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.

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!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Kelly’s Other Stuff

I also write about aspects of life (food, travel, food, and also travel) that aren’t quite so jazz geeky — check it out here: Kelly’s Other Stuff.

(Read the true story of my wife getting carjacked by a little old lady in the south of France, for example...)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bruce Johnstone • “A Simple Wish” transcription

From the recording House of Relics, recorded October 9, 2011.

Bruce Johnstone
A Simple Wish transcription
For 10 long years, two guys managed to keep Bruce Johnstone from being named the top baritone saxophonist in the world in Downbeat’s Readers Poll.

It wasn’t a plot: the two guys in question were Gerry Mulligan and Pepper Adams, and the fact that some newcomer from New Zealand could elbow everybody else out of the way and take the bronze — for ten years! — amid such illustrious company is, while perhaps surprising, entirely appropriate!

Bruce shared the bari podium with the two American heavies thanks to his own considerable strengths: a tart, instantly-recognizable sound, and an appealing and unhurried behind-the-beat time feel that was poised and in the pocket no matter the tempo (perhaps calling to mind Dexter Gordon — someone Bruce regularly locked horns with during his days in Copenhagen).

High school band geeks (like me!) first heard Bruce with Maynard Ferguson’s big band. Bruce very nearly steals the show on my favorite Maynard record, M.F. Horn 4 & 5: Live At Jimmy’s, whether swaggering and snarling through Stay Loose with Bruce, or battling the great Dutch tenorist Ferdinand Povel on Two For Otis, or taking an unexpected latin break on MacArthur Park!

(As one YouTube commenter put it, regarding Stay Loose With Bruce and the rest of the album: “One of the best bari solos ever recorded! I call Live At Jimmy’s ‘bari sax clinic’. Of course, I love Gerry, Pepper, Carney, et al, but this solo is just amazing. Oh yeah, I think there was a trumpet player in the band, as well.....”)

Bruce made a big impression on me. I was one of those subscribers who dutifully filled out and mailed in my Downbeat Readers Poll ballot every year — my alto-tenor-bari Holy Trinity was regularly Phil Woods, Sonny Rollins, and, of course, Bruce Johnstone! (Joe Farrell often got my soprano vote...)

Obviously, I’m thrilled to feature Bruce on my new recording, House of Relics! While I loved his work in Maynard’s band playing fiery tunes at ball-busting tempos, I wanted to showcase his kinder and gentler side: in live performances I’ve heard him prove himself to be a master balladeer, and I hoped to grab some of that for my record!

His performance on my tune A Simple Wish is all I could have hoped for: quiet, tender, and just plain lovely! I’ve mentioned elsewhere that transcriptions typically contain only about half of the “data” (at best!) that makes a solo great, and that applies here as well. Bruce’s articulations can't really be captured in musical notation: he’s a master at goosing or understating this or that note in a way that gives his lines lift and swing and momentum — Bruce’s notes are short or long or accented or ghosted in ways that defy standard notation. As I’ve done with other transcriptions in this blog, I’ve put in the “bigger picture” articulations: it’s up to you to listen to the recording and grab all the wholesome goodness that’s not on the page!

Bruce’s time feel also challenges transcription. It’s worth noting his effective use of quarter note triplets to convey the sense that he’s floating above the time, and also to provide rhythmic variety. What can’t really be expressed in notation is his groove, his habitual placement of notes on the back side of the beat. This is Big Boy & Girl stuff they don’t teach you in school. This transcription can only approximate Bruce’s free and easy way with the time — listen to the recording and play along to get a better sense of Bruce’s sophisticated approach to the pulse.

Don’t let these caveats intimidate you: have fun! Bruce’s solo in transcription is a lovely little etude with some deep musical wisdom behind it. Play along (and stay loose!) with Bruce in the recording and you’ll be getting a heavy lesson with one of the greatest and most recognizable bari players jazz has produced!

House of Relics is available on iTunes, from Amazon (CD or MP3), Bandcamp, & CD Baby.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Epic Gig Shot: Jazz In The Ruins @ Canalside

July 2, 2012. Left to right: Michael McNeill, Kelly Bucheger, Danny Ziemann, Tim Clarke, Darryl Washington. Photo by John Werick.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

House of Relics & Jazz in Buffalo

Left to right: Kelly Bucheger, Tim Clarke, Michael McNeill, Russ Algera, Danny Ziemann, & Bruce Johnstone.

Buffalo has always had a strong local jazz scene with its own distinct, no-nonsense vibe. Folks like Grover Washington, Mel Lewis, and drummer Frankie Dunlop, known for his work with Monk, came from here, and there’s even a regional school of muscular, tough-toned Italian-American saxophonists from Western & Central New York: Sal Nistico, Don Menza, Bobby Militello, Pat LaBarbera, and Sam Falzone, among others.

Today, younger players, often returning from academic jazz studies, and newcomers to Buffalo are bringing their own ideas and energy to the scene. House of Relics reflects these developments. Bassist Danny Ziemann, just finishing his undergrad studies at Eastman, and drummer Russ Algera represent the “youth vote” in the band, while the rest of us aren’t Buffalo natives: I’m from Minneapolis (I tell people I came here for the weather...), trumpeter Tim Clarke is from Oregon, pianist Michael McNeill from Rochester by way of Boston, and Bruce Johnstone, of course, hails from New Zealand!

Since more than half the band ain’t from around here, House of Relics is not, perhaps, an “indigenous” Buffalo record — but it IS emphatically a local record: it’s a document of the increasingly interesting and varied scene here.

I couldn’t be more proud of it, and I’m very happy to have it come out of this heart-on-its-sleeve city I love and call my home!

Available on iTunes, from Amazon (CD or MP3), Bandcamp, & CD Baby.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

House of Relics

Nineteen years ago, in Minneapolis, I wrapped up a CD release weekend with my beloved group The Illicit Sextet, got into a Budget rental truck filled with everything I owned, and drove to Buffalo, New York. Life is full of surprises, of course, and this wasn’t the original plan — it worked out this way after my very talented wife, straight out of grad school at the University of Minnesota, did too well in what was supposed to be her first, “practice” job interview.

For me, it was a perverse career move. At the exact culmination of years of work developing a band and building media relationships and cultivating club owners, I did the promotional equivalent of joining the witness protection program. Later that year, a few months after I’d left and due to exuberant critical response to the recording, The Illicit Sextet was voted “Best Jazz Group” in the Minnesota Music Awards. Doc Severinsen was on hand to present the award to those members of the group who’d opted not to move a thousand miles away.

The thing that bugged me most back then — and, for what it’s worth, a whole lot of stuff was bugging me! — was that I never got to see the CD in record stores, which was something I’d really looked forward to and thought would be cool.

(Nowadays, of course, just seeing an actual tangible existing neighborhood record store itself registers a jolt of surprise... And if it has a well-tended jazz section, well ... that’s along the lines of spotting a unicorn munching grass and pooping rainbows in your backyard.)

When I left Minneapolis, I was convinced that my best jazz days were behind me, and that I'd never again play with a group at that level. I was wrong. It turns out my best days were ahead of me — indeed, I’m smack dab in the middle of my best jazz days ever RIGHT NOW, here in Bee-Yoo-Tee-Full Buffalo, New York!

In fact, I’m delighted to announce I’m releasing a Brand New CD today -- and I'm excited to report that in the aftermath, I'm actually going to stay living right here in Buffalo rather than fleeing into the night. It’s a nice change of pace.

This new CD, House of Relics, the product of nearly 2 years of rehearsing, performing, and recording with this group, features nine fresh original compositions with an amazing band.

However, if I were you, I wouldn’t bother taking my word for it (“I mean, what’s he gonna say, that it’s stale tunes and a crummy band?!?”): if you’d like to draw your own conclusions, you can actually stream the Entire Ding-Dang Thing FOR FREE on my Bandcamp site to see if it’s for you or not.

I mean, I wouldn’t want you to buy the thing if it didn’t connect. But, if it does, sure: I’d be downright tickled, tending toward euphoric, if you were to purchase it!

Here’s where you can find it:

Check it out and see if it grabs you! And drop me a line if you have any comments or questions...

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Great Day In Buffalo

There was the potential for one hell of a band assembled behind the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

Folks from The Wisteria Initiative and the Shepherd House Restoration Committee staged a Buffalo version of the legendary “Great Day in Harlem” photograph (if you don’t know that celebrated picture, Google it and prepare to be amazed at the established and up-and-coming jazz luminaries of all generations somehow brought together on the stairs of a Harlem brownstone in 1958...).

I’m not going to name any of the names at yesterday’s event, because I’d inevitably forget to mention folks who really deserve mention — and some of my absolutely favorite players, complete heavies, weren’t able to be there — but I will say this: folks driving by on the Scajaquada a bit before noon saw gathered on the steps behind the Historical Society a sharply-dressed and well-coiffed (except for my fellow baldies) congregation of what makes Buffalo amazing — and I say this as an “outsider” who came here a couple of decades ago against my will!

This was a collection of world class talent and creativity. It was humbling to be amidst these folks who’ve excelled at the challenging and quixotic pursuit of excellence in jazz performance.

And here’s what I’m thinking ... Buffalo is like jazz: misunderstood and under-appreciated. But if you let it get under your skin, you WILL fall in love with it. I certainly have.

Meanwhile, here’s the deal with jazz ... folks who play it do so for one reason and only one reason: because they must!

They certainly ain’t in it for the money, or the, um, acclaim. There are far more sensible pursuits! But, alas, if you’re working to master this amazing and profound music — our country’s deepest and most important artistic contribution to the world, a unique cultural triumph that somehow is undervalued in the very land where it was created! — it’s only because you have no choice and can’t imagine doing otherwise! It’s grabbed you! It’s gotten under your skin!

And so these “jazz people” lined up at the Historical Society yesterday were really part of a self-selected family. They truly represent the best of Buffalo: people who aspire to improve themselves and express themselves and be part of an important legacy — worthy kin to those storied folks photographed in Harlem a little more than 50 years ago!