Thursday, January 20, 2011

Who's On The Bill?

My friend and former newspaper colleague Peter Hum has ignited a discussion about the rock-star dominated booking policies of some jazz festivals in his blog.

What set Peter off were announcements that pop artists like Elton John, Kid Rock, Arcade Fire and Lauryn Hill are being touted as headliners by festivals in Rochester and New Orleans.

I've added comments to Peter's posts, so I won't usurp him here, but do check it out and weigh in. I'm hoping he attracts some insightful comments from some jazz festival promoters.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gregg Allman: Still Riding

The first album I ever reviewed—some 33 years ago—was a Gregg Allman LP, so it's nice to circle back and write about another of his solo projects. This is his first new release in about 14 years, and in Allman's terms that's a lot of water under the bridge, including sobriety, potentially fatal illness and a liver transplant. As I wrote here, Allman has emerged in strong voice and unbroken spirit.

He has also emerged with a fine recording that stretches him outside his usual comfort zone, thanks to the efforts of producer T-Bone Burnett. For someone who has been recording and performing most of his life—or perhaps because of that—Allman has always been somewhat reluctant to move beyond what he can get by on with just his world-weary voice, and there has always been a big part of him that has been reluctant to let go of the sonic landscape he inherited from his big brother, and no one can blame him for that. Still, it's great to hear him addressing different aspects of the blues idiom—from Sleepy John Estes' opening "Floating Bridge" to a beautiful public domain song called "I Believe I'll Go Back Home." Harkening back to his radical remake of his signature composition "Midnight Rider" in 1973, Low Country Blues ends with a startling re-arrangement of Muddy Waters' "Rolling Stone" by Allman, Burnett and sideman Mac Rebennack.

There are horns on five of the 12 songs, a potent reminder of how good he always sounded fronting a band patterned after the Ray Charles model, and most of the remaining pieces feature acoustic musicians, including string wizard Colin Linden on dobro and acoustic bassist Dennis Crouch.

Not since his debut solo effort, Laid Back, has Allman sounded this focused and confident. He sounds like a man at peace, and for anyone who has followed his career for four decades that's more than enough.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Eternal Search for a Better Online Mousetrap

Following up on our recent town hall meeting on the future of jazz journalism, held as part of the APAP Conference in New York City, I was struck today by this quote from Ken Auletta's profile of AOL CEO Tim Armstrong in The New Yorker:

"Relying on Web advertising was a promising business idea ten years ago, when advertising rates appeared destined to climb endlessly higher as it became possible to target ads precisely for narrower groups of consumers.... But Web businesses have come to realize—as online newspapers and magazines have—that they need a second revenue source, whether it is e-commerce or paid subscribers."

Very true, and a succinct explanation of why we still don't have a viable online outlet for jazz journalism that actually pays its journalists. Will we have one by the time that an estimated 130 million North Americans own tablet computers by 2015? If not, things will be grim for jazz journalists—and for those (I know you're out there) who enjoy their work.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Changing The Guard

One of North America's longest-running and largest jazz festivals, the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival, named a new programming manager today, and it's notable that the organization selected a musician who plays with a wide range of collaborators. For saxophonist Petr Cancura, the new job represents something of a homecoming; although he was born in the Czech Republic, he spent many years in Ottawa before moving to Brooklyn. As well as working with the creative guitar improviser Joe Morris, Cancura is also a member of pianist Danilo Perez's big band.

I think it's always a good thing when musicians have a hand in booking, and in Cancura's case it's especially promising due to the breadth of his own experience and contacts.

I should note that, although I've worked on contract as a media consultant for the organization during the past two festivals, I'm not currently working with them, so this is very much an unbiased reading of the Cancura's hiring. As someone who lives in Ottawa and has interacted with the festival as attendee, journalist and employee, I'm looking forward to everything he can bring to the job.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Is 'Jazz' A Dated Term?

I heard a lot of good music between late Thursday and very late Saturday in New York City. I might've normally been tempted to write "saw" in that opening sentence, but I didn't really see much on Friday and Saturday, except fuzzy headwear and the backs of a lot of tall university students. At a town hall meeting I moderated on behalf of the Jazz Journalists Association on Saturday afternoon (pictured), I also heard a clear delineation about how music should be covered/represented by journalists that split pretty clearly along generational lines.

My own dichotomy was between the perfect sight lines and sound at Birdland, where I caught a set by a revised version of the Overtone Quartet (with Jason Moran, Chris Potter, Eric Harland and Larry Grenadier, subbing for Dave Holland), and two nights of shows at Winter Jazzfest, which drew more than 4000 people to multiple shows at five venues in Greenwich Village. On the first night of Jazzfest, I missed one act I wanted to catch because I was lined up outside a club waiting to be let in (this, with a media pass; as Ben Ratliff points out in this overview from the New York Times, the door staff were making no exceptions). After being admitted, I never made it past the bar area, except to confirm that the sight lines and sound were little better if you forced your way past people into the main room. On Night 2, I had a good spot stage left at Le Poisson Rouge, but was constantly jostled aside and obstructed by others—and at 5'11" and 190 pounds, I'm not a particularly small person. Did I want to leave to hit the bathroom or get a drink before Nels Cline & Stained Radiance—the primary act I was there to see—hit the stage? No. So, the result was like the last time I went to a Bruce Springsteen show in general admission: good proximity to the performer, regularly obstructed views, aching knees (hey, forgive me, I'm heading for 60 here), and an uncomfortably full bladder.

I know...whine and bitch. Suck it up, Hale. But this isn't about me; it's about the potential for growing an audience for new artists and maintaining an audience for established artists. Aside from a few fellow journalists, I didn't see too many people who appeared to be older than 30 at those Winter Jazzfest shows. That's to be expected, and that's potentially a good thing; it's obvious we need to grow an audience for improvised music. But neither did I see too many young faces at Birdland, just as I seldom see too many people under 30 at clubs anywhere where there's a $40 cover and a $10 minimum.

With those realities in place, it was no surprise on Saturday afternoon to hear attendees at my open forum on the future of jazz journalism split clearly along age lines on whether journalists should move past the traditional label of 'jazz' and meld improvising artists into a broad category that includes pop, rock and hip-hop acts. Two things to note on that: one, the notion of losing the 'jazz' tag is nothing new, and two, many of the critics of my generation grew up with an appreciation for a very broad range of artists. But just as most critics younger than 60 have an ear for lots beyond artists who play what is traditionally classified as jazz, there is a huge cadre of people who still think that artists like Moran are barely, or only sometimes, playing jazz. Just bring a turntable onto the stage of any major jazz festival in North America, then listen to the feedback from paying customers who still have a hard time letting go of Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson. I'd be interested to hear what some of those folks—the folks being targeted by major festival sponsors like Lexus and TD Bank—would say about the idea of ignoring jazz coverage for a more 'balanced' approach that includes artists from Arcade Fire to Jay-Z.

I think that might be reminiscent of the old 'mouldy fig' debates of the '50s.

So, while there's no real news in any of this, the contrast between the traditional model of concert presentation—in one of the world's very successful venues—and the model-of-the-moment has never been more stark.

Will those people who flock to Winter Jazzfest for two nights make the trek to Birdland on one, two or 20 of the other 363 days of the year in 2011 and into the future? No doubt, some of them will. Will any of those well-dressed people paying good money to see big names at Birdland head downtown next year for the sweaty intimacy—and inherent disappointment—of Winter Jazzfest? That's more questionable, in my estimation; certainly, they will have to revamp things substantially to draw me back for any type of serious listening—to say nothing of reviewing—experience.

The result, it seems, is a relatively large gap between twentysomethings who like the buzz of the moment and the aging audience that can still recall when musicians like Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette were young and promising.

Do we have a problem here?