Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed, 1942-2013

"Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive."

Those words are a touchstone phrase of Bruce Springsteen's heroic "This Hard Land," but might serve as the artistic mission statement of Lou Reed.

As illustrated by the outpouring of sorrow and appreciation since his death was announced on Sunday afternoon, Reed had achieved the kind of status that Springsteen, Bob Dylan and only a few other songwriters from the '60s and '70s have reached.

Over the course of a 50-plus year career it's not unusual for artists to lose their focus, soften their edges, and take it easy on themselves and their audiences. Not Lou Reed. As those who knew him say, he had a soft side to be sure, but he was not a man who compromised his artistic vision. And, of course, God help the fools who thought he was just a jukebox who could be persuaded to regurgitate the decades-old songs they wanted to hear.

I last saw Reed in person at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal in a trio with his wife Laurie Anderson and John Zorn. I can't imagine that anyone would approach that setting with the hope that the musicians would set aside their own ideas to play "Walk On The Wild Side" or "Sweet Jane," but there were a few calls for those hits, and you could feel the tension rise each time an audience member voiced a request.

Eventually, Zorn suggested that anyone expecting to hear FM-friendly songs from Reed's catalogue should leave the room, and a number did. A few others launched catcalls against the thick slabs of electronic sounds that Reed, Anderson and Zorn created.

I've never understood people who don't have the patience to hear the latest idea created by artists who have moved them in the past, but Reed summed it up nicely in something he said to journalist Martin Johnson, and quoted by Martin in a wonderful Facebook post this morning: "Sometimes you have to remember that the audience just doesn't have ears. They have these little things attached to the side of their heads, but they don't know how to use them."

Reed took his cues from the uncompromising artists he admired, and we are the richer for it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ronald Shannon Jackson, 1940-2013

I'm currently listening, filled with emotion, to a 17-hour live radio tribute to drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson on WKCR-FM. I had just arrived at the Quebec City Jazz Festival when I learned that Jackson had died of leukemia.

Jackson's music was a mainstay of the radio program I co-hosted with my friend Don Lahey in the early 1980s, and I continue to feel that he was one of the most creative composers of that rich era. As a drummer? Well, as a former drum student who once convinced my teacher to break down a typical Jackson fill for me and teach me to play it, all I can say is that his ability behind the kit was superhuman. That shit was hard!

One of the highlights of the time I spent in jazz festival administration in the late '80s was the day that Jackson arrived to play our festival. We had programmed a mini-tribute to Ornette Coleman that year, with Jackson on one outdoor stage (with his three-guitar lineup, featuring the incredible Jef Lee Johnson) and Coleman himself on our main stage indoors.

I remember Jackson's equipment rider almost drove our volunteer stage crew around the bend. I think he was the first artist we had ever booked who brought his own sound guy and demanded an active monitor mix. And his drum kit was HUGE.

We had a request for a radio interview with Jackson, but it wasn't scheduled until a couple of hours after the band's soundcheck. I thought this might be a problem, but Jackson happily accepted my invitation to hang out with me in our administration trailer and drink beer. We had a great time, during which he told me about his journey to Africa, which he undertook on his own with just a minimum of clothing and a hand drum. He had a terrific, uplifting view of life, and of course a wealth of stories about working with Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Coleman. Needless to say, I was in heaven.

Two other things I recall about that day, and both reveal a private side of the man.

The first was one of the most uncomfortable things I ever had to do in that role, and that involved asking Jackson if he minded if the opening act used his drum kit. His stage setup was so extensive that there was no room for the opening act to set up in front of it, and the crew didn't think there would be time to strike Jackson's kit and re-set it. If we hadn't spent two hours hanging out over beer in the trailer, he might have punched me; instead, he looked at me with a pained expression and said: "Man, I let Sunny Murray use my drums once and he fucked them up. No!" He was laughing as he said it, but the 'no' was emphatic.

The second memory—and a lasting one—is from after his show. We had dodged a thunder storm during his show (the next morning's newspaper had an incredible photo of Jackson's band on stage with storm clouds amassed overhead and a halo of light above the stage) and we were de-stressing outside the dressing room that was adjacent to the stage. In those years, our outdoor stage was built on the bank of the Rideau Canal, so were overlooking the lights along the canal and the greenery that ran along its sides. Jackson had hoped that his old friend, saxophonist Billy Robinson—a longtime resident of Ottawa—would show up to see him perform, and he was reminiscing about growing up in Texas. He told me how much he loved the Texas countryside—antithetical, I thought, for someone who's music sounded so urban—and he said: "James, you have a beautiful city. It's like a city set in the country."

He had a plane to catch for Japan the next day, so he passed on my invitation to join me for the late show by Archie Shepp at one of our other venues. I never saw him again, but his music, and those memories of a brief time shared have stayed strong in my heart.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A Rock Band For The Ages

Nineteen seventy-two was a great year for live albums by three of the most musical rock bands of the time.

The Allman Brothers Band released Eat A Peach, a double album that contained guitarist Duane Allman's two best live performances: "Mountain Jam" and "One Way Out."

The Grateful Dead put out a tiny sampling of the music it recorded during an important European tour.

And The Band topped both with a two-LP set called Rock Of Ages. Recorded at New York City's
Academy Of Music over four nights at the end of December 1971, the set caught The Band at their peak, with a deep catalogue of distinctive songs and horn charts written for the occasion by Allen Toussaint. Now, 42 years after the fact, guitarist Robbie Robertson—one of just two surviving members—has revisited the event, expanding the original package to include other material and presenting a new vision of the performances by commissioning two new sound mixes, along with a couple of tantalizing filmed glimpses of the proceedings.

Robertson has been in a reflective mood recently, producing a highly personal new solo recording and beginning work on an autobiography, and his reflections on this time in The Band's career are characteristically picaresque. In his telling, The Band is always on the brink of disaster, until the fates intervene.

In the case of the Academy of Music performances, the potential disaster loomed in the form of a gravely ill Toussaint who had lost a suitcase holding all the horn arrangements he had written for the occasion. Much like an earlier story of threatened calamity—in which Robertson was laid low with a bizarre malady on the eve of a big show and had to be resurrected through hypnotism—Toussaint comes through at the last minute: A doctor arrives at a snowbound Woodstock cottage and administers a miracle cure, and the stricken New Orleans pianist re-creates his lost work. The story is at odds with an earlier one Robertson told author Barney Hoskyns for his book Across The Great Divide, which has Toussaint working at a somewhat more leisurely pace during December 1971 at The Band's headquarters in Woodstock.

Whether or not Robertson is laying it on a bit thick as time passes (he didn't travel with Bob Dylan during the height of Dylan's Mystery Tramp period without learning a trick or two) is beside the point; Toussaint's horn charts reveal new depths and colours in The Band's songs.

Horn bands were hugely popular in 1971, with Chicago Transit Authority riding high on the pop charts and Blood, Sweat & Tears well into its decade of high-level creativity. Even the guitar-based Allman Brothers Band had toyed with adding horns when they recorded their epic At Fillmore East double album. But the dominant style of arrangement was hard and aggressive—a popping, metallic, masculine sound that owed a lot to the jazz bands of Buddy Rich and Thad Jones-Mel Lewis. Toussaint brought a very different approach to his charts: Redolent of his Southern heritage, with accents that fell slightly behind the beat, and full of space. His New Orleans groove was an ideal match for Levon Helm's drumming style, and his use of syncopation and rich harmony added rigour to a rhythm section that—Helm aside—was uniquely loose and spare. That he was the ideal person to add narrative colour to stories like Robertson's tale of the defeated and disgusted Virgil Caine in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was a bonus.

If Toussaint's arrangements were successful because they struck an ideal balance with the way Robertson, Helm and the other members of The Band had constructed their catalogue of material, there was another, even more critical balance at play in these performances. Part of the charm of The Band was the fact that they always seemed on the verge of tearing apart. Richard Manuel was always emotionally and mentally fragile, a condition that worsened until his eventual suicide in 1986. Rick Danko was a scrappy drinker. Helm was so ornery that he had left the group rather than participate in the drugged-out circus that was Dylan's 1966 tour. Garth Hudson was, and remains, an eccentric—at once aloof from the others in the group and yet an essential part of their unique sound. Robertson, of course, is renowned for the size of his ego and the boundless nature of his ambition.

Beginning in 1972, those divergent personalities would begin to pull apart, part of a "collective depression" Robertson said fell over his bandmates. According to some, as Hoskyns details in his book, Manuel was drinking himself to death, while Danko narrowly escaped serious injury from a car accident or two. Helm was also deep into drug use.

But, at the end of 1971, those elements were in perfect balance, and both Manuel and Danko were, if not in good health, at least in great voice—an essential state, considering how important they were to The Band's unique three-lead signature sound.

The disintegration of the group's unity and sense of purpose in 1972 left Robertson alone to mix the tapes that would form Rock Of Ages, and the adventure proved to be beyond his capabilities. The original vinyl LPs lacked depth and clarity, and it was a measure of how strong the music was that even the poor mix couldn't totally obscure what had gone on at The Academy of Music.

Now, Robertson has set out to put things right, beginning with a remix of the Rock Of Ages tracks—along with six other songs and Dylan's four performances—by Bob Clearmountain, who made his reputation through years of work with Bruce Springsteen. Clearmountain also created a surround sound mix, which accompanies the two filmed performances on a DVD in the deluxe package.

In addition, Robertson had his son Sebastian (along with Jon Castelli) re-create the soundboard mix of the complete New Year's Eve show, which adds 16 new performances to what previously existed.

The result is outstanding, crystal clear and full of character. One can now concentrate solely on Howard Johnson's baritone sax and tuba, a revelation in themselves, hear the crisp sonority of Robertson's distinctive Telecaster tone, and appreciate the diverse vocal timbres of Helm, Manuel and Danko. But, even with mixes this clear, it's impossible—as Toussaint and Robertson both say—to plumb the mysteries of Danko's bass playing. As Toussaint notes, it's impossible to find a dominant predecessor to his sound, and Robertson points out that, even after 16 years of playing together, he couldn't figure out how Danko could nail his parts on a fretless bass while singing with his eyes closed. He is nothing less than a marvel.

A year after these three seminal live recordings were released, the three bands came together in Watkin's Glen, New York, for what remains one of the largest festivals in history, but so much had changed. Duane Allman, of course, had died before Eat A Peach was released. Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, a founding member of the Dead, succumbed to alcoholism in March 1973, and the band's sound began to morph away from the blues that McKernan loved. The Band's members were rebounding from the depths of their 1972 debauchery, but the writing was on the wall: Robertson and his wife had left Woodstock for Montreal, his deep well of songwriting inspiration had dried up, and The Band had resorted to recording an album of old rock & roll standards. The successful 1974 reunion tour with Dylan was still ahead of them; however, in retrospect, the group had begun the spiral that would end at Thanksgiving in 1976, when Robertson retired from the road, split up with his wife and moved to Hollywood to party hard with film director Martin Scorsese.

Many people know The Band's onstage persona best from Scorsese's concert film The Last Waltz, but these performances at The Academy of Music represent the group's zenith as a performing act.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Examining Jazz and Community

Tonight, in my city—Ottawa—a local group of improvisers are getting together to play something called 'Whose Solo Is It Anyway.' Chances are, the music they make will sound different than if a group of musicians in your community did the same thing.

Jazz may be global, but it's incredibly local, too.

From it's beginnings—in the New Orleans brothel district known as Storyville—jazz has reflected the streets on which it is made. As a living art form, it is channeled not just from the musicians who make, but from their communication with their audience, and their interplay with other artists (including poets, painters, dancers, and writers) in their community. The music speaks of the levels of joy and hardship the artists feel, and it is flavoured by the other types of music that the players listen to.

Diane Martin
On October 20, as part of the Festival de Jazz de Quebec, I'll be moderating a panel discussion onthe topic of Jazz & Community. Joining me will be the distinguished British jazz journalist Alyn Shipton, my Ottawa colleague Peter Hum (popular author of JazzBlog), Radio-Canada broadcaster and blogger Stanley Péan, and  Le Soleil arts columnist Nicolas Houle. Keeping us all in line, and helping to translate our bilingual discussion will be Radio-Canada host Diane Martin.

Alyn is planning to discuss the importance of Afro-Caribbean music in Britain, and the way it has influenced the contemporary jazz scene there. Peter will talk about the influential community that is the sphere of post-secondary jazz education. For my part, I'll be touching on such critical improvising cauldrons as the Black Artists Group of St. Louis, Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Amsterdam, and in New York City, the Loft  and Downtown music scenes. I'm counting on our Quebec colleagues to shine a critical light on the evolution of their province's jazz scene—from the Little Burgundy of Steep Wade and Oscar Peterson to the contemporary scene that thrives around players like Normand Guilbeault, Marianne Trudel, Jean Derome, and so many others.

Here's the program if you'd like to know more. As you'll see, we are honoured to be part of such a rich roster of performing artists. Please check it out if you're in the Quebec City area.