NEXT Collective: Cover Art–Jazz and Pop’s Fertility Rites

by tigermanifesto

I’d posit it has to do with its reputation, deserved or not, of being a thinking person’s music.  It wasn’t always that way, but that reputation has evolved over time to where we are now.  Generally speaking, and with plenty of exceptions, there exists a segment of the population who might be interested in exploring Jazz were it not for the perceived barrier-to-entry of getting learned up on the subject.  As opposed to, say, rock or hip hop or pop music, where one just hears a couple bands on the radio or a friend’s house and dives into the music, Jazz is viewed, by some, as having some sort of education requirement to be able to sufficiently appreciate the music, that it’s not enough to simply like a tune… one must understand why they like a jazz song and learn to like it the correct way.

Dave Sumner at Bird is the Worm

Being a non-human in a world of human hegemony is hard enough. Loving jazz–that only compounds the isolation. Tigers are as a rule not inclined to martyrdom, but sometimes I wish I could show people–in the manner of soldiers and drunken hitmen–my thick and gnarly scars. These scars were all won, not in battles waged with bullets or switchblades but with words. These were the Jazz Wars. Lest the reader get a vision of violent saxophone-based bludgeoning on his or her mind, let me assure you that they concerned nothing more [or less] important than trying to get people to talk with me about jazz.

Dave Sumner has it precisely right. Those who don’t know jazz–and, unfortunately, some who are “serious” about jazz and not serious/playful–make all kinds of statements like the one above. Proper appreciation of jazz, they state, either to deprecate or arrogate themselves (two sides of the same narcissistic coin) requires erudition, class, and sophistication. And when I invoke class it is not only in a taste sense but is also very economic. Jazz, in the minds of a majority of people, is rich white people music, like classical music. Statistically speaking, they might be correct. To argue that jazz is somehow essentially impenetrable without the aid of a master’s degree in music theory and a pipe-tobacco-stained collection of history books, however, is completely off base. Jazz was born as dance music and, though  it has become more diverse, enriched by its globalism, open approach to hybridization, and essentially renewable nature, it is not impregnable.

Those looking to refute me will point to the avant-garde, especially genre-bending artists like John Zorn and free jazz “screechers” like Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton. Let me first say that John Zorn’s recent Christmas album is about as challenging as petting a kitten, yet loses nothing of his usual playful artistry. Second, I will point out that the avant garde is not representative of jazz today any more than post-metal or Zeuhl is of contemporary rock music. All genres have their fringes and their centres, and in jazz’s case both are still electrically alive and kicking today.

And then there is NEXT Collective. If you have the time, I encourage you to read this interview with the band, which includes some comments from the musicians involved summarizing some of the points I am about to make. NEXT Collective is a project from Concord Music Group, an attempt to demonstrate the talents and chemistry of their youthful and ambitious roster of musicians. Many of them, including drummer Jamire Williams and guitarist Matthew Stevens, worked with star trumpeter Christian Scott (who provides some stellar playing on two of the songs here) on my favorite album of last year, Christian aTunde Adjuah. The entire group bring the same dynamism and rigor to their first record, Cover Art, which, as its title implies, is a collection of cover songs.

While rock music has long enshrined an almost ethical importance to writing all of your own material, jazz has a different relationship to the cover song. Being a musical approach that incorporates improvisation, jazz has, since its inception, embraced a symbiotic relationship to the folk and pop traditions of the times. From the blues and classical to rock to hip hop and R&B, jazz musicians often appropriate existing songs and infuse them with jazz’s peculiar rhythmic and technical aspects. Cover Art, an entire album of covers, is a perfect example of this tendency. Taking a group of musicians who want to uphold the strong traditions of their own genre but who have grown up listening to a vast range of popular music encompassing all the streams I mentioned earlier, I see it as an attempt, conscious or not, to reinvigorate jazz through the appropriation of popular songs that appeal to a more youthful set of musicians and audiences.

While the NEXT Collective usually sticks to relatively straight-ahead jazz forms for their covers, they also take care to respect some of the spirit of the original songs. “No Church in the Wild” maintains its vaguely sinister rhythmic pulse, abetted by Christian Scott’s impassioned yet hushed trumpeting. A cover of Bon Iver’s “Perth” employs Matthew Stevens’ guitar to at first imitate and then greatly expand on the appealing opening guitar riff. Beats that recall rock and slow-jam R&B appear on a few songs, with Jamire Williams and bassist Ben Williams nimbly taking the song’s rhythmic cores and making them both wilder and more beautiful. Though the approach to the songs is relatively conventional, the band is working with relatively unconventional material, and as such Cover Art is a promising first release for the band, showing its dexterity and intellect as well as a certain urgency to interpret music for a new generation.

In many ways, jazz depends both on engaging pop music and talented musicians who are engaged by it. Like hip hop, jazz is a collage music, albeit one where the lines between a sampled or appropriated riff and an improvised extrapolation are far blurrier. While many people worry that jazz has grown too insular and inaccessible, with the result being dwindling audiences and popular enthusiasm, I would argue that this music, with its global reach and ongoing creative renaissance, has become in many ways an ideal reflection of the world of music in 2013. Fragmented, culturally cosmopolitan, and, I insist, quite accessible as long as one tries to ignore the pressure to “get it” the same way your annoying jazz friend (e.g. me) does. Projects like Cover Art show that musicians certainly haven’t given up on jazz; I see no reason why this tiger should.