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….”

The Maine Attraction

opening night of the Deer Isle Jazz Festival. Photo by Larry Blumenfeld.

Maine Attraction

By Larry Blumenfeld

“Condoms. Tampons. Excess hair. SMALL AN-I-MALS!”

So sang the dozen folks forming a circle within a tiny cabin last July, holding that last syllable until Arturo O’Farrill dropped his right hand with a conductor’s authority. I’d just made the nine-hour drive from Brooklyn, New York, to Deer Isle, Maine, but my bleary eyes found strength to widen. I laughed.

I’d walked in on a rehearsal for Haystack, The Opera: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Odyssey— and it was no joke. O’Farrill’s wife, Alison, sat at a keyboard, his eldest son, Zack, before a set of conga drums. His youngest, Adam, held a trumpet, awaiting his cue. Soon various rhythm instruments — hand drums, cowbells, guiros, clavés — were handed out.

Before long, O’Farrill had these painters and potters and sculptors, all of whom had come to the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts for a summer session, creating four layers of rhythm and sounding pretty damn in-sync.

O’Farrill had come to Maine to headline at the annual Deer Isle Jazz Festival, for which I’ve been curator since its inception, in 2001. Each summer, one festival musician serves as artist-in-residence at the Haystack School. O’Farrill, a celebrated pianist and bandleader, the son of a legendary Cuban composer, met this challenge by bringing his whole family and creating an opera, with lyrics drawn from Haystack Director Stuart Kestenbaum’s work — not his celebrated poetry, but his school manual, the part about “what not to flush down the toilet.”

I’d grown accustomed to such odd surprises. This unexpected turn in my own career stemmed from, well, an unexpected turn. A decade ago, my wife, Erica, and I were driving around Stonington, Deer Isle’s southernmost town, tracing curve after curve, gawking at cove upon cove, when one right left us facing a dilapidated circa-1912 opera house bearing a “For Sale” sign. I mumbled something about quitting our jobs and selling our co-op. “We could turn it into a nonprofit arts center,” I said, to which Erica flashed a look that’s come to mean something between “My, that’s a fascinating idea” and “Shut up already.”

It was, and I did. A year later, four women bought the place, cleared out the dead raccoons, and renovated. The Stonington Opera House — at various points, a dance hall, vaudeville theater, and high-school basketball arena — was now home to the nonprofit Opera House Arts. I introduced myself. Linda Nelson, the indefatigable executive director, suggested we mount a jazz festival. Artistic Director Judith Jerome talked with me about improvisation in all its forms. We sat until sunset, when the island sky turned blue and pink and cast eerie reflections on the water that changed with each passing moment. Whitney Balliett famously called jazz the “sound of surprise,” I thought, but this place looked the part.

We were off. There were jazz fans hidden in the hills, literally. Several opened their homes to visiting musicians and didn’t stop there; they baked blueberry muffins, demonstrated lobster bisque recipes, loaned Subarus. Saxophonist Dewey Redman, our first headliner, sent yearly Christmas cards to his hosts. I recall indelible images: Romero Lubambo sitting on a porch after breakfast, strumming his guitar as Luciana Souza slapped soft percussion on her thighs and sang bossa novas into the morning mist; William Parker’s band members dotting the sloping hill near Lindsay Bowker’s stately house, grinning giddily as they carried bright-red lobsters in varying stages of dismemberment; Greg Osby and his wife heading off to Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies.

There were silly, touching moments (Jason Moran lifting his pant leg onstage and thanking his host, Stan Bergen, for the dress-sock loaner), and scary stretches (driving from the Bangor airport through pounding sleet and blinding fog with Randy Weston cramped into my Saab, praying not to be scripting his bio’s final line).

I’d come to Deer Isle 10 years ago to be refreshed. Yet even more invigorating then the brisk air and chilly water was the attitude of these audiences. The morning after Parker’s 2004 concert, I asked Perry Hunter, who had offered to drive the band to the airport, whether the music sounded too “avant-garde.”

“Only an old man would say that,” he shot back. With that, the 75-year-old slammed the van door shut and drove off. I felt transported.