Best Jazz Tracks for November

“This track sounds like the 1972 disco hit 'Soul Makossa' as if sung by Kate Bush in duet with Captain Beefheart,” Mark Saleski writes about the group Shakers n’ Bakers’ performance of “In Me Canoe”—one of’s selections for Song of the Day during November.

Shakers n’ Bakers

If your Mom said that about a song, it would not be praise. (But, hey, I would give the lady credit for knowing about Captain Beefheart.) But coming from Mr. Saleski, a connoisseur of the outré and transgressive and all-around nice guy, this is coded language encouraging me to put “In Me Canoe” in me shopping cart. Shiver me timbers!

 Metallica type font

If it hadn’t been for Mark, I don’t think I would have made it past the Metallica type font on the cover. (From Wikipedia: "This font, created by typographer Santiago Metallica in 1531, before his unfortunate run-in with the Inquisition . . . ")

Not every Song of the Day selection in November was quite so transgressive. We have everything from the trad jazz stylings of Evan Christopher (paying tribute to Django Reinhardt) to the Carnatic gumbo of Rudresh Mahanthappa in musical dialogue with Kadri Gopalnath. Along the way, we enjoy tributes to Jaco Pastorius and Djavan, fine new offerings from Javon Jackson and Christian Scott, and Martin Urbach's ominously titled "I Broke the Jazz." And, yes, I must admit to giving high marks to a song featuring the late Jimmy Carl Black (of Frank Zappa fame) delivering a cryptic monologue over the telephone. (See, I can be outré and transgressive too!)

As always, we offer a pithy review, personnel and recording info, and a ranking on a scale from 0 to 100 for each selection. (“In Me Canoe” gets 94, by the way.) Also, we offer links for fast, easy and legal downloading. Below is a complete list of all the tracks featured as Song of the Day during November.

Evan Christopher: Douce Ambience
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Steve Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra: We Are MTO
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Ludovic & Kruno: Philadelphie Sur Seine
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Lori Bell: A Ilha (The Island)
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Martin Urbach: I Broke the Jazz
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

April Hall: You Must Believe in Spring
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Ganesha
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Bujo Kevin Jones: Tenth World Order
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Bill Cunliffe: Port Authority
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Carl Orr: JFP
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Mark Weinstein: Lua e Sol
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Javon Jackson: One by One
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Tony Malaby: Anemone
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Christian Scott: Died in Love
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Shakers N' Bakers: In Me Canoe
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Bill Carrothers : When Will the Blues Leave
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Jon Larsen (with Jimmy Carl Black): Jimmy-As-A-Ghost
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Lucía Pulido: Dejala Llorar
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Buena Vista Social Club: Chan Chan (live at Carnegie Hall)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Lee Shaw: Foots
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Amina Figarova: Chicago Split
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

November 30, 2008 · 0 comments

Tags:'s First Annual Album Cover Awards

During our inaugural year, has published more than 3,500 track-by-track reviews spanning the entire 91-year history of jazz recordings. To illustrate them, we've uploaded thumbnail images of almost as many album covers. Like the tracks themselves, most of these covers are estimable, many are superb, and a few are downright dreadful. Alan Kurtz,'s resident curmudgeon, now presents his admittedly subjective survey of the Best & Worst Album Covers in our ever-expanding inventory. Readers are invited to nominate their own favorites or otherwise comment below, or by email to T.G.

Picking the single best and worst album covers in's digitized library is a no-brainer, which is right up my alley. So let's get those out of the way first.

Most Obvious Choices

Closer look:
Sonny Rollins, Way Out West   
Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters

In 1957, on assignment for Contemporary Records after making his mark with atmospheric black-&-white shots of West Coast jazz golden boy Chet Baker, photographer William Claxton drove Sonny Rollins into the Mojave Desert, where he posed the New York City slicker as a cowpoke in a Brooks Brothers suit, capturing the iconic result in sunbathed Kodachrome. At some point during Claxton's storied career, which brought the native Californian lens-to-face with the rich and famous from models to movie stars (he did a book on Steve McQueen), he was asked by Los Angeles Times staff writer Scott Timberg how he'd like to be remembered. Claxton replied: "It'll say on my tombstone that I was a jazz photographer." On October 11, 2008, a day before his 81st birthday, William Claxton died. Sir, if I were chiseling your inscription, it would say you were the jazz photographer.

Best Follow-up to a Classic Cover

Closer look:
June Christy, Something Cool
Elli Fordyce, Something Still Cool

One good cover deserves another, as demonstrated by vocalist Elli Fordyce and her graphic designer Lindy Bostrom. Elli was cool at age 10 on Cape Cod, and still is. June Christy, of course, was cooler than ice in the tallest tumbler.

Honorable Mention: This Is Our Moosic by Mostly Other People Do The Killing (2008).

Best Cheesecake/Worst Beefcake

Closer look:
Rosey, Luckiest Girl
Herbie Mann, Push Push's reviewers are predominately male, a regrettable bias that reflects the jazz audience base and which we would love to remedy, if only more female writers would step forward. Yet as an editor, I'm struck by how conscientious our contributors are when presented with an album cover such as Rosey's Luckiest Girl. "Dare I review this artist's music?" the would-be critic gulps. "Won't I be accused of sexism if I dislike it? Won't I be accused of sexism if I ignore it? Won't I be accused of infidelity if my wife notices what I am listening to?" Such vexing issues must be punctiliously resolved before we can even begin to evaluate the music itself. Conversely, it's easy to sneer at Herbie Mann's Push Push cover. In fact, it may be politically correct to sneer at said cover. There's a moral here somewhere, but I'm not drunk enough to figure it out.

Celebrity Look-Alike

Closer look:
Paul Desmond, Quartet Live
Joey DeFrancesco, Reboppin'

Describing the cover photo of Quartet Live, Doug Ramsey remarks that Paul Desmond "is smiling as if he knows something the viewer does not." The composer of "Take Five" and longtime star saxophonist of the Dave Brubeck Quartet knew that he was dying of lung cancer. Yet as the picture shows, that didn't stop him from smoking, or from adding a macabre touch to his wardrobe. "Woven into his black suspenders," Ramsey reports, "are tiny white skulls and crossbones."

Desmond died in 1977 at age 52, eight years before Larry King debuted his venerable nightly talk show on CNN. How magical it would have been to see Paul Desmond interviewed on Larry King Live, although viewers might have mistaken it for some kind of video trick, showing the same guy asking and answering questions from opposite sides of a split screen. But can't you just hear Larry King asking Paul Desmond: "So, how many of you are there in the quartet?"

Creepiest '70s Artwork

Closer look:
Narada Michael Walden, Garden of Love Light
Carlos Santana & Alice Coltrane, Illuminations

Not all aspects of '70s fusion have aged equally well. Its trademark electric guitar shredding still grates as implacably as Ron Popeil's Veg-O-Matic. ("Now how much would you pay?") Virtuosity is timeless. But fusion's Holier Than Thou affectations have curdled into a cheesiness rivaled only by the whining of its early synthesizers. Back in the day, no self-respecting fusioneer left the house without his (or, in the case of Alice Coltrane, her) personal guru on loan from an ashram (or was it a Wal-Mart?) on the outskirts of Calcutta. Naturally, pretentious Indian honorifics were de rigueur. Johnny McLaughlin, electric guitarist from Yorkshire, England, became Mahavishnu John McLaughlin. The Mahavishnu Orchestra's drummer, Michael Walden from Kalamazoo, became Narada Michael Walden. Another Michigander, Alice McLeod Coltrane from Detroit, became Turiya Alice Coltrane. Carlos Augusto Santana Alves from Jalisco, Mexico, became Devadip Carlos Santana. You get the picture. And of course their album-cover artwork had to convince us that for $3.98 we were buying not merely a vinyl LP, but a life-changing spiritual experience. With all this blissful Goodness suffusing the '70s, is it any wonder we got the baleful Greed of the '80s?

John Coltrane in The Picture Of Dorian Gray

Closer look:
John Coltrane, Blue Train
John Coltrane, Coltrane's Sound

A strong contender for our Worst Album Cover award, Coltrane's Sound was edged out by the sheer K-tel schlockiness of Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters. (Get down tonight! Let's party like it's 1979!) Our Dorian Gray Award, however, is no mere consolation prize. Some art directors would trade their immortal souls to be able to paint like this.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness

Closer look:
John Coltrane, Ascension
The Bad Plus, Prog

The uncluttered image is an art form unto itself. Sometimes, less truly is more.

Phoniest Civil Rights Cover

Closer look:
Max Roach, We Insist!
Jackie McLean, Let Freedom Ring

(1) After a February 1960 sit-in by North Carolina A&T College students at Woolworth's whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro made front-page news nationwide, the less-than-aptly named Candid Records released Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite, packaged with a topicality seldom seen in jazz. A banner headline suitable for the outbreak of World War III topped a photographic restaging of Greensboro made especially unconvincing by the bow-tied counterman, who looks more like an out-of-work New York actor than a redneck soda jerk. Remarkably, art designer Frank Gauna's dramatization has fooled otherwise well-informed observers even into the new millennium. E.g., in his American Book Award-winning Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (Harvard University Press, 2003), Scott Saul writes: "The album cover was dominated by a photograph from the Greensboro sit-ins, in which two of the students turned their bodies away from the Woolworth lunch counter and looked the viewer straight in the eye." Actually, three men are turned toward the camera, proving that being looked straight in the eye can unnerve even an academician. Perhaps that's why Professor Saul mistook this hoax for the real deal by Greensboro News-Record photographer Jack Moebes.

(2) The title of Jackie McLean's 1962 LP was familiar to generations of U.S. schoolchildren from the Rev. Samuel F. Smith's 1832 patriotic hymn "America" ("My Country 'Tis of Thee"). It was also a favorite admonition of modern-day Negro activists, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in 1956 revived it for a speech during the Montgomery bus boycott and later made it a refrain in his rousing oratory at the 1963 March on Washington. In his liner notes, though, Jackie McLean refers to freedom in a strictly musical sense—freedom in improvisation, of expression, from tempo. He writes not about civil rights, but about choosing "the right notes." Not one of his 1,175 words concerns race, and neither does anything else about this album, which ought to have been called Let Opportunism Ring.

Match Me, Sidney

Closer look:
Donald Fagen, The Nightfly
Wes Montgomery, A Day in the Life

In Hollywood’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957), whenever the domineering and unscrupulous Broadway gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (played by Burt Lancaster) desires a light for his cigarette, he has but to flex his arm and demand: "Match me, Sidney." His toady, publicist Sidney Falco (portrayed to slimy perfection by Tony Curtis), promptly obliges, though not without a certain queasy ambivalence.

A quarter-century later, über-hipster Donald Fagen looks on The Nightfly as if he's issued the same command to his own toady, presumably just out of frame. Not that anyone could really match the Steely Dan co-founder who, one year after disbanding his supergroup, released what's editor-in-chief Ted Gioia now calls the "final masterpiece" of Pop Jazz.

If only we could lavish similar praise on A Day in the Life. Alas, it's a safe bet the LP on DJ Don's late-night turntable wasn't Wes Montgomery's A&M debut. By then, 1960s Pop Jazz was staler than last night's butts, as helpfully illustrated in close-up by an ashtray's contents. Yes, that musty aroma did indeed emanate from jazz's grandest guitarist, who squandered his last years covering fluff hits by such bantamweights as The Association, Kingston Trio, and Brothers Four. Twelve months after sleepwalking through A Day in the Life, he was dead at 45. Wes, we hardly knew ye.

Most Insulting to Women

Closer look:
Brand X, Livestock
Franco Ambrosetti, The Wind

(1) Few album covers rival Brand X's for sheer unabashed misogyny. True, band members may not be responsible for the offensive covers on such compilations as The Plot Thins: A History of Brand X (1997) and Macrocosm: Introducing...Brand X (2003). In particular, bassist Percy Jones is to be commended for distancing himself from the latter: "I just want everyone to know that I had nothing to do with this record or the tasteless artwork."

But Livestock (1977) is another matter. It was the band's third album, coming on the heels of their successful Moroccan Roll and at a time when the group probably did have some say in packaging. So what did they give us? A photograph of a woman visible only from the waist down, with legs spread and exposed to thigh-top, beneath the red-letter title LIVESTOCK.

This reeks of the original artwork for Spinal Tap's Smell the Glove (1982), which the Polymer label refused to release because it depicted a greased, naked woman on all fours wearing a dog collar, as a man's arm dangles her leash and shoves a glove in her face to sniff. Frankly, Brand X deserved the same fate as Spinal Tap: having their records released in an all-black jacket with no identifying marks.

(2) The woman's pose on Franco Ambrosetti's The Wind (2008) makes me wonder which sort of Wind is being referred to. As in Brand X's Livestock, her face is completely hidden, thus consummating the debasement. Misogynists will no doubt accuse me of taking this too seriously. But as Freud argued in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten, 1905), sometimes a joke is not just a joke.


Closer look:
Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Holon
Stefano Bollani, Piano Solo

Shown an advance copy of Spinal Tap's Smell the Glove, newly encased in an all-black jacket because its original artwork was deemed hostile to women, band member Nigel Tufnel wondered rhetorically: "How much more black could this be?" Since no one replied, he answered himself: "None. None more black." So it is with ECM covers. How much more blurry could they be? None. None more blurry.

ECM has a lock on this award. I predict they will win it year in and year out.

Old Folks

Closer look:
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, Ella and Louis
Horace Silver, Song for my Father

This is a close call. Both covers are nonpareil. Silver père's jauntily clenched stogie nearly carries the day, but Satchmo's socks prove unbeatable.

Thus concludes our irreverent rummaging through's attic of album covers, old and new, borrowed and blue. We think you'll agree that, as so often has been said, a picture is worth … well, I forget the exact number, but a whole lot of words. And if the images from our first year were this good, imagine what next year holds in store!

This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.

November 27, 2008 · 1 comment


Dominique Eade at New England Conservatory

Roanna Forman covers the Boston jazz scene for Recently she reviewed Laszlo Gardony, Roy Hargrove, and the Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival in this column. Below she reports on a performance by vocalist Dominique Eade—an event further distinguished by a guest appearance by pianist Ran Blake, Eade’s colleague on the faculty of the New England Conservatory. T.G.

People like to bat around the word “virtuoso.” But I doubt Dominique Eade would bat around anything; she’s too well mannered. She’d simply show you—with her multi-octave and fluidly maneuvered range, impeccable intonation, and instrumentalist’s command of bebop, classical, and contemporary music—that she merits that moniker bigtime.

 Dominique Eade

Eade’s recent New England Conservatory faculty recital was actually six concerts, featuring six different aspects of this versatile singer. Her first set with NEC student, bassist Aryeh Kobrinsky balanced post-bop jazz with quirky country tunes. Opening with an a cappella Appalachian-sounding meditation on a city spring day, Eade then interpreted Coltrane’s “Your Lady.” Sounding like a soprano sax with bluesy overtones and an African bottom, she wrapped Coltrane and McCoy Tyner into her intricate, imaginative solo. “In My Hands,” singer-song writer Tony Scherr’s sarcastic send-up of a country love song (“I’m stuck out here like a weather vane, while I squeak in the rain”) brought out soulful Ray-Charles throaty phrases that I first heard in Eade’s version of “Hear We Go Again.” After doubling with long smooth, bass lines, she moved her solo far up in her range, well beyond the octave above high C, before taking the song out.

During the next set of standards with guitarist and Berklee College faculty member Jon Wheatley, Eade found rhythmic interstices, linear motion, and rich embellishments that perked up old chestnuts like “East of the Sun.” Backed by Wheatley, whose fluency belies the difficulty of the lines he plays, Eade brought the mundane verse of “I’m Glad there is You” to life, blending an occasional Sarah Vaughn lick with her own sexy, nuanced phrasing. In a tango arrangement of Fauré’s Au Bord de L’Eau, a bucolic tone poem about romantic love, Eade’s classical timbre shone on certain phrases, something I’ve been curious to hear in her voice, which is primarily a very clean, precise jazz instrument.

Next, Eade brought out a trio, adding intensity, volume, and punch to a set of original songs. Pianist Tim Ray, whose recording dates run the gamut from Lyle Lovett to Rufus Reid, joined bassist John Lockwood and Yoron Israel. (Note: Lockwood and Israel also work with pianist Laszlo Gardony—see my review here.) Eade’s dense and winding lyrics in this set, on songs like “Everything at Once,” which is about unleashing possibilities, and the poignant, loving “A Thousand Fold,” show the self-professed influence of Joni Mitchell.

John Lockwood’s rolling groove and blues-accented gentle solo on “A Thousand Fold” was the perfect set-up for Lockwood and Eade’s signature rendition of Gershwin’s “But Not for Me,” which the two musicians play every time they perform together. Counting the tune off at a clip, she and Lockwood raced through melody, scat and bass solo like a lion dancing with a bumblebee. On the “The Narrows,” Eade fronted the band’s driving energy with percussive vocal improvisation, showing traces of Betty Carter (another one of Eade’s influences). The song, a metaphor for successfully negotiating life’s chaos, ends with a wave-like, quickly resolved swell.

Changing both wardrobe and style dramatically after the intermission, Eade traded her kicky red and gray peasant dress and ankle boots for black evening attire and, accompanied by the singular crashing, theatrical voicings of jazz great Ran Blake—Eade’s mentor and colleague at NEC—she sang their set in a darkened hall. A combination of Eade and Blake originals, one standard, and Alfred Newman’s theme from the provocative film Pinky, it was the highlight of the evening. Though Blake accompanied her, Eade sang independently of the pianist, as each song segued into the next one, with Blake’s funereal arrangements framing the tunes like a noir camera. Eade’s voice was more expressive and satisfying in this setting, partly because there was nothing to distract the listener—often not even lyrics, as she broke into vocalese. The dark stage emphasized that this singer is no “front person,” but a powerful instrument contributing to the overall musical sound.

Next, Eade brought out a multi-voiced version of herself—the NEC Jazz A Cappella Vocal Ensemble, which performed her composition “Before I Go” with tight contemporary harmonies and gospel overtones. Eade finished the evening with two upbeat songs, choosing Tim Ray on piano, and bringing back Aryeh Kobrinsky, who had opened the show accompanying her on bass. Harmonizing with the piano, she knocked off the fast-paced head to Don Cherry’s “Happiness” and took a joyful solo, followed by Tim Ray’s highly creative improvisation on the changes. Eade closed with “Open Letter,” written on “the ink that makes things better,” from her CD Open. It’s a salute to all the little things that make you happy, its theme and one-line images reminiscent of Jobim’s “Waters of March.”

Dominque Eade turned 50 this year. She told the audience she’d always wanted to be 50, and then see what happened next. Some hint of that may be in the most compelling moment of the concert, her performance of her song “Go Gently to the Water”. With Ran Blake behind her, she sang its very simple melody and direct lyrics—just a voice, all virtuosity put aside, every word and note charged with the deep feeling that’s at the heart of all mature artistry.

This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman

November 26, 2008 · 0 comments


From Björk to Miles in Cologne

Stuart Nicholson covers the world for Over the course of 2008, he has reported in this column on jazz events in Oslo and Dublin and Bremen and Estonia and Moers and Bergen and Umea and . . . Well, you get the idea. In short, E.T. is not the only one who needs to call home.

Below, Nicholson offers his account of the latest installment of Jazz Cologne. What does this festival have to offer? Where else, I ask, can you find a bill that includes big band arrangements of Björk, impassioned saxophony from James Carter, trumpet work from the son of Karlheinz Stockhausen, and a stirring suite of new music inspired by Kind of Blue? Nicholson fills in the details below. T.G.

Jazz Cologne

With the fiftieth anniversary of Kind of Blue just around the corner, it was wholly appropriate that this year's Cologne Jazz should have been dominated by a performance of Blauklang, meaning blue sound, by the Vince Mendoza Ensemble. Performing music from his 2008 album of the same name for the German ACT label, it represented the climax of the whole four-day festival and provided its most enduring memory.

This was the fourth annual Cologne Jazz�the fifth if you count the pilot event held in July 2004�and it has quickly established itself as an important event in the cultural life of the city. Produced under the auspices of Radio WDR, one of the biggest public broadcasting stations in Germany along with NDR and HR, it reflects the cultural policy of German public radio (radio funded by public taxation) of supporting the arts, of which jazz is a beneficiary.

WDR is one of nine regional public radio stations in Germany (in addition to the national stations DLF and DKultur) each with their own dedicated jazz departments that each broadcast around 300 hours per month of jazz in secure program slots. Public radio stations play a vital role in sustaining the local and national jazz scenes in Germany, broadcasting live jazz (thus providing frequent paid work for jazz musicians) from the studio, festivals and stages in addition to commissioning works and developing young talent. The strong relationship between public radio and jazz in Germany is best illustrated by the fact that the jazz departments of the ARD, the association of public broadcasting stations in Germany, support more than 30 jazz festivals a year between them.

At Cologne Jazz, WDR broadcasts every concert, opening with the Jazzpreis awards which take place on the first night in the impressive Klaus von Bismark Saal, the radio station�s own concert hall within the WDR Funkhaus. The Nachwuchspreis (meaning the prize for �new blood� or �young talent�) went to Big Stuff, the big band of the music academy at Wipperf�rth; while the Jazz Komposition award went to saxophonist and clarinettist Gabri�l Perez, who performed with the WDR big band.

Cologne pianist Hubert Nuss won the prize for Jazz Improvisation, and performed a short set with his trio that opened with an original inspired by Oliver Messiaen. Earlier in the year he had made a striking impression on drummer Wolfgang Haffner�s album Acoustic Shapes, released on the ACT label, which showed the world Cologne had in its midst a real upcoming talent. Geed up by Haffner�s inspirational drumming and Lars Danielsson�s suave bass, Nuss revealed an individual style that was expansive and at times uplifting, providing ample evidence of why he was so deserving of the award.

A series concerts were also presented in the Kleiner Sendesaal, a smaller stage within the WDR Funkhaus, of which Austrian guitarist Andy Manndorff�s trio was a highlight. A purveyor of odd, asymmetrical themes, this was a group that fascinated through the give-and-take of complex musical lines between three talented musicians. Yet it was strange to reflect that a musician so conspicuously accomplished as Manndorff should have devised a style of playing that somehow seemed to keep the listener at arms length.

As well as concerts within the WDR Funkhaus, a parallel series of concerts under the Jazz Cologne rubric were also presented at Cologne�s impressive Stadtgarten performance centre, a ten minute taxi ride across Cologne. For many fans the best was a rip-roaring concert by saxophonist James Carter�s quintet. There is probably no finer custodian of jazz saxophone legacy than Carter, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the great masters of the past is legendary. This was straight-ahead, on-the-money jazz, with pianist Gerard Gibbs as intent on raising the roof as Carter, who seemed to be everywhere at once on his instruments�tenor and baritone saxes, bass clarinet and flute�frequently climaxing his saxophone solos with high note flurries beyond the normal range of the instrument that must have delighted any Labradors in the neighbourhood.

After concerts by the student band Big Stuff and the WDR big band on the opening night, the third big band concert of the festival was held at the Stadtgarten with the Cologne Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, who performed Travis Sullivan�s arrangements of Bj�rk songs. However, his relentless arrangements made you yearn for more imaginative writing as names like France�s Sylvia Versini�who has been dubbed �the European Maria Schneider��the UK�s Gwylim Simcock or Tom Richards and Norway�s Geir Lysne began drifting in and out of the imagination.

The appearance of three big bands in four days brought home how much arrangers can still learn from the past. So often, orchestrations are sliced in half by long, drawn out middle sections devoted to extended solos that may or may not relate to the thematic material at hand. Gradually the orchestration becomes a distant memory and its purpose equivocal. Yet in the big band�s hey-day in the 1930s and 1940s, the solo was much more closely integrated into ensemble writing. You only have to think of Duke Elington�s 1940-41 orchestra (�Jack the Bear,� �Harlem Airshaft,� �Bojangles�) or trombonist Jack Jenney�s remarkable eight bars on Artie Shaw�s �Stardust� to get a sense of this. Here the soloist constructed their improvisations around the needs of composition, sustaining its mood and finding a voice within it that did not alter its meaning. Yet today, the soloist is often presented as a counter attraction to the ensemble�soloist plus rhythm�that seems at odds with the ethos of a large ensemble. This is less a criticism of the big bands that appeared at Cologne, more a reflection on standard big band practice today.

Maybe they should take a leaf out of Vince Mendoza�s scores for his album Blauklang (ACT). Produced by Dr. Bernd Hoffmann, Head of Jazz for WDR and responsible for commissioning the piece, Mendoza has created an album that manages to inhabit the same atmospheric space as Kind of Blue while exploring and extending its emotional range, climaxing with the six movement Bluesounds suite.

I was at the rehearsal of the band as they prepared for the Sunday night concert which was to be followed by a short tour of Germany. The line-up presented a fascinating combination of instruments, with Markus Stockhausen on trumpet (and yes, the son of you know who), Arkady Shilkloper on French horn, Jon Sass on tuba, Claudio Puntin clarinet and saxes, St�phane Gulillaume clarinets and saxes, Niels Klein clarinets and saxes, Christopher Dell on vibraphone, Ulla van Daelen on harp, Nguyen Le on guitar, Lars Danielsson on bass and Peter Erskine on drums plus the RED URG 4 string quartet.

During a break in the rehearsals I took the opportunity to speak to Vince Mendoza about Blauklang, and began by asking him how it came about. �Most of the music on Bluesounds was part of a commission by the WDR for the Traumzeit music festival in Duisburg that took place in the Summer of 2007,� he explained. �Originally, I discussed with the producers the concept of writing music that was inspired by a collection of paintings being exhibited at the festival on the theme of the color blue and how the music of my concert could somehow match the mood of the works in the exhibition.�

These were the paintings of the famous German artist Ernst Wilhelm Nay (1902-1968) that are a part of the ACT Art+Music Collection of label owner Siggi Loch. The idea was that colored tones of Nay�s �rhythmic pictures� from the 1950s and displayed at Duisburg would inspire a musical response from Vince Mendoza. �The essence of my approach to this music was not so much to �paint� with music or embrace the effect of a particular color but to capture the feeling of the music of the era of Miles and Gil�and in particular Kind of Blue. In other words the space, attitude, harmony and approach to improvisation,� continued Mendoza.

I had been fascinated by the range of instruments Vince Mendoza had chosen to write for, and I wondered how he had arrived at that combination�especially the inclusion of a string quartet, harp, French horn and tuba. �After a long period of writing mostly large ensemble music, including big bands and symphony orchestras, I found that using the individual voices in a chamber music setting would be most effective,� he explained. �The first concern was how to best feature the rhythm section players in the context of the chamber group. Omitting the piano was a way to clear out sonic space for the other instruments and to allow the harmonies to be freer and sometimes even ambiguous. Fortunately the woodwind players are amazing and I found an enormous resource in their ability to play so many instruments. For me, one of the most effective parts of Gil Evans�s orchestrations had to do with the motion on the bottom. My choice of the tuba had a lot to do with this. And I used the contra alto clarinet and the �tubax� to reinforce the motion on the bottom. Finally, the choice of wind instruments needed to compliment the harp, vibes and string quartet without overpowering them.�

I asked him about his choice of material, which included two numbers associated with Davis, �All Blues� from Kind of Blue and �Blues for Pablo� from Miles Ahead, a traditional piece called �Lo Rossinyol,� a piece entitled �Habanera� and a piece called �Ollie Mention.� �It was my intention to lend a different point of view to the melody and form of the Davis pieces,� he began. �I did this by varying the orchestration, harmony and rhythms associated with the original versions and presenting the improvisations in a different context. However, the same could be said of the Catalan folk song �Lo Rossinyol.� I thought that there might be a way of approaching this music to make it evocative of the Kind of Blue �space.� The themes from �Habanera� come from a dance piece that I wrote in 2006 called �JAM!� I thought that the emotion and space of this piece was part of what I was trying to achieve on the Blauklang recording. The same is true with �Ollie Mention,� which was originally written for John Abercrombie years ago for the Animato CD. I always thought �Ollie� was destined for a chamber music setting.�

Finally, I asked him how he approached the challenge of writing the album�s centrepiece Bluesounds, a suite in six movements. �After I went back to Los Angeles and began improvising and sketching I felt like my ideas were not so much affected by the color of the paintings in the exhibition as the patterns, shapes and illusion of motion in the paintings,� he said. �This was for me the springboard for something more interesting. After the initial stages of writing, I was most attracted to ideas that could feature the broad selection of instruments in the ensemble and the soloists that were to play in the group, especially the combination of woodwind doubling instruments. In particular I was interested in the role of the string quartet and how it would relate to the winds and rhythm section. I was concerned that the quartet would be integrated rhythmically with the rest of the ensemble. Of course, the color possibilities of the mixed ensemble was most interesting to me, especially in the piece �Bluesounds� which for me is an exercise in form and color.�

Watching Mendoza rehearsing the ensemble was fascinating. Paying careful attention to dynamics and articulation, he might occasionally stop the ensemble when a glitch appeared and go over it until the ensemble internalised his directions. Sometimes he might break the passage down: first the rhythm, then the brass, then the woodwinds. One run-down of an eight bar section with vibes, strings and harp was captivating, illuminating just one corner of one arrangement in dazzling Technicolor detail.

There was a hushed expectation the following night as the audience filed into Klaus von Bismarck Saal concert hall. Beginning at 8 PM precisely, so as to fit in the WDR broadcasting schedule, this shimmering ensemble of elusive density created stunning re-imaginations of the classics �All Blues� and �Blues for Pablo� that established the �blue� mood of quiet melancholy from which Blauklang took its inspiration.

The quality of sound and mixing were perfect within the hall, with pieces like �Lo Rossinyol,� �Habanera,� and �Ollie Mention� stepping stones towards the concert�s climax, the six movement Bluesounds suite. In both conception and execution, this ambitious piece seemed like a blossoming of the musical ideals expressed almost fifty years ago in two memorable sessions in Columbia�s 30th Street studios when Kind of Blue began its epic journey from an album that on release received favourable reviews to the iconic status it now enjoys as the greatest jazz album ever made.

Mendoza�s imaginative writing included several highlights: a duet between the bass clarinets of Niels Klein and Claudio Puntin, Markus Stockhausen�s perfect articulation and intonation on �Movement III,� Nguyen Le�s subtle flourishes on guitar, and the empathy and energy of String Quartet Red Urg 4, especially during the final section of �Movement IV.� Yet each soloist was seamlessly integrated into the overall architecture of the compositions, sustaining its mood rather than offering disjunctive contrast. At the end, the ovation seemed to go on forever: for Mendoza himself, for his ensemble, and for each musician in turn, who took a bow. There should also have been an ovation for radio WDR as well, who made this impressive artistic achievement possible.

This blog entry posted by Stuart Nicholson.

November 25, 2008 · 0 comments


Wynton Marsalis and the JALC Orchestra Play Monk

Chris Kelsey, an editor and writer for, recently contributed a two-part article in this space on the Blue Note recordings of Ornette Coleman. Kelsey now turns his attention to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's performance of the music of Thelonious Monk last Friday at Frederick P. Rose Hall. T.G.

Marsalis paying tribute to Monk: a cynic (or a Wynton Marsalis detractor; the two types frequently overlap) might roll his eyes at the very idea. And to an extent, that's understandable. One would be hard-pressed to find two jazz musicians who are less alike, and whose individual careers followed more divergent paths. Thelonious Monk—the innovator—struggled in obscurity until middle-age. For years, his idiosyncratic music was dismissed by the jazz establishment and public as too strange and difficult to be taken seriously. In contrast, Marsalis—the proselytizer—achieved fame and fortune early. His music, built upon successful experiments conducted years earlier by acknowledged masters like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong, found an immediate audience and widespread critical acceptance.

Other considerations: Monk grew up in relative poverty; the Marsalis household was solidly middle-class. Monk was largely self-taught; Marsalis received early instruction from his father—an estimable jazz pianist—and later attended the most prestigious music school in the country. In terms of their art, Monk's represented a dramatic conceptual expansion, whereas Wynton's is largely a reworking of tried-and-true methods. Add the fact that Monk suffered from a debilitating mental illness that eventually caused him to withdraw almost totally into himself at the end of his life, unable or unwilling to engage the world, whereas Marsalis became the personable, popular, and voluble face of jazz to a generation of jazz lovers, and it's easy to see why a skeptic might pre-judge this concert as beyond ironic.

But just as Monk had no choice but to be himself, neither does Marsalis. You wouldn't have hired Thelonious Monk to run an organization like Jazz at Lincoln Center (or even lead it's orchestra), and you don't expect a quantum leap from Wynton Marsalis. The very fact that Wynton shows such deference to his elders makes him an ideal person to headline a tribute like this. Whatever you think of him, no one can legitimately question his love for the greats who made his career possible (most of them, anyway). On a night like tonight, you expect a well-crafted, virtuosic, sincere performance from Wynton Marsalis. He and his band delivered exactly that.

                   Thelonious Monk, by Herb Snitzer

On this occasion, Marsalis and The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra were joined by pianist Marcus Roberts, a professed admirer of Monk, and winner of the first Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition in 1987. Between tunes, actor Courtney Vance read a narration written by historian and Ken Burns collaborator, Geoffrey Ward. The orchestra played a dozen arrangements, most written by current band members. Some of the charts were better than others, but all evinced tremendous skill—as well as a healthy (but not excessive) respect for the source materials.

Lead altoist Sherman Irby's arrangement of “We See” started things nicely. Irby took a fairly conservative approach, using the the melody more or less as Monk intended, not indulging in anything too fancy in terms of orchestration or form (although he did include a terrific sax soli that sounded for all the world like a transcribed Johnny Griffin solo). Roberts took the first solo and impressed immediately. Vance had introduced Roberts as “one of the world's greatest living interpreters of Monk's music,” which may or may not be true, depending on one's perspective. Certainly, he's a much more conventional pianist than Monk. Here, he incorporated many of Monk's techniques and mannerisms—Basie-like repetition, elements of stride, whole-tone runs—yet it was apparent that he's not only (or even primarily) about Monk, but rather has the history of jazz piano (pre-Cecil Taylor) under his fingers. There was nothing of Monk's tight-rope-walking spontaneity, nor were there anything even faintly resembling rough edges. In Roberts' hands, gritty becomes elegant, the low-down-est blues nearly rhapsodic. Which is okay. It's not particularly Monk-ish, but it is very appealing.

Wynton followed with a solo that answered the implied musical question, “How would Louis Armstrong have sounded if he'd played with Monk?” I'm not sure it's a question that needed to be asked. Wynton's solo was attractive in it's way; he played fairly simple ideas, relying on tone and swing to put it over. As always, it was finely-crafted, but there was also that contrived quality which seems to always invade Wynton's playing whenever he's trying to connect the historical dots.

Trombonist Vincent Gardner's ambitious version of “Light Blue” followed. The title of the piece seems to have inspired Gardner to evoke pastels in his orchestration. This he did by making extensive use of his sax section's doubling skills, writing for flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, and—in one tragic instance—two piccolos. The arrangement featured a great deal of contrary motion, especially between the piano and woodwinds, not all of which was successful, due at least in part to balance problems.

The sparseness of Monk's “Evidence” makes it a difficult tune to arrange. Marsalis made a valiant effort, though his technique of passing the melodic fragments from one section or group to another (much as he did on his big band arrangement of Coltrane's “A Love Supreme” several years ago) sounded gimmicky. The tune did serve as an effective showcase for drummer Ali Jackson, however, and trumpeter Marcus Printup played a wonderful solo. Trombonist Chris Crenshaw approached “Epistrophy” from a reggae angle, which kinda sorta worked, although the rhythm section tended to just lay there, even more than reggae rhythm sections usually do. Alto saxophonist Ted Nash played an impassioned solo on the tune, and Wynton added his relevant two cents. Nash's arrangement of “Skippy” was one of the evening's more technically demanding moments; his use of woodwind doubles was especially effective, and his solo contained a sprig of Dolphy, which I found refreshing. Trombonist Elliott Mason acquitted himself nicely on the tune, as well.

Other highlights: trumpeter Claude Hendrix's extroverted solo and bari saxophonist Joe Temperley's lyrical spot on saxophonist Walter Blanding's super-tight arrangement of “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are;” a hip “Hackensack” that featured a Gonsalves-ish solo from tenorist Victor Goines; an exciting “Bye-Ya” arranged by bassist Carlos Heniquez; and former LCJO leader David Berger's version of “Blue Monk,” which seemed to grasp Monk-the-composer's improvisatory essence more than any arrangement played all evening.

The best moments came toward concert's end. Wynton's gorgeous arrangement of “Ugly Beauty” for the saxes and rhythm was an occasion when his Ellington fixation paid big dividends. Lead altoist Irby's huge, vibrating tone conjured Johnny Hodges so effectively, I was almost afraid to look up, for fear I might see Rabbit's ghost hovering in the rafters. Roberts shone, as well. His solo eschewed Monk-ish understatement, instead comprising boppish profundities and lush, Red Garland-like chords. The entire performance was breathtaking.

The final tune, “Four in One,” features one of Monk's more convoluted melodies, and the arrangement (presumably by Marsalis) embraced those intricacies and expounded them. The piece began with a stab at '20s-style polyphony before kicking into a fast four-four swing. If you know the tune, you know it's tough enough to play at Monk's tempo, and this was much quicker. The orchestra's incredible virtuosity was put to good use. It executed every twist and turn immaculately, with style and excitement. Marsalis's solo burned. He double-timed an already quick tempo with fire, passion, and not a little distinction. There are times when Wynton sounds pedantic on his horn (sometimes it seems like a point of honor that he invoke Armstrong in any and every context), but not here, not now. Tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding added a chop-busting solo, but Wynton's spot is what remains in my ear.

Within the insular confines of the jazz world, Wynton Marsalis has inspired a lot of controversy: because of things he said (mostly) a long time ago; because his success has made him an easy target; because he looks backward for inspiration. Many despair at his apparent unwillingness to include more contemporary jazz styles in JALC's programming. Points taken. But if you can suspend preconceptions and opinions, and just listen to his music, more often than not you're bound to hear something quite beautiful. Not paradigm-shifting, or innovative, necessarily, but beautiful. That's something I figured out only recently. Indeed, maybe I only really learned it tonight. Wynton ain't Monk. But he is Wynton, and that's enough.

This blog entry posted by Chris Kelsey.

November 24, 2008 · 1 comment


Still No Oscar for Russ Garcia

Regular readers of this column will be aware of the scandal surrounding Russ Garcia's denied Oscar. Those who don't know about this sad affair can find the details here and here.


Here is the story in a nutshell. Garcia (now 92 years old) played a key role in composing and arranging music for Charlie Chaplin's film Limelight (1952). Yet because the Oscar for this score was not awarded until almost twenty years had passed, the honor was given—probably due to confusion over names—to the late Larry Russell, who apparently had no involvement with the music.

Marc Myers broke this story at his JazzWax blog back in September, and I followed up with a report a few weeks later. I urged readers to contact the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which can be done here). In my article, I wondered why no one in the print media had covered this story. (I am still wondering.)

I should note that Russ Garcia himself prefers to make no stir about this. He has commented: "I'm a Baha'i. It's part of my faith never to be the source of grief to anyone." But that prohibition does not apply to journalists, who should be guided by a sense of fairness and a desire to report on subjects as important and newsworthy as this one.

Russ Garcia

Today is running a feature on Mr. Garcia, as part of arnold jay smith's OctoJAZZarians series, and this provides an opportunity to revisit the subject of the missing Oscar.

Here is an update . . . although not the update I would like to be giving. The Academy has not responded to any of my repeated requests. They seem content to stonewall, and wait for this issue to go away on its own.

Perhaps I should have expected this. But I am even more surprised by the dead silence from the jazz media and mainstream media. I tried to interest the arts editor of the nation's paper of record (yes, that one) in this story, but with no success. Not a single media outlet (as far as I know) has covered this matter.

Yet jazz fans are outraged. I know because I hear from them.

What is going on here? Why isn't this story—which is both important and newsworthy—on anyone's radar screen? Do Sid Ganis and his colleagues at the Academy have more clout than I realize? Are print journalists just reluctant to cover a story that was first broken by a blogger? Is jazz coverage in the mainstream media so decimated and marginalized that editors just block out the whole art form?

I know that if (heaven forbid!) there were a miscount in the American Idol voting, it would be all over the news. Yet an unassuming 92-year-old jazz pioneer has his Oscar denied him for several decades, and this doesn't even get a whisper in the press. Or even in the jazz press!

If any one out there has any answers or can cast some light on what is going on here, please let me know.

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

November 23, 2008 · 4 comments


The South Asian Tinge in Jazz

Jelly Roll Morton, in an oft-quoted passage, once spoke about the "Spanish tinge" that was, in his opinion, an essential ingredient of jazz. Although Morton has sometimes been derided, and is often treated with bemused disdain by later commentators, his remarks on jazz are typically quite astute. When talking about himself, Morton could be an unreliable source, but on almost every other subject, he needs to be taken seriously. His remarks on Latin elements in jazz are a case in point.

South Asian tinge

Morton decidedly did not talk about the South Asian tinge in jazz. But maybe it's time we start doing so. Rudresh Mahanthappa's new release Kinsmen, one of the most interesting CDs to come my way in recent weeks, has spurred my thoughts on this fertile area of exploration on the current jazz scene. Attempts to merge South Asian music and African-American traditions rarely get the same attention that Latin jazz garners, but this is a vital and exciting type of fusion today, and there are no shortage of interesting precedents from the past.

South Asian tinge

Sometimes it takes some digging to unearth the history of this partnership. John Handy's recordings with Ali Akbar Khan may be historic, even more they may be mesmerizing to hear. But they are—alas!—almost impossible to find, even in specialty stores and on the virtual shelves of esoteric web sites.

Other potent examples of Indian fusion music never appear on commercial releases. I remember a tape lent to me once by a student of Terry Riley, featuring a East-meets-West performance with Zakir Hussain, from an event organized by Riley. The music was stunning, but I was forbidden, in the strongest possible words, from making a copy. Today it lives on only in my memory. Although I still have some lingering hopes that a CD of this music may someday appear. (By the way, I plan to write more about Terry Riley—a fascinating figure in modern music—on at a future date.)

South Asian tinge

In contrast, Bill Laswell's work with Zakir Hussain is easy to obtain, and if you haven't heard it, you definitely should do yourself the favor of checking it out. (See my reviews here and here.) Laswell is a wide-ranging artist, who has put his stamp on hundreds of projects, but he has a provocative sense of world fusion music that sets him apart from the crowd. I am especially fond of Laswell's Hear No Evil, in which Hussain's tabla plays a central role in the mixing of rhythmic sensibilities from North and South, East and West.

South Asian tinge

However, no one has done more to give visibility to the "South Asian tinge" in jazz than guitarist John McLaughlin. His Shakti band (extensively covered on by Walter Kolosky) brought attention to Hussain as well as to violinist L. Shankar, and percussionists Vikku Vinayakram and R. Raghavan. In various settings, McLaughlin has collaborated with a host of other prominent Indian musicians. Coming on the heels of McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti opened up the ears of many jazz-rock fans to sounds they had never before, and helped set in motion the commercialization of "World Music" as a marketing category. Previously non-Western musical styles had lived a largely subterranean life, found in obscure recordings from Folkways or Nonesuch or even smaller specialty labels, but with the impetus provided by McLaughlin and others, it was starting to find a mainstream audience during the mid-1970s.

A few years later, during a 1980 performance at a Mumbai jazz festival, John Handy invited altoist Kadri Gopalnath to join him on stage, and their combination of jazz and Carnatic music created quite a stir at the event. Gopalnath, who shares the alto responsibilities with Mahanthappa on Kinsmen, is now acknowledged as a pioneer in developing the saxophone as a legitimate voice for Indian music. His mastery is evident on a number of recordings, still little known in the US, which avoid glib fusion formulas in favor of a mindful probing of the untapped potential of his native musical traditions.

Miles in India

2008 has proven to be a stellar year for the South Asian tinge in jazz. Earlier this year, the Miles in India project got some attention, both for a fine CD as well the attendant concert performances of this music. John McLaughlin celebrated his Indian connections with his CD Floating Point and a companion DVD. Trilok Gurtu has a new CD in the works (with didgeridoo in the mix!). On his recent Tragicomic CD, Vijay Iyer delves at certain points (for example, on the song "Machine Days") into rhythmic and melodic structures suggestive of Indian music, albeit artfully clothed in dense new millennium jazz textures. In short, this is a vibrant field of exploration, still in flux and full of creative energy.

South Asian tinge

One of my favorite CDs of the year features Debashish Bhattacharya's powerful combination of slide guitar techniques with the Hindustani tradition in Indian music. Others have ventured down this path before (see, for example, Ry Cooder's fine 1993 CD with V.M Bhatt, A Meeting by the River), but seldom with such felicitous results. For several months now, I have been ardently recommending Bhattacharya's release, Calcutta Chronicles: Indian Slide Guitar Odyssey—most recently during a trip I made last week to the Mississippi Delta, where people were asking me about the influence of Delta guitar traditions on other genres of music—and everyone who hears it seems to share my enthusiasm. But it is almost unknown, even among serious jazz and blues fans. Currently it doesn't rank among the top 50,000 or so best selling CDs at, yet it is likely to secure a prominent place in my "best of 2008" list.

Indeed, the whole "South Asian" tinge in jazz (and blues) deserves more attention. Despite the many intriguing attempts to bring together these traditions in the period from 1970 to the present day, the most influential and best known connection between South Asian music and jazz may still be Coltrane's attempt to incorporate Eastern-sounding modal licks into the saxophone vocabulary. This personal decision definitely changed the flavor of jazz, and left a lasting mark on how the music is played. But very few jazz fans have traced back the roots of this sound beyond Coltrane. They really need to learn that there is more to India than "India."

Yet a new generation of American players with Indian roots now seem poised to take us to the next level. Artists such as pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa have the talent, the commitment and the standing within the jazz world to bridge these two rich traditions and find ways of intersection and dissemination that go beyond what we have heard before. It is fascinating to watch as these top tier talents, deeply schooled in the vocabulary of jazz, explore their own heritage in a way that is neither derivative nor superficial.

A return to the roots is one of the prevailing themes of the modern era—and it is a theme that I will explore in my next book (on the "death of the cool") where I focus on this quest for "rooted-ness" as one of the defining qualities of our times. In his new CD, Rudresh Mahanthappa shows us the surprising twists and turns that often emerge once we begin to take seriously the historical roots that pre-date our own birth and assimilation into our surrounding culture. Mahanthappa admits that he first received Kadri Gopalnath's album Saxophone Indian Style as a joke gift from his older brother, who thought the mere title was quite amusing. (Check out my review of a track by Gopalnath here.) Yet now Mahanthappa has invited Gopalnath as a guest artist on Kinsmen. The joke gift has now resulted in a real gift . . . to all of us.

On Kinsmen, Mahanthappa also features Poovalur Sriji on mridangam (a drum common in Carnatic music), violinist Avasarala Kanyakumari, guitarist Rez Abassi, bassist Carlo de Rosa and drummer Royal Hartigan. A track from this CD ("Ganesha") is featured as Song of the Day on

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

November 20, 2008 · 2 comments


Backstage at the Django Reinhardt Festival

In part one of this article, Bill Barnes reviewed the ninth annual Django Reinhardt jazz festival at Birdland. In this second, and final installment, he takes us behind the scenes for conversations with the performers and Gypsy jazz advocate Pat Philips. T.G.

Django Reinhardt Jazz Festival

Offstage at the Django Reinhardt NY Festival, guitarist Andreas Öberg allows me to noodle a bit on his $30,000 Benedetto archtop. His recent release on Resonance Records, My Favorite Guitars, has him squarely back in the mainstream, where his formidable bebop chops are in full swing. For much of tonight’s sets he opted to play the archtop, rather than his more traditional Selmer-style AJL acoustic. As the author of Gypsy Fire, one of the best instructional materials on Django guitar, he is a dedicated advocate of the Gypsy technique, but lately has been increasingly drawn back to his earlier influences, mainstream players such as George Benson and Pat Martino.

Öberg admits that he isn’t doing as many Hot Club swing gigs as he was a few years ago. Still, he remains a proponent. “There’s real power in the Gypsy technique,” he says. “You can play so much faster, with greater clarity.” He will be expanding access to his experience and knowledge in the near future with an interactive instructional website, in partnership with AOL. For now, I’m content to observe and attempt to steal bits and pieces of his remarkable technique.

Sampson Schmitt

While hanging out in Birdland’s green room between sets, I had the opportunity to sample the Selmer-style guitars the Schmitt brothers have been playing, courtesy of Manouche Guitars North America’s representative, Barry Warhoftig. These are just stock production models but, in Sampson’s hands, they sound like vintage Selmers. Everybody is plucking away backstage—it’s interesting to hear the different approaches to the guitar during the interplay between Kruno, Sampson and Andreas. Kruno suddenly breaks into song, demonstrating a surprisingly good voice, as he renders a lovely, poignant ballad in his native Croatian. I recognize the tune, “Letch Gurgo,” written by violinist Schnuckenack Reinhardt, a cousin of Django. Ludovic joins in with the accordion, followed by Sampson, providing the perfect guitar embellishment. This wasn’t on the program, but I’m thinking it should have been.

Producer Pat Philips and her long time partner, Ettore Stratta are by the bar, waiting for the second set. Arguably New York’s most ardent supporters of Gypsy jazz, they had actually built their reputations working with a broad array of major talent (a very long list, trust me!) from Lena Horne and Count Basie to Lew Tabackin and Joshua Redman. Ettore has produced, arranged and conducted for so many prominent artists, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Tony Bennett and Eddie Daniels. So what has made them so passionate about Django Reinhardt and jazz Manouche? Pat responds, “It makes me feel good. I just fell in love with the music and with the artists.”

“Half of the people we bring here live in caravans or cottages. They could afford to buy big houses but they don’t think that way—it’s all about the music, it’s all about the family.”

                                                                                                 Pat Philips

I ask for her take on why there is such a resurgence of interest now, after all these years. “It’s the hippest music out there, at least in my opinion. . . . I don’t think there’s any comparison. It’s very romantic, melodic, very swinging; it gets inside you and makes you feel great—and I’m talking kids, all the way to old people. I just think it’s hip and cutting edge forever.”

They have been involved in the jazz Manouche revival ever since 1988, when they produced Stephane Grappelli’s 70th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring Yo-Yo Ma, Michel Legrand, the Juilliard String Quartet, Maureen McGovern and Toots Thielemans. Since then, they have produced regular Django-inspired events at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Birdland and other venues, getting to know many of the key players in the process—Dorado Schmitt, Angelo Debarre and Stochelo Rosenberg, to name a few.

Pat Philips loves the Romani musician’s esthetic. “Half of the people we bring here live in caravans or cottages. They could afford to buy big houses but they don’t think that way—it’s all about the music, it’s all about the family. They grow up with the music—they play for the joy of the music. That is the difference. That’s why you feel it. You feel what they feel. If they were home tonight, they’d be sitting in the living room playing music. When they get up after breakfast, they’re going to play music.” The search for the heart and soul of Gypsy jazz has led her to Romani camps across Europe. “We’ve gone there, we’ve been in their caravans, it’s all guitars, putting them in the hands of a three year-old. . . . It’s in the culture; it’s in the family.”

While the second set audience is not quite the overflowing capacity crowd of the first, they’re every bit as enthusiastic. Among the repeats of the first set’s tunes, the group offers some more classic Django numbers: “Troublant Boléro,” which is actually more of a rumba, and the popular “Swing Gitan.” The performance ends with an exuberant, buoyant crowd pleaser, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

That’s pretty much summed up the feeling when, at three o’clock in the morning, Birdland finally closed its doors behind the last of the stragglers and turned us out into the misty November night—we couldn’t feel anything but love. Latcho Drom and long live Django!

This blog entry posted by Bill Barnes.

November 19, 2008 · 0 comments


An Adventurous Festival that Crosses Borders and Genres

Thierry Quénum covers the jazz scene from his home base in Paris, and is a frequent contributor to these pages. Quénum writes for Jazz Magazine and other periodicals, and is a jury member for the Django D’Or (France) and the European Jazz Prize (Austria). Below he shares his thoughts on the opening weekend of the ongoing Jazzdor Festival in Strasbourg. T.G.


France doesn’t just have jazz festivals in the summer and on its beaches. The fall is also a busy period all over the country. From Perpignan, in the south, to Toulouse, in the southwest, to Nevers, in the center, to Paris and up to Strasbourg, in the northeast, France displays an impressive diversity of events that, since they are not mainly focused on the tourist audience, often offer daring programs.

Of this trend, Jazzdor is a good case in point. This festival started out in a small jazz club 23 years ago. The event lasted only 3 days back then. Now it covers Strasbourg itself and a dozen smaller cities in its neighborhood and lasts two weeks. Due to the closeness of Germany, just over the Rhine river, Jazzdor also was the first French jazz festival to cross a border and organize concerts with fellow German cultural institutions.

This may seem to be just normal for a city that, besides being the capital of the Alsace region, hosts the European Parliament and was a major cultural and university center even before Gutenberg settled close to its beautiful pink stones cathedral with the brand new printing machine he’d invented, back in the 15th century. Still Philippe Ochem, Jazzdor’s director for the last two decades, has fought hard to bring his festival to the level of creativity and international renown that it now has among artists worldwide, and among audiences more than 100 kms around Strasbourg.

The first weekend of Jazzdor’s 23rd edition was based in town, but it displayed a good sample of what the overall program would be during the following days in other places, including Offenburg in Germany. Here one encountered mostly European musicians—including many artists debuting music that had never been played in France before—and lots of full houses. The last factor is partly due to the trust local audiences have developed in Ochem’s artistic choices and also partly due to the inexpensive students passes that Jazzdor offers to reach younger listeners.

Das Kapital is a Danish / German / French trio based in Paris. Hasse Poulsen plays the guitar, Daniel Erdmann the tenor and soprano saxes, Edward Perraud is the drummer. Their performance, called “Lenin on Tour,” was a first in France and has them playing along with a silent documentary that shows three huge stone busts—one of them Lenin’s, of course—traveling through Europe on a trailer. The trio devised a magical soundtrack for this strange road movie, playing witty counterpoints to the images or totally ignoring them to build their own musical journey. The journey ends with “The International,” the communist party’s hymn, played in a tender and ironical way . . . that may have led the trio to some tiny cell way back then.

Another trio followed in the same auditorium, Swiss / German / American, this time: drummer Daniel Humair, pianist Joachim Kühn and Tony Malaby on tenor sax. These three have just issued a remarkable record in France a couple of months ago, Full Contact, but their concert was disappointing— partly due to sound problems that must have affected their morale. This, of course, doesn’t lessen the respect one has for such artists. It can only remind us that improvisation is a fragile art and that a real jazz concert can never be the mere copy of the record.

The next two days, in a smaller auditorium called Pôle Sud, typical Jazzdor French / German programs took place. Again audiences encountered live music for a silent movie: Berlin—die Symphonie des Großstadt (Berlin—the symphony of the big city), a 1927 Walter Ruttmann’s masterwork from the German expressionnist period. Playing along this classic were two pianists—Berlin-based veteran Alexander von Schlippenbach, and his wife Japanese born Aki Takase—with their son DJ Illvibe at the turntables. Trying to catch the atmosphere of this fascinating movie—which shows Berlin from the busy hours of the morning to the height of it’s crazy nightlife—the pianos summoned up memories of Harlem stride masters, of Monk, and the free jazz of which Schlippenbach and Takase have been active exponents. In the meantime, DJ Illvibe efficiently injected his creative sounds in the flow of notes that escaped from the two pianos.

The next band, Tous Dehors (“Everybody outside”—a play on words on the name of its leader and multi-reed player Laurent Dehors), was celebrating its tenth birthday. Over the years this band has built a reputation of liveliness and virtuosity, mixing its own repertoire with iconoclastic covers of Bizet’s Carmen or Mozart’s The Magic Flute. But music and humor (at least too much of it) don’t always fit together, and their succession of small pieces played with a wealth of instruments (from bagpipe to marimba through accordion and harpsichord) and covering a huge diversity of styles (from dixieland to rock & roll via Ellington) definitely lacked focus.

After that, Berlin based drummer Oliver Seidle’s Soko Seidle quartet came across, by contrast, as a bunch of purists. They played acoustic instruments, without any amplification and, believe it or not, none of them played more than one instrument: alto sax, bass clarinet, bass and drums. Still their music was full of energy, and the message it delivered was very convincing. They showed that it is still possible nowadays to follow the path of Ornette and Dolphy and still create fresh music. Even if this concert didn’t totally avoid clichés, there couldn’t be any doubt about the dedication and sincerity of the members of Soko Seidle.

Louis Sclavis concluded this week end with his usual art of juggling with his own clichés. As a clarinet player, sax player and as a leader, Sclavis is certainly the best known modern French jazz musician outside of the country. In the last few years, his manner hasn’t changed much as far as writing and soloing is concerned. Maxime Delpierre on guitar, Matthieu Metzger on alto sax and Olivier Lété on electric bass showed that once again Sclavis has made good choices among the new generation of promising young French musicians. Their energy and creativity, supported by long time Sclavis companion drummer François Merville, proved instrumental in the success of a typical Sclavis show.

Between these two sets of concerts, Sylvie Courvoisier played an intimate solo at Strasbourg’s Modern Art Museum. This pianist definitely has a unique conception of her instrument and builds a world of her own with it. Her virtuosity never shows off. Whether she plays an ostinato inside the strings or displays a delicate touch on the keyboard, everything Courvoisier does is part of a coherent vision of the tune. As a composer of the instant, she organizes lush sound textures with rare intensity.

After this initial weekend, Jazzdor was to carry on for almost two weeks in Alsace and Germany, and it’s always a surprise to see how much this festival manages to fill auditoriums in town and villages while presenting a program mostly based on contemporary jazz and European groups. Yet visitors from overseas are also coming to Jazzdor this year: Rudresh Mahanthappa with Vijay Iyer, Fat Kid Wednesday and Matthew Shipp, as well the featured artist at the concluding concert of the festival, Dianne Reeves. The rate of reservations already assured the organizers that this deliberately popular concert was going to play to a full house too.

This blog entry posted by Thierry Quénum.

November 18, 2008 · 0 comments


The Spirit of Django Haunts Birdland

Bill Barnes is’s resident expert on Gypsy jazz. Regular readers may recall his intriguing three-part article here on life at a Gypsy jazz camp. Now he turns his attention to the ninth annual Django Reinhardt festival, that one time each year when a little bit of jazz Manouche comes to New York. T.G.

Django Reinhardt Jazz Festival

It’s been said that, in New York clubs and bars, there really are no strangers and Birdland is no exception. I find myself sitting at a table with one such ‘un-stranger,’ a nice, if somewhat eccentric lady ‘of a certain age,’ as they say, with whom I am engaged in lively conversation before the first set. Despite the awe inspired by the history of all the great players and singers who have graced Birdland’s stage over the decades, this is still the friendliest, classiest and most comfortable jazz room in New York—due in no small part to owner John Valenti’s constant and tireless personal attention.

It’s the first week of November and, once again, this hallowed temple of jazz reverberates with the siren song of the Gypsy caravan as the ninth annual Django Reinhardt NY Festival returns. This year producers Pat Philips and Ettore Stratta have assembled a stellar international roster representing the latest generation of Django-inspired musicians they have dubbed the “Young Lions of Gypsy Jazz.”

My newfound friend turns out to be the only person in the room who isn’t aware of tonight’s program and our lively conversation has become a detailed interrogation as she asks “why Gypsy jazz? What do Gypsies have to do with it?” I try to give her a thumbnail sketch of the history of jazz Manouche, but she isn’t letting me off the hook. “Who was Django Reinhardt?” she asks. I have her write down the name of Michael Dregni’s comprehensive Django biography, along with a list of material and CDs which could help bring her up to speed. “Why do you spell his name with a D?” Mercifully, the first set begins, perhaps saving me from the inevitable water-boarding.

“What do Gypsies have to do with it? Who is Django Reinhardt?” she asks. “Why do you spell his name with a D?”

Producer Pat Philips introduces the program with a comment on the election. “I feel that this is a very special night because tonight, we can celebrate America.” It is the day after the historic Obama landslide and the crowd roars in approval. But, of course, we have come for the music—the audience is crackling in anticipation as bassist Brian Torff, the festival’s musical director, takes the stage, followed by Philadelphia’s top hot swing guitarist Kruno Spisic and Andreas Öberg, Sweden’s rising jazz guitar star.

Django Reinhardt Jazz Festival

The trio opens the set with a moderate swing, “Coquette,” both guitarists displaying their extensive command of Djangoese while getting a feel for the sound of the room. Kruno’s playing is firmly anchored in the disciplined Gypsy style, while Andreas is more eclectic in his approach, integrating elements of straight-ahead bebop with Django-rooted phrasing. The contrasting solo styles actually work well together.

“Coquette” is followed by a languid ballad based on a Grieg melody, “Danse Norvégienne.” Öberg’s solo intro is an elaborate display of arpeggios incorporating a few well-placed false harmonics, a technique perfected by the late Lenny Breau, but mastered by few guitarists since. I have followed the career of this remarkable young jazzman for several years; in fact, his playing was the catalyst which sparked my initial interest in the Hot Club Swing revival. If anything, tonight’s performance has increased my respect.

French accordion virtuoso Ludovic Beier now joins the onstage trio for an electrifying rendition of “Bernie’s Tune,” demonstrating the power of an instrument which, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, is still not taken seriously by many in the U.S. jazz community. His fingers dance across the changes in rapid-fire triplets. Kruno takes his chorus with the crispness and energy that has helped forge a reputation as one of the top jazz Manouche guitar players in North America. Andreas follows suit, scatting along with his solo (à la Benson) before the quartet trades fours in a whirlwind of ideas that seem to connect each others’ thoughts.

But wait—there’s more…harmonica master Howard Levy! Simply put, Levy is a shock. I’m not normally prone to exaggeration, but what this cat does with an ordinary diatonic harmonica may be beyond the science of modern physics. A veteran of the Bela Fleck ensemble, as well as years of session work on both sides of the Atlantic, Levy is considered by many as the most advanced harmonica player in the world. Tonight his version of Django’s celebrated anthem of occupied France, “Nuages,” brings down the house.

Up to this point, all the players on stage have been Gadje, or non-Gypsies. With the introduction of Samson Schmitt and his younger brother Jean Baptiste, we are about to hear the real Magilla. Sons of the legendary Sinti guitarist, Dorado Schmitt, they provide the only element so far missing from the night’s display of virtuosity—the heart and soul of the Romani musician. Sampson galvanizes the crowd with a full-throttle, authoritative version of Django’s swing classic, “Daphne.” His eighteen year old brother Jean Baptiste leads the other guitarists pumping out a powerful la pompe rhythm.

Brian introduces the extraordinary French violinist Timbo Merstein, who frequently plays and records with Sampson. Suddenly the group is transformed into the quintessential Hot Club lineup as the fingers fly into a furious, blistering arrangement of the perennial swing favorite, “Stompin’ at Decca.” Stephane Grappelli’s influence is obvious in his quotes and phrases.

Another surprise: Ludovic brings out an odd-looking free reed wind instrument from France, the accordina, which appears to be the unintended result of a clandestine tryst between a harmonica and a button accordion. It has been making somewhat of a comeback in recent years due to its potential for subtle expression, as Ludovic admirably demonstrates in the poignant ballad “Souvenirs,” played in a duet with Sampson Schmitt. With the solid backing of Toriff’s bass, the intimate exchange between Sampson and Ludovic is intuitive and delicate. In the middle of his solo, Ludovic suddenly leaves the stage and walks through the audience, wielding the accordina like a Jaipur snake charmer. Freed of the microphone, the notes waft through the air as if they were part of a film noir soundtrack, transporting the mesmerized audience back in time to a 1930s Parisian café.

After a spirited “Lady Be Good” the whole ensemble caps off the set with a bouncing, up-tempo “Minor Swing,” perhaps the most ubiquitous number in the Django archives. As the first set audience leaves the room, you can still feel the energy from the steady pompe rhythm. I say farewell to my inquisitive new friend, who is now clearly becoming a fan of Gypsy jazz.

This is the end of part one of Bill Barnes’s two-part report on the Django Reinhardt jazz festival. Click here for part two, in which Bill takes us behind the scenes.

November 17, 2008 · 3 comments


Laszlo Gardony at Sculler's

Roanna Forman covers the fertile Boston jazz scene for She recently wrote in this column on the Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival and Roy Hargrove’s appearance at Sculler's Jazz Club. Below she offers her perspective on a performance by Hungarian-born pianist/composer (and Berklee professor) Laszlo Gardony. T.G.

“We live in exciting times,” Laszlo Gardony said to a Boston audience at Sculler's Jazz Club a week to the day after the election. And his music was right in sync with all the hope and change in the air. Gospel, blues, acoustic rock—all things distinctly American and distinctly joyful—that is where this consummate jazz pianist and composer took his trio of seven years in a set of original tunes and standards, largely drawn from his latest album, Dig Deep. Gardony’s harmonic density, rhythmic complexity, and linear exotica were all there, but the music was accessible, almost throwing off the shackles of jazz esoterica to celebrate the radiant good times in this artist’s life.

Dig Deep

Hungarian-born Gardony, who has recorded eight albums as leader, is always in fine company with bassist John Lockwood and drummer Yoron Israel, Boston’s first call musicians on their respective instruments. They’re the type of players who simply choose not to go to New York, although musically there’s no distance between them and the jazz musicians in the Big Apple.

As a unit, the seasoned trio is a must-hear no matter what they play. With impeccable dynamics and a deep understanding of their musical roles, they support and enhance, never getting in each other’s way. John Lockwood’s solid pocket anchors the piano and drums, both of which have a busier conversation over him. Gardony and drummer Israel play sometimes in sync, or, Israel will trade, echo and accent the piano’s complicated rhythmic figures.

There may be a lot of superlatives coming at you here, but, believe me, they’re well deserved. John Lockwood’s tone is buttery, his time is a rock, and he is equally comfortable with fluent runs and single notes that ground a measure in a ballad. As for Yoron Israel, he’s one of the most musical drummers I’ve heard in a long time. He doesn’t waste rhythmic energy, he channels it—shaping a tune, toping off a soft phrase with the sibilance of his cymbals, closing out a solo with the right bass drum accent.

Gardony, who’s been playing since he was five, displays his technical mastery and has the piano’s full palette at his disposal. He’ll throw in an unusual scale in the middle of a solo, off the cuff—sort of the musical equivalent of expressing an idea in Hungarian—because it fits. On Tuesday night, he played harder than in the past, when he has been more airy, delicate and attenuated.

The tunes varied from the strong slow diatonic major voicings of “Wide Awake” (what Gardony has described as a power rock vibe) to the reharms of standards like “Softly (As in a Morning Sunrise).” Much of Gardony’s new material lays down a rolling groove, like the 7/4 of “In Transit.” Its descending piano lines over a repeated bass figure give you the feeling of moving along in space as well as time. “Three Minute-Mile” —an appropriately named workout with meter changes, gospel accents, and a heavy-handed diminished chord that rocks the tricky form—was a great springboard for Yoron Israel’s solo, which echoed the tune’s phrases within its rolls and fills.

If you wanted to hear transformations, this group’s take on standards was the way to do it. “Summertime” put contemporary harmonies on a gospel feel, and Gardony cooked in an inspired, bluesy solo. In “Softly (as in a Morning Sunrise)” the bass ushered in the dawn with an eerie dirge-like motif behind it. Heavy on reharmonization, the arrangement swung on the piano solo, and Lockwood played tight, fast melodic lines over the changes before taking the tune out. The group stood “Satin Doll” on its head with what Gardony called an “Afro-Cuban/Hungarian” influenced arrangement. Yoron Israel broke loose with a hard-hitting insistent beat that pulled the tune over the top.

Reflecting on the good vibes in the room, Gardony beamed, “It feels wonderful to be an artist in these times and share these thoughts through an instrument.”

Amen to that.

This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman

November 16, 2008 · 0 comments


Weekend Track Review Roundup

A few days ago, published its 3,500th track review. It's hard to believe that we only started publishing them less than 12 months ago. But nowadays the Intel® Quad-core XEON® Processor 7300 Series unit (conveniently located right next to my bed) is working so hard that my lights flicker every few seconds and my electricity bill has more numbers than a Lotto card.

But this doesn't slow down our team of almost 50 reviewers, who cover a wide range of music and contribute around 50 new reviews every week. Their incisive track reviews cover not only current releases, but also a very wide range of jazz recordings from the past.

 Adriano Adewale

As regular visitors know, our web site is the only member of the jazz media that reviews individual tracks, not entire CDs. This has a number of advantages. Reviewing a single performance allows us to make more detailed and less generalized assessments, and it is also serves as a useful aid to listeners in this day of downloading and iPod-ding. All reviews come with a score on our proprietary hundred point scale, and whenever possible a link for (legal) downloading.

Below are links to a few of the track reviews published in the last few weeks.

Adriano Adewale: Comboio
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Steve Bernstein: All You Need is Love
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Gene Bertoncini & Roni Ben-Hur: Smile
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Paul Bley: Walking Woman
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

John Coltrane: Harmonique
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Bill Connors: Long Distance
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Miles Davis: Ife
Reviewed by Marcus Singletary

Fred Frith: No Birds
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Dave Holland Big Band: Blues for C.M.
Reviewed by Eric Novod

Freddie Hubbard: Hub-Tones
Reviewed by Eric Novod

Jazz Arts Trio: Freeway
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Warne Marsh: I’ve Got You Under My Skin
Reviewed by Eric Novod

Dave McKenna: Theodore The Thumper
Reviewed by Scott Albin

John McLaughlin: The Translators
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Ben Monder: The Third Eyebrow
Reviewed by Eric Novod

Milton Nascimento: Anima
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Carl Orr: Unstoppable
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Ben Pollack: Cryin’ for the Carolines
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

Chris Potter: Yesterday
Reviewed by Matt Leskovic

Alan Sondheim: 776
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Terrell Stafford: Berda’s Bounce
Reviewed by Greg Marchand

Weather Report: American Tango
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

November 13, 2008 · 1 comment


Jazz Currents Meet in Sweden

No critic covers jazz in more countries than the indefatigable Stuart Nicholson, who has reported on musical events in more than a half dozen nations in this column during recent months. Below he offers his candid assessment of the recent Umea Jazz Festival in Sweden. T.G.

Although it celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, chances are you’ve never heard of Umea Jazz. Yet this Swedish festival has played host to just about every big name in jazz from 1968 to the present day.


The anniversary program featured a selection of photos of just a few of the many stars who made the hour long flight north of Stockholm, while the original black and white prints made an impressive display in the foyer of the Umea Folkets Hus, the six stage performance centre in the middle of town where the festival is held. A casual glance at the exhibition and jazz legends leapt out at you: the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, jazz royalty in the shape of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, icons such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Gerry Mulligan, Betty Carter, Dexter Gordon, B. B. King, Kenny Clarke, Nina Simone, Art Blakey and…. well, you get the picture. A who’s who of jazz have appeared at a festival you never knew existed.

Umea has the reputation of one of the best festivals in Scandinavia, and the job of maintaining its remarkable tradition is in the hands of its current director, Lennart Strömbeck. “Umea is the second biggest jazz festival in Sweden,” he says over a coffee, “It’s an exciting challenge building on the reputation the festival has built over the last forty years, but we try and mix establish stars with up and coming talent. Even though this festival is just beginning, planning is already underway for next year. It’s a year long job to get the program the best we can.”

The event opened the night before I arrived with “European Jazz Night,” so my festival began with the Dave Holland Quintet, who were predictably flawless in their relentless perfection. Next up was Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson with a line-up not too dissimilar to Holland’s famous quintet—saxophone, trombone (albeit doubling tuba), vibraphone, drums and an electronics whiz instead of a bassist. Yet not only did the music seem to come from a different world to that of the Holland quintet, it could well have come from a different planet in some far off galaxy. Gustafsson reminded us that danger and surprise are still vital ingredients in jazz, elements largely absent in Holland’s performance, whose set seemed a paean to the god of virtuosity.

Gustafsson addressed the folkloric heritage of Swedish jazz embodied in the music of musicians such as Jan Johansson and Lars Gullin. Now this is tricky territory. Johansson and Gullin are icons in the Swedish jazz firmament, and their repertoire is revered—indeed the best selling jazz album of all time in Sweden is not Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme but Johansson’s Jazz pår Svenska, recorded in 1962-3. Yet Gustafsson’s arrangements were artfully constructed stories that were well told, using the contrast between inside and outside playing to dramatic and often memorable effect.

However with Joshua Redman’s Trio, we were back to well grounded certainties—theme, improvisations, theme. Despite an excellent bassist and one of the world’s greatest drummers (Brian Blade), there was a sense in which time seemed to have passed these fine musicians, and musicians playing in the post-bop idiom here in Europe, in America and the rest of the world, by. While the extended solo may have been good for Coltrane’s generation of fans, it does it not necessarily hold good for today’s generation. Reduced attention spans are only part of the reason. The other part is the increasingly self-referential nature of post-bop, partly as a result of a dominant pedagogy. Today it is almost impossible for young musicians to create solos that do not refer back, primarily, to recordings of the great masters. Like it or not, this style of jazz is about itself now.

In fact, attention is now shifting away “jazz as a soloist’s art” to ordering the infinite possibilities of ensemble sounds and textures. Many soloists are no longer intent on testing listeners’ attention spans by leaping off into the wild blue yonder with a lengthy statement that may or may not relate to the composers intention, but instead work within parameters of the composition, often in a way that blurs the distinction between the written and the improvised. The challenge today is no longer one of musical athleticism, whose frontiers have been well and truly conquered, more of expressivity and meaning.

This shift away from virtuosity-as-a-thing-in-itself to more ensemble based styles has left trumpeter Christian Scott somewhat high and dry. Hailed as the next “new” star in a decades old style, despite a nod to contemporary culture in Jamire Williams’ rhythms, he was left straining for effect. His playing, and indeed Redman’s, brought to mind Max Harrison’s observation about pianist Oscar Peterson in The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2 that holds good for other instrumentalists, “the mere crowding-in of as many notes as possible amounted to playing the piano rather than making music.”

Henry Threadgill argued his case with his band Zooid from a position midway between tighter compositional forms and extended solos. On record he is often more succinct, and his compositions assume greater significance as a result. But here in live performance whatever meaning the soloist might have taken from Threadgill’s compositional context was often lost by the sheer length of the solos. Yet when the ensembles did coalesce, the unusual combination of instruments—saxophone/flute, tuba, cello and guitar—created refreshingly original tone colours that sparkled all too briefly.

Norwegian/Danish pianist Maria “Monk with Hiccups” Kannegaard presented her quartet at Umea, and her jumpy, fragmented themes were interpreted with audible glee by her conspicuously young band who have internalized her demanding repertoire well. This is music that does not fill you with joy, but there is something compelling about the ugly beauty of her music. Tenor saxophonist Håkon Kornstadt threw himself into the heart of her compositions, his dancing, angular lines building on Kannegaard’s awkward melodies, before expanding on her ideas with his own. As he showed with his fine work with pianist Håvard Wiik on the Jazzland label he seems to respond well to strong musical personalities.

Mats Gustafsson, whose hometown is Umea, was the featured artist at the festival and his collaboration with the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love was a festival highlight. Gustafsson’s relationship with Brötzmann (best known for his epic album Machine Gun from 1968) began as that of student-master, but he has now moved on to become a vital voice in his own right on the European free scene, while Nilssen-Love has seamlessly progressed from a hugely promising talent to a huge talent. Nilssen-Love’s ability to get inside the music and compliment its density was best demonstrated in his duets with Gustafsson that also highlighted how this style of music is a performance art—and how recordings so often diminish its effect. This is music that has to be experienced; you have to feel it, hear it and see it to grasp its subversive meanings. Although European free music has long since found its own identity at the hands of masters like Brötzmann, Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Han Bennik, Gustafsson and Nilssen-Love have emerged as new heroes taking the music to a new level.

You would need an awful lot of time on your hands to come up with a greater contrast to Gustafsson/Nilssen-Love/Brötzmann’s music than that of the vocalist, pianist and guitarist Maria Laurette Friis. Friis sings in the little-girl-lost style of several Scandinavian singers who have emerged on the scene in the last couple of years such as Susanna, Hanne Hukkelberg, Torun Eriksen, Karen, Hilde Marie Kjersen and others. But she has her own slant with lyrics that are poetic in their construction and set to simple melodies. Accompanied by Pamela Kurstin’s gently throbbing theremin, she wove an intricate spell that held her audience rapt.

The festival has within its mission the ability to commission projects that might otherwise remain a figment of the creative imagination, and for their 40th anniversary celebrations they made sure the event would not slip by unnoticed by commissioning “Jubileumsmusik,” a piece for symphony orchestra, forty voices, and Joakim Milder’s solo saxophones. Milder also composed and arranged the piece and his use of voices was imaginative, from animated conversational hubbub to Sprechstimme, and from hearty Alleluias to orthodox choral chants. Percussionist Lisbeth Diers led from behind, keeping the huge ensemble honest and on track with a virtuoso display that was visually and well as musically absorbing. Milder’s saxophones (tenor and soprano) emerged as the voice of reason in a piece of music that was ultimately as uplifting as it was non-genre specific.

Yet for all the remarkable diversity of music on offer, the festival dealt a wildcard that turned out for many to be their gig of the year. On the face of it here was another girl vocalist plus piano trio, but Nina Ramsby knows how to make an entrance. Dressed in an immaculately tailored gentleman’s white lounge suit, plus collar and tie and with her head shaven, all eyes were on her. She did not waste the moment. Singing her own originals in Swedish she had that indefinable “X-Factor” and if there’s any justice in the world she’ll scare countless lesser talents into another line of work.

Somehow she managed to pack a bigger punch than a symphony orchestra plus forty voices. The wonder of it all was how she could convey the meaning she did to the non-Swedish speaking members of the audience—like me. Yet this is not as mysterious as it seems. Today with World Music enjoying the popularity it does, it is worth noting that the prospect of audiences enjoying songs in languages they do not understand would hold little promise for them if the melodies, rhythms and harmonies did not move them in some way. But this was not World Music, it was jazz with a capital “j” and whether she was playing flugelhorn (“this will scare the boys,” she mused in English), clarinet or allowing her vocals to take flight against Ludvig Berghe’s brilliant piano accompaniment, she made absolutely certain that first thing anyone would remember about the 40th anniversary of the Umea Jazz Festival was Nina Ramsby.

This blog entry posted by Stuart Nicholson.

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Charlie Parker in Washington, D.C., 1948

Jazz fans today can hardly appreciate the hostility between the opposed spheres of modern and traditional jazz during the late 1940s. Nothing on the current scene is comparable. Even when the musicians themselves downplayed this post-WWII conflict, critics and fans fueled the fires of contention. It was as if the jazz world of that period wanted to establish its own Cold War, one in which members of the community could swear allegiance to either one camp or the other, but not both. You either subscribed to the progressive ethos of the modernists, or were an old-fashioned advocate of a tradition under attack.

 Dixieland versus Bebop advertisement

The recent release on compact disk of a live Charlie Parker performance in Washington, D.C. from May 23, 1948 serves as a reminder of this state of affairs. This concert, hosted by Willis Conover, was advertised as a “Dixieland vs. Bebop” jam session. Two weeks earlier, on May 9, 1948, Conover had presented a similar event, but the choice of Ben Webster to lead the modern contingent at that event suggests the contrast between the old and new was more a matter of marketing than musical values. Webster could not be called a modern jazz player by even the most generous definition of the term.

But when Charlie “Bird” Parker was booked for the follow-up jam, sparks were sure to fly. For those who demonized the beboppers, Charlie Parker was the head devil. When poet Philip Larkin castigated the unholy trinity of modernism, he included Parker as one of “three Ps” who had done so much of the supposed damage. (The other two Ps were Pablo Picasso and Ezra Pound.) Pitting Parker and a group of like-minded modernists against Wild Bill Davison and company would definitely put a spotlight on the growing divide between advocates of jazz's future and celebrants of its past.

 Charlie Parker Washington DC 1948

One can gripe about many aspects of this recording. The sound quality is merely adequate. The piano sounds out of tune (although little known Sam Krupit, then working with Boyd Raeburn, impresses with his smart Tristano-ish solos). Parker is working with an unfamiliar band. Yet the fiery brilliance of Bird’s solos push all these other concerns to the sidelines.

Parker was at the peak of his abilities in 1948. He was 27 years-old, still in reasonably good health. The previous year he had been released from the Camarillo mental institution in California, where he had received a state-mandated dose of healthy living. In time, his assorted vices would destroy him, and he would be dead in 1955—the accumulated damage is perhaps best conveyed by the simple fact that the altoist’s death certificate estimates his age at between 50 and 60, when in fact Parker was only 34. Such were the ravages Bird inflicted on himself.

But this tragic ending is still some seven years in the future at the time of his Washington D.C. concert, and here Parker is in top form. His lengthy ballad solo on “These Foolish Things” is full of melodic riches, a relaxed and brilliant performance that ranks among Parker’s finer moments, and reminds us of what this artist might have done had he lived into the 1960s, when jazz artists routinely recorded extended improvisations. He is persuasive on two of his most famous compositions: “Ornithology” and “Scrapple from the Apple.” But the dramatic highpoint of the evening was Parker’s virtuosic assault on “KoKo,” the bebop workhorse built on the changes to “Cherokee.”

Here Buddy Rich sets the tempo at a fleet 350 beats per minute. Parker takes off in full flight, and delivers several blistering choruses that assert his supremacy among modern jazz saxophonists of the day. Rich is not a classic bop drummer in the mold of Roach and Clarke and here is playing on a borrowed drum set, yet he locks down the beat and provides a very firm foundation for the rest of the band. It might be the placement of the recording microphone, but to these ears Rich sounds like he is dominating the rhythm section on "Cherokee," pulling everyone else into his conception of the pulse. Despite the passing years and limitations of the audio quality, a listener today can still sense the crowd’s tense excitement when Rich and Parker trade fours.

Everything after this is anti-climactic. And maybe even the musicians figured it out. A concluding performance of Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” was cut short when Wild Bill Davison stormed off stage, apparently upset over Parker laughing out loud by the side of the stage. It is an odd story, and one suspects that there is more to the conflict than the details that have come down to us. But even if this final tune had gone on for a hundred more choruses, Bird would still have earned the last laugh. In 1948 he was the king of the jazz world, and others might listen and admire—or even disparage if they felt the urge; but no other hornplayer, whether old school or new school, was going to cut him in a jam.

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

November 11, 2008 · 3 comments


Sonny Rollins on Video

Thomas Cunniffe, who recently published an in-depth article on Mel Tormé & Marty Paich's Dek-tette on's virtual pages, now turns his attention to saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Fans of this artist have reason to celebrate: new DVDs add considerably to the video documentation of the tenorist's work. Read more below. T.G.

Rollins DVD

Before last month, Sonny Rollins’s available video performances were limited to three sources: a 1962 episode of Jazz Casual, the 1973 performance film Sonny Rollins in Laren and the 1986 documentary Saxophone Colossus. With the September release of the Jazz Icons DVD Sonny Rollins Live in ’65 & ’68 and the October release of Doxy Records’ Sonny Rollins in Vienne, we now have nearly twice the footage (regrettably, without any film of Rollins during the 1950s). [Author's postscript: I stand corrected. The bonus disc for series 3 of the Jazz Icons set includes two Rollins performances from a 1959 European tour. I did not receive that disc in time for this review, but Jazz Icons has provided it to me and I will review it in the near future. T.C.]

The 1965 performance from Copenhagen’s Tivoli Hall represents Rollins at peak creativity. Accompanied only by Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass and Alan Dawson on drums, Rollins plays brilliantly, his solos bursting with fresh ideas. Although this was a pick-up group, Rollins thought of it as a cooperative, with all three musicians equal partners. Nowhere is this more evident than on “St. Thomas.” After Rollins’s opening solo, Pedersen begins his improvisation while Rollins plays short phrases as accompaniment. Clearly wanting to emphasize the interaction of the group, Rollins stays out front instead of retreating to a spot behind the bass and drums. In an all-too-rare example of dynamics in jazz, Rollins and Dawson bring the volume down to pianissimo, keeping the interaction going while letting the bass solo be heard. When Pedersen finishes, the volume goes back to forte and the beat changes from calypso to swing. Rollins launches into a breathtaking solo, as noteworthy for its amazing rhythmic drive as for its seamless combination of thematic improvisation and avant-garde ideas, thus linking his past and present in one solo.

Rollins was back in Copenhagen in 1968 and he filmed a set at the Danish TV studio with pianist Kenny Drew, drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath and Pedersen returning on bass. There’s a version of “St. Thomas” here, too, and the differences are remarkable. While Rollins was energetic and inspired at the trio date, interacting freely with the other musicians, he looks bored at the quartet date, delivering good (but not great) solos, and not playing at all behind the other musicians. It’s Drew who finally livens things up when he quotes the two-note downward motive that Rollins had developed on his “St. Thomas” solo from the Saxophone Colossus LP. When the song ends, Rollins—finally feeling inspired—rips into a cadenza which quotes several songs before launching the group into a spirited performance of “Four.” While Rollins’s playing on “Four” represents his best work of the 1968 date, all the viewer needs to do is stay tuned for the credits—using footage from the 1965 “St. Thomas”—to be reminded of the superiority of the earlier performance.

Rollins DVD2

We are fortunate that Rollins continues to play and explore today, and if the tenorist's performances seem to be a mixed bag nowadays, perhaps it is because Rollins is looking deeper for inspiration and sometimes not finding it. At times, the search is as rewarding as the discovery, but that is not always the case. His 2006 concert in Vienne, France shows both sides of the equation. There are two calypsos, which take up nearly half the running time of the DVD. On both, Rollins plays on and on, seemingly looking for some musical nugget but never finding it. The crowd cheers like mad, but perhaps more in recognition of the sheer endurance rather than due to anything Rollins plays. After 13 minutes of the dull calypso “Global Warming,” Rollins leads the band into the modal “Sonny Please” and when Rollins solos here, it sounds like he’s on his game again, finding the most intriguing notes in the scales and devising unique melodic ideas around them. Next up is the standard “I See Your Face Before Me” and on several occasions, it seems as if Rollins is poised to play a great ballad solo; instead, the saxophone solos are short introductions to contributions by the percussionist, guitar, bass and trombone. The tune ends without a Rollins solo and with an opportunity missed. Nothing personal against the members of Rollins’ band (which includes Bob Cranshaw & Victor Lewis), but it is Sonny who we really want to hear, not the sidemen. Oddly enough, it’s a live recording of “Remembering Tommy” which plays under the credits that features Rollins at his most melodic. We need more performances like that and fewer of the endless calypsos.

Doxy is also releasing the CD, Roadshows, Volume 1 next week. Cherry-picked from live recordings spanning 1980-2007, the disc offers abundant examples of late Rollins at his creative zenith. The album’s bookends are especially noteworthy: a stunning 35-chorus blues solo on “Best Wishes” from a 1986 Tokyo concert, and an understated “Some Enchanted Evening” with Christian McBride and Roy Haynes from Rollins’ 2007 Carnegie Hall concert. All 7 tunes on the CD come from different concerts, but the applause is cross-faded to create the illusion of a single concert. While there are a few audio defects in some of the source recordings, the sound is quite consistent throughout.

SONNY ROLLINS LIVE IN ’65 & ’68 Jazz Icons 2.119011. 87 minutes.

Copenhagen, October 31 or November 1, 1965: Rollins (ts); Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (b); Alan Dawson (d). There Will Never Be Another You; St. Thomas; Oleo/Sonnymoon For Two; Darn That Dream; Three Little Words.

Copenhagen; September 20, 1968: Rollins (ts); Kenny Drew (p); Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (b); Albert “Tootie” Heath (d). On Green Dolphin Street; St. Thomas; Four.

SONNY ROLLINS IN VIENNE Doxy/EmArcy 0602517675483. 78 minutes.

Vienne, France, June 29, 2006: Rollins (ts); Clifton Anderson (tb); Bobby Broom (g); Bob Cranshaw (b); Victor Lewis (d); Kimati Dinizulu (perc). They Say It’s Wonderful; Global Warming; Sonny, Please; I See Your Face Before Me; Don’t Stop The Carnival.

SONNY ROLLINS–“ROADSHOWS, Vol. 1” Doxy/EmArcy B0012165. 72 minutes.

Various locations, 1980-2007: Collective personnel: Rollins (ts); Clifton Anderson (tb); Mark Soskin, Stephen Scott (p); Bobby Broom (g); Jerome Harris, Bob Cranshaw, Christian McBride (b); Al Foster, Victor Lewis, Perry Wilson, Steve Jordan, Roy Haynes (d); Victor See-Yuen, Kimati Dinizulu (perc). Best Wishes; More Than You Know; Blossom; Easy Living; Tenor Madness; Nice Lady; Some Enchanted Evening.

This blog entry posted by Thomas Cunniffe

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Bobby Sanabria Celebrates the Legacy of Tito Puente

Eugene Marlow, who recently conducted an in-depth interview with Bobby Sanabria for, now shares his report on an exciting performance by Sanabria devoted to the music of the late Tito Puente. As we have to come to expect from this artist, Sanabria brought plenty of fireworks: he had a 25 member orchestra on hand and almost as many charts to play. Read on! T.G.

Tito Puente, also known as el rey, the king, was a man whose whole was greater than the sum of his parts. A major figure in the evolution and acceptance of Latin-jazz in the United States, Nuyorican-born Puente was a master drummer, percussionist, pianist, saxophonist, vocalist, composer, arranger, and conductor. No doubt, Puente was a leading icon in the Latin jazz community, as well known worldwide as he was in the culture that nurtured him.

Tito Puente Tribute Concert (photo by Brian Hatton)

In 1993 I met Puente briefly at the conclusion of a concert his big band gave at Baruch College as part of the then “annual” Milt Hinton Jazz Perspectives concert series. At the time I was a junior member of the committee that hosted these concerts (since 2000 I have had served as senior co-chair). It was the second year of the series. Puente's fame was so widespread we had to open the theater balcony to accommodate the hundreds of people who stormed into Baruch’s Mason Auditorium. And true to form, his music was so infectious, so moving, there were, quite literally, people dancing in the aisles. His personality was electrifying. He could have played on chopsticks and the audience would have loved it. They certainly loved him.

On May 31, 2000 Puente died from heart failure. He may be gone, but he is far from forgotten. Another icon of the Latin-jazz community, Bobby Sanabria, whose heroes include, among others, Tito Puente and Buddy Rich, is a master percussionist and drummer, composer, arranger, producer, and educator, in his own right, in addition to being a deft Afro-Cuban and Latin-jazz historian. One could call him a keeper of the Afro-Cuban/Latin-jazz cultural flame.

On April 1, 2008, Sanabria mounted a 50th anniversary celebration of the 1957 recording of Machito (who together with Mario Bauzá fathered Latin-jazz) and the Afro-Cubans’ jazz masterwork Kenya. This was not merely a “legacy” re-enactment of the album, but a re-visit of the Kenya album’s 12 cuts, with contemporary arrangements of the original charts.

Sanabria-Puente Concert (photo by Brian Hatton)

Seven months later, on November 3, 2008, Sanabria mounted a full concert dedicated to Tito Puente’s little known big band masterworks composed and arranged by the master. The program was as prolific as Puente’s career; a reflection also of Sanabria’s predilection for audience-exhausting performances. On the program were the following scores:

•   “Elegua-Changó”: A piece that pays tribute to the rhythmic roots of Afro-Cuban music in West Africa.

•   “Havana After Dark”: This piece by the legendary Cuban trumpeter, composer, arranger Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill, showcases how Tito would often take someone else’s composition and make it his own.

•   “Autumn Leaves”: Tito would often perform this tune during a midnight set of boleros at the famed Palladium Ballroom.

•   “Bohemia”: Composed by jazz bassist Oscar Pettiford in 1955, this piece appeared on the album Puente Goes Jazz in 1956.

•   “Ran Kan Kan”: One of Tito’s first hits with dancers and one of his most enduring compositions.

•   “Cuban Nightmare”: This chart appeared originally on a 78 rpm record and featured Puente’s regular percussion team of Willie Bobo on bongo and Mongo Santamaria on congas.

•   “Picadillo”: Originally titled the “Arthur Murray Mambo,” this composition is completely based on one chord.

•   “Mambo Buddha”: This piece is strongly influenced by Puente’s travels to Asia at the end of his military service during World War II. It features generous use of a Chinese tam tam.

•   “Ritual Fire Dance”: This is one of Manuel De Falla’s most renowned compositions. Puente’s version opens with a percussion salvo mixing conga de comparsa, mambo, and rock.

•   “Yambeque”: This is a hard-driving, up-tempo jazz mambo that showcases the dynamic range of the orchestras and takes no prisoners.

•   “Alegre Cha Cha Cha”: Originally played in Cuba in the charanga format—a small group featuring violins and baroque wooden flute, timbales, guiro macho, piano and bass with vocals.

•   “Mambo Beat”: This piece is jazz mambo in all its glory that specifically features the baritone sax.

•   “Me Recuerdo De Ti”: Composed by Cuba’s Pepe Delgado, arranged by Puente, and sung by Celia Cruz, this lamented bolero, with interludes of cha-cha-cha and a final son montuno section, is an ode to the memories Celia had of Cuba with its famous nightclubs and beautiful cities, like Havana.

•   “Mambo Adonis”: This piece was composed specifically for the purpose of being played when the Puente Orchestra performed at the Palladium Ballroom alongside the Machito Afro-Cubans.

The white-tie clad 25-person Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra also reflected the prolific tenor of the evening. In addition to the usual five-man saxophone section, four trumpets, four trombones, piano, bass, and drums, Sanabria agglomerated a veritable “army” of percussionists, including timpani. With Sanabria serving in his usual capacity as orchestra director and master of ceremonies, he also played the drums, timbales, vibes, and marimba. Add to this a platoon of players on bongo, congas, even Chinese gong.

Imparting another touch of authenticity to the proceedings was flautist Frank Fontaine. Add to this MSM opera major vocalist Rachel Kara Perez who sang “Me Recuerdo De Ti” towards the end of the concert. Perez's re-creation of this extremely rare number which Celia Cruz recorded on the Cuba Y Puerto Son disc, Celia's first collaboration with El Maestro in 1966, brought down the house with an incredible roar. It is only the second time the piece has ever been performed because of Celia's emotional connection to the song. Another connection: Rachel was the recipient of the Tito Puente Scholarship from 1994 thru 2000. Celia Cruz was in the house.

Just like the Puente concert at Baruch College in1993, just like the Kenya Revisited recreation of April 2008 at the Manhattan School of Music (MSM), the November 3 concert was filled to capacity, Standing Room Only at the school’s Borden Auditorium. And true to form, Sanabria was the central ringleader of the celebration. He understands innately that a concert of this kind is a tribal, group experience, especially because the music makes you want to dance and, as Bobby puts it, to “shake what your mama gave you.” Sanabria encourages everyone to become part of the proceedings: “Everyone in the tribe must participate,” he announces from the stage. This means everyone in the audience and on the stage who is either not playing or taking photographs (videographers wandered all over the stage during the performance) must clap the clavé.

And those not clapping were dancing in the aisles. At one point Sanabria brought the entire saxophone section to the apron of the stage and had them dance (with Sanabria leading) to the music. Renowned cha-cha-cha dancer Louis Hernandez was in the audience. Bobby invited him to the front of the orchestra to dance with his wife.

There were other notables in the house: Rene' Lopez, Joe Conzo Sr., Harvey Averne, pianist Larry Harlow, Annette Aguillar (MSM alumni), Michael Wimberly (MSM alumni), poet Sandra Maria Esteves, Hostos College faculty Jose' Encarnacion, film-maker Ivan Acosta, saxophonist and Tito Rodriguez alumni Gene Jefferson, Puente saxophone/flute sideman for 25 years Mitch Frohman, Abacua expert Dr. Ivor Miller, ethnomusicologist Dr. Roberta Singer, folklorist and cultural anthropologist Elena Martinez, Frontline PBS producer Oren Jacoby, Dean of Jazz Studies at MSM, Justin DiCioccio, the associate director of the Centro archives Dr. Alberto Hernandez, vocalist Jorge Maldonado, and Candido Camero, who fondly recalled his work on Tito's first full length album for RCA in 1955, the ubiquitous, Cuban Carnaval. MSM's President Dr. Robert Sirota cut his trip to China short to return to attend the concert. And last, but certainly not least, Margie (Tito’s wife), Ronnie, and Joni Puente. It was a celebration, indeed.

A final comment. There is always a perception that “school” bands, how shall I put it, cannot compare to bands with so-called “professional” personnel. The prevailing attitude is “How can these student bands stand up to the quality of professional players?” I have had the pleasure of listening to the MSM Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra now for over three years in rehearsal and performance. There are three reasons why this orchestra stands up to most if not all non-student bands: first, and foremost, is the standard of professionalism demanded by Sanabria. I have watched many rehearsals. In addition to the music, he gives the players a background on each piece of music. It’s a history lesson in addition to rehearsing the music. More importantly, if even one person is out of synch, if one percussionist is playing the wrong rhythmic pattern, if a section loses focus, or if the orchestra doesn’t play with consistent energy throughout, he makes the entire orchestra go back to the beginning of the chart and do it until it’s right. Time and time again he raises the level of the players’ play. He is unrelenting. He expects a professional attitude and he gets it, or you’re out.

Second, are the players themselves. MSM doesn’t fool around in its selection process. It attracts quality students who can cut it and it shows. Last, but not least, is the leadership of longtime faculty member and eminent jazz artist and educator Justin DiCioccio who runs the overall MSM jazz program. The program can be characterized as systematic and rigorous conservatory training combined with a myriad of performance and networking opportunities. DiCioccio has created an environment in which masters such as Sanabria can bring the best of the tradition to the students and bring the best out of the students. Combined, the result are performances that are way beyond minimal standards of quality, concerts that rival the most famous jazz orchestras in terms of repertoire and performance virtuosity.

Puente would have enjoyed the November 3 concert, not merely because all the charts had his name on them, but also because he would have seen that one of the talents he influenced, namely Bobby Sanabria, and the young musicians Sanabria is influencing in turn are carrying on the tradition—a tradition of reaching for cultural authenticity and high standards of musical quality.

Yes, Tito Puente was definitely in the house.

This blog entry was posted by Eugene Marlow.

November 09, 2008 · 1 comment


The Jazz Artwork of Don Pulver

Old Time Recording by Don Pulver

This may not be Chelsea or even an inexpensive loft with pipes running across the ceiling . . . but we do like to host regular gallery openings at We look for exciting artwork with a jazz flavor, and feature the best of what we find in the Visual Jazz section of our website. Here you can linger over hundreds of photos and paintings—all admission free. But you need to supply your own wine and cheese.

Today we feature the artwork of Don Pulver, a native of Witchita, Kansas, whose love of the visual arts led to his studies at Kansas City Art Institute, and subsequent career as designer and illustrator in many settings. Jazz and blues musicians are recurring figures in his work, and our gallery features a selection of these vibrant portraits.

"I learned my love of jazz and blues from my older brother," Pulver explains, "who frequently listened to jazz on the radio and played records, and if I paid attention he would tell me about the various groups and give me some background on the music. He would even occasionally take me to a concert (if he couldn’t get a date). In the early days, we listened to the big bands of the late ’40s, but we graduated to the more progressive small quartets and experimental jazz music of the ’50s.

 Dede Pierce by Don Pulver

"From there, I followed my own path into a combination of jazz and blues of the ’30s and ’40s up to the present, with an emphasis on the Delta Blues sound. I’m happy to say my oldest son has followed the family tradition by becoming a jazz fan and hitting the local jazz clubs. About ten years ago, I began to make portraits of the many outstanding performers who developed the sounds and styles that led to the music of today."

Pulver explains his approach to his subjects as follows: "For me the whole creative process is exciting: developing the concept, composing the image, mixing the paints and then brushing layer upon layer of color until I’m satisfied that the image is complete to my creative satisfaction. I love interpreting and developing whatever my eyes see or mind envisions, as well as the creation of new visions. If I were to create the same concept tomorrow, it would end differently because each day I capture a bit of that moment’s magic; each painting is a new learning experience, a new experiment and wonderful visual magic. And in that sense, at least, I share the aesthetic joys of a jazz musician."

Click here to visit the Don Pulver gallery at

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments


Election Night with Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra

The jazz community was active throughout the campaign in supporting the candidacy of Barack Obama, and while many musicians and fans were watching the returns in the comfort of their homes, a number turned out to the Blue Note in New York to enjoy a special election night performance / celebration by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.’s Tim Wilkins was on hand, and reports on the proceedings below. T.G.

"You can't ever not have hope. If you stop having hope, then everything you believe means nothing," bassist Charlie Haden told me while we waited at New York's Blue Note for election results to come in. "I have always had hope," he added, "because I was surrounded by beautiful music growing up—even when I looked around me, and saw the injustices in the world and in this country."

Liberation Music Orchestra (photo by Tim Wilkins)

It's been a long eight years for Haden, a fervent Obama supporter who has often brought politics into his music. In 1968, he partnered with pianist Carla Bley to create an experimental big band, the Liberation Music Orchestra. The group concocted a creative mix of folk music, art songs and free improvisation, to show solidarity with the antiwar movement and other causes around the globe. One cut from their first album, “Circus '68 – '69," dramatized disagreements at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, when the party refused to oppose the Nixon Administration's escalation of the Vietnam War, by setting them to music. That album ended on a hopeful note, a heartfelt and bluesy rendition of the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."

Haden has revived the Liberation Music Orchestra three times, always with the same carefully crafted mix of inspirations: in 1983, to protest the Reagan Administration's unofficial wars in Central America; in 1990, during the first Gulf War; and most recently in 2004, after the last presidential elections. It is this last group which Haden has reconvened for a week at the Blue Note, and which recorded Not In Our Name in 2007 for Verve.

"Every time there's a Republican administration, I have to make a new record," Haden joked early in the evening. "But we're going to win - right? We've been doing this since 1968, and we have hope in our hearts."

The group on hand for election night performance includes Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek on tenor saxophones, Seneca Black and Michael Rodriguez on trumpets, Vincent Chancey on french horn, Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Joe Daley on tuba, Steve Cardenas on guitar and Matt Wilson drums. Bley and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón also appear on the album, ably replaced here by Alan Broadbent and Loren Stillman.

The concert stuck close to the group's 2007 album for Verve, Not in Our Name opening with the title track, named for movement which protested the buildup to the second Iraq war. This was followed by a reggae-tinged version of Pat Metheny's "This is Not America," with subtle nods to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

"Have we heard anything yet?" Haden asked the audience from time to time. "Ohio for Obama! And New Jersey!" came back replies from Blackberry holders in the audience. Ruth Cameron, his wife and manager, kept her cell phone on, so she could provide election updates throughout the evening. "If Obama wins, we can retire!" Haden shot back with a smile.

"Blue Anthem," the third song of the concert as well as the album, is an ironic pastiche of the world's national anthems, which quotes everything from "La Marseillaise" to "Oh, Canada!" with martial touches added on the snare by Wilson. At one point, he leaned so insistently on a drum figure that an audience member was inspired to shout out his interpretation of the three-pitch motive: "O – ba – ma! O – ba – ma!" he shouted, to applause.

This was followed by another of the album's highlights, "Amazing Grace." Haden, who began his career in 1939, at age two, on his family's radio show in Shenandoah, Iowa, has a deep and heartfelt affinity for Americana and spirituals. However, this first set included more measured commentary on the American tradition, with masterful use of dissonances in solos by Malaby and Fowlkes, among others. Haden took an extended solo on "Amazing Grace," and ended the song not on the expected major chord, but with an ambiguous, anticipatory minor seventh.

"Goin' Home" illustrated the strengths of the band, and Haden: it is his reworking of a theme from Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony, which the Czech composer wrote in the United States in 1893. The theme was in part inspired by spirituals, which Dvorak was exposed to through his friend and pupil Harry Burleigh, one of the first African-American classical composers. Haden and the superb band go back to draw on the sources of this inspiration, in particular on the solo contribution by Rodriguez, while retaining the cultivated optimism of Dvorak's setting.

The set ended with a medley of "America the Beautiful" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which is also known as "The Negro National Anthem." Broadbent began by methodically deconstructing "America" at the keyboard, from which Wilson picked up the pieces to lead the band through a swing interlude. This too was set on a course to crash and burn, ending in a seemingly centerless palette of free improvisation. Then, slowly, tentatively, harmony reemerged in a sincere rendition of "America," ending with a high note provided by Black and cries of "Yes, yes!" from the audience.

Backstage around 9:30, we checked the results and talked politics. Obama was still far from the 270 electoral votes he needed, and several battleground states were still up for grabs. Not one to mince words, Haden laid in to Bush and the Republican Party for their mishandling of the Iraq war and conduct during the 2000 and 2004 elections. "You know, truth wins out in spite of lies, and that's what everything has been with the Republicans—it’s just been lies," he said. "But at least, there's still enough of us to do something about it, I hope."

Charlie and Ruth (photo by Tim Wilkins)

The band retook the stage at 10:30, and Haden tried to cheer the crowd with an elaborate joke about a frog who walked into a bar, and persisted until he got what he wanted—grapes—from the exasperated bartender. It wasn't until just past eleven when Ruth got the news that Obama had the electoral votes he needed to become the next President of the United States. He had also won over battleground states including Florida and Haden's own Iowa.

"Are you sure?" Haden asked, and asked again, after performing another number, fearing perhaps the recount nightmares of the past two elections. Once he was confident in the news, he said: "Well, I guess it's time for Amazing Grace!"

This time around, there were no ambiguous dissonances. Haden offered up his solo time to Daley, Fowlkes, Chancey and Cardenas, who delivered the evening's most passionate choruses, which Haden encouraged with cries of "Preach, preach!" and "Take another!" Also gone was the minor seventh, ending on the strong, affirmative cadence of the original hymn.

"Oh, I'm so happy!" said Haden, beaming from the bandstand. "I don't have to wake up depressed any more!" Yes, you can, Charlie. And yes, we can too.

This blog entry posted by Tim Wilkins

November 05, 2008 · 6 comments


Ten Years After . . . Looking Back at the Buena Vista Social Club

In the aftermath of a long political campaign, it is worth dwelling on those rare moments when musicians put their unexpected stamp on the global-political situation. According to some accounts, Dave Brubeck’s performance at the 1988 Gorbachev-Reagan summit contributed in no small degree in reducing the tension at this important event. Almost exactly thirty years earlier, Van Cliburn had done his part to un-chill the Cold War with his first place finish at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition. And then, 40 years after Van Cliburn, we have the surprising rise to fame of the Buena Vista Social Club.

 Buena Vista Social Club

The recent release of the music from the band’s July 1, 1998 concert at Carnegie Hall give us an opportunity to look back on this ensemble and its fascinating story. Indeed, in the long history of popular music, few bands have enjoyed a more unlikely success than the Buena Vista Social Club.

Who would have anticipated that these musicians largely forgotten even in their native Cuba, would somehow enjoy a hit record in the United States almost a half century after their careers had gone into decline? Yes, they had achieved some local renown in Cuba during the 1940s, but even then their reputation had not traveled far. Yet the intervention of guitarist Ry Cooder and producer Nick Gold in 1996, and later filmmaker Wim Wenders' successful documentary, gave these old men unexpected exposure, an opportunity which they magically turned into stardom.

The group’s 1997 CD, simply entitled Buena Vista Social Club, is now a legitimate and defining classic of the World Music genre. It has sold more than 8 million copies—more than any other recording of Cuban music in history—and is one of only two albums made in a non-English speaking country to be included in Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

Yet this project almost never happened. Cooder and Gold had hoped to make a recording matching Highlife musicians from Mali with Cuban performers. But the African artists could not get visas, and in a spirit of ingenuity and desperation, Cooder and Gold pulled together an album over a period of six days in Havana, relying entirely on local musicians.

Say what you will about pianist Rubén González (born in 1919), vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer (born in 1927), instrumentalist Compay Segundo (born in 1907) and their colleagues, but you can’t claim that they lacked experience. Only someone as venerable as Segundo could get away with describing Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader of almost four decades at that time, as "the new guy." Flippancy? Not really. Remember that the battleship Maine was still sailing around Havana harbor less than ten years before Segundo was born.

Of course, not everyone in the band was quite so old. Younger participants, such as bandleader Juan de Marcos González and guitarist / singer Eliades Ochoa, imparted a bit of vitality to the proceedings. The end result was an exceptional body of performances by smart and seasoned musicians who had spent a few collective centuries immersed in the aural traditions of their native country.

Success built slowly for the band's 1997 release. Every week, shipments inched up, as word of mouth spread about the Buena Vista Social Club. The enthusiasm of World Music fans was just the start. Soon this music was everywhere, crossing over to many who had never purchased a recording by a Spanish-speaking act before, or even those middle-aged consumers, usually lost to the music industry, who hardly pay attention to any new pop releases. Buena Vista Social Club was more than a big seller, it was a cultural phenomenon. In the aftermath, an artist such as Compay Segundo would find himself performing for everyone from the "new guy (i.e., Fidel Castro) to Pope John Paul II, and he could watch his composition “Chan Chan”—which he wrote around the time he turned 80—become enshrined as one of the most popular Latin songs in history.

The band certainly benefited from the hype and the odd PR angles that these musicians provided. But the music more than lived up to the publicity campaign. In fact, the music drove this unlikely success, bringing these musicians a wide audience that no amount of marketing can deliver. All this is captured on the dramatic live recording from Carnegie Hall—a track from which (“Chan Chan”) is featured as the current Song of the Day at

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

November 04, 2008 · 0 comments


McCoy Tyner Talks About "Guitars"

For more than a month, McCoy Tyner's latest CD, Guitars, has held the top spot on the JazzWeek charts. This intriguing collaboration, featuring Tyner alongside several of the leading guitarists (or, in the case of Béla Fleck, the leading banjoist) on the current jazz scene, stands out as one more highlight in an illustrious career that first took off some five decades ago. (See more on this CD here.) Recently Tyner gave a press conference to talk about this unusual project. Tomas Peña reports below. T.G.

There is something to be said for an elder statesman who celebrates his 70th birthday by taking a musical leap of faith. That’s exactly what pianist, McCoy Tyner does on his new album, Guitars, a studio “throw down” with guitarists, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Derek Trucks, Marc Ribot and Béla Fleck and the stellar rhythm section of bassist, Ron Carter and drummer, Jack DeJohnette. The album and accompanying DVD mark Tyner’s second recording for McCoy Tyner Music (a subdivision of Blue Note Records) and it’s one of his finest and most ambitious outings to date.

 McCoy Tyner

By any measure the concept for the album was a bold move. All of the participants possess strong voices and the majority of the material was suggested and/or written by the guitarists themselves. And did I mention that there were no rehearsals to speak of? During a recent press teleconference Tyner was asked if at any point he felt like there were too many cooks in the kitchen, to which he replied, “I like those cooks because everybody cooks a different dish! We weren’t looking for differences, we were looking for similarities—and conceptual blending—and the music reflects that.”

Of the group, John Scofield and Bela Fleck are the only two guitarists who have had the distinction of performing with Tyner in the past (though Tyner has no recollection of performing with Fleck). It’s obvious from watching the accompanying DVD that Scofield, a wicked improviser and arguably one of the “big three” guitarists (the other two being Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell) felt at home in Tyner territory. According to one observer, Tyner and Scofield’s rendition of “Blues on the Corner” nearly “burned a hole in the carpet.” In this writer’s opinion, “Mr. P.C.” gets an A + for pure, unadulterated swing.

Tyner’s collaboration with Bill Frisell is at the other end of the spectrum but is no less tasty. Known as “the Philip Glass of the Guitar,” Frisell constructs rhythms with a laid back, unassuming feel that tends to draw you in and leave you mesmerized. On the tunes “Contemplation” and the Malian tinged “Baba Drama,” Tyner rides the rhythm as Frisell’s music gently unfolds before you.

Tyner’s bluesy collaboration with Derek Trucks (best known for his work with the Allman Brothers) spans the generation gap. Moreover, it’s in keeping with Tyner’s coda that, “It’s best to let a person be and find a place where they can meet and create something interesting.” Here, Tyner and Trucks assume the roles of Sorcerer and apprentice as they tackle “Greensleeves” and “Slapback Blues.” If you’ve ever wondered why the words, “Derek Trucks” and “genius” are mentioned in the same breath, there is no need to look any further than these two tracks.

On the surface, Mark Ribot appears to be the most improbable guitarist of the bunch but the “free” nature of “Improvisation 1” and “Improvisation 2” transported Tyner back to his early days as a side man with the late, great John Coltrane. According to Tyner, “John and I used to do that in the studio all the time. I love playing free.” This becomes glaringly obvious as the two create three impromptu duets, all of which are documented on the DVD.

The “odd man out” is banjo player Béla Fleck, aka the “Buddy Rich of the banjo.” For reasons only known to Fleck, he insisted on performing “My Favorite Things,” a tune that most musicians wisely steer clear of. Nevertheless, Fleck not only draws Tyner into the fray, but the two somehow manage to elevate the narrative to an entirely new level. By the way, if you find yourself asking, “How does he do that on the banjo?” join the club!

When Tyner was asked how he maintains such a high level of musicianship after all these years he simply replied, “You have to love it. It’s something that I have been doing for most of my life and it’s a wonderful way to live and make a living.” When the subject of his upcoming 70th birthday came up, he humbly remarked, “It’s just nice to be on the planet for another year!” As for future projects, Tyner says he likes keep the door open and keep an eye on who comes through. “I don’t like to predict,” Tyner said, “because every day is different. You have to take things day by day, hour by hour and minute by minute.”

As producer John Snyder tells it, “This is a maximum effort by highly individualistic musicians.” If you’re up for the challenge I highly recommend that you find a comfortable spot and listen to the album all the way through. No doubt you will agree that this is one of Tyner’s finest and most innovative recordings to date. Happy Birthday McCoy and many more!

This blog entry posted by Tomas Peña.

November 03, 2008 · 0 comments


21 Tracks to Check Out

I like to listen to new music every day, but even a jazz hound like me sometimes is overwhelmed by the sheer number of CDs on the market. Certainly there is no shortage of new recorded jazz. I have heard several hundred new CDs so far this year, but sometimes I feel as if I am only scratching the surface. Fortunately, the other reviewers at have checked out many projects I haven’t had a chance to assess. Our combined efforts allow us to keep our fingers on the pulse of the current jazz scene.

KJ Denhert

But this glut of CDs makes it very difficult for the casual jazz fan to know which of the many new releases are most deserving of their attention. For this reason, highlights a Song of the Day five times per week. A fan who listens to these tracks—around twenty songs featured each month, equivalent to a couple hours of music—can keep abreast of the best of the new releases, and also get introduced to a lot of great jazz, without having to go through the stacks of disks that threaten to topple over my desk as I write.

Some of the best tracks come from little known releases that would be easy to miss. For example, our most recent Song of the Day choice, a genre-crossing performance by KJ Denhert of Sting’s composition “Message in a Bottle,” comes from a live recording in Italy released on a little known indie label. This is a fresh version of a familiar song with some interesting twists, and is well worth hearing. The music is jazzy, but freely borrows from other performance styles.

In other instances, we might dip into blues or World Music or other “beyond jazz” tracks for the Song of the Day. But the unifying characteristic of these featured songs is their excellence. You may sometimes be surprised by the music we highlight, but our hope is that you will rarely be disappointed.

Below is a list of all the tracks featured as Song of the Day during the last month. Whenever possible, the review includes a link for fast, easy and legal downloading.

Songs of the Day: October 2008

KJ Denhert: Message in a Bottle
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Milton Nascimento: Chega de Saudade
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Robert Mitchell 3io: Quantum
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Tim Ries: Miss You
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Michael Bates: Great Exhibition
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

The Stryker/Slagle Band: Fingers in the Wind
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Vassilis Tsabropoulos: Gift of Dreams
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Jimmy Herring: New Moon
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Todd Sickafoose: Future Flora
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Arturo O’Farrill & Claudia Acuna: Moodance
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Tuck & Patti: In a Sentimental Mood
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Taj Mahal: Zanzibar
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Erik Friedlander: Jim Zipper
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Rachael Price: Mood Indigo
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Asaf Sirkis: Stoned Bird
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Todd Coolman: Crescent City Ditty
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Donna Lee Saxophone Quartet: Four to Go
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Take 6: Someone to Watch Over Me
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Denise Donatelli: Crystal Silence
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Charlie Haden: He's Gone Away
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Chico Hamilton: Ain't Nobody Calling Me
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

November 01, 2008 · 0 comments