An exchange with Hank Shteamer on my “Reflections On NYC’s 25 Jazz Icons

Hank Shteamer graciously took the time to respond to my little screed yesterday. Since he hasn’t been able to get his remarks into my comments section, I’ve created a fresh post for those who are interested.

I’m leading with my response to Hank’s note directly below.

Hank –

Before I get into some particulars on the “groove and swing” question, I want to be clear that I have a great deal of respect for the musicianship of everyone on the list.  One of my issues is whether or not they deserve to be called “icons” at this moment in time.  The other has to do with criteria.

Since you mentioned him, I’ll state my feelings about Jon  Irabagon’s recordings (I don’t know Matana Roberts’ work well enough to comment; I’m a big fan of Jason Moran and Bandwagon, who probably deserve the designation, and of the Fieldwork group as an entity as well as each of  its individual members, though I’m not sure I’d call it “iconic”.)

Irabagon is a gifted musician, fluent on several instruments, and obviously a restless spirit. I had issues with Foxy — and also have issues  with MOPDTK — that have nothing to do with the abilities of the musicians in question, but with the parodic qualities that you mention.  I’m not sure how the musical contents of Foxy — yeah, the cover’s a hoot the first time you see it — denote direct engagement with Sonny Rollins. Basically,  Irabagon blows non-stop  for 50-55 minutes and barely takes a breath over freebop ametric pulse from Barry Altschul…it’s a great feat of endurance and instrumental derring-do, but I don’t see how you construe it as addressing groove or swing. If you’re engaging with Sonny Rollins, you need to engage with melodic development  and song-like phrasing (Sonny’s very operatic, very lyric), and I don’t hear that on Foxy. Did you ever hear Sonny’s version of “Four” from Denmark, 1968, where he blows  40 minutes straight without ever repeating an idea? If not, check it out, and you’ll see what I mean. (btw:  The Outsider — which I’m sure Irabagon felt he had to do the way he did it, given the label — shows that  he’s a very skilled “inside” player; but he didn’t seem to have his heart in it. I really liked Outright, though, where Irabagon contextualizes his formidable instrumental skills within an ensemble context.)

I have similar issues with MOPDTK. It’s certainly a virtuosic band (there doesn’t seem to be anything that Irabagon and Peter Evans can’t execute), and the music is well put together. Sometimes I enjoy the humor — but the parodic element ultimately turns me off. Maybe it’s a generational thing — I know a lot of people under thirty are into mashups, but I’m not a fan of appropriation.  But my feeling is that if you’re going to bring the tradition into the mix, then deal with it directly. (I had similar issues years back with John Lurie’s band and the Jazz Passengers — that’s just me.) Otherwise, follow the AACM example and present original music.  (Which MOPDTK does, for the most part, on Forty Fort.)

My remark about “groove and swing”  referred to NYC Metro Area-based musicians like Christian McBride (39) and Roy Hargrove (40) and James Carter (41 or 42 — to him, the lineage runs, in a very literal way, from Sidney Bechet to Roscoe Mitchell and Braxton), or Geri Allen (ask Jason or Vijay about their regard for her), who have dealt with the tradition from the bottom up and swing from the perspective of people living in 2011, while retaining the deep humanity and communicative qualities of their antecedents. They are not xeroxing anything. They have influenced large numbers of musicians around the world.  They have a big NYC footprint. What do they need to do to be considered “NYC jazz icons”? Ditto other NYC-based musicians like Potter, Binney, Taborn, Lynch, Elling, Mehldau, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Adam Rogers,  or Ravi Coltrane, or  others I mentioned in the earlier post, who have accumulated extraordinarily diverse, forward-looking oeuvres, and whose names denote to an international community a sound, an approach, an aesthetic?

I guess I’m objecting not  so much to the inclusion of certain people within the canon, but to the absence from it of others, and the reasons for that absence. What in your view is missing from the output of the people I’ve cited above?

Thanks,

Ted,

Thanks for posting the comment. For the record, I posted an expanded/clarified version here: http://darkforcesswing.blogspot.com/2011/06/unpacking-25-nyc-jazz-icons.html.

I understand what you’re saying about the dangers of privileging the outré over the bread-and-butter. And I’m very familiar with the history of, e.g., Motian, and what led him to his more abstract late work. At the same time, I don’t feel like anyone that Steve and I championed can be accused of ditching tradition in favor of novelty or lofty conceptualism.  Take your description below:

“…artists who work within groove- and swing-based contexts, who put some blues into their expression, and who endeavor to let their imagination and creativity operate within the idiomatic parameters of jazz and Afro-Caribbean traditions — not to recreate or xerox those traditions, but to deal with them in a present-day context on their own terms.”

When I read that, the very first artists I think of are players such as Jon Irabagon, who engages in a very direct way with Sonny Rollins in his “Foxy” project and has a record out with Kenny Barron (“The Observer”), one of the elders whom you cited as an omission on our list. Additionally, the Mostly Other People Do the Killing band, of which Irabagon is a member, is one of the most historically minded jazz ensembles in NYC, right down to their parodies of classic cover art and liner notes. Or I think of Matana Roberts, whose “Coin Coin” presentations seem to me like a very conscious engagement with the work of Mingus, Max Roach and John Carter (and maybe even Wynton Marsalis), artists whose work grapples with cultural history and sociopolitical reality. And Jason Moran’s ties to Byard, Hill, Abrams and others—not to mention Monk and the stride tradition—are well-documented. To their credit, I think a lot of the younger players who have been captivating the critics are doing so precisely *because* they’re demonstrating a very deep awareness of what came before and doing so in very novel, personal ways.

There’s definitely such a thing as throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to jazz “innovation,” but I’d happily defend all the artists on our list (and again, I’ll concede that “icon” may have been too strong a word—in the end, though, the choices and the text are the real content of Steve’s and my piece) against such accusations. You’ll find tons of groove, swing and blues in the work of the Irabagons, Robertses and Morans of the scene.

Thanks,
HS

Thanks, Hank. Had you said “representative critical cross-section” rather than “icon” (and I realize that this is an article for an civilian magazine) I would still have disagreed with a number of the selections, but wouldn’t really have had a good reason to express high dudgeon. To call someone an “icon” denotes influence, of being an artist with acolytes, who has influenced a stream of musical expression or found a sui generis path from deep R&D on the fundamentals.

Nomenclature aside, your “Time Out” list raises a broader point, the “sore spot” I mentioned towards the end of my post, which is the exclusion from the canons of all too many of my brother and sister journalist-critics of artists who work within groove- and swing-based contexts, who put some blues into their expression, and who endeavor to let their imagination and creativity operate within the idiomatic parameters of jazz and Afro-Caribbean traditions — not to recreate or xerox those traditions, but to deal with them in a present-day context on their own terms. The “mystery men” who fascinate you reached that point through long apprenticeships spent working through these vocabularies (or, as Henry Threadgill discussed with Ethan, the various tributaries of European music and other American and World vernaculars) and allowing their voices to emerge in an organic way.

Greetings Ted,

I appreciate your thoughtful response. Leaning too “avant” or “progressive” was a concern of mine, but in the end—and I speak only in terms of my contribution to the project—I had to go with my gut, as well as with what I know. I make no claim to a 360-degree viewpoint. When it comes to jazz in our wonderful city, I keep up with as much as I can, but obviously I have my biases and blind spots.

In a way, I was hoping for exactly this sort of naming-names rebuttal. Some of the artists on your list (Binney, Lovano, Reid, Ribot, Eskelin, Morris, etc.) are very familiar to me and came up during Steve’s and my discussion leading up to the final selection. Others (Harrell, Malone, Lynch) are less so, and I look forward to doing some research.

As far as the use of the word “icons,” maybe there’s some hyperbole there. I guess that, word choice aside, what I was hoping for was a kind of representative cross-section. And per my admission above, we may have failed in that. In our defense, though, I think we made strong cases for our inclusions, leaving aside those we may have excluded; in a way, maybe that’s the best a list-maker can hope for.

To address one specific point, the Marsalis ranking wasn’t intended as begrudging at all—No. 3 was simply where we felt he belonged. Another point re: the nitty-gritty of the rankings: To me, the most enjoyable aspect of making the list was the fact that Steve and I each independently arrived at Paul Motian as our No. 1 when this project was still in its nascent phase. In a way, that fact should tell any reader of the list where we’re coming from. A list on which, say, Wynton placed first would be a list written from a very different perspective, and it’s a perspective I totally welcome—if anyone wants to make that list, I’d love to see it! But going back to that issue of bias—let’s just call it taste—as anyone who’s stopped by my blog could probably tell you, I make no bones about my deep love for the mystery men of jazz (Andrew Hill, RIP), of which Motian is probably our greatest living example: http://darkforcesswing.blogspot.com/2010/10/mystery-man-paul-motian-and-unfair.html

Anyway, our chief goal was to incite discussion and—if not ire—at least enough controversy to fuel some impassioned responses. I greatly admire your work, and I’m sincerely honored that you took the time to write up a thoughtful rebuttal to what we put out there. The fact that there’s disagreement signifies that we are surveying an extremely broad landscape re: “NYC jazz 2011.” On that note, I echo Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff—http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/03/arts/music/jazz-festivals-in-new-york-undead-vision-blue-note.html—in saying, more or less, bring on festival season! (I caught one of our TONY “icons,” Lee Konitz, kicking off the June jazz rush in high style this very evening at the Blue Note, on the recommendation of Jim Macnie, a writer who I bet could make an NYC-jazz-artists list to put us all to shame.)

Thanks again, Ted, and welcome to the blogosphere. Icons aside, these blindfold tests you’ve been posting are blowing my mind.

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