Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense - Episode Two: 12 Notes in Real Time

John Kelman By

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Episode One | Episode Two | Episode Three | Episode Four

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

Paradigm Studio


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 Russo—of which some marvelous cross-genre clips are included in 12 Notes in Real Time—straddles 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 'improvising—cool, yeah, I like that.'"

Icons Among Us / John Medeski

There's a blurred line between a jamband like Phish and the more jazz-centric Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood—a 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."

Icons Among Us / Esperanza Spalding

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.

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