Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, Jan. 14
Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, Jan. 14
From: Greg Thomas
Dear Nate, Peter, Gio and Jim:
I too thank Nate for the chance to pitch in some musings for our literary jam session about jazz in 2012.
I can’t help but begin with some reflections on Dave Brubeck: when someone of his indelible cultural and musical import departs earth, it’s always a blow to those of us remaining who care. But I lean to the ancestral tradition of celebrating the life and accomplishments of a great man such as Brubeck more than mourning his death. No, Nate, I wasn’t hip to Jazz at Storyville but thanks to you and Spotify, I’ve added it to my storehouse of musical memories of what must be one of the greatest musical partnerships in jazz history.
Through Brubeck’s recordings I fell in love, as a teen beginner playing a Bundy alto sax, with Paul Desmond’s sweet and dry tone, his graceful melodicism, his beautiful counter-statement to the fires of Bird-derived bebop, and even his sense of humor. I recall once reading that Desmond claimed not to practice too much because when he did, he began to play too fast!
Yet, of course, Brubeck was for me more than just a bridge to the glories of Paul Desmond; for example, his 5/4 and 9/8 time experiments on “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk”— both from the classic Time Out record — stretched my sonic perception, while strengthening my appreciation for the ground of swing being never too far away, no matter how “further out” Brubeck experimented with “time.” Furthermore, the social and political significance of Dave and Iola Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors cannot be overstated, particularly when considering the social and political era of its creation during the Civil Rights movement. His greatness extended to mastery not only because of his designation as a NEA Jazz Master in 1999, but because of the establishment of the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific a year later.
When I had the great fortune to interview Mr. Brubeck preceding a double bill with Ramsey Lewis at Jazz at Lincoln Center a few years ago, his palpable pride in the educational achievements of the institution bearing his name was inspiring.
That’s a good word to sum up my overall feeling about jazz in 2012: inspiring. I confess that I’m an eternal optimist, but no matter the usual mainstream media blackout of jazz, no matter the sad closings of iconic, down-home venues such as St. Nick’s Pub and the Lenox Lounge in Harlem, and no matter the attention on the Internet to yet another jazz obit, this time in The Atlantic, jazz music not only survives but thrives. Although I’ve been writing about the music for about a quarter century, my newfound media perch at the New York Daily News has given me a perspective from which to see the exciting developments in the music, especially on record and in New York City.
But over this past summer, I experienced more of the music away from the media, financial, and (so-called) jazz capital.
For instance, I had the good fortune to visit Joburg, South Africa for the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival. I witnessed the open-arm receptivity of a native African audience, who drank in the music —without the consideration of strict genre demarcations — like it was the nectar of the gods. (I must admit, though, that, as a black American, it was very strange staying at a five-star hotel with toiletries that had the brand name “Plantation.”)
At the Montreal Jazz Festival, the world’s largest, an eclectic gaggle of ensembles presented music that festival founder Andre Menard calls “cousins and neighbors” of jazz. Unless one is a member of the genre police, I think such diversity is cool, as long as what some call “mainstream” jazz is represented in due measure. (Please, don’t ask me what that proportional measure should be, because I candidly don’t know.) I especially appreciated the chance to hear pianists making waves in Europe such as Tord Gustavsen and Jef Neve. (Peter, since you hail from Canada, I’m curious about your take on the Montreal Fest.)
The largest jazz festival in the U.S., the Detroit Jazz Festival, was another joyful summer excursion, where a felicitous pairing of Lew Tabackin and Randy Brecker was one of many highlights. And a road trip with fellow jazz scribes Howard Mandel, Laurence Donahue-Green, Terrell Holmes, Ted Panken and Kelvin Williams to the oldest jazz festival, in Newport, Rhode Island, was just plain ol’ fun.
The snapshots of these events were proof positive to me that a plethora of great music is being written and played under the banner of jazz and related forms. (And, as per usual, there’s also a heap of so-so and not so great music being produced, jazz and otherwise.) Now, I realize that as a native New Yorker, I’m prone to the myopic, misguided view that what’s happening here is indicative of the state of jazz overall. So my travels, as goes the cliché, broadened my horizons.
Yet some of my most expansive and thrilling experiences this year happened right in the Big Apple.
Take Brian Lynch. He gets my vote for Most Valuable Player on trumpet this year. I saw Lynch kickin’ it with Phil Woods at Dizzy’s, Charles McPherson at the Jazz Standard, and Eddie Palmieri at the Blue Note (and in South Africa). In each case, not only did he hold his own; he elevated the music with his intensity and power. I witnessed a wild concert by Donald Harrison at Symphony Space, and I mean wild in a good sense. He and his young charges — Zaccai and Luques Curtis, Christian Scott, and others — tore up the stage in the first half with standards and the progressive new style Harrison ambitiously calls “quantum jazz,” yet followed up in the second with imminently danceable New Orleans and R&B styling. Instead of sounding schizophrenic, the music seemed part of an organic whole with Harrison at the center.
In Harlem, shows at Harlem Stage (on the campus of City College) such as the tribute to Cecil Taylor featuring Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, and Amina Claudine Myers bristled with a spirit of creative experimentation and free improvisation. (“Holding It Down: The Veteran’s Dream Project,” Nate, was spoken-word and poetry-driven with a musical backdrop that at times over-powered clear hearing of the words. Vijay’s piano playing, however, respectfully took a back seat to the scenes depicted by the words and filmic images.) I had a whooping good time at the Apollo Theater for the second year where Wycliffe Gordon led an old-style music variety show for the Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival that maintained high artistry and entertainment value in comparable measure.
I regret the aforementioned closings in Harlem, as I feel sad about the closing of Mobay Uptown on 125th Street near Fifth Avenue, where the ambrosial Caribbean and Southern cuisine would often be accompanied by a live jazz band. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Showman’s Café, Bill’s Place, Creole Restaurant, Londel’s, and Ginny’s Supper Club (below Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster) are still presenting jazz in Harlem, as the National Jazz Museum in Harlem offers (mostly) free public programming every single week. As well, a re-opening of the historic Minton’s is planned for next year under the leadership of corporate titan Richard Parsons and restaurateur Alexander Smalls.
There’s always much to lament about the human condition generally and the state of jazz specifically, most surely, but I tend to accentuate the positive, such as the release by the young saxophonist Brandon Wright, “Journeyman,” a straight-ahead session that fired up my ears through a Bose Wave System and continues to please upon repeated plays.
I’m not much bothered, Peter, by Jarrett’s Sleeper and Truesdell’s Gil Evans Centennial Project being classed as two of the best of 2012, based on the criterion of release date. But if today’s music, say, pales in comparison — not an argument I’m making, and not you either, I suspect — then I think we should question the music of today, not fret over fears of being retro.
By the way, I’m going to hear Chris Botti at the Blue Note for his upcoming three-week run, Peter. Some feel about him as I do about Kenny G — nice sound, but damn, man: do you make music with the elevator and your bank account as the primary considerations? — but I’m reserving judgment so I can feel his integrity (or lack thereof) in person.
And as far as the tradition vs. innovation debate, it’s always rung hollow to me because of how it’s framed. To me, it’s both/and rather than either/or. I’m strong on the fundamentals of jazz as a form serving as a basis of innovation, and as indicative of a continuum of artistic growth. But an emphasis on innovation as a be-all and end-all, I think, is immature and flirts with the risk of decadence. My postmodern friends may disagree, but, paraphrasing Yeats, if there’s no center, things fall apart and anarchy reigns.
But I’m prayerful that we’ve transcended such debates, and can, instead, focus on how jazz, as a musical practice and value system, has suffused the consciousness and identity of people globally. On that I hope we can agree, especially in light of Herbie Hancock’s International Jazz Day initiative.
Lastly, have you noticed a trend toward even less long group runs at clubs where you live? I have here, with Dizzy’s changing from a 6-night a week policy to a usual, now, maximum of four days. At the Kitano Club a two-night run has become hard to come by. If this is a trend, is this because most groups these days, aside from the biggest names in the jazz biz, have inadequate drawing power to make such runs an even break-even proposition? Perhaps I’ve answered my own question just by asking.
From: Peter Hum
Hi Nate, Greg, Gio and Jim,
First, thanks to Nate for asking me to chip in from the Canadian jazz hinterland. Is there freezing rain pelting down where you are too, turning cars into giant ice cubes?
Let me give a jazz-related shout out to my Ottawa Citizen colleagues. Good on them — good on us, the major daily newspaper in Canada’s capital — for putting the obit for Dave Brubeck on the front page of last Thursday’s arts section. I didn’t even have a hand in that bit of stellar news judgment, I swear. Granted, Brubeck had played twice in the last five years at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, packing Confederation Park in the process. But judging from the chitchat in the newsroom, and from what I saw on Twitter and Facebook (where news, alas, happens first), I think that Brubeck’s passing really resonated at large, and not just with people like me who heard “Strange Meadowlark” decades ago and were forever hooked on jazz by that Ab7#11. What I saw spoke to the power of great jazz — especially when it’s a gateway into the music for an impressionable mind — to lodge itself, inextricably so, in someone’s memory as a treasured, sentimental favourite.
I’d love to extrapolate from the outpouring of attention to Brubeck’s passing — and, for that matter, in response to Austin Peralta’s sad, sad death — that jazz, whatever that means to everyone else, still matters beyond the jazz bubble, despite all the nay-saying. It’s not that the music’s dying yet again (Seriously, The Atlantic?), or riven by feuding clans, as if the Hatfields and McCoys were in some kind of tradition-vs.-innovation cage match. Brubeck’s death might remind civilians and us alike that jazz, while admittedly large, loose and even monstrous (as Henry James famously said of 19th-Century novels), can indeed inspire a sense of renewed wonder (as Nate almost as famously wrote in his kick-off letter).
In case you’re thinking that glasses in Canada are overly rose-coloured (sorry – colored), I’ll add that yes, it’s a drag that Taylor Swift is worth two Ottawa jazz festivals. It sucks that as much as everybody we know loves Vijay Iyer, someone else might write him up as a poster boy for jazz-that-can’t-be-popular. It’s a kick in the jewels that Café Paradiso, the leading (some would say only) jazz club in my city of a million or so — the way station for folks like Dave Liebman, Ben Monder/Theo Bleckmann, Sheila Jordan, Marc Copland, John Abercrombie and Steve Kuhn, not to mention innumerable Canadian players I’d love to hip you to — shut its doors in June after a dozen years or so of fighting the good fight. It pains me that when they name a street after Monk in New York, they can’t spell Thelonious right. It can be rough out there for jazz, but how significant are these setbacks and slights? I’ll side with Lee Konitz, who affirms that “as long as there are people trying to play music in a sincere way, there will be some jazz.”
My highlight reel from 2012 won’t be the same as yours. To get to the Vanguard or the Jazz Gallery, Korzo or Carnegie Hall, it’s a seven-hour drive from my house. But as admittedly very anecdotal evidence that great music is taking place beyond the coverage of the New York Times and the jazz periodicals, I’ll mention that, for example, I saw Dave Douglas play his ass off twice this summer. He was ass-less and practically leaping off the bandstand with the Sound Prints group he runs with Joe Lovano at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, and then igniting things in a decommissioned church’s basement with a quartet that includes Steve Swallow and two Canadian youngbloods, Chet and Jim Doxas, at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival.
This summer, I twice saw the Fellowship Band turn a big park audience into a Vanguard-like congregation (although in the second instance I had to travel to France). I almost saw Dave Holland three nights in a row, playing pristine duets with Kenny Barron, with the sublime Thimar trio, and the inaugural gig for his visceral, molten Prism group with Craig Taborn, Kevin Eubanks and Eric Harland. Take that, bifurcating traditionalists and innovators.
Oh — I twice passed on Chris Botti.
I was able to catch Jack DeJohnette’s hard-thrashing group without having to go to Newport, hear two burning sets of Liebman’s group without going to the Deer Head Inn. (Aside: does Lieb, even with his NEA Jazz Masters award, get all the love he deserves?) At jam sessions in Ottawa, I saw Eric Harland, Taylor Eigsti and Dan Tepfer (on melodica) put “Solar” through the wringer, and I saw Kneebody play “Epistrophy” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.” If someone were to come up to me after hearing any one of these concerts, and say, “Ah yes, but I pined for more tradition or innovation in that music,” I would have smacked them for completely missing the point, which is the wonderment.
I want to ask you about two recordings that dropped this year and that I thought were wonderful. No points for guessing that I have in mind Keith Jarrett’s Sleeper and the Gil Evans Centennial Project release from Ryan Truesdell. How did you gauge those discs with the best of 2012, given that Jarrett’s European group made its incandescent music in 1979, or that some of the Evans material was older than Birth of the Cool?
What I’m inclined to take away from these delayed gratifications is that arguments about jazz styles evolving or decaying themselves shrivel up when time-defying music is pulsing through the Sennheisers. The power of those discs makes me hopeful that in 2042 or 2062, some freshly unearthed music by Iyer or Rudresh Mahanthappa, or Brad Mehldau or Kurt Rosenwinkel, or Ambrose Akinmusire or Robert Glasper, or someone none of us have heard yet, will be making heads spin.