Monk Kicks Off His Own Centenary: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960

Photo courtesy of Arnaud Boubet Private Collection.
Photo courtesy of Arnaud Boubet Private Collection.

Any day that brings a music recorded by Thelonious Monk that I haven’t yet heard is a glorious day, indeed.

That’s how I felt when I received “Thelonious Monk: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960” (Sam Records/Saga), Monk’s soundtrack recordings for Roger Vadim’s film, released for the first time.

And what better way to kick off what I hope is a wide-ranging celebration of the late, great pianist and composer.

Here’s how I began my Wall Street Journal review: Continue reading “Monk Kicks Off His Own Centenary: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960”

Happy International Jazz Day!

The scene at Congo Square, in New Orleans, during International Jazz Day festivities in 2012.

Happy International Jazz Day!

I had suspicions and reservations about that greeting six years ago, when UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and pianist Herbie Hancock (who is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador) announced the global initiative.
After the years of Ken Burns-inspired jazz nationalism and so many wrong-headed jazz boosterism programs, well, I’ve grown defensive…
But I’ve come to like and admire the International Jazz Day program, which picks one city for an all-star concert and educational programs, streamed online, and links jazz’s figurative arms around the globe through hundreds of events.
This year’s main concert, from Havana, Cuba—at 9pm tonight EST, live-streamed (and archived) here—will feature stars from the U.S. including Hancock, bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding, violinist Regina Carter, bassist Marcus Miller, and from Cuba, including pianist Chucho Valdés, along with musicians from several other nations, all gathered at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso.
I’m in New Orleans now at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, which this year hosts its own contingent of Cuban musicians, including Valdés.
Here, five years ago, International Jazz Day had its main event at Congo Square (see the picture I took, above): I suspect that this year, in Havana, hand drums will again be prominent. This is less a sign of jazz’s globalism that a return to its deepest roots.
Five years ago, I wrote in the Village Voice, Continue reading “Happy International Jazz Day!”

Celebrate NEA Jazz Masters Tonight (And Advocate for the Endowment Tomorrow & The Next Day…)

Dee Dee Bridgewater. Photo by Mark Higashino
Dee Dee Bridgewater is among the NEA Jazz Masters class of 2017. Photo by Mark Higashino

I suppose we’re past the point of irony these days. And yet I’ll note: Before the Trump International Hotel was installed at Washington D.C.’s Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue (which involved a thoughtless renovation, involving crystal chandeliers, polished brass railings and marble tiles that contradict the structure’s architectural integrity), the historic building was home to the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Trump administration’s initial budget plan, released last month, proposed eliminating the NEA, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. (Who needs culture and history when you’ve got gleaming brass and chandeliers?)
Much has been said—and need be said—about the practical wisdom of sacrificing support of arts and culture to save a mere .003 per cent of the federal budget (roughly forty-six cents per capita) not to mention the symbolism of axing this sort of governmental priority while increasingly military spending.
statement from NEA Chairman Jane Chu noted “as a federal government agency, the NEA cannot engage in advocacy, either directly or indirectly. We will, however, continue our practice of educating about the NEA’s vital role in serving our nation’s communities.” There’s another useful NEA website document on this subject here.
As Chu said, the NEA is continuing its valuable practice, which makes a significant mark across arts and culture, and is deeply felt in jazz circles. For instance, the most recent round of NEA Art Works grants for presenters more than 40 grants to support jazz projects or projects that have a component related to jazz. (The NEA was one of the earliest and remains among the largest funders of jazz in this country; since 2005, the NEA has awarded more than $33.5 million in jazz-related grants and additional support to the field.)
As Ann Meier Baker, the NEA’s director of music and opera told me during a recent interview, “We’re supporting the entire ecosystem of jazz, from the top down and from the bottom up and often blurring the lines between disciplines because that’s what jazz musicians do.”
The most visible and celebrated aspect of the NEA’s support for jazz is the Jazz Masters Program, which this year will be celebrated with a tribute concert at the Kennedy Center on April 3, 2017. Below are the facts and links.

WHAT: National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) honors the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters at a tribute concert held in collaboration with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, hosted by Jason Moran. The concert will also be webcast live.

The 2017 NEA Jazz Masters are:

The tribute concert will include remarks by the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters (representing Ira Gitler will be his son, Fitz Gitler); as well as Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts; Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center; Jason Moran, pianist and Kennedy Center artistic director for Jazz; NEA Jazz Masters Dan Morgenstern and Kenny Barron; jazz and film critic Gary Giddins; and National Medal of Arts recipient and Kennedy Center Honoree Jessye Norman. The concert will include performances by NEA Jazz Masters Paquito D’Rivera and Lee Konitz, as well as Bill CharlapTheo CrokerAaron DiehlRobin EubanksJames GenusDonald HarrisonBooker T. JonesSherrie Maricle and the Diva Jazz OrchestraPeter MartinMike MorenoChina MosesSteve NelsonKassa OverallChris PotterDianne ReevesNate SmithDan Tepfer, and Matthew Whitaker.

WHEN: Monday, April 3, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall (2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20566); video-streamed live at, and; and audio-streamed at SiriusXM Channel 67, Real Jazz.


In addition to the concert, there are two other events celebrating the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters:

  • NPR Listening Party with the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters on Sunday, April 2, 2017 at 2:00 p.m.
  • Howard University Master Class with 2017 NEA Jazz Masters on Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at 2:00 p.m.

Full details are available here.

Continue reading “Celebrate NEA Jazz Masters Tonight (And Advocate for the Endowment Tomorrow & The Next Day…)”

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”

Harry Belafonte: When Colors Come Together

courtey/Legacy Records
courtey/Legacy Recordings

I’ve been thinking lately about Harry Belafonte, who will turn 90 on March 1.
In many ways, particularly in this moment, Belafonte answers questions we seem to be confused about: what it means to be an American; where that identity comes from; how culture and politics and social justice connect.
Belafonte’s autobiography (written with Michael Shnayerson), “My Song” is a required read if you’re working on those questions.
The release of  “When Colors Come Together: The Legacy of Harry Belafonte (Legacy Recordings) has sparked some good recent coverage. The album is an essential anthology of Belafonte’s biggest hits and timeless classics, including “Day-O” (from “Banana Boat”) and other hits from Belafonte’s 1956 breakout LP, “Calypso,” which became the first album ever, by any artist of any race or gender, to sell more than a million copies. The album also includes a new recording of “When Colors Come Together (Our Island In The Sun),” performed by a children’s choir. The original recording of that song (co-written by Belafonte and Irving Burgie) served as the title music for the successful and at-the-time controversial 1957 film, “Island In The Sun,” which starred Belafonte, James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Joan Collins and Dorothy Dandridge, and has since become an oft-covered standard.
In a nice piece in The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich aptly called Belafonte “one of America’s most vital and insurrectionary folk singers.”
In a lovely New York Times piece, John Leland profiles Belafonte today, on the cusp of 90, saying:

“When I took up with Martin, I really thought, two, at best three years, this should be over. Fifty years later, he’s dead and gone, and the Supreme Court just reversed the voting rights, and the police are shooting us down dead in the streets. And I look at this horizon of destruction, and I watch the black community by our state of being mute — we have no movement. I don’t know where to go to find the next Robeson. Maybe I don’t deserve a next one. Takes a lot of courage and a lot of power to step into the space and lead a holy war.”

Continue reading “Harry Belafonte: When Colors Come Together”

Memorial for Nat Hentoff in NYC: Feb. 24

A trip to visit ill relatives out of state is the only thing that will keep me from joining in the chorus memorializing Nat Hentoff. Below are the details, and misive from his daughter Jessica.
Here’s my earlier post about Nat.
WHAT: Memorial Celebration for Nat Hentoff
WHEN: Friday, February 24, 2017, 6:30-9:30 PM
WHERE: St. Peter’s, The Jazz Church, 619 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10022
Nat Hentoff, iconic author, journalist and jazz critic, died January 7, 2017 at the age of 91. A memorial celebration to honor this champion for jazz, civil rights, education and civil liberties will be held on Friday, February 24, 2017 from 6:30-9:30 PM at St. Peter’s, known as the jazz church, at 619 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10022.
Although he joked he would probably be most remembered for his jazz liner notes, Hentoff was a prolific columnist and author. Nat Hentoff was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award. He was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. For 50 years, Hentoff was a columnist for the Village Voice. In addition, his writing appeared regularly in the New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Playboy and numerous other publications. In 1995, he received the National Press Foundation’s award for lifetime achievement in contributions to journalism. He was also a former Cato Senior Fellow. In 2004 the National Endowment for the Arts named Nat Hentoff the first recipient of the A. B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.
In the words of high praise used by his friend, Duke Elllington, Nat Hentoff was “beyond category.” The memorial celebration will include jazz (of course) and a panel discussion about the remarkable contributions of this passionately persistent man.