How do you get jazz a younger audience? Call it hip hop
In the past week, Dublin has seen a lot of jazz on its doorstep, and it may have found the answer to one of jazz’s toughest questions: how do you get a younger crowd to listen to the stuff?
Two concerts in particular stand out, even if they were perhaps at the opposite end of the jazz spectrum. Last Wednesday, Dave Holland and Pepe Habichuela were holding court in the National Concert Hall. Holland is one of the finest double bass players in jazz. He has a CV that beggars belief and even at the age of 65, he has lost none of his metronomic timing or crafted ability to build grooves with punch. Habichuela is a Spanish guitarist with a formidable musical ancestry and tradition in the blood, matched with a virtuosic style full of subtlety and drama. It’s a combination of class and distinction, complemented on the night by Josemi Carmona on guitar and the percussive double team of Juan Carmona and Bandolero (maybe the latter took a leaf out of the footballers’ notebook and decided that one name is much cooler than two).
The best playing on the night came in the ensemble pieces. While Holland built up a slick, rhythmic foundation, laying down the tracks with authority, Habichuela egged him on with low, guttural growls of “Olé”. Carmona provided an adept and lyrical sparring partner to Habichuela, but it was perhaps the percussion of Josemi Carmona and Bandolero that provided the biggest surprise on the night. Their communication was astonishing, with constant pushes and pulls and beautiful dynamics scattered over their thrilling lines. No four bars sounded the same, but with Holland’s support they never sounded out of joint with the songs, and the tracks’ internal dynamics were never sacrificed.
Both Holland and Habichuela played solo pieces, but it was Holland’s that carried the greatest emotional punch. In the echoing chamber of the NCH he conjured up colours and dynamics that are deeply uncommon on the double bass – this was an almost physical pleasure to listen to.
Occasionally, technicality was allowed to take point, but there was plenty to thrill the audience in this set. There were tangos and rhumbas, vision and flair, equal parts Spanish Gypsy intensity and melodic jazz sensibilities, particularly on The Whirling Dervish. This was an exemplary blend of two different approaches to jazz, rooted in tradition and craft, but looking upwards and outwards with the ambition to create something new.
On Saturday night, it was the turn of the Robert Glasper Experiment to bring a sense of the sublime to proceedings, but in an entirely different fashion. Glasper is an extraordinary pianist, and is often compared to Herbie Hancock. His approach is cutting edge, and hip hop is as much a muse for Glasper as the great and the good of jazz (most of whom Dave Holland has played with, incidentally).
The night opened with a fantastically swaggering set in the front bar from Mixtapes from the Underground, big bold hip hop of a type rarely heard in this country (or maybe I’ve just being missing out – the collective are based in Rage on Fade Street in Dublin).
On the main stage, Glasper had a lot to contend with from the off; the odd shape of the Workmans Club meant that the engineer had a headache in getting the grand piano to assert itself above the sharp crack of the kit and snare, but the unevenness in the sound smoothed out as the night progressed.
Initially, the crowd didn’t quite know how to deal with Glasper’s music, and seemed more content to talk among themselves than to give the trio the quiet room needed to open out their playing. As the set took shape, though, the music made its own arguments and by the time Glasper had rolled his way into a fantastic cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit, the cutting-edge crowd were all in his pocket. When the track boiled down to a spare piano solo – Glasper allowed a slow bass figure to deftly jog along with his left hand, while throwing lyrical top line shapes above it – you could hear a pin drop in the room. This may not be the first band to tackle the track in a jazz context, but they’ve brought something effective and fresh to the table.
The crowd’s reaction stoked the gig’s atmosphere. This was not a typical jazz crowd, and it was all the better for it. Every change in tone and mood was greeted with bursts of enthusiasm, and after the initial speed bumps, the musicians got the respect they deserved in a wide ranging, free-flowing set of around an hour and 40 minutes.
So how do you get a young crowd into a jazz gig? Give them something new and innovative, don’t compromise on the music’s intelligence, and put something accessible in the mix too that an enthusiastic crowd can get their teeth into. And it probably helps if you don’t call it jazz.