Jazz Critics Poll -- The Year of the Moldy Fig

Jazz Critics Poll -- The Year of the Moldy Fig

"Unfortunately, I think they are doing the best they can."
by Mike Zwerin
copyright © 2002 Mike Zwerin

Paris -- France's foremost Jimi Hendrix authority, who is 27, complains: "Why is it the only music that is important to me was made before I was born?" And asked if there was absolutely no new music he liked, the cartoonist and moldy fig banjo player Robert Crumb replied: "I do like some new guys who play old music."

In the process of filling out the annual Down Beat magazine critics poll, the jazz poll of longest record, it occurred to this chronicler that 2001 might be the year of the moldy fig. The term defines somebody who disapproves of all innovations since the death of Charlie Parker in 1955, the year that the above-mentioned Hendrix authority's mother was born. The defining year may be getting more recent (soon we'll be nostalgic for breakfast), but it remains difficult to vote enthusiastically for current product.

At the same time, moldy figism is a reactionary mind-set to be avoided. Like its faux-liberal contrary. In search of a place between liking everything new and nothing, and to cut youngsters (who are in a hard place at a time when all the licks seem to have been played) some slack, a voter has the responsibility to accept all innovations that are remotely acceptable.

The Down Beat poll consists of more than 60 categories including "talent deserving wider recognition" subdivisions; each with a first, second and third place. One grouping is called "beyond" -- including rock, funk, folk and the blues. The odds are no better to be knocked out by something new here than anywhere else. A vote for Bjork is a stretch. Choosing new work by old-timers Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Willie Nelson would be sort of embarrassing. Radiohead is a possibility. A decision was finally reached in favor of the guitarist Marc Ribot's ironically-named good band Cubanos Postizos (Fake Cubans).

To attain cosmic Deliberative Neutral Ear, the chronicler listened to the Hilliard Ensemble singing Gesualdo, who wrote his madrigals in the early 17th century -- before Lionel Hampton's grandmother was born. Gesualdo still sounds innovative, the 21st century suffers in comparison, so the choice may have been unfortunate.

Being objective about the status of jazz music in the year 2001 was easiest in the "Hall of Fame" category. The candidates are all acknowledged greats, most of them safely dead. Pianist, composer and founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) John Lewis, who passed away last year, seemed the obvious choice. At the same time, with the MJQ's Milt Jackson also gone -- and with Hampton in his '90s and Gary Burton semi-retired -- voting for "vibraphone" is getting somewhat less exciting.

Some big-name septegenarians continue to play with so much spirit and chops that they are undeniable -- saxophonists James Moody and Lee Konitz, drummers Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones, pianist Ahmad Jamal, bass player Ray Brown. Veteran harmonicist Toots Thielemans single-handedly keeps the "miscellaneous instrument" slot meaningful.

Writing from Europe, there is an obligation to vote for qualified home boys and girls who are likely to be overlooked by American critics -- drummers (Swiss) Daniel Humair and (Dutch) Han Bennink, American expat trombonist Glenn Ferris, the Italian pianist Stefano Bollani and Danish percussionist Marilyn Mazur.

The most popular style this side of the smooth likes of Kenny G is currently being made by so-called "jam-bands" led by Nils Petter Molvaer, Erik Truffaz, John Scofield and others. Oversimplifying but not by much, the jam-band style can be traced back to the most uninteresting passages of Miles Davis's 1970 breakthrough fusion album Bitches Brew. The electric Davis still sounds more inventive than his disciples, as illustrated by a CD of previously unreleased post-1973 live performances titled Highlights From The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux (Warner Music/ Switzerland). A sampler from a soon-to-be-released multiple-CD box, the album was for some reason leaked more than distributed, and in Europe only. Otherwise it might be the album of the year.

Significantly, Uri Caine's eclectic reworking of 18th and 19th century compositions by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms is about as cutting-edge as today's jazz gets. He takes the composer, arranger and leader categories -- and since moldy figs consider Caine "beyond," add another vote there. The spirited Mingus Big Band -- the living spirit of a composer and leader who died in 1979 -- is the educated choice in the large ensemble department.

There is an under-powering lack of commitment in the 21st century in general. Too many of today's young virtuosos sound like they don't really mean it. Politically correct above all, they position themselves, think of the notes and their own image as much as the music, preserve more than create. Some young drummers sound as though they are not even aware of the slot they are not in. Few under-40 horn players blow, as did their role models, as though it were as important to them as breathing. Exceptions include saxophonists Chris Potter and Jesse Davis, and trombonist Frank Lacy.

Otherwise, it seems that competency is the most we can expect. We are living in the age of the technocrat and why should music be any different from business or politics? As the pianist, comedian and chronicler Oscar Levant once commented, in another context: "Unfortunately, I think they are doing the best they can."


Mike Zwerin (MZwerin@compuserve.com) is a veteran columnist for the International Herald Tribune, a recorded trombonist, and longtime iconoclast -- never before thought of as a moldy fig.


C o m m e n t s

The Year of the Moldy Fig 1 of 2
Marc Meyers July 02, 02

While Mike Zwerin is certainly correct about the number of older players still playing brilliantly (he should have mentioned Von Freeman and Jackie McLean), he seems unnecessarily cynical about younger jazz players with personal voices who also do some exploring and innovating. The brilliance of Dave Douglas, Danilo Perez, Brad Mehldau and Matthew Shipp, just to name a few, is undeniable. These are younger players who are creating vital music. And how do you treat William Parker? He's 64 so maybe he's a moldy fig. It seems to me that jazz has fractured into many stylistic camps, and excellent music is being made in all of them. But the continuing greatness of older players shouldn't obscure the voices of younger players.

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