Mining Music and Meaning in Maine: The Deer Isle Jazz Festival

photo: Jim McGuire
Clarinetist Evan Christopher headlines the Deer Isle Jazz Festival on July 31/ photo: Jim McGuire

I’m off for Maine tomorrow morning, where, for the past 15 years, I’ve curated the Deer Isle Jazz Festival on a gorgeous spot off the Down East coast (for tickets, go here).
From the start, this has been a labor of love for me, and an act that resonates with the themes and purpose of my writing. (That backstory is a long story; you can find it  here.)
The Stonington Opera House, where the concerts are held, reminds me a little of Manhattan’s Village Vanguard, in that it is an acoustically charmed space. Like the Vanguard, it has a history. Through more than a century, it has served, at various points, as dance hall, vaudeville theater, and high school basketball arena. And, not unlike the Vanguard, there’s a sense of unadulterated mission. The nonprofit organization that hosts the event, Opera House Arts, sells T-shirts and bumper stickers with this slogan: “Incite Art. Create Community.”
This year, as I travel, I’ll bring along a manuscript in process for a book that began as simply a document of “the fight for New Orleans jazz culture since the flood, and what it means”—a storyline and mission that has been the dominant thread of my work for the past decade.
Yet the book has grown into something broader.
I’m now aiming to set that decade-long story of a struggle for and reawakening of New Orleans jazz culture alongside what I position as a rebirth of this country’s broader jazz culture, which is has long been based in New York City. In that way, I intertwine two stories of resilience in the face of challenges and of rebirth—one in New Orleans, in the wake of literal devastation, and one in New York, in spite of pronouncements of jazz as dead or stuck in a holding pattern.
It occurred to me that my dual headliners for this year’s Deer Isle Jazz Festival—pianist Geri Allen and clarinetist Evan Christopher— —personify those ideas. Continue reading “Mining Music and Meaning in Maine: The Deer Isle Jazz Festival”

Author And Critic David Hajdu Turns Songwriter With "Waiting For The Angel"

illustration by John Carey
CD cover illustration by John Carey

I’ve known David Hajdu’s words for decades now as among the most articulate and nuanced in the overlapping fields of music criticism, culture reporting and nonfiction books.
In the pages of The New Yorker, in many other publications, and online—and currently, as music critic for The Nation—Hajdu has considered songs of many musical styles as well as the lives, times and talents of those who play, sing and create them. His 1997 book “Lush Life” stands as the definitive biography of one of the 20th century’s great composers of song, Billy Strayhorn.
When I last ran into Hajdu, he had just completed the manuscript for a forthcoming book “Popped Up: Popular Music and What It Means to Me,” which he described to me as befits its subtitle—a personalized tour through decades of songs and the circumstances surrounding them.
Hajdu seemed far prouder of another accomplishment—again focused on songs, this time from a new perspective.
Waiting for The Angel: Songs with Words by David Hajdu,” due August 28 on Miranda Music, marks Hajdu’s debut as a lyricist and songwriter. These 11 songs represent songwriting collaborations with pianists Renee Rosnes and Fred Hersch, singer-songwriter Jill Sobule and composer Mickey Leonard. The performing cast includes Rosnes and Hersch, along with other New York all-stars such as trumpeter Steven Bernstein and drummer Carl Allen. The songs are sung by a distinguished trio—Jo Lawry, Michael Winther, and Karen Oberlin.
Suddenly, I find myself encountering Hajdu’s words—a voice I know well—in a new and freshly gripping way. Continue reading “Author And Critic David Hajdu Turns Songwriter With "Waiting For The Angel"”

Embassies Reopen in Washington and Havana; Two Jazz Orchestras Wave Banners High

On August 21, one month and one day after the U.S. and Cuba reopened long-closed embassies in Washington, DC and Havana, Cuba, two new recordings will be released that hint at a cultural connection elemental to jazz’s legacy yet long choked off by political barriers, as well the promise suggested by a new era of engagement during the Obama administration. Continue reading “Embassies Reopen in Washington and Havana; Two Jazz Orchestras Wave Banners High”

Twenty Years On, The Vision Festival's Enduring Vision

David Murray performing at the 20th annual Vision Festival with his Class Struggle band (bassist Burniss Earl Travis shown here). Photo by Enid Farber

On Friday, July 10, as tenor saxophonist David Murray reached the last of several emotional peaks during a blissful yet intense version of “Flowers For Albert,” audience members both young and old whooped and raised hands as if they were at a church revival.
Here was the annual Vision Festival in full swing, asserting its spiritual heft, sounding echoes of deep legacies and a displaying its power as in-the-moment entertainment of an exalted sort.
In fact, this was a church: After two decades of shifting venues, owing to the vagaries of New York City real estate, this year’s event, marking the event’s 20th anniversary, was held from July 7-12 at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village.
Murray first recorded “Flowers for Albert” nearly 40 years ago, in dedication to the pioneering saxophonist Albert Ayler, who is one of this community’s dear departed masters. At Judson Church, Murray performed it with his “Class Struggle” band, which includes his son, Mingus Murray, whose electric guitar solos leaned forward stylistically while also honoring his father’s personal history.
The Vision Festival has long stood as this country’s essential gathering of avant-garde improvising musicians—yet that description is neither entirely accurate nor complete. First off, the festival involves dancers, poets and visual artists. Also, even the sloppy signifier “avant garde” fails to sum up even a single night of the event. Any given five hours at the Judson Church—each night presented a half-dozen or more performances—ranged wildly in sound and texture.
“The aesthetic isn’t so easy to define,” Continue reading “Twenty Years On, The Vision Festival's Enduring Vision”