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Saturday, December 21, 2013

JAZZ TODAY: The Endless Well of Latin Jazz

Man, I've recently been listening to more Latin Jazz. It goes all the way back in jazz history, but 2013 was a great year for it.

Jellyroll Morton talked about “the Latin tinge” as an essential element of jazz as far back as the ‘20s—the influence of Afro-Cuban elements was actually part of jazz from the start, with syncopations and rhythmic components from beyond the US critical to an early understanding of swing. Dizzy Gillespie explicitly incorporated Cuban elements into modern jazz when he collaborated with percussionist Chano Pozo in the ‘40s. And Latin Jazz flowered in the ‘60s (and beyond) as it became an essential part of the life of Latinos in New York City—and as the music now known as Salsa grew into a popular form by fusing jazz and Latin forms into propulsive dance music.

This was another great year for Latin Jazz, and a couple of recent experiences have brought that truth home for me. Check out the column here: The Endless Well of Latin Jazz

The Best Jazz of 2013

2013 was another great year for jazz. The music keeps getting more diverse, more all-encompassing, more alive—even though its commercial appeal seems about as limited as it can be.

Who cares? The music is great art.

Here are the best releases of the year as compiled by me and my colleague John Garratt at PopMatters:

The Best Jazz of 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

Big Is Beautiful: Large Bands, Worlds of Sound

Jazz has a long tradition of brilliant small bands, starting with groups like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven and extending as far as today’s brilliant Vijay Iyer Trio or the antic quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing.

Jazz also has a proud tradition of large groups, from Jelly Roll Morton Red Hot Peppers to the plethora of brilliant “big bands” that dominated popular music in the ‘30s and ‘40s to…

Well, what about today? What we think of as the classic jazz “big band” isn’t a thriving form today. That kind of group – with four trumpets, three trombones, and five saxophones roaring contrapuntally atop a sleek, swinging rhythm section – reached its first golden era with Ellington, Goodman, Basie and so on, and there were still brilliant big bands through the ‘60s: Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis.

Today, however, what we think of as a “big band” is something different, something less formulaic, a format that is having a very wonderful 2013.

A New Kind of Orchestral Jazz

The classic big bands were marvelous, and they had more range than their greatest hits would indicate. Ellington, in particular, stretched the bounds of what the basic 17-piece big band could achieve. His various orchestral suites took advantage of interesting colors: flutes, clarinets, fiddle, muted brass.

But mostly, the big bands had a basic sound, a set of great moves that sustained artistry for decades but begged for expansion. And in recent years that expansion has surged with creativity. The tradition still informs these new bands, but 2013 has brought a wash of stunning new “orchestral jazz” that requires attention.

The discs that have knocked me out lately are marked by larger bands, unusual instrumentation, the inclusion of singing or recitation, and the incorporation of jazz’s post-bop freedoms in such a way that these bands seem unmoored and unbounded, able to reach for the sounds of classical music, rock or soul, soundtrack music – or just about anything else.

Click here to read about great records from John Hollenbeck, Marty Ehrlich, Wadada Leo Smith, and Joel Harrison. Amazing stuff!  Big Is Beautiful: Large Bands, Worlds of Sound

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Robert Glasper Experiment: Black Radio 2

Last year, Robert Glasper won the “Best R&B Album” Grammy for Black Radio, a recording that blended his roots as a jazz pianist with his history as a producer and bandleader for various hip-hop artists. It was a plain vindication for a brilliant musician who was trying to create a fresh approach to black pop music, and the award made Black Radio 2 all but inevitable.

But this is where Glasper has been headed for a while anyway. The Experiment shared a disc with the pianist’s acoustic jazz trio in 2009 (Double Booked), and it has been his main horse since then. Though the bands had overlapping personnel, the concept of the Experiment is that it is a versatile hip-hop/R&B group—not three improvising jazz musicians playing art music but a single unit that carries out brilliant settings for pop songs.

So, in listening to Black Radio 2, the honest question is not whether the latest recording is a strong work from a jazz artist working with pop music but whether it’s a great pop record, a pop record that is fresh, creative, compelling, beautiful.

(In the jazz world, there might be some interesting debate about whether Glasper is “rescuing” the art from its popular decline, from its increased alienation from larger audiences. The answer, I believe, is NO. Jazz is a vital art music that doesn’t need rescuing. I don’t know if Black Radio 2 is “jazz” or not or whether that’s even a question worth debating—and this review hereby dodges this question.)

Black Radio relied on a group of well-known tunes that Glasper covered in new ways: one by Sade, Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue”, two rock tunes by David Bowie and Nirvana, and a new song written with Me’Shell Ndegeocello. Other songs were perhaps more fresh, with hip-hop integrated into a 1970s soul aesthetic so that the best of classic R&B was melded with originality. Glasper’s jazz trio achievements were all there to be heard indirectly: specifically a way of arranging a rhythm section so that it is harmonically interesting and so that a busy piano groove locks into drum patterns that draw from hip-hop’s rhythmic “stutter” while still feeling utterly organic and soulful, never mechanical.

But, for this listener, the first Black Radio was marred by some sounds that soul music ought to have left behind: the plastic clang of certain synth sounds, the robotic novelty of the vocoder favored by Experiment member Casey Benjamin. The first record seemed to me, well, not as modern as it really wanted to be, a little stuck in a soul groove a couple decades old.

On repeated listenings, the strengths of Black Radio were clearer—plus, where else were you going to find such a brilliant blend of singers and rhythm section in contemporary music?

Black Radio 2 is better and certainly more original if less startling. That vocoder leads things off on the opening track, but the groove of new drummer Mark Colenburg is so perfect against Glasper’s blend of Fender Rhodes and acoustic piano that even I am relenting. Benjamin changes registers in an interesting way and comes off as simply part of the groove. With the band set in our feet as well as our souls, a chorus of the album’s voices performs an impressionistic “Mic Check”. And then, with a thrilling and jaunty piano groove, we are off on a journey: “I Stand Alone” puts Common before the mic with Patrick Stump handling a chorus that matches the piano groove. From the start, you’re in good hands again—feeling like there’s something fresh in the way hip-hop integrates with Glasper’s affection for older soul grooves.

The guest vocalists on 2 have one strong outing after another. Jill Scott locks into brilliant drum groove on “Calls”, a track that keeps things simple at first but then deepens with repetition and added layers of backing vocals, added shimmers of electric piano, and a striking bridge section that folds in a ringing phone sound and more abstract vocal lines. Scott’s vocal tone goes from dry to warm, and Glasper knows how to drop the drum groove out at the end to create a spare kind of suspense.

 Read the entire review here: Robert Glasper Experiment: Black Radio 2

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Matthew Shipp: Piano Sutras

Matthew Shipp caught ears when he was playing with saxophonist David S. Ware and bassist William Parker, but it soon became clear that this pianist—who will turn 53 this year—was wholly his own man. He formed a great trio, he became the curator of a recording series, he experimented with electronics, he dove back into jazz standards and he developed into a wholly original player in the solo piano history of jazz. He is one of the few jazz musicians of the new millennium to generate ink suggesting that jazz was developing an appeal among rock fans.

What do you want this guy to do next?

Rumors that he might retire turned out to be false. And, in fact, his latest release—a stunning solo piano recital—may just be a classic, the kind of record we talk about and play for each other decades later. Piano Sutras is a glorious, generous, fully mature expression of creativity that could only have come from one artist. It is as good and adventurous as jazz is going to sound in 2013.

These 13 tracks (two, “Giant Steps” and “Nefertiti”, were not written by Shipp) are relatively brief and focused pianistic essays. They cover a wide stylistic range, but each is driven by a logic or strong sense of sequence. They don’t typically sound like standard jazz—there no “tune”, variations on the tune, return to the tune sequence—but neither are they “free jazz” in any meaningful sense. Shipp, in this collection, has refined a style that allows composition and improvisation to work seamlessly as partners, seemingly indistinguishable. Could this be some kind of “modern classical music”? I guess so, except that Shipp remains a jazz player at his core: emphasizing the surging rhythms and blues sensibility that remain the core of great original American music, whatever name you want to give it.

“Cosmic Shuffle” is not alone in Shipp’s recent music in being driven by a core swing rhythm, his left hand “walking” like an upright bass in places but never restricted to that feeling. The whole piece is as swung as hard any Count Basie performance, but it swings beyond the usual rules of structure and convention, taking detours into moments of contemplation before heading back into free-wheeling call-and-response patterns that would make Jimmie Lunceford smile. Or check out (the related?) “Cosmic Dust”, which uses surges and shifts in tempo every few bars to create a feeling of manic momentum. The daring squiggles—what a previous generation might have called licks or riffs—that he generates in these tunes seems free of cliché but also tonal within his own system. That is, “Cosmic Dust” is really as accessible to the untutored ear as a solo by, say, Chick Corea, as long as you’re not looking for the usual Tin Pan Alley harmonic patterns that jazz piano relied on until Cecil Taylor and other like-minded pianists declared otherwise. Shipp works that vein with a sense of structured classicism.

Some of this work has a dramatic foreboding. “Uncreated Light” begins with alternation between dark low clusters and pretty high chords. Shipp lets his left-hand figures ring with overtones, the sustain suggesting music beyond what you can hear. A spiraling theme then emerges in his delicate right hand between the thunderous statements from below. It’s easy to imagine this music accompanying a scene of danger imposing on innocence from a suspense movie, perhaps.

Other songs here are as light as air. “Angelic Brain Cell” is like a post-modern minuet—a light dance piece that flitters and skips and suggests the spark of movement and intelligence in every note. Patterns of repetition arise and vanish, Licks turn into variation, unison lines grow quickly out of phase and then transform into counterpoint. It is an astonishing, ingenious performance.

Read the entire review here: Matthew Shipp: Piano Sutras

Monday, September 16, 2013

Kenny Garrett: Pushing the World Away

Kenny Garrett is a workhorse jazz musician—a guy who has made plenty of recordings, who has a killer working band, and who gives his all in every show. Much of his work is brilliant. He has made long strings of records that have investigated different corners of the music with intelligence and searching discovery.

But in a long career, there have been stretches of relaxation also where he played too many easy blues licks or seemed to be recording songs that were designed simply to be “funky” pop songs that hardly tested his band or his talent. Those years with the aging Miles Davis taught him some bad habits as well as some brilliance.

Pushing the World Away is Good Garrett—and following up on a really wonderful 2012 record called Seeds from the Underground that was a flat-out cooker, this is a great sign.

I’d guess it’s not coincidence that the title of this disc contains “world” and “pushing”, as these songs cover lots of territory and move gracefully away from the pure swing feel that characterized so much of Garrett’s last disc. Garrett has long been playing pianist Benito Gonzalez, so the sweet Latin groove of “Chuco’s Mambo” is a natural, with percussionist Rudy Bird locking in with drummer Marcus Baylor to create a lovely feeling of dance and movement. And “J’ouvert” is a hopping and staccato calypso tune that is, naturally, an homage to Sonny Rollins in his “St. Thomas” mode but with a richer bed of percussion giving it float and ensemble interplay.

One of the most ambitious tunes here is the title track which builds on a rolling groove played by drummer Mark Whitfield, Jr. and piles a sinuous soprano saxophone melody atop a throaty chant that punctuates the arrangement. Garrett’s solo shifts into a sunny key over a vamp reminiscent of Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things”, but the pianist Vernell Brown muddies the harmonies so that things keep moving into stranger and more interesting territory. Garrett takes plenty of harmonic liberty, and the piece veers into the edge of the avant-garde. This tune is followed by “Homma San”, which uses a sprinkling of Latin percussion and a lovely wordless vocal as the etched shadow of Garrett’s melody on alto—a tune that is so lovely that nearly takes your breath away after the broiling intensity of “Pushing the World Away”.

This is a record that, indeed, pushes outward in many directions. It’s unusual, for example, to hear the leader performing on piano, but that’s him, fingers against keys, on his tribute to pianist and producer Donald Brown (who played with Garrett when both were in Art Blakey’s band), “Brother Brown”. And how lovely is it that Garrett has written out an accompaniment for violin, viola, and cello on this track? Very.

Much of the music here, however, has all the more typical Garrett virtues: swing, drive, and fire. “A Side Order of Hijiki” surges in a vintage post-bop vein, with Gonzalez playing like an up-to-date Tyner or Hancock around the edges of the melody and Baylor and his bass partner Corcoron Holt alternating between Latin syncopation and straight-ahead, four-on-the-floor uptempo walking. “Alpha Man” moves fast and slick as well, setting the melody as a tricky rhythmic counterpoint, but keeping the things moving on a very quick pulse played on the ride cymbal. “Rotation”, the closer, is a modern blues that would be a perfect tune on any jazz bandstand you can imagine, meat and potatoes and a heap of joy.

Read the entire review here: Kenny Garrett: Pushing the World Away

Friday, September 13, 2013

Bill Frisell: Big Sur

At this point in the career of guitarist Bill Frisell, there’s not much point in continuing to talk about his music as “jazz”—or as “Americana” . . . or really as anything for that matter. Frisell has cornered the market on something wholly his own: an instrumental form that uses elements of different genres to create cinematic soundscapes that lope or slither, walk or skitter like a great character making his way across a movie screen.

Big Sur is an outing for the leader’s “858 Quartet”, which is Frisell plus Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola, and Hank Roberts’ cello, plus the drummer Rudy Royston. Frisell wrote this music (19 somewhat connected short tunes) on a commission while staying on a ranch at Big Sur, inspired by classic California coastline. The sound is mostly open and pleasing, and maybe sometimes just a little too nice—a little boring—in the way that beauty sometimes can be.

So, to be sure, this is mostly very “pretty” music, and that may be its glory and its problem. Although there is plenty of folky edge here—a kind of funky sweetness that suggests authenticity—most of the music on Big Sur is consonant, mid-tempo stuff. It’s soulful, like, dig “Highway 1”, with Jenny Sheinman’s violin bending notes and the strings generally playing syncopated patterns over a two-chord groove. Or how about the delightful but lightweight “We All Love Neil Young”, a duet between Frisell and Kang that is a charming minute and a half of skipping guitar and pure melody? Nice stuff.

But very nearly each of these little portraits leans on a certain kind of easy, loping vibe—a dreamy melodicism that comes with all the right kind of “authentic” American/folk affectations. It’s interesting and cool—but I admire this music more than I like it. The tunes feel a bit like museum exhibits. You might say that this music presents you with a bit of a guilt trip: Hey, man, you really should dig this, whether it’s terrific or not, just because it sounds so “real”.

Read the entire review here: Bill Frisell: Big Sur

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

JAZZ TODAY: Later, Marian McPartland

On Tuesday, 20 August 2013, we lost pianist and radio host Marian McPartland. Marian (as everyone called her during her more than four decades in radio) was the best ambassador and educator in jazz history. The music will miss her more than it knows.

Jazz and Radio—a Critical Connection

Radio has been critically important to jazz. All contemporary music, prior to the last ten years or so, has had radio to thank for the way that folks discovered its joys. Jazz, pop, rock ‘n’ roll, soul. For jazz, however, radio was particularly important. During radio’s pre-television heyday, jazz was the star, with Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington among many others surging to public consciousness from dance halls all across the US and into living rooms and parties.

Later, urban jazz DJs promoted and ushered in new jazz styles—most notably bebop, which ascended significantly based on the support of folks like Symphony Sid or Mort Fega. And when jazz became harder to discover in the pop culture landscape of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the word still spread through great jazz stations on public radio in New York, in Chicago, on the West Coast, all over.

Starting in 1964, Pacifica Radio’s WBAI in New York started letting a British jazz pianist from Great Britain—the 46 year-old Marian McPartland—interview guest musicians on the air. In 1978, Marion started the show on National Public Radio that would make her more famous than her own music: Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. She kept recording episodes well into 2010, when she was 92 years old.

The effect of this incredible body of work—hundreds of episodes with rare repeat guests—is tough to explain or calculate. But the magic of radio is the thing. When you listened to Piano Jazz, you felt that you were in a room with two real, regular folks—Marian and her guest—who just happened to be talking about one of the most elusive things that exists in the arts: that quicksilver known as jazz improvisation. Because it was radio, you could imagine sitting three feet away from these two folks, maybe sharing the edge of a piano bench with Chick Corea or Ray Charles. You were in on the secrets. It was full-on intimacy.

There was never a radio show that made you feel closer to the divine than this one.

Read the entire column here: Later, Marian McPartland

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Bassist Stephan Crump, from Pop to Avant-Garde and Back Again

I’ve written before about the singer Jen Chapin, whose style and approach is a perfect example of how “jazz” and “pop” remain in a beautiful dialogue even though Chapin doesn’t sing jazz standards or otherwise hold herself as a “jazz” artist. (“Playing Pop in the Jazz/Soul Shadow”)

Aside from being a fine songwriter and outstanding pop singer, Chapin (the daughter of Harry Chapin, yup) is also married to Stephan Crump, the stylistically catholic jazz bass player. Chapin most commonly performs with Crump—along with guitarists Jamie Fox and Liberty Ellman, which group is otherwise known as Crump’s Rosetta Trio. But Crump is best known as a member of Vijay Iyer’s brilliant jazz trio and for other jazz playing that strays wildly beyond the conventional.

All this is on my mind because Chapin has an irresistible new recording, Reckoning, featuring Crump, Fox, and Ellman as well as a few other folks. It’s yet another example of how smart, contemporary pop can still be soulful and laced with jazz feeling without being “jazz”. And the Rosetta Trio also has a lovely new disc, Thwirl, a stunning essay in chamber jazz that moves from delicate to earthy. And Crump has a new duet recording with guitarist Mary Halvorson called Super Eight that is equally wondrous but that sits at the edge of jazz that is opposite from pop music: fully improvised music without hooks, verse/chorus structure, or anything resembling pop appeal.

All three of these recordings are outstanding. Central to all three is a jazz musician whose refusal to honor boundaries is a badge of honor. Arguably it’s what’s best about today’s jazz musician.

Jen Chapin’s Reckoning

The first sound you hear on the new, terrific, Chapin record is that of Crump’s bass playing a singing groove along with finger snaps and a syncopated drum pattern. The hip rise and fall of the bass melody is a perfect counterpoint to Chapin’s soulful and bluesy verse melody. It’s no surprise, then, that Chapin and Crump have recorded together as just a duet act.

But the appeal of “It’s All Right” goes beyond these two strongest elements. There are Chapin’s words, which provide telling details of difficult life being shared by a couple that is, still, resolved to make it. And it’s all wrapped in a concise arrangement by Crump—a few tastefully deployed strings, sprinkles of percussion, precise interplay between the guitars of Fox and Ellman. The lift of the strings on the chorus isn’t sugary but poignant. It’s wonderful storytelling that works because all the elements work together.

For me, “Let It Show” (a joyful piece of advice for a child, previously recorded by Chapin but not this well) ought to be a hit song—hooky, thrilling, beautiful. And it’s recorded and arranged with perfection: starting with simply strummed acoustic guitar, then layering in bass, guitars, Farfisa organ and Wurlitzer electric piano, even a little touch of glockenspiel. The following song, “Don’t Talk” is equally snappy—a faux reggae song that uses touches of clavinet, a brief little flute line and even a very brief bass “solo” for Crump that appears twice and naturally in the arrangement. That Chapin folds in a sumptuous release that eases of the reggae backbeat and evens out alike a ballad for a half-minute is just gravy.

Not everything on Reckoning is pure pop pleasure, though. “Spare Love (Not Fair)” begins with a duel guitar line that winds in an arcing shape before Chapin joins in counterpoint, all before the band groove sets in. It’s hard not to hear a tune like this as harking back to the kind of complex arrangements that bands like Steely Dan made standard in the ‘70s but that may be out of style in the “indie” atmosphere of the 21st century. But Chapin and Crump aren’t afraid to lay in some harp on this tune. And it works.

The closer on this ambitious record is called “Gospel”, a song that imagines a better world being possible. Again, the arrangement builds from simplicity (an off-center drum and bass groove that allows Chapin to sing a simple blues melody) to great complexity, with a significant harmonized chorus, a piece of spoken-word recitation, Hammond organ and celeste, and then a sensuous trumpet solo from Ambrose Akinmusire on the long out-chorus.

And those are just some of the stand-out tunes on Reckoning—a pop record that means to be, and is, much more than just some catchy licks and some passion. In fact, if you listen without enough attention on the first pass, Chapin’s work might seem “merely” pleasant. But just a little care and attention to the lyrics and arrangements suggests that Crump and Chapin have created a surefire gem: the kind of carefully-crafted and sophisticated pop that used to be associated with Paul Simon. Yeah, it’s that good.

So, a jazz bass player is making brilliant pop records—like Jaco Pastorius used to to with Joni Mitchell. But is his own jazz playing much to hear?

The Rosetta Trio’s Thwirl

It very much is.

The heart of Chapin’s band on Reckoning is actually Crump’s band. Or, rather, one of his bands. Crump’s acoustic bass along with guitarists Jamie Fox and Liberty Ellman make up The Rosetta Trio. As the heart of a group playing a jazzy pop for Chapin, these guys bring elegance and groove to songs that might have been played without soul. In two earlier records, this band has created an identity as an instrumental jazz trio that deserves a wider hearing.

Thwirl is the trio’s new record (out in September), and I think it is their best—impressionistic at times, but also soulful and singing, interlocking like a beautiful puzzle and also playful and witty. Crump play several different roles in this band—groovemaker on a playful 5/4 tune like “He Runs Circles” or a loping slow soul exercise like “Still Stolid”; primarily melodist on something like “Conversate (Talking-Wise)” or arco balladmaster on start of “Ending” or on the hypnotic middle section of “Whiteout”; or free improvising master on “Palimpsestic”, which begins as a pointilistic exploration and builds into a funky set melody that is irresistible.

Crump’s bandmates here are complimentary—almost to a fault but somewhat surprisingly. Ellman is known for his work in Henry Threadgill’s Zooid band and his association with Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Steve Lehman. Fox’s resume sets him up as a much more conventional player—he was lead guitarist for Blood, Seat & Tears and played with Joan Baez, organist Brother Jack McDuff, and Dr. John. But as bandmates, Fox and Ellman weave a brilliant and seamless cloth of chords, melodies, effects, and textures. I don’t find it easy to tell them apart. The title track, for example, is a polyrhythmic workout, with the guitarists plucking in a percussive maze that evolves into a circular melody that trades from one player to the other. It’s a joy to hear the interplay and selflessness as one statement leads to another.

All the tunes but one were written by Crump, and they show a stylistic diversity that is the equal of, say, bassist Dave Holland. In fact, Holland is the player who might be Crump’s artistic predecessor: someone just as home playing melodically, playing in a pop frame, or roaming free with little harmonic structure. Both have a pungent sound, rich in bottom while still capable of rising up to grab the music’s spotlight.

Thwirl is a truly satisfying record because, like so much of Holland’s work, it is catchy and appealing without ever seeming like it has “sold out” to ease or simplicity. That is to say: though it is perfectly “serious” jazz, it isn’t afraid to appeal a listener’s sense of pop pleasure. Which makes sense if you know that Crump is also a key force in Chapin’s sound.

But, it turns out, he can cut loose, wildly loose, too.

Secret Keeper’s Super Eight

Crump’s duet project with guitarist Halvorson is called “Secret Keeper”, which is a wonderfully suggestive title for a collaboration that is intimate, revealing, and cagey all at once.

Read the entirety of the column here: Bassist Stephan Crump, from Pop to Avant-Garde and Back Again

Everything Old Is New Again: Reimagined Jazz Standards

Getting jaded is the natural province of getting old, of thinking you’ve heard and seen it all before, of believing that whatever is created tomorrow by a bunch of kids has little chance of improving on generations of greatness that came before.

But then something comes along that knocks you out and cheers your heart, that sounds utterly new even while it stands on the shoulders of things you love. And, yeah, it was made by young people you’ve never heard of. And the third time you listen to it, it’s better than the first time. And the fifth time it’s better still.

That’s what happened to me when I heard the brilliant, astonishing new collection of reimagined jazz standards by singer Kristin Slipp and pianist Dov Manski.

A Jaded Critic Gets What He Needs: A Thousand Julys

Dov Manski and Kristin Slipp grew up not far from each other in Maine, and they both wound up at the New England Conservatory at the same time. “Even before college, I had heard about Dov—he was a high school jazz prodigy,” she chuckles. “I knew who he was. When we got to college, a couple of us were from Maine and we felt comfortable together. We were friends even before we started playing together.”

Slipp and Manski started exploring a duo approach to playing jazz, finding that “it was really freeing—there was so much space and so many possibilities,” explains Slipp. It’s hard to imagine that a couple of music students were already working on a project that would create the most daring and intelligent set of jazz standards I have heard in at least 20 years.

But that is exactly the case. Manski and Slipp’s new recording, A Thousand Julys is brilliant and fresh, an utterly original expansion of the tradition that reaches beyond jazz by using the jazz repertoire to express individual emotions.

After listening to these 11 standard tunes a dozen times each, savoring both the emotional directness and the abstraction of the playing, both the clarity and the craft in the singing, I searched for contact information for these incredible young musicians and asked them to grant me a joint interview to tell me how they had made this minor masterpiece.

“The standard repertoire has been done a million times, but we both felt there is so much still to be done,” says Slipp, who adds that there is a particular challenge in “standing out from the pack” as a female jazz singer working with the standard repertoire.

But A Thousand Julys stands far out from the pack as the most thrilling record I’ve heard in 2013.

Playing Beyond Clichés

The solution that Manski and Slipp have developed is not a formula, but it’s based around a couple of key ideas. Most clearly, these versions of old warhorses like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “You Go to My Head” are cliché-free. To my ear, Manski’s accompaniment steers clear of the standard harmonizations and morphs into different styles beyond what we normally think of as “jazz”. His “I Get Along Without You Very Well” has a “hurdy-gurdy” quality, for example, while his “You Go to My Head” combines a Herbie Hancock left-hand bassline with bi-tonal dissonance in the upper register of the right hand.

“On that tune,” Manski explains, “I wanted to outline the basic structure of the chords in the left hand, using sixths and tenths from stride piano, and then go against he harmonic grain with these bitonal intervals with the right hand. That was the idea, but I didn’t write out specific chords or voicings although this was clearly influenced by classical music. Charles Ives has been a big influence on me.”

The instrumental arrangements, then, don’t run away from tradition as much as they pursue Manski’s interests beyond more traditional jazz. “I wasn’t avoiding anything consciously,” says Manski, “but in this duo it is always okay to play the way I play. I never stray purposely from playing, say, a II-V-I harmony—but the guide is just that I’m only going to play what feels true to myself.”

This freedom, of course, comes from hard work. Both Manski and Slipp are true students of the music. “I do research to understand the song and how it has been played before,” explains Manski. “I study how singers have sung it, how orchestras have played it, the history of the song. From doing the research, I gain the confidence to let go and play naturally.”

Kristin agreed. “We have both absorbed very different versions of the song and have let them marinate. We use that as a guide. And then let it go completely. It’s not a big labored process.”

“Of course,” Manski adds “I listen to Kristin and how she sings each song.”

Singing Both Inside and Outside the Jazz Tradition

Slipp’s singing can be deceptively simple when you first hear it. She often starts her renditions of songs in an unadorned manner, not only avoiding unnecessary melodic embellishments but also singing with a tone and timbre that is notably plain or even “spoken”, with limited vibrato and a sensibility that comes from rock or folk singing.

Read the entire column here: Everything Old Is New Again: Reimagined Jazz Standards

Dave Holland: Prism

In the early 1970s, if you were listening to instrumental music played by electric guitar, electric keyboards, and very busy drums, all executing tricky business and intricate patterns that would explode into fireworks of improvising, you were a fusion fan. “Fusion” was a kind of jazz-rock music that blossomed brilliantly for only a few years (Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchetra, Tony Williams’ Lifetime, and the band Weather Report, for example) only to quickly flame out. This “plugged in” jazz seemed to come from Miles Davis’ experiments in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but it didn’t take long for it to become lame instrumental funk, so-called “smooth jazz”, indulgence in various forms.

But, at its best, it was marvelous.

And acoustic jazz bassist Dave Holland—who played on some of those great Miles records that birthed the stuff but never really had a “fusion band”, per se—has now created the coolest fusion record I’ve heard in decades.

This new quartet is fronted by guitarist Kevin Eubanks, who played with Holland long ago (before his Tonight Show gig) and keyboard wizard Craig Taborn. The drummer, dazzling, is frequent collaborator Eric Harland. It’s a wonderfully balanced group, likely because the leader stays fully back of the pack, serving up great compositions but rarely crowding his players for sonic prominence. The result is a huge smear of sound and joy: exuberance, subtlety (yeah, even in fusion), beauty, fire.

It’s a great record.

Part of what makes Prism sound specifically like “fusion” is the preponderance of tunes that do not “swing” in the usual sense but are instead built on tricky riffs that interlock with a groove that is heavy on backbeat. The opener, Eubanks’ “The Watcher”, begins with a funky line from the left hand of Taborn’s Fender Rhodes electric piano, and then Eubanks doubles it before he climbs on top with a distorted but very simple melody. The sound is thick with fuzz and buzz from both Eubanks and Taborn. All of it would make for a satisfying track, but then a tricky and precise bridge section comes along for pleasing relief. Taborn’s solo is the standout here: mathematical and intriguing as it moves and reverses, surges forward and doubles-back on itself.

This lack of traditional swing flows across tunes in many tempos and styles. “The Color of Iris” is a ballad (also by Eubanks) featuring the guitarist’s mellower tone, but it is set over a bass groove that doubles Dave Holland’s huge low notes with the left hand of the acoustic piano, each note coming as a syncopated surprise, with Eric Harland controlling the flow with his cymbals. Holland’s lovely, minor-key “The Empty Chair” has Harland playing a funky triple-meter groove beneath a dirty pentatonic melody from Eubanks—essentially a soul tune built around a clear movement in the bass line. Taborn’s “The True Meaning of Determination” also doubles acoustic bass and acoustic piano with a series of rising/falling two-note phrases that interlock perfectly with a very unpredictable melody played by unison guitar and right-hand piano.

On all these tunes, the “degree of difficulty” is very high (a fusion trademark), but the execution rises even higher. “Evolution” is chock-a-block with stop-start movement that each player rides across with ease. The guitar and piano solos on “Determination” are pure virtuosity: Eubanks flies with power and fluency and then Taborn takes the opposite tactic, punching in a mad, stilted set of high-low jabs that resolve into a lava rush of rhythms and repetitions. “Spirals” is another Taborn tune built around a complex set of jigsaw pieces: piano parts, bass lines, guitar licks, drum fills. It is all played with nonchalant ease, and then Eubanks and Taborn spin astonishing improvised lines atop it all (And, how great is it to hear Eubanks, Mr. TV Sidekick, playing note-for-note and with daring authority alongside a critical darling like Taborn? They’re both brilliant).

Read the entire PopMatters review here: Dave Holland: Prism

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Slippery Rock

Mostly jazz can be tedious. I mean, I love it, but way too many people will tell you, “Yeah, I love jazz! I put it on as I’m going to sleep!” Or people will say, “Jazz is great for studying.” Which means, mostly, that it’s background hum. It’s the soundtrack, mostly, for doing things that require some kind of adult sonic wallpaper.

Mostly, jazz is a hip kind of boredom, right?

But not when it’s played by Mostly Other People Do the Killing. This quartet—Moppa Elliot on bass and primary composer, Peter Evans on trumpet, drummer Kevin Shea, and the suddenly ubiquitous saxophonist Job Irabagon—plays jazz with a sense of adventure and daring, a perspective that refuses to honor too completely the past even as the band’s music usually has roots in what came before.

Which is to say: Mostly Other People Do the Killing is mostly wonderful, mostly compelling, mostly rich in ideas and energy and invention.

The band’s latest is called Slippery Rock! (another reference to a town in Pennsylvania, continuing the “joke” from MOPDtK’s This Is Our Moosic, in which every tune evoked the name of a town in that state). But, as is almost always true with this band, the music itself is no joke. In fact, MOPDtK’s music is no more gag-filled than that of, say, Charles Mingus. This band plays music rooted quite seriously in the jazz tradition, widely considered, from Armstrong’s contrapuntal approach to the manic flights of bebop to the tonal and harmonic abandon of Ornette Coleman or Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Here, as across their discography, the band also incorporates the dramatic expressionism of the contemporary “free” musicians from Chicago or Europe, using techniques of juxtaposition and contrast in composition and improvisation. As a result, the group’s sound and approach always has a sense of surprise and daring.

And in that surprise, sure, there is often a sense of madness or looseness that can seem like humor. Not jokes, exactly, but rather a joyous sense that these jazz musicians are not grim about their art. They are mostly gleeful and celebratory. Most assuredly.

That said, the packaging for MOPDtK records often uses humor. Slippery Rock!” has a cover that suggests a ridiculous ‘80s “new wave” band, with the band members wearing neon-colored suits and leaping across the tacky graphic design in period goofiness. The “liner notes” extend the gag, claiming that all the material here was inspired by Moppa Elliot’s immersion of “smooth jazz” records from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Though, the thing is, while this music sounds absolutely nothing like smooth jazz, the more you listen, the more you realize that Elliot may, in fact, have found motifs and elements from that body of work that helped to inform these otherwise knotty and compelling tunes.

Whether this is “funny” or “true” or not may be beside the point. Mostly, you need to listen to the music for the pleasure it gives and not so you have some critical understanding of its origins. And this music is so rich in action and content that it should give any fan of modern jazz a mostly full-on ear-to-ear grin.

Smooth or not (and it’s really not “smooth” at all), there is a ton of rockin’ groove in these tunes. The expressive “Jersey Shore” is rich in tumultuous backbeat, and the melody sounds more like a funky blues tune than any avant-garde jazz. But the way that MOPDtK puts this kind of music across is decidedly different: loose and expressive, with very little “taking turns” for solos and a great deal of collective blowing, with Irabagon and Evans flinging wild notes with abandon. On this tune, however, you can’t help but notice that the seeming madness is coordinated with intelligence and care—creating a spellbinding counterpoint that is capable of suddenly pulling back to a whisper, to a series of longer held tones, or to coordinated jabs or slurs. “Yo, Yeo, Yough” grooves too, with a bass line that is funky and fat, and “Dexter, Wayne and Mobley” evokes three tenor giants in its melody, but not in its hypnotic rhythm feel of bouncing funk bass and syncopated hi-hat clatter.

Read the complete PopMatters review here: Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Slippery Rock

Wynton Marsaliss Blood on the Fields, Still Genius

A few weeks ago I had the experience—full of both promise and tension—of revisiting a piece of art that I once thought truly great. The fear, of course, is that such things cannot live up to your memory and hopes. Is anything ever as wonderful as it seemed when you first fell in love with it?

Ah, but some things are. Some things are sublime. Some things are sweeter over time.

cover artA First Love

Wynton Marsalis’s three-hour jazz oratorio, Blood on the Fields, won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for music—a first for a jazz composition. I saw it performed around that time at Washington, DC’s Warner Theater, which was after it was debuted at Lincoln Center in 1994. I arrived at the concert with a dozen of my music students and insanely high expectations: I had been listening to the recording (featuring the voices of Cassandra Wilson, Jon Hendricks, and Miles Griffith) for a while, and all three were on hand with the composer and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Our breaths were stolen.

Blood on the Fields was classic Marsalis: a work that was serious and wildly ambitious—and potentially a great heap of pretention. Marsalis set out to chronicle American slavery by telling the story of a couple, from their travels to the US over the Middle Passage to a brave defiance of servitude, to brutal punishment and hatred, to a form of transcendence, love, and eventual escape. The music, on the surface, was mainly Ellingtonian, but it also reached for a full history of jazz, from field hollers and blues, to Tin Pan Alley ballads, to the cries and rumbles of more modern, more free jazz. And the lyrics had little choice but to go right at the topic: addressing the physical pain of the slave ships, the dehumanization of slave auctions, the anger of black Americans as the country that was imposed on them, religion, and the absurdity of hope.

When I first heard it performed, I simply hadn’t heard a jazz musician in my lifetime try something at this level of difficulty. I’d heard brilliant solos, edgy combinations of tonality and atonality, strange instrumentations, all sorts of tricky stuff. But Blood on the Fields was trying something even more daring. Marsalis was trying to fly beyond the usual with a combination of tradition and experimentation while also addressing politics, history, and the internal human struggle. I mean, I was embarrassed just to like it, it was so potentially full of itself.

But I loved it. As weighty as it was, Blood on the Fields was melodic and fleet, with a huge array of different grooves. The singers were distinctive and ripe: Wilson’s mahogany contralto, Griffith bringing a desperate, raspy cry (“Yooooou don’t heeeeear no druuuums, womaaaaan!”), and Hendricks utterly himself in his cheek and his scatting even as he took on different characters. In concert, the band brought an amazing combination of gravitas and loose joy to their playing.

As I left the concert hall with the students, there wasn’t a soul among us who hadn’t traveled six thousand miles through the music that night. “My life just changed”, one student told me. Who could disagree? The Pulitzer was hardly enough recognition.

A Second Look

And then I didn’t listen to Blood on the Fields for about 15 years. Why? Perhaps because it is a three-CD box set. Perhaps because listening to just part of it seems silly. Perhaps because Wynton Marsalis’s standing since 1997 had both risen—he is the unquestioned Most Established Man In Jazz, King of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Composer of Many Crazy-Long Works—and also fallen. If Wynton once seemed like a youngish guy who was trying, audaciously, to bring jazz to the next level, in recent years he has seemed both nicked by time (dropped by a record label, for example) and a little stodgy.

Which isn’t exactly right. He and his band (and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra) have been playing up a storm, collaborating (with Willie Nelson, with Eric Clapton, but also playing jazz, you bet), and educating. But still, I was getting along just fine without Wynton—and without remembering Blood on the Fields.

But when a weekend in New York coincided with the first performance of the work in more than 15 years, well… I went out of my way to get tickets. If only to find out if I was still in love.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Charles Lloyd / Jason Moran: Hagars Song

In 1968, the Charles Lloyd Quartet, which had achieved rock-level fame and hippie acclaim, split and Charles Lloyd vanished from playing. Almost two decades went by, with Lloyd playing very little (weirdly, doing some touring and recording with the 1970s incarnation of the Beach Boys) until he slowly resurfaced as the same player in a wonderful new context.

Playing at first with pianist Michel Petrucciani and later with his own bands, he explored a variety of forms of balladry, impressionistic playing, and various forms of world music. But usually, it was with a great pianist: Bobo Stenson, then Brad Mehldau and Geri Allen, and more recently (since 2008) Jason Moran. Hagar’s Song is nothing more and nothing less than a set of duets with Moran. And in many respects it is the most intimate—and best—work of Lloyd’s career.

There has always been something idiosyncratic and difficult about Lloyd’s playing. He has a distinctive but sometimes thin tone, and his brilliance has been marred by lots of aimless playing, noodling you might say. Some of what Lloyd’s fans might call profound I tend to find tedious. But Hagar’s Song is the best of what Lloyd does: powerful introspection and intensity, a focused lyricism that sounds personal.

The program here contains all of what interests Lloyd: standards and free improvisation, rock tunes and textured originals. And because Moran is a versatile but daring player, Lloyd approaches these tunes with an orchestral originality. On Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”, Moran begins with a simple series of chords built around a single repeated high note, rolling in a hip bass line and eventually more complex harmonies. But Moran creates a context that is compelling even as it honors the simplicity (which is the beauty) of Dylan’s song. Lloyd barely does more than state the melody in different registers, but the vocal elements he brings to the song—cracking quavers in the upper register (where he continues to excel on tenor sax), breathy middle tones and a nasal resonance down low—make it feel complete without any fancy-pants rewiring of the melody.

Moran is brilliant setting the table on Chris Conner’s 1953 hit “All About Ronnie” as well. He caresses the keys to create harp effects, rainfall patters, shimmers—really anything that Lloyd needs to float his quivering melody upon. But when a more rhythmic approach is needed—say on the Earl Hines tune “Rosetta”—Moran is raggy and bouncing without resorting for formula. His left hand is strong but not thumping, and the sense of texture is always there, thanks in part to the crystalline recording quality provided (as ever) by Manfred Eicher’s ECM magic.

Happily, the sheer beauty of much of Hagar’s Song is relieved by elements of harmonic freedom. “Rosetta” may be from the ‘20s or ‘30s, but Moran clatters a line or two that could have been played only in the last couple of decades. “Pictogram” is a freely improvised conversation that sounds easy and light in temperament but thorny in the ideas it suggests. Moran plays a walking bass line with his left hand but, even there, the time suggested is not just swinging 4/4, and the two musicians allow more than one time signature to exist at once, each confident that they needn’t be lined up to be playing together.

Read the entire review here: Charles Lloyd / Jason Moran: Hagars Song

Monday, March 11, 2013

John Hollenbeck: Songs I Like a Lot

John Hollenbeck is a drummer, composer, and arranger whose sensibility is now so unique and thoughtfully developed that it occupies its own niche in music. Hollenbeck is a brilliant student of big band arranging, yet he also leverages an interest in classical music so that his “large ensemble” charts seem to shimmer with (Philip) Glass-ian dazzle.

His latest concoction is a dream—and certainly the least likely collection of jazz arrangements of pop songs (sort of) you will hear this year. Songs I Like A Lot covers a wondrous array of tunes that Hollenbeck can’t resist. An admitted nerd with a relatively narrow connection to rock, he has chosen a set of idiosyncratic tunes that let him channel melody and lyrics into something more transcendent through his unique style.

The collection starts with a track of utter bliss: a rethinking of Jimmy Webb’s famous “Wichita Lineman”, featuring both Hollenbeck’s regular vocalist, Theo Bleckmann, and Kate McGarry. Hollenbeck sets the woodwinds of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band into a quavering set of patterns that burble with minimalist beauty before McGarry states the first verse accompanied by rhythm and pianist Gary Versace. Patterns fill the song between verses like woven silk. After Bleckmann’s verse, the patterns grow more complex, with Hollenbeck’s mallet percussion setting up a stuttering pattern and a guitar restating the melody in half-time, with the melody eventually doubled by wordless vocals and horns, even as the brass sets down a bed of shifting chords. In its final minutes, the arrangement essentially cuts itself loose of its source and floats off into bliss.

This tune is so inventively beautiful, so unlike any other jazz or pop or classical music you can hear elsewhere—it sets the bar so high that the rest of Songs I Like A Lot is playing continual catch up. But it mostly does keep up.

Read the entire review here: John Hollenbeck: Songs I Like a Lot

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Gamak

Rudresh Mahanthappa has reached a level of balance and power in his music after a decade of prominent recording, composing, and leadership. In 2013, his art is so heavy that only a beast of band can set him up to express the great breadth of his personality. This current quartet seems to be that band.

Gamak features a quartet led by Mahanthappa’s acidic alto saxophone and fleshed out by electric guitar from David Fiucynski, Francois Moutin on acoustic bass, and drums courtesy of Dan Weiss. But the band proves to be both precise and highly versatile. Fiucynski, most notably, is able to bend strings and use his effects such that he can simulate the microtonal action necessary to give voice to the leader’s South Asian-tinged tunes—while a the same time having huge jazz chops and the tone, crunch, and firepower necessary to rip up the material here that bleeds over to fusion and even rock.

Rudresh Mahanthappa has made a fusion or rock album? No, not exactly, but this one is different. And wonderful.

The opener establishes things perfectly. “Waiting is Forbidden” starts with the saxophone playing an aggressively stabbed line in repetition, and then the guitar comes in with a syncopated funk figure, with the rhythm section syncopating things further so that the sound is a thick nest of groove rhythm. When the melody enters, it is played by alto and guitar in rough unison, but with Fiucynski sounding just a touch like a sitar. As all of this builds, Mahanthappa brings back the opening stabbing figure and the guitar continues a rock-edged melodic counterpoint.

In short, Whew!, you think, as all the music swirls and grooves and unspools eventually in improvisation that is backed up by a new stop-time groove. This is most certainly music with a fusion element, but it’s “fusion” moved far beyond any 1970s aesthetic. It uses power, electricity, precision, and groove—no doubt—but it has little of the slickness of, say, Return to Forever. And just as this thought crosses your mind, around 6:30 into the tune, Fiucynski wraps a big fuzz tone around a line that could have come from “Hymn for the Seventh Galaxy” while drummer Dan Weiss lays down thick rock drumming every bit as fusiony as Lenny White or Billy Cobham at their most 1970s-ish. And that’s not a bad thing: it’s great! Because the original melody comes back in over this groove and ties things up in a delicious, complex bow.

And, again, you say, Whew!!

The other critical player in the versatility of this band is Weiss, who comes with a background in South Asian hand drumming and full command of an American jazz-rock kit. He is everywhere on Gamak, accenting intelligently, bashing as necessary, keeping things popping and syncopated, but never getting too cute.

Read the entire review here: Rudresh Mahanthappa: Gamak

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Wayne Shorter Quartet: Without a Net

Wayne Shorter may be the most respected man in jazz—a member of the legendary Miles Davis ‘60s quintet, a brilliant leader of legendary Blue Note dates during the same time (Speak No Evil, 1964), an innovator and composer whose involvement with the music has spanned hard bop, Brazilian fusion, and then the jazz-rock of Weather Report.

But he has also been the mystery man of jazz, in his tone and in his actions. He has always spoken in koans about his art, and when he left “mainstream” acoustic jazz to co-found Weather Report, he seemed to vanish from “serious” jazz for way too long. From 1971 until 2002—what amounts to an entire career for most musicians—Shorter’s music was brilliant but cold, a little plastic, too often trapped in a synthesized (‘80s-ish?) package that didn’t seem to allow for interaction or dialogue. To fans and fellow musicians alike, Shorter seemed like a bit of a void, a ghost, a genius in remission.

All that changed about a decade ago when Shorter put together his quartet with Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass), and Brian Blade (drums). Seemingly overnight, Shorter was back with a vengeance. In concert and in a live recording, the band was everything that fans could have hoped for: all dialogue, a continual stew of musical conversation—an innovative group that was not merely playing great tunes and taking turns playing solos over the chord changes but actually creating innovative structures in the moment, setting up a daring new model for how an acoustic jazz group might work within tonality to still improvise with extraordinary freedom. Collections have come somewhat regularly since then, each one a revelation.

Without a Net collects performances by the quartet mostly from 2011’s European tour, and it represents yet another wondrous outing from the group, four dazzling players whipping up a magic froth from compositions that cross Shorter’s career from the ‘60s Davis group to music freshly composed for this band. As has been common in recordings by the quartet, Shorter has conceived of settings for film music and has again arranged one of his tunes for a woodwind ensemble in a manner that is gripping and highly integrated. This collection may be more of the same, then, but it is a brilliant continuation and elaboration on this strain.

There isn’t a single thesis statement here, and that keeps Without a Net from seeming like a landmark. But that simply isn’t where Shorter is as an artist at this point. His singular statement is in his band and the way it works, uniquely, across different kinds of material. That Wayne Shorter, days short of his 80th birthday, is leading what is one of the most thrilling bands in modern music, is more than notable. And because Without a Net also represents Shorter’s return to Blue Note records after 43 years, attention must be paid.

And your attention will be repaid.

Read the entire PopMatters review here: Wayne Shorter Quartet: Without a Net

JAZZ TODAY: Why Jazz Happened

There’s a new book out by music writer Marc Meyers that takes a different run at the story of jazz, and it’s worth checking out. Meyers has written a great mass of articles for The Wall Street Journal about jazz, including many to-the-point interviews, and he also has a masters in US history from Columbia University. So Why Jazz Happened has the pedigree of promise.

And it is a different take on jazz history—a refreshing look at the music that argues forcefully that a series of key turns in the music were the result of social factors that had less to do with the artistic vision of “great men” (or women) than with how connected jazz was to the culture—in business, technology, and otherwise.

Like a good journalist, Myers focuses on a clear story, backed up by copious interviews with sources that certainly know what really happened. One criticism I have of the book is that it’s maybe too narrow and defined—almost as if it doesn’t want to muddy the clarity of the argument it’s making, despite that fact that—c’mon man—there’s never one reason why things happen in the arts.

That said, Why Jazz Happened makes its points like a snazzy lawyer in the courtroom: zip, zam, zot. And here’s the book in a nutshell: since World War Two, a series of non-musical events in the culture had a huge impact on the direction of jazz, with changes in business practice, technology, recording format, and social developments pushing the music to places it might not otherwise have gone. Each of Myers’ arguments constitutes a chapter in the book, and each illuminates a part of the story of jazz that has only partly been told before—and never with this focus.

Read the entire column here: Why Jazz Happened

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Joe Lovano Us Five: Cross Culture

Joe Lovano has a burly, garrulous way with his tenor sax, a big man’s style around the horn that is nevertheless nimble and athletic. His touch can be light, but the overall sound of a Lovano band is wide and generous. And that’s certainly true of this latest release from the leader’s working quintet. Us Five has that big sound: James Weidman plays piano with a sprawling expansiveness, either Esperanza Spalding or Peter Slovov lays it thick on bass, the dual percussion attack of Otis Brown and Francisca Mela covers everything, and then there’s the inclusion on some tracks of guitarist Lionel Louke.

Another way of thinking about it is that Cross Culture is a bit of a mess. Not a bad mess, but kind of a cluttered affair—lots of sounds moving all around in the sonic space. On “Myths and Legends”, the cymbals clatter and the bass dashes as Lovano meanders all around the place—it’s like a conversation that goes in five directions at once. “In a Spin” states a choppy stop ‘n’ go melody for tenor and guitar and then—b-zam!—the band starts into a series of solos that careen over an idiosyncratic lurching rhythm. Lovano puts in some parts on his crazy Aulochrome, a polyphonic saxophone that can play two (kind of purposely out-of-tune) notes at once, and there is a long passage of dancing counterpoint for Louke and the leader. It’s nervous music. It unsettles you a bit.

All of which makes it sound like I don’t dig this band. But I do. This is a fleet and liberating group. While they are not doing anything revolutionary (compared to, say, Wayne Shorter’s current quartet, they seem relatively traditional), this band plays with freedom and a natural ease. Nothing is too formal or stiff. On “11PM”, the rhythm section simply cooks while Lovano plays a fluent vocabulary of free-bop around them. Louke enters on guitar, they joust, then Weidman is stabbing behind the leader on piano, and eventually he takes a jagged solo. Tempos shift and bend. Anything might happen because the structures are built to be loose from the start. “Journey Within” has the feel of an Ornette Coleman tune because the melody is stated by Lovano (on soprano) and Louke in a unison that is purposely out of sync.

Read my full review on PopMatters, here: Joe Lovano Us Five: Cross Culture

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

José James: No Beginning and No End

Listening to No Beginning and No End, the new recording by singer José James, you are going to feel and you are going to move. It’s a modern soul album that comes from both hip hop and jazz, and it deserves to climb the charts and have critical acclaim. How often does that happen?

cover artNo Beginning and No End puts everything together for the 35 year-old James—a recording that is sexy, hip, engrossing, and eclectic without being unfocused. Jazz may be there in some of the singer’s phrasing and tonal control, in the slick piano work by Robert Glasper or Kris Bowers, or in the pocket-funky horn parts, but mainly this is a set that hits you square in gut or the ass or the heart. It’s slippery and funky and ready to move you several ways.

The album opens in spare joy with just cracking backbeat drums, percussion, then James almost whispering his lines (“I won’t stay if you wanna go / I can’t wait for it any more / In the time that I used to know / It’s gone away like a river flow / It’s all over all over all over . . . your body”) with just a trickle of electric piano and then hip horn jabs. The mood of No Beginning and No End is clear—intimate, soulful, direct to the groin but also catching the ear. The percussion grooves but it also clatters and unspools in places, moving into abstract patterns sound like avant-hip-hop. And the tune ends with the horns taking over with a trumpet solo. Smooth but not slick, easy on the ears but palpably different.

The truth is, there are too many highlights here to cover in one review. You won’t be able to get enough of “Do You Feel”, a James tune with a killer gospel groove that is carried by Kris Bowers on acoustic piano, whose long solo is both direct as a blues statement and flashy like jazz. On this one, James lets his voice soar, wide open at the throat and rich as Sinatra. “Vanguard”, co-written with Robert Glasper, is propelled brilliantly by Glasper’s drummer Chris Dave, smooth but off-kilter a bit. “Make It Right” was composed with bassist Pino Palladino, who also produced much of the album, and it feels like a glorious series of syncopations that never get old. The title track is a slow-soul love song that finds James singing his own harmony vocals against a very spare background. It is hypnotic.

It’s right that No Beginning and No End ends with the song “Tomorrow”. First, it’s a love song, and this is a recording to love. But the song also links your ears back to James as a jazz singer—he is accompanied here only by piano and a small string group playing a complex chamber arrangement that embraces his vocal perfectly.

But more to the point, No Beginning and No End well ought to be tomorrow. This is the best, most sincere, most skillful piece of pop music making you are going to hear in 2013. It reaches backward for some of its sounds, but it moves forward too, fusing hip-hop and jazz and classic rhythm-and-blues. I dare say: It points the way.

Read the whole review here: José James: No Beginning and No End

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Permanance of Pops: Louis Armstrong and American Music

It has become gospel in the jazz world that Everything Comes from Louis. And like so many truisms, the brilliance of Louis Armstrong is so plain that it is easy to miss.

Louis “Pops” Armstrong was the first great jazz player and singer, and his first batch of recordings from the 1925 to 1933—collected here in a definitive ten-disc set—is one of the essential artistic fountains of the 20th century. This music, recorded in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Camden, NJ, did much more than define and lay the blueprint for jazz. It is, almost completely, the source material for all popular music in the follow century, worldwide. Listening to hip-hop or pop or creative improvised art music in 2013 is to be inside Armstrong’s world still: a place where an insistent rhythmic complexity and a defiant expression of the individuality of a singer or soloist combine to make the heart and the body each move without limit.

The Reason to Call Him “Pops” Rather Than “Satchmo”

cover art
Of course, placing all this on one man goes a bit far. Armstrong did not come out of a vacuum. Born in New Orleans near the start of his century, Louis inherited a set of traditions that would push him to make great art. He was a brass player coming from a city where compelling street music already existed for brass bands. Great players like Buddy Bolden and Joe “King” Oliver were already improvising solos (on trumpet or cornet, no less) in the context of a band. Jelly Roll Morton was devising ways for band arrangements to reflect a new sensibility of rhythmic pliancy and to set up ingeniously orchestrated call-and-response patterns.

But no one had put the music together like Louis Armstrong would, starting with these recordings in the 1920s. Armstrong was, quite simply, the best brass player anyone had ever heard. He not only played high and fast, but he could create spontaneous melodies that were unsurpassed in imagination, spirit, and cohesive intelligence. Above all else, Pops played with innovative rhythmic feeling—the slippery push-pull syncopation that would come to define the idea of “swing” but that really deserves to be described with a word that is less time-locked. Louis Armstrong didn’t just invent or perfect “jazz” or “swing”—he established the gold standard for groove in modern music. His feeling for the individual expression of time didn’t just set up Basie and Bird, Miles and Marsalis. Without Armstrong there’s no James Brown or Johnny Cash, there’s no Sinatra and no Kanye. The feeling at the root of all that music is in the groove, the way the great American artists address rhythm. And that feeling starts with these records, with the incomparable Louis Armstrong.

Read the entire article here: The Permanance of Pops: Louis Armstrong and American Music

Monday, January 7, 2013

David Virelles: Continuum

David Virelles is a relatively young pianist, born and raised in Cuba, with a second recording that extremely interesting and ambitious but not easy to listen to with anything less than total concentration.

Continuum features an unusual quartet, and it’s fair to say up front that this music is best not thought of as “jazz”—but maybe not as anything else exactly either. The band is a conventional jazz trio of piano and keyboards, bass (Ben Street), and drums (the veteran inside-outside player Andrew Cyrille), supplemented by Roman Diaz playing traditional Cuban percussion and chanting in Spanish and other languages that feed into the Afro-Cuban tradition. The art being made here is nothing like the standard jazz set—tunes that feature improvising in between statements of the melody.

Instead, Continuum sets up systems of rhythm, texture, melody, and sometimes language. Most tracks are relatively brief, and the contrasts between “songs” and the sequencing of each statement create what feels like a story being told across the breadth of the collection.

Your ears are likely to travel over this music in a searching kind of way. I found myself transfixed by each track, at least for a while, as Virelles’s precise pianistic touch or his penchant for novel keyboard sounds (from a harmonium, a pump organ, and an electric Wurlitzer organ) drew me to riveting musical notions. As each idea takes hold, however, it also seems to let go. Themes are stated vaguely and then waft into the air. Structures are non-linear or not repeating. The hunt for connection is hard work.

Read the full review here: David Virelles: Continuum