Pushing jazz mainstream
Many of the jazz world’s leading young lights are coming here for two festivals. LAURENCE MACKINasks some of them how the scene is changing, and whether their sound can go ‘pop’
JAZZ SHOULD be just about the most achingly hip cultural genre there is; it has an esoteric mystique and its own lingo; it’s incredibly difficult to play, though the trick is to make it look effortless; and it has a cast of legends whose names are spoken in hushed tones, who mostly didn’t live long enough to become dull – Mingus, Miles and Monk or John Coltrane, Jaco Pastorius and Fats Navarro.
So why then does an image of smoky old men blowing horns in basement clubs cling to perhaps the most adventurous musical genre there is?
The organisers of the 12 Points jazz festival are hoping to blow away the cobwebs. This year’s programme is stuffed with young, largely unheard of acts of a distinctly international persuasion. Some of the bands are led by players in their 20s or early 30s, with plenty of female bandleaders – something that is still unusual in jazz. Meanwhile, over at the Bray Jazz Festival, one of the main draws will be Andreas Varady, who is shaping up to be one of the great guitar players of all time – despite being all of 13 years old.
“There have always been young people doing these things,” insists Swiss pianist Colin Vallon, who will be bringing his band to Dublin for 12 Points. “I think of the Miles Davis Quintet with Herbie Hancock, so it’s not something new.” This was 1963, and Davis, then 37, had surrounded himself with raw new talent, in the form of Hancock (23), Ron Carter (26) and 17-year-old drummer Tony Williams. This was still the era when, says Vallon, “if you wanted to be an internationally well-known musician you had to come to New York and prove yourself worthy before you could do your own thing; you had to be a sideman and show you had mastered the tradition.
“Now it has become so much more international. Sure New York is very important but jazz has moved on from that style. For younger people if they have a great band, great compositions and good players, it’s enough. [The notion that] you have to be sideman to then be a leader is a little bit over.”
That is not to say that modern jazz musicians are junking the greats of history; it is more that they are using that music in a different fashion. “For young people it doesn’t matter really if you work on the tradition and practise a lot of standards. Monk, Herbie Hancock – these elements I don’t really use any more although it helps me to play what I play now,” says Vallon.
The notion of jazz being a rarefied musical island is being eroded. “Every music is valid as long as it is good and honest,” insists trumpet player Susana Santos Silva. “For me, a very good rock musician is completely on the same level as a jazz musician; it’s just a question of what are you interested in.”
She is leading her own quartet at 12 Points and says that the reaction she gets as a young, female bandleader is positive. “I’m very lucky but I’m also very critical about myself and I find it very difficult to listen to myself, it’s never good enough. I’ve gotten very positive feedback from other musicians and that’s what keeps you going.”
But none of this comes easy, and the old rules of practise, practise, practise are as relevant today as they were in the days when Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were blowing up a storm. “We practise a lot like the other guys did in the past, there is no other way,” says Silva. “I think I would need 50 hours a day to practise everything I need to practise and I’m so far away still. Like Charlie Parker they were crazier back then; there was hard work of course, but Charlie Parker was Charlie Parker; he was one of a kind.”
One of the youngest leaders at this year’s 12 Points is saxophonist Charlotte Greve. But despite being only 23, she is already looking over her shoulder at the players coming through the ranks behind her.
“There are already so many young, good musicians,” she says. “Everybody is really active and that is of course what inspires you to do your own thing, just to keep up with the level. Which is cool because it makes you super productive.
“The jazz that these young people are playing is not necessarily the kind of jazz that people used to play earlier, there is a lot of crossover stuff going on with rock music and pop; it’s opening up. That is going to attract more young people.”
Greve reckons there is a natural shift taking place in the jazz scene, and in the audiences that are coming to concerts for her band, the Lisbeth Quartett. “It depends on where you play; when you play in Berlin there are a lot of young people in the audience, but away from there it gets more mixed and maybe older.”
The bands might be getting younger and more adventurous, but there is little doubt that the audience for jazz remains resolutely of an older hue. So how to change this?
“If I had the answer to that I figure I would be the saviour of jazz music,” groans Jasper Høiby, bass player and band leader with Phronesis, an explosive trio whose third album Aliveis threatening to break out of the genre and make the leap into mainstream success.
“Getting any sort of mention in the media is difficult. I’m just reading the Guardianmusic section and there are two jazz reviews among loads of features of other music – jazz is so far down the list. It seems locked into this idea and tradition that it is a minority interest.”
Jazz remains a little intimidating for the novice, but Colin Vallon reckons the the best thing an audience of any age can do at jazz gigs is check their knowledge, or lack of it, at the door.
“I think when we play in clubs where the audience knows about jazz and jazz history . . . they come with expectations of how it will sound and I get mixed reactions. Some young people have no expectations and no knowledge of the history, they take what’s coming at them and they really like it. It’s not always a big help if you know about jazz when you come to a concert. It’s so rich and different and there are so many influences present in this music. The best thing for me is to leave your expectations and come with the freshest ears you can have.”
12 POINTS HIGHLIGHTS
Wednesday May 4th
The Susana Santos Silva Quintet will open proceedings at Project Arts Centre, followed by Ambush Party from Amsterdam. The headliners Phronesis, though, could be the best jazz gig this country has seen in quite some time and are regarded as one of the most exciting live jazz bands in Europe. Expect fireworks.
Thursday May 5th
Charlotte Greve is leading the Lisbeth Quartett, with Italian group Neko headlining. The meat in this set’s sandwich, though, is the most intriguing offer – Parisian group MeTaL-O-PHoNe make ambitious, alternative music that at times could give a metal band a run for its money.
Friday May 6th
The Isabel Sörling Quintet from Stockholm are up first, followed by the accomplished Colin Vallon Trio. PELbO (above) could take things in a very different direction. A very eclectic night.
Saturday May 7th
The only Irish act at the festival, ReDiviDeR, featuring drummer Matt Jacobson, will open the festival’s final night, followed by the Kaja Draksler Acropolis Quintet. Helsinki’s Elifantree will be hoping to cap proceedings with their melodic, powerful fusion work.
See 12points.ie; tickets €16/20 or €60 for all four nights
BRAY JAZZ FESTIVAL
Christine Tobin and Liam Noble will be giving Carole King’s album Tapestry the once over on Friday, April 29th. On Saturday, April 30th the Andreas Varady Quartet are playing a lunchtime concert, with the Kalotaszeg Trio, featuring Gypsy jazz violinist Tcha Limberger, and US guitar great Kurt Rosenwinkel’s quartet among the evening’s highlights.
Sunday afternoon will see an Irish jazz showcase, with the Artvark Saxophone Quartet in the Town Hall in the evening, and Hamilton De Holanda and André Mehmari lighting up the Mermaid Arts Centre.
See brayjazz.com; tickets €10-25