Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ushering Out 2011

What a brutal few weeks for the shrinking cadre of elderly masters of improvised music: first Paul Motian, then Bob Brookmeyer, and this week Sam Rivers. While each man had lived a good, full life, it is no less painful to see them go. Apart from their own musical legacies—rich, deep and varied—they stood apart for the number of younger musicians they influenced. Time to look around and drink in the beauty that is Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Roy Haynes, Chico Hamilton and other living masters of this art form while they are still with us and making music.

In the coming days, watch for Francis Davis' compendium of best-of-2011 lists, featuring the top picks of me and many other music critics. It will be published early in 2012 at, and will be available for viewing without subscription.

Here are a few things that didn't make my list, but were in close contention:

Ambrose Akinmusire – When The Heart Emerges Glistening. This seems to be the consensus favourite of a number of my fellow critics, judging from the lists posted on the Jazz Journalists Association site

Matthew Shipp – Art Of The Improviser. Again, the pick of many critics. Like the Akinmusire CD, it was on my list for most of the year, but got edged out.

Ben Allison – Action-Refraction.

Roswell Rudd – The Incredible Honk.

Steve Coleman & Five Elements – The Mancy Of Sound.

Craig Taborn – Avenging Angel. Along with Vijay Iyer's solo CD, one of my favourite solo piano outings of the past few years. I went with another terrific piano recording by Denny Zeitlin instead.

Keith Jarrett – Rio. Speaking of great solo pianists. This one landed on a few lists, but it hasn't grabbed me to the same extent as some of his other recent recordings have.

Overall, it was a year of releases that seemed better than average, and certainly the rise of young artists like Akinmusire, Marcus Strickland and Carol Morgan (both of whom did make my top 10) bodes well. Also boding well for 2012 are tremendous new releases by Vijay Iyer's trio, singer Theo Bleckmann and another new Shipp, which all landed on my desk in the past couple of weeks.

See you in the new year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Pre-Christmas Peaking

My full top 10-plus will appear this year as usual at New Year's as part of the annual compendium of critics' lists that Francis Davis organizes, but here's a peak at which recordings made the top three spots:

  1. Marcus Strickland – Triumph Of The Heavy, Volumes 1 & 2. My full review of it appeared in the November issue of DownBeat, where I lauded the leader as "a major talent as both an instrumentalist and a composer." If you wanted to buy just one album—it's a two-CD set—to show you where jazz is today, and fuel your faith that the future is in good hands, this is it
  2. Carol Morgan Quartet – Blue Glass Music. I obviously haven't been paying attention, because trumpeter Morgan snuck up on me and took me by storm. If for nothing else than her stunning reworking of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" and the contribution of drummer Matt Wilson, this recording is essential.
  3. Denny Zeitlin – Labyrinth. Recorded at a couple of house parties, including one with a troublesome piano, this is a wonderfully understated solo recording that reminds you of the beauty and power of music. Given his base in the Bay Area and his day job as a psychiatrist, Zeitlin hasn't achieved the kind of notoriety enjoyed by pianists like Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau or Matthew Shipp, but he is their equal at deconstructing and re-voicing compositions.

Stay tuned for my full list, which I'll repost here in early January, and happy holidays.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Succeeding Without Jazz

It may be a month early for a review of the year in jazz 2011, but it's clear that the dominant topic—at least during the summer festival months—was the debate over jazz vs. non-jazz programming at festivals.

For at least one festival—the one that is held in my hometown (and, standard full disclosure statement, the one that employed me on contract in 2009 and 2010)—a strong defence in favour of booking non-jazz artists has been made. At its annual general meeting this week, the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival announced it posted a $162,419 surplus, despite paying 7.2 percent more in performer fees than in 2010. What's more, box office receipts were up 30 percent, to $782,447. The only non-jazz performer who tanked was Elvis Costello, who went onstage outside less than 90 minutes after a massive storm dumped record amounts of rain on the city.

So, for those hoping that headliners like Robert Plant, K.D. Lang and Daniel Lanois' Black Dub will just go away, that's not likely to happen. Cross-subsidization from popular acts like those to high-priced jazz talent like Brad Mehldau is a reality that festivals—and festival-goers—must live with.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Paul Motian, 1931-2011

I can't begin to count the number of recordings I have that feature drummer Paul Motian, who died today at age 80, and I can't think of a disappointing one among them. Not only did he have exceptional taste about who he played with, he lifted every recording by his touch and unique sense of rhythm and colour. Several of the bands he was a member of—including Keith Jarrett's so-called American Quartet and his own trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano—are among the very best jazz groups of the past 50 years.

Despite his long, active career, I never had the chance to meet or interview him, which is a big regret. From what I've heard and read, he was an endlessly fascinating guy.

I do have a favourite memory, though, which relates to his spare style and amazing ability to determine exactly how to fit into a piece of music. In 2002, I saw him play with Marilyn Crispell in San Francisco as part of her trio. I don't have notes from the show, so I can't recall which song it was, but I remember one long, contemplative piece where his accompaniment during one passage consisted of exactly one cymbal strike... and it was perfectly placed. He watched, listened, waiting, and touched the cymbal just once. That was all that was needed, and he knew it; and he had the lack of musical ego to not go beyond that realization.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Vijay Iyer Named As New Banff Director

After 10 years in the position, trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas is passing the leadership of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music to pianist Vijay Iyer. Iyer will participate in the 2012 program under Douglas' direction, and then assume the position in 2013.
Vijay Iyer    by Jimmy Katz

Iyer is a terrific choice, not just for his vision and scope as a composer and instrumentalist, but because he shares with Douglas a joy for collaborating with others and creating a collective voice in a variety of settings.

"After visiting universities, workshops and seminars around the globe, I can say that the workshop at The Banff Centre is among the most intensely focused musical experiences available for young musicians," Douglas was quoted as saying in a media release by the school. "Spending three weeks in Banff with 65 of one's most gifted peers changes lives."

Dave Douglas  by Zoran Orlic
That's certainly the feeling among those I've talked to who have worked with Douglas during his decade leading the program. Every alumnus mentions his creative energy, novel approaches to learning and joy in sharing what he knows. He has also gained a reputation for bringing highly creative compatriots along with him during his annual trek to the mountains, including gifted teacher/performers like pianist Myra Melford and drummer Jerry Granelli.

It is hard to overstate the importance that the Banff program has had on jazz in Canada since its founding by Phil Nimmons and Oscar Peterson in 1974. I've long since lost track of the number of musicians who have told me that their musical paths were altered by encounters with Nimmons, Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland or Steve Coleman during the years those musicians were in charge of the program. The environment has also helped form lasting musical relationships between participants.

In short, the program is a national treasure in Canada, and while there are some—Nimmons among them, at least at one time—who felt that the leadership should be given to other Canadians like Wheeler, it has benefitted from not being parochial. Not only do stars like Douglas and Iyer help publicize the program around the world, the program maintains its reputation by having musicians at the helm who are breaking new ground in their own music.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Let Us Praise Strays

I know there are people—jazz fans—out there who turn and run when they hear that a band is going to be paying tribute to a long-dead artist whose work has been re-interpreted by dozens of other artists. Those who stayed away from saxophonist Jean Derome's homage to Billy Strayhorn last night—and Quebec City's Largo club was far from full—just don't know Derome, drummer Pierre Tanguay, bassist Normand Guilbeault and pianist François Bourassa. Joined by singer Karen Young on most of material, the band was anything but predictable. Not only did compositions like "Lush Life," "UMMG" and "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing" not sound like interpretations by contemporaries like Joe Henderson, the  players always maintained their individuality—particularly Derome and Tanguay, two of the most original improvisers I've encountered.

I haven't heard Young sing in person in about 25 years, and it was a treat to be reminded what a fine vocalist she is. Last night, she went deep inside the songs, mining the frustration, loneliness and occasional humour in Strayhorn's lyrics.

Just as Derome and Tanguay, in their Évidence trio, can find interesting ways to express Thelonious Monk's music, this project refracted light in new ways through Strayhorn's music, making you forget previous versions you might have heard. No small feat.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Exploring In Quebec

I'm spending five days at one of my favourite jazz festivals, in Quebec City, and as usual it is opening my ears to artists I don't get a chance to hear elsewhere. Anyone who has explored the jazz scene beyond the main stage shows at the Montreal International Jazz Festival knows the wealth of artists who live and work in the province of Quebec, and this festival showcases many of them.

Last night, I enjoyed the quartet led by bassist Guillaume Bouchard, which features the estimable Michel Côté on tenor sax, and then a free-blowing trio that was dominated by trumpeter Aron Doyle. Originally from British Columbia, Doyle went through McGill University's music program and has been a mainstay in several mainstream-minded bands in Montreal. This is the first time I've heard him play at length, and he is impressive. My DownBeat colleague John Murph heard some Terence Blanchard in his playing, but Doyle also put me in mind of Dave Douglas in his ability to expand melodies without inhibition.

More fun to come; tonight's main show features an all-star Quebec band led by the great Jean Derome, playing the music of Billy Strayhorn.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Top 10 Speculation

Mid-October brings the definitive change of season where I live (even though last weekend—Thanksgiving in Canada—felt like mid-summer) and a reminder that it's time to begin final consideration of the year's Top 10 list of CDs.

Normally, this time would find me with an abundance of choices, but perhaps I've been harsher in winnowing out things as I've marked new arrivals for further consideration. (A word or two about my process: Like many critics I know, I keep a running list of CDs or downloads. When something catches my ear, I'll note it as a contender; my own version of nominating a recording for jury selection. A jury of one.)

At any rate, a quick check this morning informs me that I have 'nominated' eight recordings so far. This would seem to make things quite easy, except that this week brought a bounty of new things (a new Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet recording, for example) for consideration. Lots to listen to, and a tough fight for those remaining two spots; or, in fact, potential to knock some of those already nominated out of the running.

Are there any shoo-ins at this point? Well, it will be tough to deny Sonny Rollins's second Road Shows CD a spot, what with that Ornette Coleman duet and all, and the Marcus Strickland double-CD is very, very strong. There are at least a couple of others that made powerful impressions during the first handful of listens, and I would be surprised if the passage of four or five months will change my opinion, but you never know. In all, there are probably about five recordings that are safe, given that the first requests for locking in a Top 10 will start arriving any day now.

Is there a clear front-runner? Not yet, and I like that. After all, there has to be some suspense; even if it's self-imposed.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Jerry's Kids

I always look forward to the opportunity to hear my friend, drummer Jerry Granelli, play live. Not only is he one of the most creative percussionists of the past 50 years, but he radiates a sense of playfulness about music that is infectious.

Last night, Jerry brought his new trio to Ottawa as part of a national tour in support of his CD Let Go. As he described it, this is a trio he has been not dying to put together. "I've known Danny (Oore) and Simon (Fisk) since they were kids, and just hoping I lived long enough to get to play with them."

As usual, Jerry has a great ear for talent. After leaving Halifax, Fisk was a mainstay for awhile in Vancouver, and then moved to Calgary, and the two have made music together as part of the bassist's own trio. Oore studied with the gifted teacher Don Palmer at Dalhousie University, and has grown into an extraordinary reed player. I last heard him when he was still a student, and his development has been exceptional. Based on what I heard last night, I'd rank him with just about any young saxophonist in improvised music.

The best part of last night's show, however, was the way the trio embodied the album's title. Jerry noted a couple of times that what was being played onstage bore little resemblance to what they did in the studio, and that's just fine with him. He encourages freedom, and both Fisk and Oore take full advantage. In that respect, Jerry always reminds me of something his friend, fellow drummer Joey Baron—he of the eternal goofy smile while playing—once told me. "We take this music very seriously, but we have fun doing it."

At one point, Oore, playing soprano, deconstructed a solo into a line of staccato honks and bleeps. Smiling from behind his drums, Jerry commented, "Let's see you get out of this." Oore responded by deftly navigating the blind alley, and the band was off on another adventure.

Serious fun, for sure.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

David Murray's Little Big Bands

Looking back on them, the seven or eight years I spent hosting and producing programs at Canada's oldest campus radio station coincided with one of my favourite periods in music outside of the 1960s. My pop music shows began with the rise of punk and ended with the flowering of some enduring U.S. songwriters. My jazz program, Rabble Without A Cause—co-hosted and memorably named by my friend Don Lahey—was spiced with the rousing music created by artists like Henry Threadgill (Air), Arthur Blythe, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Lester Bowie and Ornette Coleman's Prime Time. Among our favourite, and most frequently featured, musicians was the prolific David Murray.

Murray became legendary for releasing several albums a year, and for the diversity of his bands, but I was always partial to his octet projects, in particular the albums Ming, Home and Murray's Steps. I don't particularly like brassy big bands, and the octet setting—especially when dark-toned instruments like bass clarinet are in the mix—offers a lot of interesting possibilities. Murray seemed a natural for it; using the format to convey both emotion and power. For these recordings he recruited some of the most exciting players on the burgeoning New York City loft scene, including Threadgill, pianist Anthony Davis, drummer Steve McCall, trombonists George Lewis and Craig Harris, and trumpeters Olu Dara and Butch Morris.

Anyone wanting to make the case that the '80s is a treasure trove of great acoustic jazz—and there are many who do—just has to reach for these recordings, and now that's easier to do, thanks to a new box set of all five octet CDs.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Trumpet Lord Hubbard

I wrote the other day that I'm reviewing some DVDs for DownBeat's holiday gift guide, and tonight I had the good fortune to watch Freddie Hubbard in his 1973 prime. With Hubbard's unfortunate decline over the following two decades, the death of Lee Morgan and the aging of Dizzy Gillespie, the aggressive bop-derived (well, Gillespie was bop, but he was playing variations by the '70s) style of trumpet gave way to a softer, more nuanced approach. What a jolt, then, to be reminded of what Hubbard could sound like. Stunning, really.

Watching Hubbard made me wistful, like watching Willie Mays, Bobby Hull or Jim Brown in their prime and wishing you could freeze them as you wish to remember them—young, strong and beautiful. The sports analogies are apt, because Hubbard was such a physical player, and the ravages of the years—and his admitted excesses—were akin to the toll sports took on the knees of Mays, Bobby Orr and Joe Namath.

We were all young once, but only the blessed few got to burn like Freddie.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Canada's Cloudless Sky

Those who know me have heard my rant about how Canadians are falling further and further behind in the Digital Age, particularly where music is involved.

Now, as the release of Apple's iOS 5 and iCloud approaches, an asterisk on the page tells the tale: iTunes in the Cloud will not be available in Canada.

Like Pandora, Hulu, Spotify, and numerous other streaming media services, iTunes in the Cloud violates various antiquated licensing and copyright regulations that "protect" Canadian cultural creators. Well, creators, face the facts: Your art is not reaching the ears of those most likely to buy your art to the extent it could. And, as digital services like iTunes continue to beat traditional bricks-and-mortar music retailers into the dust, you are being increasingly handcuffed. If the federal government cuts the $1 billion levy that flows to the CBC, your music is going to be all but unheard.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government is more concerned about increasing the mandatory jail time for petty criminals.

The federal government preaches loud and proud about the health of Canada's economy, but it is ensuring that our digital economy remains on the sidelines while other countries race ahead.

Iconic Moments

I'm reviewing a number of DVDs for DownBeat's holiday gift guide, and have been very impressed by the four-DVD set Icons Among Us, a series produced in conjunction with The Documentary Channel. The set includes extensive educational materials, but the primary features are interviews and performances by a number of contemporary artists, ranging from Wayne Shorter at the older end to Aaron Parks and Jamie Cullum.

It reminds me of some series I recall from the 1970s, which tried to put jazz in a contemporary and historical context, but this one really nails it through the depth and breadth of its interviews, and by the scope of the artists who are involved.

There's some good drama, too, such as the point/counterpoint of Wynton Marsalis and John Medeski, and some touching moments with Donald Harrison, Jr., re-building his home in New Orleans, and onstage with Esbjörn Svensson just prior to his drowning death.

Watch for my full review, but this is highly recommended.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Story: Miles vs. Trane

Writing about Miles Davis from the 1960s and John Coltrane has put me in mind of a great story I heard at one of the Miles Davis conferences that scholar Gerald Early convened in the mid-'90s. Apologies to the presenter who shared it; it was a first-person account, and I can't recall his name.

This presenter—a black American who had been a teenager in the mid-'60s—recalled the essential difference between attending a Davis show at a club and seeing Trane live.

For Davis, he recalled, he scanned the latest copies of Esquire and Down Beat, hoping for a recent photo of the trumpeter so he could intuit what Davis was wearing lately. If you went to a Miles show in the neighbourhood, you wanted to dress well, approximating the Italian-cut suits that the musician favoured at the time, but not wanting to miss out on subtle changes: pinstripes or herringbone, slim lapels or double-breasted.

For Trane, he said, you wore coveralls, because you knew that chances were high that if you sat anywhere in the proximity of the quartet in a small club you would finish the evening covered in Trane's saliva and slivers of Elvin Jones' shattered drumsticks.

Happy 85th Trane

Eighty-five years after his birth, and sadly, 44 years since his untimely death, John Coltrane stands as a towering figure in the history of Western music.

Nice to see him getting such a high profile around social media today, but remember to celebrate and recognize all of his work, not just the (relatively) easy stuff. The man was as much "Kulu Se Mama" and "Om" as "Giant Steps" and "My Favorite Things."

From my personal perspective, I can't imagine my life without A Love Supreme. Hearing Trane for the first time changed me profoundly. How many musicians can you say that about?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Jimi and Miles On Fire

When you have kids you learn to tread lightly on the "in my day" theme. I resented it when my father told me that the artists I idolized in the 1960s couldn't hold a candle to Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra, so why lord Jimi Hendrix and Cream over my kids' infatuation with Nirvana, Also, I'm absolutely a "glass half full" kind of guy, so I root for the possibility that artists half my age will develop long and fruitful careers. I relish the (few) times when I've made a good call, such as my early championing of trumpeter Dave Douglas. When an artist like Vijay Iyer or Jason Moran emerges, I'm delighted.

I also have a good friend, Alan Stanbridge—an academic at the University of Toronto—who writes and lectures passionately and persuasively about the folly of professing a "golden age" for any artform. So, again, I tread carefully; he makes that good an argument.

Setting all that aside, I have to say that the two box sets I've been listening to this week make an equally good case that the late '60s produced some of the best popular music in the history of recordings.

I had never bothered to pick up the various bootleg versions of Hendrix's 1968 concerts at San Francisco's Winterland, although the guitarist's music dominated my listening for the better part of a decade. There was too much good stuff of his to get through without dealing with high prices and dodgy sound, I figured. So, I welcomed the official release of three complete concerts from his Winterland stand, as part of Sony Legacy's work with the Hendrix estate.

Being a longtime Hendrix fan, I figure I know what to expect from him, but the Winterland recordings have thrilled me with the energy that Hendrix brought to that stage and the joy with which he was exploring new possibilities on his guitar. We all know how quickly and depressingly the story turned, but at that point in time anything seemed possible.

Miles Davis' live concerts from 1967 are recordings I've pursued and collected, but it has been a decade or so since I've spent much time listening to them. That heightens the experience of hearing those concerts, and a previously unheard one from Copenhagen, collected in one set (Sony Legacy again). The elasticity and risk-taking inherent in Davis' quintet of the day—with, need I write it, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams—are stunning, electrifying. To watch them interact, on a previously issued, but unseen in its entirety by me, DVD is even better. In particular, watching Williams create waves of sound from a bare drum kit is akin to the first time I watched the Hendrix at Woodstock video and realized that a passage that I had listened to a hundred or so times was played with utter nonchalance.

Pulling these two recorded documents together, of course, is the fact that Davis was checking out Hendrix around the time of those Winterland concerts, and planning his next move, into the music that became Jack Johnson and Bitches Brew.

I was too unaware and poorly connected to catch Hendrix on that '68 tour (his sole Ottawa date has also been issued on CD) and never had a chance to see Davis live prior to his 1991 comeback, and now I'm only too aware of what it was truly like when giants walked the stages.

A golden age? Maybe not, Professor Stanbridge, but certainly some golden moments here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jazz In The Shoulder Season

I just confirmed an assignment to cover the Quebec City Jazz Festival for the second consecutive year. Along with the SF Jazz Festival and the Berliner Festspiele, it's one of the few major jazz events in that dead zone between the deluge of summer jazz fests and Winter Jazzfest/APAP, and as I alluded to in last year's review in DownBeat, it sets itself apart by having a very strong community base.

In fact, this year, for Signal To Noise, I'm focusing on how the festival has found success after just five years by tapping into the burgeoning arts community in Quebec City's Saint-Roch neighbourhood.

This year's lineup includes Joe Lovano's Us Five, Dave Liebman, Frank Lacy, Finland's Esa Pietilä Quartet, Roberta Gambarini, Maceo Parker, Ari Hoenig's 4tet and a host of Quebec-based artists, including electric bass pioneer Alain Caron.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Down and Dirty in the Jazz Trenches

I'm not old enough to have lived through the era when some elements associated with Louis Armstrong were dissing Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and company, but I do recall when mainstream jazz players were tossing brick-bats at Miles Davis, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock for experimenting with electric instruments, linear tempos and rock concert volume. It wasn't pretty, and it had a destructive effect on the image of jazz as a democratic and welcoming art form.

The whole us vs. them vibe strikes me as self-defeating, and when the art form in question is already on the margins, it just seems petty and pointless. My colleague Peter Hum has a blow-by-blow and analysis of the latest shots in the "jazz sucks" meme, which follow close on the heels of the "jazz festivals have too much rock content" and "jazz criticism sucks" posts and counter-posts.

It's all pretty nasty, and while I'm sure Kurt Rosenwinkel and Dwayne Burno have legitimate points—let's face it, we've all heard bad music—I can't help but think about the effect this all has on high school musicians who are considering a music degree with a jazz concentration, or young listeners who have wondered what they should check out in jazz. Maybe they just shouldn't bother; they can never be as good as Rosenwinkel or Burno. Someone better is always going to be judging you. What's the point of just having fun and making music with your friends?

Thinking back on my own entree into the music, I'd heard a lot of Charlie Christian, Count Basie and Duke Ellington by the time I encountered—and fell in love with the beboppers, and with my contemporaries who were pioneering fusion music in the early '70s—but it was bebop and fusion that led me back to Pops and Art Blakey and Lester Young. The lesson: People make their own connections, and find out for themselves what they like and don't like. But, when a musical form seems to be awash with back-stabbing and loathing, it is just off-putting.

I know that it's putting me off.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

My Italian Escape

Just back from a great 10 days at Italy's Siena Jazz Workshop, and beginning to put together my notes for a feature I'm writing for an upcoming issue of DownBeat.

A few brief impressions: Siena is an endlessly fascinating city with gorgeous Medieval architecture and more good restaurants than any small city normally has. Even at small bars, I never had a disappointing meal. And then, there's the wine. I could go on.

The music program that Franco Caroni and his colleagues have put together through their organization, Siena Jazz, also punches well above its weight. I can't recall the last time I met music faculty as enthusiastic as these guys are, and the facilities—housed within an old Spanish fortress—blow away those at most of the university schools of music I've visited. Caroni has built the program of study during the past 40 years based on strong principles of instrument-specific concentration and what he calls (using one of the few English words I heard him say) "interplay". The ability to communicate selflessly in a combo is key to his vision of jazz, and many of the visiting faculty members at the summer workshop I observed—John Taylor, Dave Douglas, Eric Harland, Franco D'Andrea—personify that, as well.

Even if the school wasn't situated in one of Europe's most interesting small cities it would be something special. But it is in Siena, which makes it almost too good to be true.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Canadian Jazz Playlist

I received a few requests to post the playlist I used to accompany the full lecture that is prefaced in the previous entry. Here it is:

Phil Nimmons: The Atlantic Suite (excerpt)
Paul Bley: Ida Lupino
Kenny Wheeler: Smatter

Norman Symonds/Duke Ellington: Nameless Hour
Ron Collier/Duke Ellington: Aurora Borealis
Sonny Greenwich: The Nightingale

Jean Derome: Partie De Carte
Normand Guilbeault: Tresor D'Arme
François Houle 5: Seventy-three

Andy Milne: Don't Let It Bring You Down
Marilyn Lerner: Honga
John Stetch: Baba Bakes

Andrew Rathbun: True Stories
Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra: Seafever
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society: Transit

Special thanks to Mark Miller for a few of those suggestions, and to my Italian hosts—particularly Francesco Martinelli—for being so gracious and hospitable.

Watch for my report on Siena Jazz in an upcoming issue of DownBeat.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Riffing on Canadian Jazz

I'm leaving tomorrow for 10 days at the Siena Jazz Workshop, where I'll be both participant and observer. In addition to researching profiles for DownBeat on pianists John Taylor and Franco D'Andrea—both of whom are on the workshop faculty this year—I'll be delivering a lecture in the workshop's jazz history series.

My topic dates back to lengthy email (and occasionally phone) discussions I used to have with the late jazz writer Eric Nisenson. Eric was one of the first people I met online in the early '90s, and he encouraged me to expose him to what was happening in Canada's jazz scene. The basis of his interest was a comment that Miles Davis made to him while Eric was trying to wrestle the trumpeter into sitting down for formal interviews for an oft-promised autobiography (Quincy Troupe finally succeeded where Eric failed, but that's another story). Davis told Eric that he was the only white guy besides Gil Evans who struck him as truly colour blind, which Davis attributed to Evans' birth in Canada. That always struck me as one of those outrageously—and usually purposefully—provocative things Davis said, since Evans was barely out of a crib when his mother moved him from Toronto to California, but we Canadians love to claim him as our own if we can.

Eric's interest in Canadian music was also sparked by his deep love of Glenn Gould's music, his attraction to the work of Kenny Wheeler, and his abiding dislike of anything Oscar Peterson played.

It was a good time in Canadian jazz, with a lot of young(ish) players coming up, and I was happy to share tips and recordings with Eric.

Our conversations about the music led to him encouraging me to write a survey book. I demurred, saying that my friend Mark Miller had already cornered that subject, but Eric persisted, saying that there was a book to be written on what Wheeler, Paul Bley and Sonny Greenwich (an artist he knew about—through Davis—but hadn't heard until I sent him some CDs) had in common. Gould's landmark Idea of North and his various essays on the influence of the Canadian landscape on artists made Eric believe there was a link there. Good idea, I agreed, but how to interest a publisher in something like that? An academic publisher, perhaps, but not likely a mainstream one.

So, years passed, as did Eric, but I kept coming back to the idea. Every so often I'd ask a Canadian musician if the theory rang true for them, and eventually got a chance to ask Wheeler, Bley and Greenwich. No one ever dismissed it as rubbish, although Wheeler—as recently as two weeks ago, when I asked him about it again—couldn't put his finger on any specific influences.

It's certainly true that Canada is distinct from the United States in many ways, and at a symposium organized by George Lewis and Howard Mandel a few years ago at Columbia University, I spoke about how some Canadian jazz musicians (pianists Andy Milne, D.D. Jackson, Marilyn Lerner and John Stetch) retained rich elements of their ethnic heritage in their music.

In Siena, I'm going to expand on the topic, finally giving Eric his due on the validity of this theory. We'll see where it goes from there. Here's the introduction to what will be a 75-minute presentation with music samples, and hopefully some give-and-take with my European audience.

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said that living next to the United States was like “sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast is, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

If such is the case for things like trade and politics, it is amplified when it comes to art and culture, and no more so than when the topic is jazz, which my neighbours to the south love to call “America’s classical music.”

So, sleeping next to this beast, how does one create music that both respects—and builds upon tradition—and reflects your own culture?

How do you tell your own story… in your own musical dialect… when the story has shared roots like jazz?

It is a challenge that exists not just for Canadian improvisers, but for those who live anywhere in the world.

The elephant is that big!

For those who may not know, Canada does have a distinctive cultural voice… in visual arts, it is the raw, wild landscapes of A.Y. Jackson and his fellow members of the Group of Seven. It is the expressionism of the west coast rainforest, as expressed by Emily Carr.

In literature, it is the psychological inner views of Robertson Davies, the futurist feminism of Margaret Atwood, and the merciless self-examination of Mordecai Richler.

These are forms of expression you will not find in any other nation.

In his prolific writing for radio, the Canadian concert pianist Glenn Gould frequently addressed what he called ‘The Idea of North.’

By that, he meant that Canada gave its citizens a sense of space, isolation and alienation that was their own. And yet, there was always the elephant looming large.

So, artists in Canada develop their own voice, their own approach to storytelling—whether with a brush, a computer or a saxophone—but the lure is often there from the other. The grass the elephant grazes on looks sweeter. And clearly, it’s nourishing. There is enough of it… well, to feed an elephant.

But Canada—like any nation—is not static.

Like Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, its face is constantly changed by global migration patterns.

It reflects the trend of urbanization that every country is undergoing.

How that affects Canada, and how Canada reflects that reality through its arts, is also unique.

America is frequently referred to as ‘a melting pot.’

The theory is that America is a land of immigrants, who have arrived in wave after wave since the 1600s. But regardless of where the waves have originated—from Eastern Europe, Ireland, Italy, the Middle East or Southeast Asia—the people who arrive in America want to be American.

They desire to blend in.

To melt into the masses.

Canada has always been different.

While many of our immigrants come from the same places, those who decide to stay in Canada more often keep their own cultural identities.

Or at least they blend their ethnic identities with the Canadian identity.

And that reality is the story of jazz in Canada.

Our artists have developed distinctive voices.

They’ve been lured to the sweeter grass. And many times they’ve returned.

And they have kept their own distinctive cultural identities, and blended into with both the Northern Voice and with the tradition of improvised jazz.

Monday, July 04, 2011

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival Wrap Up

Well, the numbers are in, and it looks like Canada's second-oldest jazz festival isn't about to climb out of the $80,000 hole it created in 2010. As Peter Hum points out in this overview, bad weather killed attendance at a number of the pricy outdoor mainstage events. Certainly, the small turnout for Elvis Costello was understandable; I've never seen it rain that hard and long in Ottawa. Anyone considering attending that night could be excused for finding anything better to do indoors.

The big drop off in attendance for Return To Forever points to a knottier problem. When they appeared before a huge crowd three years ago the weather was also pretty threatening. I recall that it had rained heavily around 6 p.m., and by showtime it was overcast and soupy. So, did Al DiMeola make for the difference in attendance, or was it something more like the curiosity factor that drew people out in 2008, but kept them away this year? Those are the kinds of questions that will make festival programmers lose sleep.

The Ottawa festival has not fared well over the years when it comes to catching a break on the weather. Perhaps the low point was a 2004 concert by a supergroup co-fronted by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. A huge crowd stood through a steady downpour on a cold night. If it had been anyone less than those Miles Davis alumni onstage they would have fled in droves, I'm sure.

So, what to do? It's going to be something the festival will have to wrestle with. As long as it's spending big bucks to put superstar acts on the mainstage it will be rolling the dice. And yet, without an act that can draw 11,000 or 12,000 to the park, you can't hope to subsidize name artists like Vijay Iyer, Brad Mehldau and Kurt Elling in expensive soft-seat venues.

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival #7

Daniel Lanois always brings his best home.

Last time he visited the city of his birth it was with a crack quartet that cooked at a slow boil while he charmed the crowd at a soft-seat suburban theatre. That was before the motorcycle accident that put a crimp in his plans to launch a new project, Black Dub, on last summer's festival circuit.

Now in the midst of an extensive tour that started in May and ends in August, Black Dub closed out the mainstage concerts in spectacular form. With Lanois paying homage to the beauty of the Chateau Laurier Hotel—and hoping thieves don't steal the copper from its roof—and reminding the audience that he was born in Ottawa, even though he grew up in Gatineau and launched his career in Hamilton, the band illustrated that good music trumps the notion that only jazz belongs in the headline position. I wouldn't have passed up this show to see anyone I can think of in what purists consider the jazz universe.

Front and centre, of course, were the astounding vocals of Trixie Whitley. Prior to seeing the band, I couldn't decide what was more impressive: that this huge, multi-layered voice comes from a lithe Belgian woman, or the fact that she sounds this seasoned and soulful at just 22. Now, I'm just as impressed that she has what it takes to sit down next to Brian Blade—one of the best drummers in jazz—and thicken the beat behind Lanois and bassist Jim Wilson.

For all his sonic genius, which he manages to translate to the live setting in large measure, Lanois always impresses most with his ability to connect to his audience in a low-key, workmanlike manner. He's never too far removed from the kid who created atmospheric sounds in the basement of his mother's house and found himself swept up in the wake of people like Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel. With his jean jacket, grizzled beard, glasses and toque (an odd look on a hot day) he still seems like a guy you might have caught playing in one of the old taverns that used to grace the streets of Gatineau.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival #6

Saturday evening's one-time-only meeting of iconic trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler, pianist Myra Melford, alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon and singer Diana Torto brought together four very distinctive voices, and the degree to which one appreciated the show had a lot to do with which voice you came to hear.

Those who came to hear Melford were given short shrift. She was only cut loose once during the set—in an extended, stops-out duet with Irabagon. The young saxophonist, who won over a number of Ottawa fans last year as part of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, showed flashes of his brilliance, but for a man whose last recording was essentially a 75-minute solo, it was meagre stuff.

This was a showcase for Torto, a highly mannered Italian singer with a good range, great tone and exceptional enthusiasm, and the 81-year-old master Wheeler. The expatriate Canadian, who sticks to flugelhorn these days and has some serious mobility challenges, still has a totally original sound. All the signature intervallic leaps, twists and breathy false notes are still evident, and while he is not as strong a player as he once was, his melancholic touch is sure. And then, there are his beautiful, finely wrought compositions, which tug at your heart and send your spirit soaring.

While there were smiles all around the bandstand, and a spirit of triumph at the concert's conclusion, more than a few in the audience used the adjective "sad" in describing the show.

In sum, it was evening of both diminished and fully realized expectations and emotions. Even if you didn't get what you came for, you left with the knowledge that you had witnessed something unique.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival #5

In the 26 years that I've been attending or, occasionally, working for the Ottawa International Jazz Festival my clearest memories are of the solo piano recitals. They were a cornerstone of the festival's programming for many years; now more of a special occasion when someone like last night's guest—Vijay Iyer—is booked.

Perhaps these concerts are clearest because for a couple of years in the '90s the solo piano series was my main reviewing assignment for the daily newspaper. Day after day throughout the 10 days of the festival I'd join the audience and immerse myself in 70 or 80 minutes of solo piano: from Andrew Hill to Joey Calderazzo, from Marilyn Crispell to Jennifer Williams. Reviewing a solo piano concert is perhaps the most challenging kind of arts writing because it's such a personal experience. It's just the musician, the instrument and the audience, and every artist approaches the experience a different way. Some, like Williams, engage the audience, turning the performance into more of a musical conversation. Others, like Hill and Crispell, might as well be playing alone in their practice space; they are so fully engaged in the music that the audience is almost superfluous. Finding an entry point to writing about some solo piano concerts can be a challenge.

I think my former colleague Doug Fischer did a superb job of capturing last evening's first set by Iyer in this review.

Reviewers often exchange impressions after a show. If Doug and I had been doing that last night—instead, I was being feted by my wife at a fabulous birthday dinner—we would've been in complete agreement.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival #4

There were some people who had serious misgivings about the viability of the tented stage that the festival inaugurated last year. Immediately adjacent to one of the city's busiest streets, it promised to be a less-than-intimate space. That may be so; I've never seen a really quiet show in there, but it has become a terrific space for big bands.

Last year, Christine Jensen's band gave one of the best shows I saw at the festival—no surprise, really, given the music and the playing of her sister Ingrid—and last night (again, with Ingrid aboard) Darcy James Argue's Secret Society sounded marvellous.

The first time I saw the band with its full New York-based lineup (Argue has also done variations with a number of Canadian subs) was in Le Poisson Rouge in the Village, which is not the ideal place for close listening. Last night in the tent, though, everything was crystal clear, and you could see the way the band interacts with the leader and each other.

It was topped off by a nice hang at the jam session, with the room filled with Secret Society members, Christian McBride and his band, and a number of other musicians like drummer Ari Hoenig.

Fun times!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival #3

My seat mate at last night's concert by Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman admitted that he wouldn't recognize it if Mehldau decided to rhapsodize on a Radiohead song, and that it really didn't matter. And that statement summarizes the way the pianist and saxophonist erase the boundaries between source material and art. In their hands, everything is beauty.

In fact, it was a Jeff Buckley composition that offered the most intense interaction between Mehldau and Redman, in a concert stuffed with high-level interaction.

Timeless and sublime, it was the kind of exchange of musical ideas that went well beyond the music being played. To mine the cliché about jazz duets, it was more of a conversation than a recital. And we were privileged to have overheard.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Best CDs to Date

While I'm on the topic of things in the air, the idea of posting mid-year lists of worthy recordings seems to be gaining ground, so allow me to chip in here, if only to prompt you to check these discs out for your own enjoyment and the enhancement of some fine musicians.

Here are some things that have caught my ear, and stand a good chance of making it to my best of 2011 list:

Joe Lovano Us Five: Bird Songs

Nordic Connect: Spirals

Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay: Danse à l'Anvers

Erik Friedlander: Bonebridge

Denny Zeitlin: Labyrinth

Lee Konitz/Brad Mehldau/Charlie Haden/Paul Motian: Live At Birdland

Jazz Exploitation?

Given what passes for news in some media outlets now, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the 'non-jazz artists at jazz festivals' story has the legs it does, but so be it. The story has kept growing this week as most of North America's jazz fests get underway.

I've already blogged about my own take on it here, but let me address a new twist on this that comes up in some of my former colleague Peter Hum's blog entries. (And, understand, I don't fault Peter for keeping this story going. I know he has a genuine interest in this on a personal level, which is the kind of thing that makes his blog essential reading.)

The issue that bassist Christian McBride and others raise in their responses to Peter's questions is that of festivals "exploiting" the term jazz to attract patrons—both of the listening kind and sponsors. McBride specifically posits that festivals with jazz in their title but acts like Robert Plant or Elvis Costello on their stages are "insulting the legacy of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk."

Well, what would insult their legacy more, I wonder: exposing dozens of jazz artists to audiences by way of the subsidization from artists like Plant, or dropping the name 'jazz' from the festival's title and booking, say, one-quarter as many jazz musicians and filling the rest of the roster with more recognizable musicians? Wasn't it Ellington who once said there was two kinds of music—good and bad? Just how does providing a good venue, good payday and audience exposure to jazz artists through healthy gate revenue violate his memory? Would jazz purists truly feel better about the whole thing if festivals like Ottawa's, Montreal's and Montreux's changed their names and focus?

There's something of a defeatist attitude in all this; as though some of these purists would like the situation for their music and the people who play it to be even worse so they can feel truly marginalized. Last year's jazz-packed lineup at Ottawa's jazz festival (standard disclaimer here that I was under contract to the festival last year) resulted in a deficit of $80,000. Would the anti-rocker faction be happy to see that trend continue in a short-term gain/long-term pain game?

And it's not just jazz fans who do this; the same is true of Ottawa's Bluesfest—one of Canada's most successful music festivals. A common refrain I hear from people is, Where are the blues acts? I often feel like asking them just who they'd book on the festival's mainstage to draw 30,000 people and fulfill that blues quotient they're pining for. The economic reality is that only certain acts are going to draw those kinds of numbers. At least people should take comfort in the fact that fame is a cyclical thing; every so often, a Diana Krall or Blues Brothers will actually get popular for a minute. More often, though, if you want to draw that kind of crowd, you're going to have to look to the diminishing number of iconic figures like Plant or the ever-changing pop sensations who are on their way up.

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival #2

So, there was the night in 2006 when a cold rain fell throughout a great show by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, and I recall trying to review a show under an umbrella one night in the '90s, but I think last night's downpour in advance of Elvis Costello's concert may be the worst I've seen. Sitting, stranded, in a parking lot at a suburban big-box mall—waiting out the deluge—I was certainly convinced that this was the most rain I've ever seen fall during five decades in Ottawa.

Fortunately, the last burst of rain ended before Costello hit the stage at 8:30, but the onslaught was enough to keep his audience relatively small (one of the newspaper critics estimated it at 2,500).

Perhaps it was the ongoing rain during the afternoon (when soundchecks are usually done) that affected the sound mix during the first 15 minutes or so of the show. Even though Costello was performing with his long-time mates Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher, it sounded like they'd never played together before. The sound was pinched and thin, and Nieve's organ—so essential to Costello's sound (especially when he's opening with "Pump It Up," basically a vehicle for Nieve and Costello's voice)—was almost absent in the mix.

The sound issues were sorted out eventually, and Costello went on to weave together a show that ranged through his entire catalogue. I felt that the show hit its peak when he performed a medley anchored by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko's "This Wheel's On Fire." It was the kind of gesture that only the most confident songwriter can pull off convincingly, using another writer's song as a fulcrum for your own show, and it was so far away from the Costello we first met in 1977 that it illustrated how much he has evolved to become one of the great composers himself.

I've become convinced that Costello's shows will always have ragged edges—a given, really, as long as he is the sole guitarist onstage—but that's his charm, and a big part of what reminds us that he was once an angry, loutish, little nerd who blew all our hair back. There's always a little part of that guy in everything he does, no matter what musical genre he's working in.

Friday, June 24, 2011

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival #1

Full disclosure: I was never a Led Zeppelin fan. I owned their album III and, of course, couldn't escape them on the radio, but compared to the Allman Brothers Band, Little Feat, the Stones and my other favourites of the era, they always seemed pompous and overblown. My loss, probably, but that's the way it went.

Consequently, I've never followed Robert Plant's post-Zep career although, again, I've heard some of his recent work on the radio. So, I had no expectations whatsoever for last night's opening show at the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival. Given that this is a rare year when I'm not either under contract to the festival to manage media relations, or reviewing acts for a media outlet, I was ready just to hang out, have a few beers and catch up with my jazz buddies.

Well, some performers just have a stage presence that endears them from the moment they appear. Bruce Springsteen wins you over with his energy and his obvious joy at being onstage, Leonard Cohen slides onstage like a man who feels graced to be in your presence and share his words. Plant seemed like a man who has a meaningful, wry overview of who he is—and who he used to be to many in the crowd. On most men with a face that so obviously shows its age and mileage, chest-length curly blond hair would look ridiculous. On Plant, it's like a uniform, like he's saying: Hey, it's me. Remember? And then he launches, unexpectedly, right into a rootsy version of "Black Dog" that both thrills those who are there for a Zep nostalgia trip and convinces everyone else that this is a singer. He's just here to entertain, and after a half-dozen songs his voice is warmed up and he can still hit those powerful tenor thrums that defined him as a young man—and inspired many, many pallid imitators (are you listening, David Coverdale?).

Plant is a man with a sense of humour, a sense of himself, and the sense to give an audience of 11,000 people a little of what they want and a little of what they never expected.

It was a superb and satisfying show from beginning to end.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Back To Jazz

While I haven't exactly been living outside jazz for the past two months—see my ongoing reviews in DownBeat magazine—my work on a non-music book has occupied most of my time. The book will have to share some space with music for the next few weeks because festival season officially begins on Thursday in Canada.

This week and next I'll be at the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival, although strictly as an audience member—one of the few times that has happened since 1992.

With no review assignment or other official function, I have strictly a fan's perspective on this event, so here's my list of shows I'm looking forward to:

June 23: Robert Plant & the Band of Joy – I was never a huge Led Zep fan, and never saw them live, but anything Buddy Miller involves himself with is usually worth hearing, and I'm intrigued how Plant translates his rock god persona to this kind of role.

June 24: Elvis Costello & The Imposters – Unlike Plant, I've seen Costello often, but never tire of him.

June 27: Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau – Thinking back, although I've seen him many times, I don't think I've ever seen Mehldau play in anything but a trio setting (could be wrong, but I don't recall it) and it's been awhile since I've seen Redman. I don't know what to expect, and I like that.

June 28: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society – I've been lobbying to get them here for three years, and looking forward to hearing them for the first time in 18 months.

June 29: Vijay Iyer – Again, I haven't seen him play in about 18 months, and haven't seen him in a solo setting in about twice that long. Loved his solo record, and probably looking forward to seeing this show as much as anything I'll see this year.

July 2: Kenny Wheeler/Myra Melford/Jon Irabagon/Diana Torto – Another show where I don't know what to expect. Wheeler once told me that he loves throwing himself into new situations, and while I'm familiar enough with my friend Myra's music to know she can fit herself into any situation, I have no idea how Irabagon will sound with Wheeler.

July 3: Daniel Lanois' Black Dub – My favourite recording over the past year until The Decemberists knocked it off. Always a joy to see Brian Blade, and Lanois always gives a great show in his hometown.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Truth in Advertising?

There has been debate here and here about the validity of including artists like Elvis Costello, Robert Plant's Band Of Joy or kd lang in one of Canada's largest, and oldest, jazz festivals.

Where to begin? Well, first, I can't stop laughing at the fact that someone commenting on Ken Gray's screed against pop artists like Costello, Plant and lang takes a swipe at Peter Hum, who isn't too happy about the situation himself. You know the old saying: Put two jazz fans in a room and a fight will break out.

I suspect that the guy who snidely posits if Hum—one of the most knowledgeable jazz journalists I know—thinks Bix is the name of a breakfast cereal might be only slightly older than me. I'm 56, and think the inclusion of artists like Costello, Plant and lang mirrors my own relationship with jazz.

The first music I remember in my parents' house was equal parts rockabilly, folk music and jazz. My older brothers split along the lines of Gene Vincent and the Kingston Trio. My father filled the house with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington on Sunday mornings. When I became old enough to buy my own records, I evolved from Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones to Cream and Jimi Hendrix in the course of three years. From Hendrix, it was only a short step to Miles Davis, and from there the world opened up into John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Charlie Parker. I never drew a line between Hendrix and Coltrane or Muddy Waters; it was all great American music, drawn from the same source. When I produced and hosted a radio show, I regularly mixed the Jackson 5, Bruce Springsteen and Weather Report. To me, it's just second nature. Why would you want to exclude Bix in favour of Hendrix, or vice versa?

So a festival that includes popular artists and more marginal ones is just fine with me. One of my best festival experiences was seeing Patti Smith at the Montreal International Jazz Festival a few years ago, and the fact that she poked fun at those who thought her booking was odd—and at herself—just endeared her more to me.

The financial implications take it all into another dimension, of course. As Catherine O'Grady, who heads the Ottawa jazz fest, points out, booking jazz artists on the festival's large outdoor stage is a equation of diminishing returns. Even the few remaining 'household names' (Shorter, Rollins, Marsalis) in jazz just don't draw the way they did a few years ago. So, if you want to bring in Vijay Iyer or a big band like Darcy James Argue's, you need the revenue that will flow from putting Costello, Plant and lang onstage. That's just financial reality.

But it's also my listening reality, and I expect that it's the same way for most of those jazz fans under 60.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Band Of Gypsys: Coming 'Round Again

The Jimi Hendrix estate folks announced today that their next series of releases through Sony Legacy will include a reissue of the Band Of Gypsys video documentary that was originally released in 1999. At that time, I published this critical look at the film, Hendrix's performances spanning 1969/70 at the Fillmore East, and the enduring mysteries surrounding the dissolution of his only all-black band.

For your entertainment, here 'tis:
The passage of 30 years and the mellowing effects of nostalgia have coated the rock music of the late ‘60s in a patina of recreational drug use and outrageous clothes. For many, time has erased the reality that rock was closely linked to the political and social upheaval of the day.

No one was more of a lightning rod for change than guitarist-singer Jimi Hendrix. Already worshipped by millions of white fans when his sardonic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” closed the Woodstock festival in August 1969, Hendrix became a hero to fellow blacks through a series of events in the year before his death Sept. 18, 1970.

Those events, culminating in four New Year’s concerts at the Fillmore East auditorium in New York City, are the subject of a new video (Band Of Gypsys) and double-CD set (Live At The Fillmore East) released by the Hendrix Estate and Universal Music Group.

The summer of ’69 found Hendrix at a musical crossroads. Bored with the role of psychedelic ranger he had ridden to stardom and under increasing legal pressure on a number of fronts, Hendrix was looking for a new direction.

The most pressing legal problem was his need to record an album to fulfill a contractual agreement that pre-dated the formation of the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1966. A more personal concern was his desire to reach out to the black community, which had largely ignored the spacey sounds of the Experience, its all-white rhythm section and British roots.

A new trio — the all-black Band Of Gypsys — and the recording of four sets at the Fillmore East on the cusp of the new decade were the result.

Billy Cox, Hendrix’s bandmate from the days when both were members of the 101st Airborne Division, replaced Experience bassist Noel Redding. A fluid yet rhythmically solid player, Cox was adept at feeding Hendrix melody lines that fuelled his high-flown improvisations. Buddy Miles, a heavy-hitting drummer who had played with Wilson Pickett and the Electric Flag, was recruited to fill in for Mitch Mitchell.

Miles was the antithesis of Mitchell’s flowing, multi-dimensional style, and brought a funky bonhomie to the group.

Six songs from the Fillmore concerts, including a version of “Machine Gun” that many music critics consider the highlight of Hendrix’s career, were released in April 1970 — fulfilling the contractual agreement with Capitol Records — and another three were included in a compilation in 1986.

Live At The Fillmore East presents 14 previously unheard performances from those concerts. None of this new material approaches the apotheosis of the original “Machine Gun”, though there are several pieces that can stand alongside most live Hendrix recordings.

“Stone Free”, one of the few Experience numbers included at the Fillmore, shows Hendrix’s masterful ability to shape feedback, and includes some inspired rhythm playing during the coda. “Hear My Train A-Coming” is rendered as a blues march with Hendrix soloing passionately, and two alternate versions of “Machine Gun” contain highlights, although neither has the sustained tension and drama of the original.

But the four sets make Miles’ technical shortcomings obvious, and it’s evident that the band hadn’t fully learned the material. There are blown lyrics and sloppy transitions, and Hendrix apologizes after a particularly messy version of “Stepping Stone”.

That was the only weak number in the first set of the New Year’s Day show, which also produced the ground-breaking “Machine Gun”, an aggressive version of “Power Of Soul”, and an effective soul song called “Stop”. As well as forming the bulk of the material on the original Band Of Gypsys album, that set was videotaped in black-and-white, and is the centerpiece of the 83-minute home video of the event.

The video stresses the historical perspective, examining the social importance of Hendrix’s shift to an all-black band through interviews with influential black disc jockey Frankie Crocker, musicians Miles, Cox, Lenny Kravitz and Vernon Reid, engineer Eddie Kramer and a dozen others. Along with six songs from the Fillmore, Hendrix is shown performing on BBC-TV, “The Dick Cavett Show” and at Woodstock.

Appropriately, the film pivots on the epochal performance of “Machine Gun”, which is shown almost in its entirety. Dedicated to “all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam” and, pointedly, to the members of National Guard called out to quell rioting in America’s black ghettoes, the song is an angry torrent of sound that flows from Hendrix’s guitar with a seamless inventiveness that rivals solos by jazz musicians like John Coltrane or Miles Davis. Indeed, film of Davis performing at the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival is used to underscore how Hendrix influenced the jazz trumpeter’s shift to electric music.

Kravitz, Reid and several others provide insights into how Band Of Gypsys increased Hendrix’s influence on young blacks. Kravitz recalls how Hendrix’s appearance on the Cavett program in a bright turquoise robe and Afro haircut was revolutionary for TV in the 1960s. In fact, there is little that symbolizes the cultural schism of that era more succinctly than the sight of the ultra-cool Hendrix positioned between the tweedy Cavett and actor Robert Young of “Father Knows Best” and “Marcus Welby MD” fame.

The video speculates that the Band Of Gypsys did not sit well with Hendrix’s management or record label, which apparently feared erosion in his white fan base. The evidence is inconclusive.

True or not, the trio was short-lived. Within a month, Mitchell was back on drums and the music made as Hendrix’s last year began became little more than a footnote to a brief, brilliant career.

Now, at last, more of those legendary sessions by the Band Of Gypsys are available as a reminder of how much music mattered in this century’s most turbulent decade.

© Copyright 1999 by James Hale.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Michael Corleone Could Relate

Just like poor Mikey, those Italian forces are pulling me back in. In this case, they're Tuscan, not Sicilian, but just when I thought I had carved out some jazz-free time this year I got -- you guessed it -- a pretty hard offer to refuse. (Enough already with the bad Italian/Godfather references... I'm racking up an anti-Scots Canadian deficit here.)

I'm honored to have been invited to participate in this year's Siena Jazz Workshop, and really looking forward to 10 days under the Tuscan sun, particularly since it will be in the company of some of my favorite musicians, including Dave Douglas and Eric Harland.

My challenge now is to develop a suitable topic to use as the basis of the lecture I have to give at the workshop. At this early stage, I'm toying with the idea of revisiting a thesis I used to discuss with my late friend, jazz writer Eric Nisenson. It revolved around a jazz variation of pianist Glenn Gould's "idea of north," using examples of Paul Bley, Sonny Greenwich and others.

I may use this space as a canvas on which to sketch these thoughts. Feel free to chime in if anything grabs your attention.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Laying Out

Jazz Chronicles is going on hiatus beginning today. I have a non-music book project that is moving into high gear and won't have any major jazz outings between now and the fall.

You can still find me in the pages of DownBeat and Signal To Noise until Jazz Chronicles returns.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Who's On The Bill?

My friend and former newspaper colleague Peter Hum has ignited a discussion about the rock-star dominated booking policies of some jazz festivals in his blog.

What set Peter off were announcements that pop artists like Elton John, Kid Rock, Arcade Fire and Lauryn Hill are being touted as headliners by festivals in Rochester and New Orleans.

I've added comments to Peter's posts, so I won't usurp him here, but do check it out and weigh in. I'm hoping he attracts some insightful comments from some jazz festival promoters.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gregg Allman: Still Riding

The first album I ever reviewed—some 33 years ago—was a Gregg Allman LP, so it's nice to circle back and write about another of his solo projects. This is his first new release in about 14 years, and in Allman's terms that's a lot of water under the bridge, including sobriety, potentially fatal illness and a liver transplant. As I wrote here, Allman has emerged in strong voice and unbroken spirit.

He has also emerged with a fine recording that stretches him outside his usual comfort zone, thanks to the efforts of producer T-Bone Burnett. For someone who has been recording and performing most of his life—or perhaps because of that—Allman has always been somewhat reluctant to move beyond what he can get by on with just his world-weary voice, and there has always been a big part of him that has been reluctant to let go of the sonic landscape he inherited from his big brother, and no one can blame him for that. Still, it's great to hear him addressing different aspects of the blues idiom—from Sleepy John Estes' opening "Floating Bridge" to a beautiful public domain song called "I Believe I'll Go Back Home." Harkening back to his radical remake of his signature composition "Midnight Rider" in 1973, Low Country Blues ends with a startling re-arrangement of Muddy Waters' "Rolling Stone" by Allman, Burnett and sideman Mac Rebennack.

There are horns on five of the 12 songs, a potent reminder of how good he always sounded fronting a band patterned after the Ray Charles model, and most of the remaining pieces feature acoustic musicians, including string wizard Colin Linden on dobro and acoustic bassist Dennis Crouch.

Not since his debut solo effort, Laid Back, has Allman sounded this focused and confident. He sounds like a man at peace, and for anyone who has followed his career for four decades that's more than enough.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Eternal Search for a Better Online Mousetrap

Following up on our recent town hall meeting on the future of jazz journalism, held as part of the APAP Conference in New York City, I was struck today by this quote from Ken Auletta's profile of AOL CEO Tim Armstrong in The New Yorker:

"Relying on Web advertising was a promising business idea ten years ago, when advertising rates appeared destined to climb endlessly higher as it became possible to target ads precisely for narrower groups of consumers.... But Web businesses have come to realize—as online newspapers and magazines have—that they need a second revenue source, whether it is e-commerce or paid subscribers."

Very true, and a succinct explanation of why we still don't have a viable online outlet for jazz journalism that actually pays its journalists. Will we have one by the time that an estimated 130 million North Americans own tablet computers by 2015? If not, things will be grim for jazz journalists—and for those (I know you're out there) who enjoy their work.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Changing The Guard

One of North America's longest-running and largest jazz festivals, the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival, named a new programming manager today, and it's notable that the organization selected a musician who plays with a wide range of collaborators. For saxophonist Petr Cancura, the new job represents something of a homecoming; although he was born in the Czech Republic, he spent many years in Ottawa before moving to Brooklyn. As well as working with the creative guitar improviser Joe Morris, Cancura is also a member of pianist Danilo Perez's big band.

I think it's always a good thing when musicians have a hand in booking, and in Cancura's case it's especially promising due to the breadth of his own experience and contacts.

I should note that, although I've worked on contract as a media consultant for the organization during the past two festivals, I'm not currently working with them, so this is very much an unbiased reading of the Cancura's hiring. As someone who lives in Ottawa and has interacted with the festival as attendee, journalist and employee, I'm looking forward to everything he can bring to the job.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Is 'Jazz' A Dated Term?

I heard a lot of good music between late Thursday and very late Saturday in New York City. I might've normally been tempted to write "saw" in that opening sentence, but I didn't really see much on Friday and Saturday, except fuzzy headwear and the backs of a lot of tall university students. At a town hall meeting I moderated on behalf of the Jazz Journalists Association on Saturday afternoon (pictured), I also heard a clear delineation about how music should be covered/represented by journalists that split pretty clearly along generational lines.

My own dichotomy was between the perfect sight lines and sound at Birdland, where I caught a set by a revised version of the Overtone Quartet (with Jason Moran, Chris Potter, Eric Harland and Larry Grenadier, subbing for Dave Holland), and two nights of shows at Winter Jazzfest, which drew more than 4000 people to multiple shows at five venues in Greenwich Village. On the first night of Jazzfest, I missed one act I wanted to catch because I was lined up outside a club waiting to be let in (this, with a media pass; as Ben Ratliff points out in this overview from the New York Times, the door staff were making no exceptions). After being admitted, I never made it past the bar area, except to confirm that the sight lines and sound were little better if you forced your way past people into the main room. On Night 2, I had a good spot stage left at Le Poisson Rouge, but was constantly jostled aside and obstructed by others—and at 5'11" and 190 pounds, I'm not a particularly small person. Did I want to leave to hit the bathroom or get a drink before Nels Cline & Stained Radiance—the primary act I was there to see—hit the stage? No. So, the result was like the last time I went to a Bruce Springsteen show in general admission: good proximity to the performer, regularly obstructed views, aching knees (hey, forgive me, I'm heading for 60 here), and an uncomfortably full bladder.

I know...whine and bitch. Suck it up, Hale. But this isn't about me; it's about the potential for growing an audience for new artists and maintaining an audience for established artists. Aside from a few fellow journalists, I didn't see too many people who appeared to be older than 30 at those Winter Jazzfest shows. That's to be expected, and that's potentially a good thing; it's obvious we need to grow an audience for improvised music. But neither did I see too many young faces at Birdland, just as I seldom see too many people under 30 at clubs anywhere where there's a $40 cover and a $10 minimum.

With those realities in place, it was no surprise on Saturday afternoon to hear attendees at my open forum on the future of jazz journalism split clearly along age lines on whether journalists should move past the traditional label of 'jazz' and meld improvising artists into a broad category that includes pop, rock and hip-hop acts. Two things to note on that: one, the notion of losing the 'jazz' tag is nothing new, and two, many of the critics of my generation grew up with an appreciation for a very broad range of artists. But just as most critics younger than 60 have an ear for lots beyond artists who play what is traditionally classified as jazz, there is a huge cadre of people who still think that artists like Moran are barely, or only sometimes, playing jazz. Just bring a turntable onto the stage of any major jazz festival in North America, then listen to the feedback from paying customers who still have a hard time letting go of Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson. I'd be interested to hear what some of those folks—the folks being targeted by major festival sponsors like Lexus and TD Bank—would say about the idea of ignoring jazz coverage for a more 'balanced' approach that includes artists from Arcade Fire to Jay-Z.

I think that might be reminiscent of the old 'mouldy fig' debates of the '50s.

So, while there's no real news in any of this, the contrast between the traditional model of concert presentation—in one of the world's very successful venues—and the model-of-the-moment has never been more stark.

Will those people who flock to Winter Jazzfest for two nights make the trek to Birdland on one, two or 20 of the other 363 days of the year in 2011 and into the future? No doubt, some of them will. Will any of those well-dressed people paying good money to see big names at Birdland head downtown next year for the sweaty intimacy—and inherent disappointment—of Winter Jazzfest? That's more questionable, in my estimation; certainly, they will have to revamp things substantially to draw me back for any type of serious listening—to say nothing of reviewing—experience.

The result, it seems, is a relatively large gap between twentysomethings who like the buzz of the moment and the aging audience that can still recall when musicians like Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette were young and promising.

Do we have a problem here?