Tuesday, December 27, 2011

For a Night, Jazz Shines in America

Sonny Rollins receives Kennedy Center Honor on CBS television

It actually happened a few weeks ago, the night Theodore Walter Rollins was among people from the arts receiving the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., in front of the President and First Lady and hundreds of people associated with the arts. But the event aired tonight (Dec. 27) on CBS television … a national network. Once upon a time that might not be a big deal for jazz, but in recent decades, national exposure is rare. And who better to be the man this year than Sonny. Age 81 and still going strong.

It’s awarded annually for exemplary lifetime achievement in the performing arts. Sonny, the great living master of jazz, has repeatedly said it is one he accepted for people like Coleman Hawkins and Thelonious Monk and their ilk … the greats he admired who never got to attain such awards. He appreciates that through the award, jazz--America’s classical music, as he and others dub it--gets exposure through the event. (Sonny also received, earlier this year, the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the U.S. government. He felt similarly about that award).

[Photo: Sonny Rollins at Newport Jazz Festival, 2008, © R.J. DeLuke]

It was a good night for jazz. The network spent about 20 minutes on Meryl Streep, well known as one of the great actresses. You can’t find anyone who doesn’t know who she is. Sonny’s portion followed on the broadcast, and they didn’t scrimp. It was about the same length, started by a witty, yet to-the-point, intro by Bill Cosby, a valued friend of jazz, and including a short bio film summarizing Rollins’ career. Short, but this is TV. It was still presented to a national audience and was fair treatment.

Then the public got some real sweet jazz performed by musicians like Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane, who were great, backed by people like Christian McBride, Billy Drummond, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette. Jimmy Heath was there, as was Roy Hargrove. Truncated for TV, yes, but what there was, was a fine taste of jazz. Yo Yo Ma, another of the honorees, was digging it, as the cameras cut to the box where the honoress were seated. So was Michele Obama, who Sonny says is the REAL jazz fan of the First Family, formed by a long time of listening to the music in her household while growing up. The great Rollins classic “St. Thomas” ended the musical segment, even though many watching probably didn’t know the song.

I’ve seen networks give jazz VERY short shrift on occasions when it could have done sooooo much better. CBS gets a thumbs up this time from me. It was a good night. The jazz was cookin' and presented with some elegance to the nation. And Sonny is surely happier about that than his own accolades. All over the world, he notes, people love jazz. But he feels the U.S. needs to do more. The government needs to do more to help the musicians who play it, and help get the music to wider ahttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifudiences.

It had to be a great weekend--the weekend of Dec. 4 when it actually took place and was filmed by CBS--for the saxophone colossus. He was toasted by Bill Clinton and lauded by Obama (not on the telecast). But fun? “Well, not fun. It’s not exactly my style,” Rollins said to me last week. Sonny is a private man, modest. He knows his place in the pantheon of the music, but his life is about learning, exploring music, and “trying to get along and do the right things.”

So as the audience gave him a great ovation on a couple of occasions, Sonny stood, modest but distinctly noble, and accepted the admiration. But he’http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifs already on to his next thing. Off the road for a bit, his tour schedule is being compiled for 2012 and there are other things on the horizon. (Story on Sonny coming to All About Jazz near you, soon).

Viva Sonny Rollins. And let’s hope his desire to see jazz blossom more on its native soil, like it has around the globe, comes to fruition.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Best Albums of 2011

That time again. A reluctant glance at some fine records. Take with two grains of salt ... a pint of ale and two fingers of Wild Turkey ain't a bad idea either ...

The annual process of selecting any list of “best” for the year is a precarious endeavor, especially in music where one man’s Miles is another man’s Megadeath. But it’s an entertaining exposure and it also is a good way to look back and remember what good disks were produced.

Another problem is that each year there is sooo much good music recorded. Some great music. Bit that is also in the ear of the behearer. Additionally, while as a writer I do get exposure to more music than the average fan, there is a ton of music I don’t receive (I am not a CD reviewer). For example, I would have loved to have heard Bill Frisell’s John Lennon project and John Scofield’s ballad album, among others. And hopefully I will, eventually. But what I don’t hear, obviously, isn’t up for inclusion.

I’m truly grateful for the music I do receive, as it helps a person keep tabs on what’s out there; keep a finger on the pulse of the scene. And this year there are more people who are definitely not household names on the list, the result of being exposed to it. Every year some superb albums come from the less well-lit corners of the jazz scene.

[PHOTOS: From top: David Binney, Newport Jazz Fest, 2010; Ambrose Akinmusire, Newport Jazz Fest, 2011; Tineke Postma, North Sea Jazz fest, 2011; Joe Lovano, North Sea Jazz Fest, 2011; Gretchen Parlato, Newport Jazz Fest, 2010. All © R.J. DeLuke]

As always, compiling the list means worthy disks are left out. This isn’t the bible, it’s an observation about some of the outstanding music I’ve run across. They are not in any order and I do not decree a single Album of the Year.

Joe Lovano and Us Five: Birdsongs (Blue Note). Of course Lovano is a heavyweight no question. The quality of his albums -- and his playing -- is always. US Five is a great group and their exploration of Charlie Parker is innovative and exciting. Lovano is so fucking good. This band is also kick ass live and shouldn’t be missed.

Ambrose Akinmusire: When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note)
Akinmusire is a unique musician and individual. This came close to breaking my Album of the Year edict, just by the way this trumpeter has achieved a personal approach to music and sound at a young age. And still developing. And eager to develop. My conversations with him have been enlightening and this is one cat to keep an ear on. Strong band, captivating music.

James Farm: James Farm (Nonesuch). James Farm is a relatively new band of extraordinary musicians that I hope steers this ship for a long time, even though they all are quite busy outside the group. Of course it’s Joshua Redman, Matt Penman, Eric Harland and Aaron Parks. Sometimes “star” groups go astray, but this is truly a group of comrades with no ego center and a communal approach. It’s only going to get better. Love this group!

Tineke Postma: The Dawn of Light, (Challenge Records) This young saxophonist from Holland has one of the sweet saxophone sounds I’ve heard come down the pike in a while. And her approach, full of warmth and wonder, is charming. She’s been gigging in the U.S. over the years and playing with heavy cats, including Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic project. This is with her own band of guys from the Netherlands. They were excellent at the North Sea Jazz Fest in July.

Jonathan Kriesberg: Shadowless (New For Now Music) This is one slick guitarist with a fine band featuring Will Vinson’s sax. Love the smoothness of the tunes, the execution, solos. Very crisp and quite appealing.

David Binney: Graylen Epicenter (Mythology) Binney is a guy who's really emerging in the last couple years. Dynamic player with an open musical mind and a spirited attack. He plays with the best cats on the Brooklyn scene and is highly respected. A sharp musical mind with an eagerness to explore.

Chantale Gagne: Wisdom of the Water (CDBY)
A fine piano player with a joyous expression to her touch, and a great band including Lewis Nash and Peter Washington. Joe Locke’s vibes are blissful throughout, matching the pianists buoyant feel. Look forward to more from this lady.

John Daversa; Junk wagon; the Big Band Album (BFM Jazz)
This music has a lot of modern pop rhythmic things in places, including rap, and an electric bass. It’s dynamic and energetic. Daversa doesn’t take any ethereal flights of fancy like many of today’s arrangers. He’s charging out of the gate, but shows a lot of different colors and levels of intensity. Grows and stands strong with repeated listens.

Noah Haidu: Slipstream (Posi-Tone)
This is kind of mainstream, though there are moments outside of that, but the group of younger cats wails throughout. Even with names like Jeremy Pelt and Jon Irabagon, there’s no question pianist Haidu is in charge. He got the right feel and the album is swinging fun throughout. Great execution.

Armen Donelian: Leapfrog (Sunnyside Records) This veteran pianist puts out consistently good music, this time choosing to investigate the quintet setting again. His writing is attractive and the overall feel is very cool. Mike Moreno’s guitar blends nicely with the melodies and harmonies and Tyshawn Sorey’s drums are always what the music calls for, fast or slow.

John Escreet: The Age We Live In (Mythology Records) This young Brit transplanted to Brooklyn is making a strong name for himself. These tunes are searching and propulsive, aided by Binney, who seems to be on a lot of good albums over the last couple years. Serious music.

Michael Pedicin: Ballads … Searching for Peace (Jazz Hut)
This album is just what it says it is. And wonderfully refreshing on a scene where everyone is trying to be “different” and “innovative” to varying degrees of success. These are ballads featuring the big, luscious tenor sound of Pedicin. Guitarist John Valentino provides a couple originals, but ballads. Barry Miles piano is equally sweet. This is first-class gorgeous music that we should never lose. It’s not just old standards either. Wayne Shorter and McCoy Tyner’s divine “Search for Peace” are there. I recommend it for getting laid. (Does it HAVE to always be the art?)

Jimmy Owens: The Monk Project (IPO)
I like Owens’s treatment of Monk material for seven musicians including Marcus Strickland, Kenny Barron, Wycliffe Gordon and Howard Johnson. It has interesting twists and stellar solos. Nice.

Sonny Rollins: Road Shows: (Doxy Music) Another grouping of live Sonny from past shows. Anything liver from Sonny is worthy of high praise. This one includes the historic encounter with Ornette Coleman, which, frankly, doesn’t do a lot for me, though I understand the significance. But Sonny rules, as always.

Stan Killian: Unified (Sunnyside)
Didn’t know who this cat was when I first spun the disk. Rich tenor sound; fluid and full of ideas. He’s got that something extra that will push him from the pack, perhaps. Solid tunes, good band, and appearances by Binney and Pelt and Roy Hargrove. This is a very sharp recording.

Ernie Krivda: Blues for Pekar (Capri) I just like the way this veteran tenor sax man rips through the material. He’s got an edge. Kind of no-holds-barred. A tarnished sound and he wails throughout this. I probably paid attention to it first because I liked the late writer/cartoonist Harvey Pekar. But it quickly moved beyond that. This is just basic hot 11 p.m. nightclub, here-it-is jazz.

Silvano Monasterios: Unconditional (Savant)
This is a piano player I didn’t know from Adam, but it’s a cooking disk of original music that has different moods, but always driving and engaging. Keep it up.

Bill Carrothers Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard (Pirouet) A fine piano trio outing from a very tasty and talented player. Group interplay and many bright moments throughout. Love the live feel. Carrothers flies under the radar, but he’s one talented cat.

It’s here I’m going to mention a few Pirouet Records, which seems to crank out quality music each month. Jochen Reuckert’s Somewhere Meeting Nobody is the drummer’s record, but features the wonderful tenor of Mark Turner and some tasty guitar from Brad Shepik. The stalwart Penman is on bass. This could have made people’s lists, as could the piano-guitar duets outing of Marc Copland and John Abercrombie, Speak to Me. Abercrombie sounds great, melodic and harmonic, away from the wild side. Another Marc Copland record, Crosstalk, features Greg Osby’s sax. Sweet., And Copland is a good player. Some kudos to Pirouet.


Miles Davis Quintet, Live In Europe 1967, The Bootleg Sessions. What else? This could be the best music put out in 2011. Or since who knows when. One could argue that this group -- Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Miles -- is the greatest ever, anywhere. And many do argue that. This is live music from the and the apex of their collective powers. Three disks and a DVD. A stone-cold motherfucker.


Not a lot pop to my head this year, but everything Kurt Elling does is worthy and The Gate (Concord) is no exception. Pop Tunes like “Norwegian Wood” exposed in new lights, and jazz stuff like “Blue and Green.”

Gretchen Parlato’s style and delivery is unique. The Lost and Found (Obliqsound) is filled with unusual tunes but her emotive quality and sense of seeking bring the art together. And she enlists first-rate cats like pianist Taylor Eigsti and drummer Kendrick Scott. This grows on you.

Karrin Allyson’s voice and harmonious piano sounds shine brightly on Round Midnight (Concord), a collection of standards done is classy, sensual style. I haven’t heard enough of this disk yet, but thought enough of the quality that it belongs here. She’s a very consistent and quality artist who really puts herself into her music.

… waiting for the next disk from Roberta. (She knows who she is)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

'Clark' is the Autobiography of a Jazz Giant

Clark Terry Tells His Story

Clark Terry is one of the bright, indomitable spirits in American music. Of course, jazz is his specialty and he’s never run from the term or tried to change or over-explain it. He embraces jazz and is unabashed about his love for it. That’s obvious to anyone who’s seen him perform over several decades. It’s reinforced and embellished in his autobiography released this year, simply titled Clark (University of California Press), written with the assistance of his wife of 19 years, Gwen.

It’s an enjoyable read, lighthearted like the man himself, told in a natural style. It’s not critical or analytical like a biography from an author looking in from a different view. It’s like a journal, but one that gives the reader pictures from the inside of one of the wonderful careers in music. And as many smiles as we’ve seen on the face of the man who will be 91 on Dec. 14, it’s not all glee. Terry experienced hardship, disappointment, racism and discouragement along the way. But he was unyielding. He always steered the course. Always came out on the other end better for it.

That’s been a great thing for jazz.

Terry’s an enjoyable storyteller, with flair and humor. He also speaks frankly and exposes his human blemishes. During his life on the road with the great big bands--including George Hudson, Charlie Barnett, Count Basie and Duke Ellington--Terry drinks, gambles, cavorts with ladies--All things that traveling musicians did back in the day. These are not horrible things. In fact, the book exemplifies that Terry is a man of character. Terry came from a family with a too-strict, physically abusive father whom he eventually had to leave--never to see again. He doesn’t say “woe is me.” In fact, he eventually comes to understand at least what was at the root of his father’s sternness and uses it as a source of strength through his life. Think many people today take those kinds of lemons and make them lemonade? Fat chance. He also reveals he never graduated high school because he impregnated a girlfriend. It was a source of severe disappointment. But again, terry is resolute.

Terry introduces a lot of colorful characters that flow in and out of his life, some having nothing to do with music, like his childhood friend “Shitty.” He constructed his first trumpet out of junk; that’s how badly he wanted to play. The agreeable Terry also had his limits. He knew how to box and carried a blade in case of trouble. He didn’t take shit from people. But he treated people with the respect they deserved. He knew all the cats in music. He mentored a young Miles Davis, who always called Clark one of his idols. Played with all of ’em. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus (with whom he came close to one of those physical confrontations the enigmatic bass player was known for--but didn‘t back down), all the big band stalwarts. Loved Duke and Basie, and vice versa. He also recounts associations with people like Norman Granz and Billy Strayhorn. He has a great way of describing them and his stories illuminate the people and the era in which they thrived.

The trumpeter was the first black man on the NBC music staff and spent a long time with the Tonight Show band. His arranging and writing talents came to the fore working with large groups and Terry eventually reached his dream of having his own big band. He also championed the flugelhorn; like he championed the careers of so many young musicians. Those stories are all there. As is the genesis of his character “Mumbles,” the unique scat singer that was born on the Tonight Show during the popular “stump the band” segment and caught real fire after he recorded “Incoherent Blues,” a song employing the wordless vocal technique on the album Oscar Peterson Trio + 1 (Philips, 1964), produced by Granz. Peterson, he divulges, fell out laughing when he first heard Mumbles.

Terry toured everywhere, seemingly with everyone, and has appeared on more than 900 recordings (He’s the recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award, among his many honors). He‘s undoubtedly got more stories than he could fit into the book. But one touching and highly important aspect to Terry’s career that is explained and examined closely is his dedication to jazz education and helping young people develop. He was always generous with younger musicians, but the formal part of teaching started in the 1970s. It picked up speed at the behest of the great pianist/composer Billy Taylor (another feather in the cap of the multi-talented Dr. Taylor) who got Terry involved in conducting clinics.

“I knew this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he writes. “I decided that my crazy schedule had to go. I had to make room to teach.” It led to years and years of enriching the lives of young musicians and also to a pair of books on trumpet instruction. The great pleasure Terry takes in having a positive impact on young folks is blissfully evident. His accomplishments are sooooo numerous. An “Honors and Awards” section runs for 8 1/3 pages, but the immeasurable impact of Terry’s mentoring perhaps supersedes them all (though many of those awards are related to education).

Clark is a breezy read, fast paced and enjoyable. Honest and genuine. It was a great idea for this young man to get it down on paper.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Observations from Holland: Ntjam Rosie, Tineke Postma

The North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands is said to be the biggest indoor fest in the world. I have no argument. It’s a tremendous event with quality music from start to finish. Like so many jazz festivals, you’ll find rock and pop and soul music as well. Names like Price and Snoop Dogg and Seal--Hell, even Pal Simon and Tom Jones were there this year. No question though, jazz was abundant and in all forms, from big band to traditional to bebop to more modern and experimental groups.

It also showcased some Dutch jazz musicians, of which a couple are worth mentioning. Bear in mind, there were 13 stages at the event. To see everything was impossible. To see all Dutch jazz was just as impossible as it was to see all other kinds. It was a dizzying experience in some respects--so much goes music missed. SO MUCH good music experienced and savored.

North Sea Jazz is something fans should try and see. The host city of Rotterdam is warm and welcoming. Friendly. Easy to get around. Laid back. Plenty for tourists to take in. Shopping. Night life. A nice arts community. Dining of all kinds. It’s a perfect host city for this huge event and the venue -- a huge facility dubbed Ahoy -- is unique and impressive.

[PHOTO: Ntjam Roise at North sea Jazz, 2011, © R.J. DeLuke]

There’s no predicting how the careers of musicians will go. No formula for success. Why this person “made it” and that person didn’t, in terms of public recognition, is largely a mystery. The famed jazz producer Orrin Keepnews once told me that some musicians were “inevitable,” meaning that regardless of what hehttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif did as a producer, or anyone else, that cram was going to rise to the top. The talent was too immense. Coltrane, Monk. Sonny Rollins. That’s true.

What becomes of so many others, why some rise and some don’t .. who knows. Good fortune certainly plays a role. But it remains a mystery. Just like individual songs. Why this one makes it and that one doesn’t. Who knows.

A noteworthy discovery in Rotterdam was Ntjam Rosie, a resident there for a while now, but originally from Camaroon. She’s a singer in the manner of perhaps a Lizz Wright or Angelique Kidjo. Soul, world music, jazz, R&B all have a place in her music, as does, certainly, sounds she’s heard in Camaroon. She’s a trained vocalist who writes just about all of her own material and is bent on carving a career based on that. Her latest album Elle exhibits her songwriting. It’s a good disk, but in performance, like most good artists, she is more dynamic and engaging. It should be that way and not the other way ‘round.

Performing at Ahoy, she exhibited charm and a relaxed ease, fronting a larger ensemble with percussion, flute and vibes to go with the basic rhythm. She was energized and so was the crowd. Her voice is pristine and she communicates her lyrics directly and clearly. A fine sense of rhythm and harmony. Her influences she channels through her own filter and it comes out a mixture of pop, soul and world music, with underpinnings of jazz harmony. She’s not pushing pop hooks in order to be heard. Very musical.

Her story is spreading around Europe. Why this one makes it and that one doesn’t, who knows. But this lady could be one whose name is heard more and louder. Her music is accessible without playing down to the crowd. It’s her own voice -- inward and outward. Who knows ………

On a different note, Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma has had successful albums in the United States, the latest The Dawn of Life (Challenge Records), out in Europe and due in the U.S. soon. It’s outstanding, with her European quartet. She’s also recorded with people like Geri Allen and Teri Lynne Carrington and is part of the recently released Mosaic Project, with Esperanza Spalding, Allen, Helen Sung, Ingrid Jensen, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson and Dee Dee Bridgewater. She has a gorgeous sound and an infectious approach to music. She’s already carving out a sound that belongs to just her.

At Ahoy, her set was superb, playing with pianist Marc Van Roon, bassist Frans Van Der Hoeven and drummer Martijn Vink. Dynamic and strong music. Great communication among the quartet. She’s a very fine player whose rewards are only just beginning and are well deserved.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Eliane Elias Shows a Captivating Charm to Merge with Monster Musical Talent

Eliane Elias was a fantastic pianist when she came from her native Sao Paulo to New York City in 1981. She’s already worked with some of the best Brazilian musicians as a teenager. Her early albums show a pianist with monster chops, but with the ability to display delicate beauty. Passion and emotion.

She did a vocal album of Antonio Carlos Jobim music (Eliane Elias Sings Jobim, Blue Note, 1998) but admits she was a bit tentative with her singing. Since then, her soft, sensual voice has become more of a mainstay in her work. Dreamer (Bluebird, 2004) was a delight, as was and Boss Nova Stories (Blue Note, 2008). More surety in the vocals. With Brazilian music, she’s obviously at home and nails the material, but other songs she selects come joyfully to life.

Now there’s Light My Fire, out this year on Concord. It’s not that dissimilar in content to her recent vocal outings, but her masterful piano has a strong presence, her singing seems to grow stronger. Her band is tight. It’s a record that’s jumped up the musical charts. In support of it,. She’s on a huge tour that takes her and her sparkling band around the world. Not too many artists can boast of such an itinerary. It’s warming to see a performer of such class, style and talent get the support of fans and the music industry.

An fans, she has in large numbers. Her live concerts are always enchanting because the musicianship is so high. At Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival in Saratoga Springs, NY, in June, the band was full of energy. She did songs from the new CD, as well as some from past albums. Romero Lubambo joined on guitar. Marc Johnson, one of the finest bassists out there, is still at the hub of the rhythm and percussionist Marlvaldo dos Santos adds a great layer to the sound. The band sizzles and Elias‘ voice adds the charm and sensuality

“I’m truly very excited with this album,” she said after the concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. This album, from the very beginning, had a force of its own. It’s doing so well. It’s so wonderful to see. When you do the work, and the way it’s being received by critics, by the people … You saw the show. You see how people love it. There’s such energy. We’re very happy about it.”

It’s a joyous event when this band plays. So much that the superior musicianship might slide under the radar. But listen closely and see what’s at work. Fantastic music, great piano.

The band had been in South America and from SPAC was off to Canada. The Europe, South America again, Central America, to the United States and back to Europe. Then the U.S. and Asia. So much of the world will get to see it.
“I always brought different elements of Brazilian music, but I’ve done a lot of albums that were more instrumental. This is a vocal album that still has a lot of piano. But this album, with the vocals has more of a variety of elements of Brazilian music, than just the bossa nova. There’s some music from the north of brazil, from Bahia. And some Afro-Brazilian rhythms. Then we have percussion added,” she said. “It’s a very special album and it has an aspect to it that is different than the others. It has some very sexy moments. It has moments that are very cool, vibey. But also a lot of rhythm, groove and romance. It has different things that worked so nice together.”

Elias has found a way to get everything to work together.

Though she says her first love is jazz, having been influenced by the greats like Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, she also loves the music of Brazil and puts a stamp on it that is now her own. It’s intimate and joyous. And her playing still smokes. Don’t be surprised if more hard-core jazz albums emerge as Elias’ career continues its growth. This is a first-rate musician whose accolades, and awards that have been amassed along the way, are well deserved.

In concert, it’s invigorating.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ageless Jazz Icons for the Ages -- Brubeck and Wein.

Blessing to those who have spent their lives doing what they love. For most of those people, even that ends at some point, eventually relegating those activities to “the good old days.” But there are a fine few for whom it doesn’t end. ThosE people are inspiring.

Recent experiences in the jazz community brought to of those folks to the forefront. One is the renowned jazz impresario George Wein, the other the great American music legend Dave Brubeck. They are two long-time friends, but the paths that crossed mine recently are separate.

Wein invented the jazz festival in Newport, RI, in 1954 and 22 years later created a major jazz festival in Saratoga Springs, NY, that will see http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifits 34th edition on June 25 and 26. It’s Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival (It had different names over the first couple decades as sponsorships changed). And Wein returns there this year to get an award [click for YouTube video]--a star on the Walk of Fame of Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where the festival is annually held. He’ll also lead his Newport All Stars in a set on June 25, just after getting the award. (Randy Brecker, Anat Cohen , Lew Tabackin , Howard Alden , Lewis Nash and Peter Washington comprise the band).

That brought about another conversation between George and I recently. He continues to impress me. But it wasn’t the general gist of the talk. It’s the underlying theme. At age 85, Wein is playing piano and touring with the All Stars. And after giving up producing the Newport jazz festival for a couple years, a brief period during which its new caretakers fucked it up royally, Wein jumped back in, producing two great festivals there in ’09 and ’10. Not only that, he made the effort after last year to create a non-profit foundation that will carry on the festival after he’s gone.

That’s commitment. It’s pride. And it’s love of the music and its makers. Hs legacy will be that millions of people will enjoy jazz festivals into the future.

The thing is, Wein could have slipped away and made it easy on himself. History would have regarded him in no less esteem. He even deserves to lay back and take it easy. But he rejuvenated Newport when he didn’t have to. And he’s still trying to safeguard its stewardship for years to come.

[PHOTOS: Top, Dave Brubeck, with wife Iola, back stage at Newport, 2009; middle, George Wein plays with Christian McBride at the 2009 Newport Jazz festival; Brubeck plays with Tony Bennett, Newport 2009. Photos © R.J. DeLuke]

And he has a ball playing with his band. It’s not that many dates, but it’s fun. Again--he doesn’t have to. “I’m 85 years old, so I’m not breaking my neck doing anything,” he quipped. “I’m in pretty good shape. My health is OK. I hope it stays that way. I was just practicing. My hands are OK.“

Of his set at Saratoga (and the Montreal Jazz Festival the very next day), he noted “We don’t rehearse. They know what we’re going to play. They know what we’re going to do. We’re going to put together a show that will last a little more than an hour. And it will be perfect. That’s my joy.”

It also called to mind how, more than a decade ago, in my first conversation with him, Wein lamented that jazz “stars” were leaving and not being replaced by new ones, people who were box office. In more recent years, he’s changed. The old dog has new tricks. He goes out to clubs in Manhattan and checks out new things. He’s helped champion people like Esperanza Spalding and Anat Cohen. He’s brought people like Jason Moran, Dave Binney, Darcy James Argue, Ben Allison and others to his festival. He sees a crop of fine talent carries the day, even if there is no Miles or Trane--yet. (No one saw them coming, either. We never do)

Wein keeps doing what he loves to do and he does it right.

At the same time Brubeck, 90, walks the same path. He, too, could be resting on laurels. But his quartet still performs quality music and fans still go wild. Two summers ago Wein had him play with Tony Bennett at Newport. Last summer he did a guest spot with Wynton Marsalis.

On June 10, he came to Saratoga to sit in with a band called Triple Play, a trio which includes his son Chris. To see that show was inspiring. Dave can’t physically play like he used to. No one can do any physical task at the age of 90 that they could at 70, 60, 50, 40 … and playing an instrument is PHYSICAL. But I watched Brubeck uplift a room with his spirit, his joy, his willingness to be part of a group and make the music sound right for the people. He beamed like a child watching the others -- his son, Madcat Ruth, Joel brown and Frank Brown -- play and groove on some of his classic tunes. And he walked off the stage with a lot more bounce then he had before he started playing.

Music moves these two men. It’s a powerful thing in this world. And these two men have moved people for years.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival Is Killer

Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival (check it ouuuuut ) in Saratoga Springs, NY, is a great event every year, the ultimate jazz picnic, good-time hang of any festival you’ll find. Anywhere. People who show up year after year, are great music fans with great loyalty to the fest. They’ll enjoy it no matter what.

This year, producer Danny Melnick, in conjunction with the Saratoga Performing Arts center where the event has been held every summer since 1978 (stop using your fingers--this is the 34th edition), has put together one of the better lineups in recent years, across the board. Much of the talent is not in the “star” category (a nearly useless term in this art form). But these ladies and gentlemen can play.

Saturday’s lineup features the brilliant drummer Jack DeJohnette. Couldn’t take my eyes off him at his last Freihofer’s appearance in a trio with John Scofield and Larry Goldings a few years. Sooooo much thunder from those drums. Fire and brimstone. Finesse and fluidity. He has a fine band featuring the super sax of Rudresh Mahanthappa and the fiery guitar of Dave Fiuczynski, as well as the wonderful, underappreciated George Colligan on piano. This is set to be a monster set of music.

Eliane Elias has turned her career a lot toward singing in recent years, with pop shadings thrown into her mix of jazz and influences from her homeland, Brazil. But she’s a fantastic piano player. And her jazz/pop vocal tunes are first rate. She’ll be offering up a large portion of music from her new album “Light My Fire,” which will include, no doubt, her cover of that famous Doors tune. She does it in a slow, smoky, come-hither ballad style. This is a great musician who’s sometimes overlooked because of her vocals. Her husband, Marc Johnson, is one of the best bass players on the scene and he will be among her accompanists. Don’t be surprised if former husband Randy Brecker gets a chance to accompany her on the SPAC stage. He appears on the album, and he’ll be at SPAC as part of George Wein & The Newport All-Stars, along with Lew Tabackin on tenor saxophone and flute, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Howard Alden on guitar, Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums.

Wein, who founded the Saratoga festival and is the father of all jazz fests, has a kick as mainstream jazz band that is well worth seeing. Names like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves and The Bad Plus have become well known. But the beauty of this year’s fest lies in the lesser “known.” Hilary Kole is a singer of note who owes part of her style to cabaret, but who has been playing with a lot of fine jazz musicians and her vocals are getting sharpened that way. She freely admits that, and is justly proud of an album she did as a series of duets with jazz piano greats “You Are There.” Kole will warm and win the hearts of Saratoga festers.

Ben Allison, a bass player and fine writer, was terrific at Newport last year. Like Binney, creative and captivating. Great art produced by this unit, which features the sweet and versatile guitar of Steve Cardenas. Cardenas does his own trio set with Allison and drummer Rudy Royston later at the small gazebo stage. Royston is a fantastic drummer who’s playing with top musicians around, like Dave Douglas. So this whole thread from Allison’s band down to the Cardenas set will have some beautiful musical moments.

Don’t go to sleep on Marcus Strickland, one of the great young tenor sax cats who will be WORKIN it at the gazebo. And he’ll have a bunch of sharp NYC cats in tow that could include the remarkable EJ Strickland, his twin brother, on drums.

Sunday’s lineup includes Dave Binney, a very creative soul. His band at Newport last year was a thrill. Movements and improvisation that held interest and threw surprises. He’s turned up on a lot of people’s projects lately, becoming an in-demand cat on the NYC scene and it will be evident why that is so. Tia Fuller plays her alto sax with Beyonce, but she’s a kick-ass jazzer with a band that is tight and grooves.

Matt Slocum, a drummer who’ll have Danny Grisset (a Jeremy Pelt Band regular) and Massimo Biolcati on bass, is someone I’ve not heard, but Melnick says he was super impressed when checking out the drummer in the Big Apple. Rebecca Coupe Franks is a burning trumpeter that will open some eyes and ears. People who go to Saratoga now expect to have great discoveries at the gazebo, like this lady. Great job my Melnick to fill the gazebo stage up with artists that will bring their own vision and tell their own stories and will shine in their own way. No bullshit.

The theme here has kind of been to stay away from talking about bigger names. The headliner on Sunday with be the Sing the Truth! Tour featuring three singers, jazz great Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright and Angelique Kidjo. They’ll sing an array of tunes, jazz, pop, soul etc., from a variety of sources. Should be fine music, but my reason for noting it out of context here is the friggin’ band that is behind these vocalists: pianist Geri Allen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, bassist James Genus, percussionist Munyungo Jackson and guitarist Romero Lubambo. That’s a talented group! If he singers all came down with laryngitis, this would still be a band to regard.

So one of the great festivals anywhere truly has a variety of style among the artists Melnick has amassed this year. It bodes well for the event, and it bodes well for jazz as it continues to move forward.

A couple more words: Blog has been on hiatus for a bit. That will change. Also, Wein will be getting an award from SPAC this year as he returns to the event he masterfully created and stewarded through good times and bad. More on that very soon!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Passing It On

Colleges are among the major supporters of jazz across the country, not just because there are many schools now where musicians can study jazz. Major, and not-so-major, jazz musicians supplement their income teaching. But colleges are also routine sites for jazz concerts--good gigs. And very often when someone comes to play, they put on some kind of clinic or workshop for musicians.

Those can be as valuable to the musicians in school as the courses they’re taking.

Once upon a time, jam sessions abounded for musicians. They cut their teeth and learned there. They got their asses kicked and walked out with their tails between their legs too. But that was also learning. Rebounding from that was important. That’s almost gone these days. But encounters with musicians in workshops brings an added value to their education.

Recently, in conversations with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Eric Harland, both mentioned how musicians came to their college or high school brought valuable information about the music. Of course, they’re not alone. Many others have told me how much THEY learn when they teach. Give and take. Very cool.

So last week (April 1), I got the opportunity to sit in on a workshop at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, given by some first-rate jazz folks. It was a great experience for me, let along the young musicians in the audience. I was there to shoot video for the eyeJazz program of the Jazz Journalists Association (subject for a future blog) and am in the process of producing a short video of the session. But there was so much that won’t get covered.

Involved was John Medeski of the world renowned Medeski, Martin & Wood band. He was in town to do a concert at the college with his former teacher, Albany, NY, jazz pianist Lee Shaw and her fine trio: the wonderful bassist Rich Syracuse and stellar drummer Jeff Siegel. All four cats had words of wisdom for the students.

It was their enthusiasm and genuine caring that stood out most for me. They met in the lobby, each one trickling in separately, and talked on the fly about how they would approach it. Just like good jazz, made up on the spot.

Then they took it to the kids and handled it with great flair. They spoke about communication, listening, persevering. They addressed being critical. And being free. And the points were peppered by Syracuse and Medeski with amusing anecdotes that had purpose behind them. They listened to students play and gave constructive criticism. Shaw played with a student trio. Medeski, Syracuse and Siegel performed an original written by a young pianist in attendance. They’d played never seen the music before, naturally. A few minutes earlier the young man and two or his classmates played the piece. And very nicely. But the pros brought it to a new level, off the cuff, before the enthralled group.

The point here isn’t to rehash the educational tidbits. Just to relate how uplifting the session was and the sincerity of each instructor. Passing it on. That’s always been key to jazz and blues, which are at the root of it all. The methods might be different -- classrooms compared to jam sessions or after-hours assemblies -- but the feeling is the same. Learn. Grow. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

As Syracuse opined, “Be fearless.” Medeski said as a youngster he experienced “certain realizations … things that people told me that changed my perspective and enabled me to grow faster and be more familiar with my own style, my own voice. All those things are important to share, to help people find that. It’s real easy to get on the wrong track.”

Nice when veterans like this can take the time and help others with such things. And it’s nice that a lot of jazz musicians seem to do it regularly.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sonny Rollins Honored at the Whitehouse

The Man, who personifies art, gets a medal for it. At last.

“Jazz is life,“ the legend, Sonny Rollins, told me a couple of years back. “It's what happens every minute of every day. It's fresh and new. Creative, just like life itself.”

It’s kind of a summary, and yet the tip of the iceberg with Sonny, who at age 80 is still going strong. Breathing fire. Shaking tree limbs to see what falls. Taking what comes through his head and heart -- and soul -- and shaping it into beautiful and astounding sounds that spring from the bell of his tenor saxophone. Joyous. Dark. Expressive. Exploring.

Sonny Rollins is still the man. The grand master of all the genre, bar none. The reigning shaman. He’s got legions of fans around the globe. He’s revered in the jazz world.

[Photo © R.J. DeLuke, Sonny at Newport in 2008]

And today he was honored at the White House when he was bestowed with the National Medal of Arts.

There were others, of course, a group of 10 that included the very deserving Quincy Jones and James Taylor. Actress Meryl Streep. Some other cats.

But my bow goes to Sonny. He’s above them all (even though media accounts will list him among “others awarded…” What the fuck is that? Ok…ok…I know what that is.)

No one is more deserving. He’s our kind and he’s still going strong. No figurehead, he.

Last year pianist Mark Soskin related to me how he on the phone with Sonny at about 11:30 at night, discussing an upcoming gig he was to play with the sax titan. Sonny was practicing his horn.

On top of being a great musician, he’s a highly evolved man. Great guy. My encounters with him are always warm and he always has a personal touch, usually asking about Saratoga Springs and the Albany area (he doesn’t live all that far away). In fact, he can talk about anything, pretty much, and isn’t shy with his opinions. (Nor is he pushy with them).

He takes life as it comes and tries to help people deal with its vagaries through his music.

On his website appears one short stateme4nt “I’m very happy that jazz, the greatest American music, is being recognized through this honor, and I’m grateful to accept this award on behalf of the gods of our music.”

He’s able to speak on behalf of the gods because he’s one of them. Has been for a long time. That’s my opinion (and the opinion of MANY), not Sonny’s. if, down in his heart, he knows that to be true, you won’t hear him say it. But I feel he knows his place. He walked shoulder-to-shoulder with Monk and Miles and Mingus and Coltrane and Blakey and Hawk. Bird and Diz. He and Trane shook up the world around the same time and they admired each other, the rivalry, he states, “more from our fans. We were good friends. Hanging out. Coltrane used to come by my house a lot. We were good, good personal friends. In fact, him and Monk, I think, were my closest friends, personal friends off the bandstand. Just as friends that I had in the music business.”

Sonny was one of those with the biggest stride, biggest footprint the golden age of jazz but has never stopped. “I don’t miss it,” he told me. “It’s just, that was the way it was. It was sort of the golden age. I was very fortunate to be alive in the golden age of music.”

I could write a lot more about the man, but rather than drag up our old conversations, I re-submit a story I wrote on the Man for All About Jazz not long ago, in 2009.

Congratulations, Sonny. Bravo.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Eric Harland: Circle in the Round

The sublime drummer Eric Harland brought a band into Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center in Saratoga Springs New York on Feb. 17 and put on a show that potentially will rank among the region’s best for 2011 by the time December rolls around. The musicians --Taylor Eigsti, piano; Chris Potter, sax; Julian Lage, guitar; Harish Raghavan, bass -- are all part of New York City’s vibrant jazz scene, based in Brooklyn these days.

All but Raghavan are leaders in their own right, and Harish can be found playing with Kurt Elling, Kendrick Scott’s Oracle and any number of important gigs. Potter is one of the finest saxophonists out there. It was first performance with the group (Walter Smith can usually be found blowing with this band).

The music began by creeping in slowly, then swirled and twisted … and delighted. Performed like a suite. The fantastic, highly influential, pianist Jason Moran, a colleague of Harland’s from Houston, might have indirectly had some effect on this.

[Photo: Eric Harland band, Skidmore College]

“My music is a lot about segues,” Harland told me a couple weeks before the show. “It’s less about the composition itself. It’s about having a composition that allows the members of the band to fully be in the moment. I never liked having to be so caught up in a tune that I couldn’t live in the moment. … We have a thing. Me and Jason Moran say it all the time: circular. It means that everything rotates around you like the Earth. And the Earth goes around the sun. The same things happens between the band and the audience. Even within the band. What you give kind of comes back around and keeps moving around. I always felt like if the musicians on stage are too caught up in the music, what they’re doing on stage, they’re not really paying attention to the moment. Or the direction the music can take. As well as what the people in the audience will feel. Something kind of gets lost a little bit.”

Listening to the artistry of this band, those words came back to me. He succeeded in bringing about that concept.

It also called to mind a recent conversation with the renowned young trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Moran produced Akinmusire’s very good new album that doesn’t come out until April.) A little while after acknowledging Moran as a major influence, he talked about music thusly: “I believe that composition--music in general--shouldn’t be exact. It shouldn’t be straight up and down. It should be a circle. That’s the way nature is. When you look at a tree, it doesn’t go click-click-click. It sways around. I try to capture that in my music.”

Harland’s show was superb. The music was seamless. It churned and twirled and was driven by Harland’s insistent and wide-ranging drumming, Raghavan’s muscular bass chops and even Eigsti playing percussive piano when not flowing up and down the keyboard. Potter would take the lead voice, blowing within the composition and improvising around. He showed his imagination and monster chops. The music would then slide to Lage, who then got the chance to add his colors. He was fiery, playing quicksilver runs over the wall of sound that were some of the most Methenyesque I’ve heard from the young guitarist. Visible was what Gary Burton saw in Lage a decade or so ago upon taking him under his wing.

Upon the completion of his statement, Eigsti would glides into the fray with both precision and polish. His energy matched the passion of his cohorts at all times. Excellent stuff. By the time the first set came to a close they were smiling, the smile of that satisfaction that comes over those who make the art. In this case--jazz--made on the spot.

Harland, who seems to play with everyone under the sun, has really got something here.

“I want to try something and I want to share with everyone who’s in this room right now. Not just allowing the music, the composition, take precedence and be something more important than the audience,” he said.

The next day, he and Raghavan went into the studio to do a trio record of John Nazarenko’s, an Albany, NY, area pianist who also teaches at Skidmore.

Harland praised Skidmore and its music program. The college not only gives young musicians a chance to learn, but they bring in good jazz musicians for performances, and also instruction. “I wish more people would support the arts,“ said the drummer. “So an artist doesn’t feel like they have to sell themselves … The true meaning of being an artist is being a artist. Being able to allow your mind to search into realms … that spiritual space. It’s been a thing throughout history that the artist has been able to breathe that energy back into the room to remind everyone this is who we are, where we come from. This is how we feel.”

He said it’s a lot harder for the artist today. “The visibility of the artist himself has been lost. They’re not able to deliver that anymore. It’s become the same old overly produced… it doesn’t offer anything. If it’s not overly produced, it’s not even thought out. The guys themselves on stage are frustrated. They’re not even in the zone, as artists, to feel free enough to allow themselves. They’re like, ‘I’ve got to do this, because if I don’t do this I won’t get enough gigs.’ It’s tricky.”

Alas. But Harland certainly breaks all that shit with this band. Creativity reigns. And his drumming is terrific, as so many band leaders know. He’s always busy playing with someone -- Charles Lloyd, Josh Redman, on and on.

“I feel like the drums was just a way in. I like to think of myself as a human being first. … My greatest love is life. I have a real love for life and spirituality. Oneness. Everything that encompasses. It doesn’t necessarily mean these things are religious or anything like that. From my perspective, it’s more about just being there. Paying attention to it. Being conscious of it. I feel like playing the drums gave me an avenue for people who wanted to listen. Most people are willing to listen, you have the opportunity to say something. I’m always grateful that I’m a drummer. It’s given me the opportunity to move forward into the things I really want to do. Which is to really reach people on different levels … I think you can go on and keep trying things. It’s so vast. There’s so many things you can do.”

He’s doing them, alright.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival Should Be Stellar

Fest Creator George Wein returns to perform and be honored on Walk of Fame

Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival has announced its lineup for 2011, a marked improvement over last year’s edition, though there was plenty of good music last year. At the two-day, two-stage event, there is always good music, even if there are acts scattered in at times that are questionable. With all due respect to the big city festivals, a music festival held outdoors is the best, and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in Saratoga Springs, NY, is ideal. It’s the way the Newport Jazz Festival was done from its inception.

No wonder, since George Wein, the icon who invented such outings and made the Newport event the flagship American festival, also started the Saratoga event in 1978.

[Photos © R.J. DeLuke, top: Ralph Lalama leads his band at SPAC's gazebo stage, 2010; bottom: Terence Blanchard's band plays the main stage in 2008]

When he thought he was retiring in 2007, Wein sold the Saratoga festival and his company. Regrettably, the company, which still had the Newport event, went to people who didn’t know what they were doing. They folded after financial troubles and it looked like there would be no Newport fest in 2009. George came back and brought it back to life. Both the 2009 and 2010 Newport festivals were tremendous.

As for good fortune, the Saratoga festival went to Danny Melnick, a former Wein employee, who, through his company Absolutely Live, produces the Freihofer in conjunction with SPAC. Melnick didn’t drop the ball. He’s done a damn good job, even in the face of a trouble U.S. economy.

One of the cool things about this year’s lineup is the return of Wein to Saratoga for the first time since he got out of the producing end of it. He’ll play with his Newport All-Stars, a group he does small tours with every year. He plays piano for the group that includes Howard Alden on guitar, Lew Tabackin on sax, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Randy Brecker on trumpet, Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. All are fine players. Wein played piano at the very first festival, sitting in with the New York Jazz Repertory company, a big band comprised of NYC veteran jazz cats. (A set by the group at last year’s Newport jazz fest was really nice).

He’s proud of the SPAC event. We spoke in 2009 about he revival of Newport, but discussion turned to Saratoga.

“That’s one we lost because I sold the company. They (SPAC) didn’t want to deal with the new company (Festival Productions). You lose things. The only thing that counts in business is to own things. Sometimes you can’t own things. You have to make deals.” he added with a chuckle, “I started a lot of things in my life. Some of them I have. Some of them I don’t.” He also spoke highly of Melnick

“That’s a beautiful sight up there. They have a constituency that focuses on what’s happening at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center … there’s a constituency that looks forward every year to the weekend before the Fourth of July. It’s like the beginning of summer up there when they do that event.” With parking, food and the spacious grounds it’s a perfect setting.

He thought back to the days in the late 1970s. “I was doing a festival in New York. My mind was restless. It’s a big job doing that. I wanted to get back to an outdoor feeling like Newport. I went up there and they said, ‘That’s great. Let’s do it.’” His wife, Joyce, said he should continue doing New York and Saratoga, “So I did both for years, with great success. It’s the best thing that ever happened, to do both of them … I wish those people good luck up there. They’re nice people. Sorry we don’t work with them any more, but that’s my fault, not theirs.”

He’ll be working there soon. At the piano bench. It’s billed as an 85th birthday celebration, and Wein will get a star on SPAC’s Walk of Fame.

The even is Saturday and Sunday, June 25 and 26, at SPAC. It runs from noon well into the evening. Two stages. Picnics. Arts and crafts tents. Smiling, happy people.

Other music that weekend will be from the terrific jack DeJohnette, whose band includes the fine young saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa; Eliane Elias; recent Grammy winner Dee Dee Bridgewater; The Bad Plus and a set called Sing the Truth! with Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright, celebrating the legacies of Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln and Odetta. For pop fans, Michael McDonald will likely be a crowd pleaser.

There are lesser known groups at this year’s event. But the music will be superb. Groups led by Ben Allison and David Binney turned in great sets at Newport last summer. They’ll no doubt do the same up here in Saratoga. Steve Cardenas, who plays guitar with Allison, will also do trio music. He’s a splendid player. Expect good things. The guitar trio of Lionel Loueke should also be remarkable.

Hilary Kole is a singer who is getting more comfortable in the jazz idiom, handling standards with style and flair. Marcus Strickland is a fine young saxophonist who’ll no doubt be playing with some of his outstanding peers from New York City, maybe his twin brother E.J. who plays drums with Ravi Coltrane, among others. He performed at Saratoga’s gazebo stage a few years back with Lonnie Plaxico’s band.

That’s not all. The full lineup, as well as all kinds of stuff about SPAC and TICKETS is available at the FESTIVAL WEBSITE.

Get your tickets…bring your blanket, lawn chairs, picnic baskets and coolers. Ohhhhhhhhhhh yeah.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Joe Lovano Investigates Bird

Joe Lovano’s musical curiosity seems endless. Creativity is his credo. No what part of the forest he chooses to investigate, he’s always looking for creativity. It’s what he learned listening to the masters growing up, and playing with many of them over the years.

Now, of course, he is one of today‘s elite jazz musicians, one who‘ll in his autumn years will be hailed as one of those masters. But that’s later. Joe is in the here and now. He’s a dominant musician on the scene right now. Dominant in that he’s seemingly everywhere. Different groups, all excellent. Playing with McCoy Tyner. The SF Jazz Collective. On other relevant albums. But also dominant because his sound and approach are honest. Can’t be denied. They’ve deservedly swashbuckled themselves to the forefront of jazz for this millennium. Done through hard work and the force of sheer musical talent and an unceasing creative drive.

[Photo © R.J. DeLuke, Joe Lovano with Us Five at Newport Jazz Festival, 2009. (Esperanza Spalding on bass)]

He’s at it again with his latest CD, “Birdsongs,” a Charlie Parker tribute carried out with his superlative quintet, Us Five. All the songs are associated, written or inspired by Bird, the genius of the 1940s bebop scene whose music will always be one of the cornerstones of jazz. Lovano is one of the most influential players of his generation, the post-Coltrane era. But unlike a lot of tenor sax players, Lovano’s own roots can be heard going way back before that. He’s done his homework. At a concert two nights ago at The Egg in Albany, Lovano’s was on fire in a quartet with guitarist John Scofield. During the evening you could hear it all. Coleman Hawkins. Sonny Rollins. Trane. Bird. But all Lovano. His sound as robust as his personality, which is rich and full and welcoming. In that respect he’s achieved the ultimate jazz goal: playing and being yourself.

The disk, his 22nd for Blue Note (who he hell does that anymore??), meets the high standards everyone expects from Lovano. Us Five really has developed together as a band.

In a January conversation with Esperanza Spalding, a rising jazz star who also happens to be the bass player for Us Five, she couldn’t contain her enthusiasm for her boss and “Birdsongs.” She was in the midst of a weeklong gig playing that music with the band at the Village Vanguard.

“He did it again. It’s totally incredible. He sounds amazing as always. He’s always getting better. That’s so encouraging. I have the rest of my life to keep working at this,” she told me with palpable awe. “I’ve played with him now for about seven years. I see him and I hear him and I see his evolution as an artist in seven years. And I think to myself, ‘I hope to be like him one day.’ He keeps growing and evolving. Every new project he does is profound and beautiful.”

She added, “If I was going to say one person that really has been a huge source inspiration, it would probably be Joe.”

Even more recently, conversation with Lovano naturally shifted to Us Five. He was happy with the Vanguard gig. “Throughout the week we focused on 15 or so different tunes. Each set was completely different and shaped different. As far as the pieces we played and the flow and orchestration of it all. I’m not treating it like one tune at a time. I’m trying to put a set together that is an orchestration of the music within the structure of the set, which adds another element to the presentation.”

He reflected on Bird. “Drawing from the compositions and tunes Charlie Parker wrote and played. It’s such an inspiration. His tunes are standards in the jazz repertoire. To try to re-work them and shape them to how we play today … it’s a really rich environment to be in.”

Lovano listened to the music growing up. His father, noted Cleveland saxman Tony “Big T” Lovano, had all the records. Siren songs for so many jazz folk. “That was the language and vocabulary that really taught me a lot about my instrument. About music. And how to play with people,” said Joe.

“I never dreamt I would put a project together and focus on his compositions. But it was something that kind of evolved for me. It was beautiful. Especially with this band (Us Five) … We’ve been playing together over the last three or four years now. We primarily, started playing most of my original tunes. The throughout those years, including Billy Strayhorn’s music and Thelonious Monk’s music and Coltrane’s music, Miles’ tunes. Now Bird. Whatever the repertoire, there’s a personality and a way of playing that we’re developing within the structures of the tunes.

“To do a total focus on just Charlie Parker tunes was really fun. Very creative.”

The group is off to Europe in March but comes back to the States in April for more touring.

I’m not going to run through the CD … this is good, that’s good. Check it out. The music is today’s jazz at its best. Re-worked according to Lovano’s intuition and brought to life by a band sensitive to that vision.

Said Lovano, “Whether you’re listening to Ben Webster or Sonny Rollins or Wayne Shorter or Joe Henderson, people that are themselves within whatever song structure they’re playing on. You live with the elements of the music, then the repertoire that you love to play, that fuels your ideas just grows and grows throughout your lifetime. Classic music that in undeniably timeless. Beautiful harmonic structures and forms and melodies … you develop in a certain way, that if you didn’t experience those things, you wouldn’t become the musician that you could be.”

Let’s leave it at that.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Grammys to Honor The Man: Roy Haynes

The annual Grammy Awards are a funny thing. Sometimes one wonders from what fishbowl they pulled out names to nominate for the awards. Sometimes real deserving folks win. But so much great music never any notice. And yet everyone would like one on their mantel, it only for the cachet.

But dammit if they didn’t do something right this year, selecting the masterful drummer Roy Haynes as a recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award. Formal acknowledgment comes at the 53rd Grammys shindig on Feb. 13 (broadcast on CBS starting at 8 p.m. Eastern). He will be among a group that includes Julie Andrews and Dolly Parton.

Haynes is a titan. One of the most influential and respected drummers ever. He’s still winning Drummer of the Year awards in the jazz community and his bands COOK, driven of course by his fluid, intense, polyrhythmic drumming. He’s played with all the great over time from Bird to Miles to Trane, to today’s current crop of jazz royalty. He is that royalty. His own groups, usually with musicians young enough to be grandsons, are always notable. On the cutting edge and hip as hell -- just like Roy.

[Photos © R.J. DeLuke. Top: Roy at he 2010 Newport Jazz Fest playing with Chick Corea's Freedom Band; Bottom: Roy and bass legend Ron Carter take the Newport stage in 2009]

Watching him on stage, usually sporting some funky shades, you can’t believe his age. Older jazz masters still go out and play. Their speed on a horn might be slower, their ideas still rich, they play some choruses and then bow. The rest of the band contributes their solos. We loves those masters. Roy starts driving the band from the first beat. Pushing, coloring, twisting the music. Alive and edge. From the first note through the entire set. When others solo, Roy’s still going, providing a fire to light their improvisational pilot lights.

You can’t say that the years strip away on stage. Because back stage you might mistake him for a barroom bouncer, even with his short height.

And he’s soooooo cool. Mind like a steel trap he remembers stories from back in the golden days -- the 40s with Sarah Vaughan, playing with Bird, filling in for Elvin Jones with the John Coltrane Quartet. He talks hip. Walks hip. Dresses hip as hell.

In fact he recounted to me a few years back his first encounter with Miles Davis thusly: “When we met, which would have been 1945 when I came to New York, I was into corduroy, and when I met this guy he had corduroy pants on. We were both listed in Esquire magazine. We were the youngest at the time, which would have been 1960, an article written by George Frazier called ‘The Art of Wearing Clothes.’ We were the only musicians, and the youngest. People like Fred Astaire, Walter Pigeon, all of those guys were in it.”

(Sonofabitch if he wasn’t exactly right with the date etc. )

Here are some more quotes from my encounter with Haynes, with whom I freely admit I was in awe:

“When we get on the bandstand, we all become one age—the same age. It has nothing to do with how old you are or where you’re from, it’s what you can do musically”

How does he keep going? “It’s a combination of everything. The feeling that I’m getting from the audience. First of all, the feeling of the group. We do it together as one. We inspire each other. We give it to the audience and the audience gives it back to us. It’s a back and forth thing … Every time I appear some place, it’s a different project. There’s always something new and interesting happening. We strive for that each time. We can play the same tune and take it some place else. It involves a new project at that time.”

On the drums being an extension of himself: “It feels like it, playing over 60 years. I never thought I would be still playing. I never thought I would even live this long, to be (at the time) 82, you know. Yes, definitely an extension of me. My approach to the instrument, as well. The sounds I try to get out of the drums. The whole thing … I’m still young. I’m still listening.”

Around the same time I interviewed the incredible drummer, another titan, Jack DeJohnette. The subject of Roy came up:

“Roy Haynes has always been at the top. He’s one of my mentors. I always knew where he was coming from. He’s always been inspirational. You can always hear Roy and get inspired. He’s been there with all of them, Lester (Young) to Bird (Charlie Parker), to Coltrane. He’s been there and still going strong in his 80s. He’s a wonderful inspiration. Very original, very creative and always playing with younger musicians, which keeps him inspired. He’s always fresh. He’s not old.”

Indeed. Had the pleasure of seeing Roy with Chick Corea last year and with his own band the year before. He’s kicking ass and taking names.

Well deserved honor, to say the very least. Thanks to the Grammy people for noticing.