Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Critical Judgement

I have to admit it, I love when my DownBeat colleagues John Corbett and John McDonough stake out territory at extreme opposite ends of opinion on a particular recording. In the December issue's "Hot Box" feature, Corbett gives Evan Parker's 1970 recording The Topography Of The Lungs—which was just released for the first time on CD—the full five stars, while McDonough allots it a mere one star. While Corbett sees the recording as "one of the best five or so examples of its kind," McDonough writes that it's "a worthless stunt."

Now, it's not that I view music criticism as a bloodsport, or that I favour one John over the other (in fact, I know Corbett only slightly from a couple of encounters and McDonough only from a couple of email correspondences), but the difference of intelligent, informed opinion over art is one of the things that attracted me to the craft more than 30 years ago, when I first submitted reviews to my university newspaper. The fact that two people with roughly equal measures of listening experience can hear something so differently, can position a recording so radically differently within the context of recorded music, is what makes criticism such a vital component of the art world.

Before I saw Corbett and McDonough's divergent takes on the Parker CD, I was thinking of this in the context of the 2006 top 10 lists I've been collecting from Jazz Journalists Association members for posting on our website. I haven't done the math yet to determine overall rankings, but it's clear that Kenny Garrett's Beyond The Wall is going to rank fairly high since it's on a number of critics's lists. Not all, mind; it's not a recording that grabbed my ear, for example, so I was surprised to see it land on so many of my colleagues's lists. But now I'm intrigued to go back and try to hear what fellow critics like Bill Milkowski, Ollie Bivins and Geoffrey Himes are hearing.

And just to make things even more intriguing: in DownBeat, Corbett gave the Garrett CD three stars, McDonough, two-and-a-half.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

D.D. Jackson Mashup

I caught fellow Ottawan and DownBeat contributor D.D. Jackson last night at a taping for the radio program Fuse, which runs nationally on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The show's concept is to bring together two musicians who have never worked together previously and see what develops, but the musicians are seldom as disparate as Jackson and singer-songwriter Emm Gryner. Although Gryner studied piano as a kid and has a father who's a jazz fan, it seems like a cruel mismatch to pair her with D.D., a classical prodigy who managed the impossible by stepping nimbly from apprenticeship with the fearsome Menachem Pressler to similar status with Don Pullen and Jaki Byard. Still, they found common ground, with Gryner—who played bass in a teenage pop band with her brothers—providing rudimentary bass accompaniment to one of Jackson's gentler compositions, and wordless vocals to his stormy "Final Invocation: Towers Of Light" from his terrific New York Suite CD. Jackson added lush piano fills to several of Gryner's songs, assuming the role of the strings on her latest recording. To finish the program they came up with a powerful arrangement of Neil Young's "Ohio," which played to both their strengths.

Great to see this risky concept executed so effectively.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Another Side of Gary Versace

Somewhat related to my post on Maria Schneider—since he's often a mainstay in her orchestra—are some comments on Gary Versace, who I heard the other night with Ottawa bassist John Geggie and Montreal saxophonist Christine Jensen.

Best known for his organ playing, Versace is also an exceptional pianist and composer. He has a deceptively understated way of building a solo, and his method of emphasizing and repeating key climactic phrases seems to reflect his concentration on organ.

Versace has only been on the New York City jazz scene for a few years, and most of that time has been spent in bands like Ingrid Jensen's O (for organ) Project and in John Scofield's funk unit, but it would be great to hear him more widely on piano with his own group.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Maria Schneider


No matter how jaded you become about "the state of jazz" it's always reassuring to encounter Maria Schneider, in one form or another. If there is a more pure musical spirit, I've yet to meet him or her. Schneider is someone who is always open to life's beauty, and filled with the power to be able to interpret her feelings in music.

She is the subject of the latest "listening to music with..." feature in the New York Times—an occasional feature in the paper, which is also available for free online.

I had the pleasure of being on a panel with her a couple of years ago, discussing sexism in jazz, and can attest that she's one of the most articulate people in the business. If you're in New York in the next couple of weeks be sure to catch her band at The Jazz Standard.

Photo by John Fowler.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Top 10

The task of selecting a top 10 CD list continues to get more difficult as new technologies enable musicians to record and distribute their works more easily. I now average well over one CD a day in the mail, and artists point me to downloadable recordings on the Web in addition to those. I know some of my colleagues receive at least twice that much music—not a situation I envy. As a music journalist, you do your best to keep up, but the reality is you just can't hear everything. I rely on colleagues and music-savvy friends outside the industry to tip me to worthy recordings that have caught their ears, and I listen intensely—meaning at least a dozen times each, and in some detail (often through headphones as well as without)—to probably 25 or 30 recordings that I've been assigned to review. Then, there are obvious releases—addressed in an earlier post: Ornette Coleman, Dave Holland, Keith Jarrett, et.al.; musicians of the first rank whose work always deserves a listen—to check out. Anyway, suffice to say, it's a lot of listening, but I don't fool myself that I've heard nearly everything worthy of note. With that long-winded proviso, here's my list for 2006, as of today. You never know what else might catch my ear by year's end. These are in alphabetical order.

Andy Biskin Quartet – Early American: The Melodies Of Stephen Foster (Strudelmedia)
Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar)
Mark Feldman – What Exit (ECM)
Gordon Grdina/Gary Peacock/Paul Motian – Think Like The Waves (Songlines)
Frank Kimbrough – Play (Palmetto)
Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project – Simp├ítico (ArtistShare)
Brad Mehldau Trio – House On Hill (Nonesuch)
Francisco Mela – Melao (Ayva)
Trio Beyond – Saudades (ECM)
Tomasz Stanko Quartet – Lontano (ECM)

If you're interested in what other jazz journalists fell in love with this year, check out the Jazz Journalists Association annual Top 10 compendium, which will be posted shortly at our website.

Ornette on NPR

One of the joys of the Internet is the ability to access media from around the world, and for me here in Canada that includes National Public Radio in the US, which continues to employ freelance contributors like Kevin Whitehead and Ashley Kahn, and to look beneath the surface of the mainstream to feature artists who have something to say.

The most recent example of this is an interview with Ornette Coleman by Kahn, as well as an essay by Kahn on Coleman's new recording, Sound Grammar.

You can check it out under Arts & Culture at NPR's site.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Coming Into The Light

I recall being fascinated one night in 1973 on a post-high school trip to Europe when my friend and I stumbled onto a well-filmed performance (Les McCann, I believe it was) from the Montreux festival being broadcast on TV. Such things were unheard of in North America, but our Swiss hosts assured us this was commonplace on European television.

Back here at home, similar films would occasionally surface on the French-language service of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

So, we knew they were out there.

Now, it seems like a veritable treasure trove of rare live performances is about to be opened to North American audiences. As veteran jazz journalist Mike Zwerin discusses in his diary on the Jazz Journalists Association website, the first of a number of rare European TV performances have been released on DVD.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Year End

I received the first request for a year-end top 10 list the other day.

This always presents a challenge this time of year, because my list is far from carved in stone. I keep track of recordings that are worthy contenders throughout the year as I receive and hear them, but inevitably there are things I haven't delved into deeply enough by November to determine whether they'll bump something else off the list. For example, I haven't spent nearly enough time with three recordings I know will be contenders for my final list: the new Ornette Coleman, Dave Holland and Keith Jarrett. These are musicians whose work I savour, so I always set them aside for leisuretime listening, and that always seems to get pushed off by more pressing demands. There are also a number of things I should go through again; I know there's at least one Anthony Braxton set that I didn't pay enough attention to.

Still, there are a few things that seem like "locks" at this point. The Brian Lynch tribute to Eddie Palmieri with Phil Woods is exceptional, and is probably far enough up the list that it won't get bumped, and that's likely also the case for Andy Biskin's lovable blenderization of the Stephen Foster songbook with the great Pete McCann on guitar.

So, for some lists, like the one we post on the Jazz Journalists Association website, I'll stall until the last minute. There's just too much listening left to do.

The Miller's Tale

As a jazz writer, I have always felt a special allegiance with those musicians who continue to develop their voice over the course of their careers. When I have occasion to look back at something I wrote early in my writing life I recognize myself to be sure, but I also see stylistic tics and critical stances that strike me as a product of the times—the late 1970s—and my age.

Looking back over basically the same time and age span of my writing colleague Mark Miller—as captured in the new compilation of his reviews and essays, A Certain Respect for Tradition: Mark Miller on Jazz—I see a writer who found his voice early in his career and polished that gem rather than re-cut it. The earliest work in the book dates to 1980, when Miller was 29, and finds him as clear-eyed and succinct as he was when he retired from his post as jazz columnist with the Toronto-based Globe and Mail a year ago.

Another writing colleague—the Washington, DC-based Bill Shoemaker—cited Miller’s “scarily consistent excellence” in an essay of appreciation published after Mark’s premature retirement. All I can add is “Amen.”