Wednesday, August 3, 2011

LATIN JAZZ ARTISTS SUE GRAMMYS FOR DROPPING CATEGORY




(From Reuters)

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Four Latin jazz artists are suing the organizers of the Grammy Awards, alleging the elimination of their category from next year's competition has caused them irreparable harm. Musicians Robert Sanabria, Benjamin Lapidus, Mark Levine and Eugene Marlow accused the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Inc. of violating its fiduciary and contractual obligations in April when it cut 31 categories from the annual awards ceremony, including Latin jazz.

The musicians' complaint was filed earlier this week in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan.The lawsuit also accused the Academy of failing to consider the adverse impact the decision would have on the musicians' careers. "There's nothing like having the ability to say 'Grammy-nominated,' 'Grammy-award-winning,'" their lawyer Roger Maldonado said on Tuesday.

Here's video of Eddie Palmieri's June press conference lamenting the decision...




The plaintiffs, who are seeking class-action status, accused the Academy specifically of failing to solicit input from the voting members of its 12 nationwide chapters before announcing the eliminations.
The Academy said in a statement: "The Recording Academy believes this frivolous lawsuit is without merit, and we fully expect to prevail."

In its news release announcing the eliminations, Academy officials said all general musical genres, such as rock, country, and jazz, would remain intact. The number of categories, however, would be condensed from 109 to 78.

"A transformation of the entire awards structure would ensure that all Fields would be treated with parity," the release said. In the field of jazz, musicians who previously competed for "Best Latin Jazz Album" will now compete for "Best Jazz Instrumental Album" or "Best Jazz Vocal Album."


Here's a killer performance by what maybe the last Latin Jazz Album Grammy winners - Chucho Valdes and the Afro-Cuban Messengers.



Robert Maldonado said this puts his clients at a disadvantage. "You would have to submit under the broad jazz category, now. You're competing against any other number of genres that are not going to be viewed the same," he said. "You're also trying to compare apples and oranges in a way that just doesn't work."
(Reporting by Jennifer Golson; editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jerry Norton)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

RIFF NOTES...

What do Jazz and Video games have in common? - The answer could be something else you may not know about - The National Jazz Museum...in Harlem! We make that inference because a relatively small amount of cyberspace has been occupied by NJMH since it's 2003 opening and the most recent news about the museum (which is operated by  The Smithsonian Institution) comes in the form of an announcement of a partnership with the World Wide Workshop to teach youth jazz and digital literacy through Globaloria, a youth network for learning how to make videogames. Check out the rest of the info on the NJMH website.

Actor Don Cheadle is making noise again about producing and starring in a Miles Davis film that "isn't a bio-pic."  Now, you may ask, as I did when I read the news, "how can you make a film about a real life, historical figure such as Miles without addressing important biographical aspects of his life and art..." maybe that's Hollywood-speak for "we don't quite know what it is yet...."  In any case I like Don and I applaud his efforts to bring the story of Miles to the screen. Read more about what Cheadle says about the project here and here.

By the way, if you're a jazz devotee living in the Nation's Capital and you haven't checked out the DC jazz site CapitalBop, shame on you. If you plan to visit DC anytime soon and jazz is your thing, the site is a must.

I live in both DC and NYC and one of my favorite Greenwich Village haunts is the turn of the century, used-to-be-speakeasy AKA the 55 Bar. Always a terrific hang -  your bound to see and hear amazing, marquee value musicians playing or checking out their favorite players in a casual, inspired and close-knit setting. The amazing husband and wife guitar icons, Mike and Leni Stern are regulars as is uber-drummer Antonio Sanchez. I've seen his frequent collaborator, Pat Metheny hangin' at the 55 during several of Antonio's gigs. I've also had the pleasure of occupying the corner end of the bar with piano legend Cecil Taylor on a few occasions; it's a real pleasure (and an honor) to see him holding court, sharing insights about life, love and the universe. He's so comfortable there you would think it was his living room. Now I hear we might see Cecil at the 55 a little less - since he's raising money to turn his home of 40 years, living room included, into a museum!

  Cecil Taylor at home

Wow! Read more about Cecil's plan here. I know would pay to pay Mr. Taylor a visit, so to speak, how about you?

Finally...I find the NPR Jazz Blog, A Blog Supreme to be a smart, entertaining and insightful addition to the jazz "blogosphere", but it must have been a slow day for news when they decided to post this story....Eighteen Jazz Musicians Nicknamed 'Sonny' (Or The Like).  Check it out, and let me know what you think....

FRANK FOSTER - R.I.P.


The litany of accolades and the outpouring of love and respect for the man could never equal the towering legacy he left to us. To get a sense of his historical and artistic import or to simply toast his incomparable presence, check out...

These amazing interviews from 1992 and 2008...
http://www.melmartin.com/html_pages/Interviews/foster.html
http://www.wbgo.org/blog/interview-frank-foster-gary-walker

This heartfelt obit....
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/27/arts/music/frank-foster-jazz-saxophonist-and-composer-dies-at-82.html

His legendary 1960 performance with the band that owes much of it's world renown to his creative genius...



And my favorite Frank Foster moment of all time...Jerry Lewis' priceless interpretation of Foster's swingin' composition "Blues in Hoss' Flat" with The Count Basie Orchestra providing accompaniment. It was featured in the 1961 film "The Errand Boy."


We will never forget you Frank....godspeed.

Monday, March 14, 2011

JASCHA AND JOSEPH





Believe or not, as jazz fans we have Jascha Heifitz to thank for Joe Morello.

Cut to Boston, MA, 1943. A promising 15 year old violinist is in a small room, waiting for the chance of a lifetime - a meeting with his idol, who many consider to be the greatest violinist of all time. 9 years before, because of a birth defect that left him with poor vision and a life spent mostly indoors, the youngster discovered music, which he absorbed with a prodigious appetite. At age 9 he was featured violin soloist with The Boston Symphony Orchestra, (performing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto) after playing the instrument for only 3 years. He would play with The BSO again 3 years later. Now the young man is attracting international attention among the classical music elite.

After waiting for what must have seemed like an eternity for the young prodigy, Joseph Morello meets his 42 year old violin hero Jascha Heifitz. Profoundly moved by the experience, Morello decides on a course that would change the world - he'd give up violin and switch to percussion, feeling he would never be able to "equal" Heifitz's precision and distinctive sound. Although Morello had hoped to continue as a classical musician, his instructor, legendary percussionist and percussion theorist George Lawrence Stone, became the prophetic conduit of miraculous intervention, convincing Morello the younger that his future lay in jazz.

Of course, Stone's prescient suggestion planted a seed that would grow into a life full of extraordinary accomplishment and innovation that ended with Joe Morello's death at home in Irvington, NJ on March 12. He was 82. The miracle that was Morello can be verified time and time again with his presence in The Dave Brubeck Quartet and it's groundbreaking recordings and performances. Morello's tenure with Brubeck began in 1955 when he was asked to be a last-minute replacement for a two-month temp gig; it ended in 1968, when DBQ finally disbanded. So, every time you hear one of the Brubeck Quartet classics like Take Five or Pick Up Sticks, remember Joe Morello and Jascha Heifitz.









 


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

COLLINS CALLS IT "A DAY" - AT LEAST FOR TODAY...



Drummer, pianist, singer, songwriter, band leader and jazz lover Phil Collins has announced on the Atlantic Records website the decision to stop playing and performing indefinitely,  possibly ending a remarkable career that has lasted a half century. 


It seems Collins, who turned 60 this year, decided to emerge from behind his taciturn and intensely private persona as a response to a number of reports that he was "retiring" for a variety of reasons, including professional disappointment and health problems.  Read Mr. Collins' intentions and explanation here. 


There are some indications that Collins may return someday, after all he's not the first high-profile entertainer to throw in the towel, only to pick it up again after a brief respite.   I guess we'll have to wait see if Mr. Collins has, as the title of one of his most popular songs says, "One More Night" left in the tank.  In any case, his work as an exciting and indefatigable live performer will be missed for as long as he is away...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"AROUND THE HORN": COVERING ALL THE BASES IN THE WIDE WORLD OF JAZZ...


With the arrival of baseball season comes a (home) plate-full of appropriate terminology - hence the phrase "Around the Horn" (not to be confused with the ESPN show of the same name) which relates to the practice of tossing the ball around the infield, from one position player to another - see diagram above.  For the purposes of this piece, the words connote a trip around the various departments of the jazz category or as our masthead indicates, what the jazz world is hearing reading seeing etc...



*I was intrigued by Nate Chinen's New York Times article about what Brad Mehldau listens to during his down time, you might be too...
*Also in the NYT, the ongoing mystery surrounding the theft of a beloved statue from the Brooklyn jazz club Barbes; 




*What's the most unusual paring of musicians in a jazz club so far this year? If you chose Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton, some would say you're "certifiable", as in crazy and some would say you're "absolutely brilliant!" For now, you'll have to settle for   "absolutely correct." Scheduled to take place in April, as part of the new season at Jazz At Lincoln Center, this imaginative set was no doubt inspired by Wynton's well-received JALC gig with Willie Nelson a couple years ago.  Check out the video...



*BBC Radio is spearheading a new campaign to expose new jazz talent in Great Britain via a nationwide new and unsigned artist competition; one of the judges will be pianist/singer Jamie Cullum...


* The Dave Arivett article on the All About Jazz website titled "Why Is Jazz A Dirty Word" raised an eyebrow; sure, jazz is no longer considered popular music as it was in the 30's & 40's but a dirty word? I beg to differ. Just ask the voting members at NARAS - National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences
( the Grammy folks); where for the past several years jazz as a category has been celebrated in very significant ways, with major Grammy Awards going to Herbie Hancock and Esperanza Spaulding most recently. Unfortunately, I think Mr. Arivett's thinking echoes a sort of "congenital" inferiority complex in the minds of many jazz practitioners and observers who are taught from birth that jazz is not for everybody; this assessment also reflects the lack of inter-generational fellowship and communication between the various sub-genres within the idiom. Also in the article, a list of the "top five reasons people think and feel this way..."


1) It's old and outdated music;
2) It's way too dissonant and too far outside the normal harmonic box;
3) It's insider musical language that only other jazz musicians can understand;
4) It's boring, with 10 minute solos featuring musicians playing strange sounding scales;
5) It's music played by a bunch of artsy weirdos and drug addicts; you have to be using drugs/alcohol to really appreciate it.



Where the hell does Mr. Arivett get his information?! Whatever the source, it all seems a bit outdated to me and it does nothing more than perpetuate this long held belief by some and I stress some that jazz music is relegated to second-class citizen status.      


*Kudos to Sonny Rollins, recipient of the 2010 National Medal of Arts for outstanding achievement and support of the arts; President Obama delivered the nation's highest honor for artistic excellence to Mr. Rollins, Quincy Jones and 7 others, Wed March 2nd in the East Room of The White House. Here's a video of the ceremony...





*Artistshare has just launched the THE GIL EVANS CENTENNIAL PROJECT - a year-long celebration leading up to Evans' 100th birthday in May 2012, including concerts, releases and performances of newly discovered music and online composers lessons. Here's a video detailing the effort...





*New Music
 Steve Gadd and Friends Live at Voce
 Moonlight - Steve Cole
 Bill Frisell & Vinicius Cantu√°ria - Lagrimas Mexicanas
 World Saxophone Quartet - Yes We Can


*Hot off the presses: New books worthy of a jazz eye...
"Jazz", A Collection of  Photographs by the late Herman Leonard;
"Sun Ra - Interviews and Essays", edited by John Sinclair;
"Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway" by Alyn Shipton;
"Coltrane: The Story of a Sound" by Ben Ratliff;
"Glorious Days and Nights: A Jazz Memoir" by Herb Snitzer
"Thinking in Jazz" by Paul F. Berliner
"The Blue Moment: Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music" by Richard Williams
"The Return of Jazz: Joachim-Ernst Berendt and West German Cultural Change" by Andrew Wright Hurley
"Traditional New Orleans Jazz: Conversation With The Men Who Make the Music" by Thomas W. Jacobson
"The Evolution of Jazz Drumming" by Danny Gottlieb

*My favorite musician of the week - drummer Antonio Sanchez.  Check out this Jazz Times Magazine article article on the poly-rhythmic avatar and check out the video sample of his breath-stealing work with Chick Corea...




Sunday, February 27, 2011

AND THE OSCAR GOES TO... THE ULTIMATE PLAYLIST OF FILMS FEATURING JAZZ MUSIC

No Oscar night party can be complete without the perfect soundtrack, right?  Here's a keepsake compilation of scene-stealing jazz music contributions to film history.


"St. Louis Blues" - Bessie Smith (from "St. Louis Blues" - 1929)
Bessie Smith's only feature length appearance of any kind; she is, as you might expect, unforgettable. 


"I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You" - Louis Armstrong (from Betty Boop Cartoon - 1932): Armstrong and his Orchestra provided the soundtrack for the 7 min short; Armstrong actually has a brief appearance as a "menacing" figure chasing down 2 of the cartoon characters.  Betty Boop cartoons frequently used jazz music and musicians for accompanyment and appearances; Cab Calloway and his Orchestra contributed to several Boop features as well, including 1933's "The Old Man And The Mountain" , Minnie The Moocher, St. James Infirmary and Snow White. And while we're on the subject of Calloway, check out the film International House - it features the "Hidee-Ho man" performing "Reefer Man", a classic to say the least.


"Drum Boogie" - Gene Krupa Orchestra (from "Ball of Fire" -1941)
Of course everybody knows drummer Krupa could guarantee an energetic performance, but on a box of matches? Check it out. And while you're at it, look for the sparkling trumpet break from the great Roy Eldridge, in his first and only appearance in a feature film.  Barbara Stanwick lip-syncs to the voice of swing-era singing star Martha Tilton. By the way, the screenplay was co-written by the incomparable Billy Wilder, who would later direct several classics including 1959's jazz-flavored "Some Like It Hot" .


"Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans" - Billie Holiday (from "New Orleans" - 1947): Lady Day's first and only feature film appearance - and the only time you'll ever see her in a subservient role on or off the screen - she played a maid. It's also the only time you'll see Holiday play the piano, which she does while singing this creole-flavored love song.  Louis Armstrong and The Woody Herman Orchestra also appear.


Various Performances from "A Song is Born" - 1948
This film is an updated version of Howard Hawks' aforementioned 1941 film "Ball Of Fire"; Hollywood icons Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo are joined by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman,Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet and Lionel Hampton.


"Jam Session" - Lionel Hampton, Steve Allen, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa (from "The Benny Goodman Story" - 1955) : Lionel Hampton steals the show...


"Jazz Club Scene" - Chico Hamilton Quintet (from "Sweet Smell of Success" - 1957)Drummer Chico Hamilton (still performing today at age 90) leads a group that plays it cool in a very intense and heartbreaking film noir starring Burt Lancaster,Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison and Martin Milner (of "Adam 12" TV fame). Milner plays a guitar that is dubbed by Jim Hall


"St. Louis Blues" -Eartha Kitt (from "St. Louis Blues" - 1958)
A stunning climax to this film about W.C. Handy which also starred Nat King Cole as Handy; in addition Eartha sings "Chantez les bas" , "Love Can Be Careless" (w/Cole) and Yellow Dog Blues. The film featured rare screen appearances by a cadre of west coast jazz icons including Barney Bigard, Red Callendar, Lee Young, Teddy Buckner, George Washington and a 12 year old Billy Preston.


"Black Nightgown" - Johnny Mandel Orchestra (from "I Want To Live" - 1958): Two versions - one, as a music cue in the film and the other from the original soundtrack recording. Both are remarkable. Among the outstanding musicians featured - Gerry Mulligan, Shelly Manne, Art Farmer, Red Mitchell. This is one of two films on our list that was directed by the legendary Robert Wise; the other is 1959's "Odds Against Tomorrow" (see below).
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"Florence Sur Le Champs Elysees" - Miles Davis (from "Ascenseur pour l' echafaud" - 1958)This was Miles' first film score, written for Louis Malle's 1958 film about criminal lovers whose perfect crime begins to unravel when one is trapped in an elevator. Miles only saw the film once, then went to his hotel and wrote basic harmonic sequences. The band recorded music without any pre-composed theme, while edited loops of the musically relevant film sequences were projected in the background. 


"Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum ("Gypsy Song")Peal Bailey, Max Roach  (from "Carmen Jones" - 1958) One of the many priceless moments from the Otto Premminger/Oscar Hammerstein adaptation of Bizet's opera. Bailey and Roach are joined by an outstanding cast including Dorthy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte.  

"Club Scene" - Harry Belafonte (from "Odds Against Tomorrow" - 1959The film's score was composed by John Lewis of The Modern Jazz Quartet and features MJQ along with Jim Hall and Bill Evans. Belafonte sings and plays vibes ( actually it's Milt Jackson dubbing vibes for Belafonte) in this scene; Look for James Earl Jones' father Robert Earl Jones and Richard Bright ( "Al Neri" in "The Godfather" films).


"Wild Man Blues/Battle Royal" - Louis Armsrong & Duke Ellington Orchestra (from "Paris Blues" - 1960)An all-star cast (Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Joanne Woodward, Diahann Carroll) but the critical reception was less than stellar; the music more than makes up for any cinematic shortcomings.  Ellington's Mood Indigo was also featured in the film. Canadian born trombonist Murray McEachern dubbed Paul Newman and sax player Paul Gonsalves dubbed Sidney Poitier. Adding to the on-screen drama was a torrid off-screen affair between Poitier and Carroll, who had fallen in love while filming "Porgy and Bess" a couple years before. The two came close to ending their marriages in order to be together but ceased their relationship by the time the film was released. 


"It's A Raggy Waltz" - Dave Brubeck  (from "All Night Long" - 1962)Set in London's jazz scene of the early 1960's, the film is an updated version of Shakespeare's Othello; the performances are similarly epic, featuring Brubeck, Charles Mingus and John Dankworth among others.


"The Girl From Ipanema" - Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto (from "Get Yourself A College Girl" - 1964): Although the lip sync is a bit askew, it's a rare opportunity to see the Getz/Gilberto team it's peak. Jimmy Smith and his trio also make an appearance in this film, playing a funky version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."


"Alfie's Theme" - Sonny Rollins (from Alfie/Album- 1966): Rollins' work is equal to and at times exceeds the brilliance of this film; Oliver Nelson arranged and conducted the performances, which included contributions by JJ Johnson, Kenny Burrell , Jimmy Cleveland and Roger Kellaway


"The Man I Love" - Diana Ross (from "Lady Sings The Blues" -1972)Ross' star turn as an actress is magnetic; her world-renown attributes as a singer are almost a bonus here. Richard Pryor is mesmerizing in the role of "Piano Man"; in fact, he pretty much steals the show whenever he appears.


"Three Days of the Condor" - Dave Grusin - (from "Three Days of the Condor" - 1975)"Fiesta" - Dave Grusin (from The Milagro Beanfield War- 1988): Grusin has the midas touch; he is without doubt one of America's most successful and prolific composers of movie music; he won an Oscar for the "Milagro" score - the film was directed by "Three Days of the Condor" star Robert Redford, who also directed Havana; Grusin's score for that film was Oscar nominated. The same honor went to his scores for The Firm, On Golden Pond, Tootsie, Heaven Can Wait, The Fabulous Baker Boys and The Champ.  Grusin has written music for at least 50 films, among them - The Graduate, Tequila Sunrise, Bonfire of The Vanities and Selena.


"As Time Goes By" - Dexter Gordon (from Round Midnight" - 1986) :Wow....A performance that will bring tears to the eyes of even the most jaded observer. Gordon, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance is joined by Herbie Hancock, (whose score for the film won the Oscar), John McLaughlin, Billy Higgins and Pierre Michelot.   


"We Three Kings of Orient Are" - Miles Davis, David Sanborn, Marcus Miller, Larry Carlton, Paul Schafer (from "Scrooged" - 1988)  Although this clip is from The David Letterman Show, all five musicians appeared in the film, which starred Bill Murray.


"Lover Man" - Charlie Parker (from "Bird" - 1988): Painful but riveting, this clip features the actual sound of Parker's playing, which was electronically isolated from an original recording given to director Clint Eastwood by Parker's widow Chan. Forrest Whitaker's performance makes you feel the pathos and the tortured beauty of Charlie Parker the man and the artist.


"Mo Better Blues" - Terrence Blanchard/Branford Marsalis (from "Mo Better Blues - 1990): Denzel Washington stars as an arrogant jazz trumpeter who gets his comeuppance in this Spike Lee "joint"; Blanchard plays the trumpet parts and would go on to write the score for every Spike Lee film afterward. Marsalis ghosts for Wesley Snipes' saxophone playing character.


"Chill" - Joshua Redman - (from "Vanya On 42nd Street" - 1994)
The centerpiece of a brilliant score written for the Louis Malle film by Redman and performed by his quartet; the soundtrack is hard to come by but you can find an outstanding version of "Chill" on his 2008 release "Moodswing."


"Tickle Toe"  - Geri Allen, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Victor Lewis, James Carter, Mark Whitfield, Don Byron (from "Kansas City" - 1995): The film wasn't a rousing critical or financial success but director Robert Altman's artistic chops are of the highest order. This is one of the swingin'-ist jazz performances ever filmed; Lester Young (the song's composer) would've been proud to see this group of "young lions" - well, at the time they were considered "up and coming" - interpret his music with such aplomb. The same holds true for "Yeah Man", which is the film's big finale.


Beautiful E - Bill Frisell ( from Finding Forrester -2000)


"Limehouse Blues/Mystery Pacific" - Bucky Pizzarelli (from "Sweet And Lowdown" -2000) Director Woody Allen, who is a fine jazz clarinetist, is known for taking great care with the soundtrack to his films. This time the music gets the star treatment in a story about a wayward jazz guitarist portrayed beautifully by Sean Penn. There are marvelous performances by Pizzarelli, who ghosts for Sean Penn's character Emmett Ray. By the way, Woody's musicianship goes front and center in the fine documentary "Wild Man Blues" ,which chronicles Allen's 1996 European tour with his New Orleans Jazz Band.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

TURNING ADVERSITY INTO ADVANTAGE - THE TRUE GENIUS OF SIR GEORGE SHEARING: 1919 -2011



When the news of George Shearing's passing arrived, I began considering his place in jazz history;  born blind, he was a gifted pianist and composer who wrote over 300 songs including the ubiquitous "Lullaby of Birdland"; the native of Battersea, London, UK was also an innovator, noted for a groundbreaking "block chord" style of piano and the revolutionary configuration of instrumentation that joined his piano with vibes, guitar, bass and drums in a vaunted jazz quintet. Sir George played at the request of kings and queens and 3 U.S. Presidents. In 1996 he was invested by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) and received his knighthood from The Queen in 2007 . Surely there are others whose accomplishments equaled or exceeded Shearing's during his lifetime. However, there is something much more compelling that makes the story of George Shearing a triumphant one.

Sir George and Queen Elizabeth II, 2007

What elevates the IQ and thus the potency of an artist - any artist - is not the number accolades they receive or how deftly he or she can navigate their mode of expression.  It is, instead, how well they play the vicissitudes of life. When you follow the distance Shearing had to travel to become "Sir George" you will find astonishing (and intelligent) survival skills that define the truth of his unlikely existence; the ability to transform adversity into advantage is at the heart of his genius and the soul within his voluminous gifts.  You would be hard-pressed to imagine his humble origins, looking at the vision of elegance we know as George Shearing today.


"Making it" in the highly competitive universe of professional musicianship is a daunting, aeonian undertaking for the best of us and it has to be profoundly formidable without possessing the sense of sight. But tellingly, Shearing viewed his handicap as an asset, as he wrote in his autobiography "Lullaby of Birdland";  "Living in a world in which sound plays the most important part has always been a great stimulus to me as a musician."  In fact, the entire thesis of "Lullaby..."  is, as Shearing wrote "about my path through that sighted world...in due course as an adult I came to the conclusion that even if I were offered the chance of sight, I would refuse it because it would be so shattering  to see everything I had only known as sounds up until that point."


That statement is indicative of Shearing's character; he was the embodiment of the optimism and tough-minded independence of his working-class parents (father James delivered coal, mother Ellen cleaned trains), who must have known their youngest of 9 was quite special because they diverted a portion of their meager earnings toward a piano and accompanying lessons. The cost was a considerable sum for a large family living in a poor neighborhood -  "8 pounds", Shearing recalled, adding "I would say the reward, although they weren't around, unfortunately, to reap too many of the benefits, was rather handsome."  They also sent George to a small school for the blind where in 4 years, he received his only real music training. After a short time, the only member of the family to pursue a career in music received numerous scholarship offers and he ultimately declined them all, in favor of a more practical pursuit - playing in a local pub, for one pound and five shillings a week.  Leaving school to play music in a pub, at 16 years old - was a bold stroke that speaks to Shearing's charm and chutzpah, not to mention the cognizance of a need to provide much needed income for the family coffers. And although he didn't appear to have any clairvoyance (or maybe he did), the gig proved seminal in his eventual fortune and fame; were it not for the confidence he gained and contacts he made early on as working musician, he may have never taken a fortuitous trip to America in 1947.



Shearing playing Lullaby of Birdland in 1987, on the 40th anniversary of arriving in the U.S.


After George Shearing showed that he had the skills to survive in a world of obstacles, the land of opportunity opened it's golden door. Shearing saw the light and extraordinary music began to flow like fine wine; by 1949 he had recorded the Harry Warren/Al Dubin song "September in the Rain" which subsequently posted 900,000 copies sold, almost overnight; in 1952, with the release of "Lullaby of Birdland" he was, at 33 years old, one of the most popular jazz musicians in the world, after being "on the scene" for just 5 years, a blink of an eye in "jazz years".  The rest of the story, as it has been said and written many time since his passing on Valentine's Day, contain some of the most heartfelt moments in jazz history.


Sir George and his Lullaby - London, 1955


Let the miraculous story of George Shearing also be, in the words of Joni Mitchell, a "lesson in survival" - for those of us who, in these exceedingly tough times, have difficulty seeing the positive sign posts on the road ahead. Sir George had the foresight and courage of his convictions to believe in the light at the end of the tunnel... and that light also belongs to you and me.

Monday, February 14, 2011

THE SONG AND THE STORY: A GREAT MUSICIAN'S FIRST LOVE NOTES...



There is a brooding, breathtaking, heart-piercing melody that has sparked the imaginations of music fans for 60 years; countless scholars and critics have analyzed it, legendary producer Orrin Keepnews called it the "National Anthem of Jazz." The song has been recorded and performed with greater frequency than any other standard composed by a jazz musician, in this case, pianist Thelonius Monk. Much has been said and written about him too - genius, virtuoso, eccentric, mysterious, complex are among the many descriptions for his "sui generis" persona. But Monk the romantic? - it's an impression that would evade those of us not among the very few to know him personally. However, a close examination of Thelonius Monk and his body of work reveals extraordinary sensitivity and more than just a hint of romance. How and why he invented this song, the first of 70 original compositions published during his lifetime, suggests it is quite possibly the most romantic of all his titles.

Since you went away I missed you...
Ev'ry hour I wished to kiss you...
You are in my dreams...always
I need you so...


That is the first verse of I Need You So, which was registered under the name "Thelonius Monk" on September 24 1943; he gave the credit for the lyrics to a neighborhood friend, Thelma Elizabeth Murray.  A few months later, Monk dropped the lyrics, kept the melody, changed the key and the title.  By early 1944 Monk's running buddy and fellow pianist Bud Powell was on a mission to have band leader Cootie Williams check out the revised version of the song - Powell was in the employ of the former Ellington trumpeter who was blown away when Monk eventually played it for him. What happens next is the song becomes the theme of Williams' popular orchestra. He also took co-composer credit, hired a Broadway wordsmith named Bennie Hanighan to write new lyrics and an added short addition to the song's introduction. Many have since argued that the additional 8 bar cadenza was actually created by Dizzy Gillespie, who also added the song to his orchestra's repertoire in 1946. This was one of several annoying instances when other musicians were playing and claiming part ownership of Monk's originals; the story about Coleman Hawkins and a riff on the classic "Lady Be Good" comes to mind; Hawkins recorded it as his own composition, Monk claimed he wrote the first 16 bars of the final arrangement of the song and later recorded it as an original with a different title - "Hackensack."


In any case, Thelonius Monk's reputation was enhanced by the affirmative reaction to his compositions and he thusly gained the confidence and cache' to start a band of his own, which recorded the song in question for the first time in 1947. But ultimately the song would not have gained it's notability had it not been for what happened next.

By the time they played together as part of a Friday night jam session during the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, Monk and Miles Davis had plenty history; it has been said that they almost came to blows during a recording session less than a year before.  Apparently a truce had been established because, here they were, wowing the summer festival crowd with the song in question, in a performance that is commonly referred to as Davis'  "comeback", his moment of transformation from a respected but troubled American jazz artist to an global icon who could do no wrong.  The moment was not lost on Columbia Records; one of the label's executives, George Avakian, was in the audience and, in an obvious response to the buzz, subsequently inked the historic record deal that made Miles a very rich man and changed the sound and public image of jazz - forever.


Miles Davis' first album for Columbia, done in the fall of 55 and spring of 56,  used the song as it's title statement, in an attempt to catch the wave of that Newport performance. But because of contractual obligations to another label, it could not be not released until 1957. Nonetheless, the record was enthusiastically received and is still considered one of Davis' best; the caliginous vibe of  Monk's tune was in perfect sync with the Miles Davis mystique. The two became emblematic of a new standard in jazz expression and appreciation, even though the song was written 13 years before.  At that time Miles was the most emulated and highest paid modern jazz musician in the world and it's likely Monk's tune blew up big time in part, because of it's connection that success.  In an ironic twist, Miles was in a sense, returning the favor; playing the song at the Newport Jazz Festival lead to his "comeback" and the popularity of his album bearing the song's title connected with Monk's resurgence, which also began in 1957 during a series of concerts at New York's Five Spot jazz club.


By the way, there is a story about Miles being pissed off at John Coltrane for leaving his band to play with Monk during this period and after one of the Five Spot gigs; Miles & Coltrane argued after which Miles punched Coltrane... we'll save that one for another time.


One could say the success of this song is due to it's "timelessness" ( I've never really known what that means). One might also say this was a case of right place right time -  a time when in was out and out was in, artistically speaking.  Listen to the piece, and you'll feel connected to the same moody, counter culture that pervaded the later half of 1950's. You can also hear that Thelonius Monk the composer was light years ahead of his time.

Nellie Monk w/ Thelonius and John Coltrane, 1958

In keeping with spirit of this day - I would like to think that the reason behind the composition's success has to do with why he wrote it in the first place - as a gesture of love and devotion to his wife of 40 years - Nellie. Monk wrote the tune years before they actually married, which by the way was in 1947, the same year Monk recorded it for the first time.  Yes, there is another sonic love letter to Mrs. Monk (who passed away in 2002) - Crepuscule with Nellie, which Monk penned in the mid 50's. But in 1943, inspired by his new romance with Nellie whom he met on New York City playground a couple years before, Monk started work on the aforementioned I Need You So, which was destined to become, if you haven't figured it out already, Round Midnight.
Monk, on the cover of Time Magazine, 1964

By the time the last word of Monk's eulogy was spoken , in New York City, February 22 1982, Round Midnight (some call it Round About Midnight; that was the name of the Miles Davis album) had become so pervasive and revered that it was ( is) played in practically every corner of the globe, becoming a touchstone for even the most casual jazz fan and a rite of passage for every musician who has ever thought of playing jazz. And there are the countless recordings and accolades for those who used the song as a stepping stone to wider recognition and artistic success. There is also the 1986 Oscar - winning film that used the song as the driving force behind it's narrative, taking the song's title for it's own. And it all began with the little melody Thelonius Monk wrote while in the throes of a new and profound love, for Nellie and for jazz.
 Happy Valentine's Day...

Monk and Nellie, in the 1960's


                                                           

Saturday, January 15, 2011

HAPPY BIRTHDAY DR. KING!

When I think about Martin Luther King, rarely, if at all do I think of him in a jazz context. However, several years ago, when word of MLK's opening remarks at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival began to circulate, MLK and Jazz became top of mind for me and jazz "apprecianados" everywhere. Wow..it was truly amazing; speech transcripts suddenly became ubiquitous and upon review it was easy to see that the stirring 330 words were indeed written by the civil rights leader. No photos or recordings but there were/are zillions of search results on Google,  postings of the transcript on social network pages, newspaper stories, eyewitness accounts etc., thanks to the speed and global reach of the internet.  But, as we found out with news reports following the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in cyberspace, access is no substitute for accuracy and the reports of MLK's appearance at Jazz Berlin '64 were alas, greatly exaggerated.

Thanks to some painstaking research by saxophonist David Demsey and drummer Bruce Jackson,  under the auspices of William Patterson University, the true origin and nature of King's speech has been revealed, just in time for the 82nd anniversary of MLK's birth (Jan 15th).  Read the full account of their discovery here. A full transcript of his 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival Address is below.

God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.


This is triumphant music.


Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.
It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls. 


Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.



And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.  In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

HERBIE HANCOCK TO BE HONORED BY BET JANUARY 15TH AS PART OF ANNUAL BET HONORS CEREMONY

Source: Muse Media


Los Angeles, California. Legendary musician and genre-defying artist Herbie Hancock will be a recipient at this year's BET HONORS celebration January 15th in Washington, D.C. Along with other honorees including Cicely Tyson, Jamie Foxx and Iman. Hancock will be celebrated by musical artists including Chick Corea, Wallace Roney, Ron Carter, Lenny White and Naturally 7, with the award itself presented by music industry icon Jimmy Jam. Hosted by actress Gabrielle Union, BET HONORS recognizes lifetime contributions and exceptional service of certain individuals to African-American culture in music, media, film, service and education. The special will tape at the historic Warner Theater and will premiere during Black History Month on Monday, February 21 at 9:00 p.m.


Additionally, Hancock is set to perform at The Kennedy Center on January 20th as part of the 50th anniversary festivities marking the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy Hancock will be performing with Esperanza Spaulding and Jack DeJohnette. Other artists on the bill include Paul Simon, Denyce Graves, Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and the American Ballet Theatre.


Just recently, Herbie Hancock's “The Imagine Project" has been nominated for three Grammy Awards at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards ceremony, which takes place on Sunday, February 13th, 2011. “The Imagine Project" is nominated in the categories of Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals (for the track “Imagine" featuring Hancock, Pink, India.Arie, Seal, Konono No l, Jeff Beck & Oumou Sangare), Best Improvised Jazz Solo (for the song “A Change Is Gonna Come" featuring Hancock's solo on piano) and Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)("Imagine").


“The Imagine Project," the latest CD from the multiple Grammy-winning artist and musical pioneer, is an unprecedented international recording featuring collaborations between Hancock and over a dozen superstars from every region of the planet. “The Imagine Project" utilizes the universal language of music to express its central themes of peace and global responsibility. The musical collaborations on the CD combine Hancock's genre-defying musical vision with the “local" musical identity of cultures from around the world. With veteran music producer Larry Klein serving as one of the album's producers, “The Imagine Project" was released June 22nd via Hancock Records/RED to coincide with Hancock's 70th birthday. An extensive world tour accompanied the release, including a performance at this year's Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway, December 11th, and birthday tributes which took place at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl earlier this year.


“Music truly is the universal language," says Hancock, “The Imagine Project" explores that concept across the globe, uniting a myriad of cultures through song and positive creative expression. My hope is that the music will serve as a metaphor for the actions taken by the inhabitants of this wonderful planet as a call for world harmony on all levels."


 Tracks include “The Song Goes On" with Anoushka Shankar (sitarist daughter of Ravi Shankar), Chaka Khan and Wayne Shorter which was recorded in Mumbai, India, along with a stellar group of Indian musicians; “Don't Give Up," a duet recorded in London, New York and Los Angeles featuring Pink and John Legend, “Imagine" with Seal, Pink, Konono No l, Jeff Beck, Oumou Sangare, India.Arie, Lionel Loueke and Marcus Miller recorded in Paris, London and Los Angeles; “Tamatant Tilay/Exodus" featuring Tinariwen and Los Lobos, “The Times, They Are A' Changin'" featuring The Chieftains, Toumani Diabete, Lionel Loueke and Lisa Hannigan recorded in Ireland; “Tomorrow Never Knows" featuring Dave Matthews, “Space Captain" with Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, “La Tierra" recorded with Latin superstar Juanes in Miami, “A Change Is Gonna Come" with James Morrison and a track with Brazilian singer-songwriter Ceu, “Tempo de Amour," recorded in Sao Paulo.


Check out tracks from The Imagine Project on Hancock's website.


While the CD stands, on one level, as a powerful testament for the goals of world peace, humanity and tolerance along with respect for our planet, Herbie Hancock's “The Imagine Project" shall remain, at its core, entertainment content that is creatively and emotionally deeply fulfilling.


Proceeds from this year's BET HONORS private ticket sales will be given to the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc. Additionally, BET Networks will encourage audience members, viewers at home and online visitors to donate to the Project.

LADY GOES GAGA OVER GERSHWIN JAZZ IN NYC...

We should know by now that Lady Gaga is full of surprises - like the recent impromptu performance of jazz standards she gave at The Oak Room in Manhattan's Plaza Hotel...


Clearly no stranger to jazz - she's been seen checking out the music at the Village Vanguard in the past and, as you can hear was quite comfortable after being invited to join her friend, singer & trumpeter Brian Newman, who was in the process of holding down his regular gig at The Oak Room when the Lady stopped by.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

THE SUN GODDESS RISES AGAIN...

A few days ago 75 year old jazz piano icon Ramsey Lewis proved he's still got plenty left in the tank -after announcing a revival of his 1974 classic "Sun Goddess", in it's entirety via a nationwide tour later this year.  Ramsey posted a video of his plans...



Here's a little perspective for the uninitiated. In 1973 Lewis, like many jazz musicians at that time, was in the midst of an experimental period; he disbanded his original, hit making acoustic trio (responsible for "The In Crowd" among others) and started working on ways to blend his growing interests in funk and electronic music. Along the way Lewis hooked up with his former drummer, Maurice White, who had just formed a new band, Earth, Wind & Fire, which as we now know, blended jazz and electronic music with funk and R&B. It was a match made in heaven. Lewis and White, who were both living in Chicago, combined forces and the first fruit of their reunion - Sun Goddess, which also featured Earth, Wind and Fire, was released in 1974 and quickly exploded with solar proportion - eventually selling more than a million copies.  Sun Goddess was a bold move is a modest interpretation, Ramsey knew his fans from back in the day would be highly offended by this turn of events, but he did it anyway because this was the dawning of a new day - nothing said that more than the 8 minute length of the title track; Lewis' biggest hits before that (In Crowd Hang On Sloopy Wade in the Water) were no more than 5 min and were acoustic trio settings. And much to the chagrin of the short sighted among his following, the unprecedented success of Sun Goddess meant there was no turning back. In fact, Lewis has always been a forward thinking kinda guy so this shift in his focus during the 1970's makes perfect sense. Ironically, his most recent work has been more like what we remember of the days before Sun Goddess which makes his announcement all the more surprising. Today, Lewis has 80 recordings to his credit and Sun Goddess is by far his most popular and for many, his most memorable. Check out the original recording of Ramsey's opus here.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

THE SONG AND THE STORY: BIRDLAND

From the day of it's release in 1977,  every time you heard it, you knew 2 things - you had never heard anything like it and this was something special. Energy, sophistication, soul.  Birdland.  The song that made it's composer - Joe Zawinul - and his band, Weather Report world famous. Where did this defining source of inspiration come from?

Weather Report performing Birdland in 1978, Stadthalle Offenbach.



It's autumn 1944 - the end of World War Two in Europe is just months away and thousands of Allied bombs are falling on Vienna, Austria.  At he prestigious Vienna Conservatory, a twelve -year old pianist named Josef Erich Zawinul is among 28 students being evacuated to a large estate in the Czech Sudentenland, where they will continue studies while being forced to endure a regimented life that includes war training under the direction of injured German SS officers.  It is here that Zawinul hears jazz for the first time when a fellow student performs an impromptu version of "Honeysuckle Rose".

For a musical impression of this period in Joe's life, listen to this - "Unknown Soldier" - from his autobiographical symphony Stories of the Danube

In the years immediately following the war, Europe is feeling the influence of the occupying Americans and Zawinul's interest in jazz deepens; he becomes a professional musician playing in clubs on American military bases, he becomes a fan of Armed Forces Radio and he becomes a reader of Down Beat magazine where he see an advertisement for the Berklee School of Music.  In 1958 Zawinul applies for and wins a scholarship to Berklee and on January 2 1959 Zawinul boards an ocean liner headed for America with $800 (6000 in 2010 $$) in his pocket.  5 days later, the ship arrives in New York City and Zawinul's impromptu tour of the city begins at 1678 Broadway, corner of 52nd Street, known as the "The Jazz Corner of the World" - the location of the world's most famous jazz club,  Birdland.

Named for legendary saxophonist Charlie "YardBird" Parker, the venue was celebrating it's 10th anniversary when Zawinul visited for the first time; later, whenever Zawinul and wife of 40 years, Maxine celebrated their wedding anniversary, thoughts inevitably turned to Birdland, which is were they first met.

The Manhattan Transfer performing Birdland in Tokyo, 1986






Fast forward a couple decades and Joe Zawinul's resume is jam packed with important roles with Maynard Ferguson's big band, Cannonball Adderley's quintet and Miles Davis' super-group, where he met saxophonist Wayne Shorter.By end of  1975 the two men are co-leaders of Weather Report, the preeminent jazz band of seventies, in the middle of recording the legendary album Black Market.       

Before the record could be finished, bassist Alphonso Johnson leaves the band and    Zawinul hires a 24 year old bass bass player from Ft. Lauderdale Fl. named John  "Jaco" Pastorius("Black Market" photo session at left with Pastorius in the middle). Jaco has been writing letters to Zawinul for years, even going as far as calling himself "The World's Greatest Bass Player" upon meeting Zawinul a few years before. Eventually Zawinul & Shorter relent and ask Pastorius to record a couple of tunes for the unfinished album including "Cannonball", a tribute to the recently deceased Adderley (another Florida native).  Pastorius then joins the band for their upcoming European tour and Zawinul is so impressed that he says Jaco is Weather Report's "catalyst." He's invited to stay on for work on the recording of the album Heavy Weather and the band's popularity explodes after the world hears Pastorius's bass playing and singing on the LP's first track - Birdland.

Jaco Pastorius, on the road with Weather Report for the first time, Montreux 1976

As Zawinul put it , "I heard him (Pastorius) play 4 bars and I knew history was being made." Indeed, the new man in the bass chair provided the consummate and transformational mix of virtuosity and showmanship that took the band from an jazz fusion experiment into huge commercial and critical success. Not to take anything away from the immensely gifted Alphonso Johnson but, hearing his style then or now makes it virtually impossible to imagine him playing those signature and (as Zawinul correctly said) "historic" licks that make Birdland what it is today - an unqualified classic. Just ask Quincy Jones or the scores of musicians who have performed or recorded it.    

Birdland provides a rare snapshot of legendary, game changing musicians at peak performance - as a group Weather Report was never better, the chemistry of Zawinul et al. at the time of it's recording elicited a rare combination of critical and commercial accolades; Heavy Weather is the best selling album in the band's history - one million and counting - and the litany of awards included jazz album of the year- 1977.  Birdland became a hit single, unheard of for jazz music then and certainly now.  Zawinul & Shorter were also at their creative high-water marks as collaborators and were beginning to explore new avenues as solo artists and would eventually call it quits (Zawinul would try to carry on the spirit in a new band - Weather Update, which only lasted a year).  Jaco left the band in 1980, although every bass player that followed seemed to be a respectful emulation of what was now know as the "Jaco" sound. Indeed, many fans felt the band's history ended when Jaco left and it is ironic that he died tragically in 1986, the same year Weather Report ceased to exist.