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.