Friday, February 22, 2008

Teo Macero, 1925-2008

The great producer Teo Macero leaves a legacy of enduring studio creations done in collaboration with Miles Davis. The editing work he accomplished in the pre-digital age of razor-blade-and-tape is nothing short of stunning.

Teo could come off as something of a braggart, and there was a time when his claims of co-creation of some of Davis' best recordings rubbed me the wrong way, but once the original studio tapes surfaced, the quality of his art became clear.

He was something of a hero because of the vehemence of his hatred toward what the recording industry has become. No one matched the venom he could pour fourth toward the "fucking lawyers" he saw running his former employer: Columbia Records.

He was also a great storyteller, with terrific tales of life at the centre of the jazz business in the 1950s and '60s. "The first thing I'd do when I got to work," he said, "was to draw $100 in cash out of the treasury, because you'd wind up running into Duke or Miles and taking them to lunch."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Power Of The New

During a panel discussion about the future of jazz on Saturday morning at the Portland Jazz Festival I made a point about keeping your ears — and other senses — open to new sounds. It's a lesson that the great producer Teo Macero once passed on to me — a lesson he learned from working with everyone from Duke Ellington to Vernon Reid.

I've already recounted the conversation I had with a young-ish music fan who was seated beside me on Sunday afternoon for her first Cecil Taylor performance, and her excitement after what I regarded as a fairly average show by Taylor.

After I returned home I received an email from one of my oldest friends, who had just seen Ornette Coleman in Vancouver. My friend has always been a music fan, but he's not what I would call a rabid jazz listener. Nevertheless, he was knocked out by Coleman's performance, despite the fact that the saxophonist is now 77 and not playing with the best band he's ever had.

Time to renew my faith in those lessons about open ears. It's too easy to become jaded when you're exposed to a lot of music; sometimes you have to hear things through the ears of others to refresh your own senses.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Andrew D'Angelo

Sending strength and hope to saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo....

As he reports on his blog, the news is not good, but many people I'm talking with this weekend are channeling all kinds of positive energy to him.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Grammy Thoughts

Awards presented by organizations like the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences being what they are, I don't usually put too much stock in the Grammys — although it's always nice when someone like Ornette Coleman is recognized like he was last year. That said, the online "dialogue" following last night's awards presentation is fascinating for the level of vitriol, subtle racism and outright stupidity directed at award winners like Amy Winehouse, Herbie Hancock and Kanye West. If you need an indication of why the music industry is in such a mess, you need look no further than the polarization in evidence on sites ranging from Canada's national newspaper, the Globe and Mail to the mud-slinging Perez Hilton and celebrity-gawking TMZ.

"Who the fuck is Herbie Hancock?" is one of the more intelligent remarks aimed at the pianist who has dominated the jazz world since the mid-'60s — despite the fact that his Grammy-winning recording is more pop than jazz, with contributions by popular singers like Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey-Rae.

Most of the insults hurled at Hancock came from those who were upset that he blocked the troubled British soul singer Amy Winehouse from a sweep of the six categories in which she was nominated. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who seem to be whipped into a frenzy by Winehouse's beehive hairdo, tattoos and much-publicized drug habit. That latter peccadillo draws some particularly ironic insults. People hurl terms like "crack whore" around like Winehouse was the first musician to have a habit.

As for Kanye ("We live here now") West, you have to feel for a guy who has to shush the musicians in the orchestra pit to get in a few words about his late mother, but his boasts about his Grammy prowess wear a little thin after awhile. You might think his grief would take the edge off his braggadocio for a few months — apparently not. The best line of the night definitely goes to country singer Vince Gill, who quickly recovered from what seemed like genuine awe at getting his award from Ringo Starr to ask West if the rapper had ever received a Grammy from a Beatle.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Remembering Lenny Breau

Next to a Duke Ellington short that I saw when I was about seven, guitarist Lenny Breau was the first jazz musician I saw on TV. In the mid-'60s, when shows like Shindig and Hullabaloo were in vogue in the U.S., the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation launched a series of after-school music shows from different cities. For a lot of us, that was our first look at up-and-coming artists like Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and The Guess Who.

Once a week, the show originated in Winnipeg — hometown of Neil Young and the fledgling Guess Who — and one segment was always devoted to Breau's guitar wizardry. He was just moving between his devotion to Chet Atkins and his enthrallment with Bill Evans, and still not so far into his drug addiction that he'd lost contact with his audience. His touch was magic, and his musical conception like nothing in my imagination.

Breau — who was murdered in Los Angeles in 1984 at the age of 43 — still fascinates people, and not just guitarists. Ottawa actor Pierre Brault, who has made his name writing and performing one-man plays, will debut a new play about Breau this April at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa. With luck, it will tour after its initial run here.

The March issue of DownBeat includes my article about the play, but here's a longer, unedited version of what's in the magazine.

# # #

By James Hale

“I might not end up making a million bucks, but I’d like to be known as the guy who started this movement,” said guitarist Lenny Breau.

It’s unlikely Breau made anything approaching $1 million, and where he ended up was dead at the bottom of a swimming pool at 43 – the victim of an unsolved murder. But, among jazz guitarists, Breau’s advanced use of artificial harmonics and ability to weave counter-melodies together is legendary.

“It’s like there’s a secret society of the guys who love his work,” said Toronto-based guitarist Michael Occhipinti. “We’ve all taken something from what he developed.”

“Any one aspect of Breau’s technique would be enough to build a career around,” added Los Angeles guitarist Skip Heller. “He conceived of things on the guitar that no one had done – the ideal combination of imagination and technical skill.”

Separately, both compared Breau’s revolutionary approach to Glenn Gould’s, and Heller made one more historical allusion: “Hearing him play is like watching Houdini get out of a trunk.”

While Breau’s innovations have kept him on the minds of guitarists, his name is virtually unknown by others 23 years after his death.

Canadian actor Pierre Brault is looking to re-connect Breau’s spirit to audiences with a one-man play, 5 O’Clock Bells, that opens this April in Ottawa and may tour beyond that initial run.

“I think Lenny’s story is a tremendously engaging human story,” said Brault, who has garnered rave reviews for previous solo shows – portraying a convicted political assassin and an art forger. In 5 O’Clock Bells, he plays seven characters from Breau’s life, which the actor relates to the seven strings on his subject’s custom-made instrument.

“Together, these voices – people like his mother, his father, Chet Atkins and others who cared for him – will resonate to create Lenny’s voice. He wasn’t an eloquent man in any way except through his instrument, so I’m trying to create that instrument through the seven voices. They’re the strings of his life.”

Like one of the Bill Evans piano ballads Breau loved, the play will follow an impressionistic path to cover the details of its subject’s life: Born to country performers Hal “Lone Pine” Breau and Betty Cody on the road in rural Maine in 1941. Recording debut (entitled Boy Wonder) at 15. Settled in Winnipeg at 16. Switched to playing jazz at 18. Frequent TV performances across Canada and the U.S. Championed by Atkins and given a major-label contract in the late ‘60s. A ghostly, long slide through sustained drug abuse, punctuated by the occasional brilliant reappearance, until a sudden – albeit not unexpected – death notice.

“I had Lenny in the play as a character at first,” said Brault, “but I realized that he couldn’t tell us anything more than his music already does. The big challenge in writing this play is getting the audience to appreciate what a genius he was without having the other characters keep saying, ‘Wow, you’re a genius.’ In the end, it’s not the details that audiences care about; it’s the human emotion that drives a play forward.”

Although Brault plays guitar, he knew from the play’s inception that he could not pull off the illusion of re-creating Breau’s ambidextrous legerdemain, yet music must play an integral role. So he turned to guitarist Paul Bourdeau, a Carleton University music professor and musical magpie who has mastered Breau’s techniques. At a workshop session in October, Brault, Bourdeau and the play’s director, Brian Quirt, worked through the script, identifying where musical cues – some ersatz Merle Travis, some Atkins, Barney Kessel, Indian ragas – would help illuminate the story.

In the end, though, Brault feels the play itself is a kind of musical expression.

“I always try to reduce my plays to a single word to really know that I’ve captured the essence of the person, and with Lenny that word is ‘harmony.’ He was a beautiful flower of a man who never wanted to hurt anyone; that’s why he couldn’t turn away anyone who wanted to buy him a drink or get him high. He was constantly trying to find the overtone – the harmony – in everything he did. My goal is that when the audience sees how he affected these seven people I inhabit they’ll hear the true note of who Lenny Breau was.”

It's Your Health, Stupid

Sad news today that saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo is undergoing emergency brain surgery after suffering a seizure last week and being diagnosed with a large — and hopefully benign — brain tumor. Like so many other musicians in the U.S., D'Angelo has no health insurance, and colleagues are pulling together an effort to raise money to pay for his medical expenses. See the BBS post at JazzHouse for more information on that.

As a Canadian, I know better than to get involved in the politics of another country, but when, oh when, will America leave the rest of the world alone and look after its own citizens? The fact that millions of Americans still view socialized medicine as un-American just baffles. Sure, it's a commie-inspired idea until it's your liver, heart, brain — or your kid's — on the line.

Recent reading — Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise, David Halberstam's The Fifties and Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States — has illuminated America's obsession with socialism in the wake of WW II and Roosevelt's New Deal. That this unhealthy paranoia continues to affect working people in the country today is troubling. The fact that no one aside from Hillary Rodham Clinton is talking about healthcare on the campaign trail is more troubling.