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.