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A View from the Inside: The Quietest Revolution

Icons Among Us: jazz in the present tense Feature Film Trailer

Icons Among Us: Jazz In The Present Tense is a 2010 documentary film co-directed by Lars Larson, Michael Rivoira, and Peter J. Vogt that attempts in a very straightforward manner to take its viewer on a journey through the “now” of jazz music. It’s the story of how the sound, structure, heart and soul of the music has grown with us and our culture, with each of us having lived our own lives, yet all interconnected.

The directors seem to feel that on a very basic level, jazz is the musical representation of that experience. At the start of Icons, trumpeter Terence Blanchard is seated at a table being interviewed for the film and says, “History will tell a tale...there’s a movement about of some young guys—that’s the quietest revolution in jazz I’ve ever heard in my life. And it’s amazing because they’re a group of young musicians who definitely have vision, and the jazz community hasn’t caught up to it yet.”

He added the jazz community is not recognizing that things have moved on and changed. “We’re never, ever, going back. So let it go; just let it go.” This is followed by interviews with veteran jazz stars like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Bill Frisell, Wynton Marsalis, and Nicholas Payton and some younger emerging artists. The ones chosen here, all in their 20s or 30s, each offer much promise in different ways. They’re inarguably capable as players, but they also give forth a marketable charisma and the potential to promote real innovation. If anyone is to start jazz’s next slight revolution—some are among the brightest candidates—the kind of players whose songs will spruce up the layman’s rock ‘n’ roll iTunes collection and help fund the jazz economy in total. It’s a diverse group: bassist Esperanza Spalding is working smartly and steadily to give pop-jazz a good name; pianist Aaron Parks applies rigorous post-bop chops to compositions of pop concision; keyboardist Marco Benevento represents the music’s fully globalized state. Without applauding too heavily and jinxing anyone, the film urges you to peruse the selection, buy some music, and follow the ebbs and flows of these artists’ careers.

When Marco Benevento sagely proclaims, “Everybody is playing a different version of 12 notes, all at the

Esperanza Spalding

same time; so call it what you want, it’s 12 notes; man, it sounds easy but there are a million combinations,” he is plainly stating what’s at the heart of the issues regarding jazz that the film considers and reflects upon: Is a musician learning to play jazz, anything more than that musician, discovering the answer to “who am I?”

As stated in the film, the core of how an artist approaches creating jazz music comes from who they are. That may sound overly deep, but when you really think about what that means and what it says about jazz and the performers who create and recreate this music every day, it may if anything understates the level of their passion. For some, jazz is not just something they do to earn their living—it’s a way of life. It is also apparent is that jazz is never still, evolving constantly. Much of the jazz heard in this film is very different from the standards and greats of the past. This music, broad and vivid, has its own place and purpose and resonates with the thoughts, aspirations and ambitions of a younger audience.

Another running theme throughout the film is that jazz is not restricted to the American tradition. A large portion of the film is devoted to the concept of jazz musicians as family, but through the lens of performance and interviews with members and fans of bands, particularly bands from outside the U.S.

Esbjörn Svensson Trio (or e.s.t.) was a Swedish jazz piano trio formed in 1993. Their music has classical, rock, pop, and techno elements. It lists classical composer Béla Bartók and rock band Radiohead as influences. Its style involves conventional jazz and the use of electronic effects and multitrack recording. The trio deliberately blurs genres, with Svensson’s music drawing upon a wide variety of artist influences. They have a vibrant style in their live performances, often playing in rock to young crowds. They have achieved great commercial success and critical acclaim throughout Europe. Svensson is among those to whom this film is dedicated. Prior to Svensson’s passing, the group

Esbjörn Svensson Trio

had been together for more than 15 years, and the friendship and musical relationship went farther back into the band members’ childhood years. The group had already achieved massive success in Europe, and was gradually gaining a stronger foothold in North America before Svensson died. Their combination of pop sensibility and sensitivity, married with tinges of electronica and (in bassist Dan Berglund), traces of progressive rock and heavy metal roots, was a compelling blend that made for some outstanding records and exhilarating performances.

The final release of e.s.t was Leucocyte (ACT, 2008) which represented a stylistic shift and exciting new direction that, sadly, was cut short. The loss of someone with whom a group has played for almost an entire lifetime goes beyond words, but drummer Magnus Öström tries to put it into perspective: “We worked for a long time and we were so tight,” he says, “and we learned to play together since childhood. I might never experience that again in my life. I’m so happy that I had it once in my life, because for a lot of musicians it never happens.”

“It was a real band,” says bassist Dan Berglund, “and that’s hard to get, to join a real band.”

The loss of Svensson was more than that of a musical partner, it was the loss of a lifelong friend with whom Öström and Berglund just happened to make music.

The joy of Icons is that without a single narrator but, rather, through performance clips and carefully pieced together comments from the musicians who are making the music, it creates an unmistakable and undeniable feeling of the sense of community, the sense of family, that may have been at some risk of being lost. But today, is very clearly a priority amongst the musicians who move jazz forward, whether it in large steps or smaller increments.

Aaron Parks

Pianist Aaron Parks, is featured as a young emerging artist appearing in the WBGO Radio studio, performing music from his debut album Invisible Cinema (Blue Note, 2008), and onstage with Blanchard. The mentoring of Blanchard provides just one example of how and why jazz is evolving.

Jazz has always been as an oral tradition, passed along from elder to younger in a fashion hearkening back to tribal tradition. But with the club scene drying up in many cities, it’s increasingly difficult for young musicians to cut their teeth playing with established players.

The success of Parks (despite the unmistakable natural talent he demonstrated when Blanchard recruited him at the age of 18) is a direct result of lessons learned on the bandstand with his mentor. Parks was the beneficiary of a silent kind of tutoring, one where the stage provides the opportunity to try anything with complete trust, as does any direct instruction.

As Parks told jazz historian Matthew Ruddick, “There are so many things I learned from Terence. For one, the cinematic art of storytelling, the sense of telling a story, creating tension and release. He’s really incredible at that. I also learned a sort of fearlessness. He wanted that band we had to not be afraid of taking chances, to go for it, and not be afraid to jump off that cliff, not knowing if there was water down below.

“By doing that, you start to learn how this works, and to understand. You learn that when there’s nothing down there, you need to get back out of there.”

He added that there’s no way to learn how to do that without doing that repeatedly, and failing.

“And the third thing he’s beautiful at is creating a sense of closeness with his audience. A lot of times I was with the band, he would do like a standup comedy routine, the introduction of the band would be a ten-minute long thing, where he was telling jokes about everybody. And he created a feeling of camaraderie, helping to break down that barrier between the musicians on stage and the audience. I’m still developing my approach, for the most part I try to be radically unpretentious, be a little bit ridiculous! I’m still wondering if it’s working or not!”

With a combination of looks, musical talent, and charm, Esperanza Spalding has received praise and admiration and career advice from both within and outside of the jazz community.

“Any input I can get, that anyone can give me, that I think will improve my music or help me master what I’m trying to do, I’m more than willing to accept,” Spalding replies. “And they can market me however they want. If they want to put us in the pop rack or market us with Beyoncé, I don’t care. Because I’m pretty sure that sincere music will cut through any setting. And record companies and publicists aren’t stupid. They won’t put you in a setting that won’t work for your music. Plus, I have the confidence that no matter where they put me, I won’t lose the integrity of what I do.”

“Words like ‘great’ and ‘amazing’ and ‘new’ are thrown around so freely when someone sees someone actually singing and playing an instrument,” she says. “The fact is that I sincerely am a musician, and my object and my reason for doing this is I want to advance music and I want to excel as a musician. I’m certainly not doing the most exciting thing in music right now, at my age or my genre, by far. There are people doing much more interesting things than me. I know that in five years you’ll be more impressed by what I’m doing. But if what I’m doing now is something that’s interesting, with good quality, and if some people think that I have the potential to go, they want to help it along and jump onboard now, at the beginning, that’s great.”

Icons is a film that can be thought of like a revealing self-portrait of the state of Jazz and the ancillary jazz industry circa 2010. With technology bringing tremendous and revolutionary change to all of recorded music, new and veteran musical artists are scrambling just to stay a step ahead of both friends and rivals alike, while wondering all the while what the near future will hold and how it will affect them. This film argues that the future of jazz rests in capable young hands that we need to trust and put our faith in.

About Randy Freedman

Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.