Ottawa Jazz Festival Day 9: June 29, 2007
Diversity is fundamental to jazznot just to the styles of the jazz spectrum but also to the age groups playing the music. Day Nine of the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival featured two artists separated by nearly seventy years and, like the stylistically diverse Day Eight, there were some important lessons to be learned.
Sometimes the back story is more interesting than where it leads. Diagnosed with a form of autism as a young child, Matt Savage began playing piano soon after and, in the space of a few short years (he's only fifteen now), has demonstrated a not insignificant gift. Studied in classical music and jazz, he writes music that reflects broad musical interests. His set at the 5:00 PM Connoisseur Series combined his penchant for a variety of styles including Latin and Caribbean but always played within a mainstream approach, tempered now and then by a touch of romantic classicism.
It's easy (and true) to say that Savage is a very talented artist for his age, but that raises an important question about aesthetics: is it valid to assess the work of an artist based on his or or life experiences, especially upon circumstances that are beyond the artist's control? Should we see Renee Rosnes as a great pianist because she's overcome adversities and obstacles? Or, to put it more plainly, is Renee Rosnes a great female pianist or simply a great pianist? Is Stevie Wonder a terrific blind pop musician, or simply a terrific pop musician? Is Roy Haynes amazing because of his age, or because of his playing at any age? Are we to judge the person or the artist? The artist or the art? Would Matt Savage's performance have been as well-received had he been a 35-year-old?
The answer may appear to be ambiguous to some but, upon further reflection, should not be. Artists should be judged on the merits of their art, not on the circumstances that surround it. Matt Savage may be a talented fifteen year-old, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's ready for the big stages at international jazz festivals. That's not a criticism, simply an acknowledgement that Savage has some maturing to do as an artist at a time when labels, marketing and media are constantly looking for a good story to make a young phenom today's next big thing. As a result, gifted (often attractive and photogenic) young musicians face greater challenges than ever at keeping focused on growth, even as they're forced into being stars and headliners before they're ready.
An important part of developing as a young jazz musician, not to mention as a person, has always been mentoring by older, more experienced teachers: Savage appears to be working in a vacuum. Jazz has traditionally been an orally transmitted form of artistic expression, handed down from one generation to the next. Talented Savage may well be, but to get to the next level he needs more than study: he needs models, lots of listening, and the experience of learning how to apply these experiences through working with others who have absorbed and can pass along the jazz tradition which, despite the present-day emphasis on formal education, continues to have a strong oral component. Prodigies may make brief appearances, but ultimately there are no short cuts.
Savage was certainly precocious and entertaining, introducing every song with cute anecdotes, and the audience ate it up. His writing reflected an artist who still has plenty to learnharmonically shallow and, while using complex meters ("Blues in 33/8" being an example), lacking that organic nature that lends even challenging tunes a natural rhythmic feel. His virtuosity was impressive, but there was next to no communicationvirtually no eye contactgoing on between himself, drummer Steve Silverstein and bassist David Wong (from Roy Haynes' band, and a last minute substitute when Savage's regular bassist missed the flight to Ottawa). Given that interaction is one of the foundations of jazz, it's but an additional skill Savage will have to hone.
In order to mature into an artist of merit who goes beyond an interesting back story, Savage will need to learn communication; to develop an approach to complex composition that, in the mainstream area he's occupying, absolutely has to feel natural; and to acquire stronger command of a language with its own back story, extending from Earl Hines to Art Tatum to Bud Powell to Bill Evans to Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau. It will be interesting to see, in five years, where Savage is. He's got the potential to evolve into a fine musician but, by placing him in the spotlight too early, there's a significant risk, as has been seen so many times in the past with exceptionally talented young musicians, that the acclaim he's enjoying will not encourage him to go for greater knowledge, depth and risk. And that would be a shame because, back story aside, he's got some of the building blocks to develop into an artist of note.