Friday, September 28, 2007

Bean Counting

This weekend is Boston's largest, and only free jazz festival, the Beantown Jazz Festival (Globe article here). For one afternoon, three blocks by Northeastern give way to multiple stages featuring many local and national acts. While I thought last year's bill was a little better, there are certainly good things to see this year, and I plan to be there. Especially notable:

- The Charles Tolliver Big Band. I know Tolliver only by reputation, but he did win a couple of Downbeat Awards this year. NEC and Berklee will have big bands there as well, and one local pro big band of note, the Greg Hopkins Orchestra, will also play.

- The legendary Bobby Hutcherson's quartet. Nuff said.

- Mike Stern. Not usually my cup of tea, but the honey-voiced Richard Bona is on the bill with him, so it could be interesting.

- Not officially part of the festival, but very intriguing. Tomorrow night the Either/Orchestra plays at the Somerville Theatre with three Ethiopian musicians as part of the WorldMusic series. Russ Gershon, the E/O leader, has become borderline obsessed with this Ethiopian folk and pop music over the past few years, and the results have been interesting. (And a huge shift from the E/O I grew up with.)

If you're over in the South End tomorrow and see me, please do say hello. Review to come. Full gigs of note for October- and there are quite a few- to come.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Every generation has a hero on the pop chart

The latest interweb dust-up about The Bad Plus and their covers has been well, er, covered at this point. I've blogged previously about Ethan, Reid and Dave, sometimes positively, sometimes less so. I stand by all of it. (And, pat self on back, I doubt I was first, but I called the prog angle two years ago...) A few thoughts anyway:

- I've thought, both as a player and as a critic, that the role of the critic was to judge what an artist does, not what the critic might prefer. My father likes to call that criticizing and ice cream soda for not being hot. Reading some of the (albiet selective) quotes TBP highlights, I think some of the critics would do well to remember that.

- One thing I like about TBP is that, if you played any of their records, but especially the last two, to someone who is musically literate but pop-culture clueless (like, say, my parents), I don't think they could tell the originals from the covers. There's an aesthetic unity to the work that I think undercuts some of the criticism they take for their covers.

- I won't touch the word irony, and I respect and thoroughly accept the what the band wrote, but I would say that, especially on a first listen, The Bad Plus' style can come across as quite, let's use the word glib. The last two bars of the A section of "Make Our Garden Grow" sound to me like a TV network audio logo, and I still find some of their cross cuts from crazy free to tight forms cuter than they need to be. Now that I know the band, both musically and socially, they make a lot more sense, and I like them more, but I understand why a critic wouldn't.

- Darcy asked the why TBP takes more flak for covers than, say, Jason Moran or Mehldau. I'd answer the question with a question- why are some pop tunes more acceptable for covering than others? Joni Mitchell, Radiohead, and Aaron Neville are okay, but Tears for Fears and Black Sabbath are out of bonds. Says who, and why? Lyrical quality- that never stopped us from covering "Miss Jones" or the much maligned "Surrey with a Fringe". I would, and do, think to cover Paul Simon or Curtis Mayfield, but not AC/DC or Blondie. That's due mostly to my own tastes and experiences, but I admit partially due to what I've been trained to expect "jazz" to be. Are musicians and/or critics projecting that out into a set of mores?

I would add that based on what I've heard so far of two much-balleyhooed new cover projects (and many before them), even picking "good, quality pop tunes" is no guarantee of making good music.

- finally, a tangent- one critic wrote: "…a slapstick version of E.S.T…". Would somebody explain the critical appeal of E.S.T. to me? (The popular appeal, as much as there is, I kind of get- It's pop-ish and approachable without looking like smooth jazz) I'm trying hard not to get to dark on other musicians, but... I've heard big chunks of two albums, and heard them live once, and hated every minute of it. The writing is thin on a good tune, the pianist hits the piano like it's a nail and he's a hammer, and I don't hear near the kind of interplay in that trio that I do in the bands they're often compared to. (Including TBP) I'd like to be wrong- can someone enlighten me?

Update: see Dave Douglas, another great advocate for covering newer music, and his especially cogent points on the topic.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Fringe Zones

If you've ever lived or studied in Boston, you know about the Fringe. The power trio of saxophonist George Garzone, bassist John Lockwood and drummer Bob Gulotti, who have been first calls for musicians from Buddy Rich to Luciana Souza to Phish, have had a weekly residence in a Boston club for more than twenty-five years, from the Somerville dive the Willow to several less memorable dives, now in the Lily Pad in Cambridge. But tomorrow night they go upscale to NEC's Jordan Hall. (Globe preview here)

The Fringe have become an institution here for musicians, and a trip to see the Fringe is as mandatory as a walk on the Freedom Trail. The music is often described as post-Coltrane free, but that sells it short. It's wild- one album cover has them in caveman outfits- and unusual. George has an unusual and fascinating intervallic approach to harmony that I still don't quite get, and the trio as a whole has that empathy that only comes with an longtime, intense farmiliarity. And it's free, in all senses of the word.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


As I ponder bigger pictures, I wanted to take a second to highlight a few friends and colleagues who will be featured at next week's portion Festival of New Trumpet in New York. Not many big names here, but all worth hearing:

Sept 23- Jason Palmer @ the Jazz Standard, featuring Greg Osby
Sept. 25- Ralph Alessi @ CIM
Sept 26- Princess, Princess w/Jaimie Branch @ barbes
Sept 27- Nicole Rampersaud @ Cornelia Street Cafe

All of it is good, but these folks are special to me- go see why.

Monday, September 17, 2007

FONT Opening Concert @ CIM, 9/15

Having heard a lot about the Festival of New Trumpet Music over the past few years, without actually seeing a single show, I had no idea exactly how DIY it is. Maybe it was the venue- the Center for Improvisational Music is a newish space, not too far from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It looks like an refurbished rehearsal space- it seats 75 or so and has a nice piano and a very comfortable, "lived-in" feel. To me, it's a direct extension of it's curator, Ralph Alessi's, personality, complete with a couple of kitchy, weird posters on the wall. (Note: I studied with Ralph for two years at Eastman)

Ralph opened the concert with his brass Extensions Ensemble. They took the name literally- the first piece was a sound collage where, due to multiphonics and other tricks, four guys sounded like ten. It was quiet, fierce, focused music. The highlight of the piece was a solo turn by Peter Evans, the other trumpeter in the group, whose extended technique had all the trumpeters in the audience beside themselves. The second piece, I'm guessing by Ralph, was an angular, modular piece with a lot of room for blowing. Here was Ralph's turn to shine; hi fired through in a more conventional sense, with searing lines up, down and around the horn.

Next up were Cecil Bridgewater and drummer Warren Smith, who offered an improvised tribute to Max Roach. Both toured with Max extensively, and offered praise for Max's generosity, musical and personal, and force of will. The music that followed was a little scattered, sneaking in several themes associated with Max, including "Bebop" and "Drum Along", which Max often opened his concerts with. I was completely unfarmiliar with Warren, and listening to him was a joy. He seemed to anticipate everything- mood and feel shifts, hits, climaxes- and then carry them an extra mile. Taylor Ho Bynum, the co-curater of FONT with Dave Douglas, said that anyone doing a benefit should always ask Warren first, because then everyone else will want to play, and I saw exactly what he meant.

Taylor followed with a solo improvisation, another formidible display of extended technique. He threw his body from side to side through the piece, playing to one wall, then suddenly the other. I'm not sure it was conscious or not, but I thought it was interesting, and definitely changed my perception of the performance. Some might find this distracting, but it brough me more into the physical space of the performance, hearing the sound bounce off one wall, then the other.
Next up was Douglas, in trio with Warren and Extensions tubist (and occasional Douglas consort) Marcus Rojas, performing a piece Dave described as a tribute to Lester Bowie. It was a 12/8 blues-ish piece, with Rojas filling a more tradition bass line role. Almost needless to say, Dave sounds great. The concert closed with a return of all the featured trumpeters, Rojas and Smith playing a free piece which morphed into a blues. Douglas and Alessi took a joint solo to begin the blues, which highlighed both the similarities and clear differences in their playing and approaches. (I found this especially interesting because there was awhile five years ago where it seemed like Ralph was the designated sub or replacement for all of Dave's sideman work- Don Byron, Uri Caine, etc. It was obvious both why the sub made sense, and how different the two of them are.)

The concert was a benefit for the groups that the various musicians here are affiliated with- FONT and CIM, as well as Smith and James Jabbo Ware's outreach non-profits. Dave mentioned that he hoped this was the beginnings of more and better collaborations among these and other groups involved in creative music. If it means more music like this, I'm all for it.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Chasing the muse, and chasing the ladies

I'm chewing hard on Dave Douglas' recent post about rep and Kris Tiner's new blog, specifically this post. I've also been thinking about a story a friend told me recently (He was there, and I wasn't, and I don't really know any of the parties involved except by reputation, so I'll be intentionally vague)

A well-know NYC jazz club booked an odd evening, pairing a grizzled old veteran player (GOV), sideman on many a tour with Great and Important Swingin' Jazz Artists, followed by a Wild Young Turk (WYT), playing challenging, left of center, critically praised but "out" music. (Think along the lines of, say, a Charlie Persip/Taylor Ho Bynum pairing, though it wasn't either of them) After the gig, folks were hanging, including several attractive women talking to GOV. WYT tried to get their attention, to no avail. After they'd broken away, WYT asked GOV why he couldn't get any love, and why GOV didn't help him out. GOV nearly lost it. "You expect any of those fine women to talk to you after all that crazy, out there #$^t you played tonight? And you expect me to get you there? What do you think this is?" Etc, etc.

I think most of us who've lived around the jazz world have a few stories like this. Confrontations at jam sessions, people yelling at gigs, etc. To me, it points out a dichotomy that Dave and Kris are dealing with in their posts. There are two dominant ideas of what "jazz" means (gross oversimplification ahead, and there are certainly more than two. But these are two I bump into very often) One is jazz as a tradition, a canon, a language which encompasses both musical syntax and cultural traditions. For instance, "Giant Steps" is a sixteen bar form with a novel harmonic structure, but also a saxophonist's rite of passage. This idea of jazz is about ninth chords and nightclubs, a musical language and a way of presenting yourself on stage. (And, yes, often chasing skirts, sexist as that may be) Not that many folks in this head agree on what that language or presentation should exactly be, but most agree that it should be something specific. I think my mentor Michael Cain put it very well here.

The other is the, perhaps more utopian idea of improvisational music as pure expression. Dave says it better than I:

"To me it means the freedom to learn All That. To do the work on the basics but to never forget why one is learning all that and to never be afraid to try something off the page. In fact, to especially have the urge to always try something off the page. To be ultimately free to choose, with as little illusion as possible, to make the music one feels."

(Please read Dave's whole post- there's a whole lot more than that there)

In other words, jazz, or whatevery you want to call it, is primarily about expression, wherever that takes you. Functionally, there is a faction in our music that seems to say the weirder, the "outer", the better. That's when you get anecdotes like the above.

Certainly these two are not necessarily opposed- this idea of jazz that GOV represents in the story is built on brilliantly creative, risk-taking musicians, free in the truest sense of the word. And certainly, jazz has a particular, important, complicated place in the African-American community that musicians, who aren't black or don't really understand that community, often ignore or downplay at our own peril. (I count myself here) And, perhaps more importantly, the first informs how jazz is taught and communicated in mass culture much, much more than the second.

It's not my place to say that one or the other is more true, or better. I certainly think more in the second, freedom head. But my entire education in this music is heavily informed by the first view, the idea of jazz as the True American Music, of playing standards and going to jam sessions and impressing women with particularly moving ballads. (not that that really happens much) But in thinking about the music we make and hear and care about, it behooves us to examine this distinction more carefully, and what we think about it. Could it lead to a more informed, more enlightened discussion of what we do?

Okay, I meant to talk about repitiore via Dave, but that can wait 'til later...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Empty Your Cup

While I put myself together:

- Thanks to those who came to the hit on Sunday night with Lift. And huge, huge thanks to Eric, Andrew, Carmen, Bridget and Jason for bringing the music to life so wonderfully. We all agreed that it was a great start, and I want to do it again soon. Sound posts to come.

- Since Dave Douglas obviously doesn't have anything better to do at present, he wrote a long and fascinating blog about the issue of repertoire in jazz and improvised music. Hope this stirs the pot a lot- my thoughts to come. (I'm planning to make the opening FONT concert on Saturday night. Holler if you see me.)

- Darcy reviews the Claudia Quintet. I got to see the band in their last go-round in Boston, and it was equally great.

- I did get out to the Halvorson/Pavone duo and Ted Reichman hit in Brookline on Friday night. I had to be up at 5am, so sadly I missed the Speed/Noriega madness. Briefly, Halvorson/Pavone- fascinating, focused, riveting writing. Especially when they added their close-harmony duo singing. Unfortunately, the improvising didn't match it. Ted played long, minimal patterns on an out of tune piano with MIDI drumbeats. Not my cup of tea.

RIP Zawinul. Darcy, as usual, has the rundown. I bumped into Danilo Perez today, who was terribly bummed. He'd seen him at a festival this summer, and gushed about it. He will be missed.

- Finally, I was in quite a funk today even before that bad news, it being 9/11. Like many folks, I can still flash back to the moment I saw the TV with the planes, and the frantic attempts that week to reach people near the towers after the phones had gone out. I played the Knit ten days later- you still had to go through a National Guard checkpoint to get there- and walked by the rubble still smoking. I wish I had something eloquent to say this time, but I don't. I'd remind people that a conservative estimate puts the number of deaths US foreign policy has caused just in Iraq at more than ten times the deaths Al Queda caused on 9/11. And for what? We must do better, now.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Lift @ The Lily Pad, Sunday, 9/9, 7:15 pm

Here's the full info:

Pat Donaher & Lift

Jason Palmer- trumpet
Carmen Staaf- piano
Bridget Kearney- bass
Eric Platz- drums
Andrew Stern- guitar

Lily Pad, 1393 Cambridge St, Inman Square (map here)
7:15 pm, $10 suggested donation

I'm excited for this one- it's not often that ALL your first calls say yes, and can rehearse at the same time, but that happened here. We'll be reimagining some of the book I wrote for this instrumentation several years ago, and adding new things too. Sound clips will surely follow, but if you can, hope to see you in person.

(I'll be adding to this, and leaving it at the top of the page until the gig is done.)

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Gigs to see in September

Come to mine, of course, but in the meantime:

There is a Matthew Shipp/Vijay Iyer twinbill Tuesday 9/4 at the Regattabar that should be fantastic. (Of course, it happens during my brokest week of the year. Damn.) Anyone who goes, please feel free to e-mail and you can guest blog it.

Friday 9/7, the very good and criminally underhyped music series at Brookline Tai Chi has a great lineup, assembled by our favorite new local Ted Reichman. The show features a three clarinet band with Chris Speed, and the well regarded Jessica Pavone/Mary Halvorson duo. Also coming:

9/8 Betty Buckley and Kenny Werner at the Regattabar
9/12 Wolfgang Muthspeil at the Regattabar
9/13-14 Mose Allison at Scullers
9/14 Leo Genovese and Ultra Gauchos at the Lily Pad
9/26 Zizala at Ryles
9/28 Greg Hopkins Orchestra at Ryles

And, the Beantown Jazz Festival returns to the South End the last weekend of September. The opening concert, a benefit for a Berklee scholarship fund, is a star-studded blockbuster, which doesn't bode well. The free events are very good; highlights are Bobby Hutcherson's quartet and Claudia Acuna.