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

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

PAUL MOTIAN: LOST IN A DREAM

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

ESPERANZA SPALDING: CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY

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.

Monday, August 16, 2010

TRACY BONHAM: Masts of Manhatta

Wayfaring Strangers' 2001 Debut
Most folks who know the powerful singer-songwriter Tracy Bonham know her from her 1996 hit song, "Mother, Mother."  I missed that one in the moment.  But in 2001, when Ken Burns' JAZZ documentary was broadcast, I became fascinated by the musician Matt Glaser, a violinist who spoke about how Louis Armstrong was comparable to Einstein in the way that he made time relative in his placement of improvised notes against the beat.  (You can read my 2005 interview with Glaser HERE.)

Soon enough, I'd discovered Glaser's odd/breathtaking jazz/bluegrass/klezmer/folk collective Wayfaring Strangers (Shifting Sands of Time, 2001, and This Train, 2003), including the singing and fiddling of Tracy Bonham.

Bonham was not a jazz singer, nor was she a bluegrass or klezmer or folk artist, exactly.  But that's the kind of band Wayfaring Strangers is.  Soon enough, I found myself reviewing her third album, Blink the Brightest, a collection that I still find irresistible today.  "DUMBO Sun" and "Whether You Fall" are hit records in my universe any day—catchy, smart, fun, melodic, a bit sassy.

Her new record is called Masts of Manhatta (reviewed today at www.PopMatters.com), and it is nearly as wonderful.  The sound is a bit more acoustic, a bit more country.  Bonham and her husband now live partly in Brooklyn and partly in Woodstock, NY, which is supposed to account for the blend of sounds on the disc.  But this is not just some mid-career shift toward country sounds.  In fact, the disc contains all the great pop arrangements from Blink, with idiosyncratic song structures and off-beat stories in the lyrics.  The sound is just a bit more rootsy, and it wonderfully features guitarist Smoky Hormel and his band.

Manhatta is one of the treats of the 2010 summer.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

ABBEY LINCOLN, ONE FOR THE AGES

The great jazz singer Abbey Lincoln died yesterday at the age of 80.

It's hard to write analytically about jazz singing, I think.  It is very personal.  Some singers have technique and style but also have a sound that just turns me off.  Abbey Lincoln usually had the opposite effect on me: her delivery was declamatory and personal, and she sang the blues all the time no matter what style of song she was delivering.  I didn't like all her work—sometimes I felt that her tunes were lectures directed at me rather than stories that should move me—but I mostly loved her.

Here she is on the great Night Music show, singing the Charlie Haden tune, "First Song":



If she's new to you, here are the basics.  Lincoln (a stage name, she was born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Michigan) started singing and acting in the mid-50s, singing under the useful influence of Billie Holiday.  But her direction as a jazz musician was largely formed when she collaborated with the great bop drummer on 1960's We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite.  The two were married from 1962 through 1970.   Lincoln was a wholly individual artist whose sure delivery could be insistent and political but also introspective.  Her recent work has highlighted original songs that are worth your listening time.

Lincoln had a great influence on younger jazz singers, mostly notably Cassandra Wilson.  Wilson's rich sound and unusual phrasing is inconceivable without  Lincoln's model.  Neither artist has been happy to base a career mainly around half-century-old standards.   Here is a recording of Wilson singing one of Lincoln's songs:




For me, Lincoln embodies a certain kind of affectless jazz singing.  It's not that it lacks style or individuality—far from it.  But Abbey sang relatively fewer notes; she did not embellish her singing with useless filigree or show-biz grimacing.  She incorporated the feeling into her tone and into the rhythmic placement of her notes in relation to the time of her band.  That defines jazz singing more than anything else, and all the great ones did it.  Lincoln did it brilliantly, and she did it her own particular way.

Rest in peace, Abbey Lincoln.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

HOW DID THE 1970s WEAN YOUNG JAZZ FANS, Part One: ED BEACH and WRVR

There has to be a large contingent of jazz fans today who started listening to the music during the 1970s.  This was quite a feat, and something I'd like to write about over the course of some time.

It's not that the '70s didn't produce some great jazz.  There was a wealth of great music during those fateful American years.  Beautiful music got released by ECM (such as Dave Holland's Conference of the Birds), Miles Davis produced five years of fiery, mad, electric thrills, Ornette Coleman and The Art Ensemble of Chicago were flying high, the World Saxophone Quartet got started, and much more.  But, as these examples suggest, the signature jazz of the 1970s was not easy for beginners.

How, I'm wondering, did we kids of the '70s get weaned onto this music.  This is the first in a series of meditations on that question.  And I eagerly invite you to chime in with comments.

The most important tool of indoctrination for me was the astonishing and late WRVR, 106.7 FM, a New York radio station broadcast out of the Riverside Church in Manhattan.  Precisely, my young friends and I were obsessed with RVR's quirky and brilliant DJ Ed Beach, a true jazz scholar who made his detailed lessons on jazz history fun with a mad, Shakespearean delivery.

In the '60s, RVR was a noncommercial station, and Beach's daily "Just Jazz" radio show was uncompromised.  But my the time my friends and I were really digging him, the station had become commercial, and there was increasing pressure to play more vocals and fusion.  But through all that Beach remained a gem, and I'll never forget hearing him spin—and explain—Max Roach and Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk and Django Reinhardt.

Then, right around the time I was head off to college, Beach suddenly went off the air.  WRVR had changed ownership and management, and Old Uncle Eddie wasn't happy.  Not long afterward, in an overnight shocker, the station went country.  My youth was gone.

Ed Beach in 2003 at his home in Eugene, OR, chatting with me.
About ten years ago, I got to wondering where Ed Beach had gone, and so I tracked him down to a nice apartment in Eugene, Oregon.  I called him up on the phone and was lucky enough to be invited for a visit, during which I spent two days interviewing him, learning his story, and laughing at his incredible tales.  Not long after, I published a version of the following piece in the radio industry magazine Radio and Records.  Here it is again, based on interviews and research done in 2003.

Ed Beach: Alive, Well, and Still Ready for the Airwaves (2003)

“Just Jazz — Ed Beach with you."

Those words were once the promise of great music to fans of New York’s legendary WRVR.  They were crooned, from 1961 to 1973, in a resonant baritone over the swinging line of Wes Montgomery’s “So Do It,” by a trained Shakespearean actor and journeyman jazz pianist — and by the finest educator and disk jockey in the history of jazz radio.

Today, over 2,000 hours of what The New York Times once called “the most notable nonplaying contribution jazz has witnessed in New York” are not only being preserved at the Library of Congress but also are again available for broadcast.  Ed Beach, who turned 80 this January and lives in Eugene, Oregon, hopes the tapes that are his legacy will survive and find a new audience.  Many highly influential members of the jazz community agree that Beach’s contributions to broadcasting and to jazz should not be forgotten.

A citation from the City of New York honoring Ed Beach
In the 50s and 60s, New York boasted several legendary jazz jocks.  Sparkling pianist Billy Taylor did a show on WLIB.  Mort Fega was a hip sensation with “Jazz Unlimited” on WNRC and then WEVD.  And you can’t forget Symphony Sid.  But even in that crowd, “Just Jazz with Ed Beach” was the jewel of jazz radio.  The show may be less well-remembered only because Beach and his program were less about style and more about music.

Innovative Broadcasting
Beach in his prime

“Ed Beach set a precedent for intelligent jazz broadcasting that has yet to be equalled,” according to Gary Giddins, longtime jazz writer for the Village Voice and author of biographies of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Bing Crosby.  Giddins speaks from personal experience.  He recalls first hearing “Just Jazz” on his car radio while driving to and from an early job.  “Ed Beach was absolutely an inspiration,” Giddins states.

“Just Jazz” was a revolutionary radio program.  Each two-hour show featured a single artist — and often focused on one period for a prolific artist like Ellington or Armstrong. While Symphony Sid broadcast a “personality show,” Beach put the music first and used his dry wit to bring in new listeners.  “Ed told you what you wanted to know, but he let the music speak for itself,” explains Giddins.  “He told you who the musicians were, he gave you the recording dates, he never blathered, and you never felt it was about him.”

Phil Schaap, archivist at Jazz at Lincoln Center and broadcaster on New York’s WKCR who started listening to Ed as a kid in 1963, states it simply:  “Ed Beach is the greatest.”  Schaap explains the “Just Jazz” approach this way:  “This is a guy who had enough stage presence to bring off discography as the language of a radio program.”  Giddins similarly recalls that Beach was funny as well as educational.  “He had a lot of fun with it.  So it was very easy to get involved with the music without feeling it was a college course.  This was music he loved.  He also had incredible taste."

Creating a Generation of Jazz Fans

Dizzy Gillespie loved Ed Beach.
A list of Beach’s devoted fans reads like a Who’s Who of today’s jazz world.  In addition to Giddins and Schaap, the Ed Beach Fan Club includes figures as disparate as the Head of the Music Division of the Library of Congress Jon Newsom, classical and jazz expert Gunther Schuller, jazz historian Lewis Porter, as well as jazz musicians like pianist Hank Jones, saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and drummer Danny Gottleib.  Newsom’s assessment of beach’s impact is definitive: “Ed Beach created a generation of people who are today keeping jazz alive.”

Danny Gottleib, an original member of the Pat Metheny Band, was hipped to Beach by his high school band teacher in New Jersey.  “I lived for that show.   It was a very meticulous approach to the music but done in a very compelling, entertaining style.  He had a very beboppy, erudite kind of voice, almost like the great Yankee Stadium announcer Bob Shepard.  He had such a compelling voice that you couldn’t wait to listen to it.”  The New York Times wrote that Ed’s voice “suggests Louis Armstrong as a Harvard man.”

Like Giddins, Schaap, and Gottleib, the Library of Congress’s Jon Newsom was a teenage Beach fan.  So when the preeminent jazz historian, composer, conductor and Beach fanatic Gunther Schuller tipped him to the availability of well-preserved “Just Jazz” tapes, Newsom contacted Beach and acquired them for the Library in 1992.  Today, tapes of his best programs — over a thousand of them — are carefully preserved and seeking a new audience.

The tapes exist because RVR started broadcasting “Just Jazz” in the morning with a repeat each afternoon and a block of repeats on Saturday — as well as sending the show to Boston’s WBUR for rebroadcast.  A copy was kept in a cool, second-floor storage room in the Riverside Church, which both owned the station and housed its studios.  The tapes span the broadcast years 1965 to 1973 and cover all of jazz history up to that point, from Blind Lemon Jefferson and Scott Joplin through George Benson and the Jazz Crusaders — as well as everything in between.

“There are so many rooms in the house of jazz,” Beach recalls today.  “I loved the variety and energy of it.”  After his morning broadcast, Beach would spend the whole day in an office at the back of the RVR studios, auditioning, timing and choosing tracks for the next day’s show.  “I would get home in time to catch the rebroadcast at six, then spend the night doing biographical and discographical research.”  Ed used records from both the WRVR collection that he built with the help of RVR DJ Max Cole and from his personal library of 8,000 jazz albums.

Jay Kernis, today the Senior Vice President of Programming for National Public Radio, was a summer intern at WRVR for five summers from 1969 to 1973.  He vividly recalls Beach as “tall, theatrical in his precise, deep speech and revered by all.  He mostly kept to himself, but was always available for a chat at his desk, especially if you wanted to ask him about jazz.”  Robert Seigel, NPR’s host of “All Things Considered” was also at RVR during that time and recalls that Beach “loved and knew jazz with encyclopedic authority.”

WRVR's Demise

Robert Seigel worked at WRVR with Beach.
By 1973, however, the grant that had made WRVR a radio utopia ended, and the station went commercial.  Although — largely on the basis of the success engendered by “Just Jazz with Ed Beach” — it started broadcasting jazz 24 hours a day, it also began using play-lists.  Beach’s meticulously researched shows gave way to more mundane fare, and “Just Jazz” was no longer preserved on tape.  Beach left WRVR at the end of 1976 after the Riverside Church sold the station to Sonderling Broadcasting and, as Beach puts it, “the writing was on the wall.”  On September 8, 1980 at noon — after it had been acquired by Viacom International — WRVR went from playing Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” to Waylon Jennings.  It had become a country station.

Folks who heard Beach will never forget him.  Lewis Porter,  a leading jazz scholar and author who is Professor of Music at Rutgers University and founder of its jazz masters program, recalls:  “I listened every day after school, for hours and took notes.  ‘Just Jazz’ was an important early education for me.” Danny Gottleib remembers “specific shows that changed my life.  One was the Maynard Ferguson show – I went out and bought every Ferguson album I could find.  I remember the Oscar Pettiford show.  It was Ed’s demeanor.  He was like a friend because he was so cool and knew so much.”

But Gary Giddins worries that “Beach is already forgotten.  There is no awareness of him any more.”  Phil Schaap may be even more pessimistic.  “Not only do people not remember Ed Beach — they don’t remember Duke Ellington.  As recently as 1998, Ed was interviewed by Schaap on WKCR for Louis Armstrong’s birthday, but otherwise Beach has no interest in returning to the airwaves in real time.

The Ed Beach Collection at Clackamas Community College
Tapes Available

The “Just Jazz” tapes may be another story.  Van Jay, who worked with Beach at WRVR and is currently a jazz and gospel programming consultant and producer for WKBY in Chatham, VA, and WWDJ radio in NY, is working toward getting the show back on the air. “The diehard jazz fans really appreciated Ed Beach.  Ed was not a commercial guy – he could care less if he sold a record.  He was a dedicated man.  Ed was an in-house historian who knew the music very well.  But some people took Ed’s knowledge for granted and took Ed for granted.  Now,” Van Jay says, “my goal is to get the music, and Ed’s brilliant commentary, back out there where people can hear it.”

The recordings are now owned by the Library of Congress, and Jon Newsom explains that he too wants to makes the shows available again.  “My vision is to have the entire Ed Beach Collection on line so that when you’re out there and you’re wondering what went on with Charlie Parker in 1946 you could hear Ed’s entire program on Bird.  I’d love to put it out for free, accessible to everybody at all times, on demand.”  However, legal clearances from the owners of the copyrights to all the recordings on the “Just Jazz” tapes, at least for now, are holding up Newsom’s vision. 

“Some people are interested in putting Ed’s programs on radio again,” Newsom adds. “We’d be delighted to have that happen.  Rebroadcasting the tapes on public radio will not require the broadcaster to go back to the owners of the copyright.  Anyone who wants the tapes — including public radio — can have them for the price of a copy.”  Both Newsom and Van Jay agree that, as soon as possible, the goal is have the whole archive converted to a digital format.  To date, the Library has converted only about ten percent of the archive, though Newsom reports that the condition of the originals is “pretty good, as they were made during an era of ‘sticky tape’ that does not deteriorate quickly.

"Legacy of the Highest Magnitude"

Ed himself is also in good shape. Born in Canada as the only child of Eupopean immigrants, Ed grew up in Portland, Oregon and first heard jazz on the radio broadcasts during the ‘30s.  “I remember loving Ellington and Fats Waller.  I ran out and bought those records.  They thrilled me.”  Senough, Ed learned to play piano by ear and he was catching gigs with local bands.  He led played and sang with a small group that he says “shamelessly copied the Nat Cole style.”  Once in New York, he fell further in love with swing and bebop, carching Dizzy’s big band at the Spot light club, as well as Billie Holiday, Don Byas and others along 52nd Street at its height.  “New York back then was glorious,” recalls.
Ed Beach's Music Room in his Eugene apartment

He returned to Oregon for college and then found that his voice was a natural for the stage.  He played Shakespeare and other work off-Broadway and in summer stock before landing his first radio gig.

Phil Schaap gives Ed Beach the highest praise, calling him a champion of the music when it had too few.  “His is an important legacy of the highest magnitude.  When no one else was doing it, Ed was keeping the music alive on the radio.  Today, we’re looking for the next Ed Beach, the person who’s going to take the next watch.  Ed did his as well as it could be done.”

Gary Giddins is excited about the prospect of hearing “Just Jazz on the radio again.  “I’m a very enthusiastic Ed Beach fan, and I think that people should remember what he achieved.  I think those tapes should be played again.”

Ed, however, remains modest about his achievement.  “Why did I spend so much time on ‘Just Jazz’?  I did it for me.  I was learning the history of jazz.  And I thought — well, why shouldn’t the listeners learn too?”

Ed Beach and Will Layman in 2003
To this day, Beach listens to jazz recordings for hours every day.  He’s still enthralled by the power of the Basie band, the melodic invention of Sidney Bechet, the harmonies of Bill Evans.  And he still gets out to hear music — in the last few months he caught the Dave Holland Quintet and was knocked out by trombonist Robin Eubanks.  But some things can’t be put into words even by a legendary jazz educator.  Like, for instance, what is it that makes jazz so great?  Beach hesitates and shakes his head.  “It just swings, man,” he says.

And he’s right.

* * *

The last I heard from Ed Beach was a holiday card two years ago.  Ed has gracious stayed in touch with me, and he usually sends a hilarious card consisting of a photocopy of one or more New Yorker cartoons that are then inscribed with his precise handwriting and unmistakable wit.  Based on those cards, I can tell you that the man—at least until a couple years ago—was still lively, liberal, and wonderfully cranky about the world.

But, to my deep sadness, Ed died on Christmas Day, 2009, in Eugene.  His New York Times obituary is HERE.

Many of us owe him the greatest passion in our lives.  In the 1970s, we needed the likes of Ed Beach.

Next Installment of "How Did the '70s Wean Jazz Fans": Soul Jazz and the Groove of "Compared to What"

Monday, August 9, 2010

TEN REASONS TO LOVE JASON MORAN

Just up today on PopMatters, a new JAZZ TODAY column about Jason Moran.

Pianist, composer Jason Moran
Moran is as a good a summary of the history of jazz piano as I can imagine today.  He bridges way-back stride technique (via Thelonious Monk, 'f course) with avant-garde tone clusters, but he has a full command of everything in between.

More importantly, Moran has a fully developed personality as a composer and improviser.  He melds modern rhythmic ideas from hip hop with the jazz tradition, and plays beautiful, lyrical melodies without seeming to be aping anything from the past.

Another thing I love about Moran—he is active as both a leader and sideman.  His own music is distinctively his own, but when he plays with Paul Motian or Cassandra Wilson he complements their concept and still brings his own voice to the proceedings.  Cat would have thrived in the 1960s on Blue Note.

Jason Moran: refreshing but connected to tradition, still young but full mature as an artist.  Great!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

THE NEW FACE OF JAZZ, a remarkable new book.

Jazz has not always fared so well on the page.  Most fans have a favorite book or two about jazz, but it is an art form that is somewhat resistant to verbal description.  Perhaps because the music has a strong mythology and set of visual clich├ęs, writing about jazz has a way of become trite with little effort.

There has been at least one great novel that is explicitly about jazz: The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor (check out my radio commentary about this book here), and there are plenty of classic short stories that use jazz as essential material:  Eudora Welty's "Powerhouse" (based on a memory of Fats Waller) and James Baldwin's great "Sonny's Blues."  If you are hungry for this kind of stuff, I heartily recommend The Jazz Fiction Anthology, which came out just recently.

Of course, there are some great jazz biographies (Lush Life, about Strayhorn), autobiographies (Miles Davis's profane, hilarious book), and purely historical studies (Gunther Schuller's Early Jazz and The Swing Era).

When I was first learning about jazz as a kid, I loved reading books that either collected short essays about the music or let the musicians tell their own stories.  Material by Nat Hentoff was great, particularly Hear Me Talkin' To Ya and Jazz Is, both of which let the musicians themselves talk about the music.  I also loved The Jazz Book by the late Joachim Berendt, which has recently been updated by a younger writer (check out by review here)—a book of classification and opinion that still seems smart and fresh and unafraid of different styles.


Musician and writer Cicily Janus has just published a new jazz book in this style: The New Face of Jazz.  Janus's book takes the form of more than 200 short profiles of individual musicians.  First, Janus provides a career overview, including a website and single representative recording.  Then there follows a statement by the artist in his or her own words, condensed from the extensive interviews conducted for the book.  This is the kind of book you would never read straight through but, rather, one you want to flip through and sample in little bites.

What makes The New Face of Jazz different is that it profiles only living jazz musicians, and it gives equal space to legends (McCoy Tyner and Sonny Rollins), crossover figures (George Benson, Lee Ritenour), contemporary stars (Esperanza Spalding, Melody Gardot), players on the modern edge (Vijay Iyer, Matthew Shipp), mainstream figures (Maria Schneider), and scores of musicians you almost certainly do not know.  Janus's goal was to project a fresh sense of what jazz is today rather than merely recounting the usual stories about Pops and Duke and Bird and Miles.  Mission accomplished.

Also different about this book is the substance of most of the artist's statements.  There is relatively little about the usual topics: their influences, their technique, their personal history.  Rather, Janus asked the musicians to talk about what the music means to them, about their feelings about life beyond music, and about what makes them tick as creative people.  This results in statements that range from the ponderous to the profound, but it is a fresh way of thinking about jazz.  This is a book about how jazz intersects with life and feeling—not a history, not a set of biographies, not a mess of reviews.

To choose just one example, it is fascinating to read Vijay Iyer's explanation of how and why jazz reflects his experience "as an American."  His parents came to the US from India in the mid-1960s, and he explains:

The experience of growing up "different" in this country is . . . fundamental to who I am.  [L]earning how to be a person happened in the context of an experience of newness and difference.  Improvisation is central to how we dealt with that reality.  It's something I learned from my parents—their adaptive skills.  They had to find a space for themselves in this culture.  In a basic sense, it was all about improvisation.
This kind of expression is all over The New Face of Jazz.  This is a book that allows musicians to find new ways of talking about music, and there is hardly a single reference to a diminished chord or a flatted ninth.


Not that the book is perfect.  At times Janus struggles to find fresh ways to write about the musicians in her summaries.  Trying to explain trumpeter Tom Harrell's music: "the aural landscape coming through his sound portraits is organic in its wholeness."  But this kind of thing is near inevitable in jazz writing.  How would I explain Harrell's mesmerizing arrangements any better?  More peculiar—and probably to be laid at the feet of editors or publishers rather than the author—is the decision to designate certain musicians "Living Legends" and others not.  (The book's subtitle is "An Intimate Look at Today Living Legends and the Artists of Tomorrow").  Fred Hersch is a "Living Legend" but not McCoy Tyner?  Michael Abene qualifies but not Phil Woods?  Who cares, but it's still curious.

Also notable: the book is sprinkled with excellent but too-small photos by Ned Radinsky.  I dearly wish there were more and that they could have been reproduced better.  The stories here deserve the extra zip that these photographs could have provided.

In the end, The New Face of Jazz is an immensely valuable labor for the music.  Janus dedicated the better part of two years of her life to reaching out to the these many musicians, many of whom dearly deserve recognition but rarely get it.  And with a lovely forward by bassist Marcus Miller and an opening word from Wynton Marsalis, it is clear that this book was embraced by the community that it serves.

The New Face of Jazz affirms that the community of brilliant jazz musicians is immense and deeply intelligent, and it reminds us that jazz is a great American art form because of how deftly and powerfully it reflects our lives and our culture.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"JAZZ" SINGING GETS AMAZING: REBECCA MARTIN AND JEN CHAPIN

I've recently been involved in some interesting debates about the importance and value to jazz of innovation versus tradition.  This is one of those topics that has been front and center in jazz for a long time: the battles between boppers and "moldy figs", the suspicion during the 1960s of "free" music, and the various stand-offs between neo-traditionalists and less conventional players (and between those fusing jazz with other forms) in the 1980s.

I'd like to think that these debates have become mostly irrelevant today.  So many musicians cross these boundaries every day.  And they do this in surprising ways.  For example, the singers Rebecca Martin and Jen Chapin.

Rebecca Martin, Larry Grenadier, and Bill McHenry
Martin's new album is When I Was Long Ago, and it is a collection of standards.  Now, that is a prescription for jazz traditionalism, right?  But this disc—for all its standards such as "Lush Life" and "Willow Weep for Me"—is risky and daring. 

To start with, Martin is backed only by two instrumentalists: bassist Larry Grenadier (also her husband) and saxophonist Bill McHenry.  Inevitably these are spare arrangements that leave Martin's vocal sound vulnerable and exposed.  This makes it a kind of vocal tightrope walking—which can be exhilarating to listen to.

Rebecca Martin
Check out "But Not For Me" as just one example.  Martin sings the rarely heard verse accompanied just by Grenadier—no small feat as it meanders melodically in an interesting way.  Then when the familiar melody appears, McHenry enters with a single held note that acts like a tart, slightly dissonant, complement to the charming melody.  While Martin doesn't do anything deeply weird with the tune—she sings close to the melody—her tone is not an Ella-esque smooth jazz glide but a personality-rich voice that has the bend and sway of jazz along with rock traces of Rod Stewart or Joplin.  And Bill McHenry sounds fabulous and free on his solo: both exploratory and at the same time briefly quoting "Tangerine."  This isn't avant-garde music, yet it feels unfettered in the best ways.

It's hard to explain how Martin sounds more contemporary than the standard modern Billie Holiday imitator (and, yeah, I'm talking about you, M Peyroux), but Martin owns this material more like she wrote the songs than as if she just loved her old records.  When she sings "Lush Life," she is telling you the story for the first time rather than SINGING it like she was Coltrane.

Rebecca Martin is recording for Sunnyside, and she is typically backed by great jazz players like Kurt Rosenwinkel, but maybe it's not quite right to call her a "jazz" singer.  Her style assembles jazz and folk, maybe you want to call her "indie-pop" or maybe you'd rather skip the labels altogether.  She has worked with songwriter Jesse Harris—the guy who penned the Norah Jones smash hit—so maybe that makes her a Norah-ish pop/jazzer?  But the sound of her bands—dreamy and impressionistic and hauntily swinging—makes her seem more like a purveyor of modern art songs like Jon Mitchell.  Now, by recording a full program of standards, Martin seems to be working with the jazz label even as she nudges it aside.

While I've been criticized for suggesting that jazz needs to find ways to make itself relevant to today's world, I still feel this is true.  The point is not for jazz to sell more discs or pander to popular styles.  Audiences may dig pandering in the short term, but it will kill an art form.  But if jazz musicians want their art to live actively in the public ear in 2010, they have to make the art of jazz mean something in 2010 beyond nostalgia or abstraction.  I think that Rebecca Martin is doing that by investing these standards with contemporary feeling and by reimagining them without their decades of old associations.

Jen Chapin and Stephan Crump
Remarkably, singer Jen Chapin (yup, Harry's daughter, but more a soul or jazz singer than a folkie) used this precise instrumentation of voice/acoustic bass/saxophonist for her 2009 take on the Stevie Wonder songbook, Revisions.  I've written about Jen at length before, and you can read my profile of her and family in an old edition of my PopMatters column, JAZZ TODAY.  I still feel the same way about Jen—that she deserves way more acclaim.  Because she hasn't fashioned herself as a "jazz singer" but also hasn’t hit it big she lives in a middle area where the fame/publicity is limited but the artistic rewards are huge.

Backed another husband who happens to be a first-call jazz bassist (Stephan Crump, recently of Vijay Iyer's trio and his own Rosetta Trio) and a terrific saxophonist Chris Cheek, Chapin provides Wonder's songs with a new lens that is supremely elastic and interesting.  Though her voice carries the timbre of a modern soul singer, her time is drenched in a feeling for jazz.  And with Crump swinging like mad even when he is playing funky patterns, this disc becomes another refreshing example of how jazz can be refreshed brilliantly by touching something that feels more a part of today's world.

In a sense, Revisions is the flip side of the Martin recording in that it uses a repertoire that is not associated with jazz but then applies jazz techniques to get inside the songs.  "Renewable" is a Wonder song that I don't really know in its original form, but here Chapin's vocal is in constant dialogue with Cheek's tenor saxophone while Crump plays a probing bass line that would only be found on a jazz record.  Chapin doesn't "improvise" in the usual jazz sense, but she works with the song in a context that requires her to listen to instrumentalists who are improvising.  It's a bracing performance in every respect.

When Chapin approaches Wonder in a more direct and funky way, you won't be able to resist.  Her "Jesus Children of America" is given a rocking bottom by Crump's slap/pluck technique, and Cheek plays the edges as her equal: soulful.  "Village Ghetto Land" is sung delicately and playfully, with a prancing bass part and Cheek sounding almost fussy on soprano—an ingenious way of making the lyrics about terrible conditions for poor folks in the city seem particularly poignant.


Any chance you get to check out Rebecca Martin or Jen Chapin: take it.  Today's pop music on the radio is fun, but Martin and Chapin are finding ways to combine jazz technique with the deeper side of our grand American tradition of popular art.  If you'd have told me that 2009-2010 would find two brilliant singers use the voice/acoustic bass/saxophone format to make stunning music, I'd have thought you were nuts.

But it's true.  Thanks, Rebecca and Jen.  We're not nuts—we're lucky.

PUNCH BROTHERS, ANTIFOGMATIC

Nickel Creek, with Chris Thile on the left
Like a million of other people who grew up in the New York area, I had a healthy wariness of country music and related forms when I was younger—the twang was alien to me, I suppose, and I was too immature to really listen.  But my love of jazz helped me to hear the technical brilliance of bluegrass, eventually, and I've been expanding my range ever since.

Punch Brothers, a different kind of bluegrass
Of course, you didn't have to be a bluegrass fan to enjoy Nickel Creek, the bluegrass/pop band featuring Sean and Sara Watkins (guitar, fiddle) and Chris Thile (mandolin), which made charming and melodic "newgrass" that had more than a tinge of pop delight about it.  But Nickel Creek is taking a break while all three members pursue other projects.  And Chris Thile's new band, Punch Brothers, brings me right back to my jazz roots, kind of. 

Punch Brothers have a new album out, Antifogmatic, and you can read my full PopMatters.com review to get the complete lowdown.  The first commenter on the review complained that people should not describe this band as being "bluegrass" despite their classic bluegrass instrumentation (guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, acoustic bass, stacked vocals), and this is fair enough.  These guys write and play exceedingly complex music that sometimes sounds old-timey but just as often uses elements of classical music, jazz, rock, or folk music.    Most often it mixes and matches styles such that it is entirely sui generis, a bit hard to follow, less than purely appealing.

But that is fine by me.  Antifogmatic makes you work hard as a listener, to be sure, but it rewards the listening with surprise and invention.  It suggests (as my commenter over on PM, a fellow Bethesda-ite apparently, should appreciate) that easy labels won't do.  And it contains some truly dazzling playing from all the guys in the band, though Thile is usually so good that it's easy to forget that any one else is playing.

It's not a perfect recording for me—like I wish that there were a track or two that contained less fancy footwork and just let the guys PLAY—but it's not a perfect world.  Thile, Punch Brothers and Antifogmatic are making it a little better, though, I'll tell you that.