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.