Is Today’s Jazz Too Strange For Modern Audiences?

Is Today’s Jazz Too Strange For Modern Audiences?

Is today’s jazz too strange for a modern audience? Most of my friends don’t like jazz, they are either into hip hop, trap music, Latin music or K-pop and the idea they have of this music is something rooted in the past.  For those not in the know, jazz can seem like this arcane branch of Black American Music that was played in the 1920’s to the 60’s that only old folks listen to and is now co-opted by young white jazz nerds fresh out of college, or stuffy academics.  Aside from my friends who are either jazz musicians or fans, the brilliance of a Keith Jarrett solo concert improvisation like “Osaka, Part 1” from the legendary Sun Bear Concerts box set on ECM goes right over their heads.

To attack the question better, here is the first example. I think of my friend, the excellent tenor saxophonist Ayumi Ishito who not only has her own group, but also her band the Spacemen, and the ensemble Open Question with the avant garde legend, multi instrumentalist Daniel Carter.  Ishito’s music on her albums View From A Little Cave and Midnite Cinema blend the combination of her really rich, deep toned tenor saxophone, which is so dark it’s almost like a baritone.  At the same time her sound has the floatiness of Lester Young, Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon.  Her compositions have a poppish sensibility, a longing, the Japanese term wabi-sabi or the beauty of imperfection, and a knack for shifting, twisting time signatures that do not hide her love of bands such as King Crimson.  For myself and some of the mutual friends we have, that is great, but for the average person, much jazz seems like an impenetrable wall. Ishito’s music contains one thing that is prized by the masses: melody. As side projects, with her outrageous humor Ishito has released music featuring her two panda puppets Tong Tong and Teeth-kun.  Tong Tong released a very limited, rare album of retro J-pop and Teeth-kun enjoys thrash metal and punishing vocals   about his teeth.

Guitarist and New York Jazz faculty member Kenny Wessel  is a name that’s in the trenches of the jazz scene– meaning, unless you are a hard core follower you may not have heard him, but he is a great guitarist and unsung hero.  As a veteran and important member of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, he became versed in the saxophone legends utterly singular universe of harmolodics- a very free approach to melody, rhythm and harmony Coleman developed whereby instruments could be playing multiple lines, different keys, or multiple rhythmic layers at once.  Wessel makes this approach accessible and on his recent 2020 release Unstrung he mines accessibility with challenge on tunes such as the lilting melody of the country inflected “In Due Course”, and takes a from the roadhouse solo on “Lizard Walk” while balancing things with the Ornette ish “Sliding”.

Likewise, vocalist and faculty member Michelle Walker deftly blends the vocal elasticity, attention to detail with phrasing that jazz vocalists employ.  Additionally she blends a rootsy gospel approach and a direction leaning towards 90’s R&B on her 2019 offering, Take A Chance On Love.  Jazz is only a tool for expression and can greatly aide those interested in other styles as Walker showcases here.

Jazz, as I alluded to in my previous piece on smooth jazz; those who love the music of Kenny G. could be likened to those that enjoy burgers.  Think about when you eat a White Castle burger, it may taste good, but it’s small, thin, and doesn’t have much content, or a Quarter Pounder With cheese from McDonald’s.  Those that enjoy jazz as a wider spectrum with all the mainstream artists plus the artists that function deep within the scene that are primarily known to connoisseurs; that’s like enjoying a filet mignon, Wagyu beef or the best wine.  In the latter case, there is a bit of a curve that could be perceived as a barrier of entry– jazz, especially when it comes to the avant garde and the music of Joe McPhee, Wadada Leo Smith, Ikue Mori, Satoko Fujii, Mats Gustafsson, Keiji Haino; it’s an acquired taste.  Music like this has its own dedicated scene, New York’s downtown scene, Seattle, and many are tied in with other aesthetics such as contemporary art movements such as FLUXUS, dadaism and the punk rock and metal scenes.  I scoured several Reddit and Quora communities as I was gathering research and ideas for this article, and while some of those questions posed did not directly deal with those names, when people feel jazz may be too old, they usually bring up the snobbery associated with bebop or hard bop, or the avant garde.

Artists fully invested in the now like Louis Cole, and his various bands, Antonio Sanchez (especially with his forthcoming Shift: Bad Hombre Vol. 2 featuring everyone from Dave Matthews, Kimbra, Pat Metheny, Meshell N’degeocello) Thana Alexa, DOMi and JD Beck, Chien Chien Lu, Nate Wood, all make music that while honoring what became before them in some way, meld it with their influences and the music they love.  They also present jazz in a way that not only attracts younger audiences, but still manages levels of harmonic, rhythmic and improvisatory complexity in a way maintaining keen interest with an eye on the future.

Today’s musicians require a diverse skillset for multiple genres.  The New York Jazz Workshop offers many classes, intensives, private lessons in several boroughs: Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as Europe.  Great musicianship knows no borders or genre.