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Jazz Actually

Written by [Anthony Dean-Harris]

In the ongoing task that is convincing the world to like jazz, but not in that annoying kind of way, I couldn’t help but think about the Grammys once more. One of the most moving moments of this year’s Grammys was Maxwell picking up two awards for Best R&B album, BLACKsummers’night, and best R&B song, “Pretty Wings.” Not many people caught this moment, since the R&B awards were banished to the web stream only pre-Grammy ceremony (and even the fact that it was web streaming was a step up), but it was still an important one. After six prior nominations and eight years of subsequent silence, Maxwell returned with a good album and finally got the recognition he deserved.

Those who [follow me on Twitter] may see it as a little odd that I’m saying this about BLACKsummers’night. When I first heard the album, the much-heralded return of Maxwell, I felt it rang somewhat hollow. After eight years of silence, I felt the album sounded a tad rushed. I knew Maxwell to always release quality work and what I heard didn’t seem up to his caliber. It was only after repeat listens that I began to see the intricacies of hi work, elevating it from a good album for anyone else but him (because he most certainly can do better and I feel he will for the next album, blackSUMMERS’night) to a generally good album. It was after repeat listens that I realized BLACKsummers’night is saved by its horn section.

For Maxwell to have spectacular musicians backing him up (on his latest album, fellow Morehouse alum [Kenneth Whalum III] on saxophone, Keyon Harrold on trumpet, Saunders Sermon on Trombone, and others) isn’t anything unexpected. Stuart Matthewman, saxophonist for Sade, also left his fingerprints all over Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite. But Maxwell isn’t the only one who’s has great accompaniment. Jazz accompaniment, to be specific. Many performers out there are playing jazz right under the public’s collective noses [by virtue of their backing bands].

This is the latent issue in crossover appeal. One masterful approach is broadening the jazz canon to include Radiohead [like Brad Mehldau has done], or M.I.A. [like Vijay Iyer has done], or Aphex Twin [like The Bad Plus has done]. (That’s enough self promotion.) This “give them a taste of the familiar to show them the possibilities of what else this genre can offer” method has been fairly successful, but there’s another approach that’s been going on that should get just a little more attention. Folks need to know they’ve been listening to jazz for quite some time now and they probably didn’t fall asleep while it was playing.

Music, especially recently, has crossed genres many a-time with varying success. I will perpetually speak ill of Miles Davis’ final album, Doo-Bop, but I will also talk about how important a group like Us3 has been to building a shaky bridge between jazz and hip-hop. Such a high profile group has in a certain manner paved the way for folks like [Robert Glasper] to so prominently back Mos Def. Jazz musicians have time and again had the opportunity to see larger audiences by merely working alongside other mainstream acts.

How many people outside of the sphere have unwittingly heard Humphrey Lyttleton’s brass band as it [backed Radiohead’s “Life in a Glass House” on Amnesiac]? Who hasn’t felt the swing of Amerie’s “1 Thing” due to its [blaring horns]? Who isn’t perpetually impressed by the non-stop work from Madlib, all so deeply rooted in the jazz that Otis Jackson, Jr. so dearly loves? The secret of the matter is that we have likely heard jazz all our lives and may love that sort of cross-interest that not only keeps jazz alive but spreads that same improvisational, swinging mindset throughout everything it touches. Radiohead meets New Orleans (by way of Eton); Amerie meets 70s funk; Madlib meets Blue Note. And you the listener may have had no idea.

Jazz, like a [Richard Curtis line], actually is all around us. Once you find it, you may just realize you’ve secretly loved it all along, and if you already did, you may love it even more.

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].