I’m back in the UK and so there’s a chance to record some Cosmic Jazz specials. More on those later – but first up we’ll have a close look at music that’s currently coming from California via the Brainfeeder label.
There have long been contrasting scenes in jazz – and two obvious ones have been the two typified by the ‘cool’ west coast and ‘hot’ east coast scenes of the 1950s. Stan Getz and Chet Baker represented the chilled vibe of the west coast while John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy illustrated the more intense approach favoured by those musicians resident in New York. Well, today there’s another west coast vibe – and some say much of it is not even jazz.
I’m indebted to Natalie Weiner and her article on the Noisey website for prompting the rest of this post. You can check the article out here. Weiner focuses on the music coming from the SanFrancisco based Brainfeeder which features such artists as Flying Lotus, Thundercat and Kamasi Washington – all of whom have featured on CJ. Indeed, we played Flying Lotus as long ago as 2008 when he released his sophomore album Los Angeles – named after his hometown. Was it jazz? Probably not – but, as always, that will depend on your definition.
What we are seeing in jazz over the the last five years or so is an
increasingly fertile amalgam of influences from two other musics – electronica and hip hop. This open genre-bending has, of course, always been a feature of jazz – but the music now goes much further than the rather tokenistic jazz and hip hop collaborations of the 1990s that saw the birth of such projects as rapper Guru’s collaborations with Blue Note past masters on the Jazzmatazz series. It’s also more than pianist Robert Glasper’s authentic dives into contemporary nu soul with his Black Radio project or even Vijay Iyer’s reworkings of Detroit minimalist Robert Hood for jazz piano trio.
All of this – and more – we have played on CJ. But when veteran jazz pianist and one man jazz iconoclast Herbie Hancock appears on the latest Flying Lotus release even more trad jazzheads should take note. It’s not the first time Hancock has done this of course – a recent reissue on CD is Last Exit’s The Noise of Trouble live album from 1986 which featured the pianist on the final track.
So back to Flying Lotus and some of the issues raised by Weiner in her Noisey feature. Is FlyLo jazz? Can you make jazz music without playing an instrument? is an obvious starting question. Another would be Does he improvise? But whether or not we have an answer to either questions, the answer really probably lies with the music. As Kamasi Washington himself notes If it’s not called jazz, what would you call this? It can’t fit any term other than that.
Pulling the question into focus is the fact that Washington’s acclaimed album has clearly broken through. The audacity of releasing a 3CD first album and (rather immodestly) calling it simply The Epic has clearly worked. As Weiner notes, Debut albums from jazz musicians do not, traditionally, get reviewed by Rolling Stone or Pitchfork. The latter review notes that whilst there are no hip hop beats to be found on The Epic, conversely there’s a lot of jazz woven through Kendrick Lamar’s masterly To Pimp a Butterfly – including from Washington himself. Again, the history of jazz artists gracing releases in other genres is a long and (sometimes) embarrassing one. But this is where we need to go back to the idea of a scene and look at Brainfeeder’s eclectic origins in LA’s underground beat music scene. Scenes around labels or venues usually mean that loyal and curious audiences will go with a diverse flow and spread the word. As long ago as 2011, in a Guardian newspaper feature on Brainfeeder the writer Paul McGinnis noted: The crowd is young and the most diverse group of people I have ever seen at a gig: black, white, Asian, Latino and all shades in-between; skate kids, rave kids, B-girls and preppy boys. By the end of the evening they number as many as 10,000. In the same year, Brainfeeder launched the debut of 21 year old pianist prodigy Austin Peralta (who sadly died the following year). Endless Planets was an all out jazz record that veered uncertainly in style from bop to electronica but was something of a new calling card for the label. Brainfeeder’s introduction to a straight-ahead kind of jazz band according to Flying Lotus – and an early indication of what was delivered with The Epic. Interestingly, one of the most coherent Brainfeeder releases is the first album from Taylor McFerrin, a subtle, almost ambient work from an inventive producer and vocalist whose drummer Marcus Gilmore (grandson of legendary drummer Roy Haynes) is part of Vijay Iyer’s trio.
Over the years here on CJ we’ve featured tracks from all the albums and artists mentioned in this feature – and we’ll continue to explore the boundaries of jazz – that exciting area where you make up your mind about what you hear. Is it jazz? Only you can decide. Check out the latest programme on Mixcloud and then listen out for a couple of upcoming specials from Neil, back from Beijing and ready to grab your ears and – yes – feed your brain.