Will pop music save jazz?

For a few minutes, let's talk in extremes. Let's pretend that jazz is in dire straits, and something drastic needs to happen to save it from disappearing into the history books. Whether this is actually true or not has already been discussed at length (and maybe it's the discussion over the state of jazz that should be relegated to the history books, since in my opinion the music is clearly not going anywhere anytime soon), so I'm not going to examine that idea today. For the sake of today's blog post, I'm going to pretend I'm with the Jazz Tea Party, and claim that everything is broken and needs to be fixed.

So: be it resolved that jazz is broken, and that unless jazz changes drastically, it will not be saved and will simply disappear. I'm going to examine the issue by talking about my day last Thursday.

I had two very different musical experiences last Thursday, one live and one on disc. Thursday night, I was in attendance for Laila Biali's CD-release concert at The Old Mill. It was a lovely show - Laila sang and played beautifully, and the repertoire, chosen primarily from her new disc but also including selections from previous recordings, was an interesting mix of jazz standards and jazzified pop tunes. During the show, she told the following story: as a young jazz student at Humber College, with a classical piano background (this is now several years ago), she was feeling a little unconvinced about the whole "jazz" thing. Then she went to see Geoffrey Keezer (who is a monster pianist) play at the Montreal Bistro, and as part of the gig, Geoffrey played a tune by Bjork (who is definitely not a jazz musician). According to Laila, this one moment drastically changed her understanding of jazz. Instead of playing jazz standards, to which Laila could not necessarily relate, here was this amazing jazz musician playing music that Laila could relate to very well. It was an important moment in her jazz development and, thanks in part to having heard a pop tune played in a jazz setting, Laila dove deeper into her studies.

Brad Mehldau plays the Beatles and Oasis; the Bad Plus plays Pink Floyd and Nirvana; Andy Milne and Dapp Theory features a spoken word artist; Revive da Live is blurring the lines in the most exciting way between jazz and hip hop; and right now I'm listening to Kneebody, which is pretty rock-y (and rocking). It shouldn't necessarily surprise us that more and more jazz musicians are incorporating elements from popular music into their playing - jazz has always drawn on the popular music of the day. But for some reason, that crossover seems new and exciting; and it might be drawing in a whole new generation of jazz listeners. Could this be the way to draw in a younger crowd and get them hooked? Could this be the way to save jazz?

Earlier in the day, before heading down to the Old Mill, I was working away in my office while listening to the most recent album by Jason Moran. He's a pretty not bad (!) pianist whose career is really starting to take off; in fact, he was just recently named the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, so he's officially a genius. (Nice...) The album is fantastic. And I'll be totally honest, I didn't always understand what was going on melodically, harmonically or rhythmically. But it totally didn't matter. Within this very contemporary approach, Jason and his bandmates (Tarus Mateen on bass and Nashett Maits on drums) create a fantastic arc to each tune, create some beautiful melodies, and produce some of the most exciting musical moments (i.e. wanting to jump out of my chair and cheer moments) I've heard on disc. This is definitely not pop music, and I'm going to suggest that this music could get a new generation of jazz lovers just as hooked as jazzy interpretations of pop tunes.

And, if I look at my iTunes contents and the various discs strewn about my desk (please don't ask my wife about my CD organization skills or, more specifically, the lack thereof...), I find a bunch of music with no direct connection to pop music at all but which is just as exciting, rocking and groovy as anything you would hear on mainstream radio: Avishai Cohen, Sam Barsh, Vanessa Rodrigues, Jaga Jazzist, Fly, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Tony Monaco, etc. Lots of creative, exciting and original jazz music is being produced constantly and is, fundamentally - that is, if we allow ourselves to be moved by the music regardless of its form, etc. - equally as accessible.

So - which side wins? Will jazzy pop lead us into the next generation or will creative contemporary composition take the crown? Well, frankly, I think it's both.

In my opinion, it's vital to have outstanding musicians like Laila Biali interpreting the modern songbook, because that will reach a new audience, and will resonate with audiences in a different way. At the same time, it's vital to have musicians such as Jason Moran continue to write new, creative and exciting contemporary jazz compositions, because they will challenge and engage the current jazz audience in new ways and, I argue, draw in an audience looking for more excitement than they can find on their top 40's radio dial.

Happily, jazz is not in crisis, and it's not threatening to disappear - there is too much amazing music being made today, by the artists mentioned above and by too many others to mention. (And, perhaps even more better is the fact that there is no Jazz Tea Party. Yes, I said "even more better.")

What do you think? Does jazz need to take one particular route in order to resonate with new generations of fans? Let's hear your take!


P.S. - Tonight should be fun - I'm heading down to the Reservoir Lounge at 7 pm to catch Alex Pangman's "two year lunagversary" celebrations, then I'm off to The Rex for Buckaloose (Vanessa Rodrigues, Chris Gale and company) at 9:30 pm. I hope to see you there!

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