In a coffee shop now, working, and “smooth jazz” with LOTS of tenor sax is playing away, song after song. (I had been meaning to write this post for awhile, and the sax has finally pushed me over the edge.)
The problem isn’t musicianship. It’s that every damn song sounds the same. And that’s the problem with jazz overall. It doesn’t try to be unique, and this issue has gotten worse over time, to the point where all jazz sounds retro, including stuff that tries to be new and edgy, since it’s all been done before.
There are many exceptions! I had a big jazz collection based on both my selections and buying a huge collection one time for cheap (250 records for $45 at an antique mall). Eventually I just gave away or sold off most of it, since I had no intention of ever listening to it.
I kept, however, my Thelonius Monk, Joe Farrell, and Herbie Hancock records and a few others. Why? What made them different from the others? They feature unique and original compositions that are distinguishable from other jazz. The tonalities are jazzy, if you will, but they are just good music in their own right.
A lot of jazz is not original and doesn’t try to be: it’s a matter of tarting up some song in the “Great American Song Book.” I just have no interest in hearing Over the Rainbow done with tenor sax crooning away an improv. Again, the musicianship can be stellar, but I just have no interest in that version.
The second issue in jazz is washed-out tonalities that tend to make it all the same. There’s a reason why jazz is favorable to improvisation: the chords are so loose that it’s hard to make a mistake. On the one hand, jazz is sophisticated, to the point where classical music snobs allow it into their aural lives. On the other hand, well, what I said above: it’s so loose that there is less contrast between one musical element and the next, and it becomes a big musical mush.
There was a time when the various strains of jazz were new, and that was no doubt exciting. Be-bop, cool, fusion–I recognize that there were incredible performances and big musical ideas. No doubt the best of the best is worth keeping and revisiting.
But the volume of jazz from any era is simply huge. The good mixes with the mediocre, and it presents itself as an undifferentiated sea unless you put in the work to find the best. Even then, however, the ear (mine, at least) is fatigued from hearing so much “jazz” over the years, so even the best impresses less than it ought. In contrast, I don’t feel this way about, say, 50s rock. Sure, most isn’t that great, but when I do hear a new song that’s good, I don’t feel my ear has lost its interest in the tonalities of the time.
Finally, jazz can’t really be new and exciting any more. Sure, it can be cool to have a few drinks, kick back, and listen to a live performance. Live music always gives a little something extra. But no performer is able to be the “latest thing in jazz,” for there is no latest thing. There can’t be. It’s all done and done. Steve Lacy’s squeaking in the 80s (which I kinda dig) is where it seemed to end for me.
So that’s my take. What do you think? Thanks!