Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye 2008

Thanks to the dedication of Francis Davis, what has become the definitive year-end review of jazz is now posted at the Village Voice site. My own ballot is here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Lesser-Known Hub Tunes

Understandably, the obituaries and appreciations for trumpeter Freddie Hubbard are concentrating on three points in his career: his swaggering, bravura performances with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers; his Zelig-like appearances on two of the cornerstones of the avant-garde, Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz and John Coltrane's Ascension; and the commercial (if not always artistic) high-water marks with CTI.

Overlooked in that timeline are Hubbard's years with Atlantic Records in the second half of the '60s – a period that I was introduced to on a terrific two-LP set called The Art Of Freddie Hubbard. Like his closest peer, Lee Morgan, Hubbard found himself with one foot in hard bop and another in freer music that was heavily influenced by the Black Consciousness movement. For Hubbard, that played out on tracks like "Black Soldier" from the album Sing Me A Song of Songmy, which featured him reciting words by Turkish poet Fazil Husnu Daglarca accompanied by a string orchestra and some processed electronics. More predictably, he also worked with genre-spanning sidemen like Bennie Maupin, Carlos Garnett and Freddie Waits, as well as a tight quintet sparked by Kenny Barron and Louis Hayes.

To fully appreciate Hubbard's range, consider for a moment the stylistic ground he covered in just 10 years – 1963-73 – and try to think of another artist who stretched so far without sacrificing his own signature voice. A giant to be sure, which makes the last 25 years of his life all the sadder.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Freddie Hubbard 1938-2008

Sad news from the west coast this morning, where the great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard died in hospital. He suffered a heart attack and multiple organ failure a month ago.

Bright Moments 2008

Looking back over my list of CDs received in 2008, it's clear that it was a better-than-average year. As regular readers may recall, I set out to celebrate Anthony Braxton this year, and it turned out to be a great year for that – capped by the release of the box set of Arista recordings and Braxton's 2008 quartet set from Moscow. That worked out so well that I've decided to do the same thing with Cecil Taylor in 2009. I mined some of his catalogue this year to fill some holes in my collection, picked up some things that were recommended by colleagues, and I'm looking forward to exploring them all next year.

Personal musical highlights in 2008 include the list of great concerts already noted, of course, and my top 10 list of CDs – the definitive version of which will appear in this week's Village Voice – but also a few others. Topping the list would have to be the privilege of spending some time in the company of some masters. I'm a firm believer that you should take any chance you have to catch people like Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter while they're still with us, and I was lucky enough to see all three play this year, and to spend a couple of moments expressing my thanks to Coleman and Shorter in person for all the great inspiration they've shared through their music.

So, here's to 2009. I hope you have a great musical year, and as always I look forward to hearing your reactions to the music or whatever you read here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Best Live 2008

Miles Davis once famously referred to a great gig as the most fun he'd had with his clothes on. I'm not sure if any of my live musical experiences reached that level this year, with the possible exception of the second half of a show I saw Sonny Rollins give, but there were more than a few moments of delight at various venues and in various genres.

Myra Melford's Be Bread Quintet – Portland Jazz Festival: I dropped into this show after it had started and was immediately transported. I love Myra Melford's compositions and have heard them in several settings – including a smaller version of this group – but this show was definitely on another level. I've long been a fan of trumpeter Cuong Vu, but seldom have I heard him this focused and creative. It's a cliche that critics often gather in a bar after a show and try to top each other with their observations, but this show slayed everyone. Given that another band of Myra's – Trio M – also topped my 'best of' list of 2007 tells you all you need to know about how good her songbook is and what kind of level she's playing on. If you are not a convert, do yourself a favour and check her out in 2009.

Maria Schneider Orchestra – Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival: I ran into members of the band at lunch and outside the venue before the show began and heard about the grueling tour schedule they were following as they criss-crossed the European festival circuit. Add that kind of background to a venue that is normally a small-town basketball arena and you could be excused if you lowered your expectations a notch or two. But this is Maria Schneider, one of the most-determined musicians on the contemporary scene, and a set of material that I gave top marks to in a DownBeat review. Given those factors, it's probably no surprise that this was a captivating performance, gorgeously nuanced, with numerous highlights, including stunning work by Ingrid Jensen on one of my favourite Schneider compositions, "The 'Pretty' Road."

Kathleen Edwards – Ottawa Bluesfest: It must be so hard to be a star from here – from anyplace, probably. You can never be as big, as exciting, as 'foreign', as you seem anywhere else but in your hometown. I'd seen Ottawa native Kathleen Edwards once before on a large stage – on a cold, rainy night when she was just starting to get noticed by David Letterman and Saturday Night Live – and was decidedly underwhelmed. I blame myself, because I think I had bought into the hype surrounding Edwards as someone who had been influenced by Lucinda Williams. So here she was back in her hometown, on an even bigger stage, just a couple of nights after a performance by Williams herself. Edwards killed. Playing a superb set of songs from her album Asking For Flowers, she was disarmingly self-deprecating yet so obviously at home on the big stage that it was immediately clear what people around the world see when she comes to their town.

Charles Lloyd Quartet – Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival: Although his new live album with his current quartet ended up on my 'top 10' list for 2008, there were parts of it that left me a bit cold. Not so with this late-afternoon set in Vitoria's beautiful Art Deco theatre. Maybe it was because Lloyd avoided a lot of the 'Coltrane-lite' playing that tends to undercut his more creative playing, or just because his stellar band – pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland – sounded so much better live. Whatever the reason, this was one of those shows you wish was twice as long as it was. Harland did some stuff on his hi-hat that I'm still trying to figure out, and Moran's splay-fingered playing was so funky that Lloyd started dancing in place. Yes, sure, everything sounds better on a sunny afternoon in the Basque Region; but this set would rank if you'd heard it anywhere.

Daniel Lanois – Centrepointe Theatre, Ottawa: I'm such a sucker for rootsy music played by a four-piece band with two electric guitars. Unlike Edwards, local boy Lanois has little to prove when he comes home; after all, he made his name first in Hamilton and then in Dublin, New Orleans and Silver Lake, California with artists including Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and U2. He doesn't need to play the homeboy card, and yet there is an added poignancy to shows played in the area where he grew up and continues to have numerous relatives. This was a low-intensity show, yet it seemed to glow like a hot coal with tremendous songwriting, stage presence and band communication on display. In addition, I hate to sound like a 50-something suck, but damn I love to hear a great show in a small, soft-seat venue.

The Bad Plus – Portland Jazz Festival: Like Myra Melford, The Bad Plus makes the list for the second consecutive year. Almost the same set, but a completely different venue. Where the 2007 show I caught was a sonically perfect one in a large, soft-seat venue, this one was an all-ages gig in a funky, old ballroom with a spring-loaded dancefloor. I'm completely compromised on this show since I was on some panel discussions with the band members and hung out with them in Portland – so be it, but my critical faculties were still in place, and this show rocked the joint.

Other notable shows from 2008...

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in Montreal

Andy Milne playing solo in Ottawa

Cecil Taylor in Portland

Wayne Shorter in Vitoria-Gasteiz

Ornette Coleman in Portland

Michael Occhipinti's Sicilian Jazz Project in Ottawa

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Jazz Funding Woes Continue

Wow! This is a big one, but not a surprise given the climate in the auto industry.

The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal has lost General Motors as its title sponsor. Under contract, GM will still be onboard for 2009, but the festival is searching for a new corporate investor for 2010 and beyond.

FIJM is such a strong brand that it will be very interesting – and telling – to see how quickly it can replace GM. I have no doubt that they will, but it's a terrible environment in which to launch this kind of search.

UPDATE: I had a chance to speak with FIJM founder and president Alain Simard for a DownBeat piece on the funding issue, and not surprisingly he was upbeat about having a new presenting sponsor in place to announce at the 2009 edition of the festival. As the central player in a city that bills itself – with justification – as "city of festivals," FIJM is in an enviable position among cultural events that count on funding at every political level as well as from major corporations.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Seminal Listening

It's hard to describe the impact that Jimi Hendrix's third album, Electric Ladyland, had on me when I first heard it in 1969. Suffice to say that it barely left my turntable for several months. I certainly remember the first time I listened to it through headphones, lying in the dark on the floor of my bedroom. Along with the first time I heard Muddy Waters, Kind Of Blue, A Love Supreme and Keith Jarrett's Facing You, the memory still brings a chill. The phasing at the end of "And The Gods Made Love" and the quick cut into "Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)" struck me as anthemic. It was interesting to learn years later that Hendrix created that particular sonic blend in the aftermath of the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the spring of 1968. The working title for Electric Ladyland had been The End Of The Beginning, and that soundscape definitely sounded like change was in the air.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Hendrix's masterpiece – a milestone that will be marked by the release of a deluxe edition of the original recording that pairs the most recent remastering of the CD with an extended version of a "making of" TV documentary. Originally released in mid-October 1968 in the U.S., and on October 25 in Britain (with the infamous naked women cover, which Hendrix hated) Electric Ladyland marked a huge break with Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love as Hendrix took control from Chas Chandler in the studio and brought in engineer Eddie Kramer to try to realize the sounds he heard in his mind.

What moved me most at the time was hearing Hendrix's blues and R&B roots come to the foreground. His main solo on Earl King's "Come On" remains one of my favourite guitar breaks and the primal backbeat of "Gypsy Eyes" introduced a side of Hendrix few of us had been exposed to in 1968. As Hendrix himself described the album: "...electric funk...blues and hard rock, it goes into complete opposite, complete fantasy.... It has a rough, hard feel on some of the tracks, those funky tunes, some of the things on it are hungry."

Hungry? That's going to have to remain one of those mysteries, I guess, although it strikes me as equally tellingly oblique as Miles Davis referring to his work on Sketches Of Spain as "expensive," by which he meant that it had wrung everything out of him and couldn't be repeated.

Alas, Hendrix was not to repeat the peaks of Electric Ladyland, either. It was, of course, to remain his final fully realized studio recording, and the story of its making has all the signposts of his demise less than two years later: the infighting with bassist Noel Redding and manager Michael Jeffery; the lack of a firm hand in the studio; the hangers-on – whose presence Hendrix alluded to at the end of the epochal "Voodoo Chile."

Like Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run, Electric Ladyland documents a musical genius willing something to happen in the studio despite enormous obstacles. And, like Born To Run, Electric Ladyland is all the more remarkable because it was made during the course of a sporadic touring schedule.

When I listen to it today it is with less naive ears, but I still thrill to its majesty and grit; it can still take me by surprise, regardless of how many dozen (hundreds?) times I've heard it. These days, like A Love Supreme, I tend to save it for special times – hoping that each time I hear it a little bit of my own innocence and youth will come back to me. Can you – should you – ask more of a piece of music?

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Thoughts For Freddie

Howard Mandel passes on news that trumpeter Freddie Hubbard is in critical condition, suffering from multiple organ failure.

Those of us who have followed Hubbard's courageous struggles to regain some measure of his once-mighty chops can only wish him peace in this latest battle.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Witness For The Defence

I've been stewing for awhile about a blog posting that attracted no little attention for its strident stance on the state of jazz journalism. Time to respond.

Need I even take the bandwidth to state my bias in this dispute? Obviously, as a leading contributor to DownBeat – one of the two main targets of the original blog post – and vice-president of the Jazz Journalists Association, which represents +400 writers, broadcasters and photographers around the world, I have a point of view about the current state of jazz writing.

My intention is not to debate the anonymous (funny, that) poster – though I'd love to if any festival producer or radio station wants to set it up – on a point-by-point basis, though I will state that the fact that he/she "(has) no idea who (Jason Koransky) is, or how he came to be editor of DownBeat" says more about the poster than it does about Jason. Rather, I want to point out something interesting about the "Golden Age" theory that the poster subscribes to.

Like so many things from the past that are based largely on our memories, it's a myth.

Last year, when Rolling Stone released its collected back issues on CD-ROM, I was excited because it meant having ready access to the works of some of my favourite music writers: the magazine's co-founder Ralph J. Gleason, Robert Palmer, Greil Marcus, I was anxious to re-read some of the work that had influenced me as a wannabe writer in my teens. Imagine my surprise when I found that – with the notable exception of the mighty triumvirate just listed – much of the writing was fatuous and sloppy. The use of adjectives was a major issue (why didn't I remember how often "heavy" was used to describe guitar playing?) and so was the obvious lack of knowledge about how music is created and recorded.

I don't have to wait for DownBeat to issue a set of CD-ROMs – though, hey, Frank Alkyer, it's a great idea – to go through the same exercise. I have a stack of old back issues, as I'm sure many of you do, and I've gone back to check things, and been just as surprised at how the memory plays tricks. Guess what? Some of our jazz journalism heroes had feet of clay, too. And I don't even have to go to the old DownBeats; I can turn to my own clipping files and find things I'm embarrassed to see my name attached to from decades past. As humans – as professionals – we strive to improve, or hopefully, we don't progress far in our chosen fields of endeavour.

Obviously, just like the music we criticize, the quality of jazz journalism is highly subjective, but I simply do not buy the idea that today's jazz writers are somehow genetically inferior to our poster's heroes (Morgenstern, Gitler, Hentoff, Based on dozens and dozens of articles read, I would put Gary Giddins, Francis Davis, Mark Miller, Stuart Broomer or Bob Blumenthal up against any mid-career journalist of a previous generation you care to name. And just so I'm not accused of naming only those writers who I tend to agree with critically, let me add Stanley Crouch to that list (if you think Crouch can't write because you disagree with his generally neo-con stance, go read his profile of Sonny Rollins in The New Yorker or dig up some of his pro-avant gut bucket pieces from The Village Voice). I'm also encouraged by the commitment, passion, style and breadth of knowledge that a number of my younger peers – Nate Chinen, David Adler, Larry Blumenfeld spring to mind – are bringing to our trade. The future looks bright.

All of this is not to say that our business is without fault. Far from it. To be sure, there are lazy, style-deprived and narrow-minded jazz journalists, and they deserve to be called out whenever possible. But they've been called out with far more force and effectiveness than this anonymous blog post has done. If you want to read some insightful criticism of jazz criticism – words that have helped me shape how I've approached the craft over the years – I heartily recommend Orrin Keepnews' blunt 1987 essay, 'A Bad Idea, Poorly Executed...', available in his collected works, The View From Within: Jazz Writings 1948-1987 (Oxford University Press). The fact that Orrin was writing critically of jazz journalism more than 20 years ago – and shooting with deadly aim at some of the same icons that the current blogger lauds as leading lights of the Golden Age – speaks volumes.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Another One Bites...

Okay, this is threatening to turn into a recurring feature called Jazz Death Watch.

Thanks to my old buddy Calvin Wilson, news comes of the death of the St. Louis Jazz and Heritage Festival. The festival's presenter, Cultural Festivals, has announced that it's withdrawing its support. In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch blog Culture Club, Calvin reports that there's a possibility that Sheldon Concert Hall and Jazz St. Louis will join forces to resurrect the festival, but it's dead for now.

Here in Ottawa, all of our festivals – including the well-established TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival and the world's largest chamber music festival – are threatened by the city government's pending motion to withdraw all funding. The funding itself doesn't amount to that much of the individual festivals' budgets, but as the festival organizers point out, municipal funding is a gateway – maybe cornerstone is a better metaphor – to other funding. If your own government isn't behind you, goes the thinking, why should other funders get onboard?

This death watch is getting depressing. Yes, times are tough, but why is jazz – and culture in general – such an easy target?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

RIP Mitch Mitchell

For skinny white guys like myself, Mitch Mitchell – who was found dead today in his Portland, Oregon, hotel room – provided hope that we could one day too sound like something approaching Elvin Jones.

Even next to the perpetually emaciated-looking Jimi Hendrix Mitchell looked slight, but what a sound he produced. He was to Hendrix what Keith Moon was to Pete Townshend, but unlike Moon Mitchell seemed to be in complete control at all times. In fact, he may have been the most in-control rocker of the time – perhaps just as well given Hendrix's manic nature and bassist Noel Redding's chip-on-his-shoulder edge. Without Mitchell's calming influence the Experience may not have lasted to see 1968.

The fact remains that Mitchell was the only musician who recorded – officially – with Hendrix who could hold a candle to him musically, but unfortunately he seemed completely without direction or ambition after the guitarist's death.

A sadder death than some, then. At 62, he should have still been in his prime instead of a somewhat-forgotten figure deep within Hendrix's lengthy shadow.

Sing on, brother. Play on, drummer.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

2008 Top 10 Mk. 1

I'm always a bit hesitant to draw a line on new releases midway through November, but since I've just submitted my first list to a publication – AllAboutJazz Los Angeles – I can't delay posting here any longer.

Even as I post I've just listened to Ben Ratliff's intriguing audio review of the new Rudresh Mahanthappa CD, which I don't have yet, and I have a new Alex Cline sitting on my desk that looks very promising.

So, with the proviso that this may still change...

1. Mary Halvorson Trio – Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12)
2. Anthony Braxton – Quartet (Moscow) 2008 (Leo)
3. Donny McCaslin Trio – Recommended Tools (Greenleaf)
4. Vijay Iyer – Tragicomic (Sunnyside)
5. Bennie Maupin Quartet – Early Reflections (Cryptogramophone)
6. Anthony Braxton – Trio (Victoriaville) 2007 (Victo)
7. Manuel Mengis Gruppe 6 – The Pond (hatOLOGY)
8. Jane Ira Bloom – Mental Weather (Outline)
9. Charles Lloyd Quartet – Rabo De Nube (ECM)
10. Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet – Tabligh (Cuneiform)

Two Braxtons? I easily could've stretched it to three by including the big band set that Victo released this year, and of course there's the entire Arista reissue set to consider if one includes historical recordings in the top 10, but that's it for now.

All in all, a very good year. Lots of other things that could've/should've made the list, but I tried to stick to my approach of "nominating" things as I heard them and not re-thinking the decisions.

[UPDATE 20.11.08: Well, my instincts about the Alex Cline recording were right; it's killing, and jumps onto the list around the #7 spot.]

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Thoughts For Mark Turner

Send some love and good thoughts to musician Mark Turner. The brilliant young saxophonist was badly injured in a power saw accident and is undergoing surgery to repair damage sustained by several fingers.

If you're in the New York City area, stay tuned to your regular sources for news of upcoming benefits to help offset his medical expenses.

And if you want to hear Mark at his best, pick up the new Francisco Mela CD Cirio, a live recording by the Cuban drummer with Turner, Jason Moran, Larry Grenadier and Lionel Loueke.

[UPDATE]: Reports are that Mark Turner's hand surgery went as well as could be expected and there's a chance that he could regain the full use of his fingers. Here's hoping.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Zawinul: Win Some, Lose Some

Austria's Green and Liberal parties may have turned down the bid to erect a monument to Vienna homeboy Josef Zawinul (a simple plaque will have to suffice) but the late keyboardist's son Tony has announced plans to reopen Joe Zawinul's Birdland – which went bankrupt last summer – and incorporate a museum to highlight his father's career.

The Shrinkage Continues

Coming on the heels of the announcement regarding the suspension of the 2009 Victo festival, the City of Chicago has announced that the Chicago Jazz Festival will be reduced both in length and scope. In 2009, the festival will be reduced to three days from four, and the number of stages will also be cut.

"To be frank, we simply cannot continue moving forward with programs, events and festivals that cost the City of Chicago more to operate than we bring in in revenue," said Megan McDonald, executive director of the mayor’s Office of Special Events. McDonald warned that further "operational" cuts might be forthcoming as the administration struggles to adjust its budget. A number of other city-funded cultural events and programs – including the popular annual blues festival – are also being affected by budgetary restrictions.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

More On Mary Halvorson

Yesterday marked the official release of guitarist Mary Halvorson's terrific new recording, Dragon's Head, on the Firehouse 12 label. She can also be heard on a new Anthony Braxton Quartet recording, recorded this summer in Moscow and now out on Leo.

Accompanied by bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith, Halvorson immediately reveals herself as an enticing new voice on Dragon's Head. As she writes in brief liner notes, she's interested in exploring both the harmonic and rhythmic possibilities of the guitar, and in composing music that provides both structure and improvisational freedom to specific bandmates. In an interesting turn, she has numbered the 10 compositions on her CD to reflect the order in which they were written. "Old Nine Two Six Four Two Dies" – the final piece composed but the first on the recording – has a stealthy bassline as its centrepiece, an ideal accompaniment for Halvorson's lead, which also follows a deliberate course, with occasional stutters or shifts in direction. Her relatively unadorned tone is contrasted with phrase-ending tonal bends – a device she employs at several junctures on Dragon's Head. Overall, her writing often hands the lead role to the bass, leaving the guitar to ornament and expand on the theme, and she has an obvious love for interacting with her drummer.

Performing Braxton's music, Halvorson's textural characteristics and off-kilter phrasing really come to the fore. Quartet (Moscow) 2008 could hardly be more textured, in fact, combining Braxton's multiple horns with Taylor Ho Bynum's rich array of brass instruments and bassoonist Katherine Young in addition to Halvorson. Consisting of one 70-minute piece (Braxton's "Composition 367B") and a brief encore, the recording provides Halvorson with a wide range of sonic possibilities – from a dull, almost-toneless chunk rhythm that sounds like an axe hitting punky wood to an ear-catching spectral burst at about the 28-minute point that provides an effective bridge from a sax/trumpet duet to a brief bassoon interlude, which in turn gives way to a superb blending of elements. This may be my favourite Braxton disc from recent years.

I want to keep hearing Halvorson in more settings because her phrasing and harmonic conception are so distinctive that I'm not sure I've heard her entire range yet. If you haven't had the pleasure of catching her, here's a taste from a recent performance.

Just 28, Halvorson seems totally unbound from traditional approaches to guitar at times – although she admits that her first song was the ubiquitous "Stairway To Heaven" – yet not in a deliberately genre-smashing way. Rather, she seems more like someone who has found her own way to self-expression without consciously breaking barriers. There's a guitar-geek video interview on her web site where she talks casually about loving the sound a shorted-out volume knob on her Epiphone hollow-body made until some well-intentioned guitar tech fixed it for her. The same interview also includes a few examples of the fractured-sounding chords she sometimes employs.

I also love Halvorson's playing because she is not afraid to confound your conceptions of her work. Just when you think you have her pegged for her flat, dry amplifier tone – reminiscent of her former teacher Joe Morris – she throws something at you like the amplifier histrionics on "Momentary Lapse".

"I think of myself as a guitar player," she told jazz journalist Steve Dollar in an interview that's posted on her site. "I'm not really concerned whether something is rock or jazz. I just want to play something that's interesting to me."

Judging by even the relatively narrow range of projects I've heard so far, her interests are exceptionally broad.

Beyond the excitement her fresh-sounding playing brings, it's heartening to see that she's getting her share of high-profile gigs with musicians who will force her to stretch even further. In addition to the exposure she's getting with Braxton, she recently joined pianist Myra Melford in New York City for a double bill with Henry Threadgill. Reports from both my critical colleague Howard Mandel and Ms. Melford herself make me wish I had heard that outing. Melford's music is some of the most demanding stuff around these days, and Mandel said Halvorson nailed it.

All of which makes Mary Halvorson my early choice for artist of the year and an absolute pick for someone to listen for in the future.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Victo On Hold

First it was the Portland Jazz Festival going under (briefly) and now word reaches me that the annual Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville – known to one and all as simply 'Victo' – has suspended operations for 2009.

Anyone who has booked an airline ticket lately knows how high prices have climbed, and with the global economic crash who knows what lies ahead regarding credit, international exchange rates, etc. Likely the Canadian government's decision to cut funding for many cultural events has had an impact, too.

It seems like a prudent thing for organizer Michel Levasseur to do in the face of uncertain finances, but combined with the situation with IAJE and Portland it doesn't seem to bode well for jazz events.

I hope to see Victo back on the calendar in 2010.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Like Bird... Portland Lives

Great news for jazz fans in the Pacific Northwest, and anyone looking for a bracing couple of weeks of great music in the wintertime: the Portland Jazz Festival is back.

Artistic director and co-founder Bill Royston and his original partner Sarah Bailen Smith announced today in Portland that a new sponsor – Alaska Airlines – has come onboard with a multi-year deal. At the local level, a number of strong supporters and other sponsors kept the faith and refused to let the five-year-old festival die.

As a result, the festival will be back for its sixth year – from February 13 to 22, 2009 – with its originally scheduled 70th anniversary tribute to Blue Note Records.

Bill and Sarah are two of the most creative and dedicated festival organizers I’ve met, and it’s great to have them back.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Now Spinning: Sicilian Jazz Project

I've been spending unusually long periods of time in my car recently and my most frequent musical companion has been the new recording by Toronto guitarist/bandleader Michael Occhipinti.

Occhipinti has had a series of intriguing projects – some shared with keyboardist Paul Neufeld, his co-leader in NOJO – which has found him working alongside musicians like Sam Rivers and Don Byron, and interpreting the music of Bruce Cockburn. This new project takes him – and his brother, the multi-faceted bassist Roberto Occhipinti – back to his Sicilian roots. Featuring players like trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, drummer Barry Romberg and saxophonist Ernie Tollar, the Sicilian Jazz project makes great driving music because it's filled with propulsive, joyous rhythms and passionate solos. It's also filled with terrific vocal performances by Maryem Tollar and Dominic Mancuso – who has a great, raw voice.

I caught a version of this band this summer and they were a hell of a lot of fun, but blasting out of my car speakers on these cool, early-fall nights... hard to keep your foot off the floor.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Chasing Ghosts

A recent liner note assignment from Italian pianist Roberto Magris (requisite plug: his new recording, Kansas City Outbound – the final recording by the great bassist Art Davis – will be out on Soul Note this fall) brought me in contact with the ghost of Hassan Ibn Ali. It's fascinating – and somehow reassuring – that in this age of Wikipedia, Google, etc., to learn that there are still some mysterious figures out there. It takes me back to my teenaged obsession with bluesman Robert Johnson, sparked by the ghost-story liner notes on the original Columbia Records reissue of Johnson's music in the '60s.

Born William Langford, Hassan became a ubiquitous figure on the Philadelphia jazz scene in the '50s and '60s. He gets passing mention in Lewis Porter's biography of John Coltrane and Francis Davis' Outcats. Francis kindly helped me find out a bit more about Hassan, as did another Jazz Journalists Association buddy, David Adler. The search also brought me back in touch with one of the first musical connections I made on the web: pianist Marc Sabatella. Even with their insights, though, Hassan remains more a specter than flesh and blood.

We know, of course, that the pianist was picked by Max Roach to fill out a trio with himself and Art Davis for a recording in 1964, but much else is speculation. Apparently, Hassan was an early influence on Coltrane – pushing him toward further exploration of certain types of chord voicings.

Unfortunately, it also seems that the pianist had some mental issues that may have limited his own career – or did he? Much remains to be discovered. Fascinating.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Portland Jazz Fest RIP

This morning's email brought surprising news about the demise of the Portland Jazz Festival. The festival topped a great five-year run last February with tributes to Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, and was scheduled to mark Blue Note Records' anniversary in 2009.

Coming on the heels of the bankruptcy of IAJE – and the cancellation of the planned convention in Seattle – it's quite a double blow to jazz in the U.S. northwest.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Now Spinning: Mary Halvorson

I'm a firm believer that any signature you develop as a writer – and, I think, particularly as a critical writer – should be implicit. Otherwise, it's sort of akin to giving yourself a nickname a la George Costanza. That stated, one thing I've tried to establish as a critic is to avoid comparing one artist to another. I think this came naturally to me, but I've grown to learn how much most musicians hate it when critics link them stylistically to others. It's often just a sign of lazy thinking, or a sign that the critic feels their reader needs a reference point (writing down to readers is a whole other topic). The practice is especially bad when the critic makes incorrect assumptions – like linking Brad Mehldau to Bill Evans, a pianist Mehldau doesn't particularly admire, let alone take influence from.

Still, it's cool to hear an upcoming musician flash their influences as they find their own voice, or extend the voice they've already developed by the time they first record. I've been enjoying what I've heard from 28-year-old guitarist Mary Halvorson – primarily in the context of Anthony Braxton's bands – and I'm excited to be digging into her new CD, Dragon's Head, on Firehouse 12 Records. A native of Brookline, Massachusetts, she admits to being a Hendrix fanatic in eighth grade (I knew there was a reason I liked her, although our eighth grade obsessions were a few decades apart) and she studied with fellow Bostonian Joe Morris, with whom she shares a love for a flat, dry amplified tone. But, in addition to Hendrix and Morris, Dragon's Head subtly references Dolphy and Monk, as well as more obvious nods to Blood Ulmer, Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock.

There is no shortage of utterly original phrasing and attack, as well, and Halvorson's trio (bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith) complements her extremely well. Hearing her tear through some Hendrix-inspired noise on "Momentary Lapse (No. 1)" put me in mind of saxophonist's James Carter's mind-warping debut on JC On The Set, where he obliquely referenced Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and immediately laid his bona fides at your feet.

In short, a great recording – one that's sure to upset the neighbours if you play it loud. In the best way possible.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Jumping The Season

The major fall festivals — Chicago, Guelph, San Francisco — are not on my agenda this year, so why not look ahead with anticipation to 2009?

My friends in the Ottawa area will be interested to note that the SFJAZZ Ensemble is listed on Pollstar as playing the cozy Library & Archives Canada Auditorium on March 1. The collective's site doesn't project beyond the current season yet, but sources on the West Coast tell me that the band will undergo some significant changes for 2009. No word yet, either, on which jazz composer the group will be interpreting next year.

Jazz Chronicles regulars may recall that I was less than enthusiastic about the SFJAZZ Ensemble's debut 2008 performance in Portland last February, when they were interpreting the music of Wayne Shorter. I wish I'd had the chance to catch them again after hearing many good reports from the road. (And, hey, I'll be the first to admit that my reflections on that Portland show were likely coloured by the brilliant set I heard immediately after by Myra Melford's Be Bread Quartet — a show that is still near the top of my list of best concerts of '08.)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Herbie At Newport

National Public Radio in the U.S. is now streaming last weekend's performance at the Newport Jazz Festival by Herbie Hancock's River Of Possibilities project.

It's not often that a jazz artist mounts a tour that's as much a set-piece as this band presented. Just about every stop this summer the band opened with Hancock's fusion chestnut "Actual Proof" and ended with an extended, funked-up workout on "Chameleon." In between, guitarist Lionel Loueke got a long solo piece, and singers Sonya Kitchell and Amy Keys had showcase songs. Both times I caught the show, the highlight was a long central section featuring solos by bassist Dave Holland and Hancock on acoustic piano. Unfortunately, that part of the standard set is absent from the Newport performance, but check it out, if for nothing more than the pleasure of hearing Holland playing more Fender bass than he has since leaving Miles Davis in 1970.

Jerry Wexler

Coming less than a week after the sudden death of Isaac Hayes, Jerry Wexler's demise, at age 91, all but draws the curtain on the great rise of soul music in the 1960s. Along with sound engineer Tom Dowd, Wexler was the architect of so much terrific music from the South.

Of course, Wexler was much more, too. His career – often in concert with the Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun – spanned several decades, and saw him bringing out the best in artists that included Clyde McPhatter, Joe Turner, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Duane Allman, Dr. John, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Esther Phillips and Etta James. More recently, his work included sessions with Bob Dylan and Carlos Santana. And, oh yeah, he signed a little British band called Led Zeppelin.

If you haven't read Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music – co-written by Wexler and David Ritz – it's a must. A compelling look at the rise of Atlantic Records and the life of a guy who was a unique visionary in the music business.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Now Spinning

Donny McCaslin Trio: Recommended Tools
The great tenor saxophonist steps up with a tour de force performance in the style of Sonny Rollins' trio recordings. Live to two-track and produced by longtime collaborator Dave Binney, this is a set of 10 songs that demands your full attention.

Joan Jeanrenaud: Strange Toys
For some reason, cellist Joan Jeanrenaud hasn't managed to escape her membership in the Kronos Quartet, even though she's a powerful and unique solo performer. Strange Toys has a nice mix of pieces with her on electronically enhanced cello, as well as collaborations with guests like Paul Dresher and William Winant.

Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet: One Dance Alone
On the topic of terrific cellists, Peggy Lee is onboard – along with bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck and cornetist Ron Miles – for one of two new recordings Wayne Horvitz has out. Horvitz has an uncanny way of slipping into my subconcious, and this disc is no different.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Isaac Hayes

Sure, he'll always be remembered for the shaved head, the chains, the bad attitude that sold his theme song for Shaft, but Isaac Hayes was largely responsible for shaping the sound of the South in the 1960s. Working with his partner David Porter, Hayes turned out some landmark songs for Sam & Dave – as well as some of the others who recorded for Stax and Atlantic Records – and helped pioneer a sound that was a saltier rival to what Motown was turning out.

Along with James Brown, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and a handful of other high-profile African-American stars of the '60s, Hayes also played a huge role in creating a new, proud image for the black U.S. male. No quarter asked, none given.

Soul man, indeed.

Newport By Proxy

National Public Radio in the U.S. is streaming extensive programming from this year's Newport Jazz Festival this weekend.

Today, they've posted part of the set by the kind of all-star band that the Newport festival has featured since its inception in the mid-'50s: Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Eric Harland.

[Update] Now that I've listened to it, I can tell you that the set – despite a few technical issues during the opening song – is intense and compelling, particularly Potter's "Ask Me Why."

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Seasonal Listening

In addition to the Anthony Braxton listening referenced in an earlier post, I've found myself drawn back 15 years to a couple of the first Dave Douglas recordings that caught my ear, and I'm recalling the excitement generated by his fresh voice and expansive musical vision.

His Soul Note debut – Parallel Worlds – includes music by Webern, Brecht/Weill and Ellington, as well as several intense and sprightly originals, and I had forgotten his lovely tribute to Tony Williams on Convergence.

Looking back over those 15 years, it makes perfect sense that Douglas became co-curator of a trumpet festival, because these recordings were really the first wave of a series of exciting new trumpet-led projects, which have included Taylor Ho Bynum, Abram Wilson and Peter Evans.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Summer... So Far

Some musical highlights so far...

Sonny Rollins at the Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival – After seeing Rollins perhaps a dozen times over the years, I finally caught him on one of those nights (one of those sets, actually) when he seems like he can scale tall buildings. I haven't figured out the cause-and-effect equation yet, but I was happy to experience this in a place where the audience responded with equal passion.

Kathleen Edwards at the Cisco Systems Bluesfest – When someone becomes a "star" it can become difficult to see the transition when you live in the performer's hometown. Appearing on one of the Bluesfest's main stages, Edwards left no doubt why she's now a major concert draw around the world.

Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra at the Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival – Seven days on tour, playing inside a basketball arena, and this band still plays the hell out of Schneider's gorgeous book of compositions.

And a few highlights within concerts: Including Herbie Hancock's acoustic solo at his performance in Ottawa; Eric Harland's terrific stickwork on his hi-hat during Charles Lloyd's concert in Spain; and the gusto Bettye LaVette brings to the stage.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Remembering Jimmy Giuffre

My obit of Jimmy Giuffre is in the current issue of DownBeat (August), but due to space limitations they didn't have room for the original version. For those interested, here it is:

It’s common wisdom that an artist’s influence is directly proportional to his or her exposure. Jimmy Giuffre – who died April 24 at age 86 from complications of Parkinson’s disease – shattered that truism.

Active on the recording scene for a total of just 38 years and unable to play since 1996, the native of Dallas casts a long shadow as a composer, multi-reed player, educator and free thinker. His sphere of influence encompasses big band music, chamber jazz and the avant-garde.

A graduate of North Texas State Teachers College who served as a bandsman in World War II, Giuffre moved to Los Angeles in 1946 to pursue graduate work at UCLA. Instead, he made some important breakthroughs by studying privately for five years with Wesley LaViolette, a specialist in counterpoint and tonal music, and arranging for Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman. For the latter, in 1947, he created his first significant work when he wrote and arranged “Four Brothers,” a hit that helped revolutionize harmonic writing for reeds. While clarinet had been his principal horn since the age of nine, he earned his keep in California by playing tenor and baritone saxophone in small groups led by Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne and Howard Rumsey. His first manifesto – the 1955 album Tangents In Jazz – eschewed chordal instruments and signaled his desire to write intricately laced chamber jazz that challenged the prevailing tenets of bop.

“Jimmy’s most radical contribution was his use of linear counterpoint and his determination to destroy the dominance of chords,” said pianist Paul Bley.

A series of albums on Atlantic from 1956-58 cemented his reputation as an imaginative composer, and his dominant use of the clarinet’s lower chalumeau register was as distinctive and resonant as Miles Davis’ raspy Harmon mute. His most-successful trio – featuring guitarist Jim Hall and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer – is immortalized in Bert Stern’s film Jazz On A Summer’s Day, playing the folk-influenced “The Train and the River.”

Outwardly mild-mannered, Giuffre sought to break even further away from conventions, and the spark was ignited when he encountered Ornette Coleman in 1959 at the School of Jazz in Lenox, Massachusetts. Giuffre was in his third summer on the faculty and Coleman was in attendance as a special student. Many who saw it – including Gunther Schuller, Dave Brubeck, Perry Robinson and Giuffre’s future wife, Juanita – recall a particular jam session where Giuffre had a breakthrough.

“He got creative,” recalled Coleman, speaking to drummer George Schuller, the producer of the documentary film Music Inn. “He got very creative, and he realized something.”

Energized, within a year Giuffre took the dramatic step of replacing Hall with Bley – like Coleman, a radical thinker newly arrived from California – who subsequently introduced Giuffre to bassist Steve Swallow.

“He was an imposing figure,” recalled Swallow. “It was remarkable at his age to make such a drastic change in his music, to so thoroughly turn his back on what he had been doing and embrace a really challenging and harshly dissonant vocabulary. I think he had occasionally let his true spirit out of the cage before, but with our trio he never looked back.”

While Bley and Swallow agree that the trio’s music – documented on the albums 1961 and Free Fall – found some followers in Europe, audiences and club owners were generally unwilling to accept Giuffre’s conversion to free jazz. After the trio’s final gig in 1961, the three men divided their $1.05 take for the evening at a late-night restaurant called The Hip Bagel and called it quits.

“Jimmy was a very kind, polite man, but inwardly he was a little stubborn,” said pianist Ran Blake, a colleague at Lenox and the New England Conservatory, where Giuffre taught from 1978-96.

“We were all saddened by our failure,” said Swallow. “We were convinced of the historical imperative of what we were doing.”

Disillusioned, Giuffre didn’t record again until 1972, and avoided returning to free music until the trio reunited in 1989. By then, Giuffre’s music had influenced a new generation of fans, including Vancouver-based clarinetist François Houle. “I was looking for mentors and trying to find my voice when I discovered his music,” he said. “It was mind-blowing for 30-year-old music, particularly the way it integrated solos with the overall form. It was a model of democracy at work.”

“We took up where we left off,” said Swallow of the trio’s reunion. “Jimmy’s music continued to evolve. His sense of himself was unshakeable.”

Tragically, while the trio continued to be a popular draw at European jazz festivals in the early ‘90s and recorded several times, Giuffre’s Parkinson’s was advancing.

“The symptoms were clear during our last tour,” recalled Swallow. “Sometimes, miraculously, Jimmy would be able to function well once he got onstage, but the writing was on the wall. It was heartbreaking because he was still growing.”

“He was a rare creature in this business,” said Bley, “a gentleman.”

Asked for a final thought on his friend, Bley turned uncharacteristically sentimental: “Bring him back.”

Sunday, June 29, 2008

School's Out

It won't be a jazz-free summer by any means—I'm headed to the Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival in a couple of weeks—but probably a blog-free summer, barring something pressing and unexpected time on my hands here in the office.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Mighty Maria

Composer and bandleader Maria Schneider dominated yesterday's Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards presentation at The Jazz Standard in New York City. Riding high on the heels of her stunningly beautiful recording Sky Blue, Schneider took home four awards: Record of the Year; Composer of the Year; Arranger of the Year; and Large Ensemble of the Year.
This is the second time that she has walked away with four Jazz Awards statuettes. She first accomplished the feat in 2005, in the wake of her Grammy-winning ArtistShare debut album, Concert In The Garden.

Here's a complete list of this year's winners:

Lifetime Achievement in Jazz
Marian McPartland
Musician of the Year
Herbie Hancock
Up & Coming Musician of the Year
Lionel Loueke
Record of the Year
Sky Blue
Maria Schneider Orchestra
Reissue/Historical Release of the Year
Cornell 1964
Charles Mingus Sextet
Blue Note
Reissue/Historical Box Set of the Year
A Life In Time: The Roy Haynes Story
Dreyfus Jazz
Record Label of the Year
Blue Note Records
Composer of the Year
Maria Schneider
Arranger of the Year
Maria Schneider
Male Singer of the Year
Andy Bey
Female Singer of the Year
Abbey Lincoln
Latin Jazz Album of the Year
Big Band Urban Folktales
Bobby Sanabria
Small Ensemble of the Year
Ornette Coleman Quartet/Quintet
Large Ensemble of the Year
Maria Schneider Orchestra
Trumpeter of the Year
Terence Blanchard
Trombonist of the Year
Wycliffe Gordon
Player of Instruments Rare in Jazz
Scott Robinson, reeds/brass/antiques
Alto Sax Player of the Year
Ornette Coleman
Tenor Sax Player of the Year
Sonny Rollins
Soprano Sax Player of the Year
Jane Ira Bloom
Baritone Sax Player of the Year
James Carter
Clarinetist of the Year
Anat Cohen
Flutist of the Year
Nicole Mitchell
Pianist of the Year
Hank Jones
Organ-Keyboards of the Year
Dr. Lonnie Smith
Guitarist of the Year
Bill Frisell
Bassist of the Year
Christian McBride
Electric Bassist of the Year
Steve Swallow
Strings Player of the Year
Regina Carter
Mallets Player of the Year
Joe Locke
Percussionist of the Year
Candido Camero
Drummer of the Year
Roy Haynes
Events Producer of the Year
Patricia Nicholson-Parker, Arts for Art, RUCMA, Vision Festival
Jazz Journalism Lifetime Achievement Award
Doug Ramsey, author, biographer, blogger
Willis Conover-Marian McPartland Broadcasting Award
Nancy Wilson, for “Jazz Profiles”
National Public Radio
Helen Dance-Robert Palmer Feature & Review Writing Award
Nate Chinen
New York Time, JazzTimes
Best Periodical Covering Jazz
Best Website on Jazz
Best Book about Jazz
Playing the Changes: Milt Hinton's Life in Stories and Photographs, by Milt Hinton, David G. Berger and Holly Maxson (Vanderbilt University Press)
Lona Foote-Bob Parent Photography Award
Milt Hinton (1910-2000)
Jazz Photo of the Year
“Time Stood Still for Andrew Hill,”
by Laurence Donohue-Greene

The Jazz Journalists Association 2008 Award for the ‘A Team’ Activists, advocates, altruists, aiders and abettors of jazz

Dr. Valerie Capers, pianist, composer, emeritus chair of City University of New York Department of Music and Art at Bronx Community College;

Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts;

Lauren Deutsch, photographer and executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago;

Susan Muscarella, pianist-composer-arranger-educator, founder of JazzSchool (Berkeley);

Phil Nimmons, clarinetist, improviser, father of Canadian jazz education;

George Russell, conceptualist, composer, orchestra leader, educator (New England Conservatory)

Dick Wang, musician, educator (Univ of Illinois-Chicago), mentor, historian, archivist, co-founder, past president and current board member of the Jazz Institute of Chicago;

Dr. Herb Wong, founder of the Palo Alto jazz alliance and Berkeley public school jazz programs, broadcaster, record producer and annotator, past-president of the International Association of Jazz Educators, spirit of the Monterey Jazz Festival

Wendy Oxenhorn, executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America, founder of Street News, blues harmonica player

Thursday, June 12, 2008

What Makes A Festival Festive?

Although I'm paid three times a year or so to write reviews about jazz festivals, it's seldom the festival itself I review. Whether I'm reporting from New York, Vancouver, Cleveland or Montreal, I try to keep the focus on the music, unless there's something extraordinary about the setting or the crowd that warrants notice. That approach can create confusion. Once, when a festival organizer complained about the bad review I gave his festival, I replied: "It wasn't the 'festival' I was reviewing. I didn't see you onstage playing a saxophone."

Yeah, that was overly glib and facetious, but you get my point.

After helping to run a festival for a few years in the 1980s and attending at least three events a year since 1991, I've developed a few thoughts on what – music aside – separates great festivals from the also-rans. Bear in mind that the Number 1 thing that makes the difference is artistic vision, but let's pretend that all things are equal on that front for the sake of argument. What makes the ideal festival?

As in real estate, location plays a major role. I like urban settings and the ocean, so I'm partial to events in San Francisco, Vancouver and Halifax, but putting that bias aside, festivals that provide the equivalent of a palette-cleansing course at a restaurant are appreciated. In San Francisco, I love the opportunity to walk across the street to the Museum of Modern Art after catching a show at the Yerba Buena Gardens or check out the collection at the Legion of Honor, the great venue that SFJAZZ sometimes uses out by the Golden Gate Bridge. In Vancouver, I dig sitting at an outdoor cafe on Robson Street – people watching in the West End – between shows. Sometimes, this is a question of timing, too. I know only a few people who really enjoy festivals that cram musical acts up against each other; it's nice to have time to process what you just heard.

Food also plays a key role. One of the best festival sites I've been to is in San Jose, California, where, during the festival, Cesar Chavez Square is lined with vendors dispensing a variety of ethnic cuisines. One of my least-favourite festival sites is Victoriaville, where the lack of time between shows combines with the paucity of good restaurants to put me in a bad mood every time. (During the early years of the Guelph Jazz Festival – when critics were still discovering its terrific programming and great setting – my Toronto colleague Mark Miller uttered the immortal line, "This is like Victoriaville, but with better food.") In Ottawa this summer, I'm looking forward to the fact that a local, organic, micro-brewery has won the beverage contract over the big breweries. Later in the summer, I'm making my first trip to the Vitoria festival in Spain, and I'm looking forward to the Basque cuisine almost as much as catching Maria Schneider and Wayne Shorter... almost.

Overall, though, it's that intangible "vibe" that wins me over. It can be sitting in a park – doesn't matter which city – under a beautiful sky, or in a funky old hall with terrific sound; if the vibe is right, everything sounds better.

What about your favorite festivals? Which ones are you partial to? What makes it work for you? Send your picks for where people should head this year as we enter festival season.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Happy Birthday To Us

Two jazz magazines... two anniversaries... two very different approaches. That's what readers of Coda – the venerable Canadian journal of improvised music – and Signal To Noise – an up-and-coming quarterly magazine based in Houston, Texas – have in their hands this month. Coda is marking 50 years of existence, while STN is celebrating 50 issues.

I contribute to both, so I'm not playing favourites, but it's interesting to note the differences in how the publications view their legacies.

The Coda retrospective takes a top-down approach, with lengthy remembrances from founder/former publisher John Norris, former editor Bill Smith and former publisher Nick Pitt. There is no shortage of 'those were the days' stories of how the magazine got its start as a mimeographed-and-stapled collection of reviews, but almost nothing about the legion of writers and photographers who contributed to what Coda grew to be. This is ironic, considering that Smith and his successor, the wonderfully insightful Stuart Broomer, were great advocates for letting journalists have their say. Today, Coda has passed from their hands.

STN publisher – and editor (though he doesn't call himself that on the masthead) – Pete Gershon is cut from the same cloth as Smith and Broomer, but his 50th celebration trumpets that fact, while Coda seems to be trying to re-write history. Rather than continually beat the reader over the head with the difficult realities of running a publication, Gershon lets the writers do what they do. His novel approach to marking his 50 milestone was to ask 50 contributors to submit short descriptions of their most-treasured piece of music-related memorabilia. Simple but effective.

I have edited half-a-dozen or so publications during my career – and continue to do so at a small community paper in the neighbourhood where I grew up – and I've learned that the biggest mistake you can make as an editor is to forget that it's the names on the bylines and not at the top of the masthead that make a magazine or newspaper what it is. It is writers' enthusiasms and voices, and photographers' vision and imagination that readers respond to – regardless of how skillful or dedicated the editor.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

RTF v.3.0

With Return To Forever's vaunted reunion tour now in full swing – it kicked off last week in Texas and winds through the summer until early August – I've been thinking about a quirk I have about original lineups. It's no surprise that I like the original configuration of The Mahavishnu Orchestra best (does anyone prefer one of the latter versions?), but I also have a preference for the first incarnation of Weather Report, Genesis, The Allman Brothers Band, The E Street Band (okay, maybe not "Mad Dog" Vinny Lopez) and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

I deviate a little from this pattern with RTF, but only if you're one of those who consider the Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, Joe Farrell band RTF. (Their acoustic basis and heavy Brazilian influence make them a whole other category than what followed, once Lenny White and Bill Connors came along.) For me, Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy ranks with The Inner Mounting Flame, Sweetnighter and Head Hunters as an album that defined the fusion genre in the early '70s. Al DiMeola has just never really done it for me, though one of his later recordings – Orange And Blue – is pretty fine.

A few years ago, I got a chance to interview Connors, then 55. I was always curious about why he decided to drop out of RTF after his exceptional work on Hymn and Stanley Clarke's solo debut.

Looking back at his decision, Connors was at a loss to explain it, despite many rumours that Corea's Scientology devotion or leadership manner were at the root. "Maybe I should've just taken a few days off. It (his decision to quit) was a little rash."

He didn't seem like a man to harbour regrets. After all, he's had a full career of recording (including some great work for ECM) and teaching. Still, he also said this: "It hurt when people would tell me that I must've listened to a lot of Al DiMeola. I was robbed of my identity... (it was like) my guitar was a credit card that had been stolen and I'd been left to pay the bill."

While some people I've talked to have expressed regrets that Moreira and Purim aren't involved in this summer's RTF reunion, I'm wishing that Chick had invited Connors along for the ride.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

NEA Jazz Masters

The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has named the recipients of its 2009 Jazz Masters Award. The winners are: guitarist-singer George Benson, 65; drummer Jimmy Cobb, 79; alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, 80; harmonicist-guitarist Toots Thielmans, 86; and trumpeter Snooky Young, 89. Veteran recording engineer and studio owner Rudy Van Gelder, 83, has been awarded the 2009 A.B. Spellman Award for jazz advocacy.

The criteria for the Jazz Masters Award are excellence, impact and significant contributions to keeping jazz alive.

Clearly, some excellent choices here – particularly the nod to Young, a fine player who is often overlooked because he chose a route other than as a high-profile bandleader. Good to see Cobb and Konitz cited, as well. Van Gelder? A no-brainer.

The odd man out, of course, is Benson – not just for the fact that he's a generation younger than the others, but for the fact that there are dozens of others his age who are arguably as worthy. Does impact merely equate to commercial sales? Does one keep the jazz tradition alive by finding success in the pop mainstream? Benson is, of course, a fine guitarist, but there are a score of instrumentalists his equal. His citation highlights his "innovative practice of playing a florid guitar melody accompanied by an identical, scatted vocal line." Thin gruel there; questionably innovative given how widespread that practice was among blues guitarists and others well before Benson. Perhaps of more significance is one other fact his citation notes: "Winner of ten Grammy Awards." As usual, these things often come down to nothing more than popularity contests.

The winners of the NEA Jazz Masters Award receive a $25,000 grant. The awards will be presented in October in conjunction with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and will include a performance saluting the artists' work by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Dum-de-Dum-Dum, Dum Dum, 1928-2008

Long before I had heard the word "mojo" I knew Ellas McDaniel was working some kind of magic. When I was eight or nine I was fascinated by two things: odd-sounding music and cowboys. So when my cousin pulled out a copy of Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger and put it on his basement record player I was enthralled. First of all, who was called Bo Diddley? No one in my orbit. Second, who in 1962 had heard of a black cowboy? No one who grew up watching Rawhide, Wagon Train and Cheyenne.

And then, there was the sound. Simple, yet spooky. Much darker than the white rockabillies my older brothers favoured, let alone the music on the radio of the day. And that beat. Well, I had heard that on a Buddy Holly record, but who was this guy claiming it as his own, and basing almost every song on it? Something in the audacious minimalism grabbed me and wouldn't let go. Little wonder, then, that The Rolling Stones had me over The Beatles when they covered "Not Fade Away" and then "Mona," or that Bruce Springsteen's "She's The One" has remained one of my favourite of his songs in concert.

So long, Bo. You were one of a kind.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Best Wishes for Ajay Heble

It was a shock to learn today that Ajay Heble – founder and artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival & Colloquium – has suffered a heart attack. One of the most creative festival directors in the world, Ajay has established an enviable record in Guelph, despite the festival's relatively small size. Earlier this spring, he was nominated for a Jazz Award by the Jazz Journalists Association.

Here's the official release on the state of Ajay's health:

GUELPH – Guelph Jazz Festival artistic director Ajay Heble suffered a heart attack Monday during a return flight from Paris where he was attending a conference. He was attended to by physicians and nurses who were on his flight, and the airplane made an emergency landing in Goose Bay, Labrador, where he was transferred to hospital. He is now in stable condition.

Heble's wife Sheila O'Reilly was on the flight with him, as was colleague Bill Brydon of Winnipeg and his wife. All three are with Heble now in Goose Bay.

Michelle Lobkowicz, president of the Guelph Jazz Festival, said, "Our thoughts and prayers are with Ajay, Sheila and their two children. We're thankful that he received prompt medical attention and is over the immediate crisis."

Heble is the founder of the Guelph Jazz Festival and has been its artistic director for the past 15 years. He is also a professor of English at the University of Guelph, and the director of a multi-million dollar social research project entitled Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice. It was in regard to the latter project that Heble was in Paris over the previous week.

It's not yet clear when or how Heble will be moved from Goose Bay, for specialized cardiac care closer to his home in Guelph.

With regard to this year's Guelph Jazz Festival, executive director Derek Andrews says that Heble's heart attack is a tremendous shock but adds that this year's lineup of musicians has been largely decided and booked by Heble. The organization was planning to announce the feature artists for the 2008 Festival this week. Although that announcement has been postponed, Andrews says the Festival still plans to unveil the full season lineup in mid-June, even though Heble in all likelihood will not be present.

"We're glad Ajay is safe, and for the time being, his well-being is all we're worrying about," says Andrews. "Our board will meet later in the week to adjust our plans for the three-month Festival run-up period."

(June 4 Update: Ajay is now recuperating at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, after being transferred from Goose Bay.)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Re-discovering Braxton

If you're like me, you probably have chunks of your vinyl collection that you haven't gotten around to replacing with digital copies or updating to reflect re-packaging, re-mastering, etc. For me, it's Anthony Braxton. There were holes in my collection to begin with, largely because my discovery of Braxton coincided with the years when I worked in campus radio and had ready access to a lot of his prime work and ample time to play it. And once you're behind in collecting Braxton, there's a lot of room to make up. So, I've determined to make it a priority for this year.

This was spurred by hearing him talk and play at last fall's Guelph Jazz Festival and Colloquium, and also by the flood of new Braxton releases that have landed on my desk lately. It has been a particularly rich time for Braxton recordings – both current and a few years old. I'm presently reviewing two new Victo releases – featuring his Diamond Curtain Wall Trio and the other his 12+1tet – and on their way to me are a handful of his Black Saint releases and the lauded Quartet (Coventry) 1985 on Leo, which somehow has eluded my listening all these years. I'm looking forward to this with more anticipation than I've felt in a long time.

One thing that strikes me listening to new Braxton is that he has recently employed two of the most-interesting guitarists around: Mary Halvorson and Kevin O'Neil. Both of them play with enormous texture and sonic breadth, and sound quite unlike the prevailing jazz guitarists of the past 15 years.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Join Us In Ottawa

Time to reveal the full plans for three events at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival that I've been working on in my role as vice-president of the Jazz Journalists Association.

Over three days in late June we'll be staging public events over the lunch-hour in the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage.

A core trio for these events will be myself, veteran jazz journalist Howard Mandel (whose book Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz was published this year) and Reuben Jackson, who's a poet, journalist and archivist at the Smithsonian Institution.

On June 24, we'll be joined by pianist and educator Andy Milne and Dr. Alan Stanbridge from the University of Toronto to discuss the rich tradition of improvising on popular songs. Whether it's Charlie Parker spinning harmonic magic from "Embraceable You," John Coltrane turning "My Favorite Things" into a dervish dance or Herbie Hancock plumbing the emotional depths of Joni Mitchell's songbook, jazz musicians have long found rich improvisational ground in pop songs. But what is the common ground? We'll discuss. This panel follows a performance by Hancock's all-star band at the festival, so we'll have plenty of fuel. In addition, one of Milne's three(!) recent CDs finds him interpreting music by Mitchell, Neil Young and other contemporary singer-songwriters, and Stanbridge has written frequently on popular music.

The next day, we'll be joined by veteran arts administrator Richard Davis from the Canadian Department of Heritage and others to conduct a workshop on arts journalism. The fundamentals and standards of professional arts journalism remain little understood or discussed in this era when the arts – in particular music – are increasingly available to and commented upon by eager consumers. We're planning to have a wide-ranging discussion of issues of connection and impartiality, reported observation and personal explanation.

Finally, on June 26, we'll be getting warmed up for that evening's performance by Return To Forever by looking back over 40 years of fusion music. Born in 1968, when leading jazz musicians began exploring the sonic possibilities of electric instruments, fusion music dominated jazz in the '70s. Artists like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke and Miroslav Vitous – all of whom will be at this year's Ottawa jazz fest – found new avenues of expression and inspired a generation of young improvisers. We'll be joined by two musicians who were influenced: guitarist Wayne Eagles, who teaches at Carleton University, and pianist Peter Hum, who is the assistant arts and culture editor at the Ottawa Citizen and the author of a terrific blog.

If you're in the area – or especially if you're in town for the festival – I hope you can join us.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Now Spinning

I'm currently pursuing a story about ECM Records, which involves a convoluted interview process with the globe-trotting Manfred Eicher, so the label is much on my mind. Considering ECM, it is always difficult to overlook the monster in its catalogue, Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert, which continues to click along in sales like Kind Of Blue. Jarrett's improvised solo recitals and – more recently – the staggering output of his so-called Standards Trio tend to overshadow the work I first loved: the American Quartet with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, which recorded for ABC in the mid-'70s. I saw them live the same month that I first saw Bruce Springsteen, and both events are seminal for me. As good as Jarrett's solo outings and trio are, I know I'm not alone in wishing that he would compose again.

I think drummer George Schuller is with me on that. A criminally under-appreciated drummer and bandleader, Schuller has just released an homage to Jarrett's quartet. Like Before, Somewhat After features a quintet (with Brad Shepik on guitar, Donny McCaslin, saxes, Dave Ambrosio, bass, and Tom Beckham, vibes, along with percussionist Jamey Haddad on a few tracks) performing five Jarrett compositions and a couple of Schuller originals inspired by the Jarrett four.

Very interesting, and I'm digging the way Schuller takes liberties – particularly on one of my favorites from Jarrett's Fort Yawuh: "De Drums." This is great music that deserves to be re-discovered. Sadly, those original recordings are hard to find. Pick them up if you find them, and hope that they get a proper resurrection sometime soon.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Jimmy Giuffre, 1921-2008

Sad news that the great Jimmy Giuffre has died, just two days before his 87th birthday.

One of the giants on the clarinet, Giuffre's band with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow was groundbreaking and remains one of the benchmarks for many improvisers.

Update: Watch for my appreciation of Jimmy Giuffre's life in the August (Critics Poll) issue of DownBeat, out July 15.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Festivals: Pro or Con?

Recently, I was engaged by a prominent Canadian musician in a spirited email exchange about the pros and cons of jazz festivals. His main point was that too many non-jazz artists get gigs that should go to jazz musicians, but an underlying refrain was that festivals give the illusion that a city has a thriving jazz scene, when in fact 90 percent of the year's expenditures on jazz are concentrated in a 10-day or two-week period.

There's little denying either point. You don't have to look too far to find jazz festivals rife with performers like Al Green, Gladys Knight, Leonard Cohen, Billy Joel and others who have – at best – tenuous connections to jazz. And, aside from New York City and one or two other large cities, it's likely that the lineup of any festival you care to name overshadows the jazz gigs you'll find throughout the rest of the year. So does that mean that jazz festivals have outlived their usefulness 54 years after George Wein launched the first one in Newport, Rhode Island?

As my colleague Dan Ouellette points out in the current issue of DownBeat, there is a diminishing number of "name" jazz musicians – players who can draw audiences beyond their regular fan base. That was an issue back in the late-1980s, when I was briefly involved in the administration side of jazz festivals. After you had exhausted the Dizzy Gillespies and Benny Goodmans, where did you go next? Sure, there is always an audience for first-rate artists like Brad Mehldau or John Scofield, but does your father, your spouse or your niece know their names? Who's more likely to make them part with their money and make some time in their schedule: Dave Douglas or Gladys Knight?

I had dinner last night with a friend who's excited that Knight is coming to Ottawa's jazz festival. He's a discerning music fan, and he'll enjoy whatever else he hears at the festival, but it's Knight who'll get him into the park. And that's where festivals really do their work at expanding the tastes of their casual attendees. Among some, jazz still has a reputation of being "hard" music, and only first-hand exposure can overcome that.

As for "stealing" gigs from local musicians, the best festivals I've seen build lots of local content into their lineup (and I have to disagree with those hometown players who think they deserve a prime-time slot or the kind of fee that Wayne Shorter or Maria Schneider can command). What's more, I know of dozens of younger jazz musicians who caught the bug and focused their ambition by being exposed to – and in some cases, jamming with – established artists.

So, yes, sometimes the sound is less than optimal and the audiences often aren't as reverent as you'll find in a club, but jazz festivals pump a lot of revenue into the industry and build audiences. There's probably not a local jazz scene anywhere – even New York City – that couldn't be improved, but I don't think festivals are to blame.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Jazz At Bluesfest

For those in the vicinity of Ottawa – my home base – it's easy to overlook the significant jazz content in this year's Bluesfest lineup announced today.

On July 3, Cassandra Wilson will perform at 9:30 p.m. She's about to release a new album called Loverly, which features her unique take on a number of standards. Not sure who's in her touring band, but the recording has great work by pianist Jason Moran. (Update: It looks like Wilson is touring with Reginald Veal, Marvin Sewell, Jonathan Batiste, and two astounding percussionists, Herlin Riley and Lekan Babalola.)

On July 6 at 6:15 p.m., it's James Blood Ulmer. Might be his first-ever performance in Ottawa unless I was out of town when he was here before.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


The International Association for Jazz Education officially filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, simultaneously announcing the cancellation of its 2009 convention, slated to be held in Seattle next January, and the immediate closure of its headquarters in Manhattan, Kansas.

As a journalist, I'm not close enough to the jazz education field to know what effects this might have at that level, but I do know that IAJE was a tremendous resource for educators and that the conference provided a terrific meeting place for educators and their students.

For my profession, what this business failure means is the death of an annual sharing of information. Since integrating the old JazzTimes Convention a number of years ago, the IAJE convention was the place where journalists and others on the "industry" side of jazz gathered to trade ideas, renew friendships and get re-energized for the year ahead. More specifically, for the Jazz Journalists Association, on whose board I serve as vice-president, it was a chance for us to help educate young journalists and develop our own chops through workshops and panels.

IAJE will definitely be missed, but knowing the dedication and enthusiasm that exists among jazz educators at all levels I have no doubt that something will rise from the ashes. It will just take time.

Monday, April 14, 2008

More On The Mess At IAJE

What my friend and JJA colleague Willard Jenkins calls "a house of straw" is starting to blow away faster than I predicted. The financial disaster at the International Association of Jazz Education is evolving rapidly, and Willard has several revealing posts about it on his blog. And check out some of the comments in response to his posts to see the level of hostility, back biting and back stabbing that's going on as the straw comes down.

An addendum on April 15: Apparently, the IAJE's board has now voted to file for Chapter 7 under U.S. bankruptcy law, which is the liquidation of property for distribution to creditors.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Now Spinning

Bennie Maupin is back... with a vengeance. Maupin was one of my favourite reed players in the '60s and early '70s – and remains at the top of my list of bass clarinetists. I discovered his work when he was a member of trumpeter Lee Morgan's band. Morgan's recording Live At The Lighthouse is an overlooked landmark recording of the time. Of course, Maupin was also a cornerstone of Miles Davis' band, making mammoth contributions to Bitches Brew and now properly documented on On The Corner and other studio work Davis did between '69 and '72. Next, Maupin went on to be a key player in Herbie Hancock's great Mwandishi band and stayed on for Sextant and Head Hunters. Oddly, Maupin was never much of a leader. He made one great record for ECM – The Jewel In The Lotus, just reissued on CD – a couple of so-so things for Mercury and then he disappeared from the recording scene for 20 years.

Like Andrew Hill – in whose company he also performed – Maupin was one of those guys you always hoped would come back while he still had some chops. In the past couple of years, he has. And he hasn't lost a step. If anything, he's more focused than ever, and he sounds great. His new recording, Early Reflections, on Cryptogramophone is exceptional. Maupin has been – among other things – studying composition in Poland, and has grown fascinated by the mountainous Tatra region near Krakow. He has also hooked up with a Polish trio – including a terrific pianist named Michal Tokaj – and an intriguing singer: Hania Chowaniec-Rybka. She has this intense, wordless style that puts me in mind of Mari Boine for some reason. She and Maupin team up for a couple of Tatra-influenced pieces, the second of which had me reaching for Visible World – the ECM recording Jan Garbarek made with Boine in 1996. Maupin revisits "The Jewel In The Lotus" on Early Reflections, re-casting it in three-quarter time and building in a jaw-dropping soprano solo that may be one of the best things I've heard him play. All things considered, that makes Early Reflections a must-have if you've been a Maupin fan, too.

My review of both the reissue of The Jewel In The Lotus and Early Reflections will run in the next issue of Signal To Noise – my debut in that fine publication.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Festival Windfall

It may be the low U.S. dollar, the ever-growing hassle of air travel, or just the luck of 2008 – whatever the reason, there is a larger-than-usual number of prime jazz acts on the North American festival circuit this summer. Lucky for me and others in my region, most of them are coming to the Ottawa International Jazz Festival (June 20-July 1).

The list of headliners unveiled at this morning's media launch is impressive: Herbie Hancock's Joni Mitchell Project – with Dave Holland and Chris Potter onboard; Brad Mehldau Trio; Return To Forever; Charlie Haden's Quartet West; the LCJO with Wynton Marsalis; Salif Keita; Madeleine Peyroux; EST; and Tim Berne. There's also a wealth of European and Canadian artists, as well as a couple of headline spots to be filled.

Full disclosure: In my role as vice-president of the Jazz Journalists Association, I'm working with the festival to program three days of panel discussions featuring my fellow board members Howard Mandel and Reuben Jackson. On June 24, in conjunction with Hancock's appearance, we'll be looking at the intersection between popular music and improvisation. The next day – joined by some local experts – we'll be conducting a workshop on the state of arts criticism in the digital era. And on June 26 – the day that Return To Forever hits – a bunch of us will be marking the 40th anniversary of fusion and looking at its legacy (another fusion pioneer – bassist Miroslav Vitous – is also at the festival).

You can check it all out at the festival's site.