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Recalculating

John Weatherman
Contributing Writer
the.head.in[at]gmail.com / @TheHeadIn

I only spent a year in college, and, to be honest, most of my time was spent in the library, burning the college's jazz collection onto my laptop. The jazz faculty member at Hampshire College was Marty Ehrlich, a great saxophonist/clarinetist and teacher, and I think it was his watchful eye that compiled most of the jazz CDs on display. All in all, I picked up several gigabytes worth of music in that year.

One of the most consistently enjoyable of those acquisitions is a series of records by saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Sanders was one of the best post-Coltrane tenor players; though he played with Coltrane in the mid-1960s, he really hit his stride after the other's death. Less raw than Archie Shepp, more intensely focused in sound than Dewey Redman, Sanders released several albums on the Impulse! label dealing with spirituality.

To me, they've weathered well, for the most part. My four favorites have short track listings - three are only two tunes - but those tunes are monsters. "The Creator Has A Master Plan," from the 1969 record Karma, runs over half an hour; "Sun In Aquarius," from Jewels Of Thought (also from '69) is twenty-seven minutes.

I love that these are long tunes, because it gives me the chance to fully experience the universe Sanders is creating. It's an often unexpected universe; blasting horns give way to cosmic yodeling, or quiet bass solos, or deep grooves. The covers aren't the only things about these albums that are "of their time" - it's hard to imagine anything like this being recorded today.

Why? And why have they, against all odds, held up so well over the years?

I think both questions have the same answer. Sanders and his bands are totally unconcerned with the survival of jazz as a genre. Partly, this was because jazz as a flourishing art form was in the toilet already in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and though I doubt any of these musicians relished their difficult path, I'm sure they were all, by that time, more or less used to it. And the long tracks and religious themes speak to another reason - that Sanders wasn't necessarily making music to sell.

Instead, he was making music to speak. This was the age before Kickstarter videos, before A Blog Supreme (now completely useless), before musicians had the internet to use as a forum for their opinions and beliefs. All musicians had in 1969 and 1970 was Downbeat, liner notes, and the music.

These records are unselfconscious records. That unselfconsciousness creates awkward musical moments, but it creates many more amazing ones. They are motivated by a need to say what needed to be said, with the knowledge that the opportunities to do so were limited.

The opposite is true today. With the internet making music and opinion-sharing incredibly easy, the field has opened up to an alarming degree. For every worthwhile blog, there are ten just taking up space. For every necessary Kickstarter, ten more that should be overlooked. All while the internet's modus operandi, aggregation, constantly refreshes the same issues again and again, and looks ever deeper to find more new content. Unfortunately, it isn't looking in the right places.

The jazz community has made great strides since the 1970s. Efforts have been made to make clubs more stable, make sure musicians get the credit they deserve, and keep the genre going. But the unselfconsciousness of the music is gone. And, more importantly, the need is gone. The music now is immediately funneled into discussions and roundtables and comments sections - not into a motivated conversation. Jazz is certainly not dead. But what is it trying to say?

What we have today is a genre made up of cliques, of which BAM is only the most obvious example. Nextbop itself is another; my blog is another. How are all these cliques united to give common purpose to the music?

Let me know when you find out. I'm still looking.

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 Brunswick, Maine.