Five albums that foretell the future of jazz music

Elton Wong

It’s unfortunate that a lot of people talk about jazz in the past tense. Ken Burns’ documentary is reverent and beautifully done, but its historical perspective might lead you to believe that jazz is a dead art form. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jazz today is not dominated by any “giants” as was the case in the past with Armstrong, Parker, Davis and Coltrane. However, jazz is more diverse now than it ever has been. The musicians of today delve into the deep history of jazz, but also explore rock, electronica, hip-hop and Americana. As has always been the case, the best new music is intelligent and informed, but also fiercely individualistic. The jazz masters of the past drew on their influences, but never failed to create something new. The most exciting musicians of today are doing the same thing.For an introduction to “classic” jazz, Ken Burns’ documentary and its accompanying CD compilations are great starting points. For a taste a few of the directions jazz is heading in now, here are five albums by musicians who are carrying the music into the future.Bill Frisell “Quartet”1996, Nonesuch.When Gary Larson made his Far Side television special a few years back, he had Frisell write the soundtrack. “Quartet” contains the music from this soundtrack, but it is far more than background music.It is an atmospheric record, with a bizarre yet logical feel that was an inspired choice to complement Gary Larson’s warped sense of humor. The instrumentation of electric guitar, trumpet, trombone, tuba and violin sounds odd, but this record makes perfect sense thanks to Frisell’s sharp sense of composition.John Zorn”Naked City”1990, Electra/NonesuchSaxophonist John Zorn has attention deficit disorder, but refuses to take medication. “Naked City” is a masterpiece of fragmented eclecticism, where bebop meets surf music meets death metal in a package tighter than your third grade boy scout uniform. If this album is in any way a reflection of what goes on in Zorn’s head, then he is probably the one man on earth you least want to be locked in a room with.Brad Mehldau”Art of the Trio, Vol. 4- Back at the Vanguard (Live)”1999, Wea/Warner BrothersBrad Mehldau comes from the piano trio tradition of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, but he has new ways of tripping up unwary listeners with his driving style. He often plays jazz standards in odd time signatures, and his sidemen provide new interpretations of their instruments’ traditional roles within the trio format. On this album, check out his breathtaking exploration of Radiohead’s “Exit Music for a Film.” Joshua Redman”Wish” 1993, Wea/Warner BrothersRedman turned down Yale Law School for the chance to seriously pursue jazz. The world of law may have suffered, but jazz has only been enriched. With an all star cast including Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden, this disc presents traditional hard-bop values in a modern, accessible way. Charlie Hunter/Leon Parker”Duo”1999, Emd/Blue Note.Charlie Hunter is a young guitarist from San Francisco. His instrument has eight strings instead of the normal six, enabling him to walk bass lines, comp chords and play lines all at the same time.Even seeing him live, it’s hard to believe that there is only one person playing all those notes. His music has always been groove-heavy and minimalist, with audible hip-hop influences. On this record with drummer Leon Parker, he showcases his nimble style with a couple of lovely ballads thrown in for good measure.

Elton Wong is a senior in genetics and philosophy from Ames. He was the guitarist for ISU Jazz Ensemble I for two years, as well as for the jazz/funk group Cornbread. His current project is Rogue State.