The Best Jazz Tracks of the Month

As regular visitors know, we feature an outstanding recent track on the site five days per week, as part of our Song of the Day feature. Today we look back at the recordings highlighted during the last month.


You will note the famous names on the list below . . . Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea, Diana Krall, John McLaughlin. But it is worth your time to explore some of the lesser known artists whose work you might otherwise miss. Although Krall’s CD is getting most of the press, two other vocal albums came out recently (by Tierney Sutton and Claudia Acuña) that are worthy of a place in your virtual shopping basket. You probably won’t hear the self-produced CD by pianist Kait Dunton unless you seek it out, but it is also an outstanding release. Bill Barnes, our resident expert on Gypsy jazz, sings the praises of the indie release by keyboardist Jermaine Landsberger, and gives the track "Babik" a 99 score on our scale of 100. He describes it as "Joey DeFrancesco on steroids."

Five Peace Band

Along the way, we also highlighted a cover version of “I'm Popeye the Sailor Man” by Gene Perla, with Elvin Jones on drums—yes, you can bet everyone in the band ate their spinach. Speaking of striking cover versions, check out Gaucho's updating of "Darktown Strutter's Ball" and Shemekia Copleand’s very bluesy take on Joni Mitchell. I also call attention to an intriguing release by guitarist Mikkel Ploug that Mark Saleski calls his “favorite record of the year so far.”

To read about these (and other) featured tracks, click on the links below. As always,’s reviews come with full recording info, a ranking from 0 to 100—with no payola taken or asked for—and a pithy appraisal by a resident critic. You will also find a link for fast (and legal) downloading.

Happy listening!

Featured Songs: April 2009

Wynton Marsalis: The Sun and the Moon
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Jermaine Landsberger: Babik
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Gaucho: Darktown Strutter's Ball
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Gene Perla: I'm Popeye the Sailor Man
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Five Peace Band: In a Silent Way / It's About That Time
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Mikkel Ploug: Cathedral
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Claudia Acuña: El Cigarrito
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Justin Vasquez: Triptych
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Rudder: Jackass Surcharge
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Kait Dunton: Phase/Faze
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Mel Martin: Rhythm Man (Do Not Disturb)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Corey Wilkes: Rain
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Dan Adler: All Things Familiar
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Julian Lage: Familiar Posture
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Avery Sharpe: Boston Baked Beans
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

Tiptons Sax Quartet: The Shop of Wild Dreams
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Tierney Sutton: Cry Me a River
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Daniel Sadownick: Softly as in a Morning Sunrise
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Shemekia Copeland: Black Crow
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Frank Wess: Lush Life
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Linda Presgrave: Evening in Concert
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Diana Krall: Too Marvelous for Words
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

April 30, 2009 · 0 comments


Crawfish Etouffee, Jazz & Other Assorted New Orleans Pleasures

Twelve months ago, Zoie Clift covered the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for Who can blame her for deciding to go back again for the 2009 edition? She reports below on the first day of her immersion in jazz, zydeco, blues, and the attendant culinary delights that make the music sound so much tastier. Check back soon for her next report from the field of duty. The festival continues through May 3. T.G.

                  Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. (photo by Zoie Clift)

This year marks a special anniversary for The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the 10-day musical feast that is eagerly anticipated annually by music aficionados around the world.

For 40 years, Jazz Fest (as it’s affectionately known) has been a staple of the city and a way to experience a taste of both Louisiana culture and music. The event, which began in Congo Square, is held at a racing track in Gentilly and has become the biggest event for the city. Yep, even bigger than Mardi Gras.

Though the event can boast four decades of history, and with it many changes in New Orleans and the music world, the core of the festival is mostly unchanged. "The blood and guts, the skeleton, the heart and soul, the vision and artistic palette are exactly the same," said festival director Quint Davis, who has served as director for all 40 years.

What began as a small gathering (the first festival drew around 350 people) of local musicians has grown into one of the nation's largest celebration of music, showcasing jazz, zydeco, blues, gospel, funk, country, rock, etc. The festival has stayed true to its grassroots tradition, though, as around 80 percent of the musicians featured are still local. According to Davis, around 5,000 musicians will play on the 12 stages (this marks the first time all the stages have been used since post Katrina-last year 9 were used) over the course of the event, which takes place at the Fair Grounds Race Course over two weekends: April 24-26 and April 30-May 3.

The event has been a boom for the city's recovery since Katrina and continues to survive and thrive even in the midst of the current recession. Due to the recent economic downturn, the festival lost three sponsors, but Shell Oil, the biggest supporter, is still on, allowing the music and festival to continue on for hopefully many more anniversaries to come.

This year’s line up was overflowing with options to suit the palette: From Neil Young to Kermit Ruffins, from Etta James to Wynton Marsalis from Joe Cocker to Dr. John. And the list goes on. And on…

                  Marlon Jordan (photo by Zoie Clift)

I started off the first day (April 24) at the WWOZ Jazz Tent where the Marlon Jordan Quartet was just beginning their hour- long set. The tent filled with the notes of Jordan's energized take on the classic Miles Davis Quintet. Jordan, a New Orleans native and the youngest of seven children, was a force on the trumpet and I quickly understood why Columbia Records scooped him up and signed him when he was only 17. He played songs from his new release 3 Faces of Marlon Jordan, which fused the genres of classical, jazz, and hip hop.

I decided to stay put at the WWOZ tent to check out Sophisticated Ladies of Jazz. The program showcased the talents of four women from diverse backgrounds—jazz songwriter Leslie Smith, jazz singer Cindy Scott and gospel singers Barbara Shorts and Judy Spellman who all joined voices and took turns singing vintage jazz takes. The ladies were backed by Larry Sieberth on piano, Brian Seeger on guitar, Mark Brooks on bass and Shannon Powell on drums. Leslie Smith sang an emotional tribute (Billy Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” ) in honor of her late father Michael Smith, a respected local documentary photographer who had covered every Jazz Fest up to that point. All four ladies closed out the set with “Hey, Hey, the Blues Is Alright.”

After the set, I stepped out to wander the grounds and get quick fix of Crawfish Etouffee and art. The sun was out in full force and I found myself camping out in the misting tent for a quick recharge before heading to the Blues Tent where Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters were playing. Dopsie, who is known as the ‘Mick Jagger of the Marsh’, was wearing his signature sunglasses and cowboy hat and unleashed hip-shaking acrobatic-fused dance moves throughout the set. No other zydeco band had ever been fronted by a washboard player before this group came along, and hopefully he has started a trend because the moment he took the stage he rocked the tent in true Jagger fashion. Other musicians featured included David Rubin on vocals, Alton Rubin, Jr. on drums, and Anthony Dopsie on accordion. With songs with titles like “Funky Butt” and “Boogie Woogie Zydeco Man” how can you go wrong? Dopsie had the crowd spilling outside the tent before he even set foot on stage. He ended the set by jumping on top of the speakers and having the crowd sing him “Happy Birthday.”

I didn’t have many concrete plans at the start of the day (my favorite strategy is to wander the grounds and see where the day takes me) but from the beginning I knew where I would be for the last set: at the Congo Square “My Louisiana” Stage. This year marked the return of New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis, who has been a sporadic presence at the event in year’s past.

           Wynton Marsalis in New Orleans (photo by Zoie Clift)

His Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra joined with the Ghanaian bandleader Yacub Addy and his band Odadaa! (which combines West African polyrhythmic percussion, flutes, guitar, bass, balaphon, and vocals) to perform the trumpeter’s Congo Square . The set showcased switch-offs between African drumming and Western jazz and when the two intertwined the mix provided an intoxicating sound that drifted over the crowd.

The Marsalis composition was a tribute to the mixing of sounds and cultures that gave birth to jazz a century ago and was a solid way to end a first day. As the sun set on the first day of Jazz Fest, the marathon of music continued as musicians and festival goers left the grounds to head to clubs and venues around the city to keep the music going until the next day.

This blog entry posted by Zoie Clift. Check back soon for her report on day two of the festival.

April 29, 2009 · 1 comment


Cyrus Chestnut in Boston

Roanna Forman serves as's "ears on the ground" in Boston. She recently reported in this column on performances by Jerry Bergonzi, Stan Sagov, Jimmy Heath and Brad Mehldau. Now she reviews Cyrus Chestnut’s recent appearance at Sculler’s. T.G.

Cyrus Chestnut is a pianist who holds the history of his instrument in his hands, with a command of jazz and classical idioms that comes from decades of playing (and this in a man under 50), and a genuine love and respect for that history. He projects the sense that jazz, like a tree, will only sustain its growth by keeping its roots fully nourished—unlike certain “jazz icons among us,” who, as Ben Ratcliff of The New York Times recently noted in his article on the documentary series by that name, advocate starting jazz study with the last 15 years. From there, they say, backtrack, not putting too much emphasis on the “old masters”—so as not to lose one’s own identity.

Cyrus Chestnut

Cyrus Chestnut, who seems to have embraced everything from Bach to Bill Evans to Elvis, has definitely maintained his identity. With a set of almost all original compositions, Chestnut’s solidly burnished pianistic talent was a delight to hear on April 25 at Sculler’s Jazz Club in Boston. He opened showcasing his great technique on the bouncy uptempo straight-ahead “Slick Steps,” rolling arpeggios to the top register, harmonizing meandering phrases around the keyboard, inserting polyrhythms, and popping left hand accents over fluid lines. When a tune called for it, he would switch from clean technique to the slurpiest groove, with tremolos or an ostinato over a voice-led left-hand solo. You had to see how long that right-hand figure was repeated to appreciate the accomplishment; it’s kind of like an Olympic swimmer making it to the end of the pool underwater in one breath.

On “Twelve Bar Ballad” he alternated a liquid legato with a crisp staccato, demonstrating years of classical training that other pianists, from Oscar Peterson to Herbie Hancock, have also based their jazz platforms on. There was no modal work to speak of, and not a lot of dissonance. Generally, Chestnut is not dissonant or strongly percussive. He is unabashedly pretty when it suits him, as in the melancholy “Charade” or “Love Me Tender,” a rendition that took the Elvis tune to another level.

Besides the ballads, a fast-paced “Blue Bossa,” and a light, sexy closing number, the tunes drew on funk, gospel and Latin influences. The beat was sometimes heavily syncopated, then moved into a straight-ahead feel for the solos. In the bluesy funk piece “The Brown Soldier,” Cyrus’s fast, repeated pentatonics and climbing runs gave way to a tasteful smooth groove on Ameen Saleem’s solo. Saleem has a fat but lithe sound and stands out for his melodic solos and solid time. Drummer Neal Smith did seem to play a bit heavily, which was surprising in a trio with a pianist as nuanced as Cyrus Chestnut.

A solo piano piece drawing from gospel, classical and jazz influences used rich voicings and chromatics in a personal statement that may draw from Cyrus Chestnut’s strong religious beliefs, and also showed a level of artistry that audiences might enjoy in a solo piano tour not unlike Keith Jarrett’s or Brad Mehldau’s. Granted, he is a very different kind of pianist, but wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear the music he made in less conventional setting with more improvisational emphasis? He might find this as an opportunity to deepen and widen his own musical identity.

This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman

April 28, 2009 · 2 comments


Has the Clarinet Gone the Way of the Banjo?

Michael Pellecchia concludes his look at the rise and fall of the clarinet below, in the final installment of this three-part article. Click here for parts one and two.T.G.

Back in the "jazz age," when a popular classical piece adopted a “jazzy” sound, courtesy of George Gershwin, it rode on the crest of a clarinet. The introduction to his Rhapsody in Blue needs no introduction.  This clarinet cry begs to smother all other. Using another straight stick as a comparison, it’s as if Sidney Bechet never existed in the eyes of a Kenny Gorelick fan. The instrument is a musical actor.


Everyone has heard of Ornette Coleman, but how many know of his childhood schoolmate whose compositions represent some of jazz’ true caviar? That would be the late clarinetist John Carter. Another great jazz composer and theoretician, Alvin Batiste, had clarinet as his primary instrument.

On a 1967 album called “Ask Me Now,” Pee Wee Russell plays the Monk tune and many others with an ageless sound and style that suggests the eternal spotless mind of the clarinet. Russell plays without any particular decade in mind, and epitomizes the strangeness of someone who would take up this instrument rather than another one. Is he the character Woody Allen channels on clarinet?

Prominent clarinetists in every area of jazz today have kept this pud-puller of an instrument alive. Universities and conservatories employ many top clarinetists who can play jazz. In the late 1980’s, I was allowed to include a couple of jazz tunes in my master’s degree clarinet recital. Classicists such as Richard Stolzman put their personal stamps on a jazz repertoire. There’s Paquito D’Rivera, Giora Feidman (carrying the substantial influence of Dave Tarras’ klezmer), Allan Vache (doing the same for trad), Ken Peplowski, Brad Terry, Michael White, the late Kenny Davern.

A newer generation includes Evan Christopher, Don Byron, Anat Cohen, Marty Ehrlich, Dan Block. Update this list with names of your own. It might be fun to keep a tally of 21st century clarinetists, to imagine what future generations may write about the postmodern clarinet. For every great clarinetist, there are ten great saxophonists. As a jazz instrument, the sax has it all over clarinet. Let’s not diminish the clarinet’s achievement, though. Like the banjo, it is more important to music at large than to jazz in specific.

Most followers of the jazz clarinet have their memories and great recordings to hold them. Half a century ago, Pete Fountain might play the latest chart hit on “Lawrence Welk” for millions of viewers. During the last 25 years, few clarinet sounds have broadcast more widely than Billy Novick’s, plaintively introducing the TV show “This Old House.”

Relegated to nostalgia, yet the clarinet never had to don a disguise to do its job. Perhaps that’s part of its problem. To get where it is today, the electric guitar has had to be many things to many people. A saxophone choir can produce a mass of audio chocolate that a clarinet choir might envy. The saxophone has actually been very good news for the clarinet. It doesn’t squeak so much, it’s the prime instrument of jazz, and a saxophonist can play at doubling the clarinet for an arranger’s benefit. Nothing has changed with the old cliché, that if one starts out on clarinet, the sax will seem much easier by comparison.

In the hands of an expert, the clarinet’s special effects go beyond boundaries. The same instrument which can sing an aria, burn the midnight oil at Mozart’s place, and execute a Charlie Parker solo up to speed, can also produce multiphonics, tweets and splats which most jazz might eschew (John Carter to great exception).

Finally, it comes down to image. The computer or television screen can make a person look fatter but not a clarinet. Kenny G, with what many listeners think is a metal clarinet, revived the image of a person with a long skinny thing coming out of his mouth. It helped that he looked like Weird Al Yankovic. Benny Goodman’s avuncular appearance may have made him the perfect clarinet holder for his time. Swing was a rebellion, but Goodman was no Che Guevara.

I am haunted by a scene in Bert Stern’s 1960 film Jazz on a Summer’s Day. It shows a filmic interpretation (definitely not a “documentary” in the sense that we normally think) of portions of the Newport Jazz Festival. In one scene, there’s a classic mismatch. Or is it? The drummer is Jo Jones, the bassist is Tommy Bryant, and the clarinetist is Rudy Rutherford.

The guitarist and vocalist is Chuck Berry.

The scene says everything that this blog doesn’t. We’ll never know how jazz would have evolved without this tube of squeaks. Or whether rock ‘n roll would have been invented!

P.S. Gene Krupa wouldn’t have looked so cool behind a banjo either.

This blog entry posted by Michael Pellecchia.

April 27, 2009 · 12 comments


Grady Tate in Harlem

The jazz world has dealt with a lot of bad news in recent months. Hardly a week goes by without word of another jazz institution closing or downscaling. In the midst of this, Ralph Miriello reports on a new jazz venue that is bucking the trend. He recently stopped by Creole Restaurant and Music Supper Club, where a full house was on hand to hear the veteran drummer and vocalist Grady Tate dish out his own kind of stimulus package. T.G.

Creole Restaurant and Music Supper Club

New York City is no stranger to the economic downturn that the rest of the country is experiencing. Jazz music venues are particularly feeling the pinch of a more miserly public pulling in the reins of their discretionary spending. So it was good to see a relatively new venue with a full house there to enjoy the vocal talents of the venerable Grady Tate.

Creole Restaurant and Music Supper Club has a welcoming feel and good energy and sits in the heart of Spanish Harlem, on the corner of 118th Street and Third Avenue. In this unlikely location, the affable owner, Kevin Walters has been slowly gaining recognition by providing patrons tasty New Orleans inspired cuisine and a comfortable and intimate setting where the art of jazz is featured. By setting up shop in Harlem, Walters is following a jazz tradition. At the same time he is providing top-notch entertainment for a reasonable cost at a location that avoids the hassle that can sometimes be experienced with some of the more established downtown venues. In these times of economic prudence this is a breath of fresh air.

On Saturday night, the drummer and vocalist Grady Tate, performed the second of his two-night engagement to a crowd of knowledgeable and appreciative fans. Mr. Tate, who has been a drummer for a wide variety of jazz artists throughout his career, is a hard-bop, soulful player whose work with Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery in the sixties is particularly noteworthy. At Creole it was his gentle baritone voice, his soulful scatting and his warm personality that was on display. He was backed by an all-acoustic quintet of able musicians including Lance Murphy on tenor, John Di Martino on piano, NarikoWeda on bass, Shinoske Takahashi on drums and Chembo Corniel on congas and percussion.

At seventy-seven years old Mr. Tate shows an enviable vitality and verve. His seductive baritone, while perhaps losing some of its higher range, is still beguiling. In the first set he and his quintet moved through a series of five songs that ranged from ballads to sambas. Tate’s inherent swing was especially notable on “Everybody Loves My Baby” where he made use of voice modulations that are still impressive. On ballads like “ Teach Me Tonight” and “Body And Soul” his whisper-soft baritone is most effective in conveying emotional power through nuance. A nice duet between Tate and bassist Weda was a highlight, as was an impassioned conga solo by Corneil. Both caught the grateful applause of the savvy, sophisticated crowd. The forty-five minute show went by too fast for most in attendance, and Tate’s warm interaction with the audience lent a special feeling of connection that is rarely experienced with today’s more aloof artists.

Creole’s Walters has been trying to establish what he calls a “Legacy” jazz series where the club features some of the older jazz musicians in this small convivial setting. Cognizant of the performers, he maintains a respectful “quiet policy” during dinner while the show is on. In past weeks the club has featured an impressive list of artists including Lee Konitz, Dave Valentine, Wallace Roney and Billy Bang. The club has about thirty-five tables and seats no more than eighty patrons. Unless you get behind the one column in the room you are pretty much assured of a good viewing vantage. Creole offers good food and a great night of jazz in a welcoming and intimate setting that doesn’t break the bank. It is a worthy addition to the family of New York City jazz venues, and makes a trip to Harlem well worth the trek.

This blog entry posted by Ralph A. Miriello

April 26, 2009 · 0 comments


Jazz Classics That Aren't Kind of Blue

Did you hear that there was an anniversary for Miles Davis's Kind of Blue?

Kind of Blue

Of course you did. The jazz world may be in recession, but even in a tight economy the public relations campaigns sometimes go into overdrive.

We saw that with the recent push behind Diana Krall’s new CD. We see it in the extraordinary support being given to the career of a young altoist named Grace Kelly (a subject I hope to discuss in more detail in a later column; but in the meantime go here to see the highly orchestrated photo opps pairing this lady with every name jazz player on the planet.) And, above all, we see it in the hoopla surrounding the anniversary of Kind of Blue, the album that got casual listeners to switch from mood music to modal music without missing a syncopated beat.

Dang, I can hardly spell mixolydian without the help of a cue card. But I know that needs to get on this bandwagon. So today we feature “Flamenco Sketches,” recorded fifty years ago this week, as the “classic song” of the day on the web site.

Of course, doesn’t wait for big anniversaries to tout the old jazz masterpieces. Five days per week, the site features A Classic Revisited, which celebrates a great track from the past. In order to qualify for inclusion, a performance must stand out as a work of exceptional merit and be at least twenty-five years old.

Below are links to our reviews of the tracks featured as A Classic Revisited in recent weeks. There are 82 performances here, and they span the full range of styles and eras. Most of them come from the heart of the jazz tradition, but there are some surprises mixed in for good measure. Enjoy Kind of Blue, by all means, but you are also encouraged to check out a few of the other recordings on the list. They may not have a PR campaign to hype their merits, but each of them is deserving of your attention.

Classic Tracks Recently Featured on

Miles Davis: Flamenco Sketches
Ada Falcón: Yira Yira
Zoot Sims: Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams
George Lewis: Homage to Charlie Parker
John Lewis: The Golden Striker
Benny Carter: Blue Lou
Art Ensemble of Chicago: Magg Zelma
Harold Land: The Fox
Joe Pass: Darn That Dream
McCoy Tyner: Blues on the Corner
George Shearing: East of the Sun
Julie London: Cry Me a River
David Murray: Coney Island
Bud Shank: Casa de Luz
Mary Lou Williams: The Scarlet Creeper
Terje Rypdal: Per Ulv
Jack Teagarden: I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues
Denny Zeitlin: Blue Phoenix
Roland Kirk: You Did It, You Did It
Jimmy Smith: Blues for J
John Coltrane: Aisha
Lee Konitz: Subconscious-Lee
Buddy Rich: Norwegian Wood
Don Byas: Laura
Willie "The Lion" Smith: Echoes of Spring
The Poll Winners: Volare
Jeff Beck: Love Is Green
Les Brown: Rock Me To Sleep
Tommy Dorsey: Lonesome Road
Air: Abra
Mose Allison: Parchman Farm
George Adams & Don Pullen: Big Alice
Mills Brothers with Duke Ellington: Diga Diga Doo
The Swingle Singers: Bach's Prelude #9
Lennie Tristano: I Can't Get Started
Ali Farka Touré: La Drogue
Lou Rawls: Lost and Lookin'
Cecil Taylor: Song
Bill Bruford: (square root) q.e.d.
Weather Report: The Man in the Green Shirt
Peggy Lee: Fever
George Russell: 'Round Midnight
Bill Evans & Jim Hall: Darn That Dream
The Boswell Sisters: Shout, Sister, Shout
Joe Henderson: Blue Bossa
Eddie Lang & Joe Venuti: Raggin' the Scale
Mamie Smith: Crazy Blues
Etta James: At Last
Johnny Hodges: Prelude to a Kiss
The Jazz Makers: The Real Funky Blues
Sidney Bechet: Strange Fruit
Blossom Dearie: They Say It's Spring
Chick Webb: Liza
Rose Murphy: I Can't Give You Anything But Love
Boogaloo Joe Jones: Right On
John Klemmer: Touch
Elmo Hope: Vi-Ann
Benny Golson / Jazztet: Park Avenue Petite
Fred Frith: No Birds
Miles Davis: My Ship
Gerry Mulligan: You Took Advantage of Me
Sauter-Finegan Orchestra: These Foolish Things
Big Joe Turner: Cherry Red
Muddy Waters: Country Blues
David "Fathead" Newman (with Ray Charles): Willow Weep for Me
Roy Haynes: Reflection
Richard "Groove" Holmes: Misty
Frank Sinatra: The House I Live In
Don Redman: Chant of the Weed
Hugh Masekela: Grazing in the Grass
Mahavishnu Orchestra: Dream
Hank Mobley: Venus De Mildew
Billy Bauer: Lincoln Tunnel
Serge Chaloff: A Handful of Stars
Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather
Stan Getz: Nature Boy
Nellie Lutcher: Kiss Me Sweet
Biréli Lagrène: Wave
Barney Kessel: Viva el Toro!
Hal McKusick: Jambangle
Freddie Hubbard: Lament for Booker

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

April 23, 2009 · 0 comments


Two Star Vocalists from Norway

Earlier this week, featured part one of Stuart Nicholson’s review of the Vossa Jazz Festival. Today we conclude his coverage with his account of a performance by two leading Norwegian jazz vocalists—both major talents who deserve to be better known outside of Europe—Solveig Slettahjell and Silje Nergaard. T.G.

                Solveig Slettahjell (photo by Oskar Hem)

This year, Vossa Jazz presented two major Norwegian vocal talents, Solveig Slettahjell on Saturday night and Silje Nergaard on Sunday night. Both are at key stages of their careers, and both have made a significant impact on Scandinavian jazz.

Solveig Slettahjell arrived out of the Norwegian Academy of Music almost fully formed. She had her own concept and a mature idealism with which to realize it. Her debut album Slow Motion Quintet from 2001 revealed a singer with a startlingly original approach. Turning to the standards repertoire, she slowed the tempos down to an achingly slow pulse. Short notes became long notes and long notes became even longer but Slettahjell showed she had the voice, the intonation and phrasing to draw deep meaning from the words and melodies she sang (for vocalists and instrumentalists alike, playing at slow tempi without heading for the sanctuary of double time as quickly as possible is a real challenge).

Her accompanists, the Slow Motion Orchestra (trumpet, piano – Morten Qvenild, who has his own group In the Country – bass and drums), subtly deconstructed each song, so that singer and band seemed in parallel musical universes that mysteriously converged at key cadences. It was original approach and suggested huge potential.

That was realized in 2004 with Silver, that numbers among the great jazz vocal albums of the last twenty years. The choice of material was spot-on, each song responded to her original approach and she even included a couple of originals. In retrospect, this fine album came too early in her career. Like a fiction writer’s blockbusting debut, the question became “How do you follow that?” With difficulty seemed to be the answer.

However, inspired by the Vossa Jazz commission, Sletahjell has reconvened her Slow Motion Orchestra, augmented with a guitar and additional keyboards, and has produced a major work in “Tingingsverk,” which will be toured around Norway this fall. Additional voices (four male, two female) were whistled up and while essences of Country and Western lingered in the air from time to time it was great to see the singer returning to her creative best and taking on new challenges. Indeed, surpassing Silver now might not be the bridge too far it once seemed.

           Silje Nergaard (photo by photo by Sandra Jecmenica)

Silje Nergaard has had her share of success as well. The only jazz artist to have two albums shoot to No. 1 on the Norwegian album chart within a week of release over the heads of the likes of Madonna, Beyonce and Jay Z, she has, like Sletahjell, won several awards in her native Norway. Yet albums such as Port of Call, At First Light, Nightwatch and Darkness Out of the Blue, despite achieving remarkable sales, all seemed works in progress, signposts along the road to some yet to be imagined destination.

An idea of what that destination might be comes with her current release, A Thousand True Stories, recorded with the Dutch Metropole Orchestra, and arranged and conducted by Vince Mendoza. Nergaard considers herself a songwriter as much as a singer, and on A Thousand True Stories the songwriter took precedence over the singer. And the songwriter certainly didn’t do any favours for the singer with some awkward intervals which she fearlessly negotiated. With lyrics by her long-time collaborator Mike McGurk that were often dark and rich in meaning she has produced her best work to date.

Her Vossa Jazz appearance was her first performance of the album with her regular group, which comprises Helge Lien on piano, Håvar Bendiksen on guitar, Finn Guttormsen on bass and Jarle Vespestad on drums. On stage for 90 minutes, it was an impressive performance by both singer and ensemble. Helge Lien revealed what an accomplished all round musician he was with a couple of inspirational solos, while Håvar Bendiksen showed the maturity and ease of execution of someone twice his youthful years.

Nergaard’s voice has matured since her last release in 2007; no longer does she seem the ingénue contemplating the end of a love affair she had on earlier albums; now she sings with the authority of a woman who has survived the pain and sadness life’s experiences has thrown her way. When she sings of how love has died in “A Thousand True Stories” there is an emotional realism that adds extra depth to the song. It was a performance that probably would have been impossible five years ago, but now she seemed every bit the artist whose time has come.

In a festival not short of highlights, Vossa Jazz saved the best instrumental performance until last when Andy Emler’s Megaoctet from Paris provoked a standing ovation. Nordic Cool doesn’t usually countenance that sort of thing, but this was a bravura performance full of wit, originality and considerable musical accomplishment. On the festival circuit it is not unknown for musicians of a certain age to coast a little, and as in the game of Monopoly, collect the money as they go past “Go.”

Not so pianist Andy Emler’s ensemble. In what amounted to an all-star ensemble of some of the finest musicians on the Paris jazz scene, they lived up to their reputations and then some. Dizzying arrangements that seemed on the verge of spinning out of control were contrasted by moments of witty Gallic humour. Alto saxophonists Thomas de Pourquery and Phillipe Sellam played with such energy, zeal and invention they seemed to have imbibed the elixir of eternal youth rather than the local beer. With drummer Eric Echampard underlining the point by lifting the soloists and ensembles to ever greater deeds of derring do, the ovation at the end was a fitting climax to a festival that started off well and never let up.

Showing us new ways of thinking and feeling about jazz may be the validating task of an artist, but at a jazz festival it is also the task of the festival director. Trude Storheim at Vossa Jazz succeeded in doing that with a festival that revealed the myriad of fascinating and exciting ways jazz is developing at the hands of artists intent on showing their own identity, many of whom are not known beyond their national borders. It was quite an experience.

This blog entry posted by Stuart Nicholson

April 22, 2009 · 0 comments


The Mexican Connection: Charles Mingus & Orson Welles

Alan Kurtz,'s resident curmudgeon, shares his thought-provoking (and sometimes just plain provoking) commentaries here on a regular basis. Say what you will about Alan (and, more or less, it has already been said), but give the man his due: he doesn't forget birthdays.

In honor of Charles Mingus's birthday (April 22), Kurtz looks at the "Mexican" connection between this larger-than-life bassist and the equally supersized director Orson Welles. Both found inspiration in the border town of Tijuana at almost the same moment, but what these two artists did with it couldn't have been more different. T.G.

Touch of Evil

Bassist/composer Charles Mingus was born April 22, 1922, at an Army base in Nogales, Arizona, along the Mexican border. He died less than 57 years later in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Between those two events, Mingus recorded Tijuana Moods, an album inspired by his 1957 visit to yet another Mexican locale. That same year, actor/director Orson Welles filmed Touch of Evil, the story of a police investigation into the planting of a bomb in a car as it is about to cross from Mexico into the U.S., where the vehicle's unsuspecting occupants are killed by the ensuing blast.

Touch of Evil is set in a make-believe border town called Los Robles, obviously a stand-in for Tijuana—although the film was actually shot in West L.A.'s Venice district. In a 58-page preproduction memo to Universal-International Pictures, Welles declared that sound in all its aspects, including music, would be vital to the director's vision. His "intricately worked out" sequences of "closely related scenes" were "meant to be a tour de force in the rather sadly neglected dimension of the soundtrack."

Orson Welles

Welles's soundtrack is a tour de force, alright, but mostly in the rather sadly neglected dementia of what constitutes appropriate music. For the opening sequence, as the camera roves Venice's Mexican streets, Welles wanted to evoke "passing one cabaret orchestra after another." Only the cosmopolite Orson Welles could suppose that entertainment in what he called "honky-tonk districts" would be provided by cabaret orchestras. "The special use of contrasting 'mambo-type' rhythm numbers with rock 'n' roll," Welles added, "will be developed in some detail."

Touch of Evil

Oblivious to Mexico's rich musical heritage, Welles decreed that border-town honkytonks in 1957 were hotbeds of Cuban ballroom dancing and American rock 'n' roll. Since his own exposure to Latin American culture had more to do with the grand casinos of Havana than the seedy cantinas of Tijuana, it was easier for Welles to indulge this elitist conceit than to, Dios prohíbe, actually investigate Mexican music. (Revealingly, Welles onscreen portrays a corrupt police captain who's spent 30 years as a border cop yet refuses to speak Spanish and even forbids others to do so in his presence.)

Compounding matters, Universal assigned an unsuitable staff composer to score the film. Since Henry Mancini had previously provided music for such cinematic heavyweights as Abbott & Costello, Ma & Pa Kettle, and Francis the Talking Mule, the studio deemed him a natural match for Orson Welles. As insensate as Orson to Mexican traditions, Mancini's ersatz Afro-Cuban numbers are surpassed in their phoniness only by his would-be rock 'n' roll. (The specter of 1950s Hollywood studio musicians, as uniformly attired in white shirts and ties as accountants, studiously committing "rock 'n' roll" is almost too horrific to contemplate.)

So what do you get when a border-town story, shot by a cosmopolitan filmmaker in a metropolis 140 miles from the scene, is scored by an unimaginative studio-bound composer? A movie with no sense of place. For all its grubby realism (apart from the music), Touch of Evil could've been set in the back alleys of Welles's birthplace: Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Tijuana Moods

It would be up to a jazzman to make a definitive artistic statement about Tijuana in the mid-'50s. And he didn't need a 58-page memo to explain it. He did so in 75 words or less. Tijuana Moods "was written during a very blue period in my life," confessed Charles Mingus. "I was minus a wife, and in flight to forget her with an expected dream in Tijuana. But not even Tijuana could satisfy. After finding myself with the sting of tequila, salt and lime in my mouth and burning my nostrils, I decided to benefit musically from this experience and set out to compose and re-create what I felt and saw around me."

Orson Welles and Charles Mingus were oversized men with oversized talents and egos to match, who never fit comfortably within their respective industries. But there the common ground ended. When they separately examined Tijuana in 1957, their contrasting vistas had less to do with the intrinsic differences between movies and music than with the engagement (or lack thereof) each man had with his subject.

By his own admission, Welles took on Touch of Evil not because he was gripped by the material, but to exercise his directorial chops. "I have to take whatever comes along … or accept the alternative, which is not working." Mingus, by contrast, submersed himself in the experience of Tijuana and expressed his reactions through art, not exercise. The upshot? Whereas Welles dismissed Touch of Evil as the "sort of picture for which I can pretend to no special interest or aptitude," Mingus felt no such indifference to his own work, promoting Tijuana Moods as "the best record I ever made."

Musically, the album closes a tragic circle from Africa to the New World and back again. After monarchs Ferdinand & Isabella granted permission in 1501 to abduct blacks to Spain's Caribbean and Latin American colonies, the trade flourished until its abolition in 1886, during which time an estimated 2 million Africans had been so enslaved. Perhaps the only good that came of this evil was that African folk forms influenced Spanish music, as manifested in the Andalusian Latin/Gypsy/Moorish/Jewish polymorph called flamenco. From an unsatisfying binge around Tijuana's streets and bars, Charles Mingus brought home a hard-won hangover of his heritage and a trophy of triumphant acculturation, expressed most notably in the track "Ysabel's Table Dance." It's a stunning souvenir, and listening to it is a splendid way to celebrate Señor Carlos's birthday. But, then, who needs an excuse to enjoy Mingus?

This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.

April 21, 2009 · 6 comments


Jazz Stars Come Out to Celebrate 30 Years of NPR's Piano Jazz’s arnold jay smith covers the OctoJAZZarian beat for us. His contributions here (as you may have figured out from the Octo title) celebrate great jazz artists who are still active and creative at age 80 and beyond.

I never would've thunk it, but this age cohort sure knows how to party. The fête at JALC’s Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola to celebrate the 30th anniversary of NPR’s Piano Jazz, hosted by 91-year-old Marian McPartland, was one of the most star-studded and music-filled events of this season. Our correspondent squeezed into the packed venue, and shares this account. T.G.

A radio show—a public radio show—celebrating its 30th Anniversary is always important news. But this birthday happened in grand (piano) style at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, where the festivities honored Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, probably the most popular show on NPR and certainly the best known. Piano Jazz is a personal affair.

              Marian McPartland, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Ms. McP with producer Sherry Hutchinson ask artists, young, old, veterans and neophytes to sit along side her while she plumbs their depths and accepts their challenges. At Dizzy’s this April night there was some of that but mostly it was the guests taking turns at the twin Steinways.

There were two star-laden sets, lasting two-and-a-half hours each. The second set began an hour late. As host Todd Barkan apologized at the outset of set 2: “It will be well worth your wait.”

Was it ever. The queue for the second set was the longest I’ve ever seen at a Jazz at a Lincoln Center event—stretching from the entrance to the club, beyond the elevators, across the main corridor of the lobby, to near the entrance to the Ertegun Hall of Fame. It sounds long because it was.

The reason for the crowd was love and respect for the host of the radio show who stayed for both sets playing solos and duets as well as accompanying singers and a saxophonist. The 91 year-old [see my OctoJAZZarians profile here] Ms. McPartland not only knows and can recall at will most of the Great American Songbook, but she also knows the more recent jazz standards, and she’s not too shabby a composer in her own right with lyrics by Alec Wilder and Johnny Mercer to name but a pair. Dizzy’s hosted her 90th birthday last year.

The guests at Dizzy’s were culled from her radio shows: [in order of appearance] Bill Charlap, Renee Rosnes, separately and together, Grady Tate with John DiMartino, who later doubled as music director for Karrin Allyson, who was in turn accompanied by Ms. McP, Joanne Brackeen solo and with Taylor Eigsti, Randy Weston, Kurt Elling with Laurence Hobgood, John Pizzarelli with John Bunch, and a Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Barron duet. And that was only the first set.

In addition to what one might expect from such an affair, the music was jazz fare such as Ellington. Strayhorn, and Coltrane to Golden Age standards. There were also originals by Brackeen, Weston, Elling, and McPartland.

Leading off the second set, which I squeezed into, was Kenny Werner who presented an elaborate abstract which fed into Bernstein’s “Somewhere” from West Side Story. Dena DeRose sang a couple from the piano hypnotizing us as she went. Cedar Walton reinvented Strays’ “Lush Life.” Daryl Sherman, a favorite friend of Marian’s, interestingly intertwined “I’m Shadowing You” with “Shadowland.” One of Arturo O’Farrill’s two offerings was a reharmonization of Lucuona’s “Siboney.” The much churchified Cyrus Chestnut opted to play the second piano, the one not usually in the room, a larger-sounding, warmer-toned Steinway. I wish more had played that one as it seemed to these ears woodier.

Alto saxophonist Grace Kelly played Tizol’s “Caravan” accompanied by Marian, whom you could not drag off her stage. She played two more duets with Bunch and one with Allyson (both first set holdovers).

Geri Allen’s improvisation was nothing short of dynamic in its intensity and shading. Eigsti came back for a solo turn showing his bent for stride on a truly astounding version of “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” Weston closed with a personal request from Marian, his “Little Niles,” more poignant now that his son Azzedine, for whom it was written, is gone.

The show was recorded in its entirety as usual by South Carolina Public Television for radio broadcast after editing on the 31st year of National Public Radio’s “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz.” By the way, the Newark outlet, WBGO, is also celebrating 30 years. Kudos.

This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith

April 20, 2009 · 2 comments


Extreme Jazz in Vossa

Stuart Nicholson continues in his quest to cover more jazz events in more countries than any other critic of the present day. His latest trip brought him to Norway for the Vossa Jazz Festival. This is one of the longest-running jazz events in the world, and as Nicholson reports, definitely has not become stodgy and cautious with the passing years, like so many US festivals. Anyone up for a Finnish version of the Andrew Sisters singing in 11/8? How about some music for trolls? Or love songs played by a drum choir? Read on! T.G.

           Värttina in Vossa (photo by Sandra Jecmenica)

Credit crunch or not, there’s not many jazz festivals in the world whose literature helpfully posts the dates of future festivals up to the year 2021. But Vossa Jazz has been around for 36 years and has a sure sense of its identity. Great names have performed there in the past such as Max Roach, Betty Carter and Dexter Gordon while one of this year’s festival headliners, vocalist Silje Nergaard, even hitch-hiked to Voss as a young teenager in the 1980s to see Steps Ahead with Mike Brecker, Mike Mainieri, Eliane Elias, Eddie Gomez and Peter Erskine.

Voss is in the heart of fjord Norway, one of the most picturesque places in Europe. Sitting between the Hardanger and the Sognefjord fjords, the town is one of Norway’s top ski resorts with 11 ski lifts and 14 pistes. Yet while its population is not much more than 13,700, Voss athletes have competed at every Winter Olympics since 1948 (with the exception of the1972 games) and won a total of 6 gold, 5 silver and 7 bronze medals. The long list of town over-achievers even includes US Senator Knute Nelson and US football player and coach Knute Rockne.

Although small, Voss has a lot going for it, not least the world’s biggest extreme sports festival, Ekstremsportveko, held in the summer. Events include white-water rafting, para-bungee jumping, skydiving and all manner of sports where one tiny error lands you at the Pearly Gates. The extreme sports festival sponsored Vossa Jazz’s major Saturday night event, “Ekstremjazz,” a free, outdoor event held on the edge of the large lake that provides the backdrop to the town. Wild speculation about what form “Ekstremjazz” might take preceded the event: a jam session while simultaneously white water rafting? A composition played by descending skydivers? A concerto for a kite-surfing trombonist?

In the event the concert was not quite as ekstrem as the outer limits of imagination; yes, there was scuba diver riding his BMX into the lake, bikers doing wheelies, paragliders with searchlights descending through the gathering gloom and a jazz ensemble afloat in the lake, but the project was predicated on community outreach.

A drum choir led by percussionist Helge Norbakken from pianist and ECM recording artist Jan Balke’s group Pratagraf provided a constant throb of rhythmic activity, while young local dancers enacted a tableau loosely based (it seemed) on unrequited love. Balke himself mediated the ebb and flow of the music from an electric piano, as his guitarist emerged as the prime melody carrier. A large crowd turned out to witness the event, thus raising the profile of Vossa Jazz within the local community. As Trude Storheim, the head of Vossa Jazz said later, “We want everybody to have a good time,” and there was no doubt she succeeded in her mission.

Debashish Bhattacharya (photo by Sandra Jecmenica)

The festival proper took place in the more prosaic surroundings of the Park Hotel’s three performance centres and three nearby locations. It opened on Friday night with a performance by a group led by the Grammy nominated Indian slide guitarist Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya and his group from Calcutta. A former child prodigy, he has adapted a modified slide guitar to Indian classical music, and has performed with the likes of John McLaughlin in Remember Shakti, while collecting countless awards for his musical prowess in his native India.

The theme of his concert, Debashish Bhattacharya explained, was for humankind to love each other without condition, a nice note on which to begin any festival. Reaching deep into the raga form, his improvisations, based on centuries old traditions handed down the generations, made it clear why Indian music has long held such a fascination for jazz musicians with beguiling, hypnotic improvisations over the gently undulating rhythms of tabala, pakhawaj, mridangam and ganjira.

A performance by saxophonist Frøy Aagre and trumpeter Mathias Eick with Andreas Ulvo on piano, Audun Ellingsen on bass and Freddy Wick on drums was a festival highlight. Aagre’s compositions were triumphs of the quietly unexpected, full of subtly shifting moods that ended up at unexpected destinations. The improvisers worked within the mood and melodic parameters established by the compositions, blurring the distinction between the written and the improvised, so that each composition assumed an organic life of its own. Ulvo on piano caught the ear with touches that were quite unique, adding tonal interest that complimented Aagre and Eick’s absorbing lines of musical enquiry.

In contrast, The Core have never been ones to hide their light under a bushel. A saxophone quartet led by drummer Espen Aalberg, they draw inspiration from Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders as much as Keith Jarrett’s Belonging Quartet and thrash metal. However, after the departure of inspirational saxophonist Ketil Møster, they seemed somewhat neutered the last time I saw them, but they solved the problem this time out with the inclusion of saxophonists Jonas Kulhammar and Petter Wettre, who are not noted for pussyfooting around, plus the technically accomplished and often astonishing Magnus Broo on trumpet. The result was a set of bracing full-on improvisation shaped by the compositions of Vidar Johansen and energised by the rhythm section of pianist Erlend Slettevoll (a major talent in the making), bassist Steinar Raknes and drummer Aalberg.

Friday night’s concerts were climaxed by the Finnish group Värttina, 21st century descendents of the Boswell and Andrews Sisters, who have taken three-part close harmony singing and gone nuclear with it. Their music has its roots in Finnish folk music from the Karelian region, and the timing and rhyme scheme is something specific to ancient Finnish folk music and poetry. The Finnish language is unique in Europe in that it shares little in common with any other European languages, which linguists classify as Indo-European. Finnish, along with Basque, Hungarian, and Estonian, are quite different and classified as Finno-Ugric.

Finnish has double-long vowel sounds and double consonants (i.e. geminates), which give the language a distinctive "sharp" sound and a stress pattern which puts the emphasis or primary stress on the first syllable, meaning that every word basically has the stress pattern of BA-ba-ba-ba-ba. Thus even to a non-Finnish speaker, the Finnish language is highly rhythmic and since in music, melody and rhythm follow language, Värttina’s music in terms of melodic phrasing and rhythmic construction were quite different to songs shaped by the English language.

One aspect of Värttina’s totally mesmerising set was how difficult it was to unravel the time signatures the girls sang in. They swung like crazy, but in otherworldly rhythmic groupings. Speaking to bassist Hannu Rantanen afterwards he explained that while a piece such as “Richa,” while in 11/8 and counted one-two, one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two, it was often counted differently in parts of the song to follow the singer’s phrasing. Fascinating. And what a rhythm section to follow these nuances.

It might seem like bassist Steinar Raknes’ quartet had drawn the short straw by being programmed to begin Saturday’s concert’s at midday in Oba Osasalen, the performance centre for Vossa’s Folk Music Academy (which offers courses in Norwegian folkloric studies). A thread that linked many performances at Voss was the close relationship between folk and jazz, which was given brilliant exposition by the Raknes quartet with Ola Kvernberg on violin, John Pål Inderberg on baritone saxophone, Raknes on bass and drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen on drums.

Playing music from their album Tangos, Ballads and More, they presented a way of looking at jazz that reflected their own cultural backdrop. And why not? The Hardanger Fjord is just a few kilometres away and is the centre of the centuries old Hardanger fiddle tradition. And fiddle player Kvernberg was a revelation. He has two acclaimed albums of his own out, Night Driver and Folk that feature his remarkable virtuosity. Yet playing delicate unisons and harmonies with Inderberg on baritone sax, or adding elegant counterpoint, he seemed able to broaden the tonal palette of the quartet at will. Even at midday the standing-room-only audience was rapt with attention.

Pianist Helge Lien recently won a Norwegian Grammy for his album Hello Troll! On this album of originals, he consciously explored aspects of Norwegian folkloric heritage within a jazz context, and it deservedly garnered critical acclaim in Scandinavia, Germany and the UK. The group, with Frode Berg on bass and Knut Aalefjaer on drums, came together in Oslo Music Conservatory and their years of playing together has produced a remarkable empathy—Lien and Aalefjaer do not even share eye contact such is the configuration of piano, bass and drums on stage.

Their set was one of finely nuanced moods, of melodies explored in the middle register of the piano whose melodic motion gradually and symmetrically ascended and descended before finding its center of gravity. It was spellbinding stuff whose impact was made all the more telling by the unhurried manner in which Lien told his musical stories. The Troll, the subject of Lien’s album, is a fearsome being from Norse mythology, and brings to mind Edvard Grieg the Norwegian composer who wrote several pieces on trolls, not least In the Hall of the Mountain King. The analogy does not end there; there was a moment when Lien used a fall from the leading tone to the dominant, which is something Grieg also liked to do (instead of conventionally ascending to the tonic).

With several band’s making use of their cultural backdrop, it was interesting to go the whole hog in the company of Sver, a traditional Norwegian fiddle band, who saw out Saturday night. The group has its roots in the traditional music of the Røros-area, but also draws on influences from Hallingdal and Hardanger. It’s a high energy group whose modern adaptations of traditional music not only illustrated the trajectory on which some Scandinavian jazz musicians are travelling, but also gave insight into the rhythmic feel of the music, the extravagant syncopations and intricate subdivisions of the beat that could also be heard in the work of several of the Norwegian drummers. Amazing.

On Sunday morning the young Belgian pianist Jef Neve and his trio was assigned the early shift. A piano virtuoso who pledges alliance to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven as much as Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, he has developed his own highly individual, and at times inspirational style. He certainly raised the roof of the Oba Osasalen, climaxing with his own special anthem, “Nothing But a Casablanca Turtle Slideshow Dinner,” providing a rousing entry into Sunday.

With his own trio, Tord Gustavsen is a pianist of poetic caste who occupies a dynamic range somewhere between p and ppp, as aware of the folkloric traditions in Norwegian music as he is of the Swedish pianist, Jan Johansson. Little known outside Norway is the musical persona of his alter-ego, a rip roaring gut-bucket pianist in traditional N’awlins style with the Nyman Collective. Gustavsen also has a background in religious music, especially gospel, which he has played in church since a young age. So his late afternoon gig with clarinettist Carl Petter Opsahl, in Vangskyrkja, the stone church in the centre of Voss that dates back to 1277, promised much.

Playing spirituals, folkloric themes, gospel and more, pianist and clarinettist were locked in a series of captivating duets for over an hour. Opsahl’s tone on clarinet was so broad you could fry reindeer steaks on it, his chalumeau register vibrating the foundations of the church deep in Mother Earth. Looking up at the old wooden ceiling, with hand painted clouds and the occasional angel peeking down, the music entered the soul and began to assume an additional life in memory, to be replayed over and again. . . .

This is the end of part one of Stuart Nicholson’s report on the Vossa Jazz Festival. Click here for part two.

April 19, 2009 · 2 comments


Nat Hentoff: At the Constitutional Jazz Band Ball

Nat Hentoff recently joined on as contributor to—you can check out his previous articles here and here. Hentoff is a leading jazz advocate, and was the first non-musician to be honored as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, but he is also a longstanding commentator on political and judicial matters. Today he wears both hats, and reports on that rarest of events: a meeting of Art and Justice. T.G.

One of my day jobs is covering the Supreme Court. During Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's years there, she was often the swing vote in 5-4 decisions. At her most swinging, however, was her decision for the Court in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004) when she reprimanded George W. Bush for having imprisoned an American citizen for years without any review by a judge – as "an enemy combatant."

            Wynton Marsalis and Sandra Day O'Connor

In a stop chorus, O'Connor swung hard.

"We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of American citizens."

What I didn't know about Justice O'Connor until a January 19 celebration this year of Martin Luther King's birthday was that her devotion to free expression includes jazz.

On that date, leading into the inauguration next day of President Barack Obama, Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Rockefeller Foundation presented "A Celebration of America" concert at Kennedy Center, which emphasized that Dr. King had called jazz "America's triumphant music."

Part of that event was a conversation between trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the former Justice O'Connor who, at 78, has started a website,,which aims to bring the Constitution off the pages and into the lives of middle-school kids and their teachers. She's still swinging!

Sandra Day, having grown up on a ranch in Arizona, recalled liking "the fun" of country-western swing. Wynton said he vaguely knew about that. I strongly recommend that he, and's readers, check out The Tiffany Transcriptions, by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys on the Collector's Choice label. Now that is the joyous essence of country-western swing.

But, O'Connor added, she wasn't exposed to "what we think of as jazz until I went to college at Stanford." At a freshman dance, she met a young man, a banjo player, who loved jazz. "We made many a visit to hear Kid Ory and his band. Also, I liked Louis Armstrong a lot. How could you not? He was pretty dazzling. And I liked Cab Calloway, he had a good beat for dancing."

Wynton started earlier, he said, at age 12 or 13 with John Coltrane. Then Wynton said something that, if we still had civics classes in this nation, would show students the connection between jazz and the Constitution.

"One of the beautiful things about jazz improvisation is that you can take something that we all know, and you can make it into another piece, but it still keeps its identity. It's like how the Constitution can be amended. It's still the Constitution, but here's our take on it. That means it is always new – because the ideas are valid, they're timeless."

Too bad Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia doesn't dig that. He scorns the concept of an evolving Constitution.

One of the reasons Justice O'Connor started her new website was that "polls say only about one-third of Americans can even name the three branches of government, much less say what they do." George W. Bush and Dick Cheney counted on that widespread ignorance.

In the conversation with Wynton, O'Connor, still spreading the constitutional gospel, said: "The great contribution the framers of our Constitution was developing… the three separate branches. The Presidency, the Legislative Branch and the Judicial Branch."

"And, Wynton chimed in, "they worked through those problems by a delicate way of balancing individual rights, the rights of states, and the central government's role. And in music we do that all the time. The president is the drum. The bass is the judiciary. There was a great player named Milton Hinton."

"Bass keeps them steady," said Sandra Day O'Connor.

"That's right," Winton agreed. "Milt Hinton was called 'The Judge.'"

And what's the equivalent of the legislature in jazz? "The piano and the rhythm section," said Professor Marsalis. The piano represents all of the notes, all of the keys."

Digging the lesson, O'Connor interrupted, "And when one of you is playing solo, the others play along but they listen, don't they!"

"That's right," said Marsalis. "One of the greatest lessons on the bandstand is you're forced to listen to everybody else. So it teaches you to be open in your hearing."

Sandra Day O'Connor – having spent time as a member of the Arizona legislature before having to give final grades to the often discordant products of State and Congressional legislatures as a Supreme Court Justice – responded with a fervent hope:

"Well now, if we can just get members of legislative branches to pay a little more attention to the theory of jazz music, we'll all be better off, don't you think?"

Wynton heartily agreed. And my suggestion to Sandra Day O'Connor is that she add some jazz to her website to move middle school students into the intersecting rhythms of the Bill of Rights and Lester Young, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, among other jazz educators in how, as Martin Luther King said, "Jazz speaks for life."

Add blues to the website, too, Justice O'Connor. At the Berlin Jazz festival 45 years ago, Dr. King said: "The blues tell the story of life's difficulties… They take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph."

There's so little jazz on television, including public television, that in the midst of all the controversy about reforming education, why not a series on PBS, or elsewhere, with hosts Wynton Marsalis, Sandra Day O'Connor and guests from the jazz life and the judiciary. Some of the latter may get tuned into the rhythms of the living Constitution. Call it: "At the Constitutional Jazz Band Ball!"

This blog entry posted by Nat Hentoff

April 16, 2009 · 2 comments


Taking Two Saxes for a Test Drive

Blimey, how can we write so much about saxophonists, and never talk about saxes? Chris Kelsey, an editor and frequent contributor to this column, rectifies matters by taking a look at the Sax Dakota SDA-1000 curved alto saxophone and the Sax Dakota SDAS-1020 straight alto saxophone. (Yes, this article is a bit of a departure for, but it is the first of what will be occasional entries with more of a jazz education / working musician flavor.)

Tomorrow we will be comparing the benefits of Fibracell synthetic sax reeds versus La Voz reeds made from the finest arundo donax cane . . . jus' kiddin' . . . Tomorrow we will return to talking about cool tunes. T.G.

If I'm to be completely honest, I'd have to say that, more than anything, I chose to play the saxophone because of how it looked. Maybe that's shallow, but 11-year-olds are supposed to be shallow.

There were other reasons, certainly. For one thing, my dad played the saxophone. That was an influence. But he also played the flute—which actually was my first instrument—so that wasn't the decisive factor. I think maybe I liked the sound of the sax, too, although I can't remember, exactly.

I know for sure, however, that the horn's appearance was the clincher. One day, my dad brought home a new Selmer Mark VI, and just like that I fell in love. It had an ineffable quality: the curve, that complex mechanism and the deep golden finish. Something about the way it looked when held by someone who really knew what he was doing. More than a trumpet, trombone, flute, or clarinet, that lovely new saxophone appealed to that 11 year-old's yen for sophisticated gadgetry and nascent sense of cool.

Today, I have an 11 year-old son of my own who's just starting out on the saxophone. When I showed him the new Sax Dakota SDAS-1020 straight and SDA-1000 curved alto saxes, he said with amazement, "They look like they're from the future!," which, I must say, was very close to my own reaction (like father, like son). The horns make a spectacular first impression. Both are finished in a satin Gray Onyx color (the inside of the bell is bright Gray Onyx), with satin silver key work, abalone mother-of-pearl finger inlays, and distinctive "Packard Grill"-influenced key guards. Tastefully conservative engraving on the oversized bell reveals the rose brass beneath. Opening those cases with my son took me back to that day 30-odd years ago when my dad introduced me to the Mark VI. Of course, the Selmer played as good as it looked. Will the Sax Dakotas? We shall see.

Sax Dakota is the brainchild of L.A. Sax-founder Peter LaPlaca. Famous for their multi-colored finishes, L.A. Sax revolutionized the saxophone's appearance. (Remember then-President Bill Clinton's red, white, and blue tenor? That was a LaPlaca creation.) LaPlaca sold L.A. Sax in 2001, but he apparently hadn't gotten sax design out of his blood. In 2007 he introduced his new baby, Sax Dakota—a line he claims is "designed to compete with the largest brand names in the industry … Selmer Paris, Yamaha, and Yanigasawa," an ambition claimed by many but achieved by only a precious few.

Mr. LaPlaca sent two horns for review: the SDA-1000 standard curved alto, and the SDAS-1020 straight alto. The horns' retro-styled hard wood cases are covered in khaki-colored tweed, with dark red leather-textured rubber trim, and brass hardware. The straight horn's case is necessarily of an odd size; long and narrow, it resembles a bass clarinet case. Both cases are lined with plush burgundy velour. The curved alto gets its own blanket attached to the interior, which lends added protection when the case is closed. Both cases are rather heavy and uncomfortable to carry, but look to be plenty sturdy and should provide ample protection.

The horns are exceptionally well constructed and designed. Both have a hand-finished, fast-tapered neck, a body made of 77% copper content brass alloy, with black oxide steel needle springs and pivot screws. The pads are made of soft merino leather with hardened tone boosters. The keys in the lower register feature double arms, the better to insure proper response. Key rods are made out of solid nickel silver, and the octave key stop is made out of solid brass, as opposed to the cork used on most horns—a simple but very nice touch. The horn has precision adjustment screws from top to bottom, which presumably makes it receptive to extreme fine-tuning.

I tested the horns over a period of several weeks, privately and in an ensemble setting. I used a Runyon 7 mouthpiece (orange, if you're interested) with the "Spoiler" insert. Like most new horns out of the box, the action on both was extremely high—much higher than I prefer. After a few hours, however, I was able to adjust, making evaluation a fairly simple matter.

The first thing I noticed (after the horns' striking appearance) was their heft; they are both heavy, substantial instruments. The action is extremely smooth and tight. Of particular note are the left hand table keys, which depress easily with a minimum of stretch and strain on the pinky—no trivial matter for someone (like myself) with small hands. The key cups are shallow, requiring the use of a thin pad. As a result, the act of depressing a key results in a distinct and nearly audible "pop." Work the keys without blowing air and the horn feels almost like a set of tuned bongos. There is little ambiguity when fingering a note; once played, it's played, and all the better to unite tongue and fingers. The horns blow extremely free and easy from top to bottom. The highs blow without unwelcome resistance; the lows speak as loud or soft as required. As far as intonation, both horns play in-tune as well as any saxophone I've ever played.

It's in the character of tone that the two horns differ most noticeably from one another. The curved SDA-1000 produces a strong, cutting tone (emphasized by my mouthpiece, which emphasizes the sound's upper partials ... and if you've read this far, I can assume you know what "upper partials" means). By my reckoning, it would be well suited for anything jazz-, rock-, or R&B-related.

In contrast, the straight SDAS-1020 produces an equally strong but somewhat rounder, more focused tone—a trifle dark and less overtone-laden. The fact that the sound is directed nearer the floor enhances the darkening effect. Playing it in a session with a bassist and drummer, it seemed strange to have the sound emanate so far from my ears, yet I got accustomed to it in short order. In fact, as someone whose primary instrument is a straight soprano, the SDAS-1020 was something of a revelation. It felt like a slightly fatter, longer version of my Yamaha YSS-675. Going back and forth from soprano to alto has always presented me with difficulties in terms of feel. Those difficulties are much less pronounced with the SDAS-1020. I'm sure I'd play a great deal more alto if I owned this horn.

I have only two small quibbles. First, the mother-of-pearl key inlays are a bit flat for my taste. I would prefer that they be more contoured. Second, the high F# key occasionally gets in the way of smooth fingering in the right hand—a problem hardly unique to this brand. About the only other problem I can imagine anyone having might have to do with the horns' "futuristic" appearance. A traditionalist might prefer a plainer instrument. The SDA-1000 comes in three different finishes, none of them remotely "plain" (the SDAS-1020 comes in Gray Onyx, only). Other than that, there's nothing not to love. Even the price is right: the SDA-1000's suggested retail price is $2,950, and the SDAS-1020 lists for $3,700—quite affordable when compared to costlier products from such competitors as Selmer, Yamaha, and Keilwerth.

Ultimately, Mr. LaPlaca's decision to design such a distinctive horn could prove to be a savvy move. Rather than reinvent the wheel and manufacture a great horn that looked like all the other great horns, he's devised one that's utterly unique. If Sax Dakota takes its place as one of the elite brands (and there's no reason why it shouldn't, it's that good an instrument), perhaps its style will be a template for others to emulate: a cool, sophisticated gadget that speaks to both the 11 year-old and fine artist in every saxophonist.

Web site:

This blog entry posted by Chris Kelsey

April 15, 2009 · 0 comments


The Rise and Fall of the Clarinet (Part 2)

What happened to the clarinet? It once was the defining instrument of jazz, and in the hands of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and others helped launch the Swing Era. But now it has become a "miscellaneous instrument"—a sideline for artists who mostly play sax. Michael Pellecchia continues his looks at the rise and fall of the clarinet below, in the second installment of this three-part article. Check out part one here. T.G.

After World War II, the selfsame Benny Goodman who had previously recorded with Bessie Smith could afford to commission Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto in 1947. Meanwhile, the kids from the Palomar Ballroom and Carnegie Hall had moved on from the swing dances and concerts of their callow youth. Now it was the new against the old. Traditional jazz made a “comeback” and Bird “lived.” When instrumentalists took themselves off the market, singers filled the breach. Small groups led by the likes of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw still created definitive swing with clarinet in the lead.

               Musician, artwork by Keith Henry Brown

A generation after it helped spawn jazz, the licorice stick went out with a bang. The new instrumental stars were Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Miles Davis. Were singers calling for clarinets on their gigs? Two word answer: Frank Sinatra.

Clarinetists found other work. Dave Brubeck’s great clarinetist, Bill Smith, is a distinguished composer. Harry Belafonte had a musical director named Anthony Sciacca (Tony Scott) who is still considered one of the most under-rated jazz clarinetists; he won the Downbeat polls for clarinet in 1958 and 1959.

Duke Ellington’s stable of clarinetists is legend, including Barney Bigard, Russell Procope and Jimmy Hamilton. Though he lost popular favor in the 1950s, students of Ellington are still in awe of his soloists and the beautiful music they made.

Jimmy Giuffre brought the “cool” to clarinet in the 1950s but was still called “over-rated” by a 1957 Esquire magazine reviewer. By this time, it was firmly planted as a “Dixieland” instrument. Yet even as the jazz world’s tastes changed, dozens of imaginative clarinetists never abandoned the axe: Omer Simeon, Irving Fazola, Peanuts Hucko, Albert Nicholas, Edmond Hall, Herb Hall, Mezz Mezzrow, Leon Rappolo, Joe Darensbourg, George Lewis, Tony Parenti; the list is endless.

One of the most successful traditionalists is New Orleans’ Pete Fountain, who rocketed to popular fame in 2 short years on the Lawrence Welk TV show and left, as he says, “because champagne and bourbon don’t mix.” Millions of viewers supported him for decades after, as pilgrims to his nightclub and buyers of his dozens of best-selling albums full of jazz and contemporary cover tunes during the 1960s and 70s. He hardly ever saw a tune on the charts that he could not re-interpret on clarinet, with the help of his erstwhile arranger Bud Dant.

Bob Wilber once told Whitney Balliett that perhaps Benny Goodman had set such a high standard for clarinet; who could follow him? Pete Fountain did! But clarinetists have a high tolerance for exasperation, and the challenges they have faced on the licorice stick can refine talents applicable (and better paid) in many areas of high achievement. Yes, I bet the IQ of clarinetists is above average. I think of Leon Breeden, a more than serviceable jazz clarinetist who became a music teacher and put Denton, Texas on the map as a school for jazz. Early in his career he self-published a book and record called Fun With The Clarinet.

If you can play Brahms, why learn bebop? Leon actual did make it fun. You played along with him and he overdubbed himself into a clarinet choir. He gave exercises that swung.

Fun, yes… to a point. With no other instrument does the player have to cover holes completely with his naked fingertips, while manipulating side keys for the chromatics and substitute fingerings necessary to follow in the footsteps of Bird or Diz. And, be a woodpecker in reverse just to get a decent sound.

The jazz listening ear moved quickly past the clarinet’s favorite jazz lick—the diminished triad. Coleman Hawkins made the passing chord sound good on sax. Along the veritable (and venerable) Route 66 of popular music, on a typical piece of vintage Tin Pan Alley sheet music, the ukulele or guitar chords will tablature as diminished. Today’s fake books will substitute the musical superhighway of ii-V substitutions which keep things dominant. This is not inherently good news for a classically-trained clarinetist, relegated along with diminishment to the Route 66 of jazz. Buddy DeFranco fearlessly and effortlessly commands any ii-V sub, and still found time to command the ghost band of Glenn Miller from1966-1974. Eddie Daniels has so many recording credits as a saxophonist, one might be forgiven for not knowing his breathtaking clarinet jazz. High virtuosity has not brought high fame or the big bucks to clarinetists. It’s brought a lot to music, though. Composers are still ravishing the clarinet; I think of Roger Kellaway who has written for both Paquito D’Rivera and Eddie Daniels. . . .

This blog entry posted by Michael Pellecchia. Check back soon for the third and final installment of this article.

April 14, 2009 · 22 comments


The Borough Where Jazz Lives

Tim Wilkins edits the Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians here at, and regularly contributes reviews in this column. Below he calls attention to a jazz festival that is still thriving, while others fall by the wayside. What can the rest of us learn from the CBJC, a jazz advocacy group founded in Brooklyn ten years ago, and still going strong? T.G.

2009 sounded a death knell for major jazz events in New York City: with the IAJE bankrupt and the JVC Jazz Fest dead in the water, it has looked like the first year in decades the "capital of jazz" would go without an event to draw fans and musicians from around the world.

cbcj logo

But wait—just across the river, in Brooklyn, there is a jazz festival which is doing just fine, thanks. Arts entrepreneurs could learn a lot from this scrappy fest, which is celebrating its tenth year of keeping the jazz flame alive in one of the places where the music was born.

Some call Brooklyn "the borough where jazz lives," and for years this meant Central Brooklyn, a swath which runs east from the Brooklyn Bridge through Fort Greene, Flatbush, and Bedford-Stuyvestant. Like Manhattan's Harlem and San Juan Hill, Central Brooklyn was a major destination for southern African-Americans moving north between the World Wars. The borough has been home to, among others, singer Billie Holiday, drummers Max Roach and Roy Haynes, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Leonard Gaskin, brass player Kiane Zawadi and pianist Randy Weston. Gaskin, Roach and Weston were part of the ambitious group of teenaged musicians who in the early forties made seminal contributions to the emerging language of bebop at clubs like Monroe's Uptown and Minton's. As teens, Weston and Roach would also hang out with older musicians like bandleader Andy Kirk at social clubs, to glean the wisdom that only comes from a life devoted to jazz. Central Brooklyn is one of the few places in America where young musicians can still learn in this way from their elders.

But San Juan Hill, where Fats Waller and Thelonious Monk once strode, was razed in the sixties, and Harlem's legendary ballrooms are gone too. Central Brooklyn, however, is still here, and many of its jazz legends still live in the neighborhood. Others, like Haynes, have moved on but keep close ties to Brooklyn and consistently turn out to support the festival, one key to its manageable budget and success.

Roy Haynes

                             Drummer Roy Haynes

"Me, here, in Brooklyn, 2009 – it feels like a dream!" said the ebullient Haynes, star of the festival's gala concert at the 3,100-seat Brooklyn Tech auditorium on April 4. "I married a woman from Brooklyn, and all four of my kids were born here!" Haynes was fresh from Europe, where he celebrated his 84th birthday by being named a Commander of Arts and Letters by France, that nation's highest honor in the arts.

Haynes's son, Craig, also a top jazz drummer, emerged from the wings to remind his dad that only he was born in Brooklyn—his brothers and sisters were born in Queens—but never mind. Spirits were high, Roy clearly felt like he was coming home, and Brooklyn was happy to have him.

The festival is a labor of love for the core group of committed volunteers who rallied ten years ago to celebrate Billie Holiday's birthday on April 15th. Churches, businesses and elected officials soon got on board, and created the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium (CBJC). A key goal for the CBJC is to make jazz and its creators accessible to local youth, who know hip-hop better than the unfamiliar sounds of swing and bop. "The world changed; the need became greater for a new generation of listeners," said Alma Carroll, one of the founders. "We came together to plant the seeds, and finally the acorn started to grow."

And so it has. Since 1999, the festival has grown into full month of daily performances and workshops. This year, they even have live internet broadcasts. All events are held at neighborhood clubs like Jazz 966, Sistas' Place and Rustik Tavern, churches, and schools. Tickets range from free to ten dollars—the top ticket price, for Haynes's benefit show, was $40, ten for students.

The festival also grants awards to celebrate the achievments of Brooklyn's jazz veterans, like Cecil Payne and Cedar Walton, and younger players who live there, like pianist Robert Glasper, trumpeter Maurice Brown and this year's winner of the "young lion" award, drummer E.J. Strickland.

Haynes's group provided the perfect keynote to the festival: his "Fountain of Youth" Band features Philadelphia native Jaleel Shaw on alto and soprano saxophone, Miami's Martin Bejerano on piano, and New York native David Wong on bass. The band's eclectic repertoire ranges from the straight-ahead bop of Monk's "Well, You Needn't" to guitarist Pat Metheny's "James," passing through deceptive polyrhythms on "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "Love For Sale."

As a bandleader, Haynes displays the generosity and attentiveness which has made him drummer of choice for everyone from Sarah Vaughan to Charlie Parker. He enjoyed trading guajeo rhythmic riffs with Bejerano. In fact, there was a lot of interaction onstage, which sets the Fountain of Youth apart from other "Living Legacy" bands, which group jazz veterans with mostly deferential young players.

Haynes joked with the audience and cajoled his younger bandmates into finding their own voices. "The ladies will love it, Jaleel, c'mon!" he said, as he spurred Shaw to pick up the soprano sax. Shaw did, and the result was his best playing of the evening, as his own thoughtful timbre and phrasing emerged out of the shadow of hard bop.

The Fountain of Youth band also offers evidence of how jazz, and Brooklyn, are changing: of the younger players, only Shaw is African-American. All play with assurance and maturity beyond their years.

Vocalist Vanessa Rubin, a Cleveland native who spent formative years in Brooklyn, offered an outstanding opening set with her trio of Danny Grissett on piano, Quincy Davis on drums and Richie Golds on bass. She teased the ladies in the audience that sometimes, when it comes to love, "Once is Not Enough!" The group offered thoughtful renditions of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Corcovado" and two Rubin originals, "Like An Old Song," written in a driving 5/4 rhythm, and "Never Let Me Go." In a highlight of the evening, she joined Haynes's band onstage for masterful encore of "All The The Things You Are."

Poet Amiri Baraka contributed philosophical and comic counterpoints to the music, first with an extended meditation on the hopeful arc which spans from "Pres"—saxophonist Lester Young—to "the Pres," Barack Obama. Haynes invited Baraka back to the stage at the end of the evening, where he brought the house down with what he calls "Low-Kus," one-sentence Zen koans on Black life: "If, in a world of funk, Elvis Presley is king, what is James Brown—God?"

In all, the evening was a fitting celebration of the deep roots of jazz in Brooklyn, which was both open to and encouraging of the music's future. The generous spirit in the house was infectious. Because of this, the music was better than what you might hear, even from these same performers, at a Manhattan nightclub for two to three times the price.

I must say I was surprised at Brooklyn Tech by the absence of my colleagues from the jazz press. Critics who would turn out to shows in Manhattan by Rubin or Haynes, who was feted by the Jazz Journalists Association last spring, were not there. I won't embarrass my friends by telling you how many of them live in Brooklyn. I will just say, as Roy did, "C'mon!"

In this case, their musical loss was my gain, but the Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival deserves to be more than a local treasure. Organizers are already at work on next year's lineup, which may include saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Pharoah Sanders. With world-class performances like these at neighborhood prices, I can only hope the festival will continue to grow and flourish.

If you missed Haynes's show, don't fret: there is plenty of music to come before the month is through. Flutist Dave Valentín will perform on Thursday, April 16th, Rubin will perform again with saxophonist Jeff King at Solomon's Porch on April 17th, after which you can head over to Jazz 966 and catch saxophonist Houston Person. On April 19th, Zawadi will host an evening to honor the recently departed Freddie Hubbard and pianist Ronnie Matthews, with, among others, James Spaulding, Louis Hayes, George Cables, Dwayne Burno, and Kenyatta Beasley. Head over to for all the details.

One of Mayor Bloomberg's sharp aides might notice these goings-on across the river and realize the perfect way to stimulate the local economy would be to sponsor a city-wide jazz festival to rival other all-city festivals, like the Montreal International Jazz Festival, which regularly attracts more than 2 million visitors.

New York has plenty of "shovel-ready" musicians who would be happy to join in and put jazz on every streetcorner of the city. Working with partners like the CBJC and Loren Schoenberg's Jazz Museum in Harlem, an all-city jazz fest could revitalize local venues and audiences in every borough.

Musicians, take note. If you want to send Bloomberg a message, if there's a blackout this summer, which in this era of cutbacks there may be, take your axes and shovels out into the streets and start to jam. We don't need to wait for the city to give us permission. Until then, we'll have to rely on the CBJC chairman Jitu Weusi and his dedicated colleagues to bring the best in jazz to Brooklyn every April. As Weusi likes to say, We'll put together, and you just come out and enjoy it!" I, for one, will, and I hope others will, too.

This blog article posted by Tim Wilkins.

April 13, 2009 · 1 comment


Jerry Bergonzi at the Acton Jazz Café

Roanna Forman, who covers the Boston jazz scene for, recently reported in this column on performances by Stan Sagov, Jimmy Heath and Brad Mehldau. Now she reviews Jerry Bergonzi’s appearance at the Acton Jazz Café, a regular Wednesday night engagement that shouldn't be such a well-kept secret. T.G.

By the blazing (video image of a) hearth—God love the Acton Jazz Café for its offhand camp—tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, bassist Bruce Gertz, and drummer Bob Kaufman (or KGB if you rearrange the names a little) recently stoked some real musical fire at this longtime Boston area jazz haunt. With special guest Vito Di Modugno on B3, they pretty much ran standards, packaging them with the monstrous chops and relaxed assuredness of master improvisers.

Jerry Bergonzi

It was an interesting evening to hear Bergonzi, whose latest album Tenorist with John Abercrombie among others, features all original compositions, which are angular and modern though informed by bebop and, of course, John Coltrane, with whom Bergonzi has two things in common—stylistic affinity, and a searching, experimental sensibility. However, for live performance the band picked familiar tunes, so that Di Modugno could jump right in. So you got a chance to see what Bergonzi would do with some Real Book classics, and to hear how high-level musicians blow on what for them is essentially a jam.

They began with Miles Davis’s “Solar,” swinging it with the tenor starting things off. (That was the arrangement for all the tunes, although the order of solos varied). After stating the theme, Bergonzi was well oiled and running melodically and harmonically inventive lines. Bruce Gertz weighed in with a feathery, swinging LaFaroesque solo. Bob Kaufman’s rolls introduced the timbres of his various drums, readying each one for action. Kaufman has a “zone-like” stage presence; he literally looks like he’s riding the groove with his eyes shut. The B3 then fell into place with a solo built on increasingly complex lines, speed, and rhythmic variation.

Next, Bergonzi set “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” over Bruce Gertz’s pedal point, with intensely rapid saxophone runs. The organ worked some oblique ascending and descending chromatics, and built fast lines topped by arpeggios, then went full throttle into fat block chords that milked the drama of the instrument. On “Thousand Eyes,” and throughout, you began to see the communication that comes not just from musicianship but from years of playing together. (Kaufman, Bergonzi and Gertz first hooked up in the late seventies.) They support and tune in to each other’s rhythmic and melodic variations naturally at this point. Bergonzi’s harmonic sophistication and beautiful tone was also evident as he floated over the bass pedal point at the end.

For a ballad, they chose Matt Dennis’s hard-luck lament, “Everything Happens to Me.” After a clean, contemplative reading of the head, Bergonzi gave the floor to Gertz, who coaxed a contrabass Bachian feel out of his instrument. Bergonzi’s own solo worked into some polyrhythms and then pulled back down into a swing feel anchored by a solid pocket. The organ’s romantic lines led to a close with mallets, bowed bass, and sax cadenza packaging and wrapping this fine tune.

“On the Brink” used changes based on “Confirmation.” This must be one of Bergonzi’s favorite progressions, since “Confrontation” in his CD “Between the Lines” is based on the same Charlie Parker tune. The rhythm section set up a New Orleans groove under Jerry’s solo, which reached into the sax’s higher register. When trading fours turned into a swaggery duet between the sax and drums, you could tell these musicians were a longtime unit, like dancers who intuitively pair off into the right steps.

In “Have You Met Miss Jones,” Bergonzi switched from the squawks of the previous tune to a sweeter, more melodic sound. Bruce Gertz built an exciting solo referencing the opening bars of the song, with some solid double-stop playing. Turning to blues, the group put Monk’s “Nutty” into a 12-bar form, although it’s usually played on rhythm changes. In contrast to Bergonzi’s and Gertz’s swift-moving runs, Kaufman started his solo minimally, leaving spaces, like paused speech, working into a straight-ahead feel for the close.

Then, setting up a brisk “Softly (As in a Morning Sunrise)” at blowing tempo, the group moved pretty quickly toward the dawn, with Di Modugno adding gelatinous, bluesy modal work and Bruce Gertz bowing a solo that moved like speedy low-lying animals. An ending referencing “A Love Supreme” paid homage to one of Bergonzi’s key influences.

I guess my only regret was that not much of the world was there to hear world-class jazz that evening. But Bergonzi and friends play every Wednesday night in this little suburban Mecca. Worth the journey.

This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman

April 12, 2009 · 4 comments


Jazz is Worth a Million Words

Our collection of track reviews on is now approaching the one million word mark. It gives me a twinge of carpal tunnel syndrome just to think of all that writing, editing and publishing. Around sixty writers have contributed to this project, which aims to provide cogent reviews of individual tracks covering the full range of jazz styles and eras.

These reviews exist in a hyperlinked database—this allows site visitors to find, with a click of a mouse, all related reviews featuring specific sidemen or song titles. For example, the database currently includes reviews of 125 individual tracks on which Miles Davis performs. Some 122 Duke Ellington tracks have been reviewed, etc. If you are looking for jazz cover versions of George Gerswhin song, you can find a hundred or so examples here. The work continues, but even at this stage the result is a unique guide and reference for jazz fans.

Below are links to 15 track reviews published during the last two weeks. To search through all of the track reviews on our site, use the search box in the left sidebar on our Music page.

Happy listening!

Cannonball Adderley

Cannonball Adderley: “Bohemia After Dark”
Reviewed by Marcus Singletary

Patricia Barber

Patricia Barber: “I Could Eat Your Words”
Reviewed by Thomas Cunniffe

Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck: “Thank You”
Reviewed by Ed Leimbacher

 Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole: “I Know That You Know”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

 Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington: "Tootin' Through the Roof”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Robert Glasper

Robert Glasper: “J Dillalude”
Reviewed by Jared Pauley

 Branford Marsalis

Branford Marsalis: “Swinging at the Haven”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

 Pat Martino

Pat Martino: “Waltz for Geri”
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

 Lee Morgan

Lee Morgan: “Whipser Not”
Reviewed by Greg Marchand

Milton Nascimento

Milton Nascimento: “Tudo Que Você Podia Ser”
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

 King Oliver

King Oliver: “Riverside Blues”
Reviewed by Peter Gerler

Nicholas Payton

Nicholas Payton: “A Touch of Silver”
Reviewed by Greg Marchand

 Harvie S

Harvie S: “Miyako
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Sauter-Finegan Orchestra

Sauter-Finegan Orchestra: “Child’s Play”
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

Stanley Turrentine

Stanley Turrentine: “Impressions”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

April 09, 2009 · 0 comments


If There Were an American Idol Competition for Jazz Singers . . .

While the rest of the world is taking odds on who will win American Idol, jazz fans know where to look for the real star vocalists. And the competition is heating up here too. Cassandra Wilson’s compilation Closer to You was released yesterday. Diana Krall’s new CD Quiet Nights came out on March 31. Madeleine Peyroux’s Bare Bones was released on March 10.

Diana Krall

Phone in now with your votes. Or text message your choice. . .

As I write, Krall’s release sits at the very top of Amazon’s “jazz vocals” sales chart. Peyroux is in the fourth spot. Cassandra Wilson shows up at number 27 on the list. Of course, if you judge singers on the basis of sales, Krall is clearly the queen of the cash register. Her releases hold eight of the top 25 slots.

If it wasn’t for the Norah Jones phenomenon—at one point earlier in the decade, Jones reportedly represented half of the jazz CDs being sold during some weeks—Krall wouldn’t even need to look over her shoulder to suss out the competition. In an era in which jazz music is disappearing from mainstream culture, Krall has somehow managed to overcome all the obstacles and reach a large audience. And it is not just because she married Elvis Costello—Krall was selling out concert halls long before that happened.

Sometimes it seems as if the jazz world hates success. CDs that would have been praised by critics and fans if they had sold five thousand copies, become subject to ridicule and abuse if they go gold. Krall’s very success inevitably produces a backlash, and we can already seen signs of it. (One of the first reviews on the Krall CD—published even before the disk was out –had the headline: “Krall delivers more elevator-ready jazz.”)

I am uneasy with the heavy-duty marketing and packaging that accompanies these releases—and Krall pulled out all the stops for this CD launch, even presenting a free noontime concert with full orchestra last week at The Winter Garden at the World Financial Center. But I give this singer her due. She gets deep inside the songs she sings, almost like a psychiatrist trying to unlock the hidden meaning of a patient’s dreams.

The great standards, event the tired old ones that we have heard too many times ("Body and Soul," "My Funny Valentine," and the other usual suspects), have something mysterious living inside them, but it takes a rare artist to cut through the surface level and reach that almost metaphysical element. Krall does this as well as any singer on the planet these days, and the other vocalists who insert “scootelly-ooteelly-dooh” in the middle of a song about broken hearts might learn a thing or two by studying her work.

Yet I must point out that Krall’s new CD, for all its virtues, takes no chances. She seems intent on recreating as closely as possible the sound and style of her 2001 release The Look of Love. She brings back Claus Ogerman, who is unlikely to surprise us at this point in his career. (Wouldn’t it be great if she shook things up with more provocative charts, as Joe Lovano did on his Symphonica CD last year?) Krall also relies on many of the same musicians, the same conductor, and the same types of songs and tempos here as on that earlier release. I cannot fault the individual tracks here, which are performed with loving care. But can you spell F-O-R-M-U-L-A?

Madeleine Peyroux

There are more surprises on Madeleine Peyroux’s new CD, but far less jazz content. I have heard many critics attack Peyroux for imitating Billie Holiday. I think they miss the point. This singer wants to be the next Joni Mitchell, or at least Rickie Lee Jones, and has no interest in finding her own equivalent of Lester Young in order to create jazz masterpieces.

Yes, she has a languid delivery that is somewhat reminiscent of Lady Day, but I find this aspect of Peyroux's style rather appealing. She definitely knows how to deliver a phrase for maximum impact, yet barely raising her voice above a whisper. Even so, I’m not sure whether jazz fans will have much interest in her Bare Bones CD. However, I expect to hear it on the radio and at Starbucks. I wouldn’t be surprised to find some teenagers checking it out too, and that can’t be a bad thing, given the alternatives out there.

Cassandra Wilson

The Cassandra Wilson CD Closer to You: The Pop Side pulls together tracks from various releases and highlights this singer’s cover versions of hit songs. The range of material here is dauntingly wide, and includes the Monkee’s “Last Train to Clarksville,” Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Certainly the record label execs have crossover sales in mind. Yet even if there is a formula here too, Wilson’s versions of these songs are anything but formulaic. When they teach integrity in the jazz singing classes at Berklee, they should put her photo on the overhead projector. The real lesson from hearing all these interpretations of pop-rock hits is that a great jazz vocalist can take on any tune, no matter how schmaltzy or saccharine, and make it into art song.

Tierney Sutton

Tierney Sutton is not as well known as Krall, Peyroux or Wilson, but we need to find a place for her in this survey of recent releases. Her new CD Desire is one of the best jazz vocal albums of the year. The arrangements are very smart, the band challenges and prods the singer (something that you will almost never hear on the high-profile projects by the grand crossover divas of our time), and Sutton responds with intensely creative interpretations of the old songs. This CD also is climbing the charts, and it certainly isn’t because of the PR campaign. There was no noontime concert with full orchestra to celebrate its release.

For more info, check out my reviews of the following tracks:

Diana Krall: Too Marvelous for Words
Madeleine Peyroux: Instead
Tierney Sutton: Cry Me a River
Tierney Sutton: It’s Only a Paper Moon
Cassandra Wilson: The Weight

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

April 08, 2009 · 4 comments


The Next Young Lions: 6 Players Who Could be Future Stars

Jazz fans are restless types, and always looking for next new thing. contributor Brian Dwyer, who recently wrote in the column about Herbie Hancock's visit to New Delhi, now offers his thoughts on some heralded younger musicians. He highlights a half-dozen exceptional talents, and tries to determine which of them has what it takes to achieve jazz stardom. T.G.

With communication as widespread as it is, and the world becoming smaller because of it, the young gems of the jazz world that begin to shine early are far less easily concealed than, say, 50 years ago. Young talents can be paraded on morning television programs before they feel at home in the clubs, and before they meet the veterans who will nurture and guide them.

I was inspired, even tricked, by the 14-year-old voice of Simone Jehangir. It should have belonged to someone twice her age. Jehangir is part of Goa’s up-and-coming jazz scene in India, and her voice carries an air of maturity and a well-developed grace. She had me thinking about what it takes to develop at a young age, and about the signs, as well as some of the hurdles, of early development.

Remember that Herbie Hancock started out with a spot at age 11 playing a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. What spurs on the natural, or even the savant (beware the label prodigy, which some take to connote a lack of expression)? Does it take an event like five-year-old Roy Ayers being handed his first pair of mallets from Lionel Hampton to lay the tracks to a historic career? Mary Lou Williams taught herself piano by age five and did a good job from there. But then there are always the cases like that of Craig Hundley, hailed as the future of jazz at age 14, who fail to live up to the hype and expectations.

Here’s the nature versus nurture of it all—the patterns in six resumes of potential future jazz stars.

Ariel Lanyi by Matt Calais

Ariel Lanyi

What comes out of 11-year-old Ariel Lanyi of Jerusalem may well describe what it’s like in the mind of anyone that age—thoughts are interspersed with a few moments of clarity during the muck of development. At this point, the improvisations of this pianist are likely to stem as much from his unbridled childhood curiosity as they are from the jazz recordings he’s listened to and studied; it’s far too early to really say anything definitive except that at the moment his classical training, which began at four, is the basis of his experimentations with jazz.

There are countless others around the world who show promise, for which Lanyi is just one of them. The test comes in the sponsorship, which jazz giants publically support which kids as the future of jazz. If nothing else, Lanyi has his membership to a group for local avant-garde jazz musicians, which begs the question: Can a kid so young really know the difference between avant-garde and flapping your hands up and down?

Grace Kelly at 15

Grace Kelly

At age 17, Grace Kelly has already hit the spots that most musicians spend years trying to get to backstage. The Boston native has done Jazz Standard with Frank Morgan, Dizzy’s, Birdland, and a stint with Dave Brubeck. Her mother was the one, years before that when Grace was five, that had her learning classical piano and listening to Stan Getz. Since the fifth grade, the sax player has been performing around Boston clubs with her own band or frequently as a guest to more prominent acts.

She’s been in the musical care of, among others, her teacher Lee Konitz (who worked on her fourth album Gracefullee) and Phil Woods. Of course some of the accolades (most in the last four years or so) are because of age, but Kelly has a knack for improvisation and a strong sense of rhythm.

Onstage, she can’t stand still. Her signature move might be her dancing, crouching to every note. She grinds her phrases over and over again—she seems always to be trying to reach a high where, excuse the cliché, she gets lost in the music and her steps and notes become intertwined. She showed early on a smooth way of phrasing, somewhat like Getz's, that has more recently tended toward a syncopated funk, and a smart control of shrill pitches in a James Carter way. For Grace Kelly, her talent has proven to be a steppingstone to meeting and playing with the legends that have undoubtedly influenced and cared for her.

Francesco Cafiso

Francesco Cafiso

This Sicilian alto sax player is a curious case of relatively huge fame and huge pressure very early. After hearing him at an Italian jazz festival in 2002, Wynton Marsalis (the name comes up everywhere as perhaps the word on young talent) invited Cafiso to join his European tour at the age of 14, just five years after he first picked up his alto. He has become somewhat the spectacle as of late—a protégé of Marsalis’s, yet still somewhat exclusive to Italy and the nearby European clubs where he plays with his own bands. However, he was invited to Obama’s inauguration to perform with Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Like any curator of bop, Cafiso, 19, arranges his solos with technical speed and a definite structure, building up to a climax and cascading down again, much like a good storyteller should. Despite all of his live experiences, he’s still studying in a positive sense. His idolization of Bird and Coleman Hawkins is the base he needs to further his exploration and find a defined voice for a boy who’s been a man for some time.

Eldar Djangirov

Known simply as Eldar, his right to the single name of the famous came from such accomplishments as playing Carnegie Hall at age 19. His mother, a classical pianist, imparted to him a precise and clean style, while his father served as the supplier of records. His father’s affinity for virtuoso players such as Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson seemed to register with Eldar. But while Tatum always focused on what were, at the time, popular standards, Eldar can break out in salsa or rock rhythms.

Eldar Djangirov

The Kyrgyzstan native made his home in Kansas City at the age of 11. It would be only three years before he’d release his first album. In the meantime, he became the youngest musician (12) featured on Marian McPartland’s NPR program Piano Jazz. He may very likely have the heart of a young rocker: in the world of Eldar, louder and faster is just more fun.

Eldar is partly a sign of the times—our era of the attention span endangered—in his affinity for switching between styles in an instant. Whereas older players might linger in the spaces between their notes, priding themselves on their pacing, Eldar seems enlivened when he can jump from modal to stride. He may well become the role model for even younger players once he’s developed his own personality.

Alex Han

Alex Han

The defining rite-of-passage came for alto saxophonist Han last year at the experienced age of 20, playing throughout Europe with bassist Marcus Miller in a tour that seemed well-suited to Han’s R&B vein. I’d peg him as a seasoned listener to the Kenny Garretts and Joshua Redmans of a slightly older generation, and the other sustainers and enrichers of the post-Coltrane sax tradition.

His nurturing began at age 12, just four years after he started on the instrument (at his parents’ urgings), with encouragement from Paquito D’Rivera. Two years later he’d released his first album and had made himself a name. He’s stayed true to the path of the Young Lions. More so than most of the young class, Alex Han should be known for his patience, his balance of the long, trembling bellows with busier phrases. For Han, the issues of age and youth already begin to lose their significance now that he’s aware of his own mature style.

Taylor Eigsti performs for Dave Brubeck

Taylor Eigsti

Whispers of Eigsti’s name, though probably mispronounced, began even when he was a fifth grader. Now at 24, he’s a mature musician, successful in breaking away from the image of himself at 13, when he was asked to play with Dave Brubeck. Like many of the others, his playing began early, in his case at four-years of age. Unlike most prodigies though, he quickly became the educator himself, joining the teaching staff at the Stanford Jazz Workshop at 15.

Eigsti has nestled himself into a contemporary style, with an emphasis on composition—the kind of long winding escalators marked by alternating rhythms. The hardest thing for a “prodigy” may be to grow up and take the risky step backwards out of the spotlight, the TV interviews, to join most 20-something musicians. Yet it is clear that his six albums and two Grammy nominations have garnered some respect from many in the jazz community, at least enough for him to be called a colleague rather than a prodigy.

This blog entry posted by Brian Dwyer

April 07, 2009 · 0 comments


The Rise and Fall of the Clarinet (Part 1)

The clarinet was once the dominant instrument in jazz, literally defining the sound of the Swing Era, as demonstrated by the commercial and artistic successes of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and others. But somehow that all changed during the modern jazz era. Michael Pellecchia tries to uncover the reasons why below, in the first installment of this three-part article. T.G.

            Benny Goodman, artwork by Keith Henry Brown

It’s said that Benny Goodman died with Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata Opus 120 on a music stand nearby. He had finished his work for jazz, and jazz had finished its work with him.

Like the banjo, the clarinet had an important role in jazz but now it’s either a sax double or a dark didgeridoo, some cultural artifact of a signaling race approaching extinction. In order to survive, the jazz instrument check-out desk had to refine its selections. Ask for a clarinet, and get a saxophone.

It’s easy to forget how important the clarinet was. Alphonse Picou’s flag-waver, the oft-quoted “High Society” chorus, is worth a thousand words in this respect. Racing up and down scales and arpeggios was devilishly easy on this instrument which inspired ladykiller virtuosos to gig on the transient showpieces of Carl Maria von Weber and drive composers to heights like Mozart and Brahms.

The clarinet and piano gave jazz its Eurocentric roots, making the music go up and down while the banjo helped it go back and forth. A pianist such as Lil Hardin might be asked to keep her right hand out of the clarinet’s range. A cornetist working a limited range of notes would be filigree’d by a nervously fingered clarinetist.

Ever since Schubert’s “Shepherd on the Rock” the clarinet and voice have gone together. From opera to blues, it’s the perfect foil for a good singer, be it Lily Pons or Ma Rainey. It seemed to have the necessary ingredient for ethnic and racial mixing: a “field holler” of European pedigree, with its growling and snapping effects. Alongside the banjo in jazz, it was integrating the literate and nonliterate, the European and African, the country and the city, writing a new language. The clarinet sounded best on records made before the advent of “electrical process” recording during 1925 and 1926. Today’s microphonics don’t really favor its shape or manner of sound production. But live in person—the sound of an Albert System clarinet, with a little less metal than the keywork of clarinets today—it was really somethin’.

By the early 1920s, all cities had speakeasies where the sound of trained and untrained musicians merged in a cacophony of alcohol. Just like electrical guitar today, it’s easy to play a “little” clarinet. Squeak too much, and you were not long for the gig. There was incentive to get good. And good some cats got . . . very good.

The clarinet had a muse-like charm. When Louis Armstrong got to New York, he began as an undistinguished section player in Fletcher Henderson’s band. One day, clarinetist Buster Bailey was hired. On the stand at Roseland, Armstrong followed Bailey’s “Tiger Rag” break with four choruses of his own—the first time he cut loose with this band. The sound Bailey brought from Chicago reminded Louis of his roots.

In this wooden tube with holes and a single reed, inhabited the classical legacy of Franz Schoepp, who helped jazzers Bailey, Jimmie Noone, and Benny Goodman polish their technique. The Creole Tradition of Lorenzo Tio, the American side of the European coinage. It held the formality of a Jelly Roll Morton. It gave up the moan of the blues. It projected the smoky vapors of the Windy City. It boasted three different registers built in twelfths, unlike the octave stretch of the sax.

Early 20th century clarinetists appeared more often than not on jazz and blues records, and not just for solos. Duke Ellington and Claude Thornhill used the clarinet trio and Glenn Miller mixed clarinet and low brass for his trademark sound.

By the beginning of the Great Depression, though jazz had a superstar in Louis Armstrong, the two beat was evolving into a 4/4. A prominent shepherd of this movement was also a clarinetist. Interesting that the 4/4 banner was carried by the cat who played the most 16th notes per minute in a traditional jazz band—the clarinetist.

Benny Goodman, who had gotten his big break on a program called “Let’s Dance,” was not known to have doubled on sax, unlike Sidney Bechet or Johnny Dodds. He had adopted a new formula with a band that did sophisticated call-and-response between the brass and winds, could play music both sweet and hot, and featured a clarinet soloist. He became far and away the most popular clarinetist to have ever lived. This reticent, bespectacled man finished the clarinet’s work in helping to create jazz, though it would become a mere foot soldier in the music’s history from 1948 on.

This blog entry posted by Michael Pellecchia. For part two of this article, click here.

April 06, 2009 · 14 comments


Remembering Bud Shank (1926-2009)

The last time I talked to Bud Shank was in November 2007 at a conference on West Coast jazz held by the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Not many of the pioneers of West Coast jazz had lived long enough to witness this amazing turnabout. Few of them anticipated a day when an international symposium would be held to honor a music that had been subject to so many coy dismissals in earlier decades. I was delighted to catch up with Bud, but it was an even greater thrill was to watch him (and a few others) getting some respect from the assorted academics and opinion leaders.

Bud Shank by  Scott Strohmeier

Don't get me wrong, Bud Shank always had plenty of admirers and fans, but they tended to be ordinary people who just loved the music and knew that Bud was the real deal, and few of them had tenure at a university or wrote for the influential journals of the day. Shank, like many of his contemporaries on the West Coast, made a living despite the institutions that handed out favors. His success testifies to the power of his music, plain and simple.

When jazz lost much of his audience in the 1960s under the onslaught of rock and roll, Shank had no safety net to fall back on, no university gig waiting in the wings. But he could play a range of instruments, and play them brilliantly, and he made a new career doing more studio work than straight-ahead jazz. The same jazz establishment that had rarely acknowledged him when he was playing on classic jazz dates in the 1950s, was quick to call him a sell-out. I enjoyed Shank's response to a high-handed question from a European critic who tried to take him to task. Bud's reply:

You have to survive. When I became a full-time studio musician, I had been unemployed for a long time since jazz music left us in 1962-63 or whenever. I don't think any of us realized what was going on, but some American jazz musicians ended up here in Europe, some gave up playing altogether, some went off into never-never land by whatever chemical they could find. And there were some others who went into another business. That's what I did. I went into another business using the tools I had, which was playing the flute and the saxophone. Consider that a copout? No, I don't.

As this quote makes clear, Bud Shank was not one to mince words. When I was researching my book on West Coast jazz, I met up with him in his hotel room on Van Ness and Lombard Streets in San Francisco while he was in town for a gig. He delivered frank, intelligent answers to all my questions, showing a candor that contrasted markedly with the guardedness that jazz players often adopt when talking to a music historian.

He amazed me by being so critical of his own work. Shank had won awards as a jazz flautist, but he told me: "I think the flute is a stupid instrument to be playing jazz music on." No other musician interviewed for that book was less given to self-congratulatory attitudes than Bud Shank. But I have learned over the years that the greatest musical talents are often those who are most dissatisfied with their own efforts. This very dissatisfaction is what spurs them to new levels.

The altoist was born as Clifford Everett Shank, Jr. in Dayton, Ohio on May 27, 1926, and grew up on a country farm some ten miles from town. His country school had an experimental music education program, and the youngster started playing clarinet at age ten. He recalled to me making his musical debut four weeks after starting on the horn. "A very simple piece," he told me. "I still have the music." At age twelve, he started on the saxophone, and later studied music at the University of North Carolina, where his father was stationed in the armed forces.

Shank left the university during his third year, along with other student musicians, to go on the road as a touring band. The experience lasted only a few months, but Shank never looked back. He played with Charlie Barnet in 1947, and headed to Los Angeles in 1949, where he worked with Alvino Rey. But his break came when Shank was invited to join Stan Kenton's new Innovations in Modern Music band. This proved to be a springboard to solo career in the early 1950s. Shank recorded with guitarist Laurindo Almeida, and though it is not correct to claim, as some have, that this music was the birth of bossa nova, it certainly set a precedent in combining a jazz sensibility with Brazilian-oriented material. He was an important member of the Lighthouse All-Stars, and collaborated with Bob Cooper on some memorable projects, including a vital 1956 live recording made at Cal Tech. Shank was often at his best in live performance, as demonstrated on a powerful mid-1950s amateur recording made the Haig, which sat unreleased for many years. This first rate (but seldom heard) album finds Shank in transition between his earlier cool and later hot styles. In the early 1960s, he played regularly at the Drift Inn in Malibu, often with Carmell Jones, Dennis Budimir, and Gary Peacock in a forward-looking band that also deserved greater visibility.

Shank, for his part, propelled his whole career by burning the bridges behind him. His work with the Stan Kenton band helped boost him to notoriety in the jazz world, but Shank told Gene Lees "that band was too clumsy to swing." On the LA scene, Shank helped develop the cool alto sound, not entirely different from what Paul Desmond and Lee Konitz were doing at the time, and he might have pursued this approach for the rest of his career. But Shank decided to throw this overboard too, and became a hotter and more aggressive improviser during the course of the 1950s. He was defying the "marketing angle" associated with West Coast jazz, a spin that portrayed this music as cool and melodic, but Shank didn't have much patience with those kind of considerations. He later had success in the band LA 4, alongside another former Kenton colleague Laurindo Almeida—a unit which often featured Shank on flute. And I have already told you how content Bud was with that aspect of his music.

Yet through all this, he continued to expand his conception of the alto and improvise with a zeal and integrity that fans appreciated. They didn't need to talk to Bud Shank, as I had done, to hear how straight and honest he was. These attributes showed up on the bandstand at every gig. At our meeting in 2007, he told me how much inspiration he continued to find in old standards such as "All the Things You Are." He said that these songs still fascinated him and drew out his creative energies whenever he played them.

Mr. Shank could take care of himself. When I saw him that last time, he needed to use a wheelchair to get around. But over lunch he told me of his travels—as I recall, he was just back from Japan—and the touring schedule he was pursuing in his 80s would have been enough to exhaust a much younger man. He was reportedly in San Diego, shortly before his death, working on a recording. Certainly a huge amount of credit must be given to his wife Linda Shank who, in my opinion, was a major reason why this altoist stayed so productive in his later years. All jazz players should be so blessed in their choice of a soulmate.

Of course, in the last stage of his career, Shank didn't need to play mindless studio gigs. His solid body of work, made over the period of sixty years, had built him a fan base from Tokyo to Copenhagen. I am sure that many today are mourning the passing of this stellar artist thousands of miles away from his birthplace in Dayton, Ohio or Los Angeles where he helped establish the West Coast sound. Now is the time to grieve, but let's also put on one of this artist's records, and celebrate a life well lived and a first rate musical talent who never took the easy way out.

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

April 04, 2009 · 6 comments


The Agony and the Ecstasy of Earshot Jazz is delighted to welcome Willard Jenkins as a contributor to the site. Jenkins has long been a vital presence in the jazz community, contributing to the art form as producer, presenter, journalist, broadcaster, educator, consultant, and arts administrator. Be on the lookout for his work with pianist Randy Weston on the pianist’s autobiography African Rhythms, which will be published later this year.

Below is the first of a series of articles from Jenkins on the key people behind the scenes in the jazz world who are working to keep the music scene vital at a grass roots level. In this installment, Jenkins talks with John Gilbreath of Seattle’s Earshot Jazz, one of the great regional jazz organizations in the United States. T.G.

Earshot Jazz

Just how does that jazz clubdate, concert or festival happen in your city? Often those presentations are the lifeblood of small, tough-minded, altruistic not-for-profit presenting organizations that persevere against the prevailing winds to bring great music to their communities. This column will explore the nuts & bolts of bringing live jazz to the stage through conversations with the people who make it happen.

Our first conversation is with John Gilbreath of Seattle’s venerable Earshot Jazz, celebrating 25 years of bringing great jazz to the Pacific Northwest—from Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music, James Moody and Toshiko Akiyoshi to Charles Lloyd, Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of Spirits and Cuong Vu, Earshot has pretty much covered the gamut.

How has Earshot evolved over the years?

We remain a small, grassroots organization compared to some of the fish that we’re swimming with—even regionally. . . San Francisco Jazz, Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Like many non-profits we earn 50% of our income and 50% is contributed—but there’s the sense of jazz festivals needing to become more commercial, to sell more tickets, and to make more money. Then the question is how to measure your success. For boards of directors and for many people who come from the for-profit side, you’re only successful if you sell tickets and make money.

We stay committed to emerging artists, to lesser known artists, to the touring artists who need to tour but for whom the commercial venues are not an option. . . . For us the juice of the art form is where the art form is moving forward and intersecting with other music. Oftentimes that’s not the case where you’re selling a lot of tickets; in fact it’s usually the case where you’re NOT selling a lot of tickets. We’re taking essentially a stewardship role of the art form that we love, supporting and thinking about the bigger picture of what’s going to help this art form, jazz artists and jazz audiences ten or twenty years from now.

There’s always this tension as any art form moves forward, that it has an imperative to be different this year than it was last year, although some people don’t buy into that. But art has an imperative to expand, progress, and be creative.

Do you find yourself presenting artists early in their career that you may not be able to afford later once they’ve established themselves?

The cruel irony of that is if the artist is in a trajectory that’s going to take them to some prominence, they’re not going to perform for you once they get up on the arc—which happens to presenters around the country. Earshot was the first to present Robert Glasper in Seattle, we were the first to present Jason Moran’s Bandwagon, we did that in small clubs. We were the first to present The Bad Plus, which we did in a little tavern. We were the first to present Esperanza Spalding here. Once their professional arc progresses they’re working with bigger agencies—and frankly bigger agencies don’t even call me.

When Medeski Martin & Wood were touring the country in that crappy old white GMC van all those years, a lot of people put them on their stages for $1000 fee and lost $600 doing that. They don’t even get a phone call anymore; it’s just the irony of the way it goes.

In the 18 years you’ve been director, programmatically how has Earshot progressed?

The programming philosophy was already set when I came on the scene. Earshot’s very first concert series in 1986 was a juried series of Seattle artists doing creative, original work in an unconventional setting, the New City Theatre, a kind of avant-garde theatre company. Earshot’s first national artist presentation was Cecil Taylor.

When I came on as a volunteer in the early 90s, the Earshot Jazz Festival was called the World Jazz Festival and it mixed the same thing we’re doing now, artists from around the world and artists with a global perspective. The first concert that I worked was the International Creative Music Orchestra [ICM], an improvising orchestra conducted by Butch Morris that had artists from Germany, New York and some New York artists then living in Seattle, like Wayne Horvitz, Robin Holcomb. It was a crazy, wonderful mix of post-free jazz. Also that was the year that Don Cherry’s Multi-Kulti was breaking out, and one of the John McLaughlin projects with a French bassist, and some of these things that were kind of an international flavor of jazz.

Is the fall festival still the core activity of Earshot Jazz?

It constitutes 60-70% of our annual budget, but the core of Earshot Jazz is our publication. We’ve distributed over a million copies of that magazine free in Seattle over the last 25 years. It’s such a blessing; sometimes it’s a quick read but it’s always had the area’s most comprehensive calendar of jazz events around here, so it’s a resource.

It’s clear Earshot has a thirst for the original, the edgy. Is that organizational direction or the dictates of the Seattle audience?

We have a series coming up this spring with Peter Brötzmann, Mats Gustafsson from Norway and Ab Baars from Amsterdam. These are great artists traveling thousands of miles to play a gig for pretty low artist fees and we’ll get 50 people in the audience, so we’ll lose money at that.

These kinds of presentations wouldn’t happen in all communities. Is this a matter of the Seattle community perhaps having more of an interest in the adventurous than there might be somewhere in Middle America?

The audiences are never big enough, but yes we are blessed to have that.

You’ve often presented the great masters in the tradition. How do you go about integrating the great masters and the tradition with the more edgy music?

A lot of it is pragmatic. We’ve formed partnerships with the artists and with the rest of the community too. We’ve gotten really good at building collaborations with other arts organizations and other presenter. . . . If we are going to present the major jazz festival in a major American city, we damn well better have some marquee names on the thing or nobody’s going to pay any attention to us. In fact, the more of the national artists that appear on the festival, the more important it is for the Seattle artists that appear on the same festival and the more power it has for them.

A couple of years ago we started off the festival with Ahmad Jamal and we didn’t sell enough tickets. We had Dee Dee Bridgewater and we lost money. We had a Toots Thielemans concert on that same opening weekend and it wasn’t well-attended! And these are concerts that are about as accessible as it gets. But a couple of days later when we got into the meat of our festival with Dafnis Prieto, Peter Apfelbaum, and all those other artists that was the juice for us and I thought yeah, this is what we do, we hit our stride in the middle of a festival when we’re doing that kind of work.

Sometimes we’re seen as a small organization, and again that’s both a blessing & a curse. I’m so grateful that I don’t have a large staff… every time payroll comes around, there are just two people on staff, and we can pay our bills. I hate to carry debt and I hate organizationally to carry debt. I think we have to be responsible, we have to be agile. I might take in a renter to share our office space, but we have to be creative and we have to be flexible.

The beauty of having a small organization is you can do all of that stuff much faster than some big, lumbering institution. On the other side of it yeah, we don’t have the financial power to start a jazz festival with Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, and Ahmad Jamal every year. But we can have one or two of them and still do a lot of service to the art form by presenting a lot of emerging artists and a lot of creative projects that wouldn’t normally find their way to a stage in this city.

This blog entry posted by Willard Jenkins.

April 02, 2009 · 1 comment


In which your intrepid blogger covers Bennie Maupin, Brahms, some ugly pipes, and the role of the Internet. . .

Mark Saleski is an intrepid seeker after hidden musical riches and an editor at Below he ponders how the Internet is changing the way we make random discoveries about music and ugly pipes (among other things). T.G.

So here I am, writing for an Internet-only publication, while occasionally having to suppress the cries of my inner-Luddite— that part of my character that's just not satisfied with (or even interested in) the concept of Web-only music acquisition. I've been trying to dig into the root cause of this angst. Just what is it that I'm afraid of?

Part of this was covered not too long ago in a blog entry on Record Store Day. One topic only briefly mentioned there was the idea of accidental discovery. You know, you're rummaging through a bin and find a long-lost gem of a record, or maybe something so bizarre you've just got to try it out. Sure, you can pick a clunker that way, but my music radar rarely lets me down.

My inner-Luddite fears that this kind of thing will go away with the Internet. Now, before you blow your top and start tossing MySpace, iTunes and other things my way, you must realize that a large chunk of music will indeed vanish, never making it into the digital realm. What I used to call "Record Album Archeology" will probably cease to exist.

ugly pipes

But...that's not what I'm here for. Because in the middle of thinking this through (a process that is in no way complete), I was reminded of an experience I had last spring that will provide a great counterexample—proof that I can actually see the benefits of the new digital world. The following story could not have happened without the existence of the Internet. The question that will be answered: "How did I get from A to Z . . . in which (A) is a piece of music by Brahms, and (Z) is the photo on your left of those pipes?"

A few years ago, I was working on a review of Bennie Maupin's Penumbra. While staring off into space, trying to conjure an appropriate description of Maupin's bass clarinet sound, I remembered a tape I'd made some years earlier of a movement of a Brahms symphony, rendered on solo bass clarinet. The piece was recorded from a radio broadcast of the New Music America Festival and the musician was named David Ocker. Maupin's sound triggered the memory of Ocker's solo work, so the review seemed like a perfect opportunity to intersect the two.

About six months after the Maupin review went live, I received an email with the subject line "seeking mark saleski" from David Ocker. Yes, like most of us (C'mon, you know you do it!) Ocker indulged in a bit of ego-surfing, and that's how he stumbled onto my Maupin review. From there, we had an e-conversation where I learned that Ocker had worked as a copyist and Synclavier programmer for Frank Zappa. He's gone on to work with the likes of John Adams, no longer plays the bass clarinet, shares a birthday with both Bennie Maupin and Charlie Parker, and does all of his composing via software. Eventually, Mr. Ocker sent me a digitized version of the Brahms piece, officially entitled "The Allegro Fourth Movement from the Symphony Number 3 in F Opus 90 by Johannes Brahms by David Ocker." It also turns out that Ocker is into taking what I like to refer to as "oddball" pictures — the kind of photos that, when I've taken them, have mostly earned me worried sideways glances from friends and relatives. I was sort of amazed to click through his gallery, seeing photos that I myself would have taken.

So perhaps I have learned a valuable lesson here. That just maybe the Internet's dominance will not be able to ruin my enjoyment of random artistic discoveries. OK, it might even enhance it. By the way, does that photo remind anybody else of Eric Dolphy's music?

This blog article posted by Mark Saleski.

April 01, 2009 · 1 comment