Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This One's For Phil

Apropos of nothing, here's a piece from 2005 that I wrote about Phil Nimmons. I can't recall where this ended up published, but reading it again reminds me once again of just how much Nimmons has meant to music – and culture writ large – in Canada. What a beautiful guy he is.

A few years ago, during a time when I was briefly employed for a financial services company with enough money to send me winging across the continent to share some knowledge or other with fellow employees, I spent a couple of hours interviewing him in his University of Toronto office. I was on my way to Vancouver for yet another meeting, and I was thankful to spend some time talking about music rather than communications theory. When we finished our time together, Phil passed me a three-CD set that the Canadian Music Centre had just put out to honour his long career as a composer. I thanked him and dropped the CDs into my bag.

I got to Vancouver and, through one of those great flukes that sometimes smile on weary business travelers, wound up being upgraded to a fantastic penthouse room overlooking the city through floor-to-ceiling windows. Off the bedroom was a terrific, little glassed-in balcony. Feeling flush, I ordered some salmon from room service and opened a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from the mini-bar. I discovered that the room had a built-in sound system and remembered Phil's gift. The music wafting out of my bedroom onto my little balcony made the perfect accompaniment to my meal as I watched the lights twinkle up the length of Robson – off toward the neighbourhood where Phil grew up.

Months later, I ran into Phil at some music festival or other and told him the story. He looked at me with a great twinkle in his eye and asked, "Did you pour a glass for me, James?"

Ah, I didn't then, but here's to you, Mr. Nimmons.

© Copyright 2005 by James Hale

Culture critics who opine that Wynton Marsalis has opened new frontiers by bridging classical music and jazz, moving jazz into major institutional settings, pioneering jazz education and generally being an erudite spokesman for all things jazz would do well to consider 82-year-old Phil Nimmons. The Kamloops, B.C. native – who studied clarinet at Julliard, established a ubiquitous presence on CBC radio with his big band Nimmons ‘N’ Nine, and co-founded jazz programs at the Banff School of Fine Arts, the University of Toronto and the University of Western Ontario – has been at the nexus of jazz activity in Canada for more than 50 years and shows no sign of slowing down.

Still active at U of T, still improvising like an instrumentalist half his age and still writing, Nimmons is the subject of a new three-CD set, featuring live performances of his compositions and an extensive interview, released by the Canadian Music Centre.

Nimmons’ own career is perhaps the best promotion for music education and the rewards of a lifelong interest in learning.

Already an accomplished clarinetist and music copyist by his early teens, he stuck to the books – albeit in pursuit of a career in medicine – and stayed at the University of British Columbia even as his wartime success with dance bands and the quintet of guitarist Ray Norris grew. He was still completely self-taught when he applied to Julliard in 1945 and naively arrived at the New York City institution without a place to stay. Rejected as a composition student because of his lack of formal training, he auditioned on the spot as a clarinet major and won a scholarship. Being a Julliard student from 1945 to ’47 gave him nighttime access to the musical riches of Manhattan’s thriving 52nd Street – then in the sway of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie – and daily experience with clarinet teacher Arthur Christmann.

A broken heart drove Nimmons out of New York before he completed his degree at Julliard, and he landed in Toronto, where he enrolled in composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music. It was a heady time at the school, where Nimmons’ classmates included Glenn Gould, Lois Marshall and Harry Freedman, and John Weinzweig’s composition classes opened young ears to the possibilities of 20th century tonality. But, for Nimmons, the revelation was Bach, as introduced by instructor Richard Johnston.

In 1950, Nimmons co-founded the Canadian League of Composers, and began writing incidental music for CBC. Working in association with radio director J. Frank Willis, he quickly became a frequent presence in Canadian homes, providing music for programs like “Dr. Dogbody’s Leg,” “High Adventures” and “CBC Wednesday Night.”

Writing for radio sustained him, and provided an opportunity to investigate an early interest in the so-called “cool” sound popularized in California, but he needed a full-time outlet. He found it in a tentet, which formed as a rehearsal group in 1953. The band was marked by the leader’s use of clarinet riding atop a four-reed section, as well as his abiding love of long-form composition.

In 1956, the band had its concert debut at the Stratford Festival and made its first recording on jazz impresario Norman Granz’s Clef label – a connection that came courtesy of Nimmons’ friendships with Oscar Peterson and Gunther Schuller. Three years later, as Nimmons ‘N’ Nine, the band was recording for Granz’s higher-profile Verve label and well ensconced as a daily presence on CBC. Film work was forthcoming, too, and Nimmons provided scores for A Dangerous Age and A Cool Sound From Hell. Add a gig as the house band on the popular television program The Barris Beat and you have the ingredients for being the nearest thing to a household name that a jazz musician could hope for.

Many artists with such a busy career would be satisfied, but Nimmons saw an opportunity to develop a new generation of players.

“People were constantly approaching Oscar for lessons, so we knew there was a need there,” he says. “Also, Oscar’s trio wasn’t as busy as it could be, so we saw it as a way to stay busy.”

With Peterson and bassist Ray Brown, Nimmons founded the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in 1960, which began offering lessons in Peterson’s home. The school soon expanded to its own facility, but the growing popularity of Peterson’s trio brought the institution to an early close in 1963.

A decade later, Peterson and Nimmons tried it again. This time, under the auspices of the Banff Centre, the concept for an international program focusing on jazz studies caught, although Peterson withdrew after the first year. Arguably the most influential springboard for a generation of Canadian jazz performers, the Banff program grew beyond Nimmons’ vision – creating a rift when it shifted its influence to include foreign directors like Dave Holland and Steve Coleman – yet he remains inexorably linked to it. Today, under the direction of trumpeter Dave Douglas, the program continues to stress performance – Nimmons’ signature.

His link to the jazz program at the U of T is equally strong. He began teaching there in 1973, and became director emeritus of its newly organized degree program in jazz studies in 1991.

Today, you can continue to find him on campus, a friendly, hip, presence, encouraging students and professing the joys of performance.

“For me, it’s always been about playing the music. I tell kids, We might not be able to get past the fact that it’s 10 o’clock in the morning and the room is lit by fluorescent lights, but we can imagine.

“This new recording featuring Dave McMurdo’s band playing my music was done at (Toronto’s) The Rex. There are mistakes, you can hear the cash register, but you get past all that because you’re there in the moment. For me, composition has always been like improvising.

“I still love it. It’s like this duo I have with pianist David Braid. We never rehearse; it just happens. My old friend (trumpeter) Guido Basso saw us play and was amazed we didn’t even discuss things beforehand. I said, ‘Guido, you gotta try it.’ It keeps you fresh and alive.”

Monday, January 26, 2009

Star Power

When I was a fledgling jazz fan around 1970 and just discovering DownBeat magazine I was torn on the question of the five-star rating system, which has been in place since 1952. On one hand there was the consumer-friendly nature of it; on the other was the problematic reduction of art to an apparently arbitrary number of stars.

Some things never change. Opinion on the star system – whether in DB or any number of other publications and blogs that use it for recordings, films, books and restaurants – continues to be divided. Even some critics dislike assigning stars (or film reels, forks, etc.) but submit to their publishers' demands. Mindful of my own dichotomous feelings from 40 years ago, I've always remembered that some consumers depend on them, and hopefully, most don't skip the 300-odd words in the review and just look at the stars.

In the 10 years that I've been writing CD reviews for DownBeat – some 200-odd reviews, I reckon – I've allotted five stars to five recordings. The latest is Continuation by drummer Alex Cline, released on the Cryptogramophone label. So, what makes it a five-star recording? Officially, DB editor Jason Koransky sets out the following criteria for five-star reviews: "...great conception, definitive solos, memorable compositions, high-quality production—and will be talked about for years to come...."

Obviously, critics can't guess whether any given CD will reach enough listeners to be talked about for years, but the other elements are readily apparent on truly great recordings. The path to determining what is a five-star recording is always a bit different, but with the Cline it was a two-step process.

As an aside, I approach the recordings I'm reviewing any number of ways: they might start off as my "road" music as soon as they're assigned, or might jump immediately into my computer for listening while I go about my early-morning office chores. I try to listen to the recordings I'm reviewing in as many situations as possible, to attempt to mimic all the ways that consumers actually experience the music they buy. Regardless of how many different ways I first listen, every CD I review ends up on my primary stereo system, where I give it a critical appraisal on both headphones and speakers. At some point in the process, I generally reach a decision where on the five-star scale the recording is going to fall. Half-stars are usually determined as I peruse the detailed notes I make in those final couple of listening sessions, and might be determined by something as simple as "value" (I routinely dock a CD a half-star for falling under the 50-minute mark, unless it's marketed – and priced – as an EP).

The Cline recording first attracted my attention for its personnel: cellist Peggy Lee and pianist Myra Melford are two of my favourite musicians, based on years of hearing them play in many different settings. An advance copy of the CD sat on my desk for several days while I addressed some other things, and I didn't actually spin it for the first time until I was assigned the review. It became one of those early-morning office spins, which often don't yield any kind of critical judgment. I'm in and out of my office, which is in the front room of my house – often tending to my aged golden retriever or re-filling my coffee – and occasionally a phone call will disrupt these initial listenings. Continuation is one of those recordings that rewards close attention, and it can't be rushed, so it didn't really register on my consciousness until an explosive eruption of Melford's piano on "On The Bones Of The Homegoing Thunder," which, until that point, had been filled with long tones from Lee and violinist Jeff Gauthier. It was one of those moments out of the old Maxell tape ads, where the listener's hair is blown back by sound. I put away whatever I was working on, took the CD over to my stereo and sat down with my attention riveted.

Immediately, it became clear this was a superior recording, and then the tough work began. Did it have the depth, the sustaining power, the emotional clout to make it a five-star review?

Those aren't easy questions, and perhaps the answers remain ethereal and subjective enough to reinforce your dismissal of the rating system, but using indisputably classic recordings as my guide, I'm convinced that making those kinds of value judgments are worthwhile – given that the stars are only an indicator of the critical evaluation that's expressed in the review itself.

My review of Alex Cline's Continuation can be found in the February 2009 issue of DownBeat.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Living In A Sonic World

Something pianist Nancy Walker said to me last night between sets of her gig with bassist-bandleader John Geggie and drummer Matt Wilson (which I don't think she'll mind me quoting here) is ringing with me this morning. Speaking of her first experience performing with Wilson, she said she felt enveloped in his sound – like what he played supported and embraced her.

So, those words were in my mind this morning as I listened to a live stream of a BBC radio interview with Bruce Springsteen. Although he never addressed the subject of sound directly, he spoke of the community of a band and its audience as he reflected on the recent death of his longtime bandmate, organist Dan Federici.

When I reflect on great concerts I've experienced, it is a sonic world I think of; not so much the individual notes played or the choice of songs or the demeanor of the musicians onstage, but how successfully the musicians are at creating a sonic world that you all can live in for awhile. It might only be one song, it might only be one solo. If you're really lucky, that sonic world – that communal bond – lasts the entire performance. And it doesn't matter whether it's a punk band thrashing at top volume, Daniel Lanois' band creating a low, electric rumble or Paul Motian playing solo – when you're enveloped in that sonic world, everything's alright.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Big Cuts Start

Rumors have been circulating for several weeks about the financial crisis facing Festival Network, the company – formerly based in New York and San Francisco – that purchased veteran promoter George Wein's Festival Productions in 2007. Now, DownBeat is reporting that the company, which it says has lost "millions of dollars," has laid off staff and axed nine of its 17 music festivals for the coming year. Its office in San Francisco has been closed.

Not on the 2009 schedule are festivals produced by Festival Network in Martha's Vineyard, Miami, Jackson Hole, Mali, Chicago, San Francisco (not to be confused with the San Francisco Jazz Festival produced by SFJAZZ), Whistler, Los Angeles and Paris. No word on the state of Festival Network's showcase festivals, including its jazz and folk festivals in Newport, the Playboy Jazz Festival in LA, and the JVC-sponsored jazz festival in New York City. The JVC North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam – formerly a Festival Network property – will apparently continue independent of the company. Festival Network also controls multi-cultural festivals related to the Olympic Games in Vancouver, London and Sochi, Russia.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Urgent Need For David S. Ware

I'm copying an email from AUM Fidelity owner Steven Joerg concerning saxophonist David S. Ware's urgent requirement for a kidney transplant in the hopes that there's a match out there.

Dear friends,

This is an urgent notice on David S. Ware’s health. David needs to find a kidney donor.

David S. Ware was diagnosed with kidney failure in 1999 and he began dialysis that fall. He had an intensive three week hemodialysis regime toward beginning peritoneal (self-administered) dialysis, which would allow him to travel. David has been on this self-administered dialysis regime multiple times every day and night since October 1999. While certainly difficult, he has been able to travel, and perform his music undiminished, since then.

However, late this past December, David called to say that after 9 years this treatment was no longer working as it had been, and that a kidney transplant is the only viable option for his survival.

Since then a number of friends and family members have offered to give him one of their kidneys. Unfortunately, they have all been disqualified due to health reasons or not having David's blood type, O.

Some basic/initial requirements for viable donors are that they must be under 60 years of age, do not have diabetes or high blood pressure, are in general good health, and have blood type O (either O+ or O- is fine).

The hospital where a transplant would take place is the very highly regarded Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ.

Willing and able potential donors should please get in touch with us as soon as possible:

Steven Joerg / David S. Ware management
aum at aumfidelity.com
telephone: 718 854 2387

We will then get them directly in touch with the Kidney Transplant Center at RWJU Hospital to begin the screening process for donor viability.

Thank you on behalf of David S. Ware;
please feel free to forward this notice.

Steven Joerg
AUM Fidelity

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ben Ratliff Online

A recurring feature online at the New York Times website – for my money (well, it's free, actually), the best website anywhere – is a Q&A session called "Talk To The Newsroom" with various people from the editorial staff.

This week, the featured subject is jazz and pop music critic Ben Ratliff, and so far he has fielded some questions about writing live reviews, the viability of artists without major label support/distribution, and his picks for best albums of the past couple of years. There's still time to send him your own question if you have one.

You can link to the feature from the main page. It may require you to register, but as noted, it's free and provides access to the entire paper and a substantial portion of the archives.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Yoshi's Downgrades Jazz in SF

Like New York's Knitting Factory before it, the San Francisco branch of Yoshi's has decided that other forms of music might be more profitable than jazz.

As Jesse Hamlin writes in this San Francisco Chronicle article, the club – which is headquartered across the bay in Oakland – has just overcome a looming financial crisis. Now that the city's re-development agency has bailed out the Fillmore location of Yoshi's, the club's booker is looking to expand his music policy to include other genres of music. "(Jazz) won't be the main focus," says Bill Kubeczko. Among the acts he's pursuing are bluegrass legend Doc Watson and pianist Bruce Hornsby.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Coda: Advancing To The Rear

For the second consecutive issue, the venerable Coda magazine – now billing itself as "Jazz Understood" – is mining the legends of obscure Canadian musicians. The veins run deep, too.

Issue 340 – which was festooned with a garish American flag motif – featured no fewer than 18,000 words (!) by Jack Chambers on the subject of Calvin Jackson. Who? You may well ask. I'm all in favour of long-form journalism and shining a light on underrated and/or misunderstood musicians, but Chambers' sprawling examination of Jackson was an excess of excess.

Issue 341's cover story on Claude Ranger runs a mere 10 of the magazine's 44 editorial pages, and it's a virtual re-hash of a radio piece produced by the same contributor (Carole Warren). It even includes a paragraph outlining how she sold the story to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Now, Ranger was a superb drummer and an important figure on the Canadian scene, where he mentored a number of better-known players, but his story has been told with more insight by Mark Miller, to say nothing of Warren's own radio documentary. So, strange that editor Andrew Scott believes Ranger – presumed dead since 2000 – deserves the cover and almost a quarter of his editorial space.

These odd editorial choices mask the fact that Coda seems to be running on auxiliary power lately. Missing from its pages is the informed, entertaining writing of contributors like Mike Chamberlain, Marc Chenard, Ken Waxman, Nate Dorward and numerous others; instead, the number of editorial "voices" has dwindled to a pale chorus. Increasingly, the magazine seems to rely on features like "In The First," which invites musicians to write about themselves. Hmmm, I was under the impression this was why news releases, websites and MySpace pages were invented.

Timing is another problem. The "November" issue, which reached me in January, contains reportage on events from as far past as last April. Kurt Gottschalk's "New York Is Now" column reports – without irony – on an event from June. There are a whole lot of New York minutes between June and January.

On the positive side, the look of the magazine continues to maintain the standard set when Darryl Angier was editor – a fact that Scott feels compelled to trumpet with a couple of readers' letters.

As a long-time Coda reader, former Coda contributor, big supporter of Canadian magazines – hell, on so many levels – Coda's direction pains me. With exciting new voices like Mary Halvorson, Darcy James Argue, Harris Eisenstadt, Tyshawn Sorey, Rudresh Mahanthappa in the air – all artists who would've graced the cover in Coda's better days – why does Coda increasingly look like it's going in reverse?

Jazz understood? It's open for debate.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Lovin' Last.fm

An old friend from my radio days hipped me to Last.fm today and I've been glued to it all evening. Regular Jazz Chroniclers will remember (oh! the tears) my mourning over Pandora's decision to pull its service from Canada. Well, one evening into my new love affair with Last.fm and I have the feeling that it's beating Pandora hands down in terms of the quality of the music it presents to you. I created a Charles Lloyd "station" late in the afternoon and it has been feeding me primo stuff from Ornette to Lovano all evening. I haven't had a chance – or the desire – to try some other genres, but I sense I'll be spending a lot of time with Last.fm this week. Mind you, if I discover that it's an endless source for great Cecil Taylor (after I just dropped a big wad of dough at iTunes and Amazon to fill in some gaps in my CT collection), I might not be so pleased.

What's embarrassing, of course, is that I didn't find out about Last.fm before this. It has been around since 2002, and is owned by a branch of Sony now, but maybe I was blinded by sweet Pandora – and those tears when she packed up and moved south.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

More Festival Woes

Yet another annual jazz festival – the Jacksonville Jazz Festival – is in trouble. The event, which has had challenges holding on to both major funders and a stable site, has been bumped from its early April dates and has no immediate alternative.

A story posted on Jacksonville.com outlines the festival's problems.

Last year's Jacksonville Jazz Festival featured Cassandra Wilson, Benny Golson, John Pizzarelli and others.

Friday, January 02, 2009

From One Trumpet Master To Another

Trumpeter Dave Douglas has a beautiful, literate and insightful appreciation of Freddie Hubbard up on his blog.

Hentoff's Half-Century

In the same week that The Village Voice published its annual jazz issue, the venerable New York City weekly gave a pink slip to columnist Nat Hentoff. While younger readers of The Voice might only know Hentoff for his social focus of the past couple of decades, he was one of the music's most authoritative champions in the paper's early years. Last year marked Hentoff's 50th anniversary with the publication, which was launched in 1955.

On a related note, if you ever get a chance to see the CBC one-on-one interview between Hentoff and Lenny Bruce, grab it. Terrific stuff.