It's hard to imagine a time when jazz was the most popular music at least in the United States, if not the entire world. Heck, they even named a decade after it - “The Jazz Age" - all jitterbugging optimism and youths running wild to the bouncing dance floor stomp of Gene Krupa and the grassroots elegance of Duke Ellington and his orchestra.
Jazz musicians were the pop stars of the age, earning prestigious spots on the cover of Time Magazine. If Thelonious Monk's weird, brittle, atonal, mathematical piano explosions could earn him a spot in grocery checkout lines, even in white America, perhaps there is some truth to the thought that older generations were just smarter, more stylish and had better taste.
For a lot of reasons, jazz just doesn't hold the same cultural weight it once did. The Internet and the demands of late capitalism have ripped our attention span to pieces, preferring to ingest 2.5 minute pop songs and celebrity-laden music videos instead of the "hot media" of listening to an entire album. Other long-form media, like novels and epic films, are suffering from the same state.
Considering that it's already hard to get people to listen to a whole album, let alone a jazz album, it's a bold and ambitious move for Portland's Charlie Copeland to deliver a dense concrete slab of jazz-rock roughly satirizing the modern age.
Charlie Copeland is a classically-trained musician, regularly performing classical piano at the Portland airport in addition to having recorded over 20 albums since he was a teenager, mostly using rude, crude equipment like cassette recorders to throw down his rag-tattered sound.
On Charlie Copeland and the Blankets, Copeland cites the freeform jazz-skronk-rock of Henry Cow and Fred Frith as formative influences. Those names aren't likely to send off too many warning bells for modern listeners, so read that as "loose, experimental anti-pop jazz-rock explorations" with a focus on dismantled guitar anti-melodies.
One of the reasons jazz has fallen out of favor with listeners was the departure of conventional musicality, aka melodies over chord sequences, strung together into songs, in favor of raw bursts of virtuosic emotionality, via the firebrand free jazz of late John Coltrane, the scathing tonalities of Albert Ayler or the outer space synth philosophizing of Sun Ra. People aren't likely to have their minds changed by Charlie Copeland and the Blankets is heavy on interesting ideas and outstanding musicianship, but there's nary a hook in sight. There's no 'verse-chorus-verse' to hang on to. Trying to whistle one of these songs, like the crystalline "Brown Water" or the dyslexic "Polyamory" might sound like one of the Fantasia hippos falling down a flight of stairs with wet toenails.
It's important to note, this is "jazz rock” not pure jazz, as Charlie Copeland and the Blankets bears a sonic allegiance to the song cycles of the Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks, Jim O' Rourke, Sufjan Stevens, or Joanna Newsom. Anyone who gets into interesting songs and arrangements being used for interesting social commentary will actually find a lot to love with this record.
One thing that's great about jazz-influenced music is the exceptional musicality. Copland is an absolutely mercurial guitarist, playing a number of styles across a wide continent of unconventional melodies, sounding somewhere between Derek Bailey, Snakefinger and Buckethead. He's also an apt keyboardist, a good drummer and an exceptional arranger, easily moving beyond pop forms into these bizarre and wonderful jigsaw puzzle song suites.
Given the lyrical subject matter, it seems that Charlie Copeland and the Blankets is meant as a satire of modern living, speaking of the hopelessness of Craigslist job hunting, of living with dozens of people, of lacking a purpose or a function, all while feeling,in your heart of hearts that you DO have a reason for living.
Copeland encourages us to never settle, to not let society whittle away our rough edges, to not succumb to the homogenous monoculture and instead, be ourselves and say our piece.
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