Header Quote

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

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.