Friday, January 22, 2010

Give, Buy, Listen

Like most of us, I'm sure, I was stunned, dismayed and heartbroken this week by the terrible turn of events in Haiti. There were a number of Haitian students in my high school class, and some were friends. One of the sad realities when I worked at City Year was going into urban schools and seeing how Haitian students were discriminated against... by other black students! I can only imagine the heartbreak, fear and anger in the community right now.

In addition to all the other ways you can help, CD Baby, my online record distributor, is donating $1 of every CD sold for the next two weeks to relief efforts in Haiti, via Portland OR based Mercy Corps. Artists still get their full payment- this is coming right out of CD Baby's pocket. So, for the music connoisseur, this is a win-win. You get great music on very artist-friendly terms, CD Baby gets business, Haiti gets money. If you haven't checked them out, CD Baby has an incredible number of great artists, famous and obscure. Let me suggest:

No Sale Value- my second CD, and a good one if I say so myself. Featuring Jenny Scheinman (now touring with Bill Frisell), Chris Vataloro (now playing with Antibalas on Broadway in Fela), and well as many other great players. And me...

Ron Miles - one of my personal heroes. The album with Frisell is great.

Anna Dagmar- an old friend and wonderful songwriter

Four Across- with friends Josh Deutch and Carmen Staff. Great players, great writers.

Erik Deutsch- the toast of Brooklyn these days, I'm told.

Kellie Lin Knott- another old friend and good songwriter.

Maybe Baby- It has Jennifer Kimball on it. What more need I say?

Leni Stern - great guitarist, mainstay of the 55 Bar.

And that's just scratching the surface. So go buy already, K?

Monday, January 18, 2010

we've seen this show before

It's time for a political tangent- those of you who don't care or hate my politics please come back later this week, when I finally get around to more decade recaps, and actually review recent offerings by Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Rez Abassi. Now then:

I posted this as my Facebook comment yesterday, but felt like saying more about it. In case you don't read the news, tomorrow in Massachusetts voters will elect Ted Kennedy's successor in the Senate, in a surprisingly close race between Democratic attorney general Martha Coakley and Republican state senator Scott Brown- here's some analysis from the NY Times.

This race reminds me eerily of the Bush-Gore 2000 campaign- not in the hanging chads and court case sense (I somehow doubt it will come to that), but in voter mood and the disconnect between what people say they want and how they say they'll vote. You have a very likable, handsome (certainly moreso than Bush) very conservative (for Massachusetts, anyway) Republican anyway running a great campaign against a seemingly aloof Democrat, who people are more likely to agree with on positions, but who is running a campaign that could charitably be called lackluster. (I'd use the word awful) Then you had a lot of folks vote Bush because he was the one they'd rather have a beer with. Now you have Brown, a former Cosmo model who rides around the state in a pickup and smiles real big. (To be fair, his grammar is vastly better than Bush's) Then and now you have an electorate disenchanted with what they see as the mess in Washington- then the moral and ethical stink the Clinton White House left, now the bad economy, sputtering legislative agenda and seeming aloofness of Washington (and certainly Boston) Democrats.

People, step back a second. By most reasonable measure most Massachusetts residents are worse off economically, and less optimistic about their prospects, than they were in 2001.
But what you have in Scott Brown is a man advancing the agenda of, well, George Bush circa 2001. There is one candidate who has actually gone after corporate and government corruption, huge causes of our current mess, and it isn't Scott Brown. Based on statements re: waterboarding and "war on terror" legal issues, there is one lawyer (they're both lawyers) in the race who actually seems to understand law regarding war, and it isn't Scott Brown. You catch a pattern here?

I know Coakley is a uninspiring candidate who's run a terrible campaign, but I firmly believe, based on both record and policy positions, she will be a much better senator than Brown. (We forget that for his first ten years, Ted Kennedy was nothing to write home about, but I digress.) But I would ask voters to remember what happened the last time we chose a "likable" major officeholder ahead of a competent one, and how that puppy worked out. So Massholes, vote tomorrow, vote Coakley. Thanks.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The ruin of many a poor boy

(Note: I try to stay away from PG language in my posts, but here it seems appropriate. Hide the little, little kids)

I've written before here about my contempt for American Idol, what it represents culturally, and how to tip it over. (In probably the only moment I ever agreed with Howard Stern, I wanted Sanjaya (sp?) to win to show the show for the ridiculous s*^tstorm it is)

Apparently, Andrew Fenlon had the same idea. Or at least that's how I interpret it. For those of you who (like me) missed it, Andrew is (to date) this year's American Idol villain, he who drew the ire of the judges, not for being bad (I actually think by Idol standards, his performance is OK, not great, but not bad by any means. And I'm sure his odd diction in intentionally ironic), but for being a little punkass who pisses the judges off. (Side note- does he not look incredibly like Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent? It's a doppleganger)

I have mixed feelings about this one, partially because I actually know Andrew casually. He's a very good trombone player, and he was a contemporary improvisation major at NEC when I was studying there with Brookmeyer. He and I worked for the great Ran Blake at the same time, and worked together occasionally on stuff for Ran. On the one hand, I think it's strangely laudable that someone would stand in line for hours in the blazing (not rising) sun in July at Gillette Stadium in Foxborogh for the sole purpose of pissing Simon Cowell and Victoria Beckham off. To my eyes, there is an element of Warhol-ish performance art in that video. And he will undoubtably become a momentary hipster icon. And as someone who wants to see Idol crash and burn, I enjoyed it to a degree.

On the other hand, he does come off as a total dick, which in my experience isn't much of a stretch for him. (To be clear, in my experience he's not a jerk at all, a nice guy, but if you don't know him he can come off as stand-offish, a little cocky, or worse. I've heard similar complaints about myself...) I hope to explore the relationship between Brooklyn hipsterism and '00s jazz in future decade in review posts, but I'm not real high on it. To me, looking in from the outside, a lot of what's come out of Brooklyn in the last five years is irony without context, looking sarcastically at things the hipsters don't really understand at all. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you have to, or should. And it isn't going to work- my hunch is the blogosphere will love Andrew, he'll have any interview he wants (to his credit, he's turned them all down), but middle America will be confused, and forget him when the next KFC ad comes on.

I know Andrew isn't a Brooklynite, but I imagine if American Idol did their audition at Brooklyn College, there would have been fifteen Andrew Fenlons. And part of me says, "go for it, stick it to the man! And get your 15 minutes doing it!" And part of me says, "oh, grow up!"

Monday, January 11, 2010

home, home again

Continuing the occasional "aught to review the decade" series.

Reading Ben Ratliff's review of the NYC Winter Jazzfest reminded me of the last time I saw the event, and how much just the physical space of the scenes I've been on has changed. (I feel like the psychic space has changed too, but that's another post.) When I moved to New York in early '99, there were three big jazz festivals, and a few little ones. Now the Winterfest, which didn't exist, is the only modestly sized one left. To say the scene in New York has transformed is an understatement.

I did my most prolific gigging in New York at the beginning of the decade, and not one of the "jazz" venues I played at that time exists now in the form it did then. Not one. The Knitting Factory, and Makor moved (is Makor still there at all?), Tonic, the Internet Cafe, Detour, and a half dozen other venues elsewhere just folded. I suppose that this is due somewhat to the nature of New York, where change is really the only constant- I heard older musicians talk about Bradley's, Visiones, and other once hot venues that are no more. But there's a larger trend too- the real estate boom made Manhattan property so hot that it priced out so many clubs that in earlier times had a prayer. (See Tonic, Wetlands, etc.) Brooklyn has certainly replaced Manhattan as the hot incubator of new things.

It's certainly not my place to say if it's better or worse now that it was then- I like several of the new venues that have popped up since I left, notably Le Poisson Rouge- but it sure is different. When I visit New York now, it is very much as a tourist and not an insider, though a tourist who sees a lot of folks he knows at gigs. But sometimes I wonder, is the jazz scene in New York just another evolution, or the empire in decline?

I do have many happy memories of a decade of music in the city. My favorite gigs in NYC, more or less chronologically (this list could be ten times as long)-

Olu Dara at the Verizon Jazz Fest (formerly What is Jazz?), summer 2000

Andrew Hill sextet w/Nasheet Waits, Birdland, spring 2000

Last Wetlands jam, Black Lily w/the Roots, summer 2000

Bill Frisell/Paul Motion/Joe Lovano, summer 2000 (my first time)

Living Colour reunion concert, Central Park Summerstage, summer 2001

Masada, Tonic, early 2001

Killer Joey w/Joey Baron, Tonic, spring 2001

Wayne Shorter Quartet, Verizon Festival, summer 2001 (NYC debut)

Bob Brookmeyer and the New Jazz Orchestra, IAJE Convention, winter 2005

Tony Malaby/William Parker, Stone, winter 2006

Darcy James Argue Secret Society, CBGB's basement, spring 2007

Boston, my home now, has changed too, for better and worse. The good news is that, as I've written before, the Beehive is a great new venue that books a lot of good mainstream music, and the Stork Club just opened where Bob the Chef's used to be. (Haven't been yet) And some eutrepenurial artists continue to bring interesting concerts to Boston, notably the Bennett Alliance concert series, as well as the occasional offerings of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Gardiner Museum. But as far as venues go, that may be the only good news, and the bad news keeps coming. The Regattabar gave its booking to the Blue Note conglomerate, scaled back its booking a lot for both local and national acts, and raised its prices a lot. The venue that the ex-booker of the R-bar started in Cambridge didn't survive. Scullers is hard, risky, and expensive to get for local acts, and Ryles seems to eek by- when I was in grad school they would occasionally book the likes of Chris Potter and Bob Brookmeyer, but they haven't had any act like that in awhile. The legendary Wally's plugs on, thanks in no small part to the amazing trumpeter and genial session host Jason Palmer. The Zeitgiest Gallery gave way the Lily Pad, a nice but pay to play venue (and not cheap anymore either), and then reopened down the street in cozier (read smaller) digs. Atwoods, B-Side and several smaller bars who booked alt-jazz along with a lot of toher things, have shut down, and the Milky Way has moved to smaller digs in JP. One new jazz festival, the one and a half day Beantown Jazz Festival, replaced two long-running summer festivals sponsored by the newspapers, again a sign of the times.

One of the most promising developments in Boston was the creation of JazzBoston, a not for profit designed to promote the music and local musicians in Boston. Thus far they have created a "jazz week" once a year with some original programming and a very glossy flier to hype all the gigs in town. So far I don't see or feel any measurable impact on either the frequency or visibility of the music in town, but I hope that could change.

The good news in both these cities is that there is always an infusion of young talent who will hustle and dig to find ways to get music out there. And as long as there are big music schools, there we be a lot for the listening public. The bad news is that playing for nothing (not a great thing either) has been replaced by pay-to-play, especially if the music is free improvised or hard to buttonhole, which is a tough way to grow an audience as an artist.

My Favorite Boston(ish) concerts:

Meshell N'Degeocello, Paradise, summer 2002 (Cookie tour)

Chris Potter Quarter, Ryles, fall 2002

Fred Hersch solo, Jordan Hall, fall 2002

Steve Lacy solo, Jordan Hall, fall 2002

Danielo Perez/Steve Lacy duo, winter 2003

Joe Lovano superband featuring Dave Douglas, Mark Helias, Joey Baron, R-bar, winter 2004

Radiohead, Hail to the Thief tour, Tweeter Center, summer 2005

The Bad Plus, Regattabar, winter 2007

Stevie Wonder, Comcast Center, summer 2008

Bill Frisell 858 Quartet, Regattabar, spring 2008

Brian Blade Fellowship, Newport Jazz Fest, summer 2008

Wayne Shorter Quartet, same

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

tick, tick, BOOM

This is an expanded version of the comment I left on the Greenleaf blog, more thoughts about metronomes and time. (The M-Base stuff is not on the comment):

I've done commercial work where I was playing with a click track, and at those moments I was eternally grateful for the work I'd done with a metronome. But as several people have mentioned, it's not that way in a real band, ever.

I've found this analogy useful- I think I got it from Michael Cain, the great pianist and one of my teachers. He said something to the effect of- as young players we often tend to think of the beat as a single dot, a spot to be hit (like the click of a metronome). In reality, the beat is a circle (think of a compass drawing a circle, it leaves that middle point- the metronome's "beat"- but has much wider area). The interaction that happens inside and around that circle is where time feel and groove happen. Different musicians, and different musical styles, have very different relationships to that circle, and they change over time. In "jazz", some of the most exciting rhythm sections have worked in the tension created by two or more players landing consistently at different points inside that circle.

One obvious example for me is the evolution of what used to be called "M-base" music, the music Steve Coleman and his crew has created over the last twenty-five years, and what the myriad of musicians who've played with Steve (Osby, Shane Endsley, Vijay Iyer, Cassandra Wilson, etc) continue to do. The first "M-Base drummer", Smitty Smith, is the closest thing to a human metronome I think I've ever heard- the precision of those 80s M-Base records is incredible. When Gene Lake replaced Smitty in Steve's band, and then more so when Steve started to explicitly explore Cuban music, I feel like the feel of the music changed dramatically. The grooves are no less complicated, but the feel is looser to my ears. With Smitty you get the spot at the center of the circle, with Gene you get a different spot inside the circle, maybe a little further back. (Compare "Black Science" with Smitty to "Tao of Mad Phat" with Gene to hear what I mean, and then )

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Jonah and the ticking whale.

A couple of addenda to the metronome conversation that's still popping across the blogosphere. When I studied with Steve Lacy, he discouraged practicing scales with a metronome, but instead walking slowly, playing one note per step. (I think Steve talks about this, as well as many other things, in his book Findings, which I highly recommend. I find even seven years later, I still find a lot of Steve's voic in how I approach practicing.) I've modified this in my own practice to start at one note per step, then two notes, up until I can't pull it off, which is often 10, or 12, or 16 notes per, depending on the exercise and how adroit or rusty I am. I thought about this approach when I would play duos with Steve- when we played tunes, as opposed to free music. While the process was tremendously rewarding, and I always knew the tune better afterwards, it was very hard, I think partially because Steve's time was so personal and idiosyncratic, perhaps the product of literally walking to his own drummer. Friends said the same.

Second, when I was gigging a lot with No Sale Value in Boston, we would have various guests sit in, cellists, guitarists, dancers if we could, you name it. One night we had a rapper join us on a pretty straight up funk jam. Our drummer at the time, Jazon Nazary, had (and has) great time, but afterwards the MC complained that he had a tough time getting his flow going. He rapped primarily with tracks, almost always mechanized, which I suppose is the equivalent of rapping with a metronome. Playing with a live drummer, where the beat ebbed and flowed a little more organically, he found it hard to adjust.

David Ryshpen brings up issues of time and/vs. groove, which are fascinating, and I hope to follow up on.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Radiohead- jazz artists of the decade

One of my resolutions for 2010 is to do at least 60% of the blogging I meant to do in 2009. So, just two days into the next decade (what are we calling this one), here is the start of my decade in review. Call me old fashioned, but I want something to end before I write it's obit... As I've mentioned in year's past, I don't feel comfortable doing "best of" lists, since there's so much I don't here, but I will do favorites. In the coming days, I'll get a little more myopic and review some of the records that crossed my desk in '09, looking for trends and ideas. Thought I'd start big and then break it down.

In my humble opinion, the Jazz Artist of the Aughts was... Radiohead. I'm not joking. Were you expecting Dave Douglas or Jason Moran, Wayne or Tain? You could, make an cogent argument for any of the above, as well as a dozen others, but did any single band change the sound of jazz more than Radiohead? I remember when I first was first hanging in New York, as the buzz for Kid A was building, seemingly everyone was talking about them. Meldhau had already covered "Exit Music", and the covers and sound-alikes followed. I heard more jazz compositions without solos, more bands with piano and guitar, and much more sonic consideration in how music in small groups is arranged and recorded.

Radiohead was in some ways a perfect storm- they're a great band with a lot of musical ambition. "Creep" broke them big enough to give them tremendous exposure and name recognition, but not to the megastar level that would turn. At the same time, they are a perfect band to get "jazz cred"- Johnny Greenwood cites Messien as a major influence, they use a lot of noise techniques, their sound is very forward looking and "modern" (as opposed to the many good indie bands at the back end of the decade who looked backward to American folk music as a primary influence) And as the decade wore on they were the biggest act to play with new mechanisms of releasing music directly on the web with the In Rainbows experiment.

Lots of jazz artists covered them, Brad Meldhau most notably, but more importantly the number of artists that cite them as an influence and rave about specific things they do are huge and range across all but the most Lincoln Centric places in the jazz world. I know they affected how I write- the first tune I performed in grad school. I certainly wasn't alone. And I honestly can't imagine a band like Christian Scott's band, who I reviewed at Newport in '08, without a band like Radiohead as a reference for how they write and play.

And they're a nerdy white British band, reflecting in many ways the new nerd hipster ethos that has come to define a lot of twentysomething culture this decade. (I'll write more about this later when I talk about trends.)

The larger trend at work here, I think, is that of jazz musicians openly, rather than covertly, taking broader licenses with what a jazz band is and can do than was acceptable in the 90s. It's no longer even surprising to hear jazz artists talk openly about how J Dilla, or Grizzly Bear or even Miley Cyrus is influencing what they do. (Okay, maybe that last one is a little stretch) And you're the listening public less likely to raise an eyebrow. To the point where when Darcy made a joke about Wynton's upcoming Clap Your Hands Say Yeah tribute album, I stopped and said "gee, what would that be like?" More germanely, I heard a story in the early 90s about a well known young Blue Note artist who had his record contract threatened because- in private, not on gigs- he was making electronic music. Labels don't have the sway they did then, for sure, but I have to think now they'd probably do the opposite.

I know that "Artist of the ___" statements are inherently a little silly- Wynton was as important in the '80s for the trend he came to represent as for his music and even his visibility. Radiohead didn't do any of the things I write about here by themselves, or maybe even best. And would all of this happen if no one had picked up "The Bends"? More than likely. But I'd argue that Radiohead, and what they've come to represent, had a bigger impact on the jazz world than any other single artist or band in the music. Any better ideas?

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Looking back, the road seems empty...

I'm working on several year/decade wrap-up posts at the moment, but in the meantime, Happy New Year! Tiding you over:

Congratulations to Darcy, Dave Douglas, Vijay Iyer, and the other friends of this blog who picked up tremendous acolades in the big year-end lists. Richly deserved. If you haven't bought "Infernal Machines" or "Histiocity" yet, what are you waiting for? And check out:

Bob Brookmeyer turns 80, and Darcy (speaking of himself) celebrates with a great post, including sound samples. "K.P. '94" literally changed my life, as I'll blog about soon.

NPR posted the concerts they presented for the "Toast of the Nation" show, including Anat Cohen in Boston and The Bad Plus at the Vanguard.