What a little producer can do…

While the “Young Lions” movement of young musicians playing swinging tunes in Brooks Brothers suits has faded into jazz history (or shall I say has become the institutional jazz status quo), I feel the jazz world still has a penchant for “Young Lions” syndrome. Every year it seems belongs to another “it” person – someone under the age of 27 who puts out a record on a major label, or just won/placed in the Thelonious Monk competition, or both. When I was getting excited about current jazz my sophomore year in high school, the “it” person was fresh-faced pianist Taylor Eigsti, with a sharp and erudite debut album on Concord. The baton has since been passed on to the likes of pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Ben Williams, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and vocalist Gretchen Parlatto – all of whom did 2nd or better at the Monk competition their year. These musicians get a lion-share of the limited jazz media attention (pardon the pun, I had to), and the ability to be involved with one of the few groups that can actively tour outside the New York metro area (for instance this year, Akinmusire has been criss-crossing the country with a supergroup produced by the Monterrey Jazz Festival. Parlatto toured with Herbie Hancock. Clayton with trumpeter Roy Hargrove). While all of these musicians are prodigiously talented – there’s a reason they stood out from their peers – I usually find the music that gets made during this “it” person period feels labored and easily categorized. It almost always is produced to remove any rough edges and risk, not wanting to ruffle the feathers of listeners who still get their jazz from local radio stations and bigger label albums, rather than the basement clubs where new ideas develop.

However, the spotlight always moves on to new people, and it’s always curious to see what kind of music these artists produce after their 15 minutes. Some players fade into careers as steady sidemen and teachers, never stealing the headlines again. Others use their new anonymity to break new artistic ground, reemerging as a mature and unique voice a couple years down the road. Mr. Eigsti, for instance, moved to New York and instead of acting like the big man on campus, sought new collaborations and riskier projects. Instead of being the big-name solo artist, he’s a vital member of the young jazz sub-community that is searching for new sounds through engagement with hip-hop and indie rock. When Eigsti gets written about, it’s not because he’s the wunderkind of the moment, it’s because his music itself is worth writing about.

So as I am wont to do, I have once again buried the lede – this post is not about Mr. Eigsti or any of the other aforementioned players. It is about this year’s “it” person, vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, and yes she is a Monk Competition winner and has a new record called “WomanChild” out this year on Mack Avenue (which is pretty big as jazz labels go). She’s gotten tons of press and now has quite the busy touring schedule over the next several months with both her own group and with bigger names like Jacky Terrasson and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. 

So what is her music actually like you say? Well the esteemed New York Times jazz writer Ben Ratliff compared her to pianist Jason Moran in his “WomanChild” review, and I think that’s a good jumping-off point. Like Moran, Salvant would never be mistaken for a “crossover” musician – her style is firmly rooted in the jazz vocal tradition of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and so forth. The pure timbre of her voice is quite close to Holiday, which makes her success in capturing the attention of traditional jazz listeners understandable. But while her tone is quite traditional, Salvant has a vocal flexibility much more reminiscent of boundary-pushing singers like Jeanne Lee and Jay Clayton. She pulls and prods phrases to their breaking point, sculpting her vowels into multidimensional oblong shapes. Salvant, like Moran, likes to push the boundaries of the tradition, not necessarily through bringing in sounds and performance practices from other genres, but by abstracting sound, form, and song material, attempting to reclaim old music for her modern purposes. On “WomanChild,” she has the guts to take a song whose lyrics are long past politically correct (“You Bring out the Savage in Me”) and turn it into a bravura performance of re-appropriation. And she has the pure vocal chops to turn the simple “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” into sonic fireworks, the words abstracted into shimmering tones from a previously-unheard instrument.

It’s an ambitious and impressive debut to be sure, but it’s also all over the place aesthetically. There are unadorned blues duets with guitarist James Chirillo, followed by pristine and measured songbook material, followed by blazing, abstract post-bop, followed by funkified folk tunes. While the band, spearheaded by young pianist Aaron Diehl (man can he play stride), admirably follows Salvant through every twist and turn, there were more than a few times when I wanted to hear some riskier and more idiosyncratic accompaniment.

Because Salvant’s interests are so wide-ranging, I felt that this record was the “best of” of several different albums, all thrown together out of economic necessity. But after this year of being the “it” person, after the tours and the press and the major label albums, Salvant will be able to try new things, explore her different personalities with musicians perfectly suited to the task. Below, I have played a bit of fantasy jazz producing and have planned out Salvant’s next five albums based on tracks I heard on her debut. 

1. Inspired by “Baby Have Pity on Me,” a spare and jangly blues album with Marc Ribot

I’m thinking Marc Ribot’s stunning solo album “Saints,” now with some singing. Salvant has shown a great affinity for the repertoire of Bessie Smith, but pairing her with an iconoclast like Ribot will stretch the material in some hair-raising directions. In the meantime, you can listen to Fay Victor’s “Exposed Blues Duo” with guitarist Anders Nilsson.

2. Inspired by “You Bring out the Savage in Me,” an exploration of African exotica and blaxploitation with Don Byron

Byron is the king of jazz concept albums – he’s explored everything from klezmer, to motown, to gospel, to Raymond Scott’s Looney Tunes jazz, to German lieder, to… you get the point. With Salvant in the mix, a potent singer and risk-taker after his own heart, certainly sparks will fly. There will be curious and uncomfortable source material, but the assuredness of the performance (I’m thinking Uri Caine on piano/keyboards, David Gilmore on guitar, Brad Jones on bass, and Pheeroan akLaff on drums) will make it impossible to turn away.

3. Inspired by “John Henry,” a folk-jazz hybrid album with lots of big names from the Americana world

The past few years have seen some really great jazz and folk hybrids – Jeremy Udden’s “Plainville,” Dave Douglas’ “Be Still” with Aoife O’Donovan, and the work of Becca Stevens. Working from a list of Old Time tunes, Salvant teams up with a rotating cast of folk and jazz virtuosos to bring them new life. I’m thinking Bill Frisell, Chris Thile, Michael Davies, Brandon Seabrook, Abigail Washburn, Dave Easley, Brian Blade, Jenny Scheinman, Doveman… Let’s stop before I get carried away here. Oh, and it would be produced by Hal Wilner and/or Tucker Martine. It might be a bit bloated yes, but isn’t that the point of fantasy music?

4. Inspired by “Jitterbug Waltz,” an album of songbook standards with a rotating cast of piano accompanists

One of the current musical projects of any genre that I’ve been digging most right now is this project “Liaisons” by the classical pianist Anthony DaMare. He’s commissioned a ton of great contemporary composers to write arrangements of favorite Sondheim songs and the results have been quite fascinating – Steve Reich’s minimalism works surprisingly well on “Finishing the Hat” for instance.

The idea for this album would be to pair Salvant up with several different pianists, who would arrange a favorite standard in their own way. There would be no rehearsal, just a quick and dirty session to see what would happen. My preliminary list includes Fred Hersch doing “So In Love,” ” Ethan Iverson doing “All the Things You Are,” Aaron Diehl doing “Let Yourself Go,” Gerald Clayton doing “Where or When,” Vijay Iyer doing “But Beautiful,” Craig Taborn doing “The Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” Joey Calderazzo doing “Pennies from Heaven,” and Myra Melford doing “I Loves You Porgy.” Matt Mitchell and Dan Tepfer will likely also end up in there somewhere. Two volumes may be in order. Think of it as a reverse “Piano Jazz” with Marian McPartland.

5. Inspired by “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” a free-wheeling album featuring Jason Moran’s Bandwagon

Come on. This one was too easy. I think everyone’s been thinking it since Ben Ratliff made the comparison. I have no other concept in mind than to just get Salvant, Moran, Taurus Mateen, and Nasheet Waits in the same room together for a few days. And maybe JD Allen or Mark Turner to sit in on a couple of tracks. Good things will happen.

Have any better ideas? Let’s start a Fantasy Jazz league in the comments section.

1 Comment

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One response to “What a little producer can do…

  1. RW

    I think all this mainstream jazz is “labored & easily categorized” because the jazz establishment (label execs, jazz press, curators of festivals and performing arts centers, etc.) is an aging group. There’s been a world of change in music since the last significant wave of “young lions” in the early-to-mid-’90s, but many of the industry tastemakers are still the same people all these years later. Not only do these elders try to constantly recreate their generation’s own past by enforcing stylistic guidelines, but they also haven’t learned to embrace new paradigms like digital music or social media. So many jazz albums today still feature physical-only releases, while the rest of the music industry is on the bleeding edge of promotion by “windowing” tracks on Spotify and uploading lyric videos to YouTube.

    The industry needs an influx of young blood on the business/editorial side of things. Otherwise, the mummification of jazz will soon be complete.

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