Header Quote

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

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”

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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