30 June 2010

Yes, Yes, A Thousand Times Yes

I never wrote that promised response to the latest volleys in the jazz wars, but Will Layman touched a nerve in an essay for PopMatters this week, so I may yet chime in. In a review of Icons Among Us (which I'll be reviewing as soon as I can get a copy from NetFlix), Layman lays out the problem facing jazz with elegant simplicity:
For most people, jazz is a dead man's music. This just might be the problem in making jazz a sustainable art form.
The whole article is here. It is worth your time this morning. Layman takes a detached stance from the argument that contemporary musicians should break free from the past and even eschew the word jazz, but I am all for it. As Nicholas Payton puts it in the film, "In order to find the way, you must leave the way. You have to be open." I know my view is still in the minority, but regardless, the word "jazz" retains a large amount of cultural baggage which skews most people's perception of the music. If a label is getting in the way of the music, then it may be time to simply invent a new label and move on.

28 June 2010

Music Monday

Miles Davis was the first jazz musician whose music I truly loved. I first began discovering his work when my parents bought me a copy of Kind of Blue for Christmas one year. I was 13. Miles is a great first love for any jazz fan, especially since his catalogue spans so many genres and schools of jazz that it serves as a pretty good proxy for the history of jazz between 1944 (his arrival on the New York scene) and 1975 (his first retirement). Miles was present in the first bebop, hard bop, avant-garde (for lack of a better term), and fusion recordings I ever heard.

But over the past few years the album to which I find myself returning again and again is Tribute to Jack Johnson, recorded in 1970 and released in 1971. The album was the result of music Miles produced for a documentary on the early-20th century heavyweight champion. The album featured John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham, Steve Grossman, and Michael Henderson. In his autobiography, Miles doesn't say much about the album, except that he originally wanted Buddy Miles (then playing with Jimi Hendrix) on the album and that it was not adequately promoted by Columbia Records. In his magisterial biography of Davis, So What, John Szwed wrote that Miles passion for and knowledge of boxing helped give the album  its sound:
His own feel for the movements of a boxer came across clearly in the soundtrack, where he tried to make the rhythms mime the grace and confidence of fighters like Sugar Ray Robinson.
Szwed notes that Jack Johnson "was one of Miles' favorite recordings for a long time," which is saying something since Miles was often dismissive of his own work in retrospect. Darcy James Argue sparked my revived interest in Jack Johnson. In this blog post on Davis' 1970s work, Argue remembers when he first heard Jack Johnson, which "blew my head wide open" as a teenager:
I can even pinpoint the exact moment when my brains hit the wall -- it's early in "Right Off" where John McLaughlin drops to Bb, but Michael Henderson keeps going in E, and Miles decides this bitonal no-man's land would be the perfect spot for him to make his entrance. And it is.
That moment comes at the 2:12 mark. Check it out below, it will get you through your Monday.

24 June 2010

On "Best of 2010 So Far" Lists

No thanks. Isn't it bad enough that we make arbitrary lists once a year?

That is all.

Only in New York

Via A Blog Supreme:
The tune he played was bluesy and vaguely familiar. "Have you ever heard 'Watermelon Man' before?" he called out over a sustained chord. "My father played on the original."
Read the whole story here.

22 June 2010

Review: Ten

Jason Moran Bandwagon

Last week's salvo in the ongoing Jazz Wars debates brought up an interesting dilemma: How can musicians contend with the deep historical record of the art while making music that speaks to the present? Jason Marsalis complained to Chris Barton earlier this month that "Almost NO music before 1990 is referenced in the majority of music played today." This is a specious straw-man argument, though, since Marsalis apparently can't name any of the music that he is referencing (Marsalis may defend himself by saying he does not want to hurt anyone's feelings, which is a weak cop out). Most importantly, though, one only needs to hear the music of the leading young musicians in jazz to realize that the past is not being ignored. For Exhibit A, I present Jason Moran, whose Bandwagon trio celebrates ten years of making music with their latest album, TEN.

Like another pianist whose praises I've sung before, Vijay Iyer, Moran has a way of making complex (dare I say nerdy?) music sound intuitive and natural. Also like Iyer, Moran has an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history as well as the chops to incorporate that history into his playing. Listen to his take on Thelonious below, which is emblematic of his approach to jazz history.

You can certainly hear traces of Monk in his playing. Like Monk, he infuses the tune with stride phrasing, but he takes the same ingredients and makes a totally different meal. Moran and his bandmates, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, take on another Monk tune on TEN, Crepescule With Nellie. As with Moran's rendition of Thelonious above, the Bandwagon uses phrases and motifs familiar to anyone who has listened to Monk before, but places them in different parts of the tune, collapsing the familiar construction of the standard. The band also has a bit of fun with rhythm, utilizing at different points swing, shuffle, rubato, and straight-eighths. Monk would have never tried to play the tune this way, but that's part of the reason why it sounds so fresh now, of course.

But this album is more than the Monk cover suggests. Indeed, it is a celebration of the ten years this trio has been together, including another take on the Gangsterism theme which has graced so many of their albums. This band at some point could reach the lofty status afforded such trios as Bill Evans' with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian or the Brad Mehldau Trio: bands that set the precedent for years to come. Moran, though, is a once-in-a-generation talent, a pianistic infovore whose command of such a huge swath of jazz history is simply formidable. The fact that he can bring this knowledge to bear in such a captivating way is both the icing and the cake.

Track Listing: Blue Blocks; RFK in the Land of Apartheid; Feedback Pt. 2; Crepescule with Nellie; Study No. 6; Pas de Deux--Lines Ballet; Gangsterism Over Ten Years; Big Stuff; Play to Live; The Subtle One; To Bob Vatel of Paris; Old Babies
Personnel: Jason Moran, piano; Tarus Mateen, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums

18 June 2010

Friday Album Cover: Video Edition

I almost couldn't wait until Friday to post this, but I'm all about delayed gratification. The video below comes via Peter Hum.

Hi-Fi from bante on Vimeo.

That was beautiful. Have a good Friday!

16 June 2010

About Those Jazz Nerds...

I was thinking about responding to this, but then Andrew Durkin shed some wisdom on the subject that I could not dispute:

Life is too short to spend time deconstructing specious arguments that rely on easily caricatured straw-men. Instead, I will quote Thelonious Monk.
Where's jazz going? I don't know. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can't make anything go anywhere. It just happens.
Update: I am also reminded of what Delmond Lambreaux of Treme (a jazz trumpeter based loosely on Christian Scott according to Patrick Jarenwattananon) said in episode 4 earlier this year: "Jazz hasn't run hot or cold since bebop. It just is, man."

Bill Dixon

Via Phil Freeman comes news that Bill Dixon has died at his home in North Bennington, Vermont. Among his many artistic accomplishments, Dixon organized and performed at the famed "October Revolution," a 1964 showcase of the burgeoning New York free jazz scene. He was also a founding member of the Jazz Composers Guild, one of the most notable early attempts to organize jazz musicians outside of the existing structures of the music business. He continued to play actively into his eighties, releasing an album in each of the past three years. He also appeared on Cecil Taylor's wonderful 1969 album Conquistador! He will be missed.

15 June 2010

List: Favorite Tracks From Art Blakey's 1960 Jazz Messengers

All tracks available on the sadly out of print box set from Blue Note.

Ping Pong

Lost and Found
A Night In Tunisia

Dat Dere

Sleeping Dancer Sleep On
The Freedom Rider

14 June 2010

Music Monday Extra

Nextbop ran an open call for submissions for their Music Monday post today, to which I contributed Polar Bear's Peepers. I wanted to include a second tune, but due to space limitations I could not. So instead I'll post it hear. Below is Twin Sister's Lady Daydream. It is not jazz, but I've been listening to this track a lot lately. Their lead singer has an enchanting voice with a timbre I don't think I've ever heard before. I hope you enjoy it.

13 June 2010

Record Club 2

The Records: Charles Lloyd Quartet, Forest Flower and The Flowering
Acquired: I found both records at Jackpot Records during my visit to Portland last month. Jackpot Records is a brilliant name for a record store, by the way. Total cost: $8.
Thoughts on the records: I've liked Charles Lloyd's late-sixties quartet with Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Cecil McBee for awhile, but their work has long been a hole in my own library. So I jumped at the chance to get two records recorded during the quartet's artistic and popular peak. Both are live recordings (Forest Flower was recorded at the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival, The Flowering at Aulaen Hall in Oslo also in 1966)

I started with The Flowering, since it had the better-looking cover (though unfortunately the "DJ Copy" sticker would probably ruin the cover should I try to remove it). Lloyd gets overpowered by the rhythm section at times on the first track due to shoddy amplification, but his unmistakable tone still sounds refreshing. Keith Jarrett tears up the first tune, Kurt Weill's Speak Low. The second tune, Love-In/Island Blues, sounds a bit stale to me today, but Jarrett's solos (and his interplay with DeJohnette) save the tune for me. The record as a whole strikes a fine balance. The quartet gets room to stretch in a live setting, but they don't get so abstract as to lose the listener. When you're trying to reach frequently-stoned college kids during the late sixties, it is a good idea not to stray too far from the listener's comfort zone.

Forest Flower was a bit of a downer, mostly because the first side (containing Lloyd's Forest Flower suite) had so many pops and hisses that I couldn't stand to listen to the entire thing. Such is the risk when buying used vinyl: upon further inspection, I noticed a long, light scratch along the radius of the entire side. I'd be more upset about it if I paid more than $5 for the record. Luckily Side 2 has a nice version of Jarrett's Sorcery with Lloyd on flute. All in all, not a bad transaction.

Sunday Reading Material

Something to do between today's World Cup matches:
  • Jazz Beyond Jazz blogger Howard Mandel drums up support for the Jazz Journalists Association's Jazz Awards at City Arts. The whole concept seems a little insidery, but it's just an awards show, so what's the worst that could happen? Mandel answers that question when he tells of the time he and Stanley Crouch almost got into a fistfight after the first JJA Awards (which would have been the lamest fight ever had it gone off).
  • Our friends at Nextbop are looking to expand their operations and run some new projects, but first they need a little help financing. Chances are most Hot House readers have spent some time listening to the Nextplayer, so please help Seb, Anthony, and the rest of the Nextbop family out. You'll get an immediate return on your investment when you listen to Seb's radio interview with Christian Scott.
  • Peter Hum made simple but very effective argument the other day: YouTube is the new DownBeat. The major jazz magazines still do many things well (they are still the best equipped to give us long-form profiles from the likes of David Adler and Nate Chinen), but they have yet to set up websites that are good enough to make me visit more than once a month or so...
  • Speaking of jazz media, it's been over four months since jazz.com last posted new material. When it was running strong, jazz.com published some of the best content on the web (see for instance Steve Coleman's epic take on 12 essential Charlie Parker tracks and Chris Kelsey's piece on Ornette Coleman's Blue Note years). I miss it, and hope its days are not over.
  • This isn't jazz related, but still worth a read. Roger Ebert offers a spirited and heartfelt defense of Twitter. Since I end up having to defend Twitter to a non-tweeting friend every two months or so, it was nice to see how a better writer than myself does it. Also, if you aren't on Twitter, you could follow only Ebert and still enjoy the service.
  • I'll leave you with one final thought. In the early days of jazz it was common to see a slide-whistle used in jazz groups. With that in mind, I would love to see someone use a vuvuzela on their next album.

07 June 2010

Good Libations

My jazz-nerd and microbrew-nerd tendencies are synergizing today, as Delaware brewer Dogfish Head recently unveiled their newest creation, Bitches Brew Ale.
In honor of the 40th anniversary of the original release of Bitches Brew, Miles Davis' 1970 paradigm-shifting landmark fusion breakthrough, we've created our own Bitches Brew - a bold, dark beer that's a fusion of three threads imperial stout and one thread honey beer with gesho root, a gustatory analog to Miles' masterpiece.
Needless to say, I will buy up a bunch of this while it's around. Hopefully you live somewhere within Dogfish Head's reach. The Bitches Brew bottle will look nice on my shelf next to an empty bottle of Brother Thelonious.

01 June 2010

Political Economy

At A Blog Supreme, Patrick Jarenwattananon writes today about the pros and cons of state sponsorship of jazz and the free market:
In a way, it's a classic case of "you reap what you sow." As jazz and related musics became unable to fully support themselves in the open marketplace, the community turned in part to state funding. So jazz became an art music.

PJ (can I call you PJ?) was responding to this post from Peter Hum, on the loss of funding for JazzBaltica. I have some minor quibbles with the piece (jazz became an art music long before public funding came into the picture, but that doesn't actually run counter to PJ's argument), but agree with much of his argument. Public funding can be as capricious as the free market, and jazz is in fact marketable, even as it is allegedly dying. I also love the idea of Canada supporting jazz festivals as tourism initiatives and only secondarily as arts initiatives. Putting a market price on jazz (e.g. "A jazz festival will bring in $X of tourism money to this community.") allows musicians (and their supporters) to translate audience support into financial backing. It's a two-way street, though, so that means the audience (you and me) needs to keep showing up to hear live jazz, lest anyone think it be dead.

UPDATE: Vijay Iyer had this to say about a jazz world with no public funding:

leave it up to the marketplace and you favor: (1) kenny g etc (2) jam bands etc (3) good-looking singers etc
I'm not sure I totally agree. Certainly those three groups are favored by the market, but I'm not sure that would be much of a change with less public funding (especially since it is so scarce in America).

Back in the Swing of Things

I've returned from Portland. I had a great week, including an interesting Wednesday evening at Jimmy Mak's. I showed up a little early for the Mel Brown Quartet's set, and walked in on the final tune of the Beaumont Middle School jazz band, which was playing a fundraiser at the club during the early set. Though my expectations were low, I must say, those kids can play. They were well above the level of my middle school band, for sure. Some of the soloists have even started developing individual personalities. Once the kids cleared out at 9:30 (by law), Mel Brown took the stage and laid down some delightful hard bop. Brown won my everlasting favor when he played an entire solo on his high hat and cymbals late in the set. Here's a sample of the Quartet in action, playing pianist Tony Pacini's Blues for El Cid:

That was the extent of my jazz activities during the trip, but I also wanted to share a few murals I saw at the Kennedy School, a former Northeast Portland middle school that closed in the 1970s and was later bought by the McMenamins company, which converted the facilities into a brewery, bar, restuarant, and hotel (the beer is wonderful, I recommend the Hammerhead Pale Ale and Sunflower IPA). The grounds were decorated by local artists, and the main entryway to the school featured a pair of murals facing each other on opposite walls, one of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong (above), the other of Lester Young and Billie Holiday (below).

I have one more thing to share with you from my trip, coming later in the week. Until then, I'll be cleaning my house, which somehow did not clean itself while I was gone...