Welcome to Boston Jazz Scene

Welcome to the Boston Jazz Scene web site--the place to find out what happened, what is happening, and what is coming in jazz and other improvised music in Boston and surrounding communities. The most recent post is listed below this information. Words listed below the Topics heading to the right refer to information you can find here about jazz and other improvised music, the arts in general, food, and travel in and near Boston.

If you click on the Scheduled Jazz Highlights topic, you will see a selection of upcoming jazz gigs that we think are particularly noteworthy.

If you click on one of the History - Jazz Journal topics, you will see a selection of journal entries covering performances and relevant events that have taken place in Boston since the 1970s.

If you click on the History - Major Contributors topic, you will see a list of Bostonian musicians who have made significant contributions to the development and evolution of jazz in Boston and elsewhere.

If you click on the Images - Musicians topic, you will see a selection of photos of current and former Boston area jazz musicians and significant visiting jazz musicians. If photos of musicians are displayed on this page and you click on Older Posts at the bottom of this page, you will see earlier image pages eventually going back to page 1.

If you click on the Images - Venues topic, you will see a selection of photos of current and former Boston area jazz venue locations.

If you click on the History - Jazz Timeline topic, you will see a brief list of significant events in the development and evolution of jazz in Boston beginning with the first groundwork in colonial America.

If you click on the Essays on Music topic, you will see essays about the development of jazz and other music since the late nineteenth century and particularly the evolving context in which the music has been and continues to be created.

If you click on one of the Travel options, you will see a variety of information that may be of interest to people visiting Boston (or even some people who live here).

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Jazz Journal – 2010

December 2010
Luther Gray has roots in the music of Philly Joe, Elvin, and others of that period. But he’s a new man in a new time. Furthermore, Luther examines, analyzes, and deconstructs rhythmic patterns unlike any other drummer I’ve heard. In fact, the closest link to a Luther Gray solo I can think of is those taken by pianist Mal Waldron at his most probing. There was plenty of opportunity to check out Luther’s fine work 12/9 at the Outpost when he showed up with sure-footed melodists Steve Lantner and Forbes Graham. Again, undoubtedly the apparently odd configuration of trumpet, piano, and drums was a byproduct of the disappearance of fellow musicians to other parts of the nation during the holidays. Sometimes those “odd” matchups work and sometimes they don’t. Of course, they always seem to work when the best musicians are involved, as in this case. The lines were clearly chiseled, whether a solo voice, a duet, or--most commonly--a threesome of philosophical sculptors speaking eloquently...

On 12/7 I received word that tickets are on sale (800-361-4595) for the 32nd edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, an indication of how on the ball the people who run the summertime event are. Worthy of special note is the fact that our own George Wein will be performing there with the Newport All Stars 6/26 as part of the festival’s George Wein 85th Birthday Celebration. Congratulations to George Wein--and to the folks at the Montreal International Jazz Festival for being hip enough to put on the party...

Paul Broadnax and Peter Kontrimas were at it again at the Acton Jazz Cafe 12/8 doing their inimitable take on the best of the American Song Book (and related fine music). It was a cold night, but these guys and their music supplied plenty of warmth to keep all of us in the audience happy. As a bonus, Julliette Willoughby sat in for three tunes, including a superb rendition of the seasonally appropriate “The Christmas Song.” On a break Paul and I talked about the music, and he expressed a bit of surprise at the reaction of fans and critics regarding the quality of what he does. He suggested that they were being too kind, considering the fact that he was just doing what he knows how to do. It wasn’t false modesty or fishing for compliments. Paul and I have known each other too long for him to pull that sort of thing. No, his surprise was real. I assured him that what Peter and he are offering is unique, and in general particularly rare in the twenty-first century. I suspect Paul’s reaction is due to the fact that he has performed with many of the greats and witnessed all of them at close range. After all, Paul is thinking of Nat Cole and Joe Williams as yardsticks. I would not suggest that Paul is better than those musicians, but who was? Who is? What Paul apparently is not doing is comparing himself to the vocalists/pianists around the world who are well-known and headlining at jazz festivals (or even the not so well known). And there are a ton of them. So tonight (or any night) would I rather see the next jazz vocalist who is in town for an evening to fill some large hall or Paul and Peter at an area club? No contest. Everything related to jazz is tenuous--money, gigs, tomorrow, you name it. And so it is with cautious optimism that I pass along the fact that the Peter and Paul dinner time gig at the Acton Jazz Cafe has been expanded into a full evening. In other words, you can show up to catch them every Wednesday for dinner at 7 p.m. or arrive and stay all evening until 10. But do it while you are lucky enough to witness such fine quality...

The Phoenix’s Jon Garelick took on the eight-CD Henry Threadgill set on the Mosaic label in his 12/10 Giant Steps column. The review included the obligatory CD by CD review of the material along with insightful commentary about the music of Mr. Threadgill. But, fortunately for those of us who care, the writer early in the review says,
At $136--though exquisitely produced, in the Mosaic manner--it’s for adepts only. That’s too bad. Threadgill--who’s still working hard and has just released a new CD with his current band, Zooid--deserves the kind of budget-reissue campaign that used to be standard among the major-label holders of prime jazz catalogues from storied indies like Verve, Blue Note, Prestige, and Riverside.

And so, as part of his essay/review, Jon Garelick takes a moment to weigh the forces of economic profit and cultural profit, implying perhaps that a commitment to achieving both in such a project might be a good idea...

The jazz scene in Boston and elsewhere collapses a bit during the span from Thanksgiving through early in the New Year. People--including musicians--tend to travel to visit family and friends rather than hang around to catch or perform on gigs. Nevertheless, Junko Simons was able or corral some of Boston’s finest 12/18 at the Outpost for a superb evening of completely improvised music. The game musicians included Jim Hobbs, Jacob William, and Luther Gray offering musical joy more than fit for any season. Junko responded in kind with some of her best playing to date. I suspect the audience knew this would be a fine respite from the hustle of the early winter days, because the Outpost had more filled seats than usual. Apparently some people really know what’s going on even during the holidays...

Just as each of the arts informs all the others, each culture center in one way or another echoes throughout the land, affecting the evolution of cultural events in other cities. For example, jazz was not born in one single city nor did all the major developments in jazz take place in only one place--or there would be no New Orleans jazz or Kansas City jazz or West Coast jazz (as a spin-off of the music in the northeast, of course), and so forth. Therefore, it is with sadness that I point out the destruction of one of the most important forces on behalf of jazz (and other art forms) in Chicago, namely the Department of Cultural Affairs. As WBEZ’s Jim DeRogatis points out in his 12/16 online news story, the Department is being “dismantled,” not because of the economic crunch but because of politics (perhaps nudged by economic realities). Among the more than two dozen jobs killed is Cultural Affairs Director of Programs, the post held for years by Michael Orlove. Orlove is a man loved and respected both inside and outside Chicago because his artistic productions invariably were about connecting the public to art at the highest level, rather than keeping the cliché-driven bureaucrats happy. Because of Michael Orlove and like-minded compatriots, the citizens of Chicago had the good fortune to witness in concert--among other such iconic lights--Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann, Paul Lytton, Fred Anderson, Axel Doerner, David Stackenäs, Evan Parker, and Hamid Drake. And the concerts were available free of charge. You can read Jim DeRogatis’ “Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs is dismantled as 29 are laid off” by clicking here...

Update: Apparently to some degree because of a significant public outcry about the destruction of the Department of Cultural Affairs and layoffs of key personnel, Michael Orlove and a few DCA people were carried over to the new organization. This is not an ideal situation, but it does say something about the potential of the public voice and it bodes well for the future of the arts in Chicago. Late in December Michael Orlove released this statement:

First off, let me say how lucky I feel to have such an incredible ‘family’ out there. This viral outpouring of support has been overwhelming and humbling to say the least. THANK YOU!!! The last couple weeks here have been quite difficult especially having to watch many of my beloved colleagues go through this entire ordeal. It is hard to explain or understand why this all happened but numerous dedicated and creative employees of the Department of Cultural Affairs have been terminated. I am fortunate to have the option of joining the Chicago Tourism Fund starting January 1 (2011). In this economy I feel extremely lucky. I am no longer a City of Chicago employee but (as far as I know) remain 100% involved in organizing events at Millennium Park, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago SummerDance, World Music Festival, etc. along with the incredibly talented team of Brian Keigher, Carlos Tortolero and Helen Vasey in the new year. Not the way I wanted to end 2010 but hopeful that next year could be even better. Thanks again for the enormous show of support…I am moved beyond words. Happy Holidays to all of you. Peace, Love & Music!

Anyone in the Boston area who is a jazz fan and an internet surfer knows about the Brilliant Corners
web site. I received word late this month that the folks at Brilliant Corners are shifting their writing efforts to the well-established site, All About Jazz. That, of course, is all to the benefit of AAJ. My immediate concern was that we would lose a fine jazz web site. Brilliant Corners is a great place to go to for useful data--such as the official web site for reedman James Merenda or the scholarly pursuits of Evan Parker as he talks about John Coltrane--and thoughtful commentary. The good news is that Chris, Steve, and Matt will keep the Brilliant Corners site up and occasionally contribute essays to it. I hope so because I’ll be looking there for neurological cobweb removal...

The performance 12/27 at the Outpost by the Construction Party was as good a demonstration of what can happen when top-drawer jazz musicians get together from different planets. When the musicians have the right qualities and intentions, the result is music that has genuinely compelling connections. Dave Rempis, Forbes Graham, Pandelis Karayorgis, and Luther Gray reside in different parts of eastern Massachusetts and Chicago. Further, they are improvisors with quite distinctive personalities. Understandably, their compositional approaches and aesthetics are markedly different also. But none of that is significant--other than the fact that musical diversity is inevitable--when people of such musicality join forces. Each of the musicians brought compositions to the gig, and all of them worked out the peculiarities of both the charts and the improvisational roles in apparently a single rehearsal. If that’s not enough, it was a wonderful surprise to hear what each writer did with the front-line sonics of alto and trumpet. And with all that, the improvisations--exhibiting compelling diversity--were a treat for anyone with ears. There was something else. On 12/27 the snow emergency for the area had just been concluded at noon. It could not have been easy for the four people to take care of all the logistical details in time for the gig. But more impressive than that it the fact that there was a real audience in attendance--the kind that shows up when all the sane people are at home, hiding from the drifts...




November 2010

There is always a parade of music at the Opensound series at Third Life Studio, usually four or more groups/soloists. That’s both good and bad. The good part is that, when the music is boring, the sets are relatively short. The bad part is that, when the music is terrific, the sets are relatively short. The latter occurred 11/13 when The Kevin Frenette Trio, on the second set of the night, performed two completely different pieces of improvised music and made the whole thing seem as if it lasted about two minutes. Kevin has that knack of bringing people together--Junko Simons and John McLellan in this case--who have good ears and work well in new territories. And wherever Kevin led them--to pensive terrain first and in-your-face landscapes next--Junko and John needed hardly a heartbeat to negotiate the expanse. Nice stuff. One of the most fascinating events of the evening took place during Tim Feeney’s performance in the third set. Tim had a bass drum in a vertical setup and avoided any conventional type percussion. In fact, the types of percussive resources that most new music percussionists would consider to be secondary are in fact Tim Feeney’s primary focus. And so his set consisted of hand, finger nails, sticks, and other devices scrapped along the drum head to produce a series of drum skin drones. For example, we’ve all seen that vertical thin stick used as a fireman’s pole on a drum head to produce a tone with fingers sliding down the stick. Tim extended the slide by using both hands continuously in rapid succession to produce a drone. The most amazing aspect of the set occurred as Tim finished each drone sequence. At the end of the first drone sequence no one applauded. Then, at the end of each subsequent sequence no one applauded. The audience was hip enough to realize that applause would have disrupted the conclusion of the previous sequence and most likely the next sequence. That’s pretty insightful for a music audience, even a new music audience. Of course, there was plenty of applause at the end of the set. The final set featured the quintet identified as Pentagon. The irony in the group’s name is that apparently the five-member ensemble never has appeared in performance as a complete ensemble. I’m assuming that Pentagon has appeared as a quintet on a gig, but at least that’s the “non-quintet” mythology. This time Andrew Eisenberg and Joshua Jefferson were absent. That left the Pentagon Trio--Lou Cohen, Forbes Graham, and Matt Samolis--to perform with an assist from Tim Feeney. It all worked out just fine, thank you. These folks all know how to improvise. Lou Cohen is a laptop guy, and people who have read my comments about laptop performers know that I’m not nuts about the way most lappers sit at their laptops during a set, looking at the computer screen and apparently doing next year’s income tax for all we in the audience might know. Like Andrea Pensado (who was in the audience), Lou has worked out his own useful solution to that problem. He’s developed software to allow him to use two-handed computer game controllers to make in-the-moment improvised computer music, a real performance that the audience can witness. Applause for the laptop performance improvement. And applause for the fine music 11/13, even if the best stuff did not last long enough...

The “new” Museum of Fine Arts is big news. There was a two-page article in the November 19 Boston Phoenix on the addition/renovation of the MFA. The story, “Great Finds--and What’s Still Missing” by Greg Cook, offers an overview of the upgrade with strengths and weaknesses along with a discussion of some of the holes that remain in the collection. I was hoping for more than two pages of assessment, but maybe that fact alone tells readers something. In the same issue, apparently to balance things, there’s a two-page article titled “Eat Me” on insect cuisine. A first look at the expansion/refurbishment suggests what has happened is somewhat predictable. The new part is one of those glass box structures common in museums these days (e.g., Chicago’s recent expansion of the Art Institute). One of the primary results, in spite of some horizontally cramped galleries, is that the American wing is spacious. Spaciousness is a plus in certain cases, as when a museum wants to show off a large Pollock or some of Serra’s larger sculptures. But for much of Americana such spaciousness tends to diminish the impact of the individual pieces, as in the case of paintings that require intimate settings (e.g., Hopper or Sargent). A casual observer of the new wing might walk away with the impression that United States artists excel primarily in the creation of furniture, accessories for the home, and pieces in silver and pewter. Of course there is more than that in the American wing, but one starts to run out of new wing as one comes to the conclusion that something is missing.

Before the expansion the MFA was--and remains--deficient in works created since 1960. That’s a lot of time, and such substantial museums as those in Chicago and Cleveland have acquisitions over that span that should cause everyone associated with the MFA--from the Board of Directors to the most committed staff personnel--to blush and stammer. Even general museums recognized as being something less than the MFA can make Bostonians jealous. For example, I find it difficult to imagine any curator who would trade Milwaukee’s Diebenkorns and large-canvas Kiefer (Midgard 1982-85) for the entire MFA collection of paintings from the 1970s. Also, it should be pointed out that works in the American wing carry us “through the mid-1970s.” What this fact implies is that the Contemporary Art wing (scheduled to open in September 2011) will include works from 1975 to the present. No doubt the definition of “contemporary” is open to discussion. But it gives one pause to think that the Contemporary Art wing will include works created during the past thirty-five years. Further, that fact implies the Contemporary Art wing in 2015 will include works created during the past forty years. And so forth. Such definitions do not seem to function in a world in which one likely would think of a work a quarter century old as too old to be called “contemporary art.” The alternative to such a practice--making the Contemporary Art wing truly contemporary--would mean that the wing scheduled to open in 2011 would include works created during the past five years only. Such a practice, however desirable it might be in some sense, would mean that works created not merely to 1975 but up to five years ago would be stuffed into the smallest of the four levels of the Art of the Americas wing.

On the other hand, there is much to celebrate about the new wing. For example, the expansion has allowed the MFA to put on exhibit fine works long locked in the attic. In fact, one of the main reasons I checked out the “new” museum is the hope that space would allow the staff to bring out of mothballs Picasso’s Rape of the Sabine Women, a wonderful full-color echo of Guernica. If they eventually put it on display, let us hope that its exhibition will be permanent this time. A good argument might be made for the idea that the best feature of the addition/renovation is the “invisible” glass cases. These innovative display cases no doubt are quite expensive to acquire, but the extraordinary transparency of the glass in the cases is well worth the cost. Nevertheless, the limitations of the collection since 1960 remain one of the great weaknesses of what justifiably is thought of as one of America’s finest general museums. The concern here in a corner of the internet devoted to the art known as jazz is that each of the arts informs all the others. Therefore it is especially unfortunate that the MFA’s holdings of works created during the past fifty years have so little to say to us...

The timing of my visit to the MFA was rather remarkable and perhaps ironic in light of a meeting in Rhode Island I shared with good friends from the Mid-West. One friend passed along to me two articles that brought to mind my visit to the MFA just a couple days before my Rhode Island visit. One article discussed a particular Harry Bertoia sculpture (Bertoia being represented with an array of works in the Milwaukee Museum), and the other article was a feature about the new director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, a museum which is in the middle of renovations/expansions. The first article, “A Landmark Jewel Box Loses Its Biggest Gem,” by Ada Louise Huxtable (The Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2010 online) discusses the meaning of the Harry Bertoia sculpture in the context of the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Building in New York and the dismantling of that sculpture. The feature about the new museum director in Cleveland, among other interesting bits of information, quotes David Franklin, Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, as saying, “Museums now, all they talk about are diversity, reaching out to younger audiences, outreach. But it’s hypocritical, then, when you charge 20 bucks to get in.” (Cleveland Magazine, November 2010, p. 117.)...
Update 01/22/11: I returned to the MFA today to discover how the changes there looked a second time (and perhaps to see if I had changed). The most remarkable change since I wrote the comments above is that Picasso’s Rape of the Sabine Women is hanging in gallery 155, having replaced one of Picasso’s still life efforts. Although fans of the master’s still life material may be sorely disappointed, I must admit a certain amount of joy in seeing “an old friend” once again. While spending time in gallery 155 it struck me to what extent certain galleries in the “old” part of the museum function as an oasis in the “new” museum. In the new wing, one gets the feeling that the overall design/layout of materials was worked out by a couple of academics on a coffee break (“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if...”). It becomes a tiresome challenge to find the art in the maze of over-the-top context, particularly when works by a single artist get strewn throughout the clutter in several different galleries. Context is meaningful and can be offered in a wide variety of intelligent ways. But in the new wing eventually one has the desire to escape what starts to feel like a fire sale and settle into an environment in which the art matters. And so, the galleries such as 155 become oases. One walks within gallery 155 with the sense that whoever curated the gallery cared about the art. Gallery 155 is all about the art. Nothing else. As one may guess, in general, not much has changed regarding my posted comments. If anything, I find the changes (so far) to be even more frustrating than during my first encounter. For example, it is even clearer that the placement of David Smith’s sculpture next to the third level entrance is a mistake. Yes, it most likely is sturdy enough to withstand the people who bump into it as the crowd tries to move in both directions through the doorway. But such works are intended to be displayed outdoors, not in some nook where you might expect to see an umbrella stand. Further, the surfaces of all Smith’s Cubi series sculptures are intended to catch and play with the light of the sun as it moves across the sky...

The evening began 11/4 at Ryles with a brief set by young musicians working their way to the future under the leadership of Jasper Hobbs, son of Jim Hobbs. They set the table for the old man and his quartet--including Taylor Ho Bynum, Timo Shanko, and Ray Anthony--but none of that music sounded very old. Quite spry actually. In terms of personnel, it was an “old” band, going back to the earliest days of Fully Celebrated Orchestra. In fact, according to Taylor, Jim’s first vinyl release (apparently an EP disc) had Ray Anthony on drums. So this was a golden chance for nostalgia to take over and bury us in Ornette licks (a favorite pastime for this band in the olden days). But no such thing happened. The reconnection merely set everyone searching farther and deeper and with more energy. So, did Timo sound like Charlie Haden? Yes, if you have in mind a truly frightening Charlie Haden who has just put down a couple gallons of black coffee. No, we did not hear anything like Ed Blackwell, but we did hear Ray Anthony kick the music through the roof. Yes, there still is an echo of Ornette in Jim’s alto, but you really have to search for it. Its edge is more abrasive and his stream of notes is more aggressively relentless. And then there was Taylor blowing his brains out--working the terrain of Raphé Malik rather than Don Cherry. In other words, these guys buried nostalgia, pushed the envelope to the limit, and kept me out listening to the quartet’s second set after I had promised myself (having witnessed four arts events in two days and really feeling the effects) that I would leave after the first set. I don’t know whether these guys should receive laurels or be dragged away as sonically dangerous forces...

In some ways the remarkable achievements of New Englander Anthony Braxton are fairly well documented, particularly in book form. Certainly there this much more that could be written by and about Maestro Braxton, but there is an awful lot of written material to chew on, from Graham Lock’s Forces in Motion to the musician’s own substantial, voluminous Triaxium Writings and Composition Notes. But there are huge gaps in the current sound document legacy. It’s not that the number of Anthony Braxton CDs is small. On the contrary. I have bunch of them, and that bunch is only a tiny fraction of his commercially available recorded output. I refer primarily to what might be thought of as his operatic material, including instruments, words, mythologies, philosophy, and--perhaps most problematic--extended time scales. However, it seems that something is being done about the gap in the sonic documentation. During a conversation with Taylor Ho Bynum on a break at the 11/4 Ryles gig, I discovered that Anthony Braxton’s right-hand man (i.e., Taylor) and the master have been collaborating on one such opera project. At the time of our conversation, Messrs. Braxton and Ho Bynum were in the middle of the final mix of a four-CD set. The set documents one of the operatic works, incorporating sixty musicians and twelve vocalists (all of them coming from different music worlds to take advantage of the different strengths of jazz musicians, “classical” musicians, pop musicians, etc) and was recorded over a grueling four-day studio schedule. Obviously enthused about the project, Taylor fed off the enthusiasm of the other people involved in the sessions. For example, he pointed out, after three full days of recording, the last session began at 10 A.M. of the fourth day, “and the last person to arrive at the studio was there and ready to play by five minutes to ten.” So we finally will have a sound document of an Anthony Braxton extended operatic work. The cynic in me can see the reviews now. Ten percent of the reviewers will listen to the first fifteen minutes of the CD set and write rave reviews. Eighty percent of the reviewers will do all kinds of things with the set (perhaps including listening to some of it) and rant about how awful the music is. In fact, one can predict that the higher the quality of the music and the performance the greater the number of negative reviews. Maybe I am too cynical. I’m sure I will not be thinking of those critics when I get my hands on that set of CDs. I can hardly wait...

The combination of the uncertainty of it all and the effectiveness of the people involved caused me to anticipate the 11/24 Outpost performance with a good deal of excitement. For me at least there was a good deal of uncertainty. I never had witnessed the performers together before, and I was not sure what would take place with the intersections of different electronics and the acoustic trumpet. But it was not a negative uncertainty. I knew it would be good stuff, but I did not know how that good stuff would manifest itself. Laptop whiz Andrea Pensado left no doubt on previous encounters that what she had to say--visually and sonically--would be outstanding. Forbes has presented electronics offerings before, and most followers of new music are quite familiar with his trumpet work. So their work would present no weaknesses. Also, as it turned out, there were a couple bonuses. Andrea recently had acquired an inexpensive application for her cell phone to allow her to use wifi signals to control the laptop sonics, resulting in something of the appearance of a Theremin with push-buttons. One of the aspects of her laptop performances that I find most appealing is that her performances--unlike those of most laptoppers--are not visually static. The new cell phone capability just gives her one more visual/sonic option. Forbes Graham--for the first time in my experience--employed a conic pickup for inside the bell of his trumpet, allowing him to transform the acoustic output into an array of electronic sounds. Perhaps the most interesting and engaging aspect of the resultant music--aside from the high quality of what was going on--was the difference of the electronic voices of the two musicians and the fact that those voices worked so well together. Broadly speaking, Andrea’s music is about thunder and lightning and taking no prisoners. On the other hand, Forbes’ electronic attack generally is sweeping, almost symphonic in its lines. Even as I listened to how differently they thought musically I was struck by that difference but perhaps even more by the impact of the two voices--how well they worked together. It was a perfect example of opposites dancing beautifully together. I hope they hit the dance floor again soon...

I’ve always liked the Melissa Kassel groups, but during the past year I like what those folks are doing more than ever. I’ve watched her and her teammates work on repertoire, and each gig the repertoire gets better. At the Lily Pad 11/18 the group excelled with an engaging span of Gershwin to Janice Joplin to Kassel-Zicarelli originals along with very effective pacing and ensemble impact. During the last couple of outings Melissa has added a drummer to the mix. That’s a big jump because there is a major conceptual shift from a bass/piano-rooted foundation to a bass/piano/percussion-rooted foundation. The shift is not necessarily an improvement or a problem. It is a critical aesthetic decision that is neither right nor wrong from an outside perspective (such as my own), but it is an important aesthetic statement about where Melissa and her gang--Tom Zicarelli, Bruno Råberg, and Phil Grenadier--want to go. This was my first opportunity to catch the group as a quintet with drums. Mike Connors handled the kit and (no surprise) did so very well. The addition means that--should they wish--the musicians have the flexibility to go in any direction knowing that there will be at least two musicians carrying the foundation. One of the immediate impacts of this fact (whether or not individuals choose to take advantage of the support options) is that there is sufficient freedom to demonstrate that more is less. Because each musician has less of a support responsibility, the range of possibilities in solos and support work is much greater. And often the most effective decision in this circumstance is to take advantage of the space, pursue more fully the value of the rest as an alternative to the tone. But these folks know that, and they demonstrated that fact with some of the best improvised work I’ve heard from any of them. And that’s a long time of listening for them and for me. P.S. It was nice to see Tom pick up the tenor sax again, even if not frequently enough...



October 2010

The 10/10 gig at the Outpost was the fourth of an early October series of performances that featured work by Eric Zinman, Mario Rechtern, and a variety of partners. In this case they were joined by Jane Wang and Laurence Cook. Mr. Rechtern, a German native, has visited Eric and friends before. Not surprisingly, he employs a musical language similar to those who founded Europe’s Free Jazz movement and at the same time he carves up the music in the vein of contemporary European sound sculpture. What was surprising to me is the extent to which the splintering sonic shards on the reed instruments brought to mind Chicago’s Mars Williams. Strange. What was even stranger--given the quality of the personnel involved--is the fact that the music wandered somewhat aimlessly for a while, as if they were bumping into each other on the dance floor. Very odd. But, during the last two offerings of the too brief set, everyone’s ears began to connect. Then things took off. Unfortunately, because of the brevity of the event, I had the feeling that things were just getting started. When it ended...

The Paul Broadnax-Peter Kontrimas Duo that lights up the Acton Jazz Cafe every Wednesday evening at 7 p.m., as has been noted before, is significant because of how well it handles the classic vocal and instrumental jazz repertoire. During the 10/6 performance at the club I found myself being caught up in their repertoire. It always is superb, but for some reason it really hit home on those sets. How many places can you sit down, get comfortable with like-minded listeners, and hear timeless and seldom performed material? Such as: “Little Girl Blue,” “Night Mist Blues,” “Broadway,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Young Man with a Horn,” and “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” And it’s all played as if the two of them had written the material. By the way, don’t forget to hang around for the closer, “The Party’s Over” (or occasionally “Roll ‘em Pete”)...

It is kind of a strange instrumentation, and each instrument is played by a very distinctive musical personality. Conversational trumpet easily can be overpowered by aggressive percussion, and electric guitar (particularly Kevin Frenette’s style of guitar) easily could get lost in the strings of a cello. But the musicians involved--Junko Simons, Mr. Frenette, Forbes Graham, and Laurence Cook--were more than the sonic qualities of their instruments and more than the superficial appearances of their musical faces. This quartet at the Outpost 10/16 was a perfect demonstration in two sets of improvised music of the power of ears. For example, at one point Kevin chose to stop playing, realizing that the space left by the “empty” guitar was what was needed in the moment. And the confirmation of the wisdom of that decision was visual in the shear volume of the smile on his face in reaction to Forbes’ decisions in the context of that moment. And so it went. Through two superb sets of music. Bands of fine musicians playing improvised music usually are of the pickup variety. For example, in this case, although the musicians had performed together in a variety of settings, this specific quartet never had worked together before. And they sounded like a working band. Wouldn’t that be nice? The Simons-Frenette-Graham-Cook Quartet--the working band. It has a nice ring to it...

Sonja Holzwarth Maneri is known primarily as a visual artist. She also was the wife of the late composer/improvisor Joe Maneri. Joe, of course, was one of the most original musicians to reside in the Boston area, and he has left us a legacy of compositions, recordings, fans, and disciples. Sonja has just published a memoir about her life with Joe, Love Notes and Love Lines--My Life with Joe Maneri. Their story as she tells it is fascinating, and there is a wonderful bonus of many photographs. There even is a photo of Joe’s “sound poem,” Rohnleife (sic) in Joe’s handwriting. One wishes there were an index, but there is a list of compositions and a selected discography of his jazz recordings. The book is available from the Harvard Book Store in Harvard Square via phone orders at (617) 661-1515...

I showed up at Johnny D’s to catch the Variable Density Sound Orchestra featuring John Tchicai 10/13 because I expected superb music. I was not disappointed. In fact, I could spend a lot of words telling you how truly fine Garrison Fewell and his Boston-based outfit--Jerry Sabatini, Kelly Roberge, Todd Brunel, Eric Hofbauer, Dmitry Ishenko, and Miki Matsuki--were on this occasion. Further, I could rave about maestro Tchicai and the wonderful sounds he made and the spark he brought to an already enthusiastic and more than capable band. However, I will keep it simple: Even though the year is not over and we live in the midst of an explosion of extraordinary new music, it is an understatement to say that the VDSO at Johnny D’s on 10/13 is one of the top half dozen Boston area post-Ayler performances of 2010...

Swing fans might think of the Billy Novick Trio in the Grand Lobby Lounge of the Park Plaza Hotel as the biggest little swing band in Boston, and that would be understandable. The group--consisting of regular bassist Thomas Hebb and changing personnel throughout much of September and October--did perform many favorite Swing Era tunes such as “Moonglow,” “Night and Day,” and “Just You, Just Me.” But--particularly with vibraphonist Ed Saindon playing better than ever on the 10/8 gig I caught--what they do, I think, comes closer to a marriage between the Norvo-Mingus-Farlow Trio and the 1940s Goodman small group sessions for Capitol. Nice stuff. The trio has had its tenure extended once. With some luck perhaps the gig will be pushed into November and beyond. Let’s hope so...

Note: After this information was posted, I received word that the trio’s tenure has been extended through November 24.



How does one recover from a set of mundane music by William Bolcom (no comment on the musicians involved; even Ursula Oppens and Peter Serkin could not have salvaged such boring fluff)? As it turns out, there is no better antidote than the Explorers Club. Charlie Kohlhase’s writing (even after all these years) keeps on getting better all the time. Take the new piece he opened with 10/18 at Longy, “This is How We Roll.” The title is a perfect description of what it is all about. Everyone in the band rolled and roared, waking up any drowsy audience members. And so it went all night. Even the slightly older “The Jaguar in the Mirror” later in the evening reinforced just how durable his work can be. This piece with the subtle, relentless groove is one of the most infectious pieces Charlie’s ever written. And speaking of infectious, if you didn’t catch the occasional cough, you would not have noticed that he had been fighting a cold for about a week. You never could tell from Charlie’s opening solo on the first piece of the evening—ripping, roaring, and rolling from the get-go. He has plenty to roar about, including the skill of his personnel selections. This band has been working together long enough and is technically proficient enough that it nails the music with élan. And--particularly given the historical reputation of Bostonians as fine readers/technicians but poor to fair improvisors--Jeff Galindo, Matt Langley, Jef Charland, Eric Hofbauer, Miki Matsuki, and Mike Connors gave us a joyous demonstration of how superb improvisors take advantage of superb charts. Let’s hope that this “good medicine” music had a healing effect on the leader as well...

The Nov/Dec issue of the MFA’s Preview (which was distributed in October) celebrates the expansion of the museum and how wonderful it is. We hope it is wonderful, and it had better be for $20 per visit. One of the improvements no doubt is the “three MFA [gift] shops, with two new locations.” So, instead of one shop, we now have three. You’ve got to have your priorities. As an alternative view of the universe, consider the Cleveland Museum of Art (one of the most underrated general museums in the country). During Cleveland’s recent renovation/expansion the decision makers closed down all the gift shops to make sure that there was as much space as possible for the exhibition of the art. The art. What were they thinking? Hey, I’d settle for a compromise (and the CMA’s art since 1960) any day...

For some reason recently I have been hearing improvised music in sections. Or at least I’m more prone to focus on sectional work. So I was really knocked out by the sectional work of Jeff Galindo and Jim Hobbs 10/20 at the Outpost where the two of them alternated lines, talked to each other in paragraphs, and blended and wended their way through countless melodies and “sounds.” The trombone and alto sax--at least the way those guys play them—really have a compelling sound vocabulary. It is as if whoever designed the alto sax (yes, Adolph) had playing off the trombone in mind when he did so. I do hope that they or someone else will make a point of bringing the two of them (and their horns) together in a similar context in the not too distant future. Speaking of a moving and shaking someone else, applause for Jacob William for doing it again, bringing the right people together to make wonderful, adventuresome sounds. And nothing was any more adventuresome that evening than the sectional work of the bass player and Luther Gray. Luther is one of the most idiosyncratic drummers I’ve ever heard. On any gig you could put a bag on his head, and anyone who has heard him before would know exactly who’s playing. But it is not the kind of musical stamp that is so extreme the other musicians get lost. On the contrary, if you can’t cook while Luther is playing, you just aren’t paying attention. And no one pays attention better than Jacob. He’s the reason that “other section” (the bass-drums section) is so powerful--even in the quiet moments. Then, put the two sections together (as they were 10/20) and the soil is turned and you can feel the whole room entering the earth. To a place where you are greeted by your ancestors. All of them...

Billy Ruane died on October 26 at the age of 52. When I read the news it stunned me. I’m sure it stunned anyone who knew him at all. It seemed impossible. We’re all mortal, but somehow that image (or images) I have of Billy Ruane in my head and heart is deathless. I saw him more frequently in the years before he became connected with the Middle East. And now, presumably I would have useful words to offer. However, after reading an array of articles and blogs about him during the past few days, I find myself somehow without words. I’m sure I have not read them all, but each memory of Billy I read is different. And each--as far as my experiences with him are concerned--is true. The only thing I can add perhaps is that a couple times he asked me for the names of some new jazz acts or musicians that he might bring to town. As if I would know about someone terrific whom he did not already know about.

One of the amazing things about Billy is that supposedly he suffered from bipolar disorder. That may be true, but in one important way he was different from people I’ve known who have had that problem. In cases I’m aware of, the person suffering the disorder becomes more and more self-absorbed during both up and down moments, sometimes lashing out at the people who love them the most. I never found that to be the case with Billy. I saw him when he was sky high and I saw him when some private demon was haunting him. And never--whether decades ago at the Willow Jazz Club or within the last couple years at places such as the Regattabar--did he ever greet me with anything but open and unconditional love. In case what I say might be misconstrued, I point out that virtually anyone who knew him would find my words as their own. And all of this talk about Billy and love brings up the one memorial statement that I would partially take exception to. At the end of an insightful statement about Billy, booking agent Billy Beard in the 10/29 Boston Globe says, “[H]is friendship, generosity, and musical madness will be sorely missed. The big sweaty kiss? Eh, not so much!’’ Well, folks, as awkward as those kisses sometimes made me feel a few decades ago, I sure could use one now.

So I have not much to add to what others have mentioned. However, in case you have missed what others have said, one cannot do better than read Bryan Marquard’s words in the 10/28 Boston Globe. The article begins:

The life force that is music coursed through Billy Ruane as he danced to band after band in club after club, shirt unbuttoned to nearly his navel, swept-back hair tousling to the beat, the beer in his hand never spilling a drop.

"It was athletic, acrobatic -- frenzied moves that no one but Billy could execute," said Pat McGrath of West Roxbury, a long-time friend who helped manage Mr. Ruane's financial affairs. "I've seen pictures of him in various states of levitation that defy physics and gravity."

More than just a fan extraordinaire, Mr. Ruane was a music promoter and impresario who elevated the alternative rock scene. With exhaustive dedication, he booked bands into Cambridge clubs and promoted musicians. At shows, he bought armloads of their CDs, which he gave away with evangelizing fervor.


Nice writing, and it is worth your while to read the whole article by clicking HERE.

Those of us who know about Jon Damian’s guitar work look forward to his performances in any context. All of the best jazz musicians have unique voices, and some of those musicians take it to another level from there. Such is the case with Jon. However, as fine as his work is as a sideman, fans really have to witness his work when he is the leader of the band. And what could be better than a trio context? With only three guys (and one of them is Jon), we are very likely to hear a lot of Damian guitar--Rubbertellie and otherwise. When Jon picks the tunes and chooses the directions, the listener can be certain that the standards will be non-standard, the originals will be even more original, and the improvising will be completely unfettered. And that’s what we got 10/29 at the Outpost--Jon Damian unleashed. I mentioned that the group was a trio, and that fact potentially presents a problem. If Jon had brought with him a couple really good jazz musicians, the gig probably would not have worked. Really good is not good enough in this situation. No. The musicians had to be really good and really in tune with Jon’s peculiarities. Not simply ready to go to unexpected places. They had to be ready to go to Jon Damian type unexpected places. So Jon made the wise choice of bringing along Bob Nieske and Allan Chase--two outstanding musicians who learned how to breathe with Jon sometime just before the Cretaceous Period. The fact that he gave both of these gentlemen plenty of improvisational space also tells you something about Jon’s adventuresome nature and insight. Jon’s creative playing inspired terrific improvisation and support from Allan and Bob. And vice versa...

It was supposed to be a quartet, but one of the two drummers could not make it. That meant that we had a chance to witness a “conventional” keyboard trio 10/27 at the Outpost, but David Bryant’s bands never could be categorized as conventional no matter what the instrumentation. As expected, it was harmolodic all the way. Eric Rosenthal’s drums were pretty constantly chatty, but not in the sense that Tony Williams fans might be familiar with. The action of his sticks and brushes was loud, so loud and articulate that each detail jumped right into your face, making the percussion melodies operate at the same subjective level as the keyboard. In other words, perfect harmolodic music. I have a difficult time writing about bassist John Turner in this context. The first time I had a chance to have a conversation with David Bryant was in 1986 when he gave me a copy of his first Shock Exchange recording (an LP). David had known and been playing with John for several years by that time. And so it is difficult for me to think that by now there is a music fan in the Boston area who does not already know what John Turner’s work means to Bryant-led bands. But maybe a thought about the music 10/27 will help. Picture John with his upright bass, and focus on what he’s playing (to some extent blocking out the music of the other two musicians, assuming that were even possible). As you listen you may notice that it sounds like he’s playing with some other band in another room. Now bring the other two musicians slowly into the foreground. As you listen you can hear that all those notes played apparently for some other band really are John’s way of listening to what’s going on and providing limitless options for his band mates. He is so secure in what he knows and what David and Eric know, he takes full advantage of the limitless options. And they respond in kind. And so it goes. And what about David? He shows up to discover a trio rather than a very different--conceptually--quartet. He chooses not to play it safe. Instead he decides to explore. A good deal of what he explores is sounds that he virtually never employs on his electric piano, such as harpsichord (which he mistakenly thought I did not enjoy, me being a harpsichord fan) and the marimba. And, while John and Eric kept feeding him options, David kept throwing at them (and us) challenges of sounds and directions. So what could have been a less than terrific time turned out to be a terrific time--and a fine example of what jazz really is all about when it is played at the highest level...

The 10/19 issue of Stuff Magazine has an interior shot of Noche in an ad on page 17. Noche is the replacement for Icarus which replaced Lulu White’s. There has been a lot of water (and alcohol) flowing since that great jazz club closed in 1981. The photo does not elicit any nostalgia because so little is recognizable from the original layout. I can see roughly where my “regular” table used to be. The raised bandstand extended from the right-hand wall in the photo; in other words, the female bar tender in the photo would have been standing almost in the middle of the bandstand. But perhaps the greatest difference is that the human scale and red warmth of Lulu White’s has been replaced with cold lighting and “efficient” geometry...

Each of them is a band leader. So that could pose an ego problem. Or, as these musicians showed 10/22 at the Outpost, it could give each of them a special insight into what a band is all about. I go with the latter premise for the Steve Lantner Quartet. These guys--Steve, Luther Gray, Joe Morris, and Allan Chase--work without a metaphorical net because they don’t need one, metaphorical or otherwise. Among working bands, is this the best post-Ayler quartet in the world? That is impossible to say, but I could not come up with a half dozen serious challengers for the title. And now the group is on hiatus until early next year. If you needed one, this is another reason to look forward to 2011...


September 2010

I could wax celebratory about Laurence Cook once more. And why not? He never stops offering me reasons to celebrate. However, the best news is that the Jacob William Quintet returned to the Outpost 9/11 after a long summer. The bassist had a fine time touring Europe and his native India with the bass under his arm (or wherever he keeps it in his travels). And now he has returned to make mischief of the finest sort with the finest sort of musicians--Forbes Graham, Jim Hobbs, Steve Lantner, and, of course, Mr. Cook. The gap in time did not separate these men aesthetically. They continued the walk right where they left off earlier in the year, and it all was as comfortable as any great partnership can be. By that I mean, they were so comfortable with each other that it seemed to be such an easy thing to lift audience members--myself included--right out of their seats. As I write this I have managed to find a seat and sit. But I look forward to the great lift in the not too distant future...

I was walking north on Arlington Street 9/17 when I bumped into John Lockwood negotiating his bass southward, obviously in a hurry to make a gig. We talked very briefly. I did not hold him up. But in that moment John told me that he was going to his last gig with Bert Seager’s group at the Four Seasons Hotel. Imagine that. Imagine that you have had a weekly gig at a major Boston hotel for a quarter of a century. Then imagine the silence of the crash when you find out that the gig has been cancelled...

All I wanted to do was listen to some fine music 9/9 in the Framingham Public Library. I knew that there was a good-sized Brazilian community particularly in downtown Framingham. But I had no idea that Framingham is home to the largest Brazilian population in Massachusetts. Further, according to the Ambassador from Brazil who spoke in the Costin Room of the Framingham Public Library, Massachusetts has the largest Brazilian population of any of the United States. Who would have thought? Not only that, the duo performance by Teresa Ines and Marcus Santos in the Costin Room to a packed house of enthusiastic locals and others was part of the 15th Brazilian Independence Day Festival (9/5-12) in Massachusetts. So I sat down and found myself at a party, a fine party. With the exception of “Gârota de Ipanema,” every song was presented completely in Portuguese. One of the effects of such a performance is the awareness that we know many more Brazilian tunes than we might imagine. Almost half the works presented were familiar to me, and most of them were familiar primarily with English words. So, it was great to hear this original music as it was intended. Ines has a small voice (think Astrud Gilberto without the annoying “innocence”), but she also had a microphone and a beautifully nuanced delivery. Marcus Santos was spot on with both the rhythmic help and in the selection of which percussion instrument to use at what time. The two of them brought much joy to us lucky folks in the library...

Matt Samolis has begun this season’s monthly gigs in the library of the Church of the Advent on the edge of Beacon Hill. It was a killer of a start 9/17 both because of the quality of the performances and because of the diversity of the material presented. Up first was a reprise of sorts of a performance dealing with the Mayan Popul Vuh and which began several years ago. This time Curt Newton joined the original performers--bassist/narrator John Voigt, visual artist Linda Clave, and flutist Matt Samolis. The length of the performance is somewhat flexible, depending on the number of passages read from the Popul Vuh, the amount of time devoted to improvised music, and other factors. In this case, the performance was relatively brief (or at least it seemed that way) perhaps because the group was one of four on the bill. In any case, it is a very effective and often powerful evocation of the ancient culture. Let’s hope these folks continue these performances, perhaps incorporating different portions of the religious text during future events. Liz Tonne closed the first set with a stunning example of her vocal art. It is difficult to believe, but this rare (in the Boston area recently) Tonne outing was even more impressive than previous performances. She presents forays into vocalizations that remind one of conventional melody, but such sounds are the exception. In fact, there is a kind of sonic shock that strikes the ear when she offers the more conventional sounds, primarily because she turns the ear to attend to the atypical so effectively. The accomplishment is quite remarkable when one considers that as a solo vocalist she is able to shock and surprise the attentive listener no matter what sounds she puts forth. She no longer lives in the Boston area, and that is our loss. Hey, she even mentioned a desire to do a straight vocal gig, if she could find the right backup musicians. She is serious about the idea because she’s a remarkably original (what else?) “straight” vocalist also. The second set was as adventuresome as the first, but the effect was not the same. John came back (creating things quite different from the first set) in a duo with Tom Plsek. John worked on his “music of the spheres” vocal-bass-electronics passion, and Tom dismantled, coddled, and talked to his trombone in ways that by now fans are very familiar with. At the same time, familiarity is not the same thing as knowing. And so both men brought new/knew insights into their own improvised perspectives. It must be noted that the fact that both gentlemen have been doing this sort of thing (together and separately) for several decades is a significant factor in the artistic success of what they do. It never ceases to amaze me how great the impact of experience--when the commitment and passion are there--is on the quality of the music produced. Young people often are wonderful, but they are not yet art-wise. The final adventure of the evening was provided by the duo of Angela (yes, the Weirdo Records lady) Sawyer and Josh Jefferson on reeds and various noise makers. His sax work (and even his “found” objects sounds) seems rooted in the work of Mats Gustafsson particularly. One suspects Josh even has seen Mats perform. That’s not to say he’s failing to do his own thing. It all comes across quite naturally. And that is the strength of this duo to a great extent. Angela’s electronics and voice are not isolated events but part of the conversation with Josh’s squawks, spills, and honks. It was a very pleasant conversation to conclude the entire evening of outstanding sounds...

Congratulations to Phil Wilson who received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Trombone Association this summer. Of course, the elephant in the living room is: why did it take so long? He’s performed with a wide range of significant bands, making particularly important contributions to big bands led by Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, and Herb Pomeroy. Perhaps even more relevant to such an award has been his contributions on behalf of popularizing the trombone as a jazz instrument and his technical and pedagogical contributions while teaching at Berklee. I realize that it is a “lifetime” achievement award, but let’s hope they missed making it a posthumous award by many years...

Michael Vlatkovich kicked off his East-of-the-Rockies tour at the Lily Pad 9/26 with two musicians he never had performed with before--Jeff Song and Curt Newton. Such encounters almost invariably are challenging for the musicians and can be quite engaging for audience members, particularly if the musicians are really good at what the do. And so it was here. There were rough spots, particularly early on, when the two long-time friends and the visitor searched for common ground. But, because of the quality of the people involved things sailed along well enough that no one was afraid to jump into the unknown. For example, at one point the trombonist initiated a march melody quite insistently, but no one else went the 2/4 way (the easy thing to do). They just threw a whole set of different ideas at him. And so it went. Not long after that incident Mr. Vlatkovich threw out an ostinato line and kept at it. This time the other two men grabbed the idea and ran with him. The whole sequence resulted in some of the most energetic and joyous music of the evening. A fine night of music overall. A final note: Michael Vlatkovich showed up late to the gig because of confusion about the early start time. He apologized to everyone in the room at the time and dove into the music. At the end of the evening as a parting gesture, the trombonist offered everyone in the room a copy of his latest CD for free to compensate for his tardiness. A class act...

The Jorrit Dijkstra group invaded the Outpost 9/28 and took no prisoners. Jorrrit did a great job deciding which musicians would do interesting and challenging things when brought together. In this case James Falzone was visiting from Chicago and he bounced his clarinet lines off the alto work of Jorrit to great effect. I mention the duo-like relationship between the two reed men because the quintet found itself performing as two separate ensembles--not in a negative way--more aesthetically in synch with Ornette’s Free Jazz double quartet. Of course, the vibe was the same but the music was quite different because of the instrumentation. Going up against the duo we heard Pandelis Karayorgis, Jacob William, and Laurence Cook working their own “separate” music that was completely/harmolodically supportive of the duo. It might have been easy to fall into the illusion that it really was two separate groups going on. But such illusions came crashing down when the trio stopped to give the reeds a chance to talk to each other “unencumbered.” All the “air” came out of the balloon and the reeds struggled to find their way without the challenge of the “other” band. The two eventually landed successfully and, during the second set, when the chance for an unsupported duo arose again, the fine reed improvisors were ready, performing some of their best work of the evening. One of the reasons the trio was so strong is that Pandelis had just returned from Greece and a summer without any piano performances. He was ready and on fire. It did not hurt that Jacob and Laurence are experienced locomotive firemen. Speaking of Laurence, an enthusiastic visitor from Rhode Island before the first set was cataloguing how terrific the musicians are. Fine. But at one point he said, “I think I’ve seen Laurence Cook play before.” I could not help myself, injecting, “No. You have not witnessed Laurence playing the drums.” When one witnesses Laurence perform one never--even many years down the road--faces the prospect of thinking “I might have” witnessed genius...



August 2010


Jeff Platz brought Kit Demos, Junko Simons, and John McLellan to the Outpost 8/14 for two sets of varied and often challenging music. For several reasons the surprise was sub McLellan on drums who performed jazz with heads (originals by a variety of band members) and was the only musician without charts. That was difficult enough, but the first three pieces of the first set were dead-slow “ballads.” Such material is among the most difficult for most drummers and doubly difficult if the drummer is subbing. As some of us knew beforehand (and perhaps one or more of John’s band mates also knew), John McLellan is a monster with dead-slow material. And so, what could have been a programming disaster became a constructive adventure. And, as the tempos and material became more varied throughout the two sets, we got the chance to see the range of McLellan skills to good advantage. Of course, there was more than drums, and drums cannot do much if there is not significant push-back on the part of the partners. Jeff Platz was wise enough to bring along Kit Demos and Junko Simons, both of them particularly skilled in this evolving, probing kind of music. The bass player seems to thrive in wide open free sections, as he did here. And the cellist picked the right moments to throw energetic jolts into the fray, causing all of us to take note of the fact that energy can be music, too...

Back in April I wrote here about people such as Ellen Rooney and Geoff Edgers who somehow thought it was appropriate to attack Maestro James Levine because of a series of physical ailments he has experienced. I stated that I hoped informed writers/critics would come to the defense of the BSO’s music Director. Such support did arrive 8/13 from the most astute “classical” music critic in New England (if not the English-speaking world), namely Lloyd Schwartz in his Phoenix article, “Feeding Frenzy.” Not only did he state the case well, but he pointed out something important that I failed to mention. None of these attacks have come from informed music critics. It is no wonder that someone who cannot tell an f-hole from one of his or her personal cavities would fail to consider the departure of James Levine to be a great loss. You can find out more by reading the article...

In spite of complaints about too conservative programming in Newport, one must offer applause to George Wein for the ear-challenging groups he’s brought to the fest in the face of the necessarily subsidized event (e.g., prominently CareFusion in 2009 and 2010). I doubt that he made any money decades ago on the Newport appearances of Coltrane, Monk, and Ayler. One might argue that George Wein has offered his most adventuresome music ever (at the side stages, of course) during the 2009 and 2010 fests. In light of that fact, it is remarkable just how boring most of those “adventuresome” bands--with significant exceptions--have proved to be. At least most of the ones I did hear. It is almost as if the band leaders decided, “Hey, this is Newport. We have to tone it down for such a mainstream audience.” Not surprisingly, when you fail to bring your best stuff and fail to play as if it may be your last gig, the results are likely to be mush. I see no point in naming names. But there was a lot of “new music” mush in Newport in 2009 and 2010, and you play-it-safe musicians should know who you are...

It was a much anticipated event: two fairly large ensembles filled with outstanding musicians under the leadership of Jerry Sabatini and Charlie Kohlhase--and performing on the same stage 8/18 in alternating sets at Johnny D's. An evening of the Explorers Club--Charlie with Matt Langley, Jerry Sabatini, Jeff Galindo, Eric Hofbauer, Jef Charland, Mike Connors, and Miki Matsuki--and the Sonic Explorers--Jerry with Chris Veilleux, Jeff Galindo, Phil Sargent, John Funkhouser, Greg Loughman, and Mike Connors--did not disappoint. There were many different things going on, more than enough to keep band hawks busy taking notes and supplying the rest of us with a great variety of surprises. I imagine that no matter what kind of jazz is a person’s favorite--be it Blakey, Ayler, Lytton, or anything along that spectrum--he’d find an awful lot of good sounds to be challenged by. Some of the interest came from the overlap of musicians in the two bands. For example, the leader of each group for at least part of the time was a sideman in the other leader’s band. But the music of each band was distinct, except for the quality of the music and the energy the musicians brought to each set. Charlie’s bands have been evolving over the years, and all for the better. He began his set by announcing that the first piece came about because Charlie had some apparently free time in June and decided to write four works. As things worked out, he noted with some disappointment, Charlie was able to complete only one work. And that is the music the band opened with. Any sane musician would be glad to trade four (or more) charts for that one. I’m not sure I ever have been taken so convincingly on first hearing by any other chart he has written. The music and the performances raised the bar very high for the rest of the evening. And that brings us to the fine balance and contrast between the two bands. To oversimplify things, the Sonic Explorers revel in ethnic cultures and to a great extent pursue a neo-hard bop (if there is any such thing) attack. That fact means we had a chance to witness, among other delights, Mike Connors function as two different people on each set (in terms of percussion, at least). At the end of the evening did I try to convince the musicians to share the stage again and soon? Certainly...

In the March 2010 Journal I mentioned further adventures of the AFM, BMI, ASCAP crew that--with presumably the best intentions--pursues protectionist activities that inhibit the creative interaction of U.S. musicians with foreign musicians at the expense of both--particularly in the world of new music--and that reduce performance opportunities among U.S. musicians playing American music. And so now we have another installment in media coverage of the ongoing problem. But this time New York Times writer John Bowe comes across as being on the side of the performing rights organizations (PRO—i.e., BMI and ASCAP), emphasizing how difficult it is to get blood from hand-to-mouth venue owner turnips. Apparently in the rural southwestern U.S. there is a mix of live music and juke boxes in bars and restaurants. PRO reps seek money for any public music source. In Boston and Cambridge juke boxes are a rarity. And, because of the efforts of PRO reps, there is less and less live music in the Boston area. For example, on Copley Plaza there used to be live music in both the lobby of the Westin Hotel and the Terrace Lounge of the Copley Marriott. There may be any number of reasons for dropping live music in venues in the Boston area, but there is no question that a bank of TV screens with ubiquitous sports and blather--however mind-numbing or annoying that may be--is cheaper than paying the PRO fees. But we learn nothing about disappearing live music in Mr. Bowe’s article. Instead we see a BMI rep heroine who eschews strong-arm tactics, preferring instead a relentless velvet glove. The clincher, as covered in Bowe’s “The Music-Copyright Enforcers,” is the conclusion of the southwestern tour of our heroine who seduces the owner of an Aguila, Arizona “honky-tonk” to cough up $16 per week for the sake of BMI members (most prominently currently touring millionaire pop musicians who would be millionaires if ASCAP and BMI never existed and probably the heirs of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline). Good going, New York Times.

In a related matter, Boston area band leader Steve Hershman has just published the latest version of Hands off the Clubs!, a booklet that takes the PRO crew to task for killing live gigs of straight-ahead music. The booklet also includes a list of some compositions--such as My Man, Avalon, and Rose Room--that are old enough to avoid PRO assaults. In other words, if you perform your version of Indiana, you can tell a PRO rep to stick it in his/heroine ear. For more information on how to obtain a copy of the publication, you can write to Steve at 5 Madison Street, Somerville, MA, 02143...

The 2010 version of Frantasia took place during the third week of August and featured three nights of marathon (mostly improvised) music and other arts starting at 7 p.m. and going well beyond the pumpkin hour. Although Livermore, Maine is not in the vicinity of Boston, Frantasia is worth mentioning here because, among the performers at the fest were several people--such as Andrew Eisenberg, Joe Burgio, Walter Wright, and Andrea Pensado--who are familiar to local new music fans and because it is a useful resource for improvisors who want to get their work before a listening public and who want to network with other people who are facing similar challenges. Constructive hanging is a major part of the fest. At the heart of it all are Kathleen and Fran Szostek who really make it all happen, putting in overtime all the time so this music can be heard, performed, and digested during a week of a barrage of sights and sounds mixed with laid back verbal communication. Even now the Frantasia web site has some basic info about next year’s event for anyone who wants to perform or merely show up to catch it all…


July 2010


The summer (except for festivals) tends to be a slow time for jazz and other improvised music. Also, I spent a good deal of July outside Massachusetts. Therefore, coverage here of music in the Boston area for July is less than overwhelming. That fact does not diminish the loss of three post-Ayler musicians of great stature in the span of hardly more than a month--Fred Anderson and Bill Dixon in June and Willem Breuker (11/4/44-7/23/10) in July. In spite of the loss, the music continues without them. Some of the music in town and elsewhere celebrated their lives...

Luther Gray had just led his quintet on the previous Thursday (7/8), and here he was back at it again--because he can’t help himself; he just has to play the drums--and at a scary level and often. That tells you something about Allan Chase. Not only is he an outstanding improvisor, he surrounds himself with the best when he decides to front a band. Along with Luther the leader brought Keala Kaumeheiwa to create the scheduled trio for the 7/14 gig at the Lily Pad. But that wasn’t enough. The trio that showed up was a variation on the “baker’s dozen” in that Phil Grenadier also performed on all pieces and Jeff Galindo sat in off and on throughout the set. Now that’s one heck of a trio. It’s one heck of an anything. What a treat. Here I show up expecting a terrific trio and I discover that two of my favorite musicians are thrown into the mix as well. And the fine Chase arrangements of originals and not-quite classics were executed superbly. I think these guys had almost as much fun on the bandstand as I had catching it all. Encore...

Okka Fest 2010 (7/23-25) in Milwaukee has almost nothing to do with the Boston jazz scene. Certainly there were some performing musicians who previously had lived in the Boston area--such as Dave Rempis, Kent Kessler, Ken Vandermark, and Nate McBride--and most of the performers had made visits to clubs and galleries around here during the past quarter century. And some Bostonians were at the Fest. But that hardly is reason to cover the event in detail on this web site. As a personal aside, it was wonderful to listen to and talk to musicians at the top of their game, musicians--including but not limited to Jim Baker, Steve Hunt, Mars Williams, Michael Zerang, and the two featured legends--whom I had not seen in far too many years. However, there are a few observations about the event that may be of interest to Bostonian and other jazz fans. First, and most obviously, the passing of Bill Dixon and Fred Anderson prompted significant commentary both onstage and off throughout the three days. For example, the 7/24 afternoon performance at the Palm Tavern featuring Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler, and Michael Zerang originally was scheduled to be a feature for Fred Anderson with Kent and Michael. It was a difficult spot for Joe to find himself in, “replacing” a deceased legend. Fortunately for us, Joe is his own legend and showed why with heartfelt grace and beauty throughout the set. The final two sets of the Fest at the Sugar Maple 7/25 perhaps were the most stirring of all. Peter Brötzmann’s opening solo set began with the announcement from Peter that he had just found out that his long-time friend and European Free Jazz pioneer Willem Breuker had died on the 23rd. I don’t know how people are able to reach down and pull forth any type of statement--musical or otherwise--in such circumstances. But somehow Peter did, first on tenor sax and then on alto. The searing beauty of his work on the tenor was among the most affecting moments of my life. As a finale to his tenor statement Peter did something I had heard about but never witnessed; he closed with a jazz standard. Even though I was sitting, I felt that I had been stopped in my tracks. His performance of “I Surrender Dear” was disarmingly “conventional,” so conventional that even the moldiest chord changes fan would have been bowled over. It was stunningly beautiful by any measure, incorporating on occasion sonic glimpses of Coleman Hawkins. But I had no time to recover because Peter Brötzmann picked up the alto sax and continued to pummel my ears, eyes, and spirit with indescribable sonic poetry. Then the Fest closed via a joyous tribute to Joe McPhee with the multi-instrumentalist as the featured artist. Several years ago Ken Vandermark wrote charts for a few McPhee compositions, all of which were about a quarter century old at the time. That first performance was presented by a quartet. Then Ken approached Joe about the idea of enlarging the ensemble to feature Joe (something conceptually but not sonically like the Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaborations). Joe went for the idea, and Ken came up with seven charts featuring nine McPhee compositions. The first performance by Topology (nonet) took place last November in Chicago as something of a birthday celebration for Joe. The 7/25 performance featured the same musicians as the November performance--Joe McPhee, Jason Adasiewicz, Josh Berman, Jeb Bishop, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Dave Rempis, Ken Vandermark, Kent Kessler, Tim Daisy--but this performance was both technically tighter and spiritually looser than the November performance. How good was the festival? Both Peter and Joe loved the event. That means my ears did not lie to me...

Paul Broadnax and Peter Kontrimas opened the first set 7/21 at the Acton Jazz Cafe with “Night Mist Blues,” and the quality of what they do kept coming tune after tune. On the one hand, it is great fun and aesthetically pleasing to hear a set of classics and near-classics because we hear them so rarely on the radio or in person. On the other hand, the experience is what it is because Paul and Peter know what these works mean and how to present those meaningful sounds to an audience. I sometimes wonder if even the “regulars” know the significance of what this piano-bass duo accomplishes every week. I wonder how much they take the experience for granted. I wonder if they realize how flat and empty the same material would sound by comparison if performed by any of the young hotshots who show up in the top ten slots of the acoustic piano polls. But I don’t spend a lot of time wondering. By the start of the second set the questions disappear. I’m completely caught up in the answers...



June 2010


Pianist Dave Bryant showed up 6/6 at the Outpost with strings attached. It is an instrumental configuration I never had seen him use before. And it caused his music to go into different directions, particularly in terms of rhythm and phrasing. Very often his harmolodic groups open up and kick butt relentlessly with propulsion. There were such moments 6/6, but they were rare. Instead, there were more conversational fragments and commentary quips among the four. That’s not a negative. It’s just that the flow and phrasing were different, unexpected. But the quality was there. It is difficult to fail with someone as reliable and creative as Jeff Song on cello. And Jane Wang remains one of the most resourceful, creative bassists anywhere. Also there was a bonus. Former Bryant student Gabriel Solomon’s violin more than held its own in such potent company. Although young, Solomon obviously has had a wide range of musical experience. Nothing fazed him and he made fine musical decisions. I made a good decision 6/6. I showed up...

By now most fans of post-Ayler music know about the passing of Bill Dixon 6/15. He had a significant reputation internationally, but his impact was perhaps more profound in the Boston area than in most parts of the world. It is no exaggeration to say that there have been times when I have had the feeling that most of the new music improvisors performing around here studied either with Archie Shepp (on the faculty of UMass Amherst) or with Bennington’s Bill Dixon (or both). And among those students--both young and now long-term veterans--there is a type of awe and reverence that hangs over any conversation in which the musician/painter’s name comes up. And with Bill Dixon’s passing, the mentor’s reputation is sure to continue to grow. One example of his influence locally occurred 11/12/09 at the Outpost. It was the last time I saw him in person. The eleven-piece Citizens Orchestra (including such local luminaries as Laurence Cook, Glynis Lomon, Kevin Frenette, and Forbes Graham) was conducted by Stephen Haynes featuring improvised music inspired by Bill Dixon--both men visiting Boston from Vermont. Bill Dixon seemed quite happy with the results produced by friends and former students, and he was in a fine mood. I chatted briefly with him. He seemed in good spirits and in pretty good physical shape. I had no way to know what apparently some others knew, that he wasn’t in “pretty good physical shape.” But he was having a ball, glowing. As I was leaving, in spite of what a joyous and busy time he was having, he was thoughtful enough to tell me to say “hello” to my son Ken, with whom he had performed earlier in the year. That “hello” and many other Dixonian offerings will continue to echo for a long, long time to come...

The evening at Third Life Studio 6/12 was something of a celebration of John Cage. In that spirit, Junko Simons and John Voigt intentionally began playing while the audience was chatting and waiting for the music to start. The whole thing was a bit subversive because they began as if they were tuning up and working on the balance (which was excellent because both the cello and bass were solid body electrics). John explained eventually that what he was trying to achieve was a Cagean moment in which all sounds (including the audience sounds) were part of the music. John’s patter about the nature of the performance and other things became one of the highlights of the duo set, as it often is during his performances. However one attuned one’s ears, the music was terrific. The only complaint I have about it is that their set was too short. If you were a music fan back in the 1980s, you may remember performances by Debris and Mr. Furious. They garnered a following and often played fine music, occasionally faltering into the “Boston disease” of offering intellect at the expense of substance. Two key members of those groups were Steve Norton and Curt Newton, who showed up 6/12 in a rare duo set of music. There still are the occasional too-thoughtful slips. But most of that has disappeared from their work. The years have worn well on them, and they are as good an argument for maturity as one can find. Wherever they go musically in the future, I hope they will continue to catch up with each other (and inform us) in such duo sets. Walter Wright is one of the more highly respected electronics wizards around town, and he deserves the praise. Therefore, I was surprised and confused when I witnessed this man of the improvised world step into the world of “conduction” (or something strangely like it). He and percussionist/toy pianist Setheyny Pen began their set, and everything seemed to be going along fine, and then he began moving his electronic hand control devices in an obvious attempt to convince Ms. Pen to take specific actions on her drum kit. Based on previous Wright performances and the context of the Opensound series, I could see no reason for him to attempt to direct what she was doing. Later, Kit Demos arrived with electronic gear from Maine and joined them. Initially Demos ignored Wright’s directions, and that was all for the better. Unfortunately, eventually Demos succumbed. I tried to figure out what was going on. If Setheyny and Kit were young students who needed suggestions while they got their feet wet in the realm of free music, I could understand such actions in the context of a classroom or workshop. But this was no classroom. It was a pay-at-the-door gig. And--more important--neither Setheyny nor Kit gave the slightest hint during moments without “help” that they needed anybody’s musical commentary. Even Peter Brötzmann does no form of conducting with his completely free Tentet. Certainly no one should need conducting with a duo or trio. I look forward to welcoming Walter Wright back to the world of improvisation. At least, I hope he returns. And I’d really like to see what Setheyny and Kit (particularly on electronics rather than bass) can do without anyone’s help. For the rest of the evening a dozen participants performed John Cage’s Variations III, one of Cage’s radio pieces. It’s the kind of work that can be a lot of fun and quite enjoyable when the predominant sonic experience is rooted in the broadcast comments and music rather than static. In this case, static ruled...

Johnny D’s was the setting for another superb evening of music 6/16 when the Garrison Fewell/Eric Hofbauer Duo was the warm-up group and the Variable Density Sound Orchestra took everything home. What a warm-up duo. These guys get better every time I witness what they are doing. On the one hand, they are as comfortable as old slippers. But, if you really listen, they’ll knock you on your butt. They’ll do it quietly, subtly. But they are dangerous. We need more music like that. The Variable Density Sound Orchestra was the big surprise. In the past Garrison has brought musicians in from NY and Europe to round out the ensemble. This time all band members were local, proving that sometimes a person looks too far to find the end of his nose. All the makings were right here. No offense intended to “outside” band members. Each of them brought something special to the mix. But these folks-- Jerry Sabatini, Todd Brunel, Kelly Roberge, Eric Hofbauer, Miki Matsuki, and Dmitry Ishenko--brought their own special qualities. And in no case (local or otherwise) is there a question of professional execution of the material. The only question now is whether in the future we can expect more local or long-distance packages. I’m very interested to see where all of this goes. It seems that no matter what band members he plugs into the group, the result will be outstanding. And yet each musician has his/her own personality…

Fred Anderson, who died on June 24, performed in the Boston area only a couple times. He was a Chicago icon all the way. Nevertheless, his contributions to the development of jazz echoed in all cities in which jazz mattered. I will not run down his important contributions here. Others have attempted that with some success, as in the case of Bruce Weber in the New York Times. Even USA Today devoted its 6/28 Across the USA paragraph for the state of Illinois to the passing of Fred. I witnessed performances by and talked with Fred Anderson many times during my visits to Chicago. On a number of occasions I saw him at the Velvet Lounge, but almost always behind the bar rather than onstage. I got the feeling that somehow he was happiest--or at least most at peace--behind the counter at the bar, serving drinks and catching up with old friends. Invariably he was a gracious and charming host. Superficially he was somewhat self-deprecating, but you always knew that he had the inside track on whatever was being discussed. He’d been there and seen it all. And somehow he’d taken it all in stride.

The last time I saw Fred was at the tail end of a week-long celebration of the man by the city of Chicago (and with special accolades due to the Chicago Cultural Center’s Michael Orlove for his special combination of organizational skills and hard work). The final official event was the 8/24/06 double bill of the Fred Anderson Trio and Territory Band 6 performing Collide, a work that featured Fred improvising in front of a twelve-piece international ensemble in a manner something like the Miles Davis-Gil Evans connection--but sonically nothing like that. All this took place in front of an estimated 5,000 people at Millennium Park, Chicago. Everyone involved in the event was sky high, no one more so than Fred. As if the double bill was not enough to challenge a man of his age, the night before he had performed in a wonderful hour-long set of music at the Hideout and he had participated in two of the Territory Band rehearsals that week in preparation for the gig on the 24th. When the Millennium Park performance was over, people moved on to the new Velvet Lounge for an “unofficial” celebration of Fred. I never had been to the new place. When I finally had settled into a table with some friends, I sat back to enjoy improvisations from mix-and-match combinations of Yanks and Europeans. At one point I looked over at the door, and there was Fred, sphinx-like surveying the festivities in the packed house. I went over to say hello. He greeted me warmly and smiled about all the love he was feeling. We talked briefly. People from all over the world had sent money to help establish the new Velvet Lounge after the old one was crunched to make way for progress. Some of the musicians who performed to help raise money for the place were in the club on the 24th. It was a peaceful and happy time. Fred looked around and reflected, “I feel really loved.” And so it was. And is and will be…

Just before Gray Sargent went onstage to unpack his guitar we talked briefly. I asked how things were going with Tony Bennett. Just fine, of course. “I just got off the road with him,” Gray said, meaning that he had a little break. After all, that’s why Marshall Wood, Les Harris, Jr. and he could perform 6/8 at the Sahara Club. I told him to thank the great vocal interpreter for allowing us the chance to hear Gray. I was only partially joking. Gray is a treasure. I can’t think of a guitarist alive today that I’d rather hear do the Great American Song Book. And Mr. Bennett has taken him from us (except in the context of the singer’s gigs). Of course, it is a wonderful, symbiotic relationship. Both men benefit greatly from that relationship. But I miss Gray’s guitar work, and I looked forward with great anticipation to the trio gig on that Tuesday night. The trio more than met my wishes. They work beautifully together, each getting plenty of space. And, most important, there is plenty of Gray. When you hear him, you know immediately who it is with his signature wandering intro clips from different (but musically relevant) tunes and the fun he has with the eventual selection and perhaps other bits and pieces of other works as commentary. There is a touch of Christian but mostly Montgomery. However, unlike Wes Montgomery, Gray has stuck with the path that Montgomery forged and too soon left for greener opportunities. And we are the richer for Gray’s choice and commitment. Certainly one hopes the fine music that Tony Bennett and Gray Sargent make together continues for years to come. But I really look forward to the breaks...



May 2010


Steve Lantner makes remarkable music primarily with two groups, his trio and his quartet. I looked forward to catching his quartet 5/1 at the Outpost. But the group that showed up was not his quartet. It was a trio but not his “normal” trio. It was his quartet without the bassist--just the drums and reeds featuring the work of Luther Gray and Allan Chase, respectively. This trio raised questions of comparison with the quartet rather than the “normal” trio. There was, however, no question about quality. It was as high as ever. But the impact of a bassless ensemble was dramatic. When the quartet performs, each player has a lot of melodic space to work in freely. But the work of the bass and drums creates a barrage of information that is thrown in the direction of piano and sax, i.e., support. Without the bass the music becomes much more melodically linear. Another way of thinking about it, via “classical” music analogy, is that the quartet works something like baroque ensemble with continuo and this “ad hoc” trio works more like a Bach three-part invention. From the jazz perspective, Ornette would have loved it. I know I did...

After witnessing the terrific work of Steve, Allan, and Luther, I walked down the street to Ryles, hoping to enjoy some of the music of Jim Hobbs and his Brothers of Heliopolis. It’s a heck of a band. I got there and the place was near packed. The guy collecting the money was nice enough to let me see if I could find a decent vantage point from which to watch and hear the music. I checked the situation. Bar seats with any view of the stage were filled. There were no empty tables anywhere near the band stand. The only tables available were a few at the very back of the club. It was obvious that my view of the musicians would be less than terrific. More important, the back of the club is where the conversational noise is greatest. Hearing any sonic detail was out of the question. I was disappointed. But I had no reasonable option at the club. I left. The next day, in greater repose, the thought struck me that the situation at Ryles was both a positive and a negative. The negative perspective is that the club was so full that I could not witness the music. The positive perspective is that the club was so full that I could not witness the music...

Jon Garelick’s Giant Steps feature in the 5/4 Boston Phoenix supposedly was about the music performed at the recent New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest. Although he did write about some of the music, the primary focus of the article was the disastrous hurricanes, floods, and more recently oil spills in that Louisiana city and the resilience of the music and musicians there. Hey, the guy is supposed to be telling us about music. But he passed on that to a great extent because his job mission apparently was overcome by stuff we read about and see all the time in the clever headlines and ten-second images. Sometimes people make it a little bit clearer to us that the building is on fire and we are trapped in the elevator. Thank you for your passion, Mr. Garelick...

The name of the group is TickleJuice, certainly not a name that I would come up with. But, then again, James Merenda comes up with a lot of things I never would come up with. And I thank him for it. TickleJuice took over the bandstand (I’m loose with my language here, as locals can tell) at the Outpost 5/5, and the band really took it over. James Merenda, Tom Duprey, John Turner, Eric Byers, Jef Charland (a rare performance on guitar), and Miki Matsuki took off like a bunch of banshees and just wouldn’t quit. Noisy, infectious, ridiculous. And if banshees presage death, in this case it meant the death of boredom, business as usual, and all other nonsense that too often passes for creative music. In spite of the fine improvisations exhibited throughout the two sets of music, I think the venue was the wrong one for these folks. They should be playing somewhere in front of a dance floor because the impulse one gets in their presence definitely is to get up and boogie...

During late April I was looking over my list of “Upcoming Performance Highlights” for the beginning of May. I was struck by the fact that I had four picks for the night of May 1. As I emphasize at the beginning of the “Highlights” list, there are other gigs on any given day that are “terrific as well.” In other words, I’ve picked four gigs that I’d really love to catch (and can’t possibly do so), and there are others I’d probably dig that aren’t even on the list. All of this brings up a point that I’ve heard and stated in conversations during the past couple years, namely that we are in the midst of great jazz riches right now. We were in the doldrums artistically for the late 1990s and into much of the 2000s. But all of that seems to be behind us. It is not just that we have terrific musicians in the Boston area and some great gigs. We’ve always had that. Now the distinguishing characteristic of all the music is the quantity of the quality of the music. If you are a fan of jazz and other improvised music, this is your opportunity. Hit the cornucopia of gigs now, because we do not know what may be around the next corner...

Sometimes simplicity is the most revealing path. The program for Karayorgis-Charland-Gray Trio 5/6 at the Lily Pad was simple: one set of two works by each member of the trio. That program tells a lot. First, each of these guys is very different with very different compositional aesthetics. Second--and most important--these guys are as connected in musicianship as a piano trio can be. They think, breathe, anticipate, and play as one--in the best sense. The compositional difference merely makes their connections so apparent. One musician produces a composition—“There’s a wonderful Henry Moore Oval with Points in Franklin County Plaza in Columbus, Ohio.” The subject at hand is not their idea but they respond—“He did not produce very many in the Oval with Points series. That sculpture is rare and beautiful.” and “When I lived in Columbus, I used to stop at that sculpture every day. It gave me sustenance.” A second trio member produces an entirely different composition—“Carl Furillo was an amazing right fielder.” The responses come heartfelt and sure—“Yeah. Ebbets field was something of a mirror image of Fenway Park with the equivalent of the Green Monster as the right field wall, only more difficult to read. Furillo had the wall memorized, knowing exactly where any carom would go.” and “Yes, and his arm was a rifle, and he could hit.” Trio member number three offers--“I can see Thunderstorm Junction.” The other two would not have thought of it, but they know what it is to be there—“For those above tree line in the northern Presidentials it always is some sort of beginning or end.” and “From it you can see much to the North. Also, although you can’t see the peak of Mt. Adams from there, Thunderstorm Junction is on the shoulder of my favorite of the Presidentials.” That’s what the compositions were like, so different. And that’s what the insight of the support was like. Right in the pocket of empathy and insight...

Ben Ratliff is one of the most respected New York-based jazz writers. And justifiably so. However, initially I thought his 5/7 article in the New York Times about the plans for the SFJazz Center in San Francisco was written tongue-in-cheek. In the second paragraph he quotes the SFJazz Director, Randall Kline, as being enthused over the idea of “an institution for jazz,” claiming that “Jazz at Lincoln Center made that concept work.” Did it? What did I miss? While I was going to conventional jazz clubs and storefront galleries to catch the best improvised music I could find, was Jazz at Lincoln Center doing something important that I missed? What is it doing to bring the man-on-the-street closer to state-of-the-art jazz? What is it doing to help insure that there will be audiences and money-paying gigs for jazz musicians in New York or anywhere else tomorrow? Jazz at Lincoln Center is a box filled with nostalgia jazz. I’m glad for the established musicians that they bring in and pay big bucks to (at least, with all the hype, we hope it’s big bucks). But that does not make up for the waste of money that could be pumped into living, breathing jazz instead.

And now San Francisco is about to embark on creating the SFJazz Center, apparently modeled on Jazz at Lincoln Center. It sure sounds like Jazz at Lincoln Center. Who would have thought the Blue Note would seem like a bargain next to any other jazz gig in New York, but it is a bargain compared to Jazz at Lincoln Center (Dizzy indeed). Now folks tooling across the Golden Gate Bridge can smile in anticipation of the day when Yoshi’s basically is free (by comparison to the SFJazz Center gigs, at least). And nobody’s coughing into his hat in response to this adventure. Get out your pad and pencils and dream. The Ratliff article tells us the SFJazz folks will be breaking ground next spring bolstered by a “$60 million capital campaign, including a $10 million operating endowment.” Apparently the money started rolling when an anonymous donor threw $20 million into the pot. If I had an extra $20 million mixed in with my socks and gave the money to a group attempting such a project, I’d want to remain anonymous also. Let’s see, the $10 million operating endowment will not be enough to keep it going. So there will be annual campaigns to raise money from people so caught up in British imports on PBS that they have no idea who Buddy Tate is, let alone someone pushing the envelope today. But the right huckster will raise the money anyway. And then there are the tens of millions of dollars required to build the mausoleum for jazz performance in SF. The sad irony is that $60 million could do a lot for jazz musicians. If you just took that money and put it into an interest-bearing account, that would be a good start. Then each year you could take 80% of the accrued interest (rolling the remaining 20% back into the account) and do useful stuff with it. One example. (Then I have to try to forget all this depressing news.) I’ll bet there are ground-breaking jazz musicians in SF who would like to tour around the US and/or Europe, but they can’t because Left Coast musicians are stuck in the Left Coast. (By the way, the same is true on the East Coast; a guy can take a tour to Chicago from New York, but it gets too expensive to go to Seattle). Some of that income could go to creative musicians who need cash to travel. Call it the Troubadour Fund...
5/12/11 Update: Work on the SFJazz Center continues with plans to open the facility in the fall of 2012. But things do not sound any better than they did when plans first were announced. In his 5/7 SFGate.com (the Chronicle’s online service) article Jesse Hamlin tells us that the new building will replace an apparently functional auto repair facility on the corner of Fell and Franklin streets. (Just a question in passing: Which are you likely to need more in the coming years, an auto repair shop or a jazz mausoleum?) Mr. Hamlin continues, “It features a flexible 700-seat, amphitheater-like performance space designed to feel more like a club than a concert hall. The goal, [architect Mark] Cavagnaro said, was to create a room that has the energy and intimacy of a club with the acoustic quality of a great hall like Carnegie.” I’m not making this up. For those of you who do not get out much, I’ll point out a couple fundamental problems. How anyone could imagine that a 700-seat facility (“flexible” or otherwise) would “feel more like a club than a concert hall” is difficult to comprehend. I’ve been to jazz venues of all sizes, and my experience is that (depending on a variety of factors) somewhere between 200 and 300 seats the “club” becomes a jazz festival venue (i.e., devoid of intimacy). I’ve posed the question of the limits of intimacy with several jazz folks, and the responses tend to fall into the 150 to 200 range. If that’s not bad enough, the architect wants to create a jazz room with “the acoustic quality of a great hall like Carnegie.” Yes, the acoustics of Carnegie Hall are terrific, IF you are listening to a performance of so-called classical music. That venerated venue is not exactly where you want to be if you are trying to listen to jazz. To explain, if architect Cavagnaro succeeds in duplicating Carnegie’s acoustic qualities, virtually any gig by an ensemble of three or more musicians will require mic-ing with a professional sound system. In other words, this projected “flexible” venue of 700 seats will offer jazz fans virtually NO completely acoustic music. Again, I cannot know exactly what the experience of readers of this journal may be like, but a vast majority of the jazz gigs I go to are acoustic gigs. And I like it that way. So, unless the SFJazz folks are planning to present an awful lot of solo piano and solo guitar gigs, true acoustic jazz (the way the music has been performed in public most of the time virtually from the beginning of the twentieth century) will be a rarity in the Mausoleum by the Golden Gate. I could go on, but you get the idea...

Tom Hall keeps putting together often unexpected small groups each time he brings us his experimental Sessions. Some combinations work better than others. For example, Curt Newton was a good choice for the 5/9 Session (or perhaps any of Tom’s Sessions). Curt has performed in groups with tightly controlled material as well as outings that are as loose as it gets. So, no matter whom Tom brought with him this time, Curt was going to be right there with the right stuff all the time. And he was. This was a trio, the other leg of the tripod being Eric Hofbauer. Totally free music is not the kind of material that I associate with Eric. But Eric pushes the music with his own groups and he’s a student, a serious one. You’re not going to fool him by playing a recording of Evan Parker or John Tilbury. Eric has his preferences, but the door is not closed. And so Eric’s chordal leanings were not a disadvantage. In fact I got the impression he used his comfortable aesthetics to stretch the tendencies of the other two guys. It was all to the better. Also, there were many fine elements to this gig that may be thought of as peripheral to the music played. One factor is the continuing growth of Curt on percussion. His music always was good, searching. But during the past few months (and I know I’ve said this before) he’s been playing the best music of his life. It was more of the same 5/9. The other peripheral element of the evening was the meeting of two of the more important new music entrepreneurs in town, Tom and Eric. As you may have figured out, Tom is in the middle of his Sessions series, a pursuit that makes no sense at all. There is no potential personal gain in sight. It’s all about the music and sharing it with other humans. Eric is the primary force behind CNMPro, the cooperative that produces gigs, recordings, and promotions for a creative handful of musicians. That organization would not exist without Eric’s selfless penchant for putting money and time into something that no normal person would think of as meaningful. Yes, I know there are other people in the Boston area who spend time and money selflessly on behalf of creative music with no conventional payback. And the scene probably would not exist without them. But I found the meeting of these entrepreneurs particularly enjoyable because they were so obviously into it for the music 5/9 at the Outpost...

Generally I do not cover what’s going on in other areas of the country, unless something a little different is happening. Such was the case during a visit to NY for a few days recently. “Where’s Waldo?” you may have been asking. I had not seen his name in years, but apparently ragtime’s Terry Waldo is chugging along just fine, thanks. I caught his upright piano music during lunch in Bryant Park 5/17. The notice about his gig suggests he’s there every weekday lunchtime this summer. Then, at the opposite end of the chronological/aesthetic spectrum, a few days earlier I checked out the status of the Fluxus gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Staring at me from one wall were two wonderful posters from the Fluxus movement. On one poster among a list of event participants was none other than Peter Brötzmann. Next to that poster was one featuring the name of Dutch music master, Misha Mengelberg (spelled “Misja” of course). Enthused, I emailed the tarogato master with photos of the posters as attachments. He responded warmly in an email, in part saying, “I took part in both of these activities [represented by the two posters], setting up the PAIK exhibition and the two night FLUXUS in this small cinema...” The German new music pioneer was among the earliest artists to work with Nam June Paik, the video art pioneer. In the email he mentioned that during the Fluxus event with Mengelberg it was the first time he met and talked with the pianist. Fluxus lives. And so does history...



For part of the time when I was a child on Long Island, I saw jazz on TV every weekday when I came home from elementary school. Tyree Glenn had a small group (sometimes with Johnny Hodges on sax) on the Ted Steele Show. Eventually there must have been a rift between Glenn and Steele, because Steele remained on channel 9 and Glenn moved over to WPIX (channel 11). But jazz with the trombonist/vibes player continued every day. Even as late as the 1960s, Father O’Connor and later Herb Pomeroy had jazz on local PBS television on a weekly basis in the Boston area. Of course, jazz on the radio was even more ubiquitous during those years. But live or recorded jazz today is rare on even the radio, and even more rarely of decent quality. And so the occasional live jazz broadcasts are something to look forward to, especially when the music and the production are handled as well as they were 5/19 on WGBH-FM. The engineering was fine and the context was handled pretty well by Eric Jackson. But the best part was that the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra showed up really ready to play. As some people may have recalled, on occasion the JCAO shows up for regular gigs more attuned to the idea of trying out new material—experimenting—rather than worrying about programming or connecting with audiences. Not so this time. Darrell Katz and friends thought about the fact that they would be dealing with a radio audience and obviously gave serious thought to such things as time (“Hey, how many minutes am I really going to get to play in a one-hour slot?”) and programming (“Can we can get away with the same tempo and dynamic range on every piece?”). I’d go so far as to say to any band leader considering performing on WGBH, take a listen to this broadcast to see how to make your band sound as good as possible to a one-hour audience. Among the reasons for the fine performance were an effectively sequenced set of charts by Norm Zocher, Bob Pilkington, Katz, and David Harris, respectively. Also the folks showed up to play. In addition to the arrangers mentioned, there were Mike Peipman, Gary Bohan, Casey Brefka, Bill Lowe, Allan Chase, Rick Stone, Phil Scarff, Ben Whiting, Jim Mosher, Hiro Honshuku, James Peipon, Rebecca Shrimpton, Bruce Thomas, Alex Smith, Luther Gray, and Taki Masuko. And they played/sang their butts off...

When one considers the Melissa Kassel Quartet it probably is understandable that the listener’s attention would turn primarily to the leader and Tom Zicarelli. They have been together the longest, going back to the middle of the 1990s at least. Also, a majority of the material that the quartet presents has been written by the two of them separately and together, mostly together. Certainly it makes sense to pay particular attention to and praise the two of them. However, the other two members of the group did not fall out of a tree recently. They have been making significant contributions to the development of the quartet for years. It is at the point where one is tempted to suggest that Phil Grenadier is essential to the character and success of the ensemble. No doubt there are three or four other trumpet players in the Boston area who would work fairly well in this context, but I can think of none who understates so profoundly what is necessary to the personality of the band. In keeping with that role, Phil’s solos are as powerful for what they imply as what they state. That kind of music is central to the character of the group. The band is better than it was before Bruno Råberg joined it. It is a band that takes risks. He’s another essential element because--like the others--he does not hesitate to take risks. Easily as important is the fact that Bruno takes a lot of the risk out of other band members’ adventures. How bad a mistake can someone make when Bruno is there to--not just cover--but help turn the mistake into a thing of beauty? I’m sure there were some fluffs along the way--hey, you’re not trying if you don’t make mistakes--when the quartet performed 5/29 at the Lily Pad. But I missed them, and I’m sure Bruno didn’t. I can’t walk away from that gig without mentioning that the group cranked it up another level on that night. Everyone seemed to be on fire (in the best sense). Melissa’s voice was in top form. And the programming (particularly in terms of thematic variety and tempo) was outstanding. If there was anyone in the audience who thinks he didn’t get his money’s worth, he just wasn’t listening...

Not surprisingly, the Tribute to Joe Maneri at the Cathedral of St. Paul on the Boston Common 5/21 was something of a music marathon. There were more celebratory events taking place in the church than could fit into the planned three-hour tribute. I will not attempt a rundown here. It should be said that every performance was heartfelt and--given the general artistic quality of the people involved--appreciated by those in attendance. I found the efforts of Maneri family members particularly fine. Mat, for example, opened with some insightful and affecting words about his father, concluding with a comment about Joe’s special affection for Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss.” True, and Joe was a huge Ellington fan in general. Mat followed those words with an exceptional improvised effort on the viola with only the barest hints at “Prelude to a Kiss.” A short time later another highlight featured Mat and Pandelis Karayorgis (longtime friends and band mates) in performance of “Prelude to a Kiss,” this time staying with the original line but inevitably (given the participants) making it somewhat elusive. Joe’s wife Sonja joined forces with Steve Meshon to read selections from Joe’s “nonsense” poetry. This special art form of Joe’s is something of a mix of doubletalk, scat singing minus the music, and Babbitt’s Phonemena gone haywire—but at the same time none of those. Occasionally it sounds as if it might be poetry from someone who spent most of his life split between central Europe and Scandinavia. It was a courageous effort, both because of the general difficulty of the material and because that poetry is so closely identified with Joe, particularly in terms of his style of presentation. My word. They nailed the material, and with flair. I hope Sonja and Steve will do performances at future concerts. Near the very end of the evening, Abe Maneri spoke about his relationship to his father and told us that he would perform one of Joe’s favorite hymns. Sounds fine, right? So simple. If I had not been sitting down, the performance would have knocked me on my can. Abe sang the hymn straight. The melody and words were recognizable. But with it, Abe played the piano. I didn’t even know he played the piano. But he did not just play it. He transformed the instrument with energy and clashing sonorities. You’ve probably seen professional choral groups listen to a tuning device before singing. The ear is a delicate thing when it comes to intonation. Abe sang the hymn straight and with almost casual concentration while he hit the keyboard with clusters and a variety of other tools of dissonance. The effect was something like having two radio stations tuned in at the same time, only better. It struck me as an intentional Cagean performance, even though such intention would be “illegal” for Cage. Yes, the Maneri family carried the flag well. There was one performance of a composed piece that was extraordinarily effective. So-called classical music is outside the realm of my music coverage, but John McDonald’s performance of Joe Maneri’s Sonata (1959) warrants mention here for at least two reasons. First, of course, is the fact that it is a relatively early work, heavily influenced by the music of Schoenberg. Second, and most important, is the quality of both the composition and the performance by Mr. McDonald. I had heard old, scratchy (i.e., from devastated 78 RPM recordings) parts of the work before, but none of that gives you a hint as to how superb it is. There is talk of a recording of Joe’s Piano Concerto from about the same period to be performed by a local symphony orchestra and John McDonald at the keyboard. I’ve heard a slightly less scratchy version of that work, and it’s a killer. I hope the recording is not merely talk. I’m lining up to buy a copy already. And the evening in general was wonderful. Here are the rest of the participants from the official list. I hope no one is left out: Jennifer Ashe, Brad Barrett, James Bergin, Ed Broms (who made the church available for the tribute), Leonardo Ciampa, Clayton DeWalt, Glenn Dickson, Jorrit Dijkstra, Moses Eder, John Fugarino, Avery Griffin, David Haas, Tom Halter, Katt Hernandez, Will Lang, Dan Levin, John McLellan, Hankus Netsky, Ben Schwendener, Uwe Steinmetz, Christopher Watford, Julia Werntz, and James Wylie. At about three hours into the celebration, there still were several musicians who had not had a chance to perform. No doubt all would have been deeply disappointed not to have had the opportunity to say something musically. James Bergin invited all those musicians up front to participate in a group improvisation. This idea could have failed miserably. After all, almost every musician who showed up had some type of plan to present something unique in memory of Joe. One could understand someone sitting on his hands, passing on the opportunity. But it did work. Mat--he’s smart, you know--walked up front and began improvising on his viola. It was a superbly insightful gesture. Others joined him. And who could refuse Mat? Soon we had a host of celebratory improvisors closing out the evening. And maybe that was the best event of the tribute. It’s the kind of event Joe would have joined most happily himself had he been there. Maybe he was...


April 2010


It was a fine double bill 4/4 at the Lily Pad, kicking off with the Gill Aharon ensemble (including Andy Voelker, Andrew Stern, Jef Charland, and Randy Wooten). Gill is a passionate pianist whose activities as booker and manager of the Lily Pad make him one of the most important contributors to the Boston area jazz scene. He deserves our thanks for those efforts. But, as he demonstrated 4/4, Gill also knows how to get a bunch of disparate and talented people to come together to make surprisingly engaging music. It’s all straight ahead, but the drums and guitar are immersed in the rock legacy more than the jazz continuum. Not what you’d expect, but it did not sound at all like jazz fusion. Rather it was convincing straight ahead material that somehow featured rock guitar licks that meshed beautifully with everything else going on without compromising the rock or the jazz. Make sense? No? It doesn’t, but it did. Thanks. After a traffic delay between Boston and central Connecticut, the second band finally got off the ground. This band also was screwed up to great advantage, but differently. The Outnumbered (the name sounds like wishful thinking about audiences) consisted of the odd instrumentation of two horns, piano, and drums. Fortunately Josh Rosen and Curt Newton know all about structure and gave Charlie Kohlhase and Left Coast visitor Jason Robinson plenty of cushion to work with. The charts were sometimes ancient and sometimes new, but they all sounded as if they just came out of the oven. Nice solos all around. Maybe we’ll get another shot at this band before the year is over (because apparently Jason Robinson will be visiting again). Good news...

Michael Zwerin died 4/2 at age 79 in Paris. He is best known as the author of such books as Close Enough for Jazz and articles for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and other respected periodicals. As far as I know, he had little or no connection to Boston. But his impact on me perhaps is worth mentioning because it’s a story about the kinds of things that happen to art lovers in Boston and everywhere. I refer to his somewhat brief career as a jazz musician and one byproduct of that pursuit. I was in my mid-twenties and--as always--a jazz fan. I had heard much, but for reasons I cannot explain (other than the fact that Eric Dolphy was too far out for the radio stations of those days) I had heard of but never really heard the sounds of Eric Dolphy. I cannot explain why I picked up a copy of Mack the Knife and Other Berlin Theater Songs of Kurt Weill (RCA Victor LPM-3498). I certainly did not know who Michael Zwerin was (and remember being hesitant in my purchase for that reason). Maybe I bought it because the band members were quality musicians. Maybe it was the fact that the music of Weill was featured. I suspect that it may have been simply the opportunity to hear something from Dolphy. In any event, I am certain that--other than flute--I never had heard any music by Dolphy prior to putting that LP on the turntable. Dolphy’s on only one side of the LP, but that was enough. I can remember being impressed over the years by several remarkable musicians on first hearing. But not like this. In my memory I can see my head snap in shock upon hearing Dolphy’s first solo on the album. And I played the grooves off. I’m tempted to say that the recording changed my life, even though that would be an exaggeration. But certainly it changed the way I heard music. It is not a minor matter that Eric Dolphy died between the recording of side one and side two of the album (being replaced by Jerome Richardson). So the album is both musically and historically significant. And it is even more significant to me in its personal impact. Michael Zwerin was the group leader and bass trumpet player on those sides. It was his album. Thank you, Michael Zwerin. I hope you are resting well...

There’s something paradoxical about the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra. It is known as one of the major pillars of new or avant-garde jazz in Boston, and yet the arrangements sound like they have far more in common with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band circa 1980 than the far more recent charts of—for example—Barry Guy, Fredrik Ljungkvist, or Cecil Taylor. To appreciate the band as a local music icon one must put that thought aside and consider the fact that one of the two “new” primary qualities of the band is that, for the most part, it is a band that (partially because of the charts and mostly because of the leadership of Mark Harvey) remains forever young. That youthful exuberance applies equally to the younger members of the band and the decades-long associations. One of the latter that comes to mind is Arni Cheatham who, surviving major surgery recently, was pushing music and joy to a level beyond anyone else 4/11 at Kresge Auditorium. No doubt he was happy to be alive, but with that band he’s always vital. The other “new” primary quality of the band is the confident freedom each musician has when it is time to solo. One senses no rules. In other words, a musician in the band can take the music as inside or outside as he/she sees fit with no anticipation of anything but full support of the other band members in doing so. Things like that happen because that type of atmosphere has been established in the band for years. Mark Harvey needs to take primary responsibility for the functional atmosphere because he is the most durable factor in all of this. There are other band qualities that endure, none of them stronger than the ensemble’s social and political consciousness. Again, the band leader is the primary force here also. The subject matter of the pieces on the bill is typically socio-political: “Blue Butterfly” (a tribute to the late Boston icon Brother Blue, with the wife of the master storyteller in the audience), three new pieces in tribute to jazz pioneer Mary Lou Williams, “De-Evolution Blues” (a work that’s becoming something of an ongoing commentary about our culture and politics in general), and finally a brand new four-part suite on health care reform including “The Moment” (the actual signing of the bill), “The Lion” (the late health care champion from Massachusetts), “The Shrill” (typical Mark Harvey commentary about a target, in this case the former Republican governor and neighbor of Russia), and “The Arc” (a reference to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “The arc bends slowly...”). Of course Aardvark is not just about Mark Harvey. It is appropriate to mention that all hands performed solo and ensemble passages convincingly, and some improvisations were a step higher than most, particularly those by Arni Cheatham, Phil Scarff, Taylor Ho Bynum, and Jay Keyser. For those of you looking for more of the same, you might want to show up at the Mary Lou Williams Centennial Celebration 5/9 at Boston College (617/552-4002) to witness again the new Aardvark pieces in tribute to the jazz giant and performances by BC students and pianist Geri Allen, among others...

I write about jazz, but I love all art forms. That is not surprising. All the arts inform each other, and each benefits. Therefore, although the focus of this web site is jazz, I find it difficult to remain quiet in light of Maestro James Levine’s ongoing health problems. During his six years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra he has missed 13 percent of his performances due to cancer surgery, a torn rotator cuff, and most recently his back. Understandably people are concerned. Like many music fans, I was enthusiastic when Levine was hired by the BSO as Music Director. I had some of his recordings and his reputation was enormous. After having a chance to witness his leadership over the six years of his tenure, I have come to the conclusion that he probably is the finest symphonic conductor anywhere. For some time I was of the minority opinion that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (for decades under the leadership of Levine) was really the finest orchestra in the world. Then I saw Levine work with the BSO, raising its performance level with each season. The turning point for me (if not for the orchestra) was the 12/4/08 concert in which Carter’s “Interventions” for Piano and Orchestra was premiered. Of course, the Carter was amazing, but it was what the orchestra was doing (and not doing) behind soloist Daniel Barenboim during Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 that convinced me the BSO had crossed a threshold. I was convinced they could do virtually anything. They had hit the top. Passing time has reinforced that view. In spite of Levine’s absences, apparently he works enough with the orchestra that the growth continues. Whatever he or his substitutes want from the orchestra, they give it--and do so wonderfully. Whether a substitute or merely a programmed alternative conductor, that person gets what he (or she) asks for. I’ve witnessed some terrible conducting (not always from substitutes) and have been amazed at the reaction of the orchestra. If the interpretation is bad, the orchestra performs that interpretation at an extraordinary level. I’ve never known of a world class orchestra so consistently responding to poor work from the podium with better than is deserved. If it’s Mozart and the conductor asks for salt water taffy, the orchestra provides exactly taffy so clearly defined that you can smell the ocean and feel the boardwalk beneath your feet. It may not be Mozart, but it is amazing in its perception of and response to the conductor.

Not long after the arrival of James Levine in Boston I became convinced that his tenure with the BSO was the most important single event to take place in the arts in Boston during more than a quarter century. I have become convinced that statement is an understatement. I’m not going to go into an explanation as to why I feel that way. It may be sufficient to repeat that all arts are interconnected and to say that my view is not insignificant to a great extent because my first love is jazz. I believe that jazz is a form of music that is superior to so-called “classical” music. I do not assess James Levine’s importance lightly. In contemplating the state of affairs with the BSO, I do not have a simple answer to the problem. It may be that a “final” operation and subsequent regimen may be enough to fix things. It may mean fewer performances per year under the baton of Maestro Levine (and I would be happy to live with that, if the BSO could make that work). But, whatever it is, I hope it is approached with greater seriousness and optimism than I have witnessed in recent publications locally. I like sports as much as most fans and I believe they are important, but I believe the arts are far more important than any sports. We know, for example, about the works of Homer and Sophocles, but I know no one personally who can tell me who the winners in the ancient Olympics were. There is a reason for that. And yet I see the first two paragraphs of the 4/7 Boston Globe article by Geoff Edgers presented as the beginning of a Hollywood or Sports gossip column:

“Will the Boston Symphony Orchestra sever ties with its famed maestro?

“As music director James Levine prepares for back surgery that could keep him from taking the podium at Tanglewood this summer, frustrations are building within the orchestra, and a stunning detail has emerged: Levine has no signed contract with the BSO.”

Is this the opening of a story about one of the judges on American Idol or paraphrased from an old article on Manny and the Red Sox? I apologize. I admit to getting carried away by the sensationalist rhetoric and responded with my own edge-of-the-seat question. But you get the idea. It is a big story in the arts--both here and in New York--but the implications are more important than the “story.” Let’s hope that the key people involved--and potentially that is not just James Levine and the BSO--do their damnedest to make sure Boston does not mess this one up...

During a conversation after the conclusion of his performance with Tom Plsek 4/20 at the Outpost, Joe Morris said, “This is the first time we’ve played together as a duo.” That fact is historically interesting. However, of greater historical significance is what he mentioned shortly after that, namely that the first time the two of them had played together in any musical context was 1977. The durability of their ongoing relationship over the years as improvisors is one of the reasons I had high expectations going into the gig. I expected Joe’s extraordinary musicianship on the guitar and Tom’s extraordinary musicianship on the trombone to result in musical excellence. I was not surprised, for example, when each of them added all kinds of paraphernalia to or disassembled their instruments. Most of all I expected profound mutual rapport when they carried out their completely improvisatory conversations. Throughout a single extended set of music, Joe and Tom did not meet my expectations. They exceeded them. I know that sometime around December 31 I will look back on this evening of music as one of the best of the year...

In a 4/15 email Amazing Things’ Michael Moran announced that Leonard Brown had been selected to (and accepted) the post as member of the Board of the Framingham-based arts organization. Long time Boston area jazz fans know well Leonard Brown’s reputation as faculty member of Northeastern University, musician, and backbone of the annual John Coltrane Memorial Concert at Northeastern. His appointment makes sense because of the saxophonist/band leader’s familiarity with the arts in general and Amazing Things’ continuing commitment to presenting local jazz artists (including the Tuesday evening jazz jams every week). The appointment is temporary because all Board members must be elected by the entire ATAC membership; no doubt the wise membership will officially elect Professor Brown to the Board at the ATAC annual meeting...

Although I haven’t heard it much recently, even regarding straight-ahead performances, there used to be a cliché about gigs in jazz clubs. It went something along the lines of: “Don’t bother to show up for the gig until the second set.” First sets were flat so often (to be followed by outstanding second sets) that I pitied the local jazz press with 10:30 p.m. deadlines. Those unfortunate writers had to leave before the good music happened. There were exceptions, of course. Johnny Griffin comes to mind. He and his combos always hit the bandstand running (and kept it up all night). Apparently in recent years the second set syndrome had disappeared. But not quite--because I experienced déjà vu 4/27 at Ryles. Judi Silvano and her band mates were professional, doing all the right things, taking nice solos, and carrying out a laundry list of all the things a jazz gig is supposed to do. And they are all fine musicians. Joe Lovano, John Funkhouser, Bruce Gertz, and Yoron Israel justifiably warrant anticipation of music at the highest level. But, for reasons I’m not quite sure about (maybe to some extent because they never had played in that particularly configuration before), the music did not quite come alive. It was as if they were playing under water. Nevertheless, after the first set it was good to see Judi, Bruce, and others and catch up on things. I went back to the bar to finish my drink and to then leave. But fate and a couple reed players didn’t allow that.

When I got back to my beer I found Joe Lovano having a bite before the next set. We talked about music and food--mostly by way of talking about George Garzone--and had a very engaging experience. Believing he needed a little private cuisine time, I let him finish his food. I turned to my left and there was Andy Voelker. Of course, we had much to talk about. Andy has a catalogue of opinions, all of them thoughtful and thought-provoking. By the time we got through half the catalogue, it was time for the second set to start. It seemed silly for me not to give the band a second-set chance. And so here I thank Joe Lovano and Andy Voelker for creating circumstances that made my witnessing the second set of music inevitable. This was the positive energy I expected from Messieurs Funkhouser, Gertz, and Israel, even on the ballads (where it belongs also). This was the searching, bandstand lifting Joe Lovano that I had hoped for. This was the high wire act vocalist I was telling you about. How? Why? What? I don’t know. But I’m glad I caught it...

I love to travel, to visit other places. But I’m one of those folks who’s not happy with the idea of moving. I’ve done it several times but do not enjoy the experience. I’ve spent most of my life in New York and New England and am committed to the idea that I must remain somewhere in the Boston-NYCity corridor. Not everyone feels that way. Some people, such as Katt Hernandez, are restless. They’ve got to pack up and move on. Katt has lived in the Boston area off and on for a couple decades or more, but she keeps testing the water in places as disparate as Philadelphia and rural Vermont. And now she’s about to take off for Sweden--not as a visitor, but as a resident. She will be in the Boston area probably through the end of May. And so it is important to catch her while you can. That’s what I did 4/26 when she and Andrew Neumann played a too brief set at the Outpost. Immediately any listener could tell that they knew each other well. Her violin and his electronics did not just talk to each other. It was more like a single violin with electronic attachments performed by a master of the violin with electronic attachments. Her playing always is superb, and it is a treat to hear what she does when she is challenged by such an expert electrician. Andrew Neumann offered a wide range of interesting sounds performed with great subtlety and insight, something that is lacking in many would-be pursuers of electronic sounds. One hears the pretenders and is surprised--as the pretenders are--by the accidents. One hears Andrew and is surprised by the intension and execution of the music. I mentioned how well the intention and the improvisation worked for him, and he said, “Well, I practice quite a bit.” Another lesson in the importance of practice. These folks--at least the profound ones--do not fall out of trees.

The second set was devoted to the reeds of Steve Norton and the speakers and electronics of Vic Rawlings. Although he works with duck calls and found objects, Steve has not abandoned his saxophones, and that’s a good thing. He was there in the mid-1980s in such groups as Debris and Mr. Furious (the latter one of the most underrated or too-little-known Boston-based ensembles of the period), and these ensembles helped set the stage for significant new music activity in the 1990s and beyond. Steve and Vic operated at a more intense volume level than the folks in the first set, once again demonstrating that one dynamic range does not fit all. There were momentary exceptions, but for the most part Vic set the table and Steve danced on it. They are wise enough to let the more flexible reeds do the flips and turns and the electronics make dramatic changes to the pavement. A fine alternative to the first set. Years ago, when I first witnessed Vic’s music, he was working exclusively with an acoustic cello. Then, in groups such as Bhob Rainey’s BSC, I noticed that gradually electronics began to creep into the music and eventually push the cello aside. I asked Vic 4/26 about that transformation and the fact that there was no cello in this duo with Steve. Basically, he claims, he has grown fonder and fonder of the electronics. “But,” he emphasized, “I have not abandoned the cello completely.” Either way--cello or no cello--I know I’m in for some sonic fun. And the fun did not end with the second set. When it was over, Steve and Vic invited Katt to return to the stage. Andrew had packed his equipment already. Nevertheless, it was the perfect conclusion to a fine evening. Before I left, I told Katt we need her in Boston. She said, “You know, I really think of Boston as home.” Ah. There’s hope for us fans...



March 2010


To kill a little time while a delayed Chris Lopes wended his way to the gig 3/7 at the Outpost, Pandelis Karayorgis (a great fan of both Monk and Tristano, among others), told of a Tristano Conference he had attended a few years ago. He said, the place “was full of people who worshipped Lennie Tristano.” During a lull, someone’s cell phone rang with a “Straight No Chaser” ring tune. The place went silent, and “everyone stared.” Blasphemy! Sometimes there are people like that--both funny and sad. Fortunately Chris did make the gig, and it was worth the wait. Joining Chris and Pandelis were Curt Newton (playing the scariest music of his life these days) and Jorrit Dijkstra (who seems to be making music on every gig in town this year). Lucky us. There were tunes by Monk and other classics as well as some fine originals. And this was no pickup band. The music obviously was rehearsed (how else to negotiate the curves and bumps?), but each musician brought his own music to the interpretation of the material and to each solo. Maybe that was one of the great adventures of the evening: witnessing disparate personalities take the same material to unexpected places. And that’s what we’re supposed to be looking for, those unexpected places...

The MacDowell Medal is one of America’s most prestigious, but it also is an award that gives one pause. So many of its honorees have received the award in the last decade of their lives that it is something of a “farewell award.” Let’s hope that is not the case this year because--as announced on March 1--the MacDowell Colony will present its 51st Edward MacDowell Medal to Sonny Rollins on August 15. He will be the first jazz musician ever to have received the award, and certainly it is deserved, if not long overdue. As prestigious as the award is, its academic veneer dulls some of that prize’s shine this year. Several times in the announcements regarding this year’s Medal recipient, the Colony suggests that Sonny Rollins is receiving the honor because he is a “legendary jazz composer.” There is no denying that “Doxy,” “Oleo,” and many other of his compositions are certifiable jazz classics. However, if Sonny Rollins is getting this award because he is a jazz musician, let’s be straight about WHY he deserves it. He deserves it because he is a great jazz musician. And while his compositions are part of the package, it is his unsurpassed jazz improvisations that should be celebrated. It is after all the improvisations that are at the heart of what jazz is all about. The award ceremony will be open to the public shortly after noon on the MacDowell Colony grounds in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Jazz critic Gary Giddins will “introduce Rollins and describe his life and work to the audience.”

Comments about the award by Sonny Rollins caused me to ponder once again the absence of any words in person by Rollins in the entire Ken Burns Jazz series on PBS. The thought hit me then and remains that maybe the producers of the PBS series did not think Rollins was an articulate spokesman on his own behalf. Anyone who heard the 3/17 interview with the jazz giant on WBUR-FM knows that thought is nonsense. As another example, the Colony press release quotes Rollins as saying, “I’m proud and pleased to be selected to receive this very special prize. Edward MacDowell’s spirit engaged me many years ago when, as a child, I was inspired by his composition To a Wild Rose. Later, I had the opportunity to make it a part of my repertoire, performing it on many occasions and eventually recording it. Somehow I feel I’m getting to meet him again.” The statement is thoughtful and witty. No doubt the Ken Burns documentary could have used similarly articulate comments by Rollins. Not convinced? Try this Rollins statement quoted in the Colony press release: “I am convinced that all art has the desire to leave the ordinary. But jazz, the world of improvisation, is perhaps the highest, because we do not have the opportunity to make changes. It’s as if we were painting before the public, and the following morning we cannot go back and correct that blue color or change that red. We have to have the blues and reds very well placed before going out to play. So for me, jazz is probably the most demanding art. I believe that jazz is the music which best expresses the stirrings of the human soul.” Yes, thoughtful. And on the money. Maybe the folks from PBS asked him to be involved in the Ken Burns production, and Sonny Rollins thought that would not be a good idea...

I remember the first few times I caught Patricia Adams doing her monthly gig at Ryles. She was personable and did a fine job of engaging the audience. And she was a game vocalist, fighting her way through virtually every tune she tackled. She did not always win the battle, but I was drawn to her willingness to fail in the attempt. Since that time I have--almost as a byproduct of my reviews of her performances--documented her progress from those early stages in her development. One of the intriguing things about the evolution of her performances is that she did not start out as a graduate of Berklee or some other music school. She began focussed musical pursuits part-time a few years before retirement. If we use “normalcy” as a measure, what she did was just plain stupid. When one considers the late start and the fact that she began her full-time career when most vocalists’ voices are failing, it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that she has some screws loose. And, while she may in fact have some screws loose, they haven’t gotten in the way of her pursuit. Over the years she has plodded away, working on new material, seeking advice from Ray Santisi and other experienced musicians, and showing up at the Inman Square club with sword in one hand and microphone in the other, tackling with determination each week’s (usually) full house. I was thinking about such things as I listened to her work with Ray Santisi, Dave Zox (doing a fine job subbing for Greg Loughman), and Gary Johnson 3/7 at the club. Patricia’s progress has been more than remarkable. Her voice has improved and--even more important--she has much better command of how to use it. Even on those rare occasions when she finds herself in over her head, she does not fight the song. She let’s it--sometimes eventually--come to her. And all of this improvement has resulted in confidence, not the studied and sometimes forced “confidence” she and others on the upward path engage in, but a great calm of self-assurance indicating that she knows what she is trying to do and that occasional failure is merely a price you pay on the way. Now the larger fundamentals are behind her, and she can hone the finer fundamentals and pursue--as all the fine vocalists preceding her did--the art of repertoire. That’s an ongoing tall order. But at least she has no reason to fight her way through the material. Happily I saw no evidence of the sword on my March visit to witness her music...

Jazz radio personality Ray Smith died February 26 at age 87. He hosted The Jazz Decades each Sunday on WGBH-FM since 1972 and fronted the Paramount Jazz Band which performed primarily in eastern Massachusetts. His playlist included music through the 1930s with emphasis on early and revivalist jazz. The show continued after he and his wife moved to the Hilton Head, South Carolina area in 1997. He recorded his show there each week for later broadcast from Boston. His strong, distinctive New England accent helps explain his popularity in the Boston area but makes one wonder how his Southern neighbors could understand him. Nevertheless, his passion for early music was obvious and infectious. He enjoyed particularly some less celebrated musicians--such as Bob Crosby--and specialized in digging up lesser-known and unknown two-beat groups for celebration on his show. Fortunately, WGBH plans to keep his show alive by re-playing his timeless offerings each Sunday as usual. Think of it as “recordially yours.” Also the station plans a tribute to him on April 11...

One of the problems with the protectionist pursuits of the Musicians Union in the United States is that many of those pursuits historically have been either counter-productive or silly. An example of the former is the Immigration Act of 1990 which closed (or at least narrowed) the doorway to the United States for foreign musicians. Sponsoring that kind of protectionist legislation by the American Federation of Musicians apparently is based on the questionable assumption that someone such as Vladimir Ashkenazy is going to take away gigs from Peter Serkin and--by implication--flies in the face of the benefits of the exodus of European artists to the U.S. throughout the 1930s and 1940s (a key to U.S. primacy in the arts at the close of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century). One of the better examples of the latter type of actions (as Neil Leonard points out in Jazz and the White Americans) was the AFM condemnation of ragtime music at its convention in Denver in 1901. AFM leaders recommended that its members refrain from playing ragtime music. As anyone who has attempted to perform with foreign musicians knows, today it is more difficult and expensive for foreign musicians to come to the U.S. to perform. Anti-terrorist legislation--piggy-backed on existing Immigration Act legislation--has helped insure that the flow of foreign blood into the creative music stream would become a trickle. For a bit of an update on all this, I recommend reading Ben Sisario’s “Bridge Over the Visa Moat for Musicians Trying to Enter the U.S.” in the March 16 New York Times...

A person who studies an instrument with strong jazz connections (such as the trap kit or tenor saxophone) is likely to be trained on that instrument in a way that supports jazz connections. For example, a musician who pursues the trap kit will likely hear and play jazz throughout that learning experience. However, some instruments have mixed roots. If one of those roots is so-called “classical” music, the student is likely to be trained to think and play that instrument as a “classical” musician. That fact presents a problem for most people who decide to pursue jazz as a life’s work. It was not quite so great a problem in the earliest days of jazz because young musicians jumped into playing jazz often before their teen years and began “hearing” their instruments as jazz instruments early in their lives. The problem did not disappear just because they were so young, however, and it affected some music students more than others. Harry Carney, for example, no doubt had a fine piano teacher with a “classical” background. The future baritone sax icon complained that he could not improvise at the level of his teen-age friends. Very few music students today get into playing jazz actively (if at all) until college or later. They don’t have the advantages that ultimately Harry Carney had.

For musicians who continue to pursue both “classical” and jazz music the situation is particularly negative. There are many musicians who pursue both, and (conservatively) no more than one percent of them succeed. For some reason that I have not quite figured out, the folks who do both tend to be quite good at the “classical” material and less than spectacular attempting jazz. The exceptions are noteworthy both for their rarity and the generally high quality of their jazz when they succeed. Just to offer an idea of who the successes might be, they include (but are not limited to) Benny Goodman, Mel Powell, and Joe Maneri. Just why they succeeded while so many others failed, I do not know. But it may have had something to do with their passion for jazz. They never saw it as slumming or as a clever sideline. And so we find Junko Simons still juggling both in recent years and showing up at the Outpost 3/20 to pursue nothing but improvisation with Jacob William and Laurence Cook. Although I did not know about her “classical” side before the gig, I did hear those “classical” connections in her playing during the first set. It’s a funny thing. The “problem” of “classical” immersion for musicians who want to pursue jazz seldom is what one would expect--you know, licks drawn directly from the repertoire. Usually it materializes rhythmically, both in the patterns of the notes in a specific line and in an overall sense of time itself. And so it was there in bits and pieces during the first set.

But Junko was just warming up. During the second set she soared, attacking the instrument and a host of minor first-set shibboleths as well. Fine work. I look forward to a third set. Jacob William was not sleeping during this music either. I’ve come to have high regard for Jacob’s technical prowess and creativity (along with his excellent choices in band mates). But he was on fire particularly on 3/20, ripping off torrents of stellar sounds, dancing with Junko (when appropriate), and generally challenging all to push harder. It may have been the best work I’ve caught by him. Laurence Cook continues to be Laurence Cook. If you know what that means, there is nothing I can say to clarify things. If you do not know his work, then you are missing a local treasure. Most percussionists--even the great ones--seem to have an area of focus or niche that defines them. However, like Paul Lytton, Laurence has an extraordinary span of resources--easily pushing a band with roaring straight time or launching quiet, minimalist sparks, or anything between. Because there is such a span to his musical vision, I doubt if there ever has been a Laurence Cook performance that I witnessed--and they are countless--in which I did not discover a completely different side of his work. I imagine anyone who has been privileged enough to witness his performances regularly has a bag full of “Laurence Cook Moments.” My favorite “Moments” (and they are moments of discovery for the witness) include his “Morton Feldman” solo at the original Zeitgeist as the climax to a multi-percussion evening in which most of the other drummers went for the jugular, the toy telephone monologue/solo at one of the Autumn Uprising festivals, and whatever my latest memory might be. Such was the case 3/20 when I witnessed several instances. My favorite occurred at the conclusion of a piece in which Junko and Jacob were “talking,” bringing the conversation to an end. During that conclusion Laurence was quiet. But, when the last string note died, he used his sticks in a blurred flash of action to strike the edge of about a half dozen cymbals in a visually random sequence. He produced a powerfully moving coda that was remarkable for the beauty of the sounds produced and the casual way in which he executed the detail of the line, striking each cymbal uniquely by angle and timbre. It was all so simple--and impossible. And I can’t really say that I’ve ever witnessed him do that kind of thing before. Nor do I know where it came from. Except from Laurence...

By now every jazz fan in the Boston area knows that Governor Deval Patrick is the son of the late Pat Patrick, saxophone giant and anchor of the Sun Ra Arkestra for more than three decades. This month Governor Patrick and Berklee College of Music announced that the music school would become the home of the Pat Patrick archive of recordings, photos, charts, and other relevant data. So, if you want to do research on Pat Patrick or Sun Ra, from now on you have to plan to shuttle between Chicago and Boston to get the job done. The bonus is that, if you need to have a break during that research, you’d be hard-pressed to find cities with better free time options--including great jazz gigs...

The Variable Density Orchestra showed up at Johnny D’s 3/31 and lived up to expectations (which were deservedly high). Generally the band offered a nice balance among composed material, ad-lib sectional work, and inspired solos. Of course, it was particularly fine to witness the improvised work of Roy Campbell and Steve Swell, both because we do not get to catch their work often enough and because they are a joy to listen to no matter where they are from. But the best thing about this band is that there are no weak links, whether it is executing the arrangements or standing on each musician’s own tub. On the other hand, I would love to be able to see this band more often, both for the shear joy of such music but also because the detail connections among band members would go up a notch. You can’t get together once each year or so and expect a fairly large ensemble to pick up exactly where it left off last time (at least not for the first few meetings). But, to a great extent, I’m quibbling. The band on 3/31 was performing at a higher plane than on the previous Boston area gig. And something else of significance was happening. Kelly Roberge and Sean Farias--two relative “youngsters” in the band--are getting into a profitable zone (“He’s comfortable in his skin,” is what folks used to say). It appears that they are going through a transformational period in which the desire to impress--to hold one’s own--is replaced with a focussed and confident pursuit of the music itself. The result is something unleashed. I look forward to more...



February 2010

The band came on like thunder. That’s how it opened. And I’m not really sure why. It was not as if a trio all of a sudden grew into a symphony orchestra. It was a seven-piece outfit expanded to nine pieces—just an additional trumpet and various percussion. But there was that marvelous sonic onslaught 2/17 at Johnny D’s. This is not an afterthought. I was struck by the wave of sound at the time. I came to the conclusion then—and the thought sticks with me—that the key ingredients were the quality of the musicians involved and the boundless joy and enthusiasm they all felt at being faced with such fine charts in the company of resonant souls. The basic seven—Charlie Kohlhase, Jeff Galindo, Matt Langley, Eric Hofbauer, Jef Charland, Miki Matsuki, and Chris Punis—got more than an energy boost and predictably superb musicianship from the additional personnel. Jerry Sabatini brought the delightful Sun Ra chart, “El is a Sound of Joy,” and Mike Connors brought (among a pile of percussion) a vibraphone with which he demonstrated what a great rhythm section instrument it can be in the right hands. In other words, a variety of adventures and surprises came together beautifully at that gig. All in all, another Explorers Club victory in sound...

Recently there have been a couple troubling research reports—from the NEA and the League of American Orchestras—that New Yorker columnist Alex Ross pursued in the February 8 issue of that magazine. Basically, people have been staying away from classical music concerts in droves, and the affected people are concerned. If you are a jazz fan who shows up to gigs frequently, you know that the clubs are coming up against the same problems that the concert halls are. No surprise, right? What is surprising is a potential solution for the problem, according to Ross. He points to Le Poisson Rouge in New York. The folks who run Poisson Rouge have taken over the space formerly occupied by the defunct Village Gate (you know what’s coming, don’t you) and are presenting chamber “classical” performances along with food and drinks in an attempt to draw some people with the jazz club atmosphere. As the article moves along, Ross points out some of the problems with the idea—the acoustics of the room are lacking, his food gets cold because he can’t eat and listen at the same time, clinking glasses interfere with subtle sonics onstage, etc. But near the conclusion of his column he mentions only in passing the biggest problem: apparently so far not very many people are showing up. My inclination at this point is to do an impression of Renault in Casablanca when he “discovers” that gambling is going on in the club (“I’m shocked!”). But I’ll bite my tongue and point out that several years ago Julia Werntz and friends produced superb chamber concerts in the Bakery in Central Square with better than depressing results. And the semi-annual Opera Boston gigs at the Lizard Lounge draw more people than can fit in the place. So I hesitate to scoff. If any of these folks come up with a formula for success maybe jazz entrepreneurs won’t be far behind...

Eric Zinman’s Citizens’ Orchestra--Kevin Frenette, Forbes Graham, Syd Smart, Chris Kottke, Glynis Lomon, and Jacob William--showed up at the Outpost 2/23 with a slightly different lineup than originally posted. For example, Syd Smart was in the drum seat instead of Laurence Cook. And everything turned out just fine because Syd showed all of us some of his best percussion work (and that’s saying a lot). Was everyone inspired by that, or did everyone show up on fire in the first place? I don’t know, but something special was going on. For example, Glynis Lomon had a dead amp for her cello during the first part of the gig, but even without the amp she was blowing the roof off. With or without the amp, it seemed to make no difference. And that was the way it was with everyone. Not necessarily noisy; just pushing the music to the limits. As I sat there, thoughts of some of those extra-terrestrial recordings of Ayler and Sun Ra came to mind. Of course, this music was not really quite like that. But for much of the evening there was an opening in the middle of the performance area, and the crevice widened to release something from the center of the earth that filled the room and made the sounds tangible, tangibly human. I’m not making that up. This kind of stuff does not happen every day. Maybe they’ll show up on fire again soon...

Under good conditions it takes me forty-five minutes to get to the Acton Jazz Cafe. It was dark and raining 2/26 as I chugged along Rte. 27, trying unsuccessfully to negotiate the hidden potholes that were constant. And so I was a little bedraggled and certainly not relaxed as I entered the restaurant just before Paul Broadnax and Peter Kontrimas began their Wednesday evening “music for your dinner” serenade. I imagine that even for people new to this gig it must be like re-uniting with old friends. Part of it is the tunes which are a combination of favorites and lesser-known chestnuts that should be favorites. But as much as anything it is the “welcome to my home” atmosphere that is created by the musicians because they themselves apparently are so much at home. All of that was successful in getting me to the point where I was calm enough to witness what I really showed up for—the music. All over the world there are people “doing” what these two guys do—singing and/or playing tunes of the 1930s through approximately mid-century. But, if you’ve been around for a few decades, you know that almost all of those imitators of the past are missing the mark completely. I’ve seen these youngsters come along—listening to a recording of Charlie Parker or Nat Cole or someone of that caliber—and say, “Oh, yeah. Cool. I get it,” and be completely confident that they do “get it.” It’s not a minor matter. These folks who “get it” number in the dozens and they are coming to a large concert hall near you. And they never will get it. But for a few hours on 2/26 I had the joy of witnessing music performed by two guys who really do get it. It is not just that Paul Broadnax knows these tunes the way you know the feel of your favorite cozy chair. It is much more than that. When he plays the piano, you can hear references to a wide array of other complementary tunes as he takes you through the experience. Not quotes (although he knows about those). No. This is something more important than a clever quote here and there. It’s the subtle twist of a line that makes an invisible and almost inaudible reference to another tune of the time period of the vehicle he’s working with. Therefore, when he and Peter were doing a magnificent job on “Dancing on the Ceiling,” I had almost a compulsion to hear that effort followed specifically by “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” In fact, I made the request and they seemed to jump into it with the same relish I felt. (Yes, they do take requests.) And so it goes. Treasured moments outside the ken of the young and the wise—and too far from the ears of folks who do not live close enough to Acton...


January 2010


Dick Johnson died 1/10 at age 84. He was one of the most respected reed players of his generation. Johnson was a featured soloist in bands led by Herb Pomeroy, Neal Hefti, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, and others. Famously in 1983 Artie Shaw picked Johnson to lead the re-established Artie Shaw Band years after the leader shut down the original band. A Brockton native and resident, Johnson was well known and respected in his home town. The city fathers in 1999 dedicated May 1 as “Dick Johnson Day.” People who knew him personally or witnessed his music on the stage are aware of the loss. Fortunately he has left us a recorded legacy and his children, one of them being Gary Johnson, the highly regarded jazz drummer...

One of the great things about the Melissa Kassel Quartet (with Phil Grenadier, Tom Zicarelli, and Bruno Råberg) is that it is a real jazz ensemble, rather than a singer with some backup. In other words, when the leader stops singing, the music does not stop. Some of the most wonderful music occurs when Melissa stands to the side and revels in the terrific soloing and sonic conversations just as we in the audience do. That attitude about her band mates is just as fearless as her approach to composition and interpretations vocally. They’ve all been working together now long enough and with such empathy that the surprises are in the line, rather than in the unintentional. However, I have thought for some time that, if she would just bring the same commitment to programming that Mr. Zicarelli and she bring to writing and arranging, the whole shebang would be taken to the next level. In spite of the thousands of works available in the American song book and already composed by the vocalist and the pianist, her performances focus on a small subset of both and virtually all material is taken at a slow to dead-slow tempo. “Honeysuckle Rose,” for example apparently is one of Melissa’s favorites, and it always has a pace just barely quicker than a dirge. I complain, but understand that my complaints about programming are a relative quibble. She may do a medium-slow version of one of her originals that we’ve heard countless times and at the same tempo, but every time the interpretation is unique. And--because this isn’t cabaret--that’s what it’s all about. Also, I see light and I don’t think it’s a train. During her two most recent gigs--the latest one being 1/23 at the Lily Pad--she’s brought new material with her. And that fact has given life to the programming but also it has had a catalytic effect on the rest of the material in the set. Just another reason to keep checking on the progress of this outstanding ensemble...

Former Alan Dawson student Terri Lyne Carrington has gone out in the world and made a name for herself, kicking bands led by such giants as Clark Terry, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Stan Getz. Now she returns to Medford, Massachusetts and has taken up a day gig teaching at Berklee where she received an honorary doctorate in 2003. Maybe now we’ll have more opportunities to witness her work firsthand, as in the case of her 1/19 gig at Scullers...

A 1/10 Boston Globe article on the MassJazz support group was fairly good as an overview of the jazz scene in Massachusetts. We hope the organization does much to raise the profile of Massachusetts as a jazz center. Right now there are approximately 250,000 jazz support groups in New England, and almost all of them are based in Boston (almost inevitably giving them a Boston bias). Such a situation offers great possibilities for the Boston jazz scene. As some of you have figured out, other than musicians the only jazz support group members you are likely to see at jazz gigs with any frequency are Pauline Bilsky and Don Carlson of Jazz Boston. If these support groups really want to help support jazz musicians in Boston, maybe they could use their feet. If all Boston-based jazz support groups got together and chose randomly one jazz performance to support each week and designated one member from each group to show up to that jazz gig, then if it were a Ryles gig, the place would be packed. If it were a Lily Pad gig, most people would have to be turned away. Just a thought...

Apparently, like Melissa Kassel, Steve Lantner has a fondness for “Honeysuckle Rose.” As well as “Thanks for the Memories,” “We’re in the Money,” and dozens of other classics from the 1930s. At least that’s what one would assume after catching his solo stint at the Outpost 1/23. Steve had told me about a month before the gig that he really loved the great stride pianists and enjoyed working with their material. Further, he suggested that he would show a bit of that interest at one of his upcoming solo ventures. And he did. Oh, there was a good sample of his post-Ayler abstract impressions, all worthy of the trip to Cambridge alone. But the joy and abundance of the stride and boogie material was the signature of the Lantner performance on that evening. The music was not so much a surprise--after all, Monk and more recent pianists admit the debt to James P. and Fats--as it was transformational. For two seemingly brief sets the Outpost was turned into The Lantner Pub and the party was raucous. Here’s a toast to the music and hopes for an encore...

Earlier this month Berklee announced the inaugural class for the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, a program operating under the artistic direction of Danilo Perez. The Institute is intended to foster creativity and musicianship through student exploration of “musicianship through various musical disciplines.” The best of luck to the piano wizard and the students...

Johnny D’s used to have a reputation as a jazz club. Over the past couple decades it has become a venue for RnB, blues, and pop music. No jazz. But during the past half-dozen years or so there have been occasional jazz forays, and recently as many as two jazz gigs per month. It doesn’t sound like much, but maybe that fact holds significance beyond the obvious. I refer to a conversation I had recently with someone who is more knowledgeable about the jazz scene nationally than I. I mentioned to him my concern about the size of audiences—or rather the lack of size of audiences—at places such as the Outpost, Third Life Studios, and the Lily Pad. He said, “That’s the way it is everywhere. The gallery type operations don’t draw. If you want to draw people to new music, you need to sell liquor. A club with a bar.” He’s probably correct, although neither of us is confident about the reasons. The most satisfactory answer may be something like: New music wackos will show up any place, but there are very few people like that in any city. People who like new music but also are nuts about other art forms--apparently a sizeable group--need an additional attraction (liquor in this case) to seduce them away from early music, dance, opera, theater, or whatever is the competition on the given evening. And that brings us back to the experiment--if that is what it is--at Johnny D’s. Next month two engaging new music groups will perform there. It will be more than interesting to see whether the JCA Orchestra (2/7) and Charlie Kohlhase’s Explorers Club (2/17) can draw enough of a crowd with that liquor bonus to make band members happy. More important from a practical standpoint, will Johnny D’s management be happy? It still may be too early to tell...