Modern Jazz Hasn’t Forgotten To Dance

It’s often pointed out that long ago, jazz was once dance music. It’s usually a way of lamenting its current reputation as a cerebral art for seated contemplation. But nothing says music can’t be for both hips and head.

Here are two music videos which, in their own ways, visually convey the dance roots found in even modern jazz. Neither are choreographed dance routines in the way of Michael Jackson or Beyonce, but I think both represent a strong movement imperative. Incidentally, NPR Music and WBGO will carry a live video webcast of both bands tonight at 8 p.m. ET, if you can join us.

The first video, above, is from the band Now vs. Now — a trio from the keyboardist Jason Lindner, with drummer Mark Guiliana and vocalizing bassist Panagiotis Andreou. On “Big Pump,” the dancing, cinematography and video editing reflects the energy of the song’s arc. When the soloing and the beat are at their most intense, the bodily movement and lighting are too. It’s a representation of the song’s peaks and valleys, like an iTunes visualizer — except in the form of humans gyrating.

The lack of a coherent narrative to it all is worth noting. Instrumental music like this can’t quite tell a story in the same way words do. But if it grooves like this, it can still provoke a bodily reaction, and an emotional resonance. The underground nightclub vibe of this video, disjunct as it is, conveys both the dance and the abstraction.

In contrast, there’s very much a story behind this second video, from the band Third World Love. This is the video for “Avanim.”

Like Now vs. Now, Third World Love also specializes in bouncy grooves, but of a different sort. The band has clearly absorbed a lot of Middle Eastern and African music, and that folk element is manifested in the swaying character of many tunes. It also often plays rock clubs, meaning it has experience playing for standing, active audiences. Here’s a good illustration: Watch as trumpeter Avishai Cohen can’t help but move about toward the end of this performance clip. The tune is “Song For Sankoum” (after Senegalese kora player Sankoum Cissoko) and a recording of it appears on the new album Songs and Portraits.

“Avanim” is a slower song, and unusually for this group, it has vocals too. But watch at 3:17, when the lyrics have ended and the band is drenched: Keyboardist Yonatan Avishai (also the singer here) and bassist Omer Avital are dancing about in the desert like madmen. That dance seems to be building up through the entire piece, and once the singing has finished, the tension releases in joyous celebration. Moving about seems like the natural expression of that.

The video seems to end on a hopeful note, but the lyrics are actually a bit ambiguous, and open to other interpretations. It appears to be a portrait of someone traveling home — or perhaps of a permanent nomad. (Perhaps it’s also about the life of a busy musician too?) It’s in Hebrew — three-quarters of the band are from Israel — but the band has supplied a translation, below.

“Avanim” (Small Stones)

Small stones pave my road
The road is long, the road to my heart
And the rhythm of my steps is the rhythm of my heart
Is the rhythm of the tune on my lips

On my back I carry a bag
The bag is full of treats
All my friends are eager for my return
There is honey, and fruits, a fiddle and stories
And in the bottom of the bag, small stones …

At night, I will pitch my tent on the riverbank
I will count the stars till dawn
In my bag I will cherish one lonely falling star
Who will light my way, and will join me on my journeys

The road is long; my home keeps getting further away
And my heart is still searching, and growing tired
My home is the river, and my home is the bag
The stones are my path — the path to my heart

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