Monday, August 15, 2016

Playing Outside the Box

“Jazz isn’t dead,’’ Frank Zappa once said, “it just smells funny.” If he were around today, Zappa might point to the music of a London-based trio, The Comet Is Coming, with its curious scent. At the Montreal International Jazz Festival earlier this month, the fiery saxophone of Shabaka Hutchings, Dan Leavers’s pulsating synthesiser and Maxwell Hallett’s arresting percussion dazzled an audience with its mash-up of jazz and cosmic sounds. Halfway through the show, some entranced listeners rose from their seats and danced to a tune perfect for a rave. The trio calls its music “apocalyptic space funk”. More important, Mr Leavers adds, is the group’s goal: like a comet it “travels through distant galaxies exploring musical concepts”.

Jazz is evolving with the help of a new breed of musicians who are creating an innovative sound that challenges convention and defies categorisation. After originating from the streets and clubs of New Orleans in the late 1800s, the art form produced subgenres such as Dixieland, Afro-Cuban jazz, swing and bebop. Along the way, some purists scolded experimenters for straying from well-established categories. But rebels have always emerged to create new strains of improvised music.

Today’s nonconformists and mavericks, though well grounded in jazz’s history and repertoire, also incorporate elements of hip-hop, rock or classical music into their works. YouTube and streaming services such as Spotify can often wield more influence than radio in shaping a musician’s exposure to music. Original and unique voices now abound. Vijay Iyer, a pianist and composer who was DownBeat magazine’s top jazz artist of 2012, 2015 and 2016, shines in acoustic jazz settings but also excels at electronic music and collaborates with string quartets, film-makers and poets. Makaya McCraven, an experimental Chicago-based drummer, makes some recordings by stitching together pieces of past live performances. Snarky Puppy, a quirky Grammy award-winning instrumental ensemble, incorporates funk and electronica into the jazz in its music.

While New York and New Orleans remain established centres for jazz, new voices can emerge from just about anywhere. Maurin Auxéméry, a programmer for the Montreal festival, says that London has emerged as a hotbed for edgy jazz artists such as The Comet Is Coming. ADHD, a band from Iceland, found fans in faraway places by weaving rock influences into its compositions featuring saxophone, organ and guitar. Tokyo Chutei Iki from Japan created a buzz beyond Asia with its restless ten-person (or sometimes more) baritone saxophone-only group. Some occasionally wander into the audience while playing.

Other jazz musicians such as Michael League, the bandleader of Snarky Puppy, and Robert Glasper, a pianist, believe that the current movement is giving jazz a shot in the arm. “If you don’t want jazz to change, you are putting a pillow over its face, and it’s going to die,” says Mr Glasper, whose acclaimed recording, “Black Radio” became a marker for its genre-defying blend of jazz, rhythm-and-blues and rock. (...)

Meanwhile, some music experts wonder if jazz can survive: it represents only about 1.2% of recorded and streamed albums sold (compared with the 26.8% for rock and 22.6% for hip-hop and rhythm and blues combined), according to the 2016 Nielsen Music US Mid-Year Report. Yet audience exposure for jazz artists may be a better measure of its staying power.

by The Economist |  Read more:
Image: The Comet Is Coming/YouTube. See also: Snarky Puppy