AN OXYMORON AND A LOT OF JAZZ IN NEW YORK



Some bebop snobs attending the yearly meeting of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE), a combination industry summit and educational caucus held at the Sheraton and Hilton hotels in New York in January, and attended by roughly 8,000 producers, publicists, business people, musicians and (mostly) educators, consider a jazz convention to be an oxymoron.

We would prefer jazz to remain hand-made music, minority music, music not for everyone. We are people who prefer to influence the majority from the margins, to be the power behind the throne. Whether or not this is a healthy attitude, and despite the opportunity to hang out with so many good people from all over the world, the fact remains that all those cats lobbying in so much expensive space in major hotel chains might be a ticking time bomb.

“I am afraid that in just a few short years, jazz’s sole economic machine will be relegated to those in jazz education," wrote the respected saxophonist (ex-Miles Davis) and educator Dave Liebman in his newsletter. He fears that everybody will be “completely institutionally trained and educated. For the most part, players who will have gone through school as music students and advanced on to be music educators, all the while never having opportunities to seriously play, test, and challenge their own musical abilities. And not because they don’t want to play, on the contrary, but because playing opportunities just won’t exist at all. If this scenario becomes a reality, what makes jazz so personally risky and special would be lost."

Whatever the future might hold, at the moment, thanks in part to the IAJE presence, playing opportunities were still plentiful in New York. Hearing hand-made music is, however, getting expensive. Admission was $40 plus a $10 minimum per person to hear bassist Dave Holland’s big band at Birdland on West 44th Street. It cost $30 plus the same minimum to hear the drummer Jeff “Tain" Watts’s quartet at the sparsely attended Village Vanguard, and the same thing for violinist Mark O’Conner’s Hot Swing band, a kind of knock-off of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (it was packed) in the Time Warner building on Columbus Circle. It was kind of scary – the prices not the music.

Listening to O’Conner’s light-hearted Gypsy swing, and looking over Central Park to the lit towers on Fifth Avenue out of the enormous picture window behind the bandstand was kind of like being on a cruise boat. Todd Barkan, who programs and manages Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, has also been producing a string of piano trio recordings by the likes of George Cables, Renee Rosnes, and Bill Charlap for the Japanese market, where, he said, they sell well enough to make a profit, which they would never do in the US.

There are people who say that jazz can no longer be called America’s music. Although an important foreign presence was evident, New York, however, remains more than ever the jazz capital of the world.

The French pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, who moved to New York in 1995, played at Small’s, a nice little reasonably priced club just off Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, and he has released a trio album “Live at the Iridium" (Dreyfus Records). Pilc, the French Moutin Reunion band, and the quartet of the rising English drummer Chris Higginbottom all appeared at Smalls during the IAJE convention.

The busy and respected Russian trumpeter Alex Sipiagin worked at the Iridium and Birdland with the Mingus Big Band and Dave Holland. The Russian bassist Boris Kozlov is hot at the moment, as is the bassist and singer Richard Bona, from Cameroon by way of Paris. There will be a “Top Italian Jazz" week at Birdland featuring Dado Moroni, Enrico Rava, and others in March.

Two (unrelated) Israelis, a bassist and a trumpeter, named Avishai Cohen are getting hard to avoid. The Israeli bassist Omer Avital, a regular at Small’s, played one night with the band of Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, which likes to groove in odd time signatures, at Fat Cat, a pool parlor with a jazz side-car one block from Small’s. The band featured the guitarist Lionel Loueke, from Benin, also by way of Paris, who has lately been attracting attention playing with such people as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Sting.

Ben Ratliff described how Loueke sounded at Fat Cat in the New York Times: “With cycles of fingerpicking on dampened strings, he could sound like a hand drummer; he played swift, Malian-sounding runs, unspooling beyond bar divisions but making sense within the groove of the music; he forged strong, improvised lines based on scales that clarified his connection to modern, post-Pat Metheny jazz guitar-playing…He surged through all the music, squeezing it for all its rhythmic and harmonic potential."

Avishai Cohen the trumpeter and Lionel Loueke are two examples of how “world music" is sprouting new branches on the tree of jazz in New York.