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Fringe: Widely Accepted or Unanimously Rejected

Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief
anthony.deanharris[at]nextbop[dot]com / @retronius

Since I volunteer my time at a radio station, I often get a lot of interesting music. Since [KRTU] is geared toward playing a wide range of everything the jazz canon has to offer 17 hours a day while still sounding accessible to a layperson, it tends to reject many of the albums it gets in for various reasons. The other seven hours of the day are geared toward indie rock and other genres that one would come to expect for a college radio station. Thus, it tends to get a little interesting when an album comes in that straddles the line of jazz and rock but isn’t quite radio friendly enough for either format. This is where I come in. I have always been a lover of that fringe music.

My latest fixation has been Nels Cline’s latest album, Initiate. I have been loving this album since I got it from the "no" pile. It’s one of those albums that rewards attentiveness but certainly isn’t the kind of music that a wide audience would appreciate. To put it quite bluntly, it isn’t radio friendly. I played one track from Cline’s album on The Line-Up [a couple of months ago] when it first arrived at the station and got that feeling of dread I get when I can sense people out over the airwaves tuning out. He hasn’t made it on my show yet, but his album is making regular rotation in my kitchen or my bedroom and likely my BlackBerry very soon.

That’s one of the challenges of helming air on the radio: one must reconcile work that is good with work that is accessible. I am certainly not alone in thinking Initiate is a good album. Cline has been featured in Jazz Times [quite a few times] (and also got a [favorable review] from them). It also got all sorts of favorable reviews (all of which in the 7 out of 10 range) from three respectable indie alliterative publications: [Pitchfork], [PopMatters], and [Paste]. What else could one expect from the current lead guitarist of indie Americana band, Wilco? The man is an extremely talented musician. One would have to try very hard to dispute this.

So if this is the case, why am I so hard pressed to play his work on the air? The album has many elements that others could find appealing. Various tracks on the album are reminiscent of the works of Pat Metheny, Stanley Clarke, or Joe Zawinul (if not outright homages to them). The track lengths aren’t so long that they completely estrange a listener with pointless noodling. This is the work of a multi-talented music industry veteran and that name value should carry some weight to it. Still, anyone who truly thinks about a wide audience would think, “Would a person who is not completely invested in discovering every nook and cranny of this song or this entire album suffer through hearing this complicated, intellectually-challenging music for five or so minutes?”

Why do I think this way about Nels Cline’s jazz work? Why do I at times feel the same way about our very own [Marco Benevento]? These are artists who play rather complex music which, as much as folks like Jason Marsalis may try to refute it, is compelling and aurally pleasing. This could just be me speaking on behalf of the Jazz Nerds International collective, but these kinds of fringe artists may also find a hard time being accepted generally in jazz crowds. They may promote a little too much cross pollination for some folks’ tastes.

A discussion that seems to happen a lot in this field is how can we broaden the reach of this genre. Some may believe that fringe acts like Cline, Benevento, [Medeski, Martin and Wood], and others will eventually be successful in their reaches across genres to bring jazz to a new light. I’m in that camp, I just need to show a little more faith in the general audience from time to time. Though, in order to do that, it would be nice to have some quantifiable data to make sure folks aren’t tuning out on Friday nights when I take that kind of a risk.

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].