Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Top 10 Plus

Here's my contribution to the Village Voice 2009 Jazz Poll:

Top 10 2009

1. Vijay Iyer Trio – Historicity (ACT)
2. Miguel Zenón – Esta Plena (Marsalis Music)
3. Michael Musillami Trio + 3 – From Seeds (Playscape)
4. Henry Threadgill Zooid – This Brings Us To, Volume 1 (Pi)
5. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam)
6. Enrico Rava – New York Days (ECM)
7. Jim Hall & Bill Frisell – Hemispheres (ArtistShare)
8. Chris Potter Underground – Ultrahang (ArtistShare)
9. Jon Hassell – Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street (ECM)
10. Dave Douglas – Spirit Moves (Greenleaf Music)

1. Louis Armstrong – The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-1946) (Mosaic)
2. Miles Davis – The Complete Columbia Album Collection (Legacy)
3. Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um 50th Anniversary (Legacy)

Lisa Sokolov – A Quiet Thing (Laughing Horse)

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam)

Miguel Zenón – Esta Plena (Marsalis Music)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Top 10 Coming This Week

What is the definitive Top 10 list of jazz recordings—The Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll—will be published in this week's edition of the newspaper and available online sometime Tuesday evening. Ninety-nine critics contributed to the poll, which is co-ordinated by Francis Davis.

The results are proof positive that there are some exciting young voices out there. Check it out.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

'Til 2010

When you're a freelancer there are two kinds of Christmas/New Year's seasons: quiet, which does not bode well for the early February cash flow; or crazy, which means you'll be lucky if you find time for all the necessary pre-holiday preparations. This year, it's the latter for me. No complaints, especially at the tail-end of a year that did not begin well for anyone, but it does mean there will be no leisurely, egg nog-fueled year-end retrospectives and look-aheads. In all likelihood, this is it for 2009.

January promises numerous posts around the time of the Winter Jazzfest/APAP blowout in New York City. The Jazz Journalists Association has now been swept up in the activities, thanks to the dogged work of Yvonne Ervin and Howard Mandel, and I'm lined up to participate in at least one panel discussion. More to come on that, but likely not until the new year.

So have a good one. And enjoy some music—live or otherwise; musicians need you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Concerts of the Year?

I've had a few inquiries about this year's list of best concerts. Well, a look back over the past 71 posts on Jazz Chronicles will tell you it has been a light year for travel and concert-going. Just about anything I posted now would merely retread what I wrote during my 10 days hunkered down as media specialist for the 2009 TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival. No shortage of memorable concerts there, so I could easily—and happily—nominate Charles Lloyd's quartet, Dave Douglas' Brass Ecstacy or the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

Not surprisingly, a year without a musical road trip has left me staring at my carry-on bag and fingering my passport. The first week of January will change all that when the Winter Jazzfest kicks off in New York City. I'm really looking forward to making the in-concert acquaintance of artists who have excited me on recordings or through word of mouth over the past couple of years, including: Mary Halvorson, Ambrose Akinmusire, Jenny Scheinman and Linda Oh.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reading List

Three thin-but-vital volumes have been on my bedside table in recent weeks. Two are by friends—Mark Miller's biography of pianist/composer Herbie Nichols and Stuart Broomer's examination of the music of Anthony Braxton—so I'm too biased to saying anything beyond, Great work, guys.

The third book is equally welcome: a new Picador softcover edition of Geoff Dyer's brilliant and evocative 1996 book, But Beautiful.

A powerful example of imaginative non-fiction, the book allows readers to peer into moments in the lives of a number of jazz giants. Dyer puts you in the backseat of a car as Duke Ellington and Harry Carney steer toward their next gig; plummets you in to New York City's Alvin Hotel to witness the final hours in the life of saxophonist Lester Young; and puts you on the downward spiral with Ben Webster as he drinks and plays his way across Europe. Dyer can certainly be faulted—as was Clint Eastwood for his portrait of Charlie Parker—for focusing only on the sad loneliness that befalls some musicians who live too long on the periphery of a life tethered to realities like children and home. He may wear his romanticism on his sleeve, but the rich tapestry of his language and his insights into the human condition make that easy to forgive. There are many other places where you can read the facts about Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Ben Webster and Lester Young; allow Dyer his flights of fantasy about small, meaningful scenes in those lives.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Top 10 Coming Soon

Once again this year, Francis Davis is co-ordinating a year-end critics poll of best CDs for the Village Voice, so my list will be delayed until his compendium appears in the paper and online either on December 30 or January 6. As expected, there have been a couple of late considerations and additions, and Francis' approach requires a bit of revision, since he also includes vocal, latin and historical releases.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Jazz On The Web

Big buzz circulating this week about the future of Jazz.com in the wake of founding editor Ted Gioia's decision to step away from the project. Since Ted hasn't commented yet on the future of the site (and his silent partner/investor hasn't stepped forward) any speculation is just that. Some blog posts have pondered what this means for the future of jazz on the Web—and while I gave a moment's thought to how much I'd miss Ted's vigilant aggregation of jazz posts around the world (and thanks, Ted, for picking up the occasional piece from Jazz Chronicles) if that doesn't continue under whoever takes over his job—I don't think there's great cause for alarm. While there is still no viable business model for a large, expansive site like Jazz.com, I'm convinced that there will always be enthusiastic people who want to spread their passion about the music they love.

That idea was reinforced (again) when I read Robert Hilburn's chatty autobiography, Corn Flakes With John Lennon. Like myself, and thousands of other music nerds out there, Hilburn got involved in music journalism because he saw a void. In his case, it was the early 1960s and the setting was Los Angeles, but it happens over and over, in big cities and small: you hear something that moves you and you want to share it—and your opinions and passion about it—with others.

So, while Ted Gioia's knowledge and steady editorial hand will be missed—and Jazz.com will be missed, too, if Ted's departure signals its end—I'm convinced that someone else will step up and fill the hole he leaves.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Take That To The Bank

Great news for Canada's major jazz festivals: TD Canada Trust has announced that it is extending its title sponsorship through the 2014 season. This means a strong foundation for festivals in Victoria, Vancouver, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.

Full disclosure: I've signed on to return for a second year as the media specialist for the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival. Good to see that the festival—and the others across the country—will be able to continue to build on past successes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Best Of The Decade

I struggled with how to approach a best-of-the-decade list, shifting between simply listing the recordings that I had ranked the highest in published reviews and choosing those that I thought illustrated the most original ideas and pointed the way to new directions. In the end, I decided to go with the recordings that made me feel—and think—the most. Although I don't have any written proof, they are probably also the recordings I returned to the most often in the past 10 years. That being the case, it is probably no surprise that there is nothing on the list from the past two years, although there have been some exceptional recordings that would likely make the list if I was making it two years from now. These things need time to breathe and develop, but I must make note of some artists who didn't make the list, but whose recent recordings are moving me in ways similar to these: Vijay Iyer, John Hollenbeck, Dafnis Prieto, Miguel Zenón, Darcy James Argue, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Donny McCaslin, Mary Halvorson, Jessica Pavone, Tyshawn Sorey and Francisco Mela.

With that preamble, here are my 10, in alphabetical order.

Nels Cline – New Monastery (Cryptogrammophone) – 2006
Guitarist Nels Cline and his twin brother, drummer Alex, discovered the unique sound-world of pianist Andrew Hill when they were teenagers with huge ears. Three decades later—and finally gaining recognition from both jazz and alt-country fans—Nels employed his own distinctive sonic palette to interpret Hill’s work.

Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar) – 2006
At least once a decade since the 1950s Ornette Coleman has released a recording that signals a new context for the human cry that flows from his alto saxophone. This time out, the setting was two bass guitars and his son’s drum kit, and Coleman illustrated how he could plumb remarkable depths of emotion in that relatively stark environment.

Dave Douglas – Witness (RCA Bluebird) – 2001

Eerily foreshadowing the rising paranoia in the wake of 9/11, while paying homage to some of the writers and activists who influenced him, Witness was both a major departure—using a large ensemble of electronic and acoustic instruments, and spoken word (performed by Tom Waits)—and a welcome extension of Douglas’s earlier works. As usual, the trumpeter was prolific and varied throughout the decade, but Witness remains the high-water mark.

Andrew Hill – Dusk (Palmetto) – 2000
Pianist Andrew Hill’s late-career comeback was one of the highlights of the decade, and this is the recording—his Palmetto debut— that announced it loud and clear. Hill’s unique writing receives superb treatment from a sextet that is deep and wise. The horn section, in particular, bristles with energy.

The Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project – Simpático (ArtistShare) – 2005

Beautifully paced and played, this was an ideal meeting of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and bebop harmony. Both the ensemble and individual parts are exceptional, and the band is studded with star players from several generations, including Phil Woods and Dafnis Prieto.

Jason Moran – The Bandwagon (Blue Note) – 2003

Pianist Jason Moran is one of the most exciting young voices to come to prominence since 2000, and this live recording—essentially the same as one of my favorite concerts from the decade—displays his idiosyncratic technique, his ability to transform hip-hop and blues into the language of improvisation, and his innovative use of recorded spoken-word material.

Maria Schneider Orchestra – Sky Blue (ArtistShare) – 2007

Bandleader Maria Schneider made several landmark recordings in the decade—any of which could be in a top 10. Sky Blue shows the most scope, and is the most personal, with gorgeous orchestrations of Schneider’s memories of her Minnesota hometown and her love of birding. As I stated in my 5-star review in DownBeat, this is the recording that should move Schneider out of the shadow of Gil Evans and into her own as a great American composer.

Wayne Shorter – Footprints Live (Verve) – 2002

Signaling the arrival of one of the most consistently exciting bands of the decade, this live recording re-established Wayne Shorter as a musical adventurer of grace and exceptional depth. The level of communication between Shorter, Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade was high from the beginning, and it has only improved.

Tomasz Stanko Quartet – Lontano (ECM) – 2006

Working with a trio of young Polish musicians, the much-overlooked trumpeter channels Miles Davis in the best way possible, stirring up what I called in my DownBeat review “a well-integrated set of quiet, melancholy fire.”

Cecil Taylor – The Willisau Concert (Intakt) – 2002

The audience wasn’t even fully seated when Taylor began a rhapsodic dance with an extended-keyboard Bosendorfer that he had fallen in love with. In the 2000s, Taylor’s solo concerts have been full of romance and sweet longing; this one balances between that new, gentler approach and his traditional whirlwind attack. Full of movement and light.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Keeping It Young

I was unabashedly obsessed with The Allman Brothers Band throughout the 1970s, from the first time I borrowed their debut album from my friend Myles and dropped the needle on the lacerating medley of "Don't Want You No More" and "It's Not My Cross To Bear." I was devastated when guitarist Duane Allman died on his Harley-Davidson at the age of 24, just as he was realizing his dream of breaking through to the mainstream with a band that synthesized rock, blues and improvisation with a definite Southern accent.

I dabbled in later versions of the band, but as much for social reasons (all of my close friends were Allman freaks, too) as musical ones. Perhaps because I was never lucky enough to see the original band in person, I have never been a camp follower for any of the later versions. I caught a weird hybrid of the band in 1978, when they reunited in Macon, Georgia, after several years of acrimonious separation (in fact, I was the only person in the tiny audience to tape the show—the tape resides in the band's archives) and one of their 25th anniversary shows in 1994, when original guitarist Dickey Betts was still in the band. The only time I've seen the modern lineup—with dual guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks—was the only time the band has played my hometown.

Given that context, I've been delighted with my purchase of a triple-CD set from the band's annual run of shows at the Beacon Theatre on New York City's Upper West Side last March. While the band has always been respectful of Duane Allman's memory to the point where his name has seldom been uttered onstage, during this 40th-anniversary tour the band made a point of paying tribute to him. The shows opened with an electric version of "Little Martha"—the only song in the band's extensive catalogue that is solely credited to him—and his image was prominent. During the stand at the Beacon this year, a number of musicians associated with the band were invited to sit in. While, reportedly, there were memorable highlights from the likes of Buddy Guy, the only show I really wanted to hear was from March 19, the night Eric Clapton came to play.

Clapton plays a special role in Duane Allman's short career, because—despite Allman's prolific period as a session musician—Clapton's album Layla is his best, and highest-profile platform outside his own band.

Following 11 songs by the Allmans themselves, Clapton joins the group (and Trucks' wife, blues guitarist Susan Tedeschi, for one track) for five songs from Layla and a version of "Dreams." As great as that is—and it is—what really has me stoked about listening to this recording again and again is the sound of Gregg Allman's voice. Next to Keith Richards, Gregg Allman is perhaps the most infamous drug abuser/survivor from the 1960s, and his voice is one of the finest in the blues. At his best, the man can break your heart with a simple phrase. Sadly, for too much of his career this amazing voice has been damaged by his chemical dependencies. Not here, not now. On this set from the Beacon he sounds better than at any time in his career. Not only has his voice taken on more of an edge (imagine that!) but it's more powerful, and his diction is crystal clear.

I won't even bother going into how good the rest of the band sounds; at this point in their career, that's a given. Trucks is an astounding, inspiring musician, who moves me when I hear him because he shows what Duane Allman might have grown to become had he not taken that fateful bike ride and been snuffed out when he was barely grown.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Heavy Hitting Rookie

Who gets Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Jim Hall and Don Thompson to play on their debut CD? Only someone like drummer Terry Clarke, who has worked as a sideman behind some of the most important leaders in jazz for more than 50 years without putting his own name above the title on a CD until now.

Clarke has appeared on more than 400 recordings and circled the world with everyone from Oscar Peterson to The Fifth Dimension.

Appropriately, his first recording as a leader is called It's About Time.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

First Cut

November approaches—a point driven home by the enormous, air-filled pumpkin on my neighbour's lawn—so it's time to look back over the 600 or so CDs that have found their way to me this past year and try to winnow them down to a short list of Top 10 candidates. To make this process easier, I highlight recordings that have struck me throughout the year. I don't keep a running total, though, so I'm never sure how many will be waiting come short list time.

What's this? Amazingly, there are exactly 10 things on the list. Not sure how that happened, but it's seems too good to be true.

Did I listen to fewer things this year? Don't think so. Fewer things to choose from? Absolutely, given the economic times, but not that many fewer.

Well, there's still some work to do, because I know Vijay Iyer's new disc is supposed to be a killer, so it will surely be in contention. The logistics of cross-border PR means that it hasn't reached me yet, though I do have a link to a download. So that's one. Another that is beckoning, as soon as I get through the current review assignments, is Keith Jarrett's Testament, which also promises great things.

Still, that's only 12. Funny, because it seemed like a good year. It's definitely a solid 10 so far; I'd put any one of them against anything in the past decade, and a couple have potential to be really memorable recordings years in the future. They definitely separated themselves from the pack, so some further analysis needed, but I'm happy that this year's list-making promises to be relatively painless.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Now Spinning: Stinging Strings

Jessica Pavone: Songs Of Synastry And Solitude (Tzadik) – Violist Jessica Pavone is an artist who appears able to balance multiple streams of inspiration simultaneously. Her impassioned contributions to Anthony Braxton's ensembles and her geek-girl duets with guitarist Mary Halvorson—to say nothing of several other projects that lie stylistically somewhere in between—would individually be enough for any single musician, and yet Pavone continues to find still more avenues of expression.

Taking its inspiration from Leonard Cohen's 1971 epochal Songs Of Love And Hate, Songs Of Synastry And Solitude brings Pavone together with the Toomai String Quartet for a set of 11 original compositions that are emotionally weighty and dark, yet ultimately uplifting. While there is no direct stylistic or thematic link to Cohen's songs, Pavone communicates the same sense of inevitability and universal suffering as the singer does, and leaves the listener with the same sense that there is hope in living—if only hope that daily suffering will be alleviated by the joy of song, love, spiritual enlightenment, and other forms of grace.

What was magical about Cohen's music—what made him seem so much older and wiser than either his years or his peers (save for Van Morrison, his Celtic cousin)—were the strands of music he selected to weave through his limited voice. When he decided to turn to music from literature in the 1960s, the former Buckskin Boy guitarist-turned-poet was worldly enough to pull in elements of European classical music, Greek bouzouki, Portuguese fado and Sephardic folk music. Like Bob Dylan, Cohen also delved deeply into the North American folk tradition, with all of its influence of English balladry, gospel and the blues.

Pavone and company can catch Cohen's sing-songy phrasing and the way he cuts that with a depth of emotion that reflects a lifetime of over-analysis and dread. Certain passages in songs like "Darling Options" and "Once Again" evoke Cohen's cadence, and there is a resonance in the bass strings that echoes Cohen's throaty whisper. This is measured, deliberate music that might be a love song, a prayer or just an acknowledgement that, as John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison once sang, you'll never get out of these blues alive.

In an era of celebratory rock—when even a dark presence like Jim Morrison could dance and whirl onstage—Cohen never sounded like a man who could truly let go. Cohen's music says that, even in moments of passion, one must be aware that loss and sorrow lie just around the bend, but it will be alright—life is measured over the long turn, not in individual moments. Pavone is unquestionably dark, too, but she can compose great movements of release, as on her absolutely gorgeous "Hope Dawson Is Missing." Minus lyrics, the title offers nothing but despair; musically, it seems to offer escape.

Gordon Grdina's East Van Strings: The Breathing Of Statues (Songlines) – One of the most exciting guitarists to emerge in the past decade, Vancouverite Gordon Grdina is another musician who seems to be able to effortlessly multi-task in several stylistic directions. Whether ripping it up with his wildly inventive Boxcutters or pursuing Turkish music, he is one of the innovative younger players who is carrying on Vancouver's tradition of being a great city for creative music.

His "string quartet" is anything but traditional, combining the always-inventive cellist Peggy Lee, polymathic violinist Jesse Zubot and frequent Bill Frisell collaborator Eyvind Kang. The band allows Grdina to employ both his electric guitar and oud, which he plays with tremendous energy—not so much the kind of visceral force that John McLaughlin created in his Mahavishnu Orchestra years, although Grdina can do that, too, but more of the kind of cerebral vibration that Derek Bailey or Joe Morris can generate.

Not surprisingly, given the players, The East Van Strings don't shy away from dissonance—often, violent dissonance, but there are also long passages of deep beauty. At both extremes, this is not a recording for background listening; it commands attention.

I am particularly enamoured of the title composition, a 14-minute, episodic piece that does indeed seem to breathe. Grdina's oud playing is especially expressive here, and after Lee introduces an ostinato at about the 11-minute mark it reaches a new level of beauty and emotional resonance. Elsewhere, there is mystery, with harsh winds blowing through "Santiago" as Grdina and Kang make ghostly tones, and grainy textures rising and wrapping around Grdina's unadorned guitar line on the lovely "Nayeli Joon."

As with most of Tony Reif's productions, it's all wonderfully recorded, as well.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Taylor: Stepping Out in 1958

When lists of pivotal discs (those that introduced a vital new voice or important new movement in music) are published, Cecil Taylor's 1958 Looking Ahead! is seldom included. Critics usually point to Conquistador! or later recordings like Unit Structures for proof that Taylor was taking improvised piano in a new direction.

But, Len Lyons, in his 1980 book The 101 Best Jazz Albums was onto something. He knowingly singled out "Of What" as "the most successful track" and identified it as the first obvious example of Taylor's distinctive use of clusters—"groups of notes more dense than chords, which (Taylor) introduces with a sharp, percussive attack." It certainly stands apart among six tracks as the one on which Taylor sounds like a budding iconoclast. Beginning as a duet with bassist Buell Neidlinger, the piece displays Taylor's lithe conception of movement, with sly, upturned asides and rapid, feline pounces. When drummer Dennis Charles joins, he contains himself to hi-hat and the occasional hand fills until the 4:30 mark of the eight-minute performance. Most interesting is a telling moment around 7:00, when Taylor loses the momentum of his attack but keeps the tape rolling. By 7:15 he's back in full swing again. It's a lapse in forward motion that rarely shows itself in his more-developed works, but illustrates a growing confidence with the high-wire act he was still perfecting. By his own admission, this was a time when he still felt bound by both the jazz and classical traditions, so "Of What" shines as a brave experiment. Coming a year before the clarion calls of freedom by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, it's impossible not to wonder how this track sounded to listeners at the time.

Elsewhere, the recording more closely fits Howard Mandel's descriptor for it: "amiable."

In his book Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz, Mandel posits that vibraphonist Earl Griffith (notably absent from "Of What") was the co-leader of the quartet, and he certainly sounds it. The 32-year-old New Yorker, who left little trace beyond this recording, carries as much of the lead work as Taylor. He's also the composer of one track, "African Violets," a pretty, restrained piece whose strong Billy Strayhorn aura forms attractive parallelism with Taylor's "Excursion On A Wobbly Rail," his most-obvious bow to Ellington's influence on his early playing.

"Wallering" is a bouquet to Fats Waller, while the A-minor blues "Luyah! The Glorious Step"—despite its archetypal Taylor title—shows continuing allegiance to Monk.

"Toll" bears special notice for its transitional place in Taylor's early evolution. Written for his concert debut at Cooper Union in February 1958, in its first movement it hints at how he would revolutionize the percussive role of the piano, although the effect is somewhat undercut by the unimaginative rhythm accompaniment by Neidlinger and Charles. Its centre section contains a few of those delightful runs where Taylor sweeps you along, but it's the brief third movement—primarily a piano/bass duet—where he illustrates how he can conjure drama with a few deft passages.

Emerging from his chrysalis, Taylor had not quite taken on his final shape, but it was clear from Looking Ahead!—and most particularly "Of What"—that the final product was going to be a thing of beauty.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Back To Cecil

Looking back over recent posts on Jazz Chronicles, I'm shocked to see that it has been a full five months since I introduced my plan to focus on Cecil Taylor's recordings this year. He's been on and off my playlist this summer, but as we move into fall I plan to write frequently here about my process of re-discovery.

Next up: Looking Ahead! from 1958.

NEC Jazz At 40

This summer was a cruel one for the New England Conservatory (NEC); the Boston-based institution lost two of its stalwart faculty members in George Russell and Joe Maneri. Both were instrumental in making the NEC's Jazz Studies program one of the world's most respected courses of study in improvised music. This fall, the NEC begins a year-long celebration of the program's 40th anniversary.

The program began when NEC President Gunther Schuller hired saxophonist Carl Atkins to head the Department of African-American Music and Jazz Studies, the first such program at a classical music conservatory. Russell and pianist Jaki Byard were faculty members. Iconoclastic pianist Ran Blake, who had joined the NEC faculty in 1968, became the first chair of the Third Stream Department (now called Contemporary Improvisation) in 1974. Since then, faculty members have included players like Miroslav Vitous, Jimmy Giuffre, Steve Lacy, Dave Holland, Bob Brookmeyer, Stanley Cowell, Ron Carter and Danilo Perez. Ongoing big band residencies have featured a who's who of composing, arranging and conducting: Byard, Sy Johnson, Gerald Wilson, Randy Weston and Melba Liston, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Heath, Muhal Richard Abrams and Claire Fischer. Special residencies have been conducted by Cecil Taylor (an NEC alumnus) and Sun Ra.

No fewer than five faculty members—Lacy, Russell, Blake, Schuller and Miguel Zenón—have been awarded MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grants. Four—Schuller, Brookmeyer, Russell and Carter—have been named NEA Jazz Masters.

But it has been the lesser-known faculty members like Maneri and Hankus Netsky (who was named Jazz Studies Chair in 1986) who have influenced dozens of musicians behind the scenes. I've lost track of the number of young players like trumpeter Cuong Vu who have told me that Maneri changed their conception of music and helped shape their careers.

Between October 18 and 24, the NEC will celebrate the achievements of its Jazz Studies program with a series of concerts in Boston. Among those featured are Netsky (October 20), Dominique Eade (October 21), Jerry Bergonzi and Noah Preminger (October 22) and a 40th anniversary all-star band with Brookmeyer, Perez, Perkins, Blake and others (October 23). On the 24th, the Wayne Shorter Quartet (featuring Perez on piano) will perform with the NEC Philharmonia.

Next March, the celebrations move to New York City, with concerts featuring NEC alumni John Medeski, Regina Carter, Fred Hersch, Harvey Mason and Don Byron.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Roots: Occhipinti Style

Two of Canada's most creative musicians—Roberto and Michael Occhipinti—are heading to their parents' birthplace to receive the prestigious Regusani nel mondo Prize from the Sicilian province of Ragusa. Born in Toronto in 1955 and 1967 respectively, bassist/producer Roberto and guitarist Michael recently celebrated their Sicilian roots with Michael's Juno Award-nominated Sicilian Jazz Project, which Roberto produced and played on.

In addition to receiving the award, whose former recipients include actress Susan Sarandon, the brothers will perform music from the Sicilian Jazz Project in their parents' hometown of Modica. Their stonemason father, Giorgio, left Modica for Canada in 1952, and was joined by his wife Grace and children Peter and Joanne a year later.

My full biography of Roberto can be found here. Michael leads several bands and co-leads the Toronto-based big band NOJO.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Has there been such a spate of notable music deaths in the past three decades? I can't recall such a bad spell.

Some deaths, like those of the great, underrated George Russell and earth-shaker Les Paul, were inevitable, but still memorable as they signaled the passing of talents the likes of which we won't see again.

Rashied Ali was a shock, all the more so because I was in the middle of reviewing his latest recording, a live set by his quintet from Finland's Tampere Music Happening. Like fellow drummers Chico Hamilton, Roy Haynes and Jimmy Cobb, Ali seemed to defy age. Unlike those peers, though, Ali could still rumble and roar for more than an hour without a break. That's just what he did the last time I saw him play live with Sonny Fortune, when they went at it non-stop for more than 80 minutes. Ali had a terrific sense of what to play, too, as displayed on this new disc, where his band extrapolates two compositions by James Blood Ulmer. Most people who went to see Ali might be expecting something by 'Trane, but Ali was too much his own man—too much in the moment—for that.

Monday, July 27, 2009

August... Out

No proper vacation this year; not even a staycation. Unexpected, major, non-music project kicking in, however, so posts will be light—if not non-existent—until the vicinity of Labour Day.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Lost Quartet

Until July 27, BBC 3 is featuring a long, illuminative interview of Keith Jarrett by fellow pianist Ethan Iverson. As noted by my colleague Peter Hum, the interview is most revealing on the topic of Jarrett's so-called "American Quartet," which lasted roughly from 1973 to 1977 with Paul Motian, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden. Jarrett is quite open about the challenges the band presented to him (Redman was perpetually late and a notoriously poor music reader, and Haden was still in the throes of his injection-drug abuse) and his frustration that the quartet was only belatedly recognized for its achievements.

One thing Iverson doesn't touch on is just how hard it is to find much of the music the group recorded on eight albums. I've written about this before, but it deserves repeating that this vital music should be re-released in the best form possible. As Iverson notes, at one time—when he was a teenager—those Impulse! recordings were easy to come by in second-hand stores because, he speculates, so many people bought them on the basis of Jarrett's popular solo recording, The Köln Concert. My vinyl copies remain among the most-prized LPs of those I grew up listening to. I'd love to see them properly re-mastered and annotated by insightful listeners like Iverson and drummer George Schuller.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Will Jack Be Back?

Some lead, some follow... at least that's the usual tradition in music. For every Miles Davis—who grabbed the reins of leadership after leaving Charlie Parker's employ and only stepped back into the sideman's role a small handful of times during the following 40 years—there's a Harold Mabern or Bennie Maupin, who rarely lead a band or have their name above the title on a recording. It's a question of both temperament and ambition.

With that truism in mind, and spurred by his appearance as a partner on two current releases and a couple of Facebook posts from him about his current tour with Keith Jarrett, I began to think last night about the glory days of drummer Jack DeJohnette as bandleader.

Everyone in jazz knows DeJohnette as one of the greatest drummers of his generation, a musician who is arguably on more indispensable, influential recordings than any of his peers. Yet, likely no one younger than 40 recalls the superb bands he led for a decade beginning in the mid-'70s. You could make a case that DeJohnette was a forerunner to multi-taskers like Dave Douglas, he had so much going on. Not content just to lead his open-ended band New Directions, with Lester Bowie, John Abercrombie and Eddie Gomez, he also started a powerful two-reed group called Special Edition, with David Murray (or Chico Freeman), John Purcell and Howard Johnson in the front line. Around that time, I also caught him in Montreal with a killer band featuring Julius Hemphill.

These units put out a string of memorable recordings on ECM: New Directions (1978); Special Edition (1979); Tin Can Alley (1980); and Album, Album (1984). Not only was his writing compelling, but DeJohnette seemed to engender a unified group feel whenever he was in the lead.

In addition to being in constant demand for special projects, as well as his ongoing partnership with Jarrett and Gary Peacock in the Standards Trio, he has put out another handful of recordings under his own name, but not since the breakup of those two bands has he maintained as strong a unit or produced an album as expansive and timeless as those ECM gems (although I have a soft spot for Music For The Fifth World from 1992 with Vernon Reid and John Scofield—sort of Power Tools Lite).

Monday, July 20, 2009

Music From "Out There"

A Facebook post by music writer Mikal Gilmore this morning has me thinking about music that sounds both totally foreign and strangely familiar when you encounter it as a young listener. Gilmore was writing about Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue," and he expertly defined it as a song that is "mystical," as if Holly "tapped into some timeless muse."

I certainly remember hearing that song (and "Not Fade Away" and "That'll Be The Day") when I was about six and wondering where this music came from. Holly's voice, the creative guitar solo, the production—all made me feel like I was listening to something otherworldly, and yet the humanity of the song struck me as completely natural, too. The fact that Holly, Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent and many of the other young rockers that my older brothers and cousin listened to as teenagers were from the American South made me think that there was something unusual down there, and started me on a long quest to explore blues and soul music.

All of this makes me wonder what contemporary music has this effect on children today. I know that it's not always obvious, because children can't easily put their finger on why something is odd-yet-attractive, and the mix of emotional responses can be disconcerting. My own children are too old now to canvass about what they're hearing now; I'll have to ask what they remember from the broad range of things they heard around our house.

I'd be interested in hearing if you have young ones who are obsessed with new artists who are making interesting noises.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Grabbing My Ears

We're into the post-festival dog days — always prime listening time. Here's what's on my playlist right now:

The Henrys — Is This Tomorrow: Lovely double CD by one of my favourite Canadian bands. Anything with Mary Margaret O'Hara gets my vote.

Steve Earle — Townes: Goes exceptionally well with the above. Someone recently opined that they like this material much better than when Townes performed it, and there's no question that Earle does his friend proud here.

Andy Milne/Benoit Delbecq — Where is Pannonica?: This material was stunning when performed live in Ottawa a few weeks ago, and the recording sounds great, although the performances sound more austere than the recital.

Matt Wilson Quartet — That's Gonna Leave A Mark: Raucous, funny, deep. What more can you ask?

Jerry Granelli V16 — Vancouver '08: Wonderful, atmospheric improvisations here. Also includes a very well-shot live DVD.

Enrico Rava — New York Days: A definite front-runner for recording of the year. I keep going back to it.

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society — Infernal Machines: Another one that I can't leave alone.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

More On The Revised JazzTimes

Here's the official news release about the welcome re-birth of JazzTimes:

Madavor Media Acquires JazzTimes

With the mainstream media swamped with stories of print magazines folding, the story of the re-launch of JazzTimes magazine under new ownership by Madavor Media is a positive tale of determination and vision. On July 10, 2009, Madavor Media, a market-leading enthusiast publishing and trade-show group based in Boston, acquired the JazzTimes brand and effective immediately will resume publishing the influential music magazine and its Web site jazztimes.com.

JazzTimes was founded in 1970 by Washington, D.C.-based record-store owner Ira Sabin, who started the publication as a newsletter for his store, eventually changing its name from Radio Free Jazz to JazzTimes. The list of contributors to the magazine during its nearly 40-year history reads like a Who's Who of modern jazz journalism-including Leonard Feather, Stanley Dance, Martin Williams, Ira Gitler, Dan Morgenstern, Stanley Crouch, Nat Hentoff, Gary Giddins, Amiri Baraka, Harvey Pekar, Nate Chinen and Ashley Kahn. The publication has won numerous awards for its content and design, and the All-Music Guide has called JazzTimes "arguably the number-one jazz magazine in the world."

"We are honored to have the opportunity to expand our portfolio with this remarkable and respected publication," says Jeffrey C. Wolk, chairman and CEO of Madavor Media. "Because of our experience and industry partnerships, we are well-positioned to serve jazz enthusiasts and to build on the impressive business started by Ira Sabin."

"As an established, quality-directed, enthusiast consumer media company, we feel that Madavor Media is the perfect choice as the new steward of the JazzTimes brand. Madavor Media is a successful, growing publisher with the resources and efficiencies that will enable our 39-year-old franchise to provide expanded services to our dedicated readers and advertising clients alike", says JazzTimes publisher and CEO Glenn Sabin.

"In each issue of JazzTimes, we will continue to deliver the news and information that readers and advertisers expect from the world's leading jazz publication," says Madavor Media's VP/Group Publisher Susan Fitzgerald. "With our experience in circulation, distribution, production, and promotion, Madavor plans to take the JazzTimes brand to new heights."

Current Editor-in-Chief Lee Mergner and Managing Editor Evan Haga will remain with the publication to maintain continuity and connection within the jazz community. "For Evan and I, this is a great opportunity to reinvent the magazine in the face of so many interesting challenges," says Mergner. "And we look forward to the synergy with the other titles in the Madavor stable of publications." Jeff Sabin and Eric Adams will continue as the magazine's advertising-account representatives.

The next issue will feature a cover story on saxophonist Joe Lovano, as well as a piece by investigative reporter Marc Hopkins on the effect of the current economic climate on jazz festivals. The first issue bearing the real imprint of Madavor will be the September issue, which spotlights jazz guitar including stories on John Scofield, Nels Cline and George Benson, plus lots more. JazzTimes also publishes an annual Jazz Education Guide, filled with valuable information and material for students, parents, and educators.

Madavor Media publishes other titles and manages trade shows that are number one in their respective fields in the sports and enthusiast markets. Through its print and digital magazines, trade shows, websites, e-mail newsletters, and other partnerships across the publishing industry, Madavor offers unique ways to communicate with passionate consumers who are eager to learn more about products and events that support their interests.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Magazine Bounces Back

As reported by Ben Ratliff in the New York Times, Jazz Times will soon be back in circulation, thanks to its purchase by a Boston-based publishing company.

Editor-in-Chief Lee Mergner says the deal includes provisions to pay contributors what they are owed for past editorial contributions.

Welcome back.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Canwest "Critics" Strike Again

A week after would-be music journalist Jeff Heinrich set off a viral storm with his hatchet-job on Maria Schneider, another Canwest writer has tried his hand at music criticism and come up sadly wanting.

In today's Ottawa Citizen, Bruce Ward decides to profile Ornette Coleman from the perspective that the saxophonist/composer hasn't really done anything since 1959.

The first sign that Ward is hopelessly lost on the subject is his assertion that Coleman's work in 1959 was overshadowed by Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue. In fact, Kind Of Blue barely caused a ripple in the jazz world at the time, while Coleman's New York City debut and the first recordings by his quartet dominated the music scene that year, with reviews—pro and con—by observers as diverse as Leonard Bernstein and Clark Terry.

To ignore Coleman's output of the past 50 years, which includes some of the most important artistic statements in any genre of music, and present him as some sort of musical anomaly is way, way below the standards a major daily should be setting.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

RIP Len Dobbin

Sad news this morning that one of Canada's leading jazz enthusiasts and a passionate oral historian of music in Montreal has died.

Len Dobbin was involved in the world of jazz from his teens in the early '50s, and helped document the vibrant Montreal scene through photos, radio programs and print articles over six decades.

Always ready with a warm hug and a wry story from the jazz world, Len was one of a kind.

He died in hospital early today after suffering a stroke Wednesday night at Montreal's Upstairs Jazz Club, which he represented as a publicist.

You will be missed, my friend.

Monday, July 06, 2009

First Time, Best Time

I don't know what triggered this memory this morning, but I suddenly started thinking about albums I distinctly remembered hearing for the first time, and knowing I was hearing something special:

The Rolling Stones, Now: My friend Steve's basement. At 11, he immediately knew that he wanted to be a rock star, and actually achieved a small measure of fame.

Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited: First album I bought myself. Hooked from that amazing down beat.

Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced?: Beginning of a long obsession.

The Allman Brothers Band: Ditto. Another basement experience. My friend Myles this time.

The Stooges, Fun House: My friend Gilles had a knack for finding the gems. This was our summer music in 1971.

Miles Davis, Live-Evil: I knew Miles by reputation, but it was the album cover that sold me.

Miles Davis, On The Corner: Absolutely the hottest opening riff ever.

The Cars: Previewed this on a Sunday afternoon at the radio station with my girlfriend. Every track sounded like a winner.

Carolyn Mas: Shoulda been a star. Same preview room with my late buddy Brian Eagle. He'd already booked an interview with her after his first hearing of it.

Bruce Springsteen, The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle: At my pal Jim's house. We must've played it 10 times.

Bruce Springsteen, Darkness On The Edge Of Town: Back in the days when FM stations would preview entire albums. Hot summer night at my friend Tom's house. Dominated the summer of '78 for me.

All of which leads me to conclude that these types of indelible experiences may be limited to your first quarter-century, since I haven't had a single memorable moment like this since — not for lack of listening to new music. Maybe having children (and pets, and debts, etc.) in your life has something to do with it, too.

The Travelling Jazz Community

My view of the 2009 TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival often seemed somewhat circumscribed by my duties in the media cube adjacent to the main stage, but, on reflection, a few observations seem universal.

Foremost, is the reinforcement of the idea that jazz musicians are open, curious and relatively non-hierarchical. Bassist John Geggie frequently distributes short reviews of his experiences leading the jam session the previous night, and a common theme is the spirit of community that exists. In addition to musical highlights like Trio M, Andy Milne and Benoit Delbecq, the Brian Blade Fellowship Band and the Charles Lloyd Quartet, the moments that stick in my mind are the conversations with musicians. There were remarkably few "star" attitudes exhibited offstage. Catching a few moments backstage with Pat Metheny, Gary Burton or Jimmy Cobb wasn't much different than hanging with local/regional musicians I've known for years. The odd logistical glitch or concern aside, everyone seemed happy to be on the road, making music, sharing their art with anyone who would listen.

Geggie had the same experience inside the Crowne Plaza bar, where players like Ethan Iverson and Javon Jackson were pleased to sit in with strangers after their own performances.

In this time of diminished sales, declining audiences, the death of clubs and jazz magazines, it's reassuring to know that the personalities behind the music are as strong and creative as ever.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

And Then The Sun Came Out

Just hours after I joked that The Bad Plus should change their name to The Bad Weather (the air was chilly and the sky dark during their soundcheck Saturday; the reverse of the last time they visited Ottawa, when it was so hot and humid that steam was rising from the grass) the clouds parted and gave way to a beautiful evening. A huge crowd gathered for TBP and Al DiMeola, and the memories of gray days and pelting rain vanished. Of the festivals I've attended around the world, few can offer a venue as compelling as Ottawa's Confederation Park on a clear night.

The sun is back today, Charles Lloyd's quartet is soundchecking, and the world seems pretty good right now.

Festivals are funny beasts; they really do take on a personality over the course of their run. Ottawa was a mix of great music and disappointing weather.

Of course, there was also plenty going on indoors, including some exceptional concerts like Trio M's show, which still has people buzzing. Some memorable jam sessions, too. Ethan Iverson and Reid Anderson joined drummer Nick Fraser for a strong mini-set last night, and some students got a thrill by performing with Iverson on drums.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Oscar and Ron are Smiling

Nothing gets under my skin much more than people who diss music criticism without naming names. Oscar Peterson and Ron Carter are two high-profile musicians who have repeatedly objected to the practice of jazz journalism without citing any examples, but they are only the best known among legions of people who dismiss my field.

I have long suspected that the "jazz criticism" they hate is written by people who don't actually work in the field, such as this example that is burning up the Web today.

Full disclosure: I used to know the author when he lived in Ottawa. Even fuller disclosure: His brother is my financial advisor. All that inside dope informs me that Jeff Heinrich is no music journalist, but his strange, repugnant and ill-informed hatchet job on Maria Schneider and her audience will fuel the fire that jazz journalists attend concerts with an agenda, reflect their own failings as musicians, and don't know anything about the music being reviewed.

So, on behalf of professional jazz journalists everywhere: Thanks, Jeff. You just set back our cause beyond measure.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Rain Outdoors, Music Indoors

The rain continues to fall in Ottawa. The ongoing downpours throughout the week and the rising water table can be measured in the area adjacent to the row of porta-potties closest to my office. At first the grounds crew put a few wood chips down on the wet grass. Then larger wood chips. Then plywood planks. Now, a couple of the planks are completely awash. Not pretty, but not exactly Woodstock, either. One can only wonder, though, how big a crowd might've turned out to hear Wayne Shorter last night had the weather been more stable.

I stayed indoors to catch a magnificent set by Trio M, a somewhat one-dimensional Canadian début by the Finnish band Ilmiliekki, and the performance by the festival's composers collective. The latter had more than a few sonic train wrecks, but also some compelling improvisation on pieces by guitarist Michael Occhipinti, saxophonist Petr Cancura and pianist Andy Milne—three of the seven participating composers.

Later, at a somewhat lower-key jam session than Monday night's blowout, Andy and Petr combined for a rapturous Coltranesque excursion. Always good, too, to hear drummer Matt Wilson sitting in. His generosity and the sheer joy he takes from being a musician always shine through.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Torn Between Two Drummers

Ah, decisions, decisions... whether to catch Trio M with Matt Wilson, Myra Melford and Mark Dresser or the Wayne Shorter Quartet with Brian Blade on drums.

Yeah, life should be so tough every day.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Take Five

I finally took some time away from the media trailer to sit down and listen to an entire performance last night, and was rewarded with a beautiful concert by my friend Andy Milne and fellow pianist Benoit Delbecq. Playing a pair of prepared pianos in the sonically excellent Fourth Stage, they performed most of their new album, Where Is Pannonica?, in the original order.

Their interplay, and the communication between them, was at an exceptionally high level, with multiple rhythms and melodic strands flowing and bouncing. A lot of humour, soul and, most of all, imagination.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Family Ties

Those of us who toil on the jazz fest circuit know that there are few better people to encounter on the road than the musicians in the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Several of them have close ties to Ottawa and its musicians, so the jam session on Monday night promised to be a good one.

It didn't disappoint. In fact, it more or less defined the jazz tradition, prompting house pianist Nancy Walker to Facebook that the room was like "one big, extended, happy, musical family" and bandleader John Geggie to blog that "it seemed as though the (room) was a gigantic tour bus with the heaviest all-star band on the planet."

I was deep in conversation with fellow journalist Mark Miller and Schneider pianist Frank Kimbrough, but we all had half-an-ear on Donny McCaslin as he played chorus after chorus after chorus on "What Is This Thing Called Love?" and Ingrid Jensen burned on "Invitation."

Best Laid, And Other, Plans

Not blogging from the festival site as much as I'd hoped due to a dodgy wireless connection, but storing up lots of interesting experiences.

Most of all, and I think I've blogged this before, I hit the bed at the end of the long day trying to recall the myriad conversations — long and quick hits — that occur.

The pace slows somewhat after today's second of two panel discussions, so there'll be more to come.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Inside The Media Trailer...And Out

I only dip into the world of full-time media relations once or twice every couple of years, but it's always akin to trying to maintain your equilibrium while bouncing and churning around the bowl of a Cuisinart.

Friday. Out late the night before, I'm still dozing when I'm bolted awake by a gorgeous saxophone solo on my bedside radio. I'd completely forgotten that I'd booked former Ottawan Petr Cancura to appear on CBC Radio. He sounds great, and the interview is entertaining and informative. A solid start to the day.

On the drive in, I get a call from the producer of a noon-hour AM talk show I've agreed to go on to promote the jazz festival. I ask her for an overview of what ground she'd like to cover. "I thought we could spend some time talking about Michael Jackson." Cool, but not part of my agenda. At least I can relate how the musicians I was surrounded by the previous night responded to the news.

It's pouring rain on the walk back from the radio station, making Ottawa feel like one big sauna — being shared by a few hundred thousand of your closest friends.

Grabbing a fantastic organic Mennonite sausage in the park, I spot my former drum teacher, a lovely guy I never see often enough. Brief hang while my sausage is going cold.

The sounds of doom fill the air. We all look up to see if another storm is imminent. No, it's just Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten soundchecking. I catch a few minutes in front of the stage, then duck into the trailer to encounter the situation that will dominate my afternoon. Al Green's flight from Memphis was cancelled, meaning he will not be in Ottawa in time to do a live radio interview that had, so far, been the best achievement of our media relations efforts. I spend the next three hours on and off the phone, trying to find the good reverend, who is neither at home, in his office, or anywhere close to his cell phone. A lot of stuff goes on, but Mr. Green remains my focus, and concern. The odd thing about media relations is how much you want the story to work out for the journalists at the other end of the relationship. It goes beyond promotion at that point, especially if you've been a journalist yourself. Many calls back and forth to the radio producer — I would not want that job – Green's record label and manager, I write it off as a lost cause an hour after the show is underway. I leave a message for the singer to call directly to the producer and move on to some other issues. Miraculously – hey, he is the Rev. Al Green – he calls in right on time and, according to a later backstage conversation with host Adrian Harewood, the interview goes well.

Nice sets by Jane Bunnett's current touring unit featuring the sweet-voiced Grupo Desandann and Jimmy Cobb's tribute to Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue, and then I hook up backstage with saxophonist Javon Jackson for a pre-arranged dinner. We decide to catch a couple of songs by SMV, which turns out to be a bad move, because we miss the close of the kitchen at the Japanese restaurant we had chosen. We're on Jazz Time, Javon has to check out of his hotel at 3 a.m. to make a flight to Saratoga via Philly, and Ottawa suddenly seems like the provincial town that so many people claim it is. Not the finest moment for showing off my city to my New York friend.

We catch dinner, in the gracious company of longtime jazz festival board member Judy Humenick, and manage to twist Javon's arm into sitting in at the jam session.

The session room is packed when we get there, lots of people to talk to, and when Javon finally hits with Dave Restivo on piano and Jim Lewis on trumpet – now about three hours before his lobby call for the Saratoga trip – he sounds fantastic, flying on tenor like he's playing alto. If anyone can capture the sound of John Coltrane in his mid-'50s period, it's Javon, and he's brimming with nice melodic ideas.

Two great sax solos. Perfect bookends.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Blanchard Beats The Odds

How fast can you turn out a huge crowd of jazz fans for a free concert by arguably the world's best trumpeter? Twenty-four hours is plenty, it seems.

My sometime-colleague Doug Fischer has the background details in this crisply written story.

As media advisor for this year's TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival, I got word of Wednesday night's final lineup at 10:10 p.m., Tuesday. I posted something here and on Facebook, and began wondering if social networking and good-old word-of-mouth would work fast enough to draw out a crowd that probably already had plans the night before an 11-day run of solid jazz. As luck would have it, I was already booked to do a radio interview for one of the two local campus/community radio stations at 6:40 this morning, and I sent an early-morning email or two to the producers of the morning drive show with the largest audience. My colleague Suzan was working another set of media contacts.

We lucked out with the weather — a sweltering day that gave way to a balmy, clear evening — and the jazz-ready spirit of Ottawans, who love a free concert as much as the next guy.

While not as full as it has been for shows by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Return To Forever or Brad Mehldau's trio, the park was pretty full and the vibe was great.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Real Sound Of Surprise

The stage in Confederation Park is ready to go, so why wait?

Why, indeed. That's the thinking at the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival, which is kicking off a day early with three free concerts on our mainstage, featuring:

Terence Blanchard Quartet – hot off his win last week as Trumpeter of the Year at the Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards.

Pavlo – terrific flamenco guitarist from Toronto.

Souljazz Orchestra – hometown favourites to start things off.

Nothing like three surprise concerts and a media blitz to get the adrenalin pumping. Stay tuned for posts from backstage until July 5.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Four Days To Go

With just four days to go before the launch of the 2009 TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival a few trends have revealed themselves.

Al Green is far and away the most requested interview, and thankfully the good reverend is doing his best to accommodate requests. Canada Customs permitting, I'm hoping to have him live on air at the local CBC Radio studio on Friday afternoon.

There is no shortage of good stories among this year's artists, including the new models of music distribution pioneered by Dave Douglas and Maria Schneider, the New York City and Boston breakout of homegrown talent Petr Cancura, our focus on the miracle that was the year 1959, and the Polaris Prize nomination of the astounding young talent Coeur de Pirate.

Surprisingly, no one has yet requested an interview with Pat Metheny. Arguably the most-popular musician just 90 minutes away in Montreal, Metheny hasn't generated one media inquiry yet.

The weather forecasters are predicting temperatures above 30 Celsius by week's end. That sounds like jazz weather to me.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Another Perspective

When I'm not writing about music I make my living in corporate and government communications—marketing, for lack of a more inclusive term. Now, for the first time since 1989, I'm bringing the two parts of my life together to take on the role of media advisor to the 2009 TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival. I served on the board of the festival during the latter part of the 1980s, during a time that I was out of journalism, and have been co-ordinating a set of panel discussions at the festival the past two years, so it's familiar ground.

This opens up some interesting blogging possibilities from now until the festival wraps up on July 5, and I plan to post here some of what I see and hear to provide some insight into what goes into making a large jazz festival run.

These are interesting times, to say the least. It seems now that the rumours about the demise of JazzTimes are indeed true, and it's anyone's guess what the future holds for jazz festivals in the wake of JVC's decision to pull out of New York and various other blows to U.S. festivals. Here in Canada, the festival circuit remains strong—thanks in large part to the ongoing sponsorship of TD Canada Trust—but we're not without a few cracks in the foundation: witness the decision by General Motors not to renew its substantial support of the Montreal jazz fest, even before the company's current re-structuring.

It is evident that a new model is in order on several fronts. In many ways, the current situation reminds me of the mid-'70s, when the popularity of rock had pretty much decimated the established jazz scene. The bloom was largely off the jazz-rock fusion movement, as the innovation of John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, et.al., began to give way to less-creative efforts, and the club circuit was in ruins. Commercial jazz radio had started its long death march. Things were grim; just ask any jazz musician who was trying to make ends meet back then. But those doldrums gave way to a long upward cycle, which saw the spread of the jazz festival concept to cities like Montreal and Vancouver (and Ottawa), and the rise of a new generation that included the people who grew JazzTimes into a slick publication that could hold its own with anything else on the newsstand.

So, I'm holding out for another upward swing, which will bring a new model for many parts of our industry. What format will those things take? I don't think we can safely guess, any more than we might've predicted 15 years ago that digital, broadband technology would mean the destruction of the music industry as we knew it then. We'll just have to wait and see. But, meanwhile, stay tuned, and I'll take you backstage at one of North America's largest jazz festivals, where we'll likely hear a lot more about where we are and where we might be headed.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Sign Of The Times?

The rumoured demise of JazzTimes — as yet not addressed by anyone associated with the venerable jazz magazine — is probably the worst news that anyone in the business needs to hear. The story, broken by Howard Mandel this week, created an instant storm of response on Facebook because industry insiders realize that the failure of a linchpin like JT can have wide-reaching effects... none of them good.

A followup piece by Howard speculates that Jazz Times itself fell victim to the death of yet another industry linchpin, the JVC-sponsored New York City jazz festival.

What impact this might have on Jazziz — already down to four issues a year — and DownBeat — currently celebrating its 75th anniversary with a commemorative issue — remains to be seen. Clearly, instrument manufacturers and electronics companies — the bread and butter advertisers for these publications — will re-direct some revenue to the remaining magazines, but experience tells me that when a big tree like JazzTimes falls in the forest it's a sign that something is deeply wrong in the woods.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

National Jazz Awards

I was unable to be in Toronto at noontime on Thursday to accept the Journalist of the Year award at the National Jazz Awards, so I wanted to use this space to thank everyone who voted for me and, particularly, the editors I have worked with in the past year: Pete Gershon, who welcomed me into the family at Signal To Noise in 2008; Aaron Cohen, associate editor at DownBeat; and Jason Koransky, who has edited DownBeat for the past decade. Jason is leaving his post this week to pursue a career in law, so I want to make special mention of him for giving me some great assignments over the past 10 years.

The jazz community in Canada is small enough that it's possible to have at least a passing acquaintance with almost everyone in it, and that extends to the journalists who report on the music. Several of the contenders for the award are friends. Len Dobbin always greets me with a warm hug when we meet, and his stories from the heyday of bop are welcome touchstones to earlier generations of jazz musicians. I shared the jazz columnist duties at the Ottawa Citizen with Peter Hum for 10 years and have watched happily as he has gained a larger audience for both his writing—his blog is one of the best in the business—and his piano playing. Mark Miller is one of my personal heroes—not just for his keen critical eye/ear and elegant writing, but for his tireless ability to get jazz into the editorial mix at the Globe and Mail for decades.

Thanks, as well, to Bill King, who has worked very hard to transform the National Jazz Awards into a truly pan-Canadian awards program. Clearly, there is still a lot of room for more recognition of artists from Atlantic Canada, Quebec and the western provinces, but with more than 7200 online voters the NJAs have taken a big jump this year. Bill is a strong cheerleader for jazz in this country, and his annual showcase covered a nice arc of generations, from Montreal icon Vic Vogel to bright light Darcy James Argue.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Thanks For The Nomination

Jazz Chronicles has been nominated as Jazz Blog of the Year in this year's JJA Jazz Awards. Thanks to everyone on the nomination committee who cast a vote for us. For those in the New York City area in mid-June, the awards will be announced June 16th at the Jazz Standard between 3 and 6 p.m. It's always a great party and a terrific chance to rub elbows with some of your favourite musicians and jazz industry members. More information about the awards can be found here.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Now Spinning

Brian Blade: Mama RosaNot a jazz recording, but I couldn't resist diving immediately into this rootsy, soulful solo CD by one of my favourite drummers in jazz. The first time I interviewed Brian Blade, about a decade or so ago, he made it clear that his influences were the church, Levon Helm and soul music. Even as he was making waves with Wayne Shorter and other older giants of jazz he was in the studio with Joni Mitchell, Seal and Daniel Lanois. Lanois plays a large role on Mama Rosa—appearing on six of the 13 tracks and holding sway over the general sound of the recording, although Blade produced it himself, along with Adam Samuels. Blade's voice, like Lanois', is effective without being a perfect instrument. His dedication to this music is clear—as clear as his devotion to swinging like a monster behind Shorter, et.al., illustrated in his frequent whoops on various recordings and those times when he plays himself right off his drum throne—and he shows himself to be a better-than-average lyricist, as well. This is a quiet, little gem of a record I'm going to savour over the coming days.

Julian Lage: Sounding PointGuitarist Julian Lage comes highly recommended by my friend David Adler, who knows a good picker when he hears one. I admire Lage's reach on the recording—everything from pieces inspired by Bernard Hermann's film music to Neal Hefti's "Lil' Darlin'"—and there's no denying his impressive technique. That stated, Sounding Point didn't move me much. I prefer more grit to my guitarists than Lage brings, and my tolerance for gypsy-style playing is low. I'll admit to those prejudices, and recommend this to anyone who enjoys Bela Fleck—who puts in an appearance on three of the 13 pieces—or Birelli Lagrene.

Rob Mazurek Quintet: Sound IsI've enjoyed cornetist Mazurek enormously both times I've seen him recently at the Guelph Jazz Festival, largely because I found what was going on with his music so mysterious. Particularly with his electronic Brazilian project, his sound is so gauzy and shifting that it's hard to get a fix on him. Heavily featuring vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and Tortoise drummer John Herndon, this new quintet is more focused but no less mysteriously compelling. Like late-period Miles Davis, Mazurek prefers to be a colorist, and his vision as a composer and sound organizer always seems to be on a large picture. Without pushing the visual art metaphor too far, Sound Is strikes me as a big canvas filled with strong, bold slashes of movement.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ornette Among The Guns

In the 50 years since he scaled stylistic barricades at New York City's Five Spot it's unlikely that Ornette Coleman has ever played a gig in as bizarre a setting as he'll find himself in on July 11. As one of about 2,000 performers at this year's Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest, Coleman and his quartet will perform flanked by tanks, army trucks, artillery pieces and armoured personnel carriers inside a glass-walled display area of the Canadian War Museum. The LeBreton Gallery—the "military technology" wing of the museum—has a distinct aroma of cordite and engine grease and is usually the site of military band performances.

But, who knows, maybe Ornette will dig the silver jet that's poised for takeoff.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

DJA Breaks Out

Buzz has a funny way of altering your perception. While I'm sure I'd caught wind of composer Darcy James Argue at some point—hard to miss an up-and-coming young musician here in Canada, after all—the infectious word of mouth that surrounded him at last year's International Association of Jazz Education conference in Toronto has erased anything that went before. The performance by the Canadian version of his big band, Secret Society—featuring an outrageously gifted trumpet section—was on the lips of everyone who caught it, and his views on digital marketing were the best illustration of the gaping divide between his generation and the establishment core of the soon-to-be-defunct IAJE. Few musicians since the initial headline-grabbing burst by Dave Douglas in the mid-'90s had become so ubiquitous as fast as this young Vancouverite.

One of the things that has set Argue apart is his willingness to share his music on his blog, yet the release of his debut CD, Infernal Machines, has been much anticipated by those who have heard him compared favourably to fellow Bob Brookmeyer devotees Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck. I've been enjoying a digital download of the recording for a few weeks, but—given that this is a big band—have been holding off on a review until I could savor it in its full depth on my main stereo rather than through my computer's speakers.

Although it's Brookmeyer who is mentioned most frequently as Argue's main influence, I hear a lot of George Russell on Infernal Machines, too, especially on "Zeno," where guitarist Sebastian Noel stirs up some power chords behind Ryan Keberle's trombone solo, and in the raucous outro to the opening "Phobos." Gil Evans' tremendous bands from his days as the house band at Sweet Basil in the '80s are another touchstone, and Argue himself swears allegiance to the early Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band in this post.

A strong trumpet section is one of Argue's MO's. Here, it's led by Seneca Black, and features Ingrid Jensen, Laurie Frink, Nadje Noordhuis and Tom Goehring. Argue's voicing of them on "Transit" and "Redeye" is feather-light and creates the feeling of flight—the only time his writing resembles Schneider's.

Where he creates his own space as a big band leader is in his use of elements not often heard in the canon, such as the cajon that chatters throughout "Phobos," the electric guitar noise that snakes through "Redeye," and the political conceit at the heart of "Habeas Corpus"—a piece written to honour Canadian computer engineer Maher Arar, who was shipped to Syria by the U.S. government and tortured for 10 months. On "Jacobin Club," the horns move woozily over Jon Wikan's rattle-trap snare and Mike Holober's spiky keyboard accents, while on "Obsidian Flow" they shimmer in a chorus of Philip Glass-like repetition. Although Argue frequently creates tension by constraining the 18-piece orchestra somewhat, he knows how to turn them loose to great effect, as he does in the climax of "Habeas Corpus."

An exciting stylist with an abundance of ideas, Argue deserves his place alongside Schneider, Hollenbeck and other contemporary big band arrangers who are looking beyond traditional notions of what a large jazz orchestra should, and can, sound like.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Join Us In Ottawa

For the second consecutive year, I'll be leading a Jazz Journalists Association initiative at my hometown TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival. Here's the lowdown:

Jazz Matters
Jazz Matters is an educational initiative of the 400-member Jazz Journalists Association. Jazz Matters brings together leading writers, broadcasters and online journalists from around the world to explore the history of the music, discuss key recordings and performers and debate significant issues.

Modern Jazz Piano: From Monk to Moran – June 29

The language of jazz piano has broadened and evolved in the post-war decades, encompassing such wildly divergent exponents as Ahmad Jamal, Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley and Oscar Peterson. What are the common threads and points of departure? Who are the unsung heroes of the instrument and which recordings changed the sound of jazz?

To explore the evolution of modern jazz piano, join jazz critic Ashley Kahn (author of The House That Trane Built, Kind Of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album and a forthcoming history of Blue Note Records), veteran jazz writer Mark Miller (former Globe and Mail critic and author of eight books and a forthcoming biography of pianist Herbie Nichols), DownBeat magazine critic James Hale, pianist David Ryshpan, Alan Stanbridge (University of Toronto and author of the forthcoming Rhythm Changes: The Discourses of Jazz) and Jesse Stewart (Carleton University music professor and percussionist).

1959: The Wonder Year – June 30
Try to imagine a year that produced genre-defining artistic statements like Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Thelonious Monk’s triumphant concert at Town Hall and Ornette Coleman’s New York City debut. What was in the air – culturally speaking – that year? What forces combined to produce some of the most-enduring recordings in the evolution of jazz?

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this miraculous year in jazz history the panel will include: Ashley Kahn, NPR commentator and author of The House That Trane Built, Kind Of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece and A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album; Mark Miller, author of eight books on jazz and former Globe and Mail contributor; DownBeat magazine writer James Hale; broadcaster Ron Sweetman (NME’s Paris correspondent in 1959); trumpeter and veteran journalist Charley Gordon; Jesse Stewart (Carleton University music professor and percussionist); and Alan Stanbridge (University of Toronto and author of the forthcoming Rhythm Changes: The Discourses of Jazz).

That's the boilerplate on the panels. Elsewhere at the festival, things are rocking. Headliners include: Charles Lloyd Quartet, Wayne Shorter Quartet, Maria Schneider Orchestra, Enrico Rava & Stefano Bollani, Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstacy, Al Green, The Bad Plus, Brian Blade Fellowship, Gary Burton Quartet Revisited with Pat Metheny, SMV.

You can find the full lineup here. Hey, Ottawa's great in the summertime (not so much today, with snow back on the ground). C'mon up!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Sussing Cecil

Today, I began in earnest my year-long re-examination of the music of Cecil Taylor, starting with the 1956 recording, Jazz Advance.

As with last year's exploration of Anthony Braxton, the challenge is to try to forget what you already know of the artist's work, the arc of his career, etc., and approach this music with fresh ears. At the same time, you want to consider the historical context of the work at hand, which often leads to the fullest appreciation of just what is being achieved and to what extent the artist is bringing new vision to the art form.

I'm not an academic, so my predominant approach to the music parallels what Nat Hentoff recommends in the liner notes to the reissue of Jazz Advance: to ignore the intellectual to concentrate on the emotional. This is not a problem with pieces like Taylor's interpretation of Monk's "Bemsha Swing." Even 53 years after the recording it is impossible to overlook the joy in Taylor's approach to the composition, the dancer's feigns and double-steps, the way he moves around the notes. For example, the way he reinvents the melody as he "re-states" it as an outro – giving just the barest hint of it, yet expanding on Monk's original line.

Even without the knowledge of everything that has come since (ah, the anticipation of so many pleasures to re-discover!) it is obvious that this Cecil Percival Taylor is a dancer, a poet, a man whose imagination can only be hinted at through what he does at the keyboard.

A wonderful thing to consider on a beautiful spring day.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Return To The Fourth World

While you won't find trumpeter/composer Jon Hassell listed in the major jazz encyclopedias or discographies, the 62-year-old Memphis native is as much a sonic pioneer as many you will find in those pages, and he forms an important part of the lineage that includes Miles Davis, Bill Laswell, Graham Haynes, Bill Frisell and numerous European improvisers. He is also firmly entrenched in the sonic world that includes disparate artists like Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Daniel Lanois and Ry Cooder, all of whom he has collaborated with at some point.

Originally enamored of serial music, which he explored in early work with Terry Riley and La Monte Young, Hassell delved into traditional Indian music around the time that Davis was adding tabla and sitar to his band, and by the end of the 1970s he was mixing in electronic elements, at just the right time to intersect with open-minded popular artists like Eno and Talking Heads' David Byrne. Labeling the result Fourth World music now smacks a little too much like a marketing ploy, but there is no question that Hassell was on to something.

In a recent interview with DownBeat magazine, the trumpeter muses on his lack of popularity in North America, but while he hasn't been the concert draw here that he is in Europe, his sound has permeated through soundtracks for vehicles like Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ and the TV show The Practice.

Hassell's 1986 ECM recording, Power Spot, marks a high point in his career, and is a rarity in the German label's catalogue: the only ECM disc made in the Hamilton, Ontario, recording studio of Daniel Lanois. Now, after 23 years, Hassell returns to ECM for the evocatively named Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street (a line from a poem by the Sufi master Jalaluddin Rumi). The music is as evocative as Rumi's sensual image, filled with washes of electronic sound, the whispery violin of Kheir-Eddine M'Kachiche, and shot through with flat-toned bass ostinatos that tie it all back to Davis' swampy electric music, Laswell's Cuban dub experiments and even to Sly Stone's drugged-out masterpiece There's A Riot Goin' On. This is hypnotic, compelling music, and the sonic pool is deep – particularly Hassell's trumpet, which is processed to sound like a breathy flute, and sings with amazing grace and beauty.

I can't recall the last time I enjoyed music so much through headphones.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cast Your Ballots

Voting begins today for Canada's National Jazz Awards.

Thanks to those of you who helped nominate me in the Journalist of the Year category. Stiff competition there! Best of luck to everyone in the category, and to all nominees.

I'll spare you the self-promotion, but encourage you to participate and help increase the "turnout" from every part of Canada. It's your annual chance to support your favourite players (and non-players).

The voting booth is here.

Big thanks to Bill King for his continuing efforts to make this thing happen each year.

Friday, March 13, 2009

David S. Ware Update

The appeal on behalf of saxophonist David S. Ware has resulted in a kidney donor match, and Ware is slated for a transplant operation on May 5.

You can continue to follow his progress at a link that his manager Steven Joerg has established.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ottawa Panel Update

For those who saw the name-check in today's Ottawa Citizen with relation to panel discussions at this June's TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival, stay tuned for details. Due to the success of last summer's Jazz Matters panels, the Jazz Journalists Association will indeed be back this year with another stellar lineup of panelists to address topics germane to this year's festival program.

I can't divulge details at this point – that will have to wait until the official launch on April 8 – but keep the noonhours of June 29 and 30 open if you're in Ottawa. For those not in Ottawa, check out my friend Peter Hum's blog for reasons why you should make a point of attending what he calls "North America's heaviest jazz fest."

Monday, March 09, 2009

Bluer Than You

Thanks to writer Michelle Mercer, I had the opportunity to read her forthcoming followup to Footprints: The Life and World of Wayne Shorter. Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period will be released by Free Press on April 7. As the sub-title states, this is not a standard biography, but rather an examination of the context of Mitchell's fourth album, Blue, which was released in 1971.

A cornerstone of introspective, so-called "confessional" songwriting, Blue quickly became the soundtrack of young women who led with their hearts but kept their heads in the game of romance, too. Its potency leapt generations, as Mercer makes clear in her own opening confession, which sets the tone for the book. As an 18-year-old Kansas farm girl, Mercer judged prospective boyfriends by whether they could intuit the colours in Mitchell's music, see beyond the surface of her words and – the ultimate test – hear the influence of Claude Debussy at work. This is a highly effective opening because it clarifies the author's intention of delving equally into words and music, elements that are inseparable in much of Mitchell's work.

While she's a skilled and experienced music critic, Mercer is at her best when she approaches her subject from the basis of literary criticism. There is less insight about Mitchell's musical roots, though she does include this succinct passage about Mitchell's use of open guitar tuning:

"Standard tuning offered a compromise between simple, easy fingering for chords and the facility to play common scales from a single hand pattern.

This system is at first adequate for most musicians, because there are many combinations of finger positions or notes that can be used to create any chord. Some musicians find lasting contentment in standard tuning. The trouble is, for other artists, standard tunings can invite inertia, a hollow reverberation of old musical discoveries."

Mercer's biggest triumph, though, is capturing Mitchell in the book; not simply gaining her cooperation – no small feat – but in representing her voice so well. Anyone who has heard more than a few minutes of Mitchell discussing her own work is familiar with the mixture of wounded pride, arrogance and creativity that flows from her, and Mercer nails that combination. The only thing missing is the sound of the singer's incessant smoking, although the subject is addressed at several junctures.

Creating a book that inhabits the ground between hardcore academic study and celebrity-obsessed hagiography runs the danger of pleasing neither audience, but Mercer brings enough of herself – to say nothing of Mitchell – into play to broaden the scope into a unique brand of biography. Not without its flaws (I have some issues with the structure of the six sections, and the "Stuff Joni Likes or Even Loves" seems ill-suited to Mercer's goals) the book succeeds in illuminating an important recording.