Sunday, October 28, 2012
Reaching Out with Shades of Jade and Vijay Iyer
The credulous questions posed by prominent Kansas City-based jazz artists dripped with skepticism last Thursday at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. Shades of Jade was hosting an event billed as a "Youth Education Program to expose people of ages (15-28) of the relevance of Jazz music in our mainstream society and in their local community."
A bassist questioned Shades of Jade's decision to stray from the conventional Kansas City sound. A saxophonist wondered why Shades of Jade favored odd meters. A vocalist rephrased his question this way- "He wants to know why you don't swing." I was simply delighted by the opportunity to interact with the members of one of the region's most exciting bands at one of the world's most significant jazz institutions. About two dozen people attended the event.
Bandleader and trumpeter Josh Williams professed his admiration for Sean Jones while keyboardist Eddie Moore spoke highly of Robert Glasper. No surprises there. But I was thrown by bassist Dominique Sanders' shout-out to Modest Mussorgsky and drummer Julian Goff's reference to Terry Bozzio. The members of the quartet aren't just exceedingly bright. Their unorthodox perspectives- free from the limitations that the conservative jazz orthodoxy would impose on them- represent refreshing new artistic and commercial possibilities for the music.
The program was particularly interesting in light of the dustup surrounding a controversial essay in the Seattle Weekly titled "Vijay Iyer and the Outreachification of Jazz." Chris Kornelis suggests that Iyer's frequent outreach programs are futile inasmuch as "jazz lacks broad appreciation outside academia because of artists like Iyer and albums like Accelerando. The album is fascinating, richly textured, adventurous, and full of ideas. But it's completely inaccessible to listeners not predisposed to appreciate jazz."
Kornelis has a point. I witnessed the Vijay Iyer Trio's mind-bending performance at the Folly Theater on October 19. Given the enormous (and entirely deserved) acclaim accorded the artist, all 1,050 seats should have been filled for Iyer's Kansas City debut. Yet only 300 people attended. A few disgruntled patrons left at intermission.
What the hell is going on? I think I know.
The jazz being made in 2012 can be placed in one of three categories. The mainstream, swing-based jazz exemplified by Wynton Marsalis at the international level and in Kansas City by the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra is becoming incrementally less popular. Once everyone born before 1960 dies, the ongoing attrition of support for the sound will finally cease. Swing-based jazz will never die, but I expect it to take a permanent seat next to Dixieland on the cultural sidelines by 2042.
The progressive art-jazz played by Iyer, Matthew Shipp, Dave Douglas and The People's Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City will continue apace. It seems incapable of attracting large crowds in the United States, but the creative explorations of adventurous musicians will never be silenced.
The final category is the groove-based jazz that incorporates funk, R&B and hip hop. Glasper, Shades of Jade and even the entirety of the smooth jazz realm represent this grouping. The strain is jazz's best hope to regain a sizable audience. Anyone who can get their head around the idea of Erykah Badu as a jazz vocalist and J Dilla as the Max Roach of his generation will agree. The Next Collective, featuring the likes of Christian Scott and Kansas City's Logan Richardson, just issued a cover of "No Church in the Wild." That's change I can believe in.
Of course, most artists can't be neatly pigeonholed. Esperanza Spalding and Kansas City's Diverse, for instance, freely jump between my somewhat arbitrary classifications.
I hope Iyer, Shades of Jade and jazz artists at every level continue to engage in "outreachification." Perhaps such efforts will disprove my bleak prognosis. In the meantime, I'll forward this missive to a person with skin in the game who asked me why Iyer failed to attract a larger audience in Kansas City. Plastic Sax, after all, is yet another form of "outreachification."
(Original image captured at an institution of higher learning by Plastic Sax.)