Entries Tagged 'jazz reviews' ↓

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2017

 

Don’t know whether you’ve heard or not, but as of this year, professional basketball has become the Number One Sport in America. Many can, and likely will argue with me on this and we can do so another time. But I know that with this prominence has come some chatter among the philosophically inclined (or challenged) about how basketball is such a prototypically American team game where everybody plays together as a unit while allowing individual brilliance to come forth in dramatic ways while playing within the rules and blah-de-blah-blah…

I mean…I know that ALL team sports allow for that to varying degrees, right? But the basketball cognoscenti contends that it’s the grand, freewheeling and often explosive manner in which players express themselves spontaneously within the confines of the game that solidifies its global appeal. (Once again, blah-de-blah-blah-and again we can fight about this later.)

The only reason I’m bringing it up here is that there was a time  — and not all that long ago — when people spoke in this manner about jazz music, another American-born enterprise allowing for, even compelling individual spontaneity within a collective endeavor. Both basketball and jazz have deployed “jam” and even “jam sessions” in their argot, though they technically mean different things. And, as is especially the case with the pro game, basketball depends heavily on stars drawing fans’ wayward attention spans into the not-always-conspicuous-but-deeply-satisfying graces within the sport. Jazz likewise searches far and wide for first-magnitude stars and doesn’t lack for hot young “phenoms” of its own. (Number 1 on this list.) It also has ageless wonders who can still “ball” with eye-popping agility (Numbers 2 and 7), slammers who aren’t afraid to go hard and inside (Numbers 4, 5 and 10) and sharpshooters with wide wingspans (Numbers 3, 6, 8, 4 and 1, again).

I just wish I knew the secret to jazz drawing in, at the very least, the savants who care so much about whether the “Dubs” (look it up) repeat again as champs or whether the Celtics-Sixers rivalry is really going back to where it used to be in the 1980s/1960s or whether LeBron James is gunning hard for a third MVP award or whether the Thunder has too many shooters, etc. Why can’t jazz get buzz like that?

Because, as with everything else in the recording industry (whatever the hell THAT is these days), jazz’s future is locked in a chrysalis forged by changes in distribution, marketing and even packaging. (How long and deep is the vinyl resurgence anyway?) And when the chrysalis bursts, then what? Or, more to the point, so what? Jazz isn’t in a position to lead change, but it will, or should adapt to the changes overtaking the American psyche in matters of gender, economics and, as always, race, defined here a mythic construct that nonetheless holds American minds hostage.

(We can table that discussion for another time, too.)

Through it all, the music abides. And, for anybody bothering to listen, it’s stronger, livelier and more vibrant than ever. Case in point:

 

 

dreamsanddaggers

 

1.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue) – As of this album, her third (or maybe fourth), it is no longer enough to say she’s the most talented young vocalist to appear in decades. Nor is enough to say that she’s the best jazz singer of her (Millennial) generation. This double disc package, composed mostly of sets gathered from a September, 2016 Village Vanguard engagement, proclaims Cecile McLorin Salvant as a star of such near-blinding magnitude that if I could have given the first five spots on the list to this album, I would. Put another way (and I apologize if I’m repeating myself): I cannot remember ever hearing a singer achieving before the age of 30 such a formidable command of rhythm, tone, nuance, articulation and idiom. Prodigies before her have come and, often, gone with her abundance of resources. But among many other things, she can bend, without undue distortions, any phrase in any standard, allowing the familiar lyrics in such chestnuts as “You’re My Thrill,” “The Best Thing For You”(with its challenging chord and line shifts), “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” to lope around, lag behind and leap ahead of their assigned tempos with a veteran’s imperturbable authority. As she has in her previous albums, she pounds hard-core blues tunes such as “Sam Jones’ Blues” and “You Got To Give Me Some” as if born and bred in brawling roadhouses. But she treats the words of these raw-boned songs with same solicitude and care that she applies to the suave cheekiness of Bob Dorough’s “Nothing Like You” and “Devil May Care” or to the ruminative pathos of the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill plaint, “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty.” She is a skilled dramatist, probing and engaging the character behind each song – though I wish another dramatist would someday fashion a vehicle that could showcase her brilliance on stage or screen the way Funny Girl delivered Barbra Streisand to the center of the universe. She’s also playful, but she aint playing. Nor is she a dilettante wandering aimlessly, from show tunes to primordial funk and back to her own original musings (“More,” “Red Instead.”) She’s probing for connections, linkages, overlapping characteristics of each tune with the kind of fortitude that over time could reinforce the foundations of American music for new generations of players, poets and lovers. And, as I may or may not have mentioned earlier, she’s only 28 years old. I did neglect to mention the comparably dynamic support of her rhythm section, especially pianist Aaron Diehl, who’s becoming a first-magnitude star on his own. I can’t tell you any more. There are some things you’re going to have to see and hear for your own selves.

 

 

 

Marseille

 

2.) Ahmad Jamal, Marseille (Jazzbook/Jazz Village)—Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the age spectrum, Ahmad Jamal is 87 years old, which means he’s three years away from being a nonagenarian. Paradoxically, he has in recent years sounded younger with age; more energetic and adventurous than he did back in the 1950s when he was wowing Chicago’s Pershing nightclub with his variations on “Poinciana.” His late-winter resurgence continues on this session with drummer Herlin Riley, bassist James Cammack and percussionist Manolo Badrena. His cleverness, whose flamboyance at one time annoyed the purists, has acquired keener, rougher edges on such tunes as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Autumn Leaves,” the latter of which is a clinic on how a pianist and a rhythm session contain and release tension like dancers working within a narrow space. His timing and poise as leader and soloist have likewise sharpened, especially on his original compositions, “Pots En Verre,” “Baalbeck” and the title tune, given three variations here; first as a straight-ahead instrumental, then with a spoken version (by Abd Al Malik) and a ballad rendering (Mina Agossi) of Jamal’s French-language lyrics – which, by the way, are also pretty deft for a man of his advanced years. But who’s counting anyway? I’m going to predict that, by his 90th birthday in 2020, he’ll still be playing keep-away games with space and time on his piano and keeping his bass-drum tandems on their toes. Anybody want to bet against me? Or him?

 

Morphogenesis

 

 

3.) Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse, Morphogenesis (PI) – I’m resisting the temptation to label what Coleman’s been doing these last few years as an ongoing biological experiment. That would make it sound clinical and the music he and his various ensembles have recorded is anything but. Functional Arrythmias (2013) dealt with cardiovascular matters while Synovial Joints (2015) dared you to imagine knees, elbows, shoulders and legs accommodating themselves to whatever the music, organically conceived and arranged into being, was willing them to do. This time, the shape-shifting dynamics of Coleman’s approach is geared towards movement, core, tactics, kinesis and thrust; in other words, martial arts, specifically boxing. (You heard.) Thus the orchestrations have more density and drive, which makes this album at once more inscrutable and more accessible than its immediate predecessors. Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet shows greater range of expression even when flying in close formation with Coleman’s alto saxophone. Jen Shyu’s voice returns to the mix while pianist Matt Mitchell, drummer Greg Chudzik, tenor saxophonist Maria Grand, violinist Kristin Lee and percussionist Neeraj Mehta all work together to create an collective entity of sound and rhythm you could use to prepare for any bout you have on the schedule, metaphorical or otherwise. Since these releases seem timed for every two years, I’m guessing Coleman and crew have another inquiry due in 2019. Is it possible, doctor, that…the human brain could be next on his agenda? (Egad!)

 

 

 

far from over_vijay iyer sextet

 

 

4.) Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over (ECM) – “Down to the Wire,” “Into Action,” “Wake,” “End of the Tunnel”…The titles alone are challenges hurled into the Whirlwind of Now, especially the title track, which pulses throughout like a urgent telegraph message seeking a way out of the whatever it is we’ve been going through for (at least) the last year. Iyer, having done everything with the piano trio short of equipping it with double jet packs and a hood ornament, takes the wheel of this super-powered ensemble and comes perilously close to redefining the horns-rhythm-section paradigm. Pianist Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey lay down a sweet, spongy groove for “Nope” that gives the front line of alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim and horn master Graham Haynes lots of room to leap with controlled abandon. Electronics are deployed with discretion and purpose on the aforementioned “End of the Tunnel” while “Down to the Wire’s” overlapping riffs and steel-mesh polyrhythms exemplify the band’s breakneck intensity as does the lyrical fire shooting out of that elite horn section. Even when in relative reflection (“For Amiri Baraka”), the album seethes and goads its listeners to lean in and press forward into whatever trials lay ahead. We should probably take a hint from the way these guys go all out on these tracks: That our only way out of this mess may be us.

 

 

 

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5.) Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, The Music of John Lewis (Blue Engine) — Wynton Marsalis wasn’t the first musician to merge classical aspirations with jazz performance. Neither was John Lewis. But Lewis (1920-2001), who led the epochal Modern Jazz Quartet for roughly half his life, helped define by the middle of the last century a useable tradition within jazz music that could draw extensively upon its own heritage (blues, bop, swing and such) while establishing communion with baroque, romantic, impressionist and other genres linked to Europe. This legacy is vast and enduring enough to affect most of the jazz music written today, including most, if not all of the music represented on this list. Marsalis, especially, knows how much the very notion of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and jazz repertory in general, owes to Lewis and this tribute, recorded four years ago at Rose Hall, is an institution’s deeply-felt and elegantly-framed expression of gratitude. Marsalis, as ever, is the emcee-impresario as well an occasional soloist. But at center stage for this show is pianist Jon Batiste, a couple years before becoming nationally known as Steven Colbert’s “Late Show” bandleader-collaborator-egger-on. He proves an insightful surrogate for Lewis’ own inventions on such timeless pieces as “2 Degrees West, 3 Degrees East,” “Two Bass Hit” and (of course) “Django.” The concert’s revelations come in the orchestra’s renditions of themes taken from MJQ’s 1962 masterwork, The Comedy. That suite sustained the most knocks at the time from jazz peeps who believed Lewis was bowing too low to the European masters. But the orchestra, using a score adapted for big band by David Berger, makes the whole apparatus swing hard without in any way mitigating its surging romanticism. If I may partake of a quibble: The lovely “La Cantatrice” is rendered in these settings without a vocal proxy for the young Diahann Carroll, who sang this aria with the quartet on the Atlantic album. If the LCJO repeats this segment of the MJQ experiment, I know just the singer for the job. (Again, see Number 1 on this list).

 

 

 

Honey & Salt

 

 

 

6.) Matt Wilson, Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg (Palmetto) – Coming across this homage to the First Jazz Poet  is like wandering into a neglected corner of one’s attic and stumbling into these motley contraptions that, with a little oil in their wheels and cleaning fluid in their cogs, can still whirr, hum and beguile. Drummer-bandleader-composer Wilson comes by his devotion legitimately, having hailed from the same Knox County, Illinois birthplace as Sandburg and been distantly related to boot. He’s been touring with his Carl Sandburg project for a few years now and has now yielded a cozy, colorful quilt of Sandburg-related instrumentals, songs and readings that constitute one of the precious few times that a jazz-poetry synthesis has worked so well. (Hell, worked. Period.) With Ron Miles on trumpet, Jeff Lederer on reeds, Martin Wind on bass and Dawn Thomson on guitar and lead vocals, Wilson provides deceptively simple frameworks, rhythmically and otherwise, for a Sandburg cornucopia (never has the word seemed more appropriate): A loping shuffle for “Soup”; an indigo-blue slow jam for “Night Stuff” (with Miles in top form) and a moody prairie lament for “Bringers” (“…of dawn and dusk and dreams…”). Even more intriguing is the interplay of the music with the poems as read by such notables as Jack Black (“Snatch of Slipshod Jazz”), Carla Bley (“To Know Silence Perfectly”), Rufus Reid (“Trafficker”), John Scofield (“We Must Be Polite”) and Sandburg himself, whose recital of “Fog,” where most of us first learned about metaphor in grade school, is stretched and elaborated upon by Wilson’s trap set. Is it possible for a jazz album to restore a literary reputation? I can’t say, but I do know when I hear the group join their voices on Sandburg’s “Choose” – “The single clenched fist lifted and ready/Or the open asking hand held out and waiting/Choose/For we meet by one or the other” – it feels very much as though these poems, their author and this project have arrived in our midst exactly when we need them most.

 

Solo Relections Monk

 

 

 

7.) Wadada Leo Smith, Solo: Reflections & Meditations on Monk (TUM) I’ll repeat here what I said two months ago: At age 75, Smith is enjoying a bountiful winter of recognition for his life’s work as trumpeter, composer and bandleader, creating fresh contexts for orchestrated jazz and delivering plaintive, ruminative yet remarkably agile narratives on his horn. His liner notes acknowledge his considerable debt to Monk, “an inspiration that arcs straight across the structured invisible world.” Smith’s own art, whether alone or in groups, uses intervals as nimbly as the master. In his own renditions of “Ruby, My Dear,” “Reflections,” “Crepuscule with Nellie” and “Round Midnight” (all of which dare the bold and the thoughtful to bring their “A” Game), Smith seems to know precisely how to sustain spaces between phrases and, more important, when to come in hard, when to use stealth – and, in the case with “Nellie,” when to let its essential form do most of the work. He rounds out the album with original pieces, a couple of them stimulated by visual depictions of the pianist at work (“Monk and his Five-Point Ring at the Five Spot Café,” “Adagio Monk, the Composer in Sepia – A Second Vision”) and another, intriguingly speculative narrative (“Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium – A Mystery”). Generations of jazz musicians have brought their adorations of Monk to his legacy’s front door. I doubt there is any other musician alive who could have presented anything as austere, adventurous and challenging as Smith’s recital.

 

 

Tipico

 

 

8.) Miguel Zenon, Tipico (Miel Music) – The title of the first track, “Academia” sounds vaguely like a threat, especially since it was apparently inspired by Zenon’s interaction with his students at the New England Conservatory of Music. But it’s a buoyant, effervescent take, setting you up for similarly joyful interactions to come. Zenon has in the past organized his albums around specific themes and narratives connected to his Puerto Rican heritage. But this time, he intends nothing more than a celebration of his 15-year affiliation with the rest of his quartet (pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawisching and drummer Henry Cole). What results is hardly academic, but you could learn a lot from the way Zenon’s alto sax communicates with the other instrumentalists. On “Cantor,” for instance, Glawisching and Perdomo lay down a spectral path for Zenon to soar, hover and gradually to create spiraling patterns whose intricacies sneak up on you. The title track evokes a whole subcontinent of rhythmic and melodic influences, galvanized by the quartet’s collective sway and swagger. Zenon’s intelligence and authority are asserted as definitively as on his previous albums. But this time, there’s a relaxed open-heartedness shared by all the musicians, whose only imperative is to make it all move at different tempos (tempi?) in beauty and mystery. Zenon’s playing, at least to these ears, has never sounded as frisky or as limpid as it does here.

 

 

Weiss Wake Up Call

 

 

9.) David Weiss & Point of Departure, Wake Up Call (Ropeadope) – Weiss, as he’s proven with all his varied ensembles (including this one), knows his way around the repertoire of the 1960s. He also is unapologetically drawn to the possibilities opened up by jazz-fusion of the 1970s and he’s apparently determined to help finish, or resolve, what those fusion artists started. The Point of Departure outfit is heard here in the kind of transition that jazz itself was a half-century ago as electronics seeped into hard bop’s domain. Only the album’s midsection, “Unfinished Business,” retains tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen and guitarist Nir Felder from the ensemble’s previous incarnation. For the rest, trumpeter-leader Weiss ups the ante by using two guitarists: Travis Reuter and Ben Eunson while Myron Walden assumes the tenor sax chair. The combination jars at first, but only for a while. And the ensemble shows its tight-knit cohesion when it dives into amplified renderings of John McLaughlin’s “Sanctuary,” Joe Henderson’s “Gazelle” and Tony Williams’ “Pee Wee.” On “The Mystic Knights of The Sea,” drawn from Williams’ early 70s band, Lifetime, Weiss’ group shows that piece to be not too far removed conceptually from the Williams who played with Miles Davis’ legendary mid-60s quintet. Everybody involved is focused and engaged, but if this album has an emerging star, it’s drummer Kush Abadey, who powers this edition of “POD” with a ferocity that seems ballistic in execution. He must be destined for greater things because Han Solo, who knows a little something about hyper-drive, made what’s known as the “jazz face” when he saw Abedey flash leather not so long ago at Small’s jazz club. He wouldn’t be the first star Weiss helped propel into greater prominence. And he won’t be the last.

 

 

Christian-McBride-Bringin-It

 

 

10.) Christian McBride Big Band, Bringin’ It (Mack Avenue) – I’ve always suspected that there have been two identities in pitched battle for bassist McBride’s Philly-forged soul, one side embodied by Ray Brown, the other by Bootsy Collins. In this setting, and likely in others yet to come, the two sides aren’t in conflict so much as in spirited negotiations for a workable, lasting truce. The first track, a backyard-party rouser titled “Gettin’ To It,” loosens your bow tie and gives your head a reason to do its version of the Madison, or maybe the Funky Chicken. The immediate follow-up, Freddie Hubbard’s “Thermo,” is a steady-rolling swinger that has little in common with the opener besides the airtight rhythm section (McBride, pianist Xavier Davis, drummer Quincy Phillips and guitarist Rodney Jones) along with fleet-footed soloing by trumpeter Freddie Hendrix and tenor saxophonist Ron Blake. McBride’s wide-screen arrangement of “I Thought About You” discloses his higher-ground ambitions for his large ensemble and the band, with trumpeter Brandon Lee’s solo leading the way, comes through impressively enough for you to hope McBride aims even higher. Talks will likely continue between the Brown and Bootsy sides and McBride is a wicked-smart mediator, though part of me wishes he’d let his Famous Flames side cut loose for just one more album. If it happens, I’m all for him. If it doesn’t, I still am.

 

Daylight Ghosts

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION: Craig Taborn, Daylight Ghosts, (ECM) Tyshawn Sorey, Verisimilitude (PI); Heads of State, Four in One (Smoke Sessions); Matthew Shipp Trio, Piano Song (Thirsty Ear); Fred Hersch, Open Book (Palmetto); Jane Ira Bloom, Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson (Outline); Ron Miles, I Am A Man (Yellowbird); Joey Alexander, Monk. Live. Trio! (Motema); Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Handful of Keys (Blue Engine)

BEST REISSUE/ARCHIVAL

 

 

Another Time

 

1.) Thelonious Monk, Les Liasons Dangereuses 1960 (SAM)
2.) Bill Evans, Another Time: The Hilversum Concert with Eddie Gomez & Jack DeJohnette (Resonance)
3.) Ornette Coleman, Ornette at 12 & Crisis (Real Gone)

BEST DEBUT ALBUM

 

Fly or Die

 

 

Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die (International Anthem LLC)

BEST LATIN ALBUM

Miguel Zenon, Tipico
HONORABLE MENTION: Baptiste Trotignon & Yosvany Terry, Ancestral Memories (Okeh)

BEST VOCAL
Cecile McLorin Salvant, Dreams and Daggers
HONORABLE MENTION: Dominique Eade & Ran Blake, Town and Country (Sunnyside); Sarah Partridge, Bright Lights & Promises: Redefining Janis Ian (Origin)

Diz 101 for Diz’s 100th

 

 

 

dizzy-gillespie-dizz001fran

 

 

How lucky it was for the world-at-large that John Birks Gillespie came to decide at an early age that staying in Cheraw, South Carolina would be stultifying at best, hazardous at most to the health and fulfillment of a quick-witted, smart-alecky young African American. (“I’d have been lynched for sure,” he told me many decades hence.) When one thinks of what the Artist Known Forever as Dizzy did for both his country’s musical and intellectual life as well as for the sounds of Latin and South America, you recognize how irreplaceable he was to the 20th century.

And yet…there doesn’t seem to be as much hype for Dizzy Gillespie’s 100th birthday (Oct. 21) as there was for Ella, Billie, Monk and others whose centennials have been duly, even conspicuously observed. The modernist energies he seized and came to embody in the middle of the last century seem to have been either taken for granted, if not dismissed altogether at the start of this one. Maybe it’s also because Gillespie, for all his myriad accomplishments and innovations, carried throughout his 75 years (he died in 1993) a warm and accessible persona so widely known that it left behind relatively little in the way of mystery or mystique. It could also be that his legacy was so variegated as to make it difficult for those in its wake to properly apprehend its range. “How do you hug a mountain?” the late great jazz columnist Nels Nelson rhetorically asked in his Philadelphia Daily News eulogy.

Approaching the mountain at whatever angle is the obvious way to begin. And that means sifting through a half-century of recordings now scattered to the four winds of the digi-verse. Bebop, which Gillespie helped create and then coordinate to an aesthetic capable of speaking many languages, still has a lot to teach Hip Hop, as the brightest of artists in both camps well know. And Dizzy’s vast corpus of recoded output still speaks, rhymes, cracks wise and inspires those unfamiliar with, or hesitant to sample its glories.

So without further ado, here’s an informal and, yes, highly subjective starter set accessing some of more rewarding landmarks along the great wide Dizzy-Verse. And why waste your time, or mine, getting to the purest, richest lode of all?

THE INDISPENSIBLE

 

 

Dizzy RCA Sessions

 

The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (2 CDs) (Bluebird) – Look no further than these as a place to start. The earliest tracks go as far back as 1939 when Gillespie, somewhere between 21 and 22, was flashing his nascent chops for bands led by Teddy Hill and Lionel Hampton. But the molten core of this collection comprises the 1947-1949 sessions of his 16-piece orchestra. People arch their eyebrows when you used the “force of nature” to describe anything or anybody (as they should). But as I’ve written once before of these sessions: “It is still possible to listen to the powerful recordings made by Dizzy Gillespie and his Orchestra in the late 1940s and feel everything around you transformed. What Orson Welles did for movies in Citizen Kane, Gillespie did for big band jazz.” (Do I overstate? I didn’t then, and I don’t now.) It was here that Gillespie’s lifelong inquiries into the force and applications of the Latin beat took hold with the gifted and ill-fated singer and percussionist Chano Pozo (1915-1948), who brought his congas to a pair of especially auspicious recording sessions in late December, 1947 that yielded, among other glories, George Russell’s “Cubano Be/Cubano Bop” tandem, Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait” and the timeless “Manteca.” It was also here that the three-fourths of what would become known as the Modern Jazz Quartet with pianist-arranger John Lewis, drummer Kenny Clarke and vibraphonist Milt Jackson pooled their resources. Fans of traditional swing bands complained that this music was more difficult to dance to than what they were accustomed. And you may not move right away, mostly because you’re absorbing the hard, galvanic impact of what you’re hearing. But this music moves as surely as the Earth, the clouds and the fastest combustible vehicle you can imagine. (The vinyl edition of these sessions is harder to find than this, but if that’s what you happen to value, it’s worth the effort.)

And speaking of hard-to-find vinyl:

 

DIZZY_GILLESPIE_THE+DEVELOPMENT+OF+AN+AMERICAN+ARTIST-361661

 

 

Dizzy Gillespie: The Development of an American Artist, 1940-1946 (2 LPs) (Smithsonian Collection) – Released in 1976, when the Smithsonian Institution’s jazz division, then curated by Martin Williams, was compiling and releasing intelligent and comprehensive archival recordings deep into the next decade. This one was especially revelatory for the steady-rolling insight it provided into Gillespie’s growth from callow swing insurgent to ringleader of the bebop cabal. The very first track, “Pickin’ the Cabbage” from 1940, was recorded when Gillespie was a member of the Cab Calloway Orchestra’s trumpet section and you can hear in its chord changes and fundamental design the genesis of what would later become in its first incarnation, “Interlude” (also included here in a track featuring a young Sarah Vaughan) and then, “A Night in Tunisia.” There’s a lot of ingenious connection-of-dots here: Two takes of the “Kerouac” tracks spun into thin air and fired into the din of Minton’s Playhouse in 1942 — and yes, it’s named for THAT Kerouac, who was an habitué of those groundbreaking sessions also memorialized by Ralph Ellison in his 1959 essay, “The Golden Age, Time Past.” You also hear what’s been called Gillespie’s first truly “modern” solo on 1942’s “Jersey Bounce,” with Les Hite’s and, from that same year, a track from the Lucky Millinder Orchestra, “Little John Special,” written by Gillespie and containing a horn-section riff that sounds like the spark for what became “Salt Peanuts.” All these important and still-sweet-swinging tracks have been scattered on several discs since this went out of print and never received the digital-transfer treatment. Ken Burns Jazz: Dizzy Gillespie (Verve) is as easily available a default option as any other you’ll come across.

 

DIONYSUS & APOLLO

 

Bird & Diz

 

 

Or, if you will, Bird and Diz (Verve), who some might consider the Janus headed progenitor of modern jazz music. The partnership of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker was transformative. The friendship was, saying the least, fraught. Yet they were able to subdue personal differences for this 1950 session, where they were joined by the comparably incomparable Thelonious Monk and backed by bassist Curley Russell and the (seemingly incongruous, but not as much as you’d expect) drummer Buddy Rich. If you prefer downloads, then “Bloomdido” is the only track you really need from this session, though the rest is pretty good, too. If you want to hear them at their mutually-assured best together, then seek out Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker: Town Hall, New York City, 1945 (Uptown), which wasn’t released until sixty years later and yet somehow sounds as fresh and up-to-the-minute as last month’s GNP report.

 

 

Parker Diz Town Hall

 

GEMS FROM HIS GILDED AGE

Jon Faddis, Gillespie’s protégé and still the most authoritative keeper of his mentor’s flame, has said that the recordings Gillespie made in the late 1950s and early 1960s represented his peak as a performer and a bandleader. I’ve always thought so, too, though The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings  begs to differ with both of us, calling Dizzy’s Verve output from that period spotty at best.

 

 

Birks Works

 

 

 

Nevertheless, it’s now hard to find anybody who doesn’t like Birks Works: The Verve Big-Band Sessions (2 CDs, Verve), composed of sessions from 1956 and 1957. The orchestrations here may not be as explosive as they were about a decade before. But his roster was even more star-studded with Benny Golson, Lee Morgan. Phil Woods, Melba Liston, Wynton Kelly, Al Grey, Ernie Wilkins and many others passing through these portals and bringing joy, wit and verve to audiences throughout the world. Most of these folks also were with Gillespie on his global good-will tours of the mid-fifties. Lately, I’ve been hearing more tracks from this collection circulating through what broadcasters market as “Real Jazz” or “Classic Jazz” stations on satellite or FM radio. So I suppose this is where most novices now start with Gillespie. I still favor the RCA sessions, but this may be the orchestra’s most purely enjoyable set from start to finish – which is saying something.

 

Gillespiana

 

 

Gillespiana (Verve) – At the dawn of the New Frontier (literally the week after JFK was elected), the Gillespie orchestra seemed irradiated by a jolt of energy provided by a 28-year-old Argentine pianist-arranger named Boris Claudio Schifrin, who went by the name, “Lalo.” Previously an arranger for Xavier Cugat’s dance bands (many of whose albums were in Ralph Ellison’s record library), Schifrin sat in Gillespie’s piano chair as the band recorded a five-part suite, “Gillespiana” that he’d written four years before. Once again, a Gillespie orchestra summons fearsome power and breathtaking propulsion. The music on “Gillespiana” starts at a peak and somehow manages to go higher and faster  from there. How could we not want to go the moon after hearing something like this? On the CD version, there’s also a Carnegie Hall Concert by the same band recorded six months later (in March, 1961) and even with luminaries as Clark Terry, Ray Baretto and Gunther Schuller (!) on stage, the star of the show, besides the leader, was saxophonist Leo Wright whose solo on “This Is The Way” is one of the more extraordinary live recitals of an era where Carnegie Hall seemed to make history every week.

DIZZY AT PLAY

 

 

Dilly Mitchell Ruff

 

 

I concede that the scale on this list is heavily tipped towards the big bands over the small groups. But you really can’t go wrong with any of them. An Electrifying Evening with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet (Verve), for instance, was recorded in February, 1961 (that same “dawn-of-the-New-Frontier” streak) and benefits mightily from having both the aforementioned Schifrin and Wright in the combo, though the leader doesn’t engage in too many of the on-stage hijinks or which he was famous. (“Let me introduce the band,” he’d say and all the guys on stage would shake hands with each other. You think that didn’t get a laugh every time? Think again.) If I have a guilty pleasure among the chamber Dizzys, it’s Dizzy Gillespie & the Mitchell-Ruff Duo (Mainstream/Sony Legacy), a 1971 live concert at Dartmouth College in which Inspector Diz matched wits with pianist Dwike Mitchell and bassist-French horn-ist Willie Ruff. With no trap set or congas pushing him from behind, Gillespie’s horn seems ever more emboldened as it probes and tugs along the edges of “Con Alma” and “Woodyn’ You” to release fresh, lucid inventions into the atmosphere.

Finally to send you happily on your way (as Gillespie never failed to do), I leave you with this reminder of how popular, how familiar a figure he was in the popular culture firmament. Bebop lived even in places you didn’t expect. Maybe someday it will live like that again.

 

Monk/Clonk!

 

 

 

Thelonious Monk

 

 

At the top of this man-made hill you will find the first poem I’ve finished in several years. It is also the shortest poem I’ve ever written. Because pride is a sin I will say only that I am happier with it than I expected. It may not have the Whitman-esque oomph of Muhammad Ali’s immortal “Me!/Whee!” It is also not entirely original since I borrowed the “Clonk!” from Jack Kerouac’s verbal approximation of a Thelonious Monk chord: “the clonk of [Monk’s] millennial piano like anvils in Petrograd.” The sounds of both “onk” words seem exotic on first encounter, but make perfect, even logical sense when joined together.

Much like the music Thelonious Monk made: The direct statement augmented by something you may not have expected.

Today (Oct. 10) is Monk’s 100th birthday and, though he’s been dead for 35 years, the “clonk” of fresh discovery abides in his life’s work. You can still trip over things you didn’t know before and, once you recover your balance, find yourself dancing along with its ramifications. Just as he did.

 

 

For example: I’m embarrassed to ask this out loud, but how did I manage to live this long and NOT get caught up, until now, in the whirlwind of Monk’s 1958 Five Spot sessions with Johnny Griffin? Some would-be smart-alecks think of Griffin as little more than the answer to a trivia question: Who was Monk’s tenor saxophonist between John Coltrane and Charlie Rouse? But the “Little Giant,” who died in 2008 at age 80, was hardly a footnote in anybody’s history.

 

Griffin Monk Live

 

 

Griffin was both paradigm and paragon of the hard-blowing Chicago saxophonists who roared through mid-to-late-20th century jazz music. Once Griffin reached peak intensity in his tone (bottom-heavy, reflecting his apprenticeship with rhythm-and-blues bands), he could spin chorus after breathtaking chorus of thick, fluid phrases, bulging with allusions to Italian arias, arcane folk melodies and Tin Pan Alley ditties as well as his own startling, vertically driven inventions. He may not have had Coltrane’s commanding austerity and fearsome range or Rouse’s dry wit and leathery brio. But what Griffin did have put the mercurial maestro of time and space in his comfort zone. And you can hear its overall effect resound happily in the performances compiled on the two-disc Thelonious Monk and Johnny Griffin: Complete Live at the Five Spot (2012, Phoenix Records). For those who now only have ears for vinyl, Thelonious In Action is apparently easily available and while Mysterioso, the other original Riverside LP covering these sessions, appears to be only available on CD.

 

In Action Monk

 

 

I’d be happy to dwell on the specifics of Monk-Griffin, believing that I’d uncovered a whole expanse of untilled territory to cultivate. But I found out that none other than Dean Robert Christgau got there a good while before me and I am more than happy to yield my remaining time on this topic to him. And also to this.

 

 

 

 

Joey Monk Live

 

 

Meanwhile, the Monk Century is getting its proper due from many precincts, the most attention by far going to the homage submitted to the marketplace only a few days ago by Joey Alexander, the preeminent jazz prodigy of the post-Millennium. He’s 14, they tell me, though I often wonder watching performances like this one how ANY 14-year-old carries himself with as much composure as he stretches the parameters of Monk’s “Evidence,” while respecting, even enhancing the piece’s spacious design. There’s a whole album of this stuff, Joey Live Monk (Motema) ready for downloading and it’s enough to for me to admit that whatever qualms I may have entertained about this kid beforehand have now gone away and hidden under an abandoned back porch. He is, as we sportscasters like to say, For Real.

 

 

 

Wadada on Monk

 

 

At the other end of the spectrum, in more ways than one, is Wadada Leo Smith’s Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM). At age 75, Smith is enjoying a bountiful winter of recognition for his life’s work as trumpeter, composer and bandleader, creating fresh contexts for orchestrated jazz and delivering plaintive, ruminative yet remarkably agile narratives on his horn. His liner notes acknowledge his considerable debt to Monk, “an inspiration that arcs straight across the structured invisible world.” Smith’s own art, whether alone or in groups, uses intervals as nimbly as the master. In his own renditions of “Ruby, My Dear,” “Reflections,” “Crepuscule with Nellie” and “Round Midnight” (all of which dare the bold and the thoughtful to bring their “A” Game), Smith seems to know precisely how to sustain spaces between phrases and, more important, when to come in hard, when to use stealth – and, in the case with “Nellie,” when to let its essential form do most of the work. He rounds out the album with original pieces, a couple of them stimulated by visual depictions of the pianist at work (“Monk and his Five-Point Ring at the Five Spot Café,” “Adagio Monk, the Composer in Sepia – A Second Vision”) and another, intriguingly speculative narrative (“Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium – A Mystery”). Generations of jazz musicians have brought their adorations of Monk to his legacy’s front door. I doubt there is any other musician alive who could have presented anything as austere, adventurous and cordially challenging as Smith’s recital.

 

 

monk-Liasons

 

 

But perhaps the centennial year’s brightest jewel was unearthed earlier this year and, properly, it comes from Monk’s own archives. Les liasons dangereuses 1960 (Sam Records/Sag) delivers a substantial, previously unreleased account of a July, 1959 session of Monk’s quartet providing soundtrack material for Roger Vadim’s, modern-dress adaptation of the salacious 18th-century saga of seduction and betrayal among the French elite. Professional and psychological travails prevented Monk from providing original compositions for Vadim’s movie. (The liner notes by Robin D.G. Kelley, author of the definitive 2009 biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, are lucid and comprehensive.) Thus most of Monk’s contributions to the soundtrack are renditions of “Rhythm-a-Ning,” “Pannonica,” “Six in One” and his other familiar standards. The vogue for modern jazz being what it was in the late 1950s, most of the movie’s patrons found these songs to be properly hip ornaments to the spicy on-screen actions. Independent of the film, they present Monk in one of his happier, friskier states-of-being that overcame an especially arduous time in his life. The aforementioned Charlie Rouse and the then 22-year-old French tenor player Barney Wilen either traded off solos or fronted together on saxophone on these sessions while bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor provided backup. In this work-for-hire, one hears the stirrings of Monk’s 1960s period of wider popularity and greater opportunity. He plays here as though he knows that better times (relatively speaking) were around the corner.

 

 

Monk Strolling

Remembering Abbey

 

 

Abbey!!!!

 

 

I don’t know about you guys, but given the way things have been going lately, there’s a song I’ve been thinking about that drapes over my hopes and fears like a tailored silk suit. It’s three years shy of 30 since it came out, but it somehow feels as though it could have – and should have – been written the day before yesterday:

Summer’s gone
And winter’s here
We had a lot of rain this year
The news is really very sad
The time is late,
The fruit is bad
The morning’s come
And roosters crow
But people have no place to go
And disappear
Just like the sun
When the day is done

 

The world is falling down
Hold my hand
It’s a lonely sound
Hold my hand
We’ll follow the breeze
And go like the wind
And look for a place
Where the willows bend
The world is falling down
Hold my hand, hold my hand
Hold my hand, hold my hand”

LYRICS © BMG RIGHTS MANAGEMENT US, LLC

 

 

 

Ms. Abbey Lincoln, ladies and gentlemen. This was the title track of an album whose release on Verve in 1990 began what may well have been one of the most startling and satisfying winning streaks of any artist in any sphere. The world may or may not have been falling down at that time. But it stopped long enough to pay renewed, intensified attention to Lincoln, who rewarded it with a bounty of recorded output showcasing her gifts as a songwriter and vocalist.

 

 

world is falling down

 

I’d hoped I would hear “The World Is Falling Down” the other night at the Kimmel Center’s Merriam Theater in Philadelphia where “A Tribute to Abbey Lincoln,” presented by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, had stopped as part of the home stretch of its tour. I didn’t, but there was nothing else that disappointed about the show, whose staging and conception were as elemental, unfettered and as intensely focused as Lincoln’s singing voice while ever so subtly evoking her regal presence.

Then again, you could have evoked whole dynasties with three vocalists as athletic in range and as theatrical in delivery as Dianne Reeves, Esperanza Spalding and the freshest (in more ways that one) new NEA Jazz Master Dee Dee Bridgewater. Together and (mostly) individually, they rendered Lincoln’s repertoire backed by a combo led by drummer/musical director Teri Lynn Carrington featuring pianist Marc Cary, percussionist Mino Cinelu, saxophonist (and occasional pianist) Edmar Colon, bassist James Genus and guitarist Marvin Sewell.

 

tribute to abbey stars

 

 

 

The case for Lincoln’s songs being embedded among classic jazz standards has been submitted and justified several times over even before their composer’s death in 2010 just after she turned 80. What Bridgewater, Reeves and Spalding did with Abbey’s repertoire was show the songs to be durable and flexible enough to withstand any variations, extensions or inflections.   With this trio, kitchen-sink approaches would seem especially hazardous to Lincoln’s simple melodies and forthright lyrics. But they each invigorated the material, whether it was Bridgewater enthusiastically going vertical on “Wholly Earth” in ways that matched Lincoln’s galvanic renderings, or Reeves blending delicacy and acerbity on “It’s Supposed To Be Love,” Lincoln’s masterly deconstruction of spousal abuse. Spalding used her solos to deep-dive into songs written by others that Lincoln had made into her own on the 1959 Riverside album Abbey Is Blue, whether it was the 1928 movie dirge, “Laugh Clown Laugh,” to which she applied her own version of Lincoln’s game of duck-and-weave with the beat and Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” where she was as militant as Abbey, but also more willing to stretch and bend the choruses as her own act of self-assertion. Her mic wasn’t as well amped as those of her two partners. (And while we’re on the subject, the Kimmel people need to do something about the balcony seating, which still seems more accommodating to eighth graders than to grownups with arthritic limbs.) But Spalding’s turns, even more than the stuff that’s made her a festival star, left you in greater anticipation of where she’ll be a decade from now.

The three of them together, by the way, sang the holy hell out of this one:

 

 

 

 

 

Abbey Is Blue

 

 

As rousing as the evening was,  it also left me feeling wistful and nostalgic. It became clear as each of these songs came at me one after the other that the 1990s, the decade that was my most professionally productive as a jazz journalist, was also the Abbey Lincoln decade. Her re-emergence into the recording world coincided with my being hired by Newsday to cover jazz and the albums seemed to come like clockwork through the turn-of-the-century. Rarely, if ever, did I miss a live date or concert appearance, whether it was a Tuesday opener at the Blue Note or a glittering guest turn at Verve’s 50th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall where she nailed “I Must Have That Man” to the wall.

 

 

 

 

Who Used To Dance

 

Devil's Got Your Tongue

 

You Gotta Pay The Band

wholy earth

 

 

 

She’d been such a key part of my life in those mighty years that when I tried to write a tribute after her death, I couldn’t get all the words out. This is as far as I got. Maybe it was enough. I still don’t know:

 

THE LIONESS IN WINTER

 

Abbey at Piano

 

 

Our sixties and seventies beckon us as if they were our parents calling us in for dinner at twilight. And we’re either hiding in the bushes or ignoring their summons, hoping they’ll give up and go away. Only we’re the ones who are giving up by cringing at the inevitable. Though we don’t lack for aging-process cheerleaders and life coaches assuring us that sixty-five, seventy-five or (org!) eighty-five are just numbers, our aching joints and delayed-action memories insist otherwise. Most of us can’t work up enough energy for a tantrum, let alone a Lear-like eruption, against Faulkner’s “ding-dong of doom.” We’re more tempted than not to let the fires that propelled our younger selves deeper into the world smolder and cool into embers.

 

Abbey Lincoln spent her sixties and seventies showing us that such things didn’t have to be. Through more than fifty years of singing, acting and songwriting, Lincoln emitted a rigorously tempered radiance capable of both soothing and scalding at acutely calibrated levels. Yet she became an incandescent cultural force during the last decade of the previous century and the first decade of this one. Beginning with 1990’s The World is Falling Down, the first in a series of epochal albums recorded for the Verve label, Lincoln experienced a late-bloomer apotheosis few singers, even the greatest of them, had the opportunity to enjoy. The obituaries have thus far celebrated Lincoln’s stature as a role model for performers, composers, activists and bandleaders. All told, the finest example she set – and left behind — was showing us how to live with steadfast creativity and uncompromising passion, even at a time when we’re supposed to be contemplating retirement.

And this was, to be clear, when I was a bit more optimistic about things than I am now. But in the context described above, one of the many songs I wish Abbey had tried out in her wintry radiance was the theme song of Never Too Late, a 1965 film adaptation of a Broadway comedy starring Paul Ford as a lumber executive in his 60s who’s made his 50-ish wife pregnant for the first time in decades and is more than a little baffled by it. Tony Bennett recorded the song  and his version was released a year later on The Movie Song Album (Columbia). I now like to imagine Abbey Lincoln’s voice wrapping itself around a verse such as this with all the understanding and empathy she can muster. When I do, I feel a lot better. Maybe you will, too.

Let your heart stay young and strong
Just one note can start a song
So don’t worry ‘bout how long
You’ve had to wait

Its never too late
Its never too late

Music & Lyrics: David Rose, Jay Livingston, Ray Evans, 1965

 

For now, I guess, this will also do:

 

Ten Reasons Why 2016 Wasn’t (Quite) a Total, Absolute Steaming Heap of Raw Sewage

Yes, I know. This happened within the last few days, followed closely by this and then, for God’s sake, this. I still say 2016 isn’t, as so many insist, The Worst Year Ever for high-profile deaths; not in my lifetime anyway.

I checked. Consider 1959, whose carnage all but commenced February 3 with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crushed and shredded by an Iowa plane crash. There followed the deaths, in no particular order, of Billie Holiday, Errol Flynn, Raymond Chandler, George Reeves, Mario Lanza, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lester Young, George C. Marshall, Carl “Alfafa” Switzer, Victor McLaglan, John Foster Dulles, Cecil B. DeMille, Bert Bell, Kay Kendall, Preston Sturges, Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones, Ethel Barrymore, Boris Vian, Sidney Bechet, Lou Costello…

Some of these deaths were untimely and unexpected, others weren’t. And go sit in a corner if you even think of responding with something like, “Yeah, but these were all OLD people…”

I can easily pull other, similar examples out of my memory bank, especially Bobby Kennedy’s “very mean year” of 1961 (Ernest Hemingway, Patrice Lumumba, Gary Cooper, Booker Little, Barry Fitzgerald, Dag Hammarskjold, Sam Rayburn, Scott LaFaro, Ty Cobb, James Thurber, Maya Deren, Dashiell Hammett, Grandma Moses, Chico Marx, Jeff Chandler, George S. Kaufman, Carl Jung…) spilling right into the following year (Marilyn Monroe, William Faulkner, Ernie Kovacs, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benny Paret, Niels Bohr, Isak Dinesen, Myron McCormick, Charles Laughton, Franz Kline, C. Wright Mills…) and onwards towards 1966 (Lenny Bruce, Walt Disney, Evelyn Waugh, Bud Powell, Montgomery Clift, Frank O’Hara, Bobby Fuller, Richard Fariña…) and 1974 (Duke Ellington, Earl Warren, Jack Benny, Agnes Moorehead, Ivory Joe Hunter, Frank McGee, Cornelius Ryan, Darius Milhaud, Chet Huntley, Bobby Bloom, Frank Sutton, Cass Elliot, Joe Flynn, Charles Lindbergh, Nick Drake, Richard Long, Cyril Connolly, Gene Ammons, Otto Kruger, Jacqueline Susann, Amy Vanderbilt…)

And I could go on like this forever. Do you know why? BECAUSE SO DOES DEATH, PEOPLE. Once you stop thinking of your own era as being, like, so totally unique, it helps make everything around you less frightening.

Repeat after me and say it over and over at night to help you sleep: Years don’t make us better or worse. WE make years better or worse.

With that in mind, I’d like to submit my own random, totally subjective list of the things that made 2016 not suck quite as much as you might otherwise believe. For one thing, it was, despite the prevailing socio-political landscape, a terrific year for African American culture, as many of the attached items will attest. And that will be as true of 2016 ten years from now as it is now, no matter what state the United States will be in by then:

 

 

Wolfgang-Hahn-Preis Köln 2014 - Verleihung an Kerry James Marshall - 12.04.2014

1_2016_KerryJM_Untitled_studio

 

 

Kerry James Marshall – Along with Wrigley Field, the Billy Goat Tavern and the architectural river cruise, the best part of my late summer trip to Chicago was “Mastry,” a comprehensive exhibition of Marshall’s paintings and drawings at the Museum of Contemporary Art whose breadth and intensity of vision almost brought me to my knees. The exhibition later travelled to New York where it likewise riveted, astonished and inspired millions more. There were many who saw hope with the Cubs’ long-deferred triumph in this year’s World Series. I saw hope and much more in this living Chicago institution.

 

 

ATLANTA -- Pictured: (l-r) Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles, Keith Standfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

Atlanta – Donald Glover’s masterly FX series about hip-hop life along the edges validated my long-held suspicions that there was something about its eponymous city that transgresses laws – or at least customs – of time and space. It’s a city where Justin Bieber is magically transformed into the bratty young black man you suspect he’s always wanted to be and where every single plan that an ambitious brother like Glover’s Earn can conceive is chopped up and pureed into unrecognizable, perplexing anomalies. Though he was writing about DJ Shadow this past summer, Greil Marcus could have been talking about Earn and his milieu when he described “a sampler of bits and pieces of dislocation in modern life – finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time and realizing you were born there – the textures can seem meretricious, accepting, as if there’s really nothing left to argue against…[But] [b]y its end, yes – you don’t know where you are.”

 

moonlight1 Ali

 

 

Ali in Luke Cage

 

 

 

Mahershala Ali – From Ali’s soon-to-conclude duty as Remy Danton, the lovelorn fixer-for-the-highest-bidder on House of Cards, one sensed coiled steel, contained explosiveness and intuitive graces that this actor could call upon for more daunting challenges. Didn’t take long for him to display these qualities when playing the year’s more conflicted criminals. As Juan, the neighborhood crack dealer in Moonlight, Ali lets you see both the smoldering menace with which he quietly asserts proprietorship over his network of mules and the deep, if enigmatic well of sympathy that allows him to connect with a bewildered, vulnerable boy bullied at home and at school for reasons he can’t fathom. For the smaller screen, Ali brought gray shadows and complex motivations to his portrayal of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Harlem crime kingpin and chief nemesis of the bulletproof hero-for-hire in Marvel-Netflix’s Luke Cage. He’s so persuasive at evoking a bad man convinced of his essential goodness that one felt a slow leak oozing out of the whole series after his departure. His dual triumphs make one yearn for more opportunities for Ali to play anti-heroes who can deal with the devil while doing God’s work.

 

 

OJ

 

 

PEOPLE-VS-OJ-SIMPSON-BEST-PERFORMANCES-list

 

 

O.J.: Made in America & The People Vs. O.J. Simpson It doesn’t matter whether you preferred Ezra Edelman’s epochal, illuminating five-part documentary series for ESPN or the Scott Alexander-Larry Karaszewski dramatization which made heroes of erstwhile laughing stocks Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulsen) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) without in any way mitigating the scorched-earth genius of Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance); all of which actors, by the way, won much-deserved Emmys. What both these vastly different approaches to a reverberating crime have in common is what they imply about the glaring inadequacies of day-to-day news coverage. You could argue that all the nuances, subtleties and socio-historical contexts available now to screenwriters and documentarians weren’t as easily accessible to journalists as when the actual Simpson trial was unfolding 22 years ago. But as the last election cycle proved, the 24-hour news cycle, whether on cable or through the Internet, barely bothers even to try thinking such things through. All we’re left with, then and now, are the usual bromides e.g.: It’ll be years before we know what really happened; There’s always more to the story; There’s more here than meets the eye…Blah…Blah…Blah…Whimper.

 

 

CE Morgan Sport of Kings

 

 

 

The Sport of Kings – From the great, relatively forgotten, but still very much alive (at this writing) African American novelist William Melvin Kelley, I recently found out that the word “race” derives from the medieval Italian “razzo,” meaning “any given breed of horse.” I’m betting that C.E. Morgan, a intelligent, imaginative and startlingly perceptive daughter of the Bluegrass State, was aware of this arcane connection when she wrote this novel about a Kentucky horse breeder whose attitudes about race roughly parallel those of the odious John C. Calhoun. He has his reasons, of course, and Morgan’s too conscientious a novelist not to take their full measure, however petty they are and however grievous their impact on others’ lives. His venom afflicts two of those lives. One belongs to his spirited, magnetic daughter who shares his obsession with creating the next Secretariat; the other belongs to a black ex-convict from the mean streets of Cincinnati hired to help train this super horse. I’ve pressed and imposed this novel upon others and yet I’ve been struggling to figure out why. One possible answer just now came to me through David Ulin’s retrospective essay about Double Indemnity for the Library of America’s “Moviegoer” site when he cites a quote from the movie’s coscripter Raymond Chandler: “It doesn’t matter a damn what the novel is about…The only writers left who have anything to say are those who write about practically nothing and monkey around with odd ways of doing it.” Self-serving, I suppose, since Chandler’s reputation while alive was that of an innovative genre writer. Morgan’s novel, aiming for higher ground, isn’t about “practically nothing,” but about many things at once. Yet as with great writers of American noir such as Chandler, Sport of Kings surges and leaps heedlessly into big emotions and grand melodrama, which Chandler believed “was the only kind of writing that I saw was relatively honest.” Ulin pushes these points further by defining them as “conventions of the hyper-real.” I haven’t the time or the space here to get into the specifics, but if you can imagine what base-level 20th century American melodrama, whether practiced by realists or “hyper-realists,” can bring to 21st century issues of race and class, then you will understand why I’ve been bullish on this particular horse opera. I didn’t read Sport of Kings so much as submit to its power and it’s been too long since any new novel did that to me. (I was one of the judges who singled Sport out for the Kirkus Book Prize for fiction. If you can call it up, our citation is quoted  here.)

 

 

 

 

Arab Future Panels

 

The Arab of the Future, Vol. 2 – Along with Art Spiegelman, Roz Chast, Marjane Satrapi, Joe Sacco and the late Harvey Pekar, cartoonist Riad Sattouf has helped establish the graphic memoir as the most innovative and affecting narrative art form to have emerged in the late 20th century. Given the relentlessly bleak news coming out of Syria in recent years, Sattouf, who once was a regular contributor to Charlie Hedbo, may be providing the most timely and poignant contribution with his autobiographical account of growing up between different cultures. In the first volume, avid, adorably fluffy-haired Riad is shuttled back and forth between France, where his mother Clementine is from, and the volatile Middle East of the 1980s where his Syrian father Abdel-Razek embraces the then-burgeoning Pan-Arab movement. In this second volume, covering 1984 and 1985, Riad’s family settle in his father’s hometown of Ter Maaleh as the country reinvents itself under the dictatorship of Hafez Al-Assad. The little boy must adjust to a new school with its fundamentalist dictates, corporal punishment and the usual highs and lows of socializing with other children, complete with bullying of an especially brutal and bigoted kind. In recounting these and other vicissitudes, Sattouf maintains his wit, balance and equanimity towards all his characters, even at their worst. This is especially true of his father, who is by turns insecure, pompous, clueless and frantic to fit into whatever future his homeland devises for himself and his family. As with its predecessor, the second volume of Arab of the Future makes you wonder how long it’ll be before Abdel-Razek’s dreams come crashing down. But even with that dire prospect, the warmth and wisdom seasoning his son’s rueful memories keep you hoping for the best for the Sattoufs while bracing for the worst.

 

 

 

weiner-ifc-films

 

 

Weiner — It’s odd how some things can both become dated and gain added significance in only a few months. When I first saw Weiner in the theater, it was early summer, Huma Abedin’s mentor was still well-positioned to be the next president and I came away from the documentary thinking mostly about Abedin’s inscrutably slow-burning gazes at the movie’s main subject who, for all his energy and earnest impulses to do good, came across here as he did everywhere else in the last four years: As an incurable narcissist, stabbing himself, scorpion-like, with his own…um…wretched excesses. I saw the film again on Netflix a couple weeks ago and somehow all that tattle-and-buzz about a man, his penis and social media don’t seem all that important when compared with the brazen lies and mendacity we’ve already seen in play so far from the incoming administration. This time around, what was far more important to me were all those brown and black people occupying the periphery of the action who kept shouting at the TV cameras and their enablers to stop yammering about the man’s dickishness and concentrate on what needs to happen in their neighborhoods to make them better. Wouldn’t it be something if this documentary ended up signifying both the peak and decline of the Age of Gossip and Innuendo? As. If.

 

Beyonce Lemonade

 

daughters of the dust

 

 

Lemonade & Daughters of the Dust – It now seems like forever and a day since Beyoncé dropped her “Formation” video into Super Bowl Week festivities the same way you imagine a visitor from the future, unrecognizable to present-day eyeballs, dropping in on the Iowa Caucus. The 24-hour news cycle chewed its immediate impact to tiny bits until there was little left to the astonishment but empty bluster and gaping bemusement. My own reaction was something akin to: Damn. It almost looks as if Julie Dash directed this badboy! Those of us who cherish Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, her gorgeous 1991 cinematic tone poem set in the turn-of-the-20th-century Georgia Sea Islands have spent the intervening years keeping track of her movements and looking for signs that the movie wasn’t forgotten. And while Dash didn’t direct the “Formation” video, or any of the others emerging from Bey’s daring, insurgent album, Lemonade, there were enough resonances from Daughters to summon a movement to get an enhanced edition of the film out and about to art houses throughout the country. Because Daughters occasioned the first four-star review I ever gave as a Newsday movie critic, this convergence of cultural forces was the happiest I can remember.

 

HELL-OR-HIGH-WATER-4-1200x899

 

 

 

Hell or High Water – As I’ve babbled to several people till I bored my own self, I wasn’t at all bullish on movies this year. (The worst of the summer blockbusters, in my opinion, gets its definitive raking-over  here by the ever-engaging critical thinkers over at HISHE, who once again outclass what they’re critiquing.) I suppose I’m an incurable aficionado of the mid-to-late-1970s wave of gritty American cinema. And while I think this badlands chase thriller from David Mackenzie wouldn’t necessarily stand out among the glorious products of 40-something years ago, it offered elemental pleasures similar to  those movies’: a taut-wire storyline that wastes no time; dry, cool dialogue that likewise goes about its business in real time and no-sweat laconic performances that play changes like a cool jazz combo. Coolest and driest of all is Jeff Bridges in his best performance in years as a Texas Ranger in pursuit of bank robbers aggrieved by the economic unpleasantness of recent years. I also quite liked Chris Pine as one of the robbers, though unlike some reviewers I don’t think he quite steals the movie from Bridges so much as shares the win in the end. If you’ve seen it already, you know there’s added implication in that previous sentence. If not, what the hell are you waiting for?

 

 

 

LMO 2016

 

LMO Time Life cover

 

 

The Liberation Music Orchestra Redux – It all keeps coming back to Chicago at whose jazz festival this year I saw Carla Bley leading the revived Liberation Music Orchestra founded almost a half-century ago by the late Charlie Haden. He’d spearheaded a restoration of the 12-piece band a few years back, but his failing health prevented him from pressing ahead. Bley, who’d been with the orchestra at its creation as both pianist and arranger, picked up the ball and carried on Haden’s dream of focusing the orchestra’s progressive agenda on ecological issues. The Chicago set included pieces from the album Time/Life (Impulse!) whose playlist includes Bley’s multi-textured tribute to Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring,” and Haden’s own “Song for the Whales.” The timing of their return is all-too auspicious and I have a sinking feeling that global warming may soon end up being among many things they’ll be compelled to make music about.

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2016

 

It strikes me – as it should strike you – that there’s an especially pervasive aura of American-ness suffusing this year’s roundup, especially given that the words, “America” and “American” appear in most of the titles. This motif was making itself apparent as I started putting the list together before November 8 and it became even more – what? “prevalent”? “0mnipresent”? “prescient”? – after November 9.

One need not use this space for further dissection of what happened, and didn’t, in that 24-hour period. It’s all we keep talking about, and avoiding talking about, sometimes simultaneously. All I can say for my part is that these selections reflect a socio-cultural patriotism in both my conscious and subconscious mind that, in spite of all that has happened and may soon happen, remains steadfast. Whatever’s coming down will likely give jazz even more of a beating than it’s already sustained through this (so far) dismaying century. But the best thing one can say is that it’s no more beaten up or beaten down than it’s been since, let’s say…1968? That was a helluva year, too. Some of us feared the worst after that election. . But we made it. And so, somehow, did music.

That’s all I got. You want to feel warmer and fuzzier about things watch a Wal-Mart commercial. But if you really want to feel good about this country and its (say it with me, America) Greatest Art Form, these eclectic items, I promise, will do the job.

In the deathless words of Yuri Gagarin (who wasn’t American, but we’ve always secretly wished he had been), “Let’s go!”

 

 

Jane-ira-Bloom

 

 

1.) Jane Ira Bloom, Early Americans (Outline) – Hard to believe that after sixteen albums through nearly four decades, Bloom has never before walked the high wire with nothing more than a bass (Mark Helias) and trap set (Bobby Previte). She comes through just as you’d expect: with bold, deep tones that swallow you whole and bright,supple phrases that recombine themselves into breathtaking shapes. From Helias and Previte, she gets the kind of backup an ace improviser deserves. They merge their rhythmic instincts with her soprano saxophone’s probing, soaring voice to become one entity, totally in control of whatever they take on, regardless of tempo or mood. On the (literally) groovy “Singing the Triangle,” they seem to take turns at the wheel with Previte’s toms assuming melodic duties with his characteristic wit and bravado. When it’s just Bloom and Helias, as on “Other Eyes,” the colloquy is so detailed and urgent that you think you’re eavesdropping on a secret plan for curing cancer, hunger and ignorance. And when it’s just her, in full flight, she asserts her command of every aspect of her art whether assembling a necklace of diamond-hard chords and taking them apart (“Rhyme or Rhythm”), burrowing deep into the contours of a classic melody (“Somewhere’) or blowing the blues with joyous abandon (“Big Bill”). It’s now official and can be certified by any number of witnesses: There’s no one like her. Anywhere.

 

 

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2.) Wadada Leo Smith, America’s National Parks (Cuneiform) – Having previously contained multitudes in his matchless pageant of historic landmarks (2012’s Six Freedom Summers) and his widescreen embrace of Midwest natural wonders (2014’s The Great Lakes Suite) Smith, himself a force of nature whose renown has burst into a big, blinding glow at age 76, would of course be inclined to celebrate this year’s National Park Service centennial with a similarly ambitious and dauntingly variegated tour through the service’s assets, both widely known (“Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890”) and relatively obscure (“New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718”). Don’t expect either a Copland-esque procession of soaring, meaty strings or a rustic stream of acoustic guitar riffs cueing your awe over big rivers, big mountains and bigger skies. Smith has a way of swelling the American heart that’s distinctly his own; his horn, by turns plaintive, coarse and slashing as Miles Davis’ once was, assumes an even heavier, more rugged tone to keep up with his voracious impulse to take in the colors, textures and elements of his subject’s landscapes, even when he’s mostly imagining what they’re like. (“You don’t need to visit a park,” he says in the liner notes, “to write about a park.” And there’s something about his submission to the imaginative muse that overpowers your literalist’s skepticism.) His instrumental voice fuses effectively with that of cellist Ashley Walker and the rest of his Golden Quintet, with pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg and, most especially, drummer Pheeroan akLaff, seems to take on added strength and power from the music’s robust challenges. It’s not an easy hike. But if you give in to the arcane beauties and shape-shifting aspirations of Smith’s muse, you’ll remember most, if not all, of what your inner ear sees.

 

 

Hersch-Sunday-Vanguard

 

 

 

3.) Fred Hersch Trio, Sunday Night at the Vanguard (Palmetto) – We’ve been here before with this group and we know from previous experience that they come to kill every time they show up downstairs on 178 Seventh Avenue South in Manhattan. So what’s different this time? Maybe because, as the title says, it’s Sunday night and as every Village Vanguard habitué knows, Sundays are when performers wind up their six-night engagements. While critics always show up Tuesdays for the opening-night sets, the Sunday closers can be less-heralded occasions when the ensembles, after a hard week’s work, are at once locked in tight and empowered to let loose. Hersch tweaks expectations from the jump with an appropriately spry-and-whimsical treatment of “A Cockeyed Optimist,” a Rodgers-and-Hammerstein chestnut that isn’t often put through the jazz colander. The spiraling variations Hersch’s piano applies to the melody makes you wonder why this is so and then you realize, once again, that it’s because Hersch may be one of the few pianists of his generation with the open-hearted imagination to re-invigorate mid-20th-century Broadway grandeur for post-Millennial jazz heads. Along with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson, Hersch builds upon this frisky beginning with a couple of classics from the jazz repertoire (“We See,” “The Peacocks”); some of his own compositions (“The Optimum Thing,” “Calligram,” “Black Wing Palomino”) that deserve to be part of that repertoire and, of all things, a ruminative, fireplace-glow cover of Sir Paul McCartney’s “For No One.” Hersch’s liner notes say he and his partners were “in the zone” on this Sunday night last March. He’d know. All I know is that I had an especially hard time keeping it all out of my player – and my head – for the rest of the year.

 

 

Threadgill Locks Verbs

 

 

 

 

4.) Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (PI) – For a change, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for music is letting his sax and flute sit this dance out while leading two pianos (Jason Moran, David Virelles), two altos (Roman Filiu, Curtis McDonald), a cello (Christopher Hoffman), a tuba (Jose Davila) and a drummer (Craig Weinreb) in a four-part suite paying tribute to the late Lawrence “Butch” Morris (1947-2013), Threadgill’s fellow Vietnam War vet and partner in avant-garde insurgency and orchestration. The band is a typically eccentric gathering, but it is by no means Threadgill’s strangest combination of instruments. And if the dense musical collages assembled by the composer are as inscrutable and idiosyncratic as ever, they are also less forbidding; the angular dynamics and static-but-surging momentum urgently aligned with the wary-to-yearning-to-anxious mood swings of the present day. Indeed, I think Old Locks and Irregular Verbs is Threadgill’s most emotionally accessible work since Where’s Your Cup?, his 1996 Columbia album with Very Very Circus. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for him – and for our jittery selves needing the reassuring possibility of discovery and adventure in an uncertain future.

 

 

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5.) Allen Toussaint, American Tunes (Nonesuch) –It may not quite fit into whatever gets categorized as “jazz” in its ever-marginalized marketing niche; not as neatly as 2009’s incandescent, expansive Bright Mississippi where Toussaint got to wander through a smoke-filled, twilit museum of 20th century black music with the likes of Don Byron, Nicholas Payton, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman and Marc Ribot. But even with a relatively smaller guest list of notables (Charles Lloyd, Bill Frisell, Rhiannon Giddens), this album, whose concluding sessions were cut a month before Toussaint died in November, 2015 while on a European concert tour, is a deeply moving valedictory for an epoch-making legacy. No other pianist, living or dead, could apply his ironwork-ornate flourishes and mosaic-tile detail to such chestnuts as “I’m Confessin’,” “Viper’s Drag,” “Rosetta” and “Waltz for Debby.” No one could better evoke the resilient, inexhaustibly vivacious spirit of his home town when rolling through “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” “Big Chief” and “Hey Little Girl”; just as no one else could have written “Southern Nights,” whose solo rendering here is sweet-and-sour enough to sting the eyes. But you should save your tears for the finale: his vocal performance of Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” which goes down, especially this season, like both commiseration and a blessing, even when you’re stopped dead in your tracks by the plaintive, unadorned manner with which he sings: “Still when I think of the road/we’re travelling on/I wonder what went wrong/I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong…” And I wonder how we’re managing to go on without him.

 

 

Real Enemies cover

 

 

 

6.) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Real Enemies (New Amsterdam) — On the most elemental level, I can (almost) see conservatives’ point when they keep insisting that government isn’t your mother. But government also isn’t, or shouldn’t be, that creepy uncle who insists on hanging around your bedroom, listening in on your phone conversations, reading your mail and letting rich people with giant-squid tax shelters follow you around while you buy things. This is the world we’ve been living with for most of this – as I referred to it earlier – dismaying century so far; full of night sweats in broad daylight, cynical whistling-in-the-dark and equivocal behavior by those who’ve known too much for too long. So why, you wonder, would you want to listen to a whole damn album summoning up this dark matter? Because Darcy James Argue is a wicked-smart conjurer of phantasmagoric narratives grounded in real-life mystery. (See 2014’s Brooklyn Babylon for further enlightenment.) And his 18-piece Secret Society kicks ass and proves itself worthy of its name by enabling its leader to put forth a gnomic, allusive, brassy and insinuating musical soundtrack you can apply to any noir mind-movie your paranoia can summon to life. It’s the kind of story I wish someone of Argue’s boundless energies and bountiful vision didn’t have to tell. But, as many have observed of Edward Snowden’s transgressions, I suppose somebody had to do it.

 

 

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7.) Joshua Redman & Brad Mehldau, Nearness (Nonesuch) – These two guys have been all but joined at the hip since Mehldau served in Redman’s quartet along with drummer Brian Blade and bassist Christian McBride. (Yes, that actually happened. Only one 1994 album, but, as you’d imagine, it remains a good, if retroactively undervalued one.) Redman and Mehldau have supported and inspired each other in the intervening years to the point where one is tempted to refer to them as the Huck and Tom of their generation of jazz musicians. I hope you’ve noticed that I did not say “Huck and Jim” and if you’ve read the books and been paying attention to their respective career arcs, it wouldn’t be hard to decide which is Huck and which is Tom. Or would it? Never mind. What you need to know about these live duets from five years ago is that they get off to a bit of a ragged start on “Ornithology,” but soon meld together in rapturous communication on Mehldau’s “”Always August.” Here and throughout the rest of the album, you’re aware of how much each of them has grown into their respective styles; Melhdau’s piano unfurling sheets of rich harmonies while Redman, on tenor and soprano, shows how impressively he’s contained and controlled that prodigious talent that got everybody excited more than two decades ago. And he can still level you when he wants to; most especially on a stunning extended solo break he takes on “The Nearness of You,” throughout which he doesn’t seem to take a breath – except, maybe, your own. Mehldau likewise makes your eyes grow big with his own derring-do on “In Walked Bud.” But they’re at their most potent when putting their heads together on Mehldau’s originals, notably the easy-rolling (at first) “Old West.”

 

 

 

 

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8.) Kenny Barron Trio, Book of Intuition (Impulse!/Universal) — Sometimes, maybe most times, you just want music to come across like sunlight shimmering along the nearest available body of water, the undulations so soft and sweet that you don’t care how far or how high you’re floating. At 72 years young, Barron may be the undisputed living grand master of jazz piano. He is, without dispute, his idiom’s t most agile communicator in whatever setting or at whatever tempo. With bassist Kiyoshi Kitigawa and drummer Johnathan Blake, the group he’s been leading in nightclubs and concert halls for most of the past decade, Barron delivers a state-of-the-art smorgasbord of straight-ahead pleasure, much of it braced by the Latin and Brazilian rhythms that highlight his tuneful dynamics. The table is set from the start with “Magic Dance,” whose soft bossa-nova beat is Barron’s happy place; happy enough, in any case, for him to tempt fate with a flurry of arpeggios that settle soon enough into an easy-does-it samba. His homage to Bud Powell, “Bud-Like,” surges into Afro-Cuban overdrive while his fealty to Thelonious Monk is served with two of the Enigmatic One’s lesser-known pieces, “Shuffle Boil” and “Light Blue.” In each of these, Barron doesn’t try to out-Monk Monk so much as let his own graces impose their own manner of wit and mischief into their workings. It’s one of those records (and I have at least one of them every year) that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but reminds you why and how wheels work so beautifully.

 

 

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9.) Etienne Charles, San Jose Suite (Culture Shock) – This ambitious work, enacted here in twelve parts, encompasses not just one, but three San Jose settlements in three different Western Hemisphere spots: California, Costa Rica and Trinidad. What’s distinctive about each of these San Joses/St. Josephs is less important to the formidably gifted Charles than what they share and the music he fashions from his inquiries is bright, ingenious and bursting with provocative rhythmic combinations. The polyglot of Indo-African-Latin-American-European influences not only evokes the past but advances a singular new musical language redolent of the “creole soul” that gave trumpeter-composer Charles the title of his potent 2013 album. Whatever you call it, as pure sound, it is gorgeous to behold with intensely committed interaction throughout from Charles, altoist Brian Hogans, guitarist Alex Wintz, pianist Victor Gould, bassist Ben Williams and drummer John Davis. The last three tracks are a mini-suite, “Speed City,” in which Harry Edwards recalls his tumultuous career at San Jose State University when he helped spearhead the African-American boycott/protest of the 1968 Olympics. At first, I thought the “Speed City” trifecta differed so much from the nine previous pieces that they belonged on a different album. Over time, I’ve come to think they not only belong, they’re a bonus to what precedes them; mostly because Charles and the rest of his crew leave blisters no matter when or where they turn up the heat.

 

 

Delfeayo America

 

 

 

10.) Delfeayo Marsalis & The Uptown Jazz Orchestra, Make America Great Again! (Troubadour Jass) – In the most politically astute and (therefore) funniest Saturday Night Live sketch of the late, unlamented campaign season, Darnell Hayes (Kenan Thompson), host of an edition of “Black Jeopardy!” made extra special by the participation of a white blue-collar-Trump-supporting contestant (Tom Hanks), is given the last word: “When we come back, we’ll play the National Anthem and see what the hell happens.” Well, you’re all encouraged to stand – or, if you roll that way, kneel – when this album begins with a stately, serious-as-a-heart-attack rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” And what the hell happens after that’s over is a raucous compound of house party, choral recital and vaudeville revue offering, as one song lyric puts it, “soul food for your ear.” The album’s title track is played for cheeky irony with the trombone-playing Marsalis brother’s narration intoned by actor Wendell Pierce with hambone slyness over an antic riff reminiscent of Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.” The words question whether the “catchy slogan” is a “pragmatic proposition” to “a melting pot of diversity fighting a juggernaut of adversity.” Did Marsalis and company know how things would turn out after the recorded this session? Feel free to ponder that as his 19-member orchestra throws down a potpourri of hard-driving arrangements whose sources range from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (“Snowball”) to Benny Carter (“Symphony in Riffs”). Final question: Is this a bittersweet send-off to the optimism that followed the election of 2008 or a defiant hello to the dark-edged uncertainties unleashed by the election of 2016? Guess we’ll know for sure in eight years, if not sooner.

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION: Sonny Rollins, Holding the Stage (Doxy/Okeh); Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense, Moving Still (PI); Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family, Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto); Bill Frisell, When You Wish Upon A Star (Okeh); Roberta Piket, One for Marian (Thirteenth Note); Chris Potter, Dave Holland, Lionel Loueke, Eric Harland, Aziza (Dare2); Anat Fort & Gianluigi Trevisi, Birdwatching (ECM).

 

 

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BEST VOCAL ALBUM: Catherine Russell, Harlem On My Mind (Jazz Village)

 

 

 

Larry Young in Paris

 

 

 

BEST REISSUE/HISTORIC ALBUMS: 1.) Larry Young in Paris: The Ortf Recordings (Resonance); 2.) Joe Bushkin Quartet, Live at the Embers 1952 (Dot Time) 3.) Joe Lovano Quartet, Classic! Live at Newport (Blue Note)

BEST LATIN JAZZ ALBUM: Etienne Charles, San Jose Suite. HONORABLE MENTION: Sao Paulo Underground, Cantos Invisieves (Cuneiform)

How & Why I Came to Love King Louis

(On 115th anniversary of what, according to his Baptismal certificate, was Louis Armstrong’s actual birth date, I am reposting a piece I wrote in 2001 for SeeingBlack.com & for whatever reason, is now lost in the digital ether.)

 

Pops Ready to Fire

 

 

Louis Armstrong may be the only American musician who gets two centennial celebrations. He is certainly the only one who deserves them. Last year, nodding to the July 4, 1900 date Armstrong believed to be his birthday, record companies unloaded a rich harvest of retrospectives and boxed sets, notably Columbia-Legacy’s four-disc The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings of Louis Armstrong, with the history-making sessions between 1925 and 1929 that, in essence, created 20th century music.

 

 

Hot Fives & Sevens cover
Given the relatively recent discovery that Armstrong was actually born August 4, 1901, the centennial celebrations are likely to continue through the end of this year. The keynote was certainly struck in January with the broadcast of Ken Burns’ epochal PBS series, Jazz. Armstrong’s spirit informs all 19 hours of the documentary, establishing him—once and for all and in timely fashion—as a towering figure in world history. People in other countries had no trouble with this notion. In Europe, he was an important musical artist. In Africa, he was a king. If you doubt this, watch documentary footage of Armstrong’s concert tour of that continent. They knew they were in the presence of a hero. Though you may find few who’ll admit it now, there were many black folks in this country who doubted this, including me.

 

Pops at the keyboard
I know now that I badly needed Louis Armstrong as a hero when I was growing up. Being a creative child who was never happier than when I was drawing pictures, making up skits or putting strange words or sounds together, I couldn’t possibly have found more positive reinforcement for my undefined dreams than the first great American improviser himself. Armstrong’s own account of his 16-year-old self, playing a horn in a rough Mississippi River-front honky-tonk, exemplified the kind of self-containment and artistic poise to which I’d subconsciously aspired ever since I learned to read and write:

 

“[The Brick House]…was one of the toughest joints I ever played in…Guys would drink and fight one another like circle saws. Bottles would come flying over the bandstand like crazy and there was lots of plain common shooting and cutting. But somehow all that jive didn’t faze me at all. I was so happy to have some place to blow my horn.” (From Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, 1954)

 

pops & hot five
Unfortunately, I didn’t encounter such inspiring anecdotes until I’d grown well past the need for role models. (To paraphrase what a famous African-American actor once said to me: Role models are useful up until the age of 17. After which time, if you still need one, what you really need is therapy.) By that time, I had also come to realize other things about Louis Armstrong that made him seem even greater a hero than I was conditioned to believe as a teenager. His well-publicized rancor with the U.S. government over President Eisenhower’s reluctance to send federal troops to Little Rock in 1957 to enforce school integration revealed a fiery militancy very much at odds with the jovial, hanky-brandishing persona that was the only Armstrong my generation knew.

 

 

Pops Time Cover
Getting past that image was something that even my parents’ generation had to be talked into, given its too-close association of Armstrong with the hambone minstrelsy of a fading era. However warmly they may have felt towards Pops, my folks and their peers found it easy to dismiss him as, at best, Yesterday’s News. And if my parents weren’t going to guide me towards Armstrong’s example, my fellow baby-boomers were even less help. To them, Armstrong was Everybody’s Foxy Grandpa—always entertaining you with his sandpaper voice and cute expressions but lacking the raw aggression of James Brown, the stiletto-edge danger of Huey Newton and the sex appeal of any pop star of our era.

 

 

Pops at home
Let’s be plainer still: What the boomers believed at their worst was that Louis Armstrong was a prototypical sellout pandering to the crowds; an Uncle Tom. I never (I don’t think) went that far. But received “wisdom” of this magnitude was powerful enough to keep me from engaging Armstrong’s music, no matter how much of it came my way.

 

 

Pops Typing Away

 

 

“Political correctness” was a concept whose usage was pretty much confined to Marxists when Armstrong died in 1971. But professing an informed fondness for Louis Armstrong and all he personified was something of a liability for young African Americans who in those Nixon years were being goaded to the barricades, literally and figuratively. Part of me accepts these circumstances because that’s the way it wuz in dem days. Most of me will always resent empty socio-political baggage put between a potentially nourishing life force and my unfulfilled self.

 

 

LA-ON-STOOP-WITH-KIDS

 

 

It wasn’t until four years after Armstrong’s death that the piercing clarity of his horn shattered my pre-fabricated resistance. It was the 1927 recording of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” included on the first edition of The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Armstrong seized my attention and curiosity from the opening chorus with the kind of force that one imagines it had almost a half-century before on an earlier generation of listeners. That was the beginning of a long, happy re-acquaintance with King Louis during which I listened to all the majestic 1920’s recordings with fresh, revitalized ears (Three words. “West End Blues.” Go now and listen to it!) while reading whatever I could find about him. Throughout these years, I sought to make amends with his spirit. Many surprises awaited me on the journey.

 

 

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I knew of his disdain for modern jazz, especially the beboppers. What I hadn’t known about was his fondness for Guy Lombardo and rock and roll, his R-rated sense of humor (Three more words. “Tight Like That.” It should be on the same circa-1928 disc as “West End Blues. Seek. Find. Laugh.), the letters he wrote on the road or at home, the collages he made by hand and, most revealing of all, the anger at racism of all kinds that he concealed behind his amiable mask until it became necessary to let it loose (as it was when Ike was tardy with backup). The more I found out, the more enigmatic and mysterious I found this man who seemingly gave all of himself to his public.

 

 

 

Pops Collage

 

 

 

 

Ossie Davis alluded to such chimeras in his on-camera testimony in Ken Burns’  series. As with many who came of age after Armstrong’s early breakthroughs, Davis had trouble getting past what he called “ooftah,” his name for the shucking-and-jiving stage antics that Armstrong deployed like a poker dealer. But when he’d seen Armstrong sitting alone off-camera during a shoot of Sammy Davis Jr.s 1965 movie, “A Man Called Adam,” Davis was moved by the intensity of Armstrong’s immobile expression to re-evaluate his opinion. Maybe, Davis thought, Armstrong was concealing lethal weaponry beneath that broad grin, ubiquitous hanky and gilded trumpet.

 

 

 

A MAN CALLED ADAM, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Jr., Cicely Tyson, Ossie Davis, Louis Armstrong, 1966

The way I feel now, I don’t care whether that horn, in Davis’ words, “could kill a man.” I just know that it’s taken longer than necessary to give Armstrong a break for whatever he was supposed to have done to African Americans and their self-image—and for me to figure out what I needed him for. Everyone else should try as well. After all, it’s his birthday.

 

Seymour Movies: So What? That’s What.

 

 

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Soon, almost a month will have gone by since Miles Ahead was released and I’m still wondering whether it was worth making a movie that conceives of Miles Davis as a hip-limping, gun-toting, coke-snorting, jump-suit-wearing, jheri-curled amalgam of Han Solo and John Shaft.

Part of me wishes this summed up my complicated feelings about Don Cheadle’s dream (in more ways than one) project because I’m aware that what I just wrote seems to embed me among the jazz-snob coterie weighing in with sundry, often incendiary objections. Within that coterie, however, I lean towards those balancing our misgivings with resignation over what it takes these days to make, and sell, a movie. And with resignation comes qualified gratitude that Miles Ahead is somehow still making its way through the entertainment-industrial complex with so-far-not-catastrophic box-office returns and a mostly positive critical reception.

Still…

I mean, it’s not as if I could imagine, or even wanted an actual bio-pic with all the decorous solemnity and self-defeating finicky-ness too often accompanying the genre. (Even when such movies are careful with the facts, they still somehow ring false, which means John Ford’s often-regurgitated advice about “printing the legend” is more pragmatic than anything else.) To the extent that Cheadle’s near-hallucinatory pastiche of Davis’ self-imposed exile from the outside world during the late 1970s departs from this dubious norm, I think the movie is an intriguing heave into the cosmos. Too often, however, the blurriness seems less aesthetic calculation than technical difficulties. Some of the interior scenes are cluttered and awkwardly staged. Plus there’s an overall problem with “flow,” which I’m not using as rappers do, but with respect to transitions between scenes, whether flashbacks or in the movie’s present day. Cheadle, assuming he gets another shot at directing a feature (and I think he should), should acquire greater facility with this craft. But for now, as a filmmaker, he’s a hell of an actor – which, as you’ve heard, he proves throughout Miles Ahead.

The greatness of Cheadle’s performance isn’t just in the way he successfully appropriates Davis’ raspy voice, glowering intensity and physical tics. All those things, however impressive, isn’t acting so much as impressionism — which in a movie that leans heavily on impressions would blend with, if not thicken the surrounding goo. It’s Cheadle’s all-or-nothing engagement with Davis’ interior struggles that both evokes and epitomizes the intimacy of Davis’ art – and the abiding faith we kept in Miles through all his transitions and phases. It’s a performance that is most electrifying at those moments when Cheadle’s Miles is either in repose or contemplation; when he isn’t talking or looking at anything except his horn, which at times seems as unfamiliar or as vaguely threatening to him as the future. The tenderness and vulnerability Cheadle summons in his portrayal doesn’t surprise the already indoctrinated. But they are as immersed in its evocation as those whose first encounter with this mercurial personality may inspire them to probe the real deal’s recorded output.

 

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Certainly, it’s a greater inducement than the woozy exhortation delivered by Dave Braden  (Ewan MacGregor), the dissolute Rolling Stone “journalist” apparently coaxed into existence by studio executives who believed even the central presence of a black musical genius couldn’t guarantee a motion picture being made, much less distributed, without a White Guy to ride shotgun. “You got laid to this man’s music,” Braden scolds a bleary-eyed student drug dealer, “and you don’t even know who he is!” It’s not the first time a finished movie entered the marketplace still selling its premise. But it doesn’t make this boosting any less obnoxious.

MacGregor, to his credit, makes the best out of his otherwise thankless task. But his character is by no means the movie’s biggest problem. That comes during a physical altercation between Miles and his wife Francis Taylor (the stunning Emayatzy Corinealdi) that, as depicted in the movie, seems to have happened because Taylor goaded Davis into throwing the first punch. Whether this is what happened or not, I’m disquieted by the scene’s implication that Davis’ widely authenticated serial abuse of the women in his life was a.) brought upon themselves and b.) a relative anomaly in his behavior. That Miles Davis’ smoldering rage could often explode into violence against women is one of the many difficulties those of us who cherish his art struggle to acknowledge, if not accept. (Cognitive dissonance, folks: never easy and rarely pretty.) Since Cheadle did far more work than I did to realize the vision, I’m going to assume he knows this and, thus, knows what he’s doing here. It still chews at me.

I suppose, though, that part of what makes this Miles Ahead a conspicuous product of its subject’s legacy is the way it leaves you at the end: With more questions and implications to sort through than hard resolutions. It’s how Davis left things when he left the planet. It’s how so many of the albums he recorded from the mid-1960s to the bitter end lost listeners who couldn’t keep up with his own inquiries into form and function.

 

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And with all my qualms about the movie, I can also say that the best thing it did for me once it was over was send me back to my bulging Miles Davis shelf; not to absorb myself yet again in Kind of Blue, Round About Midnight, Nefertiti or even Bitches Brew, but in the extended electronic performances from the early 1970s that, in toto, left me somewhat bewildered, even aggrieved over what I thought was overindulgence and even sloth on Davis’ part. Having re-acquainted myself with the vagaries of Dark Magus, Pangaea and Agharta, I now recognize many aspects to the amplified riffs and tempo flexing that given a present-day cutting edge patrolled by the likes of Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar (with whom Miles, if he were still alive, aware and active today, would love to forge new sonic provocations) sound more prophetic than meandering. I should have known that somehow, someway, Miles Davis will always find a way of messing with your mind, calling bullshit on your home-made conventional wisdom. I may even change my mind about the movie someday. But not for a good while.

 

 

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Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2015

Yeah, yeah, whatever…

But if all that’s true, then why, I keep asking every year, is there so much good-to-great “product” (a euphemism I loathe, but am stringing along, hoping it’ll take the hint from the diminishing effect of quote marks) that still comes out? Why is it that I made up this year’s list thinking that there were so many discs I could have easily included that didn’t even make the Honorable Mention cut? Why is it that any of the top five on this list could have easily been number one and why could any of the ones below them, even the Honorable Mentions, could have slipped into the top five?

Why? Why ask why?

An answer — not “the” answer — is that whatever infrastructure that used to be in place for promoting and marketing music is in worse shape than some of our bridges, tunnels and highways. In fact, there might not even BE an infrastructure so much as a make-it-up-as-we-go-along system that spreads and circulates the word on artists and “product.”

Or not. I don’t know, really. As with everybody else who still cares, I go with my gut. And what my gut tells me is that jazz, whether God likes it or not, is finding a way to move along on its own power regardless of who’s noticing at this point. And my top five especially give me hope that the music is not just moving along or getting by, but transforming itself into something not even Lisa Simpson or Mayor Quimby will recognize at first. I say it every year at this time and I will find some way of saying it again next year.

And I’m not giving up my compact discs either. Why? Vinyl. That’s why. You all said THAT was dead, too, once.

 

 

 

 

For One to Love

 

1.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, For One to Love (Mack Avenue) – Her debut album two years ago was one of those once-in-a-generation calling cards in which soul, grace, power and intelligence materialize in one implausibly commanding 24-year-old package. She could have easily followed it up with another mélange of classic or out-of-left-field standards and maintained her front-running status as the Next Great Jazz Vocalist without making your jaw drop as she did when introducing herself. But damned if she doesn’t do that to you again, and then some, with a bold concept album whose range and depth are reminiscent of similar innovations from this year’s centennial birthday boy Frank Sinatra during the fifties (“Only the Lonely”) and sixties (“September of My Years”). The songs on this album are connected in some way with what it’s like to for one’s looks to be scrutinized and summarily judged. I’d also be inclined to label her effort here as an attempt to filter The Male Gaze through a prism of her own design. But why limit oneself, or her, to one gender’s glancing assessments? The biggest tip-off is “Look at Me,” one of her five original compositions here, in which self-conscious doubt starts seeping into an otherwise idyllic romance. (“Why don’t you look at me/ the way you look at all the other girls you see?”) along with its companion, “Left Over” (“I wonder if he even knows my name”) Such plaintive, yet pointed inquiries make themselves known in other selections, such as “Stepsister’s Lament” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” and that sweet swinging Bacharach-David tune, “Wives and Lovers,” which she nonchalantly hits over the fence and through the windshield of a neighbor’s car parked four houses away. Her penchant for unearthing early blues (Spencer and Clarence Williams’ “What’s the Matter Now?”) also melds easily with the overall concept, whose poignancy is offset by the ferocious jolts of hope and mother-wit infusing “The Trolley Song” and an especially breathtaking “Something’s Coming.” It almost frightens you to keep listening. Yet you have to. And of course, it all wouldn’t work nearly as well without the pliant and comparably ingenious accompaniment of pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers.

 

 

The Epic Cover
2.) Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder) – I suspect this will likely lead most of the lists my peers are assembling for the year’s best jazz albums. If the level of emotional investment shown in the previous entry hadn’t moved me more, I’d have been right along with them. This represents one of those occasions where you’re not only recognizing artistry on these three discs, but what this whole work represents: A heady return to the notion of orchestrated jazz as a source of emphatic, unmediated ecstasy; the difference here from the raw, searching energies summoned by John Coltrane, Su Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and generations of “New Thing” acolytes and fellow travelers from the past being a wider accessibility to beat and tone. Because of Washington’s Los Angeles roots, I kept thinking about great bandleaders and mentors from that scene such as Gerald Wilson and Horace Tapscott whose charts roared, stomped and often sprawled the way these pieces do. But because of the conspicuous presence of Washington’s keening, quicksilver tenor sax on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (which, if you were holding my feet to the fire, I’d be ready to declare the Album of the Year among all genres), I also recognize in this Epic’s conception Hip-Hop’s big, avid ears for blending rogue sounds. In this case: tiers of percussion propelling choirs of angels, street-hard horns breaking and merging at will and, once in a while, the familiar sound of a Hammond B-3 organ (summoned by keyboardist Brandon Coleman). It’s an achievement of such conspicuous heft and dimension that it makes you wonder if Washington’s trying to do too much at once. But just when you think those aforementioned energies are flagging, something, maybe a speed run by the bassist known as Thundercat, an extended comp by acoustic pianist Cameron Graves, an incisive lead vocal by Patrice Quinn or a fervent, reasonably straightforward take on “Clair de Lune” comes along to sustain the sense of the ground beneath one’s feet rumbling. It’s not that The Epic  represents anything new under the sun. (It even revives “Cherokee,” for Charlie Ventura’s sake!) But it makes you aware of how long it’s been since jazz music made you want to reach for the sun, much less stare at it without fear.

 

 

The Thompson Fields
3.) Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare) – In a year when the overall level of jazz composing, arranging and orchestration challenged the adequacy of one’s supply of superlatives, it altogether figured that the redoubtable Schneider would put forth what, up to this still-relatively-early point in her brilliant career, could well be her masterpiece: An eight-piece suite, a decade or so in the making, evoking the outward graces and cherished epiphanies of the Minnesota prairie where she grew up. The music at first lulls you into thinking this handsomely packaged selection will be nothing but daydreams bathed in twilight pastels. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But Schneider, whose ability to “play” an 18-piece orchestra has never before been as consummate or as confident as it is here, layers her pastoral vision with themes that thicken, recede and recharge with the mercurial impulses of Nature itself. After all, the weather isn’t always sunny and warm in one’s past, or, to be sure, in one’s present either. As with every great bandleader, Schneider allows her soloists near-collaborative space to enhance her vision, as in the cases of pianist Frank Kimbrough and guitarist Lage Lund replicating the tension between memory and reality on the title piece or Rich Perry’s inquisitive tenor sax summoning the persisting lure and unfulfilled yearning of “Home.” Too often, Schneider’s work as a composer-arranger incites comparisons to her inspirations/mentors Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans (about whom more later on this list). Now, she stands alone as a musical force capable of inspiring others. And if I were to make any comparisons at this point, it would be less towards other bandleaders than towards poets, to whose influence she has been paying homage on recent discs. In particular, her work on Thompson Fields reminds me of Robert Frost, another pastoralist whose darker, more ambivalent approaches to the passages of time and the seasons are often overlooked at first glance because of the elemental beauty of his tone. In both his case and hers, the subtler sense of unease aroused by their respective visions incline you to be more solicitous to the living things around you – and to treat their mysteries with respect and discretion.

 

 

Juneteenth cover
4.) Stanley Cowell, Juneteenth (Vision Fugitive) – Now 74, Cowell has been among the underappreciated stalwarts – and treasures – of American music. As with generations of jazz masters who found themselves marginalized in the cultural firmament even as they were becoming more autonomous as producers (he was one of the co-founders of the legendary Strata-East independent label in the seventies), Cowell spent most of the last several decades in academia while continuing to write, perform and record in a variety of settings as sideman and leader. He has also been one of the few pianists whose solo work is as textured and broadly realized as any combo’s repertoire. This unaccompanied performance of a work originally written for large ensemble commemorating the 150th anniversary of Emancipation, or at least its informal announcement in Texas in 1865, feels very much like a splendid gift to his abiding fans as well as a moving tribute to Cowell’s resilience. Because he shares a Toledo, Ohio birthplace with the great virtuoso Art Tatum, Cowell lays claim to the same faultless command of time and space that Tatum displayed in his own formidable body of solo recordings. He also weaves references to, and extensions upon, such disparate tunes as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Strange Fruit,” “Dixie” and other Americana redolent of the surging, shape-shifting referencing of Charles Mingus, only with a more probing and nuanced approach. With the issues animating the Civil War gaining more urgency in the years since Cowell was commissioned (in 2012) to compose this suite, “Juneteenth” feels at once both topical and enduring; news that, for better and worse, stays news.

 

 

 

Bird Calls cover
5.) Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls (ACT) – Modernism meets post-modernism and the former gets a “fly” face-lift it can grow with. Bird Calls is (far) less a “tribute album” to Charlie Parker than a young alto-sax daredevil’s attempt to connect with the divinities that made Parker soar into uncharted changes more than 70 years ago. Mahanthappa borrows or, more appropriately, “samples” themes, licks and riffs from the Parker canon and uses them as propellant for his own fire-breathing inventions. The familiar fanfare from the “Parker’s Mood,” for instance, is transfigured on “Talin is Thinking” into a incantation setting the table for a dirge drastically different, yet no less resonant or far-reaching than the original while “Maybe Later” cheekily elbows tropes from “Now’s the Time,” Parker’s slow-hand blues that midwifed both bebop and post-war rhythm-and-blues, and creates a bouncy number that swings more like an uptown rave than a downtown slide. The only thing that strongly evokes Parker throughout is the insurgent, turbo-charged drive to Make It New; and, in the process, to expand the possibilities for jazz to emerge from the chrysalis of its established traditions into something resembling full, unrestrained flight. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston robustly share their leader’s commitment to this process and, you hope, other attempts at homage to past masters will take the hint.

 

Synovial Joints cover
6.) Steve Coleman, Synovial Joints (PI) – “Doctor” Coleman continues the inquiry into the human body he commenced two years before with Functional Arrythmias (also on PI) and expands his bag of implements beyond those of his customary quintet of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Anthony Tidd, guitarist Miles Okasaki and, this time, drummer Marcus Gilmore to include a few more horns, a flute and piccolo, a string quartet, a pianist (David Bryant) and a singer (Jen Shyu) who join him on the eponymous four-part exploration/appreciation of, as Coleman writes in the liner notes, “the joints that bind the human musculoskeletal system [that] function as a means of connecting bones, binding tissue and provid[ing] various degrees of movement for our bodies.” Yes, I had the exact same thought: What a fine dance performance routine this music would serve. And the pull-pull interplay between strings and horns, bass lines and modes encourage one to imagine knees, elbows, legs and shoulders accommodating themselves to whatever groove gets transmitted as permission to ambulate. This disc doesn’t just go inside on “Acupuncture Openings” and “Celtic Cells” (not those in the body, but in medieval clusters of otherwise scattered visionaries. They also spend time in the Sahara desert on “Harmattan” and “Nomadic.” Wherever they go, Coleman’s ad-hoc musical aggregation sustains an engaging blend of the spontaneous and the deliberate that keeps mind and body in constant motion at delightfully varied speeds. It’s even fun if you’re just walking at a normal pace and this quirky music’s somehow playing – in more ways than one – through your ears.

 

 

Lines of Color cover
7.) ) Ryan Truesdell Gil Evans Project, Lines of Color (ArtistShare) – Despite several albums of live performances by his big band released during the last 15 years of his life, so much of the reputation of arranger-bandleader-composer-enabler-of-the-cool Gil Evans (1912-1988) remains tethered to studio work, most especially whenever Miles Davis was involved. Thus, Ryan Truesdell, to whom so much is already owed for his Evans project’s award-winning 2012 debut. Centennial (also on ArtistShare), continues to restore Evans’ body of work and its myriad possibilities for revision. Here, he  also helps re-establish  the exuberant interaction of big band music with its audience — even if it’s sitting and drinking along, as opposed to dancing, which for all I know happened, too, at midtown Manhattan’s Jazz Standard, where these sessions were recorded. Take, just as an example, the project’s reiteration of Evans’ arrangement of Bix Biederbecke’s “Davenport Blues.” On the 1959 Pacific Jazz album, Great Jazz Standards, the piece is carried along by the late trumpeter Johnny Coles’ soft, cool and dry solo, this version’s rhythmic pulse is amplified by drummer Lewis Nash’s down-and-dirty beat and trumpeter Mat Jodrell’s flamboyantly vertical solo. I thought Evans’ 1965 version of “Greensleeves” would be a non-starter without Kenny Burrell’s guitar up front, but trombonist Marshall Gilkes busts the arrangement wide open. Because Truesdell is as much curator as orchestrator, he also uses such occasions for lesser-known or previously unrecorded Evans, notably “Avalon Town,” which he’d written during his mid-1940s apprenticeship with Claude Thornhill, during which he began tinkering with impressionism and modulated brass.

 

 

 

Conduct of Jazz cover
8.) Matthew Shipp Trio, The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear) –This is the small group album many of us have been waiting for from Wilmington’s Excitable Renegade. His knotty, multi-clustered attack on the piano is as relentless as ever with his themes and motifs rolling, tumbling and shifting direction with seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness. The first few bars of “Instinctive Touch” (along with the title itself) announces to the uninitiated how insistently he’s willing to stress test a motif until it breaks apart to reveal some promising new form of life. Yet it’s the title track that discloses something new to the mix; an exuberant drive that somehow seems more contained and yet more fluid and expansive. I’m going out on a limb by saying that it’s the addition of drummer Newton Taylor Baker to the tandem of Shipp and bassist Michael Bisio, whose solos likewise seem to have gained greater breadth and openness. Baker’s playing, both with the others and on its own, stretches and spreads out along with Shipp’s and Bisio’s, establishing keener interaction within the trip and helping Shipp’s compositions, whether as crypto-funky as “Blue Abyss,” or as discursive as “Primary Form” reach trajectories that challenge listeners without leaving them stranded or shortchanged. Mostly, it’s fun. Which is how jazz at whatever level of ambition or comprehension is supposed to “conduct” itself.

 

 

 

Intents and Purposes cover
9.) Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet, Intents and Purposes (Enja) – The year’s notable contribution to the file marked, Discs-I-Couldn’t-Keep-Out-Of-My-Player-Without-Knowing-Exactly-Why is a disarming and surprisingly illuminating inquiry into the oft-discredited realm of what we used to know in the 1970s as jazz-rock fusion. Because so much of the music associated with that genre leaned on synthesizers, wah-wah pedals and other plug-in accessories, purists of all persuasions suspected both its players and its repertoire of coasting on waves of bombast and white noise. Abbasi’s guitars, assisted by Bill Ware’s vibes, Stephan Crump’s upright bass and Eric McPherson’s trap set, excise the bubbles and fuzz from one’s memories of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” Billy Cobham’s “Red Baron,” Chick Corea’s “Medieval Overture” and Pat Martino’s “Joyous Lake,” among others, to reveal their sinewy lyricism without muting their sounds or constricting their energies. These guys come on strong enough to make you check the cover again to make sure nobody’s packing a concealed amplifier.

 

 

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10.) Heads of State, Search for Peace (Smoke Sessions) – This gathering of gray eminences – saxophonist Gary Bartz, pianist Larry Willis, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster – isn’t out to re-invent the wheel, or anything else. This is about as unassuming as “straight ahead” jazz gets these days, given its selection of standards, both familiar (“Impressions,” “Lotus Blossom,” “I Wish I Knew”) and not quite as well known that you don’t need to mention their composers’ names (Benny Carter’s “Summer Serenade,” Jackie McLean’s “Capuchin Swing”). There are also two pieces, “Soulstice” and “Uncle Bubba,” written by Bartz – and as masterly as the other esteemed “heads” are, it is Bartz to whom this album truly belongs and whose playing throughout is a clinic in lyricism, timing and tone. At 75, he is a living exemplar of the alto saxophone and all you have to do is listen to him lay out on something like “Crazy She Calls Me” to bask in the reflected glory of someone who knows exactly what to say, how to say it and where each bend and curve in a variation needs to go. Jazz doesn’t always have to change the world, or even rearrange the furniture in your head, to be great. Sometimes, all it needs is a rich, ripe and still evolving gift such as Bartz’s to remind you why you don’t really care what anybody else says about jazz music’s alleged “deterioration” or “demise.” If Bartz still believes, you should, too

HONORABLE MENTION

 

 

Solo Hersch cover

 

 

Fred Hersch, Solo (Palmetto)

Myra Melford, Snowy Egret (Enja)
Chris Potter Underground Orchestra, Imaginary Cities (ECM)
Erik Friedlander, Oscalypso (Skipstone)
Tigran Hamasyan, Luys I Luso (ECM)
Romain Collin, Press Enter (ACT)
Albert “Tootie” Heath, Ethan Iverson, Ben Street, Philadelphia Beat (Sunnyside)
Vijay Iyer Trio, Break Stuff (ECM)
Liberty Elfman, Radiate (PI)

BEST VOCAL: For One to Love HONORABLE MENTION:  Cassandra Wilson, Coming Forth By Day (Legacy)

 

 

 

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BEST LATIN ALBUM: Arturo O’ Farrill & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Cuba: The Conversation Continues (Motema)

 

 

 

Complete Concert by the sea

 

 

 

BEST REISSUE: Erroll Garner, The Complete Concert by the Sea (Legacy)

The Year’s Freshest Old Album, or Mea Culpa, Erroll Garner

 

Complete Concert by the sea

 

 

I’m going to say it was 1993 because who’s going to tell me it wasn’t, right? It was, in any case, one of those blessed years when a good chunk of my weekly salary was earned talking regularly to jazz musicians and I was having an especially jovial and illuminating conversation with McCoy Tyner about, mostly, the big band he sometimes, though not often enough, drove onto concert stages. Somewhere, the talk took a slight veer into the tricky issue of progenitors and I asked Tyner what he thought of Erroll Garner.

Why? This is where it gets hazy, because I’m not altogether sure how it came up unless Garner came to my packrat mind as an example of a jazz pianist who rarely (if ever) fronted or accompanied large ensembles, owing to a sprawling, multi-layered attack that telegraphed plenty of orchestration on its own. I also think that I was hearing much of the same lavish, often rousing ornamentation in Tyner’s late style – though I thought it prudent not to frame the question in this fashion.

Tatum, Monk, Bud Powell…these were the names Tyner was willing, even eager to claim as influences. But Erroll Garner? Not so much and, though I never used his remarks on this topic till now, I distinctly remember him saying of Garner, not unkindly, that unlike the others in his pantheon, “he never made the piano sound like anything other than a piano.”

I thought, back then, I knew what Tyner meant; that Garner, whatever his many attributes, wasn’t considered one of those innovators who transformed the landscape around them, and not just jazz, or the piano. As I say, I didn’t use the material in my piece, in large part because I thought Tyner’s estimation was a kinder, gentler variation of the ways in which Garner’s once-glowing reputation had dimmed along jazz’s upper reaches.

Not that plenty of people weren’t trying hard twenty-something years ago to stoke those fires again; esoteric classicists such as Dick Hyman would talk Garner up any chance he got. Always there were the inexhaustible efforts of Garner’s manager Martha Glaser, whose devotion to her client’s best interests endured well beyond her client’s death in 1977. She was always ready to talk on the phone about Garner and promote an event celebrating his legacy – and on those occasions when I obliged her, I routinely insisted to my readers that Erroll Garner deserved to remembered as much more than the man who wrote “Misty.”

 

 

Garner and Glaser

 

 

My readers, I like to think, may have been smarter about such things than musicians since Garner’s crowd-pleasing, readily accessible swing left them feeling very happy. Glaser herself died a year ago next month at 93. What’s happened since would make her very happy.

For this has been the year that Erroll Garner’s reputation has been rejuvenated by the release in September of The Complete Concert by the Sea (Sony Legacy), a three-disc package that presents in unedited form on the first two discs the live performance on September 19, 1955 (yes, if you’re scoring, 60 years ago) by Garner, drummer Denzil Best and bassist Eddie Calhoun in what is now the Sunset Arts Center in Carmel, California. The third disc offers the same edited version of the concert that, along with Time Out and Kind of Blue, became one of Columbia’s evergreen jazz LPs of the decade.

Not everybody loved it, though I never quite understood the beefs since they seemed to have little if anything to do with the music. After I finally bought my own copy of the original LP in the mid-1970s  having heard so much about it for years, a perpetually grouchy friend of mine sneered that it wasn’t an album so much as a mood-setting accessory for “swinging” bachelors. This jaundiced view, I’m embarrassed to say, held unjust dominion over my own; when at first, I was captivated by Garner’s high spirits, jaunty humor, and infectious cleverness, I would instead see these qualities as happy hour ruffles and flourishes intended to get a rise out of the Carmel crowd, which seemed cued to applaud every ornate lick and at every point when a familiar melody made its presence known. Then and now, I wondered what they were really clapping for: Garner’s prefatory inventions or their own ability to, so to speak, Name That Tune when it materialized.

And yet, my inner crank was at war with my even younger self, who was enchanted with Garner’s witty, crafty 1947 solo, “Frankie and Johnny Fantasy” or immersed myself in my parents’ 1967 LP, That’s My Kick, with its double conga drums and hooky original compositions, “Nervous Waltz” and “Like It Is.” A self-taught, ambidextrous pianist who couldn’t help growling at the keyboard seemed eccentric enough to avoid being diminished as lightweight. Yet as with such sui generis pianists as Ahmad Jamal and Keith Jarrett (who also makes strange noises while he plays), Garner’s popularity with the public seemed something of an indictment to jazz snobs.

But as with the futile complaints against Ella Fitzgerald’s unfettered glee in invention, carping against Garner’s similar instincts for joy and fun is ultimately a losing battle. Also, Garner is held in high regard by such jazz-snob favorites as Martial Solal and Cecil Taylor, who (again, if memory serves) thought the free-form preludes Garner often indulged before he dug into a melody were too often overlooked on their own merits. The peerlessly resourceful contemporary pianist Geri Allen is one of the principal forces behind restoring The Complete Concert by the Sea to the marketplace and her contribution to the liner notes makes a persuasive case for “Mr. Garner’s innovative, singular piano technique and exuberant musicality personifies a joy of fearless virtuosity and exploration…the very spirit of swing, free improvisation and the blues.”

Suits me, and apparently it likewise suits the critical cognoscenti who have all but unanimously deemed this package the year’s best re-issue – though I suppose it’s not technically a reissue if it’s more than doubling the original LPs 11 tracks with previously unreleased pieces, including a near-breathtaking turn on “The Nearness of You” and a deeply satisfying run-through of “Bernie’s Tune.”

More than anything, the set has put Garner’s name back in play for pantheon status, though who really wants to engage in that game when Joy is the final arbiter? I’ll let that somewhat confounding question sit in mid-air while one begins reconsidering how much Erroll Garner lives in the spirits of jazz pianists past and present, young and old, “progressive” and “mainstream” (or however you make such distinctions in your own mind). Other than similar re-packaged goods it augurs, Complete Concert by the Sea opens up that potentially delicious discussion. And whatever its virtues of resiliency, “Misty” hasn’t all that much to do with it.