Sunday, December 21, 2008

Carla Bley, Appearing Nightly On Your CD Player

I hate to be the one to say it, but it seems like there is no question anymore that professional Big Band Jazz is dying. I'm not saying that Big Bands are dying; they will always live on in high schools and in the ghost bands that tour the country with monstrous young players and subdued, well-written charts. Of course there are Maria Schneider and Dave Holland, the newest to enter the Big Band fray and the ones who win all of the awards, but Holland never tours with his big band (and hasn't played a big band date in years) and Schneider can hardly afford to keep hers together. Well, thank God for Carla Bley, one of the most idiosyncratic writers in generation and one of the best big band arrangers (and writers) ever, and for her new album, "Appearing Nightly."

"Appearing Nightly" is credited to Carla Bley and her Remarkable Big Band, and features such killer on-the-cusp-of-fame musicians as trumpeter Lew Soloff, tenor saxophonist Andy Sheppard, drummer Billy Drummond, trombonist Gary Valente, and bassist Steve Swallow, to name only five. The playing is stellar all around, and everybody in the long-standing band can (and do) play the hell out of Bley's arrangements, which, presumably, they have been playing nightly for years. The first two tracks, "Greasy Gravy" and "Awful Coffee," in particular feature some brilliant soloing from the aforementioned musicians. "Awful Coffee," an uptempo burner, features a mind-altering and quotation-filled solo from Sheppard, and "Greasy Gravy," a slower, medium swing number, showcases Valente's odd ideas on trombone.

An album like "Appearing Nightly" is not about the solos though, and Bley's tunes and arrangements are brilliant and idiosyncratic. Bley, like a master chef putting her stamp on a dish that's been cooked by many brilliant cooks before her, takes a format and tunes that sound like they could have been written in 1950, and then turns them inside out with odd voicings and backign-figures. Granted, Bley is more of a traditionalist than, say, Bill Holman, who can take a Monk tune and make it sound like an acid trip in a house of mirrors (just listen to his "Brilliant Corners: The Music of Thelonious Monk" for a taste), but her charts are too weird and creative to simply be labled a rehash. She throws dissonant minor ninthson top of the melody on "Awful Coffee," and randomly inserts a rhythm changes bridge out of nowhere in the middle of the tune just for the hell of it. Quotes abound, and my personal favorite is a random interjection of the melody of "You Stepped Out of a Dream" in the middle of "Appearing Nightly At the Black Orchid," the 25-minute suite that makes up the heart of the record.

A killin' big band record, there should be more like it. Recommended.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Jazz 08 Part Three: Top Ten Albums of the Year

I understand that it is now in verve for critics to replace their annual top ten lists with alphabetical, formless, un-fun lists of albums that are "the best, in this critic's humble opinion." Anyone who reads this blog knows by now that this sort of meaningless, politically-correct list isn't quite my style. Hence, I'm kicking it old-school: numbered from ten to one, here are the best jazz albums of the year. Feel free to disagree with the picks or lament the lack of your favorite record in the comments section:

10. "Invisible Cinema" by Aaron Parks: Parks, who is shaping up to be the pianist of choice for the current crop of youngsters on the jazz scene, made his Blue Note debut as a leader with "Invisible Cinema," a record with a ridiculously opaque plot that doesn't seem to actually matter. The music is like prog rock with jazz musicians; Mike Moreno's guitar pyrotechnics recall Pat Metheny and Johnny Greenwood in equal parts.

9. "The Remedy" by Kurt Rosenwinkel: With "The Remedy," Kurt Rosenwinkel has proved yet again that he deserves to be this generation's most influential voice on guitar. As opposed to playing licks, Rosenwinkel plays fluid, seemingly random lines. There is a tragic element of this record though; saxophonist Mark Turner recently lost two fingers in an accident, and the jazz scene's loss is monumental.

8. "Party Intellectuals" by Marc Ribot: PARTY PARTY PARTY PARTY... Marc Ribot's free-rock trio is so good that you forget that you're listening to a jazz musician who plays with John Zorn. Like last year's "Draw Breath," by The Nels Cline Singers, songs alternate between noisy, violent free improvisations and the loudest, booty shaking party music ever.

7. "Live" by The Brad Mehldau Trio: For my money, Brad Mehldau is the best piano player alive and working in the jazz idiom. While older musicians like Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett recieve all of the accolades, Mehldau has proven himself repeatedly with his trio on records like live. The interplay between him, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard recalls both Jarrett's standards trio and Bill Evans' great trio, but creates music all its own. Mehldau covers pop songs ("Wonderwall" and "Black Hole Sun" here) without a hint of irony, and plays them like standards. Every track is a highlight.

6. "Kinsmen" by Rudresh Mahanthappa: Mahanthappa's septet on this record consists of a jazz quartet augmented by an Indian classical music trio. While there have been numerous other attempts to fuse the two musics, "Kinsmen" sounds like nothing else ever released in the jazz idiom. Saxophonists Mahanthappa and Kadri Gopalnath duel brilliantly on the tracks "Ganesha" and "Convergence (Kinsmen)."

5. "Crossing the Field" by Jenny Scheinman: "Crossing the Field," which features a full orchestra without sounding even remotely corny, is violinist Jenny Scheinman's best album yet. Her scrappy rural lyricism shines next to Bill Frisell's guitar and Jason Moran's piano, and her original compositions are alternatingly haunting, quaint, and beautiful. It makes sense that her other release this year was a set of spunkily sung versions of folk songs; her violin playing has the same weary, gorgeous quality as her voice.

4. "Esperanza" by Esperanza Spalding: Guilty pleasure of the year. Hands down. I could listen to Esperanza Spalding go on and on about her boy trouble for hours straight, and have. While her first album, "Junjo," was a straight-ahead date that showcased her bass playing, "Esperanza" is more of a contemporary R&B record with acoustic instruments and a latin-jazz tinge. Just listen to "Precious" and try not to get indignant about Esperanza's awful boyfriend (Can you believe he wanted her to change for him?), or, if you're in a jazz mood, get a hear of the catchy and wordless "I Adore You," the album's best track.

3. "The Door" by Mathias Eick: There are videos on youtube of Mathias Eick exploding with incredibly fast high-note runs, but that could not be further from "The Door." The quietest album of the year, "The Door" features the sort of lyricism expected from someone much older than the young Eick. His debut showcases the influence of earlier ECM artists and a little bit of the sound of his main gig, Jaga Jazzist, but really sounds like nothing else. If you could translate the feel and look of an intricate ice-sculpture into a jazz album, you would wind up with something a lot like "The Door."

2. "History, Mystery" by Bill Frisell: "History, Mystery" is easily Bill Frisell's most cohesive album since "Nashville," if not since "Have A Little Faith." The band is something like a who's who of the rural jazz movement: Jenny Scheinman and Eyvind Kang take up the strings, Ron Miles plays trumpet, and the perennial rhythm section of Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen anchors the proceedings. The album's sound is evocative of Americana circa 1950 or 1960; a melting pot of blues, country, bebop, soul, tango, Copland-style classical music and pretty much anything else Frisell sets his sights on. The record is set up as two different suites that go together, the first framed by different versions of "Probability Cloud," and the second by versions of "Monroe."

1. "Tragicomic" by Vijay Iyer: While "History Mystery" presents a beautiful fantasy version of the world, "Tragicomic" presents the world precisely as it is: dark, claustrophobic, complicated, and more often than not downright scary. Of course, Iyer treats it as a joke: the second track is named "Macaca Please" after former Virginia senator George Allen's now famous slur, while the music bludgeons you over the head like a blunt weapon. The album's only moment of respite, which comes in the form of a beautiful solo piano take on "I'm All Smiles" ends in an unsure vamp, and is almost immediately drowned out by the death march and subsequent riot of "Machine Days." Iyer's long-standing quartet with Rudresh Mahanthappa, Stephen Crump, and Marcus Gilmore has made a record that isn't for the faint of heart, but has more to say about the state of the world than most jazz. I said in April that this was going to be Iyer's year, and it was.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Jazz 08 Part Two: Superlatives!

Chances are you read my end-of-the-year essay on the state of jazz (I pronounced it alive and well, albeit in a sub-cultural way) and said to yourselves, "damn, what insight," but I'm glad to see that someone disagrees with me on Sonny Rollins. I have heard from numerous (occasionally reliable, but mostly drunken) sources that Sonny is as great as ever live. I heard his new record (review forthcoming), and I suppose it's good; there just isn't anything new or ground-breaking about it, especially in a year in which Marian McPartland plays free jazz and Lee Konitz releases albums with teenage wunderkinds. I also saw him live a year or so ago at Lincoln Center and was dully unimpressed; granted, word on the street is that Sonny has on nights and off nights going back to the fifties. Either way, the point of this post is not to argue about Sonny Rollins' relevance to the jazz world right now, but to name some superlatives as a companion piece to my top ten, which will make it to this site in the near future.

Biggest Upset: Jon Irabagon's surprising (yet well deserved) win at this year's Monk Competition

Craziest Saxophone Solo: Greg Tardy's absurdly funky, out choruses on Bill Frisell's version of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come."

Most Likely to Cut An Idol: Rudresh Mahanthappa; just check out the fours he trades with Kadri Gopalnath on the title track of "Kinsmen."

Best Straight Bluegrass Record from A Jazz Musician: Charlie Haden's "Rambling Boy"

Most Meteoric Rise: This one's a tie. Esperanza Spalding, who was pretty much unknown outside of dorky jazz circles last year, released a hit record and was named Rising Star Bassist of the Year in Downbeat. Mathias Eick, who has played on every Norwegian record with a trumpet in the past few years, gained international acclaim at the final IAJE Conferencer ever and released one of the best albums of the year with "The Door."

Hippest Singer You've Probably Never Heard of: Becca Stevens

Jazz' Most Beloved Indie Pop Duo: The Bird and the Bee

Jazz' Most Beloved Bluegrass Duo: Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer

Movement to Gain Most Steam: Rural Jazz

Least Likely to Release an Album for Another Ten Years: Brian Blade

Most Predictable Yearly Downbeat Poll: This is a tough one. Most years this category would wind up being a tie between Downbeat's annual Critic's Poll and Downbeat's annual Readers' Poll, but I suppose the edge this year goes to the readers, who were so predictable that I wish I had done a "guess the Readers' Poll" feature.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Jazz 08 Part One: This Year in Jazz!

I'm just going to come out and say it- disagree if you want, but this is an honest belief of mine- 2008 has been the best year for new jazz in a long, long time. Everything seemed to come together in 2008; 90 year olds released some of the best albums of their careers (Marian McPartland and Buddy DeFranco) and other well-established artists made some major leaps (Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brad Mehldau). Most of the best records came from artists on the periphery of the jazz establishment, either too weird or too young: artists like Vijay Iyer, his cohort Rudresh Mahanthappa, Esperanza Spalding, Jenny Scheinman, Mathias Eick... the list goes on and on.

Even the disappointments weren't that bad (of course there are exceptions; the Wynton and Willie record was deathly boring, and Dianne Reeves' latest was unlistenable); when Ambrose Akinmusire's "Prelude to Cora" can be put on any kind of list of disappointments you know it was a good year. Perhaps the most surprising moments of the year came with the announcement of the year's MacArthur Fellowships (in a bad way) and Monk Institute Competition winners (in a surprising and sorta good way).

Of course the jazz media fixated on the same boring old people it always does (Sonny Rollins is, for probably the fortieth year in a row, the tenor saxophonist of the year according to Downbeat critics in spite of the fact that he doesn't perform regularly and didn't release an album this year) as opposed to focusing on the cool old people it tends to ignore (McPartland and DeFranco spring to mind- and I'm convinced that the only way Lee Konitz can get into the Downbeat Hall of Fame at this point is by dying).

The music this year speaks for itself, however. Rural Jazz has hit its peak with records like "History Mystery" and "Crossing the Field," and the Jewish Jazz scene only gets better with every barely-heard Tzadik release by somebody like Daniel Zamir or Paul Shapiro. And of course there's Esperanza, the girl of the moment, who deserves to be the next Norah Jones (perhaps the only Norah Jones). Young Ms. Spalding came out of nowhere (well, I'd heard of her, but I also go to Berklee), was suddenly featured on the cover of every jazz magazine and played on Letterman and Kimmel over the course of a week, not to mention her emergence as one of the go-to bassists of the Monk generation.

All in all, a stellar year. Next time on the Jazz Monster I'll have part two of my Jazz 08 series: The Superlatives, all leading up to the final edition of the Jazz 08, my top ten. So tune in a few days, because there's more to come.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Rudresh Mahanthappa Finds Kindred Spirits

I know what you're thinking. I know, I know. It's been a while. My dinner's been getting cold, and you were worried sick; I'm only hoping that you haven't remarried while I was lost at sea. Yes, I have been listening to tons and tons of jazz music while I was gone, and there are tons and tons of records I could have chosen to review for my first one back from hiatus ("Petit Oiseau" by William Parker, "Flood" by Avishai Cohen and too many others to mention are coming in the near future), but I picked my personal favorite of the past month: Rudresh Mahanthappa's "Kinsmen."

"Kinsmen," the new album from Rudresh Mahanthappa, fuses Indian Classical (Carnatic) music and jazz, and shows that Mahanthappa’s idiosyncratic technique can translate to genres other than straight jazz. "Kinsmen" is Mahanthappa’s first album since 2006’s "Codebook," and marks a huge departure for his sound. 

"Codebook" featured a number of fast, rhythmically and harmonically advanced jazz tunes as played by Mahanthappa’s quartet. Kinsmen, on the other hand, features a jazz quartet made up of himself (alto sax), Rez Abassi (guitar), Carlo Derosa (bass) and Royal Hartigan (drums), augmented by a Carnatic music trio of Kadri Gopalnath (saxophone), A. Kanyakumari (violin), and Poovalur Sriji (mridangam).


The music sounds on record like it does on paper: a clean fusion of jazz and Indian classical music. Parts of "Kinsmen" feature only the quartet or trio, but for the most part the instrumentation is mixed; a section of “Ganesha” features Rudresh’s saxophone along with Sriji’s Mridangam and Hartigan’s drums, and parts of the title track have Mahanthappa and Gopalnath trading licks across musical disciplines.

Mahanthappa’s sidemen are stellar, and Abassi’s odd background fits this date perfectly; in addition to playing straight ahead jazz, Abassi has been one of a small handful of young Indians to adapt the electric guitar for Carnatic music. On some tracks, such as “Snake!” and “Longing,” Abassi’s guitar sounds like an electrified sitar, while on others his tone is almost identical to the clean, modern sound of young jazzers like Lage Lund or Mike Moreno. Kudos also goes to Derosa and Hartigan for being able to keep up with Sriji’s mridangam, which is no easy task.

While other projects in the past that have attempted to fuse Indian classical music with jazz, Kinsmen is probably the first that represents a total fusion as opposed to the many one-sided attempts. Highly recommended.

In the next few days I'll have the first of my three-part "2008 In Jazz" series, so check back!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Christian Scott Talks About Life, Berklee, and His New Album "Live At Newport"

Christian Scott, who has recently been receiving accolades for his albums "Rewind That" and "The Anthem," has a new album out on Concord, "Live At Newport." I interviewed him for the Berklee Groove; I figured you guys might find this interesting, and I also thought it was a good idea to put it up because the published interview is abridged. Seriously, this time, it actually is pretty long (we're talking almost 2000 words here), but if you bear with it Scott makes a lot of really interesting points about his music and has some good advice for young musicians:

Jazz Monster: You graduated very recently (2004). You’re releasing your third album in three years now-
Christian Scott: Actually, it’s my fourth album in four years. The first one I put out on my own label when I was still at Berklee.

JM: Four albums in four years. It seems like it’s been so fast since you graduated.
CS: You know, it’s funny. It feels like it’s been a long time to me, but mainly because it feels like I’ve been working non-stop for four or five years. So it feels like a long period of time has elapsed even though it’s been four years.

JM: How did that happen?
CS: You just keep working. What happens to a lot of musicians is they get out of school and they don’t know what to do so they freeze and start doing other things instead of pressing on. All the guys who I know who kept on pressing on, they’re still working. They never stopped working. You’ve just gotta work- you get calls from cats to play and then you start your own band. If that’s not working, you have to do something else; write music and get a licensing deal and a publishing deal. Do something, just don’t sit on your hands. Sitting on your hands is like death for a musician.

JM: What did you do after you graduated?
CS: Immediately after I graduated I signed my record deal with Concord. After I signed the record deal with Concord I started working on the music that [wound up being 2006’s] Rewind That. Ever since the album came out I’ve been constantly touring or working as a sideman or a producer and doing some stuff for film. Once I finished with Berklee, I immediately started moving. I didn’t want to stick around Boston, you know? I like Boston, but the scene in Boston is a lot of kids; either in school, or not in school but hanging around. It’s hard to stand out in that situation just because everybody looks the same. Leaving Berklee is like leaving home, once you turn eighteen, you’ve gotta get out of the house.

JM: What was it like coming back last year [to film part of The Newport Experience for the DVD section of Live at Newport]?
CS: It’s always cool coming back. All of my teachers there are good friends of mine, many of whom I’ve played professionally- in fact, in school I was playing with most of them professionally. I always love coming back. I especially love Rob Hayes in the office of Public Affairs, I always go up and mess with him when I’m at Berklee. He’s been a great friend to me. And of course Roger [Brown], your president, he’s a cool guy too. He’ll come out and play drums with us. Everybody- the entire Berklee family is great. When I come up I feel like I never left.

JM: Shifting gears a bit, listening to [your 2007 album] The Anthem and the new record, it’s clear that you’ve got a very characteristic compositional style. How do you compose? What do you think about when you’re writing tunes?
CS: Nothing. I just write them. I learned when I was younger that you learn things so that you can forget them. You learn lessons about harmony so that you don’t have to think about them. There are many techniques that I learned when I went to the New Orleans High School for the Creative Arts and when I went to Berklee, but I don’t think about any of that stuff when I’m writing because if I do, the process stops being about what I’m trying to convey or get out and becomes about what I’m intellectualizing.

JM: Do you think that it winds up sounding contrived that way?
CS: Not really, because there are guys that write that way who write music that doesn’t sound contrived. I think that has more to do with how the music is played. If you’re playing music with a drummer whose comfortable with playing music in 4/4 time, and you write something in 5/4, it will probably end up sounding contrived because the guy isn’t comfortable with playing in 5/4. I think more importantly, you want it to sound natural; you want it sound like what you’re feeling. Sometimes you’ll find out after you’ve written something that it goes through four different time signatures before it’s over. That’s just because you write it out, and you can edit it later so that it can effectively communicate what you want to play. At the time you’re writing it, you don’t want to think “that sounds like it’s in 10, and I don’t want to write something in 10.”

JM: So you don’t really think about what it’s going to be like to improvise over your tunes when you write them?
CS: No, you don’t- that’s why you spend all of your time refining your efforts to become a great improviser. If you have to think about what it is that you need to improvise, then you still need to study. I started going on the road with Donald Harrison’s band when I was thirteen years old, so that kind of training in the ability to play over anything happened at a very young age for me. Most of the guys who I play with are great improvisers; you can tell them five different ways to approach a chord and it isn’t going to matter because they react to the sound. All the great improvisers react to the sound, because when you’re playing a tune it’s going to change anyway based on what your doing. Are you trying to create tension? Are you trying to resolve it? You never know what you’re going to be hearing, so what you want to hone is your ability to decipher sound.

JM: So when you improvise you try to react more to sound than to what’s going on in the composition?
CS: To be honest with you, I’m not thinking about anything anymore, but what I’m saying is that most great improvisers have a better time reacting to sound than to sitting down and shedding a tune to get the changes. For instance, if you’re playing with a guy like Christian McBride and he’s playing a bass solo, he isn’t going to ask you to just put the changes in his face, he’s going to ask you to play through it. He’s going to play while you play, and work it out. In my music I don’t really think about it at all, I think about what I’m doing as a part of the composition as a whole. So rather than thinking about building my solo in the most dynamic way or in terms of getting the coolest or the hippest thing happening, I think more about the arc of the song. “What does the song need right now,” as opposed to “how can I fit in this flashy dope line.”

JM: It’s all about listening and trying to fit in.
CS: Yeah. For instance, if [guitarist] Matt [Stevens] just finished a long solo with lots of tension, then my solo isn’t going to be like that. I’m gonna try and calm it down a bit. Music moves in waves, it should rise and fall. You want your music to have dynamics and arcs, because if there’s no arc then you’re not going to be able to hold anymore of the tension.

JM: Do you have any tips for any young jazz musicians at Berklee?
CS: Finish! First, finish Berklee. Stop leaving. Everybody acts like it’s hard to stay at Berklee; it’s not hard to stay at Berklee. The school has done everything in its power to make it the best facility for what it is in the world, so why would you want to leave it so quickly. I’ve met kids who are in they’re first semester who tell me they’re going to stick around another semester and then leave. Well then what was the point of coming? You may as well have just taken your chances of going on the road and playing with somebody. But if you’re trying to educate yourself, and trying to be the musician that you can be, you should stick with something and finish it. That’s my advice; I can’t really offer any advice about the music business because that’s a crapshoot. You have absolutely no control over that. The best you can do is control what you’re doing artistically. So stay in school and stick by your convictions; that’s my advice.

JM: What was the most important thing you learned while you were at Berklee?
CS: I think the most important thing that I took into Berklee and that was also reaffirmed for me while I was there was to have respect for all musicians and all people. You can learn something from anyone, and anyone who thinks that they can’t learn something from anyone is missing something. I was into Berklee because I turning around and seeing a guy with a Mohawk. I like being around people; I like hearing their stories, their anxieties, I like hearing what makes them laugh, because all of that effects the way that you make music. The one thing I took out of Berklee was that respect for human beings, because there are so many different types of people there.

JM: Do you find that musically as well?
CS: Yeah, definitely. You can find someone from Israel, and they’ll show you some of their work songs or some of their religious songs. You could meet someone from Japan who can show you that folk music. There are so many different things that you can take from your experience while you’re there. If you’re a guitarist from Cleveland who goes to Berklee and you play rock music- if you’re just playing rock music and hanging out with rock musicians you’re really missing out on everything [Berklee] has to offer. If you’re a jazz trumpet player from New Orleans and you just play jazz all the time you’re missing out. You should take that time to go out and meet people and get out of your dorm room and play as much as possible.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Tearing the New Downbeat Apart Limb from Limb

So we're four days away from what Joe Biden has called (to paraphrase) the "most important election of your meaningless little existence," and the most important question that Downbeat can think of for musicians isn't "who are you voting for," or "who do you think will make the gas prices that are currently preventing people from touring go down," or even, "what has this never-ending election cycle inspired from you musically-" all lame but relevant questions- but instead "What jazz artist would make the best president."

"What jazz artist would make the best president?" Geri Allen's choice- Dr. Billy Taylor- actually made some sense due to his importance to and experience in administrating jazz education, but with her exception, it seems like everyone is on crack. Sonny Rollins got two votes (Benny Golson and Pee Wee Ellis both suggested him because, as far as I can tell, he loves music and he's a pretty chill dude), and Wynton Marsalis got a requisite vote (hell, Bush managed to win two elections in a row).

As for the actual issue, why Tony Williams? I mean, he's great, don't get me wrong, and easily one of the best jazz drummers of all time... but... why? He's dead, he hasn't had a record out in years, there's no archival series or major tribute going on... I suppose the Downbeat U Drum School tie-in almost makes sense... But why not Anat Cohen? Doesn't she deserve a cover? There's a pretty long article about her in this Downbeat, so why not?

Also, random sidenote, there are two Five Star albums in the reviews section of Downbeat. What? When was the last time Downbeat had two five star albums in one issue? Nevermind that, with John McLaughlin's new album, this makes three five star albums all year, and for some reason they never go to the albums I want them to. My picks for the best albums of the year have all received either 3 or 4 stars. But what do I know.

Next time I'll have a very long (last time I remember someone getting all snippy about how my Terri Lyne Carrington interview wasn't as long as advertised- well, you're in luck, for those of you with the interest there are a good 1700 words to sift through) interview with Christian Scott posted.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

News Update: Irabagon Wins Monk Competition

So that's the news! Jon Irabagon, the alto saxophonist of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, just won the Thelonious Monk Institute's annual competition. I'm in a state of shock- happy shock, but shock none-the-less- at this news. Walter Smith III was also a semi-finalist, and I pretty much assumed that he would win partly because of his brilliance as a horn player and seeming importance to the current crop of young musicians (I have at least one friend who calls Smith the "voice of his generation on tenor saxophone"), but mostly because of his connection to the institute as a graduate. Seriously, Ambrose Akinmusire won the Monk competition last year on trumpet, and Gretchen Parlato won the vocal competition. Granted, this fact probably reflects more on the decisions of those who run the Monk Institute than those who judge the competitions, but up until now it was two for two.

Congrats Jon Irabagon!

For those of you who don't know his playing, here's an example.

Next time I'll tear the new Downbeat apart. The time after that I'll have a review of "Petit Oiseau," the gorgeous new record from the William Parker Quartet.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Passing It On To A New Band

Dave Holland's latest, "Pass it On," features his latest band, a sextet that is both the same and different from all of his other bands in much the way that they are both the same and different from eachother. Let me clarify; this new band has the same tendency as all of Holland's classic bands (his latest long-running Nelson-Eubanks-Potter Quintet, or, say, the Steve Coleman-Marvin Smitty Smith groups of the 80s) to work with noir-ish chord progressions (most of the compositions here were recorded by earlier Holland bands) and incredibly intricate time signatures. It is different in that the personalities involved here are very different from those of earlier bands.

The only real newcomers to Holland's band are pianist Mulgrew Miller and drummer Eric Harland, as all of the others have appeared with some version of Holland's group in the past; trumpeter Alex Sipiagin and alto saxophonist Antonio Hart were featured on Holland's two big band albums, and Robin Eubanks has been a collaborator with Holland for almost two decades. The tunes are great, and the band's interplay is tasteful if a bit safe. In fact, that's the only problem with this album; it seems a little bit too safe for Holland. There are none of the five minute rhythm section-less dual solos of his Quintet that made Chris Potter and Robin Eubanks household names in the jazz world ten or so years ago, and while Eric Harland is a brilliant drummer and has shown himself to be one of the great young musicians elsewhere, his playing here isn't as dynamic as Billy Kilson's or Marvin Smitty Smith's.

Of course, those gripes are almost meaningless when you take into consideration that this band has only been together for a short time and will hopefully grow into their sound as a unit in the future; it took years for Holland's classic quintet to come together in the form it was in for a decade, and years more to evolve into the jazz combo of the 00's. The sextet format gives Holland a chance to explore more colors in his noirish, rhythmically propulsive vein, even though this band lacks the chaotic feel of some of his earlier bands, and lacks the crispness of his big band. The soloists all sound great, and the highlight of the record is Sipiagin's blazing display of both technique and emotion on this groups version of "Processional." Definitely worth a listen for Holland fans, although his sextet's next album will probably showcase a quantum leap in terms of band interplay.

Next time I'll have my monthly edition of "Tearing the New Downbeat Apart Limb by Limb," and you can expect hours of entertainment judging by the fact that opening section features an inquiry about "which jazz musician would make the best president," (Donny McCaslin doesn't think it should be who you think he thinks it should be) and two (TWO! WTF) five star reviews, one of which was actually written by a teacher of mine. So check back in a couple days.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bobo Stenson Sings

It's a shame that Bobo Stenson isn't thought of as one of the great pianists of his generation. Granted, he has been less than prolific throughout a career that began in earnest with 1969's "One Long String," and he is a European in what is an absurdly Amero-centric field. But looking at his credits, which include stints with Charles Lloyd and Stan Getz, not to mention work with every major European jazz musician and co-leading "Witchi-Tai-To," a record I've called the best on ECM, EVER, you get a sense that he belongs to any list that includes Keith and Herbie and Chick. "Cantando," his new record, proves that he hasn't done anything but get better over the years, and as such holds up next to any of the best later work of those three.

Of course it helps that Stenson's trio is as killin' as it's ever been, featuring long-time bassist Anders Jormin and young turk drummer Jon Falt. While Jormin plays in his usual post-LaFaro mode and throws roots and such to the wind for the most part, Falt serves as an anchor for the band even when his work is meant to add colour, as on "Chiquilin de Bachin." Falt plays time on his cymbals, combining an ability to serve as grounding for the band with his own personal flourishes. Jormin's arco work here, especially at the beginning of the album's closer, "Liebesode," is exceptional and melodic.

Stenson, however, is the star here, and the modern sound he manages to showcase on his piano belies the fact that he has been playing on records for forty years. He is easily recognizable as the pianist on both "Witchi-Tai-To" and on classic Lloyd records like "Notes From Big Sur." The opening track, Silvio Rodriguez' "Olivia," is a tour de force for Stenson, and his work here showcases the same jagged, economical, and still modern-sounding lyricism that has been his style ever since he came out of nowhere to be Sweden's premier pianist.

Next time I'll have a review of Dave Holland's new Sextet record, "Pass it On."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Charlie Haden Rambles, In a Good Way

Charlie Haden's new "Rambling Boy" will probably come as a surprise to those who know him purely from his famous work in the free jazz idiom or from his more recent (somewhat smooth) collaborative work with the likes of Pat Metheny or Gonzalo Rubacalba. Metheny shows up on "Rambling Boy-" the record is actually not credited to Charlie Haden but to Charlie Haden Family and Friends- as does everyone from Elvis Costello (A friend of Haden's) to Jack Black (Haden's son-in-law). Oh yeah, and it's an old-school country blue-grass album in the vein of The Carter Family or, on faster tracks, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys.

In a career full of random shifts and curveballs (Haden's first and most famous recording features a free jazz orchestra playing Spanish folk music), "Rambling Boy" may well be the single most out-of-left-field recording in Haden's entire discography. It is not, however, a departure- quite the opposite. As a child, Haden sang with his family on their syndicated radio show, "Korn's-a-Krackin," and on here he sings the final tune, "Shenandoah," in the poignant, gravelly voice you would expect from an 81-year-old bass player raised on this music. His bass is brilliant, as always, even though he sits in the rhythm section, untrumpeted, for most of the recording.

Oddly, for an album with a cast so huge, each member of Haden's large band gets ample time to show off. The Haden Triplets (Petra, Tanya and Rachel) are featured in a few tracks, and daughter Petra gets a sings beautifully on the slow-building ballad "The Fields of Athenry." Guitarists Pat Metheny and Russ Barenberg duel throughout the record, and Roseanne Cash even pops by for a number ("Wildwood Flower"). The most rousing performance on the album, however, is by Haden's son, Josh, who sings his own "Spiritual." Unlike versions sung by Johnny Cash or played by Charlie and Metheny, either world-weary or melodramatic, this version builds to a rousing climax, with Josh Haden's voice finding just the right spot between gruff seriousness and wide-eyed curiosity.

Is "Rambling Boy" Jazz? No, although Metheny, pianist Buck White and banjo player Bela Fleck all play their fair shair of harmonically complex lines. The real question is: does it matter? Music is music, and Haden's new album showcases an exciting, different direction for him.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Complaining About the MacArthur Fellows Program

The MacArthur Fellows program has continued in its hallowed tradition of haphazardly awarding $500,000 to random jazzers with a lot of press (God knows they need the money now); occasionally this award helps people who have no money make music (Ken Vandermark, for example) or even helps genius underground tycoons keep clubs and record labels in existence (John Zorn's "The Stone" and Tzadik). There are other times when they encourage people who desperately don't need encouragement; the best example I can think of of this particular phenomenon is Stanley Crouch. Did he need a MacArthur Fellowship? He didn't need the money, what with his lucrative position as Wynton's Rove-esque right hand man at Lincoln Center, nor the encouragement as he's made a habit of trash-talking Bill Evans in public.

Occasionally their choice is simply perplexing. They could give it to anyone. Anyone. Possible (jazz) candidates for a MacArthur Fellowship include Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Marc Ribot, Anat Cohen, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brad Mehldau, Nels Cline, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Avishai Cohen (trumpet), Avishai Cohen (bass), Jason Lindner, Jason Moran, Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, DAVE DOUGLAS, Uri Caine, Chris Potter, Mathias Eick, Jenny Scheinman, Christian Howes, Esperanza Spalding, Tyshawn Sorey, Ron Miles, BILL FRISELL, Matana Roberts, Steven Bernstein, Larry Goldings, Matt Wilson, Aaron Parks, Walter Smith III, Lionel Loueke, Eric Harland, Ambrose Akinmusire, Jaleel Shaw, Eric Friedlander, Lage Lund, Mike Moreno... you get the point. And that's only musicians. When you add writers you wind up with everyone from me (I'm all about potential, baby) to Howard Mandel.

You can see for yourselves which contrived composition writing, look-at-what-I-can-do improvisation-creating jazz musician got $500,000 to keep on keeping on instead of Dave Douglas or Bill Frisell, or any of those other people. I know, I know, the MacArthur fellowship is all about potential, and I suppose the guy who won has the potential to, you know, write and play completely different music and find a way to incorporate his folk songs and polyrhythms into a jazz idiom in a way that grooves or makes a statement or both (Like, you know, Vijay, Rudresh, Steve, Lionel... okay okay enough).

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Terri Lyne Carrington Interview

Sorry for the delay, folks; I recently interviewed Terri Lyne Carrington for the Berklee Groove. I've written an article about her that features a number of quotes from this, but doesn't have the whole thing. Consider yourself forewarned; it's pretty long. Here is the unedited Q&A:

Jazz Monster: How do you think the show went on Friday?
Terri Lyne Carrington: It was good; it wasn’t perfect. I didn’t have a working a band and the band I was with couldn’t rehearse until the day before, so we made our share of mistakes. People seemed to really enjoy it though.

JM: I know you teach at Berklee- do you think of playing in Boston as playing on home turf?
TLC: Well, I only play here a few times a year. Because of the fact that I teach here and the audience is made up of students for the most part [at the BPC], there’s a little bit more pressure than in other places- but that can be exhilarating. Last night we started a bit late and the sound wasn’t optimum, sometimes there are just some sound issues onstage.

JM: After your gig at the BPC, you flew out to Germany. Is there a difference between playing in Boston and playing in Luxembourg?
TLC: Yes, there is. We played in a town about a half hour out from Luxembourg, and so that alone made it very different from playing in Boston. It was a nice show; the only holdover from the gig we played in Boston was the horn player, Tineke Postma.

JM: How did your current group come together?
TLC: Generally it’s not exactly the same group. There are some people I’ll use for some things, but usually it just depends on who can make a show. I often use [pianist] Geri Allen, Arwan Akiv, [Bassist and Berklee graduate] John Lockwood, or [bassist and recent Berklee graduate] Hogyu Hwang. Sometimes I do projects with all women, and that line-up generally features myself, [bassist and Berklee faculty member] Esperanza Spalding, Tineke Postma and Geri Allen. When I want a guitar player I usually get a guy named Tim Miller, who is also on faculty here at Berklee. In Poland, where I’m playing in a week, I’ll be playing with Tim Miller, Hogyu Hwang and [Berklee student] Alex Han. Overall, I guess it just depends on the gig.

JM: Do you write most of the material in for your band?
TLC: I write most of it, yes. Sometimes band members contribute songs; the other night at the BPC we played a song by Tim Miller even though he wasn’t there, but I’d say that I write most of the songs we play.

JM: How do you go about writing tunes?
TLC: Generally I hear a melody in my head, and then I add harmony. Sometimes I write the harmony first, but not as often; whenever I finish with the melody and the harmony, I figure out the bass and drums.

JM: How did your album “Structure” come about?
TLC: That band [which featured saxophonist Greg Osby, guitarist Adam Rogers and bassist Jimmy Haslip] came about for a tour of Europe under a deal I had with my record company at the time. It was my deal, but it was a very cooperative group; after the tour we went and recorded the album.

JM: Any plans to reunite that group in the future?
TLC: Who knows? We’ve all got very different schedules; we all have our own careers. It would be nice though.

JM: Switching gears, how does your educational work affect your playing?
TLC: I think that teaching definitely makes me better as a player. There are certain things you have to explain; you have to come up with formulas and exercises. It’s brought more clarity to my playing, and it keeps me fresh as a player.

JM: How do you approach your work as a side-person versus your work as a leader?
TLC: I think the two are totally different. As a side-person, I’m trying to accommodate the leader and be honest to the music. As a leader I have my own vision that I’m trying to work toward. I suppose it just comes down to different roles: you’re either the vision-driver or the vision-supporter.

JM: What’s the difference between working in a strictly jazz setting versus working on The Arsenio Hall Show or [Sinbad’s show] Vibe?
TLC: It’s a very different sound, especially in the drums. In a band like the Arsenio band, you just want to play really strong groove-oriented stuff, whereas in a jazz setting you want to be more creative. I suppose there are different freedoms in both.

JM: What are your plans for the near future?
TLC: I’m recording with Mike Stern in January, and then soon after that I’ll be recording Tineke Postma’s new album. My own new album, which is more of a groove-jazz oriented kind of thing, is just about done with mixing and post-production, so it should be out in February or March. Also, I’m excited to take my band with Esperanza Spalding, Gary Thomas and Arwan Akiv out to play at the Blue

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Not Exactly A Free Jazz Round-Up

I know; I promised a round up of new free jazz recordings, and that was what I was initially planning on writing about. But then I heard Joel Harrison's "The Wheel," one of those albums that I've put off listening to forever; it's good, and it wasn't what I was expecting. Generally, when I hear "jazz with strings" without the words "Bill Frisell" and/or "Jenny Scheinman" (or, I suppose, "Anat Cohen") nearby, I cower away and put on "Esperanza" or "The Bird and the Bee" or whatever other catchy, unpretentious album I have nearby that I don't have to feel bad about listening to. Of course, "The Wheel" has nothing in common with the other album I'd like to talk about, "Beyond Quantum," which is a collaboration between saxophonist Anthony Braxton, drummer Milford Graves and bassist William Parker.

Joel Harrison's "The Wheel" is a collaboration between Harrison's jazz quintet (Harrison on guitar, David Binney on alto, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Lindsey Horner on bass and Dan Weiss on drums) and a string quartet (Todd Reynolds and Christian Howes on violin, Caleb Burns on viola and Wendy Sutter on cello). It is not, however, a series of songs written for jazz quintet with string arrangements; the quartet is fully integrated in the band. Like Jenny Scheinman's recent "Crossing the Field" and Bill Frisell's "History Mystery," the feel is more rural-jazz than third-stream, as the strings improvise along with the rest of the band and the proceedings are given over to music reminiscent of Copland and folk melodies. The final track, "In Memorium: Dana Breyton," features Harrison's guitar, and his solo is characterized by long-held tones and beautiful phrasing. Recommended.

It's almost hard to believe that Anthony Braxton, William Parker and Milford Graves have never played together in a trio before "Beyond Quantum." In addition to the fact of both Braxton and Parker's prolificness, the album simply sounds like it was made by people who have been playing together forever. Braxton's snaky, staccato attack creates a polar contrast to Parker's melodic approach to his bass playing, and Graves serves as the level headed one; a moderator for the arguments that the other two carry out. Braxton plays four separate saxophones (I know the four types that you're thinking of- you've probably only got one right), and his approach to each instrument is slightly different, but equally violent. His bass saxophone plods, crushing everything around it, while his sopranino attacks like one of the namesakes of Hitchcock's "The Birds." Recommended for those who like a little bit of psychotic energy with their free jazz.

Next time I will probably post a conversation with Terri Lyne Carrington, who I will be interviewing for the Berklee Groove tomorrow morning. You can expect a more sanitized version of that published in the next issue of The Groove. Also, tomorrow night I will be doing the first of what will be a bi-weekly segment for my friend James Krivchenia's show "Switch it Up" at 12 AM (as in, at night) on the Berklee Internet Radio Network

Saturday, September 27, 2008

In Defense of Criticism

Just for the record, I'm clearly a bit too young to be writing this. I've been doing this (some form of music "journalism" or "criticism-" whatever you want to call it) for about a year in this forum and for various other publications. I wouldn't call myself a professional, although I have been paid for my writing on occasion. That said, I spend an exorbitant amount of time reading criticism in a few different mediums (I like film critics more than jazz critics- they tend to be less interchangeable), and after reading Ambrose Akinmusire's comment about my review his (good, in my opinion) album I feel the need to mount something of a defense of criticism in general, because there are a few reasons that it does (and should) exist.

Music, like film, is a commercial art. CD's are not generally given out for free. When you buy a CD, you're stuck with it whether you wind up enjoying the music or not due to copyright infringement fears on the part of record stores. So when you spend your 15 dollars (!) on an album, it had better be worth it. I try to tailor my reviews for the people I think will like an album; there's a reason I bring up the fact that a Marc Ribot-Anthony Coleman-Brad Jones concert isn't for everyone even though I would have sat through five sets and wanted more. The point isn't to get people to not buy music, but the opposite. I hope that this blog has inspired people to buy CDs that they wound up enjoying. I also hope that they realize that I am not the final (or really any sort of meaningful) authority on jazz, and that there are plenty of other people out there who write about music that have different opinions from me.

Which brings me to my next point: criticism creates a discourse. I like to read a number of reviews from various critics before I go out and see a movie, and I usually reread them after I've seen it to see if someone else's opinion on it can enlighten or clarify my own. I like it when I read something that I disagree with, because sometimes it makes me see the object of criticism in a different light.

The main point that I dislike in the comment is the idea that I don't "get" Mr. Akinmusire's album. I don't say that because I think I understand something profound about the album (or any album), but because I think there are as many ways to "get" a work of art as there are people who listen to that work of art, especially in an art form as esoteric as music. Akinmusire's point about differing experiences and beliefs is a good one; there's a reason that Roger Ebert's reviews often disagree (or disagreed) with those of A.O. Scott, or Manohla Dargis, or Pauline Kael, and why all four of them have occasionally gotten in trouble with the film-makers whose work they have reviewed. I would love to interview Mr. Akinmusire for this blog and have him talk about "Prelude," because it would be interesting to hear what he was thinking when he made his record in his own words.

Either way, those are all just some philosophical thoughts on the nature and point of criticism. Feel free to disagree with them and write about it in the comments section (beware though, in criticizing the very concept of criticism, you are yourself becoming a critic). And I'm serious about the interview. As for whoever reads this and sent Akinmusire the review: thank you! I love it when musicians read my reviews of their stuff and agree/disagree with what I say, and I'm always surprised to find out that anyone actually reads this to begin with. Next time I'll actually have a round-up of some recent free-jazz.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Two Good Downbeats? In One Year? Naaahhh...

It's true. Although it isn't quite as good as the Vijay Iyer-Jason Moran-Matthew Shipp cover which featured Jenny Scheinman and Kurt Rosenwinkel, the new Downbeat is absolutely killer. Can you remember the last time (discounting that issue, of course) that Downbeat managed to run feature articles on three real-live interesting musicians? Musicians whose music could actually be qualified as experimental? And this time the didn't even temper Bill Frisell's all-inclusive nature by calling him the Wynton Marsalis of, I dunno, Seattle. The other main articles are about William Parker (a free jazz musician!) and Tomasz Stanko (a EUROPEAN (occasional) free jazz musician!).

But, as always, the best section is the "Players" section (not to be confused with the "Playaz" section- originally created for Miles Davis); this time around it features my favorite young trumpet player at the moment, Mathias Eick. As much as I love Christian Scott and Ambrose Akinmusire, Eick is the only young musician (period.) who has anything approaching tact in his playing. And then, of course, there are the extremely interesting musicians that I'd never heard of that I am presently listening to (harpist Edmar Castaneda and Anne Mette Iversen in this issue). In all honesty, I occasionally wish that Downbeat were simply a 90 page "Players" section.

Granted, though, if it were I wouldn't be able to gripe about Downbeat's occasional faux pas. There was one I could find in this issue, and in all honesty it's pretty small and most people will not notice it. However, in spite of that, it is a huge faux pas. In a review of "In Sweden: November 22, 1950," critic John McDonough writes that "after a prolific 65-year recording career, [Arne Domnerus] remains active today at 83." Those of you who read this blog are aware of the fact that Domnerus is dead. Granted, he probably died after Downbeat went to press. But still.

Also, in a random sidenote: would I be correct in saying that the contrabass sarrusophone is making a come-back in jazz in a big way? I saw not just one, but two references to the absurdly obscure, gigantic behemoth of a double-reed instrument in this issue. I'm almost tempted to turn it into a Where's Waldo style contest for you readers out there, but I'll give them away: James Carter owns two (TWO!!!! WHERE DOES HE FIT THEM?) of them, and Scott Robinson apparently plays one on his new record, "Forever Lasting" (HOW DO YOU PLAY IT?!).

Next time I'll have a round-up of some recent free-jazz recordings, including the new CD from the Anthony Braxton-Milford Graves-William Parker axis.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Different Angles from Jacob Young

By all possible counts, ECM is making a huge comeback. Between a reissue series that shows its catalogue in a new light, brilliant albums from old stalwarts (a smattering of new albums by Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio; Marylin Mazur's "Elixer"), and one of the best (if not the best) albums of the year from a young musician (Mathias Eick's recent "The Door"), ECM is beginning to really give the American labels a serious run for their money. Into this fray comes Jacob Young's "Sideways," a sort of statement of purpose from the stalwarts and young turks alike. Young has recorded before for ECM; in 2004, his "Evening Falls" made a splash amongst European jazz enthusiasts, but barely registered in the States. Hopefully "Sideways" is accessible enough to give Young some recognition; by the looks of it, however (two stars in downbeat?!), "Sideways" is going to be treated as "just another ECM record," which is a shame.

The real star of "Sideways" is not the leader, but the young Mathias Eick, who can be heard here- in all of his subtle glory- playing trumpet. While "Sideways" is neither as adventurous nor as beautiful as Eick's recent debut, "The Door," there are many similarities in the music; both albums feature a jarring amount of space, and both albums are interested in off-kilter melodies. The likenesses stop there, however, and the appearance of both a saxophone player and a guitar player differentiate the proceedings. There are more subtle differences however; whereas songs like "Williamsburg" and "December" on "The Door" merely hinted at melody, Young's approach on songs like "Slow Bo-Bo" is much more transparent. Eick plays beautifully on Young's songs, as does the saxophone player, Vidar Johansen.

The biggest problem with "Sideways" is that Young's own playing is not as memorable as that of his sidemen, or as memorable as his tunes. In addition to Eick and Johansen, the veteran drummer Jon Christensen- the player both in Keith Jarrett's famed European Quartet, and on Jan Garbarek's "Wichi-Tai-To," perhaps the greatest ECM recording ever- and the bassist Mats Eilertsen are here to liven up the proceedings. Add the brilliance of the other musicians to the aching beauty of songs like "Hanna's Lament," and Young simply gets lost in the mix. The only thing I have jotted down about Young's playing on this album (after having heard the album twice, mind you) is that it is "subtle." Go figure. In spite of this fact, however, I would unequivocally recommend this album, especially for fans of the brilliant Eick. If you are not aware of Eick's work, pick up "The Door" instead.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Joe Lovano With Strings

Why do bad things happen to good people? One of the most important questions in human history, and arguably the question that most religious doctrine is designed to answer, "Why do bad things happen to good people" is a pretty important phrase. When you tweak it a little bit you can get questions that apply to almost any situation you could find yourself in. "Why can't I get laid even though I work for the Red Cross" for example. If you tweak it even a little bit more, you wind up with a question that applies to Joe Lovano's "Symphonica," recorded with WDR Radio Big Band and Orchestra: Why do bad string arrangements happen to good musicians?

I suppose there is one easy answer to that question: string arrangements in jazz are bad. Even the greatest symphonic jazz album ever, "Charlie Parker With Strings," was filled with overwrought sentiment; the album probably would have been better if it had been simply called "Charlie Parker." Granted, there are exceptions, Jenny Scheinman's "Crossing the Field," which comes out on CD next month, utilizes a full orchestra in parts, and is without question one of the best albums of the year.

Lovano plays well through-out; granted, his playing here has nothing on last year's "Kids," with Hank Jones, but he manages to show his off-kilter harmonic vision through-out with his angular runs and odd note choice. The other soloists, who include Paul Shigihara on guitar and Karolina Strassmayer on alto sax, are also capable players, although they play it safer than Lovano. The tunes themselves are pretty great; a smattering of songs from Lovano's illustrious career, the best of which are "Eternal Joy," which features some knotty lines, and "Alexander the Great."

So then what is it, exactly, that makes "Symphonica" so terrible? The arrangements. Certain songs are arranged more than others- a harrowingly sappy "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love" comes to mind. Of course there are exceptions, and the closer, a take on the changes from "Body and Soul" called "I'm All For You" features some brilliant playing from Lovano and an arrangement that manages to dodge melodrama. For the most part, though, the feeling after hearing "Symphonica" is a lot like the feeling after eating too many mallowmars; a bloated, sugary mess of a feeling that almost certainly leads to a nap, possibly before you've even finished.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

News Round-Up: Lincoln Center Galore

I know what you're thinking: "Oh Jazz Monster, could it be? Are you actually posting regularly again?" Well, actually, you probably aren't thinking that. Because you probably aren't expecting this post for another week. That said, though, I am actually going to make an attempt at going back to the usual grind of writing constantly about new releases, reissues, news, and so on and so forth, and also try and gauge the death of jazz.

And where better to gauge the death of jazz than at Lincoln Center, the evil, looming, midtown fortress of the 80s "young lions" movement? Jazz At Lincoln Center has given out a few major announcements recently, not least of which being that its Executive Director position is changing hands for the sixth time in six years to those of an accountant. Why? Because Lincoln Center is so huge that they don't even know what to do with all of their space and money. Tonic closed last year, and Lincoln Center only gets more powerful by the day... Who will be next to fall to die while Jazz At Lincoln Center gobbles up even more of the area around it? The Stone? The Jazz Gallery?

Granted, not everything they do there is bad, but it is all evil. They just announced their "Swing University" (If only they would suck it up and change their title from "Jazz At Lincoln Center" to "Swing Museum") line-up, and a few classes are being taught by ma boi, Phil Schaap. For those of you who do not know Phil Schaap, he's the man behind Birdflight on WKCR (8:20 AM on 89.9 in the NYC area), and is known through-out the land for his ability to spend an entire hour-long show switching off between self-aggrandizing lunacy ("But here, on Birdflight, it is my job to show, to teach, about the life of Charlie Parker") and stupid minutiae ("As you know, and as I said last week, this record date occurred in late March of '41- well, actually, that's debatable, some say early April, but I believe that that claim has been disproven on numerous occasions"). That said though, he is the man and you should listen to his show; I think I learned more about Charlie Parker the first hour I listened to his show than I ever believed I had wanted to, but somehow Schaap makes it all kind of captivating.

In (even) sadder news, the brilliant European clarinetist and saxophonist Arne Domnerus died recently. I don't know his work as well as I could, but having heard "Jazz at the Pawnshop" I can say that he was easily one of the greatest European jazz cats ever, and possibly the best before the rise of Jan Garbarek, the norse God of Norwegian jazz, and ECM in the seventies. Domnerus' style was informed by bop, and he shared a rhythm section with Charlie Parker during a Parker gig in 1950, which has recently been issued on a CD.

Next time I'll try and have a review of "Symphonica," the new Joe Lovano record. But if that doesn't work out, you can expect me to continue improvising (HAH!).

Monday, September 8, 2008

Albums I Wish Existed

Alright, so here's the deal: I have not posted in this blog in about a week due to a faulty modem in my new apartment. The problem has not been fixed yet (hopefully it will be in the near future), but for the time being I am stuck piggy-backing on a terrible wireless connection that is too slow and fickle for me stream or download any of the music that I would later review here. The good news, however, is that I can at least continue to blog about news or write ridiculous entries like this one, which has nothing to do with anything. Hopefully somebody close to the people I mention here will see this and go "man, you should really make that record," but they probably won't. Either way, here are some albums that I desperately want to hear:

"Jazz Moves On to the Year 3000: Robert Glasper Plays the Music of Kool Keith"
Robert Glasper plays all of The Automator's beats from "Dr. Octagonocologyst" in much the same way he plays a bunch of Dilla beats on "J-Dillalude" from "In My Element."

"Bronenosets Potyomkin" by Dave Douglas
Dave Douglas' new project, featuring some brilliant young musicians- including acclaimed young tenor saxophone player Walter Smith III- and a healthy dollop of electronics, is an attempt at making music for the early silent-era films of the Soviet auteur Sergei Eisenstein. Douglas' long and well-researched liner notes contain a 20 page essay on Eisenstein's life and career.

"Everything" by Gary Burton's late-60s Quartet
All of those impossible-to-find-yet-apparently-brilliant records, starting with 1967's "Duster," that I desperately need to hear, are now being reissued in one neat little 10-disc (it includes plenty of out-takes) package. The kicker, of course, is that it only costs $10. Apparently guitarist Larry Coryell's work on this stuff is brilliant and influential, but of course I haven't heard it yet.

"Experimental, Thought-Provoking Music" by Jan Garbarek
The long-coming follow-up to 1974's "Witchi-Tai-To" that has only been hinted at in his discography since.

"Donny McCaslin Plays the Music of Chris Potter"
I know I know, I didn't notice when Chris Potter was replaced by Donny McCaslin in Dave Douglas' quintet, and you won't notice that it is in fact Downbeat rising star of the year Donny McCaslin playing Potter's solos- note for note- on this brilliant new album.

"Black and Proud: The Malcolm X Suite" by Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis' brilliant new suite, written about the great African American leader Malcolm X, was inspired by sources as eclectic as Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, and will be played at Lincoln Center for the predominantly white audience that can afford to go to view "America's Classical Music" before being released as a five-disc opus.

Yes, this whole entry was a stupid, nerdy joke. I promise I'll have a substantive review as soon as the comcast people come and give me a replacement modem. Until then, though, you can enjoy this interview with Donny McCaslin, whose new "Lift-" excuse me, "Recommended Tools-" is now out on Greenleaf.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Altered State of Myriam

Don't let the top credit on Myriam Alter's new "Where Is There" confuse you, although Myriam Alter is a piano player (and apparently a "fine" one, accorded to a few critics; I have never heard her other records), she does not play anything on the album. Instead, she composes the eight original tunes. The arrangement- the person with the lead credit composes and conducts, but does not play- is reminiscent of John Zorn's Bar Kokhba Sextet, which is fitting; bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron, both long-time Zorn associates, are featured on this record. Salvatore Bonafede plays piano on this date, and as such is somewhat liker her alter (get it?)-ego.

All in all, the playing is pretty good. The last few tracks are more interesting in that they have more room for some free improvisation from the group, which also includes clarinetist John Ruocco, cellist Jacque Morelenbaum and pyrotechnical soprano saxophonist Pierre Vaiana, whose playing here recalls that of Daniel Zamir. Vaiana has very few showcases on the album (with such a big cast of players, individual solos are relatively sparse), but when he does solo, as on "I'm Telling You," he commands attention like no one else playing on the album.

But, of course, that's not the point; it is Myriam Alter's album, and it feels that way. Alter's compositions, and not the player's solos, are the backbone of the record. Like Zamir and Zorn, Alter is influenced by traditional Jewish music, but the more fitting comparison- and the one I've heard most from other critics- is to young clarinetist Anat Cohen. Like Cohen, Alter is more interested in created complex colours with her band's oddly voiced instrumentation as opposed to writing heads for the various musicians to solo over. This doesn't always work, of course- "September 11th" (can you guess what that one's supposed to evoke?) is a somewhat sludge-y dirge, and "Come With Me" drags on a bit too long. For the most part though, the compositions are interesting, and even occasionally beautiful, as in the tango sounding "Still in Love." Recommended to those who are intrigued by the description; it isn't your average jazz record.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

ECM Madness, Part 1

So ECM has just begun what I can only describe as a massive archival series. This month alone, ECM is re-releasing 15 classic (or so the copy says) CDs in nice little 11 dollar cardboard slip cases, probably in some kind of misguided attempt at getting in on Blue Note's RVG-series action. Of course, ECM's new slip discs could never compete with the RVG series; there aren't enough ECM records that are considered "classics" by the jazz intelligentsia (plus the jazz intelligentsia has a habit of making fun of the as-far-as-I-can-tell non-existant "ECM sound"), although their back-catalogue is probably just as varied and fruitful as a whole. Either way, here's your guide to the first batch of those archival discs.

As should be expected, some CDs considered "classics" by ECM are pretty terrible. I'm surprised that there hasn't been more of a critical reappraisal of John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner's "Sargasso Sea," which is probably the most typically "ECM" album I've ever heard, and the sort of album that critics point to when they talk about the "ECM Sound." Towner plays a bunch of sus chords, and Abercrombie plays some predictable guitar over it. It isn't very good. Of course, other albums that are also very typically ECM are great; "Dreams So Real," arguably Gary Burton's best album in print (I have yet to hear the out-of-print RCA stuff he did with Larry Coryell), is also full of sus chords and clean guitars, but happens to be brilliant. The tunes, written by Carla Bley, form a suite for Burton and some incredible sidemen (the record introduced the world to Pat Metheny) to improvise over. The best parts of the album are sublime, showing what made the "ECM Sound" popular to begin with.

Of course, as I said earlier, 'The ECM Sound" is a myth, as some of the best reissues show: Dave Holland's "Extensions" is extremely funky, and altoist Steve Coleman is so sharp and energetic on it that he sounds like he'd cut through "ECM Sound"ing wide open spaces like a knife. The tunes themselves are also too complex to fit with the aforementioned albums. Granted, "Extensions" came out more than a decade after the other two, but people still talk about "The ECM Sound" almost twenty years after "Extensions." Plus, "Gnu High," probably Kenny Wheeler's best record, is just as good and it came out before "Dreams So Real." Although there are only three tracks (the shortest clocks in at about 8 minutes), Wheeler packs a huge amount of punch into the album; his sidemen Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Holland (all ECM stalwarts and Miles Davis alums) each sound great, whether during individual solos or group improvisations.

Of course, there are other notable records being reissued; "American Garage," an absolutely awful Pat Metheny Group record (how many Pat Metheny Group records couldn't be described that way?) that happens to be popular and has received critical praise from everybody (it has 4 1/2 stars out of 5 on; perhaps the allmusic system of scoring is like the golf system). I think "bad album from the Pat Metheny Group" is enough of a description, but unless you like that stuff, stay far away. I have a friend who heard "Bright Size Life," Metheny's brilliant debut, and bought "American Garage" afterwards, thinking, "Man, it can't be that bad." Let his tragic (but true) story be a cautionary tale for you. You don't want to be the guy who wasted his 11 dollars on an album of the Kenny-G-of-the-Guitar playing odd-meter Ray Charles rip-offs. And then there's Jack DeJohnette's "Special Edition," which some think of as having the best, err, edition, of that band. I don't think it holds a candle to later albums with Gary Thomas and Greg Osby, but with David Murray and Arthur Blythe you can't really go wrong.

So there you go, ECM's first series of reissues. There are more coming out on September 30th, so you can expect another lengthy appraisal then. For now, though, that's ECM Madness! Next time I'll review something or other, and it will probably even be new!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Return to the Jazz Concept Album

Some "Travelers" embark on a journey, led by a "Peaceful Warrior" who shows them the way to their destination; but wait! The great warrior's "Nemesis" steps out in front of the group, taunting them, taking a small child from the group and shouting "Riddle Me This" at the top of his lungs in a menacing fashion and asking terrible questions until they are forced to follow him "Into the Labyrinth." The warrior fights and eventually beats the nemesis, shouting "'Karma''s a bitch!" at the top of his lungs. The travelers exit the labyrinth and stop at a "Roadside Distraction" before finally breaking into a "Harvesting Dance" when they've finally reached their destination. The warrior is showered with "Praise" for the way he handled the fight with his nemesis, and the "Afterglow" of the whole incident stays with the group of travelers, following them wherever they go.

That, as far as I can discern, is the plot of Aaron Parks' "Invisible Cinema" (complete with song titles) and, yes, when you view the record in that light, it comes off as overwrought and more than a little corny. Parks has made a point out of not giving away the plot he came up with to the press (it would cease to be "Invisible"), but I think my overview was vague enough as to fit pretty much anything he could have come up with. Point is, the song-titles are really lame.

The music, however, is another story. Like Mathias Eick's "The Door-" a better album than "Invisible Cinema," but don't let that give you the wrong impression of Parks' record- Parks' work manages to imply the feeling of some rock music more in spirit than in sound. "Nemesis" features a 7/8 feel that reminds one more of Radiohead's odd-tempo work-outs than Brad Mehldau's. The compositions are, for the most part, great, although certain tracks drag on for a bit too long. "Peaceful Warrior," which features an interesting, catchy head, eventually is bogged down in lengthy solos from Parks and guitar player Mike Moreno. The same goes for "Harvesting Dance," which, in spite of an interesting chord progression and some interesting work from those two and the other sidemen Eric Harland (drums) and Matt Penman (bass) also goes on for too long.

With those exceptions, however, "Invisible Cinema" is a pretty tight record at about a 50 minute length; unlike some other records from young people recently, it doesn't wear out its welcome, and there's enough going on for multiple listens. Recommended.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Hilariously Incongruous Statements From the New Downbeat

There's a quote in the new Downbeat; a quote that's so good it warrants reprinting here over and over and over again, because it only gets funnier every time you read it and think about it a bit more. But first, here's a little bit of perspective for those of you who have not been turned onto Courtney Pine, possibly the most famous saxophone player (and jazz musician) from Britain: he loves pop music, especially hip hop and reggae, listens to it all the time, and lets that music influence his brand of jazz. If you don't believe me, here's his myspace. Still don't believe me? Here's his album, "Back in the Day;" according to the product description, it's for fans of "R&B, Soul, Urban, and Hip Hop as well as jazz." I'd say his music is more like a free jazz Two-Tone record from the 80s than, say, Duke Ellington. Also, just for perspective, here's Dr. (dig the part about prescription drugs) Wynton Marsalis- the most in touch cat in all of American jazz- talking about Hip Hop.

What does this have to do with Downbeat? The opening quote in their article about Courtney Pine:

"Courtney Pine might be dubbed the 'Wynton Marsalis of British jazz,' given his standing as spokesman and abettor of his home country's music"

I know what you're thinking: "It's not April fool's day, is it? Should I check my calendar? This isn't funny, jazz monster..." No, it isn't April Fool's day. This is an actual quote from the actual new issue of Downbeat. I'm assuming that in spite of the interview, the author (a certain unfortunately named Micheal Jackson, who has just made a faux pas the equivalent of hanging a baby out of a window) didn't bother to listen to Pine's music.

There isn't anything else quite that ridiculous in this issue, although there are a couple more random moments of hilarity, like, say, the incredibly ironic title of the cover article: "Ravi Coltrane: The Next Trane Finds His Voice." So, which is it? Is he the next Trane? Or did he find his voice? Plus, for an article about a young musician who apparently (according to the article, at least) sounds like no one else and doesn't stand in anybody's shadow, they sure do mention JC (No, I'm not talking about Jesus Christ, although this other cat also died a few years too young) a lot.

Also, there's another laugh-out-loud hilarious blind-fold test with Robert Glasper thinking that everyone and their mother is Gonzalo Rubacalba and admitting he hasn't really ever gotten into Vijay Iyer. And Gretchen Parlato signed to Obliqsound, but I knew that months ago. I can't remember if I mentioned it here or not; either way, she's a brilliant (and smokin') young singer and I'm excited to hear her next record.

Maybe next time I'll have a full-on lengthy review of Aaron Parks' "Invisible Cinema," or maybe I won't.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Straight Ahead: New Ones from John McNeil and Bill McHenry, Scott Hamilton, The Harry Allen and Joe Cohn Quartet

The year is 2008, and everywhere you turn you hit a brilliant new jazz record built on some sort of innovative concept, whether it's the pointed math-jazz of Vijay Iyer's "Tragicomic," the Copland-esque strings of Jenny Scheinman's rural jazz masterpiece "Crossing the Field" or the latin-inflected contemporary R&B of Esperanza Spalding's "Esperanza." They're all over the place, the landscape this year just seems filled with young people whose main interest is in moving jazz into territories it hasn't gone before, and who seem to be heaped with adoration from the press for it. But where are all of the old-school bop records? Granted, there have been some great straight-ahead records from really old people- Buddy DeFranco and Marian McPartland come to mind. But what about newer musicians who want to swing without any pretensions; people who want to play music you can jitterbug to? Well, here come Joe Cohn, Harry Allen, Scott Hamilton, John McNeil, and Bill McHenry to fill that void.

Granted, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton has been on the scene for more than thirty years now, but he's never really reached recognition beyond that of a cult musician, and he hangs out with Cohn and Allen, so I guess he belongs here. Hamilton's newest offering, "Across the Tracks," is a lot like all of his other offerings, but a little bit bluesier; that is to say, he swings like it's a 1950 Jazz At the Plaza recording, but with a couple more blue notes than you're used to from him. You can probably blame this on Duke Robillard, who plays bluesy guitar here, but this preoccupation with the 12 bar form is hardly a problem. When the band does play standards, they tend to be ballads; Hamilton's reading of "Sweet Slumber" is lovely, but his version of "Memories of You," which closes the album, is a little too wooden to stand up next to other tenor players' classic takes on the song- just compare it to the Roland Kirk/Jaki Byard version from 1968's "The Jaki Byard Experience."

Hamilton is a guest of the Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet on their recent release, "Stompin' the Blues," and is more fun to listen to in this context; Cohn is a far more subtle and wide-ranging guitarist than Robillard, and it shows in his comping when he interacts with Hamilton and the other tenor player, co-leader Harry Allen (no really). Allen himself is also in fine form here, tackling some lesser-known standards. All in all, the musicians party like it's 1948, and they're all playing at a Norman Grantz-lead Jazz-At-The-Plaza session. Granted, there's nothing at all innovative or challenging about this record, but I suppose there are times when that's just what the doctor's ordered. Did I mention that Joe Cohn kills it? Recommended.

For those who like a healthy dollop of Ornette Coleman with their obscure cool-jazz/mainstream jazz standards, John McNeil and Bill McHenry have created "Rediscovery," an odd little release of west-coast tunes on which co-leader McNeil plays his trumpet in a fashion that somehow finds touchstones in Chet Baker and Lester Bowie. The two lead a piano-less quartet, like those lead by both Coleman and Baker, but mostly give a sort of free-bop treatment to esoteric works by Gerry Mulligan and Russ Freeman. The best tune in this collection is also the most famous: Mulligan's "Godchild." Both McNeil and McHenry play coolly blistering solos (I'm aware that that is an oxymoron, but you'll have to hear them for yourself) before allowing their rhythm section to take the reins. Also recommended.

I think next time I'll post a lengthy series of gripes about the new Downbeat (the best part is the Blindfold Test, where Robert Glasper thinks that every piano player he hears is Gonzalo Rubacalba- including Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus), but that won't be at least until Monday, as I'm going to be without an internet connection this weekend.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Door Opens

Mathias Eick's "The Door," his first album as a leader, does not conjure up the object in its title. To my ears, "The Door" sounds more like a window peering out into a frozen plain; you can almost feel the cold breeze when you listen to the record in Eick's tones on trumpet, which are left to linger in soundscapes of his own creation. Like a frozen breeze, Eick's work is refreshing in an almost uncomfortable way, and "The Door" is the first album since Vijay Iyer's "Tragicomic" this year to give me chills. Eick, who is not yet thirty, wasn't even alive when fellow Norwegian Jan Garbarek was making his name with Keith Jarrett's European Quartet, but Garbarek's influence, and that of the other great early ECM artists like Bobo Stenson and Bill Frisell, can be heard in every note of "The Door." The "ECM sound" is all over the record, but it works. People complain about the wide open spaces inherent in ECM records, but they fit Eick like a glove.

In spite of all of the jazz, there is also a discernible pop influence in the young trumpet player's work, albeit a very subtle one. Unlike his other young counterparts here in the States, who wear their hip-hop and R&B influences like a glove, Eick is more interested in the feeling than the actual sound. "Williamsburg," the album's centerpiece, has a hook worthy of a pop song and contains a fair amount of improvisation, but builds like a classical work; it's impossible to pigeonhole the tune into any one genre, but the aesthetic is clear. "Williamsburg" isn't just meant to be heard, but to be felt. The band breaks down a few times, going into understatedly short, rehearsed free sections, before coming back with the song's insistent piano groove. Eick himself plays beautifully, imbuing the song with a quiet weight. For such a young player, Eick has already found an extremely individual voice; after having heard "The Door," I could never mix Eick's understated beauty up with the work of any of the plethora of other young trumpet players on the scene today.

His sidemen are not here to provide back-up, however; in spite of the fact that many tunes are developed in the traditional head-solos-head fashion, they are too textured to be mistaken for normal straight-ahead jazz. When Eick solos, the band solos with him: pianist John Balke, drummer Auden Klieve, and bassist Auden Erlien all double on various other instruments through-out the record to match Eick's various moods, and each member eggs the other on when the leader isn't soloing. Eick seems to be heralding something of a renaissance in Norwegian jazz, in spite of guest spots on all kinds of albums, his "The Door" is the first one to take the works of the older Europeans and add something substantial to them. "The Door" is possibly the most beautiful album I've heard all year, and it doesn't hurt that I've never heard anything quite like it. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Quite DAPPer

Andy Milne hates it when people compare his music to that of his mentor, the M-Base founder and possibly the most important figure in 80s jazz: Steve Coleman. In interviews, Milne tries to dodge the subject of Steve Coleman's leadership, and instead attempts to steer the conversation away from his time in Coleman's band and towards his solo work. It's kind of stupid, in all honesty, because when you listen to Milne's band, Dapp Theory, you can hear that it is absolutely permeated with Coleman's influence; the odd-meter funk, the hip-hop influence, the spoken word vocals- it's all pure Coleman. But it also isn't. Milne has taken Coleman's music and done something a little bit different with it. Yeah, it's a pretty subtle difference. But it's enough that makes Dapp Theory one of the most interesting bands around right now.

"Layers of Chance" is Dapp Theory's second record, and its first in five years. There are numerous personnel changes from 2003's "Y'all Just Don't Know," but the most notable is the contribution of young alto and soprano saxophonist Loren Stillman, who is new here. Stillman, once a child prodigy, is interesting for his biggest influences; in terms of his tone and ideas, his major idols seem to be Lee Konitz and Steve Coleman (with more Konitz than Coleman, oddly enough), not exactly an easy combination to reconcile. He sounds great here, and has chances to solo on almost every track; his work on "Three Duets" is particularly cool, in spite of the fact that there are apparently no actual duets. Stillman keeps the record unpredictable, playing licks that would sound out of place on a Steve Coleman or Greg Osby record, but that somehow seem to fit fine here.

The title track of "Layers of Chance" also adds some new voices (literally) with contributions from Latanya Hall and Becca Stevens. Stevens seems poised to be the new Cassandra Wilson, with an interesting and not particularly "JAZZ" album, "Tea Bye Sea," and a (the) starring role in Travis Sullivan's Bjorkestra project. Milne has never been averse to using singers in his work, and has collaborated with folk musician Bruce Cockburn before. The most interesting contribution from a voice, however, is not melodic; John Moone, credited with "percussive poetry," does just that. As his credit would suggest, Moone acts as a percussionist, creating an added layer of rhythm to the proceedings with his poems.

The album, like anything good influenced by Steve Coleman, is incredibly funky. Tracks like "Bodybag for Martin" and "Monk Walks" would be danceable if they weren't, you know, in odd times that make them impossible to dance to. Milne, like Coleman, isn't interested in soothing purists, and so "Layers of Chance" is all over the place, and isn't "straight ahead" in any sense of the term. That said, I would recommend it to adventurous listeners.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Good Vibes

As I sit here, watching the Olympic gymnastics competition, wondering how the scoring works, and what exactly differentiates one performance from another, I'm trying to think about exactly what to write about the two vibes players I've recently listened to and how to tie them in to the gymnasts. Neither Bill Ware nor Ed Saindon is elven, nor is either one female. I suppose the only thing they have in common is their ability to achieve superhuman feats; just listen to the lightning speed at which Ware and Saindon can play their instruments. While I've never seen Bill Ware live, I have had the fortune of seeing and playing with Saindon numerous times (full disclosure: I've studied with him in one of his ensembles at Berklee), and am still awestruck by the idea that any human being can have the coordination required for the four-mallet vibe technique- pioneered by Gary Burton- which he uses.

Of course the fact that I'm awestruck by his technique would be totally meaningless if his record weren't any good, but luckily it is. On "Depth of Emotion," his recent collaboration with the much more high-profile Dave Liebman, who plays soprano here, Saindon's extremely complex compositions and reharmonizations shine; in spite of their complicated chord changes and rhythmic motion, they never manage to lose accessibility. Take the versions of "Moon River" and "On Green Dolphin Street," for example. Both are reharmonized with odd chord changes, but in neither is the melody of the tune not readily apparent. Liebman's work here is pretty great, although Saindon, who barely ever records, steals the show with his brilliant vibes playing and piano. Is "Depth of Emotion" going to change the jazz world? No. But that said, it is an interesting, modern, and entirely accessible record that I'd recommend to just about anybody.

Bill Ware, who has added his gymnastic (ha!) ability to Bobby Previte's most recent incarnation of Bump, is, I suppose, the downtown vibes player now that Bobby's settled to spend most of his time playing his drum kit. Having spent time in The Jazz Passengers, recorded for the Knitting Factory label and played on records for Previte and Marc Ribot, all that Ware needs to consolidate his rep is a guest spot in John Zorn's latest Jewish Jazz ensemble (Masada Marimba?) and a record deal with Pi. "Wonder Full: The Music of Stevie Wonder," corny name aside, is probably only going to help. Odd concept? Check. Japanese bassist? Check. Lounge-y vibe? Check. The only problem is, it isn't great. The sequenced keyboards are too corny for words, and his group would work fine as a quartet without them. Ware himself sounds great, but his band just sounds too much like elevator music, albeit self-aware, ironic elevator music. There simply isn't enough variation in the tunes from Wonder's originals- or from eachother, for that matter. Worth a listen if you can get ahold of it, but not worth the search it would probably take to find it anyway.

Next time I may have a smooth jazz round-up of some sort (there are tons of high-profile smoove-cats releasing records right now- Dave Sanborn, David Benoit, that ex-football player who had cancer... the list goes on and on), but then again I may decide to review something good. I suppose we'll see.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

JazzTimes has Some Weird Picks for it's Seven "New Jazz Visionaries;" First Half of Aaron Parks' "Invisible Cinema" really good

This is gonna be a quick one. Just some short gripes about the most recent issue of JazzTimes, which I picked up for something to do while I'm in Canada (In case that wasn't a tell, yes, I am in Canada for the weekend), and a link to Aaron Parks' myspace.

First off, it's worth picking up the new JazzTimes just for Taylor Eigsti's "Before and After," in which he apparently has never heard of Martial Solal ("What's the story with Martial Solal? I want to hear more of that"), kinda sorta trashes Ahmad Jamal ("It's in C, which to be honest I don't think is the best key for that tune"), and says that Brad Mehldau "is probably influenced by" Brad Mehldau. It's almost as good as Andy Bey's "Blindfold Test" from a few months ago, but not quite.

Second, Christian Scott is a major new jazz visionary but not Ambrose Akinmusire? I understand the lack of inclusion of Lionel Loueke, Jason Moran (too well-known by now) and Mike Moreno (he and Aaron Parks are like two sides of the same coin, but Moreno plays guitar), but why no Ambrose? I suppose the lukewarm reviews of "Prelude: To Cora" hurt him in this respect, but Scott's "Anthem" was given much harsher press. Plus it would have been nice to see Gretchen Parlato get some love, but oh well. Next time, I suppose. Other than that it was good, with worth-reading write-ups of Esperanza Spalding and Anat Cohen.

Finally, the first half of Aaron Parks' "Invisible Cinema" is online, and it's really good. Really good. Check out the way he reconciles obvious hip-hop and indie-rock influences on tracks like "Nemesis," which features a solo from Mike Moreno that I would call, for lack of a better phrase, "hella fine."

Friday, August 8, 2008

Two of the Greatest Jazz Albums of All Time (And Possibly My Two Personal Favorites) Have Recently Been Reissued on Concord. Buy Them.

No stupid wordplay or gimmickry in that title; I don't believe in being a tease when it comes to the really serious stuff. "Sunday at the Village Vanguard" and "Waltz For Debbie," the last two albums, both recorded at the Village Vanguard on the same weekend, by the greatest, most influential, most important piano trio of all time- The Bill Evans Trio featuring Paul Motian on drums and Scott LaFaro on bass- are being reissued on Concord with newly crisp sound. So if you don't own these two records already- and believe me, if you're serious about jazz, or play bass, drums or piano, and you do not you do deserve a serious scolding- now is the time to buy them.

I should be incredibly happy; this set of reissues gives me an excuse to write at length about these two albums. In all honesty, though, I barely have the motivation. What is there to say about "Waltz for Debbie" or "Sunday at the Village Vanguard?" I can't do them justice. I tried to describe "Sunday at the Village Vanguard" for my first column at the Scarsdale Inquirer; while I did manage to bang out a few words about how it manages to be accessible and avant-garde at the same time, and about the telepathy of the three musicians, I concluded at the end that the album was indescribable. That holds true here, so before my next paragraph I should add a disclaimer: everything I say from here on is bullshit. Just go out and listen to the music. You'll thank me.

Most of the people who read this will know the tragic story, but it's worth reprinting: shortly after this performance, bassist Scott LaFaro, arguably the most important bassist of his era, died in a car accident. Because of this fact, people have a tendency to add some sort of value to this album; after all, it is LaFaro's last performance. In all honesty though, it doesn't matter. LaFaro could have lived until now and he would never have played again like he does on these two albums. Unlike most other bass players, who anchor the controlled chaos going on around them, LaFaro floats above the fray, playing off of Evans' piano and Motian's haze-like cymbals, and often simply ignores the roots that any sane band-leader would expect him to play. In that sense, yes, this trio's work is "avant-garde." But that word has a certain gravity to it; "Sunday" and "Waltz" are not made up of abrasive or inaccessible music.

I understand that I often use hyperbole in this forum as a way of getting my point across. But there is no hyperbole in the statement I'm about to make: take 2 of "Alice in Wonderland," off of "Sunday at the Village Vanguard," is the single most beautiful recording I've ever heard. Evans' block chords, LaFaro's floating bass, and Motian's cymbal mist work together to create a waltz of such ethereal, aching beauty that it has to be heard to be believed. There's nothing else like it in jazz, at all, aside from perhaps its counterpart, the title track of "Waltz For Debbie," which is almost as good.

Highly highly highly highly recommended. Do yourself a favor, and listen to these albums. Even if you don't buy them, just find them somewhere and listen to them. Trick your friend into buying them and then listen to them. Do whatever you have to do, but these two are the ones to hear.