Friday, April 23, 2010

Gene Lees, 1928-2010

Word came today via Doug Ramsey that Gene Lees – former DownBeat editor, prolific liner note writer and biographer, and talented lyricist – has died.

A fellow Canadian, Lees was a good role model for bringing an 'outsider' viewpoint to chronicling America's native music. Along with songwriter Robbie Robertson, Lees showed that the invisible line only a few miles to the south of us did make a difference about how we viewed issues of race, class and culture.

I never met Lees, but we did speak on the phone – pre-Web days – a few times, and he was always quite helpful about providing insights into musicians he knew well. In particular, he provided a very welcome introduction to his lifelong friend Kenny Wheeler, for an interview that turned out to be my first feature in DownBeat in the mid-1990s. I thought that was a nice 'hand off'.

A few years later, I got the opportunity to write Lees' formal biographical entry in The Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Two Ottawa Events

For local readers, a couple of May events to take note of:

On May 6, my friends at Ottawa JazzWorks will be staging a fundraiser at Arts Court. Performers include guitarist Kevin Barrett, saxophonist Rémi Bolduc and singer Julie Michels, as well as JazzWorks alumni Jenna Glatt, Shannon Eddy Smith, Renée Yoxon and Daniel Ko, and pianist/jazz journalist Peter Hum. Tickets are $100, and more information can be found here.

On May 15, Ottawa-based singer Kellylee Evans – who graduated from Carleton University in 1997 – will headline the Carleton's Alumni Dinner at the Chateau Laurier. Evans will be performing with just guitarist Joel Williams and bassist Chris Breitner, featuring music from her new CD, The Good Girl. Tickets are $70, which includes hors d'oeuvres, a three-course meal and wine. A cash bar will be open from 5:30 to 6. Tickets can be reserved here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Welcome Back, Johnny Mac

John McLaughlin was the first jazz musician who I could relate to when I gingerly stepped across the great divide between rock and jazz in 1971. While Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter seemed to come from another realm, I could tell McLaughlin was cut from the same cloth as my heroes Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Duane Allman.

Born in 1942 in Yorkshire, McLaughlin exploded onto the North American jazz scene in 1969/70 with appearances on trumpeter Miles Davis’ seminal recording In A Silent Way, Emergency! by drummer Tony Williams’ band Lifetime, and two wildly dissimilar albums – Devotion and Where Fortune Smiles – under his own name.

As is often the case, what appeared to be an overnight sensation had been brewing for years. McLaughlin – who taught himself to play after growing interested in American country blues, flamenco and the gypsy music of Django Reinhardt – built a successful career as a session guitarist in London during the ‘60s, recording with artists ranging from Petula Clark to David Bowie. But, by 1967, he had tired of the session life and moved to Germany to play jazz with vibraphonist Gunter Hampel. He would return occasionally to Britain for gigs with musicians like bassist Dave Holland and drummer Tony Oxley, and one of these trips resulted in his first album, Extrapolation, which remains one of the most exciting debuts in contemporary jazz. Already in place were his remarkably fluid technical facility, diamond-hard tone, and vivid harmonic imagination.

His achievements led to an invitation from Williams to join organist Larry Young in New York City to form Lifetime, and within days of his arrival in the States, to join Davis in the studio for the first of several recordings. The iconoclastic trumpeter was several months into a two-year period of intensive studio activity, and in addition to In A Silent Way, McLaughlin became a key part of Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, Live-Evil (where I first encountered him) and Big Fun. His sound – ranging from harp-like arpeggios to funky rhythm parts to excoriating, hyper-amplified solos – immediately placed McLaughlin alongside Hendrix as one of the new voices on the instrument.

“What strikes you when you listen to those sessions is that he was such a complete player,” says Bob Belden, who has won several Grammy Awards for his work in producing box sets of Davis’ electric music. “He had a whole range of styles, but, like Hendrix, what really made him stand out was his respect for the blues – something that most American guitarists didn’t have. He just needed to be around players of his own calibre to shine.”

In 1971, when long hair, ragged denim and flannel ruled music fashion, McLaughlin sheared his hair, donned white clothing and adopted the name Mahavishnu to symbolize his devotion to religious leader Sri Chimnoy. But, despite these radical changes, it was his new band that drew attention. An electric quintet, the Mahavishnu Orchestra stunned listeners with rapid-fire unison melody lines, unusual time signatures and advanced dynamics. The band’s first recording, The Inner Mounting Flame, remains a landmark work of the era. It's one of those recordings that I remember exactly where I was – in the basement of the Le Chateau store on Ottawa's Rideau Street – when I first heard it.

“McLaughlin’s sound was so different for that time,” says Ottawa guitarist Wayne Eagles, who teaches through Carleton University’s music department. “He had just incredible facility in his picking hand, and a distinctively angular, jagged way of phrasing.”

Within three years, McLaughlin had disbanded the original group and, maintaining the band’s name, was exploring orchestral work and synthesizers. In 1976, he made the jaws of guitar lovers drop again when he formed Shakti, an acoustic group featuring four traditional Indian musicians; his acoustic playing was as fluid and distinctive as his electric style.

“He’s an amazing acoustic player,” says jazz guitarist Pete McCann, one of McLaughlin’s most-prominent disciples. “His work on both steel-string and nylon-string guitar rank him as one of the best acoustic players ever to play the instrument.”

After Shakti, fans could never again pin McLaughlin down to a predictable style. His subsequent works included renewed interest in the jazz-rock fusion he helped pioneer, collaborations with his then-partner, classical pianist Katia Labéque, and spirited – but overtly commercial – meetings with guitarists Paco de Lucia and Al DiMeola.

For the past 20 years, he has followed his own imagination, adapting the dreamy music of jazz pianist Bill Evans to guitar, touring in a trio with organist Joey DeFrancesco, and continuing his pursuit of Indian classical music in Shakti Remembered.

“He’s a remarkable musician for his ability to do so many different things,” says Los Angeles guitarist Skip Heller. “He’s a fountainhead of the guys who made the guitar a frontline instrument in jazz, and he has maintained a totally world view of the instrument.”

“He has been a resounding influence on guitarists in the past 35 years,” says Eagles. “His music always sounds up to date, and he’s still at the top of his game.”

Indeed he is, as he demonstrated on a tour that brought him through Ottawa in 2008 and on his new CD, To The One. Backed by Gary Husband on keyboards and drums, Etienne M'Bappe, bass, and primary drummer Mark Mondesir, McLaughlin is back to cranking up the volume and playing with the abandon and speed he blew us away with 40 years ago. Mondesir has the same flair for polyrhythms and rolls as Billy Cobham, and M'Bappe – the latest of a series of bassists McLaughlin has used who sound like they're channeling Jaco Pastorius – continually drives the band forward.

As the title implies, McLaughlin is delving into his spiritual side again (his brief liner notes pay homage to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme) but while on recordings like Love, Devotion, Surrender (with Carlos Santana) McLaughlin was so intense about his spiritual search that he seemed to be flogging himself with music the way a devotee might flagellate himself with sharp branches, he seems more at peace now. "Special Beings" lopes along at a leisurely pace, and despite the searing tone of his guitar on "The Fine Line," this is music that sounds like it's filled with joy rather than a desperate search for enlightenment.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

June Jazz In Ottawa

Ottawa does not have a particularly lively jazz scene most of the year, but it does have an annual jazz festival that year after year has one of the most comprehensive talent lineups of any North American festival. This year—which marks the festival's 30th anniversary—is no different.

Where to start? Perhaps with the acts I'm looking forward to the most (or, in other words, the acts that will likely not find me chained to my desk as the festival's media advisor):

Tomasz Stanko – I've loved his last few ECM recordings, and he deserves to be recognized outside Europe as one of the most creative post-Miles trumpeters.

Globe Unity Project – Although this reunion project doesn't have musicians as internationally well known as some of the band's alumni (Anthony Braxton, Kenny Wheeler, Enrico Rava) it still contains the cream of the crop of Europe's improvisers of the past 40 years.

Bill Frisell – Along with Matt Wilson and Robert Glasper, Frisell is participating in a series that sees the artists working with collaborators of their choice. On his first night, Frisell will perform with Eyvind Kang and Rudy Royston, and on the second night he'll work with Kang, Hank Roberts and Jenny Scheinman (his 858 Quartet).

Gord Grdina – Another exceptional guitarist, who completely knocked me out when I saw him in Vancouver a few years ago. He doesn't come east often enough, and he's here for two shows.

Joe Lovano – Seeing Lovano always puts a smile on my face, and I've been itching to see his US5 band since he formed it.

Also onboard this year: Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, Medeski Martin & Wood, Roy Hargrove's Big Band, James Farm (with Josh Redman and Eric Harland), Christy Doran's New Bag (featuring Jamaaladeen Tacuma on bass) doing a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, Kenny Garrett, Fred Hersch, Tom Harrell and Christine Jensen's Jazz Orchestra with her sister Ingrid on trumpet.

The TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival runs June 24-July 4. You can check out the whole thing at:

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Meanwhile, on the other side of the street

Once again this year, I've been contracted to serve as the media specialist for the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival. This year marks the festival's 30th anniversary, so there will be a number of special shows related to that celebration.

On Thursday, I'll be helping to introduce this year's lineup, and will be posting that information here sometime later that day.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Mike Zwerin, 1930-2010

I only knew music journalist Mike Zwerin for about 10 years, but he was an influence on my work for three times that long. Mike never fully recovered from a serious illness he had a few years ago, and he died in his adopted home of Paris early this morning.

A native of New York, he attended an arts high school and was studying at the University of Miami when Miles Davis encountered him at a jam session led by Art Blakey at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. "In those days," wrote Mike, "I played my horn (trombone) like a kid skiing down a slalom, with more courage than sense.... A lot of young cats considered Minton's too steep a slope, but I never imagined that somebody might not like me because I was white."

As Mike told the story, Davis asked him, "(Do) you have eyes to make a rehearsal tomorrow?" He did, and thus walked in on one of the most memorable bands in history: Davis' so-called Birth of the Cool band, with Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, John Lewis, Lee Konitz and others. Steep slopes, indeed.

Years later, after he was established as one of the deans of jazz journalism, Mike asked Miles why he had picked him. "I liked your sound," replied the trumpeter; a compliment that Mike considered the greatest of his life. Mike was the kind of guy who also got a kick out of quoting the alternative reason Miles used: "J.J. (Johnson) was busy, so I got this white cat."

That was Mike; one of the funniest and hippest people I ever met.

We only got to hang a couple of times – at International Association of Jazz Education conferences – but Mike began submitting his columns to the Jazz Journalists Association website while I was editor, and so we started corresponding regularly.

He had a fascinating and rich life, which included marriage to Charlotte Zwerin, the renowned filmmaker who is best known for her work with the Maysles brothers (Gimme Shelter, and on the film Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser.

He was slowed at the end by a stroke, but the last time I heard from him he was still swinging. Always swinging.