Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jazz Today and Tomorrow

The Artists Speak Up

By David Luhrssen
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Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense (out on DVD) is an argument over the meaning and future of jazz. According to some of the musicians interviewed for this fascinating documentary, the word jazz is a limitation, a narrow categorization blocking rather than illuminating our understanding. Others disagree.

Directed by Michael Rivoira, Lars Larson and Peter J. Vogt, Icons Among Us gathers performances by Medeski Martin and Wood, Ravi Coltrane, Avishai Cohen, Bill Frisell, Wynton Marsalis and a dozen others. The music represents the sonic spectrum from panic attack scraping with a bow on a bass through emulations of 1950s cool. The conversation ranges just as widely.

It would be interesting to assemble the various musicians and critics separately interviewed for the film onto a panel where they could rage for hours with each other face to face, yet their arguments ring out loudly nevertheless. Some see the future of jazz in the pallid, cerebral sounds coming from Europe, while an African American player insists that “jazz is based on blues and church and emotion and spirit”—all the things lacked by the Eurojazz and many American musicians who learned the notes but not the heritage. Some see jazz as an ongoing sonic revolution while others argue that music without roots will whither and die. Some think jazz is whatever anyone wants it to be while others call such a definition meaningless.

The challenge facing everyone in Icons Among Us comes from the music’s increasing disconnection from popular culture. Jazz accounts for three percent of music sales and half of that belongs to a select few artists. As one critic points out, jazz in the ‘50s and ‘60s represented black cultural and social achievement and bohemian cool for all comers. Nowadays it sounds like self-expression for individuals with small audiences, at best an alternative in a society where alternative has become the worn-out buzzword of ad agencies. “If you say jazz,” he says, “you don’t have anything obvious in the present culture to connect it with.”

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