There was a point 4 or 5 years ago when I thought jazz would be the area of the next great kids music explosion. This most American of musical art forms had not been sufficiently explored by musicians focusing on families, and it seemed ripe for artists to fill the space. And, yes, there were a number of good, even great, jazz albums for families.
And then, silence.
OK, that's an exaggeration. Coal Train Railroad and Oran Etkin have both released albums that families with any jazz tendencies (and even those who don't) should check out. But I expected more musicians to try their hand at this. After all, jazz is -- or can be -- the most playful of musical forms, and what audience is -- or can be -- more playful than a bunch of under-10s?
Well, with the addition of the folks from WeBop, Jazz at Lincoln Center's (JALC's) early-childhood jazz education program, I'm hopeful that perhaps we're on the cusp of another kinder-jazz renaissance. Their first album for families, WeBop: A Family Jazz Party!, is my favorite jazz-for-kids album since at least Putumayo's Jazz Playground disk from a couple years ago, and definitely my favorite non-compilation since the great Medeski, Martin & Wood album Let's Go Everywhere.
Some of my enthusiasm for this particular disk is rooted in my own personal jazz tastes, which are heavily weighted toward the classic jazz of pre-Bitches Brew Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie. (This isn't particularly surprising, I suppose, given the interests of JALC's Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis.) And one of this album's greatest strengths is its celebration of that heritage. Unlike a lot of the "introducing jazz to the kids" disks, which take traditional kids' standards (e.g., "Old MacDonald" or "Itsy Bitsy Spider") and put them in a jazz arrangement, many songs on this album take jazz standards and add (or tweak) a few kid-friendly lyrics. Not every standard is modified -- the Duke Ellington classic "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" speaks just fine to kids as-is -- but some of the adaptations are inspired (I particularly loved the re-purposing of Coltrane's "Syeeda's Song Flute" into "Syeeda's ABC," an alphabet song, natch). And kudos for figuring out how to work free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman into a kids' track ("Free Jazz Adventure").
Besides the traditionals and standards, there are also a handful of originals. These songs tend to be a little more pedagogical in nature. "Shakey Shake Shake," for example, encourages shaking of rhythm instruments and jumping around. "Playin' Together," a song about, well, playing jazz (playing together, then taking solos) is buoyed by Adam Platt's nimble toy piano playing -- it's probably the first song featuring that instrument that I truly dig. I don't think they're the equal of the standards, but that's kind of an unfair comparison. As you'd expect considering the Lincoln Center parentage, the playing is top-notch, from drummer Matt Wilson, the album's music director, on down. And the participation of kids on some of the tracks, such as on "What Kind of Food Do You Like To Eat?," their take on Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts," just adds the right amount of childishness.
The 50-minute album is nominally targeted at kids ages 2 through 7, but its playfulness will appeal to jazz fans of all ages. Listen to samples from the album and download a copy of their take on "When the Saints Go Marching In" at the album's page (you can also download an activity booklet).
I like WeBop: A Family Jazz Party a whole bunch. It's joyful, playful, and full of life. Even if you're not particularly into jazz -- maybe especially if you're not particularly into jazz -- it's an album your family should check out. Let's hope this encourages some other jazz musicians to follow suit. Highly recommended.