Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jazz Now

I'm very excited to see the discussion going on at NPR's jazz blog, a blog supreme. This series of different critics' five albums for modern jazz neophytes is timely in the aftermath of Terry Teachout. I've been a modern jazz evangelist over the past few years, whether playing stuff in the car I think my younger sister could get into (so far, it's been Pat Metheny, Kurt Elling, and the Bad Plus) or giving a speech to my high school English class on what's so great about modern jazz (complete with accompanying sound clips). I like to base my recommendations on a person's current predilections, and so the list is broken up accordingly.

If you like Country/Southern Rock: Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band "Season of Changes"

This album is showing up on a lot of lists and for good reason. It's very tuneful, grooves infectiously like a pop album, and has an earthy sound world that feels familiar to country fans. The Fellowship Band brings a modern jazz sensibility to the folky music, especially on "Return of the Prodigal Son," with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel's gracefully loping lines and saxophonist Melvin Butler's frenetic blowing propelled along by Brian Blade's polyrhythms and asymmetric accents on the drum kit. An album that goes down easy the first time, yet keeps revealing subtleties in its sonic depths on future listens.

If you like Broadway/Show Tunes: Fred Hersch Ensemble "Leaves of Grass"

Mark this one down for any English majors/teachers as well. Arguably pianist Fred Hersch's magnum opus, this hour-long setting of Walt Whitman's poetry elegantly combines jazz, art song, and a hint Copland-style Americana, yielding an organic fusion of styles and a programmatic scope that would appeal to fans of musical theater. But the real feat of this album is how naturally Hersch's gorgeous music mixes with Whitman's idiosyncratic free verse. The power of Whitman's words are not cheapened by Hersch's music, but are enhanced, shaving off some of Whitman's trademark excesses. "Leaves of Grass" is a truly rewarding and thought-provoking listen.

If you like experimental arty rock: The Claudia Quintet "Claudia Quintet"

Memorable tunes, sheen textures, and consonance aren't for everyone, and so for those who prefer their rock a bit more cool and angular (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot comes to mind), there is the Claudia Quintet. Led by drummer/composer John Hollenbeck, the sound of the Claudia Quintet is informed as much by modern classical music as by jazz, an influence shared with many current indie rockers. Throw in some funky grooves and a strong sense of humor, and you've got music that is somehow both infectious and exploratory. The group's self-titled debut album is still the strongest work they've done so far; highlights include vibraphonist Matt Moran's vibrato-laden, boogaloo-backed solo on the humorously titled "A-B-S-T-I-N-E-N-C-E" and accordionist Ted Reichman's unbelievably raucous run through "No D."

If you like rap/hip-hop: Vijay Iyer "In What Language?"

Like the other albums on this list, pianist Vijay Iyer's "In What Language?" bends traditional genre boundaries, almost to the point of breaking them entirely. Rife with the sounds and rhythms of hip-hop, foreign compositional forms, and eloquent rapping to boot, this album isn't jazz by a purist definition of the genre. However, these definitions choke off jazz from the rest of the musical world, stymieing jazz in a creative holding pattern while many listeners tune out. While Iyer has explored similar musical territory at the intersection of jazz and hip-hop on other albums such as "Reimagining," the mere presence of words in the music make this album a good starting point for those unfamiliar with purely instrumental music. Like "Leaves of Grass," the surprising feature of this album is how naturally the different forms of music mesh, showing how Iyer and his supporting cast are equally fluent in hip-hop as they are in jazz.

For listeners with a softer palate: Maria Schneider Orchestra "Sky Blue"

Few, if any, jazz composers today can execute the grand gesture like Maria Schneider. When many large ensemble writers go big, especially on albums backing up singers, the results are usually bloatedly sentimental. However, Schneider's orchestra, stacked with fabulous soloists in all sections of the band (particularly trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, and guitarist Ben Monder), play her bold and imaginative music with uncanny precision and conviction. With singable melodies and diatonic harmony, the music on "Sky Blue" is immediately accessible to any listener, but what ultimately keeps the listener engaged are the dynamic solos. Schneider challenges the soloist bring the music from point to another with static harmonies and sometimes even without a consistent pulse. Exploring these pulseless dreamscapes in "The Pretty Road" and "Cerulean Skies" on repeated listens is truly rewarding, but even on the first listen, one can appreciate the sheer beauty and imagination of Schneider's music.

Other fun albums for modern jazz newbies:

Bill Frisell "Have a Little Faith"--a unique brand of Americana, both familiar and subversive

Joshua Redman "Moodswing"--tuneful, accessible, and hard-swinging

Pat Metheny "Pat Metheny Group"--hypermelodic and texturally rich, the most immediate and organic of all PMG recordings

Brad Mehldau "Day is Done"--modern pop covers abound, from the witty ("Martha My Dear") to the pensive ("Knives Out") to the coolly slick ("Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover")

Kurt Elling "Man in the Air"--no route in modern jazz is left untraveled, from the fusion of Pat Metheny and Weather Report, to the funk of Grover Washington, to the worldbeat of Courtney Pine, to the modal explorations of John Coltrane, all delivered with vocal clarity and conviction

Herbie Hancock "River"--popular song material, smooth-edged textures, but with a surprisingly strong sense of interplay that brings out the best in the guest vocalists

Sex Mob "Solid Sender"--Loud, transparent, grooving, and just plain fun

John Zorn "Masada: Live in Sevilla"--who can resist the infectious "Beeroth"?

Darcy James Argue "Infernal Machines"--dark and dramatic big band music that tends to rock rather than swing; Sebastian Noelle's guitar is a critical ingredient

And of course, really anything by the Bad Plus, but if I had to pick one, it would be "Suspicious Activity"