New York Times jazz critic Nate Chinen is a virtuoso, conducting us on a stunning and wondrous journey through the starkly gorgeous musical landscape of contemporary jazz. His new history of jazz, Playing Changes: Jazz for a New Century (Pantheon), runs fluidly up and down every measure of jazz’s evolution from the late 20th century to the present, riffing on measure after measure of jazz musicians’ soulful, dynamic, and energetic flights across the boundaries of traditional jazz and into new territories into which the artists bring some of the notes sung in those older landscapes with them. Like the many jazz musicians he chronicles here, Chinen improvises brilliantly across the progressions of jazz so that every page of his book brims with insight into the art that continues to grow and refuses to be consigned to a time-bound definition of the music.
Chinen points to the popularity of the movie La La Land and its portrayal of jazz as static, formulaic, never progressing, at least in the mind of Ryan Gosling’s character in the movie, much beyond its mid-20th century Big Band structures and its lack of acceptance of innovators. If the music in La La Land defines jazz, then not only is jazz dying from lack of improvisation and innovation, but it’s also failing to reach new audiences whose acquaintance with rhythm and blues and hip-hop prepared them musically for such flights of innovation. Chinen points out that, “Since the early 1980s, jazz had become synonymous with respectability, befitting the designation of ‘America’s classical music.’ It was refined and safe, a signifier of adult sophistication suitable for coffeehouse ambience or the advertising of luxury goods. It was staunchly historical, endlessly concerned with recapturing the mood of 1959, or 1963 … When the average person thought of jazz, the image that came to mind was often something stylish but inert, as much a function of iconography as of music making.” Chinen observes that Ken Burns’ documentary, Jazz, gave the impression that jazz developed little after the mid-20th century: “Whatever happened after that point was to be framed in self-referential or nostalgic terms, as the retelling of a familiar story. If that meant placing jazz and its traditions under glass sealed off from the messy roil of pop culture, so much the better.”
Chinen, however, illustrates that no strict definition of the music exists but that its volatile, generative, and without fixed boundaries or rules. In a series of dazzling profiles and reviews, Chinen demonstrates the vitality and diversity of jazz and the ways that a diverse group of artists incorporate changes in musical registers and forms as they strive to express themselves for their communities. Kamasi Washington, whose ambitious Heaven and Earth and sprawling The Epic cannily weave a range of musical elements into bright kaleidoscopic patterns, reveals his own frustrations and hopes for his own music and for jazz: “And I think [jazz] has been trapped in this image of something that is a historic relic, or something that is made to serve some purpose other than just to enjoy. And I think it’s a music that, it’s the reverse. It’s such an expressive music, and when you hear jazz, you really hear a commune of people who are expressing themselves together.”
Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding blends progressive harmonies and love songs in music that includes protest songs on her album Radio Music Society. For her, jazz plays the changes by raising questions about society, about justice, about the ways that individuals create community. She points out that, “Yeah, it’s like James Baldwin said: ‘The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.’ I never want to say that I’m declaring the answers. I’m, in my own small way, declaring the questions.”
Chinen vibrantly moves over a wide range of musicians, from pianist Vishay Iyer to saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Steve Coleman, among many others, and he illustrates the ways that there are “highly cosmopolitan places where jazz is very much a developing story; tracking that story can produce valuable insights, shedding light on how the music can find traction in between the cracks.” He also includes a list of the 127 essential albums of the 21st century (so far), which alone is almost worth the price of the book.
Playing Changes is one of the best music books if this year, for it offers an absorbing narrative about the evolution of jazz as well as a compelling critical look at the diversity of the music. You’ll certainly want to listen to several of Chinen’s essential albums as you read about the artists who made them.