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What was it like for a devoted jazz aspirant from Gen Y or Gen Z to grow up in a milieu where hip-hop culture — and hip-hop music — globally and intersectionally influenced the worlds of media, fashion, technology, education, art and entertainment?To explore that question, JAZZIZ approached three ready-for-prime-time practitioners, individualists who have much in common. Each left his respective hometown for New York jazz conservatories and found space to workshop and exchange ideas with like-minded contemporaries at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery, among other venues. Each presents fresh, forward-thinking music that draws creatively on the entire jazz timeline — but not just jazz — for raw materials. Morgan Guerin, 22, was raised in New Orleans and Atlanta. On three self-issued albums since 2017 (The Saga, The Saga II and The Saga III) he plays saxophones and electric wind instrument (EWI), various keyboards, electric bass, and drums, while also orchestrating and engineering. When not constructing these tour de force fantasias, Guerin played electric bass on Terri Lyne Carrington’s 2020 Grammy-nominated Waiting Game and co-produced Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells. Playing tenor sax, he channeled late-era John Coltrane on Tyshawn Sorey’s Unfiltered, and — as seen on a 2016 YouTube clip — swung deep in the cut alongside trumpeter Russell Gunn to the beats of Jimmy Cobb. Vibraphonist Joel Ross, 25, grew up in Chicago. Even before Blue Note released Kingmaker and Who Are You?, both primarily comprising his original music, Ross’ mature, virtuoso approach elicited comparisons to Olympian predecessors such as Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson and Stefon Harris. The original music of Immanuel Wilkins, 23, from Philadelphia, appears on his critically praised September release, Omega, also on Blue Note. Wilkins’ keening alto saxophone evokes feelings stirred not only by Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman, but also post-Boomer avatars like Miguel Zenón and Logan Richardson. Two days before Christmas, these young masters convened on Zoom for a conversation.Who are your contemporary lodestars, beacons, direction-setters?Joel Ross (JR): Robert Glasper, who connected on his more or less acoustic music to the contemporary R&B sound that I grew up with through my mom, who listened to Jill Scott and Dre and a lot of old-school R&B, old-school gospel like James Cleveland, and groups like Chicago and the Eagles and [were also played in the house]. I went to church every week for 18 years. I was completely immersed in that sound. I had to learn things by ear, pick things out, improvise, play without rehearsal, support vocalists, play with other musicians. I was introduced to jazz through jazz education, which was a more traditional environment than Chicago’s actual jazz scene — the AACM, the more creative aspects, which I’m learning about now as an adult. There’s the blues, too. I’m always trying to mold all those areas into one thing, and I always like something that’s a little bit left, shifting some element about it.
[caption id="attachment_34230" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Joel Ross (Photo: Courtesy the artist)[/caption]
I learned more modern, more contemporary jazz — Ambrose Akinmusire, Steve Coleman — through meeting peers like [trumpeter] Adam O’Farrill and [bassist] Daryl Johns. I like Ambrose for his sound on trumpet, the refinement of his concept, his freedom operating in a group. I’ve always liked trumpets and horns more than vibraphone, using your voice as part of your instrument. I like Steve for his interpretation of rhythm. He shifted my ideas about form, how I learn and think about music. I’ve only scratched the surface of the information he works with.Immanuel Wilkins (IW): Jason Moran is number one. When I saw him play in Philly was the first time I felt someone had done what everybody talks about doing, which is one foot in the past, one foot in the present — to really deal with Fats Waller and Thelonious Monk, and really touch hip-hop. He and Glasper parallel each other in the ways they navigate hip-hop.Tye Tribbett, the gospel artist, who I played with for a year or two. It was a profound spiritual experience, and I’ve modeled a lot of my writing on trying to reach certain things we got to. Philly has a big church music scene that spills over into popular music. A lot of church musicians get calls to play with, say, Jill Scott, or get hired for tours by Adam Blackstone, who’s a famous musical director. John Coltrane also had a great impact on the scene. At jam sessions at Chris’ Jazz Café, they call “Resolution” or “Impressions” for 30-40 minutes, with everyone reaching for the same thing. In both cases, there’s spiritual depth.
[caption id="attachment_30716" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Immanuel Wilkins (Photo: Courtesy the artist)[/caption]
In terms of Black aesthetics, the filmmaker Arthur Jafa, a profound thinker who reimagines the way we think about film, Black visibility and hyper-visibility. About four years ago, he changed my life in terms of how I navigate the world and navigate philosophy pertaining to jazz music and art in general.Morgan Guerin (MG): First is Wayne Shorter. I’m a huge fan of his compositions, especially his orchestral writing. I try to go after that a bunch in my own stuff. Esperanza, too. I’ve always been drawn to the way she’s able to have her own thing on the bass and dip in and out of genres. Georgia Anne Muldrow, who is one of the few who is cultivating a new sound that bridges the gaps between hip-hop and jazz.
[caption id="attachment_37475" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Morgan Guerin (Photo: Courtesy the artist)[/caption]
In the press bio for Omega, Jason Moran observes that your generation is uniquely able to achieve full expression in all the different dialects you’ve stated.IW: I feel this generation has a special relationship with the canon. But the tradition is meant to be touched and molded and dealt with fully. We can cover the music; we played those songs over and over. Then we can take that spirit and manifest it into whatever lane we’re doing at the time.JR: I like that idea of dialects. That’s how I think of styles. In jazz there’s a language, and the area which you decide to play — to speak — is the dialect. We all have access to the same information. What makes it stand out is the ability to mold all the things into an original voice.IW: Familiarizing yourself with dialects allows you to have musical conversations. For example, I can’t converse on the bandstand with [drummer] Kenny Washington without an in-depth knowledge of bebop. Without the entire palette, you’re not really choosing. I think we all realized that early on.I don’t think you assimilated all this information just as a practical matter, though. There has to be a love for jazz. What qualities spurred that attraction?MG: The love started from being surrounded by it in my family. It’s a beautiful art form. Growing up, I was set on what I wanted, to be done with high school, move to New York and venture off. I’m inspired by my peers, seeing what they’re doing, who they’re listening to. JR: It’s the communication that’s apparent when it’s played at the highest level — rhythm, groove, freedom, exploration. When cats are connected, you hear that magic. That is enticing. Also, the ability to express yourself through composition — either spontaneous or pre-planned in a written composition — and the ability to compose on the spot. The way you can show expression and emotion. The more I play, the more I live this music, the more I see different ways to think about it. I guess the short answer would be: It’s deep!IW: When I started playing jazz, I was in programs with other young people who were my friends. The idea of community — communal listening, communal playing together — was super-important to my development and my love for the music.I’ve been thinking about how mystical jazz can be. There’s no way really to describe swing or the blues, which are foundational — everyone has their own definition. When you talk to Joel about swing, it’s going to be vastly different than when you talk to Wynton Marsalis. I promise you! Jazz is like a fugitive code that everyone is trying to figure out, constantly, over a hundred years.“Black Codes From the Underground” is one of Marsalis’ great mantras, along with “All jazz is modern,” which I think you each embody. So what does “swing” mean in 2021? JR: For me, something is swinging if the groove is intact with a certain fluidity.
MG: Joel hit the nail on the head. Fluidity. It does feel good. Something being swinging doesn’t have to always be talked about. It’s a thing where you don’t know the exact definition, but you’re taught to understand it growing up. I’m still trying to understand what that is.IW: When I think of swing, as the short answer, I like to say it grooves and dances, but there’s no backbeat. My long answer is that it parallels the blues; it accesses the tangible and the intangible. Which, in a lot of ways, codifies all of Black music; we could say it codifies all of Black culture. The Blues is a form. It could be 12 bars, or 16 bars, or eight bars. The Blues involves the I, the IV and the V. But the intangibles are: What is Mahalia Jackson doing that’s making me feel like that? When I listen to those Alan Lomax recordings, Otha Turner playing flute and singing, why am I crying? That’s also the blues. And that accesses some intangibles that we can’t explain. It’s the same with swing. Swing is ting, ting-ta-ting, ting-ta-ting. That’s swing. JR: You can say “this is swinging,” just like you can say “that’s the blues.” We can point out what it is, or how it’s in this or that. But you can’t say swing or the blues “is when you do this.”IW: That’s what Morgan was hitting on. It’s an orbit. You have to live in the orbit or you won’t learn the dialect. Living in that orbit for years and understanding the intangibles also allows us now to liberate ourselves from the blues form or the swing rhythm.Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire and Steve Coleman were mentioned as lodestar figures. Morgan cited Flying Lotus in another published interview. They’re all refracting elements of hip-hop. How does what you do — or what you DON’T do — reference hip-hop?JR: I strongly dislike backbeats. I don’t like to feel locked up rhythmically. The only thing I’m taking from hip-hop is the way we present rhythm through our voices improvisationally relates to the groove.Has it impacted production values or presentation, the arc of an album?JR: I can’t say how many hip-hop albums I’ve listened to from top to finish. My concept of arcing a storyline through an album comes from contemporary artists like Ambrose. I prefer keeping it as acoustic as possible while making sure everything is clear in the mix.IW: The main revelation I’ve found between hip-hop and jazz music is how it all still feels ancestral. It still feels like oral tradition. There’s a lot of this old-school, un-institutionalized thing, like jazz has. When I listen to [rapper] Meek Mill, the strong beats are the same as the bass drum that Elvin [Jones]’s playing in the Trane quartet. That’s in no way a stretch. That encourages me. Even though it feels so far removed, especially to the jazz purist, we can’t escape it. Like bebop, hip-hop was a new mode of radical resistance. It shook things up and commented on what was happening socially. I think of that when I look at Run-DMC or Mos Def or Talib Kweli, or Amil or G Herbo today. I think we all try to present new ways of resisting in our music
In terms of production values, jazz musicians need more money. You’ll see videos for 5-6 songs off Jay-Z’s album, each costing $50,000 to make. That’s a rabbit hole, because people are selling pornography — sex is selling, drugs are selling, guns are selling. It’s not art music. But then, the art world is monetarily thriving, too. Jazz music in general has this ceiling; $15,000 is the most we’ll get for a record rollout. I want access to find the money to dream bigger, crazier dreams.Morgan, your program notes for Saga III emphasize that you function not only as a multi-instrumentalist, but also a producer, mixer and engineer. MG: Growing up, I always had access to instruments around the house. In school, people would ask if I could play a part, say, on oboe, and I’d develop an interest and then move on. Recently I got a bass clarinet for someone’s recording; now that I have it, I’m going to practice more. I try to have that same approach to everything else I play. I’m not there yet with anything, though. It’s a life-long process.
I mentioned Flying Lotus in the interview you mentioned because of the way he brings the listener into the producer’s environment. His records are trying to hit all the senses. I’m drawn to records that have that aspect, and I try to bring it to my own music, the feeling of turning something up very loud. That comes from hip-hop. I’m listening for things like: Does the bass feel present? Can I listen to this on my iPhone and it still feels slapping? I think about hip-hop when I think about pieces that translate well over different pieces of technology. I’m trying to bring that over into this side. They’re connected; both are Black art forms.IW: Morgan, some primarily hip-hop engineers told me that when they’re in the studio they track to super-loud volumes and the playback is super-loud. Have you explored that?MG: Yes and no. Yes, because you want to make sure it still translates. Some people need to feel the energy physically within them. But personally, I mix quiet or mid-quiet 70-80 percent of the time, just to make sure I can hear everything at soft volumes — tracking, too. That way, when I bring it up, it’s still present.IW: Also, we’ve all been locked down since March, so cats have been recording at the crib. Morgan’s been doing this longer than us; he’s a veteran in the home studio. Since I’m home, working within the parameters I have, I’m forced to look to hip-hop for its mobility, in a way, in terms of recording, and I think that’s led sonically to some intersections. A lot of hip-hop stuff is home studio. Big dudes. Drake is tracking at home.MG: Right. Or it’s all on the laptop.Can you say more about the impact of the pandemic on your artistic production?IW: For me, it switched the process. Before the pandemic, I was playing the piano and doing voice memos. My writing process is way more tracking-based now when I create.JR: I didn’t really change up my writing process. What Immanuel said about the piano and the voice memos is still primarily what I do. Before the pandemic, sometimes I’d be home, playing drums for a couple of hours, working on ideas. I’m not doing that now because I decided to return to school, to finish my degree.MG: My love and curiosity for classical music has been extremely heightened, partly due to a commission that I recently had to present. It’s a nine-person thing, the first time I’ve arranged for more than four people. I’ve been able to focus without distractions — to write and challenge myself. It’s opened my eyes to a lot more music that I knew existed but didn’t really understand the value of until this chance to deep-dive. Stravinsky was a huge revelation. That’s from trying to see where Wayne Shorter was getting his stuff from. Ravel, of course. Debussy. A question about nomenclature. What should this music be called? Is “jazz” satisfactory? We’ve also heard “Black American Music” or “B.A.M.” Immanuel referred to “art music.” Miles Davis talked about “social music.” JR: I love that term, “social music.” I think it describes it very well. I’ve been telling people “Black music,” “improvised music” and “jazz.” If I’m talking to somebody who doesn’t even understand the conversation of why not to call it “jazz,” I’ll say “I play jazz, but inspired by improvised black music.” I’ll never just say “jazz” on its own anymore. I’ll try to give a little context. But I think more or less it’s social music, built on language and communication.MG: “Social music” is a great term. It definitely pertains to the feeling we get from listening to it, let alone playing it. IW: I’ll talk about my experience of losing romance for the word “jazz.” I was in an elevator going to a rehearsal with [pianist] Michelle Rosewoman, and I ran into this amazing performance artist I’d been a fan of for a long time. He said, “What do you do?” I was like, “I play jazz.” He was like, “Man, that’s fun.” I thought to myself, “A word that starts with a ‘j’ and ends with two ‘z’s’ was never meant to be taken seriously.” So I did some research on the word “jazz.” The first usage was in a 1912 newspaper article about this pitcher who put some jazz on the ball. I realized that “jazz” always was used to marginalize, to make something magical and nonsensical. For me, the word “jazz” damaged the advancement of what Black musicians were doing. It’s always been this happy-go-lucky, shuckin’-and-jivin’ thing, kind of like what Miles said: “They think I just got the horn and I woke up with the blues.” Or when the James Reese Europe cats went over to play in Europe, people thought they were playing with trick instruments.JR: Not seen as a high art form.IW: The undertone is this racist “yeah, it’s got to be something else.” That’s why I end up resisting the word. But I don’t have a name for it. I think all the names are flawed for certain reasons. Max Roach would say, “the music of Charlie Parker” or “the music of Bud Powell.” I’ll say “the music of” whoever.