When jazz critic Nate Chinen talks about artists whose recent work excites him, he’s quick to mention vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant.
Hers is the first name encountered in Chinen’s book “Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century,” which he will discuss at two Jazz St. Louis events this week, and its placement there is by design.
“In some ways, it’s a book about our changing relationship to tradition,” Chinen said by phone from his home in New York’s Hudson Valley. “The way we talked about the jazz tradition at the end of the 20th century is different from the way we talk about it now.”
Chinen sees McLorin Salvant as having solved one of the essential questions facing jazz artists today: how to absorb and acknowledge the genre’s long and incredibly rich history without being trapped into merely emulating it.
“Cecile is so deeply in tune with jazz history and with cultural history,” Chinen says. “She’s not just retracing those steps; she’s really interrogating it, she’s turning it on its side, she’s finding her own way to speak that language.”
Of course, there’s no one prescribed method of approaching jazz, and “Playing Changes” addresses some of the myriad ways that today’s artists are expanding the genre and moving the music forward.
The book profiles a host of jazz innovators including pianists Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Brad Mehldau, Robert Glasper and “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” bandleader Jon Batiste; guitarist Mary Halvorson; saxophonists Kamasi Washington, Steve Coleman, John Zorn (who studied at Webster University) and Donny McCaslin, whose band accompanied David Bowie on his final album; and bassist Esperanza Spalding, who has used social media to lay bare her creative process.
“Playing Changes” is a deep dive into language of jazz and the mysteries of artistic creation, but it’s intended for a general audience.
“I wrote the book certainly with the idea that a jazz initiate would appreciate it and get something out of it,” Chinen says. “I didn’t want it to be too inside-baseball.”
Chinen is the editorial director of Newark, N.J., jazz radio station WBGO, a frequent contributor to NPR music coverage and also works closely with the multimedia program “Jazz Night in America,” which last year produced a program featuring the Bad Plus playing live at the Ferring Jazz Bistro. Previously, he was a regular contributor to the New York Times and a longtime columnist for JazzTimes.
The book opens with a provocative chapter on Washington, whom some have crowned a new jazz savior — the implication being, of course, that jazz needs saving.
“I really do feel like we weren’t talking about jazz saviors prior to the period where jazz stopped being a popular music,” Chinen says. Rock ‘n’ roll took hold commercially in the late 1950s, after which jazz became “something much more elevated — more of a sophisticated niche taste.”
Chinen charts that course by which jazz came to be called, in that famous — and to some degree infamous — phrase, “America’s classical music.” As jazz staked out its cultural significance, it emphasized preservation over innovation and sought institutional support and academic respectability.
In short, it went uptown.
Its power center is quite literally in uptown Manhattan: Jazz at Lincoln Center. Along with its managing and artistic director, Wynton Marsalis — who in his earlier days was hailed as a jazz savior, too — JALC became a symbol of the stultifying conservatism that eventually took hold of the music.
On the one hand, Chinen says, the success of Jazz at Lincoln Center “is self-evident, and I think it’s a really positive thing. But there’s a cost to that, in the sense that, if jazz is high culture, it’s no longer in touch with the noise and chaos of the streets.”
As for Marsalis, Chinen says he sought to present a nuanced portrait of him in the book. “I have enormous admiration for him, but I also harbor certain ambivalences about his philosophy. To me, he’s definitely not a villain, but he’s also not unequivocally a hero. It’s complicated.”
Still, with notable exceptions like New York’s downtown scene, centered at the Knitting Factory, the latter decades of the 20th century were rife with the sense that jazz was walling itself off and constantly policing its borders.
“In the ‘90s, I was aware of a constant set of questions around defining the music,” Chinen says. “What is jazz, and when you say that, what are you excluding? I feel like, with the rise of another generation of artists, those questions feel increasingly irrelevant and beside the point.”
One of those artists is Glasper, who, around the turn of the century, was among a number of jazz musicians who began to collaborate with hip hop, R&B and soul artists, creating new hybrids as they went along.
For his part, Glasper doesn’t seem to feel the need to be polite about it. His most recent release is a mixtape featuring guest artists ranging from Herbie Hancock and Bilal to Andra Day and Yassin Bey (formerly Mos Def). It’s titled “F— Yo Feelings.”
“You know, Glasper likes to stir the pot,” Chinen says with a laugh. “But really, I see him as really important in terms of changing the conversation around jazz’s relationship to black music.”
When Glasper arrived on the scene, he says, “it wasn’t all that intuitive for pop or hip-hop or R&B artists to seek out jazz musicians to collaborate, and Glasper really made it a natural evolution.”
The results, Chinen contends, “have implications that go far beyond whatever our genre silo may be when you consider that this conversation includes Kendrick Lamar, Brittany Howard, people like Flying Lotus, Anderson.Paak and Solange. There’s a whole constellation of really interesting African American artists who are in dialogue with jazz, even if you wouldn’t call what they’re making jazz.”