Jazz music, news and views

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Sum Serious Smith

About a year and a half ago, the great Hammond B3 organist Jimmy Smith passed away but not before he was honored as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts. His story is the stuff of legends, having emerged as a fully formed virtuoso in the mid-1950s. He began as a student of the piano but was drawn to the organ after hearing Wild Bill Davis perform. He found an organ dealer in Philadelphia and paid him a dollar per hour to play on it. After finally saving enough to buy his own organ, Smith kept it in a warehouse. According to the liner notes of the Verve compilation, Talkin' Verve: the Roots of Acid Jazz, Smith says:
I left my organ there because I didn't want people to know that I couldn't play it. I would go there every day to practice. I'd just stay there all day, fiddling with the stops and messing with this beast.
Smith emerged from that warehouse and into the jazz world about a year later in 1955 as a startlingly powerful organ voice. While we tend to attribute this transformation to some inexplicable, innate gift, Smith's inspiration was also accompanied by plenty of perspiration. He had studied theory and harmony at the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia when he was studying piano. When he practiced organ, he drew a diagram of the bass pedals to place in front of him so he could play without looking at his feet. He had both the muse and a method.

Smith's best known work is for Blue Note in the '50s and '60s, then moved to Verve in 1963 and released a number of hit albums for nearly a decade. The new Milestone Profiles compilation gathers some gems from his catalogue with that label that find him in good form, though his performance is a bit more controlled than his earliest take-no-prisoners blowing sessions with Blue Note. "Here Comes C.T." is certainly a highlight, penned by a longtime associate of Smith, guitarist Kenny Burrell. The axeman on this track, however, is Phil Upchurch, who gives a lyrical, loping solo with just enough brightness and blues. Smith's own solo revels in the more liquid sounds of the B3. The large ensemble chart, "Sum Serious Blues," recorded in 1993, contains some emotive playing from Smith within the first couple minutes. Herman Riley's tenor is raspy, tearful but certainly not without a dash of joy.

A revisitation of "The Sermon" is the only encounter on record (a live one, at that) between Smith and saxophonist Eddie Harris at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco in 1981. Harris has been stronger on other recordings, but his soulfulness is always certain, and he throws more wood on the fire in the fourth minute (when he activates an electronic attachment to his sax which provides a light harmonization). The driving swing is the main dish here, with the organ bass lines pushing both Harris and even drummer Kenny Dixon along. Fans of the Smith-Burrell-Turrentine fellowship will enjoy "Midnight Special," originally documented on Blue Note's Midnight Special and redone at a live recording at Fat Tuesday's for the Fourmost album on Milestone. Smith swells and shrinks away mischievously during the head before Burrell's well-structured solo, but it's Smith's own statements that stand out, as fiery as bluesy.

Smith's style since he hit his stride in the '50s never changed drastically, so the listener will not find anything unusual for him on this compilation -- just the same soulful grooves that have always characterized him. What is extraordinary about his career, however, is how he seemed to materialize on the scene fully formed, as mentioned earlier. He had superhuman chops and a keen musical sense for what had earlier been considered a rather weird instrument. The organ was something of a novelty before Smith expanded its vocabulary and colors, giving it new currency in the jazz world. Smith's revolution of the B3 is two-pronged: reconceiving a rather cumbersome, unusual instrument and popularizing it at the same time.

In 1962, Jimmy Smith was the first organist ever to win the Downbeat Reader's Poll -- in the "miscellaneous" instruments category. Today the organ has its own category, and it is guaranteed that any player that appears in that category in today's polls owes a debt to J.O.S.

Buy Milestone Profiles: Jimmy Smith.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Melody at Night, With You

In his latest NY Times article, Nate Chinen tags along as Keith Jarrett makes notes on his most recent recording, a live solo performance at Carnegie Hall exactly one year ago today. A glimpse into the pianist's uniquely self-analytical mind:
Months after the concert, when Mr. Jarrett listened to a playback for the first time, he took notes intended to serve as a reference guide during his production of the album. His comments on the first track, scrawled in ink on an unlined sheet of paper, read: “atonal rhythmic multilayered,” “linear,” and “voiced very NYC, via American avant-garde.”

The sequencing of his performances has always been a point of pride for Mr. Jarrett, whether it involves choosing standards for his trio or shaping the direction of a solo improvisation. So he was scrutinizing his notes by request, as a means of charting his thematic movement through the concert. The hope was that a track-by-track self-analysis -- his first time trying such an exercise with a journalist, he said -- would reveal something about the internal logic of the performance.
Read the full story here, and listen to the audio samples with some explanation by Chinen. There is a full-length version of "The Good America."

Indeed, The Carnegie Hall Concert has a loose and lyrical logic to it, and his playing is especially fresh and bright. The actual concert is an improvisation in ten parts (each of which are relatively compact compared to his more sprawling solo recitals) plus five encore pieces including a revisitation of "My Song" and a lush reading of "Time on My Hands." It hits the streets today. Buy it.

Now Playing (09.26.06)

Miles Davis: Water Babies
Aaron Goldberg: Worlds
Freddie Hubbard: Red Clay
Keith Jarrett: Death and the Flower
Metta Quintet: Subway Songs
One For All: The Lineup
Madeleine Peyroux: Half the Perfect World
Eric Reed: Here
Woody Shaw: Stepping Stones
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Jungle Soul

Friday, September 22, 2006

L&O: Season 17

Remember, the season premiere is tonight, 10/9c on NBC. New cast members Alana de la Garza and Milena Govich test the waters as ADA Connie Rubirosa and Det. Nina Cassady, respectively.

You can get a sneak peek of the first eleven minutes of the episode here. (You'll have to pardon the advertisement in the intro.)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Genius and Jazz

The recent announcement of the recipients of the 2006 MacArthur Fellowships (affectionally nicknamed the "genius grants") draws attention to two jazz figures:

Regina Carter's conservatory training and eclectic influences with jazz roots have earned her praise over the past decade. While the violin is rarely identified as an essential instrument in today's mainstream jazz spheres, Carter's performance has never been overly quirky or anachronistic. Her newest release, I'll Be Seeing You, is an exploration of songs from the 1920s through the '40s with guests Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carla Cook, Gil Goldstein and Paquito D'Rivera, but if you want to hear Carter at her finest, one of my favorites is Motor City Moments.

Saxophonist/composer/label-founder John Zorn is much less widely known than Carter, but his innovations are considerably bolder. Zorn's visionary fusion of varied cultural idioms with modern jazz and improvisation has helped create and promote a vital experimental music scene. His label,
Tzadik, has a catalogue with an unbelievable breadth of creative musicians (e.g. Wadada Leo Smith, Jenny Scheinman, Mark Dresser, Ikue Mori, David Krakauer). Zorn is also known as a leader of his own groups -- Naked City, formed in the late '80s, and Masada in the early/mid-'90s (there are both acoustic and electric incarnations of this group).

In college, I took a couple classes taught by Gary Tomlinson, a MacArthur Fellow in 1988. He was certainly brilliant and passionate, though it also would have been quite cool if he could have done
this or this. (Blog About Town has more.)

Read the NY Times article and a lamentably true quote from John Zorn in the NY Sun.

Previous MacArthur Fellows from the jazz world include Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Ran Blake, Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy and Max Roach. Each fellow receives a $500,000 grant over the course of five years that will enable them to focus on their endeavors.

On the lighter side, the Greenleaf Music Blog has a must-see clip from the Colbert Report.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

2006 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition Winners

This past weekend, several pianists performed in the 2006 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition (its 20th anniversary). About a month ago, twelve semi-finalists were announced, three of whom are Los Angeles-based: Gerald Clayton, son of bassist/composer John Clayton and a talented keyboardist in his own right, currently studying at USC's Thornton School of Music; Josh Nelson, a sure-footed talent born and bred in SoCal; and Tigran Hamasyan hailing from Armenia and currently studying at USC (though not in the Monk Institute or Thornton). These players performed in Washington D.C. for an all-star panel which included Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Renee Rosnes, Danilo Perez, Randy Weston and Billy Taylor. The finalists were:

1) Tigran Hamasyan
2) Gerald Clayton
3) Aaron Parks

L.A. was obviously very well represented, and, of course, I hope we'll hear from all the competitors in the future. Read more at eJazzNews, but also read Ben Ratliff's account of the event in the NY Times. He offers some thoughtful points on what happens when jazz and mainstream cultural media -- not to mention politics -- collide (certainly not an unfamiliar occurence this year).

Kudos to all the competitors. Let's keep an ear out for them.

You can, however, already hear plenty of Aaron Parks on the following albums:
Terence Blanchard: Bounce and Flow
Gretchen Parlato's self-titled indie
Daisuke Abe: On My Way Back Home
Walter Smith III: Casually Introducing Walter Smith III

You'll find Josh Nelson here:
The Cross Hart Jazz Experience
Sara Gazarek: Yours
Jeff Kaye: Just Like Me
His own releases: First Stories and Anticipation (available at his website).

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

With a Song in My Heart

For this year's International Songwriting Competition, the judges in the jazz category will be John Scofield, Cassandra Wilson and Medeski, Martin and Wood. At first, I was puzzled that so few talents would be representing such a respected enterprise as jazz composition. Then it occurred to me that I should be glad that our music is represented in the first place, especially by such vaunted contemporaries.

This also got me thinking: Gershwin, Kern, Arlen, Rodgers, Hart, etc. are revered as composers today because their songs have endured so many climatic shifts in the jazz world. The Great American Songbook seems so readily adaptable to contemporary styles and can still retain what makes them special and emotive. These writers all have their own compositional "signatures," but it seems as though songwriters' voices have become more pronounced through the years. Writers like Monk, Diz, Bird or Mingus, for instance, have been canonized for their conspicuous, innovative styles of writing. One could pull off a version of "The Man I Love" without sounding "too Gershwin" or sounding like one's playing is a throwback to the '20s. It would be more difficult to play songs like "Blue Monk," "Confirmation" or "Groovin' High" without conjuring up the spirits of their authors and invoking the musical era in which they were written (by nature of the language itself). Today, it seems like "great" compositions are those that not only accomplish what all pieces must accomplish but also are unique to that composer, something inimitable and inherently, inextricably linked to that composer's voice and performance.

As I interviewed Aaron Goldberg last week, he expressed admiration for guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel (Goldberg is currently Rosenwinkel's go-to pianist). He pointed out that Rosenwinkel's writing was inseparable from his playing; performance and pen are one and the same. I imagine it would be rather difficult to play a Rosenwinkel composition and achieve the same goals the original does. (Listen to "Brooklyn Sometimes" from Deep Song. Is that feeling duplicable?).

One could say the same thing for Charlie Parker. The similar language of the "head" and solos of a Bird tune make it difficult to tell where composition ends and improv begins. In a previous interview I did with Dave Douglas, he talked about examining the work of Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor and Gil Evans and "understanding a little more deeply the profound decisions that they made relating to how an improvised language was going to interact with the composed language."

Is the goal of modern compositions moving towards meshing improvisation with composition over time? If so, this could help explain why compositions today are becoming increasingly exclusive to the singular players who write them. Writers of showtunes were writing songs for others to perform; many jazz musicians today write for themselves and their groups. The idiosyncracies of the composer proudly become part of the piece. Could Rosenwinkel's pieces be convincingly played by Scofield? Could Douglas's compositions be covered by Jeremy Pelt? (No matter what the answer is, I personally see no reason for a player to duplicate something someone else can do.)

I know I'm not exactly saying anything new here, and I'm not entirely sure what this means yet. Naturally, today's players still play standards; bebop and Monk are still staples in the modern jazz lexicon; even our contemporary performers borrow from each other's songbooks (though often the composer of that tune is on the date). And perhaps my assertion that the writers of standards have a less noticeable personal style is off base; perhaps I'm not as inclined to notice their signatures as readily as those of the composers of "modern jazz." And, of course, in a few years, honoring the tradition may indeed mean revisiting the compositions of the aforementioned players of today.

Still, it's interesting that when we think of the "great" compositions of the past, we often value them for their universal "playability"; when we think of "great" compositions today, they are the ones that, in spirit, belong almost exclusively to the person who created it. And as always, time may also play a role in determining whether or not this holds true.

I should add that I ponder this with no intent of maligning today's composers. I can't guess their intent, and they're by no means selfish to write songs for themselves and to avoid writing songs that "just anyone" can play. The fact that they can write in way that almost defies or denies translation or transmutability means we can hear more vibrant sounds than ever. Forging ahead is just as important as honoring the tradition, something that seems to happen in jazz no matter what the intent of the composer is.

P.S.: Since I mentioned them earlier: Sco reunites with MMW (for the first time on record since 1998) on their new album, Out Louder, which hit the streets on September 26th.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Edvard and Edward

A couple weeks ago, David Marc Fisher's Blog About Town pointed out some intriguing affinities between Edvard Munch and Edward Hopper with some clever examples.

Mine are not quite as striking (or even accurate), though I had fun searching. Shown here, left to right, are Munch's "The Day After" and Hopper's "Summer Interior."
You might also compare Munch's "Morning" and Hopper's "Eleven A.M." here.

Incidentally, Norwegian police recovered Munch's "The Scream" and "Madonna," which were stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo two years ago. The Washington Post has a good write-up and BBC News has a picture of the theft.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sheryl Bailey: Live at the Fat Cat

Today's jazz guitarists are lauded not only for their technique but also for their approach, their concept (like Kurt Rosenwinkel's tonal experiments or Bill Frisell's spare, mannered sonic eccentricity). An overlooked talent in this regard is Sheryl Bailey, but her concepts are not quite as conspicuous as the aforementioned axemen. She mentions her affection for the Grant Green-Larry Young-Elvin Jones axis, which has been an inspiration for her own trio with keyboardist Gary Versace and drummer Ian Froman. The Monk Competition finalist (she won third place in the guitar competition in 1995) has also played alongside varied talents including bassist Richard Bona, David Krakauer's Klezmer Madness, pop vocalist Irene Cara and folk-jazz vocalist/guitarist KJ Denhert. Since 2002, with the release of The Power of 3, the Sheryl Bailey 3 has been exploring the possibilities of the jazz organ trio while avoiding both cliche and contrivance. The new release Live at the Fat Cat documents a 2005 performance of the trio.

The original "Cedar's Mood" has a stately, catchy melody with a fitting vamp-and-release structure favored by its namesake. Bailey's chops are in top shape for her solo here with a fuzzy yet full tone. Hearing her faster lines, it's not surprising that critics liken her to virtuosos like George Benson and Pat Martino. Versace's organ work here indeed recalls Larry Young but with his own rhapsodic flair while Froman's buoyant kit stylings keep the group afloat. Another Bailey original, "A Soft Green Light," showcases the trio's dynamic range with swells from the B3 and Bailey's own playing ranging from whispered echoes in the manner of John Abercrombie (who is mentioned often on this blog, it seems) to some assertive, well-executed single-note runs. Fans of her last two albums, The Power of 3 and Bull's Eye, will be treated to some live versions of "Starbrite," "Elvin People" and "Swamp Thang." "Midnite Swim" is another standout composition with Bailey's quarter-note triplet melody draped casually over Froman's brisk brushwork. This tension is subtle but important for the piece's character. In the listing of the album's personnel, Bailey's instruments are noted as the guitar and pen; both are equally compelling in her hands.

To return to the idea of concepts, I should mention that Bailey's approach to her instrument is somewhat unusual yet perfectly sensible. She credits Rodney Jones with teaching her how to pick sideways to generate a fuller sound and to avoid the errant "ping" a guitarist gets from overpicking a string. She also uses bronze strings intended for an acoustic guitar to get the warm sound she desires. As mentioned above, heterodoxy often brings players to the foreground, but Bailey's methods are for purely practical purposes. Her approach serves her "voice" while her music remains accessible (and impressive) to any jazz fan.

Buy Live at the Fat Cat.

Also, check out herSpace as well as video clips from her CD release party ("Cedar's Mood" and "Tune Down"). Curious minds can explore the "Press" page on her website for articles on her technique, theory and wisdom from experience:
"Jazz challenges one to understand harmony and how harmony relates to melody. I'm a bit fanatical about harmonic clarity, meaning really making the changes clear in your melodic line. A great line is one that can stand on its own, and the harmony accompanying it is clearly understood."

Friday, September 08, 2006

Over the Weekend...

...drop by these places:

- Check out Etnobofin and Destination: Out for downloads of performances from the late Dewey Redman. The various recordings are with Keith Jarrett's American Quartet, Malachi Favors and Ed Blackwell as well as a couple other groups Redman was leading in the '70s on Impulse Records. Destination: Out also features a trippy, Eastern-tinged outing from one of my faves, Pat Martino, with tabla, flute and tamboura.

- "Pas de Deux" from the Maria Schneider Orchestra is available from AAJ's free downloads. The soloists are Ingrid Jensen on flugelhorn and Charles Pillow on soprano sax. Buy the Concert in the Garden, if you haven't already done so.

- Straight No Chaser has been vibin' with a recent podcast of music from Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Roy Ayers, Cal Tjader and the lesser known Dave Pike. Fellow fans of Bobby Hutcherson will also enjoy a gem from his San Francisco album with Harold Land giving a rare flute performance along with keyboardist Joe Sample.

- Rifftides urges you to view some videos of Sonny Rollins available on his website only for one week. The Saxophone Colossus turned 76 yesterday; celebrate by watching video retrospective of his career. It includes favorites like "Paul's Paul," "Oleo" and "Moritat," but you'll also relish a fourteen-minute elaboration on a radio show theme Sonny recalls from his childhood (titled "Serenade") recorded earlier this year. Also, visit the website dedicated to his first studio release in five years, Sonny, Please. The site features a "making of" video with an interview.

- Kenny Garrett's newest album Beyond the Wall has some heavy sounds synthesizing African and Asian folk melodies and spirituality. Pentatonic scales, parallel fifths and recurring melodic themes lace his compositions, and Pharoah Sanders, Bobby Hutcherson and Mulgrew Miller clearly share Garrett's vision throughout. Brian Blade gives a nod to Elvin Jones with solid bassist Robert Hurst. The depth and spirit of these songs audibly resonates with its musicians and should strike a similar chord with its audience. Listen to NPR's News and Notes interview with Garrett and buy the album.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

RIP Dewey Redman

Saxophonist Dewey Redman passed away at 75 years old this past Saturday, September 2nd. An underrated innovator with a solid tenor tone and skill for weaving fresh, sinewy lines, Redman was a native of Fort Worth, TX, where he attended high school and played in the marching band with Ornette Coleman. The altoist would later recruit Redman for his band from the late '60s through the early '70s, forming one of the most formidable saxophone pairings of the era (apart from Coltrane's efforts with Eric Dolphy or Pharoah Sanders). Redman's work from the '70s includes a tenure Keith Jarrett's American quartet and Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. Even up to his passing, he was performing regularly and played his last concert only days before his death (in his band with Frank Kimbrough, John Menegon and Matt Wilson).

Plenty of saxophonists today use their immense technique to fiery, furious ends but also temper it with a centered sound. In this way, Redman broke the ice for them. He couldn't read music (at least as an early jazz musician), but, as Ben Ratliff aptly states in Redman's New York Times obituary, the results don't seem to be lacking the least; his sound was logical, personal, even warm, but it could also spontaneous and forceful. The first time I heard Redman, it was on the title track to Pat Metheny's 80/81. I first thought I was hearing Michael Brecker (who also plays on the album), but it was actually Redman. He was underappreciated, even by me, regrettably. Since hearing that Metheny recording, though, I've heard a few others that I recommend below.

N.Y. Times
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Darcy James Argue
Do the Math
Jazz Police

Dewey Redman: Musics; African Venus
Ornette Coleman: New York Is Now
Keith Jarrett: Silence; Death and the Flower
Pat Metheny: 80/81

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Maupin's Music in the Motor City

Read the story in the Detroit Free Press on Bennie Maupin. Mark Stryker creates a very personal portrait of the man and musician who returned to his hometown for a performance this past weekend at the Detroit International Jazz Festival.

These days, the Los Angeles-based Maupin frequently performs in Europe (especially in Poland) but stays tied to the L.A. community with occasional performances and by leading an amateur band under the name of the Ikeda Kings Orchestra.

An excerpt:
On the brink of his 40th birthday, Maupin began studying with the late Lyle (Spud) Murphy, a renowned composition teacher. He enrolled in a degree program at Pasadena City College, digging deeper into not only music but also political science, English and other subjects.

He played clarinet in a chamber orchestra, took no jazz gigs and worked the graveyard shift at an electronic surveillance company, where he could practice the clarinet while keeping an eye on the video monitors and computers.

Most of his peers were baffled. In 1982, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard offered him $6,000 for a two-week European tour, but Maupin said no because he had only a few weeks left in an English class that he needed to graduate. "People thought I was nuts," he says.

[Herbie] Hancock saw the wisdom in his path. "Studying and going back to school -- what a wonderful choice for him to make," he says. "A lot of musicians wouldn't have had the courage to make that choice. That's a sign of a secure human being."
Read the full story here, and listen to some mp3s interview extras in the "Related Links" box there, especially his dedication to Richard "Prophet" Jennings.

You can also refer to my previous post on Maupin for a concert review and some mp3s from his acclaimed new release Penumbra.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Milestone Profiles: McCoy Tyner

In my college composition class, my professor looked at one of my pieces and cautioned against being seduced by jazz harmony. He actually loved jazz but said this to warn me that stacking harmonies too high and too frequently could render the function of harmony in the piece -- and therefore its tonality -- meaningless. Overexposure reduces impact. It was a wake-up call for this naive young composer who was too eager to bring a foreign sensibility into an exercise in classical composition (albeit "contemporary classical").

In jazz, though, what a pianist does with a chord (voicing, substitutions and extensions, not to mention delivery) is what gives him his identity. Thick, mile-high slabs of harmony can certainly be compelling if produced by the right hands. McCoy Tyner's hands have been stunning audiences for decades to this effect.

It is, however, a situation of apples and oranges: Tyner's MO is not actually to "blow" over chord changes but to explore the possibilities offered when the tonal center is anchored. In this way, modal jazz allows for impressive flights of fancy, and Tyner's playing is perhaps the best example of this (alongside Coltrane's, naturally). Milestone has gathered some of Tyner's most captivating performances on that label in the 1970s onto Milestone Profiles: McCoy Tyner.

"The Greeting" from 1977's Supertrios is harmonically bright and vigorously delivered. Ron Carter and Tony Williams are responsive in a more aggressive sense than with Miles Davis's second quintet of the previous decade. The title cut from Sama Layuca offers some lushly voiced melodies based on exotic scales accented by Bobby Hutcherson's vibes and John Stubblefield's flute. Tyner's solo here ventures quite "outside" the vamp (you can hear him pulling away from Carter's vamp), but he resolves the tension before Azar Lawrence's soprano sax feature. The solo recital of "Naima" is rapturous, full of single-note runs, cascading chords and a wide range of emotion. The pedal (prolonged bass note) of the composition suits Tyner's modal approach perfectly. This solo performance is also ideal in that he has no fear of overstepping his bandmates or exceeding the boundaries of the chart. In the album's liner notes, Robert L. Doerschuk writes that on "Search for Peace," Tyner "seems to push constantly against the limits of the written parts," that he is keenly aware of "the contrast between his restlessness and the stateliness of the structure." I'm inclined to agree. His passion has always taken his music right to the edge.

Tyner conjures up some of the jazz world's heaviest textures and most titanic harmonies, sounds that are as overwhelming as beautiful. In listening to the nine tracks on the new Milestone compilation, it seems that eighty-eight keys are not enough for Tyner to express himself. His signature is his harmonic storminess, but we can also hear the clarity of his musical vision.

Buy Milestone Profiles: McCoy Tyner.
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