Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century
by Nate Chinen
Pantheon Books, 2018, US $27.95, CDN$36.95
This week, I finished reading Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century by American jazz and pop critic Nate Chinen. There aren't many books written about jazz each year, so I'd been wanting to read it since it was released last summer. I found it a fascinating – if incomplete – guide to what's on in jazz today.
What worked: it's right up to date, and covers a wide range of musicians and styles from avant-garde, to jazz crossovers with R&B and hip-hop, to Afro-Cuban, to mainstream. The musicians profiled in the book are clearly influential and interesting, and continuing to push themselves. Many will be familiar to Ottawa listeners, whether from performances at the Ottawa Jazz Festival or mentions in other jazz publications or on jazz radio.
The chapter-long profiles of musicians such as Esperanza Spalding, Brad Mehldau, Vijay Iyer, Mary Halvorson, Miguel Zenon, and Dave Douglas were what I found most interesting. Chinen has done a good job of providing a sympathetic and music-focused profile of each of these artists, condensing their history and their ideas from different interviews and reviews, and giving an informed context for their music.
I also really enjoyed the learning more about Jason Moran's combinations of music and visual art, Chinen's excursions through Beijing's increasingly self-propelled jazz scene, or how Donny McCaslin linked up with David Bowie. The “Changing Sames” chapter about the links between hip-hop and jazz – and in particular, the continuing influence of the late producer J Dilla on both – helped me understand more about that scene and how much it added to the recent music of, for example, Roy Hargrove (and how much we lost with Hargrove's recent death).
What wasn't as successful: Chinen aimed this book as a guide to jazz since 2000, but in fact it sprawls over a rather larger time line than that. In describing the relevance and development of many musicians, he was forced to go back several decades earlier. And while there may be no Miles or Dizzy or Thelonious in this book, there certainly are extensive references to Shorter and Hancock and other famous musicians of the previous century.
Primarily this is Chinen's narrative – his story of how he encountered these musicians combined with information about them, told in his voice. While he includes quotes from the musicians and from others, they are secondary to his descriptions of their music and situations he sees them in. It's a different approach than an interview – more of an omniscient narrator putting the scene in context.
That has the advantage of using his educated eye to evaluate musicians and to see the links among them. But it also is primarily his interpretation, rather than their own words.
There also are a lot of holes. A former jazz and pop critic for The New York Times, Chinen is now director of editorial content at radio station WBGO. WGBO bills itself as “Jazz Public Radio from the Jazz Capital of the World, New York City”. That says it all.
If you're looking at jazz from New York City outwards, this book is a fairly comprehensive description of jazz today. But if you're looking in from the hinterlands, there's so much missing. There's very little about European jazz. There's effectively nothing about Canada: the only Canadians mentioned are Kris Davis and Darcy James Argue, and they've been living in NYC for years. Within the U.S., there's some mention of Chicago and New Orleans and LA and Texas – but not a lot. There's one chapter (“The Crossroads”) devoted to “foreign” jazz in China and Puerto Rico and London, UK.
Essentially, it's a chronicle of what Chinen has seen in jazz in the last two decades. It's an interesting view – but nowhere near complete.