All that Jazz: From Classic to Free

Few music genres are as intimidating to approach as jazz, especially contemporary forms that stray outside of “smooth jazz” easy listening. I have recently been re-awakened to the jazz tradition after purchasing my first bass and attempting to “re-understand” some basic musical building blocks through the fretboard. It has already made me a better guitarist and musician. I have found that actual practice time can be hard to find, but that late-night sessions (after the kids go to bed) seem to be the most conducive to extended time on the bass. YouTube has been my most helpful friend in terms of tracking down worthwhile sounds to emulate. There is a treasure trove of classic jazz performances on YouTube that routinely blow my mind and with which I attempt to play along. From Marcus Miller to Miles Davis, I am trying to make the jazz tradition my foundational tutor as I learn to play the bass and “relearn” music theory etc…

In light of my recent re-discover, here are a couple of recent releases from the world of jazz that I have been enjoying. I did a short review of both these album for Popmatters.com. They represent two contemporary expressions that take very different approaches towards improvisation and the creation of jazz. Two different approaches from virtuosic players who garner a lot of respect.

The more “traditional” approach can be found on this recent album from the New York Standards Quartet. These guys are well known players within the New York scene. The nice thing about their approach on Unstandard is that it possesses appeal and surprise for fans of both classic and modern jazz. In short, it is steeped in tradition, yet free from constraint. Many will recognize the fragments of standard melodies that move this album into the stratosphere. Listen to a few tracks below and hear for yourself. The players are outstanding and a great reminder that there is no substitute for experience when it comes to jazz. Unstandard is a playful treatment of jazz standards performed by a group of veterans. Bandleader David Berkman shows impressive breadth and confidence on the piano and Tim Armacost, Gene Jackson, and Yosuke Inoue follow suit. Standards such as “How High The Moon” and “Summer Night” are seamlessly arranged in between four delightful interludes that advance the frisky mood of the album. Other highlights include their take on the Miles Davis tune “Solar” entitled “Lunar”, and a re-interpretation of Bill Evans’ “Stella by Starlight” named “The Ballet Girl Stirs (by Starlight)”.

The virtuosity of these players exhibit that form truly does bring freedom. That’s the thing about jazz. Their creative interpretations are full of energy precisely because they are set within the context of a modern jazz sensibility. In this case, embedding such complex musicianship within familiar refrains is a brilliant move. Unstandard possesses appeal and surprise for fans of classic and modern jazz. It is steeped in tradition, yet free from constraint. You can stream the entire album on Spotify, just search for “UnStandard.”

This second example is where things get a little crazy. It is a fine example of improvised free jazz. This is the kind of stuff that come from musicians who are truly taken by the art of the pursuit over and above the commercial or monetary success that music can bring. Rarely do the masses listen to players that care so much about music and the creation of beauty. The hardest thing for the listener when experiencing this music is learning how to listen to it.

It is best to think of free-jazz as a series of conversations. These conversations can run the gamut, from the incomprehensible to the sublime. In the case of Pitch, Rhythm, and Consciousness the results are sublime. This inward reflection on time and space drives the listener to consider time as cyclical. The talented New York trio is comprised of Tony Jones on tenor saxophone, violinist Charles Burnham, and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Oakland, CA native Tony Jones steers many of the conversations through the well executed dynamics of his tenor saxophone. The result is an introspective and intentional interplay between an unusual conglomeration of instruments. Their spontaneous interaction is something to behold. Experiments such as these can result in disaster when executed by lesser musicians, but musical genius abounds on this release. One could only wish that the playing time ran longer. Even so, future releases from this trio promise an even fuller development of the conversations they have begun on Pitch, Rhythm, and Consciousness. To further accentuate my point about these players not being concerned with money or promotion, this album was first released on vinyl…then as an MP3 download (no compact discs have been distributed). Listen to the track “Howlin’ Wolf” here, then download the whole album from their website here.