Friday, April 22, 2022

Charles Mingus Errata

(Charles Mingus was born 100 years ago today. He’s a musical hero of mine, and although I never got the chance to hear him live, I still have some of my own weird Mingus stories. Here’s one of them…)

Early in 1990 I attended a lecture by perhaps the top Charles Mingus scholar of the day, at the International Association of Jazz Educators Conference in Miami. He was discussing his upcoming Mingus fakebook, the first authorized and legitimately published collection of Mingus compositions, a new volume dedicated to documenting the composer’s work with more detail than the normal barebones schematics of a fakebook, and with historical context for the music.

I wanted to hear this man speak because I was obsessed with Mingus. I devoured every Mingus record I could find, and everything I could read about him, including articles by this scholar: Mingus revealed to me (and to all of us) that jazz could go to impossible places we hadn’t thought of until he took us there. I was a young and aspiring jazz composer, and Mingus broke my world. I needed to know everything about him.

During the lecture, a galley proof for this new fakebook, which wasn’t available yet, made its way around the room. When I got my hands on it, I immediately turned to What Love, one of my favorite Mingus compositions: I wanted to see how they would depict the tune’s crazy goings-on as a lead sheet. (To this day I’m always looking at other jazz composers’ lead sheets to learn new and better ways to express my own musical ideas.)

As I was scanning the book’s narrative about the tune, I read this: “In the Mingus Archives, two pages of What Love have been found which bear little resemblance to what was played on the recordings (see the reproduction on the following page).”

I turned the page and was ASTONISHED to instantly recognize, in handwritten notation, the insane counter-melody that Eric Dolphy plays during certain repetitions of the head — a counter-melody so angular and weird and unlike the melody that the first time I heard it I assumed that Dolphy was improvising it on the spot, until I heard it recur on other recordings.

I flipped the page back and reread the text: the following pages “bear little resemblance to what was played on the recordings.” But that was wrong: the pages were EXACTLY what was played on the recordings!

Then I realized: Holy Shit, The Scholar Got It Wrong, this book made it all the way to galley proofs and NOBODY caught this thing that I, a dumbass 20-something jazz nerd from Minneapolis, instantly spotted! I reluctantly passed the proofs to the next person impatiently waiting their turn with them, and thought to myself “OMG I have to let him know before this goes to print!”

After the lecture there was a line of folks waiting to speak with The Scholar. When my turn came I told him I was looking forward to buying the book, but that I’d noted in the copy making the rounds during the lecture that there was an error regarding What Love. I nervously and semi-manically blurted my findings. 

He was nice to me but seemed a little uncomprehending. He assumed, and was almost certainly correct, that I was one of the standard issue jazz weirdos that make the rounds of jazz gigs and events, and that this random person standing before him couldn’t have spent 2 minutes with the galleys and have spotted this sort of error. He said that was surprising, thanked me and moved on to the next person.

A year later, when I bought the published book, the error was intact.

(Hear the counter-melody yourself: on the Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus version it occurs at 13:53 and 14:48; and on the Mingus at Antibes version it occurs at 12:21 and 13:24.)

Thursday, October 21, 2021

How Decorah Got In The Groove

When the internet was just a baby, before music streaming was even a notion, I reported this story on how NEA funding brought a jazz band to Decorah, Iowa, and how exotic that was, and how it brought people together: a heartwarming tale of Your Tax Dollars At Work.

Reprinted with permission from
Midwest Jazz, Summer 1994 (Vol. 11, #2),
an Arts Midwest publication.

Decorah, Iowa is a small rural community of around 8,000 people tucked away in the northeast corner of the state, about 70 miles south of Rochester, Minnesota. Incorporated by Norwegian settlers in 1857, this quiet town, nestled in an agricultural region best known for dairy products, hogs, and cattle, still prominently displays its heritage: Norwegian is taught at Luther College, which is based there; Vesterheim, the Norwegian-American museum, draws visitors year-round; and every summer the Nordic Fest is a big attraction. The conservative Lutheran values of the town’s Norwegian founders still resonate today. And yet every Tuesday night from 9 till 1, Orsey’s, a local pub, is packed with folks from all walks of life — college students, young professionals, high school kids with their parents, feed-plant workers, creamery employees, college professors — who’ve come to hear something that didn't exist in Decorah just two years ago: live jazz.

In fact, for the past two years peaceful Decorah has been a hotbed of jazz activity. Nearly everyone in this small town has felt the influence of jazz on some aspect of their lives. Jazz concerts take place every week. Kids at all levels, from elementary through high school, as well as students from the college, meet jazz musicians, play with them, and take a stab at improvisation. They attend master classes and receive private lessons. They might even invite a jazz musician over for dinner.

The unlikely tale of the “jazzification” of Decorah began about three summers ago, when the National Endowment for the Arts developed the Chamber Music Rural Residencies Initiative, a visionary program seeking to bring outstanding young chamber ensembles to rural communities for long-term residencies. When Decorah was selected as one of the sites for this pilot program, the community expressed an interest in hosting a jazz group, precisely because that music was so seldom heard there.

After a national search for a first-rate ensemble willing to relocate and stay in Decorah for a year, the Unified Jazz Ensemble got the call, becoming the only jazz group in the country to take part in the initiative. The core of the quintet met while pursuing post-graduate studies at the University of North Texas. The group boasts an international lineup: trombonist/vibist Mike Noonan is from Maryland, saxophonist Jeff Antoniuk from Canada, pianist/flutist Tim Harrison from England, bassist Ray Parker from Toledo, Ohio, and drummer Marty Morrison from Missouri.

Noonan, the group’s leader, describes what they found on arriving in Decorah in September 1992: “When we got here, there was no jazz scene at all. It’s a rural, small, quiet little Midwestern town. We definitely had our work cut out for us, to expose the community to an art form that obviously hadn’t been heard here much. After a certain amount of time we found some jazz lovers — and I think a lot of new people became jazz lovers.”

It takes exposure to jazz to create jazz lovers, and Decorah’s geographic position, on the Upper Iowa River, worked against it. As high school band director Jim Fritz explains, “there are no jazz radio stations in town, and we’re down in a very deep valley. FM radio doesn’t track well into the valley, and consequently we can’t find jazz on the radio. Luther in the past has not had a strong jazz tradition, so the kids didn’t hear it, and didn’t have much of an opportunity to build an appreciation for it.”

Enter the Unified Jazz Ensemble. Fritz describes the group’s efforts in introducing jazz to the schools: “They’ve worked with everybody, from kindergarten through 12th grade. At the elementary schools they started out with ‘this is jazz, this is a bass, this is a drum set,’ and so on. They took them into what is improvisation, and looked at song forms. They even had the kids do simple improvisation — working over blues and pentatonic scales. In the middle school, they’ve worked with students in the jazz band — giving private lessons to our drummers, for instance — and they’ve performed before the entire student body. They’ve probably had the greatest amount of contact time at the high school, giving lessons to individual students, working with our big band and coaching our two combos. They've performed many, many times. They’ve also been teaching classes at Luther College, and because those classes have been open to my students, a number of them have been taking college courses in jazz studies, ethnomusicology, and stuff like that. Some have even been playing in combos at Luther.”

Fritz is quick to point out that his students aren’t the only ones learning new skills. “I’m a jazz fan, but as a tuba player I didn’t have many opportunities to learn about it, especially the improvisational aspects. I’m better prepared now to work with my students after watching the Unified Jazz Ensemble in action for the past two years. You know, with my background, I’m used to reading everything off of written parts.To suddenly see kids take stuff off of a CD and realize that that’s possible: well, that’s been a real eye-opener for me.”

The Cedar Arts Forum, a local arts agency based in Waterloo, coordinated the residency. The Forum has run residencies since 1976, typically involving Iowa artists for 2-3 week stays, or an occasional international artist for 8-10 weeks. This was the first time, however, that they handled a residency program on such a massive scale, spanning many months, and involving several ensembles: through this initiative, they not only brought the U.J.E. to Decorah, they also brought two classical ensembles (a piano trio and a string quartet) to nearby Iowa communities.

Renata Sack, executive director of the Arts Forum, notes that while the coordination of such a lengthy residency involving three different groups was very labor-intensive and occasionally nerve-wracking, “the end results are so wonderful that it feeds your energy.” Sack describes the partnership sponsoring the U.J.E. residency as a triumvirate: the Decorah community schools, the city of Decorah, and Luther College each share equal responsibility for hosting the quintet. Two-thirds of the musicians’ stipend comes from the NEA, while Decorah is responsible for the remaining third, in addition to providing housing for the group.

A typical week for the Unified Jazz Ensemble includes 4 to 7 concerts, private teaching, master classes, lectures and demonstrations. (Not to mention that “no-cover” gig at Orsey’s.) The members of the band rehearse together at least every other day, and members also put in time honing their compositional skills. As Noonan points out, the residency project seeks to benefit not only the community, but the participating young artists as well: “The way that the grant is designed, and the way that our contract is drawn up, we are to devote 50% of our time to the community, with the remaining 50% devoted to our own development, whether rehearsing, composing, or whatever. While I know we’ve brought something valuable to Decorah, it’s really been outstanding for the group as well. We’ve each had a chance to season and develop different facets of our playing, and we’ve all evolved quite a bit as composers.” Sack agrees. “Even though they were really a superb group of musicians when they came here, I think they have grown tremendously. During the residency they’ve had the opportunity to be enormously prolific in their composing, which I think has matured by leaps and bounds.” This growth is documented on the two CDs the group has released during its residency.

Noonan says the benefit goes beyond the music. “It’s been a great experience. We’ve met a lot of really wonderful people here, and I’ve learned quite a bit about a part of the country that I’d never visited before. I grew up on the East Coast, and it’s quite different here in the Midwest. Decorah has been an excellent working environment. I think that initially folks were tentative, not knowing what to expect, never having dealt with jazz musicians before. Once they got to know us, and saw that we were here to work hard and do a good job, they really accepted us. That means a lot to me. People have us over for dinner all the time now. It’s great!”

The U.J.E.’s residency in Decorah was originally slated to last 10 months, but was extended for another year by the NEA due to its overwhelming success. The group’s stay draws to a close in June, and they are now seeking residencies in other communities. Keeping a jazz group together long-term is always a challenge, but for the U.J.E. there is an added urgency: the visas of Canadian saxophonist Antoniuk and British pianist Harrison will expire when the Decorah gig is over, and if no other residency opportunities emerge, they will not be renewed.

While the U.J.E. will be missed in Decorah, their influence will be felt for a long time. As band director Fritz puts it: “Even kids in the elementary school had a chance to work with these guys, and be exposed to jazz. They know about it, they’re curious about it now. As these kids come up through the system, I’ll be benefiting from the efforts of the Unified Jazz Ensemble and the Rural Residency Initiative for years to come.”

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Herbie Hancock in Denver

I’d seen some clips of previous gigs from this tour on social media before last night’s concert, and based on those I was worried the musical fare was going to be jams on, er, let’s just say “well-worn chestnuts” like Chameleon and Watermelon Man. I thought that maybe Herbie was going to rest on his laurels and coast a bit on this tour, and dammit he’s earned that and it would still be a thrill to hear him live for the first time.

I got it entirely wrong. Chameleon and Watermelon Man DID make an appearance  — during the encore: and that also seemed to be when most folks pulled out their phones to grab something to post, skewing the “data set” of what’s happening on this tour!

Instead, the scope of this group’s musical ambitions was impressive: beautifully orchestrated, compelling arrangements of stuff familiar and new, not just “playing the hits” at all, and showcasing the considerable talents of the individual players. It didn’t quite sound like anything I’ve heard before, and I was blown away by how mature the ensemble sounded — not at all like a pick-up band or whatever…

Something else struck me last night that I’m trying to work out, something I’ve noticed before. 

Herbie was already one of the most important and celebrated of his generation of jazz pianists as synthesizers emerged, and like Chick Corea (and NOT like Keith Jarrett) he took the new electronic instruments seriously, spent time with them to unlock their secrets, and developed a compelling voice on them.

However, no instrument in his large arsenal on stage last night sounded more “modern,” to my ears, than that big ol’ grand piano! He’d be cooking on this or that other thing and sounding great, but when he turned to that grand piano, THAT instrument at THAT moment was the freshest and hippest sound in the universe.

I have a couple of thoughts as to why that might be. First, acoustic piano is truly Herbie’s native language. He’s entirely fluent on the other instruments but, I mean, your native tongue is your native tongue!

And maybe that’s why, to my ears — and I may be full of shit, and this is gonna sound corny as hell: but hearing the grand was like taking in the wisdom and gravitas of a wise elder who’s seen it all and can still show these synth whippersnappers what it’s really all about.

If you want an example of what I’m talking about — perhaps so that you can assess for yourself my precise level of full-of-shittedness — check out Herbie’s fabulous ’70s funk/fusion tune Hang Up Your Hang Ups: after a blizzard of amazing synthesized funk, Herbie closes the tune with soaring acoustic piano solo — and dammit I assert it’s the freshest damn sound you’ve ever heard!

We’ve all experienced acoustic piano in so many contexts, from Bach to ragtime to stride … Schubert and Debussy and Bill Evans and Jaki Byard and Cecil Taylor and on and on and on — and we’ve likely even banged out our own melodies on one, at varying skill levels, at some point in our lives — and yet somehow it is still fresh, it still surprises. How is that possible? What an amazing instrument.

One last thing: in this impressive band the flutist Elena Pinderhughes, a younger player I’ve literally never heard of, stood out: a killer combo of beautiful sound and a compelling modern vocabulary. Folks are gonna know her name, I think…

Monday, November 16, 2020

something from nothing (for Keith Jarrett)

if I could toss into the air
one crystalline line
ending the silence
of a moment ago

and if that line folded into itself
self perpetuated
then collapsed
then uncoiled into ribbons

if I could project into space
that line
and also beneath it another line
answering the first

this second line
buttressing the argument
refuting the argument

if I could toss into the air
something from nothing

if I could birth these lines
into the empty air

if I could bring forth
into the empty air
these complicated and impossible
somethings from nothing

if I could do that

I would not be able to keep myself
from crying out 

Friday, October 23, 2020

A Review of “Something For Pops” (Harold McKinney & Wendell Harrison)

Back in the late ’80s and into the ’90s I wrote for the quarterly Midwest Jazz (originally called The Arts Midwest Jazzletter). These were my first paid writing gigs — indeed, this was the first time it occurred to my that I could make a (little) bit of cash flinging words around on a page.

Because the scope of the journal was the regional jazz scenes within the territory covered by Arts Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin), I’d often come across some really great records that maybe escaped the attention of the national jazz press.

I’m proud of my work there, and I’m collecting some of my articles and reviews from that period here on my jazz blog. Many of the recordings I’m reviewing here are actually more widely available now (via streaming) than they were back when I wrote about them, so you (and I!) have a chance to see if you agree with the know-it-all punk who wrote these reviews back then! 

This article appeared in the
Arts Midwest Jazzletter
Winter 1993/4 (Vol. 12, #1),
an Arts Midwest publication.
Reprinted with permission.

One of my favorite recordings of the ’70s was the Enja label’s Dynamic Duo, featuring George Coleman on tenor and pianist Tete Monotoliu. With no bass or drums to share the musical burden, these two men displayed a solid musical rapport in a sparse setting, playing up the harmonic and melodic aspects of the jazz language while still swinging like hell. It worked because Coleman and Montoliu were enormously talented and very sympathetic to each other, with Montoliu shining as a highly rhythmic and responsive pianist.

The horn-piano duo is a bit of a rarity in jazz recordings, and only a few others come to mind: another release by Coleman a couple of years ago, this time with pianist Richie Beirach; Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond cut a duet album in the mid-70s; and Frank Morgan regularly tours and records in this format, usually with George Cables. But Something For Pops, a new Detroit release featuring clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Wendell Harrison and pianist Harold McKinney, is for me hands down the most satisfying work I’ve heard in this intimate format.

Without diminishing Harrison’s vital contribution here, I think McKinney shoulders particular responsibility in pulling off this performance. His soloing and sensitive accompaniment display an astonishingly supple and formidable grasp of the wide-open possibilities available to the well-read pianist, evoking such disparate keyboard voices as McCoy Tyner, Bud Powell, Chopin, and Liszt. His “Chromo II,” the solo composition opening this impressive disc, is a sophisticated, harmonically progressive piece nodding equally to Ravel and Debussy and to modern jazz. McKinney’s other originals are the exquisite “Threes And Fours,” fusing boppish and classical elements into an unforgettable musical set piece, and “Stitch In Time,” featuring his expressive (if a little unpolished) baritone voice.

Harrison’s compositions charmingly evoke Louis Armstrong and the New Orleans school. On the sentimental “Rampart Street,” featuring a nice strolling gait, his clarinet surges, bubbles, and teases, tossing off corny quote punch lines to musty jokes you’ve already heard, while McKinney scolds with incongruous whole-tone interjections and peckish phrases. The rapport displayed here is witty and engaging.

“Festivities” and “Sir Oliver” offer McKinney’s modern take on stride accompaniment, citing Fats Waller one moment and Bach the next, beneath Harrison’s fine melodies and soloing. “Pops” is a soulful, well-crafted tune with Harrison’s singing clarinet getting down in a quiet way. He picks up the tenor for the alternately poignant and wild “Armstrong Park”: his opening cadenza starts off high in his clarinetish altissimo register before giving way to a distinctive dark and intense tenor sound.

McKinney’s brother Kiane Zawadi penned “Like, What Is This?,” a bop line fused to the changes of the similarly-titled Cole Porter number, featuring Harrison’s probing clarinet over McKinney’s jabbing cross rhythms. McKinney’s solo is a funky, bluesy, contrapuntal gem.

Something For Pops captures two justly-acknowledged Arts Midwest Jazz Masters from Detroit creating a jazz chamber music epitomizing empathy, communication, and interplay. This disc is as good as it gets.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Yesterday was Monk’s birthday

Yesterday was Monk’s birthday. Every minute of the day, in fact before it even was the actual day, I knew it was Monk’s birthday: late Friday night, toward midnight (NOT “’round midnight”: too corny by a mile) Google Calendar told me that Monk’s birthday was in 10 minutes.

All day long yesterday it was Monk’s birthday, and I knew it. Brushing my teeth, it was Monk’s birthday. Doing dishes: today is Monk’s birthday. Scooping cat litter — my sister introduced me to the Litter Genie (I got the name wrong for about a week, thinking is was Litter Genius), which makes dealing with cat poop less of a pain in the ass, and which every time I use I think ‘wow, some dude had this idea and made it happen,’ which it occurs to me is also the story of Thelonious Monk — anyways, as I was plopping poop into the Litter Genie, I thought about Monk.

I was at the Safeway, and it was Monk’s birthday. I don’t know where anything is at the Safeway. It’s my new grocery store. The green beans looked pretty good. I surveyed the pasta, and was delighted to find DeCecco, superior to the ubiquitous Barilla in my opinion.

Peet’s Coffee, French Roast, Whole Bean. In stock if you look for it, I discovered. (It’s Monk’s birthday, I thought, as I inventoried Safeway’s coffee selection.)

I didn’t like Monk at first. I didn’t think he could play. (Same with Eric Dolphy: I had a 3-LP anthology, “The Saxophone,” with Max Roach’s “Mendacity,” where Dolphy takes a blistering solo. Miles Davis had said of Eric Dolphy, in a blindfold test, that he played like somebody was stepping on his foot — Miles didn’t quite put it that way, but that’s how I’d remembered it — so when I heard Dolphy for the first time on that anthology I thought “Miles was right, it sounds like somebody’s stepping on his foot!”)

I was barely a teenager.

I was alone at the precise moment when I fell in love with Monk’s playing. I was living in my girlfriend’s studio apartment in Minneapolis. (I had an actual “official” roommate, my college pal Doug, in an upstairs duplex in St. Paul where I was paying rent, but I’d moved my stuff to her place and hadn’t seen Doug in months. I wasn’t ready to tell my folks I was serious about a girl, and she and I weren’t ready to specifically identify just what we were doing, which is why I was still paying rent in St. Paul.) She worked nights as a cocktail waitress at a fancy bar in downtown Minneapolis. You wouldn’t believe how much she’d bring home in tips every night.

(Another thing about that shitty studio apartment, in a crummy part of Minneapolis where she’d been mugged once walking out of a bank [she fought with the mugger and actually got one of his shoes — I told her jeezus don’t fight next time]: one time we’d turned on the oven and, as it heated up, leagues of roaches scattered from it in broad daylight, from tiny baby roaches to gigantic Abominations Unto God, and we didn’t use the oven after that. Also, it had a gas fireplace that she’d been told not to use because it didn’t work, but one winter day she tried it when the apartment was too cold and it was fine, and after that we used that illicit fireplace all winter long, making the place so steamy we’d have to open the windows, even in a Minneapolis winter. It was great.)

I had a lot of time to listen to music while waiting for her to get home from the bar, a few hours after midnight. (She’d get home after 2; I’d have to be at work in a downtown music store around 8: I have no idea how I functioned on the amount of sleep I was getting back then, but I found her very compelling and worth the wait, and drank enough coffee at work to seem lucid.)

One evening I turned to Monk. I don’t know exactly what I was listening to when I realized how wrong 13-year-old me had been about him, but it was almost certainly a live recording of the quartet with Charlie Rouse. Monk swung So Fucking Hard, he was so funny, he knew exactly what to play to tighten up his rhythm section or push shit to another level. His playing was beautiful and wise and absurd. Monk played the truth. He astonished me. I bought every damn record of his. I was smitten.

Yesterday, all day, was his birthday, and I knew it. I’ll always know it.

If I stick it out here in Colorado (it’s very beautiful, by the way) someday I’ll probably know where everything is in the Safeway. 

I’m divorcing the woman who was a cocktail waitress 35 years ago. That’s very distracting, but not so distracting that I forgot Monk’s birthday. He’s important to me. He changed my life, changed the way I play, changed the way I write.

I listened to Monk last night, and I thought about the young man I was when I fell in love with him in that shitty studio apartment in Minneapolis. I was transitioning to a new, adult, post-college version of myself when I fell for him back then. 

And once again I’m in transition.

Anyways, I toasted Monk last night with some bourbon and maybe a little weed, because it was his birthday. 

Saturday, October 3, 2020


It took me longer than it should have to catch up with the legendary Chicago tenorman Von Freeman, whose 97th birthday would have today: back when he was first on my radar screen he was dismissed in certain circles of the jazz intelligentsia of the day as an interesting regional player whose “dicey intonation” was an acquired taste.

A few Downbeat reviews along those lines kept me from really checking him out until I was assigned some of his recordings to review for The Jazzletter, a quarterly I wrote for a lifetime or two ago.

Once I’d actually spent some time with his playing, I realized I’d been led astray: yeah, his intonation was unconventional, but it was an integral part of an expressive palette that made him a compelling and beautiful player, a unique tenor voice.

In my review of his Southport record “Walkin’ Tuff,” I laid out what I thought was “the case” for Von Freeman’s intonation and how it fit into his playing.

Here’s the relevant part of that review — this is 20-something me having my ears opened wide and getting some new ideas for my own expressive toolkit by a master:

“The first thing that strikes you about Freeman’s playing is his sound. There’s a cry there that brings to mind fellow Chicagoan Johnny Griffin (Griffin and Freeman and approximately a zillion other phenomenal Chicago jazz musicians studied under the legendary Captain Walter Dyett at DuSable High), along with a depth and darkness that recall Dexter Gordon.

“Freeman, however, sounds derivative of no one; he’s strictly his own man. Nowhere is this more evident than in his very personal intonation. He sometimes plays quite sharp or flat, but I swear, he’s never out of tune! This is best demonstrated in his blues playing, as in the opening phrases of the title tune. His ability to play on or off of expected pitch works perfectly in this context, giving his playing a uniquely expressive vocal quality that I’ve never heard in any other tenor player covering Freeman’s bop territory. (In fact, this pitch freedom, coupled with Freeman's use of dense and complex runs that occasionally go to the very limits of what is rhythmically and harmonically possible within a tonal context, give one a sense of the man as a sort of living link between hard boppers and the free-jazz exponents of the next generation.)”

Monday, September 7, 2020

Happy Birthday Sonny Rollins!

I was getting off a plane and spotted him sitting alone with his wife in a darkened and otherwise empty airport gate. I felt I had to say something, so I stepped over and told him that he’s made the world a better place, he’s inspired countless people to better themselves, he’s brought joy and solace to literally millions of people, and I tried to express to him how profound that seemed to me.

He was incredibly kind and warm, asked me about myself, gave me encouragement. I shook his hand and went on my way. The interaction lasted just a minute or two, but I was on Cloud Nine.

And TODAY he turns 90 years old. Happy Birthday to Sonny Rollins. He’s the basis of who I am as an artist. He’s uplifted all of us. What a profound and beautiful person.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

One Hundred Years of Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker, who was born 100 years ago today, was a gift to humanity. Like jazz itself, he was a gift to the world from America, in spite of America.

The most celebrated expressions of American culture, what’s recognized worldwide as enduring and unique and profound, came from Black Americans asserting their humanity, creativity, spirit, and intellectual rigor in a society that denied the existence of those qualities in its Black citizens.

Because we know his name, because he MADE us hear him and remember him, Charlie Parker was triumphant over adversity. But his triumph is weighted with sadness: his life was too hard and he died too young. 

Although on the bandstand he might have seemed otherwise, he was no superhuman: he was of course merely human, the same as the rest of us. 

Indeed, every person who has ever made a mark on this world, every individual revered and destined to be remembered for making a difference, was also “merely” human. 

Us “Mere Humans” need to be reminded from time to time of the astonishing amount of beauty we’re capable of, of how amazing we might be, of how much joy we could perhaps bring to the world.

To this day Charlie Parker inspires countless people, in many creative disciplines, to work harder, to spend more time in the shed, to hone their skills, to push against adversity, to be more than they currently are.

Right now, at the moment you’re reading this, someone in some corner of the world, looking to him as a role model, is cloistered alone in a room, working something out, trying to be better at expressing themselves today than they were yesterday.

In that work, in that struggle, without a doubt: Bird Lives.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

A throwback…

I developed my first notions of a graphic design aesthetic as a kid, more or less by osmosis, thanks to my record collection: once I realized I could identify the distinct design languages of a Blue Note record vs. a Prestige record vs. an Impulse record, I started to take note of the thoughtful, very non-arbitrary decisions that gave these tangible objects their specific and powerful vibe.

The iconic jazz labels (for the most part…) understood that the first encounter a person had with their music was the record jacket itself: the first “artistic statement” made by a record wasn’t actually the music!

Right in the store bin a Blue Note record “felt” different from an Impulse record, and some of that feeling colored the actual listening experience. Graphic design is powerful!

And, in terms of today’s music, it’s more or less defunct. That’s a big loss.

To get to today’s delivery model for music, all we’ve given up is 

• great graphic design, 
• authoritative liner notes (which were HUGE in my development), and 
• sound quality! 

Other than that, you know, yay, I guess.

Anyways, Maria Schneider’s latest record, which you won’t find in any of the streaming services, is gorgeous visually and sonically: it’s a throwback to when the music you’d buy had a compelling *tangible* component, a physical presence that was a big part of the experience. I’m grateful!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Cadence Records has a different approach

Most record labels make their products available on the various streaming platforms that have (for better or worse, generally the latter in terms of sound quality and artist compensation) become the way most people “consume” their music.

Cadence Records has a different approach: each item in their catalog is enrolled into the Witness Protection Program, shoved with a sack over its head into the back seat of a black SUV and 14-houred to a new life somewhere in the middle of Idaho.

That means that if you’d like to get just a taste of the Buffalo Jazz Octet’s “Live at Pausa,” a fucking great record that appeared on a number of national “Top Ten Releases” lists when it came out, you don’t go to Cadence’s website, where the CD is nowhere to be found.

Basically, if you don’t buy the CD at Amazon sight unseen and sound unheard, you’ll pretty much never encounter even a brief snippet of the damn record — at least until some Rogue Agent Who Ultimately Is Doing The Right Thing In This One Instance puts the entire CD on YouTube.

But in the meantime, here’s a marvelous track from the “Live at Pausa” sessions that didn’t make it onto the CD, and therefore can actually be heard and enjoyed by the teeming masses: Nelson Rivera’s “The Sun Giveth.”

If you’re wondering what the Buffalo Jazz Octet is all about, here you go! (And also, yeah, buy the CD from Amazon, it’s good…)

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Bill Walsh

I’m not going to get this right, but I’m trying to remember the time Bill Walsh shared a cab with John Scofield and Jack DeJohnette, I think it was, and they spilled some juicy gossip about John Abercrombie, with whom they were quarreling. Or when Bill used to hang out with Dave Liebman, when Liebs was going through a divorce and was somehow living above a pizza joint in New Jersey. Or rather, I’m trying to recall the details about the time that Sam Rivers and band sang “Happy Birthday” to Bill, while Rivers’ kids were propped on Bill’s knees.

And I’m trying to understand how every time I discovered some new-to-me “niche” jazz artist who suddenly rocked my world, Bill would not only have astute recording suggestions for this supposedly obscure person, but would likely even have vivid recollections about catching them live.

Somehow, once I’d categorized Bill as perhaps the heaviest “civilian” jazz nerd I’ve ever met, he revealed himself to also be a heavy civilian new music nerd, with as many stories about, say, Fred Rzewski and George Crumb as about anybody else.

I’m incredibly honored that Bill was a regular at my gigs. He’d accusingly point out performances he was missing to catch mine, as if I’d intentionally caused a scheduling conflict.

Bill called himself the founding member of the What Would Mingus Do? fan club. I took the photo above: Bill with Tim Clarke outside of Nietzsche’s. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time:

People: Bill Walsh wore this to yesterday’s What Would Mingus Do? performance at Nietzsche's JazzFest Day V. Let that sink in for a moment.

Bill is sporting a prototype of our Brand New Official What Would Mingus Do? Fan Garb. Some people, haters, might say that Official What Would Mingus Do? Fan Garb kind of looks like a repurposed Santa suit, to which I say: EVERYTHING “kind of” looks like something else: clouds “kind of” look like cotton balls; peanut M&Ms “kind of” look like the delicious turds of a Magical Rainbow Bunny — THAT’S NOT THE POINT — the point is that Bill wore his WWMD? Fan Garb in Nietzsche's and NO ONE batted an eye or remarked upon it or in any way responded with surprise.

Two takeaways:

1) Nietzsche’s offers a non-judgmental, open-minded environment where you can just live your damn life in peace, and

2) they should really turn the lights on in there some time, so you can see what people are wearing and be appalled.

Don’t judge Bill until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes: and ohmygawd LOOK at those fuggin’ shoes! (A couple of other things: our new Official What Would Mingus Do? Fan Garb is made of a breathable fabric that is not itchy at all, as long as you have a high tolerance for itchiness and have taken a lot of Benadryl. Also, down the road we’re looking at making a fancier fan club sign.)

The fact that Bill showed up in that outfit tells you a lot about his sense of humor, and his sweetness: he was a big, absurd, sweet person.

Bill was first admitted to Kenmore Mercy in March, I believe. When I visited him back then he looked spent — but there was a vibe that, yes, he’d been through a ton, but he was on the mend and would soon be back on the gig circuit, scolding me about scheduling conflicts.

When I stopped by his room, he was doing exactly the sort of thing you’d expect Bill Walsh to be doing: he was reading Maxine Gordon’s new Dexter biography. He highly recommended it.

He also hipped me to some Carla Bley bootleg recordings newly available on Amazon, and said I should make a point of grabbing Amy Beal’s biography of Carla. (The book is sitting next to me as I’m typing this…)

Eventually Bill was indeed back on the scene, and he’d routinely send me teasing Facebook messages that he was catching more stuff than I was, which is absolutely true, since Bill was downright competitive in keeping count of the gigs he’d been to, while I’ve lately been on a semi-monastic reclusive stretch.

When I would run into him at this or that gig, he looked happy, but he also looked uncharacteristically tired.

I was in Boulder with family last week when I’d heard Bill was back at Kenmore Mercy. That’s all I knew at first, but then it appeared that Bill was very sick, that this was very serious.

At some point in the last day or two it occurred to me that I might have to write this goddamn note.

And just now I’ve had that sad news confirmed, so here’s my unwilling tribute to Bill Walsh, my friend and a friend of jazz and progressive music (and Irish music!) in this town. I didn’t want to write this, because it means that nobody will ever again wear that absurd suit, and obviously no one else could possibly fill those huge crazy shoes…

Friday, May 4, 2018

A love letter…

You’d purchase tangible, physical media when you’d buy your music. LPs had a specific “new record smell” (vinyl, printer’s ink, fresh cardboard, laminate and glue), and the jacket of a gatefold double-LP, for example, would make a slightly ominous cracking sound when you opened it.

The larger physical package provided memorable artwork that was a meaningful part of the overall experience, often along with incisive and informative liner notes. You’d know who the sidemen were, because they were listed right there! You’d know the date of the recording, which means you’d start to have an understanding of the chronological development of the artist in question. You’d keep track of recording engineers whose sound you preferred, and you’d start to look for the authors of liner notes who wrote well and seemed authoritative.

You wouldn’t generally mix or match or skip tracks, because that was usually a hassle: you'd take in an LP side as a sort of intact musical program; meanwhile, the recording musicians would attempt to create an interesting artistic journey in the sequencing of the tracks. You’d experience the artist’s musical vision in a long form, instead of sampling a disjointed individual track here and there. And you might therefore have a deeper understanding of the artist's vision.

Acquiring recorded music could be hard, especially if you lived in a small market (as mine in Central Wisconsin was...), and were focusing on jazz rather than easily available pop music: you’d research, you’d read Downbeat or Cadence or whatever, you'd save up your money, and you'd have to special order stuff that was of interest. You'd wait.

When the stuff finally came, it was an event — you couldn’t wait to get home and listen to it! As a result, music was more valuable to you; it wasn’t disposable…

It also meant that you might find your ears opening up a bit — because you’d researched and ordered and waited for that music, when it arrived you gave it more time and took it more seriously even if it didn’t immediately grab you: perhaps something was more on the freer side of jazz than you were used to, a bit more out than you were comfortable with, or was otherwise somehow strange or unexpected to you. You hung with it a bit, because of the effort it took to acquire it.

Some of the stuff that you had to hang with before you “got” it, stuff that you couldn’t just skip over the way you can (and do!) today, became your favorite stuff ever…

Friday, January 13, 2017

10 Years Without Michael Brecker

I know EXACTLY where I was 10 years ago today, the day Michael Brecker died: I was in New York, at the International Association of Jazz Educators conference.

I’ll never forget that experience: virtually the entire New York jazz universe was there (including Michael’s brother, Randy), along with folks from all over the world, and as the news spread hundreds of People Who Actually Knew Why This Was A Big Deal were hugging and crying and grieving together.

It was terribly sad, and it was also beautiful and moving: I’ve always considered “jazz people” a family of sorts, but I’ve never lived that admittedly hopeful and optimistic notion so fully, and have it become so real for me.

I was moved to see jazz titans — legends, performers I’ve idolized and elevated to near godlike status over the years, my heroes — grieve this loss and be so very … human. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise: nearly every one of the “Jazz Gods” I’ve ever met has been a beautiful, humble person, as much an inspiration off the bandstand as on. I’ve never met him, but I’m told Michael Brecker was like that too.

He was a huge influence on me (as he was for nearly every saxophonist who came after him), but he was also in some ways SO overwhelming (technically, musically, and even in terms of his ability to play compellingly across jazz and even pop music genres) that he’s seemed nearly beyond the scope of a mere mortal like me — he was the first saxophonist I referred to, only half kidding, as “post-human.”

I considered Michael Brecker — who we’ve been without for 10 years but who’s also with me nearly every damn day when I pick up a horn and try to make something happen — just about untouchable!

Monday, June 15, 2015

A review of “Ernie Krivda Jazz”

I’m firing up the mighty blog again, after a bit of a pause. Amongst other things, I’d like to put up some more of my published reviews and articles from Midwest Jazz — stuff that might be of interest to that vast portion of humanity that seeks out jazz blogs: these articles are for all nine of you! Stay alive! I need the hit count!

Midwest Jazz was published by Arts Midwest, a non-profit regional arts organization based in Minneapolis. I worked there, starting as a receptionist and progressing through office manager and finally program associate. Arts Midwest is where I got my first chance to write about jazz and actually get paid (a little bit) for it!

Midwest Jazz (still called the Arts Midwest Jazzletter back in 1992, when I wrote the following review) covered the jazz scenes in the 9-state upper Midwest region served by Arts Midwest. And that’s how Cleveland-based saxophonist Ernie Krivda’s Ernie Krivda Jazz came my way for review.

I’d already heard of Krivda — he’d made a splash nationally with a number of highly-regarded recordings for the Inner City label — but somehow I’d never actually gotten my hands on his records.

I was looking forward to finally checking him out, but there was a problem: by the time I had a chance to listen to the disc, I was already late in submitting the review! When I mention that “I’m past deadline and Jones is breathing down my neck,” the Jones in question was editor Dawn Renee Jones, and I wasn’t kidding!

Meanwhile, Krivda’s very original playing and composing meant I couldn’t rely on some tried-and-true strategies usually suitable for cranking out a quick review, as you’ll read below...

(By the way, in the more than 20 years since writing this review, I’ve heard lots more Ernie Krivda, both on record and several times live. He remains a thrilling and amazing player, and I have a very specific take on “where he’s coming from” now that I hope to put to pixels one of these days. Also, when I wrote this, I had no idea that one day I’d work and play with monster bassist Jeff Halsey, cited below, at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp!)

Here we go...

This article appeared in the
Arts Midwest Jazzletter
Summer 1992 (Vol. 10, #3),
an Arts Midwest publication.
Reprinted with permission.

Everything tastes more or less like chicken, the saying goes, and there is a related concept in jazz: “every tenorman plays more or less like _____________.” The name you put in the blank depends upon what decade it is: nowadays it’s Michael Brecker (by state law), and before that it was John Coltrane (who Brecker played more or less like, once upon a time), Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins. It’s important, and probably should be mandatory, that tenor players follow these strict guidelines, lest reviewers be forced to deviate from the tried-and-true “he plays like so-and-so” formula. O.K., so I’m writing this review of Ernie Krivda Jazz, I’m past deadline and Jones is breathing down my neck, and Krivda is breaking the rules. He’s a tenor player, so it’s my duty to shoehorn him into the appropriate category: he’s in the modern improvising tradition, and shows a fluent mastery of the post bop idiom, with an original and expressive approach. But who the hell does he sound like? Maybe Ernie Krivda?

Ernie Krivda Jazz is a great way to sample Krivda’s work as a solid improvisor and composer. The disc captures Krivda in a variety of settings, leading off with a quintet featuring Pete Selvaggio on accordion! Krivda’s “Old Vienna” is a nice, rambling, dramatic “old world” tune, very difficult to describe but vaguely reminiscent of the sort of stuff Bulgarian Ivo Papasov does, without the crazed metric shifts.

“Irv’s At Midnight,” a funky shuffle featuring a nice tenor & bone line, is another tune featuring the accordion. If you’re one of the seven people who haven’t yet heard that the accordion has undergone a political rehabilitation, and is now considered a very hip instrument to jam with, check out these two tunes. At times Selvaggio’s squeeze-box has the plaintive wail of a Toots Thielemans harmonica solo; other times it sounds like a pocket Hammond B3. It’s very effective in this context, and Krivda’s use of the instrument in these two tunes is intelligent and appropriate — it’s not a gimmick, but rather an integral part of the group sound.

“The Bozo” is the most compositionally ambitious offering of the set, adding two trumpets to Krivda’s tenor and Pat Hallaran’s trombone. Krivda blows a loose, inside-outside solo, filled with effortless, skittering arpeggiated forays into and out of the altissimo register. Guitarist Bob Fraser plays a nice meaty solo (one of his many excellent contributions to this disc) before the horns take over with a complex, theatrical interlude. Good stuff.

Next come three exquisite duet performances between Krivda and bassist Jeff Halsey: “Autumn Leaves,” “Blues For Two” (an original), and “Over The Rainbow.” Halsey plays with a fat, warm sound, and Krivda is alternately lyrical and intense, soulful and aggressive. These two virtuosos play with a high degree of empathy, and their collaborations here are completely satisfying.

The remaining four tunes alternate between Krivda’s quartet and quintet. “The Song Is You” features more nice blowing by Krivda and Fraser; Krivda’s “In Pursuit Of Hip” is another effective use of the tenor/bone front line; “Little Face” is a jazz waltz original with a nice cadenza ending; and “Love For Sale” closes off the disc with a bluesy, unconventional arrangement.

Since Krivda defies pigeonholing, we’re forced to accept him on his own terms. I can’t tell you who he sounds like; I can only say he’s a master improviser playing in a unique, original style. You should pick up this disc and find out about Ernie Krivda.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

You, Personally, Are Playing “There Will Never Be Another You” Wrong

In my analysis of Dexter Gordon’s solo on There Will Never Be Another You (from Body & Soul, recorded in 1967), I make a semi-biggish deal of Dexter’s using a major ii-V7 in bars 3 and 4: in other words, Dexter played Dm9 to G9 (concert key) in that spot, instead of the “God-ordained” (as I put it back then) changes Dm7b5 to G7(b9).

Related PostJazz musicians over the years have settled on those latter changes, which form a minor ii-V7 progression with a half-dimished ii chord (a minor chord with a flatted fifth) and a V7 chord with a flatted ninth. The minor progression makes sense from a music theory standpoint, since the changes resolve in bar 5 to a C minor chord. And it sounds good: those minor ii-V7s, with their flat fifths and flat ninths, give improvisers some meaty, “darker” harmonies to dig into...

Now, this might seem to be a nerdy “inside baseball” kind of observation (and that’s only because, let’s face it, it is!) — however, the difference between the minor vs. major ii-V7s is big: even non-musician normal-type human beings can hear it...

When I first came across this recording of Dexter and his major ii-V7s, chockfull of natural fifths and ninths, I didn’t recognize what he was up to: I thought he was blowing some sort of especially fresh and interesting substitution. It was a facepalm moment once I actually started transcribing the solo: nothing fancy or exotic to see here, folks — just one of my heroes messing with my expectations!

Dexter was the first guy I’ve heard consistently and relentlessly play major ii-V7s at that spot on TWNBAY (don’t be afraid, just an acronym...), but there was at least one other person who heard the tune that way even before Dexter did — and that individual is Harry Warren, the guy who composed it!

Not long after I’d posted my Dexter TWNBAY transcription, I heard from Terry Lukiwski, a fine trombonist based in Toronto. He’d spotted my commentary on Dexter’s novel (to me!) interpretation of the tune, and told me that Gordon was merely playing what Harry Warren had originally intended. Later, Terry was kind enough to send me a copy of the original published arrangement. (He sent this to me almost exactly three years ago; it’s apparently taken me till now to build up the emotional strength to deal with this shattering development!)

Here’s the relevant section, the first bars of the refrain, from the published arrangement:

And here’s what that sounds like:

There Will Never Be Another You (Major)

Here’s the exact same arrangement, but with bars 3 and 4 “minorized” —  the A’s and E’s in those bars flatted, so that we have D half-diminished 7 [or Dm7(b5)] to G7(b9), the common performance practice of the tune today:

There Will Never Be Another You (Minor)

The first is sweet; the second bittersweet — at least, that’s a succinct way of describing how I hear them.

So: which is “correct”?

Well, it’s worth noting that jazz musicians are hardly known for their fealty to a composer’s intentions — in this genre all about improvisation, the tune is often no more than the half-pipe (by the way, the Winter Olympics are on TV right now...) which the improvisor freestyles over: nobody really cares about the infrastructure — folks just tune in to see the cool moves.

However, jazz musicians, especially old-timers, have also been known to solemnly advise youngsters and up-and-comers that they need to know the lyrics of a song in order to properly interpret it.

The lyrics (written not by Warren, but by Mack Gordon) at that moment are: “There will be many other nights like this” — a sweet, positive sentiment, right? And take a look at the performance instruction there, buried under those guitar tabs: sweetly, it says! Major ii-V7 all the way, dangit!

But the entire tune is definitely bittersweet: “this is our last dance together,” and while I’ll meet other people and get on with my life, no one will ever get to me the way you have. “Yes, I may dream a million dreams, But how can they come true, If there will never ever be another you?”

Sob! Bittersweet! Minor ii-V7, fer sure!

Whichever: All I know is that Dexter played it sweet and happy that lovely July night in Copenhagen, in 1967....

(Meanwhile, even if you don’t know Harry Warren, you likely know some of his music: in addition to TWNBAY, he wrote Lullaby of Broadway, Chattanooga Choo Choo, Jeepers Creepers, The More I See You, I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo, You’re My Everything, Forty-Second Street, September in the Rain, You’ll Never Know, I Only Have Eyes for You, You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, Lulu’s Back in Town, and lots more [Shuffle Off to Buffalo]!

However, even if you were already familiar with Harry Warren and his music, I’ll bet you didn’t know that his birth name was Salvatore Antonio Guaragna!)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Seamus Blake • “Go” transcription

From the Fresh Sound recording Sun Sol (Seamus Blake/Marc Miralta Trio), recorded August 1999, in New York City.
Seamus Blake

If you woke up this morning feeling pretty good about yourself, it’s almost certainly because you forgot about the pressing Menace To The North: a horde of killer Canadian-raised tenor players, ready to wreak havoc with the self-esteem and general well-being of Red White & Blue saxophonists here in the Good Ol’ U.S. of A.♫ MP3 ♫
Seamus Blake’s solo on

If you’re an American tenor saxophonist and you haven’t heard Canadians Mike Murley or Phil Dwyer yet, your feelings haven’t been sufficiently hurt and your ego is more intact than it should be; meanwhile, if Seamus Blake is a name you’re not familiar with, you just plain ain’t doing your homework and should step out of the nunnery from time to time.

Since Washington refuses to build a moat or get Canada to pay for a wall to keep guys like Blake from usurping our lucrative jazz gigs, American tenor players will be forced to resort to grit, determination, and long tones to keep the Northern Menace at bay.

Unfortunately, it won’t be enough.

Blake, winner of the Thelonious Monk sax competition in 2002, has too much going for him: a gorgeous sound, great time feel, nimble chops, and improbable range: he’s as comfortable playing lines in the extreme off-the-fingering-chart upper reaches of the tenor as he is in the wholesome, more-than-sufficient and ordained by God & Rubank normal range of the horn.

Go, from the album Sun Sol recorded in 1999, is a complex, skittering little number that resolves into an altered blues for the blowing. In four succinct choruses, Blake shows off that tone, that relaxed and flexible behind-the-beat time feel, and his crazy range, a full octave above the notes you were told about in school.

Regarding the transcription: there was a fair bit of “listening between the lines” to determine the changes in this chordless trio performance — sometimes, as is often the case in a gloriously flexible form like the blues, there is occasional ambiguity and divergence in the harmonic paths taken by Blake and bassist Avishai Cohen along the way, especially in the turnarounds at the end of each chorus. The changes I’ve put down are what I think is a reasonable interpretation and summing up of the goings-on here... (Oh, and this is indeed a minor blues, in spite of that as-inexplicable-as-poutine B major that begins the solo and beguiles the ear — especially in this chordless context.)

Anyways: dig Blake’s wonderful performance here — and next time you wake up feeling more or less okay about yourself, remember that they’re up there, these Canadian saxophonists, practicing, practicing, practicing… (Or maybe I should say practising, practising, practising.)

My favorite recordings are tenor trio outings like Sun Sol — and this particular recording features the loveliest version of Pure Imagination I’ve ever heard! The Amazon link takes you to an MP3 release of Sun Sol — you can also purchase individual tracks from the record there.

And, of course, your purchase from Amazon supports the artists and helps to support this blog!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Music for tenor saxophone, geese, architecture students, & the Perot Malting Elevator Warehouse

I’m performing later this week in one of Buffalo’s more unusual spaces: an old, once-abandoned grain elevator on the Buffalo River. Last week I dropped by to check out the acoustics and get a sense of how I was going to work in the space, and: Holy Crap! The sound was amazing, with the space serving as a sort of “natural Echoplex” — really has to be heard to be believed. Here's an iPhone recording — with no reverb or effects of any sort — of me working out some ideas for how to play there ... influenced by the work of John Klemmer, Paul Winter, and Minimalist composers like Steve Reich.

(This grain elevator is adjacent to the Buffalo River, and occasionally you’ll hear geese offer their frank assessment of my playing. Meanwhile, freshman students from UB’s School of Architecture & Planning were touring the site; you’ll hear them from time to time as well... More photos of the site can be found here: Perot Malting Elevator, Silo City, September 20, 2013.)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Kellymoon for Insert Number Here

Performed by What Would Mingus Do? at PAUSA Art House in Buffalo, New York, on June 6, 2013. Kelly Bucheger, tenor saxophone; Mark Filsinger, trumpet; Michael McNeill, piano; Mark Harris, bass; Darryl Washington, drums.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A review of John Chilton’s “The Song of the Hawk: The Life & Recordings of Coleman Hawkins”

This article appeared in the
Arts Midwest Jazzletter Fall 1991 (Vol. 9, #4),
an Arts Midwest publication.
Reprinted with permission.

Never mind what you may have heard about Adolphe Sax — it was Coleman Hawkins who invented the tenor saxophone. Sax invented a strange hybrid between brass and reed instruments which became very popular in military bands, due to its sound and power. The instrument that Hawk invented became arguably the definitive horn for jazz expression — as Ornette Coleman put it, “the best statements Negroes have made of what their soul is have been on tenor saxophone.” Coleman Hawkins was the daddy of it all, the first to play meaningful jazz on the tenor.
John Chilton’s new critical biography, The Song of the Hawk: The Life & Recordings of Coleman Hawkins, is a thorough, knowledgeable, and worthy discussion of the Hawk’s music. Hawkins fathered the warm, full-bodied, rhythmic approach that became the first standard for anyone striving to learn the tenor sax, and any genealogy of the horn leads inescapably back to him — you can’t name a tenor player who wasn’t somehow influenced by the Hawk. Chilton chronicles the Hawk’s development: his early days in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he studied piano and cello; his first work with Mamie Smith and Fletcher Henderson; his life as an expatriate living in Europe; his masterpiece performance of “Body & Soul,” which solidified his reputation; and on through many triumphs, some failures, and eventual decline.
Chilton’s comprehensive knowledge of Hawkins’s approach, along with his thorough research into the stories behind Hawk's various recordings, help to provide a context for the Hawk’s work that made me hear new things in some old favorite albums. Chilton is no fawning biographer, either — he sets very high standards for performances (which is appropriate when dealing with a monumental figure like Hawkins), and often, in his criticisms, he doesn’t cut Hawk much slack.
Hawkins was a strange man, a glamorous, sophisticated individual who was somehow at the same time a miserly loner. Interestingly, considering his extroverted approach to the horn, Hawkins revealed little of his thoughts even to his friends. Chilton struggles against these difficulties to provide a sense of Hawkins the man. He’s not entirely successful in this regard, but to be fair I don’t know how any biographer could unravel the personality of a man who could be a mystery even to those who knew him well.
A larger shortcoming in an otherwise excellent book is the lack of a discography, which can make it difficult for the interested reader / jazz fan to track down the recordings discussed. Discographies invaluably aid in understanding an artist’s chronological development, and in tracking the various individuals an artist has performed with. In a book like this one, a discography is a must. In spite of that omission, however, I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants a more complete understanding of one of the jazz titans.

You can find The Song of the Hawk here:
The Song of the Hawk: The Life and Recordings of Coleman Hawkins (The Michigan American Music Series)
Your purchase from Amazon helps to support this blog!

Friday, December 7, 2012

“Possible. Not sure. Next.”

I love this track. In August I attended Dave Liebman’s saxophone master class at NYU in New York. At the end of the week Liebman had arranged for the students to join him in an outdoor performance in Washington Square Park.

Liebman asked us to submit compositions to be played at the concert, and then sat at the piano — he’s a fine pianist and drummer, as he proved at the gig! — and zipped through the tunes to determine which would make the cut.

This clip is his quick sight-read of my tune Green Eyes. His ringing endorsement: “Possible. Not sure. Next.”

I did end up playing Green Eyes in the park, with Dave’s rhythm section: Phil Markowitz, Tony Marino, and Mike Stephans. An honor. I was terrified.

Here’s a slightly-less-impromptu performance of the tune, in a piano trio version from my CD House of Relics, with pianist Michael McNeill, bassist Danny Ziemann, and drummer Russ Algera.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Defining “Harmolodics”

I first encountered the term “harmolodic” in the liner notes to Ornette Coleman’s Dancing In Your Head LP. The record was one of those gorgeous Horizon gatefold releases that even smelled good — that “new record smell” has so far resisted digital reproduction and is not yet available on iTunes. The striking front and back covers featured a stylized African mask that was also a sort of optical illusion: flip the cover upside down and you had another mask. Depending on the mood of the person stocking the bin at the record store, you might encounter the new Ornette album sporting a mischievous smiling jester, or the exact same album showing a pensive, robed wise man with a full beard.

The music was thrilling and baffling, and unlike any other Ornette record I’d ever heard: a taunting, singsong melody is repeated a shocking number of times over a twangy electric rhythm section that appeared to have gone insane.

That was the A-side. Flip the record over and ... it wasn’t just deja vu — it was more like deja what the fuck: the same maddening thing, the same melody, the same guitars, everything the same and somehow different, happens all over again! The topsy-turvy same-slash-different album cover was the perfect metaphor for the music on the record.

Turning to the liner notes for context and understanding, I found Ornette’s explanation: the music on the record

was written and arranged by means of a musical concept I call harmolodic. This means the rhythms, harmonics and tempos are all equal in relationship and independent melodies at the same time.


Over the years, I’ve seen that I’m not the only person beguiled a bit by the term (which nowadays usually sports a terminating s as a noun: “harmolodics”; and no s as an adjective: “the harmolodic concept”) — musicians and jazz scholars have grappled with the word and the theory, trying and failing to pin down its exact meaning and implications.

Even players with longtime connections to OC seem to have reached different conclusions: guitarist James Blood Ulmer called harmolodics “a concept that everyone should explore,” while Ronald Shannon Jackson, the drummer on Dancing In Your Head, doesn’t think the term has an exact meaning.

I think Jackson is right: in fact, the more precise the definition, the less persuasive it is! In a 2003 Guitar Player interview, Ulmer seems about to reveal a tantalizingly concrete description of the concept, when he’s asked to explain what is a “harmolodic chord”:

A harmolodic chord is a chord that cannot be inverted. Out of all the chords, there are only five that cannot be inverted, from which you can get major, minor, augmented, and diminished sounds.

Wow! We’re on the cusp of enlightenment! The interviewer asks the only possible follow-up question: “Which five are those?”

Ulmer’s response snatches the pebble out of our hand:

I don’t want to get into it because it would take all day to discuss those five chords.

The Grove Dictionary of Music tries to set forth the known knowns:

[I]t apparently involves the simultaneous sounding, in different tonalities and at different pitches [...] but in otherwise unchanged form, of a single melodic or thematic line; the procedure produces a type of simple heterophony. [...] More generally the harmolodic theory espouses principles already well established in free jazz, namely equality among instruments (rather than the traditional separation between soloist and accompaniment) in harmonically free collective improvisation. According to Ronald Shannon Jackson, a member of Prime Time, the term derives from a conflation of the words “harmony,” “movement,” and “melody”; Jackson has also stated that, in his opinion, the term has no precise musical meaning.

Ornette’s key collaborator Don Cherry, in the liner notes to Atlantic’s boxed set of OC’s recordings, offers an explanation vague enough to seem plausible; he calls the harmolodic concept

one of the profound systems today for both Western and Eastern music. [...] When we would play a composition, we could improvise forms, or modulate or make cadences or interludes, but all listening to each other to see which way it was going so we could blow that way. Ornette’s harmony would end up being a melody and the original melody would end up being a harmony. So he could continue on that way to write for a whole orchestra, starting from the first melody which ends up being harmony to the harmonic melodies that come after the main theme.

However, in a Downbeat interview excerpted in John Litweiler’s Ornette bio, Cherry provides a definition that for me feels both precise and yet somehow also makes perfect sense (!):

If I play a C and have it in my mind as the tonic, that’s what it will become. If I want it to be a minor third or a major seventh that had a tendency to resolve upward, then the quality of the note will change.

This suggests an approach where the logic of a melodic line dictates the group interactions to that line. Bernie Nix, who played with OC for more than a decade and is one of the guitarists on Dancing In Your Head, nods in this direction in an interview on All About Jazz: “The harmony doesn’t dictate the direction, the melody does.”

That might be enough of a definition for me. As for whether that really gets at what Ornette has in mind when he invokes the term, I’m thinking: not even close! Sound engineer Oz Fritz recalls meeting with Ornette, and says “Ornette mentioned that he'd never had an album of his recorded to his standard of Harmolodics.” What he says next astonishes: “Ornette mentioned that he’d never even heard a harmolodics recording except for one rehearsal recording by Frank Sinatra which no longer existed.”

Was Ornette pulling his leg? Fritz didn’t seem to think so.

Don’t have this classic harmolodic recording? You can get it from Amazon as an MP3 album:

Dancing In Your Head

Your purchase from Amazon helps to support this blog!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A review of John Litweiler’s
Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life

This article appeared in
Midwest Jazz Summer 1994 (Vol. 1, #2),
an Arts Midwest publication.
Reprinted with permission.

The year 1959 was one of change and breakthrough in jazz. The deaths of Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Sidney Bechet, key artists of the music’s earlier periods, intensified the pervasive sense that a new era was beginning. In New York, then as now the center of the jazz universe, major developments would set the musical agendas of jazz practitioners for decades to come. Charles Mingus recorded two masterworks, Blues & Roots and Mingus Ah Um, both revealing a novel way for large ensembles to perform complex music without the aid of written-out parts; John Coltrane, with Giant Steps, took vertical, change-running improvisation, an approach traceable all the way back to the first important jazz saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins, to its outer limits and logical conclusion; Miles Davis meanwhile, in the nick of time, nudged Trane toward a new pursuit with Kind of Blue, the modal jazz shot heard ’round the world and perhaps the best-known jazz recording of all time.

These developments alone would grant 1959 the status of an important, ground-breaking year in jazz. However, one event, a portent really, crowded out all others of that crowded year, insuring that the future of jazz really could be read in the tea leaves of 1959. In November, an outfit led by a weird Texas misfit made its New York debut at the Five Spot Cafe, consummating a year when the seeds of much of jazz’s future were planted. The Ornette Coleman Quartet started a two week engagement (it was later extended to two and a half months), and the music was never the same again.

Coleman and his bandmates treated the harmonic aspect of jazz improvisation in a new way, disavowing the standard practice of running a tune’s changes and following conventional song forms, in favor of a new approach where unfettered melodic inventiveness was the guiding force. As Coleman put it to writer Martin Williams: “If I’m going to follow a preset chord sequence, I may as well write out my solo.” In finding a way to chart this unfamiliar territory, Coleman took his place among jazz’s most important innovators, alongside such stellar “establishment” figures as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker.

Coleman, however, was not immediately given the key to the city. Thanks to the formidable press hype preceding his New York arrival, the jazz community there was quickly induced to take sides. Much of the criticism was downright personal, like Miles Davis’s reaction: “Hell, just listen to what he writes and how he plays. If you’re talking psychologically, the man’s all screwed up inside.” Years later, Ornette told record producer/writer John Snyder that one night during the Five Spot gig, Max Roach punched him in the mouth, then showed up at 4 o’clock the next morning in front of his apartment building, hollering “I know you’re up there, motherfucker! Come down here and I’ll kick your ass!”

Not that rejection was a new experience for Ornette Coleman. The first chapters of John Litweiler’s new biography, Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, read nearly like a catalog of abuse: Ornette as a teenager in Fort Worth, being held up by his church bandleader as an example of how not to play (“he’ll never be a saxophone player”); Ornette being fired on the spot from various gigs for solo breaks that stopped dancers in their tracks — not with admiration, but with anger and alarm; Ornette, touring with a blues band, meeting local musicians who take him outside, beat him bloody and unconscious, and trash his horn; Ornette, sitting in with Dexter Gordon’s rhythm section in L.A., being ordered by Dex to scram.

Litweiler faced no easy task in pinning down the real story of this enigmatic trailblazer. Take Ornette’s early years: he was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1930, according to most references, or 1931, according to his sister Truvenza, in a strict family environment that was either getting by (Truvenza: “we didn’t have a whole lot of money — we didn’t have money to throw away or something like that, but I don’t remember going without anything”) or downright deprived (Ornette: “I didn’t come from a poor family, I came from a po’ family. Poorer than poor.”).

Contradictory and/or off-kilter recollections of this sort permeate Coleman’s life story, and could easily stymie a would-be biographer. Litweiler, unfazed, lets his sources tell it their way — the “truth,” as best as can be discerned, emerges from the divergent accounts. And if it occasionally seems that Litweiler is swallowing some preposterous tales, it must be remembered that in some ways the very idea of Ornette Coleman becoming one of the most influential jazz musicians on the planet is in its own way, well, unlikely.

He certainly didn’t have a very promising start. Coleman, an autodidact, taught himself “wrong” (unfortunately for his self esteem, perhaps, but fortunately for the history of Western music): unaware while learning his notes that the saxophone is a transposing instrument, he came to understand his horn in a very unconventional way. (In fact, Litweiler recounts Gunther Schuller’s harrowing tale of Coleman’s studying with him in the early ’60s, to learn the “standard” approach to music. On the day it dawned on Coleman just how much his musical understanding differed from the norm, he became violently ill, and never showed up for a lesson again.)

While this biography is often fascinating, providing valuable insight into Ornette the man, it is not completely satisfactory in helping to explain his innovations. Litweiler is quite capable of persuasive analysis of Ornette’s musical attributes, as in his comparison of Coleman’s rhythmic approach (on the early release Something Else) with Charlie Parker’s:

The most immediate quality of Ornette’s rhythmic character is his force, his eagerness: He seems to virtually eat up the beat, with an eagerness that recalls the drive of Charlie Parker in Parker’s 1948 “Crazeology” session. If Ornette’s phrasing gives a first impression of spaciousness, like the wide open spaces of Texas, that impression is partly an illusion, for the broken phrases of bebop are reflected in his phrase shapes. In solos such as the fast “Chippie,” his phrases often begin in unpredictable places, and his accenting throughout the album is quite irregular; the beat gets turned around often, and sometimes it seems only an accident when accents fall on beats that are traditionally “correct.” These are features of Charlie Parker’s music, too, at its most radical, even if the rhythmic content of Ornette’s phrases is typically less detailed than Parker’s. While Ornette’s soloing captures much of Parker’s lyric spirit, the conflicts that arise in his solos are unlike Parker’s conflicts — Ornette’s lines are less mercurial, though they sometimes hint at emotion as extreme.

Unfortunately, this sort of probing scrutiny happens too rarely in this book; more often, Litweiler resorts to thin description of the music rather than analysis, an approach often conveying not much beyond superficialities about Coleman’s style and contributions. Litweiler’s commentary about the important Live at the Golden Circle recording, for example, is more along the lines of a brief record review than of a studied examination this book strives to be:

Certainly Ornette’s alto sax improvising is brilliant on these sessions, including his oom-pah-pah waltz variations in “European Echoes” and his fast, optimistic variations on “Dee Dee” (with its superbly simple theme) and “Faces and Places” (with its recurring rolling theme motive in his solo). “Dawn” and especially “Morning Song” are sweet ballads, indeed, among his best ballads. Amid many tempo changes by the group in “The Riddle,” Izenzon offers a witty bowed solo. “Snowflakes and Sunshine” alternates many brief improvisations by trumpet and violin over mostly fast tempos, usually separated by brief interludes of solo drums or bass; each of Ornette’s sections is relatively static in development, and wildly energetic.

If you’re reading this book to get a firm grasp of Coleman’s far-reaching musical concept, harmolodics, you’re in for a disappointment — through no fault of Litweiler’s, however, since neither Ornette nor his followers seem able to offer a clear explanation. Back in my teens, I remember reading the liner notes to Dancing In Your Head, searching for clues to this strange, thrilling music, only to come to a dead end with Coleman’s abstruse explanation of harmolodics: “This means the rhythms, harmonics and tempos are all equal in relationship and independent melodies at the same time.”

Trumpeter Don Cherry, Coleman’s musical companion, offers a bit more enlightenment in the liner notes to the glorious Rhino release of Ornette’s complete Atlantic recordings: the harmolodic concept, he says, “is one of the profound systems today for both Western and Eastern music. [...] When we would play a composition, we could improvise forms, or modulate or make cadences or interludes, but all listening to each other to see which way it was going so we could blow that way. Ornette’s harmony would end up being a melody and the original melody would end up being a harmony. So he could continue on that way to write for a whole orchestra, starting from the first melody which ends up being harmony to the harmonic melodies that come after the main theme.” Cherry goes further in a Down Beat interview excerpted by Litweiler: “If I play a C and have it in my mind as the tonic, that’s what it will become. If I want it to be a minor third or a major seventh that had a tendency to resolve upward, then the quality of the note will change.” At any rate, the chart shown in the book, about which Coleman told interviewer Art Lange “Play this over and over, and you’ll know everything you need to know about harmolodics,” is either reproduced wrong, which I doubt, or is out and out incomprehensible.

By my reckoning, Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, while an achievement, will not be the last word on this man and his musical revolution, in the way that Brian Priestley’s Mingus biography or Jack Chamber’s Milestones, to give two examples, are definitive. Despite some shortcomings, however, it is recommended reading for those who seek insight into this complex, fascinating, and unconventional figure. Litweiler writes with knowledge and affection for his subject, compiling information from numerous sources, detailing anecdotes that raise eyebrows. The Ornette Coleman who emerges from these pages is an uncompromising, guileless, rugged individualist living in a time when these traits aren’t necessarily universally admired nor richly rewarded. For now, Litweiler’s biography, the first book-length assessment of this — clichés be damned — living legend, is the only game in town.