Thursday, January 15, 2015

Uptown Funk, down with who???

After several years away I've returned to classroom teaching as a high school jazz and band teacher in great school district north of Boston.  I get to conduct a lot of really high level players in a jazz big band and combo, as well as teach improvisation and assist in a larger concert band.  I also get to teach a class which is now called Jazz in Society, and next year will be called Popular Music in American Society.  So, I get paid to talk about Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and Ray Charles and James Brown.  Pretty good gig...

We're currently at the end of the semester, a time where kids are overwhelmed, a million things are due, every virus known to humanity it making its way through the student body and synapses are not necessarily firing as fast as they could be.  So rather than try to teach bebop or Monk, I've been trying to get kids to think about music from different points of view.  And out of the sky comes...

Uptown Funk.  Bruno Mars and some white dude named Mark Ronson.  (though the single flips that order)

75% of my students knew the tune, which in this day and age counts as saturation.  I found the tune because I read Grantland, who published a bit about it and Ronson. (to be fair, Mark Ronson is actually a big-time producer, and one of the driving forces behind Amy Winehouse's monster hit album Back in Black

Even in this day and age, I found this tune and video astonishing how boldly and intentionally derivative this tune is.  It reminds me of several 1970s classical "post-modern" pieces I studied at Eastman that were basically remixes of canonical classical pieces played either for laughs or for cultural reassessment.   To wit (and I discussed this in some detail with my class):

- The tune is a bald-faced mash-up of Chic's "Le Freak" and the Time's "Jungle Love".  The first line of the lyric is a Scarface reference ("Michelle Pfieffer, that white gold").   Maybe the "Hallehujah" in the first bridge is a Ray Charles reference.  Okay, that might be stretching it, but... "Kiss myself I'm so pretty" is definitely a reference to Morris Day or James Brown, or both...

-  Visually, in the first minute the video is a smorgesbord of intentional references to the MTV of yesteryear.  The street setting recalls the iconic MJ "Way You Make Me Feel" video, the opening shot of the lower half of a hot woman recalls  ZZ Top's "She's Got Legs"  (or, pick any number of mid-80s rock videos that disembody women.  One of my female students pointed out sharply that you see quite a few hot women in the video, but only there bodies, never their faces.  Which of course is rather noxious sexist gesture, and another conversation) Those disembodies at about :50 call to mind a flapper, a vamp from an 80s video, and a "flygirl" from any number of rap videos circa 1991.)  Then you have a strobed shot of Ronson screaming, which invokes either Max Headroom or a couple of the groundbreaking Peter Gabriel videos circa "Sledgehammer".  The "fish-eye" shot of Mars and his posse was a staple of early Spike Lee movies and many a hip-hop video of the early 90's.  (The Roots skewered this and every other rap conceit in one of their first videos.  TWENTY YEARS AGO!  "What They Do" aged well.)

- Mars, with his pink sport jacket, recalls Don Johnson in Miami Vice.  Robson, with his shades and grey shirt, recalls Rick Ocesak in all of those iconic Cars videos.  Two of the backups in Mars' entourage particularly jumped out at me.  One is dressed almost exactly like a member of Run DMC (forgive me, I can't remember which one). Another, with his Kangoo and all black ensemble looks a hell of a lot like LL Cool J circa "Goin' Back to Cali".  I have no idea what the hair curlers bit means, but then again I didn't have MTV as a kid...

I could keep going, but I hope you get the point.  I talked about the tune to open a discussion about art, "signifiers" and cultural appropriation*.  The student presentation before this talk analyzed a tune that featured the great (white) cornetist Bix Biederbeck, who along with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver is one of the premier jazz brass players of the 1920s.  Biederbeck, who was white, first was attracted to jazz by the recordings of the "Original Dixieland Jazz Band", an all white outfit who for many good reasons continue to be controversial nearly 100 years after they released the first jazz record ever.  Any conversation about the ODJB or Biederbeck bring to the fore thorny issues of race and appropriation, cultural acceptance and creative freedom.  To me they embody Public Enemy's lyric about Elvis: heroes to many but they didn't mean S&*t to me.  

Here you have a white British producer and guitarist presenting a Hawaiian frontman and a black band playing a tune that is as boldfaced a rip-off of late 70s and early 80s booty-shaking music.  As bold an appropriation of (what Nic Payton calls) "BAM", Black American Music as I've ever seen.  (to be fair, to my mind and ears last year's poster child for this kind of work, "Blurred Lines", was worse in every way)  And yet I don't hate it- it's catchy, the groove is tight, and I think the appropriation is honest and meant to be as reverential as one can be in the marketplace.  But at the same time I can't bring myself to like it either- it's just too damn derivative.  You should've heard the snickers in the room when, after two minutes of this tune I stopped it and played "Jungle Love" for my students.  They caught on immediately.  Is this the future of pop music, clever but vapid mash-ups of something that once upon a time was incredibly funky?  

I have no answers, only questions.  Thoughts are appreciated.

*I realize that this song is not the first time this has happened- I we could have this conversation about Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" or Amy Winehouse or many other songs going back all the way to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  But there was something about the overload of bald-faced references in this song and video that really hit me.  The referencing is so thorough that it was almost overwhelming.  The difference with Bix Biderbeck (or Stan Getz, or Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis, or Peter Gabriel, or even John Mayer) is that while their debt to BAM is obvious and unplayable, they really worked to be creative artists in their own right, attempting with whatever level of success to pull their own voice out of their influences.  Here, I don't here any original voice, just a mash-up of what was before.

Monday, December 29, 2014

CDs of note, 2014

By now, every media of note in the country has published their "best CDs of 2014" list, because they care that folks read them.  Clearly, I don't;  I haven't written anything here in a great while, because life changed, and writing about jazz didn't seem nearly as important to me as it had in 2005.  Well, things change- I'm now teaching jazz for a living, something I certainly didn't see coming.  (more on that... eventually) So, once and a while, I intend to write here about music again.  And I figure a favorites of the year list is a good place to start...

Just to be clear, I use my language carefully- I just checked, and I've only heard 12 of the 50 CDs that made NPR's best of 2014 list.  (I think it's safe to say that that A Blog Supreme passed the Village Voice as the go to for jazz a couple of years ago.)  There are several CDs on that list that I'm excited to hear, and several that I don't give two sh&#*ts about. This is only a list of new music released in 2014 (so no Keith Jarrett reissue or the like). It's the music that moved me, as well as some general commentary.  So here goes, in no special order:

EDIT: This post may be revised because, quietly a NEW ORNETTE COLEMAN record came out.  Waiting for it to come... (h/t Hank Shteamer)

Taylor McFerrin: Early Riser: This was my favorite CD of the first half of the year, hands down.  It defies easy category, except maybe "hazy".  A fascinating, moody swirl of grooves and ambiance, held back only (ironically) by a start turn by Taylor's dad Bobby McFerrin.  But by far the most cohesive album (a concept that is sadly dying) I heard.

D'Angelo (and the Vanguard), Black Messiah: Read Nick Payton on this album- I don't agree with him (mostly), but as usual it's the right kind of provocative. And while it's certainly not at the level of Voodoo, and it may be overproduced (too many years in the making will do that...) it's still a high point of my 2014 listening.

Jason Moran, All Rise: A Joyous Elegy to Fats Waller:  The key word on this one for me is joyous- from the first horn hits it jumps out of the speakers, almost daring you not to dance.  The playing is great, the singing is (mostly) great, and it's just FUN.

Side note: Ethan Iverson touches on this in a recent post- the mixed critical response to this album, while pretty predictable, was frustrating.  I remember hearing Kevin Whitehead's review on NPR and having the hairs crawl on my back.  I got that feeling again when I read the sidebar attached to it on NPR's Top 50 Jazz list ("too much fat and too little Fats"?)  I don't care that critics don't like it, bit it  frustrates me that in looking for Waller, they miss the other well Moran and producer Meshell N'Degeocello are drawing from, Fela Kuti.  This album drips Fela, who, like Fats in his day, created a high point in rump-shaking music.  And those grooves are about as far from "smooth jazz" as you can be.  (OK, "Two Sleepy People" was way too sleepy, but you get one mulligan...) I found this oversight a little staggering, not that they didn't like it, but how wrong they got it.

Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, Landmarks: The last time I saw this band (too long ago!), I was struck by the way this band has come to create a particular sense of place in their music- so many of the guys here come from the deep south, and Blade is already a legend in New Orleans (and, I suppose, in every college music program too, but...)  But listen to this album (or Mama Rosa, or any of the live recordings on Youtube) and it feels like the bayou.  In a time when, due to the internet and the pace of life, it's easy to lose any specificity of place, to find it in such fantastic music is a gift.

Ambrose Akinmusure: the imagined savior is far easier to paint: I'll be honest, I heard his first CD, and his set at Newport two years ago, and the first thing I thought was "too much hype, not enough music."  I expected a guy like Christian Scott, like (sorry all, I love his blog too!) Nick Payton, who while a really good player and writer and thinker, would never outpace the hype.  I'm glad I gave him a second shot. This is a mature, fascinating, captivating record- bringing Becca Stevens and Theo Bleckman in to sing was a masterstroke, and the band is playing on a telepathic level.  I hope Ambrose is allowed to continue to experiment and grow and develop, and I'm rooting for a wildly different, equally fascinating record from him in the not-too-distant future.

Ron Miles, Bill Frisell, Brian Blade, Circuit Rider: I liked their first trio record a couple of years ago, I love this one.  Ron Miles continues to be, I think, one of the most slept on trumpeters on the planet. Blows a lot of guys who get a lot more hype (yes, including Ambrose, who I like) out of the water with his versatility, deep focused sound and phenomenal groove.  Bostonians, hear him with the Bad Plus (and the also amazing Tim Berne and Sam Newsome) in January doing Ornette Coleman's strange and wonderful Science Fiction music in January.

Bonus EP: Sam Newsome plays Monk and Ellington Live (on ITunes for 1.99, a steal!)  I first heard Sam on young lions recordings years ago, and didn't think much of it.  Then he started really studying, and playing, solo saxophone, and has created something dramatic and otherworldly here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Summer Jams 2013?

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine Dragons "On Top of the World"

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

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

Okay folks- thoughts?

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

the awkward Mitt Romney

And now, a word on politics.  If you know me at all, or read either of my blogs, you won't be the least bit surprised to know that I plan to vote for Barack Obama for president, as I did in 2008.  I'm not thrilled with his performance as president on many fronts, but he has faced unprecedented opposition, and has done some big things despite it.  That said, I am terrified of the prospect of a President Mitt Romney.  Not so much on policy grounds, though I don't like his policies either for the most part.

I had the opportunity to "meet" Romney twice at public events.  (I put that in quotes because I don't think one really meets a politician the way I might meet you at a coffeeshop.  But we shook hands.)  One was in 1998 at a City Year fundraiser (to their eternal credit, both the Romneys and Bain have been big City Year supporters since day one), and once in 2002 at an event for inauguration of the Senate at the Massachusetts State House.  The first time Romney wasn't running for anything, the second he was running for reelection as govenor.  I was performing on both occasions, so I had a chance to be the proverbial fly on the wall for much of the events.  

I've thought about both these days a bit since it became clear Romney would be the nominee, and what stands out to me to this day is how ridiculously awkward he was at both events.  He seemed to lack even the most basic "shmooze" skills that are central to politics at every level.  he was stiff, smiling a forced smile and holding himself at somewhat awkward angles.  And when his presumptave opponent for govenor came into the room in '02, they had an almost comically odd exchange, laughing too big and not exactly sure how to handle the cameras that were there.  

All of this came to mind last night when the clip surfaced that dominated the news this morning, with Romney saying basically that 47% of the American public are moochers.  It's not that he believes this that shocks me- a lot of Republicans do.  It's that he said it, and how he said it.  It was so coarse, so impolitic, not to mention so wrong.

And here lies my greatest concern with a President Romney- if he can't handle a roomful of small-time Massachusetts politicians with any semblance of grace, and if he can't open his mouth at a fund-raiser without putting a size 16 foot in it, what would he do negotiating with Democrats in Congress, or even worse, with the leaders of Russia or China or Pakistan, where there are clearly lives on the line?  For whatever reason, I don't think he has even basic people skills, and on that ground alone, regardless of his ideology,  he shouldn't be president.  Thanks for reading- thoughts most welcome.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

RIP Bob Brookmeyer

We lost a master yesterday. Bob Brookmeyer, who was a tremendous teacher long before I met him, and an even bigger influence when I got to work with him, passed away a few days from his 82nd birthday. There will be lots of worthy tributes in the press and the blogs this week, but I wanted to write the story of my relationship with Bob the musiciain, the teacher, and the man.

First, Bob was the first musician to make me care about big band music. I hadn't played with a big band until I got to college, and we were fed the usual diet of Basie, Thad Jones, Bob Mintzer, and (stiffly played) Duke Ellington. I got why it mattered (and see my hubris in hindsight), but I didn't care. Then, in my sophomore year in short succession, I heard “Hello and Goodbye”, “Ding Dong Ding”, and most importantly for me “KP '94”. In Bob's hands, the big band was as cutting edge a tool as a ginsu knife, and easily as relevant as the Lovano and Steve Coleman I was gorging on. (Of course, I found out later they both played for Bob in the Vanguard band...) To the end, his music was both careful and ecstatic, swinging hard and smart.

My senior year of college, we got word that Bob (a favorite of our department head, of course) was coming to perform with us for out last big band concerts of the year, playing two concerts of his music, mostly fairly recent material, including “KP '94”. All of us in the band were thrilled... and terrified. Bob's genius as a musician was nearly matched by his reputation as a, well, curmudgeon is a nice word. And none of us wanted to be embarrassed.

I remember the first rehearsal to this day- we had been shedding the ^$&# out of this music for months, and thought we were ready. Our director introduced Bob, he said something pithy, and then got up to conduct the first tune. His count off (we're used to the standard “1, 2, 1-2-3-4) went something like this: “va-da-va-DUH-ba-da DAH-ba-da-duh-va, DAHT, ZAT, ZUUUH- DAT!” By the end, he was shouting. We were so confused we didn't play. He counted the tune off with the sound and the intensity he wanted, and didn't let up for the rest of the run. We thought we were tight before he got there; we weren't close. He whipped us into shape in five days; I've not been the same musician after that.

I got to play for Bob in a small group during that run; he loved the tune we played and how we played it, so we became friendly. (The tune was by James Carney, and Bob and James became friends soon after that, helping set up Bob's 90s west coast quartet) I did a summer workshop with him, and we were in touch occasionally. In my last year in New York, I went to Bob's 70th birthday gig at the Vanguard with the big band there. Bob and I chatted, and I said I wanted to study with him at New England Conservatory. He said something like “we can make that happen” and he did; I enrolled at NEC, with a fair amount of scholarship money, that September.

This was the real beginning of my work with Bob as my teacher. I was anxious to get at all of what I saw as Bob's innovations, but all he wanted to talk about was “craft”- chord voicings, line resolutions, finishing phrases, the nuts and bolts of any kind of writing. I was frustrated, and I know he started to get frustrated too, but ultimately he was right. I wasn't nearly as skilled, or as ready, as I thought I was, and Bob firmly (but not meanly) reeled me in. I worked with him for two years; what I wrote in year one ranged from okay to crap, but in year two I wrote what I still feel is some of the best musical work I've ever done. And it wasn't just the stuff I brought to him for big band (when you worked with Bob, that's what you did)- it was small group tunes, music for voice and strings, even pop tunes. Bob made everything better.

In this time I got to know Bob the man; more than once I would go up to his house in New Hampshire to take a lesson, and after the lesson we would spend the rest of the afternoon and into the evening together. Mostly, Bob just told stories: of his days standing in awe of the Basie band, of playing with everyone (except maybe Duke Ellington, who I think he turned down when he called- long story). Of letting his vices get the better of him, landing him in rehab, and he thought, out of music forever. Then of his road back, both from his demons and into the world of music and then teaching music. In the 70s, finally clean and sober, Bob started from scratch and re-imaginied himself as a composer and player, listening to everything that had happened while he was in a haze- Coltrane and free jazz, but also all kinds of contemporary classical music, including Lutoslowski and Feldman, the two he mentioned most often to me. What came from this was perhaps his most fertile period as a writer. (My friend and fellow Brookmeyer buddy Darcy James Argue wrote eloquently about this period when we were working on what became the Behearer project) That by itself demanded my respect.

And as a teacher, he kept that restless quality control; he was opinionated, no doubt, but would listen to everything and try to make it better. And he was the consumate professional; no matter how hard he rode you in lessons or rehearsals (and he could be vicious), in concert he made everyone sound like the cat's meow.

I feel very blessed to have known and studied with Bob. The alumni of his studio are legendary at this point: Maria Schneider, Jim McNeely, Ted Nash, Darcy, John Hollenbeck, and on and on. But whether you went on in big bands or not, Bob changed you, no doubt.

After Bob retired and I stopped seriously writing music, I sadly lost touch with him, hearing things occasionally from friends and peers. That said, there was something nice about knowing that he was around and working, and that eventually I'd catch him again. More the fool me. I don't know the circumstances of his death, but I grieve for and with his fantastic wife Jan and their family. Bob certainly made me a better composer, but I find myself calling on his skills, his demands, his wisdom in many other places too. I hear Bob in how I coach my saxophone students, and his demands on me the composer and improviser unwittingly helped me prepare to create and sequence yoga classes, and to improvise my way out of jams there too. I am beyond grateful for the many ways that Bob Brookmeyer made me a better musiscian, and a better man. Godspeed Bob.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Newport 2011, part 1

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

Monday, February 14, 2011

Grammy's makeover?

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

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

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

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

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