April is Jazz Appreciation Month. So it’s an appropriate time to showcase four, twenty first century musicians who are taking jazz to the next level. Esperanza Spalding , the twenty seven year-old, Portland-born bassist/vocalist with the Angela Davis-style afro, who shocked the world with her 2010 Grammy award for Best New Artist; the Brooklyn-based velvet-tinged vocalist Gregory Porter, who channels the sincerity of Bill Withers and ebullience of Terry Callier ; Houston pianist/keyboardist Robert Glasper, a formidable musician who is at home with both Duke Ellington and the legendary hip-hop producer J. Dilla, and New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott, a finessed and fiery improviser with a engaging, Black-to-the-future approach to the music.
“All of those guys from my generation are incredible musicians and I love them all,” says Spalding. “I don't know if we represent is a movement. I think people who heavily embrace the music they grew up with find a larger audience outside of jazz, because there's a commonality there of what's familiar there, musically.”
Spalding’s ebullient, Berklee School of Music-bred bass lines, multilingual vocals (In English, Spanish and Portuguese) and world music fluency has earned her some impressive fans, from Prince to President Obama. Her latest CD, Radio Music Society – the sequel to the classically-inspired recording Chamber Music Society – features original compositions like the Black History anthem “Black Gold” and the Patrice Rushen-meets-Steely Dan-like “Smile Like That,” along with her ingenious covers of Wayne Shorter’s fusion composition “Endangered Species,” and an Afropop take on the Stevie Wonder/Michael Jackson classic, “I Can’t Help it.” Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, co-produced two tracks (“Crowned and Kissed” and “City of Roses"). “What people are going to hear is going to be unique for each person,” she says. When you make a piece of art and give it to the public, if it is meaningful, everybody will have their own relationship to it. So I hope there's enough room in the music for their own meaning.”
At the same time Spalding's star was rising, the fleet-fingered, 34-year-old Robert Glasper, who studied at the New School in New York, landed impressive sideman gigs with Q-Tip, Terence Blanchard, and Nicholas Payton and released three mostly straight-ahead CDs. His newest release Black Radio with his group, the Experiment, is nothing less than an aural manifesto calling for the artificially-erected boundaries separating jazz, R&B, and hip-hop top to come tumbling down, as evidenced by his silken and syncopated takes on Sade’s “Cherish the Day,” the Abbey Lincoln-associated jazz jewel “Afro-Blue,” a riveting remake of the Nirvana favorite, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the surging title track, laced with Yasiin Bey’s [Mos Def] Brooklyn-born rap prowess. For Glasper, crossing the line separating jazz and hip-hop is an act of self-definition, rather than an excursion into forbidden artistic waters.
“I think cats fight what naturally comes to them, so they can have a certain sound.” he says. “It’s ok to have tradition, but some people are held back by the tradition. And the tradition of the music; the spirit off jazz was always to look forward, to be cutting edge. Jazz was the hip-hop of its day. So for me, I can only be influenced by what has influenced me. I’m a child of R&B and hip–hop because that’s what I grew up on.” Those influences effortlessly merge on Black Radio, Glasper’s new CD that features an all-star cast that includes Lalah Hathaway, Bilal, and Lupe Fiasco, with some scintillating versions of Sade’s “Cherish the Day,” the jazz standard “Afro-Blue,” and Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Team Spirit.”
Exposed to jazz by his mother who was a pianist and vocalist, Glasper immersed himself in Houston’s High School for the Performing Arts (Beyonce’s alma mater) and was engrossed in hip-hop; a genre he says, owes much of it’s existence to jazz. “Eighty percent of hip-hop is sampled from jazz musician’s old records, including all of the drum sounds, piano loops, the bass lines, horn lines … everything,” he says. “If jazz was not around; half of the music we listen to wouldn’t be around. So I’m just really bringing it back around … At the end of the day, is about being honest with yourself. If I did not do what I’m doing now, I would be selling out; not the other way around.”
Growing up in the tradition-rich Crescent City, Christian Scott (also 34) – the nephew of saxophonist and ex-Art Blakey Jazz Messenger Donald Harrison – embarked on an identity quest similar to Glasper’s. A graduate of the famed New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, where the Marsalis brothers and Harry Connick, Jr. learned to swing, Scott at first resented the back-to-basic approach of his elders.
“I thought those guys did us a my generation a disservice by choosing to pantomime the contributions of their predecessors, as opposed to looking for a new path in trying to forge new ground,” he lamented. “Now as an older guy, I realized that those guys in the eighties made sure that young musicians had a certain type of pedigree, and understood the history of this music. They ended up creating a generation of younger musicians who were born in the eighties, who are well informed and understand the history of the music.” Scott’s previous records, including Anthem and Rewind That, capture the tradition in transition, while drawing equally from rap and rock stylings. He takes that blending to a higher level on his forthcoming two-CD release, Christian aTunde Adjuah, with a new concept he calls “stretch music.” “It’s a second-generation type of fusion: an improvisational form that acculturates other musical forms into a jazz context,” he says.
"The younger musicians are tearing down those barriers that separate the music. There's folk jazz, world jazz, African and Latin feel. It's not new for jazz to open its arms to different styles and forms of music. " says 40-year-vocalist Gregory Porter, who garnered a Grammy nomination for his 2010 CD, Water, and recently released an impressive follow-up, Be Good, an elegantly produced soul-on-jazz disc, featuring renditions of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” the Cannonball Adderley-classic “Work Song,” and Porter’s Big Apple bouncy, “On My Way to Harlem.” “I'm doing what is in the tradition of jazz. I draw from a lot of influences,” he says: “Etta Jones, Abbey Lincoln, Joe Williams, Nat King Cole, Andy Bey, Leon Thomas, as well as Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfiield , James Brown, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. I grew up with country gospel blues … I'm coming forth with my own personal musical charisma, my own voice. That's what's happening with Glasper, Esperanza, and Christian … they're listening to their own voices.”