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Book Review ‘Playing Changes’ Review: No Longer Wrestling With Ghosts Larry Blumenfeld – WSJ

Book Review ‘Playing Changes’ Review: No Longer Wrestling With Ghosts Larry Blumenfeld – WSJ


‘Playing Changes’ Review: No Longer Wrestling With Ghosts
A longtime jazz critic contemplates the genre’s present and future.
Larry Blumenfeld
Aug. 16, 2018 8:56 p.m. ET
Kamasi Washington at the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival in Okeechobee, Fla., on March 4, 2016.
Kamasi Washington at the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival in Okeechobee, Fla., on March 4, 2016. Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
In the months leading up to Ken Burns’s 10-part, 19-hour documentary “Jazz,” which first aired on PBS in 2001, the director hit the road with the fervor of a political candidate. One stop along his tour, hosted by Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies, brought a telling moment. Professor and author Krin Gabbard gleefully noted “cinematic miracles” performed by the filmmaker through rare photographs and obscure footage. But he had a problem: “The program,” which gives short shrift to the music after the 1960s, “really doesn’t give us a reason to care about the present and future of jazz.” 
In the first chapter of “Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century”—a book about why readers and listeners might care about jazz’s present and future—author Nate Chinen reports that the five-CD boxed set “Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America’s Music” sold 40,000 copies before the first episode aired. Mr. Burns boosted jazz’s meager market share (less than 3%) but also promoted jazz as a wondrous story that, alas, had run out of steam. Mr. Chinen cites a moment in Mr. Burns’s film—taken somewhat out of context, he claims—when saxophonist Branford Marsalis explained that, in the 1970s, “Jazz just kind of died. It just kind of went away for a while.”
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Playing Changes
By Nate Chinen 
Pantheon, 273 pages, $27.95
Reports of jazz’s death have been ill-advised and, yes, misquoted. So too have tales of the music’s resurrections and saviors. Mr. Chinen chronicles these with irony, mostly through headlines: “Will Charles Lloyd Save Jazz for the Masses?” (New York Times, 1968), “JAZZ Comes Back!” (Newsweek, 1977), “The New Jazz Age” (Time, 1990).
Mr. Chinen began his dozen years of jazz coverage for the New York Times in 2005. (He is now Director of Editorial Content for WBGO, Newark, one the few public radio stations dedicated to jazz and blues.) His criticism and reporting shy away from grand pronouncements yet amply reflect jazz’s present vitality. Ken Burns’s storyline reached a dead end; today’s improvising musicians, Mr. Chinen argues, “scour jazz history not for a linear narrative but a network of possibilities.”
His book about jazz today begins with “a reflection on the crisis of confidence that distorted jazz’s ecology during the late phases of the twentieth century.” His master-shot sequence for that tension is the 1984 Grammy Awards ceremony: Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, then 22, accepted his Best Jazz Instrumental Performance award by thanking the masters who “gave an art form to the American people that cannot be limited by enforced trends or . . . bad taste.” For Mr. Chinen, Mr. Marsalis’s comment, offered “with a crooked grin, raised eyebrows and a little head waggle,” targeted a jazz master—pianist Herbie Hancock (then 43), whose “Rockit” won that year’s Best R&B Instrumental Performance award (and introduced a wider public to, among other things, the art of turntablism).
Jazz's Present and Future
Mr. Marsalis’s startling success paved the way for the establishment of Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1987 and, for Mr. Chinen, carried a message: “At this stage in its history, jazz had to choose between one of two existing models: classical and pop.” By the 1990s, he writes, musicians and critics “felt compelled to take sides in what became a rift colloquially known as ‘The Jazz Wars.’” The jazz wars subsided largely because both sides realized insufficient spoils. Mr. Chinen ignores that fact, yet makes a persuasive case that this once-elemental schism is now largely beside the point. 
Mr. Chinen’s narrative begins with saxophonist Kamasi Washington standing tall onstage at the Coachella Festival (“the desert summit of California boho-chic”) and ends with guitarist Mary Halvorson seated mostly out of view on the bandstand of the Village Vanguard, Manhattan’s basement jazz shrine. He explores the range of stances, broadly visible on our cultural landscape and not, that constitute making jazz today—and “making it” while making jazz.
Thankfully, Mr. Chinen doesn’t seek to define jazz. He focuses on subtler existential dilemmas. Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant impresses because she is “neither wrestling with ghosts nor shouldering a weight of obligation”; she is “both the fulfillment of a promise and the rejection of an idea.” Mr. Chinen quotes novelist David Foster Wallace to relate pianist Brad Mehldau’s quandary: “The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal. . . . The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ ” That, too, is jazz’s current challenge.
Mr. Chinen recognizes the benefits of jazz institutions (a recent development) but also the stultifying effect of jazz as “America’s classical music.” He reports on a new breed of elder with “no real investment in a rhetoric of purity,” best exemplified through saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s long-running quartet. Yet it’s not just elders showing the way: In search of rhythmic purpose, drummer Questlove hears, in the late-1990s work of beat-making hip-hop producer J Dilla, “someone to lead us out of the darkness, to take us across the desert.”
An old idea for organizing—the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), founded in Chicago in 1965—emerges as freshly and broadly empowering. The institutions where jazz now comfortably resides get doses of insurgent spirit. Pianist Jason Moran installs a special ramp for a collaboration with skateboarders at the Kennedy Center, where he directs jazz programming. Pianist Vijay Iyer, now a Harvard professor, describes the need to “infiltrate and ambush” at elite institutions, such as the Ojai Music Festival, where he recently served as music director.
Jazz fans and critics love to quibble. Yet Mr. Chinen’s choices—his narrative subjects and lists of recommended recordings—are hard to question. Saxophonist Steve Coleman embodies his book’s forward-leaning attitude and intellectual rigor, bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding its open-minded yet knowing positivity. (Still, clearer focus on pianist Geri Allen might have served him well: She bridged the “uptown-downtown” divide he chronicles with rare grace, and shined a light on other jazz heroines such as Mary Lou Williams. )
One chapter, “The Crossroads,” begins and ends with Cuban drummers invoking African deities. In between, it addresses globalization: A Blue Note jazz club opens in Beijing; a pianist with prodigious skills, not yet in his teens, arrives in the U.S. from Bali; the United Nations establishes “International Jazz Day.” Here Mr. Chinen conflates points that beg separate discussions. A deepened focus on elemental roots in the African Diaspora has invigorated jazz while rescuing Afro-Cuban and other traditions from a ghetto called “Latin jazz.” In a related sense, jazz’s present context requires reconsideration of its relationship to American identity. Mr. Iyer, born in the U.S. of Indian descent, hints at this last point. “What is it that we are calling the jazz tradition?” he asks. “Is it more than a series of exclusions?”
In the introduction to his 1970 book, “The Jazz Tradition,” critic Martin Williams described a society in danger of “losing old gods” and claimed that jazz “involves discovery of one’s worthiness from within.” The role of jazz as ritual music with a spiritual function is notably less conspicuous here.
Nevertheless, Mr. Chinen appears bent on a kind of enlightenment. His narrative traces a sturdy, finely crafted and open-ended framework for consideration of where jazz is headed, and why—and a treaty to maintain jazz-war disarmament. Early on, he cites the title of a Steve Coleman composition, “Multiplicity of Approaches (The African Way of Knowing).” He articulates his own version of that idea, too. “Instead of stark binaries and opposing factions, we face a blur of contingent alignments,” he writes. “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.” 
—Mr. Blumenfeld has written regularly about jazz for the Journal since 2004.

Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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