stage Tuesday night. Armed with a new trio featuring frequent collaborator Kenny Wollesen on drums and celebrated New York pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Bill Frisell was mostly mum apart from some humorously incredulous comments regarding Hank Williams being awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize (taking issue with the timing, not the honor).

Of course, given what was transpiring, there really wasn’t much that needed to be said. Though celebrating the country legend isn’t a surprise move for Frisell, an innovative player who’s been constructing a rather beautiful bridge between the worlds of instrumental jazz and country for years. But what was a welcome treat was hearing Frisell stretch out in ways that moved well beyond his usually elegant, Americana-informed comfort zone.

Driven in no small part by the ever-restless Moran and Wollesen, who has played with the raucous New York jazz party-band Sex Mob, Frisell showed a different side from last year's performance of the rustic chamber-jazz of his compelling Disfarmer project. Instead,  the veteran guitarist flexed the searching and dissonant playing that lay at his roots with downtown New York fixtures such as Joey Baron and John Zorn.

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R.I.P.: Jazz drummer Steve Reid dies at 66

Domino Records announced today that percussionist Steve Reid, who performed with artists as varied as Martha Reeves, Miles Davis and Four Tet's Kieran Hebden, died in his sleep Monday after a fight with cancer.

Perhaps most heard on Martha & the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street," he also had a brief stint backing James Brown (that's him on the funk standard "Popcorn"). Reid also performed with Fela Kuti in Africa before his career was briefly derailed by serving time for ducking the draft as a conscientious objector. After his release, Reid backed a who's who of the '70s avant-garde, including Horace Tapscott, Sam Rivers, Lester Bowie and Mal Waldron, along with more mainstream acts such as Freddie Hubbard, Horace Silver and Dionne Warwick.

Reid's 1970s albums as a bandleader are a favorite among crate-diggers, but his collaborations with electronic artist Hebden introduced him to a whole new audience. Mixing live percussion with electronic textures, the pair first came together on the 2005 album "Spirit Walk" and also released two volumes of "The Exchange Session," as well as "Tongues" in 2007 (which features the song "Brain," above) and "NYC" in 2008. Needless to say, there's plenty for the curious to explore by Reid, but one of our favorites is the hypnotic Afrobeat groove in the title track from his 2008 album "Daxaar."

-- Chris Barton

Album review: The Nels Cline Singers' 'Initiate'

Initiate-CG143_hi-res1-1024x968 Nearly 10 years into leading the winkingly named instrumental trio the Nels Cline Singers, it's hard to imagine what fringe of jazz and improvised rock could be unearthed next by the local guitar hero who joined the boundary-pushing band Wilco in 2004.

Now with their fourth album, Cline and a taut but feral rhythm section of bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola have regrouped for an often-breathtaking recording that's also their most rewarding and immediately approachable listen.

A sprawling double album split between one disc of studio recordings and a bare-knuckled live set, "Initiate" is steeped in the worldbeat-dusted jazz-rock of the ‘70s. Opening with a swirling chorus of electronic effects, they land a bracing first shot with "Floored," which finds Cline flexing a guitar tone akin to the warped keyboards of Chick Corea's work in Miles Davis' electric period while Amendola and Hoff lay down a concrete-busting funk-rock groove. "King Queen" forges a sort of psychedelic take on Cuban jazz as Cline and guest organist David Witham ride Hoff's elliptical bassline, building an insistent melody that opens to the outer limits.

They  also show a  more delicate side with "Divining" and "Zingiber" -- tracks featuring an atmospheric chorus of actual singing from the trio -- but with the second disc the group lays on the throttle and seldom lets up. Highlighted by a blistering, 14-minute cover of Weather Report's "Boogie Woogie Waltz" (featuring members of San Francisco indie band Deerhoof), they  course through fiery improvisations while also nodding toward jazz tradition with a cover of Carla Bley's "And Now, the Queen" and a Jim Hall-dedicated version of the Singers' comparatively straightforward "Blues, Too."

Engrossing and ceaselessly inventive, "Initiate" isn't always easy listening, but it's essential for lovers of jazz and its fertile frontier.

-- Chris Barton

The Nels Cline Singers
Three and a half stars


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