Part Three of a year-end email conversation with Peter Hum, Jim Macnie, Giovanni Russonello and Greg Thomas(Jump to: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5| 6| 7| 8| 9| 10| 11 )
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
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.
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.)
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.
Photo: Tomoji Hirakata
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
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
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.
Part Two of a year-end email conversation with Peter Hum, Jim Macnie, Giovanni Russonello and Greg Thomas(Jump to: 1 | 2 | 3| 4 | 5| 6| 7| 8| 9| 10| 11 )
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 playedtwice
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
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
Chris Mikula, The Ottawa Citizen
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.