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A Jazz Journey Around The World


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. There are a lot of things to celebrate today. It's our seventh anniversary on the air, for one thing, so happy birthday to us. And what better way to celebrate than talking about music because it also happens to be International Jazz Day. That genre has come a long way from its birth in the American South.

You can listen to jazz music around the world today, but it might sound a little different than what you're used to hearing. We wanted to get a little bit of that international jazz flavor, so today we're talking about some jazz musicians from abroad who are taking center stage here in the U.S. with Felix Contreras. He's cohost of NPR's Alt Latino, and he's with us once again to tell us more about some of these artists. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Thank you and happy birthday.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Now speaking of days, sometimes I have to confess, I get a little squeamish when I hear about this day or week or month because I want to know who decided that? So do we know who decided that it was International Jazz Day?

CONTRERAS: Herbie Hancock.

MARTIN: OK. Enough said. That's all that needed to be said.

CONTRERAS: He was - a couple of years ago - he was selected as UNESCO's ambassador for promotion of intercultural dialogue. OK? So jazz, of course, is one of his expressions, just one of his many expressions. So I guess he's using that to promote that intercultural dialogue using something he knows best which is jazz.

MARTIN: OK. So what are we going to hear first?

CONTRERAS: We're going to start in Haiti. We're going to start with a guy named Jacques Schwarz-Bart, and he's got a great album out. He's a saxophonist. His mother is from Guadaloupe. She played traditional Voodoo music around the house, and one of his main goals, he says, is to dispel the negative connotation of Voodoo 'cause it's really been distorted by popular media around the world. It's a sacred religion, much like Santeria from Cuba or Canodmble from Brazil. Now, this song that we're going to hear is an arrangement of a traditional Voodoo chant that's turned into a jazz arrangement.


JACQUES SCHWARZ-BART: (Singing in a foreign language).

CONTRERAS: Isn't that brilliant?

MARTIN: It is. It is. It's great. You know, it's interesting because jazz started out being kind of outsider music anyway, right, and kind of a little bit disreputable by the classy people? But now it's gone in house, right? It's gone inside. Are there people who are purists who think that that kind of music is outside the cannon or don't really think it belongs in the realm of jazz?

CONTRERAS: When it did start? It started - depends on which theory you believe - but, you know, New Orleans I think is considered and pretty much agreed on that that's where it sort of got its start.

New Orleans at that time was considered the northernmost port of Havana, northernmost port of Cuba. So there's a lot of different influences in the start of jazz. You know, the purists are always going to have something to say about it, you know, whether or not this is jazz or not. But I think it's - moves the music forward whenever you include other elements, like that song we just heard. I don't have a problem calling that jazz at all.

MARTIN: What else do you have for us?

CONTRERAS: OK. Next, we're going to go to Cuba, speaking of Cuba and New Orleans. This is Yosvany Terry and he's got an album called "New Throned King." He was born in Cuba. His father was Cuban. His mother was Haitian. And his album connects the dots between those two very closely related cultures.

You know, they use music and rhythm from the Ararat tradition which is African. And it comes from a part of Africa that is now Benin. It's a very ambitious album, and I think it really works 'cause it brilliantly mixes those two traditions that have a common culture in Africa.


CONTRERAS: Again, another saxophonist approximating the human voice which is what jazz musicians do when they're playing real book ballads.

MARTIN: You know, looping back to what we were talking about earlier - how jazz used to be considered outside, but now it's very much inside - inside the kind of cannon of respected music traditions. Like a lot of other sort of classical music traditions, it's not selling as much - as well in the U.S. as it was a few decades ago. What about outside of the country?

CONTRERAS: It's the same. You know, it's always going to be a small niche, a small part of each country or each culture's, you know, recorded output - their retail output. A successful jazz album here is going to be maybe close to what Pitbull's catering bill is on one of his video shoots. You know what I mean? That's just how small it is, but it doesn't take away from, you know, the artistic integrity of the music.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Its International Jazz Day, so says Herbie Hancock. And we, of course, believe - listen to everything he says. And I'm speaking with Felix Contreras who is cohost of NPR's Alt Latino. And we're focusing on international jazz artists who are placing roots here in the U.S. So let's get back to more music. What do you want to hear next?

CONTRERAS: OK. In order to appreciate what I'm going to play next, you got to hear this first. This is M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes."


M.I.A.: (Singing) I fly like paper, get high like planes. If you catch me at the border, I got visa's in my name. If you come around here, I'll make 'em all day. I'll get one done in a second if you wait. I fly like paper, get high like planes. If you catch me at the border, I got visa's in my name. If you come around here, I'll make 'em all day. I'll get one done in a second if you wait. Sometimes I think sitting on trains, every step I get...

CONTRERAS: Now, this is how a singer by the name of Kavita Shah made her own version of this.


KAVITA SHAH: (Singing) Fly like paper, get high like. Catch me on the border, I got visa's in my. Come around here, I'll make 'em all. Get one done in a second if you. Fly like paper, get high like planes. Catch me on the border, I got visa's in my name. Come around here, I'll make 'em all day. Get one done in a second if you wait.

MARTIN: I'm not sure I would call it jazz.

CONTRERAS: It stretches the boundaries, you know, this particular track. The rest of the album, she does more traditional straight ahead jazz singing. You know, she's of Indian descent. She was raised here in the United States, but she is of South Asian descent. She's lived in Brazil. She speaks Portuguese, French, English, a little bit of Spanish.

She's a musicologist from Harvard. Her album is called Visions, and it's a mix of her experiences, different cultures of music and musicians. It's produced by a guy named Lionel Loueke who is also - who is from Benin and who played with Herbie. So it all comes, you know, it all comes around.

MARTIN: Can you spell mash up?

CONTRERAS: But it does - it does stretch that definition, but improvised music, I think, for me, it's all part of the same thing.

MARTIN: Well, we have time for one more song. So what's your last selection?

CONTRERAS: OK. International jazz is not anything new. It's - people have been doing it for decades and you can go back to Dollar Brand from South Africa, Gato Barbieri from Argentina and Monty Alexander from Jamaica. He got his start in the '60s playing with people like Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones et cetera. In 2005 - he is from Jamaica - in 2005, he fully embraced Bob Marley, created this great album called "Concrete Jungle," and since then he's mixed in a lot more Jamaican folk music into his music. This is a track called Skamento.


MARTIN: Well, where do you think it's going from here? I mean, there are some people who argue that, you know, part of the reason that jazz isn't as popular a genre as it used to be is that it used to be dance music and party music, and now it's music that people kind of listen to. And so that's kind of why it's kind of become a niche thing. And what's your take on that? This is - you could dance to this.

CONTRERAS: Yeah, absolutely. This is where I think the purists have taken over and influenced what people think of as jazz. I think a lot of people are intimated by jazz. They hear all these crazy chord changes. They hear all this stuff. You know, where's it going? It's going to grow and it's going to completely always challenge that definition of jazz and give us all something that we can find in the music.

MARTIN: And the internationalness of - the global nature of the art - of the work now kind of speaks to that, doesn't it?

CONTRERAS: Absolutely. Looking back on it, it's like walking up a street, any street in New York, 'cause you're going to hear music coming from different types of cultures, from different places, from different little stores, video stores, bodegas et cetera. This is what jazz is here.

MARTIN: Is there - let me give you one more chance. I said that was the last piece of music, but do you have one more cut you'd like to go out on? Anything else you want to leave us with as we think about International Jazz Day?

CONTRERAS: There's a guy named Tigran Hamasyan, he's are originally from Armenia. He moved here when he was 14. He won the Thelonious Monk piano competition in 2006. We had him a jazz piano Christmas shortly after that here at the Kennedy Center from NPR - very, very interesting and very nice talented young man

And what he's done is taken that jazz tradition and he's mixed it with Armenian folk, little bit of electronica, a little bit of - just a tiny bit of pop. Very, very interesting. I never would have expected him to take this route, but again I think it's all part of the bigger umbrella of what we call jazz.

MARTIN: All right. Tell us one more time. What we are going to hear?

CONTRERAS: This is Tigran Hamasyan. The album is called "Shadow Theater," and this track is called "Seafarer."

MARTIN: All right, "Seafarer." Thanks. Felix Contreras is cohost of NPR's Alt Latino. He was kind enough to join us from our studios here in Washington, D.C. Thanks for sharing this with us. Happy International Jazz Day to you. Happy birthday to TELL ME MORE. Felix, thank you.

CONTRERAS: Yes, absolutely. Thank you. Thanks for having me

(SOUNBITE OF SONG, "SEAFARER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.