Gunther Schuller's Contribution
and
A Few More Thoughts About Ornette

My day with Gunther Schuller in 2010 is in two parts. The Third Stream stuff is what the BBC wanted. However, I'm more proud of the second section, where we listen his orchestral work Contours together.

When preparing for the interview, I went through the complete discography of Schuller working with jazz musicians. It was the first time time I paid serious attention these records and probably also the last, as my conclusion was that most of it just wasn't that successful.

During the same investigation, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was impressed with many of Schuller's compositions that had nothing to do with Third Stream. Based on an early exposure to Abstractions with Ornette Coleman, I expected all of his music to be unremittingly thorny, like Milton Babbitt or another high modernist, but that turned out to be far from the case. 

Since Schuller's passing I've been repeatedly listening to three significant pieces.

Symphony for Brass and Percussion, Op. 16 Schuller wrote this when 23 or 24. He played french horn, and like Paul Hindemith and Morton Gould was interested in giving the brass family some proper repertory. All that Schuller/Hindemith/Gould brass stuff is always a pleasure to hear. The brash and accessible style of Op. 16 suggests Shostakovich with a major infusion of Schoenberg. (The Schoenberg Op. 43 Theme and Variations for Wind Band is the only work I can think of offhand by the Second Viennese School with a relevant instrumentation, although it's far more retro than anything by Schuller.)

Anything good written for brass band keeps getting played, so there are several recordings by now. However, the first one with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting top New York freelancers at the legendary 30th St. Studios is a seriously valuable library item. The whole album, Music for Brass, is interesting, with fun pieces by Jimmy Giuffre and J.J. Johnson, although the other true masterpiece is surely John Lewis's "Three Little Feelings," with some extraordinary Miles Davis phrasing against Osie Johnson's ride cymbal. For me, this is the easily the greatest album of Schuller with jazz players, although tellingly his own contribution is not at all his famous "third stream" but simply excellent classical composition.

According to Schuller, most of Op. 16 isn't quite twelve-tone yet. However, his language would soon be entirely dodecaphonic. Probably because of the painterly allusion and a touch of jazz, his Seven Studies on Themes by Paul Klee has become one of the best known orchestral works by an American composer from the 1950's (although I prefer the piece from the same period I brought to Schuller, Contours).  From the '60's the Piano Concerto and Symphony are absolutely relentless serial explorations worthy of Babbitt; these days both are only known by specialists. After that peak level of abstraction, Schuller mellowed out his aesthetic, discovered his "magic row" (discussed in the interview) and started producing music that had not just rich chromatic interest but digestible narrative shape, closer to Op. 16 in spirit but with an absolutely unique and authentic harmonic palette. 

The other two selections on my memorial playlist are from the mid-'80s.

Sextet for Bassoon, String Quartet and Piano. The challenge of dodecaphonic composition is often simply rhythmic: Atonality seems to demand disjunct phrasing as well as disjunct pitches in order not to be unbearably corny. For this Sextet, Schuller bravely uses the comparatively simple paragraphing of a 19th century composer like Brahms. It works! For maybe the first time, a pairing of atonality and the classical style works. The first movement is such a pleasurable shock, with a plain introduction followed by a galloping 6/8.

Obviously, the bassoon is an instrument that demands special treatment. The "Arioso" seems ideal, with a majestic high reed song surrounded by opulent harmony. 

String Quartet No. 3. This may be one of Schuller's better known chamber pieces, as the Emerson Quartet recorded it for DG. Schuller's "magic row" has triadic properties similar to the row Berg used for his Violin Concerto, and both works use intriguing quotes. Schuller's note explains further links:

...The work is “lovingly dedicated to Louis and Adrienne Krasner", with whom I have been associated for many years...I first encountered Krasner's name as a 17-year-old, when his pioneering recording of the Alban Berg Violin Concerto appeared. I was so taken by the concerto and Krasner's playing of it that, since a score of the work was not available during the war years (World War II), I set about copying the last 6 minutes of the work from the record!

The third movement of this quartet incorporates a quotation from a Beethoven manuscript owned by Louis Krasner. This 13-bar fragment in G minor was evidently written by Beethoven on the spur of the moment for an English autograph-seeking lady admirer. The suggestion to use the Beethoven quotation actually came from Mr. Krasner. Little did I anticipate at the time the amazing coincidence - reaching across some 180 years - that the first seven pitches of Beethoven's theme, Eb-D-A-C-Bb-F#, correspond exactly to the first seven pitches of my row (in a particular transposition), a relationship which is exploited in a variety of ways both harmonically and melodically. It occurred to me afterwards that the situation is not dissimilar to the one encountered by Alban Berg in 1935, when he discovered in the writing of his Violin Concerto that the first four notes of the Bach chorale that he was quoting, “Es ist genug", were identical to the last four notes of the concerto's twelve-tone row. 

It's a wonderful piece in a stellar performance by the Emerson. Again, the slow movement ("Canzona") is an highlight: Indeed, this nine minutes of epic romanticism might be what I would chose to play first when making a case for Schuller as an underrated composer.

For Schuller is strangely underrated, at least in terms of what he did best. All the obits bang the Third Stream drum, yet as far as I know hardly anybody really loves most of the Schuller-penned collaborations with jazz greats like Abstractions,  Concertino for Quartet and Orchestra, Transformation, or Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk. His jazz criticism is also frequently praised, yet modern readers of Early Jazz and The Swing Era come away with serious questions. (See Darcy James Argue's DTM post, "Misunderstanding In Blue.")

If I were in charge of the history books, I'd let Schuller's involvement with jazz take a distant back seat to his composition. The best of Gunther Schuller is simply great American Classical Music.

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Gunther Schuller and Ornette Coleman, gone: The 20th Century is vanishing before us.

Ornette and Gunther had a lot to do with each other when the Texan first came to New York. The 1960 interview between them is an important piece of the puzzle. 

In my essay "Forms and Sounds" (which starts with that 1960 interview), I speculate not just that Ornette's noise violin was inspired by modernist classical music but that the whole Harmolodic system was partially a response to the erudite musical analysis Gunther was eager to offer. "Well, Gunther's got his twelve-tone rows, I'll have rules and regulations, too," I can imagine Ornette thinking.

Possibly I'm overstepping my bounds here! But there's no doubt in my mind that Ornette was a fantastic assimilator. First he remade the blues and Bird in his own image, then modernist classical music, then rock/pop with Prime Time. It all went in and came out as pure Ornette.

Hyland Harris sent me the blindfold test Leonard Feather gave Ornette in those heady early days. Somehow I'd never seen it, although surely it's been reprinted since? Hyland's scan was a bit faint, so I googled around and found a good reproduction at Adam Melville's site

In the test, Ornette is revealed to be a true jazz cat. He knows everybody, commenting wisely on musicians as diverse as Bill Evans and Art Farmer. He really knows jazz! Must have had a hell of a record collection. I wouldn't have doubted that, exactly, but part of my reverence for Ornette has been fueled by regarding him as completely outside of the system, not as somebody who would instantly recognize Bud Shank and Bob Cooper or talk about how they played the beat.

Message received! I'll be thinking on this further...

06/23/2015

 

Recent Reading (Fiction)

Adam Brookes Blue Heron This extremely well-done espionage novel is an exciting debut. The short hand crib is: China + internet warfare + John Le Carré. Brookes spent time in China, so it follows that the descriptions of English nationals living there are exceptionally believable. The internal politics within the British secret service also ring true, and we reach the end of the breathless story without any unnecessary twists. I’ll be watching for the next Brookes.

Matthew Glass Fishbowl Great idea for a thriller: Use the triumph of Facebook as a model. There’s no doubt that social media is potentially an awesome form of thought control, and Glass's conceit feels plausible. There’s an echo of Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad; also the slightly weak ending feels cribbed from something else, perhaps even from Warren’s All the King’s Men. Very engaging overall, I read it in one go. 

Jo Perry Dead is Better  Not all meta crime fiction is to my taste, mainly because the basic crime story supporting the fantastical usually just isn’t good enough. Dead is Better is a welcome exception, with a really good plot underpinning a ghost’s investigations into his own death, a dog’s death, and a reprehensible criminal enterprise. An intentionally downbeat mood is enhanced with dozens of literary quotes about death. (The title comes from a cited influence, King’s Pet Sematary.)

Ray Banks Angels of the North The latest Banks is as realistic and depressing as it gets, like watching a traffic accident in slow motion. It’s also a history lesson, kicking off with an entitled and conservative quote from Margaret Thatcher before telling of how vigilantism came to a down-and-out community in 1986 Gateshead. Packed with fabulous slang and local idiom, Angels of the North is perfect source material for one of those compelling English mini-series TV dramas. (DTM: Interview with Ray Banks about Charles Willeford.)

06/21/2015

 

Recent Reading (Non-Fiction)

When we were on tour together, Sam Newsome was immersed in White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era by Shelby Steele. I was intrigued, because in my own jazz studies I have found the horror of segregation to have been a kind of crucible for greatness. Following from that, I have occasionally wondered about something being lost in the victories of integration. 

Steele is profoundly anti-affirmative action. I am not: I generally consider myself pro-affirmative action. Yet it is indubitably true that all the classic jazz I cannot imagine living my life without was made mostly by black musicians with absolutely no government support or sanction. In addition, I am privately contemptuous of certain art that gets funded under the auspices of what Steele calls liberal guilt. Checking off quotas does not automatically make for greater museums, literary anthologies, or jazz festivals.

It’s obviously a complex issue, especially when we leave the arts and go into the communities where normal people live. As any DTM reader knows, I praise Ta-Nehisi Coates and his idea of Reparations. At this point in my development, Steele may just be a bracing alternative, almost a way to keep one honest. 

While the whole book is superbly written, the memoir aspects are especially compelling. In the end, it’s the story of how a passionate man ended up accepting being labeled a “black conservative.” 

An interview of Steele with Ed Gordon gives an idea of Steele’s perspective, although my impression is that Steele is more comfortable writing than being interviewed. 

—-

I know little of pop and rock music, except of course as an American White Male born in 1973 it is essentially my birthright and folklore. U2 and Bono have mostly passed me by, except that some of the tunes are notably good… 

…but I remember being shocked by the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show, the one where Bono unzipped his jacket to reveal an American flag. What was that about? Trading on the righteous indignation created by 9/11 to what end? The Time magazine cover that followed, “Can Bono Save the World?” just added to my skepticism.

I’ve sort of kept a question mark by Bono’s name since then. Recently I opened The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power) by Harry Browne. It was a thrilling, scathing, and educational read.

 The Amazon page has a solid blurb by Boff Walley:  

It’s the stuff you instinctively knew about Bono – his increasingly desperate flirtations with power, his fundamentally conservative and religious motivation, his adherence to neo-liberal and essentially Republican capitalist economic strategies, his old-style crusader’s vision of Africa as another culture to be colonised, blimey even his slimy and unapologetic tax-dodging – all that stuff wrapped up in a grounded, inquisitive, even-handed bookful of research.

I’m not knowledgable enough about geopolitics and celebrity charity to assert that Browne is truly even-handed or not. But not only does Browne does give Bono some credit, the footnotes documenting every damming assertion go on for pages and pages…so I am willing to take Browne at his word for now. As Walley says, it’s stuff you knew instinctively already. 

Elliott Prasse-Freeman’s critique in the Los Angeles Review of Books gives a good overview. 

Browne's exegesis is not so much about looking at Bono as it is looking through him — an intervention against an entire type, at what Bono has helped create, forcing us to weigh his useful advocacy (especially around AIDS in Africa) against the symbolic succor he lends to the brutal statesmen and corporations his advocacy work advances.

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Jazz students are advised to seek out the obscure 1980 tract Trane ’n Me by Andrew White III. White typed directly onto his Smith Corona and mimeographed for simple self-production. Kevin Sun found it in NEC library, and his survey helped inspire me to take a look myself. A superb quote by White posted by Dan Voss was also intriguing...

White is still around: While it’s possible someone should really cut a deal and get this invaluable material on Kindle. There’s also a White autobiography and probably also other writings, not to mention the hundreds of transcribed Coltrane and Dolphy solos.

Trane ’n Me records how a talented musician came to terms with John Coltrane’s music while Coltrane was alive and developing. At one point in a club in D.C., Coltrane is watching the band, so White calls “Giant Steps” and proceeds to play first Coltrane’s solo then his own variation. Afterwards Coltrane says, “I see you are playing all those HARD tunes.” 

Probably Andrew White and Shelby Steele wouldn’t agree on everything, but reading White Guilt and Trane ’n Me back to back offered some interesting parallels. I laughed aloud at this section (ellipses are his):

From a sociological point of view I guess you could say that jazz is an art form. You know…It is the largest contribution to the American culture given by Black people…Jazz was created by Black people…The source of Black Afro-American classical music is the mother country: AFRICA….Jazz is the music of Black people which symbolizes the struggle to gain equality and respect from the oppressors who brought us over here on slave ships under horrendous conditions four hundred years ago…send in your $5.00 for this symbolic dashiki made in Taiwan and assembled in Mexico…Stan Getz ain’t black…Neither is Woody Herman…This dashiki and some mind expanding herb will make you play all of the right changes in “Giant Steps” just like Trane, right?….Wrong!

After condemning the record industry as being Caucasian-controlled, Andrew White writes a page suitable for a footnote in Steele’s White Guilt:

The truth of the matter is that art is work. Genius is work. In order for genius to be realized it has to be met with equal matching funds, not from the National Endowment of the Arts but from the minds and backs of all of us. Work. Trane worked.

I wasn’t around Trane that much but I never heard anybody say they saw a halo around his head. 

Let’s get away from successes used as excuses for failure and mediocrity. 

WORK! WORK! WORK!

The only distracting element in Trane ’n Me in some rather exaggerated braggadocio.  Still, White is certainly not wrong to note that Andrew White the Third is a unique personality. I’m going to try to find his autobiography Everybody Loves the Sugar next.

Marc Minsker: "Andrew White, 'Keeper of the Trane,' is a Living Legend Unknown to Many" in CapitalBop

Harrison Wood interviews Andrew White

06/13/2015

 

The Shape of Jazz That Was
Change of Last Century
New York is Past!

Ornette Coleman: Gone but forever remembered.

The best thing I have ever read about him is still one of the earliest pieces, the interview and overview in A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business.

"Ornette Coleman" can be anagrammed thusly:

Tentacle Monroe

Create Melt Noon

Calmer Tone Note

Romance Let Note

Oracle Omen Tent

Locate Term Neon

Nectar Lemon Toe

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Related DTM:

Forms and Sounds (guesswork about the Harmolodic system)

This is Our Mystic (early OC records)

Interview with Charlie Haden

TBP plays Science Fiction (includes analysis of my favorite studio album)

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Apologies, but some time ago I "created" an Ornette Coleman 2048 game.

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The recent lawsuit is infuriating. Mr. Coleman had not been well for some time. Anyone who met him during his sunset years would immediately suspect that New Vocabulary is simply a case of unscrupulous representation. I personally refuse to consider New Vocabulary part of the Coleman canon any more than any other tapes of students hanging out jamming with the generous sage. Period.

Interesting that similar kinds of questions (about the possible intellectual property abuse of mentally infirm master artists) are raised by the forthcoming publication of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman...

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In the Charlie Haden documentary Ramblin' Boy there are a few moments of astonishing footage of the Ornette Coleman quartet with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell from the 1972 European tour. A complete tape of the concert apparently exists. Now that this perfectly unmatched set of interlocking magicians is completely gone, the full video simply must be made available. The human race needs it to survive. 

06/11/2015

 

Hair Color

New DTM page: The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, or, "Take Another Chorus on DB, Josh!"

Good review of the album by Nate Chinen in the NY Times.

Tour starts tonight. Dates copied from TBP website:

June 2015

10 New York, NY -- Highline Ballroom**
11 Albany, NY -- Albany Riverfront Park**
12 Washington, DC -- The Hamilton**
13 Philadelphia, PA -- World Cafe Live**
18 Seattle, WA -- Dimitriou's Jazz Alley**
19 Seattle, WA -- Dimitriou's Jazz Alley**
20 Seattle, WA -- Dimitriou's Jazz Alley**
21 Seattle, WA -- Dimitriou's Jazz Alley**
23 Victoria, BC -- The Victoria Jazz Society**
24 Vancouver, BC -- The Vogue Theatre**
25 Saskatoon, Saskatchewan -- Sasktel Saskatchewan Jazz Festival**
26 Edmonton, Alberta -- Francis Winspear Centre for Music**
28 Montreal, QC -- Maisonneuve Theatre De La Place Des Arts**

July 2015

04 East Sussex, GBR -- Love Supreme Jazz Festival**
04 Penedes, ESP -- Banco Sabadell Vijazz Penedes**
05 Paris, FRA -- Esplanade de la Defense**
06 Copenhagen, DNK -- Kulturhuset Islands Brygge**
07 Stuttgart, DEU -- Jazz Open**
08 Mannheim, DEU -- Enjoy Jazz Summer**
10 Istanbul, TUR -- Istanbul Jazz Festival**
11 Rotterdam, NDL -- North Sea Jazz Festival**
13 Umbria, ITA -- Umbria Jazz Festival**
14 Montreux, CHE -- Molde Jazz**
16 Molde, NOR -- Heineken Jazzaldia**
18 Alicante, ESP -- Fijazz Festival**
20 Albinea, ITA -- Villa Arno**
22 Langnau, CHE -- Langnau Jazz Nights**
24 Fano, ITA -- Corte Malatestiana**
25 San Sebastian, ESP -- Jazzaldia**
27 Marciac, FRA -- Chapiteau de Marciac**

06/10/2015

 

[pause]

IMG_0254

(from W Skyline Parkway in Duluth; click to enlarge)

DTM and my twitter feed is going on a little hiatus; back around June 10, when The Bad Plus Joshua Redman begins a major tour in support of our record on Nonesuch. First hit at the Highline Ballroom; complete tour dates at thebadplus.com

The only other performance I'm doing in NYC in near future is part of Albert "Tootie" Heath's birthday week at Dizzy's Club on Friday June 5. Tootie is 80 on May 31!

More about that and perhaps a few other personal bangles and beads in my newsletter Floyd Camembert Reports. Sign up if you want gig and masterclass notifications directly in your email inbox. The next missive will go out this week. 

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Attribution can be a tricky thing in jazz. One doesn't offhand think of McCoy Tyner as unrecognized, but as far as I know, no jazz critic gave Tyner credit for inventing a language of jazz at the time. To this day, John Coltrane gets all (or at least most) of the credit. 

No reason to take anything away from Mr. Coltrane, of course. Still, when Coltrane got his major new label and contract for Impulse!, conceived of doing a big project with horns and vamps, called it Africa/Brass and hired Eric Dolphy to write the arrangements...

...Coltrane told Dolphy to simply orchestrate Tyner's chords. Dolphy and Tyner sat at the piano together, and Tyner gave Dolphy the information.

Tyner was not credited for the harmonies on the album jacket: he was just listed in the band as pianist, with his name misspelled as McCoy Turner. 

(This double gaffe has since been rectified in more recent reissues.)

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Africa/Brass lurks in the background of any sort of large group Afrocentric jazz featuring modal chords and vamps. The latest take is getting a lot of attention: Kamasi Washington's The Epic.

Indeed, the very first thing we hear at the top of the first tune, "Change of the Guard," is essentially a McCoy Tyner quote. This pianist also gets the first solo. It's burning in full post-McCoy style. Nice work.

Who is the pianist?

Talk about attribution problems! I've seen a lot of press about The Epic, but the other musicians's names are not usually mentioned.

When I bought the album on iTunes, there was no digital booklet. No personnel given. 

Who's the piano player? Nothing on Amazon. Nothing on NPR First Listen. Nothing on Stereogum or Popmatters. (These are the first links that come up on Google.)

I guess according to the label Brainfeeder site, the keyboard player is Brandon Coleman and the pianist is Cameron Graves. Well, Mr. Graves (I hope I have the right name) nice long first solo on the album!

A trumpeter solos next. Good solo. I haven't been able to find out who it is, though.

---

I can understand the appeal of The Epic, there's something that makes it a real "mood" album. Fans and critics are comparing it to hip-hop because of Washington's illustrious associates, but what makes The Epic connected to the current moment isn't the style, which is actually retro (compare, say, Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, Billy Harper or Gary Bartz records from the early 70's), but the production. The tones, the evenness of the tunes, the attitude.

It's quite raw too, which I really appreciate. "Raw" is not at all what I associate with LA jazz normally. Let's hope this marks the beginning of a serious coup from our West Coast brethren. We need the incursion.

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The last album from LA I bought from iTunes was the Whiplash soundtrack. (I hated the music but needed it for the blog.) That did have a digital booklet, but there was no personnel either, probably because the production team wanted to give the impression that Miles Teller was actually playing drums in the movie. (He's not.)

I'm sure Washington's team does not want to be associated with the terrible music of Whiplash in any way. Turn up the light on Kamasi's sidemen. There's enough love to go around.

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Washington and crew may be thinking, "Let's make Kamasi a star first, we can credit everybody else later."

It's never too soon to address a band mentality, because the industry is most interested in stars, even in jazz.

A recent review of The Bad Plus really brings this point home.

It is churlish to complain about praise, but instead of being happy with Tom Moon's assessment of The Bad Plus Joshua Redman at NPR's First Listen, I'm embarrassed.  TBP has fought for fifteen years to be seen as a band of equals. That's what makes TBP work. On this specific project, to cite one relevant piece of information, for Reid Anderson's "As This Moment Slips Away," Dave King's "Beauty Has It Hard," and for that matter for Josh's "Friend or Foe," I play a chart written by the composer with hardly any personal variation. 

Anyway, I see a couple of fans have already offered some intelligent corrections about the article in the comments, which is only correct.

 ---

Moving on: The other CD I've been listening to a lot recently couldn't be more different: Miranda Cuckson's Melting the Darkness. You can read Cuckson's liner notes here, she does a much better job of explaining this music than I could. The one thing I might add is that the emphasis on microtonality gives this ultramodern aesthetic something of a profound lament. I never thought of Iannis Xenakis as a bluesman before, but try the first track, "Mikka S." 

Cuckson has Lutoslawski, Schnittke, and Bartók in the can for ECM with Blair McMillen, a wonderful pianist still a bit underrepresented on record. When that lands I'm going to do something about it for DTM. 

While I'm waiting, I'm planning to see Cuckson perform George Walker's Violin Sonata No. 2 on June 3 with Thomas Sauer. Sauer is to be commended for placing Walker in context with Beethoven for the The Beethoven Institute at Mannes. Both programs look great

(DTM: Interview with George Walker.)

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On DTM since the new year:

Interview no. 2 with Ron Carter

Stravinsky's Rake at Met

Interview with Nicholas Payton

Warne Marsh solo

"Bye-ya" and "Yancey Stomp" transcribed

Genre Work Struggles Towards Illumination

Lawrence Block's The Crimes of Our Lives (in related missives, overview of Thomas Perry for The Life Sentence)

James Bond April Fools' Joke

Huston's Skinner, trucks for crowd control, armament ads

Sviatoslav Richter at 100

The Drum Thing, or, A Brief History of Whiplash, or, "I'm Generalizing Here"

Guest Post by Mark Stryker: "Traps, the Drum Wonder"

A close listen to Clark Terry and Thelonious Monk In Orbit

McCoy Tyner on "Bessie's Blues" transcribed + Thomas Adés

Books about Carl Van Vechten and Joe Wilder

Introduction to Rational Funk

RIP Frankie Dunlop and John Ore

05/20/2015

 

The Face of the Bass

New DTM: Word Association with Ron Carter.

I'm currently going to school playing with Ron at Mezzrow. Last night I greatly satisfied my inner fanboy by taking a photo of Ron with Lawrence Block. (Ron is actually a crime fiction fan and was impressed that Larry came out the last time we played at Mezzrow. "Next time I want to meet him!" Ron told me.)

IMG_0231

The duo gig continues tonight and tomorrow. There might be a few seats left for the second sets; also squeezing into the lounge area for either set may be possible. (Mezzrow.com)

05/15/2015

 

Recent Passings

RIP Ruth Rendell. In her honor, I re-read the classic A Judgement in Stone. Such a terrific book, with suspense that mounts unbearably in unexpected ways. 

There's a 2003 interview with Rendell which sheds light on several interesting details about Stone. The discussion of humor is a surprise, for there's nothing in the thriller which doesn't scan as "creepy" much more than "funny." (At least it seems that way to this American; perhaps if I were British I'd get the jokes.)

Not too long ago I looked at her first, From Doon with Death, and was reminded of how great she was from the very beginning. 

Distinguished colleagues Val McDermid and Peter Robinson offer excellent tributes.

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RIP Jerome Cooper. I listened to some Revolutionary Ensemble this afternoon and was struck by just how fabulous his drums sounded. The other big thing is how swinging Cooper is when confidently delivering the free jazz burn.

The Revolutionary Ensemble was truly composition-oriented. On "Chinese Rock" Cooper plays the melody, then improvises on the theme in precise fashion, then evolves into a fucked-up backbeat. There's no doubt that the legacy of Leroy Jenkins is up for serious re-evaluation. Fascinating music. 

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RIP Bernard Stollman. Of course, ESP was the label for the New Black Music in the 60's. I've seen several valuable obits; Richard Williams's tribute  gives an especially good sense of that label's perennial charisma.

05/11/2015

 

All and Sundry

Happy 70th Birthday Keith Jarrett!

I briefly auditioned the "new" release of Jarrett's live traversal of the Samuel Barber Piano Concerto from 1985. Wow! To me this is obviously now the best classical record in his discography. He's really got enough fire and brimstone technique to deliver this neo-romantic concerto in the grand manner. 

The Bartók Concerto No. 3 is good too, but not as immediately overwhelming. 

Among the other Jarrett classical discs that are worth collecting include a Lou Harrison Piano Concerto that is not just an excellent performance, but also simply an important 20th-century concerto that wouldn't exist without Jarrett's involvement. 

Many admire the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. KJ plays the brisk movements wonderfully but honestly I don't appreciate that cycle so much to begin with. Arvo Pärt's Fratres was singled out to me in conversation with Manfred Eicher as being especially valuable.

At any rate, the brilliance of the Barber brings home that Jarrett does really have a significant legacy as a classical pianist, especially in 20th Century repertoire.

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Jarrett's legacy as an improvising pianist is even more important. Right now I'm listening to Life Between the Exit Signs, his first record and a rather astonishingly advanced and committed manifesto overall.

Not everything Jarrett has tried has worked. The worst Keith is still probably Restoration Ruin, although the "recent" No End is now also worthy contender. Those aren't really jazz albums; from his jazz discography I reject the horrible Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett (except the avant piano solo on "Fortune Smiles") and frankly he's not too swinging with Blakey on Buttercorn Lady either. Still, underestimate Mr. Jarrett at your peril. On YouTube, a bootleg of young KJ essaying "Liza" has to heard to be believed.

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I've interviewed him twice: For the BBC, which is here on DTM, and for DownBeat.

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Speaking of ECM, I'm just back from a brilliant concert by David Torn, who has a new record out and a major American tour. David's like Keith in some ways, a real improvisor, he starts from nothing and just goes. There was some exceptionally lovely touches of blues guitar tonight as well.

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Lotta gigs on! Tomorrow (Saturday) there's not just the Rake I wrote about earlier this week but the estimable Stephen Hough playing Chopin (four Ballades, yum yum) and Debussy at Carnegie. Or go further uptown to the Apollo and catch what Jason Moran and Marc Cary are up to with "Harlem Lights/U Street Nights."

Sunday Darcy James Argue brings his big band Secret Society to the Bell House in Brooklyn. Kind of a must see gig for DJA supporters!  Hard to believe Secret Society is ten years old. Kudos to Darcy for winning some major awards recently; check his site for more

Brad is at the Vanguard; Guillermo gets in next week. Nate Chinen has many more listings. Always go out.

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Matthew Guerrieri writes the most interesting and far-ranging articles: Try the recent epic, Plug and Play.

Megan Abbott and Laura Lippman discuss true crime. 

More soon...

05/08/2015

 

Once a Rake, Always a Rake

Imaginary Rake

Two nights ago Sarah and I went to the Met, where we got rather VIP treatment thanks to Jason Haaheim and Rob Knopper, two of the Met Opera Orchestra percussionists. 

Previously Jason and Rob interviewed me for Met Opera Orchestra blog about TBP playing The Rite of Spring, so it was only appropriate for us all to convene for a viewing of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

There is one more performance of this production on Saturday. Highly recommended.

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The Rake is Stravinsky’s final word on 20th-century neo-classicism, a style which he not only more or less invented but also took to its greatest height. For his only evening-length opera, Stravinsky found an ideal librettist in W.H. Auden, a poet who shared the composer’s love of reinventing the past. Their inspiration was a famous series of images by William Hogarth, and each scene can be viewed as a kind of tableaux, with even less narrative storytelling than in conventional opera.

Earlier compact Stravinskyian fusions of drama, song, and music in Les Noces and Oedipus Rex are undoubtedly more instantly gripping, perhaps because they are less obviously based in pastiche. Still, the Rake really works, especially when seen in the proper high-quality production featured at the Met. (I had seen a concert staging years ago which didn’t leave much of an impression.)

One of my recent obsessions is the meta horror masterpiece Cabin in the Woods. On YouTube, GoodBadFlicks amazes with “Every Reference in Cabin in the Woods.” 

Before the opera I told Sarah that, "The Rake's Progress is Cabin in the Woods."

Perhaps that's not an ideal comparison, but at any rate The Rake’s Progress deserves a through unpacking in the style of GoodBadFlicks. One can tell that Igor had tremendous fun engaging with and dismantling the whole opera playbook. Some borrowings are totally obvious: Monteverdi overtures, Handel continuo, Mozart counterpoint, Bellini melody. Past the surface, I suspect that there is hardly a note in The Rake that doesn’t exist without a direct antecedent somewhere. 

It still all sounds just like Stravinsky, of course. His plunderings are not insincere, although naturally they are frequently sardonic. (I like to imagine some early conductor's face when he realizes he has to cue a harpsichord continuo in a work of Grand Opera.) In the end, though, the effect is heartfelt. Indeed, the most amusing ironies offset the generally downbeat emotions to the furtherance of both. 

Not long ago I attended Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle at the Met. This was a monochromatic nightmare, with the only relief being a stage set that seemed lifted out of a classic Hitchcock movie. At some point there was no way to feel worse, so the result became a bit tiresome.

In the Rake, after so much bright chatter, the concluding lost arias in the insane asylum had  bizarre gravitas, a feeling that somehow carried over into the coda, where the cast cheekily breaks the fourth wall and offers up an unconvincing moral. I felt sadder at the end of the Rake then at the end of Bluebeard. If you aren’t crying at the end of an opera, they are doing it wrong.

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I don’t want to embarrass myself by attempting to review opera singers, but an obvious standout in this production is Stephanie Blythe as the outsize and hilarious Baba the Turk. Gerald Finley's menacing Shadow was also fabulous. James Levine is one of the most celebrated opera conductors, and the sounds from the pit were at times truly exquisite.

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Afterwards, Jason and Rob took us around the building. We only saw a fraction of the small city, which is six floors and on the busiest days employ 4000 people. 

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 (Jason, Sarah, and Rob at the poker game in the musician's quarters, which has been ongoing for nearly a century)

Continue reading "Once a Rake, Always a Rake"

05/06/2015

 

The Last Echo of Jazz in the Hip-Hop Age

Sarah Deming brilliantly reviews the Floyd Mayweather win: "Those of us who wallow daily in boxing’s grime understand that Mayweather does not make art for the masses. "

05/04/2015

 

The Penchant and the Style and the Swagger

New DTM page: Interview with Nicholas Payton.

Thanks to Kevin Sun for transcribing the interview. Kevin has been putting serious work into his blog, with transcriptions going up almost daily. At this point A Horizontal Search is really one of the best jazz resources on the internet.

Thanks also to Noah Baerman, who is mentioned in the Payton interview. I met Noah at a gig in Hartford recently, where he gave me a mix CD of James Williams. I have never really dug into Williams's music before, so getting a "best of" collection curated by an informed listener was a real gift. Baerman's mix emphasized the gospel side of James Williams, and all at once I understood the late pianist much better. 

Noah also has a valuable blog finally just added to the DTM roll.

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Unfortunately, it's also time to link to another important Ta-Nehisi Coates essay, "Nonviolence as Compliance," about the rioting in Baltimore last night. 

04/28/2015

 

MMDG at BAM

Just back from the dance. Wonderful as always, I especially enjoyed the  mysterious new piece Whelm set to Debussy.

TBP plays Rite of Spring for Mark Morris's Spring, Spring, Spring performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group at the Brooklyn Academy of Music tomorrow, Saturday, and Sunday matinee. The other two dances are also really great: Crosswalk is a story ballet of sorts, and Jenn and Spencer is an intense duet to amazing Henry Cowell music. 

Nice preview in NY Times by Marina Harss, I'm quoted a little bit.

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My newsletter Floyd Camembert Reports is talkier and more personal than DTM. DTM really feels like a magazine these days, so, the end of the year, I hope to have all personal business (gigs, workshops, anecdotes) just delivered to the inboxes of the interested. Sign up if you want that kind of spam.

True story from last newsletter:

During the 90’s I worked frequently as a dance class accompanist. Eventually I ended up trying out for Mark Morris. Mark is easy to play class for: he’s very energetic and fun, and all of the Morris dancers have good rhythm. 

Eventually Mark asked me to be the rehearsal pianist for a full Morris production of Rameau’s Plateé. I’d never done anything like that but how hard could it be? Just read a few bars of baroque music over and over at a time, right?

At the first rehearsal, nothing much happened except Mark playing everybody the complete opera on the stereo. It was nice music, and I followed along with the score, relieved that it wasn’t going to be too hard. 

To my surprise, when I checked something against the piano, the record’s A was more like an A flat on the piano. I had heard that baroque performance used a lower tuning than modern A=440, but this was my first time encountering it in a professional situation. 

At the end, I went up to ask Mark about the discrepancy between piano and the recording. He was changing, and I accidentally caught him right in between dance clothes and street clothes. Indeed, he was entirely naked when he got interested in my question, stopped doing anything else, and offered a learned and extended disquisition on 440, 415, and the varieties of contemporary interpretation of baroque pitch. 

I listened carefully, and at the end said, “You know, Mark, I’ve never discussed intonation with a naked man before.” 

Mark gave me a wicked grin and replied, “Stick around, baby!”

Which I did: Not long after the premiere of Plateé, I became Mark’s music director for over five years.

04/22/2015

 

The Life Sentence + Threepenny Review

A new e-magazine for crime fiction fans is now live: The Life Sentence

I have contributed a long essay on one of my very favorite living thriller writers, "The Professional (Thomas Perry 101)." It starts out as a review of the latest, A String of Beads, before extending into an overview of the complete Perry. 

Also recommended is the review of the reissue of GBH by Brian Greene. I'm a big Ted Lewis fan but haven't been able to run down a copy of GBH yet: How terrific it is coming back into print.

My excellent editor of the Perry overview is Lisa Levy, and she interviews not just the well-established and brilliant Laura Lippman but also newer voice Bill Loehfelm

I was very impressed with Loehfelm's latest, Doing The Devil's Work, a police procedural set in New Orleans. The female cop is believable and the political intrigue owes something to The Wire. For a time, all crime fiction was post-Tarantino. Now much of it is post-Simon. This only makes sense. Kudos to Loehfelm, I'm going to catch up on his earlier books soon.

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Belatedly, here's a link to my review of Peter Sellars's St. Matthew Passion at the Armory last year. This little bon-bon was part of several pieces on this much-lauded staging commissioned by Wendy Lesser for The Threepenny Review. Also online is Mark Padmore's wonderful contribution. (Of course, Padmore was the star as the Evangelist.)

The Threepenny is a terrific literary mag, definitely check it out if you have a committed interest in the arts. Wendy has great taste in all sorts of fields; try her essay on Isaac Asimov.

04/21/2015

 

Validated

Bill McHenry was the first one to play me this solo years ago. It was a blindfold test, and I hadn't heard much Warne Marsh yet, so I guessed "George Garzone." That's a stupid guess, but there can be something rather post-Coltrane (and therefore Garzone-esque) about later Marsh, simply in terms of notes per square inch.

At any rate it still is a hell of a blindfold test. Hell of a solo, too. With Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, bass and Alan Levitt, drums, from a studio session in Copenhagen unissued until 1997. 

Marsh is getting better known every year, it seems. I wish had been aware of more about him when younger but I just wasn't hip.

If we paged though the jazz journals of the mid-'70s there probably wouldn't be much acknowledgement Marsh's genius. That's understandable, given that Marsh never had a steady good band and seldom made excellent career choices overall. Still, they missed it. We missed it. Listen to this.

  Warne Confirmation 1

 

Warne Confirmation 2

Warne Marsh on Confirmation


04/20/2015