Wednesday, February 24, 2010

John Mayer/Michael Franti, TD Garden, 2/24/10

There's a famous New York Times review of either Gershwin or Ellington, where NYT's classical critic pans him visciously. It's often held up as a case not of the critic being wrong, but of the Times sending the wrong guy. I often feel like that when I go to pop concerts- I don't get into singalongs, or an artist bringing people onstage, or most of the conventions of the form. I would rather hear someone play the new stuff, not the hits. So maybe I'm the wrong critic. But that said, a few words about tonight's show:

- Michael Franti and Spearhead have been touring for ten years, this being their biggest tour ever. (Amazing what a top 20 single will do, even now). Their music has that comfortable, lived-in feeling of a band who like playing together for that long. The set (which I was late for) covered some of Franti's better known songs- "Yell Fire", "Hey Hey Hey", and "Hey (I Love You)", the tremendously catchy radio hit. The last was much faster than the recording, and Franti brought kids up from the audience to sing and dance along in a wonderfully cute Sesame Street moment. (A seven year old white girl upstaged him.) I have nothing but the highest regard for Franti the public person, and his latter day hippie vibe went over great tonight.

- John Mayer is for real. He brings out equal levels of admiration and resentment among musicians, and I've been in the former category for some time. (see this post from ages ago. Still my favorite Mayer record.) He opened with the current hit "Heartbreak Warfare", but the set jumped through all of his records, hits and obscurities alike. (hits included "No Such Thing", which he said he wrote in the Berklee dorm, "Half of My Heart", Why Georgia Why", "Waiting on the World" and "Who Says" as the encore. Un-hits included "Good Love is on the Way", "Who Did You Thing I Was" and a covers of "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Message in a Bottle") For me, the best moments of the set were when he was riffing at the end of a tune- playing an improvised guitar duet, or jamming out. His tangent at the end of "Assasin" was perfect, playing off the pointallistic mbira-ish opening of the tune. He played a short solo set with his electric, and the solo "Who Do You Think I Was" and an improvised, looped intro to "Neon" were worth the whole price of admission. Both he and the band seemed most alive in these moments- the hits weren't quite mailed in, but for me they didn't have the spark of this music.

- While Pino Palladino wasn't on the gig, drummer Steve Jordan was, and he was a literal force of nature. He was the only player besides Mayer to get a feature solo; more than half of it was just a groove, leaving the high hat open just so through most of a measure to make it much funkier. The crowd went nuts for a long 3/4 hemiola and the bigger banging, but that first bit for me was amazing. It almost reminded me of a rock version of the famous Max Roach hi-hat solo; what would happen if you had only the little stuff, could you still kill it?

- Mayer's singing and guitar playing continues to evolve and improve. His delivery in most of the songs he sings is very free, and you can tell the set is not the same each night. Most of his guitar playing was tasteful to tasty, owing a lot to B.B. King and the like for sure, but not gratuitously so. (His solo on "Ain't No Sunshine", a tune I love, did sadly devolve to, er, something Mayer has overshared on in interviews.)

- Speaking of which: Mayer has deservedly gotten into some hot water this month for his dumbass comments in Vanity Fair and Playboy. (I won't link, but they're not hard to find. I felt bad for Franti in this mess. He's getting the shot of a lifetime, something he's been working on forever, and now he has to take questions about the stupid stuff John Mayer says, and he can't really answer them well because it would mean criticizing the meal ticket.)

Specifically in the Playboy interview, he said some things about sex and race that were at best impolitic, at worst racist, and no doubt stupid. gave him the "crazy of the week" award for it. I joked on my Facebook page today if I would come out more wowed by Mayer the musician or annoyed by Mayer the cretin. It was mostly the former, thankfully, BUT... Coming out of "Waiting...", itself a shameless lift of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On", he riffed by singing a re-written "Change is Gonna Come", punning "Change" to mean money, joking about being born near a Toys R'Us. I'm sure a lot of the audience didn't catch the reference to the Sam Cooke song, but I sure did, and I resented turning a sort of anthem of civil rights into a dumb joke. John, haven't you filled your "saying dumb S&*(t" quota twice already this month? Don't do that, not now. Cut it out.

(Jazz nerds in the house, I promise an overdue, glowing review of Fred Hersch's solo set last week is coming by Friday...)

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Infernal Machines come to visit

Bostonians who don't know yet, Darcy James Argue brings his amazing big band to the Regattabar for one (maybe two?) set on this Thursday night. I am trying like crazy to move things around to make it- you do the same, yes???

Monday, February 15, 2010

Must see gig: Fred Hersch, Jordan Hall, Wednesday 2/17, 8pm

Fred will be playing solo. As documented in the recent profile in the New York Times, we haven't heard much from Fred recently due to poor health, which makes this gig all the more exciting. I was lucky enough to see Fred's last Jordan Hall concert in 2002, and it was spectacular. I'm sure this will be the same.

but dreams are only made by you...

Ethan Iverson takes on the "fusion" Wayne Shorter in a blindfold test, then a long post over at Do the Math. I commented there, but wanted to follow up.

I'm glad Ethan points out the proclivity of certain jazz "legends" to coast on their reputations at big concerts, rather than show up and play. I've seen several examples of this in my own concert going, including the Wayne/Herbie Carnegie Hall concert Ethan references (I'd be even less kind than he. I left the building angry).

First, I have before, and will again professed my love for High Life. I think it's a great, great album, and both the writing and Wayne's playing are beyond spectacular. However, I think some of the criticisms Ethan (and others) make are valid. Specifically, that the music doesn't especially groove- the rhythm section play, despite the amazing musicians involved, would be right at home on Smooth Jazz FM. I have two thoughts on this. One, those bass lines are ridiculously hard. I saw Wayne's touring band for that record, and the bass player, whose name I forget, had clearly worked her ass off, and was still struggling to hit the lines. I think it's hard to find a groove when you're scuffling.

Which leads to point two: I don't doubt that Wayne has had orchestral ambitions for many years, and to that date High Life was the closest he'd gotten to that goal. (He has since had multiple commissions and orchestral performances, including one I reviewed last fall.) So I have a hunch that presenting the compositions clearly and beautifully trumped the other considerations on this record. (Isn't this the downfall of many a studio album anyway?) If you listen to Alegria, the orchestra is handled very differently. He also has Blade and Danielo, which I'm sure has something to do with it, but still, there it feels like the orchestra is superimposed on top of the quartet. In High Life, the writing is THE important thing. I try to evaluate the record starting there. And God is the writing incredible! (The other records, I can't speak to here. Maybe soon. Remember, only in the last five years or so has a lot of love been shown to 70s Miles. Maybe 70s and 80s Wayne records are still waiting for their time.)

I appreciate Ethan's respect for Peter Watrous, who waylayed Shorter when the album came out on the front of the NY Times Arts page. But especially for that piece I don't at all share it. At all. Go back and read the piece; I'm not sure that Watrous ever actually listened to the record. I don't feel like he ever actually addresses the music, just dismisses it. To me this is the height of intellectual laziness. I'm all for a writer making me angry to make me think; I just want to be sure s/he put some thought into what they wrote to make me angry.

Finally, to Ethan's request for a "fantasy football Wayne band". (Confession, I love fantasy football, and am still bitter about my early exit from my league's playoff this year because Wes Welker blew his knee. But I digress...) I actually don't wish Wayne would make a standards record, or anything but he wants to make. And it's not just "respect for the musician/artist's prerogative" reasons. I like many people was waiting with baited breath for the Keith Jarrett quintet record of the mid-90s that never arrived, with Keith playing new music accompanied my new players.

As I mentioned in my comments to Ethan, it doesn't take much study of Wayne's music in the past thirty years to come to the conclusion that he's more than a little bit obsessed with anthems. One of Ben Ratliff's subtitles in his fantastic Listening with Wayne piece from 2004 is "A Taste for the Heroic". In concert he quotes the "Superman" theme. A lot. As far back "When You Dream" on Joy Rider, and maybe before, Wayne has been writing very anthemic music. You could argue there are strains of this in the classic 60s stuff, but the later in his career you go, the more explicit it gets.

The great songs of Tin Pan Alley that make up the bulk of jazz rep pre-1970 are wonderful, flexible forms, but very few in my view are particularly anthemic. (There are exceptions, of course) That's not what they're built to do; most were originally sung, and many are built on some level to further the plot of the show they're in. The "Just in Time" solo Ethan transcibes is amazing, but it's hard for me to imagine how Wayne's playing today would address that form. Listen back to Wayne in this jam session, which I've linked to before- he's already over the edge of playing on a "conventional blues". Or to his playing on his last two appearances on Herbie records- "Cottontail" on Gershwin's World, and "Nefertitti" on River. Where he is artistically, would playing "Just in Time" be even a useful artistic choice? Interesting to us jazz nerds, nostalgic certainly, but useful?

Is there a musician in the history of jazz more constantly adventurous than Wayne Shorter? More willing to follow his ears whether or not they fit the trend? I think that's why so many of the commenters on Ethan's blog talk about a Wayne performance as "over in one note". Like Ornette, his commitment to whatever he's doing is complete and total. Every performance of the current quartet that I've heard is a high wire act- the architecture is so fluid that the level of risk is tremendously high; I've never heard another band on that level risk and fail as often as they do; I've also rarely heard another band fly as high. I wonder if there'd be any risk left if Wayne paid a visit to Tin Pan Alley. Maybe, I don't know. But I'm happy to hear Wayne continue to push forward.

I'm not trying at all to trash Ethan- quite the contrary, I love the piece and what it brings up, and I agree with him more than I don't. Just coming at it from a different angle...

(Two vaguely related requests- has anyone seen the video a commenter referenced of Joni singing at the Olympic opening ceremony? Didn't even know. And does anyone have a lead sheet to "When You Dream" On my list of tunes to play soon.)