"Floratone II," Jenny Scheinman's "Mischief & Mayhem"
"Floratone II," Jenny Scheinman's "Mischief & Mayhem"
El Rego et Ses Commandos, the Jeff Gauthier Goatette,
Dub Trio, Travis Laplante, Hakon Kornstad
Aaron Goldberg and Guillermo Klein, BB&C,
Woods, Diskjokke, Youssou N’Dour
From: Shaun Brady
Dear Nate, Chris, Jen, and David:
A happy holiday of choice or lack thereof to each of you. Can’t think of better company to be huddling around a virtual Yule log with.
Nate, you led with the seeming lack of narrative to this year’s jazz developments, but perhaps it’s the absence of story that is the story. My year-end blizzard of list-making and poll-taking also involves film, and many of this year’s slots are taken by works that are at least ambiguous if not downright opaque in their storytelling. So why shouldn’t our music of choice reflect this non-linear reality? You and Chris both raise the specter of those perennial arguments about what we’re allowed to call jazz or whether the genre still has a pulse, but it seems that even within the more expansive definition that I think we all subscribe to, the boundaries -- between jazz and rock, inside and outside - are being blurred in increasingly thrilling ways.
Take those guitarists who made such an impact this year, for instance. Nels Cline’s output was nothing if not sprawling, from the epic landscapes of Dirty Baby to the deliciously skronky excesses of Inititate, which deserves its spot on my Top 10 jazz CDs list but may equally deserve the top perch on a 2010 rock wrap-up. Once upon a time there was such a thing as an instrumental hit -- classic rock radio can still be counted on for regular spins of “Frankenstein” or “Hocus Pocus” -- and if we still lived in that world, Wilco may well be opening for the Singers these days.
Mary Halvorson snagged the first slot on my list this year with Saturn Sings, a prime example of a new generation of jazz that has the lessons of rock burned into its brains, revealing itself through an emergent pop sensibility in compositions, band interaction, a certain aggressiveness, without having to strive consciously for so-called “fusion.”
None of this, of course, would please the Crouch-Marsalis faction, the latter represented this year by Jason’s “Jazz Nerds” screed, a somewhat more nuanced argument than that usually associated with his rearview-fixated older brother. If the Marsalis name is too tainted by the tired old “Jazz Police” arguments, a similar line in the sand between “emotional” and “intellectual” approaches in other camps. As its members will eagerly point out, the provocatively-named Tarbaby is meant to provoke just such a discussion, one involving tradition, swing and race that pianist Orrin Evans delights in provoking.
You can add Evans (pictured at top) to that list of pianists who dominated the year, by the way. Besides the fine sophomore Tarbaby disc, he released Faith In Action, a tribute to mentor Bobby Watson, and assembled his Captain Black Big Band with the bandleader’s equivalent of spit and chewing gum. A recording is on the horizon, but here in Philly we got to watch the band evolve in real time through a months-long residency last winter at Chris’ Jazz Café, from a raucously skin-of-their-teeth ensemble to a still-raw but cohesive ensemble. Evans is also a dedicated exponent of the dying art of the jam session, having hosted several in the city in a willful attempt to recreate the conditions in which he came up (under, I should add, the guiding presence of pianist Sid Simmons, a sad addition to the year’s obituary list).
But an equal part of Evans’ output this year comes through his intentional provocations on Facebook, in which he has, among other no-punches-pulled rants, called out musicians playing what he refers to as “metrosexual jazz” (roughly equivalent to Jason Marsalis’ “Nerds”). Though his voice doesn’t have quite the reach, if you’re looking for the outspokenness of a Miles or Kanye in today’s jazz, Evans is as good a place as any to start.
Nate, it’s been about two years since your JazzTimes column regarding Facebook, and how friending musicians offers an ethical quandary for a critic. I’m wondering how you weigh in on that debate now, and how everyone here handles it, as the site has become an increasingly interesting locus for conversation, debate, and sharing of thoughts, videos, et cetera. I haven’t built the wall around my Facebook that you wrote about, Nate, though I see your point and think it might be ideal to maintain separate professional and personal identities (advice I haven’t taken, as the thought of checking two separate Facebook profiles horrifies my antisocial soul).
As I glance over at your Twitter feed, I notice that mine is the sole name amongst our round-tablers who lacks an “@” symbol next to his name, and it’s true -- I’m a curmudgeonly holdout on the Twitter front. So for those of you who dwell within the jazz Twitterverse, how that has impacted the real-time conversation for you, and are you dealing with similar moral minefields there?
I mentioned some of the advantages of being in Philly with regards to Orrin Evans, and I’ll also take up your suggestion to celebrate the decade of Ars Nova Workshop. David and Nate especially, you know how much bleaker the jazz landscape would be here without Mark Christman’s efforts, and as other programmers have come and gone it’s especially impressive that he’s stuck to it for so long. Beyond simply bringing the avant-gardist du jour, ANW’s programming has gotten increasingly inventive, especially via its Composer’s Portraits series, which early this year saw Ken Vandermark, Trevor Dunn and Karl Berger all presenting unique Don Cherry-inspired programs.
Sorry, Chris, didn’t manage to sample a bottle of Bitches’ Brew, despite Dogfish Head’s brewpub being as close as I get to beach in Rehoboth, Delaware these days. Maybe I’ll go hunt down a bottle as I pass the baton.
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?
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 not alone in 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.)
Mass MoCA, August 13 to 15
Photo appears courtesy of Greg Aiello
The new issue of JazzTimes is out, with my cover story on Nels Cline, the formidable lead guitarist in Wilco and avant-garde jazz assassin. I had a lot of fun with the assignment, and got some nice access to Cline, surely one of the humbler guys ever to take a stage in front of 10,000 screaming fans. Here I thought I’d add a few things that didn’t make it into the piece, for issues of space or continuity or focus. Or oversight. Or space. (Did I say that already?)