Now Playing (New and Forthcoming CDs)

radio hatCarla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow Andando el Tiempo (ECM, May 6): As pianist, composer and arranger, Bley, who turns 80 in May, has always exuded a stern authority tempered with obvious tenderness and grace. And offstage, she’s usually disarmingly humble, even childlike in the best sense. Such was the case last year when she accepted her NEA Jazz Masters Award. As I noted here, Bley told this anecdote from the podium:

“I asked my father, ‘Where does the music come from?’ He told me, ‘A composer wrote it.’ And I said, ‘I would like to do that.’ So I wrote hundreds of notes and he told me, ‘No, no, this is much too hard for me to play. Get rid of most of these notes.’ And so that was my first lesson.”

Her new CD has, in spots, riveting emotional impact. It’s in one sense a beautiful musical study in contrary motion of instrumental voices. But what strikes me most is how well Bley has incorporated that early lesson about economy into her music through the decades, and especially here.
Melissa Aldana Back Home (Word of Mouth Music): It was no surprise to me when tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana won the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition. Aldana first captured my attention a decade ago, when she was a precocious 17-year-old whose tone, confidence and knowledge belied her age during late-night jam sessions at the Panama Jazz Festival. Pianist Danilo Pérez, the festival’s founder, predicted big things from her, and she has delivered.
Aldana, who is from Santiago, Chile and now lives in New York City, released two hard-swinging and supple-sounding quartet albums for saxophonist Greg Osby’s Inner Circle label. The title of her new CD, “Back Home,” refers not to her native country, but to the piano-less trio format she fell in love with while listening to Sonny Rollins albums, and which she employs here.
David Murray, Geri Allen & Terri Lynne Carrington Perfection (Motéma, April 15): Call it a “supergroup.” Or a “power trio.” The sound is bold, ignited principally by Murray’s bristling and active tenor saxophone (it’s easy to take Murray for granted; but name another living saxophonist other than Sonny Rollins whose sound erupts and ripples with such visceral power). Part of the fascination here is how complete this trio (sax-piano-drums) sounds without the presence of a bassist. Yet this CD is about cohesion in difficult musical terrain more than sheer force. That cohesion stems from the fact that here are three established leaders (stars, really) and owes most of all to deep connections. These include the bond between Allen (who, for my money, is among he generation’s most important musicians) and Carrington (as confident and versatile as any drummer in jazz; and who maintains an inventive trio with Allen and bassist Esperanza Spalding.
The emotional core of the album is the title track, a previously unrecorded Ornette Coleman composition (here the group expands to sextet, including longtime Coleman associate Charnett Moffett on bass and Wallace Roney, Jr (son of Allen and trumpeter Wallace Roney) on trumpet. This group shook things up at January’s Winter Jazzfest in New York City. On first listen, they seem to have settled into something no less provocative and yet more refined.

Obama In Cuba

New York Times front-page photo credited to Stephen Crowley/NYTimes

It’s hard to believe that President Obama touched down in Havana yesterday—the first sitting president to set foot in Cuba since 1928, when Calvin Coolidge sailed into Havana aboard the U.S.S. Texas, parking the World War I-era battleship at the exact spot where the U.S.S. Maine was sunk during the Spanish-American war 30 years before.
Based on Stephen Crowley’s photo on the front page of the New York Times, it was raining.
And the context for Obama’s historic three-day trip, which extends an effort, begun in late 2014, to write a new chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations, is far from perfectly sunny: The Times headline next to that photo reads “As Obama Arrives, Cuba Tightens Its Grip on Dissent,” and describes how, hours before Air Force One landed at José Martí International Airport, dozens of arrests were made at the weekly march of Ladies in White, a prominent dissident group. (Elizardo Sanchez, who runs the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, is quoted as stating that the arrests took place “in the moment that Obama was flying in the air to Cuba.”
The process of normalizing relations won’t be easy and is full of contradictions. Yet it’s not disingenuous, may in fact be ingenious, and is simply necessary. Only recalcitrant Republicans can derail it at this point.
That photo above, with Obama holding his umbrella high in his right hand, waving his left, and stepping lightly, others falling in behind, reminded me (and I’m sure anyone who spends time in New Orleans) of a second-line parade.
And it should. Let’s cut the body politic, in the form of a cruel and now pointless embargo, loose. Let’s celebrate the soul that has always connected people to other people across the mere 90 miles that separate Cuba from the U.S.
A truly normalized relationship between the U.S. and Cuba holds promise to relieve great suffering in Cuba and lift many lives. It also holds the potential for great profit for U.S. companies. It can help reshape the political landscape of our hemisphere.
Yet for me, the most tantalizing aspects of the whole thing are cultural: Connecting again an essential link, musically and otherwise, that could never be fully broken but was unnaturally estranged. Continue reading “Obama In Cuba”

Vijay Iyer's New Day Gig at the Met Breuer

Vijay Iyer performing at the Met Breuer opening with Mark Turner/ PHOTO: SAMANTHA NANDEZ/BFA
Vijay Iyer performing at the Met Breuer opening with Mark Turner/ PHOTO: SAMANTHA NANDEZ/BFA

Seated at a Steinway grand piano in a dark, intimate room in early March, Vijay Iyerwasn’t simply playing another gig.
Aficionados in attendance could recognize a loose medley of familiar jazz themes, including Wayne Shorter’s “ Nefertiti” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.” Mostly, Mr. Iyer and his duet partner, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, issued an unbroken and largely abstract flow, moving easily from dense dissonances to languid melodies.
Musically, the scene wasn’t unlike Mr. Iyer’s performances at any number of Manhattan jazz clubs and concert halls. Except here, the listeners were gathered in a small gallery behind the lobby of the Met Breuer, the celebrated five-story hulk of a building that serves as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new outpost for modern and contemporary art.
The audience was witnessing the first installment of “Relation,” a performance residency showcasing Mr. Iyer, who is equally distinguished as a pianist, composer and educator. His ongoing performances open to the general public Friday and run through the end of the month.
“It’ll be my day gig,” said Mr. Iyer, in an interview at his Harlem home. “It’s almost like having an office.” Continue reading “Vijay Iyer's New Day Gig at the Met Breuer”

Can We Keep Up With Anthony Braxton?

photo by Carolyn Wachnicki
photo by Carolyn Wachnicki

Two years ago, when Anthony Braxton was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, he was was showcased in the awards concert as a composer. He didn’t pick up any of the reed instruments he plays with mastery, or sit down at the piano.
The short scene presented from his opera, “Trillium J,” was atonal, emblematic of his distinctive voice and, in spots, deeply funny. Braxton talked for more than 30 minutes, reflecting on both well-known sources of inspiration, such as Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), with which he had early and formative connection, and less obvious ones, like the University of Michigan marching band. He seemed to relish being called a “master,” but not the word “jazz.”
“My interests were never idiomatic,” he said. “My interests were trans-idiomatic.”
It’s been fasinating to watch lately as the profound influence of the unclassifiable masters connected with the AACM continues to deepen and widen, even as these elder musicians produce original work at an impressive clip. (Witness, for instance, Henry Threadill’s recent work, or Wadada Leo Smith’s.) At 70, Braxton’s projects continue to spill forth, to grow and morph, in ways that trace his inspirations and ideas backward and forward, always expanding the grand and grandly organic systems within which his work exists. Those who have been influenced by these musicians—an expanding sphere with expansive reach, I’d argue—live in trans-idiomatic world that minds like Braxton’s continue to sketch.
In Braxton’s case, it’s not just the sheer volume of work (how can one find time to digest it all?) or the quality (just listen); it’s also the scope and innovation of what Braxton is doing: Are we ready for this yet? Can we handle it?

I’ve just received word that Braxton is set for the release of three major boxed sets of his works on April 1 via the Tri-Centric Foundation and Firehouse 12 Records. It includes the best representation yet of Braxton’s four-part opera, “Trillium J”; a quintet tribute to the legacy of Lennie Tristano, with Braxton at the piano; and Braxton’s “Echo Echo Mirror House Music”—the press release describes the latter as “the latest conceptual innovation in Braxton’s five-decade career…. In this ensemble of longtime collaborators, all the musicians wield iPods in addition to their instruments, while navigating scores that combine cartography and evocative graphic notation, creating a musical tapestry combining live performance and sampled sound from Braxton’s extensive recorded discography.”
Braxton will celebrate the three releases with rare U.S. concert appearances at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN on April 1 & 2.
I can’t make that scene, but I hope to find time and headspace to dig into these three sets. In that interest, more to come. For now:

Continue reading “Can We Keep Up With Anthony Braxton?”

A Message From Herbie and Wayne

Herbie Hancock and Wayner Shorter. Photo by the US Embassy in Panama.
Herbie Hancock and Wayner Shorter. Photo by the US Embassy in Panama.

From one angle, jazz is a story of exalted friendships.
Think Bird and Diz.
Think Herbie and Wayne.
Pianist Herbie Hancock and tenor and soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter share one of the great and enduring bonds of modern American music. Their connection began when both played in Miles Davis’ second great quintet, a half-century ago (when Hancock, as he told once me, wanted to figure out if Shorter was the genius he seemed: “I kept him up all night, just talking, and around 5am, I knew: Genius!” It has spanned many musical endeavors in many contexts, right up to this coming weekend, when I get to hear the two performing together in the jazz tent at The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
They share a common faith, Nichiren Buddhism, and they share a strong and vocal commitment to a wide range of issues regarding social justice.
So it came as no surprise to come upon this “open letter” concerning a rash of recent tragedies and the upheaval surrounding those situations:
To the Next Generation of Artists,
We find ourselves in turbulent and unpredictable times.
From the horror at the Bataclan, to the upheaval in Syria and the senseless bloodshed in San Bernardino, we live in a time of great confusion and pain. As an artist, creator and dreamer of this world, we ask you not to be discouraged by what you see but to use your own lives, and by extension your art, as vehicles for the construction of peace.
While it’s true that the issues facing the world are complex, the answer to peace is simple; it begins with you. You don’t have to be living in a third world country or working for an NGO to make a difference. Each of us has a unique mission. We are all pieces in a giant, fluid puzzle, where the smallest of actions by one puzzle piece profoundly affects each of the others. You matter, your actions matter, your art matters.
We’d like to be clear that while this letter is written with an artistic audience in mind, these thoughts transcend professional boundaries and apply to all people, regardless of profession.
We are not alone. We do not exist alone and we cannot create alone. What this world needs is a humanistic awakening of the desire to raise one’s life condition to a place where our actions are rooted in altruism and compassion. You cannot hide behind a profession or instrument; you have to be human. Focus your energy on becoming the best human you can be. Focus on developing empathy and compassion. Through the process you’ll tap into a wealth of inspiration rooted in the complexity and curiosity of what it means to simply exist on this planet. Music is but a drop in the ocean of life.
The world needs new pathways. Don’t allow yourself to be hijacked by common rhetoric, or false beliefs and illusions about how life should be lived. It’s up to you to be the pioneers. Whether through the exploration of new sounds, rhythms, and harmonies or unexpected collaborations, processes and experiences, we encourage you to dispel repetition in all of its negative forms and consequences. Strive to create new actions both musically and with the pathway of your life. Never conform.
The unknown necessitates a moment-to-moment improvisation or creative process that is unparalleled in potential and fulfillment. There is no dress rehearsal for life because life, itself, is the real rehearsal. Every relationship, obstacle, interaction, etc. is a rehearsal for the next adventure in life. Everything is connected. Everything builds. Nothing is ever wasted. This type of thinking requires courage. Be courageous and do not lose your sense of exhilaration and reverence for this wonderful world around you.
We have this idea of failure, but it’s not real; it’s an illusion. There is no such thing as failure. What you perceive as failure is really a new opportunity, a new hand of cards, or a new canvas to create upon. In life there are unlimited opportunities. The words, “success” and “failure”, themselves, are nothing more than labels. Every moment is an opportunity. You, as a human being, have no limits; therefore infinite possibilities exist in any circumstance.
The world needs more one-on-one interaction among people of diverse origins with a greater emphasis on art, culture and education. Our differences are what we have in common. We can work to create an open and continuous plane where all types of people can exchange ideas, resources, thoughtfulness and kindness. We need to be connecting with one another, learning about one another, and experiencing life with one another. We can never have peace if we cannot understand the pain in each other’s hearts. The more we interact, the more we will come to realize that our humanity transcends all differences.
Art in any form is a medium for dialogue, which is a powerful tool. It is time for the music world to produce sound stories that ignite dialogue about the mystery of us. When we say the mystery of us, we’re talking about reflecting and challenging the fears, which prevent us from discovering our unlimited access to the courage inherent in us all. Yes, you are enough. Yes, you matter. Yes, you should keep going.
Arrogance can develop within artists, either from artists who believe that their status makes them more important, or those whose association with a creative field entitles them to some sort of superiority. Beware of ego; creativity cannot flow when only the ego is served.
The medical field has an organization called Doctors Without Borders. This lofty effort can serve as a model for transcending the limitations and strategies of old business formulas which are designed to perpetuate old systems in the guise of new ones. We’re speaking directly to a system that’s in place, a system that conditions consumers to purchase only the products that are dictated to be deemed marketable, a system where money is only the means to an end. The music business is a fraction of the business of life. Living with creative integrity can bring forth benefits never imagined.
Your elders can help you. They are a source of wealth in the form of wisdom. They have weathered storms and endured the same heartbreaks; let their struggles be the light that shines the way in the darkness. Don’t waste time repeating their mistakes. Instead, take what they’ve done and catapult you towards building a progressively better world for the progeny to come.
As we accumulate years, parts of our imagination tend to dull. Whether from sadness, prolonged struggle, or social conditioning, somewhere along the way people forget how to tap into the inherent magic that exists within our minds. Don’t let that part of your imagination fade away. Look up at the stars and imagine what it would be like to be an astronaut or a pilot. Imagine exploring the pyramids or Machu Picchu. Imagine flying like a bird or crashing through a wall like Superman. Imagine running with dinosaurs or swimming like mer-creatures. All that exists is a product of someone’s imagination; treasure and nurture yours and you’ll always find yourself on the precipice of discovery.
How does any of this lend to the creation of a peaceful society you ask? It begins with a cause. Your causes create the effects that shape your future and the future of all those around you. Be the leaders in the movie of your life. You are the director, producer, and actor. Be bold and tirelessly compassionate as you dance through the voyage that is this lifetime.

Continue reading “A Message From Herbie and Wayne”