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Beautiful ain't the same thing as pretty.

Updated: 2017-09-17T06:28:32.873-04:00


The Night Before


Tomorrow the new president gets sworn in, a man no one thought would win and now, according to the polls, few think can do the job well.  A man whose early actions, in who he's surrounded himself with and what he says he'll do, are nothing short of terrifying. I don't want to regurgitate what so many have said.  I'm terrified for the future, but also trying to be the best American I can in response; I'm giving more money to civic causes, I'm calling Senator Ed Markey's enough that I think I'll be on a first name basis with his staff soon, I'm trying to avoid the noise and follow the money.  But there's two things that have been at the front of my brain that I want to share:- It's clear to me that the election of Trump is, among other things, an indictment of the American education system, or lack thereof.  That so many people were willing to elect someone who is clearly an ignoramus says to me that we are not, and haven't been, teaching the kind of critical thinking (among other things) that the 21st century requires.  (Which makes his know-little choice to head the Department of Education so much scarier) I know that one of the battle cries coming out of this election is "get involved".  I think that absolutely includes in education.  Go to school committee meetings and town meetings where the school budget is on the table.  Demand funding for the arts, and media studies and robust civics education.  Demand that schools run well, and that citizens and businesses pay their fair share to fund them.  One of the reasons the right is disproportionately strong in this country is because they own so many local school boards, and from there dictate what our kids learn about science and history and civics.  (see here for an especially terrifying example) We have to change that. - As an artist, perhaps the most maddening thing to me about President Trump (and believe me, there are many) is he a man of atrociously bad taste.  His suits are pedestrian and fit badly.  His buildings are outstanding only in how garish they are.  Several commentators have made the point that Trump's whole persona- his image, his buildings, his style- is a poor, illiterate person's idea of what they'd be if they were rich.  What little we know about his tastes in the arts is that they are pedestrian at best, and more likely he simply doesn't think much about art because it is too hard.  (The word today that his budget wants to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the NEH is maddening and outrageous, but not surprising) Why does this matter?  For two reasons: first, the presidency is the ultimate bully pulpit, one that has been used to encourage people to revere and appreciate beauty.  Look at the concerts Kennedy and Obama put on, and Carter's Great Day in Washington.  Ronald Reagan had Miles Davis as a distinguished guest at a State dinner.  I shudder at what, if any, art the new president will place front and center. Second, I turn to one of my heroes Charlie Haden for a more eloquent explanation than I can muster (thanks to Jay McCool for finding this quote, which is burned in my brain from 20 years ago): "If the leaders of the governments of the world were able to hear – I know this is very idealistic – if they were able to hear the beauty of the slow movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, or Ravel, or Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” or Billie Holiday, Django, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman…if they could really hear the beauty… Sometimes I think about hearing music through someone else’s ears and it frightens me – if someone wanted to torture me they could me to hear music through Ronald Reagan’s ears. He must be tone deaf! If the people who run the governments of the world could touch that brilliance inside themselves, and know that it’s in everyone else and everywhere else, the world just couldn’t go on the same way, the way it’s going now.”I'm trying to imagine if a music critic sat down with [...]

Thoughts from Newport 2016


- One thing that is always striking at Newport is that you can walk a couple of hundred feet and feel like you've hit a time warp- a young band playing in the "neoconservative" mold separated by a stone wall from a band free improvisations with electronics.  For me it's always jarring, and rarely serves the more conservative band.  I teach a lot of older styles, and I believe there's certainly a lot of value in it, but that's not what I want to hear at one of the top venues in the US- I want musicians playing music from their experience, that speaks to today.  It can and should reflect where the music comes from, but not with the goal of recreating it. This was driven home to me today with the first set of the day, a collection of elite high school age players from all over the world brought to Newport by Berklee, and led by young proteges of Danielo Perez and John Patitucci.  (full disclosure- two of my former students performed)  I make it a policy not to critique student musicians, so I won't give specifics, except that I heard some tremendous, tremendous players.  Some of the bands, clearly modeled what they did off of some of Danielo's recordings, and the "Children of the Light" (Perez/Patitucci/Blade)- one in particular played a very ambitious piece with metric modulations, etc.  Some of it worked, some of it didn't, but you rooted for them in going for it.  On the other hand,  a couple played very Blakey-ish hard bop numbers.  Everything was well played, but there was no crackle.  The difference in both energy and execution was noticeable to me.  I'm not saying don't play swing tunes, but it has to be relevant.- Peter Apfelbaum, someone I still think of as a young turk based on his work with Don Cherry in the 90s, came to Newport with his Sparkler project.  The frontline were Peter on keyboards and tenor sax, with two women playing reeds and trombone; the whole front line also spoke/sang.  The band defies easy description; the music (as in rhythm/pitch/harmony) definitely continues the language Peter was working with in his old Hieroglyphs ensemble- melodies and beats that reflect a serious study of some African musics, and a desire to make people dance.  With that there are lyrics, usually spoken, often more than a little nonsensical.  I heard it as one part late Don Cherry, one part Screaming Headless Torsos.  It was really weird, and I loved it. The band was also operating with an increased degree of difficulty- it was raining cats and dogs, and the crowd was small.  I hope Newport gives this band at least some word of mouth, and hopefully some more gigs, because it's really worth hearing.- The two "finds" of the festival for me were coincidentally both women: Maria Grand, tenor player with Steve Coleman, and Kris Davis, pianist with Eric Revis' group.  Grand navigated the always tricky Coleman music with a big, broad sound and tremendous melodic acuity.  Davis was remarkable, playing with almost Ellingtonian impressionism one moment, and Cecil Taylor-like ferocity the next. - I was excited to see Kamasi Washington after all the hype and press.  I was not especially taken by The Epic, but I've had plenty of bands (notably the Bad Plus) change my mind live.  Kamasi's band is a visual spectacle- Washington wore a regal robe with an elegant design, the singer had a gold dress with a geometric pattern, and the bassist had a black shirt with shiny gold squares on the sleeves, almost ala "RockJazz", and two drummers.  Jazz musicians are often (fairly, I think) criticized for not putting enough thought into the whole presentation of the music.  That's not a problem here.What was a problem was the sound- the balance was all over the place, and it was ridiculously loud.  The volume started to affect the quality of the music too- the singer's pitch was inconsistent, as if she couldn't here herself, and when there was flute it went painfully sharp.  Two other bands w[...]

Thoughts from Newport Jazz Fest 2015


A few musings from a couple of days in Newport for the jazz festival.  I hesitate to say review because I didn't see enough, and for the most part I want to follow a "if you can't say something nice" policy.  I know how hard everyone works, and how big a deal Newport is for careers, so anyone who made the bill deserves to enjoy it.  That said, what stood out:- If you are someone who cares about "jazz", Friday at Newport is manna.  The bulk of the acts are fiercely personal explorers, mostly under 40.  (I don't say "up and comers" because most have several records out, a lot of buzz, etc.  But they don't have the visibility of a lot of the weekend acts.)  There were several times I was hopscotching between acts because they scheduled multiple great things simultaneously.  (The best/worst was Steve Lehman with Mark Shim and Tyshawn Sorey vs. Jonathan Blake with Mark Turner and Chris Potter.  Yikes)  And it's $40 tops, $20 for students!  It was great to see so many high school and college kids down there, including a few I've worked with in my job. - Perhaps the coolest moment of the day Friday was seeing a student I know from various jazz ed events (including a wonderful star turn as a soloist at the Ellington competition in NYC) staring wide-eyed at Matana Robert's Coin Coin, a thorny, absorbing band combining improvisation, operatic singing, spoken word, church forms and a dozen other things.  I understood the band years ago as an outgrowth of her digging into her family tree, but in the meantime the scope of it seems to have gotten quite a bit bigger.  The student- a white girl from the deep burbs- just says "this is SO COOL!"  The performance was so cool, indeed, theatrical but not cloying, with great playing from the entire band, especially Roberts and trumpeter Jason Palmer.  It's heartening when something different is immediately received as something cool in places I'd never expect it.   - I've run hot and cold on trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, but he was fantastic on Friday, both with his own band and as a sideman with pianist Gerald Clayton.  Playing in his own quartet, some of what he does reminded me of my old teacher Ralph Alessi- his wide leaps and scrambles all over the horn, the punchiness of the compositions, the band weaving around then hitting an unexpected spot together.  (Now that I have a five disc CD player again, it'd be interesting to hear his the imagined savior... and Alessi's Bahia back to back)  I liked the last CD, and I'm excited to hear what he does next. - As there always are at festivals, there were bands that looked to be ad hoc, "all star" units.  (Appropriate when the Festival itself is celebrating Miles Davis' turns there, his first being in... an all star band with Monk in 1956)  Unlike that unit though, the two I saw- Jonathan Blake's Quartet with Mark Turner, Chris Potter and Ben Street, and the aforementioned Clayton quintet- they played hard, twisty tunes, really well.  The Potter/Turner pairing was a full on saxgasm, and both were fantastic- virtuosic without really being showy, clearly enjoying playing off each other without trying to one-up.  I was especially taken with Potter, not something I usually say- there was a wonderful internal logic to his playing, taking, developing and redeveloping ideas over a longer period of time, the way I equate with the best of Joshua Redman. - Hearing Robert's Coin Coin made a couple of the other acts on that stage, who were playing in a more (choose your term) Young Lions/neotrad/uptown style, feel really, really, really anachronistic. - Steve Lehman's music was tremendously dense, intense and well played.  The "other" saxophonist Mark Shim, someone I've rarely warmed to, sounded fantastic, as did drummer Tyshawn Sorey.  Shout out also to old friend trombonist (and soon to be new dad, again) Tim Albright. - I had to choose between John Hollenbeck's Big Band and[...]

The persistent power of Buddy Rich


(This post is a sideways reaction to Ethan Iverson's recent missive about the film Whiplash and Buddy Rich.  The post is fantastic, as is the accompanying post about Rich by Mark Stryker. I should note that I have yet to see Whiplash, and don't care that much about it.  I feel obliged to merely due to  the number of people that ask me about the damn movie.  And I like J.K. Simmons a lot.)There has been jazz music around me for as long as I can remember.  My dad grew up listening to Symphony Sid broadcasts, and wrote about jazz for his high school literary magazine.  Growing up I heard Brubeck and Ellington and the like on the radio and on records.  Lots of Ray Charles, BB King and gospel music too.  I remember nosing around the WGBH record library when I was seven or so.  The music didn't start to stick until a little later, but it was always around. When I did get into this music (it was Charlie Parker playing "Lover Man" that got me), I was lucky that I had the means and opportunity to see a lot of great players live.  We were on the tail end of the "young lions" buzz, so there were still free outdoor jazz festivals, a huge jazz section at Tower Records and venues you could jump on a subway train and see.  Some Thursdays my dad and I went to the Regattabar in Cambridge and heard a whole Thursday night of music for $9 and one Coca-cola.  In high school I heard Miles, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Garrett, Charlie Haden, Gary Bartz, Joe Lovano, the Miles reunion band, Wynton Marsalis, Joe Henderson, and on and on.  And being an ambitious kid, I would hang around afterwards, get autographs, and ask for any pearls of wisdom I could glean.  And as it has been seemingly forever, the musicians were kind and generous and got a kick out of me.  Kenny Garrett told me to learn Marcel Mule etudes, somebody was always telling me about another record I needed to know, Charlie Haden told me the key was finding beauty, etc.  It was amazing. This was, of course, high school in the 90s, so I also entered the world of jazz education, getting the gospel of jazz according to the (white) big band teacher.  (To be fair, my own high school music teacher was great- we had just a combo, and worked almost exclusively on improvising and playing tunes- Duke, Monk, Bird, Zappa (!) and some other really hip stuff.  I am still enormously grateful to Matt Finnegan, and a handful of other teachers, and always will be.  But I did camps and competition bands and the like, and there the vibe could be quite different.)  I got to play some cool music, but I also played my fair share of what I'll call (bowing to Ethan's post) the stage band Mount Rushmore- Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson and Rob McConnell.  (I think in the years since Gordon Goodwin certainly bumps the "big boss band", but it's all of one cloth.  Higher, faster, louder.) Now I was a clueless teenager, no doubt, but I couldn't help but feel a disconnect between what I heard and felt from the musicians I'd hear in clubs and concert halls on the one hand and the stage band stuff I'd play on the other.  There was such a profound difference in the feeling I got, both in my body and in my soul, when McCoy played "In a Mellow Tone", or when Wynton's band did their New Orleans thing*, or when I listened to a Monk record than when I played Kenton's version of "My Funny Valentine".  (Or God help us the Rich band's "Norwegian Wood")  Go read Ethan's first ten paragraphs- I've been trying to articulate that thought for twenty years!  I believed fiercely, and without knowing why, that the people hoisting the stage band stuff on me, however well intentioned,  just somehow didn't get it.  And it wasn't just a disconnect of color or time or place- it was a profound misunderstanding of intent.  (Being a teenager, my words at the time were a little choicer...) Fast forward twenty years. [...]

Uptown Funk, down with who???


After several years away I've returned to classroom teaching as a high school jazz and band teacher in great school district north of Boston.  I get to conduct a lot of really high level players in a jazz big band and combo, as well as teach improvisation and assist in a larger concert band.  I also get to teach a class which is now called Jazz in Society, and next year will be called Popular Music in American Society.  So, I get paid to talk about Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and Ray Charles and James Brown.  Pretty good gig... We're currently at the end of the semester, a time where kids are overwhelmed, a million things are due, every virus known to humanity it making its way through the student body and synapses are not necessarily firing as fast as they could be.  So rather than try to teach bebop or Monk, I've been trying to get kids to think about music from different points of view.  And out of the sky comes...Uptown Funk.  Bruno Mars and some white dude named Mark Ronson.  (though the single flips that order) allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="//" width="560">  75% of my students knew the tune, which in this day and age counts as saturation.  I found the tune because I read Grantland, who published a bit about it and Ronson. (to be fair, Mark Ronson is actually a big-time producer, and one of the driving forces behind Amy Winehouse's monster hit album Back in Black) Even in this day and age, I found this tune and video astonishing how boldly and intentionally derivative this tune is.  It reminds me of several 1970s classical "post-modern" pieces I studied at Eastman that were basically remixes of canonical classical pieces played either for laughs or for cultural reassessment.   To wit (and I discussed this in some detail with my class):- The tune is a bald-faced mash-up of Chic's "Le Freak" and the Time's "Jungle Love".  The first line of the lyric is a Scarface reference ("Michelle Pfieffer, that white gold").   Maybe the "Hallehujah" in the first bridge is a Ray Charles reference.  Okay, that might be stretching it, but... "Kiss myself I'm so pretty" is definitely a reference to Morris Day or James Brown, or both...-  Visually, in the first minute the video is a smorgesbord of intentional references to the MTV of yesteryear.  The street setting recalls the iconic MJ "Way You Make Me Feel" video, the opening shot of the lower half of a hot woman recalls  ZZ Top's "She's Got Legs"  (or, pick any number of mid-80s rock videos that disembody women.  One of my female students pointed out sharply that you see quite a few hot women in the video, but only there bodies, never their faces.  Which of course is rather noxious sexist gesture, and another conversation) Those disembodies at about :50 call to mind a flapper, a vamp from an 80s video, and a "flygirl" from any number of rap videos circa 1991.)  Then you have a strobed shot of Ronson screaming, which invokes either Max Headroom or a couple of the groundbreaking Peter Gabriel videos circa "Sledgehammer".  The "fish-eye" shot of Mars and his posse was a staple of early Spike Lee movies and many a hip-hop video of the early 90's.  (The Roots skewered this and every other rap conceit in one of their first videos.  TWENTY YEARS AGO!  "What They Do" aged well.)- Mars, with his pink sport jacket, recalls Don Johnson in Miami Vice.  Robson, with his shades and grey shirt, recalls Rick Ocesak in all of those iconic Cars videos.  Two of the backups in Mars' entourage particularly jumped out at me.  One is dressed almost exactly like a member of Run DMC (forgive me, I can't remember which one). Another, with his Kangoo and all black ensemble looks a hell of a lot like LL Cool J circa "Goin' Back to Cali".  I have no idea what the hair curlers bit means, but[...]

CDs of note, 2014


By now, every media of note in the country has published their "best CDs of 2014" list, because they care that folks read them.  Clearly, I don't;  I haven't written anything here in a great while, because life changed, and writing about jazz didn't seem nearly as important to me as it had in 2005.  Well, things change- I'm now teaching jazz for a living, something I certainly didn't see coming.  (more on that... eventually) So, once and a while, I intend to write here about music again.  And I figure a favorites of the year list is a good place to start...Just to be clear, I use my language carefully- I just checked, and I've only heard 12 of the 50 CDs that made NPR's best of 2014 list.  (I think it's safe to say that that A Blog Supreme passed the Village Voice as the go to for jazz a couple of years ago.)  There are several CDs on that list that I'm excited to hear, and several that I don't give two sh&#*ts about. This is only a list of new music released in 2014 (so no Keith Jarrett reissue or the like). It's the music that moved me, as well as some general commentary.  So here goes, in no special order:EDIT: This post may be revised because, quietly a NEW ORNETTE COLEMAN record came out.  Waiting for it to come... (h/t Hank Shteamer)Taylor McFerrin: Early Riser: This was my favorite CD of the first half of the year, hands down.  It defies easy category, except maybe "hazy".  A fascinating, moody swirl of grooves and ambiance, held back only (ironically) by a start turn by Taylor's dad Bobby McFerrin.  But by far the most cohesive album (a concept that is sadly dying) I heard. D'Angelo (and the Vanguard), Black Messiah: Read Nick Payton on this album- I don't agree with him (mostly), but as usual it's the right kind of provocative. And while it's certainly not at the level of Voodoo, and it may be overproduced (too many years in the making will do that...) it's still a high point of my 2014 listening. Jason Moran, All Rise: A Joyous Elegy to Fats Waller:  The key word on this one for me is joyous- from the first horn hits it jumps out of the speakers, almost daring you not to dance.  The playing is great, the singing is (mostly) great, and it's just FUN. Side note: Ethan Iverson touches on this in a recent post- the mixed critical response to this album, while pretty predictable, was frustrating.  I remember hearing Kevin Whitehead's review on NPR and having the hairs crawl on my back.  I got that feeling again when I read the sidebar attached to it on NPR's Top 50 Jazz list ("too much fat and too little Fats"?)  I don't care that critics don't like it, bit it  frustrates me that in looking for Waller, they miss the other well Moran and producer Meshell N'Degeocello are drawing from, Fela Kuti.  This album drips Fela, who, like Fats in his day, created a high point in rump-shaking music.  And those grooves are about as far from "smooth jazz" as you can be.  (OK, "Two Sleepy People" was way too sleepy, but you get one mulligan...) I found this oversight a little staggering, not that they didn't like it, but how wrong they got it.Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, Landmarks: The last time I saw this band (too long ago!), I was struck by the way this band has come to create a particular sense of place in their music- so many of the guys here come from the deep south, and Blade is already a legend in New Orleans (and, I suppose, in every college music program too, but...)  But listen to this album (or Mama Rosa, or any of the live recordings on Youtube) and it feels like the bayou.  In a time when, due to the internet and the pace of life, it's easy to lose any specificity of place, to find it in such fantastic music is a gift. Ambrose Akinmusure: the imagined savior is far easier to paint: I'll be honest, I heard his first CD, and his set at Newport two ye[...]

Summer Jams 2013?


Wow, haven't been here in a minute.  (Not loving the look Google has brought to Blogger, but I digress)

A few summers ago, I solicited ideas for THE summer jam of the year.  Y'know, the one you love to love, even after it's been on the radio too many times.  For me, the all time winners are Prince's "Raspberry Beret", and the Fugees cover of "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You".  Not because they're my favorite tunes, but because they feel like that particular time and place for me.  And, they happened to be huge hits.  

I have to say I'm not loving this summer's early entries, Daft Punk's "Get Lucky", and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines".  (As I write this, I hear "Get Lucky" coming out of someone's car.)  "Get Lucky", I don't know, I have a tough time getting with something so blatantly, self-referentially retro.  (this video says it all)  And "Blurred Lines", I'm sorry, I find both the message of the tune and the video misogynistic.  Not borderline, not wink-wink nudge-nudge, but flat out.  (when your song gets called out as "rapey" in Cosmo, that's probably not a good sign...)  And Robin Thicke is no JT, never mind a real soul devil.

So, I'm looking for alternatives- please share here, or on Facebook or Twitter.  Here's my summer jams:

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Janelle Monae has been my musical crush since "Archandroid" came out.  And this makes me even more excited about the new record...

Imagine Dragons "On Top of the World"

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This isn't a single (hence this video by my friend Wari)), so maybe I'm cheating, but I much prefer this to their actual single.  And this has the carefree summer vibe- I want this with me at a beach.  Or in Colorado doing yoga...

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This one has started to make the radio rounds.  Catchy as hell, and the video is so cute...

Okay folks- thoughts?

(Oh, by the way, I don't have a summer jam, but I do have a new record I'm trying to release, and a Kickstarter to get it out.  Please check it, pre-order, help me make it happen!)

the awkward Mitt Romney


And now, a word on politics.  If you know me at all, or read either of my blogs, you won't be the least bit surprised to know that I plan to vote for Barack Obama for president, as I did in 2008.  I'm not thrilled with his performance as president on many fronts, but he has faced unprecedented opposition, and has done some big things despite it.  That said, I am terrified of the prospect of a President Mitt Romney.  Not so much on policy grounds, though I don't like his policies either for the most part.I had the opportunity to "meet" Romney twice at public events.  (I put that in quotes because I don't think one really meets a politician the way I might meet you at a coffeeshop.  But we shook hands.)  One was in 1998 at a City Year fundraiser (to their eternal credit, both the Romneys and Bain have been big City Year supporters since day one), and once in 2002 at an event for inauguration of the Senate at the Massachusetts State House.  The first time Romney wasn't running for anything, the second he was running for reelection as govenor.  I was performing on both occasions, so I had a chance to be the proverbial fly on the wall for much of the events.  I've thought about both these days a bit since it became clear Romney would be the nominee, and what stands out to me to this day is how ridiculously awkward he was at both events.  He seemed to lack even the most basic "shmooze" skills that are central to politics at every level.  he was stiff, smiling a forced smile and holding himself at somewhat awkward angles.  And when his presumptave opponent for govenor came into the room in '02, they had an almost comically odd exchange, laughing too big and not exactly sure how to handle the cameras that were there.  All of this came to mind last night when the clip surfaced that dominated the news this morning, with Romney saying basically that 47% of the American public are moochers.  It's not that he believes this that shocks me- a lot of Republicans do.  It's that he said it, and how he said it.  It was so coarse, so impolitic, not to mention so wrong.And here lies my greatest concern with a President Romney- if he can't handle a roomful of small-time Massachusetts politicians with any semblance of grace, and if he can't open his mouth at a fund-raiser without putting a size 16 foot in it, what would he do negotiating with Democrats in Congress, or even worse, with the leaders of Russia or China or Pakistan, where there are clearly lives on the line?  For whatever reason, I don't think he has even basic people skills, and on that ground alone, regardless of his ideology,  he shouldn't be president.  Thanks for reading- thoughts most welcome.[...]

RIP Bob Brookmeyer


We lost a master yesterday. Bob Brookmeyer, who was a tremendous teacher long before I met him, and an even bigger influence when I got to work with him, passed away a few days from his 82nd birthday. There will be lots of worthy tributes in the press and the blogs this week, but I wanted to write the story of my relationship with Bob the musiciain, the teacher, and the man. First, Bob was the first musician to make me care about big band music. I hadn't played with a big band until I got to college, and we were fed the usual diet of Basie, Thad Jones, Bob Mintzer, and (stiffly played) Duke Ellington. I got why it mattered (and see my hubris in hindsight), but I didn't care. Then, in my sophomore year in short succession, I heard “Hello and Goodbye”, “Ding Dong Ding”, and most importantly for me “KP '94”. In Bob's hands, the big band was as cutting edge a tool as a ginsu knife, and easily as relevant as the Lovano and Steve Coleman I was gorging on. (Of course, I found out later they both played for Bob in the Vanguard band...) To the end, his music was both careful and ecstatic, swinging hard and smart. My senior year of college, we got word that Bob (a favorite of our department head, of course) was coming to perform with us for out last big band concerts of the year, playing two concerts of his music, mostly fairly recent material, including “KP '94”. All of us in the band were thrilled... and terrified. Bob's genius as a musician was nearly matched by his reputation as a, well, curmudgeon is a nice word. And none of us wanted to be embarrassed. I remember the first rehearsal to this day- we had been shedding the ^$&# out of this music for months, and thought we were ready. Our director introduced Bob, he said something pithy, and then got up to conduct the first tune. His count off (we're used to the standard “1, 2, 1-2-3-4) went something like this: “va-da-va-DUH-ba-da DAH-ba-da-duh-va, DAHT, ZAT, ZUUUH- DAT!” By the end, he was shouting. We were so confused we didn't play. He counted the tune off with the sound and the intensity he wanted, and didn't let up for the rest of the run. We thought we were tight before he got there; we weren't close. He whipped us into shape in five days; I've not been the same musician after that. I got to play for Bob in a small group during that run; he loved the tune we played and how we played it, so we became friendly. (The tune was by James Carney, and Bob and James became friends soon after that, helping set up Bob's 90s west coast quartet) I did a summer workshop with him, and we were in touch occasionally. In my last year in New York, I went to Bob's 70th birthday gig at the Vanguard with the big band there. Bob and I chatted, and I said I wanted to study with him at New England Conservatory. He said something like “we can make that happen” and he did; I enrolled at NEC, with a fair amount of scholarship money, that September. This was the real beginning of my work with Bob as my teacher. I was anxious to get at all of what I saw as Bob's innovations, but all he wanted to talk about was “craft”- chord voicings, line resolutions, finishing phrases, the nuts and bolts of any kind of writing. I was frustrated, and I know he started to get frustrated too, but ultimately he was right. I wasn't nearly as skilled, or as ready, as I thought I was, and Bob firmly (but not meanly) reeled me in. I worked with him for two years; what I wrote in year one ranged from okay to crap, but in year two I wrote what I still feel is some of the best musical work I've ever done. And it wasn't just the stuff I brought to him for big band (when you worked with Bob, that's what you did)- it was small group tunes, music for voice and strings, even pop tunes. Bob made everything better. In this time I got to know Bob the m[...]

Newport 2011, part 1


After a long hiatus, here hopefully is the beginning of a short burst of activity. I was at the Newport Jazz Festival on Sunday, and will be writing in detail about it soon. In the meantime, you can read the various reviews, or you can listen to it online at NPR's music site. This is so cool. I highly recommend starting with Miguel Zenon's Puerto Rican songbook set, which was beyond fantastic, and then tickling whatever fancies you have. More soon...

Grammy's makeover?


I feel like I write this post every year, but here goes...

I made a joke yesterday, before the Grammy awards, that the more cynically I call the awards, the more likely I am to win any pool I'm in. That said, my cynicism was rocked by jazz bassist Esparanza Spalding winning the Best New Artist last night. Like most of my jazz friends, I'm delighted- she is a hip, talented, unapologetic black artist playing jazz, and anything that brings that to the mainstream can't be bad. Her work doesn't move me particularly, but woman can play, so by all means go!

However, my cynic still says that in a way that this was completely predictable, as Herbie's win for "Gershwin's World" was a few years ago. (I can't find it, but the Times had a great breakdown at the time of why he won, much like the following.) My thought- Drake and Bieber split the commercial vote, and Mumford and Florence split the hipster/alt vote, leaving Esperanza to get the old guard vote, which here was enough to win. (She is, after all, a favorite of our current president) This isn't to diminish her award, but let's put it in context. Same goes with Arcade Fire winning- not enough people were willing to vote for Eminem in the big category, Gaga and Katie Perry split the pop vote, "Need You Now" got the record, so Boom, it's "The Suburbs", album of the year. (Full disclosure, I've tried hard to warm to Arcade Fire, but I still don't like them. After multiple listens and passionate pleas from friends I respect, I still found the first two records bombastic and whiny. I'll give "The Suburbs" a shot, though) I'm happy for both acts, but I don't think this is some kind of game changer by any means.

That said, the rest of who got the awards was more than a little depressing. My gambling instincts were right on the jazz awards- Moody got it because he dies, Vijay and Danielo, thanks, come again! Maybe. Darcy lost the big band category because it was his first rodeo, despite having the best record in the category by a long shot. And does anyone else catch the irony of Esperanza winning on a night when the Best Record goes to Lady Antebellum, a generic-sounding country band named after southern Civil War nostalgia? (I've heard "Need You Now" dozens of times without knowing who it was, and honestly until last night thought it was a collaboration between Taylor Swift and some Keith Urban type. Or maybe I don't relate because I've never drunk dialed anyone) I was even disappointed by Eminem's performance- he's traded the clever sneer of "Slim Shady" for bombast, in both delivery and production, which makes him sound like every other rapper to me. Yawn...

That said, give me Cee-Lo any day. I'm remember one time Meshell N'Degeocello said onstage "D'Angelo, man... he can just lay across the cover of a record and I'll buy it!" I'm beginning to feel that way about him. Find the video on Youtube while you can. (I can't promise this link still works) I loved it!

looking back, I see you smile...


As 2010 comes to a close, I've been thinking back to the year in music (and blogging) for me. It's been the quietest in years- while the album I recorded in 2009 has gone from rough cuts to mastered entity, it'll be a few months before it sees the light of day, and what focus I've had on music has been on teaching. Clearly, not blogging, but we'll see what 2011 brings. In the meantime, favorites from 2010. (I said this a couple of years ago, I don't feel comfortable about claiming any bests- I just don't hear enough these days.

Favorite Album- "Ten", Jason Moran Trio. It's the critic's darling for a reason. Compelling from beginning to end. If you haven't heard it, go now.

Honorable Mention: "Never Stop", the Bad Plus. Their best yet- though I feel like almost every record has improved upon the last.

Favorite Gig to hear, local: The Bad Plus at Berklee. Again, the best I've heard them live. Any kitch that the band may have relied on in the past is giving way to a more seamless communication. And some of my favorite free playing in a long time.

Favorite Gig to Hear, elsewhere: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society at the Newport Jazz Festival. Readers know how much I love Darcy and his music, but something about playing Newport took the band to another level, a combination of excitement and determination. (And ego, I'm sure, a lot of folks in the band had husbands/wives/kids in tow on an amazing August day, something you don't always get to do.)

Favorite Blog Post- Ethan Iverson on Herbie and Wayne. (I think this one is from this year- it's the third one down. So well thought out, so well said.

Happy New Year everyone!

Listen to THIS


Alex Ross very casually announced on his blog today that he'll be in Boston tomorrow, hosting Afternoon concerts on WHRB from 1-6, and then speaking at the Harvard Bookstore. I'll be tuned in for a good part of the afternoon, but sadly can't make the talk. I do have the new book, Listen to This, and am happily digging in. Even if you don't think you care about classical music, go check Alex out- he's more than worth your time.

RIP Billy Ruane


This comes as both a shock and not a surprise, sadly- the Boston Globe is reporting that local music booker, promoter and raconteur Billy Ruane was found dead yesterday at the age of 52. (here and here) To call Billy an oversized personality is a tremendous understatement. I was introduced to Billy in 1999 when I was trying to book gigs in Boston from New York to promote my first CD, with a band that included now Crooked Still bassist Corey DiMario and onetime NYC hots*&t drummer Michael Plunkett. (For better or worse, Michael and I both moved on from New York) I don't remember the content of Billy and I's first conversation, but it was frenetic and heartfelt, incomprehensible except for the passion he had for all music, and that day my music, and sure enough he came through with a date at the Green Street Grille for my band Demodacus. And we had an great gig with an okay door, not amazing, but he made sure we had enough money to get us back to New York. (He didn't bank on the blizzard we drove into, but that's another story. A story I think Billy would've taken credit for if he could've)

Judging by the tributes in the Globe, Billy was a friend to many in different realms of Boston's musical world, and he was certainly a friend to the jazz and avant community. The series he I played that he was involved in included many local and national left-of-center jazz names, and I'm sure that was hardly the only propers he did for our kin. I say not a surprise because the last time I saw Billy was around last Christmas at a Jennifer Kimball gig at the Lizard Lounge. He was his usual gregarious self, but a little out of control, and I was scared from him that night and beyond.

The Boston scene used to be filled with Billy Ruanes- mercurial, difficult people who believed passionately in the music they liked, who would drive you crazy one day and give you the coat off their back the next. I'm lucky to know a few of them. They channel their eccentricities for the good of many artists great and small, and we are a little smaller when they leave us. Billy, I hope your next ride is as wild as this one was!

I didn't get to see


A colleague from my NEC days wrote on his Facebook recently about his disappointment with a recent gig at Johnny D's in Somerville. He was touring with John Tchai, the great and underrated saxophonist who has a huge boosted here in Boston in the now nearly legendary Charlie Kohlhase. My friend (name withheld to protect the guilty) said something to the effect of "I can't believe how bad the crowd was for the gig. Boston is a lame city- no band, in any genre, should bother to even come here."

I was disappointed- in the unnecessary bitchiness of the comment more than a little bit (that's another post), but more that I DIDN'T KNOW THE GIG WAS HAPPENING! I would've hyped it, and tried to get there- Johnny D's is a fun, intimate venue that I've always enjoyed, and Tchai is a great player. And if I, who follows the papers and the blogosphere, who periodically get e-mails from publicists to hype a gig (publicists, feel free, I don't mind the spam), who wants live music in Boston to thrive, doesn't see it, God help the NEC kid who should be at the gig.
Press has gotten harder, no doubt. I read the Boston Globe online now, where I have to hunt out listings instead of just turning the page. And I'm rarely at the music schools or record stores where the signs are up, but still, I feel like it shouldn't be that hard to find me, an excited jazz consumer. And Boston's scene still leaves much to be desired, as I've mentioned before. But that in and of itself isn't a sufficient excuse.

So rather than gnash my teeth, what am I missing here? Are there more blogs I should be reading and don't to get gig recommendations? Thoughts? I'm all ears

Link Dump- Levine being Manny?


This was too good not to mention- the arts blogger at compares James Levine and his uncertain contract status to... Manny Ramirez? I don't know where to start...

Destination Out has a great set of Steve Lacy/Evan Parker duos, on sale at their new shop! Congrats to the guys on their fantastic new ventures, and buy it already, will ya?

And Ethan Iverson continues his great interview series with the legendary Gunther Schuller. It's worth the long read, even if Schuller is just a name on the sleeve of "Birth of the Cool" to you. I don't know Gunther personally, though Ran Blake still considers himself Gunther's student, and one of my colleagues in my time at NEC, Eric Hewitt, served as his assistant for a number of years. Even now, according to them, his energy is amazing, and he is more impassioned and engaged in his work than most folks half his age.

Reading the interview brought up very mixed feelings about Gunther that I hadn't thought about for awhile. He is, of course, a peerless musician, with insanely good ears, and in his day was probably the best French horn player in the world. As president of New England Conservatory, he probably did more than anyone to try to bring the full spectrum of the jazz tradition to music schools. I continue to be so grateful for the small-c catholic vision of jazz that NEC teaches, where eminent musicians who probably can't agree on anything teach next to each other, and have for years. Personally, I find his writing like Elliot Carter's- clearly brilliant, but inscrutable and often way too dense for my ears.

The but... I remember in a workshop on jazz history at Eastman a visiting musician read a paragraph of Schuller's Early Jazz describing a seminal Louis Armstrong piece, and then a paragraph of Armstrong talking about making music. The language, the tone, the approach were not even on the same planet. In, I believe, an attempt to legitimize the brilliance of the musicians he clearly adores, he placed their music in a context they wouldn't even recognize. It may too have something to do with the patrician world Schuller had to function in as a classical musician. This disconnect between process and study, while almost inevitable in the arts, always struck me as a particularly acute problem in jazz education, and here may be the beginnings of it. (I should note that I think things here are better in many quarters than they were even ten years ago)

I'm not trying to dis Gunther Schuller here at all- for one, I don't have near the requisite credentials, and two, the brilliance and impact of his work is undeniable. But those who read this blog regularly know that the impact of jazz education on the music and culture of jazz is one of my bugaboos, and Schuller is in many ways the first king of jazz ed. Thoughts?

Gigs to see, October edition


Here, after a hiatus, is a completely biased list of gigs you should see in Boston this month. Feedback is welcome.

Monthly events:
First Wednesdays with Jim Hobbs, (10/6 this month), 10:10pm, Lily Pad. Don't sleep on Jim.
Second Wednesdays with Allan Chase, Lily Pad

10/6- Chris Potter @ Regattabar
10/6- Kenny Werner @ Scullers
10/7- Florencia Gonzales Big Band @ Lily Pad
10/9- David Maxwell/Jim Hobbs duo @ Lily Pad
10/14- Joe Lovano's US5, Regattabar
10/15- Hugh Masakela @ Berklee Performance Center
10/15- Mike Reed's People Places and Things, Lily Pad
10/19- Fringe plus 3Play, Berklee Performance Center
10/23- Aubrey Johnson @ Ryles
10/28- Chucho Valdez @ Berklee Performance Center
10/29 & 30- Regina Carter @ Regattabar

Because I play better when I'm breathing... next gig, this Friday.


This weekend I will be playing my first public gig in awhile: I am involved in a Boston Fashion Week benefit at the Langham Hotel on Franklin Street. The website is here. I'll be playing before the runway show with a trio featuring fantastic guitarist Greg Duncan. All proceeds benefit the Zakim Center for Integrative Medicine. It is sort of a collision of my professional worlds- it will be a yoga-heavy crew, and a lot of my friends and colleagues in the yoga world were photographed for the exhibit. I'd love to see you there.

The Bad Plus, Berklee, 9/17/10


The usher who introduced The Bad Plus at Berklee lauded their "avant-garde populism" and career longevity. (Their new album, Never Stop, celebrates their tenth year together touring, and is the first to eschew covers of pop tunes, relying wholly on the band's originals) If you can get past the inherent contradiction of that descriptor, both were on display Friday night. The band started the set with Ethan's free ballad "2pm", then the band went into a run of their most familiar originals: "And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation", "The Empire Strikes Backwards", and "Anthem for the Earnest". (Possibly also three of the best jazz song titles ever) I don't think I've been to a jazz show where so many people cheered after the first phrase of so many tunes. The second half was devoted to the material on the new album: "People Like You", "Beryl Loves to Dance", "You Are", fashion ditty "Never Stop", and "The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart". The guys gave each tune backstory recently on NPR's Blog Supreme.

The second half was vintage Bad Plus- tremendously tight, with forms taking hairpin turns through tremendously virtuosic meter change. Some tongue in cheek playing- Ethan pounding away in the "Never Stop" transitions, free jazz power balladry on "Radio Tower", and a downright loopy illustration of "Beryl". The first head of "People Like You" was quiet to the point of shy, then the tune built to a point of bombast, before bassist Reid Anderson reeled it in with a few beautiful lines. I've reviewed TBP a few times in the past, and in this music I have little to add.

But the first half was different from anything I've heard them do. From early in "2pm", the comfort with both the music and each other led to some really transcendent music making, from the way pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Dave King hooked up on and built an idea together, the kind of hookup Herbie and Tony Williams or McCoy and Elvin knock you out with. Reid followed with a solo that reminded you of Charlie Haden, again, in passion and tone rather than content. The band has frequently talked about its passion for Keith Jarrett's American Quartet, and it was on display here. That kind of brilliance- in my notes I wrote "kinetic transcendence"- was obvious throughout. There was an elasticity to the breaks and transitions in "Anthem", as if they could have stopped on a dime.

For encores, the band played their cover of "Flim", then an abuse of "Have You Met Miss Jones" that changed speed every six bars or so. Here perhaps was the kicker- if you got past the goofyness of the conceit, when the band settled on a tempo it really swung. Despite my enthusiasm for the band, I wasn't sure they had it in them (Sorry guys) to the point that I'd happily stay for a set of "Perdido" and "Nardis". Not that that'll happen anytime soon, right guys? Guys???

Ran Blake Birthday Celebration at NEC


Tonight at New England Conservatory there is a celebration of the inimitable Ran Blake, 75 years young, featuring an all-star cast of current and former students, live music to wild films, and surely many surprises. I was fortunate enough to be at the 70th birthday (I'm not able to make it tonight) and it was a remarkable evening. John Medeski reflects with Ran in yesterday's Globe. It should be a great evening, and Happy Birthday Ran!

Kurt Rosenwinkel and OJM, Berklee Performance Center, 9/15/10


The president of Berklee, on hand to kick off the Berklee, er, Beantown Jazz Festival, quoted no less than Bill Frisell in describing Kurt Rosenwinkel as one of the most distinctive voices on guitar today, playing brilliantly and wearing no particular influence on his sleeve. Last night at Berklee, Rosenwinkel took his most distinctive playing to a venerable setting, painting his playing and writing on top of a big band, in this case the Portugese OJM (Orquestra Jazz de Matosinos). The concert consisted of seven of the nine charts on their new album, Our Secret World. I have to admit I stupidly slept on Rosenwinkel in my time in New York- when I was there he was playing at Smalls a lot- so listening to his records in preparing for this concert has been a pleasant discovery. Frisell is not overstating; his improvising is at once thoughtful and virtuosic. I bumped into a former student who is studying at Berklee, and she said in his afternoon workshop Kurt talked a lot about guitarists paying more attention to the sound of the guitar, and trying to be musical and thoughtful in even the most mundane parts of your practicing. You can here it in his playing- his block chord intro to "Zhivago" was lovely, a warm tone and clever dense chords lingering in a wash of reverb. And his lines are remarkable, smart, clean and at once studied and kinetic. While Kurt took most of the solo turns, there were a couple of saxophone solos (the band was introduced, but I couldn't catch names through the thick Portuguese accent of the conductor and the fuzzy acoustics of the room). They were solid players, clearly very competent and checking out all the hip New Yorkers- the tenor player owed a lot of his phrasing choices to Donnie McCaslin. The rhythm section was generally solid, with the drummer shining on the brighter tempos and a little sluggish on the slower waltz "Cloister". While I came out a much bigger fan of Kurt, I can't say I loved the show. Part of the problem was the charts- Kurt writes twisty, abstract tunes, which are inherently hard to arrange. (having not once but twice written terrible charts on Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge", I understand both the attraction and the peril of this work) "Zhivago" was the most successful chart, with Kurt's long but lilting waltz form embellished attractively with lots of twisty counterlines, and a nice Kurt plus saxophones soli just before the final restatement of the head. But the title track was more the norm- I felt like the tune was hard to grab onto, and then there was a lot of dense writing thrown on top of an already dense tune, which left me more confused than happy as a listener. And the writing favored long pads and, with few punches in the brass against the melody, which especially in a tall room like Berklee can make the band sound wishy-washy. (The band didn't help by being very casual with the end of notes. Even at the end of some of the tunes the cutoffs weren't clean) In addition, I thought there was a sameness to a lot of the writing- brief intro, Kurt playing the melody doubled by a saxophone, Kurt solos, with backings coming in somewhere in the second half of the first chorus, then a little writing- usually development, only one tune, "Deja Vu" had an old fashioned shout chorus, then the head out. There were beautiful nuggets in the writing- the middle of "Cloister", with the drums only barely present and an ethereal melody, shimmered and glowed, leading to an inspired bit of blowing by Kurt, and the aforementioned "Zhiva[...]

Baked bean updates


I neglected to mention in yesterday's post that both Rosenwinkle and the Bad Plus are giving workshops at Berklee, 1pm on the day of their respective shows. A work commitment keeps me from TBP, but I'm hoping to check Kurt out tomorrow. Both are free and (I believe) open to all.

The beans slowly start to simmer


This week the annual (is this 5?) Beantown Jazz Festival kicks off, and it is in many ways a step up. The BJF is a mix of focused concert booking by Berklee, it's major sponsor, high impact visibility by the two big clubs of Boston, Scullers and the Regattabar, and a free all day concert in the South End, behind the other gargantuan of music education, New England Conservatory. The full schedule is at their website.

I'll be writing a little more as it gets closer, but the hit of the week is Kurt Rosenwinkle with big band Wednesday night. Darcy tweeted that they were great in New York, and I'm interested to see what they bring to the table. The Bad Plus follow on Friday, on the heels of their tenth anniversary album, out tomorrow. I'm also excited about (hopefully) my first listen to Robert Glaspar live, and Greg Osby for free!

RIP Bob Bowen


(via Josh Sinton) I am shocked and saddened to hear of the death of wonderful New York bassist and educator Bob Bowen. This is terrible news. A bio skecth is here and there are details here of his passing, including a fund for his family. It's been years since I saw Bob, but when I was in New York he was a friend and occasional collaborator- we had many friends and bandmates in common- and I was always honored to be able to play with him. A few years ago he helped run a summer creative music academy, which was a beautiful addition to the music scene in New York. I think the last time I talked to him was when a student of his was starting at NEC, and he wanted me to keep an eye on him. (That student ended up being a Fulbright scholar and studying Carnatic music in India) That's how he was. My condolences to his family and friends.

Sing me a movie


A brief plug for the Regent Theater in Arlington- all weekend they are showing documentaries from the legendary Isle of Wight Festival. Of interest to readers of this blog- tomorrow at 7, "Electric Miles- Another Kind of Blue", which I've seen and like, and at 9, "Lenord Cohen Live". I will be at a meeting, but if you can, check it. (link coming, I'm haveing cookie issues. Ummm, cookies...)