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A sonic shift sparks a much-needed youth movement

More hip, modern soundscape draws younger listeners

Any art's long-term viability depends on attracting new, younger patrons. It's why museums host singles nights, it's why symphonies sometimes schedule concerts later in the evening than usual, and it's why theater companies give discounts to college students. Ever since fusion fizzled in the early '80s, jazz has struggled with this problem. Even as the mid-'80s ushered in an era of so-called young lions -- guys in their early 20s playing acoustic bebop and postbop -- jazz has drawn an older crowd. Why? It might have something to do with the fact that all these young musicians were playing their fathers' jazz.

The past few years have seen a gradual shift toward a more contemporary jazz. "Contemporary" here does not mean "smooth." This newer, more modern jazz may employ synthesizers, samples, and programmable beats, but it is miles away from the vacant, bland bubblegum churned out by the likes of Dave Koz and Boney James. Instead we see free-jazz-pianist-cum-producer Matthew Shipp inventing a new brand of music that combines avant-garde jazz with electronica. We see tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman casting off his longstanding quartet in favor of an organ-based groove trio. We see alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett bringing in a teenage hip-hop drummer to electrify his acoustic band. We see New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton playing trance.

Other musicians have stuck to familiar formats while updating the jazz songbook. The piano trio the Bad Plus played Black Sabbath and Nirvana. B-3 Hammond organist Dr. Lonnie Smith made an entire jazz album of Beck covers. Several artists used Bjork tunes as the basis for improvisation.

This is why the most exciting development of 2003 for jazz was its youth movement. Whether by design or chance, dozens of important jazz artists are producing the kind of music that is attracting people in their teens, 20s, and 30s. Jazz is, after all, America's melting pot music, and now more than ever it's blending every type of music. Blues, pop, country, rock, hip-hop, electronica -- it's all here.

In fact, the trend toward attracting younger listeners was such a pervasive part of the jazz scene in 2003 that it figures into several of the other most important developments of the past year:

The Bad Plus rocks jazz. Over the years, there have been dozens of excellent piano trios, but never one like this. These three 30-somethings approach jazz with a rock band's attitude, and it shows. When they played Ryles back in June before a crowd of young people, the atmosphere was electric. Their original tunes are magnificent, but the real draw is the trio's reworkings of pop songs. Their take on the Police's "Every Breath You Take" climaxed in a storm of dissonant cacophony. In 2003, the Bad Plus did more than anyone else to get young people interested in jazz again.

The piano roars back. OK, the Bad Plus led this effort, but several other artists emerged with new voices. Boston's own Hiromi released a wonderfully eclectic album, "Another Mind," just before graduating from Berklee, and she has given terrific concerts around town. Vijay Iyer, an avant-garde player with a lot of respect for melody, is making a big name for himself. Norway's Tord Gustavsen put out a gorgeous album called "Changing Places." Rising star Peter Cincotti got attention for his singing, but his skills on the piano far exceed his vocals. Harry Connick Jr. did a club tour in which he didn't sing a word and instead focused on the keys.

The neo-traditionalists get modern. Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton, Christian McBride -- young lions all, followers of the Wynton Marsalis school of jazz back in the '90s, they made their names turning out album after album of music that was technically proficient but ultimately derivative of '60s bop. These guys -- and several others -- seem to have gotten together and said, "Enough is enough." All have released albums that mix jazz, R&B, and fusion, to varying degrees of success. But kudos for trying something new.

Norah Jones sweeps the Grammys. For once, the Grammy voters got it right in the "album of the year" category. Jones's sweet pop-jazz vocals enraptured audiences, and her Blue Note record sold gazillions. Let's not forget that she can play the piano, too.

Matthew Shipp mixes it up.It was only a few years ago that Shipp, a wonderfully original pianist who favors thick, dense chords over melody, threatened to stop recording altogether. Then he found electronica and hip-hop and began releasing a raft of albums under his own name and others. He serves as the artistic director of Thirsty Ear Recordings' Blue Series, and he has carved out an entire subgenre for himself. This has been his biggest year yet.

Wayne Shorter returns. Last year he came back from a long hiatus with "Footprints Live." This year he gave us "Alegria," a beautiful all-acoustic studio recording -- his first in three decades -- that included (gasp) a new composition. He also gave Boston a stunning, free-improvised concert at Berklee Performance Center.

Improvised music finds a new home. Last year Zeitgeist Gallery began hosting concerts of improvised music, and this year it offered music just about every night. In Hyde Park, bassist Nathan McBride has established a "modern improvised music" series at Artists at Large Gallery, a place that has become a regular stop for saxophonist Ken Vandermark, an old pal of McBride's.

Columbia/Legacy releases "The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions." Fans of Miles Davis have been waiting for this five-CD set for a long time. Said to be Miles's favorite album, "A Tribute to Jack Johnson" is seen in a new light, with four-plus hours of previously unreleased material. Not a second is wasted.

Nina Simone dies. Let's not forget the greatest jazz figure to pass in 2003. The vocalist bridged jazz, soul, and pop like no one else and set the standard for current stars such as Cassandra Wilson and Nnenna Freelon.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at

Steve Greenlee's Picks
The Bad Plus
The Bad Plus play jazz with a rock band's attitude.
  • Dave Brubeck at Sanders Theatre
  • The Vandermark 5 at Artists at Large Gallery
  • Wayne Shorter at Berklee Performace Center
  • Lyambiko at the Regattabar
  • Pierre Hurel at the Regattabar
  • Kenny Garrett at Scullers
  • Hiromi at Scullers
  • The Bad Plus at Ryles
  • Vijay Iyer at the Newport Jazz Festival
  • Norah Jones and Marian McPartland at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival
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