Jazz is still alive

If you watched any of the “Ken Burns’ Jazz” series on PBS last winter (especially the final episode), you may have been struck by the notion that jazz is totally dead, except in the comatose form of Wynton Marsalis playing Duke arrangements note-for-note. Not so! Jazz is more alive than it has been in a while; it’s just a question of where you look. The most exciting jazz music today is influenced by the fusion and soul-jazz pioneers of the late 1960s – folks like Grant Green, Jimmy Smith, Herbie Hancock, and Miles Davis. Ken Burns essentially ignored this moment in jazz history.

The new jazz artists all are influenced by this sound, but bring a fresh perspective to the music. Unlike Marsalis’s music, it is not an inferior retread of what has come before. Soulive, a band that came to Williams a few years back, is a great example. Their new disc Doin’ Something builds upon their earlier album Turn it Out. The Soulive “formula” is still present – a head is repeated twice before solos – but it is improved by some more daring compositions (especially “Bridge to ’Bama’”) and the addition of a horn section, fronted by Fred Wesley (former bandleader for James Brown). Needless to say, the disc is loaded with funk, and practically begs listeners to get up and dance.

Another modern artist who supports what Duke Ellington called the “terpsichorean urge” is Karl Denson. Denson played sax with Lenny Kravitz in his Let Love Rule era, then went on to form the Greyboy Allstars. He currently performs with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, although for his new disc he took a few of his current band members and added a handful of superb players. Some are old professionals from the 1960s and 1970s, while others are younger musicians. The result is appropriately called “Dance Lesson #2.”

The most noteworthy addition is turntablist DJ Logic, who tastefully spins most of the tracks. DJ Logic, whose band, Project Logic, is coming to Williams in December, has the unique ability to play his tables as instruments that are part of a larger ensemble. In short, he spins his records with the ear of a jazz musician. This is not cerebral music, but the musicianship is stunning.

My favorite moment comes in the first few measures of Denson’s solo on “Rumpwinder,” a blues-based funk workout. Denson plays a short sequence up the major scale, then descends in a minor feel – what jazz musicians might call ’stank.’ It’s pretty hard to describe on paper. The best idea would be to call up WCFM, request “Rumpwinder,” and experience it for yourself. In my opinion, “Dance Lesson #2” is one of the freshest and most creative releases of the year.

Two other discs that are worth mentioning are Charlie Hunter’s Songs from the Analog Playground and the Philadelphia Experiment’s The Philadelphia Experiment. Hunter is a “virtuoso” guitarist, and he also appears on Denson’s latest disc. His quartet plays adventurous and funky jazz. On Songs, the quartet is bolstered by the addition of guest vocalists on many tracks.

Some standouts are “Desert Way” with Kurt Elling, and “Street Sounds”, the rhythmic opener featuring Mos Def. Hip-hop and jazz are even more closely melded on The Philadelphia Experiment, which pairs a couple of jazz musicians with Guestlove from the Roots. The result is either hip-hop influenced jazz or jazz-influenced hip-hop. Honestly, though, I don’t care which it is, and fans of both genres are well-advised to check it out. While you’re at it, take a listen to Project Logic’s disc, The Anomaly. There is a danger in over-genrefying music. People tend to shy away from jazz – they think it is pretentious, snobby, and archaic.

If you listen to any of the CDs reviewed here, you will happily find the opposite to be the case. All of these CDs are in the WCFM stacks, so feel free to tune in to 91.9 fm and request a song – you won’t be disappointed.

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