30 January 2010

Must Read

If you're snowed in like I am, take a look at David Hadju's New York Times essay on Fred Hersch's comeback. It is a detailed chronicle of Hersch's comeback from near death due to HIV complications, as well as an exploration of his style. It is worth your Sunday morning. However, I must quibble with his somewhat reductive take on the music of Hersch, Brad Mehldau, Vijay Iyer, and others. As Hadju describes it
A new movement in jazz has surfaced over the past few years — a wave of highly expressive music more concerned with emotion than with craft or virtuosity; a genre-blind music that casually mingles strains of pop, classical and folk musics from many cultures; an informal, elastic music unyielding to rigid conceptions of what jazz is supposed to be. It’s fair to call it "post-Marsalis," in that it leaves behind the defensive, canon-oriented musical conservatism of '90s jazz.
As a definition of the music for listeners not familiar with Hersch, this is an okay start. The value of emotional expression over all else works, and "post-Marsalis" gets the point across, but the whole definition feels a little anti-intellectual (which is most likely not his intent, I'm sure). Craft and virtuosity are still pretty important to Mehldau, Iverson, et al, but only as a means to an end, rather than an end itself. But that is but a minor disagreement in an otherwise solid piece.

Bonus: Follow it up with Nate Chinen's piece on Pat Metheny's new project, Orchestrion, along with some extra material on his blog.

27 January 2010

A Query

Yesterday Pat Metheny's latest album, Orchestrion, was released. I am a big fan of Metheny's straightahead work (I tend to ignore his Pat Metheny Group albums, just not my cup of tea), but I am a bit ambivalent as to whether I will be checking this one out. Since I am merely an amateur critic, I do not receive many promo CDs in the mail (especially from a major artist like Metheny). Hence, I pick and choose carefully which albums I review in this space. Having previewed some of the work on Orchestrion on the web (see below), I have a feeling that this album will quickly recede into the nether regions of my iTunes library, never to be heard from again.

The reason I have this suspicion is because Metheny is accompanied by robots, sort of. As he explains on his website, Metheny's backup band is "mechanically controlled in a variety of ways, using solenoids and pneumatics." I must admit that I am a little put off by the concept. It seems like in his effort to try something new, Metheny may have created an unholy amalgamation of machines and the proverbial one-man band. This strikes me as possibly antithetical to jazz and improvised music, in that the project removes much of the human interplay you would normally hear in a jazz ensemble.

Of course, I have not listened to the entire album, so I could very easily be wrong. But take a listen to a few of the YouTube samples below. Does Metheny succeed in mechanically replicating a full ensemble? Can these machines duplicate the rhythmic complexity of Metheny's music? Think of the stilted rhythms of a player piano - isn't there a reason we don't listen to them anymore? On a more philosophical note, do we want to live in a world where a human ensemble can be replaced by machines? Is this too modern for even the very modern Metheny? Should I quit my hand-wringing? I don't have all the answers, so I want to know what everyone else thinks. I look forward to hearing from you.

Upon listening to these two tracks this morning, I suspect that I would not be able to tell whether Metheny was playing all these instruments or if this is a Pat Metheny Group recording, so perhaps I should consider this a technological success. The jury is still out in my mind if it is an artistic success...

22 January 2010

Don't Be Afraid, The Clown's Afraid Too

Anthony Dean-Harris wrote a provocative post for Nextbop this week in which he poses a question: Is the jazz audience in America shrinking because potential new listeners are "turned off" by the arduous task of digesting the "imposing" history of the music? You should go read the full post, I'll wait.


I enjoyed seeing that someone else thinks about these things, and Anthony makes some good points here. More than almost any other kind of music, jazz is defined by its past, so much so that you may not even think of it as a living music if you didn't know any better.

However, I think Anthony veers off track when he writes, "They should hear the music of jazz’s past, not because it’s educational but because it’s entertaining in its own right." I do not disagree with his assertion, but rather I think that if we jazz enthusiasts are to help evangelize jazz, we will have to resist the temptation to recommend a laundry list of historical recordings as a means of introducing new listeners to the music (I'm not accusing Anthony of this, but merely trying to say we all should just back off a little bit). To draw on Anthony's analogy to rock music, I don't feel the need to couple a White Stripes recommendation with a Led Zeppelin album for historical perspective. I think the White Stripes catalog is good enough by itself without imploring someone to listen to the band's antecedents. Besides, anyone who wants to know more about the White Stripes' influences can easily get to Led Zeppelin on their own, and I think the analogy holds true if you were to replace the White Stripes and Led Zeppelin with Jason Moran and Jaki Byard.

The idea that history is an added burden to the task of expanding jazz listenership should not be discounted, not because jazz neophytes might be turned off by learning about the music's history, but because neophytes might already be buying into a specific master narrative of jazz that automatically dismisses the music as a museum piece. To put it another way, people do not ignore jazz because they don't want to learn about Duke Ellington or Miles Davis, they ignore jazz because they associate the music with dead people who are less likely to be relevant to them. This is one reason why A Blog Supreme's Jazz Now project was championed by so many other bloggers. At heart, we all understand that current jazz is thriving artistically, and that new listeners could easily love the music if we would just recommend something recorded by living musicians whose work contemporary world.

BONUS MATERIAL: Anthony's post reminded me of a thread that run's through Art Taylor's wonderful collection of interviews, Notes and Tones. Taylor asks each of his interviewees, including Miles Davis, Max Roach, Don Cherry, and Thelonious Monk, what they think about the word "jazz," eliciting all manners of discursive thoughts on the word and its not insignificant impact on the lives of individual musicians. If you haven't read this, it is worth an afternoon of your time, you can find a copy in the stacks of any college library with a decent music department, and some public libraries (or you could just shell out the ten bucks for your own copy).

19 January 2010

Media Criticism

On Friday, Seth Colter Walls made a suggestion on The Awl for NBC programming executives, who are in the middle of a bit of a crisis: Put some jazz on television. His point was obscured at times by a sheepish affectation, but I'll agree with his sentiment: "I was getting pretty excited about the show that somebody could put on TV, if they had the time on hand to hand around to people who know how to spend it."

In other news...
First, Ethan plays Stella by Starlight:

The Respect Sextet playing Furry With A Syringe on Top:

13 January 2010

Review: No More, No Less

Jason Parker Quartet
No More, No Less

Before I review, a disclosure. Jason Parker is a Twitter friend of mine. But then again, if I didn't like this album, I probably wouldn't bother reviewing it, so at least you'll know I'm sincere.

Parker, a seasoned veteran of the Seattle jazz scene, released his second album late last year. Like his self-titled debut, the new album features his regular quartet, which includes Josh Rawlings on piano, Evan Flory-Barnes on bass and D'Vonne Lewis on drums. Alongside Bashert, a Parker original, Parker & Co. tackle a number of standards, including the Sam Rivers classic Beatrice, as well as Nick Drake's Three Hours.

It's one thing to make some bold song choices, but following through with rewarding interpretations of those tunes can be a beast of a task, one at which Parker and his sidemen excel. On Love For Sale, the group sets up a bouncy groove before launching into the melody, giving fresh perspective to a familiar tune. Parker's amalgamation of Summertime and Footprints does the same, with Flory-Barnes and Lewis creating an elastic backdrop for Rawlings, Parker, and guest saxophonist Cynthia Mullis.

Overall, the album has the feel of a mid-60s Blue Note session: swinging and spontaneous while remaining tightly orchestrated. You can name your price for a download of the album at Jason's website. You may be tempted to grab it for free, but after listening to it, you will probably guiltily go back and give him some cash. It's ok, I'm pretty sure he'll be fine with that. Want more Jason Parker? Check out his blog, where you'll find thoughts on promoting his album, being inspired by Dizzy Gillespie, and government funding for jazz, among other subjects.

Track Listing: Bashert; Mance's Dance; Idle Moments; Three Hours; Love For Sale; Beatrice Summertime/Footprints
Personnel: Jason Parker, trumpet; Josh Rawlings, piano; Evan Flory-Barnes, bass; D'Vonne Lewis, drum; Cynthia Mullis, tenor saxophone (2,3,7)

06 January 2010

Reviews in Brief

Hooray for Amazon gift certificates, which allow me to play catchup on recently-released jazz at the end of the year. That concludes our Amazon ass-kissing segment.

Mulatu Astatke / The Heliocentrics
Inspiration Information 3

Moreso than just about any other jazz album this year, Atatke's latest effort flew completely under the radar this year, save for an extensive review on NPR's All Things Considered by Robert Christgau and a favorable NPR blog post by Bob Boilen. Neither of these two reviewers, it should be noted, are jazz critics. But then again, Inspiration Information is not a typical jazz record (indeed, Amazon.com lists it as a "Dance & DJ" album, not jazz). Instead, it is a tightly woven groove-oriented work that clearly reveals the influence of Astatke's collaborators, English funk band The Heliocentrics. Much of the album sounds like a Medeski Martin & Wood effort, had the American acid jazz trio grown up in sub-Saharan Africa.

And for the most part, it is a highly enjoyable album. Astatke and the Heliocentrics employ numerous vamps and grooves to create a little world in each tune. The arrangements utilize loops manually, with each instrument coming in and out at different intervals. The result is a very organic-sounding acid jazz band that sounds exciting on each track. The group also gets major bonus points for getting a harp and a cello to groove hard. Indeed, my only gripe is that many of the tracks feel too short.

Aaron Parks
Invisible Cinema

Most jazz bloggers are just about done catching up on everything they missed in 2009. I'm still working on 2008 (you know, with the day job and all...). So needless to say, my friend Eric was shocked to learn that I had not checked out Aaron Parks yet. Obviously, I was overdue.

His most recent effort is proof enough of his talent. Recording with bassist Matt Penmann and drummer Eric Harland, along with guitarist Mike Moreno, Parks creates an ethereal mood on most of these tracks, from the suspenseful tension of Travelers to the (comparatively) rollicking drive of Roadside Distraction. Like Astatke, Parks creates a little universe on each track, filling it with lots of detail in a way that is not overwhelming to comprehend.

Interesting fact that means nothing

Today is the anniversary of the deaths of Dizzy Gillespie (1993), Michel Petrucciani (1999), and Lou Rawls (2006).

On a brighter note, today is Gilbert Arenas' birthday. I only mention this because he's been known to rock an ascot a la Miles Davis.


01 January 2010

Happy New Year

Start it off right with Ethan Iverson's Hall Overton extravaganza at Do The Math. And just like that, my weekend is solid booked.

When you're done with that, relive TBP's New Year's hit at the Village Vanguard. 2010 is looking good so far...