Frank Zappa once said, “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.” Of course, that didn’t stop him using the word (and occasionally the music) when it suited him. In fact his only Grammy award-winning album was Jazz From Hell (featuring the song G-Spot Tornado, which should have made Frank more popular with the ladies but didn’t). But he was right. Whatever the odor, jazz isn’t dead. In fact, with university jazz courses churning out young musicians by the bucketload and most major world cities – London, NY, Paris, Barcelona, Tokyo, the list goes on – having a varied and vibrant live scene, you could say jazz has rarely been in better health. So why is the knee-jerk anti-jazz reaction so common?
My first wife was a typical case. She didn’t always recognize jazz when she heard it but as soon as she knew it was called jazz, the response was instant: “I hate jazz, turn it off!” A little harsh, you might think, or perhaps you wouldn’t. Either way, it led to some fun and games – How many minutes of Miles Davis can I play before she notices this time? Still, there’s no denying that jazz has an uncool image. Beard-stroking pseudo-intellectuals listening to self-indulgent noodling with no proper tune, nothing memorable you can hum along to. Or pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed granddads talking about the old shellac 78s and how Charlie Parker is too avant-garde. Dull, boring, pretentious. Well, it’s true, it can be. But you’ve probably heard a lot more of it than you realize.
Over the years it’s osmosed into everything from classic pop (Roxy Music) to rock (Soundgarden. No, really – there’s a mad free jazz sax solo on Room a Thousand Years Wide – honest) to Hip Hop (A Tribe Called Quest) to classical (but you don’t listen to that, do you?). Then there’s the handful of artists from jazz labels that were popular enough to cross over: Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum, Harry Connick Jr., all those. Bought by people who didn’t even like music, they just needed something to play when their friends came over for dinner.
So, who’s been playing jazz recently that you wouldn’t recognise as such and you might even like, you jazz-hater, you? Try these five. You’ve probably never heard of them but I guarantee* that whatever your tastes, you’ll like at least one.
Acoustic Ladyland– ‘Skinny Grin’: Now sadly defunct, this British group sounded more like a punk band who happened to be playing jazz instruments. This was their most vocal album and with lyrics like, “If you gave me a dog it would bite me, If you planted a rose it would die, And your songbird, it sings just to spite me, It is over, don’t kiss me good-bye,” you know they mean it.
Deep Schrott – ‘One’: Four bass saxophones playing covers of Led Zeppelin and Kylie Minogue. About thirteen times better than it should be and if you don’t smile and tap your feet to this check your pulse, you’re probably dead.
Jens Thomas – ‘Speed of Grace’: Think German pianist takes the songs of AC/DC and rearranges them into the most sinister and despairing album you’ve ever heard. Genius. Play right after you’ve taken your Fluoxetine.
Dynamike – ‘National Hymns´: Swedish tango music. Enough said.
Marc Moulin – ‘Top Secret’: Remember St. Germain? Loops, beats, riffy little jazz samples, insanely catchy and even more insanely popular? You could dance to it, chill to it, seduce to it? Well, this guy did it first and better.
*(This guarantee is, of course, worthless.)