Friday, August 24, 2018

Book: Nate Chinen - Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (Pantheon, 2018)

Nate Chinen is one of the most well known jazz jazz critics of the modern era, writing for the New York Times, NPR and more. In this book, he examines the jazz scene in the post millennium time period, focusing on the young musicians and issues that are notable in today's music. It's a breathless rush through some of the major themes that have become prevalent as of late, such as the neo-conservatism presented by Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra vs. the DIY aesthetic of John Zorn's performance space The Stone and the Vision Festival of Patricia Nicholson and William Parker. This is demonstrated by analyzing the conflicting desire to hold on to traditional swing and blues against the increasing influence of hip-hop and complex new musical forms represented by Kamasi Washington and Mary Halvorson respectively. To Chinen's credit, he doesn't see these approaches as completely contradictory, beveling that there is significant overlap that hedges against any reductive conclusion. The book draws both from the voluminous writing he has done in the past along with new ideas, and he presents himself as a master of the biographical sketch, juggling character sketches, musical analysis and interviews with colleagues to present a well rounded look into individual musicians. His examination of the position of women in jazz is particularly illuminating, beginning with Cecile McLorin Salvant's subtle tweaking of the role of the modern jazz vocalist and approach to standards and repertoire and Esperanza Spalding's journey to from a prodigy through to massive success and awards and the drive to stay at the public eye either through webcasts or playing against type in her own bands or with others, from post bop with Joe Lovano through to her own unclassifiable Emily D + Evolution project. The profile of Mary Halvorson is particularly illuminating, as she speaks candidly about being being a woman in predominantly male led groups, and her triumph has an original and an iconoclast is very interesting. Other profiles of note include a lengthy look at the music of Jason Moran and his voyage from Houston to becoming a modern mainstream phenom in the first decade of the millennium to someone who became interested in larger scale thematic and multimedia presentations, breaking away from Blue Note Records to self-releaese music on his own terms. One of the missed opportunities in this book was a potential discussion of music distribution in the modern era, particularly the Bandcamp vs. Spotify approaches, though the issue has been discussed at length elsewhere. Whether examining the overarching themes that confront the music in the modern age, or getting down to the granular level by interviewing musicians and examining their output, Chinen is engaging and thought-provoking throughout, giving the reader the tools and the encouragement to check out the music for themselves, balancing boosterism with criticism in a fine and thoughtful manner. Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century -

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