The opening pages of a book are like the start of any performance. The lights go up. Your skin prickles. Ideally a writer will open big and close bigger, as they say in the theater. In between, he or she must keep it together. In the absence of greatness, as Rebecca Schiff reminded us about rock shows in her story collection “The Bed Moved,” one can always “focus on the bassist’s arms.”
“Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century” is a new book from Nate Chinen, who for many years contributed music writing to The New York Times — this paper’s critics can be elusive soloists, and I’ve never met him — and wrote columns for the magazine Jazz Times.
Chinen’s book opens big enough, with a volley of plunger-muted trumpets. He argues we’ve been living since the turn of the century in “a brilliant new evolutionary phase” of jazz, a “moment of abundance” in which “an explosion of new techniques, accents and protocols” results in a “blur of contingent alignments.” This sense of sinking in prose will come and go.
In between opening and closing moments, “Playing Changes” is largely an annotated guide to the best jazz performers extant. The author’s list incudes the tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington; the bassist, singer and bandleader Esperanza Spalding; the pianists Brad Mehldau and Danilo Perez; the Donny McCaslin Quartet, which played with David Bowie on his final album; the vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant; and the guitarist Mary Halvorson.
One can learn a good deal about a critic by noting his or her favorite words of approbation and disapprobation. The artists Chinen favors tend to be “unruly,” “stubborn,” “subversive” and/or “dissonant.” They are “dictating new terms” when not “renegotiating the terms.” They can be seen “planting a flag,” taking a “principled stand against the prevailing aesthetic” and issuing a “status report.” Four other terms that attach to music he praises are “progressive,” “polyglot,” “postbop” and “polyphony.”
Things not to be, in “Playing Changes,” are “formal,” “insular,” “boosterish,” “historicist,” “buttoned-up” or “dutifully self-conscious.” Do not be seen in a “temple of high culture,” especially if you are dictating “aesthetic boundaries.” Nay to a “fixed set of values” or any “smoothly run commercial affair.”
Most of these latter terms are pointed in the direction of the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the programming at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Marsalis is artistic director. Marsalis’s brand of uptown jazz has long been at war with the downtown version, at least in the music press. Chinen revisits these battles. To a nonparticipant, from a distance, they seem faintly ridiculous.
Why can’t a jazz fan — can we kill the word aficionado? — take the A train to Lincoln Center for an early show and then end the night amid the black-clad post-hipsters at venues like the nonprofit performance space The Stone? As the critic Stanley Crouch, who has been a consultant for Jazz at Lincoln Center, put it, “If there’s an intellectual highway, there’s also an intellectual subway.”
The best way to read “Playing Changes” is with YouTube and Spotify fired up on your laptop. Chinen has excellent taste in unruly new sounds and big, bent ears, and you’ll want to make a playlist. You’ll also want to hear and see what he’s talking about.
You may need to hear and see what he is talking about because, reading him, you sometimes have no idea. He has a fondness for academic jargon and can sound like Jacques Derrida in sophisticated sneakers.
He writes about “tracing a historicist agenda that actualized in the 1970s.” The composer Anthony Braxton’s music “utilized proprietary strategies.” Vijay Iyer’s dissertation “helped frame his personal interface with the piano.” The saxophonist Joshua Redman “prioritized an agenda of direct emotional clarity.” Sentences like these prioritize an agenda of not being able to stay entirely awake.
One musician’s sound is “groove-forward and humid”; another plays samples while “keeping a boom-bap idea in mind.” An album is “riff-based but mysterious in its development.” Another features “grandiloquent outbursts, Cubist outlines and intimate music-box patter.”
It’s not easy to write about music. You can’t snip off a chunk and quote it for the reader. But it’s hard not to get lost in the descriptive terminology in “Playing Changes.” You often feel you are floating free of context or, in the author’s words, in a blur of contingent alignments.
In part, this is Chinen’s point. Thanks to YouTube and streaming music services, the language of jazz is open to all comers. It’s no longer a secret, passed down from its elders. This most American of art forms has gone appealingly international, and has absorbed unanticipated influences, notably hip-hop.
Chinen quotes Mehldau, who puts it this way: “We’re the generation of Quentin Tarantino and Beck and this mash-up of stuff: listening to Bird and Monk and Coltrane, but also being on the road and listening to Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, or going to a Sonic Youth concert.” The number of good jazz covers of Radiohead songs is ridiculous.
This book is at its best when grounded; when it mixes fact with more florid expression. Chinen writes, for example, that Perez trained as a pianist by watching Tom and Jerry cartoons. “He’d improvise to the antics onscreen, like a silent-movie accompanist, for two or three hours at a stretch. The idea was to learn how to twitch and pounce while still making sense at the piano, connecting one spasm of movement, with graceful haste, to the next.”
That telling passage is a high point in “Playing Changes.” Another is a moment Herbie Hancock describes. He recounts walking down the street with Miles Davis and seeing a woman stumble. Davis pointed at her. He told his band, “Play that.”
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