Is there still room to innovate within a century-old genre? It all depends on who you ask.
In one sense, jazz is far from the mainstream dance music it once was in the 1930s and '40s at the height of its big band era. Popular tastes have moved on to hip-hop and electronic music, and to some, jazz carries connotations of high-brow, out-of-touch intellectualism.
But 101 years since the first jazz recording, the genre is very much alive. In fact, it's experiencing a transformation before our eyes. Pay no mind to the “jazz is dead” crowd, or get caught up in the fanfare when unheard material from Miles Davis or John Coltrane finds the light of day. Those vintage releases preserve notions of what the music should still sound like, when in 2018, jazz's youthful innovators mold the art form in their image, integrating contemporary influences while continuing the music’s storied history of activism and experimentation.
As leading jazz critic Nate Chinen writes in his new book, Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century: "Instead of a push for definition and one prevailing style, we have boundless permutations without fixed parameters. That multiplicity lies precisely at the heart of the new aesthetic—and is the engine of its greatest promise."
Los Angeles saxophonist Kamasi Washington is arguably the most visible artist in jazz's recent flirtation with the mainstream. A horn and string arranger on Kendrick Lamar’s landmark 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, Washington had a hand in opening new ears to jazz the same year he released his ambitious triple-disc solo debut, The Epic.
In 2018, Washington demonstrated his creativity and ambitiousness with his critically acclaimed Heaven and Earth. It's surprising the album manages to feel accessible: tracks often stretch past eight minutes, with a dense tapestry that includes a full band, an orchestra and a choir. Funk and gospel elements serve as guideposts for listeners who may not be accustomed to sitting through two-plus hours of jazz. Lead single "Street Fighter Mas," for instance, starts with a funky drum break, a fat bass line with a West Coast rap thump, jittery strings and spare piano chords that lead into a massive, soaring chorus. Washington’s sax speaks in bursts, anxious yet precise, keeping things interesting throughout.
Washington's label associations help broaden his cross-over appeal, which enabled him to attract an enthusiastic audience this year during his sunset slot at pop-forward Coachella this year. The Epic came out on Brainfeeder, a Los Angeles label run by psychedelic beatmaker Stephen Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus. (The great nephew of the Alice Coltrane, Ellison also has deep jazz roots.) While known for experimental electronic music with a hip-hop backbone, the label is also a platform for Los Angeles' new jazz scene, with Washington, virtuoso bassist Thundercat and the late piano prodigy Austin Peralta as three of its stars.
Washington's Heaven and Earth came out on Young Turks, where he sits on a roster alongside celebrated indie rock duo The xx and experimental pop singer FKA Twigs. Thanks to these unconventional associations, Washington's music has stayed on the radar of outlets that don't usually touch jazz, like The Fader.
“It's rare for a jazz saxophonist to make headlines from Pitchfork to Billboard, but the range of his success sunk in crazy when FlyLo and Washington shared the bill of North Sea Jazz Festival in 2016,” Kat Bein said about Washington in a recent Billboard interview with Flying Lotus.
Washington helped usher jazz into the Black Lives Matter era with his work on To Pimp a Butterfly, and he's not the only contemporary artist to invoke the genre's history of civil rights activism in his work. Amid the Bay Area's politically charged creative scene, Oakland composer Ambrose Akinmusire's evocative, hip–hop-inflected 2018 album Origami Harvest made a powerful statement about police brutality and racial injustice.
Origami Harvest brings to mind the work of bassist and 2018-2019 SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director Marcus Shelby, whose compositions meditate on key figures and moments in African-American history, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and the Port Chicago disaster of 1944. Akinmusire's Origami Harvest also shares kinship with fellow Berkeley High grad Samora Pinderhuges' Transformations Suite, a 2016 multi-disciplinary project that examines "the radical history of resistance within communities of the African diaspora."
The opening track on Origami Harvest, "a blooming bloodfruit in a hoodie," shifts gears like a classical suite, with 13 minutes comprised of a handful of mini-movements. One can feel heartbreak in the dissonance between the chamber music and Bay Area rapper Kool A.D.'s gun shot ad libs and "gang gang" refrains, his words deft yet impressionistic. Akinmusire's message comes into clear focus on “Free, White and 21,” where he reads the names of African-American men and women killed by law enforcement.
"One thing I never normally say in interviews is that sometimes, I imagine my name being read out lout with that list of names. I imagine someone else reading it and unfortunately, it is an easily conceivable image," the composer shared in a recent interview with Qwest TV. "The train I ride a few times a week goes right past the place where Oscar Grant was killed. So it plays a very active role in my life."
This year also saw the rise of Chicago drummer Makaya McCraven, whose latest album, Universal Beings, finds him behind the kit with ensembles assembled in separate sessions in New York, Chicago, London and Los Angeles. The heartbeat of McCraven's music feels different; it’s suffused with contemporary influences like hip-hop and house music, and crafted, like an electronic beat, with layers of refrains. Like Akinmusire and Washington, McCraven treats more mainstream genres as additional shades on his musical canvas.
It’s hard to say that this music swings. It grooves, or perhaps more fittingly, it knocks. In that sense, McCraven's work can feel alien at times to what one might classically describe as jazz. There’s a meditative quality to Universal Beings: with the drums as the centerpiece, there are slow-burning builds and melodic runs that often revisit a prescient phrase once its found, repeating the moment like a beat on loop.
Universal Beings and other releases on the label International Anthem draw connections to Chicago’s longstanding tradition of pushing the boundaries of jazz, dating back to the work of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in the 1960s and its outgrowth, Art Ensemble of Chicago.
International Anthem's 2017 releases, like Fly or Die by trumpeter Jaimie Branch and the self-titled debut of Irreversible Entanglements, deliver a raw musical intensity that stands apart from the spotless, sanitized recordings often heard in contemporary jazz. Rather than using the form to showcase virtuosity, McCraven, Branch and Irreversible Entanglements shift the focus back to thoughtful group interplay.
Jazz has outlasted the likes of disco, rock'n'roll and new jack swing because it’s always been able to update its framework to accommodate the influences of its present-day exponents. In their own ways, Washington, Akinmusire and McCraven are all showing what jazz is capable of in 2018, revealing the staying power of one of America's greatest cultural exports. Over 100 years from its inception, jazz is still a springboard for inventing new sounds and addressing the most pressing issues of our time.
"Jazz is such a malleable form that whenever you get different spheres of influence meeting it or attaching themselves to it, then it becomes something else," said British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, a leading light in London’s jazz resurgence, in the short documentary We Out Here. "You can see a branch of the tree spiral into another direction. It doesn’t negate the course the original branches are going in. It just means there’s some other perspectives."