Friday, July 30, 2010

Herbie Hancock’s 2010 World Tour: Social Music for a New Era

Herbie Hancock’s got something to say about the chaos in the world and he’s saying it with music. He calls it The Imagine Project, which is the title to his latest recording released in June on his own Hancock Records label. It’s also the theme for his world tour that’s returning to the U.S in August.

Speaking in early July from a hotel in Spain overlooking the Mediterranean Sea -- ahhhhh. The Life -- Hancock says the tour is going well. The album “The Imagine Project” is an all-vocal offering that uses musicians from all over the worlds. It was recorded in many parts of the world. And the songs come from different corners of the world, but they have a common thread of global unity. And some of the songs are very familiar to people: Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin,’” Lennon’s “Imagine,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “A Change is Gonna Come” and more.

[Photo: Taken by me, Herbie Hancock at the Newport Jazz Festival, 2008]

He’s joined by joined by Seal, Pink, Jeff Beck, Ceu Vagarosa, Dave Matthews, Lisa Hannigan, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Chaka Khan, The Chieftains, Marcus Miller, Wayne Shorter, and more.

To pull it off on tour, without the availability of those folks, he’s carrying Vinny Colaiuta on drums and Lionel Loueke on guitar. Those guys have toured with Herbie for a while. A second keyboard player, Greg Phillinganes, sings some songs. So does young, unheralded singer Kristina Train.

The bass player, who also sings some selections, may be someone to play attention to.

“Tal Wilkenfeld … She’s plays electric. She’s 24, but she looks like she’s 12. She plays like she’s 60,” said Hancock. “I mean in the sense that she plays like a really experienced, knowledgeable bass player. Amazing technique and command of the instrument that just astounds me.”

If Herbie is astounded … well … Listeners should prepare to be astounded.

The album is slick, with good arrangements of the songs. The international flavor is very hip. And appropriate. No long Herbie solos, but his piano touch is heard and felt. Quality stuff. “Space Captain,” who people know from Joe Cocker on his “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” record, is super, with blues woman Tedeschi getting to the emotional core. Her husband, Derek Trucks, a fabulous slide rock/blues guitarist who is a jazz fan with strong improvisational skills, follow’s a gorgeous Hancock solo with a superb solo of his own, giving the guitar a vocal quality that displays his emotional take on the vehicle.

For the listener, Herbie hopes the music “will trigger something in their hearts that really wants to move forward and wants to be reminded about the importance of moving forward and wants to be stimulated to be proactively involved in creating the kind of forward motion that we want, globally. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

Reminded that when jazz went electric in the latter 1970s, spear-headed by his former boss Miles Davis and fostered by Miles alumni Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul and Hancock himself, Miles called his music “social music,” Herbie said “it was. This is also social music in a different forum. Music can be purely entertainment and that’s fine. It can also be entertainment with a message, which is what this is. It’s a message about the future. It’s more like a call to arms. Let’s rise up against our negative self. Against our passive self and start proactively leading the kind of globalized world we want to live in and want our children’s children to live in.”

Hancock also is quick to note that he is politically astute and his music can be aimed to express that. He also has no problem giving his opinion on the state of affairs. An avowed fan of President Obama, he sees promise in a leader who is trying to men the many problems in the nation. But the problems are global and should be cured with a global vision.

He and I concur with the ruination and corruption that eight years of George Asshole Bush (my moniker, not Herbie’s) wreaked upon America. (“Who in the hell would want to be president of the United States, especially now? It’s the worst job in the world,” he noted.)

“But it’s only been a year and a half and Obama’s done amazing stuff. The health care. Now the overhaul of the Federal Reserve. He’s delved into some things that none of us even knew about like the commission that was designed to monitor all sorts of drilling and how corrupt that thing was. You’re looking at a whole stream of things that are wrong and that need to be addressed. And he has to do it at the hardest of times, an election year. When none of those guys (in Congress) will do anything to jeopardize their getting re-elected.”

He’s particularly critical of the abomination that is Arizona’s immigration law. While it is widely ridiculed, there are supporters outside Arizona, and a few other states are supporting it.

“What’s wrong with these people? They’ve been lied to and they believe the lies. That’s one thing the Republicans are really goods at. Lying. … They have kept a hold on the American people by keeping them dumb and stupid and not educating them with the truth. They are masters at that,” said the pianist.

“There’s a lot of work we need to do. I’m trying to do my part.”

Despite the uphill battle the Obama administration, Hancock is optimistic. “I bet that before his four years are up, the tide is going to change enough so that people will see the positive beginning of what he’s accomplished. Enough to be re-elected. That’s what I’m hoping for. Then, America still has a possibility of living up to what the real mission of America is. If we don’t re-elect Obama, we will fail the reason for America existing in the first place. I don’t want that to happen. And it has to do with the message that’s on The Imagine Project.”

Enough of the political conversation, which stopped when he commented “OK. I’m preaching to the choir.”

The jazz legend, at age 70, continues to be vital and vibrant. It will be interesting -- hell, it always has been -- to see what twists and turns his creative output takes as he strolls into his 70s. Though the legend’s age is no factor. He remains a pure artist, bright, imaginative, curious, alert, enlightened. He’s a walking American legend. An American treasure.

No, a global treasure.

And just in case there are some who question whether Hancock has gone jazz soft, and don’t know if they’re ready to face an all-vocal Herbie outing, go see the concert when it’s in your area (For NY Capital District folks, it’s Aug. 9 at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass). The live versions are sure to have a different magic than recorded versions. And: “I also play ‘Chameleon,’ ‘Cantaloupe Island’ ‘Speak Like a Child,’ ‘Round Midnight,’ ‘Maiden Voyage.’”

Ohhhhhhhhh yeah.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Remembering Sal Maida, Sam Farkas

With a busy June and early July, this log edition was delayed. But by no means should it be ignored or dropped by the wayside.

Two Capital District jazz musicians died within days of one another in June and both were significant to this region of New York State and to me.

Pianist Salvatore Maida, 77, of Gloversville, NY, was a longtime jazz pianist in the area. Extremely talented, he played with some heavy hitters and could probably have made a nice career in New York City (he attended Julliard for a time and was a graduate of the Crane School of Music, which is part of the State University of New York at Potsdam), the center of the jazz world. He was actually born there. But he remained in Gloversville NY, which had become his home where his family settled. It’s the same city a where I lived for 20 years or so. Strangely, I didn’t know Sal then. But I had seen him perform around the region with the best of jazz cats that included the brilliant saxophonist Nick Brignola and great guitarist Jack Fragomeni, among many others. He had a great style and always played with intelligence and exuberance. Always good shit coming from his mind and through his fingertips.

I was introduced to Sal in a small, short-lived club in Gloversville, after I had moved away. He was there as a fan, as was I, to see a band led by the excellent saxophonist Brian Patneaude. I humbly state that it was Sal who requested to be introduced to me when he found out I was in the room. He knew my writing, apparently. I was a certainly eager to do so, feeling in the presence of an extraordinary talent. It was a warm meeting. Brief. But started a kinship where I would see him often when he played in Saratoga Springs where I have resided for about a decade.

He played various venues in the Saratoga area and, in fact, had played a jazz club/restaurant -- One Caroline -- a bunch of times earlier this year. We would have chats of varying lengths in between sets at some of these appearances and it was always warm. He was a warm guy. A gentleman. And very sharp. And very humble about his own talent.

The last time we spoke at length was when he completed a gig at a pretentious Saratoga Springs establishment where not many people seemed to be listening; no doubt too impressed with the sounds of their own voices and the mindless blather that no doubt emanated therein. Ironic, in a sense, since Sal was the opposite of pretentious. As always, it was warm, filled with good humor.

Another noted area pianist, Steve Pellegrino, and myself have toasted Sal since his death. Steve -- also from Gloversville -- knew Sal way longer and better than myself. He says he learned lots from Mr. Maida. Steve was touched, like many, by his passing. Steve was in awe of Sal's playing. And Steve can play. That's cool.

I just thought he was worthy of note. Salute, Sal. Cent' anni.

(Pronounced: Chin Dahn, for uninitiated non-Italians. It means literally 100 years, but as a salute it means 100 years of health and happiness. 100 good years. Things to that affect. Sal lives on, so it's appropriate).

Jazz guitarist Sam Farkas also died in June. He played guitar in the area over many years. But in fact, I never saw him perform.

Where Farkas comes into my life was educating me on jazz and its creators. I was a kid in high school and later in college when I used to listen to him on radio station WRPI out of Troy, NY, which is attached to the renowned engineering school of the same name -- RPI. I was totally enthralled with jazz music at that time and ate up anything and everything I could. I spent time in the Schenectady Library taking out albums by all kinds of people. Listening to artists and taking note of who the sidemen were. Then going to listen to work by those sidemen. (This is common among jazz fans).

Then I would go out and buy records. I read jazz histories and collected writings by people like Leonard Feather, Nat Hentoff and Ralph J. Gleason.

But Farkas was also a key. He started at 11 on a Saturday night and would go into the wee hours playing Miles, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Paul Desmond, Stan Getz… on and on and on. He played the greats and people lesser known, but wonderfully talented. I would listen to him while driving around if I was out and about. I’d tune him in if I was at home, often falling asleep in the wee hours to those sweet sounds. That was akin to the library, since, after hearing many selections, I would go out and buy the album, or other music by those artists.

I remember sitting in my car (actually, my parents') with my girlfriend in a parking lot outside a nightclub, refusing to go inside until the song was over so I could hear Sam announce who was playing. The music was kick-ass. She was annoyed, but I was undaunted. The album turned out to be “Ten Years Hence,” by Yusef Lateef. His booming tenor sax was complimented by crazy-good piano wailing by the great Kenny Baron -- my first exposure to both those great talents. Tootie Heath on drums and Bob Cranshaw on bass. The cut was “Yusef’s Mood” which, some may be familiar, occupies one entire side of the two-album vinyl set. Over 20 minutes long. We must have sat there for 15 or more of it. (No matter. Got laid anyway). It's still one of my favorite albums.

His radio show was an immense pleasure for me, but a highly educational tool and one that helped quench my thirst for knowledge that extended beyond just enjoying the music. It was the beginning of a road that has led to me becoming an established jazz writer. Still listening. Still learning. Still enjoying.

Sam did some radio in more recent years on a couple commercial stations, but those stints were always cut short -- just when I'd think good taste was coming back. Too bad.

More Capital District:

I could list many jazz events for this region. But really the best thing to do is continually check the calendar section of Albany

However one noteworthy appearance is that of Ralph Lalama at the Bread and Jam CafĂ© in Cohoes, NY, on July 23 and 24. He turned in a sterling set of music at Freihofer’s Jazz Festival in Saratoga last month with his quartet. Fine NYC-based player. Real nice guy. He’ll be playing in trio format with Lou Smaldone and Joe Barna.

Check him out!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Freihofer Jazz Fest Continues Fine Tradition

This year’s Freihofer’s Jazz Festival, held at the end of June, was again one of the highlights of summer, musically and otherwise, in upstate New York. Held in the sweet town of Saratoga Springs in upstate NY and at the scenic and special Saratoga Performing Arts Center venue, it’s always a gas. Always there’s music from some of the master’s, as well as surprises from the aspiring masters, and always surprises from up-and-coming artists.

It’s also a fabulous picnic and place where old and new friends meet with a backdrop of a variety of jazz, soul, blues and sometimes pop music. Being a jazz festival, of course that genre prevails. Some years -- blissfully -- it has supremely dominated. Others, sadly, not.

The 2010 version could have stood a couple of big-name starts -- Chick, Herbie, Dave Holland, Lovano … someone. Attendance seemed down, unfortunately. But the “feature acts” were Gladys Knight -- I could scarcely find a single soul who was interested -- and a “smooth jazz” act that could make me sleep just reading the name. I won’t write it for fear of the same. More jazz fans would have come in for more jazz. Granted, there are financial considerations in these times, and Chick or Sonny etc. do not come at a discount price. And yes, producer Danny Melnick did bring in some very fine music that resulted in another good 2-day festival. I’ll gripe no further. Melnick has carried the torch well since it was handed to him by George Wein and he's to be lauded for that.

[My photos, top to bottom:
Kendrick Scott; Omar Hakim; Rachel Z (piano) & Maeve Royce; Ahmad Jamal; dapper Mr. Mario Abney; Ralph Lalama (sax) quartet; Hailey Niswanger; Mario Abney playing; Kendrick Scott (center) with Mike Moreno, guitar, and John Ellis, bass clarinet; Revelers - you know who you are!]

Special to me was Kendrick Scott’s Oracle band, a group of outstanding individuals who carry out Scott’s vision and broad musical perspective. The quality of music was very high, the vibe blissful. There’s enough there for the head and the heart. And sitting under sunny skies sipping a beer and going with the music was a sheer delight. Scott’s drums have been featured in the bands of Terrence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock. This was his first gig outside NYC and he was excited about it.

“I’ve been using John Ellis (sax) for years now,” he said a few days before the gig. “We have a good linkup because we all played together in (guitarist) Mike Moreno’s band. Mike is always one of the center pieces of the band (Oracle). Now so is John. The three of use have played together in each other’s bands for a long time. Taylor Eigsti (piano) just started playing last year. Taylor’s excellent. So I’ve been having a great time playing with him. He’s been using me on some of his gigs. It’s funny being a drummer/bandleader, because I’ve called all the people I love (for his group), then I play in their band. It’s a blessing for me to be able to have bandleaders play with me. Taylor has a beautiful sensibility and touch on the piano. Harish (Ragavan, bass) I met through Taylor or through the whole influx of the west coast coming into the city. Like Ambrose Akinmusire, Justin Brown and Taylor, Joe Sanders. All of them were out in LA on the west coast, and they all came (to NYC) at the same time. They kind of blew up the scene at the same time. I met Harish then. That’s the whole band.”

he said he hopes his band is something that is long-lasting, like Art Blakey's. Time will tell. The quality of his music and his ability to run a band is unquestioned. But there are always other factors in oplay, and some degree of good fortune is always helpful. I hope things go well for Kendrick in this regard because he's a true artist. And a good guy. High quality music, indeed.

They were excellent.

As was Ralph Lalama’s quartet, bluesman Taj Mahal, saxophonist J.D. Allen, Trio of Oz with Rachel Z on piano and drum wizard Omar Hakim;, and veteran Ahmad Jamal. The Young Talent Raising Eyebrows awards went to 19-year-old saxophonist Hailey Niswanger, still a student at Berklee College in Boston, and young trumpeter Mario Abney who brought a high-energy sextet that brought a strong vibe of fun while not playing down to the audience. Kaliq Woods on clarinet was a highlight within that group. Great chops and feeling.

J.D. Allen‘s trio was a great listen, especially the Trane-like “The Cross and the Crescent Sickle” with the saxman playing long, serpentine ideas over a steady rhythmic pulse.

An official review is found here, at the great All About Jazz website.

But Trio of Oz is worth mentioning as a group that brought as much intensity and electricity as any, propelled by the whirlwind drumming of Hakim. His arms and hands seemed to be everywhere, but as frantic as the pace was, everything he did was musical with his bandmates Rachel Z and bassist Maeve Royce. They turned rock songs into jazz heaven. Powerful stuff.

Most of the fans at this event seem to mark their calendars every year in anticipation. Many, I’m sure, already have plans and weekend accommodations for 2011. Get yourself in that mode. It’s a high-quality hang and enough music to float your boat for a long time.