Bill Milkowski: Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries
I am very encouraged by what's going on in jazz today, both on record and particularly in live performance. It seems to me that individuality has once again become the watchword in this post-Wynton phase, particularly when you look at some of the adventurous music coming out on smaller, independent labels like Palmetto (Dewey Redman, David Berkman, Matt Wilson, Ben Allison, Pete McCann, Joel Frahm), Arabesque (Dave Douglas, Ben Monder, Myra Melford), Intuition (Joey Baron, Michael Blake's Slow Poke ), Siam (Erik Friedlander, New Jakarta Ensemble) and Winter & Winter (why won't those cheap bastards send out any promos?). And, of course, perpetual upstart labels like Songlines, Knitting Factory Works, Nine Winds, CIMP and Tzadik remain defiantly on the case. Even the more established labels are loosening their ties a bit. Columbia Jazz, under the direction of Branford Marsalis and former scribe/pal o' mine Jeff Levenson, has issued some music (Sam Newsome's Global Unity , Mark Isham's electric Miles tribute,
The Silent Way Project , and bassist Richard Bona's debut) that is at odds with the label's Young Lions direction of 15 years ago. Blue Note has released some provocative, uncompromising music by Medeski, Martin & Wood, Charlie Hunter, Tim Hagans, Javan Jackson and Cassandra Wilson. And Concord Jazz has reinvented itself from a perennial repository for stodgy straight ahead to a label that has openly encouraged exploration and risk-taking by some of the artists on its roster (Chris Potter's Unspoken and Vertigo along with John Patitucci's Now are excellent examples of the more freewheeling aesthetic that prevails at Concord in its post-Carl Jefferson era).
So there is definitely a plethora of very challenging, creative music being made today, although it's not all being documented. To really hear what's going on, you have to go to the clubs (in New York) and seek it out. And by clubs, I'm not talking about overpriced tourist traps like the Blue Note, Birdland, Vanguard, Basil's, et al. You need to hunt around and find obscure places like the Dark Star Lounge, Baby Jupiter, Kavenholz, Zinc, Dharma, The Cooler, The Izzy Bar, Detour, the Internet Cafe, Shine, Kush, Tonic...places where talented and eager young musicians are creating a scene by the sheer force of their own will to express themselves. You won't see Jackie McLean or Tommy Flanagan or Barry Harris or George Coleman at any of these clubs. But you might see any of the following: Dave Fiuczynski playing fretless guitar in a trio with cello and drums; guitarist Adam Rogers playing in a swinging quartet with bassist Scott Colley, drummer Bill Stewart and saxophonist Chris Potter; bassist Drew Gress leading his Jagged Sky band with guitarist Ben Monder, alto saxophonist Dave Binney and drummer Kenny Wolleson; Medeski, Martin & Wood playing in a Cecil Taylor-inspired acoustic piano trio setting; Bobby Previte's 9-piece band The Horse playing the music of Bitches Brew ; Other Dimensions in Music striking another spine-tingling invocation. There are a million gigs in the Naked City. Three, four a night, if you like. And many of these aforementioned joints charge a mere $5 to $7 at the door. If you seek out this exhilarating stuff, you will understand that the tradition of improvisation and intelligent, creative expression is alive and well (and I'm sure there are parallel scenes going on in Chicago, San Francisco, wherever).
The other thing that I am very encouraged by is an apparent fusion renaissance. Being a child of the early '70s fusion movement (I'm currently working on a book about its history and development), I came to jazz from rock via groups like Tony Williams Lifetime, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, Pat Martino, Return To Forever and Weather Report. Those bands all appealed to my rock-fed ears (Hendrix, Cream, James Gang) while offering something more. I found the sheer instrumental virtuosity of it all intriguing rather than off-putting and went about to soak up as much information as I could, a path that eventually led me to investigate Miles, Trane, Bird, Dizzy, Cannonball, Dexter, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas....on and on, backward in time.
Of course, the fusion movement became codified by the late '70s to the point where it became a critical joke, stigmatized as 'the F word.' This continual watering down (dumbing down) process naturally led to smooth jazz, a horrible dumping grounds of instrumental mediocrity and insipid nursery rhymes being aggressively marketed as New Adult Contemporary. I repeat...HORRIBLE.
But fear not, a backlash is in process. There is a whole groundswell of musicians and listeners alike who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore. Bored to tears by the same sing-song pablum that pours out of NAC radio, they are turning to more challenging fare. I am particularly encouraged to see people in the early '20s picking up on Columbia/Legacy's ambitious reissue program. All that volatile, uncompromising music released in the late '60s-early '70s Miles' Live/Evil , Bitches Brew , Jack Johnson ; Mahavishnu's Inner Mounting Flame , Weather Report's Mysterious Traveler is being heard again for the first time with fresh ears. And it's triggering a mini-movement in its wake. I'm hearing young Berklee College of Music grads coming to town and putting bands together that are taking their cues from this music that puts a premium on virtuosity. Concurrent with that, drummer Steve Smith (Jean-Luc Ponty, Vital Information) has joined forces with entrepreneur Mark Varney to form Tone Center, a label exclusively devoted to fusion music in the most ferocious sense of the word, including ripping new releases by guitarist Frank Gambale, Mahavishnu violinist Jerry Goodman, Tribal Tech guitarist Scott Henderson and fusion pioneer Larry Coryell.
Meanwhile, former Return To Forever bandmates Stanley Clarke and Lenny White have formed Vertu, a real-deal fusion band with Rachel Z on keyboards, Karen Briggs on violin and rock guitar sensation Richie Kotzen. "We're trying to bring virtuosity back to the forefront," said White.
"The business tends to lean on something that's successful," Clarke notes, "and when it's copied over and over again and thrown out to the public, it sends a funny message to musicians...the wrong message. People who have leadership potential to create new trends end up following them. But you don't have to sound like Kenny G. You may have more success sounding like yourself. So many guys get ruined trying to emulate something that's popular. But we want to send a message to young musicians that it's OK to stretch again."
Yeah, I'm encouraged.
~ Bill Milkowski
Jimmy Smith by Sue Storey