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 more or less by osmosis, snuck into my brain by record covers: 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 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.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

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.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Modem Jazz: Riding On A Rec.Music.Bluenote

In 1995, about a year before a couple of grad students at Stanford started a project they’d eventually call “Google” (the previous year, two other Stanford grad students renamed their own project: “David and Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web” would henceforth be called “Yahoo”), I pitched an idea to the quarterly jazz magazine I freelanced for: howzabout an article on this amazing online discussion group I was a part of, called

Back then, the internet was shiny and new for most folks. Up to that point, if you weren’t in academia, unfettered internet access was 1) difficult to achieve and 2) hardly worth the bother: once I hook my computer up to this internet, what exactly do I do with it?

For me, accessing RMB meant unplugging the phone and hooking up the modem, initiating the sequence of blips and blops and subdued screams and incantations the modem would selflessly endure to establish the connection, and then ... waiting. The connection was painfully slow, subject to frequent interruptions where I’d have to start all over again, and liable to enrage my normally patient spouse, who’d regularly try to call home in this pre-cell phone era only to be infuriated by the never-ending busy signal.

Why the heck did I bother? Read below to find out.

There are two things I find especially notable in this 17-year-old piece. First, it foreshadows big changes in the online world and in society in general — there’s even a hint of the emerging “Us vs. Them” politics that have helped make modern life suck more than it needs to.

Meanwhile, I’m struck that many of the squabbles and brouhahas and kerfuffles that would momentarily rile up the RMB world look pretty damn familiar in its modern offspring like Sax On The Web: newbies (a term helpfully defined in the article) are still annoying; people sometimes seem to just plain want to argue; online anonymity can still encourage loutish behavior. It remains true that on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

One last thing: in its day, RMB was flat-out glorious, and it saddens me to visit nowadays. They’ve trashed the joint. It’s not like visiting a faded Rust Belt city — it’s more along the lines of taking a stroll through Chernobyl: don’t breath the air, and be aware that anyone sticking around must be nuts. You probably shouldn’t stay long...

This article appeared in
Midwest Jazz Fall 1995 (Vol. 2, #3),
an Arts Midwest publication.
Reprinted with permission.

For your consideration, the following Twilight Zone episode:

Dad’s in the den, grooving to Miles’s Live At The Plugged Nickel — he’s on his third disc, only five more to go. Mom’s got Trane on the headphones: she’s brushing up on his ’61 European tour with Eric Dolphy, listening to some bootleg recordings that came in the mail just today. Junior is in the basement, practicing his alto sax — Cannonball is his hero (he assumes “Kenny G.” is a reference to Kenny Garrett). Little Sis is in the living room pecking out “Maiden Voyage” on the piano — she doesn’t remember the B section, so she’s just repeating the A section over and over — when Fred, the next door neighbor, rings the doorbell. He wants to borrow Mingus At Antibes; it seems his daughter took his copy off to college.

Eerie, isn’t it? In fact, it makes your flesh crawl: a world where they all love jazz!

Now back to reality: your spouse is lovingly tolerant of your idiosyncratic taste in music, and will remain so as long as you keep receipts of recent CD purchases carefully out of sight. Domestic tranquillity is preserved through a simple agreement: if you’re going to listen to “that Threadgill person,” you’ll use headphones. Your next door neighbor, who oohed and aahed when he first saw all of your CDs, was surprised to discover he’d never heard of any of those artists.

Of course, as “jazz people” we’re in the minority. However, while we may not be in every household, or even on every block, we know where to find one another: at a downtown club where a local quartet is playing, or in a nearby university music department, where talented kids smitten by this deep and challenging music try to emulate the masters.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to many of us, a whole community has sprung up that might be straight out of our Twilight Zone scenario: every resident is a stark, raving jazz fan, ready with almost no provocation to discuss the relative merits of Booker Ervin, Ornette Coleman, Lee Morgan, Steve Lacy, Lennie Tristano, Charles Gayle, Dexter Gordon, Keith Jarrett, and countless others. Here, the word on the street might concern the best sounding reissues of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. Neighbors consult one another across picket fences: does one really need to own the Monk Riverside box? You might get the impression that most residents know the phone number of Cadence Records by heart.

This “town” goes by the ungainly name of (RMB for short), and to visit you need a computer and a modem.

RMB is a part of the massive Usenet system, a vibrant electronic meeting place where literally tens of thousands of people from around the world discuss topics as diverse as French culture, knitting, arthritis, low-fat cooking, kayaking, home beer-brewing, soap operas, and Star Trek.

And on RMB, of course, jazz.

Each of these focused discussion groups on Usenet is called a “newsgroup,” encompassing a collection of messages (“posts”) on various sub-topics (“threads”) within the general category.

RMB got its start back in 1987, when a couple of music enthusiasts running electronic mailing lists on jazz and blues joined forces, creating the newsgroup to focus on those two related musical genres. (Recently, with some controversy, blues fans who want to discuss blues-and-nothing-but-blues-dammit have split off from RMB, creating

In the years since, RMB has grown to become a thriving virtual community, a righteous place for its worldwide devotees where jazz information, commentary, and camaraderie are shared. On any given day, one might find general discussion of jazz history and current issues; appraisals of specific artists; record reviews; discographies; technical discussions on music theory, practice routines, and instrumental technique; club listings and tour schedules; jazz festival updates; performance reviews; discussions of jazz books, magazines, and radio; and even listings of jam sessions.

To understand what information is found on RMB, you have to understand who contributes. The RMB community is not as diverse as the “real world” — these individuals are not only drawn to jazz: they also have computer knowledge and access to Usenet. Consequently, computer techies and people at universities are perhaps over-represented, though this demographic is rapidly changing as commercial on-line services begin to provide their users with real Internet access.

Participants on RMB may be roughly broken down into three “factions”: musicians, scholars, and enthusiasts. (There’s actually a fourth group emerging: music industry types, sometimes operating undercover. We’ll save discussion of them for a future article.)

The large number of musicians on RMB run the gamut from novice to pro, with local heroes and national names also involved. Not long ago, saxophonist Steve Coleman explained his practice strategies, sharing insights he’d gained from folks like Von Freeman.

The musician contingent insures that music theory is a daily part of the menu, addressing burning issues like what to play on a minor ii-V7-i progression, the use of the phrygian mode on Miles’s Flamenco Sketches, or how to build a Super Locrian scale.

Music scholars abound as well in the RMB universe. Noted Mingus and Ellington authority Andrew Homzy, of Concordia University in Montreal, recently sang the praises of reissues of the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band, and helped to clarify the precedents for the chord changes to Take The A-Train. Eric Nisenson, author of Ascension: John Coltrane & His Quest, offered valuable insight on a discussion of Trane and LSD that stemmed in part from his book.

The jazz enthusiasts who are not players run the gamut from those with a casual interest to those who’ve devoted intensive study to the music over the years, becoming scholars of the music in their own rite.

RMB provides a nurturing environment that brings these three groups together, allowing each to learn from the other, enhancing every participant’s understanding of the art form. Marc Sabatella, a pianist and software engineer respected for his knowledgeable posts and wise voice on a variety of jazz topics, is perhaps one of RMB’s “stars.” He describes how the newsgroup encouraged his musical growth:

“RMB has helped me move from a more traditionalist standpoint to where I am today. Recommendations for specific Anthony Braxton albums have helped introduce me to a man whose music I otherwise would probably have ignored; ditto David Murray and Carla Bley. Don Pullen I had discovered on my own, but most of my other jazz fan friends ridiculed him, so I think the collective support of RMB was important to me there as well.

“In general, I have probably gravitated musically toward what I perceive as the center of RMB taste, which is considerably ’left’ of the center of the general ’jazz’ public’s taste.”

While RMB has expanded his jazz horizons, Sabatella, who has developed a highly-regarded jazz primer that he plans to release on CD-ROM, sees RMB as having some potential “practical” benefits for his musical career as well: “I value what my ‘fame’ on RMB might mean for my career. I expect it will generate sales for the CD-ROM version of my primer, and that if I decide to go touring, it will help get me gigs. It has already gotten me a few extra attendees at some of my performances, including the Denver correspondent to Cadence, which has in turn garnered me some nice write-ups....”

Mark Ladenson, a professor of economics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, is an erudite commentator on jazz whose reports on the Chicago Jazz Festival appear annually in Marge Hofacre’s Jazz News. His photographs of jazz luminaries can be seen in almost any issue of Cadence. While he’s not a musician or musicologist, his knowledge of jazz is disciplined and extensive. For him, RMB is an informational gold mine:

“There are some very good things on RMB. Someone posted a good obit on Woody Shaw. Through RMB I got a definitive answer to the use of the pseudonym ‘Hen Gates,’ which Dizzy used on the famous Koko session with Bird; later his pianist, James Forman, used it as a nickname.”

For Bill Kenz, a government documents and reference librarian at Moorhead State College in Minnesota, RMB has brought about some valuable collaborations:

“Of particular importance to me has been the time I’ve spent putting together discographies or helping other compilers. Fellow RMBer Patrice Roussel and I will have our Steve Lacy discography published this year — or so says the publisher! A modified form of it is already included in Steve Lacy’s book Findings. I think this sort of activity is truly helping the cause.”

Sometimes people who’ve “met” on RMB become “real world” friends, as Kenz relates:

“Through RMB, I got a note from someone at Bryn Mawr who was interested in something I posted regarding fusion. He e-mailed me for further info. We continued to correspond, and when a library convention was held in Philly, I was invited to stay with his family. He and his wife are librarians, so we attended the convention together, and also visited a fair number of record stores! I’d have never known these people without RMB!”

While RMB is still a community brought together by its love for jazz, an influx of new arrivals from some of the commercial services is giving it growing pains. Some of this can be attributed to the typical mistakes of “newbies,” an occasionally disdainful term used for newcomers to the Internet who perhaps haven’t learned proper “netiquette” yet, or who make bonehead errors like posting the same message ten times. These newcomers threaten the almost intimate sense of family that has developed at RMB.

While some of the underlying antagonism felt toward the newbies can be attributed to resistance to change among some RMB old-timers, a few of these recent arrivals really do have a hard time making friends and influencing people: witness the fellow from America On-Line who dismissed postings he disagreed with as “venal tripe.”

Of course, even before this massing of new refugees onto the RMB shores, there were sporadic family fights. Sabatella recounts one early issue that still occasionally surfaces today, when practicing musicians and knowledgeable enthusiasts come to disagreement:

“I got into a huge argument with another RMBer on the subject of Wynton Marsalis, whose music he dismissed as ‘nothing new.’ I challenged him, observing that as a non-musician he might not be equipped to appreciate how Wynton’s approach to standards might be subtly but qualitatively different from, say, Clifford Brown’s — so that while he might not have heard anything new, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing there. This quickly was misrepresented as ‘Marc Sabatella says that only musicians are entitled to opinions,’ and for a while a lot of people disliked me.”

Once upon a time, those two words, “Wynton Marsalis,” were a surefire way to stir up trouble: arms were drawn and battles waged. Nowadays the “Wynton” topic area seems exhausted, supplanted by two new (but related) words: “Stanley Crouch.”

There are plenty of other topics that in recent days have engendered unfriendly fire. One rancorous example regards the “racial ownership of jazz,” with some claiming jazz as an African music rather than an American one (leading some to counter, tongue in cheek, that by this logic baseball is a European game). As in society in general, topics dealing with race matters often have great potential to frustrate and inflame, as an ongoing discussion on racism toward white jazz musicians has shown.

Two other recent bench-clearers have been the suggestion of plagiarism in Miles’s autobiography, and, cough-cough, second-hand smoke in clubs.

Sabatella notes the increase of controversy on RMB:

“The more politically-oriented discussions — such as the ones on racism, smoking, and a recent one on NEA funding — are fairly new. To me, it seems more or less consistent with the general polarization of American society into ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ camps (although I think of it more in terms of ‘libertarian’ versus ‘socialist’) that has occurred over the last four or five years.... I think that the recent increase in these type of arguments in RMB is just a reflection of the fact that RMB is starting to resemble society at large: it is no longer limited to a few computer science grad students who are totally into jazz, but instead has many people from more diverse backgrounds dropping in and out of discussions....”

As Kenz puts it, “it once was more like a small group of people sitting around chatting; now, it’s like we’re in a football arena and everyone’s shouting at each other.”

Sometimes, Kenz notes, the regular influx of new people means the same stale questions are posted over and over again: “It seems that more and more jazz ‘novices’ are on-line, and they ask a lot of those basic kinds of questions. This is fine, but how often do I really want to answer those ‘what are the 5 best jazz LPs’ or ‘I heard about Miles Davis — which CD should I buy’ kinds of queries? Since my profession is the provision of information, I don’t get upset by those asking for this basic kind of stuff: I just let others answer!”

On the other hand, he points out, new folks on RMB mean fresh perspectives on jazz: “With the increase in RMBers, there’s been an increase in the number and kind of experiences discussed. I enjoy reading about peoples’ reactions to hearing Coltrane at the Village Vanguard in 1961, or someone who heard Art Pepper in the mid ’50’s.... You’d never learn about this without RMB. It’s amazing what people know, and RMB has helped bring these experiences to a big audience. It’s also great to have some musicians I really respect, like Elliot Sharp and Richard Tabnik, on-line — and I only found out about them through RMB.”

In this way, Kenz sees RMB as an alternative to more “mainstream” sources of jazz information: “RMB has been a boon for me and lots of others I know. I can hardly read the typical jazz press anymore. I cringe reading Downbeat and the other more popular magazines like Jazziz. I know how silly and inaccurate they often are.”

Kenz says that RMB also helps him overcome geographic isolation: “For me, stuck out here in Moorhead, where Garth Brooks and Boston rule, RMB provides a sense of balance. I’ve gotten to ‘know’ many people whom I’d have otherwise never met. Also (and I’m not trying to brag), I have so many recordings and books and articles, it’s nice to be able to help people with things, including taping, copying liners, etc.”

So, despite the occasional squabbling, RMB remains a place that brings together people with a unique interest, knowledge, and love for jazz. Says Sabatella: “I think it’s great to have a forum with so many other people who are very interested in jazz. It is comforting just to be able to share with others my own love for the music. While I have some friends locally who I can talk to, their range of experience isn’t as broad, so there isn’t much new to talk about.”

Perhaps Sabatella sums up the group for many of us: “It’s a major part of my life, and I can hardly imagine being without it!” While RMB may be an atypical community, it’s not a scary Twilight Zone locale after all — in fact, for numerous dedicated jazz fans, it’s nearly home!