A moment of pop-music-meets-fantasy-football: What if you could put together your "dream team" concert?
Lady Gaga, Madonna and Miley all in their prime?
Nas, Tupac and Rakim?
As Jazz breaks out of its decades-long slumber, groups emerge in brilliant flashes of what the 21st century has in store for the music, particularly for millennials and teens who are rediscovering it.
At the Breaking With Tradition (BWT) show Saturday night in West Palm Beach, Florida, saxophonist Ron Blake assembled a dream-team of jazz's modern titans: Guitarist Bobby Broom, pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Dion Parson.
Blake is better known to millions of Americans for wailing in the intros and exits of SNL with the Saturday Night Live Band than he is for his Grammy performances with Christian McBride on his big band rebirth, "The Good Feeling" in 2011, or with the Grammy-nominated group Yerba Buena, or his work as an educator with Juilliard Jazz and several other top schools, among many other projects.
Such has been the problem for the great Jazz artists over the last thirty years, marginalized by the McMusic movement of the latter half of the 20th century that pushes spectacle over music to fill McStadiums where people pay prime dollar to sit a mile away from their deified megastars, watch them on big TVs and catch the decaying blasts of super-speakers to say they were "there."
Thankfully, millennials, the rising dominant market for music, groove on subtlety.
The exciting challenge for millennial listeners, who, in their passion for wines, talk up notes of peach, leather and seashells, or sing the praises of a chef who introduces subtle aromatic notes and towering visual artistry into their $45 entree, is to understand the equally elegant nuance and subtlety that jazz unleashes in their music.
If there is someone for them to follow in this adventure, it is Ron Blake.
His delicate, Brazilian-infused interpretation of saxophonist John Coltrane's classic "Giant Steps," a Bossa-Bebop blend, found a particular sweetness and elegance that was both a unique piece of music in its own right while maintaining a respectful homage to Coltrane's harder core.
Bobby Broom doesn't just play guitar. Broom smiles broadly as he sings with the instrument, much as B.B. King did in his best days. A torrent of beautiful notes flow, a river of unsurpassed tone that anyone from Clapton fans to Django Reinhardt hard cores can embrace.
Dion Parson is drumming Matisse. Rock drummers play for power. Parson can play for power, but knows that, especially in jazz, less is more. Supporting one very delicate bass solo of Okegwo during the program, he took the butt end of a stick and tapped in the sweet spot of a cymbal, just enough to have the sound mix, radiate, elevate and transform, with the audience reacting in a very pleasant "Ooooh."
Okegwo, one of the most in-demand bassists in the world, nuances every last drop of warm, wooden sound from the depths of his bass, and locks in flawlessly with Davis and Parson to form a tight, swinging rhythm section. Listening to them is like sipping a 1961 Château Latour, or watching Phil Jackson dominate a basketball game by owning the pace on the court and executing with relentless excellence.
Pianist Xavier Davis proves that a jazz solo is like table magic: It must be watched close-up. Close your eyes, listen and his work flows into a smile on your face. Open your eyes. Watch his hands as he performs, deftly floating across and accenting the keys in highly effortful effortless grace and the notes are transformed yet again.
Which is why it is always worth paying to see great jazz artists again and again. No matter how many times you may have seen them, you know that the experience will be completely different.
Smaller is better, too. Sitting in a venue less than 50 feet from masters like these, you can feel the sheer vibrations of the joy radiate through the audience along with the music.
Blake quipped several times through the night: "Having fun out there? We are!"
The audience could feel it.
The 21st century is also about young artists carrying a music onward. BWT was held at Oxbridge Academy, a new breed of private school geared to provide opportunity for a much more diverse student population.
Two of those young musicians, coincidentally siblings, pianist Phillip Taylor and violinist/vocalist Allie Taylor, stood out at the evening's showcase of young talent from Oxbridge.
Phillip Taylor, a freshman, whose dark suit, black curly hair and wayfarer glasses might make you think he was plucked by a time machine from jazz's Golden Age, took Davis' bench at the piano and played "Some Day My Prince Will Come" with an ease and improvisational virtuosity that turned heads.
Allie Taylor, a high school junior, is an accomplished violinist, Jazz violinist, and was one of two Jazz vocalists for the evening. Her rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael tune "Skylark" with her big, mature voice, savvy improvisational choices, total comfort in her performance and a great ear for the work of the band backing her, made it a highlight of the evening.
Another break with tradition: Jazz is exciting young people, bringing the music back to smaller venues, and it is not the proprietary property of New York City or New Orleans. It is happening here in Florida, in New Jersey, California, the Carolinas and, amazingly, in Iowa.
America is transitioning past the record label era where fans picked their music like NFL teams.
Listening here, like it has been in Europe for many years, is becoming more spectral. The internet is increasingly frustrating big record labels' attempts to dictate Americans' musical tastes. Services like XM, Soundcloud and Spotify broaden the availability of jazz and other music for the curious.
If there was anything to satisfy that curiosity, it was Blake's "dream team" at BWT. They honored the past, but showcased what greatness is there right in front of us, and what this century can be, when we break with tradition and open hearts and minds to music's greatness in all of its forms.
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