The Keys to the Future
Seth Mnookin, Newsweek
Manhattan's P.J. Clarke's was crowded with men showing off their 30-inch waists and women packed into dresses that seemed to be spirit-gummed to their bodies. It was Esquire's 70th anniversary party. The wait staff was handing out raw oysters and flutes of champagne. At one end of the room, the Bad Plus, a New York-based piano-bass-drums jazz trio, hunched over their instruments. Parties are notoriously bad rooms to play in, and this wasn't a jazz crowd. But the band had one corner of the room transfixed. As Ethan Iverson, the band's Kojak-bald pianist, pounded away at bassist Reid Anderson's "Keep the Bugs Off Your Glass and the Bears Off Your A--," fashion slaves were cheering.
Jazz is one of America's only homegrown art forms. It's also largely neglected by American audiences; outside of the ubiquitous Wynton Marsalis and a few older stars like Sonny Rollins, virtually no current musicians have widespread recognition. Jazz, in popular imagination, is still defined by the horn giants of yesteryear, icons like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. But a new generation of pianists--Iverson, Matthew Shipp, Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran--may change all that. They're at once aggressively adventurous and easily accessible, working within jazz while borrowing from the language of pop, rock and hip-hop, and helping to make jazz vibrant and cool again.
It's high time for a piano-led revolution. After a burst of innovation in the 1960s, when players as different as the austere Bill Evans and the stormy Cecil Taylor were pushing the music forward, jazz pianists--with the notable exception of Keith Jarrett--receded to the background. But since the culture wars of the '90s--when Marsalis, from his powerful perch at Lincoln Center, and such like-minded critics as Stanley Crouch froze out the avant-garde--the boundaries between conservative and progressive jazz have been breaking down. And pianists, located at the nexus of harmony, melody and rhythm, have jumped into the void. The voracious Moran evokes both stride pianist Willie Smith and labyrinthine modernist Andrew Hill; Mehldau updates Evans with rock influences. The result: jazz that's also true to the spirit of the music as an ever-evolving art form, never in stasis, drawing on both its own traditions and the currents of popular culture.
"The argument of modern music versus mainstream has diminished," Shipp says. He's a case in point: in the '90s he positioned himself as an anti-Wynton, yet his latest album, the exquisite "Equilibrium," is among his most straight-ahead. Sure, it's laced with synthesizer and samples, but it's a swinging, bluesy affair, with Shipp leading his quartet through the pointillist title track to the deep-grooving "Vamp to Vibe" and "Cohesion."
The Bad Plus's debut, "These Are the Vistas," is among the freshest-sounding albums of the year, with off-kilter time signatures and breathtaking group improvisations. The band reworks Nirvana, Blondie and Aphex Twin in the same exploratory spirit as John Coltrane's version of "My Favorite Things." A hard-driving cover of Blondie's now quaint dance-pop hit "Heart of Glass" turns out to be the most cutting-edge piece on the disc.
Like Armstrong or Parker, this generation loves the popular music of the day. Mehldau's "Sabbath," from his magnificent new album, "Largo," is a distorted piano-drum duet that nods to Ozzy Osbourne. Moran, who sometimes riffs off recorded Japanese stock prices, says one of his dream projects is a collaboration with Bjork. Shipp has another new album, "Antipop Consortium vs. Matthew Shipp," in which he teams up with the hip-hop group. And the music industry is betting that that approach will work. For years Marsalis was the rare jazz musician with a major-label contract. He's now parted ways with Columbia--which is heavily promoting the Bad Plus. Jazz seems to be back on track, reinventing its traditional interaction with the wider culture. Both fashion slaves and aficionados better listen up.
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