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Modern Jazz

Jazz enthusiasts know who the great jazz musicians were and what the classic jazz albums are. These artists will never be forgotten. Because I grew up slightly south of Chicago, and because my folks are avid jazz listeners, they often took me to see many of the greats when they were still alive and playing. I feel very fortunate as a kid to have experienced first hand the musical talents of Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson and the MJQ, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Tony Williams, McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey, and Buddy Rich. Though most of these classic musicians are no longer with us, there are plenty jazz musicians of the younger generations who are certainly living up to the legacy of the greats. 

I’ve heard people say things like “nothing good has happened in jazz since the 60’s,” or “nobody is musically saying anything these days.” It’s like when people say “Saturday Night Live stinks since the old cast left” and surely enough the new cast turns out to be classic. I enjoy keeping up with modern jazz as much as I can, and I’ve heard many incredible jazz musicians play some great modern music. I just wanted to mention a few actively performing artists that I feel have produced some great music in the period of about 1985 to the present, and mention those CD’s that never stray too far from the stereo because they get played so much!

Of all the live performances I’ve ever seen, nothing has surpassed my experiences of The Pat Metheny Group. I’ve been listening to his group since my college days, but never had the chance to see them live until their Speaking Of Now tour stopped in St. Louis. Seeing this group is more like going to a rock show in terms of lights and staging, with the big difference being that the musicians on stage truly have an abundance of talent! They played a 3 hour 10 min show (with no intermission) of wonderful music that Metheny and Lyle Mays had written and recorded over the years. Their performance was absolutely rich in sounds, textures, moods, dynamics, orchestrations, improvisations, variety, and anything thing else you can think of. As a friend put it, their concert was just an all-around great musical experience! After seeing them a second time at the College of Dupage, and a third time for their “The Way Up” tour, I will certainly make a point to see this group as long as they continue to make music. I particularly like The Way Up, Speaking Of Now, Still Life Talking, The Road To You, Letter From Home, We Live Here, and Offramp. Metheny's website is also fantastic especially if you want in depth insight into his music and how he thinks about music.

The Christian McBride Quartet knocked my socks off at the Iowa City Jazz festival one year when they performed a very eclectic and exciting set of killer original jazz, then lightened the mood up and grooved with some classic R&B bass riffs including some audience participation on a Rapper’s Delight tune. He truly had every single person from the serious jazz listener to the folks who just happened to be there in the palm of his hand with his outstanding musicianship and on-stage charisma. I was very much looking forward to the following act, but at the same time I felt sorry for anyone who had to follow that performance. Wow! I particularly like Christian’s CD Sci-Fi (2000), an eclectic album of interesting originals and some renditions of tunes by Steely Dan and Jaco. His liner notes are also very entertaining and informative.

Cassie Hart, Kenny Garrett, and Kevin Hart 2001 Indianapolis Jazz FestivalTwo different players in two different times, but the sense of raw energy and passion I get from listening to Coltrane is very similar to the feeling I get when listening to Kenny Garrett. It’s also refreshing that Kenny’s tastes in music seem to be very eclectic, but no matter what style his music is in, I feel like he plays it with such integrity. If you want to hear mostly simplistic and easy listening ideas then listen to Simply Said. If you want more complex modern jazz with lots of raw energy then listen to Songbook. If you want to groove to some funky hip-hop jazz then listen to Happy People. Or better yet if you just want to hear good spirited music then listen to ALL of his albums. He definitely doesn’t hold back in a live performance, and you might even catch him on break speaking to various folks in fluent Japanese. (Photo: Cassie Hart, Kenny Garrett, and Kevin Hart).

McCoy Tyner is of course one of the older guys on my list, but he always sound fresh and modern to me. His energetic and powerful style has influenced many pianists who have come after him, and some of his stylistic trademarks continue to thrive in most modern piano players. Hearing him live a few times were very special experiences for me. Sitting within arms reach of the piano I got to hear and feel that energy and intensity first hand that I always heard on record. Wow! Meeting McCoy was also a thrill, and it’s especially nice to see an artist of his stature be friendly and personable with fans. I brought the Parkland Jazz Combo class to see him in Chicago and told my students to make a point to meet him, and McCoy was nice to every one of them. His work with Coltrane in the 60’s, and his own recordings and works as a sideman through the present are all great stuff. For something more recent I really like McCoy Tyner with Stanley Clarke and Al Foster (2000).

The late Elvin Jones has been doing his thing since the 60’s when he played drums with John Coltrane, but he continued sounding fresh, exciting, and modern to me whenever I heard him. I first saw Elvin in the early 90’s with his own group which included a young Nicholas Payton and Ravi Coltrane (son of John). Many musicians I’d been hanging around with at the time all seemed to think that Elvin’s style was all about bashing and crashing behind soloists. It became evident to me from that and future performances that Elvin’s musicianship was much deeper. He’d play chorus upon chorus of subtle time, just making you feel good and setting the mood. As the music developed he continued to add a little more here and there, keeping you in suspense. Occasionally along the way he’d surprise you and throw you a curve, and if the music was going that direction, he’d explode! He was very dynamic, and I truly felt like I was experiencing a direct extension of his personality. I love his older work especially with Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and Larry Young. A few newer recordings I really like are John McGlaughlin’s After The Rain and Michael Brecker’s Time Is Of The Essence.

After all of this time I finally got to hear one of my vibe heroes Bobby Hutcherson live in Chicago during the Spring of 2003. I’ve heard him on numerous records as a sideman, and it’s always with musicians I really like. His own albums not only showcase his modern approach to the vibes, but his thoughtful compositions as well. He was also a joy to meet in person and was happy to tell stories of how his Skyline CD (1999), one of my personal favorites, came together and how his family and the movie Superman inspired that particular recording. As with modern jazz veterans Elvin and McCoy I was again thrilled by his energy and youthful spirit.

During my college days I played drums in a fusion band called “Backsreets” led by my friend Steve Wunder (no kidding). Steve gave us cassettes of all the material he wanted the band to learn, and his taste in music provided me a great introduction to fusion jazz. Of that stuff, the Yellowjackets material always stood out as being exceptional to me. I loved Will Kennedy’s drumming, Russell Ferrante’s sounds and textures on keys, Jimmy Halsip’s killer bass work, and of course their satisfying compositions. The band has changed a little since the 80’s, and the addition of saxophonist, arranger, and composer Bob Mintzer was the icing on the cake! Listening to this group live a few years ago at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis (with Peter Erskine on drums) was comparable to something like eating the most flavorful meal you’ve ever tasted. There was always something going on musically that made me think mmmmm, oooooh, aaaaah. I have since heard them with their newest drummer Marcus Baylor, and they just keep getting better! Of their more recent CD’s I really like Blue Hats, Greenhouse, and Time Squared.

Since his retirement from the Berklee School of music, vibraphonist Gary Burton and his Generations Quintet are sure making their rounds these days. It’s a good thing too, because it’s not often that you’ll hear a group as well rehearsed as this. Gary always finds incredible, youthful musicians, and leads the way with his own incredible musicianship. They play modern, interesting compositions, many of which are written by the talented young musicians in his band. Gary is currently featuring a sixteen year-old guitarist Julian Lage who plays, and writes way beyond his years! Get the album Generations, and better yet, go catch this group live in an intimate setting like the Jazz Showcase in Chicago!

Daniel Leahy, Benny Green, and Kevin HartPianist Benny Green embodies a combination of incredible talent, personality, and kindness. I’ve heard him play several times, each was full of energy and swinging like crazy. The best experience though was when he was our guest artist at the Rootabaga Jazz festival in Galesburg Illinois. He of course inspired everyone with his amazing talent, but he further inspired everyone with his kindness. In fact, he gave a friend and myself a piano lesson, and wouldn’t accept any money. He said that it actually wasn’t a lesson, but that we were just getting together to “share some ideas.” Yeah right! Not only does he have a talent for music, but for modesty as well. (Photo: Daniel Leahy, Benny Green, and Kevin Hart).

Organist Joey Defrancesco and his trio with Paul Bolenbeck and Bryon Landrum were an awesome experience as well. They played many hard-swinging standards with fantastic solos throughout the night, but the thing that struck me the most was the comfort level that they seemed to have together as a group. It was very obvious that they have been playing together for a long, long time.

Michael Brecker and his group with Larry Goldings, Adam Rodgers, and Idris Mohammed were fantastic at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago a few years back. They were playing tunes mostly from Brecker’s  “Time is of the Essence” album, and really putting out some major energy! In addition to the album mentioned above, I also really enjoy “Tales from the Hudson,” and “Michael Brecker.”  

I could go on and on about all of the living great modern jazz artists worth checking out, but I’ll wrap things up by mentioning a few others that I’ve really enjoyed either on CD and/or in a live setting. Guitarist/bassist (at the same time) Charlie Hunter - what a great feeling he creates. Stephon Harris - a modern vibraphonist full of fire, and has an awesome group. Guitarist John Scofield – very eclectic, and always putting an unusual twist on things. Alto saxophonist Greg Osby - I loved his hour and a half show of non-stop great music at the Iowa City Jazz Fest. Saxophonist Joshua Redman - who continues to expand his musical horizons, and is always a great listen. Pianist Darryl Grant - has a really nice CD called Smokin’ Java.

Other musicians I have enjoyed for many years and hope to see in concert sometime soon are the eclectic pianists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, and the adventurous pianist Keith Jarrett.