23 September 2009

Dear John

Today is the 83rd anniversary of John Coltrane's birth. It has been over 40 years since he left us, but his influence is still felt as well as being a topic of debate. Earlier this week, Peter Hum pointed out that despite Coltrane's deification since his death, there are still critics who bemoan his influence on the saxophone and modern jazz. At A Blog Supreme, Patrick Jarenwattananon discussed the difficulties inherent in playing Coltrane's music, namely, "How do you learn from him, but not sound like him?" These are both interesting discussions, ones that Ben Ratliff engaged with in his recent Coltrane biography. I'd like to consider the question of Coltrane's influence a bit more, but I'll have to listen to a bunch of records and think about this for awhile. In the meantime, there is the music...

Photo via Jazz In PhOto

20 September 2009

A Non-Jazz Recommendation

My (vegetarian) chili recipe:

1 white onion
1 green bell pepper
3 carrots
3 stalks celery
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 habanero pepper
1 30 oz can black beans, drained
1 30 oz can pinto beans, drained
1 30 oz can crushed tomatoes
2+ Tbsp. chili powder
2 tsp. ground cumin
1/ tsp. garlic powder
  1. Dice first four ingredients, sweat over medium heat in olive oil.
  2. Mince the habanero (if you desire less heat, remove the seeds). Add to vegetables, continue sweating.
  3. Once vegetables are soft and onions are translucent, add remaining ingredients, simmer over low heat at least 30 minutes.
Serve over white rice, garnish with cheese or sour cream.
Serves 6ish meal portions or 12ish side portions

19 September 2009

Review: Double Booked

Robert Glasper
Double Booked

Occasionally when I listen to an artist that for some reason never entered my radar before, I am awarded a revelatory experience, after which I scramble to acquire as much of the artist's previous work as I can. Such is the case with Robert Glasper, the young pianist out of Houston who is causing quite a stir with his hip-hop-flavored jazz.

Like many young artists, Glasper's Facebook page lists a variety of major influences on his music, interspersing rapper J Dilla and the renowned rock band Radiohead among pianists Thelonious Monk and Chick Corea. However, unlike most jazz musicians with such ecumenical tastes, Glasper actively reflects these artists' influence in his work (quite literally in his rendition of Monk's "Think of One," in which he quotes the chord progression to Ahmad Jamal's "Swahililand," a tune that provided the backdrop for De La Soul's "Stakes Is High").

Double Booked is a two-part album; the first featuring Glasper's acoustic trio with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Chris Dave, the second featuring Glasper's Robert Glasper Experiment, a fusion band featuring Dave, saxophonist Casey Benjamin, and bassist Derrick Hodge. Neo-soul vocalist Bilal also appears on the album's final two tracks.

The acoustic portion of the album plays up Glasper's subtle touch on the piano and spare compositions. The chord changes to "No Worries" and "Downtime" provide a rough frame for their respective melodies. Glasper's way of weaving in and out of the changes during his solos on these tunes is vaguely reminiscent of Keith Jarret, while his touch reminds me of Vince Guaraldi's skill at running up and down the keyboard.

Glasper's trio is on par with those of Jason Moran and Brad Mehldau, which is to say that it is as good as any. Archer and Dave match Glasper's ebb and flow intuitively, reflective of a group that is totally at ease in musical conversation.

The electric portion of the album finds Glasper in another vein entirely, presenting a fusion band adapted for the 21st century. The band reworks the Herbie Hancock classic into a futuristic spaced-out jam that recalls fusion-era Hancock filtered through the jamband Vida Blue. Saxophonist Casey Benjamin manages to use the vocoder in a way that doesn't make it seem like an antique. As with the melody from "No Worries," the music on Butterfly provides a cushoiny sonic backdrop on which Glasper lays down a far-reaching but constrained solo.

The final two tracks on the album, as mentioned above, feature neo-soul singer Bilal, who manages to blend with a band in a way that makes him seem like a fifth instrumentalist, rather than a singer in front of a backing band. Credit for this is due both to Bilal, who does not try to monopolize the musical space, and Glasper, who constructed a platform for Bilal's vocals which frames his singing well while also retaining interest for its own sake.

Jazz.com recently asked if Robert Glasper can unite fans of jazz and hip hop. Perhaps Glasper is not explicitly aiming for this goal (I imagine his main intention is to simply create good music and sustain a fruitful career), but Double Booked certainly has as good a chance of drawing hip hop fans into jazz as any album I can think of. That's a pretty good accomplishment if you ask me.

Track Listing: Intro; No Worries; Yes I'm Country (And That's OK); Downtime; 59 South; Think of One; 4eva; Butterfly; Festival; For You; All Matter; Open Mind
Personnel: Robert Glasper, piano, keyboards; Casey Benjamin, saxophone, vocoder; Vincent Archer Derrick Hodge, bass; Chris Dave, drums; Bilal, vocals

Image via this is tomorrow

18 September 2009

Polka Dots and Moonbeams

Since I neglected to write anything about the Lester Young centennial, below are a few videos of Pres from YouTube. First, the 1944 short Jammin' The Blues, featuring Young, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Jo Jones, and others.

Below is Pres playing Pennies from Heaven in 1950 with Con Bill Harris, Hank Jones, Ray Brown, and Buddy Rich.

Finally, below is a recording of Young playing Polka Dots and Moonbeams with the Count Basie big band at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. In his Lester Young remembrance, Ethan Iverson said of the performance,
My god, if you aren’t moved by this you have a heart of stone. Young interfaces with the complicated big band chart behind him beautifully. (It’s reminiscent of Charlie Parker in a similar situation with a complicated chart on “My Foolish Things” on One Night In Washington.) Young’s secure aria over the opulence makes one regret that he never made the album with strings like he wanted to.
I totally agree.

16 September 2009

My Jazz Now

A Blog Supreme is running a series called Jazz Now, in which the ABS team and friends recommend five albums each from the past ten years to nascent jazz listeners. For a complete explanation of the project, go here. Patrick Jarenwattananon kicked things off with his five today, and asked for audience participation as well. So below are the five albums I would recommend to somebody looking to get into current jazz, in order of date released.

1. Dave Holland Quintet: Prime Directive (2000). Holland is the Art Blakey of the modern postbop scene, assembling an array of talented younger players to augment his bands, which have become a kind of graduate school in jazz performance.

2. Jason Moran: Modernistic (2002). Moran's reimagining of the James P. Johnson classic "You've Got to Be Modernistic" is worth the price of the disc alone. Moran has an uncanny ability of packing the entire history of jazz piano into his style while keeping it fresh and surprising the listener at every turn.

3. Happy Apple: Youth Oriented (2003). As I wrote in this space last year, Happy Apple
expands the boundaries of jazz, incorporating rock and avant-garde influences while allowing plenty of room for individual and group improvisation. Their work is often exhilarating, and very rewarding to those who can stomach a little chaos.

4. The Bad Plus: Prog (2007). The Bad Plus appear to be a popular group for these lists. These Are The Vistas is my favorite album of theirs, but that one has been chosen by a few people already, so I will go with Prog instead, which features some choice covers and great originals.

5. Robert Glasper: Double Booked (2009). I'll be posting a review of this album later in the week, but suffice it to say that I've already recommended this album to a few friends who don't really listen to much jazz.

Honorable Mentions
The Bad Plus: These Are The Vistas
Paul Motian: Time and Time Again
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society: Infernal Machines
Medeski Martin & Wood: Tonic
Chris Potter: Follow the Red Line
Wayne Shorter: Footprints Live

You can read the entire Jazz Now series at A Blog Supreme (image via NPR).

07 September 2009

Happy Birthday Sonny

Review: Radiolarians III

Medeski Martin & Wood
Radiolarians III

I've already explain the background information on the Radiolarians series in my reviews of the first two installments, so I'll get straight to the music.

Each entry in the series has had a different identity than the others. The first contained a hodgepodge of styles separated into individual tracks, while I called the second more of a jamband album. Radiolarians III veers into jamband territory as well, but it feels more like classic Medeski Martin & Wood material. Longtime fans of the group would probably like the third installment the best, as tunes like Walk Back and Chantes Des Femmes sound like quintessential MMW.

Like the first two albums in the series, John Medeski plays a lot more acoustic piano than we are used to hearing him play, and again I am impressed with his style. He plays the piano like a drum, playing rhythmic foil to drummer Billy Martin and Chris Wood. Conceptually, this band is reminiscent of an African drum ensemble, playing intense polyrhythms against each other to create dense clusters of beats. The results are often riveting, as on the Latin tinged Jean's Scene.

Radiolarians III is probably my least favorite of the series, but regardless it has entered the heavy rotation list on my iPod. Even when they are not at the very top of their game, Medeski Martin & Wood fail to disappoint. In the process, they so often fulfill the promise of jazz as outlined by Ralph Ellison, that the music can put themselves directly in the present moment, where they can reflect on the past while also looking forward.

Track Listing: Chantes Des Femmes; Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down; Kota; Undone; Wonton; Walk Back; Jean's Scene; Broken Mirror; Gwyra Mi
Personnel: John Medeski, piano, keyboards; Chris Wood, bass; Billy Martin, drums, percussion

02 September 2009

List: Under-the-Radar Live Albums

If you want to really experience jazz, you must see it live. With that in mind, record labels have been churning out live albums at a steady pace for as long as the technology existed to make high-quality recordings of live performances. Below are some of my favorite live albums that you might not have listened to yet.

One quick qualification: I'm going for underrated and lesser-known live albums on this list. Everyone knows about the Coltrane Village Vanguard recordings and Miles at the Plugged Nickel, so why repeat what's already been written? Here is the list, in chronological order...
  1. Art Blakey: A Night at Birdland, Volumes 1 and 2 (1954). Come for the early incarnation of the Jazz Messengers, stay for the Clifford Brown. Brownie tore it up on this night in 1954, and his solos on Confirmation, Once in a While, and A Night In Tunisia are among the best he ever put on record. Not the most obscure choice to lead off the list, but it was also one of the first albums I ever bought, so I threw it in.
  2. Count Basis: Count Basie at Newport (1957). To quote Ethan Iverson, "My advice is merely: listen to it. You want to know what jazz is? This is fucking jazz." Lester Young and Jo Jones sit in for an extended guest appearance; Illinois Jacquet, Roy Eldridge, and Jimmy Rushing also make guest appearances.
  3. Miles Davis: At Newport 1958. Miles has many great live albums in his catalog, so it's no surprise this one isn't mentioned more often. However, there aren't many live offerings of Miles with Cannonball and Coltrane, so this one is essential, methinks. Throw in Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb, and you've got a great set. Mr. P.C.'s bass solo on Straight, No Chaser is sublime. Plus, the album cover features Miles in his sartorial splendor.
  4. Cannonball Adderley: Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco (1959). Quintessential hard bop from some of the masters. Cannon & Co.'s take on Spontaneous Combustion is some of the best 12 minutes on record.
  5. Eric Dolphy: Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, Vol. 1 (1961). Dolphy with Booker Little, Mal Waldron, Richard Davis, and Ed Blackwell, need I say more? More than any other album on this list, I revisit this recording again and again, and each time I am amazed at the unfulfilled potential of Dolphy and Little. Who knows what heights they may have scaled had they not died too young? Volume 2 is also available.
  6. Elvin Jones: Live at the Lighthouse, Volumes 1 and 2 (1972). Perhaps if someone had given a copy of these albums to Ken Burns, he would not have alleged that jazz "went away for awhile" during the 1970s.
  7. Old and New Dreams: Playing (1980). I was made aware of this one by Destination Out, and I am better off now that I know it exists. Brilliant free jazz from Dewey Redman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell.
  8. Keith Jarrett Standards Trio: Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note (1994). Jarrett's trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette have a ton of live recordings out there, but this one is my favorite, taken from a three-night stand at New York's Blue Note in 1994. Bonus quote from Amazon reviewer Stephen A. Smith: "Keith Jarrett's trio is the McDonald's of jazz. Its greatest sales asset is consistency."
  9. Pat Metheny: Tokyo Day Trip - Live EP (2008). I've gushed about this one enough already.
These are just some of my favorites, feel free to tell me what I missed in the comments.

Extra Credit: See also the recommended recordings on last year's list of top working ensembles.

All images via jazz.com except Live at the Lighthouse via inconstantsol.blogspot.com.