Monday, September 26, 2011

Trumpet Lord Hubbard

I wrote the other day that I'm reviewing some DVDs for DownBeat's holiday gift guide, and tonight I had the good fortune to watch Freddie Hubbard in his 1973 prime. With Hubbard's unfortunate decline over the following two decades, the death of Lee Morgan and the aging of Dizzy Gillespie, the aggressive bop-derived (well, Gillespie was bop, but he was playing variations by the '70s) style of trumpet gave way to a softer, more nuanced approach. What a jolt, then, to be reminded of what Hubbard could sound like. Stunning, really.

Watching Hubbard made me wistful, like watching Willie Mays, Bobby Hull or Jim Brown in their prime and wishing you could freeze them as you wish to remember them—young, strong and beautiful. The sports analogies are apt, because Hubbard was such a physical player, and the ravages of the years—and his admitted excesses—were akin to the toll sports took on the knees of Mays, Bobby Orr and Joe Namath.

We were all young once, but only the blessed few got to burn like Freddie.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Canada's Cloudless Sky

Those who know me have heard my rant about how Canadians are falling further and further behind in the Digital Age, particularly where music is involved.

Now, as the release of Apple's iOS 5 and iCloud approaches, an asterisk on the page tells the tale: iTunes in the Cloud will not be available in Canada.

Like Pandora, Hulu, Spotify, and numerous other streaming media services, iTunes in the Cloud violates various antiquated licensing and copyright regulations that "protect" Canadian cultural creators. Well, creators, face the facts: Your art is not reaching the ears of those most likely to buy your art to the extent it could. And, as digital services like iTunes continue to beat traditional bricks-and-mortar music retailers into the dust, you are being increasingly handcuffed. If the federal government cuts the $1 billion levy that flows to the CBC, your music is going to be all but unheard.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government is more concerned about increasing the mandatory jail time for petty criminals.

The federal government preaches loud and proud about the health of Canada's economy, but it is ensuring that our digital economy remains on the sidelines while other countries race ahead.

Iconic Moments

I'm reviewing a number of DVDs for DownBeat's holiday gift guide, and have been very impressed by the four-DVD set Icons Among Us, a series produced in conjunction with The Documentary Channel. The set includes extensive educational materials, but the primary features are interviews and performances by a number of contemporary artists, ranging from Wayne Shorter at the older end to Aaron Parks and Jamie Cullum.

It reminds me of some series I recall from the 1970s, which tried to put jazz in a contemporary and historical context, but this one really nails it through the depth and breadth of its interviews, and by the scope of the artists who are involved.

There's some good drama, too, such as the point/counterpoint of Wynton Marsalis and John Medeski, and some touching moments with Donald Harrison, Jr., re-building his home in New Orleans, and onstage with Esbjörn Svensson just prior to his drowning death.

Watch for my full review, but this is highly recommended.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Story: Miles vs. Trane

Writing about Miles Davis from the 1960s and John Coltrane has put me in mind of a great story I heard at one of the Miles Davis conferences that scholar Gerald Early convened in the mid-'90s. Apologies to the presenter who shared it; it was a first-person account, and I can't recall his name.

This presenter—a black American who had been a teenager in the mid-'60s—recalled the essential difference between attending a Davis show at a club and seeing Trane live.

For Davis, he recalled, he scanned the latest copies of Esquire and Down Beat, hoping for a recent photo of the trumpeter so he could intuit what Davis was wearing lately. If you went to a Miles show in the neighbourhood, you wanted to dress well, approximating the Italian-cut suits that the musician favoured at the time, but not wanting to miss out on subtle changes: pinstripes or herringbone, slim lapels or double-breasted.

For Trane, he said, you wore coveralls, because you knew that chances were high that if you sat anywhere in the proximity of the quartet in a small club you would finish the evening covered in Trane's saliva and slivers of Elvin Jones' shattered drumsticks.

Happy 85th Trane

Eighty-five years after his birth, and sadly, 44 years since his untimely death, John Coltrane stands as a towering figure in the history of Western music.

Nice to see him getting such a high profile around social media today, but remember to celebrate and recognize all of his work, not just the (relatively) easy stuff. The man was as much "Kulu Se Mama" and "Om" as "Giant Steps" and "My Favorite Things."

From my personal perspective, I can't imagine my life without A Love Supreme. Hearing Trane for the first time changed me profoundly. How many musicians can you say that about?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Jimi and Miles On Fire

When you have kids you learn to tread lightly on the "in my day" theme. I resented it when my father told me that the artists I idolized in the 1960s couldn't hold a candle to Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra, so why lord Jimi Hendrix and Cream over my kids' infatuation with Nirvana, Also, I'm absolutely a "glass half full" kind of guy, so I root for the possibility that artists half my age will develop long and fruitful careers. I relish the (few) times when I've made a good call, such as my early championing of trumpeter Dave Douglas. When an artist like Vijay Iyer or Jason Moran emerges, I'm delighted.

I also have a good friend, Alan Stanbridge—an academic at the University of Toronto—who writes and lectures passionately and persuasively about the folly of professing a "golden age" for any artform. So, again, I tread carefully; he makes that good an argument.

Setting all that aside, I have to say that the two box sets I've been listening to this week make an equally good case that the late '60s produced some of the best popular music in the history of recordings.

I had never bothered to pick up the various bootleg versions of Hendrix's 1968 concerts at San Francisco's Winterland, although the guitarist's music dominated my listening for the better part of a decade. There was too much good stuff of his to get through without dealing with high prices and dodgy sound, I figured. So, I welcomed the official release of three complete concerts from his Winterland stand, as part of Sony Legacy's work with the Hendrix estate.

Being a longtime Hendrix fan, I figure I know what to expect from him, but the Winterland recordings have thrilled me with the energy that Hendrix brought to that stage and the joy with which he was exploring new possibilities on his guitar. We all know how quickly and depressingly the story turned, but at that point in time anything seemed possible.

Miles Davis' live concerts from 1967 are recordings I've pursued and collected, but it has been a decade or so since I've spent much time listening to them. That heightens the experience of hearing those concerts, and a previously unheard one from Copenhagen, collected in one set (Sony Legacy again). The elasticity and risk-taking inherent in Davis' quintet of the day—with, need I write it, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams—are stunning, electrifying. To watch them interact, on a previously issued, but unseen in its entirety by me, DVD is even better. In particular, watching Williams create waves of sound from a bare drum kit is akin to the first time I watched the Hendrix at Woodstock video and realized that a passage that I had listened to a hundred or so times was played with utter nonchalance.

Pulling these two recorded documents together, of course, is the fact that Davis was checking out Hendrix around the time of those Winterland concerts, and planning his next move, into the music that became Jack Johnson and Bitches Brew.

I was too unaware and poorly connected to catch Hendrix on that '68 tour (his sole Ottawa date has also been issued on CD) and never had a chance to see Davis live prior to his 1991 comeback, and now I'm only too aware of what it was truly like when giants walked the stages.

A golden age? Maybe not, Professor Stanbridge, but certainly some golden moments here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jazz In The Shoulder Season

I just confirmed an assignment to cover the Quebec City Jazz Festival for the second consecutive year. Along with the SF Jazz Festival and the Berliner Festspiele, it's one of the few major jazz events in that dead zone between the deluge of summer jazz fests and Winter Jazzfest/APAP, and as I alluded to in last year's review in DownBeat, it sets itself apart by having a very strong community base.

In fact, this year, for Signal To Noise, I'm focusing on how the festival has found success after just five years by tapping into the burgeoning arts community in Quebec City's Saint-Roch neighbourhood.

This year's lineup includes Joe Lovano's Us Five, Dave Liebman, Frank Lacy, Finland's Esa Pietilä Quartet, Roberta Gambarini, Maceo Parker, Ari Hoenig's 4tet and a host of Quebec-based artists, including electric bass pioneer Alain Caron.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Down and Dirty in the Jazz Trenches

I'm not old enough to have lived through the era when some elements associated with Louis Armstrong were dissing Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and company, but I do recall when mainstream jazz players were tossing brick-bats at Miles Davis, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock for experimenting with electric instruments, linear tempos and rock concert volume. It wasn't pretty, and it had a destructive effect on the image of jazz as a democratic and welcoming art form.

The whole us vs. them vibe strikes me as self-defeating, and when the art form in question is already on the margins, it just seems petty and pointless. My colleague Peter Hum has a blow-by-blow and analysis of the latest shots in the "jazz sucks" meme, which follow close on the heels of the "jazz festivals have too much rock content" and "jazz criticism sucks" posts and counter-posts.

It's all pretty nasty, and while I'm sure Kurt Rosenwinkel and Dwayne Burno have legitimate points—let's face it, we've all heard bad music—I can't help but think about the effect this all has on high school musicians who are considering a music degree with a jazz concentration, or young listeners who have wondered what they should check out in jazz. Maybe they just shouldn't bother; they can never be as good as Rosenwinkel or Burno. Someone better is always going to be judging you. What's the point of just having fun and making music with your friends?

Thinking back on my own entree into the music, I'd heard a lot of Charlie Christian, Count Basie and Duke Ellington by the time I encountered—and fell in love with the beboppers, and with my contemporaries who were pioneering fusion music in the early '70s—but it was bebop and fusion that led me back to Pops and Art Blakey and Lester Young. The lesson: People make their own connections, and find out for themselves what they like and don't like. But, when a musical form seems to be awash with back-stabbing and loathing, it is just off-putting.

I know that it's putting me off.