Yusef Lateef, Multi-Instrumentalist with a Borderless Aesthetic, Dies at 93

At the celebratory concert for the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters in 2010, when multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef was inducted into this exclusive fraternity, one had to wonder what he thought of the title. Throughout his life, Lateef, who referred to his music as “autophysiopsychic music,” a term he devised to mean “from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self, and also from the heart.” He rejected the term “jazz” for its pejorative associations and limiting implications.
Indeed, after Lateef’s death on Tuesday, at 93, the brief obituary posted on his website acknowledged his 2010 honor as “the National Endowment for the Arts Award.” Continue reading “Yusef Lateef, Multi-Instrumentalist with a Borderless Aesthetic, Dies at 93”

Best Jazz of 2013

Some of the best jazz I heard this year was caught live—felt and heard and then gone, save for my notes or a published article. But as for recordings, here’s a Top 10 list, along with some related lists. Let me know who’s on yours.
Image: Black Country Museums/Flickr

Now Playing (New & Forthcoming CDs)…

File Under: Reasons To Be Cheerful
The packages flooding in lately from music labels and musicians really do seem like holiday presents (though none of them contain the leather coat I want): The music so far is just that good. Already, I’ve begun listening to a few CDs that will in all likelihood end up on my best-of list for a year that hasn’t even begun. And 2013 ends with a late-breaking release that deserves repeated listens.
Here’s what’s been on in my office: Continue reading “Now Playing (New & Forthcoming CDs)…”

Hanging and Talking with Jazz, Online

Pianist Danilo Perez (l.) is a panelist for the JJA's "Jazz Diplomacy Now" webinar (Dec.18); Horace Silver (r.) is the subject of Bret Primack's "The Hang" (Jan. 4)

Last week, during a Critics Roundtable (“The Year in Jazz,” sponsored by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem), I found myself saying things I expected to say—“the best jazz story in 2013 was the best story in 2012, and among the longest running in jazz: The deepening and broadening of Afro Latin influence”—and things I hadn’t planned: “The jazz wars are over because wars only rage when they are spoils to win.”
Mostly I found myself alternately challenged and validated by the astute thoughts of my colleagues—Kevin Whitehead, Greg Tate, Nate Chinen and Seth Colter Walls. Yes, we submitted Top 10 lists for the year, but we were gathered to place that music and more in context—to talk about the stories behind and questions raised by the music. That makes for good conversation.
How about you: Want to talk jazz? Want to hang out with musicians and jazz insiders? Have pressing questions about your music or your work? Simply a fan with an attentive ear?
Blogs can be useful and even insightful—my favorite is pianist Ethan Iverson’s Do The Math. But real-time, interactive conversations with multiple sources have a whole different dynamic. The virtual world has much to offer on that front.
The Jazz Journalists Association, a nonprofit organization perhaps best known for its annual and notable awards to musicians and journalists, now hosts a worthy “webinar” series, “Talking Jazz,” which continues tomorrow, Dec. 18th, at 8pm (also archived for later listening) with a discussion of: “Jazz ‘Diplomacy’ Now: Can Jazz Promote International Peace and Understanding?” The panelists include: Pianist Danilo Perez, who directs Berklee College of Music’s Global Jazz Institute, and who created a festival in his native Panama that emphasizes cultural exchange; Simon Rowe, director of the University of the Pacific’s Dave Brubeck Institute; and flutist Jamie Baum, who has performed on several U.S. State Department-sponsored tours.
Then there’s Bret Primack. You may know him as the Jazz Video Guy, responsible for some must-view material on the Internet, especially of tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins (Primack has posted some 1,200 video, he said, with 23 million views). Or maybe you recall him as Pariah, whose “Bird Lives” was among the earliest of jazz blogs, and whose impassioned diatribes ruffled many a feather. Now, Primack hosts a weekly YouTube show, The Hang.” Continue reading “Hanging and Talking with Jazz, Online”

The Year in Jazz: A Critics Roundtable—Thursday, Dec. 12th

It’s that time of year when you make a list and check it twice.
If you write about jazz, that means a Year-End Top 10 list of recordings. I’d much rather consider who was naughty and nice, and what to give them: I’m ambivalent at best about Top 10s when it comes to music. (Though I love them on ESPN.) And yet I do them when asked, usually by publishers—here‘s last year’s for this blog.
This year I gave one to Nate Chinen, who writes about jazz for The New York Times, and who invited me as a panelist for “The Year in Jazz: A Critics Roundtable,” on Thursday, Dec. 12 at 7pm.
It’s hosted by The National Jazz Museum in Harlem, where I just completed hosting a four-week series on HBO “Treme,” and will be presented at MIST Harlem. Continue reading “The Year in Jazz: A Critics Roundtable—Thursday, Dec. 12th”

Iran Meets Syria Via China in New York

"Sound: The Encounter": (l-r) Basel Rajoub, Saeid Shanbehzadeh, and Naghib Shanbehzadeh

When saxophonist Basel Rajoub was a boy in Aleppo, Syria, he wasn’t much interested in the Middle Eastern classical music surrounding him, yet he found his ears drawn to the panoply of sounds within Aleppo’s rich cultural blend. The stuff that grabbed his ears most, though, were the American jazz recordings his aunt played him. Miles Davis became a hero, and he picked up a trumpet.
He found his most profound connection with an Iranian musician in, of all places, Shanghai, China. Before performing at a world music festival there, Rajoub was entranced by the music of another band, whose leader, Saeid Shanbehzadeh, played the ney-anbān, an Iranian bagpipe. Rajoub didn’t understand the lyrics, but the Iranian melodies sounded familiar.
Their subsequent collaboration has flowered into “Sound: The Encounter,” an ensemble that will make its New York debut December 7 at the Asia Society’s Lila Acheson Wallace Auditorium in Manhattan. (Read my full story and interview here.)
Photo: Courtesy of Asia Society

Tuning into Treme For a Final Season

Wendell Pierce as trombonist Antoine Batiste in HBO "Treme"

I’ve been teaching a class, “Tuning into Treme,” at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Not an academic thing for grades or credits. It’s more a discussion group pegged to the HBO series “Treme,” which begins its fourth and final season tonight, and opened its first one by placing us in New Orleans, three months after the floods caused by the levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina.

My guest for the final class, this past Tuesday was Eric Overmyer, David Simon’s longtime collaborator and a co-creator of the series. At the jazz museum, in a gentrifying neighborhood that has never forgotten its storied past staked largely to jazz culture, we’ve screened clips from the show and used fictional storylines as windows into life and culture in the real New Orleans: styles of music, from traditional jazz to rock to funk to bounce (and more), that trace a defining American rhythmic imperative out of Congo Square, where African slaves once drummed and danced on Sundays; Social Aid & Pleasure clubs who fancy-dance through streets behind brass bands in Second Line parades that are as much examples of successful community organizing as they are rolling parties; Mardi Gras Indians, walking proud in massive feathered and beaded suits and speaking in inscrutable dialects to hand-drummed rhythms; architecture, cuisine, literature and visual art that are every bit as distinctive and inseparable from the city’s music; a particular brand of political dysfunction and cynicism that makes life seem simultaneously liberating and oppressed, full of grand possibilities while also damned to familiar frustrations; an unusual blend of provinciality and worldliness; an uneasy balance of everyday tenderness and random violence; and the city’s disturbing ambivalence to the point of suppression, even in the wake of Katrina, to the glorious culture that is its calling card.

From its start, “Treme” has been staked to intertwined stories of some half-dozen characters—some musicians, some not—and their interlocking worlds within New Orleans. I recognized it right off as presenting a teachable moment—if a bit too stridently so as expressed in Season One, with greater elegance since, and always with nuance and depth. At the least, the show was fuel for an intelligent conversation about what we mean when we say we know what it means to miss New Orleans.
When I spoke with Simon in 2010 at his production office in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District, he was reluctant to draw a strong connection between his former series and “Treme.” Yet he described a natural progression of thought, and a thesis. “‘The Wire’ was a tract about how political power and money rout themselves,” he said. “But there was no place to reference on some level why it matters, emotionally, that America has been given over to those things. This show is about culture, and it’s about what was at stake. Because apart from culture, on some empirical level, it does not matter if all New Orleans washes into the Gulf, and if everyone from New Orleans ended up living in Houston or Baton Rouge or Atlanta. Culture is what brought this city back. Not government. There was and has been no initiative by government at any level to contemplate in all seriousness the future of New Orleans. Yet New Orleans is coming back, and it’s sort of done it one second-line at a time, one crawfish étouffée at a time, one moment at a time.”
Here’s the Village Voice cover story I wrote about the series when it began. Here’s a link to a Season Four trailer. I’ll post another long essay, and an interview with David Simon, next week.
If you’re reading this and if you’ve been watching “Treme,” I’d like to know how you feel about the series.
Photo: HBO/Paul Schirladl