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2010: A Rebuilding Year

Anthony Dean-Harris
anthony.deanharris [at] / @retronius

I’m going to take some time and be completely frank here. I honestly wasn’t wowed with most of the jazz albums released this year. Maybe I should attribute that to not having a computer most of this year and thus didn’t have the means to listen to as much music as I would have liked. Maybe some of the most awesome musical ideas in jazz were tapped in 2009 (I still take time to regularly listen to Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society’s Infernal Machines and I would have put Jason Lindner’s Now vs. Now on this year’s list if I could have). However, I’d like to think that 2010 was still a great year in jazz because we’ve focused more on how we can manage ourselves and put our best foot forward as a higher priority. 2010 has been for jazz what it has been for the rest of the world in the midst of a global economic meltdown: a rebuilding year.

Musically, there wasn’t much of anything that really excited me or made me think someone was changing the format of the genre. In 2009, Argue did that. Lindner did that. Even this year, Christian Scott made a new classic album (Like the TNT channel on a Sunday afternoon, but more like A Few Good Men and less like The General’s Daughter). He made a 1960s jazz album with modern sentiment, but he didn’t redefine much. This same sentiment is what kept The Bad Plus off our list this year, not because the album wasn’t good but because it didn’t change the game the way we felt the group typically does. This isn’t to say there wasn’t a lot of good music this year, but it pains me to say that even what we consider the best music may not have always been great. Even the largest concept works seemed too inaccessible or faltered in some way.

This is not to say that jazz music shouldn’t continue to fight for new ideas. BaptisteTrotignon made a great long composition album this year. Nels Cline released two albums that essentially begged the question “What if Mogwai or Explosions in the Sky didn’t change the way they played but suddenly declared they now play jazz?” There’s still more than enough room to do something different, and even those who reached out to new heights certainly didn’t fall flat on their faces. The artform can only get bigger and better in the future. Yet, it seemed like most of the field went with safe choices musically.

Instead, our time and focus in the genre was spent on the business side of things. Quite a few jazz musicians and promoters discovered Kickstarter to some great success. The jazz internet force that was rather lacking just a couple of years ago is becoming a very helpful force today, connecting us all together the way we’re meant to be in order to thrive. One among us even managed to get a Grammy nomination for being a newcomer despite being on the scene for a few years now. The jazz community over 2010 has seemingly come together in the way that it should. Even the bickering about the direction of the music has quelled (we’ve finally moved past the Terry Teachout fiasco) so we can actually focus on saving the genre as opposed to mourning it.

If anything, this unification seems to be the year’s coalescing narrative around the genre. The most resounding aspect that I’ve noticed at the close of this year was that no one could seemingly agree on a single narrative or single sound that describes jazz in 2010. The Nate Chinen-run digital roundtable couldn’t find a single narrative to follow. None of the critics could agree on many of the albums as the best of the year, and even the overlaps were painstakingly sought out (kudos to Jason Moran for not only all his other numerous accomplishments this year, but also for rising above this fray as the year end lists rolled through). While some may look at this and say it’s good that we don’t have one universal answer for greatness (which looks even better considering last year’s pressing need to define what jazz is), I personally look at this and say maybe we were all so caught up in doing our own thing that we didn’t find that truly great work as a whole.

I have great hope for 2011. Musically, we’re heading in a good direction, even with the journeys and the missteps. There is certainly pop music out there that isn’t afraid of complexity, the kind of complexity that jazz has to offer. Those in the jazz community are finally getting its act together in a business and marketing sense to appeal to a larger audience that is increasingly more likely to be less put off by this genre. While it may have been hard to put together a top ten list of the year, it wasn’t at all uninspiring to see where the genre is going. We’ve spent 2010 rebuilding our foundation; let’s take this next year and see what this house is going to look like.

Anthony Dean-Harris is a contributing writer for African-American Reflections and hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.