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Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense
Episode Two: 12 Notes in Real Time
The Documentary Channel
April 27, 2009, 09:00-10:00PM
After a promising launch on April 20, 2009, with its US Documentary Channel debut, the four-part series Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense expands its purview with Episode Two: 12 Notes in Real Time, another outstanding and insightful film.
The new episode develops the idea that contemporary jazz and the artists who make it occupy an ever-expanding continuum. Its title alludes to keyboardist Marco Benevento's comment, "Everybody's playing a different version of 12 notes, all at the same time; so call it what you want, it's 12 notes, man, it sounds easy but there's a million combinations." The idea of such a continuum engenders heated debate about what is and what isn't jazz; but what Icons Among Us asserts, convincingly, is that today's musicians aren't thinking along stylistically or culturally discrete lines.
Benevento's duo with drummer Joe Russoof which some marvelous cross-genre clips are included in 12 Notes in Real Timestraddles the line between jazz and what some call jamband. But as Benevento says, "I'm not gonna let one word ruin what I'm doing and that word is jamband. Elvin Jones jammed with fucking John Coltrane, man, and some people call it jamming, some people call it improvising, swinging, whatever; they jam. If I improvise with Joe [Russo], I jam with Joe; he comes to my house and we jam, but it has a terrible connotation. Sometimes people think jam means noodly, like 'I don't understand' sort of stuff, but it also means improvising, so there're two definitions: one turns people off immediately, the other's like 'improvisingcool, yeah, I like that.'"
There's a blurred line between a jamband like Phish and the more jazz-centric Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wooda group that may speak the language of jazz more clearly, but nevertheless remains a part of the loose, in-the-moment jamband aesthetic (and isn't that at least one definition of improvised jazz?). Despite the objections of purists, who often seem intent of preserving jazz in aspic, as a museum piece, this porous boundary is in itself evidence of the inclusionary nature of the music. Musicians themselves are simply pragmatic and organic, concerned with finding new ways to create cross-cultural and cross-stylistic ideas, striving to make those 12 notes say something fresh with each and every performance.
"The ironic thing about that whole [jamband] scene," says pianist Robert Walter, "is that I don't know anybody who thinks of themselves as a jamband. None of them are comfortable with that. It's just a name that has more to do with the kind of crowd that you're drawing, which is these kids who used to follow around the Grateful Dead or Phish, and now are looking for somewhere to go."
This is terrific news for jazz, which in the past ran the risk of petering out through an inability to attract younger audiences. But go to any festival in the late 2000s, and it's evident that a younger audience is being drawn to the genre. It's true they may not be buying the records. In 12 Notes in Real Time, Earshot festival director John Gilbreath talks about how jazz, once representing 5% of total album sales in the US, has dropped to a mere 3%, with a handful of artists selling 50% of that 3%. But with musicians relentlessly on the road, the choices are far greater than those miniscule numbers would suggest: the number of summer festivals is on the rise, and the number of people attending continues to grow as well, especially with festivals offering a broad cross-section of music. As saxophonist Skerik astutely observes, "You will go and shop at aisle five of Home Depot only; now c'mon, there's 30, there's 40 aisles, there's 50 aisles...there's so much music."
Those who think that jazz is dead or dying just aren't looking hard enough. "We're sitting on a powder keg of incredible creative potential," says Gilbreath, "that may make a bang that very few people will hear." It's a sad truth that if Miles Davis was an up-and-coming artist in 2009's landscape, and released an album of the same weight as his Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), it's unlikely that it would achieve the same level of sales, or change the shape of jazz to the same extent. But that doesn't mean the 2009 album would be any less important; only that, with a huge number of new releases vying for fans' ears and pocketbooks every month, it's well nigh impossible for even the most revolutionary disc to have the same massive impact its predecessors might have enjoyed.
As pianist Spike Wilner, who co-owns the New York club Smalls, suggests, "There was a time on planet earth when we had these huge monsters that could roam the earth freely, and the reason why they lived was because the environment for them was there. Giants such as Art Tatum, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins...these guys could develop to the size that they did because there were so many places for them to grow their music. Today we're kind of like the little rats that survived the dinosaurs, who have to fend for ourselves and get whatever little scraps we can. But we've still gotta survive." And as noted author Ashley Kahn says, "Understanding who musicians arethat they're real people with real jobs, with families that need to be fed, with houses, with mortgages that need to be paidthat really helps in appreciating the art and the craft in which they work."
Like Episode One: The Quiet Revolution, 12 Notes in Real Time combines interview and performance footage to let the artists themselves explain where the music is and where it's going, and the challenges they face. "We realized," says keyboard player John Medeski, "that we've gotta make it ourselves, because there's a lot of young people out there who are looking for something different than the mainstream shit. But nobody's giving it to them; they don't even know it exists." A truth, perhaps, but one that's clearly changing, as evidenced by the kind of audiences groups like Medeski Martin & Wood have grown since the mid-1990s.
The Quiet Revolution presented modern jazz as an inclusive style that sees no borders of race, color or nationality. 12 Notes in Real Time considers a missing element: gender. Interviews with Dianne Reeves, Gretchen Parlato and star in-the-making Esperanza Spalding make clear that jazz is no longer the men's club that once allowed women to be singers and, perhaps, pianists, but little else. Rather than recognizing female artists primarily for their gender, the film demonstrates that women playing jazz are at last being judged on the merits of their work alone: one more boundary is being dissolved. "Record labels today," says clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen, "they're not going to make any money from some instrumental music, as great as it is. They cannot sell it as much as they can pop music. So the name of the game is how to get the consumer's attention, and that's when it becomes tricky."
Jazz has become a music that exists on the basis of performance. "Musicians in general are getting a lot more informed about the way things work," explains Miguel Zenon. "And I think that's what's changing the whole mechanics of the way things workwhere you don't really need to depend on having this big huge company behind you to get your music out there. Ultimately jazz musicians, we don't live off jazz records, we don't sell that many records. What we need to do is play, that's how we make a living, but to play you need to have a record and you need to get a review and you get into this whole game. It's just a matter of how much you want to get into it."
And while the decline in record sales represents a significant impactespecially on more established artists who were around in, say, the 1970s, where an album like the Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1973) could sell hundreds of thousands of recordsin many ways this fits perfectly with the aesthetic of jazz. Even a landmark record like Kind of Blue is nothing but a snapshot in time, while the musicians would expand on its innovations on the bandstand, and use those 12 notes in new, previously unheard combinations that move the music forward, slowly but relentlessly, each and every night.
Musicians from a broad range of styles and generations are interviewed. Legends like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Dianne Reeves; established artists who are approaching legendary status like John Scofield, John Medeski and Dave Douglas (whose footage with his new Brass Ecstasy band provides a welcome sneak peek of his forthcoming Greenleaf CD, Spirit Moves, which combines Douglas' own inimitable writing with music from Otis Redding and Hank Williams); and important relative newcomers like Vijay Iyer, Ravi Coltrane, Bugge Wesseltoft and Danilo Pérez.
Listening to all these musicians speak, it's possible to gain deep insight into not only the "what" of contemporary jazz, but the "how" and, perhaps most importantly, the "why." Says Charlie Hunter, "It's how we send smoke signals as human beings. We make one kind of music here, and somehow, someone hears it in Jamaica...and then they create this idea and someone else hears that and creates another idea. And so it's this way that we communicate with each other as human beings from our most noble place."
Noble, indeed. "Music has always been a communication device," says Dafnis Prieto. "If you don't communicate anything then you're not doing music. At the beginning, the first human beings used music to communicate somethingwith the spirits, calling their gods...a lot of different things. Why would you change that, if that's really the source of where it came from?"
By expanding and expounding upon the ideas introduced in Episode One: The Quiet Revolution, Episode Two: 12 Notes in Real Time continues the fundamental idea of Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense: that the present is a remarkable time, where musicians are dispensing with preconception, even as they maintain a solid respect for what has come before. They are taking jazz into the 21st century and giving it life and meaning. It may be just music to some, but by dissolving boundaries of race, color, geography and gender, this music has become, in its marginalized place, a force with the power to bring people together in an organic, natural way that has never been more important.
Now at its half-way mark, Icons Among Us is already positioned as one of the most important documentaries about music ever created, with a fearless view of jazz as a music that possesses the unique ability to attract and unite through its infinite and nuanced combinations of 12 simple notes.
Stills taken from Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense - Episode Two: 12 Notes in Real Time, courtesy of Paradigm Studio and The Documentary Channel.
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