In Jazz, Listen to the Timeless Elders
By NATE CHINENDEC. 14, 2016
The Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés is among the many jazz elders who are still very active. Chad Batka for The New York Times
Among the things often said of Ron Carter — that he’s one of the most influential and widely recorded bassists in history, a distinguished professor of music, a multiple Grammy winner and a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master — there’s one that may not be said often enough. The man knows how to wear a suit.
Mr. Carter, 79, recently confirmed this fact in the holiday issue of GQ Style, appearing in a fashion spread along with peers like the pianists McCoy Tyner, 78, and Herbie Hancock, 76. The images, dramatic and au courant, underscore a long-held truth that bears repeating: In jazz, it’s standard practice not only to survive but to thrive, with style, in the late phases of a career. In many cases it’s possible to access deeper currents of poise and insight, creating work that couldn’t have happened without such a wealth of experience.
This year was especially full of vital, often magisterial statements by jazz musicians of a certain age. One of the finest jazz albums of 2016 was “The Declaration of Independence,” a culmination and an advance for the drummer Andrew Cyrille, who is now 77. The most transfixing performance I saw was by one of Mr. Cyrille’s former associates, the 87-year-old pianist and free-jazz lodestar Cecil Taylor, as part of his residency at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Also in an avant-garde vein, the alto saxophonist, flutist and composer Henry Threadgill won the Pulitzer Prize for music in the spring, the same month that he released a stern but enveloping new album, “Old Locks and Irregular Verbs.” Anthony Braxton, another saxophonist and composer in his early 70s, was an eminent draw at the Big Ears Festival.
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Big Ears attendees also got to see the Sun Ra Arkestra, led by the nonagenarian saxophonist Marshall Allen, and a set by the trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith drawing from one of his two superserious recent albums. (He turns 75 this month.) Meanwhile, the composer, pianist and arranger Carla Bley, 80, shepherded the release of both her own refined trio album and a posthumous grace note by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, which she leads in his memory. (The pianist Geri Allen will fill in as its conductor at NYC Winter Jazzfest, on Jan. 10 at Le Poisson Rouge.)
The alto saxophonist, flutist and composer Henry Threadgill. John Rogers
At the same time, there were strong, unassuming albums rooted in a consensus modern-jazz language, notably from the tenor saxophonists Benny Golson, 87, and George Coleman, 81. The pianist Randy Weston, at 90, had his archives acquired by Harvard, even as he released a grand new suite. And the honest work continued for bebop sages like the pianist Barry Harris, who just turned 87, the singer Sheila Jordan, 88, and the saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who celebrated 90 in the fall.
Jazz is an art of living traditions and accumulated wisdom, so it’s only natural that its elders remain central to the conversation. Extolling their ongoing relevance doesn’t take anything away from younger musicians. Instead, it emphasizes continuity, one of the most important values in what we call the jazz tradition. There is still no way to become a serious jazz artist without some formative contact across generations: It’s how the language best survives, even in an age of encyclopedic access.
The keyboardist Herbie Hancock. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
At least in this regard, there’s reason to draw a contrast between jazz and other genres, some of which have strained to accommodate the aging of its artists and audience. You can be a young rapper on the rise without a deep and obsessive knowledge of the hip-hop pantheon. (It’s probably helpful not to have it, actually.) What it means to be a hip-hop elder statesman, meanwhile, is still open to review. Emeritus status and crossover celebrity, as embodied by Ice-T? Genial avuncularity, as embodied by Snoop Dogg? Torchbearing rectitude, as practiced by Rakim and others, who have found traction as oldies acts?
Rakim is 48, a year older than Jay Z, whose most visible recent turn in the spotlight was as the offending catalyst for Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” The ruthless cycle of obsolescence in hip-hop is all the more reason to marvel at this year’s great comeback album, “We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service” by A Tribe Called Quest.
At once an urgent political broadside and a memorial to one of its own (the rapper Phife Dawg, who died in March), it’s an album that refuses nostalgia without revoking a well-defined group identity. It seems pertinent that Q-Tip, Tribe’s incisive frontman and chief producer, has long had an available model for how to stay fresh in the face of artistic maturity: seasoned jazz musicians like Mr. Carter, who played a bass line on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 breakthrough, “The Low End Theory.”
Tangibly, the Rolling Stones recently rediscovered a similar liberation in the blues. Their loose but committed new album, “Blue & Lonesome,” is a fascinating study, the product of a bunch of old guys catching up to the cranky enthusiasms of their youth. The Stones also played Desert Trip, the music festival and demographic ritual known as “Oldchella.” Their fellow headliners, also in their 70s, included Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and a new Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan.
The pianist Eddie Palmieri. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Most of these aging rock lions have stayed active, on tour if not in the studio. Another, Paul Simon, released a frisky, inventive new album this year, hinting it might be his last. Still, with the dignified exception of Leonard Cohen, who wrote his own epitaph, none of these boomer heroes have been doing work comparable to that in their primes. Given the choice, any Oldchella ticket-holder would have swapped out the roster for previous versions of the same, beamed in from the early ’70s.
Fans of Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson would probably make that trade, too, though Nashville will always profess at least a ceremonial respect for its elders and saints. “My Church,” a tune by this year’s anointed upstart, Maren Morris, makes that point explicit, calling out Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Some jazz musicians have been known to celebrate those same heroes: The guitarist John Scofield, 64, just received a Grammy nomination for his album “Country for Old Men.”
The pianist, composer and arranger Carla Bley. Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times
Jazz culture is often accused of fixating on the past. Most of its venerable figures have yielded to those pressures, engaging in re-enactments and tributes. The pianist Eddie Palmieri did one of these around his 1971 album “Harlem River Drive,” this spring, when he was still 79. Another pianist, Chick Corea, evoked moments from his past during an eight-week stand at the Blue Note Jazz Club, for his 75th birthday.
But Mr. Palmieri has also kept his fires burning in a present tense, much like the great Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés, who is 75. And Mr. Corea crowded his club residency with springboards for discovery, mobilizing both longtime associates, like the vibraphonist Gary Burton, and newer ones, like the drummer Marcus Gilmore.
The free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
The sly magic of someone like Mr. Corea — or Mr. Valdés, or Mr. Hancock, who this summer gave a tantalizing taste of Afro-futurist fusions to come — is that his powers are undiminished even as the years tick by. What keeps any jazz players of this stature from slipping into irrelevance is a convergence of lived experience and energetic dialogue with their inheritors. This is true of the drummer Jack DeJohnette, the saxophonist and flutist Charles Lloyd, the trumpeter Tom Harrell and the pianist Kenny Barron, who all released fine albums of intergenerational reach. It’s also true of the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who was a guest of honor, with his younger rhythm team, on the new album by Norah Jones.
And of course it’s true of Mr. Carter, who played on albums in 2016 with a soulful peer, the tenor saxophonist Houston Person, as well as artists who grew up listening to him, like the pianist Ethan Iverson and the trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. Hearing their efforts, the urge is to applaud their devotion to the art form. But you could also imagine how they’ll pose for their photo shoot in 30 years.