Saturday, February 24, 2007

CD Buying Tip

Write April 3 on your calendar because that's the day Ojos Negros, a set of duets by Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner, is released by ECM.

It is a stunningly beautiful piece of work — seven of Saluzzi's compositions and the title song by Vicente Greco.

They are touring behind this beginning April 18 in Eugene, Oregon. Unfortunately, the closest they are coming to me is Buffalo on the 28th, but if you get a chance to hear this CD or see them live, don't miss it.

This is my early nomination for CD of the year. If anything beats it, that will be one hell of a recording.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Passing It On

I mentioned Phil Nimmons here the other day, and today The Toronto Star’s Ashante Infantry has a nice piece about Nimmons and one of his many former star pupils. Typically, Phil shrugs off any credit for drummer Ernesto Cervini’s development while the young man was studying at the University of Toronto.

Aside from the energy and vision Phil brought to the task of creating jazz programs in Toronto, Banff and elsewhere across Canada, his legacy is the approach to performance-based learning that he implemented wherever he went.

As he told me a couple of years in a piece that’s archived here, one of the biggest challenges he faces in teaching improvisation in an institutional setting is inspiring students to allow the music they create to carry them beyond the sterility of the practice room.

Woodshedding is a tried-and-true jazz tradition, of course, but the big knock on a lot of contemporary musicians is the fact that universities and jazz camps have taken the place of learning on the job. Wherever you study the basics and hone your technique, though, the best players are always those who can extend their imagination past the ‘shed to the stage. That hasn’t changed since Charlie Parker’s day.

That puts me in mind of Michael Brecker, whose abbreviated life was celebrated in Manhattan the other night. Aside from the heights he scaled as a performer, Brecker was loved by music students for his ability to successfully straddle the worlds of formal academia and live performance. Like Dave Liebman – one of many who were on hand to fete Brecker – he was a leading member of the first generation that showed that you can learn your stuff away from the bandstand and still bring it when the time comes.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Canada's Cultural Heroes

I have a deep respect for the generation of Canadians who built the cultural institutions we take for granted today. It’s a generation that is – too rapidly – disappearing.

The latest to go is Celia Franca, who founded the National Ballet of Canada in 1951 and was its artistic director for 24 years. Along with Betty Oliphant, Franca also founded Canada’s National Ballet School, in 1959 – about the same time that another hero of mine, Phil Nimmons, was working to establish jazz education in Canada. It is impossible to overstate the importance those two events had on the artistic landscape in Canada.

Simply put, Franca gave birth to ballet as a native Canadian artform, as surely as Nimmons has made jazz a part of Canada’s culture through the school he co-founded with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown, the Banff jazz program, and the various programs he put in place at Canadian universities. Without them, who knows how long it would’ve been that dance and jazz in Canada were merely offshoots of other, larger nations’ activities.

Franca – who had an impressive dance career in the Sadler’s Wells and Metropolitan companies before immigrating to Canada – was a tiny woman, but she bowled people over with her tenacity and her passion for the arts. For years she was ubiquitous on radio and television, but I only saw her once in person – at a symposium on the arts that was organized by one of the government funding organizations. She was riveting. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and her message that you have to fight and fight and fight to get the arts their due was truly inspiring. It’s little wonder that she single-handedly got ballet on track in this country and wound up turning out some of the world’s greatest dancers within a generation of moving here.

She died today here in Ottawa at 85 – too young it seems for someone who was so vital – a year after breaking her back in a fall.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

JJA Top 10s

Thanks to Italian jazz journalist and editor of the magazine JazzColours Antonio Terzo, here's a compilation of the top 10 CDs of 2006, as voted by 46 members of the Jazz Journalists Association (about 10% of our membership) from around the world.

Ornette Coleman — Sound Grammar
Andrew Hill — Time Lines
Bill Frisell/Ron Carter/Paul Motian
Branford Marsalis Quartet — Braggtown
Sonny Rollins — Sonny, Please
Kenny Garrett — Beyond The Wall
Nels Cline — New Monastery
Bennie Maupin — Penumbra
Dave Burrell — Momentum
Trio Beyond — Saudades
Keith Jarrett — The Carnegie Hall Concert

You can see all the lists, some of which include comments, reissues, etc., at

Monday, February 12, 2007

Grumbling About Grammy

It’s never more evident than during the broadcast portion of the Grammy Awards how poorly jazz is served by network television. As usual, no jazz categories were included in the televised section of the awards – no surprise, considering only about 10 categories are included – and only a small handful of the major contributors who died in the past year were included in the ‘In Memorium’ tribute. I can understand passing up Dewey Redman for Michael Brecker and Maynard Ferguson, but where was Jay McShann?

It was nice to see Ornette Coleman (surely the best-dressed in the audience) get recognized, but why force anyone his age to read the intro to the next awards? (Did you catch that he read his own name off the cue cards? You could almost hear him thinking, ‘Hey, someone else is called Ornette.’) It was left to Flea to give props by hanging a huge sign thanking Ornette over his bass amp and ensuring the camera caught it several times.

I can do without the forced, painful mash-ups between jazz musicians and pop or rock players NARAS or the producers deem more recognizable, but why are no jazz musicians drafted as presenters? The industry has so many articulate, funny, telegenic people, why not have Branford Marsalis, Christian McBride, Cassandra Wilson or Maria Schneider in place of Luke Wilson (where’s the musical connection?) or Christina Ricci (again, music?).

As with most televised awards shows, NARAS seems to have long ago lost sight of the purpose of doing something on this scale. When you sacrifice paying dues to those in your own industry who actually deserve it in favour of TV ratings – a mug’s game at any rate; last year the Grammy telecast lost out to American Idol – what’s the point? Say what you will about the Academy Awards, at least they have struck a nice balance between showcasing current box office draws and a reverence for the past. I think the closest we got last night was the inclusion of that clip of Ahmet Ertegun talking about the global influence of African American music.

Putting the jazz gripes aside… Three enduring mysteries of who gets Grammy airtime and what it says about the state of the music business: John Legend with his dodgy tonality, Rascal Flatts with their ‘80s-vintage guitarist and James Blunt, who seems to have gone farther using one chord than anyone since John Lee Hooker.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Beauty Of Balliett

I picked up my well-worn copy of the late Whitney Balliett's compilation, American Musicians II, with the idea of checking out (for probably the 10th time) his brilliant portrait of clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, "Even His Feet Look Sad," but got sidetracked into his lesser-known sketch of Cecil Taylor. (The fact that Balliett dug both Russell and Taylor tells you all you need to know about his catholic tastes.)

In a long, long paragraph on Taylor's style, this sentence jumps out: "He uses enormous chords; tone clusters; single-note arpeggios of such speed that they are almost indistinguishable from glissandos; runs played simultaneously by three fingers on each hand, the fingers held at an eighty-degree angle to the keyboard; runs and massed notes struck with a fist or elbow."

Beyond the virtuosic wordplay, the visual — and aural, because I surely hear that sentence as much as take it in through my eyes — imagery of Taylor in action is stunning. In a couple of the obits I've read on Balliett people have noted that he didn't use a lot of technical terminology; clearly, that's not the case. What he did do is blend technical terms like "glissando" and "arpeggio" so smoothly into poetic language that the terminology never became an issue.

Thinking about what drew me to Balliett — and to one of my other heroes, Ralph J. Gleason, before him — it's his literary approach to music that stands out. First and foremost, when Balliett or Gleason described a piece of music you wanted to hear it for yourself. Even when they were describing negative elements or inferior performances, you wanted to hear things they heard, apply your own judgment, determine what you thought was important, and make your own musical connections. If a music critic can do that they've done their job.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Whitney Balliett RIP

I just heard that one of the most elegant, insightful jazz writers — and certainly one of my biggest influences — died today.

Whitney Balliett was the jazz columnist for The New Yorker from 1957 to 2001, and his crisp prose helped set the tone for the magazine during that period. It was Balliett who shone a light on Sonny Rollins' late-night trips to the Williamsburg Bridge, and helped maintain a level-headed pragmaticism about jazz while it was going through major upheaval in the '60s and '70s.

As a writer, he was unequalled by anyone with the possible exception of Gary Giddins. Truly someone who set the kind of standard you wanted to try and approach.

If you have a copy of The New Yorker's amazing complete CD-ROM library, check out some of his work; I know that's what I'll be doing over the next few days.