COVID Conversations, Vol. 6: Jon Batiste

Photo © 2020 Enid Farber; All Rights Reserved,

One sunny June Sunday in Manhattan’s Union Square, Jon Batiste spoke through a megaphone and a mask about “the need to implement systemic change and to avoid collective apathy.”

He then marched roughly a thousand people, including members of the Stay Human band he leads  as music director of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” up Sixth Avenue. He was just blocks from the Village Vanguard, the storied jazz club where he’d recorded two albums. He drew directly on the second-line tradition he learned as a boy, in New Orleans. He played and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” composed more than a century ago and often referred to as the “Black National Anthem.” He segued into his latest single, “We Are,” a call-to-arms, he told me, “meant to confront the choice between profit and humanity, between freedom and the bondage of racism and all the terrible things that have been accepted and perpetuated in this country.”

A week later Batiste sat at an upright piano in front of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Wearing a mask and bright-blue protective gloves, he played a version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Like the version he’d recorded for his 2013 album, “Social Music” it sounded playful, rollicking, chaotic, even threatening.

We talked on the phone about these protests and this moment.

What prompted you to head out to Union Square and lead a protest? Continue reading “COVID Conversations, Vol. 6: Jon Batiste”

COVID CONVERSATIONS, Volume 5: Nicholas Payton

(Ok, this isn’t Nick, and this isn’t his mask: it’s the cover of his COVID-era release-LB)

When the lockdown came, Nicholas Payton was at his Uptown home in New Orleans, the city where he was born and raised.

Payton refers to himself as “a postmodern New Orleans musician.” And he is. He established his career on the strength, agility, sweetness and bite of his trumpet playing. Yet he can just as easily be heard these days playing a Fender Rhodes keyboard. Sometimes he plays trumpet and keyboard at the same time with surprising facility. Occasionally he sings, as he did quite a bit on his 2011 release, “Bitches.” His 2017 double-CD “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape,” was something like a masterpiece—sprawling and complex, cool in the way Payton has said “jazz” isn’t anymore, current in its sonic textures and beats, suggestive of a continuum in the overarching way that pan-national black art and philosophy always is and yet personal, like a mixtape made for lover or best friend. His 2019 release, “Relaxin’ With Nick,” recorded at Manhattan’s Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, revealed a subtler mastery, and has both the charm and bite of his live performances.

Sheltering in place while the death tolls climbed in New Orleans, which was an early epicenter for the pandemic, Payton called up two musicians he’d been meaning to record with anyway, Cliff Hines and Sasha Masakowski, both also born-and-bred in New Orleans. The cover of the album he released two weeks later, “Quarantined with Nick,”among the first lockdown-inspired releases, looked tongue-in-cheek. The messages of the songs, some arriving via chopped-up samples, are often dead-serious.

We spoke in April, about making music during a lockdown and using this “reset” to free our minds.

You’ve been making music from your quarantine, huh? Continue reading “COVID CONVERSATIONS, Volume 5: Nicholas Payton”

COVID CONVERSATIONS, Volume 4: Michael Murphy

In early March, things seemed to be going along swimmingly for director Michael Murphy’s “Up From The Streets: New Orleans, City of Music.” The documentary about New Orleans culture through the lens of the city’s music is Murphy’s second feature-length ode to his hometown. (His first was 2005’s aptly titled “Make It Funky.”)

“Up From The Streets” (trailer here) was selected as the featured film of the DC Independent Film Festival’s opening night gala on March 4. New Orleans clarinetist Michael White traveled with his band to perform before the screening at the historic Lincoln Theatre. As at other premieres, the film was well received. Yet even then, the COVID-19 crisis was taking hold fast. Movie theaters were closing. Everything was closing. Murphy headed back to New Orleans.

Maybe he was cursed. “Make It Funky” had been scheduled for release in 2005, just as Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and the floods resulting from levee failures devastated the city. Back then, Murphy had worked with Microsoft to turn his film into a fundraiser for the city.

This time around, in connection with his distributor, London-based Eagle Rock Entertainment, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, Murphy’s new film, “Up From The Streets,” is available through June 30 as a “virtual cinema release.” This means you can purchase a ticket online here, scroll through a national list of theaters and pick one; then stream the film and, in the process, help send a stream of funds to both the independent cinema of your choice and the New Orleans cultural community. (The order will be good for 7 days, and the viewer will have 72 hours to finish the film once they have started watching it.)

“Up From The Streets” spans the life of the city, and the breadth of its music. Naturally, it features lots of footage—some archival, some recent—of New Orleans musicians making great music. The voices that comment on the culture range from local heroes, such as drummer Herlin Riley and trumpeter Leroy Jones, to the many stars from afar who’ve been drawn to the city, like Robert Plant and Bonnie Raitt. Yet there aren’t many talking heads here; instead, we get dropped into conversations about New Orleans music—why we love it, what it means, how it feels. And that’s what New Orleans is like if you hang around long enough—a conversation among friends that never ends, about culture and life, and life and culture.

Murphy spoke with me over the phone from the home in New Orleans where he has been holed since his film’s Washington, DC premiere. We talked about his good fortune to be from the Crescent City, his bad luck regarding film releases, and what can be learned from both things.

Is it true? Are your films cursed?
Continue reading “COVID CONVERSATIONS, Volume 4: Michael Murphy”

COVID CONVERSATIONS, Volume 3: Roy Nathanson

If you see saxophonist Roy Nathanson on the Q train, head down and pen out, he’s writing a poem. (His second book is due for publication soon).

He hasn’t been riding the subway lately, and we know why.

Had you heard Nathanson—head up, saxophone pointed skyward—at Joe’s Pub, in Manhattan, last week, toying with Bach and digging into new tunes, he’d have been celebrating the release of “Heart” with his bandmates in the collective Endangered Quartet, his latest context for music-making.

That gig got canceled along with, well, everything else.

Endangered Quartet extends both long-running and more recent relationships for Nathanson: with trombonist and singer Curtis Fowlkes, who co-founded the Jazz Passengers with him in 1987; with Tim Kiah, whose bass playing and vocals were key elements in Nathanson’s inventive Sotto Voce quintet; and with Jesse Mills, a violinist whose training and experience is primarily classical, but whose innate senses of swing and of humor make him an easy fit into Nathanson’s genre-free, accessible-yet-challenging musical sphere. (It helps that Mills can sing, too.)

According to Dan Kaufman’s liner note to the new album, the group came together through an informal get-together two years ago in Nathanson’s Brooklyn living room—“around the idea of letting the instruments have a certain intimacy together, one that allowed for the compositions to breathe,” Nathanson said.

That sort of closeness may not be possible in these shelter-at-home times. Yet Nathanson has found ways to create musical intimacy while maintaining social distance, sometimes from his second-floor porch. And Endangered Quartet’s new songs and reworkings of existing music—especially Nathanson’s lyrics to Kiah’s lovely “Endangered Hearts”—have lately taken on new meaning.

The group turned their record release party into a Facebook Livesession, with some guest commentary from Elvis Costello. “If music ever had the ability to look into the future with hope, to even guess at the future,” he said, “then I think you can find it in these recordings.”

Nathanson and I spoke about opening hearts through music, lockdown be damned.

What was the last gig you played before it all shut down? Continue reading “COVID CONVERSATIONS, Volume 3: Roy Nathanson”

COVID CONVERSATIONS, Volume 2: Deborah Gordon

A decade ago, I interviewed Lorraine Gordon, the owner and proprietor of the Village Vanguard, New York City’s best and longest-running jazz venue, about the club’s 75th anniversary.

Lorraine, a forceful presence at the club and in jazz in general throughout her life, had assumed the club’s reins in 1989, after the sudden death of her husband, Max Gordon, who founded the club. Lorraine told me:

“I like the coziness of the room when it’s full, when the people seem happy and they’re at one with the artist. There’s just a certain feeling you get because it’s small enough to reach out, and back and forth between the audience and the artists. So, that’s a palpable feeling: I feel it myself when I sit in the corner, and I see everybody’s face is absolutely glued to the stage. It’s like a painting but it’s real life, every night.”

Those words have a special resonance right now—tinged with longing, two months since the club closed its doors due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The only other time I’ve experienced the Vanguard’s red double doors shut when they should be open was after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Yet even then, three nights later, Tommy Flanagan was at the club’s piano.

Deborah Gordon—Max and Lorraine’s daughter—began working at the club in 1989. She worked closely with her mother running the club until Lorraine’s death, at 95, in 2018, when she took over full time.  When Deborah spoke to me from the house in Pennsylvania she and Lorraine bought nearly 20 years ago, the club had been closed for more than two months.

I can’t believe that I can’t see you at the club right now…

Yes, it’s still a lot for me to wrap my head around. Continue reading “COVID CONVERSATIONS, Volume 2: Deborah Gordon”

COVID CONVERSATIONS, Vol. 1: Arturo O’Farrill

COVID Conversations is a series that  looks back through my talks with musicians since we first got locked down and moves forward as long as we’re stuck where we are.

At the Passover Seder I attended last month, the Four Questions came and went without the usual fanfare. Zoom meetings can be like that. Yet that first question—Why is this night different than all other nights?—struck me with fresh, COVID-era implication.

All questions are newly timely right now.

The title track of Arturo O’Farrill’s new release, “Four Questions” are drawn from the W. E. B. Du Bois’s book, “The Souls of Black Folk”:

What does integrity do in the face of adversity / oppression? What does honesty do in the face of lies / deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force?

O’Farrill was moved to consider these questions by the author, activist and theologian Dr. Cornel West, via West’s 2014 speech  to a packed house at Seattle’s Town Hall a few days before his 10/13 arrest at the “Moral Monday” Civil Disobedience Actions in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. O’Farrill met West at another protest against police brutality, and again at a symposium where they both spoke. The two got to talking—about shared commitments to social justice and swinging rhythms. O’Farrill ended up composing a piece, which had its premiere performance at The Apollo Theater in 2016, for which his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra was joined by Dr. Cornel West as a guest soloist, conductor, and percussionist. As recorded, “Four Questions,” the centerpiece of an album devoted exclusively to O’Farrill’s compositions,  is dense and intense, by turns angry and celebratory; it’s about ancestry, shared inheritances and a common sense of purpose.

O’Farrill typically splits his time between New York City, where he leads the nonprofit organization he founded, the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, and Los Angeles, where directs a program in Global Jazz Studies for UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Now, he’s holed up in L.A. for the foreseeable future. We talked about his collaboration with West, and about what this extended moment means. Continue reading “COVID CONVERSATIONS, Vol. 1: Arturo O’Farrill”

Michele Rosewoman Re-Imagines New-Yoruba (Again)

Standing on the tiny stage area of Manhattan’s Zinc Bar, Michele Rosewoman’s New-Yoruba ensemble was packed in tight. This is expansive music and yet it’s also intimate. The musicians  were celebrating a new release, “Hallowed” (Advance Dance Disques)” but really they were extending a personal history that spans more than 30 years.  With “Oru de Oro,” an extended work on the new release (sections of which were  played at the club), Rosewoman has scripted an exciting new chapter of this story. Continue reading “Michele Rosewoman Re-Imagines New-Yoruba (Again)”

The History and Mystery of Bill Frisell’s Disarming (Disfarmer) Tune

I’ve been fascinated with guitarist Bill Frisell’s music for nearly as long as I’ve been fascinated with music. Or fascinated, period.

There are many points of entry into Frisell’s big, rich, bold, strange and varied recorded catalog, both under his own name and as collaborator and sideman with a mind-boggling range of musicians. Meaning your life gets enriched and your ears expanded if you dive in anywhere in his discography and work in any direction.

Two of Frisell’s albums—History, Mystery and Disfarmer (from 2008 and 2009, respectively; both on Nonesuch)—keep calling me back. Not because they’re his best work (though they’re terrific) and not because they represent something in particular (although Disfarmer is meant to convey something about the work of photographer Mike Disfarmer).

But simply because I find them mesmerizing in a meditative way, and of one piece.

When I heard the “single” “God’s Wing’d Horse” (above) from Frisell’s wonderful new Blue Note release, Harmony, I knew I’d heard it before.

Indeed I had. Continue reading “The History and Mystery of Bill Frisell’s Disarming (Disfarmer) Tune”

Kidd Stays in the Picture

Though I could not make it down to New Orleans for the event, by all accounts  “Honoring the Kidd,” a  musical tribute to saxophonist Kidd Jordan  presented by the New Orleans Jazz Museum in partnership with the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, was a great success.

I’m glad my words, as part of the printed program, made the scene.

They were drawn from a piece I did for Artinfo. The full text is below.

Kidd Stays in the Picture

Saxophonist Kidd Jordan Gets His Hero’s Due

By Larry Blumenfeld

“We’ve got a pretty good crowd,” tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan said from the stage of the jazz tent at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on Friday. “Let’s see how many of you are left at the end.” He offered a bit of instruction. “For those of you who aren’t used to this music, I want to tell you: This is purely improvisational music.” Continue reading “Kidd Stays in the Picture”