Diving into a new genre of music is exceptionally intimidating—but jazz, jazz is terrifying.
The genre’s rich history and transnational influence, from the slaves’ field holler all the way to atonal music in France, made jazz out to be a monolith of high culture you could only experience through hip-hop samples and hopelessly listening in on the selections of your local jazz enthusiast. The fear of being unprepared, of not knowing enough and listening to the wrong thing, of tarnishing tastes in an era where your Twitter takes is your biggest asset, kept me out of the jazz genre altogether.
Even so, jazz was—jazz is—everywhere. A grip of my favorite authors, most notably Haruki Murakami, invoke jazz in their short stories and novels to the point where it felt like I was not in on a music-universe prank. Having had a enough, at one point, I even bought a book of jazz anecdotes in hopes that reading a few tall tales would somehow give me the gumption to let go of my insecurities and just listen to some music.
Eventually, though, I found it in me to dive into the music without any hangups. After ambling through a few hardbop albums, some vocal albums, and the seventh album on three different Top Jazz Albums of 2017 lists, I started developing a vocabulary for what I did and did not like without worrying if my fledgling tastes were just a byproduct of ignorance. I should say, I felt much better about myself after I found that the first two records I enjoyed all the way through were GRAMMY-nominated and GRAMMY-awarded.
After one straight month of dedicated, albeit not very well guided, jazz listening, I’ve fallen in love with three not-too-similar, but not-too-different records: For One To Love by Cécile McLorin Salvant, Somewhere in Between by Braxton Cook, and Salt by Lizz Wright.
Unsurprisingly, all of these records deal with love in some way. Wright’s gospel leanings have her praising God, but she is able to invoke and pour her heart into a handful of genres from more traditional jazz vocalizations to latin and pop fusions. Salvant also has an equally impressive range and a wit about her, with tracks on For One To Love repurposed to make the sexist sound absurd. She has a husky voice that can flip to a yearning and sensual timbre. Even when tackling jazz standards, Salvant’s voice is not lost.
Braxton Cook confronts the duality of being both man and artist, struggling to find the balance between his love for his girlfriend and his love for music. A saxophonist and emotive vocalist, Cook’s compositions are winding sonic thrills. When necessary, his sax can wail and temper a political edge with pain and mourning.
The lesson here, of course, is to let go of your more minute insecurities whenever you have the chance.When you do something for a living, like write about music, the prospect of humbling yourself in order to enjoy yourself involves the ever-important task of "feeling stupid," but I contend that discomfort is crucial to grow as a fan of anything. The alternative would be a dry and dismal singularity.
As much as I’m inclined to go on and technically praise and critique these three albums, the greater point is that these are three beautiful bodies of work that moved me enough to play them again and again, and to work them into my daily routine. When you do something creative for a living, it’s easy for that something to lose its creative spark and devolve into a paint-by-numbers exercise. Shedding, or at the very least, confronting insecurities and allowing yourself the space to explore without imposing judgement makes for a much richer and exciting life.
The next three jazz albums I listen to could be critically acclaimed or terrible and I could be none the wiser, but that dissonance doesn’t take away from my progress. A refined taste will come, but in the meantime I am having a blast.