Sunday, January 25, 2009

CDs of note heard in January:

Mike Clark, Blueprints Of Jazz Vol. 1 (Talking House)
This stunning new CD by ex-Headhunters drummer Mike Clark shows off his straight-ahead jazz side than the fusion for which he is best known. The band smokes. It includes pianist Patrice Rushen, bassist Christian McBride, trumpeter Christian Scott, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and tenor saxophonist Jed Levy. This recording surfaced on several “Top 10” lists for 2008 - despite a February 3, 2009 release date.

Mark Rapp, Token Tales (Paved Earth)
The New York-based trumpeter was a pleasant surprise this past August with his band with a late morning on the JVC Newport Jazz Festival’s Pavilion Stage. This CD of primarily original, rhythmically strong material by the neo-traditionalist is a very strong debut recording. My favorites are the title track and the gorgeous ballad “Thank You.”

Joe Zawinul, 75 (Heads Up International)
At his best, and that usually meant before an audience, fusion pioneer Zawinul and his Zawinul Syndicate band produced music that feels brawny and ferocious. This two-CD set, recorded on his 75th birthday at a jazz festival in Lugano, Switzerland, captures that jazz-meets-world music intensity – just two months before Zawinul lost his battle with cancer.

One poignant track, recorded August 2, 2007 at a concert in Hungary, just five weeks before his death, reunited Zawinul with Weather Report co-founder Wayne Shorter on a extended version of Miles Davis’s “In a Silent Way.” The ferocious tracks include “Orient Express,” “Madagascar” and the medleys “Fast City”/”Two Lines” and “Badia”/”Boogie Woogie Waltz” (the latter pair from his Weather Report days.

The Bad Plus, For All I Care (Heads Up International)
As The Bad Plus, pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King have found notoriety for deconstructing and reconstructing principally rock tunes as improvisational progressive jazz pieces. In doing so, they have thrown out the notion that jazz needs a strong link to The Great American Songbook. Or perhaps they’ve been adding a new chapter.

This newest project is their first that brings aboard a vocalist. Minneapolis-based alternative rocker Wendy Lewis joins the trio for eight of the 12 racks on For All I Care.” The band’s often slowed or fractured tempos give Lewis space to stretch the lyrical possibilities amid the band’s improvisations. This time around they tackle Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium,” Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” Yes’s “Long Distance Runaround,” Wilco’s ”Radio Cure,” Oklahoma City alternative/indie-rock band The Flaming Lips’ “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate,” the Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love,” Roger Miller’s "Lock, Stock and Teardrops" and Heart’s “Barracuda.”

This time, the band broadened its repertoire considerably, but Lewis sits out on the CD’s three classical reconstructions (plus one alternate take) of material by Igor Stravinsky, Milton Babbitt and Gyorgi Ligeti.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Big numbers in a January without IAJE

A jazz-related gathering in Boston next weekend will be a hang of sorts for thousands, but not on the wide range of levels as the gone-but-not-forgotten IAJE conferences.

Saturday, January 31 brings the Berklee College of Music's 41st annual High School Jazz Festival, with some 3,000 musicians in 200 bands competing for $175,000 in Berklee scholarships.

In addition to the student competitions, the Hynes Convention Center event will feature concerts and clinics (free and open to the public), featuring brothers Delfeayo (trombone) and Jason Marsalis (vibes), and drummers Gregg Bissonnette, John Blackwell and Terri Lyne Carrington.
Berklee says the festival, originally called the New England High School Stage Band Festival, is the oldest and largest competition of its kind in the United States. That longevity is remarkable - and laudable.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Plaque on the wall honors the musical history and promise inside

Move over Faneuil Hall, Old South Meeting House and other designated historic sites in Boston. You have company. Company with a jazz connection that dates to the 1940s.

On January 30, Wally’s CafĂ© Jazz Club, originally known as Wally’s Paradise, will be recognized by the Boston Historical Society for its contributions to the city’s cultural fabric.

Among many other notables, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday performed there, as did native son Roy Haynes in the 1940s and ‘50s. Haynes was back to sit in on occasion after Wally’s moved across the street to its current location at 427 Massachusetts Avenue and became a fertile performance space for young student players from the nearby Berklee College of Music, New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory and other area schools, many of whom became part of subsequent generations of jazz greats.

That mission continues today under the management if brothers Frank, Lloyd and Paul Poindexter, and their mother, Elynor. The Poindexters took the reins after Elynor’s father, Joseph “Wally” Walcott, died in 1998. Walcott was the first African American to own a nightclub in New England. The club still presents live music nightly.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A jazz impact to celebrate

Anyone with even the most casual interest in the impact jazz has had on society at-large should seek out the comprehensive essay that Nat Hentoff published on the Thursday, January 15 edition of The Wall Street Journal. It is a must-read.

His piece, How Jazz Helped Hasten the Civil-Rights Movement, traces the very strong role that the music and its makers played, as early as the 1920s and through the 1960s, in eroding the segregation that was so prevalent. Even in Boston, where there was no law against racial intermingling, "it was frowned upon in official circles,"in the early 1940s, Hentoff recalls, except for the city's Savoy Cafe.

That's just one of many reminders of another place and time that Hentoff recalls in this piece, which blends the two subject matters about which he is so passionate - jazz and civil liberties as they were intertwined in the battle agaainst Jim Crow.

In its own vivid way, it is a celebration of the milestone that the United States will pass on January 20 when Barack Obama takes the Oath of Office as the nation's new President.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Whisper My Name – CD Review

Steven Santoro is a hopeless romantic, at least on his newest CD, and we are the better for it.

On Whisper My Name (Red Lion Music), he sings and writes primarily of many forms of love - and the ups, downs and frustrations of romance - the ‘it will last forever’ puppy love, unrequited love, hopeful love, and the we-can-work-it-out kind of love. Also the love-of-mankind that will overcome issues and problems we face as individuals or as a people.

Santoro’s debut CD Moods and Grooves (produced by the late Ahmet Ertegun) came out in 1995 on Atlantic Records under the singer’s real name, Steven Kowalczyk. He now uses Santoro, which was the last name of his saxophone-playing grandfather, Libertore Santoro.

In addition singing and writing memorable songs, Massachusetts-born and Connecticut resident Santoro the Younger teaches at the Berklee College of Music and is the lyricist for a new musical, "Ivory Joe Cole," which is scheduled to open this summer at Alliance Theatre, a professional residence theater company in Atlanta.

Confident and hip with a pleasant and assured mid-range voice, Santoro opens his newest CD project with the swinging double-time message of "Whisper My Name" - a tune that conveys he’s prepared to go his own way but will be back in a flash if his former lover merely whispers his name. It’s subtle and clever in its lyrical construction - and a great introduction for listeners who may not be familiar with him.

Santoro wrote 10 of 11 tunes here, plus a bonus track called “Run Away” from his R&B-laced tandem project Where I Come From. The lone chestnut here is the Jimmy Van Heusen-Johnny Mercer classic, “I Thought About You” - another romance tune of course.

Another treat is his R&B-tinged “Waiting for Grace,” which is about another sort of love – salvation. (“Life is a slap in the face but I’m still waiting for grace.”)

There are many more such fine gems on this very pleasant and intriguing CD. Check it out. Santoro gets stunning support throughout from saxophonist Jon Childers, guitarist Marc Ciprut, pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Hope amid New Orleans’ slower-than-slow recovery

Another glimmer of hope and positivity among turtle-slow efforts to bring New Orleans back from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina occurred in grand style on Thursday night, January 8.

It was the reopening of the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts in Armstrong Park. A $22 million renovation brought the theater back from the brink of ruin three years ago. The opening concert featured local musical fixtures (would anything else be appropriate?) including the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Rebirth Brass Band, Irma Thomas, Freddy Omar, Marva Wright, Philip Manuel, Michael Ward and Ingrid Lucia.

One other appropriate touch… tickets were free but were required since seating was limited.

For reopening details, check out Michelle Krupa’s reporting in The Times-Picayune, The curtain rises at Mahalia Jackson Theater.

Since President-elect Barack Obama has made it clear that an essential ingredient in America’s recovery from the current economic travail is rebuilding the country’s infrastructure as a way to put people back to work, he ought to make sure a lot of that effort is committed to rebuilding New Orleans. In that way, Obama can fulfill the promise that W. made but soon forgot as his presidency spiraled and sputtered out of control in so many ways.

Do you hear what I hear?

The easy answer is “not likely.” No two people hear things exactly the same. But what is it that draws we musicians and/or listeners to a particular instrument, grouping of instruments, or the specific sound of a player or singer over others? Why might our LP and/or CD collections be weighted more towards one instrument than another?

The subject came up last weekend at a regular brunch session with several friends. One is not keen on solo performance of any kind. He might tolerate a trio now and then, but prefers a quartet or quintet with horns. With certain exceptions like J. J. Johnson or Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson, he doesn’t really care for trombone or vibes either. Yes, he’d buy in to some variation of the joke used for everything from lawyers to trombonists: “What do you call 1,000 (trombonists) (lawyers) at the bottom of the ocean?” Answer: “A good start.” BA DUM BUM.

But why do people choose, or like, particular instruments or instrumentalists or singers?

I listened later that afternoon to a new CD with a quartet whose leader plays bassoon (Daniel Smith, Blue Bassoon). To my ears, the low-pitched, double-reeded distant cousin to the clarinet sounds like a cross between bass clarinet and baritone sax – with the expressiveness of neither.

While best known in classical circles, the bassoon has a rather obscure place in jazz, with its best-known occasional players including saxophonists Frankie Trumbauer, Garvin Bushell, Yusef Lateef, Illinois Jacquet and Frank Tiberi.

Dan Smith likely wants to take his place as a generational successor. His CD is brimming with terrific jazz material. There’s not a tired tune among the 13 pieces by 13 of the greatest writers and performers in jazz and the blues. But there is a bassoon in the mix. And for that reason, it doesn’t make me groove to the music, despite many fine performances by the other instrumentalists.

So I ask again: Why do people choose, or like, particular instruments or instrumentalists or singers?

Please weigh in with your own thoughts.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Blue Note Records is doing it up big – again

The esteemed Blue Note jazz label loves milestone celebrations. And we are at the beginning of another.

It was 25 years ago this month that the label re-launched itself under the leadership of current President Bruce Lundvall, celebrating the revival a year later with a February 22, 1985 concert of historic proportions at Town Hall in midtown Manhattan that featured dozens of Blue Note artists past and future.

The who’s who in jazz that night included Art Blakey, Lou Donaldson, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Charles Lloyd, Jackie McLean, Woody Shaw, Jimmy Smith and Grover Washington Jr. The new voices included Stanley Jordan, Michel Petrucciani and Bennie Wallace. There were many more participating, including a solo performance by Cecil Taylor and a cameo walk-on by the ailing Hank Mobley. It was a stirring evening of musical moments to witness. Soon after, Sony released the concert on a two-volume video called One Night With Blue Note Preserved.

Grover Washington Jr., Jack DeJohnette, Jimmy Smith and Stanley Turrentine – One Night With Blue Note rehearsal, Feb. 21, 1985 ... >

Now, the label is marking the 25th anniversary of its rebirth as well as the 70th anniversary of its founding in 1939 by a pair of jazz-loving German immigrants, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, a musical commitment that spawned a historic catalog of music by many of the giants of jazz when the music was thriving.

The current Blue Note anniversaries celebration will feature a worldwide tour (with 50 U.S. concert dates) and a CD release Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records (2 CDs) [AMAZON EXCLUSIVE] by the Blue Note 7, a septet consisting of pianist and musical director Bill Charlap, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash.

The year will also include book releases; jazz festival spotlights in Monterey, Montreal, Newport, New York and Portland, among others; a month-long Manhattan jazz club invasion by Blue Note artists that opens in late January, a Grammy salute in Los Angeles; a series of Blue Note reissues and a newline of clothing by the company Friend or Foe featuring classic Blue Note cover art.

It has the makings of a high-visibility year. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the effort brings more followers to – or back to – jazz.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A sad sign of the times

It’s no secret that with the economy in the toilet, and circulation and ad revenue at troubling lows, the newspaper industry has been reeling for more than a year. One of the most troubling effects, learned this week, was the year-end layoff of three Village Voice employees – one of them being the exteemed Nat Hentoff, a Voice fixture for 50 years. That’s right, Nat Hentoff, whom many would argue was the village voice in 20th century America.

His columns about jazz and civil liberties always have been on point, enlightening and solidly developed. And he has been a passionate advocate of support for musicians in financial need with his writings about the Jazz Musicians’ Emergency Fund.

The end of Hentoff’s tenure with the Village Voice was reported this week in the New York Times (see Village Voice Lays Off Nat Hentoff and 2 Others).

Fortunately for the world at-large, Hentoff’s syndicated columns and jazz writings will continue in other venues. The owners of the Village Voice have no idea what a large void they have created in their weekly publication.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

2008: the jazz year in review

It was a time of jazz tumult, controversy and achievements. The demise of one of the world's premier jazz advocacy organizations topped the jazz world's headlines during 2008, a year that also saw several jazz festivals impacted by the worsening economy. Yet the music itself—and its makers—continue to survive if not thrive in many ways. That was the common thread for my extensive look back at the year, posted at It also includes a rundown of musicians and jazz-related individuals who passed on during the year.

The full year in review can be found at: 2008: A Year of Jazz Tumult, Controversy and Achievements.

Happy holidays to everyone, with the anticipation - or at least the hope - that 2009 will be much an improvement over 2008. May the economic, political, national and international healing be substantial and long lasting. -kf