Jazz, like other forms of popular music, is prone to occasional fits of nostalgia. Three years ago, the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’s album Kind of Blue and the Dave Brubeck single Take Five – a pair of million-sellers in a genre that usually stalls at five figures – engendered much discussion of whether 1959 was jazz’s greatest year. Not surprisingly, Brubeck played most of the major Canadian jazz festivals that summer, as did a Kind of Blue tribute band led by drummer Jimmy Cobb, the only surviving veteran of the original album.
This summer, our jazz festivals seem stuck on the seventies – a surprising choice, given the scorn and derision seventies jazz has endured over the last three decades. Ever since Wynton Marsalis and the neotraditionalist “young lions” emerged in the early eighties, the seventies have been seen by many fans and players as the decade in which jazz had gotten lost, thanks to such notorious “wrong turns” as fusion, jazz funk and smooth jazz.
Yet, those are precisely the styles being celebrated this season. Guitarist George Benson, who went from jazz obscurity to the pop Top 10 on the strength of such singles as This Masquerade and On Broadway, will be playing the Vancouver, Victoria and Toronto jazz festivals this month. Meanwhile, bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, whose Radio Music Society evokes such seventies jazz/ soul crossovers as Roy Ayers and Norman Connors, will hit the Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal festivals.
Fusion, which Marsalis famously declared isn’t jazz, is also back, and in a big way. Most critics credit the band Tony Williams Lifetime, which featured guitarist John McLaughlin, organist Larry Young and, for a time, bassist Jack Bruce, with having lit the fuse for jazz fusion; Spectrum Road, which plays Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, was assembled to pay tribute to that legacy. With an all-star lineup that includes Bruce, guitarist Vernon Reid, keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, it’s easily the summer’s most-anticipated jazz tour.
But it’s hardly the season’s only seventies fusion throwback. Bassist Dave Holland started that decade playing electric and acoustic bass with Miles Davis’s band. In Ottawa on June 24, he’ll be revisiting that sound with the North American premiere of Prism, featuring electric pianist Craig Taborn and guitarist Kevin Eubanks. Meanwhile, bassist Stanley Clarke, who made his name in the seventies fusion band Return to Forever, will do four shows at the Montreal jazz festival as part of the prestigious Invitation series, including a duet with pianist Hiromi, whose fusion-style trio is slated for the Toronto festival.
Even the pop acts booked for this summer’s jazz festivals have a distinct seventies vibe, from singer-songwriter James Taylor (in Montreal) to R&B stalwarts Tower of Power (in Toronto and Quebec City) to alt-rockers Destroyer, whose smooth jazz-inflected Kaputt has been likened to the sound of Al Stewart’s 1976 hit, Year of the Cat (in Toronto, Vancouver).
“I wonder if there’s a recognition of the musicianship that came with the era, and also the fact that the music was so groovy,” says Josh Grossman, artistic director at the Toronto Jazz Festival. He points out that there’s also a notable seventies influence in much of the popular music of the moment, particularly in such acts as Adele, Cold Specks, the Alabama Shakes and the Black Keys.
Just as a number of jazz musicians in the seventies made an effort to broaden the appeal of their music by embracing contemporary rhythms, today’s players are trying to move beyond the swing-based, standards-only ethos of Marsalis and his peers. As Grossman puts it, a number of younger jazzers recognize that it’s possible to play deep, complicated, improvised music and still reach a larger audience. “These are really heavy musicians playing really fantastic music,” he says. “It’s easy to connect to the music, but it’s not dumbing it down in any way.”
It’s also worth noting that, just as jazz musicians in the seventies sometimes turned up on pop hits – think of Phil Woods on Billie Joel’s Just the Way You Are, Wayne Shorter on Steely Dan’s Aja – a growing number of young jazz musicians are more than happy to cross genres. Bass saxophonist Colin Stetson, for one, works regularly with both Arcade Fire and Bon Iver in addition to doing his own improvisational music; Chris Dave, the drummer in the trio that Robert Glasper will be bringing to the Toronto Jazz Festival, played on Adele’s latest album.
That doesn’t mean that mainstream jazz is on the wane, of course. There is plenty of traditional, swing-based music booked into the summer’s jazz festivals, from Don Thompson’s George Shearing tribute in Toronto to Pat Martino’s Organ Trio in Montreal. Some musicians, such as Dave Holland in Ottawa or Stanley Clarke in Montreal, will even do both, offering performances of acoustic swing as well as electric fusion.
“There are people who want to be playing standards, and will always play standards,” says Grossman. “But there are also some younger musicians now who want to get beyond that, and want to reflect what they’re listening to on the radio. They want to take the music they’re listening to, plus these traditions, and combine them.”
Just like they did 40 years ago.
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