Great Performances from 40 Years of Jazz at NEC

New England Conservatory of Music

How do you know when a musical genre has passed from the popular universe to academia? Why, when they start passing out Genius Grants to the practitioners. A century ago, jazz was a rude, raucous style you had to visit the black part of town to experience. Fifty years ago, it filled an intellectual niche that used to belong to Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Today, jazz lurks around small clubs and university practice rooms; and places like the New England Conservatory of Music actually have something to preserve.

So what’s left of this once world-shaking art form? We open with a quiet piano-based composition “Cottontail” by the Duke Ellington Repertory Orchestra. It’s loungy smooth, offering no challenge to the clinking glasses at the bar. Next up, we hear more relaxed piano with Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” performed by Jaki Byard, who returns a few tracks later with “Aluminum Baby” and its slow-moving big band sound. There is a lot of this relaxation on the Art-i-facts disc, but occasional key changes pop up. “All About Rosie” is a fast, more upbeat sound, recalling West Side Story or a low budget ’50s caper film, and “Train and River” slides into the audio tricks that country fiddlers use to replicate the sound of a steam engine. All is calm on the jazz front; the sound on this disc is suitable for introspective meditation. Vocals are rare, but “Go Gently To The Water” sung by Dominique Eade might be a featured number on A Prairie Home Companion. We wrap up with the most energetic tune, a tuba and euphonium-punctuated “Maple Leaf Rag.” Jazz comes in flavors, but not all of them are on this disc.

I would offer that the NEC has properly preserved this jazz. Like preserved fruit, it’s not as crispy and juicy as the original, but it will give you your vitamins through the long winter. Jazz has been described as the only truly American musical form. After a century, it’s still worth a listen if only for cultural historical background to understand hip hop and show tunes.

New England Conservatory of Music:

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