Sunday Listens: Jazz is the Lexicon of Now

It's no secret that I'm a lover of jazz.  But, what jazz means exactly varies person to person.  The narrative of this musical genre extends back to the beginnings of the 20th Century.   No wonder, then, that it bends definition.  

Step away Merriam and Webster.

Nonetheless, contemporary listeners are happy to describe a band or musician as jazz.  So, what the fuck does it mean?

There isn't any doubt that jazz, as in the heyday of jazz, influenced everybody today.  Billie, Duke, Ella, Coltrane and even Oscar (my kid's namesake) are just some of the notable names that we associate with the jazz sound.  And, pity any musician who doesn't name at least one of these as an influence.

7th chords.  Mmmm, mmmm, juicy harmony.  Not to mention the melodic freedom that comes with those juicy harmonies.

Even if you have no idea what the 7th is, or how we get there, or what kind of building our notes are building, you know 7th chords when you hear them.  Something sounds, "bluesey"?  Well, you just heard some dominant 7th chords and it was really juicy to your ears.  Mmmm, mmmmm.   Yummy!

Lately I've been obsessed with musicians who've obviously studied their ii-V-I progressions (holla jazz!).  Yet, so much more is going on.  

Both Esperanza Spalding and Xenia Rubinos have ties to Berklee College of Music (known for it's jazz instruction) and Hiatus Kaiyote hails upon the jazz from all the way over in Australia.  But complex chord progressions and odd time signatures are only the beginning.  Synthesizers, compelling storylines and atmospheric vocal lines define these artists equally to their training.

I have a theory about songwriters these days: they've had exposure to the great American song form - jazz - and they've had ample opportunities to study it in music lessons - as compared to strictly Classical.  And they've made it uniquely their own.

Here are some of my favorite jams of late.

Esperanza Spalding released an album earlier this year, "Emily's D+Evolution".  It's a great album.  I highly recommend you buy the whole thing.  It's very prog and very conceptual, coming from a strong jazz background.  I like this track:

Xenia Rubinos released her sophomore album a few months ago.  Out of Brooklyn, she brings a fresh take on the region's legendary hip hop.  She studied jazz singing at Berklee and her breathy, but large, range is used to accentuate a broad harmonic chord progression.  Note, the 7th chords!  I can't stop jamming the entire album - it's so stellar! - and it demonstrates the wonder of jazz song form with a great deal of 21st Century style thrown in.  The following track opens with a haunting vocal line that only a jazz singer could deliver with authenticity:

And so I must talk about Hiatus Kaiyote (pronounced "hiatus coyote") from Australia.  Jazz, most definitely, with a punk edge and a romantic sensibility.  It's awkward time signatures and strange meandering through thick chords is inviting rather than alienating.  Seriously, this has been my go-to on the bus to work.  As you can imagine, I arrive at work in a blissed out state.  Take this tune (and buy the whole damn album, please):

Love your 7th chords.  Mwah, mwah.  Juicy!  It's the language of now.

[Purchasing albums, from digital platforms or your local record store, help support musicians who sacrifice pretty much everything for the sake of creating life-changing sounds.]

This post is part of the Sunday Listens series where I post about music that's exciting/interesting to me.  Sometimes from the perspective of a voice teacher and usually on Sundays.  Get your week started right with awesome tuneage.

The Sunday Listens: Prince's Prodigies

                    Prince and Sheila E.  A fruitful musical relationship!

Social media has been stretching my phone's data limits this week with retrospectives on the prolific career of Prince.  Maybe you've noticed?  I can't help but click with endless fascination.  Yes, he was a great and uncompromising artist (the kind I like best), but I'm not gonna pretend that I was super fan just because he has passed.  

Nope, my appreciation of him came much later in my life, and by then I was more interested in getting to know other musicians' catalogs.  No offense, Prince, I swear.  We just weren't timed together well.

I was really young when he was big news.  In fact, the song I'm most familiar with is "Cream" - and only because it was hard to ignore that video on MTV - the buttless pants!  That factoid alone dates me.

However, I knew that Prince was super amazing, and I also knew that he inspired some equally amazing artists.  That became something I was more tied to.

When I first saw a video of Janelle Monae, I immediately saw a connection to Prince.  She's plays with androgyny and character onstage.  She also plays some funky guitar and is from the midwest.  She recently said it best herself though, "He stood for the weirdos."  


Sheila E was THE example of badass women drummers for a very long time.  Now there are many more out there, but as a teenager in the 90's I was desperate for examples of women who could rock it hard.  My mom was the one to tell me about her - that's how famous she became making music with Prince.  Here she is shredding.  You can hear the strong influence of her Latin roots, but also her ability to hold down a solid groove when need demands - and need usually does demand.

I've been following the career of Esperanza Spalding for a long time.  She comes out of the jazz tradition, but her most recent album struck me as weird in a very Prince way.  The entire album is presented as a character piece, "Emily D+Evolution".   She grooves on the electric bass while singing from her soul.  Messages of love, something Prince would approve of.

I did a google search, just to see if she was indeed acquainted with Prince and found that he had invited her to perform at BET's tribute to Prince (in 2010, I believe).  Sadly, I couldn't find any decent videos of her performing his "If I Was Your Girlfriend".  I did, however, find TLC's version and it's pretty amazing.  Oh Left Eye!  Oh Prince!  RIP!

Let's hear it for the weirdos!  What do you think?  Any Prince prodigies that should be added to the list?

Let me know in the comments below.