Gentlemen, please, pick up your machetes

This post over at DTM has created quite a stir, with great responses in the comments as well as an interesting post from Nate Chinen.

I’ve thrown my two cents in the comments section , and I definitely come down on the side of not being afraid to let a legend know when their work stinks. But I have to wonder, especially when talking about living legends like Shorter or Hancock, if we would ever be satisfied by anything less than ground-breaking work.

Jazz music is at its best when it is expanding, searching for new worlds to explore. In some of the absolute best jazz, you can hear the artist pushing for something new. Coltrane used his horn like a machete, hacking away at the jungle that surrounded him, looking for new paths and discoveries. This searching creates tension, an energy that draws you in and brings you along on the search, believing in the promise that there is something new worth finding and hoping with every blast of the horn, every slice of the machete, to find that something.

Shorter and Hancock can undoubtedly wield machetes, too. They blazed trails and discovered new sounds that revolutionized music. In recent years, Shorter’s quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade has been one of my favorite groups, but the music doesn’t seem to be going anywhere really new- just performing at a very high level. When the title of your 2002 album is taken from a song your wrote in 1966, you’re not really looking forward.

As for Hancock, what can I say? I haven’t really liked anything he’s released since 2002, and he hasn’t done anything I loved since 1980’s Mr. Hands. With word now that his next album will be another collection of stars (Pink?! Fucking Pink?!?), I have little hope he’ll be returning to the hunt anytime soon.

But so what? Why do we need men who are in their 60s and 70s to carry our torch? No one in the rock world is looking to The Rolling Stones or The Who for the next great thing, they’re looking to whatever up-and-coming Williamsburg hipsters are tabbed to be heirs to the throne. Most of them don’t pan out, but the notion that a genre needs constant injections of new music, of creativity, is absolutely vital to the survival of jazz.

There is adventurous, compelling, listenable jazz and other improvised music happening everywhere. Matthew Shipp is right to be disappointed that the old guard are the ones who draw the crowds and earn the big paychecks while the guys who are still swinging their machetes toil in relative obscurity, but his anger should be targeted at the listeners, the so-called jazz fans who will gladly fork over $100/ticket to hear Shorter’s quartet play at a concert hall but would never venture to a club to hear what’s happening now. Shorter and Hancock have earned their careers, they’ve earned the right to play whatever they want for whatever reasons they may have, be it personal fulfillment, mass recognition or big pay days. The problem lies in jazz fans who see the music as a museum piece rather than a living, breathing art form that is still alive and still has something important to say.

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