The Vision Fest Rolls On at 21, And William Parker's Vision Hits Jazz at Lincoln Center

William Parker/ photo by Peter Gannushkin

Once, it might have been hard to imagine bassist and composer William Parker headlining two nights at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club in Manhattan.
It will happen July 26 & 27. And really, it makes perfect sense.
As a bassist, composer and bandleader, Parker is one of modern jazz’s defining presences; as much as any musician, he fulfills a vision Dizzy Gillespie, the club’s namesake, had decades ago of jazz as an expansive and cross-cultural music, one never stuck in place and always connected to a larger social and political awareness. And by now anyone’s wrongheaded view of Parker as simply a “downtown” musician (though that’s where he’s lived for a long time, and where he has anchored a community) have been erased by two forces: the sheer breadth and depth of Parker’s work; and the collapse in general of limiting categories when it comes to real jazz. Also, more than a decade past the organization’s founding, Jazz at Lincoln Center has notably broadened its bookings and ethos.
At Dizzy’s, Parker, who composes music at a dizzying pace, will present new compositions. These will be performed on July 26 by a quintet, and on the 27th by an 8-piece edition of his In Order to Survive Ensemble (the second set, billed as “Extended Breath,” may involve yet more musicians). Both nights will feature the wondrous tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan and drummer Hamid Drake (and any chance to hear Parker and Drake together is a reason to show up and get a good seat.)
Once, it might have been hard to imagine Parker absent from New York City’s annual Vision Festival—this country’s essential gathering of avant-garde improvising musicians, and a broader celebration of artistic purpose that also highlights dance, poetry and visual arts.
Yet that, too, will happen.
Parker was a founding force behind the festival, now in its 21st year, and a ubiquitous onstage presence. This year, he’ll be in Calgary, Alberta, as composer & musical director of the Decidedly Jazz Danceworks brand New Universe piece & performance space during Vision Fest.
Oddly perhaps, that circumstance makes a certain sense, too: The Vision fest’s offerings (June 7-12) are so broad and strong, its cast of characters so deserving of their spotlights, that this year’s edition is no less satisfying with Parker on the road. (Full schedule here.)
Henry Grimes/ photo Hollis King
Henry Grimes/ photo by Hollis King

As happens annually, one artist is honored for a lifetime of achievement with a full evening as headliner. This year’s focus (June 7) is on bassist and violinist Henry Grimes, whose elemental work in the late 1950s is worth seeking out on recordings, and whose unlikely career resurgence in in 2003, involved a helping hand from Parker.
Grimes’ story is itself wondrous. He was among jazz’s most sought-after bassists in the late ’50s, and he played on free-jazz recordings in the ’60s with the likes of Ayler, Cecil Taylor and Don Cherry. Then he just dropped out, disappeared from the scene for more than three decades.
I’ll never forget hearing Grimes, playing a green-stained bass given to him by Parker, during a triumphant appearance at the 2003 Vision Festival. “Something happened,” Grimes told me following that performance. “It was like a thick air came into the club and came right down on everybody in it. Everything that I’ve strived for came true, with bigger implications for the future.” Those implications have turned into realities in the years since.
On June 7, Grimes will lead two powerhouse groups—one a quartet that includes one of Grimes’ contemporaries, drummer Andrew Cyrille, the other a septet including guitarist Marc Ribot, who has worked closely with Grimes since his return to the scene. In between, Grimes will be joined by several vocalists, performing songs by Lisa Sokolov, drawn from the original poems Grimes sometimes recites in performance.
There are many highlights to this year’s fest. Among them:
Jen Shyu‘s genre-and-border-defying songs (June 8)
—Sun Ra Arkestra 60th anniversary celebration (June 8)
—Saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc leading a quintet including pianist Matthew Shipp (June 9)
—Garland of Blessing (Hamid Drake – drums, Kidd Jordan – sax, Cooper-Moore – piano, Michael Bisio – bass—June 9)
—trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s  with a viola Quartet and Electronics (June 11)
—saxophonist Kidd Jordan leading a quintet to close the fest (June 12)
And I’ll especially highlight the June 10 performance by Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba, a group that showcases no just a rare union of religious and folkloric Afro-Cuban forms with modern large-ensemble jazz but also the place of Afro-Latin lineage within the Vision Festival’s legacy.
I’ve been following New Yor-Uba closely. In an email, Rosewoman described the extended new work she will present at Vision as her attempt to “jump the octave” with this group, through a rhythmic suite and tribute to 23 orishas. The group includes batá and conga master Román Díaz, surrounded by others suitably skilled in rhythmic magic, such as bassist Yunior Terry, drummer Robby Ameen and percussionist Mauricio Herrera.

What John Coltrane (& Others) Told Ralph Gleason

393402711f3bd70360c84460a059b691I’m slowly working my way again through “Conversations in Jazz: The Ralph J. Gleason Interviews,” which will be published May 24 by Yale University Press. As the Yale press web page explains: “The co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, Ralph J. Gleason was among the most respected journalists, interviewers, and critics writing about popular music in the latter half of the twentieth century.”
To which I’d add that Gleason did those things when a journalist, interviewer and critic could, by virtue of his or her work, earn a broad and deep measure of respect. And when a co-founder of Rolling Stone could delve deeply into jazz as more than just hobby or affectation. Yale’s site also mentions that Gleason was “the only music journalist included on President Richard Nixon’s infamous ‘Enemies List,’ which Gleason himself considered ‘the highest honor a man’s country can bestow upon him.’ I haven’t gotten to the explanation of that tidbit yet, but I’m hoping it’s contained in the Jann Wenner’s foreword to a companion volume, “Music in the Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason.” Both editions were edited by Gleason’s son Toby, himself a forty-year veteran of the music business.
“Conversations in Jazz,” has a foreword and introductory notes by Ted Gioia, which frame these encounters nicely and wisely. I’m bound in there, too, in the front matter, with an advance word of praise I’d happily provided Yale editor-at-large Steve Wasserman (whose list also includes Scott Timberg’s “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class,” the best book I’ve read on the contemporary context, or lack thereof, for culture in this country).e2798d8e052085dfc34efddb2e8f6ee8
Here’s what I wrote:

As music, jazz takes shape through what exceptional musicians play. As social history and philosophy, it is often best revealed through what these musicians say—provided there’s a conversation partner with a firm grasp of how jazz gets played and laid-back attitude toward how life gets lived. Ralph Gleason, an influential music critic, brought jazz into countless American living rooms during the 1960s through his TV series “Jazz Casual.” Yet the one-on-one discussions in Gleason’s own Berkeley, California living room—tape recorder rolling, Gleason and one or another of jazz’s greats sitting in overstuffed leather chairs—tell deeper stories. Here, framed with a wise and light touch by writer Ted Gioia, we get windows into personal worlds: John Coltrane on the cusp of a breakthrough; Sonny Rollins entering a period of reclusion; “Philly” Jo Jones sharing drumming tradecraft and history; Duke Ellington explaining why, in music as in life, problems are opportunities.

Last night, I found myself focused on Gleason’s May 1961 interview with John Coltrane. As Gioia points out, Coltrane was “at a turning point in his career,” having left Miles Davis’ group, and was soon to begin his important relationship with a newly launched Impulse! record label. I love this excerpt below for several reasons, including: the humility with which Gleason asks his question and Coltrane answers; the relevance of this exchange now, a half-century later, in terms of a “globalized” notion of jazz; the power, as expressed by Coltrane, of jazz culture “in the air”; and the hints here—“something that’s coming”—of the introspection that contributed to Coltrane’s masterpiece, still four years off, “A Love Supreme.” Continue reading “What John Coltrane (& Others) Told Ralph Gleason”

Carla Bley at 80

Photo by Klaus Muempher
Photo by Klaus Muempher

As a pianist, Carla Bley plays exactly the right amount of notes.
Needless to say they’re also the right note choices, except when they are gorgeously and intentionally wrong. Her hands seem to fall upon these keys as if discovering them or like they were quite obviously the only ones worth considering.
I remember Bley’s comments last year, upon accepting an NEA Jazz Masters award:

“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 to hard for me to play. Get rid of most of these notes.’ And so that was my first lesson.”

As a composer, Bley inspires from her fellow musicians a similarly correct sense of proportion—something beyond restraint or economy, and implying a grand sense of overall design, of form one can live satisfyingly within.
It’s not as if her music sounds perfect or that it seeks or achieves equilibrium. No, Bley’s music has always involved subtle subterfuge a gently off-kilter sensibility. It’s dramatic as well, but sneakily so, in ways that lure, not lurch, you into deep feeling.
Celebrating her 80th birthday with a brief and intimate concert at Manhattan’s Steinway Hall, Bley exuded a child’s wonder and an elder’s wisdom, both qualities coexisting in elegant balance, just as, say, dissonance and consonance do in her music.
Two of the pieces Bley peformed on Wednesday with saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow (the latter, her partner in life as well as music for the past 25 years) were drawn from her finely crafted and yet casually charming new CD “Andando el Tiempo” (ECM). Continue reading “Carla Bley at 80”

Pedrito Martinez Turns Symphony Space Into a Dance Hall & Previews His New CD

Pedrito Martinez (right) performing with (left to right) Isaac Delgado, Isaac Delgado Jr. and Jhair Sala at Symphony Space/ photo Rahav Segev
Pedrito Martinez (right) performing with (left to right) Isaac Delgado, Isaac Delgado Jr. and Jhair Sala at Symphony Space/ photo Rahav Segev

The “Rumba in the Alley” that should have overtaken a stretch of Broadway between 93rd and 94th Street in Manhattan got rained out May 1. It was intended as a kickoff for the first installment of Symphony Space’s ambitious new annual undertaking, The Source Project—weeklong celebrations tracing the influence of Africa on New World cultures.
This year’s focus was Afro-Cuban culture, with mixture of well-curated music, discussion and documentary films. It’s a shame that percussionist Román Díaz didn’t get to use his rather magical powers to restore, if only temporarily, a stretch of Broadway that once reflected the power of Afro Latin influence in New York City yet is now mostly gentrified into yet another urban anyplace.
Díaz can do that sort of thing, as I described here.
Still, one of Díaz’s prime disciples, percussionist and singer Pedrito Martinez, closed the Symphony Space series on Sunday night with a concert that channeled a slice of this history and galvanized a still-vital community, one that knows how to clap a correct clave and turn any theater into a dance hall. Continue reading “Pedrito Martinez Turns Symphony Space Into a Dance Hall & Previews His New CD”

From the White House South Lawn, An Expansive View of Jazz

Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding and Joey Alexander perform during "Jazz at the White House"/photo Steve Mundinger
Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding and Joey Alexander perform during “Jazz at the White House”/photo Steve Mundinger

More than halfway through a gala star-studded jazz concert at the White House on Friday came one stirring performance. Wayne Shorter, who at 82 is an elder statesman and perhaps jazz’s greatest living composer, dug into “Footprints,” a composition he first recorded a half-century ago. He played in trio: with bassist Esperanza Spalding, who at 30 is a star in ascent in her own right and among Shorter’s closest disciples; and with Joey Alexander, who was raised in Indonesia and will soon turn 13. Shorter played in quick flurries and bright bursts of sound, stating his music’s theme only obliquely. It was he, not Alexander, that exuded a child’s sense of playfulness. Alexander played piano with mature restraint and implied wisdom, not just regarding the tune itself but also what Shorter wanted done with it, which was less about reverence or history than possibilities in the moment.
That performance, as it played out on the stage within an elaborate tent on the South Lawn of the White House, didn’t appear within “Jazz at the White House,” the primetime ABC-TV special that aired on Saturday night and can be streamed online through May.
Instead, the network used taped segment, played inside the White House’s East Wing, under a portrait of Bill Clinton. The sound was likely better in there, the visual intimacy heightened by closer quarters. Even so, perhaps it was all too intense, or maybe such instrumental abstraction tries a TV audience: The cameras cut away before the trio was through.
Even in abbreviated form, the scene communicated a great deal about what jazz musicians reach for when they make music as well as the music’s reach—across generations, geographic borders and audience demographics. Continue reading “From the White House South Lawn, An Expansive View of Jazz”