Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense - Episode Three: In the Spirit of Family

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Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense

Episode Three: In the Spirit of Family

The Documentary Channel

May 4, 2009, 09:00-10:00PM

Paradigm Studio


In a 2005 AAJ interview, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel bemoaned the loss of a sense of community in the jazz world. "There was a real community spirit kind of thing and from going to that I really grew to love and appreciate the community spirit of jazz... that kind of thing is really rare and it's getting rarer and rarer all the time. I really value and cherish the fact that I had the opportunity to be a part of that oral jazz tradition; it was great."

Mentoring may be largely a thing of the past (although artists including Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard are still keeping the spirit alive), as is a club scene that encouraged young, aspiring musicians to get onstage and jam with more established players. Still, there remains a sense of community engendered through groups who are committed to being more than just a collection of musicians coming together to play; they're families who, through months and years of touring, share far more than just the music—although the music is often more than enough. Episode Three of the groundbreaking series Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense, In the Spirit of Family, explores the oftentimes complex relationships between artists truly committed to transcending the already potent nature of what they do.

Pianist Aaron Parks says, near the end of the 54-minute episode, "You can tell a lot about people, from the way they play music," he says. "You can tell a lot about whether they're a good person at heart even; you can hear their goodness through their music; you can hear their sense of humor; you can hear their insecurities. You can't hide it; that's one of the beautiful things about it." The revelatory nature of music has always been a given, but in the collectivity that comes from longstanding groups like The Bad Plus, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Medeski Martin & Wood and e.s.t.—the Swedish trio co-led by pianist Esbjorn Svensson, who died in 2008 in a tragic diving accident—is something that transcends personal matters to become something much larger.

Icons Among Us / Brian Blade Fellowship Band

Watching the members of drummer Brian Blade's Fellowship Band come together after months, possibly even years apart for rehearsals to prepare for the tour in support of Season of Changes (Verve, 2008) is revealing in itself. These are not just musicians coming together to continue a musical journey; these are people who share a close familial bond. "You have to recognize the mission in your life," says pianist Danilo Pérez, "and when you do you're going to see that the most important thing that we are losing in our society is community. The one thing I've learned with Wayne Shorter is: the community must not be forgotten. We have to go back to thinking in a group mentality. When you are really playing jazz with the deepest of your heart, you are investing emotionally, and you have to create that sensation of being in a band. There's nothing better than feeling the totality of two, three, four musicians."

"The Fellowship is a band, it's also an idea of hopes, that you hope to see around you—not just on the bandstand—but a manifestation of that hope," says Blade, before the group launches into a performance of "Stoner Hill," from Season of Changes at the Newport Jazz Festival. "We all care so much for each other," says Fellowship saxophonist Myron Walden, "and I think, as an extension of what Brian said, it's your highest aspirations and hopes; you wish for people to get along and have a sense of camaraderie and care and compassion and support. With us, we love each other; we love what the other persons are into. Kurt [Rosenwinkel] has ideals that he brings that to the band, and Melvin [Butler] has his experiences, and they're all so open and giving, and very embracing. So I think that's a positive attribute of the band that brings us and keeps us together."

With the economics of keeping a band together in a time where the only way for most musicians to survive is to play in a number of groups, it's remarkable to see, in this episode, the upsurge in commitment that has given these groups more than an identity; it's given them a touchstone by which they—and all groups—are measured. But In the Spirit of Family also touches on some controversial issues. The first two episodes made it clear that jazz is becoming something that includes influences that go far beyond its American roots. Here, a good chunk of time is spent watching Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Marsalis' outspoken views on what jazz is, early on in his career, have created a deep polarity amongst musicians, with artists like Matthew Shipp very clearly against what the trumpeter represents: "The problem with the neoconservative movement in jazz, the whole Wynton Marsalis, Lincoln Center type of thing, is that they're actually trying to play jazz right, and the only reason that Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk are right is because they are wrong; so you have to be willing to be wrong, you can't approach jazz like performing a classical score."

Icons Among Us / Jamie Cullum / The Bad Plus

Still, Marsalis' view has tempered over the years, and while he came across, perhaps incorrectly, as a musical reductionist with a narrow view of what jazz was, is and should be in Ken Burns' often-maligned but ultimately misunderstood documentary Jazz (2001), here he's much more open-minded—both musically and in his mentoring of younger musicians. "Jazz is a way of life," he says, "and I've been so fortunate. I tell the guys in my band now that the blessing for me, in my middle age, is to play with the musicians I taught when they were kids. Our relationships have had ups and downs, just like you would have with your kids. The amount of music that they know and play—and the familiarity that we have with each other and the understanding of community—these are the ways we are related, and we continue the community and the family spirit of the music because that's really how I know the music to be, and it's also how they know the music to be."

Marsalis now speaks about the totality of the music, demonstrating a continued reverence for what he believes jazz to be, while opening himself up in ways that, at least, appear to be new. "We play such an incredible range of music," he says, "and they're [Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra] able to execute so much that we can go from playing with John Lewis, when John was alive, to playing with Willie Nelson to playing with the Berlin Philharmonic, and everywhere we go the musicians ask: 'Where'd you find these musicians?'"

Whether or not Marsalis' view is accepted, it's impossible to deny his accomplishments since emerging as a young lion in the late '70s. His popularity and that of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra has more to do with reaching people on a personal level than it does anything else. Noted writer Paul de Barros hits the nail on the head when he says, "The one person out there who's really sold a sort of social idea that makes sense to people is Wynton Marsalis," he says, "and that's one of the reasons that Jazz at Lincoln Center is so successful. Because he's put the music in the context of a cultural and social and historical meaning. He's said: 'This is the accomplishment of African Americans and White Americans working together. And this is the oeuvre.'" He may not be the only one who is contextualizing music for a wider audience—something that jazz needs to do in order to continue to thrive—but he's clearly one of the more successful ones.

On the subject of community, longevity, and the chemistry that comes from a commitment to a consistent personnel, The Bad Plus' Dave King says it best: "The unity concept. The great jazz groups of the past and the ones that really have a sound today are always those [with] non-interchangeable members. We [The Bad Plus] almost look at it like a Led Zeppelin concept—if one of us isn't there, there's no way the band is getting back together or doing a show." Bassist Richard Bona expands on the same idea: "It's hard to replace a real band member. You can replace a sub, you can replace a sideman who was just doing a gig, but it's really hard to replace someone who's actually a band member."

Icons Among Us / DJ Logic / Medeski, Martin & Wood

As ever, Icons Among Us explores the expansion of jazz to include ideas that are often anathema to purists. Keyboardist John Medeski talks about finding DJ Logic, an improvising turntablist—an instant problem for those who don't see how a turntable, a sampler or a laptop can be a musical instrument. But it's that very discarding of convention and breaking of rules that keep jazz alive and evolving, and makes artists like Medeski the true icons among us, of which the series speaks.

Another a running theme throughout the series is that jazz—or whatever people want to call the music that it's becoming—is not restricted to the American tradition. The final ten minutes of the episode are devoted to the concept of family, but through the lens of performance and interviews with members and fans of e.s.t., including Svensson, to whom the episode is dedicated. e.s.t. is a rare group that, prior to Svensson's passing, had been together for over 15 years, and for whom the friendship and musical relationship went further back into the band members' childhood years. The group had already achieved massive success in Europe, and was gradually gaining a stronger foothold in North America before Svensson died. Its combination of pop sensibility and post-Keith Jarrett openness—married with tinges of electronica and, in bassist Dan Berglund, traces of progressive rock and heavy metal roots—was a compelling blend that made for some outstanding records and exhilarating performances.

Icons Among Us / Esbjorn Svensson Trio / e.s.t. e.s.t.'s final release, Leucocyte (ACT, 2008) represented a stylistic shift and exciting new direction that, sadly, was cut short. The loss of someone with whom a group has played for almost an entire lifetime goes beyond words, but drummer Magnus Østrøm tries to put it into perspective: We worked for a long time and we were so tight," he says, "and we learned to play together since childhood. I might never experience that again in my life. I'm so happy that I had it once in my life, because for a lot of musicians it never happens." "It was a real band," continues bassist Dan Berglund, "and that's hard to get—to join a real band." "For me now, I'm just trying to go back," concludes Østrøm, "just to find that reason—to see why I started to play, and try to find joy. You have to let go of those great compositions you played and try to find your own voice again as a composer."

The loss of Svensson was more than that of a musical partner; it was the loss of a lifelong friend with whom Østrøm and Berglund just happened to make music. The joy of Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense - Episode Three: In the Spirit of Family is that, without a single narrator—but, rather, through performance clips and carefully pieced together comments from the musicians who are making the music—it creates an unmistakable and undeniable feeling of the sense of community, the sense of family, that may have been at risk of being lost, but is very clearly a priority today amongst the musicians who move jazz forward each and every day, whether it be in large steps or smaller increments.

Photo Credit
Stills taken from Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense - Episode One: The Quiet Revolution, courtesy of Paradigm Studio and The Documentary Channel.

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