NEXT Collective: Concord’s Shrewd New Covers Project

Young label signees interpret D'Angelo, Pearl Jam and more

Gerald Clayton
Kris Bowers
NEXT Collective members Ben WIlliams, guest Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Logan Richardson and Matthew Stevens, Le Poisson Rouge, NYC 2-13

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When a group of artists starts calling itself a collective, it usually implies something about its devotion to a sovereign cause, what the music historian George Lewis calls “a power stronger than itself,” and it suggests longevity. That’s not NEXT Collective’s ideal. It fits the standard definition in that its members arrive with roughly equal pedigrees: All are esteemed jazz musicians in their 20s and 30s, whose résumés feature work with masters from earlier generations, and with each other. But that’s about where the rationale ends.

The goal of NEXT Collective’s first album, Cover Art (Concord Jazz), released in February, is to highlight and celebrate the strong individual voices inside the band, one by one, without forcing them to take any stupendous risks or part with any original compositions.

But sometimes false advertising can be the best advertising, and if the group is more a coterie than a collective, that’s OK; the major headline here is that Concord recently signed solo contracts with six of the ensemble’s seven members. (It was the record label’s idea to arrange them into a band and record this album.) They’re all assertive thinkers who, taken together, signify a sort of composite foil to Wynton Marsalis. They are saxophonists Logan Richardson and Walter Smith III, keyboardists Gerald Clayton and Kris Bowers, guitarist Matthew Stevens, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Jamire Williams. (Christian aTunde Adjuah, a.k.a. Christian Scott, who joined the label in 2005, appears as a guest trumpeter on five tracks.)

Most were signed over the past two years, making Concord the first imprint to invest so readily and so deeply in young jazz talent since the record industry imploded at the turn of the millennium. The timing seems right. Just four weeks after Cover Art came out, the industry reported its first net profit since 1999, when file-sharing software sent labels into catatonia and jazz’s neo-traditional resurgence waned. Digital technology is leading the revival, which means opening up possibilities for more micro-targeted sales strategies. In theory, this could breathe life into smaller-market musics like jazz.

Chris Dunn, Concord’s senior director of A&R and the producer of Cover Art, admits that it wouldn’t typically make economic sense for a company to put this many resources into its jazz operation. “I’m not even sure it does now, but we have to build toward the future,” he says. “It really is a digital world, so if we’re not helping to increase that younger base and getting [NEXT Collective’s members] out there moving forward, I think it’s bad business. Because in five or 10 years I think these cats are probably going to be the main ones out there holding it down for the future.”

Ben Williams is the only band member with a Concord Jazz release already to his name. (He was a beneficiary of the label’s policy of offering a contract to the winner of the annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition; the upshot, 2011’s State of Art, featured three other future members of NEXT Collective and sped to No. 1 on iTunes’ jazz charts.) The five other new signees either have albums poised for release or are planning to record soon. Jamire Williams is the only one without a contract, but Dunn says Concord is considering making an offer.

Cover Art operates by the governing credo of jazz’s rising generation: Music ought to speak from within its moment rather than necessarily its genre. Dunn instructed the Collective’s members to pen arrangements of their favorite tunes by non-jazz musicians over the past 10 years or so. The repertoire glides from D’Angelo (Clayton’s arrangement of “Africa”) to Stereolab (Jamire Williams reworking “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse”) to N.E.R.D. (Ben Williams’ take on “Fly or Die”), but the band holds onto a shimmery, percussive aesthetic throughout, looking for power via prettiness.

In the studio, the vibe was laidback and loose. “It was mostly things that we were playing for the first time, or just played once with no rehearsal. It was an interesting experience,” Bowers says. “Nobody brought in anything that was going to be ridiculously difficult, and we already play with each other so we already know each other’s music and sensibilities.”

It follows: Dunn says he was trying to keep the stakes manageable. In an interview with The Revivalist, he gave a glimpse into his motive for the covers concept. “The problem I have with these types of compilations is that you potentially waste a good track that they’ve written. And when you get a band together of leaders like these, you’re not going to get the same thing you would if it was your own band,” he told the web magazine. “To me that would be kind of a shame that your first tune on the label wouldn’t be 100 percent.”

Perhaps because its m.o. is so shrewd, Cover Art doesn’t do much to raise your blood pressure. As ambassadors of the music’s first major movement since the Young Lions, these players are used to making big musical statements about where jazz might end up taking its creative license. All that gravity can make a superimposed project like this, where you feel the lack of a common and organic purpose, sag a bit. The record works more as a sample platter, a taste of more satiating things to come.

And that is where the conversation about these musicians, this label, this producer, this music, gets exciting. “This is one of the rare instances where I think you’ve got a true homie in the A&R position, with true power,” Richardson says of Dunn. “The cat has his own ear to the street, has his own taste as to what’s going on, and then has his own vision as to how to stamp it. … Concord is trying to create a dynasty. It’s not dictating the artistry, it’s just the way they’re wrapping it. If you don’t wrap it right, nobody’s going to come to it.”