When current jazz competes with its rich hundred-year history, it generally loses. Who wants to buy the latest from Brad Mehldau when you can get Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett? Why take a chance on the new Joshua Redman when you can have the classic John Coltrane?
So the trick is to not compete -- to create instead of re-create. This leads to different jazz sounds rising to prominence with each passing decade. There was the soul jazz and free jazz of the '60s, jazz fusion in the '70s, the Wynton Marsalis-led charge back to acoustic bebop in the '80s and the influx of hip-hop and acid jazz in the '90s.
The music is now changing again in the '00s by incorporating elements of modern-day club music. Electronic jazz has already gained momentum in Europe. Artists like Nils Petter Molvaer and Erik Truffaz actually play as a jazz unit while incorporating breakbeats and samples. Now it's being done by some of jazz's most established and forward-thinking practitioners here in America.
"Some people are trying to sell out. Some people are interested in the possibilities," keyboardist Craig Taborn says of this new trend. Taborn used to play with post-bop saxophonist James Carter. He's also played on electronic kingpin Carl Craig's Innerzone Orchestra record, Programmed. More recently he brought his electronic sound to avant-garde saxophonist Tim Berne's The Shell Game.
"What I really find interesting is playing improvised electronics," Taborn enthuses. "I can program things, but I'm too much of an improviser to get too excited about that kind of specific process of crafting things."
Taborn isn't alone in his electro-jazz interests. Pianist Matthew Shipp, who has recorded more than 20 albums as a leader since his debut in 1988, is changing things up as well. He's already taken avant-garde jazz as far out as anyone has, rivaling the intensity of the legendary iconoclast Cecil Taylor. His cutting-edge music has reached adventurous audiences who may not even be into jazz.
And he's going further out. Shipp's latest release, Nu Bop, is an avant-garde jazz album that utilizes beats and samples. "It's the challenge of doing something new," Shipp explains, "the challenge of adding something I felt was needed in the modern jazz zeitgeist. And it's something I've always wanted to do. Whenever I do an album I have to factor in everything I've done before that and see how the new one fits into the whole thing. With so many albums it's a lot to factor in."
There are dangers to plotting this course change. In an effort to reach a new audience he may alienate his old one. Shipp is willing to take the risk because he feels that avant-garde jazz has a limited appeal. "Miles Davis slowed down his music for Kind Of Blue so it became cool jazz," Shipp says. "He did this because he felt that people couldn't listen to bebop because it was too fast. Is the music any less because of those considerations?"
Nu Bop is a success. Longtime fans will instantly recognize Shipp banging out thunderous blocks of chords on his grand piano or jabbing his way through discordant runs. The album does miss the transcendent ebb and flow of improvised music because of the stricter beats, and the electronic programming certainly isn't going to send Autechre back to the drawing board. But Nu Bop isn't trying to be a groundbreaking new electronic album or an old Matthew Shipp effort. It's fusion in the true sense of the word.
"People might be pissed off that I did this record," Shipp says, "but there might be people out there where this album would be their introduction to me. I ask people to give me the creative leeway to do it and have fun with it. I'm trying to have intelligent product with thought behind it. If I can get that across then it has a chance to reach people."
Keyboardist Herbie Hancock, who debuted on Blue Note 40 years ago, helped define jazz fusion in the early '70s before it became watered-down music just a step away from Muzak. In the early '80s he had a bona fide MTV hit with "Rockit," a song that fused jazz and hip-hop. Hancock has pulled external influences into jazz for more than 30 years.
"As a musician, it's not that I devote all my attention to one direction and close off the door to other directions that I've been pursuing in the past," Hancock explains. "I just keep adding to the pallet."
For Future 2 Future Hancock and producer Bill Laswell brought in electronic artists A Guy Called Gerald (who also has worked with Shipp) and Carl Craig, as well as abstract hip-hop DJ Rob Swift. In true jazz fashion, the guests add their unique sound to the tunes.
These guys were likely honored to work with the legendary Hancock, but Hancock gets more than just hipster cache in return. "Once I hear something, I want to figure out how to make it work," the pianist says. He's attracted to electronic music because it's different -- the people who create the music aren't schooled in jazz history and they may not even be trained musicians.
There's also another reason Hancock is willing to try out the new sound. "I'm a huge techie," says Hancock, a former electrical engineering student. "Technology is a part of my life, so it's a real theme for my music."
Hancock's fellow Miles Davis alumni John Scofield still uses some of the same guitar effects pedals he used in the '70s. Whereas Hancock has bounced around between several different sounds over the years, Scofield has stuck to either straight-ahead bebop or more funky jazz material. It's Scofield's funky style that has influenced a new generation of musicians, such as Medeski Martin and Wood, Soulive and others. Fortunately, he's been able to bridge the gap between being an influential jazz musician and reaching the young audiences his musical progeny has created. With his new release, überjam, Scofield will head off on the biggest tour of his career, zigzagging the U.S. and Europe until July (including a stop in Atlanta, at the Variety Playhouse, on April 19).
But while many consider him to be the "Godfather of Groove," Scofield's sound is changing. He began integrating samples and loops into his sound on 2000's Bump. Now he makes the connection between jazz and electronic music even more tangible on überjam.
"I'm influenced by stuff like drum 'n' bass and techno," Scofield says. "I heard a lot of that stuff from my daughter when she was in high school. Then I began to hear all these elements that were directly related to jazz and fusion, but coming out in a sampled kind of way, that I really related to."
With his more groove-oriented material, Scofield works with a younger group of musicians, all of which are well versed in modern music trends. And while he admits that it's sometimes a little strange to work with people his daughter's age, he likes the fact that these young guys have something new to say.
The new album will surprise Scofield's fans. An Indian music sample provides the basis for the six-minute opening track. There are also live drum 'n' bass beats fused with funk on several tracks, thanks to a very talented young drummer named Adam Deitch. Indeed, even Scofield has gotten into the act, adding a new sampler pedal to his guitar rig. Both live and in the studio, listeners can hear Scofield sampling himself and responding to it on the fly.
Despite somewhat different motives, Taborn, Shipp, Hancock, Scofield and others are all trying to break out of the gilded cage that jazz can be. It's unlikely electronic music will be the last genre any of them incorporate into their personal styles, but for now, it's a source of inspiration -- even a way out.
"Jazz has so much lip service paid to it, it almost seems to ghettoize it more," Shipp says. "People are comfortable giving it praise, but that only seems to reaffirm the music's own limits. Jazz can't exist that way." Nor should we expect it to.
John Scofield plays Fri., April 19, at the Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. Show time is 8:30 p.m. $15. 404-524-7354. www.variety-playhouse.com.
*Christ, Lord sorry
"Punk" style like this seems like it is the polar opposite of punk. Bradford Cox…
They're kind of starting to look like a joke of themselves. Song's good though.
All 80s movies want you...
Their show with Chris, Lord about 3 years at the Unicorn was the best.