Nas famously declared that "Hip Hop is Dead" in 2006. I can imagine something similar being said about jazz 50 years earlier. In the 1950s and '60s, there was an explosion of sub-genres within Jazz: Cool Jazz, Modal Jazz, Fusion Jazz, Free Jazz, Third Stream, and more. The jazz that everyone knew at the time, covers of the songs in popular musicals and other pop music, seemed dead.
Unless you have followed the scene closely, jazz appears to be an unclassifiable world of complex rhythm, harmony and melody that is impossible to penetrate for the uninitiated. With the TD Toronto Jazz festival including non-jazz headliners like Chaka Khan and Earth, Wind and Fire it's understandable that casual music fans have no idea what is going on in jazz. What's good for creativity is really bad for marketing.
Of course Jazz isn't dead. The core idea of using pop music as source material for creative exploration is still very much alive. When I'm asked how to break into Jazz I always respond with a question: What music do you listen to now? It's best to start with music you already have a feel for and find a group that uses that music as a starting point for their creative exploration. It is easier to appreciate (and follow) where these artists take the music when you already understand where they started. With that idea in mind, here is a list of acts in this year's TD Toronto Jazz Fest and the popular music they use as their inspiration. Click on the artist's name to get the info on their shows at this year's festival.
Source Material: R&B
Snarky Puppy caused a mini-stir at the 2014 Grammy's taking the award for best R&B Performance for their cover of "Something." The band, led by bassist and composer Michael League, have expertly negotiated the new music industry since the collapse of album sales and have built a solid career based on their ability to wow the crowds at their live shows. Since 2010 they have released four live albums and all the performances are available on YouTube.
These videos have highlighted the band's high skill in live settings but more importantly their ability to lay down deep R&B grooves. Act quickly before their ravenous fans buy all the tickets to this show. If you miss out it's still a good idea to check out their extensive rep on YouTube and be ready the next time they are in town.
Source Material: EDM
Pianist Brad Mehldau is a well known commodity in the Jazz world with a career spanning over two decades. He has released 13 ablums with his trio which feature covers of contemporary artists Radiohead, Elliot Smith and others. Even with such an extensive catalog, Mehldau still has the ability to defy expectations. For his newest album Taming the Dragon, Mehldau ditched the grand piano for rhodes and synth to dive head first into the world of EDM. He brought along drummer Mark Guiliani for the adventure. Guiliani's high energy playing and Mehldau's ability to play bass and melodies simultaneously are worth checking out if you are into the textures of EDM.
Source Material: Pop
This Toronto-based group have over exaggerated with their band name. They would probably make a pretty decent pop band. In fact, I know the members of the band have backed some of the biggest Canadian pop artist such as Chantal Kreviazuk. The band describes themsleves as the love child of Miles Davis and Radiohead. They have covered songs by J Dilla, Sly and the Family Stone, and of course Radiohead.
Source Material: Hip Hop
The most prolific trumpeter in Toronto today with over 200 album credits. Born in Trinidad, he made a name for himself as a session player on Latin albums and still leads a large Latin Ensemble. He also worked closely with the late MC Guru of Gangstar fame and was the lead soloist on Guru's final Jazzmatazz project. Brownman leads many groups in Toronto and is preforming 5 shows in this years festival.