The title of this post could be read in a couple of ways. For example, you could ask “what is NEW in JAZZ?” expressing an interest in the current jazz artists that are doing something above and beyond the usual instrumental pop drivel. You could also ask “what IS (the) ‘new’ in jazz?” perhaps wondering what kinds of innovations allow good contemporary jazz to avoid becoming the usual instrumental pop drivel. I am not going to put my head on the chopping block by trying to directly answer either question.
I will, however, say that jazz artists should and do innovate, but it is also hard to pin down the point at which individualistic jazz styles evolve into something else. Jazz and not-jazz is separated by a fluid boundary, often resulting in complex answers when you (often with fingers in your ears) ask the seemingly simple question “is THIS jazz?" Even more confusing, there are well-established musics (for example, Eastern Indian classical music), that are improvisational like jazz, and sometimes cross over into jazz, but definitely are not jazz. Where does one start and another stop?
Ridiculous, right? There are people with a lot more credentials than I have grappling with these kinds of problems as we speak. Some of them even get paid to do it.
Personally, it helps me to consider how the music in question can be tied to “the jazz tradition.” Jazz is aurally transmitted though a lineage that can be traced back to the African-American improvisational styles from the turn of the 20th century. Now, over 100 years later, the point at which jazz started and where it is today often seem to bear little relation, but the two points should connect through the transmission of a specific yet evolving improvisational syntax.
In a previous post on their Sezzions EP, I suggested that the Japanese band Mouse on the Keys is more like “math rock on keyboards” than “jazz fusion.” When I began listening to their full-length release An Anxious Object, it seemed a bit jazzier than its predecessor, but as it has simmered, I still think that it is more “rock-jazz” than “jazz-rock.”
An Anxious Object prominently features instruments that are associated with the jazz tradition, like saxophone, trumpet, and, of course, piano. Drummer Daisuke Niitome plays in a straight-eighth rock style, but he interacts with the kit with a melodic nuance that seems informed by jazz study. Mouse on the Keys, however, generally deemphasize lyrical melodies in favor of textural rhythmic interplay, and although there is improvisation in their music, it seems to have a significant compositional element. Plus they wear weird bodysuits (in their videos, anyway).
Keep in mind that my musings on Mouse on the Keys' "jazziness quotient" are not supposed to reflect poorly on them. On the one hand, they don't really claim to be jazz, and on the other, An Anxious Object blows me away. The point here is to say that even though superficially they seem to be playing jazz, I think that they are, at the very most, doing something more akin to the jazz fusion that Bill Bruford used to get into in his “rock goes to college” days. It’s not really “new jazz,” but it is killer rock with some jazzy elements.
Besides, from a bit more cynical standpoint, it’s a bit of a bittersweet compliment to say that someone is doing something “new” in jazz. “New” jazz is often indicative of a fracture with the jazz canon. It seems far more desirable and safe to be labeled a jazz “innovator,” because it implies a solid connection with jazz tradition, rather than a break from it. From this rather myopic perspective, Mouse on the Keys may not be innovating in the jazz tradition, but I think that trumpeter Christian Scott clearly is. His release Anthem is a current favorite.
I think that the melodic and harmonic vocabulary that Scott and the members of his band employ is derived from a studied knowledge of bebop, cool jazz, and 70s fusion conventions. He plays unbelievably beautiful melodies that are both distinctive and familiar, and he exhibits an attention to the dramatic and expressive capacities of timbre in a way that identifies him as a Miles Davis devotee.
One of Scott's innovations, especially on Litany Against Fear, is the way in which he employs the starkly melancholic and sometimes dissonant soundscapes of early Radiohead and other “post-rock” bands as a launching pad for improvisation. Many of these groups play with jazzy sounds, but Scott seems to be taking them on at their own game by injecting established traditions into a relevant contemporary setting. This is the kind of work that helps keep jazz alive and vital in its homeland.