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In the jazz world, this was George Gershwin’s year, hands down. The pianist-composer would have turned 100 in 1998, and though he died in 1937, he left behind a trove of works that open themselves to boundless interpretations. Songs like “Embraceable You,” “But Not for Me,” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” helped bring jazz to the greater masses (read: white audience), while the ambitious works like Porgy & Bess and Rhapsody in Blue elevated jazz to high art.
Gershwin’s music never really went out of vogue, but this year it suddenly seemed to be everywhere, with a bounty of reissues and tributes celebrating his centennial. Of these, Herbie Hancock’s Gershwin’s World illustrated the composer’s artistry most fully. Hancock delved deep into Gershwin’s music to examine its multicultural roots and placed his music in its greater context with the work of musicians who influenced Gershwin (W.C. Handy, James P. Johnson, Maurice Ravel) as well as those whom Gershwin influenced (Duke Ellington, for one). And with contributions from Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, Hancock also asserted Gershwin’s importance to pop.
But for sheer pop reinvention, Red Hot + Rhapsody was a far greater achievement. Like past Red Hot projects, this one traded on shotgun musical marriages, for better and for worse. The album worked best when the musicians weren’t trying to reanimate Gershwin stereotypes: Spearhead did a funky collaboration with Jamaican jazz guitarist Ernest Ranglin on “I Got Plenty o’ Nuthin’,” and Skylab retooled “S’Wonderful” à la electronica. But when artists like Sinead O’Connor, Natalie Merchant, and Luscious Jackson tried to deliver Gershwin straight-faced, the results verged on camp.
Gershwin’s centennial, however, shared the spotlight with renewed interest in one of his greatest interpreters, Miles Davis. Seven years after Miles’ death, the jazz community rediscovered the music of his most controversial period, his early-’70s fusion. Following last year’s release of five double-disc albums of Miles’ live performances from that time, Sony/Columbia released Panthalassa, a bewildering remix by devoted Miles acolyte Bill Laswell, and, most recently, a four-disc reissue of his groundbreaking Bitches Brew. In conjunction with the reissues came numerous tribute albums from such unlikely artists as the World Saxophone Quartet and Wadada Leo Smith & Henry Kaiser. Vocalist Cassandra Wilson meditated on Miles’ music this past year as well, with a series of daring tribute concertssome more successful than othersand she’s also expected to deliver a Miles songbook album next year. Shirley Horn’s sensational tribute I Remember Miles concentrated more on Miles’ elegant bebop, but, subversively, she also honored the music of Gershwin by including three compositions from Porgy & Bess.
While many jazz artists mined the treasures of Gershwin and Miles, others applied Gershwin’s jazz principle of using pop standards as vehicles for improvisation. Trumpeter Dave Douglas explored the music of Joni Mitchell on his melancholy Moving Portrait; bassist Christian McBride recast Kool & the Gang’s disco classic “Open Sesame” into a blistering bop excursion on his ’70s-inspired A Family Affair; and both vocalist Andy Bey and pianist Brad Mehldau brought back cult folk legend Nick Drake with separate readings of “River Man.” Mehldau’s recent album Songs: The Art of the Trio, Vol. 3 also offered an intriguing treatment of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film).” On Timeless Tales (For Changing Times), saxophonist Joshua Redman interpreted a wide range of pop songs from Gershwin to Bob Dylan. Even veteran vocalist Jimmy Scott explored the recent past with his latest recording, Holding Back The Years, which contained mesmerizing readings of songs from Prince, Bryan Ferry, and Elvis Costello.
The year’s originals didn’t boast anything as epic as, say, Wynton Marsalis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio Blood on the Fields. But a few pleasant surprises came out from relatively obscure musicians long relegated to the avant-garde margins. Atlantic Records led the way, releasing In the World From Natchez to New York, the debut album from cornetist Olu Dara, who garnered years of experience playing with the likes of Art Blakey, Cassandra Wilson, and Henry Threadgill, as well as a quirky release from guitarist Marc Ribot’s Los Cubanos Postizos. The label concluded the year with Coming Home Jamaica, the first ’90s domestic release of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. These albums didn’t show off the artists’ full potential but propelled Dara and Ribot into the mainstream and reminded the world of the Art Ensemble’s enduring excellence. Sony/Columbia also flirted with avant-garde releasesamong them saxophonist David S. Ware’s Go See the World and Sex Mob’s Din of Inequitybut, as it had in the past with Ornette Coleman and Tim Berne, the label did so with cold indifference.
This year’s most adventurous, and arguably best, new jazz albums came from saxophonist Steve Coleman and clarinetist Don Byron. On Coleman’s double disc, Genesis & the Opening of the Way, his rhythmically complex M-Base music blossomed to orchestral proportions at the hands of Coleman’s latest and largest ensemble, the Council of Balance. Byron’s funk wasn’t nearly as mathematical as Coleman’s, but his Nu Blaxploitation album revitalized jazz’s sense of political urgency in sardonic collaborations with poet Sadiq, whose witty essays on urban blight jolted the sedate jazz climate without sounding like Gil Scott-Heron.
The event that should have been this year’s most important for jazz turned out to be its most embarrassing: the first annual Jazz Awards, organized by jazz journalist Howard Mandel and the Knitting Factory’s Michael Dorf, which turned into a juvenile brawl worthy of Jerry Springer. When the polemical critic Stanley Crouch tossed out his brutal asides about trumpeter Dave Douglas and pianist Matthew Shipp’s musical abilities while presenting the award for best improviser, he reopened the bitter fight between conservative beboppers and controversial avant-gardists. At the closing reception, Mandel approached Crouch concerning his unwarranted commentary, which eventually led to the volatile Crouch’s physically assaulting Mandel in front of the guests. So much for Crouch’s denunciations of hiphop artists as foul-mouthed hoodlums.
But the crowning achievement for jazz this year wasn’t the release of a great new album or reissue but the PEN/Faulkner award given to Rafi Zabor’s novel The Bear Comes Home. The surreal tale concerns a bear who, by some freak of nature, talks like a humanand plays a mean alto saxophone. Obsessed with trying to reconcile Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman, the bear gigs in New York with the likes of Lester Bowie, Charlie Haden, and David Murray. The book’s central themealienation within an already marginalized communityresonates loudly in the jazz world, and Zabor’s prose is chock full of on-point jazz analysis.
In 1999, jazz fans can expect this year’s Gershwinmania to segue right into a flurry of observances for Duke Ellington’s centennial. And don’t forget: Blue Note Records’ 60th anniversary is on the horizon. It has already begun with the recent release of a huge 14-disc box set, so in the unlikely event that there’s nothing new to look forward to, at least it will be fun to look back. CP