Header Quote

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

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.