Iran Meets Syria Via China in New York

"Sound: The Encounter": (l-r) Basel Rajoub, Saeid Shanbehzadeh, and Naghib Shanbehzadeh

When saxophonist Basel Rajoub was a boy in Aleppo, Syria, he wasn’t much interested in the Middle Eastern classical music surrounding him, yet he found his ears drawn to the panoply of sounds within Aleppo’s rich cultural blend. The stuff that grabbed his ears most, though, were the American jazz recordings his aunt played him. Miles Davis became a hero, and he picked up a trumpet.
He found his most profound connection with an Iranian musician in, of all places, Shanghai, China. Before performing at a world music festival there, Rajoub was entranced by the music of another band, whose leader, Saeid Shanbehzadeh, played the ney-anbān, an Iranian bagpipe. Rajoub didn’t understand the lyrics, but the Iranian melodies sounded familiar.
Their subsequent collaboration has flowered into “Sound: The Encounter,” an ensemble that will make its New York debut December 7 at the Asia Society’s Lila Acheson Wallace Auditorium in Manhattan. (Read my full story and interview here.)
Photo: Courtesy of Asia Society

Tuning into Treme For a Final Season

Wendell Pierce as trombonist Antoine Batiste in HBO "Treme"

I’ve been teaching a class, “Tuning into Treme,” at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Not an academic thing for grades or credits. It’s more a discussion group pegged to the HBO series “Treme,” which begins its fourth and final season tonight, and opened its first one by placing us in New Orleans, three months after the floods caused by the levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina.

My guest for the final class, this past Tuesday was Eric Overmyer, David Simon’s longtime collaborator and a co-creator of the series. At the jazz museum, in a gentrifying neighborhood that has never forgotten its storied past staked largely to jazz culture, we’ve screened clips from the show and used fictional storylines as windows into life and culture in the real New Orleans: styles of music, from traditional jazz to rock to funk to bounce (and more), that trace a defining American rhythmic imperative out of Congo Square, where African slaves once drummed and danced on Sundays; Social Aid & Pleasure clubs who fancy-dance through streets behind brass bands in Second Line parades that are as much examples of successful community organizing as they are rolling parties; Mardi Gras Indians, walking proud in massive feathered and beaded suits and speaking in inscrutable dialects to hand-drummed rhythms; architecture, cuisine, literature and visual art that are every bit as distinctive and inseparable from the city’s music; a particular brand of political dysfunction and cynicism that makes life seem simultaneously liberating and oppressed, full of grand possibilities while also damned to familiar frustrations; an unusual blend of provinciality and worldliness; an uneasy balance of everyday tenderness and random violence; and the city’s disturbing ambivalence to the point of suppression, even in the wake of Katrina, to the glorious culture that is its calling card.

From its start, “Treme” has been staked to intertwined stories of some half-dozen characters—some musicians, some not—and their interlocking worlds within New Orleans. I recognized it right off as presenting a teachable moment—if a bit too stridently so as expressed in Season One, with greater elegance since, and always with nuance and depth. At the least, the show was fuel for an intelligent conversation about what we mean when we say we know what it means to miss New Orleans.
When I spoke with Simon in 2010 at his production office in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District, he was reluctant to draw a strong connection between his former series and “Treme.” Yet he described a natural progression of thought, and a thesis. “‘The Wire’ was a tract about how political power and money rout themselves,” he said. “But there was no place to reference on some level why it matters, emotionally, that America has been given over to those things. This show is about culture, and it’s about what was at stake. Because apart from culture, on some empirical level, it does not matter if all New Orleans washes into the Gulf, and if everyone from New Orleans ended up living in Houston or Baton Rouge or Atlanta. Culture is what brought this city back. Not government. There was and has been no initiative by government at any level to contemplate in all seriousness the future of New Orleans. Yet New Orleans is coming back, and it’s sort of done it one second-line at a time, one crawfish étouffée at a time, one moment at a time.”
Here’s the Village Voice cover story I wrote about the series when it began. Here’s a link to a Season Four trailer. I’ll post another long essay, and an interview with David Simon, next week.
If you’re reading this and if you’ve been watching “Treme,” I’d like to know how you feel about the series.
Photo: HBO/Paul Schirladl

Drummer Chico Hamilton Dies at 92

Just a last week, while working on an essay to accompany the DVD release of a documentary about saxophonist Charles Lloyd, I came upon an early-1960s clip of Lloyd, on alto saxophone, playing in drummer Chico Hamilton’s group. The footage was fleeting, but long enough to convey the originality and intensity of that group, which also included guitarist Gabor Szabo. Lloyd had been suggested by Buddy Collette, who played flute, clarinet and saxophone in Hamilton’s first great ensemble, which he formed after his memorable tenure in baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s band, and which also featured guitarist Jim Hall and Fred Katz, a classically trained cellist.
Hamilton, who died at his New York City home yesterday morning, and who was born and raised in Los Angeles, was a subtle master, an understated innovator, a straight shooter and an active presence on jazz’s landscape through his final years, performing through late 2012 with his Euphoria group at Manhattan’s Drom. (There is a recent recording, “Inquiring Minds,” still yet to be released.) Continue reading “Drummer Chico Hamilton Dies at 92”

Dave Douglas Interviews John Zorn

While working on an essay recently I found myself writing this sentence: Friendships have formed the spine of jazz history.
The one between saxophonist John Zorn and trumpeter Dave Douglas counts among the more fruitful during the past couple decades. Zorn recently celebrated his 60th birthday with a flurry of concerts in New York, including an all-day marathon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Douglas marked his 50th with a new boxed set and a tour that aimed to hit all 50 states.
Aside from aesthetics, the two share a common impulse to essentially create their own worlds—Zorn with his Tzadik label and Manhattan club, The Stone, and Douglas through his Greenleaf Music. Douglas’s Greenleaf is more than a platform for his and other fine players’ music: It’s the sort of all-purpose portal an enlightened musician can create in these digital days, but that few get right. (Pianist Ethan Iverson‘s Do The Math blog is another good iteration.) One of my favorite features of  Greenleaf site is “A Noise from the Deep,” Douglas’s series of podcast interviews with other musicians. He kicked things off with a great conversation with saxophonist Henry Threadgill.
Now, he’s invited in his old friend John.  Part One of the interview with Zorn is up now. Continue reading “Dave Douglas Interviews John Zorn”

From Lahore to Lincoln Center: Jazz from Pakistan

Nijat Ali, the conductor and co-arranger of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble (courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center)

The first thing you see and hear in a YouTube clip of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” as recorded by the Sachal Jazz Ensemble in Lahore, Pakistan, is Ballu Khan breaking the song’s familiar five-beat meter into furiously quick subdivisions on tabla, the hand drums endemic to Hindustani classical music. Cut to Indrajit Roy-Chowdhury, seated cross-legged atop a small wooden table, stating and then elegantly bending the melody; next, bearded men, clad in spotless white kurtas, sitting straight-backed on chairs and playing violins and cellos. In 2011, that YouTube video went viral, attracting nearly a half-million hits. Soon after, the Sachal Ensemble’s “Take Five,” from its recording “Interpretations of Jazz Standards and Bossa Nova,” shot to the top of the iTunes chart in the U.S. and U.K.
When the Sachal Ensemble joins the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) at Manhattan’s Rose Theater on November 22 and 23, the concerts will deepen a recent collaboration and extend an unlikely journey. Read my feature story here.

Now Playing….

Wherein I’m hearing Keith Jarrett, messing around in his home studio in 1986, Ran Blake, alone at the piano, as recorded in 1965, and more:
Keith Jarrett No End (ECM, Nov. 26): ECM has been revealing many facets of Jarrett’s musicality during the past year: 2013 brought us “Hymns/Spheres,” a reissue of Jarrett’s organ work; “Somewhere,” a delightful and recent concert recording from Jarrett’s trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette; and “J.S. Bach’s Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano,” with Michelle Makarski. Soon to come, I’m told is a 3-CD edition of Jarrett’s 1981 improvised concerts in Austria and Germany. All that music arrives with context. But “No End,” which will be released next week, is a pure curiosity. Here’s how the press release describes it: “illuminating hitherto undocumented aspects of Keith Jarrett’s music, recorded at his home in 1986. Piano plays but a cameo role, and instead he is heard on electric guitars, electric bass, drums and percussion, overdubbing tribal dances of his own devising.” Really. And 2 CDs of it. On first listen, it’s hard not to be struck by just how much Jarrett’s approach to electric guitar seems to reflect Jerry Garcia’s. And yet there’s an interesting rhythmic dynamic, at once meditative and insistent, that is pure Keith. I’ll keep listening. Continue reading “Now Playing….”