Maybe with rock we do it more, more often and with more resentment, but attempts to make jazz look dead and buried go back decades, and every generation finds reason to launch a new offensive. Yet jazz is far more elusive than other music and, through mergers, revisions, or sheer creative freedom—one of its essences—it continues to find ways that justify it in the face of each new doom omen.
The Victoria Jazz Festival, one of the most emblematic and important internationally in our country, tries to bring to its programming several of the names that today maintain the flame; young musicians who, from different parts of the planet, are unequivocally 21st century jazzmen. Precisely, the Vitoria festival had for decades a scene whose programming was thus called, Jazz of the 21st Century, even if it was little more than a commercial label. The festival was characterized by its musical conservatism and by a very marked line where risk or contemporary jazz met drops. The retirement in 2018 of its director for 40 years, Inaki year, gave the new management the opportunity to finally bring the festival into the 21st century, betting on very current proposals already in its 2019 edition.
This year, after two editions decimated by covid, Vitoria has strongly taken over a program in which, apart from a few dinosaurs to please the classic audience of the festival, there are several leading musicians of the moment. To come full circle, in a sinister twist of fate, Añua passed away the day the festival began, almost as if she was definitely handing over to the new management and closing a stage that, with all the buts that we can put there, would not be rare, will always be an integral part of the history of jazz in our country.
The truth is that a few years ago an evening like the one that keyboardist Robert Glasper closed in this edition would be unthinkable at this festival, with Order as a whole joining Glasper to rap after a concert of dense and modern black music made up of jazz, funk, rock and R&B. Like Glasper —although much less popular—, Overall is one of those musicians who, starting from jazz, have devoted themselves to crossing stylistic barriers using all kinds of black music. 15 years after his first visit to our country as the drummer of the band big geri allenOverall presented its own music at the Teatro Principal in Vitoria, with a concert that was as dynamic as it was disconcerting.
His albums are polished and steeped in hip-hop and R&B, and his profile on the New York scene is growing in many different forms: as a producer, as a remixer and, of course, as a drummer; but live, his band is an escaped foal that oscillates between rap and sidereal jazz, with a lot of force on certain occasions —notably thanks to the band’s formidable rhythmic machinery—, but also with a certain lack of control. Overall, it has the potential to play an important role in the future of jazz, and listening to it in Vitoria, one could imagine, saving distances, what it would be like to be at a concert by Sun Ra in the 1960s: pleasure, spirituality and a constant theatrical component that works for him or against him, depending on the viewer’s disposition.
Another of the festival’s commitments to bring its programming to the present of jazz was Theon Cross, one of the main references of the bubbling British scene which dazzles a multitude of listeners of other musical genres. Cross — best known for being a member of Sons Of Kemet — is a very solid instrumentalist, and his proposition is very appealing, although he sometimes runs out of steam live. His show is competent, enjoyable, and invites you to start dancing, but it also gets a little monotonous when it’s been spinning for a while.
In reality, the music of these young creators is not very innovative in terms of concept or content. They have distinctive instrumentation and contemporary sounds, but either way it’s usually a matter of form, not substance. Tanto Overall, como Cross e incluso Glasper, igual que otros actual referentes como Kamasi Washington, Jon Batiste, Nubya Garcia o Shabaka Hutchings, entre muchos otros, cuentan algo que ya ha contado en el pasado y, en gran parte de casos, considerably better. But the most important thing about artists like them is not the music they make, but rather that they are its ambassadors and spokespersons and its context to new generations.
Same thing with another young man who performed at the festival this year: the saxophonist James Brandon Lewis. On the same stage of the Teatro Principal where he was presented in the 2015 edition, this year we were able to listen to a much more evolved musician. Then it was a young promise shrouded in hyperbole, which showed great live sound, but lots of gaps and an obvious lack of speech. This year, at the head of an extraordinary quartet, we hear a mature saxophonist, with his resoundingly beautiful sound still polished, in a brilliant concerto that brings Coltrane’s legacy back into the present without sounding revisionist or routine.
Brandon Lewis received many accolades last year, mainly thanks to his tremendous album Trolley Jesup, and today he is one of the most prominent names on the international scene. One of those young musicians who, in this case, are heading towards the future of jazz with music that has both form and substance.
Brandon Lewis, like Glasper, Overall or Cross, are 21st century jazz because they have the ability and the language to take the genre to whatever the future holds. They are great musicians, but they are under construction, and witnessing the process that takes them from today to tomorrow is the great value of being able to listen to them in a jazz festival like the one in Vitoria.
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