Part Two of a year-end email conversation with David Adler, Chris Barton, Shaun Brady and Jennifer Odell (Jump to: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10| 11)
From: Chris Barton
Dear Shaun, Jen, David and Nate:
Greetings and happy year-end to you all -- and we’re off and running, I’ll do my best to keep the torch upright.
First off, thank you for putting that Mtume v. Stanley Crouch face-off in your kick-starter post, Nate. I saw that video make the rounds awhile back, but never made time to watch. For what it’s worth, I had to take a second to make sure this was a new flare-up and not something that had surfaced recently from some roundtable years ago when that argument seemed to peak, like some long-lost outtake from an old album. Needless to say, this argument about Bitches Brew and acoustic music and what makes jazz *jazz* and all that blah blah is still raging somewhere just makes my teeth ache.
But that aside -- and may such border-wars fall quiet in 2011, if that’s possible (is it?) -- I want to follow your lead about two of the pianists you mentioned in Mehldau and Iverson (and I completely agree about this being a great year for pianists -- Aaron Goldberg’s another that turned my head nicely). Being at a paper that adheres to the ‘star system’ with album-rating, I hung a four-out-of-four on Highway Rider, something I’ll stand by even after listening all year. It was the sort of record that once I heard it I wanted to pass around to so many people I knew, and that’s even before seeing what happens with it live next month.
Interestingly, however, in the fractious Internet/social-media/insta-react-o-tron space your mentioned, a backlash hit that album fast, with a vigor that reminded me of the one that fell all over Franzen’s Freedom, another one that earned so much early praise. On one hand that seems to be some branch of human (or at least critic-human) nature, to throw up a ‘hold on a second’ when rave reviews start piling up, but on the other I wonder if Highway Rider took some heat for not sounding like either Largo or how anyone supposed it should have -- as if it was a sort of classical-inclined Bitches Brew, if I may strangle the transition. Or maybe since Mehldau gets slapped with some kind of pretentiousness badge here and there people react against that too. Then again, maybe some people simply thought it stunk and whattayagonnado. Still, it was interesting how heated the response to that became.
As for Iverson, and maybe this is simply the difference in being on the West Coast, but along the lines of the ‘mainstream conversation’ you mentioned it strikes me how little (present company excepted) the Bad Plus gets talked about anymore. Maybe after 10 years they’re just “that trio that does wacky stuff with the ‘120 Minutes’ songbook,” which would be a shame because I’m right there with you, Never Stop was their strongest record yet. Maybe there’s something in the ever-fractured promotion machine of 2010 that’s not serving them right, or maybe it’s a byproduct of not fitting into one category or another (whatever he might think of their songs, surely ‘Brother Stanley’ above would approve of how many things they plug in every night). It’s probably the sort of ‘what if’ talk that might be better left in our few remaining record store stockrooms, but I wonder what would happen with those guys if they landed an opening slot with like the Black Keys or something, where would the public consciousness go from there? Could that kind of bill-mixing even happen at this point? I’m guessing If anyone could or would even want to do something like that it would be Kanye, which might cause the internet to collapse.
(One more thing: after seeing the Bad Plus again in a tiny club in West LA last week, I hope New York at least had some period in the last 10 years where ‘Dave King is God’ was tagged on subway platforms across the city. Too far-fetched?)
Speaking of virtuosi, that brings us to Nels, someone else who enjoyed a 10-year-anniversary with the Singers’ Initiate (maybe there’s some kind of ‘the year of the 10 year’ list that should come together). On top of that record’s madcap dip into ‘70s fusion in its own right, yes, Dirty Baby was really something. Though its message got a little heavy handed in spots, musically it was remarkable seeing all the moving parts all come together, something that didn’t happen so easily for me on paper. So, I’d say about a level 8 out of 10 kicking yourself, if there was a possibility of catching it, though I’m betting we’ll hear echoes of Dirty Baby in where Cline goes from here.
One surprise late this year is how that show set the table nicely for Cline’s appearance at an Alice Coltrane tribute months later, one that surprised me by not being a showcase for a galaxy of effects and sonic splatter-art (which, to be clear, I completely love) and instead again going someplace further inward that was more composed and orchestrated. I don’t know where iPhone Nation was during Cline and his crew’s cover of Charlie Haden that night, but I’ll settle for the Singers’ (w/ Yuka Honda) doing a Tiny Desk concert for NPR by way of example:
Having said that, most of you all may now tell me the 10-out-of-10 level kicking myself I should be embarking on for not seeing that Undead Fest, to say nothing for just about any given night at Ars Nova. I hope someone somewhere is working on an effective way to fold the country in half.
And did anyone try Dogfish’s ‘Bitches Brew’? Will they make more or will I have to wait 40 years until it’s remixed and reissued?
Part One of a year-end email conversation with David Adler, Chris Barton, Shaun Brady and Jennifer Odell (Jump to: 1 |2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10| 11)
From: Nate Chinen
Joe Kohen for The New York Times
Dear Chris, Shaun, Jen and David,
Well, here we are, closing the lid on another year in jazz, and I can’t decide what narrative to impose. Was this a time of mortal reflection, with the departures of Hank Jones, Abbey Lincoln and James Moody, among so many others? Or a season of triumph, as we observed the endless vitality of Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman and Roy Haynes? Was this the year that proved, with a horde of hard-charging younger talent, that jazz is -- in the words of a certain upstart summer festival -- not dead, but Undead? Or was it just another 12 months of hustling, out in the clubs and concert halls, and in the cloistered spaces where we do our solitary listening? Maybe Option E, for all of the above?
Whatever it was, we tracked and chronicled this year in real time (or, as our social-media metabolism might have it, hyper-real time), and I’m wondering how it looks to you now, with a wisp of hindsight. So to keep up a tradition of sorts at The Gig, I’ve asked you all to engage in a bit of year-end banter. Thanks for joining me -- this should be fun.
At this point you’ve probably sent in your ballots and compiled your lists, and it’ll be fascinating (to some of us, at least) to see where consensus forms. My Top 10 will be posted later this week, so for now I’m going to change the subject slightly. I recently appeared on BBC radio to air my conviction that pianists came out in full force this year. It would have been startlingly easy for me to construct a Top 10 of just pianistic efforts. Others might do the same for guitarists, or drummers.
But consider: Geri Allen, Vijay Iyer, Benôit Delbecq and Matthew Shipp each released a provocative solo disc. Keith Jarrett took the duo route. For trios, try Fred Hersch, Dan Tepfer, Frank Kimbrough, Delbecq again, Kris Davis, Russ Lossing, etc. Larger concepts? Try Myra Melford, Randy Weston, Danilo Pérez, Brad Mehldau. And then there were Jason Moran and Ethan Iverson, each with a band commemorating a decade of strong, unmistakable work.
About that commemoration: we like anniversaries and round numbers. It’s a way of organizing time, reselling material and sifting winners out of the historical mess. (We jazzbos are notalonein this.)
There was nothing perfunctory or contrived, though, about Ten, the album released this year by Moran’s Bandwagon, or Never Stop, the one put out by Iverson with the Bad Plus (above). In both cases you heard the cumulative weight and wisdom of the last 10 years, and a clear sense of intelligent artists taking the measure of their art.
A similar sense of purpose lit up several other commemorative moments this year. (I refer you to the aforementioned Rollins and Haynes.) Shaun and David, I’m sure you both paid close attention to the 10th anniversary of Ars Nova Workshop, the nonprofit Philadelphia presenting organization run by my friend Mark Christman. (More on that in a future post, perhaps.) We commemorate because we care.
And, in some rare cases, because we can make a lot of money. (I’m using the Royal We, in case there was any doubt.) Remember Bitches Brew? Perhaps you know that it turned 40 this year. Perhaps you noticed the all-out promotional push, the shiny new product, the unreleased live footage, the licensed Dogfish Head brew. I never said I was opposed to all of this, by the way.
Why bring up Bitches Brew? I’ll blame Kanye West. (Stay with me here, people.) In the musical world beyond jazz, which most of us also cover in one form or another, this is shaping up to be Annus Kanyebilis, with his new-school media strategy a proven success and his recorded opus landing rave upon rave. No one in pop was more compelling to watch this year, whether you believed you were witnessing aesthetic genius or riveted by a car crash. At times West himself seems unsure about which is which; you all saw the Runaway movie, I presume.
Thinking about how West conquered every room he entered this year, I drew the only parallel that seemed really apt: to post-Bitches Miles Davis, another frequently bedeviled African-American sound-sculptor drawn to aggressive reinvention, unbridled ego and rococo indulgence. This parallel doesn’t entirely flatter either artist.
But jazzfolk often complain about how their music gets left out of the mainstream conversation. Miles would have none of that, for better or for worse. If the timing had worked differently, I suspect he might have put in a cameo on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, even if that title is more Mingus-esque in syntax and scope. Look at how much steam can still be generated by Bitches Brew, all these years later. That level of cultural cachet seems to be precisely what West is reaching for.
Speaking of reaching, I believe this exhausts the air in the room, for now. I gladly pass the baton to Chris, out in Los Angeles. Take it in any direction you like, good sir, but just answer me this: was the Nels Cline Dirty Baby premiere as unmissable as it seemed? (Sub-question: how hard should I be kicking myself, still?) cheers to all, Nate
Yesterday’s Jazz Matters panel on the Best of 2010 was a blast -- it could only have been improved by a stronger turnout and pitchers of draft beer. (Jazz Journalists Association president Howard Mandel, our moderator, voiced his awareness that those two things are probably related.) I could hardly put together a more astute or collegial crew than the one David Adler assembled, with WBGO’s Josh Jackson and Down Beat’s Jim Macnie (and of course, Adler himself). There was plentiful agreement; I’m amused to report that the only real dissent formed around one of my picks. Read on for more about that.
But first, a side note on the comments below my last related post. Mahalo to everyone who contributed picks (and keep it coming)! I’m intrigued by the apparent consensus around Mary Halvorson’s new album, and can’t help but muse about selection bias: beyond this here blog-ville, and the teeming urban centers, how are people feeling about it? Or perhaps the salient question is: who hasn’t heard it that should? On the panel I wondered aloud whether it would even show up in the jazz-mag reader’s polls. It’s certainly in the running for my Top 10, as is the other comment-field-consensus pick, Jason Moran’s Ten. (Speaking of Halvorson and Moran, you saw this, right? Amen.)
Brad Mehldau and Jon Brion fit the definition of a mutual
admiration society. That much is probably evident in this story,
about their new collaboration, Highway Rider. It was certainly evident in the studio last spring, as they were
mixing the final tracks of the album.
“There’s nobody else like him,” Mehldau said of Brion then.
“Because he’s got those ears on the level of engineering, and detail, and his
approach to recording. It’s creative, like a jazz musician.”
And here’s Brion on Mehldau: “For my money he’s the single
most influential jazz musician going. If you want to talk about the ripple
effect, I don’t see anybody else out there doing anything that is so permeating
in its nature on other people playing the instrument. He has certainly
to my ears become the de facto standard-bearer.”
collaboration, Largo, was
striking in its calibration of the spontaneous and the meticulous: a balance
crudely formulated as jazz + pop. Its influence has been serious (see yesterday’s
post), and its legacy enduring. Considering it in light of Highway Rider, though, you come to the issue of the cover tune.
(The new album doesn’t have any.) As it happens, the cover tune is one more point
of agreement between Mehldau and Brion. Consider this exchange, which is mostly
I’ve blobbedbefore in this space about Highway Rider, the new Brad Mehldau album, produced by Jon Brion. Chances are, you already know that it’s their first collaboration since Largo, which was released in 2002. I wanted to take the opportunity to not only tackle the new release but also revisit the implications of the older one, which has come to mean a lot more than it did on first arrival. So that was the explicit angle of this piece, in the current Arts & Leisure section.
One thing that struck me, as I dug around, was how
deeply Largo resonated with younger
musicians. I had expected it, but not quite to this extent. Marco
Benevento (above), has a track on his next album -- Between Needles
and Nightfall, due out in May -- that
explicitly invokes the Mehldau-Brion hookup. (It’s a waltz, sun-warped and
bittersweet.) Benevento told me he heard the rough mixes for Largo during a lesson with Mehldau, describing that moment
in the language of a convert. “It’s really just been a total
inspiring thing, very much like a calling: ‘Yes, this is the direction
where your heart is wanting to go.’” (You can hear the results of that
conviction right here.)
Another pianist, Frank LoCrasto, caught my ear a few years
ago with his debut, When You’re There. If
you can track it down, listen to “Overture/The Rathskeller/Interlude,” which
clearly evokes Brion. Or check the piano solo that follows Becca
Stevens’ vocal on “Gathered Impressions” -- trés Mehldau. This isn’t a matter
of abashment for LoCrasto, who affirmed that Largo provoked a sustained investigation into Brion’s history
as both a producer and a singer-songwriter. (To hear LoCrasto’s version of the
gospel, look here.)
I also heard form Erik Deutsch, whose Hush Money patently reflects a Largo influence. (That’s my assessment; judge for yourself.) “I had always been excited by Brad Mehldau’s playing, compositions, and treatment of contemporary covers, which spoke to my equal love for jazz, pop, and rock music,” Deutsch said in an email message.
“Largo was ambitious texturally and compositionally, and definitely true to the history of sonic rock n roll production. The impressionistic jazz drumming of the trio records was replaced with straight-up rock pocket playing. There were lush horn and synth pads, crusty loops, and bubbly drum programs. There were adventurous piano treatments, including heavy distortion. Also, there were very few solos, especially from anyone in the band besides the leader. It’s not that these techniques stemmed from totally new ideas, but they did represent a new direction in jazz music, one that made sense to a younger generation of musicians (including myself).”
Tomorrow I’ll post more on Highway Rider, with an emphasis on the Mehldau-Brion hookup,
and audio clips from the recording studio.
I’ve already sounded
the alarm on Brad Mehldau’s new album, Highway Rider. Here, via Nonesuch and the jazz blog Nextbop, is a behind-the-scenes EPK. And
yes, Jon Brion is exactly that animated about the state of jazz (though, I
suspect, secretly a bit less cynical).