Jazz is not an easy genre to get into. You can mince words all day about what it means to “appreciate” or “enjoy” a genre with respect to “getting into” it, but the fact of the matter is that jazz is not an easy genre to get into. You hear it in the background at cafes, elevators, lobbies, and indeed many people’s study playlists. But listening to something in the background is not really listening to it, and any way I look at it, jazz is undervalued today.
Classical music is much the same way: always on somebody’s playlist, but rarely the crown jewel of a modern music library. Here’s why: jazz and classical are both “super genres,” like rock and electronic music. Their histories span decades (or centuries). Their subgenres are legion. The crossovers between them are equally numerous. It is no small task to be an aficionado of even one of these prolific genres — I might not be familiar with all the types of rock music out there for as long as I live, even though it is the genre I am most experienced with by far.
Nonetheless, I’d really like to give both jazz and classical a chance. Last year, I did a couple of chronological playthroughs of well-known artists from the major periods in both genres histories. I will discuss classical another time; today is about jazz. I went through blues, swing, bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, and tapered off around free jazz during the 1960’s. I heard some stuff I liked and some stuff I didn’t like, but I couldn’t articulate why. I consider it a personal disservice if I cannot understand what I like or do not like about something. After all, if I am to make the claim that art can be good, I must be able to explain why. Needless to say, unprepared as I was, I was not ready for jazz.
Back to the drawing board again, it was apparent to me that I needed to approach jazz the way I had approached most genres: by orbiting it and working my way deeper and deeper in. Just as I listened to rap-rock and instrumental hip-hop before I ever started to like hip-hop proper, what I would need is a gateway genre for jazz. I started with jazz rock, and these are some of the artists I found since then.
Get the Blessing was the first group that really got my attention. I was listening to some generally “jazzy” Spotify station while on a wild goose chase for another band, and suddenly I got that “wait a minute, this is actually good!” sensation, which I always consider to be promising.
The band sets up some really groovy, funky lines with the bass and the drums. They don’t go for anything ostentatiously technical, but they get my head nodding. Einstein Action Figure is a good example of all that. Another interesting thing I noticed is that they’ve got several songs, or parts of songs, that are quite chilled out, such as Quiet. I found out while writing this article that the drummer and bassist are actually from the trip-hop group Portishead, and I have to say that some of that trip-hop influence shows through.
I will admit that it was the rhythm section that caught my interest, but that is not to say the trumpeter and saxophonist are not entertaining as well. They create the generally upbeat and lighthearted tone of the music. Corniche is a good song to get a feel for their contribution.
Portico Quartet (now known as “Portico”) make extensive use of hang drums, which is an interesting quirk that gives all of their songs a tropical vibe. They’re a lot more chill than Get The Blessing, and most of their songs are relatively slow-paced. Clipper is a good example.
They don’t sacrifice much in terms of technical ability (while not being superfluously technical either), so even on particularly dreamy songs like Ruins, there is a lot going on instrumentally. They are a quartet, but the percussionists alternate between drums and keyboards/electronic effects, so if we were to measure a band in “bang for buck,” they come out on top of Get the Blessing there. That said, I personally prefer the more aggressive sound of Get the Blessing.
Kon Tiki Expedition is another good song to check out.
I’ve got a couple of artists where I didn’t have time to listen to as much material, but I liked the songs I heard by them. One of them is Too Much, by Kendrick Scott Oracle. This is a Sufjan Stevens cover, and I actually prefer it to the original. Kendrick is a jazz drummer, and the shift in focus from the electronic layering of Sufjan’s to the straightforward percussion of Kendrick’s makes the song feel more authentic.
The other one is Be Free, by Polar Bear. Polar Bear have got a lot of really strange songs that blur the borders between jazz and electronic music, and this is one of them. I don’t know if I’m a fan of them or not, but I’ll definitely have to look into them some more.
From the Peanut Gallery
The other thing I did while looking into jazz artists was ask the venerable scholars of /mu/ to tell me who they thought the best recent jazz artists are. It was not a very successful inquiry; I only received three replies, and these are my thoughts on them all.
So far I’ve listened to two of Esperanza Spalding’s albums: Esperanza, and Radio Music Society. The former is a vocal jazz album, whereas the latter is more of a pop album with jazz elements. Ironically, I liked the latter album more. Black Gold is my favorite song by her, but across both albums she’s got a very velvety sound that reminds me of James Bond movies.
Kurt Rosenwinkel is definitely the most “technical” artist on the page so far, or perhaps it would be more correct to say he has the most technical sound. Clean, precise playing seems to be the emphasis. Zhivago is an example. I listened to his album Our Secret World, and I thought it was ok. I think that I will need to be more familiar with jazz before I return to Kurt’s music to give it a more fair appraisal.
I had actually already listened to these guys once, but I gave them a shot again and my reaction was pretty much the same as it had been before.
I hate to be childish about it, but I challenge anyone to come away from Exit! Part Two with a different expression on their face. Harkening back to my Peter Brotzmann days, this is not the first time I have felt as though free jazz is a trick that music fans play on each other. It has not grown on me much since then.
The sad part about all of this is that I know more about jazz than I do about classical music, but I’m just as eager to have more exposure to that. For people such as myself who have spent most of their lives within the rock or electronic (or pop, wherever that belongs) super genres, it’s not easy to make the jump. What I’ve come to expect from music often isn’t there. However, for a genre as widely popular as jazz and classical are, I know I will find the way soon enough. When I do, I will let you know.