Saturday, August 28, 2010

Masabumi Kikuchi

Masabumi Kikuchi
(This is the best, but not the most recent, of a select few pictures of him I could find on Google images.)

I first saw Masabumi Kikuchi--the mysterious septuagenarian pianist from Japan--this summer at the Village Vanguard performing with the Paul Motian Trio 2000 + 2. He offered some of the most bizarrely beautiful piano playing I have ever heard, soloing in the lowest octave of the piano, concocting seemingly random clusters of sound by palming the keys, using the soft pedal as a sort of rhythmic mooring for his feet.

The week before, I saw the Billy Hart Quartet, including another refreshingly bizarre pianist: Ethan Iverson, of The Bad Plus. He was there, sitting at the table behind the piano, staring with stolid curiosity, the night I first encountered Mr. Kikuchi.

Mr. Kikuchi has a lot to offer, or so I feel. I know very little about him, but I don't think I'll forget his performance at the Vanguard.

How about you? Ever heard of him? Seen Him? Met him? Played with him? If so, post a comment. I'd love to hear what others have to say of him. The field is wide open.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Robert Glasper

This afternoon, I was perusing A Blog Supreme and I came across an interview between Patrick Jarenwattananon (A Blog Supreme editor) and Robert Glasper (fabulous pianist).

You can find the interview here:

I have never seen Robert Glasper live, but I've admired him and his music for a while, his ability to gracefully combine hip-hop and jazz, to comfortably reference J. Dilla and Thelonious Monk in the same sentence. But then again, why shouldn't he be comfortable?

As he says in the interview:

"For me, I'm not really married to the craft of jazz — I'm married to me, and my style, and whatever I produce. So if you don't want to call it jazz at the end of the day, what do you want to call it? 'Cause maybe I made up something new. [laughs] I don't know, you know what I'm saying? I started out playing traditional jazz, and I still do: I love standards, I love the music.

"But it must move on, and it must live and breathe, and continue to grow, and continue to change, and continue to mesh with other music — all that kind of stuff. Jazz can be on the playground too, you know.

"...It's just in my soul [jazz] — I love it. I don't think I could go without it at all. People get the wrong idea when I'm like, 'Yea, we've got to move on, the music's got to move on.' That doesn't mean totally abandon jazz at all — it just means, 'Hey, also do something else.' ... I love the music — but I also love this kind of music, and I also love this kind of music, and I also love this kind of music, you know? I'm a musical mutt, so I have a lot of desires, musically, that I want to accomplish."

And then, because I study political theory here at McGill, I thought of the great liberal thinker Isaiah Berlin, who, for his writings on value pluralism, has informed my view of the world for the better.

Here's a quote from an essay he wrote:

"I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments. I am not a relativist; I do not say 'I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps' -- each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false. But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ. There is not an infinity of them: the number of human values, of values that I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite -- let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 26, but finite, whatever it may be. And the difference it makes is that if a man pursues one of these values, I, who do not, am able to understand why he pursues it or what it would be like, in his circumstances, for me to be induced to pursue it. Hence the possibility of human understanding." (1)

What Berlin is saying here, as I understand it for the purposes of this entry, is that there are so many competing values in the world, it is impossible to hold them all. But you should still be able to understand why someone would pursue paleontology when you have chosen botany, for example. You can like a lot of things, and they don't have to clash. People can like a lot of things, and their interests need not be at odds. This is a salient point in the post-Coltrane period of jazz.

In the quote I drew from the interview, Mr. Glasper is not prioritizing his musical desires. He seems to be treating himself as though he is many people with competing interests and goals, whose desires he must satify, whose interests he must pursue. In the process, he is appealing to a wide range of people who might not think much of jazz, but love hip-hop; who might not like Monk, but idolize J. Dilla. It doesn't seem to matter, as Mr. Glasper says, if you call his music jazz. He's not going to quibble over words.

I think, ultimately, Berlin's thought was about truth to oneself. And if anything, that is the truth Mr. Glasper pursues.


(1) Berlin, Isaiah. New York Review of Books, Vol. XLV, Number 8 (1998).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Keeping It Simple

I started playing the drums in grade nine when my parents bought me a drum set for my birthday. I don't remember wanting a drum set, or for that matter, wanting to play music, but I started taking lessons anyway, and I began to enjoy them. In the second, and last, year of lessons, I decided to switch to practicing jazz drumming. I had been listening to jazz for about a year or so, going to the library, taking out records—among them, Coltrane Plays the Blues, Mingus Ah-Um, Speak Like a Child--and thinking there was something about jazz I liked, something about the rhythm, the openness. I felt as if I could hear the musicians thinking. I didn't know anything about harmony then. (I still don't know much.) But I could intuit when the soloist had slipped into the bridge, or when a chorus had cycled through.

I began jamming with friends--playing lots of funk and blues and some spacey stuff. We were into Soulive and Medeski, Martin and Wood and Sound Tribe Sector 9 and The String Cheese Incident and Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten and Led Zeppelin and The Dead. Occasionally during a jam, I'd lay down a simple triplet ride pattern, trying to get us swinging. But the bassist never walked, didn't understand a chromatic line, and the guitarist couldn't solo. This didn't frustrate me, but I still wanted to play jazz. My drumming, I knew, was shoddy, but I was working on it, practicing eight bar trade-offs alone in my attic--where my drums were--imitating Joe Morello's five-four pattern from "Take Five," simplifying and cutting out my fills.

I was emulating Philly Joe, Art Blakey, Donald Bailey. I knew I could never play like them, but I could keep time, and at least I wasn't trying to play like Brian Blade or Chris Dave or Jamire Williams, whose playing, to me, existed for the sake of idolatry.

One day after gym class, perhaps in grade 11, I started talking to a bassist a grade below me who dug jazz. He said he was forming a jazz band, he had a guitarist and pianist, but he was still looking for a drummer. Could I jam with them? I agreed and we met up at my house over the weekend to run through some standards. I was a little unsure of myself, but damn did it feel good to play jazz for the first time, probably because the guys I was playing with understood the vernacular--especially the guitarist who rarely ever read from lead sheets and, I learned later, had spent the previous summer memorizing Charlie Parker solos and John Coltrane's tortuous solo on "Giant Steps."

I felt as if I didn't belong among these musicians who clearly understood and played jazz better than me. But they liked my playing and we decided to look for gigs around town. Our first gig took place at the local coffee shop (we would end up playing there about four times in our tenure as a local jazz band). We played "Take Five," some blues pieces, "Chameleon," some originals, "Cissy Strut." No one showed up to watch besides my friends. As pleased as I was that they came, I remember wondering why anyone would want to listen to us. We weren't particularly good. At the end of my sloppy solo on "Take Five," I dropped my drum stick and had to use my left hand to play the snare in order to complete the song.

As our band continued to practice and perform, I continued to simplify my drumming. Simplicity, to me, represented wise restraint, but it was also a defense mechanism against complexity, which scared me: I didn't know how to handle it, when to use it. So I tried not to, although it did creep into my playing when confusion struck.

When I graduated from high school and came to McGill, I didn't want to give up playing the drums--it eased my nerves. A bit more confident with my playing, or at least my ability get through a jazz standard, I searched for jazz jam sessions around town. I figured I knew enough jazz standards to comfortably fit in to a jam, and if I didn't know one called, it would probably be AABA, 32 bars, like most of the tunes I played with my band back home.

So one Tuesday night in October, I nervously went off, drum sticks in hand, to take part in a jam session at Montreal's most popular jazz club, Upstairs. When I walked in, I told the host--who happened to be the house drummer--I wanted to play, and he wrote my name down. I sat down and watched the musicians, most of them drummers, come up and play. Some drummers seemed nervous, unsure, their playing flighty. Others couldn't swing, or wouldn't--I couldn't tell. But I liked that this jam was so egalitarian, that in this bourgeois jazz club, young college kids like me could come in, have a beer, and actually go on stage to perform for members of an audience that had decided, of their own volition, to come and see live music.

When my name was called, my hands shook a little. I had thought of two songs to recommend, "Blue Monk" and "On Green Dolphin Street," but as I realized, the guitarist who had also just stepped up to the stage would choose the songs he knew best. And then there we were, strolling smoothly into "Younger Than Spring Time." I was calm, keeping it simple, staying within my means. I caught the eight-bar trade-offs, and then we were back into the head, but I didn't know exactly when the song would end. So when the pianist looked up at me quizzically as we rolled on unnecessarily into extra bars, I created a rhythmic vamp and we were done. Not bad.

Then came "Billie's Bounce," which I knew. But I didn't hear them count off and had to stutter into the song about eight bars late. Things were going well after that until the trade-offs. I'm assuming I had more trouble counting bars at a faster tempo because I ended up playing a four-bar solo first, then a sixteen-bar solo. All the while, the pianist with whom I was trading tried to make sense of my asymmetrical approach, furrowing his brow, smiling with a bit of levity. Finally, emerging from the whirlwind of trade-offs, we returned to the head, played it twice, and concluded in unison. The house bassist, to my surprise, graciously shook my hand as I left the stage, thanking me for playing. Then I sat down in the crowd and had another beer, evaluating in my head what had just happened.

I returned to that club three more times to play in the following two years. Each time I have gone my heart beats faster and faster until the moment I sit down and start playing. I'm not sure why that is the case. I am not a confident drummer: that is the main reason I try to play simply. But perhaps focusing on simplicity, in whatever way, calms me.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Julio Cortazár and His Takes on Jazz

Julio Cortazár (1914-1984)

Last night, I borrowed a translated version of Julio Cortazár's "Around the Day in Eighty Worlds" from a friend who suggested I read its four chapters on jazz and jazz artists.

I read those four chapters--each only one to five pages in length--this morning, and enjoyed two of them especially: One on a Thelonious Monk concert in Geneva from 1966 and another on the meaning of jazz takes. The two others were a paragraph homage to Clifford Brown and a slightly-too-hagiographical description of a Louis Armstrong concert in Paris from 1952. (And for those of you who are Cortazár fans, the Armstrong entry is the one in which he first employs the word "Cronopio," which threw me off a bit, as this was my first encounter with Cortazár. But don't be offended if I ignore his jargon here.) Throughout this entry, I will be drawing some chunky quotes from the chapters on Monk and jazz takes. They are worth reading.

Of Monk, he writes:

"[F]rom backstage, taking a completely unnecessary detour on the way, a bear with a cap that is half fez, half skullcap walks up to the piano, putting one foot in front of the other with such caution that you think of abandoned mines or those flower beds of Sassanid despots where each crushed flower meant the slow death of a gardener. When Thelonious sits down at the piano the whole hall sits with him and produces a collective sigh as great as his relief because the diagonal progress of Thelonious across the stage contained something of the risk of piloting a Phoenician sailing ship with probable grounding in sandbars, and when the ship loaded with dark honey and its bearded captain reach the port the masonic wharf of Victoria Hall receives it with a sound like air escaping from the sails as the ship's bow touches the pier."(1)

He continues, in one heroic (abridged) breath of a sentence:

"When Charles Rouse steps toward the microphone and his sax imperiously shows us why it is there, Thelonious lets his hands fall, listens a moment, tries a soft chord with his left hand, and the bear rises...he leaves the bench and leans against the end of the piano, where, as he marks the beat with a foot and his cap, his fingers go gliding over the piano, first at the end of the keyboard...and then imperceptibly his fingers set off on a safari across the piano...and Thelonious makes a dizzying journey...toward the end of the piano, but he won't reach it because to get there he would need more time than Phileas Thelonious travels in his own way...every so often moving his fingers to gain an inch...measuring the heights with a a sextant of smoke and refusing to go forward and reach the end of the piano, until his hand abandons the shore, the bear gradually spins around...we feel the emptiness of Thelonious away from the shore of the piano, the interminable diastole of one enormous heart where all our blood is beating, and just at that moment his other hand falls from the piano, the bear teeters amiably and the keyboard, looks at it as if for the first time, passes his indecisive fingers through the air, lets them fall, and we are saved..."(2)

Watch this video of the Thelonious Monk Quartet from 1966 to get an idea of what is being described, Monk's inscrutable yet avuncular demeanor, his immaculate yet seemingly unrefined and uncalculated control:

The Thelonious Monk Quaret live in Oslo, 1966

For me, it was refreshing to read poetic writing on jazz. I spend so much of my time delving into the history of this music that I sometimes get tired and less hopeful because there is so much ambiguity and so much to know. From time to time, I prefer some metaphor over historical accuracy. (This doesn't often happen in writing on jazz.) Sometimes I'd prefer to believe that Monk's genius was ineffable, just as I'd like to believe that some of nature's mysterious ways are impervious, to an extent, to scientific observation.

In his short essay on jazz takes, called "Take it or Leave It," Cortazár is writing partly in response to accusations from a Uruguayan critic who has written that Cortár's novel "Hopscotch" contains errors regarding discographic dates. Cortazár's writing does not convey any huffiness or indignance or sadness or defensiveness. It is humble. He acknowledges the errors in his book and respects the critic, who, as Cortazár writes, "knows a lot" and has written "really a solomonian column." Cortazár wisely demonstrates that he will not let these errors deter him, and in fact, uses the experience as an opportunity to write a well-crafted and thoughtful essay. The last sentence is a victory.

He writes:

"The instructor who taught me to drive told me that if I ever cracked up, the only thing that could keep me together would be to get in another car as soon as possible and keep on driving as if nothing had happened. So let fall the cords that bind Saint Sebastian, let the solitary column stand, and let's talk of takes, which, as everyone knows, even me a little, are the successive recordings of a single theme during the course of a recording session...

"Strange power of the record, which can open for us the workshop of the artist, let us attend his successes and failures. How many takes are there in the world? This edited one can't be the best; in its turn the atom bomb could someday be the equivalent of Bird's Hold it!, the great silence. But will there be other usable takes afterwards?

"The difference between practice and take. Practice leads little by little to perfection, what it produces doesn't matter, it is present only as a function of the future. In the take creation contains its own criticism, so it often interrupts itself to begin again; the inadequacy or failure of a take has the value of practice for the one that follows, but the next one is not an improved version of the preceding one, rather, if it is really good, it is always another thing entirely.

"The best literature is always a take; there is an implicit risk in its execution, a margin of danger that is the pleasure of the flight, of the love, carrying with it a tangible loss but also a total engagement..."

Then he bravely concludes:

"I don't want to write anything but takes."(3)

Neither do I.

(1) Cortázar, Julio. Around the Day in Eighty Worlds. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986. Print. Pages 72-73.

(2) Ibid., pages 73-74.

(3) Ibid., page 136.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tiny Tim and Nick Lucas

Watch the videos below of "Tip-Toe Through The Tulips," written in 1926 by Joe Burke and Al Dubin.

I prefer Nick Lucas's version, though of course, it's overwrought. He's playing there in 1929 for the musical picture "Gold Diggers of Broadway," and that rendition might have made his career. I didn't know this until I read his biography, but Nick Lucas was a pioneer of jazz guitar. Listen to his 1922 version of "Teasing the Frets" and compare it to Eddie Lang accompanying Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer in their presciently modern 1927 version of "Singing the Blues." You might draw a lot of parallels.

Lucas changed to the guitar at a time when banjo and ukulele were the mainstays of rhythmic accompaniment, which puts Tiny Tim in perspective a bit as an atavistic entertainer. With all his wispy, androgynous perversity, in "Tip-Toe Through the Tulips," Tiny Tim provides us with some meta-commentary on American culture. The lascivious body movements, the fluttery eyes, the meaningless, self-conscious persiflage--this might add up to some co-opted, hippy version of vaudeville.

Perhaps he didn't know he was doing this. But anyone who goes to the New York Public Library in search of antebellum American folk songs, as he did, probably has more on his mind than dying his hair red. Or perhaps not. Take a look at this interview-- decide for yourself.

Nick Lucas and Tiny Tim happened to be friendly, at least on TV. In 1969, Nick performed "Tip-Toe Through the Tulips" on the Tonight Show when Johnny Carson hosted Tiny's marriage to Miss Vicky. He was 40. She was 17.

Which version do you prefer? I won't blame you if you say neither.

Tip-Toe Through The Tulips (1968)

Tip-Toe Through The Tulips (1929)

Friday, August 20, 2010

La Vie En Haut

The Saint Lawrence River is a long, clear tongue, which, for most of its length, mightily eases its way up through the province of Quebec--past Trois Rivieres, past Quebec City, past Rimouski--widening and getting saltier with each northern mile, until, finally--past the Gaspe Peninsula--it officially mixes its brine with the North Atlantic in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

As I and a few friends drove north along the Saint Lawrence this week, approaching the Gaspe Peninsula--a thumb of land bordered by river and ocean--I wondered when a river stops being a river, an ocean an ocean. Is it a matter of salinity? Of width? Of wildlife? In Cap-Chat, a rustic fishing village six hours north of Quebec City where we camped for a night, we waded in the slightly salty waters of the Saint Lawrence. When we finally submerged ourselves in its freezing depths, we gasped with fear and excitement, our skin tightening, our lungs shrinking. Seaweed floated beneath us and mussels and snails clung lazily to the smooth stones strewn along its floor.

When we reached Gaspe, a charming fishing village out on the end of the peninsula, the Saint Lawrence had widened considerably. We could no longer see its northern shore as in Cap-Chat. I felt as if I had entered an alien landscape with huge, beautiful, oblong rocks; cool, salty winds; big blue skies; higher clouds; abnormally starry nights. I thought a lot about geology, although I know nothing about it. I felt as if the residents of Gaspe might live more slowly, might more take their time.

Perhaps they do. But perhaps I was idealizing seemingly simple life. There is nothing simple about rocks. When Greg locked our keys in the car one night, we called AAA. They came and helped within forty minutes. So much for the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, I still felt starry-eyed.

That same night, we came upon a quaint jazz group--drums, violin, classical guitar, bass--performing in an island of grass between two roads and a parking lot. When we sat down, the singer/guitarist was introducing the next song in French. Through his thick Quebecois accent I gleaned the name Johnny Hartman and the band went into Irving Berlin's "They Say It's Wonderful," which Hartman recorded with the Coltrane quartet in 1963. It is one of my favorite recordings.

The group rendered the song well--charmingly. They played "Night and Day," "O Pato." In "It Could Happen to You," the singer cutely crooned: "'ide your 'eart from sight / lock your dreams at night / It could 'appen to you." French doesn't seem to accommodate for the English h, but I loved the song anyway.

The violinist soloed coolly through the changes of each song, her brow wrinkled with focus. At one point, as she began to sing her bowed solo into the microphone--Slam Stewart-style, but at the same pitch--I wondered why I was surprised that we should happen upon this performance, that I should feel comfortable in such a wide-open area.

The next day, driving back along the coast, we stopped for a moment to look out on the water. Northern gannets were fishing: hovering high in thermals, they would slowly tilt up, their wings ajar, teetering on the edge of air, tip over, letting the force of gravity propel their bodies deep into the water with a small splash. Harbor porpoises were traveling through, revealing their matte gray backs and then slipping smoothly back into the water. Great blue herons flew casually past us, their sheet-like wings flapping inches above the water.

Eventually, as we retraced our drive, going back to Montreal, the northern shore of the Saint Lawrence came into view. We stopped at a road-side lobster-roll stand for lunch and enjoyed the fresh air. We were taking our time, enjoying friendship, tasting experience.

You May Be Out There

So I was away for a week. I didn't bring my computer. As I sifted through e-mails and Facebook notifications and the news and other blogs after returning to my apartment last night, I came upon my name and blog listed in Patrick Jarenwattananon's tightly managed A Blog Supreme on NPR's website.

You can find it here:

I won't lie. I was expecting the listing. Patrick probably wouldn't have known about my blog if I hadn't e-mailed him a couple of weeks ago asking him to look at it. I don't know how many people actually clicked the link to get here and check out what I have to say. I might never know. But what's nice is that Patrick did.

Friday, August 13, 2010

I Must Be Going

I'll be away for about a week, so no posts during that time.

"Hello, I Must Be Going"

(Groucho Marx)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

An Ode to Smalls

This afternoon I was reading a post from George Colligan's blog, jazztruth (, about the charming jazz club Smalls, in the West Village. I went there for the first time this summer to see the stride pianist Mike Lipskin.

Smalls--with its rug-draped walls, cheap Sapporo, and folding chairs arranged before the stage--might be the best jazz club in New York City because it is so unpretentious and rustic and bizarre. If you go, try to spot the gray cat sometimes ambling about the stage during a performance.

I happen to have written a review of the Mike Lipskin show I saw, so I figured I'd rehash it here, to give you a portrait of Smalls which now hangs fuzzily in my mind:

Striding Through Songs with Ease, Solo Piano at Smalls

The pianist Mike Lipskin, who came from San Francisco to perform at Smalls in the West Village, seemed familiar with the audience on Monday night. “We’re closed,” he muttered, as some walked in a few minutes before the show.

The performance felt mildly vaudevillian. The subway rumbled subtly beneath the floorboards and a longhaired gray cat ambled about the stage as Mr. Lipskin played stride piano and deadpanned one-liners between songs.

“Stride piano’s like touch-typing,” Mr. Lipskin said, referring to the high level of muscle memory stride pianists must have in their hands. He sipped from his drink and thought for a moment: “Except you have to use a different font.”

Mr. Lipskin—who studied with Willie “The Lion” Smith and referred to the stride innovator as “a dear friend, a second father”—presents himself as a perpetual student of the Harlem stride tradition. But he is more than that.

Mr. Lipskin performed stride tunes by Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and Willie “The Lion” Smith. He adapted Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, and Hoagy Carmichael tunes to the stride style—a steady left-hand four-beat pulse interlaced with improvised right-hand chords—such as “Caravan,” “You’d Be So Easy to Love,” and “Skylark,” which were recast as locomotive etudes.

He played a bit of Harold Arlen’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” stopped, and began Willie “The Lion” Smith’s version, explaining first how Willie had made it his own. And it was Willie’s own (as Mr. Lipskin exhibited well)—with fierce bass-note stabs and a melody that respectfully hinted at its origins but resolved differently.

He seemed to stare at his hands when he played. But if stride piano is anything like touch-typing, it couldn’t have mattered where he looked. Perhaps he was reading the music from his head.

After spotlessly navigating James P. Johnson’s “Keep off the Grass,” Mr. Lipskin remarked, “I think that was written at three pm on July third, but I’m not sure,” mocking the sometimes-annoying obsessiveness of jazz scholarship. His jokes were self-contained, and he never smiled or laughed at them, even as the audience did. He only smiled after each piece. He’d finish playing, turn around to face the crowd, smile, take a sip from his drink, introduce the next song, perhaps tell a joke, and then begin to play again. He had an agenda.

Everything was pleasantly compartmentalized. He played his own tunes, too: stride with corky lyrics. In his tune “Could Be You’re Falling In Love,” he sang, “Time passes by / like the lifespan of a fly / could be you’re falling in love.” His voice was gravelly, not too resonant, and mostly on key. For one low note, he had to reach way down to the bottom of his throat. He sort of got it, and the audience laughed. He kept on singing.

You almost didn’t want him to be a great singer. He sang charmingly, and picked his songs wisely and wittily. He didn’t overcompensate.

He played unpretentiously, without long, introspective endings that often draw too much attention in solo jazz-piano performances. At the beginning of the second set, he informed the audience that he would be lecturing at Jazz at Lincoln Center the next day. “We’ll be discussing interest rates from 1956 to 1957,” he said.

As Mr. Lipskin began “In A Sentimental Mood,” with elegant descending bass notes, the gray cat was making its way up the bass drum in the corner of the stage.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Things I Did Last Summer

This summer I took a master's class in jazz history and research, taught by the beneficent Lewis Porter, at Rutgers University in Newark. Lewis was kind enough to allow me into the course despite that I am an undergraduate studying political science and Arabic at McGill University and despite that he only knew me through e-mail before I walked into class on the first day. About eight people (all musicians) took the class, which spanned about a month of six six-hour classes. I had never been in a classroom for six hours before.

We discussed pan-cultural notions of improvisation, the flaws of Ken Burns's Jazz, the phenomenon of Dave Brubeck, rare piano recordings. I participated in a free jazz improvisation. We did a lot of listening-- to music, to each other, to the sounds of police and ambulance sirens on the streets of Newark. I had the chance to peruse the Institute of Jazz Studies (IJS), which, as the IJS writes on its website, "is the largest archive of jazz and jazz related materials in the world." I read a letter there that Ben Webster wrote from Europe to Mary Lou Williams. It was special seeing his handwriting, and understanding his diction in a language other than music.

During this time, I was seeing one live jazz performance a week at those hallowed New York jazz clubs--the Vanguard, Birdland, the Jazz Standard, Smalls--which I am so lucky to live near when I am home from school. I saw Paul Motian, Masabumi Kikuchi, Billy Hart, Mark Turner, Anat Cohen, Vijay Iyer, Evan Christopher, Mike Lipskin, Ben Street, Miguel Zenon, Bill Frisell, among others. I was reviewing these shows and taking the reviews to Ben Ratliff, with whom I was privately studying jazz criticism. (Lewis Porter, who seems to know every one in the jazz world, connected me with him.)

I wanted to study with Ben because, in high school, when I read his first book on jazz, he showed me that reading about jazz didn't have to be boring. That a writer can make any subject enlivening if his writing is clear and humane and empathetic. As I read his new books through the years, I became more and more impressed and inspired by his ability to write beautifully and understandably about such complicated subjects as, for example, the mythification of Coltrane or the mystery of Paul Motian.

So when I went to Ben, we agreed that the main objective would be to hone my writing--learning about jazz would be a side-effect of the writing. He told me I could write book reviews, movie reviews, theatre reviews. But I chose to review jazz performances because I wanted to experience live music, to be entrenched in it. I went to his apartment once a week for ten weeks, each time with a new concert review in hand which he would read and edit with me for about an hour or two at a time.

It was emotionally draining to try so hard on a piece of writing knowing there was probably some flaw I had not noticed right on the surface. And sure enough, there always was. But I was learning, and as I continued through the weeks, I got better.

Now I am back in Montreal. The lessons with Ben are over. The master's class is over. School will start again in early September. I have never been involved so deeply with jazz and writing as I have been this summer. I have written some short stories of my own volition. And I listen to jazz whenever. But combining my love of jazz with my desire to become a better writer I hadn't much considered until recently. So far, it's been keeping me moored.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Music Writing

For about the last four months I have been thinking about writing about music a lot. I have also been writing about thinking about music some. For those of you who have been doing the same, and might want to read some advice on how to do it better (although there are no proscribed formulas), check out this website:

There are many entries from many music writers offering advice on writing. I found a lot of the entries helpful, some not so much. Find the ones that you think are helpful.


What's more, here's a Nat King Cole video I like:

Route 66
(Nat King Cole)

Monday, August 9, 2010

How I Learn(ed)

The first jazz record I remember buying about seven years ago was Jimmy Smith's The Sermon. I had listened to jazz before, but the act of purchasing the record represented a foray, a coming-out. The first, title track ran about twenty minutes, and I listened to it over and over again. I remember listening closely, and more closely, to Art Blakey's stoic shuffle, wondering if his snare hits on the two and four would ever vary; to Jimmy Smith's gospel phrasing--he seemed to me a blacksmith of soul, hammering out anvils of funk on the Hammond B-3; to Kenny Burrell's attention to space as he let a single note from his guitar rise and fall, revealing its full dimension before moving onto the next.

Of course things are less mystical to me now. I have found new ways to appreciate jazz, and other music I might not have appreciated when I was in high school. Appreciation is tricky. I want to enjoy a lot of things, to understand a lot of things. When I can't finish a book or a movie, for example, I wonder if it is my fault--if I am boring or bored or both. I try to follow my tastes, my feelings, my intuitions, but sometimes they pull me apart into a sort of passive state where accomplishment seems far off.

Often I want to know--to have read, to have seen, to have listened to, to have written, to have enjoyed, to have felt, to have lived--more than my life's experiences can allow.

When I bought that first jazz record seven years ago, jazz to me was something that I found beautiful, enchanting, rugged. I didn't find it intellectually challenging. I kept on buying records, and listening, and listening. I read the liner notes, became acquainted with the names of the musicians. I was learning about jazz and its complex history without knowing it. I don't remember trying to learn. I have tried to learn many times, and it did not feel like it did as I delved into the world of jazz.

I know much more about jazz now, but I am still learning about it, and I in no way consider myself an expert on the subject. But the act of learning about jazz, and, in fact, about almost everything, seems so much more deliberate than it once did.

Enjoyment for me is now most often a learning experience. Max Roach said jazz records are the textbooks of jazz. That's not necessarily how I see them, but I am much more self-conscious of buying a record than I once was because I want to know how it fits into history, what lives the musicians had, who wrote the tunes. I don't consider this curiosity a burden. It often humbles me, but sometimes I am thrown off by my anxiety.

Perhaps that will change someday. Perhaps someday I will look back at this entry and wonder why I did not realize as I sat in this charming cafe down the street from where I live, how much I was unconsciously learning just through the process of writing and reconsidering my feelings and examining my past.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Marian McPartland

There is something beatific about Marian McPartland's voice. And it's not because she's 92. It might have something to do with her English accent. For almost every night of the last four months, I have fallen asleep to her NPR radio show, "Piano Jazz," in which she talks with jazz musicians about their influences, their tastes, their methods. She also jams with them.

There is something coy, wistful, agnostic, ecumenical, self-effacing in her speech and comportment that makes me feel at ease when I switch on her show, which she has been hosting since 1979. Some of the episodes I enjoy the most have been with Michel Petrucciani, Rosemary Clooney, Mary Lou Williams, Chick Corea, John Lewis, George Shearing, Aaron Diehl.

If you want a better portrait of Marian McPartland than I can paint, read the chapter "The Key of D is Daffodil Yellow" in Whitney Balliett's book, "Alec Wilder and His Friends," which Ben Ratliff lent me this summer. It is a wonderful book about some wonderful jazz musicians and singers, one cabaret singer, and two radio comedians:

If you don't have time to find this book, which, I think, you can only buy on Amazon--unless you get lucky at a used book store or rummage sale--watch this video, in which Marian talks about her style, and plays a bit:

Marian McPartland Talks About Her Sound

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Last night, I was hit by a car. Or rather, I collided, front-wheel first on my ramshackle bicycle, into the side of a moving car. I was moving fast, but I was lucky. (I wasn't wearing a helmet. I will always wear one from now on.) If I had been going faster, the car would have collided, front-bumper first, into the side of me. I'm not sure whose fault it was. Maybe I shouldn't have been going so fast. Perhaps the car should have stopped before crossing straight through the bike lane I was easily gliding down.

If my brakes were better, maybe I would have missed the car--swerved behind it or stopped abruptly before it. But my brakes were not better. As I smashed straight into the side of the back door, I was propelled off my bike, landing on my tailbone in the middle of the road. The driver pulled over to see if I was in good enough shape to continue on my way. I told him I was, and with the help of a friend who had been biking behind me--and who happened to have been an EMT--I walked away without, I think, having broken anything.

Today my hip hurts and I'm limping a bit. But it didn't prevent me from taking a walk (or a limping jaunt) in the park down the street from my apartment. As I made my way to the park--stopping at red lights, looking both ways, and then looking both ways again--I felt more vulnerable. It's not that I feared getting hit again, but I wondered what it would take to not get hit again.

How much caution is enough caution? How cautious do I want to be? For the second or so I lay suspended in the air last night--my body completely subservient to the whims of the collision--I don't remember having any profound thoughts about the brevity of life, regrets about unfinished business. Sure, I have regrets. I think life is brief. But when I sat up after landing on the concrete, I first wondered if my new Ray-Bans, which had been in my breast pocket, survived the crash. They did.

I wore them today in the park as I sat in a spot of sun listening to an accordionist play a sad, slow waltz. The accordion bellowed and sighed with the man's arms as the tips of his fingers moved assiduously along the bass buttons. I tossed a dollar coin into his case as he concluded the song, and I walked back home.

My hip hurt a little more from the walk and I lay down on my bed to listen to some more music. I first put on Albert Ayler playing the beautiful spiritual, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." It might say more than I can about the last 24 hours:

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

(Albert Ayler)

Friday, August 6, 2010

Ralph J. Gleason's "Jazz Casual"

I apologize if my last post was a little gloomy and perhaps confusing. I don't want to to drive you away. There is not yet any logical sequence or rhythm to the way I have been posting. I don't know if there ever will be. But in every post I am trying to write essays or stories or synopses that you will read to the end. If I have done that, I am satisfied. Here goes another:

Ralph J. Gleason

From 1960-1968, the jazz and pop critic Ralph J. Gleason created and hosted a TV show called "Jazz Casual," broadcast on the NET network. (He was also a founding editor of Rolling Stone magazine.) Gleason cared immensely about jazz and wanted to share it with a wide audience while showcasing the jazz (and blues) musicians he so respected. Such artists as John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Dave Brubeck, B.B. King, Carmen McRae, John Handy, and Keith Jarrett performed for this TV show which would yield 31 episodes, but of which only 28 are available today. The first episode, not yet available, featured Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. These episodes are relics, as important for jazz's posterity as Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz" or Arthur Taylor's "Notes and Tones."

Many are available on YouTube. The following video, featuring Jimmy Witherspoon and Ben Webster backed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, is one of my favorites. Witherspoon and Webster are both direly delicate, letting their phrases trail off with the subtlest traces of vapory vibrato. It seems, as Witherspoon sings, that he is, heroically, coming to terms with the lyrics as he arrives at each new word. But listen for yourself:

Ain't Nobody's Business

(Jimmy Witherspoon and Ben Webster)

I'll leave you with an excerpt from an article, written by the great New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett, of the best description of Ben Webster's sound I have ever come across:

He would start a medium-slow blues solo very softly with a weaving five-note phrase, pause, play a high, barely audible blue note, and duck back to his opening phrase, still as soft as first sunlight. He would harden his tone slightly at the start of his next chorus, issue an annunciatory phrase, repeat it, insert a defiant tremolo. . . . His tone would grow hard, he would growl and crowd his notes, he would shake his phrases as if he had them clamped in his teeth. . . . As the years went by . . . he would close certain phrase endings by allowing his vibrato to melt into pure undulating breath—dramatically offering, before the breath expired, the ghost of his sound.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Jazz and Judaism

I'm Jewish. Though I'm not sure what that means. I listen to a lot of jazz. Though I'm not sure what that means either. I don't want to believe I like jazz because I'm Jewish. There is no reason to think that. But within the last few years, I have become, let's say, confused, by my Jewishness and my attraction to jazz--not necessarily the link between the two, but the similar confusion I feel about both.

There are some easy, mainly trivial, connections to be drawn between jazz and Jews: the Eastern European Jews of Tin Pan Alley (the Gershwins, Kern, Hammerstein, Berlin, Arlen, et al.) wrote the tunes jazz musicians would expound on indefinitely; a hefty number of jazz critics and historians are Jewish--including Nat Hentoff, Leonard Feather, Lewis Porter, Ira Gitler; jazz is a minority music (in the popular sense) and Judaism is a minority religion.

There is an important difference between Jewishness and Judaism. Jewishness denotes a cultural sensibility while Judaism denotes a religion. I am not a religious Jew, but I am Jewish nonetheless. Jazz is not a religion, although some may think of it as such. But jazz is a liminal music. What leaves me pondering are the tenebrous forms of jazz and Jewishness, whose margins are, to me, as indistinct as territorial waters.

Lately, though, I have been thinking about the inherent worth of such unanswerable questions as "What is Jewishness?" or "What is jazz?" They are clearly important questions, but I find myself caring less and less about them. (If you are not satisfied with my insouciance, however, read Isaiah Berlin's essay, "Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx, and the Search for Identity" for the best response I have found to the first question, "What is Jewishness?")

The best answer I have found to "What is jazz?" is: Jazz is what jazz musicians do. This may not satisfy you. But to me, it says much more than any more scholarly answer could ever say. It is an affront to all those who think these grand questions matter, that historical synthesis is more important than our immediate, day-to-day experiences, which might harbor more answers than we think.

As I write this entry in a coffee shop down the street from my apartment, I am learning from the barista who brought me my coffee and sandwich; the two young women sharing apple pie to my left; the cyclist who just walked in for an iced drink, perhaps a gelato. They don't have all the answers. But it's a start.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Osheaga: An Island of Rock

The Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in Montreal is basically an indie-rock marathon. This is a jazz blog. Ignore that. One of the reasons I like jazz shows is because I can usually sit down at them--in a club, a theatre, a concert hall; even the Newport Jazz Festival has chairs. I get tired easily, and after two days of standing in front of gigantic stages among huge crowds at Osheaga, which I attended this past weekend, I was exhausted. But it was a satisfying exhaustion; one that made me reconsider my tastes.

I had been to two big music festivals before Osheaga: The All Good Music Festival, a three-day mini-Bonnaroo in West Virginia; and the Newport Jazz Festival. All Good upset me when I went six years ago as a confused, shy, sensitive sixteen-year-old. I didn't want to dance in the mud to Les Claypool, I didn't understand the beauty of an acid trip, and invocations of peace and love seemed to me like sanctimonious platitudes. Everything was not all good. Newport was beautiful, but something seemed missing when I went three years ago--perhaps people my age. It didn't seem as exciting as the videos I saw from the 1950's, when Count Basie was synonymous with swing.

At Osheaga, I came upon almost every band never having heard its music. I believe in the power of live performance, and I believed, as I eased my way into the crowd before a set, that each band could teach me something I could not learn from a record.

Sarah Harmer, who stood erect before her microphone, her legs straighter than natural, offered the cleanest, most understandable rock I heard the whole weekend. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, led by vocalist Alex Ebert, created a home on stage with its happy, ragtag, honky-tonk folk-pop. "When I was five years old, I listened to Beethoven and he told me I was going to die," Mr. Ebert declared with David-Byrne-like absurdity and intonation.

I wasn't sure what Mr. Ebert was saying, but I was confused by a lot of lyrics throughout the weekend. At points, I just stopped listening to the words, focusing in, rather, on the tone of the singer's voice. The ambient silkiness of Amy Millan's voice (Stars) and the sedated baritone of Matt Berninger's (The National) did it for me.

The only delay I counted was for Snoop Doog, who walked slyly on stage, ten minutes late, to the apocalyptic blare of Carmina Burana. He referred to himself in the third person for almost the entirety of his hour-long set while pointing out the sexiness of the women in the audience and eliciting cheers for weed and liquor. Everyone seemed to love it, perhaps relieved for a moment by the absence of raw indie-self-consciousness. (Devo also referred to themselves in the third person, but in a facetious, mechanical way that distanced them from the audience.)
Seu Jorge might have been the hippest performer of the weekend as he danced gracefully about the stage in a black, straw trilby hat, Heineken in one hand, microphone in the other. He satisfied the crowd with Ziggy Stardust, but his original, bossa-rock songs were more effective, incisive; even if you couldn't understand the Portuguese lyrics, his low, breathy voice offered enough. The Black Keys, joined by a keyboardist (whose keyboard, sure enough, had black keys) and bassist for a few songs, sounded more comfortable performing as a duo, their usual format.
The most striking, yet necessary, dissonance of the weekend came when Sonic Youth played directly after Snoop Dogg. If Snoop Dogg makes women feel sexy and men sexual, then I have no idea how Sonic Youth makes us feel. But as the mosh-pit widened behind me, and Kim Gordon's voice flowed on with rugged determination, I began to understand how little I understand myself and what I like.

In George Saunders's book of essays, "The Braindead Megaphone," he writes: "Fuck concepts. Don't be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen."

In the middle of Arcade Fire's set on the first night, a torrent of white confetti erupted out and over the crowd. The confetti slowly and gracefully descended like a seine net, diffusing by the second, as Arcade Fire unleashed an equally formidable wall of sound. Two songs later, the confetti had landed, save for one twirling ribbon above us, illuminated by the stage-lights. The wind tossed it about, and, eventually, I lost sight of it.

I looked back and noticed how much I was a part of the massive crowd palpitating as one to the music. Eventually, perhaps by the second to last song, Arcade Fire made me forget that I would be writing about them later on.