Time was, being a serious jazz fan meant you didn’t have to worry about the music being made by people younger than yourself. Once you’d mastered the genealogy–Pops begat Pres begat Bird begat Trane–well, you had yourself a musical worldview, mister, and no one was going to think less of you if you declined to parse house or ambient or jungle. But that was then. Among the progressive thinkers in the playing world, there’s a buzz about a new album by a trumpeter named Tim Hagans, Animation Imagination (Blue Note), that draws heavily on electronic dance music. I was advised that if I wanted to understand the shape of jazz to come, I should get to Izzy Bar, 166 First Avenue at 10th Street, to check out the “live drum ‘n’ bass” on a Wednesday night. So I did.
Drum ‘n’ bass, or jungle, is only the latest form of British-imported electronic dance music to infect the minds of America’s inveterate clubhoppers, deejays and rock-crit snobs. To judge by a drum ‘n’ bass classic, 1997’s New Forms (Mercury) by the British mixmaster Roni Size and his collective, Reprazent, the music can be very clever stuff, in a herky-jerky, short-attention-span way. That said, live drum ‘n’ bass is a decidedly more problematic concept, as I discovered one evening when I descended into the basement of Izzy Bar to listen to Boomish.
Izzy Bar is a cramped, smoky cavern full of young men with goatees and important glasses and young women in leotard tops prone to voguing. The Boomish set began with the drummer furiously pounding his set to keep time to the super-speedy click track (“like a pissed-off windup monkey” in one critic’s happy phrase), the bass player doing something or other, an alto saxophonist shrieking into a brace of bodies. Without the cool studio wizardry and the sonic buffer of a large dance floor, this was horrible, ear-bleed stuff. But what did it portend that thoughtful people were staking the future of jazz–part of it, anyway–on people playing like machines?
Tim Hagans, 44, was always an easy enough guy to overlook in jazz’s eternal search for the next revolutionary thing. He’s a tall, goofy-looking white guy from Dayton, Ohio, who honed his formidable trumpet chops the old-fashioned way, in the (dying) big bands of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. But listen to his second album on Blue Note, 1995’s Audible Architecture , where he plays in a mostly trio format–near-masochism, considering the physical demands of blowing the horn. Mr. Hagans plays those long, excruciating trumpet lines with real fire, lit up by the adrenalinized drumming of Billy Kilson.
The saxophonist on the quartet tracks of Audible Architecture , Bob Belden, is one of jazz’s great provocateurs. (Witness his version of Puccini’s Turandot , and epigrams like “Jazz used to be the sound of surprise, now it’s the sound of surmise.”) By the time he’d finished a recent Japanese record project, arranging some Prince songs in drum ‘n’ bass, he’d become a convert. In sampling he heard a creative complement to jazz improvisation, “a perfect flow, perfect time.” He played some records for his buddy Tim Hagans and another jazz-meets-electronica insurgent was born.
“As soon as I heard the records,” Mr. Hagans recalled, “I wanted to take out my horn. It was like a heartbeat, it was so intense … When I play, I like to take long breaths and play until the air runs out. I can count on drum ‘n’ bass supporting me.”
A lot of jazz fans may be scratching their heads here. They’ve been raised on the idea that what makes jazz so much more sophisticated than pop music is the subtle liberties that musicians take with standard 4/4 time, the fractional pushing or pulling of the beat, which adds up to an individual player’s swing fingerprint.
Mr. Belden and Mr. Hagans were willing to let that go in return for an invented electronic soundscape that would inspire the horn soloist to the maximum. And drum ‘n’ bass represented a way out of jazz archivalism. Just as many young black jazz artists don’t want to be estranged from the urban pop that they cut their teeth on, Mr. Hagans and Mr. Belden, products of the rock revolution of the late 60’s and early 70’s, want to feel they’re making music that in some musico-politico-social way kicks ass.
Against all odds, Animation Imagination does. Mr. Belden had drum ‘n’ bass notables like DJ Kingsize and DJ Smash mix the rhythm tracks as if they were spinning at Coney Island High’s Monday night Concrete Jungle party. Then, in the studio, Messrs. Hagans and Belden, alongside drummer Mr. Kilson and synth man Scott Kinsey, rose to confront a world of rhythmic cues and invisible bleeps.
Inevitably, comparisons with the electronic music of Miles Davis will be made–Bob Belden had only recently completed the massive job of remixing and remastering Columbia Legacy’s four-CD The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions . In a formal sense, Animation Imagination isn’t especially Milesean–it’s a ferocious trumpet showcase enlivened by precision-tooled electronic breakbeats in contrast to Miles’ spacier, more exploratory textures. But the Hagans-Belden team have captured some of the audacity and evil cool of Bitches Brew and Agharta .
These days, you can hear loose talk about drum ‘n’ bass being the new bebop–the furious tempos, the intensity, the subcultural mystique. But if the Izzy Bar is the Minton’s of the late 90’s, then I’m a moldy fig. The triumph of Animation Imagination is that Mr. Hagans manipulates the electronic machine to serve his ends; it doesn’t mow him down. For once, then, an artist who doesn’t flirt with commercial music like the bashful nerd at the prom but assumes the more traditional jazz burden of making pop better than it knows how to be. Mr. Hagans’ trumpet lines supply the thematic development, the story . And that could be a first step in the direction of millennial bop worthy of the name.