Sunday, June 29, 2008

School's Out

It won't be a jazz-free summer by any means—I'm headed to the Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival in a couple of weeks—but probably a blog-free summer, barring something pressing and unexpected time on my hands here in the office.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Mighty Maria

Composer and bandleader Maria Schneider dominated yesterday's Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards presentation at The Jazz Standard in New York City. Riding high on the heels of her stunningly beautiful recording Sky Blue, Schneider took home four awards: Record of the Year; Composer of the Year; Arranger of the Year; and Large Ensemble of the Year.
This is the second time that she has walked away with four Jazz Awards statuettes. She first accomplished the feat in 2005, in the wake of her Grammy-winning ArtistShare debut album, Concert In The Garden.

Here's a complete list of this year's winners:

Lifetime Achievement in Jazz
Marian McPartland
Musician of the Year
Herbie Hancock
Up & Coming Musician of the Year
Lionel Loueke
Record of the Year
Sky Blue
Maria Schneider Orchestra
Reissue/Historical Release of the Year
Cornell 1964
Charles Mingus Sextet
Blue Note
Reissue/Historical Box Set of the Year
A Life In Time: The Roy Haynes Story
Dreyfus Jazz
Record Label of the Year
Blue Note Records
Composer of the Year
Maria Schneider
Arranger of the Year
Maria Schneider
Male Singer of the Year
Andy Bey
Female Singer of the Year
Abbey Lincoln
Latin Jazz Album of the Year
Big Band Urban Folktales
Bobby Sanabria
Small Ensemble of the Year
Ornette Coleman Quartet/Quintet
Large Ensemble of the Year
Maria Schneider Orchestra
Trumpeter of the Year
Terence Blanchard
Trombonist of the Year
Wycliffe Gordon
Player of Instruments Rare in Jazz
Scott Robinson, reeds/brass/antiques
Alto Sax Player of the Year
Ornette Coleman
Tenor Sax Player of the Year
Sonny Rollins
Soprano Sax Player of the Year
Jane Ira Bloom
Baritone Sax Player of the Year
James Carter
Clarinetist of the Year
Anat Cohen
Flutist of the Year
Nicole Mitchell
Pianist of the Year
Hank Jones
Organ-Keyboards of the Year
Dr. Lonnie Smith
Guitarist of the Year
Bill Frisell
Bassist of the Year
Christian McBride
Electric Bassist of the Year
Steve Swallow
Strings Player of the Year
Regina Carter
Mallets Player of the Year
Joe Locke
Percussionist of the Year
Candido Camero
Drummer of the Year
Roy Haynes
Events Producer of the Year
Patricia Nicholson-Parker, Arts for Art, RUCMA, Vision Festival
Jazz Journalism Lifetime Achievement Award
Doug Ramsey, author, biographer, blogger
Willis Conover-Marian McPartland Broadcasting Award
Nancy Wilson, for “Jazz Profiles”
National Public Radio
Helen Dance-Robert Palmer Feature & Review Writing Award
Nate Chinen
New York Time, JazzTimes
Best Periodical Covering Jazz
Best Website on Jazz
Best Book about Jazz
Playing the Changes: Milt Hinton's Life in Stories and Photographs, by Milt Hinton, David G. Berger and Holly Maxson (Vanderbilt University Press)
Lona Foote-Bob Parent Photography Award
Milt Hinton (1910-2000)
Jazz Photo of the Year
“Time Stood Still for Andrew Hill,”
by Laurence Donohue-Greene

The Jazz Journalists Association 2008 Award for the ‘A Team’ Activists, advocates, altruists, aiders and abettors of jazz

Dr. Valerie Capers, pianist, composer, emeritus chair of City University of New York Department of Music and Art at Bronx Community College;

Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts;

Lauren Deutsch, photographer and executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago;

Susan Muscarella, pianist-composer-arranger-educator, founder of JazzSchool (Berkeley);

Phil Nimmons, clarinetist, improviser, father of Canadian jazz education;

George Russell, conceptualist, composer, orchestra leader, educator (New England Conservatory)

Dick Wang, musician, educator (Univ of Illinois-Chicago), mentor, historian, archivist, co-founder, past president and current board member of the Jazz Institute of Chicago;

Dr. Herb Wong, founder of the Palo Alto jazz alliance and Berkeley public school jazz programs, broadcaster, record producer and annotator, past-president of the International Association of Jazz Educators, spirit of the Monterey Jazz Festival

Wendy Oxenhorn, executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America, founder of Street News, blues harmonica player

Thursday, June 12, 2008

What Makes A Festival Festive?

Although I'm paid three times a year or so to write reviews about jazz festivals, it's seldom the festival itself I review. Whether I'm reporting from New York, Vancouver, Cleveland or Montreal, I try to keep the focus on the music, unless there's something extraordinary about the setting or the crowd that warrants notice. That approach can create confusion. Once, when a festival organizer complained about the bad review I gave his festival, I replied: "It wasn't the 'festival' I was reviewing. I didn't see you onstage playing a saxophone."

Yeah, that was overly glib and facetious, but you get my point.

After helping to run a festival for a few years in the 1980s and attending at least three events a year since 1991, I've developed a few thoughts on what – music aside – separates great festivals from the also-rans. Bear in mind that the Number 1 thing that makes the difference is artistic vision, but let's pretend that all things are equal on that front for the sake of argument. What makes the ideal festival?

As in real estate, location plays a major role. I like urban settings and the ocean, so I'm partial to events in San Francisco, Vancouver and Halifax, but putting that bias aside, festivals that provide the equivalent of a palette-cleansing course at a restaurant are appreciated. In San Francisco, I love the opportunity to walk across the street to the Museum of Modern Art after catching a show at the Yerba Buena Gardens or check out the collection at the Legion of Honor, the great venue that SFJAZZ sometimes uses out by the Golden Gate Bridge. In Vancouver, I dig sitting at an outdoor cafe on Robson Street – people watching in the West End – between shows. Sometimes, this is a question of timing, too. I know only a few people who really enjoy festivals that cram musical acts up against each other; it's nice to have time to process what you just heard.

Food also plays a key role. One of the best festival sites I've been to is in San Jose, California, where, during the festival, Cesar Chavez Square is lined with vendors dispensing a variety of ethnic cuisines. One of my least-favourite festival sites is Victoriaville, where the lack of time between shows combines with the paucity of good restaurants to put me in a bad mood every time. (During the early years of the Guelph Jazz Festival – when critics were still discovering its terrific programming and great setting – my Toronto colleague Mark Miller uttered the immortal line, "This is like Victoriaville, but with better food.") In Ottawa this summer, I'm looking forward to the fact that a local, organic, micro-brewery has won the beverage contract over the big breweries. Later in the summer, I'm making my first trip to the Vitoria festival in Spain, and I'm looking forward to the Basque cuisine almost as much as catching Maria Schneider and Wayne Shorter... almost.

Overall, though, it's that intangible "vibe" that wins me over. It can be sitting in a park – doesn't matter which city – under a beautiful sky, or in a funky old hall with terrific sound; if the vibe is right, everything sounds better.

What about your favorite festivals? Which ones are you partial to? What makes it work for you? Send your picks for where people should head this year as we enter festival season.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Happy Birthday To Us

Two jazz magazines... two anniversaries... two very different approaches. That's what readers of Coda – the venerable Canadian journal of improvised music – and Signal To Noise – an up-and-coming quarterly magazine based in Houston, Texas – have in their hands this month. Coda is marking 50 years of existence, while STN is celebrating 50 issues.

I contribute to both, so I'm not playing favourites, but it's interesting to note the differences in how the publications view their legacies.

The Coda retrospective takes a top-down approach, with lengthy remembrances from founder/former publisher John Norris, former editor Bill Smith and former publisher Nick Pitt. There is no shortage of 'those were the days' stories of how the magazine got its start as a mimeographed-and-stapled collection of reviews, but almost nothing about the legion of writers and photographers who contributed to what Coda grew to be. This is ironic, considering that Smith and his successor, the wonderfully insightful Stuart Broomer, were great advocates for letting journalists have their say. Today, Coda has passed from their hands.

STN publisher – and editor (though he doesn't call himself that on the masthead) – Pete Gershon is cut from the same cloth as Smith and Broomer, but his 50th celebration trumpets that fact, while Coda seems to be trying to re-write history. Rather than continually beat the reader over the head with the difficult realities of running a publication, Gershon lets the writers do what they do. His novel approach to marking his 50 milestone was to ask 50 contributors to submit short descriptions of their most-treasured piece of music-related memorabilia. Simple but effective.

I have edited half-a-dozen or so publications during my career – and continue to do so at a small community paper in the neighbourhood where I grew up – and I've learned that the biggest mistake you can make as an editor is to forget that it's the names on the bylines and not at the top of the masthead that make a magazine or newspaper what it is. It is writers' enthusiasms and voices, and photographers' vision and imagination that readers respond to – regardless of how skillful or dedicated the editor.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

RTF v.3.0

With Return To Forever's vaunted reunion tour now in full swing – it kicked off last week in Texas and winds through the summer until early August – I've been thinking about a quirk I have about original lineups. It's no surprise that I like the original configuration of The Mahavishnu Orchestra best (does anyone prefer one of the latter versions?), but I also have a preference for the first incarnation of Weather Report, Genesis, The Allman Brothers Band, The E Street Band (okay, maybe not "Mad Dog" Vinny Lopez) and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

I deviate a little from this pattern with RTF, but only if you're one of those who consider the Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, Joe Farrell band RTF. (Their acoustic basis and heavy Brazilian influence make them a whole other category than what followed, once Lenny White and Bill Connors came along.) For me, Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy ranks with The Inner Mounting Flame, Sweetnighter and Head Hunters as an album that defined the fusion genre in the early '70s. Al DiMeola has just never really done it for me, though one of his later recordings – Orange And Blue – is pretty fine.

A few years ago, I got a chance to interview Connors, then 55. I was always curious about why he decided to drop out of RTF after his exceptional work on Hymn and Stanley Clarke's solo debut.

Looking back at his decision, Connors was at a loss to explain it, despite many rumours that Corea's Scientology devotion or leadership manner were at the root. "Maybe I should've just taken a few days off. It (his decision to quit) was a little rash."

He didn't seem like a man to harbour regrets. After all, he's had a full career of recording (including some great work for ECM) and teaching. Still, he also said this: "It hurt when people would tell me that I must've listened to a lot of Al DiMeola. I was robbed of my identity... (it was like) my guitar was a credit card that had been stolen and I'd been left to pay the bill."

While some people I've talked to have expressed regrets that Moreira and Purim aren't involved in this summer's RTF reunion, I'm wishing that Chick had invited Connors along for the ride.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

NEA Jazz Masters

The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has named the recipients of its 2009 Jazz Masters Award. The winners are: guitarist-singer George Benson, 65; drummer Jimmy Cobb, 79; alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, 80; harmonicist-guitarist Toots Thielmans, 86; and trumpeter Snooky Young, 89. Veteran recording engineer and studio owner Rudy Van Gelder, 83, has been awarded the 2009 A.B. Spellman Award for jazz advocacy.

The criteria for the Jazz Masters Award are excellence, impact and significant contributions to keeping jazz alive.

Clearly, some excellent choices here – particularly the nod to Young, a fine player who is often overlooked because he chose a route other than as a high-profile bandleader. Good to see Cobb and Konitz cited, as well. Van Gelder? A no-brainer.

The odd man out, of course, is Benson – not just for the fact that he's a generation younger than the others, but for the fact that there are dozens of others his age who are arguably as worthy. Does impact merely equate to commercial sales? Does one keep the jazz tradition alive by finding success in the pop mainstream? Benson is, of course, a fine guitarist, but there are a score of instrumentalists his equal. His citation highlights his "innovative practice of playing a florid guitar melody accompanied by an identical, scatted vocal line." Thin gruel there; questionably innovative given how widespread that practice was among blues guitarists and others well before Benson. Perhaps of more significance is one other fact his citation notes: "Winner of ten Grammy Awards." As usual, these things often come down to nothing more than popularity contests.

The winners of the NEA Jazz Masters Award receive a $25,000 grant. The awards will be presented in October in conjunction with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and will include a performance saluting the artists' work by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Dum-de-Dum-Dum, Dum Dum, 1928-2008

Long before I had heard the word "mojo" I knew Ellas McDaniel was working some kind of magic. When I was eight or nine I was fascinated by two things: odd-sounding music and cowboys. So when my cousin pulled out a copy of Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger and put it on his basement record player I was enthralled. First of all, who was called Bo Diddley? No one in my orbit. Second, who in 1962 had heard of a black cowboy? No one who grew up watching Rawhide, Wagon Train and Cheyenne.

And then, there was the sound. Simple, yet spooky. Much darker than the white rockabillies my older brothers favoured, let alone the music on the radio of the day. And that beat. Well, I had heard that on a Buddy Holly record, but who was this guy claiming it as his own, and basing almost every song on it? Something in the audacious minimalism grabbed me and wouldn't let go. Little wonder, then, that The Rolling Stones had me over The Beatles when they covered "Not Fade Away" and then "Mona," or that Bruce Springsteen's "She's The One" has remained one of my favourite of his songs in concert.

So long, Bo. You were one of a kind.