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

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.

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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

The Best Jazz of 2013

2013 was another great year for jazz. The music keeps getting more diverse, more all-encompassing, more alive—even though its commercial appeal seems about as limited as it can be.

Who cares? The music is great art.

Here are the best releases of the year as compiled by me and my colleague John Garratt at PopMatters:

The Best Jazz of 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

Big Is Beautiful: Large Bands, Worlds of Sound

Jazz has a long tradition of brilliant small bands, starting with groups like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven and extending as far as today’s brilliant Vijay Iyer Trio or the antic quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing.

Jazz also has a proud tradition of large groups, from Jelly Roll Morton Red Hot Peppers to the plethora of brilliant “big bands” that dominated popular music in the ‘30s and ‘40s to…

Well, what about today? What we think of as the classic jazz “big band” isn’t a thriving form today. That kind of group – with four trumpets, three trombones, and five saxophones roaring contrapuntally atop a sleek, swinging rhythm section – reached its first golden era with Ellington, Goodman, Basie and so on, and there were still brilliant big bands through the ‘60s: Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis.

Today, however, what we think of as a “big band” is something different, something less formulaic, a format that is having a very wonderful 2013.

A New Kind of Orchestral Jazz

The classic big bands were marvelous, and they had more range than their greatest hits would indicate. Ellington, in particular, stretched the bounds of what the basic 17-piece big band could achieve. His various orchestral suites took advantage of interesting colors: flutes, clarinets, fiddle, muted brass.

But mostly, the big bands had a basic sound, a set of great moves that sustained artistry for decades but begged for expansion. And in recent years that expansion has surged with creativity. The tradition still informs these new bands, but 2013 has brought a wash of stunning new “orchestral jazz” that requires attention.

The discs that have knocked me out lately are marked by larger bands, unusual instrumentation, the inclusion of singing or recitation, and the incorporation of jazz’s post-bop freedoms in such a way that these bands seem unmoored and unbounded, able to reach for the sounds of classical music, rock or soul, soundtrack music – or just about anything else.

Click here to read about great records from John Hollenbeck, Marty Ehrlich, Wadada Leo Smith, and Joel Harrison. Amazing stuff!  Big Is Beautiful: Large Bands, Worlds of Sound