New News

The latest Floyd Camembert Reports just went out, including notes on upcoming gigs with John Raymond and Seamus Blake/Chris Cheek. There's also a bit about Going Clear by Lawrence Wright and my own tale of working with Scientologists in the early '90s. I got a personal letter from Chick Corea. (True story!)

Sign up here, I'll make sure you get a copy in the next day or so. 

03/26/2015

 

Espionage Encyclopedia

Yesterday I blogged about Skinner by Charlie Huston. In the very first chapter, Huston references Eric Ambler, which informs the reader that this is going to be a thriller with a political theme. It's a nice touch. (DTM: Come Out of the Darkness Into the Light of Day.)

I've now just finished the brand new All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer. Early on, a lead character is next to a woman reading Len Deighton on a plane. Steinhauer's plot is not really that much like Deighton's Berlin Game, but there are some related ideas including a romance/espionage partnership and a key airport crisis. Even chatting with someone on plane who gives up information is rather Deighton-ish. On the other hand, the last page is pure Le Carré.

Good work from Steinhauer. I've read the Tourist trilogy and found the characters more interesting than the Jason Bourne "badass assassin" playbook. With All the Old Knives there are no action heroes in sight, and the book is all the better for it. Highly recommended for espionage buffs. 

Hope the movie will be good too.

03/25/2015

 

Crowd Control

I’ve just reread Skinner by Charlie Huston. It remains one of my favorite thrillers of recent years. Although the book ends up being a powerful warning about the current condition, along the way the reader enjoys varied vicarious thrills including much current technology: drone quadcopters, plastic guns manufactured by 3D printers, mobile robot surveillance spiders.

During an energy conference in Sweden, angry protesters confront something new on four wheels: 

A new siren rises and fills the square, bounding off the faces of the tall buildings. A warning that something large and powerful is coming. At the far end of the square the police line splits open and a towering blue and high-viz truck, unholy product of a mating between a double-decker bus and a fully armored Humvee, rolls through, two water cannons above a high cab, windows covered by steel screens, a broad cow catcher mounted up front. 

I sort of blew by that passage the first time, but on the second go I stopped and thought for a moment, then hit google. 

Yeah. There it is, a Carat Big Bear

Bigbear-3

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There's a strange subset of YouTube videos: arms manufacturers's advertisements. 

Carat has one for their armed Unimog.

Don't see Carat's armored water cannons there, but Alpine Armoring and IAG have you covered.

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When flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, one of the logical questions was, "What was the gear?" Investigators decided it was a Buk SA-11 missile.

On YouTube, there was already a rockin' video of the missile system in action. It's not totally clear to me if this video is an ad created by the company or simply the work of a rabid fan. At any rate the manufacturer is easy enough to find: Almaz - Antey, who have the slogan, "High Technologies Safeguarding Peaceful Skies."

After MH17, I'm sure the military leaders of every country watched the YouTube video and picked up the phone to call Almaz - Antey. High-tech armament is notoriously fussy and unreliable, but now there was proof that the Buk SA-11 was a solid investment.

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CNN anchor Rosemary Church was first criticized then fired for suggesting the use of water cannons in Ferguson. But what was used eventually was even more shocking. Questions were asked everywhere about the high-tech military gear. Where the heck did all that stuff even come from, anyway?

The answer was Homeland Security grants and the Defense Department's 1033 program. If you are a small-time small town police chief, don't worry, you can still afford fun toys!

Newsweek: "How America's police became an army"

"The Pentagon finally details its Weapons for Cops giveaway" at the Marshall Project.

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I've spent some time reading about Bozeman's debate about their new BearCat. They are keeping it, unfortunately: Apparently the tearful pleas from the cop's wives at the town hall meeting sealed the deal. 

Bearcat

Before the vote went down, Blake Maxwell at the Bozeman Magpie offered some clear-eyed commentary on what this kind of machine means for communities. I particularly admire Maxwell's lead paragraph about the word "rescue." (That word is painted on the side of Bozeman's BearCat above. Photo stolen from Bozeman Daily Chronicle.) 

The prevalent usage of rescue in the media now is lipstick on a warhorse, just 11th-hour spin, and the city manager’s unflagging repetition of it has become an insult to our intelligence. The BearCat has a turret and at least 10 different “gun ports.” This vehicle wasn’t designed for handing out medical supplies or basic human necessities; it was built for killing.

03/24/2015

 

Richter at 100

At the masterclass with Ron Carter yesterday in Hartford, I mentioned the Sviatoslav Richter centennial, saying something the effect that Richter may have been the greatest 20th-century classical pianist. Ron interrupted me right away: "Yeah, but don't forget Walter Gieseking."

Fair enough. There are lots of wonderful classical pianists. Comparing them is usually pointless. I respect anybody who is genuinely competent in that esoteric profession.

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Still, something about Richter sticks out. After Ron's interjection, I've been mulling over why I think Richter is so great. 

My conclusion is rather obvious: Richter was of his time. He was 20th-century. He was an unrepentant modernist. 

Everything that Richter played was informed by world war, by atonality, by Freud, by airplane travel, by recorded sound. The horrors and delights of his era were always present.

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The vast Richter discography is complicated further by multiple versions of key pieces. One would need an extra lifetime to study the complete Richter on CD.

Off the top of my head, a selection of personal favorites:

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Bach. From WTC II, the A minor prelude and fugue from the Phillips studio set. The prelude is somber (his teacher Heinrich Neuhaus suggested that especially chromatic Bach be played "without tone"), the crucifixion fugue strikes like a bolt of lightning.

Handel. Richter mentored several young musicians. When he got interested in the young and brilliant Andrei Gavrilov, Richter had them alternate on Handel suites. Nobody plays these suites on piano much - harpsichordists have a better chance - but hearing them as tag-team performance art makes them more accessible. On video, Richter starts the familiar "Harmonious Blacksmith" with the loudest, ugliest, longest low E imaginable. Before continuing, he stares at Gavrilov, who looks around the room in an unconcerned or even dour fashion. Russian modernist art, via Handel.

Mozart. Nope. Hard to "take over" Mozart. He doesn't fight back, so you've got to enter that space with grace. Surely there's a decent Richter Mozart track somewhere, though.

Haydn. The G minor sonata, Hob.XVI:44, is rendered with existential sadness. (Early 60s DG.) 

Beethoven. A key composer for Richter. It's all great. My offhand selection is a less-familiar sonata, the two-movement Op. 54 in F major on EMI. The opening minuet has gleaming sonority and ornamentation. Perhaps the octave outbursts are almost too loud, but that's Richter for you. The answering toccata goes like the wind. A perfect work and perfect for Richter.

Since Ludvig was so important to Slava, I'll offer one more: the live Diabelli Variations on Phillips, rather late, I think 1980's. Even the out-of-tune piano seems to play a part in declaiming a passionate message. This was my first Richter record and my first Diabelli; frankly I find almost everyone else pretty boring.

Weber. I believe Horowitz was the one who started the fashion of looking for classical-era pieces by Clementi and other minor composers. Not to be outdone, Emil Gilels played some Clementi better than Horowitz and also added Weber's second sonata. Richter's retaliated by unearthing the Weber third. It's a powerful enough work, especially under Richter's strong hands. The point is clear: If we listen to Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, we should listen to Clementi, Weber, Dussek, Hummel, and Czerny as well. 

Schubert. Richter may still be somewhat controversial in long sonatas where he takes unusually slow tempos. I understand the objection; frankly I'd usually rather relax with Clifford Curzon or Wilhelm Kempff myself. On the studio recording of the intimate Allegretto in C minor D915, Richter's speed is more "Largo" than "Allegretto" but the emotion is starkly compelling. I'm not so sure of Schubert's awkward counterpoint in the brief canonic section, but if you can hear it "à la Shostakovich" that certainly helps! 

Chopin. Richter played lots of Chopin but for me it can be like his Mozart, either too brutal or too straight. In the centennial celebrations I have seen several mentions of his performances of Chopin Ballades. This surprises me, I will have to go back and re-listen.

My Richter Chopin selection is an obvious one: On the essential documentary Richter the Enigma the only complete performances are of Chopin études. The earlier performance of the C sharp minor Op. 10 is white heat. Chopin would have been astonished to hear the 20th century in action with all of its brutal power. The later era étude is the "Winter Wind" in A minor. Here we can see the ultimate professional: An old man who has played thousands of recitals casually sits down and delivers this classic fingerbuster.

Schumann. One of the great LPs in my collection is the recital of César Franck and Robert Schumann on Monitor. I believe Schumann's Humoreske was barely played until Richter discovered it for modern audiences. You want to talk about your modernist pieces! The Humoreske doesn't make sense unless you have a grotesque, occasionally almost military aesthetic. The rhythms are also exceedingly complex and a technical challenges formidable. Richter solves all interpretive issues.

Brahms. The pianist didn't like his recording of the Second Piano Concerto with Leinsdorf in Boston. It's true that there are some really notable finger slips. However, like so many others, I am bowled over by the recording's raw passion. The first two moments are especially marvelous.

Liszt. The Liszt selection is obvious, the étude "Feux Follets" from at the legendary Sofia recital from 1958. It's not just the speed, it's the sonority which is so magical. 

Franck. From the Monitor LP mentioned earlier, Prelude, Chorale and Fugue is the dead intersection between German and French music. There's a whiff of the sentimental and the falsely religious about this work, something like Busoni's plumped up transcriptions of Bach. However I never have a problem with this aesthetic if a truly great pianist is in residence. I can't imagine anyone playing this work better than Slava does here.

Debussy. Again for me an obvious choice: Estampes, the live recording from early 60s on DG. Somehow the piano sounds just like the gamelan Debussy was inspired by. 

Hindemith. Apparently the composer himself didn't think much of his Suite 1922. I don't know why: For me, it's his best piano piece. I admit I am probably influenced by Richter's phenomenal recording from late in life. He beats the piano into submission but in this context that is perfectly okay.

Tchaikovsky. Mussorgsky. Scriabin. Prokofiev. Shostakovich. Stravinsky. Rachmaninoff.  Richter's performances of composers from his homeland have special merit. 

Tchaikovsky's solo piano music is frequently trivial; however, the Grand Sonata in G becomes a major work in Richter's hands. 

Mussorgsky's Pictures of An Exhibition from the 1958 Sofia recital is Richter 101, frequently showing up on lists of "the best piano records ever made."  

I don't know Slava's many famous Scriabin recordings as well as I should. These days when I listen to Scriabin, I'm probably listening to Sofroninsky. One hopes that the familiar anecdote is true: When the pianists met, Sofroninsky greeted the other, "Genius!" to which Richter shot back, "God!"

Richter knew both Shostakovich and Prokofiev and his biography is often focused on those associations.

While not so familiar with either of these composers nor Richter's contribution to their discographies, I am impressed with the Shostakovich Piano Quintet which shows Richter's sublime abilities as a chamber musician. The insane brilliance of the Prokofiev Second Sonata is also inarguable.

Prokofiev 2 was composed just before Richter was born. Its mechanized ironies are totally of the 20th century, and was totally understood by the pianist when he learned it a couple of decades later. This aesthetic was Richter's birthright.

As significant as Shostakovich and Prokofiev are as composers, something else may have been even more important to the young Slava than the music itself: Actually working with great composers, seeing how they made new music that related intimately to current events. Richter somehow took that attitude along when exploring the whole history of piano repertoire, making everything he touched modern, exciting, and sad. 

Richter didn't record much Stravinsky. The most intriguing item is the piano concerto Movements. This is arguably Stravinsky's most recondite piece, and it shows just how curious Richter was about everything that he gave this unfriendly beast a try.

I want to conclude on an up note, so let's end with Rachmaninoff. 

In general Richter was an ideal Rachmaninoff interpreter. It would be hard to make a list of recommended Rachmaninoff recordings without Richter in there somewhere.

Was Rachmaninoff a truly great composer? I'm not sure; many others wonder this question as well. But perhaps because Rach always isn't the very best music, there is extra room for re-creative genius to take over and deliver a melding of composer and interpreter.

The collection of Preludes and Etudes-Tableux on Olympia from 1971 and 1983 is essential for any piano library. Four tracks come to mind right away: The heraldic B-flat major, the proto-Prokofiev F sharp minor, the Tolstoy carriage of B minor, and the Etude 7 in C minor, the one that unleashes a great torrent of bells near the end. The bells seem joyous at first, but then it becomes clear that happiness will be denied. The bells mark the passage of time, and mourn both the loss of old Russia and the birth of the 20th century.

03/21/2015

 

Donna and Marta

So much going on...I meant to include these last night on DTM.

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Donna Lewis, major pop star and singer/songwriter, has a new album out Brand New Day with Reid, Dave and me. It's produced by David Torn, who also wrote the arrangements, which is why we aren't calling ourselves TBP for this one -- it can't really be TBP if I'm playing someone else's piano parts, as cool as Torn's are! 

Donna and David were a dream to work with, and the resulting album is also dreamy to listen to. I brought it over to some friends for a listen and they went crazy for it. I suspect it will do very well indeed. If you are a collector of all things Iversonian, this is your chance to hear me as a pop pianist. I'm not gonna replace Rick Wakeman or Mike Garson on a list of major figures, but I admit it's got an interesting feel.

I always count my blessings to be associated with Reid Anderson and David King, and they really sound great on this record, too. Wow. A deep pocket.

Thanks Donna for giving us this opportunity! See you on the Grammys or something.

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Speaking of Reid, I was reminded of our long history with Spain when Marta Sanchez asked me to write the liner notes for her new album Partenika. While listening, I flashed back to all the music I'd played or heard connected to Fresh Sound/New Talent records. One of the best is surely Reid's The Vastness of Space. Just like Vastness, Partenika has two intertwining saxophones. 

I wrote in the notes:

Indeed, Sanchez’s music, while undeniably personal, stems directly out of a lot of the Spanish/New York music documented on Fresh Sound in recent decades. Thanks not just to Marta Sanchez and band for the sounds, but also to Jordi Pujol for documenting this vital evolution. 

Marta's group plays tonight at Jazz Gallery for the record release show. The band is:

Roman Filiu – Alto Saxophone
Jerome Sabbagh – Tenor Saxophone
Marta Sanchez – Piano
Matt Brewer - Bass
Jason Burger - Drums

03/12/2015

 

The Eyes Have It

My god, what are those first three guitar chords at the top of "I Only Have Eyes For You" by The Flamingos? That's so my kind of music.

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Jaleel Shaw has stepped up his game further with a long and exceptionally valuable post, "Black History, Black Culture, Black Audiences, Black Lives." In our Twitter convo, I suggested, "It is really time to air some of this stuff out," to which Jaleel responded, "Definitely. I agree."

The Whiplash page is updated with a link to Jaleel's post. Very special thanks to Jaleel Shaw for this contribution.

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Miles Okazaki has just published a book, Fundamentals of Guitar. If I was a guitar player I'd certainly be immersed. Miles is brilliant and far-reaching, ancient to the future.

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Sarah Deming wrote a humorous story from our marriage for The Threepenny Review, "Dirty Laundry." Uh oh.

03/11/2015

 

Spinning Wheel

RIP Lew Soloff. One of my first CDs ever was Speak Low, a (currently rather rare) straight-ahead set with Kenny Kirkland, Richard Davis, and Elvin Jones. Clips of this quintessentially late-'80s date can still be heard on the late trumpeter's website.

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Happy 85 years to Ornette Coleman. A few years ago I played around with anagramming the master's name:

Tentacle Monroe

Create Melt Noon

Calmer Tone Note

Romance Let Note

Oracle Omen Tent

Locate Term Neon

Nectar Lemon Toe

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More Drum Thing: Writing for the internet can always be enhanced by feedback.  The great saxophonist Jaleel Shaw weighed in. I've added to post,  but also here 'tis, so you don't need to scroll down on the big page....

UPDATE 2: Jaleel Shaw (jaleelshaw.com) offered some penetrating commentary on Twitter; with his blessing I'm reproducing it here. 

I read your post on Whiplash. Just wanted to address the part about "black intelligentsia not being interested"

For one, I think we have to remember there was a time when blacks couldn't use the same entrance to clubs as whites

If a club told me I had to use a separate entrance, I still wouldn't want to go to that club once things changed.

We also have to remember that there used to be clubs in black communities (like Harlem) that blacks went to & even owned...

Of many things that have changed, It's very clear that there aren't many "jazz" clubs in black communities any more.

We also have to consider education. I never learned about "jazz" or anything that had to do with my culture in grade school.

Luckily I had a mother that was into this music & exposed me to it & other styles of music at a young age.

In school, the learned about Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.

I love Bach, but looking back, I wonder why I wasn't taught about Bird, Ellington, & other American musicians in school.

I was a music ed. major at Berklee. When I went to do my student teaching I noticed the urban schools had no music classes.

Meanwhile, the suburban schools were learning all about Ellington, Monk, Armstrong and other American musicians/composers

Almost of of the suburban schools I visited didn't have many if any black students. The urban schools were all black.

I can't say this is exactly why "many in the black intelligentsia aren't interested" in jazz, but I think it's beyond a start.

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Most of the responses that I know of concerning "The Drum Thing" have been positive. However, the Organissimo forum was strongly critical, and I responded a bit to their comments. I haven't changed my mind, but I don't claim to know all the answers, and perhaps in the future I'll mellow out on this topic.

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Thanks to Tootie Heath for memorable week in NYC. At the masterclass on Saturday, fellow drummers Hyland Harris and Joey Baron posed for a photo that shows just how serious jazz drumming really is:

IMG_0008

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Lotta stuff coming up. Sign up for the newsletter if you want info: the second letter is getting mailed out tomorrow morning. 

03/09/2015

 

More Whiplash

It's hard to get everything right in a big DTM post. I need an intern to double-check facts and figures! Anyway, if you only saw "The Drum Thing" in the first 30 minutes, it's been since updated slightly thanks to minor corrections by Jason Gutharz, Miles Okazaki, Darcy James Argue, Noah Baerman and Dan Tepfer. Thanks readers!

At the end, there is a substantial addition. Here 'tis, so you don't need to scoll down on the big page:

UPDATE: In the wake of this post, I received the following email from Russell Scarbrough with many more interesting details about Hank Levy, "Whiplash," and Buddy Rich. Russell agreed to let me post it here. http://www.russellscarbrough.com/

Hi Ethan,

This whole Whiplash thing has brought back a lot of memories!

Hank Levy was a very inspiring, gentle guy, so very much different than the guy in the movie. He was very well known in jazz ed circles in the 70's & 80's through his association with Stan Kenton & Don Ellis, but not much of a self-promoter, so a lot of the things he was into just sort of disappeared.

I studied composition with Hank at Towson State from '90-'94, and played in the band there the whole time. We played only his charts (which we all loved). Many were the odd-meter charts he wrote for Ellis and Kenton - which is what he's known for almost exclusively - but he also had tons of quite innovative arrangements of standards which are practically unknown.

Quite a bit of the rock-oriented stuff those bands were doing (including Buddy, Kenton, Ellis, as well as Woody Herman, et al) were at the very strong suggestion of their management and record labels. Don Ellis's Connection album, for instance, was really a scandal among the arrangers who all felt strong-armed into doing assigned pop charts. For a time, they also thought odd meters were the way everything was going to go, so Buddy's management thought he should get some of that. So some calls were made, and Hank was asked to write something for Buddy's band.

Hank came up with a chart in 7/4 called "Ven-Zu-Wailin", an Afro-Cuban kind of tune, and sent it out to LA. The story goes that Buddy didn't really read charts. When a new arrangement came along, Buddy hired a session drummer to read down the chart in rehearsal with the band while he listened, then he would take over and he'd have it memorized (so the story goes).

Apparently this time (late 60's), the session drummer couldn't really get the feel, and the figures and set-ups were all over the place, and it just wasn't working. The record company guys were there (guess they wanted to record soon), and Buddy tries to play it anyway, and he doesn't get the feel either. So in a rage, he grabs the chart off the stand and flings it across the room and lets it be known what he thinks about odd meters (your imagination can fill in the blanks there).

So whenever I showed up for lessons with Hank, I would see the framed letter up on the wall of his office on Pacific Jazz letterhead, saying we're so sorry, but "Ven-Zu-Wailin" was "a little too different" for Buddy and the band, and they were returning the chart, we hope you find a good home for it, sincerest apologies, etc. And this crumpled-up chart came in the package with it. Hank LOVED that story.

Too bad, cause that probably would have sounded great. Hank later re-wrote in 4/4 and we recorded it - it was a burning chart.

We did play "Whiplash" all the time with Hank. It was one of the best-recorded charts of his, and Ralph Humphrey had a lot to do with that, but Ellis's band in general was much better on Hank's tunes than the Kenton band, which was frankly terrible (except when Peter Erskine was in the band). I haven't seen the movie to know if they played it, but the back half of that chart is written in 14/8, because the subdivision is 223322 - a really nice-feeling pattern that Hank said explicitly came from Bulgarian music, and which he used fairly often. Those different subdivisions of the asymmetrical meters are what has been lost lately outside of world music stuff, but Hank and Ellis were very interested in that. A lot of their most interesting experiments in that were never recorded, but we did some of those things - big band charts with 2 drum sets playing in different subdivisions at the same time, for instance.

We also played a lot of straight-ahead swinging in 5, 7, and other asymmetrical meters. Not 5/4 as in the "waltz+2" feel of "Take Five," but just 5-on-the-floor swinging. Hank's "Chain Reaction" for Ellis has a blistering straight-ahead 13 section for pianist Milcho Leviev to blow over (not long enough, but enough to prove that it can be done, and done well). He also had a few things that were overt homages to the Basie style, but in 5/4. I don't hear much of that kind of thing lately, though in some quarters odd meters are otherwise ubiquitous.

In regards to the substance of your post, it would be an interesting comparison to look at the elaborate "drum routines" of the Don Ellis band, which were virtuosic for sure, vs the vaudeville-like solos of Rich. Personally I find Rich's solos repetitive and hackneyed at best, and a true annoyance at worst. On the Roar of '74 album, which is a fantastic band playing really great arrangements, he basically plays a drum solo throughout every every tune, even where the charts have space to breathe built in - he just bashes right through. And then plays another solo at the end. If you ever want to see Bill Holman roll his eyes and shake his head ruefully, ask him about the charts he sent Buddy, and how they turned out on the record.

The genius of Mel Lewis is the perfect antidote to Rich-ophilia. 

Best Regards,
Russell Scarbrough

03/04/2015

 

Blood on the Drums

New DTM pages:

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

and a guest post by Mark Stryker,

Traps, the Drum Wonder.

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Reminder, sign up for Floyd Camembert Reports if you want Iversonian spam about gigs etc. 

Tootie Heath w. Ben and me at Vanguard this week and Philadelphia Beat (nice NY Times review with amusing photo). Webpage update with other photos and Hyland Harris commentary.  Also Tootie's masterclass on Saturday. (Details below)

03/02/2015

 

Floyd Camembert Reports
(Moving to Email Newsletter)

Aw, what a nice thing Tim Wilkins has written about Philadelphia Beat for WBGO, where you can stream tracks as well. Damn. "Bag's Groove" sounds pretty good even if I say so myself.

Tootie Heath DTM page updated with Beat photos and extraordinary commentary by Hyland Harris.

The band is at the Vanguard next week. And:

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Tootie Heath will be giving a 3-hour masterclass for drummers and other observers Saturday, March 7 from 2 to 5 PM at:

“The Drawing Room”

56 Willoughby St. #3

btw Jay and Lawrence St. in downtown Brooklyn. Almost every subway train gets extremely close: Borough Hall for 4/5, Hoyt St for 2/3, Jay St for A/C/F…the very closest stop is Lawrence on R.

$20. The money goes straight to Tootie.

Ben and I will be on hand to play with Tootie a bit and perhaps play with others, depending on what Tootie wants to do. He may offer a 30-minute "history of the drums" he's been working on as well.

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If you can't get enough Iversonian gig notifications, sign up for my new TinyLetter newsletter, called Floyd Camembert reports.  I will try to keep most of that stuff off the blog. 

Especially students wanting to know about the masterclasses etc.: y'all should sign up, that will be my way of communicating.

Further details in the newsletter in re: 

Upcoming gigs in spring/summer 2015:

The Bad Plus Joshua Redman

The Bad Plus plays Science Fiction with Tim Berne, Ron Miles, and Sam Newsome

TBP with Mark Morris Dance Group at BAM: the Rite of Spring (Morris dance is called “Spring, Spring, Spring”)

Duo with Ron Carter 

Duo with Seamus Blake

Trio with Tootie Heath and Ben Street

Tootie Masterclass!

My own lame (but free) masterclasses

Billy Hart Quartet with Ben Street and Mark Turner

Iverson solo piano score for Dance Heginbotham: “Easy Win”

Solo piano night at the Village Vanguard, curated by Jason Moran, w. Kenny Barron, Stanley Cowell, Fred Hersch

Four nights of “Lounge piano” at SF JAZZ

CDs about to come out:

Tootie Heath Philadelphia Beat  (with extensive booklet including new and vintage photos)

The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (on Nonesuch, this is a big one for us)

Donna Lewis Brand New Day (Yes, the singer-songwriter/pop star. With Reid and Dave and produced by David Torn)

Forthcoming essays: 

A new website for crime fiction, The Life Sentence, is about to debut: it will include my review of Thomas Perry’s latest book, A String of Beads (and overview of the complete Perry canon).

A roundtable in The Threepenny Review about Peter Sellars’s St. Matthew Passion at the Armory.

Again, subscribe here, initial missive coming in a few days.

02/24/2015

 

In Orbit

Rest in Peace, Clark Terry.

NY Times obit by Peter Keepnews

Peter Hum's comments and links

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In May 1958 Clark Terry went into the studio with Thelonious Monk, Sam Jones, and Philly Joe Jones for Orrin Keepnews and Riverside Records. The resulting album, In Orbit, is almost certainly Terry's best known as a leader, simply because Monk is such a giant and there are so few documents of Monk as a sideman.

Even though it is famous, In Orbit probably isn't Terry's finest personal showcase. Recordings with Oscar Peterson or Bob Brookmeyer or some of the Ellingtonians might offer a better example of Terry's bluesy insouciance in full unfettered effect.

It's not that Terry isn't great on In Orbit. But he's leading a quartet date of conventional tunes, and look who he's got on piano! Monk always remakes the jazz at hand into his own image. There’s seldom much room for anything in the frame but “MONK” when he’s around.

It would be one thing if Terry had played a bunch of Monk tunes or repertoire specially tailored for the date. Instead the set list is essentially what Terry would play with anybody. If In Orbit has classic status, that status is testament to Terry's grace under pressure.

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"In Orbit" Appropriately enough, the album begins with an abstract fanfare: Piano, flugelhorn, and bass all emit bizarre thumps before Philly Joe plays a fast two-bar break. That drum break is easy to follow, but only Sam and Terry come in correctly with Philly Joe on "4." Monk (rather unmusically) thunks on the following "1" instead. It's probably not an accident: Monk refuses to play that hard-bop “4” hit throughout the head in and the head out. (Philly Joe is there every time.)

The changes of "A" are what I think of as "Perdido" changes, although "Perdido" was surely not the first iteration of these fairly basic moves. “Argentina” on this album is also "Perdido" changes, so this progression was clearly on Terry’s mind.

When Terry blows, he confidently bops his way through the fleet tempo.

Monk isn’t quite as comfortable. Indeed, might this be the fastest BPM we’ve ever heard from the High Priest? Even though it’s not his usual turf Monk is coherent enough when connecting Harlem Stride and whole tone patterns at speed.

However, it gets a little weird when Monk comps so little during the trades. In my opinion, too much of In Orbit is a trio of flugelhorn, bass and drums. Shouldn’t the piano back Terry when trading with Philly Joe? The second chorus of trades is better but there are still holes. The last melody statement is pretty empty as well. It’s not clear whether Monk is being deliberate with a certain sparse aesthetic or just doesn’t have his head fully in the game.

“One Foot in the Gutter” Terry gets to lay his trademark talking gutbucket on us during this bluesy AABA song in F.

Monk is really amusing during the "waltz" bridge. The bridge changes are:

G-/ C7/ F/ F7
Bb/ B dim/ G7/ C7

At first glance, this seems fine...But when you look closer, there’s something that isn’t totally unforced: B diminished going to G7.

Monk must agree, because he steadfastly avoids that G7, no matter what. After B diminished, his hands close naturally on F second inversion instead.

Unfortunately Terry’s tune highlights the G7 with a sustained B natural in the melody before going to a syncopated hit on the upbeat of C7. Sam and Philly Joe try to honor the chart but Monk doesn’t care. He isn’t gonna play that G7. Fuck that G7.

Monk’s authoritative comping makes anything sound cool, even when “wrong,” so the first three choruses - melody, Terry solo, Monk solo - skate the debated moment smoothly enough. But when Terry comes back for more, Monk stops playing nice. Monk refuses to play the bridge at all. Instead of a "B," Monk just plays “A” again. Terry’s second go becomes four “A’s” in a row. Wow!

Terry retires to think this over, during which Sam gets a shot, who gamely outlines the “correct” changes on the bridge. (Monk is utterly silent.) Kind of a long song at this point. Terry takes it home from “B,”  still without a G7 from Monk of course.

No second take! Apparently they all thought, “OK, that was cool, time for the next number.” And it is cool: swinging jazz, the truth of the blues, warts and all.

Monk’s mischief may be teaching a greater truth. I’d argue that his lesson is that Terry’s tune doesn’t need any waltzing “B” section whatsoever. The nice melody of “A” could just be 16 bars, two 8s with different closures, something like Horace Silver’s “The Preacher.” This folkloric solution would be more groovy than going to further progressions for a bridge.

"Trust in Me” Monk’s superb intro toys with the tune before a trademark cascade ends with a perfectly uniform downbeat by whole band. You aren’t going to get that to happen again, better make this the take!

Monk frequently played standard ballads, but usually they were trio or solo. I can’t think of a Tin Pan Alley number at drag tempo with Charlie Rouse in the lead.

How lovely to hear Terry’s sympathetic statement over those sweet and sour piano voicings. “Trust in Me.” This is essentially perfect music. If I have a quibble, it is with Sam Jones, who occasionally "waits to see what happens" instead of offering an unrepentant voice. In the liner notes to the collected Riverside Monk, Orrin Keepnews says that Wilbur Ware was supposed to be on the date but didn’t show. I would love to have heard how “Trust in Me” would sound with Ware, who (along with Mingus) was the most rogue bassist of the era.

I certainly don’t mean to criticize Sam unduly, who's generally fabulous on In Orbit. Keepnews in the collected set: "Thelonious was particularly pleased with the work of Sam Jones, who was making his first Riverside appearance, and several months later asked Sam to join his group."

"Let's Cool One" The original liners of In Orbit conclude with producer Keepnews noting that Philly Joe, “…Fulfilled a long-standing ambition to record with Monk.”

This makes sense: All great drummers love Thelonious Monk.

As far as I know, Philly Joe would end up working with Monk infrequently. Certainly In Orbit is their only studio meeting of consequence, and on In Orbit, “Let’s Cool One” is the lone Monk tune.

It seems like Philly Joe might have guessed that his was his only chance, for he makes the absolute most of playing a Monk tune with the composer.

Monk's incandescent mind was always working on several levels. The title “Let’s Cool One” may refer to the white West Coast “cool school,” who in 1958 were probably making much more money than the black East Coast cats. If so, the march of quarter notes in the first three bars is reasonably condescending: “When we are ‘cool,’ we can’t syncopate for shit.”

Philly Joe can lay down a carpet as well as anyone, but when playing the melody of “Let’s Cool One” he chooses to be fiercely interactive. Perhaps he is making a point about playing with Monk; perhaps he’s making a point about conservative West Coast drummers who always stayed in the background.

I like a lot of West Coast cool school jazz myself, but also love the vicious attack on the style that is the first chorus of this “Let’s Cool One.”

Admittedly, I might be overthinking all of this. At any rate, I can’t imagine Philly Joe playing this freely in a first chorus with his usual pianists Red Garland or Wynton Kelly.

The drummer keeps up the heat for the solos of Terry and Monk. Indeed, he’s so strong at the top of Terry that Sam falters for a moment: “Oh, wait, is this the drum solo now?” Eventually, Philly Joe does get a chorus of immortal unaccompanied statement. It’s so good that he seems to think he’ll go again, and rolls for a bar when Monk and Sam begin recap.

Terry joins for last “A” only. Clearly Monk never gave him any paper, for Terry (who was famous as an impeccable studio musician) actually manages to fluff the tiny little "cool" tune.

No matter. This is Thelonious Sphere Monk and Philly Joe Jones jazz at its finest. It simply doesn’t get any better.

"Pea-Eye" Terry's memorable ditty is two choruses of up E-flat blues with different endings. Monk seems to eye the conventional hard bop offbeats in the second chorus with suspicion, and decides that pedaling offbeat left hand B-flats is (just barely) enough.

Terry’s solo is perhaps his finest of the date. Terry was Miles Davis’s teacher, and this blistering fast blues (against nasty Philly Joe fills!) shows that the teacher still has the measure of the student.

Monk hangs in there, although he'd probably be the first to declare that his solo isn’t giving Bud Powell anything to lose sleep over. The way he lays out at the very end is just weird. Maybe he's looking for his beer or something.

"Argentina" The other “Perdido” number is a mellow swinger that suits this band almost as well as “Let’s Cool One.”  How wonderful to have a vital Monk solo on something we’d never have the chance to hear him reframe otherwise. I love Monk so much. Late in life, he called one of his compositions "Ugly Beauty." Honestly, is there any greater artistic truth than the idea of "ugly beauty?"

Sam gets an impressive statement, and Terry offers some improvised Monkish straight-eighths.

It's going great, but by this point, nobody expects Mr. “Doesn’t Play Well With Others” T. Monk to help the band find the most appropriate ending. This sleeper track (again) awkwardly concludes as piano-less trio.

"Moonlight Fiesta" However Philly Joe found what he found, Afro-Cuban was a part of it, and this novelty number gives him a chance to honor that debt. Sonny Greer and Ellington "jungle music" are also in the mix, especially since this was a Juan Tizol work originally written for Ellington.  "Fiesta" is nice and short and not too serious. Bravo. 

"Buck's Business" Another up blues, now in F, and Terry is more like Miles Davis than ever (except the influence went the other way around). Maybe Monk is getting to like these fast tempos, because for the first time it doesn’t seem like he’s ready to quit after a chorus or two. He's there, but then he's not: After the piano solo, it seems like Monk has left the studio, but then he sits back down and grudgingly participates in the final melody. Those chiming major seconds sound almost atonal considering the context.

"Very Near Blue" Sara Cassey wrote interesting mood pieces recorded by Johnny Griffin, Elvin Jones, Hank Jones, and others. “Very Near Blue” is something rather heraldic and mysterious in dark E minor. In descending order of excellence: Terry knows exactly what to do, proud and committed; Philly Joe on mallets hints at double-time Greer; Monk offers loud footballs that come across as more unsettled than helpful; Sam tries a walking march but eventually seems dogged rather than essential.

“Very Near Blue” is almost a truly unconventional masterwork but not enough consensus is reached within the ensemble. The track also lacks a real ending, as it seems like the producers looked for the most harmless (unplanned) fadeout.

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[Last two paragraphs updated slightly, additions in boldface. I was working a bit hastily this afternoon.]

I've loved In Orbit ever since I heard it; I also remember having the honor of being the first person to play this "Let's Cool One" for David King. It's very sad that Mr. Terry has passed...but on the other hand, Terry was 94, did here exactly what he was meant to do, and now is the right moment to relisten to his records and celebrate his legacy. I had so much fun going back and giving this essential document a serious listen. I didn't know Mr. Terry, but I'm pretty sure (from what everybody has said about him) that he wouldn't object to anybody having a good time with his music, even if the occasion is a sad one.

Some have found my writing above offensive. Apologies, but I stand by my interpretation. The mysteries of the greatest 20th-century American music are just starting to be unlocked in ways both academic and practical. My comments above are not definitive. 

02/23/2015

 

Listening Session:
Presidents' Day and Mad Magazine

Harry Truman plays Mozart (badly) at the White House.

Richard Nixon plays piano on Jack Parr (his own "music," but he didn't orchestrate the strings).

Bill Clinton, saxophonist, plays some of "God Bless the Child" on Arsenio Hall.

My centennial celebration of Lester Young.

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I haven't thought of that marvelous 1958 Mad Magazine spread on Hi-Fi in decades, but it came up in conversation recently and I just found it at this forum. These days I'm most impressed by the last page, record reviews and letters to the editor.

Mad3

02/16/2015

 

Choruses/Chori

Smith-bessie-good man is hard-1927

(image stolen from Obscure Queer Blues)

Recently I was struck by the utter perfection of "Bessie's Blues," the superb sermon on Coltrane's Crescent. Is this the greatest 3.5 minutes of music ever recorded?

That's pointless question, but at any rate "Bessie's Blues" is a rare Trane track that could have fit on a 78. Coltrane would help pioneer extended performances on LP but it's also worth remembering that Trane learned his Pres, Bird, and Dexter from single short sides of shellac. Perhaps "Bessie's Blues" is a tribute to a bygone era: Coltrane scholar Lewis Porter suspects that "Bessie" refers to Bessie Smith, who of course only recorded 78's.

Speculation aside, there's no doubt "Bessie's Blues" has it all in a short span. His quartet was at a rarified peak, with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones handling rhythm and harmony in a phenomenally sophisticated manner while still staying utterly traditional.

(Joe Martin pointed out to me in conversation how the way "Bessie's" lays in the LP sequence proves that point as well: After the stunning impressionistic rhapsodies of "Crescent" and "Wise One," "Bessie's" brings us back to the blues.)

The older I get the more I begin to peep the idiosyncratic yet folkloric genius of McCoy Tyner. It's not just his soloing, but also his comping.

 

Bessie's 1

Bessie's 2

Bessie's 3

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"Bessie's Blues" started a Twitter convo about 3.5 min (or less) jazz tracks from LP era. There were more than I realized. Mark Stryker is the man you need for this kind of job, and he was first in with the worthiest contenders: 

"But Not For Me" Ahmad Jamal Incandescent trio with Israel Crosby and Vernel Fournier. I told Billy Hart that "But Not for Me" was less than 3.5 and he said, "That's not possible: there's so much there!" Good point. They even have time to modulate, for Christ's sake.

"Three Little Words" Sonny Rollins The studio trio with Bob Cranshaw and Mickey Roker. I've always been disappointed that it fades out at a moment of unreal frenzy, but Stryker's contention is that "Sonny's ENTIRE history is in these 2 minutes & change: bop to abstraction, command, sound..." (I admit that for the "modern jazz on 78" conceit I might put the simpler yet deeply swinging Sonny with Paul Chambers and Roy Haynes "The Last Time I Saw Paris.")

"Riot" Miles Davis The second quintet explains exactly what they are up to in this brief missive penned by Herbie Hancock. Miles, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie all solo freely on the kaleidoscopic diminished scale while Ron Carter and Tony Williams roil and rumble beneath.

Again, this is Stryker's list, thanks Mark. Well, if LPs are really coming back, I suppose the next step would be to press two 78's. The first one would be "But Not for Me" and "Three Little Words," the second would be "Bessie's Blues" and "Riot."  I would be curious to listen!

--- 

Last weekend Will Robin wrote a valuable article for The New York Times about the influence of Thomas Adès. While citing Adés's achievements is worthy enough, Robin also provides a listening list of current compositions by younger American composers. Brilliant.

I went through a real Adés phase myself when those first EMI records started appearing around the turn of the century. There's no doubt in my mind he's the great composer of the era. One of these days I need to survey his canon, perhaps if I'm lucky even interview him.

Asyla comes up repeatedly in Robin's piece, with good reason. (I played “Ecstasio” for a class at Banff with Miguel Zenón in attendance: A few months later I ran into Miguel at the NYPL, where he was looking at the score.)

Dance rhythm plays an major part in "Ecstasio." First the techno is bizarrely polyrhythmic, then ruthlessly obvious, and finally disintegrates into reminiscence. (When I played it for Rodney Green, his comment was, "At the end of night you are on the subway going home but are still remembering the club.")

Adés's surreal (yet still dancing!) rhythms are special partly because he can play them himself. There's no better example of piano virtuosity than his own recording of the sublime Traced Overhead. I had to buy the score myself years ago; it is with mixed feelings I point the way to a YouTube of scrolling sight and sound

I don't know what Adés knows of jazz. However, in Concerto Conciso he pulled off a pretty goddamn convincing interpretation of clunky swing. For the initial piano thunks  - and indeed the "beat" that goes through the entire first movement - it sounds like a normal binary 2 or 4. However, a glance at the score gives away the secret: that "beat" is half-note triplets, an agent that works against eighths in the chamber orchestra just like Elvin Jones on "Bessie's Blues." There's even notated drum set that lurches into full activity towards the end. The drummer doesn't sound like Elvin, of course, but it is astonishingly not so far off from Paul Motian. Bravo. The future awaits.

02/12/2015

 

Rite On

The Bad Plus has generally had some very nice press about our version of The Rite of Spring, but this latest hit is one I particularly like. Jason Haaheim and Rob Knopper interviewed me at length, then Haaheim wrote it up for their blog at the Met Orchestra Musicians. This is the first time I've seen the byline, "principal timpanist." 

I plan to blog about the Met's production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress later this year; maybe even a photo blog, as Jason and Rob are threatening to let me go backstage. For now, thanks to their generosity, I'm going to check out the double-bill tomorrow night of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle. I'm currently staying with a friend who adores Anna Netrebko, so we just watched an hour of extraordinary Netrebko videos. This has made me excited for the Tchaikovsky; before this sudden immersion I was really just laying for the Bartók, as everyone in town is saying that Bluebeard is terrific production.

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It's not online, but the current issue of JazzTimes (Sun Ra is on the cover) has me participating in a Before and After hosted by David Adler. I like this one too; David chose very well selecting things I could sound reasonably intelligent talking about. 

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Sarah Deming: Fact-Checking the Atlantic's The Real Knockouts of Women's Boxing. Sarah's gym was also in the NY Times recently: Giving Young Athletes in New York a Fighting Chance.

RIP Ward Swingle. I have a soft spot for that first Bach LP, who doesn't? At Rifftides Doug Ramsey found a video of my favorite Swingle arrangement, the opening of the C Minor Partita. Christiane Legrand takes the long solo. Fabulous.

Finally, this is clearly the next step in human evolution: Publio Delgado harmonizes an TV ad for Jones Storage.

02/02/2015

 

Masterclass is On for Tonight

Tonight, starting at 7 PM, my free masterclass.

“The Drawing Room”

56 Willoughby St. #3

btw Jay and Lawrence St. in downtown Brooklyn. Almost every subway train gets extremely close: Borough Hall for 4/5, Hoyt St for 2/3, Jay St for A/C/F…the very closest stop is Lawrence on R.

Mostly for pianists; others welcome too. 

IMG_5097

(Last night my apartment building was on fire. A big drag, but everyone is fine. Also my libraries of crime fiction and jazz records survived untouched, so DTM marches onward unscathed!)

01/21/2015