Friday, September 11, 2009

Chicago Jazz Festival

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent last weekend in Chicago soaking in some outdoor jazz. The festival was pleasant, well-attended and the music was enjoyable. I won't give any extensive reviews here--I'll leave that to someone else--but I do want to mention my favorite set of the weekend. That was Archie Shepp's.

Archie Shepp plays with an incredible pathos that is most definitely the product of years of total immersion as a musician, educator and activist. He is one of these former radicals who has seemingly turned inward in his old age. Specifically, he played a version of Steam completely lacking the despair and seething anger that pervaded the original version on Attica Blues. Attica Blues itself is actually a remarkably reflective and subdued album, given that it's inspiration was the Attica Prison riot. Still, it feels to me like a sort of collective reflection, still a purposeful and forceful record. The Chicago Steam, on the other hand, was very much personal, introspective, and despite the subject matter (Shepp's murdered cousin), somehow nostalgic.

In a way, it makes me think that those troubled times in the 60s and early 70s were somehow the good old days for guys like Shepp, because at least there was a genuine feeling that things could change. Jazz at that time, whether it was Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, Trane, Max Roach, Mingus, Miles, exuded a certain rage, and an implied, if not direct, call to arms. Some of those guys who are still around, Shepp among them, now play a wistful, almost dreamlike music whose power is not of this moment, but derived from another time. It's a beautiful and sometimes sad music, powerful in its implicit lament of what could have been.

Archie oozed that feeling with Duke's Don't Get Around Much Anymore, which he sang ("Oh, Darling I guess my mind's more at ease, but nevertheless, why stir up memories"). It was fitting that he worked in a more explicitly reminiscent tune, whose themes ran through his entire set. It reminded me, although it was far more earnest, of Lou Donaldson's Things Ain't What They Used To Be, which I described a few weeks back. The same Archie Shepp who, in a more radical time, notoriously berated white audiences with his friend Amiri Baraka (Baraka famously told a white woman who asked what white people can do to help the black civil rights struggle, "You can die"), ended this set by demanding that his overwhelmingly white audience stand up, turn around, clap your hands...It's true that things ain't what they used to be.

I hope to have to pictures I took from this set up soon.

P.S.: For contrast, compare this set to Cecil Taylor's that I caught at the Highline Ballroom recently. Cecil has not backed down one inch musically. The guy is something like 82 years old, but if my eyes had been closed, I wouldn't have been able to tell if I was listening to Cecil Taylor 2009 or Cecil Taylor 1969. I have no words for his set except to say that seeing him in full force was something very special.

(Best I could do--no cameras allowed)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

#Jazzlives (barely)

The results are in from this week's #jazzlives twitter campaign. They are...well...troubling:

the number of tweets...hasn't touched the number that who attended Woodstock 40 years ago but isn't bad as far as getting folks to independently raise their hands (or rather, use their thumbs) to shout 'Yes, I love live jazz' in 140 characters or less.

What is the number? 812.

Eight hundred twelve? I'm pretty sure I know single people who tweet more in a week. Somehow, Howard Mandel interprets that as

pretty encouraging, representing a hard-core eager to identify themselves with the idea, and a sign that it might grow legs.

First, he defines the hardcore as those willing to dash off 140 characters on their phone--basically anyone willing to send a text message. Then he celebrates when that group clocks in at 812 people, or rather some indeterminate number of people no higher than 812. I'll tell you right now, 2 of those tweets were by a friend of mine, who I dragged to the Chicago Jazz Festival, who couldn't care less whether jazz lives or dies, so knock one off that total. For comparison, consider that double that number have reviewed the Ashlee Simpson album Autobiography--actually thought out and wrote, in some cases, hundreds of words--on Amazon.

To put it another way, here is a list of terms that were tweeted more often than Jazzlives in the past week:

Larry King
Bob Barker
Giant Octopus
Mega Shark

and my favorite:



Monday, September 7, 2009

Stolen Moments

Some shots I snapped at a jam session at Spotted Cat in New Orleans in February:

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Paul Motian Trio @ Village Vanguard

Paul Motian, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano played a spectacular set at the Vanguard last night. I loved the Bird references on the man's birthday -- thanks Joe.

Paul Motian's distinct style isn't my favorite, but he's someone I'll always go see, especially at the Vanguard, because he leads such great groups. This one, of course, has played as a unit for about thirty years. The last time I saw Motian was a few months ago with the similarly base-less trio of Motian, Jason Moran and Chris Potter. Paul Motian can be fairly heavy handed on his kit, and uses a setup that emphasizes crashing, metallic sounds over much else (the rivets in his ride cymbal, for instance, ensure that ever-present clang). To me, that kind of playing, combined with his loose conception of the drummer-as-timekeeper, seems to call for a bass, first for a rhythmic frame of reference, and second, for a fuller, more grounded sound to inject a bit of dynamism into the band's overall tone.

No matter, these guys don't need it. Motian didn't need it with Potter and Moran either. This trio's strength, to me, is not in their forward drive, but in their vertical construction of thick sound on top of thick sound, or jagged rhythm on top of jagged rhythm. They create wonderfully elaborate musical landscapes and can build a lot of tension for a long time that way. It has you fiending for a resolution, but not a simple harmonic resolution; more like a deliberate, brick by brick deconstruction of whatever musical house they've just as painstakingly built. Bill Frisell is especially adept at that sort of construction and deconstruction, as he does it solo with his myriad loops and effects. He didn't use too much of that last night, but those pedals were just a kick away the entire set.

A great set.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Happy Birthday Mr. President

Ethan Iverson offers this anecdote from Lester Young's brother, Lee:

[Lester] loved to play jam sessions and loved to not to know the tune....If you were playing a tune the instrumentalist--the soloist--didn’t know, well, it was fashionable for the pianist to turn around and say, E-flat-seventh, you know, D-flat, C major--he wouldn’t want that. If he didn’t know the tune, he’d say, “Don’t call the chords to me. Just play the chords, and I’ll play.” And I’d seen him do it many a time, you know; they just starteHd playing, and he didn’t know it, but he would play it.

But he would say that it confines you too much if you know it’s a Db7, you know, you start thinking of the only notes that will go in that chord, and he would say that’s not what he would hear. He wanted to play other things and make it fit. And he did. And I think most of the great musicians could do that, you know?

Check out Ethan's entire piece, which is a thorough examination of Lester and what his music means to jazz. Ted Gioia at has also paid Pres some much deserved respect over the last few days.

Since I began listening to jazz, its become increasingly clear to me that Lester Young is the towering soloist of his age. Coleman Hawkins ushered in the era of the tenor sax, but Lester Young ushered in the era of modern jazz -- not just musically, but philosophically and aesthetically as well.

Happy 100th Pres.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Chris Potter to the Rescue

Add Chris Potter to the list below of musicians with a clear head about what jazz is:

Its important to remember that this is how jazz started out: the rhythmic feeling of it, the connection with other music that was going on in society. It wasn't such a separate thing. It actually was the pop music for a while... There's been a widening of the gap, where it's become more and more art music. And it is art music: There's a huge range of complexity, of things you can do within the music. But it's important to not lose those roots that connect it to the rest of the music world that we're all living in

That's a nice synergy, since my first post on this blog was about dancing to Chris Potter's Underground. Love that guy..

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Lou Donaldson's Sufferin' Music

I took a long, long ride out to Co-op City in the Bronx a couple weeks ago to check out a free Lou Donaldson show -- part of Jazzmobile's summer festival. Here's a late post about it. It took me about 2 hours to get out there, largely because I had no real clue where I was going. It was well worth it. It was a very different type of jazz experience for me, at once extremely enjoyable and a bit disheartening. I'll get back to that, but first the music.

I arrived about 20 minutes after the scheduled start time, so I may have missed some of the set. I got there in time to catch the Erroll Garner tune Gravy Train, which is the kind soulful, Blue Note sound I associate with Lou Donaldson. It was pretty much what I expected -- an 82 year old man having a good time with his old tunes.

Best I could do on the Blackberry.. Then he did some talking. I have to say, Lou Donaldson's rap on the bandstand was about as entertaining as any I've heard, and the crowd really connected. He talked about a music they have back in North Carolina, called suffering music...the blues. He then proceeded to perform an untitled piece that I'll call the talking viagra blues. I'll spare you the details, but it was funny and had the audience (judging by the average age, I might have been the only person who didn't understand exactly what he was talking about) laughing. He sang a blues he called Whiskey Drinking Woman, another very funny song ("she puts whiskey in her coffee, she puts whiskey in her tea, she puts whiskey in her whiskey, then she pours the rest into me"). Lou's voice is great, and was the musical highlight of the night for me. He has that weathered, yet casual tone of an old man who sings the blues as a matter of course.

He also sang his own lyrics to Things Ain't What They Used To Be, which, from what I remember, were about a quest to recoup a $2.50 Woolworth wig from an unfaithful lover. Another highlight was the crowd pleasing Bye-Bye Blackbird. And, just as I was planning to write about how Lou has lost his wind and speed, he unloaded with some of the Bird-like maneuvers of his youth on a tune called Fast and Freaky, at a tempo he claimed young musicians can't handle.

His band included Randy Johnson on Guitar, Fukushi Tainaka on drums and Akiko Tsuruga on Organ. They supported Lou well and got the job done. They were all a lot of fun to watch.

What was somewhat bittersweet about the set is that, despite the fact that I live in New York City, I had to travel a couple of hours to the world's largest naturally occurring old age home to see jazz with an audience who knew how to have a little fun. I was quite literally the only person there who wasn't either over 70, or there with their grandparents. Are those the only people left who appreciate jazz for what it fundamentally is -- a dance music?

Yes, jazz is high art. It's both the greatest artistic form and the most important cultural creation ever conceived in this country. Period. But it is also, in its heart and its origins a celebratory music, played for and born of weekend dances. I hate more than anything going to a downtown jazz club and watching people stare at musicians like they're paintings on a wall. You're experiencing art, yes, but you're not at the goddamn Moma. Tap a foot, please.

Jazz's greatest artists, even the ones who most demanded to be taken seriously as artists, understood what it was about. Can you count the number of people who danced to the Duke Ellington Orchestra, from the Harlem rent parties of the 1920s to the legendary Blond at Newport '56? Could anyone play the blues, I mean play in a way that you can feel in your soul and in your gut, and not just appreciate coldly, like Charlie Parker? Thelonious Monk, every bit as important a modernist as the abstract expressionist painters of his time, danced to his own music. Those guys understood the balance between jazz as serious art and jazz as basic emotion. Most of the jazz patrons I see around treat the music as if it's solely an intellectual exercise.

That's why it was so fun and really just touching to hear the audience at Co-op City, for instance, sing along to Bye Bye Blackbird. I have never heard an entire audience sing the words to a standard like that. And I could just see that these were people who probably came home from their nine to five 50 years ago and actually spun a Lou Donaldson record to unwind -- a little soul after a hard day's work. Jazz isn't just a trip to the museum to fans of that generation, it's part of the rhythm of daily life.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that jazz, if already fading, was still a relatively popular music in this country when Lou Donaldson was making records and the residents of Co-op City were buying them. That's no longer the case. It goes to the question of whether jazz is on its deathbed -- a hot topic these days. But even those who say it is won't deny that there are some of us who still partake in, consume, travel to see, pay for jazz. I'm just asking if we can crack a smile once in a while we're doing it. How can we possibly convince the potential audience out there that jazz is still alive when so many of us act like we're already at the funeral?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pat Metheny's Orchestrion Project

Pat Metheny introcduced his upcoming Orchestrion Project on his website recently. He described it as a "leap into new territory" and something "particularly connected to the reality of this unique period in time." But reading the description, it sounds like something connected to the reality of another time. From what I gather, he's playing acoustic instruments mechanically using technology developed for his purposes. To be fair, he adds a postscript to the effect of you have to hear it to believe it, but to me, a mechanical band sounds like some relic of the industrial revolution. Like it should debut at the next world's fair. Even if it's updated technologically, it still seems decidedly low tech. It seems to me this "moment in time" is about digital, more than mechanical innovation. I'd like to have Pat elaborate on what he means when he says "this moment in time". I do respect Pat Metheny, musically as well as intellectually, so I'll wait and see.

Update: Someone in an All About Jazz discussion forum on the Orchestrion thing posted a link to this video. This has (I hope) nothing to do with what Pat's up to, but I had to reproduce the link because this video had me mesmerized. Between the megaphone, the giant Karaoke screen and the freaky-ass dancing all around, the giant drum machine/medieval torture device is keeping a pretty low profile.

Monday, August 3, 2009


1959 in jazz has already been obsessed over to an almost troubling degree this year. We've seen JALC shows, high priced special edition record releases, BBC programming, all seemingly paying tribute to the year itself, all further cementing contemporary jazzdom's already pretty firm orientation toward the past.

Anyway, here's my contribution: I just love that in the same year, John Coltrane gave us what was essentially the pinnacle of what could be achieved within the bop paradigm, while Ornette Coleman gave a first mind bending taste of what could be achieved beyond it. No lull between the climax of one mode of jazz improv and the recorded birth of the next torchbearer. Such a perfect synergy and an indication of what astounding creativity was bouncing around at the time..

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life

I just read this 2001 book by Wynton Marsalis and Carl Vigeland. All in all, a forgettable little travelogue by Wynton and his just-about star struck companion, journalist Carl Vigeland. In the first 10 pages, Vigeland gushes about how he earned his nickname with Wyton's crew, explaining each incarnation and its meaning like a little sibling that won't shut up: "Then he began good-naturedly taunting me about the number the number of women I must have slept the number three was added the word piece. Three piece, as in a a cab, three became tre, and piece became swig, because it sounded a little like the beginning of my last name..." Seriously Carl, if you're that proud of the fact that you're down, you're probably not. Admittedly, a taste of the jazz life might leave me similarly wild-eyed, but jazz writing has enough hero worshipers.

At one point, Vigeland lapses into a sort of faux poetic romp complete with unnecessary capitalization, fun with pronouns and Wynton spelled Wintone (acutally WINTONE) that almost ended my read entirely. I guess that's his attempt at jazz, but again, you're trying too hard Carl.

I understand that this is supposed to be a combination insider/outsider perspective on Marsalis' Septet, its music and travels. Problem is, in this case, the outsider doesn't contribute much. His portion of the book reads like a long newspaper article (in fact, some of it is just a bunch of newspaper articles). He gives us some helpful background, but no real analysis of the music, the people, the life, the stage. Needless to say, there's no criticism of anything ever. A more thoughtful outsider, or one less enamoured with his eighth wheel status, could have given us all of that. Instead, what we have here is stories. Bland ones. This guy writes for The Atlantic. That's where this book belongs, minus about 200 pages.

Wynton's passages--interspersed throughout--are significantly more interesting, both stylistically and substantively. His debt to the Albert Murray/Stanley Crouch (he mentions both in the both) school of jazz aesthetics are on full display in these lyrical, homey vignettes. It's as if the blues sensibility shapes his literary phrasing as much as it does his musical phrasing. The same is true of both Murray and Crouch--see the first section of Stomping the Blues, in which Murray uses those literary blues in an effort to define what exactly the blues are. It's that down home--Crouch likes to say gut bucket--approach. Even if it sometimes seems like pure showmanship (what in jazz isn't?), more often it's just great craftsmanship.

Since the blues in all their majesty are so hard to define and are more of an I know it when I hear it type of phenomenon, I find these sorts of informal musings on life, love and the music itself sometime captures the blues best. The blues need to be felt deeply. That, I think, is why Wynton writes for all the senses, to try in words to evoke that feeling. It's about the familiar taste of homemade Louisiana dinners, the expression of unrepentant sexuality, the vague melancholy of a solo Monk performance playing on endless loop on a long drive. It's the natural beauty the rises and falls with the road across the entire country. It's inseparable from and so valuable as a companion to the music. I listened to this Septet's Village Vanguard box set as I was reading. That's not a set that's gotten much play time from me, but with a little context it worked just fine.

Wynton's contributions are where we get some heart and a little thought as to what it all means, where it comes from and where it's going. Unfortunately, they're largely buried in pages and pages of pedestrian journalism.

I have my problems with both Crouch and Murray by the way, and Wynton Marsalis for that matter, whose music I generally find, put simply, boring. But their passion for jazz, blues and the richness of black life in America are undeniable and admirable.

I hope to write a post about the serious problems I have with Albert Murray later on, but that's a much bigger project.

As far as this book goes, I would have rather read a short travel memoir by Marsalis alone. He's a soulful, engaging writer who certainly has more to say about life on the road than some uninitiated wannabe. We get some nice peeks into what it means to be a modern day jazz musician in this book, but I guess I should've known by the $6 price tag that I wasn't getting much.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

David Murray @ Birdland

Absolutely thrilling. David Murray has more chops and stamina, not to mention ideas, at 60 than most musicians have at 25. I'll add to this, but for now I'll just say that this was a great, long set featuring a beautiful Chelsea Bridge and some bass clarinet work that made Chris Potter's (which I rave about below) look amateur.

I love seeing these older masters well after they've been around the block a few times but before their skills drop off. The combination of absolute comfort on stage and incredible technical prowess makes for the best performance. I was lucky enough to witness it a few months ago with Frisell, Carter and Motian, and it was on full display here as well.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Dead with Branford Marsalis @ Izod

I trekked out to the Meadowlands last Wednesday to see The Dead. I wasn't expecting much. Its no secret to all but the [brain]deadest of deadheads that these guys don't have much left in the tank. Phil Lesh still impresses me and I always like to see a good Phil & Friends show, but as The Dead, these boys just about live up to their name in 2009. With tickets ringing up at about $100 a piece, these guys are officially a nostalgia act aimed at the baby boomers who grew up with them and can afford to shell out for a the three hours they can handle reliving their youth.  Thing is, with the Dead its worse in a way, because they're missing the band's centerpiece and the object of most fans' nostalgia. (update: as I'm finishing this post, my little bro informs me the band is absolutely tearing apart the Spectrum in Philly for the second night running--my apologies to all deadheads.) 

That said, this is the music and the scene of my adolescence and I always have a good time at these shows. As an added bonus, Branford Marsalis showed up and sat in for all but a few songs.

After a shaky start that found the band fumbling through Touch of Grey (just a touch??), they loosened up and found a groove. They played pretty well and I loved the setlist. Overall, the show struck me as Lesh-led. They played a lot of those disjointed, ambient jams that Phil tends to favor, culminating in a slow and measured meander through Terrapin>Drums>Space>Wheel>Terrapin.

Branford was, as always, an excellent addition.  They should really try to snatch him up for an entire tour like Phil did with Greg Osby not too long ago.  It's certainty clear that while he could play these licks in his sleep, he enjoys being up there.  After all, for all the accolades tossed his way as essentially jazz royalty, Branford probably doesn't often play for 15,000 fans dancing their asses off.  

That and he just adds so much to the band.  My little brother, who is many times more knowledgeable about The Dead than I am, pointed out to me that their current guitarist Warren Haynes is an odd choice to fill Jerry's shoes.  He's a work horse and as well-respected as anyone in this scene.  He's a member of psychedelia's other band of elder statesmen, The Allman Brothers.  But, probably informed by his southern rock roots, he rips through his solos, riffs when he should, but lays out much of the rest of the time.  Not so with Jerry, whose constant 'noodling' was more or less the Dead's signature sound.  What Branford does well is fill in a lot of that space Warren leaves open with his great melodic sensibilities.  Moreover, he knows, like all great jazz soloists, exactly how much space fill.

Perhaps the highlight of the night for me was hearing Warren and Branford trading licks on Deal.  Something about those bay area hippies and that prince of New Orleans jazz banging out the country-ish Deal captures a certain spirit of American music that I love.  Yes -- it's an affected, stylized kind of roots music, but that's the history of American music.  It's a history of borrowing, cobbling, melding, stealing...only someone still chasing the cipher of authenticity couldn't enjoy the standard bearers of two distinctly American musical traditions jamming on a third.  

these guys back in '94
I especially loved seeing a Marsalis involved in that exercise in Americana, since members of the Marsalis family acted for so long as sole arbiters of what is real and what isn't and whatever.  Wednesday night's show, and things like Wyton's work with Willie Nelson, are indices of a less defensive jazz elite.  Jazz has long been accepted as a major -- if not the major -- American art form.   More-or-less traditional, boppish jazz is thriving, if not in record sales, than in sheer talent and volume of excellent music produced.  It has co-opted some elements of both free jazz and fusion, dispensed with others, and is no longer in competition with either for primacy.  That all means that purists can let their guards down.  Jazz can take its place alongside other American vernacular music without fear that its importance will be diminished or misapprehended.  Jazz can comfortably open itself  to outside influences -- surely its natural disposition -- without fear that it will be diluted or its essential art tainted.  Not every experiment or electric amplifier is an affront to past masters anymore. Not every collaboration is some sort of implicit admission about where jazz falls in some imaginary musical hierarchy.

Maybe I'm setting up a straw man by assuming there is still a great debate about what is jazz and what it means, who it belongs to, etc. Maybe those days are over. Was that one three hour dead show as perfectly evocative as I'm describing it in retrospect?  Probably not.  Was it really a sign of anything?  Definitely not (Brandford first played with The Dead two decades ago, and his stint on the tonight show proves that even back in the heyday of the jazz wars he was willing to simultaneously embody and embarrass jazz).  Also, Branford is not his younger brother, whose braggadocio and self-righteousness occupies its own plane.

In any case, I enjoyed the show.

Potter @ Jazz Standard

I caught Chris Potter's Underground last night at the Jazz Standard in NYC. They played a short, sweet, five-song set that left me grinning wide but wanting more. Highlights included some pitch perfect, rapid fire soprano work on Ultrahang (the title track of the band's new CD due out in June) and a nice version of Ellington's The Single Petal of a Rose. I'm occasionally underwhelmed by Chris's ballad style (while usually overwhelmed by everything else he does).  His playing just doesn't connect for me at slower tempos or with sweeter tones.   I get the sense that he's straining to break through emotionally, whereas his faster and fiercer stuff is more like emotion by brute force. Single Petal, however, worked. I think it was the bass clarinet. Hearing its woody, reedy tone on an Ellington standard summoned a time--Duke's day--when the clarinet was still a major voice in jazz. That classic, supple sound embedded in the persistent, low electric grind of Craig Taborn's Rhodes and Adam Rogers's guitar made for a nice effect.

Also, Nate Smith could not have been better. His style, in many ways, captures much of what I look for in a modern jazz drummer. I'll save that for another time.

Chris Potter, looking demure as always, at Newport '08 I'll leave last night's set at that, but I'll just add something about Chris Potter. There is a reason why he is among my favorite musicians that I think is worth sharing. He is just so down to earth. Even with his immense talent and the complex compositions--their odd time signatures, long, angular melodies, etc.--on full display, his modesty and self-effacing nature underlie every performance. The result is just plain fun. No matter who he's playing with, it shows that he's enjoying himself.  That vibe is contagious, because it serves as a subtle but constant reminder that jazz and blues were devised as something to get down to, not to stare at like a painting on a wall. With his Underground group that attitude is especially evident. I don't think its a coincidence that he picked a group of guys conspicuously younger then he is, guys who play electric or just plain loud, and whose musical interests at times skirt the edges of jazz and move beyond. These guys were hand picked to give and to have a good time with no pretensions.

Don't get me wrong..I don't claim that 'down to earth' is the only or even the best way to present jazz (just ask Sun Ra--a great jazz performer doesn't even need to be from Earth), but it is one way.  For Chris Potter, it works. 

I was with a friend last night whose first meaningful encounter with jazz was last August when I took her up to Newport.  She liked the festival--loved Chris Potter.  In fact, we caught 4 of his 5 sets that weekend (sorry chris, went with Mr. Rollins over Mr. Benevento).  Potter's energy is such that I could escort this jazz virgin right past the Bottis of the festival and straight to the good stuff, without worrying that it might go over her head or just plain bore her. Last night they had us looking for a dance floor.
To stay that accessible and so simply fun without compromising one ounce of musical integrity or artistic drive is a special quality.  Keep these guys together Chris, and keep it up.  

Underground is at the Jazz Standard through the weekend.