J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The One Year Marker

On January 29th I attended a screening of The Lives of Others, a fantastic film about life in East Berlin under the Communism. This Sunday, Lives upset the prohibitive favorite Pan’s Labyrinth to win best foreign language picture at the Oscars. I highly doubt that was indicative of the influence of this blog in Hollywood, but it arguably vindicated the aesthetic judgment of that particular post. (Of course, that was the same tin-eared Academy that gave best song to Inconvenient Truth over Dreamgirls.)

Posts have been going up here for over a year now, and I want to thank everyone who came out to mark that occasion last night. It was great to discuss music and politics with people who take both seriously. I have certainly learned much about both subjects in the course of writing here. Hopefully, others have been hipped to some new things as a result of checking out posts here.

The balance in recent months has probably shifted somewhat in favor of music over politics. That is a logical result of the dreary state of political affairs, nationally and particularly in New York. These things ebb and flow. At least New York is a constant source of rewarding sounds. Tentative upcoming release schedules suggest some great recordings are forthcoming as well, so there is much to look forward to.

Thanks for reading. Again, keep the e-mails coming, particularly the nasty-grams, as those are what my friends always get a good laugh out of them.

Labels:

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Pianists Flock to St. Peter’s

The jazz community came together again in St. Peter’s last night, rallying for one of their own. On this occasion some of the finest pianists in New York played an original Fazioli piano, courtesy of Klavierhaus, to benefit Larry Willis, whose house recently burned down (PR here). Willis is known as a fine jazz pianist in his own right, as well as from prominent sideman gigs with Hugh Masekela, and as a member of Blood Sweat & Tears. He also played on Eddie Gale’s A Minute for Miles (a great CD I constantly recommend).

It was an ambitious schedule of one solo pianist every ten minutes. I had to laugh when I first saw it in my e-mail. The evening did indeed start with a great performance from Mamiko Watanabe as planned, but from there the schedule was out the window. So be it. Those in attendance heard from jazz greats like Don Friedman, Geri Allen, and Mulgrew Miller. Some impressive classical performances from Ran Jia and Sachiko Kato mixed up the program nicely. Also breaking format, were performances from Willis himself, accompanying Jimmy Owens on flugelhorn. The evening ended with beautiful performances by Deanna Witkowski and Helen Sung. Actually, that’s just when it ended for me, as there were in fact two pianists left.

It was a night of great music. There was a nice audience on hand throughout, with late arrivals constantly replacing those leaving earlier, so hopefully it was successful as a fundraiser as well as artistically.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 26, 2007

Back on the Corner


Back on the Corner
By Dave Liebman
Tone Center TC 40532


Years after his death Miles Davis continues to cast a long musical shadow, with musicians continuing to engage with his recorded legacy. Dave Liebman played on Davis’ On the Corner, an album that continues to provoke vastly disparate critical responses. As Liebman writes in the liner notes: “You don’t travel and play nightly with Miles Davis without it having a huge effect on oneself, musically as well as personally.” As an attempt to take stock of his experience with Davis, Liebman enlisted another Davis alumnus, Mike Stern, for Back on the Corner, a tribute featuring mostly Liebman originals.

While OTC had an intense, in-your-face attitude, BOTC is a more relaxed, kind groover, like the opener, “5th Street.” Stern turns up the heat though, with a fleet solo, echoing the feel of electric Miles. It is one of only two tunes featuring Liebman’s tenor, appropriately so given Davis’ increasing preference for the soprano in his later years.

Liebman switches to soprano for Davis’ “Ife,” taken as slow electric blues. Vic Juris gets the guitar honors, for some lowdown statements, before Liebman’s fiery return. Indeed, Liebman is particularly generous with the solo spotlight, giving feature track interludes to bass, drums, acoustic, and electric guitars.

The other Davis original, “Black Satin,” a funky up-tempo burner, might be closest to spirit of OTC. Again on soprano, Liebman is propelled by Marko Marcinko’s power drumming.

Liebman’s original compositions are intriguing, like the haunting “Mesa D’Espana” and the delicate “Bela.” Both use space more than one would expect in a fusion tribute and demonstrate a patience to let the music unfold to great effect. “Bela” features a nice bass solo from Tony Marino, before Stern and Juris trade off on guitar. Liebman’s soprano and flute, as well as the textures of Juris’ acoustic and Stern’s electric guitars give “Mesa” an exotic feeling, somewhat far a field from OTC, but certainly compelling.

Things come full circle with “J.B. Meets Sly/5th Street Reprise,” the concluding track that like “Black Satin,” channels the James Brown vibe which inspired Davis when he recorded OTC. Liebman on soprano and Juris and Stern on electric guitars get in plenty of pyrotechnics before taking it out.

Liebman does not try to play the way he did during his eighteen months with Davis, wisely avoiding attempts to recreate the past. BOTC does make a statement about the continuing influence of Miles Davis and presents an artistically rewarding set of the much maligned fusion genre.

Labels: , ,

Friday, February 23, 2007

Lost Aria

If you’re like me, if you saw David Lynch’s Lost Highway in theater, you did not leave thinking what a great opera it would make—more like “what did I just see?” That means we are not like composer Olga Neuwirth whose opera based on Lost Highway will be performed at the Miller Theatre tonight and tomorrow night.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Lynch’s work. I was a huge Twin Peaks fan, and I was fine with Mulholland Drive, which is not exactly the most straight forward of narratives. Highway however, struck me self-indulgent in its narrative games. Frankly, it would difficult to tell if the opera is faithful to original story. Newsweek’s review of the European production by Robert Hilferty has some helpful explanation:

"'Lost Highway’ dramatizes a peculiar mental disorder know as "psychogenic fugue"--that's probably why audiences and critics didn't now what to make of it at first (and still don't). In this state, the subject utterly forgets his or her past life and takes on a new identity somewhere else.

That's what happens to jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (played by Bill Pullman in the movie)--although Lynch has no interest in signaling or explaining this clearly.”


According to my blurry memory of the film, the jazz is limited to a brief club scene of Pullman’s character blowing in a very free style. Most of the score consisted of rather unsettling orchestrations by Angelo Badalamenti. Hilferty’s review suggests Neuwirth score has similar qualities:

"The music is a phantasmagoric interplay of live and pre-recorded sound, electronics and ghostly fragments of Monteverdi, Kurt Weill, Cole Porter, jazz and God-knows-what. . . The only traditional "aria"-if you can call it that--is given to the seedy pornographer Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia in the film), performed by unorthodox vocalist David Moss. Switching hysterically from high falsetto notes to growling bass tones, Moss pummels a man to death (for smoking, no less) by the strength of his words alone."

Hilferty’s notice was actually quite positive, but he clearly wanted readers to know what to expect. I won’t be reviewing it, as the Miller’s run has sold out, probably almost immediately thanks to Lynch’s fans. I will remain skeptical, but curious. According to the Miller mailer, the NEA partly funded the production. Again, I don’t want to prejudge a work I have not seen, but this does sound like the sort of postmodern hipster projects the agency has moved away from funding under this administration.

Labels: ,

Still Here After One Year

For over a year now, this has been an active link. I have been writing on jazz and other forms of music and culture from a point of view that is evidently pretty unique among jazz writers. A one year anniversary calls for some sort of celebration, so all friends and readers of J.B. Spins are invited for drinks 6:30 Tuesday, the 27th. Send me an e-mail at jb.feedback at yahoo dot com for more details. Music and politics are sure to be discussed.

Please feel free to e-mail your thoughts about anything you have read here as well. My friends at work particular enjoy the nastygrams, which I forward to them so we can all share a good laugh to break up the day. Be sure to say which posts set you off though, so I will know to write more like those.

That is a very small percentage of the feedback of course. It has been great meeting artists and other people in the industry as a result of this site. We may not agree on everything, but we all want to grow the audience for this music. Also, thanks to the bloggers who have linked here, like Gateway Pundit, Hip Hop Republican and Babalu Blog, for increasing our exposure. So thanks for reading, and cheers

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Jazz in Glorious Black & White

The distinctive look of Francis Wolff’s jazz photography has made Blue Note LPs prized collectors items, defining the label for generations of fans. Wolff co-founded the label with Alfred Lion, and his photos documented sessions by many of the important artists they recorded, including Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Clifford Brown. Producer Michael Cuscuna, expert in all things Blue Note, presented a brief lecture on Wolff’s photography as part of an in-store at the Apple showroom on Spring Street.

Wolff’s images are instantly recognizable for their use of light and shadow. The musicians captured by his lens seem to radiate a glow appropriate for iconography. Many of his photos were taken at the Van Gelder studio, where one might expect to find it perennially midnight, lit by flickering gaslights. One photo included in Cuscuna’s presentation showed the natural lighting of Van Gelder studio—a surprisingly well lit space.

Following Cuscuna, BN artist Jacky Terrasson performed an impressive solo set, starting with standards like “Caravan” and moving on to originals, and ending with a little barrelhouse. Terrasson has a sly wit at the keys and is an engaging performer. Evidently, Terrasson has a solo album coming in the summer, and his set was an effective preview. It was the first in-store I have attended that ended with a plug to download the artist’s albums (in this case from i-tunes, of course).

After Terrasson’s performance, those in attendance were invited to see some prints of Wolff’s photos at the Morrison Hotel, the gallery across the street co-sponsoring the event and currently exhibiting Wolff’s work. One particularly striking print is the dramatically composed shot of Andrew Hill used for Judgment, seen here without the colored tint added by BN’s longtime designer Reid Miles. From the John Coltrane of Blue Train to the Sonny Rollins of Volume 2, Wolff has produced many of the lasting images of jazz, so it is satisfying to see his images in a proper fine art context.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Town Hall Tribute to Michael Brecker

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges of fame is that it does not allow grieving to be private. Less than a month after tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker’s untimely death, his family, friends, and members of the New York jazz community gathered at Town Hall for a public memorial service. It was an exceptionally well produced event, all the more impressive for the poise and grace of his young son and the entire Brecker family.

As the family requested, there was no tenor to be heard, aside from Brecker’s on tape and video tributes. There were still several moving performances of songs associated with Brecker, including brother Randy performing “Midnight Voyage.” Pat Metheny and Dave Liebman (on flute) offered solo tributes. Harbie Hancock performed “Chan’s Song” with a trio featuring John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette, and then backed up Paul Simon on “Still Crazy After All These Years,” on which Brecker had contributed the original tenor solo, forever intimidating Simon’s future tenor players.

There is a conception of jazz funerals rooted in New Orleans tradition, but in New York they more high church in practice. When hundreds of well-wishers crowd into Town Hall, it is an expression of their respect for the man and proof of the emotional connection they feel with his music. One hopes that is a solace to the Brecker family.

Donation info:The family requests that donations be made to the Marrow Foundation’s Time is of the Essence Fund.

Labels:

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Freddie Redd’s Reconnection


For seventeen months Freddie Redd led a group that included Jackie McLean playing music he composed for Jack Gelber’s Off-Broadway hit, The Connection. A film version was directed by Shirley Clarke and Blue Note released the music on LP. While Redd is an under-recorded artist deserving wider acclaim, what fame he has derives from the music from The Connection, which he revisited last night in Merkin Hall.

Steve Schwartz, the host for the concert, somewhat whitewashed the subject matter of the play, as a story of chemical addiction. It is a starkly naturalistic portrayal of a crash-pad filled with heroin addicts, being filmed by a documentary crew, as they wait for their drug connection. Some of those hanging out happen to be musicians (played by Redd and his quartet) who periodically rehearse as they cool their heels.

The concert started with Lou Donaldson, who credited the pianist for giving him his first gig in New York, sitting in with Redd and his rhythm section mates, Mickey Bass and Louis Hayes. Donaldson’s alto sounded ageless as he burned through bop standards like “Now’s the Time.” In fact it was almost more of a Donaldson concert, featuring tunes like “Whiskey Drinking Woman,” long a staple of his sets, although Redd himself did get plenty of solo space.

Before the intermission, Redd was briefly interviewed on stage. Perhaps, the most telling exchange started with Schwartz reminding Redd that Gelber’s stage instructions state: “The jazz played is in the tradition of Charlie Parker.” Redd modestly responded to the effect that he always hoped that were true.

The second set was entirely The Connection, with Donald Harrison taking over the alto duties. Hearing the now familiar themes again, it is striking how rich Redd’s compositions are, as they take unexpected twists. While Harrison was somewhat tentative on the opener, “Who Killed Cock Robin,” they would take another shot at it as a sort of encore, in which everyone locked in. Again, there was a bit of a false start on “O.D.” due to confusion with the sheet music and a personnel rotation on bass, although Louis Hayes did his best to cover it with his steady ride. Ultimately it was Redd’s show, and he did not disappoint. He has a muscular, but economical style, and his soloing is bright and compelling, not the least diminished since he first recorded these themes.

Redd now lives in California, so this was a welcome opportunity for him to reconnect with his New York roots. Many prominent musicians and industry figures came out to hear Redd’s return. Thanks to Redd, The Connection has a place of import in jazz history, despite the New York Times panning the original production as “a farrago of dirt, small-time philosophy, empty talk and extended runs of ‘cool music,’” as shrewdly quoted on the back cover of the original Grove Evergreen movie tie-in edition.

It has been produced around the world and the film is often screened at jazz festivals. I screen an excerpt in my jazz survey courses at SCPS. It was definitely a product of its time, but the music is still powerful, as proved again by Redd last night.

Labels:

Monday, February 19, 2007

Pearl Harbor Jazz


Pearl Harbor Jazz: Change in Popular Music in the Early 1940s
By Peter Townsend
University Press of Mississippi
1-57806-924-6


Al Jolson remains an iconic figure for the 1927 film, The Jazz Singer. At the time, he was considered such, as jazz was used as a catch-all term for most popular music. However, codification of musical genres has essentially decreed that the most famous “jazz” movie is no longer about a jazz singer. The process of separating and insulating jazz from popular music (particularly pop vocals) lies at the heart Peter Townsend’s Pearl Harbor Jazz.

Essentially, Townsend identifies the attack on Pearl Harbor as the symbolic beginning of the schism between jazz and popular music. The advent of WWII would lead to a series of setbacks for big bands that would ultimately force all but the strongest organizations out of business. The effect of the draft on bands has been well documented, in effect bidding up the salaries of inferior musicians, as star soloists went into service. Townsend however, brings greater emphasis to the effect of gasoline and tire rationing had curtailing bands’ ability to tour, adversely affecting their income as a result. Townsend explains the further prohibitions on private buses hit African-American bands hardest:

“In the expression used in a Variety headline in the week the ban came into force, the black bands were in effect ‘Jim Crowed.’ There had been an effort by representatives of the black music community to gain special dispensation from the Office of Defense Transportation for black bands traveling in the South, but this was not granted. The bands would be forced onto other forms of transportation, but would do so at a further disadvantage, ‘Train riding isn’t easy for colored bands . . . particularly in the South, the best territory for them. Jim Crow rules on southern lines make routing a difficult task’ (Var. 6.24.42:41)) (p. 104)

As swing bands folded due to artificial economic setbacks, bebop would become the new ascendant jazz style, but it was perceived as a less commercial, more intimidating form of art music. Townsend uses Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra as touchstones throughout Harbor. In 1943 Ellington would inaugurate jazz’s conversion to art music with his Black, Brown, and Biege concert at Carnegie Hall. In the same year, Sinatra is credited with hastening the big band demise by establishing the primacy of independent vocalists with his now mythic appearance at the Paramount Theater (which is pictured on the book jacket).

Townsend argues that artists like Ellington and Sinatra are not so easy to categorize, and that jazz and popular music had been much more intertwined than later jazz writers wish to acknowledge. Townsend further argues that bebop figures like Thelonious Monk were in fact, much more influenced by popular songwriters than is generally recognized:

“Monk had a wide, though idiosyncratic, acquaintance with the popular song and its harmonies. At the sophisticated end of the popular song harmonic vocabulary, the half-diminished chord was not unknown. Monk could have derived this chord from, among other possible examples, the song “I’m Getting Sentimental over You.” Monk was still playing and recording the song in the 1960s.” (p. 144)

Townsend seems to anticipate these arguments being received as heresy by many jazz writers, but I think he underestimates the degree to which the “Great American Songbook” rubric has legitimized and even canonized popular songwriters like Berlin, Gershwin, Harry Warren, and Vernon Duke. For instance, during a Bill Charlap set, one is more likely to hear him talk about the songwriters whose songs he interprets, than refer to the jazz artists who also have recorded those standards.

Townsend’s treatment of the bebop movement is also valuable for a revisionist examination of bop’s supposed rejection of swing music and swing figures. Probably no figure represented swing’s ostensibly regimented qualities as much as Benny Goodman. However, according to Townsend:

“[Kenny] Clarke, credited as the first bebop drummer and an original ‘rebel,’ mentioned that when Benny Goodman attended Minton’s, ‘we always got a great deal of pleasure when he came in’ and that the Minton’s band used to ‘convert our style to coincide with his.’” (p. 135)

Peter Townsend (a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, not the Who guitarist, who spells the name with an “h”) has written an interesting challenge to how many people think about jazz. In effect, he asks if it was really in the music’s best interest to separate itself from popular music. As he observes, “for many musicians, the main problem with commercialism was how to get more of it.” (p. 126) Having jazz critics metaphorically stand in front of jazz clubs warning patrons if they are looking for simple entertainment they should go elsewhere certainly did not serve that end. Jazz readers may not agree with every point, but Harbor offers a fresh perspective on a pivotal period in the development of the music and may spur some interesting debates.

Labels: , ,

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Light on Synanon


A little cult awareness is always timely, and a conversation yesterday about Synanon, the controversial drug treatment center which grew into an admitted cult, prompted me to revisit The Sounds of Synanon, a jazz LP recorded by musicians in the program. I also started leafing through Dave Mitchell, Cathy Mitchell, and Richard Ofshe’s The Light on Synanon, a nonfiction account of the battle a California weekly paper waged to expose the organization’s abuses.

The album still sounds quite good. By the liner notes, it appears to be originally intended as a showcase for pianist Arnold Ross, but it was guitarist Joe Pass whose career would take off as a result. The Dowbeat editorial reprinted on the cover does not hold up as well, sounding uncomfortably defensive: “Jazz and narcotics are unfairly linked in the public mind. Addiction is rare among jazzmen and, reportedly, actually runs lower than in the medical profession.”

Early in its history Synanon is thought to have done passably well cleaning up some musicians, at least temporarily, including Pass and Art Pepper. Tragically, a jazz family would figure in Synanon’s violent downfall. Big bandleader Stan Kenton had been encouraged board his children at Synanon and stayed there a short time himself. His son Lance was essentially raised there, becoming very involved with the organization. In 1980, he and two co-defendants would plead no contest to an attempted murder charge, for stuffing a rattle snake in the mailbox of a Synanon critic. The Mitchells and Ofshe quote a disillusioned Synanon associate who saw the younger Kenton as another cult victim:

“‘Here is a kid who grew up in Synanon, one of the most bright and able.’ How can you take a young man like him, Hurst asked, and train him in violence? Now he’s charged as a would-be ‘killer’!” (p. 200)

I have yet to read Light (too much to review here), but a number of things jumped out while thumbing through. To be non-partisan, Barbara Boxer was one of the few local officials consistently willing to stand-up to the organization. Arguably, this was particularly risky for her politically given the instances cited by the authors where the organization was able to make alliances with leftwing pressure groups. Most notable were two brief but intriguing references to the United Farm Workers:

“Cathy, Richard, Art, and I met at The Light with the special agent from the Organized Crime Bureau. The night before, I had typed up a list of violent incidents involving Synanon. We had already published stories on most of them; we needed more information on the others before we could cover them in The Light. Also included were lists of Synanon attempts at intimidation and of Synanon ties to other organizations, such as Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers.” (p. 183)

The next reference details a press conference, where the group tried to circle the wagons:

“the purpose of the conference was to build opposition to efforts then under way to extradite [founder Charles] Dederich from Arizona to California for trial. Cesar Chavez, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, militant black lawyer Flo Kennedy, and other celebrities friendly to Synanon had been assembled to denounce extradition, claiming it would probably kill Dederich in his weakened condition . . . Chavez, while disagreeing with Synanon’s gun purchases, commented, ‘That doesn’t mean we disagree with Chuck’s right to health.” (p. 243)

There do seem to be some lingering questions about the extent of the group’s influence. While Synanon is pretty thoroughly discredited now, there seems to be organized remnants on the web. Currently, The Light on Synanon is out of print and The Sounds of Synanon is only available as a Japanese import, if you can find it.

(Citations from The Light on Synanon. Seaview Books, New York: 1980)

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Norway and All GATT Jazz

There was cool swag in the exhibit hall at IAJE this year, some of which I’m still working through. Music Export Norway actually had some of the best freebies: samplers of Norwegian artists, including some who are already well known. Nils Petter Molvaer’s “Little Indian” appears on Norway Now and Tord Gustavsen’s “Being There” is included on a full three-CD set Jazz from Norway 2006. Arguably Norway had a better conference than France, who had underwritten an extensive bistro-style sitting area on the exhibit hall, and featured several artists in the closing evening conference. Norway however, had Matthias Eick, who won the IJFO jazz award and gave one of the better concerts of the show.

It does raise questions about jazz’s place in international commerce. Presumably, Amercia has an absolute competitive advantage when it comes to jazz, as the vast majority of jazz greats and current stars have been American. Is it a comparative advantage though? Is our greatest comparative advantage in pop acts (depressing to think) perhaps, and does say Great Britain have a greater comparative advantage in rock than America?

While this is mere speculation, the commerce of culture is very serious business in Europe. France in particular has created international controversy for efforts to protect the French film industry. From the standpoint of trade politics could the generous giveaways at IAJE be construed as “dumping?” It highlights the folly of such protectionist complaints, as most in attendance were happy to get free music, American musicians included. Free exchange of artistic expression is good thing, and it benefits all artists to be exposed to a wide array of ideas and developments. Contemporary protected French cinema is a case in point.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Lee Morgan


Lee Morgan: His Life, Music and Culture
By Tom Perchard
Equinox
1-84553-205-8


Lee Morgan may not be as widely recognized as Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, but hardcore collectors rank him highly. For them Tom Perchard’s Lee Morgan, a biography and analysis of his music will come as a welcome publication.

Morgan is closely identified with the classic years of the Blue Note label, having recorded for them as a leader and as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, as well as a sideman for other BN artists. In truth, the Val Wilmer cover photo is somewhat jarring, since Francis Wolff’s photos have largely defined the Morgan’s image for many.

While Blue Note is revered by many jazz collectors as a rare artist friendly label, Perchard takes a somewhat revisionist view. For instance, he is somewhat critical of Blue Note’s music publishing arrangements, though he does quote label co-founder Alfred Lion’s explanation in an interview with Michael Cuscuna:

“if you had the publishing, then you saved 50 per cent on what you had to pay [in royalties] on the song. And that would increase your profit margin. None of those [producers] ever thought those tunes would be worth anything; it was just a way to keep the unit cost per LP down.” (p. 73 brackets in Perchard)

As successful as Morgan was with The Sidewinder, much of his life has been obscure to his fans. For many it will be a revelation that in 1961 Morgan suffered a Chet Baker style assault targeting his teeth, and as a trumpeter, his livelihood by extension. Perchard speculates:

“Perhaps Morgan’s teeth were knocked out as punishment for this absence [from the studio while under contract to a notorious producer], a punishment after all befitting the supposed crime. Or perhaps that absence was in part due to Morgan’s teeth having been knocked out by someone else, a consequence of addiction as some associates suggested.” (p. 137)

Perchard reveals Morgan would undergo a similar assault again in 1969. As a heroin addict, like many of his colleagues, Morgan would be in close contact with unsavory characters. He would also partake of alcohol and his habits would be reflected in the titles of his compositions. “Speed Ball” would become one of his more popular tunes. Perchard also offers tantalizing reports of unknown thematically related compositions:

“Morgan had copyrighted a collection of songs, all of which went unrecorded, and all but two of which were named after drinks and drinking: ‘Bloody Mary’, ‘Liquid Breakfast’ and so on.” (p. 152)

Indeed there is much in Perchard’s book that gives fresh insight into Lee Morgan and his music. The only drawback is the periodic PC hand-wringing which intrudes into the narrative. We are treated to an introduction of Perchard pounding the mean streets of Morgan’s Philadelphia neighborhood, fretting:

“had those people known what I was doing, perhaps they would have looked over their shoulders, shaken their heads and thought to themselves that, having lost much else, they were now about to lose possession of another black memory.” (p. 4)

It is all right and proper to have sensitivity for how various communities receive your work, but Perchard should have more confidence. After all, in the almost thirty five years since Morgan’s death, he is the first to tackle the trumpeter’s biography. More to the point, restricting academic or journalistic inquiry has the effect of denying the universality of Morgan’s music, which does serve the memory of the man or his music.

Despite a Perchard’s penchant for editorializing, there is much to recommend Lee Morgan. As popular as “The Sidewinder” and his other Blue Note boogaloos had been (by jazz standards), Morgan the man has been a cipher, more so than even Miles Davis, for dearth of information. For that, Perchard’s Lee Morgan is a welcome corrective.
(Reviewed from galley.)

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Grammy Prediction Recap

Aside from the occasional screen crawl, the only jazz appearances on Sunday’s Grammy telecast were the well-deserved lifetime achievement award for Ornette Coleman, and in the memorial tributes. It did seem to answer the question: just what does a jazz artist have to do to make the primetime show?

Jazz might be far from the Grammy spotlight, but I went ahead and made some predictions here in December, so it’s time to take what lumps are coming. (List of all winners & Nominees here.)

I waffled on the best contemporary jazz category, suggesting Béla Fleck and Mike Stern were the frontrunners. Fleck won.

I picked Diana Krall as the prohibitive favorite for best jazz vocal album, but averred Nancy Wilson might be a dark horse. Wilson, of course won. Maybe that’s okay for online commentary, but I’m sure the bookies wouldn’t pay on that.

Best instrumental solo—Michael Brecker on Randy Brecker’s Some Skunk Funk. Check.

Best jazz instrumental album—Chick Corea’s Ultimate Adventure. Check.

Best jazz large ensemble album—Randy Brecker’s Some Skunk Funk. Check.

Best Latin jazz album—Brian Lynch & Eddie Palmieri’s Simpático. Check.

I’d argue that’s not a bad record in the jazz categories. Random predictions in other categories did not pan out as well. In the contemporary blues category, I thought Katrina solidarity would swing it for Dr. John’s Sippiana Hericane. Instead, the New Orleans sentiment went to Irma Thomas for After the Rain. I was hoping Fred Hersch would beat out John Williams’ theme for the appeasement picture Munich in the best instrumental composition category. That didn’t happen. Not really a prediction, I wrote Grammy voters should give best classical producer award to Manfred Eicher every year. They didn’t see it that way.

Corea did take another Grammy for best instrumental arranging, and Dan Morgenstern did receive another Grammy for liner notes, so there are two more checks. I also made a mushy prediction that the best instrumental arrangement award would go to an arrangement on either a Tony Bennett or Chris Botti record. That was a safe bet.

That’s the prognostication record you get here. Make of it what you will.

Labels:

Monday, February 12, 2007

Gunn Plays Miles


Russell Gunn
Plays Miles Davis
HighNote HCD 7161

Russell Gunn has a reputation as the jazz artist most successfully at integrating elements of jazz and hip-hop in a way that stays true to both idioms. While his newest CD, Russell Gunn Plays Miles Davis, is not a part of that hybridization project, it does show an affinity for Davis’ music, including, but not limited to his later, electric periods.

Gunn Plays starts with “Tutu” the title track from one of the most critically debated Miles Davis albums. The original was a studio creation with Marcus Miller laying down each track himself, allowing Davis to simply blow on top. It is interesting to hear it here, in a legitimate small group context, although Orrin Evans’ keyboards do hearken back to spirit of the original. “Tutu” is a well chosen opener, with Gunn making some eloquent statements, and Mark Kelley contributing a nice bass solo.

While Gunn eschews the Harmon mute throughout, for the most part he keeps well within classic Davis registers. On “Bitches Brew” however, he does break out the pedal for some power blowing on a free ranging performance. It is another interesting arrangement of a Davis classic originally produced for a much larger ensemble, held together by Montez Coleman’s driving drumming.

Gunn does not limit the program to electric Miles Davis repertoire, taking on several pieces from the second classic quintet, including Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” given a Latin groove by Coleman and percussionist Kahil Kwame Bell. With an assured solo from Gunn and rich textures from Evans on acoustic and electric piano, “Footprints” is a fine example of ensemble interplay.

Taken at a slightly faster tempo than the Kind of Blue version, “All Blues” is another kind groover thanks to the funky electric piano of Evans. It is a good feature for Gunn who shows a beautiful, bluesy tone.

The only original of the set, “New New Blues” is indeed an easy going blues, somewhat evocative of “The Theme.” Gunn, Evans, and Kelley all speak their peace before taking it out. It is a fitting closer to a strong tribute.

Gunn Plays is a well conceived thematic album. While, as the liner notes point out, this may not be Gunn’s everyday band, they sound great together, showing a high degree of compatibility. For his part, Gunn proves he can express much without burying listeners in a blizzard of notes, just like his inspiration for this session. It is a CD that may surprise some who only know Gunn for his hip-hop hybrids.

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Stasi Cinema


Two recent films coming out of Germany will make ex-Stasi agents uncomfortable, and they both opened in New York this weekend. Not exactly a multi-plex picture, The Lives of Others (previewed here last week) opened on nine screens Friday, according to boxofficemojo, but with an impressive average take of $24,777 per screen. It is definitely worth searching out. Also playing a limited run at the Film Forum is the 2003 German documentary The Decomposition of the Soul directed by Nina Toussaint and Massimo Iannetta. In addition to awkwardly translated titles, both films expose the brutal tactics of the East German Stasi State Security Agency.

While Lives is a gripping fictional drama that will draw in any moviegoer giving it a chance, Decomposition is more demanding of viewers. It consists largely of tracking shots through former Stasi interrogation rooms and torture chambers as two former prisoners, Hartmut Richter and Sigrid Paul tell their harrowing stories. Filmed over ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the cells and interrogation rooms still retain their oppressive menace.

Although most of the Stasi’s devices for decomposing souls described in the film were psychological and spiritual, Paul relates a chilling episode in which she is ordered to clear human blood and excrement from the floor of the “rubber room.” In recounting her experiences, Paul explained a mental defense strategy she used, visualizing a wall protecting her from her tormentors. Ironically, after the fall of the Wall, she repeatedly tried to confront one such Stasi agent, only to be told he had “walled himself off.”

The filmmakers of Decomposition succeed in conveying some sense of what it was like to be a prisoner within those particular walls. It is not pleasant. That Richter and Paul survived and were willing to return to make the film is amazing. In their flyers, Film Forum recommends seeing Decomposition and Lives in conjunction with one another. Both worthy films certainly expose the viciousness of the East German socialist state (and both films explicitly label it as such). Decomposition will be at the Forum through Feb. 13.

Hopefully, Lives is just starting a long run here in New York. It is a riveting and ultimately beautiful film.

Labels: ,

Friday, February 09, 2007

Coming Attraction: Amazing Grace

It is popular to dismiss religion as the motivation behind all manner of war and brutality in human history. However, Amazing Grace, the new film from director Michael Apted about William Wilberforce’s long campaign the end the British slave trade makes an explicit connection between his Evangelical Christian faith and the cause of justice. While some Christian commentators have expressed concern Wilberforce’s faith would be whitewashed by the filmmakers, on screening the film, it seemed a reasonably prominent element of the drama.

The strongest element of Grace is the dramatization of the parliamentary campaign itself. Ending the slave trade was a noble pursuit, but Wilberforce and his allies still had to make their case and count the votes. Ioan Gruffudd (Mr. Fantastic to comic geeks) is appropriately intense as Wilberforce, showing the tremendous physical and emotional toll of pursuing his cause. Amongst his parliamentary allies was the crafty Charles, Lord Fox, played by the perfectly cast Michael Gambon, who gets all the best lines and delivers them with zest. Albert Finney also co-stars as John Newton, the former slave ship captain turned abolitionist minister (and composer of the hymn which titles the film).

Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour makes his film acting debut as freed slave and abolition activist Oloudah Equiano. A vocalist of worldwide stature, Youssou N’Dour may also be familiar to jazz listeners for his appearance on Manu Dibango’s Wakafrika album and his own The Guide (Wommat) release, which featured Branford Marsalis. In a small but important role, he shows undeniable screen presence. Based on Grace, it would be great to see him in larger roles. Publishing colleagues may also enjoy the scene of Equiano’s book signing (if only more of our events were as successful).

Youssou N’Dour also contributed to the soundtrack, but by and large it consists of orchestral themes composed David Arnold. It is effective providing emotional cues, but at times transparently manipulative.

If not absolutely perfect (too many flashbacks), Grace is beautifully crafted and boasts a strong cast. Co-produced by the remarkably sane Hollywood star Patricia Heaton, Amazing Grace releases in New York on February 23rd, scheduled to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the passage of Wilberforce’s anti-slavery bill. It is worth checking out.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Music from Black Snake Moan

Black Snake Moan Soundtrack
New West Records


That’s some key art alright. Craig Brewer’s upcoming film appears to hit a lot of hot buttons, hard. However, as the story of a pious bluesman looking to reform a wayward woman, the sounds of the blues are central to the soundtrack of Black Snake Moan. The movie actually takes its title from a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, and yes, there was some double entendre there.

In many ways, the Black Snake soundtrack album concept brings to mind the Pulp Fiction OST, with snippets of dialogue included. Black Snake also goes back to the roots with two brief extracts of interviews with the legendary Son House, which really cut to the core of the blues.

Although much of the material here is licensed from other releases, some themes from Scott Bomar’s original score are included, performed by members of the North Mississippi All-Stars and harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite. Probably the best feature for Musselwhite is “The Chain,” which sounds both greasy and menacing (again, refer to cover art).

Also original to the CD are blues from lead actor Samuel L. Jackson. He is basically serviceable on “Just Like a Bird Without a Feather,” originally a R.L. Burnside tune, to whom the picture is dedicated. He is more convincing on the up-tempo juke rendition of Burnside’s Alice Mae,” but the real killer in the collection is his take on the mythic blues of “Stack-O-Lee” a.k.a. Stagger Lee. It is hard to imagine a song better suited to Jackson’s screen persona than the ballad of the stone cold killer of Billy Lyons. The combination of the driving guitar licks and Jackson’s delivery, more spoken than sung but loaded with attitude, could make this the party track of the year for those not offended by the MF’s and other assorted lyrics not Tipper Gore approved. The well sequenced disk follows this by going back to source with Burnside himself performing “Old Black Mattie.”

With tracks from Jessie Mae Hemphill, Precious Bryant, Bobby Rush, and the North Mississippi All-Stars included as well, Black Snake is nifty collection of Mississippi blues that makes with more than a nodding tribute to its historic roots. The film opens in a few weeks, so it will be interesting to see how it portrays the blues and handles its other themes. Regardless, the soundtrack CD holds up well independently of the film.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Strays on PBS

There must have been a blue moon last night, with WNET 13 actually showing jazz programming in primetime. Independent Lens’ Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life was broadcast on the New York PBS affiliate from 10:00 to 11:30 PM—still probably too late to introduce kids in school to a jazz great, but the first primetime showing for jazz on WNET in several years, none the less. (Call me a snob, but I just can’t count the Chris Botti special.)

This space has been critical of PBS and 13 for claiming to champion jazz during the broadcast of Ken Burns’ Jazz and the attendant pledge solicitations, but delivered precious little since. Terms like “bait and switch” may have been used here. So give credit to PBS and WNET for Lush Life last night.

It was a comprehensive and entertaining look at the artist so closely associated with Duke Ellington. While chronicling Strayhorn’s all too brief life, Lush Life frequently returned to the music itself. The filmmakers nicely blended archival footage with newly recorded tracks predominantly from Blue Note artists. Elvis Costello would probably be the marquee name performing, but the best matches of artist to material were Bill Charlap interpreting “Valse” and the great Hank Jones swinging his way through “China Doll.”

Obviously, Lush Life has been in the works for some time, given the original interview footage with the late Luther Henderson. It probably would have been helpful for viewers not obsessively familiar with things Ellingtonian to have some context for who the interview subjects were, but that’s a minor quibble. Overall, it was definitely worthy programming.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

It’s About That Time

It’s About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off the Record
By Richard Cook
Oxford University Press
0-19-532266-5


Discography can tell you quite a bit about an artist. It shows what an artist was doing at a specific time, where they were, and who they were with. Discography as biography describes the approach Richard Cook takes in It’s About That Time, a detailed analysis of classic Miles Davis albums and the circumstances which produced them.

Writing about Davis is a daunting task. In recent years, two books have been devoted to his classic Kind of Blue album alone. Cook tackles his subject without reservation sometimes leveling verdicts that fans of the trumpeter may take issue with. Few albums in the Davis catalog are as revered as Sketches of Spain, one of his most popular collaborations with Gil Evans. Yet in Cook’s judgment, Sketches “does sound like a record where its creators were trying too hard.” (p.125)

In other respects, he offers a more favorable evaluation of some aspects of Davis’ music. For instance, tenor player Hank Mobley has usually received critical short shrift for his work succeeding Coltrane in the Miles Davis quintet. Most argue Trane overshadowed Mobley on Someday My Prince Will Come, a transitional album from Davis, which featured both tenors. Cook however, singles out Mobley’s solo on “Old Folks,” calling it “truly lovely.” (p. 131) He describes Mobley’s style in complimentary terms, asserting:

“the lack of plangency in his tone disguised a clever and very inventive way of particularizing his solos: often he would work against the beat, or use unusual phrase lengths or shapes.” (p. 130)

As for Davis’ late Warner Brothers years, Cook seems expresses some affection for the unfairly overlooked soundtrack to the film Dingo, calling it “curiously enjoyable.” (p. 306) Featuring a score largely composed by Michel Legrand, Dingo co-starred Davis himself as an expatriate American trumpet player, Billy Cross, whose chance performance on a remote Australian runway would have significant impact on a local musician. Cook seems to agree that the movie is underrated as well, writing: “The film, alas, disappeared quickly and was barely given a full release.”

The more dramatic events of Miles Davis life certainly intrude in Cook’s narrative, but he does not dwell on them past their effect on the music. That Time is more concerned with the musical relationships in his career, and it is impressive to review the illustrious sidemen who have come through his group. Cook does offer some interesting what-ifs, such as what if the West Coast based British pianist Victor Feldman had accepted a permanent spot in the band, after their work on Seven Steps to Heaven?

Far from being hagiography, Cook is often a tough critic of Davis’s playing. It would be interesting to know if his opinion of Davis blossomed or shrank as a result of the close listening that went into the book. Regardless, there is a lot of insight into the music of Miles Davis in That Time, and it is also a useful tool in untangling the convoluted mix & match blender of many of the 1970’s Columbia releases. More than anything, Miles Davis fanatics will enjoy it as a jumping off point for debates on the relative critical judgments of an immensely influential artist.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 05, 2007

Read a Burned Book

The Super Bowl was just ok, but there will be a real party in Miami when the Castro and his brother no longer terrorize Cubans. Until then, FREADom invites you to read a book burned in Cuba as part of their International Read a Burned Book Campaign. It’s an impressive list, so you can most likely find something to your taste. There are some confirmed examples here. It includes well-known right-wing counter-revolutionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr. and George Orwell.

Authors lending their support include civil liberties advocate and NEA Jazz Master Nat Hentoff, a longtime critic of the Castro dictatorship. Hentoff has also been critical of the ALA for the librarian association’s refusal to condemn the regime’s brutal crackdown on independent librarians. At one point Hentoff wrote:

“After sentencing the independent librarians, Castro's judges, in a number of cases, declared the confiscated library materials "lacking in usefulness" and ordered them burned. Will the American Library Association hold a memorial service?”

Other noted writers lending their support to effort's on behalf of Cuban librarians include Ray Bradbury, NPR’s Andrei Codrescu and Ambassador Armando Valladares. Cuba’s independent librarians are risking their lives for a proposition that could be described simply as: “reading is fundamental to liberty.” Castro must agree, or else he would not feel so threatened by words on the printed page.

Labels:

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Bublé Pops Off at the Grammys

Pop crooner Michael Bublé has been back-pedaling like it’s an Olympic sport, after some of his off-the-cuff on the Grammy Awards. MacLeans reports his controversial statements:

"They give away our best traditional pop award at a dinner before the Grammys, so I just think that's bullshit. I think it's absolute crap," Buble, 31, said in an interview Tuesday with The Canadian Press.

"Our category is now selling way too many records to be given away at a dinner before, so I'm just not going to show up."

He also took some heat for comments assuming he would lose to Tony Bennett:

"Why should I go to the Grammys?" he said. "Because I'll lose. ... They might as well have already scratched Tony Bennett's name into the damn thing. I'm not going."

That didn’t come out the way he intended. Bublé later clarified his remarks:

"I jokingly said that Tony Bennett is going to win anyway so why should I go? This is not sour grapes. I worship, love and respect Tony Bennett. He is my idol. I voted for him and he deserves to win.''

He also tried to make nice with the academy, saying he meant no disrespect to the Grammy Awards. He has a legit point though. Granted, instrumental jazz artists do not have much commercial clout these days, but traditional standards vocalists like Bublé, and particularly Bennett can claim some real sales heft.

The Grammys seem to have a preconceived notion of what the broadcast worthy awards are, but maybe they should revisit their assumptions more often. Tony Bennett is most likely a slam dunk in this award, and he is probably one of the most popular nominated artists this year. Who has sold more records, Tony Bennett or James Blunt? Who is more widely recognizable, Bennett or Daniel Powter? Which Grammy nominee had a prime time network special directed by an academy award winner? TB.

If the Grammys think Bennett’s sales only come from older generations, they obviously have not been in a Starbuck’s in the last year. Of the nominees, Bublé stands a better chance of getting into Starbuck’s music sales program (one of the greatest sales engines in the music industry) than nearly any other nominee. One can’t blame him for saying the Grammy treatment of his category is lame. It’s also short-sighted.

Friday, February 02, 2007

East of Havana


“Hip Hop is struggle. It means a determined attitude towards life. It means rebellion. . . For me it means freedom.”—Cuban Rapper Soandres “Soandry” Del Rio Ferrer

Looking for a Hip Hop scene where nobody wears Che t-shirts? Then check out East of Havana, the new Cuban Hip Hop documentary opening today at the IFC Film Center in New York (previewed here, trailer here). Produced by Charlize Theron, it follows three young Cuban rappers as they prepare for their performance in Cuba’s international Hip Hop festival.

Like jazz in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, Hip Hop in Cuba exists in a precarious position. Formerly outlawed, the music has only recently been officially sanctioned due to the intercession of Castro’s close friend, Harry Belafonte. The three young artists of East, work almost entirely outside of the official system, as members of their own independent collective, El Cartel, and their music speaks of their dissatisfaction with the current system.

East shows the abject poverty of Havana under Castro’s dictatorship. The living conditions filmed would be considered sub-standard in most third world nations. At one point, one of the young rapper’s mother tellingly jokes about cooking entire meals from three garlic cloves. We see rapper Magyori eek out a survival selling anything, including the proverbial shirt off her back, to maintain a hand-to-mouth existence. Some reviews have tried to interpret these images as an indictment of the American embargo, but that seems a rather desperate spin, especially given the amount of European trade and tourism coming into the prison island.

Indeed, nobody is heard waxing poetic about the healthcare or education of the bearded regime. They are worried about where their next meal will come from, and finding outlets for the art and self-expression—pretty fundamental stuff. We see Soandry’s brother in America, wracked with guilt for leaving his family. Yet his younger brother harbors no bitterness. He tells his interviewer one has to leave the country to think freely, so he well understands his brother’s choice. It is clear the privations of Cuba are not just economic in nature.

East is not perfect. To be truthful, even at 82 minutes, the film does have pacing issues. However to their credit, the young rappers acquit themselves well. Granted, I don’t follow American Hip Hop closely, but their music actually compares favorably to what I’ve heard here recently. Paul Heck’s incidental soundtrack also has a pleasing vibe.

From the press materials, it is clear, the filmmakers wanted to tread a middle road, but the harsh reality captured by their lenses speaks volumes. It’s worth checking out.

Labels:

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Choreography for Atrium

The Atrium of the Whitney Altria Annex just is not a natural performance space. “. . . the only personal thing I do . . .” was the awkwardly titled dance performed in the Altria Atrium last night, and it really was not well served by the space. Seating for the audience was set up in two opposing sections, around staircases and statues, forming a rough parallelogram, with the dancers performing in the center. Probably the best view was had by the security guard in the adjacent building.

Judith Sánchez Ruíz's choreography did take into account the challenges of the space. In fact, the highlight of the evening involved gymnastically employing the railings of the front entrance into the dancer’s moves. Grammy nominated Dafnis Prieto is an emerging percussion star, but his music, while accompanying the dancers effectively, did not introduce any memorable melodies. Prieto and cellist Dana Leong played well together, but there was not much for listeners to take home with them.

Sánchez Ruíz and her dancers deserve credit for performing under difficult circumstances, with the audience constantly moving and jostling for a better position. They also had to deal with competition from some of the large Whitney-style sculpture installations in a space with significant sight-line issues.

There is music to be heard every night in New York, but not every show can be transcendent. Wednesday in the Altria, we could give credit for effort and ambition, and then call it a night.