It’s been an interesting year for jazz. Since last summer, we’ve seen a scorching John Coltrane concert unearthed, a four-CD Miles Davis box set and Pharaoh Sanders has continued to tour into his mid-70s.
As interesting as all those are, it’s hard not to notice how old jazz seems. This is a genre which hasn’t been commercially popular in decades and is populated by old men, right? It’s stale, formulaic and something of a museum piece, right? In other words, is there room in 2015 for jazz?
I think so. Just this year alone, four records have shown the different ways jazz can be relevant, or at least continue to find an audience.
Take Kendrick Lamar’s smash LP To Pimp A Butterfly: His record features several big names in contemporary jazz (Kamasi Washington, for example). On top of that, new releases by musicians like James Brandon Lewis and The Workshop show the diverging paths jazz continues to make as it pushes forward or stands still. Together, it’s all showing that while jazz isn’t thriving commercially in 2015, it’s still a genre worth checking in on.
But since it’s arguably the biggest example of how jazz is staying relevant in 2015, let’s start with Lamar’s record, To Pimp A Butterfly. Although the jazz influence on this record has been a tad overstated – don’t call it a comeback! – it’s worth exploring a bit.
Here, the several saxophonists on the record play an important role in its distinct sound. The standout single “Alright” is built around a Pharrell vocal sample, trap drums and Lamar’s flow, but Terrance Martin’s alto saxophone honks away in the background, a counterpoint to Lamar’s rasp that takes some of the edge off his delivery while adding colour.
There are other places, too. The electric piano and bass playing on “For Sale,” sure, but especially on “For Free?,” where you’d be forgiven for thinking Lamar was rapping over some forgotten record from 1965, not something recorded nearly 50 years later.
If that lone tidbit excited you, maybe you’ll dig the latest by The Workshop, a group of French musicians. Their latest release on Onze Heures Onze is Conversations With the Drum, an interesting sample of straight-ahead jazz. There wasn’t any information included on my copy and there aren’t many details in English, which makes sense for something released on a tiny French label.
The album’s fairly traditional – don’t expect a 70s Miles freakout or anything – but it kind of sets the groundwork for what people expect a jazz record to sound like. It has a foot firmly in the bop/hard bop camp and sounds like it’s ignoring everything that came after Milestones.
The music isn’t especially exciting or fresh, even if it’s well played, and the whole thing kind of sounds like a tribute act to late 50s, early 60s jazz. It is what it is: a souvenir shop lithograph of a painting by master. It’s nice to have around, but it’s not as interesting as the real thing.
For that, look to one of the major players on To Pimp A Butterfly: saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington . His sprawling, 173-minute jazz set The Epic was released by Brainfeeder Records earlier this year. As it was reviewed by Michael White last spring, I’ll keep my notes brief.
The Epic is fascinating, powerful stuff, packed with strings and musicians who are consciously pushing at their boundaries. It occasionally brings to mind albums like Miled Davis’ E.S.P. or Lee Morgan’s Cornbread, but largely, it stands on it’s own, exciting merits. It’s an ambitious record that demands a lot from listeners, but rewards those willing to give it some time and energy.
Finally, to bring it all full circle, one of the year’s more interesting jazz records claims hip-hop as it’s primary influence. James Brandon Lewis is a saxophonist who’s played with Karl Berger, Charles Gaye and others. His newest record, Days of Freeman, is something of a concept record, with four distinct suites. They’re connected with monologues and references to gospel (“free at last,” chants a narrator), but Lewis suggests his biggest influence is 90s hip-hop.
The playing goes from contemporary jazz to fast-paced, Coltrane-esque freakouts to slow balladry. Throughout, his saxophone playing is tasteful: it never comes across like he’s noodling aimlessly or trying to show off his chops. He compares his phrasing to a MC working over a beat, a comparison I can see, although it’s not especially unique; St. Vincent has said similar things about her guitar playing in interviews. At times it’s good if unremarkable, but at others it’s attention-grabbing, particularly when he lets rip.
On Days of FreeMan, everything comes together best on “Black Ark” and “Bird of Folk Cries,” two long jams where he lets his playing stretch out and his band – bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer Rudy Royson – work up a frenzy. The sludgy “Lament for J Lew” also has some nice moments, his band building up a rock-influenced the tension as Lewis plays lead. And the hip-hop element is especially notable on songs “Able Souls Dig Planets,” a sly nod to Butterfly, Doodlebug and Ladybug. Sure, it’s not as powerful as The Epic, but it’s a lot more accessible and a shorter listen to boot.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.