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Modern Jazz: Fusion and Beyond - BEYOND REGIONALISM, What Is Fusion?, WEATHER REPORT, HERBIE HANCOCK, FREE FUNK AND M-BASE MUSIC

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With the end of regional styles, jazz ironically has not become a unified whole, but instead has been evolving in many different directions simultaneously. Fusion, the last dominant style, garnered the most headlines during the 1970s, but jazz musicians have since explored virtually every past style from Dixieland to free jazz. Many have chosen a bit of this and a bit of that to create unusual combinations of idioms and all types of new fusions that have little to do with the rock/jazz style, except in its spirit.

What Is Fusion?

Fusion is a mixture of the rhythms, sounds, and often the instrumentation of rock with jazz improvisation. Prior to 1967 the worlds of jazz and rock and roll rarely overlapped. Occasionally a jazz musician, usually urged on by a record label, would cover a rock song in hopes of increasing sales; but this usually created a dud, both artistically and commercially. Jazz musicians looked on rock and roll of the 1950s as juvenile music, even though some backing players came from the jazz world, and although more impressed in the 1960s by the Beatles, the compositions of Paul McCartney and John Lennon seemed simplistic compared to the legacy of Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. In addition, few of the rock musicians of the early 1960s were sophisticated enough players to stretch out on jazz pieces.

That situation began to change during 1967 and 1968. The rise of the counterculture that attracted many jazz players had been prefigured in the social conditions of the jazz world as early as the 1950s, particularly in the racial integration resulting from the civil rights movement, the recreational use of drugs, and the fight for self-expression as opposed to being part of the dominant conformist culture. Although jazz had always stood for freedom and musically had found it in the avant-garde movement, rock of the late 1960s spoke much more to the new generation than did free jazz.

Rock musicians were generally much better players by 1968 than they had been in 1963, and this growth showed in their compositions and musicianship. While jazz musicians of the early 1960s had grown up on Charlie Parker, the younger ones of the late 1960s had often listened to the early rock-and-roll bands and were intrigued by the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. In fact, early mixtures of the new style were called jazz/rock or rock/jazz until the fusion term was coined. The electric piano and synthesizers of the 1970s began to be utilized, as was the electric bass, competing favorably with the acoustic piano and string bass in significance at least for a time.

Among the earliest examples of fusion on record are an album by the Free Spirits and the first recordings by Gary Burton’s quartet. The Free Spirits, a quintet featuring tenor-saxophonist Jim Pepper and two guitarists including Larry Coryell, only recorded one very obscure record in 1967. Burton, a young vibraphonist who was interested not only in jazz but also in country music and the era’s new rock scene, added Coryell to his quartet that same year. Coryell, who came from the world of electric blues and rock, has the distinction of being the first fusion guitarist, and Burton’s group, including bassist Steve Swallow and either Roy Haynes or Bob Moses on drums, lasted into mid-1968. Burton’s band set a trend in another area. Up until that time, jazz musicians almost always appeared on stage wearing suits or at least ties, but Burton’s group dressed much more informally.

During the next few years Gary Burton’s groups featured such guitarists as Jerry Hahn, Sam Brown, Mick Goodrick, Pat Metheny, and John Scofield. The vibes never became a major instrument in fusion, and after 1977 Burton’s music was much more in the post-bop field, but he and his quartet had blazed an early path for others to follow.

WEATHER REPORT

Wayne Shorter was a member of the Miles Davis Quintet until 1970, leaving to co-lead Weather Report. A very original tenor saxophonist and composer with his own musical logic, Shorter had also carved out a distinctive voice on soprano sax. His co-leader with Weather Report, Joe Zawinul, had been Cannonball Adderley’s pianist for years, composed the soulful hit “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” and was an early pioneer on electric piano and synthesizers, contributing “In a Silent Way” to the Miles Davis album of the same name and guesting on some of Davis’ dates.

The original version of Weather Report comprised the co-leaders, electric bassist Miroslav Vitous, drummer Alphonse Mouzon, and percussionist Airto. With the focus on ensemble playing rather than individual solos, everyone and no one was soloing. Zawinul’s keyboards were a dominant force, although Shorter’s soprano was also a key voice. Initially Weather Report’s music was more abstract than that of the other fusion bands, but over time it became funkier and featured catchier melodies along with world music elements. While Zawinul and Shorter were constants, the other spots were soon filled by a variety of top young musicians, including drummers Eric Gravatt and Ndugu Chancler; percussionists Dom Um Romao, Alyrio Lima, and Alex Acuna; and by late 1973 bassist Alphonso Johnson. Johnson helped redefine the role of the electric bassist in the group as a near equal with Zawinul in setting grooves and leading the increasingly infectious rhythms.

In 1976 Jaco Pastorius took Johnson’s place. A revolutionary on the electric bass, Pastorius played with the facility of a guitarist. His background was in r&b and rock, but he had also played jazz with multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan, pianist Paul Bley, and guitarist Pat Metheny. During his five years with Weather Report, Pastorius became a major influence on other electric bassists, playing with a very distinctive tone, plenty of power, and the ability to both accompany and challenge other soloists. He was a true powerhouse on his instrument, and even after his death, he is still a major force to be reckoned with.

Starting with the 1977 album Heavy Weather , which includes the big hit “Birdland,” Pastorius’ role with Weather Report was so important that he was practically a co-leader with Zawinul. Shorter became more of a special ingredient in the group’s sound although not that involved in the group’s evolution, while Peter Erskine was stimulating on drums. Weather Report’s popularity was at its height after “Birdland” caught on, and Pastorius put in spectacular performances that nearly overshadowed Zawinul at times.

In 1980 Pastorius formed a big band, Word of Mouth, and his solo projects resulted in his leaving Weather Report altogether the following year. Pastorius should have been able to enjoy a busy and lucrative solo career, but he suffered from mental illness, and after 1983 his life was increasingly erratic. Reluctant to take the medication he needed or to seek therapy, Jaco Pastorius was on a downward spiral in his last few years before being beaten to death in 1987 by a bouncer when he tried to break into a Florida nightclub.

By then Weather Report was also a thing of the past. After Pastorius left, his spot was ably taken by bassist Victor Bailey with Omar Hakim succeeding Erskine on drums, but the group had seen its prime. Joe Zawinul’s keyboards completely dominated the band’s sound with Wayne Shorter becoming much less significant; the balance between the co-leaders was gone. In 1985 after fifteen years, Weather Report broke up. Since then, Zawinul has led a series of groups, first known as Weather Update and then becoming Zawinul Syndicate, that are as much world music as jazz, featuring vocals in various languages interacting with Zawinul’s still-innovative work on synthesizers. Shorter had a low profile for years, just making occasional guest appearances, but in the early twenty-first century he emerged with an exciting quartet with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade. On both tenor and soprano, Shorter at the age of seventy showed that his highly original post-bop playing was still adventurous and among the freshest voices in jazz.

HERBIE HANCOCK

Herbie Hancock already had a strong name in jazz before he joined Miles Davis in 1963, having composed “Watermelon Man” and recorded his own albums for Blue Note. While with Davis, he continued to grow, finding a role for the piano in the trumpeter’s post-bop period and beginning to develop his own voice on electric piano during 1967 and 1968. After leaving Davis, Hancock formed a sextet that lasted until 1972, in its final two years including trumpeter Eddie Henderson, trombonist Julian Priester, Bennie Maupin on reeds, bassist Buster Williams, and drummer Billy Hart. The Herbie Hancock Sextet’s music was funky at times and hinted at fusion, but was also avant-garde and quite unpredictable. It remains one of the most underrated bands of the period.

Hancock, however, grew tired of playing for small crowds and constantly scuffling. In 1973 he broke up the sextet and formed the Headhunters, a much more accessible group. The Headhunters flavored their brand of fusion with funk and r&b rather than rock, immediately generating a large audience. Originally consisting of Hancock on electronic keyboards, Maupin, electric bassist Paul Jackson, drummer Harvey Mason, and percussionist Bill Summers, the Headhunters had a big hit with “Chameleon” on their debut recording. They played for dancing audiences who were at least as interested in funk as they were in jazz.

Like Miles Davis and Chick Corea, Hancock never stays in one project for too long. If anything, he has been the most changeable of the three musical giants. After a concert at the 1976 Newport Jazz Festival featured Hancock with the Headhunters, his reunited sextet, and the special V.S.O.P. Quintet of Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Freddie Hubbard in Miles Davis’ place, he toured with the latter group and made some new acoustic recordings, breaking up the Headhunters.

Since then Herbie Hancock alternated between acoustic groups, often with a trio or heading a combo featuring trumpeter Roy Hargrove and tenor-saxophonist Michael Brecker, and electronic projects that sometimes went way beyond jazz, including some disco in the late 1970s, dance music, some African world music, and the use of turntables, such as on the electronic funk hit “Rock It.” More than forty years after he arrived on the scene, Herbie Hancock remains a consistently stimulating and continually unpredictable performer.

FREE FUNK AND M-BASE MUSIC

As is true of the most significant jazz groups, the best fusion bands have their own unique personality and sound. Few were as dense, noisy, and adventurous as Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time. Altoist Coleman’s quartets of 1959 to 1961 paved the way for free jazz and the avant-garde movement of the mid-1960s. In 1976 when fusion was starting to decline, Coleman put together a group called Prime Time that eventually consisted of his own alto and a double rhythm section with two guitars, two electric bassists, and two drummers. The music, sometimes called “free funk,” featured funky but utterly unpredictable rhythms from sidemen while Coleman wailed over the top. The performances were supposed to be very democratic with all of the musicians having an equal role, displaying Coleman’s “harmelodic” theories, with harmonies, melodies, and rhythms all having equal importance. Due to the sound of the instruments, Coleman always appeared to be leading the heated ensembles. His sidemen at various times have included drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, both leaders of their own important free funk groups. Prime Time continued on a part-time basis. Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society and Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s Spectacle were exciting free funk groups in the 1980s.

In the mid-1980s altoist Steve Coleman became one of the main founders of the M-Base movement, which is slightly related to 1970s fusion in its openness to mixing idioms and approaches. M-Base, or macro-basic array of structured extemporization, was similar in concept to free funk with danceable but unpredictable rhythms, dissonant but ultimately logical solos, crowded ensembles, and a very different way of improvising from bebop. The key innovators in this informal movement, in addition to Steve Coleman, were altoist Greg Osby, tenor-saxophonist Gary Thomas, trumpeter Graham Haynes, trombonist Robin Eubanks, pianist Geri Allen, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and singer Cassandra Wilson. Not all of the M-Base projects were equally rewarding—some of Coleman’s recordings in the 1990s allowed rappers to dominate—and the musicians have largely gone their separate ways since then, but their joint projects were always stimulating if abrasive, and their approaches to soloing remain influential.

OTHER FUSION PLAYERS

In addition to the musicians mentioned, there have been other significant fusion players. Violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, a virtuoso from France, led the Jean-Luc Ponty Experience from 1970 to 1972, had stints with rock guitarist-composer Frank Zappa, and the second Mahavishnu Orchestra, and then beginning in 1975, led a series of impressive albums for the Atlantic label. Ponty’s band of that era consisted of his violin, guitar, keyboards, electric bass, and drums, a very cohesive unit with all of the instruments at times blending together as one.

Though overshadowed by John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola among guitarists, Larry Coryell, who had preceded both of them, worked steadily after leaving Gary Burton’s band in 1968. He led The Eleventh House from 1972 to 1975, a fusion group that also featured drummer Alphonse Mouzon and trumpeter Mike Lawrence, who was preceded by Randy Brecker. Coryell has since explored acoustic guitar, Brazilian jazz, and bebop, having an eclectic and underrated career.

Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul were among the top electric keyboardists of the 1970s continuing in that role into the twenty-first century. Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke set the standard for fusion bassists, although they were challenged by John Patitucci and Marcus Miller, also a notable producer.

Billy Cobham, the drummer with the original Mahavishnu Orchestra, gained recognition as the premiere fusion drummer of the 1970s, competing favorably with Alphonse Mouzon and Jack DeJohnette. Cobham, yet another alumni of Miles Davis’ recording groups who appeared on Bitches Brew, Live-Evil , and Jack Johnson , recorded frequently in a variety of jazz settings. After the Mahavishnu Orchestra broke up, in 1973 he led his own fusion group, Spectrum, utilizing such players as keyboardist Jan Hammer, formerly with Mahavishnu, the Brecker brothers—trumpeter Randy and tenor-saxophonist Michael Brecker—and guitarists John Abercrombie and John Scofield. Cobham has had a lower profile since the 1980s, occasionally coming out of semi-retirement to lead electronic modern fusion bands.

THE DECLINE OF FUSION

During the first half of the 1970s, fusion was everywhere in jazz, and acoustic jazz was being forced underground to a certain extent. The jazz world was split in two by the new style that many on the acoustic side doubted was jazz at all. By 1975 the style was starting to run out of creative gas, and by the early 1980s fusion was considered passé by many.

What happened to fusion? It may have been a victim of its own success. The initial joy of mixing together jazz improvisation with the sound and rhythms of rock had excited many young musicians. As the music became more and more complex, however, it lost some of its charm and much of its initial idealism. The rise of guitarists John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola inspired other guitarists to play faster and louder, and many of the original fusion compositions of the mid-1970s sound almost like exercises.

Competition from disco took away much of the dancing audience, and rock eventually shrank fusion’s audience which nevertheless stayed fairly large. When Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, and Tony Williams gradually shifed back toward acoustic music, at least part of the time, and with Miles Davis’ retiring, fusion lost a lot of its creative giants. The revival of acoustic jazz fueled by the return of Dexter Gordon to the United States, the maturation of swing tenor Scott Hamilton and cornetist Warren Vache, and in the 1980s the prominence of the Young Lions led by Wynton Marsalis, pushed fusion out of the headlines in the jazz world.

Despite it all, fusion is still played today by many local and under-documented groups of creative rock musicians and open-minded jazzers. Probably the best examples are guitarist Scott Henderson’s Tribal Tech, some jam bands, and any time such guitar giants as John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, Hiram Bullock, Mike Stern, and Allan Holdsworth choose to really cut loose.

AFTER THE FUSION ERA

Rather than jazz racing towards total freedom, which was reached during the mid- to late 1960s, or evolving in one main direction due to the work of a few individuals, the music since the fusion era has been shooting out in dozens of different places at once. To casual observers, jazz may seem to have stopped evolving altogether, because there are no longer one or two dominating giants, and because the jazz of ten or twenty years ago is no longer considered automatically passé.

The earlier attitude that newer styles of jazz “replace” and are superior to older ones began to change in the 1970s when it was recognized that the ranks of the classic greats were starting to thin and that there were many veteran performers who were still in their musical prime. One of those greats, tenor-saxophonist Dexter Gordon, created a sensation when he returned to the United States in 1976 after more than a decade in Europe. His bop/hard bop music had not changed much since the early 1960s, but it was still viable. Fans who had never seen Gordon waited in long lines outside clubs so they could experience the living legend’s music in person. The rise of fusion had not decreased the power of Dexter Gordon’s brand of straight-ahead jazz.

In the mid-1970s tenor-saxophonist Scott Hamilton and cornetist Warren Vache, two players in their early twenties, chose to spend their careers not performing fusion, funk, or avant-garde jazz, but mainstream swing instead. There had been revivalists in jazz since at least the early 1940s, but many were either veterans of earlier eras or amateurs. Hamilton and Vache were young world-class players who would have succeeded at any music they chose to explore. Their career choice signaled to many other musicians and listeners that there was nothing wrong with artists defying trends and playing whatever style of jazz they desired, as long as they did it with creativity and individuality.

The developments of the second half of the 1970s cheered listeners who feared that, with the rise of fusion, acoustic jazz was finished. As it turned out, no style of jazz has been exhausted yet. Any doubts to that statement were washed away with the rise of Wynton Marsalis and the Young Lions.

TODAY’S JAZZ SCENE

One of the most common questions about recent jazz is also one of the most difficult to answer. New listeners of current music often ask, What is it called? Although the historic styles have names, a large portion of post-1980 jazz does not fall into any simple category, mixing aspects of several styles with original ideas. What is the music of tenor-saxophonist Joe Lovano, altoist Kenny Garrett, or guitarist Pat Metheny, to name three top artists, called?

One name that fits much of the music is post-bop, jazz that is more advanced in its chords, rhythms, and improvisations than hard bop but is not as free or generally as dissonant as avant-garde. An enormous amount of dissimilar music falls into that wide area so, unlike bebop, the boundaries of post-bop are very fluid. Post-bop can also be thought of as modern jazz that is not fusion, crossover/smooth, avant-garde, or a historic style.

There have been many changes in the jazz scene since the 1950s and 1960s. Racism has greatly declined in American society, illegal rather than institutional policy, and therefore many doors have been opened for black musicians. Whereas in the 1950s, black jazz musicians mostly made their living playing in clubs, now the best ones can, with their white counterparts, also play in the studios and/or teach privately. The music education system once only accepted classical music, and jazz musicians had to sneak in practice time behind their instructors’ backs, but jazz has become part of the curricula at many colleges and high schools. Boston’s Berklee School of Music is only the best known of the numerous music colleges offering classes and degrees in jazz. Many well-respected jazz musicians work at least part-time as professors and other educators. The IAJE (International Association for Jazz Educators) and its large annual conventions that attract as many as 7,000 educators, students, professional musicians, and fans demonstrate the size and strength of the jazz education movement.

For young musicians, to a large extent their former apprenticeship and training in jam sessions and as members of touring bands headed by veteran jazz greats has been replaced by time spent in classrooms and playing with their peers and under the guidance of teachers. There has been a longstanding debate over whether this is good or not. Music schools tend to graduate students who are technically skilled but not necessarily very unique in their improvising abilities, often sounding like the musical apostles of their teachers. Also, music schools often emphasize work in big bands to serve as many students as possible, so some students graduate with skills that are no longer in great demand, since there are not that many regularly working jazz orchestras. Perhaps the problem is with the perception that students who graduate from music schools are “finished” jazz musicians, when in fact they are just beginning their careers. Most twenty-two year olds cannot be expected to solo with the maturity and creativity of someone who is thirty.

The jazz world is very fragmented, with virtually every jazz style being explored by at least a few very creative musicians. Ragtime, which made a comeback when Scott Joplin’s music was used in the movie The Sting in the early 1970s, is still being performed today, with new compositions written and added to the repertoire. Dixieland is featured at large classic jazz festivals held nearly every weekend somewhere in the United States, including the world’s largest American festival, a gigantic event held in Sacramento, California, each Memorial Day weekend. Other traditional jazz musicians, who look to the 1920s for inspiration, have revived vintage arrangements and frameworks from obscure recordings. A generation of small-group swing players who came up after Scott Hamilton and Warren Vache has made pre-bop combos viable again, keeping alive the music of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, including trombonist Dan Barrett, Ken Peplowski on clarinet and tenor, C-melody saxophonist Dan Levinson, tenorman Harry Allen, trumpeter/cornetists Randy Sandke and Peter Ecklund, guitarist Howard Alden, pianist Judy Carmichael, drummer Hal Smith, and singers Banu Gibson and Rebecca Kilgore.

In the late 1980s a strange new mixture of styles began to be heard, particularly from the Royal Crown Revue. The main forefather to the Retro Swing movement was Louis Prima and his band of the mid- to late 1950s. Prima, who had spent periods playing Dixieland in the 1930s and leading a big band the following decade, had a Las Vegas act in the 1950s that combined his New Orleans trumpet and a swing repertoire with the honking r&b tenor of Sam Butera, the ballad vocals of Keely Smith, a shuffle rhythm, Italian comedy, and a rock-and-roll sensibility. More than thirty years later, the Royal Crown Revue and other bands in the 1990s inspired a large dancing audience by utilizing swing and rock and roll in their music.

Some of the Retro Swing bands were really rock bands with vocalists and horn sections that paid lip service to swing without swinging, but there were exceptions. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy uses humor effectively, has fine musicianship, and has performed some catchy new songs including “You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three.” Singer Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, which has grown beyond retro swing, are a throwback to Dinah Washington and the jump bands of the mid-1940s, balancing blues, early r&b, and boogie-woogie with heated instrumentals that usually feature three horn players. Also worthwhile are Steve Lucky and the Rhumba Buns, the Magnum Brutes, Mora’s Modern Rhythmists, and Ron Sunshine’s Full Swing. Of the few big bands that were formed during the era, Bill Elliott’s orchestra is the most authentic, sounding like a new swing orchestra from 1940.

While there has not been a major revival of bebop or cool jazz, most straight-ahead musicians play bop standards now and then, while the arranging approaches of cool jazz remain influential on many of today’s writers. The hard bop revival that gained momentum with the Young Lions continues, with the Blue Note recordings of the late 1950s and 1960s still providing inspiration. African Cuban jazz remains very popular, perhaps the most popular overall of current jazz styles, filled with scores of talented players both from Cuba and the United States who perform stirring and danceable music.

Soul jazz made a full comeback. The rise of Joey DeFrancesco in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a young organist with a great deal of energy who sounds close to Jimmy Smith, led to interest in the surviving organists of the 1960s, many of whom had been neglected. In addition, deejays in dance clubs, in their desire to create funky new music out of older recordings, have frequently sampled once-discarded soul jazz albums of the late 1960s. When their concoctions appear on new recordings, using fragments of older records and overdubbing funky contemporary rhythms and sometimes rap, the results have often been unexpectedly generous royalty checks for the original performers, and in some cases, their tickets to the comeback trail. Experiments by rappers who mix their productions with jazz have generally been unsuccessful, at least from the jazz standpoint. As with attempts to mix poetry with jazz in the late 1950s, the music tended to be subservient to the spoken word, adding a little atmosphere but never achieving a true mix of equals.

By the late 1970s, free jazz and the avant-garde seemed to be in decline. John Coltrane and Albert Ayler were long gone, the loft movement in New York had largely ended, and free jazz was no longer generating headlines in the jazz world, being overshadowed by fusion. Avant-garde jazz, however, has always attracted many of the most creative jazz musicians. While the ESP and Impulse labels, which had documented many of the important sessions in the 1960s, were defunct, European labels including Black Saint and Soul Note and a countless number of tiny independent companies, many run by musicians, have filled the gap. In fact, the majority of contemporary independent jazz releases are avant-garde jazz, music that the larger labels are afraid to take a chance on, but that attracts a small and dedicated audience.

In 1987 the Knitting Factory opened in New York, becoming one of the centers of the American avant-garde. Always opening doors to new jazz sounds, avant-rock and experimental styles outside of jazz, the Knitting Factory was the Minton’s Playhouse of the 1990s and the twenty-first century. Among the top “Downtown” musicians who have been associated with the Knitting Factory are altoist John Zorn, guitarist Bill Frisell, trumpeter Dave Douglas, and tenor-saxophonist Charles Gayle, plus the who’s who of the avant-garde at one time or another.

Although it is beyond the confines of this book, jazz has been an international music since American jazz musicians and their recordings started traveling overseas just prior to the 1920s. With the exception of Django Reinhardt’s brand of gypsy jazz in the 1930s, it was not until the rise of avant-garde jazz that Europeans first began to really develop their own styles. Rather than try to come up with something fresh to say in bebop or Dixieland, styles that were fully formed in the United States, Europeans found avant-garde jazz to have more potential for originality. They have been able to mix in their own musical Page 240  heritage, whether it is classical music, regional folk melodies, or ethnic instruments and rhythms, with the improvisation of jazz to create new and colorful variations of free jazz.

Like the European avant-garde, some Americans have combined their own folk heritage with jazz. A group of Jewish jazz musicians, including John Zorn’s Masada, helped to revive klezmer, adding adventurous improvisations and reconstructing the traditional music into a new style and format. Latin, Cuban, and South American musicians have done the same with their own musical heritage. Some Americans who are considered advanced players have utilized aspects of the past in new ways, including New Orleans parade rhythms, swingera riffing, a modernized vintage repertoire, and funky bass patterns.

In addition to fusion, which still exists although with a much lower profile since the late 1970s, a new variation of rock/jazz has been heard in recent years, the jam bands. The movement, which began in the early 1990s, features rock-oriented bands improvising at great length, influenced at least in their concept by the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. Some of the jam bands also include bluegrass, funk, and electronic sounds in their lengthy improvisations. Thus far the jam band scene and the jazz world have largely stayed separate, with the exception of the participation of guitarist John Scofield and the adventurous organ trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood. Among many other jam bands, String Cheese Incident and Widespread Panic are popular, with Phish gaining the most notoriety before its breakup in 2004.

Historic styles, the Young Lions’ brand of hard bop, smooth jazz, and the avant-garde aside, there is a wide range of unclassifiable music performed by today’s jazz musicians. With countless ways to play jazz, the best contemporary musicians follow their own instincts rather than worrying about stylistic rules and boundaries. Some of the younger players, who grew up listening to rock rather than jazz, enjoy taking songs from the rock or pop repertoire, or writing originals that have elements of rock, pop, or funk, turning them into creative jazz.

For today’s jazz vocalists, finding a fresh repertoire can be one of the biggest dilemmas. The major composers and lyricists of the classic American song-book who flourished in the era between 1915 and 1960, are almost all deceased, and relatively few of the songs written during the past thirty years for pop music, movies, or Broadway shows are easily transferable to jazz. Most jazz originals are instrumentals, and few of today’s jazz singers and musicians are major composers, much less skilled lyricists. Jazz singers have three basic choices. They can perform standards from decades ago, doing their best to make the words and sentiments sound relevant. Diana Krall has had great success in reviving swing standards, and in Los Angeles Judy Chamberlain is one of the leading singers performing music from the great American song-book. If they have the talent, the singers can write tunes of their own, though few have the skill of such great wits as Dave Frishberg, Bob Dorough, or Mose Allison, or they can come up with rock, r&b, and pop songs. Usually obscurities that fit their style work best, as Cassandra Wilson has demonstrated. The
days of merely performing the latest songs from the Hit Parade, however, are decades in the past.

One of the biggest challenges facing jazz instrumentalists and singers alike is simply getting noticed and making a living. On the one hand, there is an enormous amount of talent in most American cities, with no shortage of worthy players and female singers, though there is a drought when it comes to male jazz vocalists. On the minus side, there are many fewer jazz clubs, other than in the biggest cities, now than there were even twenty years ago. Jazz CD sales, not counting reissues, are low, there are few worthy jazz radio stations, and jazz is rarely mentioned by the mass media. Jazz musicians and singers have to be as creative with managing their careers as they are in performing music. They have more choices, but that is still no guarantee of success.

Most jazz recordings made prior to 1970 are currently available on CD, a real goldmine for collectors who love vintage music and have an unlimited budget. While there are always some rare items that have not been rediscovered yet, there is a remarkable amount of reissues that have been put out on collectors’ labels or as imports that can be found in specialty shops, through mail order, or on the Internet.

The situation is a bit different for jazz fans primarily interested in the current scene. There are countless new jazz CDs released each week, but very few are available at chain stores, played on local radio stations, or released by the major record labels. The key to discovering new music is to read the main jazz magazines, Jazz Times, Downbeat, Jazziz, Cadence, Coda , and the better regional jazz papers, and to search the Internet for opportunities to listen to national jazz radio stations. Use your own ears to decide what you like best, staying open to newer sounds and approaches, and then search the Internet for sources for CDs, including the Web sites of the main jazz artists.

This book is just an introduction to some of the most important historic jazz figures, so I have tried not to burden the reader with an excess of names. There are many more great classic jazz artists and modern jazz musicians to discover. A list of all of the top current players and singers would be enormous. Despite that, some artists are well worth exploring for a start, all superior exponents of modern jazz. The following brief list does not include those artists who are primarily exploring earlier styles of jazz.

Trumpeters: Dave Douglas, Russell Gunn, Roy Hargrove, Tom Harrell, Ingrid Jensen, Brian Lynch, Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Hugh Ragin, Arturo Sandoval

Trombonists: Ray Anderson, Robin Eubanks, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre

Clarinetists: Don Byron, Eddie Daniels

Altoists: Ornette Coleman, Steve Coleman, Paquito D’Rivera, Kenny Garrett, Antonio Hart, Jackie McLean, Greg Osby, Bobby Watson, Phil Woods

Tenors: James Carter, George Garzone, Charles Gayle, Javon Jackson, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, Chris Potter, Joshua Redman, Sonny Rollins, David Sanchez, Wayne Shorter, David Ware

Pianists: Geri Allen, Michel Camilo, Bill Charlap, Cyrus Chestnut, Chick Corea, Kenny Drew Jr., Eliane Elias, Benny Green, Herbie Hancock, Fred Hersch, Keith Jarrett, Adam Makowicz, Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, Danilo Perez, Eric Reed, Marcus Roberts, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Matthew Shipp, Cecil Taylor, Jacky Terrasson, McCoy Tyner, Chucho Valdes, Kenny Werner, Jessica Williams

Guitarists: Howard Alden, Bill Frisell, Scott Henderson, Charlie Hunter, Stanley Jordan, Russell Malone, Pat Metheny, John Scofield

Bassists: Brian Bromberg, Robert Hurst III, Christian McBride, Marcus Miller, Charnett Moffett, John Patitucci

Drummers: Brian Blade, Dennis Chambers, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Ralph Peterson

Vibists: Gary Burton, Terry Gibbs, Stefan Harris, Bobby Hutcherson

Violinist: Regina Carter

Singers: Claudia Acuna, Karrin Allyson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Harry Connick Jr., Madeline Eastman, Kurt Elling, Nnenna Freelon, Diana Krall, Kitty Margolis, Bobby McFerrin, Jane Monheit, Mark Murphy, Dianne Reeves, Diane Schuur, Cassandra Wilson

Jazz, originally a regional folk music based in the southern United States, has developed into an international art form that influences all other styles of music. It has surmounted many difficulties through the years, from misrepresentation to neglect, and it will continue to thrive as long as creative musicians are continually inspired to express themselves through music and as long as there are enough fans willing to open their minds and experience the exciting and creative music.

Modern Times (1936) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique [next] [back] Mizrahi, Isaac

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