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Everything In Its Right Place

John Weatherman
Contributing Writer[at] / @TheHeadIn

Wayne Shorter's Without A Net is soon to be released on Blue Note, and the record - which features the saxophonist's longstanding group with DanĂ­lo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade - got me thinking about jazz masters.

We're nearing the end of the reign of the jazz masters. The number of living musicians from the golden era of jazz, the 1950s and 1960s, is dwindling, more and more each year. Last year saw quite a few jazz obituaries, and we've already paid tribute to the late great Dave Brubeck and others this year.

The interesting thing to me about these living legends is that they are, for the most part, just that - legends. With a few exceptions such as Mr. Shorter, these musicians have long since been irrelevant to the jazz scene. Their relevance stems from recordings made decades ago, not from music made this year, or last year, or five years ago. They are, of course, invaluable as windows into the world of undeniable musical genius. But few are movers or shakers; they did their moving years ago.

And yet these musicians often turn up at the top of readers' and critics' polls; they get Jazz Journalists Association awards; they get cover stories from DownBeat. They make up the majority of the Jazz Video Guy's output (a dubious honor). They have their records reissued and repackaged and re-analyzed.

It would not be amiss, in fact, to say that jazz is a bit of a necrophiliac genre. For all the debates raging in the jazz world today, how many have nothing to do with our deeply ingrained ideas of tradition? BADBADNOTGOOD, Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, Wynton Marsalis, and many other recent controversial figures in jazz have become lightning rods for our fixation on tradition, and our uneasy relationship to it.

I, by no means, am putting myself above all this. I'm actually in the middle of it, tracking on my blog the first jazz albums I heard. Only six of the 51 albums to be discussed were recorded after 1975 - and the '75 record is by Zoot Sims.

Wayne Shorter's Without A Net is a masterful record. But the fact that Shorter often places first in DownBeat poll categories (usually "soprano saxophonist") worries me, just as Sonny Rollins winning in the "tenor saxophone" category worries me. This is by no means a reflection on these artists, but rather on our own collective approach to tradition.

We seek to honor tradition while allowing the music to move forward. Recently, however, it seems that instead of honoring tradition, we've put it on a pedestal and given it a seat at every round table. Tradition in jazz has become overexposed. That may help explain why Robert Glasper has been so aggressive about relegating tradition to the background. While removing jazz's past from the conversation is no solution, I see Glasper's point. If every record that tinkers with the equation gets, instead of a measured examination, merely a deluge of "Herbie Hancock this" or "Miles Davis that" and so on, the jazz of today is being shortchanged.

Is this every listener? Every poll? Every critic? Certainly not. But there's enough of this uneasily managed relationship with the past that it's become the narrative. The internet has changed much in jazz for the better, but this narrative has been cemented by the internet. When bebop came along, Louis Armstrong and few critics wrote articles condemning the new sounds and making the case for tradition. In time, the articles faded and the music moved on. Today, the jazz internet can chase its tail for years, with endless reblogs and retweets and endless comment threads. The music can't move on. New faces can't move on. And neither can the masters.

A place for everything, and everything in its place. As we begin 2013, let's try to make a comfortable place for tradition, and let innovation thrive.

Besides this virtual crate-digging for Nextbop, John Weatherman (@TheHeadIn) is currently chronicling all 51 of his first jazz record at his blog, The Head In. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.