Pump Up the Jamz

On one level it wasn’t an unusual scene: Nicholas Payton and James Carter carving up rhythm changes on trumpet and tenor saxophone, respectively. Beside them: the indubitable bassist Christian McBride and the irrepressible drummer Roy Haynes. Boppish head, medium-bright clip. Snap, crackle. Crescendo. Applause.

But this wasn’t a marquee booking at Birdland, or an all-star festival special. The musicians were at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden, appearing by invitation at the seventh annual Jammy Awards. Their liaison, Page McConnell, formerly of the jam-band Phish, was at the piano and technically at the helm. For many of the several thousand fans gathered in the name of the Jam, the tune was familiar as “Magilla,” a McConnell composition from A Picture of Nectar, Phish’s 1992 major-label debut.

If you’ve paid even the slightest attention to this scene over the last decade or so, you probably aren’t surprised by the jazz-friendly overtures. While still clearly rooted in the loose-limbed guitar-rock paradigm of Jerry Garcia and Duane Allman, among others, the jam-band realm has proven a hospitable environment for improvisers of all sorts. And whereas the overlap was something of a novelty as recently as the early ’90s—A Picture of Nectar grabbed some notice for its inclusion of “Manteca,” the Dizzy Gillespie tune—recent developments have deepened the cross-genre rapport. What’s more, that dialogue has subtly altered the language itself, mongrelizing the syntax of jazz and jam alike.

Consider the talent assembled for that Jammys interlude: Notwithstanding the venerable Haynes, each member of the band has at some point made the shift from hard-bop wunderkind to new-millennial fusioneer. The Christian McBride Band, with its wah-wah synthesizers, is a more intuitive fit for the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival than the Village Vanguard. As for Carter, there was a recent spell when you were more likely to hear him playing Harmolodic funk than bop or swing. And Payton, once widely heralded as an inheritor to Louis Armstrong, swerved hard in another direction five years ago with his project Sonic Trance, and a Warner Bros. studio album of the same name.

It doesn’t take much skepticism to suspect an ulterior motive for these putative digressions. Any reader of this magazine is already numbingly aware of the tenuous market foothold held by instrumental jazz today. It stands to reason that Jam Nation, though a far cry from the glossy pop mainstream, can propose a more attractive and viable option than the ever-feebler jazz constituency. As I recall, guitarist John Scofield was initially taken aback by the size of the crowds that greeted him on tour a decade ago, after he made his first collaborative album with Medeski, Martin & Wood. And Return to Forever, the landmark 1970s jazz-rock band that recently reunited with much ado, mounted its comeback with keen awareness of the jam-band circuit. “They were the beneficiaries of what we had done,” drummer Lenny White said of Jam Nation, during a break in rehearsals in Austin.

I reconsidered the jazz-jam exchange—can we agree to call it “jamz,” just for the remainder of this column?—during this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, one of the prime settings for overlap. Operating at full capacity for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, JazzFest offered a dizzying preponderance of jazz-sans-groove, often at unexpected moments: During Santana’s often-explosive headlining performance, for instance, I counted at least two long extrapolations of themes by John Coltrane. More predictable, perhaps, were the late-night offerings all over the city, featuring the likes of trumpeter Christian Scott, guitarist Eric Krasno and organist Robert Walter. One of the highlights of my JazzFest weekend was a 3 a.m. show at Preservation Hall featuring a soul-jazz trio led by drummer Stanton Moore, with Trombone Shorty as a special guest.

Another night at Snug Harbor, the brightest gem among New Orleans jazz clubs, I left a sparkling late set by pianist Ellis Marsalis only to bump into saxophonist John Ellis, who was booked to play an even later set with his new band Double-Wide. By my tally, Ellis (John Ellis, that is) had been playing several gigs a night during JazzFest weekend; par for the course, he said. One such gig was a showcase for Hyena Records, which has lately specialized in jamz like Marco Benevento’s audacious Invisible Baby and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey’s electro-spective Lil Tae Rides Again. The recent Hyena release by Ellis and Double-Wide, Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow, strikes a solid middle ground between gutbucket funk, serpentine postbop and buoyant New Orleans parade music.

One striking thing about jamz albums like these is the advanced evolution they handily suggest. An artist like Benevento, the keyboardist who rocketed onto Jam Nation radar screens with his madly propulsive Benevento-Russo Duo, doesn’t appear out of place in a more jazz-derived setting. On his sprawling 2007 release Live at Tonic (Ropeadope), he covers Benny Goodman and Thelonious Monk right along with Pink Floyd. He also plays a Brad Mehldau tune, though it should be noted that the tune is named “Sabbath,” after the heavy metal band Black Sabbath.

Without empirical data, I’d hazard a guess that there are many citizens of Jam Nation—folks who track live shows on JamBase.com and skim the occasional issue of Relix—who are no less familiar with Mehldau than they are with, say, the String Cheese Incident. Their views on music are passionate and often well considered, even if they lack the historical perspective evinced by hardcore jazzbos. They were the ones giving Roy Haynes a hero’s welcome at the Jammy Awards.

Incidentally, on the morning after those festivities, it was announced that the Jammys were no more, and not for lack of success, creative or otherwise. “In the spirit of the event, we’re going to figure it out as we go,” its executive producer, Peter Shapiro, told me. “A lot of people would say, ‘Why switch now?’ We think it’s the perfect time to make an improvisational move and go for the new thing.” Without getting into specifics, he vowed that this new thing would more broadly celebrate the spirit of live music, naturally including jazz.

Considering the current state of jamz, a term I promise to henceforth relinquish, my thoughts return to Payton, who recently released his first album for Nonesuch. Into the Blue, featuring a working postbop quintet, feels immeasurably more relaxed than Sonic Trance, and truer to Payton’s personality. It grooves, at times explicitly, but without the sense of someone trying to get a point across. Maybe it’s no longer necessary for a brilliant, tradition-honed jazz musician to get defensive or obvious when it comes to enlisting a serious backbeat. And maybe that’s simply a good thing.

Originally published in August 2008

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