Back in the eighties, when I first “discovered” jazz, I became a big fan of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. He had remarkable technical ability, great tone, and a deep appreciation for his art form. I had nothing but admiration and respect. Plus, Wynton really loved to play the blues.
As I collected more of his albums over the years, I made a disturbing discovery: Wynton Marsalis really loved to play the blues! In fact, he seemed all but stuck there. And while I still admired his abilities as a player, the music Wynton was making started to bore me. I needed more out of my jazz musicians, and Wynton wasn’t giving it to me. The music world is a big place, and one should only bring so much baggage along. So, I dropped out.
Wynton has since expanded his palate a bit, mostly in the form of playing with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. I’ve started to buy his stuff again, but I am much more focused on the generation of jazz musicians that came behind Wynton and the other Young Lions from the 80’s. There’s plenty of music out there, and no need to get cemented in place, regardless of the talent level at hand.
Which brings me to my current progressive rock problem.
Prog had a golden era that ran from c. 1969 (when King Crimson gave us In the Court of the Crimson King) to about ’76, when punk rock rose in blatant defiance of prog’s so-called “self-indulgence.” Three chords and a cloud of dust replaced 7/8 time with a vengeance.
Like any other musical genre, progressive rock has its share of legends, many of whom have been delighting fans since the late sixties. To this day, Yes, Gong, Soft Machine, FM, Brand X and any number of classic Prog bands are still on the road, playing modest-sized rooms — usually with no more than a couple of original members — to the delight of their (mostly) original fans. King Crimson has been positively KILLING it on their 50th anniversary tour, selling out venues worldwide while playing their classics in spectacular fashion. And to be fair, they have managed to capture a few new fans along the way. Good for them.
The problem (of sorts) with this is while so many classic bands continue to be revered, newer, hungrier, and equally talented bands struggle to create a following. The musicians in these groups are unable to make a living playing music full-time, and that’s a crying shame.
Like Wynton Marsalis, I’m finding it more and more necessary for my music to move forward, preferably with different artists. Call me crazy, but I would actually like my progressive rock to … well, progress. Which is why it’s getting harder and harder for me to celebrate the efforts of classic bands, regardless of how I feel about their music.
I won’t be playing nearly as much King Crimson, Genesis, or Yes in the future. Why? Because I love their music so much! But it’s time to move on. The adventure has only just begun.
As I write these words, I’m hip deep in a band from New Jersey called Thank You Scientist. Their music — while considered Prog — truly defies definition. But it excites me like nobody’s business! My foot taps, my head bobs, and my “air” guitar hand goes wild! It’s the future! And that’s where I want to be.
I drove from St. Louis to Newport, Kentucky to hear this band and the opening act, Bent Knee, whom I also love deeply. Twenty bucks to get in, smaller (but well attended) room, close-up view … it was perfect. And the music was fresh. Nothing was more than a couple of years old, with new songs on the playlist.
For the last couple of years, I’ve made my way to Chicago for Progtoberfest, where I’ve been treated to nearly three dozen bands over three days, the vast majority of whom I had never heard of. But that didn’t stop me from being amazed by the musicians (mostly quite young) I heard playing their hearts out from one of the two stages.
I’ve been asked more than once how I can get excited about a three-day event where I know next to none of the music being played. At first, I wondered the same thing! But a key part of musical exploration is being willing to take a risk, and step out on a musical ledge, of sorts. And you know what? It had been a fantastic experience!
Thanks to Progtoberfest and a pair of open ears, I have been treated to bands like Five of the Eyes, Source, Ad Astra, In the Presence of Wolves, District 97, Echoes of Giants, Schooltree, Sons of Ra, and yes, Thank You Scientist. I may not have gone out of my way to check out these bands before, had they come to my town. But I will now.
The exploration of music should involve a little risk. There should be a bit of a sense of adventure. I get frustrated by people unwilling to step outside the classic Prog zone. If you can’t see past Van der Graaf Generator, how can you make room for an amazing band like Haken?
I have to put bands like Crimson, Yes, and Genesis aside in order to make room for newer bands that are every bit as talented, like The Pineapple Thief. I suppose I should be grateful that I have a chance to see them in smaller venues, like I will in December. Still, I wish nothing but “big room” success for these new bands.
Opeth, Riverside, Leprous, Sonar, Soften the Glare … the number of amazing modern day bands is quite staggering. And that may be part of the problem. There are so many bands out these days, it becomes difficult to choose one or two to enjoy. The supply seems to far outweigh the demand. So, it would seem, older fans play it safe, and stick with the bands that got them into the music in the first place. Personally, I would rather have too many bands to choose from than not enough. But here we are, and the newer bands must live pretty much hand-to-mouth to keep their musical ambitions moving forward. We need to help these artists thrive. Father Time will catch up to the classic acts soon enough.
I am eternally grateful for Prog magazine. Combined with Bandcamp, I am able to delve into more bands than I can count. I literally have hundreds of records in my wish list. I’m getting to them as quickly as I can. It can be a challenge, but it’s one I’m more than happy to take on. For what it’s worth, I’m also neck deep in DownBeat and JazzTimes magazines as well. I’m definitely in the midst of a music overload. Hopefully, my move into semi-retired life will make exploration a little easier, since my schedule should open up just a bit. Until then, I keep pushing through.
My point is this: the music world is pretty big, and life is pretty short. It’s more than worth your time and effort to explore something new and outside of your musical comfort zone. I believe you’ll come away with a great appreciation for the young musicians working hard to make a living. You might even be willing to put a little “love” in their pockets to keep them going. I promise: the older, established artists will barely notice your absence.
Take the leap. Let progressive rock progress. You won’t regret it.
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