Sunday, December 16, 2012

2012 Top 10

Yes, I know I recently stared into the evil side of year-end top 10 lists, but I get requests. How else are my friends and relations going to know what to buy their jazz-loving gift recipients?

So, cut me some slack, and get your credit cards ready.

Gato Libre: Forever (Libra): Unless you reside in Japan, you're forgiven if the band's name doesn't immediately ring a bell. This is one of the multitude of projects that pianist Satoko Fujii is a part of, a quartet co-led with her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. Sadly, this album documents their final concert in their original lineup; bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu died just days after the performance. Even without that knowledge, there is a wistfulness that suffuses the music, accentuated by Tamura's Spanish-tinged playing. Fujii's spectral accordion work is a special delight here, as is Koreyasu's beautiful tone.

Vijay Iyer Trio: Accelerando (ACT): It's currently hip to knock journalists who give attention to Iyer (let alone give him an unprecedented number of DownBeat awards) rather than the dozen or so other youngish pianists who are incorporating multiple sonic elements and musical influences into their playing, but Accelerando is just too good to overlook. By now, it's a given that Iyer and his trio mates can dance cannily on variegated rhythmic streams. On Accelerando, they expand on the language, taking it to places that will have you returning again and again to hear their conversation.

Fred Ho and Quincy Saul: The Music of Cal Massey: A Tribute (Mutable Music): Cal Massey is not much known beyond his association with John Coltrane and other Philadelphia musicians, so plaudits to Fred Ho and Quincy Saul for showcasing his music, particularly the "Black Liberation Movement Suite" from 1969. Trombonist Frank Lacy is especially strong on the recording.

Henry Threadgill Zooid: Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp (Pi): Still staunchly individualistic, Henry Threadgill sounds like no one else, and an opportunity to explore his innovative sound world is always welcome. Threadgill's music has assumed a slightly more austere manner than in the days of his Sextett, but it is no less compelling.

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Live (ECM): A compilation of concerts by Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch's band, this set rocks and grooves in inviting and mysterious ways. Like Threadgill's, Bärtsch's vision is firm enough that his music sounds immune from changes in personnel.

Dave Douglas Quintet: Be Still (Greenleaf): Dave Douglas' recordings are frequently conceptual, but none have been more personal than this dedication to his late mother. Using primarily hymns selected by his mother for her memorial service, Douglas adds the plainspoken voice of Aoife O'Donovan to create a distinctive blend of old and contemporary Americana.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba: XXI Century (5Passion): I have often found the Cuban pianist too rococo for my taste, but, here, his inclination to ornament every phrase pays dividends.  With Matt Brewer and Marcus Gilmore as a thoroughly modern rhythm section, Rubalcaba's piano weaves in and out of focus. In my four-star DownBeat review, I called this "smart, adventurous fun that works well on several levels."

Frank Kimbrough Trio: Live At Kitano (Palmetto): Best known for his quiet-but-sturdy work within the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, Frank Kimbrough is an exceptional pianist with a rich imagination and a deep knowledge of jazz history that frequently colours his improvisations. But Kimbrough's not even the best thing here; that honour goes to drummer Matt Wilson, whose wit, ingenuity and daring are unparalleled.

John Abercrombie Quartet: Within A Song (ECM): Without apology, let me say that it's likely any recording guitarist John Abercrombie releases will find its way to my top 10 list, particularly when it includes drummer Joey Baron. While Abercrombie's recent albums have featured violinist Mark Feldman, here he teams with saxophonist Joe Lovano, and it's a toss-up who I prefer. The material—drawn mainly from iconic jazz artists of the '50s and '60s—is flawlessly executed. 

Bill Laswell: Means Of Deliverance: Solo (Innerrhythmic): Laswell's projects are usually teeming with sonic complexity, so who knew what to expect from his first solo bass recording. Beautiful and resonant, this is a recording that sounds both timeless and genre-free.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Brubeck and Shankar: Genius Past 90

When an artist remains creative into his or her tenth decade there is a temptation to overstate the person's importance. Longevity has a way of clouding, or perhaps just softening, our critical view. In that regard, Eubie Blake and Doc Cheatham grew in stature with each passing year prior to their forestalled deaths. In essence, they seemed like stand-ins (on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and other high-profile venues) for one-time peers who actually had more of an impact, but had the misfortune of living shorter lives.

Ravi Shankar and Dave Brubeck—united in deaths just a week apart and several biographical details—were exceptions. They were vital, creative and influential until the very end.

If my memory serves, I heard Shankar sometime in the early '60s, courtesy of some of my parents' more adventurous friends. If it didn't really register for what it was at the time, that exposure laid the groundwork for easy acceptance of the sonic texture of the sitar when The Beatles incorporated it into their music a few years later.

I wrote last week of how Brubeck opened me to the concept of jazz as a place where the races could come together creatively. In that same way, the tonality of Shankar's music alerted me to the reality that there was a huge world beyond the western music I heard on a daily basis. What's more, Shankar's music was—prior to hearing Charlie Parker—my first exposure to other-worldly virtuosity. It helped me put rock guitarists in perspective. When my friends gushed over Eric Clapton, I pointed them to Shankar. Checking back on his appearance to open the Concert for Bangladesh, I was reminded of the frisson I felt in those days. As an example, dig the blazing exchanges between Ali Akbar Khan and Shankar at 4:36 and 4:51. If George Harrison took inspiration from Shankar's sound, surely guitarists like Duane Allman and Dickey Betts picked up an idea or two from riff trading like this.

Live exposure to Shankar was hard to come by where I grew up, but I took my mother—then, about 82—to see Shankar one night. We still talk about that concert as one of the times that our musical tastes met; a rare occasion.

In contemplating the death of these two giants so close together, I'm struck by a similarity that overshadows the fact that both men produced highly musical offspring. Both Brubeck and Shankar felt the sting of critics who labelled them as sell outs, thanks to their widespread popularity. In Shankar's case, it was more of a challenge, because it attacked him at the level of ethnicity and national pride. It happened early—an ego-shattering experience, he recalled—when he was performing with his brother's dance troupe in the mid-'30s, and then again, when The Beatles swept him up in their wake.

Both Brubeck and Shankar remained true to themselves and toughed out the criticism. They didn't buckle, and by overcoming their challengers they opened their music to much wider appreciation. Last week, Facebook was flooded with testimonials of how Brubeck opened musicians to new worlds beyond what was accepted in jazz, and those types of comments are now flowing for Shankar, too.

One other product of living 90-plus years is that people begin to take you for granted. Until you're gone. Only in retrospect, as we re-examine the careers of these giants, do we realize how much of the world as we know it was shaped by their contributions.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

What Dave Brubeck Taught Me

Dave Brubeck was an enormous influence on my early jazz listening, and—along with his sidemen Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond—probably the only white jazz musician I listened to until Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea broke out on their own. If Brubeck was a jazz ambassador, taking American music to the Soviet Union and beyond, he was also an ambassador for a white kid in Canada, exploring. He looked like my dad. He was so square, he was hip.

I thought, okay, this music is universal; everyone can contribute. It was a big, open tent. That was an important thing to learn early on.

Skip forward 45 years or so, and I found myself working as the media relations resource for Ottawa's jazz festival one summer, with Mr. Brubeck slotted to headline our festival, accompanied by the entire National Arts Centre Orchestra before about 15,000 people on a spectacular summer evening. The concert was remarkable, but my best memory comes from earlier in the day.

Most headliners let their bandmates do the heavy lifting during soundcheck. The really big names sometimes don't show up at all. And if they are living legends in their late 80s?

I don't think we expected to see Dave Brubeck onstage that afternoon, yet there he was with his quartet, soundchecking as the hot summer sun beat down on the stage. We expected a rudimentary 15 minutes at most.

He started off wearing a jacket and white shirt, standard fare for anyone's elderly grandfather. But the soundcheck went on and on, his band working out nuances on pieces they must've played hundreds of times. The leader kept making adjustments, asking his guys to play things again.

The coat came off. The white shirt came off. There was Dave Brubeck, looking like a superannuated Bruce Springsteen in his undershirt, working his band hard through a full rehearsal. Smiling. Happy. Showing me that the joy of music is a gift you can keep forever.

So many lessons. So much memorable music.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Behind The Curtain

Maybe it's human nature, but there's always a certain temptation to make things appear harder to do than they are, all in pursuit of the ultimate compliment: Wow! That's probably harder than it looks.

Sometimes, you just get lucky.

A case in point: recent family events put me somewhat behind schedule in completing an assignment for on the development of Blue Note Records as one of the most recognized brands in popular culture. Two days before deadline, I had only one source lined up—former Blue Note artist Javon Jackson—and that was something of a 'gimme' since we're friends. I'd also promised my editor someone who could talk knowledgeably about what it takes to build and maintain a global brand and someone from inside Blue Note who could comment on how they manage the heritage that founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff developed between 1939 and the mid-'60s.

The first break was probably just timing: Blue Note president Don Was had an opening in his crazy schedule (you know, The Rolling Stones didn't need him in the studio that day, or something). Don was incredibly gracious and generous with his time, and gave me a great quote about how he manages Blue Note: "I just try not to make any shitty recordings."

It's tough to go wrong with a quote like that, and to make things even easier, Don repeated a story he had recounted to the New York Times about how he constantly refers to Lion's original mission statement for Blue Note.

The second break was more astounding. Here in Canada, advertising veteran Terry O'Reilly has become well known outside his industry with his extremely witty and insightful radio program Under The Influence. He's another busy guy, so I was very happy when he made himself available to respond to some email questions. Very nice, but what were the odds that he would know much about Blue Note Records? Turns out, he had not only done a lot of thinking about Blue Note and its brand, but he actually worked with legendary Blue Note designer Reid Miles back in the '80s. He had a ton of interesting things to say.

When you get good stuff like that, an article almost writes itself. You just have to make it look hard.

Check out the article here.

Monday, November 05, 2012

An Ode To A Man With Huge Ears

My father died two weeks ago at the age of 90.

He had a good life—charmed, actually, in many ways—and he was lucky to slide away from us without much suffering.

He left me with many, many things, as a good man who fathers you for 58 years will do, and the best of all things was his curiosity about music.

Here's what a typical Sunday morning sounded like at my house in the 1960s: I'd be awakened by the music of Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, The Kingston Trio, Elvis Presley, or some faceless Hawaiian music. My father bought one of those massive, coffin-like stereo systems in about 1961, but he was smart enough to go with a Grundig system with really decent sound. That system, and the record club phenomenon of the time, led to him consuming an endless amount of LPs. My brothers were off to college, and they had left behind LPs by Gene Vincent, Elvis, Santo & Johnny, and all those groups that came along during the folk music explosion.

My dad didn't discriminate; he'd roll straight from GI Blues to a stereo demonstration record featuring Bob & Ray, to Goodman featuring Charlie Christian, to the soundtrack from South Pacific. Sundays streamed by, usually ending only when golf came on TV late in the afternoon.

One album my father had changed my life. It was called Two Of A Mind—a 1962 session featuring Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond. As noted, he listened to a lot of big band music, or by Goodman's small sub-groups, but the Mulligan/Desmond LP was the first thing I heard him play that captured a contemporary sound. It was also one of the few records he played that I went back and checked out myself. From there, it wasn't a big step to a Charlie Parker collection that a sax-playing friend of mine brought over one day after school. The rest, as they say, is history.

Perhaps the best thing about the way my father exposed me to music were the stories he told me about the musicians. He loved to tell stories, and the music provided a great backdrop to his tales of Frank Sinatra's early years, or Goodman's efforts to convince his parents that a jazz career was a worthy goal. He might've scoffed at Elvis' hair, but he never put down his music.

In effect, he taught me what I needed to know when I landed a job hosting a show on a campus FM station in the late 1970s.

My father with his latter-day turntable
Let's not gloss things over; he disagreed with a lot of the things I listened to when I was in my teens. He told me to turn down The Allman Brothers Band more than once, and said that Muddy Waters sounded like he had a headache, and was giving him one, too. He once asked me what I thought hours of listening to music was going to do for me, but he balanced that years later by showing real pride in the career I built for myself as a music journalist.

One of the best things about my father's long life was that I had a chance to share a lot of music with him when I was an adult. I particularly recall taking him to see his hero, Goodman, at one of the clarinetist's later concerts. I don't think I can remember my father having as good a time outside of family gatherings. Very recently, when he was really in failing health, he was still interested and alert enough to enjoy some first-hand stories about Goodman I learned from one of his sidemen.

I wish I could say that I've been as influential on my own two daughters' musical education. Sadly, that's one of the things that fathers have lost control of, thanks to the advent of cheap personal listening devices. Back in the 1960s, you could do a lot worse than waking to Ellington, and having the stereo controlled by someone with as much curiosity and wisdom as my father.

In Ottawa's Hintonburg, Worlds Collide and Stomachs Win Over Ears

Aside from jazz, one of my favourite interests is cities and how they develop, and no city attracts my interest more than my own.

I grew up just to the west of a working-class neighbourhood in Ottawa, which was known variously as Mechanicsville and Hintonburg. In recent years, the area has been undergoing sweeping change, with small, contemporary restaurants replacing decades-old KFC outlets and independent greasy spoons. Consequently, the area has attracted a growing number of young families, artists and technology workers, who have taken over the densely packed houses that straddle the main artery. For those of us who grew up in the years when the neighbourhood was anything but a destination, the change has been heady.

One of the cornerstones of the neighbourhood's change has been the Elmdale House Tavern, one of the last of the city's traditional beer parlours (which, as recently as the 1970s, featured 'Men's' and 'Ladies and Escorts' entrances and strictly segregated service policies). A few years ago, a couple of neighbourhood veterans bought the 80-year-old business, replaced the heating/cooling system and other infrastructural elements, and launched a six-night-a-week live music policy—the first of its kind in Ottawa in many years. While the booking policy only occasionally extended to include jazz artists like Charlie Hunter, the musical menu was eclectic, and the opportunities for young bands legion.

Meanwhile, across town, in another once-dodgy neighbourhood, another dedicated, young entrepreneur was shaking things up with a funky restaurant that offered sustainably sourced seafood and employed some of the city's most creative chefs. But, while the Elmdale House maintained the down-and-dirty essence of its roots, and kept prices low to build its audience, the Whalesbone Oyster House offered main courses that scrape the $50 mark and attracted high-flying Cabinet ministers from Canada's federal government.

Now, Ottawa's music and food scenes are abuzz with news that Whalesbone owner Joshua Bishop has purchased the rights to the Elmdale House business and announced plans to reduce the live music by 60 percent, cut the seating capacity from 160 to 95, and add a kitchen to the old structure.

Worlds collide and sparks fly. Foodies and music fans are choosing sides and flinging tweets that knock opposing views.

I'm a fan of Whalesbone and its sustainable fish, but I'm mourning the loss of this important music venue. Ottawa has always had a problem with sustaining a full-time music scene—being sandwiched  between the much-larger scenes in Montreal to the east and Toronto to the west—and the Elmdale House was going a long way toward turning that around.

In this case, it's clear that the foodies have won out and musicians and their fans are on the losing end.

Friday, October 19, 2012

David S. Ware 1949-2012

Photo by Michael Jackson
Wasn't that a man?

David S. Ware made a mighty sound, and was one of those musicians whose soulfulness was evident in every note he played.

At times, he seemed to be indomitable. I saw him once at the Victoriaville festival just after the taxi cab he drove had been broadsided in an accident. Ware was on crutches, and in obvious pain, but he put everything he had into his playing. He always did.

The fact that he seemed to rebound from a kidney transplant was no surprise, but in the end he couldn't beat the disease.

There is a big outpouring of love for Ware around social media today, and I believe a large part of the connection people felt to him was the fact that he was a bridge to the giants (John Coltrane and Albert Ayler) that many of us didn't get to see in their prime. Ware was a worthy heir to their no-holds-barred sonic attack, and he attracted a large number of young fans who grew up listening to various genres of electric rock music. He welcomed them all, and introduced them to young musicians like Matthew Shipp and Susie Ibarra, helping to propel their careers into a broader realm.

David S. Ware: Big spirit. You will be missed.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Jazz In Canada's Walled City

Heading off this week for the sixth Quebec City International Jazz Festival, which always forms a nice bridge between the end of the summer festival season and Winter Jazzfest in New York City.

Festival founder Gino Ste-Marie and his crew continue their tradition of focusing on a single instrument. This year, it's the trumpet, with featured guests Ingrid Jensen, Arturo Sandoval, Jeremy Pelt, Christian Scott, Paolo Fresu, Erik Truffaz, Tiger Okoshi, Joe Sullivan and Ron Di Lauro. Other highlights include Robert Glasper's Experiment, Gretchen Parlato, Ran Blake and the duo of Marc Copland and Gary Peacock.

It's been interesting to track the growth of this festival over the past few years. This year's event spans some 20 venues, spreading the music throughout Quebec's capital city.

I'll be reporting for DownBeat's website, as well as posting some comments here.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Taking Stock

With October upon us I suppose it's time to take a quick scan across the 2012 releases, with a view to getting some idea of how tough it will be to assemble a top 10 list. Some years, the cream just rises to the top, and there's not much of an issue with seeing a broad divide between the best and the rest. I get the feeling that this is not one of those years. Let's look!

Yup, my memory didn't fail me; I had earmarked seven great CDs prior to May, and I've definitely heard as many terrific things since then.

So, some early contenders: Obviously, that long-lost recording by Keith Jarrett's European quartet is high on the list, as is arranger Ryan Truesdell's exploration of equally obscure material by Gil Evans. Hard to overlook the recordings by Henry Threadgill's Zooid and Vijay Iyer's trio, and that Blue Note recording by Ravi Coltrane was full of great music.

Just recently, I was bowled over by a new live recording by the Japanese quartet Gato Libre, which I've reviewed for an upcoming issue of DownBeat, and I've loved what I've heard of Dave Douglas' new quintet, though I haven't heard the actual recording yet, just the video and a live NPR set. And then, there are a bunch of real dark horses; in fact, I can't recall a year when the contenders have included so many artists that I've never placed on a year-end poll before.

Some hard decisions ahead, but I'm looking forward to listening to it all again.

Addendum: The Dave Douglas arrived, and lived up to its promise. Oh, and then Joe Lovano had to go and release a new CD, too. But the real surprise in the past couple of weeks has been the live album by Nik Bärtsch's Ronin.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Thriller At Thirty

Back in the early 1980s, liking Michael Jackson could get you hurt.

At that time, I hosted a Saturday evening radio program on CKCU-FM, Canada's longest-running campus station. I took over from the station's hard-core reggae program in the afternoon, and handed off to a program highlighting the week's best new albums at 8 p.m. The idea was to warm listeners up for whatever their Saturday night held for them, and I leaned toward the power pop of the day (Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Any Trouble, and the like) and mixed things up with classic American roots music, running from Gene Vincent to Joe Ely.

One evening, I got the urge to hear the Jackson Five's "ABC," possibly inspired by Parker's cover of the band's "I Want You Back."

The Saturday evening show elicited a lot of phone requests, so I thought nothing of it when the light flashed as the first chorus of "ABC" was ending.

"Hey, you asshole, what is this bubblegum shit you're playing?"

Usually, you could disarm an abrasive caller with some humour, but this guy wasn't buying that. After some escalating dialogue, he promised to meet me in the parking lot after my show to express his dislike of the Jacksons with his fists.

I think his unfulfilled threat was on my mind in November 1982, when I was filling in for someone—perhaps my late friend Brian Eagle—on a mid-week afternoon show. The record rep from CBS had just dropped off the label's new releases, and the program manager brought them into the on-air studio. I flipped through them and spotted the long-overdue release by Michael Jackson: Thriller.

Its 1979 predecessor, Off The Wall, had contained some great pop-dance music, but hadn't been any more welcome at CKCU than "ABC" was. 

I casually scanned the credits, and did a double-take when I saw Eddie Van Halen's name beside "Beat It." The record I was playing was coming to an end. I had the Jackson vinyl out of the sleeve. I decided to play it without auditioning it. I turned up the JBL speakers in the studio, and the program manager and I smiled all the way through that brilliant Van Halen solo.

I don't know if I was the first DJ to air Thriller in Canada, but I suspect I was. It was certainly probably the first broadcast of "Beat It" since the song was not designated as the album's first single. I've thought of that a few times over the years—including once when I found myself commenting on a different radio station the morning after Jackson's death—but this article in the New York Times shines an interesting light on how Thriller went from curiosity to blockbuster.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Jazz Festivals From The Journalists' Side

Next to receiving free CDs, covering a jazz festival is likely the ideal thing that people think of when/if they consider how great it would be to work as a jazz journalist. The reality—like the reality of dealing with thousands of uninvited pieces of plastic—is somewhat different.

Like every other jazz-loving kid, I enviously read dispatches from Montreux and Newport, and dreamed of being 'on assignment'. But my first actual experience with jazz festival journalism was practically begging reporters to come out to cover the festival I helped manage in my hometown of Ottawa. During the festival's first decade—in the 1980s—no journalists were beating down our doors, scrambling for media credentials.

In 1991, the tables had turned, and I talked the arts editor of The Ottawa Citizen into letting me cover the same festival (whose employ I had left in 1989) the way I thought a festival should be covered. By the end of that year's 10-day festival, having cranked out thousands of words on very tight deadlines, I was begging to be put out of my misery. How many more versions of "Round Midnight" could I parse for meaning?

It turns out that reporting on a festival is even more work than managing one. Few reporters have the stamina of my friend John Kelman, the seemingly indefatigable editor who has become a one-man festival wrecking crew. Approaching an extended festival, which usually has multiple strands of musical genres and performance venues on display, takes strategy. That keeps your critical faculties fresh, but it also helps ensure that readers/listeners aren't overwhelmed by a torrent of words about dozens of acts. A good festival dispatch requires shape and sound structure.

On Wednesday, August 15, at 8 p.m. Eastern, several of us will be discussing the art of jazz festival reporting in the second of an ongoing series of webinars organized by the Jazz Journalists Association. Attendance is free, but registration is required. You can read more about the event, and register, here.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Revisiting Euro-Jarrett

Perhaps I was too enraptured by his so-called American Quartet or too much in love with his rapturous solo inventions of the 1970s, but I never delved too far into Keith Jarrett's 'European Quartet' with Jan Garbarek, Jon Christensen and Palle Danielsson. The band struck me as cold and rather academic in comparison to Dewey Redman's squawking raunch, Charlie Haden's deep grooves and Paul Motian's effortless swing.

So, if you've been lucky enough to hear Sleeper, the 1979 concert that ECM released last week, you know what a slap in the head I've taken. I've long since become a huge fan of Garbarek (many thanks to my late friend Eric Nisenson for hipping me to the saxophonist's great works) but his gruff, extended blowing here is still a revelation. On "Chant Of The Soil" and "New Dance," he takes Jarrett's music as out as Redman ever did, but with more connection to the melodic core of the compositions. In concert, the Latin grooves of "Personal Mountains" and "New Dance" have a slippery essence that I wasn't expecting.

What a joy it is to discover exciting music like this 33 years after the fact. I'll just try not to kick myself too often for missing it all this time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Death In The Family

When a standalone restaurant closes, it's usually a highly local story. But, when that restaurant doubles as the headquarters of a city's jazz scene, it's a death that affects us all in the music community.

Café Paradiso was one of those places; a singular jazz venue in a mid-sized Canadian city that has proven incapable over the past 40 years of sustaining more than one jazz club at a time—often with gaps of many years between their deaths. Its closure on June 30—less than two weeks after playing host to a Jazz Hero satellite party for the Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards, and immediately after a performance by vocalist Theo Bleckmann and guitarist Ben Monder—leaves a big hole in the club circuit that exists just north of the Canada/U.S. border, in Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. Its presence allowed artists like Bleckmann, Sheila Jordan and Dave Liebman to make economic sense of venturing north of New York City, hooking up single-night gigs in places like Montreal's Upstairs and Quebec City's Largo in addition to a night at Paradiso.

Recently, on Facebook, I sang the praises of club owners like Upstairs' Joel Giberovitch, Largo's Gino Ste-Marie and Paradiso's Alex Demianenko—impresarios who are in the business for their love of the music, rather than simply restaurateurs who think they can make a buck off hungry and thirsty jazz lovers.

Roddy Ellias at Café Paradiso in June
I barely knew Demianenko, but let me tell you what I learned about him in a short time. My jazz critic colleague Peter Hum introduced me to him one afternoon in April. I told Demianenko I wanted to talk to him about possibly holding the Jazz Hero event at his club. He asked me to step into the small passageway between his bar and kitchen, and I made a four- or five-minute pitch to him about the Jazz Journalists Association and the Jazz Hero concept. He'd never heard of the association or its annual Jazz Awards, but he listened intently, nodding his head, and said, "I'd love to do it. I'll pay the band."

Now, the most Hum and I had hoped was that a club owner might offer us the space and allow us to invite some local musicians up to jam, but here he was offering to pay for a band to play on what would normally be an off-night for his club.

Maybe that's the kind of risk-taking that led to Paradiso's closure, but it's also the kind of generosity that you see too little of in the world of jazz clubs.

As noted, Ottawa has seen them come and go over the years: The Penguin, Woody's, Take Five, After Eight. If you've been around town long enough, it can seem like a sad roll call of faded dreams.

But, here's one to dreamers like Alex Demianenko; they keep the jazz world turning.

Monday, July 09, 2012

A Band Is Born

There are few things as thrilling in music as when musicians whose work you love form a new group and the results define the cliché of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

The new Dave Douglas/Joe Lovano quintet—known as Sound Prints, in subtle homage to Wayne Shorter—is just such a thrill. With the sublime Joey Baron on drums, Linda Oh on bass and Lawrence Fields on piano, the band already sounds fabulous, and it's really just starting out. It's now in the midst of a European festival tour, before returning home to play Newport and Detroit in the late summer, and finally making it to the Village Vanguard in the fall. One can only hope that the Vanguard date will be recorded.

I caught the band's second official gig (a version of the group played in Boston with James Genus on bass late last year) on this summer tour, and my review of two sets is up today on the DownBeat website.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Graying Of Jazz

The main stage structure in Ottawa's Confederation Park—home base for the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival—has only just been dismantled, but the pundits are already debating what transpired there over the event's 10 days.

Ken Gray, a former editorial board member at the city's major daily and ongoing columnist, is a man who loves to lounge in the park and listen to music, and as he writes here he's willing to see the festival die a slow death rather than be subjected to music that he feels doesn't belong. My estimable colleague Peter Hum takes him on through the digital pages of the same newspaper.

Like many critics, Gray is only too happy to tell you what he doesn't like—anything that he feels smacks of pop, rock or blues—but is woefully short on opinions of just who might fill the bill to keep vacationing public servants and retirees nodding their heads and making trips to the beer concession as the festival sails toward the inevitable sunset of his doomsday scenario. He's also woefully blind to everything that goes on away from the festival's main stage (which, this year, included what was perhaps the best set of improvised music—performed by the new Dave Douglas/Joe Lovano quintet—I've witnessed in a couple of years anywhere) and how much those shows are subsidized by the 11,000 or so music fans who show up outdoors to hear the likes of Robert Plant or Steve Martin in all their non-jazz glory. In an earlier entry, I highlighted how much popular mainstream acts contribute to the coffers of the festival, which often loses money on jazz acts (the second set of that stellar Douglas/Lovano band attracted only about a one-third house, for example).

Of course, Gray also overlooks the reality of history. He falls back on that old saw that jazz never sounds better than it does on a summer's evening when it's played outdoors, presumably casting his mind back to the archetypal summer jazz fest at Newport, Rhode Island. Conveniently, he overlooks the fact that promoter George Wein—in addition to popularizing the concept of the outdoor jazz festival—also pioneered the inclusion of popular artists who drew from the same roots as Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. Hence, Wein's inclusion of acts like Chuck Berry and, a decade or so later, the Allman Brothers Band, in the Newport Jazz Festival lineup.

No, Gray would rather see the festival shrink, or even perish—a vision that is not only ridiculously shortsighted, but diminishes the contributions of the artists who are performing in venues that promote close listening.

With 'fans' like that, is it any wonder that so many younger musicians reject the notion of jazz altogether?

July 8 Addendum: Here's an interesting perspective on the crux of this issue from pianist Robert Glasper, who believes jazz as the purists like Gray see it is a "secret club."

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Festival Blooms In Quebec City

On the eve of summer, and the attendant launch of jazz festival season across Canada and the United States, one of my favourite festivals—the Quebec City Jazz Festival—has just announced its 2012 lineup, and it's beauty for an event that is just a few years old.

The festival is focusing on the trumpet this year, so there's Arturo Sandoval, Paolo Fresu, Ingrid Jensen, Eric Truffaz, Joe Sullivan, Jeremy Pelt, Christian Scott and a tribute to Miles Davis, but that only hints at the depth of the programming and the distinctive vision that the festival brings to its booking.

In keeping with my belief in full disclosure, I must admit I played a small role in recommending the booking of pianist Ran Blake, who will bring his love of film noir to a special presentation of the music composed for Alfred Hitchcock's film I Confess, which was based in Quebec City.

Last fall, along with my DownBeat colleague John Murph, I spent several days enjoying the festival, and then reflecting on what makes the festival unique. Here's what I wrote:

Art and urban upheaval often intertwine, whether the setting is Berlin between the wars or New York City in the mid-‘70s. That artists are drawn to cities and neighborhoods where rents are cheap is no surprise, but the spark generated by these huddled innovators doesn’t always catch fire and change the entire face of a community.

In Quebec City, a city of 500,000 dominated by provincial government and tourism, a five-year-old jazz festival is the unlikely catalyst of a boom that has helped to transform the once-derelict district of Saint-Roch into the kind of burgeoning creative community that urban theorist Richard Florida sees as a key to sustainability.

Festival president Gino Ste-Marie
Festival president Gino Ste-Marie remembers Saint-Roch before it was on the radar of the New York Times’ travel writers. Hoping to draw tourists westward from Quebec City’s quaint 17th-century shopping area that has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the ‘70s the city built a weatherproof enclosure over Saint-Joseph Street, which runs through the center of Saint-Roch. Unfortunately, the renewal project attracted far more prostitutes and drug dealers than tourists.

“It was a beautiful street in the ‘50s,” said Ste-Marie. “But they hid the architecture and made it a scary place. It was a desert. It broke my heart to see it like that.”

The city decided to remove the enclosure in 1998, but the damage had been done.

Ste-Marie pined for a time when Quebeckers believed that Saint-Joseph, with its dominant cathedral and broad sidewalks, could hold its own with ‘The Main’—Montreal’s storied Saint-Laurent Street. Early in the new millennium, he opened a jazz club and restaurant called Largo on Saint-Joseph, staking his future on the street’s recovery.

The Saint-Roch cathedral
“It was a freaking operation,” he said, “a big dice throw.”

Embracing the street, even while it was still stumbling back to its feet, he hung local art on the walls, encouraged restaurant patrons to hang around the neighborhood, and championed local musicians like bassist Guillaume Bouchard—a burly, bearded Mingus acolyte who had given up on music to drive a truck.

While Quebec City has a history of supporting artists who help keep shiploads of tourists happy (Cirque du Soleil grew out of a troupe of government-funded buskers who worked the broad plaza adjacent to the iconic Chateau Frontenac hotel) the city lacked a strong year-round music scene to serve residents. Jazz was almost non-existent through the ‘80s and ‘90s, despite the large number of artists just 300 miles away in Montreal. Some talented Quebec natives a generation older than Bouchard, like the extraordinary drummer Pierre Tanguay, had moved to Montreal, giving up on the idea of ever making a living in their hometown.

In 2006, Ste-Marie established a foundation to promote culture in Quebec City, raising funds through the sale of locally sourced bottled water, and launched his annual jazz festival.

“Jazz was dead here for 20 years,” he said. “And yet, Quebec has so many great artists. Beginning with Largo eight years ago, my mission has been to start with Quebec jazz, not just produce international names. The odd thing about Quebec is that it’s easier to produce a concert by (Montreal-based pianists) Lorraine Desmarais or Oliver Jones than an artist who is known around the world. So, my strategy is to start with a week of Quebec artists, then mix in internationally known names.

Just five years in, Ste-Marie and his youthful teammates Simon Couillard and Nicolas Marcil seem to be doing everything right.

By blanketing the city with creative music—and shining a bright light on Saint-Roch’s renaissance—they have accomplished something that other, more-seasoned festival producers view as a critical key to building a viable local base of artists.

The Palais Montcalm is one of the festival's venues
“Good music begets more good music,” said Bill Royston, who recently retired after eight years as the head of the Portland Jazz Festival. Having previously organized successful festivals in Pennsylvania (including the Clifford Brown, Berks and Penn’s Landing jazz festivals) he said: “Partnerships both within and outside the community are very important for the survival of a jazz festival and related events. Externally, cultural tourism efforts represent some of the most pivotal efforts to reach new audiences.”

“It’s really important to galvanize a community in support of what you’re doing, with an eye toward creating a living neighborhood,” said Ken Pickering, a co-founder of the Vancouver Jazz Festival, who serves as the event’s artistic director. “Festivals like ours have been instrumental in bringing culture to neighborhoods.”

Northwest of Toronto, in the small, university-dominated city of Guelph, jazz festival director Ajay Heble has applied both the theory and the practice of community building through art. Since 1994, his annual post-Labor Day event has produced shows by artists including Han Bennink, Muhal Richard Abrams, Pauline Oliveros, Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman, at the same time as it has brought academics together to discuss the relation between improvised music and community.

“Improvisation is a powerful voice,” said Heble. “It’s a powerful model for how we get along as societies, and how we build sustainable communities. Music has a social role, and what we’ve done here is build a strong local audience for what might be perceived as challenging music.”

“I’ve always believed that a successful jazz festival has three responsibilities,” said Royston. “Present international artists who otherwise might not be seen in your area, provide a viable series of showcases for local artists, and offer free jazz education events that extend into the neighborhood within the overall community.”

Pickering added that those types of approaches will help see a festival through tough economic times. “We’ve lost 40 of our regular programming slots,” he said. “When that happens, you have to focus on essentials, be proactive and find new partners.”

For Ste-Marie, the key to continued success is following those principles. He has worked hard to position jazz as one of the art forms supported by Quebec City’s activist mayor, Régis Labeaume—who has poured $50 million into developing artists’ ateliers—and struck alliances with major hotels to draw people to the city in the shoulder season before winter. And, if harder times come, he’s convinced he has firm bedrock beneath him.

“It all comes back to our culture—Quebec culture. I’m radical about that. I’m pretty proud that we keep that front and center, no matter what. This city, this neighborhood, it’s my heart.”

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Heat Is On

In the dead of winter, especially in the dead of a winter in Eastern Ontario, it can seem like a long time between jazz festivals. But, now, with the temperature in the high 20s (Celsius) and rising, comes the most-anticipated week in the whole year.

This year, I'm starting my jazz festival celebration early by emceeing an event to honour the man who booked the Ottawa International Jazz Festival for many years: Jacques Emond. Tonight, Jacques will be receiving the Jazz Journalists Association JAZZ HERO award in conjunction with this year's Jazz Awards, which will be held in New York City later this week. As a concert promoter and radio host, Jacques has been a tireless champion of jazz for decades; the kind of local hero who exists in communities throughout North America. The JJA—and hopefully a few dozen friends here in Ottawa—are delighted to give him a little recognition, and encourage others to give a word of thanks to all those other heroes out there who keep jazz alive at the community level.

On Thursday, a double bill of blues journeymen John Mayall and Robert Cray kicks off this year's edition of the Ottawa jazz fest, which promises a number of highlights.

I'm particularly looking forward to the new quintet co-led by Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano, which I'll be reviewing for DownBeat's digital service. Inspired by their time working together in the SF JAZZ Collective, the band has its debut in Kingston next week before coming to Ottawa. It then hits the European festival circuit prior to its U.S. debut at the Newport Jazz Festival.

As excited as I am about catching early shows by this new group, it means I'll be missing what might just be the overall highlight for many people at this year's event: an all-star group led by the great New Orleans songwriter Allen Toussaint, featuring Christian Scott, Don Byron and Marc Ribot. I'm predicting that this is the show people will be buzzing about after the festival.

I know I've said this before about the Ottawa festival, but this is a particularly great year for catching some of jazz's best drummers. A short list: Eric Harland, Joey Baron, Brian Blade, Tom Rainey and Jack DeJohnette.

There's no shortage of great guitarists, either: Kevin Eubanks, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and Pete McCann.

Friday, May 04, 2012

A Brother's Tale

I met Gregg Allman in 1978 on a steamy day in Macon, Georgia, at an event that he mentions briefly in his new autobiography, My Cross To Bear. The day marked the first time The Allman Brothers Band had played together since its acrimonious breakup two years earlier (all the surviving original members had played together with guitarist Dickey Betts' band a week earlier in New York City's Central Park).

I had been a fan of the band since I heard their debut album in 1970, so I knew their story well. But, by the time I encountered him that summer, Allman had become a cipher—unsmiling, and hidden behind opaque shades and a curtain of long blond hair. He mumbled something I didn't catch when we were introduced, then turned his silence back on the people he had been standing with.

He'd been pilloried and ridiculed in the nascent People magazine during his marriage to Cher, and even made fun of in the comic strip Doonesbury. Since the death of his brother Duane in 1971, he'd become better known for his drug and alcohol abuse than his music, but even before his brother died Gregg had been so withdrawn and single-minded about what he did onstage that he seemed like some sort of savant. In interviews, he came off as cagey and a bit naive. Surely, there was more to him than that, but by the late '70s it was an open question.

I greeted the news that he was publishing a set of memoirs with interest... and trepidation. Even if you allowed that his memory might not be clouded by his years of substance abuse—and Keith Richards' autobiography proved that anything is possible—there was the fear that the book might either be bitter retribution for the years when he was the early butt of the celebrity media or a shallow remembrance of the band's triumphs.

What a joy it is, then, to read—or, in my case, listen to—a beautifully told, insightful and uplifting story of a man's life. For one thing, he is as funny as hell. Even the story of finding one of his wives having sex with an acquaintance is told with wry humour. As it turns out, his apparent caginess is actually shyness, and what passes for naivety is really the sign of a sensitive soul who refuses to dwell on negative feelings about six ex-wives or people, like former manager Phil Walden, who did him wrong. While he writes compellingly about the bond between the original members of the ABB, he's brutally honest about how those bonds have been stressed over the past four decades, and isn't one to peddle trite phrases about brotherhood. Gregg Allman has always been about music first and foremost, and when people don't act in the best interest of making music, he says so. If he was exhibiting reticence at the time I met him it was because he still wasn't sure if the others in the band were willing to recommit without reservation to finding the magic they'd once had onstage, and set aside the trappings of rock stardom that had derailed them in 1976, at the height of their fame.

In that regard, he reflects a statement his brother once made: "This ain't no fashion show. In this band, you better come to play."

Duane's sentiment was borne from hard years on the road, when the teenaged Allmans struggled to create their own music, and then to get a chance to perform it. In the mid-'60s, the star-making machinery of the Hollywood pop music scene had almost waylaid both their musical careers and their sibling friendship, and Gregg shows his early strength when he sacrifices his own ambitions, returning to Los Angeles as a solo artist in 1968 so Duane could remain in his beloved South. Duane's side of the story has only been told second hand, but apparently he reacted with anger, thinking his brother was selling out.

The relationship of the two—born little more than a year apart—was complex; Duane was a reckless, charismatic leader, who always knew just how to push his little brother's buttons. But Duane was also a brilliant, driven musician—a distinctive virtuoso at the age of 22—who had a clear vision for what it took to create an exciting hybrid of rock, blues and improvised music. He drove everyone around him mercilessly, and most of all Gregg.

He drives him still, haunting Gregg with the memory of their last conversation on the morning of October 29, 1971, when a cocaine deal led Gregg into a lie. That afternoon, Duane was pinned beneath his Harley Davidson on a Macon street. He died of massive internal injuries. Gregg writes: "The last thing I ever said to my brother was a fucking lie, man.... I have thought about that every single day of my life since then. I told him that lie, and he told me that he was sorry and that he loved me. I was so dumbfounded, I couldn't say nothing back to him."

In that moment, and numerous others in My Cross To Bear, your heart breaks for this man, and you clearly see the kind of weight that he has carried, dragging him often into chemical means of escape. This is a fearless, unself-pitying picture of a man.

It's a story you have to live through a lot to tell, but that alone won't give you the tools to tell it. To do that you need to be able to reach the part of yourself where it's a relief to share something like you've been hurt so bad that you feel like you've been tied to a whipping post.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Levon's Grace Notes

So much has been written and said about Levon Helm in the days since his health took its final turn that there's not much to add. But a couple of things have been on my mind.

First, as an occasional drummer, it's impossible to comprehend playing soulful music without dealing with the way he manipulated time: just playing alongside musicians as idiosyncratic as Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan—alternately pushing and pulling them—and keeping it all as tight (and loose) as it sounded! Often overlooked when people talk about the great percussionists of the 1960s and '70s, he was a master. As I write this, I notice that the great Jack DeJohnette has paid his props to his Upstate New York neighbour.

Second, I cherish the times I got to listen to him close up, when he hit the road with Earl and Ernie Cate after The Band fell apart. At Ottawa's legendary Barrymore's, I saw a number of musicians who had once played to audiences hundreds of times larger: Gregg Allman, Sly Stone, David Johansen, Burton Cummings. No one ever handled that shift from mass appeal to playing a Sunday matinee or Tuesday night gig at a small club in Ottawa with more grace than Levon. Watching him on nights like that made you realize that this was a man who never viewed playing music as a job. It was a joy, and that fact was all over his face, and all through his music. In those days, he always struck me as a small-town baseball player who had taken his shot at the big leagues, had a few seasons at the top and now was back on the bus, just happy to be able to play a game for a living.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Professing Professionalism

Michelle Mercer and me at AWP
I'm just back from an extended trip to Chicago, which included a speaking engagement at the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. On a panel that included Emilie Pons, Michelle Mercer, Howard Mandel and Alan Stanbridge, I addressed the need for professional standards in music criticism and journalism.

Thanks to Michael Jackson, Chris Tarry, Neil Tesser and everyone else who came out to fill the room and ask interesting questions.

Here's a copy of my presentation:

First, some context for my comments

They don't come from any bias against technology as it applies to our art form: I wrote my first online article in 1992. I was an early blogger, and eagerly spread my work in digital form as soon as there were people with the tools to receive it.

Neither do I have an age bias, even though I've been in the business now for 35 years. Through the Jazz Journalists Association, I have mentored a number of young music writers, and I happily consume and encourage the work of younger compatriots.

Michelle Mercer, me, Emilie Pons, Howard Mandel

My point of departure is Orrin Keepnews' curmudgeonly 1987 essay, "A Bad Idea, Poorly Executed…" in which he decried uninformed, overly opinionated and badly written jazz criticism.

In the main, Keepnews argues for professionalism and style.

I share his viewpoint, and I've modeled my career—in large part, unknowingly—on his design. I urge you to read his essay, as it has its own argumentative muscle and examples (mostly based on his years as a producer for people like Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk, and on his time as a label executive). 

But here are my own tenets for good music criticism: If you're going to write about the music, it's not enough to enjoy the music, even if you can summon the linguistic energy to communicate your passion to others. Sadly, that is still what gets some people their jobs in music writing. 

There was a time when it was commonplace in some types of arts coverage—where the art was considered mainstream, or lowbrow—where coverage was assigned to anyone who expressed an interest in it. For example, the longtime film critic at the newspaper where I worked for a decade got the job because he liked going to the movies. The growth and rapid evolution of film schools in the '70s and '80s—and the calibre of knowledgeable young film aficionados they turned out—killed that notion for film. 

Unfortunately, it's still the case that jazz assignments—to say nothing of pop music assignments—go to writers who have an interest… and often, it's an interest that doesn't extend far beyond receiving review copies and complimentary concert tickets.

The most egregious recent example involved someone I actually know. He's a fine newspaper writer, but knows nothing about jazz. And, as it turned out, he has some odd ideas about femininity, too. Assigned to review a concert in Montreal by the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, he spent an inordinate amount of space pondering the significance of Ms. Schneider's bare arms. Needless to say, the artist, a large number of her followers and a large segment of the music journalism sector was outraged that this happened in a blog posting associated with a major daily newspaper. 

Back to my tenets. 

Before you write about music, here is an incomplete list of the things you should do: 

Spend time observing musicians recording. You're going to be writing about recordings; you better know how that works. Believe me, in most cases, it's not what you think.

Listen to musicians talking about music. Again, what goes on during the creation of this spontaneous art form is not necessarily what you think.

If possible, spend some time on the road with musicians. Drummer Matt Wilson loves to quote a music truism: They don't pay you to play. They pay you to get there.

Observe musicians onstage from a vantage point other than the audience. Even after all these years, this is still an education for me. I watched Al Green from the wings a couple of years ago, and the interaction between him and his bandleader, and the bandleader and the other musicians told a story the audience didn't get to share in.

After you've done all that, then you listen. And you listen some more.

Then you analyze what you've heard. You think about it in the context of all those things you've observed.

And you put the music in an historical context—both long range and short range.

And… then… you write.

When I recite those tenets, a lot of listeners are surprised that the writing holds such low priority. Isn't it all about the writing? The table stakes in our business should be the ability to write stylishly… to be able to employ metaphor and rhythm and tone.

My colleague Howard Mandel taught me that it's as important to have your language soar and stomp and whisper as effectively as the musicians do in the music you're addressing. 

Some of you may think I'm missing something from my tenets… What about playing music? Do you need to play music to write about it?

Personally, I cannot imagine not playing music. Why would you want to write about something professionally if you weren't interested in it enough to do it yourself? That's not to say you have to do it professionally to write about it, but it does help to understand the language and the way people work together in an ensemble to blend their voices and imaginations. 

So, with all that in mind, where are we going wrong? What are the dangers out there in music writing today? As I've mentioned, the "reviewer" problem is not new. Keepnews railed against it 25 years ago. 

The problem is exacerbated … and proliferated … by technology.
Time was that a dull-eared reviewer with leaden prose was a voice in the wilderness. Those who were cheerleaders for one artist or another sometimes were quoted in press materials, but otherwise their work seldom was seen beyond their immediate region. Now, they show up in Twitter feeds and through Facebook links. Publicists spread them around like a virus. 

Under the guise of "citizen journalism"—a term that covers a multitude of sins—anyone with an MP3 player and an opinion can now get equal footing with professional music journalists. If that were the only issue, there wouldn't be a lot of cause for concern, but the shift toward digital technology has combined with the harsh economic climate to shutter a number of print publications—from local arts papers to international magazines. Even those that survive are adopting new ways of competing… few of which promote exceptional music writing.

Perhaps the most egregious is SPIN magazine's decision to replace its short album reviews with review tweets. That's right, 140 characters to inform consumers about up to 75 minutes of music that an artist might've spent a year creating. 

Now, a well-crafted short review can be a thing of beauty. The great Robert Christgau turned it into an art form of its own in the pages of The Village Voice

A tweet review? Can it ever be more than a witty bon mot or a catty snarl? Invariably, it plays to the worst instincts of the bad reviewer, making everything sound as reductive as Mr. Blackwell's Worst-Dressed List. 

On a practical note, this movement is dangerous, too, because while it diminishes the importance of the art it also squeezes underpaid freelance writers even more. Will writers be paid as much to learn, listen and analyze if the result is a mere 140 characters? 

More likely, the professionals will be pushed away from the traditional sources of revenue. It's already starting to happen. The result is that some of these people will find other things to write about. Most curious people don't limit themselves to one interest. 

For the rest of us, it's imperative that we get as creative as musicians have had to become since the birth of digital media and find new avenues—and, yes, revenue streams—new ways of connecting with audiences who want to go beyond sales pitches or 140 characters. 

Perhaps—at least it's my hope—the additional effort will winnow the field, and the committed professionals among us will prevail. As someone who grew up loving the prose and the passion of music writers like Ralph J. Gleason, Greil Marcus and Robert Palmer … and buying the music they turned me on to … I can only hope that's the case.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Chris Tarry: Pursuing the Printed Word

If you're interested in speculative fiction in addition to music, check out my new piece on Canadian bassist Chris Tarry, who has been honing his skills as a writer of short fiction.

Before moving to Brooklyn nine years ago, Tarry was a stalwart on Vancouver's music scene, and a co-leader of the fusion co-operative Metalwood.

Rest Of The Story, his unique combination of short fiction and the latest CD by his quintet—featuring the great Pete McCann on guitar—is nominated for two Juno Awards.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Do We Really Want to Play That Tune?

My friend Peter Hum has a blog post decrying the absence of jazz musicians on the televised portion of the Grammy Awards, but really, do we want it to change? I think it's one of those cases where you need to watch what you wish for.

When even music business heavyweights like Bruce Springsteen get pushed into beefing up their regular stage presentations—to say nothing of other performers who are forced into bizarre musical mashups—is there any hope that the same wouldn't happen to Esperanza Spalding or Wynton Marsalis if they were invited to join the televised show? The fact is that since producer Ken Ehrlich began to introduce overblown extravagance and fever-dream duets to the show, the ratings have spiked. Last year's show drew 26.5 million viewers. All those tweets about Chris Brown and Nicki Minaj—even from those who are outraged—only serve to further the Grammy vision of spreading the word.

This year, I skipped the telecast altogether and happily watched the jazz awards being handed out in the live streaming pre-telecast feed. There was no excess, no music cues to cut off the acceptance speeches, and no one insisting that Terri Lyne Carrington had to trade fives with the guitarist from Dierks Bentley.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

New Venue for Jazz News

As it continues to revamp its music offerings on its traditional FM frequencies and on SiriusXM satellite radio, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is expanding its coverage of music issues online.

I have some skin in the game, as I'm pleased to have been invited to contribute to the new source of information.

Check out my first piece here, and find out more about the three-year/two-CD deal that Ottawa-based singer Kellylee Evans has just signed with Universal Music. It's quite a coup for the vocalist, who has quietly been building an impressive career.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What's Your Favourite Debut?

Fellow jazz critic Larry Appelbaum posted a Facebook link to John McLaughlin's album Extrapolations today, which caused me to post that I thought it was the best debut album by a jazz artist.

"A bold statement," he replied.

Is it?

Here's how I described how it sounded in my entry on McLaughlin in The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues: "Already in place (at age 26) were the remarkably fluid technical facility, diamond-hard tone and harmonic imagination that would set him apart from most jazz guitarists."

What's your vote for best album-length debut by a jazz artist? Bearing in mind that McLaughlin was already a seasoned session musician who had recorded with everyone from Petula Clark to David Bowie, let's keep it fair by limiting it to albums that are the first recordings under a musician's leadership, and of course it has to be an album of original material issued in the LP or CD era (so something like Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool does not qualify).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Best of 2011

Each year, veteran music critic Francis Davis polls dozens of jazz critics for their picks of the best music they heard during the previous 12 months in five categories: overall, reissue, vocal, Latin and debut.

Given the scope of the electorate, this is—hands down—the most extensive survey of recorded jazz (as opposed to, say, the DownBeat Critics Poll, which takes into account both recorded and live music). Formerly published each December in The Village Voice, the poll now is available on Individual ballots are available on Tom Hull's site.

You can find my full ballot here, but here's my top 10:

  1. Marcus Strickland, Triumph Of The Heavy, Volumes 1 & 2
  2. Carol Morgan, Blue Glass Music
  3. Denny Zeitlin, Labyrinth
  4. Erik Friedlander, Bonebridge
  5. Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay, Danse à l'Anvers
  6. Joe Lovano Us Five, Bird Songs
  7. Enrico Rava, Tribe
  8. Nordic Connect, Spirals
  9. Sonny Rollins, Road Shows, Volume 2
  10. Lee Konitz/Brad Mehldau/Charlie Haden/Paul Motian, Live At Birdland

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Best of 2011 Coming Up

Francis Davis tells me that will publish the full results of the extensive poll of jazz journalists he conducts this Wednesday.

He tipped voters to a few of the top vote-getters, and I suspect younger people will be disappointed. I'll draw out the suspense by leaving it that the top recording of the year is not the product of someone under 50.

I'm pleased to see that two of my top choices placed in either first or second place in the Vocal and Latin categories, but my top CD—Marcus Strickland's Triumph Of The Heavy, Vol. 1 & 2—didn't come in either first or second.

I'll post my full list after the results appear, and Tom Hull will have all of the voters' ballots on his site around the same time.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

40-Year Time Machine

I took some time over the holidays to enjoy Will Hermes' new book Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, which chronicles the New York City music scene in the mid-1970s—roughly the period between the opening of CBGB and the release of the first commercial hits by Talking Heads, The Ramones and Blondie, Along the way, Hermes covers the rise and fall of seminal rockers like the New York Dolls, Television and The Heartbreakers, all bands that were heavily influential on my own listening (and partying) habits when I was in college. They remained heavy favourites when I began hosting shows on CKCU-FM in Ottawa.

New York Dolls
The book is very evocative of that era in rock, but what I really enjoyed was the way Hermes moved between the music most people remember from the time and three other equally important strands: jazz, salsa and dance music (which split into the immediately commercial—disco—and the currently commercial—hip hop).

The jazz portions were particularly resonant, given that saxophonist Sam Rivers died during the period when I was reading the book. Like rockers Patti Smith, Richard Hell, David Byrne and others, Rivers took advantage of the crumbling infrastructure, and rock-bottom rents, on the Lower East Side to stake out creative territory. At his Studio Rivbea and drummer Rashied Ali's apartment, the fuse was lit for the rise of the improvised music that was my entree to campus radio—music by artists like David Murray, James Blood Ulmer, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Air and Arthur Blythe.

David Murray
Cast together in the hard-scrabble streets of Alphabet City and points west, the musicians didn't see a lot of difference in what they were trying to accomplish, and as Hermes makes clear there was a lot of cross-pollination between young artists like Smith and Murray. Just lend an ear to Dolls frontman David Johansen's radio program on Sirius XM to understand how broad his tastes are. It's not unusual in Hermes' you-are-there narration to find skinny, young Bruce Springsteen catching a punk set after missing his bus back to the Jersey Shore, or to understand how the cauldrons of Queens and The Bronx served as places where the DIY electronics knowledge of Jamaica met the desires of young men who would use any tool at hand to make a noise and express their creativity.

Along the way, Hermes also peers into the worlds of graffiti artists who aim to pull off the ultimate work of art—a fully decorated set of train cars, minimalists who spend months perfecting a single idea, and uncontrollable adventurers like Johnny Thunders, Alan Vega and Héctor Lavoe, who never found widespread success.

Whether you remember the wild, turbulent, frequently over-reaching, music of the period, or the names are mere legends to you, I recommend the book.