John Zorn’s Stone Rolls Into Brooklyn’s Crown Heights

photo by Liane Fredel

The darker blocks within the wood floor of happylucky no. 1, an art gallery and community arts space in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, spell out the name of the place in morse code, according to Liane Fredel.

Fredel, the former graphic designer who bought the space five years ago, renovated it to express, “an inviting concept, open but with an air of mystery,” she said, and she intends it to foster “more than just art, but rather a larger sense of culture.”

There is no sign outside announcing the place. There is, however a website, that offers this by way of description:

…a gray, fishscaly building…. The façade is marked by a door and a yellow neon dandelion. We are not exactly sure what happens, or what will happen, within the elongated rectangular box that is the interior of happylucky no. 1.  Vaguely speaking, there will be events, exhibitions and experiments, the subjects/results of which might occasionally be edible, or medicinal.

There will be things on the walls and floors and floating through the air; sights, sounds and ideas requesting your assistance in their propagation.  There will be triumphs and, as this is a human endeavor, the occasional disaster.

All of the above—the subtly encoded messages, the overarching mission and the blend of seriousness and humor—make happylucky no. 1 a fitting home for the latest iteration of The Stone— which began as a tiny but influential East Village performance space in an unmarked windowless former Chinese restaurant, founded by John Zorn in 2005 to present experimental  music, and that has grown into a somewhat sprawling initiative.

Zorn, whose influence as a producer and presenter now equals his stature as a musician and composer, has curated “The Stone Series” at happylucky no. 1, beginning March 1—Friday and Saturday night performance that will run at least through 2020. Continue reading “John Zorn’s Stone Rolls Into Brooklyn’s Crown Heights”

With The Book Beriah, John Zorn Closes the Book on Masada with Force and Feeling

In the third-floor East Village walkup apartment John Zorn has called home since 1977—“my device to enable creativity,” the alto saxophonist and composer calls the place—he reflected recently on his Masada project, now 25 years running.

“It began as my personal answer to what new Jewish music is,” he said. “And it was a musical challenge. After writing so much conceptual music, I wanted to just write a book of tunes—the way Irving Berlin had a book of tunes, the way Thelonious Monk had a book of tunes.”

That was 1993. He set about to mine the scales associated with Jewish music— a minor scale with a sharp 4th and a major scale with a flatted 2nd—and to serve the needs of modern improvisers like himself. He named the project Masada, for the ancient Judean fortress subjected to a deadly siege by troops of the Roman Empire.

That book kept growing, as did its implications for Zorn and an ever-widening community of musicians. By 1996, Zorn had written 205 Masada pieces, which gave rise to several important bands, not least his celebrated quartet with trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron. In the space of three months in 2004, he composed another 316 songs, to form a second Masada collection, “The Book of Angels,” this time distributing them to a wide range of musicians, and leading to more than two dozen recordings by 20 musicians and bands for his Tzadik label.

The Book Beriah, Zorn’s third installment of 92 compositions, brings Zorn’s total number of Masada compositions to 613 (the number of mitzvot, or commandments, contained in the Jewish Torah). He’s celebrated The Book Beriah with sprawling concerts at Manhattan’s Symphony Space in 2014 and earlier this year, displaying the range of expression it invites.

This time, rather than release the music in a an extended series of recordings, he’s making all the music available in one gorgeous, limited-edition 11-CD box set. Zorn is offering The Book Beriah in a variety of formats—CDs, autographed sets, bundles with T-shirts, LPs featuring highlights only—for pre-order through PledgeMusic, a crowd-funded, community-building web retailer.

You’ll find sample tracks at the site! Continue reading “With The Book Beriah, John Zorn Closes the Book on Masada with Force and Feeling”

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”

Happy International Jazz Day!

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The scene at Congo Square, in New Orleans, during International Jazz Day festivities in 2012.

Happy International Jazz Day!

I had suspicions and reservations about that greeting six years ago, when UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and pianist Herbie Hancock (who is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador) announced the global initiative.
After the years of Ken Burns-inspired jazz nationalism and so many wrong-headed jazz boosterism programs, well, I’ve grown defensive…
But I’ve come to like and admire the International Jazz Day program, which picks one city for an all-star concert and educational programs, streamed online, and links jazz’s figurative arms around the globe through hundreds of events.
This year’s main concert, from Havana, Cuba—at 9pm tonight EST, live-streamed (and archived) here—will feature stars from the U.S. including Hancock, bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding, violinist Regina Carter, bassist Marcus Miller, and from Cuba, including pianist Chucho Valdés, along with musicians from several other nations, all gathered at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso.
I’m in New Orleans now at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, which this year hosts its own contingent of Cuban musicians, including Valdés.
Here, five years ago, International Jazz Day had its main event at Congo Square (see the picture I took, above): I suspect that this year, in Havana, hand drums will again be prominent. This is less a sign of jazz’s globalism that a return to its deepest roots.
Five years ago, I wrote in the Village Voice, Continue reading “Happy International Jazz Day!”

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”

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”

Radicalized, Part One: Resist Trump—Inaugurate Something Better With Me, Arturo O'Farrill & Many Great Musicians at Symphony Space on Jan. 19!

photo by David Garten
photo by David Garten

When pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill (pictured above) asked me to help mount an event at Manhattan’s Symphony Space on Jan. 19—the night before the presidential inauguration—to express resistance to all that the coming Trump administration represents, and to help build community along those lines I said yes first and asked questions later.
Musicians Against Fascism“—the banner here is “No, We Refuse to Accept a Fascist America!”—will feature a dazzling lineup of artists, along with O’Farrill: I’m told the list thus far includes: Vijay Iyer, Matthew Shipp, Jen Shyu, Claudia Acuña, Fabian Almazan, Lakecia Benjamin, Stephan Crump, Peter Evans, Mary Halvorson, Amirtha Kidambi, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Roy Nathanson and the jazz passengers, Arturo O’Farrill,  Somi, The Westerlies. More surprises to come, I’m sure.
I’ll be up there, helping direct traffic as well as trying to inspire positive action and incite resistance against the many ways in which a Trump presidency threatens all that I write about and believe in—honesty, decency, humanity, responsibility, democracy, and, yes, artistry of the type that will be on display.
I will not watch what goes on in Washington, DC on Jan. 20, when Donald Trump lays his hand (which may or may no be unnaturally small) on a Bible. Much that is unnatural and unholy should flow from that moment.
Jan. 19 is OUR inauguration. Each of us can determine what we will individually inaugurate—what we will swear to uphold and protect, and how.
Let’s gather to begin building community and a common sense of resistance and commitment.
And if that F-word scares you, it should. This is a benefit for #RefuseFascism.org, and, well, I thought twice about that word, too. But what’s promised by this new administration—what’s already in process befits the term. And it should scare you.
Spread the word. Show up.
http://www.symphonyspace.org/event/9581/Music/no-we-refuse-to-accept-a-fascist-america
Tickets: $30.00 (For those who cannot afford a ticket, 15 minutes prior to the concert, any unsold tickets will be made available on a pay-what-you-can basis.)

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”

Back to Cuba, Through a Door I Hope Doesn't Slam Shut Again

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Chucho Valdés (left) first played the Jazz Plaza Havana Festival in 1980, leading his legendary band, Irakere. He is the music director of this 32nd edition. Pianist Roberto Fonseca was just 15 at his Jazz Plaza Havana debut. He sis artistic director of the first edition of a sister event, Jazz Plaza Santiago.

Hard to believe I’m at JFK airport waiting to fly to Havana. Hard to believe I’m going back (haven’t been since 2010). Hard to believe I can fly direct, and for less than it costs to visit my folks in Jacksonville. Hard to believe that this sudden ease, and the renewal of cultural exchange that was missing during the Bush years may soon get shut down again by a brutal Fascist.

Fidel, of course, is gone. Trump will be president. Among the things these two men have in common: they rose to power surprisingly, and by making promises quickly abandoned; they mastered the dark arts of fearmongering and propaganda. Among the things they don’t share: One of them was exceedingly literate and recognized the meaning and value of culture.
Not sure I’ll bring back rum or cigars when I return from the 32nd annual Havana Jazz Plaza Festival, but I will come back to with stories to write. Stories about pianist Arturo O’Farrill, who travels back this time with the ashes of his father, composer/bandleader Chico O’Farrill, to repatriate to an abandoned homeland. About trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who makes his first trip to the island, with a band that includes pianist Fabian Almazan, who left Cuba at age 9 and hasn’t yet returned. About pianist Chucho Valdés, a towering presence among Cuban musicians and the longtime music director of this festival. And about other Cuban musicians, such as trumpeter Yasek Manzano, who we rarely get to hear in the U.S.
And about the long embrace between U.S. and Cuban musicians, and the issues of identity and politics that swirl around it.
Here’s some background—a piece I wrote for The Wall Street Journal (also pasted below), after Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced a path toward normalized relations.

Continue reading “Back to Cuba, Through a Door I Hope Doesn't Slam Shut Again”