For the past 15 years, the major jazz labels have been relying on the middle-of-the-road tastes of a silent majority of jazz fans that is so silent, it doesn’t in fact exist. Check Soundscan Inc.’s sales charts and you’ll notice that, in most instances, only a relative handful of people are actually buying Verve or Blue Note or Atlantic albums by younger artists playing in familiar bop or post-bop styles. Major-label jazz is a cozy world–the P.R. folks and reviewers trade opinions on the latest releases like shut-ins debating the soaps. The fact that there are so few actual paying fans subsidizing this conversation doesn’t make itself felt until the lights start going out, which will probably start pretty soon now that the industry is entering a period of corporate consolidation.
That the mainstream albums have generally been getting better hasn’t changed the equation. Hard-core jazz fans of various stylistic persuasions tend to find their particular catnip on the little labels, and everybody snaps up the classic reissues. But no one seems to get overly excited by the official product. I mean, saxophonist Joshua Redman is a media phenom so delicious that Stephen Glass would have thought twice before making him up. A handsome Harvard summa , son of an avant-garde legend, a masterful sax technician and a tireless tourer, Mr. Redman will sell maybe 25,000 albums in a good year. About nearly everyone else … well, don’t ask.
The major labels seem to have labored under the Wynton Marsalis-inspired misapprehension that jazz could be mass-marketed as a kind of super-sophisticated folk music. Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker did the heavy lifting and now the youngsters need only master the tradition. But with a respectful nod to the repertory jazz movement, I think jazz makes lousy folk music. Simple and soulful is how people take their folk music (and increasingly, other people’s folk music), that much is clear from the boggling response to three albums by a bunch of Havana graybeards masterminded by Ry Cooder for World Circuit/Nonesuch records. The Buena Vista Social Club sold out Carnegie Hall in three days this past June; their record sales in the United States are moving toward the half-million mark.
All of which is to say I’m getting that postmodern feeling. “Postmodern” is an academic conceit of surpassing vagueness, but it does suggest a world in which historical rummaging, pastiche, humor and a total obliteration of “high” and “low” cultural distinctions are the order of the day. “Postmodernism” has always been an article of faith for the Downtown set, but now it looks like the instinctively conservative major labels, faced with a nasty market correction, are going po-mo in spite of themselves.
Marc Ribot is a talented guitarist with a prototypically ecumenical Downtown résumé–gigs with the Lounge Lizards, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and the like. Recently he began to fool around with some tunes by the mambo master Arsenio Rodriguez and, to his professed horror, he found himself on a major label. “I thought I’d get a couple of my friends together and get a gig playing old Cuban tunes,” he said. “On our third gig, we got signed to Atlantic.” No one is going to confuse Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos (Atlantic) with the Buena Vista Social Club in this lifetime–but now its deadpan hipster attitude is suddenly fungible. The title, which translates as Marc Ribot and the Prosthetic (read: “fake”) Cubans, seems like a nod to Mr. Ribot’s old boss, Lounge Lizard John Lurie, who coined the term “fake jazz” and in a just world would be regarded as the Charlie Parker of po-mo jazz.
Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos is also a swell album. Mr. Ribot has found the analog to Rodriguez’s tres guitar lines in reverb-heavy American surf-guitar licks and has packed the enterprise with plenty of special moments: a girl chorus chanting “postizo” on the flagship tune, the guitarist reciting the world-weary lyric to “La Vida Es Un Sueño” in determinedly dreadful Spanish. In Mr. Ribot’s hands, not only Cuban rhythms but the Spanish language itself becomes a new lingua franca of sublime bad taste.
What Mr. Ribot has done to the traditional Cuban son and mambo, clarinetist Don Byron does to black pop. A conceptual chameleon by temperament, his brand new major-label debut, Nu Blaxploitation (Blue Note), is an homage to his favorite 70’s funk band Mandrill, to old-school rap (Biz Markie is a special guest) and to Jimi Hendrix. The whole business is tied together by the sly “spoken-word” recitations of the poet Sadiq Bey who, in one of his more unlikely moments, anoints Dodi Fayed as a victimized race brother. (“You, who built the Pyramids … were just a rich camel jockey.”) I don’t know what it all adds up to, but in the words of Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall, lifted from the press release, it’s “an extraordinary cutting edge statement.” That will likely be replacing “in the tradition” as the jazz marketing buzz phrase for the next century.
Actually, nothing in jazz could be more “in the tradition” than the old po-mo spirit. Ever since it left the safe harbor of New Orleans, jazz has been co-opting (or “appropriating,” to use the jargon) elements of the larger popular culture to ensure its survival, be it in the form of Swing Era big bands or 70’s jazz-rock. The notion of a jazz “standard,” an abstraction of the chords of a Tin Pan Alley tune, is as fine an example of inscribing the past into the present as any Cindy Sherman photograph. While I think that jazz’s bout of stand-alone purism in the 1980’s and early 90’s served its purpose, it’s been clear for a few years now that the music has been looking around for some new hosts to feed on.
Most players have delved into music that’s more commercial and rhythm-driven than post-bop jazz, though few have the po-mo élan of Don Byron or Marc Ribot. Mr. Byron’s estimable pianist, Uri Caine, has been working the other side of the street, bringing a renegade improviser’s sensibility to the classical music world–which evidently is even more desperate than jazz for something new, or something old interestingly refurbished. (Uri Caine and group play the Internet Cafe on Aug. 13.)
An accomplished classical pianist and arranger, Mr. Caine has teamed up with German “new music” impresario Stefan Winter to record what will probably be a series of conceptual reworkings of the classics. The first album, Mahler/Caine: Primal Light (Winter & Winter), just became available in the States; in Europe, it has sold big, profitably tapping into both the ennui of the classical music world and German collective guilt. In concert, a deejay samples bits and pieces of Mahler recordings which Mr. Caine’s band of Downtown irregulars respond to in their virtuoso fashion. It’s a rather radical, fractal approach, but what really moves the Germans is the pointed incongruity of the Moroccan Jewish cantor, Aaron Bensoussan, singing the “Funeral March” from the Fifth Symphony.
“Afterward, the Germans get in my face and say, ‘The Jewish thing–it’s so important,'” Mr. Caine said. “They’re more into it than I am.” Even if you’re less personally invested in the conundrum of Gustav Mahler, an Austrian Jew who expediently converted to Christianity, Primal Light is a pleasure, sometimes not the case with postmodern projects that read better than they play.
With his Wagner album already out in Europe and Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” in the works, Mr. Caine’s main worry is that he’ll become prisoner to the postmodern High Concept. He had to plead with Mr. Winter to let him do his jazz trio album, the excellent Blue Wail (Winter & Winter), which won’t be available in this country for some months. “I told Stefan, ‘I just want to make a jazz record,'” Mr. Caine recalls. “He said, ‘That’s so normal.’ I said, ‘That’s the concept. People playing. That’s it.'”