Now Playing: Pick Hits and Forthcoming Albums

Pick Hit: 
Marc Ribot The Young Philadelphians: Live in Tokyo (Yellowbird, just released)
It’s hard to imagine something musical that guitarist Marc Ribot couldn’t do—or wouldn’t wish to.
That’s not to say that Ribot is eclectic, or that he lacks discernment. Far from it; he doesn’t dabble. He just likes many different styles of music for many different reasons. His technique is so sharp and profound, his sonic identity so strong, that all of his music, whatever it taps into, seems grounded in a single expansive concept reflective of these qualities: an improvisational credo drawn from jazz; a toughness and urgency that owes to punk and early rock; and a devotion to detail that can found wherever serious musicians gather.
Ribot describes his Young Philadelphians band in his liner notes as “where deco meets disco meets decon,” in tribute to twin legacies: “The mind-blowing harmolodic punk-funk of Ornette Coleman’s first Prime Time band and the sweet, optimistic pulse of 1970s Philly soul.”
He’s got bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston, both Prime Time alumni, in tow here, along with fellow guitarist Mary Halvorson and a 3-piece string section. Ribot is celebrating a moment, now some 40 years old, “before dance went digital,” reinventing hits like Silver Convention’s “Fly, Robin, Fly,” Teddy Pendergrass’s “Love TKO,” and, yes, Van McCoy’s “The Hustle.” Did you have to ask? Of course, they play “TSOP (The Sounds of Philadelphia)” by MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother—if that’s really what it meant…)
I grew up on and danced to this soundtrack in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. This stuff was a guilty pleasure for me, long suppressed, now released from its dated trappings and its too-rigid disco beat by Ribot and company. They isolate both the inner grit and the pleasing naivete these songs managed to balance. And they invest these worthy pop confections (I’d forgotten how lovely some of these string lines are) with fresh fissures of noise and threads of wild invention.
This is no retro shtick. There’s nothing ironic about it. And why not honor both Ornette Coleman and Van McCoy at once (if you’ve got the chops and the love to do it).
What else am I listening to now? Continue reading “Now Playing: Pick Hits and Forthcoming Albums”

On Improvisation, Form, Sunsets and Lobster: Off I Go to Maine Again

photo by Larry Blumenfeld
photo by Larry Blumenfeld

I’m packing up my things to head off to Deer Isle, Maine, for two weeks.
It’s a Down East island I know well. First, it was an escape valve for my wife Erica and I—a place to shut off, eat lobster, paddle a canoe and do  little else.
Then, it became the site of a labor of love—through my role for the past 16 years as founding curator for the Deer Isle Jazz Festival, at a lovely century-old former vaudeville opera house overlooking a working lobster dock.
Magical stuff has happened there (I took the picture above, just before showtime several years ago.)
Soon enough, we had a willing partner in the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, a renowned center for sculptors and potters and glassblowers and weavers and poets; each year, one festival musician would serve as musician-in-residence.
You can find some personal history related to all that here.
This year, I have the honor of being writer-in-residence. (Scroll down here.)
I’ve decided to call the 2-week workshop I’m leading, “Jazz and the Abstract Truth,” which I do with apologies to saxophonist and composer Oliver Nelson, who titled his landmark 1961 LP “The Blues and The Abstract Truth.” Continue reading “On Improvisation, Form, Sunsets and Lobster: Off I Go to Maine Again”

Jason Moran, in Real and Imagined Rooms of His Own

20160307 PAA Jason Moran Veterans Room 091_CP“I’m a straight-up jazz musician, no doubt,” Jason Moran told me in an interview a decade ago. “But I also like to think of myself as an urban performance artist who happens to play piano.”
Then, I was writing a profile for Jazziz magazine of Moran, who was already well into a successful career as a pianist and bandleader and as invigorating a presence as jazz had known at the start of the 21st century. He had yet to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, which arrived in 2010, or to take over for the late Billy Taylor as the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz. He had only recent begun to working in deep and ongoing collaboration with visual artists such as Adrian Piper and Joan Jonas.
I used that quote again in my Wall Street Journal review of Moran’s new solo-piano recording, “The Armory Concert” (available to download through the bandcamp website), which makes for gorgeous and provocative listening. It also marks Moran’s departure from the Blue Note label, on which he has documented his growth and range since 1999, and. As I wrote, the new recording reflects “the growing sense of autonomy he’s displayed while casting off conventions of genre and even music as a strict discipline.” Continue reading “Jason Moran, in Real and Imagined Rooms of His Own”

O'Farrill 3.0: Adam Steps Out

It came as no surprise to me when Adam O’Farrill placed in the top three at the Thelonious Monk Institute International Trumpet Competition two years ago, at the tender age of 19. I’d seen and heard him four years earlier, onstage at Havana’s Mella Theater, standing toe-to-toe with Cuba’s finest young trumpeters, all several years his elder, holding his own and flashing a harmonic knowledge they lacked, while on tour with the orchestra led by his father, pianist Arturo O’Farrill.
And it comes as no suprise to me that O’Farrill’s debut recording as a leader, “Stranger Days” (Sunnyside) is finely honed, witty, deep, soulful and hip—it’s marked by his casual yet authoritative command of his instrument but also much more, especially a coherent group concept. O’Farrill has been dropping hints for some time now: on previous recordings in bands co-led with his older brother, drummer Zack O’Farrill; on small-ensemble dates led by his dad; on saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s recent “Bird Calls”; and on various gigs within the community of like-minded musicians within which he stands out. He impresses yet again within a quartet led by bassist Stephan Crump on the forthcoming CD, “Rhombal” (Papillon Sounds), which I’ve just dug into.
I concur with Nate Chinen, who, in his review, called O’Farrill’s new CD “a potent declaration of independence, as much as it is a glowing indication of promise.”
And with Steve Futterman who, writing in The New Yorker, cited it as “the kind of début recording that a burgeoning young bandleader can take special pride in.” Futterman explained, “His lean two-horns-bass-and-drums quartet sounds like an actual working ensemble, his compositions announce themselves as memorable tunes worth returning to, his musical overview is expansive and inviting, and his own smart playing balances passion and restraint.”
That’s how it sounded live, too, during a CD-release performance at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery earlier this month. Only the tunes seemed to be evolving, as they do in any good band’s hands. The humor embedded in “A&R Italian Eatery,” which reminds me a bit of Carla Bley’s music, sounded more pronounced. The hints of hiphop rhythm within the swing of one new tune arrived as a jolt of surprise.
The success of Adam O’Farrill’s band relies not just on his bright, round and supple tone (he plays dark and muddy too) and his penchant for pithy and unconventional compositions. It’s a band achievement, owing to his strong communion with tenor saxophonist Walter Stinson (who also composes for the group),  and to the flexible and propulsive combination of bassist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown and Zack O’Farrill.
Zack is an unusual drummer: His touch is disarmingly light, which can sometimes conceal just how deeply swinging a pocket he helps craft, and his ideas are often pleasingly odd, in the sense that, say, Paul Motian’s were. He’s a secret weapon here, as is usually true of desirable trapsmen and benevolent older siblings.
Both Adam and Zack come to music with some serious legacy. Their dad, Arturo is a Grammy-winning pianist and founder of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Their grandfather, Chico O’Farrill, was a renowned composer, arranger and bandleader whose “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite” combined jazz, Cuban and European classical forms in startling fashion.
Yet listening to this generation of O’Farrills in Adam’s new band is to sense not the weight of the past but the lightness of pure possibility, not to mention joy.

Continue reading “O'Farrill 3.0: Adam Steps Out”

Will New Orleans' Master Plan Include Culture?

Join_MaCCNOTo love New Orleans is to love its culture.
To love New Orleans culture—to experience it, explore it, study it, dive in and swim in it, as I have done for more than decade; or, more importantly, to live it, as so many of the musicians, culture-bearers and born-and-bred natives I’ve written about do—is to wonder about its place in its city.
Often, it’s to shake your head, sigh, and sometimes cry out in disgust or anger.
To demand understanding and respect.
To pine for reasonable solutions and compassionate support.
To take action.
If you’ve been reading me, you know that I’ve been questioning, urging and challenging the powers that be in New Orleans for quite some time about the curious and damaging tensions between this storied city and the culture that is at the heart of its story—I’ve been demanding that they rethink and reform the city’s cultural policy (or its lack thereof).
In this 2010 piece for Truthdig, not long after Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor, I asked: Continue reading “Will New Orleans' Master Plan Include Culture?”