The Undefinable Genre
An Excursion into KCSB’s Varied Jazz Library
Monday, June 14, 2010
When it comes to jazz, people have their opinions. It won’t come as a surprise to KCSB listeners that the hosts of the jazz shows throughout its history have had even stronger ones. A flip through program schedules of the past reveals that most shows falling under the “jazz” category have operated under fairly particular, even idiosyncratic definitions of the genre.
Some jazz-minded KCSBers seem to have believed that real jazz existed only before a certain year; others that it existed only after a certain year; others still that it existed only within a vanishingly narrow era between one year and another. Some have thought that it isn’t real jazz unless it’s as melodic as possible; some have thought that it isn’t real jazz unless it’s as amelodic as possible. Some have claimed that real jazz is, in fact, spelled “jass.” These conflicts roil on today, their solutions nowhere in sight.
Take a look at the relevant wall of KCSB’s music library, and you’ll find the raw materials of any sub-sub-variety of jazz show that’s been done on the station and an infinitude of possible jazz shows of the future besides. Pulling out a few vinyl albums, holding them up beside one another and wondering what they could possibly have in common, I knew my next column on the station’s music library had to be an examination of its jazz collection. Back in April, when I sought out an international range of records, we saw reason to suspect that one could craft at least a respectable quarter’s worth of programs on Japanese jazz, if one were so inclined.
By Courtesy Photo
Sadao Watanabe’s 1981 Orange Express
My way back in was finding even more of the stuff. I happened upon a cache of material from Sadao Watanabe, the prolific Japanese baritone saxophonist whose long-standing popularity on both sides of the Pacific ensures that his charmingly goofy album covers pop up in most any record crate, shelf, or bin through which might dig. Orange Express, from 1981, has the player, clad in his then-trademark white suit, standing alone alongside a desolate desert highway. As always, he’s nonetheless all smiles. The very same brand of cheerfulness pervades his music, which back then tended toward the tropical. While easy to like and even easier to put on in the background of whatever you happen to be doing, this is clearly the sort of thing that would be denounced by any self-proclaimed jazz purist. They would call it “pop jazz,” no doubt, and would quite possibly shake you down for your lunch money were they to catch you playing it. But I would argue that even the poppiest jazz albums contain a few artistic moments; properly curated by a brave deejay, they’d make a fascinating program.
Elsewhere in the racks, you can find much from ECM, a label that is many things, though poppy is most certainly not one. Its name stands for “Edition of Contemporary Music,” with all the sonic and compositional boundary-pushing that implies. Allow me to confess right now that I am a hopeless ECM addict. The always-intriguing nature of the musical selections themselves and the immaculate quality with which they’re recorded, team up, effortlessly persuading me to part with whatever cash it takes to snag their latest release or a recently unearthed rarity.
And at the risk of projecting utter superficiality, I simply can’t get enough of their cover designs. ECM is, and has been since its inception, the world leader in mesmerizingly artistic sleeves. These images blur the boundary between natural-world photography and abstraction, somehow representing the musical contents with perfect accuracy.
By Courtesy Photo
Codona 1980 Codona