27 November 2008

Out of Office

I'm off to Miami for Thanksgiving weekend. Enjoy your holiday, here are some links...
  • Jazz Lives posted a copy of a letter Sonny Rollins sent to Coleman Hawkins in 1962.
  • On Rifftides, Doug Ramsey unearthed a great YouTube clip of the Bill Evans Trio in a 1966 Swedish television program. Bill speaks about the groups approach to improvisation, and the trio follows with a wonderful performance of "Emily."
  • The New Yorker briefly covers a lecture on cell biology, evolution, and cancer by Harold Varmus, which is accompanied by a jazz quintet led by his son Jacob Varmus. Perhaps next time he could arrange for the Giant Steps robot to open...
  • Over on Do The Math, The Bad Plus posted some choice photos from the Life Magazine collection newly hosted on Google. Here's one of my favorites after browsing the collection briefly: Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie on stage at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival.
  • NPR's All Songs Considered takes a look at the Beatles' White Album, which was released forty years ago this week. Host Bob Boilen interviews Beatles scholar Bruce Spizer, and shares some wonderful demos of songs from the album recorded in May of 1968 at George Harrison's house. Though they were not a jazz group, they were certainly influenced by jazz and left a sizable influence on jazz (would there have been fusion without the Beatles? Probably, but it would have been different, I think).
  • Again at Rifftides, here's a retelling of Paul Desmond's final birthday in 1976, which fell on Thanksgiving. He spent it with Jim Hall at Hall's daughter's apartment in New York City. After dinner, the two went to see Thelonious Monk at the Village Vanguard, later hanging out with Monk in the Vanguard's kitchen. I am a sucker for jazz-legends-as-regular-dudes stories like this, they make Desmond and Hall seem like Jerry and George meeting Kramer at the coffee shop...
  • Sharing a birthday with Desmond on Tuesday was Willie "The Lion" Smith (1897-1973). Here he is in Germany in 1966:

22 November 2008

Review: Radiolarians I

Medeski Martin & Wood
Radiolarians 1

Medeski Martin & Wood have been together for a long time - almost twenty years - so you can forgive them from shaking up their routine to keep things fresh and keep themselves interested. Whether that means bringing John Scofield into the fold for an album and tour, or releasing various side projects, these forays outside of the standard (if you could use that word to describe anything they do) MMW ouvre allow the trio to both pursue outside outlets of creativity and expand the repertoire that each member brings to the group.

This is the same process out of which sprang Radiolarians 1, the latest offering from the group. Foregoing their standard recording technique (relentless studio jamming edited into a group of tracks), the trio spent the first part of this year composing rough sketches of some new tunes, then let the compositions grow organically on tour before returning to the studio to record the newly-fleshed out tunes. Radiolarians 1 is intended as the first in a three-part series (you can imagine what the next two albums will be called). They named the album after a marine organism of the same name. According to the band's website, radiolaria "grow their intricately beautiful patterned skeleton around their soft core in defiance of normal biological process, similarly to Medeski Martin and Woods latest creative cycle."

The results of this process are quite satisfying. Like many other works from the trio, the tracks on Radiolarians 1 represent not only individual parts of a coherent whole but also captivating standalone pieces of music. The trio covers wide territory in each of the tracks, from the spacy New Orleans funk of "Free Go Lily" to the Jack Johnson-era Miles Davis back beat of "Cloud Wars." The process of slowly developing the individual songs in this album plays up some under-appreciated traits of the group. Medeski reminds us on "Free Go Lily" of how percussive his acoustic piano-playing is, lending extra rhythmic force on the tune – his percussiveness is easy to forget since he sticks to electric instruments so often. Wood is paradoxically light on his electric bass on the decidedly-heavy tune, "Reliquary." Martin displays his impish wit on "Sweet Pea Dreams."

This new recording process has served Medeski Martin & Wood well, allowing the three much time to dig in, explore, and develop their parts before putting them to record. The result is an exhilarating, fresh effort for the veteran trio, proving that theire well still produces after so many years together.

Track Listing: First Light; Cloud Wars; Muchas Gracias; Professor Nohair; Reliquary; Free Go Lily; Rolling Son; Sweet Pea Dreams; God Fire; Hidden Moon
Personnel: John Medeski, keyboards; Chris Wood, bass; Billy Martin, drums

10 November 2008

Sonny and Barack

With his election to the Presidency of the United States, Barack Obama is in some ways our first jazz president. Apart from the obvious metaphorical links between Obama and jazz (his cultural hybridity being foremost among them), Obama's intellectual and rhetorical style in some ways are reminiscent of the improvisational style of one of the few remaining old lions of jazz, Sonny Rollins. He may not be able to play a blues like Bill Clinton, but Obama's prose and oratory both bring to my mind the searching, spontaneous style often associated with Rollins.

In Sunday's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote of Obama,
Mr. Obama, unlike most politicians near a microphone, exults in complexity. He doesn’t condescend or oversimplify nearly as much as politicians often do, and he speaks in paragraphs rather than sound bites.
Similarly, when discussing a series of sample answers to law exams Obama gave as a law professor at the University of Chicago Slate's Emily Bazelon observed,
Obama's exam answers offer complex ruminations on some of the most contentious social and legal questions out there.
Both on the stump and in his writings, Obama offers a thoughtfully intellectual style which attempts to synthesize competing and contradictory thoughts into a coherent whole. Instead of glossing over evidence that works against him, Obama would often tackle these subjects head-on. His speech on race from earlier this spring is a prime example. While addressing his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama tackles the complexities of race in a country where he can be considered "too black" by some and "not black enough" by others. In the speech, he notably drew similarities between his own white grandmother and Wright by commenting on acts of each that could easily be construed as racist:
I can no more disown [Wright] than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
This statement is no garden-variety observation on race. Obama acknowledges the complexity of America's tangled racial past and reveals a thought process which allowed him to view the actions of others through multiple points of view before giving his opinion on those actions.

Obama's ease with which he weaves common themes between seemingly disparate subjects resembles the manner in which Sonny Rollins could fuse varied improvisational themes within a common thematic framework. Additionally, Obama's interrogatory thought process is mirrored in Rollins' improvisational method of parsing a phrase until he has exhausted its musical potential. The opening cadenza in the video below is a great example of Rollins' improvisational style. Listen to Sonny play with his phrases, modulating into different modes and segueing seamlessly between phrases.

Similarly, the improvisational style of Sonny Rollins combines the quintessence of spontaneity with an encyclopedic background knowledge. Rollins is noted for inserting surprising quotes into his solos in a way which suits the mood of the music at that specific moment without feeling forced. Here, too he shares this ability with Obama, who could stop on a dime to deliver an extemporaneous remark or sly observation. When discussing Dick Cheney's endorsement of John McCain last week, Obama paused as it began to rain at an outdoor rally in Ohio, "You notice what happened when I started talking about Dick Cheney. But a new day is dawning. Sunshine is on the way." This, to me is the rhetorical equivalent of one of my favorite moments of the Ken Burns jazz documentary, when a musician (I forget who) recounts a Sonny Rollins performance on the night before Easter. Well into a set, Sonny sees out of the corner of his eye that the clock has struck midnight, so he works in a quote from "Your Easter Bonnet." Obama shares with Rollins the improvisational wit which makes jazz the "sound of surprise."

I should be careful not to overstate these similarities. Indeed, I could simply be more likely to make this comparison between an intellectual politician and an intellectual musician simply because President-elect Obama's predecessor is singularly infamous for his anti-intellectualism. However, I like to think that these sensibilities that Obama shares with Rollins are indicative of a thoughtful approach to statesmanship and governance that hopefully will pay dividends in the years to come.

07 November 2008

Heads Up

I was linked once again at jazz.com. Thanks for the attention, it is much appreciated. I'll be posting again this weekend, in the meantime, here's Medeski Martin & Wood...