Trumpeter Tom Harrell's Music Moves Choreographer Michele Wiles to, Well, Move

harrel pic
photo Emilie Pons

From time to time, I invite a guest blogger to fill this space. The last time I ran into Emilie Pons, she had her camera around her neck and she had good things to say about a collaboration between trumpeter Tom Harrell, a uniquely expressive presence in jazz, and choreographer Michele Wiles. Pons asked if I could use some of her photos. I told her to write the short piece you’ll find below.
When choreographer Michele Wiles heard trumpeter Tom Harrell for the first time, she felt touched by his music and compelled to work with him. Wiles then set about creating choreography for her contemporary ballet company, BalletNext, to two Harrell compositions, “Baroque Steps” and “Trances.” In early November, a few months after hearing Harrell lead his band at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard, she presented her intepretations in collaboration with him at New York Live Art Theater. The program, titled “Apogee in 3,” included a third piece—an improvisation for which she responded to the sound of Harrell’s trumpet with her body and he, in turn, to her movements.
“What drew me to Tom’s music is an emotional energy,” Wiles said. “I just felt every note he and his quintet played expresses how I want to dance—with my soul.” Continue reading “Trumpeter Tom Harrell's Music Moves Choreographer Michele Wiles to, Well, Move”

Celebrating Danny Barker's Essential Legacy in New Orleans

Photo copyright Eric Waters
Photo copyright Eric Waters

Outside New Orleans, the name Danny Barker isn’t all that well known.
Yet talk to a New Orleans musician of any age, who plays in nearly any style, and Mr. Barker—as these players call him—inevitably comes up, in reverent and warm tones, much the way modern-jazz musicians talk about drummer Art Blakey.
Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band, which he founded in 1970, late in life, helped launch many careers. No Barker, no Dirty Dozen Brass Band, no Rebirth Brass Band. No Barker, and it’s hard to know what trumpeters including Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Leroy Jones and Kermit Ruffins would sound like, just how drummers like Herlin Riley and Shannon Powell might swing.
Yet Barker’s legacy is bigger than that, and just as much about the names we don’t know. His Fairview Baptist band was a training ground for young musicians. For anyone even remotely connected to the city’s indigenous culture, Barker—who played banjo and guitar, sang and wrote songs, and led bands—is the key figure of a brass-band revival at a moment when many felt that tradition slipping away.
Back in August, away from the high-profile “Kartrina” hoopla, I moderated a panel discussion in New Orleans—”Ten Years After: The State of New Orleans Culture.” There, Barker’s name was invoked again and again, as a man who saved not just a style of music but a constellation of community values connected to an indigenous culture.
A few years ago, filmmaker Darren Hoffman made a wonderful documentary about Barker’s legacy, “Tradition is a Temple.”
Yet the best tribute to Barker’s living legacy is The Danny Barker Banjo and Guitar Festival. It begins January 14 (a day past what would have been Barker’s 107th birthday) and runs through January 17 in New Orleans, with an additional concert on January 21 by singer Maria Muldaur, who once scored a hit with Barker’s “Don’t You Feel My Leg.” Continue reading “Celebrating Danny Barker's Essential Legacy in New Orleans”

Top Ten Jazz Recordings of 2015

Steve Coleman (left) and Henry Threadgill top my list and loom large on today's jazz landscape. (photos: left-courtesy Pi Recordings; right—Nhumi Threadgill)
Steve Coleman (left) and Henry Threadgill top my list and loom large on today’s jazz landscape. (photos: left-courtesy Pi Recordings; right—Nhumi Threadgill)

Those who pine for a new big idea in jazz—one that lends the music’s next chapter a catchy name—largely miss what’s going on.
Radical thinkers—seeming outliers—are today’s prime movers. If this has been the case throughout much of jazz’s history, what is different today is that these innovators no longer beget clear schools. Jazz’s forward flow is not well measured by stylistic monikers and pop-culture breakthroughs, but rather through profound ripples of impact. The most influential musicians now suggest less about how jazz should sound or be sold and more about how meaningful musical possibilities may be awakened within the context of jazz tradition.
On those terms, two musicians— Henry Threadgill, 71 years old, and Steve Coleman, 59—loom especially large right now. Threadgill and Coleman have achieved masterly and original voices as instrumentalists (both play alto saxophone; Mr. Threadgill is also a flutist). Leading unconventional ensembles, both are starkly authoritative yet also warmly nurturing presences. Both have successfully met one of jazz’s central challenges: to synthesize the acts of composition and improvisation through personalized yet rigorous approaches to structure and form. Each has crafted and stuck to a unique process that can’t really be imitated but can be shared.
And share they have. Their influence stands behind what I sometimes call “the quietest revolution you’ve never heard of”—that is, a growing swath of distinguished musicians whose music owes to direct and indirect lessons learned from the music of Threadgill and Coleman and the bands they lead (sometimes, in Threadgill’s case, conducts). These are subtle ideas with profound effects—the “rhythm chants” that underlie most of Coleman’s music, say, and the ways in which Threadgill liberates each instrument from its conventional role.
My year-end Top 10 jazz albums list includes one musician whose close collaboration with Coleman formed essential inspiration, Jen Shyu. It includes a band that features Threadgill, led by drummer Jack DeJohnette, who absorbed essential influence in the same Chicago scene Threadgill rose from. It’s topped by dazzling CDs from Coleman and Threadgill themselves. Continue reading “Top Ten Jazz Recordings of 2015”

Allen Toussaint Deserves a Statue in New Orleans—And in New York City, Too

photo/ Glade Bilby II
photo/ Glade Bilby II

Though I didn’t file an obituary for the late great Allen Toussaint, who died on November 27, I was as stunned and saddened as anyone by his death last month.
Pianist Jon Batiste‘s recent tribute to Batiste at New York’s City Winer gave me a chance to reflect on the brilliance of Toussaint within a long line of New Orleans legends and his indelible connection to New York City. And to return to the pages of the Village Voice.
You can find that piece here.
As I wrote: Continue reading “Allen Toussaint Deserves a Statue in New Orleans—And in New York City, Too”

Listening to the Women of Chicago's AACM

The Voices Heard! ensemble performing at the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s Made in Chicago Festival in Poznan, Poland: (l-r.) Ann Ward, Coco Elysses, Nicole Mitchell, Dee Alexander, Tomeka Reid, Renee Baker/ photo: Lauren Deutsch

I can’t think of a better way for the Jazz Institute of Chicago to wrap up a year of programming highlighting the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) than with a free concert on Dec. 11 by the Voices Heard! ensemble. The event gathers women who have made significant contributions to the AACM and whose musicianship has been marked by the AACM’s influence: vocalist Dee Alexander, pianist and singer Ann Ward, flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid, violinist Renee Baker, and percussionist, singer and songwriter Coco Elysses.
The promotional headline reads:
Empowering Women, Spanning Generations: The Women of the AACM Unite!
It celebrates an aspect of AACM’s legacy that deserves attention beyond Chicago.
Earlier this year, while researching a Wall Street Journal piece celebrating the AACM anniversary, I spoke at length with Mitchell, a perennial poll-topper as flutist and a real visionary as a composer and the leader of several groups (her Black Earth Ensemble performs at the Chicago event). Currently also Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine, Mitchell arrived in Chicago in 1990, where she began playing music on the streets. She was drawn to the AACM, eventually serving as its first female president, from 2009-2011.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation: Continue reading “Listening to the Women of Chicago's AACM”