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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