Forget All That and Just Wail
New Music That Orbits Around Jazz
Compiled by Ross Simonini
1. Colin Stetson, “The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man”
The sax will always be jazz. Even if the 1980s borrowed the instrument for the occasional ersatz guitar solo, it still produces the timbre of America’s only original art form. The alto sax is the sound of Charlie Parker and the tenor is Coltrane (or Lester Young, depending on your age and style), but the baritone, which is what Stetson plays, is not yet owned. The great Gerry Mulligan springs to mind as the undeniable bari sax player, but Stetson isn’t playing anything close to Mulligan’s crooning, mellow tones. Stetson yanks out the wail and crack of the horn, harnesses its intensity, and has a sensibility that seems as much about texture as it is about shredding. He’s both minimalist and maximalist, so he isn’t either, and he doesn’t seem to be improvising (like Mulligan once did) but playing a long, fixed, multivoiced melody with all the shape and arc of a Bach toccata.
2. Karriem Riggins, “Double Trouble”
Jazz time is thick and pliant. When jazz drummers play rock or funk or hip-hop, they infuse the beat with a sticky viscosity, stretching and speeding the space between each beat. Riggins does this. He’s played with jazz icons like Ray Brown and Bobby Hutcherson since he was nineteen years old, and if you play with those guys at that age, your heart probably beats with jazz time, which is not an actual term, and probably has its roots in the wavering pulse of African rhythms. Now, about twenty years later, Riggins is playing with the old-fashioned balladeer Diana Krall, who might be the world’s only jazz megastar, and is, at the same time, creating solo music, which is sample-based and electronic and played with the sort of naturally wonky swing that only a human hand could produce.
3. Thundercat, “For Love I Come”
None of these tracks are jazz, though they recall jazz or are birthed from its roots. In most cases, the musicians were initially deeply involved in playing jazz and then drifted away from it, purposefully forgetting the form. Thundercat grew up as one of these kids, playing his lightning-fast bass solos around Los Angeles. His music is a sort of rethinking of various forms of ’70s pop—one of the few periods in which jazz was allowed to influence pop. (These days you rarely hear jazzy pop music, even though the two genres have always had some kind of connection—think of Coltrane’s famous version of “My Favorite Things.”) Thundercat brings the pop a little back in the direction of jazz through electronic music, but his bass playing remains blazingly jazz. A lot of people hate when instrumental virtuosity becomes a spectacle, which is something the worst jazz has undeniably become guilty of—wanking—but every once in a while it’s nice to hear someone who can make a run of notes sound like liquid pouring across an instrument.
4. The Ben Monder Trio, “Red Shifts”
The tone of Monder’s instrument—the amp and guitar and the subtle chorus effect—sounds like “jazz guitar.” Instrumentalists can adopt a sound that immediately sparks a connotation. It’s not a bad thing, but it ends up narrowing the listener’s ear a bit, which can be bad if the listener has a preexisting prejudice against that connotation. But when I really try and listen to the harmonies that get outlined as the notes of this track whiz past, I hear a music that isn’t willing to settle for any kind of narrowing. It keeps moving forward, opening up. I expect it to land somewhere, to become easy to reduce, but no. This music is through-composed, and it’s not improvised. In fact, a good chunk of this comp is not improvised, which is why most of its music can never sound like jazz.
5. Dawn of Midi, “Ymir”
If I hadn’t heard Dawn of Midi’s previous music, I might never have considered putting them on a comp like this, but I did hear it. The trio’s older music was purely improvised—a minimal, abstract form of jazz that sounded closer to the work of an errant composer than to most improv. (Also, they look like a jazz-piano trio, with their small drum kit and upright bass, even if they don’t sound like one.) On this track, the pianist leans in, places his hand on the piano strings, and mutes every note, creating a subdued, plucky sound that interacts with the bass and drums like a fellow rhythm instrument. Here, there is a peculiar brew of influences—Moroccan Gnawa, some Steve Reich–ish repetition, minimal electronic music—but jazz isn’t among them, at least not directly. This is another completely composed piece of music, an excerpt from the band’s third release, Dysnomia, the name of a moon around the tiny planet of Eris, which has all sorts of exciting metaphorical resonances when placed against the faux tape-looping and cyclical compositional style of this music. You’re hearing something that sounds electronic, but it’s as analog as the moon and stars.
6. Glows in the Dark (featuring Count Bass D), “Up and Down”
Where to locate the jazz? I keep trying to answer that question in these written snippets about each track. What’s funny is that most of these artists have probably spent a fair amount of energy trying not to be swallowed by the term. On this track you could point to the rhythmic feel, the woody buzz of the double bass, the horns, the peculiar, rich chordal shifts—but who cares? I can’t pretend this compilation is the first time jazz is being expanded past its accepted definition, or the first time jazz musicians have incorporated other strains of music, since that’s essentially how the genre began and has continued. This marriage of hip-hop and jazz is old news, for sure. Remember that little spurt in the ’90s that included Us3, Digable Planets, and Guru’s Jazzmatazz series? It wasn’t just a moment. There isn’t any nostalgia in this music—it sounds fresh—and there’s no chorus, which helps the MC’s flow feel unstructured, like the intuitive narrative of an instrumentalist’s solo.
7. Steve Raegele, “Triangle (Daedalus)”
I made this comp because I like jazz, or at least I did at one point. Not just the sound of what jazz was in its heyday, but the ineffable moods and aesthetic choices that surround the philosophy of jazz. In this track, Raegele has managed to capture some of these moods and aesthetics without letting them define the music. Maybe it’s just the thick, swampy chords or the wandering, unresolved melodic turns, but it’s nice to hear these types of sensibilities abstracted to the point of befuddlement. One way Raegele manages to escape the event horizon of the jazz mood is by stacking about seven other moods on top of it, some of which can be traced back to his work with the excellent Montreal rock band the Besnard Lakes. This track, specifically, comes out of the “weird language” that Raegele uses as an improviser, and is one of three variations on a theme, which is one of his ways of arriving at improvisation from the back end.
8. Mary Halvorson Quintet, “Sea Cut Like Snow (No. 26)”
Most early jazz albums were live recordings, or studio recordings that were almost-live, completed in a room, over a few hours, with a lot of improv. This live Halvorson track has a nice blend of the composed and the improvised, and you can feel the ensemble ebbing and flowing as the music chugs along. You get some beautiful soloing from Mary here. Her guitar playing is raw and aggressive, an approach that sounds as much like punk as traditional jazz guitarists such as Django Reinhardt or Grant Green or Jim Hall. She uses a pedal to transform the sound of her guitar, adding a rubbery slip to the way notes are released and attacked. Her phrasing is as much the product of her years of rigorous discipline as it is of the musical technology of her time.
9. Flying Lotus, “German Haircut”
On a track like this, the electronic musician Flying Lotus approaches composition as a sort of jazz compilation in itself, running different recordings against each other, treating them like he treats the rest of his samples, with a wash of reverb and sweeping effects. Part of what’s compelling in this context is that he’s taking recordings of improvisation and reinterpreting them through the medium of electronic music, an approach several of the musicians on this compilation are taking. So, essentially, he’s un-improvising improvisation, and then, in a way, he’s improvising with them again, by weaving drums and harp and sax (played by Ravi Coltrane) and digital manipulation together in ways that create unexpected results. Also, while many of these musicians are in the musical lineage of jazz, Lotus (Steven Ellison) is in its bloodline, as the grand-nephew of Alice Coltrane and the cousin of Ravi.
10. Chris Corsano, “Famously Short Arms”
Go find the video of Corsano playing this music. He plays while holding a book, which he constantly uses to mute and whack and press on the drums, creating a whole cornucopia of timbres from a single snare drum. There’s also some stuff hanging from cymbals and a piece of wrapping paper taped to a tom-tom, and he plays all this junk so fluently. What sounds like a set of drums being musically thrown around the room is, visually, so relaxed, controlled, and—seemingly—composed. Corsano has drummed among the improvisational vanguard for the last few decades, so his rhythmic language comes out of improvisation, even if what he’s playing is prewritten. The drum solo is usually considered a bemoaned indulgence in any musical tradition, but Corsano, like Han Bennink before him, has constructed it as a stand-alone art form.
11. Matana Roberts, “lulla/bye”
Terms like avant-garde, experimental, jazz, and even new music have melded together into an undifferentiated mass. The people I know who are interested in one of these styles are interested in all of them, because there’s no separating them. Roberts, a Chicagoan, releases her music on Constellation Records, which is one of those labels that has made a name for itself by releasing the music of this undifferentiated mass, much of which ends up taking on the catchall term post-rock. This track begins seemingly jazzy but very quickly forgets itself and transforms into a gorgeous chant that draws from the ancient well of folk tradition, which seems to be the real through-line in her work. “Real jazz musicians to me are people who are deeply dealing with the traditional aspects of that music. I’m considering those aspects, but I’m not dealing with them in the way that they are,” Roberts has said. “Basically, I don’t like being told what to do, or who I am, or what I am by other people. I prefer to make those statements myself.”
12. Microkingdom, “Peppermint Crab”
When did jazz stop being cool? It was once the very definition of coolness, of sunglasses worn indoors. There was even an aptly titled genre of music called “cool jazz,” which remains cool, as a nostalgic thing, as long as the musicians themselves remain back in the ’40s and ’50s. This era ended with sound effects, synthesizers, and the digitization of music. Miles Davis added some delay to his trumpet (during the Bitches Brew era), and it sounded transcendent, so, of course, every other musician followed suit. The ’70s brought fusion, created almost entirely by Davis’s former musicians, who were trying to be cool (like rock music) but ended up, from the critical perspective, in a sort of prog-rock ghetto. And on the other end of things, jazz was becoming institutionalized as schools began teaching it—always uncool. The raw, crunchy, Coltrane-like aggression was smoothed out, and the public’s relationship with jazz became defined by elevator speakers and hold-music. Thankfully, the seeds of free jazz have continued to birth errant pockets of noise in the underground. Here, the saxophone gets transformed by distortion into something not unlike the way a guitar sounds in noise music, and vibraphones are tweaked and twisted. Instruments are not what they seem to be, and neither is the music: what sounds at first to be improvised is then repeated, and revealed to be an actual melody (sort of). Everything here is born from the best kind of subversion, which will always be cool.
13. Diamond Terrifier, “Kill the Self That Wants to Kill Yourself”
At some point, the movie soundtrack co-opted jazz. The moods of jazz, like those of classical music, have become inextricably cinematic. Hear a Benny Goodman song, picture Woody Allen. Hear a lonely, forlorn saxophone, picture a man in an overcoat creeping through noir-lit streets. Here, Diamond Terrifier swallows the jazzy soundtrack and expels it in a fiery dragon’s-breath burp. Diamond Terrifier used to play in a group called Zs, whose musical vocabulary shares elements of free jazz, noise music, and hardcore, but on his solo project, and on this track in particular, he’s far more inclusive. With a simple repeating sample and a sax he manages to drag together all the stigmas of jazz—the saccharine romance, the smooth reverb, the screechingly avant-garde, the noodley improvisation. He doesn’t try and sidestep or reject anything, he embraces it all and creates his own little chunk of art that steps beyond the fastidious boundaries of taste.
Forget All That and Just Wail, the compilation of jazz-orbital music described above, can be downloaded from believermag.com/justwail using the unique code found on the insert inside each issue. For this, we are deeply grateful to Jesse von Doom and CASH Music, a nonprofit organization that builds open-source digital tools for musicians and labels.
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