One of the most frustrating dogmas jazz harbors today is an almost hopeless longing for the past. The industry and community don’t want to even entertain the idea that another comet of a player—the kind worthy of a keen nickname—could forever alter the music’s route. Why not? Well, anything jazz had resembling a star-making machine is now moot: blame scant attention from the mainstream media; the few remaining labels and their willingness to reissue and crack vaults rather than fund artistic growth; losing hopefuls to rock, rap and pop; or the Internet, which has all but imploded the monoculture that made icons possible. (There’s another theory that says today’s up-and-comers aren’t any good, though that one isn’t worth your time.)
The seven artists chosen here, all in their 20s or early 30s, offer much promise in disparate ways. They’re inarguably capable as players, but they also give forth a marketable charisma and the potential to promote real innovation. If anyone is to start jazz’s next slight revolution, these seven musicians are among the brightest candidates—the kind of players whose songs will spruce up the layman’s rock ’n’ roll iTunes collection and help fund the jazz economy in total.
It’s a mingled group: Esperanza Spalding is working smartly and steadily to give pop-jazz a good name; Christian Scott is the architect of a new commercially viable fusion and one of jazz’s young style gods; the pianist Aaron Parks applies rigorous postbop chops to compositions of pop concision; the Israeli reedist Anat Cohen represents the music’s fully globalized state, and her quickly rising profile exhibits precocious business acumen. Without applauding too heavily and jinxing anyone, we urge you to peruse the section, buy some music, and follow the ebbs and flows of these artists’ careers. We certainly will.
(by Evan Haga)
Esperanza Spalding: Bop-Trained Beyoncé?
When was the last time you saw a jazz artist under the age of 25 make showcase appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel Live! within a week of each other?
Never? Or, at least, not in a very long time?
Wrong. It happened in early June, when 23-year-old bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding and her trio performed on both those popular late-night shows. And there was more. Add an appearance on NPR’s All Things Considered, a number one hit on the Amazon.com jazz bestsellers list for her U.S. debut, Esperanza (Heads Up), and featured spots on iTunes’ jazz homepage, and it was pretty obvious that the Spalding promotional express was in high gear, effectively propelling her widespread media identification as one of the hottest new jazz stars.
How did Spalding, a Portland, Oregon-born, Berklee-trained talent, who was virtually unknown to the wider jazz audience months ago, become the most visible, rapidly rising jazz artist in years?
Any salesman will tell you that you’re only as effective as the product you have to sell, and a quick glance at Spalding, whether it’s in person, on her Web site (esperanzaspalding.com), or in one of her YouTube spots, affirms that she has the visual, aural and dynamic aspects of performance well in place. Slender and graceful, with luminous brown eyes and a turbulent halo of black hair, garbed in her own unique assemblage of thrift-store chic, she has the look of a sexy young pop star. When she plays the bass, her deeply grooving lines and colorful harmonic choices are the stuff of a rapidly maturing, first-rate jazz artist. And when she adds her arching, blues- and gospel-inflected vocals to her bass, combining all the elements with remarkable synchronicity, she radiates the charismatic qualities of a born communicator.
By any measure, it’s an extraordinary combination. And the question facing Dave Love, president of the Heads Up International label, was how to manage and develop all this far-reaching potential.
“The first time I heard her,” explains Love, “it was obvious that she had remarkable talent, without a doubt. But before we signed a deal we spent a day together, then an evening together, with her manager, here in Cleveland, just talking about life and music and where did she see herself going, and could we put together something that would maximize her talent and be beneficial to both of us?”
Heads Up has been a solid artist-support company over the years, managing effective individual promotion plans for artists as diverse as Yellowjackets, Stanley Clarke, Joe Zawinul and Najee. Spalding’s potential clearly called for similar, perhaps even more far-reaching, consideration.
“It took a lot of work,” says Love. “We started with our own marketing staff. Then we brought in Jim Walsh from [music publicity agency] Big Hassle to work with [Heads Up publicist] Mike Wilpizeski on print and mainstream media. We hired Spectre Promotion to do alternative college radio and triple-A non-commercial radio. We knew that there was already a buzz in the jazz community because she was playing with Joe Lovano and things like that. But she has great affinity for R&B, hip-hop and rap, too. She has a strong Brazilian and Latin influence in her own music. And we didn’t want to pigeonhole her as just a jazz artist, even though it’s very obvious that’s where she’s rooted and that’s where she comes from. And it’s working. Esperanza’s the first new artist that we’ve broken since 1996.”
Walsh, a veteran publicist, doesn’t mince words about his view of Spalding’s potential. “In my career, I haven’t had anyone like this,” he says. “When Dave brought the project to me, my immediate reaction was, ‘I’m all over this. I want it.’ I’d worked on five or six records with Heads Up since last year, and I knew that we’d worked out all the kinks as a team. But I also knew that we had a perhaps once- or twice-in-a-career kind of artist. And as soon as I had the video [electronic press kit], I started calling people—even before I had the record. I knew everybody was going to freak out over her. I never even thought about the fact that we were getting her on Letterman and Kimmel within a week of each other. My contact at Kimmel was like, ‘I don’t care about when she’s on anybody else. I think she’s fantastic and I want to have her on the show.’”
The articulate, outgoing Spalding—who peppers her conversations with references to the “hip bass lines” in “Bach Inventions,” to the impact that Yo-Yo Ma, Jaco Pastorius and Richard Bona have had on her music, and who un-self-consciously scats a vocal line to demonstrate a “totally counterpoint” segment in pianist Richie Powell’s “Jacqui”—insists that, for her, it’s still all about the music.
“Words like ‘great’ and ‘amazing’ and ‘new’ are thrown around so freely when someone sees someone actually singing and playing an instrument,” she says. “The fact is that I sincerely am a musician, and my object and my reason for doing this is I want to advance music and I want to excel as a musician. I’m certainly not doing the most exciting thing in music right now, at my age or my genre, by far. There are people doing much more interesting things than me. I’m 23 and I know that in five years you’ll be more impressed by what I’m doing. But if what I’m doing now is something that’s interesting, with good quality, and if some people think that I have the potential to go, they want to help it along and jump onboard now, at the beginning, that’s great.”
The offspring of mixed race parents (she says she has never known her father), Spalding, who now lives in Jersey City, lived in Portland until she moved to Boston as a teenager to attend Berklee.
Starting on violin at 5, she discovered the bass when she was 14, graduated from Berklee when she was 20, and immediately signed on as an instructor, the youngest faculty member in the college’s history. Her work as a side-person, prior to making her recording, included gigs with Lovano, Patti Austin, Michel Camilo, Pat Metheny and others, and, her burgeoning stardom aside, she could easily have a career as a much-in-demand jazz bassist.
Instead, the combination of Spalding’s star qualities and Heads Up’s marketing strategy—which also includes rigorous international touring, reaching from Japan and Europe to South America and the U.S.—is producing a template that will surely be examined closely by other artists, managers and record companies.
That’s not to say that Spalding is the sole jazz artist whose recording career has been receiving considerable PR and promotional support. Advance copies of albums to critics and journalists, CD-release parties, tour support and radio and television interviews have become standard procedure, even for small labels. But it wasn’t always that way. And there was a time when a lot of jazz artists looked down on the whole notion of self-promotion. (I can remember, many years ago, when Don Ellis began to send out postcard notices of his gigs to a mailing list of press and music business contacts, and he was bitterly reviled by a number of other musicians for having “sold out,” for having done something that was anathema to the concept of jazz as an art that had no connection with commerce.)
That was never true, of course. Recordings, even the most abstract, anti-commercial recordings, had to be sold to somebody, to pay for studio sessions, manufacturing costs and artist royalties. But it took a long time for many jazz players to come around to acknowledging the fact that what they did, however aesthetic their intentions, was no less connected to the mercantile world than, say, the compositions Mozart wrote for the subscription concerts he, himself, organized.
In today’s world, with digital downloads providing very different delivery systems from the hold-it-in-your-hand, package-orientation of LPs, cassettes and CDs, with visibility on YouTube, MySpace, Facebook and beyond providing media exposure well beyond the traditional print, radio and TV outlets, the significance of a well-planned, carefully targeted promotional campaign becomes even more apparent. That’s true even for the most esoteric jazz cats, most of whom are well aware that they must put as much time into the development of their marketing chops as they do into shedding on their instruments. And, despite the fact that it’s hard to find any who have approached the spectacular results that Spalding and Heads Up have been achieving, it’s become a virtually obligatory pathway for any artist or record company with ambitions to sell product and build a career.
As Love points out, “I don’t know any jazz artist now, as tough as it is to get gigs, and as tough as it is to sell records, who doesn’t welcome promotion. They see the record company as a partner in being able promote and market their live shows. And everybody has to get into the trenches to make it happen because the media outlets are tighter, getting smaller, and the online situation is taking away from the print media. So you have to kind of unturn every stone.”
Still, granting all that, it seems apparent that strategized marketing, pure talent, or even a combination of both aren’t necessarily enough to lift an artist over the high bar of reaching today’s complex and often fickle music-buying public. And when Walsh says that Spalding is “almost like a pop superstar already, in a way. It’s not like she’s done a straightahead jazz record. It’s more of a pop record, really, with jazz voicings,” the question arises of whether the success of the Spalding/Heads Up project has as much to do with having crossed the pop/jazz threshold as it does with Spalding’s unquestioned creative gifts.
Does she worry about the potential for being impacted by what one might call the “Norah Jones effect”: starting out with jazz ambitions and winding up a huge success in areas well beyond jazz?
“There are a lot of reasons why a person becomes a musician,” says Spalding, “and a lot of reasons why you might get into the pop world. I know what my reasons are, and they have nothing to do with being popular. That’s not to say I don’t want to improve my music, because I do. But I have very clear boundaries musically in what I’m not willing to do.”
Do those boundaries include holding onto her bass, when her singing is clearly beginning to draw more and more attention?
“Yes, yes, yes,” she says with an almost fearful look in her eyes. “I really feel terrified when people begin to associate me as a singer, not as a bass player. I feel emotionally and physically connected with that instrument. When I play a gig where the house bass isn’t very good, I feel as though I’m a singer with a rock in my mouth. The bass is part of who I am. Singing with the bass is the package of who I am. And I hope that jazz musicians will always call me to play with them, as a bassist. I want to be someone like Christian McBride. Every time you see him he’s advanced even more. He’s a great model for me.”
It’s hard to argue with those thoughts and feelings, at least from a musical perspective. But marketing, especially successful marketing, can generate its own momentum, as well as its own potential agents of change. How does she see herself responding to those elements?
“Any input I can get, that anyone can give me, that I think will improve my music or help me master what I’m trying to do, I’m more than willing to accept,” Spalding replies. “And they can market me however they want. If they want to put us in the pop rack or market us with Beyoncé, I don’t care. Because I’m pretty sure that sincere music will cut through any setting. And record companies and publicists aren’t stupid. They won’t put you in a setting that won’t work for your music. Plus, I have the confidence that no matter where they put me, I won’t lose the integrity of what I do.”
(by Don Heckman)
Anat Cohen: Mastering Her Destiny
Anat Cohen, one of the most acclaimed young jazz musicians to emerge in the past decade, is sitting in a Manhattan recording studio, where she’s been mixing her new CD, Notes From the Village. The saxophonist, clarinetist, bandleader and composer is devoting part of the day to making sure the album sounds just right. But as a cofounder of Anzic Records and a young artist interested in sustaining a long and fruitful career, she’s grown accustomed to donning several hats every day.
“I think musicians often end up being in the dark,” says Cohen over the phone. “They record a CD, then pass it to the record label and that’s it. They have no clue what happens to the CD after that. They get maybe a hundred copies and have to buy the rest. Maybe it’s distributed, maybe it’s not. You know, people don’t see the numbers. Of course, that’s not true all the time but it is on many occasions.”
What appealed to her about launching a record label, explains Cohen, was the chance to achieve “total transparency.” Every artist on the label, she says, “knows exactly what’s going on. They are part of the process. I think it’s really important that musicians wake up and know the numbers, realistic numbers: how much it costs to make a CD, how much people expect to be paid, when they can get paid. It’s been a really interesting experience. I’ve been learning so much.”
In addition to Cohen and her siblings—saxophonist Yuval and trumpeter Avishai—Anzic is home to the label’s namesake orchestra, keyboardist Jason Lindner, saxophonist Joel Frahm, drummer-percussionist Duduka Da Fonseca, the Choro Ensemble and other artists.
“I’ve always been impressed when I’ve seen people who were at the top of their game, really being in control of what’s going on,” says Cohen, an Israeli native and an alumnus of both the Israeli Air Force band and Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Despite the exponential increases in digital distribution, the biggest challenge facing any label remains the same, says Cohen: exposure.
“That’s where the game is at right now. A lot of people are creating their own labels. There are so many amazing musicians around. It’s easy to record a CD. It doesn’t cost that much to go into a studio and make a record. But how do you get your music to the public’s attention? It’s a real challenge.”
So far, so good. Cohen was delighted by the response to both Noir and Poetica, her simultaneously released albums of 2007 that generated glowing reviews and considerable airplay.
Notes From the Village, a quartet session with Lindner, bassist Omer Avital and drummer Daniel Freedman, plus guitarist Gilad Hekselman on three cuts, is markedly different from its immediate predecessors. Noir was an Anzic Orchestra project, while Poetica featured string quartet arrangements by Avital. Leaner and looser, the new album showcases Cohen’s compositional gifts and boasts the kind of spontaneous interplay that often develops when she’s performing with her quartet.
Considering her performance schedule with an extraordinary array of ensembles involved in Brazilian, Dixieland, klezmer and thoroughly modern jazz here and abroad—let alone her many entrepreneurial duties—it’s a wonder she has time to focus on composition.
“The writing is coming along but not always in a planned way,” says Cohen with a laugh. “If I happen to have a couple of minutes, I go to the piano, and a tune just starts. It’s like a baby; you start taking care of it and developing it and it grows. Poetica was very arranged, very song-like, very organized. I wanted to step away from that and do songs that we’ve been playing with my quartet. Every time we do, they seem to go somewhere else.”
Fans of Cohen’s previous recordings won’t be surprised to find a John Coltrane compo-sition, “After the Rain,” on her new album. Coltrane, more than any other artist, has been a guiding light for Cohen since she was student in Tel Aviv.
“That’s probably the deepest, most spiritual experience I’ve had listening to jazz,” she recalls. “I remember when I first heard ‘Crescent.’ I’m not a very religious, practicing person. I grew up very secular. But that was really intense.”
Coltrane’s music is transcen-dent, she adds. “It’s something deeper than just notes. Some people say he was an amazing technician who developed all these harmonic concepts. But for me his music is something so deep—from the heart, from the soul—that’s what I look for in myself when I play.”
(by Mike Joyce)
Mathias Eick: Listen Alone
In 2004, ECM released Evening Falls, the international recording debut of a very promising guitarist, Jacob Young. Many who heard it came away talking about one of the sidemen, Mathias Eick.
The same thing happened with three subsequent ECM releases on which Eick appeared in a supporting role: Young’s Sideways, Iro Haarla’s Northbound and Manu Katché’s Playground. They were all strong albums, but what people remembered about them was Eick.
It happened again at the Portland Jazz Festival in Oregon in 2007 when, during a performance by Trygve Seim’s large ensemble, an Eick solo received a standing ovation that almost stopped the show.
For a scene-stealer, Eick is a subtle, even understated player. But there is a distilled purity in his trumpet sound, a stark minimalist lyricism that rivets attention. Anticipation has been building for his debut as a leader, and now it is here. The Door opens with the title track, Eick’s trumpet a penetrating whisper. The gentle theme could be a new pop ballad, or an old Scandinavian lullaby. It is ear candy, with ECM’s famous crystalline sound, but as Eick elaborates upon “The Door,” his lines lengthen and the melody dissolves. His pristine figures and bare gestures are unfamiliar. They sound freshly discovered in the present moment.
And Eick’s gentleness is a ruse. The opening quietness of “The Door” is a feint before he breaks out in long, soaring trajectories. You don’t notice his gathering intensity until it is too late and it suddenly engulfs you. “Cologne Blues” begins like an aching dirge just over the threshold of silence. It gradually generates passion hot enough to burn holes in your reverie.
Eick was born 28 years ago “in the countryside one hour outside Oslo.” He had private trumpet teachers from the age of 6, and first jammed with Young and Seim when he was 12. He represents a new generation of jazz musicians indigenous to Europe. He did not study in the United States but at the Trondheim Conservatory in Norway. He lists Chet Baker, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown as influences. But, he also says, “In finding my own voice, it was very important to look at people closer to me, people out of the European jazz tradition, like Tomasz Stanko, Kenny Wheeler, Nils Petter Molvaer, Arve Henriksen.”
Eick’s quartet on The Door is all Norwegian: pianist Jon Balke (best known for his Magnetic North Orchestra), drummer Audun Kleive (formerly of Terje Rypdal’s Chasers) and bassist Audun Erlien. The instrumentation is conventional, except that Balke plays some electric piano, Erlien plays electric bass and guitar, Eick dubs in some vibraphone and guitar and Stian Carstensen plays pedal-steel guitar on three tracks. There are stealth aural textures throughout this album. Eick calls them “layers.”
He says, “We did festival gigs and toured Norway before we made this record. I had written some new songs, and as we did them live I felt that the band was turning in the direction of Miles Davis, 1972. We were using a Rhodes, and there was a lot of energy, and there still is when we play. But I really wanted the record to be more deep, or more quiet, with three-dimensional layers. I wanted to find a common energy in one direction, instead of one guy playing a solo and waiting for the next guy to play a solo.”
At the end of “Williamsburg,” where you become aware of a vibraphone behind the melody line, and on “Cologne Blues,” where the pedal steel is rather like a distant choir, you hear what Eick means by “layers.” His songs are often named for cities. He says, “This record is like a road movie in a way. It’s music that has come to me in these different places.” In its translucent atmospheres, its lyricism melting into free forms, its unpredictable spikes and segues, Eick’s music suggests new destinations for jazz.
For all of its freshness, The Door, in its rapt introspection, its silences, also feels like a quintessential ECM album. Eick says, “I’ve been listening to ECM records all my life. I wanted, deeply in my heart, to make a classic ECM record with my music. I had that sound ideal in my head.”
Musicians and critics have tried for years to describe that ECM “sound ideal,” but it has proven elusive. When asked for his own definition, Eick pauses and finally says, “I wanted there to be the possibility of listening to the record alone.”
(by Thomas Conrad)
Robert Glasper: Trio Beats
Already one of jazz’s leading shape-shifters, pianist Robert Glasper continues to extend himself in his various stylistic explorations: Hip-hop rhythms in the style of late underground producer J Dilla, gospel chordings and cantered Horace Silver grooves form the basis of In My Element, the 29-year-old’s second Blue Note outing, a 73-minute proposition that modern jazz is at its best when it is at its most organic and free-ranging. The set has the unfettered feel of a Steely Dan record, only scored for jazz trio—and, arrestingly enough, with hard soul and R&B accents that elevate those genres from their standard digital trappings.
“Most of the cats that I admire, as far as hip-hop artists go, took the idea of the raw piano trio and chopped it up and put some hard-ass drums to it,” Glasper says. “Nowadays, hip-hop is more digitized. You don’t need all that extra stuff to do hip-hop. A lot of people add all of those extra digital sounds because they feel that’s what they need to do to define hip-hop. But hip-hop is a feeling at the end of the day.”
2005’s Canvas, another Blue Note trio disc, provided Glasper with an audience cut from the center of the jazz mainstream, an audience which quickly swelled when the R&B legionnaires came onboard. Here was a classic jazz technician interpolating the kind of parrying piano effects one finds on Cecil Taylor’s Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come, with grooves seemingly sourced from early ’90s trip-hop albums, a blend of Portishead and free jazz that’s nonetheless tethered to a chord-based aesthetic.
“The piano is an African instrument, and most people forget the African side of it. They don’t play rhythmic; they don’t play it like it’s a drum. But it is a drum, while at the same time it’s melodic. It’s natural for me to play on a more rhythmic basis because, hell ... I’m black! My ancestors are from Africa and we play drums. That’s the root of it.”
The Texas-born Glasper came to reevaluate the role of the chord in jazz—and in African music in general—with a weeklong stay at the Detroit home of J Dilla. “All he listened to was his beats, for the most part,” recalls Glasper. “I got to watch him work, and realized what a genius this guy was. I mean, his jazz vocabulary was killing mine. That was my first time really understanding jazz vocabulary, how vast it was. I just watched him make a beat. He made one bassline from four different records. He just chopped it all up and made it into one line. And then he said, ‘I need a chord.’ So he pulls out Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert and found the chord and put it on there. He knew exactly the chord he was looking for, and it all came together.”
With the blurring of the boundary between jazz and hip-hop came a blurring of traditional audience lines. “I’m not just trying to play for people who are already jazz fans,” Glasper explains. “This music is dying. It needs more fans. Most of the jazz fans are older people who were around when jazz was booming. If you just cater to those people, in 10 years it’s going to be gone. I want there to be gospel musicians at my show, rock cats, hip-hop cats.”
Spinning a Glasper disc, you’ll hear music that can be so understated that you’re apt to wonder where the fettle comes in—where are the booming, hip-hop beats, the rhythmic contortions suggestive of newly emerging modes and methods? But the groove, the “fettle,” as it were, is a sort of inward pull that acclimates the listener to a zone of intense shadings, of rhythms that overlap and meld—music akin to a shimmering vista, rather than the slabby blocks of sound one tends to associate with hip-hop, or any of the cluttered-up virtuoso-driven showmanship of jazz.
“People play with their genitalia too much, where it’s all ego. At my shows, I don’t try to force anything, but at some point during the one-hour set, you’re going to know that I got chops. If you just play honestly, and really play what’s needed for that time, that goes a lot further than showing people how many notes you can play.”
For an emerging interpolator, excitement tends to be derived from what, exactly, can be fused with what. Pity anyone in the rearguard believing in stylistic exclusivity when so much is just waiting to be conflated, and along comes a musician to tap into those sky-wide possibilities.
(by Colin Fleming)
Aaron Parks Eclectic, Concise, Prodigal
While his formative years were spent well inside of the CD era, 24-year-old pianist Aaron Parks has refused to succumb to one of the format’s most aggravating temptations: cramming too much music into every minute that the digital realm can hold.
“I hate long records,” Parks says. “I think around 50 minutes to an hour is the limit to what somebody can sit down and really listen to, unless they have superhuman strength. I wanted to make a very concise, to-the-point statement.”
That statement is Invisible Cinema, Parks’ major label debut as a leader for Blue Note, where he’d previously recorded three CDs as sideman for trumpeter Terence Blanchard. The album showcases Parks’ mix of influences, from jazz to rock to hip-hop, both in the sound of the music and in the strongly thematic, song-based architecture of the compositions. It is, he says, a concept album, an aural film whose plot he intentionally leaves unstated.
“There’s a definite storyline to the record that anybody can discover for themselves,” he explains. “It’s archetypal; I wanted to leave it open for people to imagine things, to fill in the blanks and apply it to their own lives. That’s why it’s invisible: I want them to close their eyes, listen to the record and find whatever visuals they find.”
A sense of narrative is key to Parks’ playing as well as his writing. He actively seeks out a linear development to his solos, a concept he grasped studying motivic development at the University of Washington in his native Seattle. “To this day, that’s the most important thing to me in my playing—in anybody’s playing,” he insists. “I always want to hear a logical, organic progression from Point A to Point B, taking a theme and working with it and letting it evolve, rather than just playing patterns and scales. I like being able to trace a thread from the end of someone’s solo back to the beginning.”
While at the university, Parks served what seems like a normal jazz apprenticeship, playing with older musicians at a weekly coffee shop gig. Normal, that is, until you realize that these “older” peers were only in their early 20s, Parks having entered the school at 14 as part of an early entrance program. An obvious prodigy, Parks had only begun playing the piano at 10, with an interest in improvisation, if not exactly in jazz.
“My parents had a piano in the house, and I just started improvising stuff, trying to mimic the sound of a thunderstorm,” Parks recalls. “That was basically the way that I first came to music, and I was very lucky to be guided by teachers who taught me to play by ear much more than by sight-reading music. That idea of improvisatory music naturally led me to jazz.”
While his parents had leaned more toward world music and ambient sounds as he grew up, Parks finally found jazz via a record of the Ray Brown Trio with Gene Harris, an extremely traditional beginning considering how far removed his own music has become from that tradition. He traces a line from Harris to McCoy Tyner to Keith Jarrett, whom he cites as his earliest influences.
His own tastes having wandered much further afield, Parks cites a grab bag of influences that have gone into forging his personal sound. “I don’t think that you find your own voice,” he says. “I think that you just love the music that you love, and play the way that makes you the most happy to play, and eventually it finds you. I just started branching out more and more, listening to a lot of alternative rock, some hip-hop, a lot of classical music, everything from everywhere, finding the stuff that really grabbed me, and incorporating those influences when I could.”
Those disparate influences creep into the margins of Invisible Cinema, informing the overall sound without calling undue attention to themselves. “Nemesis,” originally written for Parks’ other former bandleader, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, is a (Radio)heady swirl of postrock atmospherics; “Roadside Distraction” has a loping funk/hip-hop groove propelled by drummer Eric Harland, whom Parks refers to as his “musical soulmate”; “Karma” is a hybrid of acoustic jazz feel and skittering electronica stutters.
Despite the lean, taut construction of the CD, Parks sees a more expansive future for the music when it reaches the stage, not only via opening up for greater improvisation, but through rock concert-inspired visual elements. “A record is a very different thing from a live performance,” he says. “My idea for the band live is that the music comes much more alive and stretches out and can take unexpected twists and turns.”
(by Shaun Brady)
Christian Scott: Style, Sass, Brass
There’s a surreal role reversal at play when interviewing 25-year-old trumpeter Christian Scott, who was born and raised in New Orleans and is the nephew of saxophonist Donald Harrison. It might be analogous to a fan being hounded by a celebrity for an autograph, or the proprietor of an exclusive restaurant inviting customers in off the street. Scott talks about big things—politics, race, Katrina, the state of jazz music—in a frantic yet articulate stream of consciousness, offering lengthy extrapolations with minimal prodding and offering up telling anecdotes with the promise that he’ll eventually arrive at the answer to your original question. There’s a sense that even if you lofted him softball questions, the conversation would still get fiery and deep.
A lukewarm review of Scott’s band published in the New York Times in October 2007 compared his music’s self-conscious sonic magnitude to the sappy English rock band Coldplay, but in persona Scott suggests—and this isn’t an oxymoron—some grounded variation of hip-hopper Kanye West. For one, Scott’s personal style is one of the nattiest and most calculated current looks in jazz; he even boasts a trademark aesthetic tic—wearing shades and playing a custom-designed raised-bell trumpet so he can see his audience while soloing.
He harbors outsized ambitions that complement his bravado—the kind so many history-making young trumpeters have brandished. He says, for instance, that his forthcoming album will combine ’60s-era Miles, Mingus and Coltrane, psychedelic Hendrix-ian influences and modern indie-rock, but will be recorded on older analog equipment. (It’s difficult to forecast what that will even sound like, but it’s no doubt a tall order.) Like West, he doesn’t hesitate to place himself in a line of cultural and musical greatness. Regarding his recent collaborations with the McCoy Tyner trio as a special guest, Scott says, “Someone told me they were talking to [Tyner], and he was saying that when I played with him he got a similar feeling to when he was playing with Trane.” The culture of genuflection that defines jazz today might warrant a youthful player to negate Tyner’s statement or not even acknowledge it, but not Scott. He’s respectful but lacks the inferiority complex often passed off as reverence.
The fundamental difference in the Scott/West analogy is, for those who’ve followed the Chicago-raised rapper’s line of tirades and tantrums, Scott’s sense of community. Perhaps because he grew up in NOLA’s ultra-raw 9th Ward, he has the inclination to give back, and can come off as a starry-eyed idealist: “I do this because I want my children’s and their children’s lives to be better,” he says. If he and his bandmates are touring through a city and are in town long enough, Scott says, they’ll play at local schools or invite kids to soundcheck. After his 2006 Concord debut, Rewind That, was nominated for a Grammy, Scott found himself desperately hoping for another for his 2007 follow-up, Anthem, for uncommon reasons. “Leading up to the Grammys, man, I was a wreck,” he says, citing stomach ulcers as signs of his emotional duress. “I was just thinking I would really like to get nominated again, and if I win, that would be great because winning could be a catalyst to procure the types of things and devices that I need to help back home in New Orleans.”
Scott wasn’t nominated, and certain critics who trounced Anthem might suggest Scott devote more to his music before diving headlong into humanitarianism. He has a remarkable sense of atmosphere—cue up the hip-hop-noir of Anthem’s “Re:”—but as a composer, those textures, produced with the slickness of commercial alt-rock and Marcus Miller-schooled crossover jazz, grossly outweigh memorable melodies. Yet Scott also, along with Roy Hargrove and Robert Glasper, represents the organic integration of hip-hop and neo-soul content into contemporary jazz, helping point out how acid-jazz and remix projects never quite got it. Love it or hate it, the music is unmistakably his, and it’s working in the pop mainstream: He’s been featured in an unprecedented number of men’s and hip-hop magazines, whose reporters often tell the trumpeter, “I hate jazz, but I love your record.”
The trumpeter, who has said he doesn’t label himself a “jazz” musician, claims not to react to outside opinion, positive or negative—not from critics, not even from his tradition-obsessed hometown community, whose ideas of how a NOLA-born trumpeter should play and act are often at odds with Scott’s vision: “Jazz musicians from New Orleans can get on your nerves with that I’m from New Orleans stuff,” he urges. “OK, that’s fine—I was born there, raised there, my heart is always there … but I don’t necessarily feel the need to force that on people because they can construe that as some sort of arrogance.
“I don’t think people [in the New Orleans jazz community] take the time to listen to [my music], because if they listened they’d hear all these New Orleans influences. But [the reaction I get in NOLA is full of] conflict—but that’s OK, that’s good.”
(by Evan Haga)
Marcus Strickland: Generation D.I.Y.
Although Marcus Strickland has yet to reach his 30s or record a career-defining album, he’s certainly been making career-defining choices, among them releasing his music independently on his imprint, Strick Muzik, and taking a proactive role in how his music reaches the audience and where he chooses to perform.
“It’s an uphill battle right now. Festivals and clubs haven’t really caught on to that idea yet of young jazz musicians releasing their stuff independently,” he says as he points out how many venue owners still prefer booking artists that release a string of physical discs, as opposed to MP3s, especially on major labels. “A lot of venues still think that being signed to a major label actually makes a big difference to the quality of the music. Most people buy their music online nowadays. We have all these gadgets like the iPod and the iPhone and a bunch of other MP3 players. That’s one of the big things that strengthens independent musicians.”
A dynamic tenor and soprano saxophonist renowned for turning heads at performances with the likes of Dave Douglas, Jeff “Tain” Watts and the Mingus Big Band, Strickland isn’t alone in his crusade to handle the business side of his career as much as he does the musical side. Jazz artists of his generation, such as saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, drummer Kendrick Scott and pianist Orrin Evans, were almost forced to take matters into their own hands. “We first thought, Yeah, man, in about three years I’ll be on Blue Note,” Strickland chuckles. “No. It definitely didn’t happen that way.”
Unfortunately, just as Strickland’s generation was emerging, major labels quickly began dropping intriguing young talents such as soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome and pianist James Hurt before they had a chance to prove their worth. Nevertheless, Strickland sees the fallout between jazz and the majors as a mixed blessing, arguing that jazz musicians should become more business savvy. “Rappers have always been in touch with the business side, because they sold their music on the streets,” he says. “They would hustle and learn early on how to get their music to the people. We jazz musicians can sometimes get a little full of ourselves. We get caught up in being an artist and bragging about how many hours we practice our instruments. OK, that’s cool, but how are you going to get your music to the people?”
As business-minded as Strickland is, he manages to focus on the actual music. With four remarkable discs—two (At Last and Brotherhood) released on Fresh Sound/New Talent and two others (Twi-Life and Open Reel Deck) on his own label—he continues to thrill fans with his modernistic jazz. He claims he doesn’t get too bogged down by compositional and improvisational methodology or harmonics, insisting instead on focusing his music on the now. “I try to change my methods and inspirations as much as possible to keep things fresh. Right now, I’m getting inspiration from songs of my generation that are nostalgic to me, rather than playing ‘What’s This Thing Called Love,’” he says.
Strickland does cite rhythm as one of his key components to his music and bandleading. “I tend to hire musicians that understand that rhythm is so important to my music. I always tell them, ‘Let’s make this thing popping; let’s all become drummers.’”
His alliance with rhythm comes partly from his work in Jeff “Tain” Watts’ and Branford Marsalis’ individual groups. “He possesses one of the better rhythmic sensibilities that I’ve encountered,” Watts claims. “Marcus is able to understand rhythm intimately, both in the written sense, and internally.” Also, you can’t overlook Marcus’ musical partnership with his twin brother, E.J. Strickland, who shares the drummer’s chair with Justin Brown in his trio. The Strickland twins grew up in Miami and were exposed to a variety of music by their father, Michael Strickland, who played drums and classical percussion before becoming a lawyer. “He never pushed it on to us; he always had music playing around the house. My last record, Open Reel Deck, is about that growing-up experience,” Strickland says.
Strickland plans on recording with his new trio, which also includes bassist Ben Williams, soon. Now however, he’s focusing on developing the trio’s empathy before entering the studio. In addition, the business-minded Strickland continues making strides in getting his music heard by as many people as possible, especially those of his generation. “A lot of times when I play for a crowd that wouldn’t normally listen to jazz, their reaction, which I think is the best compliment, is that they thought they didn’t like jazz until they heard me,” he says. “That’s why I’m thinking outside of the conventional jazz box and aiming to perform at venues like Joe’s Pub [in New York]. We need to get into venues that cater to our generation.”
(by John Murph)
Originally published in September 2008