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Tune out the jazz-is-dying riff

Published May 15, 2005

Is jazz dead, as some of the music's detractors, and even cynical supporters, continue to suggest?

It's a contention with some merit, given the constant bad news about the market for recordings connected to the traditions of artists such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

Jazz made up less than 3 percent of the audio recordings sold in the United States in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Only soundtracks, oldies, new age, children's music and "other" did worse in the checkout lanes.

The only jazz artists making a significant dent, measured by sales in record stores and over the Internet, are those best known as singers, rather than instrumentalists. We're talking primarily about the latest wave of jazz divas, including Diana Krall, who collaborated with hubby Elvis Costello for last year's The Girl in the Other Room; Norah Jones, with her two monster jazz-lite albums; and Jane Monheit, not so long ago a Next Big Thing.

There are exceptions of course, including Pat Metheny - the guitarist who's an honest-to-God musician's musician with killer commercial instincts - and all those interchangeable smooth-jazz stars, few of whom are taken seriously by the cognoscenti.

There's something both encouraging and disconcerting about Jazz at Lincoln Center, the multimillion-dollar Manhattan complex headed by Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter, bandleader, educator, and jazz apologist. Yes, it's about time that America's classical music got a little respect: a high-profile home of its own and top-shelf funding. Still, it feels strange that this street-born music, a sound that once was considered revolutionary, is getting the institutional treatment.

And is it any coincidence that the most reliable way to make a living in jazz, outside of joining the select few who headline the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard, and top the bill at the big festivals, is to land a full-time teaching position at a university? Simply playing the music at the highest level, unfortunately, won't pay the bills.

Jazz devotees, though, have enough to celebrate, including the fact that Jazz at Lincoln Center exists at all. Festivals, too, continue to proliferate, from blue-chip affairs in New York, Newport and Montreal to the prestigious European fests and mixed-bag regional favorites like the Clearwater Jazz Holiday and the Jacksonville Jazz Festival.

Jazz musicians, from Branford Marsalis, Dave Douglas, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Dee Dee Bridgewater to Tampa's first-rate Michael Ross Quartet (Year of the Dog, the group's third CD, was released last year), are taking charge by releasing music on their own independent labels.

Maria Schneider, Jim Hall and Danilo Perez have connected with ArtistShare, which functions as a combination record company, distributor and online record store.

Schneider makes about $13 for every copy sold of her latest CD, Concert in the Garden, according to Down Beat magazine. Her previous three albums, recorded for large indie label Enja, left the critically acclaimed composer-bandleader in the red.

"I can't continue to lose money every time I make a record," she told the magazine. "Long ago, the industry came up with a business model where a label makes money and artists make nothing. But now it's shakeup time."

Most encouraging is this year's release of major jazz statements by established artists and younger musicians. Several new discs have a good shot at making critics' year-end top 10 lists:

* Celebrated pianist Jason Moran, 30, allies his regular trio - bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits - with acoustic-electric guitarist Marvin Sewell for Same Mother (Blue Note). The four offer a heady post-bop exploration of jazz's blues roots, touching on New Orleans grooves and funk rhythms.

* Elder statesman Charles Lloyd is sometimes mellow, sometimes demonstrative on Jumping the Creek (ECM), which has the tenor and alto saxophonist playing duos, trios and quartets with remarkably simpatico pianist Geri Allen, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Eric Harland.

* Dave Holland, probably the most honored jazz bassist of recent years, wields his big band for challenging, multicolor compositions on Overtime (Dare2), which features such inspired soloists as saxophonist Chris Potter and trombonist Robin Eubanks (from Holland's own quintet).

* Dave Douglas, the trumpeter sometimes tagged as the "anti-Wynton," gets eclectic again with Mountain Passages (Greenleaf), a set of folk-influenced jazz and free improvisations commissioned for an Italian festival. The open, airy compositions have Douglas joined by saxophonist-clarinetist Michael Moore, cellist Peggy Lee, tuba player Marcus Rojas and drummer Dylan van der Schyff.

* A trio of front-rank youngish jazz lions - guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, saxophonist Joshua Redman and pianist Brad Mehldau - collaborate on tricky, quick lines and moody meditations for the aptly titled Deep Song (Verve).

Summer, not necessarily the optimal time for major jazz releases, will bring several more first-rate projects, all slated for June release: * Wayne Shorter, the former Weather Report co-leader and Miles Davis sideman, leads a group (with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade) that has been called the finest working band in jazz (Branford Marsalis's quartet is another contender). The quartet's Beyond the Sound Barrier (Verve), recorded from 2002 to 2004 on tour in North America, Europe and Asia, offers the kind of telepathic interplay afforded only by sensitivity, intellect commitment and, well, sheer road time. Shorter, on tenor and soprano saxophone, and his bandmates explore a set that includes three of the leader's new compositions: the playful As Far as the Eye Can See, the frenetic Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean and the rangy title track.

* John Scofield applies his tasty six-string incantations to soulful classics on That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles (Verve). Obvious concept, yes. But the contrivances are few on a disc that has the guitarist joined by jazz, rock and R&B players, including pianist-organist Larry Goldings, bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Steve Jordan. Pick hit: What'd I Say, with Warren Haynes, Aaron Neville, Dr. John and the outclassed John Mayer trading vocals. Sleeper: Sco's unassuming acoustic solo guitar rendition of Georgia On My Mind. * Terence Blanchard's Flow (Blue Note) allies the trumpeter's full, shimmering tone with African vocal and percussion textures, spacey sound effects and the sophisticated post-bop work of his regular group. The disc, produced by Herbie Hancock, is imbued with melancholy that really comes to the fore on Benny's Tune, featuring Hancock on piano, and Over There. The disc's MVP (after Blanchard) is Lionel Loueke, the Benin-born guitarist who joined the band for 2003's Bounce.

Jazz practitioners will have to continue to fight, hard, to survive in a business climate hostile to music that isn't designed for mass appeal. But 2005 is shaping up to be a good year for jazz, given the kind of music that's now reaching aficionados, and, perhaps, a few listeners open to conversion.

- Philip Booth is a Tampa writer and musician whose work has appeared in the St. Petersburg Times, Down Beat, Billboard and Bass Player.

[Last modified May 12, 2005, 10:14:04]

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