From: Nate Chinen
Dear Peter, Greg, Giovanni and Jim,
Have you all heard Jazz at Storyville, the Dave Brubeck album? Recorded for Fantasy at the Boston nightclub Storyville, mostly on a single October afternoon in 1952, it’s but a glistening fleck of foam in the oceanic expanse of Brubeck’s recording career. No surprise that it didn’t turn up in the acres of coverage of that venerable pianist’s death last week*, though I’ll confess that it’s one of the Brubeck performances that always springs to my mind, for the urbane and offhandedly searching aspects of its style.
Brubeck and Paul Desmond, his peerlessly sympathetic melodic partner, were both in their 30s at the time of this recording, which was made under somewhat larkish circumstances. According to Nat Hentoff, Brubeck’s bassist had to miss the afternoon set; moreover, “the bulk of the audience had not yet arrived and so they were playing entirely for and between themselves.” Brubeck’s delicate but impassive abstraction of “Over the Rainbow” would seem to bear out that point. As would this gorgeously mentholated version of “You Go to My Head,” a near-perfect distillation of the Brubeck-Desmond hookup, negotiated on absolutely casual terms (complete with the whistling of a patron):
You may be wondering why I’m hitting you up with these stirrings from a sparsely attended club set 50 years ago. For one thing, I was determined not to open our exchange with a mournful or valedictory tone — despite the enormity of Brubeck’s passing, less than a week ago, and despite some other flickers of finality. This weekend we saw the last of Zebulon, an important way-out incubator in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; we also received word of the change of ownership at the Lenox Lounge in Harlem, the same neighborhood that bid farewell to St. Nick’s Pub in the spring. (Greg, given your deep history in the area, I’m hoping you have some thoughts on this topic. Gio, you call D.C. home, but perhaps you do too.) I should add that the recent devastation of Sandy meant a temporary inconvenience for the Manhattan jazz-club ecosystem but a real game-changer elsewhere — Jim, as a native of Red Hook, Brooklyn, I know this was painfully true for you.
More farewells: It was just weeks ago that we lost Pete La Roca Sims and Ted Curson, a pair of musicians largely underestimated by the public, if not by their peers. It’s been a couple of months now since we lost David S. Ware, who reached his stature partly by making underestimation impossible. Unlike Brubeck, these were artists who might not have had the opportunity to say everything they wanted to say. Which brings me to pianist-composer Austin Peralta, whose death at 22 (and just barely that) must be the year’s most heartbreaking jazz story. I have no in-person frame of reference for his playing, which makes me feel both derelict and deprived. Every indication pointed toward a promising future.
But! (you knew there was one coming) I honestly can’t assess the past year with anything other than a sense of renewed wonder. Since we’re on the subject of promising young pianists, consider the wealth of talent currently fitting that description: Fabian Almazan, Bobby Avey, Jonathan Batiste, Kris Bowers, Gerald Clayton, Aaron Diehl, Eldar Djangirov, John Escreet, Lawrence Fields, Aaron Parks, David Virelles... and that’s just guys under 30, each with his own spin. Surely I am leaving some people out. This week I’ll be seeing Christian Sands at the Village Vanguard, about a year after he knocked me out in the same room.
What I love about this moment in the music is its openness, the sense of possibility that rumbles out in almost every direction. I witnessed a lot of things this year reminiscent of that Brubeck-Desmond expedition, and I’m not talking about style so much as feeling.
Consider one blessed three-day span from my calendar, back in April. On Tuesday I heard the Billy Hart Quartet, with Mark Turner on tenor, Ethan Iverson on piano and Ben Street on bass; their interaction was even looser and lighter than on the fine album they released this year. On Wednesday I heard alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry, with a band that featured Mike Rodriguez on trumpet and Pedrito Martinez on congas and Yoruban chant. On Thursday I heard the Vijay Iyer Trio (more on that in a moment). And all this during a week in which I was writing a Tim Berne profile for JazzTimes, on the occasion of his superb outing Snakeoil. All of you have similar stories, I know: Jim, you get out in NYC as much as anyone, and Peter and Gio, you cover scenes outside that scope. Greg, I have a hunch your highlight reel will differ slightly from mine, too.
Curious to hear whether you all agree that the old arguments about “tradition” vs. “innovation” ring so obviously hollow now. (Maybe so?) One of my indelible experiences of this year was hearing Cecil Taylor at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, as he served up an art he has been steadily refining for an eon. One of the most mysterious was hearing a sextet led by the aforementioned Clayton — not a vanguardist by reputation — work through its new variations on post-bop form. I’m leaving the Top 10 analysis for a later post (you’re all welcome to get an early jump), but it strikes me as salutary that Vijay Iyer, one of Cecil’s children, gathered so much critical mojo this year, cleaning up in an unprecedented five categories in the DownBeat Critic’s Poll. I rang the bell when Accelerando was about to drop, but even in armchair-prediction mode I wouldn’t have expected that. Then again, that album features the fondest Ellingtonian sendoff of any I can think of this year.
(One of the many shows I was sorry to miss, btw, was Iyer and Mike Ladd premiering “Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dream Project.” I’d be curious to hear your take, if you were there. And speaking of intertextural art by concept-minded pianists, scheduling woes kept me from catching Jason Moran at the Whitney Biennial, an omission that the review by Ben Ratliff instantly made me regret. I did hear Moran with the Bandwagon a couple of weeks ago, though, and left with plenty to chew on.)
There’s so much else to say, but I want to wrap up my chorus before I lose the crowd. Guys, thanks for taking part in this year’s roundtable — can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to your responses. Take the conversation in any direction you like. (And you at home, don’t hesitate to add your thoughts below.) So with that, I hand the mic to Peter. Every ending holds a new beginning, or so I’m told.
*(There’s an indirect allusion to Jazz at Storyville in Ratliff’s excellent obituary in the NY Times: “By the time of an engagement in Boston in the fall of 1952 they had become one of jazz’s greatest combinations,” he writes, referring of course to Brubeck and Desmond.)