Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Stages of a Long Journey

Stages of a Long Journey
By Eberhard Weber
ECM 1920

As a marketing hook, the tribute concert has become a staple of jazz festivals and concert halls. One can envision programming organizers starting their plans for each season by figuring out what birthdays and round number anniversaries they can work with. The recent occasion of Stuttgart favorite son Eberhard Weber’s sixty-fifth birthday may have gone little noticed in America’s old media, but it was marked by an ambitious concert program during the city’s Theaterhaus Jazztage fest, recorded live and recently released as Stages of a Long Journey.

On hand are an impressive group of musicians, including ECM label-mates pianist Wolfgang Dauner, percussionist Marilyn Mazur, Gary Burton on vibes, and Jan Garbarek on soprano and tenor, together with the large ensemble of the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Weber has had a long association with ECM, and like his label, he has covered a great deal of stylistic ground, which is well reflected in Stages.

The disk begins with what might be the most symphonic track, “Silent Feet.” Starting from Weber’s bowed bass, building with the entrance of Mazur’s percussion, “Feet” almost recalls the work of Gary McFarland, especially as it features Burton’s vibes, as well as Garbarek’s pungent soprano.

Burton’s vibes are even more prominent on the following “Syndrome,” Carla Bley’s composition given an up-tempo swinging treatment in a quintet format, with Rainer Brüninghaus in the piano chair taking an appropriately fleet bop solo. It is followed by a delicate but satisfying duet between Weber and special guest Dauner on the Jerome Kern standard “Yesterdays.”

The Birthday Suite accounts a good portion of the program, consisting of three of Weber’s best known compositions, with transitional passages in between. “The Colors of Chloë” uses the symphony to full effect on a slow building, dramatic opening, before segueing into a more jazz oriented passage, with solo space for Weber, Burton, and Garbarek. Weber gives his composition “Maurizius” a moodier, bittersweet arrangement, with Garbarek’s soprano sounding plaintive. It concludes with the starkly orchestral “Yellow Fields,” punctuated by Burton’s vibes, Garbarek’s expressive tenor, and Brüninghaus’s flowing piano lines.

Perhaps the most unlikely collaborative effort is the trio of Weber’s bass, Reto Weber (no relation as the liner notes stress) on his percussive invention the hang, and beatbox Nino G. They actually blend into a percussive whole reasonably well, in “Hang Around,” undoubtedly the highest energy performance of the night

In a way, Weber’s birthday celebration encapsulates his own career and to a large extent that of his label, with “Syndrome” corresponding to ECM’s more jazz oriented sessions from artists like Burton, “Seven Movements,” his duet with Garbarek representative of the spacier sessions led by artists like the Norwegian reedman, and “Hang Around” pointing to more recent forms of experimentation. As such, it is an entertainingly varied program that pays fitting tribute to a rewarding artist.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Vanguard of Brutalism

Context is helpful. A little more may have helped the MoMa’s exhibit Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture, 1922-32. However, the introductory notes do make an important point about the modernist architects whose surviving works are documenting in the exhibit through Richard Pare’s photography: “With the advent of Socialist realism and the larger cultural reaction that accompanied Stalin’s repressive regime, they came under violent criticism in the Soviet Union.” Yes, let us start with some understatement.

The earliest structures represented are indeed striking, including the Comintern’s Shabolovka radio tower used as the key art for the exhibition. However, the architecture soon evolves into something closely akin to the familiar brutalism of 1960s government buildings (large geometric structures of roughened concrete and recessed windows), with a few modernist flourishes thrown in here and there. Indeed, the communal houses commissioned by the Peoples Commissariat of Finance prompted Le Corbusier, the guru of glass and steel, to complain of them being:

“so cold, so impassive . . . that one is struck with melancholy not merely at the idea of living there oneself, but at the thought that several hundred individuals have been purely and simply deprived of the joys of architecture.”

Despite his complaints, Le Corbusier himself is represented in the exhibit with a classic example of the bureaucratic brutalist office structure, shortly thereafter. Truly aptly named, Soviet brutalist structures at their worst, exemplify drabness, always looking damp, and amplifying their state of disrepair, as Pare’s photos attest, more often than not.

One is still left with the question of what happened to the represented architects, particularly the more talented ones. In the case of Konstantin Melnikov, visitors get a hint of an answer. According to the title cards: “Melnikov was banned from building in the late 1930s because of his radical resistance to Socialist realism, and his house became his only refuge.” Again, there is some understated context.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Earth to Sun Ra, Red Pencils Needed

As part of the Whitney’s Earth to Sun Ra tribute to the intergalactic bandleader last night, Fred Ho and Quincy Troupe staged a reading of an excerpt from their forthcoming Sun Ra opera. (Born Herman Sonny Blount in Alabama, Sun Ra claimed to hail from the planet Saturn, and mixed science fiction and Egyptian elements in his productions.) Based on what was seen last night, they need serious revisions.

To start with the positive, Taylor Ho Bynum’s group put on an excellent show. His horn section made quite an entrance coming down the Whitney staircase into the café area. His band found a nice Sun Ra groove, swinging, yet explorative, with some knock-out percussion from Abraham Gomez-Delgado. Vocalist Jen Shyu was in strong voice interpreting appropriately spiritual lyrics that conveyed a message without sounding didactic. It can be done. The man from Saturn would approve.

It did not happen in the preceding reading of Ho & Troupe’s opera, though. Admittedly, the actors were at a disadvantage without accompanying music. However, the strident moralizing would be overwrought with any accompaniment. What becomes immediately apparent is that Troupe took little effort to capture Sun Ra’s voice. The legendary bandleader could mix politics with mythology, while maintaining a sense of humor through his ingenious (and often cryptic) word play. (For an example check out Sun Ra’s science fiction film Space is the Place, in which the bandleader battles a pimped-out Satan figure and his minions in the FBI. Equal parts blaxploitation and Bergman’s Seventh Seal, it gives a good sampling of Sun Ra’s unique language and philosophy.) That unique voice was nowhere to be heard last night. The Sun Ra of Troupe’s libretto may as well have come on stage and announced himself as Troupe’s mouthpiece for the night.

There was something in Troupe’s words to offend everyone. From an overlong exploration of Sun Ra’s reported sexist attitudes, to a litany of heroes that crossed over from the dubious into the offensive. We hear Troupe’s Sun Ra place mass murderers like Yasser Arafat, Mao Tse-tung, and Fidel Castro in a Pantheon with the likes of Frederick Douglass and Duke Ellington. Perhaps Troupe should talk to the family of Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet about what it is really like to live under Castro’s police state. Obviously, he is not expecting the family of Leon Klinghoffer to show up for the next preview of the opera at the Guggenheim.

Last night’s reading was stentorian, didactic, and dull. It was redeemed by the other acts. As mentioned, Taylor Ho Bynum’s group put on a great show. They were followed by an interesting collaboration between Latasha Diggs and Matana Roberts, which included a new piece dedicated to June Tyson.

You can mix music and politics without spoiling the effect of both. It would not be hard to take an environmental message from some of the lyrics heard during Bynum’s entertaining set. Lionizing dictators and terrorists however, would detract from even the most brilliant score, which in this case remains unheard. Sun Ra fans, let’s hope for some extensive revisions.

Friday, July 27, 2007

No Green M&M’s?

Just noticed it must be a good month for jazz when one of our artists makes the Smoking Gun. Of course, it’s crossover superstar Diana Krall. TNG posted excerpts from her tour rider, which includes a helpful list DK approved wines (which maybe come in handy when you’re married to Elvis Costello). She does request a comfortable dressing room for her band too, but without culinary stipulations for them. There is a nice closing sentiment too: “Thank you for your time and consideration in feeding us. We look forward to working with you.” Hey, if she can get rockstar treatment from promoters, then good for her.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Lyrics Worth Remembering

Broadway lyricists are in a bit of a slump. It has been years since they produced a breakout hit. As entertaining a show as The Drowsy Chaperone is, the only memorable song is a gag number spoofing shows like the King & I. One show that did not have that problem was To Live Another Summer, To Pass Another Winter, an Israeli musical that played on Broadway in 1971, featuring lyrics by the Polish born Hayim Hefer who “founded the Chizbatron, the first Israeli Army entertainment troupe,” according to the cast album notes. His words are indeed memorable:

The Boy With The Fiddle
“I Can Remember A German Captain Called To Me,
Get Over Here, My Darling, Our Pretty Little Boy
You Played Bach and Beethoven While You Were Free
And Now You Join Our Little Orchestra of Joy.

I Remember the Long Striped Shirt He Made Me Wear
The Others Had Them Too as the Trains Rolled By
He Made Us Play This Tune, This heinous Little Air
We Played As Our People Went to Die . . .”

To Live Another Summer, To Pass Another Winter
“We Were Content to Give Our Youth,
To Pawn Our Years Like Golden Chain,
For Words Like ‘Freedom,’ or Like ‘Truth’
Days Clear and Free From Bloody Rain,
And Only One Wish Remained.

To Live Another Summer, To Pass Another Winter
To Watch the Trees Turn Green from Ashes and from Cinder
To Cross A Quiet Street, Alone Secure from Trouble
To See the Flowers Bloom, Away from Graves and Rubble”

Sorry We Won It
“Oh Please World, Excuse Us
We’re Asking You For Forgiveness
We’re Awfully Sorry
We’re Sorry We Won the War”

It would be interesting to see To Live revived, or at least have the cast album reissued on CD. It was actually the final recording project for the great jazz arranger-composer-vibraphonist Gary McFarland, who was credited on it as the Musical Supervisor. Shortly after the session, McFarland visited a bar with a musician friend, consuming a drink mysteriously laced with liquid methadone. According to reports he died immediately of a massive heart attack. (I’ve actually played an excerpt of To Live when discussing McFarland in class, and got some looks like I had three heads.) It is a memorable work though, historically significant for many reasons.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


By Towner Galaher

One bad rap jazz is saddled with is that only exudes the blues, rather than expressing the joy of music. The happy horn of Clark Terry and cheerful vibes of Lionel Hampton are classic examples among instrumentalists to the contrary. Towner Galaher’s debut as a leader, Panorama, also demonstrates consistent high spirits through a program of rigorous post-bop swing.

Panorama is bookended by two originals presumably inspired by New York, the reigning capitol city of jazz. The first, “Midtown Shuffle,” propelled along by Galaher’s buoyant drumming, features sparkling solos from Maurice Brown on trumpet, Mark Shim on tenor, and Onaje Allen Gumbs on piano. The set also features rock solid support from bassist Charles Fambrough.

Galaher is more supportive than flashy on Panorama often giving his sidemen the solo spotlight. The standard “Have You Met Miss Jones?” is somewhat heavier on the percussion, with the addition of Latin percussionists Frank Colon and Johnny Almendra. Again, there are upbeat, swinging solos from Shim and Brown, continuing the happy vibes of the session.

Galaher well demonstrates his composing talent, particularly on the up-tempo Latin groover “Legba.” Galaher and his guest percussionists generate a lot of fire in the trickster’s name, which clearly energizes Brown and Shim.

The proceedings are not relentlessly upbeat. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Charles Mingus’s requiem for Lester Young receives an appropriately respectful treatment in an interesting arrangement. (A happy, rousing rendition would frankly be a little weird.)

The upbeat mood returns with another original, “Charisma,” notable for the strutting high note work from Brown. The Latin vibe returns, moving uptown with closer, “East 104th Street.” It is a straight ahead burner, that while short, says plenty.

Throughout, the combination of veteran and emerging musicians sound inspired to dig into Galaher’s original compositions. As a result, Panorama is a promising debut that creates a consistently entertaining and uplifting mood.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Mourning Bravo

The most depressing aspect of the morning commute is seeing the large advertisements for the latest tacky “reality” show the Bravo network is currently peddling. Why has the bastardization of a once rich source of programming gone relatively unremarked upon?

While in school, I saw some of the greatest films ever made on Bravo, including Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and Louis Malle’s Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (featuring an original soundtrack by Miles Davis). Now Bravo is more likely to show celebrity dog fighting than anything from the Janus Collection.

Another casualty of Bravo’s programming switch to the life styles of the vapid rich was the South Bank Show. Hosted by Melvyn Bragg, the British show profiles a wide array of cultural figures and events. Most notable in my memory is John Jeremy’s Boogie Woogie Music, a short documentary on boogie woogie piano largely focusing on Meade Lux Lewis. I do not remember the entire show, but I will never forget Lewis’s final gig was at a place called the Circus Snack Bar. In retrospect, this episode may have helped acclimate my ears to more syncopated forms of music.

Most likely it was also on Bravo that I saw Claude Sautet’s Un Coeur en Hiver. The film and its use of the trios and sonatas of Ravel are undeniably powerful. Un Couer and Georges Delerue’s memorable themes for Day for Night and The Last Metro probably started me thinking about the relationship between film and music. Years later, I would teach a class on jazz and film at SCPS.

What kind of seeds is Bravo now sowing with shows about Paula Abdul, whose life bears no resemblance to reality? Ever since it became part of the NBC Universal fold, Bravo has been on a steep (but probably profitable) decline, and with few complaints from self appointed culture advocates. Truffaut fans can take their business to Netflix, but the absence of a program like The South Bank Show, which could unexpectedly turn random viewers on to Meade Lux Lewis, is a dead loss.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Piano Girl

Piano Girl: Lessons in Life, Music, and the Perfect Blue Hawaiian
By Robin Meloy Goldsby
Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard

This should go without saying, but it bears repeating: if you request a song from the pianist in a bar or hotel, you should tip. The more wack your request, the larger the tip should be. If you have any further questions about hotel piano etiquette, you can consult Robin Meloy Goldsby’s entertaining memoir Piano Girl.

Meloy has played piano in restaurants, hotel lobbies, resorts, and the odd (at times very odd) cabaret gigs. Having played major midtown hotels, like the Marriott Marquis in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, she probably played “Memories” and “I Did It All For Love” more than any human being should have to.

Starting in Pittsburgh, Goldsby makes her way to Germany by way of New York (with periodic stops in Haiti), playing perfectly tasteful background music. After some less inspiring gigs in places like Waterbury, she eventually starts gigging in the big Broadway hotels, thanks to a new agent:

“Harlan Ellis. What a great name. In my short career I’ve worked for Pete Frank, Sammy Scott, and Rick Lester. Most agents seem to have two first names. Maybe Harlan Ellis will be different. He has two last names.” (p. 113)

Despite feeling outclassed at her first audition for Ellis, she finds that just by being pleasant, she edges out a talented, but socially challenged field of pianists. It is a lesson she passes along to her protégé, Robin Spielberg, who would become a professional confidant as well. Goldsby recalls:

“We would compare notes about wacko customers and potential stalkers, and we figure out how you can avoid playing Scott Joplin pieces if you hold up your left hand like a claw, say you were born with a deformity, and you can’t possibly stretch a major tenth.” (p. 197)

Golsby writes with wit and maintains her affection for the music she plays. While packaged and blurbed to evoke Sex and the City (and not inappropriately so), we hear her conversing with her inner voices (Voice of Reason and Voice of Doom) enough to satisfy Woody Allen neurotics. Her story will also interest jazz listeners, as Meloy has appeared on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz and is currently married to John Goldsby, a bassist with the WDR big band.

Piano Girl is a quick and amusing read that should encourage people to listen closer to the person playing piano in their bars and restaurants. Here in New York particularly, that person could be a world class musician.

(Note: Goldsby is visiting America this month to do publicity for Piano Girl.)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Moral Clarity from Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is the first non-musician to win the NEA Jazz Master Award for Jazz Advocacy. He is also the recipient of the American Library Association’s Immroth Award for Intellectual Freedom, which he has since disavowed in protest of the ALA’s refusal to condemn the arrest and torture of Cuba’s independent librarians. He continues to turn up the heat on the Castro apologists in the first of two editorials in the Washington Times this week. Hentoff pointedly writes:

“Bearing such signs as ‘Book Burning Is NOT A solution to Cuba's Energy Problems’ and ‘Ray Bradbury (author of "Fahrenheit 451") Says: “Free The Jailed Librarians,"’ the Freadomistas also handed out fliers that quoted the core ALA policy: ‘The American Library Association believes that freedom of expression is an inalienable human right... vital to the resistance of oppression... and the principles of freedom of expression should be applied by libraries and librarians throughout the world.’ Another ALA policy cited on the flyers ‘deplores the destruction of libraries, library collections and property.’ Yet, as I have reported previously, the ALA ignores the fact that Cuban court documents (validated by Amnesty International and the Organization of American States) reveal that the entire collections of at least six independent libraries were ordered destroyed. . . .

And the ALA council — in defiance of a Jan. 25, 2006, poll in the official American Libraries e-mail newsletter, AL Direct, in which 76 percent of the rank-and-file membership urged emancipation — continues its refusal to call for the release of what some ALA leaders deride as ‘so-called librarians.’ Yet the library associations of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have vigorously demanded their release. Those countries know what it is to live under communism.

At the ALA conference, a Freadomista flier ended with a reminder from Martin Luther King Jr., whose biography was burned by Castro judges: ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.’ The next time you visit your local library, you might express your support for the extraordinarily courageous independent librarians whose devotion to Cubans' right to read have put them in these gulags.”

Hentoff is a rare public intellectual who refuses to wear ideological blinkers. Whether it be championing the Jazz Foundation of America or publicizing the plight of Cuba’s independent librarians, the Village Voice and Jazz Times columnist has always aligned himself with the underdogs of the world. Although generally a man of the left, he is a consistent and independent thinker who brings real moral authority to issues of intellectual freedom. Look for part two of his editorial next week.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Return to Kirkuk

Return to Kirkuk: A Year in the Fire
Produced by Karzan Sherabayani
Eagle Media

“President Bush is a sacred person.” Not exactly the words you would expect to hear spoken in a documentary that aired on the BBC, Al Jazeera International and Frontline, but Karzan Sherabayani’s Return to Kirkuk resists the temptation to play to partisans on either side of the war to liberate Iraq.

At the age of fourteen, the Kurdish Sherabayani was imprisoned and tortured by Saddam Hussein’s secret police. His freedom was eventually ransomed by his older brother, leading Sherabayani to spend the next thirty years in exile in England. Kirkuk documents his return to his Kurdish homeland at a pivotal point in its history.

When he returned, the Kurds were granted the Kurdistan Autonomous Region under a proposed federal system of government. However, Sherabayani’s home city of Kirkuk was not including in this territory. Oh, and there’s oil there. A lot: “Kirkuk sits on 10 billion barrels of oil, worth over US$700 billion. This is more than twice the oil reserves of Texas.”

Sherabayani expresses great resentment for the British for partitioning Kurdistan in 1921 and for Americans abandoning the Kurdish resistance during the first Gulf War. Yet he has no false nostalgia for the Saddam regime, having experienced its savagery first hand.

In a particularly chilling sequence, Sherabayani returns to the cell in which he was tortured, reliving the horror of an experience that obviously still haunts him. He is not the only survivor we hear from. We meet, for instance, the elderly woman (a longtime family friend), who described Pres. Bush as “sacred.” Another friend adds: “We should make golden statues of Mr. Bush & Mr. Blair, and put them in every city.”

The act of voting is an important theme in Kirkuk. Sherabayani states: “For many years I have never had a chance to vote in this country, and now, in one year, this is the third time.” As Sherabayani shows viewers Iraqi and Kurdish citizens risking their lives to vote, it is impossible to miss the significance.

Yet, Sherabayani is also pessimistic about the future, often predicting civil war. He criticizes American military policies and frequently advocates an independent Kurdish state. Given the Kurdish support for coalition forces, he makes a decent case.

Kirkuk is told through a very personal, often moving, prism that conveys much about the actual state of affairs for the Kurds in Iraq. It is informative without conforming to preconceived prejudices. If only the same could be said for more of what the BBC and Frontline (let alone Al Jazeera) programmed.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Swingin’ Bassoon

The Swingin’ Bassoon
By Daniel Smith
Zah Zah

When you maintain a jazz blog, you get some random questions from distant places. Now, for those asking for a good jazz bassoon rendition of “Summer Samba” your answer is here. Indeed, many unusual instruments have found a place in jazz. Given the tradition of jazz oboe established by the likes of Yusef Lateef and Bob Cooper, let alone the more unlikely jazz bagpipes of Rufus Harley, it seems strange that there has been little jazz love for the bassoon until recently. Daniel Smith has been blazing that trail, as evidenced by his new CD The Swingin’ Bassoon.

It is on the swing standards that the bassoon best adapts to jazz, as on the opening track, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” It is particularly effective carrying the melancholy introduction. Smith proves an inventive improviser on his instrument, backed by an excellent rhythm section, including Martin Bejerano on piano and John Sullivan on bass, both veterans of Roy Haynes groups, as well as Cuban born Ludwig Afonso on drums.

“Hay Burner” is an easy swinging Basie standard that also well suits Smith’s bassoon, in an arrangement that retains the good humor and economy of the big band original. Again, Smith and Bejerano craft engaging solos in a pleasing mid-tempo workout.

Bop burners like “Scrapple from the Apple” offer a real challenge to the bassoon. (Charlie Parker remains a stiff test for any instrument.) Smith faces up to it pretty well, and Bejerano shows his bop chops well. However, it is on melodic swing standards, like “Mood Indigo,” that really match up well with Smith’s bassoon. The famous late night bluesy opening notes of the Ellington standard sound great here—it might be the showcase tune that best makes the case for the bassoon as a vehicle for jazz improvisation.

As for “Summer Samba,” it is actually one of the better up-tempo tunes on Bassoon. It might sound like a poppy (bordering on dated) song, but there are inventive solos from Smith, Sullivan, and Bejerano. It is followed by “Out of Nowhere,” which again proves a good fit as a mid-tempo tune with a good measure of moodiness. The same is true of “Home at Last,” a shrewd tune choice from the still under-appreciated Hank Mobley, inspiring some of Smith’s best soloing.

Bassoon is an unusual and entertaining set of small group swing. In all likelihood, it will not inspire an army of jazz bassoonists, but it does establish a good niche for Smith.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Thursday in the Park with Baraka

One can’t know everything, that’s what google is for. So why don’t more organizations google Amiri Baraka before getting involved with him. On Thursday, August 2nd, Baraka will be reading at Central Park’s Summer Stage, courtesy of the City Parks Foundation, organizers of Summer Stage events. What can you expect to hear if you decide to enjoy an evening in the Park?

Baraka is famous for causing the abolition of his position as the New Jersey State Poet Laureate when he wrote in “Somebody Blew Up America,” (which can be found at: amiribaraka dot com/blew dot html):

“Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away ?”

“Blew Up” also included Baraka’s infamous characterization of Condoleezza Rice as a “Skeeza.” The ADL rightly took exception to Baraka’s conspiracy theory poetry and compiled some troubling quotes from his past, like this from the 1960’s: "Another bad poem cracking steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth." Baraka, the author of a 1980 Village Voice article titled “Confessions of a former Anti-Semite,” claims he has no issues with Jews now, just those evil Zionists. Read the ADL brief and make your own conclusions. The NY Times coverage of Baraka’s criticism of Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s administration suggests his rhetoric has not become more temperate in recent years.

Baraka definitely claims a substantial place in the history of jazz criticism. However, his hateful conspiracy theories place him well outside the mainstream. Make no mistake, inviting Baraka to give a reading is not that far from to hiring David Duke to perform an interpretative dance based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He absolutely has a right to express his opinions, but the City Parks Foundation had no obligation to provide him a platform, especially when there are so many talented artists who would benefit from the exposure they provide.

Despite his past important jazz poetry and critical writing, Baraka, like Duke, has crossed the Rubicon into a dark place where the specter of Zionism lurks under every bed. Sponsoring him lends a tacit endorsement to whatever he might espouse, like suggestions of Israeli complicity in 9-11, thereby implying such extremist theories must be within the realm of reasonable discourse. This was the City Parks Foundation’s error, so do not flood the City Parks Department with angry e-mail. It does promise a highly bloggable evening though.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Frankie Manning, Ambassador

Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop
By Frankie Manning and Cynthia R. Millman
Temple University Press

Youtube must be just about over now that publishing houses are using it. Although it is satisfying to see that the book wowing the industry for its youtube savvy, is actually a jazz related title. Clips of Lindy hop dance great Frankie Manning performing the air steps he invented (and commemorating his ninety-third birthday) were impressive enough to drive a spike in sales of his memoir, Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop, for the industry press to notice.

As a result, many readers are now enjoying Manning’s reminisces of his role in developing the Lindy hop, his preferred term and capitalization for the style of swing dancing commonly referred to as the jitterbug. Manning had an eye witness view not just of jazz dance history, but of the big band era, as a regular of the late great Savoy Ballroom. Often their favorite bandleader Chick Webb held court there, who Manning fondly remembers:

“Now, Chick Webb always played for the dancers. There was this wonderful communication between his band and the Lindy Hoppers. If it wasn’t crowded and we were able to dance in front of the bandstand, he would often focus on somebody doing a certain step, and he’d catch it.” (p. 98)

Manning would become a professional exhibition Lindy hopper, and eventually tour internationally. However, his memoir is not all about his show business glory years. He covers challenging years as well, particularly his military service during WWII, when he faced fire from Japan and Jim Crow from home. Throughout his story, Manning clearly used humor to face adversity, as when confronted by segregation while training at Fort Hood in Texas. As Manning recalls:

“All the buses had signs about three-quarters of the way down the aisle that said ‘colored.’ One day my buddy Claude, and I got on a bus that was practically empty and, for a joke, moved the sign up to the front, so there were only three rows left for white people. Rather than go into the colored section with just the two of us, these folks kept getting on the bus, crowding themselves into the little front area. It was hilarious to see them packing in like sardines.” (p. 193)

Eventually MPs would give chase, but Manning and his friend lost them. His military stories take a more serious note when Manning movingly describes how an unconscious act of bravery on his part changed the heart and mind of a previously racist Southern Sergeant.

Manning would survive the War and the following years of obscurity to emerge as the living fount of Lindy wisdom during the swing revival of the 1980’s and 1990’s. In telling his tale, he raises some interesting points, suggesting a strong link between social dancing and performance dancing that does not seem to be as common a connection for many now. Social dancing was a part of the lives of his friends and colleagues at the Savoy and for countless others during the swing era. Clearly, it kept Manning vital well into his nineties.

Based on the pages of his book, Manning has aged gracefully in spirit as well, sounding likeable and constantly refraining from grinding axes or settling scores, in what is a very readable memoir. OK, now check out the video:

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Dazzle Scouts New Talent

Dazzle, Denver’s top jazz club, makes some interesting booking decisions. They are not always perfect (no need to mention Friday’s vocalist), but Saturday they featured pianist Harold O’Neal, best known probably for his work as a sideman with Greg Osby, on the recommendation of Andrew Hill.

Like Jason Moran playing at the Standard this week, Hill clearly had a tremendous influence on O’Neal. KUVO interviewers asked him about the famous musicians he has played with (including Kenny Garrett, Bobby Watson, and Paquito D’Rivera), but it was clear from his answers that Hill was first among equals.

One can hear Hill in his playing, but you can also hear some of the down-home Kansas City as well (Kansas City, Kansas in O’Neal’s case). He is also a talented composer, playing almost entirely originals, aside from one Kenny Kirkland tune, “Mr. J.C.” Despite the surprising number of rude patrons (cell phones, loud talking) O’Neal’s playing held the real listeners captivated, particularly on a solo original leading into the Kirkland. It’s not hard to hear why Osby enlisted him for St. Louis Shoes, which was the altoist’s first standards set and tribute to his hometown, but wholly consistent with his advanced conceptions.

Sat. he was well backed by two Denver musicians, Bijoux Barbosa on bass and Mike Marlier on drums, as well as the guitar from his forthcoming recording, Charles Suite, Rick Gibbins. (Give the Dazzle regulars credit, they have always acquitted themselves well when backing up out-of-town musicians.) O’Neal has return engagements booked at Dazzle in the coming month, so check him out if you are in Denver.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

JaMo & Bandwagon: In the Standard, but Not Standard Fare

Jason Moran with the Bandwagon (Nasheet Waits on drums and Taurus Mateen on bass) are one of the few groups I have actually dragged reluctant people out to hear. They have a rare ability to project a “we’re cooler than you” attitude, while remaining likeable on the bandstand. Having heard them live on many occasions, one comes to expect something new each time, whether it is the challenging material recorded live at the Vanguard, featuring music improvised to a Turkish telephone conversation and a Chinese stock market report, or the blues drenched material of Same Mother.

Last night at the Jazz Standard, JaMo was in a Monkish mood, having spent serious time with Monk’s 1959 Town Hall concert. Bandwagon nicely interpreted “Crepuscule with Nellie” and “Thelonious,” wholeheartedly enjoying Monk’s odd charm, while retaining the lyric beauty of the former love song dedicated to Monk’s wife.

Moran also read the NY Times pan of the Town Hall concert over Monk’s the original concert recordings of both tunes combined into one track. The overdubbed Monk was actually an intriguing effect, but the review, calling the concert “work-a-day” “pipe and slippers” music does not hold up well under any circumstances.

The highlights of the set were tributes to Moran’s mentors. He acknowledged his teacher Jaki Byard with “To Bob Vatel of Paris.” The late Andrew Hill’s presence was also felt in a medley of his original “Tough Love” flowing into a beautiful untitled composition Hill and Moran worked out, for which Moran says he is awaiting a sign from the master to name.

The over-riding vibe last night was a good groove from a group that has played together since 2000. They are fascinating to listen to, as each tune goes through an evolution, rising and falling in intensity, covering a wide emotional spectrum, but never straying far from their sense of humor. They play at the Standard through Sunday.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Annual D’Rivera Campaign

The critics have had their say in the Downbeat critics poll out now in the August issue. The rest of us civilians can still vote in the readers poll, which we can now do online—no more business reply ballots (but wait a minute, no paper trail?).

Like last year, I would recommend voting for Paquito D’Rivera in the clarinet category (you can write him in for alto too, if you’re so inclined), and Arturo Sandoval for trumpet. These would not be votes against another artist, but votes for acknowledged jazz giants. They also understand what freedom really means, having defected from Castro’s island gulag.

NEA Jazz Master D’Rivera has been particularly outspoken, taking clueless celebrities like Carlos Santana to task for their Che fetish. He also plays with an infectious sense of joy, clearly illustrating the close relationship between jazz and freedom. His autobiography, My Sax Life, is in many ways a love letter to the many musicians he has worked with, but also recounts the frightening reality of living under a dictatorial regime.

Sandoval’s defection is a story familiar to many thanks to the HBO film For Love or Country starring Andy Garcia. A trumpeter comfortable in the stratosphere, he was one of the last real protégés of Dizzy Gillespie, who helped facilitate his defection. Sandoval is also an entrepreneur, having opened a club in the Miami area. No jazz fan would begrudge him votes in the trumpet category.

It is a mistake to let mere political differences affect one’s aesthetic judgments. However, some readers here might take added motivation in the fact that the perennial clarinet winner, Don Byron, a legitimately talented musician, often infuses political commentary into his tunes like “Shelby Steele Would Be Mowing Your Lawn” and “The Importance of Being SHARPTON.” He has also been emphasizing tenor more over clarinet in recent years.

D’Rivera and Sandoval defected for freedom and artistic expression. As jazz listeners, we have benefited from their decision to make their home in America. To show some appreciation, do what Cubans can’t do: exercise your right to vote (click on “Vote!” icon on upper left of their homepage). Downbeat supplies drop-down menus for their anticipated top vote getters, which I have mixed feelings about. As readers, we do not have the “Rising Star” categories available in the critics poll. Don’t let that stop you from writing in less famous musicians. Feel free to scan the archives here for suggestions in various categories, and vote your conscience.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Charleston Jazz

Charleston Jazz
By Jack McCray
Arcadia Publishing

Charleston was one of the major port cities of the Old South. It makes intuitive sense that many of the elements that came together in New Orleans to create jazz would be present there as well. Jack McCray makes the beginnings of the case that Charleston ranks with New Orleans as a contemporaneous jazz birthplace in his photo-history Charleston Jazz.

Charleston can claim a role in the development of jazz’s roots, contributing to the development of the eponymous dance, the Charleston, and providing the original source material for the book and opera Porgy and Bess. Probably the greatest challenge for Charleston’s assertion as the cradle of jazz is its lack of a towering figure like a Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bechet.

The city can claim many great musicians to be sure, like Armstrong rival Jabbo Smith, and St. Julian Dash, co-writer of “Tuxedo Junction” while he was with the Erskine Hawkins band. Perhaps most significant to Charleston’s legacy are early composers like Edmund Thornton Jenkins, the son of the founder of the Jenkins Orphanage, an important early incubator of Charleston’s African-American musical talent. McCray writes of Jenkins:

“He graduated with honors from the Royal Academy of Music in London and went on to teach there. He performed all over Europe, produced entertainment events, and was involved in British politics. The themes in Edmund Jenkins’s work are said to be based on black Charleston themes, folk life, and such. Some recordings of his jazz work with English band director Jack Hylton, known as the British Paul Whiteman, have recently been released.” (p. 43)

More than great figures, it is great institutions, like the Jenkins Orphanage and the Avery Normal Institute, that take pride of place in Charleston’s jazz history. In compiling some of that history, McCray shows himself to be a strong writer, who brings to bear some insight on the nature of jazz, writing:

“It’s unfortunate that the best description of improvisation we’ve come up with so far is to define it as ‘making it up as you go along.’ Root words for improvise are ‘provide’ and ‘improve.’ The Latin root word improvisus means unforeseen.” (p. 15)

Ultimately, it will take a far weightier volume to supplant New Orleans as the acknowledged birthplace of jazz. However, McCray’s Charleston Jazz is an interesting first salvo that captures images of an underappreciated regional jazz history.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Nagin's Vibe

He may not exactly be America’s Mayor, but Ray Nagin might be the most recognizable sitting city chief executive right now. He speaks his mind in an interview with Vibe magazine for their August issue. Mayor Nagin makes one valid point, while effectively passing some of the buck:

“A lot of the dollars that flow from the federal government are controlled by the state. Superdome, City Park, Riverfront, you name it—a lot of the critical assets are controlled by the state.”

A great deal of useful context is missing from this feature. Ned Sublette writes of “Gov.” Blanco’s handling of the Road Home program: “That fiasco closed out the career of Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco, who, this spring, announced she would not seek re-election.” He does not mention the fact that Nagin had supported her Republican opponent in the 2003 election, Bobby Jindal, the presumptive front-runner to now succeed her. Following her announcement, the Mayor was probably leading the chants of “na-na-na-na-goodbye.”

Sublette also talks of the slowness of federal aid, which has been true in far too many instances. However, he overlooks instances of local incompetence that has prevented federal assistance from reaching those it was intended to help. A case in point being the six doublewide trailers, supplied by FEMA to provide primary care, still unused because of the City government’s unfathomable zoning concerns.

While he titles his interview “Dedication,” Sublette does not report on the speculation Nagin is sniffing around Rep. William Jefferson’s seat, should it open up suddenly (as in a criminal conviction). Cynics have suggested Nagin has lost interest in rebuilding and would prefer the less taxing life in D.C.

In truth, Nagin does seem to be a survivor. Perhaps those skills would better serve New Orleans as a congressional representative than as its mayor. Regardless, the certainty of a new administration in Baton Rouge can only lead to better leadership for the state.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Joint Happening

Joint Happening
Mushroom with Eddie Gale
Hyena Records

“‘Inner peace to you.’ That’s how Eddie Gale typically ends a conversation. He doesn’t say it just to sound cool, which he does. He really means it.” That’s how I started a profile of Gale in the Spring 2001 issue of Signal to Noise magazine (which coincidently, also featured Mushroom). Six years later Eddie Gale is still sounding cool and doing his own thing, this time with the psych-jam band Mushroom on Joint Happening.

Happening is scoring reasonably apt comparisons to the electric Miles Davis of Jack Johnson vintage. You could argue Gale is the closest legitimate trumpet successor to Davis. Despite not attaining the same rarified commercial success, Gale has shown a similar talent for reinvention, playing out with Cecil Taylor, leading the spiritually charged Ghetto Music ensemble for Blue Note in the late 1960’s, and playing with hip-hop groups like The Coup in recent years. Now he strides into Mushroom’s grooves like a trumpet king.

He makes his regal entrance on the opener “Peace” around 2:25, after Mushroom establishes a mood of cosmic foreboding. Their accompaniment frames Gale’s trumpet improvisations beautifully, with Matt Henry Cunitz’s conga picking up the groove midway through.

As extended grooves, the tunes largely flow into other, like “I Don’t Need to Fight, to Prove I’m Right, I Don’t Need to be Forgiven,” which features a darker vibe and the guitar of Tim Plowman. There is more nervous energy on Happening than much of the electric Miles which may have inspired it to an extent. “Selling Oakland by the Pound” is a skitterish blend of keyboard, marimba, and eventually trumpet that creates an unsettling effect.

Many of the tunes however, also reflect Gale’s spiritual concerns, as evident from song titles like “Peace,” “Our Love,” and “The Spirit.” “Our Love” goes through particularly interesting evolutions, starting with a funky Hammond groove, going into an intense guitar solo, and ending with a contemplative statement from Gale on trumpet.

It’s always great to hear Eddie Gale doing his thing. Clearly Mushroom agree, as they sound perfectly in-synch together on Happening, another fascinating release in their diverse discographies.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Pittsburgh Jazz

Pittsburgh Jazz (Images of America series)
By John M. Brewer, Jr.
Arcadia Publishing

While a handful of cities garner the lion’s share of jazz historian’s attention (New Orleans, New York, KC, and Chicago) most major American metropolises have their own jazz histories and traditions. America’s Steel City gets its due in John Brewer’s Pittsburgh Jazz, the latest installment in the Images of America series.

Largely drawn from the archives of the Pittsburgh Courier and the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Charles “Teenie” Harris collection, there are many images collected here that jazz lovers will enjoy. Many famous jazz artists were born in, spent their formative years in, or were associated with the city at some time, including Billy Strayhorn, Maxine Sullivan, Ahmad Jamal, Errol Garner, Stanley Turrentine, and Mary Lou Williams. However, several captions do not make a clear connection between artist and city. Others are somewhat tenuous, like that accompanying a Thelonious Monk photo, which shoehorns in a Pitt reference: “When the troupe reached Kansas City, Monk met and was influenced by Mary Lou Williams, the Pittsburgh pianist.” (p. 17)

Williams herself does get appropriate recognition as pianist, composer, and mentor to young musicians. Also getting deserved credit are some musicians lesser known outside of Pittsburgh, like Charles Bell, who was compared to John Lewis when he recorded for Columbia and Atlantic in the 1960’s. We later see his son drummer Charles “Poogie” Bell in a photo in which: “Poogie is only three years old. He later went on to play with some great names from Pittsburgh and around the country.” (P. 64)

Walt Harper is another local hero featured prominently. Disappointingly, his Gateway label-mate trombonist Harold Betters is only featured once, and not seen at his regular gig entertaining Steelers fans at home games.

Despite some pretty clunky captions, Pitt Jazz collects some nice images and documents some of the city’s unique artists and venues. It is always good to be reminded that vital music can be created outside of New York, and that seems to still be the case in Pittsburgh.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Les Paul—American Master

Monday nights are usually off nights in the New York jazz clubs, but it is usually one of the strongest for the Iridium, thanks to Les Paul’s longtime regular Monday engagement there. Next week, PBS viewers can get a good taste of Paul’s Iridium shows in Les Paul: Chasing Sound, the newest installment of American Masters, airing July 11th on WNET 13 here in the New York area.

Chasing starts by documenting some recent events of Paul’s life, like his induction into the Inventors Hall of Fame, his birthday celebration at the Iridium, and the donation of some of his groundbreaking audio equipment to the Smithsonian. Viewers eventually get an overview of Paul’s life through his reminiscences and the reflections of on-screen commentators, without a traditional narrator reading biographical data.

Paul is unique for having made an impact in many different musical genres. He jammed with Art Tatum, while working as a country musician on Chicago radio. As for Paul’s jazz influences, Gary Giddins identifies that of Django Reinhardt:

“More than any other guitarist, it’s Django that you often hear in Les Paul’s mature style. The main thing is the clarity of the style, the simplicity of the melodic line.”

Through Paul’s recollections, we get a picture of a resourceful young musician. Despite being told by bandleader Fred Waring, “I’ve got sixty-two Pennsylvanians to feed and I’m not looking for any more,” an impromptu hallway audition landed him a position with Waring’s outfit. After Waring, Paul became associated with Bing Crosby, and eventually found his greatest popular success with his vocalist-wife Mary Ford.

Wisely, Paul is the dominant voice of Chasing, in interview segments and performance clips. We also hear from figures like Giddins, Bucky Pizzarelli, Kay Starr, Tony Bennett, B.B. King, and Johnny Frigo. Periodically, rock legends also appear in Chasing to pay tribute to the master for his groundbreaking multi-track recording and overdubbing techniques, as well as perfecting the solid body electric guitar. The solid body Gibson Les Paul is called: “by far, the most successful endorsement relationship ever in the history of musical instruments,” and it would become a favorite of a generation of rockers.

Throughout the film, Paul comes off as a likeable, witty individual. Ultimately, Chasing is as much a tribute to Paul’s continuing longevity, still playing at a highly accomplished level every Monday night at age 92, as it is to his audio innovations. It is well worth catching on PBS next Wed. (7/11), at 9:00 (ET).

Monday, July 02, 2007


Take-Off: American All-Girl Bands During WWII
By Tonya Bolden

While big band jazz ruled the hit parade during the 1940’s, it was a difficult period for bandleaders. Shortages complicated tours, the draft depleted band ranks, and the rise of independent vocalist foreshadowed long term trouble. However, the WWII years were a brief window of opportunity for women musicians, as Tonya Bolden chronicles in her book for young readers, Take-Off.

While students should also be taught about innovators like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker (to name just a few), Tafe-Off gives them a readable, illustrated history of some of the underappreciated all-female orchestras of the era. Figures under examination includes: Ina Ray Hutton, Ada Leonard, Valaida Snow, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the Prairie View State College Co-eds, and Clora Bryant.

Throughout there are extracts from contemporary press accounts, like ex-pat bandleader Snow’s harrowing experience in a National Socialist camp from Metronome magazine. According to the jazz publication:

“Snow brought a fantastic and grim tale of eighteen months in a Nazi concentration camp where for the last six months the prisoners were lashed daily and given nothing but three boiled potatoes a day to eat.” (p. 22)

Bolden throws in some telling incidents, like the Nevada Journal’s account of band-leader Sharon Rogers’ plane crash off the Japanese coast, while on-tour for the troops:

“Rogers, the all-girl band leader who scolded American soldiers for fraternizing with Japanese girls, and 16 members of her troupe were rescued early today by Japanese fishermen after their army C-47 crashed into the sea of Kyushu.” (p. 52)

Making this chapter of American musical history accessible to students is a valuable literary endeavor in itself. The book is attractively designed, with many vintage photos that would interest jazz fans of a more advanced age, as well. The book also comes with a CD, which includes selections of Hutton, Snow, and the Sweethearts of Rhythm, that is a substantial value-added bonus. However, the relentless use of hipster lingo is just a tad overdone. Also, at the surprising risk of sounding overly PC, the constant use of “girl” and “gal” to refer to the women musicians also seemed like an unnecessary nod the vernacular of the era. That said, it is refreshing to see many of these bandleaders get their due.