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Is it Art or Merely Entertainment?

May 7, 2009

One of Canada’s premier jazz musicians recently commented to me that “there’s art and there’s t1978_171entertainment” and that she would take art any day, a remark that raises serious questions about the state of jazz in North America today.

Obviously there’s a component of entertainment any time a musician plays or records for an audience, but most serious jazz musicians are artists first, particularly when they are engaged in composing original material or arranging and interpreting standard tunes in new ways.

It’s important to interject here that the term ‘artist’ is terribly misused in the entertainment industry. To make my own meaning clearer, I would say that Neil Young is an artist but Celine Dion is not. As a singer-songwriter Young has produced a body of original work that taps authentic emotions and interprets real life experience, whereas Dion is merely a highly polished performer who relies on gesture and histrionic sentimentality to make people think they are experiencing something real.

The same divide exists in jazz. Take Pat Metheny and Kenny G, one a serious artist constantly exploring new musical territory, the other a smooth performer well suited to elevators. Both are technically adept (although many would argue that Kenny G isn’t even that good a player), but there’s a world of difference in what they produce.

Unfortunately, in this era of manufactured stardom, real art isn’t well promoted and real artists often toil away in relative obscurity, hustling to keep their music alive and food on the table. This is particularly true in Canada. Diana Krall obviously makes a very good living (I won’t get into the artist versus entertainer debate concerning her), but most jazz artists don’t and most seldom get the attention they deserve.

As Canadian jazz fans we can make a difference by educating ourselves and giving more attention to the real artists amongst us, which means listening to their music, attending their gigs and buying their CD’s.

A few such opportunities exist right now both on line and live. Yesterday, I posted an interview with Christine Jensen who, along with her sister Ingrid, is definitely one of the true artists on the international jazz scene today. As well, I sent out a newsletter (to those who had subscribed) that includes a comment about Christine, which I’ll reprint here:

“As I write this newsletter, I’m listening to an example of amazing west coast music available as a concert-on-demand at CBC Radio 2. Recorded in February and recently made available on the CBC website, it’s a performance by the newly-formed 18-piece Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra. Although she has lived in Montreal for many years, Christine is very much an Islander-at-heart, having grown up outside Nanaimo in Cedar, and returning here every summer to play, teach, and support the local jazz scene. Much of her music is inspired by the west coast, particularly in this concert which features four compositions that pay tribute to the beautiful trees out here. I urge you to check it out at http://www.cbc.ca/radio2/cod/concerts/20090211jensn and read the interview with Christine I posted today at http://www.islandjazz.ca. You’ll hear phenomenal music full of tension and beauty, beautifully realized by the best jazz musicians in Montreal, with the added bonus of a guest appearance by soloist Ingrid Jensen. And, as you’ll learn from the interview, Christine is about to go into the studio (on Monday, in fact) for three days of recording with the orchestra before appearing at the National Jazz Awards in Toronto on May 14. Listen to the concert when you have a chance (I particularly like Dancing Sunlight, which is inspired by an Emily Carr painting), and consider posting a comment to the CBC website regarding the concert. The more feedback Christine gets, the more likely it is we’ll get another concert on demand featuring her and one of her groups. Plus it’s just nice for an artist of Christine’s stature to be appreciated now and then!”

The other opportunity happens tomorrow(Friday) night at 8pm at Hermann’s in Victoria when pianist Tony Genge, bassist Sean Drabitt and drummer Kelby MacNayr appear as part of MacNayr’s ongoing Art of the Trio series. Tickets to this gig are only $10 and you’ll hear some of the finest piano trio jazz (and art) around.

–Rick Gibbs

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