Jazz Experiments In Albuquerque, Refracting History On Itself

Joy Harjo i

Joy Harjo, with guitarist Larry Mitchell. Karen Kuehn hide caption

itoggle caption Karen Kuehn
Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo, with guitarist Larry Mitchell.

Karen Kuehn

The Albuquerque, N.M. alt-weekly Alibi profiles an upcoming experimental jazz performance series every Wednesday this month at a bar in town. It's called "Jazz, Deconstructed" and is being put on by the New Mexico Jazz Workshop.

This is curious in and of itself: experimental jazz in ... Albuquerque? It's not particularly new to the jazz community that's out there, a mighty one by all accounts. Here's an NPR profile of the Albuquerque scene from 2008, with shoutouts to places like the Outpost Performance Center and quotes from folks like N.M. native Matt Brewer. And of course, Albuquerque has plenty of jazz which isn't really classified as "experimental."

What struck me most about this, however, was that all four groups presenting were in some sense reacting to jazz. The idea of an analytical, conceptual response to jazz itself — as if the history of the music could be disassembled, isolated into individual components, and re-engineered into something new — is increasingly popular. Every tribute concert, or CD-length revisiting of the style of a certain era (ahem), or well-articulated fusion of old and new does this.

For example, the meeting of vocalist/poet Amani Malaika and bassist/producer Luis Guerra was conceived as a crossroads of distinct entities in jazz and hip-hop. "We'll be taking the idiom of jazz and remixing it on the fly," Guerra says. "We're going to treat this evening as DJ producers, and we're going to do that through the history of jazz a little bit."

Vocalist Patti Littlefield and tuba/didgeridoo player Mark Weaver will play standards, but completely revised versions of them — on unusual instrumentation, to say the least. Saxophonist Joy Harjo, of Mvskoke Creek heritage, plans a program that recognizes the Native American elements inherent in the historical foundations of swing. These programs take jazz as it's commonly understood, look closely at it in hindsight and mine its fissures for inspiration.

Of course, none of this takes away from the power of the music. Trombonist/computer musician Christian Pincock aims for "deconstruction" with his showcase, but he also makes certain to clarify: "even if it gets out, I want it to sound beautiful," he says. This is important: we oughtn't invest too much thought in the process, or the backstory, or what-have-you, if the end product doesn't move us deeply.

It's just worth noting that we've hit a point in jazz's history where people are even able to devise projects that, conceptually, react to jazz history itself. As jazz ages, and is studied and codified in hopes of preservation, it makes sense that this affects the ways musicians think about what they do. [Alibi: A Little More Experimental, a Little More Eclectic]

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Related At NPR Music: Paul Ingles' report, Albuquerque: A Scene Blooms In The Desert

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