Kermit Ruffins, “We Partyin’ Traditional Style” (CD review)

(originally published in Relix)

kermit cd

Kermit Ruffins, “We Partyin’ Traditional Style” (Basin Street Records)

Kermit Ruffins has become Kermit, Inc., gathering crowds for regular gigs in New Orleans, running his own restaurant, touring and memorably playing himself—an eminently good-natured, way laidback jazz cat—on HBO’s Treme.

He’s still releasing appealing audio souvenirs. This time, he applies his distinctive barking, slurring and growling playing and singing to traditional tunes, with several of the city’s top-rank musicians, including drummer Shannon Powell, pianist Steve Pistorius, banjo man Don Vappie and trombonist Lucien Barbarin.

“Careless Love” benefits from a gospel-blues underpinning, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” is a suitably warm and mellow salute to St. Louis, the punchy “Treme Second Line” is reminiscent of Ruffins’ days with the Rebirth Brass Band and a playful “When the Saints Go Marching In” caps it all.

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.

Louis Meets Death Metal & Other Audiovisual Musical Mash-Ups: Creative or Obscene?

When, back in 1999, Kenny G added his chirpy soprano sax to Louis Armstrong‘s classic recording of “What a Wonderful World,” I reeled in disgust. Or, at least, I was very, very annoyed by the thing. Even worse, the popular saxophone owner, in concert, did a “duet” with an Armstrong video clip.

That was obscene, right? Plenty of jazz devotees thought so.

Pat Metheny reportedly said, in response, “With this single move, Kenny G became one of the few people on earth I can say that I really can’t use at all — as a man, for his incredible arrogance to even consider such a thing, and as a musician, for presuming to share the stage with the single most important figure in our music.”

But when an obscure guitarist syncs his roaring death metal version of the same tune to that Armstrong clip, why do I find it uproariously funny?

Is it a double standard on my part – you know, it’s okay to mix Louis with dark and speedy guitar rock, but not with smooth jazz?

I’m still not sure. All I know is that there’s just such shock and surprise at hearing/seeing a blenderizing of two genres that don’t at all belong together, that one can’t help feeling jolted by the experience. The combination of death metal and Louis Armstrong — the absurdity of the “disconnect” — is so bizarre, I guess, that the result is just plain funny.

Not everyone has reacted that way, though. An old friend of mine, a jazz musician, said that he found it “obscene.”

I respect, and understand, that reaction. But the video, to me, feels more like a musical art project. Kenny G borrowed (stole?) an older artist’s work in order to support his own, to profit financially. Andy Rehfeldt, the guitarist and songwriter who created the metal/Louis clip (with vocals by The Markness), seems to have put together his project just for creative kicks — to see how well he could make his song sync with the video, and to see what reaction it might get.

Rehfeldt’s home page on YouTube has tons of other mash-ups, including reggae-fied Kiss, metaled-out Hannah Montana, and my second favorite clip — Metallica‘s “Enter Sandman,” smooth-jazz style.

Funny stuff, according to me. What do you think?

Trumpet Men on the Big Screen: Dueling Miles Davis Biopics?; and a Louis Armstrong Flick

It’s been common knowledge, for a little while, that Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda, the Ocean’s Eleven films) is directing and starring in the Miles Davis biopic, which is being produced by Miles’ nephew, Vince Wilburn, Jr. Wilburn played drums with the trumpeter and lived with him for three years beginning in 1984.

Now comes encouraging news that Herbie Hancock, pianist for Miles’ second great quintet, is scoring the film, and Cheadle is co-writing the script. That’s according to an interview with Wilburn and Erin Davis, Miles’ youngest son, published online at YRB.com.

Wilburn, as quoted by YRB, said: “We’re in the process of OK’ing the script with a new writer. Don didn’t like the other writer that was attached to the movie, so there’s a new writer named Steven Vegelman that Don’s writing with. Once is the script is OK’d by the family, then we go into production.”

The new writer referred to in the YRB story may be Steven Baigelman, who did the screenplays for Feeling Minnesota and My Brother’s Keeper, and is working on the forthcoming James Brown biopic.

According to the Internet Movie Database, the film — yet to be titled — is “in development” for 2011, and the latest chapter in its history stretches back to a treatment/outline that was prepared in April 2006. Cheadle is listed as director/producer, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (both of whom worked together on Ali and Nixon) as writers, and  Porter and Wilburn as producers. Wilkinson and Rivele are also listed as exec producers, along with Cary Brokaw.

The film is being produced by Cheadle’s production company, Crescendo Prods., which in November 2008 inked a “two-year, first-look” deal with Overture Films.

Way back in 1993, Wesley Snipes was slated to play Miles. And in 2006, Darryl Porter, general manager of the Miles Davis Estate, told Jazz Times that Antoine Fuqua would be directing the biopic.

Which era of Miles’ long career will be the focus of the film? Two hints, so far, both suggesting an ’80s emphasis —  Wilburn’s involvement, and the fact that IMDB lists rookie Kevin Navayne (seen in one episode each of “Army Wives” and “CSI:NY”) as the actor who will portray Marcus Miller, the bassist/producer who worked with Miles from 1985 until the trumpeter’s death in 1991.

Earlier this month, Cheadle told Vibe that his film is on the verge of beginning production. “In my attempt to tell the story, I’m not trying to do some reverential all-of-us-bow-down-to-Miles-the-icon. I’m trying to present him as a man. I’m trying to make a movie that Miles Davis would want to make.”

He also spoke to Parade magazine about his hopes for the movie: “It’s been a long time coming, but we’re working on the script right now,” Cheadle said for a story dated March 4, the same day that the Vibe piece was published. I think it will happen. I love Miles, but you have to take everything he says with a grain of salt. He would tell a long story, and someone would go, ‘That’s amazing. Did that happen?’ He’d reply, ‘I don’t f— know. You figure it out.’ He wasn’t interested in what you thought about him. He was like, ‘I’m about the music. Deal with that.’ Capturing the essence of that man is a challenge.”

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a)the Cheadle film indeed will get made, and b)Miles’ story won’t be overtly Hollywood-ized. In the case of Miles Davis, the truth about his life is stranger, and more interesting, than any fiction that could be tacked on for dramatic purposes.

———-

Miles’ offspring have experienced at least some degree of conflict, as his sons Gregory and Miles IV reportedly were excluded from his will. Meanwhile, his estate is being handled by Miles Davis Properties, LLC, a group that includes Erin Davis, Wilburn, Miles daughter Cheryl and his brother-in-law Vince Wilburn Sr.

That conflict may be played out on the big screen, in terms of competing visions of Miles’ life: Another Davis biopic, also listed by IMDB as “in development” for 2011, is Dark Magus: The Miles Davis Story, adapted from Gregory’s 2006 book “Dark Magus: The Jekyll & Hyde Life of Miles Davis.”

Dark Magus is being scripted by Isaac Fergusson, and produced by Ged Dickersin and Nick Raynes, according to IMDB, in an entry last updated on Oct. 9. The production company: Davis Raynes Productions Inc.

The New York Post, on Oct. 2, 2008, had this to say about the Dark Magus film: “…Nick Davis Raynes is a well-mannered movie producer who just optioned the rights to “Dark Magus: The Jekyll and Hyde Life of Miles Davis,” by the jazz great’s son, Gregory Davis. “I’m a huge fan of Miles Davis. We plan to tell his true story and preserve his legacy,” Raynes told Page Six. Gregory was the only son who traveled with Miles on tour, but then had to sue his father’s estate because he was left out of his will. Besides the lead role, there will be juicy parts playing Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix. “Miles was a huge mentor to Hendrix,” Raynes said.”

Interesting side note to all of this: Earlier this year, rapper Snoop Dogg said that he wanted to play Miles, according to a blog called, simply, The Miles Davis Movie. The blog isn’t officially affiliated with the Cheadle movie, or any other film.

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Forest Whitaker, who played Charlie Parker in 1988’s Bird, tries on another jazz legend, Louis Armstrong, in What a Wonderful World, scheduled for release sometimes next year. Whitaker, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of President Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, is also directing the film, from a script written by veteran screenwriter Ronald Bass (Amelia, Entrapment, Snow Falling on Cedars, Dangerous Minds, Rain Man).

The Armstrong movie, naturally, will be shot in New Orleans. Last week, Whitaker said that he’s spending a year learning to play trumpet and preparing for the role, according to an item posted online at AceShowbiz.

Whitaker also said that the film won’t shy away from Armstrong’s passion for marijuana.

“He smoked weed every day and it’s in the movie where he wrote to the president to try and make it legal. We will have that in the film.”

The movie is the fourth feature film to be helmed by Whitaker, who made his directorial debut with 1995’s Waiting to Exhale.

Why direct the Armstrong film? I’d guess that it stems in part from Whitaker’s apparent recent love affair with New Orleans. In recent years, he’s acted in several films set or partly set there, including Hurricane Season and My Own Love Song.

Here’s what he told Variety, a couple of years ago, according to a story published at Nola.com: “Armstrong left a monumental mark on our lives and our culture. He lived an amazing life and, through his art, shifted the way music was played and would be heard after him, not just here in the U.S. but all over the world.”

Satchmo Summerfest, held every summer in New Orleans, is an annual interntaional focal point for all things Louis Armstrong. This year’s event, again organized by the same group that produces the French Quarter Fest, will be held in the steamy season – Aug. 5-8. For more information, click here.

Jazz at the Grammys; and props to Lifetime Achievement winner Clark Terry

The Grammy Awards — particularly as demonstrated by its biggest categories — remains the music industry’s overblown high-school prom, a chance for the year’s most popular and/or most attractive rock, dance, hip-hop and country artists to toast each other’s success on the charts and in the media spotlight.

Last night’s ceremony, in that respect, was mostly the same: Does anyone believe that, 20 years from now, anyone will be singing the songs of, or caring much about the likes of Lady Gaga, who opened with a two-piano extravaganza with Sir Elton John (his earliest songs have become classics), or Pink, who did a skin-baring Cirque du Soleil-style act?

Jazz, as usual, got short shrift (yes, there was Herbie Hancock’s big win last year, but that was a fluke).

Lifetime achievement winner Clark Terry (right), the great and gracious trumpeter, and good-humored “mumble”/scat singer, got onstage recognition from director Quentin Tarantino (huh?) and the camera caught Terry, 89, in the audience. Then it was on to a really annoying, profanity-laced performance by Eminem, Lil’ Wayne, Drake and drummer Travis  Barker. No, thanks.

Best musical moment: Jeff Beck‘s performance of “How High the Moon,” with singer Imelda May, in a too-short salute to Les Paul, introduced by actor Jeff Bridges (huh?) Beck played a sunburst Les Paul guitar for the occasion.

This year’s jazz nominees, for the most part, were musically solid. Several of the recordings that appeared on my Top 10 list — discs by singer Roberta Gambarini, pianist Allen Toussaint, and bassist John Patitucci — grabbed nominations, but not wins.

Nice to see New Orleans artists take home trophies in two categories — trumpeter Terence Blanchard for best improvised jazz solo, and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield‘s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for best large jazz ensemble album — although it’s a bit of a shock that the latter category didn’t include nominations for first-rate recordings by Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge, and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra.

The Jazz Surge’s CD, The Comet’s Tail: Performing the Compositions of Michael Brecker, did get attention in the category of best instrumental arrangement. Talented veteran arranger Bill Cunliffe won, for “West Side Story Medley” from the Resonance Big Band’s tribute to Oscar Peterson. Note: Mendoza was nominated twice in this category, so that may have hurt his chances for a win.

And it ought to be noted that neither acclaimed pianist Vijay Iyer, nor his trio’s Historicity, which topped this year’s Village Voice Jazz Critic Poll (I voted), were to be found among the nominees. UPDATE: Vijay let me know that Historicity “was released two weeks too late to qualify for the awards.” Here’s hoping that NARAS will honor the CD next year.

Kurt Elling won in the jazz vocal category for another impressive recording, but I wonder if the superb discs by Robert Gambarini (my pick for ’09’s best jazz vocal CD) and Tierney Sutton resulted in a vote split leading to the Elling win.

It was satisfying to see several veterans pick up wins, including late Weather Report keyboardist Joe Zawinul, for the final CD from his Zawinul Syndicate band, and pianist Chick Corea and guitarist John McLaughlin, for a live recording from their Five Peace Band.

Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark, picked up another Album Notes Grammy, his eighth, for his contributions to The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-1946).

Finally, how many father-and-son recordings have won Grammy awards? In the Latin jazz category, the great Cuban-born pianist Bebo Valdes and his son, pianist Chucho Valdes, won for Juntos Para Siempre.

The jazz winners and nominees….

Best Contemporary Jazz Album

*Winner: 75 Joe Zawinul & The Zawinul Syndicate

[Heads Up International]

Urbanus Stefon Harris & Blackout [Concord Jazz]

Sounding Point Julian Lage [Emarcy/Decca]

At World’s Edge Philippe Saisse [E1 Music]

Big Neighborhood Mike Stern [Heads Up International]

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Best Jazz Vocal Album

*Winner: Dedicated To You: Kurt Elling Sings The Music Of Coltrane And Hartman Kurt Elling [Concord Jazz]

No Regrets Randy Crawford (& Joe Sample) [PRA Records]

So In Love Roberta Gambarini [Groovin’ High/Emarcy]

Tide Luciana Souza [Verve]

Desire Tierney Sutton (Band) [Telarc Jazz]

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Best Improvised Jazz Solo

*Winner: Dancin’ 4 Chicken Terence Blanchard, soloist Track from: Watts (Jeff “Tain” Watts) [Dark Key Music]

All Of You Gerald Clayton, soloist Track from: Two-Shade [ArtistShare]

Ms. Garvey, Ms. Garvey Roy Hargrove, soloist Track from: Emergence [Groovin’ High/Emarcy]

On Green Dolphin Street Martial Solal, soloist Track from: Live At The Village Vanguard [CamJazz]

Villa Palmeras Miguel Zenón, soloist Track from: Esta Plena [Marsalis Music]

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Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual Or Group

*Winner: Five Peace Band – Live Chick Corea & John McLaughlin Five Peace Band [Concord Records]

Quartet Live Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow & Antonio Sanchez [Concord Jazz]

Brother To Brother Clayton Brothers [ArtistShare]

Remembrance John Patitucci Trio [Concord Jazz]

The Bright Mississippi Allen Toussaint [Nonesuch]

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Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album

*Winner: Book One New Orleans Jazz Orchestra [World Village]

Legendary Bob Florence Limited Edition [MAMA Records]

Eternal Interlude John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble [Sunnyside]

Fun Time Sammy Nestico And The SWR Big Band [Hänssler Classic]

Lab 2009 University Of North Texas One O’Clock Lab Band [North Texas Jazz]

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Best Latin Jazz Album

*Winner: Juntos Para Siempre Bebo Valdés And Chucho Valdés [Sony Music/Calle 54]

Things I Wanted To Do Chembo Corniel [Chemboro Records]

Áurea Geoffrey Keezer [ArtistShare]

Brazilliance X 4 Claudio Roditi [Resonance Records]

Esta Plena Miguel Zenón [Marsalis Music]

Vijay Iyer Trio Tops Village Voice 2009 Jazz Poll

Acclaimed pianist Vijay Iyer‘s Historicity, a forward-thinking trio outing, has been named Album of the Year in the 4th annual Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll.

I reviewed the CD earlier this year for Down Beat. Here’s what I wrote: “A kind of dialogue — ever in flux, constantly probing, frequently morphing, informed by disparate traditions but pushing toward new paradigms — is at the heart of the performances on pianist Vijay Iyer’s trio outing with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. In the liner notes, Iyer describes that dialogue, on the cover tunes, as ‘a conversation between the original work and something else entirely.’ But there are also conversations here between form and freedom, light and dark tonalities, and, as the title suggests, jazz history and future jazz.”

Also among the winners in the poll, surveying the best jazz releases of the year, as chosen by 99 jazz critics from around the world (including me) are the following:

Vocal: Gretchen Parlato, In a Dream (ObliqSound)
Debut: Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam)
Latin: Miguel Zenon, Esta Plena (Marsalis Music)
Reissue: Louis Armstrong, The Complete Decca Recordings, 1935-1946 (Mosaic)

Full poll results will be published in the Voice’s Dec. 30 issue, and will be available online as early as Tuesday night. I’ll follow up with a subsequent post, and include links to the results along with a link to my list.