More than once on this page, I’ve expressed the desire to hear a new kind of jazz, music of and for the 21st century. As much as I love the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Branford Marsalis, etc., I was beyond ready for what’s next.
Thanks to websites like Bandcamp, I was slowly entering the world of jazz’s next generation. I was learning about artists like Jacob Garchik, Donny McCaslin, and Kneebody.
I was also introduced to a band named GoGo Penguin, who were signed to an English label called Gondwana before moving to the legendary Blue Note label. Learning about Gondwana opened the door to a whole new musical world of jazz from the likes of Matthew Halsall (who founded the label), Mammal Hands, and Portico Quartet. It would seem that I was on to something.
But it wasn’t enough.
My feeling was that I was just starting to scratch at an incredibly large surface. There was a lot more music to be found. I want to write a book about my father and how he passed his love for jazz on to me. And while I had found my way into a new musical room helping me toward that aim, I was quite certain I had skipped more than a couple of doors while I explored. I needed a central frame of reference. Maybe there was a book or two that could help me.
It seemed silly to think I could go to Amazon, type “21st century jazz” into the search engine, and get anything resembling a constructive result. Nevertheless, that’s what I did. And that’s precisely what happened.
The first book Amazon pushed forth was Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century by Nate Chinen. I literally lol’d, thinking the title was more than a little on the nose for my search. I couldn’t be that lucky on the first try, could I? As it turns out, I could!
Chinen has spent the last two-plus decades writing about jazz, including a dozen years for The New York Times as well as JazzTimes magazine. His book was endorsed by industry legends Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock. This man was swinging a pretty heavy bat. Still, my inner cynic said this book wouldn’t be that helpful, since it was probably ten years old by now. A check of the copyright revealed the year 2018.
I ordered a copy then and there. Two days later, I was cracking it open. It took about five minutes to realize I had struck gold.
Chinen is the literal Missing Link in my jazz education. As it turned out, I had unintentionally ignored an entire new generation of musicians, who were working toward creating the very thing I decided to start looking for in earnest a couple of years ago. Within the first few pages, I was learning about artists like pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonists like John Zorn and Tim Berne. Every chapter is an adventure, and Chinen is the ultimate tour guide. It didn’t take long to realize the author was doing a lot of my background research for me!
My reading has been slow, because there is so much information to absorb. I’ve taken to carrying around a highlighter and small post-it tabs so I can keep track of the music I’m being told about.
Each chapter ends with a select list of albums to explore, on top of the artists and records I was already highlighting. And it that isn’t enough, Chinen lists “The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far)” at the book’s end. So in addition to reading, highlighting, and tabbing, I’m going to YouTube to listen to each and every one of these records, using a 1-5 scale to gauge my interest in buying each one. I only have 100 or so to go. And I’m only about halfway through the book itself!
As happy as I am to have found this resource, I can’t help but be angry with myself. How on earth did I miss so much music? How could I be so willfully ignorant? But upon due reflection I found the answer, which allowed me to cut myself a little slack.
I was barely 13 years old when Dad introduced me to jazz via fusion, and around 21 when I truly embraced the genre full-on. That was the late ’80s, which was not long after my “discovery” of King Crimson and progressive rock. I pushed most commercial music aside, also embracing college rock as I did so. Jazz was there, but it played a relatively small role at first. In 1992, I went through a brief (but collection altering) “Jazz is everything” phase, when I attempted to shed myself of everything but this particular art form. But even that period had its limits.
I was well aware of the bebop of the ’40s, the cool of the ’50s, the postbop and avant-garde of the ’60s, the fusion of the ’70s, and the “Young Lions” postbop revival of the ’80s. In the ’90s, I focused on the newest efforts of that last generation. It never really occurred to me to see what was coming after them. Not that it mattered. Nirvana changed the world in 1991, a new “Alternative” radio station caught my ear in early ’93, and I was on my way down an incredibly deep rabbit hole. Jazz was still a small part of my world, but based solely on what I already knew.
So like I said, I skipped an entire generation of new and exciting jazz musicians. What’s more, these young players were listening to the same “Alternative” bands like Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Aphex Twin, and Nirvana, which they incorporated into what they were playing in clubs like The Knitting Factory in New York City. Had I bothered to pay attention, I could have enjoyed a huge musical revival!
Instead, I’m playing catch-up. Luckily, I have Nate Chinen to help me along.
It’s not in my nature to review half of a book, but I already know I’ll have no problem endorsing Playing Changes to anyone interested in what’s been happening in the world of jazz since the turn of the century. I should probably note that I bought Chinen’s book at the same time I bought The History of Jazz by Ted Gioia. In a perfect world, I would have read that book first, since it seems to virtually join hands with Chinen’s work. But I’ll learn to live with a backwards education.
It’s nice to know that once in a while, the answer really is right in front of you.
Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century
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Excellent review, Ced. I’m itching to see that list of 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). But I have a long backlog of listening already. (small sigh)
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I’m reminded of an old commercial: “There’s always room for Jell-O.” 😉