Saturday, April 28, 2012

Hits by Brits (Part 2)

This is "Hits by Brits"  Part 2, in which I continue my survey of my disc collection and offer up as many of my jazz CDs recorded by British musicians, mostly on labels that are a bit obscure here in the U.S. but obtainable with a small amount of effort.

I should point out that by listing them I am in fact endorsing them as CDs of my liking, some more than others, but all of it music I enjoy listening to. My comments are meant to give a sense of where they fall on a continuum from "in the pocket" or the more straight-ahead, to the increasingly less inhibited, freer style of jazz today. Again, I am mostly about acoustic music so there is not much if any electronica.

So here are today's CDs:

Product DetailsDjango Bates -- a sublime pianist in his own group or with others.
     Beloved Bird (Lost Marble 2010) --- really great piano interpretations of Bird
     Like Life -- The Jazzpar Prize (Storyville 1997)--With the Danish Radio Jazz 
     Autumn Fires (and Green Shots) (Winter and Winter 2005) -- Soulful solos
Nikki Iles -- See my earlier blog raving about her play. Good for those who like modernists that are close
      to the tradition. Also her music with Martin Speake is superb.
Product Details     Everything I Love (Basho Records 2003) -- Great title for my feelings on her
     Hush (2012 Basho Records) -- Trio with Rufus Reid and Jeff Williams. Award
           winning potential.
Portico Quartet -- Not your traditional quartet even with sax, piano, drums and bass. Very interesting, especially the hang drum, and mellow listening. Distinctive harmonies, atmospheric, original.
     Isla (Real World Records 2009) -- Lovely, mellow listen
    Portico Quartet (Real World Records 2012) -- Ethereal, unique sounds.
John Law -- I wrote a long piece on Law and his superb piano playing. Get any or all of his CDs. they are 
     The Art of Sound (33Records2007) -- Piano trio, !st in the series of the same name.
     The Ghost in the Oak (33Records 2008) -- Solo piano, 2nd in his Art of Sound project
     Chorale (33Records 2008)  --Solo piano. 3rd in his Art of Sound project
     Congregation (33Records 2009) -- Piano trio, 4th in the Art of Sound project
Product Details     This Is (33Records 2011) -- Duo piano music with Mark Pringle
     Three Leaps of the Gazelle (33Records 2012) -- Piano trio.
Ivo Neame Trio -- Yet another young and upcoming pianist leading his trio. Now 
       more known as a member of Phronesis (see below).
      Swirls and Eddies (Loop Records 2007) -- Nice recording, a bit out of the box
            but nothing too out there. Lots to enjoy.
Phronesis -- I have four discs, all with Jasper Hoiby on bass, and the last three with 
       Ivo Neame on piano. Hoiby's lead could make them a Dutch trio I suppose.
       Strong modern take on the integrated piano trio, a la Bad Plus, E.S.T., or Trichotomy. Solid play, very 
       Organic Warfare (Loop 2007) -- Magnus Hjorth on piano for this first one. Solid start, interesting
     Green Delay (Loop 2009) -- With Neame on piano,  Intense bass play, strong use of each player,
           complex modernity.
     Alive (Loop Collective/Edition Records 2010) -- With this one the band reaches a high level of creativity
          improvisation, and lyricism passed among the three players.
     Walking Dark -- (Edition Records 2012) Brand new and excellentrecognizable sound of lyricism, 
          innovation, and groove. Modern creative piano trio.
Francesco Turrisi - An Italian pianist of great taste and since he has been a resident of Dublin since 2006,
     I have noted him here. Classical training shines through two lovely, chamber jazz discs
     Si Dolce e il Tormento (Diatribe Recordings 2008)  -- Trio plus clarinet/bass clarinet. Lovely, gentle
     "Fotografia" (Diatribe Recordings 2011) -- Pure trio music this time, same lilting melodies and relaxed
          sounds, very ECM-like.
Alan Barnes --  A traditional alto and baritone sax player out of the mold of hard bop and the "Blue Note"
Product Details      sound. Some of his best work is done jointly with great tenor players, and I
      have three recommendations:
     Birds of a Feather (Woodville Records 2008) -- with Greg Abate on tenor and 
          alto, and a great rhythm section, this quintet excels with a set of originals plus   
          Dizzy's "Be-Bop" and Todd Dameron's "Hot House." For lovers of the  
           straight-ahead sound.
     Hi-ya (Woodville 2010) -- An outing with Scott Hamilton in tenor, and a great
           rhythm section that blowsa hot with eight songs including a few by Johnny
                                              Hodges and Duke Ellington. Fabulous outing.
     The Art Trip: The Music of Art Pepper -- Brand new disc, a solid interpretation and not imitation
Acoustic Triangle -- Drumless trio -- Tim Garland on saxes and bass clarinet, Gwilym Somcock on piano,
     and Malcolm on bass. Four CDs I know of, last in 2008, so perhaps Garland and Simockc are on to
     other projects. This group has melody, some spikiness at times, and great energy. Not a simple listen but
     worth the effort.
     Catalyst (Audio-B Ltd. 2003 -- according to the label "melodic acoustic jazz with European classical
           influences.Nice non-traditional melodies.
Product Details     Resonance (Audio-b LTD 2005) -- continuation of the sound, watch for
           Simcock on french horn!
Julian Siegel -- Multi-reedist modernist. Lovely sound, melodies are there but not for those looking for traditional songs.
     Urban Theme Park (Basho Records 2010) --  Quartet with Liam Noble on 
            piano. I like this very much, unusual but not exotic
     Live at the Vortex (Basho Records 2008) -- Also nice, double CD with
            stretched out sound of a trio, has that fresh live feel
Matthew Bourne -- Pianist with lovely ideas and touch.
     Montauk Variations (Leaf 2012) -- Solo piano with some cello play. Beautiful meditations,  
            delicate sound, a winner
Bobby Wellins --One of the rocks of the post bop era, a classic sound and interpreter in all settings
     Time Gentlemenn Please (Trio Records 2011) -- Quartet of some great standards, pure music for
           lovers of the traditional sounds.
Paul Clarvis/Liam Noble Piano and Drum pairing
      Starry Starry Night -- very pretty duos on music from Scott Jplin to Paul Simon.

Product DetailsProduct Details                           Product Details      

Gordon Beck, Stan Tracey, Tubby Hayes, Bobby Wellins were all covered in detail in a post of January 3 on this blog.  John Taylor, piano; Martin Taylor, guitar; Kenny Wheeler, trumpet; Andy Shephard, sax; are not inlcuded in the lists because I believe they are on labels more readily available here and are known more widely. All are terrific, and Wheeler's new big band CD is great.

So, who did I leave out that you would like people to know about? Or which disc did I neglect by one of those listed?  Please share your thoughts with others.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Hits By Brits (Part 1): Broaden Your Listening Habits

(NOTE: Please pardon the formtting issues; placing the pictures changed all sorts of setttings that I am having trouble redoing)

In April 24th's Jazz Blog by Peter Hum for the Ottawa Citizen, he reviewed the new CD by Phronesis "Walking Dark" (Edition Records 2012), which is another in a string of excellent recordings by a group not yet widely known in the U.S. and Canada. Hum has written on the issue before of our general lack of knowledge of European jazz scene and specifically the British jazz scene (see complained in the past for this link). There are some labels that do get to our shores -- ECM, Pirouet, Challenge come to mind -- so we do know artists on those labels, but there are many others that do not have much visibility here, and have some great music to be shared.  In Hum's 2009 blog post referenced above, he got this question:

A lot of the lists I have been reading today [Re Best of Lists for 2009] are American / Canadian and are in the main made up of American/Canadian artists. There are few Europeans (Bollani a frequent exception). Yet so much great jazz has been released in Europe (Stanko, Gustavsen, Helge Lien Trio, In The Country) and more specific it has been a great year for British jazz (maybe an oxymoron to many from the Americas) with excellent albums from Geoff Eales, Kit Downes, Ivo Neame, Gwilym Simcock (all pianists), Mark Lockheart, Portico Quartet and Empirical. So, quick question: is it that these are not being heard on the other side of the Atlantic or are they heard but just not rated?

Hum's response:

These artists, and in particular the British ones, aren’t being heard on my side of the Atlantic, I think. British jazz is far from an oxymoron, but it does take comments such as the one above to make me go out, discover it, and enjoy it. Given what I see on the North American jazz blogosphere and given my own experience, my impression — and I stand to be corrected — is that many European labels and especially British labels don’t identify North America as a market worth targeting via this continent’s jazz press.

If you have been reading my blog for some time, or my first post, you know this is an issue near and dear to me, and one I have tried in my way to remedy, with many posts highlighting British Jazz. I have to date posted 61 times, and in those 61 posts here is a list of those I have discussed, all very favorably:

  • Gordon Beck
  • Bobby Wellins
  • Kenny Wheeler
  • Norma Winstone
  • Nikki Iles
  • Martin Speake
  • John Law
  • Stan Tracey
  • Julian Siegel
  • Liam Noble
  • Tubby Hayes
  • Kit Downes
  • Julian Arguiles
  • Accoustic Triangle
  • Dave O'Higgins
  • Zoe Rahman
  • Gwilym Simcock
  • Ronnie Scott
  • The Impossible Gentlemen
The music is out there to purchase, sometimes from a local store, but if not from ,, and a personal favorite (The go to place for Basho and more). And if you want to know more about these artists and others, subscribe on-line to Jazzwise or to the print edition of Jazz Journal, , the British equivalents of Downbeat or Jazz Times; or look at JazzUK on-line and the blogs London Jazz, Jazz Breakfast, and the Manchester Guardian.

I decided to take this one step further today and pulled out from my collection as many CDs by U.K. artists that I could find (I unfortunately have my discs randomly around the room, as they are rapidly taking over my office) and highlight them with one sentence comments on what they are like or how I feel about them. Note there will be no John Taylor (piano) or Kenny Wheeler (trumpet) here -- they are too well known. So here is part one. Feel free to add others in the comments section; remember there will be more soon:

Product DetailsGwilym Simcock: Pianist, all of his music is exceptional, alone, in trios, and in other groups. Creative jazz.
     Blues Vignette (Basho Records 2009) -- Not to be missed.
     Good Days at Schloss Elmau (ACT 2011) -- Don't miss this either, a
             gorgeous solo performance
     Perception (Basho 2007) -- See how great he was even at a young age 
Product DetailsJulian Joseph -- Pianist, educator, classical music or jazz, he is another not to be missed
     Live @ The Vortex (ASC 2012) -- A triumphal live piano solo set. Incredible
             virtuousity. Get it.

Kit Downes Trio -- Piano trio, melodic modern jazz.
                                        Golden (Basho Records) -- Very good.
Product Details     Homely (Impure Music 2009) -- Two pianists produce
            exquisite music together.   
     Quiet Tiger (Basho Records 2011) -- Excellent trio recording with added
            woodwinds and cello

Huw Warren -- Pianist, Accordion, keyboards, in trio. Creative jazz.
     Hermeto+ (Basho Records) -- Very nice disc with lots of modern splashes

The Neil Cowley Trio -- Several good discs, and a really exceptional new one. Piano Trio
     The Face of Mount Molehill (Naim Jazz 2011) -- Enhanced trio with strings. For more modern  tastes
     Displaced (HideInside 2006) -- Trio setting, all songs by Cowley. Modern creative jazz.

Product DetailsTubby Hayes Quartet -- A classic post bop tenorist, played with most of the greats.
     Commonwealth Blues (Art of Life Records 2005) Great music with Gordon
              Beck on piano
     Tubby's New Groove (Candid 2011) -- Classics played with style by a post   
              bop tenor. Perfect.

Norma Winstone -- I already did a post raving about her singing.
     Amoroso...Only More So (Trio Records 2007) -- with Stan Tracey and Bobby
     Distances (ECM 2008)
     Stories Yet To Tell (ECM 2010)
     Somewhere Called Home (ECM 1987) -- With the exquisite John Taylor on piano

Product DetailsEd Puddick Big Band -- Classic 16 piece big band sound.
     Guys and Dolls (Diving Duck 2010) -- my favorite musical played with great
           style and fun.

Dave O'Higgins -- I reviewed this disc with Eric Alexander earlier. Great sound.
     Sketchbook (Jazzizit Records 2009)

Curios -- Trio with Tom Cawley shining on piano, Sam Burgess bass, Joshua Blackmore drums. Several discs of good solid creative jazz.
                                        Closer (Impure Music 2008)
Product Details     The Other Place (Edition Records 2010) -- my personal favorite to date
     Hidden (Jazzizit Records 2007)

Aquarium -- A bit more unusual, with Sam Leak on piano, James Alsopp on tenor and bass clarinet, Calum Gourlay on Bass, and Joshua Blackmore on drums
     Aquarium (Babel 2011) -- A bit more daring than the others for my taste, but still a good listen.

Sam Crockatt Quartet -- Sam Crockatt on tenor, Kit Downes on piano, Oli Hayhurst bass and Ben Reynolds drums.
      Flood Tide (Babel 2011) Creative modern jazz, flowing melodies.

Product DetailsTrish Clowes -- She plays a great tenor. Lots of solid straight ahead music.
     Tangent (Basho Records 2010) --  All songs by Clowes. Gwilym Simcock        
            guests on piano.

Zoe Rahman -- I wrote a post on this terrific pianist and her discography is exceptional. Creativity to the max.
     Kindred Spirits ((Manushi Records 2011) -- Trio plus her brother on clarinets.
          Just gorgeous music.
     The Cynic (Manushi Records 2001) -- Piano trio. Rahman wrote it all. Her debut is stunning.
     Melting Pot (Manushi Records 2005) -- Trio again with clarinet by her brother. Melts my heart.
     Live (Manushi Records 2007) -- I've run out of adjectives. Just get it and enjoy.

Stan Tracey -- One of the jazz royalty in the U.K. A pianist of great taste and feel.
                                        Tracy/Wellins Play Monk (ReSteamed Records 2007) -- With the outstanding
                                              Bobby Wellins on tenor.
Product Details     Senior Moment (Resteamed 2009) -- Quartet. Not a senior moment here,
           just great stuff.

Geoff Eales -- Another pianist with great sensitivity and a modernist approach.
     Red Letter Days (Black Box Music 2001) -- Trio plus guitar. Pretty traditional
             straight ahead music.
     Epicentre (33 Jazz Records 2007) -- Solo piano of great taste and interest.
     Synergy (Basho Records 2004) -- Solo outing. "My Romance", "Here's That
                                                Rainy Day" and other classics, plus some originals make for a tasteful
                                                 and enjoyable CD.
                                       Master of the Game (Edition Records 2009) -- Trio setting. Great music,
                                                 graceful compositions.
Product Details

Karen Sharp -- Tenor and baritone sax, has a really nice round sound and a great group dynamic.
     Spirit (Trio Records 2011) -- Great interpretations of classics with  pianist Nikki
     So Far So Good (33 Music 2004) -- Earlier disc with the same lovely sound
              and some classic songs.

Martin Speake -- I did a post on this great altoist, who has a string of great CDs to hear.
     Secret (Basho Records 2001) -- Quartet with Nikki Iles on piano, 14 beautifully arranged songs.
     The Tan Tien (FMR CDs 1998) -- Duets with Iles, improvisations, plus Evans, Monk, and Motian.
Product Details     Secret Quartet  (Basho Records 2001)-- Martin Speake and Nikki Iles are
                 great together again.
     Bloor Street (Edition Records 2010) -- A bit more advanced than Speake/Iles
                 discs, creative jazz.
     Change of Heart (ECM 2006) -- Classic ECM sound, Bobo Stenson and Paul
                 Motian. Outstanding.
     My Ideal (Basho Records 2003) -- Great pairing with Ethan Iverson. Great take
                 on some classics.
     Live at Riverhouse (Pumpkin Records 2010) -- Straight ahead jazz quartet. Another great disc.

Kate Williams -- In the tradition of Mehldau, Jarrett, Stenson. Creativity, great touch, expressive.
     Scenes and Dreams (Kate Williams 2005) -- Trio setting, a set of great charm and depth.
     Looking Out (Kate Williams 2001) -- Quartet with a mix of standards and Williams penned songs.
            Lovely, melodic takes on "Ghost of a Chance", "You and the Night and the Music."
     Made Up (KWJazz 2011) -- Wrote all but one piece for a septet. Colorful writing, great interplay of the
Product Details           musicians. Highly recommended.

Frank Harrison Trio -- Harrison is a pianist a relatively new to the scene.
     Sideways (Linus Records 2012) -- Tastefully played piano trio set of standards
            and originals. Great improvisational approach to the classic tunes. Great    

Liam Noble -- Creative pianist with an ear for modern takes on the classics.
      Brubeck (Basho Records  2009) -- Trio. Tasteful approach to a classic pianist.
            Outstanding disc.
     Romance Among the Fishes (Basho Records 2005) -- Solid outing
Upcoming in the next installment --- Django Bates, Nikki Iles, Alan Barnes, Julian Arguelles, Francesco Turrisi, Phronesis, Ive Neame Trio, Matthew Bourne, Portico Quartet, Paul Clarvis/Liam Noble, Accoustic Triangle, Julian Siegel, Gordon Beck, John Law.

A last point -- you won't see much in the way of experimental jazz or electronica, no Polar Bear, is just personal taste. In any case, please leave comments on players I have missed, and I know there are CDs by those I didn't miss as well.

Most importantly, try to listen to some of these, and hopefully we can start a trend here in the States (and Canada too). .

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ann Arbor: A Mecca for Music

Spent a great weekend in Ann Arbor with my son, daughter-in-law, grandson and granddaughter. And in the process spent a lot of time around music, both in stores and at a performance. First the performance.

Jazz BandCall me a Pioneer High School groupie if you want, but after seeing the past week's Big Apple performance, I was fortunate again this weekend to hear them in action, this time in a great acoustic hall at the Michigan State University College of Music, where they were competing in the 32nd Annual Jazz Spectacular Program against 10 other bands from MI, WI, and IN. The MSU Music school has an outstanding jazz program headed by Rodney Whitaker with faculty including Etienne Charles, Diego Rivera, Perry Hughes, Reginald Thomas among others. The judges included Winard Harper and Scott Brown. The student bands played a 20 minute set of generally 3 songs, and then were provided master classes with one of the faculty, which families were lucky enough to sit in on. We heard most of the bands and I have to say that we heard some remarkable ensembles, sections, and soloists among them. Pioneer played a rousing "Manteca," featuring a great percussion team, and a crowd-pleasing "Jack the Bear", which featured outstanding solos by Adam Olshevski on the bass, with his rich woody tone and incredible dexterity; and Eddie Codrington, who took a few beautiful turns on the tenor sax. In the balcony, Adam's solo in particular produed a few "ooos and ahhs", "play it lord", "all right" and "uh huhs" from some very knowledgeable listeners.

In the end, Pioneer placed third, and both soloists noted above won awards as outstanding performers on their respective instruments. First place went to the band from Byron Center for the third year running, and second to the band from Northview High School in Grand Rapids. The winning band then played an evening session as the opening band for the terrific Clayton Brothers.

Back in Ann Arbor it was time to explore the riches of not one, two, or three, but FOUR outstanding local record stores, each with a plethora of interesting CDs, and new and old vinyl/LPs to pore through. Too bad I didn't have the time to really dig in, but even short visits to each and short explorations resulted in some nice pick-ups. I have to say that the folks who run these shops, like all the others I have been visiting, are a dedicated bunch who clearly are in love with the music and love to talk about it, are very helpful, and really are part of a tight little music community with their custromers.

I found out that Ann Arbor may be rich today with four stores, but not more than 10 -15 years ago there were at least a dozen record stores in the city catering to all genres and customers. Gradually, LPs went away in favor of CDs, and the internet and streaming drained away customers. But collectvely, each store is seeing the resurgence of new vinyl once again, and coupled with used LPs are finding that part of the market growing, even as the CD market is shrinking due to downloads and the internet. The true customer for these stores are audiophiles, lovers of LPs and newly found listeners to vinyl, and collectors looking for out of print recordings to fill their collections. All the stores noted that the demographic is not what I expected, which would have been lots of college and high school students, but rather seems to be shifting to an older demographic of collectors who still remember LPs fondly, remember browsing their local stores for hours, and remember having sound booths to sample music in the best of the stores. A couple of the store owners noted that a large proportion of their customers are from out of town, coming to Ann Arbor as a place that has these four stores as well as antiquarian bookshops and even a mystery book store, rarities in this day and age with the internet and Barnes and Noble stores et al pushing out the independent sellers in most markets.

So Ann Arbor is a record and book lovers delight, as well as a center for live music. Here is a quick tour through the shops:

My first stop was Wazoo Records saturday morning, probably because I knew it best, having purchased about a dozen discs last time I was in town for a day in 2010. Wazoo is right in the heart of the State Street area, through a yellow awning and up one flight of stairs. Inside is one of the coziest places you could imagine, filled with paraphernalia on the walls and shelves and bins full of LPs and CDs. The collection is deceptive for CDs because the jewel cases are in back, allowing for a lot of covers in a small area. All genres are covered, and vinyl -- both old and new -- is the big draw here, along with Wazoo's service to its customers.  Wazoo has been a landmark since 1974 when the store first opened, and since 1996 has been owned by John Kerr, who has worked there since 1978, and  “This is my dream job. I feel that doing this is a service, because I know music plays a big role in my life, as I’m sure it does in [the lives of] others.” At Wazoo, I picked up a Scott Hamilton, "Afterhours  " and a Vincent Herring "All Too Real" to add to my collection; both were out of print CDs. I could have spent hours here but unfortunately had to settle for about 30 minutes -- after all I was in Ann Arbor to see my son and his family -- right?

On to my next stop, which was Underground Sounds late saturday after returning from the Jazz Competition. Underground specializes in records, particularly all the new releases coming out on vinyl, as well as used LPs. Its jazz CD selection is small and is not really a specialty. But its staff were great and we had an interesting conversation about the resurgence of vinyl, the older demographic buying it, and how this store was really a labor of love for its owner, Matt Bradish. As everyone in the four stores said and Bradish reiterated, this is not a dollars and cents business but rather a labor of love, a crusade to keep the music alive, and a passion. Matt puts in a lot of time at the store, and on Record Day, which is when I caught him, he was particularly tired but happy with the traffic that the day brought, and was closing at 9:00 PM SHARP so he could eat and collapse. I bought the Record Day Leonard Cohen special EP, and for my grandson a Muse CD.

Sunday the stores opened at noon, and I had to leave town by 3:30, but I still squeezed in two more shops without totally ignoring my family, who somehow put up with me and my manic obsession. We had a nice breakfast at home and a good Mexican lunch, conveniently located right next to Encore Records, my third stop on this whirlwind tour. Encore is totally overwhelming, with mountains of discs and LPs (and 45s) in all genres, and is by far the largest store of the four. Encore has been around for years, beginning down the block as Liberty Records, and under new ownership in the past year. I cold have easily spent hours perusing the shelves and still have not seen half of what interests me -- jazz, folk, rock basically. The jazz collection is substantial and worth the time to really study to find those hard to get recordings you are missing from your collection, or the classics that everyone should have. CD or LP, this place is well stocked, and, as with all the stores, the owners -- Bill McClelland and Jim Dywer --  and staff are knowledgable and friendly, whether the talk is specific to an item or just a general conversation about music. They had a CD player and earphones set up to sample the music. I had under an hour to look around, but since my grandson had just played "Manteca" and "Jack the Bear" in Lansing, I picked him up a Dizzy and and Duke CD. For myself, I found a very rare recording by Mulgrew Miller and NHOP from 1999, called ""The Duets" and featuring the music of Duke Ellington, recorded by Bang and Olafsen evidently as a marketing tool. It seems to not be in the basic discographies and is known to jazz collectors as a very hard CD to find, so I consider myself very lucky. I also picked up Duke's "Anatomy of a Murder", "The Bud Shank Quintet Plays Arlen" on the obscure Jimco label, and Eri Yamamoto's "Cobalt Bles" to add to my collection of her music that I wrote about last week.

My last stop, and an extremely short one, was at PJ's Records and Used CDs, the only one of the four stores located a bit out of the downtown area, though easily within walking distance. Another second floor shop and another wonderfully retro, cozy place. I spoke with one of the two owners, Marc Taras, who owns it with his brother Jeff, and we bonded immediately over the love of the music, the need to keep the vinyl and CDs -- the tangible -- alive, and the remarkable new market springing up for vinyl. PJ's jazz CD collection was small but the collection of jazz vinyl was amazing. And note, none of the stores are trying to gouge the market by presenting their LPs at collector's prices; they are all pricing the music to be played. They each have some rarities, etc., but for the most part this is music to listen to, not look at. I didn't have time to buy anything but I promise to return to spend more time browsing next visit.

So there it is -- four great stores in two days. [And apologies for anything I got wrong in this writing] A true  buying trip really needs two full days to browse them all, to talk to the people working the store and the customers, to really feel the camraderie that these stores have. They are truly golden places in this day of the internet, reminders of what music really is and how it should be heard -- as a communal activity with friends, not a solitary activity of bits and bytes and earphones.

All of the stores say they are solvent and will be around for a while. None are making big money, but that isn't the objective for the owners I talked to. Thanks to their dedication, sweat equity, and passion, we all are benefiting. To each, owning a record store isn’t a business — it is a place of communal activity that keeps art alive and well. Each store is a supporter as well of the local music scene, a place to trade information, share new finds and new music, and to bond over shared memories of days gone by. 

I remember where I was when I first heard Crosby Stills and Nash, and rushing to Cutler's Record Shop in New Haven CT to get it. Same for Surrealistic Pillow, Revolver, and the first Led Zeppelin. Later it was McCoy Tyner's "Passion Dance." I hope as readers you have the same type of fond memories and are keeping them alive at your local record stores. Don't let the stores die. Each time one disappears, we lose a little more of that camraderie, that sense of community that music brings us, and we are all a little diminished.

And to all the kids at MSU this weekend from all the schools, thanks for keeping the music playing and the tradition alive.                                                

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Get to Know:Eri Yamamoto

New York City is blessed with an abundance of great music, clubs, and University programs, and thus is a destination for jazz musicians from around the world. Many who live in New York are world-renowned artists, and deservedly so, with long discographies and plenty of press, while others are not nearly as widely known but may be equally as accomplished, and equally well-known within the "jazz inner circle" so to speak.

Eri Yamamoto is one of the latter -- extremely accomplished; with multiple recordings, most recently on AUM Fidelity; a regular gig at Arthur's Tavern since 2000 with her long-standing trio; a record of international accomplishments with other fine artists; but a reputation that seems hidden to the general jazz listening public. The Eri Yamamoto Trio, simply put, is a fine modern jazz trio that more people have to know about, listen to on CD, and go to see at Arthur's Taven or when they come to your city.

A bit of background on Yamamoto before discussing her latest CD, "The Next Page" (AUM Fidelity 2012) and two of her earlier CDs. Eri Yamamoto was born in Osaka, Japan, began playing classical piano at age three, and began writing her own music at age 8. She studied voice, viola, and composition through her high school and college years, leading to her magical moment  when she visited her sister in New York City in 1995.  By random choice she took in a Tommy Flanagan performance and was immediately inspired by her first exposure to live jazz piano to move to New York and dedicate herself to learning jazz. Eri immediately entered the New School's prestigious jazz program, where she studied with Reggie Workman, Junior Mance, and LeeAnn Ledgerwood. Originally versed in the classic voices of Flanagan and Bud Powell, among others, a big turning point for her career was seeing Paul Bley, Paul Motian, and Gary Peacock together at the Knitting Factory in 1996. It showed her how to open up her language, how to free her thoughts and expression, and effectively how to unlock her voice. In 1997, while still in school, she started playing regularly at the Avenue B Social Club, and developed a musical friendship with  pianist Matthew Shipp, another pianist with a modernist's expressive style, who saw in her an artist already expressing "heart and soul [that] actually moved me, which is so unusual for a jazz student."

Since 2000, Eri's trio, with Ikuo Takeuchi on drums and David Ambrosio on bass, has been appearing regularly at Arthur's Tavern, a historic jazz club in New York's Greenwich Village. She has performed at the Hartford International Jazz Festival, An Die Musik in Baltimore, and Lincoln Center Summer Festival in New York City; appeared on two William Parker recordings; and has performed all over Europe including Italy, Holland, Norway, and Portugal.  Eri is also a teacher, having received her master of music in education and composition from Shiga University, Japan.

Yamamoto's style is graced with an ability to describe through her choice of notes the coloration of the world around her, much as Paul Motian did with his drums and brushes. Her style can be very subtle and quiet, but it always is moving forward with a definite jazz rhythm in all that she does. She has developed a style that is laced with subtle colors that can blend notes in unexpected ways. It can require close listening, but it will provide great rewards for those who do; as she puts it, "My voicing is not traditional at all. If I can hear a melody, I feel good." Eri Yamamoto has established herself as an original pianist and composer, with a tight working trio and a strong following among those in the know. Now it is time to spread the word.

"The Next Page" (AUM  Fidelity 2012) is the trio's latest disc. As I listened to it, I wrote down the following adjectives, in no particular order:  melodic, soothing, mellow, quiet, light, subtle, simple, elegant. Her music is all of these things, with simple tunes played with elegant style. The songs sound so easy, the tunes are simple, and yet the structure, the improvisations, the interplay, all create the elegance that characterizes the entire perfomrance. And one more adjective -- swinging -- needs to be added; though the music doesn't swing in the traditional sense, it alsways is moved forward by the use of the bass and drums to provide the meter, and the teamwork is very clear. Thus, despite the gentleness of most of the music, this is definitely a jazz CD and not chamber jazz. There is no showiness, no grand effects, mearely a trio playing with each other and delivering the goods.

Yamamoto's builds each tune from a melody stated at the outset, sometimes a bit sad, sometimes light and airy, and draws out the idea -- folk tunes in some cases, ballads, or the blues in others. She builds the song, adding to the melodies with differing harmonies and accents, but never with bombastic chords or dramatic changes in sound levels. It is all nicely done, understated but wisely so, and each tune leaves a distinct memory. These are organic pieces, not episodic but rather fully realized as a single, harmonious unit from start to finish. Bassist David Ambrosio has much to do with the sound, providing a strong metered bassline at times, counterpoint at others, and providing some great full-bodied soloing, particulalry on the bluesy "Night Shadows" and "Green Grows."  Ikuo Takeuchi's drumming is a collection of great subtlety played often on the ride cymbals with gentle accents from the drums, and he buoys and propels the sound forward without dominating. His composition "Up and Down", the only song not written by Yamamoto, opens the second set (to give the feel of a live show, the disc has a 60 second silent section after song 6 before opening the second set) with a rush and gives Takeuchi his biggest moment in the sun on the kit. Together the three, a unit since 2004, are clearly communicating with their instruments as well as with a telepathic sense and knowledge of each others needs.  The opening "Sparkle Song" takes a simple folk-like melody and stretches it effortlessly into a lovely mid-tempo excursion, "Night Shadows" introduces a bluesy element in the melody set forth by Yamamoto, and "Swimming Song"  is an upbeat way to close the second set.  All of the play is done with a minimum of bombast or showiness, which makes the entire CD a wonderfully cohesive and enjoyable listen, especially if one recognizes the marvelous details, subtle shadings and interplay within each.

Two other Yamamoto CDs are decribed herein, but there are others, like her last one "In Each Day Something Good" (AUM Fidelity 2010), that are equally worth listening to.
"Redwoods" (AUM Fidelity 2008) was Yamamoto's fifth release with her long standing trio. The album provides the same richness a her latest, with Yamamoto's distinctive melodies always inventive, with stong undertones of the blues, folk, or jazz throughout, and a steady hand on the tiller that never goes too far out. Her backing of Takeuchi and Ambrosio is similarly just as solid, with Takeuchi providing as necessary a strong pulse or a discreetly free-ish one with colorings from his kit.  Ambrosio again is an anchor playing a steady beat, conterpoint, or memorable solos as reequired, all with a woody, resonant sound. This disc opens quickly with a rollicking  "This Is An Apple," and ends similarly with the upbeat "Dear Friends." In between are a rich confection of wistful ballads, boppish melodies, and bluesy riffs that involved the entire trio in the defivery of a wonderfully colorful and full-bodied recording. 
Product Details"Duologue" (AUM Fidelity 2008) is a work of a different color,  a collection of improvisatory duets among Ms. Yamamoto and William Parker on bass, Hamid Drake and Federico Ughi on drums, and the saxophonist Daniel Carter."I had a dream," Ms. Yamamoto said. "It was a very clear dream. I was recording a duo album with these musicians. I woke up and thought, 'That's perfect.'" The disc opens and closes with Ughi coloring Yamamoto's themes -- a gospel-tinged  "Thank You" and a bounce  "You Are Welcome."  Drake quietly supports the gentle  "Circular Movement," but is more assertive in complementing the blues-inflected  "Midtown Blues." There is more rhymic diversity at play on this CD, although each tune is still based on strong melodic lines. The more soulful, melodic side of Yamamoto comes to the front with her work with Carter and Parker as demonstrated in the more lyrical "Violet Sky." "Conversation", with Carter on alto, and "Violet Sky" with Carter on tenor, come from further outside the simple patterns that Yamamoto is known for, but she gently ropes in the initial saxaphone burst of sound with her strong piano play and creates a pair of lithe, modern jazz .ballads.  

With the more avant-garde players than on her trio discs, this recording is a bit more angular than the others and may not have the same appeal for those seeking a more mellow experience, though it is still well within the same melodic construct. It is a stronger, modern creative sound, but still retains Yamamoto's sense of lyrical play and melody, and cannot be ignored.

Eri Yamamoto's music is for everyone who appreciates good jazz. It is for  those who like the straight and narrow, with its simple flowing melodiesand subtle nature, or for those seeking a more adventerous modern piano jazz trio with interesting ideas and strong group dynamics. Take a listen to a very underappreciated artist.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Future of Jazz: The Pioneer High School Jazz Band Takes New York City

An awful number of magazine articles and blog entries focus on the future of jazz, the aging of the jazz audience, and the popularity of the music in a world of hip hop, electronica, and other newer forms of music. Certainly there are issues to deal with, and certainly other types of music have larger and more youthful audiences, but at least for one day I saw a much more upbeat side to the story.

Jazz Band
Today, the Pioneer High School Music Department from Ann Arbor, Michigan brought its award winning Concert Band and Jazz Band to the atrium at the IBM Building in New York City for an afternoon concert, and put on quite a show for an enthusiastic midtown crowd. Tomorrow night, the crown jewel of the music department, the Pioneer Symphony Band, will be performing on-stage at Carnegie Hall. 

How good is the music program at Pioneer? Well, in 2006 and again in 2011, Pioneer was selected as THE National GRAMMY Signature School  by the Grammy Foundation, making it the number one music program at the high school level in the United States.

While the concert band was great, my interest today was in seeing young and upcoming instrumentalists tackling some of the great pieces of jazz of the 20th century, with outstanding ensemble play as well as some terrific solos by selected members of the band.  The jazz band played about a half-dozen songs, highlighted for me by "Four" by Miles Davis, "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" by Duke Ellington, and a rousing finisher in "Manteca" by Dizzy Gillespie. Even with only so-so accoustics in the atrium, it was clear how together the band was, how spirited the players were, and how outstanding were the solos. I took some video but it does not really show the quality of the music; this clip of "Manteca" from an earlier concert -- -- will give you a better sense of the group.

Concert Band
Four soloists really jumped out during the concert -- Takeo Cauley on the baritone sax brought an incredibly mellow tone to a very difficult instrument to tame; Adam Olshevski on the bass had a full woody tone and incredible dexterity; Jesse Lemon's trumpet had great range and the strength to overcome the accoustical challenge; and Eddie Codrington took a few beautiful turns on the tenor sax. (Apologies if I spelled any names wrong)

One can only hope that the Pioneer Jazz Band represents just one of many such jazz programs throughout the country, albeit one of those at the pinnacle of success. Under the able leadership of David A. Leach, this band is demonstrating that jazz is truly America's music with its roots in the black american culture of the turn of the last century and in the works of Ellington, Gillespie, Davis and others, that its history and great compositions are still relevant today, and that this music will be in good hands going forward if people are exposed to it at an early age.

A great big thank you to you all for bringing the music to New York and entertaining us this afternoon.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Listening to Spike Wilner' Latest

La TendresseSpike Wilner is one busy man. Somehow, in addition running Smalls Jazz Club, developing multiple bookings covering seven nights a week, playing an early set as a soloist or a later set with one of the many fine groups that pass through the club each week, generating new ideas to bring jazz to the audience including on-line streaming from the club, maintaining a website and Facebook page, and producing a number of very fine recordings in the "Live at Smalls" series, including one of himself playing solo, he found the time to do a trio recording on the Positone label. And a terrific one at that.

Michael “Spike” Wilner is a native New Yorker who drew his first inspiration on piano from a television program about Scott Joplin, and thus took to ragtime at an early age. He pursued ragtime throughout high school, performed “Maple Leaf Rag” at the St. Louis Ragtime Festival, and from that start decided to continue his education with an eye towards a career in music.  Following high school he enrolled in the New School For Social Research’s Jazz and Contemporary Music department in New York.  In this fertile musical environment he found like-minded players including Peter Bernstein, Jesse Davis, Larry Goldings, Brad Mehldau, Roy Hargrove, Sam Yahel, Joe Strasser and others.  He was a student of pianists Walter Davis Jr. and Jaki Byard, and  was involved with the Jazz Cultural Theater under the direction of  Barry Harris. 

As a professional on the scene in New York, he  began to play gigs in the various clubs, was a house pianist at the Village Gate as well as other long-gone clubs such as Visiones, The Angry Squire and The Village Corner, and eventually settled in at Smalls, then owned by Mitch Borden.  At Smalls, he developed his music and playing career, and eventually became a partner and manager of the club, where now he can be found most nights.  

Product DetailsProduct Details"La Tendresse" (Positone 2012), with Dezron Douglas on bass and Joey Saylor on drums, is his newest recording, following upon "3 to Go" (Positone 2008), a quintet with Ryan Kisor and Joel Frahm; his solo outing "Live at Smalls" (Smalls Live 2010), and  two earlier outings -- "Late Night: Live at Smalls" ( Fresh Sound New Talent 2004) and "Portraits" (New Jazz Renaissance Recordings 1999).  The new disc has a lot of the same characteristics as his solo outing --- a wide range of styles, innovative approaches to the music, a light and expressive touch on the keys, and the use of a lot of tempo changes within each song. Additionally, Wilner demonstrates that he can write in various styles with his four original pieces. The eight covers range from the ragtime of Scott Joplin to show tunes by Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin to the classic jazz writing of Ellington and Monk, all ably handled with fresh thoughts, lightening quick arpeggios using the entire keyboard, and expressive and intricate improvisations.

This is an interesting program of tunes that covers a broad swath of jazz history. "La Tendresse" (Tenderness), the title tune, leads off the CD and to this ear sounded entirely improvised and extremely passionate, and had echoes of the improvisations of Keith Jarrett. It is a beautiful song with which to begin. A jaunty trip through "If I Only Had a Brain Follows", almost like a palatte cleanser during a fine meal in preparation for the food  to come. It is clever, light, and catchy, with a nicely underplayed accompaniment by Saylor always keeping it moving forward. Next Wilner reaches into his schoolboy training to give us the ragtime "Solace" by Scott Joplin, but does so within his own stylings -- lots of tempo changes, shifts from lovely legato tones to sections with a lighter and shorter touch. This is an extremely fresh take on a song that is a century old and is a reminder of the threads that run from the earliest jazz players to today's stars.

Wilner's own piece "Silver Cord" follows, this time with a more composed feel than his first composition; then "Always", an Irving Berlin chestnut, follows and maintains the lyrical flow; as does "Lullabye of the Leaves", a solo tune by Wilner.  Wilner is then off and running with an unexpected, uptempo take on "Always", with the brushes and later the ride cymbal maintaining the momentum underneath the rapid and wonderful fingerings of Wilner. The last five pieces feature two tunes by Ellington and Richard Rodgers, both done at a lovely mid-tempo pace, allowing for a lot of expressive interplay, and "Crepuscule with Nellie", which shows Wilner's respect for Monk's style of play, albeit with some tasty flourishes added into the mix. Carol Burnett would cry tears of joy to hear the wonderful playing of her theme "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together." and Wilner exits the disc with a rousing "Happy Ending", a very fast and jaunty tune which sounds very much like a theme song for the band, and a chance to allow each member to shine one last time.

This is the program of a piano player with a great deal of skill and an understanding of the history of the jazz piano. Wilner takes music from across the span of a century and, while staying true to each song's roots, finds impressive ways to add his own touch to each to create a singularly fresh CD that I highly recommend. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Get to Know: Mats Eilertsten

Mats EilertsenMats Eilertsen -- does it sound at all familiar to you?  You might know the name from his many side duties on some fifty or so recordings, many on outstanding discs for ECM:   Jacob Young's "Sideways" (2008) and "Evening Falls" (2004),  Wolfert Brederode' s "Currents"(2007) and "Post Scriptum" (2011), or Tord Gustavsen's "Restored, Returned" (2010).  And if you pick up a wonderful new disc by Yelena Eckemoff, "FORGET-me-NOT"  (Yelenamusic 2012) you will find him in a trio with Eckemoff on piano and the wonderfully creative Marilyn Mazur on percussion.

So who is this wonderfully lyrical bassist?  Mats Eilertsen was born in 1975 in Trondheim, Norway, and received his education in music from the  Jazz Department at the Conservatory of Music in Trondheim. He is a highly in-demand musician and in the past decade has played in a number of bands both in Norway and internationally, inlcuding the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble, The Source with Trygve Seim, Dutch pianist Wolfert Brederode, Bobo Stenson, and Food. As noted earlier, he has also released six CDs as leader, all on the Norwegian label Hubro. Mats is considered to be one of a handful of first-call bass players in Europe, one who brings a large, warm and lyrical sound to a band, and one who can play both inside and outside as called for by the music, showing an openness and willingness to experiement with sound.

Eilersten has six recordings under his name, but it is the last three on the Hubro label that are discussed here.

"Radio Yonder" (Hubro 2010) is a quartet album featuring Eilertsen on bass, Tore Brunborg on saxophone, Thomas Dahl on guitar, and Olavi Louhivuori on drums. It begins slowly with the mood set by the guitar and bass, followed by the entry of Brunborg on saxophone. Entitled "Radio" it is a good introduction to the sensibilities of the group, which features extended ruminations by the saxophone and guitar, with a solid,  almost droning bass line under-pinning the piece. The saxophone gradually builds in tempo and tone to a crescendo, and then falls back in the final minute as the music recedes slowly back to the two stringed instruments. Cover (Radio Yonder:Mats Eilertsen)The music is always melodic and lyrical, not in the sense of standards play but rather in a freer use of the instruments and their possibilities. Eilertsen leans towards a soft and sometimes dark sound with a flexible approach to time that's near-signature to Norwegian improvised music. This is inventive material almost entirely written by Eilertsen, and much of it is mellow and meditative and quite low keyed. "Bora", the second song, has a lovely long solo for the guitar with very restrained brushwork and basslines underneath, and Dahl is very much one who brings an inventive spirit to the group.  Brunborg in turn follows on "Bora" with a lovely extended and lyrical part, very restrained but yet inventive as he travels the length of his instrument. Overall, the ECM sensibility is very strong throughout the music, which enchants at times with each soloist taking a turn in the spotlight. Brunborg in particular is outstanding thoroughout.

Cover (Elegy:Mats Eilertsen)"Elegy"  (Hubro 2010) is a different CD entirely, as it features a traditional piano trio with Harmen Fraanje a Dutch pianist, and Thomas Stronen, Norwegian, on drums. Elegy is the bassist's first with a conventional piano trio, though it's far from the tradition of Bill Evans et al. Rather it follows the tradition of free play being created by modernists such as Paul Bley, Ethan Iverson, Stephano Bollani, and others, all of whom can play "in the pocket" and traditionallly, but also have stepped out to create purely improvisational pieces as well. The group ethos and energy of this recording is evident from the start, and the line blurs quickly between composed and improvisational parts of each piece. Stronen plays with sound throughout, sometimes setting the rhythm and at other times using bells, cymbals, brushes, and other effects to paint a mood. This can be seen at the outset with a two minute piece, "Drumba" , featuring just the bass and percussionist; there is no real tune here, rather it is a piece that sets a distinct mood for the entire disc. "Elegy", the second piece is similar, and it is not until the third piece "Sukha" that the piano enters, with an immediately lovely melody featuring single notes played against a very subtle background rhythm being set by the bass and brushes. "Falling" is from a completely different sound pallette  -- angular, short bursts of sound, and strong interplay among the three. It is never overbearing, loud, or jarring, but it is discordant though it is still played at a restrained sound level. The group returns to more melodic voicings, though "Tuven, Tuven" is a very free sounding piece that is more about sounds and interplay than melodies. It has one of Eilersten's stongest solo outings as a highlight. "Nardis", the Miles Davis song, follows with an outstanding reading by the group and a very unusual climax and then quiet resolution to the nearly 11 minute piece. Fraange wrote "Six Weeks" , a piece of dark melodies that features Eilertsen's  robust, woody tone and range, and Strønen's wonderful coloration.  This is a wonderful modernist trio disc with a great depth of feeling and range of ideas.

"Sky Dive" (Hubro 2011) is Eilersten's most recent, and features a quintet this time, with his original quartet -- himself on bass, Brunborg on saxophone, Dahl on guitar, and Louhivuori on drums -- enhanced by the addition of Alexi Tuomarila from Finland on piano and fender rhodes. With this grouping, Eilersten has created the perfect band to play his music. The group features intense beauty and each demonstrates their virtuousity with soloing throughout. Clearly working together, they have created what must be called Eilersten's best work so far. Mats Eilertsen: Radio YonderThis is effectively the same group that did "Radio Yonder" with the addition of the keyboard that he used in "Elegy", thus rounding out the sound. No single player is the star, rather they all commit themselves to bringing these original creations to the fore. These are contemporary European melodies, with a lyricism that capture's the attention of the listener as sounds shift among the players. Again, the pieces are all played at a very mild tempo, and the intensity is not in the loudness of the music or crescendos, but in the interplay of the instruments. Once again Brunborg's round tone floats above the rest when he enters, but equal time is given to the lyrical playing of Tuomarila, whose sound is demonstrated beautifully on "Memento", the CDs second piece. Tuomarila is brilliant throughout the recording. Overall, the disc is contemporary European jazz at its best -- understated, sensitive, and beautifully rendered and colored by outstanding musicians. Eilersten takes few solos, yet dominates the proceedings through his compositions. Sky Dive is a particularly expressive, evocative recording by an imressive group of players and should not be missed.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

How About Trying Some New Names? (Part 2)

Happy Passover and Happy Easter to all. Tough week to get any writing in, but wanted to keep the ball rolling a bit with some of the less familiar players I have been listening to. I cannot call this a "Newbies" group exactly, but I bet most will be new to many reading this post (Assuming anyone is reading -- I have little way of knowing.)

Product DetailsFirst, pick up a copy of Dan Cray "Meridies" (Origin 2012) and enjoy the mellow sounds of a wonderful quartet. Cray is from Chicago and with his trio has produced a number of discs in the past decade, but he really hits his stride with this one.  Cray plays a wonderfully expressive piano and has a knack for improvisation, as demonstrated immediately with his take on Charlie Chaplin's "Smile". Cray demonstrates a nice writing touch as well, with some lovely melodies for both ballads and upbeat creations. Finally, his tenor sax on this outing is Noah Preminger, a young up and coming player whose album "Before the Rain" caputred many honors when it came out in 2011. A really nice listen from a very good label.

Product DetailsNext, reach for a tenor player, Dan Wilensky, and listen to "Back in the Mix"  (Speechless Productions 2012). Wilensky has written nine terrific songs here and presents them tastefully with a band that includes the veteran Mark Soskin on piano (who has just released his new disc on Kind of Blue "Nino Rota" with some beautiful interpretations of the great Italian composer's best known songs), Dean Johnson on bass, Tony Moreno on drums, and on four pieces Russ Johnson on trumpet. Wilensky's first album actually goes back a ways to And Then Some (Speechless, 1997), and since then he has been busy as a sideman, teacaher, and session player.  Now focused on being a leader he has produced three albums, with  "Back in the Mix" his lataest outing. This CD is his first to be  supported with the piano and not guitar, and Soskin adds a large measure of sonic depth and more harmonies to the mix, with great results.

Product DetailsFinally, listen to Matt Baker on "Underground" (MBCD 2012). On piano and Fender Rhodes, he leads a trio inlcudeing Joe Snaders on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums, with support on slected songs from Jeremy Pelt on trumpet and Danya Stephens on Tenor (and Stevens has a new CD on Criss Cross, "Today is Tomorrow" which is another outstanding listen). An Australian based in New York, he has been playing with a host of well known players for a while now, and this CD demonstrates a very sure hand on some great old music -- "If I Were a Bell", Mood Indigo" -- and five originals that show Baker as a writer and player who honors the past but imbues his playing with the sounds of today.

All three CDs are great "in the pocket" listens and feature not only new and intersting leaders but also some of the best players on the scene today like Soskin, Pelt, Hutchinson, Preminger, and Stphens. With the respect of these players and their support, it is no wonder each of these leaders has produced some outstanding sounds.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Don't Be Scared of Jazz: Two Excellent Jazz Histories and More

Product DetailsI have found that people often shy away from jazz, feeling that they "don't get it" or they "don't know where to start" or they are intimidated by what they perceive to be a very tight-knit group of insiders with secret handshakes and special codes. It can be hard to jump into the pool -- Where do I start? What type of jazz do I want to hear? What is good and what is bad? What am I supposed to be hearing? 
Product DetailsRather than being intimidating, in many ways jazz is really very accomodating and easy to enter, and from there easy to learn about and expand upon. Jazz is a very big tent full of wonderful sounds, and expands every day. When rock and roll came along, soul jazz and jazz fusion developed. Today, jazz is incorporating hip hop, sampling, and club music. Right now a couple of the biggest CDs out there are Esperanza  Spaulding's "Radio Music Society"  and Robert Glasper's "Black Radio" two discs with a distinct pop radio vibe by two jazz artists. And meanwhile, classic bop and swing go on as well, along side the avant garde, latin jazz, and other forms taken from across the globe.

Product DetailsProduct DetailsBeing such an inclusive genre, the more one listens and reaches out, the more one can learn about jazz and what it is they like. And with that, one can come to the realization that jazz is all about the music, the feeling, and what it expresses to one's self that counts.  

Product DetailsI have also found from my experience that once you are hooked you want to know more, know how jazz progressed from ragtime to dixieland to swing to bop to hard bop to cool jazz to fusion to avant garde and so on; how Lester and Coleman and the Bird influenced a whole generation (or two) of sax players; the importance of Louis and Clifford and Miles for trumpet players; and why "Kind of Blue", "Giant Steps", or "The Shape of Jazz to Come" were seminal recordings. To that end, I have found two highly readable and very different histories that I firmly recommend. While there are others, I found these two books to be eminently readable guides which beautifully explain the complexities and characters that are needed to grasp the underlying concepts and history of jazz.

JazzThe first of the two is the more detailed, an in-depth history of jazz, simply called "Jazz" by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux (W.W. Norton and Company 2009). In 19 chapters it takes one from an orientation to the instruments and forms of the music in two chapters; to its history from its roots in the black experience, the slave experience, spirituals, blues and native african music; through the music of the first decade of the 21st century. Along the way it covers each major movement with detailed studies of the major players and their music, as well as detailed studies of particular recordings and pioneering pieces along the way. The book is excellent in addressing the flow of jazz from decade to decade and movement to movement, and in spotlighting the major innovators along the way.

Why Jazz?: A Concise GuideFor those looking for a shorter start on the subject, the second  book, "Why Jazz?" by Kevin Whitehead of NPR radio (Oxford University Press 2011),  in fact states on the cover that it is "a concise guide." In fewer than 150 pages, in a question and answer format, Whitehead succinctly covers jazz from its beginnings in New Orleans to the current postmodern period. It is frankly amazing how much  information he can pack into this breezy overview of jazz, which includes many key performers in each period, a discussion of technical issues -- major, minor, blues, and other scales as an example -- and a glossary of terms. He talks about playing ahead of the beat, behind the beat, and what that means in cerating a swing feeling, as just one example. As noted, he does this through posing a question --"Why is Billy Holliday so revered?" as an example -- and then giving a response. In a quick 136 pages this is quite an accomplished overview, clearly not as in-depth as the Giddins book, but another great place to start.

In my reading of books and book reviews, columns and blogs, it is clear that no single history is universally lauded -- criticisms abound about viewpoints, lack of depth on European influences or Asian and Middle Eastern influences, too much credit given to one artist or another, and biases towards one movement or another. But both books provide a lot of material and a great place to begin build a foundation.

The Jazz Ear: Conversations over MusicThelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American OriginalAfter reading these books, one might want to then delve into a particular movement, or artist, and there are countless books out there. A favorite of mine is the biography of Monk by Robin Kelley entitled "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original." (Free Press 2009), which not only explains why Monk is recognized as a jazz legend and genius, but also provides an amazing sense of what it was like to be a black jazz musician in the 40s and 50s, and the jazz scene in general and the countless personalities who were a part of it. Others might prefer "Pops" , a recent biography of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout; collections of interviews  by Ben Ratliff called "Jazz Ear" or Nat Hentoff called "At the Jazz Band Ball"; or many others. All good, all recommended.
At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene 
Finally, the point is not that one has to read books and learn about jazz to appreciate it; rather that one can first simply appreciate it, listen to it, and enjoy it, and then if interested learn more about it from some great books. First and foremost, do not be afraid of jazz, grab a hold and take a great journey into a new and wonderous world.

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong