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.