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..