Wednesday, December 29, 2010

If You Are At APAP

As noted earlier, I'll be moderating a "town hall" discussion on behalf of the Jazz Journalists Association at the annual APAP Conference in New York City next week. Here's the official session description. Note that it now has a location assigned to it. If you have any interest in the current and future state of jazz and jazz journalism, please drop in. We'd love to have you.

JJA Town Hall: The State of Jazz Journalism Now, and Immediate Prospects
1/8/2011 2:00 PM - 4:00 PM
Sheraton - Conference C

Session Description

What's happening now in jazz journalism, and what's happening next? Moderated by James Hale, Ottawa-based journalist/former vice-president of the JJA, this meeting wiil focus on the current landscape of professional music journalism, including developments in online/in-print publication hybrids, multimedia reporting, the rise of musician bloggers, using social networks to maximize audiences, realities of online income, advertising and other entrepreneurial strategies. Confirmed participants include: Darcy James Argue, composer/orchestra-leader/blogger; Jerry Portwood, Manhattan Media/City Arts-New York editor; Jana Herzen, Motema Records principal; Russ Davis, Moja Radio; JoAnn Kawell, Ozmotic Media; David Adler, AllAbout Jazz-New York, JazzTimes, the blog Leterland and editor, JJANews.org; Howard Mandel, JJA president. Attendee participation encouraged.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Best of 2010

The results of the Village Voice year-end critics' poll are out today, and as the poll's organizer, Francis Davis, points out, it was Jason Moran's year.

You can follow the link to my ballot from Francis' article, but here it is, slightly annotated:

Top 10 New Releases

1. Jason Moran & The Bandwagon – Ten (Blue Note)
I fell in love with Moran's trio the first time I saw it live, and this recording captures everything that is great about it—the rhythmic movement, the leader's tremendous imagination regarding reharmonization, and the scope of his vision in terms of what constitutes terrific repertoire. I didn't get a chance to write about this CD, and I'm almost glad I didn't because I keep finding more things to love about it.

2. Rova & Nels Cline Singers – Celestial Septet (New World)
I did review this sprawling and engrossing release, and wonder if many of my colleagues discovered it, given that it seems not to have made a ripple. Here's how I summarized it in my DownBeat review: "There is much to explore here, and no shortage of high emotion and ecstatic release." If you haven't heard it, give it a shot.

3. Vijay Iyer – Solo (ACT)
It seems like a long, long time ago that I first encountered Vijay Iyer online during the very early days of the internet, and I can't think of another musician I've enjoyed hearing develop as much. His solo recording allows you to really savor the way he finds his way through a song. Like Moran, his vision is singular, and like Moran, he has demonstrated time and again that he has the stuff to stand beside any of the giants who influenced him. Anyone who still thinks contemporary jazz is in bad shape needs to be tied to chair with Iyer and Moran on repeat.

4. Paul Motian Trio – Lost In A Dream (ECM)
Beautiful, simply beautiful.

5. Mary Halvorson Quintet – Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12)
Halvorson won me over last year with her trio recording and work with Anthony Braxton, and Saturn Sings finds her expanding her scope and cementing her signature sound.

6. Kurt Rosenwinkel & OJM – Our Secret World (Word Of Mouth)
This is a relatively late release that I reviewed for DownBeat, and I was surprised by how much I liked it. I haven't enjoyed anything by Rosenwinkel as much as I liked his early work with Paul Motian, and I don't usually dig brassy big bands, but this combination really works. I was knocked out by the arrangements and the engineering, which allows Rosenwinkel's guitar to soar over the orchestra with as much clout as an entire horn section. I think my friend Peter Hum and I were the only ones who picked this, and we didn't even discuss it. Was it only released in Ottawa, or what?

7. Tomasz Stanko Quintet – Dark Eyes (ECM)
I came to Stanko late, but 20 years after the death of Miles Davis he has become the trumpeter who consistently moves me. I caught him live this summer for the first time—and had the honour of emceeing his show—and wasn't disappointed in the emotion he brings to his music. Always great to hear an older musician finding young associates, too.

8. Steve Coleman & Five Elements – Harvesting Semblances And Affinities (Pi)
I saw this band a few years ago, playing this same music, and hated it. Walked out, in fact! This recording has all the focus and shape that were missing in that concert, and I'm looking forward with anticipation to the next instalment of this music that Coleman is developing.

9. Ray Anderson/Marty Ehrlich Quartet – Hear You Say: Live In Willisau (Intuition)
This is another recording that dropped fairly late in the year. I hope people discover it, because it reminded me of a lot of the recordings I fell in love with—by David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Arthur Blythe and others—in the early 1980s. Great to hear Ray Anderson sounding so energized, and Marty Ehrlich is always a joy.

10. Allison Miller – Boom Tic Boom (Foxhaven)
I'm a bit surprised that this recording didn't rank higher with my fellow critics. Myra Melford kills on it, and the compositions are tremendously engaging.

Reissues
1. Henry Threadgill – Novus & Columbia Recordings Of Henry Threadgill & Air (Mosaic)
2. John Carter & Bobby Bradford – The Complete Revelation Sessions (Mosaic Select)
3. Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (Columbia Legacy)

Best Vocal CD
Rebecca Martin – When I Was Long Ago (Sunnyside)

Debut CD
Tania Gill – Bolger Station (Barnyard)

Latin Jazz CD
Marco Pereira – Essence (Kind Of Blue)

Addendum: You can peruse the entire top 50 here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

From Europe (and Japan) With Love

I've been on a digital kick lately, as I try to eliminate the clutter of CDs, magazines and newspapers from my office and bedroom, but with Christmas 10 days away it seems appropriate to focus on two European jazz labels that create pretty-looking (and sounding) things to go in someone's stocking or under their tree.

As one of the most-celebrated labels in the world, ECM Records holds few surprises for even the casual jazz or new music fan, but this holiday season it's the fortunate loved one who gets a copy of a new ECM 40th-anniversary catalogue produced by Tokyo Kirarasha. Edited by Kenny Inaoka with contributions from a number of Japanese writers—including my friend, U.S.-based pianist Nobu Stowe—the massive guide features small, glossy reproductions of every ECM release, as well as complete credits, listed separately in both English and Japanese. It might be the ultimate gift for ECM obsessives, and makes a fine companion to Horizons Touched, the book of essays ECM released through Granta a couple of years ago.

My second gift suggestion is slightly less esoteric, but no less interesting and beautiful. Thanks to a new partnership between Naxos of America Inc. and the German label Jazzwerkstatt, the latter will now have distribution in the U.S. Originally the name of West Germany's largest jazz festival, Jazzwerkstatt features recordings from the broadcast archives of East Germany's Rundfunk der DDR, live performances from the revamped Jazzwerkstatt Berlin-Brandenburg festival, and new works by Berlin-based artists.

The first three Jazzwerkstatt/Naxos releases feature small bands led by Dave Liebman, Perry Robinson and Gebhard Ullmann/Steve Swell, and they have the kind of esthetic values—including striking cover images and cardboard slipcovers—as ECM. Since these debut releases only hit the street on November 16th, chances are you'll be dropping a nice surprise on your jazz-loving gift recipient, and hipping him/her to a bunch of great new things to anticipate.

Happy giving.

Addendum: Nobu just informed me that the ECM guide is best ordered directly from ECM if you live in Europe, and from this site if you live somewhere else.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Taking The Temperature

I wrote my first online feature about jazz—a profile of pianist Andy Milne—15 years ago and, despite spectacular growth in digital media and significant changes in the channels that are used, there's still no real revenue stream for jazz journalists in 'new media'. Does anyone really know where we're going, and how we'll get there? When I wrote that Milne piece I was rubbing shoulders on a daily basis with some of the brightest minds in the information and communications technology sector, and I still got it wrong.

So, where are we headed? What's the state of the jazz journalism business today? Where are the markets, and where will they be tomorrow?

Those are some of the questions we'll tackle when the Jazz Journalists Association holds a town hall-style meeting on January 8 in New York City. The session is scheduled for 2-4 p.m., exact location TBA, but within the confines of either the Midtown Sheraton or Hilton hotels, headquarters for the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters. More details are here.

If you have an interest in this business, bring your comments, questions and predictions, and I'll see you there.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Bird Spice

All those wasted years of reading liner notes and jazz biographies has finally paid off in Andy Warholian fashion. Squirreling away the seemingly meaningless piece of knowledge (from page 73 of Ross Russell's book Bird Lives, to be precise) that Charlie Parker used to get high as a youth in Kansas City by ingesting nutmeg has resulted in my being awarded the Reader Comment of the Week award by Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail.

That award, and a couple of bucks, will keep you high for about 15 minutes, and keep me laughing all weekend. The glory! I can't handle it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Culture Creep

Blame Rolling Stone.

One of the attractive selling points of the iconic publication back when it was still a bi-folded newspaper based in San Francisco was that it "spoke to us" by combining contemporary popular music and cultural issues related to many young people and others who were exploring "alternatives."

That made a lot of sense when the non-musical issues were things like the way the FBI was targeting the Black Panther Party through its COINTELPRO program or the way actors like Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson were helping to subvert the dominant, conservative culture of Hollywood.

Now-- at least judging by Flip Music, the iPad-friendly music magazine included in Flipboard -- what we've come to is news of the stars of so-called reality TV shows like Real Atlanta Housewives and the obituaries of secondary actors like Leslie Nielsen. It's not like there aren't dozens of gossip publications -- print and digital -- where that kind of "news" can be found. Why put them in a vehicle that is designed to be about music?

Curse you, Jann Wenner.

Friday, November 26, 2010

2010 Long List

My full Top 10 list for 2010 will be published in the Village Voice again this year—in either the December 29 or January 5 issue—but here's what's in the running (at this point in the order in which I heard them):

Allison Miller – Boom Tic Boom
Paul Motian Trio – Lost In A Dream
Ralph Towner/Paolo Fresu – Chiaroscuro
Tomasz Stanko Quintet – Dark Eyes
John Geggie Trio + Donny McCaslin – Across The Sky
Jason Moran & The Bandwagon – Ten
Steve Coleman & Five Elements – Harvesting Semblances And Affinities
Rova & Nels Cline Singers – The Celestial Septet
Vijay Iyer – Solo
Mary Halvorson Quintet – Saturn Sings
Charles Lloyd Quartet – Mirror
Henry Threadgill Zooid – This Brings Us To, Volume 2
Ray Anderson/Marty Ehrlich Quartet – Hear You Say: Live In Willisau
Kurt Rosenwinkel & OJM – Our Secret World

So, four have to go. It's a particularly tough choice this year. All of these are quite worthy.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Improvising Online

It has been at least 25 years since the first time I heard someone opine that virtual concerts would soon supplement—if not actually replace—live music. We all know what's happened since then. Despite promising efforts—Michael Dorf's occasional live webcasts from his Knitting Factory in Lower Manhattan was one notable experiment—live simulcasts have largely been confined to the audio portion of the performances.

Adam Schatz, a 23-year-old promoter who runs a non-profit organization called Search & Restore is helping to change that. Search & Restore has posted a number of concert videos, and on November 29 Schatz is staging a fundraising event that promises to give fans of improvised music around the world a chance to witness some of the genre's leading performers.

Beginning at 10 p.m. Eastern time, Search & Restore's global webcast will feature 20 artists in continuous improvisation—passing the baton through a series of round-robin duets set in random order.

Featured in the webcast will be:

Andy Milne
DJ Logic
Ben Allison
Steven Bernstein
Ralph Alessi
Jason Lindner
Tim Lefebvre
Reid Anderson
Dan Weiss
Mark Guiliana
Roswell Rudd
Matt Wilson
Avishai Cohen (trumpet)
Theo Bleckmann
Henry Grimes
Andrew D'Angelo
Dave Binney

And others to be announced.

The webcast can be found here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Creating A Jazz Hub

Veteran jazz publicist Don Lucoff has just announced the official launch of the Jazz Forward Coalition, a "global and unified voice for jazz." Joining Lucoff in developing the organization have been Michael Ricci, founder/owner of AllAboutJazz.com, Peter Gordon of Thirsty Ear Recordings, Martin Ashby of MCG Jazz, and Jeff Myers of THIS IS RED Agency. Here's the group's news release.

Jazz is as vital as ever, with vibrant local scenes, active educators and thousands of jazz recordings released each year. However, the jazz community lacks a central organization to coordinate and maximize its vast resources, and must take a mainstream new media approach through social and professional networking. The Jazz Forward Coalition (JFC) was formed by a consortium of industry leaders who seek to raise jazz's profile by enhancing its vitality and cultural relevance. The organization's leadership group includes: Peter Gordon (Thirsty Ear Recordings), Michael Ricci (All About Jazz), Marty Ashby (MCG Jazz), Don Lucoff (DL Media) and Jeff Myers (THIS IS RED Agency).

JFC plans to utilize existing and emerging technologies in order to sustain growth and expose jazz to an under-served community. The goals of the organization include creating a central hub for the jazz industry, a global brand for jazz, and a leadership voice for the jazz community. They plan to reach these goals through grants, fundraising efforts, music industry partnerships and with an online presence.

The work of the JFC will be focused on four levels: connectivity via a business-to-business website; a global voice that speaks both within the community and outside; a knowledge base library of tools bringing marketplace solutions to its membership base; and strategic partnerships to help with mainstream market penetration and economic viability.

JFC will create an interactive website that will allow jazz professionals to network, publish and exchange information and access marketplace tools. An online newsletter, "Business of Jazz," has already been developed to keep jazz professionals up-to-date on industry news and trends.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Radio Days

Thirty-two-year-old nostalgia rules my brain this week, in anticipation of Saturday's reunion for alumni of CKCU-FM and the blast of publicity surrounding next week's release of Bruce Springsteen's re-packaging of one of my seminal albums, Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

The fall of 1978 was a turning point for me. Out of school for a year, I'd put in nine months of work at a small arts magazine, learning the magazine business from the ground up, and had landed my first serious job in journalism (as dedicated as I was to the arts magazine, it was hard to view those nine months as anything more than a paid apprenticeship). At the end of the summer I got a chance to attend the reunion of The Allman Brothers Band in Macon, Georgia, which inspired what I considered my first substantial piece of music writing, and led to me selling a small article to Rolling Stone. In the fall, I began volunteering at CKCU-FM—landing several on-air shows that dominated my life for the next several years. This was heady stuff; it seemed that it might actually be possible to make some kind of living in arts journalism.

But, enough about me. What really has my thoughts occupied is how radio seems to have failed to keep pace with developments in jazz.

A casual look at the state of jazz in the late '70s/early '80s makes it appear that it was a relatively fallow time. Fusion had burned out and simultaneously turned in on itself and outward toward smooth jazz. The young Marsalis brothers were about to move out of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and launch the neo-conservative movement that would dominate the music for 20 years.

That much was true, but bubbling beneath the surface was a tremendous amount of great—albeit non-commercial—music by people like Henry Threadgill (as the leader of the trio Air), Arthur Blythe, David Murray, James Blood Ulmer and Ronald Shannon Jackson. What's more, exciting new bands like the Lounge Lizards and The Contortions were using elements of improvised music, and artists like Neneh Cherry were bursting out with dance hits that melded easily into playlists alongside Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis.

At CKCU and other radio stations these sounds were swept up and intermingled with smart pop bands like The Jam, Public Image Ltd., and DEVO.

Is that same thing happening today with artists like Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Steve Coleman and Mary Halvorson? If it is, I'm not hearing it.

I'm trying not to let my 30-plus years of distance affect my thinking, and simultaneously hoping there's some young broadcaster out there who is mixing from Iyer into MIA, or from Lil' Wayne into Moran.

Any thoughts?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Journalists On The Bandstand

In Ottawa, November will be a significant month for two of the city's best-known musicians—both of whom also happen to be well-known journalists.

On November 12 at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage, the Tim Murray Quintet—featuring trumpeter Charley Gordon, longtime newspaper columnist and editor—will be holding its 50th anniversary concert.

Pianist Murray, Gordon, trombonist Jerry Heath, bassist Sol Gunner and drummer John Sullivan started playing together in Kingston in 1960, at a house four of them shared while attending Queen's University. They also shared an interest in the hard bop popularized by Art Blakey and Horace Silver, and in the West Coast sound of Gerry Mulligan and others.

The band dispersed in the early '60s, but reunited—minus Sullivan—for several gigs in the '80s and '90s. In 2000, veteran drummer Scott Warren joined the ensemble. The NAC anniversary show will be partly a band retrospective, but several new original compositions will also be included.

On November 27 at Cafe Paradiso, pianist, newspaper editor and blogger Peter Hum will officially launch his long-awaited debut CD, A Boy's Journey.

An astute jazz critic (he and I shared reviewing duties at The Ottawa Citizen for a decade) Hum has long had his performing career on a slow boil while he raised a family and developed his journalism career. Backed by a superb band—saxophonists Nathan Cepelinski and Kenji Omae, bassist Alec Walkington and drummer Ted Warren—he recorded an album of highly lyrical original compositions after playing them in public a couple of years ago. Those who witnessed that show have been anticipating the eventual CD.

Omae, who lives in South Korea, won't be at the launch, but he'll be replaced by another of Hum's longtime collaborators, guitarist Mike Rud.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wow Factor

It's getting to be that time of year again, and I've been weighing the options for the annual top 10 CD list. Some of the usual suspects—Vijay Iyer, Mary Halvorson, Jason Moran—are back in serious contention again this year.

I'm not sure it will have the staying power to crack the top 10, but one recording that has impressed me lately is Alexander McCabe's Quiz, which I recently spent a lot of time with for an upcoming DownBeat review. What I do know at this point is that if I was nominating a single track of the year McCabe's version of "Good Morning Heartache" would be at the top of the list. Wow! A stunning performance, very much in the vein of mid-period Coltrane without being slavish to Trane's sound (for one thing, McCabe plays alto, not tenor).

McCabe might not be a name you know. He's a Boston native who's in his late 40s, but he's only done a couple of previous recordings under his own name. Quiz is definitely worth a listen, and "Good Morning Heartache" will knock you out if you're a fan of Crescent, "My Favorite Things" or "Afro-Blue."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Virtual Space

The Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation announced its latest Jazz.NEXT grants—amounting to $462,350—on October 13, and among grants to the Berklee College of Music, trumpeter Dave Douglas and the Jazz Journalists Association, one that caught my imagination was a $93,600 grant to New York City's Symphony Space.

Located on the Upper West Side, Symphony Space has always struck me as a forward-looking venue with a very broad artistic mandate. I have particularly fond memories of the 12 hours I spent there experiencing the free Wall-to-Wall Miles Davis performances about a decade ago.

Through its Jazz.NEXT support, Symphony Space will develop The Symph App, a smart phone application that will allow people who own an iPhone, iPad, Android or Google TV to stream jazz performances. An open-source app, The Symph App will also be made available to musicians, other venues and the jazz community at large for their use. The app is scheduled to launch next spring, when at least 34 jazz events and discussions will be made available.

Also mentioned in the grant announcement is the fact that Symphony Space will be releasing more than 100 live recordings, including jazz.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Pork Pie Delight

Despite the jazz tradition of 'sitting in', it's remarkable how seldom I've actually seen someone appear unannounced with a headline act and get the feeling that I'm witnessing something unrehearsed and fully in the moment.

I was having mixed feelings at last night's concert by The Mingus Dynasty at the Quebec City jazz festival—aside from a spirited take of "Ysabel's Table Dance," the band had seemed a bit listless, with a high number of onstage conferences and on-the-fly arrangement coaching. Then, in the second half of the show, leader Craig Handy introduced special guest Kurt Elling—who headlines the festival tonight.

Wearing jeans instead of his de rigueur slick suit, Elling blew the room apart with his version of Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," encouraging tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake to roll out the kind of multi-tiered, lyrical solo that made me fall for his playing when I first heard him in the early '90s. Elling was sweating, Blake was burning, the whole band playing like Mingus himself was kicking their behinds.

It was one of those moments when all you can do is tell your friends, You had to be there.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Jazz On The River

The Saint Lawrence, not the Mississippi.

In an era when many jazz festivals are struggling to survive, it's great to see one growing and extending the North America festival season into October—in the company of the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

Next week, I'll be attending the Quebec City Jazz Festival, which is headquartered at the city's Largo Resto-Club.

The lineup is an impressive one for a festival in just its fourth year, and includes: Charles Lloyd Quartet, Ron Carter Trio, Mingus Dynasty, Kurt Elling and the John Abercrombie Quartet (with Mark Feldman, Joey Baron and Thomas Morgan). In addition, the festival has a large assortment of some of Quebec's best musicians, including: Évidence—a trio I'll put up against any in New York City; Jean-Pierre Zanella; Hommes de Jazz; Jazzlab; Normand Guilbeault Ensemble; François Bourassa and Jeanne Rochette; Trio Janis Steprans; and Trio Michel Côté.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Guelph Wrap-Up

So, now it comes back to me. In the three years since I've attended the Guelph Jazz Festival—which seems to be the consensus choice among my fellow jazz critics as the best-kept-secret great festival in North America—I've forgotten how exhausting the pace is here. I began with good intentions to blog-if-not-Twitter regularly, but the combination of inconsistent Internet connections and constant musical and social stimuli derailed that plan. Now, comfortably installed in the hotel bar, where the WiFi is good and the Japanese beer very cold, I'm in a reflective mood.

First the good—and bear in mind that all will be reviewed in depth (and minus the slight Sapporo buzz) in a forthcoming issue of DownBeat: this morning's concert with Marc Ribot, Henry Grimes and Chad Taylor was the transcendent uplift I was looking for this weekend. Damn! Ribot is a terrific guitarist. No surprise, but it bears repeating. I love his ideas and his tonal choices. I'm looking forward to digging into his new solo recording for a Signal To Noise review when I get home. The same venue—a small, sharply raked, theatre at Guelph's beautiful River Run Centre—was also the site of excellent performances by Marilyns Crispell (solo) and Lerner (with her trio). I'd give the slight edge to Lerner, if only because her piano work with her trio is slightly more integrated than that of Crispell, who still seems to be wavering between the roiling waves of sound that many of us grew to love when we first encountered her and the more lyrical material she has favoured lately. This is to take nothing away from either of these approaches—I love both—but they do occasionally seem at odds.

Much less compelling was a disastrous afternoon outing by the Ratchet Orchestra, which despite boasting some of the best players in Quebec sounded like a train wreck that wouldn't stop.

In the coulda-been/shoulda-been column, a late-night performance by Jane Bunnett, Grimes and Andrew Cyrille leads. Despite Bunnett's best efforts, Grimes and—to a lesser extent—Cyrille weren't compelled to communicate broadly. Too bad, because one gets to hear Bunnett in this kind of setting too seldom. I just kept reflecting on how utterly fearless she is, and how great her early recordings with Don Pullen were. Go, Jane! More gigs like this.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Follow Me On Ping

Apple introduced its new social networking for music, Ping, yesterday. If you want to see what I'm listening to, you can follow me.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jazz's Shoulder Season

As longtime readers know, I've always been a fan of the Guelph Jazz Festival—not just for its adventurous programming and combination of academic papers and concerts, but because it extends the festival season past Labour Day. This year, the festival is paying tribute to ECM Records, with concerts by Dino Saluzzi & Anja Lechner, Marilyn Crispell and Charles Lloyd, and co-ordinating a 'nuit blanche' event that promises to tie in events throughout the small college town.

This year, the season is extending even further for me, with an assignment from DownBeat to report on the fourth annual Quebec City Jazz Festival. I haven't seen the full lineup yet, but headliners include Charles Lloyd (this time fronting his marvellous quartet with Jason Moran), Ron Carter, Kurt Elling and the Mingus Dynasty.

I'll be blogging from both festivals.

Monday, August 23, 2010

What I Did On My Summer Vacation


In case you're wondering what Jazz Chronicles has been up to this summer, the photo says it all. I became a grandfather for the first time on August 20, and I've been soaking in good family times in recent weeks.

Jazz Chronicles will return shortly. Right now, I've got my hands full.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Through The Spyglass

Treasure Island – the fifth album released by pianist Keith Jarrett's so-called American Quartet – begins in what sounds like the middle of a performance, the band already churning on Jarrett's "The Rich (And The Poor)." Driven by Charlie Haden's bass, it's a slow groove that sounds like some of the extended vamps improvised during his solo concerts of the time. Recorded on the final two days of February 1974, Treasure Island actually features an expanded band, with guitarist Sam Brown on two pieces and percussionists Danny Johnson and Guilherme Franco throughout. Those added percussionists are well used, too, as the band explores some funky movements – making Treasure Island one of the more exuberant recordings in the band's catalogue.

On "The Rich (And The Poor)" the percussionists balance the weighty theme and Jarrett's gospel-inflected piano trills with what sound like a bicycle bell and a child's metallic noise-maker. On "Fullsuvollivus (Fools Of All Of Us)" Johnson and Franco stir up a cacophonous backdrop to the quartet's cascading improvisations. Jarrett's piano pulses with energy, Redman reels out a declaratory statement. What struck many listeners at the time—and what remains so attractive about the performance now—is that this was clearly music with American roots, abstracted but not obscured. There is no mistaking the relationship to what the Art Ensemble of Chicago had been doing a decade earlier, and yet Jarrett's take sounds like it is coming at the source material from a classical perspective.

Another element that makes Treasure Island compelling is the accessibility of the material. On the title song, Brown and Jarrett trade the lead on the bright, upbeat melody—their tones and attacks almost indistinguishable from one another, while the theme of "Introduction/Yaqui Indian Folk Song" is almost pastural. "Le Mistral" has a strong pulse running through it, and Jarrett's playing on "Death And The Flower" is rhapsodic. Only "Angles," with its flatulent bass solo, brawling tenor and Ornette-informed head strides outside the comfort zone that buyers of The Köln Concert might be happy living in.

From the somewhat iconic photographs of Jarrett to the detailed map work in the ornate cover art, Treasure Island stands as the least thorny, dare-I-say-it, most commercial release by the American Quartet. Little wonder, then, that the album was reviewed in Rolling Stone and other mainstream music publications of the time, and remains an ideal entry point to the band for those who are familiar with the latter-day Jarrett.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Cryptography

Here in Ottawa, you would be challenged to find a bigger civic booster than Ken Gray, a columnist, editorial writer and blogger for The Ottawa Citizen, a daily newspaper that was also my home as a columnist for 10 years. To his credit, Gray is always looking for ways that Canada's capital city could expand its horizons—methods that include playing host to major international sporting events and paying attention to urban theorist Richard Florida.

Gray is also a jazz fan, and he has taken to using his summer vacation days to immerse himself in the music at the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival. This week, he's back at work and reflecting on 11 days spent inside the "Gold Tent"—the white vinyl enclosure that sits to the left of the festival's main stage in Confederation Park (that's it over my left shoulder in the YouTube video posted below). He focuses on the non-jazz activities inside what he calls a "crypt," which include people BlackBerry surfing, gourmet sandwich eating and chatting—anything but responding to the exhortations of Kenny Garrett to get up and dance.

I've spent my own time inside the "crypt"—both as a paying customer before being employed by the festival as a media consultant and during brief moments on the job—and can attest to Gray's observations that the people in there sometimes seem less interested in what's happening on the stage than in the latest memo their boss has emailed to them. But, where Gray is off base in his efforts to make Ottawans seem like hicks who need to get with the program and act like they live in a world-class city is in believing that concert-goers in other cities act differently. I've seen the same types of behaviour at jazz festivals in San Francisco, Vancouver, Montreal and, yes, New York City. In Spain, I've seen audience members at jazz concerts more excited by the pintxos they buy between acts than headline performances.

One of the best things about festivals is that they welcome all comers. During my 24 years observing Ottawa's jazz festival I've seen the same people over and over. Some of them bring a book to every concert. Some of them treat the concerts like background music as they unpack picnic baskets and sip wine from plastic cups. Some of them seem to lack any grace whatsoever (to the woman who held a loud conversation on her cellphone during the percussion workshop last week, may your BlackBerry be stolen). At least they are there, and hopefully repeated exposure will improve their appreciation.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Jazz and Lifelong Learning

Outside my office at the Ottawa jazz festival, I answered a few questions for a reporter about the importance of music education.

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A Few High Notes To Finish

The 30th edition of the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival wrapped up last night, ending with an exhilarating performance by Tomasz Stanko's quintet—which might well have garnered many people's nomination for best indoor performance, had it not been for the stunning show that trumpeter Christian Scott gave in the same venue two hours before.

Exposing listeners to relative newcomers like Scott at the same time as giving them a rare opportunity to experience masters like Stanko is what the festival does best. This year, it also did a good job at giving large outdoor audiences what they wanted: a chance to be uplifted by party music from the likes of Smokey Robinson, Kenny Garrett and John Scofield. So, it was appropriate that a large crowd was still shaking it in Confederation Park to Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings in the moments after Stanko had finished indoors.

As usual, The Ottawa Citizen's Peter Hum has written a thorough overview of the festival as he saw it.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Metal Machine Improv

I played hooky from Ottawa's jazz festival last night to head down the road two hours to Montreal to catch the trio of Lou Reed, John Zorn and Laurie Anderson. It promised to be entertaining; it was that in more ways than one.

What began as a capacity audience was reduced by about 20 percent after the first, long piece—which was greeted by loud, sustained booing, catcalls and angry expletives all around me. Those who were clapping seemed to be momentarily overwhelmed.

"Play some music," yelled someone behind me and to my left.

"If you don't think this is music then get the fuck out of here," shouted Zorn, dismissing the booers with both arms.

What were these 500 or so disgruntled people expecting? Versions of "Sweet Jane" or "Walk On The Wild Side?" Perhaps an electronic rendering of Zorn's later, peaceful film music? Maybe for $100 and up they were expecting a show that met each and every one of their individual wishes.

What they received were huge slabs of sound, led mostly by Reed's heavily processed guitar with Zorn's manic, overblown alto roaring over top. Anderson acted mostly as the tiller person, steering this massive craft with slashes and filigrees. At its most noisy, it resembled Metal Machine Music meets Albert Ayler, which was stimulating, but there were long swatches of great beauty, as well.

After a main set of about 63 minutes, and a generous encore, the musicians stood and waved to prolonged cheers, acknowledging those who had remained open enough to see where the journey went.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Early This Morning

Everyone knew last night's jam session at the 2010 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival had the potential to go nuclear, what with Joe Lovano, Roy Hargrove, Matt Wilson and Manu Katché in town with their respective bands.

The hang at the bar—with Wilson, Lovano, Cuong Vu and others—was terrific, but what was happening on the bandstand was something else again. I left before Lovano sat in, but my friend Peter Hum captured it all here.

Monday, June 28, 2010

De-construction Site

Of the many myths shattered or illuminated by Robin Kelley's engaging biography of Thelonious Monk, one of the most revealing was that Monk, Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie and the other denizens of Minton's Playhouse did not set out to deliberately confound their musician peers with their new music. Rather, it was a situation where talented, young musicians collectively sought to play their way out of idiomatic dead-ends that had developed: apply these substitution chords to this structure and see what happens.

The allusion to that 70-year-old revolutionary step was impossible to miss when Mostly Other People Do The Killing morphed from one of their speed-jazz original compositions into Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia" inside the OLG tent at last night's gig at the 2010 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival. Today, most young musicians who go through BMusic programs at NYU or the University of Michigan graduate knowing more about harmony than Monk and his associates knew at the end of their lives. They don't only know how Stravinsky influenced Charlie Parker; they also know how Parker influenced hip-hop artists who influenced Jason Moran and Robert Glasper. The world is a bigger place, and every young musician worth his or her AFM card knows how to get around it.

Let's blow it all up, agreed bassist Moppa Elliot, trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and drummer Kevin Shea. With a sensibility that seems equal parts Spike Jones and The Bad Plus, MOPDtK shred musical conventions with all the abandon of the boppers and all the reverence of Ornette Coleman. They drive people out of their gigs in anger, and drive just as many people to yell lusty encouragement.

What those who leave miss is the level of technical skill that the quartet brings to the music. Evans is a ridiculously talented trumpeter who once told me that he takes as much influence from Cootie Williams as he does from Don Cherry. That he can take cues from both pioneers and create something new—like the burbling phrases he played through a close-miked Harmon mute, doubling Elliott's bassline—is the kind of thing that makes MOPDtK the most-exciting live band I've seen in quite a while.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Painting With A Full Palette

A few years ago, a jazz composer told me that he was genuinely sorry when he graduated from university, because it meant that he didn't know when he would next get the chance to hear his music played by a full ensemble.

Such is the lot of the composer/arranger. Famously, during the 1950s, the great Gil Evans languished for years in the wilderness (his New York City apartment, actually) before Miles Davis swept him up, rich with a new Columbia Records contract.

From the stage in Confederation Park last night, one of Evans's most-prominent successors—Montreal-based Christine Jensen—thanked people for coming out to hear what she said was the equivalent of a month's work for a small group: three prime-time gigs with her jazz orchestra. Featuring her gifted older sister Ingrid on trumpet and electronics, Jensen's band is studded with many of Montreal's finest players, and her compositions—many of them inspired by the landscape of Vancouver Island—are rich additions to the jazz orchestra canon. It's great to hear the band, but just a shame that more people won't get the chance.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Smokey Does It

It's so easy to be disappointed by your childhood heroes, and I've seen my share of elderly rock, blues and jazz performers coasting their way through a set to the next paycheque. I was prepared for a pleasantly nostalgic evening in the company of Smokey Robinson, but was suitably impressed by a consummate professional who still knows how to show an audience a great time.

He might lay the sex appeal on a little too strong for a senior citizen, but while he's cooing about lingering in bed with his lover he's also reminding you that he's the man who showed Marvin Gaye how to be sensual onstage, and the master who schooled young Michael Jackson. Mr. Robinson still has it, and while he might look a little silly at his age in red leather pants, 37 Top 40 songs give you the right to do just what you want. He rested his voice on the opening pair of songs, leading me to think that he didn't have much left in his high range, but for the rest of the evening—and it was a lengthy set—his marvellous instrument seemed as supple as ever. There's a lot of show biz in his act but, in spite of the set patter and the pair of dancers who took me back to that part of my youth that was "misspent" hanging out at the Coppertone Revue on the midway of the local carnival, he seemed to be in the moment and having a great time interacting with an audience that was happy just to be spending a beautiful evening with him.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

At Least The Pestilence Missed Us

So, Day -1 of the 2010 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival (the festival officially starts tomorrow) began with reports of bad weather... so bad in Chicago that drummer Max Weinberg and his big band were grounded long enough to miss their narrow transportation window.

Then, an earthquake hit. Only a 5.5—a mere shiver by Haitian or Californian standards, but pretty severe in this part of North America—but enough to throw travel into additional disarray (did I mention that the Chinese president was arriving in the city, shutting down the airport and various roads?). That threw Gil Scott-Heron off his schedule. First he was flying to Montreal and being driven to Ottawa, then direct to Ottawa but delayed, and then...really delayed.

Scott-Heron's backing trio gamely took the stage in his absence—by this time it was raining pretty steadily—but with just keyboards, sax and congas their repertoire was mighty limited.

Scott-Heron finally joined his band around 10 p.m. (his show was originally slotted for 7:30).

Now ready for the real thing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It's On!

Moving to my onsite office tomorrow afternoon for the start of the 30th annual TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival. Hoping to do some blogging, time permitting.

Every year—whether I'm working for the festival or just observing—people ask me which acts are on the top of my list. There's so much to choose from over 12 days of music, but I will pick one band to highlight.

A few years ago, in Vancouver, I caught guitarist Gord Grdina's Boxcutter with clarinetist François Houle and fell in love with them. Grdina is an exciting soloist who brings something of a punk attitude to music that alludes broadly to John McLaughlin, and Houle remains an underrated master of his horn. I'm hoping this band will transport me again, and win a huge bunch of Eastern Canadian fans.

See you at the festival.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Drum Line

I ran into a young man at a family wedding reception yesterday, and I found out he was entering Humber College's jazz program in the fall. He's a drummer, and we started discussing some of the great ones at this year's TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival, which kicks off with free concerts on Wednesday. Here's a partial lineup:

June 23: Max Weinberg
June 24: Ted Warren
June 25: Rudy Royston and Vinnie Colaiuta
June 26: Han Bennink, Barry Romberg and Gene Lake
June 28: Billy Martin and Paul Lytton
June 29: Francisco Mela, Otis Brown III, Manu Katché and Matt Wilson
June 30: Matt Wilson
July 2: Ari Hoenig

Calgary Jazz Fest Cancelled

Just when you think it's safe to go back in the water... The sudden cancellation of the Calgary Jazz Festival, which was slated to open tomorrow, is a shocker.

News reports say that the festival's board of directors made the decision after a six-hour meeting on Saturday.

The festival, which is centred around the downtown area's Stephen Avenue and Olympic Park, was to have featured Chick Corea, James Farm (featuring Joshua Redman), Pancho Sanchez, Cedar Walton and others.

Addendum: Interesting to note, for those wondering about why this fest might've failed, there's not one word about the festival on the Calgary Herald's web site—neither about its cancellation nor heralding its launch, which was to happen tomorrow. Looks like a case of, what if they held a festival and nobody cared.

Addendum 2: The Herald finally reported. More details here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

One Week From Now

If you're in Ottawa next Friday, June 25, you're in luck.

Good enough that you'll have a chance to see Christy Doran, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and company pay tribute to Jimi Hendrix, Bill Frisell's Beautiful Dreamers (with Eyvind Kang and Rudy Royston), Syrian superstar Omar Souleyman and Herbie Hancock, but from 2–3:30 pm you can catch AllAboutJazz.com major domo Michael Ricci and managing editor John Kelman, talking about their business model and what the future holds for digital jazz journalism.

AllAboutJazz.com just won yet another Jazz Award from the voters of the Jazz Journalists Association, and it is far and away the most successful attempt at creating an online alternative to the traditional print magazine.

Michael and John will be discussing their work at The Black Tomato in the Byward Market. Drop by, have a beer and enjoy. Then come back to the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival for an evening of amazing music.

So, make your plans now.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Sound The Trumpets

I was on Sarah Onyango's radio show the other morning promoting the 2010 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival, and as I was rhyming off some of the highlights it suddenly struck me what an astounding array of trumpeters will be in town between June 24 and July 4.

How's this for a trumpet summit?

June 24: Kevin Turcotte
June 26: Ingrid Jensen and Eric Boeren
June 27: Peter Evans and Kevin Dean
June 28: Paolo Fresu and Axel Doerner
June 29: Cuong Vu and Roy Hargrove
July 4: Tom Harrell, Christian Scott, Lina Allemano and Tomasz Stanko

Monday, June 07, 2010

The View From (Way) Back There

Just found this excerpt from a video about my old radio station, CKCU-FM, in Ottawa. I think it was shot in about 1984. Who designed those early '80s glasses, anyway? And why did we wear 'em?

Damn, I wish I still had that red flannel shirt, though. What happened to that thing?

And, sad to say, you still can't hear Ornette Coleman on commercial radio.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Miles Under Glass

Reflecting the life of a mercurial jazz musician in a static museum exhibit seems like an impossible feat, and it's true that some of We Want Miles: Miles Davis vs. Jazz, an exhibition that runs at Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts until August 29, can feel a little overly staged. If you've spent hours listening to Davis' music, though, the exhibit can also move you in strange ways.

Stare down the length of one of the several Davis trumpets encased in glass and try not to imagine what it takes to breathe life into the instrument and move several generations of listeners to tears. Examine John Coltrane's tenor saxophone in detail and remember what flowed through his lungs and fingers and out of that horn. Or watch Tony Williams suddenly slam his hi-hat in a totally unexpected gesture that, in that instant, makes perfect musical sense and defines his genius.

Music plays throughout the exhibit, and pieces that you've heard hundreds of times take on new hues as you stare at blowups of studio photographs or album artwork. A long segment of the 1960s quintet—with Williams, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter—shimmers magically on a large, transparent digital screen, and an excerpt from Davis' electrifying show at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival dominates a dark room.

For my taste, there is too little of Davis' humour (don't you just know that the long-rumoured biographical film will be filled with drug use and dark deeds) and not enough from his prime decade spanning Kind Of Blue and Bitches Brew, but there's no denying the reverence and attention paid.

I spent an enjoyable four hours lost inside the exhibit, and left wishing that more, less venerated, artists could have this kind of care taken with their memory.

Here's a video blog entry on the exhibit, including a few words from Davis' youngest son Erin and his nephew Vince Wilburn.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Fort In The Village

After a busy spring, I’m finally back to my immersion in the music of Keith Jarrett’s so-called American Quartet. It’s proven to be a timely project, given Jarrett’s recent reunion with bassist Charlie Haden.

Fort Yawuh—a live album recorded at the Village Vanguard in February 1973—is where my journey with this band began. While I can’t remember the first time I heard it, I clearly recall listening over and over to the hypnotic “De Drums” on a snowy Saturday morning in early 1975 and hearing a new sonic world open up to be discovered. Until that time, at age 20, my explorations into contemporaneous jazz had consisted of jazz-rock fusion music, and Jarrett’s quartet offered a sublime alternative to the highly amplified spinoffs from Miles Davis’ groundbreaking band. The music was both more lulling and more engaging. Melodically and harmonically, it was much deeper than anything I had heard that had been produced since the mid-‘60s.

I knew Haden from his work with Ornette Coleman (working backward from Davis’ Jack Johnson—my entry point to the jazz of my own generation—I had checked out many of the signal recordings of the ‘50s and ‘60s) but hadn’t heard him in the ‘70s. The depth of his sound was a revelation, and groove was so deep on that 12-minute track that I wanted a piece of whatever mojo they were working.

Interesting that Jarrett would later comment that Haden was reluctant to play vamps in the quartet, because the bassist picks up the simple phrase that the pianist states at the outset of “De Drums,” carries it for several minutes and then, under Redman’s solo, plucks a driving ostinato that defines the piece to such an extent that it’s a surprise it isn’t titled “Da Bass.” Returning to the initial vamp, Haden carries the last minute of the performance. To my ears, this seemed as funky as Muddy Waters’ band in the early ‘50s, yet as musically sophisticated as anything I’d been exposed to.

Today, an examination of Fort Yawuh is not complete without also considering the seven unreleased or unedited pieces that were included on The Impulse Years: 1973-1974, a box that was issued by Universal on the Impulse! imprint in 1997. That set added a 7-plus-minute excerpt of another—more piano-centric—version of “De Drums,” “Angles (Without Edges),” which would appear in a studio version on Treasure Island, a second take of “(If The) Misfits (Wear It)” and three other compositions. At 133 minutes, spread over two discs, it feels like a full two sets of music from the Vanguard.

All of this band’s best characteristics are on display, particularly the ability to balance free playing and rhythm, and the sense of fun the members brought to music that demanded close listening and the ability to respond creatively to a variety of stimuli. Aside from “Melting The Ice,” where Jarrett maintains a firm hand on the tiller with a long, definitive solo, the pieces feel very organic, like anything could happen at any moment. The box set even includes one of Jarrett’s signature audience upbraidings, although it’s a pretty tame one compared to what he’s said more recently.

Friday, May 07, 2010

To Better Times

A year ago, Jazz Chronicles was bemoaning the growing list of music festivals that were being slammed by the global recession. It's so great this spring to see that the news is much better. Not only has the ageless George Wein bounced back in the New York City area, but new ventures are sprouting in other cities, too.

In San Francisco, SF JAZZ's Randall Kline has announced that his organization will build a new headquarters and performance space, a move that has already proven to be highly successful in Montreal.

Here in Ottawa, and outside the jazz world, musician Julian Armour just unveiled ambitious plans for a new classical music festival.

These are the kinds of risk-taking initiatives that are needed, and it's no surprise that they're coming from musical entrepreneurs who have already proven they have what it takes to build audiences with inclusive, forward-looking events.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Gene Lees, 1928-2010

Word came today via Doug Ramsey that Gene Lees – former DownBeat editor, prolific liner note writer and biographer, and talented lyricist – has died.

A fellow Canadian, Lees was a good role model for bringing an 'outsider' viewpoint to chronicling America's native music. Along with songwriter Robbie Robertson, Lees showed that the invisible line only a few miles to the south of us did make a difference about how we viewed issues of race, class and culture.

I never met Lees, but we did speak on the phone – pre-Web days – a few times, and he was always quite helpful about providing insights into musicians he knew well. In particular, he provided a very welcome introduction to his lifelong friend Kenny Wheeler, for an interview that turned out to be my first feature in DownBeat in the mid-1990s. I thought that was a nice 'hand off'.

A few years later, I got the opportunity to write Lees' formal biographical entry in The Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Two Ottawa Events

For local readers, a couple of May events to take note of:

On May 6, my friends at Ottawa JazzWorks will be staging a fundraiser at Arts Court. Performers include guitarist Kevin Barrett, saxophonist Rémi Bolduc and singer Julie Michels, as well as JazzWorks alumni Jenna Glatt, Shannon Eddy Smith, Renée Yoxon and Daniel Ko, and pianist/jazz journalist Peter Hum. Tickets are $100, and more information can be found here.

On May 15, Ottawa-based singer Kellylee Evans – who graduated from Carleton University in 1997 – will headline the Carleton's Alumni Dinner at the Chateau Laurier. Evans will be performing with just guitarist Joel Williams and bassist Chris Breitner, featuring music from her new CD, The Good Girl. Tickets are $70, which includes hors d'oeuvres, a three-course meal and wine. A cash bar will be open from 5:30 to 6. Tickets can be reserved here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Welcome Back, Johnny Mac

John McLaughlin was the first jazz musician who I could relate to when I gingerly stepped across the great divide between rock and jazz in 1971. While Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter seemed to come from another realm, I could tell McLaughlin was cut from the same cloth as my heroes Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Duane Allman.

Born in 1942 in Yorkshire, McLaughlin exploded onto the North American jazz scene in 1969/70 with appearances on trumpeter Miles Davis’ seminal recording In A Silent Way, Emergency! by drummer Tony Williams’ band Lifetime, and two wildly dissimilar albums – Devotion and Where Fortune Smiles – under his own name.

As is often the case, what appeared to be an overnight sensation had been brewing for years. McLaughlin – who taught himself to play after growing interested in American country blues, flamenco and the gypsy music of Django Reinhardt – built a successful career as a session guitarist in London during the ‘60s, recording with artists ranging from Petula Clark to David Bowie. But, by 1967, he had tired of the session life and moved to Germany to play jazz with vibraphonist Gunter Hampel. He would return occasionally to Britain for gigs with musicians like bassist Dave Holland and drummer Tony Oxley, and one of these trips resulted in his first album, Extrapolation, which remains one of the most exciting debuts in contemporary jazz. Already in place were his remarkably fluid technical facility, diamond-hard tone, and vivid harmonic imagination.

His achievements led to an invitation from Williams to join organist Larry Young in New York City to form Lifetime, and within days of his arrival in the States, to join Davis in the studio for the first of several recordings. The iconoclastic trumpeter was several months into a two-year period of intensive studio activity, and in addition to In A Silent Way, McLaughlin became a key part of Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, Live-Evil (where I first encountered him) and Big Fun. His sound – ranging from harp-like arpeggios to funky rhythm parts to excoriating, hyper-amplified solos – immediately placed McLaughlin alongside Hendrix as one of the new voices on the instrument.

“What strikes you when you listen to those sessions is that he was such a complete player,” says Bob Belden, who has won several Grammy Awards for his work in producing box sets of Davis’ electric music. “He had a whole range of styles, but, like Hendrix, what really made him stand out was his respect for the blues – something that most American guitarists didn’t have. He just needed to be around players of his own calibre to shine.”

In 1971, when long hair, ragged denim and flannel ruled music fashion, McLaughlin sheared his hair, donned white clothing and adopted the name Mahavishnu to symbolize his devotion to religious leader Sri Chimnoy. But, despite these radical changes, it was his new band that drew attention. An electric quintet, the Mahavishnu Orchestra stunned listeners with rapid-fire unison melody lines, unusual time signatures and advanced dynamics. The band’s first recording, The Inner Mounting Flame, remains a landmark work of the era. It's one of those recordings that I remember exactly where I was – in the basement of the Le Chateau store on Ottawa's Rideau Street – when I first heard it.

“McLaughlin’s sound was so different for that time,” says Ottawa guitarist Wayne Eagles, who teaches through Carleton University’s music department. “He had just incredible facility in his picking hand, and a distinctively angular, jagged way of phrasing.”

Within three years, McLaughlin had disbanded the original group and, maintaining the band’s name, was exploring orchestral work and synthesizers. In 1976, he made the jaws of guitar lovers drop again when he formed Shakti, an acoustic group featuring four traditional Indian musicians; his acoustic playing was as fluid and distinctive as his electric style.

“He’s an amazing acoustic player,” says jazz guitarist Pete McCann, one of McLaughlin’s most-prominent disciples. “His work on both steel-string and nylon-string guitar rank him as one of the best acoustic players ever to play the instrument.”

After Shakti, fans could never again pin McLaughlin down to a predictable style. His subsequent works included renewed interest in the jazz-rock fusion he helped pioneer, collaborations with his then-partner, classical pianist Katia Labéque, and spirited – but overtly commercial – meetings with guitarists Paco de Lucia and Al DiMeola.

For the past 20 years, he has followed his own imagination, adapting the dreamy music of jazz pianist Bill Evans to guitar, touring in a trio with organist Joey DeFrancesco, and continuing his pursuit of Indian classical music in Shakti Remembered.

“He’s a remarkable musician for his ability to do so many different things,” says Los Angeles guitarist Skip Heller. “He’s a fountainhead of the guys who made the guitar a frontline instrument in jazz, and he has maintained a totally world view of the instrument.”

“He has been a resounding influence on guitarists in the past 35 years,” says Eagles. “His music always sounds up to date, and he’s still at the top of his game.”

Indeed he is, as he demonstrated on a tour that brought him through Ottawa in 2008 and on his new CD, To The One. Backed by Gary Husband on keyboards and drums, Etienne M'Bappe, bass, and primary drummer Mark Mondesir, McLaughlin is back to cranking up the volume and playing with the abandon and speed he blew us away with 40 years ago. Mondesir has the same flair for polyrhythms and rolls as Billy Cobham, and M'Bappe – the latest of a series of bassists McLaughlin has used who sound like they're channeling Jaco Pastorius – continually drives the band forward.

As the title implies, McLaughlin is delving into his spiritual side again (his brief liner notes pay homage to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme) but while on recordings like Love, Devotion, Surrender (with Carlos Santana) McLaughlin was so intense about his spiritual search that he seemed to be flogging himself with music the way a devotee might flagellate himself with sharp branches, he seems more at peace now. "Special Beings" lopes along at a leisurely pace, and despite the searing tone of his guitar on "The Fine Line," this is music that sounds like it's filled with joy rather than a desperate search for enlightenment.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

June Jazz In Ottawa

Ottawa does not have a particularly lively jazz scene most of the year, but it does have an annual jazz festival that year after year has one of the most comprehensive talent lineups of any North American festival. This year—which marks the festival's 30th anniversary—is no different.

Where to start? Perhaps with the acts I'm looking forward to the most (or, in other words, the acts that will likely not find me chained to my desk as the festival's media advisor):

Tomasz Stanko – I've loved his last few ECM recordings, and he deserves to be recognized outside Europe as one of the most creative post-Miles trumpeters.

Globe Unity Project – Although this reunion project doesn't have musicians as internationally well known as some of the band's alumni (Anthony Braxton, Kenny Wheeler, Enrico Rava) it still contains the cream of the crop of Europe's improvisers of the past 40 years.

Bill Frisell – Along with Matt Wilson and Robert Glasper, Frisell is participating in a series that sees the artists working with collaborators of their choice. On his first night, Frisell will perform with Eyvind Kang and Rudy Royston, and on the second night he'll work with Kang, Hank Roberts and Jenny Scheinman (his 858 Quartet).

Gord Grdina – Another exceptional guitarist, who completely knocked me out when I saw him in Vancouver a few years ago. He doesn't come east often enough, and he's here for two shows.

Joe Lovano – Seeing Lovano always puts a smile on my face, and I've been itching to see his US5 band since he formed it.

Also onboard this year: Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, Medeski Martin & Wood, Roy Hargrove's Big Band, James Farm (with Josh Redman and Eric Harland), Christy Doran's New Bag (featuring Jamaaladeen Tacuma on bass) doing a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, Kenny Garrett, Fred Hersch, Tom Harrell and Christine Jensen's Jazz Orchestra with her sister Ingrid on trumpet.

The TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival runs June 24-July 4. You can check out the whole thing at: ottawajazzfestival.com

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Meanwhile, on the other side of the street

Once again this year, I've been contracted to serve as the media specialist for the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival. This year marks the festival's 30th anniversary, so there will be a number of special shows related to that celebration.

On Thursday, I'll be helping to introduce this year's lineup, and will be posting that information here sometime later that day.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Mike Zwerin, 1930-2010

I only knew music journalist Mike Zwerin for about 10 years, but he was an influence on my work for three times that long. Mike never fully recovered from a serious illness he had a few years ago, and he died in his adopted home of Paris early this morning.

A native of New York, he attended an arts high school and was studying at the University of Miami when Miles Davis encountered him at a jam session led by Art Blakey at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. "In those days," wrote Mike, "I played my horn (trombone) like a kid skiing down a slalom, with more courage than sense.... A lot of young cats considered Minton's too steep a slope, but I never imagined that somebody might not like me because I was white."

As Mike told the story, Davis asked him, "(Do) you have eyes to make a rehearsal tomorrow?" He did, and thus walked in on one of the most memorable bands in history: Davis' so-called Birth of the Cool band, with Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, John Lewis, Lee Konitz and others. Steep slopes, indeed.

Years later, after he was established as one of the deans of jazz journalism, Mike asked Miles why he had picked him. "I liked your sound," replied the trumpeter; a compliment that Mike considered the greatest of his life. Mike was the kind of guy who also got a kick out of quoting the alternative reason Miles used: "J.J. (Johnson) was busy, so I got this white cat."

That was Mike; one of the funniest and hippest people I ever met.

We only got to hang a couple of times – at International Association of Jazz Education conferences – but Mike began submitting his columns to the Jazz Journalists Association website while I was editor, and so we started corresponding regularly.

He had a fascinating and rich life, which included marriage to Charlotte Zwerin, the renowned filmmaker who is best known for her work with the Maysles brothers (Gimme Shelter, et.al.) and on the film Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser.

He was slowed at the end by a stroke, but the last time I heard from him he was still swinging. Always swinging.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Hendrix: Still Standing Near The Fire

Thirty-eight years ago, in the March 30, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone, critic Stephen Davis began a review of Jimi Hendrix's Hendrix In The West with these words: "Scrape, scrape. That sound you hear is Eddie Kramer, the proprietor of the late Jimi Hendrix's New York recording studio, Electric Ladyland (sic), scraping the bottom of the Hendrix barrel for the second and possibly second-to-last posthumous album of the deceased genius' music."

Mind, this was before albums like War Heroes, Loose Ends, Crash Landing, Midnight Lightning, et.al. were unleashed on a public hungry for more from the man who sanctioned just three studio albums during his career.

The state of Hendrix's estate and the various reissue programs licensed by it are well documented, and I had long since grown cynical about the state of the Hendrix catalog myself. As many interesting tidbits that the estate had released under the aegis of Jimi's adopted half-sister Janie, it had also done things like slap his name on golf balls and psuedo-psychedelic clothing. Long ago, I stopped paying much attention.

But the estate's deal with Sony Legacy brought new hope. After all, the company has done a fabulous job with re-packaging the Miles Davis catalog and reissuing essential music by artists like Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. Maybe they'd do right by Hendrix, too.

But a new studio album? I immediately flashed back to that Rolling Stone review, but a couple of good advance notices piqued my interest.

I glanced at the sleeve of Valleys Of Neptune when it arrived this morning and thought, Hmmm, "Stone Free," "Hear My Train A Comin'," "Lover Man," "Fire." Ah, more of the same. I put the disc on and started into some work. The good mixes caught my ear, and the alternative versions were interesting. And then I came to "Red House." Wait a minute! Why was the original Experience re-doing that and "Fire" in early 1969?

The liner notes explain that the band re-cut them at a rehearsal for their appearance at Royal Albert Hall—a performance that was filmed (and rumour has it, will finally be released in some decent form)—and released posthumously on a couple of quasi-bootlegs.

Suffice to say that if Stephen Davis had known this was in Kramer's "barrel" he wouldn't have been so hasty. Hendrix's guitar solo and vocals are first rate—easily on par with the original release (on Are You Experienced in the UK and Smash Hits in North America)—and the quality is almost that good on several other tracks. This is more than barrel scraping or cashing in; this sounds like a dedicated Eddie Kramer listening to hours and hours of stuff and finding some real gems. If only for the sound of that guitar on "Red House" and a clean studio version of Hendrix's killer cover of "Sunshine Of Your Love," Valleys Of Neptune is a winner.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

American Quartet: The Full List

Someone asked me the other day for the full list of the output of Keith Jarrett's American Quartet so they could follow along. Here it is, with the original labels and recording dates:

El Juicio – Atlantic Records 1971
Birth – Atlantic Records 1971
Expectations – Columbia Records 1971
Fort Yawuh – Impulse! 1973
Treasure Island – Impulse! 1974
Death And The Flower – Impulse! 1974
Backhand – Impulse! 1974
Mysteries – Impulse! 1975
Shades – Impulse! 1975
The Survivors' Suite – ECM 1976
Eyes Of The Heart – ECM 1976
Byablue – Impulse! 1976
Bop-Be – Impulse! 1977

Talk About Woodshedding!

Saxophonist Jane Bunnett and trumpeter Larry Cramer are taking their Art Of Jazz Festival on the road this summer, leaving the red-brick urban oasis of Toronto's Distillery District and heading north to Bancroft, Ontario.

Bunnett's family has owned land in the region south of Algonquin Park for almost a century, so the Bancroft area—and its vibrant arts community—is not new to the couple. Lately, they've been attracted to the log bandstand that the town constructed on the York River in 2001, which will be the primary site of the new Art Of Jazz presents the Algonquin Arts & Music Festival from July 30 to August 1.

Bunnett and Cramer are still putting together a lineup, so stay tuned for more details.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Recognition Issues

Bill King announced via Facebook this week that he is discontinuing the National Jazz Awards program that he began in 2002 (picking up from the earlier Jazz Report Awards that he ran with his then-business partner Greg Sutherland). King says that his team lacks the time to beat the corporate bushes to make up for the shortfall caused by the withdrawal of the awards program's funding through the Canadian government's FACTOR grants.

Although it struggled in its early years to expand its online voting base beyond Toronto—and a fairly conservative Toronto voting base at that—the National Jazz Awards caught on mid-decade and was well on its way to recognizing the achievements of jazz artists and industry workers across the country. (Full disclosure: I was the winner in the National Jazz Awards Journalist of the Year category for 2009, and served on the program's nomination committee in its early years.)

King was tireless in promoting and organizing the awards (last summer, he grimaced in pain from a back ailment as he scrambled around on the night of the ceremony) and while the process had its flaws he was never less than idealistic about his desire to recognize excellence in Canadian jazz.

Ironically, as the NJAs falter this week, the nominations for the Juno Awards (Canada's equivalent of the US Grammys) are being announced. The Junos have the advantage of focusing on popular music (I can't recall jazz ever being showcased on the national TV broadcast) but have neither the depth of the NJAs nor the ability to reflect the input of those who consume artists' work.

These awards programs are thankless (I've also been intimately involved in the Jazz Journalists Association's Jazz Awards over the years) but the recognition does mean a lot, and the ability for members of the industry to come together to celebrate their achievements is important, too. Whenever I think of the NJAs and the Jazz Report Awards I reflect on a speech that saxophonist Jane Bunnett made at one of the awards ceremonies. Looking out at the assembled artists and guests and still chuckling at some of the remarks that had been made by awards recipients, she said: "What a crazy bunch of people we are."

We need more opportunities to realize and express those thoughts.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Great Expectations

In some ways, Expectations—released on Columbia Records in 1972—is something of a ringer in the catalog of Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet. The full quartet—Jarrett, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian—is only featured on five of the 11 tracks, and only one piece is played by just the quartet. That stated, the album—originally a two-LP set—was produced by George Avakian, who also produced the band’s two Atlantic releases, and Jarrett’s writing is in the same mode as El Juicio and Birth. It fits into the lineage.

The original album is quite an artifact, with an Afro’ed and tie-dyed Jarrett gracing the back cover, just above 22 flags, representing “countries in which Keith Jarrett has won the praise and respect of musicians, critics and the public.” That would be 22 out of more than 190? Probably not something a “global” jazzman would want to flaunt today. Perhaps the record label had second thoughts, too; Expectations was Jarrett’s only release on Columbia.

The additional elements for these sessions include percussionist Airto Moreira, who had been in Miles Davis’ band with Jarrett, uncredited string and brass sections, and the brilliant guitarist Sam Brown. A Maryland native who first drew attention for his work on Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, Brown had a stinging attack and a tart tone that Jarrett called on again for Treasure Island in 1974. He committed suicide at the age of 38 in 1977.

Side 1 includes some of my favourite of Jarrett’s writing during this period, in particular “Common Mama,” whose fusion of gospel, blues, Latin and free music makes the case for calling this the American Quartet. Like long stretches of the Bremen and Lausanne solo concerts that ECM released in 1973, Jarrett grooves as he ruminates on a theme. That gives way to a squalling Redman solo, and either Jarrett or Moreira spices things up with a tambourine accompaniment that sounds like that spine-snapping rhythm riff from Miles Davis’ “Helen Butte.” Finally, an Ornette-like theme develops and is handed off to Jarrett for a particularly joyous closing solo.

The spirit of Ornette also infuses “Roussillon,” one of the tracks performed by the quartet alone. Jarrett’s soprano weaves around Redman’s tenor, and following a Haden interlude, Jarrett plays a particularly intense piano solo. To my ear, Redman’s growling tenor solo sounds like he’s emulating Jarrett’s signature vocalizations without mocking the boss.

“The Magician In You” has one of those Jarrett-composed melody lines that is both sprightly and majestic, and it’s attractively voiced by Brown, bookending a Jarrett solo that is filled with leaps and twists. Even with those charms, the performance is almost undone by tentative rhythmic accompaniment that makes this sound like it’s a rehearsal.

Of the other augmented quartet performances on Expectations, “Sundance” is another highlight of the band’s early years—with Brown and Redman taking raucous solos over a churning rhythm bed. “Bring Back The Time When (If)” adds Moreira and drops Brown, and captures the freewheeling side of the quartet between statements of a theme that hints at both calypso and the church.

The gospel connection is solidified in the closing “There Is A Road (God’s River),” which eschews Redman but provides Brown with an exceptional showcase. The string section adds little except some drama, but neither do they weigh down this strong closer.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Birth—The Quartet's Second Helping


Recorded by George Avakian at the same July 1971 sessions that produced El Juicio—the debut release by Keith Jarrett’s so-called American Quartet (featuring Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman and Paul Motian)—Birth leans much more strongly on the band’s experimental side.

Actually, “experimental” might be too mild a word for what Haden does with his bass by processing it through a wah-wah pedal on “Mortgage On My Soul (Wah-Wah).” Listening to it again after all these years—it has not drawn me back in the intervening three decades—I am reminded of producer Teo Macero’s story of adding wah-wah to Miles Davis’ trumpet for the first time. Seeking to emulate the sounds that guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Terry Kath and Freddie Stewart were making sound hip, Macero—in his own words—“wah-wah’ed the shit out of it.” Haden’s use of the pedal shows just as much restraint.

Rippling and spitting behind a dual sax line, with Jarrett on soprano, Haden’s bass is a powerful engine on this highly danceable piece, and all these years later the elastic growl doesn’t even grate much anymore.

While sonically manipulating a tone as sublime as Haden’s may be the nadir of taste circa 1971, the freedom exhibited on “Spirit” is what made the era so much fun to live through. Mixing Redman’s Chinese oboe, which he dubbed the musette, metallic percussion, flute, bass drums and Halloween-scary vocals, the song has charm despite sounding dated in an era when so much of the world’s music is as close as our earbuds.

“Forget Your Memories (And They’ll Remember You)” has a bit of everything, including a taut bassline—and tremendous solo—from Haden, a highly textured tenor lead, understated drumming and emotive piano playing.

A discursive 11 minutes long, “Remorse” is more of what we used to call “head music” in the early ‘70s, featuring steel drums, banjo (by Jarrett!) and a wailing clarinet solo by Redman. Haden and Motian keep the tension high, and Jarrett’s fractured piano accompaniment leads to one of those spiraling solo statements of his that is an ideal blend of quicksilver imagination and pianistic technique. It forms a nice birth/death bookend with the title composition, which is the album’s highlight. The opening duet between Jarrett and Redman is gorgeous, and makes me wish they had done more of this type of thing. Redman’s bluesy approach is a beautiful match for Jarrett’s romantic lyricism, much the same as the pairing of Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan.

At a little over 35 minutes there is little question that Birth was a helping of leftovers from the band’s first sessions, but it helps flesh out a map of where this quartet would venture during its six-year life.

Jarrett's El Juicio: The Quartet Begins

Keith Jarrett has become so identified with his so-called Standards Trio with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock, and his on-again, off-again interest in solo improvisation that it is difficult to think of a time (1966-72) when he was a polymathic precursor of more recent artists like Dave Douglas and Bill Frisell.

As the pianist in the Charles Lloyd Quartet—that rare jazz band that crossed over to an audience more interested in rock music—he had a profile that few jazz musicians attain in their early 20s. He released his first solo album, Life Between The Exit Signs, in 1967, and formed a trio with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian the next year. In 1970, Manfred Eicher, owner of the nascent ECM record label, invited the young pianist to record for him (initiating a relationship that is now 40 years old). That year, Jarrett also briefly compromised his stance against electronic instruments for the opportunity to create music alongside Miles Davis. Playing with Davis before large crowds—the culmination of which was the 1970 Isle of Wight Pop Festival, where Jarrett created a fearsome frisson in his attack on his electric keyboard—broadened his exposure to an even greater degree than his tenure with Lloyd.

By 1971—the year he turned 26—Jarrett was in a position to call his own artistic shots. One of the results was a growing interest in performing solo piano concerts with no set musical agenda (an arc that begins with one of my favourite Jarrett recordings, Facing You, and peaks with The Köln Concert—still the largest-selling recording in ECM’s vast catalogue).

Along with Davis, one of older artists Jarrett revered was Ornette Coleman. While Coleman had eschewed piano in his bands since leaving the orbit of Paul Bley in the late 1950s, Jarrett decided to rejuvenate his trio with the addition of Dewey Redman, Coleman’s bandmate since 1968, and explore music that was dominated by muscular improvisation. As noted here, Jarrett recognized a challenge in using two musicians—Haden and Redman—who were indoctrinated in Coleman’s approach to melodic free playing. In July 1971, he convened his new quartet in the studio with veteran producer George Avakian. The results are captured on two albums: El Juicio (The Judgement) and Birth. I’ll deal with them in separate posts.

It begins with the bass. One of the dominant features of the American Quartet's music was the heft and percussive thrust of Haden's bass. On "Gypsy Moth," El Juicio's opening track, Haden is high in the mix (he even sounds powerful on an MP3 download) laying down a strong pulse that grooves and weaves throughout the piece. In the opening minutes, Jarrett uses this foundation to accentuate his gospel-influenced playing. The percussion is spare, even and metallic sounding, a foreshadowing of the frequent use of additional percussionists—either Airto Moreira, Guilherme Franco or Danny Johnson. Although the American Quartet is often remembered for its "outside" leanings, what many people disregard is how hard this band could cook. During Jarrett's piano introduction the band sounds like some kind of strange juke joint hybrid (even Jarrett's trademark vocalizations sound more celebratory than anguished in this context). In his liner notes for The Impulse Years: 1973-1974—a collection of the quartet's mid-period recordings—Chuck Berg writes that the band was sometimes criticized for sounding like Ramsey Lewis' popular trio, a comparison that never struck me. What does strike me, once Redman enters, is how Jarrett's melody line and the rigor the band brings to it might've influenced Pat Metheny (who would work with Redman and Haden on his '80-'81 recording). In its middle section, "Gypsy Moth" has that propulsive sailing element that so much of Metheny's early writing has. But there's more, too. After stating that airy melody, Redman begins to extend into a highly textured improvisation, with Haden louder than ever, and the percussion—sounding like Jarrett has picked up a tambourine—becomes more ragged and urgent. Finally, the piano re-enters for the tune's closing 45 seconds.

As an introductory statement, "Gypsy Moth" has almost every element that would make the American Quartet so influential. In little over eight minutes, the band points to a new direction in jazz—at once driving and fragmented, joyous and inward looking.

Coleman's influence is unmistakable on "Toll Road," with Jarrett combining his soprano sax with Redman's tenor in the kind of jostling unison head that Coleman and Don Cherry pioneered, a relationship that is made even more obvious on the two-part "Piece For Ornette."

"Pardon My Rags" introduces yet another fascination Jarrett expressed through the American Quartet: a love for exotic musical sources. Here, the opening percussion statement sounds like an extrapolation of Balinese music; later, he would explore Asian micro-tonality through Redman's use of the shrill, double-reed suona, which he called a musette.

In recent years, Jarrett's music has been perceived as so tightly controlled that it is difficult to remember that he used the American Quartet to explore so many diverse elements. When we get to Birth we'll explore Haden's use of wah-wah manipulation of his bass, but on El Juicio's "Pre-Judgement Atmosphere" the sonic palette expands to include more metallic percussion (a precursor of Henry Threadgill's hubkaphone?) and electronically processed vocals that are reminiscent of Hermeto Pascoal's work on Davis' Live-Evil. It remains a kind of quaint reminder of the sound of the early '70s.

The title track shows the quartet as many people seem to recall it—improvising freely and fervently in much the same style as Coleman's quartet, which means that Motian is a lot more aggressive than he has been for the past 35 years. In this early work, Jarrett cleaves closer to the types of thematic statements that Coleman writes than he would in later recordings, and it's only when he shifts back to piano from soprano on the second part of "Piece For Ornette" that the band sounds like it's taking Coleman's influence somewhere untried. Jarrett would later opine that this band never recorded anything as untethered as it was capable of, but they sound marvelously free on the second part of "Piece For Ornette," with Jarrett using many of his piano signatures and his bandmates flowing all around him.

As an introduction, El Juicio is not without its flaws, but it definitely sounds like a harbinger of great things.