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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Thank Heavens We're Saved! (Again)

How come every each time jazz is reputedly saved, it’s always saved by music that is very far removed from jazz?

So, if the pundits are to be believed, it looks like jazz is being saved - again... This time by Robert Glasper. The outpouring of critical acclaim and ‘this is the way forward’ type of verbiage around his ‘Black Radio' album, shows that yet again we’re at the point where a particular musician or particular approach is being hailed as a panacea for jazz’s commercial woes. Glasper’s appearance on Letterman and Esperanza Spalding’s stratospheric success are being seen as harbingers of a new popularity for jazz, and light at the end of a particularly dark commercial tunnel for the music. Whenever this kind of things happens – some figure in jazz music gains some kind of success in the mainstream arena, and everyone starts to get very excited – I’m always sceptical. And I’m sceptical for one reason alone – inevitably the reason why whatever newly hailed ‘breakthrough’ is so popular, is precisely because it doesn’t sound like jazz at all. In fact the less it sounds like the mainstream of the music, the more likely it is to be popular.

Now of course this brings us into the endless ‘what is jazz?’ debate, and this is not some thing I want to rehash here – I’ve given my two cents worth on that previously. I’m a believer in jazz being a very broad church that can contain many different congregations. I don’t believe you have to be playing blues and/or swing in order to be playing jazz, though these are undoubtedly the roots of the music, and the area which still houses the vast bulk of the music’s greatest achievements. But there are many ways to skin a cat, and over the years cats have been skinned in an incredible variety of ways. I’m not conservative at all when it comes to what does or doesn’t constitute jazz, but this performance by Glasper on Letterman is to my ears much too far away from the improvisational cut and thrust of what I would consider to be jazz:

It’s Hip Hop with some jazz piano interweaved here and there. And there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you’re into – and lots of people ARE into that. Which is precisely the point – to see Robert Glasper’s appearance on Letterman as some kind of harbinger of better things to come for jazz as a whole is naïve to put it mildly. There is no way that Robert Glasper’s more mainstream piano trio would ever have been invited onto Letterman. It is precisely because the music he plays with his Experiment band is NOT jazz that it can have mainstream appeal.

The same would go for Esperanza Spalding’s success – she has serious mainstream appeal, and the more she moves into the area shown in this video, the more mainstream appeal she will have:

I have no problem with any of this music – it’s well made, well thought-out, well played, and I think both Glasper and Spalding are great talents, and great jazz musicians. But it really bothers me when the music evidenced by these videos is held up as an example of a way forward for jazz, both in terms of direction and popularity. Musically there’s nothing particularly original about Glasper’s Letterman piece – Herbie Hancock did very similar things back in the 70s and in the 1998 ‘Return of the Headhunters’ album his ’Watch Your Back' is absolutely in the same neck of the woods. As for the claim that this music (and Spalding’s) shows a pathway to a new acceptance of jazz by the mainstream public, this doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny.

I should say that it’s not Glasper or Spalding who are making the claims for their music being a giant leap forward in recognition terms for jazz, it’s the world of jazz punditry who once again seem to be besotted by the idea of a major breakthrough for the music being achieved through the rejection of many of the core values of jazz. I don’t believe for a moment that Robert Glasper’s success will have any impact on the careers of other jazz musicians, and the person who will benefit most from Esperanza Spalding’s success is Esperanza Spalding. Both of these musicians have something to offer mainstream audiences, and they’re playing in a commercial genre that mainstream audiences understand. But somebody who watches Robert Glasper on Letterman is not going to be any more sympathetic to say Tim Berne than they were before they saw the Letterman performance. Someone who watches Spalding’s video is unlikely going to be inspired to check out even as mainstream a figure as say Kurt Rosenwinkel. Someone who may be prepared to watch Glasper play a few fills on a Hip Hop tune are unlikely to follow him into the world of his trio and the extended solos that he would play in that context.

We have to accept that what most of us think of as being jazz will never be popular in a mainstream way. The vast majority of the generation who are currently growing up on iPhones, Lady Ga Ga and X-Box are unlikely to have any interest in the kind of music that demands full attention from the listener and an ability to engage with sometimes challenging music for lengthy periods of time. It’s just not going to happen – at least not in the kind of numbers suggested by an appearance on Letterman. What jazz has to do is increase the awareness of its core values, its variety, the rich rewards that are there waiting for those who are prepared to lend it a curious ear. While I’m convinced that jazz will never again be truly mainstream, I also believe it could do much better than it currently does in public awareness. There is lots there in jazz for an interested and sizeable minority of listeners to grab onto and enjoy. We just have to figure out how better to reach them. For me, the work done by Jason Moran is far more encouraging in this way than Glasper’s Hip Hop project. Glasper is selling Hip Hop with a jazz flavour. Moran has managed to engage with many different musics and eras yet retained a jazz centre to his music in which the traditional virtue of collective improvisation within the ensemble is always paramount. Without musically moving outside the jazz world, he has managed to broaden his audience and bring them along with him. It can be done.

Robert Glasper playing Hip Hop, or Esperanza Spalding’s recent music is not the future of jazz, either musically or financially. It is too far removed from the core values of jazz where the narrative of the music is created by improvising soloists. Jazz cannot be saved by making mainstream commercial music and labeling it jazz. If you take an orange and call it an apple, it’s still an orange. So instead of pretending that an orange is an apple and trying to sell it as one, let’s just forget the subterfuge, try and make a better apple, present it more successfully to the people, and let them decide for themselves.


  1. Well, put, Ronan. The whole media hype of these two albums as "jazz" in the NYT and more has been over the top (I've never been in a believer in media and criticism to begin with). I'm not questioning the validity or the quality of the music by any means, but I fail to see how we can quantify these as the "future of jazz" or even "jazz". For me, in particular, the elements of improvisation (individual and collective) are taking second place to a more pop aesthetic and approach. Maybe some with a cultural agenda would quantify the music as "BAM" as part of a broader movement, but I have no interest in jumping on that bandwagon in redefining "jazz". In the meantime, best of success to Mr Glasper and Ms Spalding in their endeavours as they enter the mainstream with their music.

  2. Yeah, Ronan. That's just how it is. To me, the music of E. Spalding sounds like very 'normal' soul/modern r&b, and it surely has its roots in jazz as well as all the other forms of 'black' music. But that doesn't make that yet jazz, since there's almost no role left for improvising at all. And whatever our view of 'what jazz is' - question might be, it's quite clear that without improvising there's no jazz.
    The commercial success these artists in question might have, will probably not bring any more commercial success outside the genre they're here working in. But then- for example in Esperanza Spalding's case- she might play 'real jazz' (whatever it might be, but a lot of improvising involved. Actually when she played in Helsinki they played pretty much free, I heard) on festivals- and that may bring more people into jazz world, just because of her fame as a performer. But that will not surely 'save' jazz. And why should jazz be saved at all? It's a fucking gorgeous art form with hundreds, if not thousands of different shades. There's surely a 'right' jazz style for everyone on the planet, even if the commercial world seems not to care too much about it.

  3. Good points Pekka – and there’s another thing that I miss in this music, in terms of what I would consider a jazz sensibility – interaction. Particularly the interaction of the rhythm section with the soloists. With a lot of this music you have a pre-decided rhythm pattern in the bass and drums over which the melody and solos (if any) occur. And for me, having an improvised solo over a static rhythm does not make automatically make something jazz - otherwise you could call what Kenny G does jazz – and it’s not! I had the same problem with Bugge Wesseltoft and Nils Petter Molvaer – the movement of jazz and electronica that was supposed to have shown us all the way forward 10 years ago. The rhythms are so static and inflexible, incapable of true interplay with the soloist. The history of the interaction of the rhythm section and the soloist goes back to even before bebop, really becomes a thing with Parker and Roach, on to Philly Joe/Chambers/Garland with Miles, Trane’s great quartet, Miles with Herbie, Ron and Tony, and then later with Dejohnette, Chick and Dave etc. So to dispense with this long and incredibly creative tradition seems a retrograde step rather than a way forward.

  4. Well Mr Glasper on the keys was most definitely, most decidely playing jazz. But there was also a chap on a keyboard thing making some buzzing noises which I could have done without, just like when you're in a jazz restaurant with people punching in PIN numbers into machines to pay their food bill, or when you're seated unfortunately too close to the buzzing ice-cooler or cappuccino maker; but that's all part of the live jazz experience these days. Of the two singers who joined in, one had a pleasant voice but wasn't exactly stretching himself jazzically while the other demosntrated an extremely limited vocal range of about one and a half semi-tones. Limited range improvisation for instance over the pentatonic scale is a good discipline for study but I would say that restricting yourself to improvising on a range of only one and a half semi-tones runs the distinct risk of quickly becoming tedious which for me this was.

  5. Let me open with a genuine thanks for your essay, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. However it seems to me that this whole argument, at its crux, is very similar to the one you state you don't want to rehash; what is jazz? Specifically it's; When does jazz stop being jazz? I find a lot of the negative reviews on the likes of Glasper and Spalding stem from the fact they fuse their jazz with more popular genres, such as Hip Hop or RnB. However, if a jazz musician fuses their jazz with experimental, classical or even old school rock, then the course of time has corroded much hesitance towards such melding. Think about it in terms of musical lineage, Jazz-Hip-Hop makes more sense musically than Jazz-Rock, surely?! There IS enough jazz in the music you've cited above to still call it jazz. Most importantly I like the idea that a generation of young, black american musicians are re-embracing jazz, moulding it in to a musical shape that best represents their own experiences and aesthetic tastes. Isn't that the history of jazz development? This is musically exciting people!

    Lastly, your point on Glasper/Spalding not encouraging immediate young, iPod generation jazz fans is obvious. Of course no teenager is going to go from Black Radio to Hank Jones At The Village Vanguard, but here is a possible path: Robert Glasper - Jason Moran - Eric Reed - Hank Jones. And that is the point, as with any genre it's a case of little by little. Best, Will.

    One last point, I promise. There's been a few disparaging remarks about the drum beat/feel to the two videos above. I wonder if these same feelings would be applied to Keith Jarrett's God Bless The Child from Standards Vol. 1? Or to Lennie Tristano's experiments? Honestly, now.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Will and the good points you make. For me, the issue is not the use of Hip Hop – I think jazz has always (and should always) used influences from any source that takes its fancy. And Hip Hop is clearly a music that has emerged from the Afro-American community, so its bona fides as a potential jazz influence is unarguable. My issue is not with the idea of using Hip Hop per se, it’s more about how what I would consider to be indispensible jazz virtues have been watered down to the point of invisibility in the music I’ve heard from ‘Black Radio’. And these virtues, for me, are improvisation created by the collective group, and the interaction between the rhythm section and the soloists.

    This last concept, (as I mentioned in more detail my response to Pekka’s comment above), is something that has been an incredibly important part of the evolution of the music – how the soloist responds to, and is influenced by the accompaniment of the other musicians, and their response to the soloist – i.e. a genuine conversation – is one of the greatest of all jazz virtues, and has, in my opinion, been the engine that has driven some of the greatest achievements in the music. Glasper dispenses with this element in this music and what you get is a static rhythm which does not interact with the soloist, and a soloist improvising over an unresponsive background. What Glasper plays will have little or no impact on what the rhythm section plays, tied in as they are to the back beat groove. To my ears this particular experiment is, as far as it being jazz is concerned, is far too skewed away from things that are indispensible elements to be able to call it jazz. Yes, there are jazz elements, but to my ears it’s Hip Hop with jazz overtones. Again, nothing wrong with that in itself, but when people start saying it’s the future of jazz or some kind of possible savior for jazz, then I think this a claim that doesn’t survive any careful scrutiny.

    As to the backbeat and Jarrett – I agree, there’s no interaction between the soloist and rhythm section in this case – but Jarrett would only do that maybe once in the night – he’s definitely not basing all his music on this concept. And jazz rock absolutely did suffer from this problem – the static rhythm section in one place, the soloist in another. I wrote about it in my essay on Birds of Fire’ – one of the few albums to figure out how to interact in a jazz way despite using rock rhythmic practices.

    Your time-line for a possible listener journey from Glasper to Hank Jones is definitely food for thought, and I’m sure some people do find their way. The same arguments were made for Hancock and Headhunters – I’m sure there’s some truth in it, though I think too many claims are made for it, I’m not sure how often that would happen. I guess we will never know!

    Thanks Will

  7. Someone somewhere once snarked about jazz fusion that it failed because it combined the sophisticated interaction of rock with the crowd pleasing energy of jazz, a dig that manages to condescend to everyone in the room simultaneously. But I do keep it in mind when checking out jazz that's drawing heavily from some jazz-external source - what's been traded for what, here?

    As someone who adores Radiohead and some similar rock bands, I find it perplexing that a certain collection of (super-unfair generalizations coming up!) mostly white mostly mid-20s mostly post-Mehldau pianists have crafted a musical aesthetic that seems to draw heavily from that branch of rock, but they're bringing none of the volume-intensity or textural variety available to a plugged in rock band, and the often repetitive nature of the music isn't hooked to anything as strong as Thom Yorke's lyrics and voice. You've left out some of the most interesting aspects of jazz, and managed to replace them with none of the most interesting aspects of rock. Congrats! Why would I ever listen to this? Why would I ever not prefer to throw on either some actual Brad Mehldau, or otherwise OK Computer?

    I don't think Black Rock is anywhere near this dire - I think it's good music, for one thing. I can imagine listening to it, or putting it on at a party. But I agree that I would like to hear a rhythm section that figured out how to simultaneously draw from the hip hop rhythmic world but maintain jazz flexibility. What surprised me the most was that the music - and to be fair, I only heard about half the album, when NPR was streaming it - didn't sound particularly "new" to me, it just sounded like the kind of "neo-soul" that was popular for a minute when I was in high school 12-15 years ago. (That makes sense, since Glasper is I think a couple of years older than me, and Erykah Badu sings on a track, etc.) You could've played me those tracks and said it was a solo album by whomever played keyboards on D'Angelo's Voodoo album and I would've believed you. Now, I really like that music! But I agree with Mr. Guilfoyle that "and we've got a real jazz guy blowing on top of this groove" doesn't a groundbreaking jazz hybrid make.

    What I do find interesting about Glasper, either in his "experiment" or "straight ahead jazz" incarnations, is that if there's something I might be able to ID about him in a blindfold test, it's an influence from contemporary black gospel music, which I barely knew existed as a nonreligious white guy until I looked for videos of gospel music (in the Mahalia Jackson sense) on Youtube, and discovered guys playing some sounds on the piano that made me think "hey, that sounds a little like Glasper!" until I realized I'd probably gotten it backwards.

  8. Hey, Ronan.

    Firstly I’d like to lay my cards on the table and state I DO NOT think that this is the unifying, popularist-saviour direction of jazz. Hip-hop + jazz fusions have been experimented with since Miles’ later period (Guru, anyone?) and surely music of this ilk would be charting more regularly if it was (Although don’t underestimate the power of the modern hip-hop star!) Plus jazz is too far ingrained and owned by the conservatoires for this sub-genre to get a look-in (whole other issue, lets not go there!)

    I do think however that this is exciting music, passionate, reinvigorated black Americana music, which does fall under the jazz banner. I understand your point concerning the group dynamic/interaction (there is nothing quite like seeing an unrestrained band ‘in the zone’) but could Glasper’s arrangements not be compared to a jazz orchestra, for example? Tightly controlled, close arrangements, little room for variation yet, due to the instrumentation, harmony, timbre, space for gorgeous gospel-tinged improvisation etc. still jazz? The beat may not be a jazz groove, but it still gets my head nodding more than jazz-rock.

    I’m not saying it’s outright jazz, but it does appeal to my jazz sensibilities more than much of Return To Forever say, and simultaneously it’s able sell more and get mainstream airplay! The beats used aren’t as strict as electronic beats (although I suspect Glasper is trying to emulate the hip-hop sample live) and I believe this band in concert would be freer than the Letterman clip (marketing wise they would have had to try and represent the album take as much as possible).

    As for the time-line of a possible listener journey I know it can work that way as it did for me. From Hancock’s Rockit to Armstrong’s Savoy Blues (and everything in between!)

    It’s all good stuff my friend (I suspect we do have similar tastes and I’m going to check out your Birds Of Fire essay). I hope I have rambled on too much! Will

  9. As a critic I won't apologize for acclaiming Robert Glasper's new record. It's a hell of a piece of work and deserving of all kinds of acclaim.

    But I do hate that "this is the way forward" crap. If there is one core concept to jazz, it's each player finding his/her OWN way forward. Calling an artist or even a sound "the way forward" strikes me as encouraging groupthink. "Hey, everyone, line up behind him! Do what he's doing?" Why is this a desirable thing? If Robert Glasper was a gunslinger...

  10. Certainly not the saviour of jazz. Just another door on the periphery. And most of us enter through doors.

  11. The very foundation of jazz is rhythmic improvisation, first and foremost. When the scholars found that bebop was jazz that could be approached with the intellect instead of the crotch, they sought to turn jazz into solely a high art and steal it from the people.

    The greatest crime against jazz was when R&B was left out of the continuum, and bebop was championed as the next legitimate heir. It's been a battle to give it back to the people ever since. It's very simple. R&B is jazz also, and has always been jazz.

  12. just read all of that blog from ronan's page... it is very interesting..

    from what I remember Robert Glasper saying in one of his masterclasses about 6 months before he'd released 'Black Radio''. He said about him wanting to reach as many people as possible with his music as possible. So much that they could hate his music.

    For example: - like when you hear a Beyonce or a Madonna record for the millionth time , you either love it or hate it. - i think his angle was that although the album is more hiphop orientated with jazz flavours, more people will listen to it, and from that - a larger amount of listeners will have the opportunity to stumble onto his other music, and possibly like his other music that he has to offer.