No BS! Brass, “Fight Song” & “RVA All Day” (CD review)

(originally published in JazzTimes)

No BS! Brass, “Fight Song: A Tribute to Charles Mingus” & “RVA All Day” (No BS Brass)

Funky brass bands, heavy on the New Orleans street beat with jazz and rock variously interwoven into the mix, have regained a degree of cache, thanks to the likes of Rebirth, the Dirty Dozen and Trombone Shorty.

Now here comes Richmond, Va.’s 11-piece No BS Brass! Stylistically a bit all over the place, the band gives jazz props on Fight Song, turning in pleasant reworkings of Mingus gems. Tuba man Stefan Demetriadis’ solo cadenza opens “Better Git Hit in Your Soul,” which trips into double-time about halfway through, wah-muted lines goose the melody of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” and “Nostalgia in Times Square” features trombonist Bryan Hooten’s unaccompanied playing as well as Chris Bopst’s spoken-word riffing.

The band, co-founded by trombonist Reggie Pace of Bon Iver, travels further afield on RVA All Day, its punchy, cascading title track a salute to the group’s hometown. This disc, more raucous than the Mingus tribute, dips into hip-hop on “Git It Awn!,” stirs R&B vocals into jazz-rock fusion on “Love Seat” and takes on Michael Jackson with a “Thriller” that moves from brass choir to high-school marching band to big band before it’s all over. Fun ride.

Jimmy Cobb & Peter Erskine Talk Ride Cymbals

(originally published in JazzTimes)

Jimmy Cobb & Peter Erskine On Ride Cymbals

What to look for in jazz’s essential cymbal

It begins from the inside out, explains Peter Erskine, the Weather Report veteran and noted bandleader and educator also recognized for his work with Steely Dan, Diana Krall, John Abercrombie and others. “What you hear in your head is what you’ll draw out of any instrument. I expect the cymbal to do something and I can usually draw that out,” Erskine said recently from Brooklyn, his home base while playing—in the pit and onstage—for the New York City Opera’s production of Anna Nicole.

A 22-inch Zildjian K Constantinople medium ride is Erskine’s go-to ride cymbal, but two other 22-inch rides have called his name. “The [K Constantinople] Renaissance model that was developed by Zildjian with Adam Nussbaum is a tremendous ride cymbal, not quite as dark as the [regular K] Constantinople. It’s remarkably versatile. And the [forthcoming Zildjian Kerope] is the closest thing to 1950s Ks that were played by all the drummers in the ’60s. … I’m pretty flipped by it.” The most important quality? “I look for clarity,” says Erskine.

Twenty-seven years ago, Erskine joined Elvin Jones on a memorable outing to the Zildjian factory in Istanbul. “Instead of going tip-tap and that kind of thing, Elvin took both sticks and just started roaring on the cymbal, playing on the edges with the shaft of the sticks for a good minute or two,” Erskine remembers. “There was this wash of white noise. Elvin was smiling and playing this thing and he got it moving. He really opened the cymbal up, got it warmed up and loose.

“That’s one of the important things, ultimately, when you’re trying out a cymbal: See how quickly it recovers from a crash or that roaring sound back to stick articulation. Any good cymbal should function as both a ride and a crash. Any of your drumming heroes, you’ll spot pretty easily that they’ll play that way. Tony [Williams] and Elvin and Mel Lewis said that, too.”

NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Cobb, whose heartbeat ride playing and impeccable swing fueled Miles’ classic Kind of Blue album, is working with Sabian to find the right cymbals to replace a set stolen during an overseas gig. The latter cymbals, including 20-inch and 18-inch Zildjian rides, were loaned to him by Mel Lewis as a temporary replacement for another set that was stolen.

Cobb, recently heard leading his trio at the Village Vanguard and continuing to play with his “So What” Band, the 4 Generations of Miles group and Javon Jackson’s We Four: Celebrating John Coltrane project, concentrates on tonal aspects and decay rates: “One I had was between bright and dark—I could hear the beat on the cymbal, hear the wood on the cymbal and hear the quality of the cymbal. For me, I don’t want it to be overbearing. I want to be able to hear the beat and not have it resound too long. I want a quick, sharp beat to it.

“With Miles,” he continues, “one time I was using a Zildjian with a couple of tacks in it, a sizzle. My setup was a 20-inch ride [on the right] and an 18-inch ride on the left. So I would play the big one when I was playing with horns and trumpets and the little one when I was playing with the piano or the bass.”
The best ride cymbal, Cobb argues, is the most versatile. “I look for one that sounds good in all kinds of situations, a cymbal that can be substantial all the time—it fits most rooms you play in,” he says. “That’s hard to find. You have to go through a lot of cymbals.”

(A personal note: Some years ago I had the great privilege of playing bass in an entire concert with the great Jimmy Cobb, and a stage full of great players, including Larry Willis, Antonio Hart, Vincent Herring, Rob Bargad and Longineau Parsons. It was a memorial concert for Nat Adderley, at Branscomb Auditorium on the FSC campus in Lakeland, Fla. I had been asked to bring my bass for Walter Booker to play, as he had previously liked playing my bass at the Child of the Sun Jazz festivals in Lakeland. He was felled by asthma, and I was tapped to play at the last minute).

JazzTimes Critics’ Poll: Vijay Iyer’s “Accelerando” Takes Top Honors

vijay iyeCritical consensus says that Vijay Iyer‘s “Accelerando” (ACT) is one of last year’s finest jazz recordings: The CD, with the pianist joined by bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, just topped the JazzTimes critic poll.

Also making the Top Ten, as selected by a large group of JazzTimes writers (I voted):

2. Branford Marsalis Quartet, “Four MFs Playin’ Tunes” (Marsalis Music)

3. Sam Rivers/Dave Holland/Barry Altschul, “Reunion: Live in New York” (Pi)

4. Ryan Truesdell, “Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans” (ArtistShare)

5. Ravi Coltrane, “Spirit Fiction” (Blue Note)

6. Gregory Porter, “Be Good” (Motema)

7. Henry Threadgill Zooid, “Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp” (Pi)

8. Wadada Leo Smith, “Ten Freedom Summers” (Cuneiform)

9. Tim Berne, “Snakeoil” (ECM)

10. Brad Mehldau Trio, “Ode” (Nonesuch)

Check the January/February print edition of JazzTimes for the full list of the year’s Top 50 jazz releases.

Wanna see the individual ballots (including mine)? Click here.

The Trouble With Top 10 Lists; Also, in the Voice: a Wrongheaded “Greatest Jazz Albums” List

Planet Jazz: Notes From All Over

‘Tis the season. Yes, it’s that time of year when arts and entertainment critics desperately attempt to remember all that they’ve seen, heard or read over the past 12 months, and come up with lists ranking the best.

Having contributed more than a few jazz, rock and film critics’ lists over the years (including some published in the Village Voice, JazzTimes, Jazziz, downbeat and various newspapers), it’s a task I’m  accustomed to completing.

I look forward to it, too. While a bit of a chore, it can also be fun, and illuminating. It’s a relatively painless way to review the best and worst of the past year’s releases, and take a second look at anything that might have been unfairly overlooked.

That said, “best-of” list making remains an imperfect method for honoring significant work, and raises all sorts of questions.

At the risk of adding to the Top 10 clutter, here are my Top 10 questions about critics’ Top 10 lists:

  1. Is it really possible to determine “the best” when each recording, film, book, TV show or play often is a universe unto itself, in terms of being so vastly varied in approach, intent, structure (and other areas related to content) and even medium that comparisons are absurd? Is Ang Lee’s sumptuous, colorful 3D epic “Life of Pi” even of the same species as Tim Burton’s black-and-white animated stop-motion film “Frankenweenie”?
  2. Shouldn’t each artist, ideally, be pursuing creative work against a standard of that artist’s making, rather than a standard tied to what everyone else is doing?
  3. Related to the above, doesn’t it do a disservice to the art at hand to nudge artists in the direction of open competition, ala athletic bouts? Isn’t the sheer number of units sold beside the point? Must there always be “winners” and “losers” in the creative arts? (Obviously, here I’m not talking about entertainment — like, say, the latest CD from boy band One Direction — that’s specifically contrived as commercial product, overproduced to every inch of its life, targeted to a very specific demographic, and designed to sell the maximum to the most).
  4. Is it possible for a critic to fully absorb or even have access to every high-quality representation of any particular art? In 2011, in the United States alone, 610 feature films were released in theaters (MPAA), 76,875 albums that sold at least one copy were released (Nielsen Soundscan), and three million books were published. Try keeping up.
  5. Given that evaluating everything, much less catching it all, is not humanly possible, wouldn’t it be more honest to refer to any given list as “the best (fill in the blank) that I caught this year” or something similar but less unwieldy? Why pretend to have a macro view when one’s view is actually quite limited?
  6. Does the average critic typically assemble a “best-of” list based on what he or she ACTUALLY LIKES, as opposed to a list designed to appeal to other critics and the highfalutin segment of the readership?
  7. Related to the above, should the trendy — the new, the innovative, the bold, the provocative, the young — by default be rewarded over the outstanding, or even the great? And should critics emphasize diversity for diversity’s sake? For a jazz list, should a critic pointedly include solo works as well as large ensemble recordings and everything in between, and strive to ensure that there’s equitable representation of multiple sub-genres as well as gender, race, and country of national origin? Or should the focus always be on the work that strikes the critic as being highest in quality?
  8. Should critics, as sometimes happens, highlight work by lesser-known artists merely in order to bring needed attention to those folks? Good intentions, yes, but they come with unintended consequences (see below).
  9. Likewise, should critics, as sometimes happens, NOT include works by well-known artists merely because those artists are deemed already to have received enough attention? For example, should a film as accomplished as Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” go underappreciated by critics at year’s end simply because it was directed by (arguably) the world’s most famous filmmaker? Should anything by a Marsalis — whether saxophonist Branford, trumpeter/impresario Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, drummer Jason, or piano-playing dad Ellis — be discounted because their family name is omnipresent in jazz? Should the likes of Stephen King and John Grisham be overlooked just because those guys sell books by the truckloads?
  10. At the same time, should popularity, which of course directly reflects on how an artist resonates with the public, be ignored altogether when deciding whether a work ought to be included on a list?

So many questions. Too few answers. Onward to the Top 10 task(s) at hand.

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Lists make good filler for publications, even if and when those lists are obvious, redundant, pointless, or ridiculously incomplete.

With apologies to the story’s author, “Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die,” in the Village Voice, hits all the above marks. It’s one of the most generic jazz pieces published in a major publication in recent memory.

Nothing wrong with including the usual suspects, like Miles, Coltrane and Monk, because they’re the usual suspects for good reason. But as someone remarked on Twitter, it’s the kind of list that could have been predicted even before it was published.

Worst of all, the piece suggests that must-hear jazz was released only in the period beginning in 1959 (Miles’ “Kind of Blue,” Mingus’s “Mingus Ah Um,” Ornette’s “Shape of Jazz to Come”) and ending in 1973 with Herbie’s “Headhunters.” Seriously?

Missing from the list: Ellington, Charlie Parker, early Louis, big bands, Latin jazz, loads more.

Also MIA: Any developments in jazz since the heyday of fusion. It’s nearly another reiteration of the Ken Burns argument — you know,  jazz is all but dead. And it’s wrongheaded.

A simple fix: Retitle the piece “My Favorite Jazz, 1959-1973.”  That’d be an honest “bucket” to put it in, at least.

Jazz is Dead, Again?; Jazz & Colors Festival; Wayne Shorter Returns to Blue Note

Planet Jazz: Notes From All Over 

Jazz is dead. What, again? Say it ain’t so!

At the end of a partially admiring review in The Atlantic of jazz critic Ted Gioia‘s comprehensive book “The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire” (Oxford University Press), Benjamin Schwarz makes a bold, brave declaration, one never previously issued.

Schwarz, the magazine’s literary and national editor, says, in short, that jazz, because it’s not rooted in or inspired by the popular music of its day (or of recent decades), is no longer relevant. Moreover, it simply can’t be. The genre is kaput, out of gas.

Here’s the relevant quote from the article, accompanied by the headline “The End of Jazz”:

“The Songbook, a product of a fleeting set of cultural circumstances when popular, sophisticated music was aimed at musically knowledgeable adults, was the crucial wellspring of jazz. Both jazz and its progenitor are worthy of radical—indeed, reactionary—efforts to preserve them. But despite Gioia’s ardency, there is no reason to believe that jazz can be a living, evolving art form decades after its major source—and the source that linked it to the main currents of popular culture and sentiment—has dried up.”

Sure, the body of music collectively known as the Great American Songbook served as a “wellspring” for jazz musicians from the early swing era to the late bebop period and beyond. And many of those works continue to inspire gigging jazzers on all levels, from your neighborhood restaurant with the piano-and-bass duo to the Blue Note in NYC.

But there were and are many, many forward-thinking jazz musicians whose playing and compositions are not directly tied to the Songbook. The new music may not be tuneful in the manner of older jazz standards, and may not “swing.” Yet it builds firmly on the jazz tradition, and by nearly any definition would be called jazz.

I won’t name artists’ names here — because, inevitably, I’d leave out too many — but tens of thousands of high-profile and lesser known musicians around the globe are actively writing, performing and recording jazz of the highest order. For evidence, check out the heavy hitters topping readers and critics polls in the Village Voice and the major jazz magazines.

For anyone with big ears, attuned to the breadth and depth of what’s happening in the jazz world, the continuing viability and vitality of the music is not so difficult to understand. It doesn’t take a jazz purist to know that jazz is very much alive. Then again, taking to a highly visible national platform and declaring that jazz is dead is a quick and easy way to attract a lot of attention — for a demonstration, check today’s music blogosphere, or your Twitter feed.

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It’s not just writers for national general-interest magazines who have difficulty seeing the big picture, when it comes to jazz.

One writer in one market, “explaining” why a recent jazz festival was so light on jazz, complained about “purist jazz fans” who “griped” that half of the event’s four headlining positions were filled by artists who clearly fell into the categories of blues and Americana/indie.

“We’re not living in a jazz world anymore. Sorry, but that’s the truth,” he wrote, stating the obvious, in a defense of the fest that sounded like an apology.

And then this: “If this were a pure jazz-only event, you have to wonder if it would have made it 33 years at that size, at that venue and with that clout and reputation.”

Reality check: Hundreds of high-profile jazz festivals in the U.S. — Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Monterey — and internationally remain heavily focused on high-quality jazz, and have successfully done so for years. Nobody, “jazz purist” or otherwise, imagines that jazz is a commercially lucrative genre — it’s hardly a quick route to immense wealth or superstardom. And yet, that doesn’t mean jazz festivals shouldn’t focus on, you know, jazz, rather than rock, pop, blues, rap or other music.

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Jazz is dead, and no longer fit to attract crowds to festivals?

Then someone better tell Peter Shapiro, whose company, Dayglo Ventures, is producing NYC’s upcoming Jazz & Colors Festival in collaboration with the Central Park Conservancy.

The free-admission festival, slated to be held Nov. 10 from noon to 4 p.m. on stages throughout Central Park, will feature  small groups and big bands, name artists and newcomers, each playing two sets.  Brice Rosenbloom, founder of the increasingly more influential Winter Jazzfest in NYC, picked the 30 acts, and the programming offers a neat twist: All of the musicians have been asked to play music relevant to the setting and the calendar, including the likes of “Autumn in New York,” “Central Park West,” “Nature Boy,” “Blue Train,” “Nostalgia in Times Square,” “Scrapple From the Apple,” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

The impressive, eclectic lineup: Bob Stewart Quintet, Chris Dingman Quartet, Claire Daly Quartet, Doug Wamble Quartet, Gregoire Maret, Jacques Schwartz-Bart Quartet w/ special guest Stephanie McKay, Jason Kao Hwang Trio, Jason Marshall Quartet w/ special guest Hilary Gardner, Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, JC Hopkins Quintet w/ special guest Jazz Horn, JD Allen Quartet, Joel Harrison Quartet, Kahlil Kwame Bell, Kevin Hays Trio, Kimberly Thompson Quartet, Knuffke Stacken duo plus Bill Goodwin, Lakecia Benjamin And Soul Squad, Marc Cary Quartet, Marika Hughes & Bottom Heavy, Mike Mo Quartet, Mitch Frohman’s Latin-Jazz Quartet, Rockjazz pianist ELEW, Roy Campbell Tazz Quartet, Sharel Cassity Quintet, The Jamie Baum Quintet, The Klezmatics, The Mingus Big Band, The Wayne Escoffery Quartet w/ special guest Carolyn Leonhart, YES! Trio w/ Aaron Goldberg, Omer Avital, Ali Jackson, Yosvany Terry Quartet.

For more details, visit the Jazz & Colors site.

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If jazz is dead (2), then someone better tell Blue Note, who just re-signed Wayne Shorter. The great saxophonist, composer and bandleader is returning to the label after more than four decades, having last recorded for Blue Note in 1970, for sessions released as the albums “Odyssey of Iska” and “Moto Grosso “Feio.” He’s since led sessions for Verve, most recently with 2005’s “Beyond the Sound Barrier,” and Columbia.

Shorter, 80, yet another one of those artists still making immensely creative, high-caliber jazz largely built on non-Songbook originals of his own making, will be accompanied by his longstanding quartet members — pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Brian Blade — for “Without a Net,” due for release Feb. 5.

As Jeff Tamarkin writes in Jazz Times: “Without A Net is a nine-track album, all but one of which were recorded live last year in Europe. That exception is “Pegasus,” a 23-minute piece described as a “tone poem” and recorded with the Imani Winds at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The album features six new Shorter compositions, as well as new versions of his tunes “Orbits” (from Miles Davis’ Miles Smiles album) and “Plaza Real” (from the Weather Report album Procession). The set also includes the title song from the 1933 musical film Flying Down To Rio.”