Thursday, October 8, 2020

Some good news for a change, near and far

Amid all the economic pain and uncertainty this year for jazz musicians, clubs and festivals due to the pandemic, there is some good news to share.

It comes on distant and local fronts, as we continue to await how the “new normal” affects the arts long term.

First, from Europe:

On September 2, Denmark’s iconic venue, Jazz Club Montmartre in Copenhagen, announced it was closing and laying off all staff. Management said it was economically impossible to keep operating with a diminished audience. Sad news, indeed, for a venue that opened in 1959 and had featured an array of global jazz talent. Saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster and Stan Getz all moved to Copenhagen because they so liked the club’s vibe.

However, last week, Montmartre’s board of directors announced it will reopen the venue beginning November 3rd with safe-distancing precautions. Board chairman Michael Christiansen said a large anonymous private donation and special coronavirus support from the City Council means the club will be able to operate through at least 2024. The city commitment is 1 million Danish krone (nearly $158,000 USD) annually for four years.

Christiansen said the club will be able to repay all debt and survive long term. “This rescue plan will secure an even stronger presence, both with regards to attracting the very best from the world elite … and developing a lot of new talents.”

Second, from Southwest Florida:

Aside from a small number of musical opportunities at local restaurants up and down the coast, the Southwest Florida jazz scene has been in limbo since early March. No festivals, no live indoor concerts.

However, Artis Naples is resuming its All That Jazz concert series that features the Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra, a sextet that brings in a variety of featured guests throughout the season. Instead of performing in the more intimate, 275-seat Daniels Pavilion, the series moves next door to the much larger (1,600 seat) Hayes Hall, where seating with safe distancing will accommodate about 250 people. As usual, there will be separate admission shows each night at 5:30 or 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. All patrons will get their temperatures checked upon arrival. Face masks are required.

Here is the All That Jazz schedule for this 11th season:

  • October 14: The sextet performs the music of George Gershwin
  • November 4: singer Kenny Washington
  • December 16: guest TBA
  • January 20: tenor saxophonist Billy Harper
  • February 10: Italian-born, New York-based guitarist Pasquale Grasso
  • March 3: singer Denise Donatelli
  • March 31: alto saxophonist Dick Oatts
  • May 12: NPJO celebrates the Charlie Parker centennial.

The Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra resident sextet includes tenor saxophonist (and artistic director) Lew Del Gatto, trumpeter Dan Miller, pianist Jerry Stawski, bassist Kevin Mauldin, drummer Mke Harvey and violinist Glenn Basham.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Just because we can...

As  the addage goes, just because we can doesn't mean we should.

I can only speak specifically about Florida,  where the governor proclaimed on Friday, September 25 that it is time for business as usual. After six months of varied restrictions to minimize the spread of COVID-19, he gave businesses the green light to get back to doing business at pre-pandemic levels.

In spite of that shift, let's hope we've learned a bit more about the need for caution - and continued precautions. Masks may no longer be required, but they sure are a good idea. Heck, the considerate folks in Japan have been wearing them in public for decades to avoid catching - or passing on - airborne germs that can cause colds, flu, viruses, what have you.

While some restaurants that offer live music here in Southwest Florida have been resuming live music with socially distanced tables, masks for servers and patrons, etc., let's hope that they don't rush to undo all of those sensible precautions.

As individuals, we should still tread with care. It just makes sense, no matter how much we love the way music in live settings warms the heart and touches the soul on some nights.

Arts and culture have been  hit particularly hard this year. By my count there have been more than 40 jazz-related COVID-19 deaths around the world. The number could be much higher but we'll never know for sure. I'd sure hate to see that toll rise further.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Exploring conflicts between our digital and natural worlds – through music

Composer, bandleader and NEA Jazz Master Maria Schneider’s creativity knows no bounds. Her stellar music, voiced by her longstanding Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, has drawn on many influences and inspirations throughout her career.

Maria Schneider backstage at Newport, 2017

Some of her earliest intricate and colorful works were prompted by memories of imaginary monsters conjured up in her Minnesota childhood. A formidable string of recordings by her 18-piece big band start with 1994’s Evanescence (Enja), in part a tribute to her mentor, the late Gil Evans.

Her newest project, the two-disc recording Data Lords, is just out as her fifth project on the ArtistShare label, the world-‘s first crowd-funding internet arts platform. It is a very strong departure from her Grammy-winning 2015 release The Thompson Fields. 

Data Lords is about “the impact that the data-hungry digital world has had on our lives,” Schneider says, and the natural world that has long been rooted in her music.

Disc One, titled “The Digital World,” focuses on the oft-unsettling digital side of the equation. The composition titles pretty much speak for themselves, though Schneider has penned thoughtful notes in the CD booklet that speak to the inspirations behind and intent of each work. The compositions on “The Digital World” are: “A World Lost,” “Don’t Be Evil,” “CQ, CQ, Is Anbody There?,” the other-worldly “Sputnik” and “Data Lords.” That title track takes aim at the giant data companies that track the minutae of our everyday lives as artificial intelligence increases its hold.

Disc Two, “Our Natural World,” celebrates the magic and beauty of the physical world around is and is a balm for what Schneider describes as "the relentless noise of our digital world.” Those tracks are “Sanzenin,” inspired by the lush, meditative gardens surrounding Kyoto, Japan’s Sanzen-in Buddhist temple, the artful “Stone Song,” “Look Up,” “Bluebird,” and two Ted Kooser poetry-inspired pieces, “Braided Together” and “The Sun Waited For Me.”

Standout soloists on this project include accordionist Gary Versace, guitarist Ben Monder, alto saxophonist Dave Pietro, baritone saxophonist Scott Robinson, soprano/alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, tenor saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Rich Perry, trombonists Marshall Gilkes and Ryan Keberle, and trumpeter Mike Rodriguez.

“Look Up” is a clever piece that features Gilkes and pianist Frank Kimbrough. As its melody spirals up, this is a musical reminder to indeed look up: up at the sky, up at the birds or, as Schneider says, “simply at each other.”

In other words, look up from those laptop, iPad and smartphone screens once in a while -- and savor the things around us that aren’t plugged in to something. Except your music player, of course, because this powerful project deserves repeat listenings.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

CDs of Note Short Takes

Taking a closer look at CDs by The 3D Jazz Trio, Artemis, Mayita Dinos, theTNEK Jazz Quintet, and Bernard Purdie, Christian Fabian & Ron Oswanski….

3D Jazz Trio, I Love to See You Smile (DIVA Jazz)
Six years ago when they were backing dancer Maurice Hines’ show Tappin’ Through Life, drummer Sherrie Maricle, bassist Amy Shook and pianist Jackie Warren discovered they had an incredible, instant musical simpatico. Their creativity abounds on this project, I Love to See You Smile. Power drummer Maricle is better known as leader of the all-woman Diva Jazz Orchestra, but she has also put together smaller ensembles from withiin the big band’s ranks. This is one of them. Everything in this varied program swings with joy, from the Randy Newman-penned title track to the traditional Scottish folk song “When You and I Were Young, Maggie.” Favorite track: their take on “Besame Mucho,” the famous bolero by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez. Warren’s lush classical-styled intro sets up the band’s romp. The Cleveland-based pianist has chops and creativity galore – and they are on full display here.

Artemis, Artemis (Blue Note)
Two years after a stunning main stage performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, the all-woman supergroup Artemis has made its recording debut. The band is named for a Greek goddess who was an explorer and goddess of the hunt. The globally rooted band includes pianist and musical director Renee Rosnes, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, clarinetist Anat Cohen, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Noriko Ueda, drummer Allison Miller and singer Cecile McLorin Salvant. All of the material here was written and/or arranged by the band’s six instrumentalists. Favorite tracks: Miller’s fierce opening track “Goddess of the Hunt,” the Rosnes-penned “Big Top,” the Rosnes-arranged Stevie Wonder hit “If It’s Magic,” featuring Salvant on vocals, and the band’s transformative take on Lee Morgan’s instrumental jazz chestnut, "The Sidewinder.” This version is more pensive and teasing than the funk-driven original. This is a September 11 release.

Mayita Dinos, The Garden Is My Stage (Dash Hoffman)
Puerto Rico-born, Los Angeles-based singer Mayita Dinos’ debut recording is a garden of musical delights. How cool that she’s a renowned landscape designer by day – and jazz singer by night. She was able to blend those two passions on this session, which was produced by singer Cathy Segal-Garcia. Every tune here has a nature or garden theme or reference. The opening track is also the most intriguing. Dinos set her own words to Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.” Other gems: getting back to the garden) through Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” honoring the rose in “Spanish Harlem,” a run through Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower” and, quite naturally, Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.” Dinos wrote the melody for an ethereal voice-and-bass duet with Gabe Davis that digs into the Federico Garcia Lorca poem “La Lola.”

Purdie-Fabian- Osmanski, Move On! (Consolidated Artists)
This one throws a different twist into the organ trio concept, which usually involves Hammond B-3, drums and either guitar or saxophone as the third instrument. Here we have B-3 player Ron Oswanski and bassist Christian Fabian teamed with the legendary funk drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. Besides five Fabian originals, they put their funky stamp on diverse covers of Tower of Power’s “Can’t You See (You’re Doin’ Me Wrong),” Duke Ellington’s “Love You Madly,” Miles Davis’ classic “So What” and even “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Producer and principal composer Fabian’s “Got Groove (Pt. 2)” is my favorite, but every track is distinctive and drenched with energy from these three creative melodic improvisers. The result is the funkiest jazz recording I’ve heard so far this year, and it will be hard to beat in that regard.

The TNEK Jazz Quintet, … Plays the Music of Sam Jones (TNEK Jazz)
This is a mighty fine – and long overdue – concept recording. It pays homage to music of Sam Jones, a bassist and composer best known for his work in the 1950s and ‘60s with the Adderley Brothers. He also worked fat various times with Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson and Cedar Walton – and in the late 1970s co-led a New York big band with trumpeter Tom Harrell. Jones, a Jacksonville FL native, died in 1981. Washington DC-area saxophonist Ron Kearns produced this session, assembling some of his favorite players. Bassist Kent Miller is joined by pianist Darius Scott, drummer Greg Holloway, and saxophonists Antonio Parker (alto) & Benny Russell (tenor and soprano). The unusual band name is an anagram of bassist Miller’s first name. They put their own spin on a range of Jones compositions, from the best-known “Unit Seven” (long the unofficial Cannonball Adderley band theme song) and “Del Sasser” to “Biittersuite,” “Some More of Dat” and the ballad “Lillie.” This hard-swinging recording winds down with Kenny Barron’s “Tragic Magic” from Jones' 1979 trio recording The Bassist. Barron was in that band.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Remember this date - 66 years ago in jazz history

Yes, it has been 66 years.

On July 17, 1954, something happened in Newport, Rhode Island that made an indelible mark on jazz history - and in the scope of popular music presentation as we know it today.

Before Woodstock, before Coachella, before Monterey, there was Newport.

The first Newport Jazz Festival, actually dubbed the American Jazz Festival that inaugural year, was held July 17 and 18, 1954 at historic Newport Casino, a stately tennis venue now known as the International Tennis Hall of Fame, along toney Bellevue Avenue.

A temporary bandshell, covered in thick cardboard, was erected on a berm overlook the tennis courts. As Burt Goldblatt recalled in his book, Newport Jazz Festival, The Illustrated History, the music kicked off at 9:18 that Saturday night when guitarist Eddie Condon's Dixieland band dug into the trad jazz classic "Musktat Ramble."
Newport Jazz Festival, 1954*

Other featured performers that inaugural weekend included singers Lee Wiley, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday; the Modern Jazz Quartet; and bands led by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonists Lee Konitz, Gil Melle and Gerry Mulligan, guitarist Johnny Smith, and pianists Oscar Peterson, George Shearing and Lennie Tristano. It closed with an explosive set by drummer Gene Krupa's trio. A few jam sessions and all-star mixing and matchings were thrown in for good measure. 

The festival that first year was estimated to have drawn a combined weekend crowd of 13,000.

Newport was the granddaddy of outdoor American music festivals that were quick to follow.

And all because Newport socialite Elaine Lorillard and her tobacco-heir husband, Louis, wanted to do something to enliven the stodgy summer scene. They hired George Wein, who wan Boston's Storyville jazz club, to produce the event.

Wein, now 94, is still at it. He oversees the Newport Festivals Foundation, a nonprofit that he and other forward thinkers created a few years ago to keep the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival alive well into the future. 

Like so many other events near and far, the 2020 edition of the Newport Jazz Festival was shelved because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The many fans and supporters - and the musicians themselves, are waiting to see how the "new normal" will affect this large-scale outdoor gathering going forward. As a relative latecomer, I've been attending the Newport Jazz Festival annually since 1981, the year Wein brought the storied event back to Newport after a nine-year absence. 

Some history on that 1972-1980 absence
Gate crashers and bear-swilling rowdies not content to listen from the hillside, stormed Festival Field on Saturday July 3, 1971. bring that year's event to a premature end. Ironically, Dionne Warwicke was on stage singing "what the World Needs Now Is Love" when the fences came crashing down. Wein took his concept to New York City. 

The festival returned to Newport in 1981 as the city's movers and shakers realized times had changed - and the event could be held at a more controlled setting, Fort Adams State Park, located on a peninsula across Newport Harbor from the downtown business district.
      *photo courtesy of Newport Festivals Foundation archives.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Thanks, Freddy, for the jazz connection

The fine pianist and singer Freddy Cole died Saturday, June 27, at age 88 at his home in Atlanta. He had been struggling with cardiovascular issues for a while.

His manager, Suzi Reynolds, called him Mr. Magic. "He wove a web of sonic beauty with every note and kept listeners silently breathless with his casual, elegant storytelling...," she reflected Sunday via email.

Freddy Cole
While working for many years in the immense shadow of his far-famous elder brother, Nat King Cole, Freddy had his own powerful vibe. There were smoky vocal similarities between the two men (Nat was 12 years his senior and died in 1965), but Freddy became a jazz vocal master of distinction. He performed here, there, and seemingly everywhere, for well into seven decades.

I had several opportunities to hear his performances through the years. The Cape May Jazz Festival in 2004, Newport Jazz Festival in 2013 (where he opened for his niece Natalie Cole, and with the Naples (FL) Jazz Orchestra in 2014, come to mind. But the most impactful, for me, were the first couple of gigs many years earlier.

This was back in the mid-1960s. My parents took me to a little lounge on the western fringe of Albany NY. The names of the club and the strip mall in which it was located now escape me. But Freddy was an annual regular there on his performance circuit at the time. A few nights later, or perhaps the next year, I went back with two or three classmates and our dates after junior prom, just to hear Freddy. Not-your-typical after-prom party for a bunch of high schoolers.

Little did I know at the time that this first live jazz exposure, with Freddy performing solo, would whet my appetite for jazz in the way it has. 

But it sure did.

Here's a link to my review of his Naples appearance for JazzTimes.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Still singing the pandemic blues? Aren't we all?

Three months into the pandemic quarantines caused by COVID-19, we have seen our lives changed in so many ways, at least temporarily. And none of us know with any certainty what the "new normal" will be.
What's the future for the intimacy of jazz clubs, or large-scale concerts in performance halls, or outdoor jazz festivals that draw thousands of warm bodies soaking up the sun, the vibes, the music? 

Even event planners and producers lack answers or a quick fix, though they're doing a lot of brainstorming and contingency planning.

The current state of affairs has enhanced the technology skill set of many musicians - and fans. Four months ago, a lot of us rarely heard the word "livestreaming." Now it's top-of-mind, as musicians and their fans try to keep some semblance of artful normality in their lives, despite the enormous economic pain many are facing.

While most of 2020's jazz festivals won't occur, a few hope to press ahead. Some clubs and festivals are livestreaming to reach their musical faithful. There will be no 2020 editions of major festivals at Newport, New Orleans, Monterey or Montreal, among others. The 2021 edition of The Jazz Cruise won't happen, but organizers say its scheduled musicians have all committed to a January 2022 sailing.

So we'll see what happens when we emerge from this very long year. Things won't get back to close-to-normal until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and mass inoculations take place. That's my feeling anyhow.

Let's be thankful for the musicians who have battled COVID-19 and survived it. Those I know about include brothers Dan (drums) and Darius Brubeck (piano), pianist Nachito Herrera, alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli and trombonist Ron Wilkins. Doubtless there are - or will be - more.

Let's also remember the fallen. As of today, my count of jazz-related COVID-19 deaths is up to 38. And I'm quite sure there have been more.

My chronological listing of those passings is posted in two chapters. You can find them here: Chapter 1, Chapter 2.

Thank your lucky stars that you're still healthy. Let's hope that continues.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Another big loss for jazz

Drummer Jimmy Cobb, for 29 years the only surviving member of trumpeter Miles Davis' Kind of Blue sextet, died yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 91 and had been battling lung cancer.
Jimmy Cobb, Tanglewood Jazz Festival, 2011

Cobb was the fourth NEA Jazz Master to pass away in 2020. In addition to the seminal Kind of Blue album, he was the drummer on Miles' Sketches of Spain, Someday My Prince Will Come, Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall, 1958 Miles, Jazz at the Plaza, In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk Complete (recorded in 1961 in San Francisco), Quiet Nights, Miles and Monk at Newport; and briefly on Porgy and Bess, and Sorcerer.

His many other major musical affiliations over the years included work with singers Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, pianists Wynton Kelly and Bobby Timmons, trumpeter Nat Adderley, saxophonists Richie Cole and Sonny Stitt, and guitarist Wes Montgomery. The Washington DC-born Cobb, who was pretty much self-taught, also led his own band of younger players, Cobb's Mob.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Taking a closer look at CDs by Wayne Alpern, Lynne Arriale, Clairdee, Tim Ray and Dana Sandler…. 

Wayne Alpern, Standard Deviation (Henri Elkan Music)
On this fine project, composer and arranger Wayne Alpern underscores the notion that jazz is a process, not a specific repertoire of songs. Wearing his arranger’s hat here, the New York-based Alpern has taken nine pop songs (some vintage, some contemporary) and given them robust, new instrumental treatments. In each case he has stretched and recast them to celebrate their catchy melodies and rhythms. The band pulling this off with Alpern’s charts includes trumpeter John Challoner, saxophonists Owen Broder and Adam Larson, trombonist Nick Grinder, violinist Benjamin Sutin, pianist Matt Podd, bassist Dave Baron and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell. 

The material includes Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Bob Dylan’s “Dear Landlord” and “As I Went Out One Morning,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Bobbbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and The Four Seasons’ “Who Loves You Pretty Baby.” Favorite tracks: the band’s takes on “Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” and the Temptations’ hit “My Girl.” This is Alperin’s second project recasting well-known pop songs, following up on last year’s Skeleton.

Lynne Arriale, Chimes of Freedom (Challenge) 
Pianist Lynne Arriale’s 15th recording as a leader blends her crystalline lyricism at the keyboard with works inspired by our pre-pandemic troubled times. Specifically, the plight of refugees and dreamers who find obstacles in their path to a better life. As she explains: the material reflects her wish for an America “that offers hope, not scorn, for immigrants who seek a better life. It also acknowledges the sacrifices of refugees who have risked and even lost their lives trying to reach our borders.”

This project teams her with bassist Jasper Somsen and drummer E.J. Strickland. Singer K.J. Denhert joins on the final two tracks: the Bob Dylan-penned “Chimes of Freedom” and Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” Favorite tracks: “3 Million Steps,” which musically captures the image of refugees determined to go the distance between Guatemala to the southern U.S. border, and the more optimistic “Reunion.” The latter tune’s calypso feel celebrates a joyous reuniting of families split by war, famine, poverty and family separation. “The Whole Truth” is a bluesy, swinging salute to the news media who endure daily attacks on their credibility. There is much here to savor for its hope and musical inspiration.
Clairdee,  A Love Letter to Lena (Declare) 
San Francisco-based singer Clairdee’s latest recording is an homage to the late Lena Horne. Not wishing to make it a greatest hits cover, she instead selected music from the Horne repertoire that peaks deeply to her commitments to civil rights and equality. Six of the eight songs are preceded by spoken-word interludes narrated by actress Margo Hall. They are drawn from Horne’s own words gleaned from interviews and biographies.  

Violinist Regina Carter is a special guest on “Something to Live For.” The most powerful tracks include “I Got a Name,” Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” (a poignant duet with pianist and co-producer John Herbst), and “Believe In Yourself.” They set the table for the finale: Clairdee’s powerful take, with a chorus of guest singers, on bassist Marcus McLaurine’s activism anthem “Stand Up” with lyrics by Keva Singletary Youngblood. This is a powerful call to action from the singer and her wide-ranging band. 

Tim Ray, Excursions and Adventures (Whaling City Sound) 
This piano trio gem teams Tim Ray with all-star players (and fellow Berklee College of Music faculty colleagues) Terri Lyne Carrington on drums and John Patitucci on bass. The recording title could well sum up Ray’s diverse career. This mighty inventive Boston jazz stalwart has toured with Lyle Lovett and Jane Siberry, and is now Tony Bennett’s pianist and musical director.

The material they dig into is wide ranging. Each contributes originals (Ray’s “Gone, Not Forgotten” and “Yo 11,” Carrington’s Wayne Shorter tribute “Samsara” and Patitucci’s high-flying, New Orleans-flavored “Messiaen’s Gumbo”). Everything here is superb in its own way. The players keep pushing each other to find new facets in the originals, standard fare and some unusual choices. Their jazz transformations of Billy Preston’s pop hit “Nothing From Nothing” and the Rolling Stones’ classic “Paint It Black” are stunning. 

Dana Sandler, I Never Saw Another Butterfly (Fractamodi) 
Boston-area singer Dana Sandler’s debut recording is a singularly focused project. Her compositions set to music some of the poetry penned by children of the Holocaust. Most of the source material come from “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” a collection of poetry and art created by Jewish children in the Terezin concentration camp. Fewer than 100 of 15,000 children survived Terezin. 

Sandler’s delicate voice is backed here by pianist Carmen Staaf, bassist Jorge Roeder, drummer Austin McMahon (her husband), trumpeter Peter Kenagy, saxophonist Rick Stone and clarinetist Michael WInograd. Sandler dedicated the project to the memory of Friedil Dicker-Brandeis, who organized secret art classes for the children of Terezin, then hid the material in suitcases that were discovered after the camp's liberation. Sandler released the CD on April 21, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is both powerful and exquisite.