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Blurred Lines: Finding the Edge at SJ Jazz Winter Fest

In Music
LOOPERS: Bells Atlas make use of loops in their jazzy, punky, poppy tunes.

LOOPERS: Bells Atlas make use of loops in their jazzy, punky, poppy tunes.

These days, it seems that innovation outpaces our ability to understand what it is doing to us. As Californians, we are used to tectonic shifts, but the ground beneath us is now in a constant state of flux. There are new means of transportation, communication and expression; new ways to meet people, new ways to smoke, new ways to listen to and consume music.

All this leads us to question what exactly constitutes “jazz” in the 21st century. The quintessential American art form is now more than 100 years old. While it was rebellious and celebratory in the early to mid 20th century, is that true today? Or has it become something else, changed forever by the shifting flows of time and culture?

Truthfully, jazz has been at something of a crossroads for a long time, its meaning hotly contested for decades. Some will say Miles Davis’ electric band wasn’t true jazz due to its rock & roll instrumentation. Others will say not only was that jazz, but the harmonically dense prog of British rockers Soft Machine falls under the same umbrella. And what are we to make of Norah Jones’ piano-pop album Come Away With Me, released by heavyweight jazz label Blue Note in 2002? Does its label define the genre?

The fact of the matter is that the meaning of jazz is under constant negotiation. At this year’s Winter Fest, San Jose Jazz has brought together some incredible artists who fundamentally challenge the definition of the genre. Below are some of the best artists on display at this year’s Fest: the dreamers, stretchers, and border-pushing musicians of 21st-century jazz.


Gilles Peterson

Feb 14, 9pm, $30
The Continental, San Jose

More than anyone on this list, the question of “Is this jazz?” applies most obviously to Gilles Peterson. A DJ by trade, Peterson does not play an instrument in the traditional sense. Instead, he was an early innovator of the genre called “acid jazz,” fusing familiar jazz sounds with Latin dance, Brazilian psychedelic, hip-hop and electronic synthesizers, all through spinning and sampling. Known for pulling out dusty deep cuts from all corners of the world, Peterson won’t be selecting music that falls squarely in any one category. In this sense, his work embodies the exploratory, and world-traveling nature of jazz music.

Bells Atlas

Feb 15, 10:30pm, $15
Cafe Stritch, San Jose

Oakland’s Bells Atlas compare themselves to a kaleidoscope, and for good reason. Led by the dusky vocals of singer Sandra Lawson-Ndu, there are times they could be confused for a pop band. However, those moments are fleeting—disappearing as quickly as they materialize into the night, along with the bob and weave of percussion, mallets and darkly shimmering guitars. If anything, Bells Atlas resemble the weirdo world pop of groups like Haitus Kaiyote. They are equally influenced by R&B, electronic, soul and jazz. Smooth without being smooth, Bells Atlas will tick a lot of boxes for jazz fans, while pushing them in a distinctly new direction.

The Bad Plus

Feb 21, 7:30pm, $30
Cafe Stritch, San Jose

The Bad Plus are a picture-perfect example of the many contradictions and possibilities of 21st-century jazz. It’s been 15 years since the Minneapolis trio (piano, bass, drums) released their iconic cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the DNA of that track is now firmly entrenched in the gene pool. Though not the only jazz cover of “Teen Spirit” (or even the first—Josh Roseman beat it by two years), it was considered borderline heretical at the time, almost a millennial prank. These days flirtations outside genre lines are now more acceptable, but that’s due in large part to the Bad Plus themselves.


Feb 22, 8pm, $20
Art Boutiki, San Jose

While jazz began in North America, the musics of South and Central America (as well as the Caribbean) have always been an indispensable part of the genre. Hailing from Mexico, Chéjere play a Central American version of the Afro-Cuban genre of “son,” creating a sound that is pan-American, reflective of the full diversity of the Western Hemisphere. Acoustic and polyrhythmic, Chéjere boast beautiful vocals, intoxicating musicianship and a welcome expansion of the meaning of jazz around the world.

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