Header Quote

"If you ain't got it in you, you can't blow it out."
— Louis Armstrong

Friday, July 24, 2015

Robert Glasper: Covered (Recorded live at Capital Studios)

If you listen to early recordings by Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, or McCoy Tyner, you will hear some superb but relatively conventional jazz pianism. Playing as sidemen with older talents, they were more likely to stick to the script of the moment. But within less than a decade, each would become idiosyncratically themselves, developing an individual vocabulary they had nurtured over some time and moving its quirks to the center of their art. In essence, they became more utterly themselves, to the point where just a bar or two or their playing made it clear that only they could be at keys.

If you listen Robert Glasper’s first Blue Note disc as a leader, 2005’s Canvas, similarly you hear only the prototype, the beginnings of a wholly individual voice. It’s there, a new sound, but there is still plenty of playing that might be someone else or someone coming from similar influences.
On Covered, his latest recording (but, like the early ones, a strictly acoustic jazz trio record) there is no more mistaking Glasper for anyone but himself.

Today, Robert Glasper has about as distinctive a profile as you can have in jazz. He is a Grammy-winning leader of several bands, an in-demand producer for other artists, as well as a prolific session player. He has a distinctive sound that makes him immediately identifiable on any record. He’s big enough that, on the new record by bassist and producer Marcus Miller, he plays a Fender Rhodes electric piano solo on just one song — one song on which a regular band member plays the Rhodes accompaniment. That’s how special he is.

Although Glasper is undoubtedly a jazz player, his Grammy is not for jazz. And much of his production and sideman work has been in hip hop. And his new recording for Blue Notes sits right on the line; intriguingly so.

Back from years of silence is Glasper’s acoustic jazz trio (with Vicente Archer on bass and Damion Reid on drums) playing songs mostly from Glasper’s two R&B-ish Black Radio records: tunes by Glasper, Macy Gray, Radiohead, Musiq Soulchild, Joni Mitchell, Jhene Aiko, John Legend, and Bilal Oliver. Does that make Covered a jazz recording of “new standards”? Not in the conventional sense, as this trio has largely transformed the language of an acoustic jazz piano trio to adapt it to a new set of rhythms and habits that are deeply informed by hip hop and its musical cousins. Robert Glasper doesn’t “swing” these pop songs (which is an old idea he’d hardly bother with).

Instead, what emerges on Covered is the full extent to which Robert Glasper has matured as an individual stylist. Today, he sounds utterly Glasper on everything he plays, no matter the source material or context. I’m not saying he is as great or important as Monk or Tyner, of course, but he is now as distinctive.

Take his new “Stella by Starlight”. He begins unaccompanied in a tumbling rush of notes that track the well-known harmonies of a thousand other versions. But the attack is rhythmically distinctive, quickly breaking into Glasper’s signature sound: a fluttering arpeggiation of chords and melody that offsets his right and left hand by portion of a beat. It gives his acoustic piano a slightly processed sound, as if he had run it through a mental “chorus” pedal. Soon, Archer and Reid are in, but this is hardly a “jazz ballad” performance by the trio. Archer is thumping “the one” in his own stuttered heartbeat pattern, and Reid is playing quadruple-time brush hits against his snare, chittering and syncopating, almost as if he were performing impossibly fine and fast scratching on a turntable. Glasper’s improvised runs are set against “Stella” harmonies, but what seems to be a shortened and altered sequence of chords, such that when the melody returns it is just a sketch of itself.
There are other tunes where Glasper has chosen a melody and harmonic structure that is already fully to his liking. Joni Mitchell’s “Barangrill” barely requires a transformation, as the songwriter’s floating sense of harmony and spinning melody is right in Glasper’s bag. His style also seems beautifully suited to Radiohead on “Reckoner” (from In Rainbows) with a simple melody a pulsing chords in a deceptively not-that-simple pattern pass from drone into groove. Each song gives Glasper a chance to improvise in probing lines against a groove.

Read the whole review HERE AT POPMATTERS.

Repost from 2006: Jazz Today: The Strange, Mixed Fate of Steely Dan

Back in 2006 (wow, I am older than old), I wrote this JAZZ TODAY column for PopMatters that has since passed out of 'net availability. (Doesn't everyone claim that once it's on the internet it can never go away?)

Because the topic remains highly relevant, here it is again:

Jazz Today: The Strange, Mixed Fate of Steely Dan



By Will Layman



If you're a jazz fan of my vintage -- born in the early '60s and raised in the soft-rock '70s suburbs -- then your favorite rock band is very likely Steely Dan.  Arguably the most jazz-informed rock band of all time, The Dan combined harmonic sophistication with guitars and sardonic lyrics.  And, amazingly: hit songs -- "Reelin' in the Years", "Deacon Blues", "Hey Nineteen".



But in 2006, being a Dan Fan is no picnic.  Most of your hippest friends think you suffer from a streak of bad taste run wildly amok.



 This fact -- and it is a stone cold truth-and-a-half -- sends me into musical lament.  O, why-oh-why is Steely Dan so reviled by today's rock aficionados and indie-pop hipsters?  Must I really live in a world where my recent attendance at a Donald Fagen solo concert (supporting his new album Morph the Cat) is a shameful secret to be hidden from all those under the age of 40?  Can it be true -- can it?! -- that Steely Dan truly is nothing more than a mush of smoove jazz topped with indecipherable lyrics -- an abomination that simply hypnotized us in the '70s because we didn't know any better?



These questions haunt me.  And so I've set out to stare them down, speak to the critics, face my own fears, and evaluate the jazz-rock legacy of Steely Dan.



Herein, I issue my findings:



Part One:  Steely Dan Sucks

A haiku posted on the Internet:


I hate Steely Dan

With a bright purple passion

But some songs are good


Despite my DanFandom, I have consulted with the critics and found that they have a case.  A pretty good one.  The case against Steely Dan can be summarized thusly: cheese. Specifically, Velveeta.



Washington Post concert reviewer Dave McKenna, reviewing that Donald Fagen concert I attended, gets right to the point, calling Fagen's music "processed to such a degree that one could believe it was intended to be played while sitcom credits roll, or between floors. But a whole lot of folks, including the mostly middle-aged fans who cheered every note at the Warner, never regarded Fagen's stuff as Muzak to their ears."



There it is in a nutshell.  Steely Dan's "processed" sound is modern elevator music.  It's a mushy, soft thing -- devoid of rough edges and perfect for pacifying middle-aged music fans.



But what makes it so?  The clean funk beats layered with Fender Rhodes and organ.  The slinky and perfect female background vocalists.  The wedding-band-ish small horn section that adds orchestration to nearly all the songs. Guitarists who play clean, fleet solos with limited distortion.



McKenna incisively calls the Steely Dan records "almost anti-rock records".  He then immediately damns the band as precursor to the Devil he-self: "After all these years, it seems obvious that were it not for the fantastic commercial success of [Steely Dan], programmers at mainstream FM stations might never have foisted subsequent smooth-jazz purveyors from Chuck Mangione to Kenny G on the masses.



Ouch.  But there's truth there.  The Dan not only sound kind of smoove, but those stations put tunes like "Time Out of Mind" in their rotation.  And listen to this, a comment I found posted on the Ben Folds web site in response to a reference to Becker and Fagen: "Steely Dan? YESSS!  Dude!  I totally bought the new Spyro Gyra!  It rox my sox hardcore!"  This alone is reason to suspect Steely Dan of something deeply evil.



McKenna calls it a "quiet-storm ambiance", and a mysterious anonymous source I consulted expresses it in his spelling -- Steely Dan are "lyte-n'-smooth-70's-jazz-rockers".  Mystery Man adds:  "I can enjoy them in measured doses.  Compositionally is where they lose me -- they get too Berklee [College of Music], too often.  There are few things that I dislike more in songwriting than tonally meaningless bridges and interlude sections.  Becker and Fagen seem to be master craftsmen at that."



And that's the other primary element in the Steely Dan Cheese Factor: the band's reputation for being "master craftsmen" rather than rockers -- studio perfectionists who are uninterested in the rock aesthetic of "rawness" or spontaneous edge. A 1998 article from Pulse lumped Steely Dan in with the Eagles as "studio obsessed" -- a reputation Becker and Fagen have certainly earned.  Their records are engineered within an inch of their lives, and the band is famously, not a band at all -- just a couple of songwriters in love with bebop harmony and their own dystopian imaginations.



Analysis aside, there seems to be something innately off-putting about Steely Dan's music.  Particularly if you are under 40, this dislike can be visceral and overwhelming. For example, a comment posted on the website for a band called "Moonshine Still", which apparently did a cover of The Dan's "Night By Night" at a show in July of 2003, states:  "Steely Dan is my least favorite band in the entire history of music. They gross me out. I can't really explain it, but I've always felt this way about them." One of my most incisive and talented musician friends puts it more graphically: "My loathing of Steely Dan is near 100%, though I can't pin specifics on it at all.  I suppose it's a subconscious thing, like thinking milk is always going to have gone bad, or the way dogs can sniff out cancer.  I'm connately put off by them."



This guy, a guitarist, can find no use for The Dan, not even their carefully crafted and obsessed-over guitar solos.  "It feels like posturing.  Awesome guitar inside a shit song makes the awesome guitar seem clownish or something."



And so it is: cheesy, clownish, processed, and laying the groundwork for smoove jazz.  How can you even think of defending this band?



Part Two:  Steely Dan, Triumphantly Uncool

In the mid-70s, the case for Steely Dan was plain: they write great, uniquely weird songs.  This was back before Reagan, when weird was still kind of cool and when having a jazz attack in your pop music was kind of hip.  The electric pianos and saxophone solos were edgy, not Mangione.



Indeed, back then, it was precisely Steely Dan's geeky "anti-rock" posture that made them a cool kid's obsession: a couple of great musicians who -- quite oddly -- fit gorgeous jazz-laced melodies to lyrics about madmen and child molestors.



My Mystery Source puts it nicely -- Steely Dan were never superficial poseurs but, rather, nerd heroes:  "I don't get posturing out of Steely Dan.  They seem like a bunch of geeky musicians, sitting around, basically trying to make something pretty that, in the end, is still pretty geeky.  Whether I actually like it or not is another story, but it all comes across as genuine to me."



And that was the Steely Dan mystique -- they were cats who could and would cover a Duke Ellington song ("East St. Louis Toodle-oo", from Pretzel Logic) and write an original about the brilliance of Charlie Parker ("Parker's Band") yet would also turn out genuinely strange songs that told the weirdest possible stories. If the textures of the songs were somewhat soft rock, then, well -- that was part of the irony and weirdness of music!  As Mystery Man puts it, "As far as the-slickness-to-the-point-of-sterility thing, I guess I find something intriguing about that too, as in, they are the only band that sounds like that."



How weirdly nerdy can you get? -- "Steely Dan" is the name of a dildo in William Burroughs' cut-and-paste classic novel, Naked Lunch.



As befit a couple of jazz-influenced nerd-rockers, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen knew enough to hire some seriously sick players for their recordings.  In the original version of the band, they had two crazy guitarists -- Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter -- who gave the tricked up songs some Stratocaster edge.  Songs like "Reelin' in the Years" and "My Old School" may have had "lyte" textures, but they also featured mad solos. And when the Dan ventured further into the studio and jazz musicians of New York and LA, they found monster players on every instrument: Steve Gadd or Dennis Chambers on drums, Chuck Rainey or Tom Barney on bass, guitarists as diverse as Eliot Randall, Larry Carlton, Rick Derringer and Wayne Krantz, and a list of all-star jazz saxophonists that is almost embarrassing to recite: Phil Woods, Jerome Richardson, Wayne Shorter, Tom Scott, Pete Christlieb, John Klemmer, Chris Potter, and Walt Weiskopf. The occasional guest on acoustic bass (Ray Brown) or vibes (Victor Feldman) went further toward making Steely Dan the ultimately hip studio band.



By the time Aja came out in 1977, Steely Dan was doing the inconceivable: making highly complex, long-form, jazz-inflected music into hit radio.  Three different tunes reached into the Top Forty ("Peg" hits #11, "Deacon Blues" hits #19 and "Josie" hits #26), and the album went platinum.  Could it be true?  The third most popular album of the year (behind Billy Joel and Fleetwood Mac) was ambitious and strange.



Though The Dan would release one more hit record in 1980 (Gaucho), Becker and Fagen then had the cool to take a 20-year break from making Steely Dan albums.  And here's the thing: if anything, their stuff was had been getting weirder rather than older.  "Hey Nineteen" was about a middle-aged man's disappointment with young lover ("Hey Nineteen, that's 'Retha Franklin / She don't remember The Queen of Soul / It's hard times befallen the sole survivors / She thinks I'm crazy but I'm just growing old").  The single from their 2000 comeback album, Two Against Nature, was sung in the voice of a disgusting guy who is hitting on his own cousin (When the narrator asks his cousin why she isn't going for him, the lyric is: "She said, 'Maybe it's the skeevy look in your eyes or that your mind has turned to applesauce / The dreary architecture of your soul.'  I said, 'But what is it exactly turns you off?'")



The argument for Steely Dan, then, is not merely that they write great songs and perform them with jazz-influenced excellence, but that they take huge lyrical risks and have the post-modern savvy to combine twisted lyrics with lush music that -- sure -- sounds more suited to soul romance than twisted humor.  And it's in that dissonance that Steely Dan is at its nerdy/weird best.

If you don't get it, fine.  More for me.



Part Three: Steely Diagnosis 

So, where did hipster appreciation of Steely Dan get lost?  What sent the rocknescenti running rather than applauding at the sound of Donald Fagen's voice and Fender Rhodes?



The answer is twofold.  First, the emergence of punk in the late '70s -- the very height of The Dan's commercial success -- cut the rock world in two.  Though some of the punkish New Wavers (Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson) would turn out to be Steely Dan-influenced songsmiths, punk mostly took the wind out of carefully arranged, harmonically complex rock. After the punk aesthetic was absorbed into mainstream rock, true "rock" bands would have to subscribe of an edgy authenticity that Steely Dan was never about.  Other pop music could inhabit the sugary sweet (Celine Dion pop singing or fluffernutter-centered smoove jazz), but "rock" would now have to have bite, not ironic detachment.  Becker and Fagen were never feeling rockers, they were brainy rock analysts -- sending out oddly passionless quips from the back of the room.  It didn't have bite as much as snark, and maybe too big a vocabulary.  Since punk?  Sorry, Mr. Dan -- you're out of step.



Second, there was the Grammy.  In 2000, Becker and Fagen's comeback album Two Against Nature emerged to mostly baffled reviews.  It sounded for all the world like Aja and Gaucho -- all witty Dan irony with studio-perfect polish.  And while the disc could not have been more divorced from the hip-hop and indie-rock trends that were raging in 2000, it debuted at #6 on the album chart and went on to win four Grammys including Album of the Year.  This was inexcusable and nail-in-the-hipness coffin for a variety of reasons.



To any younger music fan, The Dan's Grammy triumph was simply the latest in a long history of Grammy gaffs caused by older academy members (in this case the aging Baby Boomers) voting for hopelessly dated music.  This was particularly bad in 2000, as Two Against Nature defeated two critics' darlings for Album-of-the-Year:  Radiohead's Kid A and Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP.  Who were these old guys with their smoove jazz tracks to steal this recognition? In the same year, The Dan would enter the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame and receive honorary Doctor of Music degrees from -- where else? -- the Berklee College of Music, where technique is king.



At this point, even Becker and Fagen understood that their triumphs were oddly wrong.  "I thought that was weird," Becker said of the Grammy victory. "Maybe we're in the wrong category or something. Think they'll take these things away from us, or make us give them back? I'm getting attached to mine."  Fagen, clearly joking, said, "I think we're in real risk of losing our outsider status."



The ironies in all this are sufficiently complex that they deserve to appear in . . . a Steely Dan song.  On the one hand, the kids were right that Steely Dan's Grammy victory was a sham of sorts.  First, the group should have gotten a Grammy for Aja, and this one was a charity Grammy of sorts.  Second, the conservative Grammy voters likely heard the smoove textures of Two Against Nature and voted for it as a safe alternative to all other, scary stuff, never listening to the duo's twisted lyrics.  As Kevin Devine cynically put it in a 2001 PopMatters column:


"[Eminem] is doubly screwed as a rapper operating on the fringes of the pop world. He is bound by genre constraints that don't apply to similarly themed works by such 'peers' as... well, Steely Dan. It should be noted that Two Against Nature sports one song in which a first-person narrator has an affair with an underage woman and another in which some dude sexually propositions his cousin. But these men are in their mid-40s [sic], and they play guitars and such, so they must be storytellers! Eminem, on the other hand, raps."


So, in the eyes of cynics, the Grammy was falsely awarded, and who can really disagree?



But on the other hand, few of the disappointed hip-hop fans and Radioheads (Mr. Devine excepted) had bothered to dig the essence of The Dan either -- that the twisted lyrics over the "beautiful" music are an antic gag.  And young fans similarly never could have realized the degree to which Steely Dan had been a generational precursor and inspiration to both Eminem and Radiohead.  Slim Shady is, of course, a character -- just like The Dan's "Cousin Dupree" or the madman-on-a-killing-spree of "Don't Take Me Alive".  Becker and Fagen have been playing that game consistently since 1972.  And Radiohead's Kid A was nothing if not a studio-obsessed album of precise sonic arrangement and songcraft -- very much an "anti-rock" record of a sort.



But Steely Dan took that Grammy, and it looked for all the world like an act of theft, the bloated belly of the Baby Boom triumphant again.



What damns Steely Dan most in the end, I think, is success itself.  When I first loved them in the mid-70s, nothing could have been less cool than The Beach Boys.  The Beach Boys were seen as the ultimate white-bread band -- a group of overfed and over-the-hill surfers who were still singing about Daddy's T-Bird. Steely Dan, in contrast, were wise-asses with hip chords and burning guitar solos.  But in 2006, the rocknescenti see Pet Sounds as the hippest thing going -- essential groundwork to today's indie-pop scene. What does Brian Wilson -- also laden with fancy chords and lush instrumentation -- have that Becker and Fagen don't?  Trouble, mainly.



Lyte-and-smooth rock doesn't get much cheesier than Rumors-era Fleetwood Mac, yet today that album is #41 on the indie-than-thou Pitchfork's list of the Top 100 Albums of the '70s whereas Steely Dan is nowhere to be found.  The Pitchfork list -- the spinal center of a generation's dismissal of Steely Dan -- is awash with softness (Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell), studio perfectionism (Brian Eno), glossy pop textures (Michael Jackson's Off the Wall), and plenteous jazz noodling (several electric Miles Davis albums).  And it's further notable that, in the short essay that introduces the list, the editors apologize for the many deserving discs they left off the list and list an additional 50 artists they might have chosen: still no Dan.

I suspect that Steely Dan would be more fondly remembered today if were being . . . remembered.  It's the hanging around into middle age, perhaps, that folks don’t like -- making the same "anti-rock" they've always made, winning that Grammy and reminding everyone that their music is a weird jazz-rock hybrid that, ultimately, is a kind of musical cul-de-sac.



In the end, that's why I'm still listening. Who has followed Steely Dan down the road it paved with Katy Lied and Aja?  Hardly anyone. While I love the cranky experiments of Tom Waits and the defiant minimalism of the Flat-Duo Jets, Steely Dan still scratches an itch that no one else seems to know exists.  As a jazz nut, I love the dramatic "slash chords" that litter the Steely Dan sound -- I love the otherworldly harmonies, keening saxophone solos, and snap-sharp drumming.  I want to believe that the music I love so much -- Bird and Clifford Brown and Bill Evans and so on -- has rubbed off somehow on popular music.  I want some rocker along the way to write a song about a great saxophone solo.



And even if they're not really rockers, even if they're just a couple of nerdy jazz fans from New Jersey like me, those guys are Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.



Weirdly passionless, analytical rather than deeply feeling, it doesn't matter to me: Long live Mr. Steely Dan.

* * *

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Keith Jarrett: No End

I love the music of Keith Jarrett. He has been a distinctive titan of jazz piano since the late 1960s, forging a style and a philosophy that has lifted the music higher in several ways. From his protean sideman work with Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis to his iconoclastic and fully improvised solo piano recitals, from his two daring quartets in the 1970s and ‘80s to his classical experimentations—and most recently in his determined and breathtaking playing with his trio—Jarrett is a master, a great musician, and a hero in the music.

Except when he is self-indulgent.

In the 1976, he famously released a 10-LP/6-CD box of solo piano music, The Sun Bear Concerts. More times than can be recounted, he has lectured audiences about their inability to control coughing or other involuntary noise while he is playing. And, some might argue, much of his classical crossover music (such as his 1980 release The Celestial Hawk) is only for completists.

No End lives at the far end of the self-indulgent portion of the Jarrett canon.

Two compact discs. One musician, our man Keith, playing drums, electric bass, electric guitar, hand percussion, recorder, and—occasionally—some piano. These 20 segments of music were recorded as cassette overdub jams in 1986 in Keith’s home studio, and they sound just like what they are: aimless jams that don’t really go anywhere, that don’t represent real-time interaction between listening musicians like, say, a Grateful Dead jam ought to, and that sat in Jarrett’s junk drawer for nearly 30 years.
Now this music is available to you, the crazy Keith Jarrett completist. Pull out your bong and start swirly dancing, I guess, because the only way you’re likely to dig this is if you like a hypnotic jam that loops around and around without much interesting melodic content and without much in dynamic change or rhythmic syncopation.



Read entire, snarky (funny), incredibly negative review here: Keith Jarrett: No End

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Ambrose Akinmusire: The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint

Casting a spell might just be the real goal of any artist. The filmmaker hopes to create a world that you will enter, the novelist wants you to see her landscape in your mind’s eye, the dancer might have you see all the universe in the sweep of a limb. Music can do that. It enters you almost without permission, even in the dark. A song gets stuck in your head; a melody sets a mood; a shimmer of cymbal can put a chill across your cheek.

The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint, is even more remarkable and fresh.

Ambrose Akinmusire is a fresh jazz trumpeter who understands mood, who has set about doing things differently, making music that you haven’t quite heard before. He won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet competition in 2007, but the real emergence was in 2011, with his debut recording on Blue Note, a stunner that seemed to re-imagine a modern jazz trumpet vocabulary to include fresh sounds and daring intervals without taking leave of the tradition. Akinmusire’s new disc,

And, goodness, does it cast a spell.

The basic unit on this recording remains Akinmusire’s quintet, a very flexible band with Walter Smith III on saxophone, pianist Sam Harris, drummer Justin Brown, and Harish Raghavan on bass. This group morphs itself in a variety of ways, from a hard bop quintet to an impressionistic unit bathed in guitar reverb to a spare chamber group. Not only does the leader supplement the band with guitar, but he also spikes the recording with a variety of guests and sub-groupings that make the experience of The Imagined Savior not so much a thrill ride as a slow cinematic unfolding of different tensions, landscapes, and emotions.

There are four vocal performances on Savior, each distinct and remarkable. The first, an original song by Becca Stevens, is so gorgeously crafted that it is very nearly believable as a radio hit—or at least an indie-pop sensation. “Our Basement (Ed)” describes a narrator speaking to a beloved, “Your eyes were aglow like two moons / And your smile shot through me / Tranquilizing all the ache” but then reveals that the object of her desire is actually just a stranger passing, “I imagine you / Doing simple things / . . . Singing out the words that move you / Down the avenue / While I watch you walk past me.” The song is built around a heartbeat throb of drums, a very simple set of chiming piano chords, and a tiptoe of a string quartet arrangement. But what may be most astonishing is that the whole arrangement is built to feature Akinmusire playing a set of hushed but angular trumpet parts: a conventional improvised solo in the middle, but also a continual and perfectly modulated set of countermelodies that weave around the vocal and arrangement. It is purely beautiful.

Read the entire review here: Ambrose Akinmusire: The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint

JAZZ TODAY: Is Blue Note Records on the Rise, Again?

Jazz has a small number of “name brands”, and one of the most consistent has been the Blue Note record label. For two decades, from the late ‘40s to the late ‘60s, a “Blue Note” recording meant something solid and exceptional, something with a driving sense of swing.

Overseen by producers Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, these discs were not only brilliantly played and recorded, but they captured a flow of snapping jazz from the traditional to the soulful to the exploratory. The list of “Blue Notes” from this era constitutes, most certainly, the most amazing run of classic jazz recordings in history, from the Thelonious Monk records of 1947 to Coltrane’s Blue Train to Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and beyond.

The label effectively disappeared in the late ‘60s, but was revived by EMI in 1985, when producer Bruce Lundvall started resigning old Blue Note artists such as McCoy Tyner and new players like Joe Lovano and John Scofield for new recordings. Maybe it wasn’t quite the same – jazz had been changed in basic ways by the market, by electronics and rock music, and by a diffusion of clarity about what it really meant to play “jazz” – but these were still some of the best records of that time.

But these records no longer had a clear identity. A “Blue Note” in 1962 couldn’t be mistaken for a record on any other label. Even the same musicians recording elsewhere didn’t sound the same. (The producer Bob Porter famously said, “The difference between Blue Note and Prestige is two days’ rehearsal.” Blue Note, simply put, was quality.) In the ‘80s and beyond, Blue Note recordings might have come out on Columbia or even some independent label.

But maybe there’s something Blue Note-y in the air again. The last month or so has been an exceptional one for Blue Note. In 2012, producer Don Was (known more as a rock or soul musician, not necessarily a jazz maven) took over, and something exciting started to kick in. The newest version of Blue Note isn’t any revival of the Golden Age – it’s something better. Maybe a new Golden Age that’s starting to rise? And it’s building on a sound that consolidates what’s best about jazz today.

Read the whole column here:  Is Blue Note Records on the Rise, Again?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How Can a Listener Ignore the Influence of the Market on the Beautiful Art of Jazz?

Categories, definitions, labels, marketing, oh boy. When you are writing about jazz, to mention these things is somehow to ignore or taint the music. But how can a curious and responsible listener ignore the influence of the market on this beautiful art? It’s rare for jazz musicians to make a living from creative, improvised, instrumental music without some consideration of getting and keeping an audience.

There’s an inevitable relation between the extent to which a jazz musician chooses to “sweeten” his music and how we evaluate that music. To pretend that every musician makes every choice in making a record on purely artistic grounds is to ignore reality.

cover art
The Critic’s Dilemma

As a jazz writer, I can’t escape my own point of view, a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t position. To ignore the larger picture of how a record was made or how it fits into the larger culture is irresponsible. But it’s also true that too many critics will tar a record with being “commercial” in the pejorative sense because they are tied to upholding some preset notions of what one might think an artist should be doing rather than listening for what he actually is doing.

Lately, there has been a slew of jazz that is both artistically ambitious and flatly commercialized, by which I mean not only that it incorporates some elements of US pop music (what doesn’t, these days?), but also that it was made with some genuine intention of selling itself to folks beyond “jazz purists”.

Recently I reviewed Robert Glasper’s Black Radio 2. In my mind, it wasn’t really a jazz record (it’s predecessor, Black Radio, won the Grammy for Best R&B Record), so at the start of my review I wrote: “[T]he honest question is not whether [this] is a strong work from a jazz artist working with pop music but whether it’s a great pop record, a pop record that is fresh, creative, compelling, beautiful… I don’t know if Black Radio 2 is “jazz” or not or whether that’s even a question worth debating.”

The review produced a series of email responses that said, in essence, “Thanks for not running this down as a too-poppy jazz record and just hearing it as music.” The praise wasn’t for my liking this recording, but rather, for not insisting on hearing it as “jazz” diluted by pop. As “jazz” it wasn’t much, maybe. Whatever that might have meant.

But this got me thinking. Maybe I should have thought more about Glasper, undoubtedly a jazz pianist when he wants to be, using pop music to sell records. Maybe Black Radio wasn’t jazz, but  there is a huge swath of music like Glasper’s that, mostly, is. What’s fair in writing about it? By what standards should we think about it?

Let’s start by acknowledging that this is an old problem, and commercialization isn’t always bad for the art. Though it can be.

Read all of the column here: How Can a Listener Ignore the Influence of the Market on the Beautiful Art of Jazz?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

JAZZ TODAY: The Endless Well of Latin Jazz

Man, I've recently been listening to more Latin Jazz. It goes all the way back in jazz history, but 2013 was a great year for it.

Jellyroll Morton talked about “the Latin tinge” as an essential element of jazz as far back as the ‘20s—the influence of Afro-Cuban elements was actually part of jazz from the start, with syncopations and rhythmic components from beyond the US critical to an early understanding of swing. Dizzy Gillespie explicitly incorporated Cuban elements into modern jazz when he collaborated with percussionist Chano Pozo in the ‘40s. And Latin Jazz flowered in the ‘60s (and beyond) as it became an essential part of the life of Latinos in New York City—and as the music now known as Salsa grew into a popular form by fusing jazz and Latin forms into propulsive dance music.

This was another great year for Latin Jazz, and a couple of recent experiences have brought that truth home for me. Check out the column here: The Endless Well of Latin Jazz