Terence Blanchard’s Caravan Rolls On

When I heard that Terence Blanchard named his latest tour “Caravan,” I figured it had to do with the Juan Tizol-Duke Ellington tune that Blanchard must have played again and again as a young trumpeter in drummer Art Blakey’s band.

Nope. It was meant more to suggest “a group of like-minded people moving around the country with a message,” Blanchard told me.

As I worked on a long piece for The Daily Beast about Blanchard—on connections between his band’s current tour and the aftermath of senseless violence, and on his ambitions as both musician and concerned citizen—I kept having to update the story to reflect breaking news: Blanchard gets nominated for a Best-Score Oscar; another black man gets shot by another white cop; Trump tweeted what?; the Met Opera announces Blanchard’s opera as its first presentation composed by an African American…

Here’s what I came up with, thankfully not behind any pay wall, under the headline “Can A Trumpet Silence a Gun?” Continue reading “Terence Blanchard’s Caravan Rolls On”

Now Batting, Marcus Shelby…

Marcus Shelby at San Francisco Giants Spring training. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Twenty years ago, when bassist Marcus Shelby formed a 15-piece jazz orchestra, he began to think big and thematically.

“I have been on a mission for the past 20 years to compose and create music about African-American history,” he says. These pieces have included an oratorio on Harriet Tubman and a suite about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.

Shelby, in a different sort of uniform, playing bass. Photo courtesy of the artist.

On “Transitions,” released on his own MSO Records, Shelby’s lush arrangements of classic tunes by Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, and Cole Porter frame the album’s centerpiece: “Black Ball: The Negro Leagues and the Blues,” his smart, slick and soulful four-part suite inspired by the history of Negro League Baseball.  Here, Shelby merges his mission with his two driving passions—jazz and baseball.

While working on my next column for Jazziz magazine, I spoke with Shelby about these passions. Continue reading “Now Batting, Marcus Shelby…”

Monk Kicks Off His Own Centenary: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960

Photo courtesy of Arnaud Boubet Private Collection.
Photo courtesy of Arnaud Boubet Private Collection.

Any day that brings a music recorded by Thelonious Monk that I haven’t yet heard is a glorious day, indeed.

That’s how I felt when I received “Thelonious Monk: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960” (Sam Records/Saga), Monk’s soundtrack recordings for Roger Vadim’s film, released for the first time.

And what better way to kick off what I hope is a wide-ranging celebration of the late, great pianist and composer.

Here’s how I began my Wall Street Journal review: Continue reading “Monk Kicks Off His Own Centenary: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960”

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

PHOTO: NANCY KASZERMAN/ZUMA PRESS
PHOTO: NANCY KASZERMAN/ZUMA PRESS

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”

Best Jazz of 2016

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First, my contrarian uncool confession: I don’t love lists. I just don’t think music is a competition. Nor is writing about it, for me, a ratings game. (I prefer telling stories and reviewing each recording in its own context.) Still, I see the point, know the drill and have my choices, which honor worthy recordings and form a guide to satisfying listening. And this time of year is about giving: What readers want is lists, so critics need give accordingly.
Truth is, I’ve found that the making of these lists—the consciousness, conversations, even arguments they generate in the context of the many other lists made by critics, bloggers and even musicians—does in fact add up to meaningful context. That point was best driven home or me by actual public conversation at a “Year in Jazz” panel hosted by my colleague Nate Chinen and presented by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem a few years ago.
Most of colleagues love lists—especially year-end ones. Few have gone about compiling lists with the rigor and passion of Francis Davis, who, a decade ago, corralled 30 writers to create a list of the finest jazz albums of 2006 for the Village Voice. Now, Davis’s poll lives on as the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, and he has more than quadrupled his forces — 137 voters.
Im honored each year to answer Davis’s call.
You can find this year’s results here. Continue reading “Best Jazz of 2016”

Never Wanted a Blog, Never Expected a Trump…

220px-liberation_music_orchestra-1I never wanted a blog. I resisted having a blog. The only thing I hated more than that invented word, blog, was its bastard form as a verb.

And then I found myself doing that, blogging.

When Artinfo.com asked me to create a jazz blog in 2012 I said yes. I knew my stuff—about jazz and culture, about New York and New Orleans, about ideas beyond those categories and places—would get read by folks outside my usual music-world echo chamber, owing to Blouin Media’s broad international reach and visual-arts focus. Plus, the site looks terrific. The things that I couldn’t fit into The Wall Street Journal, of which there were many, spilled into “Blu Notes.”

Still, I really never wanted to blog.

And until the blog disappeared in late October—a problem since resolved by Artinfo’s tech gurus—I didn’t think I’d miss it.

For month or so, I felt like I’d evaporated from the digital sphere. The distressing “page not found” message made it seem as if I’d been ripped out of a binding or blown away by a stiff wind.

To a degree, I was not found: I felt lost.

I guess I did, and do, want to blog.

So now I’m back in business: Blu Notes rides again. Please saddle up with me once more… Continue reading “Never Wanted a Blog, Never Expected a Trump…”

Now Playing: Pick Hits, Essential Volumes and More

record-center-artinfoPick Hit:
Kris Davis Duopoly (Pyroclastic Records): Davis has for quite some time been one of the most distinctive of pianists on the New York scene to make a big noise without, well, making that much noise. There’s a grace and even quietude to her best work, which is not to say that her playing lacks energy, swing, or any other quality. Yet there’s something about her touch and her thinking (free, yet never wandering) that makes her an ideal collaborator (I loved her work in the trio Paradoxical Frog, with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tyshawn Sorey). The concept on this CD is a series of duets, pairing Davis with an interestingly curated cast: guitarists Bill Frisell and Julian Lage; pianists Craig Taborn and Angelica Sanchez; drummers Billy Drummond and Marcus Gilmore; and reed players Tim Berne and Don Byron. These are A-list improvisers, not to mention mostly rugged individualists who collaborate with compassion but bend to no one’s will. The first half of the CD cycles through each partner in composed pieces; the second reverses that order for free improvisations. If that seems contrived in theory, it doesn’t sound so in the results. There is instead a lovely balance and a coherent flow. Frisell heightens Davis’s innate sense of weirdness, and highlights the good use she makes of prepared piano (I’m pretty sure it was prepared, anyway; sometimes Frisell’s arsenal of sounds can make even a standard piano sound so…) and repetitive figures. Berne lures her into dark corners of harmony and a playful sense of form. A version of “Prelude to a Kiss” with Byron is the most creative and tonally logical combination of clarinet and piano I’ve heard recorded in this young century. And with Taborn, Davis shares something truly special—based on restraint, conscious of space, and something like floating. (There’s a DVD included in this package. Maybe it’s cool. The music was all I needed to understand what went on here.)
Essential library additions:
Miles Davis Quintet Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 (Columbia/Legacy, Oct. 21): There was a time when I thought that maybe record labels shouldn’t be releasing all this bootleg session stuff. Maybe we didn’t need it. Maybe it was too much. Maybe there are even ethical problems (“The Complete Bud Powell on Verve,” which was among the earliest of the boxed-set reissue collections during the CD’s glory days, raised such questions in its expansive notes.) The answer—at least when it comes to anything from this Miles quintet is: Yes, please bring it on! These three CDs, from 1966-68, would be worth listening to simply for the studio chatter, which is as illuminating as it is cool. Included here is, as the press release states, “every second of music and dialogue that were taped for the ‘Miles Smiles album…” And, as they say on TV—that’s not all.. Personally, I can’t possible get enough of the making of “Nefertiti” or “Footprints.” If there were 10 more reels, I’d want those too.
David S. Ware & Matthew Shipp Duo Live in Sant’Anna Arressi, 2004 (Aum, Oct. 21): This second volume in AUM’s Davis S. Ware Archive Series, is essential listening for anyone who valued the magisterial possibilities of Ware’s playing and anyone who tracked, as I did, the work of his wondrous quaret, which included pianist Shipp. There are few musicians who could sustain what is essentially one album-length improvisation: Ware was one. There are also few musicians who would know how to channel that abundant energy and process its purpose: Shipp remains one.
Next up to hear:
Donny McCaslin Beyond Now (Motéma): This is basically David Bowie’s last band, the one he used for “Blackstar,” including saxophonist McCaslin, bassist Tim Lefebvre, drummer Mark Guiliana and keyboardist Jason Lindner, along with some additional guests. It’s not as if Bowie set McCaslin on this path; really, the plugged-in sound, rhythmic intensity and sense of ambient possibility heard on Blackstar was evident in McCaslin’s music since his 2011 release, “Perpetual Motion.” Yet there are few forces as animating and galvanizing as Bowie was to lend purpose and poise to an idea. I haven’t yet dug in, but I’m eager to hear what McCaslin took from that experience.
Aziza (Dare2): This quartet—bassist Dave Holland, guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophonist Chris Potter and drummer Eric Harland—assembled for Holland’s Dare2 label is in one respect a fascinating elder master-plus-midcareer standouts ensemble. It also promises to be a fascinating left-of-center springboard for collective creations from four limber and free-thinking players. The name—Aziza—is drawn from the mythology of Dahomey, the African kingdom that encompassed Loueke’s homeland, Benin: in that tradition, Aziza is a small, elusive woodland creature that lends magic to artists and hunters in the woods. Holland isn’t a small guy, but otherwise he fits that bill.
Photo by Larry Blumenfeld
 

Happy Columbus Day From Nicholas Payton

1d380a883828c999-nicholaspayton1In honor of Columbus Day—a holiday I can neither grasp nor endorse save for the joy of suspended alternate-side parking in my neighborhood—here’s a celebration from Nicholas Payton—”The Egyptian Second Line” (two versions, in fact).
I first met Payton, a trumpeter, keyboardist and singer, while he was still in his teens (he’s 43 now). He was supporting pianist Ellis Marsalis in a band assembled for a morning TV show. It was the sort of publicity event that, 20-some-odd-years ago, supported the idea of a nascent neo-traditionalist jazz renaissance (with Payton as the latest young lion to follow in Louis Armstrong’s—and perhaps Ellis’s son Wynton’s—wake).

Payton had soaked in his history and his tradition, for sure, not least from his father, bassist and sousaphonist Walter Payton.
In the decades since, Payton has distinguished himself as a musician who questions categories and even the dogma of accepted history as much as, well, Armstrong did (do some research at the Armstrong House museum, and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about).
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.
bf826304acace2f9-nichoalspayton3In a March post titled “#WorldSoWhite,” Payton wrote:
“Louis bowed and scraped so Miles could turn his back.”
He’s right about that.
And still, let’s not let all that distract our attention from Payton’s music, which keeps coming and never stays put.
Through an arrangement with his own music label, Paytone, Ropeadope Records will reissue five of Payton’s recordings and plans to release his “Afro-Carribean Mixtape.” (You can find his catalog at pantone.bandcamp.com.)
The label describes the forthcoming release as “an exploration into the history of the African diaspora as it follows the original trade routes to this hemisphere”—which must naturally involve the slave trade.
c3e24e683a6d98b6-finalcovertheegyptiansecondlineRopeadope released a download of Payton’s single, “The Egyptian Second Line,”on Friday, October 7th as “a poignant statement in advance of Columbus Day, as much of the nation questions the version of history handed down by the colonists.”
The stuff is deeply funky, simple on the surface in both groove and structure, yet embedded with a complex and shifting set of cues, clues and hues, most through a dense layering of samples.
I’ll not say more about it until I listen more. And perhaps not until I get the whole album and can pen a proper review.
But here’s what Payton wrote about what’s in the mix:

In the spirit of reclaiming that which colonization sought to destroy, I’m releasing the first single from my upcoming album Afro-Caribbean Mixtape at the top of Columbus Day weekend. Like a piece of African patchwork, this track is comprised of a lot of different elements — some old, some new. The main body of this record was constructed from the end vamp of a tune I wrote for Dr. Greg Carr (chair of African-American studies at Howard University) called, “Kimathi.” In fact, throughout the piece, you can hear my turntablist, DJ Lady Fingaz, scratching a sample I chopped from one of his interviews. I constructed a new work by cutting and pasting the best moments of Kevin Hays and I playing keyboards on top of the extended jam, and superimposed that over the groove laid down by bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Joe Dyson, and percussionist Daniel Sadownick. I did this with the help of my mix engineer, Blake Leyh (The Wire, Treme).
Towards the beginning of the piece, you’ll hear a chant from vocalists Yolanda Robinson, Jolynda Phillips, and Christina Machado. It’s from a thing my father made up while walking through his childhood neighborhood of 13th Ward New Orleans back in the 1940s, “Na-na ni-ta ho-ho. Left, right. Left, right.” Thirty years later, as an elementary school band teacher at McDonogh #15, he had us chant this whenever we marched in second line parades. It recalls the syllabic prayers of ancient languages used in modern dance songs like Mani Dibango’s “Soul Makossa,” of which Michael Jackson borrowed for “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.”
The centerpiece of the single is a poem I wrote back in 2006 in the aftermath of the flood commonly referred to as “Katrina.” It’s called “The Egyptian Second Line,” recited by Nicole Sweeney, a deejay at WBGO. The gist of it toys with the theory that somehow Africans submitted to slavery in an attempt to become better versions of themselves. After the ladies chirp the hook, I step away from the keyboards and embrace the instrument I’m most known for — the trumpet — and blow a few before we take it out. With this song, I am channeling the energy of the ancestors to help give Africa back to herself in the best way I know how, through the power of music.
In New Orleans, a “second line” is the procession where we dance in the streets to music played by a brass band to celebrate either life or death. When I think about what an Egyptian second line looks like, I think of the imagery of that photo of Louis Armstrong serenading his wife, Lucille in front of the Sphinx — again Africans giving Africa back to herself.

Now Playing: Pick Hits and Forthcoming Albums

YoungPhilly
Pick Hit: 
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”