Friday, June 30, 2006

Holding pattern

I'm suffering from a severe case of brain block today. I did finish Decade of Nightmares yesterday, but I need a minute yet to chew on it. Will comment on Monday, hopefully wrapping up my 70s/Wynton posts, for now.

In the meantime:

critic Doug Ramsey's blog, on abuses of jazz and the English language. The one English abuse that drives me crazy, that I didn't see there- "most unique", "very unique", "extremely unique", etc. You can't modify unique, dammit, that's why it's unique.


Good friend and inspiration Ran Blake is on MySpace, (A sign of the apocolypse, I'm not sure) The music he posted is well worth the trip

Monday, June 26, 2006

Theatre of the absurd, seaside edition...

From the "did I really see that?" department of Cruise Ship X:

-We have our own small contingent of Socceroos (Aussie fans) on board Cruise Ship X, and watching a World Cup match with them is a sight to behold. Like a lot of Americans, they're not espcially tuned in to the nuances of the game (contrast with, well, just about every other nationality on the ship). Which doesn't stop them from going bonkers while watching- screaming at everything, up and down out of their chairs, a lot of yelling at the ref, etc. (And remember, this is a lifelong Red Sox fan talking). Oh, and they were sober- it was the middle of the day, and most of us still had to work. They're playing Italy as I speak-we have a big Italian contingent on board. I wish I were watching them right now- the fans, not the game. Though I'm sure that will be fun too. (EDIT- as anyone follwing the Cup knows, the Socceroos lost to Italy on a phantom foul call in the box, one of the most eggregious pieces of bad officiating I've seen in awhile. A win for Italy, a loss for soccer. At this point, Ukraine is the only team left I'm really rooting for- family ties- and Italy is the only team I'm rooting against...)

-Between ships and life in the arts, you get used to seeing, well, quirky people. But this one still got me- one of my new colleagues talks to his food while he spoons it out of the dinner buffet. Talks to it: "Well, you look like a great piece of chicken. And how about you? And don't you pineapple look great today..." In a room full of people, no less. I've never seen the likes of it. Have you, Mr. Computer Keyboard?

Open mouth, infert footh

In light of new information, revisions are necessary. Or, a great big, "ooops."

Thanks, Darcy, for taking me to the mat for glaring holes in my late '70s album list (See comments on that post). In many cases, I had my dates mixed up (for some reason I thought the Kenny Wheeler ECM records, "Native Dancer" and Old and New Dreams happened later than they did. And I just dropped the ball on some stuff- Body Meta, Soap Suds, the killin' Mingus Changes records). Some of the other albums he mentions I don't think have aged well, so I hope he'll agree to disagree. A new list of "need to buys" would include all of the above, except the Changes records, which I own already. I feel silly.

And please note I just said "we have to consider the possibility..." I certainly don't feel qualified to either deify or condemn any era of music or art- that's not the job of a musician, or a critic for that matter. Certainly not the 70s, where in case you can't tell I have to claim a fair bit of ignorance. But the fact remains that the musical neocons of the '80s didn't come from a vacuum- I for one would like to know why. Other theories, or comments on mine are most welcome...

Also, I'm currently reading "Decade of Nightmares", the Phillip Jenkins book Dave Douglas mentioned in his original post. Recommended; it's fascinating- the picture he paints of the 1970s (culture at large, so far music has been mentioned only in passing, jazz not at all) is far bleaker, and far more absurd than the one in my head, which surprised me. I think there's more in his book that's relevant here- but I want to finish the book first.

Friday, June 23, 2006

degeneration X

As promised, I have been chewing on Dave Douglas' post about a recent history of post-war jazz/improvisational music/creative improvised music/whatever. (For simplicity, I'll say "jazz" in quotes. Duke didn't like the word much,yet another way he was ahead of his time.) Here goes...

First, thanks to Dave for putting this question on the table. I think this is a question that confronts a lot of us in my generation, those jazz musicians who were growing up while the “young lions” were the rage in jazz, and since moved beyond that paradigm (or at least tried to). This is probably going to be several posts, and I’m not going to pretend to be thorough. I don’t know if one unbiased history of anything is ever possible, but many people attacking a history from many angles often produces an fairly accurate mosaic.

To that end, I think it’s important to ask this question of as many people who were actually there as we can, players and fans, critics and thinkers, especially as too active at that time pass on.

Dave asks a huge question, the question of post-war "jazz", and why it went down the way it did. Inside are a hundred smaller questions, that perhaps can add up to a whole. And at the outset, let me say that I’m somewhat hamstrung by the simple fact that I wasn’t there. I was five when the seventies ended, and my most sophisticated listening experience in 1980 was with a Sesame Street LP on a toy record player. There was certainly music around the house; my parents first date was at the Boston Symphony (they’ve been subscribers ever since) my dad has been a jazz buff since high school, and I remember going to young people’s concerts and the like. I think these factors did influence my future life as a “jazz” musician and composer, but I wasn’t really paying any attention then.

(Aside: I’ve heard that there is at least one history of the loft scene in the works- anyone know anything. Also, Allan Chase has started teaching a great course at NEC called “Jazz Styles: The Avent-Garde”, which I’m told is great, and covers the loft scene especially well. Of course, he started teaching it the year after I finished.)

The bit in Dave’s post that immediately speaks to me is here:

“The wild experimentation of "the sixties" (idealized version circa 2006) caused a backlash and a retreat to "safer" territory that threatens to completely obliterate memory of the wonderful music that happened.”

If we can agree on that statement (and I certainly do), then: What caused the backlash? What was it in the culture of jazz that allowed Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch, Martin Williams et al to define (or redefine) the music in a much more conservative direction in the 1980s? (that’s an overstatement, I know, but not a wild overstatement) I’m particularly interested in the period from 1974 (which Dave christens, fairly enough, the end of sixties jazz) until 1981, when Wynton begins to record as a solo artist.

(Side note 2- I’m curious about Stanley Crouch’s transformation from loft scene drummer to an intellectual pillar for musical neocons. How did that come to be- did he have a sort of Bizarro Road to Damascus moment? Did the fact that his own career as a player never took off play into it? Or is there something else? I’ve often wondered.)

First, let’s look at the big picture. I think you can look at in the late 70’s as a best of times, worst of times moment for jazz.

Worst of times: A lot of popular music in the ‘60s as Dave defines them (’65-’74)- Hendrix, Cream, the Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles, etc. etc.- was music that was on some level experimental and improvisational. That dovetails well with a jazz sensibility; it’s not a giant leap for a casual listener from “Sunshine of Your Love” or “Stand” to, say “Jack Johnson” or “Science Fiction”. And the amorphous, unscripted nature of early FM radio facilitated this kind of crossover.

Fast forward to 1978. Disco and glam rock are kings. FM radio has been reigned in, not to the Clear Channel levels of today, but it has been formatted and tamed. (For a great account of the history of pop radio, especially in relation to disco, see Fredric Dannen’s great book Hit Men) It’s a lot bigger leap for the casual listener from Kiss to Air than it was from Cream to Miles. The winds of popular culture were blowing in a way that wasn’t as friendly to the vanguard in 1978 as they were in 1972. And it’s not just in music. Think about important, at least somewhat popular films of the early ‘70s- MASH, Godfather, Clockwork Orange, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 2001. Late 70’s- Star Wars, Jaws, Animal House. See a little difference? (Overstatement, certainly. But work with me)

Second, as Dave mentioned, Miles retired, and Ellington and Armstrong died. There was no one present in jazz who could replace them in the public imagination. There were many, many great leaders present in the music, but none who combined musical talent and personal aura to carry them into the public sphere at anything close to the level of any of the three we lost. That’s not anybody’s fault, certainly, but it can’t be overlooked. And who’s the next person to come along able to command the public eye in that way? Wynton. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

On the other hand, the best of times. Some of the great names in jazz were making fantastic music- on “pop” projects. Think about the lineups both live and in studio in the ‘70s. Steely Dan- Wayne Shorter, Steve Gadd, the Breckers, Steve Erskine, etc. Joni Mitchell- Wayne, Jaco, Erskine, Brecker, Don Alias, et al, and also the LA Express band. Herbie with Stevie Wonder. Brecker’s amazing solo on Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy”. Phil Woods with Billy Joel. The original SNL house band. Joe Henderson tours with Blood, Sweat and Tears. And on, and on.

Neither of these two developments- narrow tastes and radio play, and big money commercial work- is particularly friendly to creating the kind of audience for creative music that existed five years before. So there’s one possible answer, or part of it.

However, I think there were some more local issues that also affected “jazz” in the late 70’s in such a way as to allow the musical neoconservative thrust ascent we saw in the ‘80s. But that’s my next post- stay tuned.

degeneration X part 2, or the hole in my record collection

Continued from above (I hope...)

I like my records collection, and am some proud of it. I think most musicians are. While it’s not comprehensive, I think I own a lot of great music from most periods of “jazz”, whatever that is. And I think I own a lot of the records that teachers and peers tell you that you’re “supposed to” own as you grow in this music- Kind of Blue, the Okeh Ellington, Shape of Jazz to Come, Hot Fives and Sevens, etc. So in considering this question of post-Vietnam jazz, I looked at my collection to see what jazz records I have from ’74-’79, and which ones I actually still listen to and like? What I came up with- Pat Metheny’s “Bright Size Life”, Ebenhart Weber’s “Later That Evening”, the Joni-Jaco recordings (jazz in my book), “Conference of the Birds”, and a few Keith Jarrett recordings, particularly the European and American quartet records. It took me a good couple of hours to compile that short list. (What’s the date on Vanguard Band’s “Music of Bob Brookmeyer” and the Haden Liberation Music records? They’d be there.) My “still have to buy” list from that period- Hempill’s “Dogon AD”, Braxton’s ’74 solo saxophone record, Oregon, “Air Lore”, and Lacy’s “Evidence”. (What’s the date on Gil Evans’ “Svengali” and “Hendrix” records? If they fit the time frame, they’re there too.)

Part of this is due to personal taste, certainly- I just don’t like Return to Forever, and am not as big a Weather Report, Brecker, or Chet Baker fan as many of my peers. I’m not dogging them; just not my thing. And you could (and I hope you do) bombard me with omissions. But even so, I can’t think of another seven-year period in the history of jazz where my list is that short. My list of “still have to buy” from ’67 to ’74, or ’36 to ’43, hell, even ’87 to ‘94 is longer than that favorites list.

My point- we have to at least acknowledge the real possibility that, especially in the jazz’ mainstream, where culture at large is most likely to see, hear and buy the music, the period following Miles retirement was at least somewhat fallow. Dave’s list of important artists, a great list is sorely lacking musicians working American musicians who could safely be described as in the mainstream. (By contrast, great jazz artists who I adore working from ’74 to ’81 who are missing, rightly, IMHO, from that list- Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Elvin Jones, Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans, Freddie Hubbard, Ornette Coleman, Art Farmer, J.J. Johnson, Art Blakey. I could add a dozen more easily, but there is a bloody jazz hall of fame, and I can’t think of a single memorable record from any of them in that period. And I think at least five of them made great records in the seven years following this stretch.) That hole allowed Wynton, an very accomplished technical player with a style that falls clearly in the jazz mainstream, to walk in as the great black hope.

Which of course begs the question, if this is the case, why were the late ‘70s so bad for jazz. Again, I wasn’t there, but hindsight being 20/20, these are a few of the factors I’d consider:

Recording technology and trends did not favor the sound of jazz, especially of acoustic music. When I think of jazz records in the 70s, especially “straight-ahead” albums (VSOP, Hubbard, and Henderson solo records, etc.) I think of over-separation, overly wet post-production, acoustic instruments that don’t sound the least bit acoustic, and hyper-separation that bares no resemblance how you’d hear this music live. And personally, I hate it. This sound may serve Queen and Kiss well, but I don’t think it does good things for acoustic music. (The shining exception of this era is ECM records, which either get better sounds or make these techniques work in the music’s favor. But I’ll get there.)

Wynton and his ilk went out of their way to put in their album notes “recorded without the dreaded bass direct”. I don’t blame them; from a pure sound point of view, I’ll take “Black Codes” or “Royal Garden Blues” over a VSOP record any day, though the playing on the latter may be more interesting. And don’t underestimate the impact of the sound of a given recording; I think there are some Blue Note recordings in the ‘60s that would be much more obscure than they are if they didn’t have that classic “Blue Note Sound”. Recording quality and style matters. A lot.

The aforementioned loss of Miles, Duke and Louis Armstrong. Bears repeating.

Drugs. An unpleasant topic, certainly, but I think it’s safe to say that many prominent musicians, who were still fairly young, lost productivity and quality of work to serious drug addictions in the 70s. Miles was the most obvious, and Woody Shaw the most tragic, but I can think of several others offhand. I think we all can. (I’d rather not name names, if it’s all the same to everyone. But I could.) This isn’t the only time it’s happened in the music, but imagine a clean ___________, _________, and _________ making records in 1976, and we at least have a different discography of the ‘70s.

As previously mentioned, the pop sensibility of 1978 was a lot less friendly to a lot of the inherent aesthetics of jazz- subtlety, group interplay, spontaneity in performance, etc.- than the pop sensibility of 1972. Think about the jazz that succeeds commercially in the late 70’s- it tends to lean more toward the anthemic (Metheny, RTF, Headhunters) than music of five years prior would. And these artists, intentionally or not, usher in “smooth jazz”, which is easy to have a backlash against. Again, enter the young lions.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that commercial considerations should be the only, or a primary means of evaluating any music. That’s artistic suicide. But I don’t want to pretend that sales don’t matter. The last forty years have seen the market share defined as “jazz” dwindle from something like 10% of domestic record sales to something like 2%. We can’t let that dictate how we define great art, but we can’t pretend that it’s unimportant. (My dad, who teaches two dead languages, another niche field, likes to say that academic fights are some of the fiercest you’ll ever see, because the stakes are so tremendously low.) Speaking of which…

The rise of jazz education. What it now the IAJE was founded as the NAJE in 1968, and by the mid-‘70s you had several established, big-name jazz programs in major universities- North Texas, Indiana, Berklee, Eastman, etc- influencing the music on some level, and certainly the musicians who made it. The Notre Dame Jazz Festival was firmly entrenched as something of a kingmaker for major college programs. (To wit, trumpeter Allan Vizzutti still mentions his awards there on the cover of his method books) In the mid-’70s Jamie Abersold starts publishing his “How to Improvise” series. In many ways, this was the era of the One O’Clock Band, a model of jazz education built around a big band playing a core repitiore of late Basie, Kenton, Herman, and Buddy Rich charts, often but not always at a very high technical level, with an aesthetic of “higher, faster, louder”. This education tended to shortchange pre-bop styles of jazz (notably Ellington) in favor of a bebop and post-bop language, especially Bird and Trane. The better of the players in these programs then graduated into the touring bands- Fergeson, Rich, Herman, etc.- and then eventually landed teaching gigs in academia themselves. Oh, and they were overwhelmingly white, in a music that has been historically predominantly African-American. At this time in American history, the barely post-Civil Rights era, race is a very open wound. (I know this is a gross overgeneralization- Max Roach, Bunky Green and Yuseff Lateef and other prominent black musicians were involved in jazz ed very early on, but they weren’t the majority by a long shot. Still aren’t, for better or worse.)

This is a huge topic, which I can’t do justice here. But in this context, can you see how the building of a (disproportionately white) jazz education establishment would enable the emergence of a strong (predominantly black) conservative movement in the music? The music has lost its way, the cry goes, fusion corrupting some of the great ones on one hand (Wynton often called Miles a “great general who turned to the other side”), and a new, mostly white institution teaching a corrupted, impure version of jazz on the other. And, this movement has an automatic audience of eager, committed, talented, young people looking for direction- the students (and often the teachers) at these schools!

This dovetails into the thorny issue of race. My favorites of the ‘70s list up there- most of those records have two things in common- most are on ECM, a European label- the American quartet is the exception- and most of the leaders, and musicians in fact, are white. (obvious exceptions- Braxton, Dewey Redman w/Keith, Air) I can’t say that about any other era in jazz, at least in my collection.

I don’t want to overstate anything here, since it’s such volcanic ground, but I think I can say that ECM is the first time in the history of jazz where a non-American voice has had such a huge impact, both commercially and aesthetically, on jazz, always considered an American music. (And as has been documented, the amount of influence ECM producer Mannfred Eicher had and has over the recordings ECM releases is substantial, at least on par with Teo Macero and Ahmed Ertigun in their heydays.) And the recognizable faces of ECM at its’ heyday were the Pat Metheny Group and Keith Jarrett, both white musicians who Caucasian influences- Jarrett the classical piano tradition, Metheny American folk music- are obvious.

Here’s where Wynton comes in. He’s handsome, he’s clean, he’s black, he’s photogenic, he’s articulate. He presents jazz with an intellectual underpinning that links what he’s doing to a recognizable, very teachable, and very American musical lineage, and advocates a jazz canon that dovetails with the curricular needs of jazz educators. He puts Ellington and Armstong, the two fallen giants, at the forefront of what he’s doing, and goes head to head with Miles, the third, in very public controversies. He has a great press machine, thanks in no small part to his huge record label. Oh, and like him or not (and in case you can’t tell, I fall closer to the “nots”), he plays his ass off.

Wynton achieved an enormous amount in redirecting the course of jazz in the ‘80s in a more conservative direction. A lot of it was certainly due to his own enormous personal energy, talent and stamina, no doubt. But he also walked into a moment that favored him for reasons he had little to do with. The right person at the right time, I’m equally convinced. So there’s one answer, or at least a part of one. Fire away.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Spinning backwards

I'm on port manning this week, which means I can't leave the ship, so blogging will be sorely limited. In the meantime, check this from Dave Douglas- a question worth chewing on. I am, and will have some thoughts Friday.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Did I graduate yet?

Like many unsigned musicians, I put the No Sale Value CD up for sale on CDBaby, the great site where any (and every)one can sell their music on very reasonable terms, and the only people that give indies easy ITunes access. The founder, Derek Silvers, ahas put up a lot of how-top and advice essays on success, starting with "Life is Like High School".

Putting aside for a minute how revolting a thought that is (and I had a relatively good high school experience), I think he's right more often than not, especially as it relates to the music business. Which is probably why I'm on cruise ship X and not touring with No Sale Value at present...

I bring that up because I'm asked by friends back home about the actual living on the boat, and well, Cruise Ship X (and, I hear, all of them) is, well, just like high school, only with LOT more alcohol. Cliques, created to some extent by occupation and language, lots of social awkwardness, more than a smattering of the kind of "you know, she likes you" stuff I thought I left behind when I hit 30. Hell, 25! Silly me. Most days I just watch it go by but yesterday it bit me on the ass in a big way- nothing exciting, just typical boy-girl BS that I'll probably forget in 24 hours. Barely worthy of Univision, but still...

Why the hell do grown adults do this to themselves? If you took a step back and actually looked at it, you'd laugh, then hit yourself on the head with something blunt and heavy. Yet every night it continues...

Okay, enough needless bitching. Current listening is a Ron Miles kick, now Laughing Barrell, but previously Woman's Day with Frisell, and My Cruel Heart, a masterpiece. That Ron is not better known, despite sideman turns with Frisell and Charlie Hunter, is a crime, especially when the likes of Nick Payton is as close to a jazz star as you get these days. What especailly amazes me is he creates these wild, loopy soundscapes, ("My Cruel Heart", "You Taste...", then cuts through them like a cannonball out of the fuzz. There's an integrity, both musical and spiritual, that shines through every note he plays, so that even the most dissonant line sounds like an angel's call. Something I deeply aspire to.

precursors, in C Major

As promised in my Spirit Music review, I’ve put those two versions of a “White Note Exercise" Bob Brookmeyer had me do when I started studying with him. My initial effort is here, and Bob’s revision is here. Both are pdfs, so hopefully everyone can read them. (It’s useful to put them side by side if you can- that’s what I do.) One notation quirk- the fermatas are there basically in place of footballs. Imagine each adding 4-12 beats, depending on the context.

Also, as promised, new links and blogroll are up to the right- I'm still tweaking, but I think it's an improvement. Feedback is most welcome.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Sad news

I am sad to hear of the passing of Gyorgy Ligeti, brilliant composer and thinker. I was turned on to him in college with a required listeing to "Lux Aeterna" and have branched out a little beyond it, not enough. The Bad Plus have a great tribute, and as usual, Darcy has the details

Speaking of TBP, many many thanks for adding me to their blogroll, especially after the less than thrilled review of "Suspicious Activity" I gave them. I will be updating my roll soon to include them, and several others that I read regularly. If you want to be there and introduce yourself to my eleven or so daily victims (up from nine last week, Huffington watch out!), please let me know, And to fix the damn formatting...

Monday, June 12, 2006


A couple of random notes to start the week:

World Cup fever has taken over the better part of Cruise Ship X. (And unlike last time, you don't have to stay up until 4am to watch them) And I admit to being sucked in a bit- I'm in an office pool and everything. I'm clueless as to just about anything- I think Brazil is going to win because, well, everyone seems to think Brazil is going to win.

Happening alongside it stateside is, of course the NBA Finals. Wouldn't it be something if the best player in the NBA finals in the US is a German (Nowitzki, doing his best Larry Bird impression lately), while in Germany the US advances past the Germans in the World Cup. It's a very real possibility.

I have now topped 100 "friends" on MySpace. Thank you for your support; I don't quite know how to feel about it. That saud, new (or previously unheard, at least) music soon, I promise.

Yesterday I was listening to Wayne Shorter's most recent "Beyond the Sound Barrier" for the first time in a while. It's a mind-blowing record, even on the twentieth listen. It made me think, what exactly makes a song (or "song form) a song. For instance, "Joy Ryder" is stretched so far from the original recording twenty-some years ago as to be a different piece alltogether. I remember an interview with Miles in the '80s where he talked about a set list as a menu, a suggested starting place that you shouldn't take too literally. I never completely bought it with that Miles band, because so much was so preset (it seems more true in the second great quintet), but Wayne's band, and also bandmate Danielo Perez's current trio, seem to be taking that idea to it's further points.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Early returns

This is the kind of week when it kills me to be so far from home. I already missed the Bang on a Can, now missing both big NYC festivals (including the Hancock/Shorter superband) and Guillermo Klein at the Vanguard. Aaargh. I plead ignorance on Senor Klein, and still have grave reservations about that 90's Smalls scene, but the buzz is substantial, and he can write. (TBP have a long interview with Klien that's fun)

Anyhow, I do, have my IPod, and have started absorbing the previously mentioned Virgin haul. The early returns:

Keystone- My favorite Dave Douglas CD in quite some time, possibly since Charms of the Night Sky. This is the first record where I've heard a DJ (here DJ Olive) integrate wholly into a "jazz" combo. (Having Jamie Saft turning every imaginable sound out of a Wurly helps. And no, I don't know Dave's Mahler stuff, it's on the neverending list.) It is disconcerting, however, to have these very modern, electric soundscapes accompanying a rather primative (technologically, not artistically) black and white film. That took a minute to get used to, but once I did, it was a lot of fun.

D'Angelo Live- It's a shame this is so expensive as an import, because it's great. The band is soooo tight. I'm usually not knocked out by backing vocals, but it's Angie Stone leading the parade, and that makes a huge difference. I remember seeing the Voodoo tour live, and this earlier show, possibly because it's less of a spectacle, even sonically, is more satisfying.

Thunderbird- I wanted to like it, I really did. I'm a big Cassandra Wilson fan. But I think one of the great strengths of her singing is how elastic it is, and here that clashes with the almost inherant stiffness of sequenced beats. I haven't given up on it, but so far it's kind of an uncomfortable listen for me.

Mulligan Quartet Live- lots of fun. Nothing earth shattering, but a lot of fun...

now, the weather

Just in case we needed a reminder that hurricane season started last week, it rained most of the weekend. Really, really raining- big loud thunderstorms, first in the Bahamas Saturday, then more Sunday at sea. On a cruise ship, where one of the attractions for the customer is that we can, and usually do, steer around bad weather, believe me, it’s a very pleasant change of pace to have rain.

One of the things that I like most about life out here is the stark beauty of the weather, well, when we have any. On the ocean you can see the rain pouring down from the storm clouds, like a sheet connecting the heavens and the seas. On one side of the ship the sea will be its usual blue-green, on the other a swirling grey. It’s an obvious reminder of how big and powerful the ocean is, and how much respect it deserves, even on the very sheltered run we do.

There’s also the heat lightning, an uncomplicated but breathtaking phenomenon I don’t quite understand but see often. As the weather gets warmer, at night even if there’s no hint of rain we’ll get these amazing shows off the bow of the ship, peel after peel of lightning sizzling through an otherwise black sky.

Finally, Monday on the way to Key West we were visited by a school of dolphins, playing off the bow of the ship. It’s only the second time I’ve seen any in my time out here, but hopefully we will see more as the warmer water temperatures take hold. I know that dolphins have been romanticized in the American imagination to an almost silly point, but they are such beautiful, smart, playful creatures, especially in person, that it’s hard not to. After a very short time they realized that they were the show, so they started hamming for the audience- bouncing in and out of the water, playing chicken with the bow of the ship, the adults taking the lead while about a hundred yards away the young ones poked their much darker fins up now and again.

It's easy to get dark out here, and I certainly know why, but it has it's moments...

Monday, June 05, 2006

Steve Lacy

Today marks the second anniversary of the death of Steve Lacy, pioneer of the soprano saxophone, composer and teacher. As time passes, days like this become less overtly significant, but for me no more pleasant. Since his death Steve's music certainly continues- I've been to half a dozen gigs in the past year where Steve's music was featured without making a big deal of it, notably by Jeremy Udden and Monikah (for my money the best interpreter of Steve's songs who wasn't married to him). Dave Douglas likewise has incorporated some of Steve's work into his bands' book, and his "Blues for Lacy" on the new Meaning and Mystery is the best tune on the record. Hopefully, Steve's music one day will occupy a similar place in the "canon" (uggh, that word) that Monk's does.

One of the main attractions of attending New England Conservatory (well, one that wasn't named Brookmeyer) was the chance to study with Steve. I was not exactly a huge fan, but I knew that when it came to the soprano, he was THE guy. (From no less than Wayne Shorter- "Anyone who plays soprano orientates himself on Steve Lacy".) Ditto for the art of solo saxophone playing, along perhaps with Braxton and Evan Parker. The difference with Steve's solo playing was, Steve never abandoned song form, making records of solo performance of Monk or his own music rather than of improvisations.

Steve was a very particular guy. He did things a certain way, played a certain way, and wanted music the way he wanted it. Unlike a lot of particular people, however, he wasn't the least bit imposing or egotistical about it. If he didn't like something, he'd just shake his head and say "no, man, that part just isn't it! Doesn't go where it needs to go." (I remember his specifically saying that about the bridge to "The Nearness of You." Like the tune, just not the bridge) And that by itself was enough to make you want to fix it. In talking with Ryshpan, he said something similar. He was watching Steve rehearse a student group paying free improvised music. Every time Steve played, the music was very focused. When he stopped, it fell into chaos. Steve didn't have a center of musical gravity, he WAS the center of gravity.

Studying with Steve was a great joy, though it wasn't exactly studying in the traditional sense. After the first lesson, where he went over some very simple ways he "tamed" the soprano (which, coincidentally, still form the first chunk of any practice session for me), he said, "well, what do you want to do?" And that's how every lesson went. It wasn't that Steve was shy or selfish, he wanted you to fish out of him what you needed. So, I learned to come with a laundry list of questions, or tunes, and we'd go from there. Vivid memories- he said Monk had taken off the top of his piano, and put mirrors on the ceiling of his practice space, so he could look up and see what was happening as he played. He talked about playing a gig with Roscoe Mitchell where they played while walking around some kind of maze, doing certain things at certain locations. I still have tapes of some of the lessons, and I have to go back through them.

Steve died well before it was time. When I worked with him he was very active and only becoming more so, using NEC as a springboard for a lot of new work, and overdue recognition of some of his old work. His diagnosis of cancer the summer after I studied with him was a shock to everyone, and in the months before his death he'd seemed to have made a remarkable recovery, and was playing and writing as much and as strong as ever, which made his rapid decline and death that much more painful. Irene Aebi, his wife (and THE interpreter of his songs) says that he's still here, his music is still vital and his spirit is still strong. And I know what she means. But I for one, wish he were here, and miss him, especially today. There's so much more to say, but for now, onward, Steve.

It's gonna be a long, long time

Via SportsGuy, ladies and gentlemen, William Shatner is "Rocket Man".

Words fail me.

Friday, June 02, 2006


I vividly remember my second lesson with Bob Brookmeyer. (The first one was the day after 9/11, so that one is a little hazy.) Bob’s first assignment for most of his students is to write two or three (large, as in 11x17) pages of melodies, using only one octave of the C Major scale. I knew a lot of Bob’s big band music pretty well at this point, and has played with Bob at various school and festival projects, so this took me a little by surprise. The guy who wrote “Hello and Goodbye” and “King Porter ‘94”, which I thought were two of the most progressive, modern charts ever, wants me to drone on forever in C Major? But, he was the teacher, and it sounded pretty simple, right?

I came in two weeks later with almost a page that I thought was decent. (Try it, it’s not quite so simple.) He proceeded to tear it to shreds for almost an hour. The gist of his complaint was that I didn’t develop anything nearly enough. One time, for a couple of my students, I wrote two versions of first twenty bars or so of what I wrote for him, the first mine, the second with his revisions. (will post soon) As he said recently to the NY Times:

"In the 80's," he continued, "I began to wonder how long I could extend my musical thought and still not break the relationship with the listener, not put the listener to sleep. When I became a teacher, I realized that everybody writes too short. You've got to finish your thought."

And, as usual in my case, he was right. It sounded much better his way.

(For more of Bob’s wisdom on the subject, he now has for sale online composition lessons as part of the composer’s membership on his website. I’m sure he goes further into detail there.)

Or, for what it can sound like, you can hear Spirit Music, his latest album with his New Art Orchestra, and his first having followed Maria Schneider to the very exciting ArtistShare project. In many ways, this record crystallizes the ideas he’s been teaching for the last several years into one discernable, and for the most part excellent product.

In my time studying with him (in addition to kicking my ass on the craft of writing for a large ensemble, something it turned out I badly needed), I remember two ideas shining through vividly. The first is you can almost never overdevelop an idea. His writing over the past ten years has often been an exercise in how far he can take a single idea (usually one of those diatonic C Major cells) and repeat, stretch, twist, and bend it without boring the listener. And he’s become the master at it. On track 2, “New Love”, he opens with a cute (too cute, if you ask me), seven note idea, and bounces it across the band, until an English horn takes it for a while. I was just about ready to give up on the tune as way too cute, when the tenor player turns it inside out into a gorgeous ballad melody. All the cuteness of the intro melts away, and he sings through the next two minutes, until that same idea I was ready toss away is both still present and unrecognizable. His, and the listener’s patience is usually rewarded.

The other reason this works is less obvious; Bob is such a master craftsman, another point I didn’t immediately appreciate in his music. While I was studying with him, he had to miss a school concert, so Matt Tutor and I each conducted one of his tunes in his stead. Poring over the scores to prepare, and hearing the band send everything at you (literally) gives you a great appreciation for how well he does all the little things. Nothing is haphazard, and he often finds ingenious solutions for typical problems in a voicing, or by holding back for a beat, or, or… The mastery of the craft is one of the things that allows him to play with the bigger ideas he loves.

The second big talking point Bob drives home here is integrating any improvisation into the fabric of the composition, rather than allowing it to be its own entity. Again, from the Times:

"My first rule became: The first solo only happens when absolutely nothing else can happen," he explained. "You don't write in a solo until you've completely exhausted what you have to say. If you give a soloist an open solo for 30 seconds, he plays like he's coming from the piece that you wrote. Then he says, 'What the hell was that piece that I was playing from?' And the next 30 seconds is, 'Oh, I guess I'll play what I learned last night.' And bang! Minute 2 is whoever he likes, which is probably Coltrane."

Darcy commented at length about this one in parsing this interview, and I agree completely. Here, though, Bob really , really doesn’t seem to trust his soloists- for the most part, he keeps them on a tremendously short leash, either by providing lots of written material to buttress any improvisation (“Alone”, “Happy Song”), or by making the solos very short and contained (“The Door”). On one level I understand why he does it- he’s probably heard one (or ten) too many radio and college band players eviscerate “Ding Dong Ding” or “Skylark”, and wants to avoid that. But the flip side is that either because of the players themselves or the restraints on them, the improvisation is not at nearly same level as the compositions or the fantastic, hard swinging ensemble playing. It tends towards the stiff and leans heavily on bebop formula. (which ironically Bob rails against if you play with him) At the end of “The Door” in particular, I wanted the alto solo, set up so beautifully, to break the shell and really push it to another intensity level, and it never does.

(There are a couple of notable exceptions- drummer John Hollenbeck, who has internalized Bob’s sizable demands on a drummer without losing the intelligent recklessness that characterizes his own work, is typically brilliant. The clarinet solo on “Silver Linings”, the one song form on the record, is fun, and I’m not generally a big fan of clarinet solos. And of course there’s Bob himself, appearing on only two tunes, as brilliant as ever.)

Despite that caveat, the disc is great, a mature statement from an artist whose wisdom most of us will be aspiring to for a long time yet. As with the mature work of so many great artists, it gets better with multiple listenings. It continues to grow on me, and I continue to discover more each time I hear it. It reminds me in some ways of the late Beethoven string quartets, or late Picasso, at once distilled to an essence and teeming with life in all the little crevices. In some ways, especially harmonically, it’s much more conservative than earlier works. He has almost codified a tonal and rhythmic language that suits him, and keeps going further and further inside it, and pulling more and more out of seemingly less and less.

The last track is a ballad he calls “The End”, complete with a tender brass fanfare near its close. The end? God let’s hope not.