Friday, October 31, 2008

Zawinul: Win Some, Lose Some

Austria's Green and Liberal parties may have turned down the bid to erect a monument to Vienna homeboy Josef Zawinul (a simple plaque will have to suffice) but the late keyboardist's son Tony has announced plans to reopen Joe Zawinul's Birdland – which went bankrupt last summer – and incorporate a museum to highlight his father's career.

The Shrinkage Continues

Coming on the heels of the announcement regarding the suspension of the 2009 Victo festival, the City of Chicago has announced that the Chicago Jazz Festival will be reduced both in length and scope. In 2009, the festival will be reduced to three days from four, and the number of stages will also be cut.

"To be frank, we simply cannot continue moving forward with programs, events and festivals that cost the City of Chicago more to operate than we bring in in revenue," said Megan McDonald, executive director of the mayor’s Office of Special Events. McDonald warned that further "operational" cuts might be forthcoming as the administration struggles to adjust its budget. A number of other city-funded cultural events and programs – including the popular annual blues festival – are also being affected by budgetary restrictions.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

More On Mary Halvorson

Yesterday marked the official release of guitarist Mary Halvorson's terrific new recording, Dragon's Head, on the Firehouse 12 label. She can also be heard on a new Anthony Braxton Quartet recording, recorded this summer in Moscow and now out on Leo.

Accompanied by bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith, Halvorson immediately reveals herself as an enticing new voice on Dragon's Head. As she writes in brief liner notes, she's interested in exploring both the harmonic and rhythmic possibilities of the guitar, and in composing music that provides both structure and improvisational freedom to specific bandmates. In an interesting turn, she has numbered the 10 compositions on her CD to reflect the order in which they were written. "Old Nine Two Six Four Two Dies" – the final piece composed but the first on the recording – has a stealthy bassline as its centrepiece, an ideal accompaniment for Halvorson's lead, which also follows a deliberate course, with occasional stutters or shifts in direction. Her relatively unadorned tone is contrasted with phrase-ending tonal bends – a device she employs at several junctures on Dragon's Head. Overall, her writing often hands the lead role to the bass, leaving the guitar to ornament and expand on the theme, and she has an obvious love for interacting with her drummer.

Performing Braxton's music, Halvorson's textural characteristics and off-kilter phrasing really come to the fore. Quartet (Moscow) 2008 could hardly be more textured, in fact, combining Braxton's multiple horns with Taylor Ho Bynum's rich array of brass instruments and bassoonist Katherine Young in addition to Halvorson. Consisting of one 70-minute piece (Braxton's "Composition 367B") and a brief encore, the recording provides Halvorson with a wide range of sonic possibilities – from a dull, almost-toneless chunk rhythm that sounds like an axe hitting punky wood to an ear-catching spectral burst at about the 28-minute point that provides an effective bridge from a sax/trumpet duet to a brief bassoon interlude, which in turn gives way to a superb blending of elements. This may be my favourite Braxton disc from recent years.

I want to keep hearing Halvorson in more settings because her phrasing and harmonic conception are so distinctive that I'm not sure I've heard her entire range yet. If you haven't had the pleasure of catching her, here's a taste from a recent performance.

Just 28, Halvorson seems totally unbound from traditional approaches to guitar at times – although she admits that her first song was the ubiquitous "Stairway To Heaven" – yet not in a deliberately genre-smashing way. Rather, she seems more like someone who has found her own way to self-expression without consciously breaking barriers. There's a guitar-geek video interview on her web site where she talks casually about loving the sound a shorted-out volume knob on her Epiphone hollow-body made until some well-intentioned guitar tech fixed it for her. The same interview also includes a few examples of the fractured-sounding chords she sometimes employs.

I also love Halvorson's playing because she is not afraid to confound your conceptions of her work. Just when you think you have her pegged for her flat, dry amplifier tone – reminiscent of her former teacher Joe Morris – she throws something at you like the amplifier histrionics on "Momentary Lapse".

"I think of myself as a guitar player," she told jazz journalist Steve Dollar in an interview that's posted on her site. "I'm not really concerned whether something is rock or jazz. I just want to play something that's interesting to me."

Judging by even the relatively narrow range of projects I've heard so far, her interests are exceptionally broad.

Beyond the excitement her fresh-sounding playing brings, it's heartening to see that she's getting her share of high-profile gigs with musicians who will force her to stretch even further. In addition to the exposure she's getting with Braxton, she recently joined pianist Myra Melford in New York City for a double bill with Henry Threadgill. Reports from both my critical colleague Howard Mandel and Ms. Melford herself make me wish I had heard that outing. Melford's music is some of the most demanding stuff around these days, and Mandel said Halvorson nailed it.

All of which makes Mary Halvorson my early choice for artist of the year and an absolute pick for someone to listen for in the future.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Victo On Hold

First it was the Portland Jazz Festival going under (briefly) and now word reaches me that the annual Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville – known to one and all as simply 'Victo' – has suspended operations for 2009.

Anyone who has booked an airline ticket lately knows how high prices have climbed, and with the global economic crash who knows what lies ahead regarding credit, international exchange rates, etc. Likely the Canadian government's decision to cut funding for many cultural events has had an impact, too.

It seems like a prudent thing for organizer Michel Levasseur to do in the face of uncertain finances, but combined with the situation with IAJE and Portland it doesn't seem to bode well for jazz events.

I hope to see Victo back on the calendar in 2010.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Like Bird... Portland Lives

Great news for jazz fans in the Pacific Northwest, and anyone looking for a bracing couple of weeks of great music in the wintertime: the Portland Jazz Festival is back.

Artistic director and co-founder Bill Royston and his original partner Sarah Bailen Smith announced today in Portland that a new sponsor – Alaska Airlines – has come onboard with a multi-year deal. At the local level, a number of strong supporters and other sponsors kept the faith and refused to let the five-year-old festival die.

As a result, the festival will be back for its sixth year – from February 13 to 22, 2009 – with its originally scheduled 70th anniversary tribute to Blue Note Records.

Bill and Sarah are two of the most creative and dedicated festival organizers I’ve met, and it’s great to have them back.