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The Good Hands People

November 26, 2013; Henry Reiff

I recently had the privilege to attend and can now bear testimony to the 2013 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition. It is not unusual to hear discussions from the elder statesmen of jazz acknowledging the increasing technical proficiency of young players but lamenting a certain lack of passion or authenticity in their playing. While the observation has some merit, I think it is due more to the sheer number of young players who have developed virtuosic skills in recent years, most likely a result of the “10,000 hours of practice phenomenon” described by Malcolm Gladwell. Spending a day at Berklee will leave no doubt that there is a new generation of gifted and dedicated jazz players with chops that are jaw-dropping. Is there too much of a premium on technical skill?  Perhaps, but often once the technical fluency is established, the soul can truly explode. To get the heart to the hands, the hands need to be ready.

At the competition, three young saxophonists performed with technical brilliance. They had breath control that bordered on the circular; they could jump from cacophonous honking to silky sweetness in a glissando; they could articulate at guitar-slinger speed or slow to a tempo that simply floated throughout the theater. That level of musicianship was not surprising to me, having already witnessed so many young players who can blow the roof off the joint. But what rocked my world was the depth, intuitiveness, and soul of these performers. What I heard was exuberance and joy that could pull you out of your seat; combinations of sorrow and sadness, aching and longing, sweetness and effervescence; and risk-taking that was transcendental. I am still left dumbfounded that such young people so clearly express an aesthetic maturity that is as elegant as it is eloquent.

Herbie Hancock, one of the MCs of the evening, captured the moment when he said, “Jazz is in good hands.” Anyone at the concert would agree. And anyone listening carefully to jazz today would have to agree. From middle school jazz bands to prodigal performers such as Hiromi, jazz is busting out all over. Many of these young Turks display the deepest respect for jazz traditions and the music of the elder statesmen. Maintaining continuity is integral to art forms. Stepping out to the an unknown edge is equally important. Art stagnates if boundaries are not pushed. The pushing is often uncomfortable, especially to my older generation. Too many baby-boomers fail to see that among other musical evolutions, hip-hop is one of the heirs to the artistic expression that is innately jazz. It is time for us to stop sounding like our parents.

Cassandra Wilson (who performed at the concert) has said that four elements are needed to make jazz: 1) a working knowledge of jazz history and its vocabulary; 2) a deeply rooted sense of time; 3) the ability to swing; and 4) a base in the blues.  Listen to today’s young players. They’re all that and more. Herbie is so right.

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Henry Reiff is on the faculty of McDaniel College. He cherishes the Ibanez fretless bass he bought at Sam Ash in 1976.

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