Jazz is alive and well. You may say I’m a dreamer, but it’s true. And not just in the torrent of jazz vocal artists who have arrived over the last decade. The jazz I’m talking about is not just your father’s or your grandfather’s jazz, although there are plenty of gifted artists who are continuing to rediscover the vitality in swing and bebop, in Miles Davis, the Jazz Messengers, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.
Beyond the familiar, however, there’s a growing new view of jazz -- a burgeoning perspective that is too broad to even be limited to a genre-style definition. It reaches from innovative takes on familiar elements (think remixes, pop fusions and novel variations on classic items) to culturally diverse, jazz-related musics from every part of the world.
Consider, for example, Argentina-born Gabriela Anders, whose singing in “Last Tango in Rio” (EMI Narada) suggests something like what Norah Jones might have done had she remained closer to jazz and been more attracted to Latin than country rhythms. But one soon discovers that Anders does much more. Her version of “God Bless the Child,” for example, sung in breathy fashion over a roiling rhythm, actually manages to bring new life to the Billie Holiday classic.
Revisionist interpretations of “You Go to My Head” and “Body and Soul” -- in which she sometimes takes a postmodern approach, deconstructing the tunes before refashioning them in skewed but fascinating remakes -- are the product of a strikingly fertile young imagination.
Beyond her fresh discoveries in the mother lode of the Great American Songbook, Anders avidly explores new territory in her originals, often using titles identical to well-known standards. Her “Embrace Me” (accompanied by a layered combination of bandoneon and bossa nova-style guitar), the gently grooving “Abracadabra” and the texturally fascinating “ ‘Til the End of Time” (with its surf sounds, whistling and almost-familiar chord changes) all reveal a talent for engaging melodies, memorable lyrics and imaginative production. Narada has a potential winner on its hands in Anders. Let’s hope it knows what to do with her.
A smorgasbord of styles
Here’s a selection of other recent CDs -- each compelling in its own fashion -- entertainingly encompassing a full range of colorful new views of jazz.
Django REINHARDT was the first international artist to bring a fresh slant to jazz. So it’s appropriate that multi-instrumentalist Craven has chosen Reinhardt’s music for this unusually far-reaching project, which applies Latin rhythms to selections from the French gypsy guitarist’s rich catalog of songs. Making extensive use of multitracking, Craven plays everything from violin (including a stirring solo on “Minor Swing”) to mandolin, mandola, cavaquino, ukulele and a full range of percussion instruments. Ambitious as that might sound, Craven brings it off, playing with briskly swinging inventiveness and convincing authenticity. Further enhancing the program, the Latin rhythms -- “Nuages” as a Cuban danzon, “Minor Swing” as a Puerto Rican plena, “Double Scotch/Artillerie Lourde” as a whimsical, off-center Colombian cumbia, “Tears” as a mysterious bandoneon-guitar-violin tango -- engagingly revitalize the familiar Reinhardt numbers.
“Entremundo” (Justin Time/Enja)
French bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons is one of the world’s great virtuosi, even though he is little known in this country. Although he resists assigning a genre to his music, preferring to describe it as “between continents and border crossings, without stylistic limitations,” his five-string bass playing on “Entremundo” is thoroughly invested with an improvisational creativity and body-moving rhythmic drive. The centerpiece of the CD, “Aqa Jan,” is a remarkable, nearly eight-minute-long solo in which Garcia-Fons alternates astonishingly fast-fingered pizzicato passages with equally astounding bowing. Other tracks, in which nine additional musicians add everything from gentle melodic coloration to propulsive rhythms, recall Middle Eastern music, flamenco and Latin America, enlivened by a spontaneous spirit powerfully reminiscent of the core values of jazz.
“Impressions on Chopin’s Nocturnes” (Telarc)
Loussier’s “Play Bach” recordings -- jazz variations on the music of J.S. Bach -- were surprising crossover hits in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. With Chopin, however, he has taken on a somewhat more formidable task. Unlike the moving counterpoint of the Bach recordings -- which were done with a trio -- the Chopin Nocturnes, performed solo by Loussier, are precise, interlocking assemblages of melody and harmony. To his credit, he finds a way -- in most cases -- to shape them into convincing improvisations. The lovely Nocturne No. 2 in E-flat major, for example, with its familiar arching melody, is handled gently, subtly linking its chordal flow with a touch of jazz harmonies. Other pieces take unexpectedly offbeat tacks -- the ragtime-like coloration for Nocturne No. 5 is a particularly intriguing example. Perhaps best of all, Loussier’s inventive variations always remain in contact with the flow, the timbres and the intensity of the Chopin originals.
Michel Portal and Richard Galliano
“Concerts” (Dreyfus Jazz)
Accordion jazz may sound like a contradiction but only to folks who haven’t heard the stunning playing of Richard Galliano, in whose hands the venerable squeezebox becomes an instrument of color, passion, swing and ingenuity. His decade-long partnership with multi-instrumental woodwind artist Portal -- a veteran, influential member of the French contemporary jazz scene -- has produced a series of extraordinary duo performances in which Portal’s clarinets and soprano saxophone dart freely through the stunning textures and surging rhythms of Galliano’s accordion. (Portal’s bass clarinet solo on his original piece, “Ivan Ivanovitch Kossiakof,” is an utter marvel.) “Concerts” gathers selections from a series of live duo events presented between 1999 and 2003 in Italy, Belgium and Germany. Every moment is worth savoring, from the dark intensity of Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” to Hermeto Pascoal’s highflying “Chorinho Pra Ele.”
“A Guitar Supreme: Giant Steps in Fusion Guitar”
(Tone Center Record)
If you thought you’d already heard the last word on John Coltrane, think again. Imagine Coltrane’s music as the subject matter for a set of performances by a lineup of jazz’s most pop- and rock-oriented guitarists. Sound like a recipe for musical disaster? Perhaps, but that’s not the way it turns out. The guitarists -- Jeff Richman (who also produced the CD), Mike Stern, Eric Johnson, Frank Gambale, Robben Ford, Steve Lukather, Greg Howe and Larry Coryell -- serve up intriguing renderings of Coltrane material embracing such classics as “Crescent,” “Equinox,” “Giant Steps” and “Naima.” Among the highlights: Howe, with perhaps the most difficult task, transforms “Giant Steps” into a slippery, sliding rock anthem; Gambale finds a smooth jazz groove on “Naima”; Lukather engages in a penetrating version of “Crescent.” Not for all tastes, “A Guitar Supreme” is nonetheless a fine example of the open-skies approach of new-view jazz.