The jazz and improvised music scene in Richmond, Va. is small but vibrant, thanks to the enterprising DIY efforts of its members. In 2007, as a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University, Dean Christesen launched RVAJazz.com to promote the music of his role models and friends. So successful was his online calendar and news service that he decided to put together the first RVAjazzfest earlier this year. On top of that — and a full courseload — Dean is also a volunteer jazz radio programmer, and a multi-genre drummer in a number of Richmond outfits. Appropriately, for our Jazz Now series, he's picked five albums with a view to contemporary rhythms. —Ed.
The majority of people relate with the rhythm of their time. Swing, rock 'n' roll, disco and beyond possess distinct rhythmic foundations, and have all been considered popular music at one time.
So consider us, the young people of today. We don't know what it's like to really sing the blues, and we certainly didn't grow up with swing at the forefront of pop culture. We listen to rock, hip-hop, metal, etc.: These rhythms are embedded within us, and the rhythms that we are most familiar with are the elements that we tend to create with. In listening to the music of the past, we are inspired to learn from it, imitate it, and then make it our own. This is the role of jazz to young people today.
The '70s saw fusion combining improvisation and jazz elements with contemporary rock- and funk-based rhythms. Today, we are experiencing a much more complex fusion of musics. To many artists, nothing is off-limits when creating. Jazz is no longer jazz as its pioneers saw it. But it's jazz to us.
Given the opportunity to present examples of jazz today to an open-minded person who is unfamiliar with the jazz world, I would play the following five albums. Each one is unique, but they are all similar in that the elements of contemporary rhythm are crucial characteristics of the music. This may be a subconscious realization for the layman, but being aware of rhythms in jazz today should affect your appreciation for the music, the artists and the creative process.
1. Tigran Hamasyan Arratta Rebirth, Red Hail (Plus Loin) The expert and the layman can unite over their awe for pianist Tigran Hamasyan. His ability to stay true to Armenian folk verse while incorporating musical elements that are nothing but modern is fascinating. Likening Red Hail to the multi-metered, guitar-driven ethos of progressive rock only seems natural: memorable yet lopsided riffs characterize certain pieces, while jazz waltzes or breakbeats make up the bulk of others. If you're new to jazz, you may not realize that this is a bold statement from a jazzman, a refusal to comply with the standards set before us. But at 22 years old, this young one embodies jazz's present and future.
2. Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood, Out Louder (Indirecto) This album isn't the first meeting of the ultra-funky trio Medeski Martin & Wood with genre-melding guitarist John Scofield, but it's their most exciting, and the most indicative of their wide allure. Like Phish's ability to make festival goers dig lengthy improvisations, MMW has earned a huge draw outside of the jazz community due in large part to their funky aura. The band take pleasure in introducing jazz elements to their growing non-jazz fanbase. Add Scofield to the mix and you get new compositional and improvisational ideas, an expanded timbral palette and endless groove.
"Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing," from Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood, Out Louder (Indirecto). John Medeski, keyboards; John Scofield, guitars; Billy Martin, drums and percussion; Chris Wood: basses. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Jan. 2006.
3. Chris Morrissey, The Morning World (Sunnyside) Raised in the midwest and transplanted to Brooklyn, Chris Morrissey has largely known as an indie rock and alt-folk bassist. But his debut release as a leader this year is a powerful statement and, at times, a fresh slice of Americana. The singsong melodies you might expect from a regular associate of Andrew Bird and Ben Kweller are mostly absent here, making way for more unsettling lines. These angular melodies bring the listener to near discomfort until wildly unsubtle yet fulfilling resolutions. Among the dark harmonies and improvisations, a few Brazilian samba grooves — which seem like the most unlikely of influences for Morrissey — find their way nicely into several compositions. So what does that mean for the average listener? You may have trouble controlling your bodily movements.
"October Aught Four," from Chris Morrissey Quartet, The Morning World (Sunnyside). Chris Morrissey, bass; David King, drums; Michael Lewis, saxophone; Bryan Nichols, piano. Cannon Falls, Minn.: Aug. 2008.
4. Ombak, Framing The Void (Self-Released) Many non-musicians feel a connection to the guitar and the drums. Both instruments are so approachable, so inviting: the guitar is a versatile vehicle represented in so many genres of music, and percussion seems a primitive and natural thing open to everyone. The trombone is, well, just fascinating to people who wouldn't expect to hear it as a lead voice in a band. Complete with bass, the quartet Ombak is an almost satirical answer to these expectations. The guitarist almost never plays more than one note at a time, the drummer sometimes play the melody and at others pound away viciously, the trombonist performs the unthinkable. Beats — soft, loud, fast, slow — will draw curious listeners in. Mesmerizing textures, melodies and collaborative creations will hold them there. Of course, the guitar shredding and epic drum solos tend to have the same effect.
5. The Bad Plus, Prog (Heads Up) Listen to "Tom Sawyer," enjoy the nostalgia connected to one of the greatest prog-rock bands, and then move on to The Bad Plus's original music. Like with their 2003 rendition of Nirvana's "Smells like Teen Spirit," this crowd pleaser makes the case for the appeal of jazz covers. But explore the band's own compositions to hear why this inimitable sound has amassed such a following of both jazz and non-jazz listeners. The piano-bass-drums trio has Rush-like force coupled with impressionist subtlety. Many tracks are heart-wrenching examples of dramatic building and storytelling, thanks in part to each musician's ability to utilize their instruments' most extreme capabilities. The magic behind The Bad Plus is in their shocking yet approachable nature.
1. Esbjorn Svensson Trio, Leucocyte (Emarcy) 2. Angles, Every Woman Is A Tree (Clean Feed) 3. The Claudia Quintet, For (Cuneiform) 4. Cyro Baptista, Love The Donkey (Tzadik) 5. Brad Mehldau, Day Is Done (Nonesuch) 6. Bill Frisell, Music For The Films Of Buster Keaton: The High Sign/One Week [paired with film] (Nonesuch) 7. Fight the Big Bull, Dying Will Be Easy (Clean Feed) 8. Gerry Hemingway Quartet, Devils Paradise (Clean Feed) 9. Gretchen Parlato, In A Dream (Obliqsound) 10. No BS! Brass, Alive In Richmond (Self-Released)
Which five albums would you pick to introduce an open-minded listener to the jazz of today? Let us know: leave us a comment, or write about it on your own blog — and let us know where to find it. For more information on this series, read the introduction.