29 December 2010

The Death of Smooth Jazz

"We were one of the last smooth jazz stations to bail on the format. But it's been in trouble for a while. There’s been a shift in the industry, where the quantity of listeners became more important than the quality of listeners. The radio stations that have lots of listeners, regardless of how long they listen, will be rewarded, and the stations whose listeners listen passionately aren’t rewarded. The 'JZA listeners weren’t button-pushers."
Read the whole thing here, via Marginal Revolution.

Billy Taylor

I don't have much to say about Billy Taylor, who died yesterday. But his importance in the development of jazz studies as an academic discipline cannot be understated. His writing on the subject and work in promoting jazz as art to be taken seriously was crucial to the transformation of the perception of jazz (beginning after World War II with important antecedents from the swing era) from popular dance music to an art form. However, Taylor did not fully subscribe to that dichotomy, often finding a point in his music and writing between art and entertainment that disappointed few.

Below, Taylor discusses cool jazz in the 1950s miniseries The Subject Is Jazz:

23 December 2010

2010 In Review

Tomorrow I'm off to Miami for the holiday, so I will leave you with my year-end roundup. As the usual disclaimer goes, since I am but an amateur critic, I only review a handful of albums released in a given year, so be sure to check out the best-of lists of the more than capable critics after the break. But before that, here are the albums which I enjoyed the most in 2010, in alphabetical order by artist:
Also, some of my favorite nonjazz of 2010:
And below the break, the compilation of critics' lists. [more]

21 December 2010


  1. Avishai Cohen - Art Deco
  2. Jason Moran & Stefon Harris - Beatrice
  3. Medeski Martin & Wood - Partido Alto
  4. Paul Motian, Bill Frisell & Joe Lovano - Dance
  5. Charles Mingus - Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues
  6. Chris Potter - Okinawa
  7. Miles Davis - Freedom Jazz Dance
  8. Vijay Iyer - Fleurette Africaine
  9. Miroslav Vitous - Carry On, No. 1
    Winter by dave6834

09 December 2010

James Moody

The only unfortunate part about writing a jazz blog is the fact that it often entails eulogizing, and tonight calls for it. James Moody, the saxophonist whose playing graced the records of Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Barron, to say nothing of his own recordings, passed away today, succumbing to the pancreatic cancer which had overtaken his body. Lee Mergner posted Moody's obituary at JazzTimes this evening.

The jazz world has lost yet another link to the so-called glory days, but that sentiment sells Moody short as a musician and a man. In 2002 I came home to Miami from the University of Florida one weekend in October to see Moody play a guest concert with the University of Miami Concert Jazz Band. He killed it that night. Playing with the energy of a man less than half his age, his beaming wit was clearly evident in his playing. My memory of the night is hazy, but I do remember being blown away by a rendition of Body and Soul, played with the Miami faculty ensemble to open the evening. I left Gusman Hall in Coral Gables floored by his performance; as a septuagenarian he played with fire, precision, and levity which most of us couldn't dream of pulling off. Even in the winter of his years he still had it. Though I was saddened to hear of his passing, I can at least console myself with the luck that I was able to enjoy the fruits of his passion and dedication to art firsthand. The world is a lesser place without him.

07 December 2010

Review: Solo

Vijay Iyer

The solo album has long been an obligatory statement of artistic mastery for jazz pianists. Though there have been slight tweaks to the format (see for instance Bill Evans' Conversations With Myself or Charles Mingus' Mingus Plays Piano), it remains relatively unchanged: equal parts original tunes and standards that the pianist can stretch and mold into entirely new creations. I can't think of any major pianist over the age of 35 who has not released a solo album, it seems like one cannot be taken seriously as a jazz master without taking the plunge into unaccompanied expression. In his electronic press kit accompanying the album, Iyer called the project "the ultimate reveal," and "the most personal statement I could possible issue." I couldn't agree more. It is also a big risk. Not even Sonny Rollins can escape accusations of a subpar solo album (I know, bad analogy, since Sonny is a saxophonist and the solo album hasn't hurt his legacy). Upon multiple listens, though, I don't think Iyer has to worry about that.

In the past decade, one additional component has made its way into the solo piano album: the pop cover.* On Solo, Iyer chose to lead the album off with his version of Michael Jackson's Human Nature. I'm not much of a Micheal Jackson fan (which apparently is heresy for someone of my age, but whatevs), and Human Nature is not one of the MJ tunes I would ever throw on my iPod, but I do enjoy Iyer's rendition.

Iyer commences with a dazzling version of Thelonious Monk's Epistrophy, trading in Monk's easy swing for an intense, driving syncopation. The melody of Epistrophy, featuring Monk's trademark chromaticism, has a touch of drama, but Iyer accentuates the dramatic. His left hand is especially heavy, while the right moves at a breakneck pace. It is by far the most exhilarating version of the tune I have heard, and repeated listens have not made the excitement fade. The first third of the album concludes with two more standards, the DeLange/Van Heusen classic Darn That Dream and Duke Ellington's showpiece for Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton, Black and Tan Fantasy. Black and Tan, with its plungered trumpet and trombone duet, is an especially odd choice for solo piano. How can a rigid instrument match Miley's manipulation of the trumpet which approaches the sound of the human voice? Iyer opts to play the tune as Ellington might have played it, in a dirge-like stride style reminiscent of Ellington's hero, Willie "The Lion" Smith. The result allows the tune itself to take center stage. Iyer is content to allow the harmonies shine, and his adherence to the stride style in his version manage to open up a rich world of improvisation without making the tune sound quaint.

Iyer bookends the album with another Ellington composition, Fleurette Africaine, followed by One For Blount, a blues dedicated to Sun Ra. As with Black & Tan Fantasy, Iyer plays the melody of Fleurette Africaine relatively straight, content to marvel at the beauty of Ellington's harmony. Iyer accentuates the ironic darkness of the melody, giving added weight to the tune. It is an underrated piece of the Ellington canon, and I'm glad Iyer decided to record it.

As captivating as his versions of other people's tunes are on Solo, it is Iyer's originals, covering the middle third of the album, which really shine. As with much of his other work, these tunes are highly improvisational but push the boundaries of postbop (in some cases ignoring them completely). Prelude: Heartpiece is an exploration of consonance and dissonance, comprised of a simple three-note phrase over a pulsing bass line, alternately building and releasing tension. It is followed by Autoscopy, a frantic composition of startling energy that is half Cecil Taylor energy, half ostinato. Iyer shocks you to attention, then lulls you into a peaceful slumber which segues into Patterns, the highlight of the album in my mind. Iyer slowly constructs the main theme, sustaining individual notes of the melody for the first 90 seconds before stating the melody. The independence of the right hand from the left is astonishing, against a sequence of triplets in the treble clef, Iyer plays a syncopated staccato rhythm with his left hand that both disrupts and propels the melody. This accompaniment persists in some form or another throughout the tune, grounding Iyers flights across the keyboard and giving a thematic unity to the eight-minute piece which sounds more like a multimovement suite than a single tune. At times calmly melodic, at others reflecting Iyer's scientific background through the exploration of fractured motifs, it is a microcosm of the album, fulfilling Iyer's characterization of "the ultimate reveal."

Bonus Material: EPK

Personnel: Vijay Iyer, piano
Track Listing: Human Nature; Epistrophy; Darn That Dream; Black and Tan Fantasy; Prelude: Heartpiece; Autoscopy; Patterns; Desiring; Games; Fleurette Africaine; One For Blount

*This is not entirely new, since pianists playing Tin Pan Alley tunes in the postwar years were playing pop tunes. In this context, a pop tune refers to a non-Tin Pan Alley song written in the recent past (e.g. Jason Moran's version of Planet Rock).

06 December 2010

Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck turns 90 today, so I'll be listening to Time Out while I make dinner this evening. Two years ago, I wrote this about his landmark 1959 album Time Out:
The time-signature experiments of Time Out were never extrapolated by anyone else the way Miles Davis' modal experiments on Kind of Blue or Ornette Coleman's breaking of harmonic barriers on The Shape of Jazz To Come were. Perhaps this is why it given secondary position to these other works in The Jazz Tradition. Remove the nonstandard time signatures, and the album is still enjoyable, but is not progressive, in the sense that it did not present a drastically new way of playing jazz for other musicians to draw on and evolve. It is still full of surprises, and presents new layers upon further listening, but in the constructed Jazz Tradition, it does not provide trajectory, save for introducing the music to thousands of suburban college students (which is no small feat indeed). 
Read the whole piece here. Happy birthday, Dave.

02 December 2010

Grammy Awards

Grammy Award nominations came out this week, and while I usually wouldn't bother, it is worth noting that Esperanza Spaulding was nominated for Best New Artist. While I doubt she'll win (the award will probably go to Justin Bieber or Drake, unfortunately), at least The Recording Academy is taking jazz seriously, and not fully ghettoizing the music in its own category. Chalk up a point for the "Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny" camp. You can view the jazz nominations here.