Concord Jazz, a division of Concord Music Group, releases an exciting new project by NEXT Collective titled Cover Art — an ensemble recording by the next generation of jazz greats exploring their own interpretations of songs by such contemporary artists as Bon Iver, Drake, N.E.R.D, Little Dragon and more. The album contains 10 tracks and the digital version will include special bonus tracks.
Not often—maybe every quarter century—a new generation of musicians gets to the scene and rapidly develops a collective musical identity of its own. So it was in the jazz of the late ’60s and into the ’70s when a group of newcomers helped bring the funk and R&B grooves. We saw it again in the early ’90s, when a loose-limbed hybrid of jazz and hip-hop became the hippest flavor of the day, a crew of jazzmen working closely with deejays and rappers. As one looks further back in the tradition, other generational examples pop up, almost like clockwork.
Yet it’s never some carefully worked-out plan that ushers in the new breed. It simply happens—and it’s happening again now. The right people together at the right time, with a marked sound of their own: a sound best described as flowing with the improvisatory rush of modern jazz, all the while reflecting many of today’s most expressive popular styles— electronica and hip-hop; ambient and alternative rock as well as embracing uptempo or slow and moody, there’s a distinct undercurrent of funk. A Dutch music festival coined the term “New Urban Jazz” just this past summer. The leading lights making up this new wave include saxophonists Logan Richardson and Walter Smith III, guitarist Matthew Stevens, keyboardists Gerald Clayton and Kris Bowers, bassist Ben Williams, drummer Jamire Williams and special guest trumpeter Christian Scott (aka Christian aTunde Adjuah).
Together these names stand as the best of this next generation. They are improvisers, melodists, and arrangers. Some are bandleaders, some soon to be, and they’re a tight bunch: long-time friends, including a few who have studied together, and all of them have played together, on stages and in sessions.
Now, they are all featured on an exciting project—NEXT Collective—an ensemble recording that documents this new jazz age. “There was a point in the sessions for this album,” says producer Chris Dunn, “when I looked around the room and suddenly realized the level of talent packed in there together, the cream of the new crop, so to speak—and how much they are invested in jazz and also soaked in the music going on around them.”
Sr. Director of A&R for Concord Music Group, Dunn conceived, coordinated and produced this debut recording along with the members of NEXT Collective. Titled Cover Art, the album is scheduled for release February 26, 2013 (international release dates may vary) on Concord Jazz. Speaking to the album’s development, Dunn states, “It began as a way of introducing three new artists on Concord—Richardson, Smith, and Stevens. They are all great writers, but doing a recording of their originals, when not using their own band members, and all three having very different styles as leaders… that’s a tall order musically. It could make for a very disjointed experience no matter how great the playing. Instead, I thought it would be cool to do a project of covers from their generation and make a super group of the same. Each player chose and arranged tunes that came from any contemporary style they really liked: strong melodies but no jazz. The tunes we ended up with really bring something fresh to the table.”
The range in the feel of the tunes on Cover Art speaks both to the arranging talents of the members of NEXT Collective, and also to the diversity of their collective taste (what jazz veterans like to call “big ears”). The styles represented by these originals are a hyphenated hodge-podge—hip-hop and punk-funk, singer-songwriter and guitar-pop, electro-R&B and alt-rock. From Jay Z and Kanye West’s “No Church In The Wild” to Pearl Jam’s “Oceans” to Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Come Smoke My Herb,” to Drake’s “Marvins Room,” to Bon Iver’s “Perth,” the album delivers a cohesive flow. Other themes by Missy Elliott, Grizzly Bear, Rufus Wainwright and more not only serve as bonus tracks but also give a wide-lensed view of today’s musical outlook.
The versions that comprise Cover Art are often striking in how the songs have been reimagined, and compelling in the way they bounce off each tune’s original mood. Check how a tune like “Fly or Die”— a rock-fueled slice of R&B by N.E.R.D.—is recast by Ben Williams with the bounce and gear-shifts of a late ’70s fusion workout. Or how efficiently close to the atmospheric, neo-soul buoyancy of D’Angelo’s “Africa” Clayton steers his own reworking. Or how the metronomic beats and laconic lyricism of Little Dragon’s “Twice” are faithfully recreated in an acoustic jazz setting, courtesy of Richardson; the reversed horn lines that kick off the tune (and the album) are a clear signal that this project is both as mindful of the studio-craft of its many musical sources as it is of the live interaction of the jazz tradition. Cover Art has its feet firmly planted in the overlap of as many styles as possible.
Yet there remains an intuitive consistency throughout the album that owes much to an almost wordless connection felt by the musicians as they recorded together in Manhattan’s Sear Sound. “I was glad to hear that all the music fits together as an album even though it comes from a wide variety of places,” says Walter Smith III, who chose and re-arranged the Bon Iver, Becca Stevens and Dido tunes. “The main thing that still sticks out for me is how everyone was on the same page during the sessions. There was little to no discussion about much other than the basic road maps of the arrangements. When music can happen that way, something special usually comes out of it.”
For Matthew Stevens—who brought in the Pearl Jam, Wainwright and Portishead compositions—Cover Art benefited from familiarity with the songs and with each other. “The sessions were a blast, equally focused and relaxed. It felt like a family reunion—a lot of mutual respect present and a lot of laughs. It’s a great concept for an album since everyone had a connection with all the material.”
“When I listen to this album, and remove myself from having been a part of it, it sounds like a classic from beginning to end,” says Logan Richardson, who contributed arrangements of songs by Little Dragon and Ndegeocello. The remaining tunes were interpreted by Gerald Clayton (D’Angelo, Missy Elliott), Kris Bowers (Stepkids, Grizzly Bear), Christian Scott (Jay Z & Kanye West, Drake), Ben Williams (N.E.R.D.), and Jamire Williams (Stereolab). The temptation to dig these versions, and compare them to the originals is difficult to deny; in fact, it’s an exercise that should not be resisted, as it reveals the degree of inspiration and thought that went into Cover Art.
Time—as it always does—will tell how prescient this collection is of what is coming, what is truly around the corner for this music we tend to limit to the term “jazz” (and yet often includes much more). Cover Art is one of those albums that captures a rare moment in time—the coming together of a new generation and a new sound—while the NEXT Collective stands as one of those ensembles too laden with talent and future bandleaders to remain together for too long. “They’re young—but they’re not young players,” says Dunn. “All of these cats are real players despite their ages, with real experience under their belts.” And the majority of that experience has found them in each other’s company. That’s as good a reason as any to explain why Cover Art feels so much like the document of the next generation in jazz.
Complete Album Track Listing (bonus tracks on digital album to be announced):
1. Twice (Little Dragon)
2. No Church In The Wild (Jay Z and Kanye West)
3. Africa (D’Angelo)
4. Fly Or Die (N.E.R.D)
5. Oceans (Pearl Jam)
6. Refractions In The Plastic Pulse (Stereolab)
7. Marvins Room (Drake)
8. Come Smoke My Herb (Meshell Ndegeocello)
9. Perth (Bon Iver)
10. Thank You (Dido)