The J.V.C. Jazz Festival, which rolls through town every June, is an oddly redundant event (isn’t New York City a nonstop jazz festival?), but it does offer a concentrated dose of all-star bands that come around only rarely-which is to say, two or three times a year-at classy venues like Carnegie Hall. The big draws this year include Keith Jarrett’s “standards trio,” playing at peak power these days, and a double bill of Wayne Shorter’s quartet and Dave Holland’s quintet.
Still, the most innovative acts, the ones that more sharply reflect what’s fresh and exciting in modern jazz, are happening at the festival’s side shows, in the city’s jazz clubs-especially David Murray and the Gwo-Ka Masters at the Jazz Standard (June 17 to 19) and Don Byron heading four different bands over five nights at the Village Vanguard (June 21 to 25).
David Murray was a staple of the New York jazz scene in the 1980’s and 90’s, a galvanizing force among several saxophonists-including Arthur Blythe, Hamiet Bluiett, Chico Freeman and Julius Hemphill-who had immersed themselves in the avant-garde, found their own voices and then applied them to the “jazz tradition,” breathing new life into old forms.
A decade ago, Mr. Murray moved to Paris, fell in with a community of Creole musicians-most notably the Gwo Ka percussion masters from Guadeloupe-and started exploring ways to fuse his brand of jazz with Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Several albums have come out of this fusion- Creole, Fo Deux Revue, Yonn-Dé and Gwotet-and, while I wouldn’t count them among Mr. Murray’s best, they are deeply satisfying.
On his best nights, a David Murray solo is an exhilarating thing, combining the improvisational zest of Sonny Rollins with the lush vibrato of Ben Webster. His horn seems locked onto some fundamental rhythm of the earth. The notes cascade and tumble with an unerring yet unpredictable flow, first with a volcanic fury, then with a breeze, a sigh. He blows in phrases, each sentence complete, yet his lines follow so jangled a path, radiate in so many directions, they seem impossible to resolve-until they are resolved, at which point, with scarcely a breath, a new sentence begins, feeding a stream of tension and resolution, firmly anchored to an undercurrent of harmony and melody. Combine this finely controlled frenzy with polyrhythmic hand-drumming and, when they click, it’s just riveting.
Don Byron, one of the few full-time clarinetists in today’s jazz, has always been engrossed with unlikely combinations. He played Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps as his honors project at the New England Conservatory-then, after graduating, started a klezmer band, blew progressive R&B with Living Colour and joined a swarm of downtown jazz groups (including the David Murray Octet).
His five nights at the Vanguard will feature his sextet, Music for Six Musicians (Latin and Caribbean rhythms over flighty riffs and dark, Mingus-like harmonies); his big band (an expansion of the sextet with more horns, more drums and the great Malian singer Abdoulaye Diabate); his Adventurers Orchestra (a project that grew out of a five-year residency at Symphony Space, with a repertoire ranging from Stravinsky to Mancini to Earth, Wind and Fire); and, for two nights, his Ivey-Divey Trio (the group on his latest CD, with pianist Jason Moran and drummer Billy Hart, paying tribute to a Lester Young–Nat Cole–Buddy Rich trio from the late 40’s).
If the festival lasted another week, Mr. Byron could add on his Bug Music big band (exploring the wilder side of early Ellington and the cartoon tunes of Raymond Scott), his Fine Line ensemble (playing songs by Sondheim, Chopin, Roy Orbison and Stevie Wonder), his Romance with the Unseen quartet (with guitarist Bill Frisell) or … the list could go on for a while.
The remarkable thing about Mr. Byron’s eclecticism is that it’s completely sincere. His music, while playful, is never campy; there are no ironic winks or nudges. Mr. Byron loves all this music. He infuses it with his own style, but treats it with respect. Another source of amazement is that he pulls it off. He can play with the pure, full-bodied tone of a classically trained clarinetist, but he can also get dirty in the blues. He has a special knack-nearly unique among jazz musicians-for manipulating rhythm: lagging behind the beat, then catching up, charging ahead, laying back again, all while swirling phrases, turning them inside out and every which way, as if he were tossing off the simplest tune in the world.
Mr. Murray, now 50, and Mr. Byron, 46, are no longer quite “young men,” but their approach to music is more fresh and youthful-and more faithful to the radical impulses of the early jazz masters-than many younger musicians whose notion of jazz is restricted to 4/4 rhythm and standard ballads-and-blues chord changes.
“Fusion” earned a bad name in the early 70’s, when desperate jazz musicians, suddenly eclipsed by rock ‘n’ roll, tried to retain commercial luster by adapting rock’s most dumbed-down backbeat. Much of the resulting music was bad-not because it was fusion, but because it was bad fusion. Jazz has always been molded from a scattershot of musical influences. From the beginning, there was the fusion of African rhythms, slave call-and-response songs and Western European harmony. Jelly Roll Morton talked of jazz and its vital “Latin tinge.” Dizzy Gillespie and George Russell fused Caribbean rhythms and bebop in “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop.” Sonny Rollins fused jazz with the calypso. Even Duke Ellington-the patron saint of jazz traditionalists-injected a massive dose of funk in his 1966 masterpiece, The Far East Suite.
So, as the world grows smaller-in an era when you can buy records from all over the world with a click of a button-why shouldn’t jazz musicians seek common ground with drummers from Guadeloupe or singers from Mali? And just as the jazz musicians of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s improvised on songs from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, why shouldn’t jazz musicians do the same with the popular tunes of their own time?
Most of today’s best jazz musicians are also the most far-ranging. Jason Moran, the most original jazz pianist to emerge in the last few decades, traverses the standards (his solo album, Modernistic, contains one of the few novel twists on “Body and Soul” since Coleman Hawkins), but he also plays-and plays off-hip-hop, film soundtracks and the rhythms of a Turkish telephone conversation. Dave Douglas, the most inventive trumpeter of our time, has recorded tributes not only to Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, but also to Joni Mitchell and Rufus Wainwright, and also plays variations on Balkan folk tunes, James Bond thrillers and themes inspired by Florentine architecture.
There will always be a place for standards. There’s no equation between some Top 40 wonder and the glories of Kern and Gershwin. But jazz has always been less about what you play than how you play it. And there’s so much out there to play.