“Where was the improvisation?”

There is a note below about the Souza show, and the Dr. Lonnie Liston Smith’s performance was a beautiful run of long, deep grooves (both at the Carver in San Antonio). And now we’ve seen Peter White, an early heavyweight in the smooth jazz arena that followed a career in pop music whose highlights included playing with Al Stewart (where I last saw him perform live). It was a very good show.

The intro act was a young trumpet player, Gabriel Johnson, clearly influenced by Miles Davis and the source of much-spirited debate that evening. There were four of us at the show, all with an appreciation for both traditional jazz as well as the smoother variety. After Johnson finished his set, the first question posed was, “Where was the improvisation?” There were solos, but no improvisations. This thread of conversation wove through the evening’s performances. Yeah, where was the stuff that doesn’t fit on a checklist? There wasn’t any. This didn’t make the show any better or worse, just obviously different from the other two, we’ve seen this year.

And this, we agreed, was due to this being a “show” and not a concert. Which likely speaks to the headwinds causing the popularity of traditional jazz to slow precipitously. The Peter White show was a near sell-out, making a comparison to the two concerts at the Carver something of an embarrassment. Both offered brilliant musicianship and terrific music. Yet with Johnson and White, the audience was offered an awful lot of familiar pop tunes performed to a jazz cadence with a bright light show and – my only complaint with the evening – far too many opportunities to “sing-along” with old favorites like Roberta Flack’s classic, Feel Like Makin’ Love. It was a carefully choreographed performance, not unlike a rock concert.

But it can’t just be that the songs were more familiar in the smooth venue. Souza, in particular, also played some well-known music. As did Miles Davis throughout his career, covering music from Porgy and Bess to Michael Jackson. And Miles was well represented in the set played by Gabriel Johnson, including a number from, well, Porgy and Bess. The difference between Souza and Johnson simply came down to a script. Souza’s band left the sheet music on the ground and played long segments of well-worn music that was not easily recognizable. Nobody colored outside of the lines at the Peter White show. There is room for both styles of jazz, but we shouldn’t underestimate just how different they really are.

In the end, it would seem the current crop of jazz aficionados aren’t so interested in being challenged when listening to music. During my time managing a jazz radio station, I experienced two uncomfortable realities. The first was the majority of the jazz musicians I interacted with – both local and national – had a very cavalier attitude about the audience. There was a distinct tendency for the artist to expect the audience to appreciate whatever moved them during a performance. To the point that I had to remind musicians during performances, they were not playing the flavor of music that had been advertised.

Perhaps more importantly, a majority of listeners at the jazz station wanted to hear what they already knew and liked – or at least something familiar. This flies in the face of how so much great jazz was originally conceived. There are those who argue that the decline of jazz began when individual players began to take precedence over music where the orchestra ruled. Sorry, I don’t agree or appreciate that we seem to have come full circle.

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