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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Jazz Journal - 2017


February 2017


The political mess is so ludicrous I thought I would brighten this month’s Journal by opening with something light. Even if you have no interest in football, if you live in New England you know something about the personality of Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. This month the Boston Globe published a celebration of the team’s success with a forty page tabloid titled Lords of the Rings. It includes articles and a lot of photos. Among the photos are shots of fans enjoying the success. One photo taken by Jessica Rinaldi I found particularly delightful. I hope you enjoy it.


It was one of those Eric Rosenthal Point 01 Percent gigs in which it seems almost anything can happen during two sets of music presented by two completely different ensembles. And, although I’ve never asked him about his intentions on these once-per-month events, I’m pretty sure that’s the way he wants it, exhilarating adventure or capsized boat or a bit of both. Bassist Damon Smith led the band on the first set. He landed in Boston a few months ago with a solid reputation. But adding a post-Ayler acoustic bassist to the Boston scene brings to mind references to New Castle. There may be more genuinely extraordinary post-Ayler acoustic bassists per capita in the Boston area than in any city in the world. And each of them has a strong, unique personality devoid of gimmicks. Going to a gig with the knowledge that I’m going to hear superb bass work by a special musical personality is one of the reasons I would not want to live anywhere else. To get to the point, Damon Smith fits in beautifully within the local “bass context.” He knows what he’s doing, avoids technique to impress, and has his own constructively prodding personality. So now we have another member of the local bass tribe to celebrate. But wait. This was a “01” gig. What could possibly go wrong? It was supposed to be a quartet featuring a legend on drums, the one living percussionist I’d want to see perform on my last night of existence--Laurence Cook. That’s not a slight to all the living percussionists I love. I miss so many of them from different parts of the country and around the world, and I am so happy to witness the giant percussionists in the Boston area on a regular basis. I hope you know who you are. But Laurence talks to me in a musicianship so thorough and so profound that I must refer to very different drummers of the past--Baby Dodds and Ed Blackwell among them--to come up with percussive references that make sense in trying to evoke what Laurence does--time and time again. Needless to say--due to flu or some other bug--Laurence did not make the gig. Good luck, Damon. In that circumstance what would Kit Demos, Jane Wang, Jef Charland, and other top local bassists do? Exactly what Damon did 2/8 at the Lily Pad. He convinced himself that performing with two musicians playing melodic percussion instruments would be an ideal gig. And he projected his fine musical personality through musicianship and exemplary sonic communication. When it comes to top-shelf bass players, maybe “too much is not enough.” His trio partners were up to the task. No doubt long-time band mate of Laurence, Eric Zinman, was looking forward to playing with the drummer once again. But he did not let that fact get in the way of the music. Offering supportive rhythmic attacks of his own and challenging, engaging piano runs, he made his voice known and enhanced the work of his partners to a level as fine as I’ve ever heard from him. A few years ago Andria Nicodemou arrived in Boston with a good deal of fanfare among local musicians. Sure enough, she knew her way around the vibraphone. She supported others cleanly and made useful solo comments. Promising. But warranting the celebration? No. I came to the conclusion that the fine musicians’ chatter was visionary, predictive. Andria “disappeared” from the local scene for some time, picking up gigs in New York and Europe. She continued to perform here with some regularity. I got a chance to catch up with her progress at the Lily Pad. If her performance 2/8 is a true indicator of a typical 2017 Andria Nicodemou gig, the cheerleaders around here truly were visionary. My guess is that somewhere in her travels Andria had a profound wakeup call. On 2/8 it was not simply a matter that she has discovered how to attack the instrument to produce stage-lifting sonics when needed. For the entire set she exhibited a masterly confidence I’d never witnessed in her before. More important (and this change is difficult to articulate graphically), Andria seems to have abandoned the trappings of an “aspiring artist.” She now has the kind of demeanor you see in the durable innovators: music is at the core of their being, and everything else is a distraction to be dealt with expeditiously. Busy or silent, her contributions all set long were terrific. It was one night. Here’s hoping it is a single step on the path to proving the visionaries right. All in all it was three musicians creating fine music. I had a ball. I bet Laurence would have also. The second set featured Alternative Facts, a pickup band. One heck of a pickup band--Pandelis Karayorgis, Taylor Ho Bynum, Junko Fujiwara, Bruno Råberg, and Eric Rosenthal performing at the top of their game. I call it a pickup band because I don’t believe all of the musicians have been onstage at the same time previously. Taylor and Eric have a musical relationship that goes back decades. Other band member links have materialized significantly during the past year. But the chemistry of the five musicians on this night was extraordinary. There was an effortless joy to the connections that is unusual even for the most seasoned veterans. I heard Taylor pursue sonic places I’d never heard from him before. And Pandelis played the fewest notes on a gig that I’d ever heard from him. And it was not because he was lacking in ideas. I got the feeling that he was enjoying soaking up the sounds of the rest of the group. When he did play, his contributions were near perfection. Junko and Bruno picked up their wonderful interplay where they left off on their last gig together. Junko continues to step up to improvisatory challenges with a higher level of confidence and reasons to be so confident. Her improvised support work inspires people around her, and her solos keep growing in originality and attractiveness. At one point Junko did some percussive work with her bow on the strings of the bass, initially surprising Bruno who later said he’d have to choreograph something for Junko’s physically less accessible cello. Bruno is one of those bass treasures of Boston. He has all the tools and “tricks” at his disposal but uses them sparingly, only when the music needs them. He was the anchor on a set in which different sonics were materializing constantly around him. Eric was having as good a time as I can remember, reveling in and percussively conducting the silences and extraordinary improvisations around him. And all without even the slightest facial or body language gesture. Yes, we do have trap set treasures also…

Ann Braithwaite and Scott Menhinick sent out the word that Mili Bermejo died 2/21 at age 65 after a nine-month battle with cancer. It is a great loss to the Boston music community. We in the jazz world know her best for her vocal performances, often with husband bassist Dan Greenspan, which celebrated all the music south of the border and influenced countless lucky students. She taught at Berklee for 32 years and passed on before her soon-to-be-released book, Jazz Vocal Improvisation: An Instrumental Approach (Berklee Press, 2017), could be made available. Donations in her memory may be given to the Elizabeth Evarts de Rham Hospice Home, Cambridge, Massachusetts…

A storm was coming, but it didn’t arrive until hours after the performance was over. In any case the weather threat was not enough to keep wise jazz fans from showing up 2/10 at Longy’s Pickman Hall to catch a terrific David Bryant Trio. The music included works by Dave and Eric Hofbauer as well as by the giants being celebrated with the concert--Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman. The wide range of music was central to the engaging nature of the performance, and the three musicians--including Dave, Eric, and the too-often overseas Jacob William on bass--were perfect interpreters of such a span of jazz. In spite of the historical focus of the evening, the musicians made sure that the history has meaning primarily as a living continuum. By that I mean what each of these musicians did was pretty scary stuff. Scary in terms of the ear-stretching circuitous route through and around the original compositions/charts. And scary in terms of just how good all three musicians are technically. Fortunately each man realizes that technique is a means to a much more important end. But working on technique is of genuine value. I raved to Jacob after the concert just how wonderful it was to witness his wizardry on the bass after such a long wait to see him. There were times when I had to use both hands to pick up my jaw from the floor. He confessed that his international travels had kept him away from both performances and practice. He admitted that his technical facility has suffered (but not that I noticed) and that the music in his head that does not fade carried him through the gig. I looked at his hands and saw no blood from lack of calluses. It made no sense. He explained when I pointed out the apparent contradiction. As some fans know, a good part of Jacob’s international travel is in support of his talented (both violin and tennis) daughter. In his travels with his daughter he spent time stringing tennis rackets for her, a practice that provides sufficient stress on his fingers that they retain their toughness. It makes one ponder the extent to which child-rearing can enhance/sustain performance excellence. Eric’s “Prof Hof” guitar technique book is available. I don’t want to give a sales pitch for that performance tool, but I suspect that Eric’s performance 2/10 was one of the best sales pitches one could imagine for that document. Throughout the evening I saw him bring forth guitar sonics that I had not witnessed before, using technical manipulations that were new to me. But the thing that really caught my attention was the content of the fingerings. I hate gimmicks. I hate clever. If I had seen a silent video of what he was doing, I would have dismissed it as “clever.” But no. The thing that hit me was the content. It was all about the music. Scary. Wonderful. I have followed David Bryant’s career from the mid-1980s (May 17, 1986 to be exact). It has been and remains a fascinating ride--from those first wonderful Shock Exchange gigs to the amazing Bobby Ward group experiences at the Willow to Pittsburgh before, during, and after a fine Prime Time gig to the 2/10 trio gig at Longy. Throughout it all I have been most enamored of his acoustic piano work. I think part of that preference has to do with the musical personality limitations of electric/electronic keyboards, a sort of “is is real or is it Memo-Dave” phenomenon. There are so many “disguising” resources available with electronic keys that some people get at least partially lost in the off-the-shelf sonics. I have that problem with David. He is so brilliant (with a Steinway to help us hear him) on acoustic piano that the alternative is akin to having a beer in a bag on Cambridge Common in winter versus Woodford Reserve on the lawn of the Chanler in Newport in August. Like his 2/10 band mates, Dave’s technique (and it can be appreciated completely only on an acoustic piano) is astonishing. It’s the kind of playing that would make a student react by moving to another course of study or (much better) commit with more purpose to practice--and maybe even the music that is the goal of technique. It is early in 2017, but the concert 2/10 at Pickman Hall probably will remain with me as one of the best of the year. Perhaps inspired by the success of the gig at Pickman Hall, Dave brought Eric and Jacob to the Outpost 2/21 to pursue the muse. The musicians, sources of the music, and instrumentation (including acoustic piano) were essentially the same as on the Longy performance. But there were two significant differences at the Outpost--the aesthetics and the environment. By aesthetics I refer to the creative perspectives the musicians brought to the 2/21 gig. They were tackling the same material, but it was apparent from the contributions of each musician that the 2/21 gig was not going to be a re-do. So they were speaking the same language, but they were telling a very different story. A wonderful story. The environment was different also. The Pickman Hall gig was a concert. The Outpost gig was a “club” performance. You know the difference a context can make. Think of Charlie Parker playing in Carnegie Hall in December of 1949 and then at Birdland during the next February. And so it was for these guys. Which combination of aesthetics and environment was the more compelling, that on 2/10 or that on 2/21? A good question, but a definitive answer eludes me. The happy answer for me is that I caught both…

The cover of the March JazzTimes (published in February) celebrated among other things a feature summary of Maria Schneider’s lecture on the status of jazz, “Protecting the Power of Music,” which is for the most part a plea for greater support for the Musicians Union and the PROs so they can better do their jobs on behalf of musicians and composers. The article quotes her as listing “10 plagues we (i.e., jazz musicians) face” today. Schneider obviously is confused by the misleading claims of the Musicians Union and the PROs. As I have pointed out many times in these Journals, the Musicians Union and the PROs have noble goals but not only fail to carry out those goals but also cause harm to musicians of all sorts, particularly creative artists such as composers and performers. The Musicians Union and the PROs do not need our support as they carry out their destructive work. Perhaps the best way to state the case is to say that we should shake up the Musicians Union and the PROs so that they will end their destructive practices while pursuing the stated goals that are noble and potentially productive. It is time for the Musicians Union that passed a resolution condemning ragtime music at its convention in Denver in 1901 (i.e., committing to not performing ragtime), a silly idea, to stop shutting down jazz clubs of all kinds for the sake of the musicians who no longer can play in those non-existent clubs. It is time for PROs to stop shutting down hand-to-mouth not-for-profit venues, killing performance opportunities for this nation’s most creative musicians and young composers. As a side point but not without relevance Ms. Schneider may not understand that none of the most creative young composers, arrangers, improvisors, and other musicians are performing Ms. Schneider’s charts or downloading bootlegs of her recordings. If they are breaking genuinely new ground, they are not using Ms. Schneider’s abandoned shovel to do it. Speaking of genuinely creative people attempting to survive the ravages of the Musicians Union and the PROs, last month I mentioned that Matt Samolis’ good deeds did not go unpunished. He was one of the Boston area’s most important not-for-profit entrepreneurs, but ASCAP threatened him because of his selfless good deeds, causing him to shut down his art space. He managed to scrape together the ASCAP fees to get the PRO agent off his back and prayed that his payments would be enough to stop the harassment. Well, in a letter dated 2/28 ASCAP told Matt that his license agreement was cancelled. That’s “good news” in that ASCAP is off Matt’s back. But Matt’s days of presenting creative live music are over. Fortunately he is finding ways to help other creative presenters. My guess is that Matt’s constructive nature is such a force for good that sometime in the not-too-distant future Matt will be presenting creative artists. Yes, the wonderful music events we have come to know so well are gone. He does not want to deal with a PRO agent again. But maybe we’ll get to witness some fine new theater piece or poetry or improvised music. All of it unpublished of course. There is at least a double irony in the ASCAP letter to Matt. The last two sentences of the letter are, “In the event you resume the use of copyrighted musical works that require permission, we respectfully request you advise us so that we may make the necessary arrangements for a new license. Many thanks and best wishes.” It’s just business. Ugly business. But wait. There’s a second irony. I did not know ASCAP has a slogan. I would guess, if I had to, that it would be something like, “Destroying live music and still getting away with it.” But no. It’s beautiful in its ironic simplicity: “We create music” I’m not making that up…

Trump times are strange times for people who have some regard for the more positive aspects of civilization, such as the arts. Given the Trump administration’s disdain for any form of cultural pursuits and his recent statements about increasing our military budget by 10% while eliminating non-macho government activities, it is no wonder that arts organizations of all types are concerned. On 2/24 I received a statement via email from the directors of the major museums in Boston--MIT’s List Center, the Gardner Museum, the ICA, the Harvard Museums, and the MFA--sounding an alarm about the negative impact on museums and other cultural institutions if the federal plug is pulled. Each museum director mentions ways in which NEA and NEH funding and administration have had direct effects on programming and in stabilizing cultural organization communities. In that statement the directors mention a 2/22 op-ed piece in the New York Times by Thomas P. Campbell, director and chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They refer to his “The Folly of Abolishing the N.E.A.” as “eloquently outlining how every museum relies not only on financial support but also on the advocacy of the NEA… ” Nevertheless these are strange times indeed. The ink had hardly dried on the op-ed page when Robin Pogrebin writing for the same newspaper told us of various complaints about the incompetence of the Met’s Director and his resignation in “Metropolitan Museum’s Director Resigns Under Pressure.” And he’s not even a member of the Trump team…

Quite commonly free improvisation performances consist of musicians who normally do not perform together. Kit Demos and Eric Rosenthal are among the band leaders in the Boston area who create such experimental encounters. On the other hand, there are free improvisation ensembles consisting of essentially the same personnel over a span of months or even years. In either case, band leaders tend to define the character or personality of the band. For example, some band leaders believe in rehearsals to improve free communications. Others see rehearsals as some sort of sacrilege. One tends to think of free improvisation somewhat generically. In other words, whether it is a pickup band or a “working” band, free ensembles are pretty much defined by the peculiarities of the musicians in the band. And certainly there is some truth to that perception. For example, something as simple as the instrumentation of the band affects greatly what an audience member will hear. And if Peter Brötzmann is in the group, his musical personality will be inescapable. But there is a functional difference between a pickup and a “working” free improvisation ensemble. I confess that I have not given much thought to the difference. But the difference is real, and that difference affects the musical experience. For example, the decades-long project AMM has had most famously three strong personalities in John Tilbury, Eddie Prévost, and (until recently) Keith Rowe. But they are not a pickup band. The communication among the three of them (and now the two of them) has evolved with its own language elements and architectural principles, an evolution that cannot occur in a one-off pickup band. The result is that pickup bands work through a set of improvisatory tactics that are different from those of an evolving “working” band. It may not seem like much of a difference, but it can be functionally significant. And so that difference revealed itself remarkably 2/28 at the Outpost. For almost two decades Steve Lantner has had a variety of free improvisation ensembles from duos to sextets employing the musicianship of a reliable group of about eight “regulars.” The regulars quite obviously like the Lantner aesthetic or they would not show up at the gigs. The fact that he attracts some of the top post-Ayler musicians in town helps a lot also. But what has happened over the years is that Steve and the regulars have developed their own unique set of music architecture and language elements. The fount of all this is Steve, but every one of the regulars buys into it and contributes to the evolution of the music. It is important to understand that there is nothing in the music that is esoteric or difficult for the typical fan of post-Ayler sonic art. Such a fan, for example, may not be able to articulate all of the musical factors--historical or conceptual--in a Laurence Cook solo, but that fan would enjoy--be blown away by--the music that Laurence makes. In the same way, the music of any Steve Lantner ensemble is quite accessible to the typical post-Ayler jazz fan. The fan may not be able to parse what is going on, but he knows that it’s terrific. But the musicians on the bandstand do not have such a simple relationship to the music. They have to parse the sonics or the crystal will shatter. That’s a rather lengthy way to get us to the music 2/28 at the Outpost provided by two Steve Lantner regulars--Steve Lantner and Luther Gray--with a “guest” band member, Andria Nicodemou. About three years ago Andria Nicodemou was part of a larger improvising ensemble that was a pickup band of fine musicians. There were no “working” band connection problems for her. At the time Andria was a different, less clearly defined musician. And relatively speaking the experience was something of a nice field trip for her. Her fine performance 2/8 at the Lily Pad was qualitatively far better than that in 2014. But again, the 2/8 gig was with a pickup band. The 2/28 gig was very different. It would be somewhat simplistic to say that because it was a trio there was no place for her to hide. The 2/8 gig was a trio performance. And Andria is not a hiding person, at least not onstage these days. No. I guess what the 2/28 performance demonstrated is that, if you want to sit in with a free improvisation working band, you had better have a clear picture of that band’s language and architecture before you drop in for a sonic visit. I’m sure the significance of that understanding varies considerably from group to group. For example, I imagine that listening to a bunch of AMM CDs might help an improvising musician prepare for the chance to sit in with Messrs. Tilbury and Prévost. Nevertheless, I would recommend witnessing the duo in person a couple times. In the same way, my recommendation to Andria Nicodemou would have been to show up in the audience to witness the music a few times before sitting in. Get a sense of the language, the architecture, and the interpersonal interactions before you jump in. The lack of such preparation was obvious in a number of ways. For example, there is a Steve Lantner ensemble convention that when Luther Gray is the drummer (and he usually is) he gets typically two extended percussion solos. These are not indulgences. Luther, at a time that is appropriate within the set, takes a solo. It is not a rata-tata “I’m a great drummer” solo. It is a profound sound sculpture of a percussion solo, something that sits by itself as a David Smith piece might but then moves back into the rest of the sonic space. Wonderful. But you just can’t walk into a Steve Lantner gig and know that is going to happen. And so it didn’t. There were such solos begun, but invariably they became drums/vibes duos. It is the first time I’ve witnessed a Steve Lantner gig with Luther on drums in which there was no extended Luther Gray solo. The end of the world? No. But it is symptomatic of the problems of even an accomplished musician walking into a free improvisation working band gig cold. The other symptoms were more specifically contextual. The first improvisation of the first set was quite noisy with the vibes louder than the other two instruments and Andria apparently not hearing the other musicians very well. Subsequent improvisations were slightly better. She listened to and reacted to the language of Steve Lantner better as the set progressed. The pattern most evident became a drums and vibes conversation interacting with the piano. I suspect that, before the beginning of the second set, Andria Nicodemou (at least subconsciously) processed what happened in the first set. She heard and reacted to Steve’s piano work more effectively during the first improvisation of the second set. The second improvisation opened with engaging pointillist chatter between piano and vibes which developed into the trio becoming a Sergio Leone steam engine slowly chugging into the station with fine work by Luther and Andria, including steam hissing from Luther’s brushed cymbals. This cymbal work moved into a Luther Gray solo that soon became a drums/vibes duo before fading into silence. The final improvisation of the evening was a flag-waver, a truly fine one followed by an effective fade out. Andria Nicodemou walked into a difficult situation 2/28, but she probed the musical context and made some effective adjustments. And when it was all over the audience responded enthusiastically…

In my youth, like many young people, I had a variety of brief fascinations. One of those fascinations was graphology. I had some books and studied it as an amateur for a couple years. I became good enough at it that I (apparently successfully) uncovered personality traits and “secrets” of both friends and strangers. At the time I was aware of basically two subsets of graphological research--handwriting and signatures. The two pursuits involved similar courses of study, but the source of the research, the “sample,” was different in each case and was interpreted differently. My focus was handwriting. I never investigated the peculiarities of interpreting signatures. I have no information about the status of graphology today, whether or not it is a popular area of research or whether or not it still is a resource in court. In any case, recently because of the proliferation of Presidential decrees of one type or another, frequently we see the signature of President Trump displayed on TV and elsewhere. The characteristics of that signature really hit home when I saw it (see below) displayed across the cover of the February 7 issue of The Village Voice. The signature primarily consists of a series of daggers, bringing to mind aggression and sarcasm. Again, signatures were not my thing, but that signature is pretty scary. If anyone reading this Journal studies graphology or knows anyone with such skills, I would love to read (and with permission pass along to readers) the findings of a practicing graphologist. Of course, we already know that the former game show host is substantially frightening. But the signature does not suggest hope.


The Explorers--leader Charlie Kohlhase, Seth Meicht, Daniel Rosenthal, Eric Hofbauer, Josiah Reibstein, Aaron Darrell, and Curt Newton--seem to be a fully committed group of musicians. No subs. Right at home with the material and each other. And the performances--as fine as they’ve been in recent months--keep reaching higher peaks with each outing. The 2/16 gig emphasized ensemble growth most obviously through the arrangements performed and what the musicians did with those arrangements. The band confidently tackled durable favorites written by the leader and John Tchicai--and never suggesting overconfidence or ennui. But Charlie opened his bag of tunes and gave us a bunch of wonderful new and seldom heard charts from a wide range of active musicians and legends. We got fine charts from Eric and Darrell and a couple from Josiah, including an engaging set of voicings in 3/4 that brought to mind the fine period of “odd time” pieces performed by bands led by Blakey and Roach. Speaking of legends, we were treated to terrific works by Elmo Hope and Makanda Ken McIntyre. McIntyre’s wonderful “Suspense” came to the group via a transcription of the big band arrangement by John Kordalewski especially for the Explorers. The work is far more challenging and engaging than most headline mainstream music performed in clubs today. John’s arrangement of “Suspense” is more than equal to the task of feeding the Explorers, and the ensemble almost literally lifted the bandstand with superb chart execution and fiery solos. The opening solo on “Suspense” by Charlie would have impressed even the composer. A fine evening of music all around that concluded with the now-traditional blues, this time titled once again, “Inauguration Blues.”…

Apparently the Berklee World Strings is a group of wonderfully hard working and talented students and faculty musicians. At least that’s what Bruno Råberg’s recent CD, Triloka, and the 2/25 performance of his Triloka Ensemble at the Piano Factory in Boston suggest, both demonstrating the skills of more than a dozen such people in different compositional contexts. Along the way Bruno had a variety of important support from Mimi Rabson. The 2/25 Piano Factory performance featured the music released on the CD performed by Bruno and string musicians Layth Sidiq, Bengisu Gokce, David Wallace, and Naseem Alatrash. The music, composed and arranged by Bruno, is rooted in many different world cultures, incorporating the varieties of time and tonality that one might expect. One advantage to the makeup of the ensemble is that the five musicians who performed 2/25 were born in five different countries--including Texas (Mr. Wallace). So they brought these wonderful sonic sensibilities to the music. On the other hand, none of the musicians were immersed in the culture and music of all the countries represented by the charts. The musicians acquitted themselves superbly in performing the charts, and their work was impressive during the improvised parts of the performance. The only time the improvisations faltered was during a portion of the evening that incorporated completely free playing as an interaction with a video sequence. The video sequence, produced by Bruno’s Chicago-based daughter, involved a fixed camera recording people in what apparently was an airport (Philadelphia?). I should point out that free improvisation is not an easily-acquired sonic art form. Within that form of music the performance of free improvisation during (typically) silent films or foreign films with sub-titles is a special challenge. Often the idea is that the individual or ensemble performs while watching a film that he/she never had seen before. The results often are stunning when performed by master musicians. For example, several years ago the DKV Trio performed completely improvised music while watching Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. Only one of the trio members had seen the film before. I did not witness the event, but the word got out and reached me. Near the end of the film the villagers are back to “normal.” They are planting new rice shoots. Then there is a moment when Hamid Drake, who never had seen the film before, takes off on a tom-tom pattern. As he does, a character in the rice paddies begins striking a frame drum. Simultaneously with Hamid’s drum work. A one in a million coincidence? Brilliant reading of film context? I don’t know, but I’m guessing some of the former and a lot of the latter. So we in the Piano Factory are watching people tooling back and forth in an apparent airport. Suddenly a couple notices near a back wall a life-size diorama of some founders of our country. The female in the young couple discovers that she can become part of the diorama. The male friend spots the photographic opportunity and shoots the image of the young female “participating” in building the groundwork of our nation. She is joyous. He is compelled to take a selfie with female and founders. One can speculate on the meaning of it all. For me it was both a celebration of participation in creating and nurturing our government and a depressing comment on the too-busy passersby who failed to see the opportunity. Of course, my interpretation of the video scenario is colored by the realization that Americans have allowed both of the major parties to give us incompetent candidates in the most recent election, and we are beginning to see the horrific results. In any event, the video sequence certainly provided a fine opportunity for improvised sonic collaboration. As far as I know, Bruno is the only member of this Triloka quintet with extensive experience in free improvisation. Whether that is true or not, the ensemble obviously was not comfortable in that improvisational setting. As I mentioned, free improvisation is a difficult form or music to master. And improvising in reaction to unknown projected moving images is an even more specialized activity. No doubt it was a useful learning experience for the Triloka musicians. I suspect at least some of the musicians are intrigued by the free music experience and may want to pursue such opportunities. Given how well Bruno’s band mates nailed the charts and the improvised portions of the arrangements, in the future I would not be surprised to see any of those same people tackle virtually any kind of music with conviction and success. In the mean time, the 2/25 performance offered an evening of fine music demonstrating the joyous possibilities of talent combined with hard work…


January 2017

I was in Manhattan for a week at the end of the month, checking out MoMA (Picabia), the Met (Beckmann), the Gagosian on Madison Ave (Picasso), and a variety of other sights and sounds.  One special aspect of the New York experience has been with me for a while, and I decided to investigate it further.  A variety of tall buildings and those with unusual visual perspectives are celebrated for their excellent views of particularly two iconic New York buildings, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, among both tourists and locals probably the two best-known buildings in New York.  Several years ago while walking in the Murray Hill section of town I noticed that it is possible to obtain excellent views at ground level of both buildings from a single street intersection.  A combination of simple geometry and familiarity with the city’s street grid led me to the “other best” ground view of the two buildings.  I think the Murray Hill view is the better one, but they are both pretty nice.  In case you enjoy walking in Manhattan as much as I do, you might like to check out both “best” ground views of the two buildings.  The fine Murray Hill view can be had from the southwest corner of the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 33rd Street.  The other fine view is available from the southeast corner of the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.  People visiting New York City who prefer to take the subway (as I do) may have to settle for taking cabs for a while. Unless you have the MTA subway map memorized, taking subway transportation could be tricky.  Because of the planned publication of new maps to include information about the highly publicized 2nd Avenue line, officials stopped printing the old maps and ran out of them.  Although the first section of the 2nd Avenue line is up and running, the new maps are not yet available.  MTA employees I talked to claimed that the maps supposedly will be available any minute, but there is no specified delivery date.  Maps are displayed in stations and on trains and are somewhat inconvenient but functional (at least the ones without graffiti are).  We Bostonians cannot be smug about incompetent New York MTA planning.  After all, it was our own MBTA geniuses who built “improved” T stops at Riverside and Woodland that moved the boarding platforms from close proximity to the parking lot to an average distance of more than a football field length from almost all parking spaces.  And any T rider reading this Journal can add other examples of MBTA planning incompetence.  Maybe the problem is occupationally systemic.  One morning on my Manhattan visit I shared a coffee break with Steve Swell and Ken Vandermark.  Ken was in town for a couple days to spend some catch-up time with Steve and to check out the Beckmann and Picabia.  Steve, of course, lives in lower Manhattan.  A terrific musician, he remains in demand around town and continues to teach to very lucky students.  The subject of Boston came up, and Steve mentioned that he has not been to Boston since Garrison Fewell passed on.  He’d love to play up here, and I’d love to put him up in my place if that would facilitate things.  All we need is a Boston-based musician who can bring him up here for some superb music…

Speaking of New York, by the time you read this that city probably has seen the last jazz performances at the Stone in the Alphabet City part of Manhattan.  Many Boston area improvisors already know about the venue’s demise.  It is difficult to believe that Alphabet City could ever be gentrified, but it is happening fast enough that the corner space for new music is worth too much to support sonic art.  One suspects that John Zorn is too intelligent, hard working, resourceful, and passionate to let this be his last performance space.  It may be known by another name, but I expect there is a Son of Stone on the horizon.  Let’s hope so…

The double bill 1/11 began with a quintet of superb musicianship--Pandelis Karayorgis, Seth Meicht, Jeb Bishop, Jef Charland, and Curt Newton--known as Stereoscope.  These guys are so good that, in spite of having only one rehearsal of the charts for the gig, everyone performed, supported, and improvised as if it were a seasoned house band.  Of course these musicians know each others music well.  So offering nothing but charts by band members--except for a joyous romp through Sun Ra’s “Saturn”--makes a lot of sense.  For these men even new pieces feel comfortable.  One could hardly ask for a more convincing way to kick off the new year.  Challenging scores pursued by all musicians with esprit.  Writing that inspires solos which in turn inspire higher levels of support and subsequent solos.  If this is the way Stereoscope begins the year, that fact bodes well for fans who search for artistic evolution and resultant excellence throughout the rest of the year.  As a creative alternative to fine charts and improvisations, Eric Rosenthal in the second set brought with him three other noteworthy musicians--Bruno Råberg, Jorrit Dijkstra, and Junko Fujiwara--to perform completely improvised music.  None of the musicians on the second set 1/11 are strangers to totally improvised music.  The only question was how well the specific components of this quartet would work together.  One might say that there were four (or perhaps five) improvisations on that set.  The first and third, exhibiting alto sax work by Jorrit, were the most successful in terms of improvisations and particularly soli and group interactions.  The alto sax is Jorrit’s instrumental strength, and the group balance was solid throughout those two improvisations.  The balance problems opened the second improvisation, but fortunately it eventually improved enough so that we could hear the conversation between Bruno’s arco bass/electronics and Junko’s pizzicato cello.  It was one of the highlights of the set.  The fourth (or fifth) improvisation of the set mostly did not work except for the time (the fourth improvisation?) when Jorrit put his Lyricon down and worked the rest of the electronics.  In those moments the sounds on stage were in balance and you had the feeling that all four musicians could hear each other.  Nice.  In addition to making such adventures happen, Eric time and again demonstrates why he’s one of my favorite drummers.  Even though he has a strong reputation as a drummer who excels in a variety of composed musics, he’s exceptional in completely improvised contexts.  He hears so wonderfully.  So on this evening at the Lily Pad one of the great highlights for me was watching and hearing Eric salvage disasters and bring the highest human expression even higher…

It was more than a month after the passing of Mose Allison (11/15) that I read of the firing of Fred Taylor from his post at Scullers.  I remember several decades ago when Fred was doing some invaluable consulting work for the Boston Jazz Society.  During one meeting in that capacity in passing he mentioned almost in surprise that other jazz production people never seemed to understand how much Bostonians loved Mose Allison.  And so he continued to book Allison to sell-out crowds.  It was just another example of the fact that Fred Taylor did not merely book gigs at the second incarnation of the Jazz Workshop located at 733 Boylston Street along with Paul’s Mall.  He learned from those experiences.  Of course, what he learned was not merely which jazz musicians were safe money and which were perhaps worth taking a chance on.  Even from the earliest days of the Jazz Workshop Fred made sure that his offerings would include some exciting non-jazz performers.  It’s a practice he carried with him to Scullers.  This booking policy offered two general advantages.  First, it offered audiences eclectic options while maintaining the club’s jazz image and audience.  Second, that policy gave Fred a built-in wider range of income options; if he needed a popular folk musician to bolster the kitty, the bread-and-butter jazz fan--even the purist--did not react in horror.  It is the type of experience and policy that Fred brought with him when he began booking Scullers in 1989.  Because of Fred’s booking savvy, he was able to sustain a primarily jazz policy.  At the same time, the Regattabar (its only ongoing competition during the Fenton Hollander years which ended in 2004) continues to offer--with approximately semi-annual exceptions--mostly boring, young musicians unlikely to draw any serious jazz fans.  It might be argued that with the departure of Fred Taylor Boston loses its last jazz club of big names--the jazz musicians that even the casual jazz fan is likely to know.  Don’t expect the Regattabar to pick up the names that Fred used to book.  The club had the opportunity to compete with Scullers for quality bands and chose not to.  It has no reason to change its booking policy now.  Each reader of this Journal may come up with his or her own perspective on the meaning of the departure of Fred from Scullers.  But, given the limited amount of information available online and in print about that departure, the specifics of the firing remain unclear.  We have Fred telling us that somewhat unceremoniously he was told, “We need a change” (i.e., good bye).  One imagines that the management of the hotel wants to drop the jazz policy in favor of acts that will bring in more money.  Given Fred’s long experience booking eclectic music, one wonders why the hotel failed to give him a chance to book more lucrative acts.  But it seems that hotel management merely wanted to get rid of Fred and General Manager Annmarie Blyth.  Apparently Jan Mullen from the Side Door jazz club in Old Lyme, CT will take over the booking of Scullers.  In other words, we probably will be stuck with the Regattabar’s booking policy and an echo across the Charles River.  Let’s hope Mose Allison is resting well.  And, thank you Fred.  You fought the good fight…

There was the big 70-minute digital clock sitting in the back of the Outpost for the 1/21 gig.  So you knew it was a performance by one of the Leap of Faith (LOF) spin-off groups.  In this case it was String Theory, consisting of cello, two acoustic basses, voice(s), reeds, Aquasonics, and various percussion instruments.  Most (if not all) of the fine musicians have been working together for months (and some for decades) in the LOF context.  The work is paying off.  The strings are heavily weighted at the bottom end of the family.  One cannot help but be suspicious of a band that features two acoustic basses and three other instruments at any given time.  But Tony Leva and Silvain Castellano are so comfortable with the improvisational concept and with each other that the two bassists function as a core attraction rather than an instrumental puzzle.  They communicate with each other as if they are one--so much so that their work does not suggest anyone consciously thinking of having one person bowing while the other takes on pizzicato.  It’s more like Stitt and Lockjaw or Gene Ammons talking to each other at the same time or trading bars.  Of course, what the two bassists were doing had nothing to do with bebop, but the interplay involved ideas that go back well before the bebop era.  The other “string” was Glynis Lomon, one of the post-Ayler cello giants who enhances her string work with in-your-face Aquasonic vibrations and the most human sorts of vocalizations.  She remains--and pushes her music all time--a monster of the genre who is one of Boston’s great sonic treasures.  Although Dei Xhrist is a vocal performing artist, most often I have witnessed her work as a theater performance in which her vocal efforts are central to an intentionally ambiguous dramatic presentation.  Although Glynis’ vocalizations are central to the LOF identity, it is Dei who carries the primary vocal load.  I found it interesting to watch/hear her apparently hold back her theatrical instincts presumably to help the group sonics along.  Ironically--and to my surprise--I found those moments in which Dei was most theatrical to be the most successful in terms of her interaction with and support of the rest of the group.  One of the reasons her dramatics work so effectively is that her narrative vocalizations are commentary rather than storytelling.  In effect, unlike the programmatic narrative of the Wood Dove in Gurrelieder for example, Dei’s contributions are about the now, the on-stage activity of the String Theory ensemble.  Dave Peck/PEK brought (for him) a relatively small array of reed and percussion instruments.  But the sonic diversity of his contributions was no less impressive than at other times.  The only disappointment for me was the brevity of his solos on each instrument.  I realize that Dave brings such a large number of instruments with him on a gig so he can distribute a constructive range of sounds throughout a set of music.  But there are times when it seems that he cuts himself off in the middles of a clarinet statement, for example, when continuing with what he was offering on that instrument probably would have been more supportive of the ensemble sonics.  But such a complaint is as much praise as it is complaint.  And Dave and his band mates are doing fine things together on stage.  The 1/21 Outpost performance was the most challenging and engaging LOF outing that I’ve witnessed in recent memory--not an achievement easy to realize given that LOF’s history is so impressive.  And people in the band hardly looked at the digital clock as the numbers rolled toward 70 on this occasion…

Nat Hentoff was born in Boston on June 10, 1925 and died in New York on January 7.  Love him or hate him, Nathan Irving “Nat” Hentoff was one of our own.  He even titled his memoir Boston Boy.  He attended Boston Latin School, Northeastern, and Harvard and was a jazz DJ on WMEX radio while in college.  If Bostonians have a reputation for being cantankerous and contradictory then Nat Hentoff was as Bostonian as one gets.  He championed the music of such innovators as Ornette and Cecil, hanging out with the pianist when Taylor was a student at NEC.  Later Hentoff became somewhat cranky about new music, his tastes apparently reverting to more straight-ahead material.  As his work moved into civil rights territory almost exclusively during the last decades of his life, the apparent contradictions continued.  He was a libertarian champion of the First Amendment in particular.  As a spokesman for civil liberties he argued eloquently against government abuses of the Bill of Rights since 9/11 in the name of national security.  He claimed that much earlier he was fired from Downbeat because he argued too enthusiastically for the magazine to hire black writers.  On the other hand, he was a pro-life libertarian who supported the Presidential ambitions of Rand Paul and was a fellow at the right-wing bastion, the CATO institute.  Nevertheless, among those who praised his The War on the Bill of Rights (Seven Stories Press, 2003) was then ACLU president Nadine Strossen.  And he was a proud atheist.  If you are among those who would like to turn to an example of his writing on behalf of musicians in the early days of post-Ayler jazz, you might check out his original liner notes for Cecil Taylor’s Looking Ahead (Contemporary S7562).  Although he became somewhat frustrated because of his reputation as a jazz critic rather than as a political philosopher, he never stopped loving the music.  Aesthetically he went out in style.  According to the Washington Post, Nat Hentoff died while listening to a recording of Billie Holiday…

Based on information I received, there was some question as to whether the Explorers would show up at the Outpost 1/19 as a sextet or septet.  It was seven up--Charlie, Seth Meicht, Daniel Rosenthal, Eric Hofbauer, Josiah Reibstein, Aaron Darrell, and Curt Newton--all night with wonderful sounds in spite of comments sprinkled throughout the evening about being at the doorstep of gloom and doom.  For example, Charlie’s brand new (I believe) arrangement of a fine blues as yet untitled was given the temporary moniker of “Election Blues.”  Everyone immediately was comfortable with the chart and spread fine solos and support all around.  I hope Charlie brings it back on the next Explorers outing.  Soon after that a contribution by Eric sparked terrific solos, including an engaging Seth improvisation that made me think that he had been reading some Terry Riley charts over lunch and decided to transform those ideas into a steamroller of a solo.  One of the highlights of the evening was Dan’s solo on Charlie’s “Winter of Our Disco Tent,” as pretty (and creative) as any ballad trumpet solo you are likely to hear all winter.  Throughout the evening the million dollar rhythm section of Eric, Josiah, Aaron, and Curt was worth showing up for all by itself.  And I’d push that idea harder if it were not for the fact that these guys time and again offered solos that were superbly compelling.  It was a night of engaging sounds with no letdown at any time.  And there was a surprise at the end of the night.  No “Blues for Alice.”  There was more than a suggestion that the Parker favorite may have run its course as a Kohlhase closer.  He plugged in another blues as a closer and tentatively titled the work “Election Blues,” an echo back to the political blues that opened the evening.  The old and potentially new cycle of closers brings to mind the durability of such a large outfit.  It is rare for even a quartet to maintain the same personnel for six months.  Charlie has had five of these band members show up each month for more than two years.  There are many reasons for that durability.  Most of those reasons have to do with Charlie’s leadership and the character of the people in the band…