Little Rock National Public Radio affiliate KUAR-FM used to feature a program called Haney's Jazz -- the host, Don Haney, died in 2015 -- that positioned itself as a showcase for "jazz that makes sense," which meant jazz that contained discernible melody lines. Oscar Peterson and Count Basie were staples of the show; Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis were not. Haney's Jazz meant to reassure and entertain its audience, not challenge them.
And that was OK. All Haney meant to do was showcase the sort of music he liked and, in an age when a lot of jazz musicians find themselves playing for audiences primarily composed of other jazz musicians, that was a noble mission. There is always a tension between popularity and excellence.
While popular things are often wonderful, there's little correlation between how well made a thing is and how well it sells. Cheap and shoddy sells, good-enough sells, and most of us are most of the time satisfied with the common option. Few of us have the wherewithal to resist compromise; if we are entertained, we are entertained.
That's why rock 'n' roll works -- it is at its most basic a reductive form. Here's a drum, here's a chord, here's an adenoidal whine of a voice singing about love or the loss of it. Rock 'n' roll is a delivery system for ecstasy and plaint. You needn't be particularly good at music to do it well. You just have to find the right persona and to connect.
But jazz, especially the higher orders of jazz, requires instrumental virtuosity and command. Jazz recordings are just field notes or courtroom sketches. No captured performance is truly definitive. The work of a jazz musician is to remake and reimagine the work night after night, show after show.
While other musical forms are like plays, where an actor may occasionally ad-lib or flub a line, jazz is like a basketball game, unfolding in uncertainty, with no predetermined outcome and the players acting and reacting in an ongoing moment. Much depends on subtle cues and changes of inflection.
While pop musicians might appreciate jazz -- while they might love jazz -- there are problems with truly integrating jazz into pop. Foremost among these is the simple fact that jazz requires more of its listeners than most pop music does; it asks for a different quality of attention to be appreciated. As the forms become more convoluted and complex, they become harder to parse. So Haney's Jazz concentrated on the sort of jazz that carried tunes that could be hummed while leaving bebop, hard bop and Anthony Braxton-style free jazz for the aficionados.
What generally happens when jazz is introduced in a pop context is that it becomes a feature. It's reduced to improvisational decoration subordinate to rock 'n' roll's recurring rhythmic-harmonic. Jazz shows up and takes a solo, but eventually the chorus comes around again.
And while you can find plenty of examples of popular musicians incorporating jazz into their work, invariably the jazz players have functioned as sidemen on those albums. While Miles Davis, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin made jazz records with elements of rock 'n' roll in the late '60s and early '70s, there has never been a successful collaboration between a major pop musician and a jazz artist that resonates as jazz.
Even Joni Mitchell's Mingus (1979) is undeniably a Mitchell album. While Charles Mingus (who died months before the album was released) collaborated with her on four of the songs, Mitchell was the controlling intelligence in the studio and of the jazz musicians (notably Weather Report's Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius) she worked with performing her songs in her context. Other pop musicians -- such as Sting -- have collaborated with jazz players, and the result has invariably been a pop record informed by and/or decorated with jazz.
That doesn't mean that some great records haven't come out of these ventures -- such as Ricki Lee Jones' career and Deborah Harry's adventurous work with the Jazz Passengers, with whom she made a couple of mid-'90s albums that were decidedly not of the "pop singer takes on jazz standards" ilk). It's just that jazz is a recessive gene. You introduce anything else into it, it changes.
At least that's what I thought.
There's something different about Vanished Gardens (Blue Note), Lucinda Williams' collaboration with venerable saxophonist Charles Lloyd and the Marvels -- Lloyd's longtime rhythm section drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers, augmented by guitarist Bill Frisell (a frequent Williams collaborator) and lap steel specialist Greg Leisz (who has often worked with Williams). The album is credited to Charles Lloyd & the Marvels + Lucinda Williams.
In 2016, Lloyd and this lineup released I Long to See You, an album that features vocals by Willie Nelson and Norah Jones. That same year, Frisell and Leisz played on Williams' The Ghosts of Highway 20. Maybe a collaboration was inevitable.
Still, despite the unmistakable Americana flavor, there's no doubt that this is a jazz record. While Williams fulfills a key role as singer and lyricist, she's not necessarily driving this bus. This is a team effort; you can hear the players responding to the vocalist and Williams reacting to harmonic, tonal and rhythmic shifts. There's a thrilling precariousness afoot here, a sense that the musicians are discovering the song as they go along.
Lloyd has been around long enough that Bob Dylan approached him and his group (pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Jack DeJohnette) about playing on his 1967 album John Wesley Harding. "All Along the Watchtower" could have had a very different vibe had Columbia Records not resisted the idea. But that would have been just another case of jazz cooks working in a pop kitchen. While maybe the 21st-century Dylan, with his Nobel Prize and his portfolio of Sinatra songs, would be amenable to making a jazz record, it's hard to imagine the young Dylan not dominating the sessions.
If there's a real precedent for this album, I can't think of it -- although the fusion of jazz and Americana is not as far-fetched and fantastical as it might first appear. As with jazz, bluegrass is a music that requires virtuosity of its players. Anyone who saw the Jerry Douglas Band's recent performance at Little Rock's South on Main will be aware of the cross-pollination between the genres; maybe the more enlightened the musician, the less the genre labels matter. Williams -- though she has sometimes downplayed her literary influences -- can be seen as an inheritor of the Beat tradition. Her father -- poet Miller Williams -- absorbed the lessons of Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, et al., and on occasion read his poems while accompanied by jazz musicians. He was a fan of John Coltrane as well as Hank Williams.
Lucinda Williams was influenced as much by Dylan as by Howlin' Wolf, and Dylan was influenced as much by the Beats as by Woody Guthrie. Her lyrics have the same plainspoken, depthless quality as her father's -- she understands the potency of the language and how stark words can be haunted.
On her own records, she marries these lyrics to relatively simple melodies usually supported by common chords. Vanished Gardens demonstrates that they can also thrive in the context of complex and challenging music.
Is that a brave thing? Maybe, though Williams is obviously in a place where she can afford not to sell a whole lot of records (now that no one sells a whole lot of records) and there might be something comforting in simply being part of the ensemble. She sits out the five instrumentals on the album -- all fine if less interesting than the vocal numbers because of her absence.
"Dust," which originally appeared on The Ghosts of Highway 20, might provide the best example of how the experiment works. It starts out with Lloyd's loping tenor saxophone before Williams joins with a grainy achy vocal ("You couldn't cry if you wanted to/Even your thoughts are dust"). Lloyd rides shotgun for a while, supporting the vocal line, but when she runs out of words the sax takes off on an at first-discursive but ultimately subsuming Coltrane-esque solo finally joined by Frisell's pealing, ascending phrases.
Her "Ventura" (from 2007's West) has a less radical reworking, but Lloyd's saxophone lovingly cushions Williams' vocal. "We've Come Too Far to Turn Around Now" and "Angel," the radically altered Hendrix cover (it comes across as a country gospel standard) have their moments, but it's the nearly 12 minutes of "Unsuffer Me" (also off West) that best demonstrate the potential of the collaboration. Just before the halfway mark, Frisell, Liesz and Lloyd engage each other in a three-way conversation marked by deeply intelligent and witty playing.
Certainly there are Williams fans who won't care for Vanished Gardens, just as there are fans who didn't care for the re-recorded and revamped version of Sweet Old World she released last year.
Williams is a different artist from when she released Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Her voice has darkened, deepened and taken on a kind of molten power. She's not a conversational rhythm singer any more; her phrasing is more emotive and maybe, to some ears, mannered. But her voice is her voice, ragged and weathered and notice-commanding.
It's not everybody's thing. One imagines that the best way to receive this experiment would be -- like all jazz -- to see it live, to feel the energy and to commune with the players. It's a long way from the famous perfectionism of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. (Which was released 20 years ago last week.)
This is a jazz record. A real jazz record. There are tracks here that would never have made the cut for Haney's Jazz.
Style on 07/08/2018
Print Headline: Garden: Some jazz a while