By Mike Zwerin
11 October 2002 - Judging from recently released recordings, some
of our most talented jazzmen and women are turning the volume down
into a sort of velvet fusion with commerciality. (Coincidentally or
not, they all have one-word titles.) Not to imply that this
world-music tinged mélange of intelligence and
accessibility can be called smooth or easy listening. It is not always
consonant, or even quiet. Careful attention to dynamics and rhythmic
and ethnic diversity are key. All of it is in addition. There is no
down side; only calm, interesting, relevant conversations with neither
condescension nor clichés. Sometimes, you just might find, you
get what you need.
Brad Mehldau, "Largo"
Instrumentation includes "piano with
putty treatment in lower two octaves" and "distorto-piano
through leslie with whammy pedal" (I did not make that up). Oboes
and bassoons and French horns play material by Radiohead ("Paranoid
Android"), Antonio Carlos Jobim ("Wave") and the
Beatles ("Dear Prudence," "Mother Nature's Son").
There are rock backbeats, fancy studio tricks and electronic effects.
The record company hypes the album as "the jazz of the future."
Some critics are calling it pretentious. They are wrong. Mehldau's
gorgeous new album has such a strong sense of itself and of propriety
and purpose that it self-defines and justifies. His elegant keyboard
lyricism swings somewhere between Bud Powell and Brahms. The rhythm
section is always in just the right slot no matter what the stylistic
slant, and there are quite a few. It is not necessary to be able to
analyze the sophisticated counter-rhythms to be tickled by them. One
of the most tasteful, adventurous and consistent pianists around,
Mehldau just gets better and better.
Miles, "Heaven" (Sterling Circle)
teaches at Metropolitan State College in Denver and has been under the
radar for too long. In duo with Bill Frissell, one of the most
respected guitarists of the day, he plays originals and songs by Bob
Dylan ("A Hard Rains a-Gonna Fall"), Thelonious Monk, Hank
Williams ("Your Cheatin' Heart") and Jelly Roll Morton.
Calling the album "minimalist" is an understatement. This is
a duo without ambition to sound bigger. Splitting notes with a
brittle, breathy, innocent sound (reminiscent of Johnny Coles with
Gil Evans), Miles is
more less than more. He tried to "pick songs that go together to
capture a joyous feeling." Miles and Frissell create a fresh
textural spectrum. With the guitarist's haunting detuned harmonies,
the collective sound is like a sort of shining a poet once described
as coming from "shook foil."
Joshua Redman, "Elastic" (Warner Brothers)
star saxophonist/ composer/clothes-horse Redman is reinventing
himself. Converging currents like funk, jazz and world music in an
attractive, direct, way, his new center is viable on both aesthetic
and commercial levels - a fine and rare marriage. He sounds like -
this is a compliment as well as a prediction of popularity - an
intelligent, soulful, tasteful version of
Kenny G. The catchy
melodies he writes are pared down, quirky, repetitive, bluesy; smart.
Not that any one of them is necessarily a hit; they belong inexorably
one after the other. No hurry no detours, no gratuitous technical
displays. He harmonizes and doubles himself electronically and he is
not too shy to squeak and honk. Brian Blade provides exactly the
percussion this particular moment in time and space requires.
Keyboardist Sam Yahel's imaginative and hypnotic chordal patterns,
mostly on Hammond B3 organ, are never too busy; they include extended
pedal drones. It would be nice to avoid repeating the adjective "minimalist,"
but it's impossible describing this music.
Lê, "Purple" (Act)
Celebrating Jimi Hendrix.
Four bars of a Hendrix lick and you immediately want to stop whatever
you're doing. To hear him so neatly updated is an ear-opener. "Music
has no end," Lê says. "Once created, it belongs to
those who dream with it." The Franco/Vietnamese Lê, with
his unique combination of jazz and rock chops and Oriental-oriented
world music background, is a choice guitarist for a contemporary take
on Hendrix. Bass-guitarists Michel Alibo and Meshell Ndegeocello get
closer to Jaco Pastorius than to Noel Redding; and co-producer and
drummer Terri Lyne Carrington sounds like Mitch Mitchell after
studying with Jack DeJohnette. Lê wisely chose female voices
(Aida Khann, Corin Curschellas and Carrington) to sing in place of
Hendrix, thus stalling temptations to clone. "'Scuse me while I
kiss the sky." (The Nguyên Lê Quartet will perform at
the Cité de
la Musique in Paris on Saturday, 19 October, for the opening of
the Jimi Hendrix Backstage exhibition.)
Parker, "Belief" (Columbia)
percussionist Parker features African and Latin influences (steel pan,
marimba, berimbau, claves, hand drums) to arrive at a kind of grown-up
inter-continental children's music. There are dancing dialogues and
soulful duets between Tom Harrell, trumpet, Steve Wilson, saxophone,
and Steve Davis on trombone. Joel Dorn's production is notable, as are
Ugonna Okegwo's tough and tender bass lines. For Parker, being a
musician is "both a responsibility and a privilege."
Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald
Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European
correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a
book entitled "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University
Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.