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.

Nicholas Payton's Emancipation Proclamation

1d380a883828c999-nicholaspayton1Through more of a decade writing about the lives and careers of musicians born and raised in New Orleans, I’ve been fascinated by how the best of these artists have not been weakened by their experiences since the floods that resulted from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina, nor by the indifference and outright racism that persists in their native city.
Rather they’ve grown bolder.
Nicholas Payton, more than any other musician I know, speaks truth to power, and to anyone who will listen. He can be relentless, which I’ve come to regard as one of his charms.
As I wrote in an earlier post about Payton:

Payton is an intense and restless soul, and his thoughts and feelings spill forth with self-assuredness and defiant pride through both his music and his online posts. His music should probably raise more eyebrows than it does because, aside from its integrity and range, it generally doesn’t respect the party line heeded by many so-called jazz musicians. Payton’s blog posts—in which, among other stances, he refuses to wear the term “jazz,” and instead favors the acronym BAM (for Black American Music)—perhaps shouldn’t raise as many eyebrows as they have. At least, these missives can’t be dismissed as rants, which they’re not, or even radical, which they’re also not. The musicians involved in Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) said pretty much the same things 50 years ago.
I’ll not get into a long catalog of what Payton has written online and what was then written about him and what he then wrote in response (though it’s easy enough, and illuminating, to follow that chronology). Yes, it’s about race as much as music, as it should be: Yet whereas, say, the comments appended to articles in the Times Picayune of Payton’s hometown discusses race in a lowest-common-denominator who-can-hate-more style, Payton channels his own feelings (sometimes, yes, rage) into the sort of truth-telling that black trumpeters born and raised in the United States have long done. Amstrong and Miles Davis weren’t enamored with the term “jazz” either.

As I wrote in my Wall Street Journal review of Payton’s brilliant new 2-CD release, “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape” (Paytone/Ropeadope):

This new album lends more graceful expression to his argument—for an enduring black aesthetic that bows to jazz masters without implying servitude, and that embraces African influence across several genres. Words prove critical here, too. In the mix—sometimes buried, other times clear—are sampled snatches of spoken-word sources, manipulated by the turntablist. On “Jazz Is a Four-Letter Word,” the voice of Max Roach (from a 1993 interview that Mr. Payton found on YouTube) describes an unbroken line of ingenuity from Charlie Parker to Michael Jordan to Michael Jackson. On the title track, Greg Kimathi Carr, head of Howard University’s Afro-American Studies Department, explains “African ways of knowing.

“I use these audio clips the way the great beatmakers use their samples,” Payton told me in an interview. “I have a repository at my disposal, and I know what’s in there.” The music itself was formed in similar fashion. “I stopped writing songs 10 years ago,” he says. “When I hearmotifs or melodic fragments, I record them into voice memos and I stockpile ideas.”
Payton combined these elements the way he might have made a cassette mixtape for a friend decades ago—“selecting the best moments I could find in my mental databank,” he writes in his liner note, and “considering exactly where to pause a track if you wanted to beat match or make a transition between songs seamless.” The album begins with the sound of a tape reel fast-forwarding and then finding its place.
Here’s my full review below: Continue reading “Nicholas Payton's Emancipation Proclamation”

Celebrating Ornette

Ornette Coleman plays at a JVC Jazz Festival concert at Carnegie Hall, June 20, 2004. His son, Denardo Coleman (rear) plays drums. (Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

After Ornette Coleman died in 2015, I was shaken. It’s not that I didn’t know he was frail. It was that I could no conceive of a world without him. I posted one hasty piece that began like this:

Coleman, who died at 85 on June 11, delivered on the promise of the title to his 1959 album, “The Shape of Jazz to Come.” The flow of jazz ever since in fact has been redirected, its course widened and altered.
Yet Coleman gave us no template or mold. Rather, he offered liberation from these things while suggesting—no proving—that such freedom did not mean forfeiture of aesthetic purpose or historical grounding. No one has or likely will make music quite like his, but few serious and searching jazz musicians have ignored the possibilities suggested by the doors he blew open.

I wrote in a later post about Coleman’s funeral—about how it felt ot be among those eulogizing him:

It’s hard to describe how it feels to stand at the podium of Riverside Church, to look down at a coffin that holds Ornette Coleman’s body, and to look out at a large crowd including Yoko Ono, Sonny Rollins, Henry Threadgill, John Zorn and Jason Moran, along with so many musicians and artists and friends from all corners of New York’s cultural world and from a much wider world, too.
An hour earlier, I’d attended the viewing. Lying in state, Coleman looked resplendent in one of his customary silk suits; he looked happy, bathed in his own glowing light, much as he’d always seemed when I saw him….
I looked out over that diverse and deeply focused crowd, and began like this:
“Let’s put it this way. On this planet, there is human expression, which has been related through art for many years. But this expression has not been free of categories or preconceptions.”
Ornette Coleman told me that 20 years ago.
This community, here today, celebrating Ornette, is distinctly free of categories and preconceptions. This community is among the many wondrous things that only Ornette could have shaped. It’s humbling in a transformative way to be part of it.

I didn’t realize that my words, along with those of many others who spoke, as well as all the wonderful music played that day would be captured on DVD, within “Celebrate Ornette,” a loving tribute of a boxed set, produced by Denardo Coleman, that documents Ornette’s final live appearance at a concert in 2014, and his funeral service.
You can find my Wall Street Journal review here, and below. Continue reading “Celebrating Ornette”

Radicalized, Part 3: Remembering Nat Hentoff, The Itinerant Subversive


With each passing day, I keep thinking of Nat Hentoff, who died two weeks ago.
I keep thinking Nat would know what to write…
Onstage the a few nights ago at Symphony Space, emceeing a “Musicians Against Fascism” concert, I invoked Nat’s legacy and felt his presence through a sense of purpose that linked ideas, action and music.
Here’s how I began my own remembrance of Nat at The Daily Beast:

The death of Nat Hentoff at 91 on Jan. 7 was, to me, one final act of defiance.

According to his son Nicholas, Hentoff left us in the company of that which he loved dearly—surrounded by family, listening to Billie Holiday recordings.
And I suppose that Hentoff, who wrote with as much passion and insight about the Constitution as he did about Holiday’s music, simply refused to stick around to see Donald Trump take the presidential oath of office.
I imagined Hentoff whispering something like: “I fought against the Vietnam War. I spoke out during the Reagan administration, against George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, and in defense of true liberalism and the Bill of Rights. This fight is yours.”

As an author, journalist, jazz critic, and civil libertarian, Hentoff’s intensity was matched by his productivity and range. He inspired me early on through his voluminous essays and books. And I was lucky. I got to know the man, who, by then, had a weathered face bordered by greying hair and beard, his piercing eyes softened only by his easy smile.

And here’s a 2004 interview I did with Nat for Wax Poetics:
Here’s the pull-quote I’d use now:
“I was an itinerant subversive from the start.”
Some of the references are dated but Nat’s messages—about music, cultural identity, fundamentalism, and the Supreme Court—are timely as ever.
Continue reading “Radicalized, Part 3: Remembering Nat Hentoff, The Itinerant Subversive”

Radicalized, Part 2: Musicians Against Fascism


photo by Scott Friedlander
Arturo O’Farrill addresses the crowd at a Musicians Against Fascism concert/ photo by Scott Friedlander

 On the flight home from Havana last month after the Jazz Plaza Festival, pianist Arturo O’Farrill and I talked about the country to which we were returning.
Donald Trump would soon take the oath of office as president. We each felt uneasy (scared , really), not to mention indignant and insulted. We both also felt motivated—to speak up more forcefully and with greater focus about what we believed in, and to try to strenghten our sense of community with musicians, writers, thinkers and the decent people who read and listen and care.
O’Farrill called me up the next day. He was putting together a concert a Manhattan’s Symphony Space, he said, scheduled for the night before the presidential inauguration, under the banner, “Musicians Against Fascism.”
“Anything I can do to support this?” I asked.
“Yeah, you can emcee.”
I told him that I’d certainly write about the concert, and that maybe I could step up and say a few words. We talked a bit more and then hung up.
I called right back. “Of course I can emcee. I should do it. I’ll do it.”
I’ve been political on the page for at least a decade, writing about, among other things: jazz and American identity; the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba; about indignity, rights and the promise of culture in New Orleans after Hurrican Katrina, and about Islam as heard through music after 9/11.
I’ve spoken truth to power in public at panel discussions and conferences. It seemed high time to quite literally step up and speak out.
It was good to do. I wanted and needed to do it. I’d do it again. I will do it again.
You can stream the whole thing here.

Continue reading “Radicalized, Part 2: Musicians Against Fascism”

Bohemian Trio Leaps Across Borders


Bohemian Trio: from left, Yosvany Terry, Yves Dharamraj and Orlando Alonso. PHOTO: LAURA RAZZANO
Bohemian Trio: from left, Yosvany Terry, Yves Dharamraj and Orlando Alonso. PHOTO: LAURA RAZZANO

In the midst of Havana’s Jazz Plaza festival in December, I took a break with Yosvany Terry, who has lived in New York City since 1999 and whose music helps define a cutting edge there. He grew up in the Camagüey province, where his father, Eladio “Don Pancho” Terry, was a violinist with Maravilla de Florida’s Charanga Orchestra and a master of the chekeré, the beaded gourd used for percussion. Yosvany and I drove to Havana’s Mariano neighborhood, a quiet, almost rural area where his father and mother now live. There, Don Pancho sang old boleros while Yosvany played piano. Don Pancho demonstrated the “ritmo guiro,” an innovation of his that lent a more folkloric flavor to the charanga sound by the highlighting the raspy sound of the guiro, a serrated gourd that is scraped with a stick. “All of this music,” Yosvany said, “has influenced my music.”
And much more, not to mention Terry’s work with saxophonist Steve Coleman.
Bohemian Trio, Terry’s latest endeavor, is a collective with pianist Orlando Alonso and cellist Yves Dharamraj, in which Terry plays soprano and alto saxophone and chekeré.
Here’s my Wall Street Journal review of the group’s genre-defying debut CD, “Okónkolo.” Continue reading “Bohemian Trio Leaps Across Borders”