23 March 2009

Can Wynton Be Free?

Earlier this week, Howard Mandel discussed the upcoming season of Jazz At Lincoln Center, which includes a performance by Ornette Coleman's quartet. As you can imagine, some observers are enthusiastic that a major partisan in the jazz wars has embraced one of the major figures and influences of the opposing camp.

In the same post, Mandel embedded a YouTube of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra playing an arrangement of Coleman's tune "Free," first recorded in 1960 on Change of the Century. The arrangement (which is uncredited on YouTube, but presumably was written by one of the band's members at the time) is interesting enough, but what shocked me was the solo by Marsalis on trumpet. In short, he plays outside the changes with authority. Here's the video:

Wynton's solo does justice to Don Cherry. Though he plays with tonality, his solo is remarkably free and well-conceived. I admit to being a bit taken-aback by the solo. Though I wouldn't have expected him to impose a more familiar structure onto the tune, I also was not expecting him to produce a free jazz solo of that quality. But Wynton is a virtuoso, and you know he has studied Ornette. So perhaps it is not surprising that he could play the tune so well. Even so, nice solo.

22 March 2009

Will Someone Get the Led Out?

Most jazz musicians are not shy about reaching beyond the repertoire of The Jazz Tradition to find something new to play. This is especially true when it comes to another major American contribution to music, rock and roll; think of Brad Mehldau covering Radiohead, Basie's Beatle Bag, or pretty much any album by The Bad Plus. In a quick scan of my iTunes library, I can find accomplished artists interpreting the work of Bob Dylan, Nirvana, Paul Simon, and David Bowie, among others.

But for the life of me, I could only find one example of an established jazz musician reinterpreting the canon of Led Zeppelin, a recording of The Crunge by the Joshua Redman Elastic Band. A quick search of Amazon.com yields little more, the closest I could find to a jazz musician tackling Led Zeppelin was a tributeby a French big band. You can see The Bad Plus play When the Levee Breaks on YouTube (embedding disabled, unfortunately), but that doesn't count; the band is playing soundcheck for a radio appearance, and barely make it through one chorus. Whereas you can find multiple compilations of jazz takes on The Beatles, Zeppelin is not even mentioned it seems.

And the more I think about it the less sense this makes. Led Zeppelin, it seems, is perfectly ripe for a reimagining at the hands of jazz musician. The music is blues-based and highly improvisational. The mixed-meter riffs of "Black Dog" or the heavy blues of "Custard Pie" would seem like appropriate starting-off points. Many of the band's other tunes could also be explored within a modal context, taking advantage of drones within the tunes to explore their harmonic possibilities. "The Battle of Evermore," "Kashmir," or "Immigrant Song," among others, seem like good candidates for this treatment. Led Zeppelin did not write ballads per se, but some tunes, like "Rain Song" or "Ten Years Gone" have interesting chord changes worth parsing.

If I were a musician, I would get on this right away. But for now, I can only hope that Medeski, Martin & Wood, Joshua Redman, John Scofield, or any other adventurous musician with an interest in rock will share my curiosity.

21 March 2009

18 March 2009

Review: Compass

Joshua Redman

In 2007, when he released Back East, Joshua Redman automatically drew comparisons to Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman for his use of a pianoless rhythm section. Daunting as these comparisons may be, he was nonetheless hailed for making "the most agile and personal record of his career," in the words of Ben Ratliff. Having found artistic success in this format, Redman returns to the pianoless trio for his latest album, Compass. Leaving out the piano adds spontenaity to his music, as he told NPR in 2007:
It's a tremendously liberating format, because there's no piano, no dedicated melodic instrument, it gives me and the other musicians so much room to experiment and explore, both melodically and harmonically. But with that freedom comes an awful lot of responsibility.
On Compass, Redman ups the ante by doubling the bass and drums on some of the tracks, platooning Larry Grenadier and Rueben Rodgers on bass and Gregory Hutchinson and Brian Blade on drums. As with Back East, Redman's goal is to free up his own playing, eliciting spontaneous explorations of harmony and melody. On many tunes, Redman adroitly toes the line between outside and inside playing, stepping just outside the chord changes long enough to make the listener notice, but returning to the changes in enough time to keep the tune's melody within sight.

As with many current saxophone records, Compass can at times sound a bit too much like some of its influences. "Hitchhiker's Guide" sounds suspiciously like the opening of Sonny Rollins' Freedom Suite. "Identity Thief" sounds like the kind of tune Ornette Coleman would have written in the early 1960s. This would be a problem if Redman did not leave his personal stamp on the tunes, but by the end of each tune, you are left with no doubt who is on saxophone.

A highlight of the album is "Insomnomaniac," a melody featuring repeated, clipped phrases played over a manic groove. It is an apt title, as the melody features a pastiche of thoughts and phrases familiar to anyone who has lied awake at night for hours at a time. The tune shifts between multiple tempos, and Redman's trio constantly refers to the main melody, like someone with a troubling thought on his mind. He brings a heightened sense of drama to his solo which serves the tune well.

"Identity Theif" also struck my interest. Redman utilizes both bassists and both drummers on this tune, which sounds practically harmolodic to my ears. Grenadier and Rogers play off of each other nicely, as do Blade and Hutchinson. In fact, if you were to listen to this tune on a monaural sound system, you might not be able to tell that there are four rhythm players on the track due to the cohesiveness of the group.

However enjoyable these tracks are, though, I cannot escape the feeling that something was lost in the process of recording the album. This weekend, I saw Terence Blanchard play a guest-artist concert with the University of Virginia jazz ensemble, and the experience reminded me how little of an impression his studio albums left on me compared to seeing him live. There is some quality to his studio work that prevents his albums from leaving much of an impression on me. Compass shares this trait, unfortunately. I can listen to it and enjoy it, but the album does not captivate me. This is not intended as a criticism of Redman. Indeed, maybe the problem is me. Nonetheless, when I listen to Compass, I can't help but think that I don't enjoy the album as much as I should. Such are the idiosyncracies of life sometimes...

Track Listing: Uncharted; Faraway; Identity Thief; Just Like You; Hitchhiker's Guide; Ghost; Insomnomaniac; Moonlight; Un Peu Fou; March; Round Reuben; Little Ditty; Through the Valley
Personnel: Joshua Redman, saxophone; Larry Grenadier, Reuben Rogers, bass; Gregory Hutchinson, Brian Blade, drums

15 March 2009

Miles on Record

Lockwood & Summit recently posted an audio interview of Miles Davis on KXLW in East St. Louis from 1953. Totally bizarre to hear Miles without the rasp in his voice (he got it in the mid-fifties when he got in an argument shortly after vocal surgery). Miles talks about the first time he heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-forties, and how he was captivated by the new sound - bebop.

Check it out. You can listen to the interview here.

h/t: WFIU Night Lights

photo via jazz in photo

10 March 2009

Runnin' the Voodoo Down

  • The fiftieth anniversary of Thelonious Monk's Town Hall concert was celebrated with a pair of concerts by Jason Moran and Charles Tolliver: Fred Kaplan, Ben Ratliff, and Will Friedwald have recaps and comments. Below the links is a video of Moran discussing Monk and preforming "Crepescule with Nellie." (UPDATE: Kaplan also filed a piece on the concerts in Slate today. Read it here).
  • Jazzhouse Diaries posted a paper by Mark Gridley examining the linkages between free jazz and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It's quite long, but provides a long-overdue counterpoint to the narrative first propogated by Amiri Baraka and Frank Kofsky which placed free jazz squarely within the context of 1960s Black Nationalism.
  • Between the Grooves takes a look at singer/guitarist Madeleine Peyroux.
  • Doug Ramsey examines a recently-unearthed 1956 television performance of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
  • There is some wonderful jazz photography being shown at Jazz in Photo.
  • This isn't about jazz per se, but interesting to me nonetheless. The LA Times filed a story last week about the increasing number of nonblack faculty teaching African American Studies at US colleges and universities. The piece elicited an interesting response from Keith Josef Adkins on The Root, who recalled questioning the authenticity of white instructors in a graduate seminar on Black Culture and Experience. He writes, "When most students think of Black Studies they imagine 'sanctuary' and a white professor (brilliant or not) is not part of that imagining." This is a subject I once thought about a lot as a white graduate student studying African American history, and one that continues to reveal a certain sense of friction within Academe.

09 March 2009

Under The Radar: Tonic

Medeski Martin & Wood

I've written about Medeski Martin & Wood's inimitable electronic acid jazz (I prefer to call it avant funk) before, but my favorite recording of theirs is actually Tonic, a live recording released in 2000. It is the only album which features the trio in an all-acoustic setting. While this makes it an outlier of the trio's catalogue, it is also a perfect example of their postmodernist approach to jazz. The trio weaves together four originals with four covers seamlessly into a solid hour of exciting jazz. The trio rework their covers into their shared language: groove-heavy, blues-drenched jazz with avant-garde color. Each tune stands on its own while fitting into the groove of the setlist. The album comes very close to replicating the excitement and spontaneity of a Medeski Martin & Wood set.

The trio begin with Invocation, a group improvisation which evokes the fire of Cecil Taylor. Medeski Martin & Wood often open their shows with a freewheeling opener. Most of the time, each member of the trio begins playing the second he gets to his gear, without waiting for the rest of the trio. This allows them to hit the ground running and feed off of the energy in the room. Invocation floats into one of my favorite tunes, Lee Morgan's Afrique. This is a particularly brave selection, being that it was first recorded by Art Blakey. It is one thing to cover a straight-ahead Blakey tune (think Moanin' or Along Came Betty), but to cover a tune that utilizes so much polyrhythm takes more than a little bit of guts. Drummer Billy Martin utilizes the cowbell wonderfully during the tune, and goes into a nice swing on the bridge. I think Art would have dug it.

Along with Afrique, a highlight of the set is the trio's performance of John Coltrane's Your Lady. The trio reimagine's the tune within a tight groove. Medeski and Wood play off of each other masterfully, adding depth and complexity to the groove without drowning it. As with most other Medeski Martin and Wood albums, Tonic serves as a series of case studies on grooves; from the dissonant energy of Seven Deadlies to the dark funk of Rise Up. Whereas lesser bands run the danger of simply employing groove for its own sake, Medeski Martin & Wood use the groove as a backdrop for deeper melodic exploration, a la John Coltrane's classic quartet.

The set closes with a version of the garage-rock classic, Hey Joe, that may strike some as anticlimactic (especially since it follows the frenetic Thaw). But I find it to be a nice bookend to the set, giving listeners a relaxing cool-down after the trio's workout. Tonic may not be the best introduction to Medeski Martin & Wood, but it is certainly a treasure among their catalogue which grows more rewarding with each listen.

Track Listing: Invocation; Afrique; Seven Deadlies; Your Lady; Rise Up; Buster Rides Again; Thaw; Hey Joe
Personell: John Medeski, piano; Chris Wood, bass; Billy Martin, drums, percussion

04 March 2009


The Future: It's going to be a little weird...

Caption: Toyota Motor Corporation partner robots play instruments at the company's showroom in Tokyo on May 4, 2008. (REUTERS/Toru Hanai)

h/t: The Big Picture