Header Quote

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

Monday, December 13, 2010

Will on WNYC's Soundcheck, Monday, 12/13: BEST JAZZ OF 2010

It's that time of year again: Best-of List Time!
John Schaefer, Soundcheck Host

Man, I love a good list.  Love all things enumerated.  Rankings, choosings, comparings.  I'm the decider, baby.

The good people at WNYC's fantastic show "SoundCheck" once again had the wisdom, kindness (and resilience) to invite me to chat up host John Schaefer regarding the year's best jazz.  You can listen to the apprearance HERE.

If you want to look at the list I came up with along with PopMatters colleague John Garratt, then click on through right HERE.

Guillermo Klein: Domador de Huellas, Music of “Cuchi” Leguizamon PopMatters

One of the top jazz recordings of the year is by the distinctive pianist and composer Guillermo Klein, Domador de Huellas, Music of “Cuchi” Leguizamon.  Check out my PopMatter review here.

Klein interprets the tunes of a fellow Argentine, but his own presence is critical, blending warm vocal performances with arrangements that use electric and acoustic pianos, horns, and percussion in a manner that is swinging, impressionistic, pungent, and hypnotic. 
The writing covers a huge emotional territory from melancholy to triumphant, yet the overall feeling never veers too far from the warmly dancing.  Traces of Aaron Copland mingle with the pulse of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

There are so many truly outstanding jazz pianists on the scene these days, and Klein deserves a spot among them.  He dazzles, however, not in his chops or flights of improvisation but in how he works with a band.

He is, I suppose, the one of the most Ellingtonian of the crop of current fine pianists in the music.  That, of course is high praise.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Danilo Perez: Providencia

Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez took my breath away with his work in Wayne Shorter's quartet, playing blistering modern jazz that defied nearly every category.  Previously, I had heard him as a superb but fairly standard post-bop piano player with an exciting Latin tinge to his mainstream music.  Maybe I needed to hear him again?

And Providencia provides plenty of evidence that he has a wealth of fresh ideas about jazz in his bag.  My PopMatters review is HERE.

This new recording features not only Perez's fine trio but also a woodwind quartet, breezy scat vocals, the acid tones of alto player Rudresh Mahanthappa, not to mention a wealth of fresh compositional ideas.  It's a bit of a mish-mash as a program, but that is intentional.  It offers something new to hear each time you put it on, and it should be a disc that sounds as good in 2020 as in 2010.

What more do you want?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Hilary Kole: You Are There

I had never heard Hilary Kole before, a very young and lovely jazz singer based ('f course) in New York.  She is the youngest singer ever to play in just about every room she has graced, and her chops are remarkable -- remarkably sensitive and subtle.  She's not a Robo-Ella like li'l Nikki Yanovsky.

Her latest (and second) album is called You Are There.  You can read my PopMatters review HERE.  This disc features eleven (11!) different jazz pianists in duet with Kole.  And they are the best in the biz: Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, Alan Broadbent, the late/great Hank Jones, and on and on it goes.  And some of the tracks here are exquisite.  The version of "I Remember" from Sondheim's Evening Primrose is absolutely sublime.  Some of the more played-to-death standards are good but not revelatory—"Lush Life" with Barron, for example, is merely very good.  But how many very good "Lush Life"s have you heard?

A personal peeve: I love the title track, "You Are There" by Dave Frishberg and Johnny Mercer.  It should be a lock-down jazz standard, what with a searching, melancholy melody and heart-breaking lyrics that are free of cliche.  But this version is clunker, with Kole pushing it way to hard, kind of Broadway-ing it up with too much vocal ACTING.  Sorry, Hilary, but you overdid that one.  Which is an anomaly here.

This project was constructed over four years, and it's incredible that a young singer like Kole could get the deans of jazz piano to work with her on such a focused project.  She's a huge talent.  But you're excused if You Are There isn't a disc you return to over and over again.  It's too much of too little.  Or something like that.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

New JAZZ TODAY: Rebirth in the Treme, New Orleans Ascendant

Your blogger and his oldest friend, struttin' with some BBQ
Over the Halloween weekend I visited New Orleans with three close friends.  We were there to celebrate the 50th birthday of my oldest friend (with my own just two months coming) and to do some work for Habitat for Humanity.

And we planned to eat ourselves into a jambalaya/po' boy/red beans 'n' rice stomach ache.

And there's the music.

What I wasn't expecting, however, was for the music to be "jazz."  These days, the Mecca of jazz is New York, of course.  But we ended up seeing some great New Orleans music—popular New Orleans musicians—who make jazz in the Crescent City feel alive again.

Kermit Ruffins, killin' it at Vaughan's Lounge on a Thursday
The latest JAZZ TODAY, up and readable here, is all about this trip and the experience of hearing Kermit Ruffins and Trombone Shorty over just a few days.  Ruffins seemed at first like merely a good-time player—rough around the edges and merely having fun.  But the longer I listened (and it was fun, I assure you), the more I heard his music as a wonderful melding of the Armstrong trumpet/vocal tradition with modern jazz feeling and groove.

Even more fun, and ultimately more exciting for this music, was a set by Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, his invincibly funky band.

Trombone Shorty started playing second line music in the the Treme when he was a tiny kid, too little to handle his instrument (thus, the nickname), and today he is playing that instrument with amazing precision and attack—as well as trumpet—in front of what amounts to a New Orleans rock rhythm section.  The groove of the band (with drums and congas powering it fiercely) is pure N'Awlins, but the guitar is a fuzz-toned Gibson with plenty of blues fire.  Plus, Shorty sings soulfully, and he plays in a front line with tenor and baritone saxophone.  The result is a truly powerful, incredibly entertaining groove band that blows the roof off a room.  We heard them at Tipitina's, the classic New Orleans club, and it's night I'll never forget.

Photos from Bobby and David Atkins.  Thanks, guys!

The Ray Anderson-Marty Ehrlich Quartet, LIVE

Two summers ago I saw trombonist Ray Anderson give a clinic at the Vancouver Jazz Festival.  It was a great conversation about his history and playing, and his solo trombone playing was a minor miracle.  I asked him that afternoon how a guy like him makes a living from music, and he laughed.  "Now, why'd you have ask that, man?"

Here is the latest recording from Mr. Anderson, in a quartet with Marty Ehrlich, the wonderful clarinetist and alto saxophonist.  Matt Wilson on drums, also fantastic.  My review on PopMatters is HERE.

It growls and and struts, it's funky and loose, it's out it's in.  Wonderful music, particularly Anderson's compositions, such as "Alligatory Rhumba."  All hail musicians who struggle to make but still make it for us.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My Interview with Miles's Son and Nephew

This fall marked the 40th anniversary of Miles Davis's great Bitches Brew.  It may have been controversial in its day (1970), but time has proven that the seminal "jazz-rock" album is brilliant: tuneful, rhythmically audacious, moody, and memorable.  (Listen to my spirited debate with Ashley Kahn about the relative merits of Bitches Brew and Kind of Blue right HERE from a recent edition of WNYC's "Soundcheck.")

But it's been reissued several times—I bought the box set with out-takes a few years ago.  Does its 40th warrant another reissue with concert footage on DVD and so on?

I had the chance to interview Miles nephew, Vince Wilburn, Jr., and Miles youngest son, Erin Davis, both of whom played with Miles during parts of his "comeback" period (1981-91).  My feature on BB and the Miles legacy is up on PopMatters right HERE.  They are all about celebrating the great man's legacy and continuing it into the future.  But, what with the recent release of a Dogfish Head "Bitches Brew" ale and this massive but unnecessary reissue, it's also easy to see Miles Davis as a one big piece of commerce.  That said, the concert footage included in package is stunning.

Personally, I'm about done buying Miles Davis box sets.  But I'll be listening to them forever.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sting: Live in Berlin

Was there any better pop music in the 1980s than The Police?  Compelling tunes, a clever mixture of punk and pop and reggae, and one of the best voices in commercial radio from Mr. Gordon Sumner—Sting.

In 1985, Sting blew up the band to go solo, and that was initially pretty great too.  Dream of the Blue Turtles was a remarkable solo debut, and it didn't hurt that it featured a killer band of jazz musicians: Branford Marsalis on saxophone, Kenny Kirkland on keys, Darryl Jones on bass, and Omar Hakim on drums.  The documentary about forming that band, Bring on the Night (check out my review of the DVD release HERE), was also terrific, funny, revealing.

But it didn't take long for Sting's solo career, despite brilliant middle-of-the-road success, to grow fat and happy.  (Not Sting—he's still chiseled and vaguely royal.)  So it was surely just a matter of time before he demanded the Sting With Strings treatment.  2010 brought the album Smphonicities and now we have the full-on live treatment, a CD/DVD combo document the tour, Live in Berlin.  My PopMatters review is HERE.

When it's good, it's okay.  Some of this music sounds right and proper with all the woodwinds and harp and French horns and such.  When it's wrong, of course, it's an overproduced mess.  The highlight of the whole thing, for a jazz fan like me, is in the DVD extras where Branford Marsalis (who strolls out occasionally on this tour to take a droll soprano solo, looking amazingly bored with things) chats with the camera and with Sting, treating the Big Star like he was just some guy, albeit a guy who writes great tunes.  The recording and film work is top-notch, and Sting has never sounded in better voice.  But the edge left Sting so long ago that you may not care that this all seems like entertainment for your most middle-aged chum who no longer really digs those old Police records. 

If you still have affection for your youth, this may be asking too much of you.  Let's hope so.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Geri Allen: Flying Toward the Sound

My review of the latest from a great jazz pianist is up today, right HERE.

When Geri Allen first appeared on the scene, she caused a thrill for many jazz fans. Here was a new young pianist at once lyrical and risky, precise in her technique but daring to stray into the dissonant. Recording with musicians such as Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Oliver Lake, and Steve Coleman, Allen was one of the reasons that the 1980s seemed like a renaissance period for free-bop jazz.

In the decades that followed, Allen matured as an artist and issued interesting discs that featured larger groups, choirs, and all manner of styles. If the pace of her recordings slowed, their range widened—from playing in a quartet with Ornette Coleman to working in gospel music.

Flying Toward the Sound is a rare solo piano recording featuring a suite of music composed for her Guggenheim Fellowship. There is a good dose of the old thrill here, as Allen melds several influences—including Cecil Taylor and Herbie Hancock—into a personal vision. At times as meditative as it is dissonant, Flying Toward the Sound has a flatly programmatic element. It seems to tell a story in rhythm, with the song titles (“Dancing Mystic Poets at Twylight”, “Faith Carriers of Life”, “God’s Ancient Sky”) suggesting a spiritual journey.

The playing, however, is playful and daring rather than some kind of New Age blather.  Check out the hopping pleasures of the aforementioned “Dancing Mystic Poets at Twylight” or the throbbing pulse of “Red Velvet in Winter”, which evokes what Keith Jarrett might sound like on a grounded, concise day.

I’d been thinking that Geri Allen had somehow gone flat in recent years, but I was wrong. She is just more catholic in the way she packages her intelligent, brave playing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Wallace Roney: If Only For One Night

The old saw that trumpeter Wallace Roney sounds just like Miles Davis is beside the point because, well, he does sound a heck of a lot like Miles. That’s okay. A generation of trumpeters sounded just like Dizzy Gillespie or just like Clifford Brown.

On the live record If Only for One Night, Roney and his working quintet present a varied program of music that runs straight toward the Miles connection.

Here, the band starts with a Bitches Brew era funk workout, “Quadrant”, with Aruan Ortiz rocking a heavy synth sound, a clavinet groove, and eventually an adventurous acoustic piano solo. Roney is pungent on trumpet, and he has his brother Antoine back in the band here playing tenor and soprano. On “Only with You” and “Metropolis”, the quintet sounds like Miles in the 1960s, playing driving post-bop that brims with muscular attitude. Roney is Harmon-muted and introspective on the title track, and he pulls off a Miles-esque pop cover of Janet Jackson on “Let’s Wait a While”.

Throughout this set, the band is inventive and powerful, even if they seem to be searching for a clear identity. In being able to play anything (at least anything Davis-inspired), the band loses itself a bit. Roney seems most himself on the final track, a solo trumpet essay for his son, where he sheds the Miles sound somewhat and hints at his classical studies.

Monday, November 8, 2010

David Weiss and Point of Departure: Snuck In

There's plenty of post-bop revivalism in jazz—reinterpretations of the music of the 1960s—but it's rarely as interesting, original, and fresh as what we hear from David Weiss on Snuck InMy review on PopMatters is up today.

On the most superficial level, Weiss's band, Point of Departure (for the classic Andrew Hill album of the mid-60s) uses guitar rather than piano for the chording instrument—a simple innovation that gives this band a more contemporary sound.  The guitarist is Nir Felder, a young Berklee cat whose sounds is fresh enough to give this band a tasty ZING.

Second, Weiss (known mainly as the arranger for the New Jazz Composers Octet, which has recently played with/for/behind the late Freddie Hubbard) has chosen tunes that we don't usually hear covered—tunes by Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, and (!) Charles Moore that are not the standard Real Book fare.

The playing is loose and joyous.  JD Allen on tenor never plays cliches.  And Jamire Williams (from Robert Glasper's great piano trio) plus Matt Clohesy make for a driving rhythm section.  Weiss himself borrows from Hubbard and Lee Morgan, but he adds his own tart tone and ragged flash of imagination.

For jazz fans who never got enough of those old Blue Notes that teetered on the edge of freedom but never quite went "out," Snuck In is a much-recommended blast from the past.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Jeff Lorber: Fusioning-up a Smooth Storm

I pick on Jeff Lorber, the smooth jazz keyboard star, because I think he's a very good musician.  The cat can play, and he writes engaging fusion melodies, and there is something rich and interesting in most of his solos.

Jeff Lorber, back when he looked like Kenny G
But I still don't like his records.

Two years ago I wrote a pair of Jazz Today columns about the slow death of the smooth jazz format in radio.  Both DC and NY had just seen their smooth jazz station fade into soprano saxophone nothingness.  Good riddance, I wrote.  In the second column, I examined the latest Jeff Lorber disc in some detail to explain how this particular music platform could take a talented guy and lead him to Sominex horror.

Now, Mr. Lorber has a new disc, Now Is The Time, where he re-examines many of his early tunes, and I started off thinking that it was a the better recording.  But by the end of the review, I was just exasperated as two years ago.  Must he cover a Weather Report tune by Wayne Shorter, a really terrific piece of music, and flatten it with aimless noodling?  Apparently he must.  "Mysterious Traveler," you have been wounded.

My angry reaction to this kind of music stems, I think, from my passion for jazz generally.  This masquerading instrumental R&B, this sonic wallpaper, this smoooooved-out digitized soulless pacifier music is almost jazz in a bunch of ways—with its saxophones and its improvisations and its similarities to the jazz-rock fusion of the 1970s.  It fakes people into thinking they're digging the rich, real thing.  But they're not.  Sure, some people start on 'smooth jazz' like it was  a tricycle and graduate up to JAZZ, but way more folks just drift along bobbing their heads to the fake stuff.

It would probably be good for me to swear off of reviewing this stuff.  Maybe a new year's resolution for 2011.  No more shooting fish in a barrel.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cedar Walton, PLEASE.

Maybe I'm as guilty as anyone of leaving what we think of as "mainstream jazz" on shelf these days—taken for granted, not as worthy of 'ink', less likely to appeal to a new audience.

But a show I attended last month at DC's Bohemian Caverns gave the lie to all that.  I've written about it in this month's JAZZ TODAY on PopMatters.

The brilliant Cedar Walton, with Javon Jackson on tenor, David Williams on bass and Willie Jones III on drums, played a set of utterly up-to-the-minute, sparkling straight-ahead jazz . . . that really wasn't all that straight ahead.  Walton, at 76, is still clever and swift and daring, and I think any fan with half an ear would have loved it.

Alas, the median age of the audience had to be 55.  Man, I was one of the young folks.  Walton was slow moving across the the stage, but his fingers weren't hindered at all.  I still love him.  You've got to see him.

Check out Cedar Walton, please.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Vijay Iyer's SOLO: Brilliant Unadorned Jazz Piano

The notion of a young jazz pianist covering Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" doesn't immediately sit well with me.  Miles Davis pulled off his minimalist version of the tune in the 1980s, not long after he did such a great job with the Cyndi Lauper hit "Time After Time," and it worked.  But recreating that seems like an unnecessary idea.

But Vijay Iyer is not about to copy someone else—I should have known that.

On his first solo piano recording, SOLO (my PopMatters review is up today), Iyer turns "Human Nature" into an utterly original thing: a highly patterned exercise that reinvents the tune without ruining its charms.  And he manages the same magic with Monk's "Epistrophy" and a couple of Ellington tunes.  At the same time, he offers a program of original compositions that move with a thrilling wheel-within-a-wheel action—swirls of patterns and flurries, sometimes sounding atonal like Cecil Taylor but other times have the beautiful repetitions of Steve Reich.  It's an utterly original jazz piano conception.

But, thrillingly, it has roots too.  Iyer plays a tune by his old boss, saxophonist Steve Coleman, and shows how his sometimes sterile-sounding music informs Iyer's own.  And Iyer's touch with the Ellington and Monk gets at enough stride piano and ballad piano history to let you feel where these new sounds have come from.

This is one of the best jazz records of 2010.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

HERBIE HANCOCK: The Imagine Project

The latest recording from the keyboard master and citizen of the universe, Herbie Hancock, is a "theme album" featuring songs with uplifting lyrics about the unity of mankind and, you know, stuff like that.

Will, why are you being so grumpy about good intentions?

Check out my Popmatters review HERE.  Basically, my complaint is that the music is unfocused, eclectic to a fault, a mushy mess.  Not that I don't like the Susan Tedeschi/Derrick Trucks-driven "Space Captain" or the convincing "A Change Is Gonna Come" featuring James Morrison.  But for the most part The Imagine Project is a collection of pop covers featuring too many guest stars and not enough Herbie Hancock.

The title track, John Lennon's done-to-death anthem, featuring Pink and Seal AND Inida Arie.  AND guitarist Jeff Beck.  AND African singers.  It reminds me of the recipe I came up with a few summers ago for "Cake Awesome":  carrot cake with chocolate chips and coconut icing.  Too much stuff in one cake.  No matter how good my intentions, that cake was a mess.

A thought for Mr Hancock's next project.  Get a band together, a trio or quartet.  Heck, go nuts and make it seven pieces.  No singers, no superstars.  No "project," no theme.  Write and play great original music.  Now that would be an event.

Friday, October 1, 2010

HOW DID THE 1970s WEAN YOUNG JAZZ FANS, Part Three: The Jazz Crusaders

Just getting started on jazz in the 1970s wasn't easy.  I was kid, and while I digging the likes of Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins, I still needed some soul groove keep me from being a total dork.

And, happily, 1970s provided such.

Because out of the great jukebox-jazz hits of the 1960s, like Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder," there grew a more contemporary form of soul/jazz for the new decade.  And for me, this plush groove was beautifully integrated with a unique front-line sound, emotional solos played right inside the pocket, and some tasty-as-lime Fender Rhodes stylings that were, frankly, a lot hipper than all that fusion stuff.  I write of The Jazz Crusaders.

The JAZZ Crusaders, in the 1960s
The Jazz Crusaders—initially Wayne Henderson on trombone, Wilton Felder on tenor sax, Joe Sample on piano, and "Stix" Hooper on drums—started out of Houston, Texas as a hard-driving bop unit in 1960.  Their front line of trombone and tenor was beefy and distinctive, and they played soul-infused solos that hardly seemed out of the jazz mainstream.  The group relocated to Los Angeles and made many albums for Pacific Jazz, often playing with bassist Buster Williams.  In the mid-sixties, they were fleet and flying.  But even then they had a taste for the popular, creating a grooving arrangement of "Eleanor Rigby."

In 1971, the band dropped the word "jazz" from their name, and surely many fans faded away.  They stopped properly "swinging" and began playing a style of instrumental music that leaned more heavily on soul grooves and a gospel-tinged way of playing, but this new incarnation was hardly the limp instrumental pop that would later be called "smooth jazz."

In fact, it was during this period that my friends and I first discovered The Crusaders.  They were now recording for Blue Thumb Records, and they they made a string of discs that I will always love: 1, The 2nd Crusade, Unsung Heros, Scratch, and Southern Comfort.  The sound of these discs is still unique.  The band kept that trombone/tenor front line, but they added guitarist Larry Carlton.  They still took long blues-based solos, but they became a band based around the sound of a Fender Rhodes electric piano, with its lush, bell-like chording and percussive right hand attack.  This music was accessible but still an adventure—at least it was for a bunch of Jersey teenagers who were trying to find out way into jazz and needed more than just the gorgeous mathematics of Charlie Parker or the moody brilliance of Bill Evans.  The Crusaders had some Texas stomp in their sound, but they still gave you the thrill ride of jazz improvisation.  We were hooked.

In fact, Southern Comfort was one of the first two jazz albums I bought for myself in a Sam Goody's one afternoon in 1974.  We listened to it at home while eating turkey-cole slaw sandwiches and drinking huge goblets of Coca-cola, and I still remember that my friend Bobby pronounced the music "greasy."  A high compliment.

We loved the guitar tone and slap of the funk on "Stomp and Buck Dance."  We loved the looping bass line on "Double Bubble" and also how that tune used some funky acoustic piano in the middle of the groove.  We could not get enough of the dastardly horn line syncopation of "Time Bomb," which we actually danced to.  (Don't ask.)  And, especially, I loved "Whispering Pines."

"Whispering Pines" still defies category for me.  It has one of the band's most dashing but wistful melody lines, set over a hugely melodic bass line that spins in a precise arpeggio.  Soulful but still cool, it seems like a theme that could introduce a news program or be a backdrop to heartbreak.  And the tune inspired remarkable solos from the band.  They were generous in length, and they built up slowly, rising and climaxing on a huge tide of melody.  Under the improvisations was a dodging, weaving bass line that was in continual hide-and-seek with Hoopers snare and cymbals.

What The Crusaders seemed to have perfected around 1974 was a hip music that incorporated soul into jazz, but a way that created a singular signature sound.  This wasn't music that grew out of Bitches Brew.  It wasn't "fusion" as the '70s would come to define that word.  It wasn't clinical or calculated or framed for market, though it sold pretty well.  It was genuinely soulful, and it was still jazz, no matter what name the group had adopted.

Not that it didn't all turn sour.  1975's follow-up to Southern Comfort, Chain Reaction, was good but curdled a little—synthesizers creeping in and the funk seeming more mechanical.  Those Southern Knights was obviously the moment when the fruit when over-ripe, with the guys on the cover in Lancelot outfits and then chanting the vocal on "Keep That Same Old Feelin'" in the grooves.  This was popular stuff, but my friends and I had already moved on the more challenging jazz, so that when the band's biggest hit emerged on Street Life in 1979, we didn't feel betrayed.

Once Reagan was president, plenty of things fell apart, and The Crusaders were gone before you could say "I remember Oliver North."  Henderson left years earlier, in '75, and Hooper split in 1983.  Only Joe ample remained active over the next couple of decades, finding a place for himself in the Kenny G-iverse.  At which point I'm not sure it was really any longer cool to admit how great you had found The Crusaders back when you were a kid.

The last couple of years of demonstrated, however, that a good idea never dies.  Felder and Sample recorded as "The Crusaders" again in 1991, then again in 2003.  In the mid-90s, Henderson wrangled Carlton and Felder into recording (to Sample's chagrin) as "The Jazz Crusaders."

And then, in 2010: word started spreading of true reunion dates with Henderson, Felder and Sample all in on the action again.  Almost completely under the radar, the group played at Yoshi's in the Bay Area in the spring, but then word was out that Felder was ill, and replacement reed players were in the band.  They've had dates scheduled in recent weeks in places like Milwaukee.

Personally, I miss them.  The clarity and soul of The Crusaders ushered me into caring about jazz, into listening to the stories that its players have to tell.

Love live The Jazz Crusaders.

Next Time:  Grover Washington, Jr—Another Blast of Soul

Steve Coleman—Saxophone Funkmaster, Musical Philosopher, Shaman, Baffler

I've been meaning, seemingly forever, to spend more time with the recent music of Steve Coleman, the saxophonist and composer.  His "M-BASE" construct is often discussed, but what does it mean?  Why does his music frequently seem mechanical, yet how has he also gathered the rapt attention of so many great musicians?

And, for me, hadn't I been a massive fan of a few of early albums?  Had something changed?

The release of his new Harvesting Semblances and Affinities on Pi gave me a great excuse to think this all through in a new JAZZ TODAY.  You can check it out here.

Coleman's music is, without a doubt, often organized by a formal concept rather than by expressive necessity.  In other words, he is using ideas rather than passions to construct his art.  In writing and in other arts, I've always been taught that his is a mistake—focusing on your tool rather than your output.  But in Coleman's case, the output has nevertheless been frequently thrilling.  And sometimes numbing, yes, but perhaps that's the price an artist pays for working out new ways to move the art forward.

Harvesting Semblances and Affinities is not different than Coleman's other work, but it is very successful.  It's funky and shimmering, it's mind-expanding and feeling.   The terrific Kevin Whitehead said this on Fresh Air when he reviewed the disc:  “If Steve Coleman’s music sounds a little chilly sometimes, it’s because he’s more interested in compositional logics than setting a mood. That’s okay; there’s room for all kinds of approaches.”  I agree. Coleman’s music is riveting but often more for your head than for your heart. As a result, he has created interesting new structures for jazz composition and improvisation, and he has seeded many interesting clouds.

Monday, September 20, 2010

JOHN McLAUGHLIN: TO THE ONE — Fusion the Way We Used to Like It

At its peak, jazz-rock fusion was better than just fast-and-loud, but fast and loud was part of it.  Hey, I was a teenager during those days, and if I was going to spend a good chunk of my listening time on jazz rather than Led Zeppelin, then I was going to need some crunch and danger.

Guitarist John McLaughlin—he of the Mahavishnu Orchestra—usually satisfied.  The Inner-Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire still sound good to me today.  But, other than his duet album with Carlos Santana and his work with Shakti (his acoustic band, playing a different kind of Indian/fusion), the rest of McLaughlin's work has been hard to love.

2010, however, brings a return to the driving fusion of the early Mahavishnu days.  To the One, featuring a new-ish band called The Fourth Dimension, is the old searing McLaughlin, back with speed and excitement but still some intelligence.  My review is up on PopMatters today.

Other McLaughlin's wonderful guitar, the recording features outstanding keyboard work by Gary Husband.  Using acoustic piano, Rhodes, and synth sounds, he gets everything right.  That Husband is also one of two over-the-top drummers on the date just dazzles all the more.  Not every jazz fan is going to be with me one this—this is a real '70s fusion date, with some of the indulgence associated therewith—but it is the real thing, not some watered-down smooth jazz syrup.  McLaughlin sees the album as a contemporary offshoot of Coltrane's A Love Supreme, and you can hear it in the way the players surge and sing in their playing.  It's exciting, but the playing comes from a well of desire.

I'm not a fan of McLaughlin's use, on To The One, of guitar synthesizer.  This gizmo makes his sound generic and cold.  That he uses the devise on a couple of ballads just makes it worse, as these are tunes where the flesh-on-string sound could have been that much better.

But mostly I like To The One.  I like it better than anything Johnny M has done in decades.  It comes darn close to making me feel 16 again—130 pounds, full head of hair, living in New Jersey and still with a small crush on Barbara Feldon from Get Smart.  The power of music, huh?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Generosity: An Enhancement (a novel by Richard Powers)

My appetite for music and my appetite for books used to be almost equal, but sometimes a book comes along that turns reading into a chore.  I feel as though I've been reading Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers for a year.  (Seriously, I may have been—it is now out in paperback, but I've been reading a hardcover review copy.)

Powers is a great novelist, or at least he has been for me.  Let me recommend Operation Wandering Soul as a strange, brilliant, dreamlike novel about love and children and disease and language itself.

But Generosity is a book about how advances in genetics—specifically our understanding of the genetics of happiness—may be changing our world.  The characters in the book are mere agents for these meditations on science.  My full review is HERE.

Now back to reading less brilliant books that are better, more pulsating, more alive with regularish, dopey folks like us.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

LAYMAN ON SOUNDCHECK, 9/7/10: A Miles Davis Debate with Ashley Kahn

I will have the pleasure of taking part in another "Soundcheck Smackdown" this Tuesday at 2pm on WNYC.  This time out, the debate will be about two seminal Miles Davis albums, Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew.  I will be defending the honor of Miles's great 1970 disc, which plowed the fields of jazz funk and made possible so much of the great music of the last 40 years.  Bitches Brew turns 40 this year.

My "opponent" this time out (previously I have faced off against jazz folk no less esteemed than Branford Marsalis and Howard Mandel) is author and producer Ashley Kahn.  Ashley is the author is a terrific book about the making of Kind of Blue—highly recommended.  That said, I plan to win the smackdown with a combination of hyperbole and playful metaphor.

The host of Soundcheck is John Schaefer, and I want to thank him and the Soundcheck producers for so kindly inviting me back to the show so often.  WNYC is a great public radio station in New York City at 93.9fm and 820am.  The show will broadcast live at 2pm Eastern and will later be available online.

Friday, September 3, 2010


When classical ensemble get mixed up in jazz, the results are mixed, at best.  Or at least that used to be the case.

These days, jazz musicians are more fluent with the power and use of classical forms, and classical musicians probably grew up with a fluency with pop and jazz rhythms.  As a result, these kinds of jazz/classical crossovers have been seeming more natural in recent years.  Esperanza Spalding's latest, Chamber Music Society, has no trouble incorporating a string trio, for example, to choose just the most recent example.

Here is my review of the powerful final album featuring the keyboardist and composer (and Weather Report founder) Joe Zawinul, Absolute Zawinul.

Properly speaking, this is not a Joe Zawinul recording as much as it is the latest project from the classical ensemble, the Absolute Ensemble, led by Kristjan Jarvi.  Jarvi has taken an album's worth of brand new Zawinul composition and arranged them for strings and woodwinds, brass and percussion, then invited Zawinul and members of his "Zawinul Syndicate" to bring their voices, groove, and—'f course—keyboard sounds.

The result is mostly wonderful.  The classical ensemble brings life and the human touch to Zawinul's tunes, where in his own hands they sometimes seemed like over-synthesized puzzles.  This is not so much jazz, at this point, as it is a truly whole blend of world music, American music, and classical music.  The interlocking voices and lines that Zawinul favors fall perfectly into the zone of Absolute's string and flutes—it's a great, pulsing thing.

In too many places, Joe's own vo-coder-laced vocals seem like a lapse in taste, but this is easy to overlook, particularly as you ought to be in the mood to celebrate the man himself.  His work with Cannonball Adderly and Miles Davis is timeless and, for me, the first three or four Weather Report albums are still always worth returning to.  If his solo career was not my cup of tea, then Absolute Zawinul makes me realize that I may have been missing something great.

Monday, August 23, 2010

HOW DID THE 1970s WEAN YOUNG JAZZ FANS, Part Two: Soul Jazz "Makin' It Real"

As I said in my first installment in this series, the 1970s was no easy time to become a jazz fan.  The '60s avant garde had made the leading edge of the music forbidding, and venues for the music (not to mention vital fathers of the music like Duke and Pops) were dying out.  How as an interested teenager supposed to find a hook into this great tradition?

McCann's first Atlantic LP, Much Les
Happily, as I said in Part One, I had WRVR to hep me to what was great from the past.  But as the '70s progressed, RVR wanted to make money and played plenty of what it hoped was hipper, hookier jazz.  Eventually, that would mean that they played the beginnings of "smooth jazz," but for a long time RVR's bread and butter was the down home soul jazz that thrived in the '60s and, yup, the '70s.

Especially the Les McCann/Eddie Harris recording of "Compared to What."

In 1969, Les McCann was soul-jazz pianist with a history of solid releases on Pacific Jazz and Limelight who had must moved over to Atlantic Records.  Arguably in the line that produced Ray Charles, McCann had recorded with both the Gerald Wilson Jazz Orchestra and the Jazz Crusaders.  Steeped in gospel groove, his piano sound could move you, literally.  That year he appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Eddie Harris on saxophone and Benny Bailey on trumpet, and Atlantic recorded the show for a live album, Swiss Movement.

Eugene McDaniels, also on Atlantic
In the US, the Vietnam was was raging, Nixon was in office, and cities were burning.  So it should be no surprise that McCann chose to play the Eugene McDaniels song "Compared to What," which had first been recorded as the first track of Roberta Flack's debut First Take, released earlier in '69.  (Check out Mark Anthony Neal's sweet essay on the tune HERE.)  "Compared to What" was a full-on critique of US culture—the war, racism, the complacency of the comfortable majority, materialism, you name it—all in five succinct and poetic verses.  McCann contributed not only a grooving piano sound but his gruff-n-ready vocal style which expressed outrage and sarcasm in equal measure.  The song, once released by Atlantic, became a kind of hit.  And a hit with legs, because I heard it on the NY jazz station every week or so for all my years in high school.

Here's why I loved it and why "Compared to What" is great.

Before you hear a bit of singing or lyric, the tune has you—and it has you with a certain biting content.  The bass line is rock solid, the drummer Donald Dean is slamming out a cowbell groove, the whole thing is dripping with funk, and then McCann plays the melody to "Aquarius," the hit song from the hippie musical Hair that was then playing on Broadway.  Hair was against the war too, of course, but that music—so limp and airy compared to what I would come to love about jazz—hardly had the bite of what McCann was about to sing.  Also, on a purely musical level, McCann shifts his trio through several modes, rather than a set of heavy chord changes.  In it's own way, "Compared to What" in this version brings to the ear just a little bit of Kind of Blue and Coltrane's "Impressions."

Then you get the soul content of the tenor playing by Eddie Harris.  Harris keeps his playing here simple and blues-grounded.  He and trumpeter Bailey had not rehearsed for the date, didn't really know the tunes, but Harris uses a couple of simple soul band tricks that form the tune: certain repetitions of licks, octave leaps, sudden cries in the altissimo range, punctuating honks down low—just the kind of stuff you would hear in a James Brown horn section.  It's two minutes before the actual "song" begins.

McCann's singing is natural and easy, even as it's emphatic.  He has a bit of the smooth delivery of Nat Cole (Brother Ray's primary influence early on), but then he brings some urgency in his upper range, a dose of rasp, and the sweet sideburns he's sporting don't hurt either.  The whole thing feels like the definition of COOL.  As he sits at the piano, easy and loose, he delivers the scathing lyrics ("Unreal values, crass distortion / Unwed mothers need abortion") but he does it was slight layer of distance—a hip commentator more than an angry guy.  A smart guy with a gospel right hand and a great band.

Benny Bailey
When I used to hear this tune on the radio in my comfortable suburban bedroom, I felt like I was someone else.  I would move a little, pretend I could play the piano this way, mouth the lyrics even as they got me thinking, and I'd wait for the trumpet solo.  McCann is singing "We're chicken feathers all without one nut, goddamn it, trying to make it real compare to what!  Sock it to me!"  I knew the phrase "sock it to me" as a cheap punchline on the show Laugh-In (then on the air and at the height of its buzz), but McCann says it here differently, meaning it.  And then Benny Bailey enters with a Don't-Hold-Me-Back trumpet solo: smeared notes, half-valving, crazy growls, a few high-note punctuations.  Just 16 bars, but it seemed to me like it was worth the whole history of jazz at the time because it shouted out something . . . real.  Here was jazz expressing killer feeling in a way that anyone would understand.

There was plenty of other soul-jazz in this vein in the '60s and '70s, but "Compared to What" was a little different because it connected with such force to the actual culture, to what it meant to be American at that Watergate-stained moment when I was listening to it.  This music I was coming to love was more than a nerdy obsession for a kid who like music.  It mattered.

Next Installment in the Series:  The (Jazz) Crusaders and Grover Washington—Pre-Smooth Jazz


As a critic, I'm always making and revising a "best of the year" list in my head.  I don't have a number I'm wed to—top ten, top dozen, whatever—but simply have a "I'll know it when I hear it" attitude.  Certain discs are keepers.  I know I'll still be listening to them ten (or a dozen or whatever) years down the road.

The latest from drummer Paul Motian, Lost in a Dream, is one of those recordings.  My review is up today at PopMatters.

Chris Potter on tenor
This is a trio recording, live at the Village Vanguard, with Motian quietly sculpted drumming, tenor saxophone from Chris Potter, and Jason Moran on piano.  It is a wonderful mix of musical personalities.  Potter is keening and lyrical, muscular but still plenty tender.  Motian, as he always does, contributes drumming that is less pure timekeeping than it is an ingenious coloration of the space around the tunes.  And Jason Moran—playing here in a Motian group for the first time—is pure revelation.  His strong left hand makes a bass player unnecessary, and his inside/outisde sense of improvisation makes every tune a thrill.

Most of all, Paul Motian is a great composer.  Nearly all the tunes here are ballads (with just one standard, Cole Porter's "Be Careful It's My Heart"), and they are a mixture of new and older.  This recording reinforces how singular and lovely Motian's melodic sense is.  "Blue Midnight" and "Cathedral Song" are standouts of the first order.  Other musicians should start covering Motian songs to bring them into the standard repertoire.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


By now, plenty of foax know about the phenom bass player and singer Esperanza Spalding.  She is a favorite of President Obama (she played at his Nobel ceremony and at the White House) and Oprah.  By jazz standards, she is BIG.  Her last eponymous disc landed her on the late night talk shows, where her soulful singing and funky grooves wowed people.  But her straight-ahead jazz credibility is also for real—she has played, for example, with Joe Lovano.

Her new recording is called Chamber Music Society, reviewed by me today at PopMatters.  It features a string trio and a second voice (Gretchen Parlato) in addition to a jazz trio (including, notably, Teri Lynn Carrington on drums).  While fans of the last record may worry that "chamber music" and the addition of a string trio means that Spalding has wrecked the pop appeal of her music this time out with classical pretension, that is not the case.

Chamber Music Society contains plenty of snapping backbeat and sinuous melody, and the string arrangements are integrated into the music so that this does not feel like Spalding just grafted some High Cul-chuh onto her regular music.  It is an extension of her sound, an expansion of her sound, not something altogether different.

On a personal note, last year the high school jazz band that I co-lead chose two Spalding songs for performance, "I Know You Know" and "Precious".  The students—both the singers and the musicians—loved them and loved playing them.  In their connection to today's rhythms and in their pure pop appeal, they linked up with 16 year-olds, but in their harmonic and rhythmic sophistication, they challenged our most talented students.

That is a great place for jazz to be in 2010, and Esperanza Spalding takes the music there.