30 July 2009

Recent Reading

I recently finished Scott DeVeaux's magisterial history of bebop, and enjoyed it as much as I had any other book of jazz history. DeVeaux thoroughly traces multiple threads which led to the development of bebop, covering such diverse territories as the economics of leading a swing band in the late-1930s and the social world of the after-hours jam session (where bebop was born, according to the creation myth). In addition, he provides sound musical analysis, meticulously cataloging the stylistic changes taking place in jazz during the early-1940s that led to bebop.

However, DeVeaux's greatest contribution in The Birth of Bebop is his account of how jazz began to be transformed from a social dance music, to be enjoyed in large crowds at dances and ballrooms, to an intellectualized art music, to be digested but not danced to. This metamorphosis does not end at the completion of DeVeaux's book, but many of the important first steps that would propel jazz into the art world (and lead to its irrelevance, some might argue) take place precisely at the same time that bebop is blossoming, and not by accident. There are not many books out there right now which would better inform your understanding of how jazz got to where it is today than The Birth of Bebop.

Why does the trumpet loom so large in the history of jazz? This question is at the heart of Krin Gabbard's new cultural history of jazz. Gabbard reaches back as far as ancient history for clues as to why young black men like Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong picked up the trumpet after the turn of the century and presented a statement of African American humanity and masculinity.

Gabbard also tells a personal story of the trumpet, discussing his own reunion with trumpet playing to give the reader a look into the nuts and bolts of trumpet playing. His discussion of the evolution of the trumpet, visits to trumpet manufacturers, and recollection of his struggles with the instrument give a broader view of the trumpet, by fleshing out the physical demands it places on its practitioners. Gabbard does not say anything that is particularly earth-shattering in this book, but his decision to trace the history of jazz through the trumpet provides a coherent framework for understanding some of the social forces which contributed to the development of jazz.

28 July 2009

George Russell

George Russell (r) with John Coltrane, via GeorgeRussell.com

Sad news this morning as the pianist, educator, and music theorist George Russell died Monday from complications from Alzheimer's disease. Russell's treatise on modal improvisation, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, published in 1953, provided the theoretical basis for the modal jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. While he is perhaps best known for The Lydian Chromatic Concept, he was an important composer and musician in his own right, having written the Dizzy Gillespie classic Cubana Be Cubana Bop and led countless bands himself. If you have not checked out Ezz-Thetics, his 1961 album featuring Don Ellis, Eric Dolphy, and Steve Swallow, then do yourself a favor and buy it now.

Below is some audio and video of Russell for your listening pleasure...

The Jazz Video Guy brings us an an excerpt from the 1958 tv program, "The Subject is Jazz," featuring George Russell's composition and arrangement, "Stratusphunk," with Bill Evans on piano, Art Farmer, trumpet, Jimmy Cleveland, trombone, Gene Quill, alto, Ed Thigpen, drums:

An excerpt of Dizzy Gillespie's big band playing Cubano Be Cubano Bop in 1947:

Cubana Be - Dizzy Gillespie

George Russell discusses the music of Ornette Coleman with Coleman and Robert Palmer:

Also no longer with us is Merce Cunningham, the modernist choreographer. Be sure to read Ethan Iverson's brief remembrance, you'll be glad you did.

23 July 2009

A Non-Jazz Recommendation

Beck has undertaken a new project for his website: covering some of his favorite albums, one song at a time, and posting the results. His first undertaking is the first Velvet Underground album. Quite a bold choice, but check out the first two tracks.

Sunday Morning:

Record Club: Velvet Underground & Nico 'Sunday Morning' from Beck Hansen on Vimeo.

I'm Waiting for The Man (dig the detuned guitars):

Record Club: Velvet Underground & Nico 'Waiting for My Man' from Beck Hansen on Vimeo.

Beck's been posting one track a week, meaning next week we'll see Beck & Co.'s rendition of Heroin, one of my all-time favorite tunes. I can't wait to see what he does with it.

20 July 2009

Dave Douglas And Brass Ecstasy Live From NPR

Via A Blog Supreme (I'm still envious about that name...), NPR has posted video of Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy's performance in NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series. Check it out.

18 July 2009

Review: Infernal Machines

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society
I'm a bit late to Darcy James Argue's party, so I'll be brief. Argue, a heretofore relatively obscure composer and bandleader in New York, just released his debut album, a big band project which evokes both the lofty atmospherics of the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the sounds of modern indie rock. Argue recently wrote of his music:
What if the big band had remained the standard vehicle for popular music? What if every time you turned on the radio, everyone from T-Pain to Rihanna to Katy Perry was backed by a big band? What if Animal Collective and Vampire Weekend and MGMT all had 13-piece horn sections? What if the Rock Band video game came with a whole bunch of trumpet and saxophone and trombone controllers? I am not saying this would necessarily be a desirable situation. But it is fun to think about. At least, it’s fun for me to think about. And my music for Secret Society essentially comes out of me imagining what a jazz big band would sound like in an alternate reality where big bands were still widely popular (instead of a curious anachronism), and where jazz was still on speaking terms with other musical genres.
Judging from the sizable audience for his blog, as well as the many enthusiastic reviews of the album, it appears Argue is not the only person who thinks this would be fun to think about. Argue delivers the goods on the album, to boot. The opening track, Phobos, layers flowing wind orchestrations over an intense guitar line in a way that weds Gil Evans and late-period Led Zeppelin. Transit is another highlight, a bona fide barnburner featuring an excellent solo from trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.

Argue might not change the trajectory of jazz, but he nonetheless offers a refreshing reinvention of the big band form. I can't wait to hear what he comes up with next. Those unfamiliar to Argue's work are recommended to check out his blog and website, where you can download free live recordings of the Secret Society, and his record label, New Amsterdam Records, where you can stream the album and anything else in their catalogue.

Track Listing: Phobos, Zeno, Transit, Redeye, Jacobin Club, Habeas Corpus (for Maher Arar), Obsidian Flow

Do this for the next 30 minutes

Courtesy of Jazz Video Guy Bret Primack, here is the late pianist Walter Bishop Jr. discussing his Theory of Fourths. It is a bit dense for nonmusicians, but nonetheless an interesting discussion of music theory. Thanks, Bret!

h/t @jazzvideoguy

17 July 2009

Good Gracious

From If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats comes this Blue Note cover for Lou Donaldson, who wasn't concerned with the world knowing he was a lecherous creep. Such were the early 1960s...

In other corners of the jazz blogosphere:

13 July 2009

JazzTimes Lives

In an interview over the weekend, JazzTimes editor-in-chief Lee Mergner said the magazine will resume publication in August. Former publisher Glenn Sabin sold the magazine to Madavor Media. According to Mergner, the magazine will retain much of its editorial staff and contributors, and will not clean house. I'm looking forward to receiving the August issue, and perhaps I can finally get that Horace Silver DVD they owe me for my subscription gift...

12 July 2009

Review: Spirit Moves

Dave Douglas
Spirit Moves

Dave Douglas is no stranger to what might be termed (for lack of a better word) "tribute albums," having recorded albums featuring the music of Booker Little and Mary Lou Williams, among others (In Our Lifetime and Soul on Soul, respectively). What makes his tributes unique, though, is that rather than reinterpreting the work of another musician, Douglas prefers to filter the tribute subject's style through his own, in an effort to recreate that subject's sound and persona in a new context. Thus, his "tributes" counterintuitively consist mostly of original material. On his latest album, Spirit Moves, Douglas is again playing with a number of influences in mind, in this case the early-20th century New Orleans brass bands that played a role in the creation of jazz as well as Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy band, which used the brass ensemble as a vehicle for performing all sorts of music, from pop to classical and many points between. Douglas performs here in a brass quartet accompanied by drummer Nasheet Waits.

The music on this album ranges from moments of tightly arranged composition to free-wheeling group improvisation, with Douglas and trombonist Luis Bonilla shouldering a bulk of the soloing duties. The repertoire is similarly varied. The opening track, This Love Affair, features an Eastern European tinge reminiscent of Douglas' Tiny Bell Trio, while Bowie hearkens back to the aforementioned turn-of-the-century New Orleans brass band. Douglas is in high form throughout, consolidating the trademark smears and half-valve effects favored by Bowie into his own thoroughly modern sounds. His arrangements are thoughtful and colorful, taking advantage of the almost limitless sounds made possible by the blending of different brass instruments. This Love Affair uses an oom-pah pattern between the tuba and a combination of French horn and trombone which creates a wonderfully dark backdrop for Douglas' dirge-like lamentations on trumpet.

However, periodically the band reveals why the conventional jazz ensemble evolved without the tuba, opting for the upright bass instead. On tunes like The View From Blue Mountain, in which the tuba provides the rhythmic drive, the band feels somewhat stiff, and I am left wondering if the tune would sound better with a bass instead of the tuba. Anyone who's played a tuba before can attest to the difficulties inherent in playing the types of bass lines Douglas writes on this album. Luckily, though, Douglas included Nasheet Waits, a regular of Jason Moran's trio, on drums for the album. Waits provides a propulsive lightness which often counteracts any moments of excess heaviness in the tuba.

This album might slip through the cracks when it comes time for year-end lists and awards. While it is decidedly unconventional, the album breaks little new ground and might not stand out for any other reason than its unusual instrumentation. However, there are few better ways to spend an afternoon than listening to Douglas' various takes on the history of jazz. For that, this album provides great fodder. You won't be disappointed.

BONUS: Greenleaf Music has posted some studio footage of the band playing The View From Blue Mountain.

Track Listing: This Love Affair; Orujo; The View from Blue Mountain; Twilight of the Dogs; Bowie; Rava; Fats; The Brass Ring; Mister Pitiful; Great Awakening; I'm So Lonesome I Could
Personnel: Dave Douglas, trumpet; Vincent Chancey, French horn; Luis Bonilla, trombone; Marcus Rojas, tuba; Nasheet Waits, drums

07 July 2009

How Not To Write Jazz Criticism

I'm a bit late to the party, but perhaps you've heard about this review of the Maria Schneider Orchestra's recent performance at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. It has everything jazz critics should avoid: including blatant misogyny, focusing on the histrionics of the performance instead of the actual music, and disdain for other members of the audience. Needless to say, it sparked a good deal of criticism from commenters at the Montreal Gazette (who published the review) and jazz bloggers.

James Hale said it best: "So, on behalf of professional jazz journalists everywhere: Thanks, Jeff. You just set back our cause beyond measure." At Rifftides, Doug Ramsey adds:
As jazz magazines go out of business and coverage budgets at general circulation publications dry up, one part of conventional journalism wisdom is that the web, specifically bloggers on the web, will take up the slack. Please don't let it disturb you if I point out that most bloggers work for nothing more than the challenge, the thrill, the contacts or the loss-leading benefits of using their blogs as adjuncts to whatever they do for a living. It would be a mistake to count on them (us) to provide the standards and oversight that print publishers are unwilling or unable to observe and practice. In journalism as in the rest of life, generally you get what you pay for.
I can't say I totally share Doug's pessimism. Bloggers (especially in the realms of sports and politics) have become notorious for their reputations as curmudgeonly spewers of invective and poor (and often absent) fact-checking (whether or not they deserve these reputations is another argument altogether that I will avoid here). However, being that jazz occupies a niche space in our culture, it seems to me that most jazz bloggers write mostly out of their love for the music. While this does not guarantee that dreck such as this Heinrich review will not appear from time to time, I like to think (perhaps too optimistically) that these bloggers-cum-enthusiasts will tend to govern themselves according to the standards of civility to which conventional journalists are held by their editors.

Meanwhile, this criticism of big band jazz made the rounds last week. I'll defer to Darcy James Argue and Ian of Villes Ville on their rebuttals to the piece; they defend big band jazz with passion and more effectively than I could hope to. Besides, I mention it here not to criticize Matt Rubin, the writer of the post, but rather point out that while his argument is critical, he does not resort to the nastiness of Heinrich's piece. He keeps a level head and stays focused on the music, in the way that I think most jazz bloggers (who actually care about jazz) would.

Lastly, I beg of you, my readers: please do not hesitate to put me in my place if I ever write something so terrible as Heinrich's takedown of Maria Schneider.

Now, in order for us all to cool off, let's watch a YouTube of Charles Lloyd with John Abercrombie, Marc Johnson, and Billy Hart.

04 July 2009

Thinking of Louis

Even though it's long been established that he wasn't actually born on the 4th of July, I always think of Louis Armstrong on the 4th (nothing wrong with a little mythologizing on a holiday). So happy birthday, Louis.

03 July 2009

Must Read

In The Weekly Standard, Joe Queenan tells a tale of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's days as a jazz musician. Some choice quotes follow. Greenspan brought a distinctive approach to improvisation, as told by Snooky Parnell:
"The Green Man [his nickname at the time] always played his arpeggios back to front, and in the subtonic key, which forced the listener to rethink his assumptions about where a solo should go," recalls Parnell, who played bass with Miles Davis, Art Tatum, and Thelonious Monk.
He also played well enough to impress Charles Mingus, who invited Greenspan to tour Europe with his octet after sitting in one night in San Francisco. But Greenspan could not handle the thought of not being the best saxophonist around, an insecurity which eventually led him to quit the music business:
It was September 14, 1949, and Greenspan found himself in the same Greenwich Village club as John Coltrane. Coltrane, a convivial sort, went out of his way to be friendly to the youngster, but Greenspan was having none of it. Sax at the ready, he challenged Coltrane to an onstage showdown. It was a mistake he would regret for the rest of his life.

"Trane smoked his ass," Parnell remembers. "Greenie foolishly tore into 'Cherokee,' Charlie Barnet's old standby, but Trane knew that tune inside out from his days in Kansas City. Greenie tried to keep up, but no chance. Trane didn't rile easily, but something about the way Greenie carried himself didn't suit John. Trane took him apart."

Read the full piece here.

h/t: jazz.com

02 July 2009

Review: Folk Art

Joe Lovano Us Five
Folk Art
On his newest album, Joe Lovano exhibits the adventurousness you would expect from someone who plays regularly with Paul Motian. Pianist James Weidman also stars here, soloing provocatively and banging out chords while comping in a manner evocative of McCoy Tyner. And bassist Esperanza Spaulding lays down an impressive foundation ornamented by dual drummers Francisco Mela and Otis Brown III. If he keeps this band together, it could quickly become one of the best working groups in jazz. Take a listen to the interplay on "Us Five."

At the risk of repeating myself, one of my favorite aspects of Joe Lovano's style is his luscious tone, which he derives as much from pre-Coltrane saxophonists like Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins as the usual influences. This alone makes checking him out worth it, but there is of course so much more to Lovano than his tone. He is a perhaps underrated titan of postmodern jazz, whose musical personality demands your attention.

Extra Credit: Jazz Video Guy Bret Primack gets a behind-the-scenes look at Lovano's quintet before a performance at the Village Vanguard.

Track Listing: Powerhouse; Folk Art; Wild Beauty; Us Five; Song for Judi; Drum Song; Dibango; Page 4; Ettenro
Personnel: Joe Lovano, saxophone; James Weidman, piano; Esperanza Spaulding, bass; Francisco Mela, Otis Brown III, drums