There’s been a lot of talk lately about jazz being dead. This isn’t the first, or even third time in my relatively short life that I’ve heard this declaration, but in this ultra-connected Internet age, the death tolls seem to be coming from more directions than usual. I apparently missed the memo. So did a few thousand other New Yorkers over the course of two weeks in February and March. In that time, the city hosted Robert Glasper‘s two-night stand at the Highline Ballroom celebrating his fantastic new album Black Radio, as well as Soulive‘s third annual 10-night residency at Brooklyn Bowl, aptly titled Bowlive. I was fortunate to catch the first of Glasper’s shows as well as three nights of Bowlive and the music was excellent across the board. Glasper and his Experiment demonstrated rare talent and understanding of groove, but Soulive certainly held up their end, with the added benefit of such guests as John Scofield and Billy Martin. Notably, both shows –at two of the city’s larger clubs–were packed.
At their core, each of these shows was a jazz show. Glasper’s new record consciously eschews most traditional conventions of jazz, and while his performance remained faithful to that approach, it’s impossible to think of it as anything other than a jazz show. They opened with three instrumental pieces, Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” Roy Ayers’ “A Tear To A Smile” and Herbie Hancock’s “Trust Me,” and closed with an extended and improvised tour through some of J. Dilla’s more obscure beats, aided and abetted by Yasiin Bey. The show was constantly punctuated by the kind of “inside joke” comedy typical of jazz performer banter. Guests flowed on and off stage, sometimes with little to no warning, all engaging the instrumentalists in harmonic duels at some point in their features (save Bey, who instead opted to deliver some of his the finest verses from his own catalog over the band’s relentless grooves).
Overall, there was an undeniable approachability to the show: the new tunes are a concerted effort to bring jazz sensibilities to the ears of the masses, but the crowd of predominantly young African-Americans behaved like a jazz audience, applauding solos, allowing silence between songs while the musicians negotiated their setlists, letting Glasper in particular know when we would catch him delivering a bum note. I’m far too young to have ever had the privilege of experiencing jazz in its heyday, but aside from the lack of (tobacco) smoke in the air, Glasper’s show did better than bring the audience back to 1959, it brought 1959 to today.
If Glasper’s audience, and performance, demonstrated that the mythical bygone days of jazz’s golden age still courses through the veins of the modern interpreters of the art form, then Soulive’s run reminded us that the grand tradition of jazz is dance music. While Glasper and his band know their jazz better than Soulive, and engage in some pretty serious harmonic explorations over their grooves, Soulive instead traffics in grooves designed to make bodies move. And there were a lot of bodies to move. Again though, these were ostensibly jazz shows.
Between the two acts, Glasper’s run had significantly more lyrics-per-minute than Soulive’s. Setlists strewn about the stage seemed to serve as mere suggestions. Arrangements were determined on the spot, often involving substitutions of musicians drawn from the long list of announced and surprise guests. All of this culminates in hundreds of people dancing with varying degrees of enthusiasm to 10 of 12 straight nights of people playing solos on instruments like B-3 organs and alto saxophones and flute. Jazz flute. People were getting down to jazz flute, on more than one of the nights I attended (granted Kofi Burbridge is a very gifted flautist). If jazz is dead, how come no one told either the band or the dedicated audience?
It’s a safe bet that the majority of at least Soulive’s, if not also Glasper’s audiences don’t listen to the radio. They’re all aware that the modern major label industry has little to nothing to offer the bands. The bands, too, are aware of the diminishing benefits of engaging with the major label industry. So to consider jazz dead based on a lack of record sales, a problem for the last several decades of the genre’s existence, seems shortsighted. To suggest that people aren’t going out to see jazz is easily refutable. I don’t think anyone can even attempt to argue that musicians are no longer interested in learning jazz (the vast majority of this fortnight’s performers were in their early-to-mid 30′s). The debate over the health and lifespan of jazz is integral to the very existence of jazz in and of itself. The implication that jazz is dead seems to serve as an excuse to prove otherwise. Glasper, Soulive, and their thousands of fans are more than ready to provide that argument.
Wayan Zoey plays drums and bass with and for a number of other people. He also plays guitar, but only when alone and listening to Phish. He recently reviewed new albums by Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding.