Free Souls

Late to this particular party it was only Rituals that first registered on my radar, Italian guitarist/DJ/producer Nicola Conte’s sassy 2008 album that featured a then on-the-rise José James the same year The Dreamer came out. James is here among a bunch of singers performing in his case ‘Goddess of the Sea’ Conte’s own song but he can’t rest on his laurels when Marvin Parks is around particularly on ‘If I Should Lose You’ done as a fast samba with a fine solo from Italian alto-sax great Rosario Giuliani. But it’s former BritSchool student Bridgette Amofah, currently making waves in the States with drum’n’bass-dubstep hitmakers Rudimental, who steals the show with her laidback sound on the sun-drenched title track and a cover of Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ the picks. Conte’s combo here has 60s retro Blue Note-type horns from Magnus Lindgren and Francesco Lento among the horn section (the drummer on seven of the tracks is Five Corners Quintet’s very own Buhainia Teppo “Teddy Rok” Mäkynen). Starry guests include Greg Osby on Ahmad Jamal’s ‘Ahmad’s Blues’ a song that US/Haitian singer Melanie Charles (known for her backing vocals with Laura Izibor and her septet The Journey) almost makes her own. She’s definitely “so urban her suburban friends don’t know her bag of blues” to borrow from the song. So, tasteful sophisticated clubby soul-jazz for sure, perhaps a little too fluffy in places but with a wealth of singers courtesy of the talented Mr Conte on these sessions recorded in the studio in the Italian city of Bari from 2006-11, the vocals and overdubs added just in the winter. SG

Bassist in the Pat Metheny Quartet alongside the guitar great, pianist Gwilym Simcock and Birdman drummer composer Antonio Sánchez, Linda (May Han) Oh’s latest studio album is to be released in mid-April on Biophilia Records. Oh, as the Malaysian-born Australian was known when she burst on the scene, now also including her birth name in her full nomenclature, initially championed by Dave Douglas is I suppose alongside Esperanza Spalding, among the most high profile female jazz bassists probably anywhere on the international club and festival jazz scene. But her style and artistic persona is of course different. Spalding, certainly in a funk rockier space at the moment and moving more electric while Oh prefers acoustic primarily. Both players certainly came out of modern mainstream straightahead jazz situations, in Spalding’s case with Joe Lovano who of course Douglas has worked with a lot. And Oh has played with both the trumpeter and Blue Note label veteran tenorist in their popular Soundprints outfit who put out for instance a high profile Live at Monterey record not so very long ago and regularly tour to the UK. Walk Against Wind features the core quartet of Kneebody saxophonist Ben Wendel, guitarist Matthew Stevens, who was coincidentally with Spalding on Emily’s D+Evolution, and the highly effective drummer Justin Brown last heard by marlbank on brilliant form performing with Ambrose Akinmusire and who reminds me of the power and glory of Dennis Chambers or Billy Cobham. The net result of the Oh concept on these tracks is some remarkably gutsy highly propulsive pulse-heavy yet airy very rhythmic freed up post-bop which is full of engrossing melodic twists and turns and where intersecting rhythms and different points of entry create driving patterns and somehow rational resolutions. Listen to excerpts, above

What ‘nothing happened in a quiet year for jazz’ really means is that quite a lot of random activity took place but none of it connected in quite the same unifying happenstance narrative as it has ignited in certain years.

Think about the Kind of Blue/Shape of Jazz to Come/Time Out/Mingus Ah Um year of 1959, say. That was a huge year for US globally-significant jazz. Or, for that matter, reflect on 1968, the Brötz in his shattering pomp. A year characterised by mass protest in Europe and the US.

There were, of course, plenty of very worthwhile albums and gigs in 2016. Yet it was hardly a vintage year. Still, there was significant movement in the infrastructure of a music constantly in transition. A lot more online migration for instance; as well as a maturing and pragmatic interest in apps; a changing of the guard at BBC R3’s Monday flagship jazz show on air; more valuable academic debate; and positive professional organisations such as the Jazz Promotion Network gaining ground little by little just some of the headlines.

More broadly and reading between the lines we this year do not seem as hung up on where jazz is coming from which is healthy but interested more in where it is going. More of a preoccupation thanks partly because the Internet is ubiquitously mapping the present tense so much more intuitively and gives us a pretty good media version of where jazz is at anywhere on the planet just about in real time. The point in claiming this is that nationality or a quantifiable set of cultural signifiers do not define excellence per se. We can see that more easily now than pre-web, it was never so clear before given our very patchy knowledge about jazz in other parts of the world. And that is even bearing in mind a pride within many jazz advocates in the achievements and accomplishments of a local scene and a concomitant urge no matter how subconsciously to lend support to it. Jazz as a global music has also grown hugely since the 1990s when the web first entered our lives especially in tertiary education and internationally. Take a look at the work of the EJN and Jazz Ahead to see just how international it has become in terms of promotion and sales in Europe alone during the last decade. 

Global jazz itself, beyond the cycle of the publicity wheel, revolves around a small number of figures, often late middle aged and elderly icons, keeping on keeping on to still inspire the young guns to shine as brightly, their suitcases, boarding passes and instruments in hand: no musical passports, just open hearts and minds, required. SG  
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Ugetsu snuck in among a number of stone cold classics from the likes of Mingus and Kenny Burrell in 1963, another, half decent year. Looking forward instead? Yes. Well, alright, OK, you win

Everyone wants to say ‘forward’ to the direct question in the headline; but did events prove worthy of such a wish?

Only the ‘retrovivalists’ – those who obsessively mine the past to direct their version of the present – prefer back and leave it largely to the third category the fearful and uninspired for jazz to stand still.

Signs that jazz, if it is even possible to speak of it as a single entity, is going forward usually depend on which retro trend is deemed current or failing that sufficiently ‘on message’ for cultural reasons to negate a current malaise.

The ultimate end-of-an-era moment more than a half a century on from a pivotal time in the development of a new jazz idiom was that 2015 saw the passing of Ornette Coleman who really did predict the future for the music because of or in spite of (take your pick) The Shape of Jazz To Come. Free-jazzwith only Cecil Taylor the last of the first pioneers still with us, is now as much a vivid historical memory as events even further back in jazz history such as the Harlem renaissance act as a reminder of past glories.

In terms of going forward I’m not sure if Kamasi Washington is the future of jazz but he is clearly a titanic new force on the tenor saxophone, possibly the greatest new saxophonist to emerge from the US scene since the first stirrings of David Murray. It didn’t hurt at all that Washington reached hip-hop fans on the back of his involvement on the album To Pimp a Butterfly. And it’s clear that the last jazz musician to reach hip-hop fans in the same way was Robert Glasper in his case via J Dilla and the Mos Def fanbase; in Washingtons case helped by the huge appetite for the music and message of Kendrick Lamar.

Some of the retrovivalist trends 
Hard bop... increasing ubiquity
Trad... dusted down and reimagined
Big band... even swing is part of the bonanza

In terms of retrovival Buddy Rich’s legacy wasn’t enhanced by the movie Whiplash; and in some ways the issuing of the master takes of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme even bearing in mind a few five star reviews that missed the significant argument that A Love Supreme is a perfection in itself not at all bettered by issuing extra takes warts and all that actually reduce rather than improve (at best provide ‘raw data’ only) that classic album’s reputation.

As for the Miles Davis industry the bootleg series has now reached the point when even long time fans have stopped caring about the endless amount of ‘new’ material out there. Reissue fatigue has set in leaving Milesologists to look instead to film or other art forms to continue the story in new ways that live recordings cannot convey. Whether Don Cheadle’s biopic, which received mixed and poor reviews, provides that service isn’t clear at all at this stage as the film hasn’t been widely released beyond the festival circuit in the States. Perhaps a theatre drama (definitely not a jukebox musical!) will instead emerge that might have as much validity in the future.

One thing that was clear in 2015 was that the grip corporate labels and publicists, even well run indie labels and any kind of PR firms, have had on jazz sales and marketing over many years, is lessening that bit more because of social media and DIY gonzo publicity by artists and advocates. That’s a good thing for the under resourced self-employed bandleader out there and also for the established artist in hock to huge overheads demanded by the business to move a stalled career into gear again. It’s clearly better, for too many reasons to list but chiefly artistic control, that musicians opt to run their own jazz labels and do their own promotion given how small the returns are as costs continue to rise. Live performance is what counts: get the gigs first, book a studio down the line. Everything can then follow on. 

The future as always is an unknown and this isn’t the place to make predictions for 2016. But one thing is easy: jazz will never stand still. If it does it dies and that’s not going to happen optimists will argue. Forward is still an aspiration and a direction worth pursuing.