Tributes and Tributaries: In and Around the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Fan waves an Allen Toussaint banner at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival/ photo; Josh Brasted
Fan waves an Allen Toussaint banner at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival/ photo; Josh Brasted

As I packed my bags to head to the 47th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I felt a pang of sadness.
Allen Toussaint would not be there.
I would not see Toussaint, who died unexpectedly at 77 on November 10, looking resplendent like he always did. Nor would I hear him cycling through songs he wrote or arranged or produced, that were hits for stars of several genres, from Lee Dorsey to the Rolling Stones, Al Hirt to Bonnie Raitt, and that traced a half-century of distinctive and unparalleled music making. In New Orleans, a city known for musical innovation, imponderable dualities, and inscrutable personal style, Toussaint epitomized it all: He was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken creator of classics who drove a cream-colored 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, who could look elegantly complete in a suit jacket, silk tie, and a pair of white athletic socks and sandals, who could say a lot with just few notes or turn a pop song into a symphony.
Since I couldn’t stick around for jazzfest’s second weekend—which begins today and runs through Sunday—I also knew I’d miss the jazzfest tribute to Toussaint (Sunday, May 1, on the fest’s Gentilly Stage). The announced guests that will join Toussaint’s working band include Aaron Neville, Cyril Neville, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Buffett and Jon Batiste, yet Toussaint’s reach was so broad and deep it’s hard to predict who else might show up.
It was some small comfort that right before I left New York, I received “American Tunes,” which will be released June 10 on Nonesuch, and which represents Toussaint’s final studio recordings—solo tracks at his home studio in New Orleans and small ensemble takes from Los Angeles. Here, Toussaint worked with producer Joe Henry, as he did on his 2009 release, “The Bright Mississippi.” Some Toussaint fans I know don’t love that recording, due to its slowed-down tempos and its lack of, well, a certain brand of funk. But I do. It stands alongside Toussaint’s singularly funky achievements across genres and generations as something else, showcasing an aspect of his legacy often overlooked: His prowess as a pianist, which deserves its place within both a particular New Orleans lineage and the wider jazz-piano roll call.
Toussaint was a regular performer at jazzfest. Yet it wasn’t until after the 2005 flood caused by the levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina, after Toussaint was temporarily displaced to New York City, that Toussaint began to “reclaim my own music,” as he once told me, and to focus more on taking the spotlight as a performer. (I’ll never forget Toussaint’s Sunday shows at Joe’s Pub, the intimate East Village venue, which grew out of a one-off fundraiser, or his 2009 stand at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard.) “American Tunes” lacks the coherent focus of “The Bright Mississippi.” As with the former CD, the new one bears the imprint of Henry, who is an auteur producer; yet Toussaint makes it his own, as he did all that he touched, especially when, on the new CD, he digs into the repertoire of one of his forebears, Professor Longhair. As long as there is a New Orleans, as long as American music gets played, Toussaint will be with us. On that Delta flight to Louis Armstrong airport, it was nice to hear from him again and anew.
This year’s jazzfest took shape under a cloud of loss. Continue reading “Tributes and Tributaries: In and Around the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival”

(Something Right in the Universe Dep't): Henry Threadgill Awarded Pulitzer Prize

Credit:  Pulitzer Board / Handout
Photo: Pulitzer Board / Handout

We humans are happy because yesterday Henry Threadgill was awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music.
At the Pulitzer site, Threadgill’s “In for a Penny, In for a Pound” (released in May, 20015, on Pi Recordings) is referred to as “a highly original work in which notated music and improvisation mesh in a sonic tapestry that seems the very expression of modern American life.”
That’s savvy analysis, and it’s a relief to hear the “American-ness” of music from an African American composer with strong roots in jazz invoked as something beyond “the democracy of improvisation” or the “cry of freedom.”
Still, I hear in Threadgill’s music, and especially in light of the range of his influences, the very expression of life here on earth, period.
Threadgill is never at a loss for words. (Cornetist Graham Haynes posted on Facebook that Threadgill could have won a Pulitzer simply for his song titles.) In Nate Chinen’s news piece in today’s New York Times, here’s Threadgill’s pull-quote: Continue reading “(Something Right in the Universe Dep't): Henry Threadgill Awarded Pulitzer Prize”

Cecil Taylor at the Whitney: Storming Places, Like He’s Always Done

Pianist Cecil Taylor performing with dancer Min Tanaka during “Open Plan” at the Whitney Museum of American Art/ All Photographs © Paula Court

If you arrived on Thursday night at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s fifth floor, Cecil Taylor was there to greet you.
Elevator doors opened and there was Taylor—his image, anyway—in towering proportions as projected on a massive screen, moving fleetly about a piano’s keyboard while wearing a white knit cap, as captured in Ronn Mann’s 1981 documentary, “Imagine the Sound.”
The night’s real attraction was an increasingly rare invitation—the chance to see and hear Taylor, who recently turned 87, perform in person.
And in glorious context, no less: At the far west end of an imposing venue—the largest column-free museum exhibition space in New York City (more than 18,000 feet of open space), at a Bösendorfer grand piano set against floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Hudson River.
A yet deeper context was on display. Taylor’s concert was the prelude to a lovingly curated and wisely broad-minded exhibition and residency at the Whitney through April 24, dedicated to the full range of Taylor’s artistry. “Open Plan: Cecil Taylor,” the first of five such Whitney programs, places Taylor in the company of a wide range of creative souls: installation and performance artist Andrea Fraser; painter Lucy Dodd; sculptor/earth artist Michael Heizer; and video/filmmaker Steve McQueen.

Continue reading “Cecil Taylor at the Whitney: Storming Places, Like He’s Always Done”

When Esperanza Met Emily

Esperanza Spalding showing two sides of herself PHOTO: HOLLY ANDRES

A few facts were striking after Esperanza Spalding took the stage of Brooklyn’s BRIC House in early March. Gone was the bassist and singer’s soft cloud of an Afro, tamed now into long braids. Oversized glasses largely obscured her lovely features. She wore crown that looked as if stolen from a cool kid’s birthday party. She seemed in perpetual motion, pausing only to bear down on a particularly challenging line on her fretless electric bass. Her music, now centered on a plugged-in trio, sounded louder and more assertive than at any point in her decade-long career.
This was the album release celebration for “Emily’s D+Evolution” (Concord Records), Ms. Spalding’s boldest leap yet. During “Good Lava,” between power chords, she sang, “See this pretty girl/ Watch this pretty girl flow.”
Audiences have been doing largely that ever since Ms. Spalding’s unexpected 2011 Best New Artist Grammy Award left fans of the rapper Drake and the popster Justin Bieber incredulous. Then, Ms. Spalding was known mostly as a jazz instrumentalist (she’s still that too, working regularly in an acoustic trio with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington). Some heralded her Grammy as jazz’s triumph, which to some degree it was.
If Ms. Spalding, 31, has since walked a gilded path—performing at the Academy Awards and at the Obama White House; working closely with jazz royalty such as pianist Herbie Hancock and her closest mentor, saxophonist Wayne Shorter—she seems now to have found her own road.
She credits the Emily of her album’s title—her middle name, which most people called her while growing up in Portland, Ore. She’s not so much channeling her inner child, she says, but rediscovering “the innocent passion I once felt for poetry and dance and loud sounds” through a character that is more so channeling her. The project calls for creative staging (she enlisted theatrical director Will Weigler) and has developing gradually throughout her adopted hometown of New York City. She tried out some songs two years ago in performance at the 92nd Street Y. She debuted the track “One” during a 2015 episode of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” taped at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She’ll tinker further with her formula on April 14 at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
My interview with her in The Wall Street Journal is here. Here are two excerpts: Continue reading “When Esperanza Met Emily”

Wadada Leo Smith and Vijay Iyer Find Their Cosmic Rhythm

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I was riding the 3 train to Harlem, heading to an interview with pianist Vijay Iyer about “A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke,” his collaborative suite with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, when I read the following front-page headline in The New York Times:

“Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory.”

Dennis Overbye’s story—the most poetic piece of journalism I’ve come across in the Times in many years—gave the news about sonic evidence of, well, a cosmic rhythm: A “faint rising tone” that, physicists say, “is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago.”

When I last spent time with Wadada Leo Smith, he was leading a workshop for instrumentalists, during which he’d pulled out an image meant to represent a “black hole.” He wanted to investigate the idea of a black hole through tone and rhythm.

You can find my review in the Wall Street Journal of the Smith-Iyer collaboration here.

Or here: Continue reading “Wadada Leo Smith and Vijay Iyer Find Their Cosmic Rhythm”