Monday, October 13, 2008

Danilo Perez & Claus Ogerman - Across the Crystal Sea

It's often said that there aren't that many really impressive new recordings being made today in jazz, at least compared to the "golden era" of the music. I generally agree with that statement. It's likely something to do with the quantity over quality issue - the number of new jazz recordings has exploded over the past 20 years, but in most cases, the music isn't all that memorable. 

A big exception to all of that is Beyond the Crystal Sea - a new record by pianist Danilo Perez which finds him working with arranger and conductor Claus Ogerman. This is simply a beautiful record, and I saw without hesitation the best that I have heard in 2009. Perez and Ogerman are perhaps an unlikely pair at first thought, but it works wonderfully. In fact, I think it's a more satisfying project than the similar record Claus did with Bill Evans  back in the 60's, which like Crystal Sea, also deals with jazz adaptations of classical themes. Al Schmitt recorded it, so you also know it's a sonic gem too. I'd be shocked if this one doesn't walk away with numerous awards at the end of the year. It deserves them. 

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Jazz Dynamics

One of the things that impressed me the most after hearing pianist Ahmad Jamal's trio several years ago was the use of dynamics. The group could go from a whisper to a roar, often quiet quickly. It added an element that I often find lacking in many jazz groups both live and on cd.

Creative use of dynamics is another color in the musical pallete. So why do so many jazz musicians play like they only know two volume levels - on and off? I suspect a lot of it has to do with the way bands are mixed, both live and on record. Musicians often aren't in the loop - the mix is often the responsibility of the sound guy, who quiet often isn't the most musical person in the room. Groups today don't really worry about how they blend as a group naturally - because its all "in the mix". Most CDs are dynamically compressed (altered so that the loud parts quieter and the quiet parts louder) some so much so that the whole recording is all of one volume! Once you realize what's actually going on and what a good less, or moderately compressed recording can sound - it really becomes annoying.


That said there are some jazz artists today who understand the power of dynamics, and that quiet can be as intense as loud. Just looking through my top 10 list of 2007 a couple of the CDs stand out as excellent examples. Bill Charlap's trio is a great example of the creative use of dynamics in a small group which can be heard to great effect on his new live at the village vanguard cd. For a large group there is no one better at exploiting the dynamic range of a big band than Maria Schneider (though John Clayton comes close). Her new cd Sky Blue is likewise a fine example of that - she uses dynamics almost as another instrument in her arrangements. And while I wasn't specifically thinking about dynamics when I selected these two as part of my ten best CDs of 2007, I can't help but think it's not just a coincidence that they rose to the top partly because of their use of dynamics.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Best jazz musician you haven't heard of - Anat Cohen?

I can think of several nominations for this award, but the first one that comes to mind right now is saxophonist & clarinetist Anat Cohen. She has three new records out this year (two under her own name) and I'm really excited by all of them, as they're all very memorable.

Born in Tel Aviv, and now a New York resident, Anat started out like many musicians do on clarinet, and has great chops and a rich, full tone on that most difficult of woodwinds. The same can be said of her work on saxophone. Her tenor playing (tenor seems to be her predominant horn) is both lush and muscular, full of inventive ideas, highly lyrical, and remarkably refreshing, in the way it stands out from the cookie cutter tenor players that are all over jazz today. And while she is clearly informed by everyone from Ben Webster to Sonny Rollins, but her sound is totally contemporary. She also is very well versed in everything from Brazilian choro to Argentine tango rhythms, and she incorporates those influences into her work, as well as some hints of her own heritage and her early exposure to Dixieland. Her brother Avishai (not the bass player) is also a first rate jazz trumpet player in New York.

I first took note of her playing a couple of years ago with her excellent debut Place and Time. It had a poise and presence that I'm not used to hearing. We got so many records at the station, from big names to unknowns, and it's rare for one to really stand out of that pile of "unknowns" and make a big impact. Early this year, Anat returned with two new records in her own name. Poetica is a showcase for her clarinet work, an has echoes of classical music, Brazilian, and even a eye opening version of Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament."

The other record, Noir, is a large group showcase ("big band" isn't perhaps the right label), again, with similar themes, but a totally different sound, and more focus on her tenor playing. Together they make a nice set, showing the musical development and diverse interests of a talented young player. Anat's tenor playing has evolved a bit from her first CD. Her sound seems even bigger, and now has perhaps a bit more edge than before. I sense she's more willing to take (more) musical risks and expand her palette as an improviser now.

Then last week, I came across another CD, which eventually inspired me to write this post. I briefly glanced at the two disc set, which didn't seem to catch my interest at first. The "Waverly Seven" was the band, Yo Bobby the title. It seemed to be some kind of two disc tribute to Bobby Darrin, complete with Vegas-esque CD artwork. I get a lot of these. They usually aren't worth a listen. After I turned the CD over and saw the personnel, (Anat, Avishai, Joel Frahm, Jason Linder, etc) it piqued my interest. I took the CD with me and listening to it on the way home I was hooked.

What could have been a terribly cheesy concept is actually a REALLY hard swinging, retro-yet-fresh showcase for Anat's tenor, and fellow tenor Joel Frahm, playing songs associated with Darrin, in fresh, "wow, that's cool" arrangements. Think of Tadd Dameron charts, with some B-3, Wurlitzer, Moog, and guitar mixed in, all with a incessant uptempo swing feel. Most of all, it's a lot of fun, and proof that you don't need to water down jazz to make it fun for listeners. At times, like on the barn burner "Artificial Flowers", which closes disc one, Cohen and Frahm go at it in a classic tenor duel that would make Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Johnny Griffin proud. I could help but crank up the CD player to the max and roll down the windows, head bobbing up and down on two and four. I was really prepared NOT to like this record, but I can't stop listening to it. Something most of Anat Choen's albums tend to do.

Most articles in the jazz mags about Anat Cohen will likely spend a good deal of time talking about her Israeli heritage, the fact that she's a female tenor player in jazz, etc. That's great, good story lines for a journalist looking for an angle, but it's missing the point. And that of course is, she's REALLY good. If you're tired of listening to those cookie cutter tenor players who all must be playing the same licks, and trying to rip off Chris Potter, Michael Brecker, or Mark Turner, listen to Cohen.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Jazz Audience Part II: Jazz and Youth Soccer?

I was listening to sports talk radio the other day, and the topic was how no one really cares about the Stanley Cup Finals. (I'm not here to argue either way on that one) The conversation continued to other sports that don't get much TV attention, and thus big fan bases here in the US. Lacrosse was mentioned, and so was soccer. We all know that soccer has grown in popularity here in the US over the past few decades, but it hasn't truly taken off. And much of the growth can be attributed to a changing population, and changing demographics, with new immigrants who are already futbol fans.

Then one of the hosts brought up the disconnect between of the number of kids playing soccer, versus the size of the adult soccer audience. It's hugely popular, right up there with basketball, and baseball, and has been for some time. Millions of kids are in soccer leagues. I drive past a major soccer complex often on the freeway, and it's always PACKED at night with various teams playing, hundreds if not thousands of people. But despite the HUGE numbers of kids playing soccer, most don't go on to be soccer fans. This CNN Money article (a bit old, from 2002) talks about this issue. This of course is of concern to many in soccer, and presumably to the MLS, which is hoping its product will catch on and be as mainstream as baseball or football someday (with the revenues that follow).

How does this relate to jazz? Well, we always talk about building the next generation of jazz listeners and focusing on getting kids in jazz bands (good thing for a lot of reasons, I'm not questioning that). But the problem is those kids aren't becoming LISTENERS! They may be in the program out of coercion. They may like playing an instrument, or the social aspect of being in the band, but as they mature they aren't seeking out jazz events, or recordings. Now, of course, the kids in the band are more likely than those the average student population to become jazz fans (a guess, but I think it's a safe one). But still, the numbers aren't very good. How else can you explain the explosion of jazz education of the last 30 years, compared with the simultaneous decline in the jazz audience, jazz venues, jazz record sales.

Jazz faces the same issue as soccer. If we only rely on youth participatory programs to generate next generation audiences, we're not going to grow the audience as we think we would. We need to take a serious look at audience development, how we can make jazz relevant to new generations of listeners, and find out what interests them. I'm not talking about watering down music. I'm talking about taking a moment and saying "what's going on here?" To be continued.

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Update: Yoshi's pulls CD

Yesterday I mentioned the controversy surrounding a new 10th anniversary CD from the venerable Oakland jazz club Yoshi's - a CD that didn't include any music by black artists. Well, in today's San Francisco Chronicle, word comes that the club has decided to pull the CD, and is working on putting together a more diverse compilation. They had sold about 500 of the 1000 CDs printed, before they decided to pull them from their website and club store.

As I pointed out in my post yesterday, and as Peter Williams of Yoshi's explained in The Chronicle tooday, Yoshi's simply went through the Concord Records archives (a label formerly based in the Bay Area, and still with some Bay Area ties through the Fantasy Studios and archives) and selected tracks by Concord artists who had been recorded live at Yoshi's. Two additional tracks (Madeleine Peyroux and Robben Ford) were added from broadcast airchecks from San Francisco radio station KFOG.

In the same article Orrin Keepnews chimes in with the following insult to all of the artists on the CD:
"With all due respect to the venerable Marian McPartland, whom I love and have always loved, there's nobody on that record of major current importance," said Keepnews. "The club put out an anniversary record that was thoughtless and not very well put together. They limited themselves to material recorded live at the club. You have a half-dozen things here that don't have the making of a significant or representative record, regardless of what color anybody is.'
Questioning why a "Live at Yoshi's" CD would only include performances recorded at the club, makes one wonder what sort of relevance Keepnews has in today's record industry. Of COURSE they limited themselves to material recorded at the club - that was the concept of the album. And it's nice of Keepnews to insult musicians like Poncho Sanchez (jazz snobs will always look down upon any music that actually encourages people to dance) and Joey DeFrancesco as not being of "major current importance." (whatever that means - Keepnews must have a direct line to the jazz police).

Bottom line: Yoshi's should have tried to include recordings from other labels as part of their CD. But they went with Concord, and it just so happened that the artists on Concord who recorded at Yoshi's weren't as diverse as Yoshi's normal lineup. But Yoshi's lineup IS diverse, always has been, and I'm sure will continue to be.

However, in the jazz world, there are still problems of diversity in many areas. The world of institutionalized jazz education is much less diverse than jazz as a whole. There are several record labels that I can think of (mostly small ones though, as almost all jazz labels are small) that don't feature any, or maybe only one or two releases by artists of color.

When I'm on the air, I don't pay attention to the race of the musician in selecting what I play. On occasion I'll look back at a playlist, and I'll notice that it was a pretty diverse mix. Other times, I'll say "wow, in this hour, I didn't play any music by white musicians," or "wow, in this hour, I didn't play any music by black musicians," or "wow, in this hour I didn't play any music by Latino musicians." I think this is what happened with the Yoshi's CD. I think it was an honest omission, (not a mistake) but an omission, and given Yoshi's track record in booking diversity, I think they should be given the benefit of the doubt.

This matter does bring up a larger issue which needs to be addressed, however. At the same time that jazz is growing in popularity around the world, and in some ways is thus growing more diverse, here at home, jazz is losing its traditional African American audience. And are as many young African American musicians going into jazz? Do they have the same opportunities to participate in the jazz education system as white musicians? The situation reminds me a lot of the issues facing Major League Baseball, which is facing a steep drop in the number of African American players. Maybe this Yoshi's controversy, which is a little overblown, if you ask me, will shed some light on the more significant issues of race in jazz. It's a big, important, and complex topic, that warrants more discussion than I can provide right now, but I'll try to revisit it soon.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Jazz and Race - Yoshis 10th Anniversary CD controversy

California's premier jazz venue, Yoshi's at Jack London Square in Oakland, just celebrated its 10th anniversary at its current location, and released a CD to go along with the celebration. The CD has tracks by Poncho Sanchez, Marian McPartland, Joe Pass, Joey DeFrancesco, Robben Ford, and Madeleine Peyroux. Sounds good, right? The problem - no black artists. This has many in the Bay Area jazz community concerned, according to the San Francisco Chronicle (link). Yoshi's has apologized for the oversight. But then last week another issue came up: the Berkeley Downtown Jazz Festival, which presents music at a number of venues, didn't have any black artists performing at one of their venues, Anna's Jazz Island, though a number of black artists are performing at other BDJF venues.

I don't have time to weigh in too much on the whole issue, other than to make a few comments, first about this particular situation and then the issue at large.

1) I see that most of the artists on the Yoshi's CD have other commercially available "Live at Yoshi's" albums available. Peter Williams mentioned the recording rights issue with the Chronicle, and I imagine this played a big role in who wound up on the CD. However, just off the top of my head, Mulgrew Miller, Dee Dee Bridgewater, also have "Live at Yoshi's" discs. Both are African-American artists.

2) With the exception of Madeleine Peyroux and Robben Ford, all of the other artists on the Yoshi's 10th anniversary CD are affiliated with Concord Records. It might have been an issue where Concord was easy to negotiate with regarding these tracks, other labels weren't, and these tracks and artists were chosen accordingly.

3) I don't think anyone has any justification to question Yoshi's overall booking policy and artist lineup based on race. I've seen many other jazz venues which seem to present only white artists, but not Yoshi's.

4) I don't think it so much applies in the BDJF case, as they do have a diverse artist roster, just not at the festival events at Anna's Jazz Island.

5) I think this is a legitimate issue which jazz presenters and educators need to pay attention to. Maybe this incident will spark some further discussion on this issue in the jazz community, even if the criticism in these cases isn't entirely justified.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Aging audience?

Mark Sandow has an interesting piece on his blog about the aging audience for classical music, and the various reactions people often have, such as denial. It's a major issue that faces almost all arts organizations to some extent, but really is not even an arts issue any more - overall our population is again. Teachers, government officials, corporate types - just thumb through any national publication and you'll likely see articles about how some remarkably high percentage of the population of _______ is aging, about to retire, not being replaced by new workers, etc.

But classical music is especially challenged in this area. Jazz is too. Just go to a jazz concert or a festival, and observe the audience. It's not the most youthful group. Thankfully, the jazz audience isn't quite as old as the classical audience, and it's certainly more diverse. A recent study (2006) by the Jazz Alliance International (PDF download) says that 41 percent of the jazz audience is under 39 year old, which quite frankly surprised me. Another 37 percent are between 40 and 55. I had expected the numbers to be much older.

Now let's think about those numbers and ages for a moment. Those 41 percent of people under 39 years old, did not grow up in a world where jazz was popular music. And most of those in the 40-55 age group didn't either. These are children of the rock and roll generation. They obviously came to find out about, or enjoy jazz at some point - but when? And how? This is the information I'd like to find out. I often ask people who become members of the station how they found out about the station, and how they got into jazz. Some have stories of growing up listening to mom and dad play records by Dave Brubeck and Shelly Manne, or going to see the CTI All Stars at the Warnors Theatre as teenagers. But most of them seem to have stumbled across the music as adults. And I say "stumbled" because it often seems more like an accident, as opposed to "seeking out" the music. They happen across the radio station, like the music, and get become "jazz fans". Maybe they had some early exposure to the music at home, but most of them probably (my conjecture here) we're active jazz fans in their teens or twenties.

If true, this dispels the myth that jazz has no future if it's not "pop" music. Pop is targeted to a teen audience, and if yesterdays teens of the (1960's and 70's) are becoming jazz fans in their 30s or 40s. It also dispels the myth that adults musical tastes are set in stone by the time they reach adulthood.

It also raises some interesting questions, such as: If most jazz fans become jazz fans as adults, and most are doing so in some sort of accidental manner, how can we "nudge fate" a bit and make things a little less accidental, and do some real audience development? Another interesting stat: 41 percent said that the reason they don't attend more jazz events is... inconvenient location. Again, not what I expected.

Sandow also raises another issue that I've been thinking about, and I'm not sure if I agree with him. He says there is a ray of hope, because the number of young people PLAYING classical music has stayed the same over the years. Conventional wisdom would lead one to believe that those student musicians would then become the next generation of classical fans. First, if this was the case, wouldn't we see less of an overall "aging" of the classical audience, if all those young students from 20 years ago are now active in the classical "audience?" Second, and more important, I'm not sure that most young people who are in a jazz band, or classical ensemble are interested in the music itself. I had a discussion with a local high school band director a few days ago. Keep in mind, this is a school with a very distinguished music program in both classical and jazz. I asked him how many of his students in his jazz band would be jazz listeners in 10 years. He said maybe three or four. Now that's certainly higher than the average high school population, but it's still not great. The same goes for the kids in their classical ensembles. They may play Mussorgsky or Holst, but they have no interest in going home and listening to classical music, or going to hear an orchestra or chamber ensemble perform.

Also, another question that turns conventional wisdom on its ear: Are jazz musicians part of the jazz audience in a significant way? I always remark at the relatively small number of musicians I see at local jazz events. Maybe they all have gigs on those nights, but I doubt it.

All of this, to me, points to the need and importance of a strategic effort at audience development for jazz. It can target young kids, the pre-teens who don't yet have closed minds to something that sounds "weird." It can also target adults who might someday "accidentally" find out about jazz. But instead of waiting for fate, it can be proactive, and get in front of them, in an accessible, yet not "watered down" way. It can show them that jazz is something they already like, and enjoy, they just don't know it. It can show them that jazz doesn't have to be dry, boring or stuffy. It can show them that jazz is relevant and a lot of fun. But as long as the majority of our effort at jazz education is focused on attempting to crank out the "next" John Coltrane, we might be missing the point. Of course traditional jazz education is VERY important. But we have more musicians today than ever before, a record number of jazz CDs released every year, and fewer and fewer venues and listeners to support them.

Now, I'll admit there might be some problems with my conclusions. The jazz radio audience, the jazz purchasing audience and the jazz event audience aren't necessarily the same audience. The JAI survey was apparently some sort of web survey, so I don't know how accurate it is. Nor are my anecdotal observations reliable in any sort of statistical method. But at the very least, I think this is an issue that needs to be discussed some more. We need some reliable research on where jazz listeners come from, when they become jazz listeners, and why. I've only begun looking into this issue, so I'll keep you up to date with anything else I come up with.

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