Brazil and Other Musical Wonders of the World

In Jean-Luc Godard’s film Les Carabiniers, two soldiers return home to their wives after years away – with a suitcase full of booty from their travels. Imagine the disappointment of the spouses when they discover that the much prized contents are . . . just picture postcards. Hundreds of them, depicting monuments, scenery, city streets, works of art, and the like.

What were they expecting, gold and diamonds? Get real! Nothing represents the triumph of successful traveling these days with more pride and permanence than the photos you bring back.

Except for me. I traveled extensively during the 1990s, visiting some 25 countries on five continents. But the most cherished acquisitions that I carried home were . . . compact disks. I tried to sample the local music wherever I went. Sometimes I only brought back experiences – being forced on-stage to perform Beatles music at a provincial wedding in Chung Li in Taiwan; finding an unbelievably patient bagpipe teacher in Scotland; sitting in with the legendary Peace Hotel band in Shanghai. These are now just memories, without even a photo to validate their occurrence. The more tangible booty from my trips came in digital format, CDs that I still enjoy these many years later.

I would prowl music stores in Jakarta or Caracas or Sydney or elsewhere, trying to find something that I couldn’t get back home. Sometimes I would uncover the musical equivalent of diamonds and gold, get an unexpected introduction to bambuco or dangdut or some other new aural twist on those same old twelve notes of the scale. Other times I would walk away with disappointing fare, little better than Muzak. But the surprises and unpredictability contributed to much of the fun and excitement of my CD gathering expeditions.

Of all these countries, Brazil had the rarest treasures. I made several trips to Rio, and was invariably struck by the depth and quality of the music. Back home, most people would have heard little more than the bossa nova classics. Indeed, only a few adventurous souls (mostly musicians and jazz fans) would even have discovered the work of Milton Nascimento or Ivan Lins or Elis Regina. But there was so much more to enjoy: instrumentalists Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti (two of the finest jazz musicians of recent decades), under-rated singers Martinho da Vila or Luiz Melodia or Leny Andrade, outstanding guitarists such as Nonato Luiz or Toquinho or Roberto Menescal, rock and pop acts Cássia Eller (the Brazilian equivalent of Janis Joplin) or Djavan, and of course the MPB stars Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Jorge Ben Jor and Chico Buarque. Then there were a host of talented artists of various styles, Marisa Monte, Carlinhos Brown, Gal Costa, Edu Lobo, Sivuca, . . . all the way back to old-timers such as Pixinguinha and Cartola. And these names only scratch the surface.

For many years, I have been expecting – perhaps hoping is a better word – that this music will somehow become better known in the United States. So you will understand that, when I heard that Karrin Allyson was releasing a CD of Brazilian music, I immediately began wondering which of the many over-looked Brazilian songwriters she would champion.



Imagine my disappointment when I saw that most of the songs on her CD were composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Don’t get me wrong. I admire Jobim, and consider him one of the half-dozen or so greatest songwriters of the 20th century. I was delighted when Rio named its international airport after the composer. His songs are textbook examples in how to construct smart chord progressions married to great melodies. But surely his music has been well picked over by singers for the last fifty years. And Karrin Allyson has been so daring in selecting material for her varied recording projects. The last thing one expected from her was bossa nova redux.

But to Allyson’s credit, she has not taken the familiar Jobim classics. There is no “Girl from Ipanema” or “Wave” or “Meditation” or “How Insensitive” or “Corcovado” on this CD. The only Jobim hit is her version of “Desafinado.” Instead we are treated with little known gems, such as “Correnteza” or “Estrada Branca” or the title track “Imagina.”

I am especially impressed by the ease with which Allyson moves back and forth from English to Portuguese, and it is even clear to these Yankee ears that she has taken great care with her enunciation and phrasing of the Brazilian idiom. I would be interested to hear what a Brazilian native would say about her singing, but I suspect she gets high marks for authenticity. Allyson’s fan have grown accustomed to her clear, heartfelt rendition of lyrics, with no wasted flourishes or empty gestures, and she delivers again on this release.

So I give Allyson high marks for Imagina. But I still haven’t forgotten all those great Brazilian songwriters who deserve more visibility outside their home country. Perhaps Karrin will give us a more adventurous Imagina II?


"Estrada Do Sol" from the Imagina CD is currently featured as Song of the Day at jazz.com. See also jazz.com’s recent interview with Karrin Allyson, conducted by Marissa Dodge.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

March 31, 2008 · 0 comments

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The Best Jazz Tracks for March

Five days each week, jazz.com selects a premier track from a recent release, and features it as Song of the Day. Our choice of a song, rather than an entire CD, reflects jazz.com’s focus on reviewing individual tracks rather than CDs – an approach we believe encourages closer listening to the music. And, in this day of iPod-ding and MP3-ing, an increasing number of listeners are choosing their music a song at a time. So we are there to guide them in their choices.

Below is a list of the songs honored as Song of the Day during March. As you will see, we cover the newest releases by the best known jazz stars, but we also listen to the many self-produced projects, as well as to releases from small indie labels. Finally, we try to cover the best of the jazz scene overseas, refusing to accept the U.S.-centric mindset that permeates many other media outlets. As a result, you will find more than few surprises if you follow our daily picks, and you will also be exposed to some first-rate jazz that you would almost certainly have missed otherwise.

As always, our reviews include full personnel, a frank and fresh assessment of the music, a link for (legal) downloading, and a rating based on jazz.com's home-grown scoring system.

For a complete list of all the Songs of the Day since the launch of the jazz.com site, click here.

David Finck: Four Flags
Bobby Watson: Purple Flowers
Dave Samuels (and the Caribbean Jazz Project): Soul Sauce
Lionel Loueke: Skylark
Grupo Janke Randalu: Confidance
Enrico Rava & Stefano Bollani: The Third Man
Jack Reilly: All the Things You Are
The Cannonball - Coltrane Project: Fast Trak
Dafnis Prieto: Take the Soul For a Walk
John Brown: Children of the Night
Charles Lloyd: Prometheus
North Mississippi Allstars: I'd Love to Be a Hippy
Marian McPartland: Lonely Woman
Vince Seneri: Prince's Groove
Eric Bibb: New Beale Street Blues
Felipe Salles: Seven Days
Pat Metheny: Is This America?
Hans Glawischnig (with Chick Corea): Oceanography
Géraldine Laurent: I Fall in Love Too Easily
Raya Yarbrough: Early Autumn
Otis Taylor: Absinthe
Cuong Vu: Accelerated Thoughts

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

March 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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New Feature: Desert Island Dozens

One of the most popular features at jazz.com has been The Dozens. The idea is simple, a jazz critic picks twelve great tracks built around a theme. For example, twelve essential Pat Metheny performances or classic Blue Note grooves or the jazzy side of Frank Zappa. These come with full reviews, personnel and a score based on our proprietary ranking system. (Okay, it’s just a scale from one to a hundred, but we think it is better than those lousy five stars.)

The best jazz stuff on the web this week

But the obvious question is . . . Why not ask the musicians what they think?

Yes, this is a bit dangerous. Let the musicians give their opinions on jazz and who knows where it will stop? Soon folks might even stop asking jazz critics for advice. Now that would be a disaster.

But jazz.com has made the plunge, and we are debuting our new feature, Desert Island Dozens. The premise is simple: ask the players themselves which twelve tracks they would take to Gilligan’s Island, listening music to go along with those fine brownies Mary Ann bakes. In short, it's the ultimate iPod playlist for your stint on Lost.

For the debut installment of Desert Island Dozens, drummer Peter Erskine sat down with jazz.com’s Eric Novod and offered up his choicest choices. You can read the full account here.

In the coming weeks, other noteworthy jazz artists will be contributing their favorite twelve tracks. And we also have other interesting Dozens concepts in the works. So stay tuned for further details.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

March 27, 2008 · 1 comment

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To Scat or Not To Scat . . .


Andrea Mann recently contributed a popular blog post in this column on her efforts to raise the coolness quotient of a hotel lounge act in Malaysia. Now this singer / writer / blogger enters into the on-going discussions at jazz.com over the current state of jazz vocals.

Site visitors are also advised to check out Mann's blog on her Malyasian experience, the always interesting Lost In Transposition. And for more on jazz vocals, refer to Thierry Quénum's European perspective on the subject, and my essay on jazz singing in the new millennium.



To scat, or not to scat?

...That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous chord progressions, or to take arms against a sea of difficult intervals, and by opening your mouth, pull them off?

Sorry, got a bit distracted there. Where was I?

Ah, yes: to scat, or not to scat. Well, normally I fall down on the side of not to scat.

As a jazz vocalist, it feels like something of a dirty - and yet entirely open, of course - secret, to refuse to scat sing. Tell people that you're a jazz singer and (in the UK, at least) they'll often respond with a Cleo Laine-esque 'skadoolia bop' (or however the hell you'd spell it) straight back at you. I, of course, laugh politely along with them, at this image of jazz singers. Before gently pointing out: "Actually, I don't do that."

Because I don't scat sing. I don't want to scat sing. And I resent the idea that to be a jazz vocalist, you need to scat sing.



             

Now, don't get me wrong. I can completely understand the point of learning to scat sing, in terms of truly understanding the form and musical make-up of the song. And I won't deny that the true greats - Ella and Sarah spring to mind of course, but also current singers like Anita Wardell and Kurt Elling - were/are brilliant scatters (is that a noun?) and their vocal and musical feats can blow you away.

But I can absolutely pinpoint the reason why I don't do it.

It's because, as a listener, scat singing just doesn't move me.

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It can impress me, certainly. But it doesn't make me feel anything. It never has done, even back in the day when I was a mere listener, as opposed to singer, of jazz. So why would I, as a singer, do something which I, as a listener, don't particularly like?

You can see it in many young singers out there on the circuit right now. Their jazz courses may have taught them to scat the hell out of any tune - or, erm, sometimes not - but it seems to be at the expense of the song; or more specifically: the feeling and the meaning behind the song. The scat solo becomes a distraction, a show-offy (is that an adjective?) interlude which detracts from the message and feeling being expressed in the song. It becomes something that's expected of singers, rather than an instinctive response to the music, and as such can also be utterly devoid of personality.

I once took part in a singers' workshop led by the wonderful Norma Winstone, and she told us that Kind Of Blue was a life-changing album for her; because, listening to it, she felt as if she wanted to be 'in there' with the musicians, in the music. And as a singer, I must say that this is exactly how I feel, too. I don't want to sit on 'top' of the music and perform a solo like another instrument - for me, the singing of the words and the playing with the melody and phrasing is the singer's 'solo' - I want to be 'in' it.

As a result, I find myself not scatting, but, well, 'noodling' (is that a verb?); often during the introduction or the ending of a song, or even along with another instrument, gently, as it solos. My 'noodling' often takes the form of singing long notes, but at other times, it may be short or long phrases more akin to a conventional scat. But unlike a very separate, stand-alone moment, it feels like an absolutely instinctive addition to the music I'm making with a band - what I would play if I had, say, a saxophone in my mouth (and hands) - and can happen at any point, whenever it feels right or appropriate. As opposed to feeling like a part which I must play (in both senses of playing a part) because I'm 'a jazz singer.'

The British singer Liane Carroll is a good example of a singer who 'noodles': sounds spill out of her mouth, around her lyric-singing and piano-playing, as if it's the most natural and instinctive thing in the world. Now that moves me. Just as the wonderful Kurt Elling makes me tear up during his rendition of Keith Jarrett's 'Leaving Again'; and Anita Wardell moves me most of all when she's delivering a ballad, utterly simply and yet full of emotion. To me, this way of singing is worth a thousand 'skadoolia bop' notes. Or however the hell you spell them.

This blog entry contributed by Andrea Mann. To follow Andrea’s day-to-day experiences as a jazz singer in Malaysia, visit her blog Lost In Transposition.



March 26, 2008 · 1 comment

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Jazz Singing Today: A View from Europe (Part Two)

Below is the second part of Thierry Quénum commentary on the current state of jazz singing. For part one, click here. Quénum covers the jazz scene from his home base in Paris, and is a frequent contributor to these pages.

Jazz.com will be publishing additional commentaries on jazz singing in the coming weeks. To read the article that set this dialogue in motion, click here for "The State of Jazz Vocals Today".T.G.




How about male vocalists now? The new bestselling ones are all white – Jamie Cullum, Peter Cincotti and Michael Bublé, among others – and stand somewhere between jazz and pop. Older ones like Harry Connick Jr., rely on a similar breadth of repertoire, show their connections to the traditions of Sinatra, “King” Cole and Tormé. Others like Kurt Elling are more authentically jazz, but he recently changed labels, and his repertoire and way of singing have become closer to pop.

Black American singers have apparently a harder time getting famous or staying at the top, at least seen from Europe. Or is it that young African-American vocalists seem to want to sing anything but jazz? Do age and looks have the same impact with the male vocalists, as it does with the female? Obviously yes, if we observe the record covers: smiling young men dressed in fashionable attire, with a couple of more casual photos (loose clothes, uncombed hair) in the CD booklet, which sometimes mention the name of their hairdresser and the brand of the clothes they wear.

Jamie Cullum’s post-teenager look is an exception, and corresponds to the type of audience he attracts. As far as men are concerned, this is a rather new phenomenon. The still active older singers like Andy Bey, Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks or Tony Bennett never needed that type of grooming to establish their reputations. Unlike the female vocalists of their generation, they don’t try to look younger, and appear as the veterans they actually are.

Is it fair to accuse the few fashionable and successful male vocalists of the younger generation of diluting the essence of jazz singing? Few of them – the notable exception being Elling, who’s not that young anymore – scat or emphasize improvisation; and, just like the ladies, they build their image more through their looks than their voices. They also make few deep references to the tradition of vocal jazz and are appreciated by listeners who also have very little knowledge of this tradition.

In the meantime, continental European jazz singers don’t get the exposure of a Cincotti or Bublé, but you can’t blame the absence of media interest on any lack of talent. Belgian singer David Linx plays in festivals, clubs and concert halls all over the continent, but his audience is basically limited to the jazz aficionados. The same goes for Hungarian singer Gabor Winand. Both are considered as highly talented musicians by the specialist critics, but for mass media, radio and TV, only American male voices exist in the jazz idiom.

The exception in Europe is British-born Jamie Cullum. He has a great knowledge of jazz, both as a singer and as a pianist. He often pays homage to Mel Tormé in his arrangements of standards, and sometimes revives these vintage songs with provocative renderings. In doing so, he brings a popular audience – and even teenagers – back to songs like, “I Get a Kick Out of You.” This is great, and may even entice his fans to check out his sources. But his rock-star-like onstage behavior and the publicity around it are an important element in his success, while great British singers like Claire Martin and Ian Shaw – who helped, inspired and encouraged Cullum in his early years, but have a less flashy demeanor – don’t really benefit by their protégé’s fame.

Paradoxically this lane on the side, left for singers who will never make it on the big market, can become a road to creative freedom for those who renounce the rat race and keep polishing their own art. David Linx or Susanne Abbuehl are examples of that. The situation has been more difficult for French jazz singer Thierry Péala. He paid his dues singing standards in bars in Paris and London, before becoming a professional, earning a living both as a teacher and a performer. Over a period of five years he has recorded twice. The first time he played the repertoire of Kenny Wheeler, with original words, and Wheeler himself as a guest. The second time he was alone with only a piano and a tenor sax. Not the most popular choices if you want to get better known. But both records received critical acclaim, though neither will sell much. For the most part, word of mouth fills the places where Péala plays.

Yet how many artists recording on big labels have the freedom to develop and expose such a personal poetic universe? Isn’t it good, for the music at large, that this type of vision of jazz singing also finds a way to exist? Instead the marketing of jazz singers today, of both sexes, increasingly consists of creating stars who have similar stylistic characteristics. These tactics work in industrial production at large, while jazz singing has always been more of a handicraft, and should remain so.

Elisabeth Kontomanou, one of Europe’s major female jazz vocalists, told me that she once was asked to be part of the jury of a jazz singing exam in a conservatory in Sweden, where she lives. One of the contestants was technically adept, but rather shallow. When asked about her influences she quoted some recent fashionable names, but admitted that she had never listened to Ella Fitzgerald. The next day Kontomanou offered the young singer a rare Ella LP from her personal record collection. How can you study jazz singing if you know nothing about one of the greatest stylists of the genre? Why would you want to? Meanwhile this young “jazz” singer had all of the records by the fashionable (pseudo) jazz singers of the last 5 years. How can jazz singing evolve with wannabe singers without roots or culture?

The voice is everybody’s natural instrument. Does this mean that you can become a singer without absorbing knowledge and refining your art? And how can you do that without checking out the heritage of your art form or following what's currently being done by all the great stylists who are still active and have a right to live in the margins of the momentary mainstream?

It’s the duty of the press, of the web sites, of the small labels, of the local clubs… to help these artists who preserve the diversity of this art called vocal jazz. The art will thrive only if many talents bring their various approaches to it.

Most birds sing, for sure, but they don’t have to be birds of a feather.

This blog entry posted by Thierry Quénum. For part one of this article, click here.



March 25, 2008 · 1 comment

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Jazz Singing Today: A View from Europe (Part One)

My recent two-part essay on "The State of Jazz Vocals Today" received more comments, pro and con, than any other article published to date on the jazz.com site. We have several related pieces planned for the coming weeks which feature rebuttals or different perspectives on this subject.

Below is the first part of Thierry Quénum commentary on jazz singing. Quénum covers the jazz scene from his home base in Paris, and is a frequent contributor to these pages. Here he offers a distinctively European perspective on the vocal tradition and its current manifestations. For part two of this article, click here. T.G.




I’d like to add a European perspective to the essay Ted Gioia wrote on vocal jazz a couple of weeks ago, putting the emphasis on its European aspects and how jazz singers – whether American or European – are often viewed on the Old Continent.

The first thing to be taken into account is that European listeners – except in the UK – usually don’t understand the words to the US standards. This helps explain why there were so few European jazz singers before the sixties. Before that time, the words of the standards were translated and sung by pop singers or entertainers, but in the jazz world these songs were mostly played by instrumentalists.

Interestingly enough, in France, “Autumn Leaves” – originally “Les Feuilles Mortes” – was and still is interpreted as a jazz tune with its English title by jazz musicians, and sung with its French title and words as a chanson by French pop singers. Except for a few exceptions like Cleo Laine in the UK or Rita Reys in the Netherlands, proper jazz singing started out in Europe in the post-Free period of the early seventies, when swinging, phrasing and singing words in whatever language meant less than before. The role models for new singers, such as Tiziana Ghiglioni in Italy, Urszula Dudziak in Poland, Tamia in Switzerland, or Annick Nozati in France were Jeanne Lee or Abbey Lincoln (as she appears in We Insist. Freedom Now Suite) rather than the vocal jazz tradition. In fact, some so-called jazz singers among this generation had very little connection with the older heritage, with its emphasis on popular standards.

The jazz vocal tradition began to be taken into greater account among European jazz singers when a generation of potential vocalists, who had studied English in high school and college and had loved international pop music sung in English, started to turn towards jazz for a more sophisticated approach to singing. The rise of jazz schools on the Old Continent obviously emphasized this tendency. This may explain why Scandinavia – more proficient than other European countries as far as speaking English and as far as jazz teaching jazz is concerned – has produced so many jazz singers over the last decade, from post free Sidsel Endresen to popish Alexandra Tolstoy, and why it was home to one of Europe’s first leading exponents of vocal jazz: Norwegian singer Karin Krog.

But Europe’s very short experience in traditional jazz singing more or less prevents the emergence of a large number of rooted vocalists, who could compete and emulate in singing standards and blues and achieve a really personal approach of phrasing and diction. The tradition of Ella and Billie, Sassy and Carmen, Dinah and Dianne still remains somewhat exotic on the soil of continental Europe. And the large European audience – for lack of understanding of the words – can’t be very responsive to the sophistication of the singer’s vocal art . . . in English, anyway. That’s why, now that the great historical figures of vocal jazz are only accessible trough records and videos, the marketed image has become so important in promoting the new generation of singers, at least in Europe.

Let’s start with the ladies. Female vocal jazz’s big boom in Europe started more or less 10 years ago with the rise of Diana Krall, then Lisa Ekdahl and others, and reached a climax with Norah Jones, as far as sales and fame are concerned. These singers have tended to over-shadow the leading African-American singers on the scene, such as Dianne Reeves, Nnenna Freelon or Cassandra Wilson.

I have nothing against Norah Jones, nor against her success. I have something against her records being found in the jazz section of records shops, and against her being called a jazz singer, because she is not. And if she is, then Carole King is too, and Joni Mitchell, etc. If you distort the reality of a minority music like jazz (around 2% of the record market) and if you allow listeners – and above all young or new listeners – to mistake it for something else, then what of its identity? Meat and fish both contain a high proportion of protein. But who’d say that meat is fish or vice versa?

The only reason I can see for calling non-jazz singers jazz singers or for calling young beginning jazz singers “jazz divas” is that female vocal jazz sell much better than the average 2%. It stands out as a profitable market and is treated more as such than as art. The audience is therefore asked to respond to marketing rather than to aesthetic stimuli, and one of the strongest marketing stimulus is the codified image. Hence the necessary youth, the angelic faces, the sophisticated look… whereas Carmen McRae or Blossom Dearie, besides their vocal qualities, might rely on wit or humor rather than high couture and make-up to promote their art.

The result is a global loss of diversity for vocal jazz, and a global loss of role models for potential jazz singers. A few vocalists with basically similar qualities compete to sell their records to the same huge audience that’s looking for a type of emotion that’s controlled by marketing. Those who propose other type of emotions and stylistic approaches stay in the margins.

A good example is Dianne Reeves. She is not young, she’s been performing for several decades, and she is widely acknowledged as the present day heiress of the long Ella/Sassy/Carmen/Betty lineage of top notch jazz singers. True, she has never sold as much as Diana Krall or Norah Jones. In spite of that, now that she starred in George Clooney’s movie Good Night & Good Luck, her audience has increased considerably and her new listeners get to discover the full dimension of her real self, unchanged and unsweetened . . . and they seem to like it. Reeves doesn’t indulge for them in the type of vintage vocal jazz that she played in Clooney’s film. She did that onscreen because it was relevant to the period concerned, and because she also likes it. These new listeners then have to go all the way from the largely exposed vintage image that made them discover Reeves in the movie to the genuine art that she’s been practicing and refining ever since she became a professional.

Black versus white should not be the issue here, of course. But since marketing is so focused on image and appearance, it inevitably becomes a factor. How could it be otherwise? This matter cuts both ways. Specifically in Europe, and particularly in France, a reverse phenomenon can be observed, but it touches more mature female singers, and still has to do with image and marketing. Dee Dee Bridgewater has built a very successful career, and has sustained - and even increased - her visibility with the passing years. Being African-American is no doubt part of her aura and her marketability. Of course, the more you come play on the continent, the better it is. If you live there and speak the local language with a lovely exotic accent, it’s even better. Because of these non-musical aspects, and regardless of her universally recognized talent, Dee Dee Bridgewater became the jazz singer who is invited on popular TV shows, who sang when the Pope came to Paris, etc. But Bridgewater’s pre-eminence didn’t prevent Diana Krall, Madeleine Peyroux or Lisa Ekdahl to score high as far as records sales and concerts are concerned.

How have other older female jazz vocalists responded to this new generation of glamorous singers? Look at the recent record covers of elder lady singers, especially when they are on major labels: they often look like their own daughters after Photoshop has done its job on their pictures. Abbey Lincoln and Helen Merrill, among others, are good examples of that. So, if seasoned voices, that should be best advertised by their fame, their body of work, and years of word of mouth are considered by the marketing department at their labels as needing that much trimming of their image, what about the up-and-coming young lady singer? Of course, image is even more important with the younger singer; it sells her voice, and not the other way around.

When Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy and others fronted a band, more than half a century ago, it was primarily their great voices that made them into stars. The big band singers often had to compete or alternate with other male or female singers on the stand, and the best vocalist would often steal the show. But all this has changed. Nowadays, in vocal jazz, vocal quality is not the main focus (and sometimes neither is jazz). Why?

First the culture of the audience has changed: the jazz standards are not the popular songs that everybody whistles and remembers the words. So, who can judge the quality of a specific rendering by comparing it with another version in terms of emotional delivery or originality of phrasing?

Also, the status of the voice itself has declined. From the invention of the transistor radio to the launching of the mp3 player, singing for oneself or for others has dramatically decreased, in spite of persisting local traditions in various rural parts of the world, and in spite of the karaoke fad in various locales. If members of the audience never sing, it becomes harder for them to appreciate a vocalist – certainly they can’t measure it by their own vocal abilities. Of course, they can refer to recordings or radio, but everything there has been so enhanced by studio technology, that this no longer provides a useful basis of comparison. As a result, jazz singing is evaluated by much of the audience on appearance, rather than by the inherent standards of this demanding art form.

Last but not least, the timbre of the voice is a fragile and personal emanation from the soul, but also from the body, a bit like your gait. And it so happens that the place and function of the body have changed in modern societies. People live and work less and less outdoors. They work more and more with the tips of their fingers on a computer keyboard, and less and less with their whole body in the fields, or over a truck engine, singing, swearing, hollering as they work… How many gaits can you identify as sailors’, farmers’, construction workers’… in the streets of modern cities? On the radio, how many present day voices can conjure up the strong personality and life experiences we hear in the singing of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Anita O’Day? How many listeners today would appreciate (or even put up with) that degree of personality and individuality in a singer?

Because of all this, average listeners in western society today have to make some effort to go towards the vocal jazz tradition, except when it’s validated by vintage fame. In a technically homogenized world, where playback, editing and lip-synching reign, jazz is one of the last musical styles to maintain an element of chance, to preserve the unpredictability of improvisation. Just the opposite of pop singing! Just the opposite of life in our computer-controlled age!

Italian movie director Federico Fellini’s phrase about cinema applies perfectly to art in general, hence to jazz, hence to jazz singing. He said that the difference between cinema and TV is that in the former the screen is bigger than you. Jazz – with its 100 some years of age – is bigger than all of us. And vocal jazz, with its refined approach to the voice, is bigger than our voices. And it’s exhilarating – unless you don’t like to have something larger than you to look up to and admire.

END OF PART ONE: This blog posting was written by Thierry Quénum. For part two of this article, click here.

March 24, 2008 · 3 comments

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Bob Blumenthal's Jazz

Bob Blumenthal, whose interview with Wayne Shorter is currently featured on our home page, has been celebrating jazz music in print, to the delight of fans, since 1969. Reading his criticism was part of my own education as a jazz writer, and I know that I am joined by many in admiring the depth and breadth of his work.

Only ten writers have been awarded the Jazz Journalists Association's Lifetime Achievement Award, and Bob is on that elite list. (For the curious, here are the other honorees: Whitney Balliett, Stanley Dance, Francis Davis, Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, Ira Gitler, Gary Giddins, Gene Lees and Howard Mandel. Nice company to keep!) True, there are other awards for authors, but this honor is distinguished by being chosen by the jazz critics themselves. Needless to say, these are a prickly, difficult-to-please bunch of folks - especially when it comes to jazz writing - and their approval is a good measure of how a critic is viewed by those who know the field best.

(Of course, a vote by the musicians to select the best jazz critics would be even more interesting. But no brave journalist has yet stepped forward to conduct that poll.)

Even jazz fans who don’t read criticism (how dare they?) have had their tastes shaped by Bob, through his frequently encountered liner notes, which stand out for their intelligence and judicious assessments of the music. Perhaps the one complaint we can make, is that so little of Blumenthal’s criticism has appeared in book form. This will continue to be our lament, but Bob has at least rectified this in some degree with the publication of his book Jazz: An Introduction to the History and the Legends Behind America’s Music (Smithsonian).

Bob manages to cover the history of jazz in less than two hundred pages. And does so stylishly and without missing any of the changes. Can you really tell the story of jazz in such a compact form? This is like one of those magic tricks, making the Statue of Liberty disappear or an elephant come out of the trunk of a VW bug, that I wouldn’t believe if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. The book is also well illustrated and designed, with a number of sidebar features, and I could envision it working well with a classroom of students coming to grips with the jazz art form for the first time. I especially like his coverage of last two decades, always the hardest part of any history, where a writer needs to make the hard decisions about which aspects of the current scene will stand the test of time.

I won’t try to summarize what Blumenthal has to say. His writing is succinct enough, that you should check it out for yourself. Meanwhile, you can read his interview with Wayne Shorter here. And if you didn’t see his conversation with Eddie Palmieri and Brian Lynch, published on these pages a few weeks ago, you can find it here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia



March 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weekend Track Review Roundup

Jazz.com has published 157 reviews during the last three weeks – offering our site visitors the widest coverage of jazz music available anywhere, in print or on the web. Whether your idea of a “jazz marriage made in heaven” is Bob Dorough & Dave Frishberg or Marty Ehrlich & Muhal Richard Abrams, the jazz.com team of more than thirty reviewers has it covered.

We now have almost 2,000 track reviews in our large (and constantly growing) database. You can search for specific tracks, artists or CDs by using the new and improved search engine in the left sidebar on our Music page.

Unlike other jazz media outlets, jazz.com reviews individual tracks, not entire CDs. This allows reviewers (and readers, who are invited to publish their own addendums to each and every review) to hash out the pros and cons of a wide range of songs, with a degree of specificity hardly possible in a more general CD review. Reviews also come with full personnel and recording info, as well as a link for fast (and legal) downloading.

We remain committed to our quixotic but noble quest to review all of the great (and not-so-great) tracks recorded since the first red light went up in Storyville. Keep an eye on this space for further developments. Meanwhile, you will find links below to a few of the reviews published during the last two weeks. As always, every review includes a ranking based on jazz.com’s proprietary 100 point scale.

Coleman Hawkins: The Man I Love
Woody Shaw: All the Things You Are
Dianne Reeves: Lullaby of Broadway
Ornette Coleman & Joachim Kühn: Faxing
Kenny Barron & Regina Carter: Fragile
Danny Gottlieb: Aquamarine
Lizz Wright: Hey Mann
Frank Trumbauer: I Never Miss the Sunshine
Keith Jarrett & Gary Burton: Como en Vietnam
Charlie Parker: I Get a Kick Out of You
Donald Byrd: Mustang
Benny Goodman & Charlie Christian: Benny’s Bugle
Muhal Richard Abrams & Marty Ehrlich: Blues to You
Bob Dorough & Dave Frishberg: Where You At?
Mike Stern: DC
Michael Franks: The Lady Wants to Know
Count Basie: Blee Blop Blues
Vinnie Colaiuta: John’s Blues
Dixie Dregs: Cruise Control
Mark Elf: Liftoff
Jeff Beck: Blue Wind
Pharoah Sanders: Japan
Bob Mintzer: Mine is Yours
Michel Camilo & Tomatito: Spain
Marc Ducret & Bobby Previte: Handy
Bob Dorough & Dave Frishberg: Where You At?
Ted Heath: Father Knickerbocker
Al Di Meola: Egyptian Danza
Steve Kuhn: Oceans in the Sky
Béla Fleck: The Sinister Minister
Toots Thielemans: Waltz for Debby
Miles Davis (with Charlie Parker): Round Midnight
Tito Rodriguez: Perdido
Gary Husband: Celestial Terrestrial Commuters
Stu Goldberg & Cassius Khan: Ragamala
Martial Solal & Johnny Griffin: You Stepped Out of a Dream
Rita Marcotulli: Les 400 Coups
Eric Vloeimans: Chorizo
Bill Evans: Let the Juice Loose
Oliver Nelson: Hoe Down
Jim Beard: Diana

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia



March 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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The Legacy of Don Ellis

Eugene Marlow’s interview with Bobby Sanabria, published this week in jazz.com digs deeply into many of the key issues impacting the current state of jazz. If you haven’t read it yet, you should take the time to hear this articulate spokesman for the art form offer his diagnosis of what ails the today's music scene.

I want focus here on a passing comment made by Sanabria, referring not to a current matter but to one of the unfairly neglected masters of the past – the great Don Ellis. Frankly, I rarely hear musicians or critics talk about this artist, who died in 1978 at the age of forty-four. In fact, his profile is so low today, I had no qualms about including Ellis in a recent Dozens column devoted to “Twelve Trumpeters You Need to Know on a First Time Basis.”

Here is what Sanabria had to say.

We are kind of, in a sense, going backwards. For example, a person who was progressively minded and had a futuristic conception of composition and performance was a person like Don Ellis, performing in the sixties and seventies. There is nobody like that today. . . . Imagine a whole big band with the trumpet section, saxophone section, the trombones all electrified with wa-wa pedals. The whole string section had wa-wa pedals and different electronic devices. He invented a four-valve trumpet so he and his trumpet section could play quartertones. Amazing. And forget about the stuff he did without meters. The time period right now in jazz is not conducive to free thinkers like that because it so, so conservative. We have got to break down those walls of conservatism.

So much of what Ellis did in the 1960s pre-figures later developments in jazz. His efforts in mixing mainstream and avant garde traditions anticipate the essence of the post-modern paradigm. His early advocacy of World Music -- Ellis did graduate work in ethnomusicology at UCLA and was publishing scholarly work on Indian music back in the mid-1960s -- was decades ahead of its time. He was playing for rock audience before Miles even had a glimmer of Bitches Brew (Ellis was an opening act for the Grateful Dead at Fillmore West back in 1966). Of course, there is his well known work with odd time meters. Finally, let's not forget what a great soloist Ellis was.

Yet here is another artist who you won't find in the Down Beat Hall of Fame, and is unlikely to get in during my lifetime. What gives?

Those with long memories, however, may remember when Ellis's Electric Bath LP was album of the year in Down Beat. In honor of Mr. Ellis, jazz.com is featuring his 1967 track “Indian Lady” from this exceptional album as our classic jazz performance of the day.

Check out the rest of the Bobby Sanabria interview here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia



March 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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A Jazz Festival That Doesn't Book Stars?


Jazz.com's Stuart Nicholson travels far and wide in search of the best new music on the jazz scene. He recently sent us a fascinating update from Norway (see "Jazz Meets Thrash Rock in Oslo"), and now provides this intriguing report on a Dublin jazz festival where even the headliners are unknown acts.

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Yes, I know we just survived St. Patrick's Day. Even so, it's worthwhile dwelling again on the pluck of the Irish, who have contrived this event. Of course, no one is better than Nicholson at tracing the cross-cultural currents now shaping the current jazz scene. By the way, did you hear the one about the Norwegian tenor saxophonist playing with an Irish pianist, an Italian bassist and a Finnish drummer? No, it's not a joke, it's the latest entry in the jazz.com blog. T.G.



Ever heard of vocalist Kadri Voorand from Estonia, pianist Urs Bollhalder from Switzerland or drummer Olavi Louhivuori’s Oddarrang from Finland? Chances are you’re no wiser than the large audience that turned out for Dublin’s 12 Points! festival. But that is, er, the point of 12 Points! By turning the standard procedure for promoting a jazz festival on its head – that you first book a couple of headliners, and then fill-out of the program in descending order of name-awareness until at the end you slip-in one or two unknown young talents deserving of wider recognition – 12 Points! sets out its store with a roster that comprises entirely unknown talent.

Now in its second year, the festival is a showcase for young European jazz musicians who have gained recognition in their own countries, but have no profile beyond their national borders. “The received wisdom is that every festival needs headliners, known quantities that provide a collective comfort zone, where shared expectation can be met,” observes Gerry Godley, the festival director. “12 Points! removes this zone and everyone – performers, organisers, audience and journalists – are more or less in the same boat. This definitely creates a tension that adds to the excitement of the event.”

It’s an audacious concept that has gone down well with young Dublin audiences who are excited by the challenge of confronting new musical ideas. “The enthusiastic way they've embraced the festival's proposition, which asks for an open mind and a trusting disposition, has been wonderful,” says Godley. I asked Sean Fitzpatrick and Siobhan O’Kelly, students at nearby Trinity College, one of the seven ancient universities in the English speaking world, how they felt about parting with their hard earned Euros for a series of concerts by artists they had never heard of. “Well, it might sound like a typically Irish idea,” they laughed, “But actually all the music is very good, but naturally you like some bands more than others. We came last year and really got a lot out of it, same this year.”

The festival’s bold music policy has enabled 12 Points! to carve out a niche for itself as a major showcase for exciting young talent. Although theoretically “a union” of European states, it remains a fact that each nation’s jazz scene (and much else) remains splendidly autonomous from each another, so that jazz musicians in Finland have no idea what jazz musicians in Italy are doing, while Italian jazz musicians have very little idea of what is happening in Norway. Equally, French musicians haven’t a clue about what’s going down in Estonia, a situation that is repeated throughout the European Union’s community of twenty-seven member states.

It’s a situation 12 Points seeks to rectify. Although Ireland may be Europe’s most westerly nation, the festival has placed Dublin at the crossroads of European jazz. In just two years it has become the place to check the pulse of emerging young talent. With three one hour concerts a night spread over four successive nights, this year’s line-up included bands from Ireland, Lithuania, Austria, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Norway, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Italy. And when the concerts wound-up at midnight, the scene shifted to an informal jam session at traditional Irish corner pub called Thomas Reads.’

Here musicians jammed on swinging standards such as “Caravan” or “Round Midnight.” On one memorable night it was fascinating to hear a Norwegian tenor saxophonist playing with an Irish pianist, an Italian bassist and a Finnish drummer. National identities were swallowed to allow the jazz session to function successfully. Yet within their own bands, these same musicians sought to create original music that was both part of a universal language of jazz and a singular expression of individual identity, often drawing on elements from their own national culture.

Identity is important in Europe. With so many countries crammed into a relatively small continental space, difference matters. More so in a globalizing world that raises fears about the loss of cultural anchors. So it is only natural that cultural differences be preserved in jazz. Oddarrang from Helsinki, for example, produced music of beguiling beauty and melancholy that looked over its shoulder to their national musical hero, Sibelius. Virtuoso pianist Matther Bourne’s surreal humour could only come from the country that gave the world Monty Python while Sean Carpio’s drumming with the Dublin based band Togetherness seemed to owe as much to the great jazz drumming legends of the past as the Celtic masters of the Bodhrán.

And given it’s possible that the very first string quartets came from Austria and Germany in the 1600’s, it is perhaps inevitable that the inheritors of this great tradition should see no incongruity in adapting its conventions to jazz. The Radio String Quartet from Vienna have brought the string quartet into the 21st century with an exploratory approach that embraces the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

In fact, the more you probed beneath the surface of the music at 12 Points! the more it seemed to be shaped, at least in part, by the particular national, cultural, folkloric or classical traditions that have surrounded these musicians since birth. Being born and raised in Oslo, for example, is a completely different experience to being born in London, Paris or Rome. It has helped shape their musical personalities and they use it to assert their identity and their place within the global jazz community.

March 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Lost in Transposition

It’s hard to make great jazz even under the most favorable circumstances. But what do you do if you're a singer who has taken a overseas gig with a hotel lounge band in Malaysia, accepting that your mission in life is now to make this un-cool ensemble into something happenin’?

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That’s the challenge Andrea Mann faces every evening as she steps on stage, and she recounts her triumphs and foibles in one of the best blogs on the web, the ever fascinating Lost In Transposition. Mann has now agreed to share her first person story with jazz.com. Read on!   T.G.




Can a British jazz vocalist turn a Malaysian hotel lounge act into a credible jazz trio in two months? Clue: probably not. Read on…

“Ledeezengennelmen, plizwelcome… mizandramaaaaan!”

Cue faint ripple of applause.

And so I walk on stage for another performance at the G Spot (yes, that’s its real name) – the jazz club in Penang, Malaysia where I’ve been booked to sing six nights a week, for two months. Like some sort of Celine Dion-esque Vegas residency, only without the dancers. Or the hydraulic platforms. Or the hydraulic dancers on platforms.

It wasn’t until after I arrived at the end of January, and had my first rehearsal with the band – three local, 50-something Muslim men – that I realised quite what my assignment was out here.

I wasn’t brought out here just to sing. Oh, no. It appears that I was also brought out here to bring jazz to The Malaysian Masses – or at least, the ones living in Penang – and that includes its musicians.

I’m coming to the final two weeks of my residency now, and along the way there have been tears, inner tantrums (not outer ones – I’m British, remember) and many, many duff notes. There have also been accolades, delightful moments, and the successful climbing of a steep learning curve. By both me, and three 50-something Muslim men.

You can follow my journey here – but to save you the trouble of working through the daily posts categorised The Actual Music Stuff, I’ll list the top five the lessons I’ve learned:

1. Michael Bublé is very, very popular in Malaysia

This may seem a relatively unimportant lesson to be number one, but in fact, not a day has gone past that I haven’t heard this young man’s name mentioned and/or had one of his songs requested of me and/or heard him singing over the speakers of a department store. People here know ‘Sway’ as ‘a Michael Bublé song’ (not even ‘a Dean Martin song’ or heaven forbid ‘a Ruiz/Gimbel song’). He may be a lovely fella, but through no fault of his own – well, except perhaps his records - Mr. Bublé has become my jazz nemesis.

2. Malaysians don’t really ‘get jazz’

A phrase which has been said to me a number of times. Jazz in Malaysia – like many places in the West, in fact – is loved by a passionate, underground few. Or to put it another way: Malaysians like their pop. There’s live music a-plenty on the small island of Penang – but it takes the form of a pop covers band playing in a bar, or a cocktail pianist playing Every Song Known To Man in a hotel lobby. By going on stage every night and performing jazz, in a jazz club, I feel not unlike the hero of Footloose. Only with slightly fewer moves.

3. Malaysians have a tradition of making song requests

…and of having them fulfilled, as per the recording they know. Over the course of each night, I’ve been handed between one and twenty song request cards by the waiters in the bar, passing them on to me from members of the audience. This has a) helped me to quickly learn which standards are well-known and loved over here; and b) helped me to quickly educate the audience about what jazz is/isn’t. Mainly by saying over the microphone: “I’m very sorry, but I can’t do ‘Memory’/’My Heart Will Go On/Vincent’, because I’m not a pop singer”. My favourite song request so far has been “Diana Ross”. Just that: “Diana Ross”. I said: “Erm… could you be more specific? Or do you just want a giant Diana Ross medley?” (And then sang ‘Killing Me Softly’ with an invisible gun to my head.)

4. They think that ‘sitting in’ is ‘karaoke’

The bar manager took me to one side on one of my first nights, after I’d allowed a local, elderly jazz singer to do one number, and a local tenor sax player to join us for the final set. It turns out that in Malaysia there isn’t really the concept of ‘sitting in’ (probably because there isn’t really the concept of ‘jazz’). What there is, however, is the concept of karaoke – which is hugely popular over here and almost as popular as Michael Bublé, in fact. So the manager had confused what I’d done with allowing any old hotel guest to take to the stage. Apparently it’s very hard to wrestle the microphone away from a Malaysian once they’ve got it, and some clubs even have a ‘No Guest Singers’ sign next to the bandstand to prevent such an event from occurring.

5. It’s quite difficult to turn a piano player into a jazz piano player when he’s never heard of Sarah Vaughan

Quickly, at least. All of the above points about Malaysian music tastes and knowledge go for the trio I’m working with, too. They know ‘Sway’ as ‘a Michael Bublé song’, and ‘Route 66’ as ‘a Nat King Cole song’, and have learned their arrangements accordingly. It goes without saying that the bassist plays the electric, rather than double, bass; and that the pianist is heavily influenced by those two greats: Richard Clayderman, and the Mantovani Strings.

And yet, and yet… Yet despite all of the above, through blood, sweat and rehearsals, I have created something resembling a jazz quartet - and my three musicians have been surprisingly gracious in accepting the directions of someone who’s a) foreign, b) female and c) younger than them. And d) slightly bossy (I’m British, remember).

They may play pop songs and use all manner of naff keyboard sounds during their instrumental set. But as soon as I’m up there on stage with them, they now take solos (gasp!), trade fours (double gasp!), do slightly more interesting arrangements (voice and bass start, anyone?), play and improvise on jazz standards and songs which two months ago they’d never heard of. And what’s more, they now know who wrote these tunes –not just who recorded them in the past five years.

And all of the above may be very beginner-like. But beginners’ jazz is better than no jazz; and as long I’ve helped to bring this music – and this approach to performing it - to a new audience of both musicians and non-musicians, then, well, I guess I’ve achieved something.

Even without the Footloose moves.

This blog entry contributed by Andrea Mann. To follow Andrea’s day-to-day experiences as a jazz singer in Malaysia, visit her blog Lost In Transposition.

March 17, 2008 · 5 comments

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Charles Lloyd at Seventy

Saxophonist Charles Lloyd releases a new CD this month on ECM in conjunction with his 70th birthday, which he celebrated over the weekend. Jazz.com invited Matt Leskovic, who recently gave a talk on Lloyd's music at the Rutgers Jazz Research Roundtable, to commemorate the occasion. Matt shares his thoughts below, and also contributes a review of a stellar track, "Prometheus," from the new CD, which is entitled Rabo de Nube.   T.G.




Charles Lloyd has been called many things—mystical, mesmerizing, a shaman, and even a “tremendous dispenser of ecstasies.” Anyone who has seen him in concert knows that these lofty praises are not at all unjustified.

I first saw Lloyd perform in Cleveland at the Tri-C jazz festival during the summer of 2005. As a friend and I drove three hours to see him, my heart beat quickly with anticipation, my leg bounced uncontrollably, and my mind wandered to a place that seemed familiar yet somewhere I had never been—only transported to through his records and an active imagination.

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As soon as he walked on stage—his tall, lanky figure slowly emerging from the wings—he bowed humbly and opened his arms to the crowd, inviting us as we invited him with our applause. Lloyd, slightly hunched, played with the same amount of vigor and passion as he did forty years ago. His legs kicked, his body swayed and twisted, and his saxophone reached for the sky while spewing forth endless lines of lyrical transcendence. After every solo, having bared so much of his soul to the gracious audience (and to his own personal Creator), he would settle into his chair in the nook of the piano, shut his eyes, and let his band develop his story to even greater heights.

As the music swelled and soared, the audience was encompassed by something deeper than pure sound. It was emotionally cathartic, breathing an energy that I had never felt before, and trying to put it in words would only belittle its power and intensity. The room reverberated with Lloyd’s “love vibrations”—the same vibrations he laid out for the counterculture in the late 1960s. Almost fifty years into his legendary career, Lloyd’s journey remains saturated with the tenderness he sought as a young boy growing in segregated Memphis, Tennessee, and his goal is still to infuse the world with a love and warmth that the we all too often ignore, neglect, or simply forget.

It was mesmerizing, it was mystical, and the audience was held spellbound. That performance inspired one of the most exciting post-concert car ride conversations I’ve ever experienced—we talked music, philosophy, physics, literature, the politics of love, war, and peace, childhood and cartoons and just about everything else under the sky. But unlike the waning moon that night, the inspiration has yet to fade and still illuminates me to this day.

It was these same qualities that drew the counterculture to Lloyd’s late 1960s quartet, which featured a young Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette and played psychedelic venues like the Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. Lloyd was backed by swirling light shows and shared stages with the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, and his new audience—uninitiated to avant-garde jazz—related to his message as they did to their more familiar psych-rock icons. His music celebrated diversity, incorporating his blues roots (Lloyd gigged with Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland and others while still a teenager in Memphis), alongside a Coltrane/Coleman avant-gardism and Eastern-tinged modality, all graced with an accessible warmth and presented with a pop-sensibility. His music was uncompromising—he wasn’t patronizing or tricking this audience into thinking his group was something that it was not. The hippies were attracted to his music because it was truthful and passionate, spoken boldly and meaningfully and not confined by norms they so desperately sought to shed.

As he turned seventy years young this weekend, Charles Lloyd celebrated his birthday with the release of a new album for ECM, Rabo de Nube. The album—sincere, moving, and stimulating—is colored by the rainbows of the late 1960s, touched by the time-tested hand of the blues, and sprinkled by an exotic pinch of the Far East. Rabo de Nube continues many long-established traditions in Lloyd’s career and catalog. After releasing seven live records in the 1960s with his classic group, this is only the fourth he has released since, making it much anticipated and appreciated. Recorded in Switzerland in 2007, the new album brings Lloyd back to Europe, where in June 1966 he established himself as arguably the brightest star on the jazz horizon with a breakthrough performance at the Antibes Jazz Festival.

Lloyd’s music has always attracted sidemen of huge stature and has fostered groups that operate on an extrasensory level. Crowned with the title as musical director of drummer Chico Hamilton’s group in late 1961, Lloyd disbanded the leader’s outdated chamber unit and brought in, among others, guitarist Gabor Szabo to traverse a more progressive jazz landscape. Lloyd considered Szabo to be his ultimate frontline partner and the two developed an empathy in their collective improvisations that will forever be hard to match.

And then came Jarrett and DeJohnette. Is there anything left to be said about their on-stage telepathy? I think not.

Rabo de Nube is no different. Eric Harland, one of the most communicative and gifted drummers the jazz world has seen in a long time, is back again in the chair he has held for the past four years. Bassist Reuben Rogers shows his diversity as well, swinging hard and improvising adventurously both with and without bow. Pianist Jason Moran, having recently replaced Geri Allen, is the newest member of the group yet fits in impeccably. He thrives in the quartet and the quartet with him.

Lloyd’s new group is the latest extension and development of the leader’s concept that he first solidified with Chico back in 1962. As his career nears its sixth decade, Lloyd proves to be a musician of unending drive and enthusiasm who seemingly never tires or reaches contentment. His playing on both saxophone and flute are cleaner, more elegant and filled with more surprises than ever before. Listeners’ ears, minds and hearts continue to be graced by Lloyd’s music and its plentiful fill of wonder, joy, ecstasy, and tenderness. Happy birthday, Master Lloyd. Here’s to another seventy years!

This blog entry posted by Matt Leskovic

March 15, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bebop Spoken Here

Paying homage to Bird is a year-round activity among jazz players. But yesterday marked the anniversary of Charlie Parker’s death, on March 12, 1955, at the age of thirty-four. We couldn’t let the occasion pass without taking a look back at the musical legacy of this larger-than-life artist.

Marc Myers has obliged us with his selection of twelve neglected gems in Parker’s discography. (If you missed it, also check out Myer’s survey of the top ten Bird tribute albums, published on his JazzWax blog.) This retrospective provides a fitting companion piece to Mark Lomanno’s article on one dozen essential Dizzy Gillespie tracks, published earlier this week on jazz.com. Both of these pieces are part of our on-going series known as The Dozens.



This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia



March 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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The King of Electric Blues?

Earlier this month, I offered some speculations on which of the younger generation of guitarists might deserve to be crowned as the new king of acoustic blues. Yet what about the plugged in world of electric blues?

While "total gods of the guitar" - try saying that in your best Jack Black voice - such as B.B. King and Eric Clapton, still walk the earth, none of the new kids on the block will eclipse their artistry. But when checking out the youngsters of electric blues, I find myself coming back again and again to the fun and exciting recordings of the North Mississippi All-Stars. This always interesting band has a new CD out, Hernando, and we are featuring a track from this release, "I'd Love To Be a Hippy" as Song of the Day. If you aren't familiar with blues heritage of the North Mississippi hill country, or with this high energy ensemble, now is a good occasion to make their acquaintance.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia



March 13, 2008 · 1 comment

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Marian McPartland Plays Ornette Coleman (and Everything Else!)

A few days ago, 86-year-old Humphrey Lyttelton announced that he will be ending his BBC show The Best of Jazz after forty years. On the same day the news services carried this story, Marian McPartland - who like Lyttelton was born in Berkshire county in the United Kingdom (their birthplaces are only a few miles apart) - released a new CD to celebrate her 90th birthday, which will take place next week. Not to be topped by Mr. Lyttelton, McPartland has been broadcasting on the radio for forty-four years, and continues as host of the popular NPR Piano Jazz program, which she developed back in 1978.

McPartland has spent so many years touting the work of others—which she does week after week with unassuming grace on Piano Jazz - that it is easy to lose track of her own considerable achievements. Her new CD will join a stack of sixty or so releases McPartland has recorded for the Concord label during the last quarter century. But before that McPartland was an entrepreneur, founding her own Halcyon label at a time when few jazz musicians dared to get into the production and distribution side of the music business. And don't forget what a fine jazz critic McPartland was, back when she wrote regularly for Down Beat and other periodicals. (Many of these pieces were collected in a little known book, All in Good Time, which is well worth reading.) Yet her greatest accomplishment may have been her ability to break the gender line in jazz, making her name as a pianist at a time when women were only accepted as "girl singers" in most jazz bands.

Back in 1951, critic Leonard Feather marveled at McPartland's successes despite "three hopeless strikes against her": namely that "She is English, white and a woman." Yet McPartland's achievements in 1951 pale in comparison with what she has done since. When she started her Piano Jazz, McPartland was sixty years old, and it must have seemed to many as a pleasant way to wind down a career. Little did we known that Marian was actually ramping up, that this would eventully become the longest running cultural program on National Public Radio. She now has a stack of awards as a broadcaster, including a place in the National Radio Hall of Fame, to go along with her honors as a performer. Pretty good for a second career, huh?



One can get vertigo looking at the full span of where McPartland has been and what she has accomplished. Earlier this week, jazz.com celebrated the 105th birthday of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. Recall that Marian's husband Jimmy McPartland—to whom she dedicates her latest CD—replaced Bix in the Wolverine Orchestra back in 1924! And though she can play a mean "In a Mist," she has never been one to linger in the past.

To show us that she is still pushing ahead, McPartland records an Ornette Coleman song, "Lonely Woman," on her new CD, and even takes an outside-the-changes solo on the track.

What an inspiration this woman has been, and continues to be! Well, Marian, it's your 90th birthday, and you have good reason to make the most of it. But we're the ones who should be celebrating.




Jazz.com selects Marian McPartland's recording of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" as Song of the Day. For the full review, click here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia



March 12, 2008 · 2 comments

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Everybody Jams for Dizzy!

The jazz world revolved around Dizzy Gillespie for more than a half century. When he told us to bop, we all bopped. And if he said to rebop, we rebopped. When he wore berets, berets suddenly became cool civilian attire. When he embraced Latin music, Afro-Cuban emerged as a widely accepted jazz style. Dizzy marched to the beat of a different drummer, and the rest of us? We marched to Dizzy’s beat.

This trumpeter was welcomed everywhere, from 52nd Street to Sesame Street. He jammed with the President at the White House, and even ran for the office in 1964. The chronically un-hip dared call him a joke candidate, but Gillespie was offering a bunch of ideas – from desegregation to funding programs with lotteries – that all the politicians later adopted. Ah, this was no surprise to jazz fans, who had learned twenty years earlier that Dizzy was always ahead of the times.

Forget the Oval Office. No one country was big enough for this global thinker. Gillespie had been one of the first jazz musicians to tour for the State Department, visiting the Middle East in 1956, and before long they were calling him the “Ambassador of Jazz.” Some years later, Dizzy founded the United Nations Orchestra and after that was probably scheming about the inter-galactic jam sessions of the future.




I remember Dizzy walking in the door at an otherwise forgettable public jam session, back in the 1984. I was playing piano in the rhythm section, when Gillespie sat down to listen. Everything suddenly shifted into high gear. Someone got the bright idea of playing “A Night in Tunisia” for the fellow who wrote it, and every horn player within a hundred mile radius must have found out, because they all showed up during the course of this one song.

How did they know Dizzy was there? This was in the days before text messaging and email, otherwise I would have suspected that the head of the musician’s union had broadcast the news to his whole buddy list. Clearly the word was out. Sax players and trumpeters I had never seen before were bullying their way on to the stage, everyone taking the most outlandish, grandstanding solo they could muster, before being pushed aside by the next combatant.

Dizzy hung out for a while, with a growing entourage swarming in his midst. Then he wandered off to his next engagement. Whoosh!  All the cats packed up their horns and disappeared. Our jam session dwindled back down to its hearty crew of regulars. The crowd thinned out, and the applause after each solo was now as quiet as the fluttering of a moth's wings. But I got a glimpse that day of what it was like to be John Birks Gillespie.

I learned that, if you’re Dizzy, you don't need to go to the party. The party always comes to you.




Today jazz.com publishes Mark Lomanno’s Dizzy Dozens, which highlights twelve classic Gillespie tracks. You can find the article here. For other installments of jazz.com’s Dozens, click here.


This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia



March 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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A Teetotaler's Toast for Tram!

We can’t let our tribute to Bix Beiderbecke pass without giving a passing nod to his closest musical associate, saxophonist Frank Trumbauer.

Tram (as he was sometimes called) never captured the public’s imagination the way Bix did. But musicians took notice. His early recordings, such as ”San” and ”I Never Miss the Sunshine,” helped define the saxophone vocabulary and were widely imitated in the 1920s. Trumbauer could count many musicians with more fame than he enjoyed (including Benny Carter, Buddy Tate and Lester Young) among his admirers.

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To his credit, Trumbauer contributed the key elements that Young used to forge his own path-breaking style. “Trumbauer was my idol," Lester explained years later to Nat Hentoff. "When I had just started to play, I bought all his records. I imagine I can still play all those solos off the record. He played the C-melody saxophone. I tried to get the sound of a C-melody on the tenor. That's why I don't sound like other people. Trumbauer always told a little story."

Not everyone shared Young's enthusiasm for the unconventional horn - even Tram admirer Richard Sudhalter has claimed that the C-melody saxophone producers a bovine "moo, achieving neither the muscularity of the tenor nor the unique singing quality of the alto." Yet, in Trumbauer's hands, this unpopular sax, was (paradoxically) both muscular and singing.

Given this linkage to Young, one could make the claim that Trumbauer had more impact on later music (although not necessarily on jazz) than even the legendary Bix. How's that? My friend and former bandmate John O’Neill once made a convincing case to me that Lester Young exerted more influence on commercial music than any other saxophonist – because Young’s “cool jazz” sound was more malleable, more melodic, and thus able to influence popular styles in a way that Hawkins, Coltrane, and other hotter players could not. In later decades, everything from bossa nova to pop ballads, soundtracks to background music, borrowed from this cool aesthetic. Lester’s sound offered just the right mix of jazziness and melodic intent to make this possible. As such, Prez and his "school" were better role models for those who were outside of the jazz idiom, but wanted to draw on its power. Lester found this balance between hot and sweet in the early 1920s, primarily through the recordings of Frank Trumbauer.

From this perspective, a recording such as Trumbauer’s ”I Never Miss the Sunshine” is vitally important to the history of American music, even though Bix Beiderbecke doesn’t appear on it. Tram’s first session with Bix was still more than a year away at the time. But even on this early outing, Trumbauer shows that jazz phrasing could be relaxed and swinging, bluesy and beguiling. This performance was recorded exactly ten weeks after King Oliver and Louis Armstrong undertook their first session, and it is sobering to think that the cool style was already coming to light such a short time after those great pioneers of the hot were discovered by the music industry.

During the 1920s. Trumbauer was almost as famous for his slick sax technique as for his cool stylings. His diary presents a telling entry, inspired by teenager Tram’s landing a gig at Cicardi’s Café and learning that he needed to be able to sight read. “I made up my mind that I was going to study. I worked at the café every night and spent at least eight hours on my instruments. Study! Study! Study! I lost weight. I had very little sleep, but in nine months I could read and transpose any part. Flute parts – trumpet parts – trombone parts – clarinet parts – cello parts – anything at all!” How different from the cavalier Beiderbecke, who preferred to let music come to him through the inspiration of the moment, rather than via an arduous practice regimen. Yet, as a result, Trumbauer could dish out fancy, ornamental passages on the horn at a time when many sax players were still struggling to get through the charts.

Later recordings with Bix, such as “I’m Coming, Virginia” and ”Singin’ the Blues” built on these earlier contributions, and helped solidify Tram’s influence on saxophony, as well as further the legend-in-the-making of his colleague Bix Beiderbecke. But even without Bix, Tram's place in jazz history would be a significant one.

Yet not a flashy or romantic one. Tram did not lead the kind of troubled, tragic life that made Bix a mythic figure. Trumbauer married at age twenty, and spent all his life with his wife Mitzi, who survived him. He was a responsible family man, not a spendthrift or a drinker, not a bohemian or counter-culture rebel. When he focused on music, he put in hours and hours of practice. But when other responsibilities beckoned, he didn’t hesitate to lay down the horn and shift gears completely. Tram put his country first during both World Wars, serving in the navy in WWI, and as a test pilot during WWII. After the latter, he gravitated more toward the field of aviation, and worked for the Civil Aeronautical Authority. By the time of his death in June 11, 1956, his contributions to American music were all but forgotten. Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” had spent most of the last two months at the top of the charts, and nothing could be more passé than the Whiteman and Goldkette bands of the 1920s, and their star saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer.

There's nothing here to inspire a novel or a movie. And the jazz world has penalized Trumbauer for being such a fine, upstanding citizen. He has never garnered much recognition from jazz insiders, and now that he has been dead for more than a half-century, this is unlikely to change. His name does not appear among the more than 100 musicians enshrined in the Down Beat Hall of Fame, and I can safely predict that neither the readers nor the critics will ever vote him into this pantheon. More than 200 musicians have been honored by the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, established in 1977 to celebrate the music’s pioneers, but Frank Trumbauer will not be found among them (athough other Bix collaborators, such as Adrian Rollini, Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti have made the cut).

But what Tram may have lacked in flashy behavior, he made up for in his horn-playing. And his influence, especially through his impact on Lester Young, has changed the sound of popular music. So in the midst of our Bix Beiderbecke Birthday Bash, we stop to give a toast – albeit a non-alcoholic one – to this sober and true father of cool jazz saxophony. Thank you, Tram!

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia



March 10, 2008 · 4 comments

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Remembering Bix

Who can be surprised that when Hollywood finally made a big-budget film about a jazz musician, the movie moguls based it on the life of Bix Beiderbecke. Of course, the scriptwriter had it easy, and not just because Young Man with a Horn was already a book. Even before they were fictionalized, the details of Bix’s biography seemed like something scripted by a storyteller with a penchant for high drama.

Here was a life of cornfields, corn whiskey and – above all -- the cornet. A dreamy-eyed young man with a horn comes from a small town in middle America to Chicago and New York, and while jazz is taking over the nation, Bix is conquering the jazz scene. Although he is self-taught and can barely read music, Bix rises to the top through the sheer creativity of his solos and the magnetism of his eccentric personality. He lives fast and loose, but his excesses catch up with him, and he is dead before his twenty-ninth birthday, leaving behind a stack of records and a growing body of anecdotes that soon became the stuff of legend.

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This is tragedy, comedy and history all jumbled together, accompanied by a great score. So much so that the short-lived cornetist has come to symbolize the Jazz Age of the 1920 in the eyes of many of his admirers. What F. Scott Fitzgerald was to writing, Bix was to music: both defined the excesses and flamboyance of the age, although each proved too fragile to withstand the darker side of their era, or their own instinct for self-destruction. Or so the story is usually told.

Despite all this mythic grandeur, a sober assessment of Beiderbecke suggests that he was very much out of place in the jazz world of his day. He may be emblematic of the Jazz Age, but he would have been better served by the music world of the 1950s. One of the key attractions of Bix’s playing was his warm, rounded tone on the cornet, and recording technology of the 1920s hardly does it justice. Moreover, he was a soloist in an age when ensemble playing still dominated jazz, and despite his sizable discography there are few extended passages in which Beiderbecke was giving free rein to show what he could do as improviser. In addition, Beiderbecke’s sense of harmony drew him toward the European Impressionist composers, whose advanced structures would not become commonplace in the jazz world until a quarter century had elapsed after Beiderbecke’s death. Bix’s turn to solo piano in his final years reflected, to some extent, the fact that he needed to create his own new repertoire in order to explore the musical ideas in his head. Put simply, Bix had the bad fortune to be the leader of "cool jazz" decades before the term came into being, at a time when hot was everything.

Even from a personal level, one can question whether Bix benefited from living during the age of Prohibition, when the hard drinking that helped to do him in was glamorized as part of an illicit, jazzy lifestyle. Bix may have helped to make the Jazz Age, but the Jazz Age did not return any favors. In truth, it probably accelerated his decline and encouraged his tendencies toward self-destruction.

So I dream of what Bix could have done had he still been alive when Miles recorded The Birth of the Cool, and the Modern Jazz Quartet earned their stripes. I imagine him sharing the stage with Stan Getz or Gerry Mulligan. But I can only turn back to the recordings themselves – timeless classics such as ”Singin’ the Blues” and ”I’m Coming, Virginia” -- these hints of a great musical mind who had so much more to give when he left the scene.

As part of our Bix Beiderbecke Birthday Bash, Brendan Wolfe -- who presides over his own fine blog at The Beiderbecke Affair, shares with us a chapter of his work-in-progress Bixology. See also Wolfe's selection of "Twelve Essential Bix Beiderbecke Performances," and my biographical essay on Beiderbecke.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia



March 09, 2008 · 0 comments

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Weekend Track Review Roundup

Jazz.com’s team of 33 reviewers has published 600 reviews during the last ten weeks – offering our site visitors the widest coverage of jazz music available anywhere, in print or on the web. These reviews encompass the whole history of the music, from the classics of decades past to the latest releases out this week.

Unlike other jazz media outlets, jazz.com reviews individual tracks, not entire CDs. This allows reviewers (and readers, who are invited to add their own comments to each and every review) to discuss the music with a degree of specificity and detail hardly possible in a more general CD review. Reviews also come with complete personnel and recording info, as well as a link for fast (and legal) downloading.

Below is a round-up of a few of the reviews published during the last two weeks. As always, we include a ranking based on jazz.com’s proprietary 100 point scale.

You can search through all 1,800 reviews in our large (and constantly growing) database by using the new and improved search engine in the left sidebar on our Music page. It will allow you to search by artist, sideman, song title, or CD name.

Of course, jazz.com has just scratched the surface so far - after all, our web site is less than three months old. In any event, we remain committed to our quixotic but noble quest to review all of the great (or not-so-great) tracks recorded since Thomas Edison first captured the strains of “Ornithology” on a wax cylinder. Keep an eye on this space for further developments. Meanwhile, check out the most recent batch of reviews below.

Miles Davis: Venus de Milo
Uri Caine: Cheek to Cheek
Wynton Marsalis: Cherokee
Charlie Parker: Parker’s Mood
McCoy Tyne: Passion Dance
Dexter Gordon: The Moontrane
Dave Douglas: The Infinite
Michael Brecker: African Skies
Nick Brignola: Tears Inside
Bert Joris: Mr. Dodo
Arild Andersen: Pavane
Ahmad Jamal: Wave
John McLaughlin: New York on My Mind
Patricia Barber: Yesterdays
Giovanni Mirabassi: El Paso del Ebro
Clusone 3: Skylark
Larry Coryell: Tamari
Steve Coleman: Embryo
Ernst Reijseger and Franco D'Andrea: Two Colors
Freddie Hubbard: But Beautiful
Jack Walrath: Orange Has Me Down
Gianluigi Trovesi: Variazioni su Ose Shalom
Alan Broadbent & Gary Foster; Relaxin’ at Camarillo
Felipe Salles: Seven Days
Betty Carter: Feed the Fire
Donald Brown: On Green Dolphin Street
Keb Mo: Come On in My Kitchen
Oliver Nelson: Three Plus One
Jan Hammer; Oh, Yeah?
Alexi Tuomarila: Noaidi
Cuong Vu: Accelerated Thoughts
Art Pepper: Winter Moon
Lucky Thompson: Deep Passion
Elisabeth Kontomanou: Sunny
Bobo Stenson: Bengali Blue

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia



March 06, 2008 · 0 comments

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Does a Piano Persepctive Now Dominate Jazz? (Part 2)


This is the second part of critic Thierry Quénum’s thought-provoking essay on the emergence of a new instrumental focus in jazz. The first part of the article can be found here. T.G.



This new status of the piano is especially evident in European jazz, and is contributing to its expanding presence on the global jazz scene: European labels like ECM, Enja or Act in Germany, Label Bleu in France or Cam Jazz in Italy have an impressive number of pianists on their roster. Many of them, such as Martial Solal, Joachim Kühn, Franco D’Andrea, John Taylor or Bobo Stenson have built up large followings far beyond the borders of their native countries. The now defunct Jazzpar Prize – often called the "Nobel Prize" of jazz » – was presented in Copenhagen, Denmark, for 15 years, from 1990 to 2004. Six of the 15 musicians who received it were pianists. The European jazz Prize, presented each year in Vienna, Austria, is open to all types of instrumentalists from 22 European countries. Yet, since 2004, only pianists have received it.



                            Artwork by Suzanne Cerny

If we trace back the causes of today’s piano supremacy, it’s obvious that bebop was also one of the factors that changed the role and the place of the piano in jazz. The boppers' sophisticated approach to the music, their reworking of the harmonic structure of standards and their replacement of original melodies by more intricate ones (“How High the Moon” becoming “Ornithology” is perhaps the best known example) imply a vision of the music that’s de–centered and, in a way, seen from the piano stool. Indeed it is said that, as far back as 1939, Coleman Hawkins had prepared his historic solo on “Body and Soul” by working on its chord progression at the piano, which he played fairly well. From Bebop on, more and more instrumentalists were also piano players.

Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie would sometimes record on the piano and George Russell quit the drums to become a pianist after he realized he would never be a second Max Roach. Jack DeJohnette often leaves his main instrument to play the piano, as did Charles Mingus. In the seventies Marc Copland dropped his alto and taught himself to play the piano because his attraction to the instrument had become stronger, and more recently Jordi Rossy decided to devote himself to the piano after he had played the drums for years with, among others, Brad Mehldau.

But this new place of the piano is even better demonstrated by the fact that, from the fifties on, more and more of the most popular and influential bands had a pianist as leader, musical director, or main composer. This trend was accompanied by the progressive decrease of Broadway standards and blues as main material for improvisation. The new generation of pianists gave birth to the compositions that increasingly became new standards in the jazz repertoire. Just think of how many of them were composed in the fifties and sixties by pianists like Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Dave Brubeck, Lennie Tristano, Duke Pearson, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and others.

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The rise of institutional jazz teaching in universities and music schools could only serve to accelerate this trend. Based on a thorough study of harmony and on a vertical conception of music, this teaching gives further impetus to a “piano-centered” vision of jazz. Any student who learns in these schools comes out with at least a rudimentary knowledge of the piano as a second instrument. And many of these students will actually become teachers in their turn, rather than active musicians, and thus spread this vision. Among those who become full-time musicians, it is not hard to hear the pervasive influence the modern piano triumvirate, Hancock/Corea/Jarrett. And though the new generation sometimes go back to the “father figures” behind these three, such as Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner, we rarely hear them probing any earlier role models.

Indeed, though the present day reign of the piano is not really based on one single genius, like Satchmo, Bird and Trane had been on their instruments, it is often marked by a very short list of potential influences. On the one hand, Brad Mehldau – arguably today’s most famous and influential young pianist – had to fight hard to make it understood that he didn’t have that much in common with Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett. On the other hand, few of his peers will say that, during their studies or after, they explored to any substantive degree the styles of Herbie Nichols, Phineas Newborn, Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner, Paul Bley, Hank Jones… and even less the pre-bop stylings of, for example, Mary Lou Williams, Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller and Earl Hines. In spite of that, Jones and Jamal are still busy working and count among the greatest living stylists on the instrument.

It’s as if the piano supremacy was derived primarily from its later developments, from its role as a harmonically sophisticated solo instrument. What about the instrument’s other dimensions? These dimensions are of course still alive: Cecil Taylor has some heirs in Matthew Shipp or Myra Melford; the bebop tradition carries on through the students of Barry Harris; Lennie Tristano has influenced a number of musicians, including Bill Evans, Hancock and Mehldau; Geri Allen and Mulgrew Miller are good examples of heirs of the Detroit and Memphis piano traditions. Despite these examples, the jazz schools and the media favor mostly the “glorious triad” of Hancock, Corea and Jarrett, and spread this vision of jazz piano in the US and abroad, where the other traditions are less accessible.

Of course I should not put the three members of the “triad” in the same bag, since Keith Jarrett has been the most influential individual among this group. This is not just a matter of style and technique; Jarrett looms large also through his personality and attitude, his focus on solo and trio playing during the two last decades, and the diva status that he has achieved.

Jarrett’s initial solo piano record, Facing You, on ECM, has become something of a founding myth for later schools of pianism, and his Köln Concert has been a global hit since the seventies. It is one of the bestselling jazz records since Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, and it reaches far beyond the average jazz audience. More than that, it gave Jarrett’s highly personal vision of the piano solo (that some detractors reject as “non jazz”, even if they admit that Jarrett is obviously also a jazz pianist) an unprecedented legitimacy with classical and pop audiences. This, of course, further contributed to a vision of the piano as the king of jazz instruments – not just according to devoted jazz fans, but also in the minds of listeners from various musical and geographical origins. Jarrett became the jazz musician that everybody, even those-who-know-nothing-about-jazz knew.

In the classical field, where the piano had been king since the nineteenth century, this was reinforced by Jarrett’s admired recordings of classical piano works, from Bach to himself, on a label, ECM, that had acquired legitimacy in both jazz and classical fields. The longevity of Jarrett’s trio (unparalleled even by Oscar Peterson) and its appearance in famous concert halls worldwide, along with an impressive recorded body of work by Jarrett both in solo and trio added to all that, and contributed not only to Jarrett’s success with the audience, but also to his influence on young musician. Because of this one musician, many artists who have emerged in recent years either focused on the piano and/or selected an aesthetic that followed the Evans/Jarrett thread.

Paradoxically, this tendency to focus on one style, and one that has strong links with the classical European tradition, may ultimately announce the end of the reign of the piano as king of jazz instruments. Huge competition in a restricted stylistic field breeds similar artistic productions that are bound to wear out the interest of audiences and listeners. A generation of admirers of the “glorious triad” has good chances to be followed by a next generation that will break the spell, and look elsewhere. The fact that two of the most recent blockbuster piano trios – EST and The Bad Plus – have chosen a rock-inflected musical approach and a band-oriented image (even if EST literally stands for the Esbjörn Svensson Trio) may indicate a desire to go beyond the piano as a central instrument. The fact that many of the current crop of keyboard virtuosos also play the Fender Rhodes, shows how they are seeking new sonic horizons and resisting the imperialism of the reigning influences of the 88 keys.

Indeed, jazz is a searching music that tends to wither or suffocate in a restricted environment. Today’s globalized world offers it a huge geographical field, where some claim it can lose its soul and identity. But it also represents a huge risk of uniformity. This threatens jazz as much as a lack of openness to influences from elsewhere and from its own past.

Jazz musicians need to be strong individualists. In the thirties and forties, jazz musicians played differently in Kansas City and in New York, in Los Angeles or New Orleans. Competition and emulation were the names of the game, and Roy Eldridge wouldn’t have wanted to play like Cat Anderson, any more than Lester Young like Coleman Hawkins.

So, if there comes a new king of jazz instruments in the future, the only thing we, as listeners, can hope for is that those who will compete to bear its crown will display a diversity of sound, phrasing, intonation… that matches the colors of the rainbow.

This is the second part of a two-part article by Thierry Quénum. The first part of the article can be found here.

March 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Does a Piano Perspective Now Dominate Jazz? (Part 1)


Critic Thierry Quénum who covers the global jazz scene from his home base in Paris, contributes these thought-provoking reflections on the emergence of a new instrumental focus in jazz. Below is the first installment of a two-part article. T.G.





           Pianist, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

If you follow the history of jazz, decade after decade, it doesn’t seem exaggerated to say that different instruments have had the leading role in turn. These shifts, driven by various factors, tell us much about the evolution of the music.

The first decades were obviously dominated by the trumpet (or its sister instrument, the cornet). Its loud, clear sound -- at a time when orchestras often played in the open air or in noisy indoor locations-- may explain this leadership. But the fact that the instrument was played by charismatic personalities, who happened also to be bandleaders, such as King Oliver and later Louis Armstrong, no doubt contributed to its immense popularity.

In the case of Armstrong, his musical personality strongly appealed to his fellow instrumentalists, and his charisma touched audiences as well as musicians. So much so that Earl Hines’s way of playing the piano – influenced by Armstrong’s – was termed “trumpet-piano style”. Indeed few musicians were insensitive to the way Satchmo made jazz soloing evolve by way of his own creativity and technical virtuosity.

During the 1930s, though the trumpet was still popular, the clarinet now took the lead. Again, immensely popular bandleaders like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman were decisive in this change of reign. The fact that the big bands became the favorite type of ensemble during this period, and that their repertoire consisted in great part of Broadway standards played for dancers is another reason. The clarinet is not as loud and outspoken as the trumpet, and its register is closer to that of a singer’s voice. As a result, it enjoyed a success with audiences who may have been more drawn to its vocal-like mellower sounds than to the trumpet’s bravado.

Then came the saxophone. Most would agree that Coleman Hawkins introduced the tenor as a major solo instrument through his memorable 1939 version of “Body and Soul.” But in lots of big band performances the tenor solo had already emerged as effective climax for a swing tune. The tenor battles and chases were to be found in big bands such as Count Basie’s – where Lester young and Herschel Evans were rivals and partners – as well as in later combos, such as those of Gene Ammons/Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon/Wardell Gray or Clifford Jordan/John Gilmore. This tenor fashion endured for a long time. The Mobley + Coltrane + Sims + Cohn “Tenor Conclave” as well as Rollins/Coltrane’s “Tenor Madness” bear witness to it. In the 1950s and 1960s, the tenor was also a staple in most of those popular organ combos that roamed the “chitlin circuit” and other clubs from Coast to Coast.

The alto sax, through Charlie Parker, had its real king from the mid forties to mid fifties, but he was a leader whom other altoists could hardly follow without copying – Lee Konitz being one of the few exceptions. Parker was a king who (much like Armstrong two decades earlier) was influential on almost all other instruments. Of course one can argue that in Bird’s case, a musician and his style became “king” rather than an instrument. But could the swiftness of phrasing attached to bebop have been brought to perfection on any other instrument than the alto sax? I don’t want to revive the debate about “did man become more intelligent when he could use his hands to do something else than climbing up trees, or did he use his hands to make tools because he had already become intelligent?”, but one must notice that few other instrumentalists played fast, harmonically challenging lines before Charlie Parker, and those who did it after Bird were all influenced by him.

After Bird passed away, virtually unchallenged by his peers, in the mid fifties, the alto had a hard time finding another champion as persuasive as Parker. On the contrary, the reign of the tenor – that never really ceased after ’39, and was reinforced after Dexter Gordon adapted Bird’s alto technique to the bigger horn – carried on through the fifties by way of competition between several challengers, the most prominent being Rollins and Coltrane. The latter developed a concept, a musical personality and personal charisma that allowed him to reassert the tenor as the reigning instrument, which it has more or less remained until recently.

You can see it from the general point of view of advertising or cinema, where the image of the tenor is often considered as the symbol of jazz at large, or simply viewed as “sexy”. You can also see it from a more restricted point of view, simply by focusing on the global musical milieu: Michael Brecker, like many of post sixties tenorists, was deep into Coltrane, then Brecker’s sound and licks were universally admired and copied in the seventies and eighties. It was Joe Lovano’s turn from the nineties on. But all of these stars played tenor. No other instrument displayed such an uninterrupted line of prominent role models at the same period and, as far as the alto sax is concerned, the main reference remained Charlie Parker, in spite of Ornette Coleman’s or Cannonball Adderley’s rise to prominence.

And today? Gradually, over the course of the final decades of the 20th century, the piano became what I claim it to be now: the new king of jazz instruments. Unlike its predecessors, it took the piano some time to establish its reign. Of course there were great pianists right from the start. But they were either part of a combo, like Earl Hines; or confined to a specific style, like the stride pianists; or singers at the same time, like Fats Waller or Nat King Cole; or bandleaders rather than pure virtuosos on their instruments, as with Duke Ellington or Count Basie. The first who could have taken his instrument to the top place was of course Art Tatum, but his virtuosity was so stifling that he stood alone as a genius, with no imitators. The bop piano virtuosos, Bud Powell leading them, could never challenge the supremacy of the horns, and only Thelonious Monk might have been a potential crowner of the piano. But his style and personality were too idiosyncratic and disturbing for that, and his talent for composition may have obscured the purely pianistic aspects of his artistry.

And why is the piano now the king of instruments? The short answer: Bill Evans. He never meant to be in the forefront and was definitely not an outspoken character, but he was a virtuoso, developed a “concept”, and, even before he became a renowned leader, was highly visible through the various bands that he played or recorded with as a sideman. Indeed, his playing always added a distinct imprint to these bands’ essential sound.

When he launched his first trio the magic soon started to work, first on the following generations of musicians and on the audience, then through the enormous amount of piano trios that flourished in his wake all over the planet. I have not traveled to Japan, but I have heard that record shops there often have a special “piano trio” section, with lots of CDs, hardly available elsewhere, recorded by Evans disciples! What Evans started is a triple trend that has contributed to the emergence of the piano as king of the jazz instruments: first, a focus on the trio, conceived as a unit wherein each member plays an almost equal part; second, an unprecedented focus on the melody, and on a way of improvising that has its roots in the Romantics of the 19nth century and the Impressionists of the early twentieth; and, third, a piano technique based at least as much on the European classical tradition as on the jazz heritage, as far as touch and voicings are concerned.

In other words, Evans shifted the balance of the jazz piano by introducing more overt European influences into the jazz idiom than anybody before him, including Lennie Tristano. This helps explains the impact and influence Evans has enjoyed in academic institutions, and in Europe, as well as the number of European pianists who started their career as followers of his visionary approach to jazz. Enrico Pieranunzi – who wrote a great book about Bill Evans – offers a striking example. In addition to his jazz career, Pieranunzi was a long-time classical piano teacher in Rome, and he often plays with Evans’s former bassist, Marc Johnson. This growth of the “Evans trend” and, parallel to it, of the number of piano players among Europe's leading up-and-coming jazz musicians, provide additional evidence that the piano has now become the king of jazz instruments.

END OF PART ONE

This is the first part of a two-part article by Thierry Quénum. For part two, click here .

March 04, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jazz Meets Thrash Rock in Oslo


Jazz.com's Stuart Nicholson sends us this update from the by:Larm music festival in Norway, an annual rock-pop event that opened its arms to jazz this year.T.G.



"By:Larm," or “city noise” in English, is a festival on the move. Each year it pops up in a different location in Norway such as Bergen, Trondheim, Tromsø or Stavanger. This year it was the turn of the capital city Oslo to host a celebration of up-coming Scandinavian musical talent. Normally a rock and pop event, it was decided on this occasion to indulge in a little social engineering and introduce jazz into the program.

But nobody made a big fuss about it. The “j” word was downplayed so that, among the 350 or so concerts spread over the three day event, bands like The Thing, Shining, Huntsville, Matto Molto and Yun Kan 5, all jazz ensembles, found themselves on the same bill as grunge bands and thrash rock acts.

“It’s great,” said Lise Gulbransen of the Oslo Jazz Festival, who along with Lars Kurverud and Edvard Askeland, acted as consultants for the jazz aspect of the program. “The response of audiences was very good indeed. A group of young rock fans said to me, ‘If this is jazz, then I like jazz.’ We’re trying to reach out to an audience that would not normally come to a jazz gig.” In an age of rigid music formatting, it was good to hear, a reminder of how jazz and rock co-existed in the 1960s, when Bill Graham might programme the Charles Lloyd Quartet (with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette) to open for the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore. Back then – unlike majority taste today – being a rock, indie or pop fan did not necessarily exclude the possibility of taking in a bit of jazz as well.

Even so, the organisers confessed to being a little nervous when The Thing took over the big stage at Oslo’s Rockafeller. How would an uncompromising free jazz group, with Mats Gustavsen on saxes, Ingebrigt Haker-Flaken on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums, go down with a rock audience? Amid the flashing lights and dry ice, this power trio hooked the audience from the off. After a big ovation at the end of the show, I asked a couple of Norwegian rockers what they got out of the performance. “It was like thrash,” they all said, “a bit different, a bit weirder but really good. We’ve never heard anything like it!” So I asked them if they saw The Thing playing in Oslo again whether they would go and they nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah,” one said. “And we’ll bring our mates, they’d love this crazy stuff!”

Dipping in and out of the performances at venues around Oslo’s old marketplace, it was clear the strategy of mixing jazz into the rock program was working as audiences received the jazz concerts with a mixture of curiosity and interest. Some ensembles, such as the Shining, went right up to the doorstep of rock, others, like Matto Molto, with band-members ranging in age between 16 and 19, were able to connect with their peers. On the other hand, the Yun Kan 5, a band formed in Stockholm in 2003 featuring virtuoso saxophonist and composer Fredrik Ljungkvist, were pure jazz. But it didn’t seem to matter. The audiences were open and receptive.

And as if to prove jazz’s universality, a set by vocalist Beady Belle captivated the big audience in the Cosmopolite on the Friday night. An unannounced guest spot by Jamie Cullum brought the crowd to their feet and even won smiles from a group of leather jacketed rockers. Who says rock and pop fans don’t like jazz? And just to namecheck a few other bands who underlined the point: Lars Kurverud, Wildbirds and Peacedrums, Hilde Marie Kjersen, Karl Seglem, Valkyrien Allstars, Christian Wallumrød, Susanna and Farmer’s Market.

But by:Larm is not just about the diversity of the music it presents. Professionals from all over Scandinavia descend on the festival as much for the concerts by night as the high quality of its seminar program during the day. With four simultaneous presentations from dawn (well it seemed like it) to dusk each day dealing with topics as varied as marketing, publishing, digital distribution, the impact of the Internet on music and viral marketing, A4 notepaper was being consumed at a rate that probably devoured an acre of Scandinavian pine forest each day.

So after three days of seminars and concerts it was interesting to look around at the late night audience in the DogA as Huntsville, touted as one of the leading young ensembles in Norwegian jazz, wound up the final festival set. Everyone, it seemed, had that glazed expression marathon runners adopt as they approach the finish line, a mixture of relief and exhaustion. It had, after all, been a remarkable event.

This blog entry posted by Stuart Nicholson

March 03, 2008 · 1 comment

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Who is the King of Acoustic Blues?

Who is the king of acoustic blues?

I know the name you want to say, but -- sorry! -- dead people are excluded from claiming this (or any other) monarchy.

So let me re-phrase the question. Among musicians still capable of tuning a six-string instrument, who is the (capital letters and boldface this time) King of Acoustic Blues?

If you went by record sales, you might pick the talented Keb Mo, who has concocted an appealing mixture of blues, folk and pop, a satisfying gumbo that both celebrates the roots of his music, while gaining a sizable crossover audience. Other contemporary artists, such as Eric Bibb and Grayson Capps, are also adopting this updated blues hybrid, more energy efficient and customized for today's consumer, with varying degrees of success. Blues of this sort is perhaps best viewed as part of the resurgence of new acoustic sounds over the last two decades, and it plays fast and loose with the boundaries between genres.

Then we have other huge talents, such as Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Chris Thomas King, who have demonstrated their remarkable abilities as acoustic blues players. But do any of these artists really want to focus on this style, when larger markets and juicier opportunities beckon? You find them moving into rap, reggae and rock, showing up in movies and documentaries, or tackling various other projects only peripherally related to blues music. Will they ever really find fulfillment in the tiny commercial market that acoustic blues represents? I doubt it.

Visit Alvin Youngblood Hart's MySpace page, for example, and see that he has listed his styles of music as "Rock / Rock / Rock." Of course they limited Alvin to just three answers, so maybe there wasn't room for him to list "blues." But Hart is one of the finest blues players of his generation, and it is more than a little dispiriting to see these signs of how little the blues audience means to him. He could be a King in the land of the blues, but he would rather be a serf in the larger Empire of Rock and Roll.

Give me a blues icon who likes living in the blues, not just visiting it for a lark. Where do I turn then? In short, which of these aspirants, really deserves to be the King of Acoustic Blues?

I am putting my money on Otis Taylor. Everything about his music conveys deep and total commitment. True, he left the blues for a long spell, but not for another style of music—from 1977 until 1995 Taylor devoted his energies to various non-musical pursuits. This was putting-food-on-the-table time, a dues-paying that does not, in any way, compromise his blues credentials. And when he came back to the music, it was with the fervor of a man who has finally discovered his true calling in mid-life, and is now determined to pursue it with unflagging energy. Since his comeback, every one of Taylor's recordings has absolutely burned with the pure fire of his bluesiness.

If you are looking for pop-oriented blues with catchy hooks, skip this artist. There is no pop in these Rice Crispies, just extra snap and crackle. Taylor plays guitar vamps better than anyone, and he stretches out these repeated figures with more mesmerizing intensity than any blues artist since John Lee Hooker first came on the scene. Some have called this music "Trance Blues," and the name is appropriate. I usually walk away from records that are built so heavily on repetition and lack harmonic variety. But Taylor's groove is so strong, that I can listen to his music at length, and just find myself more and more deeply drawn into it.

And when Taylor looks to add some new ingredient to his music, he doesn't engage in gimmicks or latch on to some up-to-date trend or trick. He doesn't go down the familiar crossover route. For heaven's sake, on his latest CD he turns to the . . . banjo? Yes, that's right, Otis Taylor, the great blues guitarist is now the great blues banjo player. And not only does he immerse himself into this venerable African-American tradition, but he brings along the best of his contemporaries for the ride. On his new CD Recapturing the Banjo, Taylor is joined by Keb Mo, Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart. This is about as strong a crop of modern acoustic blues artists as you will find anywhere on the planet.

Sometimes I worry about the state of blues music. When I check out the Amazon.com chart of best selling blues CDs, it can't escape my attention that most of the musicians listed there are better known for other styles of music. Heck even Dion (of "Runaround Sue" and "A Teenager in Love" fame) has a new blues CD on the market, and it is out-selling Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson. The Son of Skip James? Do you see a family resemblance? But let the part-timers come and go. A little dose of Otis Taylor goes a long way towards allaying my concerns.

By the way, a track from Otis Taylor's CD, Absinthe, is currently featured as Song of the Day on jazz.com.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia



March 02, 2008 · 2 comments

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