The Best Jazz Tracks for September

Dave Holland

Let’s look back at the best new tracks featured on during September. As regular site visitors know, we pick a Song of the Day five times every week. These tracks are drawn from a wide range of sources, both major and indie label CDs, as well as self-produced projects and easily missed releases from far-flung parts of the world. The predominant focus is jazz, but we occasionally cast our net into blues, world music or other styles. The one common denominator is musical excellence.

Below are links to the reviews of the tracks featured as Song of the Day during the last month. Today’s featured track is the exciting opening cut “The Sum of All Parts” from Dave Holland’s new CD Pass It On, which was released a few days ago. This music has many of the trademark elements of Mr. Holland’s previous opuses, but the presence of pianist Mulgrew Miller imparts a new twist. For the full review, click here.

Songs of the Day for September:

Dave Holland: The Sum of All Parts
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Cathy Rocco: You're Gonna Hear From Me
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Bruno Raberg: Elegy
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Aaron Irwin: Little Hurts
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Marshall Gilkes: The Crossover
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

McCoy Tyner & John Scofield: Mr. P.C.
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Pete Rodriquez: Who Do I Trust?
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Patricia Barber: Miss Otis Regrets
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Michael Moore & Fred Hersch: The Sad Bird
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Lafayette Gilchrist: Between Us
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Blink: Glass
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Savina Yannatou: O Yannis kai O Drakos
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Joe Lovano: Duke Ellington's Sound of Love
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Carla Bley: Awful Coffee
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Bobo Stenson: A Fixed Goal
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Southside Johnny (with Tom Waits): Walk Away
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Bill Cantrall: Axiom
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

B.B. King: Get These Blues Off Me
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

George Duke: Everyday Hero
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Surinder Sandhu: Avi's Theme
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Jay D'Amico: Tuscan Prelude
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Chris Greene: Bernie's Tune
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Bob Mintzer (with Kurt Elling): Minuano
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

September 30, 2008 · 0 comments


The Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival

The Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival, now in its eighth year, was almost overcome by bad weather this last weekend. But a few indoor events managed to preserve the jazz spirit despite the downpours. Roanna Forman reports below in the first installment of her two-part article. T.G.

Berklee BeanTown Jazz

Last week, from Thursday, September 25 through Saturday, September 27, I was set to spend my money on two great concerts, and then get a full free day’s worth of jazz on the weekend. It was Boston’s eighth annual BeanTown Jazz Festival, the closest thing us Northeasterners have to Carnival. Lately it’s been renamed the Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival, as one of the powerhouse jazz colleges in the country has lent its resources, name, and marketing power to the event.

I kept a little diary for the blog, so here goes.

Thursday, September 25

The kickoff concert, at Berklee’s student-run Cafe 939, showcased two fine Berklee students who record on the school’s Jazz Revelation Records. They leave you thinking: if this is the beginning of their careers, where will they end?

Pianists Manami Morita and Evgeny Lebedev both brought different, but great, colors to the cafe’s stage. In this charming, professional-quality performance space that many privately owned jazz clubs would die for, coffee and cookies are served, not martinis. (Bostonians reading this would get a kick out of knowing that the Cafe 939 is about three city blocks from its predecessor, the Jazz Workshop, where the artists these students hear on recordings played to live audiences until the seventies.)

Both pianists were excellent. Manami, with electric bassist Zak Croxall and drummer Thomas Hartman, is a petite twenty-three-year-old Japanese dynamo whose opening standard and remaining originals were sophisticated beyond her years, lilting, with a steady groove. So high energy that she rises from her seat as she builds her fast-paced solos, Manami enjoys the bright upper registers and the percussive capacity of the piano, and her drummer follows nicely along.

She started the set with a chromatic line meandering up and down the keyboard that led to a fast-paced version of “Caravan.” In an original ballad that began with meditative voicings, Manami showed a softer, pianistic side. The bass player folded pretty, diatonic lines around the melody and at one point seemed to quote “Everyone Knows It’s Windy.” Obviously having a ball, Manami played an original pop song, calling out, “It needs lyrics; anyone wants to write lyrics, let me know!” She has a beautiful melodic sense, and the song might be about lovers parting and coming together again. The sound never lost the groove as it changed moods. One very gospel-like piece showed how well the band understood this sound. As Manami led with descending tremolos, her bass player took the sound to church with credenzas, and finished off the tune just right.

Unlike Manami, Russian-born Evgeny Lebedev plays in the middle to lower registers of the instrument. He’s a larger, slower-moving person, but he’s equally skilled a musician. Tinges of Eastern Europe are obvious in his playing at times, but so is Keith Jarrett. Lebedev is definitely classically trained: you could hear it in his left-hand motifs and in the counterpoint of a fugue-like introduction to “If I Should Lose You,” which opened the set. Again, in contrast to Manami, who had a loose me-and-my-friends approach to the presentation, Lebedev and his sidemen emerged from the green room more formally.

In Lebedev’s “Russian Dance,” soft lyricism and interwoven lines build almost to a gallop. Moving the solo into a sustained groove, Lebedev and the band stayed there, with drum rolls by Lee Fish, (drummer for Collage, tenor player Mike Tucker’s debut album) and very fast bass lines by Hynwoo Man.

While there was some funk, the arrangements were essentially straight ahead. The band supported Oleg Ostopchuk’s fluid tenor solos well, although the mix did drown him out a little. For his encore, Lebedev chose “Peace,” which he opened solo piano. The tenor added bluesy overtones to this jazz ballad, then the piano put in heavy left-hand arpeggios as underpinning. It was a fitting message with which to end the evening.

Friday, September 26

The “Drum Summit,” at the Berklee Performance Center, featured Cindy Blackman and Terri Lyne Carrington in a high powered evening of fusion. I had thought the two artists would play part of the show together—both sets of drums were set up onstage. But that was only to save time between sets. Each drummer brought out her own group.

Thanks to the great acoustics and big screen projections of the musicians, you could follow their moves and fingering from any point in the hall, which holds about 500 people. It was just about full.

Blackman’s band gives her a lot of room, backing her up with grooves and only stepping out for solos. Her beat chases the players like a freight train. They are all solidly built men, and their physical stature reflects the musical solidity they need, to contain Blackman’s relentless ferocity. She looks possessed when she plays, and her licks sound more like gunshots than rolls a lot of the time. Mostly, the band laid down booming repetitive grooves, sometimes of two chords, and the soloist took off over them. Tenor player J.D. Allen had plenty of room to move out over the trance-like repetition under him. When the band switched to a ballad, Blackman’s brushes complemented it with a chestnut melancholy and a heart-breaking intensity. Owing either to the soundboard or the pianist’s expertise, the single bass notes of the piano introduction resonated like an upright. The band moved the song into a big unison funk line.

Special guest guitarist David Gilmore did some fine guitar work. The lines, though fluent, were rock and post-modern that you’d expect with this style, but Gilmore did a great job, and the crowd loved him. Backing the band up, he switched to funk rhythms on a solid-body.

For her final solo, Blackman banged her drums with a primitive ferocity that increased as the pace picked up. You almost pitied the drumheads. She explored the melodic framework of each drum’s capacity with individual and combined rolls, then brought the band in with a hulking rock line. Slowing the line down, she beat it out in unison with the others, and brought the set to a final, orgiastic finish.

This concludes part one of Roanna Forman’s coverage of the Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival. Check back soon for part two.

September 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Remembering Richard Sudhalter

The jazz world is mourning the loss of Richard Sudhalter, a pioneering jazz historian and cornetist who passed away last week. Below’s Jeff Sultanof shares his recollections of Sudhalter and thoughts about his legacy. T.G.

The news of Richard Sudhalter's passing was particularly sad. I considered him a dear friend who enriched my life in many ways beyond our love of jazz. He wrote one of the great texts in jazz history in recent years, only to be dismissed and attacked by some members of the jazz community who should be ashamed of themselves. His long-term illness after a stroke was ironic in that it robbed him of written and verbal communication while his mind continued to function.

Richard Sudhalter

There are many obituaries and tributes to be found since he left us, so it is easy to learn the basic facts about Richard. I will refrain from delving into his history too deeply. This column is devoted to the man I knew.

I first met him through Bill Kirchner, who has been responsible for my meeting and befriending many players, writers and historians in the jazz community. Bill and his wife Judy had a party at their apartment, Richard was there, and I immediately told him of my immense respect for his writing and his playing. The conversation started with jazz and the players he loved, and went on to European history when he was a correspondent for United Press International, with a few twists and turns in between. I gave him a lift to the city in my car just to get to talk with him some more.

He had an apartment in New York City, but it was for convenience. He told me that he wasn't entirely comfortable in the various places he'd lived in the city or the other four boroughs. He invited me to spend a weekend at his home on the north fork of Long Island, which was a long drive east. When I came out to visit, the area seemed like something out of a different era—a small town in the middle of nowhere where his home was a short walk away from the ocean. Richard said that this place reminded him of Cape Cod and other places in New England where he grew up.

That first visit was filled with more discussion and illustrations from his extensive record collection, which now resides at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. He held test pressings of rare recordings from the thirties, many of which were alternate performances that were never issued. My head spun—to hear a mint Brunswick recording from 1932 with Don Redman and Bing Crosby is something that I wish all jazz fans can experience firsthand.

We discussed his collaboration with Philip R. Evans which resulted in Bix: Man and Legend, long acknowledged as perhaps the first modern biography of a jazz musician on the same level as a detailed examination of Beethoven or Mozart. It is safe to say that the level of scholarship for biographies of jazz musicians changed overnight after the book was read and absorbed by fans and historians.

Richard told me he made one major error in the writing of the volume: he created a dialogue that might have been said by some of the people represented, based on his interviews with them (one of them was Bix's girlfriend Ruth). This gave the book a novel-like approach at times that he felt detracted from the work. He wanted to correct some of this at a later date. Alas, the book went out of print, and Evans refused to discuss a reprint or an updated version. Richard could never understand Evans's bitterness, and the result was that Bix: Man and Legend became a collector's prize—an important, influential book which is now almost impossible to find without paying a lot of money.

When we met, Sudhalter's book Lost Chords was at the printer, and he was excited about it. The ideas behind the book were simple: many of the pioneers of jazz who happened to be white were forgotten or minimized. There was a great deal of sharing and interaction between black and white musicians even in that era of race prejudice; interracial jam sessions did take place, as well as black and white musicians socializing and sharing what they knew. Lester Young had great admiration for Jimmy Dorsey, so did Charlie Parker. Billy Strayhorn and Bill Finegan became great friends and admired each other's work tremendously. White musicians added a great deal to the music of jazz, and Richard felt that some writers had forgotten the large contributions they made.

Lost Chords was the result of ten years of research, and it was huge; over 900 pages. It was almost cut down because Oxford University Press thought the book too big to publish as submitted. It was an 'angel' who gave Sudhalter the money to have his complete vision made available.

From the start, the book generated strong reaction. I believe it to be one of the most important volumes on music I've ever read, regardless of genre, but many did not think so. Some reviewers spent more time on the premise of the book than what was in it, and they determined that Sudhalter was a racist. Richard knew that the book would encounter negative press in some circles, but he was unprepared for the anger and insults he had to endure. Ultimately people read the book, understood it, and purchased the companion two-CD set with many hard-to-find recordings that reinforced the ideas he wrote of so eloquently.

The hardcover edition went through two printings, incredible for a huge volume of music history, and the paperback did as well. The book seems to be out-of-print now, a situation which needs to be corrected. Sudhalter regretted the casual treatment of Benny Goodman in this book, but I and others assured him that Benny was hardly forgotten and didn't need the space that Louis Panico and Jack Purvis did. (And yes, if you don't know these names, their stories may be found in Lost Chords).

When Hal Leonard Corporation let me go some months after 9/11, Richard recommended me to the director/owner of Five Towns College in Dix Hills, New York, and I was hired to teach music business courses, a gesture of help and friendship too rare in this world. I would eventually lead the college's jazz ensemble as well. Richard came to my rehearsals and even brought his horn to help out. I asked him if he would bring in his arrangements from the Paul Whiteman library for the band to play. I wrote up new, edited scores of several and gave him copies; he'd never seen scores of some of them.

Although the band never got to play music of this vintage, the experience of making new scores gave Sudhalter and I plenty of opportunity to discuss and analyze parts of them. The music in the Whiteman library warrants a book-length study of its own. Sudhalter called it "the original lab band of its era. Whiteman would play anything and everything. There is some really adventurous music to be found in his collection." Whiteman is also found in Lost Chords.

Richard thought he'd been lucky because he got to the hospital within fifteen minutes of his stroke. I visited him a few days later, and even though his speech was slurred, his memory was already starting to return. Unfortunately, when he was diagnosed with Multiple System Atrophy, he knew his remaining days would be experiencing the indignity of his body slowly breaking down, and he told me he was sorry he didn't die when the stroke occurred.

Benefit concerts were given to assist him financially, and he was moved by the support, love and respect from many people all over the world. Terry Teachout, in particular, was very close to him in his last years and helped him immensely, and Sudhalter's wonderful companion Dorothy Kellogg was always there for him as well. For most of us, we simply waited for the day when Sudhalter's misery would end, and it finally did on October 19th.

Richard was an excellent cornetist, and his recordings will live to illustrate another important facet of his talent. He made no bones about embracing an older style of jazz in his music, and once told me that Bobby Hackett's playing exemplified what he was trying to do. The solos of both men were elegant yet deeply moving if you took the trouble to listen. I am particularly fond of Richard's collaborations with composer/pianist Roger Kellaway, an old friend from Massachusetts. Both Sudhalter and I agreed that Roger is an incredible, underrated talent, and Richard loved making music with him.

This column only gives highlights of some aspects of our friendship. I was blessed having him in my life, and will never forget his kindness, love of language, and the depth of his insights into music, politics, and life. He leaves two daughters and his beloved companion Dorothy, but he also leaves many people throughout the world who have been touched by his many gifts.

I will miss him.

This blog entry posted by Jeff Sultanof

September 28, 2008 · 1 comment


Weekend Track Review Roundup


Our intrepid reviewers sometimes even surprise this seasoned editor. Their latest batch of track reviews covers everything from the musical musings of the First Lady of France to something strange called A Hamster Speaks by the band Brinsk, whose MySpace page stylishly mixes up pictures of farm animals and band members. Needless to say, you won't see this CD (cover pictured right) on the counter at Starbucks.

Hey, if it comes down to a Desert Island decision, I am opting for Carla Bruni. Sorry, hamsters!

Below are links to a few of the reviews published during the last several weeks. But we are not just peddling farm animals and first ladies. This latest batch of critical musings also looks back at pioneering projects, such as On the Corner and Song X, and—going back even further—revisits classic recordings by Adrian Rollini, J.J. Johnson, and others among the dearly departed.

As always, we focus on individual tracks, not entire CDs. All reviews are accompanied by a ranking based on our proprietary 100 point scale, and, whenever possible, links are included for fast (and legal) downloading. By the way, site visitors can add their own two centavos at the bottom of each review.

Adams, Pepper: The Long Two/Four
Reviewed by Eric Novod

Alexander, Monty: My Mother’s Eyes
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Beck, Jeff: Sophie
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Brinsk: A Hamster Speaks
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Bruni, Carla: You Belong to Me
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Byard, Jaki: Twelve
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Coleman, Ornette: The Garden of Souls
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Davis, Miles: Black Satin
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Davis, Miles: Milestones
Reviewed by Jared Pauley

Dreams: New York
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Eick, Matthias: The Door
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Farrell, Joe: Collage for Polly
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Getz, Stan (with Chick Corea): Windows
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Graves, Milford: Nothing
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Grimes, Henry: Walk On
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Handy, John & Ali Akbar Khan: Ganesha’s Jubilee Dance
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Hemphill, Julius: Bordertown
Reviewed by Eric Novod

Henderson, Joe: Milestones
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Holland, Dave: Shadow Dance
Reviewed by Jared Pauley

Hubbard, Freddie: Lonely Town
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Jobim, Antonio Carlos: Brazil
Reviewed by Jared Pauley

Johnson, J.J.: El Camino Real
Reviewed by Kenny Berger

Klein, Randy: The Calm
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Lateef, Yusef: Number7
Reviewed by Eric Novod

Logan, Guissepi: Tabla Suite
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

McLaughlin, John: Blues for L.W.
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

McLean, Jackie: Old Gospel
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Metheny, Pat & Ornette Coleman: Endangered Species
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Pastorius, Jaco: Donna Lee
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Rollini, Adrian: Beatin' the Dog
Reviewed by Kenny Berger

Rosenwinkel, Kurt: Conception I
Reviewed by Eric Novod

Shorter, Wayne: Infant Eyes
Reviewed by Jared Pauley

Tyner, McCoy: Peresina
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Tyner, McCoy & Bill Frisell: Boubacar
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

September 25, 2008 · 0 comments


Is Jazz More Popular Than Democracy?

As we count down to November's U.S. presidential election, our web site's resident curmudgeon, Alan Kurtz, compares the relative appeal of jazz and democracy, with surprising results. Is jazz in its homeland truly more engaging than the ideal government hatched by the Greeks 2,500 years ago? Or has Mr. Kurtz taken leave of his senses, as is his wont from time to time? Readers are invited to cast their own votes below or email ballots (please, no hanging chad) to T.G.

Time magazine cover 11-8-54

"Jazz," reports Time magazine, "which used to account for a tiny percentage of sales among the major record companies, has become a big moneymaker for the big labels." Of course, that was in 1954, as part of Time's cover story on Dave Brubeck. The situation is now less salubrious. Last July, blogging on, a webzine dedicated to contemporary music, New York-based composer/bandleader Darcy James Argue deemed jazz "a marginal art form" whose CD market share is "hovering around two percent." Live performance prospects appear equally bleak. "Jazz musicians are accustomed to scrabbling," Argue observes, "but dwindling freelance opportunities plus disappearing venues, scuttled ventures, and changing music policies have all contributed to a scene where it's not uncommon to see world-class jazz musicians fiercely competing for the privilege of playing pass-the-hat gigs."

Yet, demoralizing as this is, jazz lovers may console themselves with a startling development freshly dug up by's dogged snoop, namely me. Jazz is more popular than democracy! Communities

The first hint of this shocking revelation arose from a casual comparison of two of's many virtual communities, where customers conduct spirited exchanges on topics of communal interest. The Democracy community numbers fewer than 800 members and has generated a paltry two colloquies. The Jazz community, by contrast, boasts more than 5,000 participants who've engaged in over 500 discussions. By this gauge, jazz is six times more popular than democracy!

Perhaps it should come as no surprise. After all, there's abundant statistical evidence that most U.S. citizens distrust democratic institutions. According to the American National Election Studies, a research collaboration of Stanford University and the University of Michigan with funding by the National Science Foundation, respondents in public-opinion surveys who expressed high trust in government fell from 75% in the early 1960s to less than 50% ten years later, and (except for a spike following 9/11) have never recovered a majority. At the same time, the proportion of voting-age adults who even bother to register has progressively declined. Electoral turnout rates in the U.S. are routinely put to shame by newly emerging democracies across the globe. The postindustrial societies of the European Union, Canada and Japan likewise surpass, and sometimes double, the anemic U.S. rates. The only established democracy with comparable low turnout is Switzerland.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949)

Cynics will no doubt jump-cut to The Third Man (1949), the classic British film noir where Orson Welles as Harry Lime quips: "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace; and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Apart from the fact that cuckoo clocks originated not in Switzerland but in the Black Forest region of Germany, the USA—with its government of, by and for the people—is actually closer to the untidy Italian fecundity in Lime's narrative than to his purported Swiss sterility. In our tumultuous 232-year history, we've had far more warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed than brotherly love, democracy and peace. And we've produced Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison and Thomas "Fats" Waller. All of which suggests either that (a) the U.S. has never been a democracy or (b) the nexus between democracy and creativity is even fuzzier than Harry Lime's knowledge of cuckoo clocks.

Interestingly, the Film Noir community outnumbers the Democracy community at, although neither has generated more than a couple of discussions apiece. "This democracy forum," exhorts one of its few vocal members, "ought to be buzzing with action, ideas and agendas." Instead, the only buzzing heard is the snoring of a forum with no quorum.

Amazon's Jazz community, on the other hand, is livelier than a hornet's nest. Its most popular thread, "What About Jazz Since 67," has generated nearly 1,600 comments. Other topics run the gamut from serious ("Hard drug addiction. Why?") to frivolous ("Spoonerisms"). We prefer the latter, which fittingly has nothing to do with spoonerisms. Rather, contributors unashamedly proffer dreadful wordplay on standard song titles, such as:

          "You Stepped Out of a Drain"
          "I've Got You Under My Sink"
          "You Took a Bandage Off Me"
          "Don't Buy a Round Much Anymore"
          "I Get Along Without You H.G. Wells"

Which brings us in a roundabout way back to Orson Welles, who unleashed mass hysteria with his 1938 Halloween Eve radio broadcast of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, excitedly dramatized in the guise of breaking news about Martians invading New Jersey in search of toxic chemicals to fuel their spaceships.

WPA poster from Library of Congress

If those pushy tourists from the Red Planet had bothered to look around during their terrestrial foraging, they might've noticed the FDR administration's understated WPA poster reminding citizens during the Great Depression that democracy is a challenge. Quickly consulting their Earthling-to-Martian dictionary, our interplanetary visitors would've learned that "democracy" derives from the Greek ?????????? (dimokratia), meaning popular government, a concept from 5th-century BC denoting political systems in such Greek city-states as Athens. Bent on a hostile takeover, however, the Martians had no more interest in such matters than do present-day Americans, for whom "popular government" is an oxymoron.

But, hey, the Greeks never said it would be easy. And jazz fans should, of all people, recognize that popularity is an unreliable indicator of value. Perhaps some of those 5,000+ members of Amazon's jazz community ought to mosey on over to the Democracy forum and jazz up its moribund discussion. Hell, maybe the rest of us could get involved ourselves by registering and voting and unpopular stuff like that. Who knows where it would lead?

This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.

September 24, 2008 · 0 comments


McCoy Tyner Takes on the Guitarists

McCoy Tyner has rarely recorded with guitarists during the course of his career. And for good reason. This pianist doesn’t leave much room for other harmony instruments. Any note your self-respecting guitarist might be thinking about putting into the chord . . . well, McCoy is probably already playing it fortissimo. And if any six-stringer is planning to get into a fight over comping rights . . . well, I can tell you right now who will win that battle.

 McCoy Tyner

So I wasn’t surprised when I saw that Tyner was releasing a CD featuring four guitarists and a banjoist. “That evens things up a bit,” I thought to myself. “With a team of string players in the room at the same time, they can put up more of a fight.” Let McCoy deal with five suspended chords coming his way all at once, and see how he likes it.

And the musicians on hand were a formidable lot: Béla Fleck, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, John Scofield and Derek Trucks. Add Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette into the mix, and you have the makings of a major league mash-up. In my mind, I envisioned a plucked, strummed, picked and bottlenecked version of Ascension.

But then I discovered, to my horror, that these guitarists weren’t taking on McCoy in tandem. Each one was going into the lion’s den alone. And some sadistic film-maker had captured everything on video, and included it on a “companion DVD.”

I braced myself with a couple shots of whiskey, then sat down to witness the proceedings. But I can report, with great relief, that everyone of the “guest” artists survived this encounter with the titanic Tyner. This was a feisty crew, and these guests showed why they were invited in the first place. Tyner, for his part, was an amiable (if formidable) host, and even left his guitarist friends some space to strut their stuff.

About half of the tracks here reprise familiar tunes dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. They include songs Tyner played with John Coltrane (such as “Greensleeves” and “My Favorite Things”) or compositions from his own sessions from that period (such as “Passion Dance” and “Blues on the Corner”). In one instance, the musicians reach far back for a John Coltrane tune from the period before Tyner was in the band (“Mr. P.C.). And Marc Ribot even brings along his arrangement of a 1960s-era folk revival song “500 Miles”—a strange choice until you remember that Coltrane and Tyner were among the most daring, back in that period, in doing covers of the least likely pop songs. (Anyone remember ”Chim Chim Cheree”?)

But this was anything but a tepid retrospective on the “Good Old Days.” In case you had any doubts about the nature of this "theme" project, the CD opens with an atonal clash of the chords—Ribot and Tyner facing off and sending sonic shrapnel in each other’s general direction. “There Will Be Blood,” I muttered to myself, and I wasn’t talking about Daniel Day-Lewis. But Ribot gave as good as he got, and by the time we get to “500 Miles,” a peace-and-love ambiance has almost—but not quite—settled on the proceedings.

There are many highlights to this lengthy CD—which contains more than 74 minutes of music. I am not sure how well jazz fans know Derek Trucks, who has made his reputation mostly in the blues and blues-rock genres. But he is one of my favorite guitarists, and shows here how he can mix it up in a different type of setting than he usually favors. But when it comes to blues, John Scofield can show off his credentials too, as he demonstrates here on “Blues on the Corner.” This is one of Tyner’s jauntier pieces, and performed with gusto on this updated version. Scofield is also quite effective on "Mr. P.C.," another blues (this one in minor), which is a standout track. Béla Fleck, for his part, comes closest to taking on Tyner at close quarters. He moves into heavy modal territory with his voicings and licks, reminding us of the pianist’s own bag of tricks. Even when you think you have heard everything a banjo could possibly do, Fleck shows you a new twist, a different angle.

Bill Frisell is the final gladiatior, and is given the last three tracks on the CD. Miracle of miracles . . he even manages to take over the rhythm section for a spell, setting his own mood and sensibility on “Baba Drame.” This is the closing track and stretches out over a simple, throbbing vamp; and instead of conventional solos we just get a simmering, repeating groove, as surprising as the atonal maelstrom that opened up this CD. Peace and love finally prevails . . . and, thank goodness! Maybe that means we will get a sequel.

Today's Song of the Day at is "Mr. P.C." featuring McCoy Tyner and John Scofield from the Guitars CD. For the full review, click here.

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

September 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Introducing the 1040 JAZZ FAN EZ

A trillion here, a trillion there . . . pretty soon it adds up to real money. But while politicians talk of bailouts,'s Walter Kolosky suggests a jazzier response to the current financial turbulence. Read more below. T.G.

Jazz 1040-EZ

I thought we lived in a free market economy here in the United States. (OK. I never really thought that. But I needed a good set-up sentence for this blog.)

It is now clear that if you are a large greedy financial institution you can seduce millions of people to make unwise decisions and then use that ill-begotten money to rake in even more dirty money off millions of other unsuspecting folks. You can pay your executives 100 times more than what they deserve. You can even give them exorbitant yearly bonuses for records of failure. You can cause a worldwide financial panic that leads to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. If you are a big money corporation you can run your company into the ground through avarice, corruption and mis-management. You can do all those things and still be expected to be bailed-out by the U.S. Government. (In this case the U.S. Government is really the American taxpayer. I don’t remember being asked to help these industries. Do you?)

But why fight it? We jazz fans and jazz professionals should join the “I want mine” club. Sitting on the sidelines is a loser’s game. Since our government has decided it is now in the business of rescuing poorly run industries, I suggest it is time for the jazz community to get in line before other less deserving entities do.

My proposition is simple. Because jazz music, and therefore the jazz business, was born in America and holds a unique place in the history of the country, and indeed the world, it must be protected. The jazz community should be the beneficiary of some preferential fiscal treatment of its own to keep it alive and thriving. I find it hard to believe that Chrysler, the savings and loan industry, the mortgage brokering industry and the insurance industry deserve to be subsidized by American taxpayers while the practitioners and supporters of one of the few original art forms America has given to the world stand alone and vulnerable.

I am not asking for some great bail-out like for those huge corporations got. I am just asking for a fair shake for jazz fans. We have suffered long enough. I would suggest Congress pass a patriotic Jazz Stimulus Bill that contains the following four elements:

1) Jazz musicians should not pay any income tax.

2) Jazz fans should be able to deduct their yearly jazz purchases on their income tax returns. I have already taken a few moments to develop an easy tax form that could be used for this purpose (see above).

3) Establishments that showcase jazz music should be exempt from all taxes and alcohol licensing fees. In fact, those in the jazz music business should be given the same non-tax status Native Americans who live on reservations now enjoy. This status has allowed for the building of profitable casinos.

It seems that every big U.S. Corporation and its offshore subsidiaries receive huge tax breaks from the U.S. government. The super-pro-business contingent argues that these tax breaks allow companies to hire workers who then spend their earnings to prop up the economy by hiring low-wage workers. The fact this has never worked seems to be of little interest to the proponents of such policies. Frustrated opponents have been fighting this theory for years, but they are doomed to fail because the big money is on the other side.

Cynical digression: If there is one thing you need to learn in this life, it is that big money always wins in the end. Even if you think you have won against big money, you will find out later that you didn’t. That’s because big money doesn’t like to lose and it will never, ever quit.

So, let’s become big money.

4) Jazz musicians should join together, form a mega-corporation and name it, Inc. Then, in order to avoid paying any business taxes, they should hire ex-employees of Enron, especially accountants, to create various shell companies on overseas islands. (The Jazz Festival Island circuit would be ideal.) Then they should employ all their jazz friends, assign them vice-presidential titles and pay them outrageous fees, obtained from non-existent profits predicted in the out years, for their useless advice. A jazz lobby should be formed in order to influence the further lowering of the standards over at the SEC so that jazz fans can purchase tax-deductible stocks in the company and come along for the ride.

The more I think about this idea, the more I believe I should be named CEO-CFO of I will require a salary of $15 million a year, a generous bonus plan and control of the trust fund.

This blog entry posted by Walter Kolosky.

September 22, 2008 · 5 comments


A Surprise from Patricia Barber

Patricia Barber

You can tell a lot about Patricia Barber from the way she opens her recordings. For example, her 2006 CD Mythologies starts with Barber singing:

Should I leave Erebus to his own device
What Chaos when the curtain rises and the houselights dim
With whitecake on my face . . .

Or how about this kick-off to her live recording A Fortnight in France:

Did you ever think a piano could fall on your head?
Do you look over your shoulder at all?

You get the idea. This artist has somehow escaped the crossover police in the A&R department, and has been allowed—through some sly loophole in her contract—to challenge her audience. In an age in which most so-called ‘jazz’ vocal releases are as shallow as the Los Angeles River in summertime, Patricia Barber has decided to test the ocean waters.

So what am I to make of Barber’s latest CD? It opens with these words:

You’d be so easy to love
So easy to idolize
All others above . . .

Can this be true? Has Patricia Barber really released a Cole Porter songbook? And do I really hear a gentle bossa nova arrangement in the background of this track? The answer to both questions is a resounding ‘yes’, and listeners are left to ponder what is going on here. Has Barber entered the ‘Ella’ phase of her career, where she will tackle theme projects based on Gershwin, Berlin, Arlen and others? Do we now stop worrying about a piano falling on our collective heads?

But don’t despair, Barber fans. The tunes may be familiar here, but Barber hasn’t turned into a cabaret singer. She puts more than a little spin on these songs. Her phrasing on “Easy to Love” is so far behind the beat, that I kept worrying she would miss her next chord connection and get stuck at C#7 overnight without her bags. But she handles every change with the kind of comfortable mastery of time I associate with Carmen McRae and Betty Carter.

Elsewhere on this CD, saxophonist Chris Potter imparts an acerbic flavor to even the most familiar tunes. I especially like “Just One of Those Things,” in which the arrangement builds in layers. The performance starts with just voice on the pickup notes, and then moves along with Barber working off a very fast walking bass line. Guitar and sax each come in during the melody statement, and set up a fleet Potter solo. No one is going through the motions here; this is not just 'another' one of those things.

Probably the most striking thing about this CD is what is missing . . . namely the irony. Excessive irony has poisoned the styles of many post-modern players, preventing them from getting deeply inside these old popular tunes. Everything becomes a game, and the one thing we know about games is that they don’t really matter. In other settings, Barber has shown herself to be quite skilled at distancing herself in this way from the banality of a lyric. But she only pulls out her daggers in the right settings (hear, for example, her wickedly brilliant take on Sonny Bono’s “The Beat Goes On”). What I find more remarkable is her ability to turn off the irony completely a moment later. Then she inhabits the song, instead of just offering a wry commentary on it.

This is quite a rare talent, in my experience. Jazz singers these days tend to fall into two categories. There are those who deconstruct the tune by applying their clever persepctive on it—invariably with a double dose of irony; and then there are those others who just try to immerse themselves into the emotional core of a lyric, and let the pieces fall where they may. (By the way, I tend to believe that the ironists, who have dominated the scene in recent decades, are losing out to the latter, let's call them Method singers, who are now on the rise . . . But that is the subject for a different day.) My point here is that Patricia Barber, more than any other vocalist on the current scene, is surprisingly skilled at moving from the one camp to the other. And the verve and unpredictability with which she shifts from sly commentary to heart-on-sleeve immediacy is one of the most compelling aspects of her musical vision.

The Cole Porter Mix, is mostly titled toward the irony-free side of Ms. Barber. Even when these songs seem to be begging for a Jacques Derrida, Barber keeps closer to Emily Dickinson. But if you think that makes for a boring CD, you need to check out this music first and reconsider. Yes, it’s a sign of how far we have gone, that sometimes the most surprising thing you can do is to sing the old songs as if you took them seriously.

In honor of this fine CD, released last week, is featuring "Miss Otis Regrets" from Patricia Barber's The Cole Porter Mix as Song of the Day.

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

September 21, 2008 · 0 comments


The Artwork of Keith Henry Brown

                The Composer, artwork by Keith Henry Brown

As regular visitors to this site know, we have a fondness for the visual arts. Whenever possible, we draw on the skills of the finest painters and photographers we can find, appreciating that their images can sometimes be more effective than anything we might write. Jazz is a visceral art, which tries to capture and convey the spontaneity and intensity of the instant in which it was created. As such, the jazz musician has a special affinity with the visual artist, who also attempts to make permanent the special transcendence of the momentary. In a very real way, the image and sound are linked.

Today, launches a new gallery featuring the artwork of Keith Henry Brown, one of whose paintings can be seen above. Brown began his career, like many young artists, with aspirations of working as a cartoonist at Marvel Comics. After attending the High School for Art and Design in New York, Brown decided that his future would not reside in the realm of Spiderman and the Fantastic Four. Instead, he focused his efforts on developing his skills as a painter and illustrator. At this stage in his development, he looked for inspiration from illustrators such as Howard Pyle, Frank Frazetta (one of my favorites, too, in my younger days), Burton Silverman, Le Roy Neiman and David Stone Martin (the latter is well known to jazz fans for his work with the Clef, Norgran, and Verve labels). He also learned from painters such as Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Michel-Basquiat, among others.

            John Coltrane, artwork by Keith Henry Brown

His earliest commercial efforts were in the field of greeting cards soon followed by work for newspapers and periodicals. But like many jazz-influenced visual artists, he found that his personal passion for music also came to inspire his brushwork. This came to the fore in 2001, when Brown became Creative Director at Jazz at Lincoln Center, hand-picked for the position by Wynton Marsalis. Brown's jazz-oriented work has also been on display on many CD covers, for artists such as Toshiko Akiyoshi, Duke Ellington, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and others.

Brown currently lives in New York and New Jersey, and his works 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 Keith Henry Brown gallery here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

September 18, 2008 · 0 comments


Jazz Diplomacy for Troubled Times

Jazz fans are justifiably proud to see their favorite music show up at Lincoln Center. But they should be even prouder when musicians, under the auspices of Jazz at Lincoln Center, take their art form on the road to many of the most troubled spots on the globe. The Rhythm Road, a program that has shared the best of American music with people in more than sixty countries, does just that.'s Tim Wilkins reports on this little known but important outreach effort below. T.G.

                   Dizzy Does Diplomacy (Zagreb, 1956)

What does it take to travel the Rhythm Road? Ask any of the more than 100 musicians who have visited the world's most remote and conflict-ridden corners over the past three years as ambassadors for American music, they'll tell you.

"It takes a lot of heart," says Maya Azucena, a singer who visited Burma, Sri Lanka, China and the Philippines earlier this year. "It can get rugged out there." Her band seemed to stay one step ahead of disaster on their tour. They narrowly avoided bomb blasts in Sri Lanka, a capsized ferry in the Philippines, earthquakes in China and a cyclone in Burma, all in areas where they had performed.

But rather than stand by, Azucena helped organize benefit concerts for these victims upon her return to the U.S., and has remained in touch with new-found friends. Like other Rhythm Road veterans, she sees the program not just as an opportunity to tour exotic locales, but to create lasting relationships. "We're not these big people who just show up on stage and perform, then leave," said Azucena. "We're building connections."

The $1.3 million program, which is funded with U.S. tax dollars and administered by Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), has already sent performers to more than sixty countries on five continents. Once there, American musicians jam, teach, learn, and hang out with the locals.

              Singer Maya Azucena in Kunming, China

"When you have musical intelligence, that crosses boundaries," Azucena added. "That's what blew my mind every single night." Indeed, these tours are not for the weak of heart. Rather than play for embassy staff on the ambassador's lawn, the Rhythm Road prefers to send its artists into war-torn and isolated areas where few outsiders are seen or even allowed. In addition to China, Burma and Sri Lanka, other recent stops on the Rhythm Road include Kyrgistan, Turkmenistan, Cyprus, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Mali, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It may surprise some that a program sponsored by JALC promotes more than just jazz. Since its inception, the tour has sent out latin and urban music groups, and this year for the first time will include blues, bluegrass, zydeco, country and gospel. The State Department asked JALC to broaden the program's mandate beyond jazz, hoping to reach a full range of audiences overseas. The State Department also chooses the countries where performers are sent every year. "It's about America's vernacular musics," says Adrian Ellis, JALC's executive director. "That was their choice, but we were pretty happy to embrace it."

Indeed, the Rhythm Road represents one of the ways in which JALC, and for that matter, U.S. diplomacy, are quietly changing at the grassroots. "It's important for people to understand the United States through our culture, which really allows for diversity and freedom of expression," said the State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Professional and Cultural Exchanges, Alina Romanowski.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, she says, heightened awareness within the government about the role culture can play in improving the image of American culture abroad. Since then, the State Department's budget for cultural diplomacy has grown from less than $1 million in 2001 to more than $8 million today.

The Rhythm Road is a revival of the State Department's "jazz ambassadors" program, launched in 1955 to improve the image of the United States overseas, as a response to the Soviets' Cold-War cultural diplomacy. The Cold-War version of the program focused on sending some of the era's best-known performers, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Benny Goodman, to perform large concerts in foreign capitals.

The Rhythm Road, however, places far more emphasis on interaction, so performers spend more time in each country, and conduct workshops wherever they go. "This is much more about exchange," says Ellis. "The musicians come back subtly changed, and enriched by the experience, just as hopefully the audiences are."

According to Ellis, the underlying philosophy of the program is the same, even if the shift to a grassroots approach is new. "They're sending us to areas where, clearly, there are issues around the standing of American culture," he said. "That's what cultural diplomacy is all about."

Artists keep a grueling schedule on the four- to eight-week tours, and may perform in several towns on the same day, as well as meeting local musicians and students. But in exchange, they gain unique insight into cultures where Americans are rarely seen.

"You see more things than you would if you went there on your own, wrestling with tour managers and all of that," said Alvin Atkinson, a drummer who has visited more than a dozen countries with the program. "You get a chance to really see what life is out there, and that's beautiful." Veterans of the program acknowledge they learn as much as they are able to teach in their workshops, which reach out to local professionals as well as novices.

"When you're with master musicians in a place you've never been, it's good to let them do their thing first," says Atkinson. "It's important for them to remember that Americans came there, and they had that kind of fellowship." Atkinson has changed his own teaching as a result of what he has learned on the Rhythm Road.

"I used to say that rhythm comes from Africa, and harmony and melody come from Europe," said Atkinson. "Now I say that the rhythm, harmony and melody from Africa fused with rhythm, harmony and melody from Europe. They collaborated, and that's how we got this jazz concept."

Others, such as saxophonist Chris Byars, draw from their knowledge of the rich and varied history of jazz to surprise audiences overseas. For his tour of Montenegro, Cyprus and Saudi Arabia, he created a special presentation on the music of trumpeter Gigi Gryce, who converted to Islam and changed his name to Basheer Qusim. "Saudis were amazed to learn that this great American jazz musician was a Muslim," said Byars.

At other times, such as in Dashoguz, Turkmenistan, it was Byars who had to stretch his ears to adapt to the local culture. "Playing at tune in 11/8 gives you about 400 chances to get lost," Chris said about his efforts to learn Turkmen folk music.

"We're not going to build a fence around the bandstand," he added. "Out of the audience comes this guy with his dumbek, and starts doing some pretty cool finger drum techniques. By the third tune, he's trading eights with (drummer) Stefan (Schatz) and bringing the house down."

JALC's contract to recruit, train and support these musicians has just been renewed, so a new crop of musicians will hit the Rhythm Road next spring. Like the trips by the first generation of jazz ambassadors, such as Ellington and Gillespie, the Rhythm Road has already had a lasting impact on both audiences and performers. We can look forward to discovering the surprises that lay down that road for all of us – as jazz reinvents itself again, from the grassroots.

This blog entry posted by Tim Wilkins

September 17, 2008 · 0 comments


Tito Puente: The Complete 78s (1949-1955)

Tito Puente

The broad rubric "Latin jazz" encompasses many diverse recipes. Often three or more continents appear in the mix of these exciting hybrids. The marriage of Brazilian traditions with cool jazz and impressionist harmonies from Europe produced bossa nova, just as the intersection of Afro-Cuban traditions with the bebop vocabulary served as a fertile area of exploration for an earlier generation.

But here is a peculiar combination that may have been the most influential of them all. Take Cuban music of African origins and transport it to New York where it is mixed with elements of jazz and played by American musicians of Puerto Rican extraction. Thanks goodness there aren't anti-miscegenation laws in the music world. Otherwise we wouldn't have the benefit of this invigorating, if convoluted, genealogy for turbocharged Latin music of the modern day.

When tracing this history of Afro-Cuban music played by Puerto Rican musicians in New York, the figure of the late Tito Puente stands out. This seminal figure is sometimes called the "King of Latin Music" or "the King of Timbales" or even the "Sultan of Salsa." Puente, like many others, had reservations about the latter term, which is a commercial category rather than a distinct musical tradition. "The only salsa I know comes in a bottle," he once said. "I play Cuban music." Yet countless salsa musicians look to Puente as a pioneer and source of inspiration. No matter how you want to name or categorize it, Puente's influence hovers over the bandstand.

Puente's background was more varied than most fans realize—many, I imagine, may only know him as the composer of "Oye Como Va." A child prodigy born in Spanish Harlem in 1923, this famous future timbalero also studied saxophone, and played piano, marimba and vibes too—at a time when the latter instrument was unknown in Latin music. He sang in a barbershop quartet, was a skilled dancer, and studied orchestration and theory at Juilliard. He also immersed himself in the famous "Schillinger System"—a labyrinthine and mathematical approach to music education popular among many of the great autodidacts of 20th century American music, from George Gershwin to B.B. King. (It also shaped the philosophy of Lawrence Berk, founder of Berklee, which—many forget—was original known as the Schillinger House of Music.) And, yes, he was a master showman too. In other words, the label "percussionist" scarcely does justice to the broad musical perspective Tito Puente brought to his craft.

His stint with Machito in the early 1940s gave him exposure in one of the most forward-looking bands of the era. Here Puente revolutionized the role of the timbales by bringing them to the front of the bandstand, and playing them while standing up. Widely emulated today, this shift to the forefront of the ensemble was both a musical move and a symbolic statement presaging the future shape of Latin jazz.

Puente served in the U.S. military for three years during World War II and received a Presidential Commendation for his involvement in nine battles, then resumed his performing career in post-war New York. Puente worked with a variety of bands, but his decision to sign with the fledgling Tico label in 1948 was a major turning point in his career.

The new release issued last month, Tito Puente: The Compete 78s: 1949-1955, documents this crucial moment in the history of Latin music. Sad to say, many of these tracks have never been made available previously on compact disk. Nor did Puente record many LPs during this period—his Puente in Percussion and Dance Mania albums were still in the future. Puente's creative energy in the late 1940s and early 1950s was preserved primarily via 78 rpm disks. In fact, the compilers of this reissue was forced to transfer many tracks from old 78s in private hands, since the original masters were not available.

For the most part, the sound quality here is more than acceptable, especially when one considers the challenges involved in a reissue of this sort. And the music is riveting. Puente's second 78 for Tico, "Abaniquito" with vocals by Vicentico Valdés and featuring Mario Bauzá on trumpet—included on the reissue—was one of the first crossover mambo hits. English-language disk jockeys, such as Dick "Ricardo" Sugar of WEBD, began featuring this song, which spread like wildfire along the East Coast. Before long, jazz fans listening to Symphony Sid's influential broadcasts were hearing the music of Tito Puente, and starting a love affair with his music that would last the rest of his career.

Other highlights of Tito Puente: The Compete 78s: 1949-1955, include "Tito's Mambo," featuring the bandleader's timbales, "Tatalibaba," later recorded by Celia Cruz, and my favorite, "Mambo La Roca," which Woody Herman later adapted into "Mambo Rockland." What a delight to have this music easily accessible again in this new compilation—especially when so much of this leader's work is still hard to find. (Amazon currently lists only one copy of Puente in Percussion for sale, a second-hand item listed at $299.99!) Puente's devoted fans will want to have this collection, and those who aren't familiar with this artist could do worse than making his acquaintance via this retrospective look back at his early work.

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

September 16, 2008 · 0 comments


No Border Fences in Jazz

 El Pelotero by  Freedom Now Suite

Elio Villafranca may not be a household name, but he is one of the more exciting musicians on the current jazz scene. This Cuban-born artist is a man of many surprises. Check out, for example, his painting to the right, a vivid watercolor from Villafranca's brush. But this artist paints his best known landscapes at the keyboard, where he cuts through the pigeonholing that tends to isolate Latin currents from the rest of the jazz world.

The range of his work is impressive. On a track such as “Calle Paula,” Villafranca can remind us of the classical work of composers such as Cuban Ernesto Lecuona, while in other settings this pianist seems closer to Monk than to mambo. Yet he can mix it up in a pure Latin vein with the best of them. In an age in which much of the most exciting music takes place in the interstices between the genres, it is refreshing to hear such determination to cut through arbitrary boundaries (often imposed by marketing considerations rather than artistic ones).

“When I moved to the U.S.,” Villafranca comments in his interview with Tomas Peña, “I was labeled as a 'Latin' jazz artist. At the time I was missing Cuba so much that even though I wanted to do something more creative there was bound to be a Cuban influence in my music. During that time I was listening to (pianist) Danilo Perez and lot of jazz and I kept thinking to myself, there has to be more to Latin jazz than just playing Tito Puente style.” Villafranca has achieved this something more. His ability to work the border territory between Latin and straight-ahead currents is especially impressive. “The whole Latin thing is very intricate,” Villafranca adds, “because you can compose Latin music in so many different ways.”

Readers are encouraged to check out this interview in its entirety. But here is an especially interesting passage, describing the challenges a Cuban musician of Villafranca's generation faced in learning the mainstream jazz tradition.

“I came from Pinar del Rio, so when I arrived in Havana my family was my only means of support. They gave me 45 Cuban pesos per month to survive. At the time the cost of a cassette tape was fifteen pesos! Sometimes I would go to Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s house or Chucho Valdes’s house to see what new music had come out and I would ask them if they could make me copies (sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t). Once I had a copy in my possession I would listen to it over and over and transcribe the music. That’s how I learned all of the standards. . . .

“At the time there was only one cassette player in the entire school so we would compile a list of names and take turns listening to the music. If your turn came up at 3 AM, that’s when you listened to the music! Often times I would take the cassette player outside and connect it to an electrical outlet (in the street) and listen to the music over and over. Once you returned the cassette player there was no telling when you would get it back -- so I memorized the music. That’s how I learned jazz.”

For Tomas Peña's complete interview with Elio Villafranca, click here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

September 15, 2008 · 0 comments


Jazz Music With Strings Attached

 Joe Lovano

Why does the mixture of jazz and strings so seldom live up to my expectations? I like both ingredients individually. I listen to lots of symphonic music—orchestral music shows up on my CD player almost as often as jazz. And, needless, to say, jazz has been my lifelong passion. But somehow, when you put orchestral arrangements behind a major jazz soloist, it often seems as if everyone involved in the project was given a stupid pill.

Charlie Parker was proud of his recordings with strings, and Bird himself played with aplomb on these tracks. But the string arrangements themselves were execrable. Other jazz greats, such as Clifford Brown and Bill Evans, have also struggled with string accompaniment that fell short of what their artistry deserved. I am sure that many jazz fans share my suspicion, whenever a new jazz session with strings attached is released, that the CD is intended for a crossover audience rather than die-hard jazz fans. Welcome to the EZ-Listening Highway!

True, there are notable exceptions. Stan Getz’s Focus album, scored by Eddie Sauter, ranks among the tenorist’s best work. When I first met Getz, this was the initial LP he took down from his shelf to play for me, and in this instance (unlike the case of Bird cited above) the hornplayer’s pride was matched by the quality of the finished project. Yet the key here was Sauter’s determination to challenge Getz, and craft arrangements that didn’t just keep politely in the background.

Gunther Schuller has done the same at several junctures in his long career. The recent release of a recording of Schuller’s Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra, originally composed for the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1959, reminds us of how the addition of an orchestra can raise the level of a jazz performance. Schuller’s Rush Hour project with Joe Lovano is another striking example of what orchestral jazz should sound like.

Other examples could also be cited of solid symphonic jazz projects. But—alas!—these are mostly exceptions. The more typical recipe for these projects is to take pop standards from Tin Pan Alley, assign the chords to the strings, and—voila!—the result is symphonic jazz ready for crossover appeal.

Two recent releases remind us of the range of these efforts, and the challenges involved in marrying symphonic music and jazz.

Pianist Danilo Perez enlisted arranger Claus Ogerman to provide the orchestrations for his new Across the Crystal Sea CD. After many years of listening to Ogerman, I am still puzzled by this arranger, who sometimes rises to the highest levels of creativity, but frequently comes up with very low-key charts that are like frosting without the cake. The mixture of the often fiery Perez and the usually under-stated Ogerman is problematic. On the title song, for example, the pianist is working very hard to create some turbulence on the “Crystal Sea,” while Ogerman has set his cruise control for smooth sailing.

Other tracks on this project are more successful. A guest appearance by Cassandra Wilson stands out—Ogerman is often at his best when working with singers—and at other moments the project creates some effective moods with a film score ambiance. Even so, this is not the first place to begin if you want to check out the artistry of Danilo Perez. There are times here where the pianist risks falling into the role of sideman on his own leader date.

A few days ago, Blue Note released a CD of Joe Lovano’s 2005 performance in Germany with the WDR Big Band and Rundfunk Orchestra, and this album represents a more challenging—and satisfying—example of symphonic jazz. Michael Abene contributed the arrangements, and not a single pop standard is included on the disk—a rarity in itself for jazz-plus-orchestra collaborations. But we don’t miss the Tin Pan Alley tunes on this exceptional CD, which primarily features Lovano originals. Abene is not a household name outside the jazz commumnity, but this pianist-arranger, whose career spans everything from Maynard Ferguson (whose band he joined as a teenager) to the Manhattan School of Music (where he currently teaches) deserves more renown.

Lovano, for his part, handles these horn-versus-strings projects as well as any living jazz artist. His bag-of-tricks encompasses a very wide range of moods, and he is one of the few saxophonists of the current era who is just as convincing when he plays gritty, muscular tenor as when he is floating ethereally above the changes. He does both, as the occasion warrants, on Symphonica.

As I mentioned, the CD is mostly comprised of Lovano originals, but the saxophonist does include one cover—his version of Mingus’s “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.” Lovano handled this same composition admirably on his live recording at the Village Vanguard from 1995. But this version is twice as long, and enlivened by Abene’s very interesting orchestral writing. This has long been one of my favorite Mingus works, a poised Strayhorn-esque piece built with a rich harmonic palette and a sweeping melody. Lovano delivers a major statement on this ballad, which has been selected as Song of the Day at Click here to read the full review.

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

September 14, 2008 · 1 comment


Revisiting Classic Jazz Tracks highlights two tracks every day. The Song of the Day aims to focus attention on the best of recent releases in the jazz world. In contrast, A Classic Revisited celebrates a historic track from the past. Like fine wine, the latter tracks have all been properly aged. In short, they are performances from the paleolithic and neolithic eras (i.e., from the days of LPs and 78s) that continue to delight jazz fans more than than a quarter of a century after they were first released.

Wes Montgomery

Today’s classic performance is Wes Montgomery’s memorable version of a song closely associated with Frank Sinatra: “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).” As you may remember from the lyrics, this song takes place in a saloon at a "quarter to three" . . . no, most assuredly, not in the afternoon. I didn't think bars served drinks in the middle of the night; then again, Mr. Sinatra always played by his own set of rules.

It's not easy to capture the right medium-slow swing that this tune demands, but Montgomery pulls it off perfectly. Of course, the guitarist is helped considerably by the presence of Hank Jones, Ron Carter and Lex Humphries on this 1961 date. The result is a track that well deserves inclusion in our pantheon of jazz classics.

Below is a list of all the tracks featured as A Classic Revisited during the last two months. Whenever possible, the review includes a link for fast, easy and legal downloading. And, as always, you are invited to add your own three-o'clock-in-the-morning comments at the bottom of the review. If you say something especially clever, drinks are on the house.

Classic Tracks Recently Featured on

Art Blakey: A Night in Tunisia
Pat Metheny: Bright Size Life
Sonny Criss: Sonny's Dream
Sarah Vaughan: In a Sentimental Mood
Eddie Jefferson: Summertime
Miles Davis: Boplicity
Egberto Gismonti: Frevo
Horace Silver: Nica's Dream
Jimmie Lunceford: For Dancers Only
Yusef Lateef: Playful Flute
Albert Ayler: Ghosts: First Variation
Ralph Towner & Gary Burton: Icarus
Gerry Mulligan: A Ballad
Andy Kirk: Walkin' and Swingin'
Mel Tormé: Lulu's Back in Town
Henry 'Red' Allen: It Should Be You
Lee Morgan: I Remember Clifford
Frank Rosolino: Frank 'n Earnest
Richard Twardzik: Bess, You Is My Woman
Bud Powell: Parisian Thoroughfare
Django Reinhardt: Dinah
Anita O'Day: Tea for Two
Bill Evans: Never Let Me Go
Kenny Dorham: I'll Remember April
Mahavishnu Orchestra: Thousand Island Park
Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians
Duke Ellington: Cottontail
Return to Forever: Five Hundred Miles High
Paul Bley: King Korn
Erroll Garner: I'll Remember April
Tal Farlow: Fascinating Rhythm
Anthony Braxton: For John Cage
Johnny Griffin: A Monk's Dream
Gil Evans: Stratusphunk
Antonio Carlos Jobim: Meditation
John Coltrane: Naima
Benny Carter: Blue Star
June Christy: Something Cool
Dave Holland: Conference of the Birds
Thad Jones & Mel Lewis: Big Dipper
The Tony Williams Lifetime: Spectrum
Gene Ammons: Hittin' the Jug
Les Paul: Lover
Weather Report: A Remark You Made

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

September 11, 2008 · 0 comments


Television's Peter Gunn Turns 50

Fifty years ago this month, TV viewers were introduced to Peter Gunn in "The Kill," the first of 114 half-hour episodes of a jazz-drenched weekly crime drama that would run for two seasons on NBC and a third on ABC. When he wasn't battling crime, Mr. Gunn was digging some very cool sounds. In fact, wherever he went, jazzy music seemed to follow. Henry Mancini's score has long been considered a classic of the genre (check out this version by the Blues Brothers) and much beloved by jazz fans.

Well, maybe not all jazz fans. Our website's resident curmudgeon, Alan Kurtz, once again offers a dissenting opinion. He investigates the scene of this possible crime and charges its musical mastermind with grand theft audio. Readers are invited to deliver their own verdicts below or email them to T.G.

Shelly Manne & His Men Play Peter Gunn

It's the stuff of Hollywood legend. One day in 1958, staff composer Henry Mancini dropped by the Universal-International Studios barbershop when who should be in the next chair but producer/director Blake Edwards. "Hey," said the latter, "would you be interested in doing a TV show for me?" Interested! The 34-year-old Mancini, on notice that his services were no longer required, thought the most he could hope for at Universal was one last haircut. You bet he was interested. Edwards confided that, for his new private-eye series, he envisioned jazz as "an integral part of the dramatic action, fusing storyline and score." Jazz, he enthused, would be the "distinctive element to invest this series with something extra, something superlative."

Big-screen movies had long since conditioned us to the big bang of Crime Jazz much as Pavlov tutored his dogs. TV, however, would now cement the connection as immutably as some wiseguy in concrete wing tips with a reservation at the Riverbed Inn. The new wave of primetime crime dramas, pitched at adults who swilled cocktails and puffed Chesterfields in air-conditioned split-level suburbia, would pass off murder and mayhem as sophisticated entertainment. And for this, natch, they required music you could tap your toe to.

Accordingly, when NBC premiered Peter Gunn on September 22, 1958, it was a breath of smoky air, as suave leading man Craig Stevens breezed through the title role of a hip PI with a sexy, jazz-singer girlfriend. Rising to this challenge with an unfettered flair for mimicry, the resourceful Mancini gussied up the series' catchy theme with French horns filched from Claude Thornhill and twangy guitar glommed from rock 'n' roller Duane Eddy. And before you could say, "You're under arrest," trumpeter Ray Anthony scored a Top 10 hit with his quickie big-band cover of "The Peter Gunn Theme."

Duane Eddy: Have Twangy Guitar Will Travel.jpg

When an even grittier cover by Duane Eddy & the Rebels later twanged among the Top 100 for 11 weeks, it seemed like payback for Mancini's twang-theft in the first place. But by then, Mancini had bastardized Eddy's "Stalkin'" for Peter Gunn's "Spook!"  Some shoplifters work so fast, even video surveillance cameras can't catch them in the act. In any case, Duane Eddy got off light with only two swipes from Mancini, whose primary marks were jazzmen George Shearing and Count Basie.

Album cover collage: Peter Gunn

As evidenced by both The Music from Peter Gunn (1958) and More Music from Peter Gunn (1959), Mancini habitually infringed Shearing's velvety quintet patent, especially on "Soft Sounds" and "Brief and Breezy," either of which would have been at home on a Shearing LP. Other Shearing knockoffs included "Lightly," reverse-engineered from "Rugolo Meets Shearing" on Pete Rugolo's Adventures in Rhythm (1954), and "A Quiet Gass," a variation of Mancini's own "A Profound Gass," proving Mancini could even imitate himself imitating Shearing. Another favorite target was Count Basie. Mancini's counterfeit Count appeared in puffy pastiches of Neal Hefti arrangements recorded by Basie: "Dreamsville" (cf. 1957's "Li'l Darlin'"), "Slow And Easy" (cf. 1953's "Softly, With Feeling") and "My Manne Shelly" (cf. 1958's "Cute").

Not that Mancini, an equal-opportunity impersonator, confined himself to picking one pocket per song. He often created a potpourri of pilferage, such as "Peter Gunn," where boosted Basie licks back an ersatz Duane Eddy, or "A Profound Gass," where bogus Basie segues to sham Shearing. Nor did he limit his larceny to jazz and rock 'n' roll. "Not From Dixie" has a mock Guy Lombardo ending, and "Timothy" is a cloyingly cutesy takeoff on Mitch Miller's hit "March From The River Kwai and Colonel Bogey" (1958).

Henry Mancini: Legends

Tellingly, Mancini refrained from describing himself as a jazz composer. And with good reason. He was a Hollywood hack who cannibalized jazz without coming anywhere near its unsanitized heart of darkness. Ironically, with the success of Peter Gunn, the Klepto Kingpin of Crime Jazz himself became the object of widespread imitation. According to Gresham's Law (which itself sounds like a 1950s crime show), bad commodities, being cheaper to mass produce and thus more plentiful, drive out the good. In such a market, copycats are rewarded. Nobody obeyed this law more profitably than Henry Mancini—unless it was the network decision-makers driving the crime-jazz bandwagon. Besides Peter Gunn, TV's late-'50s crime spree produced M Squad, Mike Hammer, Richard Diamond, Naked City, 77 Sunset Strip and Staccato. These formulaic series all featured well-dressed detectives and their easily detected adversaries cavorting to finger-snapping soundtracks. Crime might not pay, but crime jazz did.

And as chief cashier of this burgeoning enterprise, Henry Mancini skyrocketed overnight from pink-slipped composer scrounging for one last haircut to Hollywood Honoree of the Hour. When, in 1959, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences presented its first annual Grammy awards, establishing the music industry's counterpart to the Oscars, The Music from Peter Gunn (which, like its sequel More Music from Peter Gunn, was still charting in Billboard's Top 10) won the coveted Album of the Year award, and Hank took home an additional Grammy for best arrangement.

Coming To Terms With Mediocrity

Also in 1959, Mancini's theme song was one of eight Peter Gunn nominations at TV's annual Emmy Awards, where hip comedy team Nichols & May daringly spoofed such silliness on its own turf. Gliding onstage in a designer gown, Elaine May added her congratulations to the legions honored that year for creative excellence. "But what about others in the industry?" she implored, singling out those "who go on, year in and year out—quietly and unassumingly—producing garbage."

With that she summoned a thrilled Mike Nichols to accept his statuette as the "Most Total Mediocrity in the Industry." If, at that moment, Henry Mancini instinctively arose as well, he could be excused, for it did seem like they were calling on him.

This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.

September 10, 2008 · 2 comments


Listen to these CDs . . . Even If They Sound Awful!

I have devoted several postings here recently to the issue of sound quality on jazz recordings. In particular, I have expressed my concern that the current generation of jazz fans (as well as musicians and critics, for that matter) seem far more familiar with high fidelity jazz recordings than with earlier works.

In short, a strange sort of Darwinian process seems to be at play here. The influence of a jazz musician from the 'good ol' days' apparently depends not just on the value of the artist's musical legacy, but also on extraneous factors. Musicians who had access to the best quality recording equipment rank higher than those losers who crowded around the big horn to make their 78s.

Charlie Parker

Tell me it ain't so, Joe! I would love to believe you. But if you have any doubts, just look at the rankings on the sales charts. Amazon ranks the sales of hundreds of thousands of recordings, so it is easy to compare Kind of Blue (ranked #181 as I write) with Charlie Parker's equally essential Best of The Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings (ranked #59,916). The bottom line is clear: it may not mean a thing if a CD ain't got that swing . . . but it's even more important to have stereo sound if you want to climb the charts.

The cut-off point seems to fall around 1957. Recordings from the late 1950s such as Kind of Blue and Time Out rank among the biggest selling jazz releases of all time. But jazz music from the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s seems to have fallen off the radar screens of fans in the new millennium. This is all the more ironic when one considers that jazz was at its very peak of popularity during this earlier period.

There are a few exceptions to this generalization, but only a small number. Three, in particular, come to mind. I have found that most jazz fans have some familiarity with Billie Holiday’s work from the pre-stereophonic era. More than a few have also checked out some of Louis Armstrong's path-breaking work from the 1920s. Finally (as we recently explored in this column), the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt appears to be more popular now than at any time in recent memory.

But these three bright spots are exceptions. The masterpieces of early jazz are mostly forgotten, by my measure. Lady Day, Django and Satchmo are only the starting points. With this in mind, I have listed below some suggestions of where listeners might concentrate in exploring the other riches of jazz from the days before high fidelity sound.

Blanton-Webster Band

Duke Ellington’s work from 1939-1941: This might be the single best place to begin your jazz education. Certainly there are essential Ellington performances from earlier and later periods, but Duke never had a better band than his (as it’s called today) Blanton-Webster unit. Yet how many younger jazz fans today own these recordings? The excellent RCA reissue of this material currently ranks #59,772 on the music charts—which is hardly reassuring. At one time the Smithsonian reissued these tracks, as well it should given their importance in 20th century American music. These reissues were lovingly compiled by the late Martin Williams (a man who greatly influenced me and many other jazz writers). But try finding those editions today, my friend.

The jazziest evening in North Dakota history: While we are on the topic of this Ellington unit, let me strongly recommend the band’s live recording in Fargo, North Dakota on November 7, 1940. This was not a commercial recording, but the work of some devoted jazz fans who happened to capture this legendary band playing at its peak. By any measure, this certainly ranks as one of the great “bootleg” recordings of all time. But it doesn’t rank as a big seller: currently it is #138,977 on the charts. This music is available in several reissue, but none of them rank in the top 100,000. Yes, that is true . . . more than 100,000 CDs sell better than this masterwork.

Bebop pianists who aren’t named Thelonious Monk: Because Monk recorded major works with excellent audio quality during the late 1950s and 1960s, he has become far better known than any of the other pianists who contributed to the bop movement. Hooray for Monk. But the music Bud Powell recorded during the period from May 1949 to May 1951 also deserves your closest consideration. If you haven’t heard these tracks (and not many people have these days) you don’t really know bop. And poor Lennie Tristano—who never made a single recording with really first-rate audio quality—isn’t showing up on many iPod playlists these days either. And don't even get me started on Dodo Marmarosa, Richard Twardzik, Herbie Nichols . . .

The jazziest evening in Toronto history: We hear a lot of hoopla when some previously unknown tape comes to light featuring jazz stars of a bygone era. But this is the best live bop date of them all. The sound is just one step above abysmal, but modern jazz does not get any more exciting than this.

The man who invented jazz: Okay, maybe Jelly Roll Morton didn’t really invent jazz, even if he claimed to be the creator of hot music. But you need to hear his 1920s recordings anyway. (This box set is out-of-print, but a few used copies can be found.) Morton's Library of Congress recordings are also must-have jazz. They were recently reissued in a lavish box set, but jazz fans are still griping about the poor job of re-mastering this music. Some day the U.S. will put up a real monument to Jelly Roll, but in the meantime these reissues will need to suffice.

1920s trumpeters who aren’t named Louis Armstrong: I am assuming that you already know about Louis Armstrong’s music from this period. (If not, stay after school and listen to ”West End Blues” fifty times.) But you may not know King Oliver’s work from 1923 or Bix Beiderbecke’s work from 1927. Start with these, but consider tackling Jabbo Smith and Bubber Miley for extra credit.

These recommendation only scratch the surface. But when you listen to these recordings, don’t worry about scratches on the surface. The audio quality will not be your thrill, but the music certainly will live up to your expectations If you are serious about your love for jazz, these are some historic recordings you need to know.

If you have some suggestions of older recordings that deserve a second hearing, add your comments below or email them to

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

September 09, 2008 · 1 comment


A Glimpse Inside the Practice Room

In the old days, a musician’s practice room was like Vegas . . . what happened there, stayed there. Fans were meant to hear the finished performance, and not see all the hard work that went into preparing for it.

Of course, a bit of the practice room regimen might show up in public from time to time. People who saw John Coltrane at a nightclub could sometimes hear him practicing between sets. Practice tapes by Bill Evans, Clifford Brown and others have made their way to the public. But these were exceptions to a general rule that maintained a strict wall between private practice and public performance.

Chris Jordan

Today the internet has changed all that. YouTube features numerous videos of musicians working behind the scenes, honing their craft. Yet instead of keeping their practice sessions to themselves, they share them with the world on video. Some of these are quite fascinating to watch. Here are a few of my favorites.

My only exposure to Chris Jordan is this impressive YouTube video, which shows him in a practice room playing a note-for-note recreation of Art Tatum’s “Humoresque.” He plays this challenging arrangement with great vigor and accuracy—this pianist is really too good to keep hidden in the practice room. Somebody please let him out!


I don’t even known the full name of the next pianist. Gerry from Canada is learning Chick Corea’s “Matrix,” and is playing along with the CD. All you see on this video are his hands and some of the handwritten transcription spread out in front of him, but he does an uncanny job of matching the original note-for-note. This is one of Corea’s most interesting solos, and learning it in this fashion would be worth more than a few college credits in my imaginary university of jazz.

These play-along videos are pervasive on YouTube, and seem to be accepted among the younger generation of musicians as a way of chronicling their progress. If you want, you can watch someone match a Coltrane solo note-for-note on the bass guitar, or mimic a famous Wes Montgomery solo . Wes seems especially popular with the practice room crowd – and what better role model for a young guitar soloist? This guitarist looks so young that I doubt he even has a driver’s license yet, but he knows enough to play along with Wes.

"Hey, junior, what's goin' on in that room?" "It's alright, Ma, I'm just jammin' with Bags and Wes."

Tuba plays Night and Day

Not all of these practice room videos will find a ready fan base. How big can the audience be for a solo tuba version of “Night and Day”? But the shades look cool, and at last count this video had around 6,000 people who had watched it. That’s a bigger audience than many jazz festival events draw.

Robot Giant Steps

But not all of the behind-the-scenes work involves people. Even machines need to woodshed these days. And what could be more impressive than a robot that has learned to play Coltrane’s solo on “Giant Steps.” I thought only factory workers had their jobs replaced by automation. But apparently even jazz players need to watch out nowadays.

The bottom line: the practice room is no longer a hidden refuge. Even the woodshed, these days, comes equipped with audio and video equipment, and the scales you practice this morning could be all over the web before dinnertime tonight. The mystique of the practice room will never be recaptured, but for aspiring jazz players, this ability to take a peek into what the horn player down the street (or across the ocean) is doing, may turn out to be a blessing. Why bother with music lessons when all you really need is YouTube?

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

September 08, 2008 · 0 comments


B.B. King is Still Taking Chances

B.B. King

You will find B.B. King’s new release One Kind Favor, like his other CDs, in the blues bin of your local music store. Yet most fans have forgotten how often King (who celebrates his 83rd birthday in a few days) has strayed outside the blues field. His biggest hit, “The Thrill is Gone,” was only a step away from soul music, and many of the most successful singles from his early career were polished R&B numbers. King has also collaborated with rockers such as U2 and the Rolling Stones, and climbed the jazz charts via his albums with Diane Schuur and the Crusaders.

Under slightly different circumstance, King might have gone down the rock and roll path himself. After all, he was born just a few months before Chuck Berry, and was younger than Bill Haley of "Rock Around the Clock" fame. King certainly had the stage presence and electric guitar skills to jump on board -- and climb to the top of -- the rock bandwagon, and I sometimes wonder what might have happened if he had spent more time around Sam Phillips, plying his trade with Sun Records rather than the Bihari brothers’ Modern label.

I enjoy the variety in King’s output, and am delighted when, for example, he devotes a whole CD to Louis Jordan jump tunes or mixes it up with pop-rock musicians. Purists will sometimes dismiss his crossover work, but I suggest that you listen again to, say, his collaborations with the Crusaders or Eric Clapton before putting them down. These are fun, exhilarating projects, for the most part, and I suspect that fans will still enjoy them fifty years from today.

Yet what a surprise to see King open his new CD with an old Blind Lemon Jefferson song that was first recorded before the Great Depression. I wonder who made the unconventional decision to kick off the disk with “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”? Even the name of King’s new CD comes from Jefferson’s lyrics. Maybe producer T. Bone Burnett was the visionary here, or King himself. In any event, I give high marks to the brave studio execs who supported this move.

Elsewhere in his CD, King celebrates the legacy of Lonnie Johnson, T-Bone Walker and the Mississippi Sheiks. Each one of those names represents a significant contributor to American music, but these past masters are seldom remembered by the music industry today. Yet Mr. King has not forgotten where he came from, and with One Kind Favor he has given fans one of the most unabashedly traditional recordings of his career, and one that makes no apologies for being a blues CD.

I have come to have such a dim view of the big labels these days, that I half expect a new B.B. King release to feature Justin Timberlake or Carrie Underwood. But King’s new CD doesn’t rely on high profile guest artists or gimmicks . . . just solid blues music, track after track. The visiting artists here are outstanding players, folks like Dr. John and Snooky Young, who got the call for their abilities not just their name value. The songs are gritty blues, like grandpa used to dig. (Well, like your grandpa might have been digging if he had been very, very hip.)

And here is the best part of the story. Only a few days after release, One Kind Favor hit number 37 on the Billboard charts -- the highest ranking debut of any B.B. King solo CD in over three decades. There is a lesson here for the record industry, if anyone in the executive suites is paying attention. In short, when you focus on the music, and not the packaging or marketing angle, the audience tends to notice.

King has maintained very high standards throughout his career, but my favorite recordings have been his medium-tempo blues. His best CD, Live at the Regal, dished out song after song that kept to this same beat, and in King’s hands this formula never gets old. He delivers another gripping in-the-pocket example on his new CD with the track ”Get These Blues Off Me,” which we are highlighting as “Song of the Day” at

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

September 07, 2008 · 0 comments


Weekend Track Review Roundup

Last week, published its 3,000th review. Since’s launch last December, our team of more than forty reviewers has made admirable progress toward our quixotic yet noble goal of covering all of the great (and less than great) jazz music recorded since blue notes first appeared in red states.


Where will it all end? Who can tell? Meanwhile, the Intel® Quad-core XEON® Processor 7300 Series unit (conveniently located right next to my bed) keeps humming round the clock, transmitting jazz reviews around the globe. (Right now, it’s humming “A Night in Tunisia.”)

As regular visitors to this space know, (unlike the rest of the music media) does not review entire CDs, only individual tracks. This allows for greater specificity in our critical assessments, and allows us to guide fans who are looking to download individual songs. All reviews come with frank appraisals and a ranking based on our proprietary 100 point scale. We also include, whenever possible, links for fast (and legal) downloading. And site visitors can testify themselves at the bottom of each review.

Below are links to a few of the reviews published during the last several weeks.

Adams, Pepper: “Reflectory”
Reviewed by Kenny Berger

Armstrong, Louis: “Sweethearts on Parade”
Reviewed by Frank Murphy

Basie, Count: “Half Moon Street”
Reviewed by Kenny Berger

Blanchard, Terence: “Taxi Driver”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Brecker, Michael: “Syzygy”
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Cobb, Arnett: “The Way You Look Tonight”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Corea, Chick: “Tempus Fugit”
Reviewed by Frank Murphy

Crothers, Connie & Bill Payne: “The Desert and the City”
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Curnow, Bob: “Minuano (Six Eight)”
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Dave Douglas: “Soul on Soul”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Ellington, Duke: “St. James Infirmary”
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

Garner, Erroll: “Yesterdays”
Reviewed by Mark Lomanno

Green, Bunky: “Another Place”
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Hawkins, Coleman: “Quintessence”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Hefte, Hilde: “Peri’s Scope”
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Hemphill, Julius: “Shorty”
Reviewed by Thierry Quénum

Johnson, J.J.: "Poem for Brass"
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

Kirk, Rahsaan Roland: “No Tonic Prez”
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Larsen, Jon: “Shoegazing”
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Malaby, Tony: “Dos Caminos”
Reviewed by Thierry Quénum

McCaslin, Donny: “Late Night Gospel”
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

McNeely, Jim: “Ernie Banks”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Monk, Thelonious: “Jackie-ing”
Reviewed by Kenny Berger

Perez, Danilo: “Across the Crystal Sea”
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Rollins, Sonny: "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top"
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Rollins, Sonny: "Tenor Madness"
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Russell, George: “All About Rosie”
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

Scofield, John: “Big Fan”
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Silver, Horace: "Opus de Funk"
Reviewed by Bill Kirchner

Smith, Jabbo: “More Rain, More Rest”
Reviewed by Matt Leskovic

Sun Ra: “Easy Street”
Reviewed by Frank Murphy

Thielemans, Toots (with Milton Nascimento): “Travessia”
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Torn, David: “AK”
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Tyner, McCoy: “In a Sentimental Mood”
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Tyner, McCoy: “Prelude to a Kiss”
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Walton, Cedar: “Bolivia”
Reviewed by Thierry Quénum

Williams, Mary Lou: “The Scarlet Creeper”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

September 04, 2008 · 0 comments


Miles Davis's Memorable Nonet

On September 4, 1948, Miles Davis brought a nine-piece band into the Royal Roost, a club on Broadway and 47th which hardly deserved such a regal name. Ralph Watkins, a sax player turned jazz promoter, had taken this restaurant, known for its chicken, charged a seventy-five cent cover, and added a special section for underage fans. Voilà . . . a major jazz club was born.

                           Miles Davis, artwork by Michael Symonds

This was not Carnegie Hall, but in the heady days of the 1940s it was enough to shake things up on the jazz scene. What the Roost lacked in pedigree it made up for in daring. Watkins’s willingness to court practitioners of the new and different proved sufficient to create a modern jazz mecca. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and other luminaries of the new music would strut their stuff in the Roost, sometimes described in advertisements from the period as “the house that bop built.”

In an environment in which the commercial prospects for his new nonet were modest at best, Miles could at least count on this one venue. “At the time, the Royal Roost was probably the only nightclub in the country that would have taken a chance with this new and forbidding type of jazz,” Nat Hentoff has remarked. Certainly, Davis would have few other opportunities to showcase this band in public.

Watkins also allowed Miles to put an unconventional sign on the sidewalk in front of the Royal Roost promoting the writers and arrangers for the band. “Arrangements by Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans and John Lewis,” the sign announced. This was peculiar not just because these three individuals – later to become jazz icons – were virtually unknown to the public at the time, but also due to the low profile of jazz arrangers in general. Ellington was the star of his band, not Strayhorn; Goodman was the name on the marquee when he came to town, not Fletcher Henderson; people paid to hear Woody Herman, not Ralph Burns. Arrangers were supposed to be hidden behind the scenes. Who cared who was writing charts for Miles Davis? But here the trumpeter was proclaiming to all and sundry—or at least to those walking down Broadway on September 4, 1948—that his scores were part of the mystique and draw of the music.

As events proved, it was not much of a draw. Historians still debate how many times the “Birth of the Cool” band played in public, but certainly the money made by this unit was not enough to keep it functioning as a working ensemble. Even Miles was gigging frequently in other settings—as sideman with Charlie Parker and Tadd Dameron or fronting his own smaller bands—during this period. The nonet was a sideline, a whim, an experiment.

Yet with hindsight, we can make the claim that this was the most important jazz band in the world in the late summer of 1948. For the next decade and beyond, the jazz world would be dominated by the individuals gathered together on the stage of the Royal Roost. Davis himself would rise to stardom, sign with the Columbia label, and release a series of seminal LPs, including several collaborations with Gil Evans. Gerry Mulligan would soon hitchhike to California and serve as a catalyst in spurring the West Coast jazz scene. John Lewis would enjoy success as musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lee Konitz would contribute his own unique take on cool jazz, often alongside Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh, or in a host of other settings. Max Roach would help shape the hard bop movement in his quintet with Clifford Brown. Gunther Schuller, who would record with the nonet although he was absent from the Royal Roost engagement, would serve as the visionary behind the Third Stream movement in jazz.

If you were constructing a family tree for modern jazz in the second half of the 20th century, almost all of the milestone events could be trace back to this one ensemble. It may have been a commercial failure, but it changed the course of American music.

To celebrate this historic band, has enlisted Jeff Sultanof to take us on a tour of the tracks recorded by the “Birth of the Cool” unit. Sultanof is the perfect guide for our look back: he is an astute commentator on jazz matters and also the editor of the recently published scores of the Davis nonet. You can read his article here.

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

September 03, 2008 · 1 comment


Hip Hop is to Jazz as Termitz R2 Wud

A few days ago,’s Jared Pauley championed the fraternization of jazz and hip-hop in this space (see part 1 and part 2 of his article). But not everyone is excited by a dose of hip-hop in their jazz. In particular, Alan Kurtz, our resident curmudgeon, confers a resounding Bronx cheer upon that borough's heaviest-hitting export since the New York Yankees. Below, Mr. Kurtz tries to take the hip out of Mr. Pauley’s hop. Who wins this debate? I will leave it up to you to decide. Readers are invited to add their own yeas or nays below or email them to T.G.

Brother Termite by Patricia Anthony

"Opinions aside," commented my colleague Jared Pauley, "maybe it's just a generational thing." We were discussing Us3's "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)," which Jared had lately reviewed, assigning it a score of 95—identical to the rating our editor-in-chief Ted Gioia gave Herbie Hancock's original "Cantaloupe Island." To me, there's no comparison. "Cantaloupe Island" (1964) is a classic. "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)" (1993) is a knockoff. (Ted Gioia, by the way, professes to like Us3's recombinant muskmelon. There's no accounting for taste.)

For those who haven't sampled it, "Cantaloop" is a rap ransacking of the Blue Note vaults grafting sound bites from defenseless jazz recordings onto a mechanistic drum track that "improves" Tony Williams's original measured groove by accelerating its tempo and eliminating all traces of rhythmic nuance. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. First we are suckered in by the pipsqueak piping of Birdland's midget MC Pee Wee Marquette, introducing Art Blakey's A Night at Birdland Vol. 1 (1954). However, instead of allowing us to actually audit Mr. Blakey and his illustrious sidemen (including Clifford Brown and Horace Silver), Us3 pulls Pee Wee's puny plug and jump-cuts ahead 10 years, whence they invade "Cantaloupe Island" with the swashbuckling flair of Caribbean pirates scenting buried treasure. How right they were! In 1994, "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)" became a surprise crossover hit.

Partisans claim this raid brought jazz to millions of young ears that otherwise might never have heard it. The question is, though, what did they hear? Surely, apart from royalties, hip-hop rip-offs were not what jazz originators had in mind. Ever gone to a movie where folks behind you talk all the way through? Well, that's how motor-mouth rappers treat jazz, ruthlessly dismantling (with the emphasis on dis) its musical architecture and tirelessly talking trash over what's left. And in any event, hip hop stimulated little interest in jazz. To the contrary: as rappers won enormous fame and fortune, jazzers watched their music plummet in the charts to depths formerly occupied only by kazoo concertos and Lithuanian polkas.

Proponents of the hip-hop/jazz hybrid nevertheless hold that it's part of jazz tradition. Yet in doing so, they display a highly selective knowledge of said tradition. They cite, for instance, Gil Scott-Heron's work in the early '70s as pioneering jazz rap because his most famous rant, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (1970), was backed by bongos and congas—as if that automatically transforms raw street poetry into jazz. And in extolling this supposed landmark, they conveniently overlook their seer's nearsightedness. "In 1992," writes media scholar Todd Boyd of the L.A. riots following the acquittal of 4 cops charged with assault in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King, "the revolution was televised, and it proved quite entertaining at that." (Except, presumably, to the 53 people killed during the 6-day telethon, including 25 African Americans; or to white motorist Reginald Denny, beaten by blacks on live TV; or to citizens stuck with the tab for $1 billion in damages.)

USPS commemorative stamp: Langston Hughes (2002)

In any case, jazz rap was hardly revolutionary. By the time Gil Scott-Heron came along, spoken-word artists had been reading to jazz for decades. His Royal Hipness, Lord Buckley, recorded with L.A. jazz musicians in 1951. A few years later, Langston Hughes laid down his Weary Blues, half with Red Allen's All Stars and half with the redoubtable Charles Mingus, for the Verve label in New York.

Meanwhile, Fantasy Records caught West Coast poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth declaiming live at The Cellar in San Francisco, accompanied by local jazzmen. Fellow beat poet Kenneth Patchen traveled up the coast to Vancouver, Canada, for a similar gig, and south to Hollywood for Kenneth Patchen Reads His Poetry with the Chamber Jazz Sextet. Not to be outdone, Chicago hosted Word Jazz by Ken Nordine and the Fred Katz Group (actually the Chico Hamilton Quintet incognito for contractual reasons). All this transpired during the short-lived Jazz & Poetry fad of 1957-1959.

Speaking of which, let us not forget (try as we might) the inimitable (though who'd want to?) Jack Kerouac, recording his Blues and Haikus with Al Cohn & Zoot Sims in New York during 1958.

Predictably, like rap years later, none of this poetic folderol had any lasting effect on jazz, nor did it win converts to the cause. Far from being innovative, jazz rap merely restages an experiment that fizzled the first time around and didn't deserve a second chance.

DVD: Frankenstein, TheLegacyCollection

Moreover, the premise that hip hop belongs to the jazz tradition is especially suspect on musical grounds. Hip-hop belongs to a tradition, alright; but that would minstrelsy, not jazz. Its most assimilated stars—e.g., DMX, Ice Cube, Ice-T, LL Cool J, Mos Def, Queen Latifah, Snoop Dogg and Will Smith (aka Fresh Prince)—are more thespians than musicians. By and large, hip-hop practitioners don't sing, they rap. They don't play instruments, they mix and scratch. They don't compose, they compile samples. Indeed, just as bygone flowerings of artistic expression came to be known as the Renaissance and Romanticism, historians may someday dub our own era the Remix. In this age of electronic cut and paste, art is not created, it is re-created, stitched together from disused scraps like a latter-day Frankenstein monster. This may work for rappers, but to paraphrase Dr. Fronkensteen in Young Frankenstein, "Hip-hop tracks are Tinkertoys compared to jazz!"

If objectively applied, the musical benchmarks refined by generations of jazz creators would shame hip hop into abject embarrassment, even when performed by jazzmen of genuine stature. Listen, for example, to Miles Davis from 1955 through the mid-'60s. Then, if you can stomach it, check out "The Doo-Bop Song," his 1991 collaboration with producer Easy Mo Bee, where Miles sounds like the Herb Alpert of hip hop, noodling weak-lipped over and around aggrandizing raps from his toadies. "The Doo-Bop Song" is a long way from "Concierto de Aranjuez," albeit an easy journey because it's all downhill.

Frankly, the only way to wrap rap into the jazz tradition is to exempt it from the sophisticated criteria we routinely use to evaluate other styles. This is a form of blackmail. "We are tired of praying and marching and thinking and learning," rapped Gil Scott-Heron in 1970, distilling what would become the hip-hop ethos. "Brothers wanna start cutting and shooting and stealing and burning." But jazz, unlike hip hop, requires study and patience, not looting and pillaging.

And besides, why should jazz fans embrace insurgents who so flagrantly dis the music we love? Even when rappers try to give jazz its props, their tributes are a travesty, such as Gang Starr's "Jazz Music" (1989). Over the drudging monotony of DJ Premier's synthetic beat, MC Guru spiels a cartoonish history of jazz from its jungle origins to Dizzy-Bird-&-Miles. This tired tale was told to better effect in 1954, when Langston Hughes narrated The Story of Jazz for the Folkways label. Of course Hughes had the advantage of reading to vintage discs by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Dizzy Gillespie.

MC Guru, by contrast, is backed by DJ Premier's canned snippets of an out-of-tune piano and what may be the four most sour notes ever afflicted on an alto sax—which four notes are periodically recycled with a sadistic lack of mercy. Oh, and did I mention the fellow grunting throughout? Straining at the stools, apparently. Although what that has to do with jazz history is beyond me. Most galling about this mockery is Guru's self-congratulatory smugness. "They gave it to us," he says of jazz's progenitors. "That's why we give it to you." This Boston-born rapper of Trinidadian descent, then all of 23 years old, gives it to us? Whoa, thanks very much. I always wondered who gave us jazz.

Oh, what the hell. Perhaps my colleague Jared Pauley is right. Maybe it is a generational thing. Youth naturally craves phat beats around which to choreograph their primal mating rituals. Hip hop satiates that demand. Why shouldn't jazz get in on the phun? No doubt the sooner old fogies like me stop holding out for artistic excellence and a cultural acumen beyond the violence and vulgarity of urban free-fire zones, the faster jazz will shed its pesky identity and be grated, ground and scrunched like sausage à la hip hop for mindless mass consumption into the Grand Def-ecation of American Musick. But, as Dizzy-Bird-&-Miles are my witnesses, I pray that never happens.

This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.

September 02, 2008 · 12 comments


Horace Silver at Eighty

No one did more to set the hard bop movement into orbit than Horace Silver, who celebrates his 80th birthday this week. His influence extends far beyond the body of work made under his own name. Before Art Blakey took control of the Jazz Messengers—that remarkable finishing school for hard bop titans—this band was led or co-led by Horace Silver. When Silver left to form his own quintet, both the new unit and the old one, now headed by Blakey, thrived and propagated the emerging hard bop sound. Most of the key musicians working that style served in one or the other of these two ensembles, or were touched in other ways by the influence of the estimable Mr. Silver.

Horace Silver

His own musical background spanned the full range of earlier jazz styles. Silver knew cool—he had recorded with Miles Davis and Stan Getz and even played tenor himself in a Lester Young vein. Silver knew pre-war traditions—he had gigged with Coleman Hawkins and studied the music of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, as well as boogie-woogie and blues. Silver knew bop and Latin and could also draw on the influences of his own personal circumstances—such as the Cape Verdean lineage of his father celebrated in Silver’s oft-heard composition “Song for My Father.”

The miracle is that Silver, for all these varied sources of inspiration, developed a style that was so uncluttered and focused. In an era during which many leading musicians, such as Miles and Mingus, felt compelled to move restlessly from style to style, Silver went back again and again to the timeless values of great jazz. Catchy melodies, infectious rhythms, tight arrangements, memorable solos—these were the trademarks of Silver’s great Blue Note recordings.

Horace Silver

This is a recipe that works just as well today as it did a half century ago. So it comes as no surprise that Horace Silver’s recordings hold up so well today. But if the formula sounds obvious enough, it is not quite so easy for others to imitate. In particular, Silver’s charts are among the most perfectly realized of the era—with strong hooks and perfectly realized grooves. He would rank high in any poll of jazz fans (or jazz musicians, for that matter) to pick the most admired composers in the history of jazz.

Some of these songs were hit records for Silver, and many more might have climbed the charts had they been given some airplay and promotion. Even imitators and followers of his could achieve big successes—just check out how Steely Dan took the basic beat of “Song for My Father” and used it as the foundation for “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number.”

Horace Silver

“Song for My Father,” is a good place to begin if you are new to this artist. Listen to Silver's piano solo here, and you will be struck by how simple it seems. If you wrote it out, an intermediate piano student would have no difficulty with it; the most complicated aspects are a few right-hand ornamentations and the syncopations. Yet there is something ineffably perfect in this performance—and in its realization in the studio—that you won't be able to appreciate in any written transcription. No one in the long history of jazz has been better than Horace Silver at achieving the grandest effects with such simple tools at his disposal.

Where do you begin in identifying the highlights of Silver's output? Try making a list: “Señor Blues,” “Opus de Funk,” “Peace,” “Doodlin’,” “Nica’s Dream,” “Nutville,” “Song for My Father,” “Filthy McNasty,” ”The Preacher,” ”Sister Sadie,” and so many others that deserve to be heard. More than a half century after many of these songs were first recorded, they remain beloved jazz standards, and perhaps the best measure of their success is how frequently they still are played, in performance and at jam sessions, by jazz musicians today.

In honor of Silver’s 80th birthday, Bill Kirchner has contributed a Dozens focusing on twelve essential tracks by this seminal artist. Click here to read the full article.

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

September 01, 2008 · 2 comments