Friday, March 13, 2015

Given jazz's market irrelevance, what is underground about 'Brooklyn Jazz Underground'?

They're prolific, they're interconnected, and those who still buy and/or review jazz recordings quickly become familiar with the musicians represented on Brooklyn Jazz Underground CDs.

From Indiana, it's pretty hard to assess what kind of artistic community the label represents, but its first three releases of 2015 suggest that artistic independence may be a possible identifier of what's "underground" nowadays. These three releases are quite different from each other, but when the mainstream doesn't seem to have more viability than any other kind of jazz, identifying and ranking subgenres may be a waste of time.

These are well-engineered recordings that make individualistic statements by the leaders, supported by compatible sidemen. I'm glad that none of them seeks to definitively answer the perpetual question "Where is jazz going?," which I hope is finally running out of steam as a productive line of inquiry.

One direction is represented by Jeremy Siskind's "Housewarming."  The pianist, who was a finalist in
Pianist-songwriter Jeremy Siskind
the 2007 Jazz Fellowship Awards of the American Pianists Association, has recently developed a style of warmhearted lyricism. He favors melody, and his sort of elaboration of the basic material (most of it original work) is restrained and carefully cultivated. He's got imagination, however, and his playing is significantly beyond the piano-bar norm.

"Housewarming" dispenses with drumming, an eyebrow-raising choice for an ensemble program. Solo and duo recordings without percussion are not uncommon, and of course the kind of trio pioneered by Nat "King" Cole — piano, bass, guitar — has a firm niche in jazz history.

The disc features a distinctive trio combination of vocals, reeds, and piano. Nancy Harms and Lucas Pino are Siskind's principal collaborators. Other vocalists make cameo appearances: Kendra Shank, Peter Eldridge, and Kurt Elling. (Elling holds the attention best among the bit parts, though Eldridge's rendition of the title song, accompanied only by Siskind, doesn't overplay its sentimentality.)

"Housewarming" is essentially a jazz-inflected singer-songwriter disc — except the songwriter is not also the singer. Siskind's introspective tunes are well-matched to his lyrics. Harms' voice begs to be taken seriously in part because of the intimacy and warmth of the composer's texts. She's well suited to fulfillment of his artistic vision.

 But the pleasant upshot — despite the spice lent to the texture by the versatile woodwind player Pino — is a kind of easy-listening jazz, the sort you might expect to find featured at Starbucks and available for purchase at the counter. If this disc grows on its purchasers, it will have to be because they put aside the idea that it should accompany doing something other than just listening to it. That won't be easy.

Marike van Dijk's writing is praised (?) as "just another step."
On the jacket of "The Stereography Project," Marike van Dijk's writing is praised as "organic" by the eminent keyboardist Gil Goldstein. There's a couple of pencil drawings of a potted plant on the jacket to reinforce the point.

Everything coheres, to be sure, in the oeuvre of the Dutch saxophonist-composer, now part of the Brooklyn scene. She supplements an adept quartet of wind players (including Pino, by the way) with a string quartet and a rhythm section, plus cameos by three vocalists. Of course, you can be "organic" about integrating your performing forces and still lack discipline. Van Dijk's muse is rather untidy and wan, and I lost patience with her well before the closer, the dithering, sentimental "Walsje," for which the credits include two other composers besides the bandleader.

Two of the vocalists are featured on the only song from outside van Dijk's orbit: the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home." Her intriguing arrangement is marred by some suspect vocal intonation and the tendency of the lead singer to drop "g's". This doesn't seem to be the type of song you should do that to: "She's leavin' home"?

Alex Norris: Bringing it, keeping it real.
Incidentally, part of the Goldstein blurb deserves inclusion in my personal anthology of Damning with Faint Praise: "This record will be just another step in a long career of composing." I guess van Dijk can take that to the bank, for what it's worth.

I turn with relief  to "Extension Deadline" by the Alex Norris Organ Quartet. This is the kind of jazz that gives me hope.  It's solid stuff from stem to stern. If I were fond of tired labels, I'd call it post-bop. Norris' compositions often seem rudimentary, but they are good rudiments.  They open up wide spaces for improvisation, as well as for spontaneous mutual support in the ensemble.

Norris's trumpet and flugelhorn are agile, and his tone has sort of a matte finish, which contrasts nicely with the glow and flash of Gary Thomas' tenor saxophone. Whenever one of them yields to the other for a solo, there's an immediate jump in excitement — two independent minds with plenty to say without straying off topic.

George Colligan fuses the horn statements with masterly accompaniments, and goes out on his own with a Hammond A-100 sound free of funky cliches. Rudy Royston drives everything with relevance and infectious joy from the drum set; he's one of those busy drummers who intuitively avoid dominating, confident in the buoyancy of the music he propels.

All of these directions in jazz help make up the direction jazz is going. And without wide public interest in any of it, artists grouped under the Brooklyn Jazz Underground rubric have as good a chance as anybody to influence what the mainstream will do next.

Whatever that is, it's unlikely to move the needle on any pop-culture measurement device. In the second decade of jazz's second century, that's a situation we all have to get used to — whether we see ourselves as underground, on the ground, or building castles in the air.