The Best Jazz Tracks of the Month

 Kenya Revisited

“I want to emphasize: this is not nostalgia,” Bobby Sanabria announces at the start of the recording of his Kenya concert. And if anyone in the audience had any doubts, the searing music Sanabria & Co. performed that evening soon dispelled them. The CD, released three weeks ago, makes that eminently clear.

It’s worth remembering Sanabria's admonishment in the context of the current jazz scene, where tribute bands and revivals are increasingly taking over the clubs and concert halls. A lot of these efforts are exercises at nostalgia. But the old music doesn’t need to sound like a museum piece. Jazz is at a crossroads, where it must learn how to celebrate its heritage without losing the vitality of an art form that is happening today. This is not an impossible balancing act, and when it is achieved by the right band in the right setting with the right attitude, the mix is about 20% history lesson and 80% sheer excitement.

Several of the recordings featured here as Song of the Day during the last month achieve just that balance. Sanabria’s CD with the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra is a brilliantly realized example. Allen Toussaint's recent release, with its emphasis on old New Orleans music, is the most traditional recording of his career, but you won’t want to file this one away with your Dixieland revival records. I suspect that the record label had some formulaic “old-time” concept in mind when they hatched this project, but Toussaint is too immersed in the moment to fall into the tepid tribute trap.


Then we come to the “reunion” project that came out earlier this week from Pat Metheny and Gary Burton (joined by Steve Swallow and Antonio Sanchez). The pop art cover by Peter Max, with its lame 1960s-ish overtones doesn’t do justice to the music on this disk. Even if many of the songs are several decades old, the band plays at a very high level, and Metheny's solo work here is as good as it gets. Any guitarist who wants to learn how to construct melodically-rich solos that build phrase-by-phrase, will do well to check this CD out.

Other highly recommended recent releases featured during the month include Nicholas Urie’s very clever combination of Felinni-esque jazz with lyrics drawn from real dating service ads (warning: you may find these songs offensive); Brian Blade’s surprising non-jazz CD which shows off a completely different side of this talented artist; Darcy James Argue’s enthusiastically-received debut recording of his “Secret Society”; and a very strong offering from Joe Lovano’s “Us Five” band.

Below is the complete list of the tracks featured as Song of the Day during the last month. Each title is linked to a review, with full personnel and recording info, a pithy assessment, and a scoring on our quasi-proprietary 0-100 scale.

Happy listening!

Featured Songs: May 2009

Gary Burton & Pat Metheny: Sea Journey
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Darren Rahn: Talk of the Town
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Sam Yahel: Oumou
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Hristo Vitchev: Parisian Skies
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Joe Lovano: Powerhouse
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Joel Harrison: Straight, No Chaser (variations)
Reivewed by Mark Saleski

E.J. Strickland: Eternal
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Nicholas Urie: Bad Girl?
Reivewed by Mark Saleski

Melody Gardot: The Rain
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Red Holloway: St. Thomas
Reivewed by Mark Saleski

Rick Germanson: Any Thoughts
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Scott Gwinell: Brush Fire
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Jentsch Group Large: Route 666
Reivewed by Mark Saleski

Darcy James Argue"s Secret Society: Phobos
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Brian Blade: Mercy Angel
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Ramblin' Jack Elliott: Falling Down Blues
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Torcuato Mariano: Back to the Road
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Bobby Sanabria: Wild Jungle
Reivewed by Mark Saleski

Frank Macchia: Air Mail Special
Reivewed by Mark Saleski

Kevin Hays: Sweet and Lovely
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Allen Toussaint: Long, Long Journey
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

May 31, 2009 · 0 comments


The Lives of the Jazz Greats

Hidden behind the scenes of, a team of writers has been working on building the world’s biggest on-line jazz encyclopedia. I don’t know what we will do for an encore, when we finish this project. Fortunately for us, we still have plenty of work to do before we face that dilemma.

But even as this team, under the direction of Tim Wilkins, continues to fill the gaps in the encyclopedia, it is available for site visitors to use. (Take a test drive here.)

                               Birdland (artwork by Jazzamoart)

This project, which we call The Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians, was initiated by Dr. Lewis Porter. Porter focused his research efforts on currently active jazz artists, and in most instances, he contacted the musicians themselves—which allowed him to create a unique and detailed reference work with a significant amount of information not available elsewhere. At the end of 2007, the Encyclopedia moved to the site, and began the next phase of its development. Under Wilkins's stewardship, has focused on adding entries for historical figures and the currently active players who had not been involved in Porter's survey.

From time to time, I will give an update on the project in this column. Today I am providing links below to some of the recently published additions to the work. For more information on the encyclopedia, contact Tim Wilkins at

Ray Barretto
by Ricardo Quiñones

Barney Bigard
by Dean Alger

Art Blakey
by Eric Wendell

Jimmy Blanton
by Sean Lorre

Buck Clayton
by Dean Alger

Don Ellis
by Dave Krikorian

Herb Ellis
by Paul Brady

Von Freeman
by Mark Keresman

João Gilberto
by Ricardo Quiñones

Jan Hammer
by Jared Pauley

Bill Hardman
by Matt Leskovic

Erskine Hawkins
by Dave Krikorian

Eddie Henderson
by Matt Leskovic

Johnny Hodges
by Dean Alger

Alberta Hunter
by Sue Russell

Jan Johansson
by David Tenenholtz

Carmell Jones
by Matt Leskovic

Hank Jones
by Eric Wendell

Philly Joe Jones
by Eric Novod

Stanley Jordan
by Jared Pauley

Lionel Loueke
by Jared Pauley

Diana Krall
by Eric Wendell

Wynton Marsalis
by Matt Leskovic

Mulgrew Miller
by Eric Wendell

Joni Mitchell
by Jared Pauley

Grachan Moncur III
by Sean Singer

Jane Monheit
by Eric Wendell

Jason Moran
by Eric Wendell

Phineas Newborn Jr.
by Paul Brady

Walter Page
by Sean Lorre

Nicholas Payton
by Eric Wendell

Bud Shank
by Ted Gioia

Sonny Stitt
by Eric Wendell

Jack Teagarden
by Alex W. Rodriguez

Mal Waldron
by Eric Novod

Cedar Walton
by Eric Wendell

Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts
by Jared Pauley

Joe Williams
by Ricardo Quiñones

Cassandra Wilson
by Eric Wendell

Kai Winding
by Eric Wendell

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

May 28, 2009 · 2 comments


On Discography

If the jazz world is a subculture, then the most cultish members of all are the discographers. I would rather cross a Mafia don than take on one of these fellas. Will Friedwald is a braver soul than me, and sheds some light on the inner workings of this cabal below. And if you think Rust, Jepsen & Lord is the name of a law firm, you need to hear what he has to say. Mr. Friedwald, by the way, is an esteemed critic whose works include the highly recommended books Jazz Singing, Sinatra: The Song is You, and Stardust Melodies. T.G.

Jazz Records, 1897-1942

To a certain extent, discographies are not only a document of an artist’s career, they also form an autobiography of the collector. You may wonder, for instance, why is it that I own two copies of Brian Rust’s Jazz Records, 1897-1942 (the familiar green-hardcover, Arlington Press two-volume edition of 1977). First there’s my own copy, which I’ve owned since I was a teenager, in which I dutifully marked in every new acquisition. Rust didn’t list LPs, so when I obtained a new volume of Henry Red Allen on Collector’s Classics or Charlie Barnet on Bluebird, I marked in the LP numbers so I could see exactly what I had and what I was missing. Can’t live without the alternate take of The Rhythmakers doing “Mean Old Bed Bug Blues.”

When my father died in 1997, I inherited his copy of the selfsame Jazz Records, and I realized that my Dad had kept track of his collection in a different way: mentally. He somehow kept his ongoing private catalog of what he had and what he lacked in his head. Somehow he never bought the same record twice (or when he did, he said that he had done so intentionally, as a gift for me). His copy of the two-volume Rust set was pristine, as if it had never been opened, and yet I know that he looked at it every day. So here I was with one copy of Rust that was chewed up and dog-eared, and one that was virtually new—obviously I couldn’t de-acquisition either one.

My father didn’t live to see the age of computerized discographies, CD-ROMs, or the Internet—I wonder what he would have made of it. A psychologist would have a field day (an interesting expression—do psychologists actually ever have field days?) in seeing to what extent I have recreated the previous situation, albeit in digital terms. Now, the basic discography I use and consult several dozen times a day is the online edition of Tom Lord’s The Jazz Discography: in fact, last summer, when I needed to create a formal inventory of my collection, I employed TJD’s very useful “my collection” feature and dutifully entered in all the LPs that it could find. (Okay—full honesty department—I paid a trio of graduate students to do it.) So, my personal “edition” of Lord is, in fact, as “marked up” and personalized as my vintage edition of Rust. The discography isn’t just a history of recorded jazz, it’s a history of me.

Back in the analog era, there were some very high powered collector-scholar dudes who were critical of Rust: the late Bozy White, whose mission in life was to document every note ever played by the great Bunny Berigan, railed against the idea that Jazz Records should be considered a “definitive” work. He was, however, very keen on the idea that anyone wanting to do further research should use Rust as a starting point: take the info presented in those green volumes, but double check everything, update and add as much info as possible.

All along, individual discographies, which concentrated on a specific artist, were a valuable supplement to Rust—or possibly the other way around. After Chris Sheridan’s monumental volume on Count Basie came out, it was a cinch that I wouldn’t look up anything concerning Basie in Rust (or Jepsen either—although Jepsen had, many years earlier, done a much smaller set of book on Basie that doubtless were one of Sheridan’s starting points) any longer. The same was true for Fletcher Henderson, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Clarence Williams, whose recorded output was definitely detailed in Walter C. Allen’s Hendersonia, Laurie Wright’s Morton’s Music and Fats In Fact (double check last 2) and Clarence Williams by a British scholar named Tom Lord who is no relation to the Tom Lord of the big Jazz Discography (all but the first of these were published by Storyville Press in England).

With the vast territory of information and misinformation on the world wide interwebnet, the discographical situation is the same: there are some musicians whose work is treated in painstaking detail (and not always the obvious ones, your Miles Davises and John Coltranes), much more so than Mr. Lord could (or even should) put in a general discography, where the mandate is to cover everybody. The most relevant site that I frequently check is Michael Fitzgerald’s, where there are very complete listings on 82 (currently) artists and leaders both major and minor, painstakingly prepared by individual specialists who have spent a lot of time researching their charges.

As with the printed discographical books of old, the specialized lists are laid out much more luxuriously—a logical thing, since there’s no paper or printing costs on the net. Composer credits are given, a very valuable thing, and each issue of each song is listed vertically, with the name of the album given, so that you don’t have to remember, for instance, Prestige PR7394 is Lucky Thompson’s Happy Days are Here Again. Mr. Lord gives you the album titles at the bottom of the session in most instances, but one of the signatures of the projects (which are generally done using Steve Albin’s Brian software, named after Mr. Rust) is that they give you the album title every time, in a list that’s easier to read than Mr. Lord’s text.

But even with the musicians covered in detail at (who, I’m happy to say, include some worthy non-jazz performers, such as Hank Williams and Dusty Springfield), there are limits. When I was working on Lucky Thompson, I needed to know if his composition “Deep Passion” (based on “Body and Soul”) had ever been recorded by anyone else; I’ve heard Mark Turner play it at The Vanguard, but did he record it? Such info normally would not be in a single artist listing, but I found it quickly in Lord, who listed two recordings by Thompson and, while Turner, so far, hasn’t done it on an album, it was recorded by tenor saxophonist Tad Shull (of Widespread Depression Orchestra fame).

In general, I have gotten so acclimated to The Jazz Discography, even with whatever faults it has, that I can’t imagine having to do without it. There’s nothing like looking at a session of Lucky Thompson and clicking on Oscar Pettiford’s name to see what sessions the bassist did around the same time he was recording with Thompson. The same goes for the songs at a given date.

Having worked with TJD throughout all of its permutations, including the original softcover print edition, I have to commend Mr. Lord for making the latest, online edition, the most accessible and most easy to navigate. One suggestion I would make: right now, if you want to look at Louis Armstrong sessions from the ‘50s, you have to search for Armstrong (as “musician” or “leader”) and go back to 1923, then keep pushing “next page,” in this case, about 20 times, before you get to 1950. It might make sense to have a search panel with a musician’s name and a date range, so you can just search for Armstrong (or whoever) in a specific period. Or perhaps a date range can be added to the “multi-search.”

The digital discography has been a long time coming—we’ve been listening to recordings, old and new, via digital technology for a quarter center, and it’s high time that the art of discography has followed suit. Still, I wonder what my father would say. Probably, “turn the bloody record over!”

This blog entry posted by Will Friedwald.

May 27, 2009 · 7 comments


Jazz in Detroit: "Like Grass Growing Through Cement"

Tough times always seem tougher in Motor City. If the "Big 3" automakers are on the brink, can jazz musicians be any better off? Bill Barnes looks at the jazz heritage of Detroit and the current environment, and finds some grounds for optimism amidst the day-to-day struggles. This is the latest in a series of article taking the temperature of the jazz scene in various communities in the US and abroad. T.G.

Imagine, for a brief moment, that jazz is a commodity like wheat or soybeans, then consider the fields from which it is harvested. You would likely envision New Orleans, Saint Louis, Kansas City, Chicago and New York as the first major factory farms, with L.A. and the West Coast scene providing fertile, cool acreage.

However, without the seed bed of talent from other parts of the country these epicenters would have yielded far less varied and flavorful produce. Pittsburgh gave us George Benson, Ahmad Jamal, Ray Brown and Billy Strayhorn to name but a few. From Indianapolis we have Wes Montgomery, Slide Hampton and Freddie Hubbard. Louisville gave us Jimmy Rainey. Two otherwise insignificant small towns in North Carolina helped shape modern jazz by producing Thelonious Monk, born in Rocky Mount, and John Coltrane, who hailed from the tiny enclave of Hamlet. Jazz has deep, diversified, interconnected roots, fed by some improbable wellsprings.

But, among all the U. S. cities, perhaps the most incredible wellspring would be the embattled city of Detroit. Far from the Mississippi riverboat routes which circulated and nurtured the music’s development, the gritty Michigan industrial center became a polarized community of haves and have-nots churning out automobiles and great wealth for the Grosse Pointe set, shocking poverty for the denizens of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom. Yet it produced legendary artists such as Thad Jones, Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, Yusef Lateef, Elvin Jones, Pepper Adams, Curtis Fuller, Donald Byrd, Betty Carter, Hank Jones and Paul Chambers. Tenor titan Joe Henderson called it home while developing his hard bop technique. Whether it was musical evolution or revolution, swing, bop, blues, fusion, funk, free or cool, Motor City musicians have been active participants in the development of the art of jazz.

Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra

  Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra (courtesy of Scott Gwinnell)

From the beginning Detroit has played a unique role. Acclaimed journalist and biographer Herbert Boyd suggests that the city may be the birthplace of ragtime, citing W.C. Handy’s admiration for the syncopation of the Fred Stone Orchestra. During the 1920s ensembles such as the Jean Goldkette Victor Recording Orchestra and McKinney's Cotton Pickers helped lay the foundation of big band jazz. Throughout the next two decades, Detroit dance halls such as the Graystone, the Pier Ballroom and the Bop-Lo Island Pavilion played a significant role in the evolution of swing.

In the fifties the bebop epicenter of the city was the Blue Bird Inn, a prominent nightspot immortalized in Thad Jones' composition "5021” and a frequent venue for local luminaries such as guitarist Kenny Burrell and pianist Tommy Flanagan. According to authors Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert, (Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-60), “Almost every significant 1950s hard bop veteran in the city either played or hung out there during its peak years.”

When most people think of Detroit music, they probably think of the “Motown sound” of the sixties, of which Detroit jazz musicians such as Marcus Belgrave were a major component. The city had its international musical profile raised significantly during the Motown era, with the help of local studio musicians such as Joe Hunter, James Jamerson and Jack Ashford, part of an elite cadre dubbed “the Funk Brothers.” These seasoned, multi-styled instrumentalists provided a solid foundation for the unique sound behind the Supremes, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and other R & B icons. But the real value of these Motown sessions may have been the consistent stream of studio dates providing sustenance to local jazz musicians, while helping to hone their commercial chops.

The avant-garde movements of Chicago and New York were echoed by Detroit musicians as well. While New York had its October Revolution and Chicago gave birth to the AACM movement in the sixties, an organization known as “The Tribe” established an avant-garde beachhead in Detroit in 1971. Founded by trombonist Phil Ranelin and sax man Wendell Harrison, The Tribe functioned as a creative experimental clearinghouse and record label. During its heyday the label producing notable albums such as Message from the Tribe, Doug Hammond’s Reflections in the Sea of Nurnen with David Durrah, and Marcus Belgrave’s Gemini II.

From the turbulent sixties until the present, Detroit has weathered its hard knocks and there are still daunting challenges facing its jazz community. Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, a jazz icon currently in its 75th year, is fighting to keep its doors open. In a recent NPR interview, owner John Colbert said there was nothing unique about his club’s plight. “We're in a depressed economy. We're no different than anyone. We're in line."

While the physical location of the historic Blue Bird Inn is still intact, its future is uncertain. The popular jazz spot Cobb’s Corner didn’t survive the shooting death of its owner in 1974. Still, the city continues to offer an enticing variety of venues, from the posh, art-deco Cliff Bells and the nostalgic Baker’s to the relatively new showcase, Jazz Café Detroit at Music Hall. Live jazz still thrives at venues like Bert’s Jazz Marketplace, the Dirty Dog and the Harlequin Cafe. The city’s economy continues to struggle, but an empowerment zone program promises hope for businesses along the streets of the former Black Bottom neighborhood and Paradise Valley. It’s like the town that refused to die.

More to the point, Detroit continues to produce world-class players such as Barry Harris and the late Roland Hanna. Hank Jones, the father of the “Detroit school” of piano, has influenced several generations of Detroit keyboard artists and is still touring, at the tender age of 91! Trumpet legend Marcus Belgrave continues to make waves, while up-and-comers such as tenor man Keith Kaminski, rising alto sax star Kenny Garrett and pianist Scott Gwinnell forge their reputations in the jazz world at large. Sax man Steve Woods continues to spread the Gospel according to Lateef. Detroit-born jazz violinist Regina Carter is a top concert draw around the world, mainstream singer Meri Slaven wows crowds at Cliff Bells, while Detroit expatriate chanteuse Victoria Rummler delights Parisian troglodytes. Jazz-funk enthusiasts can shake it with the Bobby Streng Saxomble, and the Hot Club of Detroit chomps out the pompe with top Gypsy jazz guitarist Evan Perri and accordion virtuoso Julien Labro.

Despite boasting a fine international airport and an intriguing jazz scene, Detroit remains a reluctant tourist destination for many. However, on Labor Day weekend there will be an even more compelling reason for jazz lovers to overcome such prejudice: the Detroit International Jazz Festival. Now in its thirtieth year, the festival will honor three of Detroit’s legendary jazzmen, Thad, Elvin and Hank Jones, in a family-themed lineup pithily titled, “Keeping up with the Jones.” In conjunction with this theme there will be sets by the Heath Brothers, Dave Brubeck and sons, Bucky and John Pizzarelli, Larry and Julian Coryell and other jazz family groups. Hank Jones will perform as well as some perennial favorite non-Detroitniks such as Chick Corea, Sheila Jordan, Christian McBride and Wayne Shorter. Appropriately enough, the homegrown Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra has been booked to close the show. Another highlight will be the Clayton Brothers Quintet, performing a commissioned concerto grosso written by bassist John Clayton.

In the face of overwhelming odds such as the decline in the auto industry, the exit of Motown Records, the current recession and continued urban decay, Detroit jazz continues to thrive. According to singer Meri Slaven: "Great jazz musicians come out of Detroit like grass growing through cement. You gotta wonder why it happens, yet it does." Perhaps that’s the lesson to be learned, the ultimate validation of the old “pearl in the oyster” theory. Without the grit, there would be no precious jewel born from a suffering organism. Jazz is not the sort of music that could have been spawned in the playgrounds of the idle rich. With the juxtaposition of poverty, urban strife and industrial wealth, Detroit may have been the perfect crucible.

Whatever the future may hold, the Motor City has already left its indelible hallmark on American culture—and its jazz community has carved a significant piece of that stamp.

This blog entry posted by Bill Barnes

May 26, 2009 · 3 comments


Time to Check Out Hiromi

Last week, Boston-based Roanna Forman reported on Jane Monheit in this column. Now she shares her thoughts on the appearance of the much-touted Japanese keyboardist Hiromi at Sculler's. T.G.


Looking like an Asian Shirley Temple in curls and simple print dress, Hiromi told a packed room in a recent Boston performance that for her “life is a series of meetings with important people.” She was referring, among others, to Richard Evans, a Berklee instructor who was in the audience that night.

Impressed with her midterm arranging project when she studied there from 1999-2003, Evans asked Hiromi for a recording of the arrangement. When he heard it, Evans said to her, “Who is that playing the piano?” Since then other people have asked the same question—including Chick Corea, with whom Hiromi recorded the incandescent Duet, Chick and Hiromi live at two grand pianos at the Tokyo Blue Note Jazz Club in 2007.

Hiromi is a phenomenon, a child prodigy with limpid, precise technique and a speed that looks like film on fast forward in her quickest runs. She also has visceral, highly developed musicality and infectious joy onstage that makes for a great show. All the notes she plays register on her face; she’s the performance opposite of poker-faced Pat Martino, although they’re both virtuosos. Her tour-de-force solo piano arrangement of “I Got Rhythm,” which she dedicated to Richard Evans, took Gershwin’s warhorse on a tour through twentieth-century jazz piano. Art Tatum, whose work she studied at age 12, would definitely have gotten a kick out of it. The recorded version is on Hiromi’s latest release, Beyond Standard, there dedicated to Oscar Peterson, another influence and love of hers.


Yet it was clear from the band and the material that Hiromi embraces a wide range of influences. She is not a mainstream jazz musician, although there’s no question she could play that music on demand. Funk and high energy electronic jazz were the overriding musical choices of the evening. The set started with a traditional acoustic solo piano stride chorus of “Softly (As in a Morning Sunrise)” which segued into the full band arrangement in 7/4 as on Beyond Standard. The band’s sound includes some guitaristic agile electric bass work by Tony Grey (a bit on the loud side for an intimate room like Scullers), and guitar runs sounding alternately like John McLaughlin, slide, and sitar on David Fiuczynski’s custom double-necked fretted and fretless guitar. Drummer Mauricio Zottarelli communicated well with the band and had nice colors and excellent dynamics, although his bass drum seemed a bit too heavy when he played at top volume.

Hiromi switched with ease from acoustic piano to synthesizer and electric keyboards, on which she played a “Return to Forever” sort of solo on Jeff Beck’s “Led Boots,” with double-handed percussive block chords played at the speed of a roll on a conga drum.

She did swing one of the ballads with sophisticated piano voicings and a graceful double-time solo. But swing was not her band’s thing. Partly, that’s because they are young musicians whose influences are electronic. Tony Grey’s walking bass, possibly because of his amp, sounded muddy, and David Fiuczinski chose whammy effects over Gray Sargent, or even Peter Bernstein-type lines.

Hiromi is musically the band leader, not just in name. Her trades were in perfect sync with guitarist David Fiuczynski. Every note he played sunk right into her hands and ears for response and embellishment. “My Favorite Things” was one of my favorite things about the show. It started as a pretty ballad, then the stage was given to a drum/piano duet, with Zottarelli hand-drumming his skins in an entertaining call and response echoing his Brazilian percussion roots. The band then came back on with an Afro-Cuban jam and returned to the tune as a funk, similar to the arrangement on Beyond Standard.

In the encore, another danceable funk number with complex written sections, Hiromi led the crowd in rock-concert style hands-over-the head clapping, and started a series of riffs on the synthesizer using a wah-wah effect. The notes came from her gut to her mind and heart, onto her face and into her fingers, ending the evening on a heady vibe that had the audience on its feet.

This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman

May 25, 2009 · 0 comments


The State of Jazz in Harlem

Jared Pauley is an editor and regular contributor to Below he looks at the current state of jazz in Harlem. This is the latest in a series of articles here focused on the health of the jazz scene in various communities in the US and abroad. T.G.

Harlem, the beautiful, the vibrant, the rawest. The uncompromising, Harlem. Nestled away in the Northern part of Manhattan, this is the place that many greats in jazz music have called home. It has served as the springboard to fame for countless musicians, and helped establish New York City as one of the hotbeds of jazz.

Decades later, Harlem has been altered by commercial businesses—125th Street doesn’t feel the way it did in the 1930s—but the same attitude and cultural pulse that defined the neighborhood more than seventy-five years ago is still alive and well. With the transformation and gentrification of Uptown Manhattan, jazz music has taken on a new life of its own. The music is not as commercial or celebrated by the masses like it once was, but Harlem remains a place where jazz music will thrive and survive. Despite the harshness of the current economic crisis, some establishments have managed to weather the storm while others have perished.

I’m interested in discovering where Harlem is going. Let’s find out.

                                Harlem at Night, photo by Marcel Fleiss

Harlem is home to the National Jazz Museum where Loren Schoenberg serves as the director. Bassist Christian McBride is co-director of the organization, acting as its cultural ambassador, promoting the agendas, events and aesthetics of the organization through his various appearances, here and abroad. Currently the Museum is housed on E.126th Street but the organization was recently selected by New York City to be included in the Mart 125 Redevelopment Project, which would give the Museum a prime location in Harlem’s bustling commercial section of 125th Street.

Under the proposition, the National Jazz Museum will be provided with 12,000 square feet of space while 2,000 square feet of that space will be leased to the arts organization ImageNation. Schoenberg thinks that by 2012, the organization will have made 125th Street its permanent home. Before this can happen, though, New York City’s Economic Development Council must first issue proposals to private companies that want to bid on the job and after a company has been selected then the renovations can begin. The organization has already enlisted the services of world-renowned museum and exhibition designer Ralph Appelbaum about the physical look of the Museum when it relocates.

In addition to the good news about being chosen for the Mart 125 Redevelopment Project, the Museum has many other programs and services that it offers to the greater NYC community in the name of jazz. The Harmony in Harlem program is a service that is offered for young jazz musicians and young children interested in jazz. Schoenberg said that, “It’s a program for the kids. It’s run through the Children Aids Society.”

The Museum strives to make jazz education available to students who might have been overlooked in the public school systems or might not have the financial means to afford private education. Schoenberg added that, “Many of the programs for jazz for young children are sometimes skewed towards the really talented kids. We decided to create a program to invite kids and get them involved on the beginner’s level.” The program is in its fourth year and currently has about fifteen youngsters enrolled. Mr. Schoenberg and the rest of the NJMH are doing some great things in preserving the legacy and the future of jazz in Harlem. I look forward to seeing the Museum when it reaches its full potential.

While the NJMH is creating solid institutional support for the future of jazz in Harlem, the late night spots are what made Harlem infamous in the first place. Though the days of the Cotton Club and Minton’s are no longer with us, the old school vibe is still alive and well at St. Nick’s Jazz Pub. This storied spot, which is right down the street from my apartment in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, is the oldest establishment of its kind still operating in Harlem. The club has gone through different owners and several name changes but it has maintained much of the original vibe it possessed back when it was called Luckey’s Rendezvous (stride piano legend Luckey Roberts operated the spot back in the 1940s). Before Roberts took over the club it was called the Poosepahtuck Club in the 1930s, where early jazz pioneer Joe Jordan played house piano. The club was renamed the Pink Angel in the 1950s and it took its current name in the 1960s.

St. Nick’s represents the old guard from the exterior of the club to the interior. In addition, the vibe of St. Nick’s is what I cherish the most and it’s my opinion that no other club in New York City, other than the Village Vanguard, has maintained its heritage in its current incarnation as well as St. Nick’s Pub. The club consistently offers up some of the brightest, but unknown jazz talent in Harlem. Saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, also a Harlem resident along with his wife vocalist Carolyn Leonhart, performs here once a month. I highly recommend St. Nick’s because the atmosphere has been largely preserved from decades past and you can enjoy a set of music, meet your two-drink minimum, and make a contribution to the love bucket for the musicians all for around twenty to thirty dollars.

Some clubs/venues have managed to thrive but sadly others, like uptown’s Big Apple Jazz/EZ’s Woodshed have been unable to stay in business. The now defunct spot was located on Adam Clayton Powell Blvd (7th Avenue) between 131st and 132nd Streets. The club sold a great deal of different merchandise and a plethora of compact discs by established artists as well as up and coming artists. What I found most sad about the club shutting its doors in June 2008 was the fact that the venue catered to the up and coming musician. On many occasions I would frequent the club talk to my friend Mark Lomanno (the manager) and soak up the sounds of promising groups. When I found out that the establishment was going to be closing, I wondered if other venues would follow suit, and cut back their jazz offerings or shut down completely. I imagine that the bills and the rent for the Big Apple must be on the expensive side and this venue didn’t appear to bring in a large amount of revenue. But I have to give kudos due to the simple fact that this club was able give a local audience in the heart of Harlem some exposure to jazz.

Minton’s Playhouse was one of the birthplaces of bebop and the club still operates from its famed location of 118th Street. Today the club offers up a variety of jazz music and entertainment, including tap dancing. The atmosphere of the club stays true to the old school vibe of Minton’s from the 1940s. Like St. Nick’s Jazz Pub, Minton’s is flourishing in a time when live music is one of the few aspects of the music industry left unchanged by technology and the economy. Similar to Minton’s, other clubs like the Shrine are promoting jazz music and world music. Located right down the street from Big Apple Jazz, the Shrine has established itself as one of the prime up and coming venues for alternative music and jazz flavored entertainment. Many talented young musicians frequent the club and have earned it a reputation as a prime time spot for introspective, soul searching music.

Clubs and venues are maintaining their collective grasp on jazz in Harlem and it’s also a place that many performers call home. I guess in the end it truly is the people of Harlem that have always given the neighborhood its flavor and its spice. Artists such as Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins grew up soaking in the sounds of Harlem, and I am certain that there are other young souls who are just as intrigued by jazz music and its strong historical presence in Harlem.

As a relative newcomer to Harlem I have always been fascinated by this famed section of Northern Manhattan. I think with institutions like the National Jazz Museum calling Harlem home and with clubs like St. Nick’s, the Shrine, and Minton’s remaining open, the future of jazz in Harlem is still secure in this new millennium. Much more could be written about the vibrancy and the beauty of Harlem but one thing remains unchanged: this portion of New York City continues to inspire and preserve the legacy of jazz music.

This blog entry posted by Jared Pauley

May 25, 2009 · 4 comments


New Reviews of Old Music

Below is a baker’s dozen of tracks reviewed during the last two weeks. Each of these performances was rated 90 or above by our reviewers. These reviews reflect our ongoing coverage of historic recordings from the past—the newest track here is more than 15 years old.

For a daily dose of jazz "heritage" music, site visitors are encourage to check out our A Classic Revisited feature.

Happy listening!

 Hampton Hawes

Hampton Hawes: “The Green Leaves of Summer”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

 Bill Evans

Bill Evans: "Come Rain or Come Shine”
Reviewed by Thomas Cunniffe

Charlie Haden

Charlie Haden: “Song for Ché”
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

 Stan Getz

Stan Getz: “I Remember When”
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

 Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66

Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66: “Pretty World”
Reviewed by Marcus Singletary

 Clifford Brown

Clifford Brown: “Donna Lee”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

 Steely Dan

Steely Dan: ”Black Cow”
Reviewed by Jared Pauley

 Don Pullen

Don Pullen: “The Sixth Sense”
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

Hubert Laws

Hubert Laws: “Amazing Grace”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

 Terence Blanchard title=

Terence Blanchard: “Left Alone”
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

 Robert Fripp

Robert Fripp: “Easter Sunday”
Reviewed by Marcus Singletary

 Paul Motian

Paul Motian: “The Story of Maryam”
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

The Crusaders

The Crusaders: “It Happens Everyday”
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

May 23, 2009 · 0 comments


While American Jazz Fesitvals Falter, Jazzahead Thrives

Stuart Nicholson has covered jazz events in a dozen or so countries for Now he reports on the Jazzahead festival in Bremen, where fans were treated to more than forty concerts over three-and-a-half days, as well as a symposium and more than 200 jazz-related exhibition booths. How many US cities host a jazz event on this scale? Yet Bremen has built up to this impressive level in just four years. T.G.


In four short years the Jazzahead! convention has become one of the most important events in the European jazz calendar. A unique combination of festival, showcase, exhibition and symposium, no one working in the European jazz economy can now afford to ignore it. Held annually in the beautiful Hanseatic city of Bremen, a centre of technology, space engineering and, perhaps less prosaically, the home of Becks beer, the event attracted more than 5,000 fans and music biz professionals from thirty countries.

With a history that goes back at least 1,200 years Bremen is also a tourist destination that annually attracts over two million visitors. High on the list of places to go include the bronze sculpture celebrating the Bremen Town Musicians (characters in a Brothers Grimm fairy story from the 1850s), the picturesque Town Hall dating from 1405 and the city’s imposing St. Petri cathedral dating back to the 13th century. But for those into things to do rather than places to go, you can dance ‘till you drop at the annual Samba festival (the biggest in Germany) or shop ‘till you drop at the October Friemarket or Bremen’s famous Christmas market. And for four days in spring, Bremen’s curriculum vitae as an international city of culture now has a significant new entry thanks to the growing significance of the Jazzahead! convention.


Held in the city’s huge Congress Centrum, there are over forty concerts spread over three and a half days; an absorbing series of seminars grappling with themes like audience building amongst the young; national jazz showcases and, in the exhibition hall, a sea of stands, 231 to be precise, manned from first thing in the morning to late evening by exhibitors from all over Europe. They included representatives of national jazz scenes; record labels; jazz magazines; plus music publishers, festival producers, artist management, agents, instrument manufacturers, audio equipment manufacturers and just about every service industry connected with jazz you can think of—and then some. And they’re all there for one thing. To network.

From the moment the Centrum opens at 10 AM to when the last concert at the nearby Kulturzentrum Schlachthof finishes in the wee small hours, deals are being negotiated at every level of the music business, from record companies setting up distribution deals to agents, managers and festival producers setting up tours, festival appearances and club dates for musicians and bands around Europe. Often, European promoters and audiences seem to know more about what is happening in the US than about jazz scenes a few hundred kilometres beyond their national borders, so one of the highlights of Jazzahead! is the European Jazz Meeting’s national jazz showcase. This year it was the turn of 13 promising bands from France, Luxembourg, Catalonia and the UK to take the stage in front of an audience of professionals and fans.

The French jazz showcase opened with bassist Héléne LaBarriére’s outstanding quartet performing music from “Les Temps Changent.” With solos from Francois Corneloup on saxes and Hasse Poulsen on guitar, one piece, based on a Brittany folk theme, mixed elegance and flair in true Gallic style. Pianist Yaron Herman is from Israel but has lived in France for the last seven years so probably qualified as an honorary Frenchman for the showcase, either that or his talent is too big to ignore. His style, full of rhapsodic arcs and darting, quicksilver runs was fascinating for the number of influences he has assimilated and integrated with such aesthetic precision; still only 27, when he finds his own voice he will be formidable indeed.

Luxembourg, Europe’s smallest state, has a population of less than half a million in an area of less than 900 square miles, but there’s no shortage of fine jazz musicians as sets by the Pascal Schumacher Quartet and Maxime Bender revealed. Guitarist David Laborier’s power trio was wide ranging; here was raw energy delivered by accomplished musicians who may have been playing jazz-rock but somehow refracted the whole jazz tradition.

The Catalonian jazz showcase was sparked by a set by Giulia Valle’s group who didn’t play the bass as much as caress it. Her music, featuring Marti Serra on soprano and Santi de la Rubla on tenor incorporated echoes of her native Catalonian music, often over asymmetrical meters. She opened with “Argentina,” a programmatic virtual journey through the second largest country in South America, but the highlight of her set was “Samba a Traición.” Born in Italy, and raised in Barcelona since the age of five, she later explained to me that, “The importance of my ‘origins’ in my music is a very strong point. My music is the result of my life; I always try and reflect this point [and it has helped] develop my own voice as a musician.”

Drummer Marc Ayza, one of the first call session drummers on the Spanish scene, formed his group Offering, with piano, bass, DJ and rapper Gant Mtume, in New York in 2008. Rappers usually have such a strong personality that fusions with jazz are usually neither fish nor fowl and often difficult to swallow. But Ayza hit the right understated approach; rap was used more of a color within the mix, giving his music an urban chic that suggested potential for growth.

The UK has always baffled its European cousins Separated from Europe by the English Channel and joined to America by a common language, it can never quite make up its mind which way it wants to turn. It has clung to its own currency when all the main European economies have changed to the Euro and the jazz scene has remained equally insular, so there was genuine curiosity in the first ever UK jazz showcase in Europe. Just what is the current state of Brit jazz?

Brass Jaw from Scotland opened and set the bar high. Describing themselves as “a cappella” horns, they comprised Ryan Quigley on trumpet, Paul Towndrow alto sax, Konrad Wiszniewski tenor sax and Allon Beauvoisin on baritone sax. Their mix of originals and standards, ranging from The Police to George Gershwin, was performed in cascades of intricate part writing and subtly moving inner lines that immediately had everyone’s attention. That and fact they wore kilts. Rarely have eight hairy legs been deployed to such effect.

The Welsh pianist Huw Warren’s trio essayed an elegant set of songs by Hermeto Pascoal, and were followed by the Indo-Jazz Fusion of the Arun Ghosh Sextet. The electronic drone that preceded their entrance seemed to suggest a set of quiet, medative jazz- influenced ragas was about to follow. Instead, what emerged was a set from completely left-of-field that took the place by storm. Everyone was doing a double take—who are these guys?

Ghosh begins his biography on his website by announcing he was, “Conceived in Calcutta, bred in Bolton, matured in Manchester and now living in London,” and this gives a clue to his music. Original themes, inspired by South Asia, emerged as dynamic riffs that were interpreted with audible glee by the sextet lifted by a powerful rhythm section sparked by Rasko Rasic’s drums. Ghosh is a dynamic clarinettist who threw himself physically into every solo. Alternating on Bb and A instruments, the clarinet was suddenly back in fashion as he wove endless melodic variations in and around the fabric of his music. Sharing the front line was tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings; full of energy and bite, he was the perfect foil for Ghosh’s sinewy lyricism. Within ten minutes of coming off stage, Ghosh had sold almost fifty copies of his latest album Northern Namaste.

In an age when a criticism levelled at many young jazz musicians for a similarity in concept and execution in their work, a common factor among several bands performing at Jazzahead! was how the artists created a distinct musical identity for themselves by drawing on their cultural and musical roots. I asked Arun Ghosh how these elements influenced his music. “Well first I felt very proud to be out there representing an example of British jazz,” he replied. “I was very pleased to be asked to perform,” he said. “I suppose the way I would define it is that I see myself as British-Asian, so all the things that come from a South-Asian background and growing up in Britain with Western classical music. [I] really loved rock music, hip hop, all those things. I used to go out raving in clubs, just had a very musical life I would say. So all of those things, and not just the jazz culture, are very important to me, they are things I just naturally want to play.

“Using Indian music is very important to me. It’s not something I’ve done all through my life; it’s only something I’ve done over the last six or seven years, and I’ve seen the importance of working on that, and that’s definitely linked to a real sense of returning to my roots. And linked to that is a sense that it is very important for me to be doing that. It’s something that’s natural and it’s something I really want to say and communicate.”

I suggested that folkloric elements from wherever their sources were in the world somehow lent themselves to jazz. “In the sense that there is a kind of World Folk language that is different to jazz but informed by jazz,” he responded—“jazz developed out of a world folk language as well, i.e. blues, i.e. African music, so I see this being a continuation of that. Certain kinds of rhythms and certain kinds of melodic phrases you hear across the world, which is very different to bebop and music that is rooted in bebop, so I think this is something that has become a major change in jazz and something that was made possible by certain pioneers such as Yusef Lateef, obviously John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry and Miles Davis, in the sense of opening up modal jazz. I very much see what I am doing as being inspired by Coltrane and Miles Davis in that sense, only I try to go deeper into the Indian side of it.”

The Arun Ghosh Indo-Jazz Sextet might have been a hard act to follow, but in the best Monty Python tradition of “Now for something completely different” the Portico Quartet calmly set off on an entirely different tack with a set of Gamelan-inspired minimalism. Comprising two hang players (the hang is a Swiss development of the Steel Drum, rather resembling an inverted wok), bass and soprano saxophone, they’ve been the London critic’s flavour of the month for, well, months and months and they set about showing why. With Jack Wylie’s suave soprano sax unravelling lines of increasing complexity over a gently pulsating chromium ostinato, they created a sound and mood in jazz that was wholly their own.

Away from the absorbing national jazz showcases, the main Festival Hall was host to vocalist Norma Winstone, the recipient of the annual Jazzahead-Skoda Award for outstanding achievement, who performed music from her eloquent ECM album Distances with Klaus Gesing and Glauco Venier. One of the strange quirks of the UK jazz scene is she is better appreciated in Europe than in her homeland (she is not alone), and as a performance like this makes clear, UK audiences really are missing out on something special.

As part of the 2007 Jazzahead! programme, the Radio String Quartet Vienna appeared as unknowns at ACT records’ Paint it Blue exhibition at the Museum Weserburg. It was wholly fitting, then, that they should return in to the Festival Hall in 2009 as European jazz stars in their own right. With Klaus Paier on accordions they performed music from their latest album Radiotree. Live their music was stunning, especially a tribute to their fellow Viennese native, the late Joe Zawinul on “Good Vibrations.” The packed house they attracted was a testament to how important the Jazzahead! stage has become in launching emerging ensembles into the European jazz market.

The Congress Centrum closes its doors at around 10.30 PM, but the Jazzahead! program continued at the nearby Schachthof culture centre with three concerts per night that ran late into the wee small hours. In a wide ranging program, a set by the Mischa Schumann Trio, an eloquent pianist from Hamburg, provided an understated and unexpected musical highlight of the festival. A pianist who somehow could not help expressing himself lyrically, his superb bassist Pepe Berns was of similar bent and with drummer Heinz Lichius they spun intriguing musical tales with unexpected allusions beyond the jazz tradition that made you want to hear more, and more.

With each succeeding year, Jazzahead! has become bigger, but also better. The event has now got a sure sense of its own identity, as this year’s leitmotiv, “Face to Face,” revealed, pointing to a focus on personal contacts and dialogue. As Hans Peter Schneider, Managing Director of Messe Bremen who hosted the event, said, “A lot of business was done, bands were booked, and co-operations arranged.” Indeed, for one leading American artist agent who attended, the event it proved to be a revelation. With the rise of European jazz in recent years and a commensurate decline in the number of American artists appearing in Europe, word had it he was now considering adding European artists to his portfolio. How times are changing. . . .

This blog entry posted by Stuart Nicholson

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments


How to Build an Audience for Jazz

Willard Jenkins is looking behind the scenes and talking to people who have found ways of building and sustaining the audience for jazz in communities across America. Recently he profiled Seattle’s Earshot Jazz in this column. Now he turns his attention to an organization that is at the forefront of jazz advocacy in Pittsburgh—MCG Jazz. Marty Ashby of MCG Jazz has some ambitious plans for growing the jazz fan base that he wants to take to a national level. He shares some of the details below. T.G.


For jazz in a concert setting MCG Jazz is one of the jewels. Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, located in a post-industrial section of Pittsburgh near the Steelers’ Heinz Field home, is a multi-discipline center for arts and learning. Founded and built by Bill Strickland, a visionary potter and certified genius who recognized the inspirational and restorative powers of jazz music, MCG's training center was geared from the start towards Pittsburgh’s disadvantaged community, and was blessed with a small concert hall and outfitted with a recording studio. In 1987 Strickland engaged guitarist and arts administrator Marty Ashby to develop MCG Jazz.

The result has been 23 years of exemplary jazz concert activity that has also birthed MCG Jazz recordings that have garnered three Grammy awards and become a late career home for NEA Jazz Master Nancy Wilson. Marty Ashby has been one of the leading evangelicals of the jazz-in-the-concert-setting movement. Additionally his holistic approach has engaged the jazz community in thoughtful conversations towards ensuring the future health of the art form, including spearheading a major conference at the Johnson Foundation’s Wingspread facility in Racine, Wisconsin. After working in administration particularly with orchestras, Ashby has long extracted lessons that jazz presenters could effectively apply to their efforts from practices of their colleagues in the other performing arts. A guitarist, Marty continues to work with the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band and in other contexts at MCG and on MCG recordings. Our conversation took place in late April.

When you started at MCG you came there from the orchestral world and were eager to apply some of the lessons you learned to jazz presenting.

I spent several years in opera, theater, ballet, and symphony companies and what I found from them was their business structure to do a couple of things on a large scale that I didn’t see happening on a large scale in jazz: very organized subscription marketing campaigns, a very organized donor base and donor relations program. . . . So as I moved into presenting jazz in subscription series format I really focused on taking the techniques I learned and try to identify a subscription marketing campaign for jazz, some very specific donor-based management kind of things for jazz donors, and instituted those at MCG 23 seasons ago.

With 23 seasons under your belt, do those tools still apply in 2009 to your efforts at MCG?

They really do. I think the opportunity to have an identifiable subscriber base still does a couple of things: you end up being able to program within the context of a season some things that for MCG—just trying to sell 250, or if it’s two shows 700 seats, or 1200 seats for a weekend—as a single ticket event would be very difficult for some of the things I’ve presented in the last 23 years. Having it be part of a package that people buy 4, 6, 8, 12, or 20 concerts assures you of a certain percentage of the audience sold in subscription. And that formula still gives me the flexibility to do that. Our season runs September through May.

So the subscription series model for jazz concerts still holds up after 23 years; but now in this tight economic climate is your audience more selective about what they’ll buy tickets to?

Yep, no question; the formula for the last 23 years—for at least the last 15 or 16—was I’ve got an artist… Ahmad Jamal, Randy Weston, Nancy Wilson. . . . they play five shows over four days: Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights, Sunday matinee. . . . That’s no longer working, with people’s schedules they don’t want to buy 8-concert packages, although I have some that still do that; people want to pick and choose and select four concerts. So in the last 2 years we’ve had to develop a choose-your-own series. I found last year that was by far the number one ticket seller. That does a couple of things for us—it allows us to do some more market-specific advertising in group sales for certain shows. Last weekend with Poncho Sanchez, we had a pretty good number of single tickets available for the weekend so we were able to do some specific marketing just for that show and we brought in some folks who had never been here before. Whereas some other shows in the season were completely sold out in subscription—I don’t have to market those shows; I only have to market those shows with available tickets.

When you speak of marketing partners what do you mean?

It comes in a lot of different forms. For instance with the Global Beats folks they have their own radio show, events they do in the community, a newsletter. . . . So what we’ve agreed to do is we market their events in exchange for them marketing our events in a partnership. That’s kind of a generic form of a marketing partnership. Other times it would include things like shared media buys in publications, some electronic media shared buys—we’ve got a marketing partnership with a car dealership here which has been fantastic in terms of getting our 10-second spots on television this year in a very meaningful way because those folks are able to do large media buys and they’re able to generate opportunities for us to piggyback on that.

What efforts do you foresee necessary for jazz presenters to overcome current economic woes and better maximize their potential?

Maybe the silver lining to this economic crunch is it will kinda force jazz presenters to do a couple things—work better together; I’ve been saying we’ve gotta play nicer in the sandbox and share resources, share assets, share marketing opportunities, share sponsor leverage. . . . I’m finding that in Pittsburgh already. My season for 2009/10 is called The Jazz Collaboration and I’ve forged partnerships with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the brand new August Wilson Center downtown, the Guitar Society. It’s all about partnerships to present this music. . . . I think that’s critical nationally for us to do that more. And secondly as a consumer experience now, when people aren’t taking the weekend trip to Vail or the weekend trip to New York and they’re really looking at conserving dollars because of their asset portfolio going away. . . . the $35-40-50 ticket to see a Poncho Sanchez, a Randy Weston or Ahmad Jamal is a really good deal and a great value for the experience. I think its incumbent upon presenters to make sure that the experience we give them is of the highest quality at all times.

Talk about your efforts for the future of jazz, like the conference you spearheaded in Racine at the Johnson Foundation.

There’s a variety of things we’ve been trying to do at MCG to rally the troops, to bring the asset base together. . . . We did the conference at Wingspread in Racine that really was looking at the kinds of things the jazz community can do together. There’s no global branding for jazz. . . . no NASCAR, no NBA for jazz. . . . we came up with a loosely defined Jazz is Life as a potential brand for jazz. We said that if in fact we could take 20 or 50 jazz properties around the country and aggregate those assets there would be an opportunity for a national sponsorship campaign. I think the work we’re doing with the Smithsonian around Jazz Appreciation Month and the efforts to create a Jazz Day in America. . . . I think will be the launching point for all that other work we did at Wingspread; that if we can focus the lens—of America and the world for that matter—and say on this day in the U.S. we’re going to have jazz events in every nook and cranny around the communities—education events, film events, live presentations—band them together for Jazz Night Out in America, and use it as the state of the union for jazz on a yearly basis: here’s what we’ve done in jazz this year, here’s what we want to do in jazz next year. . . . I think that kind of effort in the next 3-5 years could prove to be very fruitful for all of us in the industry.

We’re working on it now; lots of parties to pull together since there’s no precedent for it and its going to take a little time. . . . I think we’re going to be able to do a soft launch in 2010 and then get other critical partners involved. I can foresee in 3-5 years an institutionalized event that has some legs and a great group of partners like Jazz Appreciation Month does. To focus it down to a day will take a different collection of partners to leverage it in a meaningful way and we’re working on it as we speak.

Talk about the evolution of MCG Records and how that has worked with MCG jazz presenting.

When we built the building it was outfitted with analog recording equipment 23 years ago. In the early 90s we did four years of a 5-6 part NPR series that had tremendous success and was carried on 300 stations. We’re recording all of this music but then it’s gone, we should begin to put out product. So we did that with a record with Count Basie and the New York Voices 14 years ago and won a Grammy with that which set the bar kinda high. But since then as we’ve refined the process and begun to sell product around the world, it’s become a calling card in as much as some concerts only happen once here at MCG that are special programs that we curate. Because the CDs get heard around the world people send in the little cards that are in the CDs, go to our web site, and become part of our mailing list. What that’s done is when we do certain concerts that are special we get people coming from all over the country and that would never have happened without them hearing the CDs, and the Grammys we’ve gotten and all the accolades we’ve received for this music.

Give a couple of examples of these special projects that have been translated to record and subsequently assisted in your presenting efforts.

One that comes to mind is the Brazilian Dreams project we did with Paquito D’Rivera and the New York Voices, who are family here. It was a project Paquito had wanted to do since the late 70s. He was mesmerized with vocal jazz, Brazilian jazz, because of a radio program he listened to in Cuba. So we recreated some aspects of that for a live concert that was turned into a recording and won a Grammy. They still go out and tour that sporadically now almost 10 years later! And that has clearly brought in patrons to our other concerts. We just did a big project with Ivan Lins and the Pittsburgh Symphony; when we recreated the music from our Nancy Wilson Christmas record it brought in people from all over the country and there are many examples of that. Ms. Wilson has become family here; the last three records she’s done have been with us.

Our 2009/10 season includes Gary Burton and the New Generation Band, Herb Alpert & Lani Hall, Stanley Jordan; a special thing with Pittsburgh Opera Theatre is Beggar’s Holiday with the music of Duke Ellington from a 1947 Broadway show that has been recreated very few times; the Regina Carter Reverse Thread program is going to be at the August Wilson Center; Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra is doing a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald; David Sanborn, McCoy Tyner; Ahmad Jamal is going to recreate his big band music with the MCG Jazz Orchestra; a special duo with Bob James & Keiko Matsui; Paquito D’Rivera and his quintet will be back; Lionel Loueke on a double-bill with Gretchen Parlato; and several other events.

This blog entry posted by Willard Jenkins.

May 20, 2009 · 1 comment


Talking to Myself About the State of Jazz Music

Almost a year ago, I was caught talking to myself in print. It's a warning sign, huh? Maybe I should call a doctor, because last night I started talking to myself again. I was half in a dream and half awake, and the conversation went like this . . .

Is the jazz world in a state of crisis?

If this isn't a crisis, I would hate to see what a real one would looks like.

Aren't you over-reacting? Economic cycles go up and down. There is still plenty of jazz out there. Maybe more than ever before. And that new Lovano CD really kicks . . .

The crisis here is not on the supply side. It is on the demand side. The number of musicians and CDs is increasing, but the audience is shrinking. Reversing this trend is the single biggest challenge facing the jazz world.

How many jazz artists—even well-known ones—can sell ten thousand copies of a CD? How many concert halls can book jazz acts and fill the seats? Hardly a week goes by without news of a jazz radio station switching formats, a jazz club closing, a jazz magazine shutting down. These are all measures of a declining audience. And it has been shrinking faster than the GDP for a long, long time.

When you ask people about the health of the jazz scene, they tend to measure it by the quality of the sax solos, or by how much they enjoyed the last batch of CDs they bought. But these measures are hardly relevant, if there is no audience to support the music.

I think I understand. You're saying: if a sax plays in a forest and no one hears it, can it still play a great solo?

Huh? I don't think I understood that.

Never mind. . . . Back to your comments about the audience—is this situation really so different from the past?

The problem of the shrinking audience is masked by various subsidies and supports that didn't exist a few decades ago. If you strip those away, you see how small the market for jazz really is.

Let me cite one example. Many musicians now make a significant proportion of their income from performing outside the US—sometimes this is more than half of their annual earnings from gigs. There are several hundred festivals in Europe that are crucial to the global jazz economy. Without them, a lot of name players would no longer be able to pay their rent.

Yet these festivals are heavily subsidized by governments and other organizations with deep pockets. These subsidies are, of course, a good thing for the art form. But they mask the true level of the crisis. The brutal truth is that jazz is not surviving because it has a loyal audience of fans. It is a charity case now, relying on the kindness of strangers, if I may quote Blanche DuBois.

Nice New Orleans angle there . . .

On the other hand, when a jazz festival decides that it needs to make some money, the first thing it does . . . is get rid of the jazz. Did you see the press release for the Montreal Jazz Festival? It announced the main acts on the bill. Here were the names: "Jeff Beck, Harlem Gospel Choir, Buddy Guy, Mos Def, Pink Martini, The Dears, The Orb, Burning Spear, Toots & The Maytals and Many More." Thanks goodness for the "many more" at the end of the list, because there is no jazz represented in that line-up.

This is not an isolated instance. Have you seen the line-up for the Sonoma Jazz Festival? It should be called the Sonoma No-Jazz Festival. Here the list of its headliners: "Joe Cocker, Lyle Lovett And His Large Band, Ziggy Marley, Chris Isaak, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Shelby Lynne, Keb' Mo' And More."

This is a dangerous situation. As this trend continues in the Americas, the European circuit becomes more and more important. Yet—as has been highlighted frequently in this column—the European festivals are increasingly booking European musicians. Even more surprising: the recent Mumbai festival in India showed a pronounced tilt towards booking European artists. We can't just blithely assume that foreign governments will continue to bankroll American jazz. They have their own local scenes to support.

You are saying that jazz is like treasury bonds . . . too dependent on foreign money?

And not enough interest.

Ugh! That was a bad pun, even by your low standards. Back to brass tacks—what would happen if the subsidies disappeared?

Fifty years ago jazz could survive without subsidies. In fact, it did survive without subsidies. For the most part, there was no government support back then, no academic support, no foundation support. Yet an audience existed who paid all the bills for the music. Imagine how much larger the audience must have been back in the 1950s to cover the full cost for the art form, with more clubs, more airplay, more visibility than we have now.

And today? By my estimate, half of the jazz world would disappear overnight if it were forced to cover its costs by its own inherent ability to draw an audience. I hope the subsidies continue forever, and grow each year. But let's not kid ourselves. An art form without a vibrant growing audience is not healthy no matter how big the life support machinery surrounding it.

Are there any heroes in this story?

Although a lot has been done to support jazz music in recent years, very little has been done to nurture and grow the audience. Everyone just assumes that supporting the art form means supporting the musicians. But that is only half the equation, and actually the least important half. We don't need more sax solos. We don't need more CDs. We need more fans to support the fine artists who are already out there producing first rate music.

Surely someone is out there building the next generation of fans.

The groups that have probably done the most good during the last decade—the alphabet soup folks like the IAJE, JALC, the NEA—are often highly criticized. Yet they have played a key role in audience development. And now the IAJE is gone. Some people seem to gloat over that fact. That shows you how shortsighted many members of the jazz community are. There are probably others who would celebrate if JALC ran into problems. Freud called it thanatos, the death wish, and apparently it can afflict art forms as much as individuals.

As hard as it may be to believe, there is an influential contingent in the jazz world that would like to keep the art form small and untainted by the need to please an audience.

Of course, you probably think jazz writers are the good guys here?

I only wish that were true. Jazz critics are key factors in educating the audience and keeping the art form healthy. But critics need to realize that their main responsibility is to the audience. Not to their friends among the musicians, or to other critics, whom they try to impress. How many jazz writers today really demonstrate that commitment to the audience?

A half-century ago, the critical function got corrupted. This happened around the time art critic Clement Greenberg found that he could make his name and reputation by jumping on the bandwagon for Jackson Pollock.

What was so wrong about that?

Nothing was inherently wrong about it—at least at first. But the rules of the game changed, and critics learned that they could enhance their reputations if they were the first to jump on the next new thing.

Critics have to make choices. Do they write about the serious artist who is quietly building a body of outstanding work over a period of years? Or do they constantly jump from fad to fad, trying to pinpoint what is going to be hot during the next six months. I would suggest that a critic frequently must make a choice between these two goals. Either you focus primarily on work of the highest quality, or you try to anticipate the next flavor of the month.

"Did you ever have to make up your mind," as the old song goes. Many critics eventually decided to do the thing that enhanced their own reputation the most. Guess which choice they made.

You make it sound so bad.

In truth, the jazz critics handled this dilemma better than critics in other art forms. At least for the most part. Jazz has always prided itself on judging music by how it sounds. But that isn't always the case in other forms of music. I recently met a scholar who had written a paper on John Cage, and found that it caused some controversy, because he analyzed Cage's music on the basis of how it sounded, rather than on the basis of its "compositional strategies."

How strange, that a music writer would get called to the carpet for paying attention to the sound of the music. Isn't music all about how it sounds? Yet this tells you something about the state of mind across the fence in the world of contemporary classical music. Fortunately things never got quite that bad on the jazz scene. The jazz critics still listen to the music, for the most part, and are influenced by what their ears tell them when they write their reviews. Of course, that begs the question of how much they hear . . .

Sorry to cut you off. But does it really matter what the critics say?

It certainly does. When critics try to impress each other, rather than fulfill their responsibility to the audience, the audience feels shortchanged. And, eventually, the audience shrinks.

How often have you bought a CD because of a critic's recommendation, only to find that it was almost unlistenable? More often than you want to admit, huh? If you are a dedicated fan, you might keep on buying more CDs even after that experience. But many intelligent members of the general public, who might have become serious jazz fans, got turned away by this corruption of critical standards.

Isn't this just a matter of taste? You talk about intelligent members of the public who might become jazz fans. But who are these mysterious people?

Let's face it, the jazz audience has always had a disproportionate share of musicians in its ranks. Just listen to the conversations of the people sitting at the tables around you at the jazz clubs. The chairs are filled with guitarists, pianists, saxophonists, and other players. This is a good thing for the art form.

You listen to the people at other tables at the clubs? I thought you went out to hear the music?

The jazz audience is a smart audience. These people understand music. You can't insult their intelligence with some jive act. And I fear it is precisely this group of people—with discerning ears and a good grasp of musical structure and potentiality—who have been turned off by a critical establishment that jumps blindly from fad to fad.

You sound very pessimistic.

Actually I have high hopes—over the long run. And they are based on the amazing strength and vitality of the music itself. Jazz is honest music. It is exciting music. It allows more scope for individuality than any other musical genre. It offers more surprises too. I don't think it is possible to kill it. But it would be best if we put away the knives and stopped stabbing. After all, it wouldn't take much to bring back an audience for this music.

What else are they gonna do with their ears? On second thought, don't answer that . . .

Me? You're the one with the bad jokes. I'm going back to sleep.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

May 19, 2009 · 26 comments


Jane Monheit in Boston

Roanna Forman covers the Boston scene for She recently reported in this column on performances by Cyrus Chestnut, Jerry Bergonzi, Stan Sagov and Jimmy Heath. Now she sends in this update on singer Jane Monheit's recent appearance at Sculler’s. T.G.

While I was all set to take up where Nat Hentoff left off on Jane Monheit, I have to admit she can sing jazz. Despite brushes with lollipop sentimentality on some of the ballads, her voice is more mature and sultry now, and there’s solid musical intelligence to her scat (unfortunately on only one number). Yet, I still felt there was something missing—an ability to relate to emotionally sophisticated material, particularly the three S’s – sorrow, suffering, and so-what.

          Jane Monheit (photo by Jos L. Knaepen)

Not that you need to be black, product of a broken marriage, or a candidate for rehab to empathize with and put over all the shades of blues in the jazz vernacular. But this singer, lovely and supple as her voice is—and in that respect a true delight to hear—stays far from dark corners, partly by sensibility, I’d conjecture. And partly by audience demand. Jane Monheit’s fans, who bathed her in attention, appreciation, and applause in Boston recently, don’t really want to visit those sad places, the ones defined by “Lush Life,” which I could neither imagine her choosing nor singing believably. They want, and get, prettiness, just the way Diana Krall’s fans want, and get, easy cool.

What’s not easy is what Monheit’s doing onstage. It doesn’t come across in the albums or videos. Singing aside, Monheit is a born performer, and has honed her conversational style with years of experience. Just back from a tour of Japan, guzzling Red Bull to cope with exhaustion, she put on a relaxed, entertaining show. She’d let you in on stories about her young son Jack as if she’d just bumped into some friends at Starbucks. (“You don’t want to bring a toddler to Asia, trust me…”)

But the singing, when you focused on it, didn’t disappoint either. Intonation, timbre, and attitude changed from song to song seamlessly. Monheit’s voice has deepened, and she mustered a soulful, throaty cry in the bridge of Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Like a Star,” and then pulled back into the smooth opening phrase of this simple song about complex love. Starting “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” with a voice/bass duo, she zipped nicely through a fairly straight reading with some bluesy touches. She finally started taking a chance on improvisation with a swinging “Takin’ a Chance on Love.”

After a straight-laced chorus of “Stardust,” she surprised me by scatting musically intelligent lines on the changes, and I saw what all the kudos were about when she first came on the scene. Ending the tune near C below middle C, she surprised me again with her range. When she ripped through “Twisted,” the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross classic, I knew she had something going on.

Ballads, however, are another story. While you hear some Peggy Lee lilt occasionally, you just don’t get away from prettiness. Admittedly, this singer doesn’t draw from personal experience for tunes like “Something Cool,” about romantic dalliance with a stranger, but she didn’t give you any sense of biting into the forbidden fruit while delivering the lyric. She’s more made for “Lucky To Be Me,” a Bernstein-Comden-Green Broadway-style “pinch-me-is this-really-happening” paean to happiness which she dedicated to the birth of her son. The inevitable “Rainbow Connection” – “Over the Rainbow” melody, on which Michael Kanan used a Rhodes for the beginning tune, defined the “aw-gee” mood that Monheit fans love, but which is rather too saccharine for a jazz set, at least the way she sang it.

Ms. Monheit’s trio is tight and tasteful, with well-calibrated volume and dynamics. One has to thank her tour manager Lee Ethier, who worked the soundboard for the show to ensure the accompaniment framed the singer appropriately. Pianist Michael Kanan, who has been Monheit’s accompanist for a while, complements her well, with mainstream playing that doesn’t interfere with her vocals. As an arranger, he can be somewhat repetitive: the chromatic phrase that opened “Get Out of Town,” showed up again in an easy swing rendition of Gershwin’s “My One and Only.” Only on the encore, Jobim’s “Waters of March,” did the group lose the containment which ironically is the key characteristic of the original Brazilian version. Hitting harder, with heavy cymbal accents, the drummer backed Monheit as she belted the ending in an aesthetic disconnect for a song that is built on subtlety.

So, to get back to Mr. Hentoff’s original question several years ago, is Jane Monheit a jazz singer? Let us now, ladies and gentlemen, open up a can of worms. What is a jazz singer? All depends on what dictionary you pick up. For me, it means swinging and improvising on a melody, and being part of the band, not just fronting it. I also think you have to understand the blues, no matter where or how you work it in to your vocals; it’s too integral to the music to ignore. And, yes, the greats really pull everything they can out of a lyric—witness Sheila Jordan, who made “You Are My Sunshine” into a heartbreaking lament.

But the public has apparently chosen other models now. While it’s arguable that Jane Monheit is more cabaret than jazz, although I think she’s come a long way from the “rehearsed, theatrical quality” that Laura Pellegrinelli of Jazz Times spotted in 2001, I don’t agree with Nat Hentoff that she’s not saying anything interesting. She’s saying something different, less challenging, prettier, more soothing. And that, I think, is what audiences want, or are at least defining as jazz these days.

This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman

May 18, 2009 · 5 comments


Nat Hentoff on Jazz: Bringing Jazz Back into the Schools

I might consider calling Nat Hentoff the dean of jazz writers, but that would only give a small flavor of the scope of his contributions to the public interest, which often cut to the quick of the key matters of our times. Even when he writes about jazz, he shows this same tenacious grasp of the big issues that impact the overall health of the art form.

Hentoff's recent articles here include his account of a rare event that brought together Wynton Marsalis and Sandra Day O'Connor and a report on the Jazz Foundation of America. Now he looks at new ways of improving jazz education in our schools, an endeavor that may be the single most important step in ensuring the long term vitality of jazz in its land of origin. T.G.

With Charles Mingus gone, my oldest living close friend—in and out of jazz—is Quincy Jones. Soon after I started as New York editor of Down Beat, I covered several record sessions where Quincy was among the arrangers. I was struck by the openness, clarity and swing of his scores—reflecting his personality. Later, to my surprise and delight, he entered my daughter, Jessica Day, into the jazz canon by writing "Jessica's Day," which was recorded by Dizzy Gillespie and others.

                     Quincy Jones (artwork by Merryl Jaye)

Now, among his global humanitarian and music projects, Q—as he is called by hundreds of his friends—is deeply involved in bringing music back into American schools. Because of the No Child Left Behind Law, and the school boards and principals who fearfully implemented it, music has been among the first budget cuts because of the grim amount of time now consumed by testing for reading and math tests, and testing again.

Q has a 12-month plan of very specific action stages he's working on with the Quincy Jones Musiq Consortium. As they evolve in real time, I'll keep you informed. But, to underscore how music can energize a school—from elementary grades on—I've found a story which serves as a swinging example to educators, foundations, corporations, and those philanthropists for whom jazz long ago became an essential, enlivening part of their own lives.

I'm grateful to Carrie Melago, a staff reporter for the New York Daily News, for her story on April 28th, "Kid Strikes Up P.S. Band." The principal at Public School 37 in the borough of Queens, which was home to Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, among other jazz icons, and where Jimmy Heath now brings listeners with his new big band, ended the music program more than a year ago. He couldn't afford it.

One of his more obstreperous students, Paul Sherman, was acting up last December, until a parent coordinator remembered that he plays piano and told him to put music to "The Pledge of Allegiance." His playing of it became a morning routine. Paul, a sixth-grader, asked if he could put a band togther, and Carrie Melago reports, "About a dozen kids meet at lunch and after school to practice a variety of songs, from R. Kelly's 'I Believe I Can Fly' to Kevin Rudolf and Lil' Wayne's 'Let it Rock.'"

Quincy keeps trying to get me to listen to some of the rappers – many of whom he knows – so I can understand their impact on the young. Thus far, I'm a poor student of his, but Paul Sherman's combo "has performed at a district-wide concert. . . and the school's multi-cultural festival. Next up is career day and graduation."

Says Paul, the leader of what is now known as the Cynthia Jenkins School Band: "Music makes this school more alive. The school is better with music in it."

Agreeing, Assistant Principal Cheryl Jones emphasizes: "Seeing him doing this is a wonderful thing. It adds dimension to the school."

During my six years long ago at the Boston Latin School, which was founded in 1635, jazz was unknown (except for by me). I did play clarinet in the school's marching band and even became a second lieutenant, and went on the road with the group. Althought we didn't know how to make John Philip Sousa swing (this can be done), it was exhilarating to be part of the collective force of my bandmates.

These days, at P.S. 37 in Queens, Carrie Melago reports that "Kenneth, 11, hadn't displayed any interest in music until he came to the school and joined the band two months ago. He took so quickly to the guitar that his mother, Kenya Savage, scrimped to buy a used one and happily listens to him practice at night." Also, she adds happily, "He stays off the video games."

But what happens when Paul, Kenneth, and the other members of the Cynthia Jenkins School Band graduate? Leader Paul Jeffries is working with the younger kids in the combo to to enable them to carry on. Importantly, despite budget problems, Carrie Melago adds a rousing chord: "Administrators are hoping to have a more formal music program by Fall."

Maybe some of Q's associates in the Quincy Jones Musiq Consortium will drop by P.S. 37 and put some of the sessions on tape, so that perhaps the Public Broadcasting System will do a story on how music does indeed add dimension to a school.

About ten years ago, I went back to Boston Latin School and was delighted to see and hear a school band—under bandmaster Paul Pitts—playing Duke Ellington's "Things Ain't What they Used to Be." When I told the players Duke would have liked their performance, they were astonished that I had actually spoken to the master. Then, in 2004, when I was at the school's Alumni Dinner as BLS's "Distinguished Graduate of the Year," Paul Pitts, and the band played Ellington throughout the evening.

Sitting next to me, the then headmaster, Cornelia Kelley (BLS '44)—moving to the music—suddenly and emphatically told the audience: "That's what it's all about, ladies and gentlemen!"

She wasn't talking about jazz as an academic subject, but rather—and vibrantly—as a life force.

If jazz has been able to rejuvenate the venerable Boston Latin School—whose graduates have included Samuel Adams, the 1773 Tea Party man, philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and preacher Cotton Mather—who, if he'd ever heard jazz, might have considered it the work of the devil, as some later U.S. preachers did—Quincy Jones's Musiq Consortium may well enable this American root music to have many harvests in many schools. And not incidentally, he will have provided jobs for working jazz musicians as instructive visitors, as the Jazz Foundation of America has done in a number of cities where music is still essential to education.

This blog entry posted by Nat Hentoff

May 16, 2009 · 1 comment


The Jazz Art of Merryl Jaye

Regular visitors to the know that we like to feature the work of visual artists, and look for every opportunity to showcase their creativity throughout the site. Since the launch of in December 2007, we have opened 15 on-line galleries, each one focusing on the jazz-inspired work of a specific photographer or painter. (You can find links to these galleries on our Visual Jazz page.)

Nat King Cole by Merryl Jaye

                           Nat King Cole (by Merryl Jaye)

Today we launch our latest virtual gallery. Our current exhibit is devoted to the jazz artwork of Merryl Jaye, a West Coast painter whose vivid portraits of musicians capture the spirit of these artists in live performance. Jaye herself has an deep background in music, and she worked as a performer, songwriter and recording artist, before turning her main focus to painting. This personal history no doubt influences her artwork. Certainly her sensitivity to the emotional dimension of jazz in flight comes across in her portraits.

Visitors are encourage to check out Jaye’s gallery here. Below are three more selections to give you a glimpse at her approach to capturing the shapes and colors of jazz.

First up is Cab Calloway:

Cab Calloway by Merryl Jaye

Here is Charlie Parker:

Charlie Parker by Merryl Jaye

And finally the elegant Lena Horne:

Lena Horne by Merryl Jaye

For the rest of the exhibit, including portraits of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Wynton Marsalis, Billie Holiday, and others, click here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Claude Thornhill at 100

More than twenty years have elapsed since New York audiences have been able to hear the repertoire of the great Claude Thornhill band in live performance. When a centennial concert was held a few days ago, critic Will Friedwald juggled his calendar to make sure he was on hand. T.G.

Star date: May 8, 2009. For the previous six months, I knew exactly what I would be doing on this particular night. That day marked the opening of the new Star Trek movie, and there was no way I could miss that. Then, at the last minute, when I was about to buy a pair of tickets at, I learned that there was, in fact, something even more important than Kirk and Spock and Bones McCoy. It turns out that very same Friday evening, the trumpeter and educator Kevin Blanq was mounting an ambitious concert in tribute the legendary Claude Thornhill Orchestra.

Claude Thornhill

Perhaps even more than Star Trek, Claude Thornhill and his amazing staff of orchestrators (most importantly Gil Evans) and soloists saw the future and boldly went where no musicians had gone before. The band, which made its mark throughout the high years of the swing era and the early postwar period, cast an enormous influence on the shape of the jazz to come. Its most prominent progeny was the ground-breaking Miles Davis Nonet of 1949-1950. Yet when the Nonet’s recordings were issued on a famous album called The Birth of the Cool, most of the musicians involved—notably longtime Thornhill-ites Gil Evans, Lee Konitz, and Gerry Mulligan—were aware that they were merely developed ideas that Thornhill and Evans had already given birth to.

The Thornhill band was cool long before the term was used in jazz, at least in the modern sense: from the beginning, the pianist-leader was much more interested in contemporary classical music, than, say Goodman or Miller. This gave the band a cool sonority, enhanced by the use of orchestral colors rarely heard in swing bands, such as French horns, bass trombone, arco bass, and tuba, and unusual combinations, like a six-piece reed section of four standard tenor clarinets plus two bass clarinets. The interest in contemporary European music spilled over into a sympathy for the emerging modern jazz of the period, and Thornhill commissioined arrangements by his Evans of seminal bop works by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis—all, ostensibly, for dancers.

The band was prized by musicians—it had the rare and then somewhat useless honor of an endorsement from the even-less-known Thelonious Monk—and music buffs. But, unlike Glenn Miller, who was one of Thornhill’s sponsors and mentors, Thornhill never caught on in a big way with the general public. Thornhill’s reputation could still use some bolstering: there hasn’t been a full-length concert of his music in New York at least since Gary Giddins and the American Jazz Orchestra saluted him in 1988. That was why I had to miss the opening of Star Trek—by that reckoning, there won’t be another Thornhill event until 2030—and quite possibly the Klingons will have phasered our planet into oblivion by then.

Mr. Blanq, for his part mounted an excellent recreation—it was authentic to the point where the director almost never talked between numbers—rather the tunes were mostly linked with piano interludes, just as Thornhill himself did back in the day—and made the indirect point that this is where Miles and Gil got the idea for connecting the individual songs together the same in Miles Ahead, as well as the way that Miles performed his sets in one long conjoined, uninterrupted number throughout his electronic period.

Mr. Blanq somehow managed to put together a full 18-piece band, including two French horns, plus an additional three flautists who joined in on certain arrangements. The other guest was vocalist Molly Ryan, who totally nailed the essence of a ‘40s band canary on “Sunday Kind of Love.” (This was the closest thing Thornhill had to a hit. The song was originally published by Thornhill’s one-time employer, Louis Prima, who once famously introduced the pianist on a record as “Baboon-Face Thornhill.”) Many of the members in Mr. Blanq’s orchestra were student players and recent graduates from Mr. Blanq’s tutelage at LaGuardia High School—most of whom probably weren’t around at the time of the AJO concert 21 years ago. He also brought in three ringers: sax doubler Mark Lopeman (who works regularly with revivalists Vince Giordano and David Berger), classical clarinetist Paul Garment (son of jazz advocate and macher Leonard Garment), and pianist Jim McNeely of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Today we mostly remember the Thornhill band for its prescient embrace of modernism, but at the time, most of those who danced to the band in ballrooms across the country mainly knew it as a piano-driven ensemble in which most of the melodies were carried by Thornhill himself. There was a tradition of cocktail piano big bands throughout the swing era—famously Eddy Duchin and Carmen Cavallero—and Thornhill, to a certain extent, appealed to the same audience, albeit in a considerably hipper and more musical fashion. Mr. Blanq should be commended for including a lot of the band’s bread-and-butter numbers, which transformed pop tunes and standards, such as “Lover Man” and “This Time” into elegant keyboard concerti. Both Mr. McNeely and pianist Alex Smith expertly recaptured Thornhill’s touch, which to today’s ears sounds like a mixture of Count Basie, Frederick Chopin, and even Floyd Cramer’s Nashville “slipnote” style piano.

In addition, Mr. Blanq called a few classical adaptations, such as Gil Evans’s ball-busting arrangements of “La Paloma” and Tchaikovsky’s “Arab Dance” (the two were originally issued back-to-back on a 12” Columbia 78 RPM single). And there also were the boppers: “Yardbird Suite” (then still known as “What Price Love”), “Anthropology,” and Illinois Jacquet’s “Robin’s Nest.” He threw in a raft of rarities, including a remarkable, unrecorded Evans chart of “Moon Dreams,” which utilized a flute section and overall has more in common with the original Glenn Miller AAF chart than Evans’s later free-style interpretation for the Davis tuba band. In a couple of cases, Blanq wrote in a trumpet solo for himself in the vocal spot, in place of the original boy crooner, as on “I Knew You When,” although on the jivey (and “drive-y”) “Sunday Drivin’” he essayed the rhythm vocal himself.

Surprisingly, Mr. Blanq omitted Thornhill’s theme song and most famous composition, “Snowfall,” and in general concentrated on the slower pieces, playing them with appropriate subtlety and the attention to nuance and shading that they need. Still, I wouldn’t have minded a few of the band’s hard-hitting and faster flag-wavers, like “Buster’s Last Stand” and the almost frighteningly avant-garde “Portrait of a Guinea Farm.”

In one of the few announcements that Mr. Blanq did make, he told us that he hopes to keep the project going, to give other performances, even beyond the centennial year. Hearing the music live caused all of us present, including Evans protégée Maria Schneider and bopster singer-songwriter Bobby Dorough, to re-think a lot of our positions on the band. For instance, the Thornhill band is too-often briefly mentioned in biographies of Gil Evans as but a mere incubation for the arranger (although he was already in his ‘30s at that time and no novice). After this concert, it seems equally valid to feel that the Thornhill period was the high point of Evans’s career, and what he later achieved with Miles Davis and his own band was a mere afterthought.

The concert was actually held not in the big room at Symphony Space, but in the more intimate Thalia Theatre, where it was possible to hear every remarkable detail that Mr. Blanq, Mr. McNeely, and company brought out in the music. Yet, as I remembered on the way out, this venue was recently re-named in honor of a famous Hollywood actor-director-arts patron who sponsored its restoration: It is now known officially as the Leonard Nimoy Thalia. Thus I can only assume that Mr. Spock himself probably won’t mind if I wait until the second day to go see the new Star Trek.

This blog entry posted by Will Friedwald

May 13, 2009 · 5 comments


Invitation to the Secret Society

When I first heard the name Darcy James Argue, I was convinced it was a sly pseudonym. What a clever idea to combine the surname of the hero in Pride and Prejudice with the identity of the author of Daisy Miller and pin an invitation to a polemic at the end! I wished that I could invent that kind of secret identity for myself.

Secret Society

Don’t blame me for defining this artist in 19th century terms. Mr. Argue sets the tone himself with his logo, which combines some evil-looking Industrial Revolution piece of equipment with a font that was apparently constructed with a chisel and wood blocks. Check it out above, in all its pre-Adobe-Systems barbarity.

Today is the release date of Darcy James Argue’s CD Infernal Machines. But it almost seems like old news in the jazz world, since the buzz on this project literally started before it was recorded. The Newsweek rave (comparing the bandleader to Duke Ellington) is not even on the newsstand any more. It came and went before the CD hit the street. As Doris Day might have said, the Secret Society's no secret anymore.

Secret Society

But in case, you haven't learnt the secret handshake yet, I urge you to take the oath and join. I usually like to slow down the rush to coronation for any artist—especially if it happens before the debut CD arrives at the stores. But I can’t play the spoilsport here. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society is every bit as fresh and exciting as its logo is retro and out-of-date. You can try to pigeonhole it—as coming out of a Maria Schneider or Gil-Evans-does-Hendrix bag. But on top of this Argue layers a sense of self-directed freedom that one finds more often in a small, intense rock band.

One of the joys of hearing this ensemble is in following the strategies by which Argue gets his 18 musicians to move as nimbly and explosively as a compact combo. Horn sounds are masked as electronica. Percussion and guitar take on a prominence rarely seen in large ensembles. Orchestral textures float like enormous sound cushions behind the soloists. These devices can be heard to good effect on the CD's opening track "Phobos," (currently featured as Song of the Day at, which develops for a full two minutes before the listener realizes that this is a big band track.

It is a sad commentary on the major labels that—once again!—the drama and excitement in the world of big bands is taking place on a small independent label. These are the same major labels that don’t give you Maria Schneider, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, etc. The big band is such an expensive proposition, that it stands out as the one area of jazz music that desperately needs the support of a strong partner. Yet the majors are missing in action, time and time again.


Two other outstanding recent releases by large ensembles reinforce this point. Bobby Sanabria’s recording of Kenya Revisited Live!!! and Joseph C. Phillips’s Vipassana are outstanding albums—two of my favorite CDs of the year to date. Listening to them, one is not only struck by the quality of the music, but also by the amount of hard work by a large number of people that must have gone into creating recordings of this scope and scale. I can’t help believing that, in a different day, a Columbia or RCA or even a Verve or Blue Note, would have wanted to be part of projects of this sort.

Apparently those days are gone. But fans should not ignore these three recordings simply because they don’t have the imprimatur of a multinational entertainment conglomerate on their sleeves.

Check out the track reviews (with links for legal downloading) here:

Joseph C. Phillips: ”Of Climbing Heaven and Gazing Over the Earth” (from the CD Vipassana)

Bobby Sanabria & the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra: “Wild Jungle” (from the CD Kenya Revisited Live!!!)

Bobby Sanabria & the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra: “Congo Mulence” (from the CD Kenya Revisited Live!!!)

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society: "Phobos" (from the CD Infernal Machines)

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

May 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Dexter Comes to Town

Jazz writers usually focus on the action on the stage, but Walter Kolosky recognizes that the music's impact on the devoted fan in the audience makes for an equally interesting story. [For a related article, see the Dexter Gordon Dozens by Eric Novod, also published today.] T.G.


                                    Some Other Spring
               Dexter Gordon with Karin Krog (1970)

                             Artwork by Thomas Andersen

This is a true story. The names have not been changed. I think this happened in 1978 or 1979.

Eric had been anxiously counting down the days until jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon would be playing in Boston. He had purchased his tickets early on for the rare appearance and had been talking about the event to anyone who would listen. He would also talk about it to anyone who wouldn’t listen. Eric was like that. He would latch onto something new and get so excited that he wanted the whole world to know all about it. Sometimes this was great. Other times it was a real pain in the ass.

Just a very few months earlier, Eric had come to college for his freshman year. He was an affected kid who didn’t seem to quite fit in. His voice had a permanent scratchiness to it that could make people leave a conversation out of discomfort. He also spoke in a halting fashion that betrayed a distinct lack of confidence.

One day he was hanging around a main hall at school and saw some students sitting on the steps playing guitar. They were having a great amount of fun. Eric, who had no musical background, was fascinated. He listened to one tune after another. During a pause in the music, Eric asked, “What kind of music are you guys playing?”

“We’re jamming on some jazz changes,” said Buck.

From that moment on, Eric was hooked. He started hanging around these students and would attend their jam sessions. He picked up a couple of books about jazz and started listening to jazz records the guys had suggested. He was insatiable. He was also no longer a pain in the ass because his enthusiasm was so overwhelming that his presence became welcome. Eventually, over just a few weeks, he became one of the gang.

But, Eric was not entirely happy. Sure, he loved the musicians and the music. But one thing was missing. He didn’t know how to play an instrument. He took action. Confidently he showed up one day holding a saxophone. “I have decided to learn how to play this thing,” Eric proclaimed. And learn he did. He dedicated himself to the horn, ignoring all other aspects of his life. In several months, he still played very badly, but his progress had been impressive.

“I’m going to play in the style of Dexter Gordon. The man is a genius and all the shit the guy has been through. I mean, Jesus Christ, the guy can blow,” Eric spitted out. “He’s coming to Boston, you know. I’ve already got my ticket.”

The show date snuck up on everyone, so people were surprised when Eric turned up one day and said he had to tell everyone about the Dexter concert from the night before.

“Guys, you should have been there. What an event! For awhile it didn’t even look like it was going to happen. At 8 o’clock a guy came out on stage and said Dexter was late, but he would be there soon. Then at 8:30 the guy came out again and said the same thing. There were some people in the crowd who were starting to get a bit upset. But when the guy came out at 9:00 and repeated his little spiel again you could hear boos. Then at 9:30 and 10:00 it started getting unruly in there.

“It didn’t bother me so much because I was meeting some new people and talking to them about jazz and Dexter. But, about 10:30, man, that’s when it became real ugly. The emcee came out and had to shout over the crowd. He promised that Dexter was on his way and was going to play. The crowd was beyond pissed at that point. Then at about 11 o’clock, Dexter and his band finally walked out onto the stage.

“Man, you should have seen how drunken Dexter was! I mean, he was barely able to stand-up! He walks to the mike and mumbles a few words I couldn’t understand. If he wasn’t drunk, he was just awfully sick or something. I don’t know. But the crowd was just stunned at his appearance. We wondered if he could even play! Then after about two or three minutes of nervous silence, the band began and played “Laura.” After the tune ended, Dexter mumbled a few words and then turned and staggered off stage! A few minutes later, the lights came back up, the crowd booed and the emcee came out and told us the concert was over. Talk about an angry mob!”

Tony said, “That must have sucked. You had to be pissed-off.”

“What do you mean?” Eric asked.

“Well, you pay 20 bucks for a ticket, you wait for three hours and then Dexter only plays one tune. I would have been ticked-off,” Buck said.

“No guys, not at all,” Eric proclaimed, “it was the most inspired and beautiful 20 minutes of music I have ever heard in my life.”

Many years have passed since this event took place. Last I heard, Dexter Gordon died a long time ago and Eric never did follow in his footsteps—that is, he never became a great saxophone player and has not yet died. I hear he lives in New Jersey and writes about music.

I will never forget Eric’s enthusiasm or the deepness of his realization that sometimes just a few moments of perfection is all the soul needs. Many musicians, jazz players in particular, work their whole lives to attain just a minute or two of pure freedom, playing like they have never played before. In those moments all boundaries are gone because the invisible shackles have been removed. Many players will never have that moment. Some will be drunk when they have it. Others may need to be drunk to have it. And, in some cases, the audience will have to be drunk. But we jazz fans hope that in our sober listening, we are lucky enough to hear those very rare moments. That’s why I listen.

Author’s note: In 1978 or 1979 $20 was a lot of money—especially for a college student.

This blog entry posted by Walter Kolosky

May 11, 2009 · 3 comments


The Tale of Two Jazz Careers

Thomas Cunniffe, an editor and regular contributor to, is (among other things) our expert on jazz DVDs. Recently he discussed, in this column, several DVDs featuring Quincy Jones, and other reviews by him can be found here and here. Below he looks at DVDs celebrating two departed jazz artists who received very little recognition while they were still on the scene, saxophonist Teddy Edwards and vocalist Jackie Paris. T.G.

One of my ongoing projects is a collection of biographical and musical portraits of neglected jazz musicians. Each of the profiled musicians was an innovator and achieved some level of success, but never reached the higher ranks of the jazz firmament. With each musician, the central question was why didn’t this artist succeed?

Tis Autumn: The Search For Jackie Paris

The answers were as varied as the musicians. Some left the scene because of immediate responsibilities to their families, while others couldn’t deal with the harshness of the music business. Illness and substance abuse kept some away, and others were blacklisted for their political beliefs. Some artists walked away from their success, while others failed to get any attention despite multiple attempts.

2001’s The Legend Of Teddy Edwards (Image) and 2007’s Tis Autumn: The Search For Jackie Paris (Outsider) tell the respective stories of a bop tenor saxophone pioneer who chose to live and work in Los Angeles, and a singer / guitarist/ tap dancer who, after a promising start, failed to establish a long-lasting career. While both films do an admirable job of telling their subject’s life stories, neither film really answers that central question, why? On the Edwards documentary, the question is never directly raised, but we get a clue when Dan Morgenstern tells of his excitement of seeing Edwards live in New York for the first time—in 1964, not with his own band, but as a member of Benny Goodman’s orchestra! A link on the Wikipedia bio will take you to an Edwards interview where he emphatically states his dislike of performing in New York. There is also a detailed description in Ted Gioia’s book West Coast Jazz that documents Edwards’ long string of missed opportunities.

I can’t believe that the documentary’s director, Don McGlynn, didn’t ask the question, but I wonder why there are no answers, or at the very least, some sort of hypothesis. On the Jackie Paris documentary, there are a plethora of theories, but only Paris’ notorious temper and violent outbursts are investigated. Other theories posited by filmmaker Raymond DeFelitta include Paris’ perfectionist attitude, his printed lashing-out of a critic in Downbeat and—most remarkably—his refusal of career support from the Mafia.

As we’ve learned to expect from McGlynn, his film is beautifully shot, tightly edited and well-organized, with superb interviews that get right to the point. McGlynn maintains an objective viewpoint, and is only heard off-screen asking occasional questions of Edwards. In contrast, DeFelitta narrates and appears on-camera, documenting his friendship with Paris, and even making comments about his film in progress. The film wanders around aimlessly, picking up and dropping out storylines in a confusing manner. For example, DeFelitta and writer Will Friedwald travel to a New Jersey record fair to look for Paris’s rare 1949 recording of “Round Midnight”—the first vocal version of that standard. The sequence goes on for several minutes and they don’t find the record. Yet, it appears on the soundtrack, so DeFelitta must have found it. We never find out how. [There’s another storyline regarding Paris’ family that drops in and out of the film, but I won’t spoil that one for you.]

The Legend of Teddy Edwards

For me, the highlights of McGlynn’s film are the full-length uninterrupted performances of five Edwards originals played by his working quintet. While DeFelitta uses voiceover interviews over the Paris performances in the main film, both a vintage clip and a late performance are presented in full as supplements to the DVD. DeFelitta also includes an hour of full-length interviews and the theatrical trailer. There are fewer DVD extras on the Edwards disc, but they include another complete musical performance, plus Edwards reading an original poem from the 1960s and singing an original song with his own lyrics. Unfortunately, the piano Edwards plays is horribly out-of-tune and it’s difficult to hear the words to the song. A better-authored DVD would have included optional subtitles. That is one area where the Paris disc is better, and in a few places, the subtitles clear up some quickly-said and poorly-recorded interviews.

Teddy Edwards lived to see the premiere of the McGlynn film, but Jackie Paris died during the making of DeFelitta’s documentary. Neither artist has an abundance of their recorded work available on CD (and the soundtrack to the Edwards film is now out-of-print). DeFelitta’s film—a new release on DVD—could have a positive effect on the legacy of Jackie Paris, so it must be recommended, warts and all, with the hope that newly-remastered CDs will follow. As for the McGlynn film, it’s recommended without reservation with my personal advice to pick up Edwards’ CDs while they’re still available.

THE LEGEND OF TEDDY EDWARDS 85 miinutes. With Teddy Edwards, Ernie Andrews, Clora Bryant, Dexter Gordon, Dan Morgenstern, Kirk Silsbee, James B. Smith, Larry Nash, Wendell Williams, Gerryck King, Teddy Edwards, Jr. Performances featured: “L.A. After Dark”, “Regina”, “Takin’ Off”, “Sunset Eyes”, “I’m So Afraid Of Love”, “At The La Villa”. Directed by Don McGlynn. Image DVD 1504

‘TIS AUTUMN: THE SEARCH FOR JACKIE PARIS 99 minutes. With Jackie Paris, Raymond DeFilitta, Norman Bogner, Joe Franklin, Billy Vera, Howard Rumsey, Will Friedwald, Harlan Ellison, Ruth Price, Gene Davis, Billy Taylor, Mark Murphy, Ira Gitler, Terry Gibbs, James Moody, Teddy Charles, Peter Bogdanovich, Frank Whaley, Nick Tosches, Phil Schaap, Ray Passman, George Wein, Helen Cafone, Joan Paris, Jeanie Paris, J.D. Ehrhard, Francois Zalacain, Armen Donelian, Jack Kleinsinger, Barry Newman, Anne Marie Moss, Lorraine Condos, David Grausman, Sheryn Goldenhersh, Stacy “Sissy” Paris, Michael Paris. Directed by Raymond DeFilitta. Outsider (no catalog number).

This blog entry posted by Thomas Cunniffe.

May 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Fifteen Tracks You Might Have Missed

We have crammed so many track reviews into's Intel® Quad-core XEON® Processor 7300 Series unit (conveniently located next to my bed) that it is starting to overheat like Sonny Rollins on the fifth chorus of rhythm changes. But I am convinced that's site visitors are still hungry for good jazz, so we will keep on feeding more reviews to our mechanical brain until it blows a fuse.

Keep your fingers crossed. In the meantime, here are links to 15 track reviews published during the last few days. To search through all of the track reviews hidden away in our deep storage, use the search box in the left sidebar on our Music page.

Happy listening!

 Stan Getz & Kenny Barron

Stan Getz & Kenny Barron: “Soul Eyes”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

 J.J. Johnson

J.J. Johnson: “Misterioso”
Reviewed by Matt Leskovic

Art Tatum & Ben Webster

Art Tatum (with Ben Webster): “My Ideal”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

 Kurt Rosenwinkel

Kurt Rosenwinkel: “Flute”
Reviewed by Dane Orr

 Paul Desmond & Gerry Mulligan

Paul Desmond & Gerry Mulligan: “The Way You Look Tonight”
Reviewed by Matt Leskovic

Zoot Sims

Zoot Sims: “Moonlight in Vermont”
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

 Jazz Crusaders

The Jazz Crusaders: “Never Had It So Good”
Reviewed by Matt Leskovic

 Clark Terry

Clark Terry: “In Orbit”
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Kansas City 5

Count Basie (with Lester Young): “Don’t Be That Way”
Reviewed by Dean Alger

 Lenny Breau

Lenny Breau: “There is No Greater Love”
Reviewed by Bill Barnes

 Cannonball Adderley

Cannonball Adderley: “Spontaneous Combustion”
Reviewed by Marcus Singletary

Les Brown

Les Brown: “Leap Frog”
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

Billy Hart

Billy Hart: "Shadow Dance”
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

 Esperanza  Spalding

Esperanza Spalding: “I Know You Know”
Reviewed by Marcus Singletary

 Branford Marsalis

Branford Marsalis: “UMMG”
Reviewed by Dane Orr

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

May 07, 2009 · 0 comments


Who is Grace Kelly?

Who is Grace Kelly?

I am not talking about the famous 1950s-era starlet (who became Princess Grace of Monaco in 1956), but rather the teenage alto player from Massachusetts who turns 17 in a few days. She seems to be everywhere in the jazz world these days.

Grace Kelly

Grace "is rapidly making her way up in the jazz music world. Grace's talents far outstrip others her age . . ." So proclaims the teenager's web site. And this is no generic MySpace page, but (like everything associated with Ms. Kelly) a slick, professional presentation. Much like her P.R. campaign, her new CD Mood Changes, etc.

Kelly has certainly earned some awards and credentials—an amazing number for someone so young. The honors and distinctions page of her web site is chock full of 'em. Has she hired a full-time grant and award application writer? How many sixteen-year-old musicians even know about the International Songwriting Contest or the ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composers Award or the IAJE Composition Awards? But Grace can put these, and many like them, on her shelf.

I am even more interested in learning how Grace got to meet so many famous jazz musicians. Her site features more than 200 photos of Grace, usually posed alongside some well known jazz star after the gig. How many jazz musicians, even established ones, get to hang out with Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Dave Brubeck and other hall of famers? I am impressed!

Ah, I wish I was more impressed with Grace Kelly's saxophone playing. I have been told many times that I should be impressed with it. Usually by a press release or email or starry-eyed member of the media. But I tend to bypass those and listen to the music when evaluating new talent. And what does the music tell us?

I give Ms. Kelly credit for not playing hoary licks and clichés. She avoids the obvious in her improvised lines, and that suggests that she has a strong ear and definite potential. She certainly doesn't try to dazzle the listener. Yet I would like to be dazzled, at least a little bit. Kelly is a very cautious soloist.

Her new CD—co-produced by Grace along with her parents—shows the scope of her ambitions. In addition to playing alto sax, tenor sax and soprano sax, she is now singing. She sings in tune and with a reasonably assured sense of phrasing. And I like her arrangements here, especially the overdubbed parts on her reworking of the old standard "Comes Love." But her sax playing never gets out of first gear.

I looked forward to hearing Kelly stretch out on "I'll Remember April" (see my review here)—whose fairly simple blowing changes and medium-up tempo give the listener a good platform for evaluating a young talent. The opening ten seconds are the best part of this performance. Kelly's tone is lovely here, sweet like a ripe plum, but unfortunately it gets more and more shrill as the song progresses. Her solo also seems to run out of steam as the track continues, and though this type of song is perfect for letting loose, Kelly is content to develop some simple melodic ideas, occasionally interspersed with phrases that sound like the start of something exciting . . . but the fireworks never arrive.

There is no problem with any of this . . . at least for your typical teenage sax player who isn't being touted as a prodigy. And I have no doubt that Grace Kelly will mature into a very fine player. But she isn't there yet. I take no joy in pointing this out. Yet when there are so many struggling young artists, who never get this type of visibility, someone needs to speak up and try to put matters into perspective.

Bill Kirchner, a very astute observer of talent, has shared this comment on Grace with me. "Grace Kelly is the latest entry in a decades-old roster of aggressively-marketed jazz wunderkinder; others have included Craig Hundley, Christopher Hollyday, and Sergio Salvatore. All have been characterized by good, if generic, playing skills and a media-genic cuteness. I believe it was the late Whitney Balliett who declared that jazz as a music abhors cuteness; perhaps because of that, the career durability of such youngsters has generally not been good."

In a few days time, I will return to this issue, and tell you about some alto players who are world-class talents, yet are working with very little publicity and support. Their music is hidden away on little-known self-produced or small indie labels. Their CDs are not financed by their parents. They don't hang out with Rollins and Ornette.

When I see a heavy-handed PR campaign for an under-developed talent, it makes me think of artists such as these and how deserving they are of some of the accolades, which are always scarce in the jazz world . . . except for those have grant-writers and well-financed support network at home.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

May 06, 2009 · 10 comments


Afro-Cuba Meets Appalachia

Tim Wilkins edits the Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians at, and regularly contributes reviews in this column. Below he reports on a collaboration between Afro-Cuban pianist Omar Sosa and ethnomusicologist Tim Eriksen who is a genre-crossing master of the banjo, guitar and fiddle. T.G.

"The first Negroes did not come to America as slaves. They came as explorers."

When poet Langston Hughes recorded these words for Folkways Records in 1955, he was evoking the memory of black conquistadores like Juan Garrido, who explored the New World for Spain in the sixteenth century. But they also apply to Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, who drew on Hughes as an inspiration for his latest project, the album Across the Divide, just out on Half Note Records.

             Tim Eriksen and Omar Sosa (photo by Tim Wilkins)

Sosa is an iconoclast whose explorations of the African diaspora have led him to work with artists from Mozambique, Morocco, Mali, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela. But this latest project, a collaboration with musicologist Tim Eriksen, came as a surprise even to him. Eriksen is a singer and multi-instrumentalist who specializes in the "high lonesome" sounds of Appalachia and the New England seaboard.

The shotgun marriage of Afro-Cuban with Americana might look like the product of some producer's fevered imagination. But in this case, the result is an evocative success: it is the musicians' shared spirit of openness and inquiry which makes it work.

There' s such a deep African influence in the culture," said Eriksen, when I caught up with the pair between sets at New York's Blue Note. "The stuff that we've been singing together is old American songs that kind of illustrate the Afro and the Anglo like this (interlaces fingers), and sometimes like this (two fists)."

This unlikely musical conversation started off as an accident, and sounds uncalculated. When Sosa visited Dartmouth College last April, he overheard Eriksen singing an eighteenth-century Welsh hymn, "Promised Land," for his students. Sosa walked in to the class and sat down at the piano. Mozambican bassist Childo Tomas, who also plays thumb piano, followed him in, and the three played without exchanging a word for the next ten minutes.

"When we finished I said, 'Wow! You just blew me away," Sosa recalled. "Because it's not only the voice, it's what comes to what he sings and the background to the music he sings. It's a mix of a lot of stuff, you know?"

Across the Divide

Inspired by this chance encounter, Sosa began to research Eriksen – whose resumé includes work on the soundtrack of Anthony Minghella's Civil War film Cold Mountain, and performances with Nirvana, Sting, and Elvis Costello – and his inspirations, such as Appalachian banjoist Dock Boggs. When Half Note producer Jeff Levenson approached Sosa about an album, he knew he wanted to record with Eriksen.

"I always say, you need to figure out a way to do something different," Sosa said. Because the spirit of every musician is different, and this is what I try to do."

Like other Half Note albums, Across the Divide was recorded live on the Blue Note's stage, over two days in June of last year. Eriksen's vocals, as well as his banjo and fiddle playing, can be heard on "Promised Land," "Gabriel's Trumpet," "Sugar Baby Blues," and Night of the Four Songs." All four are traditional, from Kentucky, Maine, West Virginia and North Carolina, respectively.

"I tried to ask, 'what is this?'" Sosa said. "Now I enjoy more and more this kind of 'I don't know how to call this' music. We tried to find some kind of name to call Tim's thing, the way he sings and the way he plays. Because he have a little bit of the South, he has the middle of the States, he have a little bit of Irish, he have a little bit of Appalachian. It's just… it's just him!"

The balance of the tracks, "Glu-Glu," "Across Africa," Solstice," and "Ancestors," are compositions by Sosa. Tomas can be heard on bass and thumb piano, along with David Gilmore on guitar, Marque Gilmore on drum kit, Leandro Saint-Hill on saxophones and Roman Diaz dubbed in on batá drums.

At the Blue Note, Sosa led a tighter ensemble of Tomas, John Santos alternating between batá and tumbadora drums, and Peter Apfelbaum on saxophone, and the set included two compositions from earlier recordings by Sosa, "Métisse" and "Paralelo." Eriksen joined the band on stage for "Promised Land" and "Gabriel's Trumpet."

Listeners already familiar with Sosa's work may find Across the Divide more restrained than his previous recordings, as the focus is less on the pianist's formidable technique than on the lyricism of the material. "When you put all of these elements together, you know, for some people it can be a little strange – because we jump from this 'High Lonesome' to the Middle East, to some Afro-Cuban groove," said Sosa. "This is why the record is more cooler than live."

I enjoyed the focused energy of the live show. The combination of Tomas and Santos creates a firm but flexible backbone to Sosa's compositions. Both settings, however, benefit from a stripped-down approach to improvisation, in which Sosa is more likely to trade Cuban tumbao or African-inspired rhythmic figures with the other musicians, than to indulge in extended flights of jazz fancy.

"I don't like to do a solo for twenty minutes, even though I used to," said Sosa. "Now, the way I really like is when the banjo comes in with the piano and plays one tumbao, then he plays, with his singing voice. This is the way I look at the music now."

While there was plenty of improvisation on display, the project is such a dramatic departure from listeners' expectations, which bends together the end points of an arc of Americana which spans from Havana to Appalachia, it may prompt some to ask, 'Is this jazz?'

To Sosa, it is. "Jazz is a style of music, but beyond this, it's a philosophy," he said. "What we do here is simple: Tim plays what he feels, and he sings what he feels, and that's all! We play what we feel: some people can like or no, of course, that's another point. But what our philosophy tries to express is our selves, with entire freedom."

Then Sosa came up with what he thought might be a better description of the music on Across the Divide, and possibly the title of the next album he hopes they will record together: "How about 'Black Beans with Steamed Rice!'" he exclaimed.

"All of this is about what in Cuba we call congri, or in Puerto Rico arroz con frijoles: rice and beans," he said. "Because you know, it's all the same. Sometimes we make the differences: to divide this into jazz or blues, or something else. But jazz is everything."

This blog entry posted by Tim Wilkins

May 05, 2009 · 0 comments


Reassessing Miles's Bitches Brew

Miles Davis's Bitches Brew is now almost forty years old. But this path-breaking album still generates controversy. Jared Pauley recently attended a symposium on this music, and finds that academic discourse and electric fusion don't always mix. T.G.

Miles Davis was always a rebel, continually pushing the envelope, both in his personal life and his musical life. From the 1950s to the time of his death in 1991, the trumpeter left a legacy that has challenged the notion of the jazz tradition more than that of any other artist.

Bitches Brew

Many people point to the start of his electric period as arguably the birth of fusion. I would have to agree 100% with that statement. Not just Davis, but the other musicians on Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way went on to champion the jazz-fusion movement in the 1970s. It’s almost impossible to reach general agreement on the importance of Miles Davis’ electric period from a historical perspective, because some see it as the death of jazz (for a period of time) while others, including myself, would argue that the fusion movement was just a continuation of the jazz tradition. The only difference being that this new sound both incorporated the musical styles of the day and also the technological advances in musical equipment. I raise these points because I feel that it is useful to explore the historical implications of the Davis electric period.

Some of you reading this might be familiar with my article covering Columbia University’s recent symposium on Jack Kerouac. On Monday April 6th, the university held another Center for Jazz Studies event, this time on the electric music of Miles Davis. The key speaker was Yale University’s associate professor of ethnomusicology, Dr. Michael Veal. Veal presented a paper that explored the depths of the “Lost Quintet.” The “Lost Quintet” was the touring band of pianist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and Miles Davis. This group toured from September 1969 to March 1970 on the heels of the Bitches Brew release, which came out in March. This touring band, in addition to guitarist John McLaughlin and pianists Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock recorded with Davis for his groundbreaking album Bitches Brew.

Dr. Michael Veal, a recognized leader in his field, has written books on the Jamaican musical diaspora as well as his upcoming book covering Miles Davis’s electric period. His paper dealt with the rhythmic and tempo variations of the “Lost Quintet” and how the rhythm section would change behind Davis’ solos, frequently embracing a medium-swing tempo, which Davis preferred. Veal highlighted the different bootleg recordings of the song “Agitation” and how the second Miles Davis Quintet and the Lost Quintet interpreted this song. Veal coined the shift in tempo and rhythm behind Davis’ solos as the “Skid.” The “Skid” occurred on all of the examples he played for the thirty plus people in attendance.

I have listened to a wealth of Miles Davis in my short three decades on planet earth and I always noticed how the second Quintet would shift, almost unconsciously behind Miles, giving him the perfect, swinging backdrop. But Veal showed how the evolution of the second Quintet transcended to the Lost Quintet and eventually made its way to Bitches Brew. Veal’s hypothesis that the group aesthetic of reinterpretation was incorporated by the Bitches Brew band seems true. I rarely accept the opinions of scholars (or musicians) at face value but Veal was articulate and convincing in showing the connections and was also very clear pointing out the musical examples that tied the evolutions of the two groups directly to Bitches Brew.

Now for the part of the symposium that lost me within the first five minutes. Harald Kisiedu, a doctoral student in the program gave a response to Dr. Veal’s presentation dealing with technology and the way it affected jazz music. But, as with so many of the New Jazz Studies guys, I can never understand what the end result is or what their points are. It’s amazes me to see the use of such big words yet with no clear cut point. Perhaps I just need to be conditioned more in the jargon of ethnomusicology but it was hard to understand why he even responded in the first place.

These Columbia symposiums are interesting but I get the feeling sometimes that the academic world is just writing for themselves. Hell, I know for a fact MOST of them are just writing for the inner circle. This defeats the purpose when we have so many brilliant minds exploring and dissecting the music but hardly any of them can equate it in layman’s terms or for that matter present it in normal English. I suppose maybe with the influx of literary studies and cultural histories this was bound to happen.

I learned much more this time around than at the Jack Kerouac event I covered last month but thank goodness for Michael Veal. If he wasn’t at this discussion I can’t imagine where it might have headed. Overall, this was an interesting experience but not recommended for the average jazz head, because the nature of these events tends to alienate more than incorporate group discussions and individual input.

This blog entry posted by Jared Pauley

May 04, 2009 · 6 comments


Day Two at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

We continue Zoie Clift’s coverage of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with her report on day two of the festival. For her update on day, click here. T.G.

The combination of music and lack of sleep from round one of the festival found me a bit tired at the opening of day 2 (April 25). I made a push for the gospel tent to jump-start my body. Even if it is not something you would normally listen to, groups in this tent usually put on some of the highest energy shows and I have never left this venue disappointed.

                      Uncle Lionel Batiste (photo by Zoie Clift)

From here, I went to the Acura Stage, the largest stage and viewing area at the Fair Grounds, to see folk legend Pete Seeger. Seeger is not someone I would normally see but I took a lesson learned from the past (‘Some of the best shows aren't necessarily the names you came for’) to heart and decided to check him out for a bit.

He performed with a six-piece group including his grandson, Tao Rodriguez Seeger, folk duo Mike and Ruthy, and Preservation Hall tuba player Ben Jaffe. Dressed in blue jeans and armed with a banjo, Seeger definitely looked the part of folk legend but didn’t look like he was about to turn 90 (on May 3) in a few days. The set opened with "Midnight Special," which he sang with his grandson. The group's version of "I Don't Want Your Millions, Mister " was a popular shout out to the recession and thousands joined in the singing to unleash their feelings about the troubled economic times.

After my Seeger introduction I ventured to the WWOZ tent to take in Astral Project. The co-op featured Joe Dagradi on both tenor and soprano saxophone, Johnny Vidacovich on drums, Steve Masakowski on guitar and James Singleton on bass. After spending the last hour outside immersed in the sounds of folk, the jazz ensemble provided a crisp intro into the realm of modern jazz. The improvisational style of the group is what jazz is all about and the sounds covered the spectrum of genres, from funky to exotic. Needless to say, the crowd was into it and gave standing ovations after each song.

                         Irma Thomas (photo by Zoie Clift)

I wandered outside after the set and ran into “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, a jazz/blues musician (and much loved local) with the Treme Brass Band. He had just played in the Economy Hall tent with the Young Tuxedo Brass Band and I took the opportunity to catch up with him and see how his day was unfolding.

After the catch up, it was back to the Acura stage to quickly catch a glimpse of Irma Thomas, aka the “Soul Queen of New Orleans”. I had seen Thomas perform before so I didn’t stay long. I just needed a quick fix of her blues and soul. I viewed her as a resilient character, like Jazz Fest itself. In 2007 she earned her first Grammy after over 40 years into her career for After the Rain. I grabbed a few photos and headed back to the Economy Hall Tent to see clarinetist Pete Fountain. Fountain was on the bill at the first Jazz Fest so I thought it fitting to end the day with him. Fountain (who is in the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame) grew up in town and is known around town as “Mr. N’awlins.”

Fountain brought his signature New Orleans Dixieland flavored jazz to the tent, and hearing his version of Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” made the day more than complete.

Overall the day was an endearing tribute to the city’s legacy as the birthplace of jazz. For many visitors, Jazz Fest is New Orleans. The people, the music, the attitude. The festival (much like the city itself) has the ability to get under your skin. Everyone takes something different from their experience but a common factor seems to be that once you experience Jazz Fest, it’s a safe bet it won’t be your last one.

This blog entry posted by Zoie Clift.

May 02, 2009 · 0 comments