10 for NYC by 10, on 9/11

art-kane-jazz-portrait-harlem-new-york-1958

New York City would be unimaginable without jazz, and vice versa.

Here then is a tribute for –and by– several musicians who help define and celebrate the cultural mecca of our known universe. On a day like today, it seems appropriate and right to acknowledge the artists that express the pain, grief, joy and delight –those things that comprise this fleet, miraculous time we have together. Their music is a living celebration of life, and a testament to what the best among us are capable of delivering.

How about four from the old guard, five from the new(er) guard and a final one from the epitome of so much of what makes The Big Apple such a special, truly incomparable place?

Kick it off with the king: Charles Mingus, one of his many (many) tributes to the amazing city that coursed through the blood pumping his huge heart:

(If you are new to this blog you may not know that I have a slight reverence for Chazz Mingus. More on that here.)

Put plainly: Arguably, no single musician was able to get the most out of this medium –at once celebrating every aspect of its history and potential, as well as incorporating other types of music and sound– as Charles Mingus did. Irascible, insatiable, indefatigable: his bass was his bull-horn and his compositional prowess (second-only to Duke Ellington) towers over the second-half of the century and casts an intimidating, all-encompassing shadow over anything anyone will subsequently come up with. He was that good, that huge, that immutable. And his music is infectious: it doesn’t require advanced degrees or a special cultural acumen to pick up what he’s putting down. Yes, he was political (and, as George Orwell famously declared, the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude); yes he was often angry (imagine being a black man in the 1950s; imagine being a genius in America, at any time); yes he was intense. His passions fed his muse –and vice versa– and his imagination created some of the most ecstatic sounds you’ll ever enjoy. He willed himself to be heard and he refused to be silenced. His life, like Melville’s, was part and parcel of what we like to think we’re thinking about when we think about the American Dream, and all that this entails.

A scorcher from Sonny Rollins (more on him here, but here is the bottom line: The last century blessed America with more than a handful of geniuses whose lives and work will be studied and appreciated many, many centuries after they are gone. Rollins is most definitely on the short list of masters who can teach us a great deal about ourselves and how we should aspire to be, and in the process, as all great art inevitably does, make that life quest immeasurably richer and more enjoyable in the process).

Another native son, and icon we will appreciate as long as we have ears to hear (and his sidemen each, in turn, crank out some of the best solos ever caught on tape: first trumpet fire from Freddie Hubbard, then the most bad-ass bass solo from Jimmy Garrison and the typical roaring thunder from the mighty Elvin Jones):

Slowing it down, a tear-jerking tribute from the gentlest of giants, John Coltrane.

(A lot more on him here. My quick .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.)

And lest we forget, the man who took one of the biggest bites out of that apple, Miles Davis. (He needs little introduction, but if you are as yet unitiated, take care of that as soon as possible. Check it: Here was a man that could have coasted on a richly-deserved reputation, and even if he’d never strayed far from the formula he perfected in the mid-‘50s, or late ‘50s, or mid-‘60s (get the picture?), he would have undoubtedly made remarkable music. Of course, Miles scoffed at the notion of playing it safe, and constantly created challenges for himself. Like any exceptional artist, Miles was restless and did not (or could not allow himself to) care about yesterday. His legacy might be best summed up by suggesting that he was not interested merely in excellence; he wanted to matter. Having gone from being the young buck riding shotgun into bebop eternity with Charlie Parker in the ‘40s, to assembling some of the better players on the scene to form his first great quintet in the mid-‘50s, to surrounding himself with a young gang of geniuses almost half his age (his second great quintet in the mid-‘60s), the moves Miles made as the ‘70s began seem, with the benefit of hindsight, like magnetic fields pulling him into the future—and taking music with him.)

From his second quintet’s masterpiece Nefertiti, the appropriately entitled “Fall”, a glorious elegy for autumn, featuring some of Wayne Shorter’s most gorgeous writing and playing):

Aram Bajakian’s Kef, who made another one of my favorite albums of 2011 (full review here). This is my bottom line appraisal on the debut recording from this remarkable young artist:

There are no unsatisfactory tracks to be found here, and while some may dazzle or impress more than others, the last two, “48 Days” and “La Rota”, warrant special mention. Alternately serene and sombre, these closing statements comprise an elegiac, deeply moving conclusion. There is beautiful music and there is moving music (the best, of course, can combine the two), and then there is music that goes to that other place which is at once inscrutable and oddly familiar. By the time the last notes have been played it will occur to the tuned-in listener that something significant is happening here. This is a different type of music.

Music remains the ultimate antidote against cynicism and apathy: all it asks is you lend it your ears and in return you may just get something that makes the world more beautiful than you thought possible. If that sentiment is, understandably, a bit much to process with a straight face, let it suffice to say Kef is as extraordinary an album as I can recall listening to in a very long time.

Yoshie Fruchter’s Pitom (here is my very positive review of their 2011 effort Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes). Here is the conclusion of that piece:

By the end, Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes is not unlike a good workout, on multiple levels. You should be exhausted by the experience but you mostly feel rejuvenated, aware that something meaningful has happened. There is emotional heft here and a vibe that engages the intellect. This is music that matters. Is it too soon to begin wondering—and anticipating—what Pitom is going to come up with next time out? Stay tuned.

Jon Madof’s Rashanim (much more on him and his band here). Writing about his masterful 2009 effort The Gathering, I concluded thusly:

So…healing music? What is that supposed to mean?

Well, the great news is that we should properly relish the runaway democratization of content, with artists (like John Zorn) creating their own labels to more effectively disseminate their unfiltered (and unsanitized) vision. This is happening with all art, but musicians have arguably taken most advantage of the opportunities inherent in the increasingly viable DIY model. This, of course, is a very positive development for both artists and their audience. That said, we are still very much living in a corporate-sponsored country where suit-wearing weasels determine the bottom line based on a focus-grouped free market. For an artist to survive in this era is not an inconsiderable achievement; for an artist to thrive, defiantly crafting an original voice and sharing that vision with people, is cause for genuine celebration. That a musician like Jon Madof is fully committed to expressing his gift of music is enough to restore one’s faith: in music and the people who make it.

Matthew Shipp, from one of my favorite albums (jazz or otherwise) of the last decade, Equilibrium:

Jamie Saft (more on his most recent effort with New Zion Trio, entitled Fight Against Babylon, here). I can’t say enough good things about this utterly original genius, but here’s a taste:

Zelig-like, Jamie Saft has been an indefatigable fixture in the downtown NYC music scene. Equal parts MVP and unsung hero, his presence—as player, producer and composer—is at once daunting and exhilarating. Anyone familiar with John Zorn’s Tzadik label will already be quite familiar with his work, but if any musician is inadequately described by labels and geography, it’s Saft. Granted, Tzadik’s mission statement is the promotion of music without boundaries or agenda, resulting in albums that shift comfortably between genres like jazz, classical and so-called world music. Still, even in the Tzadik stable, Saft has been all-world in terms of his reach and aspiration these last ten years and change.

Productive and diverse, Saft has steadily amassed a body of work that can rival any contemporary artist. There are practically too many quality items to count, but consider a random sample of high points: there is his involvement with Zorn’s Electric Masada project, The Dreamers series, and—to pick only two from a half-dozen from the remarkable Filmworks series—Workingman’s Death and In The Mirror of Maya Deren. He also figures prominently on Bobby Previte’s (enthusiastically recommended) Coalition of the Willing and original Masada trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Freak In. Then there is the work he’s released as a leader…Get the picture?

And last but far from least, the master. John Zorn, who over the past several decades has done as much as anyone to encourage and inspire the creation of meaningful music. (A lot more about him, here.) Here is an overview, with some recommended recordings (and cohorts) included:

In the early 2000’s Electric Masada, a semi-rotating cast of characters including Trevor Dunn (bass), Jamie Saft (keyboards) and Ikue Mori (laptop and electronics/effects), began to tackle the catalog. The live performances were incendiary (trust me) and all this time, Zorn continued to make other music (tons and tons of it), particularly his always-compelling series of film soundtracks (currently at Volume 23, and counting…). Then, roughly ten years after he completed the first Masada songbook, Zorn challenged himself to compose new material, and quickly found himself with another 100 (!!) compositions, which he christened Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels. Unlike the first book, all recorded by the (acoustic) quartet, this series has been handled by a variety of bands in and outside the NYC jazz circuit, including Medeski Martin and Wood, Secret Chiefs 3, Marc Ribot, Uri Caine, Koby Israelite and The Cracow Klezmer Band. It can be said, without the slightest hint of (intentional) hyperbole that this is by far some of the more moving music recorded so far this century: it is not comparable, really, to anything being created by anyone around at this time.

He is not from New York City, he is New York City. Here is perhaps his most somber and elegiac piece, “Kol Nidre” (more on that and what it signifies, here):

I hope that anyone who lost someone fourteen years ago, or suffers for any number of reasons due to the day that will define our new century, finds some peace and comfort. And as always, I encourage everyone to realize that while no music can completely heal a broken heart, it can go a very long way toward restoring your soul. Peace.

Share

Orrin Keepnews: Hero for America’s Music (Revisited)

orrinkeepnews_blog_splash650

Orrin Keepnews frequently talked about jazz the way war veterans will talk about experiences on the front lines. There were at least two reasons for this. One, it was never strictly business with him; it was always personal. More importantly, it was necessary.

See, Keepnews didn’t gravitate toward a career in jazz—as producer, writer and battle-scarred raconteur—because it was fashionable or profitable. He immersed himself in the idiom for the same reasons any of us who make the music and those who become enchanted, then obsessed by it do: because there is no choice in the matter. Once you get in, as a fan but especially as an artist or producer, you don’t get out easily. You don’t want to. In Keepnews’s case, he didn’t know how to.

To get a handle on the debt we owe him, it must be adequately understood that Keepnews didn’t merely oversee some of the seminal sessions in jazz history (e.g., American history); he did not just encourage some of jazz music’s (e.g., American music’s) most significant players; he was hands on, sleeves rolled up and directly involved in ensuring the tunes came out the way they did.

Exhibit A, and it’s one for all-time: the perfectly titled composition by Thelonious Monk, one of music’s most sublime iconoclasts, “Brilliant Corners”. This masterwork, the recording of which confounded two of the most adept and astute men who ever walked into a studio, Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, was ultimately spliced together from multiple takes by Keepnews.

That Keepnews was one of the foremost ambassadors for jazz is common knowledge to anyone who knows anything. His street cred dates back to the great old days when giants roamed the earth, when he produced and championed geniuses like Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and Wes Montgomery. He was properly lauded by people who had a handle on jazz, history and—most importantly—propriety. That he wasn’t remunerated or revered in a fashion commensurate with his achievements underscores a truth almost frivolous in its familiarity: like the artists he advocated, the riches attained were rare, obscurity was all but inevitable and disappointment often the reward for a lifetime dedicated to stalking an increasingly unappreciated sort of brilliance.

As such, Keepnews could talk about racism. He could comment on an industry where banality flourishes and genius is ill-understood, if it’s recognized at all. He could tell stories from a very unique period in American history where, when it came to the intersection of art and culture, it was at once the best and worst of times. What Keepnews eventually grasped, and what historians will confirm, is that as challenging and confrontational as the scene could be in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was as good as it would ever get, and jazz will never have that type of audience again.

Almost a decade before the Summer of Love, Keepnews produced, and wrote the epic liner notes, for Sonny Rollins’s tour-de-force The Freedom Suite. In other words, Keepnews was literally on the front line of the struggles inherent in everything that came to the fore during America’s Civil Rights movement. This was music as statement, and it was not fashionable or facile; it was in almost every sense, a matter of life and death, as livelihood and a way of living. Jazz was music with a social conscience before it was cool.

Keepnews took the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll personally. More than once he correctly claimed that the Beatles and everything that came after changed things, forever. When I had the opportunity to chat with him, we agreed to disagree that music changed, for the worse. Yes, the rise of rock certainly didn’t bolster the prospects for jazz (music or musicians), but the artistic and societal shifts were, in many ways, attributable to the doors of perception that rock and the attitude it embraced blew open.

While I was young and more foolish than I apprehended, I realize now, more than I did in my mid-‘20s, that Keepnews was not just lamenting a cultural revolution that dumbed down the discourse, even as it elevated consciousness in many non-clichéd ways. Rock, and the eruption of talent, including both listeners and players who may otherwise have gravitated toward jazz, inexorably sucked oxygen out of an already tiny space. Jazz could not compete, which meant the music didn’t get to flourish at the same rate, for the same-sized audience. As a result, many of these men and women would have a harder time making a living. It wasn’t just business; it was personal for all involved.

Keepnews never retired and he never went away. Active, interested and engaged until the end, he continued doing what all great producers do: discovering new talent and celebrating the old masters. What Keepnews did for jazz music was a form of dedication that bordered on the heroic, but it’s a mistake to view his life’s work through this narrow if elemental lens. Rather, we should acknowledge the ways he held himself to a relentless standard of excellence. He accepted the challenges, embraced the lack of easy solutions and, in the process, advanced the music. He is a rare example of what we hope to emulate when we invoke the best American tradition of invention, discovery and improvement. He is a model for how to follow one’s purpose, with a lack of fear and passion that only death can extinguish.

He lives on, of course, in our memories and always, forever, in the miraculous sounds that, without his guidance and collaboration, we may otherwise never have heard.

Originally published at PopMatters, 3/18/2015.

Share

10 for NYC by 10, on 9/11

art-kane-jazz-portrait-harlem-new-york-1958

New York City would be unimaginable without jazz, and vice versa.

Here then is a tribute for –and by– several musicians who help define and celebrate the cultural mecca of our known universe. On a day like today, it seems appropriate and right to acknowledge the artists that express the pain, grief, joy and delight –those things that comprise this fleet, miraculous time we have together. Their music is a living celebration of life, and a testament to what the best among us are capable of delivering.

How about four from the old guard, five from the new(er) guard and a final one from the epitome of so much of what makes The Big Apple such a special, truly incomparable place?

Kick it off with the king: Charles Mingus, one of his many (many) tributes to the amazing city that coursed through the blood pumping his huge heart:

(If you are new to this blog you may not know that I have a slight reverence for Chazz Mingus. More on that here.)

Put plainly: Arguably, no single musician was able to get the most out of this medium –at once celebrating every aspect of its history and potential, as well as incorporating other types of music and sound– as Charles Mingus did. Irascible, insatiable, indefatigable: his bass was his bull-horn and his compositional prowess (second-only to Duke Ellington) towers over the second-half of the century and casts an intimidating, all-encompassing shadow over anything anyone will subsequently come up with. He was that good, that huge, that immutable. And his music is infectious: it doesn’t require advanced degrees or a special cultural acumen to pick up what he’s putting down. Yes, he was political (and, as George Orwell famously declared, the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude); yes he was often angry (imagine being a black man in the 1950s; imagine being a genius in America, at any time); yes he was intense. His passions fed his muse –and vice versa– and his imagination created some of the most ecstatic sounds you’ll ever enjoy. He willed himself to be heard and he refused to be silenced. His life, like Melville’s, was part and parcel of what we like to think we’re thinking about when we think about the American Dream, and all that this entails.

A scorcher from Sonny Rollins (more on him here, but here is the bottom line: The last century blessed America with more than a handful of geniuses whose lives and work will be studied and appreciated many, many centuries after they are gone. Rollins is most definitely on the short list of masters who can teach us a great deal about ourselves and how we should aspire to be, and in the process, as all great art inevitably does, make that life quest immeasurably richer and more enjoyable in the process).

Another native son, and icon we will appreciate as long as we have ears to hear (and his sidemen each, in turn, crank out some of the best solos ever caught on tape: first trumpet fire from Freddie Hubbard, then the most bad-ass bass solo from Jimmy Garrison and the typical roaring thunder from the mighty Elvin Jones):

Slowing it down, a tear-jerking tribute from the gentlest of giants, John Coltrane.

(A lot more on him here. My quick .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.)

And lest we forget, the man who took one of the biggest bites out of that apple, Miles Davis. (He needs little introduction, but if you are as yet unitiated, take care of that as soon as possible. Check it: Here was a man that could have coasted on a richly-deserved reputation, and even if he’d never strayed far from the formula he perfected in the mid-‘50s, or late ‘50s, or mid-‘60s (get the picture?), he would have undoubtedly made remarkable music. Of course, Miles scoffed at the notion of playing it safe, and constantly created challenges for himself. Like any exceptional artist, Miles was restless and did not (or could not allow himself to) care about yesterday. His legacy might be best summed up by suggesting that he was not interested merely in excellence; he wanted to matter. Having gone from being the young buck riding shotgun into bebop eternity with Charlie Parker in the ‘40s, to assembling some of the better players on the scene to form his first great quintet in the mid-‘50s, to surrounding himself with a young gang of geniuses almost half his age (his second great quintet in the mid-‘60s), the moves Miles made as the ‘70s began seem, with the benefit of hindsight, like magnetic fields pulling him into the future—and taking music with him.)

From his second quintet’s masterpiece Nefertiti, the appropriately entitled “Fall”, a glorious elegy for autumn, featuring some of Wayne Shorter’s most gorgeous writing and playing):

Aram Bajakian’s Kef, who made another one of my favorite albums of 2011 (full review here). This is my bottom line appraisal on the debut recording from this remarkable young artist:

There are no unsatisfactory tracks to be found here, and while some may dazzle or impress more than others, the last two, “48 Days” and “La Rota”, warrant special mention. Alternately serene and sombre, these closing statements comprise an elegiac, deeply moving conclusion. There is beautiful music and there is moving music (the best, of course, can combine the two), and then there is music that goes to that other place which is at once inscrutable and oddly familiar. By the time the last notes have been played it will occur to the tuned-in listener that something significant is happening here. This is a different type of music.

Music remains the ultimate antidote against cynicism and apathy: all it asks is you lend it your ears and in return you may just get something that makes the world more beautiful than you thought possible. If that sentiment is, understandably, a bit much to process with a straight face, let it suffice to say Kef is as extraordinary an album as I can recall listening to in a very long time.

Yoshie Fruchter’s Pitom (here is my very positive review of their 2011 effort Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes). Here is the conclusion of that piece:

By the end, Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes is not unlike a good workout, on multiple levels. You should be exhausted by the experience but you mostly feel rejuvenated, aware that something meaningful has happened. There is emotional heft here and a vibe that engages the intellect. This is music that matters. Is it too soon to begin wondering—and anticipating—what Pitom is going to come up with next time out? Stay tuned.

Jon Madof’s Rashanim (much more on him and his band here). Writing about his masterful 2009 effort The Gathering, I concluded thusly:

So…healing music? What is that supposed to mean?

Well, the great news is that we should properly relish the runaway democratization of content, with artists (like John Zorn) creating their own labels to more effectively disseminate their unfiltered (and unsanitized) vision. This is happening with all art, but musicians have arguably taken most advantage of the opportunities inherent in the increasingly viable DIY model. This, of course, is a very positive development for both artists and their audience. That said, we are still very much living in a corporate-sponsored country where suit-wearing weasels determine the bottom line based on a focus-grouped free market. For an artist to survive in this era is not an inconsiderable achievement; for an artist to thrive, defiantly crafting an original voice and sharing that vision with people, is cause for genuine celebration. That a musician like Jon Madof is fully committed to expressing his gift of music is enough to restore one’s faith: in music and the people who make it.

Matthew Shipp, from one of my favorite albums (jazz or otherwise) of the last decade, Equilibrium:

Jamie Saft (more on his most recent effort with New Zion Trio, entitled Fight Against Babylon, here). I can’t say enough good things about this utterly original genius, but here’s a taste:

Zelig-like, Jamie Saft has been an indefatigable fixture in the downtown NYC music scene. Equal parts MVP and unsung hero, his presence—as player, producer and composer—is at once daunting and exhilarating. Anyone familiar with John Zorn’s Tzadik label will already be quite familiar with his work, but if any musician is inadequately described by labels and geography, it’s Saft. Granted, Tzadik’s mission statement is the promotion of music without boundaries or agenda, resulting in albums that shift comfortably between genres like jazz, classical and so-called world music. Still, even in the Tzadik stable, Saft has been all-world in terms of his reach and aspiration these last ten years and change.

Productive and diverse, Saft has steadily amassed a body of work that can rival any contemporary artist. There are practically too many quality items to count, but consider a random sample of high points: there is his involvement with Zorn’s Electric Masada project, The Dreamers series, and—to pick only two from a half-dozen from the remarkable Filmworks series—Workingman’s Death and In The Mirror of Maya Deren. He also figures prominently on Bobby Previte’s (enthusiastically recommended) Coalition of the Willing and original Masada trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Freak In. Then there is the work he’s released as a leader…Get the picture?

And last but far from least, the master. John Zorn, who over the past several decades has done as much as anyone to encourage and inspire the creation of meaningful music. (A lot more about him, here.) Here is an overview, with some recommended recordings (and cohorts) included:

In the early 2000’s Electric Masada, a semi-rotating cast of characters including Trevor Dunn (bass), Jamie Saft (keyboards) and Ikue Mori (laptop and electronics/effects), began to tackle the catalog. The live performances were incendiary (trust me) and all this time, Zorn continued to make other music (tons and tons of it), particularly his always-compelling series of film soundtracks (currently at Volume 23, and counting…). Then, roughly ten years after he completed the first Masada songbook, Zorn challenged himself to compose new material, and quickly found himself with another 100 (!!) compositions, which he christened Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels. Unlike the first book, all recorded by the (acoustic) quartet, this series has been handled by a variety of bands in and outside the NYC jazz circuit, including Medeski Martin and Wood, Secret Chiefs 3, Marc Ribot, Uri Caine, Koby Israelite and The Cracow Klezmer Band. It can be said, without the slightest hint of (intentional) hyperbole that this is by far some of the more moving music recorded so far this century: it is not comparable, really, to anything being created by anyone around at this time.

He is not from New York City, he is New York City. Here is perhaps his most somber and elegiac piece, “Kol Nidre” (more on that and what it signifies, here):

I hope that anyone who lost someone fourteen years ago, or suffers for any number of reasons due to the day that will define our new century, finds some peace and comfort. And as always, I encourage everyone to realize that while no music can completely heal a broken heart, it can go a very long way toward restoring your soul. Peace.

Share

Orrin Keepnews: Hero for America’s Music

orrinkeepnews_blog_splash650

Orrin Keepnews frequently talked about jazz the way war veterans will talk about experiences on the front lines. There were at least two reasons for this. One, it was never strictly business with him; it was always personal. More importantly, it was necessary.

See, Keepnews didn’t gravitate toward a career in jazz—as producer, writer and battle-scarred raconteur—because it was fashionable or profitable. He immersed himself in the idiom for the same reasons any of us who make the music and those who become enchanted, then obsessed by it do: because there is no choice in the matter. Once you get in, as a fan but especially as an artist or producer, you don’t get out easily. You don’t want to. In Keepnews’s case, he didn’t know how to.

To get a handle on the debt we owe him, it must be adequately understood that Keepnews didn’t merely oversee some of the seminal sessions in jazz history (e.g., American history); he did not just encourage some of jazz music’s (e.g., American music’s) most significant players; he was hands on, sleeves rolled up and directly involved in ensuring the tunes came out the way they did.

Exhibit A, and it’s one for all-time: the perfectly titled composition by Thelonious Monk, one of music’s most sublime iconoclasts, “Brilliant Corners”. This masterwork, the recording of which confounded two of the most adept and astute men who ever walked into a studio, Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, was ultimately spliced together from multiple takes by Keepnews.

That Keepnews was one of the foremost ambassadors for jazz is common knowledge to anyone who knows anything. His street cred dates back to the great old days when giants roamed the earth, when he produced and championed geniuses like Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and Wes Montgomery. He was properly lauded by people who had a handle on jazz, history and—most importantly—propriety. That he wasn’t remunerated or revered in a fashion commensurate with his achievements underscores a truth almost frivolous in its familiarity: like the artists he advocated, the riches attained were rare, obscurity was all but inevitable and disappointment often the reward for a lifetime dedicated to stalking an increasingly unappreciated sort of brilliance.

As such, Keepnews could talk about racism. He could comment on an industry where banality flourishes and genius is ill-understood, if it’s recognized at all. He could tell stories from a very unique period in American history where, when it came to the intersection of art and culture, it was at once the best and worst of times. What Keepnews eventually grasped, and what historians will confirm, is that as challenging and confrontational as the scene could be in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was as good as it would ever get, and jazz will never have that type of audience again.

Almost a decade before the Summer of Love, Keepnews produced, and wrote the epic liner notes, for Sonny Rollins’s tour-de-force The Freedom Suite. In other words, Keepnews was literally on the front line of the struggles inherent in everything that came to the fore during America’s Civil Rights movement. This was music as statement, and it was not fashionable or facile; it was in almost every sense, a matter of life and death, as livelihood and a way of living. Jazz was music with a social conscience before it was cool.

Keepnews took the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll personally. More than once he correctly claimed that the Beatles and everything that came after changed things, forever. When I had the opportunity to chat with him, we agreed to disagree that music changed, for the worse. Yes, the rise of rock certainly didn’t bolster the prospects for jazz (music or musicians), but the artistic and societal shifts were, in many ways, attributable to the doors of perception that rock and the attitude it embraced blew open.

While I was young and more foolish than I apprehended, I realize now, more than I did in my mid-‘20s, that Keepnews was not just lamenting a cultural revolution that dumbed down the discourse, even as it elevated consciousness in many non-clichéd ways. Rock, and the eruption of talent, including both listeners and players who may otherwise have gravitated toward jazz, inexorably sucked oxygen out of an already tiny space. Jazz could not compete, which meant the music didn’t get to flourish at the same rate, for the same-sized audience. As a result, many of these men and women would have a harder time making a living. It wasn’t just business; it was personal for all involved.

Keepnews never retired and he never went away. Active, interested and engaged until the end, he continued doing what all great producers do: discovering new talent and celebrating the old masters. What Keepnews did for jazz music was a form of dedication that bordered on the heroic, but it’s a mistake to view his life’s work through this narrow if elemental lens. Rather, we should acknowledge the ways he held himself to a relentless standard of excellence. He accepted the challenges, embraced the lack of easy solutions and, in the process, advanced the music. He is a rare example of what we hope to emulate when we invoke the best American tradition of invention, discovery and improvement. He is a model for how to follow one’s purpose, with a lack of fear and passion that only death can extinguish.

He lives on, of course, in our memories and always, forever, in the miraculous sounds that, without his guidance and collaboration, we may otherwise never have heard.

Originally published at PopMatters, 3/18/2015.

Share

10 for NYC by 10, on 9/11

art-kane-jazz-portrait-harlem-new-york-1958

New York City would be unimaginable without jazz, and vice versa.

Here then is a tribute for –and by– several musicians who help define and celebrate the cultural mecca of our known universe. On a day like today, it seems appropriate and right to acknowledge the artists that express the pain, grief, joy and delight –those things that comprise this fleet, miraculous time we have together. Their music is a living celebration of life, and a testament to what the best among us are capable of delivering.

How about four from the old guard, five from the new(er) guard and a final one from the epitome of so much of what makes The Big Apple such a special, truly incomparable place?

Kick it off with the king: Charles Mingus, one of his many (many) tributes to the amazing city that coursed through the blood pumping his huge heart:

(If you are new to this blog you may not know that I have a slight reverence for Chazz Mingus. More on that here.)

Put plainly: Arguably, no single musician was able to get the most out of this medium –at once celebrating every aspect of its history and potential, as well as incorporating other types of music and sound– as Charles Mingus did. Irascible, insatiable, indefatigable: his bass was his bull-horn and his compositional prowess (second-only to Duke Ellington) towers over the second-half of the century and casts an intimidating, all-encompassing shadow over anything anyone will subsequently come up with. He was that good, that huge, that immutable. And his music is infectious: it doesn’t require advanced degrees or a special cultural acumen to pick up what he’s putting down. Yes, he was political (and, as George Orwell famously declared, the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude); yes he was often angry (imagine being a black man in the 1950s; imagine being a genius in America, at any time); yes he was intense. His passions fed his muse –and vice versa– and his imagination created some of the most ecstatic sounds you’ll ever enjoy. He willed himself to be heard and he refused to be silenced. His life, like Melville’s, was part and parcel of what we like to think we’re thinking about when we think about the American Dream, and all that this entails.

A scorcher from Sonny Rollins (more on him here, but here is the bottom line: The last century blessed America with more than a handful of geniuses whose lives and work will be studied and appreciated many, many centuries after they are gone. Rollins is most definitely on the short list of masters who can teach us a great deal about ourselves and how we should aspire to be, and in the process, as all great art inevitably does, make that life quest immeasurably richer and more enjoyable in the process).

Another native son, and icon we will appreciate as long as we have ears to hear (and his sidemen each, in turn, crank out some of the best solos ever caught on tape: first trumpet fire from Freddie Hubbard, then the most bad-ass bass solo from Jimmy Garrison and the typical roaring thunder from the mighty Elvin Jones):

Slowing it down, a tear-jerking tribute from the gentlest of giants, John Coltrane.

(A lot more on him here. My quick .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.)

And lest we forget, the man who took one of the biggest bites out of that apple, Miles Davis. (He needs little introduction, but if you are as yet unitiated, take care of that as soon as possible. Check it: Here was a man that could have coasted on a richly-deserved reputation, and even if he’d never strayed far from the formula he perfected in the mid-‘50s, or late ‘50s, or mid-‘60s (get the picture?), he would have undoubtedly made remarkable music. Of course, Miles scoffed at the notion of playing it safe, and constantly created challenges for himself. Like any exceptional artist, Miles was restless and did not (or could not allow himself to) care about yesterday. His legacy might be best summed up by suggesting that he was not interested merely in excellence; he wanted to matter. Having gone from being the young buck riding shotgun into bebop eternity with Charlie Parker in the ‘40s, to assembling some of the better players on the scene to form his first great quintet in the mid-‘50s, to surrounding himself with a young gang of geniuses almost half his age (his second great quintet in the mid-‘60s), the moves Miles made as the ‘70s began seem, with the benefit of hindsight, like magnetic fields pulling him into the future—and taking music with him.)

From his second quintet’s masterpiece Nefertiti, the appropriately entitled “Fall”, a glorious elegy for autumn, featuring some of Wayne Shorter’s most gorgeous writing and playing):

Aram Bajakian’s Kef, who made another one of my favorite albums last year (full review here). This is my bottom line appraisal on the debut recording from this remarkable young artist:

There are no unsatisfactory tracks to be found here, and while some may dazzle or impress more than others, the last two, “48 Days” and “La Rota”, warrant special mention. Alternately serene and sombre, these closing statements comprise an elegiac, deeply moving conclusion. There is beautiful music and there is moving music (the best, of course, can combine the two), and then there is music that goes to that other place which is at once inscrutable and oddly familiar. By the time the last notes have been played it will occur to the tuned-in listener that something significant is happening here. This is a different type of music.

Music remains the ultimate antidote against cynicism and apathy: all it asks is you lend it your ears and in return you may just get something that makes the world more beautiful than you thought possible. If that sentiment is, understandably, a bit much to process with a straight face, let it suffice to say Kef is as extraordinary an album as I can recall listening to in a very long time.

Yoshie Fruchter’s Pitom (here is my very positive review of their 2011 effort Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes). Here is the conclusion of that piece:

By the end, Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes is not unlike a good workout, on multiple levels. You should be exhausted by the experience but you mostly feel rejuvenated, aware that something meaningful has happened. There is emotional heft here and a vibe that engages the intellect. This is music that matters. Is it too soon to begin wondering—and anticipating—what Pitom is going to come up with next time out? Stay tuned.

Jon Madof’s Rashanim (much more on him and his band here). Writing about his masterful 2009 effort The Gathering, I concluded thusly:

So…healing music? What is that supposed to mean?

Well, the great news is that we should properly relish the runaway democratization of content, with artists (like John Zorn) creating their own labels to more effectively disseminate their unfiltered (and unsanitized) vision. This is happening with all art, but musicians have arguably taken most advantage of the opportunities inherent in the increasingly viable DIY model. This, of course, is a very positive development for both artists and their audience. That said, we are still very much living in a corporate-sponsored country where suit-wearing weasels determine the bottom line based on a focus-grouped free market. For an artist to survive in this era is not an inconsiderable achievement; for an artist to thrive, defiantly crafting an original voice and sharing that vision with people, is cause for genuine celebration. That a musician like Jon Madof is fully committed to expressing his gift of music is enough to restore one’s faith: in music and the people who make it.

Matthew Shipp, from one of my favorite albums (jazz or otherwise) of the last decade, Equilibrium:

Jamie Saft (more on his most recent effort with New Zion Trio, entitled Fight Against Babylon, here). I can’t say enough good things about this utterly original genius, but here’s a taste:

Zelig-like, Jamie Saft has been an indefatigable fixture in the downtown NYC music scene. Equal parts MVP and unsung hero, his presence—as player, producer and composer—is at once daunting and exhilarating. Anyone familiar with John Zorn’s Tzadik label will already be quite familiar with his work, but if any musician is inadequately described by labels and geography, it’s Saft. Granted, Tzadik’s mission statement is the promotion of music without boundaries or agenda, resulting in albums that shift comfortably between genres like jazz, classical and so-called world music. Still, even in the Tzadik stable, Saft has been all-world in terms of his reach and aspiration these last ten years and change.

Productive and diverse, Saft has steadily amassed a body of work that can rival any contemporary artist. There are practically too many quality items to count, but consider a random sample of high points: there is his involvement with Zorn’s Electric Masada project, The Dreamers series, and—to pick only two from a half-dozen from the remarkable Filmworks series—Workingman’s Death and In The Mirror of Maya Deren. He also figures prominently on Bobby Previte’s (enthusiastically recommended) Coalition of the Willing and original Masada trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Freak In. Then there is the work he’s released as a leader…Get the picture?

And last but far from least, the master. John Zorn, who over the past several decades has done as much as anyone to encourage and inspire the creation of meaningful music. (A lot more about him, here.) Here is an overview, with some recommended recordings (and cohorts) included:

In the early 2000’s Electric Masada, a semi-rotating cast of characters including Trevor Dunn (bass), Jamie Saft (keyboards) and Ikue Mori (laptop and electronics/effects), began to tackle the catalog. The live performances were incendiary (trust me) and all this time, Zorn continued to make other music (tons and tons of it), particularly his always-compelling series of film soundtracks (currently at Volume 23, and counting…). Then, roughly ten years after he completed the first Masada songbook, Zorn challenged himself to compose new material, and quickly found himself with another 100 (!!) compositions, which he christened Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels. Unlike the first book, all recorded by the (acoustic) quartet, this series has been handled by a variety of bands in and outside the NYC jazz circuit, including Medeski Martin and Wood, Secret Chiefs 3, Marc Ribot, Uri Caine, Koby Israelite and The Cracow Klezmer Band. It can be said, without the slightest hint of (intentional) hyperbole that this is by far some of the more moving music recorded so far this century: it is not comparable, really, to anything being created by anyone around at this time.

He is not from New York City, he is New York City. Here is perhaps his most somber and elegiac piece, “Kol Nidre” (more on that and what it signifies, here):

I hope that anyone who lost someone thirteen years ago, or suffers for any number of reasons due to the day that will define our new century, finds some peace and comfort. And as always, I encourage everyone to realize that while no music can completely heal a broken heart, it can go a very long way toward restoring your soul. Peace.

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

Jackie-McLean

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.

*Proceed to the 46:56 point and then go to the very beginning and listen to the entire album. Twice.

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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In Defense of Good Sax, Part Two

SONNY

Wherein five jazz saxophonists “slum” and make truly indelible contributions to five well-loved and much-played rock songs.

Considering one of the all-time ALL TIME greats (Sonny Rollins) is on this list, an anecdote from the sessions seems in order:

MICK JAGGER: “I had a lot of trepidation about working with Sonny Rollins. This guy’s a giant of the saxophone. Charlie said, ‘He’s never going to want to play on a Rolling Stones record!’ I said, ‘Yes he is going to want to.’ And he did and he was wonderful. I said, ‘Would you like me to stay out there in the studio?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you tell me where you want me to play and DANCE the part out.’ So I did that. And that’s very important: communication in hand, dance, whatever. You don’t have to do a whole ballet, but sometimes that movement of the shoulder tells the guy to kick in on the beat.”

5. Ronnie Ross on Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”:

4. Dick Parry on Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them”:

3. David Sanborn on David Bowie’s “Young Americans”:

2. Wayne Shorter on Steely Dan’s “Aja”:

1. Sonny Rollins on The Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend”:

Bonus insight from Jagger (EPIC!!!):

“I had a lot of trepidation about working with Sonny Rollins. This guy’s a giant of the saxophone. Charlie said, ‘He’s never going to want to play on a Rolling Stones record!’ I said, ‘Yes he is going to want to.’ And he did and he was wonderful. I said, ‘Would you like me to stay out there in the studio?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you tell me where you want me to play and DANCE the part out.’ So I did that. And that’s very important: communication in hand, dance, whatever. You don’t have to do a whole ballet, but sometimes that movement of the shoulder tells the guy to kick in on the beat.

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Semi-Autobiographical, Inspired by a Best-Friend (Revisited)

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I am not alone. I have a best friend, who happens to be a dog. He is really good for me, reminding me to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom and generally making sure that I get out a few times a day. He walks me whenever he gets the chance. Our favorite time is after work, when we reenter the building and the walls and halls come alive, warm with the savory smells of home-made meals (you can never smell fast food, although that scent lingers in the elevator, as if ashamed to be associated with the honesty, the effort and industry of these prepared productions).
No one sits down to dinner anymore, but all around me, people are sitting down, eating meat loaf, or some sort of roast that has simmered on low heat all afternoon. Maybe there is even a pie prepared for dessert. Maybe, inside someone’s kitchen, it’s still the 1950’s.
And I remind myself that someday, if my cards play me right, I will enjoy a real meal around a table, and experience all that I’ve been missing during these efficient years of isolation. I will clear the table and clean the dishes, I will sit on the couch and take a crack at the crossword, or catch a made-for-TV movie, or go run errands or consult a book of baby names for the offspring on the way, and eventually I will work on improving my bad habits and attempt to overlook my wife’s inadequacies (the quirks that were so endearing in those early days). I will, at last, learn to communicate openly and as an adult. Mostly, I will not be alone.

***

My dog is a trooper.
He’s never called in sick a single day of his life: up at the crack of dawn every day, including weekends, stretched, eager and anxious to take on the world. Or at least take a walk.
My dog takes his work very seriously, and has succeeded in making more friends than I have. He does not discriminate: men, women, cars, trees, and other dogs—especially other dogs. He wants to meet everyone, and he patrols the neighborhood like it’s his job. I, for one, admire his dedication.
Thanks to him, I am on a first-name basis with all the other dogs in my building, though I have a hard time remembering what to call their owners.
Take this guy: an older man (I don’t want to call him an old man), whose name I’ve never gotten around to establishing. I sort of prefer it that way, as he provides me with a mystery I enjoy embellishing. Where most of my neighbors are obviously what they are: mothers, fathers, bachelors, wives, working stiffs, senior citizens, anonymous law-abiding entities, et cetera, this man alone retains, for me and my imagination, an enigmatic air. He wears a wedding band, but I’ve never seen or met his spouse. He is friendly, so much so that it initially took me a while to warm up to him.
Maybe this is the way other people saw my old man. Yes, he is definitely someone’s father: he has rolled up his sleeves to punish, praise, clean, counsel, inspire, admonish, argue, approve, second-guess, support and silence. In short, things I have never done. And I think (I can’t help myself): he is a way I’ll never be.
All of us, of course, are more or less the same: we live, we work, we sleep, we eat, we love, we fight, we forget, we try to remember, we think, we wear down and then we die. In this regard, all living creatures are more alike than not.
But humans are different.
We know who we are, so we wonder (we can’t help ourselves) things like: What has that man done that I’ll never do? What has he seen that I’ll never see? What parts of the world he once lived in are gone forever, replaced by newer things that younger people, not yet born, will wonder about, in time?
I think:
If I had lived in the ‘50’s, that man might have been a spy; a professor, a pedophile (I would have called him a pervert), a recluse, a con artist—but above all, he most certainly would be a Communist.
If I had lived in the ‘50’s, I would eat an egg for breakfast each morning with either bacon or sausage or sometimes both, I would also eat pastrami sandwiches, drink whole milk and smoke endless streams of cigarettes, I would be father to as many children as God (most certainly a Capitalist God) saw fit to provide, I would live closer to my parents, I would miss church service seldom on Sundays and never on Holy Days of Obligation, I would know how to fix my toilet and sink if they dripped, I would never have had a shirt professionally pressed, I would drive an American car and never wear a seat belt, I would have a job that I could actually describe in one or two words. I would be, quite conceivably, content.
My dog is content. One thing is for sure: if my dog lived in the 50’s, he would be content, just as he would be content fifty years from now. After all, all dogs want is other dogs (I think my dog thinks I’m a dog). People aren’t like that, which, I suppose is why people love dogs. The older man and I love our dogs, and for a few seconds we watch them sniff each other.
“Hot enough for ya?”
“Yeah well, it’s the humidity!”
(To ourselves we say this).
Then we go our separate ways, exchanging pleasantries.
I say: Have a nice day.
Likewise, he replies, and then smiles. Not to mention a nice life.
I smile, and then walk away, still smiling. Who the hell does this guy think he is, saying something like that? How dare he say something like that. Unless he means it. No one says something like that. Unless they are actually, inconceivably content.
I’m still smiling, but then a sobering thought sideswipes me (again): That man is a way I’ll never be.

***

My dog is mad at me.
I can’t blame him.
He knows the rules: I don’t come home, I’m in violation of the contract (two meals, a bowl at least half full with half-clean water, and a minimum of three walks a day), so he is entitled to cut loose all over the kitchen floor, or even the couch.
But my pal is a team player; he has character. He held it. For me. And, I reckon, for himself; after all, it’s his house too.
His tail does its thing; I’m surprised he doesn’t take flight, and he is happy. Dogs cannot suppress that genuine love and honesty. But then, after the walk (and a piss that would make a drunken mule proud) he recovers and reverts to character: not taking the treat (Who wants a biscuit? I say. Not me, his back says), sitting on the other side of the room. Normally this would be my opportunity, my obligation, to win him over; shower him with affection and praise, but I can’t. I just don’t have it in me. The poor guy, he probably thinks I’m ignoring him. But I’m simply too hung over to address this injustice.
Eventually, inevitably, he comes around. The little wags every time I look over, the overtures of amiability, his minuscule capacity for indignation already exceeded. He follows me into the kitchen, and as I look around—still too ashamed to directly acknowledge him—searching for distraction, the oddly recurring thought once again arises: Can I possibly be the only person afraid to utilize the self-cleaning function of my oven? I don’t trust it. I don’t trust anything that makes promises it can’t keep. Then again, if I actually used my oven, this admittedly might be a more enticing feature.
In no time my dog is all over me, drunk from love as well as the fumes seeping through my skin.
I don’t mislead him: the best I’ll be able to offer is space beside me while I doze in and out of recrimination and self-pity. As usual, he has no complaints; happy to receive whatever I will give him. Dogs, after all, are not unlike humans: they need food and water, and shelter and support. But they also need love.

***

My dog punches the clock, chasing after creatures he has no chance of catching. He chases squirrels the way his owner chases women: blindly and brazenly, but with no idea what he’d actually do if he ever caught one.

***

Take off all your clothes, I say.
No, she laughs.
“Be careful,” I say as she gets down on the carpet to entertain my dog’s playful overtures. “He’s a lady-killer.”
“Like his daddy?” she asks, making it too easy, or not easy enough, depending on how it all undresses.
“Hardly,” I say, reaching for the bottle of wine that is equal parts incriminating and inspiring—mostly, and most importantly, it is empty.
“You two make a cute couple,” I say, equal parts innocent, honest, envious.
“Why don’t you join us?”
Put on all your clothes, I do not say.
“Are you drunk,” she says.
“Never,” I lie.
“Am I drunk?” she asks.
“Not enough,” I sigh.
“What did you say,” she whispers.
“Nothing,” I lie.
Take off all your clothes, she laughs.
Okay, I say.

***

When he was a puppy, my dog would whimper anytime I was out of sight. All through his infancy, all he seemed to want was to share space with me, inhale the air I exhaled, flirt with my feet with his nose. As he settled into the dog-eared years of adolescence, we got into a good groove: aside from the inevitable, and understandable, teenage tantrums; he was everything I could ever have hoped for. Once he was old enough to drive he would sometimes scold me: if I stayed out all night or stumbled through another substandard evening stroll, or when I collapsed from exhaustion after throwing a toy once or twice, he conveyed his disenchantment by setting up camp across the room, safely out of reach, to put his head between his hands and sulk. And stare. You can always tell when a dog is unhappy because the rest of the time they are either ecstatic or asleep.

***

Bang: Another day ends with a whimper and all of us respectable citizens retire to our tents and our troubles.
My dog is waiting impatiently, and greets me with his usual eagerness. If there is one utterly amenable character in my world, it’s him: he treats me better on a bad day then I could ever pay another human being to approximate.
Outside, the cold does not dishearten him and I remind myself to take notes.
A siren sounds and he howls, ostensibly in approval. Being a human, I think on more practical levels: A siren, at night, really does sound like a woman screaming. Or a man for that matter. And perhaps that’s the point.
Overhead, sleet sizzles on the imperious power lines, flirting with disaster each time it touches the warm anger that can kill it. Anxious electricity is all around me, earning its money like everything else.
And the cold—the confidence of the cold—subduing the air which has that heartwarming wood-burning scent of banked fires; which is odd, as my building only has gas fireplaces.
Up above, the moon glows, brazen and bright, kept warm (from behind) by a sun I can’t see. Suddenly, my dog becomes very excited, as he is known to do, and I nicely yank him back on the leash, as I’m known to do. When I can’t contain him, and he strains to get where he just was to the point of making loud choking noises, I finally survey the scene and see what he is so enthralled with: a damn trash bag. Half buried in the filthy slush, there must be a discarded bone; I can actually see a bone. A bone that looks a lot like a skull. As my dog sniffs ecstatically around me, I look down carefully and finally understand something that used to be alive is being cruelly preserved in this frigid mound. I disappoint my dog and pull him away from his discovery, and remind him that treats await both of us inside.

***

Her: “What about you?”
Me: “What about me?”
“Do you drink too much?”
“I’m just trying to avoid anything in my life right now that could be considered a cliché.”
“But you do drink too much.”
“Possibly.”
“Well, that’s kind of a cliché, right?”
“True, but so is sobriety.”
“I’m not talking about anything that insane, but how about moderation?”
“That’s the worst cliché of all!”
“Good point…”
“I reckon I’m in okay shape for the shape I’m not in.”
“Well, you have to settle down sometime.”
“I don’t have to do anything of the sort.”
“Do you want children?”
“I don’t know…I can’t imagine my life without children.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I can’t imagine my life with children.”
“I know. If we didn’t need to have jobs to pay the bills we would probably agonize every day over which job to take…”
“Exactly. You just do what you have to do and have faith that it’s meant to be, you make it right, one way or the other.”
“So all it takes, apparently, is faith.”
“Exactly.”
“So what do you do when you don’t have faith?”
“You get a dog.”

*Five years ago, today. Gone, but impossible to replace and never to be forgotten.

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10 for NYC by 10, on 9/11

New York City would be unimaginable without jazz, and vice versa.

Here then is a tribute for –and by– several musicians who help define and celebrate the cultural mecca of our known universe. On a day like today, it seems appropriate and right to acknowledge the artists that express the pain, grief, joy and delight –those things that comprise this fleet, miraculous time we have together. Their music is a living celebration of life, and a testament to what the best among us are capable of delivering.

How about four from the old guard, five from the new(er) guard and a final one from the epitome of so much of what makes The Big Apple such a special, truly incomparable place?

Kick it off with the king: Charles Mingus, one of his many (many) tributes to the amazing city that coursed through the blood pumping his huge heart:

(If you are new to this blog you may not know that I have a slight reverence for Chazz Mingus. More on that here.)

Put plainly: Arguably, no single musician was able to get the most out of this medium –at once celebrating every aspect of its history and potential, as well as incorporating other types of music and sound– as Charles Mingus did. Irascible, insatiable, indefatigable: his bass was his bull-horn and his compositional prowess (second-only to Duke Ellington) towers over the second-half of the century and casts an intimidating, all-encompassing shadow over anything anyone will subsequently come up with. He was that good, that huge, that immutable. And his music is infectious: it doesn’t require advanced degrees or a special cultural acumen to pick up what he’s putting down. Yes, he was political (and, as George Orwell famously declared, the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude); yes he was often angry (imagine being a black man in the 1950s; imagine being a genius in America, at any time); yes he was intense. His passions fed his muse –and vice versa– and his imagination created some of the most ecstatic sounds you’ll ever enjoy. He willed himself to be heard and he refused to be silenced. His life, like Melville’s, was part and parcel of what we like to think we’re thinking about when we think about the American Dream, and all that this entails.

A scorcher from Sonny Rollins (more on him here, but here is the bottom line: The last century blessed America with more than a handful of geniuses whose lives and work will be studied and appreciated many, many centuries after they are gone. Rollins is most definitely on the short list of masters who can teach us a great deal about ourselves and how we should aspire to be, and in the process, as all great art inevitably does, make that life quest immeasurably richer and more enjoyable in the process).

Another native son, and icon we will appreciate as long as we have ears to hear (and his sidemen each, in turn, crank out some of the best solos ever caught on tape: first trumpet fire from Freddie Hubbard, then the most bad-ass bass solo from Jimmy Garrison and the typical roaring thunder from the mighty Elvin Jones):

Slowing it down, a tear-jerking tribute from the gentlest of giants, John Coltrane.

(A lot more on him here. My quick .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.)

And lest we forget, the man who took one of the biggest bites out of that apple, Miles Davis. (He needs little introduction, but if you are as yet unitiated, take care of that as soon as possible. Check it: Here was a man that could have coasted on a richly-deserved reputation, and even if he’d never strayed far from the formula he perfected in the mid-‘50s, or late ‘50s, or mid-‘60s (get the picture?), he would have undoubtedly made remarkable music. Of course, Miles scoffed at the notion of playing it safe, and constantly created challenges for himself. Like any exceptional artist, Miles was restless and did not (or could not allow himself to) care about yesterday. His legacy might be best summed up by suggesting that he was not interested merely in excellence; he wanted to matter. Having gone from being the young buck riding shotgun into bebop eternity with Charlie Parker in the ‘40s, to assembling some of the better players on the scene to form his first great quintet in the mid-‘50s, to surrounding himself with a young gang of geniuses almost half his age (his second great quintet in the mid-‘60s), the moves Miles made as the ‘70s began seem, with the benefit of hindsight, like magnetic fields pulling him into the future—and taking music with him.)

From his second quintet’s masterpiece Nefertiti, the appropriately entitled “Fall”, a glorious elegy for autumn, featuring some of Wayne Shorter’s most gorgeous writing and playing):

Aram Bajakian’s Kef, who made another one of my favorite albums last year (full review here). This is my bottom line appraisal on the debut recording from this remarkable young artist:

There are no unsatisfactory tracks to be found here, and while some may dazzle or impress more than others, the last two, “48 Days” and “La Rota”, warrant special mention. Alternately serene and sombre, these closing statements comprise an elegiac, deeply moving conclusion. There is beautiful music and there is moving music (the best, of course, can combine the two), and then there is music that goes to that other place which is at once inscrutable and oddly familiar. By the time the last notes have been played it will occur to the tuned-in listener that something significant is happening here. This is a different type of music.

Music remains the ultimate antidote against cynicism and apathy: all it asks is you lend it your ears and in return you may just get something that makes the world more beautiful than you thought possible. If that sentiment is, understandably, a bit much to process with a straight face, let it suffice to say Kef is as extraordinary an album as I can recall listening to in a very long time.

Yoshie Fruchter’s Pitom (here is my very positive review of their 2011 effort Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes). Here is the conclusion of that piece:

By the end, Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes is not unlike a good workout, on multiple levels. You should be exhausted by the experience but you mostly feel rejuvenated, aware that something meaningful has happened. There is emotional heft here and a vibe that engages the intellect. This is music that matters. Is it too soon to begin wondering—and anticipating—what Pitom is going to come up with next time out? Stay tuned.

Jon Madof’s Rashanim (much more on him and his band here). Writing about his masterful 2009 effort The Gathering, I concluded thusly:

So…healing music? What is that supposed to mean?

Well, the great news is that we should properly relish the runaway democratization of content, with artists (like John Zorn) creating their own labels to more effectively disseminate their unfiltered (and unsanitized) vision. This is happening with all art, but musicians have arguably taken most advantage of the opportunities inherent in the increasingly viable DIY model. This, of course, is a very positive development for both artists and their audience. That said, we are still very much living in a corporate-sponsored country where suit-wearing weasels determine the bottom line based on a focus-grouped free market. For an artist to survive in this era is not an inconsiderable achievement; for an artist to thrive, defiantly crafting an original voice and sharing that vision with people, is cause for genuine celebration. That a musician like Jon Madof is fully committed to expressing his gift of music is enough to restore one’s faith: in music and the people who make it.

Matthew Shipp, from one of my favorite albums (jazz or otherwise) of the last decade, Equilibrium:

Jamie Saft (more on his most recent effort with New Zion Trio, entitled Fight Against Babylon, here). I can’t say enough good things about this utterly original genius, but here’s a taste:

Zelig-like, Jamie Saft has been an indefatigable fixture in the downtown NYC music scene. Equal parts MVP and unsung hero, his presence—as player, producer and composer—is at once daunting and exhilarating. Anyone familiar with John Zorn’s Tzadik label will already be quite familiar with his work, but if any musician is inadequately described by labels and geography, it’s Saft. Granted, Tzadik’s mission statement is the promotion of music without boundaries or agenda, resulting in albums that shift comfortably between genres like jazz, classical and so-called world music. Still, even in the Tzadik stable, Saft has been all-world in terms of his reach and aspiration these last ten years and change.

Productive and diverse, Saft has steadily amassed a body of work that can rival any contemporary artist. There are practically too many quality items to count, but consider a random sample of high points: there is his involvement with Zorn’s Electric Masada project, The Dreamers series, and—to pick only two from a half-dozen from the remarkable Filmworks series—Workingman’s Death and In The Mirror of Maya Deren. He also figures prominently on Bobby Previte’s (enthusiastically recommended) Coalition of the Willing and original Masada trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Freak In. Then there is the work he’s released as a leader…Get the picture?

And last but far from least, the master. John Zorn, who over the past several decades has done as much as anyone to encourage and inspire the creation of meaningful music. (A lot more about him, here.) Here is an overview, with some recommended recordings (and cohorts) included:

In the early 2000’s Electric Masada, a semi-rotating cast of characters including Trevor Dunn (bass), Jamie Saft (keyboards) and Ikue Mori (laptop and electronics/effects), began to tackle the catalog. The live performances were incendiary (trust me) and all this time, Zorn continued to make other music (tons and tons of it), particularly his always-compelling series of film soundtracks (currently at Volume 23, and counting…). Then, roughly ten years after he completed the first Masada songbook, Zorn challenged himself to compose new material, and quickly found himself with another 100 (!!) compositions, which he christened Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels. Unlike the first book, all recorded by the (acoustic) quartet, this series has been handled by a variety of bands in and outside the NYC jazz circuit, including Medeski Martin and Wood, Secret Chiefs 3, Marc Ribot, Uri Caine, Koby Israelite and The Cracow Klezmer Band. It can be said, without the slightest hint of (intentional) hyperbole that this is by far some of the more moving music recorded so far this century: it is not comparable, really, to anything being created by anyone around at this time.

He is not from New York City, he is New York City. Here is perhaps his most somber and elegiac piece, “Kol Nidre” (more on that and what it signifies, here):

I hope that anyone who lost someone eleven years ago, or suffers for any number of reasons due to the day that will define our new century, finds some peace and comfort. And as always, I encourage everyone to realize that while no music can completely heal a broken heart, it can go a very long way toward restoring your soul. Peace.

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Sonny Rollins, Still Living The Well-Lived Life (Revisited)

If you’ve lived on this planet thus far without getting Sonny into your life, I can’t encourage you more strongly to rectify that, immediately.

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Nice feature on American treasure (and no I don’t use that word lightly) Sonny Rollins in today’s Boston Globe.

Just this week I happily stumbled upon this amazing essay by Marc Jacobson. If you want to really understand what a unique and inspiring man this genius is, go HERE

The man is going to celebrate his 82nd birthday today and is still active, creative, engaged.

There are certain artists who are so incomparable, as artists, as human beings, as role models, that enough good things cannot possibly be said. There are not many in this category, but if anyone is, Rollins must be included. Ceaselessly humble, relentlessly ambitious and seldom (if ever) satisfied with his performances, Rollins is the rarest of birds: the enlightened being who figured out early on how to live life in full, on his own terms, and has never strayed from that almost monastic path.

A few money quotes from the article:

“I don’t care about landmarks and foolishness,’’ he says. “I am a musician very much into everyday activities. I practice everyday. I compose. I am in the middle of my career in my mind.’’

“I never thought anything was as important as understanding what I needed to do as an artist,’’ he says. “You can’t care about how the public reacts. It’s not something you can contemplate and anticipate. I try to get close to my inner self, and I know that will be OK. When I know I’m playing well, I know that everyone else feels that way.’’

You want to know what a bad ass motherfucker Sonny Rollins is? There are numerous examples, but two leap to mind (one well-known; the other less so):
Example one: two words, The Bridge. (I could explain this, but thanks to YouTube, footage exists of him describing this unbelievable story.)

Example two: at a concert in the ’80s, Rollins was in the middle of one of his ebullient solos when, in the joy of the moment, decided to leap off the stage. Suddenly, silence. After a few stunned moments, the music started up again. Miraculously this is caught on film, and the cameras pan in on Sonny, flat on his back, continuing to play. Cool enough, right? It turns out he broke his heel in the fall. And continued to play. Not just the song, but the rest of the show. The show, of course, must go on. (Flash-forward to the 2.42 mark for the magic. The man is not human)

The last century blessed America with more than a handful of geniuses whose lives and work will be studied and appreciated many, many centuries after they are gone. Rollins is most definitely on the short list of masters who can teach us a great deal about ourselves and how we should aspire to be, and in the process, as all great art inevitably does, make that life quest immeasurably richer and more enjoyable in the process.

Blow on, Sonny.

(Recommended Rollins for the uninitiated: Sonny Rollins Plus 4, Saxophone Colossus, Night at the Village Vanguard, Alfie, and East Broadway Rundown which, for whatever it’s worth, is one of my all-time favorite recordings in any genre.)

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