Top 50 JAzz Blog

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Jazz, Young'uns & the Cycle of Influence By Steve Provizer

Ed L. recently did a sweet post about Eric Von Schmidt and the Cambridge folk scene of the 1960's. I commented thusly:

Growing up in Boston/Camb., I was a jazz, not a folk guy, but the "jazz life" seemed a mixed blessing, and the group of people you talk about here represented a way of approaching life that was very compelling to me.

Also, in our teens, we're drawn to artists slightly older than us in a way that I don't think we ever feel again; the romantic promise of Art, I suppose, that experience erodes.

So: Given how important the cultural mythology of a particular music and its makers is to young people, it might seem astonishing that anyone under 40 continues to want to play jazz. The audience shrinks. There is no Miles. There is no Trane. Nor is there an Ella or a Sassy; only boxed set relics. Wonderful musicians abound in 2011, but none represents that kind of gravitational cultural pull.

I've posted often about the special case of New Orleans, but this phenomenon is national. Yes, the mass of young musicians has gravitated toward guitars, rap, DJ'ing, etc. but somehow, despite its detachment from the cultural mainstream, jazz continues to carry enough weight to strike a chord with young musicians. That a 16 year old in 2011 should be compelled by a saxophonist who played in 1941 might seem odd, but really, how should we measure a 70 year musical cycle of influence? 

It's reasonable to assume that an Ionian flutist in 350 B.C. played pretty much the same way as one playing in 250 B.C. Or, that Lute players improvising madrigals used the same musical framework for at least 100 years. 

Yes, I know, the accelerated pace of life, etc., undermines the comparison. But, even though the Next Great Gizmo goes from version 1.1. to version 22.2 in months, slower cycles continue to remain at work. The earth still takes about 365 days to orbit the sun. Human gestation remains 9 months. And most importantly, perhaps. our hearts have probably been beating at the same rate for millions of years.

Music is heartbeat. Improvisation is assuming the heartbeat will be there and deciding to take a risk and see what happens.

Something essentially improvisational has been hard-wired into homo sapiens. There has always been jazz and always will be and the distance between 1941 and 2011 is less than you might think.

Friday, July 22, 2011

"Tinges and Strains in Jazz" by Steve Provizer

It's a truism that jazz was forged from a number of different elements: ragtime, blues, folk songs, European structures... As the music continued on its merry way, it flirted with other influences. These became temporary add-ons, were discarded, or became fully woven into the jazz fabric.

Of course, deciding when an "influence" becomes an established part of the fabric is open to debate. For example, to what extent was "the Spanish Tinge" already woven into the jazz fabric before Jelly Roll Morton started hyping it (probably so he could claim it as his own invention)? Or, how much credit does Fletcher Henderson deserve for the mutation of 'call-and-response' into big band orchestration techniques?

In some cases, influence was too diverse to assign individual credit. For example, the strain of Jewish music known as Klezmer ("instrumental music") that eventually infused the swing movement was nurtured, starting in the late 1920's. by a squadron of Jewish musicians (Benny and Harry Goodman, Ziggy Elman, Manny Klein, Artie Shaw...).

There have actually been very few individual musicians clearly visible on the cutting edge of new influences which had an impact on jazz.  Here are a few choices (Early Jazz is too much of a stew, so after that):

George Gershwin's contribution is associated closely with the phrase "melting pot." It's too bad, as such a reductionist phrase debases his singular ability to filter disparate influences through his own sensibility and achieve great results-i.e., Harlem stride, the Cantorial tradition, Tin Pan Alley, transitional musical theatre and, in Porgy and Bess, opera and Gullah folk culture.

Dizzy Gillespie next comes to mind. After he became exposed to Cuban musicians like Chano Pozo(picture left) and Machito in 1940's New York, he championed the creation of Afro-Cuban music. Dizzy's long term influence, not only as a bop pioneer, but as a hybrid-izer of jazz with other musics is unassailable.

In the late 50's, jazz Bossa Nova albums started to show up and here it seems to me you have the most intensive byplay with a fully-formed music from another culture that jazz has ever seen. Brazilian musicians started performing regularly in the US and Bossa Nova compositions entered widely into standard jazz repertoire. The popular culmination of the movement was the album Getz/Gilberto, released in 1964; an album that continues to sell well. Can you then place due credit in the hands of Stan Getz? Not in the sense that I've been using it here. After all, this was a genuine collaboration between Getz and Joao Gilberto, not Getz introducing an foreign strain into jazz.

At about the same time, a number of jazz musicians turned their attention to Asia, East and South Asia. Two musicians were exemplary in developing those influences in two very different ways. 

One was flautist and saxophonist Paul Horn who, in the late 1950's, was part of a coterie of West Coast musicians using scales from other parts of the world and unusual time signatures. he (and that cohort) continued to develop that direction, but in the late 1960's, Horn broke from the crowd and did a series of recordings in sacred and highly resonant places like the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramid and a Cathedral in the Ukraine. It was an effort to join jazz and meditation and the results might be characterized as early "New Age" music. 

John Coltrane was the other musician most occupied with world-especially Indian-music. Trane's Giant Steps album from 1959 included the song "India" and until he died in 1967, most of his recordings had at least some specifically Indian touchstones. 

Technically, there were areas of mutual concern between Trane and Horn: scales, drones, pedal points and the development of slow, rubato sections(alaap). But, unlike Horn's meditative, echoic, melodic excursions, Trane's music, as we know, explored the edge of consciousness in a very different way

I would also mention Yusef Lateef as an important exponent of Eastern elements at that time.

More foreign elements have been introduced into jazz since that time, but the process has changed completely. Starting in the 1960's, jazz became globally available and musicians from all over the world mastered the music. The language of Armstrong, Parker, Coltrane, Ayler, etc., became a global language. 

If musicians in another country infuse elements of their own culture into jazz, they are likely to do that while developing in their homeland and bring that fusion with them when they come to America, either as visitors or expats.  Examples might include Dollar Brand and Hugh Masakela from South Africa, Miroslav Vitous from Prague, Jean Luc Ponty from France,  Neils-Henning Orsted Pederson from Denmark, or Arturo Sandoval from Cuba.  It's unlikely (and might be been seen as a form of musical colonialism) for an American jazz musician to use, let's say, Finnish folk themes as compositional motifs.

Collaboration has replaced Introduction.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Gershwin's durable "Summertime" by Steve Provizer

Here we have one of the most durable tunes ever written. Originally written as a recurring aria for "Porgy and Bess," It has been re-harmonized in the some pretty radical ways and been taken in a wide variety of tempos. Yet, probably because of the strength of the melody, it retains its, well, Summertime-i-tude.

There is a widespread notion about Gershwin having been influenced by a Ukranian song. To quote WIkipedia "The Ukrainian-Canadian composer and singer Alexis Kochan has suggested that he based the tune on a Ukrainian lullaby, Oi Khodyt Son Kolo Vikon (A Dream Passes By The Windows)."

I've had my research squad out searching for a copy of that song to see what resemblance it actually bears to Summertime, but so far, the samizdat has failed me.

In any case, herein are a few examples of the song. My criteria for choosing them was (1) how far away it ranges from the original and (2) how much I like it. Let's start off with a version of the original, performed by Harolyn Blackwell:

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dog Days Cliche Examination

Here's a glib little test designed to help pass the lonely hours. Apologies to Flann O'Brien.

Circle the appropriate cliche (Key at bottom of post):

We've past Midsummer Night and the Well of Inspiration has :
1) Stained my plus fours
2) sunk to contrabass clarinet range
3) evaporated
4) Found a new baby in a 5 &10 cent store.

In these trying economic times, it behooves each of us to:
1) Organize for political change
2) Tighten our belts
3) Blame Obama
4) Bootleg more music

The only thing we have to fear is:
1) A Bachman-Paul ticket
2) The Millionaire Matchmaker
3) Fear itself
4) Smooth jazz

All for one and:
1) One for the money
2) For the show
3) To get ready
4) Blow cat, blow

All work and no play:
1) Perpetuates income inequality
2) Equals a bad G.B. gig
3) Makes Jack a dull boy
4) Is no way to make a living

When the going gets tough, the tough:
1) Kill a Facebook farm animal
2) Shop for a new mouthpiece
3) Learn all the verses to "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall"
4) Play Qbeez

If handguns were illegal:
1) None of the below
2) Crossbows would make a comeback
3) Only criminals would have them
4) White supremacist militias would elevate the circle jerk to a fine art

Key=With everyone's self-esteem in such a fragile state (and with my lawyers baying at my heels),  I hereby state there are no wrong answers. You all get a gold star.

Who Loves a Piano? by Steve Provizer

The Actual Lock on the Park Plaza Piano (cel phone photo)
A Piano Lock(so you can actually see one)

SCENE: Executive Board Room, 13th Floor of the Park Snazzy Hotel in Boston. Two Vice Presidents (of unequal rank) determine the fates of various hotel employees.

V.P. 1: Now, tell me, Smidlapp. What about this expense on page 3: one lounge piano player. What's that all about?

V.P.2: You might recall, sir, on your walk-through of the hotel lobby, the small bar down in the back. It's cozy, if a bit out of the way.

V.P. 1: Then why are we paying a piano player to sit there?

V.P. 2: Well, I believe it was the decision of the last management team. They thought it would be an attractive feature.

V.P. 1: Smidlapp. An attractive feature is anonymous porn in the room. It's a jewelry store in the lobby that turns a nice profit. It's operating at 100% capacity, without a staff that gums up the works by throwing unions in our face.

V.P. 2: The waiters and barman tell us that having music helped their tips.

V.P. 1: Do you think our corporation is responsible for the tips of the waitstaff?

V.P. 2: No, of course not...

V.P.1: I'll ask you this: is it difficult for us to retain staff?

V.P. 2: Well, in this economic environment...

V.P. 1: The figures show me it's not difficult to retain staff.

V.P. 2: There was also note made on some evaluation cards by guests who enjoyed walking into the hotel and hearing the music.

V.P. 1: Do you think they enjoy it enough to cover the cost of a human piano player over what it costs to get Muzak piped in?

V.P. 2: I'm not sure, sir

V.P. 1: Don't you-like Muzak, Smidlap?

V.P. 2: Of course. It's just that the live music gave a kind of-a welcoming feeling to the place, and the piano player was very good, he knew a lot of songs and all different kinds of music and played requests and...

V.P. 1: Smidlap! Sometimes I feel like I'm harboring a viper in my bosom. Are YOU a viper in my bosom?

V.P. 2: I hope not, sir.

V.P. 1: There are times, my boy, when I don't believe you have the fiscal needs of the corporation front and center. When I moved you from hotel staff to corporate staff, I did not expect that your loyalty would remain divided.

V.P. 2: No sir, my heart belongs to the corporation. I will give the piano player notice tonight.

V.P. 1: And you'll do it in good spirits, because you know it's the right thing for the bottom line... Smidlap, sometimes I have doubts about you. If you weren't my son-in-law...

ACTUAL POSTSCRIPT: They fired the piano player; a great musician, my friend Ed.

Traditional Jazz and Storytelling

My last post(see just below) got a thread going on the Yahoo group of my band. Much of the conversation is about why young people-even those getting into jazz-don't pick up on the New Orleans tradition.

Brief History
The style we now call Traditional New Orleans music was a vital force until about the mid-late 1920's. Its influence was felt in all the branches of jazz that sprouted across the U.S. and it helped bifurcate popular music into "sweet" and "hot."

In the 1930's, this style began to be widely seen as out of date-by musicians and the audience. Then, in the late 1930's, some of the earlier N.O. players were "rediscovered." This re-established the music and also marked the start of what became the war between the "moldy figs" and the beboppers.

Since that time, Trad seems to have joined the list of jazz styles that continue to survive, with more or less vitality, or been absorbed into hybrid forms. I.e.,  barrelhouse/boogie-woogie, big bands, "free/New Thing," "West Coast," "soul-jazz," "hard bop..."

While traditional jazz is foundational for what we now call "mainstream" jazz, its influence is not easy to hear.
The Nub of the Matter
Like almost all musicians who grew up post-Bird, my musical influences played a lot of notes. At this point, I find it very challenging to pare back and find fewer and better notes. Harmony has obviously grown more complex and that is a double-edged sword. Our technical vocabulary has grown so large that we can justify playing almost any note at any time. It's incredibly interesting to wander one's self or to hear someone else wander into an improvisational blind alley and try to get out. New musical options-chromatics, passing tones, "off-the-horn" sounds and substitutions allow you many ways to do that. But is the process like going to the supermarket and being able to choose between 100 kinds of dishwashing soap? Does having so many choices drain meaning from each choice?

There's no right or wrong, of course, and I'll continue to listen to and love Bird and others with a fluent and enormous musical vocabulary. BUT, story-telling has always been at the center of Jazz. At certain points in our musical culture, the stories jazz musicians told were the stories many people wanted and needed to hear. In eschewing an older, simpler and more direct language-traditional New Orleans music-are we missing an important chance to connect?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Up from the Basement. Or, Lower Register-Philia by Steve Provizer

I was talking with friends about vocalist Johnny Hartman and his justifiably esteemed 1962-63 recording with John Coltrane. Dan said: "Very few things send chills up my spine like his entrance on My One and Only Love. Up out of the basement..."

That got me thinking about other phrases that move dazzlingly up and down and out of the basement. The first two are on I Can't Get Started:

Bunny Berigan (The shift between the basement starting about 3:30 and the stratosphere at about 3:50 is dramatic):

"Weed, Jazz and the Cultural Shift" By Steve Provizer

Last year, I began a post this way: "No one seems happy about the fact that consciousness-altering substances have been at the center of American popular music for the past 100 years or so."

Since that time, I've seen cracks appear in the staunch American moral dam. Multiple states have moved toward legalization of medical marijuana and many others have essentially decriminalized end-use.

Clearly, the shift has a lot to do with money. Overloaded jails and courts cost plenty and there's all those bucks we're not getting by taxing cannabis use, but out-and-out legalization advocacy is still touchy. While states move forward, Obama and the Justice Department push back hard. 

This legal conflict is no surprise. It reflects the ambivalence we have as a culture with alteration of consciousness. 

We're not ready to mainstream even the more mundane behaviors of high-ness: giggles, munchies, auto-transportion, uber-horniness, labyrinthine-desultory thought patterns. Nor are we ready to widely accept use of psychedelics as a spiritual tool (aside from those weird Native Americans and their peyote). Then, there's the nettlesome bohemian thing-choosing art-making over money-making.

Historically, in the jazz world, drug use has been perceived and used as a legal cudgel, a palliative, a panacea, hidden, vaunted, flaunted, rejected, seen as a straying from the True Path, and leveraged as a romantic selling point. 

Since the 1960's, hard drug use has been a very small factor in jazz. So, if the rest of the country is catching up with the pot smoking that jazz musicians have been wont to do, why care now?  

Because, the cultural struggle about drugs plays out in the realm of choice and acceptance and reverberates in our general over-identification with labels and in jazz bifurcations, such as that between "free" and "mainstream" jazz. 

Broadening the parameters of acceptance may mean less reactivity. If there's no mileage in being a rebel, or a technical over-achiever or identifying with either one, why bother?  I know people will find other ways to judge, but-call me Pollyanna-it may mean one less hindrance to a musician who would move freely between sub-genres of jazz-or other genres completely-and, to an audience that would accept same.

"Provizer Response to Pappademas Critique of Treme"

Alex Pappademas just pulished a scathing piece, The Frustrating Unlikeability of Treme. The title implies that the author wants the show to work, but his critical faculties just won't let that happen. That's hard to swallow, given the ferocity of his critique. This might seem a small nit to pick, but this apparent contradiction says to me that Pappademas has not come to terms with the extent to which he does or does not root for the home team.

I'm not asking anyone-even a critic-to suspend critical judgment and I'm not saying you HAVE to root for New Orleans, but there is a touchstone "whose side are you on" question here that you have to come to terms with. If you're gonna analyze Treme, show us what emotional investment you do or don't have in the crisis and musical glory of that city.

With little or no emotional investment, it's hard to care about the characters and easy to see a "shaggy dog narrative" and the notion that "Treme behaves as if genre is a crutch..."(is the word "genre" really what he wants here?).

Sometimes the show makes me cranky too. I'm not much for symbolism-soaked rain songs and I think that when they recorded the theme song for the opening, they squeezed the juice out of it. Various other issues flash through as I watch the show, but I don't think much about whose image it burnishes, or what authorial grudges are supposedly lurking as subtext. I'm a musician. I like hearing almost all the music and love hearing some percentage of it. I am invested in and care about the characters.

I'll end this with a quote from my friend Diana, who responded this way:

"It's been so surprising, every week, that the writers of Treme get so much right. So very much spot-on to what we all saw, felt and said - even in that "unhurried" New Orleans way. Indeed we do pause our own narratives to watch a parade or listen to music in a bar. That kind of momentary bliss makes a community and provides for a necessary release in the face of the post-K bureaucratic nightmare."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Vive le Concert Band! by Steve Provizer

I've lately been touting the joys and beauties of brass bands-specifically of the New Orleans type. But there's an ilk of brass band that came to be known as a concert band that I'd like to give some love to.

Most towns in America had brass bands-some still do. Whether marching in parades or playing in gazebos, these bands vied for top spot in popular entertainment in 19th century America. In the British Isles, the tradition is still strong, as a 1996 film, Brassed Off, showed.

It was the focus of brass playing instruction in the U.S. (think "Music Man") and was a feeder to local bands that veered off into a ragtime then jazz style. Proficient players also moved into bands in the circus, vaudeville, medicine shows, the military  (most famous=Pershing's, then the Hellfighters) and the concert band (most famous=Sousa's).

Adolph Sax's patent of the saxophone on June 23, 1846 inspired me to look for good examples of sax playing in different styles. Inevitably, I found concerti for sax by the likes of Glazunov, Debussy...

As I rooted around in Youtube, the names of Gustav Holst and Edward Elgar popped up and I had a strong aural memory of playing their music in high school concert band. As I listened to the examples posted below, my ability to recall specific musical passages played so long ago astonished me and I realized how much I love this stuff.

There is a kind of potential in a large concert band that surpasses that which can be reached by a large symphony orchestra. Certainly, in terms of dynamic and timbral range, I'd put a sea of reeds and brass of all shapes and sizes up against the same in strings anytime.

My own town-Brookline-has such a brass band (aka "community band") and it seems to me a grossly underutilized resource. After this foray, my appetite to play this stuff has been whetted enough that I'm gonna go to one of their open rehearsals on Wednesday night and try to add a little brio to the trumpet section.

Lovely music (The second video is by Holst, not Tokyo Ko).

"Grace Kelly and Walt Kelly" By Steve Provizer

Maybe I should don the churl's mantle for this.

19-year-old saxophonist Grace Kelly has been voted Best Boston Jazz musician for the 4th year in a row.  As I have often said, there are no Golden Ages and that includes a Golden Age of jazz audiences.  However-and I hope the talented and charming Ms. Kelly doesn't take it personally-this development bespeaks an Age marked by a baser metal.

Boston voters have made their priorities clear: Entertainment over artistic challenge; standards sung and played, audience by-play and mini-skirts. Believe me, I'm a long-time advocate of relating to the audience, love standards and have absolutely nothing against mini-skirts, but the fact that these have been "privileged" over musical originality and daring by Boston jazz audiences for the last 4 years is not heartening.

It feels to me like the cuddly prodigy phenomenon in full swing, deftly promoted. Good grief, Grace has been getting significant ink and showing up on Youtube for years, with the likes of Frank Morgan, Phil Woods and Russell Malone, playing at all the major festivals.

This isn't quite the hoary "selling out" discussion that follows Chris Botti or, say, early-versus-late George Benson. Nor is Grace, in her sylph-like fashion, a 900-pound jazz guerilla, as she is not really displacing other young musicians-and that's part of the problem. Lacking her demographic appeal and effective promotion, no other musician is likely to contend for her spot-on the bandstand or in the polls.

Maybe this is wolf's elitism in sheep's clothing. No one's being swindled here. This isn't the Hunt brothers cornering the silver market. But there are so many great (albeit admittedly scrufulous) jazz musicians in Boston, that it just doesn't pass the smell test.