Is there a “jazz is dead” movement? I guess not — it’d have made its voice amply loud on social media by now. Evidently, the jazz community doesn’t see it appropriate to unite over collective consternation towards the state of modern music. Good for the jazzers — rallies, campaigns, and movements breed ignorance, even when born out of the best intentions (it’s true — read Soren Kierkegaard’s “The Present Age.” It rocked my perception). Regardless, I’m surprised by the silence, and it’s not because jazz really is “dead.” In fact, jazz harmony has no small presence in the modern music mystique. Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Miguel, Wiz Kalifha, Kendrick Lamar, and Tyler, the Creator  are just a few mainstream heavyweights who construct a complex sonic subtext for their music through the use of 11 and 13 chords (and not just in the kind of tonally ambiguous minor vamp that’s evolved from Coltrane’s “Impressions” to immaculately produced trap n’ synth celebrations of weed culture). Rather, jazz harmony in the mainstream context often displays a capricious disregard for traditional harmonic rules concerning tonal purity, perhaps reflecting the beauty behind a generation that spawned a Miley Cyrus hit with the chorus “It’s our party we can do what we want.” Just take a listen to the harmony behind Tyler, the Creator’s “IFHY” — a cycle of major 7 chords minor thirds apart. Not quite “Giant Steps”-level game changing, but still beautifully unorthodox.

The party is in full swing, and Beyoncé and Wiz are just a few of our fearless party leaders who can show us the perverse beauty in a culture of excess, debauchery, and gratification at all costs. That being said, turn-of-the-century R&B singer-songwriter D’Angelo’s “Live at the Jazz Cafe, London: The Complete Show” reissue couldn’t have dropped at a better time. The 2014 reissue, an expanded version of a rare, live D’Angelo recording from 1995, brings to modern attention an artist whose grasp of the zeitgeist was as veritable as his roots in jazz, R&B and blues idioms. Roots — that’s the important word to take out from that last sentence. Simply put, D’Angelo knew his stuff. “Live at the Jazz Cafe” accentuates everything that made the singer-songwriter’s magnum opus LP “Voodoo” so much more than just another R. Kelly luv-n’-sex experience. It’s not to say D’Angelo doesn’t do luv-n’-sex. Far from it. On “Live at the Jazz Cafe,” D’Angelo owns the luv-n’-sex vibe, but he then takes it to the stratosphere with backing musicians of the caliber found on a Steely Dan record, a thoroughly vicious sense of groove, and the type of sweaty, seething cohesion that only fleetingly transcendent live communication can capture. That’s roots.

Today’s party leaders don’t analyze Larry Carlton’s guitar solos on Steely Dan records. They don’t bother trying to capture the busting-at-the-seams urgency of The Allman Brothers “Live at the Fillmore East” either. This is okay. After all, if we’re searching for authenticity in a digital age that’s only going to become more digital, it ought to be exhilarating to brave new frontiers of unexplored human expression through auto tune, 808 drum pads, sequencers, sampling, looping, flash, glitz, glam, and #thatPOWER. That’s why the “Live at the Jazz Cafe” reissue is far from the last strain of all things good to come out of the modern music machine. Rather, it’s a reminder — a timely reminder of our roots before this party gets out of hand.

“Live at the Jazz Cafe” plays with old-soul wisdom and futuristic ambition all at once. “Fencewalk”, the album’s opener, blasts with gargantuan, strident synth stabs and a stink-face-inducing funk groove. Such is the vibe on “Live at the Jazz Cafe”: grooves that move with stripped-down and hard-hitting tact but dare to be even bigger through their embrace of sleek, synthetic gloss. The album’s other highlights include “Sweet Sticky Thing,” a gorgeous and dirty riff on the same descending harmony from Michael Jackson’s “I Want You Back” and “Sh*t, Damn,  Motherf*cker,” which is as utterly stinky as its title promises.

At the very least, “Live at the Jazz Cafe” offers D’Angelo fans and seasoned veterans of the funk, soul, R&B, and jazz world a captivating listening experience they couldn’t otherwise get ahold of. Fantastic. Still, the reissue has the capacity to stand for so much more. If Pitchfork’s promotion of “Live at the Jazz Cafe” is any indication of its potential for widespread appeal, the album just might elevate smart pop to places it’s never seen – places where Pat Martino-style guitar solos coexist in songs with hashtags in their titles. Get ready folks: this party’s about to enter a whole ‘nother level.

Howard is a member of 

the class of 2017.


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