Outside Comes Back Inside at Victoriaville

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The guitar quartet Dither commanded attention with their tight-yet-flexible teamwork at this year’s FIMAV.

(Photo: Martin Morrissette)

Festival International Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville (FIMAV) in Quebec boldly explores and extolls music of the avant-garde, experimental and otherwise “outside” nature. It has done so, with a dedicated intensity scarcely seen in the Americas, for nearly 40 years now (minus the COVID-nixed 2020 festival and one other year in absentia).

This year’s festival, held May 16–22, arrived with special emotional baggage, given pandemic strictures of the past two years. Michel Levasseur, the fest’s stubbornly visionary founder/director, presented a stripped-down and distanced model in 2021, a rare pandemic-era festival presented live and without streaming or other hybrid compromises.

Real-world interventions did play into the carefully laid plans this year. Spanish avant-vocalist Fátima Miranda canceled a month before the festival (replaced by innovative Japanese vocalist Koichi Makigami) and the much-anticipated Ukrainian group Dakh Daughters canceled on very short notice, due to Visa problems and the war at home (replaced by FIMAV regular William Parker, with guitarist Ava Mendoza and standout drummer Francisco Mela).

One distinction this year: a wealth of music stands — at a festival often accentuating pure, stand-free improvisation — and inventive variations on the “chamber” music theme. High-profile guitarist-composer Mary Halvorson returned in duly grand, marquee-commanding fashion, leading both a string quartet and her sextet (special kudos to trumpeter Adam O’Farrill) in a rich set of new genre-blurring compositions. Quebec’s eloquent rascal guitarist-composer Rene Lussier was also in ensemble mode, with a new octet piece, Au Diable Vert, a wildly engaging stew of Acadian, free-improv abandon and progressive impulses.

In unorthodox quartet news, the fantastic guitar quartet (mostly electric) Dither commanded attention with their tight-yet-flexible teamwork, redolent of past FIMAV-spotlighted Fred Frith Guitar Quartet. The next morning at church, the vintage Église St-Christophe D’Arthabraska, the saxophone quartet Quasar issued a gripping set of new works, and Iannis Xenakis’ rare saxophone piece. The church’s special ambience was even more ideally suited to composer Simon Martin’s mesmeric minimalist work Musee d’Art (2022). Echoes of Morton Feldman found personalized redirection, just as Feldman inspired another earlier FIMAV visitor, Tyshawn Sorey.

Canadian artists with remote international roots framed the four-day festival. To open, Montreal-based Egyptian vocalist Nadeh El Shazly navigated sleekly with her supple voice over a bed of rustling instrumental textures. Closing on Sunday night, Vancouver-based oud player/guitarist Gordon Grdina led two separate quartets: a Middle Eastern/fusion group featuring cellist Hank Roberts and bassist Mark Helias and a post-fusion outfit featuring German drummer Christian Lillinger. Lillinger proved why he is one of the more fascinating young drummers, through his creatively restless yet precision-geared fresh approach to a kit. He was a star of FIMAV 2022, albeit from the sidelines.

Another star was certainly Makigami, whose considerable power as a vocalist includes an ability to channel multiple personae in real-time mosaics. His dazzling but fairly meditative solo performance at the church closed with a slow procession up the aisle, entrancing us with hypnotic throat-singing. Elsewhere, he also humored the crowd with his comic/Cubist vocal antics at the opening reception, and snuck in a cameo on Lussier’s set.

Among other themes this year was a certain dogmatic embrace of things non-digital, which could be seen in Train Again, the senses-seizing new film by proudly analog experimental Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky, part of a late-morning experimental film program. Musically, the trio of Mazen Kerbaj, Sharif Sehmaoui and Raed Yassin mustered up a dizzying, strictly acoustic sonic palette using extended techniques on the “conventional” tools — guitar, double bass and trumpet — which Keybaj put in service of the outer limits.

Other high points this year: the Zappa-colored fusion comic relief of talented crackpot Sean Noonan’s Pavee Dance (with the nimble Mendoze and bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma in tow); and the painterly noise rock of another midnight special, Mopcut, featuring raucously luminous vocalist Audrey Chen and new avant-guitar avatar Julian Desprez, at once abstract, rocking and detailed.

Tom Surgall, a filmmaker and musician, presented his impressive and important film Fire Music: The Story of Free Jazz, in one of the festival’s concert slots, with strong contextual links to music presented in the past. Over the decades, kingpin figures of the film’s overview — including Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Peter Brotzmann, Bill Dixon and AACM-connected musicians — have graced this festival’s stages and sometimes the catalog of the in-house Victo Records.

But whereas the film ends on something of a deceptive grave assessment of the current avant-garde scene, implying that free-jazz has retreated from active public spotlight, the following burst of inspiration concert by Colin Stetson and Mats Gustafsson served to prove that free-jazz is very alive and very well, and evolving before our ears in real time. These masters of baritone and bass saxophonic turf (along with alto sax, flute and electronics) conjured up a powerfully persuasive set, with empathetic dialoguing and a pageantry of loamy low timbres.

FIMAV is fully back in its own outside land, not a moment too soon. DB

Marco Benevento: Solo ‘Home Brew”

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​Benevento calls the outcome of his deep walk through polyrhythmic grooves, electrifying self-jams, West Africa-derived dance music, songs based on poetry and short lyrical ditties his “small batch psychedelia.”

(Photo: Seth Olenick)

During his long break from the road due to the pandemic, Marco Benevento didn’t just sit at home and twiddle his thumbs. Instead, the keyboardist stepped outside into his cramped studio on his nine-acre Woodstock, New York, home and, on his own, developed a jazz/rock solo affair of rambunctious and off-kilter experimentation. It’s richly riveting and ebullient.

The simply titled Benevento (Royal Potato Family) serves as his liberating sonic playground with a collection of in-need-of-dusting studio toys, including tape machines, old microphones, old mic preamps, a drum set, vintage analog equipment and multiple keyboards such as a Mellotron, Moog synthesizer, a classic piano and Voyager, Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Clavinet keyboards.

He calls the outcome of his deep walk through polyrhythmic grooves, electrifying self-jams, West Africa-derived dance music, songs based on poetry and short lyrical ditties his “small batch psychedelia,” describing the creation as totally “home brew.”

Since moving upstate from New York City in 2011, Benevento used his 20-by-40-foot space (nicknamed the Inspiration Station by friends) as his home base for composing and then passing off demos to whomever he was working with in various bands to add the finesse. This time it was different. “I was making all the magic happen by myself,“ he said. “I stuck with it, and then one day realized this may be the real record. I’m glad it’s out there because it’s a snapshot of my world at that time. I played everything on my four-track tape recorder. It’s loose, with some songs that sound like they’re unfinished, short interludes and then instrumental music that is structural. In some ways this album is like going back to my roots.”

Benevento comes from a full jazz background, having attended Berklee College of Music and studied with Joanne Brackeen, Brad Mehldau and Kenny Werner. “I was deep into classic jazz, and all I was shooting for was to form a jazz trio,” he said. “But that evolved over time. I discovered the sound of playing the acoustic piano through an amplifier one day and then added a distortion pedal and a delay.” A forward thinker, Benevento started to explore jam rock and indie pop in the mix.

His trio of bassist Reed Mathis and drummer Matt Chamberlain scored some impressive gigs, including the Newport Jazz Festival and opening for Jamie Cullum at Carnegie Hall. After that show, the band was approached by an A&R talent scout from Verve who was interested in recording them for the label.

“We were invited into the Verve office, where we could take home any of the label’s music,” Benevento said with a laugh. “Wow, Verve was going to record our third album. That gave us a lot of confidence that we were doing something right. But then, everything went silent.” His manager, Kevin Calabro, freaked out because he had already booked a tour and he wanted albums to sell. So, in 2009, the pair decided to form their own label, Royal Potato Family, and release Me Not Me — the beginning of a long string of adventurous Benevento albums, as well as a roster expansion of a range of music from fringe jazz to calming folk.

On Benevento, the lone cat enlisted his San Diego poet friend Al Howard to send him poems that found their way into the vocal songs. It was a family affair, with Benevento’s wife and their two young girls singing backup. On selected tunes, he linked up with master percussionist Mamadouba “Mimo” Camara, who works at the progressive Woodstock Day School that his kids attend. The pair catches fire on “Marco And Mimo,” where daughter Ruby joins in.

Spontaneity ruled. Benevento’s improvised tunes include “The Warm Up,” which features a dazzling piano run.

“I just went into the studio, started the drum machine, sat down and warmed up, got my fingers moving,” he said. “Then I discovered I had come up with pretty cool, free music just noodling around.”

Another shorty is the playful “Polysix,” which Benevento says is the name of his go-to keyboard: “It’s just a 30-second interlude of a little ditty that was stuck in my head.” Then there’s the opener, the loud and catchy “Like Me” that he says is pretty much “an unfinished song.”

The structured compositions include the pop-ish “At The End Or The Beginning,” which has an African dance vibe. That’s influenced by Benevento’s fascination with the sounds of West African pop titans Francis Bebey, the electronic Cameroon composer whose synth guitar explores the makossa dance rhythm; Kiki Ghani, a keyboardist from Ghani who’s famous for his disco funk; and William Onyeabor, the late legendary Nigerian funk star that David Byrne champions.

“I’m a vinyl collector, and I have a huge collection,” Benevento said. “My world was blown open when I found this music with its repetitious grooves and synthesizer solos. They remind me of all the music that I love. It’s my go-to music when I wake up in the morning. In my own twisted way, after I broke down what they were doing, I thought, ‘I can make songs like this.’ So ‘Marco And Mimo’ is my version of a Francis Bebey song. And some of the other experimental stuff reminds me of the vibes from those guys.”

One of Benevento’s friends says his project reminded him of the first Paul McCartney DIY album, simply titled McCartney, where the former Beatle played all the instruments and recorded in a rural setting. That resonated with Benevento. “I have 20 or 30 more pieces that I plan to put out,” he says. “So, I might do what Paul did on his two other solo albums. My next release will be Benevento II.”

As for No. 1, it’s the last album he recorded in his cramped studio. “I was in that studio for 10 years and had some good experiences,” he said. “I’ve moved into a bigger studio: my three-car garage that had been used for storage. It has a 10-foot high ceiling, heat, reclaimed barnwood on the walls, concrete floors. It’s a gold mine of space.” DB

Arriale Finds Light in Darkest Moments

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“I know that tensions are high and emotions are intense right now, but the beauty of music is beyond words,” Arriale said.

(Photo: Sven Haefliger)

Lynne Arriale honed her superb technical skills as a pianist and composer from rigorous training she received to become a classical pianist. But she first glimpsed her musical destiny at the age of 4, when she sat down at a toy piano and started to improvise.

“I remember playing ‘Moon River,’” Arriale recalled via Zoom from her home in Jacksonville, Florida, where she’s the professor of jazz studies and director of small ensembles at the University of North Florida. “I remember thinking with that melody, I could use different chords.” Bold for someone so young, but it would be years before she released her inner 4-year-old to become a nuanced and evocative artist.

“I didn’t really hear jazz until I was like 25,” said Arriale, who never heard of “’Round Midnight” until a teacher put the chart on her piano. “He told me to play the melody, and then create new melodies over the same chord changes. I said, ‘You’re kidding — I get to do that?’ And at that moment, I knew I had to learn to play jazz.”

Arriale was a quick study. Beginning with The Eyes Have It (DMP), her 1994 debut, she continued to create new melodies over the chord changes of her own multilayered compositions, as well as melodic reinventions of composers from Thelonious Monk to Tom Waits. She also built a prestigious career, releasing albums that made multiple best-of lists, including DownBeat’s Best CDs of 2020 for Chimes Of Freedom (Challenge). Chimes cemented her bond with drummer E.J. Strickland and bassist Jasper Somsen, who went on to produce the latest and most compelling album of Arriale’s career, The Light Is Always On (Challenge). The recording marks her 16th as a leader and her third release with this trio.

“March On,” the opener, sets the stage for a ripped-from-the-headlines suite of compositions that walk softly but carry a big stick. While her initial chords invoke a call to arms, the piece evolves toward the light that shines throughout an album inspired by an interview with Dr. Prakash Gada, a Tacoma, Washington, surgeon who worked through the darkest days of the pandemic.

“Dr. Gada said, ‘No one works from home,’” Arriale recalled. “‘The lights are always on.’ There were all these remarkable people who took care of us, day after day, in an almost warlike time, and that became the focal point of the album.” But Arriale took the concept a step further: “I extended it out to other people who stood up for their beliefs, even at their own peril. Heroes like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman reaffirmed how much goodness there is in the world, even during times that can make us feel a sense of despair.”

Amid the turmoil of the times, Arriale’s art imitated life in many ways. The steadfast chords of “Honor” salute Vindman, who stood up for Ukraine and bore witness against then-President Donald Trump during his first impeachment trial, foreshadowing Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine. “He’s everything a patriot should be, and he’s become an important voice in this horrible tragedy we’re witnessing,” Arriale noted. “The Notorious RBG” paid tribute to the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, but also presaged the inner strength of the latest Justice to join the bench, Kentanji Brown Jackson, who endured hostile Senate hearings before her appointment. “It was very inspiring to see her handle every question with such strength, grace and profound intelligence,” said Arriale.

Though she instinctually reaches for the light, Arriale heads “Into The Breach” of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection with uncharacteristic dissonance. “The heroes protecting the Capitol faced their own fellow citizens,” observed the composer, whose jarring chord collisions reflect the shocking events of that day. “I’m eternally grateful to them for defending our democracy.”

Arriale bridges that breach in the harmonious “Sounds Like America,” reflecting her belief that we’re all connected. “I know that tensions are high and emotions are intense right now, but the beauty of music is beyond words,” observed Arriale, whose lovely, meditative “Loved Ones” is a prayer for all those lost or separated during the pandemic. “When life brings us to our knees, somehow we get up again. There is always light. There’s always goodness. The human spirit is really unconquerable.” DB

A Generational Plea for Equality

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Black Lives—From Generation To Generation makes a multi-generational plea for equity and equality with artists like Alicia Hall Moran, left, and E.J. Strickland.

(Photo: Jessica Care Moore/Black Women Rock and Shervin Lainez)

In September 2020, in the wake of protests that rocked cities across the United States, DownBeat published a cover story titled “How Does It Feel To Be Free?” referring to composer/pianist Jason Moran’s wistful inquiry captured in the article — an inquiry that itself was echoing the 1963 Billy Taylor-penned jazz standard later popularized by Nina Simone. For Moran, a cry for racial equity was still on the money nearly 60 years later, a pensive sentiment that is, lamentably, still evergreen.

Comprising perspectives from a selection of artists that also spans generations, a potent new double album titled Black Lives–From Generation To Generation weaves a tapestry of commentary, complaints, visions and commands as a collection of ruminations on the state of affairs for Black people from Africa and across the diaspora.

In an exchange with DownBeat, producer Stefany Calembert said that she intentionally includes artists from ages 25 to 80 to illustrate that after the Civil Rights Era, “Things did not really change, even if many older composers thought a positive change [would] continue in the ’80s.” And yet, she continued, despite such continuity of struggle, those varied generational experiences are far from monolithic. “What Oliver Lake has lived the last 80 years in [the] U.S.A. is not what Cheick Tidiane Seck has lived in Africa and Europe the last 70 years. What Immanuel Wilkins has lived the last 25 years in Philadelphia is not what Tutu Puoane has lived the last 40 years in South Africa and Europe.

“These different places and times are essential to bring a concrete témoignage [or testimony] of what Black lives are living, thinking and expressing in 2022.”

Songs on From Generation To Generation both topically and musically run the proverbial gamut — from the struggle for equality to trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s “Anthem For A Better Tomorrow”; from Guadeloupe-born drummer Sonny Troupé’s fusion guitar trio flecked with Muhammad Ali newsreel samples to a duet of electric guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly and the poet/MC Sub-Z. The collection offers a worldview spectrum of Black realities articulated creatively and indelibly.

On “Walk” (performed by bassist Reggie Washington, DJ Grazzhoppa and Alicia Hall Moran), Hall Moran contributed what she classified as “a macabre lullaby,” an expression of the threadbare fears held by parents of young Black boys just trying to interface with this sometimes hazardous world. It was inspired by her own experience as a mother of two. “In that global human tradition of singing to your children, that element of danger always enters in. So, [we have] songs about don’t get bit by the spider, don’t fall off the bow.

“‘Walk’ is walking music,” she continued, “I always imagine that somebody was listening on headphones. That’s the vibe I’m coming from sonically.” For Hall Moran, it’s ultimately a conversation between generations: parent and child.

“Some of the steps are dangerous and some of the steps are very loving and tender,” she said. “And that when you’re on this walk, I am thinking of you. I’m telling you look out for the shadow, but I’m telling you [that as a Black child, you] are also a shadow. But what are you going to be … afraid of yourself? People are afraid of these shadows, but no, that’s just my child in a street lamp. He likes lamb chops and mashed potatoes, and his favorite class in school is history.”

E.J. Strickland’s “Language Of The Unheard” is also an intergenerational conversation of sorts, ruminating on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote that “riots are the language of the unheard.” The statement profoundly resonated with the drummer, who shared with DownBeat that he “named the song before [he] wrote it.” Though he says he doesn’t condone riots, he “understands the frustration behind them,” which he noted “is symbolic of an urgency.”

“The Black community has been peacefully protesting, trying to pass legislation, and communicating in the best way possible our need for America to deliver its promise — liberty and justice for all — for centuries now. The overall pulse of this tune feels urgent. Two powerful downbeats make up the entire groove. But on top of that pulse is a beautiful melody that dances in celebration of Black lives who have triumphed despite our struggle. Beauty upon urgency is what I was going for.” He augmented that beauty with inspired touches such as overdubbed tambourines that signify “chains of oppression” being shaken off.

Beauty upon urgency is, in many ways, the overall effect of From Generation To Generation as a whole: a beautiful, urgent plea for racial equality. DB

Mark Turner: Return to the West

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​“The power of unison is super,” Turner said. “It’s 10,000 years old, or more.”

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Mark Turner is sitting in a coffeehouse bakery in Westwood, California, talking in circles. Concentric, full circles, that is. The highly praised yet still underappreciated tenor saxophonist speaks softly and in thoughtful, cross-referential terms not unlike his expressive voice as player and composer, as heard on Return From The Stars, his sophisticated and soulful, quietly compelling “chordless” quartet album on ECM.

In the pandemic year of 2020, Turner made a return to his ancestral home of Los Angeles after living in New York and often working in Europe for more than a quarter century. That fruitful period found him as an emerging young artist recording with three albums on Warner Brothers, working as a sideman and ally for countless artists and building an impressive roster of projects for ECM. To date, his ECM discography includes the artful (and yes, chordless) trio Fly (with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard), work in the Billy Hart Quartet, the chamber-jazz-like Temporary Kings from 2018 (a tenor-piano duet gem with Ethan Iverson, who is also in Hart’s band) and now two distinctive albums with his own quartet.

Meanwhile, over afternoon coffee, adjacent to his current academic workplace of UCLA, Turner contemplates the full-circle sensibility of life in a city that drew his Black parents from less socially tolerant locales in Ohio and Louisiana in the mid-’60s.

“The Civil Rights [Movement] had just happened,” Turner notes. “They were young and Black and educated and they wanted to come out where things were more open and free.”

At 56, Turner and his wife, Dr. Helena Hansen, find themselves empty-nesters, and he admits that he has recently been processing his lineage out West, not only in familial terms but as a player of music connected with such influential West Coasters as Ornette Coleman, Hampton Hawes and, especially, under-recognized tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh. Marsh and his inspirational imprint are a direct link to the influence of pianist-visionary Lennie Tristano’s cerebral methodology, and that left its mark on Turner’s musical voice, too.

As testament to his evolving artistry, Turner’s next recorded outing is a project recorded in March of this year, to be released in 2023 via Giant Step Arts. A suite based on the 1912 James Weldon Johnson book Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the music features trumpeter Jason Palmer, who is also in Turner’s quartet. It’s mostly acoustic setting and includes some synthesizer and electric bass. As Turner explains, “It’s got a little Sun Ra vibe happening. I don’t know what to call it — maybe Afro-Futurist. I love that kind of music. A bit of avant-garde is coming into it, too. And the saxophone-trumpet writing is still there, but now with chords.”

In turn, Turner played on Palmer’s 2019 album Rhyme And Reason and this year’s Live From Summit Rock In Seneca Village (both on Giant Step Arts).

As of this year, Turner’s time in the spotlight is overripe. He has been dubbed a cult hero and musician’s musician in jazz circles, a tenor player with a sound and language of his own, at once postmodernist and attuned to the lessons of pan-historical jazz lore.

Possessing a warm tone, an exploratory nature and sure command of his instrument, the somewhat mysterious and reluctant hero Turner — a prolific sideman for years — is now expanding his musical identity to include leader, composer and bandleader, and not a year too soon. The circle continues.

Return From The Stars was recorded in late 2019, just before the lockdown. Does it feel now like something flown in from an earlier chapter in life?

Yes and no. It definitely feels like there’s a lot going on with all of us, and certainly a lot going on with me, in terms of music. Yes, it was from before the pandemic; but, no, it’s part of a long continuum that I’ve come to be involved in. The earlier quartet record [Lathe Of Heaven] was a beginning, but this record — among others now coming out, and another one I just made — feels like a culmination of something, whatever that is.

I’m kind of figuring out my Blackness, what I think about that as a person who grew up on the West Coast in L.A. in the ’70s. That has always come out in music, but there are other parts or aspects that I’ve held back that are starting to come out. It’s partly because I’m old now. [laughs]

Things come out when you get older. Friends are starting to die, and parents. You’ve raised children. You’ve seen a lot of the world. Things start to come out that weren’t there when you were 30. It’s part of living.

Your horn writing for saxophone and trumpet is never predictable. There are unisons and harmonies that aren’t necessarily parallel, and contrapuntal maneuvers. Is that changeable approach important to your concept for this project?

Yeah, it’s definitely important for this quartet, but just in general. It started with writing for Fly. My tunes have two-part writing and harmony. It’s basically a two-part chorale. That part’s not new. My tunes are very contrapuntal, with just two voices.

I’m just trying to figure out what makes a melody sing. Why are some melodies better than others? What is it that makes the tune? Sometimes, it’s your phrasing. Sometimes it’s your tone quality. Sometimes it’s the shape of the melody. Sometimes it’s when you play in relationship with the rhythm.

There are all these details. That has helped me a lot to understand structure, form and all those things — basically, what makes things sing and what doesn’t.

The quartet is “chordless,” with qualifying quotations. There is always a sense of underlying chords and harmonic structure going on in the music, even if only implied. Do you even write out chord forms on your charts?

I do write out chords for people, but mostly, it’s just voice-leading and that’s it. But sometimes, I do write out the chords.

When you’re reading a chart, sometimes you just need to see a G7.

It must be comforting to see that G7.

Yeah, I write out chords and write options for the voice-leading. Sometimes the chords might be optional. It could be an inversion. Sometimes, chords have an option to be major or minor or dominant.

Sometimes unison is necessary. Sometimes you need that opaque sound that you get from unison.

But when there is more contrary motion, things become 3-D. Parallel motion or similar motion is somewhere between. It’s interesting, all the things you can do.

You follow various historical traditions, but in a jazz context, this project relates to the classic quintet format with trumpet and saxophone up front — from Art Blakey to mid-’60s Miles Davis — with piano plucked out of the equation. Was that revamping of classic models in your mind?

Definitely. There’s a lot of that going on, for sure. Some of it is obviously intuitive. This is 2022, so things connect on their own. But some of it is deliberate. The tenor saxophone/trumpet combination is just very powerful to hear it in jazz. Even if the chordal instrument information is different and the language is different, you can’t not hear the Miles and Wayne reference, for example.

But it has been reconfigured because most of the time, they were playing octaves or in unison, or sometimes in fourths and fifths. That’s one thing that’s totally different. As soon as we’re on a record in fourths or fifths and especially unison, you can’t help but think “Miles Davis!” [laughs] There’s nothing wrong with that: I’m all about it.

You fleetingly dip into that pool, but then hightail it out of there.

You’ve got to dip in. The power of unison is super. It’s 10,000 years old, or more. Unison is so beautiful and primal. The other thing is, you’re in that format but in a totally different situation, with long tunes and the saxophone, trumpet and bass being in three-part harmony, especially those saxophone-trumpet performative functions. The saxophone is on top sometimes.

With Miles, the saxophone was almost never on top. It was always the trumpet. I’m changing roles all the time.

For different parts of the song, the trumpet is king of beasts. You’ve got to let him reign. I don’t know what tenor is, animal-wise. [laughs]

One reason I started doing that is that I’ve been playing with Tom Harrell for the last three or four years, and the saxophone’s almost always on the top. It’s so simple and beautiful. It’s great to just hear that, and from a master like him, to be right next to him and hear how he does that in his compositions, when the saxophone is on the top. Usually, he’s playing the super-low trumpet. I thought “OK, I have to try to get that in.”

Also, there is Ornette Coleman’s band, which had trumpet, but Ornette was on the top a lot. OK, my instrument is tenor, but just with the feeling of saxophone on the top and trumpet on the bottom or the near bottom, there’s something powerful about that.

Ornette was obviously a pioneer and strong contender in that “chordless band” field. Did that music have a big impact on you?

Oh, man, huge. I can’t say I know a lot of Ornette heads by heart. I need to learn more. I listened to a lot of that music — Ornette in the late ’50s and the ’60s, but particularly in the ’70s. Science Fiction is my favorite. It made a huge impression on me.

And featuring Bobby Bradford, another West Coaster, and one who stayed in Los Angeles.

Yes, exactly. It’s that whole West Coast, a whole lineage of people who moved here — either they or their parents — from the Midwest and the South. It’s part of this lineage thing of my grandparents and their friends. They didn’t go north. Some people went north to Chicago. But a lot of Black people went west to L.A. It’s a totally different thing, just the way the blues sounds and their version of African-diasporic folklore and music.

I’m not a musicologist, but if you want to talk about the blues, that’s another version of it. It’s got some country in it, some mystery, some calypso in there. It’s totally different than the New York version or Chicago version.

Ornette and Dewey Redman came out from Fort Worth, Texas.

Yeah, exactly. These musicians from Northern Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma have a totally different thing. I was thinking about Hampton Hawes.

The music is more relaxed, but still has the punch and intensity. I really relate to that. I was trying to figure out what that is and it started coming into my playing more and into my compositions. A lot of it is that space. With people like Hampton, just in his playing, he’s got that space. It’s not as dense.

You have expressed your admiration for Warne Marsh, the Lennie Tristano disciple. How did you get into him and what was it about his music that appealed to you?

All this thing about space, the West appeals to me, and he was another manifestation of that. I ran into him in person in high school. I just knew about him from his work with Lew Tabackin and Toshiko Akiyoshi. We would play some of her arrangements. I heard this weird guy playing with them, and thought, “Who the hell was that?” I was super into it.

Much later, during college, I ran into a piano player, Mike Cain, who was studying with Harvey Diamond, who was completely into the Tristano thing. Like a lot of the Tristano acolytes, if you want to call them that, they have all these bootlegs. I thought, “Oh, let me check this out.”

I was attracted just because I was trying to figure out how to improvise, with people who were really on the edge of their seat and really improvising. Improvisation is a large topic. [Most jazz musicians] were playing organized traditional information, meaning music from the ’40s and ’50s, on tunes. [Tristano acolytes] weren’t playing that.

It was something different. I was just curious: What’s that all about? I was trying to figure out how to create drama, excitement and anticipation without volume, without volume maximalism.

I liked all the other stuff, too — the maximalism, drama, volume — but it seems like that is celebrated way more than the other, and I wanted to find something else.

Your project with alto saxophonist Gary Foster, another Tristano connection, came out in 2019, more than a decade after its recording. You do a great take on Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee,” among other things, speaking of Tristano links.

Oh, yeah. Man, it was super awesome. That came out finally. I met Gary because he heard through the grapevine that I was into Warne, and he had a good relationship with Warne. So, for me, it was incredible to meet someone still living but with a connection to that school, and to play with him. It was incredible.

Thinking about projects without chordal instruments, two examples were ECM projects — Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition, with Arthur Blythe and David Murray, and Dave Holland’s band with Steve Coleman, Kenny Wheeler and Robin Eubanks.

Yeah, that’s true. I remember the (Holland) albums Triplicate and Jumpin’ In. I transcribed some of Steve’s playing from that. This was 15 years ago or so. I heard them, but I can’t say they influenced me directly, at least not in terms of this project.

Were there any specific models you can point a finger at, in terms of conceiving of your quartet?

I wouldn’t say there was anything direct in terms of writing patterned after a certain band. It’s more like there are details about voicing or harmony or parts of tunes that relate to parts of jazz and parts of classical music.

The closing track on the new album, “Lincoln Heights,” is also the “straightest.” It’s almost a gospel/soul tune, in 6/8 — though sometimes sneaking into 9/8.

Yeah, there’s a little extra.

What’s the story behind that piece?

It’s just having a little bit of that R&B/gospel thing, which is a part of me, but which I’ve never been able to figure out how to put in before and make it not so different from the rest of the music.

You can have a lot of tunes from different genres. That happened a lot in the ’90s, with records that were eclectic and celebrated that fact. I’m not saying it’s wrong. It’s just not what I wanted to do. It’s easy to be eclectic, but hard to integrate the music.

The other thing is that I wanted to write a simple tune. I wanted to just write a one-page tune — which I usually don’t. That’s basically what it was, a simple, soulful melody. I wasn’t sure about the rhythm, but I knew it would be something like what it turned out to be, some kind of 6/8. The rest of it unfolded on its own. The other thing that ended up happening was some kind of repetitive refrain, which tapped into R&B.

After many projects on ECM, how has it been working with Manfred Eicher? Is he a kindred spirit?

Yeah, in some ways. He has been really cool and great, personally, for sure. I’ve benefitted from it and enjoyed working with him. Through classical music, he’s got that Germanic music cultural connection to music, which is interesting. When he’s in the studio, he’s able to describe what’s going on, whatever that might be. It might be dynamics or something about the form or flow or pace of the music. That’s unique to have that happening in the studio. Particularly when he’s mixing, that’s when it really goes down. He’s really great at that.

He’s very precise in what he wants, but he’s also open to make things alive, in certain kinds of music.

I can see why he would be drawn to projects like Fly and your quartet, both open and spacious, but with musical intrigue attached. For instance, he loved the old Jimmy Giuffre Trio, which he reissued several years ago.

That was super amazing. Whoo. I used to listen to that a lot, in the ’90s and early 2000s. You were asking about a direct influence — that’s one. It’s not chordal. Manfred seemed to like what we were doing enough to let us record.

On your early Warner Brothers albums, you were young but with a poise and maturity beyond your years, especially compared to the young bloods on the scene in the ’90s.

Right, the young lions. I was anti-“young lion.” [laughs]

So, you were a rebel in that case. How do you compare Mark Turner, circa 2022, and your musical self in that emerging era? Are they connected?

Yeah. I was on that trajectory then, and I was trying to figure out how to put things together. I still am. I would say the connection is like someone playing the long game. It’s like a 2,000-mile pilgrimage in the Medieval era.

Back then, maybe I was at 100 miles. Maybe I’m at mile 1,000 now.

So your musical trek is an ongoing evolution?

Yeah, totally. DB

Michael League’s Spanish Adventure

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“One thing I love about production is having to submit to a vision that isn’t 100% my own,” League said. “That ensures you have variety in your life.”

(Photo: Txus Garcia)

Before he founded Snarky Puppy, Bokanté and GroundUP Productions, before he produced a Grammy-winning album, even before he started to play the bass or guitar, Michael League was a devotee of team sports.

“Sports was my primary way to socialize,” League said late last year. By high school, he added, his military family had moved from California to Alabama to Virginia. “We met a lot of different people, experienced different parts of the U.S., and never laid down deep roots anywhere. That immediately makes you a bit light on your feet; it makes it easy to say hello and goodbye.”

League spoke, in person (a rarity during the pandemic), from his top-floor recording studio in Prats Del Rei, a Roman-era village of 500 souls in the foothills of Montserrat, an hour south of Barcelona, Spain. The windows gave an unimpeded view of a long access road from the main highway, the better for occupants a millennium ago to spot unwelcome strangers on the Catalonian plain.

“As the years go on, I see more of a relationship between how I deal with music, and how I dealt with sports,” League continued. “This person plays this role great, so let’s give them the ball in these situations. I often think of that on stage when I’m choosing a soloist, or, when I’m producing, considering who would be great to sing this chorus or play sax on a certain song. I think like a coach. The coach makes the decisions, makes the game plan off the field, and then leaves it to the players. I like that a lot.”

League implied that this ingrained predisposition to flexibility and objective assessment facilitated his creative responses to the ongoing flux of road life — six to 10 months annually, he estimated — from Snarky Puppy’s mid-’00s origins to March 2020, when COVID-19 shut down the world. That’s when League, then shuttling between Brooklyn and another Catalonian town, made his way to Cádiz, where he conceived and executed a brilliant one-man album, So Many Me (GroundUP). Meanwhile, he bought the Prats Del Rei fixer-upper, cheap, midway through 2020, supervised a gut renovation and moved in near the beginning of 2021. Already fluent in Spanish, League absorbed the Catalan language, helping him assimilate into Catalonia’s exclusive oenophilic and foodie communities — and to accumulate a formidable wine cellar.

“Michael responds to the moment; he can create something out of nothing,” observed Bill Laurance, a regular on piano in the world of Snarky Puppy, the band and collective that brought League to fame. “He’s a master of turning any disadvantage into an advantage. Even when things go wrong, he sees that as an opportunity to create a new foothold.”

As an example, Laurance cited a tour some years back when the band’s laptops, instruments and other possessions were stolen from their school bus. “I remember thinking that this tour was done,” Laurance said. “But Michael hustled. He got on Facebook and reached out to everyone we knew in the next town, and got musicians to bring instruments to the gig. We made it to the show and the tour carried on. That rallied us together. There [are] countless examples where, when our chips were down, Michael found a way to turn it around.”

A London native, Laurance was bunking in League’s guest room as they co-produced an album consisting of 16 tracks culled from 150 songs on the theme of conflict submitted by a global cohort of aspirants. The assignment came from the Swiss organization Beyond Music, whose ethos of breaking down barriers between different cultures through cross-pollinating styles on an online platform mirrors League’s preoccupations over the past decade.

In April 2021, they documented years of duo playing with an album of new music yet to be released on which Laurance plays acoustic piano and League plays oud and fretless bass. “It’s a pandemic project,” League said. “Snarky Puppy gigs had been canceled. People from the U.S. were no longer allowed to enter Europe. But the festivals were going on, especially in Italy, because their really hard-hit moment was earlier. Our Italian agent called Snarky Puppy’s manager and said, ‘Mike’s in Europe, Bill’s in Europe, [keyboardist] Justin Stanton is in Europe — can we figure something out?’”

In response, League and Stanton conceived a project with vocalist-accordionist-composer Magda Giannikou and some Spanish musicians. “Then, I thought Bill and I could do a duo where he’s not the only melodic voice,” League said. “We put together songs from our back catalogue and some covers, and drove across Italy together, eating like kings. We had so much fun that we decided to write new music and make a record. We wrote all the music over Christmas.”

That duo album is one outcome of a 12-projects-in-12-months extravaganza that League assigned himself after resettling. “A big part of moving to Catalonia was to refocus my life more as a producer than a traveling musician,” League said. “Now, after being home, that lifestyle seems exhausting. It wasn’t then, but I realized that at a certain point it would get tiring, and when it seemed inevitable that this pandemic would come and go in waves, I decided to commit to producing as much as possible without compromising quality. Artists come to me one at a time. We can do a record alone in my house or through Zoom. I figured one a month was reasonable. It was demanding, and sometimes became complicated because things got canceled and rescheduled based on travel restrictions. I’d produced 40 or 50 records, so this isn’t new for me — but I’ve grown more as a producer in 2021 than in any year of my life.

“One thing I love about production is having to submit to a vision that isn’t 100% my own. That ensures you have variety in your life — and in your creative life — and also that you learn things. You have to be ready for anything, to be an open channel. If I’m sole composer, producer and player, I control every idea. No new idea is coming from an outside source that I have to process, respect and actualize.”

As examples, League mentioned his work on three 2021 GroundUP releases. Real Life is a trans-genre program of contemporary electronic music performed acoustically by ATTACA, a Grammy-winning classical quartet, then post-produced by League and engineer Nic Hard to impart an electronic feel while using only sounds generated by the quartet. He produced and played on several tracks of Portuguese fado star Gisela João’s AuRora. He arranged all the songs for iconic Peruvian singer Susana Baca’s Palabras Urgentes (No. 1 on the Transglobal World Music Chart as we spoke), entering the musical flow on riq and dohola darbuka (Arabic tambourine and hand drum) and electric guitar.

“People like Susana and Gisela, or Eliades Ochoa from Buena Vista Social Club, or Hamid El Kasri, who’s the main Gnawa maâlem in Morocco, or [singer] Varijashree Venugopal from India, grew up playing and developed their sound in the folkloric music of their country,” League said. “Now they’re interested in finding possibilities for their music and artistry outside the box of their cultural context. So they reach out to producers not from their country, who are interested and hungry to explore different styles of music from around the world, and hopefully have enough taste and respect to carry their music to a new place without pulling its roots out of the ground.

“Not everyone has the same mission. Susana told me, ‘I want to make a record with different flavors, that sounds unique, that the whole world can hear and understand, but that goes to the Blackness of Peruvian music.’ For me, that was an interesting challenge, because I’m white and not from Peru. Gisela grew up in the fado tradition, but also went to raves. She told me repeatedly, ‘Fado is not a genre; it’s a feeling. Snarky Puppy has a fado song. I’ll tell you which song it is.’ She played it for me. So, my brief was clearly to create an electronic soundscape without losing the essence of what fado is to her and without her feeling it’s no longer fado.”

Similar imperatives inform the September 2021 release Becca Stevens And The Secret Trio (GroundUP), on which the vocalist interacts with Ara Dinkjian, an oud player of Turkish-Armenian descent; Ismail Lumanovski, a clarinetist from Macedonia; and Tamer Pinarbasi, a qānūn player from Turkey. League met the band, which is New York-based, during a several-month residence in Turkey in 2017. He booked them at his 2018 GroundUP Festival in Miami, introduced them to singer-songwriter Stevens, and suggested a recording.

He mentioned one motivation for establishing an Iberian footprint was geographic proximity to Turkey and Morocco, where he’s done quality fieldwork, developing relationships with master drum practitioners whose lessons filter into his contemporary musical production. He traced his immersive interest in Anatolian culture to matrilineal ancestors, ethnic Greeks from Smyrna (now Izmir) who were expelled by Ataturk’s forces in 1922. “I grew up eating Greek food and drinking Greek spirits — and Turks and Greeks are brothers,” he said. “The culture immediately resonated with me — then I started listening to the music. I’d visit for long chunks of time, studying the music all day, every day, reading books about Istanbul, exploring the food and drink, the people, the architecture, the vibe in the city. That’s the most natural way to learn anything. It’s how all our favorite musicians learn music — being in the midst of the culture that created the music.”

That attitude has animated League since his teens, when he was invited to play at the First Baptist Church in Vienna, Virginia. “I had a revelatory experience,” said League, then a devotee of Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa and CSNY (he’s served as David Crosby’s musical director since producing and co-writing the 2016 album Lighthouse). “I grew up Catholic. I thought, ‘How could this be the same God?’ Paintings of ‘The Last Supper’ with everybody Black. It was a whole other space. I started playing at this church and joined a band called New Element, where my job was to play rock guitar solos over gospel music. The musicians, who are still my friends, exposed me to Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, whose first record, Brown Sugar, lit some fires in me.”

After enrolling at the University of North Texas, League joined “a Black quartet that played in a Black restaurant in Dallas-Fort Worth as well as in Black churches in the area.” For the next three years, he recalled: “Half my gigs were in Black churches and the other half with musicians from those churches. I played in churches three days a week; every Sunday I did three church gigs — one Methodist, one Catholic, one Baptist — in three different cities. Just going to one Black church service will change the way you think about music, but when you immerse yourself, you start noticing everything clearly. You hear the same chords we play in jazz, but they feel different. You do something in response to the preacher; you’ve rehearsed a song you were supposed to play, but you won’t play it because it’s not the right moment — you can tell the congregation doesn’t feel it.

“Then you start hearing all your jazz heroes — Ellington, Mingus, Trane and Miles — in a way you couldn’t by listening to their records, going to a white jazz school.”

League had drawn deeply from that well of lived experience at Barcelona’s Conservatori Liceu, where he gave a master class in spring 2020 and then, “when it looked like I’d be sitting at home for the next eight months,” accepted an invitation to teach one day a week. In addition to a class on “every single step of the album-making process” and another on the bass, he’s supervised a 17-piece Black American Music Ensemble, with five singers, through performances of repertoire by post-1950 Black American performers from Dallas, Philadelphia, the borough of Queens and Chicago.

“Living in a place that’s geographically, culturally and attitudinally so far away from the Black Ameican culture that created the music these students are studying, I decided to create a class that emphasizes research through performance,” League said a few days before his students presented a concert at the Voll-Damm Barcelona Jazz Festival. “In music, we don’t get as specific about geography as we should. Especially in Europe, people lack the context.

“I like to learn things and include them in my way, without trying to be Black, without trying to be Turkish — being me, with the identity that I’ve developed over the years, which is 80 percent or 90 percent forged by either Black American music that I listened to and studied growing up or white musicians whose primary influences are Black American music.

“I like to share cool shit.” DB

Pilc Celebrates Improv Freedom in Montreal

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“It’s a vibrant scene, impressive for the size of the town,” Pilc said of Montreal. “And it is more about exchange than competition.”

(Photo: Sharonne Cohen)

It was June 2021, just after the end of an extended COVID-19 lockdown, that Alive–Live At Dièse Onze, Montréal, a new album by pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, was recorded. It was a special moment for anyone yearning for human connection, and the return of live music.

Some eight months later, on a snowy Friday in February, DownBeat returned to Dièse Onze, a mainstay of the Montreal jazz scene, for the album’s release party. Pilc’s debut on Justin Time Records, Alive features bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc and drummer Jim Doxas, two of Montreal’s most prominent sidemen, and gifted leaders in their own right.

A prolific Paris-born pianist with a distinct style and a penchant for spontaneity, Pilc spent two decades in New York before relocating to Montreal in 2015 to teach at McGill University. “I like the vibe very much, the high level and dedication of the students, and the fact that it’s about music and art, not about competition and efficiency of training,” he mused in a post-concert interview. “We are forming musicians, not race horses, and in that respect, I admire the work of my colleagues here. Sharing the passion is what it’s all about.”

Immersed into the Montreal jazz community, Pilc has played the city’s clubs as a leader, co-leader or sideman on a regular basis. “It’s a vibrant scene, impressive for the size of the town. And it is more about exchange than competition which, after 20 years in NYC, is quite refreshing.”

An autodidact, Pilc’s mastery of both Western classical music and the jazz canon, especially jazz piano, are evident. Multifaceted and immensely inventive, adventurous and unpredictable, his playing draws on a vast body of music from baroque to bebop and beyond, evoking Bud Powell, Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk, oscillating between tender and poignant to angular and emphatic.

Pilc’s performances are completely improvised, with no set list or pre-planning. In his album notes, he shares how he takes the stage “as a newborn, ready for a new life, a new journey, a new experience, every time.” Witnessing Pilc’s attentiveness to bandmates throughout the evening’s two exhilarating sets, it became clear that Doxas and LeBlanc were as much part of this experience as the pianist. “Every note they play becomes part of this life we are living together on the stage,” Pilc said.

The ever-evolving “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” opened this set of extended explorations of standards and originals. At close to 15 minutes, it offered a deep dive into what would be in store. Navigating phases and moods, the trio at turns becomes tender and bluesy, then blistering into a thunderous roar. The recording captured the audience’s warm reception, and Doxas’ breathless, satisfied “Wooh!” after the final note is played.

Next comes “11 Sharp,” one of two Pilc originals — a reference to the “blue note,” or sharp 11th, which translates into French as dièse onze, the name of the club. Alternating rhythmically, melodically and emotionally, it is followed by two Miles Davis staples — the lyrical “Nardis” and a temperamental rendition of “All Blues,” which, over the course of an extended workout, whispers and soars with intensity. Doxas rides the cymbals, propelling the music with equal parts inventiveness and emotion, while LeBlanc shifts the dynamics with an intimate solo. Pilc, quoting Stravinsky, flies across the piano, the audience enthralled.

Closing the album is the title track “Alive,” a fully improvised piece showcasing a signature aspect of Pilc’s playing — right and left hands completely independent, like two separate players, as if one alone can’t possibly express everything he yearns to convey.

With the magic of improvisation woven into his very being, Pilc co-led a three-year improv workshop project at McGill. Participants included jazz and classical musicians — both faculty members and students. “The beauty of this project,” Pilc said, “is that it abolishes the separation between jazz, classical and other styles, and also the separation between composer, improviser, instrumentalist and conductor. So, in a way it’s a return to how it was until the 20th century, when those activities split, and people became more specialized, and different styles of music became separated from each other.”

Many of the improvisation sessions took place in Montreal venues, allowing the music to develop in a natural framework, and enabling a large audience to discover the “often poorly understood or even misunderstood possibilities” of collective improvisation — which, as Pilc sees it, leads to true instant composition when practiced with consistency and rigor. Participants gained a new perception and new knowledge of this practice, having “an essential influence on their artistic development, their future work and their educational activity.” The project’s archive, available online, expands this process to a wide range of musicians and students around the globe.

“Pilc has really influenced the way people play here,” remarked Randy Cole from a neighboring table during the intermission. Cole, a Montreal filmmaker creating insightful, well-crafted projects on the local jazz scene, noted how “even some of the more straight-ahead players are quite adventurous on stage with him. His ideas about how to improvise have rippled out through the scene. I think it was kind of freeing.”

Bassist LeBlanc shared a similar impression. “Playing with Pilc has been a huge learning experience for me,” he said. “I had never played with someone as adventurous and free as he is, and it definitely unlocked the gates to a dimension of collective improvisation that I hadn’t been exposed to.” The album — “a snapshot of a very particular moment” following two years during which the trio hadn’t played together — encapsulates this sense and vulnerability, and at the same time “made it feel like your favorite pair of slippers that you dug up years later.”

The album’s notes open with Pilc reflecting on how his vinyl collection includes treasured items on which “the sound is not perfect, but you can hear improvising musicians in their natural habitat, the jazz club, playing music for the sake of music, never repeating themselves, and creating sounds that they will never replicate.” The only thing Pilc aims to replicate in his performances is that sense of adventure. There was a tangible feeling of heightened, wide-ranging emotion at Dièse Onze the night Alive was recorded. And so, despite its technical limitations, Pilc made the decision not to keep it under wraps, benefiting from Guy Hébert’s skillful mastering.

“The music was vital to us and to the audience,” Pilc writes. It’s clear why he felt compelled to release this set, documenting not only a singular night, but also the vibe at this intimate, welcoming club with an appreciative audience. “Every performance is a new trip … but it always feels organic, vital and alive. It’s a communion, really, among us three and with the audience, and the club is perfect for that.” DB

Erwin Helfer Celebrates His Jazz-Blues Journey

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The organic nature of Helfer’s artistry is genuine, developed over a lifetime of apprenticeship, appreciation and practice.

(Photo: Marc Pokempner)

Blues, boogie, jazz and American roots pianist Erwin Helfer is the unlikely-but-grateful poster boy for survival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having been hospitalized in spring 2020 for a severe depression brought on by enforced isolation, he was saved by electroconvulsive therapy — also known as shock treatment.

In January 2022, he celebrated his 86th birthday at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, following the release of a new album, Celebrate The Journey, and an instructional book, Blues Piano and How to Play It.

“There were three reasons I fell into that dark hole,” Helfer explained in a phone interview. “First off, I couldn’t play.” Before music venues were shuttered against the disease, Helfer had been gigging weekly, solo and with a band. “Secondly, I couldn’t teach,” he said. Helfer has long given children and adults lessons in the living room of his home on a street which the city has designated Erwin Helfer Way. “Third, I couldn’t access my finances,” he lamented.

Although fiscally secure, Helfer, like many octogenarians, was not adept at online banking, typically riding his bicycle to the local branch to do business. At home alone, without that access, he slipped into unfounded fears that whipped into a whirlpool of delusion and pessimism. Friends got him admitted to Rush Memorial Hospital, where he spent six weeks and underwent multiple electroshock sessions.

After getting home, Helfer declined to play, feeling he’d lost motivation, not to mention his chops. But the music that he has immersed himself in since high school in the early 1950s drew him back in. When a local television newscaster had arranged for a piano to be in the studio where he interviewed Helfer for a piece on his rich life, the pianist wandered over to it, sat down and played a song. The feeling was still there. As opportunities gradually opened to play live again in 2021, he resumed both teaching and performing.

Onstage, Helfer is an outgoing and original entertainer. He revisits classic repertoire such as Jelly Roll Morton’s “Sweet Substitute” and Avery Parrish’s “After Hours.” He re-energizes standards like “Swanee River” with an upbeat treatment or digs into showpieces including “Pinetop’s Boogie.” And he sprinkles in corny jokes as well as his own compositions such as “Daydreaming,” which imbue blues forms with influences he’s absorbed from Johann Sebastian Bach, Bela Bartók and Thelonious Monk as well as Jimmy Yancey and Otis Spann. In his hands, the disparate threads flow naturally. The organic nature of his artistry is genuine, developed over a lifetime of apprenticeship, appreciation and practice.

Born into a family that enjoyed weekend musical parties, Helfer in his teens became a protégé of Bill Russell — a co-author of Jazzmen, the first American book on New Orleans’ early players as well as an avant-garde classical composer, record store owner, record producer, violinist and collector of ephemera that was eventually published in the encyclopedia scrapbook Oh, Mr. Jelly. Through Russell, Helfer met players who’d been at jazz’s birth, like the drummer Baby Dodds.

Enrolling in Tulane University in New Orleans (where Russell had relocated), Helfer became friends with early jazz artists such as trumpeter De De Pierce and his pianist-singer wife, Wilhelmina Madson Goodson, better known for her stage name, Billie Pierce. In 1957, he featured her along with Doug Suggs, James “The Bat” Robinson and re-discovered St. Louis-based boogie master Speckled Red on Primitive Piano, produced on his own Tone Records. It was the first of several projects Helfer initiated, convening blues and boogie players like Blind John Davis, Willie Mabon, Sunnyland Slim and Jimmy Walker for Heavy Timbre or Barrelhouse Chuck, Detroit Junior and Pinetop Perkins for 8 Hands On 88 Keys.

Helfer received a bachelor’s degree from the American Conservatory of Music and a master’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University. He made his professional debut while still in high school, substituting for Little Brother Montgomery as accompanist for Mama Estelle Yancy, the widow of famed pianist Jimmy Yancy. Their collaboration inspired one of his signature compositions, “Stella,” and continued until her death at age 90 in 1986.

But Helfer had long since expanded his blues activities. During the ’60s, he gave piano lessons to harmonica-playing bandleader Paul Butterfield, recorded the single “Drunken Boat”/“Whole Lotta Soul” (written by Nick Gravenites), took avant-garde breaks by AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, and tried out the new technology of keyboard synthesisis on Chess Records’ Moogie Woogie, (which he deplores). He also dipped into the Great American Songbook for his first solo album, On The Sunny Side Of The Street, with soprano saxophonist Clark Dean, drummers S.P. Leary and Odie Payne, and bassists Truck Parnham, Eddie Calhoun and Betty Dupree.

Helfer’s discography continues to grow, with seven albums since 2002 on the Sirens label documenting his solos, trios and larger ensembles tackling compositions by Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and Fats Waller, among others. His Blues Piano and How To Play It is a comprehensive instructional volume for players of all levels, detailing basics and nuances, all underwritten by his dictum that “the best way to learn to play blues and jazz is by ‘hanging out’ with the people who play it and listening obsessively to recordings of the music.”

Such was the pianist’s blues-boogie-jazz-roots education, which he has enabled newcomers to similarly pursue when he’s at the piano bench at home, teaching at the annual Augusta Heritage Center blues camp in Elkins, West Virginia, on tour in Europe and at parties and benefits for progressive causes in Chicago.

The extreme depression he suffered and the unusual health care that healed him seem to have left no lasting ill effects. A sweet-tempered and modest man, he’s booking appearances into the future. His blues express the range of emotions from sadness to joy. He summarizes his experiences simply. “I feel real lucky,” he said. Listeners share that luck when they tune into Erwin Helfer’s music. DB

Meghan Stabile, Promoter, Dies at 39

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Meghan Stabile was the founder of Revive Music Group.

(Photo: courtesy of family)

Meghan Stabile, a promoter, presenter and producer, died on June 12 in Florida at age 39. The apparent cause was suicide, according to news reports.

As the founder of Revive Music Group, Stabile organized shows and created a vibrant network connecting musical artists with performance venues. News of her passing first came via an Instagram post by electric bassist, vocalist and producer Thundercat.

Artists she worked with included keyboardists Robert Glasper and Ray Angry, harpist Brandee Younger, producer Raydar Ellis, and trumpeters Igmar Thomas and Keyon Harrold.

“Meghan was just as important to the culture as the artists she helped,” bassist Ben Williams stated on social media. “She worked so hard to create a world for us young artists to express ourselves. It wasn’t about style or genre. Whether you were a rapper or an avant-garde saxophonist, she made space for us all. She loved us. She built a stage when she didn’t see one available for us.” DB

Pete Malinverni Delivers Bernstein’s Message

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“I don’t want people on my bandstand counting measures,” Malinverni said.

(Photo: Sally Green)

As Pete Malinverni worked his way through a set on a January night at The Django, a Manhattan night club, the pianist leavened the music with thoughtful commentary. But when he dropped his microphone, it became clear that something more was up. Rather than pick up the mic and resume his patter, he began waving it like a priest blessing the audience with holy water.

Turned out that, in addition to being a consummate practitioner of mainstream jazz, Malinverni had a comic’s timing and a preacher’s fervor. For Malinverni — who at age 8 performed Haydn at a Pentecostal church in his hometown of Niagara Falls, New York, and these days has regular gigs at a reform Jewish temple and an ecumenical Christian church — playing music for the masses is a joyful calling.

“I think it’s important that we treat it like it’s missionary work, and we are bringing a certain message to them,” Malinverni, 64, said over oatmeal at a Manhattan diner the day after the Django performance.

The main vehicle for his message that January night was the music of Leonard Bernstein, whose songbook also provides the bulk of the material for his latest album, On The Town (Planet Arts). The album draws largely on tunes from the New York-centric Bernstein musicals Wonderful Town, West Side Story and, of course, On The Town.

“I didn’t do anything on the album I didn’t think he would like,” Maliverni said of Bernstein.

The album’s most emblematic tune may be one not associated with New York, “A Simple Song.” From 1971’s Mass, it is the only selection with overtly spiritual content and, in Malinverni’s hands, it upends Bernstein’s hymn. A rubato intro and outro envelope a simmering, decidedly unhymnlike groove — one that, in its contrarian funk, captures the spirit in which Bernstein created the original project, a radical reimagining of the traditional Catholic Mass.

Like “Simple Song,” “Some Other Time” undergoes a change from the original. A wistful ballad from the show On The Town, here it becomes an upbeat jaunt in 5/4. The idea, Malinverni said, grew in part out of a desire to avoid evoking Bill Evans’ melancholy treatment; it came to him after a process of changing keys led to his hearing the tune with “different ears.”

Malinverni began to delve into Bernstein’s oeuvre in 2018, when he was commissioned to write arrangements for a 100th anniversary celebration of the composer at SUNY Purchase, where he is chairman of jazz studies.

Malinverni does not challenge Bernstein’s original conceptions lightly. “Somewhere” remains a straightforward ballad; “I Feel Pretty,” a lilting waltz. “Cool” retains the feel of its title, with Malinverni’s left hand and Ugonna Okegwo’s bass rendering, in unison, a finger-snapping ostinato that undergirds a slinky improvisation based on the Jewish “freygish” mode, which Bernstein sometimes favored.

“There are certain things that are set in stone,” he said.

At The Django, Malinverni, by turns hunched over the keys, declaiming to the heavens, communed with Okegwo, who, as a teacher at Purchase, has developed a bond with the pianist. They built their ostinati into moments of high tension that found release in passages of straightahead blowing, which in turn gave way to pulsating solos by Okegwo or tasty trading between Malinverni and drummer Aaron Beeber. Malinverni adjusted the improvisatory cycles with cues as the music unfolded.

“I don’t want people on my bandstand counting measures,” he said. DB

Montreal’s Inaugural Saint-Henri Jazz Society Festival Sells Out

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​New York saxophonist Nicole Glover (right) and Montreal pianist Taurey Butler on stage during the inaugural Saint-Henri Jazz Week.

(Photo: Sharonne Cohen)

Spring sprouted a brand new jazz initiative in Montreal this year: the Saint-Henri Jazz Week, presented in the borough that is the birthplace of Montreal jazz giants Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones, and focusing on local talent, with the expressed intention of fostering community spirit.

This inaugural festival (held May 3–8) featured a diverse program and a variety of activities: local jazz duos playing outdoors every noon on Notre Dame Street; the Wine & Vinyl listening series, pairing jazz albums with local wines; a historical cultural event in the form of a roundtable with distinguished panelists discussing the history of jazz in Montreal; a concert series showcasing New York artists Jeremy Pelt, Nicole Glover and Billy Drummond, who performed alongside leading players on the Canadian jazz scene and offered master classes. From 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. every night, local musicians took the stage for a late show, followed by a spirited jam session, free of charge and open to all.

The festival is an offshoot of the Saint-Henri Jazz Society, a non-profit organization “dedicated to preserving living jazz within Saint-Henri and its immediate surroundings,” and ensuring its evolution. Established by Montreal jazz artists Sam Kirmayer, Valérie Lacombe and André White, the SJSH “aims to balance respect for jazz heritage with a desire to innovate and broaden traditional musical limits. It values artistic excellence, inclusive practices, community spirit and initiatives that seek to make jazz accessible to the largest number of people.”

Choosing Saint Henri to stage the festival had a lot to do with the history of the neighborhood, Kirmayer told DownBeat. The guitarist and composer, who also teaches jazz history at Concordia University, went on to explain, “This is where Oscar Peterson grew up; in fact, the South-West borough, which encompasses Saint-Henri and Little Burgundy, was where Montreal’s Black Anglophone community was primarily located, and so it’s really the birthplace of jazz in Montreal.”

The distinction between the neighborhoods is relatively new; the name Little Burgundy appeared only after the gentrification of the neighborhood in the 1960s, resulting in the exodus of a large portion of the Black community. “When we talk about bringing jazz back to the South-West, we mean recognizing and honoring that history, and reconnecting the music with its roots as a community practice, something that brings neighbors together, and is woven into the fabric of daily life in the neighborhood,” Kirmayer said.

How did it all get started? “Jazz isn’t just a commodity,” Kirmayer said. “The relationship with the music, among musicians, and for the audience, can be more than transactional. It all comes back to community. We’re hoping to build something where musicians, fans and neighbors all feel part of a greater whole, where the history is celebrated and respected, and where there’s a genuine interest in passing on knowledge and keeping the art form alive.”

The special roundtable was a rare and fascinating opportunity to listen to leading figures who played a vital role in developing jazz in Montreal, and are keeping the tradition alive. Panelists included “Miss Swing” Ethel Bruneau (age 72), pianist Oliver Jones (87), community organizer Michael P. Farkas and Modibo Keita, a young multidisciplinary artist and music entrepreneur. The discussion sparked questions from the audience, palpably excited about the opportunity to listen, interact and ask questions, making this exchange a meaningful social and cultural event. The rare historical moment was documented for posterity.

Another unique offering was the Wine & Vinyl listening series, taking place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at a neighborhood gallery. Local jazz musicians shared appreciation of their favorite jazz album with keen listeners in a laid-back setting, paired with a local wine presented by a sommelier. Bassist Adrian Vedady chose Thelonious Monk’s Criss-Cross (1963); it was a unique experience, sitting in a room with fellow jazz lovers, discussing impressions of the music in the “intermission” between Side A and Side B.

The headlining concerts were all captivating, thanks not only to the leaders’ immense talent, but that of the supporting cast. Each artist performed four sets over the course of two nights, with leading players on the Canadian jazz scene, such as Christine Jensen and Kevin Dean.

What guided this programming decision? “Montreal is so close to New York, but the scenes are oddly disconnected,” Kirmayer explained. “It’s easy to feel isolated, as there aren’t many opportunities for exchange with American musicians.”

This hasn’t always been the case, he said. “There used to be a steady flow of established artists and masters coming into town, supported by a local rhythm section. That dynamic helped form many of the musicians who are now pillars of our local scene. So in inviting guests to come up as singles, we were aiming to reproduce that experience, to offer opportunities to young players, and to elevate the local scene.” The bands were also intentionally diverse and intergenerational.

Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt kicked off the New York concert series with Oakland drummer Derrell Green (currently a faculty member at McGill University), the up-and-coming North Carolina native and current Montrealer Leighton Harrell on bass, stellar saxophonist Christine Jensen and gifted pianist Gentiane MG. Pelt spoke of the healing power of music, dazzling through the shifting dynamics of his own compositions (“Baswald’s Place,” “Nephthys”), Hank Mobley’s “If I Should Lose You” and Lucky Thompson’s “While You Are Gone.” The beautiful, synergistic interplay between the two horns reached peak heights on the leader’s “Sage,” his piercing trumpet and Jensen’s urgency matched by Green’s propulsive drumming.

Introducing “Cry Freedom,” Pelt highlighted its relevance to our times, “especially in the U.S.,” and later mentioned Griot, his two-volume series of interviews with musicians (inspired by Art Taylor’s Notes And Tones, 1977), and the importance of having conversations about race relations and music.

New York-based saxophonist Nicole Glover shared the stage with bassist Mike de Masi, drummer Valérie Lacombe, trumpeter Kevin Dean and pianist Taurey Butler, a New Jersey native who moved up to Montreal 12 years ago. The chemistry was truly instant; the band, tight as only a group of longstanding collaborators usually are, enthralled the audience with renditions of Miles Davis’ “Walkin’,” Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud,” and “Confirmation” by Charlie Parker. “Oh, man, we’re having a good time!” Glover exclaimed following a fiery performance of Benny Golson’s “Stablemates.” Dexterous, swinging and soulful, her playing shone on Chet Baker’s “My Ideal” with a breathtaking solo; and as trumpeter Dean took his turn, sharing his elegance and beautiful tone, her appreciation of his emotive playing was both visible and audible. “This is one of the most welcoming and inclusive festivals in the world,” she said as she closed the set.

Veteran drummer Billy Drummond teamed up with bassist Ira Coleman and pianist Jean-Michel Pilc (who both teach at McGill), long-time collaborators he referred to as part of his “musical fabric,” and Montrealers Rachel Therrien on trumpet and Caoilainn Power on alto saxophone. The band was instantly cohesive. Delivering material by Grachan Moncur III (“The Coaster”), Tony Williams (“Laura”), Monk (“Think Of One”) and Frank Kimbrough (“Clara’s Room”), Drummond expressed appreciation of his bandmates’ talent. “I don’t have to do much except sit back and witness all the amazing things happening around me,” he said, elaborating on how mesmerized he was by the horn players’ artistry and brilliance. “I’ve played in Montreal many times before, usually coming in to play one day and out the next morning; now I’m getting a chance to get closer to the fabric of what Montreal is all about.”

DownBeat caught up with Therrien as she stepped off the stage. “This was the best rhythm section I’ve ever played with,” she said, breathless. “It’s like taking a European fast train for the first time.” The creative energy and excitement ran so high that one of the piano’s G keys was inadvertently disabled. “I know I broke it,” Pilc said, smiling, apologizing to Kate Wyatt, who took over the piano bench for the late set, accompanying saxophonist Al McLean, with bassist Adrian Vedady and drummer Guillaume Pilote. The tight-knit band had the audience fully immersed, exploring compositions by John Coltrane (“Lazy Bird,” “Syeeda’s Song Flute”) and Cedar Walton (“Bolivia”).

With lines winding all the way up the stairs and into the street, the festival sold out its first edition — no small feat.

“This is the happiest I’ve ever been to stand in line,” mused Alex, a recent graduate of Concordia University’s music program.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Kirmayer said at the festival’s closing. “We’re a very small team of volunteers, and to have actually pulled this thing off, selling out every night and really feeling that community together, was just a dream come true.”

With sponsors already on board, and such a promising start, this festival is sure to offer engaging, well-curated editions in the years to come. For more information, check out sainthenrijazz.com. DB

Blindfold Test: Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Hero Trio, Parts 1 & 2

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In this rare iteration of the DownBeat Blindfold Test, all three musicians were asked to comment on selections consisting entirely of trio music.

(Photo: David Crow)

Seeing a colorful press photo of Rudresh Mahanthappa and his bandmates adorned in masks, tights and capes might lead one to believe that they are the comic book-like heroes from which the trio’s name is derived. But the alto saxophonist has been clear: He is paying homage to his own musical heroes — Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz, for starters. Rollins and Konitz virtually trademarked the chord-less trio format embraced by Mahanthappa and his rhythm section players, both of whom work regularly in other highly regarded trios: bassist François Moutin with pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, and drummer Rudy Royston with guitarist Bill Frisell.

In this rare iteration of the DownBeat Blindfold Test, all three musicians were asked to comment on selections consisting entirely of trio music. It was Mahanthappa’s second Blindfold Test, and the first for Royston and Moutin. The following article originally ran in two installments in DownBeat’s May 2022 and June 2022 issues.

ORNETTE COLEMAN

“Dawn” (At The Golden Circle Stockholm, Blue Note, 1966) Coleman, alto saxophone; David Izenzon, bass; Charles Moffett, drums.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: That’s Ornette Coleman, At The Golden Circle, with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett. This is on Blue Note, not Atlantic, I believe. When I was at Berklee in the ’90s, I wanted to do a recital of all Ornette Coleman music. It had a horrible name — it was called “Ornette, or Not.” We ended up doing a ballad called “Dawn” — this is it? There it is, I hear the melody now. 5 stars.

François Moutin: I don’t know of anything else that David Izenzon did, but he’s a monster bass player.

JERRY BERGONZI TRIO

“Have You Met Miss Jones” (Lost In The Shuffle, Double-Time, 1998) Bergonzi, tenor saxophone; Dan Wall, organ; Adam Nussbaum, drums.

Mahanthappa: It sounds like Steve Grossman when he was in his Sonny Rollins phase. It has a Jerry Bergonzi vibe to it, too. It’s not Dan Wall, is it? Adam Nussbaum? Jerry is great. For better or for worse, Grossman, Brecker, Jerry Bergonzi, even George Garzone, to some extent Dave Liebman — these guys were like the kings of this post-Coltrane [sound]. I think Grossman was the forefather of all those guys, including Michael Brecker. Steve was playing like that when he was only 19 years old with Elvin Jones.

Moutin: There’s one lick in there that could have been you on tenor, Rudresh.

Mahanthappa: It’s the same source material, just up a fifth. I tried playing tenor in high school; I sounded terrible on tenor.

Rudy Royston: Adam Nussbaum is on! I like all the energy, rhythm, big fat sound ... not like that “clean” stuff that was going on at that time.

Moutin: I’ve played with him half a dozen times, and every time, it was an incredible experience.

Royston: He’s a cat who believes in the drums leading the band, the drums leading the vibe. He came to UNC when I was there. He said, “You should be able to tell what the tune is from what I’m playing.” You could hear it in his rhythms and how he was defining stuff around the melody. He’s still a bad cat.

Mahanthappa: 5, shall we go 5 stars on that?

Moutin: Yeah.

Royston: Everyone was killing on that.

MELISSA ALDANA & CRASH TRIO

“Turning” (Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio, Concord, 2014) Aldana, tenor saxophone, Pablo Menares, bass; Francisco Mela, drums.

Royston: Is that Melissa Aldana? The thing I love about Melissa is how she uses space. She’s never in a rush. She always waits, and then she does that thing where she starts low, I don’t know what it is [sings the line]. And the way she uses … falsetto?

Mahanthappa: Altissimo. I like Melissa a lot, I don’t know her playing real well. One of the things that’s hard for me to realize is that there’s a whole generation of folks that were influenced by people our age. Melissa told me a story about how into Mark Turner she was, and how he gave her a seven-hour lesson once.

Royston: That’s a great trio. I saw them at Dizzy’s. They were a good trio.

Moutin: Good composition, too.

Mahanthappa: 5 stars.

CHRIS SPEED TRIO

“Arrival High” (Platinum On Tap, Intakt, 2017) Speed, saxophone; Dave King, drums; Chris Tordini, bass.

Moutin: Triplicate?

Mahanthappa: No, it doesn’t sound anything like that. It kind of reminds me of Bill McHenry. Is it George Garzone? It definitely sounds like it could be someone of our generation. It could be Rasmus Lee, or it could be …

Moutin: Donny McCaslin?

Mahanthappa: No, it can’t be, that’s not Donny’s sound. Or guys that I went to Berklee with, like Matt Renzi … all these cats that played all that modern shit, but with harder reeds and a darker sound, as opposed to Donny. It was almost like a reaction to Michael Brecker, “We’re going to go dark!”

Royston: I know this drummer, man.

Mahanthappa: It could be Chris Speed, too. Is this the trio with Dave King? There you go. Chris was a little older than me, but he was still in Boston when I was in school, but he was hanging out, playing his ass off. 5 stars. Chris is a bad motherfucker and more people should know who he is.

Royston: I knew that it was [Dave King on drums], but I just couldn’t put my finger on that sound. Big tom sounds, and you can hear all that facility with the rim shots and the bells. You can hear all that stuff in the Bad Plus.

… To be continued in the June 2022 issue of DownBeat. Same Hero Trio time. Same Blindfold Test space!

Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Hero Trio (Part 2, June 2022)

Previously on The Blindfold Test: Our three heroes, led as always by the indubitable alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, and ably assisted by his sideman sidekicks François Moutin and Rudy Royston, added to their legerdemain with a perfect four-for-four on last month’s treacherous playlist, a feat they accomplished even while blindfolded (figuratively speaking). After easily nailing the mysterious Ornette Coleman and killers Jerry Bergonzi and Melissa Aldana, a bit of high drama occurred as their last unknown audio assailant proved elusive until Mahanthappa deduced the culprit to be Chris Speed at the 11th hour. But this month, new and more dangerous challenges lie ahead. Can our heroes pull of a perfect score, or will they succumb to the weight expectations they’ve already set? Read on to find out!

BRANFORD MARSALIS

“Gutbucket Steepy” (Trio Jeepy, Sony, 1989) Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Milt Hinton, bass; Jeff “Tain” Watts, drums.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Sounds like Arnett Cobb. It’s not rough enough to be Turrentine.

Rudy Royston: Sounds like Turrentine right there.

François Moutin: It’s not Turrentine?

Mahanthappa: It’s so of another generation. It reminds me of Houston Person records, or even Lockjaw. But I could also see Seamus Blake totally playing like this, and doing it convincingly, and sounding like an old cat. I could see Josh Redman playing like this too. But I’m stumped.

Moutin: It’s not Ron Carter, is it? There’s something in the sound … I don’t know.

[afterwards]

Mahanthappa: I would have never gotten that.

Moutin: You tricked us.

Mahanthappa: Branford definitely has his own sound, but then he can kind of inhabit all these other things, historically.

Royston: “Tain” came to my mind with that ride cymbal, but I was like, “I don’t think so.” I needed to hear a “Tain”-ism.

Moutin: 5 stars.

Royston: I didn’t know Branford could do that. Branford was getting a lot of lip back then, going to Sting’s band, and all the jazz cats were like, “Oh, man!”

Moutin: Makes me realize how much Ron Carter borrowed [from] Milt Hinton.

Mahanthappa: I’m a little embarrassed; Branford and I just hung out last week.

ANNA WEBBER

“Forgotten Best” (Idiom, Independent Release, 2021) Webber, tenor saxophone; Matt Mitchell, piano; John Hollenbeck, drums.

Mahanthappa: It’s killing, whoever it is.

Moutin: European?

Mahanthappa: Sounds like Anna Webber, kind of? With Matt Mitchell and John Hollenbeck? Anna’s ridiculous, she can do anything. 5 stars, 5½! I had Anna come and speak to my advance improv class last semester. She was amazing. She’s actually kind of codified and demystified “free improvisation.” She had this beautiful list of all these techniques to work on. Imagine Jamey Aebersold’s scale syllabus, but it was techniques and strategies for free improv. It was literally just one sheet of paper, and it was a lifetime of stuff to work on.

Moutin: Matt Mitchell is amazing.

Mahanthappa: Matt was in Bird Calls. He was practicing [his piano etudes] in sound checks for every gig we did.

Royston: He did those every day when we were in Dave Douglas’ band. You just knew it was going to come [mimics atonal piano sounds]. I used to try to play with him to figure out [the time].

JEFF BALLARD TRIO

“Western Wren (A Bird Call)” “Mivakpola” (Times Take, Okeh, 2014) Ballard, drums; Miguel Zenón, alto saxophone; Lionel Loueke, guitar.

Moutin: It’s killing. I don’t know what it is, but it’s great!

Mahanthappa: That’s insane. I can’t even …

Royston: And that wasn’t Jeff on drums? Jeff Ballard?

[afterwards]

Mahanthappa: I never would have guessed that.

Moutin: I should have guessed that.

Royston: I thought that was Jeff, because you can hear that staccato style. When Jeff plays, he plays “off” the drums. Everything is precise and staccato.

Moutin: Beautiful. 5 stars.

Royston: I’ve got to get that.

JOSHUA REDMAN

“Mantra #5” (Trios Live, Nonesuch, 2014) Redman, soprano saxophone; Matt Penman, bass; Gregory Hutchinson, drums.

Royston: Sounds like Branford.

Moutin: Ravi? Not Ravi Coltrane?

Royston: That’s definitely Brian Blade.

Mahanthappa: Is that McBride?

Royston: Joshua? That’s not Hutch on drums?

[afterwards]

Mahanthappa: Oh, god, Matt sounds amazing. That sounds great. I don’t know Josh’s playing well enough to recognize it, to tell you the truth. But he always sounds great.

Royston: Hutch man, wow. We’re friends. He came to Denver when I was in high school. He was playing with Roy [Hargrove’s] band. We had this jam session in Diane Reeves’ basement. I was trying to play all this “Tain” stuff. Roy was there. Then, Hutch comes in, he’s got the flu. He has this big bomber coat on, he sits on my drums and my cymbals and he just [gestures a seriously minimal ride pattern]. I wanted to leave after that. That was a lesson learned right there. I went upstairs and ate some of Diane Reeves’ cooking. DB

The “Blindfold Test” is a listening test that challenges the featured artist to discuss and identify the music and musicians who performed on selected recordings. The artist is then asked to rate each tune using a 5-star system. No information is given to the artist prior to the test.

Binker and Moses Feed the Machine

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“We don’t like boring music,” saxophonist Binker Golding says. “Our way of bringing excitement is by using energy. It’s just what we do … lean into it.”

(Photo: Dan Medhurst)

British duo Binker and Moses are pushing the fold with their new album Feeding The Machine (Gearbox), their first studio record since the spiritually informed Journey To The Mountain Of Forever (Gearbox) in 2017.

The pair emerged as a duo after being touring members of vocalist Zara McFarlane’s band. Their electric synergy was first evident on 2015’s Dem Ones (Gearbox) — an album where the grit of a sweating, urban London is almost tangible. It led them to receiving the “Best Jazz Act” Award from the MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Awards. McFarlane picked up the same trophy the year before.

“We don’t like boring music,” saxophonist Binker Golding says. “Our way of bringing excitement is by using energy. It’s just what we do … lean into it.”

What’s surprising — although, not for already-versed fans — is how two musicians can create such different sound worlds across each of their three records. It’s with their new offering that we hear a journey previously untraveled by the pair, inviting electronic musician Max Luthert to join them on a three-day recording session that would result in Feeding The Machine.

“Since we recorded our second album, we’ve been talking about making this one,” says drummer Moses Boyd, over coffee at London’s Vinyl Cafe. “The initial aim was to find [minimalism pioneer] Terry Riley. He’s a tape-loop god. That set the tone for what the album could be and during that time, I got into modular synthesizers.” After taking a sip of his drink, Boyd adds, “We knew we wanted to push the electronic envelope with the sound that we have — with tape loops, with glitchy shit. The pandemic gave us a lifeline in a way. We were both free to focus on it.”

Utilizing electronics is nothing new for Boyd. His 2020 solo debut album, Dark Matter (Exodus), is heavily led by synthesizers, field recordings and modern production techniques, an album that feels more at home in a sticky-floor nightclub than a traditional jazz setting. As for the duo, however — with the addition of Luthert — their electronic ambitions are at an all-time high.

“We managed to get three days scheduled at Real World Studios in Bath (England),” explains Boyd, referring to the studio of Peter Gabriel. “We didn’t go in with anything prepared or written down, just a sound-world idea. It stressed Max out completely.” Like Golding, Boyd shares a close friendship with Luthert. “I knew it would be cool. I asked Max to bring everything and not to worry.”

Most of the first day was spent rigging, but it didn’t hamper the end result: six tracks that, thanks to Grammy-winning producer Hugh Padgham’s live mixing, required minimal post-production.

“That’s testament to how well Hugh got it right, first time,” Golding says.

Golding beholds a striking vocabulary with his saxophone. On Feeding The Machine, he blows notes that are buttery one moment, hot and peppered the next.

“It was like doing a free-jazz gig for three days,” Golding explains, dressed in denim dungarees, a plaid shirt and red cap. He jokes that he’s dressed appropriately for his next Americana-tinged project.

“You turn up to the gig and there’s no preconceived idea,” he says. “We knew we’d be using modular instruments, but we didn’t know how that was going to sound. We chiseled things down and shaped things and eventually, tracks emerged.”

While Golding explains the process humbly, there is certainly nothing reserved about Feeding The Machine. Although they struggled to track down Riley, his influence can be heard in the album’s enigmatic soundscape, one that feels as though it has enough resonance to fill an abyss.

Golding’s looped and distorted saxophone creates an alluring sonic bed on “Accelerometer Overdose.”

It’s here that Boyd’s nuanced penchant for rhythm and timing shines, partly informed by his love of club culture. Boyd accessorizes Golding’s offerings before landing a dance-like drop three minutes in. Meanwhile, “Feed Intimate,” the first single from the album, offers more space for contemplation — but not without Boyd and Golding’s aforementioned excitement and energy.

The opening track, “Asynchronous Intervals,” could soundtrack an arrival into space; Luthert’s electronics put a transcendent coat around the drums and saxophone.

“A lot of people have called the album ‘Lonely and Binker,’” Boyd laughs, omitting his own name.

“Even though the tracks are a bit lonely [sounding],” says Golding, “they’re still intense. They drive forward.” It wouldn’t take Einstein to draw a line between the album’s aura and the enforced isolation brought on by the pandemic.

Boyd finished his own Dark Matter tour days before the U.K. entered its first lockdown.

“I had this period which I’d never had before, which was being able to sit still and think,” reflects Boyd, with a tone of optimism in his voice.

One could assume that the concept of Feeding The Machine is about the pressure to keep creating music, to stay visible, in a music scene that is both restricted and liberated by social media and consumption. But talking to Boyd and Golding puts this projection back in its box. They bestow melodies and rhythms from their saxophone and drums respectively into Luthert’s electronics, literally feeding their offerings to the cables and its master.

Recorded during the pandemic, there is a beautiful irony to Feeding The Machine. With so much time available to prepare — and over-prepare — Boyd and Golding avoided the temptation to obsess and plan more than they needed to. Instead, they remained purely in the moment.

“Not to say I was unintentional before, but now, my relationship with making music feels more intentional, more structured,” Golding says. “For me it’s about sustainability — doing it for art’s sake. Anything I’m doing now, I ask myself a million more ‘why?’ questions. I’m a different person.” DB

Kris Bowers Commissioned for Work at Monterey Jazz Festival

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“I’m so incredibly honored to have been commissioned for this piece by the Monterey Jazz Festival,” Bowers said.

(Photo: Courtesy of Kris Bowers)

Pianist, Oscar nominee and composer Kris Bowers has been commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival to write and present a piece at this year’s event, celebrating the festival’s 65th anniversary.

Bowers has a long history with the festival: He competed at Monterey’s 2004, 2005 and 2006 Next Generation Jazz Festival with the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and was selected as the pianist to the 2006 Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. With the NGJO, Bowers performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center, at the Umbria Jazz Festival, and at MJF49 with jazz singer Kurt Elling. More than 800 students have been selected to the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra since its inception in 1971, and more than 20,000 student musicians have competed at the Next Generation Jazz Festival over its 50-year history.

“We reinstated our commissioning program in 1994, with the goal of focusing on new young composers as well as jazz legends,” said Tim Jackson, artistic director of Monterey Jazz Festival. “Kris, as an alumnus of our Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, is a perfect example of the type of artist we like to work with; young, exciting, innovative and with a unique viewpoint.”

“I’m so incredibly honored to have been commissioned for this piece by the Monterey Jazz Festival,” Bowers said. “Having started going to the festival as a kid and participating in the high school jazz competition, I established a relationship with the Monterey Bay pretty early on. Now, as an adult, my wife and I have developed a deep love and relationship with that area, visiting at least once or twice a year to immerse ourselves in nature and be near that part of the Pacific Ocean. It has become a second home for us, and I’m excited to pay homage to that area with this piece.” DB

The Peoples Arkestra Speaks Out

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“A lot of people came through this group, which blew their minds in a way that there was no turning back,” vocalist Dwight Trible said.

(Photo: Chuck Koton)

When pianist Horace Tapscott saw a need for more performance opportunities in Los Angeles in 1961, he created the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, which became a crucial showcase for the city’s jazz composers. Today, the ensemble’s mentors continue to teach, especially around the Leimert Park neighborhood. This year, after COVID-related delays, the Arkestra commemorates its 60th anniversary with the release of a documentary, live performances and a new label that features recordings from its archives alongside the work of younger artists.

“A lot of people came through this group, which blew their minds in a way that there was no turning back,” vocalist Dwight Trible said. “They were enlightened about progressive music and got it by being involved with the Arkestra.”

Trible is the lead voice in a large band of Arkestra veterans called The Gathering, which issued its 2015 performance, Healing Suite, in January. That album is being released through The Village, which is releasing other historic Arkestra-related recordings, as well as works from like-minded musicians. Meanwhile, a new film, The Gathering: Roots & Branches of Los Angeles Jazz, is running in the nationwide film festival circuit. The documentary details a 2005 live recording of the Arkestra, highlighting saxophonist Kamasi Washington as his career began.

“Horace would always bring young and older guys together and have them play side by side, — that’s what I do with The Gathering,” said multi-instrumentalist Jesse Sharps. “In that set, you see older guys like [trombonist] Phil Ranelin, and you see Kamasi [Washington] grow up.”

Tapscott’s vision was equal parts musical and social as he brought the harmonic advances of 1960s free-jazz to his ensemble. The Arkestra also helped shape the city’s burgeoning Black Arts Movement of cultural activism at the time. Keeping a large, community-based organization together through the decades since has brought on numerous challenges, but Tapscott’s vision proved enduring and the Arkestra continued after his death in 1999. That includes ongoing performances at The World Stage, a Leimert Park performance venue that two of his colleagues, drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Daáood, co-founded in 1989.

The Village is also releasing recordings that came from a more hidden source. Drummer Mekala Session is a second-generation Arkestra member; his father, saxophonist Michael Session, played on such landmark Tapscott albums as The Call (1978). The younger Session started sitting in with the band when he was 13. Eventually, Mekala found that Michael, as well as Tapscott, recorded constantly and the results were often found close to home.

“Horace would keep his tape recorder, pop a tape under the piano and go,” Session said. “There was this amazing collection I found behind my living room couch.” After Session showed his friend Jesse Justice his father’s cassettes, they looked for a company to issue the recordings. But, as Session said, “We didn’t get any traction, probably because we were kids. So we decided to do it ourselves.”

These Village recordings are now available through Bandcamp. The company has released a record of Tapscott and Michael Session (Live In Avingon, France 1989) along with Healing Suite. Session and Justice are also releasing new recordings from younger artists, including pianist Jamael Dean’s Ished Tree and saxophonist Randal Fisher’s Everywhere To Be Lost.

The Gathering celebrated its album release with a World Stage concert in January that is currently available for streaming on YouTube. Session is also planning collaborations with artists in other cities, and Daáood insists the future is in that younger generation’s hands.

“New people are stepping in and taking it to another level,” Daáood said. “This organization has been around for 60 years. It does not have a lot of big economic support, just a lot of cats and catresses in the community soaking up the love and giving it back.” DB

2023 APA Awards Achieves Liftoff, 5 Finalists Introduced

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Dee Dee Bridgewater (right) with the five finalists for the American Pianists Association’s next Cole Porter Fellowship.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

Every four years, the American Pianists Association recognizes five aspiring American pianists as finalists to compete for the Cole Porter Fellowship. Past winners have included rising stars Emmet Cohen (2019), Sullivan Fortner (2015) and Aaron Diehl (2011) in the APA’s history of featuring jazz in its organization, beginning in 1991 with the winner Jim Pryor.

The five finalists made their debuts performing solo for two sets on May 25 at Dizzy’s Club in New York. Dee Dee Bridgewater hosted the event — engaging in brief chats with each young pianist and cheering them on from her front-row seat as they played short pieces for the sold-out crowds. It served as an audience introduction to the artists — Caelan Cardello, Esteban Castro, Paul Cornish, Thomas Linger and Isaiah J. Thompson — who are embarking on a challenging yet ultimately refined 13-month jazz excursion.

Their tour will include an Awards Kick Off concert at the Madam Walker Legacy Center in Indianapolis on Sept. 18 and continues through a series of performances at the city’s Jazz Kitchen along with community outreach events, from Sept. 24 through Feb. 25, 2023. The finals are scheduled to take place on April 21 in the Indianapolis club The Cabaret with the Gala Awards show taking place the next night at the city’s Hilbert Circle Theatre featuring the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra and special guest Cécile McLorin Salvant.

“We love the role the APA plays in promoting this American art form,” said Peter Mraz, who has taken over the role of president/CEO after longtime leader Joel Harrison retired from the position (Harrison continues in his role as artistic advisor). “Over the course of the year, the contestants will better understand who they are as musicians. During this time, they will continue to grow and experience the future of jazz. That is at the core of the APA’s mission.”

The five finalists were chosen in a blind audition with nominations solicited from more than 1,200 nominators, ranging from piano educators to established artists, from jazz labels to jazz clubs. With their ears to the ground, they name the next best jazz talents who deserve to be supported. For the APA 2023 Awards, the first round resulted in 46 names, Mraz said. That was scaled down to 28 pianists who were asked to apply by sending 30-minute audition tapes of standards and originals. Multiple jury rounds ensued to come up with the five finalists. “The quality was unbelievable at all the rounds, “ said Mraz, who noted that piano talent is at a high level across the U.S.

By virtue of their selection, each finalist wins a cash prize of $25,000, with the winner being awarded more than $200,000 additional career assistance including performance tours and connects to Mack Avenue Records and New York booking agency B Natural. As such, the APA’s program represents the world’s largest and most lucrative jazz competition.

In a Lincoln Center conference room before the Dizzy’s shows, the five finalists talked about their backgrounds and their aspirations. Several started out as toddlers who received toy pianos for gifts. Originally from North Carolina, New York-based Linger got a little keyboard for Christmas when he was three. “I opened that gift up and I didn’t move on to the other gifts for two hours,” he says. “I had a natural inclination and curiosity for notes.”

The same happened with Cardello, whose godparents gave him a toy piano. “I was fascinated by all the different sounds,” he says. “I started piano lessons when I was 4.”

Others mentioned that their parents pushed the piano on them to “keep me out of trouble,” said Juilliard graduate Thompson, who didn’t feel passionate about playing until he hooked up with Jazz House Kids in New Jersey. “That program challenged me to see what is possible as a young student. I fell in love with jazz.”

Castro, another Juilliard student, also champions Jazz House Kids. When he joined the program’s first music exchange trip to Peru in 2015, he had been playing jazz and also studying classical. “But I truly fell in love with jazz when Jazz House Kids went to Peru and played a lot of shows in various towns,” he said. “In one community, we set up to play and the piano only had 40 keys and the drum set just had the snare and no hi-hats. We played and afterwards were flooded by the kids who wanted to meet us. That’s when I learned that jazz can move people.”

Some hadn’t started on piano, gravitating at first to bassoon, cello or drums. Cornish, originally from Houston and now based in Los Angeles, said, “I did want to play piano as a kid. I was always beating on things, so I wanted to play drums. But my mom told me that if I wanted to play drums, I needed to learn how to play piano first. When I was in the performing arts middle school, there were too many drummers, but they needed a pianist. That was it for me. And I figured that I could be a drummer on the piano. I took an immediate interest.”

Later that evening, the finalists showed their promise at on stage at Dizzy’s, with an audience that included former teachers such as Fred Hersch and Bill Charlap as well as former APA Award winners Diehl and Cohen. The five pianists played unique versions of standards. Castro played magic into Cole Porter’s “It Had To Be You,” and Cornish dazzled in his explorations through Benny Golson’s “Along Came Betty” and Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance.” More Porter was served up by Cardello’s tasty “Anything Goes.” Then, Liger played emotion into ”Search For Peace” by McCoy Tyner, after which he offered his whimsical original “A Lonely Encounter.” Thompson finished the first set with two originals, including the poignant, show-stopping “A Prayer.”

Mraz marveled at the talent the APA assembled this year. “We’re keeping the cycle alive, passing on the passion,” he said.

“This is a unique opportunity for us to honor the tradition as well as have a platform to share our own voices,” Linger said. “We’re watching each other as we grow and develop. This will make us closer. It goes beyond the competition into camaraderie. We’re all there for each other. This is more a collective.” DB

Gilmore Piano Festival Strides Ahead

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The Irving S. Gilmore Piano Festival commissioned a piece by Tyshawn Sorey that premiered in Kalamazoo, Michigan, this spring.

(Photo: Courtesy Tyshawn Sorey)

The in-person interfacing of jazz and classical music was back on display for the first time in four years. With streaming options available, hearty customers and lovers of live music came out in droves to enjoy the Irving S. Gilmore Piano Festival (formally known as the Gilmore Keyboard Festival), an all-indoor rite of spring that southwest Michigan has been enjoying in various locales every other year since the late ’80s. This year’s event took place in Kalamazoo, with 28 local venues getting in on the action.

Things got off to a bumpy start. Headliner Herbie Hancock’s fest-opening appearance was canceled due to COVID among band members. (The concert has been rescheduled for Sept. 23.) In the end, the festival had a jazz bookend worthy of its name with Diana Krall and her quartet performing three weeks later at Miller Auditorium.

Despite the absence of other equally big-name jazz talent, there were mighty fine performances turned in by not just jazz artists but some nice crossover shows as well. NPR Music host, pianist and educator Lara Downes held a lecture/demo entitled “The Long Road Home: A Pianist’s American Journey,” which showcased her rise as a performer, activist and arts advocate with a special focus on the music and stories of Black composers. Other, more off-kilter shows came from Sandbox Percussion with composer Conor Hanick. One was a major highlight was the group’s riveting, stop-the-clocks Gilmore-commissioned performance of a work by Tyshawn Sorey. It was a stunning display of discipline, memory, coordination, use of space and piano as percussion instrument, offering offsetting vibes, gongs and water-glass/tape loop “bells,” all of it synchronized.

Another delightful surprise was theremin artist, pianist and Haken Continuum player Rob Schwimmer’s lively mix of banter, Great American Songbook fodder and movie soundtrack music (e.g., “Moon River” into “Goldfinger”), some avant garde and classical. Highlight: his natural rendering of John Coltrane’s balladic “After The Rain,” on theremin, no less. Mention also should be made of the festival-wide performances of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, at Farmer’s Alley Theatre, with Alexis J. Roston as Billie Holiday and pianist Abdul Hamid Royal. Laced with a run-through of 20th century American history as personally experienced by a Black African-American woman performer, Roston’s delivery left me wondering: Could her riveting show (perhaps toned-down) ever see the light of day in today’s testy public-school environment?

The jazz bona fides came, with one exception, via the piano trio format, starting with Fred Hersch, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Eric McPherson at the D. Terry Williams Theatre on the campus of Western Michigan University. Hersch simmered as he dwelled on Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” melody, teasing out its beauty, along with an equally dreamy “Moon And Sand,” the keyboard seemingly weightless, bass and drums joining as one. A typically quirky “Blue Monk” led to a delicate solo-piano encore of“The Nearness Of You” that left this full house sighing. One of a handful of jazz shows at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe, Emmet Cohen’s trio set offered funkiness and choppy starts and stops to standards such as “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and “Cherokee.” They looked rad, but played it right down the middle.

Other standout performances included Sullivan Fortner’s early afternoon trio set at the Civic, where the music of Monk (“Evidence”), Bud Powell and Bobby Hutcherson (“Little B’s Poem”) shared space with generous Ahmad Jamal-type grooves, reaching deep with a dreamy “The Peacocks” and an equally slow and upending “I’m A Fool To Want You,” offset with some lively, Bobby McFerrin-style crowd engagement. Other Civic noontime shows included local faves Tri-Fi, with pianist Matthew Fries, drummer Keith Hall and bassist Phil Palombi (in from New York). With Palombi serving as anchor, and Fries keeping up with the very active Hall, there were uptempo jaunts (“Cross Country”), straightahead swing, a hats-off tribute of Palombi’s with the gently swinging “LaFaro,” it all ending with the peppy, busy “Grace” shifting between 3/4 and 4/4 as if the song, like the song’s namesake, couldn’t make up its mind.

That exception to the jazz trio was delivered by pianist Donal Fox, also at the Civic. A true melding of jazz and classical technique, Fox’s bluesy, meditative and virtuosic style found its best expression with Duke Ellington’s ruminative “Reflections In D,” ending with a pulse. In a lunch-crowd setting, suddenly there were two encores, where there had been none. Dan Tepfer’s trio was impressive in its contrasting program of all arranged music. Bypassing the mix of variable songs, his trio with bassist Shawn Conley and drummer Jochen Rueckert performed a suite based on Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, written in 1920 as a neoclassical ballet. Indeed, jazz met classical in its most complete form here. Rueckert’s use of mallets, sticks and brushes were a standout. DB

Willard Jenkins To Host Head-to-Head Jazz Trivia Series

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(Photo: Courtesy of Savage Content)

Savage Content has announced a new web series where guests compete head-to-head in a test of their jazz knowledge. The Jazzology series allows viewers to learn fascinating facts from the world of jazz and experience a friendly competition between two seasoned jazz enthusiasts.

The series, which runs alternate Fridays on Savage Content’s official YouTube channel, is hosted by Willard Jenkins, who is recognized in the jazz community under his Open Sky Jazz banner. Jenkins has dedicated his career to the arts and the world of jazz. His many titles include artistic director for concerts and festivals, arts and music consultant, writer, producer, educator, broadcast journalist and now web series host.

Jazzology helps keep alive the rich history of an art form that has inspired so much of today’s music, and we’ve come up with a great format to test someone’s musicology in both an enjoyable and challenging way,” Jenkins said.

“Willard Jenkins is a fountain of knowledge and inspiration, and he makes Jazzology an entertaining and engaging experience for any music lover that tunes in,” producer Adam Savage said. “It’s a great 20-minute break in the day, and regardless of your level of jazz knowledge, our multiple-choice format gives everyone an opportunity to get it right.”

Watch previous episodes of Jazzology here. DB

Matthew Stevens & Walter Smith III: Finding Common Ground

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The friendship that exists between Matthew Stevens (left) and Walter Smith III dates back when they were both members of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s band during the mid-to-late aughts.

(Photo: Pierce Johnson)

Even when speaking with Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens on Zoom — with the tenor saxophonist being in Boston and the guitarist in Pittsburgh—you can feel the deep love between the two.

Smith, 41, sometimes uses his wry humor to deliver a lighthearted zinger toward Stevens, 40, in ways that suggest a big brother–little brother dynamic. Their friendship dates back when they were both members of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s band during the mid-to-late aughts.

When they performed with Scott in New Orleans, Smith and Stevens were roommates. Smith, who grew up in Houston, Texas, remembers Stevens teasing him about his attire. “It was my first time buying my own clothes outside of Texas. So, I was trying not to look like I was from Texas but not really knowing or being able to afford the styles of the East Coast. So, it started off with him just making fun of me. And the friendship grew over the years. But it’s funny how the tables have turned,” Smith recalled with a winking dig.

Stevens admired Smith’s playing before they had joined Scott’s band. At the time, they both attended Berklee College of Music. “Before we were even playing together, I was always like, ‘Man, that’s someone I really want to play with,’” Stevens said. “His playing genuinely connected with me. It went beyond just his playing being impressive. His music made me feel something. It’s really amazing, profound, and beautiful to me. Of course, the more you get to know somebody, the closer the friendship becomes as you grow, the music grows with it. It just flowers.”

“So, obviously I’m just doing him a favor by playing with him,” joked Smith in response.

All kidding aside, Smith appreciates Stevens’s guitar playing because he strums things that Smith wouldn’t imagine doing himself. And that forces Smith to listen better. “I’m almost always drawn to people who have different influences and who play differently than if I imagined myself playing guitar or piano,” Smith said. “They make decisions that aren’t anywhere in the ballpark of the things that I would play. That really gets me outside of what I’m comfortable with. So, the way that Matt comps, and the energy that he plays with, make sense to me, but on another plane.”

For almost two decades, the two have developed a musical rapport that elevates them in guitar/saxophone spheres, such as those occupied by Sonny Rollins and Jim Hall or, perhaps, Joe Lovano and John Scofield. Smith and Stevens’ accord is best described by the title of their co-piloted ensemble, In Common. The project finds them leading a cohort of guest musicians with unexpected lineups. The first iteration, released in 2018, showcased a very young Joel Ross on vibraphone, playing with drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Harish Raghavan. Two years later, Smith and Stevens led a new combo consisting of bassist Linda May Han Oh, drummer Nate Smith and a very young pianist Micah Thomas.

This time around, two NEA Jazz Masters —drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Dave Holland — anchor In Common III (Whirlwind) as it also welcomes pianist Kris Davis, an artist of Stevens and Smith’s generation.

In Common’s intergenerational dynamic has been constant throughout its existence. By recruiting Carrington and Holland, two established titans, the leaders flip the script. Within that lineup, though, there’s deeper connective tissue. Stevens has a been a charter member of Carrington’s Social Science group. Both Carrington and Holland have performed and/or recorded with Davis. Carrington and Holland have performed together. Nevertheless, the music on In Common III emits the casual freshness of an afternoon dinner party with great conversationalists.

“Terri has been a mentor to me and someone whom I’ve admired,” Stevens said. “She has a certain way of playing that at times sounds different from her own generation. She has this way of playing time that is unique to some of the people who mentored her like Clark Terry, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Then there’s her open-mindedness and desire to evolve. I know this from working with her on her own music. She’s just relentless in terms of wanting to try new things and discover new stuff.”

“Dave also has that,” he continued. “And he’s almost 20 years older than Terri. But not all musicians of that generation are that way. They all don’t have that intangible quality of feeling and time that are so specific to when they came of age combined with the hunger, open-mindedness and desire to try new stuff. And they ground younger people as well. It’s a rare and precious thing.”

In turn, Holland and Carrington recognize the benefits of playing with younger musicians because it affords them new ways of thinking artistically. “First of all, it’s a pleasure to play with musicians on their level, never mind whatever generation they are from,” Holland said. “The ages of the musicians don’t concern me that much, really. But there is a very positive thing that happens when you get different generations [of musicians] playing together because we’re bringing different experiences from different time periods — things that we grew up listening to, the kinds of people we’ve had a chance to play with and learn from. That all leads to a very fertile situation.”

“Walter and Matt are two of the hippest and talented musicians of their generation,” Carrington added. “They are originals who have created a recognizable sound that their peers and the musicians coming after them gravitate to. I love the generational concept they have going on with the In Common recordings.”

It was Davis, though, who provided the crucial impetus for the latest edition of the project. At first, Stevens and Smith weren’t sure if they were going to feature piano this time around. Stevens said that Davis made the perfect choice because she runs in “totally different circles” of musicians than he and Smith do.

“No one is expecting Kris on this record,” Stevens explained. “People would wonder, ‘Oh, I didn’t know she even knew Matt and Walter.’ It’s fun to disrupt that bubble that people expect to see certain musicians existing in exclusively. I know Kris’ playing; she can do anything. I was also excited to hear her musical perspectives brought into a context that she doesn’t often record in. I knew that she would bring something into it differently than someone who would have been more an obvious choice.”

In Common III begins in similar fashion as the previous two recordings: with a bracing guitar and tenor saxophone duet. In this case, it’s Smith’s “Shine,” a gleaming ballad on which Stevens initiates with rugged, bucolic guitar riffs and succinct melodicism. Soon after, Smith’s tenor enters with a sauntering counterpart melody. As the song progresses, Stevens and Smith melodically intertwine, sometimes running parallel, other times branching off then engaging in subtle, antiphonic banter.

Smith originally intended “Shine” to appear on one of his solo albums as a tribute to some of the musicians who passed away in 2020 — specifically Chick Corea, Ellis Marsalis, Jimmy Heath, Wallace Roney and McCoy Tyner. “When I composed it, I was hearing a certain thing on it. The starting point for it was the pandemic and for all the people who passed away. It was to shine a light on them. But then it became a tribute to some musicians who died, but not necessarily because of COVID.”

A song that underscores the pandemic is Stevens’ iridescent “Orange Crush,” on which he constructs a hypnotic ostinato on guitar that quickly becomes the rhythmic launching pad for Smith’s saxophone laments. The song’s giddy-yet-circular motif, paired with Smith’s solemn asides, deftly articulates both the desire for escapism as well as some of the exasperating redundancies of activities that we all endured.

“I wrote that song in March 2020, thinking that we still would be recording in June 2020. ‘Orange Crush’ was the first thing I wrote for this record,” said Stevens, noting that they didn’t record the album until June 2021. “I was just thinking about the individual musicians and something interesting that could fold onto itself between the piano and guitar. It was really fun for me to write because more often than not you don’t have the opportunity to write for specific people.

“Matt sort of broke the rules with that song,” Smith quipped with a laugh. “The songs for In Common are supposed to be just one page or two pages, and sight-readable. And that song was like eight pages.”

Smith’s soul-stirring “After” is another pandemic-theme gem. Here, Davis begins with gorgeous piano cascades that give way to Smith oozing a wistful melody buoyed by an enchanting groove from the rhythm section. Again, the interaction astounds. But it’s made all the more wondrous thanks to Davis’ high-alert accompaniment, which fluctuates between the concussive and curvaceous.

The saxophonist explained that the title conveys the frustrations of having hope of venues and other social activities reopening, then dashed because of because of a new variant. “It’s the thought of after all of high infection rates and the vaccines, the shutdowns would be over and everything is going to cool,” Smith explained. “Or after this other thing happens, then everything is going to be cool.”

Other highlights include Smith’s sparkling “For Some Time,” Stevens’ “Red,” which contains rotating odd meters, and the invigorating “Loping,” another Stevens composition that he penned with Holland and Carrington’s flinty rhythmic connection in mind.

The concept behind In Common germinated in 2017 when Stevens had a couple of studio dates left over from one of his projects and Smith had just received a small faculty grant from Indiana University, where he was then teaching. They were also looking to do something fun outside of their own respective bands that would be unexpected.

“So, we just landed on Joel, Harish and Marcus, people from a different scene of musicians but hadn’t recorded together at that time. The idea was to have a vehicle to write some stuff but would be different from what we would write for our own individual groups and just try to capture the moment,” Stevens said.

The first version of In Common recorded an enormous amount of music — some of it cogent, some of it inchoate, Stevens recalled. “When we were listening back to it, we couldn’t make heads or tails out of any of it, because there was so much left to interpretation. We chose the stuff that sounded the best and was the most surprising to us in a positive way. People seemed to respond to it. And we had a lot of fun doing it. The concept just grew out of that.”

Stevens calls the results “happy accidents.” From there, they built the group’s modus operandi.

“It has grown into this thing that plays into this deep well of talent and subtle differences of dialect that’s within our musical community,” Stevens explained. “That’s something that I find really interesting to hear, because on all three albums, Walter and I are the constants. We’re writing the music. We’re the core of this thing. But what’s orbiting around it is changing.”

“Having lived on the West Coast for so long, the bands that I play with had been going on for a long time,” Smith added. “So, it’s great to see people together that don’t necessarily run in the same circles. Some of my favorite records are the ones in which I say, ‘Wait! They played together?’” DB

Montreal Jazz Fest Lineup Heralds a Return to Live Format

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​Saxophonist Kamasi Washington is slated to play this year’s Montreal Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Courtesy Montreal Jazz Festival)

“The revenge against the pandemic” is how Maurin Auxéméry, director of booking, programming cultural events for the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (FIJM), describes this year’s lineup as FIJM returns to full capacity of live performances June 30–July 9 after two years of regaining its footing amid the coronavirus pandemic. “[The lineup] is so in-your-face. We needed to get back on track and show the people that we are here.”

There’s a noticeable sonic youth blasting though much of this year’s edition of the FIJM, with a robust number of young artists such as saxophonists Kamasi Washington and Sam Gendel; singers Samara Joy and Cécile McLorin Salvant; trumpeters Takuya Kuroda and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, and sound sculptors and singers Witch Prophet and Madison McFerrin complementing the sprawling lineup, which also includes international headliners such as singers Dee Dee Bridgewater, Melody Gardot and Gregory Porter; bassists Marcus Miller, Meshell Ndgeocello, Avishai Cohen and Christian McBride; keyboardists Robert Glasper, Eliane Elias and Tord Gustavsen; and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, among many others. Australian singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tash Sultana will open the festival on June 30, while hip-hop royalty the Roots will close it on July 9.

“I’ve never had so many positive comments regarding the lineup,” Auxéméry enthused. “We’ve been thinking a lot about how the festival is evolving. The most interesting aspect of the festival is it being free. So, we really focused on the presenting music outdoors this year, especially on the main stage with people like Kamasi Washington, Corrine Bailey Rae, Lee Fields, the Jireh Gospel Choir and Nathaniel Rateliff. There will be like 25,000 people in front of that main stage.”

Every night, the TD Bank Group (TD) main stage will also host some of Canada’s finest talents such as multi-instrumentalist and TikTok sensation Stacey Ryan; singer and pianist Laila Biali; and electronic music guru Christophe Dubé, better known as Cri.

Auxéméry is also excited about this year’s Invitation Series, featuring two incredibly resourceful drummers — Terri Lyne Carrington and Makaya McCraven — inside the Le Gesù amphithéâtre. McCraven will host the first one from June 30 to July 2; his series will include concerts featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, a duet with fellow sonic explorer Madison McFerrin and a live interpreting of his DJ-centric Blue Note Records debut, Deciphering The Message.

For the Deciphering concert, McCraven will lead a combo that includes guitarist Jeff Parker, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and trumpeter Marquis Hill — all of whom played in reimaginations of some Blue Note Records hard-bop classics by the likes of Hank Mobley, Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon.

“I’m excited about working with that material,” McCraven said. “It’s been fun digging into this material live with a band, because traditionally this music hasn’t been a part of my concert sets. Even though the music has been chopped up, sampled and reimagined on the record, in the live setting, I just want to perform the music.”

During her Invitation Series from July 4 to 6, Carrington will play in duo performances with pianist Aaron Parks and poet and sociopolitical activist Moor Mother; she’ll also showcase her latest ensemble, Art of Living.

Carrington said that the concept behind Art of Living is the acknowledgement that there is no separation between life, music and other artistic disciplines. “This is a concept that my mentors such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter always talk about,” she said before explaining that the Art of Living ensemble will be performing music she recently created as part of Henry Threadgill’s 13-album box set, Bakers Dozen Project. “I recorded with some emerging artists that have been my former students. They sound great and I learn from them. That is part of the art of living: taking care of the future, caring for the present and honoring the past.”

“We’ve been rebooking things from the last two years. It’s been very challenging,” Auxéméry said about the process of re-emerging in full capacity. “We’re very happy that some artists such as Gregory Porter, Al Di Meola, Avishai Cohen and Marcus Miller followed through with us during those trying times. This year’s festival is going to be bigger than any of the last 10 editions.” DB

Reid Forges New Connections at Chicago Jazz String Summit

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Edmar Castaneda performs at the eighth-annual Chicago Jazz String Summit.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Cellist Tomeka Reid is wildly playful and a ball of energy in person but sober and serious in performance. Her self-effacing public persona was evident in a break on the first night of the eighth-annual Chicago Jazz String Summit at Constellation, when she announced proceedings from the audience, without a mic, in the dark. (She bounded on stage and did a better job the second night.) Anyone who has been attending her underappreciated festival the past eight years, however, knows that Reid is a superb curator and connector.

The CJSS, held May 13–14, also includes an online educational component, with free virtual workshops hosted by the city’s Experimental Sound Studio, plus video tributes to past performers and honorees.

Jetting in to Chicago from her yearlong artistic residency for the Moers Festival in Germany, Reid didn’t give herself a gig at her own festival (as artistic directors who are pro musicians often do), but corralled six stunning sets showcasing artists seldom seen in the Midwest, plus an up-and-coming local aggregation, too.

Venezuelan viola player Leonor Falcon and her husband-guitarist Juanma Trujillo, both originally from Caracas, kicked off proceedings with a many splendored duo. The headscarfed profile and red lips of Falcon somewhat echoed Jan Vermeer’s canvas “Girl With A Pearl Earring” as she swayed back and forth with her instrument, eliciting the gamut of sounds, often triggered by her thick-tread boots stomping on a rack of effects pedals. Trujillo’s guitar was diversely supportive, offering clucky counterpoint under slashing viola bow, country-fried one minute, dark and grungy the next. Hints of the influences of both Bill Frisell and John Scofield bubbled up, but otherwise Trujillo’s approach defies categories. His attentiveness and spontaneity suddenly would sync in unison with Falcon as they intermittently resorted to manuscript in front of them. “Expanding Universe” took us to the cosmos with the ominous droning of effects-laden, dynamically dwindling viola and insistent, thumb driven guitar, but was followed with a lilting piece that mixed, rather improbably, choppy West African rhythms with Hot Club flavors. A release of the duo is in the works; meantime seek out Peach And Tomato (a duo with violinist Sana Nagano) and Tujillo’s rangy quartet outing Impetu (both on Falcon Gumba).

Violinist and Juilliard faculty member Curtis Stewart followed with the über passionate and virtuosic outpourings from his multilayered video/music/verse/electronic solo projects “Of Power,” “Of Color(s) (Gone)” and, principally, “Of Love,” elements partly inspired by the Black Lives Matter campaign and an “ode and celebration of the power of my mother, one of my deepest and yet most elusive inspirations.”

Stewart is the offspring of Greek violinist Elektra Kurtis and tuba great Bob Stewart. As they did, he has grappled with reconciling the classical and jazz camps. Though his set drew from Brahms and Purcell (the latter’s lament from Dido and Aeneas) as well as notated music (he also sang in support of his interpretation of Brahms Violin Sonata #1), it was abundantly clear that Stewart is capable of practically anything on his instrument. He throws his whole body and soul into a performance. A highlight was a poignant rendition of his mother’s favorite Greek folk song, “Thalassaki Mou.”

Capping the festival’s first night (three-and-a-half hours of music) was the rare aggregation of cellist Jake Charkey and tabla master Mir Naqibal Islam — rare in that the cello is not normally associated with Hindustani music, although at moments the instrument shimmered like a sitar. The duo’s set began (and ended) with traditional body movement from Kathak dancer Veronica Simas de Souza, who made an invocation to Lord Shiva after a lengthy warmup session from strings and drums (the set’s requisite tanpura drone, incidentally, was provided by an app on Charkey’s iPad). No dabbler in North Indian forms, Charkey splits time between New York and Mumbai and has contributed to a number of Bollywood soundtracks. Classical forms from another hemisphere, the jazz pedant might argue, but metric extemporization has always been part-and-parcel of the subcontinent’s indigenous music and a draw for more rhythmically adventurous jazzers. A drut ektaal (fast 12-beat cycle) with an interesting title (“Rama Nama Parama Dhamma”) mixed with several teentals (16 beat ragas), but the surprise in the set was a raga revamp of Doc Watson’s “As I Went Down In The River To Pray,” inspired by Charkey’s viewing of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Saturday night was better attended and began, as the previous night, with a beguiling violinist. Despite her disarming, somewhat eccentric manner, Zara Zaharieva, from Bulgaria, wife of her quartet’s electric bassist, Joshua Ramos, is a forceful performer with a clear talent for improvisation, notated recital and original composition. Drummer Kyle Swann and guitarist Edhiño Gerber rounded out the group, the latter a distinctly jazzy foil for the eclectic Zaharieva, with hints of Pats, Metheny and Martino, in his style. The leader lists martial arts and sky-diving on her résumé and is clearly engaged with the world, evident in her varied musical conceits. The playful opener “Musika Schmuzika” was chased up by an also playful, but moving, tribute to her departed dog: “Song For Bradley.” Early on, a virtuosic face-off between Ramos’ growly, funky electric bass and Swan’s kick-heavy drums was salient. “Toca Mas Cumbia” revealed Zaharieva’s enthusiasm for Latin rhythms; before “In The Forest,” she spoke about her imagination having a tendency to run riot. During a heavy theory lesson with trumpeter Victor Garcia, she recalled, her mind wandered, conjuring chess-playing woodland creatures, what she referred to as “cartoons in her head.” There seemed no end in sight for Zaharieva’s ideas, but she kept her set relatively concise, which was appreciated, given the multi-bill. Spoken-word artist Justus (Joseph Sanders) joined the quartet toward the end of the set with some high-energy holy rolling.

Next up were two seasoned veterans, both alumni of the Sun Ra Arkestra: drummer Avreeayl Ra and cellist Kash Killion, who convened for the first time in five years to spontaneously collaborate. A shamanic rapport immediately congealed with Ra alternating spartan, skeletal mallet beats with unheralded, almighty thwacks, as Killion parlayed interstellar cello-processed scrapings, arco melismas and vocal pronouncements such as “I flew to a star, I didn’t know how far!” Both men spoke of the lineage of their sonic quests, and the authenticity of their spiritual enquiry was unimpeachable, Killion hoping he had inspired the audience “beyond comfort.” “Echoes Of Africa” was particular evocative, with chants, meditative flute, even quasi throat-singing from Ra, which called from another continent. Killion eked what sounds he could from a necklace whistle as Ra’s hi-hat snapped and his twin cowbells tolled.

Killion is a cello specialist but has explored many instruments and brings his diverse interests to bear. Ultimately he resorted to sarangi, a bowed, stubby necked stringed instrument popular in Punjabi and Rajasthani folk music. Though the sounds he elicited through cello seemed boundless, the sarangi, which Killion has studied with the renowned Ali Akbar Khan and other Indian masters, while still mesmerizing, was more limited in tonal variation.

Though known for brittle shimmer despite its size, the harp, at the hands of Edmar Castaneda, is an entirely different story. The Colombian genius connects his bass strings to an amp to add heft and contrapuntal groove to his blistering and sublime assault on the 34 strings at his disposal, each of which he can clutch in a flash, with supreme accuracy despite an acrobatic attack. Castaneda assailed Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango” with the impassioned zeal of the most fiery flamenco guitarist and left jaws agape with “For Jaco,” his outrageously funky and harmonically adventurous tribute to bassist Jaco Pastorius, one of his first jazz crushes.

Castaneda is one of a handful of musicians who have that meta-mastery of their axe of choice: truly transcendent, not just technically, but in terms of the triumphant human spirit they inspire. After the show Zaharieva, a virtuoso in her own right, exclaimed, “I’m speechless,” and that hit the bullseye: an incredible climax to an already lofty summit. DB

JJA Announces Winners of 2022 Jazz Awards

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Vocalist Sheila Jordan was honored for Lifetime Achievement in the Jazz Journalists Association’s 27th annual JJA Jazz Awards.

(Photo: Lauren Deutsch)

Singer Sheila Jordan, who at age 93 calls herself a “jazz child,” was hailed for her Lifetime Achievement in Jazz in the Jazz Journalists Association’s 27th annual JJA Jazz Awards, the results of which were announced May 3.

The 2022 Jazz Awards also honored Grammy-winner and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste as Musician of the Year. Tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana was named Up ’n’ Coming Musician of the Year, and Kenny Garrett’s Sounds From The Ancestors won Record of the Year. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle was voted Best Historical Record.

The JJA Jazz Awards also celebrated the late Greg Tate — author, columnist, critic, lecturer, founder of the Black Rock Coalition and leader of Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber — for Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism, posthumously; Tate died at age 63 last December. Writer-blogger Ted Gioia, Washington, D.C. radio program host Rusty Hassan and photographer Carol Friedman have also won JJA Jazz Awards.

Two awards were given to books: Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul, by Deanna Witkowski, won the Biography and Autobiography category, and She Raised Her Voice! 50 Black Women who Sang Their Way into Musical History, by Jordannah Elizabeth with illustrations by Briana Dengoue, won as Book of the Year about Jazz: History, Criticism and Culture.

Almost 300 jazz musicians, journalists and media makers, recordings, books, documentaries, podcasts, photographs, were nominated for the 2022 Jazz Awards. This year’s winners are being asked to participate in an innovative online event, tentatively scheduled for mid-July. Awards will also be presented to winners before their audiences at outdoor performances throughout the summer.

For the complete list of winners in 47 categories, visit jjajazzawards.org. DB

Mutual Mentorship for Musicians To Launch Inaugural In-Person Festival

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Jen Shyu is a co-founder of Mutual Mentorship for Musicians, which presents its inaugural in-person M³ Festival June 16–18 and 21–22 in New York.

(Photo: Daniel Reichert)

When the COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020, musicians Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa co-founded Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³), an initiative recognizing that the music and performing arts worlds have been mostly shaped by male power. The resulting imbalance manifests in deeply unequal environments and presents multiple challenges for musicians from underrepresented groups to have access to meaningful mentorship or career opportunities.

In just two years, M³ has commissioned 48 women, non-binary and mostly BIPOC musicians to create 24 new duo music/video compositions across four cohort cycles, each lasting six months, all while mentoring one another with wisdom that could be imparted from those who have experienced the injustices of the music industry.

Now, this month, following three virtual festivals, M³ will stage 19 live performances and six new duo commissions at its inaugural in-person festival, co-presented with NYC Winter Jazzfest. The concerts will feature musicians including Fay Victor, Val-Inc aka Val Jeanty SoundChemist, Shanta Nurullah, Michele Rosewoman, Monnette Sudler, Malika Zarra, Sumi Tonooka, Erica Lindsay, Caroline Davis, Jen Shyu & Sara Serpa and more.

The M³ Festival will present 19 women and non-binary bandleaders. The 19 bandleaders were members of M³’s first two cohorts — Summer Solstice 2020 and Winter Solstice 2020. The festival will span five days (June 16–18 and 21–22) as performers, M³’s commissioned composers and workshop leaders provide powerful examples of women and non-binary perspectives to music lovers, students, families, children other musicians and music industry professionals.

“After two years of remote artmaking, it feels momentous to be back in-person with our talented cohort of M³ musicians performing for live audiences,” Serpa said.

Co-founder Shyu added, “Representation at music festivals is a crucial step for gender equity, not only for the performing artists, but for younger generations and all artists who rarely see themselves represented in high-profile events.”

The festival, curated by Serpa and Shyu, highlights intersections between race, sexuality or ability across generations.

“A festival with this volume of our generation’s most powerful underrepresented voices in jazz and creative music is a huge milestone for our organization and for the artists and audiences we serve,” Serpa and Shyu said in a statement. “We hope that in the future, gender balance will be the rule and not the exception in the programming decisions of all artistic directors and curators around the world.”

On closing night, June 22, M³ will present its first Gala, hosted by music critic Kyla Marshell, presenting the inaugural M³ Lifetime Achievement Award to Shanta Nurullah, who will receive a $5,000 unrestricted award in honor of their past and future work. This award fills a gap that exists in honoring elder women in the jazz and creative music scenes whose musical contributions have remained nearly invisible due to racism and misogyny.

For more detailed information on the festival, visit the M³ website. DB

Danilo Peréz: A Global Love Affair

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Danilo Pérez has turned his music into a family-driven, relentless mission to unite the world.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Large buzzards, called Gallinazos in Spanish, glide between the skyscrapers of downtown Panama City. They hover like sentinels, observing not just prey, but human activity below. Over the centuries such birds have witnessed much — from the invasion of murderous transatlantic colonizers to the sacking of the city by the Welsh bandit Captain Henry Morgan; to the traumatic construction of the canal; to even an attack by Panama’s northerly neighbor, the United States.

Danilo Pérez, the cultural ambassador for Panama and UNESCO artist for peace, also has seen a lot, notably in the arena of music-making, where he’s performed with icons of jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie and Wayne Shorter, and has steadily become an icon himself. Like the Gallinazos, Pérez has a broad wingspan and a vision that expands beyond his personal career to embrace the prospects of his country, as well as people well beyond Panama’s borders.

Inaugurating the Panama Jazz Festival two decades ago, alongside his wife, Patricia Zárate Pérez — a Chilean-born saxophonist, educator and music therapy specialist — sparked an incredible journey, one inspired in part by Pérez’s forward-thinking forebearers. His father, Danilo Enrico Pérez Urriola, authored an influential thesis in 1967 about the broad benefits of music education for developing minds and put his concepts into practice with remarkable results. That, coupled with his mother’s political and social activism, set the seed for Danilo Jr. to further his precocious musical talent and flourish beyond mere self-awareness.

Few artists have sustained a love affair with their country with the passion of Danilo Pérez. Since his eponymous debut album in 1993, and increasingly on subsequent releases on RCA Novus, Impulse!, Verve, ArtistShare (including an exciting big band EP), plus outstanding albums on Mack Avenue such as Providencia (2010) and Panama 500 (2014), Pérez has consistently traced and evoked the roots and diaspora of his homeland, which has served as an intercontinental umbilical cord and crossing point for commerce, biodiversity and jazz.

With his latest project, Crisálida (Mack Avenue), the humanitarian crises that afflict Central America are alluded to in his “Fronteras Suite,” but the mission has gone global. Absent are famous jazz names from previous projects. Pérez’s diverse Global Messengers ensemble is youthful, with lesser-known musicians from Palestine, Greece, Cuba, Jordan, Chile, the U.S. and Panama brought together at his stateside seat of operations, Berklee College of Music’s Global Jazz Institute, which he founded in 2010.

DownBeat visited the 19th Panama Jazz Festival in January, despite a decimated program due to 11th hour cancellations forced by the Omicron variant. A number of headlining acts such as Kurt Elling, Borderlands Trio and Antonio Hart were unable to make the trip.

Pérez and Zárate, who serves as the festival’s executive director, tested positive, forcing them into quarantine for the entire week. The odds were stacked against the festival’s success.

But the people of Panama pivoted, and since the annual jazz festival was registered by an article of Panamanian law back in 2016, the show went on with local talent plugging gaps and international musicians who could make the trip doubling up their involvement.

A critical component of the event has been educational as well as entertaining. The festival announced more than $4.5 million in student music scholarships would be offered to Panamanian students attending such institutions as Berklee and New England Conservatory, as well as conservatories in Chile and Puerto and beyond. Many of the artists who did make it to the festival were thoroughly occupied giving master classes and symposiums.

Two schools run by pioneering men played an important role in this facet of the festival: the New York Jazz Academy, run by Javier Arau and David Engelhard, and the Conservatorio de Santiago, brainchild of one of Pérez’s Berklee students, Orion Lion. Otherwise, women resolutely ruled the roost, both onstage and in the lecture halls, much to the pleasant surprise of the festival founders, both ardent feminists (some indigenous tribes in Panama, incidentally, are matriarchies, and Panama had a female president between 1999 and 2004). Zárate’s Global Jazz Womxn group had to soldier on without its leader and half its personnel but congealed as a resourceful piano trio. Cuban pianist Camila Cortina, Italian drummer Francesca Remigi and Irish/Austrian bass prodigy Ciara Moser all backed up their performances in the picturesque Plaza V Centenario and at the Ateneo theater with impressive pedagogy. Other committed educator/performers were Danilo mentees: pianist and flutist Agnieszka Derlak, from Poland, who’s energy and enthusiasm seemed inexhaustible, and pianist Lion, both of whom jammed with rising star saxophonist Samuel Batista, an alum of both Berklee and Fundación Danilo Pérez.

Batista sees himself as living proof of Pérez’s dream to end poverty and discrimination through jazz education, speaking of Pérez’s prowess as a promoter of opportunities and insisting he himself will now continue this path for positive education “until the end.”

Had there not been an 80% shortfall of musicians at the festival, it would have followed a similarly spontaneous ethos by all accounts, since Pérez and Zárate foster what Wayne Shorter dubs “a zero-gravity approach,” where musicians throw down with their peers and mentors at a moment’s notice.

“It’s a phrase Wayne would use when he wanted a certain freedom and abandon,” explained Pérez, “like children playing and enjoying the process of discovering, a weightless sensation. We never really define it, but we understand it conceptually and emotionally — going beyond.”

Going above and beyond might well describe Pérez’s attitude. “I call it ‘comprovisation’ where we mix intent with risk taking. At the Global Jazz Institute, we don’t call classes ‘ear training’ but ‘fear training,’ all requirements to get students to play in a zero-gravity way.’’

One of his Berklee students, violinist/vocalist Layth Sidiq, progressed from student to colleague and appears on Crisálida. “Recording on the album with Danilo was a one-of-a-kind experience,” he enthused. “First of all, the music speaks for itself. It’s truly global in the way it brings together multiple musical cultures and idioms. Secondly, it has a strong social message that’s relevant for our times, in that music can truly heal the world and is a last resort. Finally, this music is for everyone. It has a storytelling aspect and pushes the boundaries of what this unique ensemble of instruments can do.”

“We found common ground together,” Pérez said. “Panamanian and Mediterranean rhythms have connections, and my tetrachord concept synchs with their Arabic maqam foundation and what they hear melodically.”

His music has ever been exploratory and resistant to classification, the early influence of the globally savvy Weather Report (even before his direct connection with Shorter) no longer discernible, his musical imagination brooking few bounds. One minute he’ll hopscotch, pouncing on the keyboard; next he’ll lock down a 14/8 ostinato, as at the end of “Al-Musafir Blues,” a track that transliterates the exploits of a Palestinian youth trying to make it to America to study and finally locate his biological mother. Much of the music came together through energetic protracted jams. “La Muralla (Glass Walls) Suite,” which opens Crisálida with pure, imploring vocals from Farayi Malek, bespeaks a shield “where only light and vibrations can come through” but changes tack by the fourth movement, confronting real-world obstacles.

“Muropatia” references “a human disorder characterized by the desire to make solid impermeable walls” — an inferred nod to political intransigence about immigration. The music is quite frenetic. Each messenger aligns on a seesawing line to conjure the jumpy mentality of barrier builders. Pérez’s descending piano breaks suggest the slow tumbling of partition. A groove kicks in, heralding a hard-hitting rap from Zárate derived from a poem she wrote in 2017. It was inspired by a photo of violinist Yuri Namkung (wife of Danilo’s long-time bass colleague Ben Street).

“Yuri went to teach at the Mexico border and sent the image of her, a beautiful, tiny violinist, with an immense wall behind her,” Zárate said. “I couldn’t believe the wall had been extended or even built at all. It brought many thoughts into my brain. She was like a star, a light surrounded by darkness and violence. Like the lotus flower in a swamp.” For her own album Violetas, recorded in 2019 and produced by her husband, Zárate wrote a moving piece dedicated to her uncle “Flaco,” who was “disappeared” for dissidence by the repressive regime of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet. Zárate’s other uncle was murdered for his views and her father, once the chess champion of Chile, banished into exile before she ever met him. Her mother, a renowned neurologist, taught her daughter the value of music therapy, which she went on to study. “I was the first Chilean to graduate from Berklee in the 1990s with the initial generation of music therapy students. I organized the first female band there, with women from Taiwan, Israel, Korea, America and Chile, when having female bands was not in vogue.”

Pérez characterizes his wife, who oversaw the homeschooling of their three children, as a warrior. Zárate composed words, on her own album and on Crisálida for a rapper, but Pérez insisted she perform them herself.

“I come from Chile, the land of Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, so I have been writing poetry since childhood,” she said. “At the Panama Jazz Festival, I started reciting it during the jam sessions. Since the poems rhymed, I started rapping to test them.”

“Patricia is a bridge between Chileans and Boston,” Lion commented. “Thanks to her work as a mentor and manager, a whole generation of Chileans have developed careers, from myself and Melissa Aldana, to many more. As for Danilo, he is a genius performer and composer, but people don’t know that he’s also a genius in the educational field.”

Pérez casts his net of friends and cohorts far and wide. Architect (and jazz fan) Frank Gehry is one. He recently designed sets for Shorter and Esperanza Spalding’s opera Iphigenia, and connects with Pérez via the La Huella Humana exhibit at Gehry’s landmark design Biomuseo in Panama.

Pérez created a soundtrack about the human development of the country from prehistory to the canal that progressively reveals itself through an overhead speaker system. Gehry and his Panamanian wife, Berta, are fans. “I hosted Wayne’s band with Danilo at my home in Santa Monica while they were working on music for the opera, so we were like family. My wife has always followed Danilo’s music, but I got to know him better as he rehearsed with Wayne,” recalled the 92-year-old architect via phone. Interestingly, Gehry’s jazz bona fides include the fact that he once booked a teenage Oscar Peterson for a high school hop in Toronto and hung out with Duke Ellington and Eubie Blake in the ’60s.

By the end of the festival, word came that Pérez and Zárate were about to spring free of quarantined house arrest.

A photo shoot with Florentino Archibold, teacher of Guna dance in the district of Arraijan, was now a possibility. There were enough flutes, often gender-specific, for an orchestra, fashioned by the Guna tribespeople from animal bones, bamboo and sugar cane (they even use turtle shells as amplifiers). Archibold, his young acolytes and Zárate blew several of them, as Pérez merged with their music on melodica.

A visit to the Fundación Danilo Pérez headquarters in Bethania meant meeting with a class of young students, smiles hidden under precautionary masks and plastic visors. Some might be the next generation of promising Panamanian talent, others have been simply sheltered from harm’s way and benefitting from the value of arts immersion.

Pérez dabbled with assorted percussion instruments and pianos, played a marimba/glockenspiel duet with a student at her request and took time for an impromptu jam with his teenage daughter Carolina, a vocalist and trumpet player who was a significant part of the festival’s bill.

Everyone in Panama’s Old Quarter knows Pérez. From from the man shaving ice for raspado to a painter in his studio; a gang of renegade youths to an author who penned a biography of ’20s Panamanian bandleader Luis Russell. It’s a place one may encounter a wolf-whistling macaw or a skinny brigade of stray cats, lo, even jazz cats, like the fast-talking, renowned sound engineer Rob Griffin, who relocated to Panama after work visits to the festival with Shorter’s quartet. Scarcely missing a beat, Griffin proffered an invite to his home studio in San Felipe, where he serendipitously shared his latest shaping of a Shorter concert recording. Griffin spilled some professional experiences with Pérez from when they’d worked together with the Shorter group.

“I would try to get a live mix on tour and noticed Danilo would miraculously change the sound of the piano at each venue. He’d test each of the 88 keys for individual response and attack, each according to his assessment during performance,” Griffin marveled. When Shorter visited Panama to overdub material for Shorter’s epic Emanon (Blue Note, 2018) at Pérez’s namesake (and currently shuttered) jazz club in The American Trade Hotel, Griffin witnessed something else. “Danilo adjusted something in the music that didn’t quite click with the pre-recorded Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, a timing issue. He made a minute shift in tempo, that monumentally improved the groove of the whole performance. I’ll never forget that. And he and Wayne improvised a warm-up to ‘Pegasus’ that they asked me not to record. I’m glad I did, however, because it ended up on the album and is stunning.”

Pérez regards Shorter like a second father and Shorter returns that love. When DownBeat caught up with the legendary saxophonist and composer over the phone after the premier of his opera in L.A. — which featured Spalding, Pérez and longtime compadres John Patitucci and Brian Blade — Shorter recalled when he first heard his future pianist. “I saw Danilo in Dizzy’s United Nation’s band on TV.

The camera zoomed in on his hands on ‘Manteca,’ lingered there, and I thought, ‘This guy is onto something. He’s a storyteller.’ We developed communication playing together. I’d say, ‘Put some water on that’ or ‘Throw a little sand in there,’” laughed Shorter. “I really admire Danilo’s doings with the Global Institute. He’s also voyaged into the mountains of Panama, taken risks searching out young talent. He’s very persuasive with his honesty and has no airs. Danilo is aware he was a human before he became a musician. And Patricia, I saw in D.C. at a Monk Institute event. Have you heard her play the saxophone? I told Danilo at the time, ‘That’s the woman you should marry!’”

And he did. DB

DownBeat would like to thank Suresh Jhangimal of Digital Photo Supply in Panama City for the loan of photo equipment for this story.

Catherine Russell: An Artist Prepares

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Russell’s ability to captivate an audience is a well-honed craft.

(Photo: Sandrine Lee)

The energy at New York’s Birdland felt restless and distracted. When the band started playing “Honeysuckle Rose,” entire tables lifted up their phones. Some rose from their seats to find a better angle. But as Catherine Russell entered the room, the mood shifted. Listeners listened. Between bursts of applause, even the bar fell silent.

Russell’s ability to captivate an audience is a well-honed craft. The two-time Grammy-nominated singer and bandleader has spent years exploring the music, internalizing the subtle ways compositional and lyrical choices often enhance one another. She loves her repertoire the way great novelists love their characters. But she lives for the discoveries. Mining what’s magical about each song, she finds new ways to transmit that magic night after night.

Now releasing her eighth album, Send For Me (Dot Time Records), Russell has performed at famed venues from SFJAZZ to Carnegie Hall, and toured with legendary acts like Cyndi Lauper, Carrie Smith, David Bowie and Steely Dan. After a six-night run at Birdland, she paused to share her thoughts on personal vision and peer input, crafting a set list that serves her expression and her own years-long experience with anxiety and self-doubt.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

You’re a proponent of preparation as a vehicle for spontaneity.

Absolutely. My time on stage is completely consumed with making music and having a good time. If my mind is full of, “Did I do this? Did I do that?” then I’m not present. So preparation, for me, is everything.

How has the practice of thorough preparation informed your artistic intention for each of your studio releases, and has your understanding of what it means to feel prepared evolved?

Before we go in to record, I have everything prepared — except in one instance, which was the tune “Going Back To New Orleans.” We normally record everything in three days, with everyone in the same room. But I decided to add horns to “In The Night,” so we [scheduled] a separate recording session. Then, I had the idea of breaking down “Going Back To New Orleans” to just a few instruments. That was a separate session. So, I actually had five sessions. But I contemplated it all before we went in. I also talk to my guitarist Matt [Munisteri] a lot; he helps me with concept. I have a couple horn arrangers that help me with what we’re going to reference for different types of horn parts. So, over the years, my prep has solidified as a result of the people that I’m working with. When I first started out, I didn’t have horn arrangers. I was just writing plain arrangements — beginnings, middles and ends — and then going in and playing them.

You actually found a live version of your father, Luis Russell, and his orchestra playing his arrangement of “At The Swing Cats Ball.” What about that arrangement resonated with you, and how did you and Mark Lopeman go about adapting it to sound like a song that was written for your personal sound?

There’s no studio recording of [that song] by my father’s orchestra. Somebody put a recording machine by the stage on a gig one night and got most of the performance. The beginning of it is clipped, but they come back to that horn figure. [sings the figure] The one you hear in the beginning. Mark and I said, “If they did this in the middle, that’s probably what they did in the beginning. So let’s write it out like that because we’ll never actually know.” It’s cool because it’s a six-bar thing. And the way the swing pocket felt resonated with me. It’s the way I like to swing. Louis Jordan’s version is faster. His versions of things, a lot of times, are faster. And he put drum hits in his arrangement which I didn’t really care for, personally. I also really liked the vocalist on my father’s recording. To me, it just sounds like everybody was enjoying themselves immensely.

You first heard “Make It Last” on a Betty Carter recording from 1958. Her choices on this particular recording really spotlight the beauty of that chord progression. Would you discuss that repertoire selection and, more broadly, what truly excites you when you find a new song for your band to explore together?

Betty Carter’s performances resonated with me because I just love what she does with phrasing, how she draws out a lyric. A friend of mine, who has been sending me tunes for years, sent me that recording. That tune, I find she sings differently. The melody is very simple. And I love the sentiment of the lyric. The way Melba Liston arranged it, it’s so fluid, like a waterfall around Betty Carter’s voice. You kind of don’t know where one chord ends and the next begins, some horns extend over the bar line and others don’t really resolve together — it’s beautiful. It reminded me of [Alexander] Scriabin, or [Charles] Mingus where you can hear the individual horns sometimes. The [song’s] two bridges have slightly different changes, and that’s intriguing. What excites me about finding these tunes is: a) I’ve never heard anybody else do them, or one or two people have done them; and, b) the chord structure is something that musicians can bite into. I don’t do a lot of ballads because I like my set to be more on the upbeat side. But somewhere in the set, we can bring it down a little bit and have that vocabulary as well, which demands that I sing that differently.

When people talk about vocabulary, frequently they’re referencing lyric-less improvising, instrumental or vocal. Your improvising holds steadfast to the story you’re telling through the lyrics. How do you view your vocabulary development through the music’s expansive lineage?

When I listen to what you can do with words and phrases, I go back to Louis Armstrong because he was such a master. Where I connect to jazz and vocal improvisation is through the story. I’ve tried wordless improvisation. “Cat, take a chorus!” … “OK!” And then it’s like, uh … yeah … I don’t really have the horn solo vocabulary in my body. My improvising thing is more rhythmic. I’m definitely based in rhythm as opposed to melodic improvising on different scales. I really respect that art form, being able to spell out chords with wordless improvisation, being able to anticipate the changes in a wordless improvisation. That’s not really my forte. [laughs] At first, years ago, I would compare myself and say, “Oh, I’m not as versed in vocal improvising because I can’t do ‘shoobedobedo’ like other people I admire.” But what I can do is base that in rhythm.

Speaking of rhythm as a grounding element, would you discuss the musical relationship between your mother — bassist and multi-instrumentalist Ms. Carline Ray — and the great Ruth Brown, the impact witnessing that dynamic had on you as a young person and how that impact has lasted?

My mother admired and respected all the many artists that she worked with. And she thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed working with Ruth Brown. Miss Brown was just a lovely person and I felt so great around her. She was like a mentor and an auntie. I loved going to her performances and seeing my mother able to support her, musically. The two of them would just be smiling. And the music felt great. I loved the way Ruth Brown could sing a standard and then she could turn right around and sing some gut-bucket blues in the next song, and then sing rhythm and blues. And I knew, at that point, the differences. We’re getting back to vocabulary. Ruth Brown was the great thread through all of those genres — and was one of the pioneers of what she was doing, which was mixing jazz and blues and rhythm and blues. For several years, I’d been working around New York but not putting my own shows together. So I would go see her and say, “Oh, you can do that. I can sing ‘Here’s That Rainy Day’ and then turn around and sing some gut-bucket blues right after that and it’ll be OK.” She was such a great entertainer. I got to see Alberta Hunter many times, as well. And the thing that appealed to me about the two of them is the different kinds of music they could bring together — and it all made sense.

You studied the ways they crafted their sets.

Yes. I like to start with something that invites the people in, so they know, “OK, we can relax and have a good time now.” Then I might go into some blues, “Send For Me,” Nat “King” Cole blues, for example. Then, sometimes a Fats Waller tune, mostly the funny tunes in his catalog so the people get to laugh. Down the road a few more tunes, I’ll do another uptempo tune like “At The Swing Cats Ball.” Maybe then it’s time for a ballad. Then I’ll bring it up to something medium-tempo, “East Of The Sun” or “You Turned The Tables On Me.” My vocal technique is lighter in that context, as opposed to the real fast stuff, which is a different vocal technique. And the blues is a different vocal technique. I like to give the people a variety so that they know that I understand the different techniques of my own vocal performance.

You launched your now-thriving career as a leader in 2006, after you had toured the world with many artists, adding to those influences you encountered as a small child. What advice do you have for young artists working in today’s persistent release-oriented landscape?

It’s so different nowadays. There’s so much pressure on young people to prove this and to prove that. When I was coming up in New York, there were a lot of places to play. You could develop your thing. It didn’t have to be perfect. You could explore things — play here Monday night, play somewhere else Tuesday night. There’s no substitute for really developing your craft, your performance skills, how to work with a band on stage, how to perform original repertoire in front of people. The young people I know that are developing in a healthy way are people who get out there a lot.

Otherwise, you’re not going to know how to deal with different situations: monitors that don’t work, sound people who can’t give you the attention you need. Get as much experience as you can get. The young people that are in school whom I perform with, they play a lot. They take all kinds of the gigs. My trumpet player John Eric Kelso gave me a whole list of names when he could not [play that Saturday night at Birdland]. And I thought, “Let me try this young woman [Summer Camargo].” First of all, she’s a female trumpet player, and I connect to that. Let’s try her out and see what happens. And she was a total pro. Came in less than 24 hours after I called her, [learned] the material and led the horn section. Twenty years old. You can go in a studio and turn knobs and tweak things to sound the way you want, but that has nothing to do with live performance. Sometimes you won’t get a favorable response. That’s part of the learning process. So you have to be able to take all that in, as well.

Throughout your development, you struggled with forms of depression and anxiety, imposter syndrome. Are you still managing those mental-emotional phases? Do you have strategies for addressing them when they emerge while you’re in the studio or out on the road?

Interesting that you would bring that up because, yes. You don’t know where these things come from, really. The first 11 years of my life, I did not have stage fright. I didn’t struggle with feeling less than others. I felt fine in my body. I didn’t look in the mirror and hate myself. I danced, and I loved dancing. I embraced it. Then, puberty hit. I started feeling ugly. Nervous. Like I couldn’t perform, like I didn’t wanna be the center of attention. Would I ever be good at anything? Mind you, I was looking at my mother’s Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music degrees on the wall. And my mother was also physically beautiful. She always told me I looked like my dad, so I thought, “I look like a man. I don’t look like a girl.” In my teen years, I wanted to be high a lot. So that’s what I did, just to relax. I was very nervous. I put on weight. I just didn’t feel good. If there was a kid that liked me, I thought that there was something wrong with him.

I was always going to group therapy to discover what was wrong with me: “Why do I feel like this?” That lasted until I went to acting school. I was living in California and was accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts West Coast campus, but they wanted me to audition for the New York school. That’s how I got back to New York City. That started to change my life. I was a two-time high school dropout, and when I got into this school, I said, “This is what’s going to save me.” And it did.

But I was still having issues of stage fright — being nauseous, feeling tingly in my fingers, not being able to stay present. A friend of mine told me about an acting teacher who teaches meditation to clear out your mind so that you can take on a character. I studied with him for 10 straight years and got all of the poison out of me. Now, I look forward to my performances. I don’t have this gripping terror of, “I don’t know if I can do this!” I know I can do it, and I know I can have fun doing it. It doesn’t matter when it happens or how long it takes. It matters that you have the tools to deal with yourself.

Let’s pivot back to the studio. This is your sixth leader recording with Katherine Miller at the engineering and production helm, alongside your co-producer Paul Kahn. What draws you to her expression, and how has that relationship developed over time?

Around 2009, Todd Barkan gave me an [Ernestine Anderson] album one night and said, “Here, listen to this.” So [Paul and I] put the album on and said, “Wait a second. This sounds amazing. Who is the recording engineer?” It was Katherine Miller. The vocal sound, the instruments, everything sounded round and rich. The range of sound was even — the highs, the mids, the low-ends — it sounded like you were in the room. So we got in touch. She’s a no-drama human being: she comes in, gets down to business and we get to work. We work at a nice pace, and she can also be very honest with me. She’ll say, “You’re tired. I’m not getting anything out of you, take a break.” Last year, I had bought a microphone and we tried it on a session; she said, “The problem with that mic is it’s high-endy. Your voice is already high-endy. We need to bring out the warmth in your voice as opposed to highlighting one area of it.” She hooks everything up.

What, if anything, do you hope listeners will receive from Send For Me, both in studio release and live performance contexts?

I want the listener to have an enjoyable experience. I want the listener to get some history and hear songs by people whose names they haven’t heard so they may go and check out these other artists and their music. A gentleman this past week told me, “You know I heard you sing this song, and I had not heard that song before and now I’m singing it.” That’s the best compliment to the material that I can imagine. Go out and do the songs. Let’s keep them out there. DB

Take Me to the River: New Orleans

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Bounce pioneers Mannie Fresh and Big Freedia and other guests join Galactic on “Act Like You Know.”

(Photo: Take Me To The River: New Orleans)

Anyone who has spent time in New Orleans knows why it is also known as The City That Care Forgot. Between the music and the food and the prevailing spirit of laissez les bons temps rouler, this special place below sea level is tailor-made for epicureans, bon vivants and second-liners. As narrator John Goodman points out at the beginning of Take Me to the River: New Orleans, its European roots, Caribbean and African influences evolved together, giving birth to jazz, funk, rock ’n’ roll, world music and bounce (the Crescent City’s own brand of hip-hop that emerged in the 1990s). All of these musical elements come together in this entertaining two-hour documentary, along with some history lessons about Congo Square, the Mardi Gras Indians, the brass band tradition, Preservation Hall and the birth of funk.

The second film by music producer-director Martin Shore (his first was 2014’s Take Me to the River: Memphis) follows the same intergenerational formula of teaming today’s masters and tomorrow’s innovators in intimate recording sessions, sharing what they know and showing the common ground between them. A vintage black-and-white clip of Irma Thomas on American Bandstand from 1964 singing her torch song “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)” is followed by a present day live studio session between her and neo-soul singer Ledisi performing a stirring rendition of Thomas’ 1964 song “Wish Someone Would Care.” It’s one of many goosebumps moments of this rich and often moving documentary. And as Thomas says of their gospel-tinged collaboration, “I feel very comfortable in passing the torch to her.”

Keyboardist and New Orleans native PJ Morton of Grammy Award-winning pop band Maroon 5 combines with the Rebirth Brass Band and rapper Cheeky Blakk on the funky throwdown “New Orleans Girl.”

“It’s about uplifting people,” says tuba ace Philip Frazier, who put the Rebirth Brass together in 1983 when he was still in high school. Drummers Herlin Riley, Shannon Powell, Alvin Ford Jr. (of Trombone Shorty’s Orleans Avenue band), the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s Terence Higgins and Galactic’s Stanton Moore join together for a tambourine-and-percussion jam on the traditional “Lil’ Liza Jane.” And alto saxophonist and educator Big Chief Donald Harrison gives an exegesis on one of the most colorful New Orleans traditions: Mardi Gras Indians tribal culture.

Essentially a documentary on the making of the album Take Me To The River: New Orleans, released as a two-CD set on Petaluma Records, it includes a touching tribute to The Neville Brothers with all four founding members in attendance (keyboardist Art Neville and saxophonist Charles Neville both died in 2018). Mac Rebennack, who passed in 2019, is seen in two intimate duets with Piano Prince of New Orleans Davell Crawford (grandson of Sugarboy Crawford) on profoundly moving versions of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love” and Sugarboy’s New Orleans anthem “Jock-A-Mo.” Crawford also performs a moving gospel dirge, “We Shall Gather At The River,” set to apocalyptic news footage of the Crescent City under water in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

Bassist Ben Jaffe tells the story of his parents visiting New Orleans for the first time in 1961 and soon after turning an existing art gallery in the heart of the French Quarter into Preservation Hall, a haven for trad-jazz ever since. Alt-rocker Ani DiFranco joins with the cajun music band Lost Bayou Ramblers, the Roots of Music brass band and bluesy guitarist Walter “Wolfman” Washington for the ultimate tasty gumbo on “Blue Moon Special.” Drummer Johnny Vidacovich joins Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and Voices of the Wetlands on The Wild Magnolia’s “(Big Chief Like Plenty Of) Firewater.” And bounce pioneers Mannie Fresh and Big Freedia join Galactic on “Act Like You Know.”

For a spirited finale, rappers Snoop Dogg and G-Eazy spit rapid-fire rhymes on top of Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” featuring legendary Stax singer-songwriter William Bell singing the positive refrain, which sums up the joyful spirit of brotherhood that hovers over this entire session. “We’re bringing New Orleans’ influence and vibe to the world of Snoop,” says guitarist Ian Neville, son of Art Neville, nephew of Aaron, Charles and Cyril Neville.

Drummer Herlin Riley talks about a “spiritual connection to that ancestral power,” adding, “We respect our ancestors, we don’t want to lose the story.”

Because of its precarious position below sea level right at the base of the Mississippi River, New Orleans faces the constant threat of being washed away. But culture this deep-seated will never subside. As The Meters bassist George Porter Jr. put it, “The soul is here, the soul will never leave New Orleans. You can knock the people down but they keep getting back up.” DB

Roxy Coss Puts Jazz Life into Perspective

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The Roxy Coss Quintet proves to be much more than the sum of its Disparate Parts, an aptly named new album on Outside in Music.

(Photo: Desmond White)

Roxy Coss first made her name as a force to be reckoned with on The Future Is Female (Posi-Tone, 2017), her provocative response to the 2016 elections. The album cover showed Coss girded for battle, ready to wield her saxophones as weapons. The album also marked the debut of her five-piece ensemble, which she formally christened Roxy Coss Quintet on her acclaimed 2019 album.

The quintet proves to be much more than the sum of its Disparate Parts, the aptly named new release on Outside in Music. Recorded during a brief lull in the pandemic, when Coss was seven months pregnant with a baby girl, the album amplifies the quintet’s solidarity by giving voice to the vision of each member: Alex Wintz on guitar, Miki Yamanaka on piano and Rhodes, Rick Rosato on bass and Jimmy Macbride on drums. Most contribute compositions, and all fly free with solos that punctuate the conversation.

Coss explores the intersection of “The Body,” “The Mind,” “The Heart” and “The Spirit” in her own evocative four-part suite, and uses all five takes of Yamanaka’s “February” to frame the album’s sequencing — a brilliant last-minute decision that makes Disparate Parts a cohesive work reflected in its cover. Designed by her mother, Mary Coss, it shows a plaster-cast life mask of Coss shadowed by the bent-wire words “disparate parts” washing up on the shore of a female future that’s still revealing itself.

DownBeat spoke to Coss via Zoom from her home in Bloomfield, New Jersey, shortly before the quintet’s CD release party in March.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You really throw down the gauntlet with “The Body.”

Yes! After that first take, I felt like we’ve got it. I’ve never felt that way in the studio before. It was so much energy, especially with being pregnant. Afterwards, exhaustion set in, but the good kind of exhaustion.

How did you come up with the four-part concept?

For a long time, I had been thinking about having disparate parts of myself that aren’t really integrated with each other, which can stand in your way of realizing your full potential. Each of these musical ideas was related, even though they were very different.

And as they started to develop, I thought this is clearly “The Body,” it’s very visceral. Whereas “The Mind” is more intellectual, about things like changing time signatures.

“The Mind” is also very playful.

I attribute that to Miki, who’s featured on that track. She’s such a playful person and player. “The Heart” of any band is the bassist, so that one was pretty organic and powered by Rick’s solo. “The Spirit” was the last piece I wrote, a couple years after I wrote the others. We tried the first three out at a small stage and at least six months went by before I said, this isn’t done. It needs a new piece. What is it? It’s something you can’t really describe. It’s in the air. It’s evolving and ethereal. So I wrote the melody that became “The Spirit,” which completed the suite.

“Maebs” is dedicated to the late, great pianist Harold Maeburn. What was your own relationship with him?

He was a personal mentor. I met him at this jazz workshop when I was 16, and ended up working with him at William Patterson University. He was always so supportive. When I had a gig at Smalls, Maebes would sit in the first row and say, “Genius, genius.” He made me feel like I mattered and my music mattered.

And you make your band feel like their music matters. Several members contribute tracks, like Alex’s tune, “Ely, MN,” which is pretty epic.

That was very much part of the concept. Each of us are disparate parts of the band. I feel you get the best band experience when you really hear every person, and it’s not just about one person.

I wrote the tune “Disparate Parts” at the very last minute because I wanted one more track for the album. And I had four different ideas, so I decided each would feature one of us. They’re all disparate parts and this is the title track.

Another disparate part is the post-production I did with Johannes Felscher, who mixed the album. We experimented with soundscapes that pushed the boundaries beyond straightahead jazz, which I’d like to do more of in the future.

What was it like recording during the pandemic?

We delayed the recording for more than a year. Then, when things were starting to get better, and I was about to have a baby, we got lucky. We recorded right before the Delta wave hit, and we each had our own room, or our own booth, in the studio. So we felt pretty safe and it was great to actually play together again.

How did being pregnant affect how you played in the studio?

For one, I was out of shape. [laughs] My body, my chops. Physically, certain things were out of reach, so there were definitely some challenges. But when we were doing “The Body,” I did feel a different energy, a sense of urgency I don’t normally feel.

Maybe because there were two of you in your body.

Yes — and it was cool to think that she was there and part of all that. DB

SFJAZZ To Broadcast Gala Honoring Wynton Marsalis

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Wynton Marsalis will receive the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award on June 3.

(Photo: Courtesy of SFJAZZ)

SFJAZZ is presenting free live broadcasts of its 2022 gala honoring Wynton Marsalis with a Lifetime Achievement Award beginning on Friday, June 3, at 8:30 p.m. PT/11:30 p.m. ET. The SFJAZZ Gala is a fundraiser for SFJAZZ artistic and educational programs.

Hosted by Wendell Pierce at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, the concert will celebrate Marsalis’ decorated career and immense body of work with exclusive performances by Marsalis, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, vocalist Catherine Russell, the SFJAZZ Collective (with saxophonist Chris Potter, vocalist Gretchen Parlato, tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, trumpeter Etienne Charles, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Matt Brewer, drummer Kendrick Scott and vocalist Martin Luther McCoy), Harlem Quartet, pianist Isaiah Thompson, bassist Philip Norris, drummer Domo Branch and the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars.

This will be the first SFJAZZ Gala to be broadcast online as part of the ongoing weekly Fridays Live series. Two additional encore fundraiser broadcasts will be streamed on Saturday, June 4, at 11 a.m. PT/2 p.m. ET and Sunday, June 5, at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET. During each broadcast, viewers can make tax-deductible donations to the SFJAZZ Fund and are able to join a live chat moderated by SFJAZZ. With a donation of $50 or more, viewers will receive one year of complimentary access to SFJAZZ’s weekly Fridays Live broadcasts, which have raised more than $700,000 for performing artists.

In honoring Marsalis with the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award, SFJAZZ celebrates him as a singular artist who has incorporated the breadth of American music into his career. A 2011 NEA Jazz Master, Marsalis is an iconic figure in the evolution of the art form and a tireless advocate for jazz as America’s classical music. From his New Orleans roots and auspicious debut with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers to his string of acclaimed albums and his current role as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis has amassed numerous of awards and accolades, including nine GRAMMYs and the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Since 1991, SFJAZZ has presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to luminaries including Chucho Valdés, Preservation Hall, Zakir Hussain, Joni Mitchell, Mavis Staples, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Mary Stallings, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson and others. Next year, SFJAZZ will celebrate its 40th anniversary and the 10th birthday of the SFJAZZ Center.

For more information, visit the SFJAZZ Gala Watch page. DB

Charles Mingus @ 100

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Mingus occupies an image in the popular imagination, by all accounts well-deserved, as a force of nature, an iconoclastic truth-teller, a volatile, emotional man with a violent streak.

(Photo: Joseph L. Johnson)

Jazz has seen its share of legendary personalities — Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, so many others — but there has never been anybody in jazz quite like Charles Mingus.

Finally recognized toward the end of his life as one of America’s most significant composers, Charles Mingus’ reputation has only grown since his death in 1979 from the degenerative nerve disease ALS at the age of 56.

He would have been 100 in April, offering an opportunity to reappraise his place in jazz history: as a composer, bassist and a singular American cultural figure. This year has already seen and will see more tributes and celebrations and re-imaginings of his work — from Jazz at Lincoln Center’s tribute in April, to conferences (including a February event at University of California Irvine and a series of concerts and panel discussions at New England Conservatory in April), to a host of new recordings with music written or inspired by Mingus. The Newport Jazz Festival will also include a Mingus celebration later this summer.

Mingus occupies an image in the popular imagination, by all accounts well-deserved, as a force of nature, an iconoclastic truth-teller, a volatile, emotional man with a violent streak. But his many friends and fellow musicians, people who knew and loved him, remember a different side of Mingus: the spiritual seeker, poet, esthete and philosopher; the bandleader who took pains to treat his musicians fairly; and, above all, the artist he was right down to his bone marrow.

Stories about his temper are legendary, if sometimes apocryphal. There’s the time he punched longtime band member Jimmy Knepper, the great trombonist, in the mouth over a disagreement about an arrangement, chipping Knepper’s tooth and ruining his embouchure; the time in London where he allegedly threw saxophonist Bobby Jones down a flight of stairs at Ronnie Scott’s club (like many of the incidents surrounding Mingus, the details may have been exaggerated); the time he attacked a nightclub piano, pulling out the strings with his bare hands; the time, apparently in response to a heckler in the audience, he threw a $20,000 bass to the ground, destroying it.

There was the infamous incident at the Village Vanguard when he left the stage and chased his friend, the young writer Fran Lebowitz, down Seventh Avenue in Manhattan all the way to Canal Street. Lebowitz has said she no longer remembers what Mingus was angry about. When they could run no more, the pair collapsed on the sidewalk in a heap, exhausted. Then, seeing they were in Chinatown, Mingus suggested they go get something to eat. Lebowitz had to remind him that he was in the middle of a show.

The volatility became part of his mystique, the danger of offending Mingus part of the draw. At the UC Irvine event, his bandmate of 12 years, the peerless alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, recounted an engagement in Vancouver at which, enraged about a group of young men who were talking too loudly during a performance, Mingus left the stage, visited the bathroom, and came back with a toilet plunger, with which he threatened one of them.

“One of these guys gets up,” McPherson said. “He’s around 6-foot, 4-inches and takes a swing at Mingus and barely misses him. Mingus catches the punch in mid-air and slings the guy halfway across the floor. So I’m thinking, this is gonna end tragically — there are four of these guys, they’re big, we’re in a strange town. But it dissipated quickly. The next morning, it was on the front page of the newspapers. It turns out that this was a very famous quarterback for one of the Canadian football teams. That evening you could not get in the club. There were people wrapped around the block to see Mingus.”

For better, and often, for worse, Mingus lived the romantic ideal of the artist’s life: tempestuous, moody, obsessive, given to periods of elation and deep depression. During one such period in the late 1960s, he checked himself into New York’s Bellevue psychiatric center, then struggled to be released. In an interview for the liner notes of a new historical Mingus release, Lebowitz said, “I know a million artists, I know a million people who say they’re artists … but Charles was profoundly an artist.”

He was fueled by ambition as much as anger. After becoming the preeminent bassist of the post-bebop era, he went beyond that to become one of the most significant composers in jazz. An autodidact, he read widely, and despite his depression in the late 1960s, managed to finish a crazy, kaleidoscopic, obscene, often wildly exaggerated autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, published in 1971, a book that, along with a Guggenheim fellowship, helped revive his career. The book, as entertaining, outrageous and contradictory as he was, focuses more on boastful accounts of his sex life and his struggle to find his place in society as a multi-racial man — his forebearers were African American, Swedish, German, Chinese and Native American — than it does on his music.

His fourth and final wife, Sue Ungaro Mingus, has thrown cold water on the autobiography. The legendary New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett, in a 1971 essay, reports on a late-night conversation around the time of its publication in which she confessed, “I don’t really like Charles’ book, and I’ve told him. I think the sexual parts are too savage, and I think that Charles himself doesn’t really come through. It’s the superficial Mingus, the flashy one, not the real one.” Ms. Mingus, now 91, still manages Jazz Workshop Inc., which publishes Mingus’ music and manages three highly acclaimed Mingus repertory bands: The Mingus Big Band, The Mingus Orchestra and the smaller Mingus Dynasty group.

Mingus channeled his anger into his art and his outspoken politics, which were often inseparable. His songs included the classic “Fables Of Faubus,” a caustic take-down of the segregationist governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus, infamous for ordering the Arkansas National Guard to prevent Black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. Other socially conscious titles included “Freedom,” “Meditations On Integration,” “Remember Rockefeller At Attica” and “Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me.” Aggrieved at the mistreatment and outright rip-offs of Black musicians by the music industry, he founded, along with then-wife Celia and his friend and partner Max Roach, his own record label, Debut Records, in 1952. Its most famous release, by far, is the all-time classic Jazz At Massey Hall, featuring Bird, Dizzy, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Mingus, who was so inaudible on the original tapes that he overdubbed his bass parts in studio after the fact.

His music encompasses a range of influences as broad as his non-musical interests, a point made by his friend and sometime collaborator, the late composer, conductor and musicologist Gunther Schuller. “All of this incredible volatility in his personality, and variety ... that all comes out in his music,” Schuller said in the 1997 documentary Mingus–Triumph of the Underdog. “His music is one of the widest ranging musics you can find composed by one single human being.” He is decidedly a modernist, yet the music encompasses blues, gospel, early New Orleans jazz, swing, bebop, flamenco — and European classical, both in form and content, influenced by his wide listening to Bartók, Stravinsky and others. Densely layered, the music is one moment earthy and funky, then abstract, almost free, occasionally veering off into astringent atonality and the avant-garde.

Although Mingus often expressed disdain for free-jazz — or at least for certain practitioners thereof — in later pieces like “Mind-Reader’s Convention In Milano,” he often encouraged his group to play with that kind of freedom. “Even when playing more conventional pieces,” said Brian Priestley, the English writer, musician and Mingus biographer, “Mingus always wanted the individuals in the band to go as far as they could into their own thing. Several different people have said [of their experience playing with him] that he always wanted people to play 110% all the time.”

“His music had a lot of moving parts,” McPherson said in a Zoom interview for this article from his San Diego home. “A lot of things make his music what it is. The influence of Jimmy Blanton, the great (Ellington band) bass player — the first real virtuoso of the jazz bass. Also Ellington — you know, Mingus loved Duke Ellington. His whole concept of a band was to capture the big band ambience of Ellington and transfer that to a smaller group. And he loved Charlie Parker. He was also very knowledgeable about Western classical music, and was influenced by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, people like that. Mix that all up and add his own genius, then you got Mingus.”

Balliett, in his New Yorker profile, wrote of a Mingus gig he witnessed at the Village Vanguard: “He brought out refurbished versions of numbers I hadn’t heard him play since the ’50s, among them ‘Celia’ and ‘Diane.’ They were full of his inimitable trademarks — long, roving melodies, complex, multipart forms, breaks, constantly changing rhythms, stamping, howling ensembles, and the raw, against-the-grain quality he brands each of his performances with.”

“It’s funny about Mingus,” said Vincent Gardner, first trombonist of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. “As deep as his music was, he really was a groover. He loved to have a nice deep pocket and swing, get everybody feeling good. He had a real strong dance element when he wrote pieces like ‘Haitian Fight Song.’ He could make you bounce your head and tap your feet.”

Gardner, who served as the musical director for JLCO’s Mingus celebration, planned to include such classics as “Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid, Too,” “Meditations On Integration” and a Sherman Irby arrangement of “Fables Of Faubus,” as well as later-period material including “Freedom” and the little-heard “Song With Orange.”

‘ORGANIZED CHAOS’
Mingus told his musicians he was looking to create a kind of “organized chaos” on the bandstand. “When we played his compositions,” McPherson recalled, “if it was too perfect, he’d say, ‘It’s great, but it’s too clean.’ But if we were too ‘unclean,’ he’d have an issue with that — it wasn’t organized enough. When I think about it now, as an 82-year-old person — I was in my mid-20s then — I think what he meant was that, even though he wanted it to sound clean, he wanted the ambience of spontaneity, as well … a certain controlled recklessness. Just reckless enough to convey the spontaneity, but not so reckless that you mess up and don’t do the thing.

“It might have been Schoenberg who said that written music should sound improvised, and improvised music should sound written. That is exactly what Mingus was trying to convey,” McPherson added.

Bassist Christian McBride, interviewed via phone, agreed: “Miles Davis used a similar term when he described what is now known as his second great quartet, and that was ‘controlled freedom.’ So Mingus had ‘controlled chaos’ and Miles had ‘controlled freedom,’ which meant it almost went off the rails, but it never did. You know, like the excitement of almost falling off the cliff.”

For Mingus, music was intensely personal and purely a vehicle for self-expression. Once, Miles Davis, in a November 1955 interview with Nat Hentoff published in DownBeat, critiqued Mingus’ current writing, comparing it unfavorably to “Mingus Fingers,” an early work Mingus wrote for the Lionel Hampton band during one of his first big touring gigs in the late 1940s.

Mingus responded by writing an “open letter” to Miles published in this magazine a few weeks later, which said, in part:

“Miles, don’t you remember that ‘Mingus Fingers’ was written in 1945 when I was a youngster, 22 years of age, who was studying and doing his damnedest to write in the Ellington tradition? Miles, that was 10 years ago when I weighed 185. Those clothes are worn and don’t fit me anymore. I’m a man; I weigh 215; I think my own way. I don’t think like you, and my music isn’t meant just for the patting of feet. ... When and if I feel gay and carefree, I write or play that way. When I feel angry, I write or play that way — or when I’m happy, or depressed, even. Just because I’m playing jazz, I don’t forget about me. I play or write me, the way I feel, through jazz, or whatever. Music is, or was, a language.”

MINGUS, THE BASSIST
If Mingus hadn’t been a genius composer, he would be immortal just for his bass playing. “Mingus is like [Ellington] ... a great composer, great bandleader and, of course, a wonderful bassist. That goes without saying, but maybe it’s in that order,” Eddie Gomez told Resonance Records co-president Zev Feldman. In his autobiography Myself Among Others, the late George Wein, who presented him frequently at Newport and in Europe, described him as “a fantastic bassist. I didn’t know whether anyone had ever played the instrument with that sort of creative facility.”

He is often given credit for helping to transform the bass from a time-keeping instrument into a melodic one. “He’s certainly one of the originators of that,” McBride said. “He was stylistically a bridge between Jimmy Blanton and the younger ones,” the next generation of bassists, like Scott LaFaro, Paul Chambers and Richard Davis. “They all looked up to Mingus.”

Ultimately, Mingus’ goals were beyond jazz. In fact, he was an early critic of using the word “jazz” to describe his music.

During his stay at Bellevue, he reflected on his own talents and ambitions in a letter to journalist Nat Hentoff. After listening to a recording of the Juilliard String Quartet playing Bartók quartets, he was overwhelmed with his admiration for the musicians and their selfless, relatively anonymous pursuit of art, comparing it unfavorably with his own pursuit of jazz stardom, commercial success, and a higher ranking in the critics polls.

He told Hentoff, “It’s not the composer so much that prompted this writing. … Their names were not announced, just ‘The Juilliard String Quartet.’ That’s the way it should be … they’re good, good players … close to perfection, very important men. They have the ability to transform in a second a listener’s soul and make it throb with love and beauty — just by following the scratches of a pen on a scroll. Hearing artists like this reminds me of my original goal, but a thing called ‘jazz’ took me far off the path, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get back. I am a good composer with great possibilities, and I made an easy success through jazz, but it wasn’t really success — jazz has too many strangling qualities for a composer. … Oh, to be a nameless member of a quartet like I heard today.” DB

New Mingus Recordings for his Centennial Year

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(Photo: Courtesy of Resonance Records)

Charles Mingus’ centennial year will see a bounty of new recordings — both historical offerings and ambitious new works inspired by his influence. The latter category includes a Mingus retrospective on Posi-Tone Records called Blue Moods–Myth & Wisdom, and no fewer than three releases on Sunnyside: an all-star tribute by bassist John Hébert to his hero featuring Tim Berne, Taylor Ho Bynum, Fred Hersch and Ches Smith; a tribute by clarinetist Harry Skoler that will feature Kenny Barron, Christian McBride, Johnathan Blake, Nicholas Payton and Jazzmeia Horn, with a string quartet; and one by Chicago bassist Ethan Philion’s Meditations on Mingus, a 10-piece ensemble.

Meanwhile, Resonance Records, curator of previously unreleased jazz recordings, has unearthed a three-LP (or three-CD) project more than 10 years in the works — Mingus: The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s. The unheard-until-now London club performance features Mingus’ 1972 touring sextet featuring Charles McPherson on alto saxophone, Bobby Jones on tenor saxophone, and three remarkable new members: John Foster on piano (and occasional vocals), Detroit drummer Roy Brooks and trumpeter Jon Faddis, then a 19-year-old phenom.

The music was recorded for release by Columbia Records, which stationed an eight-track mobile recording truck outside the London jazz landmark. But Columbia dropped its entire jazz roster, except for Miles Davis, in 1973. The album never came out.

The tapes, which were recorded with great fidelity, include songs where Mingus, cognizant of recording an important new album, asked to retake certain pieces. In an interview with DownBeat, label co-president Zev Feldman gave credit to album co-producer David Weiss for handling the edits that Mingus intended.

“David did this with a lot of skill,” Feldman said. “Mingus wanted to retake the endings. He was a producer himself. He knew that something could be a little bit better. He was committed to making these performances as great as they could be.” DB

‘Epitaph,’ Mingus’ Magnum Opus

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The results of Epitaph are alternately lyrical, cacophonous, raucous and elegiac.

(Photo: Jan Persson)

Any consideration of Charles Mingus’ corpus must contend with Epitaph, his magnum opus, a monster orchestral work that is, like the man himself, ambitious, sprawling, ungainly, virtuosic, overstuffed, angry, passionate and restless. Consisting of 19 movements, it was written for an orchestra of 31 — in effect a double big band, augmented by bassoon, oboe, tuba, timpani, electric guitar and vibes.

The score, which exceeds 500 pages, was written over a 20-year period. It takes more than two hours to perform, and was painstakingly pieced together after his death in 1979 by musicologist Andrew Homzy, who found it in the home of Sue Mingus, Mingus’ wife. She had asked Homzy to catalogue the Mingus papers, now residing in the Library of Congress.

Ultimately unclassifiable, it can be construed as a postmodern take on traditional and modern jazz as well as European classical forms and conventions. It includes a few of his best-known works, “Better Get It In Your Soul,” “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” and “Freedom,” throwbacks to early jazz (Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues”) and nods to Duke Ellington and Thleonious Monk. The work constantly confounds expectations; any time it threatens to go somewhere conventionally, it reaches for the unexpected. The results are alternately lyrical, cacophonous, raucous and elegiac.

Epitaph rose like a phoenix — eventually — from the ruins of what Mingus considered his biggest failure: his disastrous 1962 concert at New York’s Town Hall. The huge orchestra — which included Snooky Young and Clark Terry on trumpets and Eric Dolphy, Charles McPherson and Zoot Sims on saxophones, among many other greats — had been assembled but never properly rehearsed. Copyists were still madly scribbling parts even as the concert was underway. There was even disagreement between the promoters (including George Wein) and Mingus about how to describe the event: Mingus wanted a public recording session, but advertising called it a concert. At one point, according to multiple accounts, Mingus grabbed the mic and exhorted the audience to ask for its money back.

The work was later championed by Gunther Schuller, who conducted the first complete concert version at Lincoln Center in 1989 with a band that included Wynton Marsalis, Snooky Young and Randy Brecker on trumpets, and George Adams and John Handy on saxophones. Sony/Columbia released the recording as a double album the following year. Schuller oversaw another version in 2007, which played in New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Los Angeles with Christian McBride on bass.

Musicians who have performed it testify to its difficulty. Marsalis is said to have once pointed at a passage in the score, saying, “That looks like something you would find in an etude book ... under ‘hard.’”

As you might expect, the bass is often front and center. McBride, recalling the experience, said, “I didn’t get too hung up on the technical difficulty. Any passage I had problems with — well, you just have to practice harder. [But] my sense was that he didn’t want it perfect.” DB

Detroit Jazz Festival Announces 2022 Lineup

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The Detroit Jazz Festival has announced its lineup for Labor Day weekend during a livestream preview event that included a live performance from the 2022 Artist-in-Residence Chucho Valdés.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Detroit Jazz Festival)

The Detroit Jazz Festival has announced its lineup for Labor Day weekend during a livestream preview event that included a live performance from the 2022 Artist-in-Residence Chucho Valdés. The Festival is expected to be back live, in-person in downtown Detroit.

The Detroit Jazz Festival Livestream Preview Event was held with a limited audience at the future home of the Gretchen C. Valade Jazz Center at Wayne State University, in Midtown Detroit. The Gretchen Valade Jazz Center is scheduled to open Fall 2023.

The lineup announcement coincided with International Jazz Day, a global celebration to raise awareness about the virtues of jazz as an educational tool, peace, unity, dialogue and enhanced cooperation among people.

“It’s extremely befitting we announce the 2022 Festival lineup on what is considered a global day of unity in the jazz community,” said Chris Collins, president and artistic director, Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation. “As we look forward to pivoting back to an in-person format, this year’s lineup reflects our renewed mission to feature legacy artists, propagate and nurture the next generation of jazz performers and audiences, and showcase the diverse tapestry of jazz in one festival.”

“We are proud to present the Detroit Jazz Festival, a marquee event that celebrates jazz’s rich history in our hometown of Detroit,” said Laura Grannemann, the vice president of the Rocket Community Fund. “This event is more than a festival, it’s a community that comes together to celebrate music, our city and each other.”

The full festival schedule will be available as the event nears. DB

Alexis Cole Keeps Saluting Jazz

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“I get to play around with these arrangements and be part of the band throughout. Having an opportunity to be in the middle of those rhythmic interactions makes my singing that much more fun,” Cole said.

(Photo: Jeremy Kim)

Vocalist Alexis Cole has a confident understanding of how to interpret music in a manner that enthralls an audience. It was evident last fall during a performance with her longstanding trio at the Jazz Forum in Tarrytown, New York, that featured music from her 12th album, Sky Blossom: Songs From My Tour Of Duty, released late last year. Although she performed mostly at the piano, singing centerstage, she launched into a long, scat-filled “All Blues,” which received a rousing ovation and left her bassist David Finck and drummer Kenny Hassler shaking their heads in amazement.

The “tour of duty” Cole references harkens back to 2009, after the then-33-year-old decided to audition for the West Point Band’s Jazz Knights. She got the job, enlisted in the U.S. Army to seal the deal and completed basic training. Later, Staff Sergeant Cole rehearsed in the morning each day at West Point, then hit her desk job on the Hudson Valley campus until evening, when she would head back to her arts housing flat in Peekskill and run into New York City for gigs.

When Cole’s first tour of duty was finished, she re-enlisted for another three years in 2012 — around the same time she headed into a studio to start working on the solo album A Kiss In The Dark. After her discharge, Cole dove back into jazz full-time, but her years singing at West Point left her with the idea of someday putting together an album of big band arrangements, like those that Scott Arcangel of the Jazz Knights had written specially for her.

While at the Jazz Education Network Conference in January 2018, a fortuitous meeting with trumpeter Jeff Jarvis, who leads the California State University at Long Beach Concert Jazz Orchestra, jumpstarted the big band project. Cole and Jarvis started recording tracks, and though the pandemic stalled studio work for several months, the album was completed in early 2021.

“Working with the Jazz Knights was a special experience for me,” Cole said. “Scott’s writing is so gorgeous. I loved being part of that overall texture. There was no way I was just going to say goodbye to those arrangements.”

Along with a busy performing schedule, Cole has intertwined work as an educator with a sweep of entrepreneurship. Currently, she leads the jazz vocal programs at the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase College, William Paterson University and Western Connecticut State University. She launched JazzVoice.com, an online educational community with more than 1,200 members and teaching help from the likes of Sheila Jordan, Catherine Russell, Tierney Sutton, Cyrille Aimée and Kate McGarry, in 2020. The following year she co-founded the annual Virginia Beach Vocal Jazz Summit.

Pete Malinverni, veteran pianist-composer and chair of the Jazz Studies program at Purchase College, noted that he resurrected the school’s Jazz Voice concentration in tribute to his late wife, the jazz singer Jody Sandhaus, and now it is the “crown jewel” of the jazz program because of Cole, whom he calls “a monumental force.”

“Alexis takes care of her students’ voices as well as their hearts, while making sure they can write great, professional-looking charts to bring onto the bandstand,” Malinverni says. “In short, she has been perfect for us.”

Cole finished her 10-song set at the Jazz Forum with her bravura arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Night And Day,” flashing piano skills that matched her winning vocals. The tune will be found on her next recording, she says, a trio date planned for release at the end of this year.

“I like being in charge with the trio,” she says. “I get to play around with these arrangements and be part of the band throughout. Having an opportunity to be in the middle of those rhythmic interactions makes my singing that much more fun.” DB

Cory Wong Shares 2022 Plans

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​This year, Wong is releasing a new album, going on tour, debuting a new season of his podcast and bringing back his online musical variety series.

(Photo: Courtesy of artist.)

Grammy Award-nominated songwriter, producer and guitarist Cory Wong is set for a busy year. He’s releasing a new album, going on tour, debuting a new season of his Wong Notes podcast and bringing back Cory and the Wongnotes, his online musical variety series showcasing live performances, original sketch comedy, special guests and interviews.

The series’ second season premiered April 12 on the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based artist’s YouTube channel, with new episodes set to debut each Tuesday. The new season of Cory and the Wongnotes will feature extended episodes showcasing long-form interviews, new sketches and collaborations with musical guests including Chromeo, Billy Strings, Big Wild, Victor Wooten, Béla Fleck, Lindsay Ell, Mark Lettieri, Sierra Hull, Larry Carlton, Joey Dosik and Nate Smith.

“This season of Cory and The Wongnotes is exciting for me because I got to invite some of my musical heroes on to the show, and even write music with them,” Wong says. “The guests on this season are incredible musicians; each with an interesting and unique journey with how they’ve arrived where they’re at. I got to dive deep with them both musically and personally with extended interviews and recording live in the room together. Each episode has its own theme and I was able to explore how those themes relate to everyday life as a musician. The sketch comedy plays off of each theme and how my mind sees the world through the musician’s lens.”

The new season of Cory and the Wongnotes will also showcase Wong’s upcoming new album, Power Station, which came out on April 29.

Additionally, Wong is touring in 2022. North American dates began April 29 with two late-night sets at New Orleans, Louisiana’s Republic NOLA as part of the 9th Annual Nolafunk Series During Jazz Fest. See complete dates here. DB

Melissa Aldana: A Sprinkle of Stardust

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“I always have this feeling of emptiness after I play a concert,” Aldana said. “This has been for years. Sometimes I can easily cry, and there’s nothing wrong.”

(Photo: Eduardo Pavez Goye)

Melissa Aldana’s musical journey has been sprinkled with stardust, from 1990s TV appearances as a saxophone prodigy in her native Chile to a 2019 Grammy nomination for a solo on “Elsewhere,” off her last album, Visions (Motéma). In between, just as she was finding her footing in New York, Aldana won the Monk competition — the first female instrumentalist to do so — in 2013.

Now, at age 33, she is celebrating the release of 12 Stars, her debut album on Blue Note. Eight tracks that mine the depths of her interpretive gift, the album, out March 4, yields a bounty of new material wrapped in a fresh sonic package that she will bring to a six-night release party at the Village Vanguard, her first booking as a leader at the storied club. As COVID permits, months of touring will follow.

But as she sat in the dressing room at Jazz at Lincoln Center on an early winter’s night, all that stardust momentarily seemed irrelevant; indeed, a few stray particles fell to Earth. While she waited to take the stage at Dizzy’s Club as the sole woman in bassist Carlos Henriquez’s acclaimed nonet, she revealed a profound melancholy of long standing.

“I always have this feeling of emptiness after I play a concert,” she said. “This has been for years. Sometimes I can easily cry, and there’s nothing wrong.”

Her bearing did little to predict the sudden revelation. Eminently well prepared and solicitous of a visiting writer, she exuded the warm confidence of one not given to tears. Onstage, she was in full command, delivering a solo of such exquisite cogency on Henriquez’s “Moses On The Cross” that Henriquez, caught between sets, was rapturous.

“You just don’t find people like that in this world,” he exclaimed.

Plaudits like that hardly account for the tears. In fact, praise for Aldana has become such a routine ego-boost before, during and long after the show that the standard-issue, post-performance letdown seems at best a superficial explanation. Those who know her well point to something deeper at work.

“It’s an existential emptiness,” said singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, a confidant and longtime admirer of Aldana’s who created the surreal cover art for both Visions and 12 Stars and performed with her in the impactful all-woman group Artemis.

By Aldana’s own account, playing and being are for her so intertwined that the loss of one can complicate the other. “When I’m playing,” she said, “it’s such a beautiful experience to be in the moment. It’s something that’s so hard to just be. And after the concert, I’m just so sad to go back to my crazy head.”

Ironically, escaping her “crazy head” and entering others’ mental spaces has proved key to her extraordinary musicianship. The vehicle has been transcription. Starting as a child who dissected Charlie Parker solos under the tutelage of her father, saxophonist Marcos Aldana, she has turned transcription into a magnificent obsession that can involve years of work delving into a single artist’s solos. The payoff: grasping intentions, internalizing concepts and gaining self-knowledge that can be used to find one’s voice.

“My process as a musician has always been imitating to understand, ‘Who am I?’” she said.

She has applied the process most consistently to the improvisations of Sonny Rollins — who she became enamored with to the point that she switched from alto to tenor — after hearing 1995’s Sonny Rollins +3 at age 12. Opening a laptop in the Lincoln Center dressing room, she called up a 2017 video of her soloing on “Without A Song,” a tune Rollins revisited many times. In the solo, her lines and counter lines evoke without imitating Rollins’ question-and-answer approach to thematic development, his liberal application of humor and his illiberal intolerance of substandard performance.

Rollins’ body English, in subdued form, is suggested as well.

“I’m trying to think like he’s thinking,” Aldana explained.

Adopting Rollins’ thinking has meant going beyond the application of purely musical concepts; she has also acquired his legendary predilection for extreme practice. In the dressing room, she had spent hours practicing while her new apartment in Brooklyn was being renovated. That apartment has a soundproof booth in which she can play at full volume to her heart’s content — no small consideration for a musician who, in the past decade, has moved at the rate of nearly once a year.

“She is the hardest-practicing musician I’ve ever met,” Salvant said. “She logs the most amount of hours of anybody I know. On tour, we purposefully try to avoid being even remotely close to her in the hotel because you know that if there’s going to be a lobby call, she’s waking up early in the morning and going to be doing long tones for hours before we even leave.”

Few would argue with the results. Don Was, president of the Blue Note label, said he signed her on the strength of a live recording she sent, his knowledge of her last album and her work with Artemis, whose most recent album, Artemis, was also on Blue Note. He had met her on Zoom but not in person.

“I think her mastery of the instrument is just remarkable,” he said. “She’s the real deal, transcending thinking about notes and technique to speaking through her instrument.”

12 Stars, he said, had been made largely on her own. Along the way, she sent him some demos and the finished work. “When I heard it, I knew what she was doing because I was familiar with her earlier work, and I had a sense of where she was headed with these compositions and where it was going to end up.”

As it happened, the album ended up in a different place than it would have had she not recruited Norwegian guitarist Lage Lund as producer and instrumentalist. In part, that reflects a radical suggestion on Lund’s part. “He’s the one who told me, ‘Stop transcribing, maybe, before the album,’” she said. And that is what she did, though not without withdrawal pangs.

It’s an open question whether freeing herself from the immediate influence of whomever she was transcribing brought her closer to what she wanted to say. Echoes of Rollins, Mark Turner and Don Byas — three favored transcription subjects — are not imperceptible. And the unmistakable qualities of her sound — translucence and a capacious expressivity among them — are in evidence throughout the album.

Likewise in evidence, according to bassist Pablo Menares, a longtime musical partner and friend from Chile who appears on 12 Stars and Visions, is Lund’s influence on a broader level: “This album is different from all the other albums. The core of the music, her own compositions, is so strong. And the collaboration with Lage brought something new to it. He brought his own aesthetic in his approach, sound-wise and rhythm-wise.”

Lund first noticed Aldana as the standout at a jam session in the club Smalls more than a decade ago. His admiration increased after gigging with her in the United States and Europe. Though he originally had doubts about producing her album, he found himself drawn into the project as he offered, via electronic communications, increasingly detailed suggestions about the work as it progressed.

“At some point,” he said, “it seemed, ‘If I’m doing that and also very involved in writing stuff, I guess I’m producing it.’”

Among the challenges, he said, was finding ways to differentiate the tunes. In making changes, he tried to work with restraint. But a few of his changes were substantial, notably the one on “Intuition” in which he accelerated the melody in relation to the harmony to distinguish it from what had been a similarly patterned “The Bluest Eye.”

On “Emilia,” a highly personal piece inspired by visions of the daughter Aldana never had — or, she said, is yet to have — he and engineer James Farber concocted a particularly lush and layered cocktail mixing Lund’s guitar, Sullivan Fortner’s Rhodes piano and Menares’ bass. Amid the potent environment, Aldana’s disarming melody, at once haunting and haunted, survives intact. She first sang it into a voice recorder, she said, after hearing it in a dream.

“It’s the first and the last time that happened,” she said.

Near the end of the track, the melody fades and a child’s voice emerges. It is that of Lund’s older daughter, Leona, who was 7 at the time, singing a melody written by his other daughter, Indigo. Lund recorded the voice on his iPhone, added harmony and ran it through an audio processor, he said, “to make it seem like something you’d hear in a dream, almost in the distance.” The result functions as a coda whose qualities are distinct from the main work, even as they complement it. A pleased Aldana cited it as a testament to her trust in Lund.

“Lage is one of my closest friends,” she said. “I can talk to him for five hours. He knows exactly what’s happening, he knows the story. So he knows to just go for it. He knew that was coming from a dream.”

Lund’s post-production effects are a distinguishing feature of the project. To achieve them, he said, he eschewed digitization in favor of “gizmos” like an analog lo-fi delay pedal. A guitar with an object manually placed in the strings produces a keyboard-like effect intended to add mystery without straying too far into outer space.

“It’s a lot of experimentation, and it’s not something I planned out,” Lund said.

Most of the basic tracks were recorded like a traditional jazz session, with Fortner on acoustic piano, save for two tunes, and the agile Kush Abadey on drums rounding out the quintet. Laid down over two days in May 2021 at the Samurai Hotel studio in Astoria, New York, all but two of the tracks were dispatched in one or two takes. One exception is the 39-second “Intro To Emilia,” a dreamy Menares improvisation that sets up the title piece. It was chosen from several improvisations he recorded.

The other exception is “Los Ojos De Chile” (“The Eyes Of Chile”), which, Lund said, was still being developed as the group went into the studio: “When we did the first take, I don’t know if we all knew exactly what the form was. Everyone had so many notes on their charts.”

Aldana recalled an in-studio atmosphere of creative ferment, which ultimately fed the tune’s evocation of street-level chaos inspired by a social rebellion engulfing Santiago, her hometown. Taken literally, the tune’s title refers to eyes the police shot out during the demonstrations.

To prime herself for the experience, Aldana fell into default mode, awakening at 5 a.m. for four or five hours of early practice. “We were trying to figure out how to play it,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m ready, let’s just do it.’” And the group dove in, producing multiple, diverse takes. “Every one sounded great.”

The version that made the cut has sharp-edged melodic contours, rough-hewn interplay among the rhythm section and, above it all, Aldana at her most animated — a whirlwind of anguished runs punctuated by plaintive cries at the top of her horn and, at one point, an ecstatic bellow at the bottom. It seems a rare moment of release.

If “Los Ojos” was the most difficult chart to unravel, the title track was probably the easiest. Originally called “Goodbye Song,” Aldana said, it started life as a demo that came together in two fully formed parts on her upright piano. She wrote the first part in March 2020, marking the beginning of the pandemic and the breakup of her marriage, and finished the second part near the end of 2020. Thoughts of a Blue Note contract were far from her mind.

“I just started writing music because I was going through a deep personal process,” she said.

Barely three minutes long — less than half the length of most of the tracks — the tune, Aldana said, was always intended to be the album’s closer. On it, the hours she spent meditating on, and extrapolating from, the likes of Byas’ “Stardust” are clear. Operating in the instrument’s middle and upper ranges, she weaves tightly wound tonal twists with subtly shifting harmonies to tell the story of the pain and, perhaps, redemption of the year in which the piece was written. It constitutes a fitting final statement.

“It was the beginning and end of a personal cycle,” she said. “It was like an awakening, realizing things about myself. There’s something about being vulnerable that’s a beautiful way to connect with people and know you’re not alone in your problems.”

Acquiring that knowledge has not always been easy, especially during the lockdown of 2020. Throughout the period, she, Menares and Abadey formed a bubble, meeting at her apartment for regular sessions that involved food, talk and — yes — a few tears along with heavy workshopping of the pieces that became 12 Stars.

The camaraderie, she said, was more than helpful. But it may have been the events at which the trio was able to ply its trade for a live audience that got her through the period. And none, in retrospect, was more liberating than a modest gig in Central Park, where, on a windswept day in October of the lockdown year, the trio performed as part of Giant Step Arts’ Walk With The Wind series.

“I remember feeling free,” she said.

Playing with abandon for two hours under a bronze likeness of another storyteller, William Shakespeare, she clearly touched the assembled onlookers. Though Aldana was at the time developing the new pieces, she chose not to air them. Rather, she powered through a set mostly of standards, building her narratives within their classic structures and saving her more elastic self for “Elsewhere.” Feeding off the crowd, she stretched the form as she stretched her body — to near the breaking point, as though physically reaching for notes that, even for a master of the altissimo, were unattainable.

“For me, seeing the people there is seeing the connection, the beautiful thing where we’re all in one moment,” she said. “It’s just music — it’s not culture, it’s not gender, it’s that moment.”

That moment, of course, was gone with the wind. With the artistic highs — and they are high, indeed — come the inevitable lows. And warding off the lows seems destined to be an ongoing affair.

Last summer, she showed up at Bar Bayeux in Brooklyn, where saxophonist and educator George Garzone, whom she described as her “main mentor, really like a father to me,” was playing with his group.

Garzone, under whom she was a star student at Berklee College of Music (from which she graduated in 2010), recalled the night: “She was hanging out. I was talking with her about how she’s setting up her life. She was learning how to be alone.”

Aldana, too, recalled the night — and added a note of existential hope. It had not been easy, she said, but in the months since then, she had become more settled.

“I’m learning how to be,” she said. “That’s part of the musical journey.” DB

Marquis Hill: Pushing Forward

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“I’ve always been into the zodiac and the truth that’s within it, but during this pandemic, we all had to time and space to do that,” Hill said.

(Photo: Chollette)

Trumpeter Marquis Hill speaks in quietly determined tones. Through a Zoom 
conversation from his college office in Boston, he enthusiastically detailed 
his musical concepts, teaching philosophy, personal history and a host of 
other topics without raising his voice.

Not that he lacks enthusiasm. Hill’s conversational personality reflects his performance style where his subtle strength eschews unnecessary leaps and descents. These qualities shape his recently released live album, New Gospel Revisited (Edition Records). His sense of contemplation also may be a big part of what has kept him even-keeled throughout seven momentous years.

The world noticed when Hill, at 27, won the Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition in 2014. His hometown of Chicago knew about his inventiveness and technique long before that moment. After that, Hill was thrust onto the global stage. He relocated to New York and has since recorded a diverse range of projects, served as a valued sideman, participated or led different international tours and still makes regular creative immersions back to the Midwest. All the while, he also teaches at Berklee College of Music. While the pandemic has caused innumerable worldwide pauses and hardships, the slowdown has made Hill more introspective but no less energized.

“Time kind of pushed us all in the space of reflecting on what’s important,” Hill said a few minutes after teaching an advanced improvisation class. “Especially in 2020 when things shut down, I had nothing but time and space. Gigs and festivals are starting to come back, but the world is still in the process of reflecting on what’s really important.”

For Hill, that sense of self-reflection became intensive just before the pandemic hit, which New Gospel Revisited documents. That was when he returned to Chicago, in December 2019, for a two-night stand at Constellation. His set list consisted of songs that he recorded for his debut album, New Gospel, eight years earlier. Along with reinterpreting those pieces, Hill led a dynamic sextet that included old friends and new colleagues. The energy of playing and recording in this musician-owned venue also sounded palpable and reminded Hill of a time when he could try out ideas at such encouraging spaces as the city’s Velvet Lounge.

“A part of me subconsciously always realized I was going to revisit this set of music,” Hill said. “This is one of my favorite sets of music, and it’s special to me because it was my very first time sitting down at the piano and saying, ‘I’ve never written music before, I’m going to write a set of music for a project.’ My connection with that music from 10 years ago has not changed. It still has that special place in my heart, but I wanted to record it at a higher quality, put this dream team of a band together and really stretch and expand this music.”

That team has given the music an overall more spacious feeling while also highlighting different instrumental textures from the first time around. A sense of tension that runs through the performance does not contradict its feeling of warmth. The group brings together two other former Chicagoans — vibraphonist Joel Ross and bassist Harish Raghavan — along with tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist James Francies and drummer Kendrick Scott. While Hill and Ross have worked with each other for years, the trumpeter had a firm sense of the specific qualities that every musician brought to the ensemble and these particular compositions. He also gave them space to build on those qualities as each musician took the lead on different tracks.

“On the original New Gospel, the compositions are fairly simple even though they have shape and movement,” Hill said. “To expand and grow on this music, I needed musicians who can take a simple melody, see past that melody and play things that aren’t necessarily on the page. Kendrick was one of the first drummers who came to mind. You listen to Kendrick and you hear how younger drummers are coming out of Kendrick. He writes his own music so when he’s playing, it sounds very compositional.

“Typically, on a bandstand, the bass player plays in the pocket and holds everything together. But I’m a fan of a bass player who pushes the band in different directions, who has the courage to do that, and Harish is one of those players. With Joel, I’ve always been a fan of that sound, the dreaminess and openness. James is just another one of those voices who has his own shape, own direction, you can hear that he’s coming from a history of the music but also pushing things in his direction. Walter has that dark, warm, fluffy sound that I’m a huge fan of, and we blend well together. He’s pushing the music forward with his composition and language, but you hear the connection to Sonny Rollins and the connection to this music.”

New Gospel Revisited also highlights Hill’s distinctive tone on ballads, which has become more pronounced with time. His new inflections on this album derive, in part, from his intuitive dialogue with Smith and how he responds to the saxophonist’s qualities he described. But the muted lyricism in Hill’s solos remain rooted in what he learned from a host of musician teachers while growing up on Chicago’s South Side. That education includes his record collecting.

“I’ve always had the concept of when I play I want to sound like I’m singing,” Hill said. “Back in high school, I had mentors who were telling me, ‘Sing through your instrument.’ So I’ve always had that concept. When I’m playing a ballad, today and back then, I’ve had that concept of trying to sing, but the older I’ve got, the more records I’ve checked out, just life, my concept has just deepened. One of the first trumpet sounds I fell in love with was Lee Morgan on the record Candy, track two, ‘Since I Fell For You,’ a beautiful ballad. One of the very first jazz songs I heard and that stuck with me: the round, fluffy, airy vocalist type quality on that record and that’s just the record I naturally hear myself and hear the trumpet.”

While Hill did experience life in the church and its music while growing up, the album’s title track does not directly and exclusively refer to that institution’s sound. Rather, it connects to his time in graduate school while working on his master’s degree in jazz pedagogy at DePaul University, when he started studying the roots to how his cultural interests connected. That research took him to the legacy of New Orleans, primarily Congo Square.

“That groove was just a New Orleans accent on the four, I wanted to compose a tune paying attention to that groove,” Hill said. “That groove set the pace to push the music forward.”

Groove in all of its contemporary aspects runs throughout other albums that Hill released during the past few years, particularly Soul Sign from 2020 and Love Tape from 2019 (both on Black Unlimited Music Group). These connect to his youth spent absorbing R&B and hip-hop with his friends while Hill was also sitting in at Chicago’s jazz clubs. Nowadays, he absorbs similar energies from his current Harlem neighborhood. Along with blending ideas from different idioms, Hill also released vocal and instrumental versions of both albums.

“It came natural to write music that incorporates all these different genres: jazz, hip-hop, soul,” Hill said. “When you really get deep into the history of the music and erase the genre boundaries, you realize it truly is all coming from the same place. So being born in the ’80s, falling in love with jazz early but still hanging with friends listening to hip-hop and R&B, it is easy for me to just create. The older I get and more I studied, the more it confirmed it’s truly coming from the same place. Music will have all of those influences, so I naturally hear the music, and compose the music, that way.”

Hill linked his studies with an inward perspective for Soul Sign. Both versions of the album are his musical interpretation of the zodiac with input from spoken word artists and astrologers. Some inspiration came from Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite, as well as from Soul Zodiac, an album that Cannonball Adderley produced and presented that showcased his brother Nat Adderley. But Hill’s albums also emerged from looking at his own life as the pandemic started shutting everything down.

“I’ve always been into the zodiac and the truth that’s within it, but during this pandemic, we all had to time and space to do that,” Hill said. “So I dove really deep into it, and there’s so much truth in it. I started to see how much of it is represented in my life. It’s undeniable, the truth. I was just inspired by what I was learning. I also went back to one of my first tapes, Mediation Tape [from 2017], where there’s one that’s instrumental and one with voices. With Soul Sign, the messages that astrologers are spinning are so deep with so much detail but the beats are so interesting, I had to release an instrumental to absorb the music without the text. So there are two versions, and the challenge of that was I wanted each sign to sound like the energy of the zodiac. I wanted to give listeners the chance to check out both.”

Throughout these recordings, Hill added that he also looks for the same qualities of individualism whether he’s working with spoken word artists or musicians. As he teaches advanced improvisation classes, these are the sorts of lessons that he imparts.

“How can I help you pull out what you have to offer — your voice?” Hill said he asks his students. “A lot of lessons and exercises are to help students find their thing. And also just the seriousness. With a lot of my mentors, it was just sitting and watching how serious they are about their craft. This music is a high art and you have to bring your very best to represent this music.”

Alongside performing, recording and teaching, Hill continues actively working as a sideman, including on former Chicagoan saxophonist Caroline Davis’ Portals, Volume 1: Mourning (Sunnyside). His tours as part of bassist Marcus Miller’s band put him in a direct line with a colleague of Miles Davis, an experience he found invaluable. Hill also contributed to pianist Greg Spero’s new The Chicago Experiment (Ropeadope). The trumpeter’s versatility and sense of space fits in with the album’s constantly shifting idiomatic turns and his exploratory lead on “For Too” quietly echoes those free-jazz mentors at the Velvet Lounge. Spero said this all makes him the ideal team player.

“Marquis’ focus on color and harmony is so flexible,” Spero said. “Marquis stands out because his melodic sense is almost beyond harmony. He can take melody and pull harmony to his will, which is what he exemplified on that track and improvisation in that context.”

In the coming year, Hill intends to continue with such collaborations along with creating new music of his own. Possibly, his future work will connect with The Philosophy & Opinions of Marcus Garvey, a book he was re-reading at the time of this conversation. He also imparted his own philosophy on how to endure the current tribulations we are facing.

“Just keep pushing forward, keep staying optimistic and focus in on the positive things in life: our loved ones, our families, the things that we have going on in our life that bring us joy,” Hill said. “Focus on that, take care of our health and just keep pushing forward. It’s a crazy, scary time but we all have control of our own lives, our own destiny, so take care of your spirit, take care of your mind and push forward. That’s what we have to do.” DB

New Orleans Jazz Fest Returns Bursting with Live Showcases

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DakhaBrakha performs at New Orleans Jazz Fest

(Photo: Adam McCullough)

“When I was staying down here, people asked me do you want to come here and do a festival like Newport,” George Wein recalled in a documentary clip screened just before the Newport All-Stars hit the Jazz Tent stage and played a heartfelt tribute to the late founder of both the Newport Jazz Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

“I said no, no, no man! New Orleans is something very, very special,” Wein responded, during an interview shot at the last pre-pandemic festival in 2019. “There’s no city in the world like New Orleans. From the jazz to the blues to the funk, we just put it all together with the food and the culture, and we created the greatest festival in the world.”

Wein was right. More than a half-century after he intuited the magic formula — using an outdoor festival as the roux that brings together all the music, food and culture bubbling up from the streets of New Orleans and nearby Acadiana — there’s nothing in the world quite like Jazz Fest. Though he didn’t live to attend his own “George Fest” commemorations, Wein’s spirit was everywhere from the moment crowds began streaming through the gates of the New Orleans Fair Grounds for the thrice-delayed 51st annual Jazz Fest — an event as eagerly anticipated by the thousands of mostly local performers as the tens of thousands of attendees, all parched for the communal healing power of live music.

“I feel like I’ve won the lottery,” beamed Cubano big-band leader Arturo Sandoval, whose exuberant trumpet blasts closed out opening day in the Jazz Tent. So did almost everyone at the festival, on stage or off stage, during a seven-day musical marathon, which was only briefly delayed by two early-morning showers that barely dampened the ground with Jazz Fest’s traditional mud. And though the heat could be daunting, especially for a recovering cancer patient seeking refuge from the sun, this veteran fester and longtime New Orleanian was able to hit so many sweet spots hobbling around with a cane that this report reflects only the highest of personal highlights during the first six days of the festival.

The Blues Tent delivered a one-two punch on day one, when the ageless and always spiffy Little Freddy King evoked a standing ovation with his down-and-dirty New Orleans blues drone, which segued into a roof-raising set by Bombino, Niger’s whirling dervish of the guitar. Later, in the Jazz Tent, vigorous septuagenarian Arturo Sandoval recounted the 14-hour motorcycle trip from Miami that first brought him to New Orleans before revving into overdrive with his hot “Viva Cubano” band.

One of the most inspiring sets of the entire festival came on day two, when hundreds of festers crowded into the Cultural Exchange Pavilion to watch the rousing Ukrainian band Drakha Brakha celebrate the spirit and determination of Ukraine against a backdrop emblazoned with the credo of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians: Won’t Bow Down. Later that afternoon, The Cookers — a formidable octet of ascended post-bop masters including the unflinching tenor saxophonist Billy Harper — dug deep into the music they helped create, before Jose Felicano offered a lovely benediction looking and sounding as beautiful today as he did when his star was first rising a half-century ago.

Native New Orleanian and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra drummer Herlin Riley ruled Locals Thursday in the Jazz Tent, where he called down the spirits of Congo Square on his drums during an impassioned, invigorating set punctuated by several ovations when he stepped to the front of the stage and got the whole crowd dancing. And “George Fest” moved into high gear on second Friday to honor one of the world’s great mensches of this music: Jazz Fest founder George Wein.

“George was family” was the prevailing sentiment expressed during a Lagniappe stage interview with many of the Newport Jazz Festival players he mentored. And, unlike most festival producers, “George was a [piano] player himself and knew what happened onstage.” He was also generous with his time and the motherlode of information he gleaned from early giants like Duke Ellington and Count Basie — an investment paid back with compound interest when the Newport All-Stars made a joyful noise to man who made it all possible.

For this fest-goer, the heart of second Saturday was Rickie Lee Jones, who’s become as deeply rooted in New Orleans as the live oaks on Ursuline Avenue in the near-decade she’s lived here. Shaking a tambourine to summon the spirits on the other side of the veil, Jones hit the Gentilly Stage for her first Jazz Fest gig as a local in a feathered top hat and red hot pants that got a real workout. “I’m happy to be playing with so many local people,” enthused Jones, who tossed a single rose to the crowd before delivering a bounteous bouquet of soulful, funky, and jazzy songs from her catalog in an exuberantly joyful show with her musical soulmate, percussionist Mike Dillon, and a hot horn section that made her 1979 hit “Chuck E.’s In Love” sound as fresh as the day it was minted.

To recharge after the only act I caught in the blazing sun (which was so, so worth it), I hobbled over to to the shaded oasis of Economy Hall and capped off my final festival day with Preservation Brass, the take-it-to-the-streets division of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. And before too long, lo and behold, I started second-lining with my cane, waving my Ernie K. Doe fan, and pausing for duos with one of the Undefeated Divas and a gracefully gangly Good Fella waving his feathered flag.

Then, like so many fellow festers throughout the years, I left the fairgrounds healed by the power of Jazz Fest’s music, post-pandemic reconnections with old friends and the kindness of strangers encountered along the way. DB

Bang On A Can’s Long Play Thriller

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Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille and David Virelles wasted no notes.

(Photo: Bang On A Can)

When the influential “new music” presenting organization Bang on A Can debuted in May 1987 with a 12-hour, 28-piece concert in an eighth-floor Soho loft, an interested listener could hear every performance on the bill, be it John Zorn’s “Roadrunner,” a scratch-improvised solo trombone recital by George Lewis, a two-piano version of Stravinsky’s “Agon,” and other works by the likes of Milton Babbitt, Pauline Oliveros, George Crumb and Steve Reich,

Such completism was impossible on the weekend of April 29–May 1, when Bang On A Can presented its first Long Play Festival, comprising over 60 concerts by a racially and gender-diverse cohort of cutting edge practitioners of multiple genres at seven venues within walking distance of each other in downtown Brooklyn and Gowanus.

On April 30, this writer’s path began in Gowanus, a developing neighborhood near Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, at Public Records, situated in a Gothic Revival building that served as ASPCA’s Brooklyn headquarters from 1913 until 1979. Square, low-ceilinged, well-baffled, it was a perfect space to hear the resourceful, virtuosic Attacca Quartet, whose 50-minute mash-up set included acoustic adaptations of electronic dance pieces by Flying Lotus, Anne Muller and Louis Cole from their recent Michael League-produced album, Real Life (Sony Classical), followed by more “conventional” repertoire – two sections of Philip Glass’s Third String Quartet, and a haunting narrative work by Paul Wiancko titled “Benkai’s Standing Death.”

Ten minutes down the road at Littlefield, a popular music bar that occupies a one-time textile warehouse, pianist Kris Davis and bassist Dave Holland played their first-ever public duo. They launched with Eric Dolphy’s “Les,” each uncorking blistering solos, then addressed each other’s tunes over a free-flowing, uninterrupted 40-minute span. Davis’ freshness and energy, her ability to use real-time piano preparation to morph organically from one sonic environment to another and consistently postulate fresh ideas, spurred the 76-year-old maestro to delve deep into his bag of extended techniques, free-associatively generating an array of harmonics, overtones and percussive effects while sustaining melodic flow, as he did when he played with Sam Rivers’ tabula rasa trio during the 1970s. Hopefully, many more Davis-Holland encounters — and perhaps a recording; both have labels — will ensue.

Back at Public Record, a large crowd assembled to hear Occam X, a composition for solo trumpet (Nate Wooley) by nonagenarian French synthesist Eliane Radigue predicated on Wooley’s painstakingly calibrated gradations of pitch and sound-silence juxtaposition, which were blurred and obscured by the whirr of the refrigerator behind the bar.

Then, back at Littlefield, trombonist Craig Harris presented an under-rehearsed suite for piano (Yayoi Ikawa), bass (Melissa Slocum) and a string quartet including violinist Sara Caswell. The pace was lugubrious until the fourth piece, “Wild Seed,” dedicated to Afrofuturist science fiction author Octavia Butler, when Ikawa and Caswell lifted the set out of the doldrums with sparkling solos; Harris — who’d previously seemed preoccupied by the group’s disorganization — responded in kind. He sustained that intensity on the last two pieces, complemented by Caswell’s poignant solo on “First World” (for the late poet and Harris colleague Sekou Sundiata) and Ikawa’s torrential inventions on “”Mr. Lovejoy” (for the late baritone saxophonist Hamiett Bluiett).

After a brisk 15-minute walk north, I arrived in the spacious lending library room of The Center For Fiction, catty-corner from Brooklyn Academy of Music, where tubist Marcus Rojas, a shape-shifting genre-hopper and purveyor of extended techniques par excellence, put forth an entertaining, thought-provoking solo concert. Rojas traversed the tuba’s full registral range, created call-and-response between voice (vocalese) and instrument, told engaging stories about teachers and mentors who set him on his path.

I could have hightailed to Littlefield to hear a flute-voice duo by Nicole Mitchell and Fay Victor, and then hustled to Public Records for a solo performance by vocalist-composer Pamela Z (or, for that matter, stayed at the Center For Fiction for a solo bassoon recital by Maya Stone). But I opted to stroll to Roulette Intermedium, five minutes away where Reggie Workman at 84, Andrew Cyrille at 82 and David Virelles at 38 played a compellingly elegant, creative set of compositions by the two elders, who played with creative clarity, focus, vigor, and dialogical spirit – and wasted no notes.

I stayed at Roulette for a think-as-one performance by the Vijay Iyer Trio (Linda May Han Oh, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums) — a continuous suite of several Iyer compositions that was far more florid than the performance that preceded it but every bit as detailed and focused. Iyer played with characteristic kinetic, terpsichorean spirit, propelled by Oh’s indomitable grooves and Sorey’s contrapuntal rhythm-timbre sound-painting that commented on the flow.

The finale of Long Play’s debut season transpired Sunday, May Day, at a packed Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Denardo Coleman masterminded and played drums on a concert intended to demonstrate that his father, Ornette Coleman, was completely on-point in titling his first (1959) album for Atlantic Records, The Shape of Jazz To Come.

The concert proved his point; it was an important event that deserves its own review. Suffice to say that Harris (“Peace”), Mitchell (“Eventually”), Pamela Z (“Lonely Woman”), Carman Moore (“Congeniality”), Nick Dunston (“Focus on Sanity”), David Sanford (“Chronology”) and Denardo himself (“Ramblin’” from Change Of The Century, also 1959) contributed phantasmagoric, cogent arrangements that interrogated and transformed the iconic songs without diluting their essence. The charts stretched the superb 20-piece Bang On A Can Orchestra (Rojas, Stone and Coleman’s long-time acoustic bassist Tony Falanga were members), which — under the expert ministrations of conductor Awadagin Pratt — rose to the challenge. The orchestra both dialogued with and complemented an inspiring sextet (“Ornette Expressions”) with veteran Coleman alumni James “Blood” Ulmer on guitar and Jamaaladeen Tacuma on electric bass; the wizardly Jason Moran on piano; and youngbloods Lee Odom (alto saxophone) and Wallace Roney Jr. on trumpet.

Kudos to sound engineer Andrew Cotton, who maintained pristine balance — you could hear every instrument. Kudos to Bang On A Can for evolving with the times. Hopefully, the proceedings were documented for posterity, as an example of what can be accomplished when creative music intersects with this level of infrastructure. DB

Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz Has Arrived

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Denardo Coleman/Ornette Expressions conducted by Awadagin Pratt.

(Photo: Nat Phillips)

One purpose for the “Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come” event at BAM on the evening of May 1 as part of the Bang on a Can Long Play Festival was to celebrate that historic recording of 1959, and another, as Ornette’s son Denardo told a packed audience, was “to keep that energy going that he set in motion.” And that mission was more than accomplished by the 20-member ensemble and Denardo’s “Ornette Expressions,” including pianist Jason Moran, guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, trumpeter Wallace Roney Jr., and saxophonist Lee Odom.

Odom was an exceedingly wonderful surprise for those unfamiliar with her potency, and during several riveting solos she captured not only Ornette’s exuberance but his uniquely created harmolodic vocabulary, her horn a searing mix of spectacular intervallic leaps and modulations. Her power was particularly noteworthy against the orchestral arrangements, at once blending and then soaring with every wave of Awadagin Pratt’s conduction.

There was no program denoting the new arrangements of the six tracks from Ornette’s third album, now listed in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Industry, but that was unnecessary to a segment of his followers who with the first notes of “Lonely Woman,” erupted in applause. Arranged by vocalist and electronics avatar Pamela Z, her treatment gradually opens like a blooming flower, with expansive interpolations from Roney and Odom, and a delicate, lyrical phrase or two from the alto flutist. The tune rises and falls with a haunted sadness before fading like one of Ornette’s poignant codas.

Equally captivating during the more than two-hour performance was the bravura moment when Ulmer, Tacum, and Denardo, in contrast to the aforementioned “Lonely Woman,” laid down a sizzling piece of rhythm and blues with Ulmer’s guitar leading what appeared to be a musical conversation. A similar intensity closed out the evening, and Denardo summoned all the driving energy he referenced at the beginning of the concert, all the musical maturity acquired under his father’s tutoring.

Overall the music was as splendid and colorful as the garments of the sextet in front of the orchestra, from Moran’s flowing yellow jacket to Denardo’s brilliant turquoise suit, all of which would have probably commanded Ornette’s approval. And all the talk nowadays about Afrofuturism in music can to some degree add this interpretation to the mix, and realize that the shape of jazz to come has arrived. DB

Abdullah Ibrahim: The Illusion of Moonlight

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“I have no concept of what I did before! That’s irrelevant,” Ibrahim said. “I can’t change anything. I can’t change the past, I can’t change the future, I can only deal with what is now.”

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

It is 2022. The pandemic lingers, yet life is moving forward in unexpected ways.

The necessary move to video correspondence has allowed an opportunity for this writer from Los Angeles to travel virtually to a small town outside of Munich, Germany, to speak face-to-face with a storied figure in the annals of jazz — a bona-fide Jazz Master, according to the National Endowment of the Arts, a U.S. organization that bestowed that title on Abdullah Ibrahim in 2019. A year after his triumphant appearance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for the NEA awards ceremony, the South African pianist and composer’s plans were derailed by COVID-19 restrictions. An 86th birthday concert back in Germany instead became a recording session where Ibrahim played alone in the intimate performance space that otherwise would have been filled to its 350-seat capacity.

When asked how different it was to be performing in an empty room, he answered dryly, “I do it all the time. When I started, no one wanted to come hear me play. I played to empty houses.” He bursted into joyous laughter. “And sometimes,” Ibrahim continued, struggling to speak through his chortles, “the houses were full, and they would empty when I started playing! Whether they are full houses or empty houses, it doesn’t matter.” He is factually correct in this case, for the resultant album, Solotude (Gearbox), has been heard by more than could ever fit in that space in Söllhuben, a moment in time preserved as a masterpiece to the world.

Yet, Ibrahim’s viewpoint that crowd size doesn’t matter is rooted in more than fact. “Let me put it this way,” he explained. “We invest in loss. It’s a strange concept. If you invest in loss, that takes care of the ego, because you don’t expect anything in return. Once I strike [a] note, there’s nothing I can do about it. I make my intention as clear and as truthful as possible. This is the idea of investing in loss. Since you don’t expect anything in return, when you strike the note, you do so with the utmost sincerity. The idea is that we have to be cognizant and careful about what you say and do.”

Clear intentions are evident on Solotude. Gone from his playing are the physically demanding displays of bombast and endurance from his heroic solo piano ruminations in the 1970s (perhaps a model for another solo-piano marathoner making a splash at that time, one Keith Jarrett). Now, Ibrahim’s intention seems to be to induce an unhurried stream of melody and harmony, weaving tunes from the corners of his long life and career together into a singular tapestry of sustained thought. One piece will melt into another and back in a gentle hypnotic dance, conjuring a null-field of timelessness that extends to infinity in all directions, something unknowable yet familiar … and profoundly peaceful.

The gentle-giant approach comports with Ibrahim’s current relationship to the piano. “The physical idea of sitting every day and practicing 20 hours — I used to do that. Now, it’s not necessary. As with everything else,” he clarified, “you continually try to get rid of all the unnecessary things, and you’re just left with the bare tools that you use to express. It takes a minute … or two … a couple of years,” he quipped, laughing. “There’s a deep joy and an ongoing revelation. I’m using my own breath.”

Already dealing in lofty principles, Ibrahim began to escalate into outer space. “It’s an illusion that there is moonlight,” he said. “What we perceive to be changes in the moon, the phases of the moon, it’s also an illusion. In this massive universe, we are small little specks. It is designed that we can only function in the sphere of illusion, because the reality is so massive that we would not be able to bear it because it is so immense and awesome. The moonlight and the illusion help us some to find a glimpse of that vast reality. Every now and then, we are able to experience it, and that is what happens when you play music, and this genre of music we call improvisation, and we call jazz.”

Any perceived familiarity for those who have followed Ibrahim’s output as of late might stem from his prior release, 2019’s Dream Time (Enja), a solo piano album recorded in celebration of his 85th birthday, in the same hall that he returned to a year later for Solotude. The two albums are eerily similar in tone, tenor, and tunes — it would be difficult to tell them apart in a Blindfold Test.

When asked about the reasons behind releasing essentially an encore studio performance of a prior concert, Ibrahim answered coyly, “Well, that’s what we do best.” An awkward silence, followed by a clumsy attempt to ask the same question was met with more words but less clarity.

“Here we are again with this concept of illusion. The illusion that we also have with time. What is past is past, and what is future … in our understanding, there is no past and there’s no future, there is only now. Which is also the principle of the [curvature] of time and space. In Africa, this is what our wise, old mentors and elders taught us. Let me put it this way: When I go to school, the first person to teach me is the teacher. The teacher says to me, ‘1 plus 1 is 2.’ Now, in the [African] tradition, our first teacher is the master, and the master says, ‘This is 2.’ So then under his guidance, you have to figure out how to get to ‘2.’ That is your life experience. So, ‘1 plus 1 is 2,’ that is information. The master says, ‘This is 2,’ and you spend your whole lifetime, under his guidance, to get to ‘2.’ That is knowledge.”

Ibrahim might be shading his response with a little moonlight of his own. I try — against his philosophical intentions — to once again to address the initial question. The corners of his mouth turn down in disapproval, looking very much like a small green Jedi master trying to explain to his padawan how it was not impossible to Force-pull his X-Wing out of the swamp. “We are dealing with the same thing, this time, this time,” he chastises me in quasi-Yoda-syntax. “There’s no past and no future, so why would I want to go back there and recapture something that was past?” Which was exactly the question this interviewer was getting at. “I’m dealing with now … I have no concept of what I did before! That’s irrelevant. I can’t change anything. I can’t change the past, I can’t change the future, I can only deal with what is now.”

Days after this exchange, insights emerged that I struggled to comprehend in the moment. If one can somehow release past and future from the present, can there be little memory of a concert a year prior? Given a life dedicated to a consistency of intention and faithfulness to oneself, wouldn’t the combination of those things result in a near-identical musical portrayal? If you are truly most like yourself (as Ibrahim’s own muse Thelonious Monk once remarked was the hallmark of genius), your artistic actions and decisions would be uncannily consistent, wouldn’t they? (Monk himself performed and rerecorded his same works repeatedly throughout his life.) If time is indeed an illusion, the live version of a studio recording could occur either before or after the fact, right?

Furthermore, the moonlight of all these ethereal higher-plane thoughts is certainly preferable to the muddy trenches of the business of music. Given that, we should be content to simply accept “2,” rather than dwell on whatever number-crunching it took to achieve that outcome.

Ibrahim is no stranger to Germany, or all of Europe for that matter. In 1962, with the apartheid South African government persecuting his band the Jazz Epistles (which included trumpeter Hugh Masekela), Ibrahim fled in exile with his soon-to-be wife, Sathima Bea Benjamin (who passed away in 2013), settling in Zurich, Switzerland. “I met everybody in Zurich,” he recalled, citing luminaries like Count Basie, Art Blakey and, of course, Duke Ellington, who shepherded Ibrahim (then still known as Dollar Brand) and his trio to France to record their breakthrough album Duke Ellington Presents The Dollar Brand Trio (Reprise, 1963). He recalled meeting John Coltrane in Zurich, which was big for him, having been profoundly moved by his music. Ibrahim read aloud a poem about Giant Steps, Coltrane’s signature album, released in February 1960:

“In New York that day, a premonition that something astounding was about to happen.

“In the late afternoon, word started trickling in from the recording session.

“A seismic realignment and reaffirmation of our shared individual and collective tonal centers.”

Were those words from Coltrane himself? “No, me. I wouldn’t ascribe something so banal to Coltrane.”

Ibrahim recorded with Coltrane’s drummer, Elvin Jones, on Jones’ own album Midnight Walk (Atlantic, 1966), contributing one of his compositions, the waltz “Tintiyana.” It’s fascinating to hear Jones, his brother and trumpeter Thad Jones and saxophonist Hank Mobley navigate the fiendishly tricky melody and form. It might be the most hard-bop playing by Ibrahim on record. At that time, he usually reflected an older school of pianists — Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Ellington, Monk, Herbie Nichols.

“They edited my solos,” Ibrahim said. “I’m not supposed to sound like that. I’m South African, I don’t have the mental capacity [laughing hysterically] to be able to play something like that.” Thinking about Elvin Jones led Ibrahim to recall playing with two other drummers, Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins. He and Benjamin had moved to New York at that point, and Ibrahim soon found himself in more radical company: Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders and Ornette Coleman, who all embraced his ferocious improvisatory spirit and his compositions inspired by South African traditional music.

“It was a joy and an honor to play with Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell,” he remembered fondly. Cherry and Blackwell appear with Ibrahim on The Journey (Chiaroscuro, 1977), while Higgins was the drummer on Mindiff (Enja, 1988), recorded for the film Chocolat. The title track is the first tune Ibrahim plays on Solotude.

When asked about the recent passing of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ibrahim recalled, “My grandmother was a founding member of the AME [African Methodist Episcopal] Church in Cape Town.” That was his first experience regarding the church, with which Tutu’s African Anglican Church was, and is, also affiliated. “But we also had our tradition,” he said. “My great-grandfather knew everything about the herbs, and the plants and the animals. My grandfather spoke all the Southern African languages fluently. Here we [were] in a system that says, ‘Everything is now going to be apart. You’re going to live there, and we will live here.’ And then our mentors made us understand that this is totally idiotic, because how can you sow anything out of the universe — where would you put it? And then our mentors told us, ‘They are not our teachers.’ And then they told us what is actually occurring, and how we can transcend. As young people, we were very angry. We wanted to make change. I wrote songs about that time, about what young people felt, what they needed to do, and people were angry.”

Circling back to the original topic, he continued, “You talk about Desmond Tutu, but there are hundreds of spiritual mentors there that guided us. And they say to us, ‘Don’t tell anybody about us, we want to remain anonymous.’ And that is the tradition of the mentor,” he concluded. “The mentor remains anonymous. That’s why I am not anonymous,” he chuckled. “Some time, I’ll disappear from all your books.”

If Ibrahim’s intention is to move toward anonymity, he is doing a terrible job of it. In addition to his high-profile induction as an NEA Jazz Master, he will have at the time of this writing recorded a solo performance at his home in Germany on his Fazioli grand piano, to be broadcast on NPR’s Tiny Desk video series. Upon hearing that this was one of the most-watched live music streaming platforms in the world, the octogenarian artist reacted with mild surprise, with maybe an imperceptible glimmer of delight.

“We accept the accolades, but we understand that it doesn’t stop there,” he said. “Every time that it occurs it means that it’s the beginning of the continuation of that striving.”

What is he striving for? “It takes a long time to play one note,” he mused. “That’s what the striving is about: to play one note with absolute sincerity, devoid from ego. It’s a challenge, because there’s always the whisperer that tells you, ‘Wow, that was great.’ People say that you must annihilate the whisperer, but we say, ‘No, whisperer, stick around. Because you will keep us on our toes.’ The whisperer always tells you how great you are. The quest is always to get past that so we can try to be sincere.”

At one point, he looked to his left and asked the woman sitting quietly beside him during the entire interview, “Does this make any sense?”

“Yes,” she answers. “But I know you very well.”

Not too many years ago, Marina Umari, from Germany, was finishing her last year of medical studies in Cape Town. “Somebody there knew I loved piano music, so they told me I had to go and listen to Abdullah Ibrahim before I go back home,” she said, with a slight smile. “And I listened.”

“She was warned that coming to my concert would have some consequences,” Ibrahim said, looking at her fondly. “Lovely consequences.” So, after returning to his homeland as a prodigal native son whom Nelson Mandela proclaimed as their very own Mozart, Ibrahim has once again left South Africa for Europe, this time on his own terms with a new companion, the two of them settling in this quiet village in Upper Bavaria. “We have shared dreams and wishes,” he said.

In fact, Umari is a driver of those dreams and wishes, and revealed to be part of the solution of how we “got to 2.” “It was Dr. Umari that really created this,” Ibrahim said about his recent solo piano excursions. “She’s the one who suggested [that I] play at the Hirzinger, and to get the piano — she’s the one. And of course, the owner of the venue is quite a remarkable person.” The owner he speaks of is from a family that has, for the past 500 years, run the Hirzinger Hotel in Söllhuben. It’s about a 20-minute drive from where Ibrahim and Umari live, and it is on that property where an old wooden barn has been repurposed into a large reception hall, a sometime performance space for Ibrahim’s concerts. “It’s a very beautiful place,” said Umari. “It’s not easy to get because almost everybody wants to get married there.”

“But we are blessed that we rely on people around me who are compassionate and [know] what we are hoping to achieve,” Ibrahim affirmed. Long steeped in Japanese philosophy and martial arts, he is a proponent of Ikigai, finding one’s life’s purpose. “Ikigai is the principle,” he explained, “that says, ‘When you wake up this morning, what is it that you would like to do?’ Not what someone else would like, what is it that you would like? Sometimes we go through the paces of living daily, and we never seem to reach that goal. With me, I’m blessed with having that possibility. I think we’ve all been designed to play our roles and interact with each other.”

So, after an unparalleled and historic musical journey, has Ibrahim discerned what his role has been on this Earth? “I have no idea,” he admitted, laughing heartily, as he had many times that day. “How is it that at 90 years of age, a master will say, ‘I wish God would give me another 200 years so I can perfect this thing’?” It’s not a question of trying to achieve something within a space of time.”

It’s a good thing, then, that time — like moonlight — is an illusion. DB

jazzahead! Conference Rebirths in Bremen

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The big band cause was in-house at jazzahead! this year, including impressive work by the Dutch leader/composer/pianist Kathrine Windfeld.

(Photo: Josef Woodard)

When it comes to major, all-purpose jazz conference/festivals across the Atlantic, all roads have led to Bremen for the past several years. The multifaceted convention known as jazzahead! first kicked off in 2001 and, within a few years, had established itself as the primary gathering point for all facets of the jazz world. And “world” is the proper word: In the exhibition area, booths often feature representatives from different countries. Record labels, managers and agents, festival and concert presenters, journalists and outside visitors have annually flocked to Messe Bremen convention center to network and soak up the dozens of short showcase sets, conferences and networking opportunities over its four-day spread in the middle of spring.

Like everything else, jazzahead! was knocked off its groove by the pandemic for two years but made an impressive and inspiring return to action this spring. Held April 28 to May 1, the 11th edition drew a sizable attendance, if down from recent editions, and took over a larger spread of the massive Messe Bremen mega-structure — the better to practice distancing. Canada, the focused partner company country originally slated for 2020, had its delayed day in the spotlight at last, with at least a dozen acts performing on the opening Thursday night and beyond.

Among the many conferences and presentations over the weekend were discussions of gender equality in jazz, including one built around the publication Jazz and Gender, by Indiana University lecturer Dr. Monika Herzog. Speaking about the shortage of female representation in big bands — an especially entrenched and government-supported field in Germany — Herzog noted that “blind auditions in classical music changed the landscape of music starting in the ’70s. Maybe that would help.”

As it happens, the jazzahead! showcase program this year was well-stocked with women leaders, and accounted for some of the stronger shows to be heard. Two of the women from the Canadian contingent are particularly adventurous and fresh-voiced trumpeters, Lina Allemano and Steph Richards (currently based with her musical-marriage partner Andrew Munsey in San Diego, where both teach at UC San Diego).

Richards is fast emerging as a trumpeter bringing a new energy and attitude to her instrument and to the business of jazz from the experimental and free improvisational perspective. A trumpeter with her own sensual voice, Richards artfully deploys extended techniques to musical ends, while her band (featuring potent young pianist Joshua White, with influences from Cecil Taylor and beyond) flexes and surges. She brings a vocabulary of melodic and riff-based ideas, mixed with abstraction and a palpable sense of searching. At this moment, her quartet is expanded by one — the being inside her very pregnant belly, whom she called “the special guest” of the show.

In her own unique way, Allemano is also a trumpeter-leader with some distinctive new ideas about how to navigate the space between tradition and adventurism. Allemano, based both in Toronto and Berlin, performed both at the Thursday afternoon opening event and at the Metropol on Saturday night’s “Club Night” roster, with shows extending out into Bremen, proper.

Other Canadian female artists had a bold impact, including the captivating jazz-R&B creative force Malika Tirolien, roughly working a vein similar to Meshell Ndegeocello. She headlined the special “off-campus” Gala Concert at the historic venue Die Glocke (famed in jazz as the location of Keith Jarrett’s Bremen live recording in the ‘70s), with the polished jazz-pop singer-pianist Laila Biali opening.

In terms of inventive new concepts with historical roots, Montreal’s Silvervest — being the duo of vocalist-poetess Kim Zombik and bassist Nicolas Caloia — cooks up a sound that is savory, witty and flecked with surprising twists, with hints of Abbey Lincoln, Billie Holiday and hip-hopping post-beat poetry. Stir and enjoy.

Later on the Canada showcase night, the free-jazz muse came to roost in the form of the trio with wily saxist François Carrier, drummer Michel Lambert and bassist John Edwards.

Another woman artist-of-note is young German pianist Clara Haberkamp, who has been a vocalist but who offers up a commanding presence in instrumental piano trio mode, as heard on her luminous fine album Reframing The Moon. She brings a fluid touch as a pianist, sometimes reminiscent of Brad Mehldau’s brand of pianism and conscientious use of the left hand, but with a personal sense of using space and improvisation free of formula or empty showboating. In the crowded field of piano trio venturers, hers is a name to keep ears open for.

The big band cause was also in-house at jazzahead! this year, including impressive work by the Dutch leader/composer/pianist Kathrine Windfeld, whose compositions and arrangements lack no energy, but revel in texture and atmosphere, along with tough-love lyricism. From Hungary, the Modern Art Orchestra made a bold, sophisticated impression on material sometimes adapting work by iconic Hungarian classical composers Bartok and Kodaly.

From the left end of the style dial, the Cologne-based Fuchstone Orchestra (founded/led by Christina Fuchs and Caroline Thon) is a dazzling inside-outside outfit combining freewheeling avant-garde facets and the balance of structure and improvisational abandon. The large group mixes traditional big band instruments with strings, Eva Pöpplein’s painterly electronics and dynamic avant-vocalist Filipa Gojo, who, in the climate change-referential piece “Iceland,” hauntingly chanted the phrase “some people say another world is possible.” The Fuchstone group operates out of the famed Cologne venue Stadtgarten Köln, which won the best venue award at the new German Jazz Prize ceremony.

For jazz party modalities, we heard drummer Larnell Lewis’ fluidly funky band late on Thursday night at the retooled slaughterhouse known as Kultuzentrum Schlachthof, and Italian electric guitar wizard Matteo Mancuso’s adrenaline-pumped neo-fusion in the conference’s new circus tent location.

Although a range of influences and a mostly acoustic format is to be found in the overall musical brew of the German band known as JO (re: drummer/leader/composer Jo Beyer), elements of prog-rock sneak in, accented by limber guitarist Andreas Wahl’s lines and engaging soloing. Minimalist skeins of lines, impressionistic moments and bursts of ensemble energy and taut unison lines keep the music in evolutionary motion.

Idioms were also successfully intermarried in Keno Harriehausen Quartet, a new proposition in the often-tricky bridging of chamber jazz. The pianist-leader has written pieces with echoes of contemporary music and sound palettes from the first half of the 20th century, including Ravel and an admitted hero, Shostakovich. Margin for improvisation is an important, and jazz-linked, aspect for a group of excellent musicians — bassist Andris Meinig, cellist Maya Fridman and Latvian saxophonist Karlis Auzins.

In the dense thicket of showcases, made more complicated through this year’s practice of doubling up sets (partly as a measure to keep the crowd sizes down), made it harder to catch as many shows as in years past. Among the ones that got away for this scribe was the Saturday night show at the pristine venue the Sendesaal (run by jazzahead! co-director Peter Schulze), featuring Ukrainian pianist Vadim Neselovskyi delivering his project Odessa — a musical walk through a legendary city.

American jazz players and participants have yet to show up in large numbers in Bremen, although the conference hopes for more transatlantic crossover in the future. This year, though, the conference came to a beautiful close courtesy of the tenor saxophonist (American by way of Chile) Melissa Aldana, riding high on the strength of her Blue Note Records debut. From that album, on such jewels as “The Bluest Eye” and the lyrical “Emilia,” Aldana brandished her signature glowing tone and sensual yet inner-fired musical sensibility.

Aldana’s set made for a graceful exit strategy and a final musical exclamation point for jazzahead! in its year of a heroic return to action.

It’s official: Next year’s “partner country” is Germany herself. DB

Gordon Grdina: The Artist as Label Head

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“I want to be able to get things out quicker, where what I’m releasing is closer to what I’m actually working on,” Grdina said.

(Photo: Genevieve Monroe)

Vancouver-born guitarist Gordon Grdina remembers the moment, at age 13, that he first heard the sound of the Middle Eastern oud, the centuries-old forerunner of the European lute.

“My guitar teacher played me a record (Saltanah, on Water Lily Acoustics),” he recalled. “I was playing a lot of blues at the time and a little bit of slide, and he thought I’d be interested in the Indian slide guitar player Vishna Mohan Bhatt. But when I heard Simon Shaheen playing the oud on that album, it blew my mind. I loved the sound of it, and I couldn’t wrap my head around how it was being made. So I started listening to master oud players like Simon and Hamza El Din. Rabih Abou-Khalil was a big influence, too, in terms of doing a more hybrid thing with the instrument. But I wanted to be respectful of the tradition and learn as much as I could, and eventually come up with new ideas to create something that’s more honest for my own expression.”

Grdina has done precisely that. As an emissary of Iraqi and Arabic style oud playing, he has continued to put his stamp on the 11-stringed instrument since the release of his first recording as a leader, 2006’s Think Like Waves, with the venerated rhythm tandem of bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian. He made further inroads on 2008’s …If Accident Will and followed with a trio of introspective solo classical guitar/oud projects with 2018’s JUNO Award-winning China Cloud, 2020’s Prior Street and 2021’s Pendulum. His mission continues with two stirring releases on his new label Attaboygirl Records — Night’s Quietest Hour and Oddly Enough: The Music Of Tim Berne.

Since forming Attaboygirl last year with photographer and partner Genevieve Monro, Grdina has been on a roll. The label was launched in October 2021 with the simultaneous releases of the solo Pendulum and the debut of his Square Peg quartet with viola ace Mat Maneri, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Christian Lillinger on Klotski. Night’s Quietest Hour, released in February, is a collection of traditional Iraqi and Arabic tunes performed with Grdina’s folk music ensemble Haram. It features guest guitarist Marc Ribot’s distortion-laced skronking over the tightly knit ensemble on intricate numbers such as the traditional Turkish tune “Longa Nahawand,” the Sudanese song “Sala Min Shaaraha” and the Syrian tune “Dulab Bayati.”

“Ribot’s been a hero of mine for a long time,” Grdina said. “He added a whole lot of energy and excitement as well as a punk-rock aesthetic to these pieces. Marc blended into the ensemble from the beginning and his presence pushed the group’s delicacy, intensity and explosive nature to new heights. The record is five songs, but in concert we did 12 different pieces from older repertoire, and he had such a great time [that] he played on everything with us.”

The compelling solo project Oddly Enough, also released in February, finds Grdina exploring Berne’s music on acoustic guitar, oud and a customized electric guitar fitted with MIDI pickups.

“Lost In Redding,” for instance, has him triggering an acoustic bass sample along with tabla, piano, Fender Rhodes and various electronic sounds, all in real time with no overdubs. As he said about tackling Berne’s work, “The compositions are incredibly complex, personal and harmonically unique. The linear way he writes for bands like Blood Count, Science Friction and Snake Oil, I really connect with. And I wanted to get that quality in a different way on my own. I had already done a bunch of acoustic records so I wanted to try and do something electric. I wanted to use the amps in the big room and get a huge electric guitar sound there. That’s why I did this album in a studio instead of doing it at my house.”

While three songs on Oddly Enough — “Snippet,” “I Don’t Use Hair Products” and “Pliant Squids” — are strictly live solo guitar pieces, three others involve overdubs. For instance, “Trauma One” features guitar and oud navigating in unison through Berne’s knotty lines. The title track has two electric guitars (one through an octave pedal) engaged in frantic counterpoint.

Upcoming on Attaboygirl is another project called Gordon Grdina’s The Twain, featuring electric koto player Michio Yagi and drummer Tamaya Honda of the Japanese improv duo Dōjō, and singer Koichi Makigami, who doubles on theremin and cornet. Being released as a co-promotion between Attaboygirl and Black Dot, a vinyl record label from Vancouver Island, it’s part of a flood of releases the prolific guitarist-oud master has put out during the pandemic.

“There’s just a lot of stuff that I needed to get out,” he said. “I want to be able to get things out quicker, where what I’m releasing is closer to what I’m actually working on.” DB

Alexander Flood: From Australia with Drums

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“To me, rhythm is not the notes; it’s the space between the notes,” the 25-year-old Flood explained.

(Photo: David Rescue (Pink Sun Productions))

Miles Davis famously advised: “Don’t play what is there, play what is not there.” Alexander Flood incorporates that guidance on his invigorating sophomore album, The Space Between (Ropeadope Records/Stretch Music).

As a skillful drummer and percussionist, he creates grooves that accentuate his versatility and virtuosity in playing multiple cosmopolitan rhythms while allowing the music to breathe and take shape.

“To me, rhythm is not the notes; it’s the space between the notes,” the 25-year-old Flood explained. “If you just have a bunch of notes with no spaces or rests, you just have subdivision. But as soon as you break up the notes with space and rests, then you suddenly have rhythm. It’s the space between the notes that ultimately creates rhythm and variation.”

The Space Between has another connotation. It plays into the polyglot nature of the music on which Flood deftly switches between 21st century soul-jazz and hip-hop and modern jazz fusion, while also infusing rhythms, melodies and textures from West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, Brazil and Asia.

The album kicks off with “All For The Pocket,” a hip-hop manifesto that sounds as if it could have been recorded in Philly, especially thanks to Nelson Dialect’s soulful rhymes and the creamy keyboard flourishes wafting atop Flood’s sinewy backbeats and crackling snare. After Ben Kepron delivers a snazzy electric piano solo followed by Tyler Venter’s howling electric guitar, the rhythm soon evolves into a pulsating go-go groove that would make any Washington, D.C.-based band proud.

Growing up in Adelaide, Australia, Flood didn’t hear go-go music there. But once he got a taste of it, after visiting friends in D.C. three years ago, he was hooked. “When they played some of the music, I thought, ‘Wow! This is some of the funkiest music I’ve ever heard in my life,’” he recalled.

Flood, however, wasn’t content on mimicking go-go music’s distinctive buoyant patterns on his own; he invited Brion “BeeJay” Scott, a master go-go conguero from D.C. — as well as Kepron and his brother Nick, both of whom are also from D.C. — to authenticate the vibe. “I was so fortunate to have their help in piecing it together properly and not just faking go-go music,” Flood said.

Other highlights include the samba-powered “LDN”; the enchanting “Starseed,” which features Vivian Sessoms singing lyrics in English and Nigeria’s Igbo dialect; and the anthemic “Pathways,” which features Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s plangent trumpet passages. Ever since connecting with Adjuah several years ago, first at a jazz festival in Australia then more directly after checking out his shows on a Blue Note at the Sea Cruise, the trumpeter has become a championing mentor for Flood.

“[Adjuah] has been a huge mentor for my musical development both as an artist from the creative side as well someone on the music business side,” Flood enthused. “He helped me understand signing to record labels, getting publishing rights and licensing music. From where I’m from, there’s no easy way of learning all the business side of the music industry. He’s the most generous person in so many ways — with his time, enthusiasm, wisdom and resources.”

When asked what attracts him to Flood’s musicality, Adjuah said,“his openness.”

“We tend to draw lines about which culture is eligible for whatever kind of music, or who can actually play whatever culture,” he said. “Flood is really open-hearted and willing to recognize and reference all of the different cultural perspectives that had light in them.” DB

Bill O’Connell’s Hope for Change

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O’Connell said, “Jazz combined the sophistication I was looking for in music with the earth and the swing. I was determined to pursue it and develop myself as a jazz pianist.”

(Photo: Nick Carter)

Best known as an inspired hybridizer of modernist jazz and Afrodiasporic idioms as an improviser and composer, Bill O’Connell moves in a funkier, Black American music direction on Change Is Gonna Come, his first recorded encounter with master drummer Steve Jordan. For his 17th album (and eighth for Savant), the 68-year-old pianist convened Jordan, bassist Lincoln Goines, conguero Pedrito Martinez and saxophonist Craig Handy in May.

The O’Connell–Jordan relationship dates to 1980, when they played on a month-long tour with Sonny Rollins, the dedicatee of “Sun For Sonny,” a rollicking calypso. They hit it off and stayed in touch, sharing the bandstand at a few benefit concerts — including a 2015 tribute to Rollins — sponsored by the Jazz Foundation of America, where Jordan served as musical director. At some point in 2020, after COVID-19 struck, O’Connell told his old friend: “We’re all not getting any younger. We’ve waited 40 years. Let’s do a record together.”

O’Connell spoke via Zoom from his home in Montauk, Long Island, where he conceptualized the seven originals and three O’Connellized covers that constitute the proceedings. “Steve is a very wide guy,” said O’Connell, who exploits Jordan’s idiomatic breadth and interactive instincts for what Hank Jones once called the “perfect tempo.”

On the set-opening “Moment’s Notice,” Jordan lays down a thematically cohesive admixture of backbeats and swing, allowing O’Connell — his fluid chops and personal refraction of Hancock-Tyner-Evans-Corea vocabulary on full display — to enable the flow to breathe. Jordan personalizes the Elvin Jones 3-feel on “Enough Is Enough,” a soul blues highlighted by Craig Handy’s wailing tenor solo; funks out on a stop-time treatment of “My Foolish Heart”; and seamlesly switches with Martinez between Afro-Latin and swing on “Chaos,” a turbulent 5/4 theme with Eddie Palmieri-esque connotations.

“Chaos” evokes O’Connell’s long association with the Fort Apache Band, which he joined in 1990 as a sub for Larry Willis on the say-so of Steve Berrios, a close friend from their days playing with Mongo Santamaria between 1977 and 1979. As Santamaria had done in the early 1960s with Herbie Hancock, he also encouraged O’Connell to write, and he placed O’Connell’s Hancockish “Little T” on the Grammy-winning Amanecer. “I came to the music from a humble place, with respect, not being a Latino,” O’Connell said. “Steve respected that, but he also heard how I had eyes to stretch with Latin jazz.”

O’Connell joined Santamaria a few years after arriving in Manhattan’s East Village from Oberlin Conservatory, where he’d studied the modern European canon. “I was into being a classical composer,” O’Connell said. “But jazz combined the sophistication I was looking for in music with the earth and the swing — I was determined to pursue it and develop myself as a jazz pianist.” He studied with Richie Beirach; networked with up-and-comers like Jim McNeely, Michael Wolff and Dennis Irwin at his college roommate’s Union Square loft; and embedded himself in New York’s then-vibrant Latin scene, learning the art of montuno construction.

As the ’80s progressed, O’Connell eschewed leader ambitions for the security of sideman gigs with, among others, Jon Lucien, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Astrud Gilberto, Gato Barbieri and Dave Valentin (an employer and colleague until his death in 2017). “I wanted a balanced life, between family and kids, and the New York sideman thing worked for me,” said O’Connell, who raised four children with his wife of 33 years. “I led gigs occasionally, but not from necessity. I’m a writer. Ideas for new projects and new music are always in my head, and in order to do what I wanted, I had to jump out more on my own. From 2000 on, I’ve consistently put out what I’m thinking about.” DB

Ron Carter Reminisces on the Eve of 85th Gala

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Bassist-composer Ron Carter turns 85 on May 4.

(Photo: Atilla Kleb)

On May 10, the iconic bassist-composer Ron Carter will be fêted in an 85th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall. With NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt (himself a bass player) acting as emcee and bass greats Buster Williams and Stanley Clarke providing personal testimonies, the evening will include performances by Carter-led groups in three combinations: his longstanding Golden Striker Trio with pianist Donald Vega and guitarist Russell Malone, his Foresight Quartet with tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene, pianist Renee Rosnes and drummer Payton Crossley, and the Ron Carter Octet featuring the leader on piccolo bass alongside cellists Maxine Neuman, Zöe Hassman, Sibylle Johner and Dorothy Lawson and a rhythm section of pianist Vega, bassist Leon Baelson and drummer Crossley.

“The gig is on May 10th,” the revered octogenarian said about his Carnegie Hall gala, “and my birthday is May 4th. So I’ll have to make a note when I do my little talk to the audience and say, ‘You guys are six days late, but thank you, anyway.’”

The most recorded bassist in jazz history, with more than 2,250 recordings to his credit, Carter has collaborated with an array of artists ranging from Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Diana Ross, Bette Midler, Phoebe Snow, The Rascals, Gil Scott-Heron (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”) and Santana on the pop side to Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Coleman Hawkins, Cannonball Adderley, Kenny Burrell, Milt Jackson, Eddie Harris, Charles Lloyd, Sonny Rollins and countless others on the jazz side.

Few other musicians have amassed such a disparate discography. A prime example: He played cello on Eric Dolphy’s 1961 album Out There and bass on the 1991 hip-hop landmark Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest. His impressive list of credits from early in his career includes Randy Weston’s Uhuru Africa in 1960, Gil Evans’ Out Of The Cool, Wes Montgomery’s So Much Guitar and Bobby Timmons’ In Person (live at the Village Vanguard), all released in 1961. A string of ’60s Blue Note recordings — Tony Williams’ Life Time, Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles, Maiden Voyage and Speak Like A Child, Wayne Shorter’s The Soothsayer and Speak No Evil, Joe Henderson’s Mode For Joe and The Kicker and McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy — brought him further esteem. Add to that ‘70s classics like Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, Tyner’s Extensions, Jim Hall’s Concierto, Antônio Carlos Jobim’s Stone Flower, Woody Shaw’s Blackstone Legacy, Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar and George Benson’s Beyond The Blue Horizon.

Perhaps most famous are his recordings with Miles Davis’ celebrated quintet of the mid-’60s. On the bandstand with Davis, alongside Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams, Carter exuded a resolute presence and a sartorial splendor that has come to define his calm, elegant demeanor for more than six decades as a working pro. And while the six studio recordings that they made over the span of four years — 1965’s E.S.P. (which featured three Carter compositions), 1967’s Miles Smiles and Sorcerer and 1968’s Nefertiti, Miles In The Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro — are part of jazz legend, the gestalt group took things to a whole other level in concert.

“That was a laboratory band,” Carter said in a phone interview in advance of his Carnegie celebration. “We were always experimenting from night to night.”

That process of collectively stretching the boundaries by dispensing with standard 32-measure AABA forms common in Tin Pan Alley songs (a foundation of Davis’ first great quintet from the mid-’50s) and by dealing with more ambiguous melodic and harmonic elements propelled jazz out of the bebop era and into the future. And the music seemed to transport the audience, in turn, to a new place. With its more subjective treatment of standards, where meters shifted, chord changes became ambiguous and formal structure was deconstructed, Davis’ second great quintet was by far the most sophisticated, forward-thinking and risk-taking group of its time, with one foot firmly planted in the tradition and the other foot striding into The New Thing.

In concert, Davis’ band lived for those combustible moments of spontaneous creation. If you listen to recorded documents at the time like Live At The Plugged Nickel from 1965 or Live In Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1, it’s almost as if they eye-rolled their way through the changes, paying only half-hearted attention to the form in a rush to get to those moments of pure improv, where this band lived. Williams’ dynamic drumming was the polyrhythmic catalyst for this freer new direction. And while Carter’s bass was often cited as the anchor, his presence in the band was anything but sedentary. Indeed, his bass lines were alive from bar to bar, highly interactive with the other members of the quintet, often changing the course of things for the whole band, depending on whether he might break into a solid walk in any tempo, double a melodic line or provide spontaneous counterpoint, the latter a testament to his intensely focused listening and his classical training. As he put it, “I’m going to make sure the bass part sounds interesting every night.”

During pandemic times, Carter played on four recordings released in 2021: Gerry Gibbs’ Songs From My Father, Skyline with Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Jack DeJohnette, Jon Batiste’s Live At Electric Lady and Nicholas Payton’s Smoke Sessions. The revered Grammy-winner, 1998 NEA Jazz Master and 2012 inductee into DownBeat’s Hall of Fame also kept himself busy during the pandemic by completing two instructional books: Playing Behind The Changes and Chartography, both published in 2021 (roncarterbooks.com).

DownBeat spoke to Carter by phone prior to his 85th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall.

Your first instrument was cello, which you studied from age 10 to 17. Why did you switch to upright bass?

Because I thought I wasn’t getting the chances that a talented African-American cello player should be getting. So I switched to bass because there was no bass player in the orchestra at Cass Technical High in Detroit.

And yet, you came back to the cello, documenting your concept for four cellos on 1978’s Songs For You.

Yes, that was a great time. I just wanted a new sound, not necessarily just to be different from everybody else’s, but something that I really wanted to hear. And that sound was four cellos playing with a nice jazz quartet background. And I’ve decided that I’m going to write more in that vein because I have a group now that’s understanding my intent. They want to see how far they can take this music with me. And they make themselves available when we all have time. So it’s a great composer setting for me and I’m looking forward to playing together again at the Carnegie Hall celebration.

After getting your bachelor’s degree from Eastman, you moved from Rochester to New York City in August of 1959. That was a very potent time for jazz. Kind Of Blue had just come out and later that year Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come and Charles Mingus’ Ah Um were released.

And Trane’s record [Giant Steps] also came out about that time. Yeah, it was an exciting time to be in New York. I had a scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music but I really went to New York to work. I had been in the house band at a club in Rochester that backed major jazz artists and I was told by several people who came through there — Sonny Stitt, among others — that New York always wants a good bass player. And they thought I could fit the bill so they encouraged me to come to New York when I graduated. So I came to New York looking for work, primarily, and my first gig there was with Chico Hamilton. I took over the bass spot for Bull Ruther [former Brubeck bassist, from 1951 to 1952, Wyatt “Bull” Ruther]. We went out on the 1959 Jazz for Moderns tour. It was a bus tour with other bands [Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Dave Brubeck Quartet, Maynard Ferguson Orchestra and Chris Connor]. The band was Eric Dolphy on alto sax, bass clarinet and flute, Dennis Budimir on guitar, Nate Gershman on cello Chico on drums and myself on bass. We stayed together for about six months before the group eventually disbanded when Eric moved back to California. Eric was a special guy. I watched him develop what his point of view was with his constant practice routines he had every day, on the bus, in his hotel room, in his apartment. He’d practice four, five hours every day. I’d practice maybe a couple hours a day, but mostly I was practicing on the gigs.

Did you record with that band?

There’s some recording somewhere. They’re finding more and more stuff in the can. I’ve seen some bootleg stuff advertised, but I haven’t heard it. So I’m not sure what that is. Speaking of which, I just got an email yesterday that they found four recordings of Miles in Tokyo with the Sam Rivers band. So there are four new LPs that they just released only in Japan. I’m trying to track those down to see what’s on them. The only one legitimate record is Miles In Tokyo, which Columbia released in 2005. But evidently there are four others that they recorded along the way that have Sam Rivers. I’m trying to get a hold of those. I knew Sam from Boston and I heard him play in New York at his loft, Studio Rivbea. And I made some records with him, ultimately [1965’s Fuchsia Swing Song and 1967’s Contours, both on Blue Note]. I thought he was a wonderful player.

Tell me about Charlie Persip and the Jazz Statesmen.

That was my first band, other than the group with that Chico Hamilton band that went out on the road in 1959. The Jazz Statesmen was definitely the first band that I recorded with. It was Charlie Persip on drums, Roland Alexander on saxophone, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Ronnie Matthews on piano. Teddy Charles, the vibes player, was the producer for that record we made on the Bethlehem label.

You introduced a new sound with the piccolo bass on 1973’s Blues Farm and then showcased that instrument on your 1977 Fantasy album Piccolo.

Yeah, that’s a wonderful record. In terms of arrangements and concept, that band [Kenny Barron on piano, Buster Williams on bass, Ben Riley on drums] was really ahead of its time, not just because there were two bass players but because the arrangements were much more specific. It’s not a jam session kind of thing; it was a very organized band. There weren’t many bands at the time who were really groups like we were. Everyone was jamming with bop and free-jazz, but that group stood out because of the personalities in the band made it sound like one guy playing.

Talk about your involvement with the Fender electric bass.

At the time I came to New York, the electric bass was just getting its voice and the producers of commercials didn’t know which one they preferred — this new sound, the electric bass, or the old standby, the upright bass. So all the upright players went out and bought an electric bass. Richard Davis, George Duvivier, Milt Hinton … all those guys went out and bought one, including me. For a while, we were running around New York in cabs going from session to session with an upright on one arm and dragging an electric bass along.

And you incorporated the electric bass on your 1969 album Uptown Conversation.

Yeah, that was a really wonderful band: Sam Brown on guitar, Herbie Hancock on piano and electric piano, Hubert Laws on flute, Grady Tate and Billy Cobham alternating on drums. They just loved to play good music, and my job was to provide them something that they could really play, and we had a great time doing it.

Is the electric bass anything that you’ve been involved in recent years?

No. I gave it to my son, Ron Jr., long ago. I realized that to be competitive, I couldn’t do both, so I just invested all my time on upright. And I’m still looking for the right notes on upright.

Your very first album as a leader, Where?, was released in 1961. What do you remember about that session?

I was pleased that George Duvivier said that he’d make the record with me. He had a bar he opened in 1961 on St. Nicholas Avenue and 146th Street called The Bass Fiddle, and I would go by there after my gigs at night and talk with George. He had a great jukebox in there at the time. And he would ask me how I did this or that on the bass and what’s my aim in playing music. And when I called him to be the second bass player on this record date, he was just thrilled as if it was his first record date. Charlie Persip played on that along with Mal Waldron, who I began to understand what a wonderful composer he was. He wrote some nice songs and I had fun playing with him on my date. Eric Dolphy was also there. It was great to have those guys, all encouraging me for this project.

How did you come to join Miles Davis’ band two years later?

He came by when I was working with Art Farmer, Jim Hall and Walter Perkins at the Half Note, which was down on Spring and Hudson. After the set was over he called me over and said that he was putting together a new band because Paul [Chambers] and Jimmy [Cobb] and Wynton [Kelly] were going to join Wes Montgomery’s band. He had a tour coming up in a week and wondered if I would join the band. And I told him no, that I had a gig with Art Farmer, but if he would ask Art to let me be free of my responsibilities, I would do the gig. So Miles talked to Art and Art agreed to let me go. I left the next week with Miles on a six weeks tour to the West Coast.

There’s only one solo bass album in your entire discography, 1989’s All Alone.

Yeah, I wasn’t really interested in that part of the bass library. I thought it was necessary to make a statement that it’s possible to do it, but I had other eggs to cook. I just wanted to be a better composer, a better arranger. At the time, I didn’t have Finale or any other music software program for notation. I did it all by hand with a hell of a copyist. So I was learning what I wanted to do, literally from the ground up. But the bass on that record All Alone sounded really great that day. I just never got back to doing solo bass again, except on my live performances.

Speaking of becoming a better composer, there’s one tune of the 100 or so that you’ve written that I find just completely haunting. It’s “Mood,” the very sparse, chamber-like piece that has an evocative, almost Erik Satie feel. You recorded that piece on your 1969 album Uptown Conversation and more recently did a beautiful rendition with the WDR Orchestra on 2015’s My Personal Songbook.

And don’t forget Miles recorded it on E.S.P. I had a nice melody and what made it work, I think, was Tony Williams playing just some real sparse stuff for the whole track. That set the tone for the harmony and the pretty sparse melody that I came up with one day as I was fooling around, trying to see what I could hear that day. It’s a nice piece, it worked out really well, and I’m happy to add that to my small catalog of things that I wrote.

What others compositions do you regard highly?

“A Little Waltz” is one. That was on Uptown Conversation and some others I’ve done. It’s been recorded by a lot of people. We used to play it in the V.S.O.P. band. My current quartet [Rosnes, Greene, Crossley] likes that piece because it has some nice harmonies. I also wrote a piece called “Friends” for a record I did with the four cellos and Hubert Laws [1993’s Friends on Blue Note]. It’s a nice little melody. My current favorite piece is my bass lines to the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.

Right, you did a Bach album.

Yeah, I did three. One was me playing the cello suites, only the dance movements (1987’s Japan-only release Ron Carter Plays Bach on the Philips label). Another was arrangements that I wrote for eight basses where I play all the parts (1992’s Ron Carter Meets Bach on Blue Note). It’s a pretty complicated project that [Hitoshi] Namekata, who headed up Something Else, Blue Note’s Japan division, put together. He encouraged me to write what I wanted to write, and he didn’t question my choices. I’ve never done that music live, not with eight basses. I’ve got four cellos in my back pocket. I’m good with that. [Carter also recorded 1996’s Brandenburg Concerto on Blue Note.]

A record you did that came out just before the pandemic was your collaboration with poet Danny Simmons on The Brown Beatnik Tomes: Live In Brick House. How did that come about?

When I first arrived in town, folk singing was really big in New York. And [bassist] Bill Lee [Spike Lee’s father] was the guy all the folk singers had to have in their accompanying band. [Indeed, Lee played on records by Odetta, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Tom Rush, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Ian & Sylvia, Peter, Paul & Mary and others]. Well, Bill could only do so many gigs at one time, and somehow he latched on to me as being his sub. So I did do some sub things for him. I played with Leon Bibb, Josh White, Theodore Bikel, Martha Schlamme. And I did some playing behind poets. So that was not a new one for me. And when Danny asked me would I do this for him, I was a little concerned. I asked him to send me to the poems so I could find out where it was going. Was it just a bunch of words, or did he have a point of view? And once he sent me a couple of poems I said, “I think I can help you make this work.” And we had a great time.

You mentioned earlier that you are still looking for the right notes on the upright. How would you assess your own playing today? Are you pushing yourself to improve on the instrument?

Every night. And I think the more I get a chance to play in different environments, I find out what the possibilities are for what the bass can do and I try them out to find somewhere else to go.

What specifically are you going for?

Note choices, presence, line development, consistency — that I’m going to bring it every night, a presence in the band. I’m trying to make all those things happen as part of getting a nice pair of shoes. Because when they feel good, man, everybody wants to step on them, you know? DB

Blanchard Opera ‘Fire Shut Up In My Bones’ Confronts Issues of Abuse

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Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones is only the second work by a Black composer to be featured at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

(Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

If the goal of the Lyric Opera of Chicago was to attract a more diverse crowd by programming jazz composer/trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones, the revered institution clearly succeeded. The last and sold-out performance on April 8 brought in a younger constituency and a sizable African-American contingent.

Premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2019 and presented at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2021, Fire is only the second work by a Black composer to be featured at the Lyric in its 136-year history. (The first was Anthony Davis’ Amistad in 1997.) Blanchard’s opus is based on New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s memoirs, the tale of a lonesome upbringing in a rural Louisiana community and of sexual molestation at the hands of an older cousin named Chester.

Act One serves as a flashback with Charles, a college student, reminiscing about his childhood at age 7 and, most importantly, the abuse. Musically, it delivers the goods with memorable tunes and an adroit weaving of the classical tradition and the jazz idiom with the astute addition of a stellar rhythm section featuring Chuck Webb on bass, Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums and Chicago rising star Stu Mindeman on piano. From a dramatic standpoint, particularly effective is the ploy designed to have Charles hover over every scene, in company of the spirit-like Loneliness/Destiny, sometimes singing in unison with his former self. Overall, the act consists of colorful tableaus, including the chicken factory scene where Charles’ mother, Billie, works, and the bar scene where she confronts her philandering husband, Spinner — they both provide a fair share of grim humor and a blues-informed backdrop. Also worth mentioning is the part leading to the assault, which features a pulsating melody that could have been drawn from a musical.

Following the intermission, the second and third acts portray a college-age Charles struggling with how to deal with his trauma, his feelings painfully divided between shame, anger and revenge. As the story becomes more gut-wrenching, the score comes up short, more uniformly neoclassical with just a few dashes of jazz and R&B. Perhaps Blanchard felt that the music should not upstage the emotions conveyed by the singers.

These two acts’ most enjoyable moments are a choreographed dream sequence (a visualization of Charles’ psyche) as well as a male college cheerleading routine that enthralled the audience in spite of the absence of music — an idea that Blanchard should have also used during the baptism scene at a church. Indeed, the gospel choir could have easily dispensed with accompaniment. Even conductor Daniela Candillari, who comfortably handled the genre-melding score, took and, in particular, excelled in the robust and soaring brass passages, could not inject much life, failing to support a high-octane chorus as a result.

The libretto by director/screenwriter Kasi Lemmons alternates poetry and down-to-earth language — if not profanities. When was the last time you heard the word “motherfucka” uttered from the Lyric stage? Several sentences are used effectively as leitmotifs throughout the performance. “I was once a boy of peculiar grace” underlines the hero’s constant struggle, while “Sometimes you just gotta leave it in the road” takes all its meaning at the opera’s conclusion when Charles finally resolves to give up on his revenge fantasy.

Producing an opera in the time of a pandemic can bring his slew of challenges, as the Lyric discovered. For this final performance, the three lead roles had to be recast. Thus, Justin Austin from New York’s Met was flown in at the last minute to replace Will Liverman as Charles. Brittany Renee filled the shoes of Jacqueline Echols for the ubiquitous Destiny/Loneliness/Greta. Whitney Morrison stood for Latonia Moore for another key character, Billie. And Leroy Davis stepped in to act as the nefarious Chester. They all acquitted themselves splendidly considering the circumstances, and soprano Morrison actually stole the show. But we should not forget the young Benjamin Preacely, who, as Charles’ Baby, displayed some impressive poise and delivery.

Despite Fire’s shortcomings, it is encouraging to see an opera addressing an issue that has finally been getting some traction: sexual abuse and the shame it can inspire in victims, compounded by the lack of support from family members. DB

GroundUP Reveals Dynamic Festival Lineup

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The collective Snarky Puppy will perform music from their upcoming album during this year’s GroundUP Music Festival.

(Photo: Julia Cavalieri/GroundUP Music Foundation)

The fifth annual GroundUP Music Festival, set to take place May 6–8 at the North Beach Bandshell in Miami Beach, Florida, has announced its lineup of musicians and bands.

Headliners will include festival founders Snarky Puppy (premiering new music from their upcoming album all three nights), Space Jam with Kimbra and Friends (Improvised Set), Emily King, Moonchild and Cory Henry.

Other artists and acts scheduled to appear at this year’s GroundUP festival include Louis Cole featuring Nate Wood, Chris Fishman and Genevieve Artadi; Genevieve Artadi featuring Pedro Martins, Louis Cole and Chris Fishman; Georgia Anne Muldrow; Gisela João; Antonio Sanchez & Bad Hombre with Thana Alexa, bigyuki and Lex Sadler; Harp vs. Harp featuring Edmar Castañeda and Gregoire Maret; The Nth Power; Munir Hossn and Elas; Roosevelt Collier; Sirintip; House of Waters; Michelle Willis; Bill Laurance and Michael League; and Artist-At-Large Eric Harland, who will perform multiple times throughout the weekend, including a special set with an all-star-trio of surprise guests.

“The lineup for our fifth annual GroundUP is one of our most exciting yet,” said GroundUP Music Foundation CEO Paul Lehr, a Miami Beach native. “Long-time GroundUP fans will reconnect with some of their favorite artists, while also leaving with a sense of discovery and love of music they’ve never heard before.”

GroundUP offers a different kind of festival experience. Known for its relaxed, intimate atmosphere, with wildly eclectic, dynamic lineups of hard-to-define artists, GroundUP defies genre. Drawing an international crowd of music lovers and musicians from 48 states and 54 countries, the festival creates a laid-back oasis steps from the sands of Miami Beach.

The North Beach Bandshell, a cultural epicenter in Miami Beach since the 1960s, sets the scene for sets under a canopy of swaying palms and sea breezes. Set among the adjacent Palm Grove Park and beachfront complex, the GroundUP grounds take just minutes to traverse, and guests can easily swing in hammocks or catch beach time between sets, all in a family-friendly atmosphere. For the first time this year, festival goers can opt to take in the weekend’s performances from their own private, covered and elevated cabana with couch and table seating for up to 10 guests, exclusive food and beverage table service, phone charging stations and other amenities.

Two stages alternate performances, so attendees never have to choose between sets or miss a single note. Another essential element of GroundUP’s ethos is that the barriers are broken down between artists and audience. Unlike other festivals, musicians from the lineup stay the full weekend and can be seen mingling with attendees, enjoying sets from other artists and often joining in unexpectedly. GroundUP programming is geared toward musicians, offering fans the opportunity to interact with and learn from their favorite artists with a full calendar of oceanside master classes, including songwriting seminars and improvisational workshops.

Click HERE for general admission tickets and VIP packages. Listen to the official 2022 GroundUP Music Festival Spotify playlist HERE. DB

Victoriaville Goes Live, Again, from the Edge

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Mats Gustafsson is scheduled to perform at the Festival du Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, which is set to resume operations May 18–22 in an almost back-to-normal fashion.

(Photo: Martin Morissette)

Like virtually every other jazz festival in the world, the venerable, adventure-leaning FIMAV festival in Victoriaville, Quebec, got the shutdown order in March 2020. Founding Artistic Director Michel Levasseur and team worked hard to mount a traditional festival in 2021, but had to settle for a pared-down model with Canadian — and mostly Quebecois — musicians. The show had to go on, and Levasseur insisted on it being live versus a streaming or hybrid format.

“I think this was one of the first live festivals to happen anywhere,” Levasseur said. “I was very pleased with that.” Live and “in the moment” are key imperatives here.

FIMAV (Festival du Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville) resumes operations May 18–22 in an almost back-to-normal fashion for its 38th edition. Over four concentrated days and nights in this modest-sized city in Quebec’s agricultural region, there will be 20 concerts, with one slot now turned over to a relevant film, Tom Surgal’s 2018 Fire Music, about the birth of free-jazz in America). Among the featured artists are Mary Halvorson, Mats Gustafsson and Colin Stetson.

One item of special interest this year is the appearance by Ukrainian vocal group Dakh Daughters, brought to Levasseur’s attention by his daughter Jordie, a next-generation part of the festival’s machinery in recent years. Despite the propitious timing of the show, on the festival’s opening night, they had originally been booked in 2020, canceled in 2021 due to travel restrictions and finally slated for this year. Even so, Levasseur says he has a “plan B” in case anything interrupts their arrival.

Most of the group left home in Kiev to live in the small French village of Cavados, which has an experimental theater related to Kiev’s Dakh Theatre, where the “Daughters” have worked.

“They moved (to France) with their kids and grandmothers,” Levasseur explained. “The men stayed to fight in Ukraine. It’s the first time I’ve worked with musicians in war.”

This will also be the first time a film has landed a FIMAV concert slot, although experimental films have been featured as peripheral program, along with a strong and dedicated sound art component in the city for many years now. Fire Music, directed by Surgal (also a drummer, who played the festival with Thurston Moore and William Winant years back), showcases such iconic avant-garde figures as Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon and Sun Ra. “We’re very close to that music, and many of the musicians have been to Victoriaville and have been on our label,” Levasseur pointed out.

The label in question is the festival-linked Victo, celebrating its 35th anniversary earlier this year with the album Printemps 2021, recorded live at the 2021 festival. Apart from its musical virtues, the album serves as a memento of a fragile period. “It was such an emotional time,” Levasseur said. “All of the musicians — Lussier, Robbie Kuster, Erick d’Orion, Martin Tetrault — had not played in front of an audience for 16 months. This was really the first live concert in the province in a long time.”

A bold and significant forum for improvisational, experimental and other non-mainstream avenues of jazz and other music in North America, the Victoriaville festival has established itself as a vital player in the international jazz festival circuit, avant-garde division.

“We’re still trying to present a very wide program,” Levasseur said. “Not many festivals are like this, around the world. We think it’s very important for musicians and audiences, also, to widen their spectrum of possibilities in the music. If there might be 100 people representing musicians and festivals, walking towards a new area. I feel like we’re in the first row. That’s my hope. We’re not ahead, not far ahead of the others, but we’re in the first row.”

Deep into its legacy, FIMAV seeks to continue balancing maintaining a sense of history it has helped to nurture, while seeking out new sounds and figures in the music. “We represent some history now, which was not the case in the first 10 or 15 years,” Levasseur said. “We have some history, but we still represent the actuality, also. That’s the challenge.

“You have to have some history, but to keep an open mind. The danger is to become history. I’m still hoping to discover a few things in music and doing work in getting this music a little bit better known than it is.

“All the great musicians have been like this.” Levasseur cited the example of reedist-composer Anthony Braxton, who has often appeared at the festival and recorded on the Victo label. “Braxton has deep history in the music, but he’s always searching and always going further. That’s the idea there, to represent that kind of music and those kind of musicians.” DB

JJA Announces 2022 Jazz Heroes, Debuts ‘The Buzz’ Podcast

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​Trombonist Craig Harris of New York is among this year’s class of JJA Jazz Heroes.

(Photo: Courtesy JJA Jazz Awards)

The Jazz Journalists Association has announced its 2022 class of Jazz Heroes — 28 activists and advocates from 26 U.S. communities — to be celebrated for their energy, imagination and resilience in supporting and sustaining jazz artists and audiences in their local communities and beyond.

Simultaneously, the JJA has debuted The Buzz: The JJA Podcast, available at all common podcast sites, with new episodes dropping every two weeks. The Buzz is produced by a JJA committee led by Rick Mitchell of the nationally syndicated radio show Jazz in the New Millennium, and will feature jazz journalists discussing critical issues regarding music, from their professional perspectives.

Jazz Heroes and The Buzz represent efforts by the non-profit JJA to stimulate appreciation and enjoyment of jazz in alignment with the NEA’s Jazz Masters broadcast, Jazz Appreciation Month and International Jazz Day. The JJA’s 2022 Jazz Heroes, in particular, represent the breadth and depth of jazz in American culture. They include:

· Alina Bloomgarden of New York City, who brought jazz to Lincoln Center and now directs Music on the Inside for people impacted by incarceration.

· Terri Lyne Carrington of Boston, heralded drummer-composer-bandleader and founding director of the Berklee Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice.

· Sara Donnelly of Washington, D.C., whose Jazz Road program for South Arts supported musicians during COVID-19 with residencies and tour grants.

· Craig Harris, trombonist and producer of community-based salon concerts in churches, social centers throughout Harlem, New York City.

· Jim Nadel of the San Francisco Bay Area, founder and director of the Stanford Jazz Workshop, now in its 50th year.

This year’s Jazz Heroes include broadcasters, educators, festival presenters, concert producers, a publicist, an independent scholar and the publisher of The Syncopated Times, chronicle of traditional jazz. The JJA’s Jazz Heroes initiative dates to 2001, when founders of the Jazz Foundation of America were recognized for their good works. Jazz Heroes are now nominated by grass-roots fans to gain the international profile afforded by the JJA’s online media efforts, and receive JJA Awards at events where they live, with the public invited.

The JJA is planning Super-Zoom livestream productions featuring Heroes, musicians and journalists cited as winners in the 27th annual JJA Jazz Awards. Jazz Awards winners will be announced May 4. Dates for the Super-Zooms to follow.

For further information on the 2022 JJA Jazz Heroes, The Buzz, the JJA Jazz Awards or the JJA, a membership organization for writers, photographers, broadcasters, videographers and other media professionals engaged with jazz, contact Howard Mandel (president@jazzjournalists.org).

To see full portraits and profiles of the Heroes, click HERE. DB

Jazz Festivals – What a Difference a Year Makes

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Charles Lloyd and the Marvels performing at Jazz Middelheim in Belgium.

(Photo: Courtesy Jazz Middelheim)

This year’s summer jazz festival season is cause for special, and excessive, celebration. The entire jazz ecosystem — from artists and managers to festival organizers, stage crews, roadies, vendors, fans and grizzled, old jazz journalists — knows this special season deserves our complete attention, and our hearfelt enthusiasm.

While a few festivals were able go live last summer, many more are back live this year, some offering both in-person and online experiences as a matter of course.

Be sure to check those calendars before booking your favorite festival, because dates may have changed. Most prominently, the DC JazzFest had such success over Labor Day weekend last summer that it has moved there permanently. That means a lot of great choices with major jazz fests going strong that weekend in Chicago and Detroit, too.

Who’s on tour this summer? It might be faster to say who isn’t.

Enjoy singers? Cyrille Aimée, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Gregory Porter are just a few who will be all over the festival circuit this summer.

Looking for great instrumentalists? Charles Lloyd, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Ravi Coltrane, Melissa Aldana and plenty more will be at your soulful service.

How about something from the outer frontiers? William Parker, Mary Halvorson, Craig Taborn, and Dave Douglas & Joe Lovano’s Soundprints are good bets.

Whatever your pleasure, presenters are going above and beyond to ensure that jazz fans have a safe experience.

“This summer will be a joyous celebration of music,” said Amanda Blevins, executive director at Vail Jazz. “The past couple of summers have presented some challenges, but we worked through them to present live music, and we’re pleased to be able to do this once again.”

“Right now — this minute — is an amazing time to love music,” wrote Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe, artistic directors of a new festival in Brooklyn called Long Play. “Musicians and listeners from every corner of the music world are pushing beyond their boundaries, questioning their roots, searching and stretching for the new. There has never been a time when music contained so much innovation and diversity, so much audacity and so much courage.”

Agreed. You’ll find some 140 festivals around the globe listed in DownBeat’s 2022 International Festival Guide. It’s time to get ready to sit back and soak it all in. DB

A Festival View from the East

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Quinence Lynell, left, and Dee Dee Bridgewater 
perform at SummerStage in New York.

(Photo: Sean Lamar)

It’s been awhile since many jazz events were allowed to go live, unhindered by the threat of pandemic-induced postponement and cancellation. But, this year, several long-standing festivals in the eastern part of the U.S. and Canada — and even a few newbies — are getting back into the swing of things. Here’re some notable festivals, events and performances happening this summer.

The East’s summer jazz festival season kicks off June 3–5 with the 29th annual Capital Jazz Festival in Washington, D.C. Since 1993, this festival has drawn tens of thousands of jazz lovers to the suburbs of D.C., where listeners can bathe in the sounds of their favorite artists while also eating, drinking and shopping with local vendors.

Then, June 25–26 in picturesque upstate New York, jazz fans can enjoy performances from 20 world-class jazz artists at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Spa State Park for the annual Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival. This year, big-name acts like Robert Glasper and Wynton Marsalis play all day on the SPAC Amphitheater stage, while, on the Charles R. Wood “Jazz Discovery” Stage, fresh new jazz talent like Tiempo Libre and Cha Wa share their music.

In Rochester, New York, the CGI International Rochester Jazz Festival returns June 17–25 after a two-year hiatus. The festival takes place in downtown Rochester. The festival occurs over nine days, 325 shows, 130-plus free shows including all headliner shows this year are free, happening at diverse venues.

Over in eastern Canada, the Ottawa International Jazz Festival comes back in-person June 24–July 3 after being cancelled in 2020 and going fully virtual in 2021. Founded in 1980 by local musicians who wanted to cultivate and celebrate Ottawa’s local jazz scene, the event has featured international talent, including Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Herb Ellis and Milt Jackson. This year’s lineup is chock full of young talent, including Cécile McLorin Salvant, Julian Lage Trio and Esperanza Spalding.

The Orlando Music Festival, slated for July 1–3, is a three-day extravaganza on the Central Florida Fairgrounds featuring Grammy-winning smooth-jazz and R&B artists. The festival, which boasts several stages, offers tiered ticketing and an array of food and gifts from vendors. This year’s lineup is headlined by the contemporary jazz ensemble Spyro Gyra and saxophonist David Sanborn.

On June 15–18, Rodney Square in Wilmington, Delware, will come alive to celebrate the legacy of Wilmington-bred jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown. For this year’s 35th annual Clifford Brown Jazz Festival, there’s bound to be some unforgettable performances — previous festivals have featured Kenny Barron Trio, Terell Stafford — and the atmosphere guarantees to be supreme as the city’s multi-year and nearly $8 million renovation of Rodney Square continues.

Then, the East Village venue Drom in New York celebrates its inaugural Jazz Festival July 28–Aug. 22. The series marks the first-ever dedicated jazz festival for Drom, a venue that’s been home to many contemporary jazz greats over its 14-year history, including Robert Glasper, Marc Ribot and Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Throughout the month, the venue puts on a series of shows featuring groups like the Mingus Big Band, Ravi Coltrane and Juke Joint Jelis, the Russell Malone Quartet and more.

On July 29–31 at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island, the legendary Newport Jazz Festival returns. Since 1954, this jazz festival has been one of the highest caliber in the United States, with the mission of showcasing the jazz tradition as well as reflecting the era in which modern artists live. Over the years, the festival has gone by several different names and featured legendary performances from giants like Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Ray Charles, to name just a few. Today, the festival continues to showcase today’s living greats.

If you live in New York or are visiting this summer, check out the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival put on by City Parks Foundation. Each year, in the heat of late August, City Parks brings together performances from some of the finest musicians in the world who reflect the ingenuity and individuality of bebop legend Charlie Parker at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. Aside from the wealth of performing talent, perhaps the coolest thing about this festival is that it’s free to attend as part of the Summerstage series.

Can’t wait until August? Then head south over Memorial Day weekend for the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, Florida, which will feature performances by Herbie Hancock, Jazzmeia Horn, George Benson and many others for its 42nd edition. Along with performances, food and local vendors to enjoy, the festival also puts on an exciting piano competition in which five jazz pianists from around the world are chosen by judges to compete for a cash prize and a chance to perform on the festival’s main stage.

This list encompasses only a few of the events offered to jazz fans this summer on the eastern side of North America. The East Coast, all the way up into eastern Canada, is bursting with great jazz performances — marking the triumphant and uplifting return of more in-person jazz. It’s time to get back out there. DB

A Return to ‘Live’ in the West

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Matt Burchard, literally, takes the music to the people at the Vail Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Teven Pope)

With 2020 mostly a lost year and 2021 largely transitional, jazz festivals held west of the mighty Mississippi River have a cautious sense of optimism looking toward welcoming in-person audiences.

Launched in 1958, the Monterey Jazz Festival is the longest continuously running jazz festival in the world. Last year’s festival saw a historic shift with attendance limited to 7,500 and music presented on just two outdoor stages rather than eight stages.

This year, MJF (Sept. 23–25) will shift its presentation to four outdoor stages and will keep the tighter schedule it experimented with last year — earlier starts, eliminating the long break between afternoon and evening sessions and finishing earlier. “There just seems to be a tendency towards earlier end times,” said Tim Jackson, MJF artistic director. “So it’s really a function of where people are comfortable.

“But we’re not doing any less music,” he continued. “It’s still the same number groups.”

The Moodswings reunion quartet with saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade and the Artemis supergroup, which were both booked for 2020, are on the docket for 2022, and will be hitting a variety of festivals this summer. And Las Cafeteras, which was also booked for 2020 and rebooked the next year (but had to cancel when some band members contracted COVID-19) is also on the schedule. There’s also a plethora of new acts, including a commissioned work by pianist/composer/film scorer Kris Bowers celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Monterey National Marine Sanctuary.

The Playboy Jazz Festival had a long run at the historic Hollywood Bowl from 1979 through 2019. After a two-year pandemic absence, the weekend-long happening returns, June 25–26, as the renamed Hollywood Bowl Festival. Artists include vocalist Gregory Porter, The Roots (who headlined an incendiary Bowl show in 2019 with fellow Philadelphian Christian McBride and his big band opening), Tower of Power, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science and local heroes Gordon Goodwin and his Big Phat Band.

Produced by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Bowl’s summer programming will also resume jazz concerts on Wednesdays with an expanded scope and under a new “Jazz Plus” moniker. “The boundaries between jazz and other genres, including blues, rock, R&B, global sounds and beyond, are blurring, and we want to be more inclusive of different types of music,” said Johanna Rees, vice president of presentations. The Jazz Plus series opens with a tribute to Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra (featuring McBride as music director), The Count Basie Orchestra and vocalists such as Dianne Reeves and Billie Eilish) on July 27 and concludes with Herbie Hancock on Sept. 28.

Ten years younger than the Hollywood Bowl/Playboy festival, Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival is expanding the hybrid in-person/live-streaming format it embraced last year. “It has been a whiplash environment for all involved in the performing arts in terms of planning and canceling things,” said John Gilbreath, Earshot Jazz executive director. “But the primary concern is for the health and safety of everyone involved.”

Gilbreath reckons that Earshot Jazz audiences will be back to 50-to-70% of pre-COVID levels and he plans to book “50 or more concerts in 12-to-15 different venues around the cities.” A tribute to the late Seattle piano great Overton Berry will kick off this year’s festivities on Oct. 9. It will feature vocalist Diane Schuur, whom Berry mentored, along with local musicians. The fest concludes Nov. 6 with tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s Ocean Trio featuring pianist Gerald Clayton and guitarist Anthony Wilson.

The 27-year-old Vail Jazz Festival has the distinction being one of the few of any genre to hold concerts with in-person crowds in 2020, just months into the pandemic. “We did an outdoor series of shows throughout the summer in Vail,” said Howard Stone, Vail Jazz founder and artistic director. “The town was kind enough to allow us to use a public park, and we created these giant grids with chalk like it was a football field so that people could spread out.”

And for 2022? “We’re fully back, and we’re excited,” Stone enthused. The Vail Jazz Festival will continue with its summer-long celebrations of swing starting with clarinetist/saxophonist Ken Peplowski and guitarist Diego Figueiredo’s kickoff concert on June 30. A Thursday evening Vail Jazz at Vail Square series from July 7 through Aug. 18, the free Vail Jazz at Solaris series on Sundays from July 3 through Aug. 21 and the Vail Jazz Party Sept. 1–5 keep the live music flowing throughout the sunshine months. Vail Jazz will also continue its Jazz Interludes video performance series, which started in 2020.

And like a third-grader who only had two years of in-classroom instruction before the global emergence of COVID-19, the 5-year-old Tulsa Wine, Jazz and World Fete presented in-person concerts in 2018 and 2019 before going virtual for two years with its Shelter in Place Sessions, which continue to this day. Trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, the Cuban band Tiempo Libre and Tulsa-based trumpeter Bishop Marsh performed during the festival’s first two years, and the Charles Lloyd Trio with Anthony Wilson and bassist Reuben Rogers has been booked for closing night of the festival, which runs June 2–4.

While concerts for the fete’s first two years were split between outdoors at Guthrie Green and indoors at LowDown (formerly Duet Jazz Club), the focus this year will be on the latter, a world-class venue that opened in August 2018. “It’ll be interesting going back live again,” said festival co-producer Michael Koster, executive of OK Roots Music. “As of now, everything’s full-guns-ahead for a return to live events.” DB

A Boisterous Euro Jazz Circuit

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John Zorn’s Masada performing at Jazz em Agosto in Lisbon.

(Photo: Petra Cvelbar)

In the summer of 2022, our jazz festivals will be free to run without nearly as many of the social distancing restrictions that had to be put in place during the previous two years. Around Europe, the festival lineups that have been released already feature a strong North American element, as well as artists drawn together from around the European Union, and even the Southern Hemisphere.

Not to say that all festivals were outright canceled in recent times. Organizers rapidly adapted, making everything continually flexible with the energy of free improvisation. Dates were moved around the calendar, entire programs were repeatedly recalibrated to suit what was allowed, and hybrid live-and-streamed existences manifested themselves.

One positive side-effect was a year or more of festivals concentrating on their own country’s indigenous talent, allowing a deeper discovery of bands that would normally give way to international stars.

This summer, the Americans are fully returning. There’s a Chicago cellisst already rooted in Europe since the start of this year. Tomeka Reid is the Improviser in Residence at the Moers Festival in Germany, which involves her dwelling in a dedicated house for the entire year, interacting with local musicians, setting up gigs and workshops, perhaps even forming new groups. She will also present her own selection of artist configurations during the actual Moers Festival (June 3–6), so far including her regular quartet of Mary Halvorson, Jason Roebke and Tomas Fujiwara and the Artifacts trio (with Nicole Mitchell and Mike Reed). This year marks the 50th anniversary of the festival, which began as a hardcore free-jazz weekender, but has gradually evolved to include compatible musics from the zones of rock, electronic, ethno-folk and modern classical. Other acts confirmed so far include the exciting New York violinist Sana Nagano and her Smashing Humans band, featuring Peter Apfelbaum, and the Weave 4 group with French pianist Benoît Delbecq and British drummer Steve Argüelles.

Still in Germany, the Monheim Triennale (June 22–26) will make its full debut following The Prequel in 2021, when the invited artists interpreted Carla Bley’s Escalator Over The Hill, performing on a moored ship. Monheim is another small city, with an adventurous mayor, the Triennale inviting 16 artists to create their signature formations. The group includes Kris Davis, Greg Fox, Sofia Jernberg, Ingrid Laubrock, Ava Mendoza, Colin Stetson and Stian Westerhus. Pianist Davis will debut her Emergence Quartet; singer Jernberg will premiere her Hymns And Laments with Peter Evans and Okkyung Lee. Fast-rising Belgian bassist Farida Amadou will perform with vocalist Moor Mother and Sam Amidon will be joined by fellow guitarist Marc Ribot.

Rīgas Ritmi (June 30–July 2) will be moving back outdoors this year, after a smaller indoor incarnation in 2021. The 22nd edition sets out to give equal emphasis to jazz, improvisation and global sounds. Lined up, to date, are the Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander and the excellent new band Ayom, which is from Portugal, but also dedicated to the styles of Angola, Brazil and Cape Verde.

In England, the Love Supreme Festival (July 1–3) is another relative newcomer, starting in 2013. It’s an outdoor weekender with the trappings of a rock fest: multiple stages, self-contained catering and camping areas. Situated in Glynde Place, East Sussex, it boasts starry artists on the main stage, and some imaginative choices on satellite platforms. Erykah Badu and Gregory Porter will draw the punters; Charles Lloyd, Gary Bartz, Julian Lage, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Melissa Aldana will attract the hardcore; and Mulatu Astatke, Matthew Halsall, Emma-Jean Thackray and Soccer 96 will have some tamper with the fences.

Nearly two decades ago, Gent Jazz used to call itself the Blue Note Festival, and it still favors a marathon 10-day stretch, featuring around five acts daily (July 7–17). This Belgian festival happens outdoors, with two covered stages letting in the sun, keeping out any rain.

To go with jazz, Gent has an imaginative way of selecting artists who are a touch more alternative, such as Grace Jones, Morcheeba, Gary Clark Jr. and Einstürzende Neubauten. This year, they’ve confirmed Archie Shepp and Jason Moran, Gary Bartz with Maisha, Charles Lloyd with Bill Frisell, Sound Prints featuring Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano, and bassmen Christian McBride and Avishai Cohen.

The very day that Gent concludes, sail to Norway for Moldejazz (July 18–23). The small West Coast town is, indeed, a scenic cruise ship stop-off, and has been operating Europe’s oldest continually running jazz festival, celebrating its 60th anniversary. It’s another prime example of combining stages large and small such as the long-running Storyville Jazz Club.

John Zorn, this year’s artist in residence, will lead his New Masada Quintet, play the organ of Molde Cathedral and oversee a Bagatelles marathon, as well as three other sets of his music. John McLaughlin will be making his return, and there will be appearances by Gov’t Mule, Charles Lloyd, Emma-Jean Thackray, the Tord Gustavsen Trio and the more extreme Emmeluth’s Amoeba, combining Danish and Norwegian players.

In the summer, temperatures are so high in Lisbon that its Jazz em Agosto (July 30–Aug. 7) shows mostly begin at 9 p.m., outdoors in the amphitheater of the Gulbenkian Foundation gardens. This setting provides a potent atmosphere for the performances, with subtle lighting effects bathing the trees and the rushes. For its 38th edition, the festival will return to its usual ratio of international artists, following a couple of editions that concentrated more on Portuguese acts. This is a festival that’s guaranteed to present the best in adventurous jazz, including established forces as well as rising newcomers. DB

Find Your Fest!

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​DownBeat’s May 2022 Festival Guide issue

(Photo: DownBeat archives)

DownBeat’s 2022 Summer Festival Guide is packed with more than 125 listings for festivals around the U.S., Canada, Europe and the world! Find your favorite festival. Just click here! DB

Keith Jarrett’s Seminal Facing You Turns 50

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“​Keith’s thing was startling,” pianist Craig Taborn says of Facing You.

(Photo: Courtesy ECM Records)

A half century has passed since Keith Jarrett released his first solo piano album, Facing You (also his first recording for ECM), which altered the course of jazz. With the announcement last fall of Jarrett’s retirement following strokes he suffered in 2018, the 50th anniversary of Facing You becomes cause for both celebration and a bit of sadness.

“For me, it changed everything,” pianist Kenny Werner said of the seminal album. “He introduced a totally fresh way of playing over his changes. It sounded totally original.”

Just 26 years old when Facing You came out, Jarrett had come to the fore with Charles Lloyd on the wildly popular 1967 album Forest Flower and had gone on to form his own trio and quartet, in addition to working with Miles Davis on Bitches Brew and Live/Evil in 1970–’71. The pianist originally planned a solo album for Columbia, but the label dropped his contract, so when ECM’s Manfred Eicher extended an invitation, Jarrett jumped.

“If I hadn’t found him there would still be no solo albums, no Facing You, let alone a successful triple album,” Jarrett told Down Beat in October, 1974, referring to the subsequent 1975 set, The Köln Concert.

Though never as popular as Köln, which so far has sold more than 4 million copies, Facing You was the beginning — step one of a long journey that has led listeners and musicians to a vast, robust, new musical territory.

Recorded in Oslo, Norway, on Nov. 10, 1971, during a day off from touring with Davis, Facing You was released in March of the following year. It was a turbulent time. The Vietnam War (and the protests against it), Watergate, the assassination of Israeli Olympians by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, the Northern Ireland conflict, racial strife in the U.S. and a younger generation in open rebellion against the old order — all of this dominated the headlines.

And yet it was also a time of tremendous optimism, change and possibility, as Apollo 17 beamed back photography of Earth, the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by Congress, and Eastern spirituality and Western psychology had a baby called the human potential movement, all of it ushering a shift from ’60s communalism to the primacy of the personal that flowered in the ’70s.

Indeed, Jarrett can be read as an icon of that era, though his profound and original project surely transcended the treacly self-absorption of the New Age pianists who later claimed him as an inspiration. Sitting alone at a grand piano on a concert stage, Jarrett was facing the keyboard, as it were, but also facing you, the listener, with an open heart. It was as if Jarrett coolly observed clouds of musical thought pass by — snippets of jazz, classical, folk, country, blues, boogie-woogie, pop, gospel — and somehow pulled them down to Earth for all to see.

And even more miraculous, it all made sense, which seemed to suggest that the universe was not random at all, but actually ordered already, if only you just listened hard enough. Yes, others had played solo piano before, Art Tatum and Cecil Taylor, for example. Chick Corea and Paul Bley would both release solo albums within months of Facing You (also thanks to Eicher). But no one had ever heard anything quite like Jarrett.

“Keith’s thing was startling even amidst the Chick one, or Paul Bley’s albums,” reflected pianist Craig Taborn, whose recent solo effort, Shadow Plays, takes Jarrett’s influence to a new level. “It was still like, ‘What’s this? What’s this one?’ That’s what always hits me about Facing You. It sounds fresh that way. A lot of how pianists play today owes so much to that.”

The fact that Facing You was released in an era dominated by electric jazz-rock fusion seeking to reclaim young listeners from rock (Quincy Jones’ Smackwater Jack and Davis’ On The Corner topped the 1972 jazz charts), it’s all the more intriguing that such a contrary strategy would succeed. But Jarrett drew in non-jazzers with rumbling, soulful ostinatos and unabashedly gorgeous melodies in the mode of 19th century romantic piano music.

Perhaps even more impressive than his reconciliation of jazz and rock, Jarrett also made peace with the seriously regarded “free” music rising in opposition to straightahead jazz by devising, as Werner points out, “a new way of playing on changes” that was both inside and outside. Instead of declaring a tune then improvising on its form, he improvised tunes, then invented forms on the fly by creating variations on a motif here, a chord progression there, or a wild excursion out of nowhere, then returning to whatever suited his fancy, whenever he felt like it, with long breathing spaces in between.

Critical reception was ecstatic. In a review for Rolling Stone that also addressed Jarrett’s American quartet albums Expectations and Birth, the late Robert Palmer declared that Facing You “may well be the finest album of jazz piano solos since Art Tatum left us, and it is without a doubt the most creative and satisfying solo album of the past few years.” The Canadian jazz magazine Coda called Facing You “a classic that stands as the ultimate achievement of the artist who has, after years of searching, found himself.”

As both Taborn and Werner observe, Facing You still sounds remarkably fresh. With eight almost totally improvised tracks totaling just 46:14, it is more compact than many later albums, with fewer long vamps and more pre-composed material. Yet, like everything that followed, the album projects that sense of precarious, in-the-moment possibility that became Jarrett’s trademark.

From the opening track, “In Front” — which starts as if we’ve caught the pianist in the middle of a thought, then rides an ambiguous, broken, two-handed rhythm to churchy, ecstatic joy — to the album’s resolution, “Semblence,” which returns to the same feel, but with speedy runs and a hard, glassy surface, Facing You feels like one long, coherent conversation with a muse whose mercurial moods shift easily from serene to rhapsodic, from troubled to spacey, from melancholy to sublime.

Its notes still ring around the world. DB

Jazz House Kids Continues Evolution

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Saxophonist and JHK alumnus Birsa Chatterjee observes his student ensemble the Jazz House Messengers as they perform “Autumn Leaves.”

(Photo: Richard Conde)

Jazz House Kids views music education as an interdisciplinary curriculum.

His left hand on the bass, Christian McBride spoke with playful conviction: “You’re out of your mind.” Norah Jones smiled. From her duo mate, she coaxed a reluctant solo out front as the two artists opened their set at the Ralph Pucci Gallery on West 18th Street. A moment later, blowing his charming self-effacement into oblivion, McBride delivered a brief and greasy solo before they dug into Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.”

Jones and McBride hadn’t played together before that evening. But their February performance marked the sixth annual Jazz Set benefit that concert designer and arts patron Ralph Pucci has curated for the New Jersey-based education and performance organization Jazz House Kids. Before long, the artists’ distinct, recognizable expressions settled into a single gesture of spontaneity and joy. For JHK founder and President Melissa Walker, that’s the whole idea:

“Jazz says, ‘You don’t have to sound exactly like me. You can be Cannonball Adderley and you can be John Coltrane and we can be in the same piece of music.’” Jones and McBride, the latter serving as JHK artistic director, played selections from the singer and songwriter’s canon as well as “The Nearness Of You,” inviting current students and alumni to join them on “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and evening closer “Centerpiece.” Other student performances punctuated the hit, including “Autumn Leaves” and “Work Song” performed by saxophonist-composer and former Jazz House Kid Birsa Chatterjee’s ensemble.

Over the years, the Jazz Set has evolved to showcase three levels of student development, providing rising stars the opportunity to play with internationally acclaimed artists — who have included Diana Krall, Laurie Anderson, John Pizzarelli, Wynton Marsalis and Esperanza Spalding — and glean valuable insight from their bandstand conversations, such as Jones’ recommendation to treat restaurant gigs as paid practice. This method of mentoring alongside practical curriculum renders the Jazz House attractive to students pursuing careers as touring artists. But its mission has a broader reach: Empower the whole student, positioning each of them toward diverse career success.

“Jazz House is the perfect place for someone who is super serious about jazz,” said Walker, “but [it’s also] a fertile training ground for young people on and off the stage.” Citing former students who have assumed leadership roles in business, cyber tech, law, military service and finance, she credits an intentional model for interdisciplinary success that combines community building and risk-taking. “When you’re pulling from 40 different communities — in the summer, seeing kids nationally and internationally — you get that rich cultural aspect of this music. Kids gravitate to that.”

That sense of community, at once sprawling and intimate, is integral to the Jazz House philosophy that students feel confident enough to make themselves uncomfortable only when they feel meaningfully supported. Director of Cultural Programming, trumpet player-composer Ted Chubb views the organization’s unique curriculum delivery as integral for student engagement and empowerment.

“When the music is taught from a perspective of cultural expression,” he said, “students feel more ownership…and see themselves as a part of the legacy and future continuum of the music. This builds stronger and longer lasting relationships with their peers, teachers and mentors both on and off the bandstand which fuel their success.”

Jazz House instructors have included Mike Lee, Camille Thurman, Anthony Ware, Alexis Cuadrado and Abraham Burton, among other working artists; “luminaries” have comprised Sheila E., Dee Dee Bridgewater, Wynton Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, Wayne Shorter, Angélique Kidjo and the late George Duke. Because leadership and faculty consider exposure and deep listening elemental, curriculum repertoire is staggering in volume and sophistication. Students face new challenges every week. But community-centered programming creates a kind of low-impact discomfort for students, promoting healthy risk-taking and leadership skill development. For a generation transforming every corner of the workplace and normalizing the career pivot, that skillset proves crucial.

“These young people are poised for today,” said Walker. “They know how to manage their time, set their priorities, collaborate, approach what they’re doing with confidence, and they really can rise and improvise.”

During the set, Jones revealed how challenging her career became after the success of her debut record, when she stopped having fun. “Then I realized that’s not the end-game,” she said. “You wanna keep the thing that you started with, which is the love, that spark.”

Walker agrees. After nearly 20 years at the Jazz House helm, she’s witnessed the impact her organization’s curriculum has had on students who enter different fields and those who become working artists. “Change is really hard for the human species,” she said. “But you’re gonna be able to play through the changes. [Jones and McBride] are serious musicians. But at the heart, there’s joy. And that’s what we’re trying to instill in our young people.” DB

Etienne Charles Presents Piece With New York Philharmonic

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Jaap van Zweden said, “The open minds of the orchestra members are amazing. The soul of the city comes out of these people. It feels very natural.”

(Photo: Laura Ferreira)

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the gleaming cultural complex on Manhattan’s West Side, was built on land once occupied by Lenape Indians, who were pushed out by Dutch settlers, who in turn were vanquished by the English. And so the story went, up to the period after World War II, when much of the culturally rich, if economically poor, neighborhood of San Juan Hill was swallowed by the fashionable forces of urban renewal.

That is where Etienne Charles comes in. The trumpeter, composer and native Trinidadian has made a specialty of creating works built around marginalized communities, and his latest work, “San Juan Hill,” certainly fills that bill. For the piece, Charles’ sextet, augmented by flute and turntable, will join forces with the New York Philharmonic in an hourlong exploration of the history of the six-by-three-block slice of the West 60s — and it will do so in the voices of those who lived there.

“My music is 100 percent about people — how they present themselves, how they present their culture, how they present their ancestors,” Charles said in a recent Zoom call.

The piece, commissioned by Lincoln Center and scheduled to have its premiere there on Oct. 8, is, Charles said, still very much a work in progress. But in broad outline, he likened it to a city in that it will “continuously build.” It will draw on key points in the history, nodding to the Lenape and progressing onward before digging into the fertile period when migration from points south yielded a vibrant mix of cultural influences from the African diaspora.

Delving into oral histories and other academic research, Charles discovered how heavily jazz musicians figured in the mix. Some, he said, were San Juan Hill natives who will provide inspiration for his piece. Among them: pianists Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk; clarinetist Russell Procope, a mainstay of Duke Ellington’s band; and saxophonist Benny Carter, who wrote “Echoes Of San Juan Hill,” a precursor to Charles’ work that had its premiere in 1996 with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

One neighborhood resident whose work Charles expressed particular interest in bringing to life is James P. Johnson, the Jazz Age composer of “The Charleston,” who developed stride piano in nightspots like the jumping Jungles Casino — “a cellar without fixings,” as Johnson called it — on West 62nd Street. In evoking that world, Charles will turn to the eminently adaptable pianist Sullivan Fortner, who is already in his band, Creole Soul, as are Godwin Louis (saxophone), Alex Wintz (guitar), Ben Williams (bass) and John Davis (drums). Flutist Elena Pinderhughes and turntablist DJ Logic will also be on hand, while poet Carl Hancock Rux will contribute spoken word, part of a multimedia element that will include video vignettes and visual art.

The work, co-presented by Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic with financing from Cecily M. Carson and the Carson Family Charitable Trust, will be among the first major compositions to be performed at David Geffen Hall after a $550 million makeover, the first major redesign of the space since 1976, when its name was changed from Philharmonic Hall to Avery Fisher Hall. The renovations are an apt metaphor for the neighborhood’s developmental churn writ large, and that too will provide raw material for Charles, who spoke about orchestrating the sounds of destruction and reconstruction as he weaves the textures of everyday life into his narrative.

The first part of the piece will feature the band Creole Soul, which will combine with the full orchestra for the last part. The small group has in the past painted vivid aural pictures of marginalized people, most recently in March at the San Francisco premiere of Charles’ “Greenwood,” a piece commemorating the destruction of a thriving Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While combining with the philharmonic will expand his palette considerably, merging jazz ensembles with symphony orchestras can be tricky. But Charles expects no complications. Nor does Jaap van Zweden, the philharmonic’s conductor and music director, who, in an interview, said he felt comfortable with such an integration since his personal tastes and those of his musicians often ran toward the popular realm.

“It fits in my whole body and in my spiritual life,” he said, adding: “The open minds of the orchestra members are amazing. The soul of the city comes out of these people. It feels very natural.”

Lincoln Center officials seem intent on reaching deeper into the city’s soul by addressing the processes that ultimately led to their institution’s creation, and they view Charles’ piece as a vehicle to help them do so. Speaking at a March 21 gathering to announce the philharmonic’s 2022–’23 season, Lincoln Center President and CEO Henry Timms said Charles’ commission was part of an effort to demonstrate that “we’re engaged with that history.”

“We try to tell the story of where we come from as a way of navigating where we’re going next,” he said. “This is the piece that’s telling the story: This is your home.”

The larger strategy will literally expand Lincoln Center’s reach into the community: The renovated hall’s stage will be moved forward 25 feet and the redesign will create a wraparound effect for the audience. The renovation project will also include a new, more intimate stage, Sidewalk Studio, and programming that will feature all kinds of works, some for improvisers who previously might not have been heard at Lincoln Center.

For his part, Charles asserted that his vision conformed with Lincoln Center’s, even as he recognized that, in some quarters, his introducing a work at the center that is about the neighborhood it helped displace might produce a few curious looks.

“I understand how it probably seems ironic that we’re going to play this piece and premiere it at Lincoln Center,” he said, “but I think it’s also important for Lincoln Center to do this.” It is, he added, “an acknowledgement that to move forward in any way, which is what they’re trying to do, the fact that a composer from Trinidad is writing a piece in the opening of Geffen Hall with one of the most storied orchestras in the history of orchestras — that’s a statement there.” DB

Bluesman David ‘Guitar Shorty’ Kearney Dies

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Bluesman David Kearney — known and beloved by fans worldwide as Guitar Shorty

(Photo: Courtesy Alligator Records)

Bluesman David Kearney — known and beloved by fans worldwide as Guitar Shorty — died on April 20 in Los Angeles of natural causes. He was 87. Credited with influencing both Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy, Shorty electrified audiences worldwide with his unpredictable, slashing guitar work, gruff vocals and supercharged live shows, during which he would often do back flips and somersaults while playing.

While still in his early 20s, Shorty toured with blues and R&B luminaries including Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Guitar Slim and T-Bone Walker. Over the first 30 years of his career, he recorded only a handful of singles for a variety of labels and an LP for a small British label. He had released 10 full-length solo recordings since then. Shorty continued to tour and perform well into his 80s. His most recent album was 2019’s Trying To Find My Way Back, produced by Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams.

Guitar Shorty is survived by his sister Gertrude Kearney Williams, his four children (Sean Kearney, Edmond Kearney, Tamara Kearney and Rodney Kearney), and nieces Sheena Kearney and Estalita Williams.

Funeral arrangements are pending. DB

The Gilmore Festival is Back

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The Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival features Diana Krall.

(Photo: Courtesy of the The Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival)

Billed as “North America’s largest gathering of keyboard artists,” the 15th biennial Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival opened Sunday, April 24, with a solo piano concert with Herbie Hancock at Kalamazoo’s Miller Auditorium. Running through Sunday, May 15, the festival’s main calling card has always been classical music, featuring world-class pianists performing as solo artists, with various chamber ensembles as well as with symphony orchestra.

The jazz component, however, has always been a strong complement to a festival designed with a wide-ranging, stylistic flair. In addition to Hancock, this year’s festival will offer shows featuring returning artists Diana Krall and quartet and Fred Hersch, along with Emmet Cohen, Sullivan Fortner, TRI-FI, Dan Tepfer and Pablo Ziegler (all in trio formats).

In addition, there will be the world premiere of a Gilmore commission from composer/percussionist/drummer Tyshawn Sorey, performed by pianist Conor Hanick with Sandbox Percussion. And running with nightly performances, the Tony Award-winning play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill will give festival-goers a chance to imagine the last days of Billie Holiday through song and salty reminiscences, provided by pianist Abdul Hamid Royal and Alexis J. Roston as Lady Day.

In total, the festival, which was offered online only in 2020 due to the pandemic, will present more than 100 concerts by as many as 50 pianists. As usual, there will be many educational events including master class pre-concert talks, film screenings, lectures and an interactive public art installation.

Based in Kalamazoo, the Gilmore festival has traditionally been a West Michigan affair, with programs and concerts including Grand Rapids, Lansing, South Haven, Jackson, Saugatuck, Richland and Battle Creek. It’s clearly one of Michigan’s major arts events. An additional programming note: Unlike in 2020, the festival will present both virtual and in-person events with more than 35 livestreamed festival performances that take place before an in-person audience in West Michigan.

Something new this year is the partnership between The Gilmore and the John Stites Jazz Artist Organization. Founded in 2021, the partnership was formed in memory of Kalamazoo-based recording engineer John Stites, an artist in his own right, who recorded many notable albums by resident and visiting jazz musicians. As part of this partnership, annual grants ranging from $20,000 to $150,000 will be provided to support The Gilmore’s world-class jazz programming. Support will include the covering of artist fees for jazz musicians performing at The Gilmore International Piano Festival, The Gilmore Rising Stars Series, and new Jazz Piano Masters concert held in alternate years to the main festival, beginning in 2023.

Executive and Artistic Director Pierre van der Westhuizen had this to say about the partnership: “We are thrilled to be working with the Stites Jazz Artist Organization. John Stites was an important part of our audio engineering history for the Festival for many years. We’re honored to be able to work with his legacy foundation to bring artists like Herbie Hancock to Kalamazoo.”

In a similar vein, the Larry J. Bell Jazz Artist Award for jazz pianists are new. Akin to the Gilmore Artist Award for classical pianists, the recipient of this new award will be chosen every four years by an anonymous committee and will receive $300,000 — a $50,000 cash grant to be used at the artist’s discretion, and $250,000 disbursed over a four-year period for projects and activities that’ll enhance the artist’s musicianship and career. The first Larry J. Bell Jazz Artist will be announced in 2026. On top of the $300,000 award, a new Larry J. Bell Young Jazz Artist Award will be established bestowing $25,000 every two years to the most promising of the new generation of American jazz pianists age 22 and younger, beginning in 2026. Larry Bell, owner of Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, will host a number of the jazz events at his Eccentric Cafe.

And, in case anyone was wondering, the festival made a key name change recently. According to van der Westhuizen, who’s been at the helm for three years, the story goes like this: “When asked [when traveling], ‘What do you do?,’ I’m met with confusion when I reply, ‘I work for the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival.’

“The questions go as follows: ‘So, what kinds of keyboards?’ ‘Oh, is this a digital/electronic music festival?’ ‘Is that a historical instrument festival?’ ‘Keyboards? Like with computers?’ Changing this one word will sharpen the lens and help us communicate our mission more clearly around the world.”

Tickets can be purchased online at thegilmore.org, by phone at (269) 250-6984 or in person at the Gilmore box office, 359 S. Kalamazoo Mall. E-tickets are available for livestreamed events, also at thegilmore.org, on a pay-what-you-see basis. DB

Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley Set for July

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(Photo: Courtesy Blue Note)

Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley premieres this summer with a multi-day, multi-stage festival featuring artist-in-residence Robert Glasper. The keyboardist-bandleader’s set, to be hosted by comedian Dave Chappelle, will include performances by special guests Erykah Badu, Ledisi, D Smoke, Terrace Martin and BJ the Chicago Kid.

The festival will feature three stages hosting sets from Maxwell, Black Star, Flying Lotus, Maurice Brown featuring Anderson .Paak and many more, plus an after-party you won’t want to miss. This limited-capacity event takes place on the grounds of the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, California, July 30–31. View the full line-up here. DB

Craft Issues Ornette Coleman’s Late-’50s Contemporary Albums

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Craft Recordings kicked off a 70th anniversary celebration for the Contemporary Records imprint back in December, issuing a set of pristine, digital-only compilations of music from the likes of Art Pepper, André Previn, Barney Kessel, Hampton Hawes, Shelly Manne and saxophonists Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Harold Land and Teddy Edwards. Now, the label has turned its attention to the two Ornette Coleman recordings on Contemporary: Something Else!!!!: The Music Of Ornette Coleman, and Tomorrow Is The Question!: The New Music Of Ornette Coleman from 1958 and 1959, respectively.

They have been packaged as a two-LP box set on 180-gram vinyl, newly mastered by Bernie Grundman. Both records feature the amazing tandem of Coleman on alto saxophone and Don Cherry on trumpet. Something Else!!!! has Walter Norris on piano, Don Payne on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. Tomorrow Is The Question! has Percy Heath and Red Mitchell on bass, with Shelly Manne on drums. They document an artist going from a jazz outsider to becoming the toast of New York.

“These two recordings are the accessible gateway to Ornette Coleman’s music,” said Nick Phillips, the producer of Genesis Of Genius. “He’s expanding on the bebop vocabulary and at this point he’s using traditional forms for most compositions, 12-bar blues and AABA song form, but doing something totally different. With Ornette and Don Cherry’s trumpet in the front line, the way they play and phrase and shift rhythms together, it sounds very loose but very tight.”

The gateway to Coleman’s fame was opened by Lester Koenig (1917–’77), the founder of Contemporary, who welcomed the alto saxophonist and his unorthodox approach when many in Los Angeles ran. Koenig was an intellectual who loved the arts. He was blacklisted from the film industry when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, an offshoot of McCarthyism of the day.

He originally created Contemporary as an outlet for contemporary classical works, but opened his ears, and the label, to jazz, earning a reputation for having faith in artistic creativity. Coleman was the beneficiary of that faith. It launched him from relative obscurity to jazz stardom.

This history and more is detailed beautifully in the expanded 32-page booklet adeptly handled by Grammy-winning jazz historian Ashley Kahn, peppered with some terrific archival photography. DB

Record Store Day Drops Announced

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Some of the new releases scheduled for Record Store Day on April 23.

(Photo: Courtesy of Artists)

Record Store Day is coming right around the corner, and so far the following album drops have been announced for this Saturday, April 23. More information on these and other RSD releases is available at recordstoreday.com.

• Pepper Adams with The Tommy Banks Trio, Live At Room At The Top (Reel to Real)

Real to Reel dishes out a previously unreleased concert from the baritone saxophonist, a 70-minute performance recorded in 1972. The liner notes feature interviews with bari stalwarts Frank Basile and Gary Smulyan.

• Hasaan Ibn Ali, Retrospect In The Retirement Of Delay: The Solo Recordings (Omnivore)

Now on vinyl as a four-LP set, this retrospective of the late pianist’s work received 5 stars in the February issue of DownBeat. “Add Hasaan Ibn Ali to the pantheon of great jazz pianists,” said critic Carlo Wolff in praising the work.

• Albert Ayler, Revelations: The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondation Maeght Recordings (Ina/Elemental)

This four-album set is the work of jazz super-sleuth Zev Feldman, who, while doing research at the French Institut National de L’Audiovisuel (Ina), stumbled upon the complete concert recordings of Albert Ayler made at the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, in 1970.

Some of the music had been released as Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Shandar) as well as on Live On The Riviera (ESP-Disc), but the new find was a complete set of recordings from two concerts that came from “a different source, capturing both concerts in stereo in their entirety using professional recording equipment,” according to Feldman. The liner notes, where he details the find, are a treasure on their own, full of great photography and insights about Ayler from his daughter Desiree Ayler-Fellows, Feldman, Ayler scholar and saxophonist Jeff Lederer (who also receives producer credits) and bassist Steve Tintweiss, who played on the dates.

The music has been slighted by some over the years as not as strong as the work done with earlier groups, but here the band of Ayler on tenor, soprano and vocals; Mary Parks on soprano and vocals; Call Cobbs on piano; Steve Tintweiss on bass; and, Allen Blairman on drums sounds superior compared to earlier releases, giving a rich sense of Ayler’s free-spirited, late-career live performances.

Sadly, Ayler passed away four months later at the age of 44. He was found in New York City’s East River, his death called as a suicide over rumors that he was murdered. These recordings are an important addition to the Ayler canon, not just for the sense of wonder he commanded, but also for letting listeners hear the two concerts exactly as the audiences heard them then from one of our greatest improvisers.

• Chet Baker Trio, Live In Paris: The Radio France Recordings 1983–1984 (INA/Elemental)

Here’s a beautiful RSD drop of live Baker recorded by Radio France — in stereo — at La Esplanade de La Défense in 1983 and Le Petit Opportun in 1984. The shows came during a period when the hard-living Baker was, perhaps, living not as hard, according to authoritative liner notes by Ashley Kahn. The simple combination of Baker’s gift playing with piano and bass gives the music that essence of wistfulness that the trumpeter and singer famously conjured. This hand-numbered, three-LP set on 180-gram vinyl was mastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio.

• Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, In My Prime (Tidal Waves)

Originally released by Timeless Records as two volumes, this package brings the complete In My Prime sessions under one roof. Recorded in New York on Dec. 29, 1977, it’s a deluxe, 180-gram, two-LP edition.

• Dave Brubeck Trio, Live From Vienna 1967 (Brubeck Editions)

Brubeck Editions continues to mine the archives with this live performance featuring the master with his classic bandmates Joe Morello on drums and Gene Wright on bass. Where’s Paul Desmond? He missed the plane to Vienna.

• Miles Davis, What It Is: Montreal 7/83 (Legacy)

This two-LP set features a late-Miles group at the Montreal Jazz Fest with John Scofield, guitar; Bill Evans, saxophone, flute and electric piano; Darryl Jones, bass; Al Foster, drums; and percussionist Mino Cinelu.

• Paquito D’Rivera & Arturo Sandoval, Reunion (Messidor)

This was the first time reedman Paquito D’Rivera and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval recorded together after both had defected from Cuba — D’Rivera in 1980, and Sandoval a decade later.

• Bill Evans, Morning Glory & Inner Spirit (Resonance)

Resonance Records continues to expand a deep, rich vein of rare or never-been-released Bill Evans recordings, this time with two live dates in Argentina from the 1970s. On Morning Glory, Evans is joined by bassist Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell for a 1973 date at Teatro Gran Rex. On Inner Spirit, the always-classy pianist is joined by Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera at Teatro General San Martin in 1979. Both will be released as two-LP packages that include interviews with the musicians who played on the dates. The vinyl editions are exclusive RSD drops. The music will be released a week later on CD and as digital downloads.

• Kenny Garrett, Sketches Of MD: Live At The Iridium (Mack Avenue)

The great alto saxophonist pays tribute to his ancestors — in song, to Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, and in person to guest artist Pharoah Sanders. This one’s numbered, colored vinyl for RSD.

• Delvon Lamar Organ Trio, Live In Loveland! (Colemine)

The great alto saxophonist pays tribute to his ancestors — in song, to Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, and in person to guest artist Pharoah Sanders. This one’s numbered, colored vinyl for RSD.

• Christian McBride, Conversations With Christian (Mack Avenue)

This 2011 release comes to vinyl for the first time and features the amazing bassist McBride performing a series of duets with an absolute dream-cast of friends including Chick Corea, Roy Hargrove, Hank Jones, Regina Carter, George Duke, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Angélique Kidjo, Eddie Palmieri, Russel Malone, Sting, Dr. Billy Taylor and more.

• Charles Mingus, Mingus: The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s (Resonance)

Here’s a great way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Charles Mingus’ birth. Resonance will be launching this previously unreleased live recording one day after the great bassist and composer’s centennial birthday. It will be an exclusive three-LP RSD drop (and offered as a three-CD set and digital recording a week later).

The setting is London, 1972, at the world famous Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. Mingus brought in an all-star sextet featuring Jon Faddis on trumpet, Charles McPherson on alto saxophone, Bobby Jones on tenor sax and clarinet, John Foster on piano (with some cool vocals on “Noddin’ Ya Head Blues,” too) and Roy Brooks on drums … and musical saw.

The Ronnie Scott’s residency came at the end of a European tour that took them through France, Italy and the Netherlands before hitting London in August. On the last night at the club, Columbia Records sent a mobile truck out to record the gig with plans to release it as an album. But a year later, Columbia dropped its entire jazz roster except Miles Davis. Mingus’ wife, Sue, held onto the tapes all these years.

This is another Zev Feldman project, this time working with trumpeter David Weiss. The package they have crafted is lovely. British jazz journalist Brian Priestly delivers some terrific liner notes, along with a 1972 interview he conducted with Mingus and McPherson. McPherson offers his reflections on a 12-year tenure with Mingus.

Famed author Fran Lebowitz delivered her own memories of working with Mingus. In addition, there are interviews with Mary Scott, Ronnie Scott’s widow, Christian McBride, Eddie Gomez and quotes from Mingus himself throughout, and he was one of the most quotable artists in jazz history.

• Art Pepper, Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section [Mono] (Craft)

This 1957 gem features Pepper with Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Considered one of Pepper’s classics, his bandmates (who were in Miles Davis’ Quartet at that time), gave the saxophonist a platform to excel.

• Max Roach, We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (Candid)

Long-considered one of the legendary drummer’s masterpieces, We Insist! blends avant-garde with social message for a serious contribution to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The five movements of the Suite trace African-American history and heritage through instrumentals and vocals. After creating the piece, Roach vowed to never again make music that didn’t have a social message. DB

We Love Vinyl: A Spate of New Releases for Your Collection

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A plethora of new vinyl releases have come out in recent months.

(Photo: Courtesy of Artists)

With Record Store Day landing on April 23, it’s time for another installment of We Love Vinyl! Here are just a few selections the DownBeat crew looks forward to digging into — be they RSD Drops, or other great, new sounds on wax from the realms of jazz, blues and beyond. To check out DownBeat’s We Love Vinyl Digital Section, click here.

• José Roberto Bertami, Os Tatuís & José Roberto Trio (Far Out)

The late Brazilian keyboardist and bandleader José Roberto Bertami, best known for his work with the trio Azymuth, played with a host of jazz greats like Sarah Vaughan, George Duke and Eddie Palmieri. But here we find his 19-year-old self cutting his first record, Os Tatuís, in 1965, then following it up as an audacious 20-year-old with José Roberto Trio. Both records are now back out on the Far Out label, bringing back some delightful jazz with that serious Latin tinge. And, let’s just say he was mature beyond his musical years. (faroutrecordings.com)

• Jeremiah Chiu & Marta Sofia Honer, Recordings From The Åland Islands (International Anthem)

Jeremiah Chiu and Marta Sofia Honer combine Chiu’s analog synthesizers with Honer’s viola — and it’s stunning. The two traveled to the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea to help a friend. Once they got there, the landscapes and seascapes inspired music that was as unusual as the topography. The recordings have a down-home, hand-made sensibility. Nothing is rushed. It’s remarkably peaceful art. (intlanthem.com)

• Natalie Cole, Unforgettable With Love (Craft)

It couldn’t have been easy for Natalie Cole to join the family business. Her father, the great Nat “King” Cole, had one of the most “unforgettable” voices ever. Through the marvels of technology, she delivered the title track as a duet with her late father. Seven Grammys and 30 years later, it can be heard on 180-gram vinyl as a two-LP set. (craftrecordings.com)

• Chris Dingman, Journeys Vol. 1 (Independent Release)

These beautifully atmospheric solo vibraphone pieces bring an air of calm while maintaining incredible artistic integrity. It’s an extension of Dingman’s 2020 release Peace, where he collected hours of solo improvisation he played while his father was in hospice. When his father passed, Dingman took time away, but has made his way back with a deep sense of self. (chrisdingman.bandcamp.com)

• Ron Jackson, Standards And My Songs (Independent Release)

Ron Jackson is a master of the seven-string jazz guitar, learning it at the suggestion of the great Bucky Pizzarelli. He has a loose, easy way that puts a smile in your heart. He’s here in a trio setting with drummer Willie Jones III and bassist Ben Wolfe with guest spots from Brian Ho on the Hammond B-3. “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” is a swinging pick hit from the set. (ronjacksonmusic.com)

• Bob James, Feel Like Making LIVE! (Evolution)

The composer/keyboardist brings his artistry to a trio setting with bassist Michael Palazzolo and drummer Billy Kilson, delivering an eclectic mix of music from his own catalog, plus some surprising covers like Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” For vinyl lovers, he’s delivering a limited run of signed, 180-gram, orange-colored double LPs. (evosound.com)

• Jim O’Rourke & Mats Gustafssonm, Xylophonen Virtuosen (Trost)

Put the free-wheeling saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and former Sonic Youth guitarist Jim O’Rourke into a studio and hit record. It’s a pretty magical blend of bending time and space with folky-avant jazz overtones. Some of the tracks were released on CD in 2020 on Incus Records, but have been newly remastered by O’Rourke for a two-LP set along with a number of previously unreleased tracks. Their foray into duet improvisation opens up amazing twists and turns. For those who like music on the edge, this is a great listening experience. (trost.at)

• Ziad Rahbani, Houdou Nisbi (We Want Sounds)

Recorded in Lebanon in 1985, this cult hit has never been on vinyl before. A major star of Arabic music, Rahbani cross-pollinates Middle Eastern sounds with jazz, pop and film soundtrack overtones. Houdu Nisbi translates to “relatively calm” and was a term used by Lebanese news anchors to describe the ceasefires during the civil war of 1975–’90. While the music sizzles, even the cover has political overtones with a woman slipping on her shoe while a machine gun rests against the wall. The album has been remastered for vinyl from the original tapes by David Hachour at Coloursound Studio in Paris. (wewantsounds.com)

• Dave Rempis & Avreeayl Ra, Bennu (Aerophonic)

Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis has been putting out a prodigious amount of music on his Aerophonic label during the pandemic, the latest being Bennu, the first recorded document of Rempis with longtime collaborator Avreeayl Ra on drums and percussion. The two are in full free-jazz flight here, tackling sound in fascinating ways. Ra, a legend of the Chicago free-jazz scene who has toured with Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, is a swirling encyclopedia of rhythm. Rempis blows furious, fierce and fine. (aerophonicrecords.com)

• Irma Thomas, Full Time Woman: The Lost Cotillion Album (Real Gone)

After a string of successes in the mid-1960s, Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, signed to Atlantic Records and produced music for its Cotillion imprint. Only one of the songs she recorded made it to the airwaves during that time period (“Full Time Woman” with a B-side of “She’s Taken My Part”). A few others showed up on a 2014 collection. But now, the folks at Real Gone Records bring all of that lost material into one package of 15 tracks, printed on light-blue vinyl and filling a hole in the Irma Thomas discography. They have that New Orleans soul and grit of the era and, oh, that voice! (realgonemusic.com)

• Various Artists, Black Lives: From Generation To Generation (Jammin’colorS)

This huge project hopes to help tackle continuing inequality and help musicians hurt by the pandemic. Stefano Calembert, the producer, manager and owner of Jammin’colorS, a Brussels-based music agency, put the idea together, and commissioned some 20 tracks by artists like Immanuel Wilkins, Jeremy Pelt, E.J. Strickland, Reggie Washington and numerous others. (jammincolors.com)

• Brodie West Quintet, Meadow Of Dreams (Ansible Editions/Astral Spirits)

Alto saxophonist Brodie West is a bandleader steeped in the creative music scene of Toronto, Canada. He studied at Amsterdam Music Conservatory with Misha Mengelberg, rubbed shoulders with the likes of percussionist Han Bennink and was a member of the Ex, an experimental punk band from Amsterdam. On Meadow Of Dreams, West has created a groove-driven, percussive web, one where complexity is derived from simplicity with plenty of twists. It’s an enchanting, avant-garde mix to dig into. (ansibleeditions.com)

• Frank Zappa, The Mothers 1971 (Zappa/UMe)

The beautiful thing about Zappa is doing Zappa to the absolute extreme. And that’s exactly what we have here with this motherlode of material from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention live in 1971. This 100-tune, 10-hour set brings together so much from that time, including the entire run that closed the Fillmore East in New York, as well as the group’s outrageous final gig at the Rainbow Theatre in London. On vinyl, this collection will be packaged as two three-LP sets. The first is an expanded 50th anniversary edition of Fillmore East–1971. The second is the Rainbow Theatre concert. (zappa.com)

• Oscar Peterson, A Time For Love: The Oscar Peterson Quartet—Live In Helsinki, 1987 (Two Lions/Mack Avenue)

This album was one of the editorial staff’s picks for the DownBeat Gift Guide in the December issue, but now it’s available as a three-LP set on 180-gram, translucent vinyl. While the title of this album is A Time For Love, a more apt heading might be A Time To Burn because that’s exactly what the quartet does throughout this 12-tune blast of joy. The recording captures Peterson, guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Dave Young and drummer Martin Drew on the last show of the group’s 1987 fall tour. “There was no set list. Just get out there and play,” Young wrote in the liner notes. “Just by Oscar playing an intro, we’d know.”

Those notes also include an eloquent tribute to Peterson by pianist Benny Green, as well as some loving words from Oscar’s widow, Kelly Peterson. Packaging aside, the music is the star here. The pianist is at the height of his musical prowess. The same can be said for guitarist Pass with the two blistering runs through “Sushi.”

“Love” is in the title of this album, and there are certainly some wonderful ballads here such as the aptly named “Love Ballade,” as well as the title cut. The intro to the latter offers a nice glimpse of Peterson’s classy onstage persona as he introduces the band before drifting elegantly into his keyboard.

There is so much to love here. The sound of Peterson patting his foot along to the beat of “How High The Moon” gives this music an authenticity. “Waltz For Debbie” swings dreamlike; “When You Wish Upon A Star” gives goosebumps as Pass quietly picks the intro, then plays the tune solo. The “Duke Ellington Medley” is a joy, and the closer, Peterson’s own “Blues Etude,” serves as a full-out sprint, complete with Peterson’s solo stride break. This is jazz as good as it gets. (store.oscarpeterson.com) DB

Remembering Charnett Moffett

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Charnett Moffett’s smile was an ever-present part of his ebullient persona both on and off the bandstand.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

I can still recall the image of a young Charnett Moffett, beaming from the other side of the glass in Manhattan’s Songshop Studio while laying down tracks on guitarist Stanley Jordan’s Blue Note debut, Magic Touch. It was September 1984. Charnett had turned 17 just three months earlier. And yet, having already put in time on the road with Wynton Marsalis’ quintet since December 1983 (replacing veteran bassist Ray Drummond in the lineup), he seemed savvy beyond his years; an old soul in a young man’s body.

He had a sweet smile then, and over the course of the next four decades, Moffett never lost that smile. It was an ever-present part of his ebullient persona both on and off the bandstand. Those kind of good, positive vibes he exuded came as naturally to Charnett as his preternatural abilities on his chosen instrument. And in his heart of hearts, he felt he was on a mission. As he told Bass Player magazine in a December 2021 interview: “The plan is to keep putting music out into the universe that has good vibrations, and hopefully people will enjoy that music, and its reverberations will spread some light in these difficult times.”

Just four months after that interview was published, Moffett was gone at age 54. Charnett died on April 11 of a heart attack, which his wife, the singer-guitarist-composer, frequent collaborator as well as founder and president of Motéma Records, Jana Herzen, suspected was due to complications from the painful Trigeminal Neuralgia condition he had been struggling with for the past few years.

The youngest son of drummer Charles Moffett, a member of Ornette Coleman’s 1965 trio with bassist David Izenzon that recorded the live two-volume set At The Golden Circle Stockholm on Blue Note, Charnett Moffett was born June 10, 1967, in New York (his name is a contraction of the first syllable of his father’s first name and the last syllable of Coleman’s first name). He began touring internationally with The Moffett Family Band in 1974 at the age of 7 alongside siblings Codaryl, Charisse and Charles Jr., eventually touring the Far East in 1975. Charnett later attended LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts before studying at Mannes College of Music and later at Juilliard. But perhaps his greatest learning experience came on the bandstand with Wynton Marsalis, who hired the precociously talented bassist at age 16 in 1983. Charnett played on Branford Marsalis’ 1984 recording debut, Scenes In The City, and subsequently appeared on brother Wynton’s influential, Grammy-winning 1985 album Black Codes (From The Underground). Two years later, he became a member of Tony Williams’ hard-bopping acoustic quintet (with pianist Mulgrew Miller, saxophonist Billy Pierce and trumpeter Wallace Roney), appearing on 1987’s Civilization and 1988’s Angel Street.

Moffett’s 1987 debut, Net Man, produced by Kenny Kirkland and featuring a guest appearance from tenor sax titan Michael Brecker, found him playing primarily upright bass, which the exception of one cut, his original “One Left Over,” which featured him doubling on acoustic and electric piccolo bass guitar. His 1989 followup for Blue Note, Beauty Within, had him introducing more electric bass guitar into the mix on tunes like “Dancing With Love” and the lovely ballad “Angela,” named for his first wife. With 1991’s Nettwork, on the Blue Note subsidiary label Manhattan Records, Charnett overdubbed electric piccolo bass guitar as his main voice on top of funky electric bass guitar undercurrents, reserving only one track (“Truth”) for upright acoustic bass. That same year he also played on the Bill Laswell-produced Ask The Ages (Axiom Records), which had him digging deep alongside such free-blowing icons as Sonny Sharrock, Pharaoh Sanders and Elvin Jones. That volcanic album made many critics’ year-end Top Ten lists for 1991.

Moffett’s 1994 release on Evidence, Planet Home, was an ambitious trio outing with former Jazz Messengers pianist Geoff Keezer and drummer Victor Lewis, his mid-‘80s bandmate in the Manhattan Jazz Quintet. Charnett alternated between acoustic and electric basses here, showcasing his formidable arco and pizzicato chops on the upright on three unaccompanied pieces (“Aura,” “Free Your Mind,” “Touch Tone”) while carrying the melody on “Brothers & Sisters” and the title track on piccolo electric bass guitar and singing on the fretless electric bass on “Peace Within The Struggle” in the spirit of his major role models Jaco Pastorius and Alphonso Johnson. He also experimented with distortion pedal on the upright bass for a raucous, Hendrixian interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As he said to me at the time for the liner notes: “I kind of got pigeonholed as this ‘jazz bass player,’ and the reality is that I wasn’t playing standards and tunes as a kid, I was listening to everything that I could hear and reflecting that in some way in my playing. Ellington was in the household through my father’s record collection but it wasn’t the most prominent thing for me. There was also a lot of avant garde music and funk. So you get close to the early influences in life and try to find a balance with all the new information that you have obtained through a period of living … and try to fuse it together in a positive light.”

After playing on two Ornette Coleman Sound Museum recordings in 1996, Hidden Man and Three Women, he released 1997’s Still Life, a potent trio album with pianist Rachel Z and drummer Cindy Blackman that further revealed his debt to Pastorius (particularly on “Journey,” the title track and an instrumental version of Michael Jackson’s “Heal The World”) and to Jimi Hendrix (on the distortion-laced, unaccompanied upright bass number “Funky Blues”). A decided Ornette influence also came across on “Scrambled Eggs,” while the solo bass showcase “Spiritual Bubbles” highlighted his virtuosic bowing technique.

Other significant collaborations during this period included appearances on a string of Kenny Garrett albums (1992’s Black Hope, 1995’s Trilogy, 2002’s Happy People, 2003’s Standard Of Language) and two by McCoy Tyner (2003’s Land Of Giants and 2007’s Afro Blue). In 2007, Moffett toured Europe as part of Ornette Coleman’s three-bass band (alonside Tony Falanga and Al McDowell). I saw him backstage after their performance at the Palau de Musica in Barcelona that year and was greeted by that same beaming smile I remembered seeing from Charnett at that Stanley Jordan session I had attended back in 1985.

On his 2009 Motéma debut, The Art Of Improvisation, Moffett joined drummers Will Calhoun, Eric McPherson and his 20-year-old son Max in a set of music that was typically intense and fiercely uncompromising. He incorporated wah-wah pedal with his stunning arco work on “The Story” as well as on the raga-flavored jam with Calhoun, “Call For Peace,” his ethereal duet with Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo, and his Hendrixian reprise of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As he said at the time, “People think I’m playing the anthem for political reasons, but I just like the song. It’s become my own personal standard and I’m always trying to figure out how many different ways I can interpret it.”

He followed with a string of outings on Motéma, including 2010’s Treasure, which had him exploring a world music muse in the company of bass clarinetist Oran Etkin, sitarist Anjana Roy, Kugo harpist Tomoko Sugawara and bassist Stanley Jordan. His son Max also played tabla while his wife, Angela Moffett, played tamboura and also contributed vocals along with their daughter Amareia. His daring unaccompanied project in 2013, The Bridge: Solo Bass Works, found Charnett playing strictly upright acoustic bass on renditions of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song,” Wynton Marsalis’ “Black Codes (From The Underground)” and McCoy Tyner’s “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit,” along with Sting’s “Fragile,” The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and several originals. Son Max, daughter Amareia and wife Angela also made appearances on his other album from 2013, the typically bass-centric Spirit Of Sound, which featured a beautiful rendition of Ornette Coleman’s anthemic “Lonely Woman” that had Charnett carrying the lonesome melody on electric bass.

Following the 2016 death of his wife of 30 years, Moffett released 2017’s Music From Our Soul, featuring Stanley Jordan, Pharaoh Sanders, pianist Cyrus Chestnut and drummers Jeff “Tain” Watts, Mike Clark and Victor Lewis. By 2018, his longtime friendship with Motéma’s Jana Herzen blossomed into a romance. They had previously collaborated on Herzen’s 2012 duet album, Passion Of A Lonely Heart, and played together once again (alongside violinist Scott Tixier, veteran keyboardist Brian Jackson, well known for his ’70s collaborations with Gil Scott-Heron, and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr.) on Charnett’s 2019 Motéma release Bright New Day. In his credits to that album, Moffett wrote: “This album is dedicated to any human being in the world who’s ever lost someone they love ... and also to any human being who’s ever found someone they love.”

Moffett’s 14th and final full album under his name, 2021’s New Love, a live album performed with Herzen, drummer Corey Garcia and saxophonist Irwin Hall, was a fitting epitaph to the beloved bassist-composer who dedicated his life to “bringing a little light and joy to the world.”

He released an EP Charnett Moffett Trio: LIVE later in 2021 and a single, “Shepherd 2 New Jersusalem” was released last month. DB

Hersch, Zorn, Neselovskyi Embrace Message of Hope at Roulette Ukraine Benefit

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John Zorn leads a game of COBRA at a benefit for Ukraine held April 1 at Roulette in New York.

(Photo: Wolf Daniel/Roulette Intermedium)

When Fred Hersch introduces a “pop tune” or “show tune” during his set, the pianist often makes clear that it is a vehicle with lyrics and extramusical associations that inform and inspire his improvisations. So it was no surprise that, in opening the live portion of a benefit for Ukraine at Roulette in Brooklyn, Hersch, working solo, conjured a bit of inspired interpretation — forgoing a bubbly take on “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” for a delicate, almost prayerful reading that, in his words, reflected a measure of “hope.”

Hope, in fact, provided subtext throughout Hersch’s portion of the April Fool’s night program, even as he veered into darker territory. In presenting the 1918 torch song “After You’ve Gone,” he proffered a stride-based strategy of increasing abstraction that subverted the premise of the song from one that begs a lover to stay to one that implores a hater to go. In Hersch’s telling, his message was aimed at the instigator of the unfolding Ukrainian horror — “one who should not be named, with the initials V.P. This goes out to him.”

By the time Hersch arrived at “Round Midnight” — a war horse with which he often signals that he is nearing the end of a set — his abstraction had yielded to full-blown stream-of-consciousness. Winding his way up, over and through the endlessly exploitable spaces in Thelonious Monk’s superstructure, Hersch let his lines flow unimpeded, momentarily seeming to subordinate the highly developed sense of order that normally holds sway in his sonic world.

Enter John Zorn. Master of chaos theory and icon of New York’s downtown scene, Zorn, like Hersch, is well into his 60s. And, like Hersch, he has lost none of his vigor — or rigor. In choosing to present COBRA, his intricate “game” piece that had its premiere in 1984 at the original Roulette loft in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, he picked a work that might, for all its rules-based complexity, have been an easy ride. Not for Zorn; assuming the role of “prompter” with 12 of New York’s top improvisers arrayed in front of him, he was operating at full throttle.

Armed with his usual arsenal of signaling devices — cards, gestures, props like a baseball cap — Zorn, appearing to the uninitiated like a hyper-animated third-base coach, guided the musicians through a particularly explosive version of the piece that, given the origins of its title in a war-simulation game, suggested a commentary on the Ukraine conflict. At minimum, the constantly shifting improvising units, functioning with the adaptability of a finely tuned fighting force — and doing so within Zorn’s strictures — challenged assumptions about free-jazz.

At the same time, the heterogeneity of the musical group upended notions of style. A multigenerational lot drawing on many traditions and equipped with a varied mix of instruments — reeds, which Zorn sometimes brings to the piece, being a notable exception — the musicians included veterans of the COBRA process, like organist Anthony Coleman and trombonist Jim Staley (both of whom had been recruited for the premiere) as well as newcomers to it, like pianist Vadim Neselovskyi (who, in his first shot at the piece, served up some of its most spectacular flights of improvisatory fantasy).

Neselovskyi was clearly still flying as he took his spot at the piano for a solo set, the final part of the program. A native of the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa, he conveyed the full sweep of the Ukrainian conflict by opening with “Krai.” The title, he explained, was pronounced like “cry” but defined as a geographical unit in both Russian and Ukrainian. The piece played on the pun: Written in response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, it constituted a commentary on the action, with harsh attacks at the bottom of the keyboard, dance-like musings at its top, and, in the middle, meditative mantras built around relentlessly repeated notes. Weeping tremolos provided punctuation, evoking echoes of a plaintive balalaika.

The cri de coeur then gave way to madness as “Potemkin Stairs,” the centerpiece of Neselovskyi’s sprawling new suite Odesa, closed the night. Hunched over the keyboard, he let loose frenzied outpourings of notes atop rumbling drumbeats of ostinati, mirroring the chaotic scene of tsarist forces chasing ordinary Russians down the massive Odessan stairway depicted in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1915 film Battleship Potemkin. More than a century later, the parallels with Russian forces chasing Ukrainians into bomb shelters were hard to ignore — and Neselovskyi didn’t try, offering a coda that barely feinted toward the hopeful before finishing with a fierce tear across the keyboard that matched the cataclysm at hand.

Roulette is planning to hold another benefit concert for Ukraine on May 29, with Zorn, Laurie Anderson, Bill Frisell, Hilary Hahn and others scheduled to appear. DB

In Memoriam: Charnett Moffett, 1967–2022

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Charnett Moffett

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

Charnett Moffett, a renowned bassist who performed with a host jazz stalwarts and carved out a successful solo career, suddenly passed away on April 11 due to a heart attack. He was 54.

According to a press release from the family, Moffett was with Jana Herzen, his musical collaborator for the past 12 years, who became his wife two years ago. Herzen, a singer and guitarist, is also the founder of Motéma Records. The two most recently released Jana Herzen & Charnett Moffett: ’Round The World on the label, in 2020. A new release was planned for later this year.

“Mr. Moffett had privately been struggling with bouts of intense pain from Trigeminal Neuralgia for the past few years and Herzen and the family suspect that the heart attack was a complication of that condition,” according to the release from publicist Lydia Liebman. “The family is in shock and devastated, but also thankful that he is released from the intense pain, and invites all his fans and loved ones to celebrate with them that his indomitable, vastly creative, high flying and joyful spirit is now free to fly even higher.”

Moffett was born into a musical family. His father, Charles Moffett Sr., was best known for his time working as a drummer with Ornette Coleman. In fact, Charnett’s name served as a contraction of Charles and Ornette. Charles also led the Moffett Family Jazz Band, which included Charnett on bass, as well as older brothers Charles Jr. on saxophones, Codaryl “Cody” on drums and Mondre on trumpet as well as his sister Charisse on vocals.

In the 1980s, Moffett performed and recorded with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, appearing on Branford’s 1983 debut Scenes In The City (Sony) and Wynton’s 1985 album Black Codes (From The Underground) (Sony). During this time, he also recorded with Stanley Clarke and Tony Williams.

He was signed to Blue Note Records and released three albums on the label: NetMan in 1987, Beauty Within in 1989 and Network in 1991. Throughout the ’90s, Moffett recorded for such labels as Apollon and Evidence and toured with saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. He went on to record a string of records for various labels before signing with Motéma in 2008, for whom he’s recorded a string of albums including The Bridge: Solo Bass Works in 2013 and Bright New Day, a 2019 collaboration with Scott Tixier on violin, Brian Jackson on keyboards, Mark Whitfield Jr. on drums and Herzen on vocals and guitar.

Known as an open, kind soul, Moffett was keen on having the bassist in a lead roll, perhaps most famously expressed through his rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on 1994’s Planet Home (Evidence). “When you’re using the bass as a lead instrument — as a voice, to create melodies — and you have more space, the sound of the instrument can resonate more and be heard in a more complete way for its ‘new’ position,” Moffet said in press materials for his 2021 Motéma release New Love.

The family plans a private memorial service in California with a celebration of his life to take place later this summer in New York. DB

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s Uncensored Reflections

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“The idea of dancing with a ghost, or a memory — I connect with that idea so much,” Salvant says.

(Photo: Jimmy and Dena Katz)

During the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cécile McLorin Salvant spent about 200 hours devouring Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) in the original French.

The modernist novel spoke to her latest fascination: the ephemeral things that elude our grasp. This fascination ripples throughout Ghost Song, her spectacular Nonesuch debut.

“I had been reading a few books that were really getting into the idea of longing and distance and grief and nostalgia — huge books that deal with ideas of ghosts and memory,” Salvant said in a Zoom chat from her Brooklyn home. Besides the Proust, she was delving into some of the weightiest novels from the European canon: Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

“I also was listening to a lot of music and writing some, and little by little the idea of this album was forming in my mind,” she continued. “I was ready to start building something that had nothing to do with touring or with documenting the sound of the band — that has a lot more to do with what I’m dealing with right now.”

The title cut, one of eight originals on the 12-track album, was the first composition to emerge from these musings. The tune opens with a keening wail, startling in its fervor. It’s a lament, shrouded in the blues, for a bygone someone. Instead of spinning in distress, however, the musical narrative shifts suddenly: Angelic vocal harmonies recall the sweetness of the relationship. A dulcet finale of children’s voices suggests its innocence. And the simple, haunting hook — “I will dance with the ghost of our long-lost love” — signals an ongoing reckoning with grief.

“‘Ghost Song’ arrived in its full, finished form. When I wrote that song it was like remembering something that was already written, instead of coming up with something [new]. I was remembering something from long ago,” Salvant said.

“The idea of dancing with a ghost, or a memory — I connect with that idea so much. To me, the domain of memory, of reminiscing, is a form of celebrating something that is not with you. [It’s] like unrequited love. How beautiful it is to fantasize about a thing, to have your imagination be central in your experience of it, rather than holding onto whatever it is. It points to how fleeting everything is.”

Somewhat presciently, Salvant wrote “Ghost Song” before the coronavirus pandemic arrived, with its painful lessons in how quickly known things can vanish. At the time, like all live musicians, she had no way of anticipating just how much her career would change in 2020.

For Salvant, the disruption was dramatic in both its destruction and its salvation. That year, the singer lost the bulk of her gigs both here and abroad to pandemic cancellations. But in the midst of this rout, she received two of the jazz world’s most prestigious awards: a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship for $625,000 and a Doris Duke grant, worth up to $275,000.

“I got the news of both grants at the height of the pandemic, so my initial reaction was just enormous relief. A weight had been lifted, because [I hadn’t had any] work at all for the whole year,” she recalled.

It was in 2020, too, that Salvant moved to Nonesuch Records, departing Mack Avenue, her label since 2013. During her tenure with Mack Avenue, Salvant released four albums, all of which received Grammy nominations and three of which won in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category. Not surprisingly, the move wasn’t easy.

“Mack Avenue was a wonderful label to be with. I really loved working with them, and it was hard to leave,” Salvant said. “It was a place where I felt tremendous artistic freedom and support. There is nothing but love for how I was welcomed into that label.

“But I also feel very connected to Nonesuch and the philosophy that they have,” Salvant added. “It’s a very artistic label. [They’re] really about making beautiful albums, regardless of anything else.”

If so, Nonesuch is the perfect home for Ghost Song, a disarmingly beautiful album. With the recording’s first vocal line — an a capella riff in the Irish sean-nós tradition — Salvant affirms the creative eclecticism that distinguishes this release. What seems to matter, more than genre or band configuration or commercial appeal, is how successfully Salvant can execute her aesthetic vision. For this album, that vision is both adventurous and ambitious.

The sean-nós line, for instance, introduces Kate Bush’s baroque pop hit “Wuthering Heights,” a direct descendant of the Brontë novel and an eerie tune regardless of setting. (Spoiler: the song’s protagonist is a lovelorn spirit). In an inspired moment, Salvant chose to record her version in the open space of a Neo-Gothic church in midtown Manhattan, without digital enhancement. Thus, the echo and distance in her vocal performance are real, all the more spectral for their acoustic provenance.

Salvant had originally booked the church to record a different track — just her original, “I Lost My Mind,” a surrealistic duet between Salvant, on voice and piano, and keyboardist Aaron Diehl, on pipe organ. But the acoustics of the space, traditionally designed for a capella voices, piqued Salvant’s imagination.

“I was going to do the a capella songs outside in the woods, with birds. That was my plan. Then I thought, ‘No — churches are made for singing,’” she said.

On the other side of the argument, turn-of-the-20th-century churches were not made for jazz duets involving a pipe organ. But Salvant encourages a more inclusive approach to instrumentation, and she credits Diehl with introducing her to contemporary arrangements for pipe organ.

“To me, the pipe organ is very similar to the banjo, the accordion, the lute — all these instruments that are put into a box. I don’t understand why,” Salvant said. “We associate the pipe organ — obviously, because it’s in a church — mostly with sacred music of a certain era. So, I thought this would be a fun opportunity.”

To be sure, Salvant doesn’t hesitate to inject levity into her writing and performing; part of the joke on “I Lost My Mind” is the strange pairing of a florid, jazz ballad verse with a skittering organ and a robotic, repetitious vocal section. Salvant’s overdubbed solo lines, crazed and clashing, only heighten the tune’s sense of foreboding — and its wit.

“You’re stuck in that loop. You can’t get out,” Salvant said, in describing the track.

This disposition — so depressingly ubiquitous during these COVID years — stands in intriguing contrast to Salvant’s artistic approach to this album. If anything, Salvant seems to embrace the cathartic expression of her free-flowing imaginings.

“I really wanted to treat this album almost like a scrapbook, where everything goes in — anything that I’m working on or thinking about, any quote that I love,” Salvant said. “I try my best to not censor anything.”

Her thoughtful curation of uncensored reflections, however, is what burnishes their significance. Take the album’s second track, “Optimistic Voices/No Love Dying,” a fusion of the chirpy melody from The Wizard of Oz and Gregory Porter’s soulful downtempo. Salvant’s tandem delivery of these two wildly different songs is, respectively, manic and devotional — a stunningly dexterous performance. Still, what binds them together so opportunely?

“I had been singing ‘No Love Dying,’ and [pianist] Sullivan [Fortner] realized that there’s something about the interval in the open of ‘Optimistic Voices’ that is close to the interval at the beginning of the Gregory Porter song. So he put them together. For me, it actually works really well because they’re both songs about undying optimism and blind faith. It became obvious that those two had to go together,” Salvant said. “I like the idea of cutting things with a contrasting sound or feeling — I like seeing that rub.”

It was Fortner, too, who recommended a cover of Sting’s “Until,” a romantic ballad in three from the soundtrack to the 2001 film Kate & Leopold. (No ghosts, but the love interest is a time traveler.) The rub here arises from the juxtaposition of Salvant’s mournful vocal on the chorus and the irrepressible solos during a Latin instrumental break. The point, intentional or otherwise: Fated love also happens during dances other than a waltz.

Salvant found especial meaning in the tune’s lyrics — a paean to the duality of love — which lay so exposed during her a capella intro. “They are so beautiful and evocative,” she said. “They reveal themselves to you the more you listen to them.”

Salvant is clearly a careful listener, with a predilection for words that convey deep poignancy. But she also appreciates theatricality, with its implicit conflicts and sly humor, as on “The World Is Mean,” from The Threepenny Opera. On this track she digs into Bertolt Brecht’s deliciously subversive lyrics, emphasizing the discrete characterizations that define the song’s dialectic.

“There’s always one lyric that is the deciding factor for me in a song,” she said. “[In this one], it’s ‘You have to reach up high/ And man is low.’ There’s something so cynical and bitter about it, and funny and, like, nasty. You don’t get to sing a lot of songs like that, right? I just think it’s hilarious.”

Kurt Weill, who wrote the tune’s odd melody, was an early crossover composer; his works hold equal appeal for classical, pop and jazz singers. Weill’s popularity among singers isn’t because his pieces are easy, however, and Salvant’s technical expertise on this rarely performed song is commanding, as her vocals shift between a trilling lightness and a deep throatiness.

The singer’s facility with a lyrical passage might surprise listeners more familiar with her standards work, given the rich sonority that she brings to those performances. Even on a standard, however, Salvant’s extends an effortless touch in the upper reaches of a melody. On her “Moon Song,” for example — the only tune on the record arranged for just a rhythm section — her silvery timbre evokes the wistfulness of distant love. In its message, this tune serves as an apt counterpart to the title cut, all the sweeter and sadder for the contrasting delicacy of the vocals.

“It’s funny. I do this rich, dark voice — [but] that’s not my real voice,” Salvant admits. “I remember this from classical voice lessons. I would always try to get my voice teacher to give me alto or even countertenor songs. She would say, ‘You can try to sing that, but you’re a soprano.’ I always resented it because I wanted a husky alto like Liz Wright or Cassandra Wilson. But I’m not that. So anytime I do that, it’s drag.”

With each new album, however, Salvant releases some of the “rigid categorization” that has informed her song choice and arrangements in the past. Today, she’s more interested in playing with different musical elements to see what works and what doesn’t. This openness to experimentation on Ghost Song not only allows for a broader range of vocal expression than on her previous albums, but for her expansion as an instrumentalist and composer.

Salvant often contributes piano tracks to her records, and Ghost Song is no exception. But on this album she makes a recording debut as a piano soloist. The original “Trail Mix,” with its relaxed bass line in the left hand and an insistent chordal push in the right, started as an impromptu idea on Salvant’s home piano; upon hearing it, Fortner insisted that she record the piece for the album.

“To get the green light from somebody whose piano playing I respect so much [was important],” Salvant said. “This is going along with the whole idea that I’m not going to censor things anymore. I would have in the past, but [now] it doesn’t matter how simply I play the piano or how non-virtuosic it is. I’m going to include it.”

In this same spirit of creative license, Salvant pulled texts for two of her originals from an unlikely source: a short, quirky podcast by host Robyn O’Neil. In crafting the lyrics to “Obligation,” the shortest track on the album, Salvant extrapolated from one of O’Neil’s catchphrases to create her own: “Promises lead to expectations, which lead to resentments.” Half spoken, half sung, these words set up Fortner for a rambunctious free improvisation — a deft and droll commentary on the pitfalls of romantic entanglements.

But Salvant’s “Dead Poplar,” also inspired by an O’Neil podcast reading, stands in contrast with the comedic diversion of “Obligation.” The text for this reflective through-composed piece derives from a letter by photographer Alfred Stieglitz to his wife, the painter Georgia O’Keefe. In this writing, he spoke matter-of-factly of his mundane world, interjecting random phrases extolling their deep love.

Moved by this poetic missive, Salvant hung a copy of the letter on her piano, eventually placing the words in a chamber jazz setting. She uses the song, she says, as a mnemonic device, written as much for herself as for her listeners.

“The point of a song is to be able to remember and memorize a beautiful set of words,” she said. “There’s no better way to memorize things but to sing them over and over again.”

Similarly, Salvant asserts the restorative power of song in the penultimate track, “Thunderclouds.”

While suffering a bout of insomnia, she had stumbled upon writer Colette’s quote describing this affliction as an oasis, a refuge for the suffering. This hopeful, but uncommon, sentiment fuels the song’s soothing melodicism and softly brushing rhythms.

“The [Colette] quote is in the same spirit of the song,” Salvant said. “There’s a beauty to what you think is a negative thing.”

In Salvant’s case, such positivity seems well-founded, even as the pandemic continues to churn. For the first part of 2022, she’ll be touring globally. In May, she’ll present the album in a release concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center. And the new grants will allow her to pursue the development of Ogresse, her multi-genre, cross-disciplinary drama. Ultimately, she would like to develop the project as a feature-length animated film.

“I was extremely grateful to be recognized, and the validation is insane,” Salvant said, referring to the 2020 prizes and the boost they give to her artistic profile. “Ogresse is very tied up in these awards because we need to raise a significant amount of money to pay animators for years of work on this project. It’s very labor intensive.”

In some ways, this forward motion in Salvant’s career belies the ethos of the new album: When she speaks of her plans, she hardly seems mired in remembrances of things past. But a hint to this turnaround lies, perhaps, in Ghost Song’s final track, the traditional English air “Unquiet Grave.”

Reflecting the album opener, Salvant again sings a capella in the moody sean-nós style, for the song’s entirety. In this tale, however, the ghost carries a different message for the mourner who refuses to let go of her memories.

“For once, you have the story of a ghost telling the living person, ‘Go live your life,’” Salvant said. “I think that’s something I need to hear — snap out of it. But there’s something funny about being kicked out of a graveyard because you’re annoying the dead. They’re saying, ‘Get out of here! What are you doing?’” DB

Blue Note, Universal Partner To Launch Blue Note Africa

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Blue Note Africa will launch this spring with the May 27 release of South African pianist-composer Nduduzo Makhathini’s new album In The Spirit Of Ntu.

(Photo: Hugh Mdlalose)

Blue Note Records and Universal Music Group Africa have announced the creation of Blue Note Africa, a new imprint dedicated to signing jazz artists from across the African continent, bringing them to a global audience and promoting a cultural exchange of ideas that transcends borders. Blue Note Africa will launch this spring with the May 27 release of South African pianist-composer Nduduzo Makhathini’s new album In The Spirit Of Ntu.

“Blue Note has stood the test of time by continuing to adapt but keeping its focus on discovering and introducing jazz talent to the world,” said Sipho Dlamini, CEO of Universal Music Africa. “The opportunity to create Blue Note Africa and provide a channel for African jazz talent to have a home in the U.S., with a dedicated and passionate team led by a legend in his own right, Don Was, is very exciting. We can now walk the African jazz journey, from Cape to Cairo to California.”

“African music has been a major creative tributary for nearly every album in Blue Note’s extensive catalog,” said Blue Note President Don Was. “So it’s a great honor for us to partner with Sipho and his talented Universal Music Africa team in this new endeavor. Together, we will shine a global light on the incredible music emanating from Africa today.”

The exchange of ideas between American musicians and African musicians is a thread that runs throughout the entire progression of jazz music to this day. In 1947, the legendary American Jazz drummer and Blue Note artist Art Blakey visited Africa for the first time, a trip that was meant to take a few months but ended up lasting a couple years as Blakey travelled to Nigeria and Ghana. It was an experience that had a profound effect on Blakey, both religiously and musically, and led to a series of Blue Note albums that were deeply influenced by African percussion including Orgy In Rhythm (1957), Holiday For Skins (1958), and The African Beat (1962), the latter of which featured traditional African drummers including Solomon Ilori, who would release his own Blue Note album, African High Life, in 1963.

In the late 1950s, a fertile jazz scene began to develop in South Africa led by the trailblazing band The Jazz Epistles, a group inspired by American jazz groups (including Blakey’s Jazz Messengers) that featured trumpeter Hugh Masekela and pianist Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim). As the restrictions, censorship and violence of apartheid worsened in the early ’60s, Masekela and Ibrahim left the country and went on to become global ambassadors of South African jazz. But generations of South African jazz musicians also stayed, enduring the hardships of apartheid but managing to create a distinctive and vibrant jazz scene that continues to flourish today.

Pianist McCoy Tyner further explored African-American connections on his late-’60s and early-’70s Blue Note albums with pieces like “African Village,” “Message From The Nile” and “Asante.” In 2008, Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke released Karibu, the first of several boundary-pushing Blue Note albums that blended the sounds of both continents.

In 2018, Universal Music Group Africa signed pianist-composer Nduduzo Makhathini, a leader of the current South African jazz scene whose second UMG album, Modes Of Communication: Letters From The Underworlds, was released jointly on Blue Note Records. The album drew wide acclaim across Africa, Europe and the United States, with DownBeat naming Nduduzo among its “25 for the Future,” a short list of jazz artists with the potential to shape the genre. DB

Spirited Big Ears Festival Embraces Experimental Outlook

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​Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire performs with the trio Trefoil at this year’s Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee.

(Photo: Billie Wheeler)

During the opening concert of this year’s Big Ears Festival, a train roared by just as the Kronos Quartet leaned into Michael Gordon’s vigorous “The Sad Park,” prompting violinist David Harrington to comment, “That train was great!”

Such a cheerful embrace of the accidental and the ambient was much in the spirit of John Cage, whose experimental outlook informed much of Big Ears, as did the improvisatory spirit of jazz, summed up nicely at a concert by pianist Jason Moran, who thanked the crowd for “coming out to hear music where you don’t know how it ends.”

Taking a chance is what Big Ears is all about, and fans were hungry for it. Having been frustrated by COVID-induced cancellations for two years running, record crowds flocked back to the quaint college town of Knoxville, Tennessee, for the expanded 2022 festival, which ran March 24–27. Over four days in 15 venues, including two classic vintage theaters and a pair of acoustically gorgeous churches, the festival presented more than 150 concerts, conversations and films, embracing a genre-blind esthetic that recalled the New Music America festivals of the 1990s. Where else could you experience in just one day the celestial vocals of Pakistani singer (now Grammy winner) Arooj Aftab, an intimate gallery recital and revealing Q&A by featured artist John Zorn, an immaculate greatest hits show by performance artist/vocalist Meredith Monk and a break-your-heart-beautiful tribute to recently deceased Denver cornetist Ron Miles by guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Jason Moran, drummer Brian Blade and bassist Thomas Morgan?

Even amid such wild diversity, themes emerged. One that stood out was that music need not be abrasive or dissonant to qualify as avant-garde. Some of the most engaging concerts featured string quartets with beautiful blends, not just Kronos, but New York’s Attaca, which accompanied another 2022 Grammy winner, vocalist and composer Caroline Shaw, in heavenly variations on the Appalachian classic “I’ll Fly Away.” There was also Chicago’s Spektral Quartet, which with alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón performed his eight-part suite Soy la Tradición, a seamless blend of improvisation, New World rhythms and chamber music elegance. The subtly captivating trio Trefoil (Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Kris Davis, piano; Gerald Cleaver, drums) also highlighted how purely improvised music can be mysterious, challenging and alluring without banging listeners over the head.

And while the festival didn’t make a big deal of it, the strength of women in music also emerged as a clear theme, too. The programming made apparent how veteran stars like Monk and Patti Smith, who delivered a wonderfully casual and intimate acoustic show that included readings from her book Just Kids, have paved the way for a new generation that includes Shaw, stardom-bound New Orleans reedist/vocalist Aurora Nealand and soulful young English saxophonist Nubya Garcia, whose enormous sound was startling.

But many Big Ears patrons were there to see a 68-year-old man — John Zorn — whose mini-festival-within-the-festival featured eight concerts of his compositions played by or with others, a format he has adopted of late, most recently in Hamburg, Germany. The Zorn marathon not only highlighted his one-of-a-kind alto saxophone virtuosity but also his scope, which included jagged, stop-and-start improvisation, intricately composed pieces that sounded like improvisation (especially when played by the dazzling vibraphonist Sae Hashimoto), celebratory Jewish tunes (New Masada Quartet) played with Ornette Coleman-like fervor, and even a sublime country rock set of his and Jesse Harris’ tunes by Petra Haden. The Zorn focus also underlined how influential William Burroughs’ “cut-up” concept has been on his writing, with the many sudden changeups from loud-hard-fast to quiet-slow-soft making the music sound as if it were proceeding on simultaneous alternate planes.

In an onstage interview at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Zorn compared his use of loud surprises to the squawking parrot transition in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which Welles put in, Zorn said, “to make sure the audience hadn’t fallen asleep,” though the only time there was any chance of that was when Zorn sat down at the organ at St. John’s Cathedral and delivered what sounded mostly like a random series of noises.

John Hollenbeck closed Big Ears with a wonderful new quartet called GEORGE (named for George Floyd) that showcased Nealand imbuing the haunting sea chantey “The Grey Funnel Line” with jagged punk inflections. When the band stopped, Hollenbeck offered yet another summation of the Big Ears esthetic, thanking Executive Director Ashley Capps for “booking a band that has not only never played together, but had never even met.” DB

Jazz Labels Collaborate on Relief Effort

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Jon Batiste delivers a vocal-and-piano version of “Sweet Lorraine” on the Relief album.

(Photo: Justin French)

The word unprecedented was a mainstay of 2020 conversations, and for mostly negative reasons. But the pandemic also produced a historic first among jazz recording labels, as Blue Note Records, Concord Music Group, Mack Avenue Music Group, Nonesuch Records, the Verve Label Group and Warner Music Group collaborated to release the nine-track Relief: A Benefit For Jazz Foundation Of America’s Musicians’ Emergency Fund compilation album.

“It was this time of great panic, fear, anxiety, uncertainty,” recalled Joseph Petrucelli, Jazz Foundation of America executive director, reflecting back to March 2020. “The labels’ wanting to partner with JFA was enormously reassuring and stabilizing for the foundation.” JFA initially set up a COVID-19 Musicians’ Emergency Fund, and the aforementioned labels “were just hugely important in generating the seed funding,” he said.

“Then the idea came from Denny [Stilwell, president of Mack Avenue Records], ‘What if we did a benefit album, where every label was able to donate a meaningful track or two from our rosters and create an unprecedented cooperation and collaboration?’ And it all started from there,” said Jamie Krents, executive vice president of Verve and Impulse!

“Geoffrey Menin deserves a lot of credit for helping put this together,” Stilwell deferred. A media and entertainment lawyer and a JFA board member, Menin “was the guy who helped put together a very simple legal framework to make all this work for everyone much easier. The labels donate the profits, the artists were donating their royalties and the writers were donating mechanicals.”

“The closest precedent that I could think of for this kind of partnership was when Universal and Sony — Verve and Columbia, basically — collaborated on the soundtracks to the Ken Burns Jazz documentary,” Krents noted.

“There’s no question we all have our own businesses that we have to tend to,” Stilwell said. “At the same time, there was a sense of camaraderie, because we’re all part of the same community. And this was a blow to our community.”

“It actually created a nice sense of camaraderie. We’ll always be competitors, in theory,” Krents pointed out. “But it has allowed us to get to know each other a little better outside of the normal context. And maybe it set the table to do other such things in the future — a volume two, perhaps.”

Due to supply chain and vinyl manufacturing issues, the two-LP version of Relief was delayed. But both vinyl and CD are available now, as well as streaming options.

Relief is also available as a special Vinyl Me Please aqua-colored release. The online store and record club pressed 1,000 numbered copies.

Available now at store.jazzfoundation.org, the compilation manages to encapsulate the many moods of the lockdown era. The program opens with “back to who,” a duo track from IRMA and LEO (Esperanza Spalding and Leo Genovese).

“They kick it off with the sense of agitation and anxiety and energy that’s been very familiar throughout the pandemic,” Petrucelli observed. Recorded asynchronously, it’s one of four solo or duo tracks along with Jon Batiste’s vocal-and-piano version of “Sweet Lorraine,” Cécile McLorin Salvant’s “Easy Come, Easy Go Blues” and a “2020 Version” of Hiromi’s “Green Tea Farm.”

“Those all evoke the intimacy of home recordings or home livestreams that people did” during lockdown,” Petrucelli pointed out.

Christian McBride’s “Brother Malcom” and Charles Lloyd & Kindred Spirits’ interpretation of “Lift Every Voice And Sing” both “speak to the George Floyd protests against the racist violence in the country,” Petrucelli said. Kenny Garrett’s “Joe Hen’s Waltz” and Joshua Redman’s “Facts” (with bandmates Ron Miles, Scott Colley and Brian Blade from 2018’s Still Dreaming album) were two of the album’s four digital singles.

The live Lloyd recording and also the closing track, Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy” (as performed by its composer in a supergroup with Herbie Hancock, Wallace Roney, Buster Williams and Albert “Tootie” Heath at JFA’s 2014 A Great Night in Harlem gala), “take us to that live-performance setting that everyone was missing earlier in the pandemic,” Petrucelli said. With Heath’s passing in January 2020 and Roney being an early victim of COVID-19 in late March 2020, Petrucelli said he “gets chills thinking about it.”

Reflecting on the project, Stilwell concluded, “It’s one of those things where the universe just kind of makes things happen when you’re trying to do the right thing.” DB