I'm often asked where I think jazz is headed and which jazz musicians are pushing the envelope without boring the listener. My answer to the first question is, "I don't know." Until jazz artists start integrating the language of today's diverse music buyers, and jazz fans allow the music to move beyond lighthouse status, the art form may simply languish as live performances of what we've already heard on recordings—only not as good. My answer to the second questions is easier. One exciting new artist who is trying new things is Joe Blessett.
As his new Chillin out in Dark Places shows, Blessett isn't afraid of blending music genres together for sophisticated results or recording what he hears in his head, sidestepping jazz tradition and convention. His new album squeezes soul, gospel, jazz and electronica into a tight space while retaining clarity and cohesion.
In this regard, Chillin out in Dark Places is the jazz equivalent of a lava lamp. I found my ears listening to the music the same way my eyes linger on a lamp's colorful globs drifting upward and downward in slow motion, breaking apart and reshaping to resume the process. This isn't jazz as you know it but an amalgam of influences resulting in a new, busier jazz sound.
What's most remarkable about Blessett is that he plays all of the instruments on the album. That includes the saxophone, six-string guitar, keyboards and bass. He's something of a computer whiz as well, sequencing the sounds of instruments and creating dubs to interact playfully with the acoustic music. He also engineered the session, composed all of the songs and produced.
On Better Days, for example, you hear a Hammond organ, two Fender Rhodes pianos and an alto saxophone supported by a slow steady beat and synthesized strings. On Slayers and Players, there's a piano backed by a saxophone and synthesized banjo sequences plus a big, thick bass.
Some might argue that the music is merely trendy shopping music taken to a new level or smooth jazz with radials. I don't think so. I think that summation sells Blessett short. There's a vision here, a concept, and he brings it together with polish and plenty of surprises.
According to Blessett's press release,
"I create music for my listening pleasure, in a private studio with the help of some great software and a little imagination. Creating my own life's sound track, translating what I see to what I hear. I am a private person who does not feel at home being the center of attention. With that being said, I have no plans to perform live in the immediate future. Maybe one day, but not today."
Again, this isn't jazz the way we know it. And Blessett is a little mysterious (I couldn't find a single picture of him). But it is where jazz needs to be headed. Experimental and risky without stultifying the listener. I'm not sure how many more dollars jazz musicians can expect to take in by cranking out the same stuff over and over again. Blessett is firmly a jazz head whose ears are open and head is wrapped around technology, bringing them into the jazz fold rather than selling out. Works for me.
JazzWax tracks: Joe Blessett's Chillin out in Dark Places can be found at iTunes or here.
JazzWax note: For more on Joe Blessett and his world, go here.
Wall Street Journal alert! Pick up a copy of today's Wall Street Journal for my chat with former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, who now fronts the Rhythm Kings in the U.K. If you're a subscriber, go here.