Signposts of Posthistory


So the year 2000 in jazz, which was supposed to be the year of Louis Armstrong, turned out to be the year of Kind of Blue. True, Pops has a year to go—he gets a double centennial, one for his presumed birth in 1900 and one for the actual one in 1901. And if Ken Burns’s Jazz achieves nothing else, it will reposition him in cultural history. Meanwhile, Kind of Blue appears to have achieved a Valhalla of its own; Sony, which caused nary a ripple of news when it dismantled its jazz department, reports that Miles Davis’s 1959 classic sells 5000 copies a month, more than all the company’s recent jazz discs combined, while Ashley Kahn’s illuminating book of the same name (subtitled The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece and published by Da Capo) is breaking sales records in jazz lit: some 25,000 copies in its first five months. Sony, or one of its vestigial Columbia appendages, also released the most significant of the numerous Armstrong reissues, an imperfect but irresistible Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, as well as collaborating with Verve on the five-disc boxed companion to the Burns series and 22 Burns-selected individual-artist discs.

So you’d think that Sony, of all companies, would be madly waving the red-white-and-blue of jazz patriotism instead of breaking the staff over its knee. But in fairness, none of the record companies have a clue anymore. Blue Note hires Rudy Van Gelder to remix its inviolable catalog and people who already own the LPs and CDs buy them again; the new stuff is a harder sell. Young people aren’t coming to jazz because there’s a cool cat like Miles or Coltrane or Rollins or even Corea drawing them in; they come to hear the cool sounds that Miles, Coltrane, Rollins, and even Corea left some time back—much as you came to classical music to hear Bach or Stravinsky, not Boulez. That’s why Sony’s ax didn’t make 60 Minutes, didn’t raise an uproar like the one that followed the abandonment by other labels of domestic symphony orchestras, didn’t even engender the outrage sparked when New York lost its last commercial jazz station. These are the posthistorical doldrums: What’s past is prologue, text, and epilogue.

Much of the anticipatory anguish over Burns’s Jazz (about which, as a consultant, I will reserve comment) concerns whether it will be interpreted as the celebration of a living art or the valedictory for a dead one. Jazz at Lincoln Center, which, with the secretive brusqueness that has long been its stock-in-trade, recently rendered its leader a nonperson like Aline Bloomgarden (who got the thing started with the Classic Jazz series and hasn’t been heard from since), is about to launch the first major concert hall ever built to the specifications of jazz, and the question is, Will it spur new music or memorialize the gloried past? More to the point, since—let’s be real—it will undoubtedly try on some level to do both, will the new music be worth memorializing?

Another nonstory big story was the almost total lack of interest in comprehensively assessing the tonnage of CDs released in the previous season by Wynton Marsalis—the most issued by a single musician since Cecil Taylor’s Berlin cataract of 1989. Perhaps our smarter heirs will rap the dust of our knuckles for failing to recognize the lineaments of genius in an act of vanity, one that appears to have contributed directly to the tanking of Sony jazz. But right now the reception—an indifferent silence—to an outpouring by the most famous living jazz player seems more noteworthy than the work itself, perhaps because even a consensus of disregard is better than no consensus at all.

Kind of Blue, on the other hand, forged a consensus from the time it was released and has never wandered very far from center stage, even though, until 1997, Sony did not produce an acceptable version on CD (a frantic collector once offered me $200 for my LP). It’s not the best jazz record ever made—there isn’t one—and its universal appeal is not beyond suspicion. The music, after all, is superficially easy listening, however radical its underpinnings; even Coltrane goes down like mother’s milk. Yet it summed up the immediate past, defined the present, and augured the future. No jazz record in recent years has done anything remotely like that. Nor has any forged more than a fleeting (at best) consensus. In compiling my own best-of-year CD list, I perused others and found one topped by a CD I’d rejected as cliché-ridden (clichés will always have appeal) and a second whose winner had seemed to me ersatz and overproduced. I am not suggesting my responses are more enlightened, but they are mine and I am stuck with them. The point is that in the absence of anything suggesting a movement, we are less united than ever before—even about what jazz is. In my favorite review of the year, from an Oakland-based magazine, Sonny Rollins is described as “the worst tenor player on the scene today. He is a honker, his tone is very, very flat, in the sense that it is not rounded or full”; what’s more, his “execution is that of an amateur.” When you leave the big cities, you meet—I speak with anecdotal evidence—jazz lovers who tell you how great jazz is for aerobics or speak glowingly of Boney James. “I don’t know his work,” I lied. “But I thought you were a jazz critic,” she said. “Well, I’m just beginning,” I apologized.

And I am. Because the posthistorical era, the existence of which I have been resisting and denying for a decade, is new and requires new guidelines for listening and evaluating. Originality is nice if you should find it, but it is no longer the grail. Interpretation has trumped it. “Can you play?” has supplanted “Can you play something I’ve never heard before?”—something that comes only from you, and not from your favorite records. We will see more homages, derivations, counterfeits, and re-creations before we see fewer. We have been so spoiled by the overflow of genius that we simply expect it as our due: to every generation its Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Monk, Davis, Coltrane. Give it up! I know I have. That way I’ll be surprised when he or she comes along. That way I can guiltlessly enjoy living in the only period in jazz history when the most resourceful, energetic, and irreverent musicians are over 65, and the bestselling jazz album of the year was recorded 41 years ago. That way I can treasure well-made records, infrequent though they are, without worrying about consensus. That said, here are some CDs I like, a baker’s dozen in no particular order except No. 1.

1. Sonny Rollins, This Is What I Do (Milestone):

Nothing else this year fills my speakers with as much ebullience, wit, and humanity. A major plus is the LP-ballpark length. You can actually take it in in one sitting. How many 75-minute epics, excellent in sections, become wallpaper by the eighth nine-minute track? Small wonder people exercise to them. This one is a succession of ocean waves, never letting up, never letting you down.

2. The Roy Haynes Trio (Verve):

Beautifully recorded high-octane music and a template for drummers. Haynes is doing something ear-catching all the time, yet is never intrusive or overbearing. John Patitucci’s melodic basslines pick up where Scott LaFaro left off. Danilo Perez has never recorded a better set; he is far more commanding here than on his own overwritten album—vitally engaging Monk and Powell (the tune selection is unbeatable) on his own terms.

3. James Carter, Chasin’ the Gypsy (Atlantic):

Have reeds, will travel. Carter is the Paladin of his day: faster, warier, and guaranteed to come out on top. But sometimes he needs restraint, and Django has channeled his powers into a luminous, provocative tribute that explores and embraces the music, accepting its challenges rather than laying dead before it—as most homages do. Distant runner-up: key contributor Regina Carter, whose best album to date, Motor City Moments (Verve), was just a tad too unfocused to make this list.

4. Dee Dee Bridgewater, Live at Yoshi’s (Verve):

Throw a banana peel out the window and you are sure to slip up a jazz singer in her/his twenties or thirties. But the huge boomer generation that is about to bankrupt social security has contributed only one ready for the pantheon, and this is her best album. For one thing, it’s live, so you get the shtick, which is worth getting; for another, she takes her time on the ballads, rather than winking them into more shtick. You know she’s gonna whack “Cherokee” out of the park, but you don’t expect her to take over “Love for Sale.” Runner-up: Abbey Lincoln, Over the Years (Verve), another splendid addition to her series, with Joe Lovano and a neat guitar prelude by Kendra Shank. Am I missing somebody, or is Lincoln the first great singer-songwriter in jazz since Fats Waller? Second runner-up: Bob Dorough, Too Much Coffee Man, a funny, offbeat hipster hoedown with Phil Woods, by the man who just might be the somebody I was missing.

5. Matthew Shipp’s New Orbit (Thirsty Ear):

This is his second trumpet quartet record of the year, after the more conventional but worthy Pastoral Composure (Thirsty Ear), which tackled hard bop (“Visions”—good blindfold test material) and Ellington. It represents a major breakthrough for him as a composer, and is a knockout forum for Wadada Leo Smith, whose trumpet never sounded more compelling. William Parker is, as ever, an orchestra unto himself, and with drummer Gerald Cleaver, the foursome move as one. It’s not a toe-tapper, but the music is filled with hooks and counterpoints and witty asides, not to mention the joy of something fresh—something you haven’t heard before. Is it jazz? Goddam right. Runner-up: William Parker, Painter’s Spring (Thirsty Ear), which has the best opening minute of the year; saxophonist Daniel Carter sustains interest, as some of Parker’s trio mates have not, and Parker is the most teeming bassist since Mingus. Second runner-up: David S. Ware, Surrendered (Columbia), a prophetic title considering it may be the last Columbia gem for a while. Not as good as last year’s Go See the World, though easier to get a handle on: hard to believe Shipp is the minimalist bopper on “Sweet Georgia Bright,” or that “African Drums” begins with a vamp out of Brubeck. I’d suggest the Motor Vehicles Bureau use the booklet to test eyesight, except I’d lose my license.

6. Joe Lovano, 52nd Street Themes (Blue Note):

Gunther Schuller and Manny Albam were logical choices for orchestral albums, but Willie “Face” Smith? A jazz veteran from Cleveland, Lovano’s hometown, Smith was around for the birth of bop, and his nonet arrangements of Tadd Dameron have a quietly sublime authenticity. The band is improbably tight, with everyone taking solo spots as though they were making 78s and wanted each bar to count. Runner-up: Grand Slam (Telarc), with Lovano, Lewis Nash, George Mraz, and Jim Hall, who unaccountably steals it with elliptical solos and gentle strumming you can’t turn away from.

7. David Murray, Octet Plays Trane (Justin Time):

The Iridium performances were so startling, you wondered if a record would measure up. It does, though you may need a breather after the opener, a room-filling assault on “Giant Steps,” complete with a polyphonic transcription of Coltrane’s solo. There was a time when a Murray octet was news, but this one—easily a match for its predecessors—glided in under the radar. D.D. Jackson makes up for his own RCA albums, and who can explain how Murray manages to keep lighting fires under James Spaulding?

8. Clark Terry, One on One (Chesky):

An unexpected stunner that doubles as a primer on jazz piano. Terry and 14 pianists, from John Lewis to Tommy Flanagan to Kenny Barron to Geri Allen to Eric Lewis, engage in duets dedicated to 14 great dead jazz pianists (Hoagy Carmichael is in on a pass—any excuse to play “Skylark”). Yet it’s not just another repertory tribute, because Terry plays with a wry magnificence that belies his 80 years (as of December 14). In sweeping in so many good players, it creates an ipso facto lingua franca. Good liner notes—by the musicians.

9. Keith Jarrett, Whisper Not (ECM):

A similarity in tempo and attitude; recurring bass solos, which, even when played by Gary Peacock, are recurring bass solos; and the pianist’s mouselike squeals are overcome by sheer elation as he delights himself (and a Paris audience) with dazzling variations on familiar but well-chosen standards: eight jazz, four pop, and one in between—”Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” which he begins with lambent stride. The ballads succumb to slow motion, but the meditative longueurs and facile bluesisms are long gone. When Jarrett, Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette lift off at medium-up tempos, they create their own orbit. “Bouncing With Bud,” “Groovin’ High,” and “What Is This Thing Called Love” are spectacular, as are the encores.

10. Marty Ehrlich’s Travelers Tales, Malinke’s Dance (Omnitone):

He’s everywhere, but this may be the most completely pleasurable album Ehrlich has made. The quartet is taut as a wire, with Jerome Harris and Bobby Previte laying down the rhythm, and tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby bringing more bite to this session than to his own Sabino (Arabesque). But it’s the leader’s centered alto that shines hottest, galloping through “Pigskin” and jauntily essaying a cadenza on an “I Remember You” variation aptly named “Bright Remembered.”

11. Jason Moran, Facing Left (Blue Note):

This grew on me slowly, though it’s a good sign when you keep coming back. Moran may be the least linear, chord-stringing pianist since Ahmad Jamal. He subordinates melody and harmony to rhythmic configurations, mesmerizing himself with vamps. It’s delightful to hear a revival of Jaki Byard’s “Twelve” or Ellington’s “Wig Wise” (even these are close-order improvs based on rhythmic skeletons), yet his own compositions also seem to have been born of the latter’s home, Money Jungle. Still, for originality he rivals Shipp’s New Orbit. Sensible length, too.

12. Andrew Hill, Dusk (Palmetto):

His most appealing album since the 1968 Grass Roots. Ehrlich, Ron Horton, and Greg Tardy man the front time, rolling with the punches of his knotty originals, but the pianist is the heart of the matter. Hill’s solos step forward with the determination of a man unwilling to play anything that anyone might anticipate; he bypasses familiar cadences and resolutions as though they were land mines, and he generates suspense if you’re stepping close behind him, wondering if he’ll make it. He always does.

13. Benny Golson, Remembering Clifford (Milestone):

This is one CD I knew would make my list months ago, though when I examined the small print, I realized it came out in 1998 and got lost in the recesses of my office. I include it anyway, because I discovered it in 2000, just as I expect I will discover or rediscover CDs that came out this year and did not get the attention from me they merit. Golson shares the tenor spot with Ron Blake and Mike LeDonne chairs the rhythm section, and the nothing-new of it is accomplished with much charm, authority, and canny voicings.

The best reissue of the year, hands down, is Mosaic’s The Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey, and I urge you to spring for the 10-disc, $160 mail-order set (203-327-7111) before the 5000 copies are gone. More on reissues next time.