December 2003 By Christopher Porter
In this month’s cover story, Lara Pellegrinelli surveys the movers and shakers among the jazz labels to investigate and explain a trend we already knew was happening: singers are the bread and butter for record companies.
Meanwhile, instrumentalists are more like the desserts. Appealing, sure; important for the experience of having a well-rounded meal, yes. But will a mere piano-trio CD fill up an average consumer like a pretty faced singer posed delicately on a bed of strings? Apparently not, based on sales.
You instrumental jazz connoisseurs—the ones who think outtakes should be placed in the proper recording sequence when a CD is reissued, the ones who own every Steve Lacy record (and have built a climate controlled addition to house them), those who are up to date on Japanese-only SACD reissues of minor Blue Note albums—might scoff at the industry’s turn toward the vocal.
But at the major labels, and even at the bigger indies, it’s the success of singers that is funding the records of those instrumentalists that we love and cherish but who sell, sorry to say, relatively squat—well, the few instrumentalists who remain at those bigger labels, that is. Record companies have been cutting back on musicians who don’t sing with all the zest of an Atkins dieter dropping carbs.
A person can’t live on eggs, bacon and bunless burgers alone, however.
A place like Blue Note, because of its success with Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves can afford to carry critical darlings like Jason Moran, Greg Osby and Joe Lovano—known as immense talents to all those few thousand of you who own their CDs.
Some of you might bemoan these jazz labels’ reliance on singers to put food on the plate and think there’s some sort of conspiracy involved; we recognize it as reality and don’t begrudge these bigger labels’ evolution toward financial liquidity. It’s a different world in the record business now, and these changes reflect that. And as ever, it will be up to the scrappy independents to document the instrumentalists out there who are reinventing and reinvigorating instrumental jazz.
One of those instrumental artists who still records for a major and who still lights a fire under everything he plays is James Carter. Nate Chinen provides a definitive account of where the stunning Motor City bad boy is at these days musically: a more mature place, perhaps, but one no less fiery.
Another amazing instrumentalist also happens to be a remarkable writer: Brad Mehldau weighs in with a brilliant essay on the aesthetic wars that have continually (and divisively) raged throughout the jazz world ever since swing upstaged hot jazz, bop upended swing and the 1980s neocons decided that pretty much anything recorded after 1965 was worthless.
There’s plenty more, too, for this is one filling issue. Belly up to the table and enjoy.
Originally published in December 2003