Sunday, August 02, 2015

Thoughts from Newport Jazz Fest 2015

A few musings from a couple of days in Newport for the jazz festival.  I hesitate to say review because I didn't see enough, and for the most part I want to follow a "if you can't say something nice" policy.  I know how hard everyone works, and how big a deal Newport is for careers, so anyone who made the bill deserves to enjoy it.  That said, what stood out:

- If you are someone who cares about "jazz", Friday at Newport is manna.  The bulk of the acts are fiercely personal explorers, mostly under 40.  (I don't say "up and comers" because most have several records out, a lot of buzz, etc.  But they don't have the visibility of a lot of the weekend acts.)  There were several times I was hopscotching between acts because they scheduled multiple great things simultaneously.  (The best/worst was Steve Lehman with Mark Shim and Tyshawn Sorey vs. Jonathan Blake with Mark Turner and Chris Potter.  Yikes)  And it's $40 tops, $20 for students!  It was great to see so many high school and college kids down there, including a few I've worked with in my job.

- Perhaps the coolest moment of the day Friday was seeing a student I know from various jazz ed events (including a wonderful star turn as a soloist at the Ellington competition in NYC) staring wide-eyed at Matana Robert's Coin Coin, a thorny, absorbing band combining improvisation, operatic singing, spoken word, church forms and a dozen other things.  I understood the band years ago as an outgrowth of her digging into her family tree, but in the meantime the scope of it seems to have gotten quite a bit bigger.  The student- a white girl from the deep burbs- just says "this is SO COOL!"  The performance was so cool, indeed, theatrical but not cloying, with great playing from the entire band, especially Roberts and trumpeter Jason Palmer.  It's heartening when something different is immediately received as something cool in places I'd never expect it.  

- I've run hot and cold on trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, but he was fantastic on Friday, both with his own band and as a sideman with pianist Gerald Clayton.  Playing in his own quartet, some of what he does reminded me of my old teacher Ralph Alessi- his wide leaps and scrambles all over the horn, the punchiness of the compositions, the band weaving around then hitting an unexpected spot together.  (Now that I have a five disc CD player again, it'd be interesting to hear his the imagined savior... and Alessi's Bahia back to back)  I liked the last CD, and I'm excited to hear what he does next.

- As there always are at festivals, there were bands that looked to be ad hoc, "all star" units.  (Appropriate when the Festival itself is celebrating Miles Davis' turns there, his first being in... an all star band with Monk in 1956)  Unlike that unit though, the two I saw- Jonathan Blake's Quartet with Mark Turner, Chris Potter and Ben Street, and the aforementioned Clayton quintet- they played hard, twisty tunes, really well.  The Potter/Turner pairing was a full on saxgasm, and both were fantastic- virtuosic without really being showy, clearly enjoying playing off each other without trying to one-up.  I was especially taken with Potter, not something I usually say- there was a wonderful internal logic to his playing, taking, developing and redeveloping ideas over a longer period of time, the way I equate with the best of Joshua Redman.

- Hearing Robert's Coin Coin made a couple of the other acts on that stage, who were playing in a more (choose your term) Young Lions/neotrad/uptown style, feel really, really, really anachronistic.

- Steve Lehman's music was tremendously dense, intense and well played.  The "other" saxophonist Mark Shim, someone I've rarely warmed to, sounded fantastic, as did drummer Tyshawn Sorey.  Shout out also to old friend trombonist (and soon to be new dad, again) Tim Albright.

- I had to choose between John Hollenbeck's Big Band and Kneebody, and today Kneebody won.  I love and admire Hollenbeck- Joys and Desires and Eternal Interlude are, in my mind, as important to the new big band canon as Maria Schnieder's or Darcy Argue's or (insert current writer here) music.  But I wasn't feeling it, and Kneebody are old friends.  They didn't disappoint either.  They mixed recorded and new music, short compositions with blowing vehicles, and everything sounded great.  Shane Endsley (trumpet) told me the last time we chatted that they will (hopefully) be in Boston more working with Berklee, and I hope so, because it would be a huge win for me and my students as well.

- The play back and forth between the pianist and the electronics player in Peter Evans' band was the most interesting, intuitive back and forth I've ever heard between a pitched acoustic player and a non-pitched "noise" electric player.  (I missed the band introduction, I'm sorry I don't know names)  There was the same kind of clear rapport and careful listening that you'd get from a great piano/drum pairing.  (The drummer was Jim Black, that didn't hurt the ensemble either...)  I totally went for it.

- My one darker review:  Snarky Puppy... boring.  Amongst the reams of stuff being hocked at the festival were free copies of Downbeat and Jazz Times.  (And Jazziz, which I ignored)  Downbeat had a review of the new Puppy record that nailed it in three paragraphs.  They represent the best and worst of jazz education (they have a strong North Texas connection): they are tighter than tight, and the ensemble is spectacular.  But it's pretty predictable, the soloists are uninteresting and the tunes don't go very far.  I think Jazziz had a headline saying "Is Snarky Puppy the next Weather Report?"  Weather Report had at any given time three or four of the most innovative players of its day (Shorter, Zawinal, Vitous, Pastorious, Erskine, etc.)  Puppy, I fear that not one of their soloists would've hung in any other band there on Friday.  The crowd dug it, I was bored.

- For the first time, I stayed over in Newport so I could catch two days of the festival, courtesy of a lovely and reasonable AirBnB host.  Newport is so lovely, and so not my scene...

- Moving to Saturday, I was never bored with Jack Dejohnette's "Made in Chicago" band, featuring AACM stalwarts Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill and Muhal Richard Abrams.  They played tunes that listening seemed pretty loose.  Mitchell and Threadgill are a fascinating counterpoint, Mitchell leaning on long discursive runs extended by his circular breathing, Threadgill favoring tart, terse, bluesy jabs in his playing.  Most of it worked- there was a duo at one point between Mitchell and Dejohnette that was just breathtaking.  And I fear I'm giving Abrams short shrift- his playing is so intelligent and interesting and fresh every time you hear it, grounded and in air all at once.  It was the first act on the enormous main stage, and I'm not sure a lot of the people sitting in their lawn chairs quite got it, but I'm so grateful to have heard it.

- Maria Schneider's big band, mixing tunes from her very first and her most recent record, played the best set I've heard them do in years.  (and I try to hear them at least once a year)  Everyone sounded great, but guitarist Ben Monder stood out.  As did low reed virtuoso Scott Robinson, both for his elegant solo on "Arbiters of Evolution", and for bringing and playing a contrabass saxophone, the first time I've ever seen one in person.

- Kenny Garrett played basically the same set I heard him play at the Beantown Festival three years ago, and in New York fifteen years ago, and at Scullers twenty-five years ago.  (Though he had Brian Blade for that one, so that may have been a little different)  He was such an inspiration to me in high school, and such a cautionary tale now.

- Thoroughly by mistake I caught a couple of tunes by Joey Alexander, the 11 year-old Indonesian wunderkind who has taken what's left of the mainstream jazz world by storm.  I won't talk about his set, except to say that he can certainly play, and then some.  But I find myself very uncomfortable with the whole child prodigy thing- I've had students who were featured on From the Top, an NPR show taped in Boston featuring young classical virtuosos, and it makes me equally uncomfortable.  To what extent is this good music vs. a sideshow act?  (His poorly pronounced tune introductions can only be described as adorable, for instance)  What is this doing to his growth as an artist, and as a human long term?  Should someone that young be but on stages that big, no matter how good they are?  I don't know.  Elsewhere at the festival, Grace Kelly, the saxophonist who ten years ago was the prodigy at the Newport festival, was playing as a side person with new Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste.  From what little I hear, she's turned out pretty well- I hope he has her on speed dial.

- Work and life brought be home tonight (Sat.)  I'm bummed to miss the back to back Bill Frisell and Fred Hersh sets, and to miss the music Arturo O'Farrill wrote for Rudresh Mahanthappa, but on the other hand I won't miss being pissed off by Hiromi and Jamie Cullum.

- Thank God Tom Harrell still does what he does (great set of what creative straight ahead playing sounds like today).  And thanks to George Wien for making sure he gets heard at Newport.  Actually, Wein deserves a huge amount of credit for the quality and diversity of the artists he books.  Every year the festival gets bigger, both in numbers (this year he added a fourth space, filled with a few shows, but also panel discussions with Ashley Kahn and the likes of Jack Dejohnette talking about Miles) and in scope.  There may be something else like it in the US, but I'm damned if I know what it is.  It's a pleasure to get to go, and I'm already looking forward to next year.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The persistent power of Buddy Rich

(This post is a sideways reaction to Ethan Iverson's recent missive about the film Whiplash and Buddy Rich.  The post is fantastic, as is the accompanying post about Rich by Mark Stryker. I should note that I have yet to see Whiplash, and don't care that much about it.  I feel obliged to merely due to  the number of people that ask me about the damn movie.  And I like J.K. Simmons a lot.)

There has been jazz music around me for as long as I can remember.  My dad grew up listening to Symphony Sid broadcasts, and wrote about jazz for his high school literary magazine.  Growing up I heard Brubeck and Ellington and the like on the radio and on records.  Lots of Ray Charles, BB King and gospel music too.  I remember nosing around the WGBH record library when I was seven or so.  The music didn't start to stick until a little later, but it was always around.

When I did get into this music (it was Charlie Parker playing "Lover Man" that got me), I was lucky that I had the means and opportunity to see a lot of great players live.  We were on the tail end of the "young lions" buzz, so there were still free outdoor jazz festivals, a huge jazz section at Tower Records and venues you could jump on a subway train and see.  Some Thursdays my dad and I went to the Regattabar in Cambridge and heard a whole Thursday night of music for $9 and one Coca-cola.  In high school I heard Miles, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Garrett, Charlie Haden, Gary Bartz, Joe Lovano, the Miles reunion band, Wynton Marsalis, Joe Henderson, and on and on.  And being an ambitious kid, I would hang around afterwards, get autographs, and ask for any pearls of wisdom I could glean.  And as it has been seemingly forever, the musicians were kind and generous and got a kick out of me.  Kenny Garrett told me to learn Marcel Mule etudes, somebody was always telling me about another record I needed to know, Charlie Haden told me the key was finding beauty, etc.  It was amazing.

This was, of course, high school in the 90s, so I also entered the world of jazz education, getting the gospel of jazz according to the (white) big band teacher.  (To be fair, my own high school music teacher was great- we had just a combo, and worked almost exclusively on improvising and playing tunes- Duke, Monk, Bird, Zappa (!) and some other really hip stuff.  I am still enormously grateful to Matt Finnegan, and a handful of other teachers, and always will be.  But I did camps and competition bands and the like, and there the vibe could be quite different.)  I got to play some cool music, but I also played my fair share of what I'll call (bowing to Ethan's post) the stage band Mount Rushmore- Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson and Rob McConnell.  (I think in the years since Gordon Goodwin certainly bumps the "big boss band", but it's all of one cloth.  Higher, faster, louder.)

Now I was a clueless teenager, no doubt, but I couldn't help but feel a disconnect between what I heard and felt from the musicians I'd hear in clubs and concert halls on the one hand and the stage band stuff I'd play on the other.  There was such a profound difference in the feeling I got, both in my body and in my soul, when McCoy played "In a Mellow Tone", or when Wynton's band did their New Orleans thing*, or when I listened to a Monk record than when I played Kenton's version of "My Funny Valentine".  (Or God help us the Rich band's "Norwegian Wood")  Go read Ethan's first ten paragraphs- I've been trying to articulate that thought for twenty years!  I believed fiercely, and without knowing why, that the people hoisting the stage band stuff on me, however well intentioned,  just somehow didn't get it.  And it wasn't just a disconnect of color or time or place- it was a profound misunderstanding of intent.  (Being a teenager, my words at the time were a little choicer...)

Fast forward twenty years.  Now I'm that white jazz teacher, working at a suburban high school with a fantastic music program, a high level jazz ensemble and a very successful track record.  (The school has won literally dozens of top prizes and gold medals at state and regional competitions, toured all over, played at Monterrey and in Europe, etc)  So now I'm seeing things from the other side, and it's an interesting view.

First, while the music industry is a very difficult period of transition, and there are fewer gigs in worse venues than in any time in my lifetime, the jazz education machine is doing okay.  There is an amazing ecosystem designed to help kids of all ages learn to improvise and play "jazz", sometimes for nothing or next to nothing, often at a decent mark-up.  Summer programs from the local music school all the way up to Banff offer amazing opportunities to learn and network to all comers, from the most tradition conscious to the most progressive. It's an amazing time to be a student of this music.  

Second, there are more and better materials available to students and teachers alike than there ever were in my day as a student.  This year my big band's book includes music of Ellington (original charts, not rearrangements), Basie, Kenny Wheeler, Bob Brookmeyer, Charles Mingus, and Bill Holman, and we're not done learning tunes by a long shot.  We got to work on Mingus charts with feedback from folks who actually played with Mingus!  When we go to festivals I hear other bands playing these charts, and Louis Armstrong Hot Sevens, and Thad Jones, and Pat Metheny charts that Pat helped create, and Illinois Jacquet, and... I teach a combo that was able to learn Steve Coleman music... from Steve Coleman.  To practice improvising they can pay a few bucks for Jerry Bergonzi or Hal Crook's books and have shedding material that will take years to absorb. And not just licks to practice, material that could help them to find their own voice if they're willing to look.  And with the internet, they literally have access to almost all music ever recorded any time they want, from Bix Biderbeck to Brian Blade and everything in between.  If I want kids to hear a chart we'll learn, all I have to do is point them to Youtube, and my hungry students will listen to it a hundred times, which makes rehearsing it so much easier, and then we get to play more of these fun tunes.  I would've killed for this stuff at age 16.

Furthermore, while I work in an affluent district, a lot of this music can be had for free!  Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Let My Children Hear Music Foundation (run by Sue Mingus) offer their arrangements of Mingus, Ellington, Basie, Mary Lou Williams, etc. for nothing or very little for schools that participate in their festival programs.  J@LC also has asks programs that are accepted into the Ellington Festival in New York to designate a school without as many means as a recipient of a clinic from a J@LC orchestra member... at no cost to either program.  This is the long way of saying that if you want to teach big band jazz at the high school and college level, you don't have to look very hard for tremendous resources of great musical and historical significance.

And yet even with all of this knowledge I had no shot at, at the aforementioned regional festivals and competitions, I still hear lots of bands, high school and college, playing the stage band stuff, Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson, and winning with it.  (At one festival I won't name, a local band- one I have no affiliation with- played the shit out of a Duke Ellington set, complete with personalized arrangements that made the most of the players they had, just like Duke would've. They finished second to a band playing... wait for it... the Buddy Rich "Caravan" chart that appears in Whiplash.  You can't make this stuff up...)  There is still a large corner of the jazz education world that, despite all of this access, including the ability to hear how Duke Ellington and Basie and Coltrane et al actually described and narrated their own music, cling to a "stage band" esthetic. Or to put it another way, operate as if the "African understanding" that Ethan describes, the one that attracted me to this music in the first place, simply doesn't exist, or doesn't matter.  I walk away dumbfounded.

As I said, I haven't seen Whiplash yet;  I've watched some of the clips online and read more about the movie than I care to admit to.  And in December, when the Oscar buzz around the film started, I was ready to completely write it off, and bitch out Damien Chazelle (whose first movie I enjoyed and have a personal attachment to) for missing the jazz mark entirely.  But now that I'm back in the world of jazz education, the story seems a little more plausible.  The narrative of the stage band, with the director as master and the players as servants, where craft trumps any opportunity for art, still holds a curious power in many circles.  Maybe this is the what the teenage Chazelle thought was jazz, because his experience was a steady diet of stage band jazz.  I don't have to imagine high school programs that run on a "Whiplash" esthetic; I've seen them recently.  And I feel the same way as I did in high school: it's not a pretty site.

I'd like to see this change- I don't think these bands serve either the music or the students, they just win trophies.  And not just by waiting for these Buddy Rich-loving band directors age out of their jobs.  (it will happen, eventually and I think in this part of the country cooler heads will prevail.)  Maybe musicians, especially musicians who do lots of clinics at the high school and college level, would be willing to point directors towards these resources, or even donate a couple of their CDs to the schools so that kids are hearing what's actually happening on the scene now.  Maybe parents and administrators who love this music will start to call out bands whose esthetic is, er, perhaps a little passe.  Maybe I'm just typing pipe dreams- thoughts? 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Uptown Funk, down with who???

After several years away I've returned to classroom teaching as a high school jazz and band teacher in great school district north of Boston.  I get to conduct a lot of really high level players in a jazz big band and combo, as well as teach improvisation and assist in a larger concert band.  I also get to teach a class which is now called Jazz in Society, and next year will be called Popular Music in American Society.  So, I get paid to talk about Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and Ray Charles and James Brown.  Pretty good gig...

We're currently at the end of the semester, a time where kids are overwhelmed, a million things are due, every virus known to humanity it making its way through the student body and synapses are not necessarily firing as fast as they could be.  So rather than try to teach bebop or Monk, I've been trying to get kids to think about music from different points of view.  And out of the sky comes...

Uptown Funk.  Bruno Mars and some white dude named Mark Ronson.  (though the single flips that order)

75% of my students knew the tune, which in this day and age counts as saturation.  I found the tune because I read Grantland, who published a bit about it and Ronson. (to be fair, Mark Ronson is actually a big-time producer, and one of the driving forces behind Amy Winehouse's monster hit album Back in Black

Even in this day and age, I found this tune and video astonishing how boldly and intentionally derivative this tune is.  It reminds me of several 1970s classical "post-modern" pieces I studied at Eastman that were basically remixes of canonical classical pieces played either for laughs or for cultural reassessment.   To wit (and I discussed this in some detail with my class):

- The tune is a bald-faced mash-up of Chic's "Le Freak" and the Time's "Jungle Love".  The first line of the lyric is a Scarface reference ("Michelle Pfieffer, that white gold").   Maybe the "Hallehujah" in the first bridge is a Ray Charles reference.  Okay, that might be stretching it, but... "Kiss myself I'm so pretty" is definitely a reference to Morris Day or James Brown, or both...

-  Visually, in the first minute the video is a smorgesbord of intentional references to the MTV of yesteryear.  The street setting recalls the iconic MJ "Way You Make Me Feel" video, the opening shot of the lower half of a hot woman recalls  ZZ Top's "She's Got Legs"  (or, pick any number of mid-80s rock videos that disembody women.  One of my female students pointed out sharply that you see quite a few hot women in the video, but only there bodies, never their faces.  Which of course is rather noxious sexist gesture, and another conversation) Those disembodies at about :50 call to mind a flapper, a vamp from an 80s video, and a "flygirl" from any number of rap videos circa 1991.)  Then you have a strobed shot of Ronson screaming, which invokes either Max Headroom or a couple of the groundbreaking Peter Gabriel videos circa "Sledgehammer".  The "fish-eye" shot of Mars and his posse was a staple of early Spike Lee movies and many a hip-hop video of the early 90's.  (The Roots skewered this and every other rap conceit in one of their first videos.  TWENTY YEARS AGO!  "What They Do" aged well.)

- Mars, with his pink sport jacket, recalls Don Johnson in Miami Vice.  Robson, with his shades and grey shirt, recalls Rick Ocesak in all of those iconic Cars videos.  Two of the backups in Mars' entourage particularly jumped out at me.  One is dressed almost exactly like a member of Run DMC (forgive me, I can't remember which one). Another, with his Kangoo and all black ensemble looks a hell of a lot like LL Cool J circa "Goin' Back to Cali".  I have no idea what the hair curlers bit means, but then again I didn't have MTV as a kid...

I could keep going, but I hope you get the point.  I talked about the tune to open a discussion about art, "signifiers" and cultural appropriation*.  The student presentation before this talk analyzed a tune that featured the great (white) cornetist Bix Biederbeck, who along with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver is one of the premier jazz brass players of the 1920s.  Biederbeck, who was white, first was attracted to jazz by the recordings of the "Original Dixieland Jazz Band", an all white outfit who for many good reasons continue to be controversial nearly 100 years after they released the first jazz record ever.  Any conversation about the ODJB or Biederbeck bring to the fore thorny issues of race and appropriation, cultural acceptance and creative freedom.  To me they embody Public Enemy's lyric about Elvis: heroes to many but they didn't mean S&*t to me.  

Here you have a white British producer and guitarist presenting a Hawaiian frontman and a black band playing a tune that is as boldfaced a rip-off of late 70s and early 80s booty-shaking music.  As bold an appropriation of (what Nic Payton calls) "BAM", Black American Music as I've ever seen.  (to be fair, to my mind and ears last year's poster child for this kind of work, "Blurred Lines", was worse in every way)  And yet I don't hate it- it's catchy, the groove is tight, and I think the appropriation is honest and meant to be as reverential as one can be in the marketplace.  But at the same time I can't bring myself to like it either- it's just too damn derivative.  You should've heard the snickers in the room when, after two minutes of this tune I stopped it and played "Jungle Love" for my students.  They caught on immediately.  Is this the future of pop music, clever but vapid mash-ups of something that once upon a time was incredibly funky?  

I have no answers, only questions.  Thoughts are appreciated.

*I realize that this song is not the first time this has happened- I we could have this conversation about Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" or Amy Winehouse or many other songs going back all the way to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  But there was something about the overload of bald-faced references in this song and video that really hit me.  The referencing is so thorough that it was almost overwhelming.  The difference with Bix Biderbeck (or Stan Getz, or Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis, or Peter Gabriel, or even John Mayer) is that while their debt to BAM is obvious and unplayable, they really worked to be creative artists in their own right, attempting with whatever level of success to pull their own voice out of their influences.  Here, I don't here any original voice, just a mash-up of what was before.