The Best Jazz Tracks for February

If your eyes ever mosey on down toward the bottom left of the home page, you will see a constantly changing feature called Song of the Day. The highlighted song is updated fives times a week, and is always drawn from a recent release worthy of your listening attention.

As regular visitors to the site know, reviews individual tracks, not entire CDs. In this day of iPodding and downloading, there is great need for intelligent reviews of the best new tracks, and we are stepping in to fill the void. The Song of the Day is a good resource for fans who want some solid tips on the very best jazz happening now. Our reviews include full personnel, a sassy and savvy assessment of the music, a link for (legal) downloading, and a rating based on's proprietary scoring system. (Okay, maybe we haven’t been able to patent it, but it is the closest thing we have to our own “secret sauce.”)

Below is a list of the tracks featured as Song of the Day during the last month. For a complete list of all the Songs of the Day since the launch of the site, click here.

Ben Allison: Respiration
Diane Schuur: Nice Work If You Can Get It
Human Bell: Ephaphatha
Giacomo Gates: Melodious Funk
Tom Scott: Mercy, Mercy, Mercy
Maceo Parker: Hallelujah I Love Her So
Clark Terry & Louie Bellson: Terry's Mood
Hendrik Meurkens: Hot and Stuffy
Ryan Blotnick: Thinning Air
David Linx: Black Crow
Marty Sheller: The Route 44 Flyer
Bill Dixon: Entrances / One
Gonzalo Rubalcaba: This Is It
David Rogers: Oboo Ketua Nyom
Enrico Rava & Stefano Bollani: Estate
Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: Modul 45
Pat Metheny: At Last You're Here
David Finck: Ballad for a Future Day
Jane Ira Bloom: Mental Weather
Horace Silver: Seńor Blues (live at Newport)

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Where Did Our Revolution Go? (Part Three)

This is the final installment of a three part series looking back at the fifty year history of Free Jazz. Click here for part one and part two.

The success of the Free Jazz movement during the 1960s was as pervasive as it was rapid. During the period from 1958 to 1968 the new music changed the form and substance of jazz music. Yet how could the New Thing, for all its successes, ever live up to the expectations of its most fervent admirers? For this was a new style that hoped to be more than just a new style, not another passing fad like the bossa nova or soul jazz crazes of this same era, but something that realized the promise of the album covers that proclaimed the Change of the Century. selects the coolest jazz links on the web (updated daily)

Did any jazz style ever have loftier goals? At the close of his book on this style of performance, The Freedom Principle, John Litweiler announced his hopes that avant garde music would be "philosophically crucial to humanity as a whole" and "lead to a new consciousness that will deter mankind from its present catastrophic course." David Such takes up a similar theme at the end of his survey Avant-Garde Jazz Musicians: Performing "Out There" when he enthuses that his favorite music helps life "achieve purposefulness" and points the way toward "solving at least a portion of the problems and misunderstandings in the world." When Valerie Wilmer wrote her book on the new movement, she simply called it As Serious as Your Life, and no one seemed at all surprised by the extravagant title.

This type of rhetoric is what set the free jazz aficionados apart from everyone else in the jazz world. Dixieland players may have loved their old records, but they didn't expect to change human consciousness. Retro swing dancers were devoted to the big bands, but they didn't hold out the Lindy Hop as an alternative to the arms race. (Of course, in a leg race, you might be tempted to bet on them.) Boppers loved to bop and sock-hoppers had to hop, but they never released CDs called The Future is Now or Change of the Century.

A backlash was inevitable—not so much against the music, as against the rhetoric and overly schematic view that implied (or stated outright) that jazz needed to progress like some sort of scientific discipline, that new ideas dislodged and replaced the discredited old ones. And when the backlash came, it arrived in varied and surprising ways. The emergence of neo-traditionalist Wynton Marsalis as the most famous jazz musician of the 1980s would be its most visible sign, but even before Wynton a change was in the air. In 1974, a few years before his death, Charles Mingus mused "I used to play avant garde bass when nobody else did. Now I play 4/4 because none of the other bassists do." When Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and other jazz stars returned to playing hard bop for their 1977 VSOP tour, Newsweek put it on the front cover. Playing without the chords might have been newsworthy in 1957, but twenty years later a return to acoustic, structured jazz was seen as the real story.

If Newsweek had been paying more attention, it might have found it equally surprising when the very leaders of the avant garde started to signal a retreat from the core principles of Free Jazz. Anthony Braxton began recording standards over familiar chord changes. Cecil Taylor played duets in concert with Mary Lou Williams, and let her set out structured harmonies and familiar jazz vocabulary under his blistering keyboard attack. And the next generation of progressive players would be even more accommodating, moving inside and outside the changes without thinking twice. Musicians such as David Murray or Don Pullen may have felt the call of free-form jazz, but they never forgot all the other ways one could play African-American music for fun and profit.

Clearly progressive jazz no longer matched the rhetoric and ideology that had given rise to the Freedom Principle (to borrow a useful term from John Litweiler, with its nice overtones of a music that was inextricably embedded in an accompanying ideology). For the most part, the ideology of jazz still looked at the music as embodying an ineluctable linear progression, in which each generation went beyond what had happened before. The ideology still demanded new things, but the musicians and fans seemed increasingly interested in restoring their connections with the traditions and heritage of the music. Even before Wynton Marsalis came on the scene, it was increasingly clear that most jazz critics (acutely sensitive, as we have seen, to Hegelian forces) were more radical than most musicians. And the fans were the least progressive of all, still hoping to snap their fingers and shake their hips. Something would have to give.

And what gave the most was the Freedom Principle. The very term Free Jazz started to disappear, replaced by new phrases such as "progressive jazz" or "experimental jazz." Or people would talk about "downtown music" or "M-Base"—or whatever the flavor of the month might be next. Jazz was increasingly acting like the contemporary art gallery scene, where new things came and went, no one looking for a linear progression, or a "change of the century." Just some sort of change - for a week, for a day - was good enough.

This shift in perspective was inevitable in an age in which the leaders of Free Jazz were no longer quite so free. The return to chord changes and traditional song forms, which started as a surprising development among the experimentalists of the 1970s, became so common in the 1980s as to hardly draw attention. Even pastoral performers with big mass-market followings, such as Keith Jarrett or Pat Metheny, could add atonality to their repertoire without raising eyebrows, while the iconoclasts and radicals were allowed to play "Body and Soul" or a twelve bar blues night after night without anyone questioning their credentials as progressives.

Even before this, with the rise of the Art Ensemble of Chicago in the late 1960s and 1970s, the progressive movement in jazz began to move toward a new policy of "peaceful coexistence." The Art Ensemble was more about eclecticism than a firm adherence to any one style, free or otherwise. The very diversity of instruments in their music was a symbol of this emerging pluralism. The AEC, by one measure, was said to use some 500 different instruments. How could you get more inclusive than that? Moreover, this band was part of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) which became more and more influential during the 1970s—and, again, names are revealing. Here was no promise of an October Revolution or some plan to topple the old order. Instead of Free Jazz or atonality, we have the simple label "Creative Musicians." Who could be against that?

This is the jazz world we have inherited, a happily-ever-after in which anything goes, everything goes, and pluralism (not freedom or atonality) is the single guiding principle. There is no sign that this will change anytime soon. Indeed, it is almost inconceivable that it could change. No one in the jazz world believes in the Hegelian force of history any more, even if they pay it lip service. No one believes that jazz styles move ahead like science, each generation progressing beyond the last, superseding and replacing what went before. Sometimes they talk as if they believed these things, because the language in which jazz criticism is written still smacks of this positivistic attitude. But the reality, which everyone can plainly see, is that jazz styles are more like Paris fashions, which must change with the season, but not with some linear sense of inevitability, more just for the sheer fun of it.

And fun is the catchword that first comes to my mind when I think of jazz today. Call me, if you will, the advocate of The Fun Principle in jazz. (My motto: I can't solve socio-political problems, only show you a good time.) But the rhetoric of jazz - as opposed to the reality - is still mired in the old paradigm. Much jazz writing remains situated in the world view of art historian Giorgio Vasari who, in the sixteenth century, legitimized the idea that artistic styles followed a progressive evolution—a view he adopted because he found it a useful way of conceptualizing Renaissance art. But it is merely a conceptual tool not reality. It had explanatory power for a long time, roughly four hundred years. This crude, positivistic model lingers on in our sub-conscious even after it has failed to describe the path of artistic development for some four decades. New ways of conceptualizing the role of the artist are in formation—and I have speculated in other settings about what these might be, and have even offered some bold predictions. But the alternative ways of describing the role of the contemporary artist have yet to capture people's imagination to the degree that Vasari's simple idea did. Even so, the confusion about the new paradigm cannot blind us to the fact that the old one has lost its explanatory power.

So here is our puzzling final assessment of Free Jazz. This music survived (and even thrived) as one style among many styles. This is a considerable achievement. Yet the rhetoric of the Freedom Principle could hardly count this achievement as real success. Free Jazz has always been married to an ideology that saw this style as riding a historical wave that gave it some degree of pre-eminence over other styles. The very term "progressive" implies others must be regressive; an avant garde requires others to play the role of the derriere. But who wants to volunteer for that?

What can you do for an encore after your first act was to declare yourself as "the shape of jazz to come"? Nothing seems quite good enough after coming down from that high peak, and it is perhaps understandable that the most devoted followers of Free Jazz want to re-assert their superiority. Even today, the Free Jazz fringe are the least tolerant of the successes enjoyed by other jazz styles. They grumble when Herbie Hancock wins a Grammy, when Norah Jones has a platinum record, when Brad Mehldau gets a glowing review. And who can blame them? They were supposed to supersede all these ordinary folks, the remnants of an outmoded tradition with their consonant harmonies, hummable melodies and repeating metric structures. Instead the avant garde has been forced to live in a pluralistic jazz world in which everyone is on the same footing.

And even more surprising: the avant garde is now seen as a venerated tradition in its own right. Part of the allure of this music was its outsider status, its exclusion from the power structures of society, which it was supposed to oppose. Yet someone like Cecil Taylor can point to his Guggenheim Award and MacArthur fellowship, and has played at the White House. (And look at how many other avant-gardists, from Anthony Braxton to George Lewis, have won the so-called MacArthur "genius grants.") Ornette Coleman has had more books devoted, in whole or part, to his career, than almost any other living jazz musician. Universities, foundations, festivals all open their arms to the former revolutionaries. Anyone else might delight in such acceptance and rewards. But those most closely aligned with the Free Jazz movement can only ask "Where did our revolution go?"

This is the final installment of a three-part essay by Ted Gioia. Click here for part one and part two.

February 27, 2008 · 2 comments


Where Did Our Revolution Go? (Part Two)

This is the second part of a three part series looking back at the fifty year history of Free Jazz. For part one, click here.

Under any circumstances, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman would have forced jazz fans and critics to take Free Jazz seriously, despite the relatively modest sales of their LPs. Music this provocative demanded a response, yea or nay. But matters became even more urgent when John Coltrane (who had recorded with Cecil Taylor in the late 1950s) moved solidly into the Free Jazz camp in the mid-1960s. It now seemed that those outlandish predictions made in the early Ornette Coleman LP titles (which had names like The Shape of Jazz to Come or Change of the Century) had come true.

Free Jazz might very well be the shape of jazz to come, especially now that the most admired saxophonist of the era had come on board. Indeed, wherever one looked, signs of sweeping change were evident. Trend-setting Impulse Records released New Thing at Newport, which showed that the established jazz festival had opened its doors to the avant garde. Needless to say, there was no Old Thing at Newport album.

But who needed Newport or Monterey? When Bill Dixon promoted a series of Free Jazz music in October 1964, he dispensed with the light-hearted term "festival" altogether, preferring to call his event The October Revolution in Jazz - a title which seemed rather appropriate at the time. Free Jazz was not just another style hoping to be heard and appreciated. The old regime also needed to be overthrown. Observers were reminded of what had happened when serialism had swept the classical music world, and even fierce individualists such as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein felt compelled to adapt, in some degree, to the demands of the new paradigm.

The jazz critics were, of course, also forced to take sides. Today, when a pluralistic jazz scene predominates, the idea of picking the winning side must seem strange to many jazz fans. A refusal to pick sides is, in fact, one of the defining aspects of new millennium jazz. But life was different in the 1960s. The ethos was "those who aren't with us are against us," and everyone of note in the jazz world was expected to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down. You ask: What about a flat hand wavering in the middle? Sorry, not allowed! You could be Siskel or Ebert back in those turbulent days, but weren't supposed to mess with Mr. In-Between.

Yet was there really a choice? Twenty years earlier, critics had been in a similar pickle when bop came on the scene. Those who had tried to dismiss or attack the modernists eventually discovered that they had foolishly picked a losing battle with some Hegelian historical force that would just mow them down in the process. Who dared do that again? There are many ways that a critic can go wrong, but getting trampled by the Shape of Jazz to Come is an especially painful way of going down to defeat. This lesson was not lost on the establishment. Critics would now take the lead as advocates for Free jazz, many of them emerging as vociferous champions, even when the general public showed hardly any interest in this music. Just as Jackson Pollock had his Clement Greenberg, Stravinsky his Robert Craft, Ornette and company had many of the savviest critics of the day in their court.

And what about the established jazz musicians? How did they react? Coltrane's Ascension was far from an isolated incident. Eric Dolphy, who had also made his mark as a master of traditional chord changes and song structures, was now also looking to move outside their sway. Sonny Rollins came back from his self-imposed sabbatical and recorded with Don Cherry, from Ornette's band, showing that he too (perhaps Coltrane's single biggest rival) was also feeling the heat from the new music. Miles may not have jumped on board, but in LPs such as Miles Smiles and Nefertiti his horn work with Wayne Shorter was coming closer and closer to the sound of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. And even his song titles—"Madness," "Riot," "Agitation"—showed the influence of the zeitgeist, which demanded extreme forms of musical expression. Leading indicators were sending clear signals that this would be the era of un-smooth jazz.

Yet Albert Ayler topped them all with a series of recordings that pushed saxophony to the breaking point. This was more than dissonance, more than atonality. The very idea of musical notes, scales, even playing in tune . . . all of these elements were now seen as so much ballast to be thrown overboard, as obstacles on the path to a transcendental freedom of expression. This was sound beyond sound, jazz beyond jazz.

Anthony Braxton has sometimes used the term 'post-Ayler' to desribe later music, and the label is an apt one. What could you do next to raise the ante? Scrape chalk against a blackboard? But in fact, Ayler was able to get a sound very similar to this out of his tenor sax. (Listen to the 2:06 mark on his track "Wizard" from Spiritual Unity and tell me he hasn't pulled it off.) Or destroy the saxophone itself (move the the 3:58 point on the same track, if you dare)? No, Ayler had pretty much done it all. After this artist demonstrated the total "negation of fixed pitches," to quote critic Ekkehard Jost, it seemed like the final page of a book had been written, or (more perhaps more appropriately) torn to shreds.

Yet maybe this was the first page of a new book. Had Ayler and Ascension, Ornette and Taylor started music on some exciting new journey? Now that jazz was "Free," would it exercise that freedom in surprising and exciting ways? Could jazz continue to progress beyond these sounds? (And what might it mean to go beyond Ayler and Taylor?) Or was this mid-1960s moment a high point from which, inevitably, things would decline and settle back into more predictable, structured paths?


For part three of this essay, click here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 26, 2008 · 0 comments


Where Did Our Revolution Go? Free Jazz Turns Fifty


The highlight of the Portland Jazz Festival, which concluded its ten days of music-making on Sunday, was a concert celebrating Ornette Coleman's fifty years of making recordings.

A half-century of Free Jazz? It's hard to believe, but Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry's visit to the studio on February 10, 1958 (for the first of the three sessions that produced the Something Else! LP) is now a distant historical event.

This anniversary offers us a good opportunity to look back and consider the impact of Free Jazz (as the work of Ornette and others of his persuasion soon came to be called) over the long haul. Did this music fulfill its promise? Was it little more than cacophony and bluster, as many of its critics asserted at the time? Or, as its advocates claimed, was it a great liberating force, dislodging constraints that had previously held musicians (and indeed large parts of modern society) in check? Did it start a musical revolution? Or was it just one more turn on the revolving door of changing fads and styles? In short, where does Free Jazz stand at the venerable age of fifty?

I have mentioned that Ornette's first LP was called Something Else! In truth, most people call it that even today. But the a quick look at the album cover shows that the real name, as broadcast in a huge type font—larger even than the photo of Coleman squeezed into the corner of the layout—was SOMETHING ELSE!!!!

              Four exclamation points for Ornette

Few things in life deserve four exclamation points. But the folks at Contemporary Records knew what they were doing in this instance. This was not just another jazz record. Coleman was trouncing on the basic rules of the art form. He wasn't using the same old bop and swing licks every other saxophonist was delivering. Even when his supporting cast tried to prod him with standard chord changes (as pianist Walter Norris and bassist Don Payne repeatedly attempted to do during these sessions), he mostly ignored them. As Joseph Campbell would say, Ornette was following his bliss. And laboring over the harmonic implications of "Out of Nowhere" or "I Got Rhythm" was not blissful enough for this free spirit of Free Jazz.

Norris told me in a 1990 interview: "We rehearsed two or three times a week for about six months leading up to the recording. A number of times we rehearsed at my house. I would take a paper and pen and make notes about the compositions and about what we were supposed to be doing. But the funny thing was that at every rehearsal Ornette would change what we had done the last time. He would change the structure of the song or where the rubato was. And then when we finally showed up for the record date, he changed everything again."

But if Something Else! was a break with jazz traditions and standard practices, what came later would make it seem quaint and old-fashioned by comparison. In follow-up recordings, Ornette moved farther and farther away from the conventional harmonic underpinnings that Norris had offered. Before long, any piano in the band seemed like an imposition to Coleman, an unwanted constraint on his liberated sense of melodic development.

Around the time he was making this first LP, Coleman was developing musical partnerships with other like-minded souls, most visibly with trumpeter Don Cherry (his front line collaborator on Something Else!). Yet perhaps even more important was the arrival of bassist Charlie Haden, who would soon become a regular fixture on Ornette's studio and live bands. The impact of Haden's addition to the group can hardly be over-estimated, and still has not (in my opinion) been sufficiently appreciated by most commentators. I can't imagine another bassist on the planet in the late 1950s and early 1960s, who could have done a better job of adapting to the demands of Coleman's music, and realizing its inner potential. Haden could play loose and free when he needed to, or tighten up when necessary. His time and tone control were impeccable, but Haden knew that these skills were not enough to bring this music to life. He realized that he had to invent a whole new way of playing bass in order to cope with the demands of the new wave. And his inventiveness in navigating through these difficult waters is little short of astonishing. Listen to a song like "Lonely Woman," where he takes a Coleman offering that was little more than a melody, and with very ingenious basswork helps transform it into a fully formed composition.

Yet, increasingly, Coleman didn't want his work to sound like a cohesive composition. The very structure of most jazz performances—based on the idea of an opening and closing melody statement encapsulating individual improvisations—was now open to question. In response, Coleman's 1960 session, Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation features two quartets—one coming out of the left channel of your stereo, another unit assaulting from the right—which maintain a largely unstructured improvisation for almost forty minutes. The composed material now represents only the smallest part of this music, which celebrated content over form, energy over structure. The blueprint for many later celebrated large scale avant garde works—from John Coltrane's Ascension to Peter Brotzmann's Machine Gun—can be traced back to this seminal session.

But if Coleman felt that freedom in music was best achieved without a piano, Cecil Taylor was showing (in his body of work from the same period) that the keyboard could also be a radical tool of musical iconoclasm. Taylor cannot claim to be the first jazz pianist to embrace atonality—a remarkable 1953 track from Lennie Tristano, called "Descent Into the Maelstrom" holds that honor. But Tristano did not release this ear-searing music at the time (perhaps fearful of what the critics, who never treated him gently, might say). When Taylor emerged on to the scene a few years later, he was the trailblazer who pushed the music to the next level.

Taylor also started with conventional jazz song forms, but he was even more acerbic than Coleman in undermining their original meaning. Coleman could play a song such as Gershwin's "Embraceable You" and remind his listeners of the emotional intent of the original tune. His version might be dramatically different from Charlie Parker's or Billie Holiday's, but it still possessed the sweet melancholy of a love song. Taylor, in contrast, purged all of the sentimental trappings from his music. When he played "Lazy Afternoon," it was no longer quite so lazy, more like frenetic afternoon with a thunderstorm about to strike. His "Sweet and Lovely" could more accurately been called "Sharp and Prickly."

As a result, Taylor hardly entered the recording studio during the early 1960s—at a time when Ornette Coleman was recording regularly and other major jazz players, even stars like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, were paying close attention to the Free Jazz movement. And when Taylor was given the opportunity to record for the prestigious Blue Note label in May 1966, he showed that the backlash against his extreme vision of jazz had only motivated him to go further outside the norms of traditional jazz. On the long opening track "Steps," Taylor undermines every aspect of the jazz tradition. Instead of solos, in which the band supports a featured instrumentalist, each player waiting in turn to step to the forefront, the musicians here seem to delight in slamming their sound into each other's faces. This is the sonic equivalent to J.G. Ballard's novel Crash, which would show up a few years later, a fetishization of collision and impact. At many junctures in this music, it sounds as though piano, drums and horn are all soloing at once — and aggressively so.

But even more striking is this band's unwillingness to settle for long into any one groove or rhythm. If there was one aspect of jazz that was sacrosanct, the holy of holies that (one might think) would never be discarded, it would have been the sense of swing, the momentum that held a jazz song together and moved it forward. From Buddy Bolden to bop, the beat had always been built on hip, repeated patterns, supporting large doses of syncopation in symmetrical and metrical time. Yet Taylor throws this aside in favor of an unsettling, stop-and-start motion that restlessly moves from texture to texture. If you jump around to various points on this ten minute track, you might be persuaded that you were listening to several different songs, so diverse is the basic aural nature of the components. Certainly the performance was well named. For these "Steps" are like the physical ones on a staircase, only taking you away from your starting point. And if ever a jazz composition delighted in moving farther and farther out on a spiraling staircase, this was the one.

Although Taylor's ensemble did its best to keep up with Taylor, this pianist needed no accompaniment to make his revolution. On the final track of Unit Structures, "Tales (8 Whisps)," Taylor's keyboard work dominates the soundspace, and his sheer forcefulness and virtuosity impart a sense of high drama to the proceedings. This pianistic approach to Free Jazz would come to the fore in later recordings such as Silent Tongues, Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! and Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within), which remain good starting points for jazz fans who want to come to grips with this radical force in the music's history.

The general public was mostly oblivious to this music. But Free Jazz found a small devoted group of listeners, exhilarated by precisely those elements that turned off most listeners— the outré sensibility, the defiance of convention, the in-your-face aggressiveness of the music. To some degree, the Free Jazz audience was closer in spirit to the followers of acid rock or avant garde classical music, than to the fans who enjoyed other Blue Note releases. Unit Structures and Free Jazz were unlikely to appeal to hard boppers who wanted to snap their fingers and swing to the groove. It was little wonder, then, that the Blue Note connection did not prove sufficient to establish Taylor's commercial viability. After Conquistador, a strong follow-up LP which in some ways compares favorably to Unit Structures, Taylor recorded no more for Blue Note. Over the next decade, he would increasingly bring his act overseas, where avant garde currents of all sorts found a more hospitable home.


For part two of this essay, click here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 25, 2008 · 4 comments


Remembering Teo Macero (1925-2008)'s arnold jay smith contributes these reminisces on celebrated producer Teo Macero, who passed away last week.T.G.

Jazz history tells us of many surprising, prophetic discoveries. We have Louis Armstrong “dropping” his music and scat was born; Hank Crawford “delayed” en route to a CTI recording session and an untested future star Grover Washington, Jr. steps in instead; Wes Montgomery, who could not read music, intimidated by an in-studio string session, so multi-tracking is invented; and Miles Davis getting sick all over a Columbia Records studio while his very cool producer, Teo Macero, takes the band's work and makes a double LP, with some tape and a razor blade.

Macero, who died last Tuesday at 82 on Long Island, NY, did not limit his career to Miles, it just feels that way. Nor did he flay away Sweeny Todd-like exclusively in the electric Milesian era. Most accounts gloss over his accomplishments for other performers.

Johnny Mathis was a school teacher who was also an aspiring Olympic track star. On the day he was supposed to go for official and final tryouts, his manager called with the opportunity of a lifetime. It seems that a saxophonist-turned-producer had heard the young Mathis in a jazz club in Boston and wanted to do some test pressings, on that same fateful day. Mathis told me that story when I mentioned a junior high English teacher of mine who was also a track star. “Yeah, we were supposed to go down there together, “Mathis remembered. “I stood him up.” Macero 1; Olympics 0.

Into the session Teo brought some of the established jazz stars of the day. The LP went nowhere and was quietly withdrawn as Mathis and manager felt his diction was imperfect. (They were right.) Macero and jazz out, strings and schmaltz in. Recorded history, and Guinness Book numbers (“All Time Greatest Hits”) were in pursuit.

Miles and George Avakian recorded their first LP for Columbia, which could not be released because Miles owed Prestige three LPs. Davis fulfilled his obligation with that first John Coltrane quintet in a marathon studio outing, from which came Relaxin’, Workin’ and Cookin'. Columbia then released Round About Midnight, but Prestige countered by issuing their projects one at a time. You can’t imagine what a boon that was to a certain coterie of very young jazzers. Macero produced most of the rest of Columbia Miles, both acoustic and electric.

The Miles-Macero relationship was among the first in the producer-era from which came such expressions as “we’ll fix it in the mix,” and “production overkill.” On the other hand recording, studio electricity and electronics became art in the hands of Macero. He believed that just because his canvas and brushes did not require fruit or models he was nonetheless creating art. All he needed were the raw materials – the tracks - and long after the musicians left the studio he’d cut and paste, the finished product much like a collage.

Musicians didn’t always appreciate his methods, however. There’s a telling scene in the movie Straight, No Chaser where Thelonious Monk specifically asks his producer, Macero, to turn on the tape machine while Monk warmed up. Macero disobeyed and Monk was so inconsolable that he would not sit down at the piano until after much cajoling. Monk was right; that take was the best of the day.

To his credit Macero did produce some of Monk’s best big band work. From those sessions came a couple of LPs, my favorite title of which is Who’s Afraid of Big Band Monk? However, the excessive reverb drove me crazy. Other Macero productions included works by Charles Mingus. Teo certainly liked challenges - both musical and personality-wise.

Teo Macero was an accomplished musician and composer in the European classical tradition, as well as jazz and contemporary music. He even produced and played on a jazz version of the Broadway show Guys and Dolls, of which he was particularly proud. We had been friendly enough for him to send me a complete collection (10 CDs) of his contemporary works, some of which are quite exploratory. He was a guest at one of my Jazz Insights sessions at the New School, during which he offered up details no one had heard to that point, inside stuff about Miles, Columbia, and the industry. He also helped set up an interview during Miles’ retirement in 1977 for a children’s show about jazz I was to write. Prior to the visit to Miles’ Upper West Side town house Teo warned me, “Don’t let him take you down to his boxing ring; he will hurt you.” Sure enough, Miles did indeed ask and even as he tugged my arm I remained resolute and did not go down those stairs. Thank you, Teo.

Although we negotiated to have him return to Jazz Insights it never came to pass, and that upset him. “You never said ‘thank you’ for those CDs I sent you (the contemporary music),” he once railed at me in public. “You haven’t asked me back to your (expletive) class,” at another time. I was near tears each time. But I was consoled by same of his friends, who noted that he was by that time, shall we say, not the Teo Macero of old.

The Teo Macero legacy, of course, will be the Miles razor tapes. He decried the issuance of every burp and hiccup of those “complete” sessions. He claimed that it took away from the art which he crafted, showed all the little pieces prior to their proper placement. To me they show how a genius works, but they do get boring and redundant. Nice packaging, though; I think he was proud of that.

This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith

February 24, 2008 · 2 comments


Weekend Track Review Roundup continues its quixotic but noble pursuit of reviewing all the great - and even not-so-great – jazz tracks recorded since those ancient days when Kenny G’s grandfather played with Louis Armstrong in Congo Square.

Here is a round-up of a few of the reviews published during the last two weeks. As always, we provide pithy assessments, and a ranking based on our proprietary 100 point scale. We also include, whenever possible, links for fast (and legal) downloading. And site visitors can offer their own rebuttals in the 'comments' section at the bottom of every review.

Lester Young: All of Me
Frank Sinatra: Summer Wind
Wes Montgomery: Four on Six
Uri Caine: Blackbird
Sonny Rollins: There Is No Greater Love
Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie: A Night in Tunisia (live at Massey Hall)
Vince Guaraldi: Fenwyck’s Farfel
Stan Kenton: Fascinating Rhythm
John Scofield: Let’s Say We Did
Arkady Shilkoper: Alpine Sketch
Greg Osby: Indiana
Louis Sclavis: Napoli’s Walls
Weather Report: Mr. Gone
Steve Lacy; Evidence
Max Roach: Blues Waltz
Michel Godard: C’era Una Strega, C’era Una Fata
Oscar Peterson: When Lights Are Low
Sylvain Luc: Brazil
Chris Anderson: Where or When
John McLaughlin & Carlos Santana: Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord
Maria Joăo & Mário Laginha: Há Gente Aqui
Jim Hall: Things Ain’t What They Used to Be
Chick Corea & Return to Forever: After the Cosmic Rain
Diana Krall: I Was Doing Alright
Jorge Pardo: Caravan
Billy Cobham: The Pleasant Pheasant
Ganelin Trio: Conversation III
McCoy Tyner: Giant Steps
Daniel Humair: Blanc Cassé
Enrico Rava: Cromosomi
Bojan Z: The Mohican and the Great Spirit
Richard Gallano: You Must Believe in Spring
Larry Young: Testifying
Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Modul 39_8

You can search through all of the reviews in our large (and constantly growing) database by using the (recently enhanced) search engine in the left sidebar on our Music page.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 21, 2008 · 0 comments


The Legacy of Ella Fitzgerald concludes its two-week focus on jazz singers with Stuart Nicholson’s feature on Ella Fitzgerald. Nicholson, author of an excellent biography of the vocalist, selects twelve essential Ella tracks, and also contributes a biographical essay on Fitzgerald to the Encyclopedia.

Ella was one of the few Swing Era stars to adapt with ease to the brave new world of bebop. When the boppers started reshaping the jazz vocabulary in the mid-1940s, most of the older generation looked on with disdain, if not outright anxiety. And even when swing stalwarts made the plunge, as Benny Goodman attempted when he formed a bebop band at the close of the decade, they typically failed to master the intricacies of the new style. Yet Ella not only survived, she thrived in the hothouse environment of modern jazz.

     Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Brown at Birdland, photo by Marcel Fleiss

Chicago school drummer Dave Tough spoke perhaps more honestly than most of his contemporaries when describing his first exposure to the new sounds of 52nd Street: “As we walked in, see, these cats snatched up their horns and blew crazy stuff. One would stop all of a sudden and another would start for no reason at all. We never could tell when a solo was supposed to begine or end. Then they all quite at once and walked off the stand. It scared us.” And Tough proved to be more adaptable to the bop idiom than most of his generation, fitting in admirably with the modernistic sounds of Woody Herman’s post-war band.

Yet if Ella struggled with the new style, one never heard it in her recordings. Rather, she seemed liberated by the wider freedom offered by the bebop vocabulary. This amazing lady, who never took a singing lesson in her life, had more than just a great voice; she possessed superhuman ears, and they guided her flawlessly through the trickiest changes and most intricate passages. One can hear this in her recording of “Flying Home” from 1945, a Swing Era classic made famous by Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman, but now updated for the modern era by this brash vocalist. As Nicholson writes: “It was the product of over two years experimentation during live performances in extending the boundaries of jazz singing, and remains among the finest jazz vocal records of all time.”

Her scat singing was now moving well beyond anything previously done in the art form. When Louis Armstrong started singing wordless melodies back in the 1920s, the effect was entertaining and swinging . . . but hardly prepares us for what Ella would do with the concept a quarter century later. Even today, one listens to her classic versions of “Mack the Knife” or ”How High the Moon” or ”St. Louis Blues” (each recorded during that golden period from the late 1950s and early 1960s) and can only marvel at the dynamo on stage, propelling these songs forward with endless creativity and impressive virtuosity.

Despite her huge talent, Ella’s popular success is somewhat surprising. She was a musician’s singer, with more in common with the saxophonists and trumpeters in the band than with the other star “girl singers” of her generation. One always got the sense that Fitzgerald sang for the sheer fun of it, and not to win popularity contests or sell records. And if songs are a compromise between music and lyrics, no one had any doubts which side Ella preferred. Sometimes she forgot the lyrics, or made up new ones on the spot. In mid-performance of the W.C. Handy classic, one of Ella’s lines is “People are wondering what I’m singing. Believe it or not it’s ‘St. Louis Blues." “Mack the Knife” became one of her biggest hits in no small part to her charming way of messing up the words. Even from the start of her career, she could take lyrics that were little better than doggrel – “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” or “Chew, Chew, Chew” – and make them into something magical.

But don’t think that Ella was ever disrespectful to the songs she sang, even when she jumbled up the lines. Her Songbooks still stand out as the single best starting place for a listener who wants to make the acquaintance of the American popular song tradition. Here, in a series of in-depth exploration of the leading tunesmiths of the century – Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and others– she left behind a legacy that has lost none of its luster, even after more than a half-century. Perhaps Ira Gerswhin summed it p best when he said, “I never knew how good our songs were, until I heard Ella sing them."

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 20, 2008 · 3 comments


Revisiting Jazz Classics features A Classic Revisited five day per week. This is a significant jazz track from the past, one widely recognized as a masterpiece. The classic performance is highlighted on the homepage (in the middle column toward the bottom of the page), where you will find a link to a full review. Each review is accompanied by full recording details, a place for comments by site visitors, and a link for fast (and legal) downloading.

Below are the classic tracks featured on over the last several weeks. For a complete list of all the tracks featured as “A Classic Revisited,” click here.

Luiz Bonfá: Manhă De Carnaval
Bessie Smith & Louis Armstrong: St. Louis Blues
Lee Konitz & Warne Marsh: Topsy
Dexter Gordon: 'Round Midnight
Max Roach: Valse Hot
Pine Top Smith: Pine Top's Boogie Woogie
Wes Montgomery: Besame Mucho
McCoy Tyner: Impressions
Eric Dolphy: Gazzelloni
Earl 'Fatha' Hines: Cavernism
Art Ensemble of Chicago: Folkus
Miles Davis: Bitches Brew
Vince Guaraldi: Cast Your Fate to the Wind
Gerry Mulligan (with Zoot Sims): Come Rain or Come Shine
John Coltrane: Giant Steps
Herbie Nichols: Applejackin'
Woody Shaw: Theme for Maxine
Ramsey Lewis: The 'In' Crowd
Joe Pass: Have You Met Miss Jones?
Duke Ellington: The Harlem Suite
Dizzy Gillespie: Tin Tin Deo
Artie Shaw: Begin the Beguine
Woody Herman: Apple Honey
John Lewis: Sketch
Ornette Coleman: Embraceable You
J.J. Johnson: What's New
Jim Pepper: Witchi-Tai-To
Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder
Charles Mingus: Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Jazz Singers: The Men

Below are some extracts from “The State of Jazz of Vocals Today,” focusing on male jazz singers. The second part of this long essay – almost nine thousand words – was published earlier today on The first part of this article, which focused mostly on female vocalists can be found here. Also check out the jazz vocal playlist, with more than sixty track reviews accompanying this essay.

How do we evaluate these retro-cool singers? Do Peter Cincotti, Michael Bublé, Matt Dusk, Tony DeSare and the others of this school have genuine talent? It’s hard to tell. It’s like trying to guess the quality of ingredients that went into a frozen TV dinner. There is so much packaging and processing here, that what’s really inside is anyone’s guess. The handlers have prettified these young gentlemen with such zeal, that we hardly get a sense of the real person underneath. Just as Harry Connick was dubbed the next Sinatra when he arrived on his scene – perhaps before he had earned the title, but Connick eventually proved his talent and staying power -- these newer aspirants aim to be the next Connick. But a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy never looks good, and these singers (and their handlers) should find something original to call their own.

The younger pups in the kennel would do well to study the examples of the most successful of the older generation. Bobby McFerrin must have infuriated his record label in the early days by his refusal to jump on any bandwagons and his steadfast avoidance of all the commercial trends of the day. He steered clear of fusion music, even when its corrupting influence was pervasive. He insisted on recording solo vocals – a recipe, it would seem, for career disaster. Or, even worse, he would make whole albums of songs without words, just McFerrin’s quirky sounds and effects. (I would call this scat-singing, yet avoid the term simply because McFerrin has a style that is so different from any other scat singer on the planet. So he really defines his own category, ne c’est pas?) Yet McFerrin became the biggest selling jazz singer of his generation, and not only built a grand career, but became a living legend in the process. He would have thrown that all away if he had pursued the fusion-pop sap-path that everyone prodded him to follow. He would have been just one more packaged good in the cold fusion section of the market, and his career would have peaked faster than you could say “Eumir Deodato.”

Mark Murphy originally emerged on the scene as a hip stylist sliding over the surface of songs, but has gotten deeper and deeper into the music with each passing decade. I can't recall another jazz singer who has aged so well. His recent CD Once to Every Heart is almost a textbook in how to sing the standard repertoire. Listen to him tackle "Skylark" or "I'm Through With Love," and you will find that almost every phrase, every line has been artfully reconfigured to uncover the beating heart within the song. It is hard to believe that such an intense celebration of romantic love was was recorded by an artist in his seventies.

When I heard Kurt Elling’s twelve minute version of “My Foolish Heart” on his Live in Chicago CD, I was so struck by its ingenuity that I needed to go back and immediately listen to it again, then one more time, trying to figure out the twists and turns in the arrangement. Of course, Elling’s longtime musical director and pianist Laurence Hobgood must be lauded as a major contributor to these expansive re-workings. But Elling is the man on stage bringing them to vibrant life. Perhaps the only weakness here is the sheer power of Elling’s confident delivery, which seems to run counter to the lyric. One can hardly believe that this singer suffers from a foolish heart. But if Elling does not sing love songs in the conventional way, he more than makes up for it by the transcendence of his persona. He sounds like a man who has found a higher love than the kind written about in pop songs, some sort of zen insight into human relations, a Plato’s Symposium squeezed into a jazz standard. This is no small achievement.

         Jamie Cullum, photo by Jos L. Knaepen

As the examples of Jamie Cullum, Ian Shaw, Roberta Gambarini and others make clear, jazz singing is very much a global marketplace. Not too long ago, Americans had a lock on all the top spots in the polls, but now even the divas need to worry about offshore competition – no different than factory workers and customer service reps. I must (sheepishly) admit that I am delighted by this state of affairs. I have always driven a Detroit car, and never drink beer during the National Anthem, but when it comes to music, I relish the competition from foreign lands.

Complacent fans who aren’t visiting the House on Un-American Vocalizing are missing out on some of the finest jazz singers. And don’t think you will pick up a tell-tale foreign accent from Belgian singer David Linx or Dutch vocalists Wouter Hamel and Ilse Huizinga, or Hungarian Nikoletta Sz?ke, or their peers. They have listened to the same role models and mastered the same techniques as their counterparts at Berklee or in Brooklyn. Then again, the borders are collapsing these days, and all geographical labels merely relative. The aforementioned Hamel may hail from the Netherlands, but he has enjoyed his biggest success in the Japanese market, where his song “Breezy” reached #36 on the Tokio Hot 100 Chart. The talented Stacey Kent is sometimes described as a British jazz singer, but she was born in South Orange, New Jersey, and didn’t move to England until after graduating from Sarah Lawrence. The singer Janita, on the other, may take pride as the great Finnish success story, but she has called New York her home base for more than a decade. Jann Klose is building his career from the Bronx, but he hails from Mannheim, Germany and grew up in Africa. These artists provide a constant reminder that the jazz world is always a free trade zone, and the barriers and tariffs exist only in our heads.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 18, 2008 · 1 comment


The Nightfly Revisited

When jazz fans look back at the fusion music of the late 1960s and 1970s, they tend to see only half of the picture. They remember the jazz musicians who crossed over to the rock and pop charts, but they forget the other side of the equation— the rock and pop acts who embraced the jazz idiom.

Yet for every Miles Davis, there was a Frank Zappa. For every Weather Report, there was a Blood, Sweat and Tears. For every Grover Washington, there was a Joni Mitchell. And though it is easy to dismiss the long-haired hippie types who dared mess with jazz, the fact is that the rockers had at least one big advantage.

Perhaps it was only a psychological advantage, but (as Yogi Berra once said) the mental half is ninety percent of the game. When rock or pop musicians tackled jazz, they usually believed they were raising the level of their music. Embracing jazz was their way of aspiring to a higher degree of artistry.

The jazz musicians who took on rock-and-roll rarely had such high and mighty notions. True, there were a few jazz cats who moved into fusion for aesthetic reasons, but the vast majority did it for baser motives—a chance at a bigger payday or a larger dose of fame.

When Sonny Rollins recorded "Disco Monk," he certainly had some goals in mind, but I doubt that one of them was a plan to raise his music to a grander level of expression. When Count Basie started covering songs by the Beatles, he may have had his reasons, but who dares claim that he had decided that the Liverpool sound was cooler than Kansas City swing?

The rock and pop acts who embraced jazz, in contrast, often did so despite commercial considerations. When Joni Mitchell released her Mingus LP, it proved to be her poorest selling release in a decade. To some extent, Joni never regained the mass market audience she had enjoyed before this move. Zappa had his best sales when he squeezed the jazz out of his recordings, and opted instead for "Valley Girl" shtick. The band Chicago sold more records, the less jazz they put into them. In short, when the rock-and-pop folks added jazz to the mix, it invariably hurt their marketability and compromised their prospects. For this reason, I like to champion the rock side of jazz-rock fusion, give a nod to the commercial artists who elevated their music during this turbulent period despite the costs.

No band epitomized turbo-charged pop-jazz better than Steely Dan. The group was formed around the nucleus of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who met at Bard College in 1967. They played together in various groups (one of which, The Bad Rock Group, featured future comedian Chevy Chase on drums). But the success of their LP, Can't Buy a Thrill brought the duo fame as Steely Dan, and during the 1970s they released a series of albums marked by smart song-writing, lots of attitude, and impeccable musicianship. Becker and Fagen brought in the best studio musicians for their projects—so much so, that being asked to participate on a Steely Dan LP became a sign that a studio player had reached the top rung of the ladder. The material was perfectly suited for displaying jazz chops. These songs had some bite, helped along by juicy chord changes and clever arrangements.

But this music also succeeded because of the sly lyrics. The words to these songs were sassy and in-your-face, sometimes a little ambiguous. (What was that number that Rikki was supposed to send off in a letter to himself? Or is it herself? Is it a number between one and ten? Nowadays could you send it off in an email to yourself?) I especially liked the way the lyrics combined macho bravado with raw vulnerability. This was a paradoxical mixture, but Becker and Fagen pulled it off. Even a stand-alone couplet could play on both tough and soft angles—for example, on "Deacon Blues," where Fagen sings: "I cried when I wrote this song / Sue me if I play too long." Hearing that made me wish I could write a line that combined "I cried" and "sue me" in a single burst of poetry.

The breakup of Steely Dan in 1981 signaled the end of an era. The great age of fusion was over, for all intents and purposes. The formula had become formulaic. Yet Donald Fagen followed up with a solo project the following year, The Nightfly, which showed that the idea of mixing pop and jazz still could produce one final masterpiece.

And The Nightfly is definitely a masterpiece. Everything about this project clicks. The musicianship is outstanding throughout. (Of course, when you can bring in the Breckers, Larry Carlton, Jeff Porcaro, and other top drawer talent, you can rest assured that the beat will be happening even if the tune is "Mairzy Doats.") But these songs are also a cut above, displaying some of Fagen's deepest lyrics, along with the great chord changes and infectious grooves that distinguished his Steely Dan efforts.

Even Fagen's singing, which is not his strong suit, works wonderfully here, and when he overdubs his own voice on "Maxine," he charms me both with the vocal arrangement, and even more with a rare moment during which the he lets down his guard. Instead of the tough boy after school attitude, so characteristic of Steely Dan, he gives us a glimpse of sweet high school love, all the sweeter for its confusion of reality and dreamy hopes. This is one of the most endearing pop-fusion ballads, and pulls at the heartstrings because (for once) the listener knows more than the narrator of the song, knows that these early spring loves rarely survive the winter.

And then there is the peculiar, yet strangely affecting theme that pervades the project. For The Nightfly is a theme album, even if it is hard to articulate the thematic content with precision. Let's say that Fagen tried to combine a nostalgic look at the past with an optimistic look at the future. Or, to be more precise, Fagen fixates on the shallow concepts of the future that were the common currency in the 1950s and 1960s. How else could you justify a song about the "I.G.Y."? (I.G.Y. stands for the International Geophysical Year, which was 1957-58. And if you want to learn more about it, don't ask me; email a geophysicist or visit Wikipedia.) Who else would write a song about the New Frontier?

These songs are full of odd references to what naive youngsters in the Eisenhower-Kennedy years would expect from the future. Fagen sings about wearing spandex jackets, listening to Brubeck, and traveling undersea by rail. Everything is "graphite and glitter." And even when he tackles a darker topic, as when he hints at an island revolution on "The Goodbye Look," in a setting that just might be Havana, the mood is airy and light. This is more "Don't Worry, Be Happy" than the Godfather II.

I think that this strange angle on the 1950s and early 1960s is one of the reasons for this album's lasting appeal. After the Kennedy assassination, America lost its innocence. We became a cynical nation. My friend Ken Engelhart will even tell you that the violence in American motion pictures starting in the late 1960s comes mostly out of the sublminal impact of the Zapruder film. And he may be right. This is the ominous clock that Fagen tries to roll back, and this is his genius. While other works try to evoke the old days by focusing on sock hops and malt shop—think Happy Days or Grease -- Fagen understands that these were the most superficial aspects of the era. What we lost after the Zapruder moment was not our past. It was our future. The Nightfly recaptures that very element, in all its elusiveness. These are songs about the future we lost back in the past, and in that convoluted way resonate with tragedy behind their happy, optimistic facade.

An album as perfect as The Nightfly seemed to promise a great solo career for Fagen, and his fans eagerly waited for the follow-up recording. And they waited . . . . and waited. Finally Kamakiriad came out in 1993. Under different circumstances, this project might have made a bigger impact, but after eleven years, even a strong offering from Fagen was bound to seem anti-climactic. And the theme of Kamakiriad, which is still future oriented, but now in a more cartoonish sci-fi manner, didn't help. Even the MTV video for the release seemed to take delight in cheesy animation effects. But though the CD lacked have the resonance of The Nightfly, the songs were still well-crafted and impeccably played. Fagen fell short only because he had led us to expect so much.

With the release of Morph the Cat in 2006, Fagen completed what now proved to be a trilogy of solo CDs. Certainly Fagen knows how to put closure on a project. With its themes of old age and death, this final release moved a world away from the New Frontier attitudes of The Nightfly. This is a daring move for a pop musician, but Fagen has never been one to play it safe. And though the angle may jar some listeners, it is an honest one. Above all, the grooves are still happening. Tracks like "H Gang," "Security Joan" and "The Great Pagoda of Funn" show that fusion can still blow a fuse or two. These performances also make clear the stylistic unity linking Fagen's work from the early 1970s to the present day.

Rhino Records has released a boxed set, Donald Fagen; Nightfly Trilogy. It includes the three projects, as well as a disk of bonus materials. Those familiar with these songs, will enjoy the opportunity to revisit them, and hear some additional tracks (for example, a fine live version of "Green Flower Street"). Jazz lovers who don't know this music—or maybe even look down on it without having heard it—should use this as an opportunity to check out one of the best examples of that other side of fusion.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 17, 2008 · 26 comments


Searching for Cool New Music published it’s 1,600th review earlier today, With 400 reviews added to the site since the year started, seven weeks ago, is covering more music than any other jazz media outlet -- on the web or in print.’s reviews are divided fairly evenly between current releases and historical material, and always come with links for easy (and legal) downloading, as well as a place for readers' comments.

This week, also launched an enhanced site search engine to make it easier to find reviews and browse for interesting music.

(1) Site searches now come back with the highest ranking tracks at the top. So if you search for “Billie Holiday,” for example, you will get back links to the 30 Lady Day tracks reviewed on the site; but the 8 tracks that received 100 point rankings (the highest score available on’s proprietary rating scale) will show up at the top of the page.

(2) has also added a special search in the sidebar to the Music page, which allows searches through the track database by song title, CD name or musician. This is a useful complement to’s policy of reviewing just tracks, and not entire CDs. A fan can now search a CD name and find all of the track reviewed from that disk.

Try it out, and see what’s critics have to say about Mingus Ah Um, Kind of Blue or Charlie Parker’s Complete Dial & Savoy Sessions, or other classic albums.

(3) The site’s advanced search option also allows for specialized searches into the Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians, or the community directory, forums, Visual Jazz galleries and other sections of the site.

The goal is to create a fun environment for learning about new and interesting music. I imagine that many of the site visitors are like me – relying on personal recommendations from trusted friends when looking for new artists to check out. Of course, with all the new technology at our fingertips, the web has become the ideal place to do this, especially if you can create an interface that makes it easy for fans to explore and make comments, and marry that to a large database of reviews by top notch critics. These new enhancements to the site bring us one step closer to that ideal.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 14, 2008 · 0 comments


Jazz Vocals in the New Millennium

Music critics tend to move with ease from review to review, but it is often harder for them to get a grasp of the big picture. And the endless hype of labels and publicists, the constant noise from the media, the churning and burning of talent so characteristic of the music industry - well, these don't make the task any easier.

A few months ago, I decided to plunge into the world of jazz vocals and try to take its temperature. Of course, I hoped to assess individual artists, but even more I wanted to sense the direction of the art form itself. Quo vadis? so to speak. After a hundred years of Satchmo and Sinatra, Lady Day and Ella, O'Day and McRae, where do we stand? Where are we heading?

Over and above my regular listening regime - based on a lifelong habit of trying to hear some new music every day - I began tracking down additional jazz vocal CDs. Eventually I found myself surrounded by piles of them, probably a couple hundred or so, each one contributing to broaden my perspective of the state of jazz singing in the new millennium. I hunted down hard-to-find imports, indie releases and self-produced projects. I ran up an bill that sent shivers down my spine, pestered friends and acquaintances to tell me about the hot singers I might have missed, sometimes sent cold-call emails to vocalists themselves, asking them to share their music with me.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into. There were more singers out there than even I had suspected, a lot more. But if I was sometimes overwhelmed by the variety of what I heard, I also was delighted by the great music I encountered that I would otherwise have missed. Today I am publishing the first half of my report on the current state of jazz vocals. To complete the picture, I am also providing reviews of a representative playlist of more than 60 tracks - roughly five hours of music that will let other fans survey the scene without investing the months of ear action it took me to complete this project.

The opening of "The State of Jazz Vocals Today" is below. The full text can be found here.


How do we assess the current state of jazz singing? Of course, you can’t judge a CD by its cover, but . . . well, let’s just say that jazz vocalists have never looked better. Perusing the CD covers of releases by Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Roberta Gambarini, Madeleine Peyroux and others, I am overwhelmed by the sheer amount of pulchritude on display. Has Vogue magazine, perhaps, entered the jazz CD business?

             How to Sell Jazz CDs in the New Millennium

And the guys are providing as much eye candy as the ladies. Following in the footsteps of Harry Connick, newer faces such as Peter Cincotti, Matt Dusk and Michael Bublé seem to have stepped out of a Hollywood movie and into a recording studio. What a shame to keep such good looks hidden behind a grand piano. They should be on billboards, or selling their own brand of cologne, or (as they no doubt have at the top of their five year plans) stepping back inside that Hollywood film.

But these special effects do not come easily. The liner notes to Diana Krall’s 2006 release From This Moment On include credits to two hairdressers, two makeup artists and one wardrobe assistant – all of them given higher ranking than Steinway (for the piano) and Krall’s husband, Elvis Costello. Jane Monheit’s record label, not to be outdone, points out in her official bio, the “indisputable fact” that Monheit is a “stunning, raven-haired beauty” – and then goes on to mention, almost as an after-thought, her singing.

No wonder the record companies hate downloading. How do you pitch a “stunning, raven-haired beauty” in a MP3 file? How do you get a return on your hairdo investment on iTunes? Ah, how times have changed . . . how did Billie Holiday get by with just that gardenia? Where was Ella’s entourage? Bessie’s beautician? Sarah’s stylist?

And how do we deal with the plight of the aging female jazz singer in this environment? The jazz world has usually celebrated its elder statesmen (and statesladies). But things have changed. Diane Schuur was building a large Grammy collection back in the 1980s, but her 2006 Live in London finds her working for the GR2 Classics label. A check of the GR2 Classic web site – which is so well hidden even my well-honed Googling skills were almost stymied in my efforts to find it– indicated that Schuur is the only artist listed in their “classics” roster. The Amazon ranking for Live in London, the last time I checked, showed it sitting at number 133,997 on their charts – ouch! Schuur's new CD comes out in a few days, and let’s hope it finds a larger audience. Or consider the case of Sheila Jordan, one of the most talented jazz singers of recent decades, who recently ranked among the top five female jazz singers in the Down Beat critics’ poll. Yet her newest release sits at number 196,435 on the Amazon ranking. In comparison, Krall, Jones and several other younger jazz singers are firmly entrenched in the top 100.

Let us next consider Cassandra Wilson, who is now in her early 50s and continues to produce work of outstanding merit. Unlike many celebrated voices half her age, Wilson retains an experimental zeal and innovative spirit that keeps her music vital and pleasingly unpredictable. Wilson’s collaborations with Canadian guitarist Colin Linden on her 2006 Thunderbird release deserve to be much more widely heard. Wilson and Linden are an effective songwriting team – check out their composition “Poet” -- but they can also revamp traditional material, such as “Red River Valley” and “Easy Rider” into strange, new forms. Wilson has always been a great blues singer, and her “Easy Rider” is majestic and oceanic, a mini-miracle in twelve-bar form. It would be a shame if listeners missed out on this music because it didn’t come packaged like a product from L’Oreal.

Don’t get me wrong, I love displays of glamour on my CD rack, but I also admire the latest recordings of all-too-easily forgotten fifty-somethings like Dianne Reeves and Diane Schuur, sexagenarian Andy Bey, septuagenarians Abbey Lincoln, Mark Murphy, or that indefatigable octogenarian Tony Bennett. But even more to the point, I have suspicions. I am dismayed to think that record companies might be choosing artists on the basis of their looks. (In the words of Captain Renault, as the croupier hands him his winnings: “I'm shocked — shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”) This is worse than the Titanic, my friends. Not only are the aged and infirm left behind, but also less glamorous vocalists of the current generation, who are denied record contracts because they fail to live up to the A&R department’s pre-conceptions of what a star looks like.

For the rest of "The State of Jazz Vocals Today" click here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 13, 2008 · 1 comment


Herbie Hancock, Chris Anderson & the Chicago School of Modern Jazz Piano

The last time a jazz recording earned the Grammy for album of the year was 43 years ago. Can you guess the album? Yep, Getz / Gilberto , which beat out the Beatles back in 1964. But jazz got the nod again on Sunday evening, when Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters walked away with the top honors. No one looked more surprised than Hancock himself as he accepted the award.

                 Herbie Hancock, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

The choice was an inspired one, and much applauded on these pages. featured “Court and Spark” from this CD as Song of the Day on its very first day on the web (December 10, 2007), and followed it up by selecting the title track from River two weeks later. The former song stayed on the playlist until this week. (Two other recordings with high marks from also walked away with awards: Maria Schneider's "Cerulean Skies" was honored as best instrumental composition for a large jazz ensemble, and Michael Brecker's posthumous Pilgrimage won for best jazz instrumental album.)

It is sobering to remember that Hancock’s honor comes only a few days after the death of his mentor and teacher Chris Anderson, the unheralded Chicago pianist. And though we rightly celebrate Hancock’s award as a victory of sorts for jazz, Anderson’s under-the-radar career is far more typical of the state of jazz music today.

Few pianists of his generation had a more acute musical mind than Chris Anderson. You could savor his chords – big, thick, rich with overtones – the way a wine connoisseur enjoys a Napa cabarnet. They had a firm body, with a lingering aftertaste. And was it Anderson’s fault that most listeners didn’t have big enough ears to hear what he was doing? (Check out a review of Anderson’s “Where or When” here.)

I will coin a useful term here . . . the “Chicago school of modern jazz piano,” and I will anoint Anderson as its most representative figure. Of course, a more distant starting point might be Lennie Tristano (another Chicagoan) and his 1946 recording of “I Can’t Get Started.” The essence of this music is a judicious balance between the linear momentum of bebop and the vertical conception of Tatum and Hines. These Chicago keyboardists were two-handed players, with an ear for lush, resonant harmonies, and a knack for balancing the cerebral and emotional components in their music. When most players were emulating the spare left-hand work of Bud Powell, the Chicagoans had a more orchestral approach in mind.

In addition to Hancock, Anderson and the early Tristano, we need to include Chicago native Denny Zeitlin in this group. Zeitlin also stands out for his acute harmonic sense and complex voicings. Sometimes he digs up his own finger-busting variants – I've even seen him play two notes with a single finger, sliding his pink across two black notes, finding a way to strike six notes with a single hand. At Juilliard, this might count as breaking the rules, but in the jazz world it gets you a thicker sound than the other cats on the scene.

And we should also make room on our list for an artist even more unheralded than Anderson, the Chicagoan Billy Wallace, who makes a brief appearance in Max Roach’s 1957 band, then drops almost entirely from view. Do a quick search for Wallace on Google, and you will find that the adjective “obscure” invariably shows up in the same sentence whenever his name is mentioned. But, like Anderson, he was a big time player even if he left behind a small time discography. Wallace perfected a dramatic two-handed piano attack during an era in which virtually every other modern jazz keyboardist was playing single-note bebop lines.

So let’s enjoy Herbie Hancock’s award, and the luster it casts on the jazz world. But here at, we will dedicate this honor to the unheralded members of the “Chicago school of modern jazz piano,” who made more than a small contribution to the Grammy winner’s success.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Billie Holiday: Rare and Live

When I see the words "Rare Live Recordings" on the cover of a jazz CD, I generally run in the other direction. Of course, I like a rarity as much as the next obscurantist, and "live" is always preferable to "dead." But these terms are usually signs that some awful sounding tape (if not a more primitive recording medium) has been dug out of someone's garage or basement, where it has sat deteriorating for decades.

The jazz fan is regaled with more hisses than a villain at a TV wrestling bout, more scratches than a poison ivy sufferer, and more audio gaps than a Nixon Watergate tape. And behind all this, hides some mal-treated music, of lesser or greater proportions, suffering in all its splendor.

The first Charlie Parker LPs I purchased as a youngster were Bird at St. Nick's and Bird on 52nd Street, and it is amazing that I ever dipped into my allowance money for another live bebop recording after these unfortunate experiences. A warning label should have been placed on the covers of these offerings, announcing: The Surgeon General Warns: The Sound Quality Inside May Be Hazardous to Your Ears. Bird may very well have been playing on 52nd Street, but the recording device could not have been any closer than 53rd or 54th. True, Parker devotees may have been grateful for these "rare, live recordings," but I wonder how many potential fans have been turned off and turned away over the years because labels are not honest in marketing these sub-par products.

So if I frowned and snarled when I recently encountered a box set of five CDs featuring Billie Holiday (released on the ESP label as Rare Live Recordings 1934-1959), please forgive my ill humor. My admiration for Ms. Holiday knows no bounds, but I worried that this would be another case of poorly recorded, second-rate material foisted on an unsuspecting public. And with Lady Day, whose artistry is built on micro-tonal nuances, good audio fidelity is almost essential in appreciating her work. She deserved a Rudy Van Gelder, but instead (I feared) these would be tracks recorded with stone, paper and scissors.

I am so happy to report that I was wrong. (Now there is a true rarity, a music critic admitting to mistakes.) These Holiday tracks are not just acceptable, they are exceptional. And I am not just talking about sound quality (which is quite fine and mellow), but even more about the music itself.

Here is a small taste of the gems included in this set

(1) The First Esquire All-Star Concert from 1944, where Holiday is accompanied by Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Roy Eldridge, Jack Teagarden and a host of other jazz legends.

(2) The Second Esquire All-Star Concert from 1945, which finds Billie singing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (and receiving an award and warm praise from Jerome Kern(!), who would be dead before the end of the year).

(3) Holiday at age twenty-six singing to an enthusiastic audience, whooping and hollering, at Monroe's (the after hours house where bebop was born) in 1941.

(4) A 1937 recording from Harlem's famous Savoy Ballroom, capturing a 22 year-old Billie Holiday in an exultant mood while backed by the Count Basie band.

(5) Lady Day joining Stan Getz on stage at Storyville in 1951 in one of her most energetic performances of the decade.

(6) Holiday inspired by the historical setting of the Apollo Theater in several live performances.

(7) Billie sharing the state at Carnegie Hall with Count Basie in 1955.

(8) Lady Day on television on The Tonight Show and other broadcasts, including her remarkable 1957 performance of "Fine and Mellow" on CBS—often lauded at the finest jazz moment ever broadcast on national television.

You get the idea . . . These are not just small town gigs with forgotten pick-up bands. Rather these tracks represent nothing less than a series of remarkable milestones in the career of jazz's most celebrated female vocalist.

So don't run away from these "rare live recordings." Even if you are a casual jazz fan, and never plan to own more than a handful of Billie Holiday CDs, these set deserves a place on your shelf. And if you are a devotee, you have no excuses. If you don't already own this set, you will want to have it. is featuring Billie Holiday as part of a celebration of jazz singers during the month of February. No one knows Billie's life and music better than Stuart Nicholson, author of the biography Billie Holiday, and we are delighted to have him select twelve essential Lady Day tracks as part of our on-going feature The Dozens. Nicholson also contribute a biographical essay on the vocalist to's Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians. Later this month we will be publishing Nicholson's similar take on Ella Fitzgerald.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 11, 2008 · 2 comments


Remembering Earl May (1927-2008)'s arnold jay smith offers this tribute to bassist Earl May, who passed away last month. Smith covers the OctoJAZZarian beat for, and his recent interviews with elder statesmen of the jazz world Clark Terry and Dr. Billy Taylor are well worth checking out. Later this month, we will be publishing his piece on Chico Hamilton.

The OctoJAZZarian articles are usually inspiring accounts of artistic creativity still flourishing during an artist's golden years. But this beat also has its sad side, especially when an admired musician and gentleman like Mr. May passes on. Smith mixes his personal recollections below with comments from others whose lives were also touched by this artist. T.G.

Bassist Earl May, once part of a very elite band of jazz musicians, moved up in January. Earl was a left-handed bassist. Other southpaws have included Bobby Mackel, Lionel Hampton’s perennial guitarist, trombonist Slide Hampton, and a Billy Taylor Trio made up of drummer Charlie Smith and Earl May. But Earl's challenge was quite another matter: the bass was tuned right-handed. Seems that while his teachers encouraged him to play the bull fiddle they deemed it awkward and inconvenient to have one left-handed school bass.

The ever-smiling, always cheerful May was aboard an S.S. Rotterdam Jazz Cruise some 30+ years ago when first we met. He was with a Dizzy Gillespie group (1971-4) which at one time also featured Diz’s long-time pianist, music director and friend Mike Longo. “I met Earl at Le Bistro in Atlantic City in 1961,” Longo said. Mike was with Nancy Wilson who left to have a baby leaving Mike and trio as the house band. “Gloria Lynne [the succeeding headliner] was accompanied by the Earl May Trio. Midway through that gig she had a falling out with Earl and hired [the Longo trio].” Later the Longo/May duo played at the New York Playboy Club

There’s a CD due in the spring on Longo’s CAP label of Dizzy’s quintet which featured the May/Longo rhythm combo recorded at Ronnie Scott’s in London. Gillespie said in an interview during the London engagement that, due to the addition of guitarist Al Gafa and drummer Mickey Roker, this was the best band he ever had. “He was so inspired by them,” Longo remembered “that we were held over for another week. Dizzy played for the door for the first time in my memory and doubled our salary.” Norman Granz was so impressed that he recorded them the entire final week.

I guess it would be cliché to say that the list of those Earl did not play with would be shorter than those he did. But…

That Billy Taylor Trio – later Smith was replaced by Ed Thigpen - recorded and toured for a total of twelve years and was among Dr. Taylor’s favorites. Actually, Earl had replaced Charles Mingus. “Earl epitomized what a good friendship is about,” Taylor said. “He gave so much more than music.”

The first time Billy had met Earl was in the late 1940s. They both were playing with Lester Young at an insignificant dance at the hall where, later, Malcolm X was killed. Taylor recalls “Lester arrives just in time to start the gig. Otherwise wordless, he turns to me and says ‘Vonz’ and he starts to play. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Earl, who had played with Prez and knew what he wanted from past experience, jumped right in.” From Earl’s first two chords Billy picked it up. “Earl would never miss, laying down comfortable rhythms; everything in order.”

Dr. Taylor played – his own “In Loving Memory”-- and spoke during a joy filled memorial at St. Peter’s Church in NYC, hosted by WBGO’s Sheila Anderson. There we learned that Earl never gave up on anything from playing “backwards,” as it were, to personal relationships (4 wives, the last, Lee, for 22 years) and, most notably, to helping the people who needed it most. Dr. Frank Forte of the Englewood Hospital & Medical Center, whose pro-bono services to jazz musicians, via the Jazz Foundation of America, have grown exponentially, told us that Earl would perform there once a week for the patients accompanied by guitarist Roni Ben Hur. Dr. Forte suggested that Earl’s ebullient demeanor was as important as the music he played. It never appeared that it was just another gig but something more.

To look at Earl belied his chronological age –he was 80-- but looked as young as I remember when hanging with him on and off that swinging boat 30-odd years ago. Proof that good feelings can, indeed, turn inward.

This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith

February 10, 2008 · 2 comments


Weekend Track Review Roundup published it 1,500th review earlier this week, but we are not slowing down. We continues in our quixotic but noble pursuit of reviewing all the great - and even not-so-great – jazz tracks recorded since those ancient days before Preservation Hall required preservatives.

Here is a round-up of a few of the reviews published during the last two weeks. As always, we provide incisive assessments, and a ranking based on our proprietary 100 point scale. We also include, whenever possible, links for fast (and legal) downloading. And site visitors can offer their own advice or dissent in the 'comments' section at the bottom of every review.

Oscar Peterson & Dizzy Gillespie: Caravan
Stan Getz & Kenny Barron: Night and Day
Freddie Hubbard: Mirrors
Phineas Newborn Jr.: Lush Life
Ralph Towner: Nimbus
Dave Holland: Jugglers Parade
Art Pepper: Over the Rainbow
Count Basie: The King
Booker Ervin: A Lunar Tune
Paco De Lucia: Casa Bernardo
Blossom Dearie: Tea for Two
Mark Murphy: On Green Dolphin Street
J.J. Johnson: Carolyn in the Morning
Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Peace
Circle: Song for the Newborn
Geri Allen: Lush Life
Maynard Ferguson: Love Locked Out
Henry “Pucho” Brown: Georgia On My Mind
Jane Ira Bloom: Mental Weather
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: My Romance
Art Tatum: Willow Weep for Me (studio version 1949)
Steve Coleman: Easy Living
Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Modul 42
Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Modul 45
Mel Tormé: The Way You Look Tonight
Mark Elf: Tea Cup
Mahavishnu Orchestra: Open Country Joy
Ran Blake & Jaki Byard: Tea for Two
Stan Kenton: Bogota
Frank Kimbrough: Wig Wise

You can search through all 1,500 reviews in our large (and constantly growing) database by using the search engine in the left sidebar on our Music page. (A new and improved search engine will be added during the course of the weekend – I will have more to say on that soon.)

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 07, 2008 · 0 comments


Can Minimalism and Jazz Co-Exist? Nik Bärtsch Says Yes!

The golden age of minimalist music lasted a quarter of a century, by my measure. The premier of Terry Riley’s composition In C in 1964 signaled its starting point, a moment when the throbbing repetitive patterns of this music were like a jolting dose of digitalis to an arteriosclerotic classical music establishment benumbed by the terminal prognosis of serialism. The new style became central to the musical currents of the 1970s, and by the close of the decade, works such as Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach were exerting an impact that no contemporary classical compositions had achieved in a long time. The success of John Adams's Nixon in China in the late 1980s represented a late blossoming, a work that could still surprise us – something which minimalist music has been less and less capable of doing in more recent years.

The success of these works is perhaps best gauged by measuring their impact outside the inward-looking circles of academic classical music. During the 1960s, even intellectuals and the cultural savvy proletariat began to feel justified in ignoring the world of contemporary classical composition. In the first half decade after Riley’s In C, the Pulitzer Prize in music had gone to

Variations for Orchestra, by Leslie Bassett
Quartet No. 3, by Leon Kirchner
Echoes of Time and the River, by George Crumb
String Quartet No. 3, by Karel Husa
Time's Encomium, by Charles Wuorinen
Synchronisms No. 6, by Mario Davidovsky, and
Windows, by Jacob Druckman

Say what you will about these compositions but, love 'em or hate 'em, no one can pretend that people outside the academy paid much attention to them. In contrast, Philip Glass could strut like a rock star and, as leader of the Philip Glass Ensemble, play in the same venues that featured the hottest acts of the day. Everything from film music to punk rock felt his influence; heck, he was even mentioned on The Simpsons and lampooned on South Park. I almost expected to see Philip Glass as a half time act on the Super Bowl. Reich and Adams, for their part, were only a half-step behind Glass on the fame-o-meter, and also found themselves lauded by audiences who couldn’t tell George Crumb from R. Crumb if their lives depended on it.

But the jazz world never successfully assimilated minimalism. Oh, a few brave souls tried, but never with much impact. The rhythmic essence of a jazz performance is usually built on surprise and syncopation, while the rhythms of minimalist music are typically marked by predictability and on-the-beat phrasing. True, these two styles have sometimes intersected. Reich recorded his Music for Eighteen Musicians for the ECM label, and even brought in some musicians with jazz pedigrees. But no one would ever mistake this for a jazz performance. Similarly, Terry Riley can play jazz-oriented piano music (listen to his highly recommended Lisbon concert or his delightful experiment in untempered piano tuning on The Harp of New Albion); but it is worth noting that he moves away from his minimalist orientation when he does so.


Nik Bärtsch, who released his new CD Holon yesterday, is one of the few believers in the potential mixture of such opposed musical idioms. Bärtsch himself seems to acknowledge the paradoxical nature of this pursuit – for example, when he describes his music with the oxymoronic rubric “zen-funk.” A sense of an unobtainable truce between opposites also comes across when Bärtsch quotes Morton Feldman: “I always leave the concert hall when I start tapping my foot.”

The previous ECM release by Bärtsch’s ensemble Ronin, Stoa generated radically conflicting responses, sometimes within the course of a single review. One critic asked “what the hell is this?” and followed up with the pronouncement: “ECM has been pushing the envelope for nearly 40 years, but with Ronin, they’ve pushed it beyond the pale into God knows what.” Then the same writer annointed Ronin as the “band of the future,” and praised its “compelling, curious, maddening and provocative” music.

I find myself similarly torn in two directions by Bärtsch’s new project. And this whole strange trip validates my belief in the wisdom of reviewing tracks, not entire CDs. I have given one track from Holon a dismal grade of 79, while another performance from the same disk gets an “A” with a score of 90. Rarely do I encounter a CD with such variability from track to track.

Repeated rhythmic patterns can be boring or hypnotic, mechanical or funky. Bärtsch seems to want to find that meeting point where all of these attributes balance out in some dreamlike equilibrium. There are long stretches on his new release that fall far short of such aspirations, but at times (especially in the last half of the CD) he somehow proves that his seemingly irreconcilable goals can all be met. During those interludes, his music is zen-like and funky.

The most exciting composition on Holon is “Modul 45” where all the pieces fit together. Accordingly, it has been selected Song of the Day at You can find the full review of this track here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 06, 2008 · 2 comments


Will the Real Pat Metheny Please Stand Up?

Pat Metheny has not made it easy on casual jazz fans. Generally, the jazz consumer who picks up a CD by a familiar name – Oscar Peterson, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, the Modern Jazz Quartet, etc. – knows exactly what’s in store. The particular songs on the CD might be new, the sidemen might change a bit, but the style and musical values established by these artists did not budge. These first principles - solid and unyielding - literally defined those individuals as jazz musicians.

                        Pat Metheny,  artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Metheny, in contrast, has more in common with those restless visionaries of the 1960s, who refused to stay in one place for very long. The best-known cases are Miles Davis and John Coltrane. These iconoclasts followed a marked evolution in their work. They reinvented themselves every two or three years. Above all, they never let past successes prevent them from making radical changes in their approach. They would throw everything overboard, if it allowed them to get to the next destination on their journey.

But Metheny – whose new CD Day Trip was released last week - is an even more extreme case than either Coltrane or Miles. First, the range of his recordings is dauntingly wide. When you buy one of his recordings, you never know if you are getting Pat the avant-gardist of Song X, or Pat the world fusion maestro, or lovely Pat the odd-time-meter-man, or one of his other guises: straight-ahead jam session cat, ethereal ECM mood-setter, croosover smooth jazz star, etc. But even more striking: unlike Davis or Coltrane, Metheny follows no apparent progression in his career, no evolution from one stage to the next. He might go from a fusion-oriented project to experimental jazz, or the other way around. It’s all the same to Metheny. No big picture map guides his moves, which often appear to be digressions rather than (as with Coltrane or Miles) a journey.

In this regard, Metheny is the quintessential post-modern jazz player. Although many jazz critics still talk as though the music is defined by certain progressive trends that are moving it ahead in some type of linear fashion . . . the truth is that this stopped happening decades ago. The concept of avant garde is merely an ideology in the jazz world, not an accurate reflection of any meaningful nexus in the music itself. Indeed, many of the musicians most celebrated as being at the “forefront” of the music are the ones most slavishly in thrall to concepts that are thirty or forty years old. (I hope to elaborate on this in more detail in a future blog entry.)

The reality of post-modern jazz is that players pick and choose. Some pick and choose narrowly – the musical equivalent of a vegan diet (or, for that matter, my son who would prefer eat every meal at a fast food restaurant, if he could). While others jazz players are omnivores, who swallow and digest everything in their path. Metheny is one of the latter. And the full range of what he has digested in his career resists any easy summary.

The risk of such an approach, however, is that a jazz artists can lose any sense of identity. One’s style as an artist is as much dictated by what one leaves out, as by what one includes. The styles that are all-inclusive cease to be styles. They become anthologies, compendiums of jazz techniques. And though an anthology can be entertaining, it is not the same as a unified body of work built with a consistent vision.

A few artists have managed to maintain a very personal style, while making radical shifts in musical settings. The single best example is Charles Mingus – in fact, Mingus's rare ability to morph into something new, while holding on to his core personality, may be the main reason why this artist is such a hero to the post-modern generation of jazz players. Mingus could play bop or free or swing or cool or funk, and always sound like . . . Mingus.

But Mingus had an advantage that none of today’s players can match. He learned these styles at the very source. Mingus is the only musician I know of who could claim to have been employed as a working player in the bands of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. Those three names cover a lot of territory. So when Mingus played bop or trad or swing, he wasn’t adopting some pose, or playing some retro game. He lived these styles, he felt these idioms inside as an authentic expression of the people who had invented them. I believe that this unique background allowed Mingus to move fluidly from style to style yet never lose track of his own personal bearings.

And what about Pat Metheny? In all fairness to the guitarist, he does an credible job of balancing the widely divergent musical goals he is pursuing. He may not pull them all together at the level of a Charles Mingus. Nonetheless, I am impressed at his ability to cover a wide range of stylistic ground without losing his identity. Of course, he is helped in this regard by his rare talent, a very personal guitar sound and (above all) his tremendous knack for melodic improvisation.

But Metheny is the rare exception, and not necessarily a good role model for younger players. The very versatility of the new generation is perhaps its single biggest stumbling block. In the old days, jazz musicians crafted a style, and only the studio musicians needed to be able to play in every style. And though we have gone through a post-modern period in which such schizophrenic approaches to building a jazz career have been fashionable, I sense that time is rapidly passing. Playing everything from trad to rad will not always been seen as a virtue, mark my words. The best players of the next generation might be more like the vegans than the omnivores, achieving greatness through an exemplary selectivity in the paths they follow.

And then we might even get nostalgic for the peripatetic music of Mr. Pat Metheny.

A review of Pat Metheny’s “At Last You’re Here,” currently Song of the Day at, can be found here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Keith Jarrett Standards Trio Celebrates Its 25th Anniversary

Back in 1983, jazz fans had come to expect a lot from Keith Jarrett. But one thing they definitely did not expect is that he would form a band to focus on standards by Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and other tunesmiths from the golden years of the American popular song. And even less likely—once he created his "Standards" trio—who would imagine that it would stay together for a quarter of a century?

Keith Jarrett Standards Trio, photo by Sven Thielmann

Yes, it's true. The Standards Trio celebrated its 25th anniversary a few weeks ago. This means that Jarrett has been recording standards in a trio format for longer than Bill Evans did. Or, to toss out another random comparison, Jarrett has been leading this band for longer than Art Tatum's entire recording career. Not even the Modern Jazz Quartet, the benchmark for longevity in jazz, could keep together for 25 years without breaking up the band (although they would have more comebacks than Rocky Balboa). Such longevity deserves a celebration, and to honor the occasion, the ECM label has released a box set of three CDs of music from the Standard Trio's first sessions, held in January 1983.

I saw Jarrett perform in many settings during the decade leading up to the formation of the Standards Trio. I heard him with his "American" quartet, with his "European" quartet, and in various solo settings. His music was always surprising and different, but there was one constant—Keith played his own songs. On a series of recordings for Impulse and ECM, he made his mark not just as a pianist, but also as a prolific composer. He could write inspired extended quartet works such as The Survivors' Suite or "Death and the Flower"; or music for strings, as on Arbour Zena or The Celestial Hawk; or short, melody-rich song forms, as with "My Song" or "Memories of Tomorrow"; or other sui generis pieces ("The Journey Home," "Everything That Lives Laments," "Mysteries") that seemed to define their own genre, follow their own inner sense of form and content. And, of course, there were the solo works, usually (but not always) played on piano, some composed, others wholly improvised.

The sheer pace with which Jarrett released new "major" works during this period suggested that this was one artist who would never exhaust his internal sources of inspiration, and that his sense of his personal musical mission was inseparable from his quest to finish the next composition, to develop the next set of musical blueprints that came into his head.

Keith Jarrett Standards

Of course, I often wondered during this period what Jarrett might do working over conventional bebop changes or standards or even a twelve-bar blues. But that seemed unlikely to ever happen. You might as well ask a Cordon Bleu chef to cook you up a Philly cheesesteak with chili fries. Tasty, yes. Likely? No way! After all, Jarrett would hardly even play his own older compositions during these years, so anxious was he to move on to the next new thing. And when he had tackled standards early in his career—his role as sideman made this necessary—he ripped them apart at the seams with such vehemence that it was hard to believe he had much affection for this body of work.

Track down Jarrett's first commercial recording, Buttercorn Lady, made during his brief stint with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and hear what he does with "Secret Love." After listening to Jarrett's radical dissection, one can hardly believe that Doris Day ever sang this same tune. On "My Romance," from the same release, Jarrett is more respectful of the material, but still one immediately understands that this artist is trying to push the envelope, to move beyond the constraints of the mainstream jazz setting and conventional material. Both tracks are major statements by the young pianist, but not as celebrations of the American pop song tradition.

Yet Jarrett's return to the standards in the early 1980s was not an isolated event. His whole on-stage persona was undergoing a radical transformation. In August 1982 Jarrett showed up at the Cabrillo Festival in Aptos, California to perform . . . the Bartok Second Piano Concerto? Yes, it was true. Jarrett was not only playing other composers, but he was tackling some of the most difficult examples around. He followed up with a series of important recordings. His CD of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes & Fugues, opus 87 remains one of my most cherished disks, and his performances of works by Lou Harrison and Alan Hovhaness, are also among my personal favorites. But Jarrett also recorded Bach, Handel, Mozart— the full range of the keyboard tradition was now apparently at his fingertips. Jazz pianists had dabbled in this music before—George Shearing or Chick Corea might play Mozart on a lark, or Tatum might dish up some jazzed up version of a concert hall showpiece—but no jazz keyboardist had shown this degree of dedication or depth of understanding of this alien repertoire.

One would need to go outside the genre completely, perhaps to a classical pianist, such as Friedrich Gulda, an under-rated figure who had made the move from the concert hall to jazz, to come up with anything even close to what Jarrett was now accomplishing. And even Gulda, for all his impressive credentials, never accomplished half of what Jarrett was now doing routinely in various styles and settings. Who else? Do I hear you say André Previn? Previn is a fascinating case, but his jazz playing has often been tossed off, willy nilly, like he is slumming when he plays with bass and drums. And though I rank Previn as a top notch musical mind, and a solid conductor and composer, I don't put him Jarrett's class either as a classical or jazz pianist. In all frankness, Jarrett was inventing his own rules during this new stage of his career.

It is in this context that we need to understand Jarrett's return to popular standards in the early 1980s. Not that Jarrett didn't love the old songs, but even more significantly, he had reached a stage in his career where celebrating the music of other composers was now central to his personal vision quest. "Ever since my solo concerts I've been considered a sort of 'landed proprietor' of my own music," Jarrett explained in 1989, "a guy who goes on stage and finds something new every time, as if on command. Now I wanted to show them that music arises from music, from ideas, from material that doesn't belong to anyone."

Bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette—Jarrett's partners in this unlikely endeavor—were equally surprising participants in a return to the American popular song tradition. Despite the obvious financial and musical benefits of playing alongside Jarrett, Peacock needed to think it over a while before acquiescing. And both Peacock and especially DeJohnette are also skilled pianists in their own right. (Check out the little known The Jack DeJohnette Piano Album if you have any doubts about this.) So if anyone knew how hard it was to freshen up this old music, it was this particular trio of battle-hardened improvisers.

Yet what surprised me most about the Standards project was how little freshening up went into the project. Jarrett was exceptionally faithful to the original essence of these songs. Not too long ago, I heard a major jazz pianist play a number of standards, and before each one he mentioned how he had "re-harmonized" the song. It is almost a cardinal rule among jazz players that you need to make the old songs "up-to-date" in order to keep them appealing. But Jarrett showed stubborn insistence on following the original chord changes. And, to my ears, he even seemed intent on holding on to the meaning of the Tin Pan Alley lyrics to these songs. How unfashionable can you get?

When the Standards trio played "It Never Entered My Mind," the music stays emotionally true to Lorenz Hart's poetry, even though this is an instrumental version of the song. When Jarrett tackles "Never Let Me Go," I can't help hearing the melancholy lyrics as he plays the melody. This is ballad playing the way Lester Young defined it years ago, when he admonished players that they needed to know the words before they could do justice to the music.

I am surprised that other critics haven't talked in more detail about how traditional Jarrett's interpretations are on most of these performances. Take "All the Things You Are" from the first Standards LP. When Brad Mehldau records this composition, he spices it up with a 7/4 interpretation that is essentially a completely new composition. Years ago, I recorded a version of this same song, and changed virtually every chord in the form—as a result, many other musicians started asking me for my "secret changes" on this hoary old standard.

Heck, at Berklee they probably teach the students in the first week of classes that nobody except losers plays these songs straight. Well, maybe the geniuses can get away with it . . . . Certainly Jarrett and company are the odd men out in following harmonies here that are almost exactly the same as those Jerome Kern jotted down in 1939! And the same is true of their versions of "Love in Vain" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily," etc. Clever new arrangements play no role in the success of this celebrated group. But don't let this lead you to assume that Jarrett is not pushing this song to the limits. He doesn't need to to play "All the Things" in 13/8 or with a twelve tone row in mind (as pianist Alex von Schlippenbach has done) to create a musical masterpiece. Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette do it the old fashioned way: by listening to each other, and paying attention to the flow of the music.

What comes across in listening again to the these old trio records, after a quarter of a century has elapsed, is how much they are about listening, instead of just playing. I have the distinct impression that these three players did not worry about working out an arrangement beforehand, and that their foremost concern was with playing spontaneously and intensely in the moment, relating to each other and to the song, without tricks or artifice.

This sounds like a simple enough formula. After all, what could be easier than not planning the session beforehand. But only the rarest of bands could achieve such notable results in this manner. This is why clever arrangements are so often brought to the session. Just playing the changes, and raising them to a transcendent level through sheer creativity and inspiration . . . well, that is not something you can schedule on demand.

Except for that rarest of bands, as I mentioned. And the Standards Trio is one of those. Twenty five years after they came together, this trio not only can look back at how they played the standards. They can rightfully claim that they set some standards too.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 04, 2008 · 4 comments


It Happened a Long Way from Monterey

If you can’t get the whole country to come to the Monterey Jazz Festival, have the MJF go out to the whole country. With that philosophy in mind, the folks on the dream coast have launched a road edition of a festival all-star band, and sent them packing for a 54-city tour.

MJF tour

That’s right, 54 cities.

Maybe you’re not impressed. You’re telling me that Mike Huckabee visited 196 towns in Iowa on a single weekend – so why get so jazzed about 54 appearances by six musicians? But in the fragile world of jazz concert tours, this is a big deal. Today, when jazz acts announce a “nationwide” tour, they usually mean a quick visit to four or five concert halls on the coasts and a wave from their first class airline seats for the “flyover states.” In contrast, this little band with the long name – they are known as (pause for breath) The Monterey Jazz Festival Fiftieth Anniversary All-Stars -- are serious about bringing their music to the heartland, and their brutal itinerary harks back to the good old days, when the leading bands racked up more miles than a driver on the NASCAR circuit.

"You may be city number 18 on our tour,” singer Nnenna Freelon told the audience at Dallas’s McFarlin Auditorum on Friday, “but you are first in our hearts.” Is this just a line you tell all the fellas, Nnenna? But the event was certainly special for drummer Kendrick Scott, a Houston native, whose parents were in the audience, as was the esteemed Dr. Robert (Bob) Morgan, who had been Scott's teacher at Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. And even Freelon had a contingent of old friends from Texarkana who had journeyed to the concert. Stop number 18 can feel like homecoming if there are enough familiar faces around.

Not every musician is game for such a long and winding road-trip. But I am especially impressed that James Moody, now 82 years old, signed on for the tour. Moody first played the Monterey Jazz Festival some 47 years ago – which is before any of the other instrumentalists in this band were born. Of course, Moody doesn’t look his age, certainly doesn't act it, and his playing shows no signs of excess mileage. Perhaps he was right in crediting his younger bandmates – who also include trumpeter Terence Blanchard, pianist Benny Green and bassist Derrick Hodge – for keeping him feeling robust.

Moody is so skilled as an entertainer that it is easy to forget just how fine a saxophonist he is. He has a great harmonic mind and I have a hunch that he practiced like a demon for many, many years. As a result, his playing is full of those little twists, clever ways of working the changes, that probably most of the audience can’t even hear, but get the musicians nodding with assent. If he didn’t have such charismatic stage presence, Moody would risk becoming another one of those unsung tenor heroes born in the 1920s and 1930s – I am thinking of saxophonists such as George Coleman, Johnny Griffin, the late Warne Marsh – who sometimes seem to be playing to impress the other hornplayers rather than for the world at large.

But Moody knows that only a few people in the audience came to hear his smart licks, while they all expect to be entertained. On various occasions, I have heard him hold a crowd in the palm of his hand just with his rambling monologues and funny repartee. Perhaps he learned this from Dizzy during all their years of working together. Gillespie also understood that audiences didn’t give hoot whether you improvise with the higher intervals of chord, as long as they have a jolly good time. And if you manage to win the hearts of those who pay their hard-earned cash for the tickets, they will give you leeway to push the music as far as you want. At McFarlin, Moody followed this playbook; he intermixed jokes and gags and funny vocals (the old “Benny’s from Heaven” makeover of “Pennies from Heaven”) with some killin’ sax solos. He even entered into a vocal duet with Freelon on “Squeeze Me,” and though it fell short of their excellent recent recording of this same number, it still worked some magic with the audience.

Freelon is an intriguing vocalist, who constantly vacillates between phrasing like a jazz singer and like a soul singer. She does both well. Her intonation is outstanding, and it is clear that she can sing anything she hears, and she can hear almost anything. When she exchanged scat phrases with Moody, she sounded so much like Ella it was almost uncanny. In an introspective duet with bassist Hodge on “Skylark” – the highlight of the concert, in my opinion – she spiced her jazz lines with a double dose of Motown, and the result was quite charming. As an extra bonus, the extravagant hand gestures Freelon uses while she sings (or even listens to the other players) are better than anything you will see short of a Bharata Natyam dance performance. Yet her various techniques do not always cohere, and it may ultimately be the case that her very strength – her ability to imitate almost every idiom with ease – will prevent her from ever developing a more holistic and personal style.

Blanchard was also a strong presence on the bandstand. He has become so successful as a composer – Blanchard now has more than 40 film scores to his credit – that he doesn’t always rank as high on the Down Beat polls and other popularity contests as his talent might warrant. Blanchard’s big, brassy tone is a throwback to the Brownie-Navarro school, and he reminds us that playing hot doesn’t always mean playing sloppy - a lesson many younger trumpeters still need to learn. Even when playing forcefully, his lines are warm and rounded. It is no surprise that he writes so well for movies, since his ability to balance high energy and great control are always rarities in the jazz world, and make for narrative drama in a solo or a soundtrack. Two pieces from Blanchard's Grammy nominated A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina) served as centerpieces for the second half of the concert.

Pianist Benny Green acted as informal emcee and musical director for the All-Stars, and he often put his own playing in the background in order to cast attention on his bandmates. His attitude was unassuming, his piano under-miked, and he worked hard at the keyboard to create contrasts and shifts in texture that made everyone sound better. He stretched out at length on just one number, Clare Fischer’s lovely “Pensativa,” perhaps the finest bossa number ever penned by a non-Brazilian. Here Green reminded us that he is an excellent soloist in his own right, and able to shine amidst this all-star ensemble.

The success of the McFarlin Auditorium concert, presented by TITAS, suggests that the other tour stops will be worth checking out. The remaining concert dates for the Monterey Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary All-Stars can be found here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

February 03, 2008 · 1 comment