Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Havana Centro

(Note: Family business will probably preclude blogging until Mon. In the meantime, check out some live music. Again, here are some suggestions.)

Havana Centro
Directed by Paul Johnson

When looking at Cuba, what some see as privation and desperation, others chose to see through their ideological prism as old world charm. Yet the music of the Caribbean Island has a seductive hold on partisans of each side. Paul Johnson’s short documentary, Havana Centro, now available on DVD after making the festival circuit, offers a glimpse at the every day musical lives of Cubans, largely free of commentary, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Of course, the realities of Cuba’s police state are inescapable, as director Paul Johnson acknowledges. His opening narration states:

“And hope in Cuba is not an impossible concept, just a complicated one. In Fidel Castro’s Cuba your life is largely regulated by the whims of the revolution. You may have little choice in where and how you live, and what you do. But in music, there is ultimate freedom, which may explain why this small nation, even under Communism, remains one of the most powerful musical cultures in the world.”

Music is, in fact, the focus of Centro. Viewers are offered samples of a son ensemble, Santeria rituals, an impromptu rooftop salsa party, and the Afro-Cuban jazz of conguero Joaquin Pozo’s group Latin Millenium. Although, Pozo’s band is not heard in full performance, the partial clips suggest they are a worthy group. Johnson’s commentary again is on point when he suggests: “Their Afro-influenced jazz may be the perfect genre for transmitting the angst of a people who have been restrained for centuries, whether by slave-traders or Communist dictators.”

Johnson does use indeed use terms like dictatorship to describe the political situation in Cuba. However, there are some moments that would make the distinguished bloggers of Babalu cringe. Johnson essentially passes along the myth of the mighty Cuban healthcare system and asserts that despite the widespread poverty, “Cubans don’t lack the basic necessities though.” This is not necessarily born out by the recent documentary East of Havana, in which one of the young rapper’s mother jokes about often cooking entire meal from three garlic cloves.

When examining conditions of the city’s architecture, Johnson finds the buildings “in a continual state of decay or repair—it’s hard to tell which.” In fact, every structure seems to be crumbling to its foundations, yet Havana retains its romantic appeal. Much in Centro seems open to interpretation. The National Hotel is introduced as a “great showcase of the rich cultural current running through Havana.” However, video of veterans of the once prohibited Buena Vista Social Club taking picture after picture with European tourists may speak to others of the exploitative nature of Cuba’s tourism industry.

While short and simple, the strength of Centro is that for the most part, it records Havana’s music and images, leaving the interpretation up to viewers. It would be nice to see this film picked up by PBS, and I’d also be interested in seeing a Babalu review.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Get Out Your PDAs

It is time to mark some important gigs on your calendar:

Deanna Witkowski has a solo concert at the Klavierhaus Fazioli Salon on Friday, June 8th, at 8:00. Deanna is an incredible jazz pianist-vocalist-composer-arranger, who has performed concerts around the world. She is always rewarding to hear in any context, but on the 8th she’ll be playing the Fazioli, one of the finest pianos in the world, in a small intimate concert space. I will definitely be there, and I recommend you reserve your tickets today.

If you missed the Jazz Foundation’s Apollo concert, you can make up for it this Thursday (5/31). There will be a memorial concert for Lance Carter at the Knitting Factory which will benefit the Foundation. This will be a more downtown line-up than the Apollo, featuring Marc Ribot and the Sons of Sharrock. Even if this sounds more adventurous than your tastes normally allow, consider this will also be an opportunity to hear Cassandra Wilson live as well, for only $25, and the proceeds go to a worthy organization.

Bad Blood in the City

Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions
James Blood Ulmer
Hyena Records

Last year, James Blood Ulmer performed “Survivors of the Hurricane,” a stark original solo blues, at the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual Apollo concert. It was one of three songs JBU composed during the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Ulmer would record them, along with thematically related originals and blues classics by the likes of John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon, at New Orleans’ Piety Street Studios, with the results now available on Bad Blood in the City.

Ulmer’s influences are a rare mixture of the avant-garde harmolodics of Ornette Coleman and the primeval Delta Blues. His aggressive guitar and rugged vocals make his solo blues downright spooky. However, the recorded version of “Survivors” sounds over-produced compared to the raw power of JBU’s solo rendition. The slower, sparer arrangement of “Katrina” is much more successful at capturing Ulmer’s visceral power. Here the band is in much better balance, with David Barnes harmonica and Leon Gruenbaum’s keyboards amplifying the passion of Ulmer’s blues.

The third immediate Katrina original “Let’s Talk About Jesus” brings in a funky gospel vibe with some wailing Hammond B3 and the soulful backing vocals of Irene Datcher. A final original, “Old Slave Master,” also inspired by events in New Orleans, may be the most lyrically biting. It is also the closest to traditional rollicking New Orleans R&B, with funky piano, violin, and harmonica complimenting Ulmer nicely.

There is plenty of the blues tradition on Piety Street. Ulmer and his band express the age old blues of Mother Nature in “Backwater Blues,” a particularly effective feature for Charlie Burnham’s electric fiddle. Of the elders represented here, Willie Dixon’s “Dead Presidents” is the most natural fit for Ulmer’s vocal style.

While uneven, at its best, Bad Blood bristles with power. It is a product of New Orleans, both in a literal and metaphoric sense, and it ardently testifies on behalf of the city.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Remembering James Reese Europe on Memorial Day

James Reese Europe was one of jazz’s early forefathers and also one of New York’s greatest WWI figures. Google may not mark Memorial Day, but let’s take a minute to remember a military and musical hero.

Born to a freed slave who became a Republican appointee in the postmaster-general’s office, James Reese Europe would quickly rise to the pinnacle of the New York dance band world. Nearly all the top dance bands operated under the auspices of his benevolent club, most directly under his own name. More than any other band leader, he ushered American music through its early changes from Ragtime to a more syncopated style that would eventually become Jazz. As musical director for Vernon and Irene Castle, he broke the color-line providing music for white America’s dancing sensations.
Europe led many orchestras, but it was as the leader of the Army 15th’s marching band for which he is most celebrated. It was the band itself that enticed many of the 15th’s volunteers into service. While attached to the U.S. Army, Europe’s band thrilled U.S. servicemen and French civilians in performance. Due to Army reluctance to pursue battlefield integration, the 15th was re-christened the 369th Infantry Regiment, and attached to the French Army at the front.

Soon dubbed the “Hell Fighters” for their warfighting tenacity, Europe’s men endured trench warfare and distinguished themselves under artillery fire and chemical attack, culminating in an unprecedented 171 citations for individual heroism, and a forty percent fatality rate for the original 2,000 volunteers.

Europe survived the Great War, only to be killed by a mentally disturbed band member. Remembered fondly by colleagues like Eubie Blake, he was a great American, who ought to be better known. Here is as life that would make a great movie, but perhaps the combination of heroism and jazz would not be considered commercial, which would be a sad commentary indeed.

Music Musique

Music Musique: French and American Piano Composition in the Jazz Age
By Barbara Meister
Indiana University Press

Observers of the French political scene wonder if the election of Sarkozy heralds an end to the anti-American insecurity of the Chirac years. Such periods have precedence French history, as the country dealt with the national defensiveness and anti-Germanic biases in the 1870’s following their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Barabara Meister’s Music Musique examines the efforts of both French and American composers to develop a national compositional identity free of Germanic influences, and the degree to which composers of each country influenced each other, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Musique is strongest when it makes those connections between classical and jazz. The degree to which classical music has influenced Third Stream jazz artists like John Lewis is well documented. Less known may be the extent to which classical greats, like Maurice Ravel, were inspired by jazz. According to Meister, Ravel studied with Leo Vauchant, a French jazz bassist, for four years. She explains how this exposure to jazz influenced his compositions:

“Ravel quickly incorporated the new stylistic devices—principally blue notes and jazzlike syncopations—into several major compositions. The first Ravel composition to manifest these new elements was the charming one-act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges of 1925.” (p. 98)

It is not just French classical composers Meister credits with an interest in American jazz. For instance, she finds some intriguing connections in Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata:

“Its texture is dense and amorphous, with plenty of rhythmic pizzazz, including some mighty jazz sequences, but no discernable rhythmic pattern. A theme that resembles the popular song Autumn in New York, which was written in 1934 by Vernon Duke . . . comes and goes, harmonized in various ways.” (p. 45)

While Musique traces interesting connections between idioms and countries, Meister clearly seems to come to the material from a classical point of view and frequently makes recommendations for programming classical recitals. That does not result in any disrespect for jazz though. Perhaps jazz readers might find her sections on early jazz history perfunctory, but classical experts might have similar complaints. In fact she recommends Ellington and Strayhorn’s “Pianistally Allied” as: “a delightful and surprising encore for four-hand recital.” (p. 79)

Musique might sound like an academic tome, but it is concise and surprisingly readable. It might even intrigue some readers to check out some piano music from a different genre.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Of Song and Water

Of Song and Water
By Joseph Coulson
Archipelago Books

Music can evoke powerful sense memories of people, places, and times. In Joseph Coulson’s novel Of Song and Water, music and issues of memory, identity, and family are intimately tied together in the story of onetime jazz guitarist Coleman Moore.

There is a sizeable canon of jazz fiction, but Water is distinct for its use of Midwestern settings, like Chicago (including The Green Mill), and upstate Michigan. Certain archetypes and tropes from the jazz canon reappear in Water, like the experienced African-American musician-teacher taking a young white student under his wing. Like the Art Hazard character in Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn, Otis Young becomes a complicated father figure for protagonist Moore. Coulson though, brings greater sensitivity to his characterization of the mentor-student relationship. Coulson describes Young as a man dispensing hard-won wisdom:

“Jazz is dead. He remembers first hearing the idea from Otis, who liked to go off on philosophers and critics who were in the business of declaring this or that thing deceased, particularly music, books, theater, small towns, newspapers, public education, motherhood, empathy, justice, hope, even God. ‘Tell me this,’ said Otis. ‘When I pick up my guitar and play, even if I’m alone in my house, is jazz dead?” (p. 122)

For Coulson, jazz is not dead. He is clearly steeped in the history of jazz guitar, with legends like Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass making cameos as Moore tours the scenes of his triumphs and failures as a once promising musician. Unlike some jazz books written by “slumming” writers, Coulson must have a genuine love for his characters’ music.

To a large extent, Moore is haunted by the history of his nautical family and the secret of his bootlegging grandfather. However, his own issues, even including his name (born Jason, dubbed Coleman by a club owner) make Moore an increasingly difficult character to spend time with. Memory is indeed fundamental to Water, to the point that the constant flashbacks sometimes confuse the narrative.

However, Coulson is a skilled writer who undeniably knows how to use language. Deliberately paced, Water is a serious character study that treats the music of its narrative with genuine sincerity.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Miles Blended

Delta said use your limited miles or lose them, so now I subscribe to music magazines I’d ordinarily never read. I’ll skim them for jazz references, so you won’t have to. In the case of this month’s Blender, it did not take long. Once you eliminate the video game ads, pictures of pop stars looking like heroin addicts, download lists, visual gags, drug jokes, and letters from prison inmates, you’re left with maybe two or three pages of text.

This month that included two Miles Davis references. One was a Carlos Santana “Who am I” feature that included the factoid: “I also have been in frequent contact with Miles Davis since he died in 1991.” The other came in a review of Light in the Attic’s Betty Davis reissues, described as “A sexed-up early-‘70’s R&B screamer (and ex-wife of jazz giant Miles Davis).”

Without any context, Davis is offered as a credential of cool. There are no jazz reviews or profiles, so do these Miles name-droppings mean anything to Blender’s readers? Do they get how heavy it is that Santana is channeling Miles, beyond the obvious fact that he has been dead sixteen years? The Betty Davis review is the hippest thing in Blender, but does 1970’s-era Miles Davis summon any images for the kids?

It’s interesting that even Blender sees a jazz luminary like Davis as an icon of cool. Jazz may not be commercial, but it has street cred. Still, it does not get any real love in the mag’s pages. Maybe jazz will fare better when Vibe starts showing up.

(Babalu has a better use for moldy old airline miles: Operation Hero Miles.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Rebuilding the Public Trust

At a time when the City of New Orleans needs to rebuild public faith in its institutions, two high profile public corruption cases may do just the opposite. This weekend the Times-Pic reported:

“Orleans Parish prosecutors on Friday cut a plea deal with a corrupt Civil District Court judge who was ousted in 2003 after ordering his employees to sell tickets to his fundraiser or risk losing their jobs. The judge also told at least 18 lies when questioned under oath about his misdeeds, state investigators concluded.

The plea bargain guarantees that former Judge C. Hunter King won’t spend a single day in prison and could eventually have a spotless criminal record.”

This was a deal cut by D.A. Eddie Jordan, who has been under fire for opening the prison doors through his inability to prosecute accused criminals within the sixty day period mandated by the state criminal code. Jordan already has a suspect record on public corruption cases, having passed on prosecuting former Rep. Cleo Fields, despite videotape of him stuffing his pockets with Edwin Edwards’ cash. Now the NOLA paper reports:

“When Jordan’s prosecutors secured a two-count indictment of perjury and payroll fraud, legal experts called it a ‘slam dunk’ case, since the judiciary commission had essentially laid out the hard evidence and served it to prosecutors—complete with King’s admission to lying under oath.

But instead of trying King, Jordan’s team decided that the felony guilty plea was justice enough, according to a prepared statement that did not mention the fact that King was allowed to plea guilty under Louisiana Article 893, which provides for the eventual dismissal of a conviction.”

A minor detail, that. It turns out the Feds may fare little better in their case against Rep. William Jefferson, of freezer notoriety, but he can thank the former GOP House leadership for their misguided assertion of Congressional privilege. Again, the Times-Pic reports, Jefferson hopes to run out the statue of limitations clock as the results of the search of his Congressional office face a Constitutional challenge in the D.C. Court of Appeals.

The perception of widespread public corruption has long dogged New Orleans. However, evidence that supports that preconceived notion will hinder rebuilding attempts, as American taxpayers will be reluctant to keep sending funds to a corrupt local government.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hymns for Montreux

Hymns for Peace: Live at Montreux 2004
Santana and musical dignitaries
Eagle Eye Media 2 DVD-set

Periodically Carlos Santana has recorded strongly jazz-influenced sessions that bewilder his fans, like the classic Love Surrender Devotion with John McLaughlin covering jazz standards like “A Love Supreme.” Santana has also earned the ire of free Cubans, like Paquito D'Rivera, for his Che fetish, particularly for his wardrobe choice of Che t-shirt and crucifix, which clash worse than stripes and plaids. So when he puts together an all-star group to perform Hymns for Peace at the Montreux Jazz Festival, there is equal opportunity for high and low points.

Fortunately, during the set Santana largely eschews political statements (or they were wisely edited out), aside from an obligatory Pres. Bush snipe preceding “A Love Supreme,” of all possible tunes. Much more interesting is the actual music and Santana’s invited guests, including McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ravi Coltrane, and Chick Corea.

Some of the best solo work actually comes from Coltrane. The fact that he is willing to even stand on stage for “Afro Blue” and “A Love Supreme” is impressive, let alone solo well—which he does. Shorter also adds fire to the Mongo Santamaría standard, but “Love” is actually marred by an overly vocal arrangement. Coltrane’s best feature though is on “Light At the Edge of the World,” which he carries beautifully.

Some of Santana’s song selections were inspired, as Marley’s “Redemption Song” proved a pitch-perfect match for Angelique Kidjo. While it may not have the strongest thematic relationship to the concert program, Barbara Morrison’s rendition of “Just Like a Woman” is also a real standout. However, some choices just did not work, like “The Banana Boat Song.” Though it sounds a bit corny, closing with the Choeur de Riviera singing “Ode to Joy” actually sort of works for its ambition.

In between, there are some nice solos, particularly from Coltrane and McLaughlin, covering pop standards from Dylan and Marley, and jazz classics, like Joe Zawinul’s “In a Silent Way.” Probably the best balance between soloist and vocalist came on “What’s Going On,” with soulful vocals by Kidjo, Morrison, Patti Austin and Sylver Sharp, and soulful solo statements from Coltrane and Shorter. Probably the least interesting performances from a jazz perspective, including a rap mistake, were relegated to the bonus track area.

Santana and Montreux director Claude Nobs assembled quite line-up for an ambitious concert. Although the results are uneven, that is to be expected from such an All-Star event, and at least for Babalu colleagues, there is no butcher-fetish wardrobe to be seen.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Jazz in the Grotto

Jazz in the Grotto
By the Fred Hess Band
Alison Records

Among jazz cities, Denver does not get the props for its regional scene that a Chicago or a Philadelphia gets. However, Denver has a number of excellent jazz musicians and a growing number of venues, making it an up-and-coming jazz town. The Denver-based Fred Hess Band represented on behalf of the Mile-High City at this year’s IAJE conference, and now their latest CD, Jazz in the Grotto is available today.

Hess is a flexible tenor player who can take things inside or outside. His compositions have a certain angular quality that brings to mind some of Andrew Hill’s work. However, his piano-less group leads to a greater sense of open space.

The opener, “Simple Steps” illustrates the elasticity of the group, starting as an up-tempo flag-waver, but shifting into more explorative territory as Hess and multi-reed player John Gunther take adventurous solos on tenor and alto respectively, while the rhythm of bassist Ken Filiano and non-Denverite ringer drummer Matt Wilson propel the tune along nicely.

The title track takes its inspiration from the give and take of conversation, given a distinctive accent by Gunther’s flute and Ron Miles’ eloquent trumpet. Hess varies the atmosphere nicely throughout Grotto, next offering an old school tenor workout for himself and Gunther on “Hold On.”

Matt Wilson’s energetic percussion and occasional sound effects are particularly effective on “The Clefs—Final Chapter?” This might be the final installment of the misadventures Hess’s musical family (say it isn’t so), but their influence is still felt even in their absence from this chapter.

Grotto concludes with a richly textured Coltrane tribute, “Ninth House.” Beginning in a somber mood with Filiano’s bowed bass, before segueing into the melody of “All Blues.” It evolves into a sprightlier tune, with a sparkling solo from Miles (Ron). It’s a fascinating composition, shifting in mood, but always faithful to its modal inspiration.

Fred Hess and group are excellent ambassadors of Denver’s jazz scene. Grotto makes their case persuasively with fine group interplay and some meaty compositions.


Moyo (Heart & Soul)
By Keiko Matsui
Shout! Factory

Hugh Masekela was one of the crossover jazz stars of the 1970’s, finding a commercial blend of jazz pop, and African music that found listeners in all three camps. For her latest CD Moyo, Keiko Matsui went to South Africa for the collaborative inspiration of the country’s musicians, including Masekela himself.

Given her new age background, it is not surprising Moyo has stronger melodic qualities than improvisational fire, but many of those melodies are quite strong. The title opener has an atmospheric feel that benefits from Richard Bona’s vocals and bass. “Caricias” is another strong melody that shows off Matsui’s touch on the piano, although one could argue the synthesizers are just a touch heavy. The pitfalls of the album come on cuts like “Into the Night,” where Gerald Albright’s smooth tenor borders on the cloying.

“An Evening in Gibraltar” and “Old Potch Road” are both highpoints that feature Masekela in some excellent brass arrangements, capturing the vibe of Masekela’s best Chisa cuts. “Potch” is a particular highlight of the CD, featuring a joyful solo from Masekela, a downright swinging solo from Matsui, and some nice interplay between the two.

Although “After the Rain” features Paul Taylor’s soprano instead of brass, it comes the closest in tone to the Masekela collaborations. It is an interesting mix of wistful soprano and piano, with Lucas Senyatso’s funky bass.

“Um Novo Dia (A New Day)” is another cut defined by Matsui’s inspiration from Africa and African artists. Angolan vocalist Waldemar Bastos’ Portuguese vocals and Bona’s bass and programming combine effectively in a dramatic track.

Matsui has attracted some first class contributors to Moyo, giving it a distinctive sound, although there is an over-reliance on synthesizers for many listeners’ tastes (or at least mine). While the CD is a bit uneven, there are many highlights that suggest her African influences are a rewarding avenue of exploration for Matsui. It would be great to hear her continue with African themes—unplugged.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Jazz Foundation’s Latest Great Night

Taking John Hammond’s famous From Spirituals to Swing concert as their inspiration, the Jazz Foundation of America held its annual Great Night in Harlem benefit concert last night in the Apollo Theater. Thursday night’s program however, had even greater sweep, starting with pre-slavery African music, stretching up to 1970’s R & B.

The night started on a high note with a performance from the Silver Belles, the surviving members of the original Apollo chorus line, who were the subject of the excellent documentary Been Rich All My Life. They were followed by Djele Lankandia Cissoko with a corps of African drummers, Donald Harrison and the Mardi Indian Chiefs, and the Canaan Baptist Praise Team, all representing jazz’s ancestral roots.

There was plenty of jazz and blues in the house as well. Dr. Michael White led the tribute to early New Orleans jazz, which he has become a living embodiment of. Henry Butler and surprise guest Dr. John represented on behalf of the Harlem’s piano battlers, and New Orleans as well, as the influence of their home town is always present in their music.

The Ellington band swung as they always have, but it was with a Latin flavor when Arturo O’Farrill and Candido joined them. Roy Haynes had a drum solo feature all to himself, because he’s still that heavy. The bebop era boasted a line-up of Frank Wess, Jimmy Heath, Gary Bartz, Jimmy Owens, Junior Mance, Ben Riley, and Bob Cranshaw. Things concluded with a blues jam that included the Foundation’s Wendy Oxenhorn on harmonica, the one much of the audience had really come to hear.

Benefit concerts like this rarely match their printed programs exactly. Although there was a bit of consolidation in Thursday night’s program, they basically got everything in. Wendy was a great stage manager. There was some great music and the proceeds went to a very worthy cause. The Jazz Foundation has helped thousands of music displaced by Katrina. I can personally vouch for what they have meant to so many New Orleans musicians. While the concert was a fundraiser success, do not let that deter you from contributing to the Foundation, as they are always in need of greater funding. Checks can be sent to:

Jazz Foundation of America
322 W. 48th St., 6th Floor
New York, NY 10036

Thursday, May 17, 2007

JT to Oprah: Thanks for Nothing

(Note: If you want to support jazz more than Oprah does, the Jazz Foundation concert is tonight. I don’t know what the ticket situation currently is, but if you show up with money, I bet something can be worked out.)

Oprah’s show is one of the few the mediagenic Wynton Marsalis has never appeared on, which says plenty about Winfrey’s lack of interest in jazz. Nate Chinen bemoans her neglect in his column in this month’s Downbeat. The only remotely jazz oriented artist to win Oprah’s endorsement for her ditto-heads is Chris Botti, who as Chinen writes: “travels in an orbit clearly identifiable as adult contemporary pop.”

He complains:

“According to Blue Note, neither has Dianne Reeves nor Cassandra Wilson [appeared on her show], despite each artists public embodiment of something like a Winfrey-esque code of self empowerment.”

Unfortunately, they do not fit the Winfrey-esque aesthetic. Her Book Club selections (which, I’m all too familiar with), can be called middle-brow with literary pretensions. There are formulaic elements, including women protagonists, family drama, up-from-victimhood themes, and regularly scheduled epiphanies, that I’m told are “ah-hah moments.” (Yes some have award pedigrees, especially after the James Frey carnival of horrors.)

Jazz of course, is not so predictable. At its best it can be honest, dramatic, and above all, surprising. It does not unveil its secrets on a regular time table. It can be ruckus fun and intellectually rigorous. Jazz does high art and greasy gutbucket, but sorry, no middlebrow.

Chinen complains:

“Over the years I have found myself frustrated by her obvious disinterest. Couldn’t she just fake it? It would take so little on her part and mean so much.”

However, he expresses unease with his feeling that:

“jazz is a responsibility Oprah is shirking, as an African-American icon and an arbiter of mainstream culture.”

The problem with Winfrey’s jazz apathy is not that she is dodging a duty to her heritage. She is just ignoring something great. Unlike her book club selections’ neat and tidy “ah-hah moments,” jazz deals in messy truths. As Col. Jessup would say, Winfrey “can’t handle the truth.” In the case of jazz, it’s her loss—a loss she passes along to her loyal minions.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Intellectual Counterpoints

Twenty-five years ago The New Criterion was founded as a review of arts and culture, from a generally right-of-center perspective, but always maintaining a high critical standard, regardless of the work under consideration—a good concept, to be sure. Last night, to celebrate their anniversary and the publication of Counterpoints, a retrospective collection, publisher Roger Kimball assembled an impressive panel of contributors at CUNY, including Judge Robert Bork, Mark Steyn, Dr. Anthony Daniels, and Prof. Eric Ormsby.

Kimball spoke of the review’s early years, when the leftist intelligentsia saw it “violating an unspoken pact” that all things cultural be deemed their domain. The New Republic wrote darkly about its purported connections to John Olin’s arms business. In retrospect, such rhetoric sounds ridiculous for a publication dedicated to “battling cultural amnesia” and applying critical aesthetic standards, and even satire, to overtly politicized art and literature.

Judge Bork spoke eloquently about the effective of the courts on our culture. Daniels offered some provocative comments about the paucity of culture at the root of widespread malevolence he observed in his patients. He also argued that misogynist motives were behind the growth of Islamic conversions in Britain, again drawing from his professional experience. Mark Steyn’s comments drawn from his Criterion contributions, ranged from an appreciation of Broadway’s George Abbott, to Islamic Jihad and the death of the west. His transition between the two was a neat little pirouette.

In truth, Criterion is more about aesthetics than politics. However, when politicized multi-culturalism threatens those permanent things, the Criterion writers have the intellectual heft for the fight, when not facilitating arms sales for the Olin Foundation, of course.

In the latest issue, Brooke Allen has an appreciation of Ralph Ellison that expresses thoughts on the jazz influenced author that have a wider relevance. Allen writes:

“Jazz and the blues were in his bloodstream; he memorably defined the blues in racial terms, as ‘an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.’ Yet he aspired to a career in classical music, perhaps as a conductor. Culture was universal, a gift for everyone; to reject any art, or music, or literature because it did not speak specifically to black people was sheer idiocy.”

It is not hard trace the influence of Ellison’s philosophy on Stanley Crouch. It is that universality of art that the Criterion defends.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Live at the Ascension Loft

Hot ‘n’ Heavy: Live at the Ascension Loft
Ethnic Heritage Ensemble
Delmark DVD & CD

In rare cases, particular places seem uniquely compatible with certain music. Chicago has earned a certain reputation as a jazz city and as home to well regarded avant-garde venues in recent years. Given the fiery looking cover art for the Ethnic Heritage Ensembles’ latest DVD (also available on CD) and its Chicago locale, one might mistake it for a free jazz blowing session. Yet, despite the adventurous credits of the musicians, leader-percussionist Kahil El’Zabar’s rhythm reigns supreme on Live at the Ascension Loft, making it a very accessibly session.

The Ensemble has changed personnel over the years, with its current configuration consisting of El’Zabar, trumpeter Corey Wilkes, guitarist Fareed Haque, and Ernest “Khabeer” Dawkins on tenor and alto. However, as El’Zabar shifts among his diverse arsenal of percussion, it has the effect of varying the tone and dynamics of the quartet.

The Ensemble starts with an enjoyable up-tempo workout, propelled along by El’Zabar’s “earth drums,” huge congas crafted by the percussionist. Dawkins makes an impassioned statement on alto, but Wilkes’ electrified solo, though an interesting stylistic choice, gives his ordinarily strong trumpet tone a pinched sound.

The high point, artistically and emotionally in the concert, is “MT,” El’Zabar’s tribute to the late Malachi Thompson, a Chicago trumpeter associated with the AACM and the ensembles of Lester Bowie. El’Zabar actually carries the distinctive melody on thumb piano, and all four musicians take stirring solos. It is a lovely tribute.

As El’Zabar moves to the traps for “Hot ‘n’ Heavy,” the complexion of the music changes subtly again. It becomes a showcase for Wilkes (one of Downbeat’s twenty-five trumpeters for the future this month), on both trumpet and flugelhorn simultaneously, as E’Zabar’s drumming and verbal exultations prod him further and further.

The disk concludes with “Black as Vera Cruz,” a Latin number that starts off in a contemplative mood, but picks up heat from the strong rhythm of the earth drums. Featuring impressive tenor work from Dawkins, Haque’s best guitar solo, and a hypnotic percussion interlude, it is a fitting summation.

The Ascension session is filmed in a rather straight-forward manner, with only occasional flashes of color, or overlaid images for effect. What comes across is the compatibility of music and location. There appear to be no more than maybe thirty audience members, but it is standing room only in that intimate environment. The very art on the walls enhances the rhythmic and cultural message of the Ensemble’s music.

Clearly, the Ensemble is a tight group that plays well with, and off each other. Their warm melodies and rhythmic drive would be appealing to even novice jazz ears.

Monday, May 14, 2007

L’Imparfait des Langues

L’imparfait des langues
By Luis Sclavis
ECM 1954

If one instrument has an image problem in modern jazz it is the clarinet For many, the instrument is fatally associated with its nebbish practitioners, like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and (have mercy) Woody Allen. However, Louis Sclavis, along with a handful of musicians like Perry Robinson and Don Byron, has consistently defined and redefined modern contexts for clarinet. In L’Imparfait des Langues, a work commissioned by the Printemps des Arts de Monte Carlo, whose premiere was delayed by the death of Prince Rainier, Sclavis again creates fresh soundscapes that defy preconceptions of the clarinet’s role.

Sclavis also employs his bass clarinet and soprano for what was his first session with a very contemporary group deliberately assembled to challenge the leader. Together they cover a great deal of stylistic territory, while still sounding all of one piece.

“Premier imparfait (a)” is the brief, but fitting introductory track, that conveys a sense of portent and features the spacey reverb often associated with the ECM sound. “L’idée du dialecte” begins with Sclavis’ clarinet in an almost traditional setting, but Marc Baron’s alto solo gives the proceedings a freer, more abrasive vibe, which is picked up by the guitars and electronics for a rock interlude, resolving back into the head, featuring Sclavis again.

There is definitely a dialectical sense to many of Sclavis’ compositions here, as we hear thesis-antithesis-synthesis play out between the musicians. “Archéologie” similarly starts with a quirky melody that seems to hold echoes of trad. jazz, but heads out quickly with a searching solo from Sclavis. Again, Maxime Delpierre’s guitar and François Merville’s drums segue into a driving rock passage that takes over for the duration of the tune.

“Convocation” is essentially a guitar prelude that leads into “Palabre,” a composition constructed over a guitar riff. The tight soprano and alto unison heads hint at a traditional folk sound, before veering off for some free-ranging call and response.

Sclavis gives his new sidemen the latitude to define much of the atmosphere of L’Imparfait, as on the concluding title track. While Sclavis provides a certain film noir undercurrent on bass clarinet, the track is dominated by the Paul Brousseau’s electronic effects.

Language is indeed imperfect when attempting to describe music. L’Imparfait is particularly arresting for its stylistic and emotional variations, which seem almost deliberate in their attempts to elude linguistic constructs.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Chasin' the Bird

Chasin’ the Bird: the Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker
By Brian Priestly
Oxford University Press tradepaperback

Charlie Parker never recorded for a “major” label and was only filmed in performance on two occasions that we know of, and for which the video document survives. Still, he remains the personification of modern jazz. Brian Priestly examines the significance of Parker’s life lived in the vanguard of American music in the re-publication of Chasin’ the Bird.

Tragically, Parker’s name is intimately associated with heroin addiction. Priestly’s account suggests Parker was less dependent in his later years than generally believed, but his use of alcohol as a substitute took as great, or greater toll on his health.

While Parker’s struggles with substance abuse are infamous, his confrontations with the AFM musicians’ union are less not as well known. The local effectively stalled his budding career when Parker first arrived in New York, by enforcing their restrictive work rules. According to Priestly:

“opportunities were severely restricted since the musicians’ union in New York was the branch most keen on observing the rule that a new arrival must wait six months before transferring membership from his hometown.” (p. 26)

At one point in 1947, Parker’s disputes with union took a more violent turn. Priestly describes his ill-fated attempt at redress in Chicago:

“However, the black branch official Henry Gray, who had earlier acted to break Earl Hines free of a long-term contract controlled by gangster interests, on this occasion took the club-owner’s side. Pulling a gun on the Parker quintet, he dismissed them from his office, and though Charlie was all for defending himself with his fists (again foreshadowing Mingus), Duke Jordan wisely restrained him.” (p. 67)

Despite all the obstacles in Parker’s career path (some of which he bore some measure of responsibility), Parker’s musical genius would fundamentally influence the future of jazz specifically, and American music in general. Much of the general public’s collective impression of Parker in recent years, has been shaped by Clint Eastwood’s bio-film Bird. The film would be controversial with ornithologists for editorial and musically choices made by the filmmakers. Priestly identifies an interesting historical irony of the film, related to an all-star jazz tour Parker participated in with the Stan Kenton orchestra:

“Kenton recorded the arrangement Bill Holman wrote for Parker on Cherokee, as a feature for his own altoist Lennie Neihaus. Neihaus became something of a star during the brief 1950s vogue for West Coast jazz but also, by a neat twist of fate, was to be the musical director for the film Bird.” (p. 99)

Brief, but authoritative, Chasin’ the Bird has the advantage of building on an already well-respected edition published in the 1980’s. Priestly demonstrates a thorough understanding of Parker’s music, and refrains from harsh judgments when recounting the excesses of Parker’s short but dramatic life, making Chasin’ a good introduction to ornithology.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Another Great Night in Harlem

If it has been a while since you heard live music, come out to the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual Great Night in Harlem benefit concert at the Apollo Theater (yes, you take the A train). Announced guest performers include Hank Jones, Jimmy Heath, Candido, Junior Mance, Dr. Michael White, Roy Haynes, Ron Carter, Odetta, Ben Riley, Gary Bartz, and Donald Harrison. Of course the line-ups at these events are always subject to change.

The Foundation does incredible work on behalf of the artists who dedicated their lives to this music. When Katrina hit, their caseload exploded. I saw first hand what Wendy and her staff did for the musicians of New Orleans, so I can guarantee your money will be well spent.

There’s nothing better to do on a Thursday night than enjoying great music. You can miss CSI for a week, seriously. Details for ordering tickets are on their website. If you’re already stuck with other plans for that night, you can still just send money to:

Jazz Foundation of America
322 W. 48th St., 6th Floor
New York, NY 10036

Friday, May 11, 2007

Talk Music Much?

How often do you talk about new music at work, as compared to movies, tv, or even those musty anachronisms called books? If you’re in the music business, you’re obviously disqualified. In my experience, I hardly have any water cooler conversations about music, except with those who know I write about it.

My argument is that the music industry has to acknowledge they are losing relevancy as cultural currency, despite the gossip and glamour surrounding their top acts. Again, when did you have a conversation in the elevator about a new CD or bundle of downloads? Conversely, how often have movies or the latest Harry Potter book come up? (To make a fine distinction, American Idol is a tv show. The music biz gets credit for the CDs. Heard anyone in the office buzzing about the grey-haired kid’s CD?)

There are reasons for this. The music industry does not help itself with its award shows. The top prizes tend to go to records that are already established bestsellers. There is usually a bump in sales after the Grammy Awards, but those extra sales could come from people already familiar the artists in question who might have bought them eventually anyway. Oscars tend to give at least some surprise awards to smaller pictures and the Pulitzers often put books the general public had not previously heard of on the bestseller lists for at least a few weeks. That is plus business that grows the pie.

While major motion pictures open wide, taking in grosses that dwarf indy films, box office reporting also includes per screen averages, which smaller films can claim as bragging rights over their giant studio competition. There is no analogous case to make for jazz, blues, or classical releases that are blitzed on Soundscan by current mega-junk pop. Indy bookstores love to hand-sell quirky, literary titles, but sadly there are far fewer indy music stores still in business to champion smaller releases.

Finally, it is hard to get around the issue of quality. There was a time when pop music was culturally important. Now many expect it to be brainless. When was the last time you heard serious cultural commentary about a major release? There was an attempt to hype Radiohead in such a way when OK Computer came out. There was a half-hearted attempt on behalf of Pearl Jam’s latest, but it quickly petered out. Springsteen’s The Rising was sort of the great hope of smart pop, but it was just too slow and dark for people to embrace. Norah Jones generated some excitement as the second coming of the singer-songwriter type, but I did not hear any anticipation for her third CD, even from fans of her first two.

There is plenty of great music being performed and recorded, particularly jazz, I would suggest. People are frankly missing out. Anyone who hears Gianluigi Trovesi’s latest CD, reviewed here this week, would be impressed by it (perhaps deeply so), but an Italian jazz artist covering Renaissance classical music and Jacques Brel is going to meet resistance from less adventurous listeners (although it is a completely accessible disk).

The music business is facing a problem more fundamental than downloading and distribution challenges. Despite people’s affection for bands like the Stones, music, particularly pop, is losing its prestige in American culture. At least that is the impression from my publishing office. If you disagree, send me a polite e-mail proclaiming the good news for the music business.

A good acid test might be starting a water cooler conversation on music and see if anyone picks up on it. At the risk of sounding Clintonesque maybe the industry needs to campaign for a national conversation on music. Of course, to talk about music, you need something to talk about, which returns us to the issue of quality and substance. Feel free to crib my Trovesi review.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

We Interrupt This PSA Campaign . . .

The cornerstone of “Governor” Blanco’s recovery program continues to generate embarrassment. The Times-Pic reports the state is cutting short its television ad campaign for the program designed to home owners return and rebuild. The paper reports:

“According to the Division of Administration, which oversees the grant program, the program spent $2.6 million on advertisements that ran from August through October, when the program was just getting under way. The ads ran throughout Louisiana and in Houston, Dallas and Atlanta, where many displaced storm victims have relocated.

The most recent commercials began running in March and were scheduled to cost $1.4 million. The cancellation means about $900,000 worth of those commercials actually ran.”

If ever there was a program the state could enlist media partners to publicize, one would think it would be the Road Home. However, all the free media for the program has been negative so far. It also begs the question, with out-of-state Katrina evacuees largely concentrated in Atlanta and Texas, why did they contract out the work to a Virginia based company, complete with a $19.1 million dollar travel allowance (equivalent to about 254 average home-owners payouts)?

Arguably, the State of Louisiana, particularly under its current leadership, was incapable of administering the program, but one would think there would be qualified companies in nearby Texas, more accessible to the program’s potential beneficiaries and closer to state authorities. Of course, nobody mentions the company in question, ICF, is led by executives with a history of donating to Blanco’s political party.

Oh, and by the way, the state just announced the program faces: “a potential shortfall of more than $2 billion.” This from a program generating rafts of complaints about its tardiness in processing claims. It seems time for a full audit of the program, including the details of the bidding process.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Improvising: My Life in Music
By Larry Coryell
Backbeat Books

As one of the pioneers of jazz-rock fusion, Larry Coryell’s star was rising in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s at a time when jazz overall was trending down commercially. Despite the ups and downs to be expected in a long musical career, Coryell recounts a generally charmed, if chaotic life in his new memoir Improvising.

When discussing his success, Coryell gives credit early and often to his step-father Gene for encouraging his speculative career choice. The guitarist writes:

“I must have had a deep universal connection with Gene Coryell because, unlike most parents who want their kid to have some stable gig to “fall back” on, he simply encouraged the hell out of me to excel at what I loved—music.” (p. 6)

The 1960’s and 1970’s took a toll on Coryell, particularly the drug addiction he would eventually kick in the 1980’s. Coryell, while readily acknowledging his mistakes, is reluctant to dwell on the more lurid details. Along the way, he saw the violent turmoil of the early 1970’s first hand, in one instance having a gig in Boulder broken up because of a bomb scare. Coryell also recalls witnessing the time honored French tradition of rioting and burning cars in Toulouse:

“What did happen was an agitated group of students decided that ‘all music should be free’—that is, they didn’t want to pay—so they rioted outside the theater where we were performing, throwing rocks against the second-floor dressing room windows. They turned over some cars and set fire to trash cans.” (p. 92)

It seems clear that Coryell has the same passion for teaching he has for playing, as he frequently inserts instructional asides into his narrative. In an appendix, several of his Guitar Player columns are reprinted, and a CD of guitar lessons is also included.

Throughout Improvising, Coryell tries to minimize dramatic situations and resists the urge to criticize former associates. He goes out of his way to express his respect for guitar colleagues like the great Barney Kessel and the under-appreciated Hungarian defector Gabor Szabo. Written in an easy-going, conversational style, Improvising is a pleasant read that will be particularly rewarding and informative for students of the guitar.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Vaghissimo Ritratto

Vaghissimo Ritratto
Gianluigi Trovesi with Umberto Petrin and Fulvio Maras
ECM 1983

The notion of canonization is a controversial one in jazz. For his latest ECM project, Gianluigi Trovesi addresses the historical canon of European music, engaging composers like Luca Marenzio and Claudio Monteverdi of the late Renaissance, as well as masters of popular song like Luigi Tenco. Not surprisingly, Italy is well represented by the likes of Alfredo Piatti, with the balance coming from figures from Flanders and the Low Countries, like Jacques Brel and Josquin Desprez. While Vaghissimo Ritratto has an intimate sound, its scope covers hundreds of years of European musical history integrated into the trio’s original conceptions.

Ritratto begins with a group original, “Primo apparir,” which sets the atmosphere of austere elegance for the session. On alto clarinet throughout the session, Trovesi plays the beautiful melody over Petrin’s sparkling piano accompaniment and the unobtrusive electronic effects of Maras. Inspired the composer and cellist Alfredo Piatti, it is one of several selections identified as “Ritratto [portrait] di A.P.”

Throughout the session Trovesi and company effectively mix past and present. Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” serves as prelude to Trovesi’s “Grappoli orfici,” a contemplative piece that echoes its classical prologue. In the case of “Serenata/Matona mia cara” the musicians start with a sprightly original inspired by di Lasso which eventually resolves into its source composition. Clocking in less than three minutes, it is a perfect miniature, in which the three musicians intertwine beautifully, until Maras’ percussion turns back the clock to Renaissance.

With the more contemporary popular songs, Trovesi’s alto clarinet draws out all the melancholy of Brel’s “Amsterdam” and Tenco’s “Angela.” The simplicity of the instrumentation particularly suits the vibe of Brel’s Parisian cabaret material.

There is a strong chamber jazz sensibility to Ritratto, but it is not uniformly moody. Their rendition of Desprez’s “El Grillo” has a tongue-in-cheek quality, and the following “Particolare di J. Donne” has a strong, if idiosyncratic rhythmic drive. Inspired by the work of Flemish composer Tielman Susato later used to accompany the poetry of John Donne, it illustrates the literary and historical grounding of Ritratto.

Ritratto is a collage of beautiful melodies and improvisations, presented with deceptive simplicity. Blending jazz with classical, but not at the expense of the musicians’ voices, it is a truly graceful recording.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Chicago Underground Chronicle

Chicago Underground Trio
Delmark DVD

Chicago has a history of avant-garde jazz that rivals, perhaps even surpasses, that of New York. There is still a vital scene in the Windy City, which is often documented on Delmark Records. While only bassist Jason Ajemian still lives in the city (according to liner notes Peter Margasak), the Chicago Underground Trio clearly have strong ties to the city and its experimental jazz tradition, as captured live in Chicago’s German Cultural Center on the new Delmark DVD (and CD) Chronicle.

More than a concert film, Director Raymond Salvatore Harmon creates visual distortions, first by projecting color and light against the walls of the performance space, and than layering more over the actual recorded performances, in post-production. As the performances build in intensity, the colors become stronger, exploding into fractals in a kaleidoscopic blur.

The set opens with “Initiation,” a long bass prelude from Ajemian, imposed over the only outside visuals—what appears to be the view from a rural road shot from a moving vehicle. The tune demarcations are a bit arbitrary, but when drummer Chad Taylor comes in, it signals the start of “Resistance.” It is nearly the nine minute mark before the full trio is heard, as Rob Mazurek’s cornet enters, and Taylor switches to marimba and vibes. The Underground might be freely improvising, but this is not an abrasive set. Indeed, Taylor’s concluding statement on vibes is delicate and soothing.

“Power” is the longest track, and could be album in itself, continuing with the moody atmosphere of “Resistance’s” conclusion. Around the twenty minute mark Mazurek has a muted solo that wouldn’t be out of place in a film noir soundtrack. Around the twenty five minute mark he comes back with open horn for some downright bluesy statements. Taylor then has an intriguing feature on mbira, which may sound exotic, but not at all scary. “Power” morphs again around the thirty-fourth minute, as the electronics kick in, overwhelming the musicians in the mix. It might be the most intimidating sequence for those just getting their feet wet in freer forms of jazz, before Mazurek’s cornet eventually leads the trio out of the electronic maelstrom.

For those open to it, there are some very exciting musical moments in Chronicle. It ends on a particularly accessible note, “Transcendence,” which settles into a pulsing groove and features some passionate cornet work from Mazurek.

Video documents of jazz are important, because there is something about seeing artists play at a high level that hits people at a visceral level. What is interesting about Harmon’s effects is that they intrigue by revealing and obscuring in equal measure. At various points, Harmon’s split screen and super-imposed video create the effect of an army of musicians on screen, while at other points, musicians seem to disappear and re-materialize before our eyes. For a group like the Underground the question is always how adventurous do you need to be to enjoy their music. In the case of Chronicle, if you have reasonably open ears, you will enjoy it.
(Corrections made 5/16)

Friday, May 04, 2007

Tribeca has CHOPS

One of the refreshing things about attending IAJE conferences is seeing and hearing high school students who have a passion for jazz. Those are the sort of young musicians who are performing in Jazz @ Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition this weekend and are featured in Bruce Broder’s documentary CHOPS, screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.

CHOPS started as a film about Broder’s son Owen, an alto and clarinet player, and his jazz band mates from Douglas Anderson School for the Arts, in Jacksonville, FL (DA). What started as an examination of their dedication to jazz grew in scope when their school’s band was accepted by Jazz @ Lincoln Center for Essentially Ellington, dubbed “the Super Bowl” of school jazz band competitions at one point in the film.

The DA jazz band had competed in Essentially Ellington once before, but they were clearly considered underdogs. Eventually, CHOPS introduces viewers to two bands from Seattle, who are perennial rivals in EE, sort of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox of high school jazz bands. However, the DA musicians are the focus of the film, with Broder, drummer Jamison Ross, trombonist T.J. Norris, and trumpeter Jeron “Recio” Fruge taking most of the interview solos. On camera, these young musicians are poised, articulate, witty, and very serious about their music.

Every year J@LC sends out new Ellington transcriptions to high school bands. Those who chose to compete, record three of them, with hopes of performing their selections in New York. Each year, one tune seems to be picked by nearly every band. In 2006 “Idiom 59, Part 2” (part of a suite originally composed for Newport) was the song of the year, seen performed by a string of bands in a montage. Conversely, we only see one rendition of “Rocks in My Bed,” but Isabella DuGraf, the vocalist from Seattle’s Roosevelt High, seems to make quite an impression on the young men from DA.

Anytime a film comes out with a predominantly Ellington soundtrack, its worth seeing. However, CHOPS really captures the passion these students have for the music, which only grows as they go work their way towards New York. There is no question you develop a rooting interest in the DA band as you follow them from band auditions, through their preparations for the competition, to the main event. Watching it makes one optimistic about the future of jazz. All sorts of marketing comparisons could be made for the film: a musical Rocky, Hoop Dreams with a rhythm section, etc.

In fact, the sports comparison is apt. Its producers have a background in sports films, and it has been entered in the Tribeca Film Festival’s sports film division. Certainly, the DA band members practice, travel, and play together like a sports team does. What they do demands mental and physical discipline, and the competition they face is just as serious.

CHOPS has one more screening in conjunction with Tribeca, at 10:30 tomorrow morning, in the Kips Bay AMC. Hopefully, as it makes the festival circuit, CHOPS will land a nice distribution deal, because it really deserves it.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

En Route

En Route
By Four80East
Native Language Music

Internal debates have historically been a double-edged sword for jazz. Too often, we have argued about classification issues rather than growing the music in general. However, those debates have the benefit of sharpening our thinking on the music and fueling our passion for it. Here’s another such opportunity for debate: Four80East. Although some reviews give them the dreaded “smooth jazz” tag, they are much more in the trip tradition of St. Germain, which comparison would only intensify the reservations of some jazz purists. So be it, but for those receptive to their club-friendly grooves, En Route will go down well.

Four80East is the augmented duo of keyboardist/bassist Rob DeBoer and drummer Tony Grace. As both take programming credits on the CD, clearly a great deal of studio work went into En Route, but there is some legit instrumental work in the mix as well. It starts out with an almost ominous intro to “Five By Five,” that echoes “Come Together” before sliding into the kind groove that is the group’s specialty, with Jon Stewart’s tenor lending some flavor.

Some of the tracks, like “The Drop,” have an action soundtrack vibe, giving the album a darker, driving quality not typically associated with smooth sounds. “Double Down” follows, continuing the moody ambience, lightened by more tenor work from Stewart.

For a group like Four80East, over-production is going to be a temptation, as on “Closer,” which features some background vocals that were a mistake. “Noodle Soup,” the designated single, also sounds a bit too synth-pop. Overall though, there is a good vibe to En Route, like the late-night blues feel of “Easy Come, Easy Go,” with some nicely appropriate keyboard work from DeBoer.

There are certainly mellow tracks as well, like the dreamy soundscape of “Don’t Look Back” that takes advantage of Bryden Baird’s muted trumpet. “Waterline” is the happy closer that flirts with being saccharine (maybe crossing the border), but has undeniably strong melodic hooks.

As a groove-heavy album, En Route works more often than not. Send me nasty e-mail if you feel I’ve debased jazz in recommending it. Yes, sometimes the drumbeats are too mechanical. However, jazz needs more strong sellers in category, not just to get people into our section in the superstores, but to keep those very sections, such as they are. Four80East has real commercial potential, without dumbing things down. Can they play for our team?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Jazz in this House

Churches have become one of the few sectors of American society bullish on jazz. More and more houses of worship are integrating jazz into their services. Along with St. Peter’s in New York, St. Augustine’s in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans stands as one of the original churches to minister to and with the jazz community. After Katrina, the Catholic diocese announced plans to close St. Augustine’s, but granted a stay to allow the congregation to try to meet certain goals, including fundraising targets. A recent Reuters report is optimistic they can make it, but the Times-Pic sounds less confident.

In New Orleans Playing a Jazz Chorus, Samuel Charters describes St. Augustine’s:

“It was certainly the only church in the world where a flamboyant portrait of Louis Armstrong hung next to a stained glass window depicting the Virgin. Under a 19th century oil painting of Jesus across the church, Louis, in a green tuxedo jacket, raised his trumpet—and eyes—as if in tribute. On a nearby wall, Louis smiled cheerfully in close-up, while just above him, Christ, bearing his cross, was being flogged by a vengeful figure behind him. There were paintings of Mardi Gras Indians, who gather close to the church in their costumes on Mardi Gras. Hanging from the arch before the altar was the church’s marching banner. It was made of green felt with gold fringe, and in the center was a painting of Louis Armstrong.” (p. 188)

St. Augustine’s boasts a rich and instructive history. Its famous parishioners include Homer Plessy (vs. Ferguson) and Sidney Bechet. It was the first church to reserve space for captive slaves to worship and was the site of the founding of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family, “the second-oldest African-American congregation of religious women.” In 2004 The Tomb of the Unknown Slave was dedicated on church grounds with a plaque donated by the estate of legendary musician and youth bandleader Danny Barker.

Jazz @ Lincoln Center will soon host the fifteenth anniversary concert of Wynton Marsalis’ In This House, On This Morning. Along with St. Peter’s, St. Augustine’s has established the tradition of sacred jazz that inspired Marsalis and many other composers and musicians. The St. Augustine’s community thinks they have almost made it. You can support their efforts here.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Coming Soon: Show Business

The modern musical and jazz have common roots in the Broadway revues of turn-of-the-century musicians like James Reese Europe and Joe Jordan. Both genres have evolved enormously in the succeeding years, but the Broadway musical still holds out the elusive promise of a potential blockbuster hit. Dori Berinstein’s new documentary ShowBusiness (no space) documents the pursuit of that goal during the 2003-2004 Broadway season (trailer here).

Business follows four shows—two hits and two misses—from workshops through the Tony Awards. The hits, Avenue Q and Wicked, are still running strong. The flops, Caroline, or Change and Taboo were not long for this world, but in the case of Taboo, the bad taste for many still lingers.

There is behind-the-scenes drama for each show, but Taboo, the Boy George musical produced by Rosie O’Donnell, was a circus. We see early scenes of hubris in which O’Donnell confidently predicts success and Boy George basically blows off the Avenue Q creators on Taboo’s opening night. Karma indeed.

Perhaps those who come off the worst are the various sarcastic critics whose prognostications made in Midtown restaurants are almost entirely wrong. At the start of the season, no critic (except Ben Brantley of The Times) has much faith in Q, and a quick demise is predicted for Wicked. Michael Riedel of The New York Post in particular, comes in for some lumps for his columns detailing the chaos of Taboo, but that seems to overstate his influence in the show’s closing.

Of the four shows we see in depth, Q is clearly the most engaging, and its creators have a goofy charm that contrasts with the corporate professionalism of the crowd pleasing Wicked. Caroline showed a great deal of potential, including an entertaining score from Jeanine Tesori, who also arranged music for the film. However, there seemed to be a strident edge in the performances which my have doomed it with Broadway audiences. Despite some half-hearted praise for Taboo late in the film, it was clearly a train wreck. After screening Business one comes to the conclusion that market forces picked the right winners and losers during the ’03-04 season. (Although, I would argue Bombay Dreams, also from that season, deserved a longer run.)

Berinstein and her crew had fly-on-the wall access, which allowed them to capture some fascinating scenes. It also benefits from occasional commentary from actor and co-producer Alan Cumming. At times Business is quite funny (if snarky), but the filmmakers clearly have a genuine affection for the theater, which is why they seem to fall in love with the underdogs of Avenue Q. Ultimately, it is a New York success story that anyone who has attended a Broadway show in recent years will enjoy. It premieres tonight in New York (of course) and starts its regular run on May 11th.