Weekend Track Review Roundup

As regular visitors to this site know, jazz.com takes a different approach to reviewing music. Our team of more than 30 critics review individual tracks, not entire CDs. We believe that this approach allows for greater focus and specificity in critical evaluations and encourages closer listening to the music.

"The 75 minute CD was not a favor to anybody," Gary Giddins recently noted, in a wide-ranging conversation with Loren Schoenberg published on jazz.com. (You can read the complete article at this link.) "People didn’t play them the way they played an LP, listening intently to a 15 minute side. They started to zone out. So you’d listen to a few tracks at a time, but you would never quite get the intimacy with that CD that you got with LPs, let alone 78s."

The age of downloading is not without its pitfalls. But the emphasis on approaching jazz music one track at a time has a number of advantages. As Giddins has explained, close listening to a few songs is often much more rewarding than hours spent multi-tasking with jazz CDs playing in the background. Jazz.com's intensive focus on individual tracks has been designed with the aim of encouraging this degree of deep familiarity with the music.

Our stated goal -- quixotic, yet noble -- is to cover all the great (and not so great) tracks recorded by jazz artists since those bygone days before St. James Infirmary got its first patient. We aim for a fairly even balance between covering new music and old music. Five times each week, we highlight a Song of the Day drawn from the best of the current releases. We also offer a daily retrospective glance at a jazz masterpiece from the past, as part of our A Classic Revisited feature.

We aim to provide candid appraisals, and a ranking based on our proprietary 100 point scale. We also include, whenever possible, links for fast (and legal) downloading. And site visitors can add their own views – laudatory, vituperative or vacillatory, as the mood suits them -- at the bottom of each review.

Below are links to a few of the track reviews we have published during the last two weeks.

Stan Getz: Blood Count
Diana Krall: If I Had You
Branford Marsalis & Ellis Marsalis: Laura
Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gilespie: Leap Frog
Frank Sinatra: September in the Rain
Charlie Haden: The Long Goodbye
Gene Krupa: Disk Jockey Jump
McCoy Tyner: Satin Doll
Sonny Rollins: Softly as in a Morning Sunrise
Cassandra Wilson: Polka Dots and Moonbeams
John Abercrombie: Follow Your Heart
Michael Blake: The Creep
Richard Galliano & Michel Portal: Viaggio
Steve Smith: Elm
Red Norvo: I Surrender, Dear
Mad Duran: How Deep Is the Ocean?
Eric Dolphy: On Green Dolphin Street
Artie Shaw: Sweet Lorraine
The Esquire All Stars: I Got Rhythm
Art Tatum: Sweet Lorraine
Rick Laird: Soft Focus
Blue Mitchell: Polka Dots and Moonbeams
J.J. Johnson: My Funny Valentine
Bill Evans: Eiderdown
John McLaughlin: Dear Dalai Lama
Katia & Marielle Labeque: Rhythm-a-ning
Eric Dolphy: Glad to Be Unhappy
Thelonious Monk: Misterioso
Warren Haynes: Lila’s Dance
Duke Ellington: Satin Doll
Mose Allison: Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me
John Coltrane: After the Rain
Pee Wee Russell: That Old Feeling
Ornette Coleman: Focus on Sanity
Ken Peplowski: Variations
Zakir Hussain: Anisa
Bill Evans: Reflections in D
Duke Ellington: Reflections in D
Charles Mingus & Langston Hughes: Consider Me
Shirley Horn: Here’s to Life
Marilyn Scott: Cry Me a River
Trilok Gurtu: Baba
Tina Brooks: Star Eyes
Fats Waller: Your Feet’s Too Big
Larry Coryell: Zimbabwe
Danny Gottlieb: Gloria’s Step
Tina Brooks: For Heaven’s Sake
Roy Haynes: Reflection
Roy Haynes: Bright Mississippi
Chris Cheek: What’s Left
Masada: Khebar
Roberta Gambarini: On the Sunny Side of the Street
Sonny Rollins: You Don’t Know What Love Is
Gil Evans: Let the Juice Loose
Moods Unlimited: All the Things You Are
Keith England: At Last Now
Art Tatum: I Cover the Waterfront

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

May 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Mystery Photos

Marcel Fleiss, whose photographs of New York and Paris jazz life graced the pages of Le Jazz Hot in the 1950s, recently discovered some long forgotten images in his archive. Jazz.com is looking to help him identify the musicians shown in these photos. You can find the photos at this link. Send emails to editor@jazz.com.

Some of Fleiss's more memorable images of 1950s jazz life are available for viewing at his gallery in the Visual Jazz section of our site.

May 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Latin in Manhattan: The Sounds of Brazil

Jazz.com regular Eugene Marlow, who recently covered Dave Douglas and Bobby Sanabria in these virtual pages, reports below on last Saturday’s Jazz at Lincoln Center concert featuring Trio da Paz, the Ivan Lins Sextet, and the NY Voices. T.G.

The concert was introduced in English and Portuguese. Appropriately so. May 23-24, 2008 the Frederick P. Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) hosted a trio of musical talents: the New York-based Trio da Paz, the Brazilian jazz/bossa/pop composer-singer Ivan Lins, and the Grammy-award winning New York Voices (NYV) — all featured as part of its “Latin in Manhattan” series.

On May 24, the virtual full-house audience got its money’s worth during the three-hour performance of music dedicated to the “Sounds of Brazil.” And other than the obvious Brazilian/bossa/samba/Jobim love-in and the virtuoso playing of many of the players, the concert was also a chapter out of the textbook devoted to stage presence choreography and musical theatricality.

           Noted Brazilian Singer-Songwriter Ivan Lins

First up was the New York-based Trio da Paz, formed in 1990 by guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Nilson Matta, and drummer Duduka da Fonseca. All three are seasoned masters of both jazz and Brazilian music with impressive resumes. A sampling includes guitarist Romero Lubambo's work with Dianne Reeves, Michael Brecker, Grover Washington, Jr. and Kathleen Battle; bassist Nilson Matta's work with Joe Henderson, Don Pullen, Yo-Yo Ma and Paul Winter; and Grammy nominee drummer Duduka da Fonseca's work with Astrud Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, John Scofield and Tom Harrell. Trio da Paz as a group has recorded and performed with Charlie Byrd, Herbie Mann, Lee Konitz, Kenny Barron and Nana Vasconcelos, among others.

Guitarist Romero Lubambo’s virtuosity reminded me from time to time of the flamenco players, direct from Spain, who hit New York in the early 1970s. I didn’t have a metronome on me while sitting in the audience, but I’m fairly certain Lubambo was playing at least 64th notes at 200 plus tempos. In one piece he incorporated Bach’s "Prelude in C Minor" into the improvisation. Not an easy piece to play on a keyboard at normal speed, Lubambo dropped it in with the ease of someone strolling through New York City’s Little Brazil. But speed is one thing. Tasty musical choices is quite another. Combining the two at both moderate and fast tempos without breaking a sweat is a transcendent accomplishment and an aural musical treat.

Bassist Nilson Matta is the perfect match for Lubambo’s melodic explorations. His playing reminded me of Eddie Gomez on several Bill Evans albums and certainly Chip Jackson’s virtuosic clarity with the Billy Taylor Trio. To play with pizzicato and arco with articulation at speed without breaking a sweat shows a mastery of the instrument that goes beyond just showing off. Drummer Duduka da Fonseca’s subtle and sensitive playing behind Lubambo and Matta’s says something about the trio’s musical conceptualization. Whereas too many drummers in your average jazz club setting play with the listening sensitivity of an 800-pound gorilla, Fonseca added percussive hits sparingly and only on the last tune of the Trio da Paz’s first half set did he let loose with a driving, rhythmically engaging solo.

All in all, Trio da Paz played with sophistication and musical theatricality. It was not just virtuoso playing. There was theatre and drama in their playing and, most of all, their musical choices. The first piece was of moderate tempo, starting with an explorative Lubambo solo. Slowly and quietly the other players joined in. It was a gentle beginning to a concert set that drew the audience in from the very first note.

The interruption to this beautifully framed set was the introduction of Ivan Lins, the highly successful Brazilian vocalist/self-taught keyboardist/composer who joined the trio for a pair of songs. The camaraderie was clear from the group’s interaction, at one point Lins putting his arm around Lubambo as they sang a few lyrics together. What was not clear was whether or not Lins was demonstrating a deep affection for these fellow Brazilian players, or if he was looking for support. His presence during the Trio da Paz set was, of course, a way of giving the audience a taste of things to come. But Lins’ stage demeanor seemed somewhat self-conscious, although animated.

The second half of the concert began with the Ivan Lins sextet, including Teo Lima (drums), Leonardo Amuedo (guitar, acoustic guitar), Nema Antumes, (electric bass), Marco Brito (electric keyboards), and Marcelo Martins (tenor and soprano saxophones). Right off, the set was somewhat suspect. Within moments of the first tune it was clear the level of musical theatricality had dropped a few notches. The real giveaway was the pop-rock rhythmic pattern offered by the drummer. While the first half of the concert had offered a grande bouffe of virtuosity and musicality, the opening of the second half became a dumbing-down of musical sophistication.

Even at 62 Mr. Lins strutted the stage with the intensity of a pop-rock star. Somehow it all seemed a bit out of place. The contrast between the virtuosity of the Trio da Paz set and the opening of Ivan Lins’ set was palpable and seemed disjointed from Mr. Lins’ storied career. Lins has been an active performer and songwriter of Brazilian popular music and jazz for over 30 years. His first hit, "Madalena," was recorded by Elis Regina in 1970. Testifying to Lins' importance as a composer is the frequency with which tribute albums and new covers of his compositions appear. His jazz classics have been recorded by many notable international artists, including Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, George Benson, The Manhattan Transfer, Diane Schuur, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson, Eliane Elias, Patti Austin, Toots Thielemans, Take 6, Lee Ritenour, David Benoit, Carlos do Carmo, Mark Murphy, Dave Grusin, Sérgio Mendes, Michael Buble, and countless others.

Clearly, Mr. Lins is a highly established singer/songwriter with an international reputation. Which is why the jazz/pop/bossa (mostly pop) sound that welcomed the audience back to the second half was not so much a shock to the system as it was a puzzlement. Thankfully, within moments of the beginning of the second tune of the set the New York Voices (NYV) appeared on stage.

Formed in 1987, the NYV (Peter Eldridge, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader, and Kim Nazarian) are the epitome of a singing group not only of great musical talent and taste, but also stage choreography. In addition to totally engaging harmonies and arrangements, the group takes great care to block (to borrow a theatrical term) its performance from moment to moment — while entering the stage, performing on the stage, and leaving the stage.

Of all three groups, the NYV was the only one to acknowledge members of the audience in front of and in back of the stage — this is the way the Rose Theatre at JALC is constructed; a tip of the hat to theater in the round. They know how to get out of the way gracefully when another musician is soloing. They show collegiality, not only to each other, but also to the other musicians on stage. Often, the smiles among musicians during a performance feel more like an inside communication of approval meant only for the musicians to understand. The NYV, on the other hand, project that approval to the musicians and invite the audience in on the communication. It is, perhaps, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the NYV: every note and harmony is worked out to perfection, but so, too, is the stage choreography. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the NYV is a Grammy-award winning group.

Further, the NYV was billed as “Special Guests” during the Ivan Lins Sextet set. It seemed more the other way around. The addition of the NYV to Lins’ set raised the level of the evening’s performance. Mr. Lins deserved compositional reputation nothwithstanding, the NYV’s contribution was more than welcome. The musical theatricality and sophistication of the Trio da Paz, presumably a taste of things to come in the anticipated second half, was elevated again when the NYV appeared on stage.

The set was a combination of Lins originals, NYV originals and a tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim. Other than the penultimate piece of the set (co-composed by NYV’s Peter Eldridge and Lins’ Marco Brito), the highlight of the second half was the NYV’s a cappella rendition of "Modinha," a Jobim ballad. With Lins joining in to form a vocal quintet, this lushly harmonic piece with deliciously arranged moving inner voices brought the longest sustained applause from the audience.

The close of the evening’s performance brought all three groups to the stage for a final rousing samba. It brought the audience to its feet with a demand for an encore. After a well-timed delay, the entire musical troupe returned to the stage for a final number.

This blog entry posted by Eugene Marlow.

May 28, 2008 · 2 comments


Capitol Records and the Golden Age of Pop Music

At the mid-point of the 20th century, pop music was in ascendancy, and no record label understood the new sound better than Capitol. Capitol's 1950s roster featured Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Nancy Wilson, Dinah Shore, the Kingston Trio, June Christy, the Four Freshmen and Peggy Lee, among others. Those aren't just names . . . they literally define a sound and a generation. Perhaps even a way of life.

                Peggy Lee (courtesy of Peggy Lee Associates LLC)

Few labels have ever been more in touch with the musical tastes of an era. Some look back on this period as a Golden Age. Others denounce it as a low point in American commercial music, an era of mindless sentimental tunes, mercifully terminated by the later rise of rock and soul and other more vibrant styles. But whether you loved it or loathed it, Capitol defined it. This label represented the early 1950s pop sensibility in its glossiest and most stylized form.

But Capitol's glory years would pass all too soon. The English company EMI acquired 96% of the Capitol's stock in 1955, putting an end to the reign of the savvy West Coast musical minds who had guided the label since its inception. Capitol had been founded by songwriter Johnny Mercer, along with fellow tunesmith Buddy DeSylva and retailer Glenn Wallichs. (As a teenager, I spent many hours browsing through the lavish inventory at Wallich's now defunct Hollywood music store.) But in later years a far different cast of characters would be calling the shots. The three founders would hardly recognize Capitol as it exists today.

Although Capitol would eventually prove to be a tremendous financial success, the business was built first and foremost on love and respect for the music "I've got this idea of starting a record company," Mercer had told his golfing buddies Harold Arlen and Bobby Sherwood one day in 1942. "I get so tired of listening to the way everyone treats music. I keep feeling they're selling out. And I don't like the way artists are treated either."

The Capitol Records Tower is admired today as one of Southern California's most memorable architectural landmarks. Designed by Welton Becket, who had made his name with the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, the Capitol HQ was the largest circular office building in the world. (There is apparently no truth to the story that the design was consciously based on the appearance of a stack of 45s on a turntable.) But its completion in 1956 might well have signaled the beginning of the end for Capitol Records. True, the company would continue to sell records and generate hits, but it was no longer in touch with the zeitgeist. From now on, Capitol would be chasing after trends, rather than creating them.

The problem was not just the new British owners. The more pressing issue—as events would prove—was the rise of rock and roll. The whole pop music aesthetic, which Capitol had lovingly developed over the previous decade, was now in disarray. In fact, Capitol represented everything the younger generation of fans and musicians was rebelling against—slick arrangements, sophisticated chord changes, polished performances, lyrics that rhymed and scanned and got every syllable right.

The musical values that Capitol represented in 1956 would be tossed overboard by 1966. The company would try to embrace the new ethos, but never did so convincingly—certainly not as well as rival Columbia or other upstarts such as Motown and Atlantic. The fiasco surrounding the Beatles' early recordings showed how little the honchos at Capitol understood the new musical tastes of the 1960s.

The Beatles were literally handed to Capitol on a silver platter. The lads from Liverpool were signed to parent company EMI's Parlophone label. But Capitol execs initially turned down the band owned by their sister company. This bad decision allowed Vee-Jay, a Midwest indie label, to control U.S. distribution of the Beatles' early recordings and thus enjoy a brief burst of mega-prosperity. In time, Capitol realized its error, and secured distribution rights and even control over the Vee-Jay masters. But they still showed their cluelessness, by tinkering with the content and sonics of the Beatles' music, adding reverb and echo to the EMI tracks in an attempt to get them to sound more like Capitol releases.

Eventually Capitol jumped into rock with a vengeance, but only at the cost of the company's core musical values. What would Johnny Mercer have thought of the company he founded promoting the artistry of Megadeth, Iron Maiden, the Beastie Boys and the Butthole Surfers? But Mercer, who died in 1976, was not around for these Capitol recordings of the 1980s.

In truth, the pop aesthetic that had created so many 1950s masterpieces for Capitol was dead long before these travesties. In retrospect, we can look back on it as a Golden Era, but like all idyliic ages, this one was too sweet and innocent to last. Yet, if the story of the record industry over the last fifty years is a tale of declining musical standards and a shift toward chasing trends and hyping the lowest common denominator . . . then Capitol Records could be a case study in what has gone wrong. Perhaps the pop styles of the 1950s were doomed to disappear under any circumstances, but did we also need to throw out musicianship, taste and so much else along the way?

Ah, we do have some cause for celebration. Today marks the release of Peggy Lee's The Lost '40s and '50s Capitol Masters. (It is interesting to note that this project is not being released by Capitol itself—the folks there apparently focus on more "happening" projects—but by the Collectors' Choice label, the same outfit that recently made available a stellar set of Nat King Cole reissues drawn from the Capitol vaults.) This double CD draws on little known material, including songs that were never issued, as well as alternate takes and tracks that previously could only be found on rare 78s. In commemoration of this release and as a tribute to the great days of Capitol Records, jazz.com is featuring Lees' "Cannonball Express," recorded in June 1950, as the classic jazz track for today.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

May 27, 2008 · 10 comments


Elvis and Jazz – A Cautionary Tale

Alan Kurtz, jazz.com's resident curmudgeon (who recently in this column has lobbed a contrarian salvo at the contrabass violin, debunked the new Golden Age of Jazz and rained on Record Store Day), now takes aim at his biggest target yet: Elvis. Readers are invited to share their own opinions by adding their comments below or emailing them to editor@jazz.com.   T.G.

It's been nearly five months since Herbie Hancock copped The Big One: Grammy's Album of the Year award for his Joni Mitchell tribute, River: The Joni Letters. Certainly the recognition was well deserved. Indeed, Jazz.com called River "a grand artistic statement."

Elvis Sneer

Yet when considering Jazz Covers of Golden Oldies by Pop Icons, another pianist's tribute album, released just two weeks after River, may ultimately be more instructive than Hancock's Hollywood triumph. While Cyrus Chestnut's Cyrus Plays Elvis wasn't nominated for a Grammy, it was widely welcomed. Jazz.com's Ted Gioia, for example, observed that Elvis Presley had "soaked up the African-American music that was part of his hometown, Tupelo, Mississippi. But jazz players have rarely returned the favor. Cyrus Chestnut steps in to rectify matters with a whole CD devoted to Elvis."

Other reviewers were even more enthusiastic. Blogger Jim Harrington elevated Cyrus Plays Elvis to #3 on his list of 2007's top 10 jazz records. (River did not make the cut.) "A glorious batch of jazzy Elvis standards," Harrington raved. "Chestnut's lovely interpretations make these songs sound the equal of anything composed by Cole Porter or Hoagy Carmichael."

To the greybeards among us, however, connecting the dots between jazz and Elvis Presley requires enough torturously twisted geometry to have given Euclid a headache. To restate the obvious, Elvis "was not a jazz musician," as The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jazz (1999) helpfully explains. "He did not swing." The King himself once confessed, "I don't understand jazz."

Jailhouse Rock

Cue clip from MGM's Jailhouse Rock (1957), in which Elvis plays a sneering, surly, guitar-totin' ex-con fixin' to bust into the music biz. Lucky for him, his loutish animal magnetism attracts a young woman savvy in the ways of the record industry. She helps him tape a demo, introduces him to an unscrupulous executive (aren't they all?), and takes him home to meet her naively accepting, upper-middleclass parents, who are just then hosting a cocktail party. When Mom learns he's a musician fresh out of the penitentiary, she naturally assumes Elvis is a jazzman, and suggests that Dad spin the latest hepcat platter on their hi-fi. Cue imitation Gerry Mulligan Quartet with facsimile Chet Baker.

The music prompts a good-natured discussion by party guests, who, desiring to appear informed, bandy such terms as "altered chords" and "dissonance," dropping along the way such 1950s household names as Brubeck, Desmond and Lennie Tristano.

Mom, however, is a moldy fig. "Someday they'll make the cycle and get back to pure old Dixieland," she predicts. "I say atonality is just a passing phase in jazz music." She politely asks Elvis's opinion.

"Lady, I don't know what the hell you're talkin' about," snaps the boorish ex-con, who stalks out in a pique to pursue stardom, which of course is soon his—altered chords and dissonance be damned.

It's probably just as well that The Hick hated jazz. His embrace would've been the kiss of death. Eisenhower-era hipsters were as appalled by Presley's unsophistication as were the bluenoses scandalized by his vulgar sexuality. Jazz critic Leonard Feather, for one, judged that both jazz and pop music had been "dragged down considerably by the success of Elvis Presley and his ilk." And Leonard Feather, may he rest in peace, did not throw around the term ilk lightly.

Perhaps it's premature to conclude that Elvis and jazz remain a mismatch made in Hades. Amazon.com's sales figures, though, are sobering. In contrast to Herbie Hancock's River, ranked #101 in music, Cyrus Plays Elvis places a distant #59,152. Nor is there much evidence that Chestnut's example has been heeded. In fact, Cyrus Plays Elvis seems to have inspired the same number of followers as Benedictine Chimes of Westminster Play the Great Ballads of Elvis (Skylark Jazz, 1994). Which is to say, none.

Elvis Cruise

Still, there must be something to the Elvis/Jazz nexus. Why else would Jazz Cruises LLC conduct THE ELVIS® CRUISE in full-charter luxury to the Caribbean every Labor Day weekend? In our tireless quest to follow the trail of investigative reportage wherever it leads, no matter the hardship, we intend to book passage (charged to our expense account). Perhaps onboard host Jerry Schilling, onetime member of the King's private entourage The Memphis Mafia, can tell us what Graceland's Godfather had to do with jazz. Then, donning our gold lamé jumpsuit, we can explain it to our penurious editor-in-chief as he skeptically examines our travel vouchers.

This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.

May 26, 2008 · 12 comments


Miles' New Band . . . 50 Years Later

  Miles Davis, artwork by Michael Symonds

Fifty years ago today, Miles Davis brought his new band into the studio for the first time. The rookie in their midst was pianist Bill Evans, who had only been in the band around six weeks at the time of this session.

All indications (both musical and biographical) suggest that Evans had some anxieties about his role with this high-profile ensemble. A live recording from Café Bohemia from May 17 shows him playing in a tentative and understated manner – a sharp contrast from the supple, swinging presence of his predecessor Red Garland.

And who could blame the pianist for feeling some heat. Not only was he the sole white musician in the band; not only did Evans need to live up to the expectations of his mercurial boss, Miles Davis – a challenging task for the best of musicians under the best of circumstances; he also had to match the intense brilliance of Miles' other front line stars, saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley.

No later tenorist has surpassed Coltrane’s influence, and his DNA has entered into the bloodstream of jazz. Even more, it has proven to be what geneticists would call a dominant trait – one that over-rides other factors and influences. I remember living in Italy many years after Coltrane’s death, and picking up the Italian jazz magazine La Musica Jazz every month, only to find that the number one selling LP on their charts was always the same: Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Other releases could fight over the silver or bronze medal, but this now departed figure would not be deprived of the gold.

In truth, one could very well make a case that even today, decades after his death, Coltrane still has more impact on how jazz is played than anyone else. His conception of improvisation has become the de facto standard for each new generation: virtuosic, scale- and pattern-driven, moving easily from modal to chord-based to free, mixing originals and standards. Even his personal tone has become an inflection in the basic sound of the jazz saxophone. Just as most of America has gradually learned to speak like Midwestern newscasters, with regional dialects gradually disappearing — so have saxophonists picked up their accent from ‘Trane. We all hear the songs through Coltrane’s ears now.

Coltrane follows Davis’s under-stated solo on “On Green Dolphin Street” with some restraint of his own — at least for the first twenty bars. Then come all his famous tricks. By the second chorus, the tenorist is flying over the changes, with those heady, rapid fire passages that one inspired critic aptly described as “sheets of sound.” But Coltrane gets short-sheeted on this performance — he is forced to squeeze everything he has to say into a couple choruses, and that is a far from simple task for this loquacious soloist.

Even after I have heard this track countless times, I still am disappointed when his solo comes to end. I get the impression that Coltrane was just warming up, and was ready to work over these changes for another ten minutes or so, much as Muhammad Ali would spend ten rounds beating his pugilistic opponents into submission. I feel cheated like the folks in Lewiston, Maine who saw Sonny Liston hit the canvas after only 102 seconds of round one (roughly the same duration as this all-too-short Coltrane solo). And anyone who knew Trane realized that he might not even get to his best stuff until the seventh or eighth chorus.

In any other setting, Cannonball Adderley would be a star attraction. After all, he is the alto saxophonist who was heralded as the “new Bird” when he first hit the New York scene. The young Adderley would cut cats so severely at jam sessions, that his legend was almost assured even before the debut of his recording career. Adderley follows the tenor solo on “Green Dolphin Street,” and seems intent on showing that no one – not even the mighty Coltrane – can throw him off his game. He plays with blistering speed, and maybe even with a little more aggression and fire than usual – could it be that matching up with Coltrane has given Adderley a kick in the backside? Years later, when leading his own band, Adderley would play funkier and looser. But in this performance his music has an edgy, riveting quality, and the altoist makes sure everyone knows that he can handle the horn, top to bottom.

How can pianist and newcomer Bill Evans possibly follow these titans. But somehow — despite all the odds — he does. He won’t match these practice room demons note-for-note, scale-for-scale. He never did that, and I am not sure he could have . . . I recall Evans' early music teachers noting how he could play difficult pieces, but was far less impressive at scales and exercises. This pianist had many things in his bag of tricks, but demonstrations of technique, in the manner of Tatum or Peterson, were not among them. Instead he goes deeper and deeper into his own musical persona. His solo starts out with a few phrases built on single note lines, then he shifts into these thick impressionist chords, and builds his improvisation off their changing textures.

This is not modern jazz piano . . . it's more like a Debussy forced to play with bass and drums. Not only is Evans playing differently from the rest of the band . . . he is playing differently from the rest of the jazz world. No other pianist – not Ahmad Jamal or Red Garland or Wynton Kelly or Oscar Peterson – had this in their bag, could move the voicings around in this compositional manner. Eventually the rest of the jazz keyboard establishment would learn these techniques. But in May of 1958, Evans was a lonely prophet in the wilderness.

It would be easy to forget the bass and drums on this performance. But Paul Chambers’ recurring back-and-forth change from a pedal point to walking lines may be the essential ingredient in giving this track its distinctive mood. And Jimmy Cobb (the only surviving member of this band, who was recently featured in these pages) displays his noteworthy sensitivity. You can hear on this track why singers always have loved this drummer, who knows how to swing while leaving space, while opening up the musical landscape for those around him.

Is this the greatest jazz band ever? Certainly there have been all star sessions of rival proportions. Check out, for example, the 1944 Esquire All Star concert where we have Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Art Tatum – fellows who match up well, I might offer, with Miles, Trane and Evans. Even Miles had a mid-1960s combo that had as much raw musical talent as this ensemble, and blended together more effortlessly into a unified sound. The 1958 combo, by comparison, is a group of rugged individualists – each of whom wants to score fifty points, shine on the slam dunk, and take the shot in the closing seconds. How they all sublimated their will to power (as Nietzsche would have called it) to make Kind of Blue is as much a psychological mystery as it is a subject for musical discussion.

Many jazz fans lament that this combo did not stay together longer, but it is something of a miracle that they kept each other’s company on the same bandstand for as long as they did. Fortunately for us, a few recordings document what they were able to achieve. On this anniversary of their debut studio session, jazz.com has selected "On Green Dolphin Street" as the classic jazz track of the day. For the full review and download link, click here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

May 25, 2008 · 2 comments


Putting Queens on the Jazz Map

The jazz.com bloggers are a cosmopolitan bunch. They have recently given us the lowdown on jazz in Estonia and Norway. They have highlighted lesser known talent in Ireland and Germany. They have explored the jazz scene in New Orleans and celebrated the sounds of Réunion Island. Now arnold jay smith tells us that he doesn't need a passport to discover some jazz exotica, just a MetroCard. Below he calls our attention to the jazz heritage and happenings of Queens. T.G.

It’s becoming cliché to tell about the many jazz musicians who lived in the borough of New York City called Queens. Names like Fats Waller, Illinois Jacquet, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, John Coltrane and of course Milt Hinton and Louis Armstrong immediately spring to mind. The Louis Armstrong House and Museum are now land marked and under the guidance of curator Michael Cogswell have grown into international stature. Milt and Mona Hinton’s photographs have been exhibited around the world as well as in books and documentaries.


Now Queens resident saxophonist / composer / arranger / former director of the jazz program at Queens College and soon-to-be-author Jimmy Heath has been commissioned to lead a band made up of some of his protégés and successors to his teaching legacy as well as members of his own quartet. The Queens Jazz Orchestra had its premiere at a sold out Flushing Town Hall concert on a very stormy night in May. The premise of the series begun in 1993 and called Jazz Live! is to give Queens its due on the jazz map. There’s even a motorized trolley which takes folks on a tour of the prominent musicians’ former homes. FTH jazz director Clyde Bullard and founder Jo-Ann Jones agreed that Jimmy Heath was the man to take it the next step: organize a band as a Queens jazz legacy.

Bullard, himself a scion of a jazz family, spoke at the event which had developed its own buzz with a full schedule of jazz even by Big Apple standards. Bullard’s father, Clarence, “CB,” was the Atlantic Records A&R go-to person for most of the last quarter of the last century. If you needed any information, interviews, or LPs — no, it was not all that long ago — you called CB. He was instrumental in developing the jazz program at Flushing Town Hall which is now so fittingly directed by his son.

The sine qua non of the FTH’s ongoing jazz programming is Jimmy Heath’s QJO. It is a 17-piece affair sprinkled with former Heath students such as reedman Antonio Hart, now a professor at Queens College, trumpeter Michael Philip Mossman, director of Jazz Studies there, Jeb Patton, the longtime pianist with the Heath Brothers, veterans such as drummer Dennis Mackrel, saxophonist Charles Davis and trombonist John Mosca, who leads the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, itself a legacy.

The repertoire, which represents former Queens residents, has the fingerprints of its conductor/arranger. The opening and closing work was the commissioned "Crossroads." The band, along with singer Antoinette Montague, vocalize the words “the Queens Jazz Orchestra” which are later echoed by instrumental punctuation. Montague returned to do Lady Day’s “God Bless the Child" and “What A Little Moonlight Can Do.” The program opened with Lil Hardin Armstrong’s "Struttin’ with Some Barbecue." There’s a bit of irony here. While Lil taught Louis how to read and write music, it was not until Louis’ wife #4, Lucille that he even had a permanent home to which to come to off the road . Fortuitously, it was in Corona, Queens. On "Struttin’" Louis solo spot was first taken by Mossman and then by the entire trumpet section.

Basie was represented by a disparate pair of selections. The standard Frank Foster’s "Shiny Stockings" came in the second half. The first, "The Basie Section," was from another Heath commission of some 30 years ago. The Afro-American Suite of Evolution, a massive undertaking, was presented by Jazzmobile at NYC’s Town Hall. There are no extant recordings.

Jacquet’s "Robbins Nest" was a duel between Davis and Heath, while Jackson’s "Bag’s Groove" was the trombones’ feature. It is always with deep reverence that Jimmy bows to his musical mentor Gillespie. "Without You No Me" featured the trumpets and the penultimate closer "A Night In Tunisia" had some high note trumpet work by Terrell Stafford, another Heath protégé. Jimmy’s was the only solo on “Trane Connection.”

Look for more on the Queens Jazz Orchestra in a OctoJAZZarian feature on Jimmy Heath coming soon to jazz.com.

This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith

May 22, 2008 · 1 comment


Conversations With Myself

It's usually a bad sign when you start talking to yourself — but I can at least claim a jazz precedent. Years ago, Bill Evans developed the concept of "conversations with himself" for a series of over-dubbed piano recordings. Your indefatigable blogger now adopts the same approach in the first of a series of self-inflicted Q&As.

Have you faced any ethical dilemmas lately?

I've realized that if I want my Lakers to play the Celtics in the NBA finals, I need to root for Boston in the Eastern Conference play-offs. This creates tremendous cognitive dissonance. I had to take two aspirin at half-time during Tuesday night's game.

Is this an East Coast versus West Coast type of thing?

Most people have childhood psychological scars from Mom and Dad. Mine came repeatedly at the hands of Bill Russell and John Havlicek.

Is jazz like basketball?

Absolutely. They both feed off the creative tension between running the plays and ignoring the plays. You need to know when to follow the Xs and Os, and when to improvise.

Which sports team is the jazziest?

The Brazilian national soccer team. If athletics were music, they would be Kind of Blue and Giant Steps all mixed together.

If you weren't a jazz writer, what would you want to do with your life?

My boyhood dream was to be photographer for a surf magazine. I had visions of an editor phoning me up and saying: "Ted, grab your camera and catch the next plane to Tahiti."

Do you surf?

Almost as well as Brian Wilson.

What keeps you jazzed about jazz?

I like to listen to new music every day. And not always to jazz. In fact, I tend to get more excited about music that doesn't try to fit into the pre-defined categories.

What good music have you been listening to lately?

The Zenph Studios re-workings of Art Tatum's 1949 Shrine Auditorium concert. I will be writing about that in a few days. The Zenph team rebuilt this music from the ground up, one note at a time, much as they did with their release of Glenn Gould�s version of Bach's The Goldberg Variations a year ago.

What else is sizzling on my iPod? Hmmm, let's seee . . . The Mandé Variations by Toumani Diabaté; Songlines by Derek Trucks. I like the two recent ECM releases by Marilyn Mazur and Marcin Wasilewski. The latest CD from the The North Mississippi All-Stars. Maceo Parker's Roots and Grooves. The new piano trio projects from Brad Mehldau and Taylor Eigsti. Also Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues -- but it's hard to pick which I like better, Tatiana Nikolayeva's version of Shostakovich or Keith Jarrett's. It's probably worthwhile having both.. . . . A lot of other things, too. But each of those CDs is a pleasure to hear.

Why is the music industry in such bad shape?

The music industry has lost confidence in its own product. Music is magical. Music is a source of enchantment. But for the magic to work, you need to believe in it. Most record label execs stopped believing a long time ago. Instead they put their faith in marketing and hype. And if the people selling the records don't believe in the magic, how can you expect the fans to do so?

How can you tell these things?

Just look at the packaging and marketing. You could tell by looking at the old Blue Note releases that they possessed serious mojo. The magic was there on the LP cover. Even today you can tell that the folks at ECM believe in the magic, because it is apparent in their graphic design—which sends a simple message: listen to this music and experience the mojo. But most labels resort to gimmicks and tricks, and even if the music has metaphysical dimensions, its almost hidden by the time it gets to the retail store.

More to the point, you can also see this lack of confidence in the choice of talent and the approach to projects. It seems . . . . how should I put this? . . . that too many non-musical factors drive these decisions.

How can we get the magic back?

The labels need to hire people with a burning passion for music, and then let them follow their bliss. The listening public will soon want to join in on the fun.

What's the worst thing that happened to you this week?

Fifty dollars to fill up the tank . . . ouch! But I got an oil change the same day and it only cost $21.95. Does Jiffy Lube have some special cheap source of oil that the service stations don't know about?

What's the best thing that happened to you this week?

I got a favorable comment on my Philip K. Dick review from Tessa B. Dick, the author's widow. That's almost like a blessing from the great man himself.

Mr. Dick, for his part, is currently residing in an alternative universe, and doesn't have Internet access.

What are you reading now?

I'm about halfway through Lush Life by Richard Price, and greatly enjoying it.

Does Billy Strayhorn show up in that book?

He hasn't yet . . . but I still have two hundred pages to go.

If jazz is like basketball, why is the music industry suffering while sports teams are so successful?

In sports, you have to put the best team on the field, or else you lose games. The music industry stopped doing that around fifty years ago. If the major labels went back to featuring the best talent in the world, you might be surprised how well the music sold.

Any predictions for the Finals?

Mark my words . . . the Lakers over the Celtics in seven.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

May 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Jazz Report from Estonia

Our bloggers must suffer from chronic wanderlust. They have reported on recent jazz happenings in Norway, Ireland, Brooklyn, Germany, New Orleans, Norway (again!) and even at Lincoln Center. But none of our contributors covers more miles (or kilometers, given his European beat) than Stuart Nicholson. Today he sends in his report on jazz activities in Estonia. Get the full story below . . . T.G.

                                          Estonian Jazz Vocalist Tuuli Taul

Any Estonian over the age of thirty has a clear memory of what life was like before their country declared independence from the former Soviet Union on August 20, 1991. “Gray,” they say with a shrug. “It was gray, lots of waiting in lines.” For many, keeping up with Western culture, including jazz, was a matter of tuning into Finnish radio and TV – the Estonian language and the Finnish language have many characteristics in common, and Finland is only a 90 minute trip across the Baltic by fast boat.

Estonia is a proud and independent country that was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, occupied by the Nazis in 1941, only to be taken over again by the Soviet Union in 1944 – a period that cost them 25% of their population. Their history goes back to 8500 BC when a settlement that eventually became Estonia was formed immediately after the Ice Age.

But despite foreign occupation, which in earlier times included annexation by the Danes and the Swedes, this small Baltic country (population 1.3 million) has fiercely maintained its cultural traditions. Their runic folk tradition predates the Vikings and it was highly symbolic that Soviet rule was ended by the “Singing Revolution,” a mass demonstration by the Estonian population singing their national folk songs.

Since independence, stories of what a beautiful country this was began to circulate as the effects of cheap air travel began to be felt. Up until then, I had a picture in my mind’s eye of, well, a country with blizzards swirling down from the north, “gray” concrete apartment blocks and its citizenry wrapped up in trench coats, huddled around braziers for warmth, much like Napoleon’s troops during the retreat from Moscow in 1812.

Such fanciful preconceptions are quickly dashed when you arrive at Tallinn airport. Estonia is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and signs of prosperity are everywhere. A member of the European Union and NATO since 2004, Estonia quickly adapted to the new technologies and its new economic freedom has seen living standards skyrocket.

Tallinn is home of the Jazzkaar Festival, one of the must-see events on the European jazz calendar, held annually in the brilliant spring sunshine. It began nineteen years ago under Russian occupation, a remarkable feat that’s down to its indefatigable director Anne Erm, who has steered the event into one of the most important cultural events in Estonia and the biggest jazz festival in the Baltic States.

Spread over twelve days, the programme was spiced with the occasional big name headliner, Dave Douglas and Avishai Cohen had already appeared when I got in, but on successive nights at the Rock Café Roy Ayers and Angelique Kidjo held court. Neither are exactly spring chickens, but both were possessed with demonic energy that kept their young bands on their toes.

If anything, they showed how Afrobeat and funk are mutating into something very similar; a process of transculturation where Afrobeat takes on Afro-American elements of funk through the global dominance of Anglo-American pop culture. Both concerts attracted young audiences, mainly 18 to 25 year olds, who loved Ayers’ solos on synthi-vibes and Kidjo’s dynamic vocals.

A late afternoon concert by Al DiMeola in the Estonia Kontserdisaal had earlier seen the guitarist go Spanish, with classical guitar, accordion and percussion accompaniment. The music resounded with rousing cadences and DiMeola’s double, triple and quadruple time sprints. But it lacked depth. After the technical fireworks had been exhausted there was nowhere left to go, except more of the same.

But while the big names pull in the crowds, Jazzkaar provides a wonderful showcase for Estonian jazz, which attracts a keen, youthful following. Vocalist Tulli Taul and her trio are one reason why. With two guitars (one taking the bass role) and a percussion accompaniment, Taul sings her originals in Estonian. And here’s where it gets interesting. Because language and melodic construction are so closely linked, words and melody don’t fall in ways in which you would expect in English.

Especially fascinating was her scat; like the best scat singers her improvisation grows organically from the song’s melody, but it was twisted and turned by her language in ways you simply didn’t expect. This was also apparent when the guitar duo Ain Agan and Teemu Viinikainen, an Estonian and a Finn, played a Finnish tango during their absorbing set. Circling each other with accomplished ease, their collaboration was one of understated excellence.

The No. 99 Jazziklubi is set in the somewhat surreal surroundings of a former government building. Located in the basement, it’s a good performance space that boasts excellent sound. With a different band nightly including the Kadri Voorand Quartet, Villu Veski and Fulvio Paredes, for many the most accomplished group was a quintet led by saxophonist Raivo Tafenau.

Tafenau was equally at home on soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, and shared the front line with bass clarinettist Meelis Vind. The essentially straight-ahead disposition of the band was given a sense of mystery by the dark tones of the saxophone/bass clarinet combination and by Jurmo Eespere’s Fender Rhodes. Tafenau and Vind were strong and convincing, but it was Eespere, in his understated way, who caught everyone’s attention. He developed melodies with care and precision, rather linking together endless riffs and licks, and emerged as a very promising talent in a very competent rhythm section, epitomising the high standard of Estonian jazz at its best.

However, on leaving the No. 99 there seemed no shortage of police gathered in groups, packed into unmarked parked cars and in vans. It was a reminder of how this tiny Baltic state, despite the enormous strides it has made in recent years, has not quite slipped the shackles of the past. It was the first anniversary of riots by ethnic Russians protesting at the removal of a Soviet war memorial in the nearby Freedom Square in which over 1,000 people were arrested and 300 people injured.

To Estonians it was a legacy of the Soviet occupation and Russian government officials reacted angrily to the removal of the monument with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov calling it, “absolutely repulsive.” The Estonian government responded by saying that for Estonians there was little difference between Nazi occupation during the Second World War and the later tyranny of Soviet rule.

Incredibly, Estonian government websites came under cyber attack, which many sources ascribe to Russia, while in Moscow, pro-Kremlin youth groups flung tomatoes at the Estonian embassy and parked a life-sized inflatable tank in front of the building. Demonstrators elsewhere burnt Estonian flags. A year on calm prevailed. But it was a reminder of the past which the majority population wish to distance themselves from. Democracy and freedom have been grasped with both hands by Estonia. In 1992, people stood in lines for hours to buy food. Bread and milk products were rationed. Yet with shrewd financial management Estonia has become the first former communist country to rise to the status of a "free" economy in the annual Index of Economic Freedom, published by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal.

This remarkable success story is echoed by Jazzkaar, which has played a significant role in raising the profile of Estonian art and culture across Europe. In the West it is easy to overlook the ways in which jazz has become synonymous with freedom in countries beyond our borders. But talking to young audiences at the Jazzkaar festival left one in no doubt about what the music means to them and how it is still a potent musical force in the world.

This blog entry posted by Stuart Nicholson.

May 20, 2008 · 0 comments


How Bass Solos Ruined Jazz

What's wrong with jazz? Could it be that unwieldy string instrument hiding out next to the drummer? Alan Kurtz, jazz.com's resident curmudgeon (who lately in this column debunked the idea of a new Golden Age for Jazz and poked a finger in the eye of Record Store Day), now takes on that venerable jazz institution: the bass solo. Below you will find his low, rumbling case against the large wooden elephant in the room that everyone politely avoids discussing. Readers are invited to share their own opinions by adding their comments or emailing them to editor@jazz.com.   T.G.


Bass solos suck. Let's face it, the ponderous, unwieldy bottom feeder is the least interesting jazz instrument, lacking even the visual appeal of drum solos. A bulwark in European concert halls since its invention by 16th-century Italian luthiers, the bass violin has by design remained in the background of symphonic and chamber music. Mozart, e.g., composed 40 concertos featuring a solo instrument, including 27 for piano, 5 for violin, 4 for horn, one each for flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon, but none for bass violin. Likewise in other genres, from folk to pop to country and rock 'n' roll, the acoustic bass serves a supporting role. Only in jazz has it become a principal solo instrument.

Until the 1930s, the string bass was seldom used in jazz, and even then almost never for solos. Since it projects poorly, the acoustic bass mostly provided ballast in lieu of solos that inevitably plunked more than resonated. During the 1940s and early '50s, however, such virtuosos as Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford and Charles Mingus elbowed their cumbersome instrument into the spotlight. By the mid-'50s, bass solos were de rigueur. Still, the bassist remained primarily an accompanist, not a principal soloist on a par with trumpeters, saxophonists or pianists.

One man changed all that. In the early 1960s, Scott LaFaro, equipped with gargantuan technique and a muscularity suggesting Popeye hopped up on spinach, revolutionized the jazz bass. By imposing his will not just during designated solos, but throughout an entire piece, this brazen bull fiddler in a china shop (otherwise known as the Bill Evans Trio) perversely transformed the conventional trio from a pianist supported by bass and drums to a bassist backed by piano and drums.

Popeye and Scott the Sailormen

It's been said that a jazz band is democracy in microcosm, with each constituent free to express himself. This cliché misconstrues jazz and democracy. An effective group requires both a leader with vision, and participants willing to cooperate towards a common goal. Not everyone can be President simultaneously. This applies to jazz no less than to an entire nation, and is affirmed by Explorations (1961), recorded shortly before Bill Evans abdicated. The highlight, with LaFaro mercifully keeping his monstrous technique in check, is "Elsa," where the diffident pianist is assisted, not overpowered, by his sidemen. "Elsa" isn't democracy in microcosm; it's beauty in macrocosm.

By the summer of 1961, however, Scott LaFaro's coup d'bass was complete. So, as it turned out, was his life. Ten days after a live recording session that would result in two Bill Evans Trio albums, the 25-year-old LaFaro accidentally drove his car at high speed into a tree in upstate New York, killing himself and a passenger.

Accordingly, Evans's next release, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, served as what producer Orrin Keepnews called "a fitting memorial to the abbreviated career of a talented bassist." The follow-up Waltz for Debby was "perhaps more representative of the overall repertoire of the group."

YouTube: Bassist ScottLaFaro

Although Evans's playing is breathtakingly beautiful, LaFaro dominates the proceedings, abetted by his nominal boss, whose tendency towards introspection made him a pushover for the bully fiddler in his midst. Thus, LaFaro consumes 30% of the five Sunday at the Village Vanguard tracks where he solos, and monopolizes a similar percentage of Waltz for Debby. Cumulatively, even factoring in three tracks on which he doesn't solo, LaFaro hogs nearly 25% (19.5 minutes) of the trio's 80-minute, 2-LP performance. This is way beyond showcasing. It's more like Godzilla Goes Trick or Treating. Through sheer brute force, Scott LaFaro had hijacked the Bill Evans Trio.

In December 2007, jazz blogger and occasional Jazz.com contributor Marc Myers reported that pianist Lennie Tristano once walked out in the middle of an Evans/LaFaro club date. "Apparently the perfection of the Bill Evans Trio," Myers speculated, "was too much for Lennie's ego." As long as we're imputing unknowable motives to dead people, let me suggest a contrary spin. In 1962, Tristano objected in the pages of Down Beat to the burgeoning star complex among rhythm sections. "Nowadays there are no sidemen left," Lennie kvetched. "Everyone is a soloist." Tristano most likely fled not out of bruised pride, but in protest to LaFaro's Paul Bunyan-esque ax wielding. With Babe the Bull Fiddle at his side, Scott LaFaro cleared the forest of interested listeners faster than splatter-movie loggers armed with Texas chainsaws.

In any case, LaFaro's legacy was widespread and long-lasting. Never again would jazz bassists be relegated to a lowly supporting role. Henceforth, in a grand triumph of vanity over common sense, everyone would be a soloist, and every soloist would be a star. Now across the land would resound the thumps, thwacks and thuds of bull fiddlers brutishly boring ever-diminishing audiences into deep, dull submission. All in all, an unfitting memorial to the abbreviated career of a talented but overreaching musician. And a dismal development for jazz.

This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.

May 19, 2008 · 135 comments


The Monterey Jazz Festival Photography of Ron Hudson

  Danny Barker at the Monterey Jazz Festival
                      Photo by Ron Hudson

There’s nothing more fashionable than a gallery opening . . . even if it’s just a virtual gallery. So I have slipped into my white linen suit and finest cravat to announce the opening of the Ron Hudson photo exhibit at jazz.com.

Hudson has photographed almost one thousand jazz artists over the last four decades, covering the world of jazz from Monterey to Montreux. But the highlight of our show is his visual documentation of the history of the Monterey Jazz Festival, where Hudson has been a recurring presence since the late1950s, and preserving the event on film since the 1970s. He has been shooting an average of 23 rolls of films at each Festival. This has enabled him to accumulate an archive of close to a thousand images per year – preserving the immediacy and artistry of the West Coast’s most venerable jazz event. You may have seen him down front at the festival, practicing his craft and capturing the excitement of jazz in action, while others are kicking back and soaking up the ambiance.

                      Dexter Gordon at Monterey (1978)
                             Photo by Ron Hudson

Hudson’s work reflects his intimate appreciation of the jazz craft. Early on, he was just as likely to arrive at a jazz performance with his drums as bring along his Nikon. Born in Oakland, Hudson was surrounded by jazz from an early age at his father's music shop. But jazz became a life-changing passion in his late teens, when he was energized by the music Art Farmer, Benny Golson, Dave Brubeck Quartet with Paul Desmond, and Maynard Ferguson's 13-piece band with singer Anne Marie Moss. In Hudson’s words: “I found the music of my life."

His evocative "in the moment" black-and-white photographs appear on CD covers and in magazines, art exhibits, five books, as well as in many private collections. In particular, his portraits of jazz artists (including a number of the photos in our gallery) are featured in the recent book Right Down Front. His work is also on permanent exhibit at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley in Seattle, where Hudson lives with his wife, Christine, and Ella Fitz, a miniature poodle.

You don’t need to get dressed up for this gallery opening. (Heck, I'm gonna take off my cravat, too.) Just click here to take a stroll through the Ron Hudson exhibit, playing now at jazz.com.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

May 18, 2008 · 0 comments


The Dollar Declines Overseas . . . And U.S. Jazz Does the Same

Paris-based jazz critic Thierry Quénum, a frequent contributor to this column, has just returned home from Mai Jazz, a Norwegian festival that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. His report below raises interesting and controversial issues about a European jazz scene that increasingly sees itself as independent of US trends and influences. Readers are invited to share their own opinions by adding their comments or emailing them to editor@jazz.com.   T.G.

Mai Jazz

The people of Stavanger, Norway have good reasons to be proud that their city was elected Cultural Capital of Europe (CCE) for 2008. This harbor city of 120,000 inhabitants, on Norway’s South Western coast, thus acquired an international recognition that supplements tourist interest in its fjords and exquisite countryside, and the economic value of its offshore oil industry.

All this was explained by the radiant deputy mayor of Stavanger to a group of some 30 jazz journalists, festival directors and club owners from around the world during a lunch held in a beautiful early 19th century royal manor overlooking the city. But why so many jazz professionals in Stavanger on this exceptionally warm and sunny spring weekend? Actually most of them come to this part of Norway every year or so, because the Vestnorsk Jazzsenter (VNJS, Western Norway Jazz Center) invites them to Jazz Norway in a Nutshell (JNN), a showcase that allows them to discover local jazz musicians that are not necessarily publicized around the world by famous labels such as ECM or Jazzland.

Last year JNN was coupled with the Natt Jazz Festival in the neighboring city of Bergen. This year it was an obvious choice to hold it in Stavanger, the newly appointed CCE, and to couple it with its home-grown Mai Jazz festival, which was celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Norway is a small, affluent country of about 4.5 million people, and it has a number of great music schools with jazz departments whose output of young, talented musicians is remarkably high. The comparatively small size of the country, and even of Scandinavia at large, compels them to look for an international career early on. The idea behind JNN is to help these musicians do so, and the generous Norwegian policy as far as culture is concerned — be it the State, the regions or the cities — allows the VNJS to contribute to this. By bringing the rest of the world to see young Norwegian musicians, it hopes to trigger some gigs abroad.

According to Bo Grønningsaeter, chief executive of the VNJS, this “export process” works fairly well. As a result, the party of some thirty jazz professionals from Asia, Europe and North America had an opportunity to hear a significant number of Norwegian musicians that haven’t traveled abroad much yet, as well as enjoy more familiar international artists. Significantly, Mai Jazz featured very few Americans – just as the difficulty foreign bands face trying to get engagements in the USA may explain the absence of promoters from the US.

Some local promoters, like Grønningsaeter, even say that they don’t need the Americans anymore since what they propose is rarely original, whereas the level and diversity of European jazz — and Norwegian jazz particularly — has enormously increased in the past few decades. One Norwegian festival promoter went so far as to declare that he and his team realized, after they had finished booking their program a couple of years ago, that they hadn’t even thought of including one single US group! For whatever reasons, this year’s edition of Mai Jazz offered a few major American artists, such as Wayne Shorter, Oregon, and John Scofield playing with the Stavanger Conservatory’s Bjergsted Jazzensemble and a Norwegian rhythm section.

One of the most impressive musicians on this last concert was certainly bass player Ole Morten Vågan. He is definitely the next man from the North to watch on this instrument, that has seen the rise of a number of talented artists made of “Norwegian wood” in recent decades. Mai Jazz also showcased famous names and rising stars from the rest of the world, such as veteran trumpeter Enrico Rava, surrounded by his latest choice of brilliant young Italian sidemen, the Neil Cowley Trio, the new piano sensation on the British scene, and Roberto Fonseca, one of the latest piano wonders from Cuba.

But most of all, when you’ve flown all the way up to Norway and are not outdoors enjoying the exceptionally warm spring weather, you and your international mates will want to listen to local bands you won’t hear elsewhere. Among them, the Zanussi Five (alto, tenor and baritone saxes, plus bass and drums) played in a former 19nth century brewery overlooking the North Sea, and displayed their fine art of arranging, drawing on the diverse timbres of their reeds and their great sense of construction and dynamics.

Trumpet player Mathias Eick — who just released his first CD for ECM — is another man to follow. His virtuoso playing differs from that of most Nordic trumpet players. He likes long phrases and has a taste for lyricism as well as for energetic blowing in an electric context, revealing that he has digested Miles Davis’s ‘70s period in an utterly personal way. The Stavangerer, a club set in a large wooden building close to the city center, was the perfect place for the intense performance Eick’s quartet delivered.

“In the Country” is the name of a ensemble comprised of pianist Morten Qvenild, bassist Roger Arntzen and drummer Pål Hausken. But this band is not just one more piano trio, since its members sometimes sing or use electronic devices and miscellaneous instruments to broaden their range. Still their approach is typically Nordic in its use of song formats as well as baroque or classical cadenzas, and in its concern for sound textures and space. Having them play in an ancient cloister about half an hour’s drive from the city was a good way to immerse the audience in the half conceptual, half organic atmosphere that this trio builds.

Apart from these already existing groups, some of Mai Jazz’s concerts were projects financed with the help of Stavanger 2008. Sax and clarinet player Frode Gjerstad could thus present three groups of improvisers from several countries on the same evening, including vibist Kevin Norton, drummers Louis Moholo and Paal Nilssen-Love, fellow reed player Sabir Mateen, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and cornetist Bobby Bradford. They all played together two days later, under the collective name Circulasione Totale Orchestra 2008, and their performance, featuring two bassists and three drummers, stood out as the most original and powerful event of the whole festival. It showed how lively, trans-generational and trans-national free jazz still can be, even if it doesn’t always attract huge audiences, and often has little room in festivals that are not entirely devoted to this genre.

Keyboardist Jon Balke’s composition “Siwan,” also commissioned by Stavanger 2008, was exactly the opposite. Performed in the beautiful St Peter’s Church, it brought together trumpeter Jon Hassel, some baroque strings players, Asian musicians, and Moroccan vocalist Amina Alaoui. Though some jazz hues could be felt in it, the main influence in this syncretic oratorio was Arabic-Andalusian music. It confirmed that Balke’s interests range from jazz to classical through folk music from different parts of the world. In some ways, he is following in the path of his Viking ancestors, who also traveled over many continents, centuries ago.

The final concert had to be something big, and though Jan Garbarek has often played Mai Jazz in the past, his following doesn’t seem to fade. His quartet filled a 1500 seat auditorium on the outskirts of Stavanger, and was a huge success. Garbarek didn’t rest on his laurels. Of course, Nordic and Celtic folk themes are still the main vehicle for his lyrical soprano sax. Yet perhaps because Manu Katché’s driving drums was ever present beside him, Garbarek indulged in a couple of lighthearted calypsos and delivered some fiery tenor solos that conjured up the memory a fellow horn player, the late Michael Brecker.

Mai Jazz obviously tries to reach a consensus between popular tastes and innovative proposals. The quality of local bands fully justifies the part they take in the program. On the other hand, the low profile of US jazz here suggests the spread of an attitude that views the homeland of jazz music as just one option among many, as a single aspect of what the jazz world has to offer. In truth, high quality jazz can have its roots anywhere. But while a multicultural attitude is spreading widely throughout the Europe jazz scene, many here wonder when the USA will open up its ears to jazz that is not bounded by its two oceans.

This blog article was posted by Thierry Quénum.

May 15, 2008 · 1 comment


Jazz's New Gold Standard: More Bull Than Bullion

Is jazz experiencing a new golden age? Certainly one journalist thinks so. But Alan Kurtz, jazz.com's resident curmudgeon (who recently took on National Record Store Day in this column) cautions jazz fans not to pop open the champagne bottles quite yet. He offers his dissenting views below. Readers are invited to share their own opinions by adding their comments or emailing them to editor@jazz.com.   T.G.

Esquire, January 1959

Fifty years ago this summer, a popular men's fashion magazine began preparing its annual Holiday issue. Well-written articles and fine photographs within would document what Esquire's January 1959 cover proclaimed as "The Golden Age of Jazz." In Esquire's view, the late 1950s marked "the most exciting, most creative, and perhaps most crucial age through which our native music has ever passed."

Fifty years later, New York writer Martin Johnson reveals now on TheRoot.com that jazz is "On the Cusp of a New Golden Age." On its surface, this may seem like déja vu all over again. But Mr. Johnson counts carats very differently than Esquire did.

Esquire was effusive about the jazz audience. "Its presence is loudly attested to by the ringing of cash registers in night clubs, concert halls, record stores, and music schools; by the subscription lists of the half-dozen magazines entirely devoted to jazz, and the dozen others which feature it regularly. Its purchasing power is as much evidenced by the 12-record Encyclopedia of Jazz that was recently offered to supermarket customers across the nation … as by Norman Granz's multimillion-dollar concert-and-record empire, built wholly out of the marketing of this kind of music." Over the past year, Esquire noted, to satisfy an "enormous" and "diverse" audience, new jazz albums had appeared at the rate of one a day, with sales sometimes surpassing half a million. As for the airwaves, jazz occupied "an incalculable amount across the nation," part of "the gradual recognition, in books and television and movies, that this music is perhaps the most indigenous expression of our national life."

Occupying an incalculable amount of the airwaves was no doubt wishful thinking, and sales of half a million for a jazz album in those days seem inflated by one or two zeros. But there's no denying that the pop charts did sometimes get jazzy, as when Canadian flutist Moe Koffman's "The Swingin' Shepherd Blues" swung for three months among the Cash Box Top 60 Singles in 1958. Even TV caught the bandwagon. During 1957-59, jazz buff Steve Allen emceed four one-hour Timex all-star jams on NBC, CBS telecast its historic special The Sound of Jazz, and local stations from New York's Channel 13 to L.A.'s KABC featured weekly jazz bashes.

As Martin Johnson sees it, however, popularity is no longer the right scale upon which to weigh gold. "Sales of jazz recordings are down," he acknowledges, "making up a meager 2% of all record sales worldwide." At the same time, most young adults can't afford to attend a "high-end jazz club," where, he writes, "admission is $30, drinks are $10 and even a burger will set you back $15." Nevertheless, Johnson insists, "A new and enthusiastic audience for jazz is sprouting up." His evidence? "Several times in the last few years," he has found himself squeezing into standing room "amid a crowd full of twentysomethings" at one of Manhattan's small jazz nightclubs. If this seems less than convincing, no problem. "The new golden age," Johnson reckons, "reflects the new scaled-down economy of the music industry in general."

But again, not to worry. This downsizing of the industry and outsourcing of its audience are offset by the many "interesting and exciting new recordings and concerts" whose "run of excellence is more than a statistical blip. It is a product of structural change in the jazz world." Simply put, today's artists are "embracing and interpreting more popular repertoire." With their covers of Radiohead, Soundgarden, Oasis, Bjork, Prince and Joni Mitchell, performers are gilding "jazz the music" (as opposed to jazz the industry). "Even Wynton Marsalis, once the leading jazz purist," Johnson reports, "is about to release a pop-oriented recording of duets with Willie Nelson."

Stan Kenton! Tex Ritter!

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In 1962, progressive jazz-meister Stan Kenton roped singing cowboy Tex ("Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'") Ritter into recording traditional songs of ranch and range backed by Kenton's ponderous Mellophonium Orchestra. To freethinker Kenton, all music was equally valid. If he could sufficiently "Kentonize" country & western, he could lasso disbelieving fans from both sides of the musical fence.

Thus did Stan & Tex rustle up jazz versions of a dozen C&W staples such as "Empty Saddles" and "The Last Round-Up." The resulting album, released hopefully by Capitol Records as Stan Kenton! Tex Ritter!, proved to be High Noon for Kenton, not to mention Ritter's Last Round-Up in Hollywood. Forsaking Stan at the deserted corral of jazz and C&W, Tex sagely skedaddled to his country music hideout in Nashville, Tennessee. Kenton stuck to his guns—or at least to mellophoniums. But after this disgrace, he'd never again be on any real Hipster's Wanted Poster. A cautionary tale, perhaps, for Wynton Marsalis.

In any case, there is something profoundly depressing about Martin Johnson's claim that jazz is "smokin' at a level not heard in a long time." Have we really reached the point where a saturation of self-produced CDs, which serve more as polycarbonate business cards than as a medium for artistic expression, heralds a new Golden Age? Where a tiny bar crammed with twentysomethings schmoozing to jazzy chad recycled from pop has-beens signals anything other than cynical pandering?

If this be a Golden Age for jazz, then devaluation of our beloved currency has reached a new low. All of us who cherish this music—artists, fans and writers alike—need to get a grip. Jazz is more of a minority interest than ever. Fortunately, since there are more people than ever, even a diminishing market segment means that jazz still appeals to tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands across the globe. Can't we celebrate the golden anniversary of jazz's last Golden Age without scratching for the fool's gold of another such era? It ain't gonna happen.

By all means, let's enjoy and encourage jazz's latest developments. But enough already with the hype. Leave that to the pros who shill for Clay Aiken and Miley Cyrus. There really is gold in them thar hills.

This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.

May 14, 2008 · 1 comment


Chet's Children: The Legacy of a Fallen Jazz Star

Today is the twentieth anniversary of Chet Baker's death from an apparent fall from his second story hotel window in Amsterdam. Below is the second part of Ted Gioia's look back at the career of this talented and controversial artist. For part one of this essay, click here.

I had seen Baker perform on a number of occasions, but I never spoke to him until a gig at Kimball's in San Francisco about a year before his death. This was around the time of his exceptional live recording in Tokyo, and he showed up on the West Coast playing at top form.

Like many in the jazz world, I always half expected Baker to lay an egg on stage. We all heard the stories of his out-of-control lifestyle, his arrests and incarcerations, his drug use. We knew he had lost his teeth in a beating. He was a guy who didn't give a damn—just look at how he lived in his life. Why should he care what the fans thought about his playing? Why should he give it his all on stage? Yet every time I saw Chet play in person, he was totally in the moment.

I tend to think that the good Chet and bad Chet came from this same place. Baker's obsession with immediate sensations and instant gratification, his fixation with the here-and-now, are what made him a great improviser . . . and also an easy prey for drug dealers, as well as a victim of his own worst inclinations. He lived in the present instant. He didn't worry about tomorrow. He didn't worry about yesterday. He exhibited a type of personality structure perfectly suited for the spontaneity of jazz . . . and for a tragic, fragmented life.

I spoke to Chet during a break at his Kimball's gig. I told him about my research into West Coast jazz. I showed him some of my writings on jazz. I hadn't published any books at that point, but I had some photocopies of articles which I thrust into his hands. I asked whether I could interview him during his San Francisco visit. He agreed, and told me to give him a phone call at his motel the following morning.

Once again, the stereotyped view of Chet would suggest that his mind had been burnt out on drugs, that asking him about events in the 1940s and 1950s would be a pointless and futile exercise. Yet even before I approach Chet, I had talked to people who knew him, and they reassured me on this count. Baker was a shrewd and smart guy, and I would find that he had plenty of interesting things to say—if (and this was the invariable caveat) he decided to do so. In my conversation at Kimball's, I got the same impression. If you could get past the surface con job—and Baker was almost as good at conning you as he was playing the horn—he had a sharp and savage way of thinking, and knew the score better than anyone.

The next morning I phoned Baker at his motel. No answer. I phoned again and again. Still no answer. I decided to make the forty minute drive from my apartment on the Peninsula, and show up at the trumpeter's motel room door. Baker had set up shop at a seedy Travelodge in a bad part of town. At first, I was a little surprised—didn't visiting jazz stars stay at nicer places than this? But Chet probably picked this place for reasons that had little to do with French milled soap and turndown service. He wouldn't answer the door for me, and the guy at the front desk told me that Mr. Baker had refused to let the maid come in to clean his room.

I slipped a note under Baker's door, urging him to contact me. And he did . . . about four weeks later.

I was sharing an apartment with a former college classmate, trying to cut down on the cost of rent to support my expensive habit - going to jazz clubs and buying CDs. I came home one evening to see a note on the kitchen table. It simply read: "Chet Baker phoned." When my roommate showed up later, I asked him whether he had written down a phone number for Mr. Baker. "No, I didn't get one." Needless to say, he was not a jazz fan (my room-mate was an aficionado of the Sex Pistols), and wouldn't know Chet Baker from Mary Baker Eddy. The trumpeter, for his part, never phoned again.

I had one last shot at getting an interview. Kimball's announced a return engagement for the Chet Baker Quartet, and I showed up on opening night, determined to secure the trumpeter's cooperation for my book and research. But when I arrived at the door, the sign read: "Playing Tonight: Les McCann." I asked the ticket seller; "What happened to Chet Baker?" The response: "He was ill and had to cancel. I think he might be in Europe."

I knew, in that moment, that I would never have my conversation with Chet Baker. When I read about his death from a fall a few weeks later, I was not surprised in the least. Somehow I had been expecting it. Baker had been courting disaster for years. Finally it had caught up with him.

Twenty years have now elapsed. What can we say about Chet now, with the benefit of perspective and hindsight? Where does he stand in the jazz pantheon?

First, Baker's music is probably more popular now than during his lifetime. The first time I saw Chet in person, at a small club in the San Jose area, there were fewer than twenty people in attendance. This morning, I checked on Amazon.com, and found that the on-line retailer lists more than 500 Chet Baker releases on its site. Yes, there is a glut of Baker's music available for sale—the result, to some degree, of his haphazard approach to his own discography. But the sheer numbers also reflect the marketplace, the underlying demand for his music. These CDs wouldn't be out there if Chet didn't have a devoted fan base. Despite everything Baker did to saturate the market, his audience always wanted -- and today still wants -- more.

But even more striking—and surprising—is the influence Baker has exerted over later trumpeters. This is especially true in Europe. In fact, one could make a case that no trumpeter of the last fifty years has had more influence among European jazz players than Chet Baker. Check out the ECM releases of artists such as Tomasz Stanko, Enrico Rava or Nils Petter Molvaer, and you can hear how they share Baker's aesthetic values, his preference for melodic phrasing over flashy licks and practice room patterns. Or listen to Till Brönner or Paolo Fresu or any other of a host of other outstanding European musicians. Baker, the man who couldn't play jazz (according to his critics), is a key role model.

A great role model, too, in my opinion. If you wanted to teach young jazz players how to hear, how to play with their hearts and their ears, rather than just with their fingers and method books, Baker would be the place to send them. His range may have been limited, his technique less than virtuosic, his work ethic suspect . . . but the key to improvisation is, put simply, the ability to construct fresh and interesting phrases in real time, to build new melodies in the place of the old ones. And in this, Mr. Baker was nonpareil.

How ironic, though. Baker achieved greatness in many areas, but "role model" and "mentor" would not be the first two words he would have used to describe himself.

You wouldn't want to send your son or daughter on the road with him. You wouldn't want him to take over the advice column from Dear Abby or Miss Manners. Yet, is it possible that Baker stands, twenty years after his death, as a figure others should . . . emulate?

What a peculiar turn of events! I suspect that this troubled artist gravitated to Europe because of the easy money and fairly lax attitudes toward drugs. He performed and recorded widely—perhaps even excessively— to support a habit that had come to dominate him. But the end result was he exposed millions of Europeans, including many up-and-coming musicians of great stature, to his artistry.

They are now Chet's children. And, strange to say, he has finally, oddly, incongruously . . . proven to be a pretty good dad.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

May 13, 2008 · 3 comments


Could Chet Baker Play Jazz? (Part One)

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Chet Baker's death after his apparent fall from a second story hotel window in Amsterdam. Baker was 58 years old at the time of his passing.

                 Chet Baker, artwork by Michael Symonds

For more than a year leading up to this event, I had been trying to arrange a face-to-face interview with Baker. I was in the midst of researching my book on West Coast jazz, and gradually tracking down the surviving musicians who had dominated the California scene in the 1950s. I especially wanted to talk to Baker, who was one of the reasons I was writing the book.

Many of the West Coasters had been dissed by the critics, and I hoped to set the record straight. Baker, more than most, had been subjected to an unfair degree of ridicule and caustic dismissals. Even after his death, these attacks continued. Here, for instance, is a typical put-down from 2002, published by a movie critic masquerading as a jazz expert in the pages of The New Republic:  "Baker, in my view, could not play jazz, and did not play it. He did torch songs on dead batteries."

This same author's "humorous" take on Baker's fatal fall was: "We are talking about Chet Baker, after all . . . he had been dead for years already."

This is fairly typical of the 'state' of Baker criticism in certain fashionable circles.

Of course, the recordings tell a different tale. A live concert from Tokyo preserved on film and tape a few months before Baker's death shows him playing at top form. Baker had left the hard stuff at home in response to stringent Japanese drug enforcement policies � Paul McCartney had been arrested at Narita Airport for marijuana possession a few years before, and musicians finally figured out that Tokyo was not Amsterdam. As a result, Baker stuck with methadone during this visit, and played with a fire and creativity that put the lie to those who considered him a washed-up junkie who could no longer handle the horn.

Yet Baker's soloing, even on a bad day, served as testimony to his exceptional knack for constructing melodic phrases. More than almost any soloist of his generation, Baker played what he heard in his head. He didn't have Berklee licks to fall back on—just what his ear told him. And what an amazing ear. Here is a revealing story, as told to me by Larry Bunker:

"If you put chord changes in front of [Chet], it didn't mean anything to him. He would say in a self-deprecating way, 'Well I don't know the chord changes to the song.' . . . We would go and sit in with bands, often playing until five in the morning, and any of the songs they would play, Chet knew. But he would ask a question that would puzzle the other players. 'What's my starting note?' he'd ask. They thought he was putting them on or something, but all he wanted was the first note on the trumpet so he would know where to start the piece. From there he could navigate any song by ear. Sometimes the other players would try to fool him. They might try to trick him by playing 'All the Things You Are' in E or 'Body and Soul' in B rather than D flat. But Chet would have no problems with doing that. It was the other musicians who ended up struggling—they had tried to give Chet problems, but they just caught up themselves."

Grover Sales told me a similar story. Baker had been enlisted to accompany the Brazilian singer-songwriter João Donato for an engagement at the Trident in Sausalito. Chet would show up late for the gig, with little preparation . . . and Donato would rip through these fast, intricate original compositions, with all sorts of clever chord changes and modulations. Baker would fly over these pieces like he had been playing them for years. He didn't need to see the charts—they wouldn't have meant much to him anyway. As soon as he heard the music, he could work his magic.

Here was the letter I wrote to The New Republic in response to their public flogging of Baker's musicianship—a letter never published by the magazine. I should add that sending letters of this sort is not standard practice for me—I haven't sent any in the six years since I wrote this one. But I felt compelled to jump in on this issue.

Dear Editor,

I am dismayed that The New Republic provided David Thomson with a respectable forum for advocating his ludicrous position that Chet Baker "could not play jazz."

When I conducted my research on Baker for my book on West Coast jazz, I encountered numerous musicians who were lavish in their praise of Chet's improvising skills. They told me many tales of Baker's tremendous prowess in performances and jam sessions.

When I accompanied trumpeter Art Farmer during a master class at Stanford, he held up Chet Baker as a role model to the students, calling particular attention to the brilliance of his improvisations. Recently Keith Jarrett -- an artist who does not give out praise lightly -- has also commended Baker's rare talents.

But, then again, I did not need these testimonials to verify the matter. Like Thomson, I too heard Baker perform in the San Francisco area during the 1980s. But contrary to what one might gather from Thomson's review, Baker played at a very remarkable level every time I heard him.

Thomson reminds me of those Cold War critics of West Coast jazz, who claimed that the popularity of Chet Baker and his contemporaries was simply the result of aggressive marketing by the record companies. Well, the marketing campaigns stopped decades ago, and Baker's recordings still sell in large quantities. Indeed, Baker probably has more releases available today than at any point in his lifetime.

Look at the record. A half century has passed since Chet Baker first hit the scene -- selected by Charlie Parker from among the dozens of top notch trumpeters who hoped to get into Bird's band (not a bad recommendation for Baker there, huh?). Most of the other recordings from that era have disappeared from the bins, forgotten long ago, yet Baker's music has only grown in popularity and influence.

One can only conclude that those who are waiting for the "hype" to die down, and for Baker's undeserved popularity to wane, like one more passing fad from the 1950s . . . well, they better dig in for the long haul, because they will be waiting for a long, long time.

Ted Gioia

Nope, they never published that one. It stayed in the dead letter office until today.

Art Farmer's praise of Chet is particularly worth noting. The conventional wisdom is that Farmer resented Chet, and thought he was a faker who couldn't play a horn. Yet I heard Farmer—unprompted—tell a group of students that they needed to listen to Baker if they wanted to hear how a masterful musician could construct a compelling solo without resorting to flashy high notes or pyrotechnics. So much for the conventional wisdom. . . .

Put simply, Baker was one of the greatest melodic soloists of mid-century American music. And—despite what you may have heard elsewhere—he was one of the most original stylists of his generation. Chet is one of those trumpeters who is easily identified in a blindfold test after only a few notes. Yet he has more than occasionally been dismissed by those who should have known better as some watered-down imitator of Miles Davis. True, both artists played "My Funny Valentine" (although Chet recorded the song years before Davis). True, both musicians developed a "cool" style. But their approach to phrasing, intonation, structuring a solo were markedly different. Even a single, held note—which Chet would typically play cleanly and Miles would characteristically bend -- would tell you which of the two you were hearing.

You should listen to every recording without preconceived notions of how it will sound. The received opinions are often wrong, but even when they are right, listeners need to bring their own emotional compass to the game. Baker, in particular, will distract you from the essence of his artistry if you pay too much attention to the particulars of his biography. Given the self-inflicted damage of his lifestyle, he had no right to sound as good as he did. He was, as the cliché goes, his own worst enemy. But somehow, the music managed to shine through, even as the musician showed increasing wear and tear.

This is part one of Ted Gioia's essay on the music of trumpeter Chet Baker. For part two, click here.

May 12, 2008 · 1 comment


The Saga of Taylor Eigsti: A Jazz Prodigy Grows Up

I first heard about Taylor Eigsti (rhymes with “iced tea”) around the time he was in fourth or fifth grade. An acquaintance of mine, an accountant by trade, told me that his young daughter went to school with an adolescent boy who was quite a remarkable jazz pianist.

My response was . . . to ignore this unsolicited bit of musical scouting advice from the financial profession. Did I tell him how fill out the accelerated depreciation schedule? Of course, if you write about music, you will find everyone has a friend or a relative who is the second coming of Art Tatum or the next Bird. And what kind of jazz chops could a fourth grader have, anyway?

                                           Pianist Taylor Eigsti

But I paid more attention some time later when Herb Wong told me about the young Taylor Eigsti. Dr. Wong is one of the most reliable barometers of up-and-coming jazz talent that I know. He finds artistry the old fashioned way, by listening widely and deeply – even checking out high school and college bands and indie releases that other critics simply ignore. Even better, Herb’s taste is impeccable. He jumps on no bandwagons, adopts no fashionable poses. If he tells me a cat swings, the cat will swing.

About Eigsti, he tells me: this cat swings. (Well, those weren’t his exact words. But close enough for jazz.)

He also related the tragedy Taylor had already experienced during his brief life. When he was a toddler, his sister Shannon (a promising musician herself) succumbed to cancer, and then a few years later he lost his father to the same affliction. Faced with challenges that would undermine, perhaps permanently, many youngsters, Taylor not only survived, but eventually thrived. And not just in music, but in sports and academics too.

I got my chance to hear Taylor, a few weeks after this conversation, at an outdoor jazz series promoted by Dr. Wong. Here the youngster was invited on stage to play a few numbers. Eigsti must have been twelve or thirteen years old at the time, and his poise, for that age, was striking. His playing was still a little cautious, but everything he attempted, he pulled off. Although there were several other promising young jazz artists sharing the stage that day, Eigsti was the one who seemed destined for great things.

One of the pieces Taylor played at that concert was a Dave Brubeck composition. A few days later, I wrote a letter to Brubeck telling him about Taylor, and singing the praises of this promising young musician. The ever gracious Mr. Brubeck took an interest and a short while later he invited Taylor (age thirteen) to share the stage with him during one of Dave’s West Coast jaunts.

But not all prodigies pan out – especially in the jazz world. Recently, Matt Savage has received a lot of attention, and has a personal story that (like Eigsti’s) pre-disposes us to listen sympathetically. Yet, I doubt that Savage will develop into a top notch adult pro. Old timers may remember Craig Hundley from the late 1960s, who was hyped at age fourteen as the next great jazz pianist. But he never realized these expectations, and probably is best known today for playing a bit role on the Star Trek television series. Or there is the case of Sergio Salvatore, who was recording at age 11, and had contracts with GRP and (like Eigsti) Concord. Yet I haven’t heard a whisper about him in years, and his web site indicates that his last CD was released more than a decade ago.

On the other hand, there have been former “child prodigies” who later became established jazz artists as adults. They outgrew the label, and few today call attention to their precocious younger days. Keith Jarrett, for example, began giving concerts to paying customers at the age of six. (I cannot confirm the rumor that he told people to stop coughing and put away their Polaroid cameras at this debut performance.) Hilton Ruiz graced the stage of Carnegie Hall at age eight. Steve Kuhn, as I recall, was actually the subject of a formal academic study of musical prodigies when he was a youngster. But the “prodigy” label is now merely a bullet point in the long and illustrious bios of these artists.

And what about Taylor Eigsti?

Fast forward a decade from my first encounter with this pianist, and Eigsti is no longer a child prodigy. He is young man with a fully developed command of the instrument. He is now recording for the Concord label, and his CD, Let It Come to You, was released a few days ago. He is touring actively, composing, even writing works for symphony orchestra.

Anyone who hasn’t yet heard this young artist, should track down Let It Come to You. Eigsti makes clear that he has arrived. We no longer need to talk about what levels he might reach in the future. He is playing at a world class level right now. When the discussion turns to the best jazz pianists of the new generation, his name must be in the conversation, and maybe the first one mentioned.

Eigsti has overcome the single biggest obstacle of the prodigy, which is to move beyond assimilating influences and develop a mature and up-to-date approach to the jazz tradition that goes beyond mere mimicry. In truth, many of the most talented musicians I have met over the years have been cursed by their precocious talents. It is so easy for them to imitate everything they hear, that they constantly bounce around from style to style, influence to influence, and never put their own personal mark on the music. If their talents were smaller, their artistry might actually be greater.

But Eigsti is now staking out his own territory. Listen to his reworkings of “I Love You” or “Caravan” on his new CD, and you will hear an artist who respects the tradition, but not too much. His harmonic sense is edgy without going over the edge. His technique is sure, and his sense of dynamics (a weak spot for many otherwise capable jazz musicians) is especially good. He shines as a soloist, but he is also a good listener and knows how to adjust his own pianism to what his bandmates are doing. Yes Taylor Eigsti has arrived but, from another perspective, the journey has just begun.

Click here to read the full review Eigsti’s “I Love You,” which is featured as the current Song of the Day at jazz.com.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

May 11, 2008 · 0 comments


Weekend Track Review Roundup

Jazz.com’s team of hard-nosed critics never rest. Below are links to some of the reviews published in the last three weeks. As you will see, these encompass all eras and styles of jazz, and are part of our quixotic but noble attempt to cover all the great (and not so great) tracks recorded since Funky Butt Hall got its first taste of funk.

As always, we provide candid appraisals, and a ranking based on our proprietary 100 point scale. We also include, whenever possible, links for fast (and legal) downloading. And site visitors can play Monday morning critic, posting comments of their own at the bottom of each review.

Miles Davis: Fran Dance
Keith Jarrett; The Köln Concert: Part I
Thelonious Monk: I Surrender Dear
Abbey Lincoln: Blue Monk
John Coltrane: Aisha
Art Pepper; September Song
Louis Armstrong: Chinatown, My Chinatown
Paul Bley: When Will the Blues Leave
Eric Dolphy: Tenderly
Brad Mehldau: The Very Thought of You
Mitchel Forman: Mister Clean
Andrew Hill; Dusk
Freddie Hubbard: Here’s That Rainy Day
Charlie Haden: Ida Lupino
Tony Williams: Vuelta Abajo
Jim Hall: Frisell Frazzle
Roy Hargrove: Whisper Not
Zoot Sims: Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams
Trilok Gurtu: Ballad for 2 Musicians
Keith Jarrett & Jim Pepper: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Benny Goodman & Jimmy Rowles: Mean to Me
Jimmy Smith: Blues for J
The Rosenberg Trio: Minor Swing
Gianfranco Continenza: Outside That Door
Steve Kuhn: Beautiful Love
Charlie Parker: Just Friends
Ron Blake: Shades of Brown
Michael Jefry Stevens: For the Children
Fred Randolph: Ice Nine
Joe Farrell: Molten Glass
Lennie Tristano & Lee Konitz: If I Had You
Johnny Harman: These Foolish Things
Warne Marsh: Yardbird Suite
Adam Levy: Dear John
Michel Petrucciani: Contradictions
David Sanborn: Another Hand
John McLaughlin: When Love is Far Away
Jim Hall & Ron Carter: Alone Together
John Scofield: I’ll Take Les
Johnny Griffin: A Monk’s Dream
Bill Evans & Zoot Sims: Funkallero
Nicholas Payton: Fleur de Lis
Abdullah Ibrahim: Water from an Ancient Well
John Hicks: Lush Life
Gene Ammons: Hittin’ the Jug
Louie Bellson & Clark Terry: Chicago Suite 1
Birelli Lagrene: All the Things You Are
Stanley Clarke: Desert Song
Paco de Lucia: Alta Mar
Mike Stern: Swunka
Stanley Clarke: Desert Song
Sarah Vaughan: In a Sentimental Mood

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

May 08, 2008 · 0 comments


Jazz and Cartoons: The Secret History

Jazz plays a peculiar role in the broader culture. Almost no one buys jazz records these days (roughly 2% of CD sales), yet automobile companies find that they sell cars when they put jazz music on their commercials. Walk into a Starbucks, and you will frequently hear jazz playing in the background. Channel surf the movies on cable, and you will find jazz or jazz-derived music time and time again. Wherever you look, the symbolic impact of jazz far outweighs its importance when measured by sales or concert attendance.

              The First Cool Cat?

Even the name jazz seems to possess some magic. When radio industry folks describe their station's format as “New Adult Contemporary,” no one pays any attention. But when they call it smooth jazz (same stuff, different label), everyone takes notice, perhaps just to gripe. Even things that have little or nothing to do with music – jazzercise or a basketball team in Utah – want to usurp the majesty of the name.

But jazz and cartoons? What could be farther from the spirit of jazz than low-brow animated entertainment for kids. Yet there is a long history of mutual interaction between these two art forms. Raymond Scott’s quirky music served as inspiration both for the soundtracks of countless Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, as well as for serious jazz musicians. Artists as diverse as Don Byron, Bob Moog, the Dave Brubeck Octet and the Kronos Quartet have reveled in its peculiarities.

And Bugs Bunny, don’t forget, was the prototypical hipster back at a time when only Lester Young was doing a better job of defining the cool ethos -- just as Elmer Fudd has long served as the prototype for all "squares," who are sometimes dubbed (in Elmer's honor) as fuddy-duddies. When I write the hidden history of the twentieth century, Bugs and Prez will play leading roles. (Don't laugh, my friends, I'm serious!)

The jazzy theme from The Flintstones was a variant on “I Got Rhythm,” and boasted a swinging chart and perfect blowing changes. Hanna-Barbera musical director Hoyt Curtin contrived this gem of contemporary Americana, a hummable melody that proved to be a major contributor to the success of the TV series. But Curtin topped this effort with his lesser known, but also classic theme for Johnny Quest, which includes some of the best -- and most difficult -- trombone writing of the era. (If you haven’t heard it, check it out here.)

Henry Mancini’s “Theme from the Pink Panther” showed that this successful marriage of a jazz sensibility with animated images was no fluke. Who can imagine the great Peter Sellers’ films without the inspired opening sequences? The animated panther with the brilliant soundtrack became a star in his own right, appearing in 124 shorts, ten television shows and three prime-time television specials.

Despite these precedents, the execs at CBS were unhappy to learn that producer Lee Mendelson planned to use Vince Guaraldi’s piano trio for the soundtrack to the 1965 special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Yet the show captured a huge audience – around half of the televisions in America tuned in – and the soundtrack became almost as popular as Charlie Brown himself. Four decades later, the recording of Guaraldi’s soundtrack music remains a perennial holiday season best-seller.

              Cartoon Jam Session Runs Afoul of the Law

Top Cat, despite his name, is usually relegated to the bottom of this list. This cooler-than-thou cartoon character briefly starred as leading feline in a major network show – but lasted for only thirty episodes. His brief reign lasted from September 1961 to April 1962, not even as long as the second Elizabeth Taylor - Richard Burton marriage. But Top Cat had a winning attitude . . . and a great soundtrack. Again Hoyt Curtin, the man behind the music at Hanna-Barbera, was the composer. (Jazz trivia: If Curtin was the top cat at HB’s music department he wasn’t the only jazzcat there. Marty Paich and Ralph Carmichael also made contributions to Hanna-Barbera scores.)

Pianist Ted Kooshian has adopted the forgotten Top Cat, and features his jazzy theme song as the opening track of his new CD Ted Kooshian’s Standard Orbit Quartet. Kooshian, whom you may know from his work with Ed Palmero’s Big Band, must be a fan of cartoons and comic books, because his CD also covers themes from Spiderman, Batman and The Simpsons. All in all, this release has the most unconventional line-up of tunes that I have encountered in a long time. The eleven tracks also dip into Led Zeppelin, The Police, Captain Kangaroo, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

But I will pick Top Cat over Buffy any day . . . and especially today when the cat’s theme song has been selected as Song of the Day at jazz.com. You can read the full review here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

May 07, 2008 · 4 comments


The Réunion island Sound Comes to New York

Meddy Gerville is a fascinating artist who is developing his own unique approach to world fusion. Imagine translating the ethos of Brazilian Milton Nascimento to a Mediterranean / North African setting, and you may get a sense of what this artist is all about. Gerville hails from distant Réunion Island, located east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, but recently arrived (somewhat jet-lagged) in New York for a brief engagement. Ralph Miriello reports on the proceedings below. T.G.

              Pianist and vocalist Meddy Gerville

After an enjoyable dinner of Korean barbeque in the little midtown section off Herald Square on 32nd known as Korea Town, we ventured downtown to the West Village, off Washington Square where NYU reigns supreme. Our destination here was a comfortable little club called Cachaça (pronounced ka-sa-sah). Situated at 35 West 8th Street between 5th and 6th right at MacDougal, Cachaça is a relatively new comer to the jazz club scene. The club seems to specialize in jazz, especially music with a Brazilian or Latin flavor and bills itself as the new jazz hangout in New York.

The weather outside was a relentless mist of pollen-fine rain that kept your coat damp and could leave your spirit feeling a bit soaked; but we were buoyed looking forward to a night of exciting music from Meddy Gerville and his band. I had recently reviewed Meddy’s new album “Fo Kronm la vi” favorably, and wanted to see if he sounds as good in person as he does in the studio. We arrived at the door as the opening act was finishing up. Taeko Fukao, a pretty Japanese jazz singer had just finished playing to a small but apparently grateful crowd, and we settled in to a prime seat overlooking the bandstand.

Cachaça is long and relative narrow at the front, where a bar straddles the left side as you enter, and seats approximately ten or fifteen. The room then opens up to a dozen or so tables on either side and then widens again with more densely laid out tables back to the stage area. I judged the capacity of this intimate venue to be between seventy to eighty people, a size that is comfortable for patrons and offering good proximity to the music from most locations. The stage is reasonably generous and accommodated the house grand piano and drums along with the remaining instrumentation of Gerville’s five-piece group with relative ease. The sound in the room was of good quality and could be heard from everywhere in the club.

With the weather being less than cooperative the club was not filled to capacity for the 9:00 pm schedule start of the first show, but no matter . . . the band was late in arriving. When they did appear they seemed disoriented and somewhat non-plussed by their tardy entry. I later came to find out that these guys had serious jet lag and it showed in the beginning. Meddy and two of his band mates had come from their hometown on distant Reunion Island, near Madagascar, and had been traveling for what must have been an eternity. Who could blame these travel weary musicians from succumbing to the fatigue we all have when traveling such distances without a break. When the band finally did set up and get started, the crowd of about fifty, who could have been put off, was immediately mollified.

Meddy had assembled a talented group of musicians who related brilliantly to his musical language. His fellow Réunion islanders, Jim Celestin on saxophones and young Jerome Calcine on percussion, had the obvious cultural tie to Meddy based due to their common island pedigree. The inclusion, for this date, of bassist extraordinaire Matt Garrison and super traps master Horacio “ El Negro” Hernandez was an exciting and sympathetic choice that made for a great evening of music.

There is no denying that Meddy’s unique jambalaya of sounds, that are the result of inspiration from the ethnic diversity and rhythms of his native island, draws in the listener. I find his voice, which is at times wonderfully evocative of Milton Nascimento, to be the most characteristic ingredient. Meddy’s talent as a composer and pianist are without question. He effortlessly glides over the keyboards at breakneck speed and with a percussive attack that can build great tension. But when he scats and croons in a mellifluous stream of notes he emits a tonal quality it is immeasurably pleasing to this ear.

Despite his obvious exhaustion from travel he summoned up great strength and exuberance as the set developed and it is easy to see this talented artist could steal a show with his good looks, his likeable stage presence and his charming, self-effacing style. The band’s repertoire contained songs from several of his albums dating to as far back as 1997. The set started with Meddy singing “Dansez Sor Moi “ (or “Dance for Me”), and despite the group still struggling to get up to speed and in-sync, the song signaled that this would be an engaging performance. Meddy sings exclusively in a French dialect and despite the language barrier it in no way detracted from the enjoyment of his music or my appreciation of it.

Besides the aforementioned “ Dansez Sor Moi”, which featured nice interaction between Meddy and the lilting soprano saxophone voice of Celestine, the band played “Vais Oya” which featured some flaming bass work by the talented Matt Garrison, a former John McLaughlin and Steve Coleman sideman. On “Ni dovan, ni deryer” Gerville sounded very much like Al Jarreau with Celestin on soprano conjuring an almost oboe-like tone, reminiscent of Paul McCandless from his work with Oregon. The piece dubbed “Reunion Island” had a distinctively French sound to it and by this time the band had its act together showing amazing synchronicity, executing abrupt time changes flawlessly.

It was apparent that the steady hand of the seasoned timekeeper, Horatio “El Negro” Hernandez, who has played with powerhouse performers from Santana to Pacquito d’Rivera, was deftly keeping it all together in a most professional way. When he did solo he displayed impeccable technique with a polyrhythmic attack that was never showy. On “Camila” the music had passages where they conjured up images of the band Weather Report with it’s signature soprano, keyboard and bass dialogue. The rhythmic, and at times staccato, nature of most of this music was spellbinding and Garrison, Hernandez and percussionist Calcine showed that they could execute the difficult changes with ease. The audience could not help but clap to the beat -- when they could follow it .The smiles on the bandstand were indicative that the players were also having a good time with this vibrant music.

The highlight of the first set was the closer “Barmine,” which is on Meddy’s latest album Fo Kronm la vi and is sure to become a signature piece for him. You clap your hands and if it were possible could dance for joy to this infectious driving song and to Meddy’s undulating voice. The band reveled in its rhythmic sensuality and it crescendo-building form.

Despite a late and somewhat slow start, mitigated by the circumstances of an arduous travel schedule, this was a joyful celebration of a music that speaks to the universality of jazz as a “world music”. Meddy Gerville’s short New York engagement was a note worthy performance that I am glad not to have missed and Cachaça is a club that can be expected to be a welcome new jazz hangout in New York City.

This blog entry posted by Ralph A. Miriello.

May 06, 2008 · 3 comments


The Future Stars of European Jazz

Stuart Nicholson must be the most indefatigable traveler among current jazz critics. He recently covered events in Dublin and Oslo for the jazz.com blog, and promises to send us reports from several other countries during the next four months. (Coming soon: a first hand account of jazz in Estonia.) Below Nicholson reports on his visit to the Jazzahead! gathering in Bremen, Germany, where he got a glimpse of some of the likely leaders of the next generation of European jazz stars. T.G.

It’s not as straight-forward as you’d think getting from London to Bremen. It’s cheaper to fly to Hamburg and go the rest of the way by train. And while Hamburg may have many claims to fame, such as playing host to President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s when he attempted to evoke memories of John F. Kennedy’s famous June ‘63 Berlin speech by declaring “Ich bein ein Hamburger” to startled civic dignitaries, Bremen has mostly kept in the shadow of its sister city.

It seems a bit unfair. After all, it dates back to at least 150 AD and is a Hanseatic city (the Hanseatic League was a powerful trading organisation in northern Europe in the Middle Ages). Today it’s the home of Becks beer, a huge Mercedes plant and a pretty good football (or soccer) team that’s well placed near the top of the German Bundesliga. There’s a lot of civic pride in this lovely, orderly city with its impressive sights such as the St. Petri cathedral, the Gothic town hall that dates back to 1400 and its picturesque market square.

But the Jazzahead! convention has well and truly put the city on the cultural map of Europe. Held in the huge Congress Centrum Bremen, built at a time when flying concrete buttresses and artsy aluminum-and-plate-glass architecture was in fashion, this three-day event attracts visitors, fans, musicians, media and music professionals from over 40 different countries for concerts, conferences, panel discussions, educational symposiums, lectures and trade exhibitions.

In the space of just three years Jazzahead! is well on its way to becoming one of the premier events in European jazz – indeed, it probably already is. The concert program began in the late morning and continued late into the night at the nearby Kulturzentrum Schlachthof. This former slaughterhouse has been converted into a well equipped performance center with good sight-lines and excellent sound. The concerts start at 10.30pm and wind-up in the wee, small hours of the morning.

The Schlachthof programme featured three one-hour concerts each night (a total of nine performances in all) of European jazz selected by a Jazzahead panel of experts. During the day, concerts at the Congress Centrum featured upcoming German jazz musicians, and in the evening a couple of international headliners such as Wallace Roney, Trilock Gurtu and Marilyn Mazur were added to the program.

Considering Germany’s enormous size, relative to the rest of Europe, its economic clout and its awesome musical heritage, it’s fair to say its jazz musicians have been somewhat under represented on the European scene. In fact, probably their most famous musical export in contemporary times has been James Last, who although once a jazz bass player, has long moved out of that line of business.

If pushed to name a couple German jazz musicians, most would probably begin and end with Albert Mangelsdorff, whilst others might add Klaus Doldinger, Heinz Sauer or Manfred Schoof at a push. But in the last three years, a generation of young musicians have emerged who have begun turning heads on the European scene. Some have made their breakthrough through the initiative of record producer Siggi Loch’s Young German Jazz series on his ACT label, such as pianist Michael Wollny’s trio [em]. This ensemble was a hit of the first Jazzahead meeting and promptly went on to considerable acclaim at festivals across Europe.

This year the ACT Young German Jazz series included Berlin trumpeter Matthias Schriefl and his band Shreefpunk. Full of awkward melodies, edgy rhythms and darting references to classical music, Shriefl projects enormous potential which is occasionally dissipated by pushing in several directions at once.

Yet Schriefl’s agitated, fragmented approach is typical of many bands from Berlin not signed to ACT, such as Hyperactive Kid and Johnny La Marama, whose music seems to reflect the changing face of the city itself – old buildings are being pulled down, new ones being erected faster than you can blink, underpasses and overpasses are being constructed here there and everywhere, old roads are suddenly diverted or closed while new ones devour houses, apartments, shops and offices in their path. Change is everywhere and this feeling of disconnect was apparent in their music – rich with quotes and parodies, odd rhythmic shifts and allusions to Weill, they made their crazy collages of sound work through a combination of deft musicianship and attitude.

While lot of young German musicians are drawn to the Berlin scene, pianist Laia Genc went the other way and settled in Cologne. She has already accumulated enough awards and prizes to fill a room in her apartment, and this highly regarded young talent is now setting about to deliver on her enormous promise. Fellow Cologne resident and pianist Anke Helfrich saw her career sidelined for six years due to illness, but announced her return with her album Better Times Ahead. This release hit the upper reaches of the German jazz charts, and it’s easy to see why. Her trio set was calm, understated and totally beguiling.

In contrast, Jazz Kamikaze was anything but. The Danes, Swedes and Norwegians who make up the band have devised an adversarial mix of rock and jazz designed to invoke shortness of breath and dizzy spells among jazz purists. Yet they were serious fun; saxist Marlus Neset is a young musician who created enough elbow room in a band of strong personalities to show he has considerable potential. He could go far.

One of the most interesting sets of the whole weekend was provided by saxist Matthieu Donarier’s trio from Paris, a city that’s often dubbed the crossroads of Europe. With Manu Codjia on guitar and Joe Quitzke on percussion, they wove mid-Eastern flavours and asymmetric rhythms into an intimate yet intense set that built and built in lyrical and rhythmic intensity, gradually bringing the late night trade at the Schlachthof bar to a standstill.

But for those who wanted a glimpse of who the future stars of European jazz might be, then three classically trained virtuoso pianists put their hands up as likely contenders to enjoy the kind of success being enjoyed across Europe by the Esbjörn Svensson Trio, (or e.s.t., as they are often known). The UK’s Gwilym Simcock impressed the international audience with his stunning technique, and by breathing new life into the standards repertoire, while the Carsten Daerr Trio seemed to have worked out their own personal jazz language.

Filling his short set with concise yet absorbing originals, each seemingly constructed to leave you wanting more, Daerr proved to be a cunning alchemist who in another life could probably make gold out of base metal. He was joined by long-time associates Oliver Potratz on bass and Eric Schaefer in drums, and the trio demonstrated that they have developed a shared musical idiom that was intense yet rich with meaning.

But it was Jef Neve from Belgium who took Jazzahead! by storm. With bassist Piet Verbist on bass and Teun Verbruggen on drums they presented a rhythmically charged set that delighted a capacity audience at the Schlachthof. Classical and jazz influences were seamless mixed into an original style that climaxed with the powerful “Nothing but a Casablanca Turtle Sideshow Dinner” from his album Nobody is Illegal. It earned the loudest ovation of the whole event as everyone sensed the arrival of a major talent.

This blog entry posted by Stuart Nicholson.

May 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Brooklyn Remembers Max Roach

Tim Wilkins contributes this first hand account of a tribute to the late Max Roach, part of a series of Brooklyn based events in honor of the legendary drummer. T.G.

                  Pianist Randy Weston (photo by Randy Waterman)

“If people don't like what you're doing, you're probably doing the right thing,” Max Roach once told trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater. “Max Roach challenged himself every night to do something that he hadn't done before,” Cecil recalled. “And obviously. he challenged the rest of us, to get up to his level.”

Cecil and other jazz greats, including pianist Randy Weston, bassists Leonard Gaskin and Sam Gill, and percussionist Montego Joe shared memories of Max with those who gathered at Brooklyn's Medgar Evers College last weekend to reflect on the drummer's legacy.

Many of these musicians grew up with Max in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvestant neighborhood. As teenagers in the 1940s, they made trips to Harlem to catch the new sounds being played by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk at Minton's and Monroe's Uptown House. At sixteen, Max once drew himself a mustache with an eyebrow pencil to get past the doorman.

Gaskin played at Minton's, and Max soon followed. Before long, both were playing on 52nd Street - Roach with Bird, and Gaskin with Dizzy, creating the music that would come to be called bebop. But it all started in Brooklyn, with the solid musical grounding the budding boppers received in the borough's public schools and at churches like the Concord Baptist Church, where Roach, who passed away in August, was a lifelong member.

Now, movement is underfoot to bring Brooklyn's jazz history back to life. The Roach memorial was the high point of the month-long Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival, which held more than forty concerts in largely African-American neighborhoods to raise awareness about the borough's living heritage in jazz. 'We want to pass on all of the knowledge, the history, pride, and honor to a younger generation, who really doesn't know about this,' said Susie Anderson of the Andy Kirk Research Foundation, the weekend's organizers, who hope to open a jazz archive in Brooklyn. The weekend included free concerts by Weston, Bridgewater and other associates of Roach, including Fab 5 Freddy, Odean Pope, Lewis Nash and the M'Boom ensemble, which includes Ray Mantilla, Steve Berrios and Joe Chambers.

          From L to R: Gil Noble, Herb Lavelle, Randy Weston,
          Otto Neal, Leonard Gaskin, Sam Gill, Donald Sangster,
          Montego Joe, and T.S. Monk.
(photo by Randy Waterman)

The gathered musicians also shared thoughts on the fate of jazz and the challenges of bringing it to the attention of a younger generation. “Today, we don't have music in the public schools, especially in the poorer areas where blacks live,” said Gill, who started in jazz then spent nearly fifty years as bassist for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. “So my theory is that's why rap started, because they weren't getting any music in there.”

Drummer Herb Lavelle agreed the generation gap has grown into a problem. “With jazz not being played on the radio for 25 years, young people never knew what it was,” he said. “So they're doing their own thing now, and they don't understand what we did, and we don't understand what they're doing.”

T.S. Monk, drummer and son of the bop pianist, added that Max always encouraged cooperation between the generations. “Hip-hop ain't that far from bebop, or rebop,” Monk said. “This younger generation of musicians is looking to us for validation... so it becomes our responsibility to get back, stand back and dig exactly what they're doing.”

“Are you watching the kids, these hiphop kids?” Roach once asked T.S. as they were working to create the Thelonious Monk Institute, now a leading force in jazz education. “He said, 'You have to pay close attention to them, because they're actually very similar to us.’”

“He always looking, and he was always trying to find the next thing,” Bridgewater said of Max. On hip-hop, the two agreed to disagree. Max “was really enthused about the rhythmic aspects about what they were doing,” Cecil recalled. “But I said, 'Well, but they're not really dealing with music, because they haven't had the theory, the melody, harmony, and so forth.'"

On the other hand, Bridgewater said today's jazz students today are often too academic in their approach. “There's a spirituality to the music that you just don't get from theory. Charlie Parker did not play the 'bebop scale.' Charlie Parker played music. Dizzy Gillespie played music. Unless you can lift the notes of the page and make them personal, it means nothing.”

Weston agreed about this importance of spirituality, and tradition, in jazz. As a teen, he and Roach would hang out at Brooklyn's social clubs to play cards with older musicians and listen to their stories. “When Thelonious Monk played the piano, we hear a magic -- there's something that's mysterious in those beautiful structures,” said Weston. “But some of us have become so sophisticated that the blues don't mean anything to us... and that's the foundation of all we do.”

The weekend closed with a concert of bebop classics by Weston, Gill, Rachim Sahou and others.

Roach's legacy, and his advice to future generations, can perhaps be best summed up in his own words. '“The instrument is in your mind,” he said. “You can take cardboard boxes and make them sound like dynamite. If you want to deal with the drums, you have to realize that the instrument is the human being.”

This blog entry posted by Tim Wilkins.

May 04, 2008 · 0 comments


Jazz at Lincoln Center Goes Global

Tim Wilkins contributes this review of last Friday’s concert featuring pianist Chano Dominguez and the Flamenco Jazz Ensemble in tandem with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. T.G.

"We're trying to start a movement out here - with international music and the language of jazz," said Wynton Marsalis to the crowd who turned out to hear his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JALCO) perform with pianist Chano Dominguez and the Flamenco Jazz Ensemble last Friday.

          Wynton Marsalis and Chano Dominguez

The concert was a showcase of works inspired by Marsalis's many visits to Spain over two decades, and featured compositions Dominguez wrote for Lincoln Center, as well as ones Marsalis composed for Spain's Vitória jazz festival. "Sometimes we do these collaborative shows with musicians from other cultures, and it's difficult for us, because we don't really understand their music!" a jovial Marsalis said at the start of the show. "But we work it out, you know?"

Marsalis has indeed worked it out, and is still working it out, with Dominguez -- the evening's music freely and successfully mixed swing and blues with Spanish alegrías, soleas and bulerías. All of this was punctuated by the unexpected rhythms from the feet of of tap and flamenco dancers.

All of this may come as some surprise to those who know Marsalis and his ensemble for their work as advocates of the repertoire of classic American jazz composers, such as Duke Ellington. Could it be that Jazz at Lincoln Center is going global?

"It's difficult to explain the type of true love and admiration we have for one another," Marsalis said of his orchestra's admiration for the visiting musicians. This love was apparent in his ensemble's sensitive adaptations of traditional Spanish forms.

                     Flamenco dancer Tomasito

The evening's first collaboration, "De Cadi a New Orleans," was written by Dominguez for JALCO and premiered at Lincoln Center in 2003. "The first time we played it, we messed it up - we did!" Marsalis told the crowd. "But this gentleman was very gracious about us messing up his music." What followed over the next few years was a kind of telephone courtship between the two musicians, with Marsalis seeking advice about how to interpret Spanish music. This culminated in his inviting Chano and his ensemble, which includes flamenco percussionists and dancers, to reintroduce the piece in New York.

"Now we're doing much, much more justice to this music," Marsalis said. In fact, they did this and more. They demonstrated how deeply they are involved in an ongoing conversation between the two cultures, expanding musical definitions on both sides.

The concert began aptly with a composition by a master drummer and founding member of JALCO, Herlin Riley. This multi-movement piece, the Evolution of the Groove, would have made Max Roach smile, as it moved smoothly from swing into 3/4 time, into 6/8, then back into swing, before a gospel-tinged movement in 7/4, during which Herlin got the trombone section into the rhythm act, slapping their hat mutes on the bandstand, which created a dramatic effect to thunderous applause.

          Herlin Riley with the JALC Orchestra

Riley was joined onstage during the last movement by tap dancers Jared Grimes and DeWitt Fleming, who amazed the crowd with agility as well as musicality. Of the two, Fleming is the more acrobatic, and Grimes more melodic, at one point mesmerizing the audience with a solo performed only with the heel and toe of one foot.

This was followed by “De Cadi a New Orleans,” in which Dominguez, like Riley, shifted from swing into passages inspired by the 12/8 rhythmic cycles of Andalusian flamenco, all linked together by masterful piano interludes. Chano was joined on stage by dancer Tomas “Tomasito” Moreno and percussionist Israel “El Piranha” Suarez. The piece closed with a haunting vocal by singer Blas Cordoba, who turned “Duerme Lucero” from flamenco into a blues and back again.

        Tap dancers Jared Grimes and DeWitt Fleming

The concert’s second half was a suite of pieces Marsalis wrote for the Vitoria jazz festival, where his orchestra has been invited to play by festival founder Inaki Anua nine times since 1987. These pieces chart how Marsalis’s grasp of Spanish music has grown over time. The first, “Inaki’s Decision,” brought the band squarely back into swing, with Ellington-inspired ensemble passages. Bassist Carlos Henriquez stepped forward to conduct the orchestra for the second piece, a slow blues, “Suave en la Noche,” to which Marsalis added Spanish-inspired (or perhaps Gil Evans-inspired) trumpet flourishes.

Next was “Jason and Jaysonie,” an homage to Marsalis’s nephew and Anua’s daughter, a jump swing number that brought the tap dancers back on stage, and included one of the evening’s musical highlights. Chano traded 24-bar riffs at the keyboard with Dan Nimmer, JALCO’s phenomenally gifted 25-year-old pianist, to great applause.

Other standout soloists during the evening were JALCO saxophonists Sherman Irby on lead alto and Walter Blanding on tenor, Joe Temperley on soprano and Ryan Kisor and Marcus Printup on trumpet.

The evening’s closing number, and musical high point, was “Solea,” composed by Marsalis, but with rhythms provided by Dominguez, again by telephone. Marsalis originally called the piece “Bulerias,” which he mistakenly thought was the Spanish rhythm used in the piece. However, in one of his late-night calls, Dominguez set him straight. "He gave me the rhythm, then when I wrote it, he called to say, ‘You wrote it wrong,’" Marsalis recounted. “So he redid the rhythm section part for me, and he rewrote it."

The result of this collaboration was renamed “Solea,” to more accurately describe the rhythm used in the piece. This brought all of the dancers and musicians back on stage for an ensemble finale, that got the audience out of their seats. “It's a lifelong process of working and trying to figure out how to relate to one another's musics, without being disrespectful or clichéd,” Marsalis said in closing.

Clearly, the musical friendship between Marsalis and Dominguez has already borne great fruits. Let’s hope the conversation continues.

This blog entry posted by Tim Wilkins.

May 02, 2008 · 2 comments