Thursday, August 30, 2007

Jazz Middelheim (Day 5) - 19/08/2007@Antwerpen

Every time I go to a festival and see the people, the tents, the setting (idyllic or not), the scramble for seats that haven't been "reserved" by means of jackets or cordoned off for VIPs that only show up for the headliner, the mind-numbing excess of music, the crush of photographers at the lip of the stage (Volume12 was apparently amongst the mob and got some nice, crisp shots out of it), the food stands and the picnicking, I ask myself why I put myself through it at all (maybe I attend the wrong festivals). Two years ago, Jazz Middelheim was for Wayne Shorter, this time it was for Ornette Coleman.

Jef Neve Trio
Jef Neve - p (myspace)
Piet Verbist - b
Teun Verbruggen - d

The M.C. ran down Jef's accomplishments, insisted on the word "philharmonic," and my resentment grew: must the audience really be reassured of the social worthiness of the music they are about to hear? Would they be less accepting of it if Jef had not won lots of prizes or not had the top-selling Belgian jazz album of 2005 (and, according to a press release, of 2007)?

The actual music was as magnificent as ever, and demonstrated its continued evolution. Gladly, the seven song set was made up exclusively of original (and mostly unrecorded) compositions: their shape-shifting, mischievous and romantic ways have always been far more vivid vehicles for Jef and the group than their takes on standards. Indeed, the uniqueness of this music is becoming ever clearer, from small gestures like the odd, fleeting shapes Jef used to accompany the bass solos, to the larger ones, such as the broadly-written story arcs the drove each piece. And between the two poles, there was Teun's liquid groove, whose details shifted around so continuously that it became almost amorphous.

For a long time, the immediate point of comparaison for Jef has been Brad Mehldau, and he'd be the last to deny the influence. However, I'm increasingly hearing that of Keith Jarrett as well (which undoubtedly has as much to do with my own listening as with the music itself) in the mix of vamp-based pop/blues, mainstream bop (the hard-edged '90s kind), heart-tugging melodies and classical clarity. A section in "Nothing But A Casablanca Slideshow Turtle" (which is as wacky as its title: it begins with a Hanon exercise gone psychedelic and shoots off from there) that featured the heaviest percussive playing I've ever heard this group do, also pointed in this direction. Whereas Mehldau and Jarrett inject everything they do with A Great Significance, Jef did all this in a spirit closer to Jacky Terrasson's playfulness.

every year i love this less and less

Nicolas Thys & The 68 Monkeys
Tony Malaby - ts
Andrew D'Angelo - as, bcl
Ryan Scott - g
Jon Cowherd - p
Nicolas Thys - b (myspace)
Nasheet Waits - d

Thys called up some heavyweight New York friends for a set that ended up looking better than it sounded. It started promisingly, with D'Angelo and Malaby climbing to a dual scream atop a steady vamp. Their mindsets were compatible despite their very different styles: D'Angelo, rocking violently back and forth, raced ahead with a tone that always seemed on the point of bursting, while Malaby, nearly immobile aside from a twitching leg, hung back with a calmer, slower-building power.

The steady vamping, as melodic as it was rhythmic continued, in pretty much all of Thys's compositions, but the overall mood felt a little too smooth, despite Waits's characteristic churn and the front-line interweaving. It was only at the very end that Thys's bass solo turned the mood from appeased to soulful.

Bert Joris Quartet
Bert Joris - tp, flh (myspace)
Dado Moroni - p
Philippe Aerts - b
Dré Pallemaerts - d

The Brussels Jazz Orchestra's The Music of Bert Joris is an absolutely great album of Joris's compositions (and soloing) that I cannot recommend enough. His quartet has just released a new CD, and it's with its title-track, "Mangone," that the concert really took off. The understated 4-bar vamp and the steady ticking of four-to-the-bar rim clicks allowed Joris's sensual phrases to hang in uncluttered air. The sense of stripping away the superfluous to arrive at a pure melodic core is central to Joris's playing, and emerged fully when he played fluegelhorn on an almost-ballad. Despite its quality, I didn't listen to the whole concert because I wanted to rest my ears before Ornette Coleman came on, but the crowd went wild for its local hero.

Ornette Coleman 3 Bass Quintet
Ornette Coleman - as, tp, vln
Tony Falanga - b
Charnett Moffett - b
Al McDowell - el b
Denardo Coleman - d

Most miraculous to me about this performance was that it made music mysterious again. How did they decide to begin and end? Why the trumpet, now, the violin, later? How was the inscrutable relationship between alto and the rest determined? With his spoken introduction, Coleman offered a seemingly simple answer to all these questions, and others besides: "If you follow the sound, we'll all be in the same room."

The three bassists mostly kept themselves out of each other's timbral range (Falanga and Moffett swapping bowing duties, Moffett judiciously applying Milesian wah-wah pedal as Coleman played trumpet, McDowell chording in the upper register), but three improvising bassists is never going to be easy for the listener to follow, so perhaps Denardo's steady, but not unsubtle, pummeling is meant to act as a counterweight to that tangled complexity.

The habitual (though always spine-tingling) encore performance of "Lonely Woman" (no improvisation, just an interpretation of a melody well-suited to a bass-heavy setting, as the original recording already featured that amazing bass thrum) highlighted a second outstanding aspect of Coleman's mysterious music-making. His tone and melodic playing have a conservative beauty that is startling in the context of the rough and tumble of Denardo's high-octane drums and the three-bass mêlée. I once read somewhere that Coleman was unhappy with the way the classic Atlantic quartet albums were mixed, because he wanted the instruments to be more equal in the mix. Here, though, it is difficult not to hear him as above the fray, even as he pushes and pulls against it. It is often said that musicians mellow as they get older, but I wonder if it is not rather that they are rid of all extraneous elements. Everything Coleman played sounded essential, in any case. The crowd roared.

"The Good Life" was included in the set-list (along with a Bach prelude that drew some laughter and some stuff from Sound Grammar). How could you not love this tune, even though the tumbling section in the middle was absent from this rendition?

dumbed digital

Recently I've had a couple of interesting conversations on photography with Alexis, Michael Chia and Oana (the first two are pros, the third an elightened amateur), notably about the traditional/digital split. So I thought of them when Volume12 linked to this:

I, of course, do not feel in any way concerned.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

duff boobs

And few grown-up fans — except for parents — were paying attention in 2002, when she released her first CD, a concept album loosely inspired by Saint Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop of Myra. (It was called “Santa Claus Lane.”)
There were a couple of duds, including “Gypsy Woman,” a funk-pop misfire that probably wouldn’t exist if the Romany community had a stronger political lobby.
- Kelefah Sanneh reviewing a Hillary Duff concert, in "Amid All the Cheers, a Few Signs of Change"
I'm not hearing gravity radiance there
- Anthony Braxton, in Zoilus, Braxton in Session: 'Go to F as in 'fox' - but not as in Fox News'
So help me figure out what to call the-style-formerly-known-as-minimalism. I'm tempted to suggest something arbitrary like Cogluotobusisletmesism, or Btfsplkism, some ungainly, difficult-to-parse term that the critics can't pronounce nor the public remember, so they won't appropriate it again and make it mean something else.
- Kyle Gann, Bowing to the Great God Usage
My boobs are okay
Go boobs!

- Lene Alexandra, "My Boobs Are OK"

Os Meus Shorts - 20/07/2007@Le comptoir des étoiles, Bruxelles

Nico Roig - g
Joachim Badenhorst - bcl (website | myspace)

Le comptoir des étoiles has become the place for young jazz musicians in Brussels to perform and hang out. With three performances a week, it's making it possible to hear what twentysomethings here make of this whole jazz thing (especially as entrance is free). I kind of feel bad about not getting down there more often.

Os Meus Shorts performs the compositions of Nico Roig, a Barcelona expat. They are wide-ranging and very short, (sometimes) sharp shocks. The basic premise is somewhat diluted, however, by their practice of bundling two or three pieces into medleys. This is unfortunate, from my point of view, because the unsettled tension consistently "too-short" performances could create is lost. For example:

That said, there was much to savour, from disassembled-clarinet-dipped-in-water wackiness to hard-driving noisy blues to effusive melody and tortuous guitar lines. I spent much of the second set outside chatting with some Italian girls, and when I came back in, I couldn't find a good location (those are in extremely short supply at this particular venue). I figure that's a good enough excuse for the brevity and tardiness of this review.

standing on a bulkier corner

In a comment, Tom Djll links to Paul Tingen's informative Complete On The Corner Sessions tracklisting.

For the curious, along with the original On The Corner, the box covers Get Up With It and one track from Big Fun. In addition, there are several CDs worth of alternate takes, unedited masters and a few wholly new tracks, too.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Feerieen Day 2 - 28/08/2007@Parc Royal, Bruxelles

Feeërieën is a free festival organised by the venerable Ancienne Belgique, and therefore a good opportunity to hear some music I don't know and would never seek out on my own.

The Bony King of Nowhere (myspace)

A soft, dragging voice and soft, dragging songs. The singer was affecting in a lullaby kind of way when he quietly pleaded "Let me sleep in your arms" and got a little Thom Yorke-ish when he fixated on "I taste my own blood," but the comparison ended there. Pretty enough, but the line between being low-key and having nothing happen was crossed fairly soon: all the songs were at the same tempo, built on similar plucked guitar riffs and had identical instrumental climaxes, with stuttering drum cascades. A bit of timbral variety was added when the female member of the four-piece sat behind a keyboard and produced long church organ tones, but the more energetic moments were spoiled by a horrendously inappropriate snare drum sound.

The Partchesz (myspace)

Better-known, as the female singer is from Laïs and the male singer/guitarist from Zita Swoon. They put on country singer accents and sang country songs, but it mostly felt hollow and irritated me, perhaps because I don't listen to country music. The first song swathed the tune in electronic buzzes, drum pads and a heavily reverbed guitar solo, which made it palatable, but further songs were more straight-forward, so we left midway through.

too young to hold on, too old to just break free and run

"Jazz artists look more cool as they get old. Rock musicians just look lost."
- Pete Townshend, in George Varga "Break out the Ben-Gay - concert venues are being invaded by graybeard stars and they're ready to roll"
It seems to me that when you are getting your [symphony orchestra] asses handed to you by a bunch of Venezuelan street kids, it's time for everyone involved to take a long hard look in the mirror.
- Darcy James Argue, Brave New World

jazz and blogs #21

Ned Goold
A saxophonist. Plays for Harry Connick, Jr. and records for Smalls, but probably doesn't sound like what you're expecting. Like his music, his blog drops surprises off-handedly. My favourite of quote is not the Biggie Smalls one, but: "Accompaniament to action in a brothel or a burlesque house cannot consist of strict diatonic harmony." With any luck, now that people know about his blog from this New York Magazine article, he'll start posting again.

The 5th Sharp
Trombonist Dave Gibson.

Writer Greg Burk. I've noted the critical metal-jazz connection before, now it's been spun it off into its own massive article, on the musicians' side, and is itself responded to and expanded upon. [via DownBeast]

Free Jazz
Mostly reviews of new free jazz albums. I find myself fascinated by the cover of the Tribute Allstars' Upate Miles Live in a post on Miles Davis tribute albums: the idea of a claymation Miles is oddly compelling. Another post on Myriam Alter's If and Nathalie Loriers's L'arbre pleure suggest that Stef is Belgian.

Philly Jazz
Sort of an internet TV station.

Heliocentric Worlds
Links to videos.

Classical supplement:
Nico Muhly
I saw him perform earlier this year. I've listened to his CD, which is very good. His blog is great: it's all chatty but dense, you know?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

vivre sa vie, Jean-Luc Godard

In the aftermath of Vivre sa vie's abrupt final scene, is it possible to not feel like a Philistine? I mean, during the long philosophical discussion in the café with the old guy about the relationship between thought and speech, I felt like I was watching a literary show on TV (perhaps because the old guy was the only one in the whole film to speak naturally?). I feel kind of defeated, but at least I know Godard feels the same way I do about Anna Karina's face.

my favourite song right now

Pierre Akendengue's "Ta'Nzambe" is to Timbaland as Fela Kuti was to James Brown: it sounds of its time (e.g. production values on female choir and the clipped, interstitial vocal shards at the end) yet sacrifices none of its inherited clattering, multi-meter/-tempo/-everything communal rhythmic complexity, and renders it perhaps even more mind-boggling.

Zoilus recently pointed to this new blog, the introductory post to which tackles a question I sometimes ask myself, especially after reading about a musician delving into traditional musics from far away: what of those countries' modern music?

This one of numerous ways in which world music is constructed leaving most of us thinkin that most countries just have really traditional music, collaborative projects with Ry Cooder and westernized pop in their own language(s). Even then, a lot of times, people tend think of most music from other countries as being "traditional," "folk" or "ethnic", forgetting that other cultures might have a different rubric for pop music, and for classical music.

incompatible quotes

Phil Woods likes to tell a story about his fellow alto saxophone virtuoso and longtime musical partner, the late Gene Quill. One night, Quill played what Mr. Woods described as a "blazing solo" to wild reception from the audience — with the exception of one finger-waving self-appointed critic, who walked up to Quill and declared, "All you're doing is imitating Charlie Parker." Quill removed his saxophone from its strap, handed it to the guy, and said, "Here, you imitate Charlie Parker."
- Will Friedwald, "Ageless Woods Feels a Bit Quincy"
Cecil [Taylor] to me is more like Bud than a person who imitates Bud, just as Anthony Braxton is more like Charlie Parker than a person who imitates Charlie Parker.' Cecil is adventurous, and creative, and he decided to be on his own, to go his own way.
You know, I worked with Lester Young after he left Count Basie's band. We were at one of the joints in the Village. I just assumed that if I played like the great drummer Papa Jo Jones who worked with Count Basie, that would be the way to play with Lester Young... Well, one night, when I thought I had everything down, I said, 'Ok, Lester, that was a good night.'

And Lester looked at me and said, 'You can't join the throng 'til you write your own song.' He sang that to me. And he said, 'Do you dig the tones?'
- Max Roach, in Howard Mandel's Miles, Ornette, Cecil -- Jazz Beyond Jazz [via Jazz Beyond Jazz]
It may not always come off, but that's what creativity's about.
- Max Roach, in Mike Zwerin "MAX ROACH: From Hip Hop to Bebop" [via Alexander Hawkins]
Here lies, to me, one of the key fault lines between the two main camps on the ways of thinking about jazz (and music/art in general, but let's keep it simple).

with acknowledgments/apologies to Doug Ramsey for the title.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

jazz for not-dummies

Another critical attribute of jazz music in general is that it has considerable intellectual content, and that the jazz performer needs high level of both cognitive and subconscious abilities - and a lot of discipline. The originals in particular contain so much harmonic and rhythmic substance that only the serious student of music is equipped to deal with them. At the same time, the solos demonstrate the enhanced level of consciousness needed to spontaneously compose a melody while taking into account so many external factors simultaneously (the tune structure, harmony, melody, themes and variations, time, sound and texture, tension and release, etc.) In short, you have to be really smart in order to play jazz, and these guys are wizards!
- Don Braden, for Steve Wilson's Blues For Marcus
Does anyone feel that this is an attractive description of jazz? Is all that about being super-smart or is it about working at it?

Plus, if the Harry Potter books and movies have taught us anything, it's that wizards aren't necessarily all that smart.

everything's great when you're over 98

Marc Myers discusses Benny Carter, who was born 100 years ago this month. Rifftides has more information and recommended recordings. Carter's not someone I know much (I don't even have what seems to be his magnum opus, Further Definitions), so I did a little searching. The oldest footage I could find of him on saxophone is a couple of JATP performances with Coleman Hawkins, from 1967. The tenor saxophonist isn't in the best of shape, but Carter is brilliant and fluid. They were born only three years apart, yet Carter seems far more modern than Hawkins, which perhaps has something to do with his knife-sharp phrasing and tone. I don't know if that's a testament to the pace at which jazz evolved in its early years or to Carter's searching mind. Hawkins is in better form on the second video, a blues, and Carter is equally delightful.

Carter played many instruments, one of which was trumpet. Here, he plays plays back-up in an awesome Fats Waller music video from 1943:

The rhythm section on this 1975 Montreux date is rather heavy-handed, which every soloist (Carter, Clark Terry, Zoot Sims) demonstrates by not being heavy-handed. Doesn't Sims kind of look like Bill Clinton?

Rifftides links to more videos of Benny Carter performances.

From Brett Primack comes a public conversation between Carter and fellow saxophonist Mel Martin. The promo video for a CD of their subsequent performance together shows that Carter retained considerable powers at the age of 87.

In the conversation with Martin, Carter declares Cannonball Adderley to have been his favourite player. I chose the 1963 German TV session below in part because I love the studio's set, but also because in the first of the three songs performed, you can hear some of what the latter inherited from the former (and having Yusef Lateef, Nat Adderley, Jozef Zawinul, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes in the band doesn't hurt either).

Carter's compositions have also left their mark. Stan Getz and Kenny Barron made "People Time" a staple of their duets:

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

music: perhaps not the healing force of the universe

Man attacked for singing Coldplay in karaoke bar
The story is initially run-of-the-mill funny ("the woman reportedly exclaimed: 'Oh, no, not that song!... I can't stand that f*cking song!'. She then proceeded to beat the man with her fists and the microphone he was holding all the while continuing her tirade against him, the band and the song."), but gets disturbing: "Police were called. Undeterred, the woman continued her assault; headbutting an off-duty policewoman several times and forcing the call-out of both patrol officers and a special Gang Unit."

Bandwagons, snobs, networks and non-functional demand curves
Economics comes snappily to the rescue of "Is X dying?" musical debates (in this case, X = classical music, but it could be anything). [via Alex Ross]

Will the NY Phil go to North Korea?
If they do, would it be a bad idea to perform excerpts from Dr. Atomic?

Non-musical, but funny supplement:
Blind driver caught again
He didn't see that one coming. According to the police, "He was drunk. There were three people in the car with him giving him instructions."

she can sleep whe she's done

Howard Mandel has a very nice feature on Maria Schneider. I admire its construction: various topics run through it, picked up and dropped at various points along the way. It seems a little odd at first, but by the end of the article, you can see that Mandel was thinking of the big picture from the beginning.

He depicts the contemporary studio situation - almost virtual, even though everyone is physically present:

Three trumpets, four trombones and five saxophonists -- most of them behind stands of flutes, clarinets, double-reeds and other extra horns -- faced Schneider
Guitarist Ben Monder sat off to the side of the horns on a folding chair, not-so-idly stroking his instrument, though he wasn't audible. His amp, in a hallway, fed directly into the mix board run by engineer Joe Ferla.

A singer was sequestered out of sight, and trumpet soloist Ingrid Jensen played in a glass-enclosed room, a fair throw behind the other horns. As for the missing rhythm section: Pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Jay Anderson shared a separation booth, and drummer Clarence Penn played in another one, so no bleed-through would impinge on final mixes of renditions of the complicated charts.

All the musicians wore earphones to hear the ensemble sound, and they had some control over what they heard in those phones. But only Schneider seemed in a position to have eye contact with everyone... except the singer
Perhaps I'm too touchy, but I flinched when I read this:
And whether in the studio or on the concert stage, she attends to her music and musicians more like a perfect hostess than a commander-in-chief, insuring that everyone has a good time as the way to make a well-planned party a memorable success
Well, she is a woman, after all.

It seems to me that Schneider's college-age awakening to jazz is very common, even among musicians, though perhaps not always so extreme. Well, I guess one can't really be expected to grow up with this music any more (I didn't, not really):
I didn't even know that jazz developed beyond swing until I went to college. I didn't know. I had some Teddy Wilson, I had some old Ellington. I thought that jazz basically had died.
All of a sudden I discovered several decades of jazz music that I hadn't heard. Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Mingus, Monk. I was crazy for George Russell, Bob Brookmeyer's music when he did 'Make Me Smile.' I heard all these amazing jazz musicians who used contemporary techniques. Gil Evans' music -- the intricacies of Ravel or Debussy together with the emotion and spontaneity of somebody like Miles, and the raw rhythm and stuff.

Monday, August 13, 2007

listening notes: miles davis, on the corner

I know, I know, I'm letting my thought processes be driven by evil empires and their release schedules, again. Still, it'd been a while since I'd listened to On The Corner, so the imminent coming of yet another Miles Davis box-set (already getting mid-listen raves) will have to do as a reminder to put that record on. Also, the great Cellar Door box generated some good discussion, maybe that can happen again.

I love that three of the four tracks are basically variations/remixes of each other, with the blaxploitation 16th-note hi-hat pattern as the common thread. There's enough variety to realise that it's not exactly the same thing the whole way through, but not a whole lot more variety than that. Who needs it? At the same time, there's so much going on, so you have funk, trance and madness all at once.

I love that a single hi-hat splash can drown out the soloist. It's all about the drums and the collective tumult, ebb and flow. Some might take the fact that you barely notice that Miles actually plays on the record as a bad thing. I don't, though some of the best moments come when things quieten down and he is given space.

I love that the first track is called "On The Corner/New York Girl/Thinkin' Of One Thing And Doin' Another/Vote For Miles" even though the sections the title would seem to indicate don't exist.

I would love to say that this album has proven its critics wrong, but I still have not read Stanley Crouch's "On The Corner: The Sell-Out of Miles Davis."

I love "Black Satin." Whistling? An off-kilter beat! An actual melody? Handclaps! Unbridled absurdity?

Sleigh bells!

I love that this music is irreproducible. A few seconds of looped sitar 20 minutes into "Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X" creates and dispense with the template for a huge amount of future music.

Martha Bayles's "Miles Davis: An Innovator With Dueling Ambitions" brings a good deal of nuance to her appreciation of Davis's career, as she frames his work within a "lifelong struggle to achieve three goals: high musical art, commercial success and a deep connection with his fellow African-Americans." There is one mis-step, however: for her, Tutu lacks "excitement... because one of the players, the producer assembling the recording, is not a player." Of course, that album was produced by Marcus Miller. The same site has a couple more articles of interest, on Miles as pimp, and an overview by Ben Ratliff.

let our garden grow

It's a jungle out there.

title composed by Ethan Iverson

jazz and blogs #20

Jazz Underneath
Bassist Bill Harrison. On why he's a jazz bassist and not an orchestral one.

Clean Feed Blog
News from the great Portuguese label.

Writer Marc Myers. In his initial post, he declares that "At its core, jazz is an art form best experienced in front of a stereo." He does elaborate on the statement, but has the death of jazz ever been declared more depressingly?

Open Sky Jazz
The Independent Ear magazine, recast as a blog.

The Ring Modulator
Young guitarist Adrian Stevenson, on the trials and tribulations of learning to play jazz.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

taking the damned city by strategy - and in silence

Some more Jarrett discussion:

- a collection of tirades and another one that shows he actually has a sense of humour, as well.

- the inevitable massive jazz forum thread.

In the Perugia case, I think it's important to keep in mind that Jarrett's outburst did not come in reaction to an unruly crowd, but as the trio was walking out and being warmly applauded. It was a pre-emptive strike that's almost enough to make me think that Jarrett's been enlisted by the State Department.

- a great post that folds an eyewitness account account from Paris in 2006 into some more general thoughts. The eyewitness concludes:

If people were finding it hard to concentrate on the music at the start, by the end, I think all people could do was concentrate on not coughing. Doing what he did, KJ just assured HE could concentrate on the music. The audience were silent afterwards, but their attention was not with the music - it was with trying to keep as still as possible.
PWS then declares "I am put off by a lot of Jarrett's music, especially when he drifts into dangerous new agey waters of embarrassingly Romantic tonal backwash." The more I listen to Jarrett, the less this bothers me. I don't dislike it less - I hope I never come to like the sappy fusion tracks on Expectations - but the fact that Jarrett can juxtapose the thorniest inside-the-piano improvisation with mush and seem equally happy doing both somehow feels fearless, to me. I mean, was it obvious, in the late '60s, that Bill Evans and Ornette Coleman could be brought together, as they are on Life Between the Exit Signs?

listening notes: bobby jaspar, modern jazz au club st-germain

I'll grant that the sentiment is telegraphed by the album's title, the Jazz in Paris series it is a part of and the cover, but this music is essentially Parisian. It's about flâner, the unhurried and destination-free strolling that may involve checking out an open-air book stand by the Seine, sitting in a café's terrasse or lying down on the banks of the canal St. Martin. Of course, Jaspar (and bassist Benoît Quersin) is Belgian, transplanted into Paris from Liège, but he has absorbed the city and it has absorbed him: according to the liner notes, his All Stars was recognised, in 1955, as "the greatest current modern small jazz ensemble in France."

On the opening "Bag's Groove" Jaspar makes understated nods towards the blues by letting his intonation waver, attack slacken and phrasing float, but otherwise he is a crooner for whom everything must sound effortless. This is best demonstrated on his own "Memory of Dick."

Another sublime moment of balladry comes later with "I Can't Get Started," but, interestingly, its interpretation somehow sounds more American, to me. "Minor Drops" is perhaps the only instance of the big city bustle encroaching on the Sunday afternoon pleasantries, as Jaspar, Sacha Distel's guitar and René Urtreger's piano jockey uncomfortably for position before returning to the head.

This cool approach wilts under the glare of, say, Miles Davis's definitive recording of "Bag's Groove" or of more assuredly rhythmical versions of "Night In Tunisia," but douceur de vivre is no bad thing: even Louis Armstrong sang "C'est si bon" (Armstrong's rolled growl "yeah" is one of the greatest sounds in music).

it's hard being a young werther all the time... sometimes only a Casio will do.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

listening notes: bill evans/jim hall, undercurrent

The most intriguing thing about this album, for me, is the relationship between the packaging and the music. For many, this is a minor concern, maybe even a superficial one: the music towers above whatever thing (or, in the mp3 age, non-thing) it happens to be wrapped in. Still, ill-advised fonts, corny photographs and dreary layouts are painful, while amazing visual art can only enhance (and, in some cases, redeem) the music. And so-bad-it's-great cover art is an inexhaustible source of fun.

Joanna Newsom's Ys probably goes overboard, but the cover painting, embossed outer sleeve and gold-trimmed booklet create a rich context for the music to unfold in. It's not just about the size of the budget, either: Erstwhile's covers are regularly fantastic, especially Keith Rowe's paintings.

If this context provided by packaging was unimportant, musicians wouldn't title their compositions, give their group names, decide to wear expensive suits rather than combat pants, etc. And there wouldn't be this trend, that I'm really tired of, of record companies imposing a really strict look in order to create a "label identity." A part of the music's individuality is erased in favour of factory-line streamlining. Hat Hut, ECM, Ayler and De Werf are examples from different levels in the food chain.

Undercurrent's beautiful cover is tragic, dramatic, oneiric and mysterious. Barry J. Titus's original liner notes read like extremely bad William Burroughs ("Blue, yellow tinged, Mars capillaried, eye, blue crystal, white slash, 'I know what I want! Why is it such a struggle for you? I feel revolutions.'" And so on.). What do either the cover or the liners have to do with the music?

The duets are neither orgiastic gibberish nor haunted ruminations. Even Jim Hall's "Romain," which starts and ends somberly, lightens as guitar and piano give in to the sensual pleasure of intricate dialogue. There's an implicit lightness running through the album (made explicit in John Lewis's "Skating In Central Park") that's at odds with the cover's dramatic weight and a swinging drive on an unusually fast "My Funny Valentine" that's the opposite of Titus's pretension. I suppose music can (and sometimes, must) stand apart from the visual art that is inflicted upon it, but a successful union of the two leads to a more satisfying experience.

An aside: every time I see a picture of Jim Hall, I can only wonder: has he ever looked young?

la boite a musique

Why am I only now, in its second season, finding out about La boîte à musique? It is, believe it or not, a 90 minute show with no ad breaks about how music is made and, especially, how it is played, on French state TV channel France 2. It's just stunning TV, made for people who love music and have a little bit of technical knowledge of it. Last week's show, which I came across by happy accident, was dedicated to opera. Now, I don't really care for opera, but seeing a counter-tenor sing a stubbornly staccato song about freezing to death on the ground was, dare I say, chilling. The show proceeded to display various styles, voices and music of opera, from Mozart to Wagner, baritone to counter-tenor and make occasional comparaisons to pop singing.

This week's episode was dedicated to the piano, of which the host is an impeccable player, and featured a classical pianist and jazz pianist Antoine Hervé. The keyboards ranged in time from an 1817 pianoforte to a vocoder and detoured through the celeste, glockenspiel, a West European cymbalum variant and the orgue de Barbarie (which is kind of a combination between a punch-card computer and an iPod). Organ fans might have felt left out. The pianoforte was pretty surprising. I'd never heard one, and the radically different timbres it gives to each register and less clinical sound compared to the modern piano reminds the listener of how each sound, especially the ones we are most used to, is a historical construct. It also reminded me how shameful it is that I have never been to Brussels's Musée des Instruments des Musiques

The three pianists had different styles and despite the camaraderie (they ended with six-handed Rachmaninoff), there was a fascinating moment of conflict. The host talked about making the piano sing had and demonstrated by playing a bit of Ravel's "Concerto" (Stravinksy's "Petroushka" had shown its percussive potential). He emphasised that he was playing the melody later than the bass, to which the classical pianist countered that he disliked this style, preferring a more "vertical" and "colder" interpretation he felt was closer to the original intent. He demonstrated. The host's version had been pretty and sensual, but the second one was, in the span of a few - too few - seconds, transcendent.

Every show has a solfeggio section on a slightly out-of-tune hundred year old upright. Last week was about cadences: perfect, plagal, etc. The host joked, as he pounded away, that if you repeated a perfect cadence 30 times, you got Beethoven. The counter-tenor cracked up. This time, it wasn't really about theory, but about how Satie, by limiting himself to one rhythm and two chords, suspended the passage of time.

Hopefully this show will turn up on a bittorrent somewhere, it's great and too-rare TV. There are three episodes left, and I can't imagine a better reason to stay home on a Friday night.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

i'm getting out of this goddamned city

Darcy has video and reactions to the latest Keith Jarrett audience-hating outburst. It seems to be as regular a feature of his concerts as anything else: last month James Hale reported an identical incident in Montreal and asserted that in Toronto, Jarrett "threw the mattress out of his five-star hotel room and ordered a new $2,000 one in." In this age of diminished expectations, Jarrett continues to party like a rock star.

As is his/her/its wont, The Improvising Guitarist asks a lot of pointed questions.

Who do we expect our performers/artists/musicians to be? And why? And what happens when they don’t perform as expected?
I'm not sure Jarrett is the best person to rest this line of questioning on, though. We expect this from him. We expect Jarrett to irritate us, sometimes, as is the case with his vocalisations, even as he thrills us. We expect insufferable arrogance. We expect him to be paid a lot of money and we expect to pay a lot of money to see him (I've never seen him live, but I'd like to). While Jarrett's wealth and position within the jazz musician hierarchy don't negate the servant/master relationship tig outlines, it doesn't feel to me like the right one in this case. I don't know, maybe he's more of a well-heeled bad boy. However, the issue of what a performer is "allowed" to do is an interesting one.

I vaguely remember someone telling me (forgive me if this story is apocryphal) about Marion Brown getting on stage at a festival and only pretending to play, saxophone in mouth but not actually making a sound. The crowd grew irate. Further, what is the audience member allowed to do? For example, there's Forbes Graham's interruption music, which in most cases I suppose would be deemed "unacceptable behaviour." I often wonder what would happen if a listener took a musician's mid-concert political statement as an invitation to open debate. When I saw Dave Douglas in Liège, he linked George W. Bush to the unseasonably warm April and early May we were having (ironically, the weather has been terrible since - in mid-July it was so cold people had to get their sweaters and jackets back out). What if someone had stood up and said that the current weather wasn't Bush's fault, because of the inertia inherent to climate change?

Does "jazz as democracy" extend beyond the stage and the music? Can a lavishly-produced event (the concert took place in a big conference room with fancy lighting and was filmed by lots of TV cameras, including a remote-controlled one on rails in front of the stage and a highly annoying one on a crane) be interrupted in such a fashion?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Lafayette Gilchrist - Three

Writer Geoffroy Himes is on a tear: along with the great article on Ryan Shaw, Robert Randolph and the pop vs. church conundrum for the NY Times I linked to yesterday, he's got an absolutely brilliant feature on Lafayette Gilchrist (myspace) in the Baltimore City Pages. There's also a companion blindfold test in which Gilchrist speaks freely on a wide array of musical and non-musical topics, a lot of which revolves around the music-society relationship.

The feature goes in-depth about Gilchrist's own style and branches out into a discussion of the challenges of melting contemporary beats into jazz.

one of the most vexing dilemmas in modern music: How can jazz transform the black popular music of today into complex improvisations as it once transformed swing and ragtime? Or, to turn the question around, how can funk and hip-hop shrug off their formalist straitjackets and stretch out into new musical territory?
These questions are vexing because the very quality that makes funk and hip-hop so pleasurable--the power and the precision of their beats--makes them difficult for jazz to digest. Jazz requires a rhythmic elasticity for the sudden shifts that make it so pleasurable. As thousands of bad fusion and smooth-jazz records have demonstrated, adhering too closely to a repetitive groove kills the pleasures of jazz. As thousands of straight-ahead jazz records have proved, abandoning the groove too often kills the pleasures of pop. How can you accommodate the best of both worlds?
I first saw Gilchrist in David Murray's quartet maybe five or six years ago (with Jaribu Shahid and Hamid Drake). He impressed me by ably following anywhere the others went, from hard-driving groove to austere free improv. Afterwards, we talked a bit and he ended up singing Andrew Hill and Herbie Nichols lines to me.

I've been following his own work since The Music According To Lafayette Gilchrist, his first release on Hyena Records. On it and its follow-up, Towards The Shining Path, his band the New Volcanoes justified its name with heavy, dark funked-up jazz. The emphasis was on Gilchrist's fine horn voicings and arrangements and the solos of his sidemen, relegating the leader to intriguing comping and all-too-rare solos that stood out within a somewhat inflexible template. His third and latest is Three, on which he foregrounds his own playing by paring down to a trio and upping the quality of the compositions, notably that of the slower ones.

Gilchrist combines an old-school beat and fullness (see his comments on Eubie Blake, two-fisted piano and the relationship between music, dance and society in the blindfold test) with contemporary swagger and a dark, rumbling kind of harmonic daring. When he gets really worked up, the effect is great: you're dancing and thinking at the same time, as dense flurries, bluesy figures, melodic fragments and quiet, prolonged trills pirouette around sturdy syncopated beats.

While Jason Moran's trio weds loose, organic cycles of expansion and contraction to high-art concepts, Gilchrist's remains at street-level, producing its sparks in the tension between the short, syncopated riffs Anthony Jenkins and Nate Reynolds are tethered to and the great latitude granted the pianist to dive in and out of the groove. The thrill is in finding out what he'll do next, and Gilchrist's playing is strong enough to carry that burden.

Monday, August 06, 2007

questions and answers

Peter Margasak's feature on Nicole Mitchell is excellent. The Indigo Trio album (with Harrison Bankhead and Hamid Drake) on Greenleaf is, too. I'd expected it to be a "mere" blowing session, but it's much more than that. Her background is impressively difficult for someone who seems to radiate positivity. [via Greenleaf]


The church-music-versus-devil's-music conflict lives on, as seen through the eyes of singer Ryan Shaw and guitarist Robert Randolph.

"It’s that Catch-22," [singer Ryan Shaw] explained backstage at Artscape. "The traditions of the church allow it to preserve musical styles that might otherwise be lost, but it can also make for stagnation...

"If the church gives in too easily to those changes, gospel music will lose its identity," he said, "but if it resists those changes too much, it will alienate the youth. That’s why you have all these battles about what is gospel music and what God wants to hear."
It's funny, Mr. Shaw said, what churches will and won’t accept. "When R&B started using jazzy chords like 7ths, 9ths and 13ths, you couldn’t use them in church because that was 'the devil's music,' " he said. "But as soon as R&B moved on to something else, suddenly it was O.K. to use those chords because the devil wasn’t using them anymore."
Randolph has actually been barred from playing in his own church because he "plays out." Maurice Beard, one of Randolph's mentors, puts it memorably: "I've had offers to play out in the world, but I made a promise to my grandmother to stay in the church, so I did."


visionsong asks if jazz can have its own Mahler:
I'm inclined to argue no- our music, unlike European art music, was built from a small scale, from three minute 45s, from brothels and the Cotton Club and Birdland and lofts and the 200-seat Knitting Factory, so by it's nature it's not as broad as Mahler, or Strauss, or Nixon in China. And when it tries to be- Kenton, Ellington's Sacred Concerts, the Rock-operas of the 70's- it falls flat on its face.
In jazz (for lack of better language) our brilliance is in many ways in the intimacy of it- watching Trane communicate his processes, technical, emotional and spiritual, seeing Miles break a room apart with three notes, hearing Billy Holiday seemingly wilt into the microphone or Johnny Hodges climb ten stories in a second during a ballad. And currently, watching Dave Douglas and The Bad Plus and Darcy and Ron Miles and so many others try to thread the needles of tradition and innovation, irony and passion that our time demands. Even at their most political, it's a most beautiful form of retail politics, hardly an international soapbox.

Hopefully, Steve Coleman will continue blogging like this for a good while to come.
I refuse to accept that 'Jazz' exists. 'Jazz' for me is the not-so-creative part that most people relate to when they hear some forms from the past. I don’t know if I am being clear, but I have never considered the music of people like Duke Ellington, Don Byas, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, John Coltrane, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill – I have never considered this creative tradition 'Jazz'. I don’t care what others call it and I don’t even pay much attention to what these people themselves (i.e. the musicians) call it.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

jazz and blogs #19

M-Base Blog
Steve Coleman blogging, baby! [via SoundSlope]

Holey Lint Out Two Alewife
Trumpeter Forbes Graham. He clearly understands why a musician should have a blog, and says why other might not be too happy to have him in their audience. Also, see mixed feelings on the European orchestra

Streams of Expression
Searching discussions (not just reviews) of concerts, albums, movies, poetry and more general musical topics.

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel.

Jazz, yeah, but: Jazz prescribes inclusivity not exclusivity, embrace of change rather than resistance to it. Jazz beyond jazz is the result -- conclusions reached after absorption of something new, realizations that are different, insistently innovative and illuminating, not a shadow of or reminiscence about the way things used to be.
And, reviewing a John Hammond, Jr. concert: "Real estate -- a subject as devastating as spurned love in NY blues"

Jazz Workshop
Michael J. West's new column for BlogCritics. See his two-part treatise "In Defense of Fusion." Is John MacLaughlin under-rated? Was Miles's '70s output "a muddy mess?" Is Zappa's "King Kong" better than Weather Report's "Birdland?" Is it true that jazz musicians and fans were "So convinced... that rock musicians could never compete with [them] that they wrote them off without having heard what they were doing," leaving to the best of jazz-rock unexplored?