Header Quote

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012

INTERVIEW: Swing Guitarist John Pizzarelli Really Does Have the World on a String

Last month I got the chance to interview the brilliant John Pizzarelli, singer and seven-string jazz guitarist. He just wrote a memoir that is by turns hilarious and insightful.

Read the entire interview here: Swing Guitarist John Pizzarelli Really Does Have the World on a String

A sample:

You embody some seeming contradictions: you are a relatively young guy playing the music of a previous generation; you are a really funny and entertaining guy who plays jazz; your present yourself as both very elegant—the suits, the vintage vibe—yet you embody the state of New Jersey. How did all that come together?

All the ingredients come from different places. I got interested early on in the idea of presenting my music a certain way. Around 1984-1986, I saw Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and Frank Sinatra all in New Jersey. Their presentations were so interesting. I loved all the stuff that happened between the songs. Billy Joel had incredible pacing: three quick songs, then he sat and talked, then he went off and did something else.

I had made my second record around that time, and I was trying to apply these ideas of presentation in playing duos with Bucky [Pizzarelli’s dad] and then even more as I got my trio together for touring. I didn’t know half of what Springsteen played, but it was a hell of a concert because I couldn’t wait to hear what was next. I thought, This is something that applies to any kind of music.

The suits came from the idea I had from way back that when you go to work you put on a jacket and tie. I still can’t stand the idea that somebody would go on television to report the news without a tie. If you’re going to tell me that somebody got blown up, what, you were too lazy to put on a tie? In my band, we wear a suit and tie. We want to express that we care about what we do. We take it seriously.

You wear suits, but you also tell a lot of jokes, you do voices, you kind of undercut any pretentiousness that might arise.

Maybe that’s confusing to some people. But I’ve never been afraid to say that if you’re going to come to my shows, you’re going to have a good time. The jazz is going to be at the highest level that we can put it at. But I also think we’re as entertaining as anybody. There are non-jazz listeners in the audience. Why get up there and say [pretentious and flat voice]: “And now a performance of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’.”

I was as much a fan of Bill Cosby and George Carlin and everyone I saw as a kid on Carson’s Tonight Show as I was of music. I got just as much of an education watching those guys as did watching Zoot Simms play. I just like the ingredients of all of that in one big soup. I enjoy doing it all and want to put it together.

READ MORE: Swing Guitarist John Pizzarelli Really Does Have the World on a String

The Best Jazz of 2012

Jazz today remains the music that stays alive through a remarkable alchemy. The best work in the genre is a shape-shifting wonder. On this list, traditions that go back to the jazz roots co-exist with modern pop tunes, and the avant-garde edges of the music blend in fluid ease with tonal beauty.

This list again combats the somewhat stereotypical notion that there is a jazz battle between stuffy museum curators and wild-eyed experimentalists. On the recent season of HBO’s Treme, the battle is made New Orleans-specific as a main character tries to learn more about playing bebop after a career playing mostly traditional jazz and R&B styles. Either way, it’s an artificial conflict among the top players. The center of jazz bridges tradition and innovation so fluently that these players clearly grew up in the mix, not in camps.

There are a couple of trends that might be teased out of this list. Only one record (Mehldau’s Ode on Nonesuch) is on a “major label”. Even Blue Note and Verve have taken turns toward safer material. There is also not much to choose from in thrilling vocal jazz right now. Mainstream singers such as Diana Krall and Esperanza Spaulding (the latter’s Radio Music Society was a very good jazz record that merely sounded like a pop record) did fine work in 2012, but jazz singing remains weirdly handcuffed by “The American Songbook”. Cassandra Wilson released a record that got beyond it, but hardly her best, and the more-than-affable John Pizzarelli covered Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. But these records weren’t quite in my top ten.

On the most positive side, piano trios continue to innovate in amazing different ways—three very different ones are on this list. And great jazz seems now to come from leaders who night play any instrument in the band; this list has leaders on piano, guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, tenor sax, and alto sax. With the US presidential election still ringing in our ears, it’s also worth noting the continuing multicultural trend, with leaders coming in a huge variety of colors and cultures—and with two women in the top ten, neither of whom sings or plays piano (a number that perhaps ought to be larger but, given jazz’s history, this is progress).

Jazz, long ago banished from the pop charts, thrives. Here are some of the year’s riches, presented this year with my very-favorites first.

(Read the entire article here: The Best Jazz of 2012)

The List, Unadorned:

1. Vijay Iyer Trio: Accelerando (ACT)
Accelerando is simply the best jazz record in recent memory. On this recording, this veteran piano trio—Iyer on piano, Stephan Crump on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums—plays with an incredible degree of integration, sounding like it has fully worked out a series of ideas about how a band should deal with rhythm and dynamic interaction in today’s jazz.

2. Dave Douglas Quintet: Be Still (Greenleaf)

If I ranked Accelerando above this crystalline beauty by the great trumpeter, then it is by a hair or less. Be Still is incomparably lovely: a blend of jazz quintet colors, a folk singer’s plaintive clarity, and hymns and other devotional material that has an emotional transparency that is rare in jazz.

3. Tim Berne: Snakeoil (ECM)
Tim Berne has been making uncompromising jazz beyond boundaries for an entire career, mostly on his own label. Snakeoil finds him on the esteemed ECM label with a new band, a quartet featuring his alto sax, pianist Matt Mitchell (also on the Dave Douglas record—playing very differently but no less well), clarinet work from Oscar Noriega, and drummer Ches Smith.

4. Mary Halvorson Quintet: Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12)
Bending Bridges is the second beautiful and urgent recording from Mary Halvorson’s quintet, with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, saxophonist Jon Irabagon (again), bassist John H├ębert and Ches Smith (again) on drums. The band plays with precision and fire on a series of Halvorson tunes that entertain and tell stories.

5. Rez Abbasi Trio: Continuous Beat (Enja)
Rez Abbasi has been so active and so productive in recent years that it seems like you almost have to pencil him into the top ten list in March, just in case he releases anything new in the coming year. And he always does. This debut by his loose and fun trio smacks of a truly fresh appeal—having not a little in common with the very first trio record of jazz star Pat Metheny.

6. The Bad Plus: Made Possible (Entertainment One)
The Bad Plus have been the poster boys for a certain kind of new jazz for about a decade. They covered “Smells Like a Teen Spirit” on their first major release, and they did it with a muscular seriousness that suggests both an interest in finding an audience and no room for watering down their sensibility. Made Possible continues to live up to that dual tradition.

7. Bill McHenry: La Peur du Vide (Sunnyside)
Bill McHenry is one of those 40 year-old guys who seems to have arrived all of a sudden, even thought that’s unfair. Certainly his new disc, La Peur du Vide is a perfect balance of modern tradition and daring adventure.

8. Brad Meldau: Ode (Nonesuch)
Ode is a more traditional jazz record than Day Is Done, the previous record by this working trio. It features concise themes and long improvisations, with brilliant rhythmic play running throughout the trio’s incredible dialogue.

9. Matt Wilson's Arts and Crafts: An Attitude for Gratitude (Palmetto)
If there is one true “grower” on this list, it is An Attitude for Gratitude, a record that offers so much and with so little apparent effort that it was maybe easy to take for granted on first listen. Two brilliant standouts are a trio take on Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Gary Versace on piano, along with the leader’s loose drumming and bassist Martin Wind) and then a melancholy “Happy Days are Here Again”.

10. Linda Oh: Initial Here (Greenleaf)
Linda Oh is currently the bassist in Dave Douglas’s quintet, and her second solo album is one of the year’s treats.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kurt Elling: 1619 Broadway, The Brill Building Project

In sheer talent and bravado, there’s not a more remarkable jazz singer out there than Kurt Elling. His instrument, a baritone to tenor beast that is pliant, rich, and utterly athletic, has no peer in jazz. And he has been making a series of records of great imagination—collaborations with his long-time pianist Lawrence Hobgood that take on the jazz repertoire in interesting ways.

The latest is 1619 Broadway, a reference to the address of the famous “Brill Building” in Manhattan where a couple generations of great songwriters created a body of work that spanned the late period of “The Great American Songbook” and the first wave (or two) of rock ‘n’ roll. This new album, then, takes in an idiosyncratic swath of American songs, from Ellington (“Tutti for Cootie”) to doo-wop (“I Only Have Eyes For You”) to Bacharach/David (“A House Is Not a Home”) to ‘70s singer-songwriters (Carole King and Paul Simon).

And, because he is a very interesting interpreter, Elling gets at these tunes in singular ways. The opener, “On Broadway”, works from a delectable seven-note lick that underpins the whole tune in a hip and slightly menacing way. The lick (for bassist Clark Sommers and guitarist John McLean) weaves through a strange time signature, with a couple extra beats breaking up the groove every few bars, and it rides atop electric piano comping from Hobgood—not his usual axe. It’s a good reading of the tune, no doubt, even framed by a bunch of street sounds and voices (people telling Elling they don’t want to hire his ‘ooo-bop-a-doo’ vocal talent, ironically).

But some of the gimmicky-ness of this track drags down 1619 Broadway in other places. The Brill Building was home to plenty of classic songwriting, but Elling doesn’t avoid some of the novelty content that came out of Brill.

On the other hand, there are a four of five performances here that are as wonderful as anything Elling has ever done. And that means that they are timeless vocal jazz that busts down barriers. The funk feel that McLean puts beneath “You Send Me” is a great butt-shaking counterpoint to Elling’s simple take on the vocal line. This is a classic oil-vinegar kind of idea, with the tight drumming (Kendrick Scott) and minimal piano work just setting up the vocal for success. The band grooves really hard, and then Elling doesn’t have to overwork it, just twisting his voice a bit here and there to draw the juice out of the simple melody. The layers of background vocals (Elling, overdubbing nicely) are beautiful, and everything fits.

There are two other tracks here that are so good that I can’t stop listening to them in endless repetition. First, Elling has recorded here the very best version of “A House Is Not a Home” I’ve ever heard. This track contains no tricks or transformations. Rather, this is a brilliant singer taking on a great song with the support of a sympathetic band. The quartet (McLean with the trio) is all pastel colors and subtle support, and Elling brings his most even and lovely sound to the lyrics. Elling can do just about anything, so it is his restraint here that is admirable. The arrangement is very specific in places, with certain key words (“ends—in—teaaaaaaars”) being placed carefully along with the band, but in other places everything is open and Elling moves the notes to suit a whispered mood. Hobgood also plays a crystalline solo that is just right.

The highlight of the collection, however, is a duo for just Elling and Hobgood on Paul Simon’s “An American Tune”. This is one of those classic songs that exists somewhat under the radar and in the shadow of so many other great Simon songs. But here Elling rescues the song, for me at least, making me wonder why it hasn’t been covered by a million other artists in the last 30 years. Hobgood doesn’t significantly rework the song’s harmonies. He doesn’t have to. Rather, he reads the gospel chords with sensitivity and patience. Elling states the first line of the melody a cappella (“Many is the time I’ve been mistaken and many times confused”) before the piano joins, quietly. As Elling sings the refrain, “But I’m alright, I’m alright”, his vulnerability is said with no extra strain or effort. It is the perfect sound for this sentiment. When they get to the song’s bridge, Elling finally reaches up for some power, and it shatters you: “And I dreamed I was flying / And from high above I could see / The Statue of Liberty sailing out to sea.” By the end of this performance, I felt that I had never heard the song before and, truly, I hadn’t. (Plus, uh, I was crying.) Elling and Hobgood now own “An American Tune” as surely as Sinatra owned “Come Fly with Me”.

Read my entire PopMatters review here: Kurt Elling: 1619 Broadway, The Brill Building Project

My Goodbye to Dave: Taking Five with the Late Dave Brubeck

When pianist Dave Brubeck died last week, many jazz fans lost the man who first taught them how to love the music—and to learn to love the possibilities of passion and adulthood.

* * *

The death of jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck on 5 December 2012, one day short of his 92nd birthday, was a day of mourning for many jazz fans. So many of us came to jazz through Brubeck—his strange and stunning music had a way of hooking the ear of jazz novices.

Critics found it easy to dismiss Brubeck over the years, unfairly. The truth, as I wrote in a career retrospective back in 2008 (“Looking Back at Brubeck” (21 August 2008), is that he was a compelling and swinging player and leader. Innovative, too.

But upon his death, my reaction is less as a critic than as a grateful fan. For me and many others, his was the first music that opened my ears. But it was more than that: he sometimes lacked subtlety, but Brubeck taught many of us to love the whole idea of passion and abandon in our lives.

In 1974 I was just a kid in 8th grade who’d been hearing some cool and otherworldly music on a New York radio station that seeped through my clock radio when I had my bedroom doors closed. I’d barely heard the word “jazz” and certainly didn’t know who Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie were. But certain tunes the DJs played more often than others got into my head like a pretty girl’s smile, and I heard the DJs say, “The Dave Brubeck Quartet”.

Soon enough I’d bought the record, a two-LP set on Columbia of this guy’s All-Time Greatest Hits. It had a big gatefold opening with illustrations of the players on the outside and a long set of notes by Mort Goode that went through what these guys were up to. And a couple hip friends and I spent the better part of the next year listening to those songs over and over again, as if contained the secrets of growing up.

“Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk”. “It’s a Raggy Waltz” and “The Duke”. We bobbed our heads and tapped our feet and we set our hands out in front of us and pretended we were playing the piano or the alto sax, fingering the notes of these ingenious made-up solos from memory and instinct.

Of course, this music did contain the secrets of growing up. For us. This was the music that allowed us become ourselves, to set ourselves apart from the pack and start experiencing the possibility that the world—and our hearts—were bigger than “Stairway to Heaven” and Three Dog Night (as fun as that all was). Brubeck’s music was somehow an utterly pure expression of that freedom while also an easy pleasure: strong melody and insistent rhythm.

Mostly, like so many other folks, we loved “Take Five”.

The version on All-Time Greatest Hits was the one that’s been played on the radio (and since, in TV ads and everywhere else) a million times. The tune’s composer, Paul Desmond, plays his airy alto sax, while Brubeck plays the famous bouncing figure in 5/4 time that is the signature of the song. The winding but spikey melody on the first part of the song was tricky to scat along to at first, but then it came quickly to your ear—played over a simple pair of chords that never changed. Then the bridge had a set of suddenly moving harmonies over which Desmond floated a melody of amazing symmetry and ease.

Best, though, was the improvising. I’m not sure we even knew what that word meant when we were 14. But there was this saxophone player, with Brubeck bouncing that figure beneath him (mm-bump, mm-bummmm, boom-boom, mm-bump mm-bummmm, boom-boom, on and onward) unspooling a set of notes that were spontaneous but perfect—notes that are so logical and right that I can sing every one of them right now from memory.

“Take Five”, my friend Bobby says, “is the essential American musical performance of the third quarter of the 20th century.” And he may be right. Its rhythm momentum and harmonic simplicity arguably exploited part of what was making rock such a powerful force around that time (the take I’m discussing was recorded in 1959), and it prefigured Contrane’s more critically lauded experiments in recording over a static harmonic pattern that would a come a year later (My Favorite Things, 1960). Also that solo, while brief, was a completely open “jam” over no particular chordal pattern. In its freedom but simplicity, it was the shape of jazz (and rock) to come.

More thrilling than that record to us, however, was a live version of “Take Five” that we found in Bobby’s father’s record collection, a version with Gerry Mulligan’s baritone sax taking Desmond’s place. Last Set at Newport (1971) contained a “Take Five” that was faster, and it was more aggressive. Mulligan dug into the melody with a deft brawniness, low in his register. The drummer is now Alan Dawson, who is punching the 5/4 figure like mad with accents and snare clicks. And as Mulligan begins his solo, he is taking no prisoners right from the start. Very soon, Brubecks’ punching chords get weirder, less regular, and Dawson is essentially playing his own improvised solo beneath the baritone solo. Brubeck’s solo is only tangentially related to the chords of the song in a whole bunch of places, and his rhythmic play gets adventurous very quickly. Is it too much to say that this performance is essentially avant-garde? Probably, but not by much.

Listening to this second version of “Take Five”, climaxed by a flamboyant drum solo that has a reckless quality, sticks flying every possible way, which Brubeck then joins back into in his high register so that becomes a mad duet before quieting down into a subtle lesson in how simple patterns become more interesting as they are repeated across a polyrhythm. Brubeck jumps back in with abandon, becoming a virtual pianist machine-gun. The theme returns and the crowd goes fabulous nuts. So too did we, as 14-year-old boys.

That performance, by a 50 year-old pianist in the ripe center of his storied career, changed us. Sitting on Bobby’s bed, listening to the sounds leap off the vinyl, initiated us into all the things that would soon come to matter: abandon and sex, ecstasy and intelligence, serious ideas and sensual pleasure in one package. For me at least, jazz still stands for all those pleasures to this day.

“Take Five” and Dave Brubeck opened the door, and I would soon pass through to get enveloped in Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sonny Sharrock, Louis Armstrong and Cecil Taylor. My Brubeck albums would go unlistened-to for long stretches.

But this week, with the man himself gone, I can replay them in my head without so much as dropping the needle onto wax. I remember and love every note.

Taking Five with the Late Dave Brubeck