2011 Jazz: Echoing the ’70s, in a Good Way

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 12.21.11 in Spotlights

Avenging Angel

Craig Taborn

It says something about the timeless state of modern jazz that one of 2011′s memorable releases, saxophonist/composer Tim Berne’s Insomnia, was recorded in 1997. Nothing about the music sounds dated: not his curvy, harmonized melodies, the ways they jostle the spirited improvising, the lushness of an octet with a built-in chamber trio (violin, cello, bass), or the sure pacing of long suite-like sets. His concept was fully developed, then as now. (ECM’s putting out a Berne quartet set early in 2012.) But there are still subtle echoes of his early mentor Julius Hemphill, whose 1972 Dogon A.D. was one of the year’s most welcome reissues. The sonorous blend of alto saxophone and cello, and the bite of Baikida Carroll’s trumpet, are displayed in different ways on both albums.

Jazz loves its own roots, and sporadic brawls between so-called traditional and avant-garde camps are often just disagreements about which fabled past is to be fondly referenced, in the course of finding one’s own sound. Consciously or not, anachronisms always creep in, so the music always reflects its own time, one way or another.

In the 1980s, the young lions paid tribute to the hard bop era, circa 1955-65, the age of the great jazz rhythm sections. The lions swung like crazy, while still updating their concepts all kinds of ways – even Wynton Marsalis’s changing-meter tumbles on 1985′s Black Codes owed something to fusion, music from an era he mostly abhorred, the 1970s, when his patron Art Blakey had some lean years.

In jazz, the 1970s was an age of resourceful solo pianists (Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor), rocky and funky rhythm sections and pop-inspired melodies (jazz-rock fusion, CTI albums), and Anthony Braxton’s rhythmically convoluted wide-leaping lines. The decade’s reputation has only lately been rehabilitated, just in time for its echoes to ring out all over.

One of the year’s astonishments, Craig Taborn’s Avenging Angel, reminds us why solo piano recitals are so fascinating, as a test of pianists’ resources, their abilities to investigate that big box of wires and hear what it can do. Taborn’s sound is sometimes breathtakingly spare, sometimes a polyrhythmic churn, and his frame of reference can take in Milhaud, Monk and Bach in 30 seconds (on “Neverland”). With Avenging Angel he’s not just a Musicians’ Unwittingly Well-Kept Secret any longer. And there’s more from that session in the can.

More ’70s echoes: Jarrett’s solo effort Rio, where shorter pieces let the pianist, who demands perfect quiet when he plays, feed off an audience’s response for once. Chick Corea recorded two-piano duets with Stefano Bollani, as he did with Herbie Hancock in the ’70s. (And Corea’s Return to Forever reunions? Seventies!) Vibist Gary Burton exceptionally vibrant New Quartet’s Common Ground is energized by hot young guitarist Julian Lage, latest in a line of Burton pickers including Larry Coryell and Pat Metheny.

The compositions on Tyshawn Sorey’s Oblique – I picked up on Braxtonian angularity, but Sorey is a heavy drummer who also brings ferocious swing to the material. That’s how it goes in jazz; rhythmic tacks that may sound awkward at first – like 5/4 meters or jazz reggae – get smoother over time.

The arena-rockification of ’70s fusion drumming was generally not a positive direction, but soon limber jazz drummers like Dennis Chambers or Joey Baron (or Jim Black, later) sounded at least as comfy with a rockin’/boogiein’ 8th note feel as a swingin’ 4/4. Nowadays more and more jazz musicians take rock and funk beats for granted; The Bad Plus pointed the way for a lot of bands.

For a state-of-the-era progress report there’s James Farm, from the co-op of the same name, where saxophonist Joshua Redman gets to plant himself in front of a fireworksy trio and blow. Drummer Eric Harland and bassist Matt Penland’s combinations on “Coax” recall Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Pianist Aaron Parks often sidesteps conventional strategies, but his harmonic/rhythmic buoyancy has its Jarretty side. Moments on “Polliwog” eerily evoke Keith’s 70s quartet with Josh’s dad Dewey Redman on tenor.

Now, any jamoke can cherry-pick some of the year’s notable albums to float a trend story, and remaining ’70s haters shouldn’t lose hope. The great tradition of noble and solid swingers is always alive and well. Trumpeter Terell Stafford’s This Side of Strayhorn, mostly tunes by the other half of Duke Ellington’s brain, Billy S, both stands on its own and calls back to forebear Art Farmer’s 1987 Something to Live For with four of the same tunes.

Of course some folks are always working to put it all together. On Ambrose Akinmusire’s fine 2011 release When the Heart Emerges Glistening, there’s classic jazz balladry (an old school “What’s New”), catchy tunes he rides like pop choruses, an elegy for Oakland shooting victim Oscar Grant, and times when his trumpet sounds like a ritual ram’s horn. Akinmusire harnesses control and unpredictability both, and he’s but one member of a tough cohesive band; the swinging rocking Justin Brown’s booming bass drum adds a whiff of hip-hop. It’s Akinmusire’s second album, but feels like a major debut.