The Best Tracks of the Month

 Freddie Hubbard

Five times every week, features an outstanding recent track on its home page as the Song of the Day. These are drawn from the hundreds of new CDs heard by our team of reviewers, with the aim of alerting fans to significant music from the many current releases on the market.

Some of the artists featured this month (see below) will be familiar names. For example, one of the tracks highlighted comes from Freddie Hubbard’s Without a Song: Live in Europe 1969, previously unreleased music that captures the trumpeter in fine form. Other musicians on our June tracks—Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Chuck Mangione—similarly need no introduction.

 Bobby Broom

But we also aim to showcase exciting young talent, such as pianists Gerald Clayton and Hiromi; established players who deserve to be better known—for example, Laurence Hobgood, Bobby Broom, Ralph Bowen and Enrico Pieranunzi; and provocative players pushing the envelope.

In the latter category, you will find Tom Abbs who built his recent album by randomly pairing 22 musical fragments—the results, according to reviewer S. Victor Aaron are compelling but “a little creepy sounding.” Meanwhile, our resident connoisseur of the transgressive Mark Saleski calls attention to a track by Gebhard Ullmann's Basement Research that sounds like “music that plays during the freaky scene in the movie when the spirit of Albert Ayler and his crazy cousins come back to inhabit the instruments lying around on the practice room floor.” You can hear it yourself . . . if you dare!

Tom Abbs

You will also find some releases a few steps outside the jazz idiom, such as tracks by blues master Otis Taylor, the great singer from Mali Oumou Sangare, and the difficult-to-categorize but fascinating-to-hear band Cyminology. In short, the selections for June represent an eclectic but interesting group of performances—a useful playlist for sampling the current state of the art.

And as always, the links below take you to a review with full personnel and recording info, a rating based on our 0-100 scoring system, and a link for (legal) downloading.

Happy listening!

Featured Songs: June 2009

Oumou Sangare: Sukunyali
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Shea Breaux Wells: Oh Yes, I Remember Clifford
Reviewed by Scott Albin

Ralph Bowen: Canary Drums
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Jakob Dinesen: Come Sunday
Reviewed by Eric Novod

Otis Taylor: Country Boy, Girl
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Laurence Hobgood: Que Sera Sera
Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

Brian Woodruff: Chorale
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Enrico Pieranunzi: Scarlatti Sonata K377 & Improv
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Rondi Charleston: Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered
Reviewed by Scott Albin

3Play+: Bulletrain
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Bobby Broom: Ask Me Now
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Grant Geissman: Chuck and Chick
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Tom Abbs: Torn
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Gerald Clayton: Two Heads One Pillow
Reviewed by Greg Marchand

Gian Tornatore: Hearing Triangles
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Duck Baker: Everything That Rises Must Converge
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Freddie Hubbard: Blues by Five
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Guilherme Monteiro: Air
Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

Cyminology: Niyaayesh
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Gebhard Ullman: Kreuzberg Park East
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

Stanley Clarke (with Hiromi): Sakura Sakura
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Jennifer Lee: Quiet Joy
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

June 30, 2009 · 0 comments


More on Late Period Bill Evans

A few days back I wrote an piece in this column entitled "Late Period Bill Evans: Genius or Decline?” Bill Kirchner, a noted saxophonist, jazz scholar, and editor of The Oxford Companion to Jazz, contributes a response to this article below. (Be on the lookout soon for Kirchner's "Dozens" article for on pianist Denny Zeitlin.) T.G.

                        Bill Evans, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

On May 12, Nonesuch Records reissued a 6-CD boxed set by pianist Bill Evans, Turn Out The Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recordings, June 1980. The box contains music recorded by Evans's last trio (with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera) on June 4, 5, 6, and 8, 1980—only three months before his death on September 15 at age 51. It was originally co-produced by Jeff Levenson and myself for Warner Jazz and issued in 1996. Prior to that, the music had never before been released.

Readers of this site and JazzWax may have read recent postings by Ted Gioia and Marc Myers about this music and late-period Bill Evans in general. Both writers, despite their overall admiration for Evans, have repeatedly voiced reservations about his playing in his last years. As one might expect from my involvement with Evans' 1980 Village Vanguard recordings, I see things rather differently.

I take a back seat to no one in my affection for the Evans / Scott LaFaro / Paul Motian trio; their 1961 Village Vanguard recordings in particular are among my "desert island" treasures. But we all need to be mindful that the music of that trio was created under a distinctive and rather narrow set of parameters, especially with respect to dynamic range. No doubt this was partially due to esthetic choices, but another reason was that during LaFaro's lifetime, jazz bassists played gigs without amplification. To play the way he played, LaFaro used what bassists call a low action, which limited his volume. So if Motian had played much louder than he did, LaFaro probably would have been inaudible.

Bill Evans

A few years later, when bassists regularly started using amplifiers, the nature and balance of jazz rhythm sections understandably changed. Bassists could be heard better—sometimes too much—and Evans gradually returned to the relative extroversion of his pre-LaFaro playing. When I first heard Evans live in 1972 with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell at New York's Top of the Gate, I was surprised and thrilled by the often downright ballsy nature of his playing. (For a recorded example of what I heard, listen to the Evans album Montreux II.)

With all enormous respect due to Ted Gioia and Marc Myers, I have a modest proposal: it's time to lighten up a bit about Bill Evans. Great music can often serve as a kind of Rorschach test, and Evans' Village Vanguard recordings—both from 1961 and 1980—are a perfect example of this.

Marc in particular seems to be bringing "stuff" to the table—this statement, for example: "Evans' anger and stormy frustration is way too evident and disconcerting." My reaction to that bit of armchair psychoanalysis is a series of questions: Really? How do you know that? Did you talk to Evans? Did you read something that he or someone who knew him said that would lead you to believe that? (I'm reminded that John Coltrane was at one time described as an "angry" player, which apparently puzzled the gentle Mr. Coltrane no end. Intensity in music is often mistaken for anger.)

Let's go with something we know: i.e., Evans' own words. In a 1980 interview, he declared: "This trio is very much connected to the first trio. Different things have begun to happen with material that I've been playing for years. Things that were more or less static have gotten into motion and are developing." Whatever the frequent turmoil of Evans' personal life (most recently including the suicide of his brother in 1979, as well as Evans' own cocaine addiction that eventually killed him), Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera were inestimable sources of inspiration for him. Clearly, the direction this trio's music was taking was a most positive force in his life. Far from being angry or frustrated on the bandstand, Evans was delighted to be there.

Ted Gioia's objections to Evans' playing are more specific. Let's take this example: "Compare the 1961 version of 'My Romance' with the 1980 rendition, and see how Bill Evans at age 50 worked to squeeze the romanticism out of 'My Romance.' The same comes across if one compares 1980 performances of 'Polka Dots and Moonbeams,' 'My Foolish Heart,' and other songs with his classic recordings from the past. The later works are jittery and aloof, at times almost savage in their undermining of any vestiges of sentimentality." There are, in fact, three versions of "My Romance" in this set; it was a tune that the trio played almost every night in a multi-tempoed arrangement. What Ted hears as "jittery and aloof" I hear simply as a common practice among jazz musicians with repertoire they play frequently for years—the tendency to play the pieces faster. (Compare 1940 and 1966 Ellington recordings of "Cotton Tail" or 1954 and 1965 Miles Davis versions of "Walkin'".)

(Joe LaBarbera made a revealing comment: "That give-and-take was always there, that room to keep the music spontaneous. [Drummer] Jake Hanna came up to me after one gig and asked what I was doing on 'My Romance.' I said, 'Go ask Bill, I'm just following him.' So Jake asked Bill, who said 'I don't know, I'm just following Joe.'")

Ted makes similar complaints—including ones about Evans rushing—about several other performances in the set, and furthermore laments that "Evans no longer shows his grand conception of space and silence." In a collection of over six hours(!) of music recorded live in a club, unevenness is inevitable. But for every perceived shortcoming someone finds in this music, I'll point out multiple instances of great beauty, spaciousness, and spontaneity. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are often found in the newer pieces in Evans' repertoire, including Paul Simon's "I Do It For Your Love" and four then-new Evans compositions: "Tiffany," "Your Story," "Yet Ne'er Broken," and "Knit For Mary F."

Most of all, though, the centerpieces of the set are four extended versions (each 15-16 minutes long) of "Nardis," a piece that became a nightly highlight of any Evans trio performance. I've often remarked to students since Turn Out The Stars was released in 1996 that if they want to do a great doctoral dissertation, transcribe and analyze the Evans solos on these four versions—all different, and all mind-boggling. I regularly play one of them for my jazz-history classes, and the students are always dazzled. If proof be needed of Evans' phenomenal artistic growth in his final years, these will more than suffice.

I do not use the word "phenomenal" lightly. When Bill Evans made these recordings, he was 50 years old—past the age when most jazz musicians make major changes in their playing. Not even Miles Davis altered his own playing significantly past his late forties. So to hear Evans at the twilight of his career taking the risks he did, and succeeding as often as he did, is inspiring to me as a musician/listener/fan. Pianists like Harold Danko (who along with critic Bob Blumenthal did exemplary notes for this set), Jim McNeely, and others who heard Evans at the Village Vanguard at that time have expressed similar feelings.

In any case, for anyone with a serious interest in the art of Bill Evans, Turn Out The Stars is must-hear music.

This blog entry posted by Bill Kirchner

June 29, 2009 · 9 comments


Diana Krall at Carnegie Hall

Will Friedwald brings to his music criticism a deep knowledge of the American jazz and popular vocal tradition. His books include Jazz Singing, Sinatra: The Song is You, and Stardust Melodies. Friedwald was in attendance at Diana Krall’s Carnegie Hall concert last Wednesday, and shares his perspective below. T.G.

Fifteen years ago, at the time of her American debut, I initially thought of Diana Krall not only as cold but the icy figurehead of an entire movement of emotionally detached and even frigid divas who seemed to be all the rage in the mid-‘90s. Then, towards the end of that decade, around the time that she made her “breakthrough” album When I Look In Your Eyes with Johnny Mandel (and it’s follow up, The Look of Love, with Claus Ogerman), Ms. Krall seemed to be growing noticeably warmer. With two recent albums, From This Moment On (2006) and the especially excellent Christmas Songs of 2005 (probably my favorite holiday album of the last decade), the temperature was steadily rising. Then, just this week (Wednesday June 25), at the second of two nights at Carnegie Hall, Ms. Krall became red hot.

                      Diana Krall (by Merryl Jaye)

She opened with a breakneck reading of Peggy Lee’s “Love Being Here With You,” delivered so fast it might give you whiplash. She sped through the lyrics like she assumed everyone in the room already knew them, and, therefore, she didn’t have to take the time to enunciate all the words carefully. It was fast, lively, and swinging; at the piano, especially, there are a lot of virtuoso keyboardists (or even pianist-singers) who can play with a lot more harmonic depth and sophistication (admittedly the case for her instrumental skills was not helping by the acoustics at Carnegie; it was impossible to tell if the piano was made by Steinway or Fisher-Price), but Krall plays in such a way as to remind us that the piano primarily belongs in the jazz rhythm section. On fast numbers in particular, her timing is everything. (The rest of her quartet, guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist Robert Hurst, and drummer Jeff Hamilton, are a major plus).

On the ballads, Krall is more romantic than ever. The second tune at Carnegie, “Do It Again,” introduced the 41-piece classical orchestra, playing the string arrangements of conductor Alan Broadbent (wearing a white tuxedo jacket that made him look like an elegant Good Humor Man) and Claus Ogerman, who arranged her current album, Quiet Nights. Somehow by getting less hot—and less conspicuously “jazzy”—she waxes warmer in an emotional sense. She pays more attentive to the lyric and shows more concerns with the underlying emotion beneath a song, and grows more capable of making listeners sizzle.

Much of her new release, Quiet Nights, seems like a two-headed attempt both to create a sequel to The Look of Love and, at the same time, to remake Mr. Ogerman’s collaboration with Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim on the classic Sinatra-Jobim album. The big bossa hits on Quiet Nights, especially the title track, “Boy From Ipanema,” and “So Nice,” are just so monumentally overdone that I can’t bear to listen to them anymore, even from a singer I like. (I prefer her duet with Rosemary Clooney on “Ipanema” from the musical matriarch’s Brazil album.) Yet the title aside, most of the album, thankfully, is non-Brazilian. Contrarily, her renditions of a pair of ‘60s pop hits, “Walk on By” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” are so fresh and lively that I almost forget I’ve ever heard them. (In terms of worthy 2009 releases, she also has a wonderful duet on “If I Had You” with Willie Nelson on the country icon’s new standards album, American Classic.)

Comparing Quiet Nights to her relatively loud night at Carnegie brings out a couple of important points: when she played Radio City in 2002 and 2004, I remember thinking that as good as she was in front of a live audience, she came across exactly in person like she was on record—the concert seemed like a stage version of what she was doing on her albums, rather than the other way around. (That’s possibly why her live albums usually turn out so well.) Yet this week, for the first time, I was conscious of Ms. Krall doing all sorts of stuff that wouldn’t find its way onto an album, even a live one. Her treatment of “I’ve Grown Accustomed To His Face” is lovely on the record, but in person, she works in an ingenious intro that quotes liberally from “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” (another My Fair Lady number). Here’s a sign that she’s beginning to take her place in with the ranks of more experienced singer-instrumentalist-bon-vivants like Michael Feinstein, John Pizzarelli, and Anne Hampton—doing shtick both musical and verbal that’s only meant for the in-person audience.

I also vaguely remember that seven years ago, Ms. Krall barely spoke a word, the whole Radio City show also resembled a CD in that it was essentially one song after another without any spoken interruption. This week, she chatted at length at several points, in such a way as to deliberately convey that she’s not a practiced public speaker. She uses a lot of local British Columbia references most Americans (let alone New Yorkers) won’t understand. She talks about her family, she drops the names of Barack Obama and Barbra Streisand (prominent democrats both), and then chides herself for doing so. Not everything she says is completely coherent, but it all serves its apparently intended purpose of showing us that she’s completely comfortable talking casually in front of a crowd, and is no longer trying to hide behind a piano.

“Exactly Like You” is one of the highlights of From This Moment On: admittedly borrowed from Nat King Cole, it’s one of the few King Cole Trio arrangements that features a drummer (by 1949, the pianist had added latin percussionist Jack Costanzo to his threesome), and so it’s a perfect choice for Krall’s quartet. “Exactly Like You” swings agreeably on the album, but in person it expands and breathes much more, the same way as it undoubtedly did when Cole performed it in clubs; the song simply becomes more alive. The only spoken comment I distinctly remember from 2002 was in praise of Cole; at Carnegie, she spoke of listening to him “every single day. She proved it with a stunning reading of “Pick Yourself Up,” in which she played both the roles of Nat Cole and George Shearing by herself.

The set varied adroitly between the quartet, the full orchestra, and even two unaccompanied piano solos—both of which, “Louisiana” and “Singin’ The Blues” were obviously aimed at the Bix Beiderbecke fans in the house (the latter directly quoted the famous cornet solo). She wound up by reprising Peggy Lee on “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” building to a rousing piano solo that called to mind the late Herman Foster. “Every Time We Say Goodbye” (Ogerman’s chart seems inspired by Ray Charles & Betty Carter) then served as a bonus track for the concert, much as it does for the Quiet Nights album.

I remember in 2002, the show seemed to drag a little bit towards the end. Here, she practically did a full two hours, without intermission, or any sign of a letup. At 44, Ms. Krall is steadily growing as a musician, an entertainer, and a presence.

This blog entry posted by Will Friedwald

June 27, 2009 · 0 comments


Michael Jackson (1958-2009): A View from the Jazz Camp

Michael Jackson, for all his considerable talents, never enjoyed a large following among jazz devotees. His songs are rarely covered by jazz bands (although with one very famous exception), and if you raise his name in a discussion with serious jazzistas, they will usually change the topic to his former producer Quincy Jones, whose artistry is more closely aligned with jazz values.

Michael Jackson

Yet jazz fans are not immune to the appeal of pop. They will embrace a great songwriter like Joni Mitchell; or a pop star who fills his band with jazz players like Sting; or a hitmaker who shows some impressive instrumental chops like Stevie Wonder. But Michael Jackson did not fit easily into any of these categories.

Yet Jackson had a better sense of the changes transforming the entertainment world during the late 20th century than any of these figures. Jazz fans not only should mourn his passing, but perhaps learn from his example, Then as now, formulas were changing, technologies were evolving, and Michael Jackson was the perfect talent to seize the opportunities of this new era.

In particular, the concept of the singer-songwriter—so powerful during the 1970s (and whose individualism was very congruent with the jazz sensibility)—would collapse as a platform for popular music during the 1980s. The intimacy and nuanced effects of this approach were not well suited to a multimedia age, which wanted something larger and more spectacular. Michael Jackson provided this panem et circenses spectacle, although in his case it was a spectacle that sometimes continued offstage and in private life.

The arrival of music videos and cable television was almost like a second coming of talking movies. Just as during that earlier age, audiences were attracted to stars who could exploit the full potential of the new medium. A half-century before, movie releases had been marketed for their “all singing, all talking, all dancing” grandeur. The screen might be smaller at the home entertainment center during the 1980s, but the appetite for powerful visual effects was much the same. A Stevie Wonder or Joni Mitchell, for all their musical talent—no doubt deeper than Jackson’s when measured in mere sharps and flats—were not capable of operating on this level.

In truth, no musical performer of his generation had a more powerful visual impact on the screen than Michael Jackson. He was so dynamic in front of the camera, that the Disney corporation even built a 3D film for its theme parks around him—and got Francis Ford Coppola to direct it and George Lucas to serve as executive producer. What a strange turn of events: after all, 3D films had always focused on massive effects, scary or scenic, something on a Grand Canyon type of scale. Now a 3D film was built around a personality?

But Michael Jackson was not just another personality—he also operated on a Grand Canyon kind of scale. And I can assure you from the lines I encountered when I went to see Captain EO at Disneyland, that this was a hugely popular attraction. How many films do you know that enjoy a decade-long run? In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie has a return engagement in the near future.

But it was in the more downsized and compact format of the music video where Michael Jackson crystallized his artistry and built his enormous audience. Here is the core of his legacy, one that you will not be able to appreciate if you simply listen to the compact disks or study the lead sheets.

This is not to dismiss his purely musical talents—Jackson’s genuine skills as a singer had been clear from his earliest years. And through some strange biological fluke—perhaps aided by who-knows-what—Jackson retained the childlike quality of his voice even after he reached adulthood. To some degree, he reminded me of Ella Fitzgerald, who also managed to convey a sweet innocence, almost the exact opposite of the sassiness and sultriness around her, and put its stamp on everything she sang. Jackson was the same, and in the midst of a music scene that featured some of the most brazen and push-the-envelope acts in the history of music—the Sex Pistols were formed at almost the same moment that the Jackson 5 left Motown—he always held on to the ingenuous aura of the child star.

But it was as a dancer that Michael Jackson parlayed his talents into superstardom. It was the moonwalk that killed the singer-songwriters, who stayed hidden behind their pianos and guitars while Jackson strutted the big stage. Youngsters everywhere imitated his steps, not his voice, and even today, his footwork is admired and emulated by countless stars and wannabe stars. (See some example here.)

All of this is foreign to the jazz sensibility. Jazz once had a close relationship with popular dance—not coincidentally during its period of greatest financial success. But in the 1980s, jazz had lost this connection. Jazz bands might be able to cover Jackson's tunes (not often, as I noted above—I still remember working in a combo where the sidemen rebelled after the leader wanted to play “Beat It”; he gave up and called another tune); but they could not assimilate the full effect of Michael Jackson, which started with his toes and only gradually arrived at the vocal chords and cerebellum.

Jazz fans did know about Quincy Jones, however. They had known about Jones long before Jackson and the mass audience had discovered him. They would give him much of the credit for Jackson’s hits, and certainly he played a key part in the elevation of this pop superstar. Yet Jones's brilliance lay in adapting his techniques to Jackson's inherent strengths and potent charisma—and not merely applying some formula he had learned from his jazz days.

The production tricks Jones brought to these hit tracks are fascinating to study. And sometimes daring in bizarre ways. How did Jones ever get the idea of taking little snippets of Jackson squeaking out high notes, and use them as background effects—almost like birds chirping on the trees? Then Jones would mix this amalgamation of quasi-ambient sounds with a lead vocal, hypnotic bassline and a very 80s-style rhythmic sensibility. All this was a far cry from what Jones had done with Sinatra and jazz players, but give this man—born in 1933—his due for understanding the new sensibility in a a way that no one of his generation could approach.

If you had any doubts that this was the right formula, you merely needed to look at the Billboard charts. The Jackson-Jones collaborations sold around 200 million albums. The duo eventually parted ways, and Jackson was focused on producing his own music. Yet he never came close to matching the sales of his work with QJ.

Jazz fans might think that this success was driven more by technology (videos, cable TV) than by musical factors. But a close examination of the history of jazz shows that the same marriage of music and technology has driven its own success. The possibility of jazz as an improvised art form with large scale distribution depended on the invention of sound recordings. Benny Goodman’s immense success—and indeed the whole phenomenon of the Swing Era—would not have been possible without the widespread adoption of radios in American households. Without long-playing records there would have been no Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme.

Music and technology have always been interlinked, ever since the first cave dweller figured out how make a bone into a flute, the hide of an animal into a drum. If the jazz world didn’t embrace Jackson, it was due to the fact that the technologies he parlayed into fame were those which jazz players were either unable or unwilling to assimilate into their own creative endeavors.

Yet it’s clear to me that, two decades after Jackson’s biggest hits, the jazz world can still learn from his example. Only nowadays, the stakes from comprehending the symbiotic relationship of music, technology and media are even higher.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

June 26, 2009 · 14 comments


Why France Pays for a Jazz Festival in Germany

American jazz fans, who are mourning the loss of so many jazz institutions, can only marvel at the situation in France. This country not only supports hundreds of its own festivals, but the government even sponsors a festival in Germany to provide a international platform for its home-grown jazz talent. Hey, why not recognize that music can boost the economy as one of a nation's most distinctive exports? Thierry Quénum reports below on proceedings at Jazzdor Berlin, now in its third year. T.G.

Eric Watson & Christof Lauer

                          Eric Watson & Christof Lauer

It is well known that in Europe, jazz is not only considered as an art form (rather than some type of entertainment) but that governments tend to support it both at home and as a show window of the national culture. Hence, most European nations have found their own way of promoting their jazz artists.

France, arguably the European nation with the biggest institutional support for jazz, has always favored the exportation of its musicians abroad. In Berlin, the capital city of neighboring Germany, France has a Bureau Export de la Musique Française (French Music Export Office) that takes care of the interests of French labels and musicians East of the Rhine.

For three years, this government sponsored institution has asked Philippe Ochem, the director of the Jazzdor Festival in Strasbourg (a city that is not only at the border between France and Germany but that hosts the seat of the European Parliament�see my account of the last Jazzdor festival here) to supervise another festival in Berlin to promote French jazz artists and French/German encounters. Ochem definitely was the best choice for the job, since his festival has a long tradition of border crossing and of being open to musicians from neighboring countries, including Germany.

For this third edition of the Jazzdor Berlin festival, he put together a well balanced program of younger and elder musicians playing various styles, from modern mainstream to outright adventurous. Housed by the Babylon, a 400 seats venue set on the Rosa-Luxemburg Platz, close to Alexanderplatz�the most famous square of former East Berlin, now a major shopping center of the reunited German capital, close to the huge television tower�most of the festival�s concerts were broadcast nationwide by the German Cultural Radio, and they were attended by hundreds of curious Berliners.

One of the youngest band was the trio of G�raldine Laurent, an alto sax player who reached fame when her debut album was released on the Dreyfus Jazz label two years ago. [Editor�s note: Laurent was featured here recently as one of �Ten Hot Young Altoists.�] With her sharp, raw sound and delivery, and an unpredictable phrasing with strong Parkerian roots, Laurent brought a whiff of fresh air to the French scene, where newcomers are often brought up in prestigious conservatories. In Berlin, it appeared that she may have to take a turn and get a more professional rhythm section if she wants to evolve. What sounded young and fresh two years ago (and may still have sounded so to the German audience) on a repertoire of old and modern standards didn�t quite meet the hopes of listeners who expect a lot from this gifted energetic soloist.

The duet of French baritone player Fran�ois Corneloup and veteran British drummer Paul Lovens was a premiere, hence had no risk of sounding repetitious. Its approach to sound is built on a partnership within which each player deeply stimulates the other melodically, rhythmically and also with regard to the timbre of their instruments. Corneloup�arguably one of the top baritone players in Europe�digs deep in the low register and explores the high one without resorting to the clich�s that can be attached to his horn. Lovens, on the other end, searches for unheard of groove licks and rare, sometimes hilarious sounds all over his minimal drum kit. The inventiveness of this duet could bring back faith in the improvisational process to the most depressed or blas� jazz buff!

The European-TV-Brass-Trio is Matthias Schriefl (trumpet), Daniel Casimir (trombone)�both German�and French tuba player Fran�ois Thuillier. The sound they produce is dense, brassy and they mold it according to their moods and humor. Vocalizing on their instruments is one of their favorite techniques and it broadens the spectrum of these virtuosos, who each have their own solo career besides playing in various ensembles. As instrumentalists, they have reached far beyond mere pyrotechnics on their horns to obtain a trio sound that can be pastoral as well as full of groove, and is a sheer delight to the ears.

That�s what another virtuoso failed to propose. Baptiste Trotignon was the young star of French jazz piano some 10 years ago, and his reputation is still high after the recent issue of his last CD recorded in NYC with a US quintet featuring Tom Harrell and Mark Turner. With his usual French trio, though, he displayed his brilliant instrumental technique with strong classical roots and a stifling tendency to mannerism. This rather typically French �intellectual� approach to jazz all but prevented the interaction between the members of the trio from being convincing and from lighting the fire of swing both on standards and original compositions. The music came across like a beautiful looking, well proportioned statue, but cold and devoid of primal vibration.

Trombonist Yves Robert�s trio was just the opposite. With bassist Bruno Chevillon�one of the stars of the upright bass in the last 20 years�and younger, ever inventive drummer Franck Vaillant, Robert not only showed that he�s one of the greatest stylists of his instrument on the European scene, but that he also is a highly original composer and leader. His long lasting complicity with Chevillon allows them both to invent new ways of combining their low key instruments. Vaillant, between his two virtuoso elders, produces a continuous array of ever surprising percussive sounds and micro-rhythmic cells. They are a wonder per se, and give the triangle a greatly original, catchy edge.

Vaillant was to play again right after�and to show the diversity of his stylistic ability�with Print, a tenor/alto/bass/drums quartet that has an even more experimental conception of interaction. It has searched in diverse directions (Steve Coleman, The Belgian Aka Moon trio, West African percussion ensembles�) to broaden its musical scope and its approach to improvisation. The result is a dense set where the horns� solos alternate or intertwine while looking more for intensity than for formal perfection. Meanwhile the drums and bass knit a tight, efficient polyrhythmic support, mostly on uneven meters. Print�s quest for challenging musical settings is definitely as stimulating for its players as it is for the listeners who are looking for something new.

The younger quartet of soprano sax newcomer Emile Parisien has a more traditional�be it only because the piano anchors it in the harmonic field�but not less interesting approach. It is still in an experimental phase and the leader�s solos sometime have an overly expressionist feel that time will calm down. Still the group�s sound identity and interaction show an impressive maturity. Andr� Minvielle was the veteran and sole vocalist of the Jazzdor Berlin Festival. He�s used to being alone on stage with a few small percussions and some electronic effects, but he mainly sings in French, Spanish and Gascon (a Southwestern French dialect). So, fronting a mostly German and English speaking audience was something of a challenge. But musicians rooted in a Southern local tradition like him have a way with people that goes beyond the language barrier. With his stupendous vocal and rhythmic technique, humorous or poetic scatting and �south of the�German�border� storytelling routine, Minvielle put the Babylon audience under his spell and left them stunned.

Pianist Eric Watson is usually considered as a French resident since he�s been living in Paris for decades, speaks an exquisitely refined French an has even been artistic director of the La Villette festival in Paris for a couple of years. Lately he�s shied away from stages, concentrating mainly on composing and on his new job as a teacher at the Strasbourg Conservatory. Jazzdor Berlin had the good idea of offering him a double bill: a group of his students was to play some of his older charts that they had worked on during the last semester, then Watson was to present some of his new compositions that he would play in duo with his long time companion Christof Lauer, one of Germany�s greatest stars of the tenor and soprano saxes. The student concert was interesting in that it showed a sextet of piano/sax/guitar/vibes + rhythm section in the making, with its strengths and weaknesses. Some of these young players already have a personality. Others need to work more and to play outside of their peer group, but all of them benefited from working on the challenging scores of a rooted yet non-conformist musician such as Watson.

Watson himself was a bit tense at the perspective of stepping onstage again for the first time in a year to tackle brand new material. But his compositions were so stimulating that he and his partner were soon immersed in the music and created an atmosphere that oscillated between darkness and light in an utterly romantic way, daring strong contrasts of dynamics on the piano, making apt use of the registers of the soprano and tenor, conjuring up memories of Monk and Trane, two of the long time influences of Watson and Lauer. It takes seasoned musicians in their fifties like them, though, to be able to carve their own art in the present time without copying past masters, and the audience was spellbound by the intensity of this beautiful performance.

Jazzdor Berlin may then well be said to have fulfilled its mission. As far as diversity and quality are concerned, it displayed a good panel of the French jazz scene and showed that its musical relationships with its big neighbor are well on their way. No wonder, then, that the Berlin and national German press who were present at the festival showed their appreciation and considered that Jazzdor Berlin fully deserves its place in the cultural landscape of the the German capital city.

This blog entry posted by Thierry Qu�num

June 25, 2009 · 3 comments


Jazz Stars Gather to Celebrate Jazz Forum

The jazz stars were out in full force at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick Rose Hall to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Jazz Forum. At least six NEA Jazz Masters were in attendance, and a few individuals who will no doubt have that honor in the future.’s arnold jay smith was also on hand to cover the proceedings. T.G.

 Jazz Forum

The year 1979 had jazz magic written all over it. Among the mojo births were NPR’s Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, Newark Public Radio station WBGO, even my first foray into education, “Jazz Insights” at the New School, which breathed its last in 2005. Notably in 1979 the Jazz Forum loft opened its doors above a birdseed company on Cooper Square in N.Y.C. Loft Jazz, as the phenomenon had come to be known—in reality artists who needed rent money for their converted factory warehouses so they invited musicians of every stripe to play—was also waning. The lofts had become eponymous breeding grounds for the avant-garde.

In the case of Jazz Forum—the name stemmed from a Polish Jazz Organization—the music was mainstream with some twists. It’s founder, Mark Morganelli, a trumpeter who quickly learned that competition made his efforts better placed elsewhere, gathered musicians to “rehearse” together in woodshed fashion. Morganelli morphed into a full-fledged promoter as his loft became mobile due to increasing rents and the need for space. It seemed that the landlords of said lofts saw dollar signs and evicted the lease-less artists after they renovated and made the spaces not only livable but luxurious, with kitchens and bathrooms no less.

After Cooper Square came the more popular “Bleecker and Broadway” location with its access through an alley in the dark days of the Apple. “The elevator was quirky, at best,” Barry Harris said in an interview on WBGO. “But once up there and the door opened you were among friends.”

My personal moments were when pianists performed in tandem: Harris, Tommy Flanagan, John Hicks, Cedar Walton, Ronnie Mathews, Albert Dailey, Junior Mance, Kenny Barron, Dr. Billy Taylor, Walter Davis, Jr., Walter Bishop, Jr. and more. The visitors heard musicians who, whether established or neophytes, came to play.

Morganelli took the Jazz Forum format and created Jazz Forum Arts for concerts in and around New York City, especially in Westchester where he rented space in—and saved—an old theatre with concerts including dedications to and with Dizzy Gillespie and David Amram. The Amram do’s began with a 50th birthday celebration at Bleecker and Broadway which still reverberates with its guest list of star power from radio, television, the movies, the arts replete with paparazzi, movie and TV cameras and microphones. Amram, who was at a warm memorial for Blossom Dearie, will become an OctoJAZZarian in a couple of years, and is expected to celebrate at a Morganelli affair. (A complete bio of Mark Morganelli and his multitude of accomplishments may be found here.)

On the night of June 22 some of us came out to shout hosannas at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall. All of the 17 participants played at one or more of the Jazz Forums or Morganelli’s later incarnations. Harris opened the festivities by “addressing” his instrument. I mean he actually spoke to it as if warning it that it had better behave. His trio mates, Ray Drummond, bass, and Leroy Williams, drums, looked on in amazement if not bemusement. He used a Monkian forearm device on “Like Someone In Love” and some Bud Powell echoes on “All God’s Children Got Rhythm” before bringing up Lou Donaldson. Sweet Lou played and sang two of his trademarked blues including a vocal on “Whisky Drinkin’ Woman.” We’ve heard it a hundred times before, but it still gets a laugh.

I should point out that no new ground was broken here; the entire evening was reminisces in the talking and the playing. Donaldson closed with “Wee” which he noted was dedicated to bebop as played at the 79th St. Boat Basin concerts that Morganelli produced.

Earlier in the evening Annie Ross also sang at that Dearie memorial. Now it was her former partner’s turn. Jon Hendricks & Co.—daughter Aria as Annie, and Kevin Burke as Dave Lambert, plus rhythm that included guitarist Paul Meyers—did a brooch of tunes which ranged from bossa to Basie with a stop at Horace Silver. Two questions: can “Jumpin’ At The Woodside” get any faster with its extended “blowing” interludes? And will Aria ever stop smiling? Her face must hurt.

Walton’s trio included Drummond, who was doing double duty due to the absent Buster Williams, and drummer Louis Hayes. He chose the original “Time After Time” (Sinatra from It Happened in Brooklyn) and glancing at his watch—Rose is a Union Hall after all—intro-ed George Coleman, who began hesitatingly but dug in after his opening chorus.

After the interval Joe Lovano, George Mraz and Al Foster broke the mold by dedicating “Fort Worth” to Ornette Coleman. The set was the highlight for me as John Scofield juxtaposed the lead with the unusual choice of “Days of Wine and Roses.” Lovano returned to trade some 4’s on “Budo.” Some nice fire and ice there.

It was obvious when Barron’s trio took the stage—Rufus Reid, bass, and Jimmy Cobb, drums—that time was fast becoming an issue. Surprisingly, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” did not become “Hot House” or “Subconscious Lee” although it had its moments. Claudio Roditi, flugelhorn and Paquito D’Rivera on clarinet joined the final blow on “Ow!” as Morganelli, also on flugel, and new guy Gregory Rivkin on trumpet added some fireworks. Hendricks had the final “words.”

I hasten to add that Morganelli and I worked together at Birdland, the Second Coming on 105th St. and Broadway, and on other projects over the decades. From this perspective, and with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we can safely say that the jazz world would have been significantly different if Jazz Forum hadn’t existed and that Morganelli hadn’t persisted.

This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith

June 24, 2009 · 2 comments


Gary Burton & Pat Metheny Perform at Berklee

Roanna Forman, who covers the Boston jazz scene for, recently reported in this column on performances by Steve Kuhn, Jane Monheit and Hiromi. Now she reviews Gary Burton and Pat Metheny's concert at Boston’s Berklee Performance Center last Saturday. T.G.

Question: How many parts nostalgia and how many parts new ground in this recent concert at Boston’s Berklee Performance Center? Answer: Equal. “Picking up where they left off,” as Steve Swallow wrote, this famous group had plenty new to say after thirty years, thanks to their own improvisatory powers and the different energy of drummer Antonio Sanchez.

It was a stage filled with wunderkind-to-doyen phenomena: Gary Burton, who formed the Gary Burton Quartet when he was 24, and is now a jazz icon; Pat Metheny, whose hook-up with Burton and Swallow at age 20 started a path to jazz stardom; and Antonio Sanchez, a Berklee student in the 90’s who, catching a casual glimpse of Gary Burton on campus, never dreamed he’d be playing one day with what he calls “jazz royalty.”

Looking out over the audience, Burton mused that Berklee Performance Center was the hall he always imagined playing in while practicing, unlike his friend Michael Brecker, who once confessed to Burton he dreaded it, picturing an army of musicians scrutinizing his every move and note.


No such worry for Gary Burton at this Boston concert; he couldn’t have had a warmer crowd. The heavy concentration of music students and musicians not gigging that night were as friendly as ever: rising for a standing ovation at opening; yelling out “Perfect!” after Pat Metheny brought “Question and Answer” in for a landing; and registering on the applause meter the relative number of drummers, guitarists, bass players (egged on by Swallow to raise their hands), and vibes players (“come on, applaud, both of you,” Burton urged.)

The concert, part of a tour that suggested itself when the group appeared at the Montreal Jazz Festival, centered on tunes done by the Quartet when Pat Metheny joined it. There were songs by band members, as well as key artists of that time like Chick Corea (“Sea Journey”) and Keith Jarrett (“Coral”). The show was at the same time a retrospective on the era-defining music that contributed to a changed conception of jazz—more electric; incorporating rock elements; and more accessible to lay audience’s ears, like Steve Swallow’s “Como en Vietnam” and Gary Burton’s “Walter L.”

I can say musically of Burton, Metheny, and Swallow what Gary said himself in his precise, understated way, “I believe you know everybody but I’m going to introduce them anyway.” Burton continues to be technically impeccable. He never labors over his instrument, but works the four mallets like a painter—with the right touch here, the right mallet action there, to create smoothness, or he’ll move furiously up and down its length in more burning pieces. Each phrase is like a clear thought that occurs to him, whether he ends mid-measure or completes the progression down to the last beat.

When the spotlight turned to Pat Metheny, he would tell a story with each solo. Metheny never sounds like he’s playing over changes even with straight-ahead arrangements. He’s playing more than notes—maybe a cry, a wail, wonder, whatever he feels as he builds the solo. He began the lines of “Question and Answer” playing his archtop, and ended it, as he characteristically does, with guitar synthesizer, playing a leave-no-prisoners solo with the rhythm section solidly supporting him. Yet the guitar synth, used also on “Walter L,” literally distorts Metheny’s enormous gift. His musicality is more fully developed and appreciated on the archtop, which is his signature sound.

You might say Steve Swallow has the same sensibility as Metheny, although the reverse is more accurate, given the chronology. He was in great form, with some especially fine soloing on “Falling Grace,” the second tune Steve Swallow ever wrote. (We can forgive Gary Burton some historical inaccuracy for introducing the song as Swallow’s first composition. That would be “Eiderdown.” Whatever.)

Burton, Metheny, and Swallow are a known quantity, with a huge discography and a synergy one expected to stay intact onstage, even after many years. Yet Antonio Sanchez, although he has been recorded with this group, is new to the mix, so the big question was how he changed the group’s sound. Sanchez brought very tight, musical playing to this already powerful unit, and added quite a bit of kick. On slower numbers like “Olhos de Gato,” “B & G,” and “Coral,” his steadiness kept the tunes calm, with well-placed accents on bass drum and sticks. He was driving hard, and finished the high energy tunes sitting back on his seat, like a fighter who had given his strongest punch in the ring. Sanchez is a highly musical drummer: you clearly heard the tune to “Como En Vietnam” throughout his excellent solo, over and above the rhythmic figures. A less skilled drummer might be merely flashy and lose the thread to the original music during a solo.

Not surprisingly, certain of these tunes frame the vibraphone better than others. With a rhythm section smooth as glass, “Coral” shone bright as a sunset bell. Similarly, “Hullo Bolinas” sets off vibes well, and the entire band was in sync with the sensibility of this lilting, quirky tune by Steve Swallow. On songs where guitar had a prominent place, like “Question and Answer” and “Walter L,” there tended to be an imbalance in the sound and you couldn’t hear Gary Burton well enough, which was unfortunate.

Besides ensemble playing, there were several duets. A nice exchange between Burton and Sanchez on “Syndrome” brought out the percussive qualities of the vibes and the musical aspects of the drums. The centerpiece duets of the concert featured Burton and Metheny, pairing them in different contexts. With Metheny rapidly strumming acoustic guitar, Burton laid out an uptempo “Summertime” in 6/8, during which the lighting crew was a bit late switching back to Burton after Pat Metheny’s solo.

                 The Pikasso 1 guitar custom made for Pat Metheny

Picking up the archtop, Metheny then backed the vibes on Jobim’s “O Grande Amor,” where Burton pretty much played within the constraints of the form. While the guitar solo started closer to the Brazilian voicings you would expect (or American jazz guitarists’ takes on Brazilian voicings), Metheny flattened and widened the lines into shapes more typically his own on the second chorus. He then began a piece on his 42-string custom-built “Pikasso Guitar”—imagine harp, sitar, and acoustic guitar all in one, with Gary Burton joining eventually.

As for nostalgia, which was part of the original question about this concert, it was definitely there. No matter how much we say that what counts in jazz is experimenting and moving forward, we do come back to what James Lincoln Collier referred to in Ken Burns Jazz as the solace of the music of our youth. When the band broke into its encore, “Unquity Road,” the man I was with sat transfixed, tapping his foot and singing every note of Pat’s song about the Boston street both of them had ridden down some thirty years ago.

This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman

June 23, 2009 · 0 comments


Remembering Charlie Mariano (1923-2009)

Saxophonist Charlie Mariano, who passed away in Germany last week at age 85, was one of the most expansive players of his generation. Yet American jazz fans saw little of this artist’s breadth and depth, since much of the finest and most creative work of this Boston-born altoist took place overseas.’s Paris-based contributor Thierry Quénum experienced this music up close, and spent time with Mariano on a number of occasions. He shares his thoughts and recollections below. T.G.

Charlie Mariano

Lots of American jazz musician have settled in Europe for a shorter or longer time over the past decades, beginning with Sidney Bechet and Kenny Clarke in the fifties, on to Ed Thigpen, Chet Baker, or more recently Leon Parker.

Charlie Mariano, who just died age 85 in Cologne, Germany—where he had settled more than 30 years ago—was a good example of a musician whose crossing of the Atlantic was coupled with an opening up to the music by the world at large. Meanwhile, he maintained his ability to play the jazz styles he’d learned as a young man, and continued developing as a master improviser and balladeer. He thus became an example and a favorite partner for the younger European musicians he often played with.

 The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

Having had the privilege of hearing Charlie Mariano a number of times on stage and in the recording studio and having talked with him on several occasions backstage and in various other places, I though the best eulogy I could do for him was to share that experience with jazz amateurs who might have lost track with this fine stylist of the alto saxophone, and exquisite human being.

 The Music of Bill Holman

Most jazz buffs know about Mariano’s stint with the Kenton band, where he replaced Lee Konitz in 1953. Ironically, Mariano told me that he didn’t like this orchestra—nor did Konitz who, by the way was, to become his ‘almost neighbor’ in Cologne a few decades later; as an improviser, Mariano was never much interested in playing with big bands at large. Unlike lots of his Kenton band mates, he didn’t care much either for the relaxed Californian atmosphere, and soon went back to his native Boston after Kenton. There he studied, then taught at the Berklee College of Music (Richie Beirach kept reminding him he’d been his student, Charlie told me), and in the fifties, except for his good friend Frank Rosolino, Mariano always felt closer to Bostonians—like Jaki Byard, Herb Pomeroy, Dick Twardzik, Alan Dawson or Quincy Jones—than with the West Coast players.


Bill Holman: You Go to My Head
Quincy Jones: King Road Blues
Stan Kenton: Hav-A-Havana
Stan Kenton: The Opener
Shelly Manne: Bernie’s Tune
Charles Mariano: Avoid the Year of the Monkey
Charles Mariano: Helen 12 Trees
Charles Mariano: Neverglades Pixie
Charles Mariano: Parvati’s Dance
Charles Mariano: Thorn of a White Rose
Charles Mingus: Track a Solo Dancer
Frank Rosolino: Frank n’ Earnest

See also encyclopedia entry on Charles Mariano

Neither was he as close to Bird as most altoists of his generation were. Mariano’s parents and elder sister were Italian-born. They listened to a lot of opera and Neapolitan songs and his sister became a classical pianist. All this made Mariano conscious of his specific cultural background and of his interest for lyrical playing rather than for Parker-like virtuosity. So, when he settled for a time in Japan with then wife pianist-arranger Toshiko Akiyoshi, Mariano got more interested in composing melodies and learning the flute than in tackling complex big band music.

 Dear John C

His return to the US in the early sixties saw him, among others, in two unusual situations. The first one was with Charles Mingus, with whom he recorded three times. Mariano’s recollection of the reputedly often irate bassist and leader is paradoxically that of a man who was always nice to him and defended him when people asked why he’d hired a white musician. Second, though he’d met Coltrane several times, admired him and was influenced by him, Mariano admits that he was scared to death when Elvin Jones hired him in 65 to record Dear John C. for Impulse.

But for Mariano the big turn of the sixties was his trip to Malaysia which triggered his interest in South-Eastern and Indian music, a subject that he studied passionately for years. In the last years of his life, Charlie still went to India for a couple of months each winter, to play and study. Avowedly a non-spiritual musician, unlike Coltrane, Mariano saw in this type of music a brand new field of exploration for his interests in melody and rhythm, and an occasion to play new instruments like the nagaswaram, which he’d often used on future recordings, or to perform with ensembles like the Indian Karnataka College of Percussion.

 The Music of Bill Holman

In the early seventies, when he decided to come to Europe—where he’d heard there were more playing opportunities than in Boston—he knew few musicians there. Still he soon became familiar with the likes of German bass player Eberhard Weber and Italian drummer Aldo Romano as well as Belgian guitarist Philippe Catherine and Belgian keyboardist Jasper Van’t Hof, with whom he played and recorded until the last years of his life. In Europe he also met Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou Khalil, with whose international band he played, recorded and toured from the mid eighties onward.

Over the course of his 30 some years in Europe, Mariano evolved into one of the most broadly open musician you could meet both sides of the Atlantic. You could hear him in India with young jazz musicians like guitarist Hamid Heri, eager to mix the US tradition with their own non-harmonic roots or with traditional Algerian players like the Smahi brothers. You could hear him in Europe with musicians hardly younger than him such as Swiss drummer Daniel Humair and Spanish pianist Tete Montoliu, as well as with other ones who could be his grandsons like French pianist Jean-Christophe Cholet, German bass player Dieter Ilg, or Hungarian drummer Elemér Balàzs, playing standards or original compositions. You could hear him in quartet with fellow US pianist Bob Degen, or with seasoned arranger Vince Mendoza, improvising on Ravel melodies scored for a jazz orchestra.

What’s more, Mariano never sounded his age, and never indulged into nostalgia about any type of “glorious past.” When asked about the decline in the tradition of playing standards, which he mastered so well, he answered me : “It’s not that important to me. The standards used to be a vehicle for musicians to communicate during jam sessions. Today we play mostly original compositions and that’s very challenging. All this remains music, anyway.” The very words of an old wise man with a youthful vision of the art he’d practiced for so long, on four continents.

This blog entry posted by Thierry Quénum

June 22, 2009 · 9 comments


ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame Honors New Inductees

It’s hard keeping up with arnold jay smith. In addition to covering the Jazz Journalist Association awards gathering, he managed to attend the ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame ceremony on the same evening. His report is below. T.G.


The American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) presented its annual Jazz Wall of Fame induction ceremonies fittingly at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room on June 16. As always it was a warm gathering of friends and relatives of the honorees, not to mention the family of jazz.

The room itself overlooks Central Park and as the natural light faded into twilight and we were bathed in the glow of ever-greening electric ones, and the gigantic photo of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band with Louis Armstrong, Lil Hardin, Kid Ory, and the Dodds brothers loomed over us. The photo is the backdrop for ASCAP’s Jazz Wall in their offices.

There are two sets of inductees picked by the troika of lyricist Alan Bergman, bassist John Clayton and arranger Johnny Mandel. One set is posthumous, the other living legends. In addition, there are Young Jazz Composers awards and a Jazz Wall of Fame Prize. This year Anat Cohen, who earlier in the day was awarded Best Clarinet at the Jazz Journalists awards, won the latter. (See report here.)

Each living honoree played for his/her supper, as it were. The departed had others play for them. As one would expect, everyone was at the peak of form. The proceedings were hosted by current ASCAP president Paul Williams, who thought of himself as being unhip. Later he ad-libbed Lord Buckley saying that he felt “like the Naz up here.” Hipness comes in unexpected wrappings.

Among the more elegant speakers was Dan Morgenstern who introduced and presented the award to Cohen. She played a personal tune called “Purple Piece” with her quartet. When asked the title, it appeared that she had just thought of it. Jazz is still the sound of surprise. The most unusual instrumentation of the evening was lead by awardee violinist Regina Carter. An Italian violin, a French accordion and an African kora were the instruments for the selection, which was African in origin. Multiplicity thy name is jazz.

After Randy Weston’s group, sans rhythm –piano, alto and tenor sax and trombone—played yet another interpretation of his “Hi-Fly,” Weston stood at the podium and gently yet emphatically delivered his sermon-cum-lecture on the diversity and origins of all music, if not all human life, Mother Africa, and how we all need to understand and appreciate that fact. Church-like, the Allen Room was silent throughout his dissertation. Not a soul uttered a word nor moved towards him to curtail the lengthy oration. When he was finished we rose and cheered. (You may read a gist of what he said on OctoJAZZarians profile.)

I hasten to say that Johnny Mandel did not choose himself. ASCAP past president Marilyn Bergman said that it was an oversight finally adjusted that this giant of a player, arranger and composer is raised to their Jazz Wall. Karrin Allyson played and sang a lesser-known Mandel tune called “Little Did I Dream.” His acceptance speech was brief but humble.

Joe Lovano and Eddie Palmieri musically represented John Coltrane and Tito Puente. Lovano, a devotee of Trane’s, played the saxist’s “Central Park West” as Clayton in his intro urged us to glance out the multistory window at that so-named avenue as the music wafted over us from within. Palmieri, who enjoyed a close personal friendship with Puente, introduced TP’s famous “Piccadillo” with a long, rambling abstract piano solo finally releasing the tension with the refrain. Then he led us en clave through the improv choruses.

The best was yet to come. Radio station WBGO’s Music Director Gary Walker briefed us on the gestation of vocalese and its primary progenitors: Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, all honored this night, Dave Lambert posthumously. He was taken from us in 1966 in a tragic accident on I-95, as he was being a Good Samaritan helping a stranded motorist change a tire. Annie Ross and Jon Hendricks keep the genre alive singing, separately and together, the tunes L-H-R created from famous instrumentals.

“Hendricks and Ross tore the Allen Room apart and left us in shambles,” someone was heard to say. Opening with their copyrighted version of Count Basie’s “Every Day (I Have the Blues),” Annie segued into her version of Wardell Gray’s “Twisted.” Jon moved in with “Cloudburst,” the tune that has been recorded by every vocal ensemble in the world from Manhattan Transfer to the Pointer Sisters and sampled by hip-hoppers and rappers. Even the Flaming Pizzarellis have a tune-on-tune arrangement. There are printed scores for schools. H & R wrapped it up with another Basie fave a very up “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.”

Early the next morning I called Hendricks on another matter. He sounded still breathless from the night before. Seems they repaired to Ross’s regular Metropolitan Room gig and did more L-H-R into the wee small. Jon muttered something like “Davey would have loved being [in the Allen Room], man.” He was Jon; he was.

This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith

June 20, 2009 · 1 comment


JJA Awards at Jazz Standard

The annual awards ceremony of the Jazz Journalists Association, which took place on Tuesday, has grown into a high-profile affair. And with the disappearance of other celebratory occasions where jazz people can congregate (such as IAJE convention and the JVC Jazz Festival) it has taken on even greater prominence. A number of editors and writers were on hand, including arnold jay smith, who reports below on the event. A full list of honorees can be found here. T.G.

 Jazz Journalists Association

In the face of what is fast becoming a debacle of biblical proportions for jazz, the Jazz Journalists Association held its 13th Annual Awards buffet at Jazz Standard on Tuesday, June 16. From all over the globe they came; scribes, radio and computer folks, business and professorial types, from the east, Midwest and western U.S., from across the pond, from up Scandinavia way, from down in the Caribbean, out of Africa, India, Russia and Kazakhstan. Proving once again that jazz is a multi-cultural, international language.

Calling it “our Bar [Bat] Mitzvah,”—13 year-old Jews celebrate their coming-into-adulthood at this age—JJA president, Howard Mandel presided over a phalanx of awards, awardees, presenters and musical interludes worthy of any televised event of this ilk. But there was a serious undercurrent: JVC is out of festival sponsorship mode, and, as an indirect result of that, JazzTimes has suspended publication. Who’s, what’s next!

Ironically, George Wein won the “Best Presenter” award again as he stepped up to the plate to save his formerly JVC-sponsored Newport Jazz Festival, at least for now. As ballots were cast prior to their announcement, JazzTimes won best periodical, seemingly for the last time, as they have for all the years the category has been extant. Presenter, author and journalist Dan Ouellette’s announcement as “posthumous” drew nervous laughter and applause.

For me there were several special, if not downright poignant, moments at this year’s Awards. A separate new category with a candidate of one was announced. Co-sponsored by the Jazz Foundation of America and the Jazz Journalists Association, the “Special Award for Words and Music” was presented to Mark Murphy. Murphy, who is ailing, was flanked by singers Sheila Jordan, Giacomo Gates, Roberta Gambarini and the “Male Vocalist” awardee (and sometime Murphy acolyte) Kurt Elling for a photo op. It was a teary moment indeed.

Following his NEA Grant earlier this year, OctoJAZZarian Lee Konitz was named for his “Lifetime Achievement”; Maria Schneider and Sonny Rollins were multiple obelisk winners with three apiece. There was a larger-than-usual contingent of global awardees this year: Richard Galliano (France), accordion, Anat Cohen (Israel), clarinet, and Rudresh Mahanthappa (Italian born—of Indian descent—but New York-based), alto sax.

Then there are the ‘A’ Team: the activists, advocates, altruists, aiders and abettors of jazz without who, no us. They may be world-renowned such as this year’s Herb Alpert, or educators like David Baker, or a jazz-loving record company exec Bruce Lundvall, or an industry lion Dr. Agnes Varis, or names-you-may-never-have-heard-of-if-you-aren’t-a-jazzer, Timuel Black, Steven Saltzman, Ruth Price, Clarence Acox and Scott Brown.

And the A Team honorees missing from the stage were also noted. The ones closest to me are author, historian, trumpeter and cornetist Richard Sudhalter and publicist-cum-author Peter Levinson, both of whom we lost in 2008. (Click on the links to find their bios.) Dick and I shared many hours of discussion if not in utter disagreement over one issue or another, notably his controversial book Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz. Who knew we needed such a title let alone such a book? It caused some polarization, let me tell you. But his bios of Bix Beiderbecke and Hoagy Carmichael are still referenced in my Jazz History classes.

Branded a “noodge” by Mandel, Levinson was publicist to the jazz stars and beyond. But that’s not what mattered to me. In the spirit of full disclosure, I worked for him in two capacities: I ran his New York office, penultimately, and I conducted research for his Tommy Dorsey bio, Living in a Great Big Way. Peter took press agentry and made it nearly an art. He brought it into the modern era where it became public relations. He produced campaigns where obscures became household names and recordings went gold. Like Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers, Peter created a group of publicists who went out into the jazz world and created more—but gentler, publicists: Don Lucoff, Michael Bloom, Linda Yohn, Helene Greece…and me. Speaking of Blakey, when a prospective client balked at Peter’s princely fees, he would reply, “Think of us as another sideman; what do you pay them?”

In my JJA presentation moment I told how Peter led a near biblical existence. Peter and wife Grace lived on a hillside in Malibu. Fire came, but like Shadrak, Meshak and Abednigo, they were encircled by flames which never touched them. When the floods came, they seemed to have an ark on their property for the water; and mudslides came close, never in.

The brief musical moments at the Awards event were presented almost as entre acts by the Charles Tolliver Big Band, Marian Petrescu, piano, Andreas Oberg, guitar, Jane Bunnett and her Spirits of Havana Band, Carol Sudhalter, sax and flute, Daryl Sherman, piano and vocals; and finally the Matt Miller Trio took us home.

We trudge on however gingerly towards another gathering of the faithful in 2010, or as I prefer to call it my Jazz Family Reunion.

This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith

June 18, 2009 · 8 comments


Late Period Bill Evans: Genius or Decline?

Here is a jazz paradox. Most great jazz artists make their best music before the age of 40. Yet—and here is the irony of the matter—they usually get the most glowing reviews after the age of 40.

There is a certain amount of justice in this state of affairs. Jazz fans venerate the elders of the art form—and thank goodness they do. Most of pop culture, and virtually everyone in a position of power at the major record labels, worship at the fountain of youth. I am happy to see the respect given the older musicians in jazz, if only as symbolic compensation for this imbalance in the rest of society.

Yet I also pity the beginning jazz fan who is trying to learn about the music—and is steered to Dizzy Gillespie’s 1980s recordings, and not his 1940s masterpieces. (If you haven’t enjoyed early Dizzy, check out this track for starters.) Or who encounters the widely available Lester Young sides on Verve from the 1950s, but never hears the Commodore Kansas City sessions, the Keynote sides, or Prez’s early collaborations with Billie Holiday. These late offerings are not without their merits—but they are not the place to start in learning why these artists were so admired and emulated.

Bill Evans

And then we come to the case of Bill Evans. The importance of his early work is widely acknowledged. From his contributions to "Concerto for Billy the Kid" (1956) and “All About Rosie” (1957) to his solo piano album Alone, recorded a little over a decade later, this artist established himself as a towering figure in jazz music, the inventor of a new musical vocabulary and—just as noteworthy—an unconventional emotional sensibility. Along the way, we find him on Kind of Blue, the justly famous 1961 Village Vanguard sessions, and on a host of important sideman and leader dates for Verve, Riverside and other labels.

Yes, a few critics have grumbled that his playing from this period is “too European” or “not bluesy enough”; but the Evans skeptics have been forced to do a lot of grumbling, because this body of work has exerted a tremendous influence on other players. You hear Evans’s harmonic colors and conception everywhere these days—and not just in the jazz world. In any attempt to gauge the impact of keyboardists from this era, only Monk can rival Evans, and that only in the deepest inner sanctum of jazz. To some degree, the contrary gravitational pull of these two artists continues to shape jazz piano styles a half-century after their seminal work for Orrin Keepnews at the small but devastatingly smart Riverside label.

But Evans’s later work is more problematic. Marc Myers recently expressed his view of the superiority of the earlier work, and others have stated similar opinions, although many fans have countered in defense of late-vintage Evans. I have written elsewhere about my reactions to a Bill Evans performance I attended ten days before pianist’s death, which was as acerbic and biting as the early Evans was introspective and dreamy.

Now two reissues give us an opportunity to explore late period Evans at greater length. The Complete Tony Bennett-Bill Evans Recordings from Fantasy brings together the controversial 1975 and 1976 collaborations by the pianist and vocalist—which some will tell you are classic works, while others puzzle over the pairing of two such conflicting musical personalities. Alongside this, fans can consider the massive CD set Turn Out the Stars, which captures Bill Evans’s June 1980 appearance at the Village Vanguard on six CDs.

I wish someone had recorded Bill Evans’s 1961 appearances at the Vanguard with such devotion. To my mind, that early trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian set the gold standard for Evans, and inevitably one compares later performances with the work of that seminal band. Evans himself invited these comparisons—since he continued to play the same songs in the same trio format up until his death. Many artists go to great efforts to get out from under the shadow of their early work, but Evans returned to the same changes, night after night, for two decades. Even when he added new songs to the repertoire, they tended to be similar to the 32-bar tunes he had played as a young man. This was all the more striking, given the turbulence and clamor for experimentation that permeated the rest of the jazz world during these years.

But the way Evans played these songs in the final months of his life represented almost a renunciation of that previous body of work. Compare the 1961 version of “My Romance” with the 1980 rendition, and see how Bill Evans at age 50 worked to squeeze the romanticism out of “My Romance.” The same comes across if one compares 1980 performances of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “My Foolish Heart,” and other songs with his classic recordings from the past. The later works are jittery and aloof, at times almost savage in their undermining of any vestiges of sentimentality.

One might even conclude that Bill Evans no longer liked playing ballads in 1980. Time and time again, he pushes at the tempo, and can’t wait to double up the pulse. On “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera try to maintain the relaxation of the beat as long as possible, but about midway through the song they decide to follow the leader and they are off to the races. Even a heartfelt Evans original such as “Turn Out the Stars”—which the pianist had written as a tribute to his father a few days after Harry Evans’s death—is now treated like just another set of changes for a brittle medium tempo solo.

If this were your only experience of Bill Evans, you might think his sense of time was faulty. On “Emily” his shift from the rubato intro into the trio section is awkward, and even after the tempo settles in at 168 beats per minute—too fast for this waltz, in my opinion—Evans can’t hold it there for long. Soon he is charging ahead at 200 beats per minute, and then beyond. He constantly rushes on these performances, and Johnson and LaBarbera get high marks for adapting to their boss’s nervous and uncentered guidance from the piano bench. What a dispiriting contrast with Evans’s work from the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he was nonpareil in his sense of time and group interaction.

Perhaps most surprising of all, Evans no longer shows his grand conception of space and silence—trademarks of his early work—on these late vintage recordings. His version of “Quiet Now” here might very well be renamed “Busy Now,” and his block-chords-gone-amok solo is certainly impressive from a conceptual point of view, but it destroys the mood of a composition that is essentially a jazz tone poem. Time and time again on these performances, Evans fills up the bars. Sometimes he shows restraint for the first 60-90 seconds of a performance, but he can’t seem to maintain it.

There is a certain brutal intelligence at work here, and a raw beauty that surfaces now and again. A student of jazz piano would find many interesting phrases and interludes on these tracks—well worth studying and memorizing, perhaps. Yet the overall impression these recordings convey is of a musician who was working from his intellect and not his heart.

Bill Evans & Tony Bennett

Hence, it is all the more surprising to compare these works with the Tony Bennett –Bill Evans collaborations from the mid-1970s, and now released by Concord under the Fantasy imprimatur. Here Evans is the one showing restraint, and Bennett pushing for the grandiloquent gesture. Here Evans is content to maintain the mood, while Bennett is changeable and likes to raise the level of intensity as the performance develops. You can tell that neither artist is perfectly comfortable in this setting, but both are deeply “in the moment,” trying to make the best of the proceedings.

In this instance, the conflicting aesthetic visions enhance the final product. Bennett adapts to his understated companion, and delivers perhaps the most delicate performances of his career—which is quite a claim, given this artist’s rich body of work. Evans, for his part, is forced out of his comfort zone. For once, he sounds like a sideman, not a leader, and the change is benefical one—fans sometimes forget what an exceptional sideman this pianist could be back in the 1950s. Evans constantly adapts his conception in response to what Bennett is singing, and I suspect that he probably surprised himself more than a few times during the course of this short but fertile collaboration.

The contrast here is indicative of the paradox of late period Bill Evans. As a whole, this body of work does not match the output of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet there are enough gems in the mix—as the Bennett sessions make clear—that serious fans will want to delve deeper into this music rather than try to dismiss it with a quick generalization.

In addition to the Bennett partnership, outstanding music from this period can be found on Evans’s You Must Believe in Spring (recorded in 1977), his solo project New Conversations (1978), the duo album with Eddie Gomez Intuition (1974), and the ear-expanding Claus Ogerman composition Symbiosis (1974).

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

June 17, 2009 · 22 comments


Hentoff on Jazz: The Healing Touch

Nat Hentoff is a regular contributor to His recent articles here include a discussion of efforts to nurture jazz in the schools, 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. Below he turns his attention to a very different type of jazz outreach program.T.G.

                Louis Armstrong (photo by Herb Snitzer)

Louis Armstrong, a true believer in the healing power of music, sent recordings of jazz and classical music to a hospital in New Orleans, so they could be played for women giving birth. In keeping with his wishes, the Louis Armstrong Department of Music Therapy at New York's Beth Israel Hospital – funded in part by the Louis Armstrong Foundation – treats patients in pediatrics, oncology, pain care and other specialties.

Now, in a remarkably challenging venture in jazz as therapy, guitarist and vocalist Marlina Teich has founded a group called Jazzheimers to bring jazz to patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease in hospitals and other convalescent venues in San Francisco.

"They respond to music in such a different way than other people," Marlina says, "reaching them in a way that talking, medicine, psychotherapy and other forms of therapy don't. I want to honor their experience of living long lives in a society that warehouses the elderly."

"It's the music they enjoyed when their memories were intact," says Robert Sarison of the Irene Swindells Alzheimer's Residential Care Center, one of the facilities served by Marlina and Jazzheimers. "Now, even though they may not remember her, they remember the music."

"I don't do jazz that's hard to follow," adds Marlina. "The music is for the patients, so I keep it simple and easy to remember."

Every show is different, and requests are eagerly welcomed. The songs patients remember, she discovered, are from composers like the Gershwins and Cole Porter. Leading the list, Marlina told San Francisco's, is "As Time Goes By."

Among the listening stories she told me was about "a woman in the corner with braids and beautiful facial features, who was laughing and singing, and then would fall asleep. The start of a new song would waken her like clockwork. It was like she didn't miss a beat of the fun we were all having! She was listening and singing to the music. Practically everyone was singing that day. Another woman shouted, 'We should go on the road!' So I said, 'Sure we are. This is our rehearsal.'"

Another listener, Dorothy, joined in with spoons on a wooden chair during "On A Slow Boat to China." "She was an amasing percussionist," Marlina recalls. "I was going to follow it with a swing version of 'Autumn Leaves' so Dorothy could continue her musical prowess, but the Italian contingency of the Alzheimer's patients requested, 'That's Amore,' so since I always do requests, that's what they got.

"Two women and a man sang every damn word of the song. They sang loud and beautifully! Even woke up a few sleepers, which was ok in my book."

Every few weeks, Marlina and her musicians make the rounds of the hospitals and senior centers. At one of them, a woman was just staring off into a corner. "I thought she might be deaf," said the Jazzheimers leader. "So I went on and put the patient's hand on my guitar so she could feel the vibrations."

Toward the end of the set, the woman was smiling.

At one of Marlina's stops, there were only six patients, so she did a solo show on guitar. One of the patients, originally from London and recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's, used to go to a bomb shelter during World War II that was also an underground jazz club while the Nazis were bombing her city.

The songs Marlina played - "It Had to be You" and "Almost Like being in Love" - turned out to be songs the woman had heard underground during the war.

There's more to tell about Marlina Teich and Jazzheimers in my column next month, which will explore the scope and depth of healing by music – as well as news of Marline's forthcoming CD with her own group of alto and tenor saxophonist Jules Broussard, pianist Art Khu, bassist Eugene Warren, and drummer Russ Gold. When you're in the San Francisco area, they play at the Brickhouse Café and Bar, 426 Brannan Street, on Thursday nights.

Jazzheimers is a decidedly non-profit project. Sponsored by the Independent Arts and Media Network, the musicians get a small stipend, but there is no budget for salaries or office space. At its start in 2005, the annual budget was $3,000, and then went up to $5,000, and is now $8,000 a year. Marlina is shooting for a survival budget of $10,000 a year.

I would think that foundations, Alzheimer's research organizations, and individual donors – with or without Alzheimer's patients in their families – would be pleased to help support this very small but successful reawakener of memories, melodies and dreams. If you want to contribute, write to:

Jazzheimers, PMB #169, 3739 Balboa Street, San Francisco, California, 94121-2605. The message phone for Jazzheimers is 415-820-1595.

Also there must be documentary filmmakers who could help encourage others to bring the pulse and joy of jazz to Alzheimer's patients around the country.

The man who gave Jazzheimers its first grant three years was diagnosed with Alzheimer's last year, and the band plays once a month where he is a patient. "He loves to sing, Frank Sinatra style," says Marlina. "And he does two or three songs with us. He forgets fsome of the words, but he always knows hwen to come in after the solos. Also, he hasn't lost his phrasing ability or rhythm."

"He's getting increasingly ill, but still manages to come up and sing when we go there."

The music helps keep him keeping on, along with the many others energized by the life pulse of Jazzheimers.

This blog entry posted by Nat Hentoff

June 16, 2009 · 1 comment


Musicians and Bad Reviews

Chris Kelsey is an editor and frequent reviewer at His articles in this column include in-depth commentaries on John Coltrane's work for the Atlantic label and Ornette Coleman's stint with Blue Note. Below he turns to the tricky issue of how critics and musicians should deal with negative reviews. T.G.

I learned a while ago to take something of a Taoist approach to my writing. I write a piece and let it go. After I click on the "Publish" key, an article or review is its own thing, independent of me. I seldom think about it again … that is, unless my attention is redirected back to it, which sometimes happens—usually when a musician expresses either appreciation or (more often) disappointment over what I've written about his or her music. I'm occasionally compelled to respond, which I don't enjoy, for obvious reasons. It occurs to me that I might take an opportunity to write something like a blanket riposte, ready to issue when needed.

                The Composer, artwork by Keith Henry Brown

While I like hearing kind words as much as the next guy, I don't expect musicians to thank me for positive reviews. I appreciate the gesture, but it's not necessary, because believe me, if I had problems with the music, I wouldn't hesitate to say … and then the same person who is now so grateful would instead be pissed off. Not to be brusque, but my reviews are not addressed to the musician responsible for the music being reviewed. They are addressed to his potential audience. A positive review is no more a gift to the artist than a negative review is a chastisement.

Contrary to what many musicians apparently feel, reviews are written for the overwhelming majority of readers who do not create the music under consideration. As a critic, my task is to help that potential audience make an informed decision about whether they might want to consume a particular work. Ideally, I don't think the artist in question should even read what I've written; he certainly shouldn't attribute to it any disproportional significance—or any significance at all, if what I write doesn't reflect his reality.

Of course, musicians are justifiably concerned about their careers and the effect reviews have on performance and recording opportunities. I'm not suggesting that any given review will have no impact—they can, although in my experience the effect is generally much, much slighter than artists seem to believe (in many if not most cases, so slight as to be immeasurable). In jazz, a negative review might cost some hurt feelings, but not a career. In fact, if bad reviews necessarily equaled failure, no one would succeed. No one has ever received unanimous raves (see Parker, Charlie or Coltrane, John). No matter how happening your stuff is, someone somewhere is going to dislike it. The secret is to ignore them, and play for those who dig. They’re out there, I assure you.

So my message to musicians of both the gruntled and disgruntled varieties is this: When reading a negative review of your work, remember that the ache in the pit of your stomach is being triggered by the writings of someone who has nothing against you, who doesn't know you as a human being other than as a vessel for making music. Someone you've probably never met, but with whom you'd likely be friends if you both lived in the same small town, given your shared passion for a marginalized art form. This person doesn't want you to fail. On the contrary, he understands that what he writes about your music is of less import than the music itself. His is just a voice in the (hopefully) continuing conversation about a general area of music that you both love. If he didn't have esteem for your intent—if he didn’t believe that what you do as a jazz musician is more important than 99% of all other music being made—he wouldn't write about your work at all, pro or con. He's just one person, with no power to make or break anyone. Don’t fret over his opinion, but take its very existence as a gesture of respect.

This blog article posted by Chris Kelsey.

June 15, 2009 · 5 comments


Jazz Survival 101

Eugene Marlow, a regular contributor to these virtual pages, looks at how the current economic climate is impacting jazz musicians, and offers some thoughts on how they can adapt and survive. T.G.

                  Drummer (2006), artwork by Jazzamoart

As of early June 2009 there are plenty of indications that the American economy, let alone the global economy, is still mired in what many are calling the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. We see rising unemployment—predicted to top 10% before it’s over—an increasing number of failing banks, bankrupted car manufacturers (once the jewels in the crown of America’s economic prowess), still rising residential foreclosures, lower tax revenues on the federal, state, and local levels, and expanding deficits.

Reports of the commercial and residential real estate market indicate contradicting trends; clearly, though, the commercial market is overbuilt while the residential market might be coming to a plateau and some price stability. Consumers are saving more (a good thing in the long run), but spending less (not good for retailers in the short run). Foreign companies are buying parts of American companies (not necessarily a new trend), and China, in particular, owns a significant portion of this country’s debt. This also is not a new trend. In 1980 right before the start of the first Reagan administration, the United States was the world’s creditor nation. Today, we are the world’s debtor nation. What a difference almost 30 years makes!

All in all, it’s not a pretty economic picture.

On a more local level with respect to the music world, the picture is also spotty. On a recent visit to Swing 46 on New York City’s restaurant row, owner/manager “John” indicated to me they were holding their own. That night George Gee and his nonet were performing. The dance floor was virtually packed. It was noisy and festive. But John also indicated that, appearances to the contrary, financially it was not great, but he was still in business. Birdland, Blue Note, and The Jazz Standard all seem to be on a solvent economic keel, but there are rumors and anecdotal reports that Jazz At Lincoln Center is, to put it diplomatically, “having money problems.” So, too, the Metropolitan Opera. Not surprising really. The fallout from the Bernie Madoff debacle notwithstanding, many corporations and foundations have dramatically reduced their contributions to deserving organizations. Some have ceased funding altogether.

Further, in New York several “venues” have closed, for example, the ill-fated Brazilian-oriented club Cachaça that I wrote about several months ago, and Lola’s, the soul-food club, that hopes to reopen in another location. Sweet Rhythm has reported low audience attendance. And “non-club” venues have closed or are about to: Manny’s on New York City’s 48th Street “music row” shuttered on May 31 because Sam Ash Music stated “it wasn’t carrying its [economic] weight.” And then there’s Patelson’s right across the street from Carnegie Hall’s stage door. While Patelson’s is not a jazz-oriented music shop, it nonetheless represents an important aspect of the music world: printed classical music. It was one of “the” key places to go in New York City to find almost anything printed when it came to classical music. Its fate is representative. All over New York you see “Available For Rent” signs where once were thriving retail outlets of all kinds. Even when retail outlets associated with music and entertainment, such as restaurants, are doing business, they are rarely reaching capacity.

Let’s bring this down to the jazz world, and more specifically, the jazz musician. I recall listening to a talk a few years ago by an executive of Local 802 who was in involved in negotiating film-recording contracts. He reported that at one time New York’s musician local had over 40,000 members. As of a few years ago it had fallen to around 10,000. It’s well documented that CD sales of all genres are down, way down. Today, a CD is more often than not, a musical resume, rather than a product for profit. At the same time, the cost of attending a live jazz concert, regardless of venue, is out of reach for many, especially young people and those of limited economic means—the very same folks who need to hear the music to understand and appreciate its cultural relevance. Meanwhile, academic jazz programs all over the country are turning out highly skilled young musicians with little or no business training and fewer places to play, giving rise to an apparent growing number of non-traditional venues for performance purposes. At the same time the economic value of a musician’s skills seem, for most, to be in decline.

Jazz radio is shrinking. The Boston jazz station just shut down. And all over the country, arts editors, let alone jazz or classical music reviewers, are losing their jobs. Local newspapers, often a source of promotion and support for local arts, are ceasing to exist. There are exceptions, of course, but everyone, everywhere seems to be feeling the economic pinch.

This current, deep recession is exacerbating a much longer trend: the diminution of the social and economic value of the arts, let alone jazz, in the United States. Yes, there is recognition of the arts as a contributor to the economy. In a recent issue of Chamber Music, the official publication of arts organization Chamber Music America, Margaret M. Lioi, reports in her editorial that $50 million for the arts was included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill. These funds went directly to the National Endowment for the Arts.

When the House voted on the final bill, Democratic Congressman David Obey, who sponsored the bill, explained why he thought it was important to retain NEA funding in the stimulus package: “There are five million people who work in the arts industry. And right now they have 12.5% unemployment—or are you suggesting that somehow if you work in that field, it isn’t real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance? We’re trying to treat people who work in the arts the same way as anybody else.”

This blog entry was posted by Eugene Marlow. Check back soon for part two of this article.

June 14, 2009 · 1 comment


15 Righteous CDs Released So Far This Year

You probably need to update your wardrobe.

Sorry, I can’t help you with that. Same goes for that hairstyle and those shoes.

But I can help you update your CD collection. Face it, you call yourself a jazz fan, but most of the jazz music on your iPod was recorded before President Obama graduated from kindergarten. Isn’t it time you put away Kind of Blue, and checked out something a little more current?

Each of the 15 CDs listed below was released within the last six months, and every one will increase your hipness quotient by at least a few points. Give them a listen, and be up-to-date for once.

Then you can start worrying about that ratty-ass shirt.

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society: Infernal Machines
Featured Track: “Phobos”

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

 The Bad Plus (with Wendy Lewis)

The Bad Plus (with Wendy Lewis): For All I Care
Featured Track: “Lithium”

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

 David Binney

David Binney: Third Occasion
Featured Track: “Squares and Palaces”

Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

 Brian Blade

Brian Blade: Mama Rosa
Featured Track: “Mercy Angel”

Reviewed by S. Victor Aaron

 Gary Burton & Pat Metheny

Gary Burton & Pat Metheny: Quartet Live
Featured Track: “Sea Journey”

Reviewed by Ted Gioia


Cyminology: As Ney
Featured Track: “Niyaayesh”

Reviewed by Ted Gioia


Fly: Sky and Country
Featured Track: “Perla Morena”

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

 Julian Lage

Julian Lage: Sounding Point
Featured Track: “Familiar Posture”

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

 Joe Lovano

Joe Lovano Us Five: Folk Art
Featured Track: “Powerhouse”

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

 Bobby Sanabria

Bobby Sanabria: Kenya Revisited Live!!!
Featured Track: “Wild Jungle”

Reviewed by Mark Saleski

 Matthew Shipp

Matthew Shipp: Harmonic Disorder
Featured Track: “GNG”

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

 Tierney Sutton

Tierney Sutton: Desire
Featured Track: “Cry Me a River”

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Nicholas Urie

Nicholas Urie: Excerpts From An Online Dating Service
Featured Track: “Bad Girl?”

Reviewed by Mark Saleski

 Justin Vasquez

Justin Vasquez: Triptych
Featured Track: “Triptych”

Reviewed by Bill Barnes

Sam Yahel

Sam Yahel: Hometown
Featured Track: “Oumou”

Reviewed by Ralph A. Miriello

This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.

June 11, 2009 · 1 comment


Rust Never Sleeps

Will Friedwald recently offered some reflections in this column on the arcane world of jazz discographers—those intrepid souls who can tell us which jazz musician did what, and when it happened, and who else was there. No small feat—since even their spouses and parole officers often can't answer those questions much of the time. But the discographers always prevail in the end, and the story of their behind-the-scenes efforts is not without its own heroism and glamor. Mr. Friedwald returns to the subject below. T.G.

Up until his death in 2003, Roger Sturtevant, dean of New York area record collectors, would regularly organize trips to London for himself and fellow collector pals. His mission was threefold: cover the waterfront in search of rare British 78s, catch new plays in the West End, and, not of least importance, pay a visit to Brian Rust, the world’s pre-eminent discographer of jazz and pop music from the 78 RPM era. This part of the trip was always like a Holy Pilgrimage; those of who are us immersed in the music of the pre-war years can only echo what Bart Simpson once said of his own spiritual mentor, Krusty the Clown: “I base my life on his teachings.”

Brian Rust

Rust’s Jazz Records 1897-1942 is still the universal standard of printed discographies, but to anyone remotely interested in the period, The American Dance Band Discography and The Complete Entertainment Discography (first published in 1973) are no less essential. His two other major Anglo-centric works, British Dance Bands and London Musical Shows On Record 1897 – 1976, are, perhaps, somewhat more specialized, but you don’t have the right to call yourself a serious scholar of the music unless you own a marked-up copy of the big three: Jazz Records, American Dance Bands, and Entertainment. (As I mention elsewhere, when Steve Albin developed his discographical software application, my major contribution was convincing him to name the program “Brian.”)

Jazz Records came first—the original edition was in 1961—and has been revised on five occasions. This is Brian’s real baby, the jewel in the crown, and, at times, it seems as if the other two books grew out of leftover research that Mr. Rust accumulated for Jazz Records. That, in fact, is a key idea, in understanding how the three books—and the music of the prewar period in general—work. There is some duplication amongst the three, in that both American Dance Bands and Entertainment represent a recording format, ie, a big band or a popular vocalist, whereas Jazz Records documents a style of music: there are bound to be band records or vocal records that are also jazz records.

And that’s a fascinating distinction: the major area that is totally unique to Jazz Records is recordings by black bands; it doesn’t matter if it’s a hardcore jazz act like Ellington or Basie, or Noble Sissle, who led more of a society-oriented dance orchestra (but played plenty of jazz nonetheless). White small groups, such as those led by Eddie Condon or Red Nichols, are included, but when it comes to white dance bands, that’s when Rust starts getting subjective—and Jazz Records becomes a work of interpretation rather than just a straightforward laying out of names and numbers.

It’s a primary topic of discussion how Rust deals with the popular dance bands particularly of the pre-swing period; this is an era (like post-war, pre-rock pop) that has no name. You could call it Jazz Age Music (as opposed to New Age music), but by and large, even specialists in the period, like contemporary bandleaders Vince Giordano or Johnny Crawford or radio host Rich Conaty, don’t know how to label it. (I tell them to grin and bear it and call it what everyone else does: “Little Rascals Music.”) Take a band like Paul Whiteman: he employed a consistent string of hot soloists throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, but in no way is every Whiteman record a jazz record. Rust has done the remarkable service of, it seems, listening to all of the thousands of 78s released by Whiteman and sorting out the sides with hot solos that, as he puts it, will be “of interest” to jazz fans.

Brian Rust

There are a number of white bands, including Ben Pollack and the Casa Loma Orchestra, whose entire output is included, and Rust tends to give you the whole enchilada on swing bands, like those of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Possibly the latter is because many of the straightforward dance discs of the Swing Era tend to have improvised content (even on ballads), or equally likely because Mr. Rust is personally more interested in spending time with the major bands of the earlier period, and more conspicuously enjoys investing the labor to distinguish the jazz from the non-jazz in the copious recordings of Ben Selvin, Sam Lanin, Nat Shilkret, or, on the other side of the pond such British bands as Jack Hylton or Ambrose. The same holds true for pop vocal records: singers like Cliff Edwards and Annette Hanshaw, to name two vigorously championed by Mr. Rust over the decades, regularly employed jazz soloists on their record sessions, and he makes a point of telling us which are the sides with hot content. The JR listing on Bing Crosby is particularly useful, telling us which Crosby sides have jazzy band accompaniment, like the Dorsey Brothers or the singer’s own brother Bob, as opposed to bread-and-butter studio bands.

Thus even to those of us who also own The American Dance Band Discography and The Entertainment Discography, JR is essential—and it’s worth noting that Rust’s successors, those chroniclers of the modern jazz era, such as Jepsen, Lord, Raben, and Brunynckx, have followed Rust’s lead: they follow his example, for instance, in drawing attention to those albums by The Jackie Gleason Orchestra, that are of “jazz interest” (nearly all of ‘em, it turns out), the same way Rust does for Whiteman.

This is the second installment of a three-part article by Will Friedwald on jazz discography. Check back soon for part three.

June 10, 2009 · 7 comments


DVD Roundup: Rewriting the History of European Jazz

Thomas Cunniffe, an editor and regular contributor at, keeps tabs on the movies for us—jazz movies, to be more specific. He recently discussed several DVDs about Quincy Jones in this column (you can read it here) and also reviewed videos about Jackie Paris and Teddy Edwards (found here). Now he turns his attention to three other disks—about European jazz, Fred Joe Zawinul and Fred Hersch.T.G.

As a whole, the creative arts place a high value on individualism, but jazz makes it absolutely mandatory for its players to have their own voice. Why listen to a young player copying Ben Webster when you can hear a recording of the real thing? Yet finding your own voice can be a great challenge, especially if isolated from the musicians and/or the teachers.

Play Your Own Thing

One of the reasons European musicians and audiences have developed their unique appreciation for jazz is precisely because of geographic isolation. One of the films reviewed here celebrates European musicians who have found their own voices, but all three of the videos under consideration were made by European directors and they too have found unique ways to document their subjects.

Play Your Own Thing, a film by Julian Benedikt, is subtitled “A Story of Jazz in Europe.” Perhaps the subtitle is there to prevent viewers from assuming that it is the story of jazz in Europe, but regardless, Benedikt has a story to tell, and apparently, he doesn’t want the facts to get in the way. Benedikt’s storyline is: American jazzmen visit Europe / European jazzmen are enchanted and inspired by the music / Europe provides steady work for those American jazz musicians who are unable to work at home / Free jazz provides European jazzmen the opportunity to find their own voice at last.

All well and good, with plenty of musicians that follow that plotline. However, one musician wrecks havoc on this theory: Django Reinhardt. Reinhardt is widely considered to be the first European to find his own voice as a jazz musician. Benedikt tries to skirt the issue by barely mentioning Reinhardt and not including any of Reinhardt’s recordings on the soundtrack. Yet there is a segment at a Django festival where a group of gypsy youngsters play in the style of Django, and there is a pseudo-Django recording that appears in places through the film and over the final credits. There’s no real reason why Django couldn’t have been discussed as a pioneer and an isolated example. Better that than nearly ignoring him.

Django aside, Benedikt does a fair job of documenting his story. If you have not heard the music of Tomasz Stanko, Till Brönner, Louis Sclavis, Joachim Kühn, Albert Mangelsdorff, Norma Winstone and Enrico Rava, you will see and hear all of them in this film. The interviewees are mostly musicians who tell of their struggles with learning and playing this music while obstructed by the absence of role models and the presence of unsympathetic governments.

As in his film on the Blue Note label, Benedikt eschews strict chronology and uses shock cuts to steer his narrative. For example, immediately after Klaus Schulz relates the story of how Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry told Attila Zoller that he should draw from his own heritage in creating his voice, Benedikt jumps to a wild avant-garde trumpet solo by Arve Henriksen, thus moving 40 years ahead in the story! Eventually, we figure out what Benedikt has done (showing how others have found their own voice in the interim), but some of the shots used over the music make no sense at all. And could someone explain to me why 14 actors are listed in the credits to this documentary?

Joe Zawinul

Joe Zawinul appears briefly in the Benedikt film, but we learn much more about his individual approach to music in Mark Kidel’s BBC film, Joe Zawinul: A Musical Portrait. The Zawinul Syndicate, the keyboardist’s last band is featured through nearly half of this hour-long film. As with his Weather Report work, Zawinul’s music in this setting favored rhythmic and tonal density rather than harmonic sophistication. Between the main film and the bonus material, we hear the band in six different numbers, four of them complete (how many American documentaries would do that?). It is only on “Three Postcards” (performed late in the film) and on “All About Simon” (in the bonus material) that Zawinul plays straight jazz and the sparseness of the background is a shock after all of the polyrhythmic and multicultural sounds we’ve heard earlier. Zawinul is the only interviewee, and in the film’s most memorable sequence, he revisits his childhood home in Vienna and tells how, in the latter days of World War II, he narrowly escaped death when a bomb was dropped outside his apartment.

Fred Hersch

In creating her intimate documentary, Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch, German director Katja Duregger followed her subject for two years, and we can see the physical ravages on Hersch as HIV and AIDS took its toll. Late in the filming, Hersch went into a coma for several weeks and many in the jazz community feared he would succumb to his illness. Thankfully, he survived, and we can only hope that his recovery is not temporary. The documentary is actually a group of four films, a “main” documentary that discusses all the facets of Hersch’s creative and personal lives, and three shorter segments which focus on his playing, teaching and illness. Unfortunately, this bizarre separation of subjects makes the entire production disjointed, allows for unnecessary duplication of material between films, and leaves the film without a strong ending.

With some of the bonus performances included, and the various parts edited into a coherent whole, this would have been an excellent 90-minute documentary. Perhaps such a cut exists, for Duregger has submitted this film to several gay/lesbian film festivals. I can’t imagine that the film could be presented at a festival screening in the same manner as the DVD. Still, in whatever form it takes, kudos to Ms. Duregger for tackling an important subject that deserved to be shared on film.

PLAY YOUR OWN THING 89 minutes EuroArts 2055748
Directed by Julian Benedikt. With Jan Garbarek, Django Bates, Paul Kuhn, Albert Mangelsdorff, Coco Schumann, Martial Solal, Chris Barber, René Urtreger, Juliette Greco, Daniel Humair, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Palle Mikkelborg, NIels Henning Ørsted-Pedersen, Stan Tracey, Joe Zawinul, Till Brönner, Klaus Schulz, Enrico Rava, Joachim Kühn, Tomasz Stanko, Louis Sclavis, Norma Winstone, Marilyn Mazur, Manfred Eicher.

JOE ZAWINUL: A MUSICAL PORTRAIT 59 minutes (plus 16 minutes bonus) Art Haus Musik 101 819
Directed by Mark Kindel. Featuring The Zawinul Syndicate: Joe Zawinul (keyboards), Sabine Kabongo (vocals), Amit Chatterjee (guitar & vocals), Linley Marthe (electric bass), Nathaniel Townsley III (drums), Manolo Badrena (percussion).

LET YOURSELF GO: THE LIVES OF FRED HERSCH 80 minutes (plus 27 minutes bonus) Aha DVD (no catalog number)
Directed by Katja Duregger. Featuring the Fred Hersch Trio: Fred Hersch (piano), John Hebert (bass), Nasheet Waits (drums). With Scott Morgan, Hank Hersch, Michael MacDonald, Sophia Rosoff, Charles Hamlen, Norma Winstone, Christopher O’Riley.

This blog entry posted by Thomas Cunniffe.

June 09, 2009 · 1 comment


Steve Kuhn in Boston

Roanna Forman, who covers the Boston jazz scene for, reports below on a performance by an artist with strong local ties—pianist Steve Kuhn. Kuhn studied with the legendary Boston piano teacher Margaret Chaloff, and graduated from (no, not Berklee) Harvard, back in the day. He first made his mark on the local club scene, before launching a recording career now in its fifth decade. Forman discusses Kuhn’s recent appearance at Scullers. T.G.

What a difference a week makes at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston. There couldn’t have been two more different pianists than Hiromi, whom I saw there recently, and Steve Kuhn, whose trio played on June 3. Hiromi, petite, Japanese, bouncy, with an electric band, was to Kuhn—tall, American, rarely moving on a comfy pillow, and fully acoustic—as sushi is to filet mignon.

Steve Kuhn, photo by Robert Lewis

Reminiscing with his Harvard classmates in the audience and a bit incredulous that they had graduated in 1959 (the year Kind of Blue was released), Kuhn had a lot to look back on musically. He has made a lasting mark in jazz in years which have spanned post-bop, avant-garde and fusion. Yet he is distinctly original, with a poetic sensibility and intellectual bite which John Coltrane was no doubt sensed when Kuhn played with him for a time in 1960 before McCoy Tyner took the gig with Trane. (ECM will release Kuhn’s Mostly Coltrane in July, featuring Joe Lovano, with tunes from that period.)

Kuhn gave a fine performance at Scullers with David Finck on bass and Billy Drummond on drums, playing standards and two original compositions with panache and authority. They formed a cohesive, communicative and musically sophisticated unit, and the packed room heard the fruits of a lifetime commitment to high-level playing.

With sure, strong hands, Kuhn plays with a combination of virility, lyricism, and adventurous improvisation. His keyboard action is fun to watch. He will dig his pinky into the last note of a phrase, as if to lock it to the piano, or sometimes “punch” a black note in the high register with his knuckle for emphasis and finality. His tone live was more clipped and bright than I expected from his recordings. Aside from technique, Kuhn’s playing has a depth that reaches into the emotion of a song, instead of just playing on the changes, as Bob Blumenthal once aptly observed. That was clearly evident in the ballad he chose for the set, “Portrait of Jenny.”

Kuhn has chosen excellent musicians to work with. Billy Drummond’s playing steered clear of bombast, even at the high points of solos, and his brushwork was tasteful and polished on the lighter pieces. David Finck was fat or feathery by turns, depending on the song, and has command of his instrument. Finck’s solos stood out for a musicality and melodic invention that you really got lost in, notably on “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads,” where he made the bass a light thing, building new melodies and adding some lovely double-stop playing.

The well thought out set list started off swinging Miles’s “Four” (“It’s quite extraordinary that three of us can play that….”) and included “The Lamp is Low” in a two-feel. “Blue Bossa” began solo piano with dramatic voicings, then the rest of the band came in on a samba, adding a nice chromatic line to the arrangement that was punctuated by light stops. When Kuhn introduced the tune, written by Kenny Dorham, “a friend from my first days in New York,” I couldn’t helping thinking of Jimmy Heath’s offhand first-person reference to Blue Mitchell, whose “Funjii Mama” he played to close a set at this club last year). Kuhn’s solo on “Blue Bossa” went in many directions, at one point landing on a simple diatonic pattern reminiscent of a child’s etude, and later working into an overwrought parody of “Besame Mucho.”

In the Kuhn original “Two by Two,” a blues insofar as it’s a 12-bar form, each musician echoed a descending piano line, like a little laugh rippling through the trio. Introducing “Oceans in the Sky,” another Kuhn composition, David Finck created some sound effects to set up the tune. Looking over to Kuhn, he quietly added tongue-in-cheek, “Those are the seagulls…”

The mood changed as Finck bowed an introduction with elegance and pathos. Kuhn picked up the last note of the bass section, and opened up this tune that conjures storms, rumbling waves and the rolling sea. Billy Drummond began his solo sparely, and after filling it, returned to an interplay of cymbals in his own interpretation of the ebb and flow of sea and sky in this impressionistic piece.

From the forthcoming Coltrane-based CD, Kuhn chose “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” swinging it hard then slowing to a ballad feel with polyrhythms inside the swing. Kuhn’s version was lighter than Coltrane’s, with references at one point to the theme of the U.S. Air Force, which might have seeped into his unconscious during childhood in the WWII years. Yes, off we go, into the wild blue yonder, a place Steve Kuhn has reached for throughout his musical life.

This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman

June 08, 2009 · 1 comment


Trumpet Heaven

What happens when you fill up the stage with trumpeters, and put lots more in the audience? Michael J. West, a regular contributor to this column, found out on a recent visit to Harrisburg, where the Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz partnered with the International Trumpet Guild to present some hot young talents, including several artists recently featured in Downbeat's article on "25 Trumpet Players for the Future." T.G.

This year, the Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz (CPFJ) festival was held in conjunction with the International Trumpet Guild’s 2009 conference—at and around the Hilton Hotel in Harrisburg’s vibrant but slightly quaint downtown. Not surprisingly, the events were mostly centered around trumpets. But if the instruments lacked variety, there was still no lack of eclecticism: Multiple jazz trumpeters meant an exposition of just how many different ways the trumpet can be played… and the end result was fantastic.

The festival lasted four days, but the second day was the zenith, beginning with the ITG’s “Young Guns” concert in the hotel ballroom. Primarily a showcase for the winner of 2009’s ITG Trumpet Competition, it also put him on the same bill with a sotto voce rhythm section and three of jazz’s hottest trumpeters under 35: Philip Dizack, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Jeremy Pelt.

              Trumpeter (artwork by Suzanne Cerny)

After a one-song prelude by Argentinian horn player Roberto “Fats” Fernandez (a lyrical, classically cadenced tune that sounded like “Prelude to a Kiss”), the contest winner took the stage. Nick Frenay just finished high school in Syracuse, but he’s already an adventurous player. Dark and subtle—reminiscent of a flugelhorn, in fact—his style thoroughly subverted Clare Fischer’s “Pensativa,” turning conventional phrases and harmonic devices inside out (though it helped that pianist Kirk Reese relied entirely on stock phrasing). Benny Golson’s “Stablemates” intensified the approach, with a slightly brighter tone and tautness on the changes, and more imaginative work from Reese.

If anything, Frenay was a bit too determined to be different; if playing a solo construction that would typically be capped by a high note, for example, he would go for the low note instead. But that’s to be expected from an 18-year-old musician. This kid is one to watch.

Philip Dizack, 24 (third-place winner at ITG 2004), naturally had a bit more maturity in his playing. On his lovely interpretation of “Here’s That Rainy Day,” Dizack took the Miles Davis tack: dry, carefully spaced, and with minimal vibrato. But “Invitation” sounded nothing like Miles. Dizack imbued it with dynamic energy and a smoky sweetness like red wine. He took the changes fast and in wide veers, pausing only for a uniquely textured drum solo from Jeff Stabley. His ideas were plentiful—and plenty interesting.

Ambrose Akinmusire was something else again. His “What’s New” was soft-voiced, carefully articulated, and unfalteringly beautiful, the sound of a lover whispering in the dark. It was augmented by a tidal solo from Reese (who quoted “The Impossible Dream”) and bassist Steve Meashey, with Akinmusire punctuating the latter; this writer was moved nearly to tears. Almost as good was “It Could Happen to You,” marred only by a flat blat from Akinmusire at the beginning. He was also rather more strident, with faster runs and leaping high notes, but never sacrificing the prettiness of his tone.

Then, at last, came the power player—Jeremy Pelt. Opening with “Woody ‘N You,” he swung so fiendishly that he barely needed the rhythm section; bebop line after brilliant bebop line poured out of his horn with a cocky but thoroughly deserved swagger. Then, after a quick Dizzy Gillespie redux (not on the horn: he announced he was introducing the band, then shook their hands), Pelt launched Jimmy Rowles’ “502 Blues” on flugelhorn. After his blazing force on “Woody ‘N You,” he startled with his easy transition to thoughtful subtlety. But of course, the chops came in too, with quick-fingered legato statements that only reinforced the glumness of the blues.

But the big finish was yet to come: Emcee Terrell Stafford invited all five (including Fernandez) trumpeters to take the stage for one piece. . . and some disarray. “They’re gonna play rhythm changes,” he announced with amusement. “So we’ll start there, and whatever tune comes out, comes out.” What came out was “The Theme,” riffy and staccato—a bop march. Pelt soloed first, carefree and ambling on his flugelhorn, with just a hint of blues feeling; Fernandez followed, deliberately paced as if in time to Alvin Ailey choreography. Akinmusire again changed the course: he was composed, restrained, pensive, and gorgeous. Frenay picked up on that moody vibe, with a hazy, enigmatic solo that remained insistently different. The closer, Dizack, brought the polished virtuosity back, almost casually pulling every trick in the book in one brief solo, then back to the head.

“Young Guns” was hardly the headline event of the day, let alone the festival; Pelt and Nicholas Payton each played concerts with their own bands later in the evening. But this was easily the most absorbing and insightful performance, a glimpse at the coming generation of trumpet players in all its synergy and diversity. Most festivals are about the state of the music as it is; this one offered a preview, however short, of where jazz is going.

This blog entry posted by Michael J. West

June 07, 2009 · 1 comment


How I Learned I Was a Jazz Fan

People sometimes ask me how I became interested in jazz. In my case, there was an electrifying moment of discovery at a jazz club—literally a few seconds of listening that changed my life—but I am savvy enough to realize that there must have been a series of events leading up to that experience.

What brought me to a jazz club in the first place? What spurred me to seek out this music that was under the radar screens of mainstream culture, and not a part of the life of my friends and classmates?

A chance event at the local public library (see photo) may have been the turning-point. I stumbled by luck on a pile of issues of Downbeat magazine, and began paging through them. I puzzled over the names in the "Readers Poll" (almost all of them unfamiliar to me); I read the reviews and interviews; I imbibed the compact wisdom of the "blindfold tests."

                City of Hawthorne Public Library at the
                       Time of the Blogger's Childhood

The concept of jazz appealed to me before I knew much about the music. I was a devoted—indeed, almost obsessed—piano student back then, and spent hours every day at the keyboard. Yet I felt a certain hollowness in my musical tastes. I found rock music viscerally exciting, but was turned off by its lack of complexity. Classical music, in contrast, fascinated me because of its intricacy—it offered intellectual sustenance—but lacked immediacy and energy. I dimly realized that there was this other type of music, called jazz, that promised a combination of both. This suspicion fueled my devouring of the public library's stack of jazz magazines.

These magazines spurred me to the key next steps. I began checking out the jazz records in the library's collection—probably forty or so LPs—and every jazz book on its shelves. Finally the grand moment arrived when I decided to cross the great divide . . . and go to a jazz club. I enlisted a friend to join me for moral support—and set a date to see one of the bands whose name I had encountered in Downbeat.


Many of these clubs refused to let minors on to their premises. I remember Howard Rumsey was booking name bands at his "Concerts by the Sea" club in Redondo Beach, but he vigilantly guarded the door against people just like me. A teenager would have had an easier time buying an automatic weapon from a passerby than getting inside his club. I would hang out by the front entrance and imagine what wonderful things might be happening inside. (One night, escorting a woman to the door, Rumsey could be heard exclaiming: "Listen lady, I've been in this business for decades, and I know drunk when I see it.") To this day, I have no idea what the inside of that club looked like.

I was fortunate that other clubs had more tolerant policies. In particular, the Lighthouse in nearby Hermosa Beach (Mr. Rumsey's old home base, where he had led the house band for many years), was still promoting jazz back then, and they allowed minors to attend.

"Minors are always cool at the Lighthouse," was a recurring tagline on their radio ads. (Younger fans may find this hard to believe, but there were once commercial jazz radio stations—not just non-profit and college stations—and clubs advertised regularly on the airwaves.) And the way the ad copy was delivered, in a deep-sexy-Barry-White kind of voice, made me realize what a great privilege it was to be a minor and gain entrance to this citadel of jazz. I decided I would go to the Lighthouse, and—in an attempt to live up to their radio slogan—try to be as cool as possible.

I remember that first evening vividly even now. I stayed for all three sets. But the key moment happened within the first fifteen seconds of music-making. When I heard the rhythm section leap out of the starting gate with such fire, yet also such precision . . . I was transformed. I would love to see a video clip of my facial expression during the first moments of the first song of the first set. I knew at that instant, that I had discovered something that had changed me. It would be ridiculous to claim that I could tell then that I would make jazz records and write jazz books and spend much of my life immersed in this music. Yet it would also be wrong to deny that I had some hunch, even then, that my life would go down a different path because of my decision to walk inside a jazz club that evening.

To this day, one of my core beliefs is that music has a force of enchantment. Music is, in a very real sense, magical and transformative. Those who are familiar with my books Healing Songs and Work Songs know that I often speak of music as a "change agent." This is not an abstract idea in my head, but a conviction based on personal experience.

One of my gripes about so many jazz educational efforts (and the Ken Burns documentary in particular) is that they don't nurture this sense of enchantment. When you treat jazz as a "historical sociological phenomenon," don't be surprised when people don't go to the jazz clubs. No one goes to a jazz club for a sociology lesson—or if they do, they only go once.

But the magic of the music is very real. Even today, in the degraded state of the industry, the magic exists, and is only slightly tarnished by all the efforts to treat music as just another consumer product. "They lost confidence in the product," was the astute recent diagnosis of the record business's collapse by a insider. Ah, but the problem started when they began looking it as a "product" in the first place. Mr. Music Mogul, are you selling a physical consumer good, a compact disk manufactured out of polycarbonate, or are you dealing in transformative metaphysical experiences disseminated in sounds and feelings?

As Geoff Dyer has smartly pointed out, painters and gallery owners talk about the "art world," while record label execs call their field the "music business." Jazz world or jazz business, you choose? Record companies went down the business path long ago, and at some point most of them forgot about the magic.

All jazz fans have a "gateway experience" of the sort I described—a pivotal moment when they first felt the magic of the music. The jazz world needs to spend less time arguing with itself and put more thought and energy into expanding these gateways and building new ones. For some fans, the gateway to jazz is a song heard on the radio. But what happens when the radio stations stop playing jazz? For others, it is moment in school. But what happens when the schools eliminate their music programs? For still others, it is an experience at a festival. But what happens when the festivals shut down, or fill their stages with non-jazz acts?

For me, the gateway to jazz was through the pages of a magazine. When I hear that one of the leading jazz magazines may disappear—as is the prevailing rumor this week—I worry about how many gateways will still be standing when the next generation of potential fans arrive on the scene. I am sure that there are millions of people who have the same hunger for something magical in music that brought me to jazz, a desire for soundscapes that can be both intellectually satisfying and emotionally invigorating. Jazz could be part of their enchantment, as it was a key part of mine. But if all the gateways are closed, they may never realize it.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

June 05, 2009 · 13 comments


Born on the 4th of June

In this country, you get bragging rights if you were born on the Fourth of July—not to mention a holiday to go along with your gifts every year. Louis Armstrong even celebrated his birthday on Independence Day, although he was actually born on the Fourth of August. But what about the Fourth of June? The Yankee Doodle boy might be unimpressed, but it turns out that the middle of Gemini has some serious jazz mojo going for it. At least Chris Kelsey hopes to convince us of that below. T.G.

I was born on the 5th of June, 1961—not a bad day for sax players, apparently, given that the wonderful Canadian altoist Francois Carrier also debuted that day. A day earlier would've been even better. A trio of great jazz saxophonists—Oliver Nelson, Mark Whitecage, and Anthony Braxton—share a June 4th birthday. Is it a mere coincidence that the three happen to be among my favorite alto saxophonists not named Eric Dolphy—who was, like them, also a Gemini? I'm a natural skeptic, but this is enough to make me consider there might be something to this astrology thing.

The Blues and the Abstract Truth

The late Oliver Nelson is the first-born of our sax-playing triplets. Nelson is best-known for his classic album, The Blues and the Abstract Truth, but he had a varied and distinguished career before and after. Nelson was born in 1932 to a musical family. He played professionally around his hometown of St. Louis in the '40s before landing a gig with Louis Jordan's big band in 1950 and moving to New York. He stayed in the Apple for a year with Jordan's band, after which he joined the Marines. Upon his discharge from the service, he returned to St. Louis and attended Washington University, where he studied composition and music theory. He got his bachelor's degree from Washington in 1957. A year later he received his Master's from Lincoln University.

After college, Nelson moved back to New York, where his career took off. He played in the bands of Erskine Hawkins and Wild Bill Davison, and worked as house arranger for the Apollo Theater. He made his first record as a leader—Meet Oliver Nelson—in 1959, and in 1960 recorded a spate of albums for Prestige that went far in establishing him as an original voice on the saxophone, as well as a major new compositional talent. He recorded the seminal The Blues and the Abstract Truth in 1961 and a follow-up, More Blues and the Abstract Truth in 1964, both for Impulse. He continued to record as a leader for Prestige, and his talents as an arranger were called upon by such eminences as Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson, Herbie Mann, King Curtis, Billy Taylor, and many more.

As his career progressed, Nelson played less, and composed and arranged more. He would eventually turn to writing for movies and television more or less full time. Gigs included such films as the Billie Holiday bio-pic, Lady Sings the Blues, the controversial Marlon Brando vehicle, Last Tango in Paris, and such TV shows as The Six-Million Dollar Man and Columbo. His activities activity as a jazz musician waned but did not cease. He continued to make an occasional jazz album. One of them—Stolen Moments, for the defunct Inner City label—masterfully reworked his most famous composition, along with themes by Neil Hefti, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. It was recorded only a few months before he suffered a fatal heart attack on October 28, 1975. He was only 43 at the time of his death.

Nelson's music was always suffused with a blues essence, even while incorporating dense, dissonant harmonies. That fealty to the blues and his markedly distinctive style—both as an improviser and a composer/arranger—went far in making his music special. As a tenor and alto saxophonist, Nelson had no apparent ego. He had a strong, bop-based technique, yet some of his most memorable statements—like his iconic tenor solo on the original "Stolen Moments"—were slow and considered, unflashy in the extreme. Nelson used Eric Dolphy on several of his small-group albums, undoubtedly valuing the mercurial outward-bound woodwind artist's style as a contrast to his own innate laconicism.

The Blues and the Abstract Truth shows that his ability to choose complementary players extended to the rest of the band, as well. Combining mildly disparate improvisers (in addition to Nelson and Dolphy, pianist Bill Evans, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Roy Haynes, and, in a minor supporting role, baritone saxophonist George Barrow) created a unique chemistry that contributed mightily to the music's success. Ultimately, Nelson's selflessness—a devotion to making his individual contributions serve an overarching vision, often his own but not infrequently someone else's—made him a great artist.

A relationship with Eric Dolphy also figured in the musical life of alto saxophonist Mark Whitecage. Their paths crossed in the mid '50s in El Paso, Texas, where Whitecage was stationed while in the Army. Meeting and hearing Dolphy inspired Whitecage to go beyond bebop and find his own creative voice. In his online biography, Whitecage recalls first enountering Dolphy: "One note and I was gone. I was in his camp. He turned me on to Zen Buddhism. He was into meditating. He got me on the right course between him and John Coltrane."

Mark Whitecage was born in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1937. As with Nelson, music ran in Whitecage's family. His father was a pianist, and by age six, Whitecage was playing alto sax in the family band. He spent his teen years playing in dance bands around his home state, adding tenor sax and clarinet to his arsenal along the way. He joined the Army in '55, had his Dolphy revelation, and returned to Connecticut. He continued developing his own conception of improvisation with local musicians, one of whom was the bassist Mario Pavone. He made his first recordings in the mid-to-late '60s with the vibist Bobby Naughton. He spent much of that decade traveling into New York and connecting with like-minded musicians like the drummer Laurence Cook and clarinetist Perry Robinson.

Whitecage eventually moved to New York where, among other things, he experimented with electronics and participated in the burgeoning loft jazz scene. Robinson introduced him to the multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel, in whose Galaxie Dream Band he played for a ten-year period during the '70s and '80s. He kept up an active free lance life, playing in a variety of contexts, including Robinson's clarinet-centric ensemble The Licorice Factory—a band that over the years also included such stylistically dissimilar clarinetists as Tony Scott, Eddie Daniels, and Kenny Davern. During the '80s, Whitecage also began building sound sculptures and started a group, the Glass House Ensemble, to realize that music.

Whitecage's recording career developed a full head of steam in the '90s. He recorded as a leader for the CIMP and Cadence Jazz labels, as well as his own Acoustics imprint. Collaborators included Anthony Braxton, bassist Dominic Duval, drummer Jay Rosen, trumpeters Dave Douglas and Herb Robertson, among many others. Since 2000 he's worked with The Nu Band, a cooperative group with the trumpeter Roy Campbell, bassist Joe Fonda, and drummer Lou Grassi. He's also worked closely with his clarinetist/photographer wife, Rozanne Levine, playing in her group Chakra Tuning, as well as The New Reed Quartet, which besides Whitecage and Levine also includes Perry Robinson and Matt Snyder.

Whitecage's skill at successfully negotiating the intersection of straight-ahead and free jazz is one on his greatest strengths. He moves comfortably along a stylistic continuum that ranges from nearly traditional bop-based music to an Ayler-esque pan-tonal expressionism. The Nu Band's latest CD—The Lower East Side Blues (Porter Records)—showcases as well as any of his recordings his ability to synthesize the conventional and unconventional. On "Connecticut Solution," Whitecage solos freely over a Latin groove, grabbing certain elements of the beat and shaking them for emphasis, then casting the pulse aside and filling the space with unfettered abandon. The opening section of "In a Whitecage/The Path" features him on clarinet. Whitecage renders the outré free-time ballad with a tenderness that grows into something more impassioned, whereupon he picks up the alto his turns up the heat in earnest. On the aptly-named "The Last of the Beboppers", Whitecage on alto plays down the intricate head, then segues into a soulful freebop solo—ample evidence that Whitecage bows to no contemporary saxophonist when it comes to flat-out swinging.

Whitecage is the least well-known of our birthday boys, yet in a way he demonstrates the breadth of the jazz tradition better than any of them—"From Ragtime to No Time," to quote the title of an album by the late drummer Beaver Harris. While Whitecage doesn't quite go that far back, he does take the best aspects of every strain of modern jazz to create music of depth and originality. That he's managed to fly under the jazz industry radar for so long doesn't speak well of the movers and shakers.

Anthony Braxton is the rare avant-garde jazz musician who actually got the attention of the industry bigs, if only for a moment. Braxton had a certain oddball charisma; he smoked a pipe, played chess, and in general fostered a certain non-conformist, Einstein-ian persona. His music reflected a similar intellectual/revolutionary bent. In the '70s, the Arista label—at the time, home to such pop acts as Barry Manilow and The Bay City Rollers—signed the idiosyncratic saxophonist/composer and released a series of ambitious albums that were wildly non-commercial, even by jazz standards. Unfortunately, the cash brought in by Manilow and his ilk could apparently support such esoteric product as Braxton's for only so long. Arista ultimately resigned its position as keeper of a public trust and cut ties with Braxton, yet not before he was able to create an astonishingly rich body of work for the label. A boxed set comprising Braxton's entire Arista output was released by Mosaic in 2008.

Born (in 1945) and raised in Chicago, Braxton first started playing music as a teenager. He developed an interest in all kinds of music, even singing in a doo wop group. Influenced by the likes of Paul Desmond, John Coltrane, Warne Marsh, and—yes—Eric Dolphy, he took up the alto sax and began playing jazz. His analytical proclivity drew him to the music of Cecil Taylor, whose music he studied closely. He attended the Chicago School of Music from 1959-63, and from '63 studied philosophy and composition at Roosevelt University. At Roosevelt he met like-minded young experimentalists like Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman. After a stint in the Army (where he played sax in a service band), he returned to Chicago in 1966 and joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which was just then getting off the ground.

The remainder of the '60s saw Braxton involved in a plethora of projects, perhaps most notably the Creative Construction Company, a trio with violinist Leroy Jenkins and trumpeter Leo Smith. He also recorded For Alto for the Delmark label, the first-ever recording for solo saxophone. Braxton lived in Paris for a time, where he performed in a quartet that became known as Circle, with pianist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Barry Altschul. The next decade was particularly fruitful; the Arista connection allowed Braxton wide creative latitude, and he took full advantage, recording solos, duos, trios, quartets and large ensembles with many of his cohorts from the AACM: reedists Mitchell and Jarman, trombonist George Lewis, and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, among them.

By the '80s, Braxton had lost his major label deal, but nevertheless continued to record and produce innovative music at an astounding rate for labels such as Leo, hatART, Black Saint, and many others. He taught at Mills College in California in the '80s, and later Wesleyan College in Connecticut. In 1994 he was awarded the coveted MacArthur Fellowship, which allowed him to document some of his large-scale projects. Many of those recordings feature his present-and-former students at Wesleyan, where he teaches to this day.

In recent years Braxton's horn playing has often taken a back seat to his composition. Those of us who treasure his quirky and highly individualistic personality as saxophonist are often inclined to look back on his '70s and '80s output, an era when his music was typically more jazz-derived. One of the best examples of Braxton as an out-and-out jazz player (albeit one most comfortable operating way outside the mainstream) can be heard on the album Six Compositions: Quartet on the Antilles label, recorded in 1981. Joined by superb inside/outside rhythm section consisting of pianist Anthony Davis, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Ed Blackwell, the album is a masterpiece of small ensemble free jazz. His "Composition No. 40B" that leads off the album presents Braxton in the best light as a jazz saxophonist. The tune alternates rather conventional, riff-ish Latin-flavored melodies with an implausibly complex free bop head—the latter consisting of extraordinarily wide intervallic leaps, taken at a very quick tempo. Braxton negotiates the twisted line with his usual rough-hewn authority, before embarking on a blistering bop-but-not-bop solo, full of surprising turns and imbued with a wealth of passion. The latter quality is often overlooked by critics in describing Braxton, yet it's a defining characteristic of his playing. Braxton's sax playing has never been dry and academic; rather, he's unsurpassed at combining arcane thought with visceral feeling.

Indeed, an ability to unite the head and heart is a quality shared by all three of our June 4th'ers. Like Dolphy—who played a role in each of their developments—Nelson, Whitecage, and Braxton have created music that appeals to the most rarified elements of human experience. Their respective music is sometimes vastly different in content, yet remarkably similar in net effect. That's intriguing, at the very least, if not empirical proof that astrology "works." You probably won't see me rushing out to get my horoscope done any time soon, but I'm less liable than ever to dismiss the prospect. It's funny how great art has a way of breaking down one's resistance to acknowledging that, indeed, anything is possible.

This blog entry was written by Chris Kelsey.

June 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Who Cares About Old Jazz?

Ethan Iverson has spurred an interesting web debate on how well younger musicians know the jazz tradition. He recently chided participants in a piano master class, when none of them were familiar with James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout."

              James P. Johnson (artwork by Suzanne Cerny)

Chris Donnelly, one of the pianists involved in the master class, offers his defense here—insisting that nobody is talking about James P. Johnson these days. Blame the broader culture and the jazz community, not the young musicians.

Hand it to Chris, he not only published his defense and rebuttal to Iverson on the web, but even submitted it in Iverson's recent "write a jazz blog" competition. Ethan counters with a spirited defense of "Carolina Shout." Not wanting to miss out on a good fight, Peter Hum jumped into the battle with his own commentary. He writes: "I don't see demonstrating one's ability to play James P. Johnson or stride in general as required proof of a true relationship with the jazz piano tradition."

Iverson is not convinced. He denies "that James P. Johnson's name is that obscure. I've found his name to be inescapable." He goes on to cite chapter and verse, defending Johnson's importance.

I have to side with Iverson on this matter, yet I also note that the contemporary culture does not make much room for people like James P. Johnson. Serious jazz pianists, of any generation, should know this music, but I am not surprised that they don't.

I recently tried to find my CD of James P. Johnson's concert music (he wrote a number of extended works of quasi-classical proportions), and failed to locate it in the maze of compact disks and books that passes for my home; when I went to the web to order a new copy I learned it was out of print. This was really the only decent collection of Johnson's concert works, and it was sobering to learn that it was out of stock and only available from specialty dealers. What hypocrisy, when our nation celebrates "Black Music Month" (which started on Monday, by the way), yet no one cares to keep the music in print! Can you spell L-I-P S-E-R-V-I-C-E?

But "Carolina Shout" is a different matter entirely. It is easy to find, and exerted much more influence on jazz than any of Johnson's concert works. This particular piece was the composition every stride piano player needed to learn (almost as a rite of passage) back in the days of Harlem rent parties. In a way, it was the jazz studies program before there were jazz studies programs. Thus, there is more than a little irony involved when jazz piano students today don't know about it.

If a player only plans to learn one stride piano piece, this would be the one. By the same token, if you don't know "Carolina Shout," it suggests that you don't have any real conception of piano jazz before bebop, because it would be hard not to run into this song during even the most cursory exploration of pre-WWII jazz keyboard music. Duke learned "Carolina Shout." Monk learned "Carolina Shout." Jarrett learned "Carolina Shout" (and played it as an encore at his recent Carnegie Hall concert).

Yet I would suggest that the ignorance of James P. Johnson among younger musicians is a symptom of a larger problem (which I outlined in a recent column): namely that jazz fans these days don't want to listen to recordings made before the advent of high fidelity sound. If the CD was recorded in 1957 or after, they will check it out. But anything earlier . . . forget it!

In a world that pays more attention to the recording quality than the quality of the music, we lose James P. Johnson, "Carolina Shout," and a lot else.

P.S. For a good introduction to stride piano, check out Ethan Iverson's "guest" dozens on the subject here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

June 03, 2009 · 8 comments


RSS Feed for Now Available

A number of site visitors have requested a RSS feed for I am happy to announce that it is now available here. This will allow jazz fans to follow what we publish with a few clicks of the mouse.

Let me also remind Facebook members that has a group on Facebook. It can be found here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

June 03, 2009 · 0 comments


The Strange Case of Nat King Cole

It is simply not true that Alan Kurtz listens to recordings just to count the mistakes. But we can't deny that he is's resident curmudgeon, as this list of his contributions to this column will make clear.

Below Mr. Kurtz casts a wary eye at the trade-offs an artist faces when trying to balance the dictates of pop stardom with the requirements of a jazz career. In this instance he sets his sights on one of the great crossover success stories of the modern in era. Gather around the fireplace as he recounts the strange case of Nat King Cole. T.G.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Robert Louis Stevenson's gothic tale of good versus evil, pits a proper Victorian gentleman against his own tempting sensuality. The virtuous Dr. Jekyll juggles dual identities, reassuring himself that "the moment I choose, I can be rid of Mr. Hyde," the depraved incarnation through which Jekyll indulges forbidden pleasures. Even his alter ego's name is carefully calculated: compelled to conceal one's thrill seeking, what better alias than Hyde?

Nat King Cole

Yet as his excesses grow, Jekyll's control weakens. "I was slowly losing hold of my original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated with my second and worse. Between these two, I now felt I had to choose." For Jekyll to renounce Hyde would mean denying "those appetites which I had long secretly indulged and had of late begun to pamper." But forever succumbing to those appetites would require forsaking all respectability. While preferring "the better part" of himself, Jekyll is hostage to his own desires and can regain control only by annihilating Hyde. In so doing, he destroys himself.

Oddly, there is a jazz counterpart to this venerable morality play. In the 1940s, singer/pianist Nat King Cole was similarly conflicted. On the one hand, whether leading his incomparable King Cole Trio in such jive classics as "Straighten Up and Fly Right" (1943), "The Frim Fram Sauce" (1945) and "Route 66" (1946), or showcasing his superb instrumental skills on Jazz at the Philharmonic's "Blues" (1944) and Lester Young's "I've Found a New Baby" (1946), Nat King Cole was vocally and instrumentally the Minister of Protocool.

On the other hand, he was also a budding superstar, scoring huge pop hits with "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons" (a Billboard Top 40 single for two years running in 1946 47) and "Nature Boy" (one of 1948's Top 20).

So there seemed to be two Nat King Coles. As an urbane jazz pianist, his artistic potential was unlimited. As a handsome, suave balladeer with the century's most rapturously insinuating voice, his commercial potential was boundless.

Certainly you don't play jazz the way he did without a deep love for the music. Yet when seated at the piano, Nat the vocalist twisted to an uncomfortable 45º angle so as to politely present more of himself to the audience. Although he somehow managed to play topnotch piano from this contorted position, in swiveling towards the audience Nat symbolically turned away from jazz. It was less a matter of posture than of divided attention. Like Dr. Jekyll, Nat lost hold of his better self, growing ever more consumed by pop stardom.

Beginning in 1950, his records were no longer credited to the King Cole Trio, but solely to Nat King Cole. That year his "Mona Lisa" was #2 on the pop charts, and in 1951 "Too Young" topped even that, finishing as the year's best-selling single. Since the King Cole Trio had by now been dissolved, to flesh out these recordings Olde King Cole called for his fiddlers three. Alack, the musicians' guilde inflated the decree, so Nat was backed by extra fiddles and harp. Even his original laid-back trio version of "The Christmas Song" (1946) was repackaged with strings, transforming cool yule to lukewarm humbug.

We'll never know to what extent Nat King Cole may have tried, like Dr. Jekyll, to resist his baser instincts. But during the 1950s, he rarely dabbled in jazz, detouring instead down Route 666 to material success. He acted in Hollywood movies, hosted his own network-TV variety series, played the big rooms in Las Vegas, and churned out a veritable one-man hit parade. Year after year, week in and week out, Nat King Cole had at least one record on the pop charts, and often two or three. Among his generation's singers, only Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin equaled his multimedia success. And excepting Doris Day, Cole was arguably the squarest of the bunch.

Still, during his reign of the 1940s, he was Nat King Cool, and to the monarch we must pay tribute. Jazz diehards can but wistfully wonder what might've been if Dr. Jekyll had withstood Mr. Hyde.

This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.

June 02, 2009 · 3 comments


The King of Swing at 100

Don't be fooled by the lower case name. Everything else about arnold jay smith deserves to be in all caps and boldface. Our correspondent normally covers the OctoJAZZarian beat at, an exclusive club which requires eight decades of service from a jazzista before membership is granted. But smith remembers the birthdays even when the artist has departed. Below he looks back at Benny Goodman, and some recent tributes to the clarinetist, on the occasion of the King of Swing's hundredth birthday. T.G.

He was an icon of his age. He made the clarinet the sound of the era he helped create. He may have brought the instrument back from New Orleans obscurity. Benny Goodman made Swing the soundtrack of lives at home and abroad during WWII, perhaps beyond if you count the background loudspeakers on M.A.S.H., which took place during the Korean conflict (sic.)

 Benny Goodman

Goodman and the others hired singers who encouraged bobbysoxers to scream, who spurred Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, et al, on to solo careers. Goodman promulgated the dance craze called the lindyhop, began the small groups which foretold bebop, could sing a chorus or three, played the blues and he was at home in all forms of music from New Orleans—he played with Louis Armstrong—to Broadway—he was in the pits with Ben Pollack. Goodman even tried his hand at bebop and cool recording with Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Mel Powell, Andre Previn and Shelly Manne; won polls and played with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

He had that perfect embouchure which most clarinetists search for. Said chops made him a natural for European and American classical and contemporary music. Donning the guise of Maestro Benjamin David Goodman he played the music of Weber, Mozart, Copland and Bernstein at home, on recordings and in concerts. The Goodman Archives, under former curate saxophonist/pianist Loren Schoenberg, reside at Yale University. Some of the homegrown chamber works have been released on MusicMaster.

Speaking of a home game it was Goodman’s daughter Rachel who found the acetates of the now-legendary 1938 Carnegie Hall concert in a closet—which were subsequently commercially release in 1950. And sell to this day.

Along with the genius of John Hammond, the entrepreneur, manager, promoter, and finally brother-in-law to Benny, jazz, perhaps all music, Carnegie, bands, orchestras became racially integrated with the hiring of Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson. On one memorable day Hammond produced the last session of Bessie Smith and the first of Holiday, on both of which Goodman played.

There are scores of “war stories” of Goodman on the bus, in the studio, of the so-called “ray,” that withering stare that was interpreted to connote displeasure from the leader, or his penuriousness, the irascibility, which preceded and followed him. But here we are celebrating the centenary of his birth and the celebrants are making light of fealty as well we should and reveling in his many accomplishments.

Columbia University’s radio station, WKCR, had been on a marathon through May concluding into early June playing nothing but BG 24/7. Yes, there are repeats as each student deejay brings his or her faves not necessarily consulting the others. Truth be told Goodman re-recorded many of his popular items over and over again. Each time he changed recording companies he repeated those same titles.

Newark’s NPR outlet, WBGO, has been sending out a series of broad- and webcasts on the subject, including a masterful interview of Schoenberg by Josh Jackson, another of Paquito D’Rivera, who credits the Goodman sound for his own clarinet artistry, by Gary Walker, and a live in-studio concert by D’Rivera and an all-star band of BG alums: John Bunch, piano, James Chirillo, guitar, Bill Crow, bass, Dave Samuels, vibes and Ron Vincent, drums. At the outset D’Rivera quipped that they all were in one form, or other, “Benny Goodman survivors.” Prior to their selection choice each gave a Goodman vignette. In the end there was great respect shone to this groundbreaking musician.

Although there were many tributes to the Chicago-born clarinetist, lighting the most candles was the Jazz at Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in a diverse program emphasizing the brilliant musicality of the man born into poverty who rose to become King of Swing.

Under the direction of Bob Wilber, the JALCJO performed Goodman-associated music for three nights, May 28-30 (BG’s actual birth date). These crack musicians read the charts down, but often some things were missing. Perhaps that Harry James and Ziggy Elman weren’t driving the trumpet section. Perhaps that Dan Nimmer was more Erroll Garner than Teddy Wilson. While Ali Jackson’s rhythm was more in-time, the raw exuberance of, say, Gene Krupa was sorely missed. The history as read by vocalist Joanne “Pug” Horton (Mrs. Wilber) brought it all back to us: the fateful last stop at the Palomar Ballroom of a failing tour when Benny sensing disaster said, “The hell with it; let’s play ‘King Porter’” thus beginning the Swing Era, and this concert. Benny said that the roar of the teens crowding the stage was the sweetest sound he had ever heard.

About Ms. Horton’s vocals, simply put, she did not do justice to the truly historic thrushes that traveled and recorded with the Goodman bands. The range and imagination were absent.

And this Porter Stomp didn’t swing as hard either. Another Fletcher Henderson chart, “Down South Camp Meetin’,” was better. In direct contrast. the penultimate of the first half big band instrumentals, Fats Waller’s “Stealin’ Apples,” swung like mad. These cats can read the proverbial fly shit and it just ignited. They seemed to want to play extra hard for the King this night.

At 81 Wilber showed his lic stick chops to be in good working order on the first of the small groups. The Trio, originally Goodman, Wilson and Krupa, was Wilber, Nimmer and Jackson here. The tempo was the same 4/4 but Krupa’s had more bite. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that these should be faithful reproductions; God knows any high school band can do that. It’s just that the spirit seemed to drag a bit more than the other recreations I have heard over the years.

Wilber’s chalumeau style contrasted with Buddy DeFranco’s more strident attack. DeFranco (86), who brought the difficult-to-get-around instrument to bop, led a BG Sextet-style group. With the added support of Chirillo they got more of a feeling of the lightness and blues-y attitude Charlie Christian brought to Goodman. One night, Hammond hid Christian in the back of the band. When Benny, who didn’t want any electric instruments in his bands, heard Christian he never looked back (no pun intended).

“Sing, Sing, Sing,” although done to death, remains a finale piece, not a first half closer. It seemed perfunctorily read through here saved by the solos of trumpeters Marcus Printup and Sean Jones, and Vincent Gardner on trombone. The drama of Jess Stacy’s impromptu piano solo was nowhere to be heard.

The second half was so artistically creative that it appeared to be another concert entirely. Wilber brought out his re-arrangements of some Sex(p)tet things for four clarinets, adding Ken Peplowski, Ted Nash and Victor Goines to the mix. Alas, the tunes remained unchallenging considering what was available to them including classical reworkings; and think of those Christian-led jams with Count Basie, Cootie Williams and Georgie Auld. The bright moments were when the clarinets in tandem played Goodman’s solos on “Rachel’s Dream.” The highlight of all the small groups was vibraharpist Warren Wolf whose facility and musical knowledge shone through at every turn. Watch for him to challenge leadership in the polls.

More challenging were the band’s reading of the difficult Eddie Sauter and Dr. Mel Powell charts for a later Goodman band. Pulitzer winner (classical) Powell played the piano for Goodman sounding very much like his predecessor, Wilson. Of particular interest was Peplowski’s nailing Sauter’s “Clarinet A La King.” Powell’s “Mission To Moscow” is even more fun if you know the backstory of the turmoil that accompanied that tour. Check out the Phil Woods version, if you can find it (Colpix).

For me the contrasting clarinet styles were the highlight. All three—Wilber, DeFranco and Peplowski—have led, or lead, Goodman ensembles. Wilber comes from Bechet, having been his student; DeFranco from bebop, although he led a Glenn Miller Band; and Peps remains solidly in the Swing tradition. I wandered backstage afterwards and asked Wilber and DeFranco how they felt about that. Wilber was all praise for the JALCJO. DeFranco was right on point. “Benny Goodman was my hero,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I want to play a tribute to him?”

This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith

June 01, 2009 · 2 comments