Jason Moran’s Fats Waller mask

Jason Moran in his Fats Waller mask, with singer Meshell Ndegeocello, right. Photo by Robert Torres for the Celebrity Series of Boston.

Jason Moran in his Fats Waller mask, with dancer Pampi and singer Meshell Ndegeocello, far right. Photo by Robert Torres for the Celebrity Series of Boston.

It’s impossible to overstate how powerful masks can be. Here’s Jason Moran in his Fats Waller mask, designed by Didier Civil. “This mask is hot!” Moran said after removing it at about the mid-point of his Friday night Celebrity Series of Boston concert, “Fats Waller Dance Party.” You can read my Boston Globe review here. But I hardly had room to talk about that mask — oversized, expressive, it became the identity of the usually soft-spoken and understated Moran. When that big bobble head Fats Waller turned to look at the audience, you believed it. After removing the mask (he said he’s worn it in about 30 performances, and it’s getting a little ripe), Moran put it back on to finish the show.

By the way, the excellent dancers were recruited locally and asked to improvise through the show — which they did impressively: Pampi, Jenaya Dailey, and Jon Shaw-Mays.

Here’s the set list, via the Celebrity Series:

Ain’t Misbehavin
Lulu’s Back in Town
Yacht Club Swing
Handful of Keys
Ain’t Nobody’s Business
Honeysuckle Rose
Fat Lick – drum and piano duet
Two Sleepy People
Sheik of Araby / Joint is Jumpin’

Encore
Jitterbug Waltz (played slowly, acoustic piano)

Ran Blake at the Regattabar: “Plays Solo Piano” 50th Anniversary

Cover image from Ran Blake's 1964 ESP-Disk, celebrated the Regattabar.

Cover image from Ran Blake’s 1964 ESP-Disk, celebrated at the Regattabar.

You could have heard Ran Blake’s show Wednesday night at the Regattabar as a concert with autobiographical commentary, or as a memoir with musical illustrations. It was both, really.

Blake was ostensibly celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ESP-Disk Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano. It was his second release after his 1961 RCA debut, The Newest Sound Around, with the singer Jeanne Lee.

Blake’s approach hasn’t changed a whole lot since then. He still mines his obsessions with film noir, jazz standards, and gospel music, and his abiding affection for composers like Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, George Russell, and Gunther Schuller, and for songs and singers. And he still plays with his uncanny ear for harmony, unparalleled touch, and serene focus. Blake’s passages of sharp dynamics shifts, of juxtaposed dissonance and consonance, give his music the heightened contrasts of his beloved film noir. Some improvisers use songs as a starting point — a springboard for their own invention. Blake does that too, but his inventions seem to take him deeper into a song rather than further from it.

At the Regattabar, he played several pieces from Solo Piano, but much else as well, including new pieces. Emerging from back stage with the assistance of walker (he’ll be 79 on April 20), swaddled in shades, black fisherman’s cap, a big scarf, jacket, and his thick grey beard, he greeted the warm applause of the packed house with a smile and a bow, then sat at the piano and dug into four widely spaced, loud chords, using the sustain pedal to let them bleed into each other, and then played the delicate, elegiac melody his “Vanguard,” the first song on Solo Piano, bringing out inner voices as one chord moved on to the next. He followed that with “The Nearness of You,” punctuated by plinking, Monk-ish minor seconds between soft, floating chords and bits of melody.

“In 1960 I moved to New York — a year or two older than I should have been — from the college.”  He was taking us into the first phase of the memoir. Walking up Amsterdam Avenue, into Harlem, the Apollo Theatre, Abbey Lincoln, Don Ellis, Sheila Jordan, George Russell. Then he introduced one of those Harlem tunes, “Sleepy Time Gal,” and Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” which Blake said he was the fourth person to record. “Ornette thought it was . . . fairly okay,” said Blake of his version.

In Blake’s mini-sets, two or three songs sometimes merged and overlapped. They weren’t medleys, really, more like montage. Blake said he often thinks in images at the piano as he plays through songs, and that made sense here, especially as he extemporized on Dr. Mabuse, the character from the films by Fritz Lang, with a theme by Konrad Elfers. (Blake joked that Mabuse, the “evil psychiatrist,” had been in 1,000 films.)

There were a couple of tunes with Blake collaborator (and former student) Jon Hazilla. Hazilla said that Blake, “always thinks of other people first rather than himself.” To which Blake piped up, “Not always!” Hazilla said that when he auditioned at New England Conservatory (where Blake created the Third Stream department with then NEC president Gunther Schuller), Blake asked him to play “a cold Boston morning.” Blake’s response to Hazilla’s attempt was: “Sounds like rush hour.” Hazilla’s solo tribute — just brushes and snare — was fast, but not rushed, tight, swinging, economical patterns of swishing brushwork.

Blake then introduced his tune “Memphis,” commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, “40 years ago tomorrow.” It was, he said, his imagining of King speaking to a stadium full of people, with Al Green and Willie Mitchell in attendance, and maybe Alfred Hitchcock too. And here Blake created one of his uncanny effects: as the melody from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” moved into the piece, softly, it was as if from offstage, a passing parade. Then there was George Russell’s “Stratusphunk” (also from Solo Piano), with Blake returning again and again to the repeated notes of the opening melody.

Blake often gave capsule biographies of the songwriters and dedicatees. There was “Sister Tee,” for Elisa Carter of Sweet Daddy Grace’s Church in Harlem. “She wanted to learn about Stravinsky and Mingus and I wanted to learn about Mahalia Jackson and the Pentecostal church.” For once, he said, he’d play “a number that’s partly cheerful,” even with its evocation of meddlesome police on 125th street.

Blake is one of the few performer I know who can get away with almost unrelenting slow or rubato performances. He and Hazilla did swing some stride for a bit, but for the most part these were nocturnes. So what held the ear was the drama that unfolded in each song, those shifting textures and harmonies. It never seems adequate to call one of Blake’s chords “dissonance” — he seems to know hundreds of shadings between dissonance and consonance. In each song — no matter how deep the rumbling percussion and brass of his bass register — the melody would surface, just a spare single-note line, but articulated with pure, vocal expression, and you could hear what Blake loves about singers. They’re that light in the darkness, as in his statement of the melody in his “Birmingham, U.S.A.” (for the four girls murdered in the notorious church bombing in that city in September 1963).  Elsewhere, his conjurings were the stuff of dreams and film noir, 4/4 chords that stalked the melody line, as in a suspense film, or the bit of Bernard Hermann dissonance that crept into Blake’s encore of “You Are My Sunshine.”

With Blake’s notions of harmony, wherein it drifts away from tonal centers or simply expands into adjacent keys, and his sudden, stabbing attacks at an astringent interval, I once thought: maybe this is what a young Arnold Schoenberg would have sounded like if he was the hippest lounge pianist around. But that’s not fair, Schoenberg was not an American musician, he was not a jazz musician, and he was no Ran Blake.

 

 

 

Jazz picks week of March 28

Juanito Pascual New Flamenco Trio. Photo by Anastasia Sierra.

Juanito Pascual New Flamenco Trio. Photo by Anastasia Sierra.

Here are just a few jazz events around town this week. These and more coming attractions — classical, dance, theater, etc.— can be found at The Arts Fuse.

Grace Kelly
March 28, 8 p.m.
Scullers Jazz Club, Boston, MA.

The former child prodigy alto saxophonist from Brookline, now 21, celebrates 10 years of performing — including gigs with Phil Woods and Lee Konitz — by playing a show at her home base, Scullers.

Juanito Pascual New Flamenco Trio
March 28, 8 p.m.
Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, MA.

Guitarist Juanito Pascual’s idea of flamenco has always been expansive, going well beyond the sound of the Gypsy Kings. His latest CD, New Flamenco Trio, incorporates a variety of traditional flamenco rhythms as well as a bit of Panama, American jazz, and George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” His trio — with bassist Brad Barrett and percussionist Tupac Mantilla — will be joined by flamenco dancer Auxi Fernández. (The show was rescheduled from the original snowed-upon February 15 date.)

Mary Lou Williams “Mass for Peace”
March 29, 7 p.m.
Union United Methodist Church, Boston, MA.

The great jazz pianist and composer spent much of the latter half of her career devoted to religious works. UnionARTS at the Union United Methodist Church presents the Euphonic Chorale in Williams’s “Mass for Peace.”

Ran Blake
April 2, 7:30 p.m.
Regattabar, Cambridge, MA.

Just shy of his 79th birthday (April 20), the endlessly exploratory pianist, composer, and teacher offers a rare solo concert — playing standards (from gospel and folk to American songbook), film noir soundtracks, and originals.  (This is another show rescheduled from an earlier storm date.)

Marissa Licata
April 2, 8 p.m.
Scullers Jazz Club, Boston, MA.

Honduran-American Marissa Licata matches an effervescent stage presence with fearsome chops, born of classical training and gigs with pop acts like Jethro Tull. She’s best when she pushes her Gypsy-jazz world-music fusion to the edge.

Matthew Stevens
April 2, 8 p.m.
Café 939, Boston, MA.

For the past several years, guitarist Matthew Stevens has been Christian Scott’s right-hand man in the trumpet star’s rock-edged jazz quintet. Now, in anticipation of his Concord Records debut as a leader, Stevens returns to alma mater Berklee for a gig at the school’s Café 939, with his own formidable quintet: pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Eric Doob, and percussionist Paulo Stagnaro. It’s part of “The Checkout” live broadcast series by Hoboken’s WBGO-FM and NPR.

Mehmet Ali Sanlikol Jazz Orchestra
April 3, 7:30 p.m.
Regattabar, Cambridge, MA.

The Turkish-born pianist and composer Mehmet Ali Sanlikol came to Boston 20 years ago and studied big-band composing and arranging with the likes of Herb Pomeroy and Bob Brookmeyer. Ironically, his study of American big-band jazz led him back to the court music of the Ottoman Empire. His orchestra compositions, at their best, are a provocative blend of varied traditions. He celebrates the release of his album whatsnext? with his orchestra at the Regattabar.

 

 

Music Diary: Iyer and Pinsky

Vijay Iyer and Robert Pinsky at Sanders Theatre Friday night. Photo by Robert Torres. Courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

Vijay Iyer and Robert Pinsky at Sanders Theatre Friday night. Photo by Robert Torres. Courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

I was only able to hear a portion of the Vijay Iyer/Robert Pinsky Celebrity Series of Boston concert at Sanders Theatre Friday night — all of Iyer and Pinsky’s  40-minute “PoemJazz” set, and about 45 minutes of the Vijay Iyer Trio set.

I’m a reluctant fan of the Pinsky “PoemJazz” project. It’s a reluctance Pinsky himself acknowledged when I talked to him a couple of years ago before a PoemJazz show at the Regattabar: “I can always see that people are afraid it’s going to be embarrassing.”

Nonethless, a fan I became — of Pinsky and of PoemJazz — after seeing that Regattabar show with pianist Laurence Hobgood (who has recorded PoemJazz with Pinsky). For PoemJazz, Pinsky wasn’t looking for impressionistic musical responses to his texts. He wanted to perform the poems as true musical duets (he is a former aspiring jazz saxophonist). The text of the poem become a lead sheet, and Hobgood told me he reads ahead as he listens to Pinsky’s words, devising chord sequences. There are piano introductions, cued entrances and exits, piano solos (breaks for a bar or two or sometimes  the equivalent of a chorus or half-chorus), and Pinsky fiddles with his own texts, using repetition as a song-like device. Poetic form becomes musical form in these performances.

My first impression at the show on Friday night was that Iyer was maybe a bit more deferential to Pinsky than he had to be. At the Regattabar, Hobgood often played busy lines at full volume, challenging Pinsky to deliver like a saxophone. For the first piece at Sanders, Iyer’s sophisticated noodling was laid back. (It was Pinsky’s saxophone poem, “Horn”: “This is the golden trophy”). As with Hobgood, “Antique” was played as a blues, with a bit of walking bass (“I drowned in the fire of having you, I burned/In the river of not having you . . . .”)

Despite Iyer’s more impressionistic approach, the pieces had form — as they had with Hobgood. A good musician, Pinsky knows how to count as he plays, and he knew where to leave room for a piano break, where to repeat a line like a refrain. I think the most successful pieces for me were those where Iyer deployed a laptop along with the Sanders Steinway. (“This one’s a trio,” Pinsky said before they played the first laptop number. The laptop variously conjured basslines, pattering tablas, or ambient clicks and scrapes and hisses. The most effective piece for me was “Refinery,” the central image being that of a California oil refinery lit up at night (“the most beautiful thing I saw,” Pinsky said of his time in California). Here, Iyer’s drifting chromatic lines created an appropriately cinematic effect with Pinsky’s words (“The great Refinery — a million bulbs tracing/Its boulevards, turrets, and palisades.”)

Robert Pinsky in full yawp. Photo by Robert Torres. Courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

Robert Pinsky in full yawp. Photo by Robert Torres. Courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston.

Iyer’s playing was never less than interesting and Pinsky’s commitment was total. And, as the poet Tony Hoagland is quoted on the back of Pinsky’s Selected Poems (FSG), he is “a much stranger poet than is generally acknowledged.” Pinsky lives in Cambridge and teaches at B.U., and he introduced the piece “House Hour” by talking about his love for old working-class neighborhoods in Cambridge and Somerville. Looking at them, for him, is like “Wordsworth looking at a lake.” Dressed in university-poet blazer and tie, he sometimes performed with his hands in his pockets or held behind his back, and he held nothing back in delivering the full yawp of his lines. “Antique” is not what I’d call a funny poem, but I’ve heard Pinsky perform it twice, and both times he’s gotten a laugh with “Someday far down that corridor of horror the future/Someone who buys this picture of you for the frame. . . .”

I can’t comment fully on Iyer’s performance with his trio because, like I say, I heard only a portion of it. Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump, and drummer Marcus Gilmore played beautifully, avoiding any obvious grooves or straight meters. There was one lovely ballad that sounded as though it might turn into “Misty” but didn’t. The forms were odd, too, with Crump sometimes holding things down with recurring short patterns, the band falling into cadence and unison lines at unpredictable points. I was most struck by an old-fashioned “process” piece — of the likes of Reich or Glass or maybe Feldman — that built layers of repetitive rhythmic patterns and a continually rising crescendo over the course of (by my count) nearly 15 minutes, coming to a hard-stop climax with a mighty thwack from Gilmore. It got a huge ovation from the crowd. Iyer said it was called “Hood” for the electronic musician Robert Hood.

About midway through the 45 minutes that I heard, I grew a bit restless, as all the odd-metered hooh-hah began to take on a sameness. I recalled years ago seeing Brad Mehldau’s great trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy at Jordan Hall. I invited a friend to join me — someone who had been a huge Mehldau fan. But he said he’d been feeing emotionally disengaged from Mehldau’s playing lately — all the complex odd and mixed meters, he told me. But he joined me anyway and, lo and behold, Mehldau played some straight-time swing, a bolero (by Charlie Haden), a couple of waltzes.

Jazz these days — from Mehldau and Robert Glasper to Mary Halvorson and Taylor Ho Bynum — is pursuing new paths in rhythmic invention. And some of it really does groove in a beautifully fucked-up way (catch Glasper live with the drummers Mark Colenburg or Chris Dave or Rudresh Mahanthappa with bassist Rich Brown). I think in live performance more than on record you really do need some groove, if only for the sake of variety and a bit of ear-refreshment.

In any case, I’d love to hear from anyone who caught the rest of the Iyer trio’s performance after “Hood.” Iyer announced that he was about to play a solo piece when I left. What else did he and the band play? And, by the way, my exit had nothing to do with my feelings about the performance. Sometimes there are just other places you have to be.

POST SCRIPT: A set list from Iyer’s management (via the Celebrity Series) indicates that Iyer followed “Hood” with a solo piano performance of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.” Too bad I missed that one, would have loved to have heard it. And Pinsky returned for a performance of his poem “Ginza Samba” (“A monosyllabic European called Sax/Invents a horn. . . . “).

Jazz Picks Week of March 14

Vijay Iyer. Photo by Jimmy Katz.

Vijay Iyer. Photo by Jimmy Katz.

Here’s a look at the coming week in live jazz, including THREE important shows tonight. For more jazz and other picks in dance, theater, classical music, pop, and more, check out The Arts Fuse.

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

Pianist, composer, MacArthur Fellow and now Harvard music faculty member 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 in collaborations with any number of jazz’s other 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.

Nando Michelin’s “Juana de America”
March 14, 9 p.m.; March 19, 9 p.m.
Acton Jazz Café, Acton, MA [March 14] + Ryles Jazz Club Cambridge, MA. [March 19]

Pianist and composer Nando Michelin continues his series of shows exploring the work of Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou (1892-1979) in this new suite. Performing Michelin’s settings are his trio with bassist Robert Taylor and drummer Tiago Michelin along with singer Katie Viqueira and the Four Corners string quartet.

Ali Amr
March 15, 7 p.m.
Regattabar, Cambridge, MA.

Moroccan-born Berklees student Ali Amr made a splash at last year’s Newport Jazz Festival by busting out his zither-like qanun and improvising stunning free flying lines with a like-minded jazz crew on the big mainstage. Amr also brings his compelling vocals to his trad-modern fusions of jazz, funk hip-hop, and Arabic folk forms.

Dave Liebman and Marc Copland
March 15, 8 p.m. + 10 p.m.
Lily Pad, Cambridge, MA

The great saxophonist Dave Liebman was here just a couple of weeks ago with a band. Now he returns to play two duo sets with pianist Marc Copland. Liebman is known for his impassioned, all-out attack in band settings, but on Impressions, their 2012 Hat Hut release, he and Copland took more lyrical flights in their free explorations of modern standards (including the title track). That album also included a few spontaneous pieces invented from scratch, so don’t be surprised if they lean that way tonight. After all, they’ve done this before.

The Makanda Project
March 15, 7 p.m.
Dudley Branch Library, Boston, MA

Pianist John Kordalewski’s ensemble tribute to the late composer and reedman Makanda Ken McIntyre holds forth in a free concert at the Boston Public Library Dudley branch auditorium with special guest brass player Craig Harris. The Makanda’s regular crew includes a cast of Boston all-stars: Arni Cheatham, John Lockwood, Kurtis Rivers, Charlie Kohlhase, Bill Lowe, and Jerry Sabatini.

Jay Clayton
March 19, 8 p.m.
Scullers Jazz Club, Boston, MA

Clayton is one of a select group of free-jazz vocalists, having worked with Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Reich, Julian Priester, Jane Ira Bloom, and many others. Tonight she goes “out” by working “in,” celebrating the release of her new CD, Harry Who?, a tribute to songwriter Harry Warren (“At Last,” “September in the Rain,” “I Only Have Eyes for You”). Joining her are the players from that album, pianist John DiMartino and esteemed tenor saxophonist Houston Person.

Eric Hofbauer’s “Prehistoric Jazz”
March 21, 8 p.m.
Pickman Concert Hall, Longy School of Music, Cambridge, MA.

Guitarist and composer Hofbauer’s last attempt to stage this show got snowed out. But maybe this time he’ll be aided by the fact that he’s re-scheduled his jazz ensemble rendering of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps for the day after the first day of spring. Hofbauer and crew have played “the Rite” before, but this time they’ll also be premiering his arrangement of Messiaen’s Quator pour le fin du temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”). The band includes Hofbauer, clarinetist Todd Brunel, trumpeter Jerry Sabatini, cellist Junko Fujiwara, and drummer Curt Newton. And it’s free.

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.