European Musicians Eclipse US Jazz Artists?
The high level of skill and artistic merit of European jazz musicians is nothing new. Manfred Eicher made a career out of that very thing in the 1970's with his ground breaking ECM label, and artists like Jan Garbarek and the like. But lately, I've really been struck by the great quality of music coming out of Europe, from musicians most US listeners have likely never heard of, music that often eclipses the biggest American jazz names today.
Case in point - the relatively new Italian jazz label CAM Jazz. Talk about some exquisite records, featuring the likes of Enrico Pieranunzi, Enrico Rava, Salvatore Bonafede, and Americans Chris Potter, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden and others! Pieranunzi's touch at the piano rivals that of Brad Mehldau or Fred Hersch, and offers its own sublime lyricism that makes one wonder why he isn't a household name in US jazz circles. Two excellent new cds by Enrico Rava just arrived on my desk from this label this week, and they're really captivated my ears, something that not a lot of records do.
The records on CAM Jazz aren't alone, there's music from folks like Martijn Van Iterson, Yuri Honig, Amina Figarova, Rob Van Bavel, Tineke Postma, Tord Gustavsen, Biréli Lagrène and many others, all who just seem to be interested in making good music, and blow away a lot of far more well known US based musicians. This is not to say that US musicians across the board are in a slump, as excellent new albums by Joe Lovano, Bill Charlap, Dave Holland, Mulgrew Miller, Hank Jones, and Wayne Shorter, etc make clear. But a lot of US musicians seem more concerned (and thus sound more forced and contrived) about working on their public image, or consciously trying to innovate, and thus not doing much of either. Right now, we have a whole generation of musicians who had been cast by the jazz media as "young lions", who now are neither young, nor especially "lion like" in their playing. Confined artistically by the world created for them by their record company PR types, they are, with a couple of exceptions, trying to "reinvent" themselves, by wearing new clothes, plugging their trumpets into wha wha pedals, and striking mean looking poses wear sunglasses from the Miles Davis collection circa 1970. It's as if, stung by the criticism that they were trying to re-invent jazz circa 1965, they are now determined to do something totally different, reinvent the jazz of 1975! I'm not saying new albums by Terence Blanchard and Joshua Redman are bad, they aren't. But they don't speak to me like the new records from the relatively unknown players from Europe are as of late. Even the electric stuff coming from Europe sounds more fresh, and less a remake of Bitches Brew or Eddie Harris than a lot of the new "innovative" records from US musicians. A lot of US musicians also seem to dilute their focus, with a multitude of interesting, but not really captivating side projects (something I'll discuss at length in a few days), that lead to something akin to musical attention deficit disorder!
Again, I'm not saying that all European jazz is better than all American jazz. The players themselves often appear on each other's records, and music as they say knows no boundaries. But there seems to be a lot more focus on making really good, serious, and really well crafted jazz among the best European musicians, than there is across the pond, with their more well known peers.
-note- I neglected to mention British jazz label Dune, which has some very fine and innovative records from the likes of Denys Baptiste and Soweto Kinch that also deserve recognition.