New Directions in Jazz: The Genre's Resurgence
Arguably, no U.S.-born music genre is or has been subject to as much analysis, debate and controversy as jazz. Hip-hop will reach such a point soon, especially now that it's fully part of the mainstream American musical landscape. Interestingly enough, the sonic DNA between these musical forms in their most recent iterations is, at least in part, responsible for the resurgence jazz has had over the course of the past decade, though it’s just one portion of a rich genre.
Regardless of how you look at it, jazz's re-entry into the global pop-cultural consciousness is a fascinating and welcome development. It's there in the work of new and acclaimed artists like Kamasi Washington and Esperanza Spalding. There's also its importance to hip-hop and its showcase in films ranging from Miles Ahead and Born to be Blue (biopics of Miles Davis and Chet Baker, respectively), to Damien Chazelle's jazz-driven Whiplash and La La Land. In light of this return to popularity, it's more important than ever to realize the full power of these works' sound. The quality of Marantz receivers and hi-fi equipment serves as an ideal complement to the sui generis audio experiences of jazz albums both old and new.
Jazz as the rising phoenix
To discuss how jazz resurged it is necessary to address how it almost died — or, more specifically, almost turned into a boutique genre. And it’s equally important to note the status this form of music held in culture for much of the 20th century: Between 1920 and 1970 it was one of the best-loved genres in the U.S. — and, at times, indisputably more popular than anything else.
From its beginnings in the ragtime and Dixieland of New Orleans to the big-band swing era and the various styles that would show up and add new dimensions to an already diverse genre — bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, free jazz and more — the truest constant within its history is its lack of ironclad requirements and penchant for innovation. As critic and historian Ted Gioia noted in his book How to Listen to Jazz, “especially exciting performances [tend] to break the rules.”
Fusion is another one of those modes of rule-breaking that indirectly pushed jazz to face the threat of irrelevance. Allmusic’s entry on the genre's fusion subcategory serves as a reasonable summary: Commercially successful versions of fusion eventually helped bring about the development of polished-sounding "smooth jazz.” The subgenre itself began much more creatively in the early 1970s, when Miles Davis, already responsible for masterpieces in multiple jazz subgenres, mixed hard bop, rock and funk on his epochal album Bitches Brew (as well as the underrated On the Corner). The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report had sounds based on similar blends, though the latter began to adopt a more broad palatability and pop sheen in its style on later albums.
That sonic direction (as well as the popularity of “quiet-storm” radio formats and other factors) would indirectly beget the smooth jazz made by Al Jarreau, Kenny G, John Klemmer and others. This iteration of the genre eschewed jazz's improvisational roots for technically proficient but staid arrangements. There are exceptions to every rule, of course: Sade’s Diamond Life is effectively a smooth jazz record, but it stands out because of Sade Adu’s songwriting and remarkable voice.
In the 1980s, the purist aesthetic of New York-based trumpeter Wynton Marsalis galvanized the genre somewhat by emphasizing its past: acoustic instrumentation largely based in the bebop sounds of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, as well as the compositional ambition and ingenuity of Duke Ellington. But some believed this adherence to methods of the past might force the genre into a niche of marginalization.
In its review of Playing Changes, Nate Chinen's book on modern jazz, NPR noted the formation of a schism between Marsalis and his acolytes and those more interested in forms of experimentation beyond what the bandleader’s rules would allow. It took some time for the genre to rebound from this, although it must be said that Marsalis’s position as a major figure at Lincoln Center was undeniably helpful in keeping instrumental jazz visible.
Cross-genre collaborations and open minds
Hip-hop's embrace of jazz began with A Tribe Called Quest's 1991 album The Low End Theory, then appeared sporadically in rap's history without quite fully catching on among audiences not already familiar with jazz until the early to mid 2010s.
Then, in 2015, Kendrick Lamar enlisted Kamasi Washington, Terrance Martin, Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner and other major jazz performers for his massively ambitious, sociopolitically charged album To Pimp a Butterfly (Interestingly, Lamar would later win the Pulitzer Prize for Music — as the first artist outside of classical or jazz to do so — for DAMN., an album more informed by classic hip-hop sounds.)
But the most substantive reason for jazz’s return to prominence during this most recent decade is the same one that has informed its creation all along — pliability and openness. A modern performer like bassist-vocalist Esperanza Spalding — who may be most recognizable to mainstream audiences for winning 2011's Best New Artist award at the Grammys, enraging a legion of Justin Bieber fans — incorporates everything from upright bass playing reminiscent of Ron Carter and '60s R&B to Latin jazz, neo-soul and radio-friendly pop hooks into her music.
2016's Emily's D+Evolution is arguably her most acclaimed work, with Exposure (2017) being her latest release.
Similarly, players such as Robert Glasper (particularly the Black Radio albums with his Robert Glasper Experiment band) and saxophonist Washington (who just put out a new album, Heaven) hew more closely to traditional jazz structures but don't shy away from improvisation or more pop-oriented instincts.
Pianist Vijay Iyer often takes improvised riffs into truly unpredictable and compelling places, in line with the truly avant-garde jazz composers like Ornette Coleman. He primarily works with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore in the Vijay Iyer trio, but also notably collaborated with veteran free jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith on 2016’s album A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke.
As for a jazz-funk musician like Thundercat, there is little precedent for his work: classical proficiency across multiple instruments (with bass as his primary tool) supporting emotionally raw vocals and lyrics, alongside a general sense of weirdness not unlike Frank Zappa or George Clinton. It's an acquired taste, but one worth sampling: Start with his EP The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam and go from there if you're intrigued.
Savoring the Full Spectrum of New Jazz Sounds
The bottom line is this: Whether or not any of jazz's current leaders end up reaching the heights of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, all of them are making phenomenal music that any discerning listener should try out, at the very least.
Marantz is proud to carry a reputation of developing a broad spectrum of hi-fi components that will help inspire multiple future generations of jazz fans and please the ears of those who've been listening to the unique style all their lives.