Marc Ribot The Young Philadelphians: Live in Tokyo (Yellowbird, just released)
It’s hard to imagine something musical that guitarist Marc Ribot couldn’t do—or wouldn’t wish to.
That’s not to say that Ribot is eclectic, or that he lacks discernment. Far from it; he doesn’t dabble. He just likes many different styles of music for many different reasons. His technique is so sharp and profound, his sonic identity so strong, that all of his music, whatever it taps into, seems grounded in a single expansive concept reflective of these qualities: an improvisational credo drawn from jazz; a toughness and urgency that owes to punk and early rock; and a devotion to detail that can found wherever serious musicians gather.
Ribot describes his Young Philadelphians band in his liner notes as “where deco meets disco meets decon,” in tribute to twin legacies: “The mind-blowing harmolodic punk-funk of Ornette Coleman’s first Prime Time band and the sweet, optimistic pulse of 1970s Philly soul.”
He’s got bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston, both Prime Time alumni, in tow here, along with fellow guitarist Mary Halvorson and a 3-piece string section. Ribot is celebrating a moment, now some 40 years old, “before dance went digital,” reinventing hits like Silver Convention’s “Fly, Robin, Fly,” Teddy Pendergrass’s “Love TKO,” and, yes, Van McCoy’s “The Hustle.” Did you have to ask? Of course, they play “TSOP (The Sounds of Philadelphia)” by MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother—if that’s really what it meant…)
I grew up on and danced to this soundtrack in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. This stuff was a guilty pleasure for me, long suppressed, now released from its dated trappings and its too-rigid disco beat by Ribot and company. They isolate both the inner grit and the pleasing naivete these songs managed to balance. And they invest these worthy pop confections (I’d forgotten how lovely some of these string lines are) with fresh fissures of noise and threads of wild invention.
This is no retro shtick. There’s nothing ironic about it. And why not honor both Ornette Coleman and Van McCoy at once (if you’ve got the chops and the love to do it).
What else am I listening to now? Continue reading “Now Playing: Pick Hits and Forthcoming Albums”
And it comes as no suprise to me that O’Farrill’s debut recording as a leader, “Stranger Days” (Sunnyside) is finely honed, witty, deep, soulful and hip—it’s marked by his casual yet authoritative command of his instrument but also much more, especially a coherent group concept. O’Farrill has been dropping hints for some time now: on previous recordings in bands co-led with his older brother, drummer Zack O’Farrill; on small-ensemble dates led by his dad; on saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s recent “Bird Calls”; and on various gigs within the community of like-minded musicians within which he stands out. He impresses yet again within a quartet led by bassist Stephan Crump on the forthcoming CD, “Rhombal” (Papillon Sounds), which I’ve just dug into.
I concur with Nate Chinen, who, in his review, called O’Farrill’s new CD “a potent declaration of independence, as much as it is a glowing indication of promise.”
And with Steve Futterman who, writing in The New Yorker, cited it as “the kind of début recording that a burgeoning young bandleader can take special pride in.” Futterman explained, “His lean two-horns-bass-and-drums quartet sounds like an actual working ensemble, his compositions announce themselves as memorable tunes worth returning to, his musical overview is expansive and inviting, and his own smart playing balances passion and restraint.”
That’s how it sounded live, too, during a CD-release performance at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery earlier this month. Only the tunes seemed to be evolving, as they do in any good band’s hands. The humor embedded in “A&R Italian Eatery,” which reminds me a bit of Carla Bley’s music, sounded more pronounced. The hints of hiphop rhythm within the swing of one new tune arrived as a jolt of surprise.
The success of Adam O’Farrill’s band relies not just on his bright, round and supple tone (he plays dark and muddy too) and his penchant for pithy and unconventional compositions. It’s a band achievement, owing to his strong communion with tenor saxophonist Walter Stinson (who also composes for the group), and to the flexible and propulsive combination of bassist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown and Zack O’Farrill.
Zack is an unusual drummer: His touch is disarmingly light, which can sometimes conceal just how deeply swinging a pocket he helps craft, and his ideas are often pleasingly odd, in the sense that, say, Paul Motian’s were. He’s a secret weapon here, as is usually true of desirable trapsmen and benevolent older siblings.
Both Adam and Zack come to music with some serious legacy. Their dad, Arturo is a Grammy-winning pianist and founder of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Their grandfather, Chico O’Farrill, was a renowned composer, arranger and bandleader whose “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite” combined jazz, Cuban and European classical forms in startling fashion.
Yet listening to this generation of O’Farrills in Adam’s new band is to sense not the weight of the past but the lightness of pure possibility, not to mention joy.
I’ve written often here and in The Wall Street Journal about trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith. That frequency is partly due to the fact that Smith is so prolific a musician, but it’s mostly it’s because his music and its surrounding aesthetic are so fascinating, deep, distinctive and ever in forward motion.
Recently, I posted about Smith’s residency in New Orleans (and mine) through the New Quorum, and delved into the working of the musical system he named “Ankhrasmation.”
You can find my Wall Street Journal piece about Smith’s March collaboration with pianist Vijay Iyer, “a cosmic rhythm with each stroke,” here, and an older article of mine about his sprawling “Ten Freedom Summers” here.
Smith’s project with Iyer was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and inspired by the work of visual artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Yet Smith himself is a formidable visual artist, mostly by way of what he calls the “language scores” that he creates to guide each musical piece, and which, he says, are specific to each individual performance of that piece.
These are striking works of diligent and creative visual representation, made all the more fascinating by their functional value to musicians.
Last year in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), of which Smith was an early and important member, Chicago’s Renaissance Society mounted an exhibition of these scores.
Now, within “Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only,” the third biennial at the Hammer Museum at UCLA, Smith’s Ankhrasmation scores are on view through August 28.
According to the exhibit’s accompanying text, “Ankhrasmation blossomed in Southern California, where Smith relocated in 1993, joining the faculty at California Institute of the Arts.”
“Each Made in L.A. sheds a new light on the work being made by Los Angeles artists, expanding on previous versions of the exhibition,” said Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin. “Made in L.A. 2016 investigates what is vital and distinctive about this city as an international destination and cutting edge art center, and how its artists-from vastly different backgrounds and disciplines-resist and defy categorization.”
Here’s the wall text about Wadada from the Made in L.A. Exhibition and some installation images of Wadada’s works:
Wadada Leo Smith is a performer and composer in equal measure, having taken up both trumpet and writing music at the age of twelve. Smith was a formidable presence in the free jazz scene of the late 1960s, the period when he developed a form of musical notation he refers to as Ankhrasmation, a word combining ankh (an ancient Egyptian symbol meaning life force), ras (father), and ma (mother).
Ankhrasmation began as a cuneiform-like notation in which Smith abandoned instrumentation, meter, and choice of notes, making it a framework not so much for what to play as for how and when to play it. Rather than notes, Ankhrasmation privileges discrete moments of activity, for which he provided only general determinants: number and duration of notes, tempo, pitch, and phrase length. The notation’s signature glyph is the pennant, referred to as a velocity unit. It is a signpost for the intensity of activity. Depending on whether the triangular portion is filled in or accompanied by a horizontal dash across its stem, a velocity unit can call for a rapid burst of notes or prompt a lithe melody.
This selection of scores dates from 1967 to 2014. While it took root during Smith’s years in New Haven, Connecticut, Ankhrasmation blossomed in Southern California, where he relocated in 1993, joining the faculty at California Institute of the Arts. The move west coincided with a wholesale expansion in his use of color, repertoire of signs, and compositional approaches to the page as a whole. Some are defined by large blocks of color and bold singular shapes, either geometric or calligraphic in nature. Others resemble a schematic for what could be a fourth law of thermodynamics. In any case, Smith’s latter-day output only confirms what Ankhrasmation has been all along, namely a cosmology, a meditation about creation in the human and intergalactic sense.
In New Orleans, a city known for musical innovation, imponderable dualities, and inscrutable personal style, Allen Toussaint epitomized it all: He was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken creator of hits who drove a cream-colored 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, who could look elegantly complete in a suit jacket, silk tie, and a pair of white athletic socks and sandals.
As a composer, lyricist, arranger, producer, pianist and singer, his music reached far and wide enough to earn induction into the Rock and Roll and the Blues Hall of Fames, as well as a National Medal of the Arts in 2013. It spoke most clearly of and to New Orleans, where Toussaint was born in 1938 and where he remained until his unexpected death at 77 last November, save for a temporary relocation to New York City following the flood that resulted from the levee breaches following Hurricane Katrina. (My last piece on Toussaint is here.)
It was some small comfort that right before I left New York for this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I received an advance copy of “American Tunes,” released June 10 on Nonesuch, and which represents Toussaint’s final studio recordings—solo tracks at his home studio in New Orleans and small ensemble takes from Los Angeles.
Toussaint belongs in that lineage of pianists who define certain aspects of what New Orleans was, is and always will be—Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Henry Butler and so on. That roll call of pianists eventually leads you to Tom McDermott, whose sensitivity, breadth and depth of knowledge and skill has makes him a distinctive force on the city’s current scene.
McDermott has big but discerning ears for music and, when he cares to, he writes about what he hears in illuminating ways.
Such is the case with McDermott’s review for Offbeat magazine of “American Tunes.” Continue reading “Listening to Allen Toussaint's Posthumous CD Through Tom McDermott's Ears”
The title of drummer Dafnis Prieto‘s new book is “A World of Rhythmic Possibilities.”
Prieto—who is a marvelous drummer, inventive bandleader, indispensable sideman to many and a composer of rare grace and subtlety—means this primer as instruction, but not in his technique or any one given approach. Rather, it is a key to unlock that world of possibilities.
When the MacArthur Foundation named Prieto as a Fellow in 2011 (the so-called “genius grant”), the announcement correctly credited Prieto’s “rhythmically adventurous compositions combine a range of musical vocabularies” and noted that he “transposes elements from his Afro-Cuban musical heritage onto a jazz drum kit.”
When I first wrote about him in The Wall Street Journal, Prieto described his initial impression of New York City, his adopted hometown since 1999, “To be honest, it wasn’t really my cup of tea.” New York was different from Barcelona, where he’d spent the previous year, and a far cry from Havana, where he attended the National School of Music. It seemed a world away from Santa Clara, his hometown—”a small Cuban city, very colonial and musical,” he called it—where he first picked up a guitar, and then bongos, before moving on to the trap set with which he’s earned distinction. “Especially in New York, the world keeps getting smaller,” he said. “So my music keeps getting bigger.”
And yet Prieto’s expansive world—the one represented in part by his wonderful 2015 release, “Triangles and Circles” and by his innovative Proverb Trio—and the ones he hopes to awaken in his readers speak not just of crossing geographic borders but also of deepening inner truths.
Prieto’s primer is not only for musicians. Hence his subtitle: “An Analytical and Instructional Book For Drummers, Percussionists and Lovers of Rhythm.”
It’s philosophical as much as practical.
For me, the pull-quote to this sample passage, “Playing What We Want to Hear,” comes at the end:
Playing what we want to hear is much more than hitting the Drums in an arbitrary way. Hence, it is fundamentally related to a deep understanding of sound that is gained through a meticulous process of listening for the sounds both inside and outside of ourselves.
There are still events that force me to check my cynicism at the door.
The annual NEA Jazz Masters Awards counts among them.
I may sometimes disagree with the choices of recipients, but never with the purpose: to honor individuals—musicians and advocates— for their lifetime achievements and exceptional contributions to the advancement of jazz.
Usually, the annual celebrations help me reflect on the range of personalities and personal interpretations that end up defining jazz and shaping both its legacy and forward flow. Here’s my coverage of the annual celebrations in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Each 2017 NEA Jazz Master will receive a $25,000 award and be honored at a tribute concert on Monday, April 3, 2017, produced in collaboration with the Kennedy Center.
Here are the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters, with brief biographies provided by the NEA: Continue reading “NEA Names 2017 Jazz Masters”
Once, it might have been hard to imagine bassist and composer William Parker headlining two nights at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club in Manhattan.
It will happen July 26 & 27. And really, it makes perfect sense.
As a bassist, composer and bandleader, Parker is one of modern jazz’s defining presences; as much as any musician, he fulfills a vision Dizzy Gillespie, the club’s namesake, had decades ago of jazz as an expansive and cross-cultural music, one never stuck in place and always connected to a larger social and political awareness. And by now anyone’s wrongheaded view of Parker as simply a “downtown” musician (though that’s where he’s lived for a long time, and where he has anchored a community) have been erased by two forces: the sheer breadth and depth of Parker’s work; and the collapse in general of limiting categories when it comes to real jazz. Also, more than a decade past the organization’s founding, Jazz at Lincoln Center has notably broadened its bookings and ethos.
At Dizzy’s, Parker, who composes music at a dizzying pace, will present new compositions. These will be performed on July 26 by a quintet, and on the 27th by an 8-piece edition of his In Order to Survive Ensemble (the second set, billed as “Extended Breath,” may involve yet more musicians). Both nights will feature the wondrous tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan and drummer Hamid Drake (and any chance to hear Parker and Drake together is a reason to show up and get a good seat.)
Once, it might have been hard to imagine Parker absent from New York City’s annual Vision Festival—this country’s essential gathering of avant-garde improvising musicians, and a broader celebration of artistic purpose that also highlights dance, poetry and visual arts.
Yet that, too, will happen.
Parker was a founding force behind the festival, now in its 21st year, and a ubiquitous onstage presence. This year, he’ll be in Calgary, Alberta, as composer & musical director of the Decidedly Jazz Danceworks brand New Universe piece & performance space during Vision Fest.
Oddly perhaps, that circumstance makes a certain sense, too: The Vision fest’s offerings (June 7-12) are so broad and strong, its cast of characters so deserving of their spotlights, that this year’s edition is no less satisfying with Parker on the road. (Full schedule here.)
As happens annually, one artist is honored for a lifetime of achievement with a full evening as headliner. This year’s focus (June 7) is on bassist and violinist Henry Grimes, whose elemental work in the late 1950s is worth seeking out on recordings, and whose unlikely career resurgence in in 2003, involved a helping hand from Parker.
Grimes’ story is itself wondrous. He was among jazz’s most sought-after bassists in the late ’50s, and he played on free-jazz recordings in the ’60s with the likes of Ayler, Cecil Taylor and Don Cherry. Then he just dropped out, disappeared from the scene for more than three decades.
I’ll never forget hearing Grimes, playing a green-stained bass given to him by Parker, during a triumphant appearance at the 2003 Vision Festival. “Something happened,” Grimes told me following that performance. “It was like a thick air came into the club and came right down on everybody in it. Everything that I’ve strived for came true, with bigger implications for the future.” Those implications have turned into realities in the years since.
On June 7, Grimes will lead two powerhouse groups—one a quartet that includes one of Grimes’ contemporaries, drummer Andrew Cyrille, the other a septet including guitarist Marc Ribot, who has worked closely with Grimes since his return to the scene. In between, Grimes will be joined by several vocalists, performing songs by Lisa Sokolov, drawn from the original poems Grimes sometimes recites in performance.
There are many highlights to this year’s fest. Among them:
—Jen Shyu‘s genre-and-border-defying songs (June 8)
—Sun Ra Arkestra 60th anniversary celebration (June 8)
—Saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc leading a quintet including pianist Matthew Shipp (June 9)
—Garland of Blessing (Hamid Drake – drums, Kidd Jordan – sax, Cooper-Moore – piano, Michael Bisio – bass—June 9)
—trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s with a viola Quartet and Electronics (June 11)
—saxophonist Kidd Jordan leading a quintet to close the fest (June 12)
And I’ll especially highlight the June 10 performance by Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba, a group that showcases no just a rare union of religious and folkloric Afro-Cuban forms with modern large-ensemble jazz but also the place of Afro-Latin lineage within the Vision Festival’s legacy.
I’ve been following New Yor-Uba closely. In an email, Rosewoman described the extended new work she will present at Vision as her attempt to “jump the octave” with this group, through a rhythmic suite and tribute to 23 orishas. The group includes batá and conga master Román Díaz, surrounded by others suitably skilled in rhythmic magic, such as bassist Yunior Terry, drummer Robby Ameen and percussionist Mauricio Herrera.
I’m slowly working my way again through “Conversations in Jazz: The Ralph J. Gleason Interviews,” which will be published May 24 by Yale University Press. As the Yale press web page explains: “The co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, Ralph J. Gleason was among the most respected journalists, interviewers, and critics writing about popular music in the latter half of the twentieth century.”
To which I’d add that Gleason did those things when a journalist, interviewer and critic could, by virtue of his or her work, earn a broad and deep measure of respect. And when a co-founder of Rolling Stone could delve deeply into jazz as more than just hobby or affectation. Yale’s site also mentions that Gleason was “the only music journalist included on President Richard Nixon’s infamous ‘Enemies List,’ which Gleason himself considered ‘the highest honor a man’s country can bestow upon him.’ I haven’t gotten to the explanation of that tidbit yet, but I’m hoping it’s contained in the Jann Wenner’s foreword to a companion volume, “Music in the Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason.” Both editions were edited by Gleason’s son Toby, himself a forty-year veteran of the music business.
“Conversations in Jazz,” has a foreword and introductory notes by Ted Gioia, which frame these encounters nicely and wisely. I’m bound in there, too, in the front matter, with an advance word of praise I’d happily provided Yale editor-at-large Steve Wasserman (whose list also includes Scott Timberg’s “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class,” the best book I’ve read on the contemporary context, or lack thereof, for culture in this country).
Here’s what I wrote:
As music, jazz takes shape through what exceptional musicians play. As social history and philosophy, it is often best revealed through what these musicians say—provided there’s a conversation partner with a firm grasp of how jazz gets played and laid-back attitude toward how life gets lived. Ralph Gleason, an influential music critic, brought jazz into countless American living rooms during the 1960s through his TV series “Jazz Casual.” Yet the one-on-one discussions in Gleason’s own Berkeley, California living room—tape recorder rolling, Gleason and one or another of jazz’s greats sitting in overstuffed leather chairs—tell deeper stories. Here, framed with a wise and light touch by writer Ted Gioia, we get windows into personal worlds: John Coltrane on the cusp of a breakthrough; Sonny Rollins entering a period of reclusion; “Philly” Jo Jones sharing drumming tradecraft and history; Duke Ellington explaining why, in music as in life, problems are opportunities.
Last night, I found myself focused on Gleason’s May 1961 interview with John Coltrane. As Gioia points out, Coltrane was “at a turning point in his career,” having left Miles Davis’ group, and was soon to begin his important relationship with a newly launched Impulse! record label. I love this excerpt below for several reasons, including: the humility with which Gleason asks his question and Coltrane answers; the relevance of this exchange now, a half-century later, in terms of a “globalized” notion of jazz; the power, as expressed by Coltrane, of jazz culture “in the air”; and the hints here—“something that’s coming”—of the introspection that contributed to Coltrane’s masterpiece, still four years off, “A Love Supreme.” Continue reading “What John Coltrane (& Others) Told Ralph Gleason”
As a pianist, Carla Bley plays exactly the right amount of notes.
Needless to say they’re also the right note choices, except when they are gorgeously and intentionally wrong. Her hands seem to fall upon these keys as if discovering them or like they were quite obviously the only ones worth considering.
I remember Bley’s comments last year, upon accepting an NEA Jazz Masters award:
“I asked my father, ‘Where does the music come from?’ He told me, ‘A composer wrote it.’ And I said, ‘I would like to do that.’ So I wrote hundreds of notes and he told me, ‘No, no, this is much to hard for me to play. Get rid of most of these notes.’ And so that was my first lesson.”
As a composer, Bley inspires from her fellow musicians a similarly correct sense of proportion—something beyond restraint or economy, and implying a grand sense of overall design, of form one can live satisfyingly within.
It’s not as if her music sounds perfect or that it seeks or achieves equilibrium. No, Bley’s music has always involved subtle subterfuge a gently off-kilter sensibility. It’s dramatic as well, but sneakily so, in ways that lure, not lurch, you into deep feeling.
Celebrating her 80th birthday with a brief and intimate concert at Manhattan’s Steinway Hall, Bley exuded a child’s wonder and an elder’s wisdom, both qualities coexisting in elegant balance, just as, say, dissonance and consonance do in her music.
Two of the pieces Bley peformed on Wednesday with saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow (the latter, her partner in life as well as music for the past 25 years) were drawn from her finely crafted and yet casually charming new CD “Andando el Tiempo” (ECM). Continue reading “Carla Bley at 80”
We humans are happy because yesterday Henry Threadgill was awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music.
At the Pulitzer site, Threadgill’s “In for a Penny, In for a Pound” (released in May, 20015, on Pi Recordings) is referred to as “a highly original work in which notated music and improvisation mesh in a sonic tapestry that seems the very expression of modern American life.”
That’s savvy analysis, and it’s a relief to hear the “American-ness” of music from an African American composer with strong roots in jazz invoked as something beyond “the democracy of improvisation” or the “cry of freedom.”
Still, I hear in Threadgill’s music, and especially in light of the range of his influences, the very expression of life here on earth, period.
Threadgill is never at a loss for words. (Cornetist Graham Haynes posted on Facebook that Threadgill could have won a Pulitzer simply for his song titles.) In Nate Chinen’s news piece in today’s New York Times, here’s Threadgill’s pull-quote: Continue reading “(Something Right in the Universe Dep't): Henry Threadgill Awarded Pulitzer Prize”