September 2008 By Nate Chinen
For the ambitious jazz listener in New York City, a kind of haze descends around the second week of June. With the JVC Jazz Festival just stirring and the Vision Festival gathering steam, concertgoers can gravitate to the aesthetic extreme of their choice. But that’s only the half of it: In a season of overbooking, the clubs also grow delirious with promise. So what was striking about this past June, for me, had less to do with the abundance of options—though the upstart New Languages Festival, in its fourth season, did compound that issue—than with one common ideal among them. Uptown and downtown, on stages great and small, I kept considering the social legacy of jazz innovation. Wherever I turned, there was fodder for the argument that visionaries need company—they don’t come out of nowhere, whatever their press clippings say.
Of course this isn’t a novel idea. Jazz has always been a communal art, despite the emphasis on solo feats and the timeless imperative to find one’s own voice. Ralph Ellison once famously described it as “an art of individual assertion within and against the group,” exposing both the balance and the tensions of such an arrangement. Consult some of the more conscientious histories of the music, like Scott DeVeaux’s The Birth of Bebop (Univ. of Calif.) or George Lewis’ A Power Stronger Than Itself (Univ. of Chicago), and you’ll encounter a record of communal innovation, punctuated by the errant flash of genius. It’s much the same today, though collectivity may be an even bigger deal now, if bandstand evidence can be trusted to tell the tale.
Consider the case of guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, who appeared in two different settings this festival season. Now well into his 30s, he emerged just over a decade ago as one of the postbop progressives who congregated at Smalls, the Minton’s Playhouse of the Clinton era. Barring the specter of guitar-geek fetishism, there’s no way to isolate his talent from its context, or from a peer group that found footing together. So it was instructive to hear Rosenwinkel at the Village Vanguard with the Brian Blade Fellowship, which originally coalesced at Smalls, and then, one week later, on a JVC bill with the Bad Plus, whose members could be described as fellow travelers. On both gigs he was lucid and inspired, drawing tangible energy from the relationships onstage.
If musical bonds forged a decade ago can yield such potent dividends, one has to wonder what the scene will produce a dozen years from now. Another recent JVC concert featured ensembles led by bassist Esperanza Spalding and multireedist Anat Cohen, two of the lauded under-30 visionaries profiled elsewhere in this issue. Spalding and Cohen are prodigiously gifted musicians who don’t just happen to move in creative social circles; their artistry has largely developed there. (Cohen’s band featured two of her brothers along with pianist Jason Lindner, another Smalls alumnus.) A similar dynamic was evident during portions of this year’s Vision Festival, as when cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum led a sextet that included guitarist Mary Halvorson and violist Jessica Pavone, two fearless young improvisers whose names turn up often on the avant-garde grid.
It’s no coincidence that I spotted Halvorson and Pavone in the audience at the New Languages Festival one night, during a set by alto saxophonist Jackson Moore. Running concurrently with the Vision Festival and situated just a couple of blocks away, New Languages celebrated an in-between aesthetic, somewhere along the expanse between flat-out experimentalism and polished presentation. Moore, one of the event’s organizers, was weaving long, serpentine melodic strands over a rhythmic current stirred by bassist Eivind Opsvik and drummer Eric McPherson. Among the other artists gathered under the festival’s umbrella were tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, leading a dynamic trio with Matt Brewer on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums, and guitarist Miles Okazaki, whose capable band included alto saxophonist David Binney and bassist Hans Glawischnig. If you’ve dug anywhere past the topsoil of the New York club landscape, you’ve probably seen some of these figures working hard in one of myriad possible combinations.
What differentiates that situation from the club circuit immemorial? Logistics, for one thing. Over the last five years or so, an increasing proportion of the smaller clubs in New York have moved toward an artist-curator model, in which the musicians book the schedules. The Stone, following the blueprint originally laid for Tonic, entrusts a different overseer each month. Barbès, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, has enlisted a few different resident programmers for its Wednesday night series. Elsewhere in Brooklyn there are semi-regular events organized by keyboardist James Carney and guitarist Mike Gamble, and a few group efforts like the Douglass Street Music Collective and the Brooklyn Jazz Underground. It doesn’t take a degree in music business to grasp that artist involvement in programming will have some effect on the social dynamics of the art. That proved true during the lofty New York of the 1970s, as it had in Chicago a few years earlier. These days, for better or worse, community is once again a prevailing focus.
That realization was close at hand one Wednesday during the height of festival madness, as I scrutinized the calendar. At Barbès, there would be a rare stand by Bloodcount, an influential avant-garde quartet; at the Stone, there would be a set by Fieldwork, an advanced cooperative trio. Over at Joe’s Pub, violinist Jenny Scheinman was exploring new vocal terrain with a trusted partner, Tony Scherr. And in Williamsburg a handful of kindred spirits—including bassist Ben Allison, formerly of the Jazz Composers Collective—were presiding over an evening pointedly titled “This Is Our Music.” This was just scratching the surface, but it all gestured toward the interconnectedness of the scene.
So too did my actual plans that evening, which involved several hours of stalwart performance by the august New Orleans tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan. Appearing at the Vision Festival, he played with dozens of musicians, some of them a good deal younger. But he did his strongest work alongside his fellow tenor saxophonist and longtime veteran Fred Anderson. Pushing and provoking each other, they produced something fiercely vital: proof, as if any were needed, that visionaries can be receptive and productive at any stage, especially in the company of their peers.
Originally published in September 2008