Saturday, June 25, 2011

Heavy Metal Be-Bop #4: Melvin Gibbs

I'm proud to present the fourth installment of this ongoing series. Thanks as always to Cosmo Lee at Invisible Oranges for his design/layout expertise and for playing host, and thanks, of course, to the subject himself, Melvin Gibbs.

I have to say, I've rarely had more fun preparing for an interview. I knew a bit of Rollins Band back in the early-to-mid '90s, but I definitely wasn't savvy enough as a teenager to hear the outfit as a "combination of Funkadelic and King Crimson," as Gibbs brilliantly describes it. And though I may have been vaguely aware of Gibbs's presence in the group, I didn't have a clue what his history was.

Street Priest by Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society (thanks to Steve Smith for digging this out), Seize the Rainbow by Sonny Sharrock, Strange Meeting by Power Tools, I Am a Man by Harriet Tubman, For You - For Us - For All by SociaLybrium. These are just a few of the great records Gibbs has made, and I'm still discovering more (e.g., Ellery Eskelin's Ten, which I can't wait to hear). He is a hero of a movement that doesn't have a name: postfusion, hardcore-informed, noise-embracing, funk-loving.

Currently, Gibbs works with Harriet Tubman—check out their new Sunnyside release, a 2000 live interpretation of Coltrane's Ascension with special guests—which played at Undead Jazzfest just the other night. If anyone caught the set, I'd love to hear about it via the comments. He also just completed a tour of Europe with Encryption, his trio with Vernon Reid and Ronald Shannon Jackson (you can hear an exclusive live track on the interview page at Invisible Oranges). Keep up with Gibbs via Tumblr, Bandcamp (where you can hear two full albums by recent Gibbs-led all-star projects) and Twitter.

P.S. As of this writing, two more Heavy Metal Be-Bop interviews are complete and in the queue. Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mandance: Tarbaby at Undead Jazzfest

I spent the first couple hours of Undead Jazzfest 2011 channel-flipping. I took advantage of the staggered set times and jumped between venues to catch about 15 minutes of several different acts. I enjoyed watching Tyshawn Sorey deploy the gravity blast in his sparse, cryptic trio with Kris Davis and Ingrid Laubrock; hearing the often mercilessly abstract Nate Wooley play a straightforwardly beautiful solo with Harris Eisenstadt's Canada Day quintet; eavesdropping on Marc Ribot's ragged and poignant unaccompanied set. But then Tarbaby started playing and there was no need to think about OPTIONS, the blessing and the curse of the Jazzfest experience (whether Winter or Undead). I put the remote down.

I had heard this collective—pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis (who sounded incredible alongside Peter Brötzmann at Vision Festival XVI) and drummer Nasheet Waits (for my money, one of the greatest living jazz drummers), augmented with various guests such as alto hero Oliver Lake, who fronted the group last night—on its 2010 sophomore album, The End of Fear. I'll admit to having initially been baffled by Tarbaby's conceptual/satirical slant (the record features a lot of overdubbed voices, speaking on the topic of jazz convention—and by extension, race— and creating a strange push-and-pull with the music); in short, it's the kind of record with a good deal of fuss and context, which tends to turn me off. As so often happens, I set the album aside intending to give it a second chance, but that chance never came about.

I can see now that no matter how good the record was, it wasn't going to prepare me for the shock (I think that's a fair word) of seeing Tarbaby live. The combined power of these musicians was damn near scary: I felt like I was watching Led Zeppelin, where every player can detonate on their own, but together they were simply volcanic.

The first piece built slowly, with Evans worrying an impish high-register phrase while the rhythm section got its bearings. Lake strode to the mic and began zipping off his trademark turbo-avant-bebop lines, and the music swelled. The band was like a tiny creature drawing air into its lungs and doubling in size with each breath, until—by the middle of this initial number—it was a writhing, hulking beast.

I wish I could put before you the loudness and the weight these four gave off during the course of the set. It's that creeping feeling of "Wow, these players are obviously playing at about 1/10 their full strength right now—if they let it entirely off the leash, we're going to be in some serious trouble." And soon, we were, and it was glorious. This was classic inside-outside jazz, sliding in and out of swing time, always inviting the turbulence while courting the form. And all four players projecting such mightiness, just at the border of macho and yet imbued with so much soul and wit and graciousness. Postbop, I guess I'd call it, though a particularly boisterous and totally un-arty strain of it.

I remember Evans's whirlwind piano flourishes, delivered with classic showman's flair, thundering-herd-of-elephants solos from Waits, Revis's cathartic shout in the middle of what I think was the piece "Brews" (the band quickly fell in line, punctuating the end of every phrase with a collective vocal outburst). Energy-wise, the performance reminded me of any number of free-jazz blowouts I've witnessed, but the crucial difference was that there was a SHAPE and an architecture at play. The quartet worked with relatively brief pieces, a repertoire it knew cold—mostly originals, I believe, in addition to an awesome version of "Awake Nu" from Don Cherry's Where Is Brooklyn?—and as it pushed and pulled and pummeled and caressed these compositions, you felt a guiding logic underneath. A point to it all.

As recently as last week, Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus reiterated that "The future of jazz lies in bands." Tarbaby is definitely, definitely what he meant, and I really hope they get their due soon (someone please book them for a week at a club!) because they are every bit as impressive as TBP, the Bandwagon (of which Waits is also a member) or any of the other more high-profile collectives. That irreverent energy that left me cold on my initial brush with The End of Fear, as though the band were sharing a joke I didn't get, made perfect sense live; it translated as a rare camaraderie. Not the annoying in-jokeyness ("See what I did there?") that sometimes haunts outside-the-box jazz, but a very genuine sense of play—playing with fire really.

It's quite possible that Tarbaby is the most virile jazz band on earth. Again, that flirting with machoness, that cutting-contest mentality, but instead of just stringing solos together, these men were building something, sharing in their own gloves-off kind of way. What a joy to see Oliver Lake, a man who will turn 70 next year, romping around alongside three considerably younger players (their median age is about 40), and there being no sense of tedious reverence for the old guy. Everyone was scrapping together, trading blows. It's enough to make you sad that some older players don't test their mettle against younger generations, and the same goes with younger players who don't get in the ring with older ones. I've definitely written this before (I remember singling out the example of Darius Jones, who was brave enough to tap Cooper-Moore and Bob Moses for his Aum Fidelity debut), but it's such a crucial thing in jazz. It's risky, sure—for the old as much as the young—and not everyone is ready for it. But Oliver Lake is currently playing at an astonishingly high level. Make no mistake, he is a living master, and since he gigs in New York all the time—he'll be back at Undead on Sunday with his Organ Quartet—you are remiss if you don't go check him out. If at all possible, check him out with Tarbaby.

I hope someone makes a live record of this band, or better yet a live DVD. I'm frantically wanting to demonstrate to my friends who weren't at last night's show how great they are. I know I'm going to go back to The End of Fear with fresh ears, but when you get down to it, Tarbaby exists in an undocumentable realm. Regarding it on record is like playing with an action figure of a T-Rex. This is the kind of sweet, jovial thunder that you have to hear in nature.

P.S. Hypocritical as it may seem, here's a Tarbaby + Lake live clip that gives you a little taste of the wildness.

P.P.S. Here's Tarbaby's self-titled 2009 debut (which I haven't heard yet) on CD Baby.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Halftime report: 10 strong 2011 jazz releases

Last week, several top jazz writers took a minute to survey the year in recorded jazz thus far. (The Undead Jazzfest, which starts tonight—TONY preview here, full schedule here—serves as a handy peg, dividing the calendar more or less in half.) Here's a 25-strong list from Jim Macnie, and 25 plus change from Patrick Jarenwattananon.

To some, these midyear round-ups might seem like overkill; you may even question the value of the ubiquitous year-end polls. But I'm with Jim, who defended the practice in his own wry way ("We all love our horse races and we all love our listicles."). As for me, I'm just really happy that so much jazz is still being recorded and released on albums, and I'm doubly happy that so much of it is being sent to me. As a fan, it's only natural to want to celebrate the bounty and take stock, whether that's yearly, biyearly or daily.

In that spirit, here's an alphabetical list of 10 2011 jazz releases I'm digging. (For reference, here's my 2010 midyear list.) I try to get into a zen frame of mind re: such lists, i.e., not to choose but to be chosen. Great records exude a subtle magnetism and they keep pulling you back. You can't always identify them on the first spin, but they call to you. Playing them, there's a perpetual sense of unfinished business. They are unknowable or at least elusive. That doesn't rule out straightforward appeal, but there has to be something drawing you back. These have all had that effect on me.

Ben Allison Action-Refraction
This is a record of covers (plus one original). Most of the pieces are new to me (or, like Monk's "Jackie-ing," only vaguely familiar), so I came to them fresh. I just love the sound of the band: funky and sassy and full, and with a rock edge (e.g., on P.J. Harvey's "Missed"), though not trying too hard to mimic rock, which can be a major red flag. My favorite tune is a reading of Samuel Barber's "St. Ita's Vision," which has a psych-happy, retro-synth sheen that—as I suggested in a Time Out NY preview—puts me in a Clockwork Orange frame of mind. You can stream the whole album on Allison's site.

Gerald Cleaver's Uncle June Be It As I See It (Fresh Sound)
If I remember correctly, I received this album right after I finished compiling my best-of-2010 lists. I recall liking it then, but I was worried it would get lost in the shuffle as the year wore on. Fortunately, that hasn't come to pass; this one is a keeper. Don't let the noisy opener, "To Love," throw you: This a sensitive, gently colorful record. The second piece, "Charles Street Sunrise," absolutely knocks me down with its chamberish beauty—like something off Andrew Hill's A Beautiful Day. Some tracks thrive on chaotic vocal overdubs and other programmatic content (alluding to Cleaver's family history), but the sweet ones are the ones that grab me. Like the Allison, the whole disc is streaming online via Cleaver's Bandcamp page. Check out "Fence & Post: Statues/UmbRa," which features a breathtaking Craig Taborn piano solo. (I should also nod respectfully to Out of This World's Distortions, a deep new Aum Fidelity effort from Farmers by Nature, Cleaver and Taborn's trio with William Parker.) I caught a nice live set by this band at Cornelia Street Café a few months back; hope Cleaver takes Uncle June to the stage again soon.

Eric Harland Voyager, Live by Night
This one originally came out last year, but apparently Sunnyside is reissuing it in July. The disc showed up in the mail a few days ago and it instantly caught my ear: fiery, chops-forward postbop (in the second-great-Miles-quintet vein) with a great sense of pacing (check out the solo "intermezzos" from pianist Taylor Eigsti). Lots of swagger here and a whiff of hotshot fusion, via Julian Lage's guitarwork. Hadn't heard too much of Harland before (I remember seeing him with Don Byron's Ivey-Divey trio a few years back, subbing for Billy Hart, who in turn subbed for him during the second half of the set), but he's been front and center this year, via this record and the cool James Farm collective. Wish I could've caught that latter group live this past weekend.

Ari Hoenig Lines of Oppression (Naive)
Speaking of hotshot fusion… I saw this band live at Smalls this past Monday and was floored, as I have been by Hoenig & Co. in the past. You should go hear them (Hoenig, bassist Orlando Le Flemming and guitarist Gilad Hekselman, with one of several pianists—the other night it was the marvelous Shai Maestro) in the flesh, but this record gives you a good taste. This band plays tricky, unapologetically flashy daredevil jazz that brims over with the joy of challenge. (I think of my math-rock survey, and the idea of the obstacle course.) Each player always goosing the other. This isn't really about subtlety as much as high-wire interactivity, and I can see it turning some people off, but for me it feels like watching great college basketball or something—a constant rush. Very catchy tunes too, most of them Hoenig originals. Check out some samples at Amazon ("Arrows and Loops" will not leave my brain) and a recent live set via Soundcheck.

Honey Ear Trio Steampunk Serenade
Another one that blindsided me. Had heard of drummer Allison Miller before, but had not checked out much of her work. Saxist Erik Lawrence and bassist Rene Hart were totally new to me, though. This cooperative trio plays like a dream, subcategories be damned. Something about the way they operate reminds me of Old and New Dreams, not that there's anything Ornette-ish about the music, but I get a sense of free-jazz-informed players working in a kind of autumnal mode, embracing that tradition as well as meat-and-potatoes swing and soul, all at once. They groove when they want (hinting at reggae, electronica, rock), fray at the seams when they want, always exuding a loose, gracious vibe. I get a strong Dewey Redman sensation from Lawrence (apparently a longtime sideman type dude who works with Levon Helm, among others)—tender yet never too far from a grizzly-bear outburst. I can't imagine a debut record sounding more assured than this. Stream here. (Let me say that it's great to see jazz artists embracing the excellent Bandcamp platform—it's the best way to go.)

Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo Songs of Mirth and Melancholy (Marsalis Music)
Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp released a killer classical-inflected duo disc, Cosmic Lieder, earlier this year, and they sounded even better live. But this sax/piano session, on which the classical element is an even bigger factor, is the one I can't stop playing. I'm not an expert on Branford's music (I will say that I've been digging Crazy People Music majorly of late), but I have some sense that it's the norm for him to be preoccupied with classical repertoire/vibe (see the Branford piece in Ben Ratliff's The Jazz Ear). This CD takes that and runs with it: There is a Brahms piece here, but moreover, the whole thing is dripping with stately elegance, way more reminiscent of chamber music than jazz. The poise and lyricism heard on pieces like "The Bard Lachrymose" and "Endymion" really gets me—it's pretty, yes, but it's something way more than that: almost prayerful. Simply put, I know of no other record that sounds like this. For me, it's one of the biggest surprises of 2011. Some samples here.

Jerome Sabbagh/Ben Monder/Daniel Humair I Will Follow You (Bee Jazz)
As with the Harland, this is another one whose release date is a bit vague. Apparently, it originally came out in 2010, but I definitely didn't receive it last year, and moreover, I remember a CD-release party (with Paul Motian in for Humair) going down only a month or so ago. (Speaking of, did anyone catch that show? I was dying to see it, but couldn't get there.) Anyway, a lot of what's here is free jazz. It isn't Free Jazz, however; it's lunar-landscape free jazz, WTF free jazz, free jazz that isn't afraid to get weird, without getting dense or loud or heated, or signifying "freedom" in any of the obvious ways. Ben Monder is a good person to have in your band if you want to go down this road (see Bloom, with Bill McHenry). So is Humair, a veteran French drummer who I only remember hearing alongside Steve Lacy, not to mention Sabbagh, a beautifully supple tenor player who often works in a boppier mode. If you like your improvisation textural and hear-a-pin-drop sensitive, with no conventions taken for granted—along those lines, the Frisell/Motian/Lovano trio isn't a bad reference point, though this might even venture deeper into innerspace—you will love this CD. Check out samples here.

Wadada Leo Smith's Organic Heart's Reflections
Speaking of the unfinished business mentioned above, I can't wait to get back to this one. This release is a monster: two robust CDs' worth of new music for a 14-piece band. Wadada has been on a serious roll in recent years; Tabligh from 2008 was a particular favorite. Heart's Reflections really ups the ante, though, re: its treatment of Wadada's patented current mode of marrying the funky and the meditative. In terms of those respective poles, two supporting players nearly steal the show: Drummer Pheeroan akLaff (sounding downright nasty) and keyboardist Angelica Sanchez (grabbing me even more here than she did on her recent solo album, A Little House). There's definitely some electric Miles here, as is often the case with Wadada, but he's busted into a whole new realm with this wide-spectrum project. Gorgeously recorded and every bit as essential as Tabligh or other great later-period Wadada efforts such as the self-titled Golden Quartet debut and the Jack DeJohnette duo America (both on Tzadik). Destination: Out has a preview; Amazon has samples of each track.

Craig Taborn Avenging Angel
It's probably best that I saved this for last, and maybe even that I didn't have access to it before I interviewed Mr. Taborn on the topic of metal a few months back. Simply put, this album is spellbinding and mystifying. Maybe it's that I just don't know the reference points that would unlock it, but I've noticed other reviewers regarding it with a kind of perplexed awe (check out Ratliff's take). By way of an illustration, here's a bit of my TONY preview: "At their best, these performances function like environments: Listening to 'This Voice Says So,' which builds gradually from an ethereal three-note theme, feels like stepping out of a spaceship onto an ice planet—vast and iridescent, but with a lurking malevolence. 'Glossolalia' takes elegant ascending lines and scrambles them into the sonic equivalent of Web-browser error code." What I'm trying to express is that you can't access this record via genre (jazz, classical, whatever); for me, it only made sense when I dropped the frameworks and just listened, when I let the sound pictures happen. I've spun it countless times, and it has retained an unknowable quality, as well as a powerful intrigue—the most I could really ask of a record. You really should hear it. Add Taborn's solo show at the Rubin last week to the list of gigs I was very bummed not to be able to attend. I read a few dropped-jaw accolades (Macnie, Panken), but I'm yearning for a fuller description. Anyone?


Five honorable mentions: Sir Roland Hanna Colors from a Giant's Kit (was planning on including this in the above, but it slipped my mind—you need this record; beyond masterful/gorgeous solo piano, again with a strong classical flavor); Matana Roberts Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens De Couleur Libres (some thoughts via TONY); Shane Endsley and the Music Band Then the Other (playful yet state-of-the-art 21st-century quartet jazz; Taborn also in great form here); Matthew Shipp Art of the Improviser (heavy-duty two-disc set, one trio and one solo); Tin/Bag Bridges (haven't spent good time with this trumpet/guitar duo set, but I love what I've heard; check it out on Bandcamp).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Studio visit: Milford Graves on record

In a March post, I attempted to make the point that free jazz ought to be documented in the studio from time to time. The only problem was that the Peter Brötzmann albums I chose as examples were actually live recordings. I stand by my argument, however, and it's because of albums like Real Deal and Beyond Quantum, sessions from, respectively, 1991 and 2008 featuring the drummer Milford Graves.

I've been on a Milford Graves kick over the past few days, incited by an interview subject who named Graves's 1976 LP Babi as an all-time favorite. Checking out that record, it was easy to see the appeal: It is as unhinged and raw a free-jazz document as you will find. Like Graves's many ESP-Disk recordings (I happened to catch some great material from 1964's The Giuseppi Logan Quartet on WKCR the other day as part of a Don Pullen profile), it sounds DIY, punk. There's something romantic about that. The legend of free jazz hinges on ideas of subversion and underground-ness. We like to think of these sorts of recordings as having been made hastily and cheaply—or in the case of Babi, a live album, almost incidentally, i.e., the music would have raged on whether or not the tape recorder was rolling. Graves's ESP sessions were mostly (all?) recorded in the studio in NYC, but there's nothing meticulous about them. The resulting documents are more or less the polar opposite of the kinds of gorgeously warm and balanced albums being made for Blue Note nearby at Rudy Van Gelder's New Jersey studio.

Despite all the financial shadiness surrounding ESP, fans of this music—myself included—tend to be glad that those mid-’60s records exist. We should also be happy, though, that many of the artists in question, e.g., Mr. Graves, have survived/thrived long enough to take advantage of more sophisticated recording technology. Just like with old, scratchy blues recordings sourced from 78s, we fetishize the thin, sometimes borderline crappy sound on those old ESPs, hold it up as a badge of authenticity, forgetting that no free jazz actually sounded like that in the flesh. You want to hear a Milford Graves album? Get Real Deal, a duet recording with David Murray recorded in the decidedly non–historically sexy year of 1991, or Beyond Quantum, a 2008 trio album with Anthony Braxton and William Parker. (Both are available as Amazon downloads via the links above.)

I can't express to you the sheer beauty of these recordings—not just the performances, but the SOUND. On Real Deal, Milford Graves sounds like the wind and the rain. He sounds like he's worshiping the drum kit, its glorious range of timbres. I'm listening to the first track right now, and it sounds heartbreakingly alive. The recording is wonderfully three-dimensional: You have the ride cymbal over in the left channel, the toms and bass drum closer to the center along with Murray's tenor, the hi-hat slightly to the right of those. I don't think I've ever heard another drummer paint with his kit the way Graves does, coax as much nuance out, and a musician like that deserves to be heard in a warm and resonant document like this, without that obfuscating aspect of rawness—obfuscating not just in the sense that detail is lost, but in the sense that it invites you to impose upon it a kind of punk romanticism. The romanticism is all there in the drums, though—you don't need an invitation to heap on your own baggage.

In short, free jazz deserves the studio treatment just as much as any other music. Sure it's a style built on rawness and spontaneity, but with the truly great musicians like Graves, you're going to get that no matter what. Why not hear him in glorious hi-fi? Here is a sample of Beyond Quantum—skip to around 1:50 for a taste of what I'm talking about:

I love that the ESP records exist (The New York Art Quartet is a particular fave), that Babi survives. But in terms of what I would take to a desert island, it's the pro-shot stuff, so to speak, where the music brings the heat and the recording soaks up the whole range of frequencies. Interstellar Space, anyone? Recorded at the aforementioned Van Gelder facility, not at some no-name Times Square facility or at a gig with a room mic. These Graves records are part of that illustrious tradition. Like many of the recordings in, say, the Aum Fidelity catalog—I've been very impressed recently by the new Planetary Unknown, with David S. Ware, Cooper-Moore, the aforementioned William Parker and Muhammad Ali—they're about museum-quality preservation, not DIY mythmaking. Artists of this caliber deserve such treatment. It is, I would venture to say, the real deal.

P.S. ECM is another label that has long understood the value of superior sound quality and studio documentation. You won't hear the full range of a Paul Motian performance on any other label. (See I Have the Room Above Her.) Speaking of which, I wrote about a handsome new studio-recorded Craig Taborn solo disc on ECM in this week's Time Out New York.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Happy Morbid Angel Day

Morbid Angel, my favorite metal band, breaks an eight-year silence today. Let this post be an official welcome to Illud Divinum Insanus. I bought it on two formats (can't remember the last time I did that with any album); you too should grab a copy via Season of Mist.

You've likely picked up on some of the deafening (and already extremely tedious) backlash that has greeted this release. Here is my preliminary response to that. And here is an eloquent—and dare I say moving?—defense of the record from Earache's Digby Pearson. Thanks to Invisible Oranges for the tip-off.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Unpacking "25 NYC Jazz Icons"

Update: Saturday, 6/4/11—This post has been updated with Ted Panken's latest response, and my response to that response (and yet another response from Ted!). Scroll down to read the newer material.

I'm happy that people have been checking out the list of NYC jazz icons that my TONY colleague Steve Smith and I put together. Ted Panken took the time to organize his reactions into a thoughtful blog post, and I thank him for this effort. Since Ted takes issue with the overall tenor of the list, it seemed appropriate to respond. I attempted to post the following as a comment on his blog, but I think it may have been auto-rejected on account of its length. Whether or not it shows up there, I wanted to post it here for the record; I've slightly augmented my initial comment to clarify a few points and to specifically address this remark of Ted's: "In my view — and it’s only my view — a few too many of the choices privilege an aesthetic of recondite hipsterism."


Greetings Ted,

I appreciate your thoughtful response. Leaning too "avant" or "progressive" was a concern of mine, but in the end—and I speak only in terms of my contribution to the project—I had to go with my gut, as well as with what I know. I make no claim to a 360-degree viewpoint. When it comes to jazz in our wonderful city, I keep up with as much as I can, but obviously I have my biases and blind spots.

In a way, I was hoping for exactly this sort of naming-names rebuttal. Some of the artists on your list (Binney, Lovano, Reid, Ribot, Eskelin, Morris, etc.) are very familiar to me and came up during Steve's and my discussion leading up to the final selection. Others (Harrell, Malone, Lynch) are less so, and I look forward to doing some research.

As far as the use of the word "icons," maybe there's some hyperbole there. I guess that, word choice aside, what I personally was aiming for was a kind of representative cross-section. And per my admission above, we may have failed in that. In our defense, though, I think we made strong cases for our inclusions, leaving aside those we may have excluded; maybe that's the best a list-maker can hope to accomplish.

To address one specific point, our inclusion of Marsalis wasn't begrudging at all—we simply ranked him where we felt he belonged. Another point re: the nitty-gritty of the rankings: To me, the most enjoyable aspect of making the list was the fact that Steve and I each independently arrived at Paul Motian as our No. 1 when this project was still in its nascent phase. In a way, that fact should tell any reader of the list where we're coming from. A list on which, say, Wynton placed first would be a list written from a very different perspective, and it's a perspective I totally welcome. (Seriously, if anyone wants to make that list, I'd love to see it!) But going back to that issue of bias—let's just call it taste—as anyone who's stopped by my blog could probably tell you, I make no bones about my deep love for the mystery men of jazz (Andrew Hill, RIP), of which Motian is probably our greatest living example, and certainly our greatest living-in-NYC example.

With regard to some of the younger players on the list, if cheerleading for the likes of Jon Irabagon, Matana Roberts and Fieldwork makes me a proponent or enabler re: an aesthetic of recondite hipsterism, then so be it. I can definitely respect the fact that the essence of great jazz can sometimes get obscured when there's too much focus on the "avant," conceptually rigorous or future-minded, but I nominated these three (and several others on the list) simply because I feel they represent the best kind of progressiveness—one that forges ahead without losing the thread.

Anyway, our chief goal was to incite discussion and—if not ire—at least enough controversy to fuel some impassioned responses. I greatly admire your work, and I'm sincerely honored that you took the time to write up a thoughtful rebuttal to what we put out there. The fact that there's disagreement signifies that we are surveying an extremely broad landscape re: "NYC jazz 2011." On that note, I echo Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff in saying, more or less, bring on festival season! (I caught one of our TONY "icons," Lee Konitz, kicking off the June jazz rush in high style this very evening at the Blue Note, on the recommendation of Jim Macnie, a writer who I bet could make an essential-NYC-jazz-artists list to put us all to shame.)

Thanks again, Ted, and welcome to the blogosphere. Icons aside, these blindfold tests you've been posting (Konitz, Motian and there's more on the site) are blowing my mind.



Ted Panken's response, posted on his blog:

Thanks, Hank. Had you said “representative critical cross-section” rather than “icon” (and I realize that this is an article for an civilian magazine) I would still have disagreed with but wouldn’t really have had a reason to express high dudgeon. To call someone an “icon” denotes influence, of being an artist with acolytes, who has influenced a stream of musical expression or found a sui generis path from deep R&D on the fundamentals.

Nomenclature aside, your “Time Out” list raises a broader point, the “sore spot” I mentioned towards the end of my post, which is the exclusion from the canons of all too many of my brother and sister journalist-critics of artists who work within groove- and swing-based contexts, who put some blues into their expression, and who endeavor to let their imagination and creativity operate within the idiomatic parameters of jazz and Afro-Caribbean traditions — not to recreate or xerox those traditions, but to deal with them in a present-day context on their own terms. The “mystery men” who fascinate you reached that point through long apprenticeships spent working through these vocabularies (or, as Henry Threadgill discussed with Ethan, the various tributaries of European music and other American and World vernaculars) and allowing their voices to emerge in an organic way.


My response to that response:


Thanks for posting the comment.

I understand what you're saying about the dangers of privileging the outré over the bread-and-butter. And I'm very familiar with the history of, e.g., Motian, and what led him to his more abstract late work. At the same time, I don't feel like anyone that Steve and I championed can be accused of ditching tradition in favor of novelty or lofty conceptualism. Take your description below:

"…artists who work within groove- and swing-based contexts, who put some blues into their expression, and who endeavor to let their imagination and creativity operate within the idiomatic parameters of jazz and Afro-Caribbean traditions — not to recreate or xerox those traditions, but to deal with them in a present-day context on their own terms."

When I read that, the very first artists I think of are players such as Jon Irabagon, who engages in a very direct way with Sonny Rollins in his "Foxy" project and has a record ("The Observer") out with Kenny Barron, one of the elders whom you cited as an omission on our list. Additionally, the Mostly Other People Do the Killing band, of which Irabagon is a member, is one of the most historically minded jazz ensembles in NYC, right down to their parodies of classic cover art and liner notes. Or I think of Matana Roberts, whose "Coin Coin" presentations seem to me like a very conscious engagement with the work of Mingus, Max Roach and John Carter (and maybe even Wynton Marsalis), artists whose work grapples with cultural history and sociopolitical reality. And Jason Moran's ties to Byard, Hill, Abrams and others—not to mention Monk and the stride tradition—are well-documented. To their credit, I think a lot of the younger players who have been captivating the critics are doing so precisely *because* they're demonstrating a very deep awareness of what came before and doing so in very novel, personal ways.

There's definitely such a thing as throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to jazz "innovation," but I'd happily defend all the artists on our list (and again, I'll concede that "icon" may have been too strong a word—in the end, though, the choices and the text are the real content of Steve's and my piece) against such accusations. You'll find tons of groove, swing and blues in the work of the Irabagons, Robertses and Morans of the scene.



Ted Panken's response to the above is here. Apologies for such a convoluted post! Happy to field any questions on the whole exchange.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

In full: An interview with Peter Brötzmann

About a month ago, I spent one and a half hours on the phone with Peter Brötzmann (from midtown Manhattan to Wuppertal, Germany). I've carried on in recent posts about my intermittent addiction to this man's music. For about a decade now, his sound has functioned for me like a somewhat exotic favorite cuisine: not something I'm always in the mood for, but when I am, I won't settle for anything else.

Mr. Brötzmann was a delight to talk to. (At this point, I'd like to extend a hearty thank you to Patricia Parker at Arts for Art for setting up the interview, which was Time Out New York–backed and timed to Brötzmann's June 8 appearance at Vision Festival XVI.) It would be somewhat absurd to expect a creator of extreme and often violent music to also express these qualities in conversation, but it didn't seem out of the question that Brötzmann might be a bit brusque or no-nonsense. Actually, he was unfailingly warm, totally unhurried, funny, reflective, occasionally profane. In short, I got a constant "I'm talking to a really good guy" vibe throughout our interview. It made me wonder why I hadn't read more interviews with the man before. After all, he tours the world regularly; you'd think that press folks would get curious and request Q&As. Whatever the case may be, I felt completely elated during and after this experience. I almost always enjoy the interview process, but this one seemed to be in a class of its own.

I feel that the results will be of interest to Brötzmann fans, which is to say that they were/are of interest to me, i.e., I learned a lot about him and clarified a lot more. Just to cite one example, I've always been fascinated by Brötzmann's inimitable verbal sense (Nipples! Balls! Hairy Bones!), and he spoke candidly about this:

"If you take Balls or Nipples, the sexual side of the music, you have it in rhythm & blues as much as you can. It's very important, and was and still is for me."

That's just a small snippet. If you have a chance, please check out the interview and let me know what you think. If you're new to Brötzmann, I suggest starting with the profile piece that the conversation fueled.

I should mention that this Brötzmann interview was just one component of an NYC-jazz package created for the Time Out New York website by myself and my esteemed colleague Steve Smith, whom you might know as @nightafternight. In addition to a calendar of the top jazz shows for the coming summer, you'll find our thoroughly subjective list of 25 essential New York jazz icons of the present moment. (DFSBP regulars might be able to guess who my No. 1 pick was, a pick at which Steve and I each arrived at independently.) As with the Brötzmann materials, I welcome any feedback regarding this list. I had a blast working on it, but it was definitely an eye-opener in terms of my own biases and blind spots.

P.S. I encourage all Brötzmann fans to visit his new shared web home, Catalytic Sound, where you can buy records direct from the artist.