Something is happening to today’s jazz. Why and what to do about it

I came across a brand new jazz album today by Ethan Iverson called “Every Note is True.” It is on the Blue Note label.

Listening to it got me thinking…

If a friend had played this for me blindfolded without telling me that it was a high-profile guy on the Blue Note label, I would have thought it was the meanderings of a young piano student who can’t swing and is years away from both the technique required of him and for developing his musical voice. I wouldn’t listen to much of it and instead, I’d wait for him to mature before listening to more. I’d sincerely wish him good luck in his journey.

But Ethan Iverson is not a young piano student. He is a 50-year old professional musician. I was surprised by the high profile of this CD released on an important jazz record label, so I started reading reviews for the album, seeing the words, “Intelligent”, “imagination”, “breadth”, “wit”, and “Genius” sprinkled among the almost exclusively rave reviews I found.

I went to bluenote.com to learn more. Their home page leads with a mediocre pop-rock singer named Maya Delilah singing a fairly forgettable sleepy song. The rest of their home page pays homage to the classic Blue Note jazz releases of 50+ years ago. What’s happened to Blue Note?

I like to explore a lot of new music so of course I pay attention to the good, the bad, and the ugly. But what caught my attention was how much Blue Note seems invested in this. The album name brings up 155,000 results. 

I thought, so who else in jazz is catching this kind of attention that doesn’t warrant it? That is something I don’t really paid enough attention to.

Seeking some objectivity, I looked up Downbeat’s latest critics poll winner for best piano player. Who does the jazz intelligentsia think is the top jazz pianist in the world? 

The winner was Kris Davis. I’d never heard of her but the New York Times ranked her album Duopoly in their “Best of” list and Downbeat called it, “A glowing new recording”. Her Wikipedia page says that at the age of 23 she decided not to play chords anymore. Hmmm.

Let’s call this contemporary experimental music, but is it jazz?

By what standard are these and other albums being recorded and considered among the best jazz has to offer? Is Iverson the best jazz Blue Note can sign or is there something more behind the choices and investments the jazz labels are making and critics are praising?  I think there is.

Cultural ideas as a cause

We live in a world that more and more discourages independent judgement. Accordingly, it’s wrong to criticize someone’s art and identify what is missing or what could make it better.

Not in sports or business as much, but in the humanities, we have lost the will and the moral certainty to objectively evaluate good from bad, especially in art. Somewhere along the way, we bought into the idea that any sound, lump of clay, or splotch on a cavas is art. It’s all subjective, right? Eye of the beholder and all that.

A Professor at the University of Washington named Amy Ko, said “I think not only exams, but all forms of summative assessment are destructive, ineffective, and highly problematic from an equity perspective.” 

From there, it’s not much of a leap to claim that it is “destructive, ineffective, and highly problematic” to judge an artist and the details of their art. So in the name of equity – a popular term these days – while Ko is not paying jazz players to record or voting on the Downbeat critics poll, her ideas of “Equity” and her followers of those ideas are seeping into the culture.

We get the culture we deserve.

Culture is driven by how the community thinks. Down deep.

On this US election day 2022, I remind you that we also get the politicians we deserve. We may not often like their personality or everything they do, but they push for policies that satisfy our largely subconscious core beliefs.

Both with elected politicians and top jazz albums, demand determines supply.

We have a growing cultural distaste for valuing, judging, and even disagreeing with each other over those opinions. We are obliterating standards and blurring definitions and distinctions. We are handicapping ourselves from even recognizing good art from bad. Good jazz from bad.

Before we can evaluate anything we need some sort of objective standard. Does jazz have an objective standard by which we can even just talk about what jazz is?  

Yes, but to do so, we would need that standard, so let me offer my best definition of jazz:

An African American-rooted improvised musical expression characterized by a swing feel and syncopated rhythms. Real-time composition is performed within the loose bounds of a short-form song. 

At its best, jazz is played by interacting musicians exchanging musical ideas who are sufficiently skilled on their instrument to clearly express their individual identities fluently with style. 

Skilled jazz players can ignite something personal within the listener’s mind. Jazz takes the audience along for an interesting and infectious journey they’ll never again hear played quite that way again.

A definition, however, is not enough. We need something more fundamental. Once we take the time and thought to define an objective standard, we then must believe we have the moral right to judge good from bad. It’s okay and useful. I disagree with the idea that art can’t be talked about. Talking certainly doesn’t replace the artwork. But we can use words to describe, compare, and contrast it.

There’s no obligation to shout from the rooftops about art we dislike. In fact I’m slightly uncomfortable calling out those I’ve mentioned within this post, not because I’m unsure of what I think of them, but because I more enjoy communicating my positive world views and thoughts on music. 

However, if someone doesn’t speak truth to art and to the culture, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves when better music can’t get past the noise of lesser music. 

Someone did speak truth to Iverson’s terrible Blue Note album, by the way, and I want to thank him for his perceptive honesty. Read his review on the JPC Music site.

 

If you ask what contribution you can make to course correct the ship of bad ideas like our culture of evaluative agnosticism, I would offer this…

Be brave and be honest. State your opinion when appropriate. Pay attention for the next time someone says, “Who are you to know for sure?” or “Art can’t be defined or even talked about.” or “There’s no such thing as good or bad art.” or “Everybody’s definition of art is equally valid.”

If you know better, speak up, but make sure your answer aligns with facts and not just feelings. 

Be an example of independent judgement. We need more of you out there.

Let me leave you with a positive example of jazz at its best. This is one example of how the best jazz players in the world play together…

Here’s the original version by Don Henley of the tune played above by Herbie called New York Minute.

46 Responses

  1. Here’s what I had written a few months ago on the site of the (excellent!) German mailorder jpc.de in German, here automatically translated into English:

    My latest annoying bad purchase….a precautionary warning!
    Unfortunately, I had ordered this piano trio CD before sound clips were available, and this was mainly due to the erroneous assumption that the renowned bassist Larry Grenadier and the experienced top drummer Jack DeJohnette would guarantee the impeccable quality of this recording. Far from it! A more boring piano trio CD than the present production has not strayed onto my CD player for years. And the whole misery is to be blamed musically on the pianist Ethan Iverson from A to Z, while Grenadier and DeJohnette perform quite uninspired, but nevertheless acceptable “service by the book” (and were certainly paid princely for it by Blue Note and Iverson, respectively). About Iverson: He is a pianist who does not know how to swing at all. His “voicings” of the left hand are absolutely unimaginative, at best textbook-like. Dynamics? Hardly present. And stylistically, he moves in the wide radius of Sonny Clark with pale borrowings from pianist Duke Ellington. Iverson’s solo structure is also extremely amateurish and student-like. The list of shortcomings could be extended at will. But whoever is convinced by the sound clips posted here should go ahead and buy the CD. But I urgently recommend to consult the more authoritative pianomasters for comparison, e.g. Red Garland, Wynton Kelly of the older generation, but also Richie Beirach, Steve Kuhn, Paul Bley, Bill Mays, the early Keith Jarrett and many others

  2. Mike.

    I agree with much of what you have said. And I would like to draw your attention to what I believe
    is a superb jazz composition by a little know composer who I consider to be exceptional, in both his music and lyrics, as he deserves some acclaim for creating a song that I believe is worthy of becoming a jazz Standard. His name is Kenneth Laub, and this is the piece I have been referring to, sung by Veronica Swift.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTDIF9Gg5t0

    1. Short and sweet: I really enjoyed the Kenneth Laub song and will and will follow him on Spotify.
      I agree with Michael that some jazz is sinking into a spiral of incompetent, incoherent noisemakers who seem to think their are no rules, (or at least suggested practices), to making true jazz art. Random gibberish played on any instrument will never be an art form in my opinion, any more than randomly striking a cement block with a hammer can be considered building some form of a structure

  3. Hi Michael,

    I really appreciate that you take on big topics and ask people to think deeply about things – who we are – where we are going as a culture and individually, what matters – how to hone our aesthetic.

    I come from a slightly different place – how in these times do we continue to love, continue to learn, and continue to contribute.

    As jazz musicians we are already marginalized – we know this – and this does not have to be a problem – especially when there is gratitude for getting to spend this life – even when difficult – being a musician. But what is important to remember is that we are all in this together – we can learn from everything.

    So when you wrote that you felt uncomfortable saying something bad about Ethan’s and Kris’s music – then pay attention to how it makes you feel, and don’t say anything in a public forum like this that might divide or put someone against someone else.

    We already know that the marketplace is not arbiter of excellence, justice, or taste.

    Your definition of what jazz is – is quite beautiful – and it suggests that we should all have our own definition. There has always been as many different ways to play music as there are people on the planet – because each of us has our own voice.

    I am not saying you cannot discern what is good – or better – but these are your after all, only your opinions – everyone hears something different – You can back up your views and opinions with your carefully considered values. And we can hope and try to convince others to share our values. But we can see as well that attachment to those views may be helpful for us in the beginning – and as we try to teach – but when they start to pit one against another – then we are disconnecting from the truth that this world, and the course of music history, is out of our control.
    Instead, what we are really offering as senior teachers is the encouragement for each person to discover their own set of musical values – and for each person to bring those values into their entire lives so that our music and lives are not separate things but are expressions that can make this world a more harmonious place. These is something we surely need.

    1. Thanks for that, Bert. I felt the need to add that light disclaimer about calling these artists out in order to soften the impact on the reader and hopefully open them up to what I was writing. It wasn’t implying any question as to my conclusions about their playing.

      I could edit this for the next few years in order to reach the perfect balance between the subjectivism of one’s personal emotional reaction to music AND the objectivism of standards for the things we can define and value.

      I don’t want anyone to think that my definition of jazz is THE dictionary definition, but the point I tried to make is that any style of music can be defined. By doing so, it allows us to evaluate our own playing and better understand that of others.

  4. Jazz will endure just as long people hear it through their feet instead of their brains.

    John Philip Sousa

    I believe he intended this derisively but I also believe that something is wrong with all music that lacks rhythm. I can make a case that all music is dance music (or marching music) once you know what the artist invisioned. But by that standard is the second cut even music?

  5. I dont want to say too much,but i am radio presenter with my wife,and we recieve promo’s from almost every label across the world including Blue Note,and i have to say they really have lost the way,most of the time the music so bland and uninspiring and most of all safe.

  6. It is interesting that the Downbeat Readers’ Poll, published this month, tells a different story than the Critics’ Poll. Neither of the two mentioned pianists are on the Readers’ Poll list anywhere listed as an individual artist or leading a group. In the Pianists category, Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, Emmet Cohen, Kenny Barron, and Keith Jarrett are the top five. I would be happy to listen to all of them every day! Seems to be quite a disconnect between the critics and the readers.

    1. A keen observation, Janette. I very purposefully chose the critics poll instead of the readers poll because I want to know what the “intelligentsia”, as I put it, thinks. These are the people who write about art and influence the public. It’s similar to movie reviews. The critics are attracted to something different from the average viewer. But the critics have the megaphone. They influence the culture through media, art, and education.

  7. “Let me leave you with a positive example of jazz at its best. This is one example of how the best jazz players in the world play together…”
    These are your words at the end of your article. I am sure you have noted that Jack de Johnette is the drummer on both your example of the best jazz and the Ethan Iverson album. Did Jack accept the gig only for the money or did he find something of musical value in playing with Ethan?
    My point is that, while I myself agree totally with your definition of jazz, the recording companies, jazz festival booking agents and club owners are not concerned with your criteria. They want sales and sold tickets. Less and less of our kind of jazz is being heard and I have accepted the fact that the jazz festivals I attend are really misnamed.
    Mike, you cannot account for and explain musical taste. There is no objective explanation. I have tried to open my ears to all music and accept what is played with sincerity, but I have my preferences.
    You mentioned the election being held today. It is an extremely depressing example of how far apart people in the same society can become. One’s choice of music, like politics, cannot be explained with logic.

    1. I do not know Jack’s reasons for playing on that album. I hope he was paid well. Regarding musical tastes, I think they are influenced by the critics, the media, and what is pushed as being “good art.” I can’t define exactly what it is within us that makes us respond to a certain piece of art, but with music, I’d offer the following thought:

      More than any other art, music strikes us at our core immediately and emotionally. With sculpture, painting, and novels, there is a conceptual thinking process that occurs that attracts us. With music, it’s like lightening hitting our subconscious core. I think that our response to music is influenced in some way by our psychology. Think about the music of various cultures who hold different ideas. What is it about the music they value that corresponds to their deep core beliefs about life? I think there is something there that can be defined, but I’m not smart enough to make that connection.

    2. I believe that everything you said was completely invalidated by your closing statement, “…cannot be explained with logic.” If it defies logic, then what does it not defy? Chaos? Something is either logical or it isn’t. Logic relies on reason and is axiomatic; an irreducible fundamental. Is there logic in the D.N.A. of Tonality, ie, the Harmonic Series?

      If all musical development is born out of the hierarchal relationships represented in the ratios, that are generated by the self-dividing and self-duplicating Fundamental, then the expectation is for the logic of physics and math, vis-a-vis the Harmonic Series, to be grown and crystalized into the final form of the music, whether it’s a 12-bar blues or a Wagnerian opera.

      Consider the logic in this: the 2:1 ratio generates the Perfect octave, which is not a harmonic ratio, but a geometric ratio. The 2:1 is the empty tonal container that gradually fills itself with new pitch identities, as the 2:1 duplicates itself in the higher octaves— 2:1 = 4:2 = 8:4 = 16:8 = 32:16 ,etc..
      The Perfect Octave is the source for standard song form: 32 bar AABA = four 8 bar sections. Each 8 bar section = two 4 bar periods [or sentences ]. One 4 bar period = a 2 bar antecedent and a 2 bar consequent phrase. The compound octaves are the formal basis of standard traditional popular songs. I would argue that the inherent logic in the structure, and overall architecture of this part of the popular canon, is what contributes to their timeless appeal — they make sense to the listener and to the musicians who interpret such songs— that’s choosing music which has logic as its basis, from the choice of the key, to the final cadence.

      To MIke’s point, in his comment dated 11/8/22, all of that predetermined musical material and its development is perceived by the listener instantly, unlike all other art forms, and the immediate response for the listener is emotional, which is defined ostensively; if the music is not constructed logically, and musical logic includes an underlying sense of overall steadiness of tempo and meter (groove, if you will) then the listener will tune it out immediately.

      As for the politics in your comment, you are comparing a chainsaw to a great multi-course gourmet dinner, both of which can’t be made without logic, but, only one of those can make it possible to build something useful, or destroy something already created.

      Here are some selected excerpts from Ayn Rand’s “The Romantic Manifesto “. Without logic, all of these observations will collapse like a house of cards:

      “Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s
      metaphysical value judgments.
      The purpose of art is to concretize the artist’s fundamental view of
      existence.”

      “…The fundamental difference between music and the other arts lies in the fact
      that music is experienced as if it reversed man’s normal [cognitive] process.
      The other arts create a physical object (i.e; an object perceived by man’s senses,
      be it a book or a painting) and the [cognitive] process goes from the perception of
      the object to the conceptual grasp of its meaning, to an appraisal in terms of
      one’s basic values, to a consequent emotion…Music is experienced as if it had the
      power to reach man’s emotions directly.”

      “… the [cognitive] processes involved in the response to music are automatized
      and are experienced as a single, instantaneous reaction, faster than one can
      identify its components.”

      “…Music is the only phenomenon that permits an adult to experience the
      process of dealing with pure sense data. Single musical tones are not percepts,
      but pure sensations; they become percepts only when integrated. Sensations are
      man’s first contact with reality; when integrated into percepts, they are the given,
      the self-evident, the not-to-be-doubted. Music offers man the singular
      opportunity to reenact, on the adult level, the primary process of his method of
      cognition: the automatic integration of sense data into an intelligible, meaningful
      entity. To a conceptual consciousness, it is a unique form of rest and reward.”

      “Conceptual integrations require constant effort and impose a permanent
      responsibility: they involve the risk of error and failure. The process of musical
      integration is automatic and effortless. (It is experienced as effortless, since it is
      unconscious; it is a process of cashing in on the kinds of mental habits one has, or
      has not, spent effort to acquire.) “

      And finally—

      “One’s reaction to music carries a sense of total certainty, as if it were simple,
      self-evident, not to be doubted; it involves one’s emotions, i.e., one’s values, and
      one’s deepest sense of oneself—it is experienced as a magic union of sensations
      and thought, as if thought had acquired the immediate certainty of direct
      awareness.”

  8. Insightful and challenging post Mike!

    In the commercial world, there will always be people and orgs that promote their products and services, including artistic creations.

    In the commercial world where nearly everything is compared to everything else, ie “better”, “best”, “greatest of all time”, or labeled “jazz”, “pop”, “classical”, “smooth jazz”, etc., perhaps the personal narrative, as it relates to the way we interpret creative works, needs reconsidered.

    Is there a way to avoid categorization, label or argument by describing the creative work as either “for me” or “not for me” as the listener/viewer? A critic might love or hate a work, but does that mean everything must love or hate it? I’d prefer each choose for themselves.

    More important is how does the work impact the listener/viewer? Does it inspire you physically or emotionally or both? Does it confirm/challenge/inspire you to consider/re-consider your beliefs/morals/psychology?

  9. “Freejazz” is, by nature, risky, but if a player has chops and an emotional sensibility, the outcome can be a remarkable piece of artistry. However, back in the day, some players just demonstrated self indulgence and little technique. Our era is peculiar now, boundaries are being pushed on decency, protocols, and certainly standards on many fronts. As loose as they may be, I think jazz, by nature has standards. One reason I became a jazz musician was what I perceived as a need to be committed to striving for some kind of authenticity. Some people refer to that as a requirement in jazz to discover and tell your story. Some music with pretty good technique doesn’t reach me because I don’t think they’re trying to say anything. Not anything I can determine. Or feel.
    As a teacher I try and stay open to a personal aesthetic, knowing many times innovations are rejected before we grasp the inner message and structure that actually has something to say. With some time its coherency, in a new form or stylistic offshoot, can be recognized.
    But I do hold onto the thought that some efforts are just badly done. there are missing elements that would render it, albeit unusual, durable, stimulating. And in great art, because they are so personal, the feelings it can evoke are universal. A part of music and other arts will always remain ineffable, but I agree with Mr. Lake, there are standards, no matter if we argue about their particulars.
    Lastly, I’ll say that the marketplace and marketers have an incredibly outsized influence on even what reaches the public. Critics can sometimes not get it, but I think we do need guard rails they can articulate. I appreciate the work that went into this article. Thank you.

  10. Neither Kris Davis nor Ethan Iverson play “free jazz,” but both take advantage of the freedoms established by jazz icons including Lennie Tristano, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Max Roach, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, other AACM leaders (Abrams, Braxton, Threadgill, for instance), Yusuf Lateef, Jaki Byard, Julius Hemphill, Butch Morris, George Russell, Andrew Hill and others too numerous to mention. Although your definition, Mike has value – and I overall align with the values you cite — I see no valid point in limiting “jazz” to rhythmically syncopated music inflected with the blues. Yes, that’s what I like, but I’ve learned how it generates a stretch to other modalities. I heard Ethan perform live recently, and though I wasn’t swept away by everything he played, I recognized the intention, intelligence and chops he brought to explorations and interactions with bassist and drummer he’d never played with before. Their improvised connections made it “ jazz” to me. And I reviewed Kris Davis’ Diatom Rhythms for DownBeat, finding it to be exciting, with internal “swing” moments, successful integration of electronics to expand the jazz pallet, powerful sax playing, an unpredictable but very cohesive ensemble. Yes, critics are on the lookout for new sounds, ideas, formats. expression, and we ought to heed public tastes, but not submit to mediocrity often promoted by commercial interests. No, critics don’t have much influence on what gets recorded or not these days – there would be no Kenny G if we did. But we can often introduce or expose with insights based on broad experience and open-mindedness art that’s been overlooked, derided or misunderstood. If the music doesn’t resonate with listeners, a critic’s opinion matters little for sales.

  11. Hello Michael – I guess I must join the hallelujah chorus on this one. Jazz, like religion, is deeply felt
    by its adherents. Over time, we take the best and forget the rest. An excellent definition of this art
    form is from one of the great masters, Duke Ellington, who stated unconditionally, “It don’t mean
    a thing if it ain’t got that swing!” We may not be able to define it, but we know it when we hear it.
    Keep on truckin’.
    Kent from Canada

  12. The problem you have identified is that expertise is becoming less and less valued, and people get offended if someone suggests their opinion may lack expertise. Rule #1: anyone can do anything they want and call it anything they want. HOWEVER, it does not follow that everything everyone does is of equal merit. Rule #2: Art is in the eye of the beholder — ALL ELSE BEING EQUAL. If we are having any kind of shared discourse, any communal conversation, the opinion with more experience and expertise is more interesting and useful than the opinion with less. That’s the world that I live in.

    There is a story I partially remember about someone who played chess by inventing his own rules. (Not Fischerandom; it was some non-chess player.) RULE #1. Sure, do whatever you like. But you will not be playing much with the vast majority of people who have invested any time in the “regular” rules. And it is not going to be worth very much to say that you are the Best Chess Player using your own rules.

    You can come up with countless analogous scenarios, but with jazz it is obvious. If you show up to a club performance and ask or are invited to sit in, if you can’t cut it you will be decisively “uninvited”. It doesn’t matter how unique, or innovative, or viral you are. That is the standard that you are referring to — the standard of expertise– and it exists by virtue of a community of practitioners. Without such standards you may as well call everything jazz. “If I can spell it, I can put it on my resume…”

    Sure, I get how that is offensive to many people nowadays.

  13. Fantastic blog! I wish more musicians and jazz writers would speak up regarding this topic… I know many others feel this way about mainstream jazz today.

  14. Great post. It really uncovers some of the sticky issues that usually are not spoken about.

    I am 75. My generation came right after Coltrane, Miles, Wayne, Joe Henderson, Mcoy, Herbie, Bill, Chick, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Paul Bley, Keith, etc. I came up in the late 60s and 70s when there were standards of excellence much more in place, especially from the critical establishments. There were always incompetent critics but for a while we had people like Dan Morgenstern, Chuck Berg, Kenny Dorham, Nat Hentoff, Jim Aiken, Bob Doershuk, and more I can’t think of now. But they were not afraid to say what they heard about lame, uncreative, amateur recordings as well as the innovative, brilliant, and swinging ones.

    I knew some of these guys and they were serious about their profession. There are still some excellent jazz journalists like Ashley Khan, Bill Milkowski, Stuart Nicolson, and Charlie Reese. But too many times, we get glowing over the top supportive reviews about really lame music like Ethan Iverson’s CD you mentioned. The problem is not that there are literally thousands of amateurish uninspired releases every day. They go largely unnoticed as they should, but when an obvious fake recording receives massive promotion and an inordinate amount of publicity from Blue Note, that is terrible. It hurts everyone because it dilutes the integrity and the legacy of great improvised jazz music.

    Critics can be smart and informed but wrong ,of course. I myself have been the victim of that. I believe the truth is important to preserve in both the good and the bad. And whose opinion is worth more?? Not everyone’s opinion carries the same weight!! Sorry!! For example, my own opinion of a new jazz piano CD will mean more than just a casual music lover’s. I can feel the storm this will bring but it’s the truth. There are certain objective truths about judging music. Standards like intonation, facility, sound, individual approach, compositional unity in the improvisations, great writing, interesting interaction, sustaining a mood, stylistic integrity, and of course expression, energy, swing, tenderness, clarity, and a personal musical message.

    These are the characteristics that I judge in my own music and recording. Not everyone has the ear to discern these things and therefore, properly evaluate music. If the person judging is equipped with enough knowledge and experience and can hear those characteristics, they have the best chance of providing a valid review that helps guide listeners. But it’s hard to pull off. Great jazz playing in itself involves nanosecond to nanosecond instant subconscious judgements of note choices, expression, timing, etc. You may be playing all this instinctively and seemingly effortlessly, but you still make constant complex musical judgements!!

    Everything is not of equal value! It’s not a sin to say, hmmm… this sounds weak, tired, incompetent, and inspired, but over here, this sounds powerful, sensitive, touchingly beautiful and completely fresh.

    Again Mike, great job. We support you and your brave ideas so please keep them coming!

  15. We all have opinions and what is “good” and “bad”. A fair number of folks have opinions on what is, and what is not, “jazz”. The factor which Michael Lake’s piece omits is that all the things he’s lamenting and criticising are a result of the capitalist structures of our society and economy. And the arts are affected by this as much as anything is. Blue Note promotes people they believe will earn them a profit. It has nothing to do with “quality” or whether they play “jazz”, or any other such æsthetic or other musical considerations.

    Who’s “winning” critics’ and readers’ polls? Who’s getting reviewed and profiled and promoted in the major mainstream media outlets? Those with the resources to hire publicists, managers, and agents. Just like with label signings, it has nothing to do with the “quality” of the music these individuals are creating. It’s all about the money – i.e. capitalism.

    1. Blaming capitalism for the lame albums coming out of Blue Note is like blaming the plate for a tough steak. Blue note has the right to promote whomever it thinks will earn them a profit and I’ll defend that to the death.

      I’m simply lamenting the artists they’re choosing and the products they’re releasing. Capitalism will reward or penalize record companies based on the number of streams and album sales. I’m rooting for poor sales and a course correction on the music they release and invest in.

      My post was advocating for more learned and independent judgement from the critics and buying public in the hope that cream rises more effectively to the top. Capitalism will facilitate that if the market better recognizes and therefore spends their money on higher quality artists and music.

      Can we please stop blaming the profit motive for the plight of the musician? Let’s raise our standards to reward the purveyors of better music! As Richie Beirach reminded us in an earlier comment to this post, we used to do a much better job of that.

      1. So, deep down in your heart, you’re just a run-of-the-mill capitalist I guess, Mike…. And you too, Richie? I’m heart-broken to dicover this.

        There is SO MUCH brilliant and wonderful music (that you and Richie Beirach would agree is great) that will NEVER get even a sniff at the platforms that Blue Note and DownBeat afford. And why is that? Because the people who control those platforms decide that that music is not profitable (and/or because the people making that music don’t have the connections or resource to pay-off these platforms to give them access).

        Your “blaming the plate for a tough steak” analogy makes no sense. When you have the visibility, the clout, and the platform to present the public with a great meal and instead you serve them a tough steak (or serve them Ethan Iverson), that’s on you as the person running the restaurant! And you can be sure that whatever the public is being served on its plate is there for its profitability. Places like McDonald’s could choose to serve much higher quality food, but they don’t because they’re all about the money and exploiting labour.

        How do you propose to develop “more learned and independent judgement from the critics and buying public in the hope that cream rises more effectively to the top”? How can you ever transform “the market” so that it “better recognizes…higher quality artists and music”? Capitalism will never do this.

        It’s through collective action and through devoting collective resources to education and arts funding that we will reverse the sorry trend we’re in. The arts are a collective good, and a collective necessity for a vibrant and healthy society. And it’s our collective responsibility to ensure we have the art that we want and need. Expecting capitalists to do that for us is beyond naïve.

  16. Hi Mike, I liked your comment and everyone else that chimed in. Thought provoking. I found myself struggling with the concept of jazz that gets addressed and was apparently working on it all night in my sleep, and work up with this working definition.

    Jazz is fundamentally a creative embellishment.
    – You can embellish on the American Songbook or essentially embellish on melodies.
    – You can embellish on rifts, which is what I think of when I play Herbie Hancock stuff,
    – You can embellish on patterns, which is often what I hear with Coltrane
    – You can embellish on chord changes,
    – You can embellish on noodling if that’s possible or a mood

    But jazz has both common characteristics and very different sounds and feels based on the context.

    To me they are all types of jazz, but quite different. Sometimes the layers overlap within the same piece or performance. When I hear people say they do or don’t like jazz, they typically are referring to one specific context. I remember my Dad saying he didn’t like jazz because he couldn’t hear or discern a melody. He really wasn’t addressing a broad definition of jazz. I don’t think most people operate with a very specific sense of jazz. I know I don’t have an equal affection for the different contexts for embellishment. Just a thought.

    1. Rodney, jazz is not embellishment. Jazz is a very strong powerful statement of intense or reflective emotions in the form of improvisation. Embellishment implies decoration or adding to something that’s already there. Of course, if you are improvising using a standard tune or an original tune, your improvisations on that tune are a direct result of a combination of factors. You might embellish on the melody for a bit, but played by a skilled improviser, the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic content is original and not simply an embellishment.

      1. Hi Richie, thanks for your input. Yes, embellishment probably isn’t the correct term. I was trying to get at the figure-ground nature of music and jazz in particular. There’s always a background context for the figure, and in jazz that seems to be some of the structures or categories I was writing about above. The background for Dixieland jazz is very different than for say, cool jazz, and every perceptual input and expression is in some way reflective of and characterized its background. Just a thought.

  17. When you hear Ethan play in Billy Hart’s band, I think I can hear he is able to do a lot “better” than on his recording here. What I think is happening, is something I see more and more jazz players do here in Europe: I think about a great (and in demand!) piano player who made a recording with people from his family who are not musicians … or organised a jam that lasts 24 hours and everybody who likes can come and sit in. He reacts against what he thinks is the snobism of jazz rules that “exclude” the non jazz musicians … What I hear Ethan do here, reminds me of that same thing. (somebody needs to ask him about the why? …) It also makes me think of Paul Motian, who at a certain moment started to play the drums, holding his sticks like you hold a hammer, because he did not want to play his Bill Evans language anymore on the drums, he also started tuning his drums more dirty and so on. (but when you think like this on piano and throw away all of your voicings …) That’s what this Ethan recording reminds me of … Curious how you guys see this. (And I see MR Beirach here: just seen you play in Belgium with Quest: how I loved this concert!!! The respect and communication I see between you all!!!)

  18. Thank goodness! I too have listened and seen live jazz in NYC and other places and find myself always going back to the greats. It is this third and four generations of players who have listened to Coltrane, Sun Ra, et al and there is nothing new. It is their interpretation of the past rather than a forged mere direction. Yes there are some great young players but to take a chance and drop money on vinyl is out of the question in this day and age. And don’t get me started on the funk players who have gained such notoriety on recent years, thanks Headhunters and others of that era are the holy grail with groove and melody and killer harmonies. Sorry for the rant.

  19. Mike, I was praying that you weren’t talking about Bill Charlap. Whew! You would have had a fight on your hands. A friend once called me over to listen to a cut he had been enjoying. I listened to less than a minute and almost immediately responded, “It sounds like banging.” I knew instantly that it was Bad Plus. Yuk. But then I started hearing about how great the piano player was and I heard him speaking on radio programs and I thought, “Well, maybe he’s OK.” And then I moved on, still not interested in anything that he has done. I’m too busy trying to catch up to so many other musicians. I was introduced to jazz by my brother and my high school band director in the early 70’s. Some big band stuff and some smaller groups. My interest moved towards fusion in the latter 70’s. Then it matured into a full on dive into “the real stuff”. Having a jazz club nearby (in Madison, NJ) and after three great clubs (Gulliver’s, then Cornerstone and now Trumpets) that have closed, it almost makes it necessary to go into the city to catch my favorites, something I don’t enjoy so much. When you walk into Shanghai Jazz and see Joe Morello and Bernard Purdie chatting at the bar, you know you’re in the right place. Honestly, getting to know some of these great musicians is quite inspiring. I don’t do it for a living, I would starve. But I can play gigs and get paid. And that is, to me, an accomplishment that I never believed possible in my youth. The work never ends and we should never be satisfied with anything less than our best effort. Best, Bud

  20. We could go down the rabbit hole of what qualifies as JAZZ. I wrote a blog post several years ago offering the opinion that jazz was whatever music jazz musicians choose to create. I know this sounds like circular reasoning, but what I meant was that if someone has studied and MASTERED TO SOME EXTENT the foundations of this music (the way classical composers study Bach’s counterpoint, e.g.) then whatever they seriously attempt to forge out of that will be informed by that mastery.

    I don’t know whether Ethan or Kris have this foundation. I certainly don’t hear it in their music. But for me, the more important question is: is this good music?

    I am willing to take Ethan’s music on its own terms. Having said that, IMHO it it is stiff, it is awkward, it is glib. He does not develop his ideas compositionally. He meanders. His harmonic and melodic concepts are both very generic and undeveloped. In sum, I don’t find anything of aesthetic value in this CD. But that is not because it is “not JAZZ;“ it is because it is not good music.

    About the issue of jazz writers and record labels: The Emperor’s Clothes is not a new phenomenon. If you or your record company presents you as a genius, a certain number of people (even jazz musicians) will become convinced that you’re a genius.

  21. Roberta, yes, I agree with you. Excellent comments. You are so articulate and even handed about Ethan’s Blue Note CD. “ITS NOT BECAUSE ITS NOT JAZZ ITS BECAUSE ITS NOT GOOD MUSIC!” Well said. Thank you.

  22. I live in the same town as what used to be known as Bell Labs, where something called a transistor was developed. It was a gathering/workplace for the best and the brightest minds to develop new technologies.

    It seems to me that the Bell Labs of the jazz world might have been the big bands. Players who were the best and brightest of their era would be snapped up by band leaders and given jobs that offered plenty of paying gigs while allowing for the development of new and fresh ideas.

    Or, maybe the jazz clubs were the Bell Labs of the jazz world. Small group improvisations were encouraged and allowed to be accepted by appreciative audiences.

    The only present day equivalent seems to be the universities. But those are closed environments, not always particularly accessible to the outside world. Big bands and jazz clubs have continued to exist but not to the extent as in the past.

    Meanwhile, there’s the internet, where anyone can be exposed to an audience. But that’s a library with all the books in random piles on the floor and all sorts of algorithms to steer you to certain piles, whether you want to go there or not.

    Question: Is it easier or harder to make value judgements about the musicians in today’s world?

  23. You ask a good question, Bud: Is it easier or harder to make value judgements about musicians in today’s world?

    For me it is exactly the same because the standards of excellence by which I judge musicians in yesterdays world and todays world are exactly the same. I ask:

    1. How does the music make me feel? Expression is the most important element.
    2. How well does the musician relate his ideas and his expression? In other words this means technique, tone, sound, fluency, intonation, and swing if applicable (or the general rhythmic feel), drama, compositional unity, etc.
    3. Does the musician’s work have a lasting value? Can I listen to it today, tomorrow, in one year, or five and still get a powerful message?

    The times change how we listen to music, like 8-track, cassette, LP, CD, Spotify, etc. but the same old tried and true values of excellence are still relevant and completely applicable today as they were years ago or will be in the future.

    1. Richie, spot on as always. I was also thinking of that question relative to the ears of the listener who may or may not be a musician. Kind of like me looking at artwork. I do have an eye for certain things but I tend to rely on someone else’s judgement about what has value.

  24. Excellent and insightful. I don’t really bother with who won the downbeat poll or who got the award or who got the big record contract. In New York city and other places you can hear musicians who truly are amazing players and yet they remain largely unknown. This is the way of the world. What gets marketed is what someone thinks will sell…

  25. Well, I’m about to sound like an idiot, but remember that I’m a retired pathologist/jazz piano hobbiest, though a serious one. I practically “worship” Herbie Hancock and have Great respect for the work of Jack De Johnette & Paul Scofield through the years. Don’t know who the Sax player is.
    But to me, this number is just plain NOISE! Neither good jazz nor good “music”. Doesn’t good music require melody & rhythm. I’m sure John Sousa would agree. I heard a saying from a music educator just today, ask the question “can I march or waltz” to this?” If not, it’s jazz. Having done all THREE a lot, I cannot waltz, march, dance or barely WALK to this!
    My apologies, but that’s the way I hear this…..Ned

    1. Ned, I’m afraid I could not disagree more with your comment claiming that the Herbie musical example in Mikes post is noise and not good music. This link of Herbie’s great new standard band playing the pop song NY Minute happens to be one of the most creative developed and important groups in recent history.

      I know this from personal experience, having played with everyone in that band over the last 50 years, with Jack and Dave in Stan Getz’s band in 1973, with John Scofield on his iconic recordings and on my album (including Michael Brecker) called Inborn. Michael Brecker was the preeminent sax player of his generation.

      Let me try and help you to understand the incredible levels of musicianship that these guys represent ,especially on this track! Herbie is on fire. His playing is like a controlled volcano. He is spilling out brilliant cohesive and, above all, deeply swinging lines and complex but brilliant two-hand ideas that catapult the whole band into an amazing level of musical energy.

      Jack DeJohnette is among the greatest, if not the greatest, living jazz drummer. His endless creative flow of ideas orchestrates and supports all the members’ solos with incredible creative power, grace, and clarity. It sounds like noise to you but that’s because you are just unfamiliar with the contemporary jazz language born in the 1960’s.

      Herbie’s chord voicings are very personal and colorful. They underpin the whole band, providing a truly contemporary surface to everything. The interaction between everyone, but especially between the guys in the rhythm section is breathtaking.

      Ned, this is a pop tune called NY Minute with a definite form and clear chord changes to improvise on. You probably can’t hear the form or the time because of your lack of experience with the contemporary language. The way Herbie and company feel and articulate an 8 bar phrase is very different from whatever you are used to listening to and playing. Herbies early work like Watermelon Man and his great album Maiden Voyage is much more conservative and understandable to most people, but trust me, this band is universally admired, loved, and massively respected.

      Try this: listen to the recording of the original version of the tune New York Minute that Mike added to the end of the post. Then go back to Herbie’s version and you may start to hear what a miraculous transformation Herbie has created with his brilliant new arrangement and the improvisations over the tune’s form, and how much joy you may find by starting to hear the magic in it!

  26. I’m not a musical clinician by any stretch…all I can share is what a beloved friend and bassist always told me.
    “Jody, there’s no bad music. Only bad grooves.”
    David Austin (R.I.P) deserves a medal for that one.

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