There is a common myth among the public that jazz is dead. People will argue that there has been no new movement in jazz since Miles Davis and his acolytes spawned fusion in the 1970s. Even Miles himself insisted that Columbia stop marketing him as a jazzman back with the release of his 1970 Bitches Brew. Jazz purists may even argue that music incorporating rock elements is not jazz at all. However, there is a contemporary movement in jazz, and David Hajdu in his January 31, 2010 New York Times profile of pianist Fred Hersch, “Giant Steps: The Survival of a Great Jazz Pianist,” defines it perfectly. He calls this new movement
a wave of highly expressive music more concerned with emotion than with craft or virtuosity; a genre-blind music that casually mingles strains of pop, classical and folk music from many cultures; an informal, elastic music unyielding to rigid conceptions of what jazz is supposed to be.
He continues on, aptly describing this music as “post-Marsalis,” referring to both Wynton and Branford. Since the 1990s, Wynton has been heralded as the King of Jazz, both for his own playing and for the tireless work he puts in to jazz education. I was a product of Wynton’s style of canon-oriented jazz education through my participation in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington high school competition. Learning the classics taught me a greater understanding of what jazz is and where it came from than an education focusing on contemporary jazz ever could have, and I’m very thankful to have had that education. I truly think the Marsalis family has done outstanding work for jazz and makes the music accessible to countless people who otherwise would’ve had no exposure to it. I can’t say enough good things about them. But, there is also value to paying attention to the exciting new school of jazz musicians, particularly the list Hajdu mentions, of Vijay Iyer, Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch, Ethan Iverson, and Jason Moran. I would extend this to include such players as Marco Benevento and John Medeski as well. While Hajdu’s piece focuses solely on Hersch after introducing this idea, I feel that this school of keyboardists and this jazz movement deserve a little more discussion.
Just as Miles was enthusiastic to accept the influence of rock and electronic music, the new movement in jazz gladly accepts the influence of other musics. Vijay Iyer sees jazz as a limitless world. “Jazz is a field. It’s a community of people who care about it. It’s also a history of ideas and a body of knowledge. But it’s always been extremely open and accommodating and welcoming to information and people from elsewhere,” he told Josh Jackson in an NPR interview published online on April 1, 2011. His music reflects this view as well. One of the most obvious examples is the 2011 Tirtha album he recorded with tabla player Nitin Mitta and guitarist Prasanna, both born in India. (Iyer himself was born in America, but is of Indian descent.) This album seamlessly melds Iyer’s jazz and Western classical piano experience with Indian Carnatic music, which Iyer defines as a repertory tradition of century old songs, “basically classical music,” to NPR in the same interview. The album features improvisation in the jazz style as well as improvisation around Carnatic themes. The three players work together to craft a sound that is all their own. In a completely different vein, Iyer also produced the track “Free Jazzmatazz” off of Brooklyn hip hop group Das Racist’s 2010 mixtape Sit Down, Man. Employing minimalist drums and bass parts, Iyer leaves room for himself to craft a lush sonic landscape with polyphonic synthesizer parts. With his work on this track, Iyer and Das Racist create one of the truest unions of the hip hop and jazz worlds in recent memory.
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Brad Mehldau, similarly, is not afraid to combine hip hop and jazz, but rather than incorporate jazz ideas into rap songs, he instead adds rhythms from hip hop into his jazz compositions. This evident on his 2010 genre-bending Highway Rider album, produced by Jon Brion, featuring his trio of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, as well as additional percussionist Matt Chamberlain, saxophonist Joshua Redman, and a full orchestra conducted by Dan Coleman. The title track stands out for featuring a stuttering drumbeat, reminiscent of hip hop producers like Timbaland, and the timbre of a vintage Yamaha synthesizer. This album also features the influence of some Western classical music. Notably, the song “Now You Must Climb Alone,” which is performed by the string orchestra only, emulates some Hollywood scoring techniques, creating a cinematic effect. (Because Brion has experience composing scores for Hollywood films, this perhaps may be attributed to his influence, but Mehldau is credited as the sole composer on the album.) “Now You Must Climb Alone” melts into “Walking the Peak,” which adds more instruments, including piano, drums, and reeds, while continuing with the same themes and building the dramatic effect, before breaking into a solo piano section in a style that falls somewhere between the world of modern classical and traditional jazz. In addition to showing a diverse range of influences, Mehldau embraces pop music by dedicating the song “Sky Turning Grey” from Highway Rider to singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. Mehldau also views the jazz canon as mutable; while his albums generally feature his compositions, he does play standards live as well as pop and rock hits like Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a Film),” Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” And, finally, Mehldau’s vision of music free of borders is proved by his frequent appearance with pop star/blues guitarist John Mayer.
Perhaps one of the places Mehldau bred his non-canonic view of jazz was through Fred Hersch, who has been an active part of the New York jazz scene since 1977. “Mehldau…is a former student of Hersch,” reports Hajdu in the same article quoted in my first paragraph. Hersch combines jazz and classical musics in his own beautiful creations. This can be heard in his deeply emotive 2011 live release Alone at the Vanguard, which features compositions dedicated to both Lee Konitz and Robert Schumann. “Pastorale” (the piece dedicated to Schumann) is played completely straight in a classical manner and features some wonderfully personal playing, showing Hersch’s disregard for restrictions on what is or isn’t jazz in 2011. And when he chooses to show it, it’s clear that Hersch has studied the work of Thelonious Monk and the other bebop greats.
Another former student of Hersch’s is pianist Ethan Iverson, most famous for his work with the trio The Bad Plus, rounded out by bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King. A simple look at the tracklist and composers on their 2009 album For All I Care (featuring vocals Wendy Lewis) shows how diverse the influences of the Bad Plus can be. Their rhythmically irregular version of Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium” starts the album out showing that the band is primarily concerned with presenting exciting, interesting takes on the selected pieces, not on what genre music will be filed under. Later on, they place “Semi-Simple Variations” from the contemporary, recently deceased, serial composer Milton Babbitt between “Long Distance Relationship,” made famous by Yes, and “How Deep Is Your Love,” by the Bee Gees. And that they make the twelve-tone composition “Semi-Simple Variations” into a funky, danceable number with remarkable faithfulness to the original score is no small feat.
Rhythms that facilitate dancing are no stranger to Jason Moran as well. In 2010 he released Ten, a collection of songs celebrating the ten years he has been working with his band, the Bandwagon. Ten features a song titled “Gangsterism Over Ten Years,” a part of a long series of Jason Moran songs with titles relating to “Gangsterism,” and this tune features some lively drum and bass work from drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen that makes the listener move. The album includes a wonderful take on Monk’s “Crepuscule for Nellie,” showing their knowledge of the jazz canon and tradition, while also their comfort with making something old new again. Another highlight of the album is an amazing jazz composition centered on a sample of feedback from Jimi Hendrix’s performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, “Feedback Pt. 2,” commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival. The band incorporates this feedback into an exciting, beautiful free time, nearly atonal composition. The album also features two unique interpretations of 20th Century classical American composer Conlon Nancarrow’s “Study No. 6,” both of which are fresh, exciting, inventive performances on the same thematic material.
And finally, I’ll take some time for Marco Benevento, most famous for the Benevento Russo Duo, (with drummer Joe Russo) and John Medeski, famous for the acid jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood (with drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood) and for the blues/gospel group The Word, (with steel guitar great Robert Randolph, guitarist Luther Dickinson, drummer Cody Dickerson, and bassist Chris Chew). While both Benevento and Medeski are amazing jazz pianists with impressive chops and knowledge of the jazz tradition, they have no hesitation to explore new sounds and even perform with pop and rock musicians. They both have shared the stage with Trey Anastacio (of Phish) on multiple tours. Their quests for new kinds of sounds are not limited to working with other styles; they both also indulge in creating new kinds of keyboard sounds. Medeski is most famous for his work on the Hammond B3 organ, but he is also known to play the mellotron, melodica, various synthesizers and other keyboards. Benevento is known for playing piano (both standard and prepared), synthesizers, electronic pianos, organs, and children’s toys (which he employs using circuit bending). Like Mehldau and Iverson, both of these players also work in groups and solo settings playing a wide variety of covers as well as their own compositions.
People may argue that these last two players do not qualify as jazz performers. These arguments may stem from their sharing the stage with pop performers, or their experimental techniques, or even from the wide popularity their own groups have. And this is the kind of thinking that perpetuates the jazz is dead myth. If no popular artist can be a jazz musician, then jazz is by definition to be un-popular, which – hopefully – no jazz critic or true jazz fan wants. And jazz must be open to these outside influences to continue to evolve. Ever since it emerged in New Orleans out of the diverse traditions of the blues, ragtime, and marching bands, jazz has been out discovery, innovation, and embracing varied influences.