Friday, December 28, 2007

Great Pianist, Not So Great Personality

Given the fact that his death was announced at mid-day on Christmas Eve and quickly overshadowed by news of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, it's possible that Oscar Peterson didn't get the coverage that might otherwise have been his due. Here in Canada, the accolades went on for hours on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Again, hard to judge what might've been the case had it not been the day before Christmas. I was surprised to see that an obituary I wrote so many years ago that I don't even have a digital copy of it was given extensive play in one of our national newspapers. Again, luck of the draw when most people have already headed home for the holidays.

In the obit I alluded to Peterson's tetchy personality, and his demands to be treated like a celebrity. Ironically, a number of other tributes noted that Peterson was a gentle giant from Montreal who was reluctant to move onto the world stage when impresario Norman Granz came calling in the late '40s. If Oscar was humble then, he sure learned how to be a royal pain later in life. He was too much the gentleman -- and too much in control of his public persona -- to ever insult an entire nation, but I'm sure he could've taught Keith Jarrett a thing or two about being a prima donna.

The stories of Peterson's demands for the star treatment are legendary -- there are at least three instances concerning promotions here in Ottawa (one of which drove a local company into bankruptcy) so one can only assume that he left damage like that in other places, too. My own experience dates to my years as a board member with the Ottawa International Jazz Festival. In my time there we booked some big names, including Ornette Coleman, Wynton Marsalis and Sonny Rollins, but Peterson was the only one who demanded a limousine be put at his disposal for the entire time he was in town. We ran on a ridiculously small budget, so that put a major dent in our finances. The fact that the limo caught fire while ferrying Peterson the short distance between his hotel and the concert venue is one of those stories that keep those of us who were involved with the event laughing.

For an artist who was lauded loudly in the press through six decades, Peterson was curmudgeonly when it came to jazz journalists. The last time that the International Association of Jazz Education held its annual conference in Toronto Peterson excoriated critics -- who make up a sizeable portion of the conference's attendees -- during a keynote address. Nice guy!

I couldn't help but laugh when I saw the juxtaposition in my obituary between a typically sour quote by Miles Davis about Peterson's ability to improvise and a Peterson quote saying that he didn't take criticism to heart because it never came from a fellow musician. I wish I could remember if I set that up, or if an editor did that, but I like to think it's payback for that limo ride.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Best Live Shows of '07

Since my concert calendar is clear for the remainder of 2007, I suppose it’s safe to select my top half-dozen live performances of the year (that’s barring the possibility that Sly Stone accepts my invitation to pop in and do a few songs at our New Year’s party).

Trio M: Guelph Jazz Festival – Three of my favourite musicians – Myra Melford, Mark Dresser and Matt Wilson – in a new band with a brand new book of compositions. What could go wrong? Well, you never know with a concert scheduled for mid-afternoon on a Saturday, but this one was stunning from the first to last notes. Her quicksilver phrasing and pointillistic technique make many people forget Melford’s background in stride piano and the blues, but this concert kept cycling back through language written in the ’20s and ‘30s, then springing forward to timeless improvisation. Wilson and Dresser are also masters of the signature statement: Wilson’s incredible cymbal dynamics, and Dresser’s unexpected ‘chords of doom.’ It’s a cliché now to use the metaphor of conversation for a jazz performance, but it was really apt for this show, with each musician possessing a distinctive accent yet sharing a familiar language. There was laughter and episodes of sustained tension; in short, a performance of the highest order.

Sten Sandell Trio with John Butcher: Vancouver International Jazz Festival – My notes for this show include a line that I decided was too cute by half to include in my DownBeat review: “You know a show is great when even the drum solo is memorable.” I write down all sorts of non-sequiturs when I’m reviewing a show, but my notes for this are pretty sparse; I was engrossed. This was the first time I’d seen Butcher live, and I was really floored by his technique, which is on a par with Evan Parker’s. He has the ability to sculpt phrases that shift from pure notes to micro-tonality. The show was one seamless piece, and for long periods drummer Paal Nilssen-Love was silent. At the end, he exploded into a solo that was one loud roar of noise. A perfect conclusion.

Kenny Wheeler All-Star Tribute: Art of Jazz, Toronto – The chemistry between Kenny Wheeler and bassist Dave Holland is always delightful, and with the piquant solo voice of Lee Konitz and vocalist Norma Winstone’s inventions added to that this was a sure-fire winner. The band pushed Wheeler to play outside his blurry, romantic comfort zone, and the program covered a wide range of his compositions.

John McLaughlin & the Fourth Dimension: Dominion-Chalmers United Church, Ottawa – I somehow missed the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s only appearance in Ottawa in 1972 and never thought I’d hear McLaughlin play with the volume and intensity that marked that band. Fronting an energetic trio that had chops to burn, McLaughlin was clearly enjoying himself, and playing with tremendous abandon.

The Bad Plus: Vancouver International Jazz Festival – An exceptionally clean sound mix in a big soft-seat theatre seems to be just what the trio needs to make every element of their sound pop out. A terrific version of Ornette Coleman’s “Song X.”

Carla Bley Orchestra: Art of Jazz, Toronto – A terrible outdoor venue, sound problems and a band that seldom plays together (albeit one stuffed with a lot of Toronto’s best players), and Bley’s book of compositions still sounds great.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Top 10s Flow

We've started posting members' top 10 lists at the Jazz Journalists Association site. It may be too early to detect a clear winner, but among the front runners at this early stage are: the Charles Mingus at Cornell concert with Eric Dolphy, Michael Brecker's Pilgrimage, Maria Schneider Sky Blue and the live recording by Hank Jones & Joe Lovano — one that somehow escaped my notice.

Only 14 lists posted so far, so many more to come. Keep an eye on it, especially if you have gift shopping to do.

Book Learning

About four years ago I started casting about for a university course or program that could fill in the (many) gaps in my knowledge about 20th-century music outside my roots in American blues and jazz. As the lines continue to blur between improvised music and contemporary classical music — especially as it relates to electronic music — I find myself wanting to know more about the evolution of these things outside the well-known "great men."

I never found a course within commuting distance or online, but with Alex Ross' new book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century, I'm feeling that my search may be over. Ross is such an engaging writer, and his research so compelling, that I feel it could provide enough jumping-off points to recordings and other reading that it will keep me busy for years.

Ross' book also provides a great bedside companion to the just-released new book by my colleague and friend Howard Mandel, Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz. The connection between those three giants of improvised music and Stravinsky, Debussy, Stockhausen and others is well known, but how did all these composer-performers help shape and reflect what we have come to know as the avant-garde?

Lots of great reading, thinking, and more listening to come.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Court Is Adjourned

Another reminder that Toronto isn't New York City after all.

Closed ("temporarily") just five months after opening to much fanfare, Live@Courthouse is now officially dead — leaving Toronto once again without a full-time jazz club that books touring artists over multi-night stands. According to Ashante Infantry's article in the Toronto Star, Nick Di Donato pulled his support from the project. The posh 150-seat club, which operated out of a building owned by Di Donato's Liberty Entertainment Group, was meant to showcase top-flight artists, but never scored a loyal audience.

Coming on the heels of failures by the Bermuda Onion, George's Spaghetti House, the Top o' the Senator and the Montreal Bistro, it raises the question if Toronto has what it takes to support jazz beyond what goes on at the rough-and-tumble Rex and the occasional other local venue. If the rumours prove true, and Toronto fails to draw U.S. attendees in sizable numbers to next January's International Association of Jazz Education conference (the event regularly attracts upwards of 4,500 delegates when it's in New York) the city is likely to develop a real complex.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Tick, Tick, Tick

Awww, mama! Can it really be that time again?

Yes, it's top 10 time, and though there's still so much to hear from 2007 — including some teetering stacks of review copies that I haven't cracked yet — I can't put off the editor's call for THE LIST.

Okay, here goes, keeping in mind that I know there must be even better stuff out there, just waiting to be heard.

They're in alphabetical order:

John Abercrombie Quartet – The Third Quartet (ECM)
Fred Anderson & Hamid Drake – From The River To The Ocean (Thrill Jockey)
Michael Brecker – Pilgrimage (Heads Up)
Miles Davis – The Complete On The Corner Sessions (Columbia/Legacy)
Dave Douglas Quintet – Live At The Jazz Standard (Greenleaf)
Paul Motian – Time And Time Again (ECM)
Michael Musillami Trio w/Mark Feldman – The Treatment (Playscape)
Dino Saluzzi/Anja Lechner – Ojos Negros (ECM)
Maria Schneider Orchestra – Sky Blue (ArtistShare)
Trio M – Big Picture (Cryptogramophone)

Recording Profits Up? Only In Canada

New figures from the Canadian government's official statistics department show that the Canadian recording industry turned a healthy profit in 2005, and that revenue from the sale of sound recordings increased 3.3 percent over 2003. That bucks the trend seen around the world.

There's no breakdown currently shown by musical genre, but a previous Statistics Canada study shows jazz revenues declining from 2002 to 2003.

Results from the new study are available here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Farewell, Habao

I received word this morning that my friend Joseph "Habao" Texidor died of a heart attack last Friday. Joe told me that he was a troubled young man when he met Rahsaan Roland Kirk one day in Colony Records in New York (Joe had just started work as a clerk in the store, and none of the other clerks liked dealing with Kirk) and his relationship with the saxophonist changed his life. As Kirk's percussionist and "eyes" on the road, Joe went around the world and got an extended education from one of the music's true geniuses.

Joe was a pretty shy, humble guy when I knew him, and over the years we emailed each other to mark the deaths of various people who had passed through Kirk's band. The last time we saw each other we had a Chinese meal in honour of pianist Hilton Ruiz, who was supposed to have joined us before he was murdered in New Orleans.

You won't find anything on Joe in any of the jazz encyclopedias, though he was an integral part of Kirk's recordings in the '70s, which makes me reflect on all the other forgotten and overlooked musicians who live anonymously years after adding to our enjoyment of the music.

You can watch Joe rocking out with Rahsaan on "Volunteered Slavery" here.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Now Spinning

Not surprisingly, pianist McCoy Tyner has tended to avoid collaborations with saxophonists since his years with John Coltrane, and those who have recorded with him inevitably face comparison with the mighty Trane. Seldom, though, has anyone stepped out in Tyner's company with as much authority and brio as Joe Lovano on Tyner's new live quartet recording — his debut on his McCoy Tyner Music imprint for Half Note Records. Lovano stops just short of stealing the show at the concert, which was recorded last New Year's at Yoshi's in Oakland. It's only by dint of having the last word on a solo take of "For All We Know" that Tyner reminds you that this is his recording, not Lovano's. Yeah, Joe sounds that good!

The rest of the band — Christian McBride and Jeff Watts — is not too shabby, either.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Mid-Winter Musical Break

Plans are quickly coming together for a memorable program at the Portland Jazz Festival in Oregon in mid-February. Guest artists include Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, the SFJAZZ Ensemble (with Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano & co.), the Bad Plus, Myra Melford and Tim Berne. And that's just the opening weekend!

Like the Guelph Jazz Festival, Portland includes a significant number of workshops and panel discussions, with this year's focus on celebrating and analyzing Coleman's remarkable half-century at centerstage.

Among the events will be an onstage conversation between Howard Mandel and Coleman, and panels featuring me, Mandel, Berne, Melford and others. Sounds like fun, no?

You can check out the plans here.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Music Is In The House

I didn't grow up in a church-going family; in fact, aside from a couple of curiosity-driven trips to Sunday school I didn't set foot in a church until I was deep into my teens. I don't know if that takes the sense of surprise away from concerts in churches (by this point, after numerous years of attending the Guelph Jazz Festival, I've definitely spent more time listening to music in churches than in listening to religious services) but the overblown setting of a particularly spectacular church can still add a dimension to certain musical performances.

Such was the case on Thursday night in Ottawa, when I caught John McLaughlin's electric quartet in a vaulted United church — reminiscent of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral on a smaller scale — and the following evening when I saw Patti Smith in Montreal's magnificent Eglise St-Jean-Baptiste. Both McLaughlin and Smith have woven spirituality into their music throughout their careers, and continue to call on some higher power to guide their art. Not surprisingly, both shows were uplifting: McLaughlin's through his band's soaring themes and lilting melodicism; Smith's through her devotion to wayward souls (quoting Ginsberg, Hendrix and Cobain among others) and her powerful call for audience members to speak out against oppression. Looking up at the opulent, rococo decorations of the cathedral, she said that brotherhood was the best message the Catholic Church had to offer. The two nuns seated in front of us would likely have agreed had they not already bailed (one had been nodding off) during "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Monday, October 01, 2007

48 Hours In New York

From left: Moderator Howard Mandel, Stanley Crouch, Ben Ratliff, Alain Derbez, Seda Binbasgil, Gary Giddins, Christian Broecking, Alex Dutilh, Francis Davis, Kazue Yokoi, Gwen Ansell, Greg Tate.

Photo by Sy Johnson © Copyright 2007

It really shouldn’t surprise me that the highlight of the one-day international symposium of jazz journalism, held Saturday at the Columbia University School of Journalism, was a piece of film that’s almost 50 years old. Amid more than 20 presentations – including my own on the cultural, economic and esthetic imperatives shaping contemporary jazz musicians – the most captivating few moments were delivered courtesy of a Swedish television program featuring Sonny Rollins, drummer Eddie Jones and bassist Wilbur Ware. Rollins – looking impossibly young, fit and patient with his Swedish host – was a breath of unfiltered, unquestioned and unadulterated fresh air – among many barbed comments, snipes, sidetracks and self-serving commentaries.

It never fails at these cultural symposia, music trumps scholarship – and the rarer the better. Even the longest-toothed among us had never seen this Rollins clip, and Swedish jazz historian Lars Westin wasn’t about to let it leave his hands, despite entreaties from my new friend Alain Derbez, who's about to launch a jazz television program on Mexico’s public broadcaster.

Ah, hey, we’re jazz journalists: over-caffeinated, over-opinionated, and over-stimulated by 48 hours of hanging with our peers and related brethren at the first-ever of these globally focused gab fests. Hats off to George Lewis (who is as adept an arts/academic administrator as he was a trombonist) and my pal Howard Mandel for making this happen. The vibe at the opening night cocktail party and hang at Harlem’s famed Lenox Lounge was electric. As British jazz writer and philosophy professor Andy Hamilton told me, “I’ve never met so many people I know through their bylines or email addresses.” If you weren’t catching up with someone you hadn’t seen in months, you were comparing notes with someone whose life revolves around the same central love.

Sometime in January, when Lewis’ new jazz studies program at Columbia gets its official launch, the daylong proceedings will be available as a streaming videocast (I’ll post details here). Until then, if you’re interested in an overview of the proceedings, log into the online discussion we posted during the event at the Jazz Journalists Association site. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to add them: Mandel, myself and others will be monitoring the open discussion and adding comments, answers and second thoughts, as required.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

An Online Global Community

Just a reminder that the Jazz Journalists Association will be hosting a live blog all day Saturday, September 29 from the Columbia University School of Journalism, the site of the first-ever international symposium on jazz journalism.

Hosted by Philadelphia-based journalist — and inveterate blogger — David Adler, the forum will allow participants around the world to get a taste of the discussions in New York and discuss some of the topics, all of which you can find listed here.

The Interactiview software we use on JazzHouse is pretty intuitive, and there's a help screen if you get stuck at any point. One tip: refresh your screen frequently. It's also best to use the overview screen, and then dip into the various threads as they catch your interest. If you want to get a sense for how it works, you can find some archived Interactiview discussions here.

I'm not sure yet (maybe he's not, either) how David's going to approach this, but knowing his keen imagination and far-ranging interests, I'm sure it will be fascinating.

This is a new venture for the JJA, so we'd love to hear your feedback after the event. You can send them to me: jhale -at-

Friday, September 21, 2007

Forecasting The Future

As noted in an earlier post, I'll be taking part next Saturday in a day-long symposium on jazz and globalization being staged at Columbia University's School of Journalism in Manhattan.

The panel I'll be on — along with Bill Shoemaker (top left, Washington, DC), Maxi Sickert (top right, Germany) and Cyril Moshkow (far left, Moscow) — will be addressing the topic: "Who are the new musicians of our time? What are the local and international traditions and aesthetics that inform their work? What kinds of aesthetic, economic, methodological, and cultural alignments are musicians pursuing in the 21st Century?" K. Leander Williams (near left) is the moderator.

As I've also posted, I'm in the middle of putting together a feature-length obituary of Joe Zawinul, and the more I listen to Zawinul's music and talk to people like drummer Peter Erskine and producer Bob Belden the more it's clear that Zawinul could really serve as the model for the modern jazz musician of the world. Many of the people who seem to be changing the traditional definition of a jazz musician — and I would include people like Vijay Iyer, Myra Melford, Cuong Vu, Dave Douglas, Gordon Grdina and John Hollenbeck in this category — are coming from backgrounds other than the standard music institutions and often pursuing musical careers only after other intellectual interests. Their music, like Zawinul's, reflects their diversity of backgrounds and interests, and they are finding new avenues to get their music heard.

Anyway, lots to think about and synthesize into a presentation for next week.

Plans are firming up to have a live webcast of the symposium, which features a wide range of jazz journalists from around the world, and to open the proceedings up to a broad audience through a live blog that Philadelphia-based writer David Adler will be maintaining on the Jazz Journalists Association website. Tune in!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Now Spinning

The clear highlight of the recent Guelph Jazz Festival was a mid-afternoon performance by Trio M — a collective featuring Myra Melford, Mark Dresser and Matt Wilson — no small feat in a lineup that also featured Anthony Braxton and Liberation Music Orchestra.

The concert was an energetic display of Melford's under-valued and little recognized strength as a Chicago-bred blues player, and Dresser and Wilson goosed her along enthusiastically until the three players were cracking up onstage at the creative sparks that were flying.

The trio's new CD — just out on Cryptogramophone — is a more considered affair, but no less entertaining. While it misses some of the electricity of the live Guelph performance, the communication between the three is very strong, and the compositions — three by Melford and two each by Dresser and Wilson — are thorny and compelling.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Joe Zawinul

My first thought on hearing about Joe Zawinul's unexpected death this morning was that he had always seemed too tough to die — sort of the jazz version of Jack Palance or Charles Bronson. Zawinul could've been a great boxer; he had that attitude of never backing down, and his bristling ego was cut with just enough intelligence (to say nothing of talent) to make you forgive him any boast.

Despite the earlier demise of Michael Brecker, Zawinul's death seems to hit harder for those of us who came of age in the jazz-rock fusion era.

DownBeat has assigned Zawinul's obituary to me, so I'll be listening and thinking about him for the next couple of weeks, and remembering how many hours I've spent in his musical company over the years.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

More on Guelph?

Due to a dodgy Internet connection at my hotel, it was difficult to post anything in a timely manner. Hopefully, I'll get caught up on some reflections later this week. Suffice to say, outstanding shows by Myra Melford's Trio M (with Mark Dresser and Matt Wilson) and Anthony Braxton's Diamond Curtain Wall Trio +1.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Guelph Jazz Festival

Guelph is one festival that challenges you in many ways: it occurs in what is usually the most time-challenged weeks of the year; it demands that you stay up late and get up early; and most significantly, it hurls ideas at you.

After a late night catching up with friends and listening to Rob Manzurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra and the Toronto collective Do Make Say Think, it was demanding to hear a 9 a.m. keynote address by Anthony Braxton. One feared a dense, frustrating presentation like the one Ornette Coleman delivered at last winter’s IAJE; instead, what was delivered was a fascinating lecture that crystallized 30 years of listening to Braxton’s music into total clarity. Not only did it clarify a lot of Braxton’s unique musical nomenclature and language, but it clarified – reinforced, really – the fact that Braxton’s humanity crackles through everything he puts his hand to.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

It Must Be Fall

I'll be on assignment at the Guelph Jazz Festival this week.

Watch for some reports on Anthony Braxton, Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, William Parker, Myra Melford and others.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Now Spinning

The co-operative trio Jewels and Binoculars (Michael Moore, Lindsey Horner, Michael Vatcher) has stretched their interest in the music of Bob Dylan further than anyone probably thought possible. They keep hitting on key components of Dylan's tunes — finding attractive riffs or telling turns of phrase to emphasize. They also dig deep into the catalogue, finding obscure pieces like "Jack-a-Roe" and "Cold Irons Bound" to place alongside tunes that anyone could hum, like "If You See Her, Say Hello" and "Gates Of Eden."

It all drives me back to Dylan's best single package of work, which I had on cassette for years but just recently got on CD. The jewels keep popping to the surface, but no matter how many times you listen, "Blind Willie McTell" always shines. Happy to see that Jewels and Binoculars love it too.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Zwerin Still Alive & Well

I'm thrilled to see that my buddy Mike Zwerin, Bloomberg News' jazz columnist, is out of hospital and still smiling.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Columbia University Jazz Symposium

As noted in an earlier post, I'll be part of a day-long symposium on globalism and jazz at Columbia University's School of Journalism in New York City on Saturday, September 29. Others featured throughout the day include Gary Giddins, Greg Tate, Francis Davis, Howard Mandel and Stanley Crouch, all from the U.S., and a raft of international jazz journalists, including fellow Canadian Ashante Infantry from The Toronto Star.

The symposium is part of a festival of music and jazz films sponsored by Columbia's jazz studies program and the community of Harlem, among others. You can get more details here.

Drop by if you're in the NYC area.

The Jazz Journalists Association will also be blogging live from the symposium, and I'll post more details on that as they develop.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Bad August

What a terrible month it has been for jazz creators and commentators of the first order.

First it was Art Davis, Max Roach and Herb Pomeroy, and now word has arrived of the death of British journalist Richard Cook, following a brief and very secret battle with cancer. Cook, probably best known for the series of Penguin guides he co-wrote with his friend Brian Morton, was only 50 years old.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Now Spinning

I thought I would introduce a new, ongoing section to catalogue what I'm currently listening to, any comments, and sometimes why.

Two drummers have my attention right now (perhaps because I'm missing Max Roach so damn much):

John Hollenbeck's new Claudia Quintet CD, For, on Cuneiform, because anything John does is worth hearing, and a friend just reminded me what a brilliant and original composer John is. So far I'm loving it.

Paul Motian's new live CD featuring his Trio 2000 with Greg Osby and Masabumi Kikuchi added. Motian's touch is just so great.

Friday, August 17, 2007

An Ear Hiatus

My vacation took me to Canada's east coast, and travelling with my aged parents meant that my wife and I didn't indulge in much music -- apart from catching a nice accordion duo at the famous Ship Pub in St. John's and a great, raucous reggae/ska band that my daughter loves.

I haven't gone this long without music in many, many years, and it creates an interesting effect that I relate to one of those palette-cleansing thimblefuls of sorbet you get at some restaurants. Everything sounds cleaner, deeper.

Thus refreshed, it's back into the fray. It promises to be an interesting fall, with a terrific lineup at the Guelph Jazz Festival, an international conference on jazz journalism at Columbia University, and an Ottawa gig (his first, I think) by John McLaughlin.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

There's A Sign Upon My Door

No new posts until after August 15.

Like Louis sang to Papa Bing: "Gone fishing, by a shady, wade-y pool."

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Dog Days

The weeks after the initial blast of jazz festivals in June and early July are always a bit of down time for me. The only live music I've seen is George Clinton & The P-Funk All-Stars, by special request of my younger daughter. That was a lot of fun, almost as much for the audience of 20,000+ as the assembled Clinton crew. The funk was thick, but I couldn't help wishing for a rhythm section as tight as Miles' circa 1972. Always the critic, even on holiday!

I've been enjoying Maria Schneider's new CD in preparation for a DownBeat review, and just today dug into the new Nostalgia 77 release for the same reason. On the first couple of spins, I thought it lived up to the promise of "Portishead meets Charles Mingus." That was while driving, though; it might come in for harder criticism when I sit down with it in earnest tomorrow.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Closing The Curtains On Two Jazz Venues

The end of the main batch of Canada’s jazz festivals also marks the last festival shows in two of the country’s most-venerated rooms: the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (“the Cultch” to one and all) and Montreal’s Spectrum. Both are slated to close this fall – the Cultch for major, much-needed, renovations; the Spectrum for demolition.

While neither venue has attained the kind of shrine-like status that the Village Vanguard, The Five Spot or Birdland hold, each has generated its own share of memories among jazz fans, and raise the issue of what gives a musical venue its character.

Personally, I never cared much for The Spectrum as a listening room, though I’ve heard some great sets by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, James Carter with D.D. Jackson and Masada there. Outside of the jazz realm, I also recall a show by Devo – their first performance outside the U.S. – when the buzz in the room was as tangible as any I’ve ever felt. What the place always had for me was a great funky vibe, owing to its roots in the early ‘50s, when Montreal was a hotbed for nightclubs and the neighbourhood on eastern Ste. Catherine Street was really marginal. The terraced sections in the club remind me of photographs I’ve seen of the classic Manhattan clubs from Damon Runyon’s day.

My experience with the Cultch is much briefer, dating only to 2003, but it immediately won a place in my heart because it is so definitively West Coast without even trying. First, there’s its location up the hill from the cross-cultural buffet that is Commercial Drive. Then, there’s the hip, little snack bar with great coffee and local artisan beers, and the ability to order your intermission drinks before the show starts. The portico’ed entrance and side parking lot invite patrons outside to chat and critique opening sets. And all that says nothing about the sheer intimacy of the performing space itself, with its cozy, U-shaped balcony and small stage. Even the bad shows I’ve seen there – are you listening In The Country? – have felt personal if nothing else. Put a big group, like the Dedication Orchestra, in there and the place literally fills with sound, creating an unforgettable experience.

I haven’t heard about what the new Cultch will look like, though John Orysik tells me the renovation will be substantial (the place will be closed for two years). Hopefully, it will retain its best qualities while adding things like modern washrooms and some type of air conditioning.

None of this is to say that jazz rooms have to be decades old to have that certain something. The Fourth Stage at the National Arts Centre here in Ottawa has a great vibe, terrific sightlines, first-rate sound and good bar service. Although the building is now 40 years old, the venue is less than a decade old and it’s wired with a state-of-the-art fibre optics system for broadband simulcasting. Iridium in Times Square manages to re-create that classic New York jazz bar feel without resorting to the faux-nostalgia that permeates so many other “attractions” in the area. On the other hand, The Knitting Factory, despite being wired for the Information Age, never really did it for me. Unless you score one of the four good seats in the balcony of the main room, watching music being made there has always been somewhat uncomfortable.

Here’s hoping that festival organizers in Vancouver and Montreal can find substitutes for what they’ve lost. Like all good things, they’ll probably only know what they’re looking for when they’ve found it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

JJA Awards

While I was in Vancouver my colleagues at the Jazz Journalists Association were feting the winners of our annual music and media awards.

For a full list of winners, check out the JJA site.

Here's Maria Schneider accepting her award for Arranger of the Year. The photo is by Enid Farber.

Day & Night

The weekend found me at two ends of the musician/audience relationship spectrum.

First, drummer Matt Wilson, as generous a performer as you’ll find anywhere. Despite a horrendous travel day that began before dawn for a performance that ended after midnight, Wilson was both warm and witty as he led his recently re-constituted Arts & Crafts quartet at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. Paraphrasing Phil Woods, Wilson said: “You don’t get paid to play; you get paid to get there. My hourly rate is pretty low today.”

Flash forward less than 24 hours and listen to Keith Jarrett threaten to skip an encore after several audience members at Montreal’s Place des Arts had the temerity to take his photograph as his trio took their bows. After cussing out the photographers, he further ingratiated himself by dumping on the city’s dominant French-language media. No word on whether he threw the mattress out of his five-star hotel room and ordered a new $2,000 one in, as he did during the Toronto stop on his tour.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Vancouver Day Five and Out

My last day in Vancouver was full! I moved from a long lunch with one of my oldest friends to dinner with fellow DownBeat critic Greg Buium to a very satisfying -- and exceptionally well-mic'ed -- set by The Bad Plus. By then I was sated, and ready to find an outdoor cafe to settle into the soft Pacific air with a copy of David Lee's new book on Ornette Coleman.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Vancouver Day Four

One of the most enjoyable parts of any jazz festival is hanging out between shows with fans, listening to them talk about music and musicians. You get a feeling for the draw of various festivals, for one thing. Tonight, between shows by a pair of superior trumpet quartets -- led by Jens Winther and Brad Turner respectively -- I met a guy who travelled all the way from Regina for the festival. You also get a feel for the quality of the local fans, just like you can for fans of hockey or baseball by how well they grasp the nuances of the game. Last night, I overheard two guys discussing how the Vancouver festival has changed drum suppliers. Now that's nuance!

And when jazz journalists aren't hanging at concerts, they can usually be found schmoozing. There's never any shortage of that in Vancouver, thanks to the great hospitality of festival co-founder and media guru John Orysik. Here's our host (right) with Larry Appelbaum, JazzTimes and the Library of Congress, (left), yours truly, and fellow DownBeat critic Greg Buium, who was covering the Vancouver fest for the Globe and Mail newspaper.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Vancouver Day Three

Such is the spectrum of life in Vancouver that in a single day one can move easily between the deck of a multi-million dollar house with a spectacular view of the city and a torturous folding chair inside the elegantly distressed "Cultch."

I have to thank my old friend Peter Grainger for the entree into the view of how the top one percent of Canadian income earners live, and Danish guitarist Pierre Dorge for a show that encapsulated everything the Vancouver jazz festival represents: humour, adventure, a world view, and what can only be termed spirituality through music. Dorge's New Jungle Orchestra travels contrasting worlds rapidly too, swinging easily between the blues and South African township jive.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Vancouver Day Two, Part Two

How do you tell when a show's really good? Even the drum solo works.

Bad drummer jokes aside, tonight's Sten Sandell show with guest John Butcher was really first rate: one long, textured piece that climaxed with a rumbling solo by Paal Nilssen-Love, and a shorter one that was equally interesting.

That was the opener for an explosive set by Cuong Vu's regular trio. Vu had originally planned to split his set between songs from his last album, It's Mostly Residual, and a couple of new pieces he's about to record in Mexico City, but after the first of the two new ones he apologized that he was "out of gas" because of a lack of recent practice. A refreshing admission when he might just as easily faked his way through it.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Vancouver Day Two

I've written before that Vancouver's festival is somewhat unique in that it is a number of festivals within a festival; you could spend an unmatched 10 days just hanging out at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, the Commodore Ballroom, the Orpheum, or any combination of about a dozen key venues. Size is also an important factor in how good this festival is. As excellent as the Montreal festival can be, I have never been drawn to joining 10,000 people trying to hear a free show on Ste. Catherine Street, and pushing through the mob -- which can range up to 100,000 depending on what's going on can really be crazy (gee, can't wait 'til I'm there again next week). Here, the scale makes more sense. This is the first time that I've been at the Vancouver festival during opening weekend, when free shows are held in the main tourist area of Gastown. I was pleasantly surprised to find small stages, especially a really nice one erected at the bottom of a natural, grass-covered amphitheatre (shades of the old Ottawa jazz fest in the days when I was involved with it). It that respect, it reminds me of the San Jose jazz festival, one of my favourites and a sadly under-rated one.

Vancouver Day 1

I flew to Vancouver early yesterday morning for the start of the jazz festival. Always a treat coming to my favourite city for what many consider to be the best-programmed festival in North America.

Jet lag took the edge off my enjoyment of Aki Takase's Fats Waller Project -- with Rudi Mahall, Eugene Chadbourne, Nils Wogram and Paul Lovens -- but it was a terrific, energetic and humour-filled show. I've never been a huge fan of Chadbourne's, but he fits well into this band, bringing some of Waller's nonsensical manic energy. Lovens is the perfect drummer for this, too; just a powerhouse, but never too loud.

The show, at the funky Vancouver East Cultural Centre, began with a set of duets between Takase and Mahall, which illustrated their great rapport. They both have a great sense of the absurd, and both the music and between-song banter between them was filled with humour. To say nothing of the fact that their both among the best technicians on their instruments.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Avant-Garde Economics

A couple of years ago, guitarist Marc Ribot wrote an essay about the dark future he saw for music that lives on the margins of popular taste.

Now, he’s re-positioned his thesis against the backdrop of the death of the Lower Manhattan club Tonic and the general shrinking of commercial fortunes for improvised music. He makes a particularly cogent argument for how socially/culturally conscious European countries have supported the avant-garde movement in New York City.

Very interesting, if somewhat depressing, reading.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Hot Enough to Melt a Plastic Saxophone

Scary news about Ornette Coleman, who collapsed during a set by his band at the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. The temperature at the outdoor venue was close to 100 degrees, and Coleman, 77, was reported to be suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion. After receiving some water, he was helped from the stage.

While it’s great to see Ornette getting a venue to reach a younger generation again – as he did with Prime Time in the ‘80s – you’d think festival organizers would make provisions to take better care of their aging stars. How about installing some of those cool-air mist machines they use on the sideline at NFL games?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A '90s List

Destination: Out just published the results of a poll of musicians and journalists to determine their favourite recordings from the 1990s. Looking back, it was a pretty good decade for improvised music. For most of the decade I was reviewing for a daily newspaper as well as DownBeat, Coda and a handful of other magazines, so I listened to a lot of music critically. This list brings back some fond memories. Be sure to check out the site because there is a ton of related and supporting material, including the individual ballots of some people like Gary Giddins.

Here are the top vote getters:

1 Sonny Sharrock, Ask the Ages - 9 mentions
2 Anthony Braxton, Willisau (Quartet) 1991 - 6
3 Ornette Coleman, Tone Dialing - 5
Henry Threadgill, Too Much Sugar for a Dime - 5
4 Charles Gayle, Touchin’ on Trane - 4
5 Ornette Coleman, Sound Museum: Hidden Man - 3
Bill Dixon, Vade Mecum I/II - 3
Dave Douglas, Constellations - 3
Bill Frisell, This Land - 3
David Murray, Shakill’s Warrior - 3
Maria Schneider, Evanessance - 3
David S. Ware, Flight of I - 3
David S. Ware, Go See the World - 3

Monday, June 11, 2007

Festival Funk

Is it time for a new model for jazz festivals?

That question came up this weekend when I was going over a couple of schedules for upcoming events with a friend who I frequently hang with at these things. There’s little doubt about the validity of George Wein’s original idea: essentially, bring together a bunch of musicians on the same stage to get fans out of the hot city and dark "jazz basements" for a couple or three days. More than 50 years later there’s still few things better than lounging outdoors while great music wafts through the air.

But increasingly, festivals have ballooned up to 10 days (two prime weekends) and added layers of programming on side stages and at satellite sites. At some events – Montreal comes to mind above all others – scheduling can prove to be a major headache, as you rush between sites trying to hear everything you want to catch, or worse, miss things. Even when festivals lay things end to end, a few days at one of these events can leave you wrung out and struggling to recall just what you heard. (Back when I was something of a jazz journalism martyr I tried filing more than a dozen stories from a 10-day festival. By the end, I felt like I might explode if I heard one more Monk tune.)

These days I try to take a longer view in festival coverage, but I have the advantage of doing this for fun and profit. What about the average fan? Does the model still work for him or her as festivals increasingly push package deals (“passports”) as a way of maximizing attendance?

I don’t think I’m just being jaded when I look at most festival schedules now and start humming Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”. There just doesn’t seem to be much creativity in the programming these days at most festivals. Often, it seems to be programming by rote – Who’s on the road? What are the other festivals doing? – without much outreach from artistic director to musician. The result for the jazz fan is akin to surveying a large-but-boring buffet table.

A musical form as creative as jazz deserves a business model that’s equally creative. It’s time for someone to come up with something as innovative and popular as Wein’s Newport model.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Art Of Jazz

Not sure whether it was the hotel connection or Blogspot, but I haven't been able to connect since I got to Toronto for the Art of Jazz festival on Friday.

Terrific shows by a Kenny Wheeler sextet with Norma Winstone, Lee Konitz, Dave Holland, Don Thompson and Joe LaBarbera, a Konitz trio with LaBarbera and Toronto bassist Kieran Overs, and a special Carla Bley/Steve Swallow big band with a handful of Toronto's top players (including festival co-organizer Jane Bunnett, Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke) and some Bley standbys like Gary Valente and Howard Johnson.

The Wheeler show was in the funky -- and cavernous -- old distilling building that is one of the centrepieces of Toronto's historic Distillery District. He was in better form than is often the case these years, and Winstone proved again that she is the ideal partner for him, transforming a number of his melancholy melodies into touching songs of love and regret. Any band with Holland on bass is interesting, and he was just a pillar of strength on this gig.

Saturday morning featured a Q&A session with Bley and Swallow, which despite being in a less than hospitable outdoor setting, provided some illuminating insights into their working processes.

It was a hot, humid day, and the outdoor site was baking by mid-afternoon's gig with Konitz, but his set was a relaxing series of standards and originals that allowed the leader to show his unique voice and mastery of the alto sax.

What to say about Bley's music? Just that it is a rich palette that allows players of this calibre to sound like themselves while building taut, dynamic performance pieces.

It was an exciting weekend in Toronto, with the gala opening of Daniel Libeskind's new addition to the Royal Ontario Museum and a number of events associated with the premiere of the Luminato festival, and Art of Jazz -- now in its second year -- added some high-profile improvised music to the mix.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Postcards From Obscurity

One of the half-forgotten surprises that turned up during my research into Andrew Hill’s career was the terrific 1994 session led by bassist Reggie Workman, Summit Conference, on the short-lived Postcards label.

Aside from Hill (this was his first significant recorded appearance after returning to New York City from the West Coast) the disc also features Sam Rivers and Julian Priester -- equally lost from active recording at the time -- as well as drummer Pheeroan akLaff. Great blowing by all involved, and includes Hill's "Gone," which he was no longer.

By the way, the Hill piece will appear in the August issue of DownBeat, out July 15.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

One In 365

You could be philosophical about it and say "It never rains but it pours," or simply scratch your head at the absurdity of some conflicting bookings.

The source of this head scratching is the simultaneous occurrence of the all-star tribute to Kenny Wheeler and a Cecil Taylor solo performance in Toronto next Friday evening.

Toronto – big as it is – is not New York City, so it's not like there are scores of jazz events happening every night.

What are the odds of having to choose between Dave Holland, Bob Brookmeyer, Lee Konitz and Wheeler, and Taylor?

Well, yeah, they're one in 365, but what are the odds?

Since I have an assignment to review the Wheeler tribute I'll have to placate myself with Live At Willisau, my favourite Taylor solo CD. That's the one with the amazing Bosendorfer sound and with Cecil so jacked to play that he kicks off before the audience is even seated.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Out On Highway 61

Although I've been aware of the '33-1/3' series since it started, I'd never picked any editions up until I spotted a bunch of them at a Chapters store the other day. Faced with a dozen or so choices I gravitated to the album I probably know better than any other: Highway 61 Revisited. While it wasn't the first record I bought for myself in the mid-'60s, it was the first to truly capture my imagination. Everything from the cover of Dylan in the garish silk shirt and Triumph motorcycle T-shirt to the surrealistic liner notes fascinated me, and the music still thrills. Author Mark Polizzotti's attraction to the album runs parallel, so I'm digging his detailed analysis and background.

Coincidentally, my local library just delivered a mint copy of Gary Marmorstein's new book, The Label: The Story of Columbia Records (Avalon), of which Dylan plays a small part. The book got a middling review in The New York Times, and I'm already wary because the jacket copy misspells Janis Joplin's name. Not a good sign, but the subject matter is fascinating, if only from the perspective of the calibre of artists – spanning the full range of music – who once worked for the label.

I skipped the Victoriaville festival last weekend, so my festival season doesn't start in earnest until next Friday when I head west to Toronto for Jane Bunnett's Art Of Jazz festival. Needless to say, there will be live reports. Stay tuned. We'll be back to more frequent postings.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Back Catalogue Prices

This probably doesn't apply to consumers outside Canada -- if it does, let me know -- but I've been surprised to find back catalogue CDs of Andrew Hill's listed for $25 and $26 (plus shipping and taxes). That's when you can find them.

Knowing the economics of back catalogue material, this seems like a ripoff of huge proportions on the part of EMI (the Blue Notes are those that seem priced the highest).

Of course, you can download most of these for less than $12 on iTunes, and find some of the more popular CDs on Amazon, but for those looking at expanding their collections to include some of the most exciting and -- my key finding over the past weeks of deep listening -- timeless recordings of the 1960s, it's bad news.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Appreciating Andrew Hill

Somewhat ironic given the nature of my previous post, I’ve been engaged over the past week in researching a fairly major tribute to Andrew Hill.

It has been awhile since I listened closely to his early landmarks like Judgment! and Point Of Departure, and of course you hear different things when you listen with the benefit of time and a different context.

Apart from the confidence that one hears in Hill’s early work, it’s impossible not to notice how his early signatures – particularly the episodic nature of many of his compositions and the angularity of his notated phrasing – have become lingua franca for many contemporary composers. It is, of course, impossible to isolate the influence of one particular musician without considering the achievements of his or her predecessors – possible influences – but from the vantage point of 2007 one might actually speculate that Hill’s influence is more broadly felt than Monk’s.

Sacrilege? Perhaps, but as widespread as Monk’s tunes have become, it is his quirky performance techniques – and the freedom his approach granted to all – that dominate his memory. With Hill, the influence seems more universal, beyond simply compositional or technical characteristics to something more pervasive.

All that being stated, I’d still like to plumb the depths of those knotty late-career solo outings in 1996-98 beyond what my own memory provides, which is always shaky at best.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Remembering Andrew Hill, 1931-2007

It might be a strange way to start a remembrance of a recently deceased artist, but I’ll freely admit that I had a love/hate relationship with Andrew Hill’s music. The fault was mine, of course; Hill’s music sometimes just outwitted me. I’m thinking of two solo performances of Hill’s I witnessed within 18 months of each other about 10 years ago. I left, frustrated, each time, well before Hill had left the stage. Well, not exactly. The first time, here in Ottawa, Hill left the stage numerous times, sometimes so briefly that it seemed that he might just be circling the backstage area for exercise, other times more decisively, perhaps to be shooed back onstage by the concert’s organizers. Each time, he left phrases unresolved; once, his hands poised over the keyboard and then withdrawn in second thought.

These two instances jarred with my reactions to Hill’s groundbreaking recordings on Blue Note in the 1960s and his later recordings for both Palmetto and the re-formulated Blue Note. I found Dusk ravishing and wrote glowingly of it. I assume I hit the mark with the artist since my remarks were quoted – without permission, as per the norm – to promote the recording. So we were simpatico there. But what to make of those solo performances? I wish I had recordings of them, because I’d love to plumb their depths and try to understand Hill’s logic, get as simpatico with him on those pieces as I was with others.

But my reaction speaks to why Andrew Hill’s passing deserves our attention; he was an original thinker and player.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Pulitzer Puzzle

I don’t begin to understand the politics or external pressures behind the selection of the annual Pulitzer Prize awards, but it is gratifying to see the recognition given this week to Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane – even though everything related to jazz and the Pulitzer is viewed through the lens of the initial shunning of Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis’ win for his 1997 recording Blood On The Fields.

In my field – journalism – the Pulitzer (which was, after all, originally a journalism prize) has always seemed relatively without controversy. It has often recognized the stellar work of lesser-known reporters and small-circulation newspapers, as well as being given to news organizations with the budgets to devote endless resources to a story. In literature and music, things get murkier. As an outsider, it would seem that in the realm of these artistic endeavours the Pulitzers resemble any of the other major U.S. awards: recognition for well-liked, predominantly mainstream, artists. Fans of Cormac McCarthy – a novelist justifiably compared to Ernest Hemingway – have been outraged for years that he has been passed over in favour of writers with less command of the language but more clout in the marketplace. As one of his fans, I’m pleased to see his name on this year’s list, although it’s ironic that it comes only after McCarthy’s latest book, The Road, was selected by Oprah Winfrey for inclusion in her “book club.” There are also those who would argue that The Road is not as deserving as earlier works like Blood Meridian or All The Pretty Horses.

The same argument can be made for Coleman’s Sound Grammar – a fine recording to be sure, but no Free Jazz, This Is Our Music! or Tomorrow Is The Question. Still, in this year that finds Coleman feted on the Grammy Awards and lauded at the International Association of Jazz Education conference, who can complain about whatever gives him his due after years of surviving in the wilderness.

Coltrane’s Pulitzer Special Citation is also overdue, but also welcome; again, perhaps the Pulitzer committee’s way of making amends for past exclusion.

Now, let’s hope that Cecil Taylor is on next year’s list. Like Coleman, he’s both a vital force in contemporary music and an innovator who should have been recognized years ago.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Keys To The Future

I've been working off and on over the past couple of months on a story for DownBeat about a very cool distance education program between the Manhattan School of Music and Canada's National Arts Centre here in Ottawa. Look for it in DB's "On Campus" section sometime in the fall.

Yesterday, as part of the story, I attended a piano masterclass by Kenny Barron. Barron was at the Steinway in the beautiful, new performance space at the Manhattan School of Music, and the students and an audience of +100 were here in Ottawa. The broadband technology is so good that Barron's Steinway sounded like it was in the house -- perhaps not with as much low-end presence as it would have if it was in the room, but clear as a bell.

There were four young pianists playing for Barron: Steve Boudreau from Ottawa, David Ryshpan (who had a trio) from McGill's Schulich School of Music in Montreal, Victor Cheng from the University of Toronto, and Hayoun Lee from Toronto's Humber College. All of them were quite good, but Lee in particular has really stayed on my mind. He performed a very moody "It Never Entered My Mind" and followed it with a crystalline take on "All The Things You Are." Both of them were filled with space, and Lee really impressed with his ability to take his time and maintain the languid feel throughout the pieces. I know from experience that the tendency when you're young and playing in an uncomfortable situation is to rush, but Lee didn't at all. Obviously, Lee's had years of classical training, but this was in another realm. The kicker was that when Barron asked him who his jazz influences were he replied that most of his musical influences were either hip-hop artists or Radiohead. Obviously, he's heard some Brad Mehldau along the way, but his command of time and mood was just exceptional.

Speaking of Mehldau, I've been sorting through some CDs I've been meaning to get to, and finally got around to listening to Mehldau's appearance on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz radio program from 1996, which was recently released on disc. This was three years before DownBeat selected him as one of the 25 young artists to watch and just after the release of his first recording (he mentions how little solo work he'd done to that point) and it's interesting to hear how his style has evolved since then.

It's also interesting how, 12 years later, we immediately think of Mehldau when we hear someone like Lee stretching and de-constructing a tune while pledging allegiance to Radiohead.

As usual, all this makes me shake my head when I think of people who say jazz is dead or dying.

Watch out for Hayoun Lee and those three other players.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

What's In Store?

I don’t live in a huge city, but the population is around 750,000 and it is a gigantic tourist draw. There’s no shortage of shoppers in the downtown area.

With that as background, understand my reaction to the scene at the only brand-name music store – a branch of British chain HMV – near the epicentre of this busy tourist city. On offer were probably less than 1,000 jazz CDs, which included many, many copies of recordings by Nora Jones and Diana Krall – I think this may be the first time I’ve noticed Krall CDs outnumbering those by Miles Davis: no small feat considering how many more recordings Davis made.

Is it any wonder that CD sales declined 20% in the last measured period, and that jazz sales in particular are in the dumper? It’s like these retailers have just given up. Fully half the store is given over to DVDs.

My line of work means I have plenty to listen to without venturing into music stores much, and what I do buy, I buy online, so the decline in marketing efforts, meagre size of stock and variety was a bit of a shock.

I’d love to hear what the situation is like where you live.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Delayed Gratification

Apple TV – Apple’s latest innovation, which promises to do for video content what their iPod did for sound – has me thinking about obsession and the attraction of the unobtainable.

When I was 17 and deeply in the hold of a raging music addiction, I spent endless hours in the shallow basement of a local clothing boutique poring over the plastic-jacketed sleeves of LPs, searching for a few gems. I had a list, cobbled together from my equally obsessive reading of Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy and whatever books on music I could find. I wish I could remember exactly what was on it, but suffice to say there were a dozen or so recordings that I had read about that held the promise of unlocking the doors to an unknown universe. I know for sure Muddy Waters was on there, because I remember arriving home with a copy of a stunning double-LP collection of Chess singles called McKinley Morganfield aka Muddy Waters, putting it on and hearing the primal guitar of Jimmy Rogers and the harmonica of Walter Jacobs combine in a way I’d only imagined. It’s probably safe to say that Elmore James was on the list, too. Rounding out my interest in seminal electric blues was early John Lee Hooker, driven by a wonderful description of a solo Hooker recording (probably by Pete Welding) that compared the sound to something cut into a roofing tile using a dull nail. I had to hear that!

Anyway, there I was in that basement record store with my list, getting that distinctive greasy, dusty feeling on my fingertips by pawing through the bins of LPs on display. Salesman John Pivas was cool because he’d let you play whatever caught your fancy (thanks, John!). As well as finding those records on the list one by one, I discovered countless others that spawned more lists. I was a veritable prototype of the character Nick Hornby wrote about in High Fidelity – actually more of a stereotype (which is a delightful pun when you think about it) because it turns out there were thousands of us out there.

While I know there are still 17-year-old obsessives, I can’t imagine they savour the same thrill of the hunt, unless they are completist collectors – a different breed altogether, more interested in acquisition than music. With whatever you want to hear just a couple of mouse clicks away, the hunt becomes more, What do I need to hear? rather than, Where can I hear this?

This isn’t meant as an old fogey’s rant against technology – I embrace innovation – but those kinds of list-driven scavenger hunts fuel the imagination in a way that instant access can’t possibly. Hearing Muddy Waters’ “Two Trains Running” 10 seconds after realizing that you want to hear it, can’t possibly be as satisfying as hearing it at the end of long search.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Court Is In Session

A new jazz club, Live @ Courthouse, opens in Toronto March 22 – a new, permanent venue to take up the slack created when the Montreal Bistro and Top o’ the Senator stopped presenting live jazz. With 25-foot ceilings, an oak stage, two levels of seating, and an ambience based on Spike Lee’s film, Mo’ Better Blues, Courthouse is no basement dive. The owners – Liberty Group Entertainment – estimate that they’ve invested about $500,000 (Canadian), including $60,000 for a new piano. With cover charges in the $30 range for out-of-town artists booked on weekends, Courthouse is clearly aiming to attract a moneyed crowd, though some $10 gigs will be available on weeknights.

This puts Courthouse in line with some established New York City clubs like Iridium and The Jazz Standard. Hopefully, manager Patrick Taylor’s booking policy will follow the model of those clubs, too, because they’ve made their mark by not equating great sound, good food and comfortable seating with conservative music. While Iridium and The Jazz Standard do their share of safe, predictable bookings, they haven’t shied away from bringing in Cecil Taylor’s big band or Myra Melford, either.

Time will tell if Courthouse is as open-minded.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Taxing Web Music

Are the days of “free” online radio numbered already?

A new U.S. tariff on digital music streaming may be the death knell for nascent Internet radio services like my beloved – at least in the form that they’ve been previously constituted.

Right now, you can stream Pandora to your desktop merely by agreeing to a few unobtrusive ad placements on the graphic interface. Considering most people likely keep the program running in the background, the ads are of little consequence. And what a feast Pandora offers, particularly if your choice of music ranges into “deep catalogue” material like bop or blues. My Delta blues station serves up a ton of rare stuff by Blind Boy Fuller, Son House and Bukka White, while my “Lee Morgan” station regularly feeds me prime Blue Note cuts. When you’re feeling too lazy or distracted to pull out your own tunes or just want to leave the driving to others, Pandora is a work-at-home-man’s paradise.

Pandora has always struck me as an intelligent business model: the Oakland-based company licenses the music from the copyright holders, and provides one-click links to Amazon and iTunes, for those who want to purchase either an artist’s album or individual songs. It seems like the ideal marketing vehicle for artists not associated with major labels, and those savvy enough to retain the rights to their catalogue material. The fact that forward-looking indie artists like trumpeter Dave Douglas jumped on the service to provide access to their music reinforced my enthusiasm.

And it’s not just commercial services like Pandora that will be affected by the change.

The proposed tariff also spells trouble for National Public Radio, which streams items from many of its arts and entertainment shows via its website. These include music-laden feature reviews and profiles by NPR correspondents like Ashley Kahn and Kevin Whitehead, and concert features by a wide range of non-mainstream artists.

Both Pandora and NPR are planning to challenge the new tariff.

Terrestrial stations that have been using the Internet to broaden their audience base are also under siege. That spells disappointment for those around the world who have become fans of specialty stations like Newark, New Jersey-based WBGO – a jazz powerhouse – and KCRW – a campus-community station based in Santa Monica, California, which has a remarkable track record of discovering new talent, thanks to the ears of program director Nic Harcourt.

You can read more about the issue here.

If you’re a U.S. resident and care about this, write your representative in Congress.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Apple Core?

I had an interview yesterday with a musician who, while certainly not a household name himself, is an ongoing member of a band led by one of the biggest names in the business. This profile, plus his own exceptional work, has made him a popular choice as a sideman – or so you’d think.

In fact, the pressure of making a living has recently forced him to make a sudden jump into academia and to leave New York City after a decade.

The move is undoubtedly a great one for him, and will certainly be a boon to those young people who will now get a chance to study with him, but it seems like a red flag regarding the health of the traditional breeding pool of innovative, young players in and around Manhattan. Since the early ‘40s, waves of the best musicians in their late teens and 20s have been making the move to the city, looking to hone their skills and learn from the best in the business. The line of young people following this pattern stretches from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane to Joe Lovano to Renee Rosnes, and of course there are hundreds of other lesser-known players who have followed the lead of these representatives of their respective generations. Regardless of the level of their talent, many who have followed the pattern have become much better for the experience of creating music in the company of others who work at the highest level.

It’s no secret that Manhattan has become prohibitively expensive during the past 20 years; most of the musicians on the scene have long since moved to Brooklyn or the northern reaches of Manhattan itself. Some, like Dave Douglas, have moved upriver to towns in the Hudson Valley.

But there still seemed to be the centrifugal force that kept musicians close enough to make club gigs, recording sessions, after-hours hangs. Now, I’m not so sure.

Obviously, one player taking a job at a university on the other side of the country doesn’t make a trend, but there’s enough evidence to raise alarm. He’s not the first to leave, but he has enough profile that he may well be viewed by others as a bellwether of significant change. What’s more, he reports that business is so bad in New York that many of his peers are also weighing their options. Even a handful of defections at his level would remove a significant number of bandleaders and first-call sidemen under 40.

Part of this is a reflection of what we’re seeing in the recording industry – the breakdown of traditional avenues of commerce for musicians – but are we also viewing a shift in attitude that, 80 years after Louis Armstrong first hit town, it’s not essential to remain at the epicentre of the jazz world?

Monday, March 05, 2007

Jazz Journalists Online

It has taken more than a decade, but it seems that a fair number of jazz journalists are now taking advantage of the Web to augment – and in a few cases, circumvent – their traditional avenues for communicating with their audiences.

Some have launched blogs, others use more traditional Web sites that stay static longer. One of the most enterprising, Washington, D.C.-based Bill Shoemaker, has even created his own monthly alternative publication, Point Of Departure.

Frankly, I’m surprised that more haven’t jumped in sooner. Back in the very early days of the public Web – circa 1994 – the discussion group attracted a number of wired music commentators. It’s hard to believe from this vantage point but, despite being a public forum, the level of discussion was high enough and the volume of traffic sane enough that musicians like Steve Coleman and Vijay Iyer were regular participants. Through rmb, I struck up lasting friendships with several regular posters, including Aaron Cohen – now one of my editors at DownBeat – and the late Eric Nisenson.

The level of intelligent debate didn’t last long, of course, driving a number of people to less-public venues like mailing lists, and some off into who-knows-where.

More recent technologies like blogging and MySpace have now lured some of those people back; a good development.

Jazz journalists are a surprisingly non-techie lot (the stories I could tell!) but whether through their own devices or with the help of friends or children, some have now found regular homes for themselves online. None have pushed it further than Bret Primack (a true pioneer in the area) and Shoemaker, but several like Jazziz editor-at-large Larry Blumenfeld and Doug Ramsey are now offering regular commentary beyond what they publish in other places. I’ve started a list of those members of the 450-strong Jazz Journalists Association who have an online presence, which you can find here.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Advertisements For Myself

Not music related, unless you want to travel to Ottawa for the 10-day Ottawa International Jazz Festival beginning June 21 or the Ottawa Bluesfest July 6-15, but I can't help mentioning that my new book, Frommer's Ottawa, hits stores March 5.

This is the third edition of the guide, thoroughly updated from the previous edition and featuring all the highlights of Canada's capital city, one of North America's premier tourist destinations.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

CD Buying Tip

Write April 3 on your calendar because that's the day Ojos Negros, a set of duets by Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner, is released by ECM.

It is a stunningly beautiful piece of work — seven of Saluzzi's compositions and the title song by Vicente Greco.

They are touring behind this beginning April 18 in Eugene, Oregon. Unfortunately, the closest they are coming to me is Buffalo on the 28th, but if you get a chance to hear this CD or see them live, don't miss it.

This is my early nomination for CD of the year. If anything beats it, that will be one hell of a recording.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Passing It On

I mentioned Phil Nimmons here the other day, and today The Toronto Star’s Ashante Infantry has a nice piece about Nimmons and one of his many former star pupils. Typically, Phil shrugs off any credit for drummer Ernesto Cervini’s development while the young man was studying at the University of Toronto.

Aside from the energy and vision Phil brought to the task of creating jazz programs in Toronto, Banff and elsewhere across Canada, his legacy is the approach to performance-based learning that he implemented wherever he went.

As he told me a couple of years in a piece that’s archived here, one of the biggest challenges he faces in teaching improvisation in an institutional setting is inspiring students to allow the music they create to carry them beyond the sterility of the practice room.

Woodshedding is a tried-and-true jazz tradition, of course, but the big knock on a lot of contemporary musicians is the fact that universities and jazz camps have taken the place of learning on the job. Wherever you study the basics and hone your technique, though, the best players are always those who can extend their imagination past the ‘shed to the stage. That hasn’t changed since Charlie Parker’s day.

That puts me in mind of Michael Brecker, whose abbreviated life was celebrated in Manhattan the other night. Aside from the heights he scaled as a performer, Brecker was loved by music students for his ability to successfully straddle the worlds of formal academia and live performance. Like Dave Liebman – one of many who were on hand to fete Brecker – he was a leading member of the first generation that showed that you can learn your stuff away from the bandstand and still bring it when the time comes.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Canada's Cultural Heroes

I have a deep respect for the generation of Canadians who built the cultural institutions we take for granted today. It’s a generation that is – too rapidly – disappearing.

The latest to go is Celia Franca, who founded the National Ballet of Canada in 1951 and was its artistic director for 24 years. Along with Betty Oliphant, Franca also founded Canada’s National Ballet School, in 1959 – about the same time that another hero of mine, Phil Nimmons, was working to establish jazz education in Canada. It is impossible to overstate the importance those two events had on the artistic landscape in Canada.

Simply put, Franca gave birth to ballet as a native Canadian artform, as surely as Nimmons has made jazz a part of Canada’s culture through the school he co-founded with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown, the Banff jazz program, and the various programs he put in place at Canadian universities. Without them, who knows how long it would’ve been that dance and jazz in Canada were merely offshoots of other, larger nations’ activities.

Franca – who had an impressive dance career in the Sadler’s Wells and Metropolitan companies before immigrating to Canada – was a tiny woman, but she bowled people over with her tenacity and her passion for the arts. For years she was ubiquitous on radio and television, but I only saw her once in person – at a symposium on the arts that was organized by one of the government funding organizations. She was riveting. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and her message that you have to fight and fight and fight to get the arts their due was truly inspiring. It’s little wonder that she single-handedly got ballet on track in this country and wound up turning out some of the world’s greatest dancers within a generation of moving here.

She died today here in Ottawa at 85 – too young it seems for someone who was so vital – a year after breaking her back in a fall.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

JJA Top 10s

Thanks to Italian jazz journalist and editor of the magazine JazzColours Antonio Terzo, here's a compilation of the top 10 CDs of 2006, as voted by 46 members of the Jazz Journalists Association (about 10% of our membership) from around the world.

Ornette Coleman — Sound Grammar
Andrew Hill — Time Lines
Bill Frisell/Ron Carter/Paul Motian
Branford Marsalis Quartet — Braggtown
Sonny Rollins — Sonny, Please
Kenny Garrett — Beyond The Wall
Nels Cline — New Monastery
Bennie Maupin — Penumbra
Dave Burrell — Momentum
Trio Beyond — Saudades
Keith Jarrett — The Carnegie Hall Concert

You can see all the lists, some of which include comments, reissues, etc., at

Monday, February 12, 2007

Grumbling About Grammy

It’s never more evident than during the broadcast portion of the Grammy Awards how poorly jazz is served by network television. As usual, no jazz categories were included in the televised section of the awards – no surprise, considering only about 10 categories are included – and only a small handful of the major contributors who died in the past year were included in the ‘In Memorium’ tribute. I can understand passing up Dewey Redman for Michael Brecker and Maynard Ferguson, but where was Jay McShann?

It was nice to see Ornette Coleman (surely the best-dressed in the audience) get recognized, but why force anyone his age to read the intro to the next awards? (Did you catch that he read his own name off the cue cards? You could almost hear him thinking, ‘Hey, someone else is called Ornette.’) It was left to Flea to give props by hanging a huge sign thanking Ornette over his bass amp and ensuring the camera caught it several times.

I can do without the forced, painful mash-ups between jazz musicians and pop or rock players NARAS or the producers deem more recognizable, but why are no jazz musicians drafted as presenters? The industry has so many articulate, funny, telegenic people, why not have Branford Marsalis, Christian McBride, Cassandra Wilson or Maria Schneider in place of Luke Wilson (where’s the musical connection?) or Christina Ricci (again, music?).

As with most televised awards shows, NARAS seems to have long ago lost sight of the purpose of doing something on this scale. When you sacrifice paying dues to those in your own industry who actually deserve it in favour of TV ratings – a mug’s game at any rate; last year the Grammy telecast lost out to American Idol – what’s the point? Say what you will about the Academy Awards, at least they have struck a nice balance between showcasing current box office draws and a reverence for the past. I think the closest we got last night was the inclusion of that clip of Ahmet Ertegun talking about the global influence of African American music.

Putting the jazz gripes aside… Three enduring mysteries of who gets Grammy airtime and what it says about the state of the music business: John Legend with his dodgy tonality, Rascal Flatts with their ‘80s-vintage guitarist and James Blunt, who seems to have gone farther using one chord than anyone since John Lee Hooker.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Beauty Of Balliett

I picked up my well-worn copy of the late Whitney Balliett's compilation, American Musicians II, with the idea of checking out (for probably the 10th time) his brilliant portrait of clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, "Even His Feet Look Sad," but got sidetracked into his lesser-known sketch of Cecil Taylor. (The fact that Balliett dug both Russell and Taylor tells you all you need to know about his catholic tastes.)

In a long, long paragraph on Taylor's style, this sentence jumps out: "He uses enormous chords; tone clusters; single-note arpeggios of such speed that they are almost indistinguishable from glissandos; runs played simultaneously by three fingers on each hand, the fingers held at an eighty-degree angle to the keyboard; runs and massed notes struck with a fist or elbow."

Beyond the virtuosic wordplay, the visual — and aural, because I surely hear that sentence as much as take it in through my eyes — imagery of Taylor in action is stunning. In a couple of the obits I've read on Balliett people have noted that he didn't use a lot of technical terminology; clearly, that's not the case. What he did do is blend technical terms like "glissando" and "arpeggio" so smoothly into poetic language that the terminology never became an issue.

Thinking about what drew me to Balliett — and to one of my other heroes, Ralph J. Gleason, before him — it's his literary approach to music that stands out. First and foremost, when Balliett or Gleason described a piece of music you wanted to hear it for yourself. Even when they were describing negative elements or inferior performances, you wanted to hear things they heard, apply your own judgment, determine what you thought was important, and make your own musical connections. If a music critic can do that they've done their job.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Whitney Balliett RIP

I just heard that one of the most elegant, insightful jazz writers — and certainly one of my biggest influences — died today.

Whitney Balliett was the jazz columnist for The New Yorker from 1957 to 2001, and his crisp prose helped set the tone for the magazine during that period. It was Balliett who shone a light on Sonny Rollins' late-night trips to the Williamsburg Bridge, and helped maintain a level-headed pragmaticism about jazz while it was going through major upheaval in the '60s and '70s.

As a writer, he was unequalled by anyone with the possible exception of Gary Giddins. Truly someone who set the kind of standard you wanted to try and approach.

If you have a copy of The New Yorker's amazing complete CD-ROM library, check out some of his work; I know that's what I'll be doing over the next few days.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

John Mclaughlin

Check this John McLaughlin performance on The Tonight Show out before it gets taken down. Amazing playing!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Wynton on Chainsaw

No, my ears weren't deceiving me; in fact, Wynton Marsalis' From The Plantation To The Penitentiary is even worse than I thought. If I didn't know better, I'd think it was a contract breaker.

Sample lyric from WM: "I see women dragging the souls of their womb-vanquished dreams never to be.” Wha?

Another ripe one: “The rap game started out critiquing/now it’s all about killing and freaking.”

What is most disturbing, though, is his premise that black Americans (read under-educated black Americans) have moved directly from white-imposed slavery to self-imposed slavery — or as Marsalis puts it "from yassa, boss, to ghetto minstrelsy." Talk about blowing off the entire black working class!

And, if that's not enough, he writes about America's obsession with "expensive fluff" in a song he calls "Supercapitalism." Now, that's one song we'll never hear on a Movado watch commercial.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

On A Limb With A Chainsaw

Whoo, boy! I just got a taste of the forthcoming Wynton Marsalis recording, From The Plantation To The Penitentiary, and if my ears aren't fooling me this is one of the worst albums I've heard from a major artist in years.

More listens will reveal details, but my visceral reaction to the doggerel he composed about "Supercapitalism" (this from a man who endorses designer watches and what all else!) is to turn and run.

And, oh yeah, he raps, too. Is there nothing this man can't do? His vocal debut "Where Y'all At?" is his swipe at the politicians who have failed America in the face of Katrina,, but it's tame stuff, with lyrics that would make Stevie Wonder blush.

Can Marsalis truly believe that anyone wants to hear this from him?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

IAJE Saturday

How bizarre to spend the day in windowless rooms with the world's leading jazz journalists without any of them being aware of two of the most newsworthy jazz-related deaths in recent years. Goes to show you how rare Blackberries are among jazz scribes and broadcasters. The first buzz about Michael Brecker's death didn't start until after 4:30, and Alice Coltrane's passing had added poignancy given frequent collaborator Charlie Haden's headline gig Saturday night.

IAJE Friday

As usual, at this point in IAJE—or any other trade show/conference—what you have to show from the experience is a stack of business cards, a bagful of assorted freebies and literature, a hoarse voice from too many loud conversations, and the feeling that time has shifted into some kind of nether-zone.

Okay, so maybe that nether-zone is more the product of Greg Osby's loopy interview with Ornette Coleman. Coleman's responses to Osby's questions/comments dipped, twisted and curled back on themselves like one of his saxophone solos, and made about as much traditional sense as his violin scrapings or trumpet blats. There are enough seasoned hands around to know that Coleman can make perfect sense—granted, in a delightfully weird Ornette way—if you ask the right questions. Osby sounded like he'd followed Coleman down one too many rabbit holes of logic and couldn't find his way back to the surface. Very early on, Osby forgot one key thing: this was supposed to be enlightening, not just entertaining, and many in the audience of several hundred—and, this being IAJE, a fairly young and impressionable audience—left thinking that Coleman is a semi-literate eccentric rather than the highly original thinker that he is.

Friday, January 12, 2007

IAJE Thursday

My focus at the IAJE conference is threefold: an article for DownBeat about a joint education program betweeen The Manhattan School of Music and The National Arts Centre; an article for Winnipeg's Dig! magazine tracking five University of Manitoba jazz program students through their experience here; and my responsibilities as vice-president of the Jazz Journalists Association.

The latter two occupied Thursday from 9 am to late. We started early—always a challenge in New York, where there's so much going on—with the annual JJA workshop on review writing. Hopefully, six participants will be back with their overnight reviews for one-on-one critiquing Friday morning. Informal JJA-related conversations throughout the day, culminating with a cocktail reception at a very crowded Iridium on Times Square.

Somewhere in the middle I caught trumpeter Avishai Cohen's band inside an insanely packed bar off the lobby of the Hilton. One of the Winnipeg students held down the piano chair in Cohen's band, and it was great to hear him get some spirited vocal support from his fellow students. Will Bonness held his own, too, in some fast company that included guitarist Lionel Loueke.

Closed off the night with a leisurely, and jazz obsessed, Thai dinner with a few JJA members.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

NYC Day #1

Landed in Manhattan just in time to check in, sign in to the IAJE conference, grab some latkes at the Carnegie Deli (the recipe I picked up from a Yiddish folklorist I used to know is better!) and head downtown for the first Winter Jazzfest at the Knitting Factory.

Just like old times (circa the What Is Jazz?/Texaco Jazz Festival) with three floors of simultaneous music.

Caught an interesting solo set by percussionist Mino Cinelu, hard-grooving stuff from pianist Antoine Hervé with the Moutin brothers on bass and drums, and then a real flashback—all the way back to the No Wave Era—with a punky quartet called Gutbucket. Best thing of the night was a pickup quartet fronted by alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, with Craig Taborn subbing for Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey on drums and François Moutin on bass.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Jazz Education

I'm heading this week to the annual International Association of Jazz Education conference in New York, and was mildly surprised to see an article on the conference in today's New York Times. Jazz education has such a low profile that among the major jazz magazines only DownBeat pays it any mind.

My focus at the IAJE conference is usually on the industry-track content, but I'm pursuing a couple of education-related articles this week. For one, I'm following five young music students from Winnipeg to record their experiences at the conference and how they integrate their experiences into their own studies. My other assignment is related to an article I'm researching on a joint distance education project between the Manhattan School of Music and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

As Nate Chinen's Times article makes clear, jazz education has grown tremendously in the past couple of decades, and the opportunities for high school graduates have expanded both in scope and geography. These Winnipeg students are among the first enrolled at the University of Manitoba's new jazz program, which is run by bassist Steve Kirby. It wasn't that long ago that kids had to head to either Boston, New York or Texas if they wanted a serious concentration on jazz. It's terrific to see all these new options.

Time—and wireless connections—permitting, I'll be blogging from the IAJE conference later in the week.