Friday, December 29, 2006


With the year, and the holidays, winding down I try to find some time to catch up on recordings that I've missed.

This year, I'm spending time with three CDs—two older recordings by Canadian artists and the new ArtistShare release by orchestral master Bob Brookmeyer.

Special Angel is a set of duets recorded in 2002 by pianist Marilyn Lerner and guitarist Sonny Greenwich. It would be hard to think of two artists who come from more diverse backgrounds and interests. While Lerner has made her reputation with klezmer music, Cuban music, and her own idiosyncratic solo piano pieces, Greenwich has taken the influence of mid-period Coltrane and spun it out through his own highly personal view of the world, in which Paul Klee, Ravel and Miles Davis hold equal weight. What brings them together, I imagine, is both their openness and innate spirituality. Whatever it is, the results are beautiful.

There is a painterly connection to my second Canadian selection, too. In 2001, guitarist Tony Quarrington and some of Toronto's top musicians (including Jane Bunnett, Don Thompson, Barry Romberg and Kirk MacDonald) recorded a suite of music inspired by the ground-breaking works of the Group of Seven—the loose-knit school of Canadian landscape artists who dominated the field in the 20th century. The connection between visual art and music is endlessly fascinating, and Quarrington's compositions aim to capture the sense of space and awe of nature that these seven painters explored so masterfully.

Brookmeyer's new CD didn't make it onto my player(s) for top 10 consideration, but it's high placement on New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff's list made it a must-hear. Brookmeyer has been overlooked in recent years, but he remains the inspiration for young, higher-profile artists like Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck (who plays on this CD) and as vital as he was 25 years ago. Featuring his New Art Orchestra and seven new compositions, Spirit Music is first rate.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Burning Down My House

It tells you all you need to know about life in a very white Canadian city in the early '60s to discover that I first heard about James Brown in an Archie comic book. If memory serves—and it was, after all, 1964 or something—Betty and Veronica were musing about what music they would continue listening to in the coming year, and one of them (likely the more soulful Betty) opined that James Brown would continue to groove her world.

When I saw the T.A.M.I. show sometime in the following months I knew what Betty meant. Suddenly, the up-to-then-oh-so-cool Mick Jagger seemed like a little boy—even to my little boy eyes. James Brown was, literally, the man.

Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke were the only black singers heard on Canadian radio with any regularity in those years, so I never had the thrill of hearing Mr. Dynamite alongside his pop and rock peers, and he remained an elusive thrill—seeming almost like an imagined dream as the T.A.M.I. experience faded from memory—until I was old enough to seek out the few recordings I could find.

The fact that one of the most iconic and influential artists of the time was unavailable to me through the standard commercial avenues like AM radio taught me a lot about the need to seek alternative channels. For that, and so many other things, I owe James Brown an enormous debt.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Live '06

For one reason or another, I probably saw fewer concerts in 2006 than in any year in the past 25. Even so, a few register among the best I've seen, while a couple of others were less than anticipated—which, of course, may say more about my level of anticipation than anything else.

Jerry Granelli's Sandhills Reunion produced one of my favourite CDs last year, and the band includes some of my favourite players—including Granelli and baritone saxophonist David Mott—so I was pleased when their performance here in Ottawa surpassed what they did in the studio. Even without clarinetist François Houle, who couldn't make this gig, the band expanded the compositions with tremendous imagination, and played off poet Rinde Eckert's performance with terrific empathy. The acoustics at the National Arts Centre's 4th Stage were characteristically perfect, and so was this performance. A truly electric event.

Granelli's V16 provided a similarly electric show at a cramped loft studio in the Historic Properties district of Halifax. I was privileged to get an invitation to the taping of a live CD with about 30 others, and the band—Granelli, his bassist son J. Anthony, and guitarists David Tronzo and Christian Kögel—maintained a taut, energized hum throughout the performance. The tension was so tight that it seemed like the band might explode any moment, but the performance was the tension, and the release at the end was something else. Can't wait to hear the CD next spring. It will be out on Songlines.

The Saturday and Sunday morning shows at the Guelph Jazz Festival have gained a reputation for being very intimate and very intense (Steve Lacy the year before his death, Hamid Drake and Gerry Hemingway, Matthew Shipp have been a few of the previous memorable shows) and this year's duets by Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier lived up to the expectation. I have a full review upcoming in Coda magazine, which I won't tip here, but this show combined exquisite music—much of it composed by John Zorn—and a true sense of joy between Feldman and Courvoisier that kept threatening to turn treacly-sweet but never did. Feldman has long been one of my favourite musicians in any genre, and it's great to see him relieved of the angst that has always seemed to be upon him.

The year's biggest disappointment was not a bad show by any means, but how could Masada live up to my expectations? I've been fortunate enough to see them in some interesting settings, including one of their early shows at Victoriaville, where they played acoustic and held a large crowd spellbound, and at an ungodly hot, old synagogue on New York's Lower East Side—a show so good that John Zorn planted a kiss on Dave Douglas after one solo. At Montreal's Place des Arts, the quartet seemed like they were removed from the audience, and its performance, while smoking musically, was somewhat formulaic. This is one I wish I had a recording of; I'm sure it was better than I remember, and without the distraction of the large hall some of that distance I felt would disappear.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Online Ticketing

Time was when I felt I had purchasing tickets from Ticketmaster and similar services wired. If you began dialing into their phone system about five minutes before the tickets you wanted were released for sale you'd invariably get a place in the priority queue as soon as the system kicked in. Using this method I scored front-row seats for Miles Davis and a number of other popular acts—and obviously I'm talking about the 1980s here. It was a pretty simple business transaction, as it should be.

With the introduction of the Internet, Ticketmaster,, ticket sales went online, and the results have been routinely abysmal. I hear stories of system crashes and other assorted frustrations, and my one experience trying to score tickets for Bruce Springsteen's tour for The Rising illustrated just how far things had deteriorated. The next time I went looking for Springsteen tickets, I bought them from someone on eBay.

Now, I'm lucky because I see more than enough shows that are comped that I don't have to deal with the system all that often, but occasionally there's a show that forces me into the online ticket meat grinder. Case in point: next summer's Keith Jarrett Standards Trio show at Montreal's Place des Arts. The Montreal festival is notorious for making precious few media tickets available for shows like this, so to ensure tickets I had to buy them when they went on sale last Saturday. Besides, the show's the weekend of my birthday and my wife loves Jarrett, so it works out all around.

Except... the primary online buying method was to use Place des Arts' site, and the form was improperly formatted. I watched my Row C seats turn into Row F and then Row M while I tried to get it to work. No luck. No luck phoning, either; the line was busy each time I dialed. Finally, I tried Admission's site (the Quebec equivalent of Ticketmaster) and wound up with a pair in Row T.

Why isn't this easier? I can't imagine demand is that much higher for tickets like this than it was 20 years ago—especially when the face value for the Jarrett show is $100. How do these online ticket services mess things up so badly? Just another example of how the institutional side of the music business has missed the boat on technology. I just finished writing an article on new media and culture that reminded me of how badly the record business mis-judged what digital technology would bring, and this ticket thing is related.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Instant Music

Although the concept of creating "instant" copies of live concerts is not new—The Allman Brothers Band, for one, has been doing it for a few years now—Dave Douglas' plan to distribute each of his sets from this week's stand by his quintet at New York's Jazz Standard is compelling. Not only is his band interpreting pieces he has released on previous CDs, he is also performing new music that hasn't been recorded yet. Not only that, but he's using a cornet rather than his traditional trumpet. So there are many opportunities to explore subtle shifts in his music.

Recently, on his blog, Douglas discussed his fascination with the multiple-set recordings Miles Davis made with his mid-'60s quintet at Chicago's Plugged Nickel in 1965—his inspiration for the Jazz Standard set.

Douglas' quintet may not be at the level of Davis' band, which revolutionized time feel for small jazz groups, but his Jazz Standard sets do have the added advantage of generating a "you are there" feel—without the NYC cover charge sting. Of course, you don't get to have the great ribs from upstairs at Blue Smoke!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Walter Booker

The death of bassist Walter Booker last Friday puts me in mind of my dear departed friend Eric Nisenson. Best known for his books Blue: The Murder of Jazz and Ascension: John Coltrane & His Quest, Eric was a regular at Booker's Boogie Woogie Studio in the mid-'70s after Eric had moved to New York City from San Francisco. From what Eric and Booker's ex-wife told me, the studio was quite a hang-out in those days, and Miles Davis was a frequent visitor.

At Eric's request, Booker introduced him to Miles, sparking a four-year relationship that resulted in Eric's first book, 'Round About Midnight, which was his attempt to salvage an autobiography project that later resurfaced with co-author Quincy Troupe.

Eric was never one to tell tales out of school, but he shared enough information that it's clear those were wild times around the New York music scene, essentially buried in a blizzard of cocaine. Some of this may likely resurface in a book that producer-saxophonist-composer Bob Belden tells me that he's writing, based on Davis's so-called "dark years," when Eric and few others were allowed into his brownstone on West 77th Street.

Despite occasionally having his arm twisted into delivering drugs to Miles, Eric helped keep him connected to the outside world during those years, which is likely one of the things that eventually led to his resurfacing in 1981. So, in a roundabout way, we have Walter Booker to thank for that.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Critical Judgement

I have to admit it, I love when my DownBeat colleagues John Corbett and John McDonough stake out territory at extreme opposite ends of opinion on a particular recording. In the December issue's "Hot Box" feature, Corbett gives Evan Parker's 1970 recording The Topography Of The Lungs—which was just released for the first time on CD—the full five stars, while McDonough allots it a mere one star. While Corbett sees the recording as "one of the best five or so examples of its kind," McDonough writes that it's "a worthless stunt."

Now, it's not that I view music criticism as a bloodsport, or that I favour one John over the other (in fact, I know Corbett only slightly from a couple of encounters and McDonough only from a couple of email correspondences), but the difference of intelligent, informed opinion over art is one of the things that attracted me to the craft more than 30 years ago, when I first submitted reviews to my university newspaper. The fact that two people with roughly equal measures of listening experience can hear something so differently, can position a recording so radically differently within the context of recorded music, is what makes criticism such a vital component of the art world.

Before I saw Corbett and McDonough's divergent takes on the Parker CD, I was thinking of this in the context of the 2006 top 10 lists I've been collecting from Jazz Journalists Association members for posting on our website. I haven't done the math yet to determine overall rankings, but it's clear that Kenny Garrett's Beyond The Wall is going to rank fairly high since it's on a number of critics's lists. Not all, mind; it's not a recording that grabbed my ear, for example, so I was surprised to see it land on so many of my colleagues's lists. But now I'm intrigued to go back and try to hear what fellow critics like Bill Milkowski, Ollie Bivins and Geoffrey Himes are hearing.

And just to make things even more intriguing: in DownBeat, Corbett gave the Garrett CD three stars, McDonough, two-and-a-half.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

D.D. Jackson Mashup

I caught fellow Ottawan and DownBeat contributor D.D. Jackson last night at a taping for the radio program Fuse, which runs nationally on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The show's concept is to bring together two musicians who have never worked together previously and see what develops, but the musicians are seldom as disparate as Jackson and singer-songwriter Emm Gryner. Although Gryner studied piano as a kid and has a father who's a jazz fan, it seems like a cruel mismatch to pair her with D.D., a classical prodigy who managed the impossible by stepping nimbly from apprenticeship with the fearsome Menachem Pressler to similar status with Don Pullen and Jaki Byard. Still, they found common ground, with Gryner—who played bass in a teenage pop band with her brothers—providing rudimentary bass accompaniment to one of Jackson's gentler compositions, and wordless vocals to his stormy "Final Invocation: Towers Of Light" from his terrific New York Suite CD. Jackson added lush piano fills to several of Gryner's songs, assuming the role of the strings on her latest recording. To finish the program they came up with a powerful arrangement of Neil Young's "Ohio," which played to both their strengths.

Great to see this risky concept executed so effectively.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Another Side of Gary Versace

Somewhat related to my post on Maria Schneider—since he's often a mainstay in her orchestra—are some comments on Gary Versace, who I heard the other night with Ottawa bassist John Geggie and Montreal saxophonist Christine Jensen.

Best known for his organ playing, Versace is also an exceptional pianist and composer. He has a deceptively understated way of building a solo, and his method of emphasizing and repeating key climactic phrases seems to reflect his concentration on organ.

Versace has only been on the New York City jazz scene for a few years, and most of that time has been spent in bands like Ingrid Jensen's O (for organ) Project and in John Scofield's funk unit, but it would be great to hear him more widely on piano with his own group.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Maria Schneider

No matter how jaded you become about "the state of jazz" it's always reassuring to encounter Maria Schneider, in one form or another. If there is a more pure musical spirit, I've yet to meet him or her. Schneider is someone who is always open to life's beauty, and filled with the power to be able to interpret her feelings in music.

She is the subject of the latest "listening to music with..." feature in the New York Times—an occasional feature in the paper, which is also available for free online.

I had the pleasure of being on a panel with her a couple of years ago, discussing sexism in jazz, and can attest that she's one of the most articulate people in the business. If you're in New York in the next couple of weeks be sure to catch her band at The Jazz Standard.

Photo by John Fowler.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Top 10

The task of selecting a top 10 CD list continues to get more difficult as new technologies enable musicians to record and distribute their works more easily. I now average well over one CD a day in the mail, and artists point me to downloadable recordings on the Web in addition to those. I know some of my colleagues receive at least twice that much music—not a situation I envy. As a music journalist, you do your best to keep up, but the reality is you just can't hear everything. I rely on colleagues and music-savvy friends outside the industry to tip me to worthy recordings that have caught their ears, and I listen intensely—meaning at least a dozen times each, and in some detail (often through headphones as well as without)—to probably 25 or 30 recordings that I've been assigned to review. Then, there are obvious releases—addressed in an earlier post: Ornette Coleman, Dave Holland, Keith Jarrett,; musicians of the first rank whose work always deserves a listen—to check out. Anyway, suffice to say, it's a lot of listening, but I don't fool myself that I've heard nearly everything worthy of note. With that long-winded proviso, here's my list for 2006, as of today. You never know what else might catch my ear by year's end. These are in alphabetical order.

Andy Biskin Quartet – Early American: The Melodies Of Stephen Foster (Strudelmedia)
Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar)
Mark Feldman – What Exit (ECM)
Gordon Grdina/Gary Peacock/Paul Motian – Think Like The Waves (Songlines)
Frank Kimbrough – Play (Palmetto)
Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project – Simpático (ArtistShare)
Brad Mehldau Trio – House On Hill (Nonesuch)
Francisco Mela – Melao (Ayva)
Trio Beyond – Saudades (ECM)
Tomasz Stanko Quartet – Lontano (ECM)

If you're interested in what other jazz journalists fell in love with this year, check out the Jazz Journalists Association annual Top 10 compendium, which will be posted shortly at our website.

Ornette on NPR

One of the joys of the Internet is the ability to access media from around the world, and for me here in Canada that includes National Public Radio in the US, which continues to employ freelance contributors like Kevin Whitehead and Ashley Kahn, and to look beneath the surface of the mainstream to feature artists who have something to say.

The most recent example of this is an interview with Ornette Coleman by Kahn, as well as an essay by Kahn on Coleman's new recording, Sound Grammar.

You can check it out under Arts & Culture at NPR's site.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Coming Into The Light

I recall being fascinated one night in 1973 on a post-high school trip to Europe when my friend and I stumbled onto a well-filmed performance (Les McCann, I believe it was) from the Montreux festival being broadcast on TV. Such things were unheard of in North America, but our Swiss hosts assured us this was commonplace on European television.

Back here at home, similar films would occasionally surface on the French-language service of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

So, we knew they were out there.

Now, it seems like a veritable treasure trove of rare live performances is about to be opened to North American audiences. As veteran jazz journalist Mike Zwerin discusses in his diary on the Jazz Journalists Association website, the first of a number of rare European TV performances have been released on DVD.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Year End

I received the first request for a year-end top 10 list the other day.

This always presents a challenge this time of year, because my list is far from carved in stone. I keep track of recordings that are worthy contenders throughout the year as I receive and hear them, but inevitably there are things I haven't delved into deeply enough by November to determine whether they'll bump something else off the list. For example, I haven't spent nearly enough time with three recordings I know will be contenders for my final list: the new Ornette Coleman, Dave Holland and Keith Jarrett. These are musicians whose work I savour, so I always set them aside for leisuretime listening, and that always seems to get pushed off by more pressing demands. There are also a number of things I should go through again; I know there's at least one Anthony Braxton set that I didn't pay enough attention to.

Still, there are a few things that seem like "locks" at this point. The Brian Lynch tribute to Eddie Palmieri with Phil Woods is exceptional, and is probably far enough up the list that it won't get bumped, and that's likely also the case for Andy Biskin's lovable blenderization of the Stephen Foster songbook with the great Pete McCann on guitar.

So, for some lists, like the one we post on the Jazz Journalists Association website, I'll stall until the last minute. There's just too much listening left to do.

The Miller's Tale

As a jazz writer, I have always felt a special allegiance with those musicians who continue to develop their voice over the course of their careers. When I have occasion to look back at something I wrote early in my writing life I recognize myself to be sure, but I also see stylistic tics and critical stances that strike me as a product of the times—the late 1970s—and my age.

Looking back over basically the same time and age span of my writing colleague Mark Miller—as captured in the new compilation of his reviews and essays, A Certain Respect for Tradition: Mark Miller on Jazz—I see a writer who found his voice early in his career and polished that gem rather than re-cut it. The earliest work in the book dates to 1980, when Miller was 29, and finds him as clear-eyed and succinct as he was when he retired from his post as jazz columnist with the Toronto-based Globe and Mail a year ago.

Another writing colleague—the Washington, DC-based Bill Shoemaker—cited Miller’s “scarily consistent excellence” in an essay of appreciation published after Mark’s premature retirement. All I can add is “Amen.”