WBGO’s The Checkout With Joshua Jackson
AKIE BERMISS: Dig this.
There’s been a little buzz about WBGO’s newest weekly program, The Checkout, for a couple of weeks now. I first heard the advertisement for it while listening to WBGO in my car. The ad was simple: basically the question was posed — where do you go to find out what the hip new thing in music is? Where indeed. As a musician and devotee of radio, I depend on DJs and fellow-musicians to put me on to new records. This is sometimes great but can also be, at times, a bit confusing and unfocused. That is, there is no ONE place to go to get the latest music info, really. One puts feelers out and keeps checking back at certain websites or blogs or stores… and tries to stay ahead of the curve. But when I first met Joshua Jackson (and he immediately asked me if I was hip to Jason Moran) I knew I’d discovered one of those people who really is aware of what’s going on musically. What’s coming down the pipe, who’s active on the scene now, who’s REALLY a genius and who is simply a very good musician.
His office was a quintessentially music-lined room. CDs and DAT-tapes everywhere. Posters and liner-notes and hard drives covered every surface. It was clear that this guy was aware of the maelstrom of music happening around him. Comfortable and aware and able to lucidly move from one element (a nearly completed Billy Stayhorn radio special) to another (the sources of Tribe Called Quest samples) without so much as batting an eye. In the course of a conversation, he might be reminded of some arcane record (where, say, the theme song from Superman was played by a vibes-led jazz combo) and tell you the year and the personnel on it — and whether or not you could find it on CD yet.
I’m mentioning all this because Joshua Jackson is the host and producer of The Checkout — and I can think of no better person to host a show that is devoted to being on the cusp of the new than Josh. He’s a bright and funny intellectual guy with a laid-back vibe. And when it comes to speaking with musicians — he’s your guy.
Well the first episode is probably going to wind up being the meter by which we measure the rest of the series — and if that’s the case, I think we’re in for an excellent time. What struck me most powerfully after listening to the first episode was the sheer amount of information they managed to get into 59 minutes. There were three full interviews, one full track, and a sort of critical listening section featuring Josh with New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff. And so it ostensibly feels like two or three different podcast jammed into one. So the first criteria for a prospective listener is simple: be ready to listen. This is not necessarily a program for the casual jazz listener. This is for those who, knowing a bit about the music already, want to get put on to something off the beaten path. So in that sense its different from shows like PIANO JAZZ or JAZZSET — where the show really acts as a gateway into jazz. THE CHECKOUT assumes a desire to go deeper, a working knowledge of the elements at work, and an appreciation for whatever craft and/or philosophy might be behind the music.
Secondly, Josh has an interview style that, as I suspected, allows for great swaths of information to come flying back. He operates, as so few musical interviewers do, with the assumption that his subject is intelligent, eloquent, and coherent. The questions don’t lead to a particular answer. He’ll often ask: What is [Blank]? And know full and well that the answer may be a simple “This is just [Blank].” Or it could be a long explanation of what it is metaphorically or through some sort of complicated analogy. Music, in general, is difficult to talk about. And the more advanced or artistically individual the music is, the more difficult it can become. And yet Josh possesses the acumen to gather a musician’s complex ramblings and take from it a concrete summation. The sign of a great: understander.
Along those lines, as you listen you’ll find that Josh does very little talking, but allows the musician to speak for him or herself. In the case of this debut episode, the first interview is probably the most interesting. Josh interviews trumpeter/composer Tom Harrell about his new album, PRANA SONG, and his quintet and how he balances practice and composition — all while living with paranoid schizophrenia. Mr. Harrell, a marvelous and under-recognized musician, is sometimes hard to understand but Josh makes no effort to lead his answers — choosing instead to let Harrell explain his ideas as they come to him — however he chooses to get there. This kind of musical interview is uncommon. And its refreshing to hear, in a world where rote simplicity is often over-valued in the name of broad appeal.
The other two interviews are, likewise, excellent pieces. Mark Turner is interviewed about the new album, SKY & COUNTRY, from his collective-trio FLY. Turner’s eloquent and (almost) academic conversational style is allowed to roam free in his attempts to explain just what FLY is and what the music of FLY is — and how it should affect people. And, finally, there is an excellent interview with cuban pianist Omar Sosa about HIS new album, ACROSS THE DIVIDE, which seems to be (I don’t own it: yet, but i enjoyed the samples) a wonderful fusion of afro-cuban music with appalachian/ring shot vocal traditions. Sosa is amazing clear (despite English not being his first language) when he is allowed the freedom to explain how the music happens for him spiritually and how he allows inspiration to lead him down his path — territory which, even among the most accomplished orators, can get quite murky.
Then, We Actually Check Some Stuff Out!
The other two segments of the show are equally interesting. First, right after the opening interview with Tom Harrell (and a plug for Live At The Village Vanguard — which is a performance program Josh is also responsible for — featuring Harrell’s group) there is a brief introduction to the music of RUDDER followed by an uninterrupted track of theirs. I wasn’t expecting it, actually, thinking that the program was going to be completely interview-based. But, in hindsight, I see the beauty of it. For a couple of minutes, after such an information-dense interview, we are allowed to hear something else that is new and noteworthy. And with out any commentary or interview to accompany it, it is left completely up to the listener to: Check it out. The track, JACKASS SURCHARGE, is an peculiar funky-electronica number played by a band of musical moonlighters (as Josh calls them) who otherwise find gainful employment in the bands of other big name musicians.
And when the piece is over. The program moves on to the next interview.
After the Turner interview, Josh and Ben Ratliff sit down to listen to the new FLY album and check it out for themselves. They (though, again, mostly Ben) speak quite candidly about the album and the group and what the listening experience is like. Its a segment that could have very easily come off as tedious and professorial (which is how I sometimes find Ratliff’s articles) but here it is done quite well. You get the sense that Josh and Ben are listening closely and speaking honestly. Some of the conversation gives you the impression that they familiar with the music of FLY and it’s three component musicians. And you also get a clear view into the music as its happening. I’m very interested to see how this segment develops over the course of the next few episodes.
And so, there you have it. I’m still rather impressed that they managed to get all of that in to an hour-long program. Its almost better to listen to as a podcast than on the radio because amount of information coming across can be overwhelming. A pause here and there to process might be good. Also a chance to write things down like all the album titles and musician names. Of course, you can always go to CHECKOUTJAZZ.COM (or WBGO.ORG/THECHECKOUT) and find much of the information you might be seeking. Also (very conveniently) they’ve also broken up the episode into its various components (interviews and music) so that on the website you can listen to one segment at a time. Or just check out all the interviews and leave the music alone.
That, right there, is the future of radio. Its on-demand — but not simply what you want. It provides a purpose, a venue, and a space for those of us who want to seek out challenging music from the comfort of our homes. It provides us with interviews that don’t introduce the listener to jazz, so much as they introduce the artist and their current projects. Its an oasis in the desert of radio’s desiccating sameness. May it go on and on — and keep us ever hip and listening.
HOWARD MEGDAL: I have little to add, and wouldn’t begin to challenge Akie’s expertise in the field. But that, in itself, makes my falling in love with The Checkout relevant. Akie is a musician well-schooled in the Jazz and related forms covered in the first episode of The Checkout. For me, the lover of said music (yet removed from it relative to Akie), the show was completely accessible-and fascinating.
That is the key, of course- an audience made up of Jazz musicians is too small, even for public radio. But Joshua Jackson’s questions are, as Akie says, open-ended- but they lead to a detailed explanation of what we are about to hear, or just heard.
My comfort zone, Jazz-wise, tends to be a bit older. Whether this is a function of musical taste or somply what I am generally exposed to is an open question in my mind. What I know is that as long as The Checkout is around, I can no longer hide behind this excuse to avoid getting to know the most innovative music on the scene today.
Akie and I have exchanged e-mails avout our love for WBGO- I’m curious if he believes Rhonda Hamilton, who tends to be my DJ of preference, has been educating me the way Joshua Jackson will. I don’t for a moment expect to give Rhonda up. But I see the opportunity to know so much more.
It is a master class. It is the thing itself. If The Checkout is, as Akie says, the future of radio, then we needn’t fear tomorrow, after all.
I won’t kid you. I’m excited to complete this piece so I can go listen to the second episode.