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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Best Jazz of 2011

O these "best of year" lists! What good are they? Must everything in life be a competition?

Yet they help to focus the mind and provide a moment of synthesis. And this year, so scattered in so many ways, needed that more than most.

So, flawed and full of holes, based on incomplete listening and silly forgetfulness, here is my list of the dozen best jazz records of 2011, compiled with fellow PopMatters critic John Garratt: The Best Jazz of 2011.

For me, the top disc, the one that still thrills me the most is the Blue Note debut of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere.  It still sounds to me like this young(ish) artist is playing his instrument in a genuinely new way, moving past some boundary previously established and also bring a great young band along with him (or, maybe I should write: being propelled forward by a great young band).  If you are going to fish for just one 2011 jazz record, that's the one.

Apologies to Tyshawn Sorey, Gretchen Parlato, and many others who really should be on here. The cookie, she crumbles at the end of the year.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Keith Jarrett: Rio

In 1975, Keith Jarrett recorded and ECM released a disc called The Koln Concert—fully improvised solo piano that came in three looooooong chunks of grooving, rollicking lyricism. In college dorms and in little apartments and, well, just about everywhere, jazz fans (and others too) were enraptured by the sound of a great pianist just thinking out loud. And it didn't hurt that the guy infused his playing with a gospel groove and aching melody.

After years of playing with Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis and his own groups, Keith Jarrett had the jazz equivalent of a "hit record," and it lifted his renown (and that of ECM). Tons of great stuff followed (including many more solo piano records), but so did a reputation of being a difficult guy. Jarrett played and recorded lots of classical music, and he experimented with free jazz, chamber jazz, a trio that played nothing but standards—a huge variety. He flirted with outright greatness and he courted some discontent among part of the jazz community.

But with his new record Rio (read my full PopMatters review HERE) Jarrett returns to solo piano greatness and, perhaps, makes us realize that he is as good a summary of what has been great about jazz for the last 30 years.

This is a fantastic recording: compelling, challenging, engaging, beautiful, knotty. Unlike many of this solo excursions, it features relatively brief piece that link together as a whole concert. This is a two-CD set, but it flies by. There are blues, ballads, free playing, rocking pop sounds, gospel, impressionism, you name it. The touch of Jarrett's classical playing is here, but there is almost no sense of "pretense." This is jazz eclecticism at its best because everything is seamless and natural. Even Keith's "moaning" along with his playing is effective (or, if you prefer, mostly in check).

Both more than dinner background music and utterly accessible, Rio (recorded at a concert venue in that Brazilian city) would be a great way to introduce someone to Jarrett—or to jazz in general. It is a model of invention, but it also sounds "composed." It challenges regular harmony while mostly staying within the consonant. It beguiles without alienating.

It's one of a small handful of recordings in 2011 that I'll still be listening to ten years from now.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sympathetic Vibrations

Most people don’t know what a vibraphone is. Why should they? The vibraphone (sometimes called a vibraharp and more often just called “the vibes”) is a niche taste. Classical music has no role for it, and in pop music it once flavored a batch of Motown hits, but that’s it. The obscure theremin, with its leading role in hit songs like the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, is probably better known.

In jazz, however, the percussive attack of the vibes combines with lyrical beauty, creating something close to logical genius. Only in jazz has the instrument produced virtuosos: Hampton, Milt Jackson, Gary Burton, a few others. But even in jazz, the lineage and use of the instrument is somewhat limited. A few of the great big bands used vibes, but most did not. The legendary small groups, from the Armstrong Hot Seven to the Miles Davis Quintet to the Art Ensemble of Chicago are wholly vibes-free.

Recently, however, the instrument has grown in range and application in jazz. Read my full column on the topic, Sympathetic Vibrations, HERE.

Recent releases demonstrating great work on vibes include Chris Dingman's Waking Dreams, the latest from Gary Burton, and a wondrous new record from John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet, among others.

Friday, November 18, 2011

George Benson: Guitar Man

O, fates!  Why do you bless certain people with awe-inspiring talent and brilliant drive to succeed, only to give them questionable taste in how they USE that gift?

Why did Eddie Murphy make The Klumps?

And why must guitarist George Benson make mushy, hum-drum music?

Guitar Man is the latest from Benson (read my full PopMatters review HERE), and it's partly brilliant and mostly mush.  It starts with a tour de force on acoustic guitar: a solo rendering of the standard “Tenderly”. Astonishing, precise, neither too ornate nor too plain, tasteful, invincible. George Benson, Guitarman? Yes. He’s back, and in stellar form.

But then you get to the second track, which is precisely the kind of thing you were fearing—a de-toothing of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” that is so schlocky that rock fans cannot even recognize the melody. A string section, some soothing woodwinds, soft-focus production, simplistic back-beat drumming that lacks the force of rock, the swing of jazz or the deep pocket of soul. Muzak, ack. There’s a dramatic key change toward the end that gilds the lily. Through it all, Benson plays amazing licks, most certainly, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a disaster.

And on it goes with this record.  A sparkling acoustic "Danny Boy" or a small-group take on Coltrane's "Naima", nice.  A cheesy "Tequila" (a la Wes Montgomery, presumably) or a soft-centered "Lady in My Life" (from Thriller).  The good stuff is short, and the terrible stuff is not short enough.

Hearing George Benson play the guitar is still astonishing.  And Eddie Murphy is still a very very funny man.  But what difference does it make if they are content to muddle forward making middle-of-the-road pablum?

O fates.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Freddie Hubbard: Pinnacle Live and Unreleased from Keystone Korner

In jazz as in most things, I tend to prefer the subtler stuff, not the highest notes of the loudest playing. Maynard Ferguson would be my LEAST favorite jazz trumpeter, particularly after an adolescence in which all the high school trumpet players idolized him and had barely heard of Miles Davis.

But Freddie Hubbard was different. His frequent and spectacular flights into the upper register had a daring harmonic purpose. As he proudly knew, he sounded more like a saxophone player than a trumpeter in the way he serpentined his way up there, playing harmonically daring lines that shot into the stratosphere with real jazz daring. If you don't know it by heart already, I'm begging you to go now and listen to Freddie's brilliant solo on Herbie Hancock's classic "Maiden Voyage."

As a bandleader, Freddie was a mixed bag. He might be remembered more for this time with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers or for his countless Blue Note records (as a leader and as a sideman) that were not necessarily with working groups. But in the 1970s and '80s he led some hot bands on the strength of his successful CTI recordings (Red Clay, First Light) and some commercial stuff he did for Columbia that is mostly better forgotten.

Freddie Hubbard: Pinnacle Live and Unreleased from Keystone Korner(reviewed in full on PopMatters here) collects some hot 1980 recordings from San Francisco's Keystone Korner, and great club. Billy Childs is on piano, and his playing is fully up to Hubbard's. The rest of playing is merely very good, but as a group these guys were seriously cookin'. And Freddie himself was probably never in better shape with his chops, his ideas, and his sense of freedom within the band.

The tunes offered here are a fine cross-section of the mid-career Freddie: "The Intrepid Fox" from Red Clay, "One of Another Kind" from the VSOP dates with Hancock, Shorter, Carter and Williams, "Blues for Duane" and the terrific "First Light." In addition, Hubbard plays it pretty on Michel LeGrand's Summer of '42 theme and plays a grrrrrreat and athletic solo on "Giant Steps"—the only recording of that jazz classic by Freddie, at least that I know of.

This is more than nostalgia, but it also reminds us that from 1980 onward Hubbard's best days were behind him. In 1992 he burst his lip, then it got infected and he was never the same as a player. In 2008 he died of congestive heart failure, having to be bailed out of financial trouble by friends. I prefer to remember him as a swaggering great of his horn.

I actually ran into him on the street one night. I was at DC's old One Step Down to hear Woody Shaw play with a local rhythm section, and Freddie was at Blues Alley with McCoy Tyner's trio. After his set, Freddie was strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue with a beautiful date. He was wearing a lovely coat and a fedora, and I recognized him from a block away—his stride and his confidence and his lip too, messed up by years of that hard, beautiful playing. Woody had sounded great, and it was a fine night. Freddie played with Woody Shaw around that time and I guess they were friends. As Freddie approached me, he sized me up and then asked me, "Where's Woody?" drawing out the word "where's" with a great long breath. I was too stunned to answer and just pointed at the One Step.

Where's Freddie? Gone, but with this disc suddenly here, still remembered and heard.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

John Scofield: A Moment's Peace

I really really like guitarist John Scofield. His start with Mingus and Chet Baker, his stint with post-comeback Miles, his fusiony bands in the early 1980s and then his killer string of discs on Blue Note and Verve: great stuff.

But when he became a kind of "jam band star" with the superfine disc A Go Go (with the trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood), things maybe soured a little. A bunch of his records after that seemed a little puffed up with affectation—not all of them, nope, but certainly Uberjam and its live follow-up, which seemed like lowest common denominator stuff for a guy who wasn't into coasting.

If Sco's career in the last dozen years has been up and down, then his new disc, A Moment's Peace, is up-up-up. Featuring a brilliant band (Larry Golding, Brian Blade and Scott Colley) and a wonderful mix of standards, pop songs and originals, this is a quietly daring recording.

The band’s treatment of standards is similarly quirky and strong throughout. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is given a fresh take—with Goldings playing a pulsing kind-of-reggae offbeat figure throughout. Blade’s rhythm approach, however, works somewhat against that groove, with jazz accents and melodic rolls acting like a gentle version of what Elvin Jones might have played on this kind of tune. Goldings solos memorably over the “A” sections, setting up Sco for a fluid and sharp statement on the bridge.

Both “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” and “I Want to Talk About You” are played in a more conventional jazz style, but both are superb. “Gee Baby” catches Scofield in note-bending mood, like a weirder, subtler B.B. King. Every note is clear and tangy. The Eckstine tune moves Goldings over to piano, where he is just fine. Colley comes through in the mix more completely, letting the partnership with Blade shine at mid-tempo. As Scofield tackles the tougher harmonic path on “Talk About You”, the rest of the band sets up beautiful polyrhythms behind him. Now, this is no jam band in the popular sense, but the group dynamics and sense of play here are outstanding. Everyone in the band is cooking, but there isn’t a cliché in sight.

This is a band that is exceptional at setting a mood. Blade’s mallet work combines with Golding's piano to prepare Sco for a lovely reading of “Throw It Away”, a tune by Abbey Lincoln. Carla Bley’s “Lawns” gets a treatment that is quietly warm, with just a hint of strut in its step. And several Scofield originals are typically hard to get out of your head.

Maybe one of finest jazz records of the year, A Moment's Peace makes John Scofield seem a little less jammy and whole lot relevant and cool.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Farmers by Nature: Out of This Worlds Distortions

There is extreme playfulness in the bloodline of the trio Farmers by Nature: Craig Taborn on piano, William Parker on bass and Gerald Cleaver's drums. “Sir Snacktray Speaks” puts together a jabbing little jig from Taborn’s piano with an aching set of held bowed tones on Parker’s bass to generate a smiling theme. Then Cleaver takes over for a cluttered drum lead that scampers over a Parker pizzicato line. Then Taborn reenters, with a moody set of locked-hand chords, which sets up Parker to return to his bow for some down-home fiddle figures.

If it’s a lovely ballad you hanker for, then the opener, “For Fred Anderson” (a reference to the recently passed Chicago free tenor player), is a haunting, lovely theme. Taborn rings his keys with the sustain pedal down, getting a series of beautiful overtone resonances—a bed of stunning sound over which Parker plays very quiet bowed tones. The texture of this performance is spare and transparent, but Cleaver thickens it with subtle cymbal and percussion work.

The title track of Out of This World’s Distortions may be its highlight. Parker begins with a stately plucked melodic over pulsing cymbals. Taborn eventually enters with a set of sculpted rising patterns that are not the theme as much as a framing accompaniment. Over time, this balanced conversation draws you in, seeming to ask a million questions without providing obvious answers. You might listen to it 10 times, concentrating on different elements each time.

Read my full review of the recording HERE.

Each of these performances makes the case that “free jazz” is not a forbidding mess but rather an open plain of possibilities. Farmers by Nature is a band that takes seriously its mission to communicate to listeners, even though there is not a compromise in sight. The music is not appealing because it is familiar but because it sounds grounded, rooted, in basic patterns and in a connection to emotion.

Craig Taborn, William Parker and Gerald Cleaver move as one on this record. And if you give the music half a chance, you move with them.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Dear John Letter to Jazz: To Hell with Loving You

Well, here it is: an announcement of intention. A decision, long mulled over. A cry for help in the lonely jazz night.

Why be faithful to jazz?  What has she ever really done for me?  Who's she running around with on the side?  When people see me, then think of her, what's really going on in their heads?

Well, I'm done.

My resignation, of a sort. Read the kiss-off RIGHT HERE.

A love affair, ended, and then . . . ?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ornette Coleman: Something Else!

Every revolution has to start somewhere, and often the beginnings are not particularly unsettling.  That was certainly the case with Ornette Coleman and his "free jazz" style.  Or was it?  At the time, people reacted to Ornette as if he had taken a poop in his horn and set it on fire.

Looking back at his first album Something Else! (read my full PopMatters review HERE), it seems like Ornette was just a slightly ornery bebopper with a loose sense of intonation.  It sounds pretty mainstream.  The themes are spirited and tonal, and the whole enterprise certainly swings like mad.  In the original liner notes, Ornette states: “I think that one day music will be a lot freer”. Even the artist did not think it was there yet.

Pianist Walter Norris and bassist Don Payne are simply playing bebop—just listen to their solos on “Angel Voice” and you will hear utterly conventional bop playing of the late ‘50s. And Billy Higgins’ drumming, while fluid and simpatico with Coleman in every moment, swings in conventional time. It is notably less “out” than the work of, say, Max Roach or Art Blakey from the same era.  Don Cherry on "pocket trumpet" is also playing bebop, but he is closer to Coleman in concept. His long solo on “Alpha” is a clear balance. On the one hand, Cherry crackles with licks that run across the harmonies, just as if he were Kenny Dorham. On the other hand, there is a raggedness to his tone in places, and he has developing a way of abstracting the harmonies without really playing “wrong” notes.

The leader, however, is already free on his solos. Not only does Coleman use an off-putting and highly vocalized tone, but he tends to play flat in ways that makes all his notes sounds like blues tones. Then, when actually selecting notes and building phrases, he does not necessarily follow the chord patterns that Norris and Payne are playing. On “The Blessing”, which is a wonderful and attractive theme over the “I’ve Got Rhythm” chord changes, Coleman’s line is significantly in conflict with the first pattern. On “Alpha”, Coleman sounds a good bit like Eric Dolphy in the way he follows his own sense of vocal patterns down interesting melodic allies.

Listening to the whole package in 2011, it's clear that there was, in fact, a revolutionary player and thinker leading this enterprise.  He just didn't have his concept full actualized yet, and his bandmates weren't quite on board.  A mere year or so later, he would have Charlie Haden on bass and eventually Ed Blackwell on drums, dropping the piano.  The revolution—though lovely and lyrical in many places—would arrive.

But it started here.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Cannonball Adderley with Bill Evans: Know What I Mean?

The opening strains of this classic Riverside album are pure-pure delicacy that could only come from the fingers of Bill Evans. His chiming piano, playing the original “Waltz for Debby”, is something that brings to mind a particular kind of jazz—intimate, sweet, contemplative. Then, 1:07 in, Percy Heath’s bass burbles downward and Connie Kay’s brushes start working against a snare—and the ripe sound of Cannonball Adderley’s alto sax just pops into the tune. Yummmmm.

This tune alone—the most swinging of all the “Debby”s ever recorded and one that is my all-time favorite example of a waltz suddenly busting into swinging 4/4—makes Know What I Mean? a classic, must-have jazz album. Read my full review HERE.

Of course, Adderley and Evans played together in the classic Miles Davis band—the one that recorded Kind of Blue, no less—so they were familiar with this particular sweet-and-sour set up.  And this simpatico teamwork shows throughout this disc.  There are lovely ballads on which Adderley nevertheless finds a blues strain, and there are skipping swingers on which Evans is perfectly at home.

The modal tune "Know What I Mean?" is particularly intriguing, with Adderley at home while playing flutters against a set of scales, then a whispered piano solo in that mode. At the mid-point, however, Kay sets up a jagged Latin groove for Cannonball’s solo, shifting gears into straight 4/4 swing only to find Evans soloing over the bolder groove as well. The shift back to brushes and ballad tempo is sudden and dramatic.

It's great, then, to hear the alternate take of this tune included on this reissue. This unused take moves into the groove section much sooner and finds Adderley stretching out more expansively and then re-entering over the groove just as the rhythm section switches into a bit of double-time 12/8. Clearly the band was fooling around with this arrangement in the studio, and it’s great to hear part of the creative process here—with the unused take making more sense, I think, of this shape-shifting tune.

The whole disc contains a bounty of great music.  If you love jazz but don't know this album: stop reading.  Get it now.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Off-Handed Cool of Michael Franks

Back in the '70s when I was first getting into jazz, it was great to discover the Reprise debut of the singer and songwriter Michael Franks. The Art of Tea was hip and swinging and funny, which is to say that a bunch of the songs were sly winks full of clever wordplay. They were sexy but smart. Franks, as a singer, was subtle and barely there, but he was backed by a collection of cool musicians drawn mostly from the band the Jazz Crusaders. "Popsicle Toes" and "Eggplant" and "Sometime I Forget to Smile" were cookin' little swingers that I wished I was cool enough to sing myself.

Over time, Franks demonstrated that he was also heavily influenced by Antonio Carlos Jobim—he was a great writer and singer of sophisticated bossa novas, and his ballads were great too. But as the albums tumbled onward toward the 1980s, the mushy side of Franks emerged as well. He preceded but was, essentially, pre-made for the "smooth jazz" sound, and I stopped paying attention to him at some point in the next decade.

Now he is back with a new record, Time Together (read my review HERE), and it surely reminds of what I always loved about Franks. So I made a more complete profile of him into this month's column, JAZZ TODAY: The Off-Handed Cool of Michael Franks, clickable here.

In any case, looking back, I think it's fair to say that Franks has always been an amazing songwriter and—in fact—a fine jazz singer.  That he got gooped up in all that smooth jazz cotton candy doesn't change the fact that his songs are beautiful and well-written.  And maybe, with the smoove jazz haze finally parting these days, he's back to being cool again?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Madeleine Peyroux: Standing on the Rooftop

I recall clearly hearing Madeleine Peyroux's debut at a party 15 years ago. "Is that Billie Holiday? With an electric guitar?!?" I thought that someone had sampled a Billie vocal and built some kind of psudeo-jazz modern arrangement around it. But, nope, it was this American singer, 22 years old, who'd been singing on the streets of Paris for a while and now had made her debut album. And she just happens to sound exactly like Billie Holiday—every melodic tendency, the timbre, the rhythms, everything. Is that legal? I recall thinking.

Madeleine Peyroux is still doing it. Standing on the Rooftop [read my full review on PopMatters HERE] is the singer's sixth recording, and it's a mess. It was produced by Craig Street, who did wonderful things for Cassandra Wilson when she started with Blue Note, and who gives things his signature moody touch. Songs were co-written with Bill Wyman and Jenny Sheinman (the jazz violinist). Alan Toussaint and M'shell N'degeocello play. There are covers of the Beatles, Robert Johnson, and Dylan. But the album wastes all this with an unfortunate aimlessness.

It is hardly original to note that Peyroux’s singing is eerily—queerly—reminiscent of Billie Holiday. But on her sixth record over 15 years, this persistent truth can’t be ignored. Peyroux applies an oddly “different” approach to many songs here, but she does it with a recycled sound that is, of course, a faded Xerox of the original. So, when Standing on the Rooftop starts out with “Martha, My Dear”, you’re glad that it does not sound like The Beatles—but were you expecting to hear “silly girl” come out of the throat of Lady Day? And it sounds like a kind of odd Holiday: Billie on Ambien, falling asleep in the middle of “when you find yourself in the thick of it”. It is intimate singing, I suppose, but I think it’s more accurate to call it weak and faltering.

Where does Peyroux sound more contemporary or more like “herself”? Ironically, “The Way of All Things” has a neat little swing rhythm but seems to liberate the singer from sounding so affected. It’s a cool tune that evokes her Parisian background to some extent. Even better is the tune co-written with Wyman, “The Kind You Can’t Afford”. Given a snakey little funk feeling, replete with snatches of wah-guitar, this tune is playful and funny. The lyrics compare the narrator’s low-rent tastes to those of a rich rival (“You got art collections, I got comic books /  You use plastic surgeons, I stay the way I look”) but she has “that real good lovin’—the kind you can’t afford”. Peyroux punches the lyrics and talks and sells it all with some natural zing—a huge relief from the vocal posing that dominates the record.

What could be variety comes off as grab-bag variation. “Meet Me in Rio” tosses in a bit of pseudo-bossa-nova strutting, while “Standing on the Rooftop” has a pulsing indie-rock plainness. Jazz, folk, country, a touch of funk: all wrapped up in that Billie Holiday imitation. It seems bewildering rather than variegated, aimless rather than genre-bending.

Madeleine Peyroux is an artist literally without her own voice. Borrowing from one source heavily and dabblingly from myriad sources, her Standing on the Rooftop is the sound of nothing so much as hip confusion

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

James Farm: James Farm

James Farm is a collective recording from four potent young jazz players that attempts—and utterly succeeds—at making instrumental jazz that is catchy and fun to hear while still offering serious pleasures in the originality of its compositions and the verve of its improvisations.

The band James Farm consists of saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland. Redman was a young phenom in the early 1990s and has since led a series of bands that have concerned themselves with making the “jazz tradition” relevant to and mixed with more contemporary sounds. Each member of the rhythm section is also a leader and recording artist, but it may be most useful to note that this trio was a heart of Parks’ brilliant 2008 debut on Blue Note, Invisible Cinema. That recording superbly generated a grooving vocabulary for the new century’s jazz, working elements of hip hop rhythm and rock expressionism into a precise and dazzling jazz hybrid

James Farm places Redman’s expressive tenor saxophone into this trio’s shimmering, exciting world. Using compositions from all four members of the group, James Farm sounds like another step—another leap—in the right direction. Each song establishes a scrambling, skittering rhythm that pushes and pulls in an exciting way. Harland almost never plays a “swing” beat, but he infuses the backbeats and sharp accents of modern rock and hip hop with a loose-limbed elasticity that is, nevertheless, pure jazz. Penman plays with economy and melody, and Parks continues his ascent: sounding just a little like Keith Jarrett at times, but more often playing with a jittery freedom that is all his own. His piano patterns dominate many of these tunes, and his sparse but dramatic use of a few other keyboards is smart and wise rather than cheesy.

Read my full review of James Farm HERE

Monday, July 25, 2011

Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian: Live at Birdland

Lee Konitz has played in many different styles, from bop to cool to out, but he's now at that stage in his career where he plays it all and he plays none of it. Indeed, to hear him on this 2009 live date with this all-start rhythm section, he at first sounds like the liability—the old guy who has lost his tone and it playing slightly out of key. But a deeper listening reveals a saxophonist who is working intensely to discover the essence of every melody.

Konitz's impeccable bandmates respond with a sense of intense exploration and introspection. Live at Birdland contains six performances, and all but one are essentially ballads, allowing the players to work at a ruminative pace Inside these medium to slower tempos, the band is conversational and thoughtful, debating each chord, going off on tangents, making risky arguments or coming up with some daring theories. It is consistently fascinating listening, the kind that requires concentration and involvement.

Read my full review of Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian: Live at Birdland HERE.

The band’s other primary soloist is Mehldau, who acts as a useful contrast to Konitz. Mehldau is the relative rookie of the band—more than 30 years younger than each of his compatriots. He is, however, every bit as commanding and free. Unlike Konitz, he plays with a surface attractiveness of tone and touch that help his more daring explorations to go down easy. On most tunes, the listener also gets a healthy dose of Haden’s singing bass. The pairing of Haden and Motian is always empathetic and wonderful, and Haden is the most purely lovely player on this date. His solo on “You Stepped Out of a Dream” is logical and lyrical at once, and his statement on “Lullaby of Birdland” ingeniously uses the rhythms and intervals of the original melody to keep the improvisation focused and enchanting.

The quartet, taken as a whole, sets Konitz in good contrast and makes a compelling case that it’s more important what notes you choose than whether they are played with brilliant technique. Listening, for example, to Konitz and Motian improvise a duet on “Oleo” at first is a truly fascinating conversation. And when Mehldau joins, tartly and minimally, then Haden as well—you have a great band on your hands.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pat Metheny: Whats It All About

Pat Metheny and I grew up around the same time, and I remember listening to the pop music of the 1960s on AM radio, knowing even then that it was a lucky and good thing to be experiencing. There was "rock," sure, but this melodically and harmonically rich pop music was just as emblematic of the time—and if you let it do so, it could tie you back to the past too.

Metheny's latest disc, What's It All About (full review on PopMatters right HERE) is a solo acoustic guitar recital of these kinds of tunes, mostly played on a uniquely-tuned baritone acoustic guitar.  (A few songs are played on nylon string guitar or the 42-string "Pikasso" guitar.)  In being a solo acoustic recording, the record is a follow-up to Metheny's One Quiet Night from 2003.  The tunes here, however, are also united by being from this unique era of songwriting.

So we get Pat playing Bacharach's "Alfie," which requires no reinterpretation or gimmickry.  Metheny simply loses himself in the astonishing harmonies, pulling on melodic threads that unspool beautifully. (The failure of more jazz musicians to really absorb and explore the Bacharach catalog is hereby noted and lamented.)  Similarly, the Stylistics "Betcha By Golly, Wow" is played simply but with a touch of swing, and Metheny's delicious voicings bring some new harmonies to the front in various places.

The most spare and surprising interpretation here is Metheny’s rethinking of Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema”. If you are like me, then you have heard this bossa nova chestnut played in countless piano bars, usually with an insulting anonymity. Metheny conceives it as a minimal exercise, using just a fragment of the melody and emphasizing a series of new harmonies that allow him to explore the texture and resonance of his instrument. If you release your expectations, then your ear will hang on every note and every fresh chord.

In addition, the album features the surf-rock classic "Pipeline", "The Sounds of Silence", "And I Love Her", and "The Girl from Ipanema", among other '60s tunes.  Some listeners will find too fluffy, to noodly, but they're wrong.  What's It All About is a beautiful statement, and not less good because it is mostly simple.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: The Sesjun Radio Shows

Between 1978 and 1983, the drummer Art Blakey had his great band, the Jazz Messengers, in serious transition. The mid-1970s had not been a great era for the band (or for mainstream jazz as a whole), and he was shaking the group out of a doldrums with an infusion of new young players.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: The Sesjun Radio Shows (read my full PopMatters review HERE) brings to light three recordings of European concerts from this time that have never been released before. The music is exciting and vibrant, particularly the playing of alto saxophonist (and band music director for much of this period) Bobby Watson. Watson's solos have swagger and swing, and his sound is drenched in blues that way the sound of a guy from Kansas City should be. Watson is also a featured composer, and his "E.T.A." is one of the highlights.

Bobby Watson
Also well-represented here is the great two-fisted piano player James Williams. Williams was the most down-home Messenger pianist since Bobby Timmons, and his playing here can be both harmonically rich and simply direct. As with Watson, his tunes ("1977 A.D.", for example) are among the freshest on the date.

This record is also a reason to reconsider the Messenger legacy of trumpeter Valerie Ponomerev. He had a long tenure with the band, but I'd mostly thought of him as the placeholder until Wynton Marsalis came along in 1981-82. That is probably unfair. He acquits himself nicely in the first of the three concerts here (the third featuring Terence Blanchard, who replaced Marsalis), particularly with his ballad playing. Still, it remains that the bands feature Ponomerev and tenor player David Schnitter, while exciting, does not play with the polish and snap that would come to the ensemble once Wynton and brother Branford Marsalis came along.

But more Art Blakey is good for the world, particularly now that he's gone and jazz no longer has a mainstay such as the Messengers to be creating crackling hard bop. This release is more than welcome.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

JAZZ TODAY: Does TREME Hate Modern Jazz?

I'm a huge fan of Treme, the brilliant David Simon show on HBO about post-Katrina New Orleans.  While it is very different in tone from The Wire, Simon's new show (which just finished its second season a week ago) is similar in that it takes as its subject the culture of an American city.  And the culture of New Orleans is centrally about music.

Again, I love the show.  I love music featured on the show—which is primarily the blessed soul and R'n'B that is associated with greats such as Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint.

But as a jazz critic, it is somewhat disconcerting to me that the show sets up jazz—or, at least, "modern jazz" as it has existed since the 1950s with its world capitol being New York—as a kind of villain.  It is, symbolically if not explicitly, the essence of soullessness and the embodiment of abandoning "home."  The character on the show who plays modern jazz, Delmond, is the son of the chief of a Mardi Gras "Indian" tribe who cannot really accept his son's version of New Orleans's great music.

The way jazz is used in the story is complex and fascinating, and I hardly mean to suggest that David Simon himself or the show's other creators actually "hate" jazz, but there's no question that the show uses jazz as a stand-in for the abandonment of certain core traditions—and therefore for the abandonment of New Orleans itself as a city that needs to be rescued after tragedy.  Compared to Antoine Batiste, the warm and wonderful trombone player who starts his own "Soul Apostles" band or to Annie and Harley, street musicians from a larger folk tradition who use music to understand or seek their personal identities, Delmond seems like a spoiled kid in a fancy suit who plays music of technical but not heartfelt appeal.

Delmond, the modern jazz player on TREME
Read my full essay on the topic HERE at PopMatters.

Ultimately, Treme ends its second season (another has been ordered by HBO—yes!) by allowing Delmond and his dad to bring together modern jazz and traditional Mardi Gras music in a fascinating hybrid.  However, the price of such coming together is that Delmond leaves New York to move back to New Orleans and seems to have conceded that his father was right that this music simply could not be made outside of New Orleans.

It's more complicated than that, sure, but my point is this: modern jazz takes it on the chin as cold and boring, a kind of music that people just don't like or that requires you to "think" too much  rather than just enjoy.  That is unfair to jazz, which remains a passionate, diverse music that goes well beyond mere technical execution.  And it's a slightly lazy sign of the times that reminds me of political appeals that hold up for derision people with good educations in favor of "folksier" types to can "relate to regular people."

Not that I think David Simon is some kind of George Bush fan—hardly.  But the rigors of modern jazz can be thrilling too.  On that point, just a little, Treme is off key.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bill Evans: The Sesjun Radio Shows

Everybody digs Bill Evans—the brilliant and tortured and massively influential jazz pianist whose playing from the late '50s through the 1970s was never anything less than beautiful and compelling. Though he is best known for his impressionistic approach to ballads, he was in fact a completely versatile modern jazz player whose rhythmic innovations was as strong as his use of harmonies picked up from Ravel and Debussy.

Here is a new two-disc set of three concerts in Europe, recorded perfectly in 1973, 1975 and 1979. The first finds him playing only with the melodic and brilliant bassist Eddie Gomez. The second puts him with Gomez and drummer Eliot Zigmund, and the third features his last trio (with drummer Joe LaBarbara and Macc Johnson on bass) alone and then with guest harmonica player Toots Thielemans.

My full review on PopMatters of Bill Evans: The Sesjun Radio Shows can he found HERE.

These recordings are flat-out terrific, showcasing everything that was wonderful about the great pianist. Evans is one of the handful of modern pianists who is most influential on contemporary players. Younger jazz fans will hear Brad Mehldau and many other great player's debts to Evans here. His takes on standards are always lovely and ingenious, and his original tunes could only have come from Bill. But the center of Evans' legacy is the way that his trios interact—though one player may be "soloing" at any one time, every player is in continual and nearly co-equal dialogue all the time. There is a rare balance in these bands.

It's great music, heard here for the first time. Thanks, Bill.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Short Story, "Birds"

Hey—I don't normally put up anything here at Big Butter and Egg Man that is not related to jazz, or at least music.

An exception, if you will indulge me.

I just had a short story published in BETHESDA Magazine.  Not the NEW YORKER, but still I'm happy with the story, "Birds," and perhaps you would like to read it HERE.

Here are the first two paragraphs:

Timmy flew to China. He loved the little packets the airline gave us, the ones with a tiny toothbrush in two put-togetherable pieces and the tiny tube of toothpaste. He used that toothpaste for a month, squeezing it tight with his 6-year-old fingers, eking out the last minty smudge.

But his flying days were over, he told us. Only two years later, his understanding of physics had dangerously advanced.

It's about a father and son, primarily, as the father slowly takes on his son's fear of flying.  It's not too long and it's a little bit about love, so what have you got to lose?

Literary stuff is nutritious for your soul.  Like music, but with words instead of notes.  Dig in.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jamaaladeen Tacuma: For the Love of Ornette

This is one of the best jazz recordings of the year: Ornette Coleman's old Prime Time bassist playing again with the master himself in a large-ish ensemble that runs like free clockwork.

Jamaaladeen Tacuma has an original style on electric bass—funky and free but also supremely melodic and searching. Much like Ornette, with whom he first gigged when he was 19. Now they are much more equal footing. Most of the tunes are Tacuma's and the band is excellent: Coleman’s alto sax is joined by two other woodwinds in tenor saxophonist Tony Kofi and Wolfgang Puschnig’s flute and with Tacuma in the rhythm section are pianist Yoichi Uzeki, Justin Faulkner on drums and David Haynes on “finger drums”.

Check out my full PopMatters review of Jamaaladeen Tacuma: For the Love of Ornette right HERE.

Because Puschnig’s flute sounds distinctive on this kind of record, it’s worth noting that this particular tonal pleasure is reminiscent of the great Lenox Avenue Breakdown record by Arthur Blythe from 1979, where James Newton rode over a similarly funky ensemble. For the Love of Ornette, however, is a more probing set of performances, with a richer set of competing soloists. Breakdown was one of the very best jazz recordings of the late ‘70s, which means For the Love of Ornette must be one of my favorite recordings of 2011 so far.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dave Liebman: Turnaround: The Music of Ornette Coleman

There are two dominant strains of modern saxophonic thinking—those of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Trane's concept was mainly harmonic, and Ornette's was mainly melodic. Dave Liebman is a Coltrane guy, by practice, admission, and clear inclination.

On his latest quartet disc, however, he applies his Coltrane-ishness to the music of Coleman, to fine and pleasing results. Read my full PopMatters review of Dave Liebman: Turnaround: The Music of Ornette Coleman right HERE.

Liebman's method is primarily to have his excellent guitarist, Vic Juris, play explicitly the implies harmonies behind Coleman's melodies. As a result, a tune like "Bird Food" sounds like the bebop it always, kind of, was. Other tunes that already had a strong harmonic base, such as "Kathelyn Grey" (first recorded by Ornette with Pat Metheny), sound right at home.

The most intriguing transformation here is probably “Lonely Woman”, Coleman’s most famous and compelling melody. The original was beautiful but unsettling, a tune that seemed to grow organically, note by note, but in a direction that wasn’t expected. Liebman’s version is set against a space-aged drone of swelling electric guitar and atmospherics, then played on a wooden flute to give it the exotic flavor of the east. Listening to this “Lonely Woman”, you get the feeling that you are peering through a jungle canopy, into the mist. Is it a fair interpretation of Coleman’s music? Well, it’s rich with feeling, so: yes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tedeschi Trucks Band: Revelator

Here, folks, is the best pop music of the summer: the first true collaboration between husband and slide guitarist Derek Trucks and wife and singer Susan Tedeschi. The tunes are classic pop and blues, the performances and syncopated and jammy without being aimless, and the whole package makes you want to put a spatula in your hand and head straight for the grill.

Revelator is outstanding in the extreme.

Everything is in place here. Kofi Burbridge’s keyboards are pitch-perfect in every small spot: a simple organ lick, a bed of Wurlitzer shimmer, the concert hall echo of acoustic piano. Background vocals around Tedeschi are sparingly used, but the duet elements of “Shelter” are a critical change of pace. Trucks never whips out his guitar prowess indulgently, instead choosing to serve every song, individually.

This is so true that it’s hard to believe that Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi are darlings of the jam band scene. Though it combines players from both leaders’ bands, this new group plays like a crack studio band with heart. On the one hand, these tunes are handcrafted like perfect miniatures, but on the other hand, these players have the instincts and the chops to craft solos that really tell a story.

Read my full review of Tedeschi Trucks Band, Revelator, right HERE.

Revelator, as much as anything, makes you wonder why the Tedeschi Trucks Band took so long to come together. Susan Tedeschi’s six-album career has been terrific but always just one star away from stellar. And the Derek Trucks Band had a tendency, perhaps, to feel too much like the Allman Brothers or too much like a “Man, you’ve gotta hear ‘em live” kind of band. Though they have toured together before and guested on each other’s discs plenty, this true collaboration brings it all together. Trucks is less of a Pure Player here than he is a bandleader, and Tedeschi seems less like a Great Voice than someone who is crafting memorable original songs just for your ears.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo: Songs of Mirth and Melancholy

Joey Calderazzo has been playing the piano in Branford Marsalis superb quartet since about 1998, when Kenny Kirkland died and left a gaping hole. Both as a composer and as a pianist, it has been a period of great development for the pianist. On Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, Calderazzo shares composing credits with Branford, and they deliver a frequently delicate program of crystalline duets. The influence of classical music is particularly strong here—something that is rare in jazz, and rarely pulled off with grace and ease.

Marsalis plays mostly his soprano saxophone here, and he sounds great—graceful, emotional, and perfectly in tune. Wayne Shorter's "Face on the Barroom Floor" (from the Weather Report album Sportin' Life) is the only non-original song, and it reminds us the degree to which Branford has continued Shorter's legacy on soprano—the younger player sounds a great deal like the composer here, yet he also finds his own sound. Mostly, however, these sides are fresh and non-imitative. Calderazzo and Marsalis find ways to play uniquely as a duet, not just comping and soloing but truly playing as two interlocked voices.

The set is ballad-heavy, to be sure, but the more uptempo songs are thrilling. Marsalis's "Endymion" is composed in a Keith Jarrett mode, and it surges forward with great momentum and excitement. Calderazzo's opener, "One Way" is built on a funky/Monk-ish piano figure that allows Branford's tenor to get dirty on top.

My full review of Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo: Songs of Mirth and Melancholy can be found here.

On the slower songs, the duo is explicitly classical in style and intent, even playing Brahams's "Die Trauernde". This means that the piano will be playing a specific line in contrast to the saxophone rather than just rhythmic chords and that the articulation of both instruments is less likely to be swinging and urgent than delicately placed and tonally pure. It's unusual to hear jazz musicians make these choices so explicitly, but why should it be? It's a refreshing direction for a pair of wonderful players.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

JAZZ TODAY: Jazz is Not For Amateurs!

A few weeks ago, I received by mail the debut CD from a young jazz singer. A very young jazz singer. Normally I wouldn't bother listening to something recorded by a 13 year-old, but the title of the disc, Scattin' Doll, was so awful . . . I had to dip my toe in the water.

Now, I don't normally set out to be a cranky jerk in my role as music critic. I'm here to promote the best of the music, not strut about as if I'm superior. I'm certainly not. But someone needs to cry foul when a talented girl who is barely a teenager is being promoted as if she was already the real thing. This CD had been produced by the girl's dad, with his pals playing in her rhythm section. She was, a bit like the young Nikki Yanofsky, a carbon copy of Ella Fitzgerald, but without the impeccable time and intonation. Very good for a 13 year-old? Yes. Good enough to have a CD being promoted and sent to critics? Noooooooo way.

Here is my JAZZ TODAY column about all this, an open letter to the father of young Claire Dickson: Sorry, Parents of All Those Little Prodigies Out There, Jazz is Not for Amateurs.

Sorry to be such an asshole but, unlike singing "Baby, Baby", jazz requires more than enthusiasm and some moxy. Claire, I hope to give you a good review in another eight or nine years.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

David Foster Wallace: THE PALE KING

While this space is usually reserved for my writing about music, I also write about books. I just finished reading the final (and unfinished) novel by the late David Forster Wallace. It is a book that is frequently brilliant and beautiful. It contains Wallace's virtuoso sentences, filled with music and drama, and it features just enough of his ecstatic humor too. But mostly it's an extraordinarily sad book, as he surely intended it to be.

The Pale King is not a book about his death, as so many have been tempted to suggest. But it is obsessed with his own obsession about the disease of self-consciousness, about the dilemma of being trapped inside one's own head, inescapably caught up in one's own do-loop of fears and fears about fears.

The book is set in an IRS Regional Examination Center in the 1980s, and it features a large cast of IRS employees who struggle with the tedium of their jobs. There is even a character referred to as "the author" and named David Wallace who swears that the book is a memoir crafted as a novel for legal reasons. We see these characters stumble through a transition period for the Peoria, IL, REC as new supervisors arrive and begin to implement some kind of change. There's plenty of boring tax talk (which, Wallace makes clear, is purposely boring for you, the reader) but there is also a good amount of mystery and intrigue, not to mention ghosts who haunt the place and long, fascinating stories from the characters' childhoods. Honestly, the book is a mess in many ways—literally cobbled together by Wallace's editor after it was found scattered around his study after his death—but a frequently glorious one.

Read my full PopMatter review of The Pale King HERE.

I miss David Foster Wallace. But it's questionable whether I'll read The Pale King a second time, like I did his masterpiece Infinite Jest (twice). Still, thanks for leaving us a little bit more, Dave.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Edie Brickell: Edie Brickell / The Gaddabouts: The Gaddabouts

There is a certain kind of tuneful folk-pop music that would be hard to criticize if one were to be fair, but that in 2011, with all the factors fully considered and summed up, also lands on the musical palate with a bit of a fssssss. A nice voice, an acoustic guitar, a sturdy verse ‘n’ chorus kind of songwriting, a gentle examination of personal foibles or relationships or culture: you know this kind of music if you’re over 30, and you probably love some of it. Or plenty of it. Because there is such a plenty of it.

Now, just because Joni Mitchell’s Blue exists does not mean that Edie Brickell shouldn’t make some more music. But here’s the thing: you are excused if even the high quality tunesmithing and breezy/breathy vocals of her two new discs don’t move you. You get a pass if you aren’t paying close attention to her twin releases on her own label, one eponymous and one with the Gaddabouts, which is led by drummer Steve Gadd and features Brickell and her tunes. This is, after all, a whole lot of folk-rock to absorb in one sitting.

Ready my full PopMatters reviews of Edie Brickell: Edie Brickell / The Gaddabouts: The Gaddabouts HERE. 

Edie Brickell is a smoother, more consistent disc, with an even band sound throughout—one that often leans back on the sturdy piano-pop of Elton John or, more recently, Bruce Hornsby.  The Gaddabouts refers to a wider range of different styles, and at its best it places Brickell's bluesy, slightly lazy voice into a swinging jazz area that is very strong.  Ronnie Cuber solos on baritone sax, and these tunes sound remarkably fresh.

Good music—well-crafted and well-written and fine indeed.  But just a touch of a snooze in 2011.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Marcus Miller: A Night in Monte-Carlo

I like Marcus Miller. I better like him—he's incredibly cool (and incredibly nice, as I interviewed him once when he was in an airport and found him utterly giving and kind) and he's about the best electric bass player on the planet. And he was the arranger and producer of choice for both Miles Davis and Luther Vandross.

But his solo records are not quite jazz classics. His latest, Marcus Miller: A Night in Monte-Carlo (read my full PopMatters review here), is typical of Miller's solo work: eclectic to a fault and sometimes brilliant. This is a live date with Miller's funky jazz group, a full orchestra, guest vocalists, and a ton of stylistic range. Opera, bossa nova, funk, classic jazz, snappy pop singing. There's "Amazing Grace" and there's "So What". We get groovy vocal percussion from Raul Midon and feather-cool flugelhorn playing from Roy Hargrove. It's a pu-pu platter of music for sure, but at times it all works wonderfully—as when the orchestra and DJ Logic are both grooving at "So What" with the backbeat perfectly in the pocket.

A Night in Monte Carlo is a neat representation of a great polymath musician to whom boundaries are beside the point. If it works for you, then dig it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jane Ira Bloom's Sinuous Soprano

I'm a huge fan of the singular sound of Jane Ira Bloom's soprano saxophone. It's a sound so pure and so beautiful that it almost sounds electronic as it cuts through the air to your ear.

It's rare, of course, for a musician to focus only on the soprano sax. It's even more rare for a jazz musician who is not a singer or a pianist to be a woman. Bloom, in short, is a very rare player. Check out out latest JAZZ TODAY column about her here: Jane Ira Bloom's Sinuous Soprano.

Bloom's latest recording, Wingwalker, extends her long tradition of fine and bold programs. Her latest quartet features the pianist Dawn Clement, Mark Helias on bass, and her longstanding drummer Bobby Previte. Bloom is still using "live electronics" to thicken and process slightly the sound of her horn, though this gimmick is utilized with considerable skill and subtlety. And Bloom still walks the line between great loveliness of form and a certain beyond-the-harmony daring in how she plays.

Jane Ira Bloom, now and always, plays with with feminine grace but not a hint of cliche or schmaltz. She still sounds mesmerizing.