Maybe the cure for what ails hiphop can be found in recent jazz history?!?!?
During “list season” at the end of 2009, I participated in the Village Voice jazz critic's poll. I’d avoided the poll for the last two years, in part because of a busy schedule (these things do take time) and in part because there wasn’t a tremendous amount to say where jazz records were concerned.
That wasn’t the case this year: Improvised music is experiencing a creative resurgence that even its most ardent supporters could not have predicted. At precisely the moment Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal chose to ponder the declining health and/or “death” of jazz, a cadre of bold individual thinkers waltzed in, with music of such spirit and drive it all but mocks the journalistic hand-wringing. If jazz is even close to dead, we need to ask those obit-writers (and I’ve been one over the years) to please explain the audacious sparks running through pianist Vijay Iyer’s Historicity, the Voice poll winner.
Suddenly, there are recordings featuring stunning and cohesive trios doing intricate – but, crucially, not overly brainy – original music. Big bands are happening, and those arranging for them wring out wild colors from unlikely combinations of instruments. New and occasionally daring singers are emerging, and their work amounts to more than another light dusting of the Great American Songbook; several, including Magos Herrera, wrote beautiful, achingly lyrical tunes that deserve to be played again and again, in many contexts.
There are probably tons of explanations for this activity, which has been erratic and diffuse and easy to miss unless you regularly prowl the jazz corner of blogland. There is, though, one striking point of commonality: Very few jazz records of consequence from 2009 were brought to you by the major labels. While it’s true that imprints attached to major labels (Blue Note, Nonesuch) continue to document jazz, this year most of the new thinking came from smaller, independent operations, places that don’t need to sell skadillions to remain in business. Places where considerations of art – like, say, a tune that stretches out for more than five minutes – can sometimes trump those of marketing.
Think about that for a minute: The creative burst in jazz happened just a few years after the executives at the majors concluded there aren’t compelling business reasons to pay attention to it.
Following this logic, here’s a modest proposal: To begin to lift hiphop out of its current creative torpor – that dull place where so-called superstars spew routinized nonsense about their alleged greatness (see Kanye West, 50 Cent, et. al.) – maybe it’s time to wrest control of it from the big labels. Bring it back to a more human scale. Return the emphasis to developing voices, not gaming the marketplace to pump up the quarterly numbers. Majors out of hiphop now! It’s worth a try, because, sadly, there isn’t all that much to lose.