Audio, with Ben Ratliff.
Audio, with Ben Ratliff.
With Jon Pareles, Ben Ratliff and Jon Caramanica. (Note: my picks are arranged chronologically.)
From: Nate Chinen
I write to you from the suburbs of Houston, where wintry climes are but a faraway rumor, at least for now. Seems like we’re nearing the end of this here roundtable, and I wanted to reiterate my thanks to you for taking part. The other night I ran into our own Jim Macnie at the Jazz Standard — he was on his way out, and I was on my way in — and we agreed that this has been fun. I hereby resolve to keep the conversation going, on some level, in the new year. Preferably in person, and with less cause for solemn reflection. I believe I owe each of you a beer, at the least. (A couple of years ago, Bitches Brew, a commemorative release from Dogfish Head, played a supporting role in this exercise; you may be interested to know that the brewery recently reissued said elixir, so to speak.)
Thought I’d just lob a few closing thoughts here, mainly as an Amen chorus. For starters, I’m grateful that Greg brought up the issue of female instrumentalists, since the evidence of their critical mass shouldn’t be taken for granted. Frankly, this was a vexing year, in the culture at large, for conversations about women — see “war on...” and “binders full of...” and “...can’t have it all” for starters — but a heartening year for women making advances in jazz. It bothered me a little that my Top 10 didn’t reflect that, despite strong work by the aforementioned Fuller and Spalding, along with violinist Jenny Scheinman, guitarist Mary Halvorson, clarinetist Anat Cohen, trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Kris Davis. And Luciana Souza! Greg, I spent so many hours in thrall to the first Brazilian Duos album that I probably haven’t given the sequels their proper due.
Speaking of proper dues: Initial Here, the self-possessed sophomore release by bassist Linda Oh, was in the best-of running for me — as was Be Still, the Dave Douglas album on which she appears. (More on that in a sec.) My mind flickers back to this year’s Monk Competition, and the Kennedy Center concert in which Oh fearlessly grounded a confab featuring Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. No big deal. And it’s not that I was impressed by how easily she handled herself in that context as a young woman; I was just impressed, straight up, no stipulations for age or gender required. (I’m now recalling that the concert had a “Women in Jazz” subtext, and featured some others fitting that description, including Monk adjudicator Terri Lyne Carrington. No female competitors, tho.)
Gio, you brought up Branford Marsalis as an exemplar of against-the-grain traditionalism this year. His was another album that just missed the cutoff for me, and who knows — were I compiling my Top 10 today, it might come in under the wire. I got an early vinyl copy of Four MFs Playing Tunes in the spring, and was so taken with it that I had to sound the alarm right away.
But as for Branford’s whole spiel about this music not coming with a concept — well, I’m calling BS, to borrow his own lexicographical shorthand. If you’ve heard much of the Branford Marsalis Quartet over the years, in its original incarnation as well as this one, you’ll recognize Four MFs as gloriously true to form. He’s working within a post-bop tradition (call it post-Coltrane, if you prefer) but the tradition he really upholds here is that of his own proprietary small-group syntax: his concept, basically. Which is not so different from what Vijay Iyer does in his trio. As with a few touted albums in the non-jazz realm this year — your Dylans, your Springsteens, even Nas — Marsalis built on a structure he’d already established. But calling Four MFs an album without a concept is like calling Seinfeld a show about nothing. And we all know how cleverly that one can be debunked.
Greg, I appreciate the “gut-heart-head” check that you mentioned as an implicit litmus for listening. I’d wager that each of us (and the better of our colleagues) has a similarly intuitive process for evaluating music. But what stirs my soul or stimulates my cerebral cortex could leave somebody else entirely unmoved. (Obvious, but it bears repeating every now and again.) I don’t really know where I stand, anymore, on the subject of a left-leaning critical bias in jazz — I still see a lot of love for the standard-bearers, and often not enough for those expanding the frame — but I agree that we run up against a baby-with-the-bathwater quandary if we’re no longer interested in the fundamentals. I think about that often, in fact.
Last week I had a terrific experience with the Christian McBride Trio, which reminded me at times of the forthright splendor of Peterson, Brown and Thigpen in 1964. And one of the albums that did make it on my list, at a pretty high berth, was the latest from guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, which happens to feature Branford’s rhythm team. I loved Reflections, Kurt’s standards album, too — but I was glad to hear him bring that ease and mastery to bear on his own smart compositions.
By the way, I have it on good authority that when I pick up the Houston Chronicle tomorrow morning, I’ll see a feature on drummer Reggie Quinerly, whose recent debut is as straight-ahead as they come, but also a meditation on the history of his native H-town, and specifically the African-American enclave that once thrived in its Fourth Ward, where he grew up. I saw Quinerly play this music at Smoke a few weeks ago, and it was tight.
I’d like to close now on an album that uncannily weaves together so many of the strands of our conversation: traditionalism and innovation, mourning and succor, that “renewed sense of wonder,” Linda Oh. I’m speaking of course about Be Still, the exquisite album that Dave Douglas made out of some old songs and a new band, along with a deeply personal motivation.
I love this album — for its outright beauty, for its reverence in the face of the divine, and for the way in which Aoife O’Donovan inhabits a modern jazz setting so easefully, without losing sight of her own aesthetic coordinates. And in light of recent events, I thought its message incredibly pertinent. A moment ago I glanced at the Greenleaf Music website and saw that Douglas had posted some thoughts along these lines. “We are all united as we begin to take those difficult next steps,” he writes.
After what happened in Newtown, a handful of people I know dusted off a famous quote by Leonard Bernstein; unless I’m misremembering, Douglas did so too, on Twitter. The statement: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
There are countless different ways to make music intensely; likewise, beautifully and devotedly. I’m sure I am not the only one among us who takes some comfort in that. And I know I’m not the only one who looks forward, with every kind of hope, to whatever lies ahead.
End transmission, and happy holidays to all,
From: Greg Thomas
It’s taken me more than a minute to recover a semblance of equilibrium in the aftermath of the carnage in Newtown, CT, which is about an hour from my home in Westchester. I actually found out about the loss of the Greene family’s little angel Ana right here at The Gig. Grief, rage, disgust and an irrepressible need to hug my teenage daughter were just a few of the swirl of feelings that beset me. My eternal optimism was deeply shaken. I’ve resolved to take some kind of action, and so began sharing thoughts on Facebook, with postings declaring the need for stronger gun restrictions.
That's why, Peter, I gladly accept your implicit challenge: “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.”
In my final remarks for this great exchange — again, Nate, thanks one mo’ time for asking me to join in — I’m going to venture a few answers to Jim’s earlier question: What artists taught your chemistry class?
Yes indeed, coordination and chemistry are the pillars that steady any critical response to what American philosopher Susanne Langer called, in describing art, “feeling in form.” No doubt. But after reading all of your pithy, poetic, puissant descriptions of the music you dug this year, and coming through the emotional wringer above, I’ve decided to risk sounding pedestrian and all-too-basic by sharing the basis-in-body of my reactions to the music I’m about to mention.
The music below met my gut-heart-head test, which is to say that I was mentally impelled, touched emotionally and stimulated to move. That’s my personal “adhesive logic,” though it’s more earth-bound than ethereal. I wonder whether, in our critical tendency to identify and champion what we deem as cutting-edge, we at times either take for granted or undervalue how much the fundamentals of the jazz idiom ground the connection to a lay audience? That's one of the main reasons I stay close to the center when writing to a general, mid-market audience for the New York Daily News.
Granted, I’ll have to make time to give additional listens to several cats that I — based on the artists you all mentioned — haven’t given due attention. I’ll dig deeper into Tim Berne mainly because you, my colleagues, hold his latest CD in such high esteem. My groove, apparently, is more “mainstream,” which I guess says that the foundation elements of the idiom such as the blues, ballads, ensemble swing, Afro-Cuban and other Latin rhythms, are my starting points of appreciation and evaluation. If those basics are good enough as grounding material for the acknowledged masters of jazz — those departed as well as most of those elders remaining today — then they’re good enough for me.
After the fundamentals, though, all sorts of factors come into play. This is where, to me, the critical reception of the music becomes most revealing.
Vijay Iyer’s music has always stimulated me intellectually while hitting me in the gut rhythmically. But with Accelarando the melodic content of songs by Heatwave, Michael Jackson, and Duke Ellington gave me reference points that touched my heart through “music giving resonance to memory,” to paraphrase Ralph Ellison. Here’s my take on his trio’s treatment of Jackson’s “Human Nature”:
Iyer plays the melody fairly straight as bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore refract time together, then separately. The pleasure comes from the play impulse, as the melodic, harmonic or rhythmic basis of any song here is not written in stone, are merely shards of measured time in the space of sounds. As when later in “Human Nature” all three dance around a center that’s not really there.
Considering my first post’s mention of the import of a center, I like Vijay’s gracious post-modern approach which yet and still flouts modernist assumptions. Vijay’s gentility is becoming. Nate, I also agree that his Ellington send-off was a fond one:
The Village of the Virgins,” by Duke Ellington, was a brilliant choice to close this date, as they somehow respect the master with church-like reverence, and seamlessly penetrate the bounds of the blues and soft rock until the lines erase.
Notwithstanding Diana Krall’s lingerie, we haven’t mentioned many singers, but I favor Kurt Elling’s 1619 Broadway for the way he re-interprets not only American songbook standards but pop or R&B numbers such as “You Send Me,” “A House Is Not a Home,” American Tune,” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” If God is no respecter of persons, Elling isn’t a respecter of genres, yet jazz is his ken. Elling also ends his latest record date with an Ellington number.
Kurt and Vijay both experiment by crossing genre barriers with respect, yet their individual styles are entrepreneurial in the manner that they create signature musical value in the soundscape. And if Vijay’s Accelerando is a refinement more than an avant-garde like break-through, that’s cool. Aesthetic statement, says Albert Murray, involves “extension, elaboration and refinement” of idiomatic particulars. If so, then Kurt’s elaborations on great songs from the Brill Building and Vijay’s refinements of his own style seem natural parts of a creative process.
Novelist Leon Forrest has an essay entitled “The Labyrinth of Luminosity.” That’s a phrase I’d definitely use to describe the gathering steam of swing through Caribbean-esque repetition and interstitial fire on Branford’s opening cut (“The Mighty Sword”) from Four MFs Playin’ Tunes. Look at the video again, and just focus on the interaction between pianist Joey Calderazzo and drummer Justin Faulkner to decipher, if necessary, what I mean by interstitial fire. Damn—they swingin’ hard. Thanks, Nate, for including that video in Gio’s last post.
Though I understood not a word, I took to Luciana Souza’s Duos III like a black cat bringing good luck. That’s a recording one can make love to — another criterion, by the way, worth mentioning. Remaining in the Latin vein, I favored Arturo Sandoval’s Dear Diz (the arrangements and production value are off the chain), Poncho Sanchez’s Live in Hollywood (loose precision and hot solos), and Bobby Sanabria’s Multiverse for its mixture of jazz big band, Latin Jazz arrangements, and hip hop with a historically-rich message.
Looking ahead, I’d say that one aspect that we haven’t mentioned sufficiently that will continue to greatly impact the course of jazz is the emergence of a tipping point of female instrumentalists. Jazz discourse, past and present, is usually a guy’s game, but that’s changing not only by virtue of boundlessly talented artists such as Esperanza Spalding; or saxophonist Tia Fuller, who in her latest recording, Angelic Warrior, successfully cast off the shadow of Kenny Garrett; or singer-trumpeter Bria Skonberg, a dedicated student of Warren Vaché and his pre-bop trumpet diction; or just through Terri Lyne Carrington’s quiet but steady mentorship of a plethora of sisters-in-spirit, but also because of all of the women players in jazz programs in high school and college.
Look out, guys: there will continue to be more female instrumentalists teaching chemistry class in the years to come.
I wish you all a happy holiday season. Let’s keep Jimmy Greene and his family, and all those who suffered unimaginable losses last Friday, in our thoughts and prayers.
From: Giovanni Russonello
This thing just keeps chugging along, like the last tune of the jam session. I’m loving reading everyone’s thoughts and recollections from the year.
Jim, your description of the Tyshawn Sorey-Ben Gerstein show had me smelling the evening air and the god-awful Gowanus Canal and the sweat on Sorey’s back. It had me hearing those cutting trombone wobbles, and Sorey’s broken cymbal clanking on the ground. It left me coveting that experience, and it really hammered home your main point: that jazz is about strengthening the ties that bind. So no matter where the music is going (toward a surrender to electronic idioms; toward free excursions; toward more tightly wound interplay) we know it won’t really be dead until the only people left calling themselves jazz musicians are playing solo sets with pre-programmed beats on their laptops. I don’t see that coming any time soon.
I’m glad you folks took a minute to meditate on Tim Berne’s warm-blooded masterpiece, Snakeoil. (Berne wrote the music, and conferred its sense of communitarian purpose, but to me this really was Matt Mitchell’s record. His piano creates the space it lives in; he’s a master of evaporating tones, and every chord he plays is broken crystal — sharp and translucent.) One we’ve given only glancing attention to, though, is Accelerando, from the Vijay Iyer Trio. The trio’s first record, Historicity, was a cabochon, but this one’s a diamond. The group sounds bounding and monstrous in its whirl of mandala-like propulsion and buried reference points.
You’re absolutely right, Nate: That record was a refinement — but to me, the fact that this band has been ahead of the curve doesn’t preclude seeing 2012 as a turning point, so much as it anoints Iyer as a sort of prescient chieftain of the zeitgeist. (Someone’s always ahead of the curve, and yet a curve it remains; hey, Greg Osby and Steve Coleman had some of these ideas 20 years ago, and Gary Bartz was nearly pulling hip-hop into jazz before hip-hop even really existed.)
As long as I’m responding to responses, Peter, I’m glad you mentioned your trepidation about the idea of assigning any sort of governing “direction” to jazz’s present or future. It’s a cat-herding exercise, for sure. But I wonder if you agree with me that critics have a right — responsibility, even — to inject some adhesive logic into the ethereal. (How else to explain star ratings?) As you point out, jazz’s diversity, especially now, is enough to leave anybody’s head spinning. Also true: Not knowing where to begin, or what the music relates to, can scare off folks who might otherwise fall for the music. At the least, I think teasing out some commonality gives us points of reference, and helps jazz gain some traction in a broader societal conversation.
It also paints musicians who defy the greater trend with a special, luminous hue. In 2012, going against the grain meant explicitly inhabiting a particular tradition. Maybe that’s ironic, or maybe by now it isn’t. Two people who did this and caught my ear were Branford Marsalis, whose disc made my year-end list, and David Virelles, the Cuban pianist who got a lot of love on those New York Times ballots. Branford today isn’t a ripple in the tide, or even a countervailing force, so much as a stalwart who seems to gather steam with every passing year. Four MF’s Playin’ Tunes was, well, an MF of an album: I’ve never heard him reaching this hard for an explicitly post-Coltrane ideal, partly because I’ve never heard him sounding so alertly himself (though he always does that, in some way or another).
And Virelles, while definitely an alchemist, struck me with how firmly and effectively he dealt with the other branch of John Coltrane’s legacy: vaguely political/spiritual, avant-garde, acoustic jazz. The choice to use Andrew Cyrille, whose sound is inextricable from that lineage, was inspired. I don't love everything Cyrille plays today — he didn't fit in with Bill McHenry at the Vanguard earlier this year, at all — but he gave this record a bristling timelessness.
Anyway, that does it for my chorus. This has been loads of fun. Thanks for the opportunity to join the rap session, Nate. On to the next soloist.
From: Jim Macnie
I should have done a broader background check on you birds before we began our digital salon last week — I had no idea that we’d have a majority consensus about the Snakeoil disc, or that it made Peter and Nate’s year-end lists (mine too). Anyone else’s? I’m a longtime Berne fan (please don’t overlook that first Miniature album), and was tickled by the fact that the saxophonist’s longstanding rhythmic m.o. of “hurdling” was refined a bit on this one. The momentum on the new pieces has a more adroit flow – no doubt that Snakeoil ups Berne’s pliancy and poise in noticeable ways.
One of the key reasons is his connection with Mitchell. (I get a kick out of your newly coined term altopiano, Nate; don’t you wish that Jimmy Lyons and Cecil Taylor made a duet album?) To some degree Mitchell’s left hand has to be a bassist in this band, and as he says in that JT profile Nate mentions, Berne’s music “has to groove.”
That’s not a term often associated with the saxophonist’s Screwgun canon, but it’s dead on — if we’ve learned anything at this late date, it’s that there are innumerable way to swing. Mitchell moves the band towards that goal, and gives each of his partners — including his boss — a bit more liftoff. As far Berne himself goes, he’s seldom sounded so supple, another move forward. That tart tone may sound comfy inside those architecturally elaborate pieces of his, but this new gentility is becoming. For a sec I thought it was all due to Berne touching down in ECMville, but it’s not. As I said in my DownBeat review, he has been actively amending his playing to accommodate a wider variety of approaches. Mitchell’s got a yen for maximal phrases (don’t sleep on his own knotty stuff), but here he helped Team Snakeoil pull off some seductive minimal passages.
Two other discs waxing feathery were impressive as well. Dave King’s I’ll Be Ringing You finds The Bad Plus drummer leading a trio of pianist Bill Carrothers and bassist Billy Peterson through a series of fetching feints that present standards such as “This Nearly Was Mine” and “Autumn Serenade” in a new light. Everything is fragile, elusive, sketched instead of painted — and all the more compelling because of it. Some jazz is about looking around corners to see what’s there; this album is an exemplar of that approach. Ditto for Masabumi Kikuchi’s Sunrise. With a rhythm section of Thomas Morgan and Paul Motian, the pianist made every aspect of the music yield to a gossamer aesthetic. The act of fluttering was as agitated as the music got, and like Andrew Hill’s most poetic pieces, a single note could tug the entire procedure into a new direction. I’m going to go see if that disc made it through my flooded basement disaster (I’m thinking not). If it did, it’s a perfect ta-ta soundtrack to a gloomy Monday afternoon.
Before I close: Thoughts of peace and perseverance go to Jimmy Greene’s family, and everyone effected by the Newtown tragedy, which I believe is anyone with a heart.
P.S., Anyone in the New York area looking to sustain a deep spirit while lightening their weekly load should be heading to the Jazz Standard to see Matt Wilson's Christmas Tree-O on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. Seasonal glee as well as tidings of comfort and joy are on the docket. Five bucks says some “renewed wonder” might be in the air as well.
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: Nate Chinen
First, a word of gratitude: thanks to all for such a lively first round. I’m honored that you guys accepted my invitation, and have already brought so much to the table — and so much to respond to! OK, let’s do this.
Jim, you ended your excellent post by suggesting we all take a moment to tip our beanies to the Tim Berne-Matt Mitchell hookup on Snakeoil. Since I pegged that as the best album of 2012, I’m perfectly happy to pick up the thread. The first time I heard Mitchell in person was at a Berne mini-festival of sorts in Philadelphia, three years ago: he was executing a complex script of Berne’s invention, brutish and gnarled at some points and cathedral-still at others. And while it was a solo piano piece — i.e., no interaction between the two players on an instrumental level — the depth of engagement was already there in nascent form. (For a simulacrum of the more reflective moments of that performance, here’s a clip filmed earlier that year, in what appear to be meat-lockeresque conditions at the Stone):
Mitchell spoke with me about the process of unpacking Berne’s compositions, back when I was gathering materials for a piece in JazzTimes. “Compared to a lot of contemporary classical music, it doesn’t necessarily look like it’s ultra-complicated on the page,” he said. “Then you sit down and try to play it, and it’s got all these little potential snags. So you have to play these charts accurately, and it has to groove.”
When I got my advance of Snakeoil, I was struck anew by the level of mind meld between the two musicians, whose dynamic might skew a little too mentor-pupil if not for the expansive liberties taken by Mitchell (who, it should be noted, commits all of the written material to memory). Sometimes, too, their altopiano — shades of Bru and Des in that portmanteau? — forms a fulcrum for the rest of the group. (Clarinetist Oscar Noriega distinguishes himself on the album too, and Ches Smith does some exceptionally strong and subtle things on percussion.) Then there’s that last word in the Mitchell quote above: this music really does groove, even when the pulse gets atomized, as is often the case.
Speaking of liberties, I absolutely loved your account of the deconstructive Tyshawn Sorey and Ben Gerstein performance, Jim. One thing it called to mind for me was some of the A.A.C.M.-inspired experimental fiction of Nathaniel Mackey, especially in his mind-bending epistolary trilogy. (There’s this one riff involving an onstage telephone, from the first volume, Bedouin Hornbook. I won’t spoil it for you.)
But it also reminds me of the DIY efforts Gio brought up in his first post. Did you all know about Music Factory, a sort of performance-art endurance marathon presented last weekend at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in the Chelsea gallery district? It was scheduled to last 96 hours, continuously, with some 70 improvisers drifting in and out of the mix, and earning an “extrapolated wage” based on pay-what-you-wish admission. (There was a point being made, I think, about the intrinsic “value” of the artistic process vs. its explicit “worth” as determined by market forces. Yay?)
On a similarly enterprising but (much) less esoteric note, I spent a recent afternoon dashing about Central Park for Jazz & Colors, which featured 30 ensembles and the same two sets of standards. Just as was presumably the case in Music Factory, the artist and audience were encouraged to interact meaningfully with a physical environment; in both instances the organizers played around with notions of scale. There are pitfalls to making this the hinge of your endeavor — Jazz & Colors was more of an enjoyable blur than a deep musical experience, which also tends to be my chief critique of Winter and Undead fests — but I’m all for tweaking the interface. Greg, as I registered your understandable concern about the incredible shrinking jazz-club engagement, I thought of 40Twenty, a post-bop collective so enamored of the two-week run, as a chimerical ideal, that it went out and created one for itself.
Not to suggest that everything’s peachy, since the shrewder jazz musicians have learned to write grant proposals by day and pass the tip jar at night. (Doesn’t that sound like a description of the world’s least empowered superhero?) I think we should continue to care about the fate of the aboveground jazz economy, under extraordinary circumstances as well as those that pass for ordinary. What I’m saying here — what I think everyone else has implied, in one way or another — is that the preponderance of options is an essential boon, and a good way to expand the base beyond those who think a $40 cover and a $10 minimum represent an acceptable transactional cost. Jason Moran has obviously been kicking around this liberated notion, and I see hints of it in the programming of a place like Shapeshifter Lab.
Let’s get back to Top 10s for a moment, shall we? And in so doing, we’ll sidle into some of the points that y’all have already raised. Like everyone here, it seems, I felt this was an extremely strong year for jazz. My best-album list, open to all genres, reflects that conviction: in past years it has included more pop or hip-hop or indie-rock or whatever, and while there were certainly good options out there this year, I couldn’t justify losing the real estate when there was so much jazz to be touted. (Among the albums I loved that missed the cutoff: Billy Hart Quartet, Dave Douglas, Fly, the Brad Mehldau twofer. Probably a dozen others that escape my mind at the moment.) Peter, I’m with you on the Gil Evans Project: it squeezed in at No. 10, because even though I have a natural critical bias towards newness (not to be confused with novelty), that album struck me as a triumph of concept and execution, and probably would in any era.
I’ve said this before, but I’m not the sort of critic who lives for quantifying: the act of ranking interests me far less than the art of explanation. That said, I am always fascinated by the differences in opinion that lay themselves out for inspection. In a few weeks, Ratliff and I will be discussing the year in jazz on the NY Times Popcast; for now, I’ll note that we had more overlap this year than ever before. And there are albums on Ben’s 10 that I didn’t consider for inclusion but can happily endorse. (Every recent album by Jeremy Pelt has made a strong case, but Soul may be the derby winner.)
Gio: I agree about the visionary qualities that bind ERIMAJ, Karriem Riggins and Rafiq Bhatia, bursting out beyond the jazz frame. (I also agree that Bhatia’s album is a head-turner; haven’t seen him live yet, but I’m looking forward to it. “Summit-seeking and fastidious” strikes me as a great thumbnail description.)
But I’m not entirely convinced that 2012 was some kind of tipping point, or even “the year when we got a full picture of how well jazz’s foundations can undergird eclectic ventures.” The album that received the most jazzcritical consensus, Accelerando, was a refinement rather than a breakthrough; likewise Christian aTunde Adjuah. The eclecticism of scope and taste represented by someone like Justin Brown is marvelous, but not an especially new wrinkle, either.
As for the crossover traction of Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding, I’m totally on board, but we’ll see. Radio Music Society seems to me an ennobled but weirdly hermetic exercise, even with all the guests; Spalding’s influence in the world, which I hailed in this space last year, won’t have much to do with the album. And Black Radio has resonated with a stylish constituency that maybe embraces jazz more as a signifier than as a process. I don’t think Glasper moved the needle so much as he rightly spotted which house the party was at. (As I write this, I’m waiting to see what Ratliff had to say about his Stevie Wonder tribute at Harlem Stage.)
Late the other night, after a long evening that included one crowd-pleasing set at the Vanguard — and I use that modifying phrase without a touch of the pejorative — I checked in on the live stream of 121212: The Concert for Sandy Relief. The cause was eminently worthy, as Jim can attest, and the assemblage of talent was impressive. (I tuned in just in time to witness Sir Paul McCartney beckoning Lady Diana Krall to the stage. I didn’t pay any attention to what she was wearing.) But as I caught up with the show on my DVR the following evening, it seemed to me like a dispatch from a distant and rapidly fading ghost world.
The old monoculture that a benefit like this is designed to mobilize — you’ll know what I mean if you slogged through the concert, or read the bullet-pointed recap by Sasha Frere-Jones — really no longer has a sustainable future. Forty years from now, what will we all hold up as the epochal pop of this here moment? Bruno? Mumford? RiRi? Taylor? I doubt that you could poll 10 random people and get a quorum. So Gio, you talked about jazz finally accepting its position on the fringe, and there may be something to that. But I’d counter that it’s almost all fringe now. Jazz just got there first.
Enough for now; I’m looking forward to the next few choruses. Greg, we’ll expect a full report from that Chris Botti gig. Wonder if he’ll call up another famous guest to do his “Nessun Dorma” shtick?
On to the next one,
From: Jim Macnie
Thanks Nate, hi guys,
I asked to go last because of impending life duties (job and fam), and I appreciate being accommodated here at chez Chinen. Being the caboose has allowed me to not only learn what you guys are thinking, but be reminded of the year’s twists and turns. Win-win, for sure, and it feels good to be back in the round-robin opinion scenario a bunch of us did via email a decade ago.
Nate started with farewells, and each of you have spent a graf or two bidding adieu to various musicians and venues, but as time marches on I’ve made a promise not to lament too strongly about such events, especially entertainment rooms. The morning the WTC fell and our family (like many New Yorkers) saw it collapse right across the river from us, I wrote a piece for the Boston Phoenix that concluded with the sentences “Anything can happen. Anything can happen. Anything can happen. Practice feeling vulnerable. After today, it’s all up for grabs.”
I’m holding to it. People — like Brubeck, like La Roca, like Ware — pass. Nothing, not the élan of Jazz At Storyville, the tumult of Go See The World, or the majesty of Basra is going to change that. Of course it’s easier to absorb when the cats are of a certain age; the loss of Peralta (or any 22-year-old) does give one a certain pause. But without sounding like either Johnny Existentialist or an overly glib cynic, I’ll just say we just need to move on. We always need to move on. They’d want us to, and we’ll be happier if we do.
So: the closing of clubs from Harlem to Billyburg should be greeted with a hearty “Where next?,” a query that the jazz spirit has had a creative answer to since forever. I remember when the beloved Tonic took the fall a few years ago. Yes, it was a bastion of creativity and a mildly iconic lab that made its dent in a post-Knitting Factory (a truly iconic lab) world. But I scratched my head over the kvetching, knowing the music would find new addresses. It has, so I’d rather celebrate the arrival of artist-run outposts like BK’s trifecta of Shapeshifter Lab, iBeam, and the Douglas Street Collective space (oops, almost forgot Roulette’s new palace) — ongoing homes to artists on a regular basis in the tattered Brooklyn nabe of Gowanus. I bet they’re similar to the “non-trad DIY shows” Gio gets behind in D.C., and I hope they’re representative of the spots that will arise to replace Peter’s dear Café Paradiso. It’s in each of these places that I found myself falling into a realm that Nate also brought up in his kickoff post: the state of “renewed wonder.”
That’s exactly the kind of thing you’ve gotta keep close to your heart as the years trickle by. Sometimes it arrives via simple gestures (Dave King’s maniacal smile, Joe Morris’ furrowed brow, or the pounding of Terry Adams’ feet on the floor), sometimes it’s due to more elaborate gambits. They can occasionally be born of formulaic refinement (don’t that new Bad Plus disc sound sweet?), but the action that made that phrase resonate with me when I read it on Monday is a show that I promised myself I wasn’t going to ever try to put into words for fear of spoiling the magic, a Ben Gerstein / Tyshawn Sorey confab in mid-August that found the trombonist and drummer investing deeply in the definition of play and spending a good 90 minutes being as entertaining as possible while climbing to the top of the peak of the A in the term “ART.”
The scene: as patrons approached the open doors of iBeam, a record player plopped on the sidewalk greeted them. Spinning was and LP entitled Sounds Of A Southern Swamp (apologies if I’m off by a word or two — I refused to take notes that night). Those sounds were crickets and peepers and frogs. The Gowanus has a spooky vibe to start, so the atmosphere was duly enhanced. Inside: four people. Patrons I guess, though there was no one collecting any dough. Tyshawn finished putting his ride cymbal on the stand, rattled and crashed it a bit to get started, and they were off, switching instruments, taking turns at the piano, playing the floor, conflating the abstract and the commonplace, rambling through the environment and doing everything in their heads to generate sounds seldom attributed to their axes. It was like a brook trickling forward, bending and splashing. After a bit Gerstein put on another LP (birds, if I recall) and decided he liked the summer night’s air.
And so it was: both of them were suddenly playing the cobblestones on the street, the trunk of Sorey’s sedan, the metal protective gratings of the factories next door. A pair of 70somethings who had sat through the bulk of the show offered a commentary. “This is like a Cassavetes movie,” said one; his mate nodded. A gaggle of teens got a kick out of Gerstein chasing them down the road while blowing ‘bone at their butts a la Harpo Marx, and a couple audience members were worried when he laid down in the street (still honking) as a car quickly sped toward that section of the block (as serious as your life, indeed). We were less concerned when the drummer heaved a cracked old cymbal over his shoulder. The world was frighteningly silent as it rolled for a bit on the sidewalk while making that circular shimmer sound that coins do when they spin to the ground. As all these micro events unfolded, one thing became more and more obvious: camaraderie. These dudes were deeply on the same page and every maneuver they made was musical. Shit like that get the synapses firing a certain way, and though there are precedents, it seemed novel enough for 11231 in 2012.
So back to that camaraderie. It was the chemistry between these guys that made the music worthwhile. I guess they could have done that the same thing and have had it fall flat — free improv ain’t easy to pull off, right? I’m sure all of us have sat through ho-hum evenings of squeaks and squawks, and not every wobbly rail can claim to provide a true excursion. Ultimately that kind of sharing is what I’m needing to encounter before I can go home a happy listener these days: players passing the ball around with grace and ardor, and the quality of the results being unmistakable.
It was there between Jim Hall and Adam Nussbaum at a somewhat recent Birdland show. It was there between Lee Konitz and Bill Frisell at a Blue Note hit in early fall, it was there at a Neil Young and Crazy Horse concert at the Barclays Center a couple weeks ago (yep, after at least three passages that reminded me of Trane’s Crescent, I’m filing those wrinkled danger birds under jazz now). Goosebumps were generated by each of the above, but not because I liked the improvisers’ stylistic approach or chosen musical vernacular over another, but because the connections so obviously crackled. Jeremy Udden and Mike Baggetta were responsible for a swooping duet that has stuck in my mind, and Josh Sinton and Tomas Fujiwara made hay with some Morse code mutterings while rightly celebrating Steve Lacy’s canon a few weeks back as well.
I thought of all this while in the middle of a literal bucket brigade made by bunch of friends helping me, my wife and kids remove a few thousand gallons of the New York Harbor from our basement the day after Hurricane Sandy’s October 29th arrival. As Nate alluded to in the first installment, we and numerous neighbors in the low-lying lands of Red Hook, Brooklyn got hit hard by the “Frankenstorm.”
A team of eight (let’s call it an octet) made a big dent in a cellar full of water by applying coordination and stamina to the process of sharing. No, passing off plastic tubs of slop water ain’t exactly jazz, but while moving that stuff from hand to hand, I swear I flashed on everything from Luciana Souza and Romero Lubambo sharing time and space on Duos III; to the revolving-door exchanges between Eugene Chadbourne and Jon Irabagon on a Bob Wills tune in Bushwick this summer; to the mind-meld of Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen while saluting John Lennon with Frisell on the Newport Jazz Fest Stage.
Coordination and chemistry. Sharing and stamina. A little insight and finesse, too — that always helps get you down the road. That’s what I was hunting for this year. Greg seemed to find it in Detroit, Montreal, and Johannesburg. Peter came across it in Ottawa. If we all stop fretting about that boorish tradition/innovation conundrum I think we’ll discover a lot more of it around. The “open-armed symbiosis” Gio spotlights IS in full fruition these days. How else would we get to something as glorious as Vijay Iyer’s spin on Flying Lotus and the way it could’ve been part of Ellington’s Piano In The Foreground? Passing the bucket to you guys. What artists taught your chemistry class this year?
Oh, before I go, in the next couple of days let’s promise to chat about why people were teasing Diana Krall about opening her lingerie drawer for her Glad Rag Doll cover outfit, and how great Tim Berne and Matt Mitchell sound together in Snakeoil — no frilly undies needed for those guys (I think).
talk in a minute,
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,