Is jazz entering a new golden age?

It’s been sidelined for decades, but now the genre is in the spotlight thanks to endorsements by music’s biggest stars and the end of internal bickering

If you think you’ve seen more attention devoted to jazz in the past year or so, you’re not wrong. Thanks in part to a spotlight aimed by Kendrick Lamar – whose album To Pimp a Butterfly prominently featured contemporary names like pianist Robert Glasper and saxophonist Kamasi Washington – there’s been an overall renaissance in press coverage for a genre that has, in recent decades, often seemed ignored by the popular media.

Jazz’s resurgent profile, however, isn’t merely due to one rapper’s significant influence. Lamar-associate Washington has received a large amount of the recent attention mostly on the strength of the saxophonist’s 2015 triple album, The Epic. Pianist Vijay Iyer was the subject of a long feature in the New Yorker, while his collaboration with longtime experimental icon Wadada Leo Smith resulted in a “best new music” garland from Pitchfork.

David Bowie’s selection of jazz-world veterans for his Blackstar band reminded listeners that jazz elites can be worthy players in the realm of adventurous pop. And likewise, the singer-songwriter-bassist Esperanza Spalding’s fusion-inspired R&B opus Emily’s D+Evolution prompted features in generalist music sites such as Pitchfork and Rolling Stone.

At the same time, it’s become more common to see contemporary pop stars displaying their jazz bona fides with pride: witness Lady Gaga pairing up with Tony Bennett for an album, or the wealth of producers, DJs and MCs (such as Tyler, the Creator) eager to name-drop their favorite vintage jazz records. At the midway point of another strong year in jazz – with distinctive releases in the sub-genre realms of acoustic classicism, funk exploration and avant-garde fire – we’ve devised a cheat sheet to help you understand this welcome turn in the zeitgeist, along with some listening recommendations.

Pop shoutouts are important but cross-genre collaborations matter more

Kendrick Lamar performs at the Grammys
Kendrick Lamar performs at the Grammys. Photograph: ddp USA/Rex/Shutterstock

It’s all well and good to have testimonials about jazz’s excellence from players in other disciplines. But it’s even better when those pop admirers show their work by collaborating with improvisers. At its best, these meet-ups display the flexibility of the jazz idiom, which can draw just as easily from dance hits as from classical music.

One of the most adaptable collaborators currently operating is the producer, keyboardist and saxophonist Terrace Martin. His visibility during Kendrick Lamar’s stellar Grammys performance put his skills on display in front of a prime-time audience. But that’s not all he’s been up to this year: he contributed keyboard work to the year’s most affecting gangsta-rap anthem (that would be YG’s Who Shot Me?) while also masterminding the summery soul of his own solo debut, Velvet Portraits.

Erykah Badu’s teasing phrasing has always suggested a significant jazz influence, though her recent collaborations with Robert Glasper have ventured even further into the realm of swing. When covering a standard like Afro Blue, she sounds like herself – and thus like the beacon of contemporary R&B that she is – while also teaching audiences about the genre’s history. The Glasper-Badu connection continues in 2016, as well, with their sly reimagining of a Miles Davis composition, titled Maiysha (So Long).

Maiysha (So Long)

The fusion-minded instrumentalists in the group BadBadNotGood reached greater prominence after Ghostface selected them as the backing group for his recent album Sour Soul. And Yasiin Bey recently emerged to play with the group, too – carrying on the legacy of Gang Starr with their Jazzmatazz series that pairs rappers with jazz greats. But their best work yet could well be their forthcoming album, entitled IV, which also features collaborations with the producer Kaytranada.

And in like fashion, the electronic music producer Shigeto – familiar to fans of the Ghostly label – had been deepening his work alongside jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, in the group High Risk.

The end of the ‘jazz wars’ has made eclectic listening the norm

Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time ensemble are tackling Philly Soul classics
Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time ensemble are tackling Philly Soul classics. Photograph: Photoshot/Getty Images

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that jazz’s wilderness years tracked closely with some internecine backbiting in the genre. Known to insiders as the “jazz wars”, this largely unprofitable squabbling grew from a division between putative “classicists” and “experimentalists” that dated back to the 1980s. As the composer and big-band leader Darcy James Argue once observed, this supposedly unbridgeable divide was prosecuted more aggressively by journalists than by musicians themselves.

Today you can see plenty of jazz musicians pushing back against that specious binary – and taking inspiration wherever they find it. Saxophonist JD Allen’s excellent recent album, Americana, underlines its attachment to blues in its subtitle (Musings on Jazz and Blues), but also makes clear that the blues can be experimental and unpredictable in nature.

Few musicians can claim swing credentials as potent as those held by bassist Christian McBride – so what’s he doing on a a trio record devoted to compositions by avant garde legend John Zorn? Well, it could have something to do with the fact that Zorn has some lovely melodies in his catalog. And that the other players in this group – specifically, drummer Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Craig Taborn – can not only keep up with McBride, but also spur him on too.

Other veteran players have presented albums that move dexterously between experimental tactics and familiar song-forms. The guitarist Marc Ribot –occasionally a session player for the likes of Tom Waits and Elvis Costello – has teamed up with veterans of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time ensemble to put a new spin on some Philly soul classics. Drummer Jack DeJohnette explored the legacy of John Coltrane – both his middle and late periods – alongside descendants of players from Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet.” The reed player David Murray (a longtime member of the World Saxophone Quartet) has a blistering trio record with the pianist Geri Allen and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, too.

Given that jazz was originated and developed by African American artists during the era of Jim Crow racism, its status as a music that can be both populist and experimental at once should come as little surprise. That multi-purpose tradition continues, especially when artists place politics in the foreground – as sometime Branford Marsalis bassist Eric Revis does on the finale of his latest trio record (recorded with pianist Kris Davis and drummer Gerald Cleaver).

Titled Anamnesis: Pt 1 & Pt 2 (For Tamir and Ms Bland), the song is, in its first half, a melodic-if-subdued memorial to black citizens either killed by police (as with the shooting of Tamir Rice) or else found dead while in police custody (as happened in the case of Sandra Bland). In its final minutes, the composition turns into a percussive protest over this particularly dispiriting pattern of violence in contemporary American life.

The liner notes for Allen’s album Americana include a famous quotation from writer Albert Murray that seems applicable to work this strong: “The blues is not the creation of a crushed-spirit people. It is the product of a forward-looking, upward-striving people.” That was true when the late African American critic and scholar said it, and it remains true in jazz today.

The classical community has started to embrace jazz

Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton.
Photograph: Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

At the same time as jazz’s connection to popular forms has been strengthened, there’s been a simultaneous opening up of the classical music establishment’s gates, as well. Whereas jazz-affiliated players were once rarely invited to participate in the “new music” festivals where contemporary compositions were debuted, now we can see artists like the drummer-composer Sorey presenting new pieces during Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival. (Sorey’s new album also displays his unique understanding of both improvisation and composition.) Likewise, you can hear saxophonist Anthony Braxton’s compositions performed by progressive chamber ensembles – and reviewed by classical critics.

Similarly, a visionary on the level of the saxophonist Henry Threadgill is now able to be recognized by the committee judging the Pulitzer Prize for music. This is inarguably healthy not only for jazz appreciation, but also for any understanding of modern composition on the whole. As Threadgill himself put it to the Guardian after his win: “Any time we can understand a little bit more about culture, I think it makes us better as a group of people, and more civilized as a group of people.”


Seth Colter Walls

The GuardianTramp

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