Vijay Iyer Tops 2017 NPR Jazz Critics Poll

Congrats to pianist-composer Vijay Iyer, who again tops the NPR Jazz Critics Poll, a carryover from the old Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll. The Vijay Iyer Sextet’s “Far From Over” is named best new album, followed in that category by releases from alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, pianist Craig Taborn and flutist Nicole Mitchell.

I was honored to again be among the 137 jazz writers around the globe asked to participate. Only one of my Top 10 picks, Taborn’s “Daylight Ghosts” (ECM) made it into the poll’s final 10, and another, the debut from supergroup Hudson (Jack DeJohnette/John Scofield/John Medeski/Larry Grenadier) made the final 20.

I agree with the consensus on Cecile McLorin Salvant‘s “Dreams and Daggers” (Mack Avenue) for best vocal album, and my 3 picks for reissues/ historical, by Jaco Pastorius, Wes Montgomery/Wynton Kelly Trio, and Monk, are in the final Top 5 in that category in the poll.

Also in the poll:

  • Jaimie Branch‘s “Fly or Die” (International Anthem) is named best debut album; my pick — Nate Smith, “Kinfolk: Postcards from Everywhere” (Ropeadope)
  • Miguel Zenon‘s “Tipico” (Miel) is named best Latin album; my pick — Antonio Adolfo‘s “Hybrido — From Rio to Wayne Shorter” (AAM Music)

“Musicians of an intellectual bent dominated this year’s Top 10, and connections among them abound,” poll organizer and esteemed jazz critic Francis Davis writes in his overview of the poll. Read that piece, and his accompanying article “The Jazz Albums of 2017 and the Power of Gatekeepers,” and make some new musical discoveries.

Want to see ALL the results from the poll, with complete ballots from all the critics, including mine? Click here

Later, I’ll post my full Top 10 list here, along with some thoughts on those releases.

 

Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden, “Last Dance” (CD review)

(originally published in JazzTimes)

Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden, “Last Dance” (ECM Records)

(published before Haden’s death)

keith jarrett charlie haden

So maybe this project should officially be known as the Standards Duo. Four years after old friends and onetime musical collaborators Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden released their first batch of vintage material recorded at the pianist’s studio, they return with another set of intimate pieces culled from the same 2007 sessions.

Two of the tunes from 2010’s Jasmine are back in alternate versions: The pair move as one on the stately “Where Can I Go Without You?” and the similarly tinted “Goodbye.” (Yes, Jarrett’s humming again is heard in the background, but it doesn’t spoil the pleasure of his typically searching solos.) As on Jasmine, the feel here is largely relaxed in the extreme, beginning with the elegant “My Old Flame,” which runs more than 10 minutes, opening up for some of Jarrett’s most expansive soloing and a long melodic turn from Haden.

Jarrett delays sounding the familiar melody of Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” handily putting into practice his interpretation-equals-composition ethos, until after Haden’s solo, and makes a foray into midtempo swing on Bud Powell’s “Dance of the Infidels” (more tunes at this tempo would have brought some welcome contrast to the proceedings). And yet the two are experts at crafting ballads, bringing out all the inherently poignant colors and melancholy textures of “Everything Happens to Me” and Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Both, like many of the other performances on the disc, are keepers, artfully illuminating well-trod standards.

 

Drye & Drye, “Open Letter” (CD review)

drye(originally published in JazzTimes)

Drye & Drye, “Open Letter” (NCM Records)

Refreshing concept, smartly executed: Brooklyn-based trombonist Brian Drye and his father, baritone saxophonist Howard Drye (both hail from Rhode Island), team up for a double-album featuring original compositions honoring their various influences. The horns are the thing, with the two joined by trumpeter Jeff Hermanson and clarinetist, alto and soprano saxophonist Mike McGinnis, and the piano-less rhythm section of bassist Dan Fabricatore and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza.

Rich sonorities and engaging themes characterize these 10 tracks, with highlights of the first disc (Howard’s pieces) including the soprano-led soul-jazz groove tune “Precious Silver,” dedicated to Horace Silver; the slinky ballad “The Empty Chair,” for Johnny Hodges; and jaunty opener “Blues for Jimmy.”

On disc two (Brian’s tunes), “Elbows,” for Monk, is all sharp angles and quirky twists, and offers plenty of space for the trombonist’s rangy, invigorating solo. Also notable: Brian’s moody, color-shifting “April 1st, 1910,” dedicated to Harry Carney, and bouncy bop burner “Home Brew.”

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.

Forget Elvis, MONK is everywhere: Eric Reed; Organ Monk; Melodious Thunk; Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition; Laurent De Wilde’s “Monk”

Planet Jazz: Notes From All Over

Thelonious Sphere Monk, who would have turned 95 on Oct. 10, isn’t quite everywhere, exactly.

But the man, his playing and his compositions continue to loom large as an influence on and living presence in the work of jazz musicians all over the world.

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Monk is celebrated on at least two recent discs, both of which offer fresh approaches to familiar gems.

“The Baddest Monk” (Savant Records) has pianist Eric Reed joined by saxophonist Seamus Blake, trumpeter Etienne Charles, bassist Matt Clohesy and (on ” ‘Round Midnight”) guest singer Jose James for seven Monk tunes and two originals in that vein — the solo-piano title track, and the New Orleans-grooving “Monk Beurre Rouge.” Light funk rhythms drive opener “Rhythm-A-Ning”; creative use of space, harmony figures and bolero/tango flavors characterize “Monk’s Mood,” one of two trio pieces, along with “Green Chimneys,” done without horns; and “Bright Mississippi” is refried in 7/4.

“We had our way with Monk,” Reed writes in the liner notes. “To some degree, this is almost an un-Monk endeavor, but that was his whole point: individualism no matter what the cost.” (Check out Reed live at Smoke Jazz and Supper Club, courtesy of The Pace Report)

Individualism is also the modus operandi of  Greg Lewis‘s “Organ Monk: Uwo in the Black” (Greg Lewis), a sort-of sequel to the B3 specialist’s “Organ Monk,” released in 2010. For the latter CD, Lewis was joined by guitarist Ron Jackson and drummer Cindy Blackman; this time, the organist takes on Monk favorites and originals with the help of Jackson, drummer Nasheet Waits (replacing Blackman) and tenor saxophonist Reginald R. Woods.

The broader sonic canvas is refreshing, and so are several tracks — “Little Rootie Tootie,” with its call-and-response structure; “Skippy,” equipped with a rising-and-falling intro; a hard-grooving “Bright Mississippi”; and a version of “Crepuscule with Nellie” amplifying its inner quirkiness.  A third volume is in order, I say. (One quibble: Howard Mandel’s thoughtful liner notes are in tiny, tiny font, not at all easily readable for over-40 eyes).

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The Monk compilations continue rolling out. So far this year: The six-disc “The Thelonious Monk Quartet: The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection” (Columbia/Legacy); “The Very Best of Thelonious Monk” (Concord Jazz/Riverside); “Pride” (jazz2jazz); and “Beyond Patina Jazz Masters: Thelonious Monk” (Beyond Patina

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More Monk doings:

+ Melodious Thunk, with singer Teri Roiger, bassist John Menegon, pianist Francesca Tanksley, drummer Tani Tabbal, and saxophonist Dan Faulk, celebrated Monk’s music with a show held in Woodstock, NY on his birthday; he was born in 1917 in Rocky Mount, N.C.

+ New Orleans drummer Jamison Ross, 24, a native of Jacksonville, FL, won the 25th annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, Sept. 23 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Yusuke Nakamura, of Japan, was the winner of the affiliated Composers Competition. The long-running Jazz Competition (thoughtful coverage by Nate Chinen of the New York Times) has become a springboard to greater success for past winners, including bassist Ben Williams (2009), trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (2007), singers Gretchen Parlato (2004) and Teri Thornton (1998), saxophonist Seamus Blake (2002), percussionist Pedro Martinez, and pianists Eric Lewis (1999) and Jacky Terrasson (1993), among others. Recently, on NPR’s “A Blog Supreme,” several winners and finalists weighed in on the advantages and disadvantages of musical competition. The discussion was something of a follow-up to one pianist Ethan Iverson (The Bad Plus) posted on his blog, Do the Math.  Iverson jumped into the fray again with another post several days later, and the blogosphere lit up with some back and forth, including a thoughtful dialogue between Iverson and Lewis.

+ The competition’s sponsor, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, continues an ambitious program of education and performances via offices in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New Orleans. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance opened at the UCLA campus this past summer, and the first class of graduate students started in the fall.

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And finally …

Recently re-reading Laurent De Wilde‘s brief but substantial bio, Monk (Marlowe & Company), originally published in 1996, I came across a particularly elegant and insightful description of how bass and drums work together to create a foundation for a jazz group, particularly applicable to a composer whose melodies and improvising are so heavily rhythmic.

Here it is:

“The bass sketches out time with a primordial pulsation, and the drums draw it in India ink. The crystalline precision of the ride cymbal. The shrewd and solid comments of the snare and bass drums. Depth, contour, innuendo, doors that open and close as the drumskin is struck. And if the drummer decides to play “Summertime” as a tango, you can always curse him out afterward, but there in concert, you just have to go along with him. It’s the opposite of the lemming phenomenon — when you don’t follow the drummer, that’s when you’re in trouble. The bass and the drums are the instruments which keep us in contact with the ancient beauty of rhythm. The gut string you pluck, and the stretched skin you strike  — what could be more carnal, more animal, than that?” 

Click here for more info on Monk.

Jazz Fest Diary: John Ellis at Louisiana Music Factory

Jazz Fest week doesn’t really kick in until the start of the Louisiana Music Factory’s in-store performances. It’s a tradition that goes back 18 years, to when the French Quarter CD and vinyl outlet opened its doors on North Peters, around the corner from its current digs on Decatur Street.

Tenor saxophonist John Ellis and Double Wide opened the 2010 lineup Thursday in great form, with music drawn from the New York/New Orleans jazzer’s recently released “Puppet Mischief” and earlier recordings.

Ellis was joined by irrepressible tuba man and Jazz Fest MVP Matt Perrine, playing a silver sousaphone with a mic mask-taped to its bell; pianist Brian Coogan, using a well-worn instrument, it’s innards exposed; and drummer Simon Lott, filling in for Jason Marsalis.

The saxophonist’s music isn’t neatly categorized.

“Dubinland Carnival,” with its alternating currents of light and sadness, and breaks for waltz time, felt like lost European circus music, suitable for a Fellini film.

“Fauxfessor,” as its name suggests, was a slab of funk and vintage R&B that nodded to New Orleans piano professors. Ellis leaned into the tune’s bluesy lines, and Coogan led Perrine and Lott in some rhythmic stretching, breaking up and reassembling, his phrases hinting at Thelonious Monk.

The hourlong set, pumped up by Lott’s revved-up, interactive drumming, also included the softly swaying, somber ballad “Prom Song,” which featured Perrine’s surprisingly melodic and unsurprisingly (for the sousaphonist) fluent  and beautiful solo; and the rollicking, color-shifting “Okra and Tomatoes.” Perrine, all over the place during Jazz Fest, is also celebrating a new release with his Sunflower City band, “Bayou Road Suite” on Threadhead Records.

Day One of the LMF in-store shows also included a performance by New Orleans blues man Spencer Bohren, who elicited haunting sounds from his acoustic lap slide guitar on “Ode to Billie Joe,” “People Get Ready” and “The Long Black Line,” an elegiac response to Katrina that served as the title track for his 2006 CD.

As with everything else related to New Orleans music, Jazz Fest has had a dramatic affect on the success of LMF, store owner Barry Smith said. Old favorites Tower Records, Virgin Records and Record Ron’s are long gone. A new Peaches Records is located in the old Tower store, but it’s yet to become a local favorite.

“If it weren’t for Jazz Fest, I would never have made it thus far,” said Smith, who estimates that 20 percent — or more — of his annual income derives from sales that take place during fest season. “Jazz Fest is instrumental in bringing New Orleans music to music fans all over the world. So many of our customers come back year after year.”

The in-store shows at LMF pick up again on Monday. For details, click here.

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.

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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.