Monday, 16 March 2009

Nigeria’s New Jazz... shooting beyond the ‘smooth’ and ‘crossover’ beats

IT would be beneficial if organisers of the Lagos International Jazz Festival, whose second edition is due in March, could invite Joshua Redman, a young, top jazz saxophonist and bandleader as major headliner and top of the bill.
His presence will instruct the Nigerian jazz scene as well as prove a point. Tenorman Joshua Redman’s participation will help dismiss the wrong notions that the Nigerian Jazz Club and some young musicians hold about the essence and development of the artform.
It is the belief of this set of people that the ‘smooth,’ ‘crossover’ jazz played to attract commercial attention is a solid brand of jazz that came into existence as a result of the search for artistic continuity. Far from it.
It is an accidental venture that artists such as Eddie Harris, King Curtis, Grover Washington Jnr., Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Earl Klugh, Bob James, Eric Gale and others spearheaded in the early 70s solely to attain the success that such popular music luminaries as The Temptations, The Staple Singers led by Mr. Roebok and his daughters, The Impressions headed by Curtis Mayfield, Earth, Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye and several other outfits whose music seemed at the time to be driven by elements of soul-rock and rhythm and blues.
Initially, the crusade was led by saxophonists who wanted to take advantage of their jazz orientation and the fact that the saxophone lends itself profoundly to commercial acceptance. It was later that rhythm instrumentalists such as pianist Bob James and guitarists George Benson, Earl Klugh and Eric Gale, pianist Herbie Hancock joined for commercial reasons.
The wrong notion that we are talking about believes, strongly too, that what these musicians pioneered, and which has influenced a new class of musicians, is a generational thing that marks it out as the new jazz that should now be seen as contemporary.
They believe that the straight-ahead modern jazz that Charlie Packer, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and others stood for, is now ‘old’ school. What they do not know is that genuine art endures, and remains valid for as long as it exists. The mistake they continue to make is that they equate ‘art’ music to pop music, which soon fizzles out as disposable music because it is devoid of art. They want to tie art to age limits and barriers when it is most uncalled for.
The pioneers of ‘smooth’ jazz did not place any name tag on their music. As far as they were concerned, they were taking prevailing popular music to inspired ‘commercial’ heights. Critics, in search of the truth labelled the music ‘smooth’ and ‘cross over’ jazz obviously because there was some element of jazz in the music. They all played cooperatively together at the time – Bob James, Eric Gale, Steve Gadd, Randy Brecker, Loius Jordan and all. They were the regular session men.
Bob James, a white pianist who had listened critically to Herbie Hancock in his brilliant days with the Miles Davis Sextet, Wynton Kelly and all the black pianists became relevant, playing electric piano and synthesizer. Most of the music that earned Grover Washington Jnr. great success including Feels so good was arranged by pianist Bob James.

For the Nigerian jazz club and its emerging young musicians, Grover Washington Jnr. is the reference point while George Benson and Earl Klugh are the guitarists. This explains why so much was done to celebrate Washington’s day of exit last December, even displaying his photograph prominently on the monthly jazz magazine.
Actually, there is no harm in making preferences, but it must be understood that parading a smooth jazz performer as the ideal, totally negates the spirit of jazz which defines its hallmark and essence as improvisation. Besides, demonstrating Washington as role model where Sonny Rollins continues to inspire everybody on the instrument is erroneous. To place the artistic effort of Washington above those of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Branford Marsalis, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, John Gilmore and others is misleading. Young musicians should be allowed to inspire to high artistic ideals, not limit their capabilities with commercial values. And to reduce all of this to age and generational preference is ridiculous.
This is why the example of a young guy like Joshua Redman who was born in February 1969 and was only four years old in 1973 when Groover Washington Jnr. was ruling the smooth jazz world with Mr. Magic; pianist Herbie Hancock with Head heaters; saxophonist King Curtis with Ode to Billie Joe, helps to deconstruct this wrong notion.

Josuha Redman’s new album release hit the streets two weeks ago. He calls this album of original tunes “a further exploration of the trio format, an expansion on, and an extension of Back East,” his acclaimed 2007 trio session.
Since taking on the music world, Redman has released five critically acclaimed albums, and has performed and recorded with some of the world’s greatest musicians including Chic Korea, Charlie Haden, Lionel Hampton, Quincy Jones, B.B. King. Christian McBride, Path Methany, Jack DeJohnette among others.
“It is all important to take sideman opportunities when they come my way,” Redman says. “My number one priority has always been to play with great musicians, especially great older musicians who can teach me about music and life.”
Redman also appeared as a featured musician in Robert Atman’s jazz film, Kansas City and has won numerous Down Beat, Jazziz and Rolling Stone Magazine’s Readers Polls, and was nominated for a Grammy in 1994.
At age 39, Redman has strong views about music and how best to get to the top: “Sometimes musicians can get overwhelmed by definitions,” he confides. “Especially with jazz, the technical and philosophical demands are so great that you can forget that music is supposed to be your expression. If your priorities get mixed up, you spend too much attention on the ideal of what jazz should be.”
Redman knows all about focus, an essential ingredient for success in every human endeavour. After graduating as valedictorian of his Berkedey, California high school in 1986, Redman attended Harvard, where he not only received his Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in Social Sciences, but graduated Summa Cum Laude, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and was accepted to Yale Law School. And then something happened that changed the course of his life. Redman won the First Prize in the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz Saxophone Competition. He declined his matriculation to Yale Law School and has since become perhaps the most important new musician in 20 years.

Joshua Redman was born on February 1, 1969 in Berkeley, California. By the time of his birth, his father, noted saxophonist Dewey Redman, had moved to New York and was playing with Ornette Coleman. Young Joshua’s only contact with his father was hearing his records around the house, and during his infrequent visits to town with Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Old and New Dreams and others.
His mother Renee Shedroff, a dancer and librarian was the driving force that nurtured his creativity. Redman’s formal music training began at the age of five, when his mother enrolled him in Indonesian and Indian music classes at Centre for World Music. These unique artforms, along with the recordings of Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane and Dewey Redman were his early influences. Joshua soon learned to play the recorder, guitar, piano. He listened to popular music by James Brown, Earth, Wind and Fire, The Commodores, Parliament – Funkadelic, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles who topped the household playlist.
At 10, Joshua had settled on the tenor saxophone, he had been exposed to it since birth and felt naturally drawn to the sound. He started with the clarinet and moved on to the tenor the following year.
The Berkeley Public Schools had an exceptional jazz programme, which Joshua took an advantage of. Experimenting with the guitars and keyboards, he would seldom practice the saxophone. The Berkley High School Jazz Band won several commendations with Joshua usually named the best soloist. His High School Jazz quartet started working professionally. Then, he still did not practice, he was listening more and more, rediscovering the music of Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Coltrane and also absorbing the styles of Parker, Joe Henderson, Stanley Turrentive, Ben Webster, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman and others.
Always a serious student, Joshua’s academic studies took precedence over music. With straight ‘As’ throughout high school, he graduated in 1986 and was admitted into Harvard where music, his first love intervened with encouragement by the outstanding performance that won him the First Prize of the Thelonius monk Institute for Jazz Saxophone.
Since then, his career has progressed in leaps and bounds, setting the pace not only for the new generation of young musicians to imbibe the ideals of jazz and its tradition, but also the jazz world for which he is already discovering new vistas and approaches especially with the exploration of the trio format.

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