Jimmy Cobb & Peter Erskine Talk Ride Cymbals

(originally published in JazzTimes)

Jimmy Cobb & Peter Erskine On Ride Cymbals

What to look for in jazz’s essential cymbal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Airto, Last Night at USF

The great Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira came to USF in Tampa this week for a workshop, a talk, and, last night, an exuberant show in the intimate setting of Theatre 2 (portrait courtesy of Joseph Gamble).

Airto, who was an essential ingredient of Miles’ early ’70s  jazz-funk-fusion projects and went on to play with the original versions of both Weather Report and Return to Forever,  alternated between drumset and a table full of percussion toys during the concert. He was accompanied by his son-in-law, Krishna Booker, also a percussionist (and son of late, great bassist Walter Booker, Airto’s connection to many jazz greats in the late ’60s ).

For the first part of the show, the two joined the USF faculty jazz group, for a set of Airto’s compositions — some incorporating bossa grooves, one in 6/4 (or 3/2), one in 7/4. Several pieces had tenor saxophonist Jack Wilkins, head of jazz studies at USF, and trombonist Tom Brantley joining for unison lines, with Airto occasionally contributing wordless vocals. Brantley, with and without a mute, Wilkins, and LaRue Nickelson, whose guitar sometimes sported a fusion-style overdriven burr, turned in several of the evening’s most inspired solos. The group also included Mark Neuenschwander on acoustic and electric bass, pianist Chris Rottmeyer and drummer Ian Goodman.

Airto, for his solo piece, pounded out complex, driving rhythms on a large tambourine, sang along in Portuguese, used his voice (sans electronics) to create some harmonic overtones, and at the end added a whistle to create the feeling of a street parade at a Carnaval celebration in his home country. Booker turned in a brief “beatbox” solo – mouth sounds recreating hip-hop rhythms.

The show closed with a short set nicely contrasting with what came before. Brantley directed USF Jazz Ensemble 1 in performances of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” and “La Fiesta,” written by Chick Corea. Airto reminded listeners that he appeared on the original version of the latter tune, on the debut Return to Forever album, recorded in 1972 but not released in the U.S. until 1975.

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]