“I feel like there are more reasons to be excited about improvised music today than at any time during my 41 years on the planet,” the jazz critic Nate Chinen tells Rolling Stone.
He has a point, and you don’t need to be a diehard fan of the genre to appreciate it. Crossover stars such as Kamasi Washington and Esperanza Spalding are receiving generous mainstream attention, alongside innovators like pianist Vijay Iyer and guitarist Mary Halvorson. Meanwhile, Thundercat, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and others are seamlessly fusing hip-hop, R&B and electronica with their jazz mastery, introducing elements of a century-old art form to new audiences. And five nights a week on national television, Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste showcases his ebullient New Orleans spirit alongside Stephen Colbert. In short, the contemporary jazz scene is bursting with promise — but how did we get here?
Chinen’s forthcoming book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century — out August 14th — offers a graceful and comprehensive explanation. In addition to its profiles of pacesetting figures including Spalding, Iyer, Halvorson, pianists Brad Mehldau and Jason Moran, and saxophonist Steve Coleman, Playing Changes examines the concepts and movements that bolster this robust, diverse present.
In a bold opening argument, Chinen couples Washington with Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter and managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, in an effort to explain jazz’s complex connections to its own history and to mass culture. A chapter titled “Learning Jazz” investigates the effects of the jazz-education industry; another traces a shift in jazz’s rhythmic language back to D’Angelo, the late hip-hop genius J Dilla and their fellow Soulquarians. Chinen also charts the breakthroughs of avant-garde trailblazer John Zorn, postmodern piano trio the Bad Plus, 21st-century fusion heroes Snarky Puppy, the rising U.K. saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, the imaginative Chicago drummer Makaya McCraven and many others.
Currently the director of editorial content at Newark-based jazz-radio outlet WBGO, Chinen is uniquely qualified to deliver this still-unfolding account. Born and raised in Honolulu, he moved to New York City in 1998, and went on to cover jazz and pop for the Times and author “The Gig,” a monthly column for JazzTimes. (Full disclosure: I was one of Chinen’s editors at that magazine and remain his friend.) During a recent interview at his home in Beacon, New York, Chinen talked about the lessons of Kamasi Washington, how La La Land got it wrong, why David Bowie’s final album could’ve only come from jazz musicians and much more.
You frame Kamasi Washington’s meteoric rise in a diplomatic and thoughtful way, noting the ideal timing of his association with Kendrick Lamar and citing some critical grumbling. Do Washington’s detractors stand to learn anything from his example and success?
There are a few things. Kamasi really understands how to present and hone and package the sound of a band. He’s a solid saxophonist and a very, very good bandleader. There’s a real force of cohesion in [his ensemble] the Next Step. And in pretty much anything he does there’s this really powerful sense of conviction. It’s an outward-facing proposition; it’s reaching out to the audience, and also welcoming them in.
There’s a feeling of ecstatic communion in that band. Especially in a culture where jazz has this reputation for being intellectual and über-sophisticated, and difficult for some people to process, catharsis requires no explanation. It’s just out there, and it fits on a festival bill with indie-rock acts and electronic music and hip-hop. If you are someone who’s hardly listened to any jazz, and you find yourself in that audience … it’s this music that washes over you. But it’s not effortless; maybe he makes it look effortless, but it’s clear that he’s a very savvy composer-bandleader.
He’s certainly very image- and brand-conscious in a way that a lot of jazz artists don’t think about. He’s taken a page or two from some of the Brainfeeder artists and even some of the pop artists he’s come across, and he understands that mystique is a commodity and that it’s helpful to have an aura. Some of it is natural; he is an incredibly charismatic stage performer. When he steps out, even before he plays a note, you’re like, “Wow, this is a regal figure.” And that’s one reason I thought to connect him historically to [saxophonist] Charles Lloyd. They’re very, very different artists in a lot of ways, but there’s a similar sense of outreach and deep charisma and command as a front-person. That was true of Charles Lloyd in the Sixties, and it still is. And Kamasi definitely has it.
One of my favorite chapters in the book connects the innovations of the Soulquarians to current players fusing jazz with hip-hop and contemporary R&B, such as Robert Glasper. Was that neo-soul generation a kind of ground zero for this organic, fluid jazz-meets-hip-hop language we hear today in folks like Glasper and Terrace Martin?
I don’t know if I would call them ground zero, but they definitely showed a really persuasive way [that this sort of stylistic melding] could be done. They showed how it could be done in a way that made a lot of sense and was deeply musical and felt true to both sides of that equation. In that chapter I quote from an important essay by [the late poet and intellectual] Amiri Baraka, in which he talks about R&B and “the changing same.” And that was a really powerful idea, as I was working on that, because no single term for everything around [D’Angelo’s] Voodoo and the Soulquarians really makes sense unless you want to call it “black music.” And then it makes perfect sense. It’s not just jazz and hip-hop; there’s soul, there’s rock, funk, a lot of the church. We often reduce this to a jazz-meets-hip-hop idea. Even if you listen to everything that Glasper has been doing, it’s really not that. So that changes the terms of the argument. It’s not an awkward, forced encounter; it’s actually a return to something at the root.
And then time goes by and musicians have a chance to study and metabolize this rhythmic feeling. Jazz musicians are some of the best people in the world at processing information and applying it in a new setting. So when you have a drummer who studies J Dilla’s production model and the way that he works with rhythm as carefully as he or she is studying [jazz-drumming greats] Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, that’s a recipe for wildly creative emotion on rhythmic terms.
I was glad to see you touch on saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s quartet, which became David Bowie’s final band, recording with him on Blackstar. You’ve heard that band at the 55 Bar in New York, which is where Bowie checked them out. What do you think he would have reacted to so profoundly in that basement club?
Before Blackstar came out I did speak with every member of the band and [longtime Bowie producer] Tony Visconti. Tony, I feel, is as close a window into David’s psyche as we’re going to get. And he said that a lot of it had to do with the specific combustion properties of that band — and just how much they are a band. Prior to making the album, Bowie basically gave Tony homework: He had him listen to the Donny McCaslin Quartet album Casting for Gravity, and [McCaslin quartet drummer] Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music. He was saying, “Listen to the ways these guys move together; get that inside your head. Because this is what we’re trying to do.”
It’s no secret that David Bowie was a close listener who really understood the inner mechanics of what happens on a bandstand. But something really clicked for him. Tony also told me that there’s a very different energy when you have really good rock musicians trying to play jazz than when you have really good jazz musicians playing rock; there’s a different tension there. There was this specific thing they wanted.
Blackstar’s not a jazz album, but it could only have been made by jazz musicians, and specifically these jazz musicians. And in a way it reflects how many sources flow into the music now. The last thing anyone was thinking when they were recording Blackstar was “Is this jazz or isn’t it?” It’s all completely synthesized.
Early in the book you hit upon La La Land and Ryan Gosling’s Saturday Night Live monologue, as you’re unraveling this cliché of jazz needing to be “saved.” Does that film’s flawed depiction of jazz culture help or hinder the music’s public image?
I don’t think you can come down on either side of that binary. It’s complicated. There is a way in which any exposure of [La La Land’s] magnitude is good. [But the film presents] such a retrograde idea not only of what the music is but what it should be.
There’s a real practical way in which, yes, jazz needs help, when you talk about support mechanisms for the music and all those things. There’s no question that this is a difficult era — not just for jazz. But this idea that it’s this precious, endangered resource that needs to be protected from the hurly-burly of the outside world, it’s a very conservative view and, frankly, it’s completely out of touch with the state of the music. So it’s very frustrating for any jazz person to take in the message of that movie. There’s a way in which people say, “Relax — it’s just a movie.” But I think that goes to the other point: How often is jazz at the center of such a phenomenon of a film or conversation? These chances are rare.
You cite the writer David Hajdu, who describes Wynton Marsalis’ ascent during the 1980s as “jazz for the Reagan revolution.” Since then, how has jazz reflected the political landscape in which it operates?
The period mostly covered in the book includes the entire Clinton era through the entire Obama era, and the very beginning of the Trump era. And while there isn’t a lot of politics in the book, there’s a lot of culture, obviously, and I think our political climate informs the culture in a lot of ways. Certainly the rhetoric and aspiration of the Obama era was very synchronous with what you might call the jazz aesthetic. And we saw that in his speech at International Jazz Day at the White House [in 2016]. The things we consider important to jazz, and that jazz musicians value, are completely in tune with what Barack Obama stood for as a president and as a citizen: curiosity, and a mission of cultural openness and outreach and exchange. All of these are jazz values, on a certain level.
It’s still pretty early to know whether our current political climate is going to shift the needle for jazz musicians in terms of what they create. It’s already had an impact on their livelihoods, on their ability to move freely as touring musicians. Jazz does not reinforce parochialism, or ethnic or political divisions. It’s inherently a generous and cosmopolitan art form. It just so happens that those are Obama-era ideals, and to a certain extent Clinton-ian ideals.
Via [the writer and intellectual] Albert Murray and his influence on Wynton Marsalis’ thinking, and on Jazz at Lincoln Center as an organization, there was this really powerful narrative about jazz as a fundamentally American expression — something that embodied American democratic ideals. You still hear some of that, but it’s a much less prominent argument today than it was 15 years ago. Part of that is the extent to which they’ve won that battle: Ken Burns’ Jazz [a documentary for which Marsalis served as “senior creative consultant”] sealed the deal on that understanding of the music. But if you look at the character of the music in its contemporary iteration, and you look at where jazz musicians are emerging from, this really is a global music. I don’t think Herbie Hancock is off base when he makes that point again and again as a UNESCO ambassador. It really is a music that belongs to the world at this point.
But today, in the midst of the Trump era, have you noticed musicians feeling more obligated to feature an element of protest in what they do?
Some musicians. It really depends. And some of those musicians were politically activated to begin with. Vijay Iyer was very vocal during the Bush era; so was [trumpeter] Dave Douglas. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah is another great example.
Some of it isn’t politics so much. Police brutality, that issue emerged during the Obama era. It’s become a partisan political issue because of the way the current Justice Department deals with it. But [trumpeter] Terence Blanchard, Christian Scott, musicians who are speaking out against police brutality against citizens of color, that’s not a political issue so much as it’s a cultural issue. I don’t know that musically I see a really clear air of anti-Trump sentiment. But I do think there’s probably a wave of music coming that will be more explicit about that.
You cover some of the most important female artists currently on the scene — Cécile McLorin Salvant, Esperanza Spalding, Mary Halvorson. How will our post-#MeToo reality affect women’s role in jazz?
This has been a really, really big story in the jazz community, as elsewhere. … Because jazz’s educational apparatus is so personal — if you’re a musician in a conservatory, you probably do have one-on-one time with instructors in enclosed, small spaces — the issue of harassment and especially power-dynamic abuse [is an essential one]. There’s a real trust there that can be easily taken advantage of. It’s very black and white where the wrong and right are in that scenario, and institutions are trying to figure this out, and some important work is being done. The more broad-picture work that is trickier, and probably not going to be resolved anytime soon, has to do more with the kind of sexism and bias that is so atmospheric you don’t even know it’s there: the opportunities that are not given; the presumptions that are applied.
Here’s where jazz culture has made a lot of progress. There are so many really important female musicians on the landscape now that no one, when exposed to their music, would ever apply any kind of qualifier — the classic formulation “She plays good for a girl.” You sound like an idiot if you come anywhere close to that argument. Some of these things were super pervasive not that long ago. I think that the extent to which the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements have emboldened [an attitude of] “The things that we’ve put up with just can’t stand anymore,” that’s really important.
You tell the story of how Spalding live-streamed the creation of her Exposure album, and you mention how Snarky Puppy have cleverly documented their recording sessions in online videos. It seems that jazz is reacting to new media in inspired ways, or at least in ways that dispel this superficial notion of jazz culture being antiquated.
It will always be true that jazz is best experienced in close quarters. And when I say “jazz,” you can put quotes around it — this music that involves improvisation and high-level interplay. So with Esperanza’s Exposure project, and the Snarky Puppy videos, and the work of someone like Jacob Collier, what all of these things have in common is that they give you the best seat in the house. They drop you in the middle of this creative session of music making, with maybe a certain level of polish. But ultimately what it’s about is getting closer to the creative musical act. And I think that’s the key. … When you talk about these things that achieve some level of virality, it’s because people are responding to musical connections.
When the anniversary edition of Playing Changes comes out in 10 years and you have to write a new foreword, what do you hope you’ll need to write about?
I’ll be really interested to see where this raging London scene leads. What’s the next step for [saxophonist] Nubya Garcia and [drummer] Yussef Dayes? I almost missed the cutoff to talk about that stuff in the book, because it’s so recent.
Shabaka Hutchings, he’s the person I know best from that scene, in terms of listening to records and the live experience, so for me he’s the leader of that movement. But I saw a great Garcia gig at Winter Jazzfest [in New York] last year: She knows what she’s doing; she has the goods as a bandleader; she has a really centered, impassioned sound. All the pieces were there. She’s more of a jazz player than he is; he’s more of a party-starter and a rhythmic savant. They both strike me as really smart, and not the type of musician to get painted into a corner. There’s a lot of runway ahead for them. So that’s one thing.
Another thing is this romance that the jazz avant-garde and the new-music/classical scene have been experiencing via people like [multi-instrumentalist and composer] Tyshawn Sorey and Vijay Iyer. It has a certain momentum today that it didn’t have in the Seventies or Eighties. I feel like that hasn’t played itself out, and Tyshawn is just getting started, and there are plenty of other musicians who are doing really amazing work in that vein.