Online Edition: Fall 1999

Future Jazz

Howard Mandel

Oxford University Press ($26)

by Jon Rodine

Future Jazz is actually an unfair title for a book like this. "Future" implies a kind of crystal-ball agenda, an aficionado's index to what's ahead, or maybe a look at who's working on the edge of the modern jazz universe. But a good deal of Howard Mandel's book isn't about the future at all, and many of the musicians he profiles either refuse to call themselves "jazz" players or else resist the definition by the very nature of their music (or both). This slightly skewed title seems to reflect a small identity crisis in an otherwise strong book.

Mandel is a veteran music journalist (and teacher) with great taste and integrity, who's covered jazz and related topics in respected formats from Downbeat and Wire magazine to the Village Voice and National Public Radio. His book is a culmination of fifteen-odd years worth of interviews and journalistic sketches, from the early and mid-'80s until the present, covering a wide array of music and musicians. There are big stars like Wynton Marsalis and George Benson; successful-but-not-household-name figures like Cassandra Wilson and David Murray; many other veteran practitioners of creative, improvised or avant-garde music in the U.S. (New York City in particular). There are klezmer musicians and club owners; orchestra conductors and blues players; opera composers and record producers; bandleaders and soloists like Henry Threadgill, John Zorn, Muhal Richard Abrams, Geri Allen, John Scofield, James Newton, and so on. Mandel has a clear affection for those on the fringes, players expanding the boundaries of sound and organized music, making brave and dedicated advances, and it makes sense that his love for jazz was nourished in the revolutionary atmosphere of the '60s and early '70s, the days of John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and Cecil Taylor; days when rock and funk and soul and "outside" jazz were happening all at once, changing minds and blurring definitions.

The book, then, seems to work best when it functions as an extension of those years of discovery, as a kind of Howard Mandel anthology. It's accepted that such a collection, being a record of individual passions, doesn't need to "make sense"; it calls for variety and a wide appetite. But Future Jazz is sectioned off categorically and given chapter headings that seem to strive for more than that; it seems to be trying to make a broader, more organized statement about jazz and the American "music scene," as fragmented and diverse as it is. In the process, he creates a confusing amalgam of the last fifteen years, with a sense of time and significance that seems a little askew. Statements and observations directly from the '80s are intertwined with those from the last two or three years, almost with a sense of concurrency. Groups that broke up years ago (like the Microscopic Septet) or projects like New York's 1980s "Black Rock Coalition," whose influence has definitely diminished with time, are discussed hand-in-hand with current accomplishments, or discussed alongside the more significant work and ideas of pioneers and veterans like guitarist John McLaughlin or pianist Hank Jones. The career of keyboardist Don Pullen is examined at length, with no mention of his early and tragic death from lymphoma within recent years. And the section on Cassandra Wilson, whose career in the '90s has surely earned this singer a significance and identity all her own, is sandwiched between two pieces discussing Steve Coleman and guitarist Vernon Reid, two of her compatriots from the early days, focusing chiefly on Blue Skies, her album from eleven years ago. And as eloquent and sharp as a twenty-two-year-old Wynton Marsalis was back in 1984 (and he was), is his commentary deep enough to deserve being used as a philosophical frame for the rest of the volume, for two decades of music?

Nonetheless, there are strengths in the book that aren't diminished by questions of purpose or chronology. Mandel is an acute listener who allows the musicians say what they need to say, without getting embroiled in the kind of artist/critic debate that some writers love. His own commentary reflects that kind of respect, and also has some compelling moments in unexpected places, like his brief take on the significance of one John Zorn saxophone solo in the midst of a Seder celebration at New York's Knitting Factory.

Mandel is, most importantly, a champion of experimentation and integrity, two qualities not naturally rewarded by the American music industry. Although Henry Threadgill talks to the author about the lack of a "shared repertoire" among musicians of his generation, Mandel's book--whether it is, in the end, more story or theory--is admirable for seeking out common threads of purpose within the indefinable world of "jazz" in America, thus reducing distances between players and their sometimes isolated pursuits. Whether the book is called Future Jazz or The Collected Howard Mandel may not matter in the end; his work, which reveals his vast respect and appreciation for the music, can contribute to the music world as much as the songs and sounds of the musicians themselves.

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Fall 1999 Table of Contents