Where Are The Tunes?

There is a scene in Downton Abbey where upon hearing some jazz of the day, the Dowager Countess of the family makes the wry quip “are they playing the same tune?” Although the context is different I find myself wondering the same thing today. For the fictional matriarch of the Grantham clan the joyous spontaneity of early jazz was no doubt foreign to her Victorian constitution. For me listening to some contemporary jazz today it’s more a matter of “are they playing a tune at all?”

Before the reader gets enraged, please allow me to explain. Firstly, this is not a blanket indictment of all contemporary jazz or jazz artists. On the contrary, there are lots of excellent newer artists on the scene making great new music. Nor is this a critique of anybody’s playing. What I’m talking about is composition. When I hear new jazz that underwhelms it’s almost always because the tunes are weak or not really tunes at all - more like sonic thingies with improvised bits on top. I'm just not hearing that many good new tunes.

I'm not seeking music that provides some kind of instant gratification. I love challenging music that continues to reveal itself on repeated listens. And I'm not suggesting new music should be constrained by some arbitrary structure from the past. I recently read an old interview with Pat Metheny where he explained his reasoning for becoming a composer. He wanted to write music that he could explore as an improviser. It that self-serving? Perhaps and it's probably the motivation for many other jazz artists. There is nothing wrong with that. The interesting thing is that while this was his stated motivation, he has created a catalog of fantastic music that goes far beyond just providing a bunch of utilitarian canvases for him to blow over. When I hear his ballad Is This America, I'm emotionally moved long before we get to Christian McBride's deeply soulful bowed solo. I hear a beautiful piece of music that stands on its own, but also has some evocative playing on top of it.

I listen to all kinds of chops-oriented music and as a player I enjoy it from that perspective. That said, I believe that underlying all truly great jazz performances are good tunes. The music that I'm having a hard time with today just seems to be missing that quality, that intent that comes from the real hard work of composition. I hear much of today's jazz as amorphous and plodding. I'm not being taken on a journey. I'm not hearing joy or sadness or even something in the middle like melancholy.

The British GQ editor and Bowie biographer Dylan Jones recently wrote about the impending death of pop music and the already deceased idiom of jazz. He sees both of these "end of eras" as a time to go back and listen to the music he missed the first time around - to "complete the puzzle" to use his term. I don't agree with his assessment that either idiom is dead. I will concede that pop music is running on pitch-corrected air at the moment and could use a young Stevie Wonder or Joni Mitchell to inject some humanity back into it. In the case of jazz there is no shortage of talent. We just need some good new tunes for our newer artists to play. It's great that the barriers have fallen away and artists can release music without the constraints of the past. That freedom should yield some incredible new music. Still, the writing process is what it is - hard work. To today's younger jazz artists I say please, please don't try to become a leader and release your own music until you've really dug deep inside yourself and written some great music that stands on its own - but once you do, I want to hear it.

The article was submitted to Downbeat Magazine's "Chords and Dischords" section in April 2018 and published in the July 2018 issue. They tell me a T-Shirt is coming my way.