Montreal Jazz Fest — Wishing I was there

I’ve had some incredible experiences hearing great performances and soaking up the other jazz happenings at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Not to mention getting a chance to enjoy the cosmopolitan culture of one of North America’s most beautiful and most historic cities.

montreal

Last summer’s festival was again jam-packed with great music, some of which I wrote about for JazzTimes, and in several posts on this blog.

Sadly, I can’t make it for the 38th edition of the fest, which runs June 28-July 8.

But if I WERE headed to Montreal at the end of this month, I’d do my best to catch the following jazz, blues and pop/rock artists (some of whom are playing in bands with others on the list):

Ambrose Akinmusire, Arturo Sandoval, The Bad Plus, Ben Street, Bill Frisell, Brian Blade, Buddy Guy, Carla Bley, Charles Bradley, Charles Lloyd, Charlie Musselwhite, Curtis Lundy, Danilo Perez, Dave Douglas, Diana Krall, Donny McCaslin, E.J. Strickland, Eric Harland, Essiet Essiet, George Cables, Gerald Clayton, Ingrid Jensen, Jack DeJohnette, Jacob Collier, Jane Bunnett, Jeremy Pelt, Jesse Cook, John Hollenbeck, John Medeski, John Pizzarelli, John Scofield, Joshua Redman, Joss Stone, King Crimson, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Larry Grenadier, Michael Blake, Nicholas Payton, Reuben Rogers, Robert Glasper, Robin Eubanks, Scott Colley, Stanley Clarke, UZEB, and Wallace Roney.

Headed to Montreal? Let me know your thoughts on what you hear.

As for me — better luck next year.

 

 

Happy 80 Candles to the Village Vanguard!

village vanguard

Has it really been 30 years since I interviewed Max Gordon at the Village Vanguard for The Villager newspaper, for a story on the 50th anniversary celebration of the venerable Seventh Avenue South nightspot? Hard to believe. That summer, during my brief stint as a grad student in cinema studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, hardly seems so long ago. In addition to Gordon, I spoke with some of the many jazz greats who played the anniversary show, including trombonist Al Grey.

Gordon, the short, somewhat gruff, cigar-smoking, Lithuanian-born owner of the Vanguard, opened his place in 1935, and in its early years it became a home to poets, singing/acting revues, Caribbean artists (Harry Belafonte), folk and blues singers (Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie), and comedians (Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen).

Its most lasting legacy, though, is that rooted in its late-’50s rebirth as the city’s finest listening room for performances by great jazzers, of the bebop variety and beyond, many of whom are immortalized in the gorgeous photos still hanging in the basement club. John Coltrane and Miles Davis played there. So did Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Carmen McRae, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra (which became the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which still plays there Monday nights).

Christian McBride quintet

The Vanguard is practically a temple to the high art of jazz, and I’m happy to have seen bassist Christian McBride’s Inside Straight quintet (above; see my review of his December show), guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and the late guitarist Tal Farlow at the Vanguard over the years.

Sunday, the Vanguard turned 80. Tuesday, it kicks off a week of concerts presented by pianist Jason Moran. Pianists Moran, Fred Hersch, and Kenny Barron, and saxophonist Charles Lloyd‘s quartet (with Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland) are among the artists slated to play March 10-15.

While other NYC jazz institutions have come (Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Smoke) and gone (Bradley’s, the Village Gate), and others have routinely upgraded and renovated and even changed music policies, the Vanguard has kept folks coming in part because it has stayed the same — a generally low-dough admission charge, a focus on music listening (loud talkers get shushed), and a decision to not introduce food to the mix.

“One thing that’s great is that, through all the years, they’ve had the wisdom not to mess with it,” as Hersch told The New York Observer. “I like the Vanguard for its purity.”

Lorraine Gordon, Gordon’s wife, took over the club in 1989, when he died; at 92, she and her daughter, Deborah, run the place, with the Vanguard’s longtime manager, Jed Eisenman.

For more information on the Vanguard’s 80th anniversary celebration, click here.

SUNDAY JAZZ JOURNAL — Stefon Harris Talks Ninety Miles

(an alternate version of this story appears in The Gainesville Sun)

Note: Ninety Miles plays April 24 in Hampton, VA, April 26 in College Park, MD, and April 27 in Gainesville, FL

—————

ninety milesThe art of improvisation, of course, is at the heart of jazz.

Typically, a jazz musician will take a standard tune or an original composition, play the form and then solo over the piece’s chord changes. Each time through, there can be a variation to the arrangement, and slight or major rhythmic redesigns. And, ideally, each performance of a song will feature entirely different lines and passages during the solo section.

But sometimes an entire recording project can amount to an act of improvisation.

That’s how it felt to Stefon Harris, the acclaimed New York vibraphonist and classically trained percussionist who was tapped in 2010 to put together the Ninety Miles band with Puerto Rican-born saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott, a New Orleans native.

The CD, “Ninety Miles,” named for the distance between Miami and Havana, was suggested by producers at Concord, the label home to all three musicians. The success of the project depended on their ability to take a general concept and improvise on it – go to Cuba, connect with Cuban musicians, see what happens.

“Having an idea come from someone else sometimes challenges you in ways you can’t imagine for yourself,” Harris said by telephone. “I hadn’t really had a chance to play with them. I had never been to Cuba before, and I was excited to have that type of artistic and musical exposure. But there was a great deal of unpredictability even in the process of making the record.”

The challenges included gathering the documents required to travel to Cuba, with whom the United States has had a notoriously strained relationship for decades, largely in response to the Caribbean country’s repressive policies toward its citizens.

“The day before going, we weren’t even sure we were going to go,” Harris said. “When we got down there I didn’t even have a vibraphone. The unpredictability extended to not knowing what we were going to do with the band. I didn’t know the Cuban musicians, and had never seen them play. So I went on Youtube and listened to a couple of clips, then I chose some players and composed music that I thought would be open and flexible. It all worked to create an atmosphere of great creativity.”

The two-disc CD was released in 2011 on the Concord Picante label, which is largely focused on Latin jazz recordings. But the music, including compositions by musicians from both countries, doesn’t strictly fit that classification: elements of hard bop are intermingled with blues, funk-driven grooves and, of course, Montuno patterns and a variety of Latin percussion.

The group has morphed somewhat since 2010, with Scott last year replaced by Grammy-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton, coincidentally also raised in New Orleans. The septet, whose performance at last summer’s Montreal Jazz Festival was a highlight of my trip to that fest, includes an international rhythm section – pianist Edward Simon was born in Venezuela, bassist Ricardo Rodriguez and drummer Henry Cole both hail from Puerto Rico, and percussionist Mauricio Herrera is a native of Cuba.

A live disc, “Live at Cubadisco,” recorded at a concert in Havana shortly after the original sessions, was released last year, and a documentary on the project year was picked up for distribution by BBC Worldwide.

The band’s recordings, Harris said, inevitably may be seen by some as a political statement.

But he views Ninety Miles as strictly a cross-cultural musical project, and hopes to take the concept – musical collaboration in the face of political and cultural barriers – to other locales.

“I’m hoping that we’re sonically demonstrating the benefits of empathy and we’re showing that there’s not much of a divide (between people),” he said. “We all know love, we all know fear, we all know greed, we all know compassion. I don’t play music just because it’s fun and it feels good. Music is ultimately about far more than notes and tones.”

America Needs It Some “Treme”

“America needs it some Kermit,” the New Orleans DJ and sometime musician played by Steve Zahn says, about halfway through the first episode of  HBO’s “Treme,” which debuts tonight on the heels of much critical praise.

Davis McAlary (Zahn), inspired by real-life scenester Davis Rogan, is talking to trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, his bandmates and friends after a show at Vaughan’s, a tiny, shotgun-style bar in the Bywater, where Ruffins has a long-standing Thursday night gig.  In the scene, Davis is lamenting Ruffins’ failure to at least say hello to Elvis Costello, who’s in town for a recording collaboration with pianist-songwriter Allen Toussaint.

Ruffins and Costello play themselves, as does Vaughan’s, where Ruffins plays and cooks barbecue for his listeners.

That authenticity, in a show created and produced by David Simon and Eric Overmyer (“The Wire”), with help from the late David Mills and novelist George Pelecanos, as well as New Orleans writers Lolis Elie and Tom Piazza, has everything to do with why fans of New Orleans music and culture — including native New Orleanians, I hope — will be enthused by “Treme.”

Why? Because Mills and Co. got it right: the broken-down, hardscrabble hand-to-mouth feel of New Orleans, in the months and years immediately following Hurricane Katrina; the unique cultural milieu, as defined in part by the city’s cuisine and Mardi Gras Indian traditions; the brass-band scene.

As is true about New Orleans, music is soaked into the fiber of “Treme,” as demonstrated by:

  • That aforementioned scene at Vaughan’s, where Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers play “Skokian”
  • A native New Orleanian trumpet player makes it big in New York, with a scene shot at the Blue Note – Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, anyone?
  • Rebirth Brass Band plays “Feel Like Funking It Up” and the Stones’ “It’s All Over Now”
  • Treme Brass Band plays “A Closer Walk With Thee” during a post-funeral parade
  • McAlary sits at a piano for a few bars of Professor Longhair‘s “Big Chief.”
  • McAlary goes to WWOZ-FM for his weekly show, and rails about being forced to play “the New Orleans canon,” although it’s apparent he loves every bit of it – he goes gaga over a Dave Bartholomew box set, and he blasts NOLA hip-hop just to annoy his genteel, classical-loving neighbors.

The storyline largely centers on the ups and downs of trombonist Antoine Batiste (New Orleans native Wendell Pierce) and McAlary, as well as secondary characters including a professor (John Goodman) raging at the federal government’s decades-long failure to bolster the levees; his wife (Melissa Leo), an attorney fighting for the rights of the dispossessed; a Mardi Gras Indian chief (Clarke Peters) who returns to his devastated home, and hopes to reunite his tribe, the Guardians of the Flame; a bar owner, Antoine’s ex-wife (Khandi Alexander), mourning her brother, apparently lost in the storm; and  a chef (Kim Dickens) desperately trying to rebuild business for her popular neighborhood restaurant.

As might be expected from Simon, the various strands of the larger narrative — NOLA’s return from the brink of disaster — are smartly woven together in the first episode, directed by Agnieszka Holland. The characters are compelling, as are their stories.

Which brings us back to Kermit. Yes, America needs Kermit and his joyful, good-time music, rooted in New Orleans traditional jazz.

And America needs “Treme,” a show that serves as a necessary reminder of all the reasons — music, food, culture, a group of survivors who won’t quit — that New Orleans still deserves to be celebrated as one of our country’s great treasures. It’s “a city that lives in the imagination of the world,” according to something Goodman’s characters says.

Ultimately, “Treme,” which will run 10 episodes for its first season, wants to figure into the continuing rebirth of New Orleans, to play a role in furthering that economic and spiritual renaissance.

It’s off to a great start.

The Next Hot New Orleans Trumpeter? The Search Is On

New Orleans, not surprisingly, has produced a long line of great jazz trumpeters, from Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong to Christian Scott and Shamarr Allen. Louis Prima is the subject of this year’s poster for Jazz Fest.

And, of course, there are also Terence Blanchard (probably my favorite living trumpeter; looking forward to his Jazz Fest appearance), Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Irvin Mayfield (ditto for his Jazz Fest show with the NOJO), Leroy Jones, Kermit Ruffins, Al Hirt and several other notables whose names will come to mind the second this post is published.

(Payton, right, plays tonight at the Village Vanguard in NYC; listen live here)

Young jazz trumpeters in New Orleans will get a chance to raise their game — and their profile — via “Seeking Satch,” a contest co-sponsored by the French Market and the Mayfield-directed New Orleans Jazz Institute at the University of New Orleans.

Three high-school trumpet players will get four-year scholarships to UNO’s jazz studies program, and a chance to perform this August at Satchmo Summerfest.

Trumpeters from two other age groups — 6th to 8th grade, and 9th to 11th grade — will gain admission to the year-round Saturday Music School organized by the New Orleans Jazz Institute.

That’s all according to a piece published today in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Official details are below:

SEEKING SATCH

WHAT: A trumpet competition that rewards high school seniors with University of New Orleans Jazz Studies scholarships, and sixth to 11th grade students with spots in the New Orleans Jazz Institute’s Saturday Music School. Outgoing seniors must submit a UNO college application and e-mail a link to a YouTube video of them performing their favorite Louis Armstrong song, plus a jazz tune of their choice, to Robin Williams at rmwilli6@uno.edu. Younger student applicants must send an e-mail expressing their interest to Amy Kirk at akirk@frenchmarket.org.

WHEN: The deadline for high school senior applications is March 18. Six finalists will be chosen to compete at French Quarter Festival April 10. The three winners will go on to perform at Satchmo Summer Fest in August. Deadline for the younger students to apply is May 3; their competition will be held May 22 at McDonogh 15.

The Village Vanguard at 75

Belated happy 75th birthday wishes to the Village Vanguard, the basement jazz temple on Seventh Avenue South opened by Max Gordon, who launched the nightclub as a home for folk music, poetry, and comedy.

I’ve been privileged to visit the Vanguard — intimate, acoustically pristine, its staff eminently respectful of the music and devoted to the arts of jazz playing and listening — quite a few times over the years, for shows by the likes of guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and an all-star group gathered to celebrate the club’s 50th anniversary.

For that 1985 occasion, I met and interviewed Gordon, who passed away in 1991; his widow, Lorraine, subsequently operated the club. If/when I track down the piece I wrote for The Villager, during my brief stint as a grad student at NYU, I’ll pull some quotes/observations and include them here.

How and why has the 123-seat Vanguard survived, while other famed Greenwich Village jazz clubs, including Seventh Avenue South, Sweet Basil, and Bradley’s, have not?

“It’s not fancy,” as Lorraine Gordon told Lara Pellegrinelli for a story published at NPR.org. “It’s not pretentious. It doesn’t serve food. It doesn’t take credit cards. It doesn’t allow cell phones or cameras. It doesn’t do a lot of things, but it does give good music.”

The Vanguard celebrated its 75th last week with a residency by saxophonist Joe Lovano’s Us Five, with pianist James Weidman, bassist Esperanza Spalding, and drummer Otis Brown and Francisco Mela. Sad to say that I couldn’t be on hand for any of those performances, but happy to report that I’ll get the chance to see the group in late April at Jazz Fest in New Orleans.

More than 100 jazz albums have been recorded at the club, starting with a 1957 classic capturing performances by saxophonist Sonny Rollins‘ pianoless trios.

Gordon’s “Live at the Village Vanguard,” published in 1982, remains the essential biography of the Vanguard’s first half-century. Lorraine Gordon’s bio, which I’ve yet to read, “Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life In and Out of Jazz Time,” co-written by Barry Singer, was published in 2006 to great acclaim.

And the music isn’t slowing down: The Vanguard’s schedule includes upcoming performances by drummer Al Foster‘s quartet (March 2-7), and trumpeter Payton’s quintet (March 9-14).

And a March 16-21 appearance by drummer Paul Motian‘s trio with pianist Jason Moran and saxophonist Greg Osby looks to be one of the highlights of New York’s spring jazz season. Motian doesn’t tour, but he’s playing the Vanguard show to support a new CD with Moran and saxophonist Chris Potter, Lost in a Dream (ECM), due for release March 9.

The Blue Note 7: Mosaic

Blue Note Celebrates Its History … Again

A band organized by Blue Note, specializing in music from that label’s archives?

Déjà vu, anyone?

Blue Note’s New Directions Band, with the storied jazz label’s young stars — alto saxophonist Greg Osby, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, pianist Jason Moran and vibraphonist Stefon Harris — joined by bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, was just such a group.

New Directions, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the label, recorded a self-titled CD in 1999, and released it early the next year.

The band gave a significant boost to the careers of its members, several of whom obviously have notched considerable artistic and commercial success. I caught one performance on the group’s national tour, at a tiny, smoky, now-defunct club in Ybor City (Tampa).

Blue Note, too, has celebrated itself with countless concerts, films, sampler recordings, and other products.

The Blue Note 7 Launches

Now here comes The Blue Note 7, a band suggested by booking agent Jack Randall, and organized by Randall, pianist Bill Charlap, and talent manager Danny Melnick, as a way to celebrate the label’s 70th anniversary.

blue-note-71

“When plans for the extensive tour reached more than 50 American cities, the idea of a recording was inevitable,” according to jazz critic Ira Gitler’s liner notes for the group’s just-released CD, Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records.

 

The septet, this time not a group of upstarts, includes a stellar front line of horn players — celebrated New Orleans-bred trumpeter Nicholas Payton, underappreciated New York alto saxophonist and flutist Steve Wilson and tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, still laboring to escape the shadow of his famous father.

Charlap, the musical director, is joined by rhythm-section mates Peter Bernstein on guitar, Peter Washington on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums – solid pros and creative players, all.

The material, variously arranged by band members and pianist Renee Rosnes (who happens to be married to Charlap), emphasizes compositions recorded for Blue Note from the mid-’50s through the mid-’60s.

Melnick, the CD’s executive producer, is head of the company producing the band’s tour. So is The Blue Note 7 an organically assembled outfit, or merely a sampler recording designed to promote a tour and boost sales of the label’s new and archival recordings?

Gitler writes, “It is more than a tribute band, a cadre with a cohesive compatibility, dealing with powerful music and reinterpreting it through new arrangements and individual solos.”

Mosaic

That assessment rings true, as the music on Mosaic is familiar (maybe overly so) but almost fresh — the band builds interesting new arrangements and consistently superb solo work on gems by major jazz composers. Thelonious Monk’s “Criss Cross,” arranged by Wilson, comes with new rhythmic twists, a spiky Coltrane solo and aptly rambunctious piano work.

Payton’s playing is particularly incisive and poignant on a floating-to-grooving version of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance,” arranged by Rosnes, also responsible for a soaring arrangement of McCoy Tyner’s pretty, slow-moving “Search for Peace”; the horn players on the latter come off as a brass choir. Bernstein turns in warm melody work and a searching improvisation on his arrangement of Duke Pearson’s “Idle Moments,” originally recorded by Grant Green.

The title track, penned by Cedar Walton for the Jazz Messengers and arranged by Nash, lifts off with the drummer’s tricky rhythmic set-up. The tune later offers the kind of driving, chunky swing and extended trap-set wizardry sure to warm the heart of anyone who’s ever loved hard bop and lamented its passing (that includes me).

Also included in the eight-song set: Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” arranged by Payton; Bobby Hutcherson’s “Little B’s Poem” (Wilson); and Horace Silver’s “The Outlaw” (Charlap).

Blue Note 7’s U.S. Concert Trek

The tour is off to an impressive start, according to jazz critic Doug Ramsey’s report on the band’s performance in Seattle. “…the little time they have spent as a unit is out of proportion to the ensemble’s spirit and unified sound,” Ramsey writes.

(Sadly, the tour itinerary doesn’t include any Florida dates).

Will this band continue working together after its weeklong engagement at New York’s Birdland, which concludes April 19?

Yes, as Charlap relates in the above video clip.

“We’ll be continuing later in the year, in the fall, in Europe,” he says. “Many of the players are already writing new arrangements. … Perhaps there will be a volume two and a volume three. I would not be surprised if that happens.”