The Best Jazz Tracks of the Month

Five days per week, features an outstanding recent track as Song of the Day. Today we look back at the recordings highlighted during the last month.


You will notice some familiar names below. Many jazz fans have CDs by Branford Marsalis and The Bad Plus, but both have outstanding new recordings that were highlighted here during March. Dr. Lonnie Smith has been receiving lots of airplay for his latest CD, and we picked his spirited cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together” as one of our featured tracks. Rudresh Mahanthappa continues to impress, and if you haven’t checked out his recent work, the new release from his Indo-Pak Coalition comes strongly recommended.


South Asian jazz fusion must have been on our reviewers’ minds this month, because in addition to Mahanthappa's disk, we also called attention to Fareed Haque’s “32 Taxis”—a musical evocation of a busy Calcutta intersection—and “Mukti” from the New York band Bangalore Breakdown, an eclectic ensemble that mixes jazz, African and Indian elements in their music.

To learn more, click on the links below. As always,’s reviews come with full recording info, a ranking from 0 to 100—determined without reliance on regression analysis software or credit default swaps—and a succinct appraisal by a savvy critic. You will also find a link for fast (and legal) downloading.

Happy listening!

Featured Songs: March 2009

Sound Assembly: Slide Therapy
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Denny Zeitlin: Mr. P.C.
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Fareed Haque: 32 Taxis
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Tobin Mueller: Must Go Back
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

The Bad Plus (with Wendy Lewis): Lithium
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Mark Winkler: Cool
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Dr. Lonnie Smith: Come Together
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Branford Marsalis: The Return of the Jitney Man
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Bipolar: Just the Two of Us
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Cheikh Ndoye: Rewmi
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Ada Rovatti: The Untold Story
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Peter Bernstein: Work
Reviewed by Eric Novod

Bangalore Breakdown: Mukti
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition: Apti
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Dan Adler: All Things Familiar
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Aaron J. Johnson: Big Fun Blues
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Eddie Daniels & Roger Kellaway: Blue Waltz
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Claudio Roditi: Tune Up
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Jimmy "Duck" Holmes: Gonna Get Old Someday
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Greg Skaff: Tropicalia
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Ran Blake: Lost Highway
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Enrico Rava: Outsider
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

David Binney: Squares and Palaces
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

March 31, 2009 · 0 comments


The Pianism of Denny Zeitlin (Part 2)

Below is the second installment of my two-part article on pianist Denny Zeitlin. For part one, click here. T.G.

Denny Zeitlin with Cecil McBee (L) and Freddie Waits (R), 1964

Denny Zeitlin with Cecil McBee (L) and Freddie Waits (R), 1964

John Hammond, the great talent scout for Columbia, was always on the lookout for artists who broke the rules—he championed Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman in the 1930s and launched the careers of Dylan and Springsteen half a lifetime later. But it would be hard to imagine a less typical auditioning artist than the one who sat on the piano bench in Columbia Record's New York studios that day in 1963.

Denny Zeitlin was in his mid-20s and still hadn't made his first album. While others of his generation had been taking sideman gigs with name jazz bands or scuffling for work in New York, Zeitlin was in Baltimore, studying medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. (In case you don't follow healthcare pedagogy, let me note that this is considered by many as the premier—and most demanding—medical school in the nation.) Zeitlin had traveled to New York not for a gig, or even an audition with Mr. Hammond. He had come to New York for Columbia the University (where he was participating in a ten-week fellowship) not Columbia the record label.

Jack Reilly recently shared an anecdote about auditioning for Columbia the previous day, and having the session quickly come to an end because he wanted to play his original compositions and not standards. Now Zeitlin was in the hot seat, and Hammond must have been impressed. Dr. Zeitlin soon found himself in the strange position of being signed by the label and groomed for jazz stardom, while finishing his medical degree and preparing for his internship at San Francisco General Hospital.

It was inevitable that Columbia and Zeitlin would eventually part ways. The challenges of a dual career prevented Zeitlin from pursuing the round-the-year touring and full time commitment to jazz that studio execs expect from artists on the company's roster. But the music Zeitlin made during this brief interlude ranks among the finest jazz piano work of the era. On his studio projects Cathexis, Carnival and Zeitgeist—long out of print but finally made available on a Mosaic reissue a few weeks ago—and the still hard-to-find Live at the Trident, Zeitlin was redefining the jazz keyboard vocabulary and establishing a conception of the piano trio that strikingly anticipated the later evolution of the music.

I remember talking to Denny some years back about his Columbia recordings, and probing him about the existence of unreleased gems in the tapes. He dismissed the idea, claiming that the there was little of interest beyond the material that had shown up on the albums. And this remained his attitude until Mosaic sent him 17 outtakes from these mid-1960s sessions, of which he approved 15 for inclusion on the new box set. These are not just alternate versions of the master takes, but include original compositions and other new material. By any measure, this Mosaic release (available in a limited edition of 5,000 copies) is now the place to begin in coming to grips with this important pianist.

And why is Denny Zeitlin important? There is the obvious matter of his formidable technical command of the instrument. His touch, his dynamics, his clarity of execution are exemplary. But even more to the point, Zeitlin came to grips with virtually all of the pressing issues facing the jazz keyboardists of his generation. These were matters that most of his contemporaries addressed partially or with varying degrees of success, or (in some instances) tried to ignore. But Zeitlin's penetrating intellect and vision allowed him to find solutions where others merely encountered problems.

These were the looming issues in jazz pianism during the mid-1960s:

(1) How to balance the trade-off between the quest for "freedom" (a pervasive issue of the day) with the value of structure. Zeitlin juggled these two opposed goals with such fluency that he even managed to create a viable rapprochement between them. Someone once tagged him as the "Dave Brubeck of Free Jazz"—and that odd sobriquet is not entirely inappropriate.

(2) How to incorporate longer structural forms into jazz composition while retaining (and enhancing) the vitality of traditional song forms. I can't think of a pianist of this period who did a better job of pushing into longer forms that still were taut and supple—listen to Zeitlin's exceptional recordings of "Blue Phoenix" or "Carnival" or "Mirage" for some very striking examples of this.

(3) How to deal with odd meters in a way that was fluid, idiomatic and not contrived: Zeitlin's work on "Mirage" is especially fascinating. At one point in this piece he follow a structure notated as 3 / 3 / 5 / 5 / 2 / 13 / 4 / 4 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 13. Yet the overall effect is almost of a type of metered jazz without barlines. Once again, it is hard to think of another jazz pianist of this period whose structural thinking was at such a high level.

(4) How to bring orchestral textures into a jazz piano vocabulary that had become thinned out and pared down since the 1940s. The old stride piano players had often derided the bebop keyboardists for being "one-hand" musicians, who could play fast lines with their right hand, but often did little else. In the 1970s, jazz piano would start to reverse directions and bring in a wider range of two-handed techniques. But Denny Zeitlin was already moving in this direction in the early 1960s. Pianists often talk about their chord "voicings"—but this term does not do justice to the full range of textures and sound tapestries that Zeitlin delivers at the keyboard on these Columbia sessions.

In each of these instances, Zeitlin faced the issue head-on, and came up with a robust solution. And, just as important, did so in an integrated, holistic way. Everything he plays has his own personal stamp on it. Nothing comes across as tenuous or forced or merely experimental. Listening to these old tracks, which sound so fresh today, I am reminded of the adage that the experimenting should take place during the musician's practice and preparation, and when the band shows up on stage, the time for experimentation is over. Certainly these Columbia trio recordings reveal a poised artist in complete control of his material, and with a clear idea of where he wants to take it.

A few years later, when synthesizers and electric keyboards captured the attention of the jazz world, Zeitlin was again at the forefront. That music is not included on this set—and who knows when this musician's recordings for the Arch Street label will ever see light of day. But trust me on this: Denny Zeitlin was equally adept at managing the trade-offs between electric and acoustic, the conflict between commercial and artistic considerations, that came to the fore during the 1970s.

Denny Zeitlin has enjoyed a remarkable life by any measure, yet his contributions to jazz have too long been obscured by the fickle decisions of record company execs who have kept the music from the first twenty years of his career out of print. The release of the Mosaic reissue, and a fine new trio CD on Sunnyside, give us a good opportunity to reexamine this artist, and savor anew his contributions to the art form.

Note: Today is featuring "Mr. P.C." from Zeitlin's new CD as Song of the Day, and "Blue Phoenix" from his Columbia years as A Classic Revisited.

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

March 30, 2009 · 0 comments


The Bad Plus in Washington, DC

David Tenenholtz recently reported here on a Duke Ellington tribute concert and Benny Golson’s 80 birthday gala. Now he offers his impressions of a performance by The Bad Plus at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC. (Site visitors may also want to check out Stuart Nicholson's recent interview with The Bad Plus here.) T.G.

On Thursday the iconoclastic trio The Bad Plus performed in Washington, DC at their regular stop in the city, a bare-bones rock venue called The 9:30 Club. The trio, known to develop their varied repertoire from musical high-water marks in genres outside of standard jazz, delved into their schematic program starting with “Variation d’Apollon” by Igor Stravinsky. Following the opener, two originals were played, the first by pianist Ethan Iverson called “Mint” and the second by drummer Dave King called “Anthem for the Earnest.” On the latter, Iverson’s hammering on the overly-bright piano evolved into a solo where, for once, he did not sound like a precocious piano student wandering through some disjointed melodic gestures. Instead, he executed oddly arpeggiated groupings with precision, and maneuvered throughout the keyboard’s upper register with an emphasis on where he was going and what to play next.

The Bad Plus

Throughout the first half of the program, the collective took time to develop a few solos with zeal, but the inclusion of some challenging modern classical music left little room for improvisation other than independent solo features. György Ligeti’s “Fém (Etude No. 8)” and “Semi-Simple Variations” by Milton Babbitt both displayed some bombastic, impulsive bursts from King on two separate features. Segueing directly into “Big Eater” from the trio’s album These Are the Vistas, King’s muscular wood-chopping caused his drumstick to splinter and finally crumble on the ride cymbal.

Ornette Coleman’s “Song X” was a welcome inclusion, but after the head statement, Iverson laid out, choosing instead to stroll on Reid Anderson’s bass solo. King, employing some homemade percussion, also pulled out a toy duck, pressing it into the snare head to see if it might squeak, which it didn’t. Anderson’s strumming brought the other trio members in again, stating a fragment of the Coleman melody out. The beauty of including a free jazz tune in light of some of the solo-less modern classical works was that the band might engage more on an improvisatory level. No such luck; the truncated Coleman classic felt hurried.

Having quickly played through a few originals, some newly-incorporated modern material from their latest album For All I Care, and the lightly regarded Coleman tune, the trio was then joined onstage by Wendy Lewis. In one tiny package that resembles Daria from the 1990’s MTV show of the same name, Lewis can offer the lilting pathos of Billie Holiday, on-stage comfort of Patti Smith, and powered up belting of Bette Midler. She is a thought-provoking vocal performer, whose participation on For All I Care, and in live performance, is a perfect addition to the trio.

Beginning with Nirvana’s “Lithium,” the quartet presented a naturally flowing second half of the set. “Radio Cure” by Wilco followed the Nirvana hit, and the breathy Lewis delivered warm, serene phrasing. The group let the song build from Iverson’s crystalline chords displaced against a bass and drum hard-edged accompaniment. Toward the end of Iverson’s chaotic solo, the chord progression to the song emerged slowly, but overtly.

The classic rhythm and blues hit “Blue Velvet” by Bernie Wayne and Lee Morris was unexpected, and given a “deranged” treatment. King’s cocktail drumming offset Lewis’s crooning. The 12/8 meter is essential to this song, and the band used it effectively before a return to the murky atmosphere created on the theme. Iverson jumped out again with a solo that took rough elements from ragtime piano staples like Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” but with less rigidity.

After “Blue Velvet,” Lewis and the trio presented the equally dark “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” by The Flaming Lips, which was another extended feature for King, where the audacious drummer moved from a manic backbeat into a marching band lead snare style. Taking The Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” for a stroll, the band prolonged this ballad, and Iverson added some side-slipping, dissonant accompaniment. Anderson played bass and also sang high harmony on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” with Iverson rolling large chords, making the tune come alive with an icy sea of piano abyss. To end the set, Lewis busted out on “Barracuda” by Heart, and for the encore, Anderson sang solo on Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” to be joined by all members singing four-part vocals on the refrain.

The Bad Plus have helped create the niche that redevelops music outside of jazz to new emotional ends, while retaining the quality of freedom inherit in much of the jazz tradition. Not all rising performers have the scope to present such challenging material as The Bad Plus so often do. Although on this night, they may have placed too much emphasis on moving through all of the selections, as opposed to extended interplay. Knowing that this band is hardly blasé about the nuances of their presentations, it came as a surprise that only Iverson was given the space to dig in with the support of the other two bandmates.

This blog entry was posted by David Tenenholtz.

March 29, 2009 · 0 comments


The Best of the Dozens

Today publishes the latest installment of its regular feature The Dozens. This article, written by S. Victor Aaron, looks at 12 unusual tracks each matching a jazz artist with a rock or pop icon.

Some of these tracks seem almost too odd to be true. What spurred Chick Corea to collaborate with Rick Derringer? What chain of events brought Stan Getz to a Huey Lewis session? Who masterminded the idea of pairing Carole King and Wynton Marsalis? And am I the only one here who would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when Yoko One got together with Ornette Coleman?

                            Sound and Signs Trio (2004)
                                  Artwork by Jazzamoart

But this is also a good occasion to point you in the direction of some other Dozens published on that you might have missed. While on the topic of connections between jazz and rock, I can't help but be reminded of Matt Leskovic's recent article on jazz stars drawing on contemporary material in his Dozens on the New Standards. Leskovic (who seems suspiciously knowledgeable about rock for a jazz writer) also did a separate installment of the Dozens celebrating "Jazz Takes on the Beatles."

Despite these precedents, we don’t always spend our time at fantasizing about rock stars. Many of our Dozens simply focus on a deserving jazz artist or ensemble. Here are some examples:


And we sometimes focus our attention on an artist outside of the jazz world, but with potential appeal to our site visitors. For example, take a peak at Ed Leimbacher’s survey of Muddy Waters or my take on Frank Zappa.

Our “Guest Artist Dozens” are a special treat. This feature, edited by Ted Panken, lets jazz musicians become reviewers for a day. (Yes, I know, this is their secret dream finally fulfilled.) We published Uri Cain’'s selection of 12 Herbie Hancock tracks a few days ago. But check these ones out too:


Another guest artist feature, edited by Eric Novod, allows jazz musicians to pick 12 desert island tracks. We hope to publish more of these soon. In the meantime, you can enjoy these examples:


And here are a few miscellaneous Dozens that have been among the most popular with our site visitors:

THE BIRTH OF THE COOL by Jeff Sultanof
THE 12 SONNYS OF JAZZ by Scott Albin
HIP-HOP MEETS JAZZ by Jared Pauley
ITALIAN JAZZ by Thierry Quénum
12 TAKES ON SUMMERTIME by Thomas Cunniffe
CRIME JAZZ by Alan Kurtz

For a complete list of past Dozens (we have published around a hundred of them), click here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.

March 26, 2009 · 0 comments


Herbie Hancock and Ravi Shankar Hold East-West Musical Summit

Brian Dwyer recently reported here on Jazz Utsav, a major Indian jazz festival centered in Delhi. Now he fills us in on a journey by Herbie Hancock and other prominent American jazz musicians to India, for a meeting with Ravi Shankar and exciting public concert. The event was held in conjunction with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's 1959 visit to India to study Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence. T.G.

                 Herbie Hancock Meets Ravi Shankar
                  (Photo courtesy of Clayborne Carson)

The night began before the music did, with the reverberations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s recorded voice in the ears of the 500 educated Indians still filing into the auditorium. The voice spoke of a dream set in the future. It was a voice that, four years earlier in 1959, had been touched by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Now, with one country still welcoming its first black president and the other nurturing its relatively young democracy, the voice heard was one that would have been proud.

On this night, as the amplified whispers of Dee Dee Bridgewater and Chaka Khan’s “We Shall Overcome” swept the crowd to a place beyond jazz, it was clear the Living Dream concerts, the 50th anniversary celebration of King’s “pilgrimage” to India, was more about America offering its thanks, hoping to weigh the measure of its progress through its music, than an infusion of two cultures.

The infusion began a few days before, on Valentine’s Day, behind the closed doors of the Ravi Shankar Institute of the Performing Arts in Delhi when Herbie Hancock and Shankar finally had a chance to get together, along with George Duke and the tour’s other members. [Editor's note: Check here for more specifics of the encounter.] In this private setting, the experimentation took on a more informal tone than at the public concert and a true ambassadors' dialogue opened between the two democracies. The encounter was conveniently timed for Hancock as well, as he’ll be collaborating with, among a host of Indian artists, Ravi’s sitarist daughter Anoushka on his upcoming album.

 Ravi Shankar Centre in New Delhi

Hancock and Shankar did not perform together at the invitation-only concert on the following Monday. Yet the event was still a memorable one, and allowed the guests to catch a rare appearance by Hancock, Duke, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Chaka Khan, as well as Indian legends such as tabla master Zakir Hussain, in the jazz-starved culture of New Delhi. Consider the rarity of a concert about which the musicians are as excited—or even more excited—than the audience. The trip, sponsored by the US State Department in partnership with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, was a bold one and the first of the Obama administration, perhaps signalling a rejuvenation of jazz abroad programs.

Accompanied by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Septet, a rotation of the four headliners led a tutorial on jazz history, sweeping through versions of domestic standards by Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Hancock kept the crowd enthused by jamming with the Monk students on his own “Chameleon.” The chemistry between Duke and Hancock, still strong from coinciding tours of Europe through much of the 1970s, created an effortless blend of piano and electronic sounds. Hancock, in between his efforts on acoustic piano, controlled the sound of Duke’s keyboard with a laptop, with his back to the crowd. Hancock at times felt just as creatively engaged as he’s seemed on many of his recent collaborative albums, with thoughtful but concise solos and reserved comping. Yet, much to the dismay of the crowd, who gave a standing ovation when his name was announced, Hancock’s contribution to songs such as Duke’s “It’s On” were barely noticeable.

Dee Dee Bridgewater stuck to a strictly jazz path, but did it with fervor and respect. On “All Blues” her scatting danced with tenor sax and trumpet solos. With the students doing their best to overcompensate in the presence of greatness, and the stars trying to let all shine, meeting somewhere in the middle was a process that required patience from all participants, but it was worth it if even if only for a few moments of head-bouncing awe. Duke and Khan chose the fallback of funk-based grooves on songs like “A Night in New Delhi,” but also dramatic upbeat transitions, as in the 5/4 meter on Duke’s synth-driven “Brazillian Love Affair.” Duke announced, with the tone of a preacher delivering his sermon: “One thing I understand: Gandhi and King understood the blues.”

When the US State Department began tours of the Middle East, Eastern Europe and South Asia as part of its Jazz Ambassador program, first with Dizzy Gillespie in 1956, it hoped that the proliferation of such a free art form as jazz might overshadow a track record of questionable foreign policy. In fact, the struggle for civil rights was still strong in the homestead, epitomized in the figure of a minister named Martin Luther King Jr., who’d recently organized a successful boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama bus system. His inspiration behind what he referred to as his month-long “pilgrimage” to India in 1959 was drawn from the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, which he’d read as a student at Morehouse College. His tour, however, was not government sponsored.

                 Herbie Hancock's Summit with Ravi Shankar

The pressed suits occupying the first three rows at the concert—diplomats from many countries alongside Indian and American politicians—made it clear that the government was heavily involved in the week-long tour through New Delhi and Mumbai (both cities hosted concerts) from February 13 to 18. The goal was as much to let Indians know that there are still Americans who value nonviolence—perhaps the voice of a new administration making itself heard—as it was a chance to nurture a jazz audience that had once thrived in India back in the 1960s.

Ending their encore with the rolling raga “Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram,” Gandhi’s favorite prayer, the roles were reversed: the Americans were doing their best to learn the tunes the audience knew best. Once the voices of hundreds of Indians joined in from the seats, it seemed they’d finally achieved the harmony they’d been trying for.

This blog entry posted by Brian Dwyer

March 25, 2009 · 2 comments


The Demise of Cachaça

Eugene Marlow, a regular contributor to these pages, looks at the recent closing of a Greenwich Village club, Cachaça, and wonders about the immediate causes and longer term implications of its demise. T.G.


On April 27, 2007 Cachaça, the dream-child of 50-something Brazilian bassist Titus Ribas together with his partner, Ron Ferriolo, a nonprofessional saxophonist and businessman, opened its doors on the ground floor at 35 West 8th Street, in the Greenwich Village section of downtown Manhattan, near the New York University campus. On March 15, 2009, about one month shy of two years, its doors closed.

The financial loss to the partners is reportedly in the six figures. The loss to many musicians, particular younger, less well-known players needing a place to perform and be seen and heard is not measurable. The loss to the jazz and samba listening public—both locals and tourists—is yet another example of the struggle to find a place to hear jazz and related world music, not just in New York City, but throughout the United States.

Was it bad timing? After a year of construction, Cachaça opened its doors just six months before the beginning of what many economists are identifying as the latest (and longest) recession in United States history since the Great Depression. Is Cachaça’s demise yet another incidence of a retail operation closing up in a domestic economy in a deep recession? Is it because in a city that boasts several leading jazz clubs, such as Jazz Standard, Birdland, Blue Note, Smoke, Sweet Rhythm, and Smalls, that Cachaça was too much supply for too little demand in the wrong place at the wrong time?

The answer is perhaps a combination of all of the above. The immediate cause of Cachaça’s problems began with basement flooding. And this problem was not isolated. Apparently, the plumbing problem extended to retail operations on either side of Cachaça. The landlord insisted the club pay for the damages. Cachaça went into arrears after refusing to do so. The two parties went to commercial landlord-tenant court. The judge ruled in favor of the landlord.

On March 7, 2009, Ribas sent out an email stating: “Cachaça’s landlord is having a hard time to adjust to the new economic times and is refusing to see what is unraveling and grant a break. Somebody suggested to make an email campaign to let the landlord know how important is to support each other to make it through this crisis and avoid a domino effect that will affect EVERYBODY. If you love Cachaça and recognize what a loss to the Jazz community as well to the fabric of society in general as a small business this is, as many of us do, please send ASAP an email to let your views be known. . . .”

Three days later, on March 10, Ribas delivers another email, as follows: “Sending out those e-mails has been a mistake that badly backfired. Negotiations have been abruptly stopped. I assume the responsibility.” The much longer complete email references an eviction notice for March 11, and the need for the owners to raise $25,000.

The building is managed under the name 35 West 8th Street LLC. In actuality, the property is owned by the Goldman family, who own hundreds of buildings in the New York metropolitan area. According to one of my sources in the New York City commercial real estate market, at one time the Goldman real estate firm, BLDG Management Co.—established by Irving Goldman and Sol Goldman—was second only to the City of New York in its ownership of real estate in the city. Today the company is run by president Lloyd Goldman and Jane and Alan Goldman.

Attempts to include a comment from the company via email and numerous phone calls to Ronald Lichman, the ostensible direct manager of the property in which Cachaça resided on this matter, went unanswered. One manager I did get through to at the one of the Goldman company’s numerous branches categorically denied ownership of the building. The database of the Real Property Tax Assessment office of the City of New York (located in Brooklyn) confirmed the building at 35 West 8th Street was owned by 35 West 8th Street LLC, a corporate entity further owned by the Goldman company. The Real Estate Board of New York further confirmed this.

Cachaça’s financial woes, however, were evident even before this. In September 2008 Ribas sent out an email inviting people to become investors in the club. The email indicated a need to raise funds in the low six figures. Apparently, the response to this invitation was not sufficient. Moreover, the timing of the invitation came right before the worst quarter in America’s economic history since the Great Depression. Bad timing again?

Or is this an instance of a very well meaning musician/producer attempting to create an environment for the performance of jazz and Brazilian music in New York City, no less, caught between a severe economic downdraft and a landlord with no empathy? There’s no doubt Ribas has the chops as a performer and producer. Born in Foz do Ignacu, Paraguay, and raised in Recife, Brazil, Ribas has played with many outstanding Brazilian musicians. He has served as producer on numerous CDs. Ribas has lived and performed in New York since 1984 and has booked rooms such as the Café Creole and Emporium Brazil, two clubs now defunct. He has played the bass since he was 13.

It is clear Ribas and his partner put their Brazilian hearts and souls into Cachaça. According to a July 2007 post, Ribas wanted the acoustics to cater to the bass player so no matter where you sat in the 100+ person club you could hear the bass clearly, which in turn gave the other instruments a wonderful lush sound that everyone could appreciate. On Cachaça’s web site the “intimate” room is described as “. . .decorated in a beautiful Brazilian theme, features the best in live jazz and world music. A perfectly conditioned 1932 mahogany 7-foot Steinway piano graces the stage. In addition, the room is tuned using a double bass as an acoustic reference, resulting in superb listening, and a double bass in the lobby sets the tone and vibe of the club.”

In a June 2008 interview in the music section of, Ribas comments: “Everybody can find something to relate to [in] Brazilian music. The music has Brazilian aspects, jazz, funk, even West African, because that’s where the music was born. It’s challenging to play, and the rhythms are very free. There is freedom in this style.” The Brazilian influence was overtly evident in the club’s name. Cachaça is the most popular distilled alcoholic beverage in Brazil: the distillation of fermented sugarcane juice, with its alcohol strength anywhere from 38% to 80% by volume. About 1.5 billion liters (396.4 million gallons) are consumed there annually.

No doubt, but there’s not much freedom in creating and running a club. In the world of sales, there are countless stories of very successful salespeople promoted to sales manager who then fail as managers. The question, therefore, has to be asked: who should start and run a jazz club? A musician with performance chops who has musical taste and knows many good musicians, or a businessman with deep pockets and a high appreciation for the music?

There’s no doubt, though, Ribas’ heart was in the right place. At the conclusion of the March 10 email referenced above he describes himself as “just another musician who would have preferred to remain just that, but accepted the mission.” Sadly, “accepting the mission” is not necessarily a good business plan, nor does it lead to an effective exit strategy. Regardless, according to Ribas himself, although Cachaça could accommodate 100 people, it never seated more than 50 patrons, and often a lot less. The nights I was there barely 15 people were present.

It’s easy to be successful when everything is on the rise. But when things begin to fall only those who are prepared for the downturns or are financially robust enough to withstand the downturn survive. There is also the much larger context of the state of the jazz industry to begin with. As everyone knows who has been paying attention, CD sales are way down—not just in the jazz world, but the pop world as well. And while digital sales are significantly on the rise, these sales have not yet replaced the decline in physical CD sales. Jazz radio is apparently waning in terms of number of stations. Public gigs are shrinking. Even the number of private parties for which jazz musicians are hired is declining for lack of economic wherewithal.

The larger story, of course, is the overall state of jazz clubs in New York City and the even larger story of the condition of jazz in the United States. Anecdotally, the reports are everyone is hurting, but there have been no other reports of club closings in New York at least—so far. This reporter intends to investigate further for another blog report.

This blog entry was posted by Eugene Marlow.

March 24, 2009 · 7 comments


Jim Hall at the Library of Congress

Michael J. West, a regular contributor to, has recently reported on performances by Kahil El’Zabar, Oliver Lake and Benny Golson in this space. Now he journeys to the Library of Congress to hear Jim Hall in concert.T.G.

                             Jim Hall, by Jos L. Knaepen

In the Coolidge Auditorium, on the ground floor of the Library of Congress, Alan Lomax recorded Jelly Roll Morton’s reminiscences in 1938. Even seven decades later, it is surely daunting for jazz musicians to perform on that history-making spot. But if Jim Hall was intimidated last Friday night, he never let on; the legendary guitarist seemed comfortable as could be, and his trio-mates (bassist Steve LaSpina, drummer Joey Baron) exuded pure joy throughout their delightful and revelatory performance.

A sellout crowd applauded when the men entered, 79-year-old Hall walking with the aid of a cane but quick to joke about it (“I heard they were having auditions for House”). After introducing his musicians, Hall got right down to business, leading them into a beautiful, if unnamed, midtempo tune. It was an understated performance; Baron tapped at the kit with brushes, LaSpina more strident but still controlled with his buzzing bass vibrato. Hall was as subtle as always, but onstage he clarifies a stylistic aspect that on record is only apparent to other guitarists: His touch is not soft. In fact, he strums rather hard; the hush in his playing is because he keeps the volume and tone knobs on his electric guitar (a Jim Hall model Sadowsky archtop, naturally) at minimal levels. He fiddled with these throughout the set, but rarely with more than slight adjustment.

Hall didn’t need to call the second tune, “All the Things You Are.” But it was the chord changes that were instantly recognizable—Hall elongated and compressed the melody wherever it struck his fancy, recomposing Jerome Kern at will. His extraordinary harmonic ear was also on display in the odd but marvelous structures of his solo. The bassist offered a brilliant solo himself, concentrating in the instrument’s middle register, with Baron offering a waltz so delicate it was barely there.

Next, Hall asked a quiz question: What is the capital of Burkina Faso? The answer, Ouagadougou, was the title of the next tune, a Hall original. (“We’ve never been there,” he noted, “we just like the name.”) The 5/4 piece was unconventional by nearly every standard: It found Baron playing toms and snare with his fingertips while LaSpina offered a one-note bass line. Over top, Hall played jagged fragments of melody, with an aggressive and often speedy attack that evoked African pop.

The trio charged through another melodically oblong standard (“My Funny Valentine”) and a gentle bossa nova (“Beija-Flor”), then came a surprise: Hall announced a piece he’d written in Art Farmer’s band, “Big Blues,” which turned out to be a fast and genuinely urban blues. For the first time, Baron brandished sticks, knocking the rims of his bass and snare and taking an animated solo, after which he and LaSpina dropped out for a rowdy solo from Hall. With the song’s finish and the roar of approval from the audience, Hall smiled slyly and proclaimed, “You can have a lot of fun with these musical instruments!”

Subtlety returned, however, for two standards, “Body and Soul” and “Skylark.” The former was characterized by another melodic modification, and by LaSpina’s finest bass solo of the evening, this time fluctuating between mid- and high-register and filled with melodic triplet figures. It was “Skylark,” though, that was the more compelling. Hall fired off lightning-fast, flamenco-like runs; LaSpina offered an equally fleet-fingered solo, though it was more than a little similar to the one on “Body and Soul,” and Baron, despite sensitive brushwork, gave off an aura of delight with his enormous smile and contagious energy.

“Skylark” brought another tremendous ovation, with Hall smiling and apologizing that he didn’t rise to bow. “My heart’s in it,” he promised, “but my back isn’t.” The closing tune, he announced, would be another original blues, this one titled “Careful.” The name completely belied the mood of the piece, which was the closest Hall and company got to rock-and-roll. Hall’s attack was aggressive and ragged, with a choppy rhythm, and for this concluding number he finally turned on his tone knob—giving the guitar a brightness that seemed almost profane after the evening’s muted tone. LaSpina and Baron held down a hard-edged, even backbeat, the bassist with a firm low-end groove and the drummer in flux—smacking the snare like a bongo, grabbing the sticks for a workout on the snare and ride, and hammering out a rambunctious solo.

The excitement of the concert seems at odds with Hall’s obvious injury and walking stick, which underscored the guitarist’s advancing years. Yet his work onstage showed how much vitality is left in him, and how willing he still is to experiment with his repertoire and his very sound. If he was unfazed by playing on the same stage as Jelly Roll Morton, perhaps it was because he knew he’d do Jelly Roll proud.

This blog entry posted by Michael J. West

March 23, 2009 · 1 comment


Denny Zeitlin on Mosaic (Part 1)

In the early 1980s, Gene Lees surveyed more than 60 jazz pianists to find out which keyboardists they most admired. He asked them to pick the "best," the "most influential" and their "personal favorites" from the entire history of jazz, including both living and deceased artists. The results were dominated by the expected names: Art Tatum topped the list of the "best" and "most influential"; Bill Evans was most often cited as the "personal favorite." Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock and the other "usual suspects" also appeared on the list.

Denny Zeitlin

Yet Dr. Denny Zeitlin's name figured prominently on the various ballots, with especially high markings when these elite pianists were asked to pick their personal favorites—a result all the more surprising since Zeitlin had spent his entire career as a part time musician.

Early on, he had decided on a calling in medicine, and had relegated jazz to a "sideline." His dual career brings new meaning to the term "multitasking." I have been around many brilliant, achievement-oriented people in my life, but Denny makes my short list of the most impressive individuals I have encountered. By the way, I once sat next to a medical expert on a plane, who knew Denny only as a doctor. She was amazed to learn from me that he had done so much in the jazz world, given how well he is respected in the medical field. And jazz fans may not know about Zeitlin's formidable reputation as a wine connoisseur. The more you learn about him, the more you will wonder: "When does he find time to practice?"

When I wrote my book The History of Jazz a few years back, I called attention to Zeitlin's work, and made a case for his importance in the evolution of the jazz keyboard and modern piano trio. I saw that he had been applying techniques back in the 1960s that strikingly foreshadowed cutting edge jazz piano approaches of later decades. If you wanted, you could even come up with some colorful angle, and call Dr. Zeitlin the "Brad Mehldau of 1964" or the "forerunner of the ECM sound" or concoct some other generalization, touching on this futuristic element in his playing. Yet with Denny, all labels of this sort are merely vague approximations, and the best way to understand what his music represents is to listen to it carefully.

Nonetheless I knew that the readers of my book would have few chances to appreciate his artistry. It wasn't just because Zeitlin seldom performs (and very rarely in the New York clubs where the opinion leaders of the jazz world congregate), but even more due to the scandalous state of his recorded legacy.

For example:

(1) The obvious place to start in listening to Zeitlin was his debut as a sideman on Jeremy Steig's recording Flute Fever. When this album was released, Bill Evans praised it lavishly in a Blindfold Test in Downbeat. But these days you won't find it easy to hear this music—Steig's album has been out of print for ages.

(2) The next place to go would be Zeitlin's piano trio recordings for Columbia, made under the direction of John Hammond. These are the albums that established Denny's reputation in jazz circles, and serve as the cornerstone of his oeuvre. Good luck finding them. Columbia / Sony never released these sessions on CD, and they were taken off the market in LP format shortly after they were issued.

(3) In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Zeitlin plunged into new waters, mixing electronic and acoustic currents, odd time meters, tight and loose improvisational structures—the whole nine yards, so to speak. His indie label 1973 release Expansion earned a glowing five star review in Downbeat, which proclaimed it "a masterpiece." By any measure, this was one of the most exciting jazz albums of the era. But this LP soon became even harder to find than the Columbia releases. It is still out of print.

(4) Zeitlin's follow-up Syzygy from 1977 showed his keyboard conception continuing to evolve in exciting new directions. But don't even try to find a copy of this release. You will have a better chance of getting a 1955 double-die penny in your change at McDonald's.

(5) Columbia recorded Zeitlin in a two-piano format with Herbie Hancock in 1982 at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. Only one track was ever issued, and it soon disappeared from the market. There is at least one more track that was never released. I was at the concert and can attest to the importance of this music, but I have given up any hopes of seeing it issued on CD.

(6) The next year, Zeitlin participated in a double-album tribute to Bill Evans, produced by Herb Wong, and featuring what is probably the most impressive list of jazz keyboardists to ever collaborate on a single project. In addition to Denny, the performers included Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, John Lewis, George Shearing, McCoy Tyner, Teddy Wilson, etc. This LP quickly went out of print and is unavailable on compact disk.

To sum up: Zeitlin put together a stunning body of work as a young man, but almost no one has heard it. Fans haven't heard it in decades and even many critics don't know about it . . . and they could hardly even find this music if they wanted to check it out. It almost seemed as if some perverse deity was determined on erasing Denny Zeitlin's contributions to jazz during the key early decades of his career.

This turn of events disappoints me as a jazz writer, but even more as a fan. These Zeitlin recordings are the kind of music I put on the CD player for my own personal enjoyment. But, for the most part, they haven't been made available on CD, and my LPs now have more snaps, crackles and pops than a cauldron of Rice Krispies during a milk storm.

Yet finally the cruel fates have relented, and in a wonderful turn of events, Mosaic has started reissuing the Zeitlin trio sides from the 1960s—and not only the previously released material, but also top notch outtakes that even Denny had forgotten about. The recent Mosaic three CD set includes music recorded for Cathexis, Carnival and Zeitgeist, and represents the complete studio sessions from the period 1964-67. I was sad to see the fine Shining Hour: Live at the Trident tracks omitted from the compilation. But this disappointment was more than compensated by Mosaic's promise to issue these at a later date, along with an "abundance of unreleased material" from this 1964 live album.

So I still have more than a few tracks on my wish list for future release. But for the time being I am celebrating. Finally, the Zeitlin studio trio sessions from the 1960s are available to the jazz world. . . .

This is the end of part one of Ted Gioia's article on Denny Zeitlin. For part two of this article, click here.

March 22, 2009 · 1 comment


Track Review Roundup

We continue in our noble if quixotic quest to review all of the great and almost great tracks in the history of jazz. Our indefatigable critics have covered more than 500 recordings during the last two months and recently published its 4,500th review. But we didn't even stop to open a bottle of champagne . . since we have Miles (and other jazz stars) to go before we sleep.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Alan Kurtz, who is putting down his red pencil in the next few days after editing several thousand reviews for us. We would prefer to give him a gold watch and a golden parachute, but hey we aren't AIG, so we can only offer our heartfelt thanks. Alan began helping out on almost from the inception of the concept. If the advantages of reviewing individual tracks instead of entire CDs ever become widely recognized (and we have a hunch that others will soon start emulating this approach) then Alan will deserve a big share of the credit.

Below are links to 20 reviews published during the last two weeks. To search through all of the 4,500 track reviews on our site, use the search box in the left sidebar on our Music page.

Happy listening!

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington: “Isfahan”
Reviewed by Dean Alger

Ben Webster & Joe Zawinul

Ben Webster & Joe Zawinul: “Frog Legs”
Reviewed by Kenny Berger

Jelly Roll Morton

Jelly Roll Morton: “Dead Man Blues”
Reviewed by Dean Alger

 Eva Cassidy

Eva Cassidy: “Wayfaring Stranger”
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Johnny Hodges

Johnny Hodges: “310 Blues”
Reviewed by Dean Alger

Don Byas

Don Byas: “Laura”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock: “The Sorcerer”
Reviewed by Jared Pauley

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Lars Gullin: “Fedja”
Reviewed by David Tenenholtz

 Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman: “Klactoveesedstene”
Reviewed by Kenny Berger

 John Coltrane

John Coltrane: “Locomotion”
Reviewed by Jared Pauley

Susannah McCorkle

Susannah McCorkle: “Tonk”
Reviewed by Thomas Cunniffe

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong: “When the Saints Go Marching In”
Reviewed by Dean Alger

Greg Osby

Greg Osby: “The Single Petal of a Rose”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington: “Warm Valley”
Reviewed by Dean Alger

Steve Lacy & Mal Waldron

Steve Lacy & Mal Waldron: “A Case of Plus s"
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Joe Farrell

Joe Farrell: “Song of the Wind”
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis & Roscoe Mitchell

Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis & Roscoe Mitchell: “Scrape”
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Professor Longhair

Professor Longhair: “Go the Mardi Gras”
Reviewed by Ed Leimbacher

Reid Anderson

Reid Anderson: “Prehensile Dream”
Reviewed by Eric Novod

Eddie Palmieri

Eddie Palmieri: “In Flight”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

March 19, 2009 · 0 comments


Jack Kerouac and Jazz

For better or worse, the leaders of the Beat Generation, and especially Jack Kerouac, are inextricably linked in the public's mind to the jazz world. Yet what was the real connection between Kerouac and jazz?’s Jared Pauley reports on a symposium at Columbia University that addressed this very issue. T.G.

The 1950s were a very interesting time for jazz. Culturally there was change in the air with an entire generation living under the umbrella of the Cold War, finding different and new ways to express themselves through story, music, and poetry. The Beat Generation had long had an association with jazz particularly in New York City. The Beats wrote about the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with passion and delight but what was the real association between the Beat Generation and jazz musicians? In particular, where does Jack Kerouac rank in the critical history of jazz? Perhaps not all of these questions have been answered for me, but I recently gained a deeper knowledge and appreciation for Mr. Kerouac.

The Beat Generation

On Tuesday March 10th at Philosophy Hall, Columbia University held a symposium on the jazz writing of Jack Kerouac and his involvement in the motion picture Pull My Daisy. The setting was an appropriate one, since Kerouac attended Columbia University on a football scholarship. Participating on this panel were record producer George Avakian, musician David Amram, Columbia professor John Szwed, and Italian scholar Sarah Villa who has translated some of Kerouac’s unpublished writings on jazz into Italian. After a brief introduction by Dr. George Lewis, the head of Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies, the seminar began with a look at some of Kerouac’s unpublished critical writings on jazz.

The heart of the seminar revolved around Kerouac’s participation in the movie Pull My Daisy, in which David Amram also made an appearance along with poet Allan Ginsberg. Here is where my biases come straight to the surface regarding the way in which the seminar was conducted. I am product of Rutgers’ University and the Institute of Jazz Studies roundtable discussions, where interaction among the audience and speakers is almost a prerequisite. Don’t get me wrong, I have a strong appreciation for New Jazz Studies, but many of the people in attendance would have taken anything that was said at face value.

Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies

Is this the future of jazz in modern academia? Has the music has taken a back seat to cultural analysis? One could argue that yes, this is the future of jazz in academia because this tendency has already been in place for the last twenty years. But where should musicians who have chosen to cover music do so in the midst of New Jazz Studies? If not for the involvement of David Amram in this seminar on Kerouac, the average person would have been lost as to where the conversation was headed in regards to the Beat author’s involvement other than via unpublished jazz essays.

Now, Sarah Villa gave some wonderful insight into the Jack Kerouac essay “The Beginning of Bebop,” which was published in Escapade in October 1959. Her doctoral work at the University of Milan and at Columbia explored the critical response to Kerouac’s writings on jazz. Some of the responses were actually flattering while others were more disdainful. Overall, she provided a nice insight into things about Kerouac’s life and writing that I wasn’t aware of. More importantly, Kerouac’s piece in Escapade showed that Kerouac did actually have music analysis in him. The excerpts that were shown during her PowerPoint presentation surprised me with regards to how in depth Kerouac’s listening skills as a non-musician were.

Leading up to the analysis of Pull My Daisy, I was curious as to how the seminar was going to evolve. It ended being the David Amram musical hour pretty much, which was nice but a little redundant. He spoke at length about his participation with Jack Kerouac at the Five Spot in 1957 when the two first started to fuse spoken word with jazz. Kerouac also performed at the Brata Art Gallery in December of 1959 on East 10th Street in NYC, another fact I wasn’t aware of. The movie Pull My Daisy featured a plethora of different Beats and David Amram described the making of the movie with vivid detail. This quote below describes the process Kerouac went through for recording his narrations for the film: according to Amram, “He watched the film and made up the narration on the spot. He did it two times through spontaneously and that was it. He refused to do it again. He believed in spontaneity and the narration turned out to be the best part of the film.”

I figured Kerouac was into being spontaneous but I wasn’t aware at how much his mentality was like that of an improvising jazz musician. Take it for what you will, but I was delighted to learn of these different attributes. Kerouac’s work has always intrigued me, as has the participation of the Beatniks in jazz, but this seminar did give some great detail from people who were there and knew him personally.

In the end, the roundtable was informative but everything was a touch too romanticized for me—but I should have known better. I get the feeling that there weren’t many musicians present at this symposium, but I still gained a greater and deeper understanding of Jack Kerouac’s participation in 1950s jazz and how important his role was. The Center for Jazz Studies really has a lot of potential, I just wish they would be more specific and focus more on the music; but let’s give Columbia a chance and find out more of where they are taking their particular brand of New Jazz Studies.

And on a closing note, I think it defeats the purpose of having a wonderful, I repeat, wonderful person like George Avakian on the board, yet he only gets to say three or four sentences at the beginning of the seminar. I have learned more from that man in our short conversations than I have from reading entire books. Just food for thought . . . but come on, Avakian is a walking jazz history book. For those interested Columbia University’s next symposium will feature Yale ethnomusicologist Michael Veal discussing Miles Davis and his music in 1969 on Monday April 6th at 8:00 p.m. in Philosophy Hall. Should be interesting to see where this one goes. I’ll be there.

This blog entry posted by Jared Pauley.

March 18, 2009 · 8 comments


Dorothy Donegan Revisited

More than a decade has passed since the death of pianist extraordinaire Dorothy Donegan. She never received the recognition she deserved during her career, and now after her passing, even fewer fans are aware of what this artist could do at the keyboard. Below Scott Albin, a regular contributor to these pages, looks back on at Donegan's fascinating and frustrating career. T.G.

Since her death in 1998 at age 76, the great virtuoso pianist Dorothy Donegan has been largely forgotten, except for the release last Fall of Pandemonium, a DVD containing so-so TV show performance footage and a bio. Donegan never achieved the fame and recognition that she and others thought she deserved in her lifetime, although she was indeed named an NEA Jazz Master in 1992. However, many jazz reference works lack an entry for her.

Donegan believed that her aspirations were hindered by racism in the classical field, and sexism in the world of jazz. Then again, some thought she was too tempermental, flamboyant, bawdy, and playful to be taken seriously. Even Donegan described herself in 1958 as "wild, but polished," stating that, "Instead of just sitting there playing, I've added personality." Leonard Feather wrote that "much of her based on her visual antics."

Two sensational short videos portray Donegan's transformation and serve more or less as bookends to her career. From the Hollywood film Sensations of 1945, she is seen sharing a revolving circular platform with pianist Gene Rodgers, as Cab Calloway and his Orchestra look on. Dressed in a floor length gown, with a flower in her hair, she is physically reserved except for her stomping feet as she plays devastating stride piano after beginning with Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. In 1993, again opulently if more casually dressed, she performs on the White House lawn, moving from "I Can't Get Started" to "Tea for Two," before introducing some classical snippets, all the while indulging the audience with humorous facial expressions, groans, and, at one point, turning somewhat indolently to face the crowd while sustaining a dazzling left-hand riff. As usual, her performance generates a standing ovation, with then President Clinton observed shaking his head in disbelief while seeming to mouth the word "unbelievable!" (All of the Donegan videos available on YouTube are worth seeing; especially check out her mesmerizing no-nonsense blues workout on a video simply titled "Part 2 of 2.")

Donegan did not record prolifically, and most of her few early albums have never been available on CD, although a compilation CD, Dorothy Romps: A Piano Retrospective (1953-1979) presents a cross-section of her abundant abilities in stride, boogie-woogie, blues, bop, swing, and classical, among the styles she so often explored in the same piece or a medley combining standards and classical works. She was best appreciated live, in lengthy well-attended engagements at night clubs like the Embers in New York and the London House in Chicago, where she offered kaleidoscopic sets that mixed her singing, dancing, and off-color jokes (she once toured with Moms Mabley), with piano excursions technically comparable to those of an Art Tatum or a world-class classical pianist. In later years, her memorable appearances at jazz festivals and on jazz cruises brought her a relatively wider audience (her three CDs recorded live respectively at the 1990, 1991, and 1992 Floating Jazz Festivals are particularly recommended).

Many fellow musicians found her intimidating, hence she usually worked solo or with just bass and drums. She also enjoyed doing impressions of other pianists and singers, such as Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Keith Jarrett, Andre Watts, and Count Basie, although she frequently sounded much like Erroll Garner when playing it straight, as she and Garner maintained a mutual admiration society. She once told Ebony magazine, "I've snowed them [male jazz pianists] all except one (the late Art Tatum). Most of them play like women."

Speaking of women, even Marian McPartland was shaken up when Donegan appeared on McPartland's Piano Jazz radio program. In an interview not long after Donegan's death, McPartland recalled, "Anyway, she was known as this very strong, aggressive, outspoken, domineering kind of person. . . and it seemed like when we were playing a duet, every part of the piano I would try to play to get away from her, she would go there and I was really trying to make it sound as good as I could. We took a break and I went into the bathroom and said to myself to shape up. I think I took an aspirin. 'Don't let this woman take over the show,' I said to myself...then at the end I said to her 'Dorothy, it's O.K., you win.' She says: 'Oh, no contest.' So that was Dorothy. And she meant it. She really thought that I was a weakling and that she was better than me in every way."

Brash, flamboyant, and seriously talented. In 1942, she became the first African-American and first jazz pianist to appear in a much publicized concert at Chicago's Orchestra Hall, initially performing Grieg and Rachmaninoff, and then jazz after intermission. Art Tatum responded by visiting her home and taking her under his wing. The late long-time New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson, never one prone to hyperbole, wrote of Donegan's first ever appearance at the Village Vanguard in October 1987, "Miss Donegan has never let her show-business surface interfere with her virtuosity or her sensitivity as a pianist. No one since Art Tatum has brought together a flow of running lines, breaks, changes of tempo and key, oblique references and rhythmic intensity as skillfully as Miss Donegan does."

Once again or for the first time, let us listen to (and watch) the life force that was Dorothy Donegan.

This blog article posted by Scott Albin.

March 17, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:'s New Expert Translator

Alan Kurtz, our web site's resident curmudgeon, recently dropped an uncharacteristically sensible note into our Suggestion Box, which met with immediate approval. The time has come, Alan asserted, for to obtain the services of an Expert Translator, fluent in as many languages as possible, whose duties shall include scouring the Internet for promising articles, negotiating formal permission to republish, and rendering them into the stylish and fastidious English that readers have rightfully come to expect.

Since Alan was so insistent, we delegated to him the task of retaining an Expert Translator. We hasten to add that is an equal opportunity employer, committed to diversity in the workplace. Yet, for reasons that should become clear from Alan's report below, even we were taken aback by his selection. Readers are invited to comment below or by email to But please bear in mind that, for better or for worse, this position has been filled. No more applicants will be considered.  T.G.

Confusion of Tongues at the Tower of Babel from Gustave Doré's Illustrated Bible (1866)

Like most of the other candidates I'd interviewed that week, Orville Wilburbecke entered my office looking friendly and self- confident. In contrast to the others, he left looking the same way. Unlike them, Orville had gotten the job.

Not for himself, mind you. Indeed, as soon as we'd seated ourselves at opposite sides of my desk, Orville admitted that he is personally not a translator. "However," he responded to my quizzical stare, "I have exactly what you need." Unbidden, he enumerated the virtues of his software application, RoboLinguist: versatility, efficiency, and economy. "Why settle for a human translator's grasp of a paltry handful of languages, when RoboLinguist puts 27 tongues and dozens of dialects at your fingertips? Why wait hours or even days for a passable human translation when RoboLinguist can deliver the goods in nanoseconds? Why get bogged down in the quagmire of recurring payroll, accounting, tax deductions and reporting obligations, not to mention overhead costs including liability insurance? RoboLinguist can do the same job better, at a nominal licensing fee and in the space of a few gigabytes on your hard drive!"

"Look here, Wilburbecke," I interjected. "That's all well and good for general purpose translation. But we're dealing here with a highly specialized situation. Are you telling me RoboLinguist could cope with jazz?"

Orville was sublimely unfazed. "It's already being done," he assured me, looking just smug enough to suggest, without saying so, that I'd fallen behind the times. "The leading online publishers of jazz-related articles are increasingly invested in RoboLinguist, with a satisfaction rate approaching if not exceeding 100%."

Jazzitalia logo

To illustrate the powers of RoboLinguist, Orville produced from his sample case an article that he claimed had lately been published by reputable web sites. The original, which he showed me first, had appeared on Jazzitalia. Since it was in Italian, I could make no sense of it, but nevertheless recognized "Musica e politica, oggi?! A colloquio con l'etnomusicologo e sassofonista Jerome Camal." This was Franco Bergoglio's interview with music scholar Jerome Camal, both of whom I knew by reputation. Signore Bergoglio is author of the book Jazz!: appunti e note dal secolo breve (Costa & Nolan, 2008), and Jerome Camal is a saxophonist and ethnomusicologist whose doctoral dissertation in progress is titled From Gwoka Modènn to Jazz Ka: Music and Ideology in Guadeloupe. I'd been looking forward to reading this interview, but was unaware that it'd been translated.

Mr. Wilburbecke thereupon proudly displayed the RoboLinguist version, titled "Music and politics, today?!" Like the wily fisherman who relaxes when he knows his quarry is hooked, Orville settled back in his chair as I avidly devoured the text.

"Jerome Camal," it began, "French of birth, is assistant to the Washington University of Saint Louis in jazz studies, logic of music and logic of ethnic music. But it is also a saxophonist that is not satisfied with to live of academic searches and he doesn't want that teacher calls him, but he prefers to play in the places, to plunge himself in jam sessions and to teach the practice of the tool."

At this point, I imagine my face betrayed puzzlement. "You say this has been published on reputable web sites?" I asked.

"Approaching if not exceeding 100% satisfaction," Orville assured me.

I read on. Soliciting Camal's opinion of 1960s radical jazz critic Frank Kofsky, Bergoglio declared: "I think that its intention was to put its studies the method of Marxist analysis into practice, doesn't it seem you?"

"I arrange," Camal replied. "Kofsky is an interesting character. Indeed ideology envelops its writings in so mighty way to make more its reasonings object objections. An example of this attitude is its interview to Coltrane in which him test, without succeeding us to make to guarantee from Coltrane its political ideas." I began to worry that I was missing something here.

"You think there is a connection," Bergoglio pursued, "among the New it damages American and the jazz? And of what type?"

"And an ample question," allowed Camal, "too much for a rapid answer." Turning to another '60s radical jazz critic, Amiri Baraka, Camal observed: "Many groups and artists of the movement coagulated him around the African-American arts, the reasonings of Baraka they resounded."

Adopting my sternest expression, I demanded that Wilburbecke reveal at once which web sites, exactly, had seen fit to publish this translation?

EzineArticles logo

"Most notably," said Orville, beaming with what I took to be pride of placement, ", which maintains a database of hundreds of thousands of quality original articles that it markets to ezine publishers everywhere. Perhaps you know the founder, Christopher Knight."

"Not personally. But did he or someone else over there actually read this?"

"Every single article is human reviewed," Wilburbecke solemnly vouchsafed.

I remained unconvinced. "The thing is, Orville, that is more tightly focused than most ezines. We appeal to readers with very refined musical interests."

Fubrus Knowledge Database logo

"So does Fubrus Knowledge Database," Wilburbecke countered. "Perhaps you know FKD's founder, Kej Beogradski."

"Can't say I've had the pleasure," I admitted. But I'd certainly heard the Fables of Fubrus. Anyone who acquires content from them is said to be totally FKD. I could not help but be impressed.

I resumed reading Orville's robotic translation, in which Franco Bergoglio had by now moved from '60s radical critics to John Coltrane. "I think," explained musicologist and tenorman Jerome Camal, "that the case of Coltrane to treat we need to consider his/her music from two separated visual angles. Primo: which type of political message (if it is one of them) it foresaw Coltrane for his music? According to: which done mean political you has been tied up to his music to back, from the most different listeners?"

Probably I was just tired. Maybe Orville had worn me down. Or perhaps it really did make sense. The longer I read, the more persuaded I became that RoboLinguist was, at minimum, worth a try. Besides, if those other web sites bought it, I was afraid of being left behind. Curmudgeon or not, I won't be lumped with the Luddites.'s mission in cyberspace comes first.

Lost In Space 1960s TV series: Jonathan Harris as Dr. Zachary Smith cuddles up to Robot

Thus did I decide that it's high time for us to plunge into RoboLinguist and teach the practice of the tool. After all, ideology envelops its writings in so mighty way to make more its reasonings object objections. With RoboLinguist's help, will coagulate around the arts and reasonings of those they resounded. We need to treat his/her music from separated angles, according to which done mean you has been tied up to music to back from the most different listeners. You know what I'm saying?

Orville Wilburbecke sensed instantly that he'd made a convert. "How soon may we install RoboLinguist on's computers?" he gushed.

"And an ample question," came my weary response, "too much for a rapid answer."

"I arrange," smiled Orville. "Approaching if not exceeding 100% satisfaction."

This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.

March 16, 2009 · 2 comments


Quincy Jones On (and Off) DVD

Thomas Cunniffe, an editor and regular contributor to these pages, is our resident expert on jazz DVDs. Below he helps fans navigate through the many video releases on composer and producer Quincy Jones. Fans of jazz videos, may also want to check out Cunniffe's recent reviews for here and here. T.G.

Quincy Jones

To call Quincy Jones a modern-day Renaissance man is to state the obvious. No one has mastered as many branches of vernacular music as Quincy, and more often than not, his successes have been simultaneously artistic and commercial. Trying to fit all of Quincy’s many sides into a documentary must be a tremendous challenge and several films recently reissued on DVD (and one that remains unavailable for purchase) succeed or fail based on that criteria.

PBS Video’s An Evening With Quincy Jones is the lightest of the bunch. More of a testimonial than a documentary, the program’s host, Gwen Ifill pitches softball questions to Quincy, who provides rambling and unfocused answers. When Ifill asks about Charlie Parker’s influence, Quincy’s answer goes off on a tangent and never comes back. Ifill asks about Quincy’s disastrous big band tour following the collapse of the musical Free & Easy, and Quincy jumps in at the middle of the story, never really discussing the show, the political issues in Paris that sabotaged the show, or why the band hit such setbacks in Europe. The program features appearances by Leslie Gore, James Ingram, BeBe Winans, Bobby McFerrin and Herbie Hancock, but despite the presence of the last two artists, jazz is severely under-represented. McFerrin & Hancock’s duet is a medley of Michael Jackson songs(!) and the only real jazz material is Hancock’s piano solo near the end of the show.

PBS did much better by Jones with its 2001 American Masters film, In The Pocket. Produced, written and directed by Michael Kantor, Pocket may be the best overall film on Quincy. His life story is offered chronologically, the talking heads range from Bill Clinton to Billy Taylor, the narration is historically correct, and personal details are discussed honestly and respectfully. Quincy’s jazz years are covered in reasonable detail and we hear the whole story about the European tour. But then, about 45 minutes into the film, there is the singing voice of Ray Charles under the opening titles of In The Heat Of The Night, and anyone familiar with Quincy’s biography notices a glaring omission: there is no discussion of Ray and Quincy’s friendship when both were growing up in Seattle, a friendship that exercised great influence on both men’s subsequent careers.

To hear about that chapter of Quincy’s life, you need to see Kantor’s earlier film on Quincy, a 2000 episode of Bravo Profiles. Before you jump over to Amazon, you should know that the film has never been available on home video, and owing to Bravo’s switch from arts programming to reality TV, you may never get a chance to see it. For whatever reason, Ray Charles appears on the Bravo film but not on the PBS film. On Bravo, he told about how Quincy learned about arranging from Ray and how Quincy eventually eclipsed the talent of his teacher. The Bravo film also includes Quincy’s famous quote about Lionel Hampton’s orchestra being the first rock and roll band. Kantor used the recording sessions of the album “Basie & Beyond” as a framing device, and there are several sequences of Quincy and co-leader Sammy Nestico rehearsing an all-star band from LA in a collection of classic big band charts. If PBS ever sees fit to issue a special edition of In The Pocket, they owe it to Quincy and his fans to include the Bravo profile as a bonus feature. I’m not holding my breath….

Also recently released is the 1990 feature Listen Up: The Lives Of Quincy Jones. Edited like a long-form music video, the star-studded documentary jumps back and forth between different styles in an attempt to link different periods in Quincy’s career. Unfortunately, this admirable attempt at cross-generational history gets beaten to death by sheer repetition, and any sense of chronology is lost in the process. The interviews are fragmented, with ideas being cut off unexpectedly, and there are several examples of overlapping dialogue that’s impossible to decipher. (Is it too much to ask that when such films are remixed for Dolby 5.1, the voices are spread out throughout the soundstage so we can understand them if we wish?) A new documentary, Q: The Man is included as a bonus feature, and while it does little to clarify the problems of Listen Up, it offers a moving discussion of Quincy’s mentoring of young artists and his recent work with world-wide charities.

To my mind, Quincy’s greatest talents are hardly discussed at all in these films. In addition to creating quality music in several genres, Quincy has an unmistakable sound that permeates the music, regardless of the style. Listen to any of Quincy’s music, from “Stockholm Sweetnin’” to “It’s My Party” to the Austin Powers theme “Soul Bossa Nova” to “Back On The Block” to any of the Michael Jackson megahits, and you will hear something that identifies each one’s composer as Quincy Jones. Many composers in classical music and jazz have shared that trait—Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Ellington and Gil Evans to name a few—but how many of those eminent composers wrote in as many styles as Quincy Jones? And while there is a brief mention in In The Pocket about Quincy’s trademark sound of flute and muted trumpet, nothing more is said about his musical style. No one, myself least of all, would argue for an in-depth musical analysis in the midst of a documentary, but what is wrong with offering a few simple musical concepts that the layman can understand and would help him grasp the common bonds between a number of varied musical styles? After all, any competent musician can perform in a variety of styles; it takes a giant like Quincy Jones to make those styles his own.

AN EVENING WITH QUINCY JONES 56 minutes. With Quincy Jones, Gwen Ifill, Lesley Gore, BeBe Winans, James Ingram, Bobby McFerrin & Herbie Hancock. PBS Video EVQJ 601.

AMERICAN MASTERS: IN THE POCKET 88 minutes. With Quincy Jones, Sidney Poitier, Gerald Early, Clark Terry, Billy Taylor, David Baker, Jeri Jones, Maya Angelou, Jolie Jones, Benny Carter, Henri Salvador, Patti Bown, Clarence Avant, Sidney Lumet, Henry Mancini, Peggy Lipton, Siedah Garrett, Wyclef Jean, Toots Thielemans, Frank Sinatra, Oprah Winfrey, Melle Mel, Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, LL Cool J. PBS Video AMMS404.

BRAVO PROFILES: QUINCY JONES 45 minutes. With Quincy Jones, Sammy Nestico, Ray Charles, Stanley Crouch, Siedah Garrett, Clark Terry, Peggy Lipton, Billy Taylor, James Ingram, Greg Phillinganes, Patti Austin, Bill Watrous. Not available.

LISTEN UP: THE LIVES OF QUINCY JONES 115 minutes (plus 49 minutes supplemental material). With Quincy Jones, Siedah Garrett, Rashida Jones, Lloyd Jones, Jolie Jones, Ray Charles, Caiphus Semenya, Sarah Vaughan, Michael Jackson, Billy Eckstine, Tevin Campbell, Sunny D. Levine, Quincy D. III, Tina Jones, Jesse Jackson, Alex Haley, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Melle Mel, Sheila E., Ice-T, Flavor Flave, Big Daddy Kane, Harry Lookofsky, Frank Sinatra, James Moody, Miles Davis, Steven Spielberg, Chan Parker, Richard Brooks, James Ingram, Sidney Lumet, Oprah Winfrey, Ahmet Ertegun, El De Barge, Al B. Sure!, Herbie Hancock, Bobby Tucker, Al Jarreau, Irv Green, Clark Terry, Clarence Avant, Barbra Streisand, Bobby McFerrin, Greg Phillinganes, Benny Medina, Rod Temperton, Morris Levy, Donny McLean, Rachel Jones, Ian Prince, Kool Moe Dee, Michel Legrand, Kidada Jones, Take 6, Bruce Swedien. Warner Home Video 24325.

This blog entry posted by Thomas Cunniffe.

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Building the World's Largest Online Jazz Encyclopedia

If I thought writing a blog was demanding, little did I guess how challenging it would be to construct an encyclopedia. But as regular visitors here know, is in the process of building the world’s largest on-line encyclopedia of jazz musicians.

                          Paul Chambers by JC Jaress

Fortunately for me, most of the heavy lifting on this project is handled by a knowledgeable group of experts under the direction of Tim Wilkins. Although we have more than 1,700 entries—including many artists not covered in Wikipedia or other jazz reference works—there are still many gaps, which Tim & Co. are working to fill. By my reckoning, we have several hundred more entries that need to be added before our reference can stand up as a comprehensive biographical guide to the art form. (If you would like to contribute to the endeavor contact Tim at

The Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians was founded by Dr. Lewis Porter, who focused his efforts on currently active jazz musicians. In most instances, he contacted the musicians themselves for information—which gave his work a level of detail and accuracy that could not have been obtained any other way . In December 2007, the Encyclopedia moved to the site, and began the next phase of its development.

Our current efforts aim at expanding the scope of the work to include historical figures from the past, as well as to add entries on important active musicians who, for one reason or another, were omitted in the past. Also, we hope to take advantage of the hyperlinking capability of the web, and integrate our encyclopedia entries into the thousands of other pages of related content on our site.

From time to time, I will give an update on the project in this column. Meanwhile I am providing links below to some of the recently published additions to the work.

Sidney Bechet
by Dean Alger

Louie Bellson
by Ted Gioia

Anthony Braxton
by Stuart Broomer

Marion Brown
by Brad Farberman

Kenny Burrell
by Eric Wendell

Paul Chambers
by Eric Wendell

Johnny Coles
by Matt Leskovic

Kenny Dorham
by Matt Leskovic

Roy Eldridge
by Dave Krikorian

Stéphane Grappelli
by Eric Wendell

Milford Graves
by Brad Farberman

Wardell Gray
by Gene Seymour

Hampton Hawes
by Eric Novod

Percy Heath
by Eric Wendell

Milt Jackson
by Eric Wendell

J.J. Johnson
by David Tenenholtz

Lee Konitz
by Thierry Quénum

Dave Lambert
by Gene Seymour

Eddie Lang
by Dean Alger

Bill Laswell
by Eric Wendell

Booker Little
by Matt Leskovic

Fats Navarro
by Dave Krikorian

Jimmie Noone
by John Clark

Joe Pass
by Eric Wendell

Danilo Perez
by Jared Pauley

Oscar Pettiford
by Eric Wendell

Astor Piazzolla
by Ricardo Quiñones

George Shearing
by Eric Wendell

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

March 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Stan Sagov at Boston’s Regattabar

Roanna Forman, who covers the Boston jazz scene for, is one of the most astute critics on the scene. In recent weeks, she has reported on Jimmy Heath’s appearance at Scullers and Brad Mehldau's Harvard concert with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Now she turns her attention to a performance last week by Stan Sagov at Boston’s Regattabar. T.G.

Stan Sagov

Stan Sagov is one of those remarkable people who effectively juggle two of the most demanding pursuits in the world. A physician by day, he’s a dedicated jazz player at night. Now in his mid-sixties, Sagov has been playing since he was 16. (It all started with that R&B band…) He has considerable musicianship—the result of diligent, serious practice; study with Jaki Byard at New England Conservatory; and good absorption of the jazz idiom. He also does some nice original writing, examples of which the band played in their early set at Boston’s Regattabar on March 4.

That said, the music I heard exhibited Sagov’s major problem, one that a studio recording can adjust away but a live performance can’t. He needs to learn Rule #1 of ensemble playing—listen and complement, but don’t overplay, either by being too busy or too loud. This was the problem throughout the evening, to the detriment of every tune but the last one.

It was distracting to a fault. Conceivably, it was nerves, because the CDs have a better balance (and also a sound engineer to mix each track). Anyway, the live show really sounded as though there was a loud player on one side of the bandstand who was doing his own thing, and a well-tempered, blending band on the other. Sagov comped too hard on the opening tune “Layers of Jazz Memory,” an original funk and swing groove, stepped on reeds player Stan Strickland’s sweet, well-constructed lines in Steve Swallow’s “Falling Grace,” and made it hard for me to enjoy the tenor sax wailing on “Swamp Blues.” Even the drummer was not exempt. Bob Moses’s single solo, light and airy at the beginning, then gradually filled with increasing intricacies toward climax, got mugged at the very end. I cannot blame the sound man, Sagov just came on too strong.

Moses, a faculty member of New England Conservatory, is a key part of 20th century jazz history—he was the drummer who helped bring Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life to life, and his other credits are extensive. Moses’s playing on this set was calibrated, tune by tune to the feel of each song and the mood of the players. He kept his drums soft when warranted, to a subtle, just perceptible rhythm, but you always heard him. Or he’d bring it up as needed, then sometimes attenuate to finish on an ending, like a good driver who knows just when and how to accelerate and brake.

As a pianist, Stan Sagov can establish a good groove, and his playing was competent in the live performance, but I think he made more interesting music on his CDs. Nevertheless, he writes some fine tunes. On “South African Curry,” a “bootie scooter,” as Stan Strickland called it, Sagov got the band going with a kicky synthesizer introduction. “Miles Behind,” which shows clear affection for and influence of later Miles Davis, has a beautiful, catchy, virile head played by the horns.

Mike Peipman picked up on the Milesian influences and harmonies at times, as with the long lines he used over Sagov’s effects on the meandering drone of “Units of Length” and “Ghana.” But he was hardly a Miles Davis clone. Swinging on flugelhorn in “For All We Know,” sliding through fast runs and repeated figures on “Layers of Jazz Memory,” and tossing back quick, cupped trumpet responses to Strickland’s tenor wailing on the “Swamp Blues,” he showed a feel for many styles and was musically solid and coherent.

On reeds, Stan Strickland, a longtime figure on the Boston music and entertainment scene, did some good work, from classic blues lines on “Swamp Runs” to Coltranesque runs on “Layers of Jazz Memory.” Strickland also sings. Luckily, his intonation live was better than some of the self-indulgent improvisation on Sagov’s first CD, although he did have some lapses pitch-wise on “For All We Know.” With scat reminiscent of Betty Carter and an over-the-top meditation on nature during the blues number, he definitely kept the audience scooting their booties. Meanwhile, John Lockwood, a South African-born compatriot of Sagov’s, kept it together with his still-waters-run-deep presence and rich bass playing, one of the happy consistencies of the Boston jazz scene.

To close, Stan Strickland picked up a bass flute and led the band into “Blue in Green.” Here, the piano finally chilled, playing some good fluid right hand lines to support the trumpet. Mike Peipman made this gorgeous tune his own, taking it out haltingly, like a gasp from Miles’s spirit.

This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman

March 11, 2009 · 18 comments


Winterjazz in the Baltic Sea

No jazz critic travels more miles . . . well, kilometers in this case . . . to hear new jazz than Stuart Nicholson. He has reported on jazz happenings in this column from a dozen or so countries over the last year. Now Professor Nicholson turns his attention to Åland (what, you haven't heard of Åland?), a group of islands in the Baltic Sea, and finds. . . yes, some fascinating bands. T.G.

Åland flag

In February, the UK had the highest snowfall it has experienced in a decade or more. It all came as a bit of shock since global warming had produced a long succession of exceptionally mild winters. However, plenty of advance warning had been given, but London, one of the great capital cities of the world, ground to a standstill. Six centimetres of snow prevented six million Londoners from getting to work. There were no buses, no tube (the underground railway), no trains and countless roads were blocked (not just minor roads and streets but major arteries as well). The entire city had run out of grit—and a functioning transport system. Heathrow, the busiest airport in the world, was closed for business for a day as runways were cleared of snow. And I was about to fly out of there 48 hours later to, er, the snow and ice of Finland.

Leaving this very British farce behind and landing in Helsinki was an eye opener. Services were unbroken, roads and pavements cleared, and life was apparently going on as normal. Finland has snow, and then some, but the nation copes. So when news reports of Britain’s plight were screened on television they were greeted by gales of disbelieving laughter by the locals. And no wonder. In Finland traffic was flowing freely and the brief journey from Helsinki airport to the city center was accomplished in 20 minutes, despite a recent heavy snowfall.

In the early evening trumpeter Verneri Pohjola launched Aurora, his debut album at the Digelius Music shop situated at Helsinki’s famous Five Corners. TV cameras, lights, the press and an expectant audience were jammed into the shop. It was quite an occasion. Pohjola has come to prominence with the Ilmiliekki Quartet, one of the leading young bands on the Finnish jazz scene (fresh out of music college they appeared at Jazz at Lincoln Center as part of the Northern Lights Jazz Series in October 2006). The quartet (trumpet plus piano, bass and drums) have made two critically acclaimed albums, March of the Alpha Males (2003) and Take it With Me (2006), although Pohjola’s own album features various other combinations of instruments including strings.

At his launch he opted for a trumpet and trombone front-line plus rhythm and featured originals that spoke of folkloric influences, with a strong emphasis on elegant melodies and story-telling improvisations. His concert in miniature and simply confirmed what the locals already knew, that here was a young musician going places.

The following morning it was back to Helsinki airport to catch a flight to the island of Åland. Not many people outside of Scandinavia have heard of Åland—least of all me until recently. It’s the largest of a group of some 6,500 islands situated midway between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea. Although the majority spoken language in Åland is Swedish, it’s an autonomous, demilitarised province of Finland with its own flag, postage stamps, political parties, a government that enacts its own laws and its own civil service—this for a population of about 27,000. The Minister of Culture is Tom Eckerman, who is also Head Librarian at the impressively modernistic library in the center of the island’s capital, Mariehamn.

And if you are an Ålander, the one thing you won’t go short of is culture. The events calendar includes international Country, Rock, Poetry, Literature, Folk, Organ, Opera, Film and Jazz festivals and that’s just for starters. I was there for Mariehamn Winter Jazz, but there is also a summer jazz festival as well. And yes, a local jazz scene too.

One of Eckerman’s duties as Culture Minister is organizing the jazz festivals, and it helps he’s a true fan of the music. And if the Winterjazz program was anything to go by, he works miracles with his small budget. Because of travel costs, he can’t cast his net much further than the Scandinavian countries, but he’s a great believer in giving youth a chance. The only name in the festival line-up was the headliner, pianist Bugge Wesseltoft from Norway.

Wesseltoft burst onto the European jazz scene at the end of the 1990s with his New Conception of Jazz, subsequently forming his own record label Jazzland, but has always been a consummate solo artist. Hunched over his keyboards, samplers and grand piano like one of Ken Russell’s mad-genius composer types, he is a master of less-is-more. Inhabiting his own sound-world of loops and samples, his hauntingly profound acoustic and electric piano lines created tapestry of sound that was both artistically and emotionally beckoning. It was all craftily underlined by a visual backdrop where the intensity and complexity of the images were programmed to respond to the on-stage sounds.

One of the most popular bands on the European underground jazz circuit is currently the Swedish band Wildbirds and Peacedrums. Comprising just a vocalist and a drummer, they are playing sold out houses across northern Europe and have released two best selling albums, Heartcore and The Snake. The trio Elifantree, runners-up in the annual Young Nordic Jazz Comets competition, come from a similar musical perspective, with vocalist Anni Elif Egecioglu from Romania (but now resident in Sweden) and Tatu Rönkkö on drums, but have gone a step further by adding the Finnish saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen. The result is a broader tonal and textural palette and a greater degree of musical options—voice and sax accompaniment, sax and voice accompaniment, melody lines in unison and harmony, the give and take of a musical duet and so on. What they have done is opened up the musical space occupied by Wildbirds and Peacedrums and taken it to another level.

Displaying a musical maturity and inventiveness well beyond their years, they have developed a cohesive ensemble identity through the deft combination of powerful individual voices. Egecioglu has developed her own vocal language—part pagan blues and part spiritual scat—and Lyytinen, a very talented young saxophonist, are strong enough musicians to thrive in this minimalistic environment and have devised seemingly limitless ways of combining voice and saxophone. Together with Rönkkö, who filled the musical spaces in a way that you didn’t yearn for a chords or bass, or indeed notice their absence, they performed a set that was as visionary as it was other- worldly.

In between each performance, as the next band set-up, DJ Marrku spun an impeccable choice of music that provided a musical bridge between each act. But even this did little to subdue the vivid impression left by Elfantree. Yet local saxophonist Edward Mattsson was unperturbed. His quintet had met as students at Fridhem Music School and they knew what they were about. In the best tradition of Newton’s Second Law of Motion—every action has an equal and opposite reaction—they produced a set that was impressive by not trying to impress. The front line of Mattsson’s saxes (either tenor or soprano) and Caroline Furbacken’s voice combined in ways that were full of subtle gestures and nuance. They drew meaning and depth from melodically suave and cunningly elliptical originals but more importantly, had their own unique sound signature.

The late night jam was by Walking Quarters, a young quartet from Helsinki comprising Alex Kalland on alto, Niklas Korhonen on piano, Aki Virta on bass and Toon Verheyen on drums. When they arrived onstage expectations were for nothing more than an amiable student jam. Kalland disabused everyone of that notion immediately. You could almost hear the sound of dropping jaws as he started to play. Close your eyes and you heard a 1950s hard bop giant, open them and there was a skinny, 5 foot 3 inch ninth grader blowing into an alto. At first it did not compute. But it turns out that young Mr. Kalland has already been earmarked by the powers that be and is being fast tracked through conservatoire, even though in his native Helsinki he’s not old enough to be served in a bar (the legal age in Europe is 18). And the rest of the band didn’t let him down. Mariehamn Winter Jazz was turning out to be something of an eye opener.

As part of the festival’s community outreach program, the following afternoon saw Ålander’s Elisabeth Ekman and Kurt Lindbom and friends give an acoustic blues concert in Mariehamn’s museum. Around the corner from a collection of stuffed birds that included pigeons, assorted seabirds and three unique species of owl, they performed versions of classic blues—albeit in Swedish. But Ekman knew her history. Her voice had an authentic grain was idiomatically spot-on, twisting and bending the Swedish language to fit into the familiar cadences of the twelve bar idiom. Lindbom was a gracious host, explaining to a broad cross section of Mariehamn’s community (mothers with toddlers to pensioners plus all stops in between) the harmonies and form at work in the idiom. The audience were transfixed—quite likely there was a spike in sales of blues CDs in the local record shop as a result.

The evening concerts began with a set from the K Trio from Iceland, who were the winners of the Young Nordic Jazz Comets competition last year. When they settled down and got away the somewhat self-conscious arty stuff, Kristján Martinsson on piano was spiky yet fluent, and ably accompanied by Pétur Siggurdsson on bass and Magnús Trygvason Elias on drums. Prone to quirky, off-center exchanges they showed plenty of promise. Yet if Elifantree, the Edward Mattsson 5 and the K Trio had one thing in common it was this: all had come together either in their teens, or at music college, and it was significant that by sticking together they had all developed a strong collective voice where the star of the show was no longer the solo as a “thing in itself” but the originality of context which in turn gave meaning to their solo expression (instead of vice versa).

Bearing in mind that Åland has a population of 27,000 you might think that when a local pianist and trumpet player decided to assemble a straight-ahead quartet for a one-off concert their set might be an excuse for an extended intermission. Not a bit of it when the pianist is the ex-pat Russian, and Ålander resident, Vladimir Shafranov. Shafranov exited the USSR via Israel and ended up on the New York scene in the late 1970s where he remained for two decades performing with the likes of Sonny Stitt, Lou Donaldson, Clifford Jordan, Ron Carter, George Mraz, Al Foster and George Coleman. Shafranov can swing and knows his way around a piano keyboard.

In New York he met his future wife, a native Ålander, and when they married they settled in Åland to raise a family. He still returns to New York for occasional gigs and tours Japan, where he has made several albums. His first touch of the piano revealed a pianist with the energy, drive and experience to lift the bassist and drummer to another level. Ålander trumpeter Fredrik Erlandsson is a well rounded musician, and studied trumpet at the Stockholm conservatoire. In the presence of a master of his craft he too grew visibility in stature with each number, but the most fascinating performance of their set was a version of “Ruby, My Dear.” What began as a tribute to Monk gradually mutated into a kaleidoscope of rich keyboard harmonies where Shafranov, an accomplished classical pianist, gave us a glimpse of his romantic Russian soul.

Teemu Viinikainen was the guitarist in the Finnish group U Street All Stars, who were signed to the European arm of Blue Note records where they recorded two albums for the label. Even back then he was a very good young guitarist but has subsequently developed into a virtuoso. Pledging allegiance to Wes Montgomery—and even sporting a rare 1948 Gibson—he’s built on Montgomery’s inspiration and now probably numbers among the top twenty jazz guitarists in the world. Pity not too many people outside of Finland have heard of him.

His trio—with Timo Hirvonen on bass and Jussi Lehtonen on drums—was not simply guitar, bass and drums, but like most of the bands that appeared at Winter Jazz, had an integrated group concept. Opening with Tango—the tango is Finland’s national dance and incredibly enjoys a bigger following than in Argentina—he performed a set that while not reaching for extremes was content to explore precisely focussed moods where intensity and rapport meant even the smallest musical gesture grew and took on a life of its own. It was a perfectly judged climax to a weekend when jazz did what it was supposed to, sound surprising. And whenever this happens, wherever you are in the world, it can be a profound experience.

This blog entry posted by Stuart Nicholson.

March 10, 2009 · 4 comments


Kahil El’Zabar in DC

Michael J. West, a regular contributor to these pages, recently covered Oliver Lake and Benny Golson in this column. Now he reviews Kahil El’Zabar’s Washington D.C. show with his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. T.G.

Contradiction Dance in Takoma Park, Maryland, was once Sangha, a fair-trade store and community center that hosted dozens of avant-garde performances before closing in 2007. But Transparent Productions, a local jazz promoter, recently made a deal with Contradiction Dance to revive the performances—just in time for Kahil El’Zabar’s annual D.C. show with his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble on February 27.

Kahil El’Zabar

The Ensemble (now featuring El’Zabar on drums, kalimba, and percussion; Ernest Khabeer Dawkins on alto and tenor sax; and Corey Wilkes on trumpet and cornet) is touring their new CD, Mama’s House Live: 35th Anniversary Project, recorded live at Sangha just before its closure. The evening bore little resemblance to the disc, but it was one of the most inspiring concerts in recent memory.

El’Zabar stepped before the studio’s mirrored wall and began plucking his kalimba, which apparently sent him into a trance: He began shaking his head violently but steadily, as though mechanical. But when Dawkins’ tenor and Wikes’ trumpet entered with a slow, Afro-soul melody, he came alive again, grunting and humming; the guttural sounds built into a singsong chant that established the song’s title: “Pharoah…Sanders!” El’Zabar was in a spiritual fever; his solo was melodious but faltering, as if he were flummoxed by his own ecstasy.

“To Be Continued” found El’Zabar behind his drum kit, playing traditional swing behind little more than riffs on the horns. The simplicity didn’t last. Wilkes played with wild, growling intensity, briefly switched to cornet, and was suddenly working both horns at once. Dawkins played both his saxes, too, the two of them blasting into a short, mad duo on “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Dawkins played a muscular solo with trumpet-like bursts, followed by El’Zabar with an astonishing trap workout—heavy on the bass drum but with lightning-quick snare and cymbal flashes.

Out came a large earth drum, a freestanding hand drum which El’Zabar noted that he’d made, for “There It Is.” He also called up Terence Nicholson, a local hip-hop poet better known as Sub-Z, to join in. Sub-Z didn’t disappoint: His recitations were surreal in content and percussive in delivery, losing no momentum when El’Zabar began chanting behind him. The drummer’s solo was distinctly primal, perhaps tribal—though it sounded less sophisticated than it really was, the skin struck with one hand while the other elbow muffled the sound.

As exhilarating as the first set was, the second was actually superior. The first (unnamed) piece had a 6/8 groove and a melody reminiscent of Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” El’Zabar, again chanting, alternated the beat between small tom, snare rim, floor tom, and bass; Wilkes, playing 4/4 against him, went on a virtuosic rampage through the stylistics of Armstrong, Gillespie, and Bowie (whom 29-year-old Wilkes succeeded in the Art Ensemble of Chicago). The reprised head took a turn towards the gutbucket, with El’Zabar muttering like an ancient bluesman; it was a miniature throwback to some old southern roadhouse, yet completely contemporary.

As he strapped on his ankle bells, El’Zabar talked about his 14-year-old son Kahari. “He’s kicking my butt,” he said, recounting how Kahari had done less than stellar on a recent test. He sounded more amused than annoyed, though, and demonstrated his affection with the tune “Kahari Walk Tall,” the night’s most moving. El’Zabar played a pretty, slinky groove on the kalimba, the backbone of an elegant but tense ballad for alto sax and muted trumpet. Dawkins’ performance was the finest, starting in the alto’s lowest range but zooming up into a sweet, tender line laden with pathos. Wilkes followed with a long, circular-breathed A natural, fluctuating it by swooping his body up-and-down and side-to-side, then settled into a longing melody in sotto voce. El’Zabar’s solo equaled his bandmates for sentiment, but its tone was less polished than folksy; humming over his lithely picked kalimba, he might have been playing on a Smithsonian Folkways record.

At that point the music stopped for a moment. El’Zabar was strapping on the earth drum again, but also pontificating: It was something between a sermon and a cultural history lecture, musing about Dizzy Gillespie’s creative intellect and legacy, and describing American arts with the odd but on-the-nose phrase “miscegenation of cultures.” Then came an uproarious “Salt Peanuts.” Wilkes emitted a bop solo, spacious but crammed with ideas; Dawkins stacked up short, bluesy phrases and quoted Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning”; and El’Zabar shot forth a lung-powered scat. The end brought the evening’s only flub: El’Zabar called for a return to the horn line but Wilkes and Dawkins, lost in counterpoint, missed it.

After a short respite, El’Zabar brandished the kalimba and ankle bells once again. “We’re going to do one more, on the other side,” he said, and launched into an incantation in what sounded like Swahili. The horns—tenor and cornet—played a nostalgic, faintly dark horn melody that very much bookended the opening “Pharoah Sanders.” Mostly it consisted of the trio vamping, with Dawkins repeating the five-note phrase from Coltrane’s “Ascension” and Wilkes doing a West African shuffle.

The concert was a wild ride, veering from fervent ecstasy to deep emotion and back again. El’Zabar remains the most interesting percussionist alive, and his ability to translate a spiritual profundity into his fusion of African and American traditions is without parallel. Any performance by the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble is to be treasured.

This blog entry posted by Michael J. West

March 09, 2009 · 0 comments


Nat Hentoff on Jazz: Saving Jazz, One Musician at a Time

A few weeks back, Nat Hentoff joined on as a new contributor to, and wrote about Nesuhi Ertegun and Joel Dorn. Below Hentoff turns his attention to an organization that is working to create a safety net for members of the jazz community who need a helping hand. T.G.

Starting in 1953, when, as the New York editor of Down Beat, I had my first full-time job covering the jazz life, I quickly became aware how hard it was - and still is - for musicians to make a living in jazz. When I was a fan, digging the music, this never came to mind. But I learned that when sick, or forgotten by writers on jazz and club owners – or unknown to a new generation of listeners – most jazz makers have no medical insurance, and pensions are what old-time labor organizers used to call "pie in the sky."

Jazz Foundation of America

But about 20 years ago in New York, a group of musicians and lay people for whom jazz is an essential source of regeneration created a safety net for the working family of jazz. The Jazz Foundation of America has kept many musicians from eviction, provided food - there have been jazz greats subsisting on dog food - and medical care.

Wendy Oxenhorn has been the Foundation's ceaselessly and fiercely resourceful executive director for the past nine years. Full disclosure: I'm on the Foundation's Board of Directors, but never have time to go to meetings. I just write about the Foundation to begin to pay back to these players for how vitally they have kept me going for more than 70 years now.

As Wendy recently wrote to donors, the Foundation has not only saved musicians in and around New York, but "since Katrina, has housed and employed over 1,000 New Orleans musicians, and through a partnership with Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in New Jersey, has made free care and operations possible to over 1,000 musicians - 5 million dollars of medical care for free."

Dizzy Gillespie is responsible for this arrangement, which has literally been saving jazz, one musician at a time. When he was dying of pancreatic cancer at Englewood Hospital, Dizzy said to his oncologist, Dr. Frank Forte (who gigs as a jazz guitarist), "I can't give you any money, but I can let you use my name. Promise you'll help musicians less fortunate than I am."

Recently, Douglas Duchak, the president and CEO of the hospital and its medical center, told me: "In death, Dizzy's legacy has touched – and sometimes saved the lives – of jazz musicians around the world."

Wendy Oxenhorn

And Wendy also cites how the Jazz Foundation "creates employment with dignity for those who have no real way to earn their living on the road anymore, through the Agnes Varis (a major donor) Jazz and Blues in the Schools Program. It brings performances and teaching to schools with no music programs, nursing homes and hospitals throughout the country."

But the collapsing economy has not spared the Jazz Foundation. "Donations," Wendy reports, "are down by half, and yet we have twice the number of musicians coming for help. These are known musicians, who played with legends, and used to have gigs almost every night. They now tell me they're lucky if they get one gig a week!"

One of many current stories I hear from Wendy: "A great musician took a job driving for FedEx, because these days, it's almost impossible to support a wife and three kids with the music alone. Someone caused an accident on the highway, and he was in a coma for three weeks. Had we not paid the rent, his kids would have been evicted while their father was in the hospital.

"Coming out of his coma, he's now able to eat puréed food and is conscious enough to lean over for the first time and kiss one of the children's heads."

There's also, Wendy adds, another new member of the Jazz Foundation Family, "a 91-year-old blues queen from Detroit. She now has her electricity bill paid and has heat in her home. We've also fixed her broken windows so that her heating bill won't be so high. And she now has money for groceries."

Until the last few months, the Jazz Froundation used to say proudly that "we have never lost anyone to homelessness if we found out about it before they were evicted. But in these strange times, that may change. All of us who care about these musicians are needed to keep the music alive."

On May 14, the Jazz Foundation's annual "A Great Night in Harlem" concert will be, appropriately, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where many jazz careers, such as Ella Fitzgerald's, were born. The title of this year's concert, Wendy notes, is "Everything's Gonna Be All Right." That, she adds, is what Little Walter used to sing. At a previous Great Night concert, as I sat in the audience next to Quincy Jones, I read in the program his message to all of us:

"I cannot imagine turning our backs on the very people who gave their lives, their life experiences and the music to us all these years, especially now when they need us most."

This year, more are in need and the need is deeper. Wendy asked me to include in this column:

"The greatest thing anyone can do for these great elder giants who made way for all of today's music, who wrote the hits and never got paid properly – and now face eviction and homelessness and even hunger – is to donate $10 or $20 to the Jazz Foundation of America at 322 West 48th Street, New York City, NY 10036 – or donate online at

"If everyone who cares about this music did that," she continued, "we'd be able to prevent homelessness and even help employ all these great elder musicians."

Actually, at times when the music moves you, this needn't be a one-time donation. Consider it a sustaining way of saying thanks.

This blog entry posted by Nat Hentoff

March 07, 2009 · 2 comments


The Jazz Photography of Richard Laird

I have long been familiar with bassist Rick Laird’s musical career, but his jazz photography has been a new revelation. is delighted to launch a gallery of his striking jazz photographs today (which you can find here). Walter Kolosky, a frequent contributor to, fills you in the on the details of Laird’s dual careers below. T.G.

A while back I received an email from Pat Metheny. He was working on the liner notes for the Jazz Icons DVD Series, Wes Montgomery Live In ’65. Pat wanted to get in touch with Rick Laird, the original bassist for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It turns out that a young Rick Laird appeared in some great television footage playing with Wes in the forthcoming DVD release. Pat wanted to ask Rick some questions for his commentary.

                        Art Blakey, by Richard Laird

I was fully aware of Rick Laird’s fascinating jazz career because I wrote a book about the Mahavishnu Orchestra and I came to know Rick as a friend. He talked about playing with Wes, Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins and many more greats. But it wasn’t until Pat, another jazz great, mentioned in one sentence that Laird had played with both Wes Montgomery and John McLaughlin that I truly, truly realized what a transitional jazz figure Rick actually was!

In the book I traced Rick Laird’s music career until 1983. That is the year he decided to become a professional photographer. It’s funny how life works. Rick told me how his photographic career really came about because of Mahavishnu Orchestra bandmate drummer Billy Cobham.

                        Keith Jarrett, by Richard Laird

Rick Laird: I was in Tokyo on the last tour. Cobham was a maniac with cameras. I think he had everything. Nikon, Hasselblads, Leicas—everything. I picked up a camera and some lenses in Tokyo. I thought this would be fun to do. After the tour, I set up a little darkroom in my apartment in New York and learned how to develop black and white. I absolutely loved it. I had no plans to be a professional. It just happened.

I spoke to Rick further about his second career and learned that he had become successful supplying stock photos and taking corporate and private photography gigs. He even sent me a wonderful picture he had taken of Dizzy Gillespie. I learned too that he was a high caliber artist. I am now the proud owner of several digital Richard Laird prints of idyllic landscapes, nature and cottage scenes.

Occasionally Rick and I talk about some of his musical experiences and his photography. He mentioned to me that he had taken quite a few jazz shots. But, he really didn’t really know where they were these days.

Several weeks ago Richard Laird—he uses Richard for all of his visual arts work – emailed me some images. I have a photographic background myself. Richard’s images stunned me. Technically, they were brilliant. But more than that, they were of a historic nature. These were unseen images of some of the greatest jazz artists that ever lived. But the element that struck me the most about the portraits was that Richard Laird had captured these legends in an exact moment of creation, introspection or joy. The true personality of the artist was revealed in a way rarely seen.

One conversation lead to another, and now Richard Laird will be making these never before seen jazz images available solely through (You can find the gallery here.) Serious jazz fans and collectors of fine art should take note. Recently Richard and I spoke about it all.

As a child you developed an interest in all of the arts. You even dabbled a bit in amateur photography.

Yes, my Mother gave me a Brownie (a camera) when I was about 12. I loved it. I had the photos developed at the local chemist. I did shots of race cars and motorbikes.

As house bassist at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London you played with many of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived. You were also in Buddy Rich’s band and, of course, you were part of the most famous fusion band that ever was, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Do you appreciate the jazz history you were part of?

Yes, of course. It was a privilege to perform with all those great musicians. I was 23 at the time and played at Ronnie Scott’s 6 nights a week. It was like going to school every night. And of course being the bassist in the Mahavishnu Orchestra was a truly unique experience. It was a bit like stepping off a cliff!

I know you never left music behind. But you left the music business behind because of the grind of being a bassist for hire.

       Billy Cobham & John McLaughlin, by Richard Laird

When I stopped playing in 1983, I had been doing it for 24 years. The music scene had changed and I had changed too. Photography had become a passion and I also loved the autonomy of having my own business.

How did your experience as a musician affect the way you approached shooting pictures of other artists?

Well the process of photographing live situations such as jazz clubs or record dates is very much like improvising jazz. It’s always in the NOW. And yes, I tried to capture the spirit of these artists, many of whom were my heroes.

You have mentioned to me that taking a successful picture is more than just having a photographic eye. What other elements were necessary for you to take these historic shots?

First, in almost all cases, I had contacted the musicians and asked their permission to photograph them. For example: My number one bass hero, Ray Brown, was playing at the Blue Note in NYC. He was such a gentleman and said it was fine. The other element was technical preparation. Shooting in jazz clubs and concerts is very difficult. Lighting conditions, crowds, nasty club owners and concert promoters can be a challenge. I worked very hard for many years to develop and hone the skills needed to do this work. There was nothing lucky about these shots. They are the result of years of hard work and dedication.

After all of these years you have finally decided to market these fine art prints of these truly remarkable moments in jazz history. Why now?

Why not? I had not looked at these images for a long time. Recently, while going through some files, I saw them and realized they were truly historical. Most of these great artists are gone as are many of the photographs of them. It is my hope that jazz fans and art collectors will have an interest. I also hope that everyone – including young people who are discovering jazz – will realize that these artists are the Bachs and Mozarts of jazz; the original creators. These pictures were taken because I loved doing them. I hope all these years later they can give some joy to others.

Inquiries about purchasing, commissioning or licensing Richard Laird’s artwork can be sent to

This blog entry posted by Walter Kolosky

March 05, 2009 · 4 comments


Not-So-Modest Mussorgsky in Moscow tries to cover the whole world of jazz, and not just the famous players at the name clubs. This is more than a quest for brotherhood and goodwill, but also driven by a realization that some of today’s most exciting developments are happening outside the US, especially when talented artists mix the jazz sensibility with the best of their local or regional musical culture.

Frederick Bernas, who covers the Moscow jazz scene for us, finds just this in a performance by Alex Rostotsky at the V & J Club in central Moscow. Here Rostovsky, a hot electric bassist in a Jaco mold, takes on the music of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). Rostotsky's new CD is still a rare item in the West, but you are encouraged to check out the video here, even if your Russian is rusty. T.G.

Alex Rostotsky

Jazz and classical music enjoy an unpredictably tempestuous relationship: polar opposites in one sense, yet drawing ever closer in another. The very act of improvisation is alien to many classical players, but jazz musicians often receive a dual upbringing. Contemporary jazz in particular has seen frequent blurring of genre boundaries between the two, with people including Wayne Shorter, Chris Potter, Jacques Loussier and Uri Caine experimentally combining elements of both and compositional techniques growing ever more sophisticated.

Russia is no exception to this rising trend. With its magnificent classical history and fertile developing jazz scene, perhaps that’s no surprise—but it is nevertheless slightly unusual that one of the leading advocates is Alex Rostotsky, an electric bassist who favours a distinctly Jaco-esque fretless fusion sound.

On February 28, Rostotsky presented his new album Pictures at an Exhibition or Promenade with Mussorgsky at the recently opened V & J Club in central Moscow. As the title would suggest, it features jazz interpretations of some of the great Russian composer’s most famous works; Rostotsky is aided by pianist Yakov Okun and Alexander Mashin on drums, with a grand finale featuring the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and original music by Alexander Rosenblatt. An optional DVD to accompany the CD gives a fascinating insight into the making of the final track, a 16-minute sweeping epic that ebbs and flows through the full emotional continuum.

Alex Rostotsky

“The music of Mussorgsky is so strong that it invites interpretations and assimilations in other genres,” said Rostotsky in an interview with, Russia’s leading jazz magazine. “Maybe this was the first composition in Russian musical history for jazz trio and symphony orchestra. I dreamt for many years about such an idea. I heard a few seconds of Rosenblatt’s demo recording and immediately understood we had to make the project together.”

The live experience, although lacking an orchestra, nevertheless nearly matched the viscous intensity catalysed by Rosenblatt, Rostotsky and conductor Sergey Skripka in Rosenblatt’s “Concert Fantasia.” The trio’s deft interactions were augmented by Spanish artist Fernando Jimeno Perez, who produced spontaneous sketches to accompany the playing, every stroke projected onto a screen beside the stage. During a couple of quieter moments, the gristly brush of the charcoal even became a musical voice in itself.

Pictures at an Exhibition or Promenade with Mussorgsky

“Rich Jew, Poor Jew” sees a klezmer-oriented bass drone slowly build up after Rostotsky’s introduction, before a brief piano interlude and the return of the ostinato and Okun’s harmonically dexterous overlaid solo. He has inherited something of the mathematical, scientific approach from his father Mikhail, a venerable elder statesman of Russian jazz who performed at the V & J on February 26. Mashin cuts loose for a few rounds between crashing dissonant chords, before settling back down to burn menacingly, eerily scraping his cymbals as the track draws to a close.

Rostotsky’s sustained, humming presence is a feature of the record, like an electric current running through the music as he channels the energy of his counterparts. It adds welcome variety to the standard trio palette—his occasional devious intrusions are worth listening out for beneath Mashin’s busy beats and scampering ideas. A fine example is “The Old Castle,” a 10-minute offering where the rhythm section works together to subtly up the ante for Okun’s ponderous, musing solo that understatedly takes its time to say what he wants to say.

The words ‘Mussorgsky’ and ‘post-bop’ in the same sentence may seem an unlikely marriage of conflicting interests. Some conservatives would splutter at the very thought of such a union. However, there is one essential aspect of human nature which must not be forgotten: opposites attract.

This blog entry posted by Frederick Bernas

March 04, 2009 · 0 comments


The King of Western Swing (Part 3)

Below is the third and final installment of my three-part article on Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, a pioneering ensemble in combining jazz and country music styles. The occasion for this essay is the recent release of The Tiffany Transcriptions, which captures some of the band's finest work from the post-WWII era. Click here for parts one and two of this article. T.G.

Everything was golden for Bob Wills in the early 1940s. He signed an eight-picture movie contract. He was advertised as the "Best Selling Columbia Radio Band." His biggest hit "New San Antonio Rose" was widely imitated (Bing Crosby's cover version was an even bigger hit than Wills' version), and during this period, Wills recorded many of his most popular songs, including "Time Changes Everything," "Cherokee Maiden," "Maiden's Prayer," and "Take Me Back to Tulsa"—which he performed in the 1940 movie Take Me Back to Oklahoma.

 Bob Wills

And "Western Swing" was an exciting new style with a growing fan base. This mixture of country music and swing jazz was one of the first crossover styles in modern American music, and it found a receptive audience that reached outside the typical demographics for the hot bands of the day. Except in Hollywood, that is . . . where the movie industry execs wanted Wills to drop the jazz elements of his music (so he could fit more naturally into cowboy films).

How did Wills describe his role in this innovation. He was characteristically low-key in his explanation: "It was nobody intended to start anything in the world. We was just tryin' to find enough tunes to keep 'em dancin' to not have to repeat so much."

In the postwar years, Wills still was a big draw and a popular recording artist. And his music continued to evolve. In 1949, he took "Ida Red," an old fiddle tune that had been a hit for him in 1938, and rerecorded it with a boogie woogie beat as "Ida Red Likes the Boogie." This record spent 22 weeks on the charts, and peaked at number ten. When Chuck Berry recorded "Maybellene" in 1955, fans could hear its derivation from Wills' original "Ida Red." The man who had bridged jazz, blues and country showed that he could even get the attention of rockers.

Yet Wills remained the only constant among the Texas Playboys. By this time, none of the original members of the band remained except the leader. Singer Tommy Duncan's departure was an especially big blow. Wills had auditioned 67 singers before hiring Duncan back in 1932. Duncan was singing for tips in front of a root beer stand in Fort Worth, and Wills listened to him late into the night before making a decision—he finally asked Duncan to sing "I Ain't Got Nobody," a tune Wills had enjoyed hearing Bessie Smith sing, and Duncan's performance earned him a job. This choice was a key factor in the band's success. Duncan's personable, resonant voice grounded this sometimes frenetic ensemble, and it was hard for fans to hear Wills' music with anyone else singing lead vocals. Fans were rewarded with occasional reunions, and as late as 1960 Wills and Duncan collaborated on "Heart to Heart Talk" which would reach number 5 on the country charts. This would be Wills' last hit single.

Again and again on The Tiffany Transcriptions, which capture Wills' syndicated radio broadcasts during the postwar years, Duncan stands out, handing a wide range of material. He refuses to adapt his sound when he is moving into jazz or blues territory, and this assured sense of his own personal take on the proceedings is one of the most endearing qualities of this vocalist, whose work is too seldom remembered these days.

But even under the best of circumstances, Wills glory days were bound to past. Anyone who thought that the future of American popular music would come about through a marriage of jazz and country was sadly mistaken. Jazz itself was in decline, and at the close of the 1940s big bands were an endangered species. The public's musical tastes are fickle, and the Western Swing sound that had once been fresh and provocative, was soon cast aside by fans in search of the next new thing.

Wills himself ran into financial problems in the early 1950s, the result of double dealings by his lawyers and accountants. He would eventually regroup and his career would continue for another two decades. Wills died from pneumonia at age 70 on May 13, 1975 in Fort Worth but (true to the word of one of his biggest hit songs) he requested that his body be "taken back to Tulsa" for burial. But his legacy lives on, centered mostly on his remarkable work in the 1940s, when the stars were in alignment for this seminal figure in American music. The recent reissue of The Tiffany Transcriptions gives us a good reason to celebrate Bob Wills and hear him at the peak of his career.

This is the third and final installment of Ted Gioia's article on Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

March 03, 2009 · 3 comments


Mingus Summit and Competition at MSM

The jazz economy is hurting, and hardly a day goes by without news of some festival or radio station or record label retrenching. So we need a dose of good news, and regular contributor arnold jay smith provides it below. Smith normally covers the OctoJAZZarian beat at, but now he is on a youth kick. Here he reports on the Mingus Summit at the Manhattan School of Music and the spirited competition it hosted to showcase some enthusiastic next generation players. T.G.

Take heart jazz lovers; jazz will be saved! That is if Manhattan School of Music’s Mingus Summit has anything to say about it. The 3-day event, Feb. 20-22, included a panel with keynoter—and future OctoJAZZarian (he’s 83)—Gunther Schuller, plus three Mingus musicians and Sue Mingus, his widow. Sue has become an industry unto herself what with being the prime mover of the Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Big band and Mingus Orchestra.

           Charles Mingus
     (Photo by Herb Snitzer)

The cavalcade of youth which was on display during the weekend was nothing short of heartening in their technical prowess as well as their knowledge and feeling of and for the music. It was a competition for small groups as well as big bands, and that is unfortunate as in these events there are really no losers. (Click here for a complete list of the winners.)

The Summit was conceived and organized by MSM’s Jazz Director–doesn’t that have a nice ring to it, “Jazz Director” of a college?—Justin DiCioccio and Ms. Mingus’s foundation “Let My Children Hear Music.” Sue Mingus called DiCioccio with the idea. “I suggested that we start small, tri-state perhaps,” DiCioccio said. “Then we decided we’d include the entire Northeast.”

The ideas kept coming and it was expanded. “As this was our first year why not a Mingus Summit with a panel and Mingus groups and band concerts added?” he asked. It morphed into the 3-day bash culminating with the competition on a blustery Sunday which didn’t develop into the wintry mix as predicted.

The opening keynote speaker, Schuller, was DiCioccio’s first choice. He came down from Boston Friday, returned to premiere a new piece with the Boston Symphony on Saturday—which, by the way, was favorably reviewed—then Acela-ed back to New York as a judge on Sunday. “It was Sue’s idea to have current band members participate in the panel discussions,” DiCioccio explained. Vincent Herring, Conrad Herwig and Andy McKee were asked. Herwig and Herring later doubled and tripled as judges and players.

“We decided that for the middle day we’d spotlight some of MSM’s young players in a Mingus small group setting with Steve Slagle conducting,” DiCioccio said.

The keynote speech as delivered by Schuller was an appraisal of his long-time friend’s music and life touching on the specifics of Mingus’s conception and delivery including the magnum opus Epitaph, which Schuller conducted in its premiere. Schuller also conducted Revelation at Mingus’s last public appearance at New York’s Cooper Union. A photo commemorating that event proudly adorns a wall in my home. The panel’s comments on working with the Maestro’s music ranged from joy and humor, to his roots in the sanctified church, to fear and trepidation of his reputation. Mingus could and did get violent on occasion, once famously knocking out Jimmy Knepper’s teeth, on stage. Happy ending: They later regained their friendship.

An event such as this needs seed money, more now than ever. “Basically, MSM supplied the upfront money for the event,” DiCioccio said. “In an agreement, Hal Leonard Publishing, which publishes all Mingus material, supplied the band and group parts.”

On that score (ouch), the participants chose from a basket of ten tunes, familiar and not so, to perform. So we got four versions of “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”; three versions of “Fables of Faubus,” “Sue’s Changes,” “Moanin’” and “Nostalgia in Times Square”; two interpretations of “Reincarnation of a Lovebird,” “O.P.,” “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and “Better Get Hit In Your Soul”; plus a plethora of one-time performances. There was enough Mingus to go around, twice. And let me tell ya, the music is not easily read or played. These youngsters were well-rehearsed. There were five finalists each in the small groups and big band categories plus the concert ensembles so the audience got something different each time.

Mingus Dynasty closed the concert with sparkling performances especially by pianist Helen Sung and tenor saxist Donny McCaslin, whose wife was expecting their first as he played. “The idea that Mingus’s music covers so many cultural aspects such as the church, the blues, happiness, style, concert music are reasons for my personal interest and lends itself to events such as these,” DiCioccio concluded. “It’s collage music; you can move it around. There’s freedom within the orchestrated parts as well as the improvised parts. You can juxtapose the two: improvise around the orchestrated parts, orchestrate the improvisations. And do not underestimate his beautiful melodies.” We both noted that there is so much more Mingus available that they are already planning for next year to include workshops master classes and jam sessions.

This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith

March 02, 2009 · 2 comments


Oliver Lake at Twins

Michael J. West, a regular contributor to these pages, recently shared his thoughts on Benny Golson’s star-studded birthday concert at the Kennedy Center. Below he turns his attention to Oliver Lake’s performance in D.C. at the more intimate Twins Jazz club. T.G.

Saxophone great Oliver Lake has been a frequent presence in the D.C. area of late, his various ensembles making appearances at the Kennedy Center and Twins Jazz. Indeed, the latter club, in the heart of the city’s jazz-soaked U Street, has hosted Lake twice within a month; he headlined its Inaugural Jazz Series on the night in question, and headlined again last weekend, February 20-21, with his Organ Trio.

Oliver Lake

Twins is a small setting, which would have given poetic weight to Lake’s small band (Jared Gold on organ, Aaron Walker on drums) had it not been packed. The table next to the stage was the last available, with a great view of Gold’s Hammond XK3 electric organ and Walker’s customized drum kit: no front head on the bass (revealing the blanket inside), no bottom head on the snare, and a wider-than-usual array of cymbals: barely open hi-hat, splash, two overlapping rides, and a upside-down-mounted crash. Unconventional instrumentation—even including Lake’s alto sax—but one that soon brought forth a stunning, exploratory, and deceptively disciplined set of music.

Lake, dressed elegantly if singularly in a purple shirt and black vest, and the trio began almost on schedule (a rarity at Twins) with Eric Dolphy’s wonderfully angular “Gazzelloni.” Lake and Gold were in playful, almost sloppy communion on the tune, Lake letting loose with fiery melody and Jared Gold doing a weird twist on the Hammond’s churchy soul sound. Gold’s unique blend of sanctified riffs and atonal flights of fancy echoed of free jazz, generally and specifically: his phrases resembled the written bridge in Ornette Coleman’s titular 1960 album. As for Walker, he might have been the most experimental player, intent on exploring the range of colors in his kit (particularly the hi-hat and cymbals); he was also the loudest, but without overwhelming Lake and Gold.

The explorations took a stranger turn on Curtis Clark’s “Amreen.” Gold played a psychedelic intro; Lake entered with a dark rendition of the head that faded back to Gold’s warped organ, which gleefully exploited the Leslie speaker’s fluctuating volume. Both musicians took extended solos, but it was the saxophonist’s that stood out: as dark as the head, it also had a fluttery lyricism (like a human voice on caffeine) interspersed with high-pitched squeals. His style showed a certain hesitancy—not just for space, though Lake used plenty of it, but for careful deliberation of each phrase he played.

That vocal quality progressed into Lake’s McLean-ish composition “After Touch,” but also gained a rhythmic dimension. Indeed, the word “funky” is appropriate, with his spaces here placed for accents’ sake. This time, Walker was the star. His dynamic solo shifted easily between thumping bass, subtle Latin rhythms, and free playing colored by hand-played snare and splash cymbal that Walker would strike, then deaden by clamping his fingers on it. Gold’s solo picked up on Walker’s Latin breaks in a neat synergy that then transferred to Lake’s syncopated reprise of the head.

Walker’s brushes signified a ballad, a thoughtful Lake original entitled “In This.” Lake played the solo in his axe’s low range, making the alto sound like a tenor. Gold then settled in for a long and deeply intriguing solo in a modal vein; his textures, though, were less Larry Young than Richard Wright in early Pink Floyd, with bleeps and bloops and raga drones. Behind him (and Lake, who returned for another low-pitch solo), Walker turned the brushes around for a heavy-handed but contagious groove on the snare and floor tom.

To close the 75-minute set, Lake called for two compositions by the late, underappreciated Chicago trumpeter, Malachi Thompson. “Spirit of Man” featured the most hard ‘n’ heavy fusion arrangement of the set, with Walker at his loudest and Gold at his trippiest and Zawinul-esque. Lake was simply at his most intoxicating, laying out a kicky stoned-soul groove with his improv flowing organically from Thompson’s written melody until distinguishing one from the other was impossible. The three ultimately merged in a tight Sly Stone groove to close—but moved directly into the other Thompson piece, “In Walked John.” The head took off on a rhythm from ‘60s southern soul that crashed into a strident, irresistible swing.

If “Spirit of Man” was the set’s fusion core, “In Walked John” was its straightest piece. Walker did a 4/4 on the ride, with Gold covering the bass and chords together; Lake, however, was on a tear. Here he went wild, there onto a spiritualist plain, there again into bebop devices. Then came a drum breakdown, with Walker trading phrases with Lake and Gold together—then dropping away to let Lake and Gold go into call-and-response before taking them back into swing to end both tune and set.

Among his early and mid-1970s contemporaries, Lake has uniquely retained the generation’s “try anything” spirit, which can tend toward indulgence; in his case, it’s done the opposite, instilling a rigorous discipline that both keeps him from pushing his luck and gives his bandmates nearly equal eminence in the ensemble. It’s a rare trait that makes any Oliver Lake performance, now matter how regular, a worthy venture.

This blog entry posted by Michael J. West

March 01, 2009 · 0 comments