Photo: Pierce Johnston
One Night In The Eyes Of Eternity: How 'In Common III' Speaks To Jazz As An Intergenerational Form
Saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens' new album, 'In Common III,' features an enticing guest: the legendary bassist Dave Holland. It's a reminder that jazz provides particularly fertile soil for intergenerational dialogue.
Jazz may be a web, but the strands can become somewhat calcified. Musicians can get too comfortable playing with the same people over and over; expectations can grow static. For saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens, that reality planted the seed of In Common, a multi-album series featuring outstanding musicians of all ages and backgrounds in fresh combinations.
"We wanted to get outside of who our normal touring circles are because sometimes that can be pretty specific," Smith explains to GRAMMY.com. "You see a million other people at your concerts, or you go to their concerts, or you see them at festivals, but there isn't always an opportunity to play with everybody that you want to play with."
For the inspired third entry, In Common III, released last March on famed jazz label Whirlwind Recordings, the pair teamed up with pianist Kris Davis, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. (Previous installments involved vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Linda May Han Oh, drummer Nate Smith and other heavyweights.)
But aside from simple camaraderie and getting out of comfort zones, the In Common series opens up a window into jazz's unique capacity as a intergenerational artform. Smith, Stevens and Davis are in their forties; Carrington is in her fifties; Holland is 75. Age isn't merely a spectrum of "younger" or "older" in jazz; it speaks to a taxonomy of lineages and schools of thought.
Holland played with foundational figures like Miles Davis and Chick Corea and recorded cerebral classics as a leader, like 1972's Conference of the Birds. But before diving into the In Common crew's experience playing with him, it's worth examining their performances with younger musicians, like Ross.
Despite Ross being in his early twenties, playing with him wasn't merely a case of bolstering an emerging musician. Ross has been central to the recent boom period for Blue Note Records signings, acting as a hub for monster talent from his generation, like saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins.
And although he was playing with musicians two decades his senior on 2018's In Common, it wasn't a one-way street of elders instructing youngsters.
"I would not say we were nurturing younger talent because when we played with Joel, he was the bes. He was way better than anybody else," Smith says. "So, he was nurturing us, even though he was very small." (For 2020's In Common II, they enlisted pianist Micah Thomas, born in 1997, who Smith also describes as "very small" at the time.)
Carrington, who's won three GRAMMYs and been nominated for four, calls herself something of a "bridge between generations." When considering intergenerational interplay, she thinks of her "biggest influence and mentor," the drum godhead Jack DeJohnette.
Before In Common III, Carrington hadn't worked much with Holland over the past 35 years — she'd played with him as a teen at DeJohnette's house, but that was mostly it. But when she reconnected with the bassist, it clicked. Holland and DeJohnette's deep-rooted stylistic connection — like in Gateway, the pair's '70s trio with guitarist John Abercrombie — meant playing with Holland was a breeze.
"Sometimes, I try to move away from that time period [represented by Holland and DeJohnette]. I'm not saying I'm successful, but I do try," Carrington tells GRAMMY.com. "But then, if I play with somebody like Dave, it puts me right back into that feeling of nostalgia, in a sense. It's this certain bounce, this swing that I often try to run away from in some ways."
"My dad once told me you can't run away from who you are," she adds. "And that stays in my brain."
You Can’t Learn That In School
It would take a lifetime to grasp the enormity of intergenerational dialogue in jazz. Charles Mingus cited his formative influences as Duke Ellington and church, and played on Duke's classic 1962 trio album Money Jungle with drummer Max Roach. And numberless jazzers learned at the feet of Barry Harris, a sort of Gamaliel of Detroit when it came to bebop language.
But it's worth noting some more contemporary examples, starting with the experiences of the In Common gang. When Davis first played with the far-out bassist, composer and educator William Parker, who's now 70, she had an experience that would be foreign to an average jazz-school student.
"I was in my early twenties, he called me for a gig, and I came to his house for a rehearsal," Davis, who also heads the independent label Pyroclastic Records, tells GRAMMY.com. "He pulled out this piece of paper with his composition, and it was all crumpled and barely legible."
At first, this didn't jibe with what Davis considered "professional" in music — neatly-written charts, clean presentation. Then, she had a lightbulb moment. "I was like, 'Oh, wow! This can be done in different ways,'" she says. "We're going to play the gig and the music's going to happen, whether the paper's crumpled or not."
When he was a similar age, Stevens remembers rehearsing with the organ master Dr. Lonnie Smith, who passed away in 2021 — as did Harris. As in Davis' experience with Parker, the very un-New School casualness of the affair belied entirely new educational pathways.
"He was watching some daytime talk show, and he didn't want to start rehearsing until it was over," Stevens tells GRAMMY.com. "So I pulled up a chair from his kitchen and watched the end of 'The Tyra Banks Show' or something like that."
Stevens thought he had arrived prepared: "He'd been like, 'Learn this record,' and I'd learned it and made notes for myself and it was a really big deal for me." But then Dr. Smith had him throw all of it out, instructing him to play tunes the elder musician sometimes didn't even remember the names of.
"If I asked him what a chord was, he would be like, 'I don't know; come look at my hands. It was that kind of thing: 'It's this sound; it's not that,'" Stevens remembers. Despite only playing with Dr. Smith a handful of times, that comfort zone-exploding experience stuck with him or life.
Today, Stevens is an educator and references that moment with his students. "It speaks to the process of how the elders learn and teach the music," Davis says in response from a parallel Zoom window. "That's something you can't gain from your peers or [those] younger."
When Walter Smith first played with the GRAMMY-winning drum pioneer Roy Haynes, he got a crash course in the primacy of melody. After getting chided once or twice for not playing a line note-for-note in the Cole Porter tune 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy,' he played a variation he thought worked — and learned a lesson in response.
"What are you doing? If you don't play the melody the way it's supposed to go, it doesn't line up with what's happening with the lyric," Haynes told Smith, as Smith paraphrases. "I set it up, and if you're not going to play it through my setup, then why are we doing this?"
"That changed how I looked at playing melodies forever," Smith says.
The elders also laid perspective on these musicians. When Carrington played with 11-time GRAMMY-winning saxophone legend Wayne Shorter when she was 21, she exited the bandstand feeling defeated and self-loathing about her performance. Shorter replied: "Music is just a drop in the ocean of life."
"He got me thinking differently about that. Develop your life and the music will come, because it's just a part of life," Carrington adds. "And if you focus too much on the music, it's never going to happen because you're not developing the rest of yourself.
"I used to complain about hotel rooms," she continues. "He told me, 'What's one night in the eyes of eternity?' Which really helped me to this day when I get to a hotel room that's s***y."
Shorter's attitude tracks with his uber-ambitious opera with the much younger bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, Iphigenia.
A Diversity Of Interplay
If you think intergenerational give-and-take is just in the province of small-group jazz, it's not — it applies to every context and format. Iphigenia is worth singling out, as it’s unconventional a jazz format as you could imagine.
An update of Euripedes' classical play Iphigenia at Aulis, the program marked the fulfillment of a long-simmering dream for the now-88-year-old Shorter. When he proposed it to Spalding, she felt a "stirring in my spirit."
Spurred by both creative inspiration and Shorter's physical limitations due to age and a metabolic tremor that precluded writing music by hand — much less playing the horn, Spalding made sure his vision would be realized, taking a year off from Harvard and heading to Los Angeles.
You'd have to see it to grasp it, but it includes eye-popping Frank Gehry set designs and the simulated slaying of five women and two deer — set to music by an orchestra and Shorter's longtime quartet: pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, all who are GRAMMY winners themselves.
Spalding — who has won five GRAMMYs herself, including one in 2022 for Best Jazz Vocal Album — wrote the libretto and sang the lead role of Iphigenia. "My gift is that I'm not in opera. My gift is that I don't know how to write these stories. My gift is that I don't know the tropes," she told the Times.
And coming to that idiom with a clean slate — as well as working with a musician who helped form the building blocks of her idiom — resulted in something breathtakingly strange and gorgeous.
Keep Seeking Out Examples
How can you keep abreast of intergenerational jazz — past, present and future? You can start by following the musicians that played in In Common III.
For a project by 78-year-old saxophonist and composer Henry Threadgill — a 13 album boxed set called Baker's Dozen — Carrington recently recorded with a handful of younger musicians, including trumpeter Milena Casado and bassist Devon Gates.
"I'm excited about that because it reminded me of when I was younger and in my twenties and you had just one day to go in the studio and make a record and you couldn't fix anything," Carrington says. "I was trying to approach it like that."
Smith cites many other examples: drummer Johnathan Blake with 78-year-old pianist Kenny Barron, saxophonist Jaleel Shaw with 97-year-old Haynes, pianist Jason Moran with 84-year-old saxophonist Archie Shepp.
But in the immediate rearview is their experience of playing with Holland on In Common III — and all involved cite it as positive and upbuilding.
"He bridges both worlds, as maybe I do in some ways of improvised music and playing more straight-ahead musical forms," Davis says. "And I think we share a commonality there and the understanding of the music."
Do younger and older musicians often find each other more similar than different — as the title of the In Common series acknowledges? Absolutely.
But in jazz, as in so many other areas of life, the truth remains: Only by learning, absorbing and appreciating the knowledge of those who came before can you believably take a swing at success.
Summer Is For Jazz Festivals
Do you want to hear some great jazz? Conventional wisdom would suggest that you need to visit New York to see jazz in all of its glory. But, if you want to see live jazz and get the biggest bang for your hard-earned buck, you should check out a jazz festival. It doesn't matter where you're located or how big (or small) your budget is, there is likely a cool jazz event happening in a town or city near you.
The 36th Annual Atlanta Jazz Festival will kick off during Memorial Day weekend, May 25–27, in Piedmont Park. Fans will be able to enjoy the music of BWB (a super group comprising Rick Braun and GRAMMY winners Kirk Whalum and Norman Brown featuring special guest GRAMMY winner Chrisette Michele), bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, saxist Tia Fuller, and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire's quintet. The festival will also highlight up-and-coming artists such as vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant and pianist/composer Aaron Diehl with his quartet.
Over on the West Coast you can find more live music to savor at the 15th Annual Healdsburg Jazz Festival in Sonoma County in California. This year's 10-day schedule (May 31–June 9) includes a two-day tribute to 2013 Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Charlie Haden, featuring performances by multi-instrumentalist/composer Carla Bley, Haden's Quartet West with special guest GRAMMY nominee Ravi Coltrane, alto saxist Lee Konitz, guitarist Bill Frisell, and pianist Geri Allen, among others. Additional artists scheduled to perform during the festival include GRAMMY-nominated African-American a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey In The Rock, saxist/flautist Charles Lloyd and pianist Jason Moran, the Sylvia Cuenca Trio, and the Marcus Shelby Orchestra and HJF Freedom Jazz Choir.
If you are north of the U.S. border, don't worry. On June 28 Canada residents will enjoy the beginning of the International Jazz Festival in Montreal. Through July 7, the festival will feature an array of legendary musical talent, including GRAMMY winners Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Wynton Marsalis, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, among others.
The following event should not be missed: saxist/composer and multi-GRAMMY winner Wayne Shorter will celebrate his 80th birthday during the Montreal jazz festival with a star-studded performance with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, Brian Blade, Joe Lovano, and the Dave Douglas Quintet. Also set to perform are ACS: Allen, Carrington, Spalding, which will feature pianist Geri Allen and GRAMMY winners drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding.
If you decide to fit a jazz festival into your summer plans this year, you are sure to hear fantastic music, meet cool people and enjoy great food, too.
Watch Lido Pimienta, Poppy, Burna Boy & More Perform In Full 2021 GRAMMY Awards Show Premiere Ceremony Video
Witness the entire 2021 GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony, with music from Burna Boy, Lido Pimienta, Poppy, Terri Lyne Carrington with Social Science, and more
Every year, ahead of the GRAMMY Awards show airing live on CBS, the majority of the golden gramophones are presented at the Premiere Ceremony. Always a lively event, it also features stellar performances from nominated artists. The 2021 GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony was no different, and took us around the world with music from Burna Boy, Lido Pimienta, Poppy, Igor Levit, Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, Terri Lyne Carrington with Social Science, Rufus Wainwright, and a star-studded cast paying tribute to Marvin Gaye with "Mercy Mercy Me."
Watch the 63rd GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony in full below.
Check out all the complete 2021 GRAMMY Awards show winners and nominees list here.
Exploring The GRAMMYs' Jazz Field Nominees
Go inside the nominations in the Jazz Field categories for the 54th Annual GRAMMY Awards
You've seen the list of nominees, now take a closer look at the artists nominated in the Jazz Field for the 54th Annual GRAMMY Awards.
The nominees in the Jazz Field stretch from veteran artists to newcomers, with five-time GRAMMY winner Randy Brecker, 16-time GRAMMY winner Chick Corea, three-time nominee Fred Hersch, and two-time winner Sonny Rollins earning two nominations each. The women of jazz take the lead in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category with previous nominees Karrin Allyson, Terri Lyne Carrington and Tierney Sutton going up against newcomer Roseanna Vitro and GRAMMY winner Kurt Elling.
Best Improvised Jazz Solo
In the Best Improvised Jazz Solo category, seasoned artists mix with a newer crop of jazz luminaries. Tenor saxophone legend and Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Sonny Rollins, whose previous GRAMMY Awards include Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual Or Group for This Is What I Do in 2001, is nominated for "Sonnymoon For Two," from Road Shows Vol. 2. Pianist Chick Corea earned his 56th career GRAMMY nomination for his solo outing on "500 Miles High" from the album Forever, which he recorded with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. Corea's most recent GRAMMY win came in 2009 for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual Or Group for Five Piece Band — Live. Another jazz veteran on the list is two-time GRAMMY-winning bassist Ron Carter, who is up for his solo on "You Are My Sunshine," from This Is Jazz. Also garnering nominations are well-established jazz mainstays, trumpeter Randy Brecker for "All Or Nothing At All" from The Jazz Ballad Song Book, and pianist Fred Hersch for his solo on "Work," from Alone At The Vanguard.
Best Jazz Vocal Album
The Best Jazz Vocal Album category is dominated by women, who earned four of the five nominations. Percussionist Terri Lyne Carrington showed a strong vocal presence on her eclectic album The Mosaic Project. This is the second GRAMMY nomination of her career, following her nod for Best Jazz Fusion Performance for her 1989 debut, Real Life Story. Three-time GRAMMY nominees Karrin Allyson and Tierney Sutton are also in the running, the latter garnering a nod for her eclectic and American music-geared concept album, American Road. Allyson is nominated for her ballad-heavy project 'Round Midnight. Roseanna Vitro, a celebrated vocalist who released her debut album in 1982, earns her first GRAMMY nomination for her jazz-flavored ode to a pop songwriting icon, The Music Of Randy Newman. Kurt Elling, up for his album The Gate, is no stranger to the GRAMMY Awards. Elling has received nine nominations previously, and won his first GRAMMY in 2009 in this category for Dedicated To You: Kurt Elling Sings The Music Of Coltrane And Hartman.
Best Jazz Instrumental Album
Partly because the blend of improvisation and content is a key factor in jazz, three of the Best Improvised Jazz Solo nominees this year are also present in the Best Jazz Instrumental Album category. Corea, who reunited with his old fusion band allies from Return To Forever, Clarke and White, for an acoustic jazz mode, is up for Forever. For Hersch, piano has been the instrument of choice and the source of his long strong reputation as an artist, educator and bandleader. He is nominated for his solo piano album Alone At The Vanguard. Rollins captures his second nomination for the latest installment in his series of live albums, Road Shows Vol. 2. Tenor saxist Joe Lovano and Us Five reach back a few generations to pay tribute to the late Charlie Parker on Bird Songs. Up-and-coming pianist Gerald Clayton, son of big band leader John Clayton, scored a nod for Bond: The Paris Sessions. The lone band nominated in the category are two-time GRAMMY winners Yellowjackets. The fusion quartet are up for their album Timeline.
Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
In this category, the nominees vary in age and experience across several decades. Six-time GRAMMY nominee Gerald Wilson has been a stalwart West Coast-based pillar of the big band scene dating back to the '50s, lending credence to the title of his nominated album with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Legacy. Lauded Puerto Rican-born alto saxist/composer Miguel Zenón has graduated from emerging to established artist, and has expanded the ensemble scope for his nominated album, Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook. The Latin jazz element is also strongly represented in 40 Acres And A Burro, from Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, a band that grew out of the group led by O'Farrill's father, Chico O'Farrill. Arturo O'Farrill previously won a GRAMMY for Best Latin Jazz Album for his tribute to his father, 2008's Song For Chico. GRAMMY-winning bassist and gifted bandleader Christian McBride earned a nod for his foray into the big band world, The Good Feeling, with the Christian McBride Big Band. Tapping into the riches and opportunities of the legendary European big band scene, trumpeter Brecker earned his large ensemble moment in the sun with The Jazz Ballad Song Book, featuring the DR Big Band.
Who will take home the awards in the Jazz Field categories? Tune in to the 54th Annual GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 12, taking place at Staples Center in Los Angeles and airing live on CBS from 8–11:30 p.m. (ET/PT).
Follow GRAMMY.com for our inside look at GRAMMY news, blogs, photos, videos, and of course nominees. Stay up to the minute with GRAMMY Live. Check out the GRAMMY legacy with GRAMMY Rewind. Explore this year's GRAMMY Fields. Or check out the collaborations at Re:Generation, presented by Hyundai Veloster. And join the conversation at Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Musicians Are Educating By Example
Artists such as Melissa Manchester, Terri Lyne Carrington, Wyclef Jean, and Mark Volman are passing on their experiences and expertise to students in the classroom
Whether it's by choice or by accident, some music stars are building a second career that's rather academic.
After spending decades recording albums, staging tours and learning the ropes of the music industry, established musicians are taking their experience and applying it to the classroom, obtaining positions as chairs, fellows, professors, instructors, and lecturers at colleges, universities and other academic institutions.
"I've just finished my second year and it's been fantastic!" enthuses GRAMMY winner Melissa Manchester, who is an adjunct professor teaching voice and songwriting at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music.
"I hadn't really thought about doing it since I'd never gone to much of college, but I was invited to teach a master class at [USC and] we had a rockin' time — and then I was brought in to cover a class called Writing For Musical Theatre For Pop Students.
"My students created a musical that was just fantastic, and then Chris Sampson, associate dean [and director] of the Popular Music [Program], invited me back to teach individual instruction for what I call the Art Of Conversational Singing. It's thrilling."
Manchester isn't the only renowned artist teaching at Thornton: the faculty also includes noted GRAMMY-nominated trombonist Bill Watrous, Yellowjackets co-founder and GRAMMY-winning pianist Russell Ferrante, and veteran GRAMMY-winning jazz drummer Peter Erskine. Meanwhile, classic rocker Steve Miller, eminent GRAMMY-winning songwriter Lamont Dozier and GRAMMY-nominated jazz pianist Patrice Rushen have all fulfilled appointments as USC artists-in-residence.
Meanwhile, at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music — where well-known instructors include bluegrass fiddler Darol Anger, hit songwriter Kara DioGuardi and GRAMMY-winning bass player John Patitucci — Professor Terri Lyne Carrington says that her career as a celebrated jazz drummer works as an invaluable teaching tool for those desiring an insider's view of the business.
"We're currently doing the things that most students want to do," says 2011 GRAMMY winner Carrington, whose rhythmic skills earned her a full Berklee College of Music scholarship at age 11, and an honorary doctorate in 2003.
"There's something about learning from somebody [who] has the experience that you're trying to have that's different than from somebody [who] has dedicated their whole life to teaching. You need both, actually, because educators [who] have dedicated their lives to mostly educating and maybe not touring and playing as much, have methods and ways of teaching that have been honed, specialized and worked out to their maximum abilities.
"Berklee is cool because it has both elements. My students see me juggling my career and my teaching schedule while trying to make sure they get all their lessons in and it inspires them, because that's what they want to be doing."
A few scholars have even gone beyond music to channel their inner educator: Bad Religion singer and co-founder Greg Graffin, Ph.D., currently lectures in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University, while Brian Cox, ex-keyboardist with '90s Irish dance pop band D:Ream, is a professor at the University of Manchester. Cox made headlines as an English particle physicist while working on experiments involving the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland.
And in 2010, GRAMMY winner Wyclef Jean was appointed a visiting fellow at Rhode Island-based Brown University's Department of Africana Studies, taking part in Haiti-related lectures, classes and faculty conversations.
But for the most part, musicians have stuck to either their own fields, or ones that bear an immediate association. For example, Mark Volman, co-founder of '60s pop band the Turtles, doesn't teach performance. As chair of Entertainment Industry Studies and assistant professor at Belmont University's Mike Curb College of Entertainment & Music Business, he does offer a practical curriculum involving the business itself.
"You're either in my class because you're interested in the business of music and would like to be on the business side — the record company, the management, publishing and so forth — or you're a musician — a singer, an artist, a creator — looking to be smart enough to go in with a good manager or attorney and ask the questions necessary to negotiate the best deals for yourself as you become better known and more successful," says Volman.
Volman is a latecomer to the academic world. Now 66, he was 45 when he first attended Los Angeles' Loyola Marymount University to obtain his undergraduate degree in communications.
He graduated as class valedictorian with a bachelor's degree in 1997 and eventually earned his master's degree in Fine Arts at Loyola in 1999.
Volman says he's found personal fulfillment through teaching on a number of levels.
"It's the fulfillment of realizing that you're being looked to and trusted for what I'm doing in terms of helping them get to the point where I'm at now: a 50-year career still making a living at what I left high school to do.
"We now license our [Turtles] music to iTunes. We own our master recordings. We own the concert business. Everything of value is coming back to us. So now I can teach students how to do that, and I really get a lot of satisfaction helping students get to that point."
There's maybe another benefit to teaching younger generations. Carrington, who began her teaching career at USC before moving back to Boston to be closer to her parents, says her students keep her contemporary.
"I'm inspired by my students," she notes. "A lot of them have a zest, a drive, and they're trying to do something different.
"My playing has also gotten a lot better after teaching. And I get to stay current and know what the heck is going on with new music, what they’re listening to and rhythms all over the world. There's a lot of mutual inspiration."
(Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based journalist who has written for The Toronto Star, TV Guide, Billboard, Country Music and was a consultant for the National Film Board's music industry documentary Dream Machine.)