Donald Harrison—alto saxophonist, composer, bandleader, occasional singer and drummer, and Big Chief of The Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group—understands the history of jazz, the culture of New Orleans and the flow of African American music in general better than nearly anyone alive.
His version of “Old Town Road” is no gimmick.
When he convened drummer Thomas Glass, pianist Shea Pierre and bassist Chris Severin in a New Orleans studio for an acoustic jazz version of the song, he was inspired by the 2018 recording by Lil Nas X, which “had a serious groove and a clear idea,” he said, and by the remix for which the rapper was joined by country-music star Billy Ray Cyrus, which, for Harrison, “brought worlds together in a moving way.”
As the above video shows, Harrison was inspired to play, to dance and to think about the connection between playing and dancing. We spoke about all of that recently.
What hipped you to this song?
On a recent Sunday afternoon, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis led his Uptown Jazz Orchestra in a live-streamed online concert—a “Double Nickel Birthday Bash,” he called it, marking his turning 55 and, more importantly, the launch of the new non-profit organization he spearheaded in his hometown—Keep New Orleans Music Alive (KNOMA).
“My dad dedicated his life to growing and promoting New Orleans musicians,” Marsalis said of the patriarch of his celebrated musical family, pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, who succumbed to Covid-19 on April 1, at the age of 85. “Today, the global health pandemic presents a threat to New Orleans’ culture bearers like none before.”
Despite such a dire statement, Marsalis’s band exuded joy more than anything else, as it has on Wednesday nights at the Snug Harbor club on Frenchmen Street—that is, until the lockdown came. The same can be said of “Jazz Party,” Marsalis’s seventh album as a leader. That suave and smart release showcased the tight big-band Delfeayo leads, including some the Crescent City’s best players, exemplifying an approach to music that involves updating traditional New Orleans repertoire with modernist touches as well as playing modern-jazz classics in a hometown style aimed first and foremost, he says, “to make people happy.” With his big-band, Marsalis revels in the culture in which he was raised yet also flashes adventurous urges.
Delfeayo and I talked on the phone recently about his new initiative, the legacy he inherited from his father and his city, and making people happy even in the direst of times.
Have you been in New Orleans through this whole pandemic? Continue reading “COVID CONVERSATIONS, Number 8: Delfeayo Marsalis”
This shirt arrived as a promotional item for what was then the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, back in 1997, when Monk would have turned 80. It reminds me of my favorite game, which I can’t play right now, and my favorite musician, who I’m getting to hear anew.
“Palo Alto,” a previously unreleased recording, comes out July 31.
It documents Monk, in 1968, leading his quartet (tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley) at a high school in Palo Alto, California.
I’ll have more to say about it soon in the Wall Street Journal. For now, you can hear a track here (just ignore the “visualizer”).
One sunny June Sunday in Manhattan’s Union Square, Jon Batiste spoke through a megaphone and a mask about “the need to implement systemic change and to avoid collective apathy.”
He then marched roughly a thousand people, including members of the Stay Human band he leads as music director of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” up Sixth Avenue. He was just blocks from the Village Vanguard, the storied jazz club where he’d recorded two albums. He drew directly on the second-line tradition he learned as a boy, in New Orleans. He played and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” composed more than a century ago and often referred to as the “Black National Anthem.” He segued into his latest single, “We Are,” a call-to-arms, he told me, “meant to confront the choice between profit and humanity, between freedom and the bondage of racism and all the terrible things that have been accepted and perpetuated in this country.”
A week later Batiste sat at an upright piano in front of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Wearing a mask and bright-blue protective gloves, he played a version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Like the version he’d recorded for his 2013 album, “Social Music” it sounded playful, rollicking, chaotic, even threatening.
We talked on the phone about these protests and this moment.
What prompted you to head out to Union Square and lead a protest? Continue reading “COVID Conversations, Vol. 6: Jon Batiste”
COVID Conversations is a series that looks back through my talks with musicians since we first got locked down and moves forward as long as we’re stuck where we are.
At the Passover Seder I attended last month, the Four Questions came and went without the usual fanfare. Zoom meetings can be like that. Yet that first question—Why is this night different than all other nights?—struck me with fresh, COVID-era implication.
All questions are newly timely right now.
What does integrity do in the face of adversity / oppression? What does honesty do in the face of lies / deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force?
O’Farrill was moved to consider these questions by the author, activist and theologian Dr. Cornel West, via West’s 2014 speech to a packed house at Seattle’s Town Hall a few days before his 10/13 arrest at the “Moral Monday” Civil Disobedience Actions in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. O’Farrill met West at another protest against police brutality, and again at a symposium where they both spoke. The two got to talking—about shared commitments to social justice and swinging rhythms. O’Farrill ended up composing a piece, which had its premiere performance at The Apollo Theater in 2016, for which his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra was joined by Dr. Cornel West as a guest soloist, conductor, and percussionist. As recorded, “Four Questions,” the centerpiece of an album devoted exclusively to O’Farrill’s compositions, is dense and intense, by turns angry and celebratory; it’s about ancestry, shared inheritances and a common sense of purpose.
O’Farrill typically splits his time between New York City, where he leads the nonprofit organization he founded, the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, and Los Angeles, where directs a program in Global Jazz Studies for UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Now, he’s holed up in L.A. for the foreseeable future. We talked about his collaboration with West, and about what this extended moment means. Continue reading “COVID CONVERSATIONS, Vol. 1: Arturo O’Farrill”
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”
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.
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…”
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”
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”