Kev’s Music Review: Jazzanova

Posted: June 30th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Music Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

May and June were extraordinary months for music in Beijing.  In addition to the 9-Gates Jazz Fest (among others, Mike Stern performed this year), in the following month we were blessed with a very rare performance by Jazzanova.

For those that have never heard of Jazzanova, they are a collective of 6 German DJs.  Based in Berlin, this group is one of the foremost proponents of the nu-jazz and jazz house styles of music.  That’s right. DJs.

Only one of the six DJs (Alexander Barck) made it to Beijing to spin for us one night this past June.  This tour was primarily to feature a singer Jazzanova’s record label, Sonar Kollectiv, signed and produce, Clara Hill.  Held at Beijing’s relocated Yugong Yishan club, the night was filled with sweet tunes and really, really hip people.

How do you describe nu-jazz/jazz house? It is the culmination and answer to anyone that has ever tried to conquer jazz fusion, or jazz and funk, or jazz and hip hop, or jazz and electronica.  It is the next evolution of what electronic instruments and the synthesizer have done to alter the trajectory of jazz in the past two decades.  From Herbie Hancock’s first encounter with a synthesizer in Miles Davis’ band and then immortalized the ‘retro’ synthesizer sound of the 80′s, to the wide-spread use of Fender Rhodes pianos today in such popular bands like Soul Live and electric guitars of Pat Metheny, electronic-based jazz music is here to stay and will only get more intricate.

DJs can do marvelous things with jazz, things that traditional jazz musicians have been less than successful in doing themselves with their original instruments.  Artists like Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, Stefan Harris and Marcus Miller have really pushed their art towards an electronic vibe feel.  Yet the cross-over to mainstream understanding and popularity has been difficult.  DJs have a totally different set of tools they can work with, as the turn table and the mixer allows them to sample multiple sounds all at once.  While jazz musicians create original source materials of any form or shape, DJs use this material in combination with any number of other source materials to create their music.  Nu-Jazz DJs like Jazzanova have a special skill in choice of jazz source materials.

Jazzanova is not alone in this frontier.  From France we have the famous St. Germain, who is heavier on mixing Jazz with House music.  We have 4hero and Bugz in the Attic both from the UK, who are highly influenced with House and Hip Hop.  Nujabes and Jazztronik, both from Japan have been producing absolutely amazing albums that can only come with the Japanese’s continued patronage of Jazz and Japanese Hip Hop.

The level of mastery these DJ groups have to have for their craft, on top of which the depth and breadth of knowledge they must possess in music history and theory, is astounding.  To be able to confidently select samples from Jazz and Hip Hop, Funk and Soul, House and Drum & Bass and mix them together for the perfect sound can only be described as genius.

When I first heard Jazzanova several years ago, it changed my Jazz music obsession forever.  Exploring the different type of Nu-Jazz DJs coming out from different parts of the world, and watching them collaborate has been extremely exciting.

Indeed, while this is still a new and very niche music that bisects a multitude of musical genres, I believe it is one powerful and rising movement that will come into its own prominence.

Most definitely this is still another new definition of Jazz.  It will not replace jazz tradition as the embodiment of Jazz, but it certainly will add to the conversation, create a new dynamic for action-reaction among jazz musicians, and perhaps catapult  jazz back into the mainstream hearts of music lovers.

Kev’s Music Review: Mike Stern

Posted: June 29th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Music Review | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

At the end of May I had the chance to fulfill one of my goals.  That goal was to see Mike Stern live in concert.  I had missed him once when he played in Montreal, then missed him again in Toronto and then in New York.  I wasn’t about to miss him a fourth time.  So when I heard back in January that he would be coming through Beijing, I marked it on my calendar and looked forward to it each passing day.

Mike Stern’s newest album,  “Who Let the Cats Out?” was one that got me super excited when it first came out, as it kept the heart of the rock-fusion sound alive, but with this newest album also acknowledging the other advancements in Jazz in recent years.  Funk, NuSoul, Neo-Traditional Jazz, and some Rhythm & Blues are all infused in Mike Stern’s music.  “Who Let the Cats Out?” isn’t really all that new, being released in late 2006.  But Mike Stern’s world tour, much akin to his career, has mastered the meaning of longevity, consistency and authenticity.  His performance in Beijing was much the same.

Mike & Co. came out on stage unceremoniously,  walking straight for their choice of instruments.  He beckons to his mates to begin the first song, and away they go, inviting the audience to join them on their journey.  Mike immediately begins to rock back and forth, consecutively bending each knee like an electric toy trying to run on the spot but with its feet nailed down to the floor. This sight coincides with the swiftest movements ever witnessed coming from human fingers. On his face is the child-like smile one can only have when experiencing innocent joy.  Mike’s band moves at a lighting pace, led by the speed of their leader’s notes, but all with a comfortability and a little hop in their musical step while they revisit some complex harmonics.  They’ve done this before, and it suits them just fine.

To me, Mike Stern is the standard bearer for the conclusion Miles Davis came to from his Rock-Fusion experiment.  Mike Stern, along with his contemporaries like Jim Hall and John McLaughlin have been faithfully keeping with jazz-rock-fusion tradition, but more importantly steering the tradition as it steams forward in the twenty-first century.

The contemporary Jazz world has long been fragmented, producing numerous neo-traditionalists led by geniuses like trumpeter & composer Wynton Marsalis.  In recent years what has been popularized as the ‘new’ sound of contemporary jazz is the electric guitar.  Yet even in this declaration, it is the rounded, melodious sounds defined by Pat Metheny that are really what people think of when they talk about today’s jazz guitar.  Mike Stern’s continued homage to Miles Davis’ fusion vision is almost the antithesis of Pat Metheny’s school of sound.  But in the wonderful world of Jazz, where all sounds are positive, intellectual pillars of influence,  we can see how both Pat Metheny and Mike Stern have jointly spurned on the young guitar leaders of jazz’s future; Matt Stevens, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Julian Lage all have large elements of their music directly attributed to these two very distinct titans of contemporary jazz.

As a side note, isn’t it amazing how both Pat Metheny and Mike Stern (indeed most of the giants of contemp jazz) had their start from Miles Davis? This tells you how supremely important Miles Davis was and is to Jazz heritage.

After meeting Mike Stern in person, and doing a brief interview for our publication, I can safely he is one of the most quirkiest, happy-go-lucky musicians I have ever met.  He has taken the inner-child to a totally new level and kept the joy of performing and the joy of jazz rooted in an unbreakable foundation.

Kev’s Music Review: Chris Botti

Posted: June 15th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Kev's Music Review | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Its been over one month since my last blog post, and its not been for a lack of ideas, but a lack of time to write.  In the past month I’ve had the privilege of witnessing several awesome musicians perform and have been itching to do some reviews.

This review is of Chris Botti, one of the most high-profile jazz musicians on the world stage today.  “Discovered” by Oprah Winfrey several years back, Chris Botti has spent several years before as Sting’s main trumpeter, and has since produced countless albums focussed on recording mainstream jazz albums emulating the Miles Davis – Chet Baker tradition.  For his efforts, he has picked up a Grammy as well as his pianist, Billy Childs, who has two Grammies under his belt.  Working with such stars as Sting and Pavarotti, among others, Chris Botti’s albums consistently make it to the top of the jazz sales charts.

Many jazz fans who prefer contemporary jazz that picks up where the avant garde and fusion left off, may scoff at Chris Botti’s music, labeling it as ‘mainstream’ and ‘smooth jazz’.  I must admit I fell into that category.  I would only throw on a Chris Botti album if I were entertaining guests and needed something more palpable for background music.

Yet after spending time with him during his intimate press conference in Beijing, as well as attending his concert, I can say that I was thoroughly pleased and impressed by his level of professionalism and showmanship.  When Botti said in his press conference that he tries to make his shows a rollercoaster for his listeners, I was skeptical.  But his concert was absolutely entertaining, and truly was filled with wonderful dynamics of up-beat and slow-smooth pieces.  Chris Botti himself attested his band management style and choice of concert songs to his friend and mentor, Sting.  He chose to mix it up with pop pieces and his own composition, giving every kind of listener a little bit of heaven.

So now I have a renewed respect and admiration for Chris Botti.  And even while his music, while nice, doesn’t rock my world, I believe he has found the secret to what it takes to become a successful jazz musician in a non-jazz world.  He is an image marketing machine, that uses intoxicating pop tunes to lure new listeners to the world of Jazz, and hopefully capture a whole new generation who can propell the Jazz world forward.

For a country like China which is in desperate need of more sophisticated, intellectual world music, Chris Botti was a real treat and certainly won scores of new patrons to Jazz.

Speaking for all jazz enthusiasts who care about the future of Jazz in China, Chris Botti, I thank you.