June 16, 2009


Jazz: Has it been all downhill since 1959?: With the reissue of landmark jazz albums Kind of Blue and Time Out from 50 years ago, it's hard not to feel a little nostalgic (J.D. Considine, 6/15/09, Globe and Mail)

Commercially, 1959 was clearly a high-water mark. Kind of Blue , which arrived in stores on Aug. 17 that year, is by far the bestselling jazz album of all time; in a genre where even gold records are ridiculously rare, Kind of Blue has gone quadruple platinum. Take Five , a tune composed by the late alto saxophonist Paul Desmond for the Time Out album, became the first jazz single to sell a million copies. “It was never supposed to be a hit,” Desmond joked later. “It was supposed to be a Joe Morello drum solo.”

Unsurprisingly, both recordings have sparked commemorative tours. Drummer Jimmy Cobb, the only surviving member of the Kind of Blue band, has assembled a sextet to recreate the album in concert. Dubbed the So What Band after the album's opening tune, it will be performing at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival (July 2) and the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (July 6). Also, pianist Dave Brubeck, who has billed his current tour as “Time Out – Take Fifty,” will be playing the Toronto Jazz Festival (July 1) as well as Montréal (July 4).

Everybody likes an anniversary, of course, but what's being celebrated isn't mere nostalgia, as both Kind of Blue and Take Five were revolutionary recordings that changed the way jazz was played. Kind of Blue attacked harmony; instead of following the convention of improvising on chord changes (that is, the underlying harmony in a tune), Davis gave his players specifically composed scales to solo on, a strategy that made the playing both freer and more melodic. Take Five and the rest of Time Out took on rhythm, shattering the hegemony of four-beat swing with melodies set in 5/4, 9/8 and other exotic time signatures.

The revolution didn't end there, either. In New York, on May 5, 1959, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane — who mere weeks before had been in the studio with Davis, recording the second side of Kind of Blue — cut Giant Steps , a breakneck exercise in polytonality that is perhaps the most carefully studied recording in jazz.

A few weeks later in Los Angeles, the Ornette Coleman Quartet began recording what would become The Shape of Jazz to Come . Coleman believed that improvisation shouldn't be constrained by chord changes and that jazz should focus on the feeling within a tune, not on its structure or harmonic grammar. By the time Coleman's group opened at New York's Five Spot, later that year, “free jazz” had become the focus of fierce debate both within and outside the jazz community.

Major moments, to be sure, but what does this celebration of the past say about jazz's present? Pointing out the surpassing greatness of these discs isn't quite the same as saying that little of consequence has happened since, but it's not far removed from that argument, either. Has jazz slowly ground to a creative standstill over the last half century, moving so far from its core values – as Wynton Marsalis and others have argued – that much of today's “jazz” seems hollow and insignificant when compared to past masterpieces? What does it say about the current scene that bold predictions about “the shape of jazz to come” are no longer welcomed?

What if it's exactly the opposite? Isn't the problem with jazz, as with all the other arts, that the objective of creating beauty was replaced by the objective of creating "creativity"? In effect, art is no longer art, but an intellectual exercise designed to demonstrate something about the creators instead of Creation. There is no jazz, just theory. And the less people like it the more thoroughly the theories have triumphed

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 16, 2009 7:26 AM
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