Monday, March 30, 2009

Return To The Fourth World

While you won't find trumpeter/composer Jon Hassell listed in the major jazz encyclopedias or discographies, the 62-year-old Memphis native is as much a sonic pioneer as many you will find in those pages, and he forms an important part of the lineage that includes Miles Davis, Bill Laswell, Graham Haynes, Bill Frisell and numerous European improvisers. He is also firmly entrenched in the sonic world that includes disparate artists like Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Daniel Lanois and Ry Cooder, all of whom he has collaborated with at some point.

Originally enamored of serial music, which he explored in early work with Terry Riley and La Monte Young, Hassell delved into traditional Indian music around the time that Davis was adding tabla and sitar to his band, and by the end of the 1970s he was mixing in electronic elements, at just the right time to intersect with open-minded popular artists like Eno and Talking Heads' David Byrne. Labeling the result Fourth World music now smacks a little too much like a marketing ploy, but there is no question that Hassell was on to something.

In a recent interview with DownBeat magazine, the trumpeter muses on his lack of popularity in North America, but while he hasn't been the concert draw here that he is in Europe, his sound has permeated through soundtracks for vehicles like Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ and the TV show The Practice.

Hassell's 1986 ECM recording, Power Spot, marks a high point in his career, and is a rarity in the German label's catalogue: the only ECM disc made in the Hamilton, Ontario, recording studio of Daniel Lanois. Now, after 23 years, Hassell returns to ECM for the evocatively named Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street (a line from a poem by the Sufi master Jalaluddin Rumi). The music is as evocative as Rumi's sensual image, filled with washes of electronic sound, the whispery violin of Kheir-Eddine M'Kachiche, and shot through with flat-toned bass ostinatos that tie it all back to Davis' swampy electric music, Laswell's Cuban dub experiments and even to Sly Stone's drugged-out masterpiece There's A Riot Goin' On. This is hypnotic, compelling music, and the sonic pool is deep – particularly Hassell's trumpet, which is processed to sound like a breathy flute, and sings with amazing grace and beauty.

I can't recall the last time I enjoyed music so much through headphones.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cast Your Ballots

Voting begins today for Canada's National Jazz Awards.

Thanks to those of you who helped nominate me in the Journalist of the Year category. Stiff competition there! Best of luck to everyone in the category, and to all nominees.

I'll spare you the self-promotion, but encourage you to participate and help increase the "turnout" from every part of Canada. It's your annual chance to support your favourite players (and non-players).

The voting booth is here.

Big thanks to Bill King for his continuing efforts to make this thing happen each year.

Friday, March 13, 2009

David S. Ware Update

The appeal on behalf of saxophonist David S. Ware has resulted in a kidney donor match, and Ware is slated for a transplant operation on May 5.

You can continue to follow his progress at a link that his manager Steven Joerg has established.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ottawa Panel Update

For those who saw the name-check in today's Ottawa Citizen with relation to panel discussions at this June's TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival, stay tuned for details. Due to the success of last summer's Jazz Matters panels, the Jazz Journalists Association will indeed be back this year with another stellar lineup of panelists to address topics germane to this year's festival program.

I can't divulge details at this point – that will have to wait until the official launch on April 8 – but keep the noonhours of June 29 and 30 open if you're in Ottawa. For those not in Ottawa, check out my friend Peter Hum's blog for reasons why you should make a point of attending what he calls "North America's heaviest jazz fest."

Monday, March 09, 2009

Bluer Than You

Thanks to writer Michelle Mercer, I had the opportunity to read her forthcoming followup to Footprints: The Life and World of Wayne Shorter. Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period will be released by Free Press on April 7. As the sub-title states, this is not a standard biography, but rather an examination of the context of Mitchell's fourth album, Blue, which was released in 1971.

A cornerstone of introspective, so-called "confessional" songwriting, Blue quickly became the soundtrack of young women who led with their hearts but kept their heads in the game of romance, too. Its potency leapt generations, as Mercer makes clear in her own opening confession, which sets the tone for the book. As an 18-year-old Kansas farm girl, Mercer judged prospective boyfriends by whether they could intuit the colours in Mitchell's music, see beyond the surface of her words and – the ultimate test – hear the influence of Claude Debussy at work. This is a highly effective opening because it clarifies the author's intention of delving equally into words and music, elements that are inseparable in much of Mitchell's work.

While she's a skilled and experienced music critic, Mercer is at her best when she approaches her subject from the basis of literary criticism. There is less insight about Mitchell's musical roots, though she does include this succinct passage about Mitchell's use of open guitar tuning:

"Standard tuning offered a compromise between simple, easy fingering for chords and the facility to play common scales from a single hand pattern.

This system is at first adequate for most musicians, because there are many combinations of finger positions or notes that can be used to create any chord. Some musicians find lasting contentment in standard tuning. The trouble is, for other artists, standard tunings can invite inertia, a hollow reverberation of old musical discoveries."

Mercer's biggest triumph, though, is capturing Mitchell in the book; not simply gaining her cooperation – no small feat – but in representing her voice so well. Anyone who has heard more than a few minutes of Mitchell discussing her own work is familiar with the mixture of wounded pride, arrogance and creativity that flows from her, and Mercer nails that combination. The only thing missing is the sound of the singer's incessant smoking, although the subject is addressed at several junctures.

Creating a book that inhabits the ground between hardcore academic study and celebrity-obsessed hagiography runs the danger of pleasing neither audience, but Mercer brings enough of herself – to say nothing of Mitchell – into play to broaden the scope into a unique brand of biography. Not without its flaws (I have some issues with the structure of the six sections, and the "Stuff Joni Likes or Even Loves" seems ill-suited to Mercer's goals) the book succeeds in illuminating an important recording.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Farewell, Dr. Art

Yesterday's mail brought an advance copy of Italian pianist Roberto Magris' new recording, Kansas City Outbound – the last recording to feature the great bassist Art Davis. My liner notes for the recording are re-printed below.

Usually, a liner note assignment entails getting inside the music and attempting to help the artist communicate his/her intentions to the listener. Contextualize, in other words. Kansas City Outbound was a different matter because it involved two intertwined stories: Magris' brief relationship with Davis, just prior to the bassist's death, and the mystery of Philadelphia pianist William Langford (aka Hassan Ibn Ali or The Legendary Hassan).

Kansas City Outbound has another backstory, too. Originally intended for release on Soul Note, it was still in production when the venerable Italian label and its parent – Black Saint – were sold to CamJazz. Fortunately, Magris' disk didn't fall between the cracks; it's now released on a label created by the pianist's agent, Paul Collins. It's available from CD Baby or directly from Collins.

Copyright © 2009 by James Hale

As musical relationships go, the one between pianist Roberto Magris and bassist-turned-psychologist Art Davis was short, but intense and oh so sweet.

They met in Los Angeles – Davis’ adopted home since 1986 – in October 2006, when Magris’ agent Paul Collins secured him a number of dates in the U.S. Davis – who continued to keep a full schedule as a bassist in addition to teaching and running a non-profit organization – joined the pianist’s quartet for two evenings at Catalina’s Jazz Club in Hollywood. They played a third time in a trio at the Jazz Bakery, and wrapped up with a set of duets in Santa Monica, where Davis had a long-standing Sunday gig at the Ritz Carlton.

“It all turned out very cool, onstage and offstage,” recalls Magris. “On one side I think that Dr. Art felt my awareness, respect and knowledge of the jazz tradition, and on the other side I felt that he really appreciated my pianism.”

Magris returned to his home in Italy, but eight months later he reunited with the 72-year-old bassist in Kansas City, along with drummer Jimmy “Junebug” Jackson – the 21-year veteran of life on the road with B-3 master Jimmy Smith. Together, they played a tribute to the recently departed Jay McShann at the American Jazz Museum and reconvened the following day in the studio.

The title track catches Magris in a John Coltrane state of mind, improvising with some dark, dense chords reminiscent of McCoy Tyner and drawing Davis back to his collaboration with Trane on Africa/Brass, Ascension, OlĂ©! Coltrane and the alternate takes of A Love Supreme. With a muscular tone and unerring, majestic touch, Davis reminds us why he was the only bassist with an open invitation to jam with Trane’s classic quartet, and an ongoing favorite of Alice Coltrane’s after her husband’s death.

Magris says he chose “I Fall In Love Too Easily” to take advantage of Davis’ “slow, rolling walk,” which is much in evidence here – stark contrast to the pianist’s angular phrasing and unexpected accents.

The otherworldly introduction to “Iraqi Blues” seems to speak to lost souls, and Magris says: “There is no political statement behind the title except the aim to recall the memory of people who died there, no matter who was right and who was wrong.” A strong touchpoint in his conception was Stanley Cowell’s 1969 “Blues For The Viet Cong.”

Billy Strayhorn’s gorgeous “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing” was brought to mind by Davis’ recording of it with Herbie Hancock on the bassist’s 1995 recording A Time Remembered. Magris’ solo take on it is rendered stately and timeless by his extraordinarily precise fingering and light touch.

The scene shifts to the next day – when the young Kansas City-based drummer Zack Albetta joined Magris and Davis – and, as before, Magris opens the session with an improvisation that he relates to the influence of Denny Zeitlin.

When he recorded it on his 1978 Artists House album From California With Love Andrew Hill rendered his composition “Reverend Du Bop” as a meandering abstraction. Here, Magris tightens the focus while respecting Hill’s signature obtuse angles. Davis is extremely judicious in his note selection before switching to arco for one piquant chorus.

“Rainbow Eyes” is dedicated to the pianist’s beloved, and again, Strayhorn’s influence is much in evidence. Strays for lovers? Always.

Davis sets out the theme of Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” and the trio (with Jackson back on drums) bounces it between them – having so much fun, says Magris, that they almost forgot the arrangement they had worked out.

“Lonely Woman” – Benny Carter’s, not Ornette Coleman’s – was a gift left to Magris by saxophonist Herb Geller after they recorded the 2003 Soul Note release Il Bello Del Jazz together. He plays it pretty here; edging toward a stride style with deliberate phrasing.

Davis begins “Darn That Dream” with a distracted-sounding solo – like a man waking from confusing sleep – and he continues to set up tension through the piece with accompaniment that slips out of phase with Magris’ lead.

“Alone Together” is the sound of a band grooving hard. Davis is way up in the mix, setting a bustling pace and swinging effortlessly.

“Bye Bye Baby” maintains the pace, with Magris striking an unusually bravura stance that finds him chewing up the changes like Oscar Peterson as he duets with Albetta.

Peterson, Tyner, Cowell, Hill, Monk, Ellington… the roll call of great pianists present in spirit in Kansas City on these two days continues with one other who Davis felt Magris conjured the first time they met: “the Legendary Hassan.” Hassan Ibn Ali (born William Langford in 1931) is little more than a legend a couple of decades after his death. His recorded legacy is a mere single disc made with Davis and drummer Max Roach in 1964 and released under Roach’s name. A second recording with saxophonist Odean Pope was never released and the tapes are rumored to have been lost in a fire. But, like Robert Johnson, Hassan’s legacy can’t be contained by two shadowy recording sessions. A ubiquitous – albeit mysterious – figure on Philadelphia’s jazz scene in the ‘50s, Hassan is credited by Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter with opening the saxophonist’s ears to new harmonic possibilities. Jimmy Heath has said, “Hassan was Cecil Taylor before Cecil Taylor.”

“’You play like Hassan,’ Dr. Art told me,” says Magris. “’Your sound and concept remind me of him.’ I’d never heard the name before. I’d completely missed him, even though I’d listened to most of the pianists from the history of jazz, and studied many of them, too. When I was a young musician I learned day by day, listening to LPs and checking out names and styles, including some of the most obscure and forgotten ones, but I’d never heard of Hassan. Dr. Art said that the session with Hassan was one of the best sessions he ever played.”

Art Davis’ words carried authority, just like the man himself carried authority. His stand against discrimination at the New York Philharmonic shone a light on the continuing racism in U.S. symphonies, and his application of cello fingering to the double bass helped revolutionize the way the instrument was played. A giant figure, Davis died just three weeks after this, his last recording session.

“I still keep the image of him standing in the studio in front of me,” says Magris. “I am very proud to have shared a stage with him and to have these recordings. I think that Hassan and Max Roach would enjoy them.”

Monday, March 02, 2009

The New Middle Ages

For a time in the 1990s I conducted a number of interviews with jazz musicians who had, at one point in their careers, been much in the spotlight. These included people like Jackie McLean, Gary Bartz and Lester Bowie. A common thread that ran through these interviews was their belief that they had been ignored – both by the media and by the music-buying fans – during some of their most productive years. Some, like Bartz, were closer to that period than others, and one or two, like McLean – just a couple of years away from his death – were reconciled that those years were well in their past.

I was reflecting on this last night while enjoying a terrific new composition by Joe Lovano called "Jazz Free," which is currently in the book of the SFJAZZ Collective. It begins, as you might expect, with a collectively blown free section and then morphs into solo segments for the various band members over shifting-but-constantly-interesting rhythmic pulses.

One of the most interesting things that has caught my eye recently in the jazz world was the news out of Portland that Lovano's new band includes both Francesco Mela and Gerry Hemingway on drums. I can't wait to hear that combination. Lovano's recruitment of the veteran percussion innovator Hemingway to join one of the most exciting young drummers on the scene shows what an open mind he maintains.

All of which reminds me that it would be easy to think that Lovano's most interesting new work is behind him, and that he will now comfortably coast on his laurels. Obviously, this is not the case; he's still trying new things.

And – like the mid-career work of a lot of artists – we ignore it at our own cost.