30 January 2011

Milton Babbitt

Farewell to an iconoclast. Read his obituary here. From Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise:
Thick dissonances are rare; like Japanese drawings, Babbitt's scores are full of empty space. What's more, the harmonies are in many places surprisingly simple and sweet. Six bars into the second of the Three Compositions for Piano there is, out of nowhere, a loud B-flat major triad. Before you can come to terms with the psychological effects of such "tonal puns," they disappear, like half-familiar faces in a crowd. This rigorously organized music ends up feeling mysteriously prankish, antic, loosey-goosey; it shuffles and shimmies like jazz from another planet. (pp. 403-404)

See also the jazz-influenced side of Babbitt, in All Set for jazz ensemble:

29 January 2011

List: Jazz and the Single Man

Floating around social networks this week was an essay by Jason Moran listing five essential jazz albums (recorded by living musicians - so you could actually see them live) every man should own. Why should he own these albums? To impress women,* of course. Here is Moran's list. I think it's a good start, but it veers into jazz boyfriend territory (Ornette? Free Jazz? I don't know many people of either sex who can handle Ornette, bless their simple hearts and minds). So in the interest of choice, here's my list of 5 jazz albums every single man should own.

Robert Glasper, Double Booked. Moran and I agree on this one. Glasper's deftly amalgamated jazz, with flourishes of hip hop, fusion, funk, and postbop, can hook anyone who claims ignorance on modern jazz. I've been touting this album to my friends for the past two years, and it connects with just about everyone. Plus, Glasper tours with Maxwell, a spoonful of sugar to hide preconceived notions about jazz if ever there was one.

Greg Osby, Jason Moran, et al, New Directions. Sadly out of print, but there are copies to be had on Amazon. Not a bad choice to play for someone who is at least a little familiar with jazz, since they would likely recognize a few of the reworked classics from the Blue Note era on this disc. I highly recommend the Moran-Stefon Harris duet on Sam Rivers' Beatrice.

Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus. Moran picks a great Wayne Shorter album, but I was always more of a Sonny guy myself, and if a lady can't dig Newk, then she is most definitely not worth your time.

Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, Time And Time Again. For quiet moments, you can't beat the master of subtle intensity. Frisell's atmospheric guitarisms set the mood for Lovano's gruff tenderness. This trio to me embodies a particular strain of masculinity that is equal parts vulnerable and assertive.And no other group better demonstrates the sublime intensity of free improvisation, despite playing such pretty music.

Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood, Out Louder. Sometimes you have to dance. This should do the trick.

*Would a list of jazz albums for women to impress men look a lot different? What about jazz for gay men or lesbians? Obviously the answer is yes, but I'm pleading ignorance here.

28 January 2011

Blue Note T-shirts

Via Peter Hum, Blue Note t-shirts. Alas, the site selling them is in Japan, so you'll need the aid of a translator to make the order. But 22 designs are available from Uniqlo, including Sonny Clark's Cool Struttin, Joe Henderson's In 'n' Out, and Jackie McLean's Let Freedom Ring. Solid.

23 January 2011

An Oral Tradition

A blog post from James Hale this week had me reconsidering a question which I had wanted to ponder in a blog post awhile back, but eventually decided it wouldn't be worth the effort. At Jazz Chronicles, Hale asks, "Is 'Jazz' A Dated Term?" The impetus for this question was an ostensibly heated debate at a Jazz Journalists Association conference panel entitled "The State of Jazz Journalism" (any panel titled The State of _______ foreshadows contentious debate that may not be worth it, in my opinion). Alex Rodriguez responded to the post and posted his thoughts on the subject as well. Rodriguez contends that jazz journalists and critics share a responsibility to help the jazz audience (which is "sort of like a big, dysfunctional family") achieve balance in its understanding of the music, navigating between the poles of an ahistorical and "only-historical" approach to understanding jazz. I'm left with the intention to simply ignore both poles in favor of a different analytical framework altogether.

My only reservation about writing a jazz blog is that jazz writing is surrounded by this aura of responsibility. Jazz writers and critics are assigned (or assign themselves) a gatekeeper role which is unmatched in most areas of music journalism. Classical critics are superseded in this role by repertory, rock and hip hop critics by a more easily-arrived-at definition of the musics they cover (I'm overgeneralizing here, but bear with me). I follow a lot of indie rock blogs, and I can't recall any of them ever contending with the existential dilemmas that jazz bloggers address every few months or so. To mention just one example, nobody batted an eye when Gorilla vs. Bear included albums by Beach House, Big Boi, Arcade Fire, and Erykah Badu on its 2010 albums of the year list, even though those four artists occupy vastly different corners of the music world. I can't think of any jazz blog that included nonjazz on its year-end list (even my own list was divided into jazz and nonjazz). What strikes me about this is that probably not many people would mind if someone did this, but jazz bloggers effectively policed themselves, driven by the self-imposed responsibility to promote jazz ahead of other types of music (ostensibly because jazz is always dying, or at best, holding steady). The irony here, of course, is that the jazz world is such a complex ecosystem, a place where Wynton Marsalis, the Robert Glasper Experiment, and any number of swing, traditional jazz/Dixieland, postbop, neobop, acid jazz, and jazz-rock artists can coexist on a single record-store shelf. Adding a layer of segregation to year-end lists seems arbitrary to a silly degree.

But I digress. On the question of jazz being an outdated term or an inadequate genre signifier, I must confess that the word has a continually decreasing utility to me except as a quick and dirty signifier when people ask me what kind of music I like. When I reply "jazz," the conversation never goes in the same direction, because the fact is, stories of the death of jazz to the contrary, most people know what jazz is, and a surprising number of them have at least some jazz artist they can count among their favorite musicians, be it a singer like Nina Simone or Billie Holiday, a deceased legend like Miles Davis or Charlie Parker, or a current act like Medeski Martin and Wood or Esperanza Spaulding. This is because jazz remains an oral history with many branches, one with the "only-historical" approach to understanding the music already incorporated into individual artists' personalities and musical background. It may not be immediately obvious to everyone who hears the music (indeed, you can't really hear jazz until you've listened to a lot of it first).

Indeed, Rodriguez makes this point when he champions Jason Moran, whose music "starts from a historical place." Moran is not the only artist whose music is historicized. In a recent interview, Vijay Iyer (who titled a recent album Historicity, in case you were wondering how he grounded his approach) said of jazz:
I don't think of it as a style even. I think of it as a community of people who are invested in it. And I also think of it as a body of knowledge. You can say it's a history of ideas, and also, a history of actions. I think part of what's happened is that its reason for existing has transformed in terms of who's involved and why.
I am tempted to block-quote his entire answer, but he goes into a lot of detail, so I'll paraphrase here. Iyer notes that because the socio-economic circumstances upon which jazz was built have changed (i.e. jazz musicians for the most part no longer come from an oppressed minority whose avenues for artistic self expression were limited by society), jazz itself has changed, and has grown and diversified to the point that the word cannot contain the music anymore. But even still, jazz musicians are still striving towards an expression of the self that feels "in its own small way impossible." For Iyer, this is connected to his own status as a man born from first-generation Indian immigrants, creating a new identity of the South Asian-American jazz musician. For someone else, there is another identity to invent. Because jazz is a music of invention, as time moves on the inventions multiply into a fractal of multitudes which may not all sound alike, but nonetheless remain jazz. They are born into the same tradition, but take it places that make sense to them.

I am reminded of what Esperanza Spalding told Anthony Dean-Harris in an interview last year:

We need all the aspects of it [jazz] and that’s okay. We need the Wynton Marsalis and we need the Anthony Braxton and we need a Chris Botti and we need Christian Scott. We need a Ledisi and we need a Rachelle Ferrell. We need everything... We need it all because that word doesn’t belong to anybody anymore. It’s become so broad that to me the only element of that word that has any meaning universally is just improvisation. Jazz can be anything but maybe the only element that's there across the board is that people are creating it in the moment.
Improvisation, too, but that is merely the tool for the self-examination and expression which unite the myriad sub-genres which constitute jazz in the 21st century. I'm going to take a break from the big-picture questions for awhile, but when the other debate making the rounds is whether or not Keith Jarrett is an asshole (and he is), I'll choose the big-picture topic anytime.

photo via

22 January 2011


Vijay Iyer, on playing the material from his recent solo album live:
I'm taking more risks with it and feel empowered to do that. There's a version of it that exists that's fairly stable that someone can revisit if they want, but now I don't have to do that -- now, I can do something else with it. It makes me want to transform it and try new things with it. For example, taking some of the Solo material and playing it with the trio. We've arrived at a related, but a very different arrangement of "Human Nature" that has its own dimensions to it that are kind of hinted at on the Solo record. Playing live with people in the same room as you is just a different experience than setting down a document of a studio performance because it's so much more about connecting in real time with the people around. I might be impelled to push my playing or push the structure of the music in a way that's more disruptive or more active or just sort of has more of a gravity to it, so that it really becomes an event in the course of a performance rather than just another song on an album. That sort of hints at what the differences are of playing live… it's hard to explain [laughs]. You have to be there.
Read the whole thing here.

18 January 2011

Review: Saturn Sings

Mary Halvorson Quintet
Saturn Sings

I must admit that I am wary of jazz guitarists. I am not too sure why, but I do not have many current guitarists in my iTunes library (those I have are the ones you'd expect: Metheny, Scofield, Frisell). I'm not an anti-guitar guy; I loved Matt Stevens' contributions to Christian Scott's Yesterday You Said Tomorrow and one of my favorite albums of 2010, Polar Bear's Peepers, featured a guitar-heavy rhythm section. But for some reason, I rarely seek out guitar-driven albums. For me to take notice of a new guitarist, the guitarist usually needs to do something I have not seen or heard before. Such is the case with Mary Halvorson, whose latest effort, Saturn Sings, features a unique approach both to the guitar and composition in particular. Sometimes accompanied by trumpeter Jonathan Finalyson and saxophonist Jon Irabagon, other times just with bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith, Halvorson weaves together ten songs that take surprising turns, utilize unconventional meters, and flow with idiosyncratic phrasing. The result keeps me coming back for repeated listens, looking for new moments of beauty uncovered with each tick on the playcount.

Her band includes strong personalities, like Thelonious Monk Competition winner Iarabagon, but this album is clearly Halvorson's show. The tunes are so completely her own (though I can hear flashes of inspiration from Mingus and Shorter, among others), that even her sidemen's solos are colored by her compositional style. Rather than sublimating themselves into her footprint, the sidemen get inside her style, speaking her language while expressing their own thoughts (see for instance Irabagon's solo on Crack In Sky). Halvorson's own playing is dexterous. Halvorson can shift from a flurry of runs along the fretboard into an amelodic thunder of guitarisms utilizing effects pedals and the whammy bar that are truly unique. One thing she does that delights me is the way she makes her intense noises sound whimsical. She produces a wonderful cacophony of sounds both inside and outside the harmonic structure, but her playing contains a playful element which keeps me coming back to this album. I've often thought that a major problem facing jazz today is the fetishization of the new at the expense of music which may not be cutting edge but is nonetheless well-executed and fresh. Saturn Sings has both the excitement of the new and the polish of a veteran group. I can't wait to hear what's next, but I won't tire of the recent offering for a while.

Halvorson plays Sea Seizure (No. 19) at the 2010 Saalfelden Jazz Festival

Personnel: Mary Halvorson, guitar; Jonathan Finalyson, trumpet; Jon Irabagon, alto saxophone; John Hébert, bass; Ches Smith, drums
Track Listing: Leak Over Six Five (No. 14); Sequential Tears In It (No. 20); Mile High Like (No. 16); Moon Traps In Seven Rings (No. 17); Sea Seizure (No. 19); Crack In Sky (No. 11); Right Size Too Little (No. 12); Crescent White Singe (No. 13); Cold Mirrors (No. 15); Saturn Sings (No. 18)

17 January 2011

Dr. King

Commemorating Martin Luther King Day, I'd like to repost Dr. King's words about jazz from the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival:
God has brought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create - and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.

Modern Jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of "racial identity" as a problem for a multi-racial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down. And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.
Also, below is Robert Glasper's Enoch's (Inaugural) Meditation, which uses clips from Martin Luther King's 1966 "We Shall Overcome" speech, Barack Obama's presidential election night victory speech from Grant Park in Chicago, and a clip of Cornel West on music.

15 January 2011

Weekend Reading

I want to stimulate them instead of asking them simply to accompany me in front of the public. But I find that it's very difficult to do, because the jazz musician is probably the only person for whom the composer is not a very interesting individual, in the sense that he prefers to destroy what the composer writes or says.
Most people thought that I just picked up my saxophone and played whatever was going through my head, without following any rule, but that wasn't true.
-Ornette Coleman to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in an interview for the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles, 1997. Read the whole thing here.

14 January 2011

Mingus Tweets

Charles Mingus left us 32 years ago last week, succumbing to Lou Gehrig's Disease. Sometimes I think of which dead jazz musicians would have been great on Twitter, and if I could pick one person to resurrect solely for the purpose of reading his tweets, it would be Charles Mingus. I'm surely not the first person to wish Twitter had been around during the life of a particular historical figure. The social networking tool can be a gold mine when placed in the hands of the right celebrity or public figure (it can also be an entertaining train wreck or a dull bore, but I digress). A Mingus Twitter account would have been equal parts Angry Keith Jarrett (a fictional account), Cornel West, and Kanye. Why do I think this is the case? I've read Mingus' wild memoir, Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus. Written during the 1960s, the book is structured as a conversation with Mingus' therapist, and covers his sex life, thoughts on race and American society, and his contentious upbringing. The first draft was a 1,500-page manuscript, the published version was edited down to a little under 400 pages.

Below is a sample of what I think @Mingus would have been like. All the quotes are presented context-free, sometimes in more than 140 characters.
  • They shouldn't have stopped! They're all wrong--I was right! (p. 31)
  • "Fuck all you pathetic prejudiced cocksuckers," he thought. "I dig minds, inside and out. No race, no color, no sex. Don't show me no kind of skin 'cause I can see right through to the hate in your little undeveloped souls." (p. 66)
  • I don't ever want to stop thinking, it's the only way I can go forward. (p. 107)
  • [Fats Navarro to Mingus]: Jazz ain't supposed to make nobody no millions but that's where it's at. Them that shouldn't is raking it in but the purest are out in the street with me and Bird and it rains all over us, man.(p. 189)
  • I tried being a pimp, Fats. I didn't like it. (p. 191)
  • White cats take our music and make more money out of it than we ever did or do now! (p. 352)
  • Someday one of us put-down, outcast makers of jazz music should show those church-going clock-punchers that people like Monk and Bird are dying for what they believe. (p. 360)

07 January 2011

Friday Album Cover: Best of 2010

Inspired by the good folks at Accujazz, I decided to throw in my 2 cents and list my favorite album covers of 2010, with some commentary where applicable. As I've mentioned before, good album art cannot make up for bad music, but a good cover can give an album I like some extra juice. Below are my picks.

Jason Moran
A throwback to the classic Blue Note album covers of the 1960s, with sans serif typography and a minimalist design. What's not to love?

The rest of my picks after the jump.

06 January 2011


Via John Dickerson:
Reading this by Morgan Beis in The Smart Set:

Criticism does not stand outside the work of art, but stands alongside, maybe even inside, the work of art, participating in the work in order to further express and tease out what the artist already put there. In this theory of criticism, we don't need the critic to tell us what is good or bad, to tell us what to like and dislike. We need the critic, instead, to help us experience. We need the critic in the way that we need a friend or a lover. We need the critic as a companion on a journey that is a love affair with the things of the world. Benjamin once referred to this form of criticism as "the first form of criticism that refuses to judge." The primary virtue of this kind of criticism is its inherent generosity. It wants to make experience bigger, it wants to make each work of art as rich as it can possibly be. Its sole medium, as Benjamin put it, is "the life, the ongoing life, of the works themselves."

I was reminded of this quote from Greil Marcus' from his new book on Bob Dylan:

"I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant," writes Marcus, "I was interested in figuring out my response to them and other people's responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it-- I wanted to get inside it, behind it."
I couldn't have put it any better myself. I've lost my blogging momentum over the past few months (which happens about once or twice a year for me, it seems), but after reading that my sense of purpose is restored. More to come this weekend.

One last thing about year-end lists

When compiling my own year-end compendium, I forgot one important fact: Francis Davis does the same thing for the Village Voice, and his ranking of albums culls from a larger list of critics than mine, so I must defer to him. Not that I mind letting someone else do the yeoman's work...