Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Back in Tempe after a scattered and scattering week in Santa Fe for the High Mayhem Festival. I pulled out of the driveway in AZ at 9:30 in the morning and arrived on the dot for the 6:30 rehearsal with Chris Jonas' Rrake ensemble (Paul Brown, Jeremy Bleich, Milton Villarrubia III, Josh Smith, Mike Gamble and CJ) which went until about 11:30. Immediately afterwards drove up the mountain road and pitched a tent at the Black Canyon campground in Santa Fe National Forest, where I spent two nights. The second night, buckets of rain fell, of course. Just fine, really, and still exactly the edge of the wilderness I needed to shake out the endless stripmalls of central AZ. Besides, a few nights housesitting for JG and taking care of the sweetest dog in the history of the entire known quadruped universe took the only slightly rough edges off the camping experience.

The High Mayhem Festival itself seemed a huge success. Carlos Santistevan, the "curator" of the annual event, chose a new format for this year, with groups of similar performers clustered on each of the three days. Friday was "acoustic day," including the Cleveland Trio with Bleich, Smith and beautifully intense yet musical Cleveland drummer Carmen Castaldi. Rrake went on at about 12:30 am and played for a packed house until about 1:30.

The Traps event, originally planned for 6 drummers on 6 drumsets, benefited from the addition of Quinn Kirchner (who, as usual for a drummer these days, is involved in a billion projects, including Grilly Biggs). The performance was one of those oddly vanishing experiences: I remember going onstage, and leaving. What does Vijay Iyer call it at Destination Out...autoscopy. Al Faaet, Quinn, Mike Rowland, Dave Wayne, Joe Sabella and Milton Villarrubia III all played with extraordinary and deep listening. The array of 7 drumsets was a wonder to behold, especially in the load in area.

Great to be there, great to be a part of two wonderful performances. Some of my other highlight shows: CK Barlow and David Felberg doing Boulez' Anthemes 2, Mute Socialite from San Francisco (the buzz was all about Moe Staiano, quite rightly, but the other drummer, Shayna Dunkelman, completely tore it up as well. And what's not to love about guitarist Ava Mendoza?) The Late Severa Wires with JA Deane and Molly Sturges was also mind blowing.

There were, as usual, so many performances that grabbed me by the short hairs, packed into a measly three days, that I was definitely feeling overwhelmed by the time I hit the highway to return here.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Not the Radisson, daddy-o

So it's that time of year again. Oh man.


Dan over at Soundslope swears it's totally cool to still say "stoked," so okay then, I'm stoked. There's been a certain amount of pissin' and moanin' around here lately, a certain perhaps overly Jeremiah-like ululation and wailing and renting of liner notes and gnashing of CDs. The annual advent of this uniquely extra-planetary, supernally and sempiternally wicked rad blast of searing sonic and visual adventure generally tends to restore my faith in...things.

I trek to The City of Holy Faith Tuesday, rehearse with Chris Jonas' Rrake ensemble, perform at midnight (just like a real crazy musician) on Friday, meet with the Mad Drummers for my "project," Traps, Saturday. The six of us get to our six drumsets at the magic hour of 6 PM on Sunday. There are so many xenophiles I'm looking forward to hearing and seeing at the fest as well as offstage.

Check out the unbelievable list of performers, among whom it is more than an honor and a privilege to be counted.

Anyone who reads this broadside and can get to Santa Fe for the weekend needs to go. Go, go, go. Go to the High Mayhem Emerging Arts Festival. Go. To the High Mayhem Emerging Arts Festival, go. Go.

If you live too far away or are infirm or do not, for some other reason, GO, print out the poster and put it up all over your town. It will, at least, confuse the no doubt already-addlepated citizenry.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Stapelia gigantea, a milkweed-family succulent from Africa, growing in a neighbor's front yard. The adaptation: carrion-scented flowers, pollinated by flies.

When my brother was a Midshipman, he told me the Marines had a saying: "Adapt and improvise."

His Naval Academy buddies also frequently used an acronym: "Bohica." It stands for "Bend Over, Here It Comes Again."

Speaking of sayings: the unreliable narrator and I have one that summarizes an approach to the music people still insist on calling "Jazz": "Real Book at the Radisson." Maybe you can already hear it. If not, imagine the typical upscale cruise ship atmosphere in any lobby bar in any business/upper middle class tourist oriented hotel in any town or city shooting for swank, imagine the piano trio with guest vocalist or guest alto player, imagine the setlist ranging from What's New? through maybe Wave to perhaps the adventurous arrangement of Green Dolphin Street or the blunt-force literalness of the sax feature of maybe Ornithology or the late night wild and crazy straight-six-eight of Footprints or even the jazzed up Beatles medley.

I've played these gigs. One of them was New Year's Eve, '85 into '86, at the King of France Tavern (I think it might be called The Treaty of Paris Tavern, actually) in Annapolis, MD, with the stunningly talented pianist and arranger Stef Scaggiari (perhaps best known for his brief, impeccably arranged variations of the All Things Considered theme on NPR). Stef used to host an open mic night there and I once jumped into the fray with a piano improvisation, sort of equal parts Gershwin-lite and ham-fisted ersatz Cecil Taylor. Scaggiari was nicely supportive and ended up calling me for the drum chair for the following New Year's gig (his regular drummer, a very talented DC session man, had bigger holiday fish to fry). Imagine my astonishment that the 4 hour gig paid $300. I figured I was finally launching my career as a professional musician.

Sadly, my bass player friend Steve Singer (on the gig on my recommendation) and I didn't really play very well at all. Actually, Steve played well. I pretty much stunk up the joint. Maybe I had a few too many free, very dry martinis; maybe I just had an "off night." But I insisted on wheeling out my less than integrated Elvin Jones chops, and some of the unevolved Tony Williams flourishes I had bastardized in a horrific overlay on my suburban white boy Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson roots. Not realizing how thoroughly inappropriate these half-assed references were for the setting, I pretty much bashed and busied my way out of any future gigs with Stef, and seemed to confuse everyone involved, including myself.

Unanchored by any wise elders, mentors, teachers or tradition, and coincidentally not very skilled at self-reflection and accurate self-assessment, I conveniently avoided learning anything at all from the experience. In fact, I remember feeling frustrated that Stef and Steve were so fuckin' square and couldn't go to all the multi-layered, polyrhythmic and envelope-pushing outlands in which I was so obviously completely at home. My immense ego could grasp that something wasn't working, musically, but that's as far as things could proceed.

One of my favorite Proverbs of Hell, from Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise."

And so it was, dear reader. Many more Real Book at the Radisson gigs before that fateful New Year's Eve and after, virtually every one of which was a study in everyone involved having chosen poorly, in reference to and including me. Another standout was a string of gigs one languid summer at a hotel in Santa Fe called, at the time, The Picacho Plaza, which is now, believe it or not, actually a Radisson. These gigs were a couple of nights a week, organized by a "jazz vocalist," whose name I have forgotten, with the impeccable musicianship of Santa Feans Sherman Rubin on piano and Spin Dunbar on bass. This was the summer of 1990, when I had left a 5 year relationship for a siren named Petra, a performance artist and dancer. She came to one of the gigs and yawned a lot. Sherman and Spin eventually tired of my showboating and got me fired.

Perhaps it is this string of utter artistic failures "in the tradition" that makes me want to eat my own arm off at the shoulder every time I hear "BeBop 2007" or "The Young (aging) Lions Play Exactly In The Style of Blue Note Circa 1966," or the "jazz repertory" sadness that gets all the surfaces right and completely misses the meaning (pace Eliot) or the irredeemably miserable Diana Krall, or the pale, millenial fireside warbling of Norah Jones. Those who can't do, criticize.

Yes, but in my own defense: I am completely and totally sent by, for example, the Herbie Nichols trio stuff with Max Roach and Al McKibbon. Or Miles and company coyly working over some idiotic fluff like If I Were A Bell. Or Elvin masterfully picking his spots on the Sonny Rollins Night at the Village Vanguard sessions. Or Sarah Vaughan, even on something as thin as Black Coffee.

I also want to gnaw madly at my extremities when I hear "Free Jazz" a la 2007. Ken Vandermark, for example, despite being well-funded and even immortalized now on the big screen, just misses the entire boat for me. Pick your poison and all that, of course. But the self-consciousness of it all completely bypasses the original vitality of the approach. "How to Take a Vital Tradition and Turn it Into Various Clunky Shapes Cast Entirely in Lead."

Cecil Taylor/Tony Oxley/Bill Dixon in 2002...a snapshot of part of what the "wise elders" are up to. Unrelentingly stunning, authentic, urgent, assured aural conjuring. Utter magic. Completely different: The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble's recent release, Hot 'n' Heavy, with Corey Wilkes. Bam, wake up. Wachet auf! Roscoe Mitchell, Harrison Bankhead, Corey Wilkes, Vincent Davis live a few months ago in Albuquerque: clarity, fire, roiling intensity, freshness, joy, depth. High concept music underpinned by earthy power as deep as you'd want to take it.

The contrast is absolute. The New Thing on CD is Real Book at the Radisson in a thousand thousand forms. It's nice. It's entertaining. It's a display of obviously highly crafted musicianship (usually with very tasty drumming). And if it weren't nailed to the perch it would be pushing up the Stapelias.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Pushing Plastic

So Columbia has launched yet another Miles Davis marketing campaign. Surely someone could do a PhD on the various MD marketing campaigns from start to the current day. This new-ish one is peculiar in a lot of ways.

The insert included with both Miles Smiles and Round About Midnight yells: The Top-10 Must Have CDs of Miles Davis.

In a little box underneath: "Miles Davis recorded many masterpieces aside from Kind of Blue. Explore his rich, diverse musical world with the following CDs. (In alphabetical order.)"

A Tribute to Jack Johnson
Bitches Brew
In A Silent Way
In Person- Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk
Kind of Blue
Miles in the Sky
Miles Smiles
On The Corner
Round About Midnight
Sketches of Spain

This list is (like many lists) fascinating to examine. There's a lot of ways to take it apart, but I'm particularly interested in the marketing angle itself. 6 of the 10, surprisingly to me, were released from '67 to '72. It seems wild to me that On The Corner is included, surely a recording that can still give Kind of Blue fans serious indigestion. I'm personally pleased that so much of this late MD, pre-retirement, is being sold. To whom though? What's the target demographic?

Here's the blurb for On The Corner:

"Having turned around the jazz world and cracked the realm of progressive rock with such benchmark fusion albums as In A Silent Way and, especially, Bitches Brew, Miles Davis went for broke with On The Corner, perhaps the nastiest, streetiest (sic), most in your face "jazz" album of all time. Influenced by Sly Stone, James Brown as well as certain aspects of Indian music and the revolutionary modern classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, On The Corner remains a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. But there's no denying the raw power of its clattering, world-party grooves."

Is this high praise? It's funny, in my opinion. Love the neologism "streetiest."

Friday, September 07, 2007

The New Thing

Disclaimer: I almost never buy new releases and I am almost completely out of the loop regarding what's happening "now" in the strange music people still insist on calling "jazz."

Here's the list of new or recent releases that the radio station where I do my show, KSFR, just got in:

  1. Soulfive - No Place Like Soul (2007)
  2. Debbie Davies - Blues Blast (2007)
  3. Bobby Floyd - Notes to and From My Friends (2006)
  4. New York Voice - A Day Like This (2007)
  5. Charlie Hunter - Trio (2007)
  6. Carl Allen and Rodney Whitaker - Get Ready (2007)
  7. Diana Krall - The Heart of Saturday Night (2007)
  8. Knoxville Jazz Orchestra - Blues Man from Memphis (2007)
  9. Omer Avital Group - Room to Grow (2006)
  10. Jeff Hackworth - How Little We Know (2007)
  11. Illinois Jacquet - Swingin' Live (2006)
  12. Nine - Bring Back Pluto (2007)
  13. Armand Boatman - BeBop Revolution (2007)
  14. South 9 Ensemble - The Llama
  15. Charles Gatschet - Step Lightly (2007)
  16. Curtis Stigers - Real Emotional (2007)
  17. Ali Ryerson - Jammin' at the Jazz Corner (2007)
  18. The Shook/Russo Trio featuring Bob Butta (2007)
  19. Chris Potter - Follow the Red Line (2007)
  20. Mike Longo Trio - Float Like A Butterfly (2007)
  21. The Dan St. Marseille Quartet - Swinging with the Saint (2006)
  22. Wendy Fopeano - Raining on the Roses (2007)
  23. The Wonderful Jazz Ensemble - A Wish (2005)
  24. Sonny Fortune - You and the Night and the Music (2007)
  25. Christian Scott - Anthem (2007)
  26. Dale Fiedler Quartet - Plays the Music of Pepper Adams (2007)
  27. Bob Hamilton Trio - WixWax (2007)
  28. The Omer Avital Group - Asking No Permission (2005)
  29. Ted des Plantes Washboard Wizards - Thumpin' & Bumpin' (2006)
  30. Allan Harris - Nat King Cole: Long Live the King
  31. Grant Stewart - In the Still of the Night (2007)
  32. Joe Locke and 4 Walls of Freedom - Dear Life (2004)
  33. John Vance - Dreamsville (2007)
What the hell is all this stuff? I wish I had time to check it out and write some kind of incisive summary of The World of Jazz Today, but, for one thing, I'm 530 miles away from the station and for another, I just used some old Barnes and Noble Gift Cards from former students of mine, totaling $125, to pick up the following:

Miles Davis, Round About Midnight, the Legacy reissue with previously unreleased live recordings with the first quintet at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, as well as bonus tracks that are among my favorite sort of hard boppish MD, including Little Melonae and Budo.

Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, which I've had on vinyl since 1976 and it basically went completely smooth.

Duke Ellington, Newport, the amazing Phil Schaap reissue with the real live recordings released for the first time in stereo.

Ornette Coleman, Free Jazz, including First Take...I got lazy with this one because I had it on cassette for years (no First Take).

Art Blakey, A Night at Birdland, Vol. 1 and 2, the great band with Brownie, Donaldson, Horace Silver, Curly Russell. This, I also had on cassette, recorded in about 1974 from the vinyl I borrowed from the Bethlehem Public Library.

Cannonball Adderly, Somethin' Else, a recording I somehow never heard before.

Someone, anyone, name one title from the above radio station list that a). you will still want to hear 33 years from now, b). will be coveted in reissue by people like me approximately 20 years after that, c). that you are likely to be able to listen to over and over again at recurring intervals for the next 50 years and hear something thrilling or new nearly every time. Oh I know, it's not fair to compare the above artists to Miles, Duke, Blakey, Cannonball, Ornette. Or maybe it's not fair to compare the radio station list with such classics as I picked up at Barnes and Noble. Okay, maybe you have a point, sort of. Except that I'd probably be excited if the radio station suddenly got the entire Blue Note catalogue, for example, from 1957. Or maybe even every Columbia Jazz release from 1967.

So why isn't it fair? And even if it's not fair, what does that in itself say about what has happened to this ugly stepchild of American musical culture that people still insist on calling "Jazz"?

Talk about leading questions. You know and I know that we all know the answer.

By the way, Sonny Fortune and Illinois Jacquet are incredible musicians, but I'm skeptical of the above releases. Chris Potter's disc might be worth a whirl. And one of the groups unknown to me, The Dale Fiedler Quartet, playing the music of Pepper Adams, sounds like it's worth a listen. But let's say I can still hear in 2057, let's say I quit smoking and take up yoga and don't get hit by a bus...what then, when I'm 96?