PLANET JAZZ: Irvin Mayfield, Last Night on “Treme”; Inside-Jazz Story to Read Before You Die; JJA’s Jazz Blogging Webinars

Planet Jazz: Notes From All Over

Nice seeing New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield get some speaking lines on last night’s “Treme.” Great, too, seeing some Mayfield performance footage shot at his Jazz Playhouse club inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street.

Lionel Ferbos, the century-old trad jazz trumpeter, was also seen and heard playing and talking, at the long-running Palm Court Jazz Cafe, in the episode. Ferbos, one of the oldest living links to early jazz, started playing at age 15, in 1926.

“Lionel Ferbos is 101 and he’s playing gigs. He’s walking up on stage, getting his trumpet out and playing,” Mayfield told the Times-Picayune. “He comes out of the water of Jelly Roll Morton, who he heard himself, Louis Armstrong, who he heard himself, Freddie Keppard, who he heard himself. Paul Barbarin, Danny Barker – these are people he heard. In his trumpet sound, you hear all that.”

The episode touches on the much-publicized drive to create a National Jazz Center in New Orleans. The developers of the $716 million project, announced in May 2006, enlisted Mayfield’s support. The project subsequently collapsed.

“Though the National Jazz Center and other subsequent efforts to establish some kind of civic institution to recognize New Orleans’ greatest export have fallen short, Mayfield is confident that such a project will some day get done,” Dave Walker wrote in the Times-Picayune.

” ‘It is just crazy that we have so much history but we don’t have symbols recognizing all that creative achievement,’ he said. ‘We’ve created this music that everybody else around the world is in awe of.’

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Remember “Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die,” a feature (initially published sans byline) published last week in the Village Voice?

Several jazz writers justifiably complained about the piece’s incompleteness, as it covered just 17 years of jazz history (1956-73) and its, uh, obviousness; we really needed another litany of the jazz canon? It didn’t seem to meet the usual, or, at least, former, high standards for a publication that once set a high standard for jazz coverage.

As a sort of (unstated) concession to the criticism, the next day the Voice published another piece, “Ten (More) Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die,” by Matthew Kassel and Alex W. Rodriguez. This time, the (different) writers offered recommendations culled from about a century of jazz history.

Writing for NPR’s “A Jazz Supreme” blog, Patrick Jarenwattanon filled in some background on how the original ill–fated story came to be:

“The piece itself was simply repurposed from another publication owned by the same media company, and its author wasn’t even credited (it’s a fellow named Joseph Lapin, by the way). It was published by a media entity that used to run Gary Giddins’ column, and Francis Davis essays, and the Jazz Consumers Guide, and the year-end critics poll, and much other current jazz coverage. Underlying all this is the fact that two well-respected music editors, Rob Harvilla and Maura Johnston, have left the Voice in recent years.”

For those outside the jazzosphere, maybe this is all too meta?

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The Jazz Journalists Association continued its webinar series on the art of jazz blogging with a Nov. 13 program featuring Angelika Beener, Veronica Grandison, Alex Rodriguez, and Jonathan Wertheim.

The latest installment, focused on “up-and-coming” jazz bloggers, is archived on YouTube, here.  On the way are two more blogging webinars, slated for Nov. 20 and Dec. 4. Register

JJA members soon will unveil their Top 10 picks for 2012, surveying the year’s best jazz — look for the lists at the organization’s site.

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.”

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.

Music Blogs Sprouting; and Hentoff Exits the Voice

With the widespread elimination of arts-writing positions and numerous layoffs of talented writers from newspapers, it’s probably inevitable: More and more music journalists are running their own blogs.

The upside: Pure freedom to write about anything at all, at any time. No more waiting around for some editor, somewhere, to give approval to a review of any particular CD or concert.

Nobody to stand in the way of publicly asking questions, like:

1)Will Obama actually do anything to help the cause of jazz and jazz education, or is he all talk?

2)If Obama does care about jazz, then why aren’t jazz musicians front and center among Inauguration Day concerts?

3)Related to the above, when will Oprah start featuring jazz and blues musicians on her show?

4)How and why did the IAJE (International Association for Jazz Education) collapse? Or, more to the point, how, exactly, did that organization manage to keep its financial woes hidden for so long?

5)When will another national jazz organization come along to replace IAJE, and how long will it take for that organization to put together an annual jazz meeting as impressive and beneficial — in terms of great music, worthwhile clinics and the quality of networking — as those put on by the IAJE?

Nothing like setting one’s own agenda, and on the way helping to shine a light on deserving music and musicians.

The downside to running an independent music blog: Unless one is a celebrity or a quite well-established writer, it’s all but impossible to gain a large following.

Ken Franckling, a longtime jazz writer and photographer, celebrated the end of ’08 and the start of the new year by launching his own blog – Ken Franckling’s Jazz Notes.

For his most recent post, he noted what has to count for the most foolhardy newspaper layoff of 2008 — Brilliant jazz and civil rights scribe Nat Hentoff was let go from the Village Voice AFTER 50 YEARS at that publication. The Voice, founded by Norman Mailer, and once regarded as a bastion of blue-chip arts writing, was bought by New Times media in 2005.

As noted in the New York Times story on the layoffs, Hentoff’s column will continue to be carried by the United Media Syndicate, and he will continue to contribute pieces to the Wall Street Journal. Hentoff’s latest book, At the Jazz Band Ball: 60 Years on the Jazz Scene, is scheduled for publication this year.

Speaking of jazz blogs, here are several others, some of which are already included in my blogroll (all are penned by music journalists, unless otherwise indicated):

New York Times writer Nate Chinen wrote about jazz blogs, and other web outlets for jazz information and music, in a piece published in late 2006.

Do you have any suggestions for jazz blogs that ought to be included in this post? If so, send them my way.