Post-Show Review: Mike Bono's CD Release

Last year, a friend of mine introduced me to the term "mo-jazz," a.k.a., modern jazz. We were playing an uptempo tune he'd transcribed called "Time to Spare," which was written by saxophonist Brice Winston who's most recently been playing with Terence Blanchard's band. He included a little thumbnail of Justin Brown's face in the corner of the leadsheet as a joke; it was supposed to inspire us and remind us of the unabashedly youthful and contemporary vibe that "mo-jazz," either as a pejorative or as a sincere descriptor, embodied. 

Even though "mo-jazz" was just a joke, there was something to it—the idea of a shared aesthetic that's been spreading through jazz schools and also through regional scenes in general. I noticed it in the records my friends were listening to, many of whom had overlapping personnel: Ambrose, Gerald Clayton, Walter Smith III, Taylor Eigsti, Aaron Parks, Mike Moreno, and so forth. I also heard it in the ways my friends and peers played: tenor players adopting darker, more fluid sounds that eschewed the Michael Brecker-era of bright, sharply focused sound; trumpet players also reaching for a darker tone and more angular lines that were more intervallic and less obviously rooted in the intervallic pentatonicism of Woody Shaw; and piano players who seemed less interested in the McCoy/Herbie/Brad Mehldau lineage than in players who might have been less obvious to study in school (Paul Bley is one person who comes to mind). Anyway, this is all from my own personal experience and isn't meant to be reflective of broader scenes in general necessarily, but that's how it seemed that my peers' approaches to playing tended to shift in the past few years.
From Where You Are cover art. Bird-like?

Tonight, I had the pleasure of hearing another peer of mine, guitarist Mike Bono, play a CD release concert for his début record, From Where You Are, at the Regattabar (long story short: I was asked to help videotape part of the concert with another friend's camera, and I didn't have anything better to do so I came to check it out). I had only ever heard Mike play over standards at Wally's, but I'd heard only good things about the band and about his music.

When they started playing, what struck me immediately was how familiar the music sounded: that's not to say that it sounded generic or necessarily derivative, but it felt like a natural contribution to an existing vocabulary and idiom that I'd already been listening to, i.e., "mo-jazz." Maybe it was because I haven't listened to too much of my peers' music in general, or that I hadn't listened to much jazz in general lately, but a couple aspects of the music seemed particularly consistent with the directions I'd been hearing friends and young, established musicians taking. I realized that I'd been trying to deal with two big questions over the past few months: (1) What about a lot of young, modern jazz sounds similar or shares similar formal qualities, and (2) Why is it that this new sound or vibe is so popular, and I guess this also suggests a (3) What are the priorities or aesthetic goals of this music that differentiate it from the neo-hard-bop (if you'd be okay calling it that) of the '80s and '90s, or the "mo-jazz" that came before this?

For the first question, in the broadest terms, I see a couple major shared characteristics that may or may not be obvious: rhythmically, straight 8th grooves that incorporate drum kit patterns from rock, hip-hop, R&B, afrobeat, house, and other genres that I'm not especially familiar with but drummers tell me that they're incorporating seem to be everywhere. The first time that I ever realized that there might be an intergenerational gap between how players my age and those twice my age interpret "straight 8th" happened last March, when I was working with a rhythm section of probably late-40s to 50-year olds as part of a guest performance at a music festival. For one of my tunes, I had written, with complete vagueness, "straight 8ths à la Jeff Ballard," which I now realize means practically nothing, but having been satisfied with how my friends played behind me at home, I realized that straight-8ths can easily mean a Bob Moses from Bright Size Life-era sound after we began rehearsing. The drum grooves that Roberto Giaquinto, Mike Bono's drummer, were playing seemed to me to be a perfectly representative example of young, professional "mo-jazz" drumming: stylistically eclectic and fluid while also tending towards certain washey or coloristic sounds that recall Justin Brown or Eric Harland, to my non-drummer ears.

Harmonically, I thought I heard a great deal of what might be generically termed "nonfunctional harmony," which I'd define as harmony that defies the standard stuff that's taught in jazz harmony class, e.g., ii-V-Is, tritone substitutions, and chords that generally move within a single tonality or else modulate in a way that is "sufficiently prepared" with passing chords and the like. That's not to say that Mike's tunes didn't have an internal logic harmonically, but that these tunes exhibited a harmonic logic that seemed more similar to compositions by Ambrose or Aaron Parks than to compositions by, say, Horace Silver or Thelonious Monk. Again, I'm generalizing because I'm thinking more about my personal impression of the music than of the purely technical aspects of the music, but it seems like many tunes by friends today that are more contemporary by nature tend to have these kinds of progressions: major seventh chords moving by major seconds, minor thirds, or major thirds rather than in fourths and fifths; dissonant extended seventh chords like Maj7#9#5 or Min7#11 that function as tonics; or even chords whose function as tonic or as passing chord is ambiguous or dependent on the line that a player improvises over it. The tendency to write chord progressions whose tonal (or atonal, depending on how you look at it) momentum is made ambiguous by the non-traditional relationship between these chords was pointed out to me by Miguel Zénon in a lesson: he looked at a reharmonization of "Like Someone in Love" that I did that had few obvious dominant 7th passing chords and was instead a series of assorted "color chords" (extended major and minor sevenths), which I realized is problematic in one sense—by any traditional standard, your harmonies make no sense—but are arguably okay in another—if you can find a way to make sound logical to a listener through voice-leading and melodic ingenuity, what's the big deal?

Listening to a couple of Mike's tunes, there were times when I thought that I could anticipate the resolution of a progression, but the end of the phrase turned out to go somewhere else. I'd venture to say, as a totally unsubstantiated but intuitive guess, that much of modern jazz today sounds like chord substitutions or else extended traditional progressions whose substitutions have become the new cadences or the new resolutions, i.e., some of what used to be "out" and would require resolution now optionally requires resolution—to give a random example off the top of my head, you can substitute the I that follows a ii-V to the bVI major and it's okay to stay there, rather than to resolve immediately. And I understand why this kind of sound—again, generalizing harmonically—might sound aimless or tepid or needlessly atmospheric to an older listener who's more used to hearing jazz that uses regular functional harmony with built-in harmonic momentum. A tune that comes to mind is "Confirmation," which was a lot of fun to play over initially because the harmonic momentum of the tune (its descending ii-V pattern) is irresistibly directed, but later became less fun to play when I realized that this same harmonic momentum was in some ways constricting in the options I had—at least compared to a tune like "Pinocchio," whose harmonic resting points are still quite defined but not necessarily as pointed as in "Confirmation."

Although I already had ideas about what sounded similar or seemed shared in terms of aesthetic preference in modern jazz, I didn't have too many ideas about why these kinds of rhythmic and harmonic approaches seemed so popular (aside from sounding fresh and being novel musical architectures to improvise within). Regarding nonfunctional harmony, I'm aware that this kind of stuff has long been precedented in jazz—I've heard older musicians describe many of Wayne's compositions as being "non-functional," although I'd venture to guess that Miguel and other musicians might disagree on the grounds that there is a discernible logic in his compositions that relate it to the functional harmony that existed before. I think another—although again unsubstantiated and intuitive—reason for the popularity of this "mo-jazz" harmony is that people are sick of playing over standard forms and of blowing over ii-Vs. As I recall Miles Okazaki saying at one point at Banff two summers ago, if you write unfamiliar, novel musical architectures, the musicians playing the music can't rely on their muscle memory or their worked-out stuff; they've got to deal with the songs as new, unfamiliar entities and will accordingly be more likely to improvise new, exciting music. That doesn't mean that these novel musical architectures should be written without some kind of ordering principle or internal logic, but I think that a modern-jazz lingua franca has developed and been disseminated to a point where it's basically categorizable and recognizable as a set of shared sensibilities in a predominantly young community of musicians.

If bebop was the modernist aesthetic of jazz, maybe this new sound might be called Neo-Bop, which would differentiate it from post-bop, another term that's related but almost vague to the point of being useless; or maybe Neo-Modernism, or maybe no name at all (although maybe it'd help commercially for musicians to unite under an easily marketable but inevitably reductive "mo-jazz" referent). On a practical, non-theoretical level, it'd be nice to have some way to easily direct friends to the contemporary jazz that I and other young musicians have been listening to; just as it was convenient for young listeners in the '50s to tell their friends they were listening to bebop, I think, maybe naively, that it'd be easier to get non-jazz musicians to have a general idea of where part of this music is headed if there were a generic or sub-generic designation. 

I'll end by saying that there's plenty of exciting music being played by young musicians that does reflect shared sensibilities, i.e., that doesn't exist in a vacuum but does relate to and respond to other developments in contemporary jazz. As much as some older musicians will harp on and on about how much of the music being played by young jazz musicians today has no relationship to what existed before, it seems to me that much of this music does relate directly to the improvisational and creative sensibilities as well as the exploratory spirit of previous generations—it just requires a more open mind and sensitivity to process, rather than product, to perceive this relationship. 

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I don't really do CD or show reviews on this blog, but I don't have a problem mentioning a friend's record: if you're interested in a young expression of one direction in contemporary jazz, check out From Where You Are, which features Mike Bono (guitar), Naseem Alatrash (cello), Matthew Halpin (tenor saxophone), Christian Li (piano), Jared Henderson (bass), Roberto Giaquinto (drums), and Julian Lage (guitar) as a guest on one of the tracks.

Another record that I've heard recently in the young mo-jazz vein is from Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, which is his début entitled Imagery Manifesto. Again, the music on this record seems firmly situated in an existing and rapidly concretizing contemporary jazz idiom that seems to be increasingly popular, and I think it's worth checking out if only to prove to yourself that young jazz musicians are listening to what came immediately before them and doing their own take on it, rather than regurgitating the tradition or playing completely unrelated, unrooted music. That is, I don't mean mo-jazz pejoratively, but rather to acknowledge the proliferation of relatively new, shared aesthetic sensibilities that don't altogether yet have a name that sticks.


  1. Super-interesting article. A lot of the artists you mention definitely do have a similar aesthetic (and like you said, play in each others' bands). I wonder if you might be able to include a few soundclips of some of the 'non-functional' chord substitutions that you talk about? As a listener, I really appreciate reading a musician's take on this stuff.

    1. I'll definitely try to include some sound clips and maybe transcribed examples sometime down the road. As you can see, I'm sometimes a bit slow to get moving on things. Thanks for reading, though!


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