Monday, April 28, 2008

We'll string a few tunes together and call it a show

Once again, it's Jazz Week in Boston! This is the second year in a row that JazzBoston, a new-ish local non-profit has taken the last week in April to highlight the local jazz scene. (I blogged about it at greater length last year.) It's funny, I just reread that post, and I could write the same post today- nothing has changed. The format has created allowed some cool things to happen; there seem to be more lectures and panel discussions this year, and the "big" concert does focus more on local acts, with poet Robert Pinsky headlining in a duo with Bob Moses. (I will be attending that gig, so if you see me say hi, or just don't throw things...)

I opted not to try to do something during Jazz Week this year- last year I felt like it was a fair bit of hassle without a lot of payoff. I do have some cool stuff coming in May- stay tuned.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Certain Trumpets- Ralph Alessi and Bill Frisell w/Ron Miles, 4/23/08

I am on the new BoltBus back to Boston after a couple of delightful, sunny days in New York. The highlight, musically, was bouncing across the Village to see two of my favorite trumpet players, Ralph Alessi with his band This Against That at the Jazz Gallery, and Ron Miles with the Bill Frisell Quintet at the Vanguard. Both shows were better than solid, both well attended, and they offered a remarkable study in contrasts.

Ralph is one of my most important teachers, ever, from our time together at Eastman, which makes reviewing him difficult. He is a remarkable trumpeter, combining brilliant acrobatic technique with a compact, focused sound and a focus that keeps even the most outrageous trumpet feats from feeling like showboating. Last night he was workshopping some new music before a trip to Europe. The band was fantastic- the rhythm section of Drew Gress and Mark Ferber was a great study in contrasts, with Ferber's stacatto, hyperactive snare offset by Drew's huge sound and thick, careful bottom-heavy playing. Ravi Coltrane, who I haven't heard in years, sounded fantastic; his technique, always solid, is approaching superhuman, and his attention to motif and development reflects his dad's passion without ever sounding derivative. The four tunes had an open unfinished feel that sometimes offered pleasant surprises, and sometimes made transitions feel too long and aimless. Ralph's tunes are twisty, abstract and prickly; they force the listeners to pry their way into the structure rather than revealing themselves. Even the catchiest of the tunes had a twisty 4-3-3-4 beat structure, simple and thorny all at once.

By contrast, the Frisell quintet (Bill, Ron Miles, Tony Scherr, Chris Cheek, and Rudy Roystein) put everything out on the table like a picnic lunch. The last couple of times I've seen Frisell he's eschewed the looping, feedback-y solo turns everyone associates with him for very clear statements of very clear heads, here a tune from Blues Dream who's name I've forgotten, a bebop blues, "Sub-Conscious-Lee" with a wonderful counterline, and a couple of old pop tunes I didn't recognize. Like Sonny Rollins' band, the quintet would play the head three or more times, drift into a solo, then play it again, rollicking through, everyone clearly enjoying it. Rudy Roystein, a Denver based drummer best known for his work on Ron's solo stuff, swung his tail off, simple and straightforward, light and clear while Tony Scherr provided his usual huge bottom of the band.

For me, the high point was Ron's playing. I am an unabashed fan from when I first heard him on Bill's quintet record, through his solo work (though the Stone/Blossom record was uneven). A friend who studied with him said he talks incessantly about clarity, and it's obvious in how he plays. It's clear hearing him that, like Ralph, he can do just about anything on the trumpet, but he is rarely elliptical, sometimes rolling a single motif through two or three choruses of a tune, just letting it swing.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Better late than never part 1- The SFJazz Collective @ Berklee, March 2008

The SF Jazz Collective at the Berklee Performance Center: This group is a superband, a collection of all-star talent thrown together for a tour, seemingly a staple of jazz since the Hot Sevens. I was more curious than excited going into this gig- a group featuring Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas, Stefon Harris and Miguel Zenon, for starters, knowing full well that this level of talent, and egos, doesn't always translate into great music. But the creators of this project have a really smart model- they get the group together for two full weeks of rehearsal before hitting the road, and split the book between band member originals and music of one great jazz artist, this year Wayne Shorter.

The covers provide an anchor for both audience and artists (though some of the arrangements were pretty daring and not at all conventional). Dave's arrangement of Aung San Suu Kyi, a tune I've always loved, was a highlight. (Partially because, after years of trying, I finally figured out where the extra beat is) The originals highlighted the diversity of approaches of the group- the fairly straightahead blows offered by Renee Rosnes and Lovano, a clever, twisty Wayne-inspired Dave Douglas tune (too clever for its own good), an anthem offering electronic overdubs and an unbelievable Lovano solo from drummer Eric Harland, and thorny math-jazz from Robin Eubanks. At this particular show Zenon, playing to a hometown Berklee crowd, and Lovano were the highlights. Joe was clearly feeding off the energy of his bandmates and the audience, and put forth the best playing I've heard from him in ten years easy.

A Berklee honors band opened, a guitar/piano/bass/drums quartet, playing generic modern jazz in a pretty generic way. (Down to generic song titles- “Desire”, “Solace”, etc.) Good players, but a clear lack of vision in both writing and playing.

Is that what they teach you in school these days?

I'm sure many of you have read by now that the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) has effectively gone belly up, filing for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy protection. Darcy has a recap of the coverage, and Ryshpen followed up with a post that caught a lot of what I wanted to say. Last year I wrote a post called “Is the IAJE bad for jazz?” I guess we're going to find out. A few thoughts:

The letter former IAJE president sent out explaining the organization's moves this month describe a “perfect storm...” He forgets bad management, which several blogs pick up on. I would ask two more questions. Everyone seems to agree that the Toronto convention this year was “underattended”. Compared to what? If they were using their New York numbers (which is my nagging suspicion), of course they were! Having the conference in New York made it a must attend, because it boosted all of the programming across the city in the week around the festival. At both NYC conferences I was around there was amazing music well beyond the festival itself, in clubs and concert venues, because everyone knew that there would be so many people there to hear music, which created a positive feedback loop. I remember going to hear Matt Wilson at Detour on a festival week, and it was mobbed, and seemingly every hot player under 30 was sitting in. Only New York, or even a city near it (Philly, Hartford, maybe Boston) could make that happen. To expect any such scene to just spring up in Toronto, or most other cities (and I'm not knocking Toronto).

I think the festival has suffered as well from the lack of label support for artists. Darcy mentions all the acts he's seen at conferences- I remember Diana Krall's breakout performance in Atlanta. (I'm not saying I loved it, but I remember it. She brought the house down.) Part of the reason that happened is because I'm sure Impulse (her label at the time) was helping underwrite that gig and its promotion. Many of the evening showcases, and I'm sure smaller shows as well, were working in much the same way. And/or, the labels would use the festival to shop for new talent. Now that there are no labels per say, the conference automatically loses some of its momentum. (I've only heard about one musician at this last conference who had third party support to get their band up there, unless you count fundraising drives.) And while I didn't read the IAJE's glossy religiously, I've not seen any acknowledgement of this reality in the jazz ed community, save maybe in the occasional panel discussion. Like many institutions, the IAJE didn't see the ground shifting under it until the ground was all gone.

The good news is there are a lot more options for jazz education, both in terms of organizations and philosophies, than there were before the IAJE began this rapid ascent, and now even quicker downfall. While the North Texas model lives on at some universities, the music I hear coming from young conservatory players (and in Boston, you here a lot) is certainly more diverse and more interesting than it was 10 years ago. Not just students leaving NEC or Berklee, but folks when they first get to town. And you have more left of center organizations like SIM and Banff promoting new and interesting ways of thinking about jazz.

For some time I've liked the idea, which David and Darcy have been talking about, of trying to move a jazz ed convention to more resemble SXSW. I hope that the regional leadership (if these “regional conferences” come to pass) will really explore this model. Off the top of my head, why not try it next year in Hartford? You have a strong jazz school (Hartt) as a base, proximity to New York, a lot of great players and schools in a 200 mile radius, and a city that, needing any shot in the arm it can get, would probably be really helpful in putting it together. Name if after Jackie MacLean, the late godfather of the Hartford scene, and see what happens. Just a thought.

the music echoes... and echoes

I've been fortunate in the past month to be cultivating a bunch of exciting things, including (finally) my garden, but I'm afraid the blog has suffered as a result. I'll try to catch up this week on some of the stuff I've been seeing and hearing and thinking. Especially, the batch of stuff that has kept me so busy.

The Phoenix
, the local (well, now regional, with outposts in Providence and Portland ME) “alternative” paper, put out its “best of '08” list this week. I should know better at this point than to get worked up about this stuff, but... Scullers as the “Best Jazz Club”? Let's see, it's overpriced, the emphasis is on smooth jazz, it's always really cold in there, the sightlines are mediocre, and the sound is terrible seemingly no matter who I see there. (It's a function of the room- it's an L shape, with the stage at the bottom of the L near the bar, and every surface of the room is hard. Doing sound in there must be a nightmare.) Yes the view of the Charles River is fantastic, and at least once a month, they come through with a really cool show (in April it was the Bjorkestra, which of course I missed) And the picture in the Phoenix of Dominique Eade and Jeremy Udden is nice. But best of Boston? I'll throw it out to the hivemind- favorite place to see an act you like in Boston, if price is no object?

On the plus side, Baptiste Power Yoga, where I work and occasionally substitute teach, is listed as the “best place to get sweat on by strangers.” Thanks, I think...

Monday, April 14, 2008

Whisper Not

Benny Golson, who is best known for writing "Whisper Not" and "Killer Joe", as well as anchoring the Jazztet with Art Farmer in the '50s, is in Boston this week for a residency at Harvard. He gives a talk at 4pm on Thursday about his career, and plays with Mulgrew Miller and the Harvard Jazz Band on Friday night. The Globe has the details. Like every jazz nerd, I grew up playing Killer Joe, which I resented, and Whisper Not, which I loved. ("Along Came Betty" is on my list of hard tunes to get to, with "Con Alma" and "26-2", one of those high temples of math-jazz.)

Benny came to Eastman when I was a student there- I remember him as a very warm guy. His playing is not what it used to be- I heard he has some face issues (literally), and I know he's changed his setup from back in the day. But I'm sure Mulgrew show up big, and the Thursday talk should be really interesting.

Other keepers this week: Carla Bley and Steve Swallow play Wednesday at Scullers, Bob Brookmeyer gives a lecture at NEC on Wednesday at 1, then conducts his "Spirit Music" on Thursday night.