Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Slate: Hip Hop influence on jazz?

While hip-hop has devolved time and again into disposable pop, it has never lost its vitality as an underground, alternative art form. This is the aspect of hip-hop that jazz musicians are responding to; they're encountering hip-hop on creative rather than commercial terms. And they're refuting the popular view that today's jazzers are stuck in the '50s and '60s. -Slate

We've heard a lot about the jazz influence on hip hop, and likewise, how jazz musicians and hip hop artists have worked together and collaborated on various projects, but this article from Slate talks about something a little different, the hip hop influence on "acoustic" jazz. Blue Note's newest artist, pianist Robert Glasper, has been touted for his "hip hop" influence. He's certainly worked with many of the biggest names in the creative side of that genre (Q-tip, Mos Def, etc), but his new record is most certainly a jazz record, not a crossover project like Roy Hargrove's RH Factor - no mc's or turntables, or even samplers, etc. To my ears, it's pretty much an excellent straight ahead, Herbie Hancock/Miles 2nd 5tet inspired record. Blue Note has issued press materials talking about the hip hop influence on Glasper's style:

The second time around, the true nature of the music begins to reveal itself, not as much aurally as sensually. The bass is warmer, phatter, more sanguine, the drums throb, and the piano dances freestyling swing moods.

Freestyling swing moods? Hip hop influence? I hear that term as being nothing more than a poor attempt by a PR hack to try to put a new, marketable spin (we've gotta have something for the press to write about!) on something jazz musicians have been doing for decades.

I'm not saying that Glasper isn't influenced by hip hop, (R&B artist Bilal makes a guest appearance on this new record in fact) just that this is more of an example of a record company using a hip hop connection to sell the album, or at the very least make it stand out in a genre filled with countless reissues and self produced albums that all do pretty much the same thing. Where Blue Note's PR people hear "phatter bass" - I hear a fine jazz bass player, where critic Ben Ratliff observes that the "group has its own crisp, skittering cooperation, with hip hop in its bounce", I hear the bounce, but those rhtyhms aren't coming from hip hop, it's a jazz feeling all the way. If anything I hear more of a Brad Mehldau influence on Robert's playing (he occasionally pulls out a Brad-ism here and there) than hip hop.

Perhaps this marketing spin, or being more generous to Ratliff and Blue Note, perhaps it's just things coming full circle. The improvisitory nature of jazz inspires hip hop mc's and their freestyling, infuses pop culture, and now we have PR folks calling a jazz pianists improvised solo "freestyling swing moods." Certainly hip hop has influenced jazz musicians, but I just don't think that Glasper's new cd is the best example of such a trend.

The article in Slate by David Adler - Two Turntables and a Saxophone - How jazz plays off hip-hop which prompted this particular post (and deals with more than just Robert Glasper) is available here.

Jazz Blogs 'Round the World

Here's a few new links to jazz blogs (in many different languages) which I've stumbled across. Too bad that I can't read all of them, but that's my problem, not the authors. And perhaps someone out there can read em!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Tim Ries - The Rolling Stones Project Interview

Saxophonist Tim Ries is getting a lot of attention these days, being on tour with the Rolling Stones and his new Rolling Stones Project cd. I had a chance to talk with Tim last week, and wanted to post the audio from that interview for all to hear. But before I do that, a couple of quick comments on Tim and his new record. First, it's got the biggest cross section of musicians you'll likely find on any jazz record. I never thought I'd see Bill Charlap, Luciana Souza and Keith Richards on the same cd, but Tim pulls it off and does a fine job. He stays pretty faithful to the songs, though it's not a pop record by any stretch of the imagination. My one gripe might be that Tim didn't get enough of the solo spotlight, though there's plenty of that, it really is all about the tunes and the band, for the most part. Norah Jones makes a lovely cameo on Wild Horses, and Luciana Souza steps in to give the Brazilian tinged version of Street Fighting Man even more of an authentic feel. I'll let the interview tell the rest of the story.
Listen online...

Monday, November 14, 2005

Benny Carter's trumpet playing

Normally when I think of the multi talented Benny Carter, I think of the great saxophonist who was just as creative in the 1990's as he was back when he started out in the 1920's. Other times I'll think of Benny Carter, the composer, who wrote such memorable songs as Only Trust Your Heart and When Lights Are Low. Then there's Benny Carter the arranger and bandleader. But rarely do I think about Benny Carter, the trumpet player! Truth is, while Benny will always be best known as an alto saxophonist, he doubled on trumpet for most of his career. I was reminded of this last week, when I picked up a copy of an album called "My Man Benny, My Man Phil" featuring Benny's band with special guest Phil Woods. Benny plays trumpet on a few of the tracks, and while he's wasn't a "great" trumpet player like he was a great saxophonist, what struck me was how MUCH he sounded on trumpet like he did on alto! From phrasing (which one would expect to be similar across instruments) to things like tone and vibrato, it's actually quite remarkable. Give it some thought the next time you hear a record featuring Benny's trumptet playing.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Moacir Santos - Choros & Alegria

Most American jazz fans aren't familiar with the name Moacir Santos. But they should be. The Brazilian composer/arranger's new cd "Choros & Alegria" is an exceptional followup to the double disc "Ouro Negro" of last year. If people have called (correctly if you ask me) Antonio Carlos Jobim the "George Gershwin of Brazil" than Moacir Santos could be called the Duke Ellington of Brazil. Normally when people like of Brazil and jazz, samba, bossa nova, or some other offshoot comes to mind. Santos' music is certainly informed by those styles, but they don't dominate the jazz influence. His large ensemble writing uses really unique instrumental textures, intriuging chord progressions, and quite often on this new cd. Each one of his compositions is like a little jewel, quite intricate and fascinating. They have a tendency to unveil themselves melodically in unexpected ways, much like the works of Wayne Shorter. Santos, who plays saxophone, does not play on this cd, but rather has an excelllent cast of Brazilian musicians, playing transcriptions of his original arrangements, as well as some new charts of his tunes, arranged and transcribed by Mário Adnet and Zé Nogueira, who are billed as the "presenters" of the cd, in similar fashion "Ouro Negro". Wynton Marsalis also makes a guest appearance on one track "Route 8", which could as easliy have come off of Lee Morgan's "Procrastinator" album. Star soloists aside, the arrangements and compositions are the real stars here, a unique blend of Brazilian forms, American jazz, cinematic textures (Santos studied with Henry Mancini) and clever melodies.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Bill Charlap knows his stuff

Pianist Bill Charlap might be the only significant jazz instrumentalist to fully emerge in the last five to seven years who has made a large impact on the jazz scene by playing true "straight ahead" jazz. Just a decade ago, straight ahead bop based acoustic jazz was truly bountiful, especially with the major labels. Now with most of those labels either shuttered or merged (Warner Brothers Jazz, Impulse) or shifted in focus to releasing "adult pop" (Verve, which counts both Paul Anka and Linda Rondstadt on their current jazz roster). Blue Note, riding the success of Norah Jones has still managed to release some fine jazz from Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Jason Moran, and Wynton Marsalis, but even it has Anita Baker and Rev. Al Green occupying space once filled by Benny Green, Rodney Jones (see below) and Mark Shim. While indie labels like HighNote and Telarc have picked up the slack, as well as artist run labels like Dave Douglas' Greenleaf Records, and the Marsalis Music imprint of Wynton's brother Branford, many artists have ditched the "neo-bop" sounds of the 90's for a more electronic approach. Some of the projects are truly innovative, or at least unique. But far too often they're just warmed over sounds from the 70's, music like the "neo-bop" of the previous decade was a slickly marketed repackaging of sounds from the 50's and 60's.

Thus, given the climate of today's jazz scene, the emergence of Bill Charlap, a piano player's piano player, a man who eschews those retro-electro fusion trappings, turntablists, m.c.'s, and covers of tunes by British rock bands, which are all the rage among his peers, is indeed quite remarkable. Charlap, who started out as a pianist with the like of Phil Woods and Gerry Mulligan, works almost exclusively with his tight knit trio of bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, and has released a string of excellent, "Great American Songbook" based records since 2000, all on Blue Note. Both critically and popularly acclaimed (to the extent we can use that term for any jazz artist) Charlap is virtually alone amongst his major label peers, and has somehow managed to take a supremely familiar format and approach, and breathe new life and personality into the music.

Unlike most of his jazz piano peers, Charlap sounds little like Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner or Bill Evans, though he has obviously absorbed their recordings and harmonic sensibilities. Instead, if anyone could be cited as a chief influence on Charlap it might be Tommy Flanagan, or Barry Harris, both known for impeccable taste and a deft touch at the keyboard. Charlap though has a percussive attack at times that owes more to Duke Ellington, Ahmad Jamal or Dave Brubeck, and at other times a minimalism that would make John Lewis or Count Basie proud.

But Charlap's approach to a song is what really impresses me, and his extensive knowledge of the material he plays. He knows this stuff inside and out, perhaps due to the fact that he grew up with the songs of Gershwin and Arlen and Porter; Charlap's father was the composer Moose Charlap and his mother, vocalist Sandy Stewart, the featured "guest" on the pianist's second cd this year. And not only does Charlap know this material better than most anyone else in jazz, he is one of the most articulate speakers in jazz. Last year, Charlap was featured in an open conversation at the Monterey Jazz Festival, (I seem to recall it being hosted by Marian McPartland, but don't quote me on that). He provided a most insightful discussion of the music of Bernstein (the subject of his then most recent cd) and Gershwin, (the subject of his then upcoming cd). Doug Ramsey of Rifftides posted a couple of things about Charlap's recent talk and performances at the Earshot Jazz Festival a few days ago, which got me thinking about Charlap again. If you haven't heard his music, and enjoy the "straight ahead" piano trio, and would like to hear a new voice in that style, you could do far worse than Charlap.

Doug Ramsey on Charlap:

Monday, November 07, 2005

State Department sends N.O. musicians on world tour

Back in the early days of the Cold War, the US State Department used jazz, and tours by American jazz musicians as a signifcant part of the nation's public diplomacy efforts. Some of the biggest jazz stars went on long, continent wide tours of "third world" nations. Dizzy Gillespie went on a noteable tour of South America, Dave Brubeck took his acclaimed quartet all the way to Afghanistan, and many others brought jazz to millions for the very first time. These tours were quite a big deal in the 60's, and while I'm not sure they stopped altogether they certainly haven't been as prominent, at least within the US jazz community. Perhaps that's because jazz is so widely accepted and appreciated across the world today, or it reflects a change in the geo-political climate and the cultural one upsmanship that was a product of a showdown between two superpowers.

Given the current state of the world, and the somewhat tarnished opinion many abroad have of America, I've often thought it would be a great thing to bring back such a program, not to spew propoganda or advocate anything at all. Rather just an effort to bring unite different peoples through music in the spirit of goodwill.

It is in this spirit I suppose that the US State Department and Jazz at Lincoln Center are organizing a tour of New Orleans area musicians in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Included sixteen nation tour are trumpeter James Andrew and the New Orleans All-Stars, clarinetist and vocalist Doreen Ketchens, trumpeter Marlon Jordan and his quartet, the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Collective, and the 44-year-old Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The tour will take them to Senegal, Morocco, Eygpt, Qatar, Kuwait, Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, Romania, Germany, Lithuania, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, India, and Saudi Arabia in the months of November and December.

More info...

Jazz Notes - Rodney Jones

I think I'm going to call my ongoing series of short comments on jazz related items "jazz notes". With that out of the way, I just got a new cd today by guitarist Rodney Jones called "Dreams and Stories" on HighNote, with an incredible band, Kenny Kirkland, Marc Johnson and Jeff Watts. Not sure when it was recorded, but I'd guess it was at least a decade ago. Rodney sounds quite a bit like Wes Montgomery throughout, especially since he's using his thumb, rather than a guitar pick, just as Wes did. His playing is fantastic, perhaps not as distinctive in tone as Rodney's current work, but the band swings really hard, through the nice mix of originals and standards. And of course, any new material by the late Kenny Kirkland is always welcome. I was struck listening to this today how incredibly good Kenny was, and what a loss to the jazz community we suffered when he died several years ago. There's also something about the recording quality I like, there's not a lot of fake studio reverb, giving it a very clean and intimate sound.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Mike Zwerin gets grumpy on New Orleans jazz

“...the fact remains that the prehistoric jazz music New Orleans is noted for had already been under water for nigh on to half a century.”
-Mike Zwerin

Ok, I know it's over a month ago that Mike Zwerin wrote this controversial opinion piece for Bloomberg about the state of New Orleans jazz in the wake of Katrina. Cahl's Juke Joint has also commented on it with great expertise. I've been thinking about this very issue for some time now, and to some extent even before Katrina, and while Zwerin has some valid points, for the most part, he's off base.

Zwerin says that pre-Katrina, New Orleans' jazz "image" was more of a myth than reality. He talks about the "moldy jazz being played [at Preservation Hall]," and the artistic stagnation of the music tourists usually hear in the French Quarter. He characterizes the city as simply another "provincial" town where the good talent leaves town, and those who stay behind are somehow to be looked down upon and aren't "putting music first." And that's just a quick summary of Zwerin's bitter rant.

First, Zwerin has some points. Pre-Katrina New Orleans was not the jazz capital of the world. But such a statement is self evident. I haven't heard anyone, even Wynton Marsalis, say that New Orleans today is the biggest center of jazz music in the world. A city known for jazz music, yes. A city central to the understanding of the historical development of the music, yes. But Zwerin is simply stuffing his straw man with extra hay, only to knock it down.

Second, yes, plenty of musicians have left the city to go on to fame and fortune. But those left behind are hardly less than world class. Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard spend a lot of time on the road, but to my knowledge, both maintained homes in the Cresent City, pre-Katrina. And Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield are (were) certainly New Orleans residents and two of the biggest musical ambassadors of the city. Both show a respect for the New Orleans tradition, but take the music in a new direction, hardly the Presevation Hall crowd (though there is a place for that too.) Perhaps Ruffin is too much of an entertainer for Zwerin. But what about a group like Astral Project, as long a running modern jazz ensemble as any "provinvcial" city can boast.

I get the feeling Zwerin is bitter because he sees New Orleans getting credit for something he (apparently) feels it did not deserve. It's more of the same old bitter jazz attitude that does nothing to bring anyone new into the music. If anything, instead of viewing jazz as a musical wax museum, like Zwerin asserts, Zwerin misses the point - jazz in New Orleans had so permeated the culture it morphed into other styles and genres, that may not be "jazz" per say, but are certainly jazz informed. Zwerin would be far better off to examine the entire New Orleans music scene, rather than just the Preservation Hall/French Quarter stuff that populated the pre-Hurricane tv tourisim commercials. New Orleans may not have been the jazz capital of the world, but it was certainly one of the great "music cities" of the US, right up there with Austin, Memphis and Nashville. Jazz, both traditional and modern were a large part of that, but due to the same cultural forces that created jazz itself, it wasn't the only game in town, just perhaps the most famous and easily marketed.

Cahl's Juke Joint on this same article...

Mike Zwerin's original piece...

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Please don't continue to ask me about Chris Botti...

That's what I say to the record promoter. Or perhaps what I should be saying instead of nodding my head in zombie fashion, the telephone receiver glued to the left side of my face, my eyes staring off into the nothingness that is my office. They want us to play Chris' new cd "To Love Again: The Duets". I have nothing against Chris personally or musically. We played a couple of his tracks from his last record, there was one with a nice Billy Childs arrangement that was almost Gil Evans-esque, I liked it, and Chris got some (a little bit) of blowing room. Chris is a talented musician, and apparently is applying the lessons learned from his "smooth" "jazz" work to a more "straight ahead" approach, on this, his second album of standards.

But this new record is not like that last one. Or rather, it loses virtually all of the things that made the last one worth playing here or there for reall jazz radio. It has all the polish and then some of the previous record, more guest stars including Sting, Jill Scott, Paula Cole, and ugh, Steven Tyler. But I don't hear the jazz in it. Not even a little bit. The record promoter goes on to tell me about all the other "jazz" stations that are playing it, and that he thinks that "Pennies from Heaven" from Renee Olestad is a keeper track, and that it might work for us. I suppose if your idea of jazz means that any performance of a "standard" by an instrumentalist = jazz, well, I know there are radio people who think that. First, the record doesn't swing - it's lush, orchestral, which by itself doesn't mean anything. But perhaps more importantly, I hear Botti play the head of say "Embraceable You" and boom - that's it. No solo, maybe a little hint here or there at taking some liberties with the melody, but it's not jazz to me. No improvisation. No jazz feeling. I'm not saying that makes it BAD. Just that it doesn't belong on JAZZ radio. But the promoter will keep asking me about it I'm sure, and I will keep telling him, "I've listened to it and it's not working for me." I admire these promoters. I wouldn't be able to do their job.