22 September 2006

A (Non-) Tribute to the Tributes

Just as TV and movie producers seem to be running low on ideas these days, it seems like every other new jazz release is a tribute to someone else. Do we really have nothing better to do than worship our elders? Are we all just so smitten with dead guys that we just can't go on without paying homage? Or is this just a marketing ploy? When classical musicians, who have to be at least as desperate as jazz players when it comes to CD sales, need to name drop, all they have to do is program the music of a famous composer. It's not often that one sees albums with titles like "Tribute to Mozart" or "Joe Schmoe Pays Homage to the Total Serialists." I know it's petty, but at the least, I'd rather see more albums with titles like "Marsalis Plays Monk" or "Joe Henderson plays the music of Billy Strayhorn" just to emphasize that we are indeed saluting the music and not the person, as well as that the modern artist is actually making a musical contribution to the album rather than simply trying to ride the coattails of the masters. In jazz, hero worship is often a symptom of dogma. Now that the tribute thing is old news, it seems that artists and promoters feel they have to drop multiple names in order to get our attention. Directions in Music was devoted to the music of John Coltrane AND Miles Davis. Meanwhile, Robin Eubanks pays tribute to four (count 'em, four) trombonists on a single album, as if the relative obscurity of the instrument means that it's foremost exponents are each about a quarter as marketable as those on more visible instruments. And I'll vomit if I hear about another guitar album that makes a pun on "Wes" and "West." I count myself as a fan of each and every one of the artists I've mentioned, whether they are giving or receiving the salute. I myself aspire to record an entire album of Oliver Nelson tunes; I even penned an original entitled "Tribute to Oliver Nelson" at the age of 19. However, I've soured somewhat on this idea because I'm growing weary of all the tributes. Indeed, I've heard the old farts talk as if anything short of dedicating an album to a given major figure is tantamount to spitting on their grave. We need to do away with this line of thinking. After all, dropping names for financial benefit represents a greater level of disrespect than does mere ignorance. The gesture is starting to lose its significance. If we’re going to salute, let’s do it out of genuine reverence for the music of others and organic musical inspiration from within ourselves.

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