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'Icons Among Us' shows jazz in a different light

April 20, 2009 | 11:00 am

Blade300Of all the genres in music, jazz might lead them in terms of the sheer number of eulogies that are racked up in its honor on a yearly basis.

Which is, of course, as absurd as the similar calls bemoaning rock's death that come around every few years. However, if recent tribute activity is any indication, jazz may be alive and well, but it's acquired a troubling addiction to its past; a habit that comes with its own crippling side-effects.

But this is far less a fault of the players than it is a side-effect of the schism of sorts that struck jazz in the '80s. Led by critically lauded "young lions" such as Wynton Marsalis, jazz grew fixated on its undeniably rich, pre-fusion roots, celebrating "straightahead" traits such as a swingin' rhythm section, acoustic instruments and, if possible, some really sharp suits.

While that brand of thinking was supported by Ken Burns' well done if somewhat myopic "Jazz" series, the other, seemingly more underground side of jazz that spiraled off into the future with no such boundaries has earned a video tribute of its own with "Icons Among Us," a four-part series airing Mondays at 9 p.m. on the Documentary Channel over the next four weeks.

Tonight's first episode, "A Quiet Revolution, " opens on a provocative note with boundary-pushing artists such as Matthew Shipp, Nicholas Payton, Bill Frisell, Avishai Cohen and a host of others speaking respectfully but not reverently of jazz and those giants who set the standard for the genre many years ago.

Blue Note pianist Robert Glasper (and where was he during the label's recent anniversary celebrations?) sums up a prevailing attitude of the players highlighted in the documentary by imagining Charlie Parker returning from the grave and telling many tradition-minded musicians, "I played that already. Why are you playing that?"

Marsalis also appears to defend his conservative view of jazz, explaining that every art form needs a definition, which is a fair point until you hear many of the young, out-of-the-mainstream players toss labels and limitations aside and move forward on their own. Many of these acts, such as the laptop-assisted piano excursions of Bugge Wesseltoft, don't sound like something you'd hear in a typical jazz club, but perhaps that's the point.

Gifted trumpeter Terence Blanchard sets the tone for perhaps the entire series when he says, "There's a quiet revolution going on in jazz . . . the quietest revolution I've ever heard in my life." With the help of this documentary and a little luck, perhaps the revolution will get just a little bit louder.

(Postscript: Unfortunately, the Documentary Channel is only available in Los Angeles to Dish Network subscribers. Watch a video clip from the documentary with the Bad Plus' David King after the jump.)

-- Chris Barton

Photo of Brian Blade and Christopher Thomas from 'Icons Among Us' by Jean Hangarter