The standard bird’s-eye view of New York’s jazz scene in the 1980s and ’90s depicts a mainstream revival of 1960s tradition, a wild and woolly downtown, and nothing in between. The truth on the ground was more fluid. There were musicians—some experienced, others on the rise—whose deep knowledge of tradition, engaging manner, exalted skills and adventurous spirit naturally bridged such divides.
Thomas Chapin fit that bill.
But Chapin died of leukemia on Feb. 13, 1998, three weeks shy of his 41st birthday. We’ll never know quite where his music was headed. Still, we can learn more about what gave rise to Chapin’s artistry and what it suggests for the future.
In that regard, I’ve been following the development of Stephanie Castillo’s documentary, “Night Bird Song: The Thomas Chapin Story.” (You can see some of it here.)
Charles Lloyd & The MarvelsI Long To See You (Blue Note, Jan. 15):
Charles Lloyd’s late-in-life burst of exploratory energy continues with this new band. Bassist Reuben Rogers (here, playing mostly electric bass) and drummer Eric Harland are drawn from Lloyd’s “new quartet,” which is no longer so new but still stunning (and features pianist Jason Moran). The Marvels was born of a 2013 musical encounter at UCLA’s Royce Hall between the saxophonist and flutist Lloyd and guitarist Bill Foristell. Frisell recruited pedal-steel master Greg Leisz. The material ranges from some favorites from Lloyd’s catalog— “Of Course, Of Course,” the title track of his 1965 Columbia album and “La Llorona,” from 2009’s Mirror, among others—and a wide range of other material—Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” for instance, and the hymn “Abide With Me.” There are vocals on two tracks, by Willie Nelson and Norah Jones. Aruán Ortiz Trio Featuring Eric Revis & Gerald CleaverHidden Voice (Intakt Records, Feb. 2): Pianist Ortiz leads trio that includes one of New York’s most fascinating drummers, Gerald Cleaver. Ortiz is among a generation of Cuban-born musicians making influential waves on the New York scene. His new CD ends with a classic Cuban tune. Yet otherwise, Ortiz plays experimental jazz that owes to no nation in particular; his clearest lodestar is revealed on the CD’s two Ornette Coleman compositions. Though Ortiz’s work to date has been excellent, this recording represents a major leap in context and substance, and I suspect it will end up on best-of lists at the end of this year.
Two new CDs focus on the drum in very different ways: Herlin RileyNew Direction (Mack Avenue, Feb. 12): Drummer Riley is best known for his work with Wynton Marsalis and, more recently, Ahmad Jamal. Yet he’s much more than an ace sideman. Here’s my strategy whenever I’m in New Orleans: Find out where and when Riley is playing; be there. He is quite simply the best drummer in New Orleans, a city known for its lineage of great trapsmen and rhythm masters. Riley can play the whole drum kit in polyrhythmic splendor or he can establish his authority with just, say, a single detail on cowbell or snare drum. On this, his first album as a leader in a decade, he flashes several takes on the distinct New Orleans “pocket” through various jazz styles. Dan Weiss Sixteen: Drummers Suite (Pi, Feb. 26): Drummer/composer Dan Weiss used a fascinating concept as the basis for this CD: He built a suite of pieces, each based on a specific set of beats within classic recordings of his favorite jazz drummers (Elvin Jones, Max Roach, and others): His liner notes include footnotes to brief rhythmic passages, some just seconds long (timings noted). Weiss, who plays drums, tabla and contributes “vocal percussion” on some tracks, calls the music an “amalgam of jazz, Indian Music, prog rock, contemporary classical music and other completely idiosyncratic influences” which is a longwinded way of saying that you’ll hear unexpected blends of timbres and textures in music that adheres to nobody’s formula. It helps that Weiss here gathers more than a dozen notable and notably creative players, including singer Jen Shyu, pianist Matt Mitchell and guitarist Miles Okazaki.
I got a chance to sit around the kitchen table at the Harlem home of pianist Jason Moran and singer Alicia Hall Moran, for this interview piece in The Wall Street Journal. The piece was ostensubly pegged to the release of Hall Moran’s debut CD, released on a new imprint the couple established together—a worthy release that celebrates the pure essence of Hall Moran’s voice as it blurs lines between genres and toys with aural textures
But the Journal piece really was a chance to check in on a remarkable couple who absorb and radiate cultural details with remarkable energy and insight, and whose presence in New York recalls a moment when Harlem was full of families that made art out of community and community out of art. I’ve known them both for more than a decade and it’s been inspiring and educational—about music and marriage–to see how husband and wife affect each other’s experience and expression.
When I asked Did you open musical doors for each other? Alicia said this:
Jason took me to hear Cecil Taylor and Henry Threadgill. Those doors needed opening for me. But on a deeper level, he helped me grasp how important each individual instrument and personality is in music.
And Jason told me:
Dating a girl who knew Western classical music inside and out—who felt it—was a new kind of education. She taught me that Alban Berg was as soulful as Duke Ellington. She helped me focus on narrative. As a jazz musician, living life with someone who always demands a story makes you check everything you’re going to play.
And Jason pointed out that Alicia helped him think more deeply about the idea of narrative in his own music. He said:
Jazz instrumentalists once played with a sense of narrative but now that’s mostly not true. And in school they weren’t teaching you how to play a story. Singers always have to tell a story—in English or German or whatever. We instrumentalists don’t, and though there was a generation that said you really have to learn the lyrics, it ain’t really a rule out here for success. So living life with someone who’s always trying to tell a story or who regularly asks ‘What do you mean by that,’ makes you rethink certain things.
I’m back New Orleans, where I’m honored to be writer-in-residence with The New Quorum—an artist residency organization dedicated to bringing professional musicians and writers from across the globe to New Orleans for meaningful cultural exchange with local and regional artists.”
Trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith is here, and each meal or conversation in passing with him is much like one of his vast catalog of distinguished compositions—unique, searching, free of convention and yet finely focused. I’m getting answers to questions I’d never even thought to ask. Better yet are the workshops and house concerts Smith has been leading at our house on Esplanade Avenue (more on that soon). The other musicians in residence are no less inspiring: flutist Nicole Mitchell; singer and composer Lisa Harris; and visual artist/vocalist/musician Damon Locks.
Right now, these talented folks and the woman who created this program, Gianna Chachere, are helping me dig more deeply into the tensions between tradition and innovation in New Orleans, and in jazz culture in general.
Here’s a nice piece by Cree McCree that discusses The New Quorum in the context of its predecessor and inspiration in New Orleans, The Quorum. (A documentary on that history can be found here.)
For those of you in New Orleans, we’ll explore that and other themes in a free public discussion on Wednesday, January 13—see below or here. You’ll want to stick around for a solo performance by Wadada Leo Smith to follow the panel discussion. Continue reading “Welcome to The New Quorum (Back in NOLA)”