Author Archives: jongarelick

About jongarelick

Jon Garelick is arts editor of the Boston Phoenix, where he has been on staff since becoming music editor in 1990. Jon writes the column “Giant Steps” – which is mostly about jazz – as well as pieces about TV, art, theater, and other subjects. He has also written for the New York Times and New York Times Book Review, Rolling Stone, Jazziz, the Boston Globe, and other publications. He has won two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards – in 1993 and 2003 – for his writing about music. You can find recent posts on the Phoenix website by clicking here. Follow Jon on Twitter @jgarelick

From the archives: “Giving Jazz the Business: Can major labels make the music go pop?”

"The records we loved.the records we loved when we were kids didn’t sell shit when they were released," Branford Marsalis told me.

“The records we loved when we were kids didn’t sell shit when they were released,” Branford Marsalis told me.

I wrote this back in 2002 for the Boston Phoenix. It’s interesting to see how much of it still rings true. At least to me:

My musician friend and I were sitting in the basement club the Lizard Lounge (between Harvard and Porter Squares) listening to a four-piece jazz band. At the Lizard, there is no stage, and the musicians all perform, more or less, “in the round,” with seating on three sides, the bar tucked in a corner. The room can’t hold more than about 100 persons in a tight squeeze. The bar was loud with talk, but the talk never obscured the music, which was fast, flowing, in the bebop style but beyond it. Two saxes, tenor and alto, kept pace with bass and drums and had no trouble competing with the social activity in the room. That basic pulse of four-four walking bass and the ching-chinga-ching dotted rhythm of the drummer’s ride cymbal informed everything, but there was more here. On one fast tune, the rhythm seemed to drive forward endlessly on one-one-one-one-one . . . We couldn’t place the downbeat, much as we tried. The two horns traded short solo sections that played against each other contrapuntally. The alto hewed closer to the attractive folk-like melodies; the tenor focused more on the “changes,” but jumping, leaping changes, in the outer reaches of the tune’s harmony, whatever it happened to be.

“Too much information,” my friend shouted. “What?”, I wanted to know. “Too much information. You can tell they’re playing changes but you can’t tell what they are.”

We were in a state of jazz-nerd bliss. That bebop pulse, the implied chord progressions, represented a pattern we knew well — in my case by ear if not by schooling. Patterns that are ingrained. It’s the same whether you’re into jazz or blues or garage rock — you feel the bridge coming in a verse-chorus pop song, the shift from the IV to the V chord in the last line of a 12-bar blues. And when we hear the great ones, we know it because of the way they manipulate the conventions, alter the familiar patterns. If working in a tradition means anything, it’s in the way that work takes us from the familiar to the new. If traditional forms like the blues and jazz don’t die, it’s because they’re subject to infinite variation, just the way a genre like landscape or still-life oil painting is. Like a representational painter, the jazz musician creates a personal space — “a space we think we know,” as one painter friend once said. We get to share in a new vision, a new language.

MY COMMENTS on jazz’s deeper pleasures are provoked by a cover story that ran in Billboard back in April. “Jazz Seeks Instrumental Stars” read the three-column headline. “Lack of Industry Support for Young Players Reaches Crisis Level,” added the subhead. The story, by Billboard staffer Chris Morris, went on to lament the commercial woes of instrumental jazz in a climate where the major labels are radically downsizing and otherwise altering their jazz divisions. The Top Jazz Albums charts were being overtaken by star vocalists like Diana Krall and Cassandra Wilson, or by the repackaged catalogue of long-dead stars of yesteryear like Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong. The sole new instrumental hit on the chart was an album by Stanton Moore, drummer of the New Orleans jam band Galactic — and as Morris pointed out, “it includes two vocal tracks.” Five years ago, he added, the charts included albums by young players like Joshua Redman, Mark Whitfield, Don Byron, and Benny Green, as well as those by veterans.

Morris went on to cite the woes of the custodians of the jazz divisions at the major labels. Tom Evered of Blue Note Records — the legendary indie imprint, now a division of Capitol Records, which in turn is a division of EMI — lamented “50 percent returns on some of these young straight-ahead artists. That’s just a recipe for disaster.” Matt Pierson, the jazz VP at Warner Bros., was downright shrill: “We talk about this all the time, and I say, ‘We’re going to lose this thing, we’re gonna lose jazz, if we don’t create new superstars in this music who are playing music that is fresh and hits you over the fucking head if you know nothing about music.’ This is major crisis mode.”

In typical record-company mode, the executives blame the artists. Where are the new Dave Brubecks, they want to know? Where’s the new Miles Davis, the new Charlie Parker or John Coltrane or Louis Armstrong? Verve Records president Ron Goldstein wants to know who’s going to write the new Brubeck/Paul Desmond “Take Five,” a Top 40 hit in 1961 that, in Pierson’s words, “hits you over the fucking head if you know nothing about music.” The consumer and the marketplace, says Columbia Jazz and Legacy Recorsings VP Jeff Jones, are asking “musicians to write great songs again — write new songs that are familiar and singable and have a memorable melody people can latch onto, that affect people in an emotional way.”

Touching as they are, these laments are a fiction — and it operates on several levels. For one thing, it’s doubtful that many people “who know nothing about music” could, even given lots of radio exposure, hum half a chorus of a Charlie Parker “hit” like “Koko” (recorded for the tiny independent label Savoy in 1945). It’s just too hard. (The jazz composer George Russell once told me that Harlem kids used to whistle Parker tunes on the street, but I think that must have been one very sophisticated street — it’s just not as easy to whistle Bird as it is to rap Biggie Smalls or, for that matter, Korn.)

For another, as Morris’s story documents, jazz radio has virtually evaporated. This includes not only the once trendy “smooth jazz” stations, with their instrumental pop approximations of jazz and occasional teasers of “real” jazz, but the non-commercial ones as well. Twenty years ago, a non-commercial station like WBUR 90.9 FM featured daily morning and evening jazz shows as well as overnight jazz on the weekends. But ’BUR finds itself in the same straits as most public radio — government support has shriveled, and the stations are more dependent than ever on consultants and research, which tell them to program news and public affairs. (WGBH 89.7 FM has thus far held the line, with Eric Jackson’s weeknight Eric in the Evening jazz show, plus a syndicated overnight show and locally produced programs on the weekends.)

But the problem goes even deeper than radio economics. Jazz’s reputation for “abstractness,” for difficulty, for being a music that hits you over the head but in the wrong way, goes back to the bebop revolution of the ’40s. That’s when jazz turned from being dance music to becoming concert music — in fact, chamber music as opposed to concert-hall. In the ’40s, that Lizard Lounge scene was anticipated on a stretch of New York’s 52nd street: small basement rooms in townhouses and brownstones, jammed with listeners. These were not the screaming multitudes who followed the Benny Goodman band. This, as Scott DeVeaux documents in his essentialThe Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History (University of California), is when the backroom after-hours jam session moved from the rehearsal space and the house party to the stage.

The big bands of the swing era in the ’30 and early ’40s had already begun to split the audience between dancers and listeners. Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” was danceable pop. But as many people were rushing the stage to listen and watch Goodman and his wild-haired drummer Gene Krupa as were dancing to the music. In DeVeaux’s words, as a concert music, swing was a “spectacle,” just as rock is spectacle now. The big bands died for a lot of complicated economic reasons — DeVeaux outlines the brutal economics of keeping a big band on the road, as does Peter Levinson in his biography of Harry James, Trumpet Blues (Oxford). But those economics also included one simple fact: the trend had moved from big-band instrumentals to . . . yes, vocalists. Frank Sinatra had heralded the change, and before long audiences were showing up to hear not the band but the vocalist. Then as now, the audience was split — between the mass pop-vocal audience and the minority audience for instrumental jazz.

The big-label jazzmen are ignoring another factor as they yearn for the golden age of “Take Five”: rock and roll. Yes, Elvis had been doing his thing for several years by the time “Take Five” came along. But it took the Beatles to complete the rock revolution. They killed jazz’s mass-audience appeal as surely as the vocalists killed the big bands. Brubeck’s career was famously made on the college circuit in the mid ’50s. Where are those college listeners now? I’ll tell you: they’re on Lansdowne Street and at the Tweeter Center, and they’re not listening to jazz.

"In most fields, the industry invests in research," George Russell  said.

“In most fields, the industry invests in research,” George Russell said.

In a way, the jazz guys at the labels need to learn the lesson their peers on the pop divisions are also having a hard time with, and that’s that their expectations for sales are based on a fiction as well. In the pop-music world, the lesson gets taught again and again. R.E.M. break through with something that used to be known as “college rock,” and so the record companies start scooping up the independents — the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, and even the not-ready-for-prime-time Sonic Youth. In their own little world, these bands were “huge” because they sold 35,000 records. But in the mass market, such figures represent abject failure. And if a major label, with all that promotional clout and money, can’t translate a tiny Minnesota independent’s sale figures into more than 150,000, then it must stand to reason that the band just need to write a song that “hits you over the head” the way “Radio Free Europe” did.

You can cite any number of similar examples. Some industry watchers cite Alanis Morissette’s 11 million copies of Jagged Little Pill as the root of the current “crisis.” That, combined with increasing consolidation — of both the record industry and the newly unregulated radio industry — and the attempts (in some cases successful) to push aside elder “music men” like Mo Ostin, Clive Davis, and Ahmet Ertegun in favor of bean counters, has changed the pop landscape. Artist development is non-existent, and everyone needs cash, a quick hit.

In jazz, a lot of people look at Cassandra Wilson’s New Moon Daughter(Blue Note, 1995) as the moment when the worm turned. Wilson didn’t break the Billboard Top 200 Album chart, but she did break 100,000 in sales and eventually went gold, something that in jazz terms was unheard of. Then along came Krall, covering the standards of yore, playing damn good jazz piano, and, yes, singing, to break the sales sound barrier with million-sellers. Now, it’s as though everyone were expected to do it. Poor Benny Green.

“We’re all on the same playing field now,” says Branford Marsalis. “It’s like a jazz artist is no different from a Bruce Springsteen or Mariah Carey. We’re all the same now.”

Marsalis recently negotiated out of his 20-plus-year relationship with Columbia so he could start his own label, Marsalis Music (it’s based in Cambridge). “When I started at Columbia, clearly we weren’t all the same. We [in jazz] didn’t get the lion’s share of the attention, but we weren’t expected to deliver in the way that they were expected to deliver.”

Toward the end of his tenure at Columbia, Marsalis recalls, one executive approached him about his sales figures. “He says to me, ‘Our biggest-selling record is [Miles Davis’s] Kind of Blue. You’ve made 15 records for us and none of your records come close to that, how do you explain that?’ I said, ‘Man, don’t tell me how much a Kind of Blue is selling now that Miles is dead. I want you to give me a sheet and tell me how much Kind of Bluesold in 1961. And then you can compare it to how many records I sold when my first album came out, and let’s go year by year. How many records did Miles sell by the fifth year after Kind of Blue was released? Now in order for you to judge me, you have to wait 40 years! But the problem is that you won’t be here in 40 years!’

“The first time my record sales dropped from 80,000 to 8000, we had a little party. Because the records we loved when we were kids didn’t sell shit when they were released. I told Tain [drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts], ‘Man, we need to have a little party. We’re on our way.’ ”

I’m not making a “who cares if you listen” argument here (neither, do I think, is Marsalis), and I’m not trying to clear the room of the “non-serious” jazz listeners. I’m just pointing out that in jazz, as in pop, the record industry has to make room for the small. It’s worth noting that, except for the likes of Brubeck and Miles, most of the artists cited by the industry men in Morris’sBillboard piece were recording for tiny independents — “before Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker,” as Marsalis puts it. That’s when Parker recorded for mom-and-pop labels like Dial and Savoy (still considered the heart of his recorded repertoire), when Monk was recording for Prestige and Riverside. It took years for some of those revered classics to “hit people over the head.”

RECENTLY I WAS TALKING with a long-time industry watcher and publicist who’s working on the new Chet Baker biography, Deep in a Dream. He told me that the Baker compilation CD that Blue Note is releasing in conjunction with the book is expected to be a big success. Projected sales: 30,000. That, of course, for a product that entailed no new recording costs, for which all the titles had already been bought and paid for, and flying under the well-publicized name of an artist who’s been dead since 1988.

“In most fields, the industry invests in research,” George Russell pointed out to me some years ago. Without radio support, with the squeeze on shelf space in the suffering record stores, with lackluster pop artists no longer able to carry the jazz divisions of the major labels, the jazz labels need more than ever to return to research and development. (In fact, a stalwart of the local scene, Charlie Kohlhase, has called one of his albums, and his jazz radio program, Research and Development.)

Jazz isn’t meant to be big. In last Sunday’s New York Times, in an article about saxophonist Mark Turner, who’s been dropped by Warner Bros., critic Ben Ratliff compared mainstream jazz as a discipline to “serious painting or poetry in that it is often accused of being dead yet continues to evolve and even find a modest audience.” I sincerely wish for jazz a larger audience than lyric poetry (which has my condolences), but if the big labels want to develop stars, they need to think small and help artists develop new repertoire the way the classical labels need to develop it. Maybe jazz isn’t meant to be huge, but it doesn’t need to disappear from the marketplace either. When I talked to long-time jazz-record producer Orrin Keepnews, he pointed out that jazz is always more valuable for its accrued catalogue than for its immediate hits, a catalogue that can help in hard times. If you’re looking at the bottom line, you invest in a talent like Joe Lovano for the long-term return, not the immediate blockbuster.

But it’s all a tale as old as jazz itself. Charles Mingus, in his autobiographyBeneath the Underdog, recounts the story of the great trumpeter Fats Navarro. “Jazz ain’t supposed to make nobody no millions,” Navarro told Mingus. “But that’s where it’s at. Them that shouldn’t is raking it in but the purest are out in the street with me and Bird and it rains all over us, man.”

From the Boston Phoenix:

Issue Date: June 20 – 27, 2002
Back to the Music table of contents.

Nir Felder at the Regattabar

Nir Felder. Photo by Phil Knott.

Nir Felder. Photo by Phil Knott.

Nir Felder’s Okeh Records debut last month, Golden Age, was a neat split between two types of jazz: one that’s like improvisational instrumental indie rock (think: Brian Blade Fellowship, James Farm, Jeremy Udden’s Plainville) and the other the kind of mixed-meter mind fuck you can hear in one form or another from Kurt Rosenwinkel, Robert Glasper, Gretchen Parlato, Vijay Iyer, and anyone who works with drummers like Kendrick Scott, Marcus Gilmore, Chris Dave, and Mark Colenburg. Felder’s album was a cool mix of those freaky-metered grooves and that mesmerizing flow.

At the Regattabar Tuesday night, Felder’s drummer was Nate Smith, no slouch in the new post-hip-hop freak-beat drum faction. And, true to the album, Felder -— who is 31 and studied at Berklee about a decade ago — mixed up his indie-rock and sick-jazz numbers. But the indie-rock stuff this time was less mesmerizing than inert. For the first three numbers, the band (with Smith, bassist Orlando le Fleming, and pianist Frank LoCrasto) worked repetitive rock chord progressions, pretty melodies, and dynamic contrasts. Everything was very songful, but it wasn’t enough. I kept waiting for the singer to show up.

The fourth tune of the set (one of two new, untitled songs) opened up for slightly more guitar action from Felder, and LoCrasto had some nice moments too. But they weren’t really solos, more like interludes, way stations in the drift of rising and falling dynamics and of dramatic shifts from slow to fast in the song form.

Finally, about 25 minutes into the show, Felder dug into one of his fucked-up jazz pieces, “Ernest/Protector,” an imaginary character study, he later told the audience, about someone with a rich inner life and awkward social skills — a “daydream comic book superhero fantasy.” Indeed. The piece hurtled through a tricky mixed meter form, and Felder and LoCrasto’s solos hurtled along with them. In fact, this was the first piece in which the R-bar crowd observed the jazz-audience convention of applauding after solos. Like Felder’s other pieces, this was a real tune, with a bridge, but it exploded. The form had a nice little breakdown section — I’d guess two bars of half notes — played in unison by bass and drums, that slowed everything down to an almost comic drawl.

“Code” was, as on the album, again slow and subdued (“about things under the surface, beneath the everyday,” said Felder), but “Sketch 2” was way more powerful than its album version — a kind of rave-up for Smith, who played fast, tight club-beat patterns throughout, with plenty of kick-drum oomph, while the rest of the band played slow, hazy chord sequences on top. “Before the Tsars” (also from the album) was built on an insinuating, descending piano line, that again played with form and a rock-like 6/8. A final, unnamed, tune featured a nifty unison line for piano and guitar. It left LoCrasto and Felder some nice solo room, and also played with mixed meters and funk, with a thunking breakdown section.

One thing did occur to me during the more subdued, early part of the set: Felder’s band could be well served by being heard LOUD at a big venue like the mainstage at the Newport Jazz Festival. Those big dynamic contrasts and gleaming rock-guitar cadences could hold a crowd, and they’d sound great in the open air.

Spring Quartet

The Spring Quartet: Leo Genovese, Esperanza Spalding, Jack DeJohnette, and Joe Lovano. Photo by Robert Torres/courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

It’s been a busy week of live shows — Patricia Barber at Scullers, Seth Meicht’s Big Sound Ensemble at the Lily Pad, a Mardi Gras show with the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble at the Regattabar and, last night, the Spring Quartet at Sanders Theatre.

I won’t offer a blow-by-blow review of any of these shows — each of which was excellent in its own way. But I have some thoughts on the concert-going experience and I’d be interested in any feedback, whether about these shows or about going to shows in general.

My thoughts were spurred by the Spring Quartet show. In a lot of ways, this Celebrity Series of Boston event was a superior presentation: Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Esperanza Spalding, and Leo Genovese, a multi-generational collaboration of top artists in one of the areas finest venues. The playing throughout this generous show (1 hour, 45 minutes) was beautiful, and often inspired. It was a sold-out house, and that in itself was inspiring.

And yet. . . and yet. I wasn’t blown away. At least, not as blown away as I wanted to be. The tunes were interesting,  Joe played all his horns (including flute), Esperanza sang one of her pretty, wordless songs accompanying herself on bass (the kind of thing she used to do all the time in her Boston days before crossover stardom), and DeJohnette, aside from playing well, got some of the best sound I’d ever heard from a drum set in Sanders Theatre. That is, he was able to play quietly, but with presence, so that individual cymbal hits and soft rim shots registered in the front of the mix.

But on the whole, I found the show a bit tame. I was most drawn to Genovese as a soloist — he’s a stunning player, mixing up rhythms with extended right-hand lines, playing with form, breaking up his fleet runs with unruly chord clusters. He seemed the only one up there constantly of the verge of committing mayhem. And that was part of it. The show seemed like a series of excellent solos, whereas I wanted some kind of group frenzy. By which I don’t necessarily mean chaos. A couple of weeks back I caught Danilo Pérez’s “Panama 500” band and again I was impressed with his core trio — there seemed to be so much going on at once, especially in the way bassist Ben Street created a continuous variety of patterns even as he “accompanied” Pérez’s piano and worked the groove. The Spring Quartet show seemed more like a series of very fine solos.

Again, don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the show, I would gladly see this band again. They had an amiable stage presence, took turns making introductions, played with humor, and seemed to genuinely enjoy each other. And the sequencing of tunes was thoughtful and varied — a couple of miscues about what tune to play next even provided brief comedy. But — except for a short Spalding  tune where she picked up an alto, Genovese played soprano, and Lovano played tenor, all to shrieking, ecstatic effect — I was missing that sense of unhinged group invention.

The Patricia Barber show, on the other hand, came at live performance from the other end. This was jazz in a club, not a concert hall. But aside from these differences, you could say Barber did everything wrong. She didn’t announce tunes, or even talk to the audience, until deep into her set. She and her band played for little more than an hour, with no encore. And the set had no clear pacing or arc.

Patricia Barber. Photo Jimmy Katz.

Patricia Barber. Photo Jimmy Katz.

But this band was swinging in sync from beginning to end — even in their “mistakes,” which cracked them up a couple of times. At times guitarist Gilad Hekelsman would look back at Barber as if concerned about where to come in. But there was an intensity to this band, the constant pressure of group swing, in drummer Patrick Mulcahy’s springy subdivision of the beat, bassist Ross Pederson freely going in and out of tempo without ever losing the groove, and Barber’s piano lines, which she invented wily-nily, or so it seemed, as the mood struck her.

At some point I thought, this is “jazz.” This is what I think of when I hear that word. It was the type of casual but intense music that you’d expect from the kind of three-set evening you used to be able to catch as a matter of course in jazz clubs but that are now relegated to jam sessions in bars (Wally’s in the South End is a gratifying exception). The fact is, even “clubs” aren’t really clubs any more. The music economy and ticket prices being what they are, every club show — at the Regattabar or Scullers, but also at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York or any other high-end venue — are “concerts.”  You buy a ticket for one show only and the band had better deliver — a narrative arc with calibrated pacing and a big climax as a payoff.

At the end of her show, Barber said something about this being it for “this set.” As though there was going to be another. I think the standing, cheering crowd would have been happy to stay. And, in some time of yore, that’s what you’d do — maybe by promising to buy another drink or two as a “minimum.” Maybe the set didn’t have that “concert arc,” but it was cool, and in another setting I would have ordered another drink and stayed for another set Just in order to hear what might happen next.

I’m reminded of something Revolutionary Snake Ensemble leader Ken Field said after one of their tunes on Fat Tuesday: “I’m sure we’re just as surprised as you are by where that tune ended up.” It would be nice to experience that mutual surprise more often.

Jazz picks this week

Ambrose Akinmusire plays the Regattabar on March 12.

Ambrose Akinmusire plays the Regattabar on March 12.

Here are some highlights of live jazz for the coming week. These and other picks for theater, dance, classical, and pop music can be found at The Arts Fuse.

 

Four Generations of Miles Davis
March 7-8, 7:30 p.m. + 10 p.m.
Regattabar, Cambridge, MA.

Four outstanding players — saxophonist Sonny Fortune, guitarist Mike Stern, bassist Buster Williams, and drummer Jimmy Cobb — are pooling their combined experience from different eras of working with Miles Davis.

Nando Michelin’s “Juana de America”
March 8, 8 p.m.; March 10, 8 p.m.
Amazing Things Arts Center, Framingham, MA [March 8] + Longy School of Music, Cambridge, MA. [March 10]

The terrific Uruguayan-born jazz pianist Nando Michelin has long been a mainstay of Boston’s jazz and Latin-jazz scenes (his “Duende” trio with drummer Richie Barshay and a pre-famous Esperanza Spalding is semi-legendary). This month, Michelin premieres a new work in a series of metro-Boston venues. The piece, “Juana de America,” is a suite of songs set to the verse of Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou (1892-1979). Argentine singer Katie Viqueira joins Michelin’s trio, with Robert Taylor on bass and Tiago Michelin (Nando’s son) on drums, and the Four Corners string quartet. The show travels from the Amazing Things Arts Center (March 8) and the Longy School (March 10) to the Acton Jazz Café, Acton (March 14), and Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge (March 19).

New World Jazz Composers Octet
March 10, 8.p.m.
Berklee Performance Center, Boston, MA.

This octet, led by saxophonist and composer Daniel Ian Smith, digs deep into the mainstream tradition to create new work that is both elegant and fiery. The band also includes pianist Tim Ray, saxophonist Felipe Salles, trumpeters Walter Platt and Tony D’Aveni, percussionist Ernesto Diaz, bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa, and drummer Mark Walker.

Nir Felder
March 11, 7:30 p.m.
Regattabar, Cambridge, MA.

On his Okeh Records debut, Golden Age (released in January), young guitar wizard Nir Felder mixes dreamy indie-rock instrumentals with the kind of busy, sharp-angled uptempo pieces that progressive jazz fans love. The latter showed off his amazing chops — spiky patterns so unpredictable and fresh that it was hard to imagine how he was thinking so fast. It will be interesting to see how he mixes things up at the Regattabar with two players from the album, pianist Aaron Parks and drummer Nate Smith, along with bassist Orlando le Flemming.

Ambrose Akinmusire
March 12, 7:30 p.m.
Regattabar, Cambridge, MA.

The adventurous young trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire (2007 winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition) releases his second Blue Note CD, the imagined savior is far easier to paint, on March 11, then celebrates with a show at the Regattabar. Joining Akinmusire is his working quartet: saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown.

Bill Banfield’s Jazz Urbane
March 12, 8 p.m.
Scullers Jazz Club

Guitarist and Berklee professor Bill Banfield fronts his pop fusion outfit Jazz Urbane with the formidable young alto saxophonist Tia Fuller as special guest.

The Trio
March 13, 7:30 p.m. + 10 p.m.
Regattabar, Cambridge, MA.

Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Billy Cobham released their first album as the Trio in 2004, mixing exploratory variations on New Orleans funk with post-bop swing.

… and coming up

Vijay Iyer Trio/Robert Pinsky
March 14, 8 p.m.
Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, MA.

Pianist, composer, and MacArthur Fellow Vijay Iyer joins former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinksy for one of Pinsky’s PoemJazz duo sets and then takes the stage with his formidable trio mates, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, in this Celebrity Series concert.

Myra Melford
March 14, 8 p.m.
Lily Pad, Cambridge, MA.

Pianist and composer Myra Melford’s exquisite chops, tact, and imagination have served her well with any number of jazz’s great experimenters, from Henry Threadgill, Joseph Jarman, and Leroy Jenkins to Dave Douglas, Marty Ehrlich, and Matt Wilson. She plays a solo gig in support of her solo-piano CD, Life Carries Me This Way (Firehouse 12) at the intimate Lily Pad.

Snarky Puppy
March 14, 8 p.m.
Berklee Performance Center, Boston, MA.

From the next generation of jazz-rock-funk fusion, Snarky Puppy have signaled their arrival with a 2014 Grammy win for Best R&B Performance and a booking at the upcoming Newport Jazz Festival. You’ll hear R&B, but also the familiar sound of proggy ’70s-’80s fusion, updated with nifty horn charts and distinctive post-rock twists and turns. Dallas funk-fusion band Funky Knuckles opens.

Danilo Pérez “Panama 500” at Scullers

Danilo Pérez. Photo by Luke Severn.

Danilo Pérez. Photo by Luke Severn.

The Boston debut of Danilo Pérez’s “Panama 500” project was a bedeviled affair, but ultimately sublime. Originally scheduled for four shows over Saturday and Sunday, it was reduced to two, thanks in part to bad weather. So the 7 p.m. Sunday show was sold out, with a waiting list, including, evidently, a few Valentine’s Day dates who seemed bewildered by what they were seeing (“I think that’s an alto saxophone,” said a gentleman at our table). There were some walkouts.

Pérez frontloaded the show with a previously unannounced 30-minute performance by an octet of students from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, which he has created while teaching at the school. And then Davíd Carrasco, a professor of Latin American studies from the Harvard Divinity School, talked about Pérez and essentially read his impressionistic liner notes from Panama 500. Liner notes are generally better left on the page.

Panama 500 is arguably the distinguished 47-year-old pianist and composer’s finest achievement. Over the years, audiences have come to know him mostly as the leader of a superb trio and as a member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. But he has written large-scale works such as Panama Suite for big band. As for Panama 500,  it’s not necessarily the size of the orchestration (there are usually not more than eight or nine players on a given track), but the conception that makes the piece large. A kind of historical portrait of Panama, from Balboa’s “discovery” of the Pacific Ocean up through the present, it incorporates folkloric percussion and recitation by the indigenous Guna people as well as passages for solo piano and piano trio. At times, Pérez layers various languages — dissonant modern chamber music (with parts for violin and cello) on top of ancient percussion.

At the Scullers, Pérez was with his longtime trio mates, bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz, as well as violinist Alex Hargreaves (a former Berklee Global Institute student) and Cuban percussionist Roman Díaz. The first section of the set was episodic, alternating piano interludes with attractive fiddles tunes, all driven by a variety of grooves as well as mixed-meter passages from the rhythm section. But the musical narrative didn’t feel as clearly delineated as on the album. On the other hand, Hargreaves is a real find — he tossed off some impressive virtuoso flourishes throughout the night, but he was most impressive in his thoughtful deliberation, his responses to Pérez’s piano, his odd double-stopped dissonances, his simultaneous grasp of folk-song form and jazz harmony. With his instrument, he linked ancient and modern. And you sensed him listening and creating every step of the way.

The set truly lifted off following a trio performance of Pérez’s ballad tempo piece from the album, “Gratitude.” That’s when Pérez went into a kind of free fantasia on themes from Thelonious Monk that more or less settled into the skittering lines of “Think of One.” This turned into towering trio performance in an odd-metered groove, with Pérez’s left hand shouting the rhythm and harmony as Street’s bass danced around it in odd, free patterns.  Cruz meanwhile held the groove while layering it with further detail. Somehow, in the midst of all this freedom, the trio kept falling into cadences together. The music reached a climax that brought down the house.

From there things loosened up. Díaz’s deep, elemental rhythms and rich tonal colors were a tonic, especially when, accompanying his own half-sung recitation, he locked into a clave laid down by Cruz and Pérez on rhythm sticks. In cap, shades, goatee, and broad smile, Díaz was a charismatic presence, and soon Pérez had the room singing along with him. By this point, Pérez’s wife, the alto saxophonist Patricia Zarate had joined the band, and she too achieved a peak, riffing on the band’s grooves and bringing the crowd to set-closing cheers.

Between songs, Pérez spoke about his excitement for the musical culture in Boston and talked about having lived here for 28 years, traveling between Boston and Panama. When he said, “I’m so proud of this city,” someone in the audience responded, “We’re proud too.” It was hard not to hear it as a moment of unspoken allusion to the Marathon bombings. The “too-muchness” of the show was of a piece with Pérez’s generosity. When the world is a mess, why should good will be tidy?

Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz at Scullers

Despite what instrumentalists and singers say about wanting to “tell a story” with their music, the fact is that very few of them do. Instead, they simply cycle through a form, wringing whatever musical flourishes they can with each pass. Even though singers have an advantage — the built-in “stories” of lyrics — the effect is often the same: wash, rinse, repeat.

Kate McGarry is something else again. The 51-year-old singer and songwriter, appearing with her husband, guitarist Keith Ganz, 41, at Scullers on Thursday night, had a story to tell with each song. And, in fact, the evening as a whole had the pacing of a shaped narrative.

McGarry and Ganz are working their new duo album, Genevieve & Ferdinand (Sunnyside), and they drew freely from it as well as other material. Though McGarry is nominally a jazz singer, she likes to mix up her genres. At Scullers, there were a few contemporary folk songs mixed in with the jazz standards, as well as a couple of folk originals

They began with Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” McGarry’s phrasing playing into the lyrics without overselling them (the rest in the title phrase: “That was my prelude . . . to a kiss”), and ending on a breathtaking high note. On his acoustic guitar, Ganz provided the detail and delicacy of touch of a latter day Bucky Pizzarelli.

But it was on the second tune, the McGarry original “Climbing Down,” where the narrative really took shape. She said the song was about climbing the family tree of “my potato famine ancestors.” It was essentially a blues — about family, the Church, drink, and all manner of tangled branches. And in the final verse it turned into a softly sung traditional Celtic ballad, “Whiskey You’re the Devil,” haunting, ghostly. Ganz, meanwhile, had moved from blues vamp to “extended” techniques — scraping harmonics from his strings, tapping the guitar percussively. The effect was cinematic and left the room in a hush.

McGarry created a similar structural collage in her “Ten Little Indians.” It’s an elegy for her parents, who died a year apart in 2009 and 2010. The title refers to her and her nine siblings (McGarry is from Hyannis, MA.). The folk song takes in the lives of her parents (“He built a house upon his back; she grew a garden in each room”) and their deaths (“These scenes that life does not rehearse”). And then, in the final verse, it drifts into the melody, and slightly revised lyrics, of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” At Scullers, this again left the room in a hush, followed by a huge ovation.

The narrative turns of McGarry’s performances are not always a matter of radical structural shifts. Most of the time her effects are created entirely musically, working within the given song. It’s not unusual for a singer to follow an instrumental solo by coming in on the bridge, but Ganz’s guitar work was so evocative and varied — tone, timbre, swinging eighth-note runs alternating with folky vamps — that when McGarry returned to sing the final verse of, say, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “We Kiss in a Shadow” or James Taylor’s “Line ‘em Up,” it was startling. Yes, the same familiar melody and words, but something had happened, and the song was in a different place now. The experience of the song had changed it. Even McGarry’s wordless vocals, or the occasional jazz scatting, were never mere embellishment — they were an extension of the emotions of the songs, a different way to feel them.

It’s probably this artistic focus — and McGarry and Ganz’s ability to cross jazz and folk techniques — that made the show all of a piece, even as the two went from Taylor to Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke’s “Pennies from Heaven,” or from the devastating “Ten Little Indians” to Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Close to You.”

Despite the weather, McGarry had a good house, and she joked about the snow and the benefits of a “home court advantage” (she guessed that “eight or nine” of her siblings were in the audience). And her wit offered comic relief without pandering or trivializing the material. (“Can’t Help Loving That Man” didn’t prove that love is blind, but “rather nearsighted.”)

McGarry doesn’t have one of those huge, operatic jazz voices (she’s not Sarah Vaughan or Cécile McLorin Salvant). But the voice is instantly recognizable — strong, muscular, with an appealing butterscotch middle register. Her technique (breath, pitch, phrasing) is just about flawless, and it’s all of a piece with her artistry — personal and peerless. McGarry has her own stories to tell.

(Photo of Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz by Frank Zipperer. Read my Boston Globe feature interview with Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz here.)

Upcoming jazz events

Danilo Pérez plays Scullers February 15 and 16 . Photo by Luke Severn.

Danilo Pérez plays Scullers February 15 and 16 . Photo by Luke Severn.

Plenty of good stuff happening in Boston-area jazz this week. You can find these and other choice arts picks at The Arts Fuse.

Pat Donaher
February 8, 4 p.m.
Lily Pad, Cambridge MA

Alto saxophonist Pat Donaher’s beguiling Who We Are Together lives in that world where jazz crosses over into a kind of classical chamber music.  Or maybe the other way around. With his alternating duo partners, pianists Hwaen Ch’uqi and Camille Barile, Donaher favors spontaneous improvisations, with attractive folk-like melodies and ambiguous harmonies. A Quincy, MA, native, Donaher attended the Eastman School of Music before returning home to complete a master’s degree at New England Conservatory. At the Lily Pad he’ll be joined by fellow Eastman graduate Hwaen Ch’uqi.

Ampersand Concert Series
February 13,  8 p.m.
MIT Bartos Theatre, Cambridge MA

The MIT List Visual Arts Center and WMBR Radio present the seventh in their performance series, this time with the Boston/Amherst jazz group Outnumbered and New Haven bassist and electronic improviser Carl Testa. The Outnumbered features some of the best players in the area: alto saxophonist Jason Robinson, multi-sax guy Charlie Kohlhase, pianist Josh Rosen, bassist Bruno Råberg, and drummer Curt Newton.

Dave Holland’s Prism
February 13-14, 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Regattabar, Cambridge MA

Bassist and composer Dave Holland’s always compelling blend of grooving mixed meters and controlled contrapuntal mayhem this time falls into the hands of a new quartet with a homonymous new album on ECM. The players are guitarist Kevin Eubanks (a longtime Holland foil before jumping to direct the Tonight Show band), pianist Craig Taborn, and drummer Eric Harland. As usual with Holland’s outfits, everyone contributes original tunes, which makes for an especially alert crew.

Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz
February 13, 8 p.m.
Scullers Jazz Club, Boston

Kate McGarry has long been mixing jazz with a variety of American pop and folk. Tonight she and her husband, the guitarist Keith Ganz, step out of their usual band format to play as the title alter-ego duo from their new album, Genevieve & Ferdinand (Sunnyside), somehow making Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” Todd Rundgen’s “Pretending To Care,” and Iriving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” all part of the same sound world. You can also expect a couple of McGarry and Ganz’s well-turned originals.

Newport Jazz Festival: NOW 60
February 13, 8 p.m.
Berklee Performance Center, Boston MA

This promotional anniversary tour for the granddaddy of jazz festivals looks on the face of it like a grab-bag of supremely talented, medium-profile all-stars, but the tour producers and bandleader Anat Cohen have declared a specific agenda: to focus not only on music from Newport’s storied history, but also original compositions and arrangements from everyone in the band. And it is a formidable crew. Saxophonist and clarinetist Cohen will be joined by multi-lingual singer Karrin Allyson, trumpeter Randy Brecker, guitarist Mark Whitfield, pianist Peter Martin, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Clarence Penn. This second night of a 21-date tour (a Celebrity Series of Boston event) should be crackling.
Read my Boston Globe piece about the tour here.

“Third Stream Headwaters”
February 13, 7 p.m.
Jordan Hall, Boston MA

Rare offerings at New England Conservatory tonight. The Contemporary Improvisation department goes deep into Third Stream — the term coined by composer and former NEC president Gunther Schuller to describe a blending of classical and jazz musical procedures (and also the original name of the CI department).  Topping the bill are Charles Mingus’s “Half-Mast Inhibition,” the great bassist-composer’s earliest orchestral work (originally recorded in 1960) and the premiere of Schuller’s “From Here to There,” commissioned by NEC. Also on the bill are Darius Milhaud’s “La Création du Monde,” Milton Babbit’s “All Set,” and Frank Zappa’s “Dog Breath Variations.” Charles Peltz conducts

Catherine Russell
February 14, 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Scullers Jazz Club, Boston MA

No less an authority than Nat Hentoff has called singer Catherine Russell “the real thing.” With a strong pedigree (daughter of Louis Armstrong orchestra music director Luis Russell and guitarist Carline Ray, of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm), Russell made her early career singing high-profile back-up gigs (Paul Simon, David Bowie, Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, Rosanne Cash) before going solo about 10 years ago and delivering one beautifully assured album after another, focusing on vintage swing and blues, with the occasional oddball and apt contemporary choice (the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedyway Boogie”). She has the kind of voice and diction that lend every song a conversational directness and literate clarity even when she’s hitting the high notes and swinging her hardest. Her latest, Bring It Back (Jazz Village), comes out this Tuesday and it’s another well-designed collection, guided by her own taste and by the skill of music director/guitarist Matt Munisteri.

Danilo Pérez’s “Panama 500”
February 15 [8 p.m. and 10 p.m.] and 16 [4 p.m. and 7 p.m.]
Scullers Jazz Club, Boston MA

The 47-year-old pianist and composer’slatest CD, Panama 500 (Mack Avenue), is his most ambitious achievement yet. Looking again at his native Panama, he offers a portrait that mixes folkloric percussion, chants of the indigenous Guna people, modern-chamber music string writing, and, of course, fleet jazz-piano trio sections. At times, all these languages are layered so that history emerges as a living memory. Pérez brings an ensemble from the album to Scullers: violinist Alex Hargreaves, percussionist Roman Díaz, and his longtime trio mates, bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz.
Read my Boston Globe review of the CD here.