Does jazz complain too much? It seems every time I open emails from jazz institutions, they are pleading skin and bones or griping about how little attention is being paid to jazz today. Other jazz advocates are quick to express disdain for arts organizations that don't hand out enough funding to jazz. Or they infer that today's music buyers are lazy and dumb. Eventually, this grousing gets around to trashing rock and pop, blaming them for jazz's slipping popularity and hard times.
But is this steady drumbeat of negativity inadvertently poisoning jazz artists' own view of audiences and stunting the music's ability to stay current? I often wonder whether jazz's inability to attract large audiences isn't partly a problem of its own making. And perhaps it's time for musicians to evaluate their introverted stage style, their allergy to entertaining audiences and general self-centeredness.
Mind you, I'm not advocating that musicians sell-out or tap dance. But couldn't jazz musicians make more of an effort to entice the uninitiated with dynamic and exciting music that actually touches people? Again, I'm not saying that jazz should become something else. But why does so much of it require heavy listening by audiences that just want a thrill?
I was at a rock concert several weeks ago. It was a sold-out event. The opening act was a big-name jazz trio that barely touched anyone emotionally based on the applause. All of the songs performed were rambling originals that were flat, painfully dull and unemotionally performed. When I went out into the lobby, I was surprised to find it packed with chatting people holding drinks who obviously didn't want to take their seats until the main act came on.
So, on stage was a jazz group that had a great shot at winning over thousands of new fans. But instead of thinking about its song list in advance and blowing material that might excite the rather hip crowd—perhaps a jazz version of an Amy Winehouse song, a soul hit or a swinging standard?—the stuff being performed was a bore. The jazz-smart person I was with turned to me at one point and said, "This is why people hate jazz." The remark sounded harsh but it was hard to disagree.
If I could wave a magic wand, I'd make everyone take a course in jazz. Jazz is important music because it awakens your soul, unleashes your inner-improviser, and you wind up thinking about art and possibilities. But I'd also wave the wand again, wishing that jazz would meet the uninitiated halfway.
It's unrealistic today to expect audiences to travel the entire distance to the art form. Shouldn't jazz musicians at least make an effort to excite audiences? You know, bring them in? Make them stand and scream? From my seat, it seemed that the musicians on stage couldn't care less. Another instance of jazz moving around like one of those bulls in Spain with six swords stuck in its side. [Pictured: Lionel Hampton]
Borrah Minevitch. I'm not advocating that jazz artists do this to bring in crowds at rock concerts...
CD discoveries of the week. Want to blow away friends who think they know their soul? Play them Darondo's Listen to My Song: The Music City Sessions (Omnivore). Chances are those friends have never heard of Darondo (pronounced dar-ON-dough). Darondo was the stage name of William Pulliam, a soul-funk singer-guitarist from San Francisco who recorded in the '70s. This collection was captured at Ray Dobard's Music City Records in Oakland in 1973 and '74. Darondo sounded like Al Green, but with more of a Northern California funky metallic backdrop. It's solid all the way through. You'll find this one at iTunes and here.
Rahsaan Barber's Everyday Magic (Jazz Music City) is straight-ahead late-'60s jazz with contemporary touches. A deft saxophonist and flutist, Barber runs with his ideas but remains mindful of the listener. There's a lot of Wayne Shorter in Barber—his meaty sound and moaning mood. You also hear the haunting influence of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen on these originals. Dig Why So Blue? and Redemption. A beautiful spirit that will touch you. It did me. You'll find this one at iTunes and here.
The Dave Shank Quintet's Soundproof (Rhombus) also has '60s instincts but has a more gentle approach. Vibist Shank leads a group through originals that remind the listener of Bobby Hutcherson. The group never leans back and always feels as though they are taking risks and stretching for new ideas, floating in and out of modal concepts. Dig the bright energy on Soundproof, Fair or Foul and At Ease. Joining Shank are Barry Miles (piano), Terry Silverlight (drums), John Patitucci (bass) and Mike Migliore (saxophone). You'll find this one at iTunes and here.
Paul Kissaun's Rude Gospel is an unusual Brit-pop album. Restless and eclectic, the singer has created a tapestry of earlier sounds and modern vocals with a dozen original songs. For example, Birthday Boy is a doo wop-soul tribute while Every Little Helps and Coffee Jar are jump boogies. One More Time is a jazz ballad. Art Rich is Elvis Costello meets Chicago. And there's a strong David Bowie flavor throughout. In fact, Bowie Bowie Bowie, my favorite, is superb. You'll find this one at iTunes or here.
Oddball album cover of the week. A great photo of the Mick. But it's hard to imagine what the Yankee slugger would be doing in the recording studio. And actually he wasn't. This shameless baseball bait and switch hitter merely features Mantle's "favorite" pop songs Recorded in 1958, the RCA album includes liner notes by Mantle (or so we're told) and songs by old RCA bands, including Hal Kemp. Two years into the rock era and Mantle is writing about how much he loves music from the '30s and '40s. A left-field pop outing.