March 9, 2006

Pavement's Jazz

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The typical jazz saxophonist may cop ideas from obscure old records, but the inspiration for Gold Sounds came to James Carter while he watched Beavis and Butthead on MTV. Following the exploits of those existential heroes, Carter stumbled upon the video for indie band Pavement’s minor hit, “Cut Your Hair.” The result: a collaboration with pianist Cyrus Chestnut, drummer Ali Jackson, and bassist Reginald Veal on seven jazz interpretations of Pavement songs.

Carter has already made an art form out of the usually vacuous “tribute album,” with odes to Billie Holiday (Gardenias for Lady Day) and Django Reinhardt (Chasin’ the Gypsy), transporting jazz tradition into the future. Pavement seems like a strange next step, but these indie slackers might have more to do with jazz than is apparent – after all, the precedent for indie music was set in the ’60s by The Velvet Underground, whose leader, Lou Reed, spent his youth broadcasting the music of free jazz revolutionaries like Ornette Coleman on college radio.

And besides, jazz, R&B, rock and roll and pop music have been revolutionary comrades since their very inception, conspiring to annihilate middle-class morality by destroying the boundaries between “high” and “low” culture, “black” and “white” culture, and even the big one between “culture” and everything else. If earlier jazz musicians played songs by Stephen Foster, George Gershwin, Lennon and McCartney, and Sly Stone, why shouldn’t James Carter try Pavement?

Gold Sounds demonstrates that jazz still has transgressive possibilities today. “My First Mine” sounds like modern jazz as imitated by mariachis, and parts of “Platform Blues” and Chestnut’s solo “Trigger Cut” sound like Dixieland or ragtime, but the whole thing is replete with modern breakbeats, electricity, and chaotic noise.

Like James Carter, Pavement has never drifted from historical reference to artistic stasis. The typically cryptic lyrics of “Gold Soundz” address the failure of their contemporaries: “Go back to those gold sounds / And keep my advent to your cell/Because it’s nothing that I don’t like / Is it a crisis or a boring change?” “Crisis” is not a bad word – it is perhaps the only route to social change, and the greatest contribution an artist can make to the world.

Gold Sounds is not the kind of crisis jazz caused when it was born in New Orleans whorehouses and Harlem rent parties, or the kind rock and roll caused when it seized the youth of America, or the kind hip-hop caused when it confronted a white supremacist society and tore apart its very definition of “music,” but it’s not just the “boring change” that self-absorbed post-everything indie rockers indulge in. James Carter and his boys are tearing down boundaries, and after all, the same boundaries that separate jazz and indie music – not to mention hip-hop, country, and other political categories – separate people on the basis of culture and economic class.

Maybe one day these boundaries will crumble and James Carter and Pavement will collaborate with musicians from all over the world to compose our new international anthem, and it will be a completely new musical sound, one that obliterates today’s redundant trends and shows us how silly our separatism was. Until then, I’ll be listening to this.

Archived article by Shuja Haider