Outer Worlds is a new biweekly column from one of WW's regular music writers, Robert Ham, that will explore those artists, albums and genres which sometimes get short shrift within the pages of our print edition—those musical outliers that work outside the pop music continuum.
Jazz is a genre that is never far from my mind, but it has been occupying my thoughts quite a lot over the past week.
Some of that is to do with this puzzling and rather insulting blog post that I read from Seattle Weekly writer Chris Kornelis that asserts (among other things) that artists, such as pianist Vijay Iyer, who try to do outreach work in schools and give young people a chance to hear jazz—maybe for the first time—are wasting their time. As Kornelis wrote of Iyer's 2012 album Accelerando, "It's completely inaccessible to listeners not predisposed to appreciate jazz."
I found out about the piece a few days after I saw a fiery and intense performance by the Matthew Shipp Trio at Jimmy Mak's, a gig that doubled as an announcement of the lineup for the 2013 Portland Jazz Festival. As exciting as the news was, there was barely anyone there to hear it. No more than 25 people showed up to see Shipp and his band.
Admittedly, Shipp's chosen style of jazz is one of the knottiest—a muscular, free-form sound that rarely resolves easily nor leaves you with any melodies you can whistle on the way home. Iyer's music, in comparison, sounds like bubblegum pop. For some, it was likely unlistenable; for me, I was left energized and tingling, eager for more.
But are more and more people thinking like Kornelis? And are we pushing jazz further to the outskirts because of its supposed inaccessibility? This is perhaps a question best left to a longer discussion, but it is one that I've been puzzling over. If the answer is yes, at least there are still people working to keep the genre alive. They just might not come from places we would expect.
Take vocalist Elina Duni, for example. Until the age of 10, she lived in Albania, before leaving with her family for Switzerland. The transition, she says, was jarring, but "the music wouldn't have been what it is without Switzerland. I look at these songs through my Swiss-Albanian eyes."
The songs she is referring are the ones that make up her third album, MatanÃ« Malit. Released earlier this month on ECM Records, the disc is made up almost entirely of folk songs that originated within her home country or were written by artists exiled from it.
"When the Ottoman Empire failed in 1912, England and America decided the boundaries of Albania, and half the people were outside of them," she says, speaking via Skype from a hotel in Paris. "That was really painful. It still hurts today."
You can hear that ache in the songs on MatanÃ« (or "Beyond The Mountain"). Recorded with the dry warmth that has come to epitomize ECM's sound, the 12 songs swell with heartache and longing thanks to the expressionist tone Duni and her band (pianist Colin Vallon, drummer Norbert Pfammatter, and bassist Patrice Moret) take with the melodies and rhythms.
Of course, there's a political element to the album, as well, with the band taking on "Ã‡elo Mezani," a folk song that tells the story of the titular dissident that fought the Communist regime within the country in the late 19th century. In their hands, the droning anthem becomes a delicate, spindly dance between Pfammatter's clattering drums and Duni's effervescent vocalizing.
There is an element of outreach in what Duni and her band are doing with this music as well, both in trying to bring many of these songs back to the country that spawned them, and in trying to remove the stigma that many people have with her chosen genre.
"We need to stop this idea that jazz is for the elite," she says. "Even if you say the word 'jazz' to people, they are afraid. This is a way of bringing this music to the people. When they come to hear the folk songs, they have a way into jazz."
That last line speaks volumes, and resonates in stark contrast to Kornelis's assessment that outreach work like what Iyer and hundreds of other artists around the country are doing to bring jazz to young people is unnecessary. Sometimes people just need a place or a reason to listen to it, and they can become fans.
I think about that when I consider seeing Fontanelle taking the stage as the opening act for Earth on Wednesday at Rotture, or the fact that the Portland band's latest album, Vitamin F, (their first in a decade) is to be released on Southern Lord, a label that usually trucks in heavy rock and metal.
Granted, the listeners of the slow, burbling sludge of Earth and Sunn0))) tend to be more open-minded than most. But are they ready for a full album or live set of slinky, Bitches Brew-style freak-outs, punctuated with glossy electronics and the hard punch of a horn section?
That remains to be seen, but I'm of the opinion that it will likely go over very well. Vitamin F is a scorcher that melds the deep funk and Krautrock influences that marked Fontanelle's previous efforts seamlessly into the spacious atmospherics and playful skronk of Miles Davis's first fusion efforts.
The title track, for example, starts with a Can-style groove that slowly gets taken over by shivering horn lines and what sounds like a Rhodes electric piano being force fed a dozen wah-wah pedals. Slowly, the whole things starts spreading further and further apart before collapsing into a mass of dark matter.
I don't believe Fontanelle is working with the same motives of Iyer or Duni or local artists like Farnell Newton or Thara Memory in trying to introduce new people to the possibilities of jazz. But if even one person who stumbles across the band in their web-surfing or shows up early at Rotture on Wednesday is inspired enough to seek out, say, a copy of Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, doesn't that count for something?