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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The "problem" with jazz, part 343: Chris Kornelis at the Seattle Weekly

Posted By on 10.16.12 at 03:00 PM

Vijay Iyer: Reaching out or looking down?
  • Vijay Iyer: Reaching out or looking down?
There's a lot of uninformed shit written about jazz these days, but a piece nominally about pianist Vijay Iyer published today by Seattle Weekly music blog Reverb might win the 2012 prize for idiocy (you might have seen it already—it was linked in this morning's "Did you read?" post). Few topics bore me more than "growing the audience" for jazz, as if listeners were some kind of produce: Sometimes marketing is alleged to be to blame, while on other days I've heard that jazz players lack good fashion sense. Sometimes it's the fault of musicians who don't properly contextualize or explain what they're doing (or of musicians who explain too much). Sometimes it's agents who book artists in overpriced, formal venues that keep away young potential fans.

In his Seattle Weekly post, Chris Kornelis trots out some statistics that compare jazz record sales with those of pop music, unfavorably of course, and then makes a bold statement: "It's not a stretch to say jazz devotees are on the fringe" (I don't know what we'd do without keen-eyed critics to point these things out to us). In one of just two quotes from Iyer, the pianist explains that he's engaged in outreach around San Francisco to establish "deeper roots in the communities in the Bay Area that they can [use to] cultivate new audiences and just a larger appreciation for the arts over the years. I've also done small concerts in community centers, places sort of off the beaten path of the arts-going public."

And then Kornelis offers another condescending opinion: "The irony, of course, is that jazz lacks broad appreciation outside academia because of artists like Iyer and albums like Accelerando." Kornelis seems to insist on looking at jazz through the lens of the pop marketplace—as if a chef at a tiny bistro is at fault because his truffle fries don't sell as much as fries from McDonald's. But more problematic is that Kornelis views all these problems as if they exist in some kind of vacuum—discounting the role that media, record companies, capitalism, the economy, education, and a host of other factors play in shaping tastes. No, it's all Iyer's fault for making music that aspires to be something more than mass-produced pop. He quotes Branford Marsalis, who has criticized the jazz biz for not being more aware of and sympathetic to what allegedly normal people would like to hear—never mind that Marsalis ain't exactly burning up the charts himself.

Kornelis adds, "Accelerando, like many jazz records made today, is jazz for people who already like jazz." It's hard to imagine any musician consciously creating work with such a limited, specific audience in mind, but it's even more ridiculous to assume that the people who might actually get a chance to hear the new Iyer album won't like it unless they're already jazz fans. Kornelis himself seems to like Iyer's music—it's not that he just can't get his head around it and blames the pianist for that—but he apparently sees his ability to properly appreciate it as a rarefied talent, something so specialized and sophisticated that pop-loving dolts could never follow in his footsteps. In this case the problem isn't with jazz musicians, marketing, or wardrobe—it's with a myopic critic.

Iyer and his excellent trio play at Mayne Stage on Thursday night. Below you can check out a tune from the Iyer album. I doubt you're too dumb to enjoy it.

Today's playlist:

Mike Osborne, Force of Nature (Reel)
Vijana Jazz Band, The Koka Koka Sex Battalion (Sterns)
Modern Jazz Quartet, Music From Odds Against Tomorrow (Liberty, Japan)
Eero Koivistoinen & Co., 3rd Version (Porter)
Richard and Linda Thompson, Hokey Pokey (Island)

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