Friday, April 29, 2011

Wolfgang's Vault

The rewards of wretched excess

Listen to more Mahavishnu Orchestra at Wolfgang's Vault.

Rock impresario Bill Graham's work endures at Wolfgang's Vault, where hundreds of the concerts he produced are available for purchase or free embedding. For jazz listeners, there are many choices for Miles Davis, one for John Coltrane, and a slew of concerts by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. 

Mahavishnu had three Miles Davis alumni — guitarist and mastermind John McLaughlin, powerhouse drummer Billy Cobham, and keyboardist Jan Hammer — which accounts for the group being among the few fusion bands that preserved a feeling of jazz among the temptations of noodling, volume, and posturing that came with the 1970s in general and fusion in particular. The other band members are violinist Jerry Goodman and bassist Rick Laird.

Listen to the intense interaction and trading among McLaughlin, Goodman, and Hammer on this tune from Wolfgang's Vault.

I loved Mahavishnu, still do. It was sort of a cult then, and now probably moreso. I will concede that the speed and energy amounts to wretched edcess. And I'm sure many people hate this sound, which is so firmly installed in the fusion category: widely considered the cancer, the excrescence of jazz. But I don't care.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey

From odd to classic, ancient to future

Jacob Fred Fred Odyssey - the Race Riot Suite: World Premier from Jacob Fred on Vimeo.

The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey came to Springfield, Mo., sometime in the early oughts. The trio played fun and spacey music, and I recall that the bass player was ill, slouching in a heap on the floor but still holding up his end. The band recorded the performance and offered to burn a CD for anyone who wanted to hang around after the music ended. I suspect they don't do that anymore, but they are generous with streaming video and audio at their website — including an embed option (see below).

I bought a couple of the group's albums right after hearing them in person, but I found the music too meandering for my taste and stopped listening. I remained on their list for e-mail newsletters and have been impressed with their expansive approach to music, including a Beethoven project, LUDWIG, and coming soon, a New Orleans project, Race Riot Suite, which should be really exciting, as the promotional video above suggests. The premier is scheduled for May 20 at the Performing Arts Center in Tulsa, Okla.

And now, the embedded Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey player. I've tested it, and I find that it spontaneously starts, but I don't see how to go to another tune or shut it off. Oh, well ...

UPDATE, 9:28 a.m. Thursday April 28: The pause button works now, and it's possible to choose different tunes. Check out "Drethoven," which is from the LUDWIG project.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dee Dee Bridgewater's Malian journey

After Jane Monheit's performance in Springfield, Mo., I mentioned Dee Dee Bridgewater among several underappreciated singers. Here's a chance to expand your horizons for vocal jazz.

I saw Dee Dee Bridgewater and her troupe of Western Hemispherians and Malians at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City in 2008. Her trip to Mali in 2005 to explore her roots turned into a musical revelation. This tune, "Griots (Sakodougou)," is from her album Red Earth: A Malian Journey. The Red Earth project combines her working trio with Malian singers and virtuosos of the kora, balafon, talking drum and other percussion. The soaring voices and the great musicians — especially the youngster Cherif Saumano on kora, whose plucking evoked harp, guitar, harpsichord, and piano, entirely by the power of his two thumbs — transported us to a place of spinning, floating and bouncing. Bridgewater’s scat on this tune shows how she carries a strong jazz presence as she fully throws herself into the African realm.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"JuJu" — soundtrack to blowing wind and huffing airplane

Appreciating Wayne Shorter’s Blue Note period

I associate "JuJu" by Wayne Shorter, the version on his 1964 Blue Note album by the same name, with the time I was flying through heavy weather in a prop-driven commuter plane. This experience came at a time when you could use electronic devices at any time during a flight. Back then, the most sophisticated device was a Sony Walkman. It was also at a time when pilots weren’t sealed off from passengers; I could see into the cockpit because there were no doors or partition in this little plane. As it gained altitude after takeoff, I had a pilot’s view through the windshield of the gray horizon flipping back and forth. Out my window, I saw mountains of clouds as the plane tried to climb through them toward a little hole of light. As Shorter announced the theme of "JuJu," the plane powered upward, but by McCoy Tyner’s solo, the blackening clouds seemed to have beaten the airship back downward. Just after Shorter came in again, the the plane made another attempt to break through the little hole of light, but the elements beat it downward once again. Shorter’s tumultuous solo represented not only the plane’s striving but also the atmosphere’s fierce resistance. Before Shorter was done, the plane made another attempt, this time successful, and the song faded out just as we threaded through the little hole of light into the calm air above the clouds.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Wandering into jazz in central Iowa

Appreciating Damani Phillips and Grinnell College

Over the weekend, I visited Grinnell College, my alma mater, to attend a retirement celebration for the professor who was most influential for me. A group of us wandered around the campus and the vibrant small town in the middle of Iowa, soaking up sights and sounds, meeting people, just like we did as students. With the kind of good fortune I took for granted 35 years ago, we ran into a Saturday afternoon jazz concert in the relatively new Sebring-Lewis Hall of the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts. It was a trio performance including Hammond B3 organist Pat Bianchi, drummer Jim White, and Damani Phillips, alto saxophonist and assistant professor of music at Grinnell. The afternoon event was a preview of the evening concert of the Grinnell College Jazz Ensemble, which Phillips directs, with Bianchi and White as guests artists.

Phillips stocked the hourlong program with several altoist-related tunes, such as:
  • "Lisa" — Cannonball Adderley
  • "Isfahan" — Strayhorn and Ellington, but also Johnny Hodges, whom I believe Phillips was channeling in the first part of this solo
  • "Sing a Song of Song" — Kenny Garrett
I sensed that his solos in each tune were intended to illustrate the stylistic differences among the pieces and their contexts. In this way, I suspect that he may be a powerful and generous teacher, and the students are fortunate to have him.

Bianchi demonstrated the emotional intensity of the B3, while White showed a dynamic range, from quiet to thundering. 

I’ve included a video of Phillips leading a student combo at Bob’s Underground Cafe, a student-run coffee house on campus. Listen to the piano!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Potential jazzless wasteland

Appreciate jazz whenever it's within earshot

One reason why I shed my taste preferences while listening to Jane Monheit Wednesday at Hammons Hall for for Performing Arts in Springfield, Mo., is that jazz is rare here — best to sit back and enjoy. Nearby St. Louis and Kansas City have established jazz histories and several clubs. The Blue Note in Columbia occasionally programs jazz. However, during periods when all Missouri clubs are on hiatus, especially in the doldrums of August, the region becomes a jazzless wasteland — no jazz for 500 miles. Last August, I suffered such withdrawal that I willingly attended a fairgrounds performance of K.C. and the Sunshine Band, just to hear the horns. Such is life when droplets of jazz dry up in this brutal and unforgiving climate.

Kansas City: 

St. Louis:

We Always Swing Jazz Series

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Jane Monheit in Springfield, Mo.

Appreciating the appreciated
and the underappreciated
A performance form 2002, at the height of the hype

Jane Monheit brought her luscious warbling voice and her sophisticated trio to Springfield, Mo., last night for a program of standards promoting her new album, Home. Among the highlights:
  • Two Fred Astaire-related tunes, "Shine on Your Shoes" and "Cheek to Cheek," with audience patter in which she ranked Daddy Long Legs among the most underappreciated of jazz singers.
  • "Moon River," fortified with her soaring alternative melody in a vocalise passage that evoked the longing and melancholy that the lyrics describe. This choice was also amusing for its proximity to the tune’s champion, Andy Williams, who performs periodically at his own theater 45 miles down the road in Branson, The Live Music Capital of the World.
  • "The Eagle and Me," with some blues emphasis that added a little grit to the evening.
  • "Twisted," smoothed out compared to the standard set by Annie Ross with Lambert and Hendricks — but a welcomed addition to the program.

I remember the berserk marketing freak-out over Jane Monheit a decade ago. The hype greatly amplified the revulsion that hard-core jazzers have for young, white women who sing standards and get rich. I have also heard the bitterly scathing outbursts of jazz musicians as they criticize singers in general for their narcissism and lack of skills.

Such complaints would apply to bad singers, but Monheit is not a bad singer. She can improvise and she can swing. Sure, I would prefer a little less dramatic running-of-the-hands-through-the-hair and a little more grease applied to the tunes overall, as in "The Eagle and Me." But, last night, I really wasn’t thinking about complaints. It was an evening to relax, sit back, and listen.

This morning, I am thinking about Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, along with several current underappreciated singers: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Patricia Barber, and Diane Reeves.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The serene side of Rez Abbasi

Rez Abbasi was born in Pakistan and grew up in California. He first approached the guitar through the jazz tradition (George Benson, Pat Martino. He began to assimilate the music of his south Asian heritage as a young adult but only recently asserted this heritage into his music with Snake Charmer, 2006 (Source: 2009 Abstract Logix interview). Snake Charmer shows his ability to play intensely without blizzards of notes. In this video, he works with his wife, vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia, performing a piece from his 2009 album, Things to Come. This piece, which represents only a small part of his overall range of expression, always makes me stop what I'm doing and enjoy a pleasant moment of zoning out.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The jazzer — not the Floydist

Appreciating David Gilmore

The first time I heard jazz guitarist David Gilmore was on the 1992 album by the M-BASE Collective, Anatomy of a Groove. Specifically, it was his solo on "Cycle of Change," which builds with a slow burn, creating tension with the explosive drumming of Marvin "Smitty" Smith. The piece seems to be headed toward complete eruption, but, instead, Gilmore’s solo fades out. Unforgivable!

The next time I heard Gilmore was on Christian McBride’s Sci-Fi (2000) — especially the tasteful solo on "Uhuru’s Moment Returned."

Then I lost track of Gilmore once again. I have never based my interest in a musician on just two solos, but they remain for me among the best guitar solos I have heard.

By the way, I am referring to David Gilmore the jazz guitarist — not David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. Google and Amazon searches for the jazzer will direct you to the Floydist, so you have to work around the "help" that these engines are trying to provide. [As I am compiling the blog post, Amazon has already suggested that I might like the entire Pink Floyd oeuvre — perhaps another time ... ]

In any case, Gilmore released two albums in the oughts, Ritualism (2001) and Unified Presence (2006). They show his commitment to a group sound as he interacts with soprano sax and electric piano. His solos are rhythmically based and grow as the group churns.

His official website shows that he has been active since the release of Unified Presence, but no new music tracks have been posted since that album. He's about to embark on a tour of Europe with the fiery altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa. I'd love to hear some of that.

Here's a link to a video (embedding disabled by source) of the Christian McBride Band, with Gilmore, playing fusion. He can shred, too ...

Monday, April 18, 2011

Appreciating Doug Talley and Wayne Shorter

More powerful than jug Cabernet

In August 2009, I attended a performance at Jardine’s in Kansas City of the Doug Talley quintet playing the Wayne Shorter songbook. Talley, a tenor saxophonist from that city, said he’d gladly take requests, but they would be pointless, as the band intended to play just about everything Wayne ever wrote before the evening was done. The insistent delivery of one gem after another — "Yes Or No" on top of "Witch Hunt" after "Speak No Evil," "Majong," "El Gaucho," "Footprints," and beyond — knocked me loopier than the jug Cabernet I was drinking could possibly achieve. Fussy folks might dismiss Talley’s stewardship of Shorter’s music as mere "repertory" or "tribute" efforts, but it gave me a renewed appreciation for Shorter’s 60’s Blue Note period, which developed into an 18-month obsession, from which I am just emerging. I have seen in Google searches that Talley has reprised his Shorter undertaking at least twice since my revelatory experience, and maybe it’s for the best that I have missed them — I can actually listen to something else now!
Doug Talley on Facebook

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Appreciating Billy Bang

Musicianship transcends fear and suffering

Like the titles of works by Charles Mingus, this tune, "Ben Hua Blues," by violinist Billy Bang, gives you something to think about while you listen to the music. Ten years ago, Bang recorded Vietnam: The Aftermath with a group of musicians who were mostly or entirely veterans of that war. Quite a lineup in any case:
Billy Bang, violin
Ted Daniel, trumpet
Frank Lowe, tenor
Sonny Fortune, flute
John Hicks, piano
Michael Carvin, drums
The music has an authoritative presence that defies the fear and suffering that Bang and his comrades must have faced. Other tunes on this album assert much more visceral states of being that perhaps channel the horror of war, but the musicianship transcends that experience. Billy Bang had a long and rich career playing "out" music. He died on April 11 of lung cancer. It’s old news by now, but Peter Hum’s piece in the Ottawa Citizen tells Bang's enduring story of perseverance, which turns on his decision to buy a violin instead of a gun.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Appreciating Eddie Jefferson

Flapping is jaws, lips, and teeth, Eddie Jefferson spit out syllables of defiantly appropriate poetry set to great jazz solos. This piece is based on Charlie Parker's "Parker's Mood," renamed for the vocalise version as "Bless My Soul."

I once transcribed his words to "Lester's Trip to the Moon," Jefferson's version of "Paper Moon." If I can find my notes and a video of this tune, I will do a post about it. Until then, if you know where I can find either component, please share.

By the way,
why has YouTube allowed this video to stay online when it is clearly a copy of a recorded piece of music used as the soundtrack to a video that consists of a still photo? More to the point, how does the entity that has the rights to Jefferson's work stand for this appropriation? This sort of thing happens all the time on YouTube. I'm glad that it's happening, because it's the only way I know to share music without getting into trouble. If anyone shared just the audio file of this tune, the person would be sued for violation of copyright and theft of intellectual property. Can someone enlighten me?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Space is still the place

For my observance of Jazz Appreciation Month, I am extending my vacation of interplanetary travel

This performance in Berlin in 1986 is much more dedicated to the music and less on the flamboyant stage presence, as compared to my experience in the early 90s, which included space aliens.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Space in the place

Celebrating Jazz Appreciation Month with another post about Sun Ra

"Space Is the Place," the video above, is Sun Ra's theme song. Below is a video of one of my favorite Sun Ra tunes, "Rocket Number Nine Take Off For The Planet Venus."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

An evening with Sun Ra: Weird, then weirder

This image of Sun Ra is a photocopy of a press-kit picture sent around 1990 to the newspaper where I worked in Springfield, Missouri. Why would a publicist send Sun Ra promotional materials to Springfield, Mo.? I asked the entertainment reporter if I could keep the photo. Of course he had no use for it. I made a bunch of copies of it in case I lost the original. Turns out, that was a good decision.

Sun Ra died in 1993. His music lives on, thanks to the dedication of saxophonist Marshall Allen, a longtime member of his band, who continues to lead the Sun Ra Arkestra.

Two decades before the discovery of the photo, I saw Sun Ra at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago, as part of a double bill with Alice Coltrane. Quite a memorable evening of spacey music. Sun Ra, who worked regularly in Chicago in the 40s and 50s, performed with his band and two tiny women dressed in one-piece, aluminum-colored, glittering body suits with scalp-clutching hoods, antennae thrusting diagonally from either side of their heads. These interplanetary pixies occasionally pranced around the stage while the band played a jaunty vamp and Sun Ra ran his palms up and down multiple keyboards, creating deafening crushes that vibrated through the building and within my head. It was liberating — a defining moment.

With Sun Ra, I often wondered whether he was serious or joking. From what I saw, I decided he must have been serious because he never cracked up, and neither did anyone in his band. I could be entirely wrong, though.

The evening ended on two dismaying notes. From my seat in the first balcony, I saw, from the corner of my eye, a man approach the railing and throw disc-shaped pieces of glass or metal toward the stage. I couldn’t tell if any of his projectiles reached the stage, or if they hit anyone in the audience. None of the musicians seemed to take notice, but a few patrons’ heads turned. The man threw three or four of these objects then ran away.

A couple of minutes later, Sun Ra interrupted the music and went into a rant, denouncing the audience and Chicago in general. He chanted:

We have transcended Chicago!
We have transcended Chicago!
We have transcended Chicago!
We have transcended Chicago!

For many years, I thought the attack from the balcony motivated Ra’s tirade, but now I see that the two events may not have been related, even though it looked that way from my perspective.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Appreciating Dexter Gordon

Elegant with the discreet suggestion of impending mischief

I learned about Dexter Gordon in the mid-70s with his album Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard (1976). It’s a fiery and, well, dexterous outing in which he’s supported by trumpeter Woody Shaw and his group. Later in the decade, he recorded a similar live album in three volumes, Nights at the Keystone.

At that time, he always had strong drummers, such as Louis Hayes and Eddie Gladden, who generated a lot of thrust. Gordon would float over all that energy, at times dipping into it, but mostly creating dramatic tension out of the expectation that he ought to be exploding, just like the drummer. He was a great ballad player, very expansive. His "Body and Soul" had an ebb and flow of a great novel you can't put down.

His work going all the way back to the 1940s is consistently appealing. His albums from the 60s, such as Go! and Our Man in Paris, contain shorter solos that make every phrase count.

This video archived at includes a fantastic snippet beginning at 2:46 from a jam session that includes Gordon’s antecedents, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, trading fours. Both tenor icons influenced Gordon, though he steered closer to Young’s lighter and more nimble approach.

Gordon presented himself on stage as a splendid gentleman and vibrant host—elegant with the discreet suggestion of impending mischief. He was throwing a sophisticated yet free-wheeling party, and he want everybody to have great time.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Appreciating Dexter Gordon's maternal grandfather

One of five African-American Medal of Honor recipients in the Spanish-American War

Edward L. Baker Jr., from Wikipedia
Commons, scanned from page 146
of the book Black Valor: Buffalo Soldiers 
and the Medal of Honor, 1870-1898
by Frank N. Schubert (1997,
Scholarly Resources Inc.).
Original image from the National Archives.

Although it's a widely reported fact, it's new to me and worth passing on:

The Official Dexter Gordon Web Site,, asserts that the elegant, hard-swinging tenor saxophonist's mother's father served as a sergeant major in the Spanish American War. Furthermore, Edward L. Baker Jr. earned a Medal of Honor for rescuing a wounded soldier from drowning while they were under fire. He was one of five African-American Medal of Honor Recipients in that war. 

Baker is the father of Dexter's mother, Gwendolyn Baker.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The only bass saxophone quartet in the universe

Appreciating the supersized saxophone

A Twitter account known as @BassSaxophone followed me today. The account corresponds to, a site with many ads and regular posts and videos about saxophone instruments, not just the contrabass. The "About" tab on the site yields no information about who is involved, and little about what the organization is about, except for this line: "ContraBass Saxophone Instument (sic) Reviews."

In any case, here's a YouTube video embedded at the site — a contrabass sax quartet! The piece, by the German group Deep Schrott, has catchy rhythmic interplay and a key moment at 0:37 when they ooze into a dissonant sonority that suggests the World Saxophone Quartet. 

Also on YouTube, you can find a video of the group performing "Stairway to Heaven."

The members of Deep Schrott and the other musicians presented at clearly are entirely serious about the bass sax. For them, it's an important tool for making music, not a novelty instrument. For me, the essence of this sax’s sound is like the end of a cup of Turkish coffee—thick, rich, muddy, desirable in small sips.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Appreciating Christian McBride

Friday night chill-out music

Protean bassist Christian McBride has played with everyone, recorded countless albums, and played in many styles, from straight-ahead to fusion. Here’s one small but consistent way that I appreciate McBride’s music: I often play his 2001 album, Sci-Fi, early on Friday evenings. It’s a fine way to decompress at the end of the week and anticipate the weekend. The music on this album is both relaxing and energizing. I usually don’t get through more than the first two tunes:
  • "Aja": Steely Dan’s tune arranged in a moderately spacey way
  • "Uhuru’s Moment Returned": McBride says in his album notes that this tune is a combination of the Star Trek theme and "Stolen Moments" by Oliver Nelson. I recall reading an interview with him in which he said he loved to watch Star Trek just for Uhuru. This tune has a magnificent solo by guitarist David Gilmore — not David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, David Gilmore the jazz guitarist. His solo simmers steadily, reaching a thoughtful, expansive high point.

This much of Sci-Fi is usually enough to create the chill-out effect I seek. But there’s much more on the album, including a version of Sting’s "Walking on the Moon" with James Carter on bass clarinet, and "Via Mwandishi," a tune dedicated to Herbie Hancock’s early-70s spacey electronic band.

I saw McBride last month at Jazz at the Bistro in St. Louis with the Ray Brown Tribute Band, a trio with Benny Green on piano and Greg Hutchinson on drums — fat swinging grooves and spectacular musicianship.

As I post this, there’s still time to download Sci-Fi (Amazon) for Friday night chill-out. Or next Friday, or any time ...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Can you hear the smell of dried fish cooking?

Appreciating Ellington's "Harlem Air Shaft"

Sketch for the fourth chorus of "Harlem Air Shaft"

Duke Ellington famously claimed that he packed his tune, "Harlem Air Shaft," with musical analogues of his memories of seeing, smelling, and hearing things channeled vertically through the middle of a Harlem apartment building.

Many observers say Ellington must have made up the claim long after he composed the tune, and musicologist Edward Green works to get to the bottom of this question. He examines the tune, measure by measure, in his article, "‘Harlem Air Shaft’: A True Programmatic Composition?" in the current issue of the Journal of Jazz Studies, published by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. This article provides way more than you may want to know about the matter, but you can read all about it at the open-access online journal. The journal and the institute's archives are available for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons license — which means I can reproduce this sheet music (above) without getting sued.

Green quotes Ellington from a New Yorker interview published on July 1, 1944:
"Take ‘Harlem Air Shaft,’ Duke said. "So much goes on in a Harlem air shaft. You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great big loudspeaker. You see your neighbor’s laundry. You hear the janitor’s dogs. The man upstairs’ aerial falls down and breaks your window. You smell coffee. A wonderful thing is that smell. An air shaft has got every contrast. One guy is cooking dried fish with rice and another guy’s got a great big turkey. Guy-with-fish’s wife is a terrific cooker but the guy’s wife with the turkey is doing a sad job." Duke laughed. "You hear people praying, fighting, snoring. Jitterbugs are jumping up and down always all over you, never below you. That’s a funny thing about jitterbugs. They’re always over you. I tried to put it all the in ‘Harlem Air Shaft.’"

What do you hear in this tune? Use the comment feature to weigh in.

"Harlem Air Shaft" is one of my favorite Ellington tunes because of its rapid slideshow of brief, interlocking segments. Apparently I have never listened to it closely enough to understand exactly how the parts interlock, but Green has done this work for me. The tune takes the form of a book. The intro has a "table of contents" of three 4-bar segments, followed by three 32-bar "chapters" as promised. I have noticed that within the chapters, many exciting scenes unfold.

One way to "see" this music is to watch it being performed by a dance troupe:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Update: Appreciating Mary Halvorson

I have never visited MySpace, but my quest for representative audio clips by Mary Halvorson led me there. Without creating an account, I believe I have set up a link to one of the tunes on her recent album, "Saturn Sings."

Sea Seizure (no. 19) by Mary Halvorson Trio & Quintet Also, this blog post:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Is it ever OK to diss Horace Silver?

Appreciating reasoned criticism among musicians

Because jazz occupies such a tiny niche in the world of music, internal dialogue among musicians tends to be either sickeningly praiseworthy or bitterly confrontational — flattery fests or tempests in teapots. Rarely to you ever hear a musician engage publicly in measured criticism of another artist.

Pianist Fred Hersch, in the "Blindfold Test" in the April issue of Downbeat, makes surprisingly critical assessments of tunes that are revealed to be performed by great artists and Hersch’s colleagues. For each critical assertion, he presents concise reasons to support his point of view. The article is not available online, so I’ll have to quote it the old fashioned way, presumably in excerpts that qualify as fair use.

Responding to "Mexican Hip Dance" by Horace Silver, Hersch says, in part:
It didn’t feel like the ensemble was going anywhere, and the pianist couldn’t get anything going. His left hand was completely clunky, just stabbing dotted quarter notes ... But when he tried to do some interesting things with his right hand, he’d break off. So the tune never took flight.
Upon being informed of the artist’s name, Hersch says, "I’m sorry I dissed Horace, but it just wasn’t that good. It certainly wasn’t as when he played with his A-band that had Joe Henderson or Freddie Hubbard."

Hersch goes on to criticize another pianist, citing rhythmic and harmonic aspects of a recorded piece. When informed of the name of the artist, Hersch says:
It’s Jason Moran? Wow! Jason is a close personal friend and colleague. He’s going to be annoyed at me, but I still have to say that this piece didn’t work for me.
I’d like to hear Moran’s reaction. Even if he were annoyed, it’s possible that he’d respect Hersch’s critique because of its reasoned presentation. Or maybe not. In any case, it's refreshing to hear Hersch's strong and coherent point of view.

Hersch is not totally grumpy in the Blindfold Test. He likes selections by Art Tatum and Andrew Hill.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Appreciating "Let My Children Hear Music"

Is this the best album by Charles Mingus?

Can’t say. But it is a great achievement demonstrating his episodic approach to composition. The listener really gets slapped around through all the starts and stops of "The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers," "Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid Too," and "The I of Hurricane Sue."

The album has some great solos from James Moody and Charles McPherson, but Mingus the composer is the main event here. His ambition and passion are present at every turn.

Mingus’s explanation for his curious song titles was deceptively simple: They’re just something to think about while you’re listening to the music. The titles referenced above create a spectrum of thought possibilities: 

  • "Shoes" — Inscrutable to me. No amount of thinking is likely to reveal the title’s connection to the music.
  • "Clown" — Straightforward programatic title that reflects the music. 
  • "Sue" — Presumably a musical essay about his tumultuous yet loving marriage.

My favorite thought-provoking title is "Remember Rockefeller at Attica," which I know from his 70s album, "Changes One." The title forces the listener, at least for a moment, to confront a political question. No matter where you stand on the issue, the title evokes images that completely ruin the experience of listening to this breezy tune — a mind game that Mingus probably enjoyed whenever he thought about it.

The music of Charles Mingus lives on through the industrious and creative work of his wife, Sue, and the multitude of bands she commissions through her organization, Jazz Workshop, Inc.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Appreciating the Crescent Double Quartet

Strings swing

Aart Van Bergen, the leader of the Netherlands-based Cresent Double Quartet, followed me on Twitter this morning. The connection led me to YouTube, where I found a video he posted on Friday of the group rehearsing their new project, "Radio Mundial," along with an earlier video of the group performing "Naima." So, within 20 minutes, I had gained a reasonably complete understanding of a group about which I knew nothing up until today, and which I intend to follow as they continue to develop their music. Moments like this one make all the noise and blather of social networking seem worthwhile.

The group’s instrumentation combines a string quartet (2 violins, viola, cello), with a jazz quartet (piano, bass, drums, tenor). Before listening, I was skeptical of the suggestion of combining jazz with classical. I have found that most such efforts result in coexistence, not synthesis, and not pleasurable as jazz. The main problems are that the classical musicians can’t improvise and can’t swing, and the jazz musicians tend to restrain themselves.

However, I had always imagined the possibility of strings playing jazz in a jazz ensemble. The opportunities for luscious sonorities and lively counterpoint seemed there for the taking, if musicians would want to try it. The Cresent Double Quartet has converted my imaginary music into reality.

The rehearsal video demonstrates how the strings enhance the gorgeous melodies that Van Bergen articulates on soprano. The "Naima" video shows how the group realizes this effect in performance — and they do so much more. The drummer breaks up rhythm into the highly engaging complex swing that I believe began with Elvin Jones. Best of all: the first violinist can really play. I would have enjoyed at least one more chorus from her. Near the end of the piece, when the band shifts from medium tempo back to slow, would have been a great place to take the music "out," at least briefly.

Congratulations to the Crescent Double Quartet for making distinctive music, and making their music known.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Appreciating the SF Jazz Collective

Tyner project taps into 70s-80s energy

One of the best listening experiences I've had in the past half-decade is the SF Jazz Collective's Live 2009: The works of McCoy Tyner Plus New Compositions.

The group is sponsored by SFJazz, the Bay Area nonprofit that presents an annual festival and performances throughout the year. Each year, the Collective plays at the festival and tours nationwide, performing the music of one noteworthy musician as well as original work by members composed especially for the group. The lineup changes every year.

The 2009 unit played the works of McCoy Tyner, whom I saw many times in the 70s. Memories of those performances remain soldered onto my hippocampus: Tyner pounding the keys, his left hand regularly rising up clawlike to pounce on another chord cluster, sweat pouring from his chin beard. The rhythmic power of the music set me up, and the water-cannon solos knocked me down.

In any case, the 2009 unit — Joe Lovano (tenor saxophone), Dave Douglas (trumpet), Renee Rosnes (piano), Miguel Zenon (alto saxophone and flute), Matt Penman (bass), Robin Eubanks (trombone) and Eric Harland (drums) — channeled that energy and found new ways to explore Tyner's compositions. There's some astonishing playing by Douglas and Zenon, and Rosnes has a great time channeling the maestro without mimicking him. And Harland on drums delivers heavy-hitting, hard driving swing throughout, with explosive accents.

The album is not cheap ($35), but it's a live, two-disc set, so you get value. It's available only at the SFJazz Web site:

Friday, April 1, 2011

Appreciating Mary Halvorson

The Smithsonian is proclaiming April as Jazz Appreciation Month.

I will participate by sharing the various ways that I appreciate jazz.

In the entire scope of music, jazz represents a tiny niche. Last I noticed, jazz accounted for 3 percent of music sales. Among those 3 percentage points, Kenny G probably represents 1, the Marsalis family another 1, leaving the last 1 for everyone else.

I like the idea of tiny-ness when it comes to jazz—because it is not tiny. Within that 1 percentage point is another world of creativity too massive to hear in just one month of formal observance. The music is filled with people who occupy a niche of this tiny niche yet cultivate a meaningful following.

Today, I recognize guitarist Mary Halvorson for occupying her niche of the niche in a most distinctive way. Her fearless style of slashes, spikes, and squalls is not a new approach—Jimi Hendrix and James Ulmer were doing similar things three and four decades ago—but I have never heard this vocabulary assembled for exactly this dynamic effect. I would describe the dynamic range as discreet to thoroughly impolite, but often with no gradations in between.

The video I have embedded does not show her at her most jarring. If you have a better suggestion for a video to embed, please let me know.

For more gloriously jarring Mary Halvorson, try her recent CD, "Saturn Sings."