Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Burning Down Fillmore East

If you grew up listening to music in the 1960s, you believed in the magic that could come only from a recording studio. Despite the dominance of 45 rpm singles in the early years of the decade, it was the era of the studio album—40-45 minutes of music sequenced to create an immersive listening experience. Our heroes—Jimi Hendrix, Traffic, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles—worked with producers and engineers to produce sonic effects and blends of sounds that could not be replicated in concert. Guitar amplifiers and PA systems were not powerful, or subtle, enough to allow musicians—even those as skilled as Hendrix or Jeff Beck—to reproduce the kind of effects they could achieve in the studio, and 10,000 fans could easily overcome anemic sound systems if they decided to scream their support rather than sit back and listen.

Slightly younger musicians like Duane and Gregg Allman, Berry Oakley and Dickey Betts came of age on the cusp of change. By the time they had worked their way through the bands of their teens and came together in Jacksonville, Florida in 1969 to form The Allman Brothers Band, they could set their sights on obtaining state-of-the-art equipment like Marshall amplifiers and guitars that had been hot rodded by enthusiasts who understood that pickups, volume pots and internal wiring could be hopped up to take advantage of 50 or 100 watts of tube amplification. (A few years ago, sitting in as a guest on Steve Van Zandt's SiriusXM radio program, Bruce Springsteen laughed himself hoarse remembering the day that he and Van Zandt learned that the guitars they owned could only sound like those their heroes played if they turned them up to 10 and jacked them into high-wattage amplifiers.)

Duane Allman was no stranger to guitar distortion by the time he formed his ultimate band. Early photos show him playing a Fender Telecaster tricked out with an onboard Vox fuzz box, and a set of B.B. King-associated songs recorded by his band Hour Glass in April 1968 illustrate the gritty, fuzz-heavy tone he preferred, and could achieve, at the time. Shortly after, using a Fender Stratocaster and a Fender amplifier, he began putting his signature sound on recordings by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, and others.

By the time The Allman Brothers Band coalesced, Duane was under contract to Phil Walden, the Macon, Georgia-based music entrepreneur who had backed the meteoric rise of singer Otis Redding. A few weeks later, when Gregg broke away from his recording contract with Liberty Records in Los Angeles and joined the band, Walden had begun bankrolling the as-yet-unnamed band, setting up an account for them with Lipham Music in Gainesville, Florida. Their first purchases were the kinds of instruments they hadn't been able to afford to that point. Duane switched guitar brands, getting himself a Gibson ES-345 with a fat sound, and then a gold 1957 Gibson Les Paul with PAF pickups, which he soon swapped into a 1959 Les Paul with a cherry sunburst finish. He and Betts began feeding their guitars through Marshalls, giving them a deep, powerful presence onstage. In early 1971, Duane landed the guitar of his dreams: an extraordinary 1958 Les Paul with a highly distinctive "tobacco" sunburst finish. Paired with a 50-watt Marshall and played primarily with bare fingers, the guitar gave him a full, round, lush sound with an unusual amount of edge. It was the ideal match for Betts' 1957 Les Paul—played through a 100-watt Marshall—and Oakley's highly resonant Fender Jazz Bass, which he had customized with Guild pickups and played through a Fender 400 PS amp.

Although all of the band members were in their mid- or early 20s, they each had a wealth of onstage experience, and what had brought them together that spring in Jacksonville was an intense level of inner-band communication. Most ambitious musicians in those years brought a myriad of influences to any situation, but the members of this band were unusually broad in their listening experiences, and it was Duane's particular genius to understand how they all might fit together. He recruited Jai Johanny Johanson (Jaimoe) because of his experience with soul singers, his loose feel for rhythm and his love of post-bop jazz musicians like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Roland Kirk. Instinctively, he knew Jaimoe would mesh in interesting ways with Butch Trucks, a well-schooled percussionist who (by his own admission, years later) was both withdrawn emotionally and unused to mixing with blacks like Jaimoe. Duane recognized that tension could be a positive thing if it was properly channeled. Dickey Betts grew up loving Southern fiddle music, but he also had developed a strong affinity for guitar-driven rock like The Yardbirds and Jefferson Airplane. He had a gift for creating distinctive, riff-based melodies, and a terrific ear for harmony. Berry Oakley had been a guitarist before he switched to bass, so he offered a strong third lead voice, but most importantly he was one of those rare musicians who played without ego; always looking for opportunities to add to a situation to make it better, and communicate to listeners. The missing piece was Duane's other musical half—the younger brother who could, by turns, infuriate him and enthral him. Where Duane was bold and driven, Gregg was wary and prone to taking the easy route, but he had the ability to open his throat and let out a voice that was as steeped in pain, loneliness and frustration as any of his blues-singing predecessors. And, together, Duane and Gregg Allman were stronger than they were apart; they drove each other with a power that only comes from years of sibling rivalry and love.

And that's the mix that The Allman Brothers Band took on the road. They piled into the back of a Ford Econoline van, crammed head to foot across the width of the vehicle, and drove. They played as often as they could. When they didn't have a paying gig, Oakley would encourage them to set up in a park and play for free. By the time the band had graduated to a Winnebago motor home—a step up from the Econoline, but hardly luxurious—they were maintaining a ridiculous touring scheduling, criss-crossing the U.S. to stay in front of audiences, trying to build their reputation. While their first two albums—The Allman Brothers Band and Idlewild South—received only scant notice, their live shows won them fans wherever they set down.

Duane Allman quickly recognized this, and as early as 1970 began telling whoever would listen that the band's third album would be two LPs recorded live. It was an unprecedented move; one that showed both his arrogance and his vision.

Promoter Bill Graham's Fillmore East on New York City's Lower East Side had been one of the band's favourite places to play since they had first performed there—opening for Blood, Sweat & Tears—in December 1969. There was something in the work ethic and attitude of the young band that won the notoriously tough Graham over, and when Graham was in your corner, you would get opportunities to get noticed. He was enthusiastic about booking them both in New York and at the original Fillmore in San Francisco, and those venues provided bi-coastal stopping points for the band's tours throughout 1970 and early '71. When Duane Allman finally convinced Walden and Walden's Atlantic Records overseer, legendary R&B producer Jerry Wexler, to agree with his idea for a live album, the Fillmore East was an obvious choice. Wexler booked a mobile recording truck to capture the band's six sets on March 11-13, 1971.

The resulting double album, At Fillmore East, has lodged itself at, or near, the top of many boomers' list of live recordings. Released quickly in July '71, it grabbed people's ears immediately—combining terse, tightly focused blues numbers like Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" and Elmore James' "Done Somebody Wrong" with loping instrumental originals—"Hot 'Lanta" and "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed"—and two epic improvisatory pieces, "Whipping Post" and "You Don't Love Me." The band's sound, captured by veteran, simpatico producer Tom Dowd, was exceptional—the sonic personalities of Duane and Betts contrasted extremely well, Oakley's bass clean and clear, the drummers well separated and distinct in the sound mix.

In my group of friends, At Fillmore East rapidly became a staple at parties—something that experience has informed me was repeated around North America.

I think there are several factors—aside from the music itself—that account for At Fillmore East finding its way to as many ears as it did in '71.

First, was Jim Marshall's iconic black-and-white cover photograph of the band, and the decision to run the photo as a "full bleed" to take up the entire album cover. The photograph, with its brick wall and stacked road cases—which many incorrectly assumed was taken outside the Fillmore East—held some mystery and seemed to tell a story. Something is clearly going on: Gregg Allman has his head thrown back in laughter; Oakley is grinning and gesturing with his right hand; Betts has slouched to his left to look at Duane; and Duane is wearing a cheshire grin, his hands folded in his lap.

"Did Duane just fart?" asked one my buddies, assuming the Allmans were a jovial bunch of frat-boyish jokers.

The truth is darker and more complex: It was a grey, cold morning in Macon when Marshall got the Allmans' road crew, which is pictured on the back of the album, to stack the band's gear in a downtown alley. The band, which was never enthusiastic about posing for photographs, had been partying the previous night and arrived for the photo shoot surly and hungover. Alternative shots from the day show the band staring glumly at Marshall's lens. Everyone was growing tense. Suddenly, Duane spotted one of his drug connections across the street, and he infuriated Marshall by jumping up and trotting over to score. Just what he was scoring remains conjecture, but the sorry fact is that, by this point, Duane was in the grips of both heroin and cocaine addiction, and both he and some of his bandmates were beginning to realize the drug abuse was taking the brilliance away from his playing and from the band's communication.

Regardless, the drug score lightened the mood, and when Duane popped back into his position atop an upturned bass drum box (and one can imagine him drawling to Marshall something like, "Okay, man, you can continue now.") the band broke up with laughter.

A second factor in getting the album noticed was a deal between Atlantic Records and Rolling Stone magazine to make At Fillmore East a subscription bonus throughout the summer months. I got my first of many copies of the album—complete with the rare pink Capricorn Records label—by signing up for a magazine subscription.

Third, is the phenomenon that occurs every time a notable musician dies. When the news broke that Duane Allman had died in a motorcycle accident in Macon on October 29, 1971, interest in At Fillmore East spiked. Sometimes, these posthumous sales spurts can be morbid curiosity, sometimes a tribute to the dead musician. In this case, I think it was more a realization that this band, which had reached its zenith with this live recording, would never be the same. The lightning had escaped the bottle. The Allman Brothers Band would go on to much bigger fame—becoming the most-popular band in the U.S. between 1973-76—but, deep down, those of us who knew the band's music understood that the peaks of At Fillmore East would not be reached again.

So, the album has become a talisman, a lesson in the ephemeral nature of art, and an enduring artifact from a very engaging time in rock music. Rolling Stone placed it at #49 on its list of 500 best recordings. In 2004, the Library of Congress named At Fillmore East to its National Recording Registry of important recordings.

But, everyone knew there was more; after all, the band had played three nights. Where was the rest of what Dowd recorded that week?

With some bands, that question might not matter. Some artists hit the stage and churn out basically the same show every time. Even legendary live performers like Springsteen don't often stray far from the tried-and-true. But The Allman Brothers Band was closer to a jazz ensemble than a standard rock band. Every show was different, and the premature deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley meant that there are only so many opportunities to hear them interact in well-recorded settings.

Finally, 43 years after the fact, The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings delivers the goods: five CDs from the band's mid-March stand and a sixth from the last show at Fillmore East on June 27, which was previously released on a deluxe version of Eat A Peach. (It must be noted that this is not the June '71 show that everyone pines for; the night that Duane Allman dragged his Les Paul off the stage as sunlight streamed through an open door and he remarked to Graham, "It's just like church, Bill." That show appears lost to the ages; even inveterate Allman collectors I've encountered claim that it was either not recorded or has been erased.)

Even now, though, a few of the goods from March are missing. Like many open-minded and eternally searching musicians, Duane Allman was not satisfied with the six-member Allman Brothers Band, as difficult as that is to fathom. Like Hendrix before him, he had visions of a large ensemble that could play the band's catalogue with greater texture and volume than the six-man band could muster. In a radio interview, he alluded to his desire to scoop an unnamed musician from another band. One suspects now that the musician in question was percussionist Bobby Caldwell, then a member of guitarist Johnny Winter's band. Whenever possible, Duane would invite his fishing buddy Thom Doucette to sit in on harmonica, and when Doucette—who preferred fishing to committing to a band full time and riding in a Winnebago—was not available Duane would sometimes switch to music journalist Tony Glover, who had played harp in an influential blues band in the mid-'60s. Duane heard horns, too, and for reasons that went to the grave with him, he decided to introduce them to fans on his band's third album.

As Jaimoe told writer Alan Paul for his thorough oral history, One Way Out: An Inside History Of The Allman Brothers Band, the two horn players—Rudolph "Juicy" Carter and "Tic" from Charlotte, North Carolina—had played with him in Percy Sledge's band. In the spirit that pervaded the band's early days living in Jacksonville and Macon, and jamming for free in the parks, Duane would sometimes invite them to sit in unrehearsed. Former road manager Willie Perkins told Paul that Duane was also open to their presence because they supplied him with heroin.

Whatever the arrangement, the horns were onstage on March 11, opening night of the three-date stand at the Fillmore. Dowd, who had flown in from Europe the previous day and had no idea the horns would be included, was livid. As the band came offstage, he demanded: What was Duane thinking? Perhaps he was thinking about nothing more than getting high and giving Jaimoe's friends a chance to fit themselves in, but Dowd was having none of it. He nixed the idea, and presumably, since not a note remains of the experiment, erased the tape from the opening night. Although Duane agreed with the producer about not making a horn section a permanent addition, he prevailed upon him to allow Carter to take another shot at a couple of songs the next night.

So we jump in as the band opens up on March 12, with Duane telling the crowd that the band was recording a live album. Having heard a half-dozen or more recordings of the band prior to and after the March Fillmore dates, I know that dissecting various takes of the band's blues standards is kind of a mug's game. Each version has strengths and weaknesses, and while hearing four versions of "Statesboro Blues" or Muddy Waters' "Trouble No More" back to back might leave you with a preference for one or another, you might just as easily want to turn into producer Teo Macero and start producing a Frankenstein version of all four. Although my ears are attuned to the versions on At Fillmore East (probably the album that I've heard more than any other, with the possible exception of Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited or Miles Davis' Jack Johnson) I think Gregg's voice sounds better on the opening show; at least, his articulation is better.

The real fun comes when the band begins to stretch out, and as I've done in published reviews of Coltrane's box sets of live recordings, I like to note the interesting points of different versions rather than go through a note-by-note dissection of the various versions.

As soon as Carter steps to the microphone with his soprano saxophone on Betts' "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed" you can tell what Duane had in mind for him. He must have envisioned that Carter could wrap his horn around Betts' guitar the way that Coltrane and Davis could intertwine (or, indeed, the way he and Betts could harmonize). But Carter is not that player, and Betts does not sound all that interested in making space for him. Carter tries to blend, but he's off key, and he winds up obscuring Duane's beautiful harmonic smears behind Betts' modulated introductory solo. Carter is late coming in for his solo (so odd to hear him there when you are expecting Duane!) and frankly, he just does not have much to say. He has obviously listened to Coltrane (anyone who played soprano in those years had) but his contributions sound disjointed, and his sound is so muted that the rest of the band powers right over him. That his solo wins applause before he gives way to Duane may only confirm what we have long believed about the state of audiences at the Fillmore East in 1971. I cannot be as charitable as them. (By the way, to hear what could be done with "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed" using saxophone, I recommend listening to David "Fathead" Newman's take on it when he was in flutist Herbie Mann's band. The studio version is a bit anemic-sounding, but I heard them play it live one night in the late '70s and it raised hairs.)

To my mind, the band members never topped the version of "You Don't Love Me" they performed at A&R Studios for radio broadcast in the days following saxophonist King Curtis' murder, but there is much to chew on with the two unheard versions included here (three were actually played, but At Fillmore East contained a version that Dowd had stitched together from the version from March 12th's late show and March 13th's early show. The reason for that piece of post-production surgery becomes evident early in the March 12th version, when Gregg blows his entry on organ. That is compounded by a somewhat muddled solo by Betts. The piece just isn't gelling. And then Duane steps in. What follows is one of the best exchanges to be heard between him and Betts. In his opening statement, Duane's sound is incredibly hot and burnished—his volume up so loud you can hear every movement his fingers make on the strings. Betts moves back in with tremendous urgency, and both drummers are kicking hard, propelling him forward, and his ability to create melodic runs on the fly is really showcased. If you ever wonder why Duane Allman wanted Betts in his band, this is the solo to listen to; he never sounded better. Naturally, that only prompted Duane to weigh back in with something even tastier: an incredibly raw-sounding romp that begins with train horn blasts and continues in and out of tempo until some Fillmore wag yells a perfectly timed comment for the ages—"Play all night!" Indeed.

By contrast, the back end of "You Don't Love Me" from March 13, which Dowd discarded, sounds absolutely fine, just not transcendent. Betts does not lock in with the drummers as well, following a somewhat unfocused intro by Duane, and then Duane's main solo lacks the drama and timing of the previous night. What it does have is some astounding back-and-forth between the guitarists, which illustrates just how well they could feed each other ideas.

Which brings us to "Whipping Post," one of the handful of songs that Gregg is credited with composing for the band's first recording. He has, and rightfully so, given credit to Oakley for taking the song to a different level, by giving it its near-demonic drive and somewhat off-kilter feel. To me, the song—and the way the band extrapolated from its core when they performed it live—has always epitomized them: Gregg's hard-done-by lyrics, the Southern gothic imagery of a public flogging, the manic charge of the tempo, the opening for guitar improvisation. It has it all, and it lives so fully in the March 13th show, by which time it was about 5 a.m., that you can barely imagine what two other versions might hold in store.

The performance of it from the second set on March 12 is notable for some interesting volume dynamics Betts creates, sounding almost like an electric cello at one point, but those who love the released version will likely feel that Duane cues Gregg's closing vocals a bit too soon, robbing the ending of some of its power. The opening set's version on March 13 has a particularly strong opening section, with Duane playing with more ferocity than on the released version. Betts' solo is slower to take off, however, and there is less suspense to its construction, making the final release a bit less dramatic. Still, a fine version, and one that shows that the band had a variety of ways of getting to the same conclusion.

In the end, given this much extraordinary, and highly varied material to work with, one gains a much better appreciation for how Dowd showcased the best of this band—both in the sound he captured from the stage of the Fillmore and in the decisions he made in post-production. The pacing and song choices on At Fillmore East helped make it the cherished recording it is, putting it on par with any studio recording of its era because of the same level of skill—both onstage and off—that was applied to it.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Six Months' Of Listening

Never one to resist the latest web trend, especially when the days are long and slow, I'll throw in my bids for the recordings that have caught my ear at the halfway mark of 2014.

In chronological order as I received them:

  1. Alfredo Rodriguez – The Invasion Parade (Mack Avenue)
  2. Vijay Iyer – Mutations (ECM)
  3. Ambrose Akinmusire – The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint (Blue Note)
  4. Oran Etkin – Gathering Light (Motéma)
  5. Sonny Rollins – Road Shows, Vol. 3 (Okeh)
  6. Dave Douglas & Uri Caine – Present Joys (Greenleaf)
  7. Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio – Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio (Concord Jazz)
  8. Wolfgang Muthspiel/Larry Grenadier/Brian Blade – Driftwood (ECM)
  9. Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden – Last Dance (ECM)
  10. John Coltrane – Offering: Live at Temple University (Impulse!/Resonance)
Can you read anything into my list—say, the fact that Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane are there? Probably not, and you shouldn't assume that anything else I may have heard in the first half of the year will not make it to my final list for 2014; that's not necessarily the way I either listen to, or 'hear', things. I usually check out earlier releases as time allows, and some things that strike me the first few times I hear them won't stay with me when I do my final review sometime in the fall. But that's the list for now.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Memory Belongs To Us

Whenever the topic of Keith Jarrett comes up between me and my wife—not an unusual occurrence, given how he is one of the few jazz artists we both love in equal measure—one of us will recall what we remember as one of the most sublime musical experiences we've shared.

It happened at one of the two concerts by Jarrett's Standards Trio we caught together at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal during the time when our older daughter lived in the city's Old Port, just a short, romantic walk from the festival's venues.

Our collective faded memory has shrouded most details of the concert (Was it the time that Jarrett went off on a rant about the francophone media? or Was it the night that we convinced each other that the woman seated in the row in front of us bore a striking resemblance to a notorious serial killer?) but what we both recall with crystal recollection is the version of "You Belong To Me" the trio played.

Did Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock even play on the tune? Who knows. All we recall is the extraordinary improvisation that Jarrett reeled out. I've always enjoyed the Patti Page version of the song, which has been covered by everyone from Dean Martin to Gene Vincent to The Misfits (one of our younger daughter's favourite punk bands), but Jarrett's interpretation took the song far beyond anything that had been recorded in the dozen popular versions.

It was, perhaps—actually, memory says there is no perhaps about it—the most moving thing we've heard Jarrett play, and we have spent no small amount of time listening to him. And yet, a search of Jarrett's database shows that he has never released a version of the song. There are multiple interpretations of various pop standards from the same era, but no "You Belong To Me."

Once, knowing that my friend Nobu Stowe—a Japanese pianist who plays in a style akin to Jarrett's—was interviewing Jarrett for a Japanese publication, I inveigled him to ask why he had never included a version of the song on one of the trio's many live recordings. According to Stowe, Jarrett recalled the Montreal performance and shrugged.

So, without recorded evidence of the brilliance we recall, the performance—Jarrett's stunningly gorgeous inventions and extrapolations of the harmony and melody—haunts us, coming up repeatedly in our conversations.

At this point, we are almost at the point where we don't want to hear it. It could never live up to our memories, and that is so much the essence of great improvisation. It lives in the moment, is enjoyed, forms memories without our even knowing it, and is gone.

Keith: If, by some odd chance, you encounter this, release a version of "You Belong To Me" at your own risk. Our standards are high.

Trane Time

Few artists who attract rabid fans have bifurcated careers that divide those followers like John Coltrane. Even his longtime employer, Miles Davis—who lost legions of fans when he adopted electric music in 1968—won people back late in his career.

A Love Supreme is usually the dividing line for Coltrane listeners. Most who swear allegiance to the saxophonist can't abide the music he made after he replaced pianist McCoy Tyner with Alice Coltrane and Elvin Jones ceded the drum chair to Rashied Ali. The addition of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders—who, at 24, introduced a fury of multiphonic overblowing to the ensemble—sealed the deal. Listeners who were willing to follow Coltrane's explorations on "My Favorite Things" and "Afro-Blue" were not prepared to open their ears for the full-blown sonic onslaught of Live In Seattle or Ascension.

But, for those whose love for Coltrane is unconditional—and I count myself among them, having devoured Live In Seattle with the same gusto as Giant Steps when I was about 18—it is time to rejoice. This year brings a much-discussed 1966 concert to commercial release. A joint project of Universal Music, which now controls the Impulse! imprint, and Resonance Records, Offering: Live At Temple University is 90-plus minutes of Coltrane at his most ecstatic, just eight months before he succumbed to liver cancer. Recorded on November 11, 1966, before about 700 people, the concert features the core of Coltrane's quintet (with Sonny Johnson subbing for Garrison) along with a quartet of Philadelphia percussionists and guest appearances by two local saxophonists.

I have the pleasure of delving into the release from a number of angles for a forthcoming DownBeat magazine feature, which is providing the opportunity to think deeply about Coltrane's musical journey and trade thoughts with some others who have committed significant time to this kind of exploration, including writer/historian Ashley Kahn (who wrote the liner notes for the set), baritone saxophonist and jazz educator David Mott, young saxophonist Jon Irabagon, and others. This week holds promise of the opportunity to discuss the performance with Sanders, the sole remaining principal.

This is intense exploration.

"Coltrane's saxophone sounds like it is about to explode; it's under so much pressure," said Mott, who is no slouch at pumping tremendous volume through his own horn.

"I hear tremendous urgency in his playing," said Kahn, whose books on the recording of A Love Supreme and on the history of Impulse! have provided him with unmatched access to the Coltrane oeuvre.

Seldom have musicians approached music making with as much energy and single-mindedness as Coltrane at this late point in his short life. Although there is a definite 'shape' to the concert (he bookends the performance with "Naima" and "My Favorite Things," two of his best-known vehicles) there is no doubt that it defines what we think about the musician who poured everything he had into every solo and didn't stop playing until he had exhausted the possibilities of expression.

Much is made of Coltrane's vocalizing at this performance, which includes some radical effects created by pounding on his own chest, but that is in keeping with the arc of expression introduced in the first movement of A Love Supreme and the Seattle concert with Sanders. The point to be made from this departure from the saxophone as a means of expression is that this is a man who was fully engaged in the act of communication.

For those whose love of Coltrane extends only as far as 1965, who sometimes find the later works 'unmusical': They may have a point. This is expression beyond music, beyond what anyone had previously done.

It's impossible, of course, to know if Coltrane was aware that death was close at hand, or to know where his muse would've taken him following these final concerts and the few studio sessions held in early '67 had he survived. It is possible, hearing the level of ecstatic release at this Temple University concert to believe that this is a level of ecstatic release and musical/spiritual connection that could never again be attained.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Best Jazz Recordings of 2013

Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette: Somewhere (ECM) – The pianist’s so-called Standards Trio marked its 30th anniversary with a live recording from 2009 that is exceptional in both execution and breadth of programming. From my five-star  DownBeat review: “As Jarrett’s other endeavours have receded and the trio has grown into one of the jazz world’s most sought-after concert acts, the unit has become a vehicle for the pianist’s various signatures. In fact, Somewhere serves up a cross-section of pianistic styles beyond Jarrett’s native devices, touching on stride for a highly percussive “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” and bop for a steaming “Tonight.”

Myra Melford: Life Carries Me This Way (Firehouse 12) – A new recording by the Chicago native, now living and teaching in the Bay Area, is always a cause for close listening, and this solo recording repays that investment many times over. Like Marilyn Crispell, Melford has begun to temper her highly percussive, hard-edged playing with a more lyrical approach, and, although they still contain many thorny phrases and atonal turns, the 11 pieces on Life Carries Me This Way are among her most melodic and moving.

Charles Lloyd/Jason Moran: Hagar’s Song (ECM) – Lloyd and Moran seem to have a special relationship; the veteran saxophonist—who has engaged a long series of exceptional pianists, from Keith Jarrett to Geri Allen—beams onstage when Moran plays, and I have seen him dance with joy to the pianist’s accompaniment. Playing duets on pieces that range from Earl Hines and Duke Ellington to Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson, they sound like they were born to play together, both highly individual-sounding musicians with no prejudices about the provenance of their material.

Dave Douglas Quintet: Time Travel (Greenleaf Music) – It is tempting to view Dave Douglas’ recent recordings as a resurgence, but the trumpeter has never had a fallow period. Still, he seems to have found a way to take his composing and playing to a higher plane than he usually occupies, which is really saying something. Give some credit to his new-ish quintet, who provide him with an exceptionally broad set of voices and have the tools to follow him whether he moves in or out.

Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra: Habitat (Justin Time) – Like a technology start-up company in stealth mode, Montreal-based composer and alto saxophonist Jensen has quietly developed into a bandleader to be considered in the same terms as Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck, which is to say that her big band has a book full of exceptionally written and arranged compositions, and is chock full of terrific musicians to convey them. Although sister Ingrid Jensen is the highest profile soloist, the band has no shortage of star players. Personality abounds in both the writing and performing.

Chris Potter: The Sirens (ECM) – High concept recordings seldom live up to their central conceit, and when your guiding concept is to create a musical interpretation of Homer’s The Odyssey you are really setting sail on choppy seas. The much-recorded Potter—most valuable player on recordings by Dave Douglas, Dave Holland, Paul Motian, and numerous others—has never seemed to be a high concept kind of guy (not when compared to near-peer Joe Lovano, at least) but for an ECM debut so deep into your career, why not? Joined by a stellar crew (Craig Taborn and David Virelles on keyboards, Eric Harland, and Larry Grenadier) Potter scales new heights of lyricism and emotion here.

Julia Hülsmann Quartet: In Full View (ECM) – For the German pianist’s third recording for ECM,
she recruited 33-year-old British trumpeter Tom Arthurs, and he steals the show with romantic lyricism reminiscent of Kenny Wheeler, a warm tone and a storyteller’s melodic voice. Engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug achieves a depth and clarity that qualifies him as the fifth band member.

Ian Carey Quintet + 1: Roads and Codes (Kabocha) – Bay Area trumpeter Ian Carey was the discovery of the year for me. On the inventively conceived Roads and Codes, he made great use of his highly skilled band of improvisers by writing to their strengths—a lesson gleaned from his mentor Maria Schneider. The program—an arty mix of pieces by Neil Young, Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives and his own harmonically pleasing compositions—covers a lot of ground, and does it all well.

Ben Goldberg: Unfold Ordinary Mind (BAG Production) – One of two recordings that arrived simultaneously from clarinetist Goldberg, this one immediately grabbed the ear for its unusual lineup of three reeds (Goldberg, Ellery Eskelin, and Rob Sudduth), electric guitar (Nels Cline) and drums (Ches Smith). Intense and soulful, the band grooves hard and takes the kind of unexpected turns one might expect when Eskelin and Cline are onboard. Of the many bands on tap at January’s annual Winter Jazzfest in New York City, this one is at the top of my must-see list.

Quest: Circular Dreaming (Enja) – The co-operative quartet of Billy Hart, Richie Beirach, Ron McClure, and Dave Liebman channeled the music of Miles Davis’ mid-‘60s quintet. As I wrote in a four-star DownBeat review: “It’s not unusual to hear bands play (these) songs, composed primarily by Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams…but it’s rare to hear peers of Davis’ band members perform a full set of them, and do it this well.”

Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed, 1942-2013

"Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive."

Those words are a touchstone phrase of Bruce Springsteen's heroic "This Hard Land," but might serve as the artistic mission statement of Lou Reed.

As illustrated by the outpouring of sorrow and appreciation since his death was announced on Sunday afternoon, Reed had achieved the kind of status that Springsteen, Bob Dylan and only a few other songwriters from the '60s and '70s have reached.

Over the course of a 50-plus year career it's not unusual for artists to lose their focus, soften their edges, and take it easy on themselves and their audiences. Not Lou Reed. As those who knew him say, he had a soft side to be sure, but he was not a man who compromised his artistic vision. And, of course, God help the fools who thought he was just a jukebox who could be persuaded to regurgitate the decades-old songs they wanted to hear.

I last saw Reed in person at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal in a trio with his wife Laurie Anderson and John Zorn. I can't imagine that anyone would approach that setting with the hope that the musicians would set aside their own ideas to play "Walk On The Wild Side" or "Sweet Jane," but there were a few calls for those hits, and you could feel the tension rise each time an audience member voiced a request.

Eventually, Zorn suggested that anyone expecting to hear FM-friendly songs from Reed's catalogue should leave the room, and a number did. A few others launched catcalls against the thick slabs of electronic sounds that Reed, Anderson and Zorn created.

I've never understood people who don't have the patience to hear the latest idea created by artists who have moved them in the past, but Reed summed it up nicely in something he said to journalist Martin Johnson, and quoted by Martin in a wonderful Facebook post this morning: "Sometimes you have to remember that the audience just doesn't have ears. They have these little things attached to the side of their heads, but they don't know how to use them."

Reed took his cues from the uncompromising artists he admired, and we are the richer for it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ronald Shannon Jackson, 1940-2013

I'm currently listening, filled with emotion, to a 17-hour live radio tribute to drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson on WKCR-FM. I had just arrived at the Quebec City Jazz Festival when I learned that Jackson had died of leukemia.

Jackson's music was a mainstay of the radio program I co-hosted with my friend Don Lahey in the early 1980s, and I continue to feel that he was one of the most creative composers of that rich era. As a drummer? Well, as a former drum student who once convinced my teacher to break down a typical Jackson fill for me and teach me to play it, all I can say is that his ability behind the kit was superhuman. That shit was hard!

One of the highlights of the time I spent in jazz festival administration in the late '80s was the day that Jackson arrived to play our festival. We had programmed a mini-tribute to Ornette Coleman that year, with Jackson on one outdoor stage (with his three-guitar lineup, featuring the incredible Jef Lee Johnson) and Coleman himself on our main stage indoors.

I remember Jackson's equipment rider almost drove our volunteer stage crew around the bend. I think he was the first artist we had ever booked who brought his own sound guy and demanded an active monitor mix. And his drum kit was HUGE.

We had a request for a radio interview with Jackson, but it wasn't scheduled until a couple of hours after the band's soundcheck. I thought this might be a problem, but Jackson happily accepted my invitation to hang out with me in our administration trailer and drink beer. We had a great time, during which he told me about his journey to Africa, which he undertook on his own with just a minimum of clothing and a hand drum. He had a terrific, uplifting view of life, and of course a wealth of stories about working with Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Coleman. Needless to say, I was in heaven.

Two other things I recall about that day, and both reveal a private side of the man.

The first was one of the most uncomfortable things I ever had to do in that role, and that involved asking Jackson if he minded if the opening act used his drum kit. His stage setup was so extensive that there was no room for the opening act to set up in front of it, and the crew didn't think there would be time to strike Jackson's kit and re-set it. If we hadn't spent two hours hanging out over beer in the trailer, he might have punched me; instead, he looked at me with a pained expression and said: "Man, I let Sunny Murray use my drums once and he fucked them up. No!" He was laughing as he said it, but the 'no' was emphatic.

The second memory—and a lasting one—is from after his show. We had dodged a thunder storm during his show (the next morning's newspaper had an incredible photo of Jackson's band on stage with storm clouds amassed overhead and a halo of light above the stage) and we were de-stressing outside the dressing room that was adjacent to the stage. In those years, our outdoor stage was built on the bank of the Rideau Canal, so were overlooking the lights along the canal and the greenery that ran along its sides. Jackson had hoped that his old friend, saxophonist Billy Robinson—a longtime resident of Ottawa—would show up to see him perform, and he was reminiscing about growing up in Texas. He told me how much he loved the Texas countryside—antithetical, I thought, for someone who's music sounded so urban—and he said: "James, you have a beautiful city. It's like a city set in the country."

He had a plane to catch for Japan the next day, so he passed on my invitation to join me for the late show by Archie Shepp at one of our other venues. I never saw him again, but his music, and those memories of a brief time shared have stayed strong in my heart.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A Rock Band For The Ages

Nineteen seventy-two was a great year for live albums by three of the most musical rock bands of the time.

The Allman Brothers Band released Eat A Peach, a double album that contained guitarist Duane Allman's two best live performances: "Mountain Jam" and "One Way Out."

The Grateful Dead put out a tiny sampling of the music it recorded during an important European tour.

And The Band topped both with a two-LP set called Rock Of Ages. Recorded at New York City's
Academy Of Music over four nights at the end of December 1971, the set caught The Band at their peak, with a deep catalogue of distinctive songs and horn charts written for the occasion by Allen Toussaint. Now, 42 years after the fact, guitarist Robbie Robertson—one of just two surviving members—has revisited the event, expanding the original package to include other material and presenting a new vision of the performances by commissioning two new sound mixes, along with a couple of tantalizing filmed glimpses of the proceedings.

Robertson has been in a reflective mood recently, producing a highly personal new solo recording and beginning work on an autobiography, and his reflections on this time in The Band's career are characteristically picaresque. In his telling, The Band is always on the brink of disaster, until the fates intervene.

In the case of the Academy of Music performances, the potential disaster loomed in the form of a gravely ill Toussaint who had lost a suitcase holding all the horn arrangements he had written for the occasion. Much like an earlier story of threatened calamity—in which Robertson was laid low with a bizarre malady on the eve of a big show and had to be resurrected through hypnotism—Toussaint comes through at the last minute: A doctor arrives at a snowbound Woodstock cottage and administers a miracle cure, and the stricken New Orleans pianist re-creates his lost work. The story is at odds with an earlier one Robertson told author Barney Hoskyns for his book Across The Great Divide, which has Toussaint working at a somewhat more leisurely pace during December 1971 at The Band's headquarters in Woodstock.

Whether or not Robertson is laying it on a bit thick as time passes (he didn't travel with Bob Dylan during the height of Dylan's Mystery Tramp period without learning a trick or two) is beside the point; Toussaint's horn charts reveal new depths and colours in The Band's songs.

Horn bands were hugely popular in 1971, with Chicago Transit Authority riding high on the pop charts and Blood, Sweat & Tears well into its decade of high-level creativity. Even the guitar-based Allman Brothers Band had toyed with adding horns when they recorded their epic At Fillmore East double album. But the dominant style of arrangement was hard and aggressive—a popping, metallic, masculine sound that owed a lot to the jazz bands of Buddy Rich and Thad Jones-Mel Lewis. Toussaint brought a very different approach to his charts: Redolent of his Southern heritage, with accents that fell slightly behind the beat, and full of space. His New Orleans groove was an ideal match for Levon Helm's drumming style, and his use of syncopation and rich harmony added rigour to a rhythm section that—Helm aside—was uniquely loose and spare. That he was the ideal person to add narrative colour to stories like Robertson's tale of the defeated and disgusted Virgil Caine in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was a bonus.

If Toussaint's arrangements were successful because they struck an ideal balance with the way Robertson, Helm and the other members of The Band had constructed their catalogue of material, there was another, even more critical balance at play in these performances. Part of the charm of The Band was the fact that they always seemed on the verge of tearing apart. Richard Manuel was always emotionally and mentally fragile, a condition that worsened until his eventual suicide in 1986. Rick Danko was a scrappy drinker. Helm was so ornery that he had left the group rather than participate in the drugged-out circus that was Dylan's 1966 tour. Garth Hudson was, and remains, an eccentric—at once aloof from the others in the group and yet an essential part of their unique sound. Robertson, of course, is renowned for the size of his ego and the boundless nature of his ambition.

Beginning in 1972, those divergent personalities would begin to pull apart, part of a "collective depression" Robertson said fell over his bandmates. According to some, as Hoskyns details in his book, Manuel was drinking himself to death, while Danko narrowly escaped serious injury from a car accident or two. Helm was also deep into drug use.

But, at the end of 1971, those elements were in perfect balance, and both Manuel and Danko were, if not in good health, at least in great voice—an essential state, considering how important they were to The Band's unique three-lead signature sound.

The disintegration of the group's unity and sense of purpose in 1972 left Robertson alone to mix the tapes that would form Rock Of Ages, and the adventure proved to be beyond his capabilities. The original vinyl LPs lacked depth and clarity, and it was a measure of how strong the music was that even the poor mix couldn't totally obscure what had gone on at The Academy of Music.

Now, Robertson has set out to put things right, beginning with a remix of the Rock Of Ages tracks—along with six other songs and Dylan's four performances—by Bob Clearmountain, who made his reputation through years of work with Bruce Springsteen. Clearmountain also created a surround sound mix, which accompanies the two filmed performances on a DVD in the deluxe package.

In addition, Robertson had his son Sebastian (along with Jon Castelli) re-create the soundboard mix of the complete New Year's Eve show, which adds 16 new performances to what previously existed.

The result is outstanding, crystal clear and full of character. One can now concentrate solely on Howard Johnson's baritone sax and tuba, a revelation in themselves, hear the crisp sonority of Robertson's distinctive Telecaster tone, and appreciate the diverse vocal timbres of Helm, Manuel and Danko. But, even with mixes this clear, it's impossible—as Toussaint and Robertson both say—to plumb the mysteries of Danko's bass playing. As Toussaint notes, it's impossible to find a dominant predecessor to his sound, and Robertson points out that, even after 16 years of playing together, he couldn't figure out how Danko could nail his parts on a fretless bass while singing with his eyes closed. He is nothing less than a marvel.

A year after these three seminal live recordings were released, the three bands came together in Watkin's Glen, New York, for what remains one of the largest festivals in history, but so much had changed. Duane Allman, of course, had died before Eat A Peach was released. Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, a founding member of the Dead, succumbed to alcoholism in March 1973, and the band's sound began to morph away from the blues that McKernan loved. The Band's members were rebounding from the depths of their 1972 debauchery, but the writing was on the wall: Robertson and his wife had left Woodstock for Montreal, his deep well of songwriting inspiration had dried up, and The Band had resorted to recording an album of old rock & roll standards. The successful 1974 reunion tour with Dylan was still ahead of them; however, in retrospect, the group had begun the spiral that would end at Thanksgiving in 1976, when Robertson retired from the road, split up with his wife and moved to Hollywood to party hard with film director Martin Scorsese.

Many people know The Band's onstage persona best from Scorsese's concert film The Last Waltz, but these performances at The Academy of Music represent the group's zenith as a performing act.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Examining Jazz and Community

Tonight, in my city—Ottawa—a local group of improvisers are getting together to play something called 'Whose Solo Is It Anyway.' Chances are, the music they make will sound different than if a group of musicians in your community did the same thing.

Jazz may be global, but it's incredibly local, too.

From it's beginnings—in the New Orleans brothel district known as Storyville—jazz has reflected the streets on which it is made. As a living art form, it is channeled not just from the musicians who make, but from their communication with their audience, and their interplay with other artists (including poets, painters, dancers, and writers) in their community. The music speaks of the levels of joy and hardship the artists feel, and it is flavoured by the other types of music that the players listen to.

Diane Martin
On October 20, as part of the Festival de Jazz de Quebec, I'll be moderating a panel discussion onthe topic of Jazz & Community. Joining me will be the distinguished British jazz journalist Alyn Shipton, my Ottawa colleague Peter Hum (popular author of JazzBlog), Radio-Canada broadcaster and blogger Stanley Péan, and  Le Soleil arts columnist Nicolas Houle. Keeping us all in line, and helping to translate our bilingual discussion will be Radio-Canada host Diane Martin.

Alyn is planning to discuss the importance of Afro-Caribbean music in Britain, and the way it has influenced the contemporary jazz scene there. Peter will talk about the influential community that is the sphere of post-secondary jazz education. For my part, I'll be touching on such critical improvising cauldrons as the Black Artists Group of St. Louis, Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Amsterdam, and in New York City, the Loft  and Downtown music scenes. I'm counting on our Quebec colleagues to shine a critical light on the evolution of their province's jazz scene—from the Little Burgundy of Steep Wade and Oscar Peterson to the contemporary scene that thrives around players like Normand Guilbeault, Marianne Trudel, Jean Derome, and so many others.

Here's the program if you'd like to know more. As you'll see, we are honoured to be part of such a rich roster of performing artists. Please check it out if you're in the Quebec City area.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Strange Night with Cedar Walton

The great pianist Cedar Walton died today at the age of 79. One of the last remaining members of the generation of musicians who developed the genre known as hard bop—soulful music that used the harmonic advancements of bop as well as strong melodic sensibilities—Walton never seemed to get his due, despite recording with John Coltrane (he was part of the legendary 1959 Giant Steps date, although not included on the original album) Art Blakey and his own band, Eastern Rebellion. But the musicians knew how good he was. Along with Tommy Flanagan (who was included on Giant Steps) and Hank Jones, Walton was a pianist who covered the full tradition of jazz and made it all his own sound.

One of the younger musicians who knew how good he was—bassist Steve Kirby, who runs the jazz program at the University of Manitoba—engineered one of the more interesting evenings I've ever had in the jazz world.

Kirby invited Walton to Winnipeg to be part of a master class and play a concert, accompanied by himself, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson and drummer Joe Farnsworth. Following the concert, a number of us were invited to attend a party held by Barbara (Babs) Asper, the widow of Izzy Asper, a Canadian media baron. In addition to owning newspapers and a television network, Izzy Asper had been extremely well connected to the Liberal Party of Canada, close friends with prime ministers, and a huge supporter of jazz. He had died in October 2003, just after he and Babs had moved to an extraordinary penthouse apartment in Winnipeg.

How extraordinary? The living room included a low stage with a grand piano, to which Cedar Walton was invited to entertain the other guests.

While Cedar played, Javon and I circulated. At some point, I fell into conversation with an elderly man, who had been a friend of Mr. Asper's. When Mrs. Asper told him I wrote for DownBeat, the man told me that he'd been a fan of the magazine for more than 60 years, and still had many of his back issues. On the subject of collecting, he pointed to the long glass scrims that hung from the apartment's ceiling behind the stage.

"See those?" he said. "That's Gershwin."

"Uh, huh," I replied.

"No, no," he said, sensing—correctly—that I was missing the point.

"The engravings on the glass are in Gershwin's hand. Izzy owned the world's largest collection of Gershwin lead sheets."

Now, there's something you don't see everyday. Later, in a taxi on the way back to our hotel, I told Cedar and Javon about my conversation and the Gershwin engravings.

"Wish I'd known," said Cedar, not missing a beat. "I could've played old George."

Apparently, he was a man known for his dry wit. One other story stays with me: Although he never expressed bitterness about not being included on Coltrane's landmark debut recording, he once told an interviewer that if he could do anything over again in his life he would probably have taken the solo that Coltrane offered him on Giant Steps.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Peter Appleyard, 1928-2013

A couple of years ago, vibraphonist Peter Appleyard released an album of terrific material he recorded with an all-star group in 1985. At the time, I interviewed him at length, and put together the following overview of his career. Like many English-born men of his time, he was a complete gentleman, but he told hilarious stories, including a great one about spending the night—listening to records, and nothing more he assured me—with Ava Gardner. His late night caused him to be late for a rehearsal with Benny Goodman the next day. It was the one-and-only time that Goodman shot him the infamous ray that so many Goodman sidemen talk about, but it was because the bandleader didn't believe that all they did was spin records. Peter Appleyard, you will be missed.

Stretching across more than 65 years, Peter Appleyard’s musical career has more than enough twists and dynamic evolution to form the libretto for an opera.

Born August 26, 1928 in Cleethorpes, England, a small community on the country’s east coast, Appleyard began as a drummer in the Boys’ Brigade near his home. Apprenticed as a compass adjustor, he became a professional musician when he joined Felix Mendelssohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders for £17 per week.

After an 18-month stint in Royal Air Force bands and the purchase of a small set of vibes for £15 from a man who turned out to be a British spy, Appleyard departed in 1949 for a hotel gig as a drummer in Bermuda. Missing a flight connection in New York City allowed him to visit Bop City in Midtown Manhattan, where Lionel Hampton was sharing the bill with George Shearing. Seeing Hampton improvise 10 choruses of “Stardust” set Appleyard’s course. He acquired a full set of vibes and spent every spare minute of his 18 months in Bermuda practising.

In 1950, Appleyard emigrated to Canada, arriving in Toronto at a tremendously opportune time: the decade brought a new liberal attitude to the city, and with it a number of new bars and clubs. After a year out of music—awaiting the issuance of a union card—Appleyard plunged back in, attending jam sessions at the Baldwin Club, gigs at the Colonial Tavern and listening parties where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Duke Ellington and Clark Terry. A regular job with American expatriate pianist Calvin Jackson brought television exposure and a high-profile gig at the Park Plaza Hotel. Jackson’s band also worked as far afield as New York City, where it appeared opposite Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, and Chicago.

After splitting with Jackson in 1956, Appleyard started his own band and entered a busy period of commercial work, expanding his arsenal to include tympani and appearing frequently on television and radio across Canada.

In 1972, his career took another dramatic turn. A casual conversation with Benny Goodman backstage in Toronto led to him joining the renowned bandleader for eight years of globetrotting tours, and paved the way for Appleyard’s formation of a Goodman tribute band in 1985.

In addition to Goodman, Appleyard has accompanied headline performers like Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé, and toured the world under his own name and as a co-leader with pianist Dick Hyman.

Looking back, Appleyard mused: “When I was starting out, I never dreamed I would even see Benny Goodman, let alone play with him for eight years. The music keeps me going. I would still travel miles to play.”

Saturday, June 29, 2013

TD Ottawa Jazz Festival: Day 9

It doesn't get much better than catching two of my favourite young musicians in one of my favourite venues, especially when a cold rain is tumbling down outside.

If there's justice in the jazz world, pianist Marianne Trudel should be on the edge of a breakout. She is playing with confidence and creativity, and her compositions bristle with fresh ideas and a real sense of purpose. Check out her playing here, performing with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen at a show I caught last October at Quebec City's now-defunct Largo Resto-Bar.

She brought her new trio—Trifolia—to the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage on Friday evening, and delivered a highly charged performance that featured a handful of new pieces by herself and bassist Etienne Lafrance. It's music filled with interesting textures, largely due to percussionist Patrick Graham's distinctive set-up, which includes everything from plastic wind whistles to bowls of water. The bass percussion is delivered by a combination of hand drums and cajon, so it's a light, fluid sound that's constantly shifting. Trudel joked that Graham was known as the "Paganini of the tambourine," (better that than the "Pavarotti of the tambourine," suggested my buddy Peter Bunnett from the audience) but his dexterity with the instrument is serious stuff. More texture is added by Trudel's use of a small accordion, which she introduced with a touching story about finding it in her grandfather's basement.

The band is finishing an extensive tour of Canada in mid-July. One can only hope that it finds a broader audience, too, because it is playing exceptional music that deserves to be widely heard.

Another young woman whose early I've followed with interest is guitarist Mary Halvorson. Friday's performance with drummer Tomas Fujiwara's Hook-Up found her deep into a Sonny Sharrock mode, adding harsh, variegated bursts of feedback—along with her trademark octave bends and aggressive chording—to the band's strident sound. With trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and tenor saxophonist Brian Settles up front, and the formidable Michael Formanek on bass, the quintet painted with bursts of sonic energy, Fujiwara displaying both power and grace.

Friday, June 28, 2013

TD Ottawa Jazz Festival: Day 8

It's akin to the so-called 'fog of war.'

When proponents dig in on two sides of a debate, some key facts get lost.

It follows that one of the things that was lost when bebop came to dominate jazz in the years following World War II was the primacy of jazz as social music. With its radical chord substitutions and lightning tempos, bop was music for close listening rather than dancing. By the time it reached the mainstream, bop was characterized as intellectual music, and many that aped the innovations of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie ignored the fact that each of those musicians had deep roots in rhythmic music. When Louis Armstrong objected to the movement, battle lines were drawn, and the 'mouldy fig' epithet was thrown.

In reality, the 'fig' designation was about as accurate as the belief that all boppers favoured berets and goatees.

Those with longer vision see past these types of cultural reductions—many of which were imposed by popular media outlets. In the '70s, Henry Threadgill, David Murray and others looked back 50 years to some of the roots of African-American music in the 20th century, and now Jason Moran is mining the genius of Thomas (Fats) Waller to create a hybrid of social music that channels Waller's compositions through the lens of hip-hop.

With longtime trio partner Tarus Mateen on bass and Meshell Ndegeocello as occasional bassist, poetess and onstage director, Moran brought his Fats Waller Dance Party to Ottawa's Dominion-Chalmers United Church for an early evening concert on June 27. On the previous Sunday, Mavis Staples had packed the church, so perhaps it was the mid-week timing that accounted for the small crowd that turned out. A number of those people fled during the first couple of songs—perhaps due to the way the sound of Moran's amplified quartet boomed through the large church, muffling the sound of singer Lisa Harris and deadening the effect of the rhythmic infrastructure.

Things shifted sharply when Moran donned a large Waller mask—all bowler hat, raffish eyebrows, toothy grin, and cigarette—and the band kicked into Babatunde Olatunji's "Jin-Go-Lo-Ba" (better known to many music fans as "Jingo" in the form that Santana recorded it on its debut album). With the rhythm more elemental than the reinterpretations of Waller's stuttering tempos, some of the audience members jumped up to dance along.

Moran also reminded listeners that he is, first and foremost, one of jazz's most gifted contemporary pianists, performing exceptional solo renditions of Waller's "A Handful Of Keys" and "Lulu's Back In Town."

Although the band never really overcame the acoustics of the church (a closing "The Joint Is Jumping" lost much of its power in the mix) it succeeded in connecting the dots between what Waller set out in the '20s and '30s, his roots in the church, and contemporary rhythms.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

TD Ottawa Jazz Festival: Day 7

It is beyond cliché to say that jazz is akin to a conversation, and often not true. In many bands—especially during festival season, when travel woes are at their worst—musicians can be seen going about their work all but unaware of what their bandmates are doing. Some veterans seem to be particularly isolated.

Twice during Wednesday evening's concert inside the National Arts Centre's Studio, 75-year-old pianist Steve Kuhn thanked the capacity audience for supporting "this music we have devoted our lives to." With irrepressible Joey Baron on drums and Steve Swallow on electric bass, the trio also seemed devoted to having fun. It's not unusual for Baron to have a smile on his face during a show, but he, Swallow and Kuhn continuously shared laughs and looks of appreciation at what the others were doing.

For anyone new to the music, I recommend the sight of the grizzled, gnomish Swallow, hunched over his instrument and spinning out supple lines filled with gloriously round notes. The sound he achieves continues to be one of the most beautiful in jazz.

Aside from Henry Mancini's "Slow Hot Wind" (also known as "Lujon") a slow, sensuous "Stella By Starlight" and an opening standard, the trio's program was divided between compositions by Swallow and Kuhn, including the bassist's gorgeous tune "Eiderdown." It is material they have often played, drawn largely from the four ECM albums they have made in some combination of the trio, but their enthusiasm and commitment to the moment ensured that everything sounded like they were making discoveries at each turn in the music.

Monday, June 24, 2013

TD Ottawa Jazz Festival: Day 4

In Canada, the myth about top-rank musicians has long been that, once they relocate to Toronto, they become part of a homogenous whole, playing and recording music that all sounds the same.

Don't believe it.

Tenor saxophonist Mike Murley literally blew that fable away with a stunning reinterpretation of the Irish war lament "Shule Aroon" that held echoes of John Coltrane's "Alabama," with drummer Ted Warren roiling behind him and bassist Jim Vivian strumming a pedal point darkly. Both Murley and Vivian moved to Toronto from Atlantic Canada (Murley from Nova Scotia, Vivian from Newfoundland and Labrador), and while they assimilated themselves into a group of musicians who have dominated jazz in Canada over the past 30 years, their Celtic roots are often on display.

Murley's septet is strong at every position, particularly piano, with David Braid finding distinctive voicings and soloing beautifully.

Outdoor concerts often hold the threat of inclement weather, and the Ottawa Jazz Festival has had more than its share of mainstage shows where weather played a factor: from the frigid rain that drenched a huge audience during a Wayne Shorter/Herbie Hancock show to a literally steamy field of grass that faced The Bad Plus one sultry Sunday afternoon. That said, no one in the media trailer—where a number of us took refuge from a hard downpour during David Byrne/St. Vincent—could recall a show being interrupted for 20 minutes to allow a lightning storm to abate. But, then, how many other festivals feature a headliner (singer Kellylee Evans) who was recently struck by lightning while standing in her kitchen? The memory of the 2011 stage collapse at Ottawa's Bluesfest during a Cheap Trick concert was also fresh in everyone's memory.

The break didn't do anything to lessen the impact of what had gone before—more than 60 minutes of tightly arranged, hard rocking fun from the former Talking Heads frontman and 30-year-old Annie Clark, the compellingly oddball guitarist and singer from Oklahoma. Backed—and sometimes surrounded—by a New Orleans-style horn section, Byrne and Clark performed a strong mixture of songs from their joint album Love This Giant and other pieces, like Clark's "Cruel."

Although many of the faithful braved the lightning and heavy rain, when the show resumed, its momentum had been sapped. What should've been an over-the-top encore (a much anticipated Talking Heads party song; in this instance "Burning Down The House") was somewhat anti-climactic.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

TD Ottawa Jazz Festival: Day 2

When the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival announced its lineup in late winter I dubbed it the Year of the Voice because of the number of highly distinctive singers who were featured: Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, Aretha Franklin (who since cancelled), David Byrne, and Patricia Barber among them.

I hadn't counted on discovering Monica Akihary, a Dutch vocalist of Austral-Asian heritage. Co-leading the quartet Boi Akih with guitarist Niels Brouwer, she covers a wide range, from soulful crooning on Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" to hyper-glottal wordless improvisation. Even better, her rich vocals are mirrored by the expressive playing of trombonist Wolter Wierbos, who delivered some memorable work on two Jimi Hendrix compositions: "Drifting" and a radically deconstructed "The Wind Cries Mary." Even though some of the band's equipment didn't arrive until midway through its performance, Akihary maintained the flow of the set and its sense of focused surprise.

I doubt that festival programmer Petr Cancura knew there was a connection between Boi Akih and Chicago drummer Mike Reed's People, Places and Things, who followed the Dutch band into the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage. If he did, then kudos for a canny booking decision; if not, then it was one of those lucky accidents that sometimes push festivals to a higher level.

As it turns out, Reed's quartet—featuring the powerhouse bassist Jason Roebke and simpatico saxophonists Greg Ward and Tim Haldeman—has spent considerable time in Amsterdam, and recorded a forthcoming album with some of the leading Dutch improvisers, including Wierbos. The trombonist joined the band for a pair of pieces that illustrated his mastery of plunger mute, and his presence added a new dimension to a band whose incessant road work has made them a ferocious unit with unerring instincts for blending their voices.

From the high intensity improvisation of Reed's band it was huge step to the late-night tent adjacent to Ottawa's city hall and the delightfully weightless voice of Aoife O'Donovan, the Celtic/bluegrass singer who seems on the verge of breaking through to a much larger audience. Best known by jazz fans for her contribution to trumpeter Dave Douglas' album Be Still, O'Donovan has the kind of gorgeous vocal instrument and effortless charm that Emmylou Harris displayed when she first moved from beneath the shadow of Gram Parsons. The tent was not the most favourable setting for her gentle voice (ironic, since the last time she performed in Ottawa—with the band Crooked Still—she, along with guitarist Richard Thompson, had been drowned out by Dweezil Zappa's over-amped tribute to his father) but her band was loud enough to cut through the incessant chatter of those reliving the night's Willie Nelson concert even if the lyrics of her new batch of songs were mostly lost in the din.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Kyoto Kudos To Cecil Taylor

Congratulations are due to pianist Cecil Taylor, recipient of the Kyoto Prize from the Inamori
Foundation for "fully exploring the possibilities of piano improvisation." As his citation reads:

"One of the most original pianists in the history of free jazz, Mr. Cecil Taylor has developed his innovative improvisation departing from conventional idioms through distinctive musical constructions and percussive renditions, thereby opening new possibilities in jazz. His unsurpassed virtuosity and strong will inject an intense, vital force into his music, which has exerted a profound influence on a broad range of musical genres."

I am hard pressed to think of a living artist who challenges me as much as Taylor, and who does so on so many levels. His music has brought me tremendous joy, and caused me to think hard. What more can you ask of an artist?

I have written frequently of him here, beginning with this post.

The Kyoto Prize brings with a cash award of some USD$500,000. As someone who has sometimes struggled to sustain himself as a creative artist working on the margins, no one deserves this kind of reward more than Taylor. Quirky, confounding (especially if you've ever tried to book him) and justifiably demanding, Cecil Taylor is a treasure, and it is good to see him recognized while he is alive to enjoy it.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My 10-Day Plan: Life Is Just A Jazz Festival

As summer officially begins, I'll be settling in for 10 days of music at my hometown jazz festival, the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival. This time of year often finds me heading off to other festivals on assignment, but sticking close to home I'll be making my own choices about what to see and hear. Here's where you'll find me:

June 20
Dr. John & The Nite Trippers – I came to Mac Rebennack's music courtesy of the late FM DJ Brian Murphy, around the time that the New Orleans singer and pianist was dressing in feathers and glitter and trading on the mystery of Louisiana folklore. In those years, Rebennack's band featured some of the young heavyweights of the Southern rock scene, and they did a great job at stirring up a stew of spacey sounds on songs like "I Walk On Gilded Splinters." Rebennack has moved in many directions since then, and lifestyle choices have not always made for the strongest music. But, like many other musicians his age, Rebennack has cleaned up and rejuvenated himself, and he's sounding better than he has in years.

June 21
Mike Reed's People, Places & Things – A couple of years ago, at the annual Winter Jazzfest in New York City, the buzz among my fellow music critics was all about drummer Mike Reed. In part, this was because New Yorkers can't stand to be behind the curve, and they wanted to see if someone based in Chicago was as good as his advance rep. The other part was just how good Reed's rep is, and the fact that his band includes other promising young players. Reed is one of those drummers who break the stereotype; not only leading a band, but writing compelling compositions that reflect the music's heritage and help move it ahead.

Aoife O'Donovan – Those who follow American roots music—particularly the strands that lean toward bluegrass and Celtic heritage—already knew about the power and suppleness of Aoife O'Donovan's gorgeous voice before she was selected by trumpeter Dave Douglas to join his band for his album of traditional hymns. I've since watched her perform her own music via NPR's video stream, and I'm looking forward to hearing more of her captivating material. O'Donovan has a deep well to draw on (she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music) and represents a broad cross-section of American music.

June 23
Mike Murley Septet – There was a time when Canada's leading musicians—who, for the most part, live in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal—could afford to take their bands to other parts of the country throughout the year. Thanks to cuts to government funding and rising transportation/accommodation costs, those days are gone, so this is a welcome opportunity to catch up with saxophonist Mike Murley and some of the other great mainstream players—including Kevin Turcotte, Jim Vivian, and Ted Warren—who live in Toronto.

David Byrne & St. Vincent – Guitarist Annie Clark knocked me out the first time I heard her, and I've been a fan of Byrne's since the Talking Heads' debut album. Remarkably, I've never seen Byrne live, so I'm anticipating this show a lot. A free download of this band, which Byrne made available a few weeks ago, demonstrates that it combines the quirky rhythms that Byrne loves with a tremendous horn section.

June 24 
Joe Morris/William Parker/Charles Downs – I think I may have seen bassist William Parker perform more than any other musician in the past 20 years, but I never see enough of either him or guitarist Joe Morris. The great acoustics of the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage should really make an intimate performance of close listening.

Gilad Hekselman Trio – Another highly original guitarist, and another trio—featuring Marcus Gilmore and Joe Martin—that promises to push things into exciting places. I'm not sure how well this show will go over in the 'After Dark' tent, where audiences usually expect more pop-oriented shows, but I'll be happy to endure the likely grumbling and early exits.

June 26
Steve Kuhn Trio with Steve Swallow & Joey Baron – Okay, life is full of difficult choices, but having to choose between two of my favourite Vancouver ensembles (the Peggy Lee Band and the Brad Turner Quartet) and the rhythm section of Steve Swallow and Joey Baron.... Well, this was a tough call, but Baron provided some of my most memorable moments last summer when he appeared in Ottawa with Sound Prints, the band co-led by Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano, and Swallow remains a master of the electric bass. Have to go with this one, as much as it pains me to miss Lee's double-guitar combination of Ron Samworth and Tony Wilson.

June 27
Jason Moran's Fats Waller Dance Party featuring Meshell N'degeocello – I never pass up the opportunity to hear Jason Moran, and I've heard so many great things about his tribute to Fats Waller's social music that this is a definitely a must-see. The combination of the church setting and Moran's giant papier-mâché Waller head may well prove to be the most enduring image of the summer.

June 28
Tomas Fujiwara & The Hook Up – Two words: Mary Halvorson. I've been singing her praises since first hearing her unique, octave-bending sound with Anthony Braxton. Fujiwara's writing is sharp and smart, and Halvorson is joined by some of her brightest peers, including trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson.

The Bad Plus – The guys in the band readily admit that the first show they played in Ottawa—to a tiny crowd on a ridiculously humid Sunday afternoon—stands as the nadir of The Bad Plus' performing career, and they have subsequently tried to erase the memory of it every time they come to town. I expect no less once more. Always a great time, no matter what they pull out of their trick bag.

June 30
Wayne Shorter Quartet – I equate my experience with this band, which I've seen both in grand concert halls and a Spanish basketball arena, to Miles Davis' post-retirement groups: I feel privileged to spend 90 minutes or so in the company of genius, and I'll happily go where the music takes me. Like Joey Baron, drummer Brian Blade never fails to provide memorable moments on the drums.

Vic Vogel & Le Jazz Big Band – I have a special connection to this show because I'll be introducing it, as part of a tribute to the late Jacques Emond (right, with me at a CKCU-FM reunion), the longtime programmer of the jazz festival who died last winter. Jacques was a knowledgeable big band aficionado and a dedicated supporter of Quebecois musicians. Vic Vogel is one of kings of Montreal's music scene, dating back to the early 1960s. Always filled with some of Quebec's finest session players, Vogel's big band is representative of the kind of jazz orchestras that populated Montreal's nightclubs when the city was recognized by musicians around the world as one of the swingingest places on earth. Jacques would be smiling at this one!

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Wasn't That A Man?

There are only three musicians I clearly remember hearing for the first time: Charlie Parker, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.

Of these, Waters—who was born 100 years ago today—is my most powerful memory.

My birthday coincides with the end of the school year, and the summer I turned 17 I decided to pool whatever money I got for my birthday and spend it all on records. My purchases to that point were contemporary recordings, so I decided to focus on artists that I'd heard about but had never actually heard.

In 1971, Muddy Waters had all but disappeared from the music scene. In October 1969, he had been severely injured in a car accident, but the '60s had not been kind to his music, despite the influence he had on dominant musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Cream and The Rolling Stones, who had taken their name from one of his early songs. Chess Records had been sold to GRT, and Waters' music had virtually disappeared from the marketplace.

That summer I turned 17, GRT released a two-LP set called McKinley Morganfield aka Muddy Waters, which collected Waters' best material from 1948 to 1960. I bought it, brought it home, dropped the needle on "She Moves Me" from July 11, 1951, and the sonic world as I knew it changed completely. The size of the sound, and the raw electricity of Waters' guitar and Walter Jacobs' harmonica was stunning. I didn't know it at the time, of course, but that recording marked the first time that Jacobs had played his harp through an amplifier. In harmonica circles, July 11, 1951 became known as Independence Day, and little wonder: Jacobs' harp creates an otherworldly sound. "Still A Fool," which featured Jacobs on second electric guitar, played through the same amp as Waters, was even darker, throbbing harder, with Waters singing like a man possessed.

As Robert Gordon wrote in Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters: "Walter's bass notes are like a pulse: you can feel the beat as it approaches, as it rides through you, as it passes. Muddy picks the six strings, raw and visceral, a deep world of hard blues, ominous, horrific, his guitar in unison with his vocal, Walter attuned to Muddy's spatial and aural insights, dirty dancing around him. Moaning and humming reach for what words fail to say. There are four verses with no guitar break, nothing to diminish the onslaught; and slaughter is ultimately this music's subject."

What a way to be introduced to one of the greatest performers of the 20th century.

About 25 years after this discovery I found myself at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, standing in front of a display that included Waters' electric guitar. I was transfixed, just thinking about how much what had come out of that instrument had affected my life. I'm not one to get emotional about inanimate objects, but this guitar had literally talked to me over the years. It was a powerful moment.

I only saw Waters live a couple of times, and although the second time I saw him was at a small venue and I was in the radio business by then, the thought of meeting him was beyond my imagination.

It seemed too much like meeting a deity. What could you do before someone who changed the way you heard music so completely, except perhaps to bow.

So, a bow today to you, Mr. Morganfield. Happy 100th birthday.