Nate Chinen has written a terrific book about the shape of contemporary jazz, and right now is a terrific time to read it. Does that mean jazz is currently experiencing some kind of brave, new, against-the-odds rebirth? Not really. If anything, Chinen’s “Playing Changes,” makes the case that, as “a frontier of inquiry,” today’s jazz music is probably as lovely, lousy, brilliant and broken as it’s ever been.
What’s changed in 21st-century jazz — dramatically — is the listening. The information age might be corroding our political discourse, but the immediacy of the Internet has allowed contemporary jazz musicians to listen wide and deep, expanding their proverbial playing fields while reimagining the stakes. “Raised with unprecedented access to information,” Chinen writes of today’s improvisers, “they scour jazz history not for a linear narrative but a network of possibilities.”
Chinen, a former New York Times jazz critic, seems to approach his own listening the same way. Instead of looking for tidy torch-passings or binary clashes between competing schools and styles, his ecumenical ear glides across the entirety of the greater jazz ecosystem, listening for the good stuff — and with everything funneling back into his central assertion that “multiplicity lies precisely at the heart of the new aesthetic.”
The book’s arrival ultimately feels so well-timed because when Chinen talks about a “noir aria” by the saxophonist Greg Osby, or the “spiky, alien beauty” of Mary Halvorson’s guitar phrases, or pianist Vijay Iyer’s “tactile body-rhythm concept,” you don’t have to sit around and wonder what it all sounds like. Just reach for that little computer in your pocket and press play. Let’s not take for granted what an incredible time this is to learn about music. I never had to walk through 10 miles of snow to get to school, but I would have for regular access to a streaming service.
That said, if our musical literacy is truly at an all-time high, why have so many calcified jazz ideas refused to die? Chinen tries to dismantle a handful of them and starts by examining the runaway success of the young saxophonist Kamasi Washington. After the release of the Los Angeles bandleader’s aptly-titled 2015 triple album, “The Epic,” Washington quickly became a full-fledged media phenomenon. Widely celebrated as a cosmic echo of John Coltrane, his soulful gusting felt both valiant and familiar, saddling him with the same reputation that hung over Wynton Marsalis 30-odd years earlier: jazz’s savior.
Chinen rightly takes some wind out of Washington’s sails, describing him as “a major arrival in jazz who brings no new vocabulary or inflection to his instrument.” But in the end, Chinen’s problem isn’t with the sails; it’s with the wind.
“There’s a powerful insecurity built into any call for a jazz savior: the very idea presupposes a vital deficiency in the art form,” he writes. “Whatever it is that jazz is understood to be sorely lacking at a given moment — that’s what a savior is expected to deliver. Cultural esteem. Social currency. Historical connection. Contemporary agency. Institutional elevation. Street-level energy. Renewal. Definition. Freedom.”
That’s a big list, but Chinen believes that there are scores of jazz players floating around who are well-suited to scratch each of those itches, and he’d like to introduce us to them. So while he dedicates entire chapters to certain contemporary jazz heroes — Jason Moran, Esperanza Spalding and Brad Mehldau among them — nobody gets the hero treatment. Remember what Chinen said about linear narratives and networks of possibility? Narratives have heroes. Networks not so much.
Sharp listening and clear thinking are the epoxy holding this ambitious overview together, but the pages really start to glow whenever Chinen invites the musicians to speak for themselves. In those moments, “Playing Changes” begins to earn its spot on the highest shelf, between A.B. Spellman’s legendary “Four Lives in the Bebop Business” and Ben Ratliff’s enlightening “The Jazz Ear” — books where the authors and the artists take turns striking at the heart of the artform.
Perhaps the most grounding idea in “Playing Changes” comes directly from saxophonist Steve Coleman, a Chicago native who stands as one of the most cerebral composers around. In describing his process, Coleman makes his extraordinary jazz problems sound a lot like everyday life problems: “The only thing that means anything, to me, is: What do I know this year that’s different than what I knew two years ago? And am I doing something about it?”
To get a sense of what that struggle might sound like when it’s blasting out of Coleman’s horn, flip ahead to the end of the book, where Chinen lists “The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far),” including Coleman’s 2010 “Harvesting Semblances and Affinities.”
Each album Chinen has chosen is worth at least one spin on your handy pocket computer — but instead of listening in order, year by year, why not honor the nonlinear spirit of this book and jump around? “Playing Changes” encourages us to listen to jazz the same way we might try to live life: Start anywhere, go everywhere.
Chris Richards is the pop music critic at The Washington Post.
By Nate Chinen. 288 pp. $27.95.