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Jazz Albums 

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Trumpeting what's new: Dave Douglas tackles the infinite (and Mary J. Blige) on his new album.

New Standards

Jazz artists are keeping it fresh

By Greg Cahill

What do Radiohead, Afrika Bambaataa, and the Monkees have in common? All are providing inspiration for today's new crop of twenty- and thirty-something jazz artists.

Amid a flurry of jazz reissues--from the recent four-CD Charlie Christian box set The Genius of the Electric Guitar (Sony/Legacy) to Blue Note's Rudy Van Gelder multiartist series--it's easy to overlook the fact that contemporary players are revamping the genre by redefining the standards that serve as the core of their repertoire.

Jazz artists used to draw on the pop tunes and films of the '40s, '50s, and '60s for those melodies: "My Funny Valentine" (Chet Baker), "Someday My Prince Will Come" (Miles Davis), "My Favorite Things" (John Coltrane). Now they're roaming further afield for material to stretch out on, and they're doing it without pandering to pop audiences.

Back in 1996, Herbie Hancock set the pace with the appropriately named CD The New Standard (Verve), which included jazz covers of pop and rock songs by Kurt Cobain ("All Apologies"), Prince ("Thieves in the Temple"), Peter Gabriel ("Mercy Street"), and--gulp--Don Henley ("New York Minute").

But jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson had gotten there first. Her breakthrough 1995 album New Moon Daughter (Blue Note) featured such reinvented pop, rock, country, and blues fare as "Last Train to Clarksdale" (the Monkees ), "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" (Hank Williams), "Death Letter" (Son House), and "Love Is Blindness" (U2). While her new CD, Belly of the Sun (Blue Note), was recorded in her native Mississippi and has been hailed for its Delta sound, it draws from such folk, pop, and country songwriters as Bob Dylan ("Shelter from the Storm"), James Taylor ("Only a Dream in Rio"), and Jimmy Webb ("Wichita Lineman"), all filtered through the musical influences that have helped shape the Southern landscape.

Meanwhile, jazz trumpet player Dave Douglas, whose avant-garde style resonates with such disparate influences as Igor Stravinsky and Lester Bowie, has lent his improvisational talents to tracks by Rufus Wainwright ("Poses"), Mary J. Blige ("Crazy Games"), and Björk ("Unison") on his newly released CD The Infinite (BMG), illustrating the infinite possibilities in melodies as far flung as urban soul, Icelandic pop, and folk-rock.

Pianist Brad Mehldau--who Newsday has hailed as "the most compelling, eccentric, and daring young pianist in years"--bolstered his reputation by including the Lennon/McCartney composition "Dear Prudence" and giving Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" a gamelan-funk fusion treatment on his most recent disc Largo (Warner Bros.).

But most impressive of all is jazz pianist Jason Moran's spectacular Modernistic (Blue Note). This new CD is steeped in the early 20th century-stride piano style of the legendary James P. Johnson (whose vintage composition "You've Got to Be Modernistic" opens this stunning CD) and reaches out to such nonjazz material as classical composer Robert Schumann ("Auf einer Burg") and the seminal hip-hop of Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," which Moran has transformed into a solo-piano neoclassical funk meditation.

"All of my recordings are progress reports," says Moran, whose past recordings have included covers of Public Enemy, Björk, and even "Yojimbo" from the Kurosawa movie of the same name."I'm a modern piano player. I'm not a pioneer, I'm not cutting-edge and avant-garde. I bring new ideas to old things." Indeed, this former student of jazz great Jaki Byard identifies the impressionistic aural and visual art of Maurice Ravel and Jean-Michel Basquiat as his biggest influences.

Modernistic is a text-book lesson in how a jazz artist can pay homage to the traditional roots of his forefathers--especially one, like Johnson, whose own adventurous music served as a bridge between the old and the new--while exploring the complex rhythmic and harmonic structures of modern music. Highly recommended.

From the October 24-30, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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