Playing Changes takes on the unenviable task of dissecting a scene that is still very much unfolding before our eyes.
I spent some time in Paris this past summer (I know, I know). While there, I managed to catch two diametrically opposed jazz performances. The first was a trio tribute to Django Reinhardt at the Church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. While it was thrilling to hear Reinhardt’s style of playing reproduced by living virtuosos, the space was ill-fitting. The sound reverberated endlessly off the stone walls of the church. All the flourishes were lost in the echoes and the players speed was, if anything, faster than the recorded versions I was familiar with. It was an anachronism inside an anachronism.
A few nights later, on a whim, I caught a show at Le Caveau des Oubliettes – which, by coincidence, is located just behind the church – one of Paris’s many storied jazz venues housed in what amount to medieval cellars. It was a modern quartet – drums, stand-up bass, electric keyboard and electric guitar. They played jazz, but a jazz-averse/rock-friendly listener would not have minded it. They energized old standards and stacked layers of sound on their more psychedelic compositions. Though technically less adept than the trio I had seen at the church, the music was alive and the tiny room was packed with people ignoring their food and drink to soak in the show.
It would be easy to take these two shows as epitomizing the tension in the jazz music world between slavish traditionalism on the one hand and less-proficient overtures to young audiences on the other while overlooking the joys and merits of each. Thankfully, Nate Chinen does not make this mistake in Playing Changes, his book-length survey of jazz in the 21st century.
Playing Changes takes on the unenviable task of dissecting a scene that is still very much unfolding before our eyes, but Chinen has the advantage of having watched it closely as a critic over the last 20 decades. Now a staff critic at The New York Times, some parts of the book repurpose pieces he has written over the years. The book’s structure is twofold. One strain has Chinen highlighting or profiling a specific musician – Washington, Brad Mehldau, Esperanza Spalding and Mary Halvorsen are just some of the names. The other strain attempts to ask and answer the questions: “where is jazz, now” and “how did we get here?”
Chinen does a commendable job of intertwining these two paths of thought. Contextualizing musicians within their moment gives the reader a sense of the many overlapping scenes and styles of jazz as well as its progression over the last sixty years. And, yes, Chinen does need to go back that far in order to make sense of the complicated path jazz has taken. He rejects the thesis that jazz’s revolutionary days are behind it, but he does concede that the genre settled into a period of respectable conservatism in the 80s and 90s. The thesis of the book is that the current century has seen a successful revolt against the institutionalization of jazz.
Jazz artists – like artists in nearly every other artistic form – have had to reckon with the “widespread upheaval” of this century. The internet, flawed as it may be, has changed the way artists make and distribute music irrevocably. The arbiters of what is good have become more and more fragmented and silo-ed off. If you didn’t like what the critics in The Village Voice (RIP) had to say, then you could simply find a blog (almost RIP) that was more to your taste. Jazz has benefited from this immensely, per Chinen. It’s hard to disagree with him. There is less physical crate-digging these days, and a lot more Bandcamp tabs filling up our browser windows. For Chinen, this was the lightening that brought the Frankenstein’s Monster that is jazz back to life.
As a concluding piece of evidence in this regard, Chinen provides a list of so-called “essential” jazz albums from 2000-2018 at the end of the book. Depending on how you look at it, this is either a helpful guide for the curious or a gesture that completely undercuts the rest of the book by boiling it down to Just Another List. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Last year alone gave listeners great albums from several of the performers mentioned already as well as Makaya McCraven, Sons of Kemet and a decade defining masterwork in Tyshawn Sorey’s Pillars (though it is absent from Chinen’s list as well as the top ten he submitted to NPR’s jazz poll).
Chinen is probably the most popular jazz critic – as much a side-effect of being the resident jazz critic at The New York Times as it is his abilities – and, as such, his book takes a broad view of the current moment. Chinen even breaks contemporary jazz down into three categories: the “admirers and inheritors” of post-war jazz; the miners of the “vibrant synergies” between jazz and more popular genres like R&B and (especially) hip-hop; and the avant-garde (Chinen does not call them this) taking jazz to its farthest reaches through “advanced articulation of harmony and rhythm.” While Chinen sometimes tips his hand – his respect, as opposed to affection, for the latter group is not always subtextual – his is mostly a big tent.
Not all of the artists and performers he mentions are going to be to one’s personal taste – but that is the core of the argument the book makes: that we live in an unprecedentedly rich time of musical expression under the “jazz” label. If it lacks personality or a distinct point of view, this is only because Chinen wants to make the broadest possible argument for jazz’s vitality to both new listeners and the old guard.