The Best Jazz Tracks for August

Are you still listening to the same old jazz CDs? Did your musical tastes stop developing around the time of Sketches of Spain? Would you like to know what’s happening now on the jazz scene?

Unless you stumbled on to this web page by mistake – looking for info on a basketball team in Utah or an IBM technology platform – you must have an interest in the current state of jazz. And if you're like me, you are always hoping to hear something new and exciting on the scene. But where to begin, with so many CDs released every week, and limited time and money to check them out? With this in mind, hunts out the best jazz tracks each month, sifting through the new CDs that arrive on the market, and picking out the most exciting individual tracks.

Five days per week, features a Song of the Day drawn from the best of the recent releases. We find some great music here that you probably wouldn’t encounter on your own. We don’t just highlight releases from the major labels, but we also listen to indie projects, self-produced CDs, and deserving disks from the four corners of the world. The predominant focus here is jazz, but we sometimes feature blues, world music or other styles.

Recommended Tools

This month we covered a wide range of fine projects, including new releases from standard-bearers Kenny Barron and Roy Hargrove, outstanding tracks by lesser known but exciting players Donny McCaslin and Aaron Parks, retro stylings from David Berger and John Pizzarelli, slide guitar from Sonny Landreth, 'talking blues' from John Lee Hooker, Jr., music from Cuba, France Norway . . . and quite a bit more.

It may be worth noting that the very talented Mr. McCaslin set a record this month – his new CD Recommended Tools inspired four separate critics to publish track reviews within a few days of the CD's release. If you have heard this disk, you will know what all the fuss is about. But I am also especially impressed by two recent vocal releases, highlighted here, featuring Kate McGarry and Alyssa Graham. (By the way, the ubiquitous Donny McCaslin also shows up on Kate McGarry's track, where he delivers what is this reviewer's favorite sax solo of the summer.) All in all, it was a very good month for jazz.

But don’t take my word for it, listen to the music. Below are links to the reviews for all the tracks selected as Song of the Day during the month of August. Click here for a complete list of all the recordings featured as Song of the Day since the inception of

Mathias Eick: October
John Lee Hooker, Jr.: Dear John
John Pizzarelli: This Can't Be Love
Kenny Barron & Lionel Loueke: Duet
Donny McCaslin: The Champion
Aaron Parks: Peaceful Warrior
Sonny Landreth: When I Still Had You
Wayne Wallace: Fascinating Rhythm
Glenn White: Sacred Machines
Tim Kuhl: Versus
David Berger: Jeepers Creepers
Chriss Campion: Recado Swing
Kate McGarry: Let's Face the Music and Dance
Jeff Barone: Open Up
Stephane Wrembel: Eternal Cycle 2
Alyssa Graham: America
Steve Allee: Bus to Belmopan
Roy Hargrove: I'm Not So Sure
Omar Sosa: D'Son
Trio Sud: Renaissance
Miles in India: All Blues

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

August 31, 2008 · 0 comments


Watch Out Wikipedia . . . Here We Come!

The team continues to work behind-the-scenes on our on-line Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians. Under the leadership of editor Tim Wilkins, this web-based reference is expanding every month. This is a work-in-progress, and there are still many gaps. But the encyclopedia already covers more than 1,600 musicians – hundreds of them not found in Wikipedia or Grove or other jazz reference works.

The encyclopedia was founded by Dr. Lewis Porter, who created a unique guide to currently active jazz musicians. Unlike most other jazz references, Porter’s work was based on information collected from the musicians themselves. This gave him access to data not publicly available from any other source.

When the encyclopedia moved to last December, we made the decision to expand its focus beyond currently active musicians to encompass a more complete universe of jazz artists. Our goal now is to cover the full history of jazz, from its origins to the present day. A team of outside scholars and experts is working to fill the gaps, adding entries on important historical figures as well as current day artists who, for one reason or another, have not previously provided biographical info for inclusion.

                     Eric Dolphy, by Michael Symonds

One of our key goals is to integrate the content from the rest of the site into the encyclopedia. So, for example, an entry on Eric Dolphy will include artwork featuring this musician from our Visual Jazz galleries -- such as the portrait by Michael Symonds featured here. Or the mention of a specific recording in an encyclopedia entry might link to one of the thousands of track reviews of historic performances published on the jazz site.

This allows us to provide quick access to background information and related materials that would simply not be possible in a printed reference work. The encyclopedia entries will thus provide both an introduction to a specific musician, but also an entry point into a more complete and detailed perspective on how that artist relates to key recordings, milestones and events in the history of the music.

Below are links to a small sampling of the recently published additions to the Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians. Each of these articles is new content commissioned by and added to the site during the last few weeks.

Feel free to send your comments or queries about this on-going project to Tim Wilkins at Tim is also continuing to recruit contributors to the encyclopedia, so if you have expertise to share, drop him an email. We are happy to have people point out the gaps in our encyclopedia, but even happier when they help us find ways of filling these gaps.

Eric Dolphy by Jared Pauley
Ben Webster by Frank Büchmann-Møller
King Oliver by Peter Gerler
Gerry Mulligan by Eric Wendell
Jo Jones by Tim Wilkins
Oliver Nelson by Jared Pauley
Gary McFarland by Doug Payne
Paul Desmond by Eric Wendell
Norma Winstone by Stuart Nicholson
Jabbo Smith by Matt Leskovic
Frank Zappa by Jared Pauley
Nat Adderley by Dave Krikorian
Esbjörn Svensson by David Tenenholtz
Arturo Sandoval by Mark Lomanno
Pee Wee Russell by Frank Murphy
Miroslav Vitous by Jared Pauley
Clifford Jarvis by Eric Novod
Charles Lloyd by Matt Leskovic
Red Norvo by Jared Pauley
Mildred Bailey by Sue Russell
Lionel Hampton by Jared Pauley
Mary Lou Williams by Jared Pauley
Chano Dominguez by Juan Zagalaz
Rahsaan Roland Kirk by Jared Pauley
Ed Blackwell by Eric Novod
Maxine Sullivan by Sue Russell
Bobby Hutcherson by Jared Pauley
Joshua Redman by Jared Pauley
Houston Person by Bill Carbone
Chet Baker by Dave Krikorian
Sarah Vaughan by Sue Russell
Quincy Jones by Jared Pauley
Warne Marsh by Jacob Teichroew
Joe Henderson by Jared Pauley

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

August 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Jazz and Hip-Hop (Part Two)

Is the marriage of jazz and hip-hop a happy coupling of kindred spirits, or a doomed relationship of incompatible parties? Jared Pauley offers his perspective and presents a mini-history of the courtship between these two styles below in the second and final installment of this two-part article. For part one, click here. T.G.

A Tribe Called Quest

Groups like Gang Starr, De la Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Jungle Brothers were hip-hop acts who all possessed an affinity for jazz music. A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr in particular embraced jazz not only as subject matter but from the musical end as well. Gang Starr appeared on the soundtrack to director Spike Lee’s 1990 movie Mo’ Better Blues, a film about young jazz musicians surviving and thriving in New York City. Featured on the song “Jazz Thing,” along with emcee G.U.R.U. and DJ Premier, was the late great pianist Kenny Kirkland. In 1991, A Tribe Called Quest released their second album, The Low End Theory. It featured the songs “Verses From the Abstract,” with bassist Ron Carter providing the bassline, and “Jazz (We’ve Got).”

Also during this time, British-born Maurice Bernstein and South African-born Jonathan Rudnick founded Giant Step, a promotion company that eventually became a record label and produced shows featuring live instrumentalists such as Greg Osby alongside live turntables.

Hand on the Torch

The early 1990s represent the largest attempted cross pollination between hip-hop and jazz artists. In 1991, trumpeter Miles Davis began working on what was his last album, Doo-Bop, with hip-hop producer Easy Mo Bee. Davis wanted to create an album that represented the summer sounds he heard from his window in Manhattan. In 1993, Philly-bred hip-hop act Digable Planets released their debut album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Sound), which featured samples from the likes of Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, Sonny Rollins, the Last Poets, Art Blakey, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. In November 1993, Blue Note Records artist Us3 was given permission to sample anything in the catalog for their album Hand on the Torch. The result was their Herbie Hancock-sampled "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)," which was one of the biggest singles of the decade.


Additionally in 1993, Gang Starr emcee G.U.R.U. began his series of releases dubbed Jazzmatazz, which paired the emcee with jazz musicians. The first volume featured such musicians as Donald Byrd, Branford Marsalis and Roy Ayers. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis formed his own group called Buckshot LeFonque and released several albums during the decade, with 1994's eponymous release, featuring the track "Breakfast @ Denny’s," being the most memorable -- because it featured Gang Starr’s DJ Premier on many songs from the album. Throughout the rest of the 1990s and the new millennium, many artists, including Medeski Martin & Wood and Christian McBride, began to tour with deejays, most notably with DJ Logic.

Revive Da Live

This brings us to the current day where collaborations between jazz and hip-hop artists continue. Particularly here in New York City, the practice is alive and well through the efforts of hip-hop emcees Mos Def and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, as well as jazz pianist Robert Glasper and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. New companies have surfaced over the last two years that promote jazz and hip-hop artists in a live context, most notably Berklee alumnus Meghan Stabile’s Revive Da Live. In conjunction with Revive, Glasper and his group the Experiment, which features drummer extraordinaire Chris “Daddy” Dave, bassist Derrick Hodge and saxophonist/keyboardist Casey Benjamin, have backed the likes of Q-Tip and Mos Def at different venues around the country.

Now some may ask how this qualifies as jazz? I counter that the two cultures have come to such a stalemate that it was only a matter of time before further experimentations occurred. Revive Da Live has also produced shows for Q-Tip where he was backed by the Roy Hargrove big band, and Mos Def performed in June of this year at Carnegie Hall with poet Gil Scott-Heron and a big band featuring young jazz musicians Stacey Dillard and Marcus Strickland.

How should the jazz tradition deal with the musical efforts of jazz and hip-hop artists since the 1990s through today? Some will say that it’s not jazz if it doesn’t swing, even though other elements, including improvisation, are present in these shows and recordings. As I stated earlier, to ignore the experimentations of jazz and hip-hop artists is to neglect how the word jazz came to its current meaning. If we applied the same double standard in use since the 1970s, we could simply dismiss this as some new genre, jazz-rap or a variant of fusion. I strongly disagree with this approach. I feel that the tradition is riper than ever to be redefined, and as critics, writers and musicians it’s our job to make sure the legacy of jazz gets its proper and objective treatment. With so many young jazz musicians growing up listening to hip-hop and other styles of music, the traditional definition of jazz is only going to be further put to the test.

This blog entry posted by Jared Pauley.

August 27, 2008 · 0 comments


Jazz and Hip-Hop: Can They Really Mix?

Throughout the history of jazz, musicians have been inspired by developments in black popular music. Is the mixture of jazz and hip-hop one more positive example of this tendency at work? Or is it doomed to failure because these two performance styles have such incompatible elements, especially in the underlying pulse that animates the music? contributor Jared Pauley explores these matters and presents a mini-history of the courtship between jazz and hip-hop in this two-part article. T.G.

For well over a century now, jazz has been the chameleon of American music. It has incorporated elements from classical, Latin, world, funk and R&B. The very meaning of the word ‘jazz’ suggests that in order for it to be such the music must swing, among other criteria. In some regards this could be true, but I would like to argue that jazz represents just a portion of the broader landscape of African-American music. The use of categories and names of styles is unavoidable, but I feel that at times the process of labeling music restricts us as musicians, writers and listeners from recognizing the connections between sub-genres of music.

Case in point are the connections between jazz and hip-hop. Culturally, socially, and musically the two share more in common than some would acknowledge. From the 1960s up to today, jazz and hip-hop continue to borrow and experiment with each other. They both contain elements of improvisation; in hip-hop, free styling and DJing represent this, while in jazz much of the exchange between musicians is improvised. The idea of a “jazz tradition” can make it difficult to categorize musical efforts between people like Branford Marsalis and DJ Premier. But why must the rigidities of the canon and tradition reject the musical offerings of the 1970s and beyond as questionable? To do this trivializes the entire legacy of how the word ‘jazz’ came to mean what it does. It is my opinion that the experimentations between jazz and hip-hop represent just one of the examples that put this hypocrisy to test. Just because sound doesn’t conform to a certain standard doesn’t disqualify it from being called jazz.

Freedom Now Suite

In 1960, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln recorded We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. Though categorized as jazz, Lincoln’s vocals and Roach’s playing are by most standards not all that jazzy. This record dealt with issues facing black America. Lincoln's and Roach’s performances achieved a feverish pitch that can still be felt when heard today. Their collective approach to dealing with subject matter in their art is no different than the efforts of Public Enemy in the late 1980s. Hip-hop acts clearly paid odes to people like this and (for example) John Coltrane, who also deeply explored spirituality in his music through works which dealt with similar subject matter.

In the mid-1960s, with the introduction of avant-garde, R&B and soul influences in jazz, the storied critic with his own definition of what defines jazz was put to the challenge. This period, including the crisscrossing patterns of jazz during the 1970s, helped spin the community into enough circles that it hasn’t recovered to this day. We are still debating whether to include or exclude certain musicians and recordings because they don’t live up to various expectations. Thus, as writers, people with supposed objectivity, we have failed in some ways to give jazz its proper respect and analysis. Excluding people has long been part of the jazz critical tradition, yet enough time has passed that the tradition is more indefinable and open than ever.

Last Poets

Hip-hop began to emerge in the late 1960s just as jazz was undergoing another transformation. The work of the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron represent the arguable seed of plantation for hip-hop music. The Last Poets’ 1970 self-titled album and their 1971 release This is Madness broadcasted poetry concerning civil rights, poverty and universal struggle over a single percussionist, Poets’ member Nilaja. Gil Scott-Heron’s albums were also well known and very influential. His 1971 album Pieces of a Man was a huge record in its day. The influence of his song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” on the emergence of hip-hop is undeniable. Whether coincidence or not, featured on the 3-day session were seasoned jazz bassist Ron Carter and jazz flutist Hubert Laws. This was one of the first widely heard recordings on which jazz artists and a spoken-word artist had met on vinyl.

By 1973, DJ Kool Herc, a naturalized Jamaican, was flooding the South Bronx, New York with his technique of putting breaks in records. This technique involved spinning the same two records at once and thus resulted in the DJ being able to manipulate the sound spectrum. Emerging from this came the vocal styling born in Jamaica called toasting. With toasting, the DJ rhymed in certain sequences, and eventually this technique gave birth to the modern emcee. With the emergence of the emcee, hip-hop was now a multi-defined culture with bold elements of improvisation, with DJing and emceeing at the forefront.

In 1983, Herbie Hancock along with producer Bill Laswell changed popular music with their single “Rockit” from Hancock’s album Future Shock. The single prominently featured DJ Grand Master D.ST on turntables. This marked one of the first times in which scratching had been used on a popular recording. And it is no coincidence that Hancock, the jazz chameleon himself, was involved in one of the first popular fusions of jazz and hip-hop. In the late 1980s, especially in New York City, African-American culture was a melting pot. Hip-hop’s first golden era was born in 1986, and many of its proprietors embraced jazz music, citing its influence from the use of vocal deliveries emulating horn rhythms to the actual samples themselves.

This blog entry posted by Jared Pauley. For part two of this article, click here.

August 26, 2008 · 5 comments


Frank Sinatra Sings Weather Report

We have fantasy football and fantasy baseball . . . why not fantasy jazz? This blog article, recently featured on our "best jazz links of the week" page, has initiated a discussion of possible fantasy jazz bands. And the selections range from the exciting to bizarre. (One of the proposed bands has John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong in the same front line; another one has Coltrane and Chris Botti. Take your pick.)

But’s Walter Kolosky trumps them all. His fantasy bands come complete with fantasy CDs, and Walter even offers up a review. Only the review is not fantasy . . . you can read it below. T.G.

Here is the next in my series of fantasy reviews. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept under which I am operating please visit the introductory section of my John Coltrane fantasy fusion album review. You may read it here.

This time out I review a fantasy collaboration between several of the greatest talents the jazz and music world have ever known. I hope you enjoy it.

Sinatra Sings Weather Report (RCA 121215)

From the LP liner notes:

“Sinatra and producer Quincy Jones were discussing the state of music one day last year and discovered they both enjoyed the music of jazz-rock pioneers Weather Report. 'Q and I laughed about it. We wondered what damage these cats could have caused back in the heyday of the big bands,' Sinatra joked. He continued, 'You know, I’m not dead from the neck up. I have followed the trends in popular music and in jazz. I liked the Beatles and I dug that stuff Zawinul and those guys were doing with Miles.'

Frank Sinatra Sings Weather Report

"Jones added, 'Frank and I decided to get some lyricists to put words to some of our favorite Weather Report tunes and record them. We thought Frank’s voice would blend real well with the sound this band generates. We got Paul Anka and Paul Williams, and we were also blessed when the great Sammy Cahn agreed to write some words for us as well.'”

Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter were Sinatra fans, but they were not so sure this was a good idea. According to those in the know, it took some time for Jones to convince them that this could be a marvelous record. Weather Report’s mercurial bassist, Jaco Pastorius, was on the case the moment the opportunity arrived. He was apparently so excited that he demanded to do a duet with Sinatra! (He eventually settled for a little background singing.) But over several months and a few issues with its record company Columbia, the band agreed to do the album with Frank and Quincy for RCA.

Sinatra and Jones chose six Weather Report tunes and brought them to Zawinul and asked the band to perform them per Quincy’s special arrangements. Jones’s scores were rather generous, calling for Weather Report to take long and sometimes risky musical excursions. The shortest piece on the record is nearly 7 minutes.

Zawinul’s “In a Silent Way” opens the record. This interpretation is shorter than the original that appeared on Miles Davis’s album of the same name. But is still ten minutes in length. Williams’s lyrics, “In a silent way… you captured me away” are sung with a low-register three-bourbon sadness that only Sinatra could muster. Perhaps Sinatra and Jones knew that Weather Report’s sound could produce, if in a totally modern way, the same flow that the best big bands provided for Sinatra and all of the great big band singers. Jones arrangement of this piece, and on others on the record, found a wonderful way to make everything mesh.

Frank takes his famous liberties with Cahn’s lyrics for the grooving “Mr. Gone.” “Mr. Gone. You done be gone for good now…..dooby-dooby gone.” In addition to helping Zawinul and his synthesier with the growling base line, Pastorius adds his voice to a few “dooby-doos.” Drummer Alphonse Mouzon keeps a steady beat that Sinatra playfully pounces on. Joe and Wayne also add sonorous phrases and short bursts that they sometimes play in tandem.

Sinatra handles “A Remark You Made” with astonishing skill. This clearly is a ballad made for his voice. Anka wrote the words. “A remark you made turned me into your slave.” The harmonies brought forth from the band are wonderful and Sinatra’s gifts as a crooner never are more evident than on this cut. He easily slides over, under and through the wall of sound produced by Zawinul’s synthesizer. When beckoned by Shorter’s beautiful siren calls, Sinatra relaxingly let’s loose with a few polysyllabic phrases for some very enjoyable call-and-response.

Sinatra, Jones and Weather Report have pulled off a big surprise. Zawinul and Shorter’s initial concerns were not totally unfounded. A wrong step here or there could have easily produced a disaster. Instead, this gamble has paid off in a big way. Ol’ Blue Eyes has conquered the jazz-rock frontier with not a little help from one of its major bands.

Sinatra Sings Weather Report - A Remark You Made; Mr. Gone; In a Silent Way; Mysterious Traveler; Cannon Ball

Personnel - Frank Sinatra (vocals), Josef Zawinul (keyboards and synthesizers), Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Jaco Pastorious (electric and acoustic bass), Alphonse Mouzon (drums)

This blog entry posted by Walter Kolosky.

August 25, 2008 · 2 comments


Uri Caine & Don Byron in Sardinia

Paris-based Thierry Quénum, a regular contributor to, concludes his coverage of on an unusual jazz festival in a small Sardinian village. Below he discusses the appearances of Uri Caine, Don Byron and others at Paolo Fresu's "Time in Jazz" (TIJ) Festival in Berchidda, a Sardinian village of 3,000 inhabitants. Click here for part one of his two-part article.T.G.

Uri Caine started his four days stay at Sardinia’s Time in Jazz festival, with a solo piano concert in a the Basilica di Sant’ Antioco di Bisarcio, a medieval building set on a hill close to the small city of Ozieri, 20 miles south of Berchidda. In this solo context, Caine tended to emphasize his virtuosity and sense of harmonic construction, rather than melodicism or emotional expression. Indeed, all through a program that included “Honeysuckle Rose” “‘Round Midnight,” the Beatles’s “Blackbird” and pieces by Mahler, Caine displayed his expansive musical culture and his impressive mastery of the piano, but never got close to the lyrical side of his instrument.

 Photo by Gianpietro Zirottu

But what a contrast, two days later, when Caine played in duet with the local hero, Paolo Fresu, on Berchidda’s main stage! Fresu is both a virtuoso and a naturally lyrical player, be it on the trumpet or on the flugelhorn. He is equally at ease on hard-bop warhorses as on melodic tunes such as “I Loves You, Porgy” and, of course, songs that belong to the Italian cultural patrimony such as Monteverdi’s “Si Dolce è il Tormento” (“So Sweet is the Torment”). On such slow pieces, as on Handel’s “Lascia ch’io Pianga” (“Let Me Weep”), of which he gave a very gospel-like version, Caine showed that he could display a lush piano touch and beautiful voicings that he had seemed reluctant to use when not enticed to do so by a Mediterranean partner. Inevitably, both players left the full house of the Piazza del Popolo in a state of bliss that bordered on trance.

That was exactly the type of state of mind required to listen to the ensuing Goldberg Variations by the same Caine. Here fans discovered that Fresu – promoter, star and stand-in too -- was part of the eight piece band that played it, replacing an ailing John Swanna. As on the record he released in 2000, though with restricted personnel, Caine’s Ensemble played an impressive number of variations on the initial Bach aria, borrowing from several musical genres. New Orleans jazz, modern jazz, klezmer music, gospel, rap, tango… all of these were used, with aptly chosen portions of improv and turntable effects, while Caine also interpreted some cleverly penned classical-like pieces, using mainly his piano, Joyce Hamman’s violin and Chris Speed’s clarinet. The global mix was moving, witty, humorous yet respectful, and definitely convincing, though a bit lengthy. Caine’s Goldberg may in fact be one of the few examples of syncretism in music, where each element equals the sum of the parts as far as sheer musical quality is concerned.

 Photo by Gianpietro Zirottu

Can there really be an isolated spot on an island that’s been inhabited by men since the Bronze Age? The wheat field near the small city of Luras, north of Berchidda, seems to fit the bill. Here Don Byron and Uri Caine played a duet, in the late afternoon of the next day, on a performance space still covered with straw from the recent crop. The two musicians performed under the shade of a tree that somehow is a symbol of the lasting and tight relationship between man and nature: a huge olive tree, the size of a two story building, that boasts the venerable age of 3,500 years! In these conditions it was perfectly relevant that their music should have strong links with tradition.

Byron’s tenor sax and clarinet obviously conjured up memories of the past reed masters more than they sounded like 21st century jazz. Caine gave his partner masterful harmonic and rhythmic support and took few but beautifully constructed solos. The repertoire included mostly standards, such as “Perdido” and “Moment’s Notice,” played with a deep feeling that never settled for mere nostalgia. When the two musicians played some of the Schuman-like songs that Byron penned a couple of years ago, one had the feeling that this German romantic composer would have felt this countryside setting, overlooking a lake at sunset, perfect for music that was an homage to his own.

This set provided a total contrast with the homage to Junior Walker’s music that Byron played the next evening on Berchidda’s main stage. Having learned well the lessons of its model from the sixties, the “Do the Boomerang” band is a convincing funk unit, even if its members are mostly jazz musicians. It easily set the crowd of the Piazza del Popolo clapping and dancing to its heavy rhythms and Byron’s, David Gilmore’s or George Colligan’s heated solos.

The room left for European musicians in TIJ’s program was scarce -- which may explain why the overall audience of the festival was less numerous than on previous years -- but they were carefully chosen and their performances were original. The most prominent of these Europeans was certainly Dutch cello player Ersnt Reijseger, who had already played at TIJ and was featured this year in a three cello project with fellow citizen Larissa Groeneveld and Giovanni Sollima, an Italian cellist and composer who’s known for his work with pop singer Patti Smith. The three of them played the main stage in addition to performing solo out in the country on the previous or following day, displaying both their collective and personal styles.

 Photo by Gianpietro Zirottu

Their collective performance was an interesting blend of classical, jazz, contemporary and folk music -- some sort of “From Bach to Blues” with a touch of humor and another of emotion. Their virtuoso use of bow and pizzicato techniques along with percussion on the strings and body of their instruments showed that each of them, whatever style they may be specialized in, is above all an open musician for whom creativity has no boundaries.

Reiseger was again the link between two genres, the following day, during a late morning concert that took place in the forest covering Monte Limbara. His cello supported the voices of the Cuncordu e Tenores de Orosei (a traditional Sardinian a capella male vocal ensemble) and that of Molla Sylla (a Senegalese singer and m’bira player with whom Reijsger often plays). Their global project, called “Requiem for a Dying Planet,” was endearing, but the link between the two traditions seemed at times rather artificial, and resting mainly on the ability of the Dutch improviser to adapt to one or the other.

The most convincing actualization of a tradition was arguably that of soprano sax player Gavino Murgia. His quintet was the main example of a European jazz that’s usually much more exposed at TIJ, and the presence of two prominent French musicians (Franck Tortiller on vibes and Michel Godard on tuba and electric bass) in his band showed that it was open to a large vision of Mediterranean culture. Dancing moods, lyrical improv and the warm soprano sound of Murgia were the mainstay of this performance and the virtuosity of the musicians, on tricky uneven rhythms for example, never allowed it to indulge in the frequent clichés of this type of music.

How will TIJ carry on with its third decade of original music programming in rural Northern Sardinia? We will need to wait until the next theme and next program are published, of course, but Fresu gave us a hint: “I can’t tell you about the next themes, but we already have chosen four. All I can tell you is that they will be related with the problems of environment, so the next editions will be even more centered on places out in the country, where music can be played without using machines, even if we still use the main stage in Berchidda. After all, that’s where the ‘human architecture’ of the festival has it roots.”

Environmental concern and human architecture? After all, isn’t it what the Sardinian people have been after ever since they built these mythical stone towers that are the symbol of the island, back in the Bronze Age? These towers, whose remnants are scattered in the countryside, are called nuraghe, and sometimes, around mid August in the neighborhood of Berchidda, their stones vibrate to the sound of a music that’s hardly one century old. It’s called jazz.

This blog article was posted by Thierry Quénum.

August 24, 2008 · 1 comment


The Velvet Fog Still Rolls In

Thirty years ago this month, Concord Records brought singer Mel Tormé together with the Marty Paich Dek-tette for the Reunion project, revisiting a combination that had produced several classic recordings in the past. In celebration of this anniversary, is delighted to publish Thomas Cunniffe's in-depth survey of this memorable partnership. At the same time, a new reissue of Tormé's Capitol recordings (see below) also casts light on this seminal singer who passed away in 1999 after an illustrious musical career that started at age four and continued for another seventy years.

In any list of great collaborations between singer and arranger, the Tormé-Paich combo must rank toward the top of the list. A brilliant vocalist deserves equally brilliant orchestrations, and without them can hardly reach the pinnacle of the jazz art. Sinatra had Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Billy May, Quincy Jones and others, and his uncanny ability to find the right musical settings for his artistry will ensure that his classic recordings will continue to find an audience long after his passing. In contrast, Dean Martin had the potential to stand out as one of the greatest singers of his era, but he rarely had arrangements that matched what he could do as a singer. As a result, his body of recordings only hint at what might have been.

Mel Tormé

But unlike the casual Martin, who took things as they came and saw rehearsals as a necessary (and sometimes, in his mind, unnecessary) evil, Tormé was a relentless perfectionist. If I wanted to be glib, I could tell you that Tormé could write the book on jazz singers – but this is not glib at all. He actually did write the book: Tormé’s fine work My Singing Teachers: Reflections on Singing Popular Music, published by Oxford University Press in 1994. And the fact that Tormé scored more than 250 arrangements himself during his career may have something to do with his ability to pick top flight orchestrators or, in the case of Paich, an extraordinary one.

Tormé's fastidious ways extended even to lifestyle choices. To protect his voice, he refrained smoking, limited his drinking, avoided chilly drafts. He made sure he had ample sleep, insisting that seven or eight hours of rest were important to his artistry. I will let you make your own guess on how many of these rules were followed by the singers in the Rat Pack.

Of course, you don’t need to know these things to understand the high standards Mel Tormé brought to his music. You just need to listen to the recordings. His impeccable intonation, his exquisite phrasing, his flashy scat-singing, his ability to mix it up with the horns or navigate the trickiest modulations . . . in all of these regards, Tormé demonstrates a mastery of the jazz idiom that demands our respect.

Perhaps my only reservation about Tormé is how easy he makes it sound. If you are looking for an artist who grapples with a song, he is not your type of artist. Even Tormé's nickname, The Velvet Fog, told you how smoothly he seemed to float through his performances. Like several other standout jazz masters (Art Tatum and Benny Goodman come to mind), Mel Tormé never seems to be find himself outside his comfort zone. But it is such a capacious comfort zone -- and includes large chunks of terrain where others are fearful of treading -- that we forgive him for the impenetrable grace and total command with which he glides over the chord changes.

Tormé often minimized the importance of his early work for the Capitol label. But with the benefit of hindsight, we should cherish the contributions to American singing of this label during the middle years of the 20th century. As I have noted elsewhere, the efforts of this one company stand out in any attempt to chronicle the state of American popular singing in the period between the decline of the big bands and the rise of rock and roll. In addition to Mel Tormé, other artists on the Capitol roster during this brief Golden Age included Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Nancy Wilson, Dinah Shore, the Kingston Trio, June Christy, the Four Freshmen and Peggy Lee. The vision behind Capitol in its early days was shaped by musicians, not accountants or marketeers, and the results showed in album after album. This a rare phenomenon that we may never see again: a large company achieving tremendous commercial success on the pop charts while demonstrating an unflagging commitment to the highest levels of musicianship.

A new Mel Tormé CD, The Capitol Rarities (1949-1952), gives us a chance to revisit this period in the vocalist’s career. No, there are no Marty Paich arrangements here, but we are blessed with contributions by Nelson Riddle, Pete Rugolo and other sympathetic partners. “Love is Such a Cheat,” included on this CD, was one of Tormé’s personal favorites, and for good reason. Here he delivers a complicated, tongue-twisting lyric at a rapid pace but with an effortless mastery that is one of this singer’s trademarks.

If cool is the ability to do difficult things with the appearance of ease, then Tormé is the cool singer par excellence. The arrival of this ‘rarities’ reissue and the anniversary of the Paich-Tormé reunion give us a good reason to celebrate this artist. But, frankly, you shouldn’t need any excuses to re-visit – or perhaps make your first acquaintance – with this pre-eminent interpreter of American popular song.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

August 21, 2008 · 1 comment


Sardinia Presents Time in Jazz

Paris-based Thierry Quénum, a regular contributor to, sends us this report on an unusual jazz festival in a small Sardinian village. Here Steve Coleman, Uri Caine, Don Byron and other jazz stars adapted their music to the intimate performances spaces of this small town of 3,000 inhabitants. Check back soon for part two of Quénum’s article. T.G.

 Photo by Gianpietro Zirottu

Chances are that Berchidda, a village of 3000 inhabitants, set on the slopes of Monte Limbara, a mid-sized mountain in Northern Sardinia, would be largely ignored by tourists if it weren’t the birthplace of a jazz celebrity. Paolo Fresu, one of his country’s foremost improvisers, started his musical career in the local banda (the traditional marching band that lots of Italian villages and towns are proud to host) in this locale, some 20 miles from Olbia, the large city on the coast with its beaches and its airport.

Fresu’s parents still live in Berchidda. And even if Fresu’s own quintet has often recorded for the Italian branch of Blue Note records, even if he once co-led a band with Enrico Rava, even if Carla Bley recently asked him to join her “Lost Chords” quartet, even if he recorded a duet with Uri Caine, even if he plays so often in France that he owns a flat in Paris, this trumpeter never estranged himself from his Sardinian roots. More than that, two decades ago he decided to start a festival in his birthplace, and in the course of its 21 years of existence it has become one of the major cultural events on the island, attracting musicians and jazz lovers from the whole Italian peninsula and from the rest of Europe.

Obviously, Berchidda’s Time in Jazz (TIJ) festival has something unique that one is bound to love deeply or frankly dislike, and Fresu and his team are legitimately proud of TIJ’s idiosyncrasies and willing to carry on with most of them as the festival evolves over the years. How many such events do you know, where the first concert of the day can start at 5 AM with a cello or piano solo, played in the open air in the forest? Or where the audience has to walk on a dirt road in the pre-dawn hours, up the slopes of a hill, to listen to it? (In the case of the piano recital, of course, a bunch of roadies had carried the instrument beforehand on their shoulders to the chosen place, for a couple of hours, in the dark.) And why all these efforts? Just because it’s a beautiful spot where you can see the sun rise in the middle of nowhere while listening to music!

Same with the duet between two electric guitarists in a small isolated chapel on a hill, overlooking the sun-dried Sardinian countryside, a couple of years ago. Some may complain that two thirds of the audience had to listen to this concert from outside the (really very small) chapel, and that the sound of the music was regularly mixed with the ringing of bells sported by a flock of sheep grazing just a couple of yards outside the venue. But who cares? The setting was unique, inspirational, and beautiful!

Now I guess you’ve understood the idea: at TIJ, you can hear carefully chosen music in unique spots, while taking part in rare events, tasting delicate wines and local food, and this rare mix is what you’re here for. So you don’t complain if you had to wait an hour to extract your car from the queue of vehicles parked on the narrow path leading to that isolated chapel where you saw and heard a beautiful guitar duet (Norway’s Eivind Aarset and France’s Nguyên Lê, by the way) — or saw nothing of it and heard only a little through the sheep bells’ choir. Or perhaps you were among those who had a hard time finding the chapel on the map and unfortunately arrived late.

TIJ is unique, that’s a fact. Each year its program is related to a theme that allows it to include other arts and crafts -- “cooking” two years ago; “trance” last year; “architecture” this year. And that comes as a puzzle: what strange kind of variations are Fresu and his team going to play on their chosen theme? This year, after a lively 20th anniversary in 2007, the surprise TIJ has come up with is that this usually mainly European festival has invited a majority of American musicians, and not your average blockbusters that roam the Old Continent every summer with their super-bands and hyper-all-stars, looking for high euros either. Says Fresu about this surprising choice: “Actually we didn’t invite American musicians, but rather musicians from New York. The chosen theme, ‘architecture’ immediately made me think of NYC’s vertical structures, then of the way Uri Caine’s built his version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and of Steve Coleman’s vision of polyrhythmic architecture. That’s the type of idea we built the program on rather than thinking in terms of geographical origins. Just the same, mixing Italian and English you can make a play on words on ‘archi’ [‘strings’] and ‘texture’. That’s why we invited the Alborada String Quartet and those three cellists who played one solo each, then played together and confronted their styles.” These types of very ambitious and well considered programs explain why, year after year, audiences have come to Berchidda to attend a festival that has no equivalent anywhere else, and that confirmed its uniqueness during these hot days of mid-August 2008.

 Photo by Gianpietro Zirottu

It’s late afternoon and the audience has gathered on the lawn surrounding a 12th century church set on a hill overlooking a beautiful lake, out in the countryside by the village of Oschiri, a couple of miles west of Berchidda. They are about to attend a unique concert. First because Steve Coleman’s Five Elements have never come to this part of the country before. Second because the band has decided to play totally acoustic, right on the lawn, with Marcus Gilmore using merely his high-hat and trap drums. Third because the proximity with the audience brought Coleman to end the concert by a dialogue with them and even give -- answering a listener’s question -- some musical examples of the type of silent communication within his band that allows them to change rhythms and melodies without obvious gestures during a long tune.

The music showed from the start that it would depart from the usual, since it began with the horns and the voice alone, playing a choral-like song that conjured up memories of ancient Italian composers like Claudio Monteverdi. Hearing Coleman in this unusual and challenging acoustic setting was a rare treat, and his band definitely put the Sardinian audience under its spell, as it did the next evening in the totally different setting of Berchidda’s Piazza del Popolo (People’s Square). There, another aspect of Coleman’s sense of architecture was exemplified when he started the concert by a lengthy poised alto solo which made obvious his personal way of actualizing Charlie Parker’s phrasing. He then was joined by the Five Elements, intertwining their own melodic or rhythmic lines one by one with their leader’s until they built a thick collective, beautifully structured maze of sound. Out of it surged now and then the deep chant of a solo voice that melted itself in the group sound after it had delivered its message, ultimately building a piece that lasted more than half an hour, keeping the audience fascinated by its architecture and evolution. The same occurred with Sonny Rollins’s “Strode Rode,” whose melody was deconstructed and reconstructed through a process that involved an intricate mix of improvisation and preset structures, then with other tunes, so that Coleman had to ask the audience, who were demanding more, how long they had played in all.

This is the end of part one of Thierry Quénum’s account of the Time in Jazz Festival in Sardinia. Check back for part two, in which he covers performances by Uri Caine, Don Byron and others.

August 20, 2008 · 0 comments


Herbie Hancock on the Beach

Bill Barnes is a regular contributor to, and the author of our recent series on life at a Gypsy jazz camp. Here he leaves Django behind for the evening and checks out another traveling caravan: the Herbie Hancock road show. His report is below. T.G.

Flashback . . . Atlanta, Georgia, summer of 1974: Sitting in the nose-bleed cheap seats of the gigantic circular concrete abomination known as Atlanta-Fulton Stadium, I await Herbie Hancock’s set, one of the few actual jazz acts in the Atlanta Kool Jazz Festival. The evening’s roster includes Moms Mabley, The Staple Singers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye and Kool and the Gang. But only Herbie, the Crusaders and Chick Corea add jazz legitimacy to the festival’s lineup.

             Herbie Hancock (artwork by Julie Powers)

The ineffectual sound system can’t possibly compensate for the chaotic echo chamber created by this behemoth acoustic nightmare, an unlikely venue for the complex and sometimes introspective art of jazz. But from the first Hindewhu-inspired opening notes of “Watermelon Man” Herbie has the crowd rocking. Released just two years earlier, Hancock's Headhunters had been a huge commercial success at a time when the fusion movement was collapsing under the weight of its gravitas and technical sturm und drang, an implosion similar to that which would later bring down this cold, archaic, over-sized monstrosity of a coliseum, the former home of the Braves.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2008 and the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, an entertainment oasis surrounded by the cultural desert of a honky-tonk beach town. Thirty-four years later I find myself once again in an unlikely setting to hear the legendary keyboard artist on the crest of yet another commercially successful release. Casino box office receipts indicate that comedy puppet-meister Jeff Dunham and KC and the Sunshine Band are completely sold out but, as of the day of the performance, advance ticket sales are only 60% for Herbie. The fact that he’s booked here at all is a minor miracle. It will take another to put butts in all these seats for tonight’s concert.

Herbie Hancock has already pulled off a major miracle- winning Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards for his latest crossover recording, River: the Joni Letters. Though he had once again broken the commercial sound barrier with Possibilities, this is the first jazz album in 43 years to win in this category. Hancock’s choice of material may be the result of survival skills honed from the hard lessons of the seventies, when jazz as a viable commercial element really began its nose-dive. Who could forget that dark summer day in ’79, when New York’s venerable jazz station WRVR suddenly switched to an all-Country & Western format?

Tonight’s performance is the 45th stop on his River of Possibilities tour. Waiting for the group to take the stage, I wonder how they will find the energy to make it through the night. Looking around at rows of empty tables, the question becomes, “should they even bother?” A gray-haired codger in a tank top sporting a lifetime collection of tattoos sits at a nearby table and I can’t help theorizing that he’s a homeless person looking for shelter, who has somehow evaded security.

Then, another miracle: about fifteen minutes before curtain time, the Casino Ballroom fills to capacity with late arrivals. My “homeless person” is joined by friends; eavesdropping, I pick up snatches of conversation in which he recounts anecdotes of nights hanging out at Birdland and listening to ‘Trane. As the musicians pick up their instruments, I am feeling rightly ashamed of myself.

The set begins with a hard-driving funk of “Actual Proof,” from his 1974 album, Thrust. Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta lays down a solid backbeat, while demonstrating remarkable independence; providing ample organized chaos in which he hears and supports all components with judicious intensity and taste. Chris Potter attacks the vamp with his wicked-deadly modal arsenal. Right out of the gate, the group’s tightness and polish from over 40 tour dates is apparent, with no loss of energy, and is rewarded with thunderous applause. I am rapidly reassessing my opinion of the Hampton Beach crowd.

The two singers are introduced and Sonya Kitchell delivers affected renditions of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” and “All I Want,” sounding a little like a cross between Joni and Ricki Lee Jones -- long on drama, a bit short on chops. But Amy Keys takes no prisoners in the blues number “When Love Comes to Town,” trading licks with Herbie’s synthesized Delta slide ‘guitar’ before spreading the love with phrasing and vocal timbre a bit reminiscent of Sarah Vaughn. Herbie manages an artful tightrope routine, balancing between his trademark reharmonization and standard blues changes. Guitarist Lionel Loueke wails convincingly, taking this crowd-pleaser home.

Loueke is a source of many surprises this evening. The West African guitarist has been playing with Herbie for several years and contributes one of the set’s more musically challenging compositions, “Seventeens,” a mind-bending exercise in (what else?) the time signature of seventeen-eight. Later on he will demonstrate his remarkable facility with stomp box effects, using a modulator on his voice to provide rich 4-part harmony on variations of a folk number in his native tongue, while looping West African rhythms beaten out on the body of his guitar. It’s amazing stuff and a tantalizing glimpse of this quirky guitarist’s promising future.

Giving the rest of the ensemble a breather, Dave Holland offers a powerful solo improvisational piece on the acoustic bass, punctuated by the boom of Hampton Beach fireworks. Upright is his forte, but throughout the concert his surprising competence on electric bass is evident, as he locks into Colaiuta’s funk with the precision of a Bootsy Collins. Amy Keys then returns with a lovingly crafted version of Leon Russell’s “A Song For You.” Her precise pitch and impressive range make this ballad one of the evening’s highlights.

The final segment of the non-stop three hour performance features Herbie on the piano with some introspective solo improvisation, eventually meandering into his now-classic “Maiden Voyage.” This is the Herbie Hancock we know and love. They wind up the evening on a satisfying, in-the-pocket “Cantaloupe Island,” elevated by Chris Potter’s stratospheric, free range tenor work. The encore number comes as no surprise -- a rousing “Chameleon,” which has the crowd practically dancing on the tables.

Herbie’s Hampton Beach concert, while amazing enough, may have actually been dumbed down a bit for the overall demographics of the tour. There was no material from the VSOP recordings, nor was the Mwandishi period specifically represented. But this tendency to patronize a theoretically unsophisticated audience may be a necessary evil: better to have a slightly diluted jazz performance than no jazz at all. Herbie will always be one of the all-time great artists. If he has to Norah Jones-ify his music to sell tickets and albums, so be it. As long as he doesn’t resort to performing with puppets or playing Country & Western, who cares?

This blog entry posted by Bill Barnes.

August 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Letter from Europe (Part Two)

Below is the second and final part of Stuart Nicholson's report on the surprising rise of strings on the European jazz scene. Here he surveys more than a dozen recent recordings of interest. Click here to read part one of his article. T.G.

One of the most striking examples of the new emphasis on strings in European jazz is the work of the Radio String Quartet from Vienna. Who would have thought a string quartet would successfully take on the challenge of playing the music of the loud, electric jazz-rock band the Mahavishnu Orchestra from the 1970s? Yet Celebrating the Mahavishnu Orchestra (ACT) is a marvel of re-conceptualization that combines stunning musicianship with artfully conceived arrangements. Also from Austria, Klaus Paier, Stefan Gferer and Roman Werni recorded with the Movimento String Quartet on Live Vol.2 (PAO).

                         Bassist, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

In the UK, the Mercury nominated Basquiat Strings (a string quartet augmented by a viola, double bass and Seb Rochford’s drums) mix originals by leader Ben Davis with sophisticated arrangements of compositions by Joe Zawinul, Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter on Basquiat Strings with Seb Rochford (F-IRE). Saxophonist John Surman and bassist Chris Laurence recently collaborated with Trans4mation, a string quartet, on Surman’s The Spaces In Between (ECM), an album of haunting melodies and shimmering, elusive textures. Guitarist Phil Robson has just released an album called Six Strings and a Beat (Babel), a project commissioned by Derby Jazz, while pianist John Law’s Out of Darkness (Slam), perform the seven movement title piece with a string quartet and all-star jazz ensemble.

At the Jazzahead! Convention in 2007, Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor and vocalist Diana Torto earned a standing ovation for a series of originals by Wheeler and Taylor performed with The Hugo Wolf String Quartet, while currently bassist Malcolm Creese’s Acoustic Triangle has been expanded with the addition of the Sacconi Strings, six world class string players, on the album 3 Dimensions (audio-b) and has embarked on a major 14 date tour of the UK.

In Germany, pianist Julia Hülsmann has played and recorded with the Gerdur Gonnasdottir String Quartet; Berlin’s twenty-five year old trumpet player Matthias Schriefl and his group Shreefpunk recorded with a string quartet on Shreefpunk Plus Strings (ACT), and the Bluestrings project, a string “big band,” led by Frank Wunderer, won the Preis von Jugend Jazz for their CD Öffentlchkeit.

In Sweden pianist Lars Jansson recently challenged the American paradigm of jazz with a twelve piece ensemble that includes a string quartet he provocatively called Where is the Blues while The Danish trio Sound of Choice recorded Invisible Correspondence (PAO) with the French iXi String Quartet. In Holland the Zapp String Quartet, recipients of the prestigious Kersjesprijs award, have recorded four wholly absorbing albums while in Italy Stefano Bollani went the whole hog and recorded Concertone (LBLC) with The Orchestra della Toscana in 2006.

Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen wrote a through-composed 25 minute composition using a string section from Bremen’s Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie plus live electronics which he performed at the 2007 Jazzahead! convention which was, by common consent, the hit of the whole three day event. The Cikada String 4tet, also from Norway, collaborated with Christof Lauer and Jens Thomas on Shadows in the Rain (ACT), arranged by Colin Towns.

Equally, their fellow countryman, violin virtuoso Ola Kvernberg (born 1981), showed that the great tradition of jazz fiddle players did not wither and die on the vine after the deaths of Stuff Smith and Stephanie Grappelli. His 2006 Night Driver (Jazzland), with just bass and drum accompaniment, is a stunning achievement by the Trondheim Conservatory graduate.

Today, the dissenting voices raised against Dvorák’s New World Symphony, intended as a lesson on how to forge American nationalism within the Western tradition of classical music, seem quaint with the emergence of composers such as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, William Grant Still and Elliot Carter who have successfully evoked elements of Americana into European classical music.

T.S. Eliot once pointed out that no artist can work outside the tradition because the tradition will stretch to accommodate anything artists do. The critics who railed against Dvorák’s New World Symphony, such as Edward MacDowell, who in racist outrage, complained, “Masquerading in the so-called nationalism of Negro clothes cut in Bohemia will not help us,” failed to acknowledge how art evolves.

So too the dissenting voices raised against musicians who seek to re-inscribe jazz with their own cultural and national significance. The increasing use of strings maybe just one aspect of this; it may not be revolutionary and it may only be one element of a broader whole, but it is certainly creating interesting music and reflects one way among many in which European jazz is finding its own voice.

This blog entry posted by Stuart Nicholson

August 18, 2008 · 0 comments


Letter from Europe (Part One)

Stuart Nicholson, a frequent contributor to these pages, finds a surprising resurgence of interest in strings on the European jazz scene. He looks for the reasons behind this trend and highlights more than a dozen interesting recent recordings in this two-part article. T.G.

Historically, strings have not really been embraced by the jazz community. Most have regarded violinists from Eddie South to Stephane Grappelli as an engaging diversion to the “real thing” offered by the more forthright brass and saxes. And ensembles with string sections have definitely been no-go areas, evoking the spectre of that bête noir of all jazz fans, Paul Whiteman. But in recent times, many musicians have been looking for ways to broaden the tonal palette of jazz by doing the unthinkable – embracing strings.

It’s hardly a practice that’s unknown – The Turtle Island String Quartet have been around since 1985, for example, and recently won back to back Grammy Awards, for 4+4 and their adaptation of A Love Supreme (Telarc). But gradually musicians are turning to strings as a way of sounding a bit different, such as Billy Childs on Lyric (Luna City Music), Paquito D’Rivera on The Jazz Chamber Trio (Chesky) and Vince Mendoza on Blauklang (ACT). But what is a slow drip on the US scene has become something of a flood in Europe during the last eighteen months or so.

Maybe history offers a way of understanding what is at work here. Towards the end of the 19th century, as the United States began to found its own concert orchestras, concert halls and conservatories, one question began to be asked with increasing frequency: “Where are the American composers?” Up to this point, Americans who had wanted to compose sonatas and symphonies, rather than popular melodies, had gone to Europe to study in its famous music conservatries in Paris, London and Berlin. John Knowles Paine, for example, wrote his Mass in D while studying in the Berlin Conservatory before returning to the USA to become Professor of Music at Harvard.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who studied piano in Paris, emerged as the most celebrated American composer of the mid-19th century, yet his reputation today is still of a prophet with little honor. John C. Griggs, musical director of the Center Church in New Haven, was another pondering the prospects of creating an “American” voice while studying in the University of Leipzig but concluded: “The very breadth of outlook and the lack of any musical history of importance are two great reasons why American music cannot, for the present, have any distinctive national character.”

Yet the desire to develop a nationalistic voice remained very real and in 1892 the National Conservatory of Music in New York invited the Czech composer Anton Dvorák to become its principal, partly in the hope of inspiring an American nationalistic movement and partly to show American composers how they might adapt aspects of Americana into symphonic forms. On his arrival in New York, his words were more prophetic than he realized, “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies.”

In 1893 he wrote his ninth and last symphony called From the New World and the furor that followed its New York premiere centered around the fact that at the time the dominant culture in the arts was mainly derived from Europe. Consequently many resented the way in which Dvorák re-inscribed European classical music with American significance, arguing it devalued the European tradition.

Interestingly, these tensions have echoes in the current response to some European jazz musicians who are in effect doing the reverse of Dvorák by re-inscribing an American art form with European significance. Just as From the New World included allusions to spirituals and Hiawatha, for example, some European jazz musicians see a way of asserting their identity is to incorporate allusions to their own culture within the music, be it folkloric or classical.

These musicians argue that while they love and are inspired by American jazz, they do not come from America, so why should they play jazz as if they did? They feel it would be artistically dishonest to pretend to be somebody they are not and consciously seek ways of reflecting their own cultural identity in their music.

In recent years this has taken many forms, but nothing could be more quintessentially European than turning to the string quartet, an institution of European classical music since the form emerged in Germany and Austria in the early 1600s.

This is the end of part one of a blog article by Stuart Nicholson. Check back soon for part two, in which Nicholson surveys more than a dozen interesting recent European jazz CDs that feature strings.

August 16, 2008 · 0 comments


Life at Gypsy Jazz Camp (Part Three)

In case you haven’t noticed, Gypsy jazz is hotter than ever, and finding fans in surprising new places. During his recent sojourn at Gypsy jazz camp,’s Bill Barnes encountered everyone from middle-aged guys in Hawaiian shirts to the token twenty-something rocker in black leather, complete with studs and piercings. But all parties were united in their devotion to this exciting pre-WW II jazz tradition. Below is the third and final installment of his report on this communal attempt to channel the spirit of Django in 21st century New England. Click here for part one and part two in the series. Be on the lookout for Bill's interview with the great modern-day Django-inspired guitarist Adrien Moignard, which will publish next week. T.G.

Rising early, I hit the dorm showers and stumble over to breakfast at the campus dining hall, a ten minute walk past a mist-shrouded boat pond and the Smith College botanical gardens. The communal meals are a crucial part of the camp experience; where total strangers sit down to eat at the large round tables speaking fluent guitarese, discussing modal theory and swapping Django stories or tidbits of technique garnered from the week’s jams and clinics. Even though I have arrived late in the week, I’m relieved to know that few cliques have congealed among the participants, at least at mealtime. Teachers, featured concert artists and students dine together freely, part of the egalitarian approach which has been the cornerstone of Andrew Lawrence’s vision for Django in June.

Completely jazzed about the upcoming classes, I grab my new imported Dell’Arte Pigalle model and head for the morning clinic, where I find a dozen other participants warming up on their own Selmer-style guitars. Although Gypsy jazz guitarists from Django Reinhardt to Bireli Lagrene have played archtops and other types, it was the Selmer petite bouche and grand bouche guitars embraced by Django that remain the preferred choice among players in this genre, due to their historic relevance and revered sonic properties. Half the sound is in the idiosyncratic design; the other half is in the way it is played -- largely due to the traditional Gypsy picking method known as the rest stroke.

Even the type of pick is different- instead of flimsy, three-for-a-quarter Fender Mediums, most of these players use the very expensive Wegen -- a thick, unyielding device with grooves and an indentation for the thumb, hand crafted somewhere in the Netherlands. Shortly before leaving for camp I had bitten the bullet and purchased five such plectral extravagances, to the tune of $65 plus shipping. Rumor has it that Django himself used an old piece of tortoise shell and did just fine, but there it is.


GOING GYPSY: A Guide to Resources
LINGUA DJANCA: A Glossary of Gypsy Jazz
REVIEWS: Django Reinhardt’s Music on
FEATURE: Adrien Moignard
THE DOZENS: Essential Stéphane Grappelli

Although I had done extensive reading on the subject as well as listening to this distinctive sound on various recordings, I had actually never been in the physical presence of a ‘Django guitar’ until the arrival of my internet-ordered instrument a few weeks ago. Now, in the presence of all these cherished instruments, it seems I have hit the Selmer mother lode. Over the next few days, I will play a range of models from the pricier American-made Dell’Artes and several of the ubiquitous Saga Gitanes to a vintage Dimauro, a coveted Maurice DuPont model, and one of the holy grails of jazz Manouche: an authentic, full-bodied Favino. A few years ago Selmer-style petite bouche guitars were a rarity in the States, but now it seems that neither luthiers nor guitar factories can make them fast enough to keep up with the demand.

Just minutes away from the start of the clinic we sit in a semi-circle, comparing axes and diligently plucking away with our Wegens, until a young man casually attired in a running suit and sneakers enters the room and picks up a borrowed Selmer copy, prompting an awed hush among the participants. Adrien Moignard’s master class begins. Over the next hour and a half he will take us through a series of flowing horizontal arpeggios as well as some patent licks based on the changes to “Sweet Georgia Brown,” demonstrating the Gypsy technique with remarkable patience and lucidity for one so new to both teaching and the English language. This class alone was worth the trip.

The week-long seminar offers detailed instruction on all facets of jazz Manouche for all instruments crucial to the genre. Returning instructors include Michael Horowitz, who authored the definitive book on Gypsy right-hand technique, Gypsy Picking, Argentine guitar virtuoso Gonzalo Bergara, and all the aforementioned concert performers. In the limited amount of time left over the weekend, I chose to take classes with just four of the instructors, including Robin Nolan, whose focus is on building a solo around one of the Gypsy standards, and Montreal’s Denis Chang, who will be concentrating on merging the Manouche style with bebop. Each instructor offers unique knowledge and perspective, but perhaps the most profound is that of veteran clinician, Stephane Wrembel.

A native of Fontainebleau, France, where Django Reinhardt spent his last days, Stephane has earned accolades from music critics and fellow players on both sides of the Atlantic. Now living in Brooklyn, he has taken the Gypsy genre in a world beat direction with his latest CD, Terre Des Hommes. But his jazz Manouche background is evident, his playing firmly rooted in the Django tradition. Today he focuses on the importance of working with a metronome in building a solid foundation of time . . . before he ventures into a bit of philosophy. Critical of the superficial mimicry often found among students of this style, he expounds upon making the transition from “walking in the shadow of Django,” to “walking in the light of Django,” a dead give-away to his Buddhist influences. Over the remainder of the two hour session he uses the power of his considerable chops as evidence, frequently quoting passages from Django’s solos on his custom signature “Gitane.” It’s as if the master himself has just entered the room.

Tonight’s concert features Adrien Moignard’s current group, L’ensemble Zaiti, and they manage to exceed expectations while time-traveling across decades of music, from the Django classic, “Blues En Mineur “and Goodman’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” to the sixties pop hit "Sunny." Tenor sax man Cedric Ricard wails on “Polkadots and Moonbeams” before venturing into Coltrane territory on Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee.” The audience is wildly enthusiastic as Adrien Moignard’s nimble fingers dance up and down the fretboard, never seeming to repeat or run out of ideas. L’ensemble Zaiti is clearly moving beyond the confines of the stereotypical Hot Club Swing quartet; although Mathieu Chatelain and bassist Jeremie Arranger still provide plenty of pump foundation, Cedric Ricard adds a mainstream element with his lusty tenor. Following a brief intermission Adrien provides a second set surprise, bringing onstage fellow clinician Gonzalo Bergara. Their good-natured six-string sparring sends the crowd over the top. After the last encore, we leave the Helen Hills Chapel thoroughly sated.

It had been raining hard throughout the evening and the cool droplets hit my face as I walk back to the Laura Scales House dormitory. In these soggy conditions, it is doubtful that any courtyard jams will be forming tonight. Heat and the long day’s activities have taken their toll. I reluctantly turn in, mindful that tomorrow morning I still have a clinic with Denis Chang, who will be covering Gypsy technique used in conjunction with bebop phrasing. In terms of chop-building, it will prove to be one of the most productive sessions of the week.

                   L’ensemble Zaiti (photo by Frederic Moretto)

Waking suddenly in the morning darkness, I hear the distant sounds of pump-chomp-pump, chunka-pump-chomp, and ferocious violin and guitar solos, which I had thought to be part of a dream, but is actually a full-blown jam which had materialized in the King House living room shortly after midnight. I recognize Matt Glaser and several other staff members taking a chorus or two and hope that someone is capturing this session on a decent recording device. I’m also thinking that, had I stayed up, I would have felt more comfortable joining in this time. Damn.

The final evening jam session for the 2008 Django in June had continued until the sun made its unwelcome appearance and the last bar of la pompe had been strummed. This five hour marathon accounts for the fact that the dining hall is only about a third full at breakfast. I’m having my fourth cup of coffee with several 50-something males, who have now apparently forsaken their beloved Hawaiian shirts. We are in the middle of a discussion on the state of music and the arts in America when a tiny figure carrying a tray of food takes her seat next to me. It’s Sarah, the remarkable fourteen year-old violinist. Mustering my most accusatory, fatherly tone, I ask her, “Young lady, please tell me you weren’t one of those people in King Dorm, jamming until five in the morning?” She breaks into a grin, admitting, “Yes, I’m afraid I was.” We all laugh.

The future of jazz Manouche is in good hands. I think Stéphane Grappelli and Django would be extremely proud.

This blog entry posted by Bill Barnes.

August 14, 2008 · 4 comments


Joan Osborne at The Cutting Room

Ralph Miriello, a regular contributor to these pages, reports on Joan Osborne’s recent performance at the Cutting Room. Fans of Ralph’s writing should also check out his recent interview with drummer Jimmy Cobb and his review of Meddy Gerville. T.G.

Talented chanteuse of many genres, Joan Osborne, performed for a select one hundred or so WFUV patrons at the venerable Cutting Room at West 23rd Street in New York City last week. The private performance was both a warm-up for her up-coming tour to promote her new album Little Wild One, as well as a thank you to WFUV patrons for their continued support of the listener-sponsored radio station that has become of beacon of independent music in the New York City area.

On this occasion she was joined by guitarist Andrew Carillo (brother of Frank Carillo of the Bandoleros), keyboardist Keith Cotton, bassist Richard Hammond and drummer Aaron Comess. Her new CD represents a reuniting of Osborne with co-song writers/producers Rick Chertoff, Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman who last worked with her on her breakout 1995 Grammy nominated album Relish. After departing from the straight rock format for the last several years, and making reasonably successful forays into soul and country, Osborne is attempt to return to the scene of her first big success.

Standing amidst the scores of crudely painted portraits of such rock, blues and jazz legends ranging from Bob Dylan, Jagger & Bono to Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, the mixed crowd stood for nearly one hour on the tightly packed Cutting Room floor waiting for Osborne to start. She was introduced by WFUV’s silk-throated Claudia Marshall and started without delay. The first song was “Bury Me on the Battery,” an ode to New York City from her upcoming release. The song has a strong down home sound that makes good use of Osborne’s’ soulful sounding voice, but this is not Aretha soulful but more like June Carter Cash soulful; soulful with a touch of bittersweet country in it. Her next song was a decidedly poppy sounding tune “Sweeter than the Rest,” which she delivered with consummate professionalism. The song has a memorable melody and the requisite catchy hook and is a fitting candidate for a single release, but it was too formulaic for these ears despite the obvious approval of the audience

Osborne has developed precise control over her voice and her delivery is more mature and measured. Her ability to wrench emotion out of her words is still there but the material was not strong enough for her to really demonstrate her talents. .

Her third song, “Hallelujah in the City,” is a hymn-like ode that has some resemblance to Jeff Buckley’s legendary “Hallelujah.” The song’s lyrics make reference to unfaithfulness and redemption. New York City is at once a heartless place and a comforting home with Riverside Drive, Brooklyn, Morningside Heights and Battery Park all being identified within the song in a yearning way. Osborne has an obvious attachment to the Big Apple and she sings of it with a combination of weariness and wonder. New Yorkers will identify with this song.

With “Little Wild One” Osborne played in a slow simmering way that was more soulful than the previous offerings. She also covered Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love,” which she previously recorded on her Righteous Love release of 2000.

The highlight of the night for me was her rendition of “Ladder” from her Relish release. This song embodies what Osborne does best. Her voice is an admixture of white soul and black Motown with a rock sensibility, and her voice relishes (no pun intended) this kind of material. The crowd responded accordingly.

The finale was a song entitled “Cathedrals,” which was an especially poignant work from her new release, a song that Claudia Marshall -- during a mid show impromptu interview -- found especially touching, and which Joan conceded she did not write. Osborne’s voice is one of those treasures that with the right material can really make you sit up and pay attention. She also has the ability to move a crowd in gospel-like way. With this new release, Little Wild One, some of her fan base will undoubtedly be pleased to hear her tackle more familiar sounding material. It’s a fine effort, but I have come to expect more from this talented artist.

This blog entry posted by Ralph A. Miriello.

August 13, 2008 · 1 comment


Does Return to Forever Tour Signal a Return to Fusion?

Walter Kolosky is a regular contributor to -- his interview with John McLaughlin is one of the most popular articles published on the site -- and our resident expert on jazz.rock fusion. Below he reports on the recent Return to Forever reunion tour and asks whether its success signals a resurgence of 'old school' fusion music. T.G.

I had the chance to see Return to Forever during its recent reunion tour stop in Boston. What was originally scheduled to be the group’s penultimate performance on the world tour which Chick jokingly told the audience “included nine hundred shows,” was pushed back one because demand made the group add an extra show two nights later in New York.

The concert didn’t quite bring me back to the fusion glory days of my youth. To do that completely the people seated around me would have to be about 30 years younger and busy passing me joints. Ah, memories. I certainly can’t be as old as these folks. What happened to them? And where’s the weed?

The crowd-pleasing Bela Fleck and the Flecktones opened the show. The last time I heard this band they were so loud that they shook some kidney stones loose. This time out they took it a bit easier on the volume. Their signature piece “Sinister Minister” brought the crowd to its feet. But this was all a prelude to the main event.

During the band set-up the public address system was playing jazz-rock from back in the day. The lights lowered. An excerpt from In a Silent Way quieted the crowd. Then the band walked on stage to a tremendous ovation. Chick said a few words before the guys began. He commented that the long tour was almost over and that the band was now “well-greased.” The crowd greeted that statement with much applause and screaming.

The band was tight. They approached each tune with enthusiasm and purpose. Stanley Clarke stood center stage and looked back and forth between Al DiMeola and Chick as he played protagonist and mediator. Lenny White banged away behind an acrylic drum shield. One thing that was very apparent to this listener was the generosity that Chick Corea showed to Clarke and DiMeola. Corea was more than happy, without shirking his own duties, to let those two masters bask in the spotlight. The show became more and more powerful until the band reached its height on the evening’s two final pieces, the acoustic “Romantic Warrior” and the feverish “The Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant.” The band proved its staying power by bringing the house down. This was one reunion show that matched the hype.

Afterwards I was lucky enough to go back stage. Chick was talking about the music and a recent show in Maryland for which Larry Coryell and Alphonse Mouzon had put together a partial-reunion of the seminal jazz-rock group Eleventh House to open for RTF. Chick was quite pleased that those guys saw fit to do that. He was also very happy with the success of the RTF tour and sees signs. “We think fusion is back,” he said. He mentioned he will be touring with John McLaughlin next as another sign of a possible fusion future.

                             Return to Forever Reunion Tour

Is fusion really back? It depends, in my opinion, on what you mean by fusion. To me, it seems as if it never left. Its influence is in tons of pop, jazz and world music. People just don’t recognize it. Surely the huge commercial appeal of straight fusion is long gone. It was done in by greedy music executives who wouldn’t know their Moog from their ass. They were able to convince enough musicians that they had to smooth-out their jazz-rock rough edges to appeal better to the great masses. Those record company monkeys still stick in my craw.

To me jam bands like Dave Mathews and Blues Traveler, of course Martin, Medeski and Wood and many, many more acts of that ilk are all fusion bands to a certain degree. Even the World Music movement itself is a natural extension of the fusion principle. And we shouldn’t forget that many of the jazz-rock pioneers have been playing variations of the fusion theme the last three decades.

I remember when I was young and all of these old guys like TV talk show host Merv Griffin kept talking about how the big bands were coming back. I used to hate that. The big bands were not coming back and those old squares needed to get a grip. Those days were over. But, as I have aged I realize that they only wanted to do the same thing I want to do now. And that was to simply recapture a part of their youth. There is an element of that nostalgia that surrounds the current interest in the fusion music revival. And make no mistake: there is a fusion revival in progress. (For the record I love big band music. No need to send any nasty notes.)

I would have liked to see a few more young people at the RTF show. Perhaps the ticket costs kept them away in favor of us older citizens who may have a little more dispensable income in these tough economic times. But I know that they are out there, listening to the likes of Mars Volta, Garaj Mahal, Bonobos Convergence, Hadrien Feraud, Surinder Sandhu – Bela Fleck for that matter – and many others. Those bands and musicians are the direct descendants of the great fusion bands like Mahavishnu, Return to Forever, Weather Report, Head Hunters, The Eleventh House etc.

Fusion will never come back in the undiluted sense in which those early bands once presented it. Music can only be new once. But the critical and financial success of Return to Forever’s tour serves as both nostalgia and as an example of musical standards for young musicians to strive for and for young fans to admire. Perhaps this achievement will give impetus for other historic fusion bands to do some new recording and touring.

This blog entry posted by Walter Kolosky.

August 12, 2008 · 0 comments


The Queenan-Service Debate

We don’t spend much time worrying about the world of classical music here at But the recent punch-up between Joe Queenan and his critics is too interesting to ignore.

Who would have thought that people could get so worked up over contemporary classical music? Yet Mr. Queenan struck a raw nerve when he claimed that most new classical music is little more than self-inflicted pain and torment. A rash decision? Certainly there was no rush to judgment: Queenan notes that he has listened to classical music for some four decades, and has attended 1,500 or so concerts during that period.

Queenan recalls attending a concert of music by Luciano Berio, which The New York Times declared to be "electrifying and sumptuously colorful." But Queenan had a different perspective. “I gazed down from the balcony at a sea of old men snoring, a bunch of irate, middle-aged women fanning themselves with their programs, and scores of high-school students poised to garrote their teachers in reprisal for 35 minutes of non-stop torture.”

The full text of his article can be found here.

The responses to Queenan have been as fierce as his initial assault. Anyone who thinks that classical music fans are polite and well-mannered needs to check out the give-and-take on this subject. This full-scale defense of contemporary classical music by Tom Service attracted more than one hundred comments from readers before the comments box was finally shut down.

If I were a judge here, I would rule against both sides. Queenan’s sweeping generalizations are hard to defend. In fact, I find that there is more interesting contemporary classical music being made today than at any point in my adult life. I could assemble a fairly long list of living and recently deceased composers whose works make for compelling listening, yet whose music is almost entirely unknown even among intelligent, educated folks. (This may be a worthwhile subject for a future blog.)

Yet those who attack Queenan are a little scary too. Consider, for example, this revealing remark by Service: “The problem is that Queenan seems to equate a composer making a ‘breakthrough’ not with whether audiences actually go to hear this stuff - they do - but whether he likes it or not. . . . What's pernicious, however, is that he uses this wholly subjective response as evidence of a terminal decline of contemporary classical music culture.”

In other words, Joe Queenan goes wrong by actually hoping he will enjoy the music he hears. How antiquated! He even relies on his subjective experience (horrors!) in responding to the music. Doesn’t Queenan realize that there are objective sources (e.g., The New York Times, Tom Service, etc.) that he can easily substitute for his own judgment? If Queenan had enough trust in these infallible authorities, he wouldn't even need to listen to the music at all. He could just buy the CDs and proudly display them on the mantelpiece.

This response to Queenan brings us full circle back to the viewpoint Mark Twain poked fun at more than a century ago, when he quipped that "Wagner's music is better than it sounds.” (Pedantic footnote: Twain, as he himself admitted, borrowed this clever line from Edgar Wilson Nye.) Here's my advice: anyone who writes music criticism should start every morning by saying the following words in front of a mirror: “Music can never be better than it sounds.”

Frankly, I would argue that any adequate defense of avant garde classical music can and must take into account the subjective perspective of the audience. This is not hard to do, and it is interesting to see that Service doesn't even try to defend this ground. This tells you something about the current state of musical criticism. For my part, I refuse to accept any advocacy for any type of music that devalues my personal experience, including my enjoyment (horrors! . . that word again). The fact that a serious commentator on music can be so smuggly dismissive of the validity of the listener’s perspective is both disturbing and revealing. This type of authoritarian ideology substituting for music criticism does more damage than a hundred Joe Queenans.

For other responses to Queenan, check out Terry Teachout, Roger Evans, and John Berry. I especially like John Stoehr’s article, which asks, why can’t we discuss matters such as this in American newspapers? To which I answer: just wait until Madonna or Britney start composing symphonies.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

August 11, 2008 · 2 comments


The Artwork of Jerry Blank

I’ve always found myself fascinated by images of jazz musicians caught in the heat of performance. Years ago, I covered the walls of my college dorm room with these pictures (most of them clipped from magazines), and derived some quirky comfort from the dozens of artists arranged in hodge-podge fashion from floor to ceiling. Here was my personal over-sized orchestra, a silent cacophony that perhaps intimidated visitors (or maybe they had other, better reasons for staying away).

 Charles Mingus</i> by Jerry Blank

I still get a kick from a striking jazz photo or painting. I find that the best of these works evoke that transcendent aspect of jazz that almost defies verbalization. A great jazz concert takes on ritualistic and almost mystical proportions, and celebrates the artist’s total commitment to the intensity and immediacy of the moment. Such proceedings are inspiring not just to hear, but also to see. Jazz art is a type of metaphysics made visible. tries to share a little bit of this magic in its Visual Jazz galleries. These on-line exhibitions cover a wide range of artists, but all of them aim to capture this elusive essence of a musical performance. Many of the leading jazz photographers have their own “virtual” galleries on site, including Herb Snitzer, Jos Knaepen, Ray Avery, Marcel Fleiss and Ron Hudson. Other galleries feature the portraits of Suzanne Cerny and Michael Symonds, the tango art of Karen Kucharski, or the abstract jazz-inspired paintings of Martel Chapman. Sometimes these works achieve almost a hyper realism, while others approach the music more indirectly, but no less powerfully.

Today, launches a new gallery featuring the impressionistic paintings of Jerry Blank. (See his portrait of Charles Mingus to the left.) Jerry Blank's tribute series The Art of Music presents over-lapping images on vertically elongated canvasses that grab my attention with their half collage and half kaleidoscope effects. And check out that beatific light that shines down from above! (I always suspected that Mingus gave off an aura during certain especially charged solos.) These are paintings that effectively capture the vibrancy of a live performance. I was not surprised to learn that one of Blank's stated goals is to pique the curiosity of the younger generation and perhaps inspire them with a desire to check out the music of the performers he celebrates in his works.

Blank's watercolors, acrylics and oils can be found private and public collections throughout North America and Europe. They are currently featured in galleries in New York, West Palm Beach, Hilton Head, Chicago, Houston, San Jose, and Las Vegas.

Site visitors are invited to check out the Jerry Blank gallery here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

August 09, 2008 · 1 comment


Weekend Track Review Roundup

Someday The New York Times or The New Yorker will report on this scrappy little web site that aims to review all of the great (and many of the not-so-great) jazz tracks recorded since the beginning of time.

But they haven’t yet, so we need to blow our own horn. Get ready, here it comes . . . TOOT!!! TOOT!!! TOOT!!

Was that loud enough for you?

No, we haven’t reviewed all of the hot tracks . . . not yet, at any rate. But we do have more than 2,800 track reviews on the site, prepared by our crack team of 40-plus critics (that's their headcount not their media age), as well as various guest reviewers of renown. (Coming here soon: Jason Moran reviewing 12 essential Muhal Richard Abrams tracks.)

The total scope of this enterprise is a bit scary, at least to those of us who are building it one brick at a time. Just the reviews already available on the site amount to more than a half million words (every one of them selected with care, and nary a split infinitive or dangling participle to be found). That’s enough to fill a stack of print books -- remember those? -- and keep that Intel® Quad-core XEON® Processor 7300 Series unit (conveniently located right next to my bed) buzzing round the clock. When combined with’s on-line Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians -- a work-in-progress -- this hyper-linked resource amounts to one of the largest jazz reference works anywhere, in print or on the web.

Don’t just take my word for it. Search for you favorite tracks here. Or just glance below, where we present links to a sampling of reviews published since our last roundup. Five times each week, we also highlight a Song of the Day drawn from the best of the current releases. In addition, we offer a daily retrospective glance at a jazz masterpiece, as part of our A Classic Revisited feature.

All reviews come with fair and judicious appraisals worthy of inclusion in the Harvard Law Review, 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 personal amicus curiae briefs at the bottom of each review.

Steve Reich (with Pat Metheny): Electric Counterpoint
Bill Evans: Very Early
Chick Corea & Gary Burton: Señor Mouse
André Previn: I Feel Pretty
Miles Davis: Selim
Tony Scott: Is Not All One?
Paco De Lucia: Convite (Rhumba)
Ornette Coleman: First Take
Diana Krall: How Insensitive
Wes Montgomery: West Coast Blues
Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi
Eric Dolphy: Straight Up and Down
John Tchicai: One Way Ticket
Sonny Rollins: Change Partners
Charlie Barnet: Over the Rainbow
Anthony Davis: Wayang No. 5
György Ligeti: Lux Aeterna
Paradox: Subwayer
Billy Cobham: On the Inside Track
Dexter Gordon: Fried Bananas
Dave Brubeck: Perdido
Ella Fitzgerald: Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me
Herbie Hancock & John McLaughlin: It’s About That Time
Dave Brubeck (with Paul Desmond): Blue Moon
Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis: Basin Street Blues
Carmen McRae: Still We Dream
Steve Lacy & Mal Waldron: House Party Starting
Duke Ellington & Ray Brown: Things Ain’t What They Used to Be
Dizzy Gillespie: Dizzier and Dizzier
Paul Desmond: Wendy
Ron Carter: Tamalpais
Modern Jazz Quartet: Lonely Woman
Miles Davis: Teo
Richard Twardzik: I’ll Remember April
Sauter-Finegan Orchestra: Nina Never Knew
Miles Davis: Catembe
Harry Allen: I Didn’t Know What Time It Was
Ted Heath: Lady bird
Gary Burton & Stéphane Grappelli: Blue in Green
Teddi King: How Long Has This Been Going On?
Benny Carter: Blue Star
Italian Instabile Orchestra: Il Maestro Muratore
Frank Strozier: Runnin’
Paul Motian: Light Blue
David Murray & Mal Waldron: I Should Care
Esbjörn Svensson: Dodge the Dodo
Stan Kenton: An Esthete on Clark Street
Oscar Pettiford: Nica’s Tempo
Brand X: Nightmare Patrol
Grace Kelly: Just Friends
Gary Burton: Blue Comedy
Herbie Nichols: Love, Gloom, Cash, Love
Joe Lovano & Hank Jones: Alone Together
Philip Catherine: Lendas Brasileiras
Marcin Wasilewski: Diamonds and Pearls
Larry Coryell: The Dragon Gate
Pat Martino: Exit
John McLaughlin: Devotion
Nobu Stowe: Trio I
Harold Asbhy: Stampash
The Herbie Nichols Project: Dr. Cyclops’ Dream
Jan Hammer & Jerry Goodman: I Remember Me
John Abercrombie: The Cat’s Back

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

August 07, 2008 · 1 comment


Remembering Jerry Graff

Jeff Sultanof is an astute commentator on jazz matters, and one of's resident experts -- especially when the discussion turns to big bands and jazz arranging. His recent contributions to these pages include Dozens on Gerald Wilson and Stan Kenton, and we are looking forward to publishing his forthcoming piece on the Birth of the Cool recordings. Below Sultanof shares a personal tribute to his friend and mentor Jerry Graff, who passed away earlier this year. T.G.

On February 14, singer / arranger / conductor Jerome Graff quietly passed away in his home in Encino, California. For those who knew him, and they included hundreds of singers and instrumentalists he'd worked with, wrote for and conducted all over the world, he was a major figure. His vocal arrangements and musical presentations garnered standing ovations. His musical sketches were photocopied and studied by arrangers of many generations, including some of the big names in the field. Such orchestrators as Larry Wilcox and Ron Roullier, both of whom scored his work, thought he was one of the best musicians they'd ever worked with.

Jerry Graff

And he is a great example of a man who had a tangential but profound relationship to jazz in subtle ways. I knew him for over thirty years as a teacher, mentor, friend, and confidante. I learned harmony, form, vocal group writing, professionalism, production, engineering and any number of other things from him, but as I learned more about American concert and popular music, I began to understand that he'd touched American music profoundly. And his story needs to be told.

Jerry Graff was born in Brooklyn and was convinced to major in music at Brooklyn College. He never missed the Fred Waring radio program, where he heard the brilliant choral arrangements of Kay Thompson, whose post-war act with the Williams Brothers was one of the highest paid in the country (she can be seen and heard in the movie Funny Face with Fred Astaire; one of the numbers from her act appears on a Milton Berle DVD). He was also a big fan of Six Hits and a Miss, as was Mel Torme. During Jerry's college years, he and his future wife Judy were members of the Robert Shaw Collegiate Chorale.

He was a member of the Special Services Unit during World War II, a group of actors, singers and musicians which included Allen Ludden, Carl Reiner and Hal David. It was during this time that he composed and orchestrated incidental music for a non-Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie. He also put together a vocal group with a Hawaiian woman and three men called The Beachcombers. After the war, he brought a test record of his group to Robert Shaw, who was helpful in getting them hired by bandleader Johnny Long. While a major name, Long's band was certainly not as popular as Dorsey's, Shaw's or even Charlie Spivak's, yet Long's post-war recordings for Bob Thiele's Signature Records show the ensemble to be better than historians have acknowledged. Jerry's first recorded arrangement was "Hawaiian War Chant" with an instrumental background by Julian Work. Other recordings include "Unless it Can Happen With You" and perhaps their finest record with Long, "Easter Parade." They made other recordings with Leroy Holmes on MGM, and while these are hardly jazz, the vocal work can only be described as stunning.

Eventually The Beachcombers came to the attention of Jack Entratter of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, and their glory years began. In the 50s, The Beachcombers were the main attraction in the lounge of the hotel, where they were seen and heard by every star appearing in Las Vegas; the group also performed in the main auditorium as an opening act. To this day, people who went to Vegas during this time get excited when I mention The Beachcombers and have warm memories of their performances. Jerry's arrangements were so popular that such stars as Lena Horne commissioned material from him. The late Gene Puerling told me how much The Beachcombers influenced him (he was the vocal arranger/leader of the Hi-Lo's and Voices Unlimited, the two most influential groups in the vocal jazz movement in high schools and colleges), and Bob Alcivar also raved about their sound and Jerry's arrangements in particular. Alcivar would later put together an impressive jazz vocal group called The Signatures, and would write for The Association and particularly The Fifth Dimension (originally a jazz vocal group). Alcivar told me that without question, The Beachcombers were the finest lounge act in Vegas during the fifties, and one of the best vocal groups he ever heard.

And yet their recordings during the early fifties never really showed what they could do; a recording with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra of "You Could Make Me Smile Again" went nowhere (although Jerry told me with pride that one of his heroes, Victor Young, was in the studio when it was made and loved the recording), and a single on RCA ("Don't Call Me Coach, Call Me George") was a topical novelty, based on a football coach's life, that also failed to make a dent in the marketplace.

Enter Frank Sinatra. A big Beachcomber fan, he'd asked for his own record label within Capitol Records when he signed the group and produced a single, "Hey Ho"/"Hank'rin for You." The record was slowly taking off when Capitol informed Sinatra that if they gave him his own label, then every other Capitol artist of stature could demand the same thing. Sinatra was furious and vowed that he was finished with Capitol. End of promotion for The Beachcombers. The group was never told what happened, and it wasn't until many years later that I was able to find out the truth.

Once that record died, the morale of the group did as well. A deal for an album on Verve Records to be arranged and conducted by Buddy Bregman was voted down. Jerry walked out, and got a call to lead the vocal group for what would turn out to be the last year of the Nat King Cole television show on NBC, where Jerry's arrangements were orchestrated by Nelson Riddle. The Jerry Graff Singers can be seen on-camera in some numbers from the show that have gotten into circulation on Public Television and DVD.

With few other prospects on the West Coast, Jerry moved back to New York with his family. He told me it was like starting all over again. But luckily word quickly spread of his abilities, and Jack Pleis, musical director for Decca kept him busy as a group singer. He was soon to work with vocal group legends Elise Bretton [one of the singers on Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin and co-composer of "For Heaven's Sake (Let's Fall in Love")] and Lynn Roberts (the last female vocalist with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, who later toured with Benny Goodman and Mel Lewis). He became a contractor and sang on hundreds of recordings. In 1973, I began going to recording sessions and rehearsals with him to observe, ask questions and learn the music business. To list whom I met and worked with would be an exercise in name-dropping I don't wish to indulge in because this article is his show, but I will say that he only worked with the best in his field. Eventually he asked me to supervise some of his recording work, and I produced a CD called Life Dreams which was only distributed privately. This CD was made at the Capitol Tower in Los Angeles, and recording there is one of my most cherished memories. I later orchestrated one of his arrangements for Lynn Roberts for the Palm Beach Pops, another amazing experience.

Jerry was well known for his special material for acts of all types, and for over thirty years, he would review every arrangement he wrote with me, first to explain what he'd written, later to solicit my opinion. ("Should this be two bars or four in this transition?" he would ask. I would answer, and he would call me from the road to tell me if it worked). He made total amateurs sound like professionals, such was his gift, and when he worked with a professional performer, that artist sounded like a star.

His particular skill in changing keys and tempos within an arrangement would have made him an excellent teacher of harmony and form, because he could fully explain why he did one thing and not another. He prided himself that he'd won an argument with Nelson Riddle during a Nat Cole rehearsal over a modulation that Nelson did not think worked very well. His medleys were full of surprises, yet were always coherent and logical. They were journeys that listeners adored -- audiences applauded in six different places during his Christmas medley for Lynn Roberts when it was first written and performed. They still applaud in the same spots.

I learned about wonderful four and five-piece vocal groups because he would talk about them, little realizing that I would go out and find recordings of The Pied Pipers, The Stardusters, The Starlighters, The Dave Lambert Singers and many others. When trombonist Warren Covington bought the Pied Piper name, Jerry became the arranger and sang with the reconstituted group. I even got to sing with them when one of the members of the group was late to a rehearsal. Incredible . . . and the one way to really write good vocal parts.

I was not the only young person whom he encouraged. Perhaps his closest tie to modern jazz was his close relationship to the composer / pianist / professor David Lopato, the son of his best friend. Jerry did not understand everything David wrote or played, but he knew talent, and Lopato has since proven that he is an important voice in American music, and a gifted, perceptive teacher. Jerry was enormously proud of David and me, and during hard times, was there to help us keep going with kind words and strong hugs.

The show business in which Jerry blossomed changed quite a long time ago, and obviously popular music and jazz changed profoundly as well, but he kept going, and was still writing for and coaching singers when he died. He was thrilled when he heard high school jazz choirs singing arrangements by Gene Puerling with perfect intonation and excellent diction. He was touched deeply when I told him that I played The Beachcomber recordings to young children, who thought they were 'cool.'

Jerry Graff's life reminds us that many people whose names are not well known in historical circles need to be remembered for the contributions they made, and I hope there are others who will come forward to tell about those they knew or studied with who touched jazz, although perhaps in unheralded ways. There are many such people in the United States and also in Europe, and the record needs to be filled in, so their stories are not lost.

This blog entry posted by Jeff Sultanof

August 06, 2008 · 8 comments


Eight Items from My Jazz Wish List

It’s time to update the old jazz wish list. The jazz scene is almost perfect. But there are some things I still don't encounter often enough. Here are eight from the master list.

(1) The Perfect Eight Bar Solo: There are many combatants who want to prove that they can deliver the ultimate eight minute (or longer) solo. But what about the perfect eight bar solo? Solo space was in short supply on those old 78s. Sometimes a hornplayer got only a bridge or a half-chorus, but still could make it count. If you were producing a record session today, and needed a perfect eight-bar solo, who would you hire?

(2) Jazz-influenced fashions: Billy Eckstine had his “Mr. B. Collar” and Dizzy had his beret. Miles had those special uniforms for outer space exploration – forget fashion designers, those duds came straight from a secret division of NASA. But there's no Miles today; there's not even a George Melly in sight. I am soliciting suggestions on which jazz musicians of today have "the look" that deserves to crossover into the mainstream. How about this happening Keith Jarrett attire? Or this Jamie Cullum I-may-still-grow-into-it outfit? And when will GQ do a feature on Kurt Elling's double-breasted stylings? Give me one good reason why jazz musicians shouldn’t be setting today’s fashion trends?

(3) Instrumental jazz crossover hits: Remember when folks like Lee Morgan or Cannonball Adderley could have a hit single that everybody heard on the radio. There are even rumors about a hit single long ago that was a jazz instrumental in 5/4 time. But I think that must be an apocryphal tale. You know, one of those lies jazz musicians tell? Can you imagine a hit single today by Matthew Shipp or Maria Schneider, Dave Holland or Miguel Zenón? I can dream, can’t I?

(4) Stop-time choruses: Hey, it worked for Louis Armstrong. It worked for Charles Mingus. It could work today . . . if anyone bothered to try.

(5) Bands that can play fast and soft at the same time: This is a powerful combination, but Ahmad Jamal must have locked up the intellectual property rights back in the 1950s.

(6) Smart Counterpoint: I’m not just talking ‘bout jazz fugues, such as John Lewis, Friedrich Gulda and others composed back in the old days. I’d settle for a pair of hornplayers who took some pride in perfecting improvised counterpoint and made it central to their musical vision. We once had Gerry & Chet, Warne & Lee, etc. But can you think of any twosome that stands out, at that same high level, today?

(7) Cover versions of Bud Powell tunes: Back when I was a young pup in the jazz kennel, I wondered why almost no one performed the old Bud Powell songs, with their catchy melodies and inviting chord changes. I’m still wondering.

(8) Lester People: I remember fondly deejay Bob Houlihan’s old “Lester People” show on KJAZ, which was (the radio host proudly proclaimed) the only weekly radio show devoted to the music of Lester Young and his friends & disciples. (Okay, it wasn’t really a whole show, just a few minutes . . . but point me in the direction of something better, huh?) Once “Lester People” were everywhere you looked: Getz, Quinichette, Lady Day, Al & Zoot. . . . Now Houlihan's show is gone, and KJAZ is gone, and the Lester People are gone too. They say you can’t bring back the past, but I’ve heard about his new cloning technology . . .

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

August 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Life at Gypsy Jazz Camp (Part Two)

While the rest of us were catching up on Summer chores or taking the kids to see The Dark Knight, Bill Barnes was enjoying an idyllic life at Gypsy jazz camp. Here Django is bigger than American Idol, and on even the hottest days, “Nuages” are in the air. Check back soon for the third and final installment of this exploration of the surprising new millennium popularity of an Old World tradition. (Click here for part one in the series.) T.G.

                   Applied Djangology (photo by Frederic Moretto)

I arrive at Smith College on Friday afternoon, three days into the camp, one of the weekend participants. Checking into my second-story dorm room, I get eerie feelings of déjà vu. The accommodations are Spartan-bare wood floors, an unmade single bed piled with one pillow, folded sheets and a blanket. My window looks out onto a grassy, wooded courtyard area separating the two crescent-shaped Georgian residence halls where we are housed and where many of the classes and workshops take place. Boola, boola, I’m back in college.

It’s a steaming, torrid afternoon in Northampton. Many of the classes are being held out on the courtyard lawn, with groups of five to twenty-odd musicians clustered under the shade of ancient oaks. The steady pulse of la pompe rhythm reverberates off the brick walls, interwoven with subtle strains of color from the occasional accordion. Conflicting violin, mandolin and guitar solos compete for airspace. Classes are wrapping up, jams are starting to form.

Passing one group playing a Manouche standard under the tutelage of the master instructor, I hear a guitarist providing backup suddenly get lost in the middle of someone else’s solo, unraveling the rhythmic foundation and derailing the entire ensemble. As the piece disintegrates, the instructor asks, in a distinct French accent, “Okay, what just happened?” The red-faced culprit shakes his head, murmuring something about losing his concentration. As I wander out of earshot, the instructor, who I suddenly recognize as the acclaimed guitar master Stephane Wrembel, begins to deconstruct the last few bars, with some wry comments on more supportive playing.

Unlike the conventional view of the rhythm guitarist as a technically inferior musician to lead players, in jazz Manouche a solid rhythm guitar player is highly esteemed. The la pompe technique (‘the pump’ in English), considered the bedrock of the traditional Hot Club sound, seems deceptively simple but takes a surprisingly long time for many experienced jazz guitarists to master. Few do it better than Mathieu Chatelain, who co-founded the progressive L’ensemble Zaiti with 23 year old guitar sensation Adrien Moignard. Mathieu’s clinic on rhythm technique is one of the most popular classes at the seminar.

GOING GYPSY: a guide to resources

So, you want to explore the world of Django Reinhardt and jazz Manouche? These resources will get you started in the right direction.

The Best of Django Reinhardt (Blue Note)
Djangology (Bluebird)
In Solitaire (Definitive Records)
Bireli Lagrene, Gipsy Project (Available through Gypsy
Selmer #607 (Available through
The Rosenberg Trio Live at Samois (Available through
Jimmy Rosenberg, Angelo Debarre and Bireli Lagrene: The One and Only (Available through

Biography, History:
Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend by Michael Dregni
Gypsy Jazz: In Search of Django Reinhardt and the Soul of Gypsy Swing by Michael Dregni
Django Reinhardt by Charles Delaunay
Gypsies by Jan Yoors
Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca

Instructional Books/CDs (Available through

Gypsy Picking by Michael Horowitz
Gypsy Fire by Andreas Oberg

Gypsy Violin by Matt Glaser
Never Before…Never Again by Joe Venuti.

Instructional DVD/Books:
Jazz Manouche: Technique & Improvisation, Vol. 1-4 (DVDs) by Denis Chang (Available through

Info and Products:; great forum, books DVDs, CDs, instruments and accessories more books, DVDs, CDs instruments and accessories
Django Station: French jazz Manouche website
Gypsy Guitars: great source of info and instruments- Romani info and history-
Jazz Guitar: Gypsy guitar licks from Bireli Lagrene-
Selmer 607 project website: Videos of the session and other resources

Shelly Park
AJL Guitars
Castelluccia Guitars
Holo Guitar
Olivier Marin Luthier (Spain)

Andrew Lawrence has been buzzing like a worker bee all week, keeping things moving seamlessly. Still, he is gracious enough to stop and chat, answer a few questions and to introduce me to L’ensemble Zaiti’s leader. The group is gathered around a laptop computer, where the final moments of a soccer match between France and the Netherlands are being played out. Robin Nolan and his bass player, Simon Planting stop by in time to witness France’s loss. Nolan and Planting are from Amsterdam, but, in deference to their disappointed French colleagues, manage to contain their enthusiasm. They have just returned from a rehearsal in preparation for their own concert this evening.

I have an interview with Adrien scheduled for this afternoon and wonder how I’m going to communicate with my rudimentary conversational French. Much to my relief, the interview goes well, as he had picked up enough English to cross the barrier. I can now relax a little and look forward to the concerts and master classes I have on my itinerary. [Editor's note: Look for this interview on later this month.]

The weekend concerts have been the anchor of this event from the first time the Robin Nolan Trio performed here in 2004. Robin has been a concert and teaching staple of the program ever since. Years ago he had befriended and studied with Sinti guitarists living in the Netherlands and had authored some of the first really accurate instructional materials on the Gypsy style, helping to propel this worldwide movement forward among the gadje. [Gadje = Romani term for a non-Gypsy. Check out the "Gypsy Jazz Glossary" here.] His trio heads the lineup for tonight’s concert, which also features the ‘Django in June All-Stars,’ an ensemble of players from the teaching staff. The Friday night concert is only two hours away, held in, of all places, the Helen Hills Chapel, a traditional white-sided New England church on the Smith College campus.

The chapel lacks air-conditioning and is packed with the jazz Manouche faithful, most dripping with sweat in the close, oppressive air of the sanctuary. As the sun goes down the occasional breeze brings some relief but only the music can take our minds off this early summer New England heat wave. Andrew Lawrence introduces the faculty ensemble, including Simon Planting on bass, doing double duty this evening, as he is the foundation for Robin Nolan’s trio. On guitars we have Denis Chang, one of the top instructors in this style, Jean-Philippe Watremez, a new addition to the camp faculty who lays down a powerful la pompe. One of the more fascinating instruments at the clinic is the accordion, here represented by the astounding Vladimir Mollov. Leading the All Stars is Matt Glaser, a friend to the late Stéphane Grappelli, who has written some of the more effective books on swing violin. Not only is he a wizard on violin -- he’s also known to be somewhat of a wit. In his opening remarks he cracks wise on his partially accurate prediction prior to the event that most of the participants would be 50-something males, all wearing Hawaiian Shirts which they believe to be “a reasonable alternative to exercise.” I join in the laughter, until I suddenly remember arriving this afternoon wearing -- you guessed it -- a Hawaiian shirt.

Despite Matt Glazer’s dismal prediction, the seminar has drawn people from all over the USA and Canada, some from as far away as the UK and Germany, all age groups, genders (okay, a higher percentage of 50-something males than I had expected) and different social spheres coming together in a common quest for the spirit of Django and what his music represents. There’s even one twenty-something rocker from New York, garbed in the prerequisite black metal-head uniform, complete with leather, studs and body-piercing. He is candid in his goal regarding the camp experience: “I just want to play faster.”

Earlier I had joined in a conversation between a photographer and a precocious young violinist named Sarah. An engaging, independent fourteen year-old, she seemed comfortable with the older participants and delightfully unaffected. When asked what drew her to Gypsy jazz, she answered simply, “Stéphane Grappelli -- I love his playing.” She also admits that this style is just fun to play.

The conversation turns to post-EU France, our photographer friend’s homeland. “When I go back to Paris, I invariably become sad. It has changed so much. The changes are so subtle that you wouldn’t notice -- but I do.” The whole world is in a state of flux, which may explain, in part, the newfound attraction to this timeless, evolving music without national boundaries. On one level, jazz Manouche has the appeal of nostalgia; at the same time, it brings a fresh, acoustic perspective to contemporary jazz, melding the mournful soul of the Sinti, the Manouche and the Gitano with the passions of the Pigalle, the blasé of bebop and the fire of fusion–pyro (without all the pedals). As the song goes, everything old is new again.

The Django in June All Stars, a group which didn’t exist prior to this event, are surprisingly tight, playing a wide range from traditional Gypsy Swing numbers to the bebop Rhythm changes standard, “Oleo.” Denis Chang demonstrates his facility with both Gypsy and mainstream jazz guitar techniques while Vladimir Mollov does what I previously thought would be impossible -- burning up the accordion on Sonny Rollins’s bop masterpiece. Matt Glaser’s violin soars effortlessly above it all; he delights the crowd with his tongue-in-cheek vocal on a bouncing “Some of These Days,” a number in which staff member John McGann offers yet another revelation: that, in his hands, the mandolin can swing.

During intermission, enamored concertgoers are sipping wine on the church steps and heaping praise on the ensemble’s set. I overhear one of the local townspeople commenting on the positive feel of the music, calling it “joyous jazz,” seemingly a contradiction in terms that, in a perfect universe, would be an oxymoron. Lights blink in the vestibule -- the Robin Nolan Trio is about to take the stage.

Robin Nolan, always a Django in June favorite, opens with a powerful version of the popular Gypsy standard, “Swing Gitan.” It is immediately apparent why his playing has generated such enthusiasm. Few guitarists seamlessly integrate jazz Manouche, mainstream jazz, rock and blues with such élan. His set includes tunes representing a variety of styles; a bluesy Charlie Mingus favorite, “Nostalgia in Times Square,” a lovely valse he had written for his young daughter and a heart-wrenching version of Django’s “Clair de Lune,” with able assistance from violinist and fellow clinician Jason Anick. Throughout the concert Robin delivers an inspired performance con brio, with ample support from bassist Simon Planting and guest backup guitarist Ted Gottsegen on the pump.

For me the evening is all but over as I return to my room, but for much of the camp’s staff and participants, the real fun is only beginning. Within an hour from the concert’s end, small groups of musicians set up folding chairs on the lawn of the courtyard. Like some predestined single-cell organism, each group becomes an impromptu ensemble, with one bass, one or two accordions, mandolins and violins and any number of guitars. Soon four or five different groups dive into their favorites, their intermingling Byzantine patterns flowing through my dorm window in an illogical but somehow congruent jazz Manouche stew.

I am tempted to run down with my guitar and join one of the jams but decide against it. My gut is telling me that, as a newcomer to this style with absolutely no la pompe skill, I have not yet earned the right to be there. The jams continue on for hours and I drift off to sleep on an addictive, soothing river of Gypsy rhythm; a seemingly endless pump-chomp-pump-chunka-pump-chomp, through which the bittersweet lines of “Swing Gitan” enter my dreams.

This is the end of part two of Bill Barnes’ blog article. Click here for the third and final installment in this series.

August 04, 2008 · 0 comments


John Abercrombie at Riverspace Café

Ralph Miriello, a regular contributor to these pages (see his recent interview with Jimmy Cobb), shares with us his report below on John Abercrombie’s performance at the Riverspace Café. T.G.

Tucked away in the eclectic Hudson River town of Nyack, New York, the people of Riverspace ended this year’s jazz series with a rare appearance by John Abercrombie and his trio at their cozy cafe. The Riverspace organization is a local non-profit whose mission is to create a dynamic cultural center that inspires community through nurturing the arts. True to this mission they presented the master guitarist in the early show, and the journeyman jazz artist did not disappoint. Joined by his able trio mates—a particularly sensitive Peter Brendler on acoustic bass and Joe Lovano alumnus Bob Meyer on drums—Abercrombie weaved his magic, playing a combination of well-worn standards and some original tunes to an eager and receptive audience of mostly middle-aged patrons sprinkled with some younger fans.

Having first seen him over thirty years ago in the fusion days of the experimental super group known as “Dreams”—alongside fellow trailblazers Billy Cobham, Michael and Randy Brecker—at the old “Bottom of the Village Gate” in New York City, I found it almost surreal to see him in this much more subdued setting with a mostly older crowd.

                    John Abercrombie at Riverspace Café
                                  Photo by Curtis Burns

For those of us who have grown up with John’s work over the year, from his aptly titled ECM debut album Timeless with keyboard wizard Jan Hammer and quintessential drummer Jack DeJohnette, through his exciting and exploratory work on Gateway, again with DeJohnette along with fellow explorer bassist Dave Holland, as well as many other noteworthy collaborations, we have come to expect John’s accomplished technique always tempered by his wonderfully unique knack for improvisation and great lyricism.

The program started with Riverspace jazz curator Richard Sussman introducing John as one of his favorite improvisers. The group warmed up with an old standard, Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is The Ocean.” Abercrombie floated around the melody. Performing on a custom semi-hollow-bodied guitar with an array of various electronic controls at his disposal, all activated by a subtle touch with his left foot, Abercrombie played à la Wes Montgomery with the fat of his thumb. The guitar had that rich, full round sound that this type of attack produces. John seems very comfortable with the “standards”, for as he has stated in a previous interview, his familiarity with a song frees him to explore its boundaries while always grounding him in its melody.

Before the start of the next song, the guitarist prefaced it by saying that he used to play it a lot and had gotten bored with it and stopped until he recently revisited it and saw it in a new light. The tune was “Ralph’s Piano Waltz” from his seminal album Timeless. As John tells it, he wrote this composition on friend and fellow guitarist Ralph Towner’s piano at his Greenwich Village apartment, and hence the title. The song allowed for some nice work by John and bassist Brendler, whose sensitive solo was well received by the audience. Veteran Meyer handled the tune smoothly on snare and cymbals and it was nice to hear John play this familiar self-penned tune in an intimate setting.

The third composition was as surprise; a never-before-performed song that John said was inspired by another song “Zhivago” written by the contemporary guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. Abercrombie is a much sought after teacher, as well he should be, and his students have kept him hip to the new sounds of fellow guitarists, Rosenwinkel among them. After assuring us that he hadn’t ripped Kurt off, but was simply inspired by the young guitarist’s work, he proceeded with the tune he has temporarily dubbed “Kurt.” John’s mastery of the complex and quickly changing time signatures that were featured in this composition was a joy to behold, despite his offering apologies for not getting it totally right, while his able rhythm section deftly followed his lead.

John continued with a sensitive rendering of the classic “Darn That Dream” and then changed direction with an Ornette Coleman tune, a bopping rendition of “When Will the Blues Leave.” He finished the first set with another Coleman composition, the altoist's “ Round Trip.”

Abercrombie, sporting his nicely trimmed Wilfred Brimley style brush-mustache, played like a man who has reached a level of comfort within himself and his playing. He doesn’t rip like he used to, but prefers to be more cognizant of the space between the notes and the harmonic discretion of his explorations. His playing has a light, airy feel to it and his improvisational directions are delightfully unexpected. Abercrombie stands as one of the most important players of his generation, boasting his own unique sound and his own deliberate approach to the music. At the tender age of sixty-four, he still demands our most careful listening.

This blog entry posted by Ralph A. Miriello.

August 03, 2008 · 1 comment