Of Travel Bans And Global Bands: Required Reading

Kinan Azmeh
Kinan Azmeh

Steve Dollar, a colleague of mine in the Wall Street Journal’s pages and one of the strongest writers I had the pleasure of directing during my editing days, has written an important piece for NewMusicBox.
World Music in the Era of Travel Bans” considers the Trump administration’s pending travel bans, and its subtext of nationalism and xenophobia as applied to U.S. policy, in the context of both that outdated (was it ever useful?) term “world music” and the global reality of artistic endeavor and presentation.
It’s a must-read piece. Continue reading “Of Travel Bans And Global Bands: Required Reading”

Judith Owen Considers Somebody's Child (And Embraces Her Dazzling Musical Family)

The last time I heard singer and pianist Judith Owen at Manhattan’s Iridium club, she was celebrating the release of her new CD, “Somebody’s Child” (Twanky Records).
She’ll take a detour from tour opening for Bryan Ferry (who apparently endorses her version of his “More Than This”) to return to Iridium on March 31.
At that last gig, before playing the new album’s title track (see the above clip), she explained its backstory: Continue reading “Judith Owen Considers Somebody's Child (And Embraces Her Dazzling Musical Family)”

Happy 30th Birthday, Jazz Passengers!

Here’s a video of “Can’t Afford to Live,” the fifth track of Still Life With Trouble(Thirsty Ear/Yellowbird/Enja, out March 24), an album that marks 30 years since the formation of the Jazz Passengers, a band that grew out of a partnership between saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Fowlkes, after the two had played with John Lurie’s band and in the Lounge Lizards.
“I wanted something rougher around the edges, more oddball and genuinely funny,” Nathanson told me for a 2011 Wall Street Journal piece. “And closer to real jazz.” Duets with Fowlkes grew into the Jazz Passengers, whose fine recordings and noteworthy shows quickly earned the group a reputation for high musicianship and a freewheeling sensibility.
The new album reflects the group’s manifold influences and qualities—funk, fun, hard truths, early jazz, later jazz, even later jazz, stuff that isn’t quite jazz, stuff that ought to be jazz, a mastery of improvisatory instrumental language, a love of the English language and the history of spoken-word performance, good singing, passable yet savvy singing, collective improvisation, what rock used to be, what blues has always been, and wisps of Charles Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and other heroes (this is a partial list).
All that comes through, plus some fascinating new wrinkles; for instance, these are some of the strongest arrangements in the group’s long catalog.
The Passengers will celebrate the release and mark 30 years at Brooklyn’s Roulette on March 28.
The current personnel is Nathanson, Fowlkes, violinist Sam Bardfeld, vibraphonist Bill Ware, bassist Brad Jones, drummer Ben Perowsky and percussionist EJ Rodriguez. The group’s got a fascinating history that spans much of what’s been best about downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn since the late 1980s.
This video summarizes all that lovingly and with style (around 2 minutes in, when Nathanson and Fowlkes improvise together, you can sense the friendhip that is the group’s spiritual center):

If you see Nathanson on the Q train, head down and pen out, he’s working on a poem. “I can only write poetry while riding the subway,” he said recently from the living room of his house in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park. “It’s the strangest thing.”
Even his version of a press release, penned for the new CD, takes on literary dimension. It’s a nice history to a band you need to know: Continue reading “Happy 30th Birthday, Jazz Passengers!”

Freer Still: Harriet Tubman With Wadada Leo Smith

Harriet Tubman: (l-r:) bassist Melvin Gibbs, drummer J.T. Lewis, guitarist Brandon Ross/photo: Michael Halsband.

On a recent Saturday night John Zorn’ tiny East Village club, The Stone, was packed. Manhattan audiences often seem self-sorting, but this one looked diverse. That was due to the many strands of musical influence that infuse and embolden Harriet Tubman, the trio formed by drummer J.T. Lewis, guitarist Brandon Ross and bassist Melvin Gibbs in 1998, and by the unbound and oddly familial feeling the three lend to a familiar set up: electric guitar and bass, and trap set.
This is one of the great small-group amalgams of instrumental talent during my watch, that’s for sure. If they’ve flown under certain culture radar detectors, well, I’m afraid that’s common when a band isn’t easily tagged and especially when it comes to black bands that dare nudge jazz tradition onto rock’s turf.
As Ross explained to me for a 2011 Wall Street Journal piece I wrote about the band:

“The jazz folks think we’re too rock. The rock guys think we’re too jazz. Really, we’re neither. People seem to need and want categories, but our experience is that when audiences hear what we do, they might not know what to call it but they connect with it. It’s clear.”

About that name: Lewis came up with it. As he explained to me in 2011

“I told the guys, ‘We should call the band Harriet Tubman because I feel so free when I play with you.’ It’s also a metaphor for breaking the chains of the music business and the shackles of time signatures and chord changes, for a road to emancipation.”

Back in the late 1990s, Harriet Tubman caused a stir by ranging gracefully from tenderness to bombast, confounding ideas about form and structure, and suggesting several styles while adhering to none. Gibbs would issue throbs and bubbles of sound from his bass, then play delicate melodies. Lewis segued from loose-limbed swing to sledgehammer 4/4 without a hiccup. And Ross was a guitar antihero, unwilling to posture or play licks, ever. Gibbs thinks the group members’ rapport stems from “common values we’ve developed through the years about what music is and why we play it.” Ross likens the band’s process to “a three-way game of chess.” (Maybe the speed variety, played with a timer at Washington Square Park…)
Upping the ante at The Stone gig, and no doubt attracting yet more listeners, was the presence of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who, at 75, is among jazz’s most prolific and influential musicians. He joins the band for it new CD, Araminta (Sunnyside). Smith, a generation older than Tubman’s musicians, nonetheless easily matches their energy level and forward-leaning stance. Continue reading “Freer Still: Harriet Tubman With Wadada Leo Smith”