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.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ear Candy? Ehh...

Ever wondered what an okay post-"Sidewinder" Lee Morgan record would have sounded like if the trumpet chair were filled by Miles Davis instead of Morgan himself? No? Well, in case you ever did, Roy Hargrove has tried his hardest to faithfully create that record. Roy Hargrove's new album "Earfood" isn't exactly bad, but it isn't particularly good either. He sounds exactly like Miles Davis (albeit a technically flawless, somewhat flashy Miles Davis), but his compositions are firmly grade-B Lee Morgan.

After six sorta funky straight ahead tunes, Hargrove gives us a two minute respite in the form of the ballad "Rouge," which contains barely any improvisation. This isn't a problem, though, as by then we need it. Of course, as soon as "Rouge" is over we're back in funky straight ahead territory, with another Hargrove original, "Mr. Clean." After "Mr. Clean" is, you guessed it, another funky straight ahead tune, "Style," which I suppose should be followed by "instead of substance..." In the liner notes, Hargrove talks about trying to bring pleasure to the listener, and I guess I can see how he tries to do that on "Earfood;" it isn't terrible, it's just a little bit too simple and repetitive. For an album that sets out to do this and succeeds, listen to James Carter's new "Present Tense;" while it may be a bit rougher around the edges than this one, it never fails to make me smile and shake my head when I listen to it.

It doesn't help that his sidemen, with the exception of bassist Danton Boller, who on the basis of this record is someone to watch out for, are competent as opposed to extraordinary. Pianist Gerald Clayton and saxophonist Justin Robinson are both prone to flashy, note-intensive solos and need a bit of time to grow as musicians, while drummer Montez Coleman is the opposite: he lays back too much, never giving us any real impression of who he is as a player. Not quite recommended, but not quite "bad" either, "Earfood" is one of those records that suggests that perhaps something good could come from its sidemen in the future, and that its leader has made and will go on to make better records.

I have no idea what I'll have here next time, but for those of you in Scarsdale, look out for the new Inquirer because I'm pretty sure they'll be running my write-up of the Caramoor Jazz Festival.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Caramoor Day Three: Michel Camilo!

No pun necessary, just an exclamation point. Everything about Michel Camilo deserves an exclamation point, from his style of dress (a ridiculous purple silk shirt worthy of Liberace) to his tendency to shout out the names of his band members in-between every single song he plays. I want to hate Michel Camilo so badly; he plays too many notes, he's a blatant show-off, he doesn't even pretend he's anything other than a total populist. I can't do it though, he's just too good. He really was the only person who could follow up Jimmy Heath's life-affirming big band set. No one else in jazz (aside from perhaps Eldar) has Camilo's energy, technique, or showmanship.

He opened with a rendition of his calling card original "From Within" that made the Calle 54 version look like it was being played by a trio of amateurs. Of course it didn't hurt that his trio was filled out by two absurdly talented young Cuban musicians, bassist Charles Flores and drummer Dafnis Prieto. Before I go any further, I would like to just etch my awe at Prieto in print for posterity- he's that good. At around five feet tall he is, to paraphrase Lady Sovereign, "the biggest midget in the game," but his tone is so good, and his technique so absurdly strong, that it doesn't matter. In "From Within," he played a two minute drum solo and managed to get the crowd to start shouting for more. He's that good. Flores is also pretty great; you would have to be anchor a trio with these kinds of chops.

But Camilo was the reason everyone was there, and he delivered. Man, did he deliver. Just in case no one had realized throughout his set that Camilo was a technically capable improviser and instrumentalist, he closed with his rendition of "Giant Steps," possibly the single fastest thing I've ever heard. When I found out I'd be seeing Michel Camilo at Caramoor, I was expecting a painfully distasteful, hellishly flashy show that I would hate with enough passion to write a funny pan about here, and what I got was a painfully distasteful, hellishly flashy show that I loved and would go to again.

Next time I'll have a long overdue review of "Earfood," Roy Hargrove's latest.

Caramoor Day Three: Heath Bar CRUNCH

Don't you wish Jimmy Heath wrote tunes and named them with stupid puns on his name like Lee Konitz does ("Subconscious-Lee," "Ice Cream Konitz")? It's just me? Well, alright. Either way, it makes a great title for PART TWO of my Day 3 coverage of Caramoor's annual jazz extravaganza. Jimmy Heath, the 82 year old saxophone wunderkind, took the stage about ten minutes after Aaron "cutie-pie" Diehl finished his set of precocious neo-stride piano. Heath, who played with Charlie Parker, was introduced as having played with all the greats, including, according to Jim Luce, Wynton Marsalis. I could go on for hours about how ridiculous it is to introduce Jimmy Heath as a guy who played with Wynton Marsalis as opposed to vice versa, but I'll spare you.
Heath, like Ahmad Jamal, the other eightyish monster at Caramoor this year, killed it. Diehl must have been going crazy about being stuck going before Jimmy, because Jimmy pulled- as I would like to call any sort of cutting by the Heath brothers, whether Jimmy, bassist Percy, or drummer Tootie- the HEATH BAR CRUNCH (I'll bet you didn't think I would tie the title in). The Heath Bar Crunch consisted of a quick one-two punch of relatively new tunes by Heath- an up tune, "For Percy," and then "Project S" ("'S' stands for swing, of course," said Jimmy), which featured a killin' solo by the octogenarian himself- and it was over. Nobody but some sort of ridiculously technically capable audience favorite youngster like Eldar (or, say, Michel Camilo) could possibly follow up Jimmy Heath.

And I didn't even mention Jimmy Heath's big band, which included Gary Smulyan. Yeah, you heard right, the Downbeat Critics Poll 2008 baritone saxophone player of the year was playing in Jimmy Heath's big band at Caramoor. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Heath's arrangements were killin', but still. What a bad-ass. In the middle of Smulyan's solo in "Sources Say," which as far as I could tell from Heath's description is some sort of searing indictment of George Bush's work as president, Heath started dancing. It was embarrassing, of course- 82 year old men shouldn't dance, EVER- but it was kind of fun to watch. Heath ended with an up-tempo rendition of his classic "Gingerbread Boy," which was made famous by Miles in the 60s. The audience at Caramoor gives everyone a standing ovation, but Heath deserved it.

Caramoor Day Three: Diehl or no Diehl

Alright, so here goes the first edition of "Stupid Caramoor Jazz Festival Puns;" Aaron Diehl, who has become known to some extent (I had never heard of him before the performance) for playing with Wynton Marsalis, played the first set at Caramoor on Sunday, and in all honesty I have no idea how I feel about it. Like Marsalis, he (literally) didn't play covers of any songs written after 1920, but there was something admittedly kind of cool about how obscure it all was. I mean, seriously, who covers Lucky Roberts any more? Who these days has even heard of Lucky Roberts?

That said, however, as much as Diehl's old-school noodlings appealed to the nerd in me, even I had to chuckle a little bit when Jim Luce, the festival's producer, declared Diehl the "face of the next generation of the jazz piano." I mean seriously, more like "Art Tatum, the new face of the next generation of the jazz piano." Clearly Diehl needs some time to develop a style of his own that didn't exist eighty years ago. Granted, he played two originals, and while one ("Waltz for Nat") could have been written by Gershwin (or at least someone in the twenties trying to capitalize on Gershwin's success), the other actually sounded kind of modern.

So Diehl won me over, mostly because of how adorable he is. He looks and talks like your very smart twelve year old cousin showing off how smart he is to the adults; maybe in a few years, when he's a bit older, I'll be able to give him a somewhat-negative review (ahem*Taylor Eigsty*ahem) as opposed to a lukewarm one. For now, he may not be a Jason Moran or a Robert Glasper, but he's alright by me.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Caramoor Day Two: Wynton Bores Man to the Point of Medical Emergency

That title is serious. There's nothing funny about what happened a few seats away from me at Caramoor last night; a man had some sort of serious medical emergency and fainted, prompting the on-site medical personnel to rush him to a hospital. "Do we need to call a doctor," asked Wynton from the stage. People laughed. "Nah, I'm serious," he drawled. People laughed again. Didn't they understand when they bought tickets to a Wynton Marsalis show that they were going to be plagued by their consciences because of this kind of horrific occurrence? Wynton kills! He brushed it off: "whatever it is, sir, the music will make you feel better." Surprise! It didn't.

The tell-tale signs were there from the beginning of the show; as Luce introduced Marsalis, the clouds that had cleared up during the Cuban Piano Summit earlier had come back with a vengeance and began to thunder. Marsalis introduced the first four tunes in his set, called "Uptown Rider," "Down Home With Homey," "The Death of Jazz" and "Oh, But on the Third Day." While I could go on for hours about the implication on Wynton's psyche of naming two tunes "The Death of Jazz" and "Oh, But on the Third Day," I'll let you put that one together. Suffice to say, if they made a remake of "The Ruling Class" set in New Orleans, Wynton's acting skill could be called upon. The tunes were a bunch of boring updates of New Orleans style jazz, but with crazy twists; "Uptown Ruler" was in 5/4 (gasp), and "Down Home With Homey" was, according to Wynton, a 12 tone composition, although after having heard it I don't believe it.

"The Death of Jazz" was just that; it sounded like it was recorded in 1923, although it did contain some pretty great clarinet playing from Victor Goines, who looked alarmingly like either an accountant or a high school English teacher. "Oh But on the Third Day" opened with Herlin Riley, finally realizing that his drum set had a cymbal, playing some good stuff, but dissolved into another New Orleans romp. In the middle of the "Third Day," the man in the row across from mine had the medical emergency, which wound up being considerably more interesting than Wynton's predictable read through "Embraceable You." After that, I left.

Later on, while watching a scene from Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" set in the 1920s, my non-jazz inclined companion commented that the music they were playing in the background sounded exactly like Wynton. "Why do you dislike him so much," she asked. "That's why," I said.

In ten minutes I'm off to see Day Three of the Caramoor Jazz Festival, which includes pianist Aaron Diehl, who I have never heard of, Jimmy Heath's big band, and Michel Camilo's trio with Dafnis Prieto on drums.

Caramoor Day Two: Piano Wars '08!

Alright, so I've got about an hour to write about Caramoor Day 2 before I have to run back to Katonah, and so I think I have just enough time to devote two separate entries to the events. The next one is going to be about Wynton and his circus of New Orleans style madness, so that must mean that this one is devoted to the "Cuban Piano Summit" of Elio Villafranca and Chuchito Valdez and Mulgrew Miller's Wingspan.

As expected, the Cuban piano battle was the best event of the day, even though it wasn't quite what I had expected. Advertised as just that, a death match for the claim to title of God of Los Pianos Cubanos, the event was more like two guys playing separately. At least in the beginning. I was more than a little bit disappointed when Elio Villafranca came out and played "El Manicero" solo, thinking "hey, this isn't what I got free press tickets for, where's Chuchito? These guys should be killing eachother!" Of course, that was just the beginning, and Chuchito came out after Elio had finished his set of three tunes. Chuchito came out wearing a massive piece of bling; some kind of god chain the likes of which I haven't seen anywhere but in rap videos. He played his own set of solo tunes, the highlight of which was a gorgeous version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and then Elio came back out and the death match began.

It all started out pretty simply; they played a pretty Cuban head and then started trading some tasteful fours. Elio tried to keep it tasteful, you know: some nice bop licks, a relatively simple polyrhythm. But then Chuchito went nuts, jumped up and down and played some incredibly fast, complicated stuff. Elio couldn't keep it tasteful; he went for the balls and matched Chuchito's complex work and made it even more complicated. It was on. Chuchito played the lowest notes on his piano. Elio played the highest. Chuchito banged the keys. Elio banged back. After about ten minutes they finished the tune and walked off stage, at which point Caramoor jazz fest producer Jim Luce called on them for a rematch-encore which neither of them could resist. The rematch consisted of another Cuban tune that eventually devolved into a twelve bar be-bop style blues and a disturbing amount of quoting from both; they quoted everything from "Rhapsody in Blue" to "Straight No Chaser." Afterwards, when I ran into him, Villafranco said the whole thing was unrehearsed. "I kept on calling him asking him what we'd do," he said, "and he just said, 'ehhh we'll figure it out'." Was it a total pissing contest? No question. Was it awesome? Hell yeah.

As for Mulgrew Miller's Wingspan, my non-jazz inclined companion said that a lot of the show was "boring," but that Miller's solo piano version of "It Never Entered My Mind" was "pretty." I think I'm inclined to agree with her. But Steve Nelson killed it. Absolutely nailed the show. He may not do the four-mallet thing, but he's still quite possibly the most technically capable vibes player in jazz.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Caramoor Day One: Ahmad Jamal

I would like to apologize for the ridiculous lateness of this post, and for the fact that this (and the next few about Caramoor) is going to be (more or less) the ramblings of a half-asleep, drooling maniac as opposed to the work of the regular, wide awake Callum MacKenzie/ Jazzmonster that you've all come to know and love. I have been attending the festival on assignment for the Scarsdale Inquirer, and tonight at Caramoor- a beautiful venue, by the way- I saw Ahmad Jamal, who was brilliant tonight in ways I was not expecting.

In all honesty, Jamal, who is now seventy eight years old, sounds like he's twenty eight. I'm serious. I have it in my notes: "Reminds me of Jason Moran..." And he did. The way he played in concert- I can't speak for the way he plays on his new record, "It's Magic-" was reminiscent of Moran's choppy stylings down to the way tunes like "Insertia" and "Gyroscope" rambled through different themes only to wind up in some kind of funky, bass-heavy jam. Even "Poinciana," that (admittedly beautiful) staple of easy listening jazz, sounded full of energy. Jamal almost apologized for playing the tune: "You've probably heard this many times, and you're going to hear it again," Jamal said before jumping into a half-crazed, swinging version. A half-crazed version of "Poinciana!" Who knew?

The most fun part of seeing Jamal, however, was seeing his percussionist Manolo Badrena in action. The man is a force of nature, all swinging arms and hilarious expressions. Of his many random toys, the two that I liked the most were a makeshift pipe which he has created from a pipe used in his car (I'm serious), and a gigantic circular drum from Iran that as far as I could tell is called a "Daff," or "Doff," or "Daugh." All I can say is, it sounds like "cough," but with a "d."

Having gone in expecting to hear Jamal play good but old-fashioned bop variations of standards- what I'm used to hearing him play- I was more than a little bit blind-sided by howmodern the whole concert was. But I was blind-sided in a good way.

Tomorrow I'll be seeing the dueling Cuban pianos of Elio Villafranco and Chuchito Valdes and some random variation of Mulgrew Miller's longstanding Wingspan group. Oh yeah, and I'll be seeing the Wynton Marsalis Carnival of Horrors- er, septet, who I desperately hope will be playing tunes from his upcoming record, "He and She," a song cycle about how when a man loves a woman very much and they both- aw, well, you'll figure it out yourself. Did I mention it's based on a poem by Wynton? So psyched. Hopefully I'll post on all of this madness tomorrow, but if not I will on Sunday.