Emergent Properties - by: Ben Leifer

photo credit: Angie Jennings

photo credit: Angie Jennings

Emergent Properties

Submitted by: Ben Leifer

Why is it that every other week we have a debate in this city about what Kansas City Jazz is, as if any of us get to decide? I know folks who think it is their prerogative to prescribe a style, or a methodology to this title. And yet the wheel keeps turning on this city and our scene. 

 Clubs open and close, musicians move away, some come back. New faces come in and some local icons pass away. Magazines, websites and social media continue to air out this discussion, and most of the conclusions are either reductionist, or so broad that any true meaning is lost to the breeze. If it were so easy to define something like this I would think we all would share the same viewpoint. 

 In science, the concept of emergent properties has always fascinated me. For example, our brains are basically a gelatinous blob of neurons and cerebrospinal fluid with some blood vessels and a handful of other important cells. How is it that something this basic can do something so magical as take in massive quantities of information, distill it into input and output signals, record memories, experience emotions, have five senses, operate a living body, and possess consciousness and all that that entails? Consciousness is an emergent property of our brain function. It is greater than the sum of its parts. Take a brain apart cell by cell and you have nothing even remotely capable consciousness. This is a good metaphor for this discussion.

 I think we can all agree that “Kansas City Jazz” doesn’t lie within the purview of singular artists or even stylistic traits, but is an emergent property of the entire history and present of the music that was/is created by artists who live here and create here. It’s bigger than any of us and the only thing you can to do effect it is to put your stamp on it. That said... you have to earn it. You have to show up and participate.

 There are those out there, in this scene and the global community, that say that Jazz is about innovation and so you must always be doing something new or else you are faking it. I call BS. That is a recipe for trite, undefinable confusion that you see in the “art” community all the time. There are others who say that you must adhere to the tradition at all costs and not stray or else you are not playing jazz. That is also foolish, because even the most stringent traditions allow for growth from the practitioner. However, we need both of these goofballs to tie down the boundaries of radicalization so we have any structure at all to work within. If you think these structures are superfluous and you are above them, then you are just another drunk fish in the ego ocean.

 Here’s the point, as I often have trouble getting to... who gives a shit? I’m super bored by this conversation and certainly any music fan could give a damn. It’s 2019! Every day is Halloween.  We should all just STFU about it and play: Hearts out, asses off. So many of us are struggling, and so many need good music and to have their thoughts provoked as a matter of healing. Start bleeding on the outside and let them in. 

 Have you ever seen a band do that thing where the melody sounds great and everyone’s energy is open and inviting, and then the solos start and they all scrunch into a tiny ball smaller than a Planck Length, with their entire lives just crushed into a shadow? What the hell!?

I didn’t pay a cover to... oh wait... hang on... 

I didn’t stagger drunk for free into this Jazz clu... oh wait.... damn... 

I didn’t stagger drunk for free into this bar that has music sometimes to listen t... dammit...

I didn’t stagger drunk for free into this bar that has music sometimes to talk to my friends about how much we hate work while you don’t pour your entire heart out to me and then I’ll chastise you for not playing what I wanted…Kansas City Jazz.

"Jay McShann Live in Tokyo 1990" - Album Review

Jay McShann Live in Tokyo 1990, a widely unheard album was recorded live during an April 9th, 1990 show at Indigo Blues, The ACT, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Artist: Jay McShann

Album Title: Jay McShann Live in Tokyo 1990

T2 Audio

Personnel: Jay McShann, piano and vocals; Lynn Seaton, bass and vocals; Chuck Riggs, drums

Tracks: But Not for Me, In a Sentimental Mood, Kansas City, Moten Swing, On a Clear Day, Jumpin’ the Blues, Georgia On My Mind, All of Me, Cute

 Recorded April 9, 1990 at Indigo Blues at the ACT, Tokyo, Japan

Jay McShann in Tokyo.jpg

 My goodness, how we miss Jay McShann.

 When folks try to explain what Kansas City jazz is all about, what makes it unique, more often than not the explanation will include Jay McShann. His music had that strong sense of swing. His style incorporated boogie-woogie and stride along with his fabulous straight-ahead jazz piano technique, and his blues and voice were always inventive and distinctive. Above all, he was fun to listen to. You were bound to leave one of his performances happier than when you arrived.

 McShann was 76 years old and three decades into the renewed interest in his music when this set was recorded. He was a hit in Canada, Europe and Japan, and this resulted in many recordings during these years, many on the Canadian label Sackville. This newly released record comes right at the end of the Sackville period.

 From the first few bars on “But Not for Me” one can hear how fabulous a player Jay was. After a short intro he tears into the tune Garner-like, with that strong left hand comping. Lynn Seaton and Chuck Riggs swing right along with him. Jay’s solo is full of surprise, he has such a strong melodic sense. I love Seaton’s well-structured bass solo, which includes his strong strumming skills.

 “In a Sentimental Mood” is masterful. Listen to how Jay moves between his lines, his time, and these great chords (his harmonic skills were exemplary). At times during his solo, his left hand is so strong that you might struggle to hear Seaton. Seaton, long a versatile first-call bassist, has his own great solo.

 Jay loves “Kansas City”. I never tire of him playing and singing this blues, especially with a great swinging Seaton solo that reminds me of Percy Heath doing “The Watergate Blues.” But Jay was not done yet and comes back for another rocking solo with that killer left hand. “Moten Swing” is more Kansas City history, one of those songs that may never go away (I just heard some young musicians in Barcelona tear it up). Jay is again inventive and lightly swinging. Seaton uses his bow and adds his vocals a la Major Holley.

 There is more KC blues here, too, the old McShann favorite “Jumpin’ the Blues.” I love Jay's opening here, taking it slow, then picking up the pace as Seaton and Riggs join him. Then it is just Jay and his endless file drawer of blues lines. Now this is Kansas City jazz!

 The remaining tracks are standards, the most current being “On a Clear Day” which was twenty-five years old at the time. Jay sounds great on his vocal, and it is fun to hear him humming along with his piano solo. “Georgia On My Mind” is a great ballad, and Jay is again warm in his readings on piano and vocals. “All of Me” is another swinger featuring another fine Seaton solo. “Cute” is a well-deserved feature for Chuck Riggs, whose drums add much to the set.

 This is a fabulous and unexpected gift from Japan to the many music fans who enjoy Jay McShann. The set sounds alive, very well-recorded, like having a perfect front row seat.  This is a welcome addition to my collection and to the McShann discography.

–        Roger Atkinson