Millennial musicians breach borders at Tel Aviv Jazz Fest
Jonathan Gratch / i24NEWS
For better or worse, millennial musicians are heralding in a new era of jazz that breaks down barriers and embraces a wide-range of influences, both geographically and stylistically.
Nowhere is that more clear than at Tel Aviv’s Jazz Festival (November 28-31), remarkable this year for its roster of major young American artists pushing the boundaries of jazz and blurring the lines between ostensibly disparate musical genres.
Among the festival's big names are headlining trumpeter Keyon Harrold, 26-year-old saxophonist of Korean descent Grace Kelly, and the purple mohawk-sporting frontwoman bassist Nik West.
The festival is also hosting a range of Israeli artists who live abroad and are coming especially to perform, incorporating elements from their new locales, most commonly New York -- the nexus of jazz music.
“Israel is part of the international jazz scene. Israeli musicians travel, live abroad, go to music schools, stay there for quite a few years. Many of them come back and become the mentors and role models of the younger generations -- it’s a revolving door,” explains Barak Weiss, the charismatic Artistic Director of the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival.
“There is an Israeli sound to jazz,” says Weiss, highlighting how different cultures imbue the music with national influences.
But jazz’s renaissance today is arguably even stronger when you look across musical genres rather than global distinctions per se.
“There is really a fine line between certain styles of music and that's a good thing because I think it's our job as millennial musicians to keep progressing the music. I really think that's what our fathers and mothers of jazz would want us to do,” says Grace Kelly, the vibrant and articulate saxophonist with her spearmint-dyed hair and butterfly sunglasses, as she rattles off the names of jazz legends such as Charlie Parker and Mary Lou Williams.
The precocious musician, who performed at former president Barack Obama’s inauguration when she was just 16 years old, is the youngest bandleader at this year’s Tel Aviv Jazz Festival. And while older jazz fans may be less familiar with her, she in many ways exemplifies the revolution taking place in the genre.
“All of us musicians are not in favor of calling the music this or that, we just want it to get out to as many people as possible and touch their hearts and souls,” she tells i24NEWS.
“I think the greatest thing about jazz is it’s improvisational music. So no matter what the context is, whether you have an electronic beat under, if there is a singer or sax player or trumpet player that's making something up on top of it – that is jazz.”
Kelly proudly represents her millennial generation’s foray into the world of jazz through what she calls her “electro-jazz-pop” style, which is enhanced by her ebullient attitude and playful integration of dance, singing, and audience interaction in her performances as well as social media content.
Keyon Harrold, dubbed by Wynton Marsalis as “the future of the trumpet,” also infuses his music with a wealth of creativity and style, though he has a more tempered attitude about the progression of music, and jazz in particular.
“There are so many different facets of what jazz is. First of all there's nothing new. There's been so many fusions – when you think of Herbie, when you think of Miles, who changed music like five six times, changed the face of what music is....It's how do we approach it with what we have now. Will there ever be music better than Bach, Chopin? We don’t know,” he explains.
At 38, Keyon has cemented himself as a leading musical figure with the release last year of his album “The Mugician”, which followed his part playing trumpet in Don Cheadle’s highly praised biopic on Miles Davis, “Miles Ahead."
"The Mugician incorporates so many different aspects: orchestral music, classical music, hip hop, rap, vocals, instrumental. I don't really care, as long as it sounds good and as long as it's getting my message across. And I let the people choose to tell me what it is…I want it to affect people and touch people," he explains describing his different influences.
Citing the legendary producer-musician Quincy Jones, Keyon says, “There's only two kinds of music: good music and not-so good music. I like the good music and I like to draw on any influence from the good music as much as I possibly can."
For years, the trumpeter has played with the biggest names in the industry, including Beyoncé, Gregory Porter, Jay Z, Rihanna, and Eminem. In 2016, he performed at the White House with an all-star ensemble of rising talents behind the ever-eloquent rapper Common as part of NPR’s incredibly popular video series “Tiny Desk Concerts.”
In that performance, one gets the sense of the type of socio-political and musical influences that infuses Keyon’s art, palpable in his latest album that features other trailblazing artists, including singer-songwriter Andrea Pizziconi who will take the stage with Keyon’s quintet at the Tel Aviv festival.
The song “MB lament” on his album pays homage to Michael Brown, whose controversial fatal shooting in Keyon’s native Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 at the hands of police ignited a a storm of vigorous debate over racism and violence in the United States.
“Racism, sexism, bigotry – I'm trying to tear all that down,” Keyon tells i24NEWS, explaining that his approach is the "social impact, the idea of really messaging what's going on, being an activist of music.”
Having been to Israel several times in the past Keyon says his performance in Tel Aviv is an active choice in defiance of the plethora of social media users pressing him not to come for social or political reasons, such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates isolating the Jewish state over its treatment of Palestinians and is inspired by international advocacy against apartheid-era South Africa.
"Coming here to Israel was definitely a choice...First of all, I love it here, it's beautiful here – there's no place like it in the entire universe, for so many reasons….As an artist, if I don't come, then I really can't say anything. So I'm being silenced twice: if I don't come and if I can't say anything about it," Keyon says.
“I come to share my message, my perspective, love, hope and togetherness, so I'm hoping that what I bring can help change the hearts and minds of somebody," he explains.
Jazz and its roots in blues are both musical forms that arose from the African-American narrative that grew out of slavery, discrimination, and economic hardship. As a result, many believe that the art form are inextricably tied to socio-political issues.
“Jazz has always been connected to the culture of the day! Jazz is very political in that sense. Jazz is being more connected to the social problems, like African-American narratives,” explains Barak Weiss.
While Weiss says he does not consider BDS a “major challenge” for bringing international artists to perform in Israel, he admits that things have gotten worse for Israeli artists performing abroad due to protests and calls to cancel events with Israeli participants.
More disconcerting is the issue of an aging jazz audience that may be hard to reach coupled with the challenge of attracting the younger generations that are digitally inclined.
“The audience is getting older, like any of the performing arts. The average jazz listener is in his late 30’s and up...Older people have more money to spend on culture, jazz in particular, but it’s harder to find out how to reach them,” says Weiss, a key figure in the import and export of Israel’s jazz scene.
While traditionalists may be resistant to jazz’s free use in combination with today’s popular music, young artists see the diversification of the genre as part of their duty.
“I'm really trying to push the music forward. I think that's the responsibility of being a millennial in jazz, but it's also what I'm interested in. I really do listen to a whole range of music,” says Kelly.
In her eyes, jazz will always be around, so there is no need to worry about preserving “this perfect pristine traditional thing.” She sees jazz as more of a language that enables people to express themselves in new and different ways.
At the same time, she urges her fans to explore other jazz music with the caveat that “this is not like a math class, not something you have to study. Just like pop music, you listen and you feel.”
Jonathan Gratch is a journalist and news editor for the i24NEWS English web desk.
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U listen & U feel. Perfect. No pseudo-intellectualism.