Beauty is a Rare Thing: Celebrating International Jazz Day (Revisited)

All hope is not lost. At least enough people are still making –and listening to– jazz that we can even attempt to initiate what hopefully becomes an ongoing occasion.

In a piece celebrating one of my heroes, Eric Dolphy, I made an honest attempt to address what jazz music means to me and why I consider it an obligation to share this passion (full piece here):

I know that jazz music has made my life approximately a million times more satisfying and enriching than it would have been had I never been fortunate enough to discover, study and savor it.

During the last 4-5 years, I’ve had (or taken) the opportunity to write in some detail about, to name a relative handful, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, John Zorn, Henry Threadgill and Herbie Hancock. This has been important to me, because I feel that in some small way, if I can help other people better appreciate, or discover any (or all) of these artists, I will be sharing something bigger and better than anything I alone am capable of creating.

Before this blog (and PopMatters, where virtually all of my music writing appears), and during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

I have, in short, done my best to provide context and articulate why some of us continue to worship at this altar of organic American music. Naturally that discussion has included Miles, Mingus, Monk. And of course, Coltrane. With any honest discussion of jazz we can quickly get dragged into an abyss of snobbishness (however unintentional), trivial footnoting and the self-sabotaging desire (however well-intended) to include all the key characters. So for the novice, it’s not necessary to begin at the very beginning. Indeed, it might be advised to get a taste of Coltrane, who is at once accessible and imperative. Here’s my .02:

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Entire piece here. Also, this:

The title of this post comes courtesy of the brilliant Ornette Coleman (speaking of misunderstood geniuses; to call him an iconoclast is like calling Marine Boy a good swimmer). More on him here and a crucial preview of the shape of jazz that came, below:

Jazz is not only fun to listen to (duh), it’s fun to analyze and obsess over. For instance, a short treatise on some of the more sublime sax solos can be found here. A case is made for the best jazz outfit ever assembled, here.

And a loving ode to contemporary jazz (for all the haters who won’t acknowledge it and the uninitiated who are entirely unaware of it). A taste:

What happened next is, again depending on one’s perspective, the languid death march of America’s music or a continuation of an art that seamlessly integrates virtually every noise and culture from around the globe. A certain, and predictable, cadre of critics submerged their heads in the sand and bitched about better days. The awake and aware folks who make and receive these offerings celebrate an ever-evolving music that resists boundaries and is capable of communication transcending language and explanation. At its best it is an ideal synergy of expression and integrity.

Anyone who knows anything understands that some of the best jazz music ever was created in the ’70s (no, really) and a great deal of amazing music was made in the ’80s (seriously). But in the ’90s and into the ’00s we’ve seen jazz music consistently –and successfully– embrace other forms of music (rock, rap, electronica, etc.) and end up somewhere that remains jazz, yet something else altogether. There are myriad examples, of course, but this small sampler of five selections might be illustrative, and enlightening. The uninitiated may be surprised, even astonished, at how alive and accessible this “other” music really is.

One could (and should) say more about artists such as Lester Bowie, Jamie Saft, Marco Benevento, The Bad Plus, Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois and Mostly Other People Do The Killing, all of whom have incorporated our (increasingly) info-overload existence into their sound. Slack-jawed and stale-souled haters may demur at even calling this Jazz, or course. And of course the last laugh is on them because most of these musicians would care less than a little what you call it. They understand that the shape of jazz that came is always turning into what we’ll be listening to tomorrow.

The entire thing, with some very tasty audio samples, here.

For now, this (which does more to convey the ecstasy of improvisation and community, not to mention solidarity and soul, than a billion blog posts ever could):

In the end, jazz is always about now and the wonderful possibilities of tomorrow, but it also achieves what the best music of any genre does, and brings us back, always, to the beginning.

To be continued…

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Keep on Baracking in the Free World: 10 Songs for 4 (More) Years

1. Now’s The Time.

Because, you know, it is.

2. Focus on Sanity

No further comment necessary. Thank you America!!!

3. II B.S.

His name is CHOLLY MINGUS and I approve this message.

4. You Can Make It If You Try

True for our president; true for any of us. Preach it Sly!

5. Walk the Streets of Glory

Right?

6. Hey You

Together we stand, divided we fall…

7. Day After Day

Civil War is raging endlessly, day after day…

8. This Must Be The Place

But I guess I’m already there…

9. Give Blood

Give love and keep blood betweeen brothers…

10. Fight the Fight

We are all fighting the same fight
We are all in the same war
We are all in the same revolution
You got to know what you’re fighting for…

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It’s (Still) Not Only About Obama…Still

Obama is, and always was, a work in progress.

Like any president.

Like any politician.

Like any person.

And he has earned the chance, with the assistance of an invigorated and woefully underestimated base, to continue that work for four more years.

Way back in early 2008, when I decided that Obama was the guy for me, I wrote a piece articulating my choice and why I felt he would make a better president than the then-consensus choice, Hillary Clinton. (You can go read it on the archives, from Feb 08, and realize how far Obama, Hillary and her husband have traveled, all for the better, since then.) The title of the piece was “It’s Not (Only) About Obama. My point was that Obama did not –and did not need to– transform into a human symbol of Hope and Change; it was more than enough that he inspired people to consider concepts like hope and change a possibility. It seems so long ago and far removed, but back then the only thing many people took solace in was the reality that, at worst, George W. Bush would no longer be president come 1/20/09. Much more on that appraisal, and that president, HERE.

Here was the thrust of the piece:

Obama, as all but his more intractable foot soldiers would concede, has some work to do. And frankly, even that is in many ways a relief. Playtime is over and we can’t afford another cocksure child who knows that he has no qualms with not knowing shit. Besides, as we learned from Gore and Kerry, (among other things) policy wonkishness is overrated in campaign season, particularly when the competition is John “100 More Years” McCain. Also, anyone who actually suspects that Obama is, thus far, a triumph of stylish rhetoric over substance is advised to pick up a copy of Dreams from My Father, or take a closer look at his achievements in Illinois or, tellingly, the unassailable success of the campaign he has overseen. The smart money says he is up for the challenge and, crucially, will most certainly surround himself, as intelligent and secure adults tend to do, with intelligent and secure associates.

We know how that turned out. Quite nicely, thank you. (And, lest any newcomers be confused: there has probably been more criticism leveled at the president on this blog the last four years than praise, in part because we expect so much from Obama: we do him and ourselves a disservice to pretend otherwise.) On the occasion of his Nobel Peace Prize the question was begged, by fans and foes: is this too much, too soon? My take is revisited below. For today, Obama has more than made good on the promise he, well, promised. There is still a great deal of work to be done. Fortunately, he seems not only to know this, but has counted on making his presidency a work in progress. One that can be continued four years from today.

obama-superman

The Nobel Peace Prize –and the general sense of optimism and expectation– is not only about Obama. This was true before the election and it’s true now.

In addition to an overdue but thorough repudiation of Republican incompetence, Obama’s landslide was more about the majority than the man. This belabors the obvious, today, but it’s instructive to recall the folks (and there were lots of them) who were convinced of two things back in ’08: one, that Hillary Clinton represented the best chance for Democratic victory; and two, Obama had no chance to win. That he did was not only historic on multiple fronts, but tempted many in the country to reach the optimistic, if premature conclusion that race relations had turned the corner. While it’s obvious that a fair chunk of the population would diametrically oppose Obama no matter what, it only takes a cursory examination of the tactics and tenor of their resistance to understand the bile simmering centimeters beneath the surface. Nevertheless, what some people ascertained early in the Obama/Clinton face-off was that Hillary had the unenviable prospects of having about half the country hate her, before she even took office. At least it’s taken Obama a few months of not miraculously resuscitating the economy he inherited (even Superman, for all his unparalleled powers, was not able to create jobs) to earn some skepticism. But his ability to appeal to the moderates and middle-of-the-roaders was the key ingredient of his electoral success. And that possibility, beyond the charisma and the eloquence, was what propelled the audacity to hope.

Naturally, news of Obama’s Nobel Prize is going to explode the empty heads of the haters, but it will also give the mouth-breathers a new outrage to rally around. Let’s stop and pause at the irony: for the better part of eight years Dems worked themselves into a lather with every new Bush embarrassment; for the past eight months each Obama accolade is treated like an act of treason. Actually, there is not much irony there at all –the same idiots who held their breath like infants during the Clinton years (years that look better and better in hindsight) and marched lockstep with every Bush decision that set the country back, now throwing tea-party tantrums while Obama tries to clean up the playpen he inherited.

Tea_party_2

To be fair, whoever was willing (much less able) to tackle the myriad obstacles Bush & Co. left in the way is worthy of an award. But let there be no mistake: Obama’s honor is very much a repudiation of Bush’s hideous legacy. And if this is seen by the howling twits on the Right as a big “F You” from the rest of the world, it’s small recompense for the eight year “F You” the previous administration offered the world, to everyone’s detriment. (Speaking of those twits, enough can’t be said about how eagerly they seek to place our foreign and domestic disasters at Obama’s feet even though they vocally endorsed the decisions that led to this state of affairs.)

And that is the most disgraceful development: I’ve yet to hear many condemnations of the demonstrably failed policies of the Bush years. That is because there have been very few of them. Most of the post-mortems have appraised the political failures. And therein lies the rub: Bush stopped being popular and more importantly, Bush stopped winning, therefore his legacy is tarnished in the fickle, always opportunistic eyes of those who once ardently endorsed him. The actual recklessness and depravity of the policies have not been reevaluated or disowned; indeed, their supporters have doubled down on them (see last year’s election).

To be certain, the hardcore right-wing offered tepid support for McCain not only because he was such a woefully inadequate candidate (that is the sane view; the insider GOP view was that he had no chance to win, therefore his embrace by the powers-that-be was never more than lukewarm) but also that he wasn’t a real Republican. He sought compromise and he was viewed as too often too willing to work with the other party to get things accomplished. This shows you the diminishing returns of bipartisanship, circa Y2K: McCain’s scarcely heroic public stance against torture or his reluctance to offer full-throated support to the cretinous scaremongering that passes for Republican discourse on immigration hardly made him a moderate. But in today’s GOP, it does. And that is why Obama was elected, and why –despite the predictable and appalling fecklessness of so many elected Democrats — the Republican brand is at a nadir of sorts (don’t mistake the millions of citizens disgusted by the Wall Street shenanigans or the unemployment numbers –directly brought about by Bush’s domestic policies — as any sort of endorsement of a return to Republican rule).

bush-shoe-dodge

It is imperative to recognize, and point out as often as necessary, that the same sadists pulling the strings in the not-so-big GOP tent are mostly angry and embarrassed because they got beaten last November. There has been nothing approximating a concerned or sober investigation of what went so dreadfully wrong as a result of bellicose foreign policy, the reckless (and expensive) launch of an unnecessary war, or the thoroughly debunked and shameful worship of free-market, voodoo economics. In this regard what passes for the Republican intelligentsia is quite identical to the flat-earth imbeciles who insist, even as the evidence otherwise piles up all around them, that Jesus was white and dinosaurs ambled about the Garden of Eden and the world is only a few thousand years old.

Even now, as unemployment numbers rise alongside escalating health care costs, you have right-wing scribes advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest half-percent and an intolerance for reform that undercuts the very principle of free market economics (Is it not a self-defeating argument that the same party who clamors for the inviolable advantages of competition suddenly opposes it in this one instance? Is it not more than a little revealing that the same big government they ridicule suddenly poses such a menacing threat to the insurance industry?) This is the one argument that reveals the hollow core of the Republican machinery: if any of these folks actually believed in the economic principles they espouse, they would reluctantly have no choice but to acknowledge that the public option epitomizes the theory of market competition in practice. But, naturally, the ideology can be adjusted as necessary (just like the anti-deficit hawks made no noise when the Iraq debacle and the immoral tax cut policy put the entire country deep into the red), and this brazen hypocrisy makes it impossible to ever take these people seriously, if anyone ever did.

In regards to foreign policy –and it is in this capacity that Obama is inspiring the world community, and the impetus behind his Nobel Prize– it is tempting to simply propose that any developments that rankle the rogues gallery below is inherently worthwhile.

Cheney bolton krauthammer

Look at those faces again, and remember what they wrought. Just getting these sociopaths out of positions of power and influence is a substantial accomplishment.

On the other hand:

guantanamo us_war_deaths_coffins_DoD don't ask

Those images are a sobering reminder of where we’ve been, and where we still are.

The most patient (and/or gullible) Obama endorsers keep reminding us that the president has a lot on his plate, and this much-vaunted change will take time. Okay, so how much time does he need? This is the same man who vowed to shut down Guantanamo on Day One, and end the farce known as “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”. The fierce urgency of now quickly became the urgent ferocity of political ass-covering. And it would be one thing if the people Obama was inclined to infuriate (and they will be infuriated) represented anything approximating a majority, or anything more than a small minority. As it is, he’s avoiding making easy, sane and moral decisions to…appease the same lunatics who are already calling him a traitor and a socialist? It makes about as much sense as Michelle Bachmann.

And it is because of his extreme caution, and his infuriating equivocations on such no-brainers as gay marriage that the concern about Obama’s Nobel Prize is warranted. Not the superficial and trumped up consternation from the Right; but rather, the creeping skepticism on those from the Left (those who just today were dismissed by a typically anonymous chickenshit inside the administration as the “fringe left”). Talk about biting the hands that pulled the lever for you! I understand –somewhat– Obama’s foot-dragging on Guantanamo (perhaps once the health care debate is mostly sorted out it will be time to fight that battle, albeit way too late), but his cowardice on equal rights for all citizens is unconscionable and indefensible. It would be lame enough if this was a demographically polarizing issue (as it was during Clinton’s first term) but the fact that a majority of the people are behind this long overdue action makes Obama’s sluggishness a disgrace.

president-elect-obama-be-the-change-poster

And there are some of us who are mortified by the prospect that Obama is now standing on the shoulders of his most loyal supporters to fortify his bulwark of prudent calculation. That is not what he was elected for, and it will be an unacceptable turn of events if, not a year into his first term, he is already more worried about his second term than the promises he made to get him in office. It’s almost enough to make one wish for the tooth and nail trench warfare we might have expected from a Hillary Clinton one-and-done term in office (because don’t kid yourself, Hillary would never have a chance at re-election, in part because she would exhaust all of her political capital just staying afloat, yet that 24/7 offensive might provide the required ferocity to affect some meaningful change). Put another way, I’d much rather have a bruising and contentious four year term that actually yielded some change we can believe in than eight years of triangulated calculation, unfulfilled promise and sweet but ultimately empty rhetoric.

Perhaps a wake-up call is necessary: Obama, by all evidence, is a moderate, and he has said and done little to convince anyone otherwise. And if this is the best we can expect, it’s unfortunate but far from the end of the world (again, always keep in mind the alternatives the other party had on offer, and by all accounts is still offering). I’m still mostly content to hang back and reserve judgment and consider both the man and his presidency a work in progress. Concern is, to my mind, entirely warranted and a good measure of healthy skepticism is required. And yet. Considering, once again, the almost inconceivable cataclysm he walked into, and the fact that we are –by any mature measure– much better off than we could (or would) have been, there’s no need for the Dems to eat their own, as usual. Not yet. We have the luxury of keeping Obama accountable in part because he didn’t let us fall off the cliff this year. And that is quite worth keeping front and center in the year(s) ahead. Also, for all we know, events that are underway and far from fruition could turn out to be both historic and heroic, in hindsight. We’ll see. My bet is that the president will more than earn this premature encomium in the hard years ahead.

Nonetheless, if Obama is half the man History is setting him up to be, he is right to be humbled and he would do well to dedicate all of his energy and eloquence toward making good on the promises he already made. We can hope for more, but we should expect no less.

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The Shape of Jazz That Came…(Revisited)

1959 was a watershed year for jazz music (arguably the greatest single year for jazz in all history–which is saying a lot). Here’s a taste: Miles Davis Kind of Blue, John Coltrane Giant Steps, Charles Mingus Ah Um. That is like the holy trinity of jazz music; all from the same year. But in the not-so-silent shadows a young, relatively unknown alto saxophonist was poised to cause a stir that still reverberates today: Ornette Coleman’s provocatively titled The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Kind of Blue is correctly celebrated for establishing modal music, and a genuine evolution from bop and post-bop; Giant Steps is the apotheosis of the “sheets of sound” that John Coltrane had been practicing and perfecting for a decade; Ah Um is an encyclopedic history of jazz music, covering everyone and everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington. And each of those albums were immediately embraced, and remain recognized as genuine milestones today. But The Shape of Jazz to Come was incendiary and complicated: it inspired as much resistance as it did inspiration. Some folks (Mingus included) bristled that it was all so much sound and fury, signifying…little. But what Coleman (along with trumpet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins — representing as solid a quartet as any that have made music, ever) achieved was, arguably, the most significant advancement since Charlie Parker hit the scene.

Of course, Parker was also misunderstood and dismissed when his frenetic, almost incomprehensibly advanced alto saxophone assault began to cause scales to drop from audiences’ eyes — if not their ears. Like any genuine iconoclasts of the avant garde, Parker and Coleman were not being new for newness sake; they had to fully grasp and master the idiom before they could transcend it. Tellingly, what was revolutionary and almost confrontational, then, seems rather tame and entirely sensible, now. Of course, it didn’t take 50 years for Coleman to resonate: he not only found his audience, John Coltrane –the all-time heavyweight champion– embraced his compatriot. He endorsed, and, crucially, he imitated. The Book of Revelation that Coltrane’s mid-’60s Impulse recordings comprise did, in many respects, grow directly out of the opening salvo fired by Coleman in ’59.

Flash forward ten years. Miles Davis was once again at the vanguard, nonchalantly picking up the baton dropped when free-jazz avatars Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane had their comet-like lives come crashing, way prematurely, to earth. By ’69, Miles had “plugged in”, augmented his quintet and went about the inconsequential task of changing music (again). To say that his endeavors were met with similar resistance as those of Coleman a decade before is putting it mildly. Indeed, while Ornette was eventually recognized, even lionized (witness his most-deserved 2007 Pulitzer for the masterful Sound Grammar ), the work Miles did in the late ’60s and early ’70s was met with a combination of incredulity, indifference and outright hostility (it also was warmly embraced by people with the ears to hear it). Much more on this era and the culmination of his experimentations which resulted in Bitches Brew, very shortly (stay tuned).

Suffice it to say, Miles led the charge that led to, depending upon one’s point of view, a radical expansion of jazz music’s possibilities or its lamentable bastardization. Certainly the (inevitable, unfortunate) proliferation of watered down fusion which resulted in the artistic stillbirth known as Smooth Jazz has little (if anything) to do with the shock heard ’round the world that Miles sounded off circa 1970.

What happened next is, again depending on one’s perspective, the languid death march of America’s music or a continuation of an art that seamlessly integrates virtually every noise and culture from around the globe. A certain, and predictable, cadre of critics submerged their heads in the sand and bitched about better days. The awake and aware folks who make and receive these offerings celebrate an ever-evolving music that resists boundaries and is capable of communication transcending language and explanation. At its best it is an ideal synergy of expression and integrity.

Anyone who knows anything understands that some of the best jazz music ever was created in the ’70s (no, really) and a great deal of amazing music was made in the ’80s (seriously). But in the ’90s and into the ’00s we’ve seen jazz music consistently –and successfully– embrace other forms of music (rock, rap, electronica, etc.) and end up somewhere that remains jazz, yet something else altogether. There are myriad examples, of course, but this small sampler of five selections might be illustrative, and enlightening. The uninitiated may be surprised, even astonished, at how alive and accessible this “other” music really is.

One could (and should) say more about artists such as Lester Bowie, Jamie Saft, Marco Benevento, The Bad Plus, Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois and Mostly Other People Do The Killing, all of whom have incorporated our (increasingly) info-overload existence into their sound. Slack-jawed and stale-souled haters may demur at even calling this Jazz, or course. And of course the last laugh is on them because most of these musicians would care less than a little what you call it. They understand that the shape of jazz that came is always turning into what we’ll be listening to tomorrow.

1. DJ Spooky (with William Parker, Joe McPhee and Guillermo E. Brown), “ibid, desmarches, ibid” (from Optometry):

2. Material, “Black Light” (from Hallucination Engine):

3. Matthew Shipp, “Cohesion” (from Equilibrium):

4. John Zorn, “Giù La Testa (Duck You Sucker!)” (from The Big Gundown):

5. Medeski, Martin and Wood (with DJ Logic), “Start-Stop” (from Combustication):

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Beauty is a Rare Thing: Celebrating International Jazz Day

All hope is not lost. At least enough people are still making –and listening to– jazz that we can even attempt to initiate what hopefully becomes an ongoing occasion.

In a piece celebrating one of my heroes, Eric Dolphy, I made an honest attempt to address what jazz music means to me and why I consider it an obligation to share this passion (full piece here):

I know that jazz music has made my life approximately a million times more satisfying and enriching than it would have been had I never been fortunate enough to discover, study and savor it.

During the last 4-5 years, I’ve had (or taken) the opportunity to write in some detail about, to name a relative handful, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, John Zorn, Henry Threadgill and Herbie Hancock. This has been important to me, because I feel that in some small way, if I can help other people better appreciate, or discover any (or all) of these artists, I will be sharing something bigger and better than anything I alone am capable of creating.

Before this blog (and PopMatters, where virtually all of my music writing appears), and during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

I have, in short, done my best to provide context and articulate why some of us continue to worship at this altar of organic American music. Naturally that discussion has included Miles, Mingus, Monk. And of course, Coltrane. With any honest discussion of jazz we can quickly get dragged into an abyss of snobbishness (however unintentional), trivial footnoting and the self-sabotaging desire (however well-intended) to include all the key characters. So for the novice, it’s not necessary to begin at the very beginning. Indeed, it might be advised to get a taste of Coltrane, who is at once accessible and imperative. Here’s my .02:

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Entire piece here. Also, this:

The title of this post comes courtesy of the brilliant Ornette Coleman (speaking of misunderstood geniuses; to call him an iconoclast is like calling Marine Boy a good swimmer). More on him here and a crucial preview of the shape of jazz that came, below:

Jazz is not only fun to listen to (duh), it’s fun to analyze and obsess over. For instance, a short treatise on some of the more sublime sax solos can be found here. A case is made for the best jazz outfit ever assembled, here.

And a loving ode to contemporary jazz (for all the haters who won’t acknowledge it and the uninitiated who are entirely unaware of it). A taste:

What happened next is, again depending on one’s perspective, the languid death march of America’s music or a continuation of an art that seamlessly integrates virtually every noise and culture from around the globe. A certain, and predictable, cadre of critics submerged their heads in the sand and bitched about better days. The awake and aware folks who make and receive these offerings celebrate an ever-evolving music that resists boundaries and is capable of communication transcending language and explanation. At its best it is an ideal synergy of expression and integrity.

Anyone who knows anything understands that some of the best jazz music ever was created in the ’70s (no, really) and a great deal of amazing music was made in the ’80s (seriously). But in the ’90s and into the ’00s we’ve seen jazz music consistently –and successfully– embrace other forms of music (rock, rap, electronica, etc.) and end up somewhere that remains jazz, yet something else altogether. There are myriad examples, of course, but this small sampler of five selections might be illustrative, and enlightening. The uninitiated may be surprised, even astonished, at how alive and accessible this “other” music really is.

One could (and should) say more about artists such as Lester Bowie, Jamie Saft, Marco Benevento, The Bad Plus, Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois and Mostly Other People Do The Killing, all of whom have incorporated our (increasingly) info-overload existence into their sound. Slack-jawed and stale-souled haters may demur at even calling this Jazz, or course. And of course the last laugh is on them because most of these musicians would care less than a little what you call it. They understand that the shape of jazz that came is always turning into what we’ll be listening to tomorrow.

The entire thing, with some very tasty audio samples, here.

For now, this (which does more to convey the ecstasy of improvisation and community, not to mention solidarity and soul, than a billion blog posts ever could):

In the end, jazz is always about now and the wonderful possibilities of tomorrow, but it also achieves what the best music of any genre does, and brings us back, always, to the beginning.

To be continued…

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part Five: The (Ongoing) Evolution of a Masterpiece

1959 was a watershed year for jazz music (arguably the greatest single year for jazz in all history–which is saying a lot). Here’s a taste: Miles Davis Kind of Blue, John Coltrane Giant Steps, Charles Mingus Ah Um. That is like the holy trinity of jazz music; all from the same year. But in the not-so-silent shadows a young, relatively unknown alto saxophonist was poised to cause a stir that still reverberates today: Ornette Coleman’s provocatively titled The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Kind of Blue is correctly celebrated for establishing modal music, and a genuine evolution from bop and post-bop; Giant Steps is the apotheosis of the “sheets of sound” that John Coltrane had been practicing and perfecting for a decade; Ah Um is an encyclopedic history of jazz music, covering everyone and everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington. And each of those albums were immediately embraced, and remain recognized as genuine milestones today. But The Shape of Jazz to Come was incendiary and complicated: it inspired as much resistance as it did inspiration. Some folks (Mingus included) bristled that it was all so much sound and fury, signifying…little. But what Coleman (along with trumpet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins — representing as solid a quartet as any that have made music, ever) achieved was, arguably, the most significant advancement since Charlie Parker hit the scene.

Of course, Parker was also misunderstood and dismissed when his frenetic, almost incomprehensibly advanced alto saxophone assault began to cause scales to drop from audiences’ eyes — if not their ears. Like any genuine iconoclasts of the avant garde, Parker and Coleman were not being new for newness sake; they had to fully grasp and master the idiom before they could transcend it. Tellingly, what was revolutionary and almost confrontational, then, seems rather tame and entirely sensible, now. Of course, it didn’t take 50 years for Coleman to resonate: he not only found his audience, John Coltrane –the all-time heavyweight champion– embraced his compatriot. He endorsed, and, crucially, he imitated. The Book of Revelation that Coltrane’s mid-’60s Impulse recordings comprise did, in many respects, grow directly out of the opening salvo fired by Coleman in ’59.

Perhaps the best known tune of the six originals is the opening track, “Lonely Woman”. It’s been established as a standard and has been covered by artists ranging from Billy Bang to Branford Marsalis (both of these efforts, incidentally, are sprawling, impressionistic extensions of the original; if the original is impossible to improve upon, both of these artists took Coleman’s diamond and added grit, depth and layers of feeling). “Lonely Woman” is, suffice it to say, a touchstone that myriad jazz musicians reference, turn to and worship, for understandable reasons.

Why? It is an uncanny composition, deceptively simple and almost unbearably emotional. In fact, I’m not sure I could think of another jazz performance that captures the visceral nature of human pain so poignantly. Of course it’s much more than that: as the title suggests, it certainly gives voice to a person in distress; it also conveys a more universal expression –one that is very vulnerable and distinctly personal. It achieves what our best art aspires to: an invocation of real experience, which is then enlarged and elevated so that it is at once part of us and much bigger than any one of us is capable of being. It renders perfect and profound what is so often otherwise flawed and feeble: our attempts to articulate what we most love and fear –especially when no one else is around.

So: here are three versions spanning five decades. The first, and indelible original from O.C. The second, a somewhat whimsical homage from John Zorn. Finally, the amazing Dave Liebman utilizing the wood flute to bring an added sense of adventure and exotica. It is this last version that reminds me, again, that every time we may think we’ve heard everything or imagined anything worth thinking about, there are sensitive and brilliant souls amongst us who are capable of making us see the world with new ears.

Ornette Coleman (1959):

John Zorn (1989):

David Liebman (2010):

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part Four: Separating The Best of The Best

Best sax solos ever?

That is kind of like choosing the best sunset; it’s impossible.

But some do stand out apart from the rest, and beauty is always in the ears of the behearer.

5. John Coltrane: “The Last Blues”.

Of course it would be possible to make a list without including Coltrane; it just wouldn’t feel right. His entire career is an extended highlight reel, a hall-of-fame enshrinement in real time. Also, as at least one person has opined, no one has ever done anything as well as John Coltrane played the saxophone.

Even on tunes like “Russian Lullaby” (arguably the apotheosis of his famous “sheets of sound”) or “Countdown” (where, after having learned to fly, he finally broke the sound barrier), other players get a say, however briefly. On “The Last Blues” it’s all Trane from start to stop, and even though Elvin Jones is in typical form, dropping sonic booms from every conceivable angle, this is Trane preaching from the mountaintop: this is the tide crashing and receding –and everything in between.

*Update. The clip from YouTube has been removed, so find a copy of “The Last Blues” any way you can and in the meantime, savor some prime sheets of sound from the wonderful ‘SoulTrane’.

4. Jackie McLean: “Plight”.

For my money, probably the single-most underrated musician in jazz history. Listen: the streak Jackie Mac went on from the late ’50s to the late ’60s can stand toe-to-toe with what anyone else has done in any era; just one masterpiece after another. Also, Dr. Jackyll discovered –and promoted– more amazing young talent than anyone not named Miles Davis or Art Blakey.

“Plight” is from his enthusiastically recommended album Action, featuring as solid a line-up as Blue Note ever boasted: Cecil McBee on bass, the estimable (and also severely under-appreciated) Charles Tolliver –who composed most of the material– on trumpet, “Smiling” Billy Higgins (who is without any question on the short list of all-time great jazz drummers) and, added bonus, the incomparable Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. Add Mac’s alto, at once searing and then soothing, and you have a tune that can –and should– convert anyone with the slightest bit of sense, or soul. This also is just about as cool as it gets.

3. Charles Mingus: “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”.

It’s not just that I’ll take any opportunity available to discuss Charles Mingus (I will); it’s that he can’t be talked about enough. He was sufficiently god-like in his time that he always was able to assemble top-tier talent; part of his enduring legacy (aside from his musicianship and compositional prowess) is that he consistently got the best performances out of so many of the men he employed. Simply put, too many great players to count did their finest work on sessions led by Mingus.

From the immortal Mingus Ah Um, this is an homage to the recently departed Lester Young. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a clever and affectionate reference to Young’s signature style of headwear) became an immediate standard and has been much-covered since its inception. The tune is justly celebrated for John Handy’s sublime tenor sax solo: his flutter-tongued phrasing performs a duet with Mingus’s bass in the song’s middle section that sounds like subdued teardrops; the emotional impact and clarity of purpose is unforgettable. Teo Macero’s production throughout is impeccable, but on this particular tune one can be forgiven for thinking Lester was smiling down on the proceedings.

2. Ornette Coleman: “Civilization Day”.

This one is for all the uninformed haters. Black beret this, bitches.

Punk rock? Please. This shit makes that slop sound like what it mostly was: a bunch of spindly misfits playing their instruments poorly but passionately. Child’s play, musically speaking. This is the truth that a whole lot of people can’t handle. In part, because it makes so much other material sound like little boys playing with toy soldiers. This is a report from the frontlines, with real bullets flying and the sort of shrapnel that gets stuck in your soul. Can you dig it?

As Charlie Haden and (the aforementioned) Billy Higgins double-time the soundtrack of the end of the world as we know it (try to wrap your mind around what is happening during the 4:36-4:51 section), Coleman remains impossibly calm and collected, because that’s how he’s always rolled. In his own elegant way he makes a compelling case for why the skies of America shouldn’t come crashing down on a 20th Century spun all out of control. You don’t need to try and understand what he’s saying; just be thankful that he said it.

1. Sonny Rollins: “East Broadway Rundown”.

Sonny. One of the last still-living links to the great old days. Like Coltrane (and every other player on this particular list), it is too easy to pick a representative solo –which makes it difficult to isolate just one.

So it seems a bit appropriate to choose one from the album where Rollins “borrowed” Coltrane’s rhythm section (Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones). A special guest appearance from the remarkable Freddie Hubbard (who also augmented the collective genius on Coltrane’s Ole Coltrane disc) makes this one of the seminal recordings of the ’60s.

Along with the epic side-long “Freedom Suite” this title track represents Rollins doing an extended improv in the studio, and in many ways it remains his most satisfying, if unorthodox performance. Rollins was not as quick to embrace the free jazz ethos as his compatriots, Coltrane and Coleman were, but once he let his guard down he proved, once again, that he could be the best at whatever he set his mind to doing.

Perhaps the most notable playing Rollins does here occurs when, having seemingly taken the instrument as far as he can take it, Sonny starts blowing through his mouthpiece (!!). The resulting sounds are many things: spooky, surreal, unsettling and awe-inspiring. Nothing else anyone has ever done sounds anything like this, and it’s ceaselessly exciting to hear Garrison and Jones hold down the fort while Sonny leaves the room for a while and goes to that sacred other place where very few artists are capable of going.

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Bill Evans: The Definitive Bill Evans on Riverside and Fantasy

The way the piano was played, like almost everything else in jazz, changed during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. With a new crop of young virtuosos churning out one momentous work after another, the piano arguably reached a level of prominence that was never duplicated. It was during these years when legends like McCoy Tyner (who also famously worked with John Coltrane) and Herbie Hancock (who also famously worked with Miles Davis) established themselves as major figures on the scene.

While there were plenty of other notable players who made their mark (and icons like Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk who had each already taken the instrument to unprecedented levels of brilliance and glory), Bill Evans is one of the most important, if somewhat overlooked, geniuses in jazz history. This is in part because, despite the universal and enduring appeal and praise his work engenders, his personal story generally lacks the drama and mystique so inextricably associated with many (if not most) of the jazz icons of that era. Indeed, everything about Evans could easily, if facilely be described as understated. Everything, that is, except for his legacy and influence. Indelible, in his way, as Coltrane or Coleman, Evans helped instigate a calm and very cool revolution that subtly but unquestionably helped shape the jazz that came.

Certain words are invariably used when discussing Evans, and they are often meant well: introspective, intellectual, impressionistic, serene, understated. These descriptions, however genuine their intent, are inadequate. Think about how frequently the words quirky or irreverent are used in discussions of Monk or the words bombastic or passionate are used to describe Mingus. In each of these instances, the man’s craft and complexity gets shortchanged.

Much rightly gets said about Evans and the impact he had on piano, but not enough is perhaps said about how musicians, regardless of what instrument they played, were profoundly impacted by his style. Not for nothing was his second album as leader—and first masterpiece—entitled Everybody Digs Bill Evans. Evans remains a challenge for any writer who hopes to avoid uncritical acclaim or worse, cliché. The reality is that the depth of feeling and emotion in his work is difficult to adequately convey, but it’s all there in the recordings. The Definitive Bill Evans on Riverside and Fantasy does a commendable job of assembling, on two discs, some of his most memorable and important work.

Bill Evans, whose life was abbreviated as the result of extended drug abuse, made music in three decades, but it his work in the last years of the ‘50s and the first years of the ‘60s that garners the most discussion and approbation. No serious jazz collection can be considered complete without copies of the aforementioned Everybody Digs Bill Evans, as well as Portrait In Jazz, Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard. The last three, all recorded with Paul Motian (drums) and Scott LaFaro (bass) as part of the Bill Evans trio, represent high points not only in Evans’s career, but in all of jazz.

Before forming his first—and best—trio, Evans had already made a considerable impression. Even before his revolutionary work on Kind of Blue (1959), Evans had played on Charles Mingus’s minor masterpiece East Coasting (1957). He would later make contributions on some of the crucial albums of the ‘60s, including George Russell’s Jazz in the Space Age (1960) and Oliver Nelson’s  The Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961). It is possible that Evans would warrant discussion even if he had only recorded “Peace Piece”, a solo piece from Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958). Not only is it a perfectly realized composition, it is an ideal point of entry for the Evans aesthetic. The second selection on this set, following “Speak Low” (from his debut New Jazz Conceptions), “Peace Piece” is an early culmination of the type of sound Evans was working toward. This was, not coincidentally, during the same time he was employed by Miles Davis. Both men, circa 1958, were bored with convention and obsessed with freedom. The aim was to elevate feeling above all else; to achieve an unfettered, inevitable style that could only be the result of seamless improvisation. This, of course, is only possible through the result of ceaseless practice and reflection.

The masterworks ensued. Those trio albums continue to be cited by critics and musicians alike. The almost telepathic interplay achieved a pinnacle of sorts for the form. Jazz history is, unfortunately, replete with truncated careers, but the Bill Evans Trio must be ranked near the top of this dubious list of what-might-have-beens. When Scott LaFaro died in a car accident, jazz lost one of its best bass players, and the trio instantly became another tantalizing story interrupted by tragedy. Like Charles Mingus after Eric Dolphy died, Evans was inconsolable. It could be proposed, for understandable reasons, that this was a loss he could never fully recover from.

His supporting cast changed often during the next decade and a half, but Evans continued to make remarkable music. It’s his work after the trio, and all through the ‘70s, that tends to get short shrift. This collection does a commendable job showcasing how productive and significant he remained, right up to his death in 1980. Songs from more than a dozen subsequent albums are collected (one from each), providing a more than adequate sampler of lesser-known Evans. Some highlights have to include the spectacular “Medley: ‘Spartacus Love Theme’/Nardis” (from The Solo Sessions, Vol. 1), “On Green Dolphin Street” (from The Tokyo Concert), “Re: Person I Knew” (from Re: Person I Knew) and “The Touch of Your Lips” (from Alone (Again)).

This collection may serve as a timely refresher course for the fans, but it is an ideal primer for would-be enthusiasts. If you are among that latter group, pick this up without reservation or delay. Allow the rest of us to envy you for being on the verge of falling under the spell of Bill Evans for the first time. Enjoy the journey; it will last the rest of your life.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/144375-bill-evans-the-definitive-bill-evans-on-riverside-and-fantasy/

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Three From O.C.

I’ve had some things to say about the indescribable Ornette Coleman, and at some point, I’m sure I’ll say more.

But what can (should) one really say when it comes to the original O.C.?

Nothing that he hasn’t already said for himself, in his inimitably harmolodic way.

One from the ’70s:

One from the ’80s:

One from the 00’s(!!):

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The Shape of Jazz That Came…

 

 1959 was a watershed year for jazz music (arguably the greatest single year for jazz in all history–which is saying a lot). Here’s a taste: Miles Davis Kind of Blue, John Coltrane Giant Steps, Charles Mingus Ah Um. That is like the holy trinity of jazz music; all from the same year. But in the not-so-silent shadows a young, relatively unknown alto saxophonist was poised to cause a stir that still reverberates today: Ornette Coleman’s provocatively titled The Shape of Jazz to Come

Kind of Blue is correctly celebrated for establishing modal music, and a genuine evolution from bop and post-bop; Giant Steps is the apotheosis of the “sheets of sound” that John Coltrane had been practicing and perfecting for a decade; Ah Um is an encyclopedic history of jazz music, covering everyone and everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington. And each of those albums were immediately embraced, and remain recognized as genuine milestones today. But The Shape of Jazz to Come was incendiary and complicated: it inspired as much resistance as it did inspiration. Some folks (Mingus included) bristled that it was all so much sound and fury, signifying…little. But what Coleman (along with trumpet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins — representing as solid a quartet as any that have made music, ever) achieved was, arguably, the most significant advancement since Charlie Parker hit the scene.

Of course, Parker was also misunderstood and dismissed when his frenetic, almost incomprehensibly advanced alto saxophone assault began to cause scales to drop from audiences’ eyes — if not their ears. Like any genuine iconoclasts of the avant garde, Parker and Coleman were not being new for newness sake; they had to fully grasp and master the idiom before they could transcend it. Tellingly, what was revolutionary and almost confrontational, then, seems rather tame and entirely sensible, now. Of course, it didn’t take 50 years for Coleman to resonate: he not only found his audience, John Coltrane –the all-time heavyweight champion– embraced his compatriot. He endorsed, and, crucially, he imitated. The Book of Revelation that Coltrane’s mid-’60s Impulse recordings comprise did, in many respects, grow directly out of the opening salvo fired by Coleman in ’59.

 

Flash forward ten years. Miles Davis was once again at the vanguard, nonchalantly picking up the baton dropped when free-jazz avatars Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane had their comet-like lives come crashing, way prematurely, to earth. By ’69, Miles had “plugged in”, augmented his quintet and went about the inconsequential task of changing music (again). To say that his endeavors were met with similar resistance as those of Coleman a decade before is putting it mildly. Indeed, while Ornette was eventually recognized, even lionized (witness his most-deserved 2007 Pulitzer for the masterful Sound Grammar ), the work Miles did in the late ’60s and early ’70s was met with a combination of incredulity, indifference and outright hostility (it also was warmly embraced by people with the ears to hear it). Much more on this era and the culmination of his experimentations which resulted in Bitches Brew, very shortly (stay tuned).

Suffice it to say, Miles led the charge that led to, depending upon one’s point of view, a radical expansion of jazz music’s possibilities or its lamentable bastardization. Certainly the (inevitable, unfortunate) proliferation of watered down fusion which resulted in the artistic stillbirth known as Smooth Jazz has little (if anything) to do with the shock heard ’round the world that Miles sounded off circa 1970.

What happened next is, again depending on one’s perspective, the languid death march of America’s music or a continuation of an art that seamlessly integrates virtually every noise and culture from around the globe. A certain, and predictable, cadre of critics submerged their heads in the sand and bitched about better days. The awake and aware folks who make and receive these offerings celebrate an ever-evolving music that resists boundaries and is capable of communication transcending language and explanation. At its best it is an ideal synergy of expression and integrity.

Anyone who knows anything understands that some of the best jazz music ever was created in the ’70s (no, really) and a great deal of amazing music was made in the ’80s (seriously). But in the ’90s and into the ’00s we’ve seen jazz music consistently –and successfully– embrace other forms of music (rock, rap, electronica, etc.) and end up somewhere that remains jazz, yet something else altogether. There are myriad examples, of course, but this small sampler of five selections might be illustrative, and enlightening. The uninitiated may be surprised, even astonished, at how alive and accessible this “other” music really is.

One could (and should) say more about artists such as Lester Bowie, Jamie Saft, Marco Benevento, The Bad Plus, Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois and Mostly Other People Do The Killing, all of whom have incorporated our (increasingly) info-overload existence into their sound. Slack-jawed and stale-souled haters may demur at even calling this Jazz, or course. And of course the last laugh is on them because most of these musicians would care less than a little what you call it. They understand that the shape of jazz that came is always turning into what we’ll be listening to tomorrow.

1. DJ Spooky (with William Parker, Joe McPhee and Guillermo E. Brown), “ibid, desmarches, ibid” (from Optometry):

2. Material, “Black Light” (from Hallucination Engine):

3. Matthew Shipp, “Cohesion” (from Equilibrium):

4. John Zorn, “Giù La Testa (Duck You Sucker!)” (from The Big Gundown):

5. Medeski, Martin and Wood (with DJ Logic), “Start-Stop” (from Combustication):

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