In the near future, when we’re listening to music streams on implanted iMolars, we’ll remember 2015 as the year that we learned to listen to more jazz.
After a half-century of false obituaries, the genre re-emerged with greater vitality than anyone could have predicted. Fueled by the artists on the Brainfeeder label, the creative balance swung back to the West Coast, where it’s reversed decades of aging demographics and general decline.
What seems like a sudden renaissance is actually slow gestation. Jazz is its own language, one that usually requires a lifetime to master. The locals responsible for this rebirth are in their 30s, well-steeped in tradition and deep familial lineage: Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, Terrace Martin.
Between their own solo efforts and work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, they connected the constellations between Dizzy and Dr. Dre, Aphex Twin and “Atomic Dog,” West Coast cool jazz and Westside Connection. We could call it modern fusion, if that idea hadn’t become a four-letter word.
Another excellent Brainfeeder album, Kneedelus, helped reimagine the landscape upon its release last month. The collaboration of jazz quintet Kneebody and electronic innovator Daedelus is ambitious and original, a meteor shower of footwork kicks and cosmic soul, stained-glass saxophone licks and moody dance music.
“We’re thankfully in a time where the borders that delineate genres are crumbling,” says Ben Wendel, Kneebody’s tenor sax player. “You can use a ton of descriptors in a row and it doesn’t really sound like any of them. The goal is to get people to let go of words attached to forms of music.”
For jazz to progress, it had to become more than the straightforward sounds you hear in the dentist’s chair. As the lines between dance music, rock and rap have become increasingly blurry, it’s only natural that jazz experienced a similar evolution.
Of course, this isn’t entirely new. There was acid jazz and mushroom jazz. Hip-hop became obsessed with it during the early ’90s, locally at legendary open mic Project Blowed. Some of Miles Davis’ final collaborations were with Biggie’s producer, Easy Mo Bee. During the last decade, Madlib bounced between America’s most blunted and most modal.
But if you were listening to more jazz this year, you heard a leap forward, miniature revolutions led by artists cerebral and intuitive, loose but laser-focused.
“We’ve gone beyond remix and mashup culture,” Daedelus says. “When jazz is really good, it hits so many different pleasure centers in your brain. You can laugh and cry and dance in the same set.”
The idea of dancing at live jazz performances seemed inconceivable even five years ago. But tastes fall in and out of vogue, and right now, the artists in this orbit are floating.
As diffuse as it can seem, the scene has always been small. At Santa Monica High School, Daedelus, Wendel and Terrace Martin were in the same band. When Martin was Snoop’s musical director, he recruited Wendel and Thundercat for the live shows. For the last decade, Thundercat and Washington have been members of the West Coast Get Down, an all-star crew that’s gigged in every jazz club in town.
Then there’s Flying Lotus, a direct descendant of Alice Coltrane, arguably the most spiritually rich jazz musician in history. As Daedelus points out, if Concord or Blue Note had been releasing these records, no one under 50 might notice. But Lotus’ Brainfeeder has built its own alternative universe where records like Kneedelus make sense.
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This isn’t the year that jazz finally came back; it’s the year that people finally opened their ears and understood.
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.