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 Each time, he left phrases unresolved; once, his hands poised over the keyboard and then withdrawn in second thought.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.