For quite some time now, I've been privately (and sometimes semi-publicly) musing about the void left by master drummer Paul Motian, who died in November of 2011. The arrival of an incredibly well-stocked tribute concert, this evening at Symphony Space, provided an opportunity to peer into that void for a moment, in consultation with a handful of musicians, including the concert's chief organizers, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell. My principal intention with the piece was to stoke interest among those readers who maybe hadn't been lucky enough to witness Paul's magic firsthand.
I was going to use this blog platform to speak more to the choir, publishing some straight transcripts of my conversations, but then I saw the impressive job that Hank Shteamer did over at Time Out New York. Hank, a fellow drummer whose admiration for Motian can't be understated, spoke with more folks than I did, and has posted excerpts of his interviews online (in slideshow format). His entries on Lovano and Frisell include most of the same sentiment and background that I got, so that's where I'll steer you. And don't miss the stuff from Greg Osby and Andrew Cyrille.
I was sorry to let space constraints get in the way of some additional acknowledgments within the piece. Hans Wendl was another primary organizer of tonight's concert, and very close to Paul. And there are a number of musicians who aren't on the concert, but do belong in this conversation. (My piece, alas, was already beginning to feel overcrowded with names.) Who do I mean? Well, Russ Lossing, who released a poignant solo piano album called Drum Music: Music of Paul Motian last year; guitarist Joel Harrison, who recently made an album of Motian compositions ingeniously arranged for string ensemble; and pianist Frank Kimbrough, whose knowledge of Motian runs deep. Just for starters.
I'll sign off with an annotation to the scene that leads off my piece. At the precise moment that the Bad Plus was playing "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago" with Frisell, on the Newport Jazz Festival's Quad Stage, Lovano was on the smaller Harbor Stage — just over the fortress wall — playing with Sound Prints. Later that afternoon I happened to bump into Lovano, and I told him this. He shot me a pained look. "Man, I wanted to make it over there, but the schedule..." A missed opportunity? I can't say with any certainty whether It Should've Happened, but I do know that a visit from Joe is just about the only thing that would have made that moment even more bittersweet.
Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, Jan. 14
St. Peter's Church, Jan. 7
From: Peter Hum
In a week we’ve gone from a sense of renewed wonder to renewed horror.
I was heartsick when I heard about the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday. Believe me, my American friends, this is a tragedy that resonates far beyond your borders. I called my wife at her workplace soon after the terrible news broke, told her about the children, and heard her cry. I grew teary just reading the transcript of your president’s response. And later that night, after a friend in Winnipeg messaged me to see if I could confirm that Jimmy Greene’s daughter was among the dead, the world grew smaller and sadder still.
What a nightmare — for the Greene family, for the other parents who kids didn’t come home, and for your country. To the extent that Ana Marquez-Greene’s death is a jazz story too, it’s the biggest jazz story of the year too, by several orders of magnitude. Let’s put it this way — I’ve had 70,000 views in 48 hours for my first blog post about Ana’s death, and another 30,000 for the follow-up post. I see similar kinds of numbers for the YouTube video of Greene’s song “Ana Grace,” with a similar outpouring of grieving comments.
If you want to muse about the cultural relevance of jazz, this atrocity committed against a jazz player’s daughter and her classmates is more top of mind than Jazz at Lincoln Center opening an outpost in Doha, more significant than the choice of discs on Joe Critic’s Top 10 list, and on and on. That’s especially true in a culture that is absolutely dysfunctional when it comes to firearms.
If I could wish for one response from the jazz community to what happened, it would be some kind of initiative, coordinated or otherwise, to lead the charge for gun control; to push for measures that could dramatically decrease the possibility of someone wielding an assault rifle against utter innocents. Jazz musicians proved their cultural relevance with art that waved the flag for civil rights. They can seize this moment again, galvanized by their colleague’s heartbreaking loss. I understand that Robert Glasper dedicated at least part of his show on Friday night to the victims of the Connecticut shooting. It doesn’t have to end there.
Let me try to tack back to where we were at, although I confess that the death toll in Newtown weighs more heavily on me than what jazz most tickled my fancy.
Like Nate, I picked Tim Berne’s Snakeoil as my favourite disc of 2012, enthralled as I was by its play of the completely improvised and the rigorously composed and executed. As an occasional pianist, I’m especially spellbound by Matt Mitchell’s magic playing, ECM’ed to the max sonically, no less.
The border’s not as porous as I would like with respect to jazz, and so I haven’t heard the ERIMAJ disc, or the latest Christian Scott. I get it when Gio writes that for him, these discs are on the forefront, but I’ve always flinched at least a little bit when any writer uses phraseology such as “the direction that jazz is going.” Maybe it’s because I’m not at the epicentre, but jazz, as it manifests itself in the discs I receive and the music that comes to town, seems to be very much multi-directional, moving outward in three dimensions rather than forward in two. For what’s it worth, from a style agnostic...
I really liked what Jim wrote — OK, I really like everything that Jim writes — with respect to camaraderie and chemistry. That’s a useful way to lock onto this music, even when, and perhaps especially when, it’s not so layman-friendly.
I’ve heard Vijay Iyer say that musical interaction on the bandstand, as evidence that the musicians are simply listening to each other, engages the audience because it’s a trope for the act of listening. We like to listen to them listening. If I can mention just a few examples: there’s the tumult of drums from Brian Blade exhorting Myron Walden to play ever more soulfully; the lyrical pas de deux of Fred Hersch and Italian clarinetist Nico Gori on their disc Da Vinci; and the splendid fit between the Montreal saxophonist Joel Miller and pianist Geoffrey Keezer on Miller’s disc Swim. These are layman-friendly, I suppose, but that’s what you get from the jazz writer at a MSM newspaper.
I’m going to call it here. Time to spend some quality time with my son. And to feel extraordinarily grateful and blessed. And sad.
From: Giovanni Russonello
Hi Nate, Peter, Greg and Jim,
It’s been a joy reading everyone’s posts so far. First off, I have to thank all of you, my “elders” in this jazz writing game, for all the inspiration that your work has provided me over the years. It’s a thrill to be hashing this stuff out with you folks.
I’ve been thinking lately about how jazz has a way of conveniently marking itself off by decades. How considerate it was of Coleman Hawkins, say, to record his bebop-auguring “Body and Soul” right as the 1930s were giving way to the ’40s. Or of all those luminaries who happened to wait until 1959 to give jazz a full-body makeover. Or of Miles Davis to release Bitches Brew in 1970, guaranteeing that the next decade would be given over to jazz-rock fusion. Then there was Wynton Marsalis, in early 1982, issuing his debut album and ushering in a decade of phoenix-like bop playing. You get the point.
To me, 2012 was that kind of year. A lot of forces converged to renegotiate jazz’s place in American culture. I think the 2010s will go down as the time when open-armed symbiosis with all sorts of art — mostly other music, but not exclusively — became the governing paradigm. Musicians are crossing boundaries at a fast clip, yet almost always avoiding the mainstream. That can be both a good and bad thing.
Nate, in your wrap-up last year, you noted the “stealth jazz influence” in a lot of the creative pop music that’s been coming out recently. I think you were right on in saying that this has the markings of jazz education’s influence all over it. There’s something else at play now, too: Spotify memberships became a commonplace this year. So we have to reckon with the impact of an unprecedented global aqueduct of musical dispersion; it can seem like everyone is listening to everything.
Most young jazz performers are reaffirming the postmodern definition of jazz that’s now more or less indisputable, as far as I’m concerned: Jazz is whatever jazz musicians play. But that hasn’t totally changed what it means to be a jazz musician; you have to know the tradition. The music’s finest fruit will always come from those who understand West African-born rhythm from the inside out, and who understand jazz as expressing some sort of insurgent ideal. (That’s part of why the #BAM discussion, which spilled over into 2012, was very much worth having, even if tempers on both sides — and a blackout from major media — prevented it from blooming.)
This was the year when we got a full picture of how well jazz’s foundations can undergird eclectic ventures. To some degree, that’s what was happening on this year’s two most talked-about records made by jazz musicians: the Robert Glasper Experiment’s Black Radio and Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society. The common word in those titles is a tip-off; I’d argue that the records will end up having a more important effect on the future of commercial music — principally hip-hop and R&B — than on that of jazz. But it was still good to see some prominent jazz musicians draw attention for their interest in other “great American art forms.” Plus, it points to another upside to all this cross-pollination. A friend of mine said she came across Black Radio online, when clicking through Erykah Badu’s catalog. From there, Spotify’s “related artists” feature guided her to a Christian Scott (aTunde Adjuah?) record. Who knows where that will lead her.
But when I look back on this year’s harvest, I’m convinced that albums like Rafiq Bhatia’s Yes It Will (which snuck onto my top 10 list),or ERIMAJ’s Conflict of a Man, or even Karriem Riggins’ Alone Together actually tell us more about the direction jazz is going. These discs, all debuts by musicians under 40, don’t force any dualistic conceit about fusing two genres; listening to them can feel like drinking up an ocean of influences.
The goal of Bhatia, Riggins and Jamire Williams of ERIMAJ is fundamentally the same as any classic jazz player’s: to throw light on the ironies of struggle, the productive partnership of pain and joy. Sometimes it can just be easier to evoke those contradictions when your music encompasses John Coltrane, Soft Machine, Sunn O))), Flying Lotus. (I’m thinking especially of Bhatia here. Both in concert and on record, I am thrilled by how his music can be so simultaneously summit-seeking and fastidious.)
If this is where we’re headed, it makes sense that Jason Moran seems to be the hottest name on the lips of jazz fans these days. After Dr. Billy Taylor died, Moran took over as artistic advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center here in D.C. This past October marked the beginning of his first season as a jazz curator, and its scope has been something to celebrate. So far, he’s held an election night jam session with bluegrass musicians and opera singers sharing the stage with his own sextet; converted an area of the stately center into a dark-lit dance hall for a Medeski, Martin & Wood show; and presented a “KC Jazz Club” concert by Christie Dashiell, a young, adventurous singer from D.C. who’s relatively unknown on the national stage.
It takes a while for fundamental changes in the music to seep up into major performing arts institutions, so when you see the Kennedy Center already opening its arms to Moran’s experimental approach, you can almost watch the Young Lions vanishing from the rearview. (I wrote a piece for CapitalBop comparing his vision to that of Jazz at Lincoln Center; it might have felt like a potshot, if the differences weren’t so stark.)
In a JazzTimes profile of Moran earlier this year, I thought about why he seems ready to bear the music’s standard in an age of artistic crossbreeding. A big part of it is his embrace not just of varied musical influences, but of multimedia; at the recent Whitney installation that you mentioned, Nate, Moran and his wife — the opera singer Alicia Hall Moran — incorporated music, video, performance art and much else. That’s status quo for them, and for a growing number of jazz players.
The price of such wide-ranging artistic exploration is, of course, that you separate yourself from the mainstream. But a place on the fringe doesn’t connote stagnation. I think it works the other way — freeing you from certain commercial considerations and making room for straight-up expression. For once, I feel like jazz is learning to accept those advantages. The “jazz is dead” conversation now feels like a crude joke that’s been told too many times: The punch line doesn’t have any bite left. Even the awkwardness of the suggestion is gone. Jazz isn't dead, it's just spreading its wings. Nate, to respond to your question, people now seem at peace with the idea that the jazz tradition is itself a constant innovation.
I don’t mean to suggest that jazz lives in some distant, utopian world where all mercantile worries vanish. I don’t want to paint the internet as an absolute plus, either. A struggle for donations and the technology-triggered decline of radio have quietly eviscerated jazz on the airwaves in Boston, Los Angeles and D.C. Radio is a force that brings us together, gives people a touchstone, invites listeners to hear things they wouldn’t otherwise. For those reasons, the medium is a boon to any marginalized music (or strain of thought), and it's jarring to watch it disappear.
Still, the web has also empowered folks to think and work outside the box in helping the music thrive. You guys are right that the attrition of venues is a serious problem, including in D.C., where U Street (Black Broadway, as it’s long been known) is down to just two bona fide jazz clubs. To help make up for that, and build an audience for future clubs, CapitalBop puts on DIY shows at non-traditional venues, and we get the word out through our web presence. We’re far from the only ones. House Party Starting in Chicago, Search & Restore in New York, and a handful of similar organizations across the country are filling a need vacated by disappearing clubs, while showing how the web can help corral young listeners who are oblivious — but open — to contemporary jazz. (Just before the Undead Music Festival’s nationwide Night of the Living DIY in June, I wrote something for A Blog Supreme about the importance of DIY jazz organizations.)
And as long as we’re talking venues: Greg and Nate, I’m definitely concerned about the downfall of St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem, and the future of Lenox Lounge. But as you observed, Greg, there are still a handful of spots there. And what matters most to me is that the neighborhood is again a hotbed where a bumper crop of young stars lives, works and practices together.
I was in the pianist Gerald Clayton’s kitchen a while back, talking to him for a JazzTimes story on the Harlem scene, when he got to raving about his roommate, the drummer Justin Brown. He was talking about the endless wealth of music that’s liable to gust out of Brown’s computer speakers on a given day: singer-songwriter stuff, Indian classical, gospel — the gamut. The best part is that when the urge strikes them, Clayton and Brown get to call any of the dozens of young, professional musicians living in their neighborhood and convene a living-room jam session. I’m eager to see how the partnerships between these Harlem players — Clayton, Brown, Moran, Jamire Williams, Ben Williams, Fabian Almazan, Taylor Eigsti, Kendrick Scott and plenty more — help them churn something new and intimate out of their vast collective ken.
All this talk of the future reminds me that I need to pause for a moment, as you guys have, to recognize the great ones we lost this year: Dave Brubeck, David S. Ware, Pete La Roca Sims, Pete Cosey, Ted Curson, Shimrit Shoshan, Austin Peralta and so many others. I only had the chance to experience the first two of those names live (Brubeck with his quartet, and Ware in a heart-stirring solo soprano saxophone show), but every artist on that list calls up a distinct and enthralling sound in my brain. Which reminds me why we fight for this music: It shows us how to communicate, cooperate, construct, without ever compromising the essence of what gives us freedom.
Until the next Time Out,
Word of the death of Pete La Roca Sims came on Tuesday, hours after his passing. For any jazz fan with more than a token interest in the 1960s, this news was processed with a heavy heart. Respectful and often insightful tributes flowed quickly, from the likes of Ethan Iverson and Hank Shteamer and Phil Freeman.
I began working on a formal obituary, but learned that the holiday weekend and various other factors would delay its publication. So I took my time, reacquainting myself with La Roca's estimable body of work on Blue Note and elsewhere — notably his own fascinating album Turkish Women at the Bath — and digging into some of the bootlegs I had never found the time to study. I spoke with saxophonist David Liebman, catching him around 7:45 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving, and later with pianist Steve Kuhn, at a more reasonable hour. I spoke with members of the Sims family. I learned that Sims favored a 20-inch A Zildjian ride cymbal from the '50s, pitched in C#. And I began to develop a different perception of his legacy, not just as a post-bop drummer but also as a personality and an artist.
A lot of that didn't make into the official obit, which of course is intended for a general-interest readership. So I've decided to dedicate an edition of my JazzTimes column to La Roca Sims — in the March issue, also known as the Farewells issue. When that posts online, I'll link to it here.
In the meantime, since you have no doubt already seen the Sonny Rollins Trio footage, here's a clip of La Roca with the Art Farmer Quartet, taking a solo to wrap up Rollins's "Valse Hot." That's Steve Swallow on bass and Jim Hall on guitar; the next tune up is Cole Porter's "So in Love." This is from a BBC broadcast, June 27, 1964.
The jazz world lost a strong voice in trumpeter Ted Curson, who died on Sunday at 77. But it wasn't a voice all that widely known, even among his natural jazz constituency. During the 1960s, Curson had as interesting a career as many more recognized players, but for whatever reason he never had the celebrated career that his music would seem to warrant.
If you know him at all, you know his work with Charles Mingus, which could hardly be more impressive. I agree with the general consensus that Mingus at Antibes is Curson at his fierce and unflappable best. But I appreciate Ethan Iverson's case for Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, an obviously important album, and one that certainly benefits by Curson's soulful and cohesive presence. If I could tweak the obituary to make a nod to that album, I probably would. (Iverson is spot on about Curson's time, which I think has a lot to do with his deep study of Clifford Brown, who was just five years older but for all intents and purposes part of the preceding jazz generation. There's also a larger point Iverson makes about American music, "folk" and Elliott Carter. I won't attempt to paraphrase it here.)
Curson's work with Cecil Taylor, while less consequential than his Mingus apprenticeship, is also worth examining. He appears briefly on Taylor's portion of the Gil Evans album Into the Hot, but his more prominent contribution is to Love for Sale, a fascinating oddity. (Here is Gary Giddins discussing that album, and relaying a Curson anecdote about Cecil's exacting standard of preparation.)
So that's Mingus and Cecil, two leading vanguardists of the '60s. Throw Shepp into the picture and you begin to see Curson's legacy in avant-garde terms: he was a new-thing trumpeter with an old-school concept, a fine example of the free-bop ethos at its inception.
And yet Curson's own music complicates that narrative. Perhaps you have heard the undervalued albums he made with saxophonist Bill Barron: smart stuff, but not particularly invested in breaking apart form or subverting order. When Curson recorded the album known as Ted Curson Group Featuring Eric Dolphy, in 1961, he opted for assertive hard-bop in the Clifford Brown vein, with a band that includes his childhood friend Jimmy Garrison on bass, and several different drummers: his fellow Mingus alum Dannie Richmond, along with Pete La Roca and Roy Haynes. Here is one of the more subdued tracks from the album, a ballad performance featuring Dolphy's flute:
And of course people have heard "Tears for Dolphy," the haunting elegy that Curson recorded and released in 1964. (Among other places, it has appeared in the infamous Vincent Gallo film The Brown Bunny, apparently as an homage of sorts to Pier Paolo Pasolini, who used some uncredited Curson music in Teorema.)
I'll bet, though, that many jazz fans — even some Ted Curson fans — aren't all that familiar with The New Thing & The Blue Thing, whose album cover appears at the top of this post. Released on Atlantic in 1965, it features his quintet with Barron, which had Georges Arvanitas on piano, Herb Bushler on bass and Dick Berk on drums.
Every track but one (the standard "Star Eyes") is a Curson original, and they cover some ground: "Ted's Tempo" is a crisp swinger, while "Reava's Waltz" has a touch of Mingus swagger. "Nublu" incorporates an intervallic motion reminiscent of Eddie Harris's "Freedom Jazz Dance," while the opening track, bearing the O.G. title "Straight Ice," nods in the direction of Bobby Timmons.
The whole enterprise feels like a smart triangulation of in-the-pocket hard-bop, post-Coltrane modality and the avant-garde, though in truth the liberties are subtle. It's not an envelope-pushing album, despite the title, which may or may not have been Curson's idea. That said, here's a hypothetical: what if The New Thing & The Blue Thing had appeared on Blue Note instead of Atlantic? Make that album a Wolff-Lion special, and I think it becomes a minor classic, and a signature part of Curson's legacy.
But of course Blue Note already had a stable of excellent trumpeters traversing this terrain. And perhaps I'm not giving the Atlantic marketing department enough credit — or maybe the label just didn't have enough resources to back Curson, in a year when it was also putting out albums by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, King Curtis, Hank Crawford, Hubert Laws, Eddie Harris, the MJQ and Sonny and Cher. As Curson himself once put it: "On so many of my records, the company would tell me up front they weren’t going to promote it. If people found it, fine; if they didn’t, fine. It was like a Frisbee, another Ted Curson Frisbee, and if the dog don’t catch it, too bad!”
That quote comes from a short but thorough profile by Chris Kelsey that ran in JazzTimes in 2006. Worth reading, if you want more perspective on Curson's life and career. You will also want to read Giddins on Curson in JazzTimes the previous year. And here is the farewell post that Peter Hum ran earlier this week, with some more YouTube footage.
Finally, in searching Curson's name again I just stumbled across some good news: WKCR 89.9 FM, the invaluable Columbia University jazz station, will be run a memorial edition of its Jazz Profiles show this Sunday, 2-7 p.m. Tune in if you can.
Updated, 11a.m.: I neglected to mention the Curson post at Destination: Out, which includes a couple of tracks from his 1966 Fontana album Urge. (Guess I unwittingly cribbed the title for this post from D:O. Thanks, guys. Great minds!)
Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times
Back in January, I wrote an obituary for pioneering talent manager and former bassist John Levy, who died a few weeks shy of his own centennial. Soon afterward, it came time for the "bass issue" of JazzTimes, and I found myself thinking of Levy again.
So I wrote this column, which appeared in the April issue of the magazine — the one with Esperanza Spalding on the cover. I'm posting it here because it hadn't previously made its way online. All my pertinent thoughts are in the column, so I'll say no more. But here for good measure is a clip of Levy playing "Conception" with the George Shearing Quintet: