Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Joel Frahm Quartet: Live at Smalls

My review of a new album by tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm was just published in The New York City Jazz Record.  Check out the PDF version of the paper at nycjazzrecord.com if you're interested.  The last time I saw Mr. Frahm, two summers ago at the Bar Next Door in the West Village, I was studying jazz criticism with Ben Ratliff.  Quite a lot has happened since then.  I am now living in New York--Long Island City, to be exact--and will start a job in digital journalism in the new year.

Mr. Frahm's new album was recorded live at Smalls, one of my favorite jazz clubs in New York City.  I've only been there once--two summers ago, to see the stride pianist Mike Lipskin--but I remember it fondly.  I hope to visit the club many more times in my new tenure as a New Yorker.

Here's the first paragraph of my review:

The black and white snapshots arrayed on the inside flap of "Live at Smalls," tenor saxist Joel Frahm’s latest recording, show the members of his quartet in the middle of a thought, with their eyes closed: guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel is reaching high up for a note on the neck of his hollow body; bassist Joe Martin hugs his instrument in closely, wearing a look of seeming elation; drummer Otis Brown III (unfortunately listed as a pianist) swings coolly on his ride cymbal. Then there’s Frahm, hunching his shoulders in tightly, brow furrowed, drawing the audience in with his focus. You wish you could have seen the show in color, especially at Smalls, that unpretentious basement hangout in the West Village. But this live recording is intimate enough.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Judeo-Christmas Roots

I promise, this is the last post (at least for the year) about the relationship between Judaism and Christmas.  A blog post I wrote about my relationship with Christmas was just published on the website of Moment Magazine, and I figured I'd share it with you.

Here's the first two paragraphs:

Christmas doesn’t mean much to me anymore, though for the first ten years of my life, it was my favorite holiday. Pretty standard, even for a Jewish child, to be drawn in with eager spirit by that yuletide festivity. But you might wonder: why only ten years?

In my fourth year of elementary school, my parents decided that our family would stop celebrating Christmas, and that abrupt halt, to me, signaled the end of an era. Why were we, a secular Jewish family, celebrating this holiday in the first place? Well, as a child, my mom adored Christmas; she celebrated the holiday every year with her paternal grandmother. (My grandfather, her dad, converted to Judaism for my grandmother, a child of Depression-era Brownsville.)

Read the rest here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A John Zorn Christmas

A young Zorn, now 58
I reviewed John Zorn's first Christmas album, "A Dreamers Christmas," for the Arty Semite, a blog over at the Jewish Daily Forward.  What wonderful music it is.  John Zorn is as prolific as he is omnivorous, and this album is a testament to that.

Here's the first two paragraphs: 

The CD case to John Zorn’s first Christmas record, "A Dreamers Christmas," comes as a sort of stocking. Reaching into the sleeve you’ll find, along with the CD, a sheet of stickers that could represent a new line of holiday-themed Giga Pets.

You might be tempted to over-think this album, with its cute and somewhat disturbing iconography, especially if you’ve come to expect music from Zorn more agitating than these lovely tracks. You shouldn’t. Zorn released this album through his own label, Tzadik, which puts out a steady stream of avant-garde recordings. And although he only served as producer and arranger here, this jazz album is as much Zorn’s brainchild as it is the Dreamers’, the band he assembled.

Read the rest here.

And listen to a rendition of "The Christmas Song," featuring Mike Patton, from the album:

Friday, December 9, 2011

Ralston Heights

The Castle at Ralston Heights
This has nothing to do with jazz, but I'm proud of it, so I figured I'd share it with you.  I recently wrote a story for the Hopewell Express about an old mansion in my hometown, Hopewell, NJ, that was once the capital of a strange health cult.  Its figurehead was Webster Edgerly, a weird, paranoid man who formed his own obsessive-compulsive philosophy of racial purity in the late 1800s.  He planned to put his beliefs into action on Ralston Heights, where the mansion sits.  There have been stories about this guy circulating in my town for a long time.  That's why I was happy to do the research and reporting necessary to put it all in perspective.  Here are the first four paragraphs:

Small-town stories are often apocryphal, the stuff of popular myth. However, in the case of Webster Edgerly, a bigoted health reformer who moved to Hopewell in the late 1800s to establish a utopian community based on his own principles of hygiene and eugenics, the odd and disturbing stories surrounding him are mostly true. 

Next to the Lindbergh House, probably the most well-known artifact of Hopewell’s parochial history is the Castle, across the street from the Highland Cemetery on Greenwood Avenue, up a long, gravel road, and tucked snugly away in a wooded clearing dappled with tall Japanese maples and ginkgo trees. 

Most Hopewell residents are told that an eccentric white supremacist once lived there; that he wanted to create an exclusive, utopian community; that he failed, and his mansion—the Castle—is all that really remains. Those details are, indeed, accurate. 

And today, the current residents of the mansion—a married couple seeking to foster community involvement—serve as an intriguing foil to the legacy of the bizarre man who once haunted the estate formerly known as Ralston Heights.

Read the rest here.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dead Cat Bounce, Again

Chance Episodes
I reviewed the Dead Cat Bounce album "Chance Episodes" for Exclaim! back in October, and I liked it a lot.  So much so that I chose it as one of the best jazz albums of the year for Exclaim!'s "Improv & Avant-Garde 2011: 10 Favourites" list.  (Note the Canadian English, which I find so charming!)  I usually feel that I lack the knowledge to make an informed decision for these lists.  But the jazz editor at the magazine told me to just go for it.  So I did.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Steve Martin Interview

Steve Martin
Well, he's not a jazz musician, but he does play the banjo.  Steve Martin is coming to Princeton in December  for his first public lecture at the university, and I interviewed him for the Princeton Echo. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ed Thigpen

Ed Thigpen (1930-2010)
You can find my latest review, of drummer Ed Thigpen's record, "You And The Night And The Music," over at nycjazzrecord.com.  There's also a documentary DVD that accompanies the set called "Ed Thigpen: Master of Time, Rhythm and Taste."  Thigpen, who died almost two years ago at 79, recorded this album with his trio in 2002, in Copenhagen, where he had lived since 1972.

Ed Thigpen played drums in the Oscar Peterson Trio from 1959 to 1965.  That group was one of the first combos I came across when I started seriously listening to jazz in high school.  I found Peterson's soloing immaculate, so much so that I began to expect that kind of virtuosic playing from the other pianists I was listening to.  Peterson's trio was so clean, so concise, I suggest in the review, that eventually, the consistency of those qualities can become a final weakness. 

I also suggest in the review that on this album, in this trio--with pianist Carsten Dahl and bassist Jesper Bodilsen--a looser, older Thigpen seems to be featuring his drums as another melodic instrument.  In the video below, of a segment from the 1950s television show "The Subject is Jazz," Thigpen talks about getting new sounds out of his instrument:

"I was looking for a way in which to express myself, not only rhythmically, but musically," he says.  "So I had to find tones, the sound of a tone quality, so I found that I knew I could do this on the drums."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Observing Christmas


Now that Thanksgiving is over, we can all expect to hear a lot of Christmas songs for the next month or so.  Even though I'm basically a secular Jew, I don't mind hearing music about the holiday I don't celebrate every year.  The songs are mainly non-religious, anyway--the American ones, at least: they're all about snow and Santa and sleighs and whiteness.  And that makes sense: most of them were written by Jews.

Here's a funny line from "Operation Shylock," by Philip Roth, which bears this out: “The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ--the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity--and what does Irving Berlin do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.”  Those two songs are "Easter Parade" and "White Christmas," by Irving Berlin.  And they're great. 

I'm often surprised by the number of Jews who wrote the songs that Americans take for granted.  But the Jewish sensibility (along with the homosexual, as Susan Sontag points out in "Notes on Camp") underpins a huge swath of American culture.  And though I can't really imagine Irving Berlin writing a great song about Hanukkah, or Passover, or Yom Kippur, I can understand why he might have wanted to profit from that yuletide cheer.

Of course, the Jews have got some great songs from "Fiddler on the Roof," but they're mainly lugubrious and parodic--not on the same level as the Aleinu, or Kol Nidre, which was actually featured in "The Jazz Singer," though I'm not sure if many viewers at the time knew what song Al Jolson was singing.  

In a 2005 op-ed piece for the New York Times titled "A Beginner's Guide to Hanukkah," the Jewish writer Jonathan Safran Foer wrote, in reference to Christmas Spirit: "Window displays are always more attractive than the gifts you receive--even if you receive what was in the window. Jews engage Christmas in its ideal form: from the outside. Unspoiled by family friction, or commerce, or anxiety about the wrong gift, we can experience the purest spirit. Someone else's spirit that we compose music for. And look at from the other side of the window. Christians should envy us envying them."

He's joking, but he does have a point.  I've seen it from both sides, though.  Because my mom celebrated Christmas with her Christian grandmother as a child, she wanted me and my brother to experience the holiday as we grew up, too.  (We also celebrated Hanukkah, which must have been quite expensive for my parents.)  But when I was in fourth grade, we stopped celebrating, I think mainly because we had to choose one holiday in the end.  And because my dad had once had a fit when we put decorative candles in the windows, it made more sense to stick with the menorah. 

I remember waking up that first morning without Christmas and feeling this sort of emptiness.  There was no anticipation; you end up just lying in bed--no presents under the tree, no tree--and then that sort of tension becomes the thing.  All of your friends are celebrating Christmas, so you can't do anything.  America basically folds in on itself for a day of cozy warmth.  In an inverse way, though, it brings a non-Christian family together, and creates another sort of yuletide tradition, one that most Jews practice every year: going out for a movie and Chinese food.

Anyway, there really aren't any good American Hanukkah songs that I can think of.  Tom Lehrer's farce, "I'm Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica," is the only tune I've been able to find--aside from the well-known children's songs, and Adam Sandler's famous number--about the holiday.  And all those popular songs by Jews are good, but one of my favorite Christmas songs happens to be a jazz rendition of the German carol "O Tannenbaum."

Vince Guaraldi (not a Jew) switches the song's time measure from three to four, which makes for some sturdy swing.  His solo is lush and lyrical and sweeping.  You don't have to like Christmas or winter or Charlie Brown to enjoy it.  You just have to like this form of jazz. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Canaille


My review of a new album by the Toronto-based sextet Canaille was just put up on the website of Exclaim.  This band's influences include Ethiopian jazz, Sun Ra, and the jazz-rock of Miles Davis.  I liked the music, but sometimes felt that the group failed to mix all the ingredients together into a cogent whole.  Nevertheless, Canaille has a good sense of humor, which is important to me, and I imagine, many others.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Still Improvising

The Paul Robeson Center in Princeton, where Cafe Improv takes place every month.
If you go here, you'll find an article I wrote about a 20-year-old open mic, called Cafe Improv, in Princeton.  It's nice to know that these things exist.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Patrick Cornelius

Patrick Cornelius
Another alto saxophonist.  Quite different from Mr. Shanker, though.  Mr. Cornelius provides artist notes to the tracks on his new album, "Maybe Steps," and some of them are interesting to read.  Like this one, for example, for the song "Bella's Dreaming," which he wrote about his daughter:

"When Isabella was about three months old, my wife went back to work, and I started to care for her during the day.  She would nap three times a day and I would stay in the same room with her while she was sleeping.  The song is a literal musical depiction of the transitions from peaceful slumber to fitful REM to waking up crying and screaming."

An enchanting song from an enchanting source.  I reviewed the album here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Kenny Shanker

Alto saxophonist Kenny Shanker
My review of Kenny Shanker's new release, "Steppin' Up," is now on Exclaim!'s website.  Shanker has a sweet and gritty sound which reminded me of David Sanborn.  That can be his strength or weakness, depending on the song.  I preferred the two ballads he plays the most.  Very pretty.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones are playing in Princeton tomorrow.  Howard Levy, a harmonica and piano player who was in the original Flecktones, has replaced saxophonist Jeff Coffin.  I wrote a preview about it for the Princeton Echo.  Find it here.  And, if you're interested, find an interview I did with Jeff Coffin about a year ago.  Lots of good insights. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Pirkei Avot Project

Abraham Cahan introduced A Bintel Brief in 1906.

I was happy to write a music review for the Arty Semite, a fun blog over at the website of the Jewish Daily Forward.  The review covers a new release, called "The Pirkei Avot Project, Vol. 1," by jazz guitarist Amanda Monaco.  She's interpreted some passages from a Jewish text, Pirkei Avot, and I enjoyed the result. 

Two years ago, I read the book "A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward."  A Bintel Brief was an advice column published in the Forward, a Yiddish-language newspaper founded in 1897.  The paper is now published in both Yiddish and English, and its content has changed.  If you read the book, you're peeking into a Jewish-American experience that doesn't exist anymore: the experience of the Jewish immigrant.

The paper was run from 1903 to 1946 by Abraham Cahan, one of the best writers to read if you want a good look into that experience at the turn of the nineteenth century.  His first novel, "Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto," was made into a great film, "Hester Street." 

If you didn't know, I'm Jewish.  I'm still not positive what that means, even though I minored in Jewish studies at McGill.  So in that vein, it felt a little weird writing a CD review for a blog at a newspaper which has its roots in the Jewish social dissidence of the early 1900s.  But what can you do?  A bi gezunt.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Gilad Hekselman

Gilad Hekselman
If you can find it, check out my latest review of Gilad Hekselman's new record, "Hearts Wide Open."  It's my first review for the New York City Jazz Record.  To read it, You have to download a PDF copy of the paper on the website(For December's issue of the Record, I'll be reviewing an Ed Thigpen album.)  

"Hearts Wide Open" is really good.  I recommend you listen to it.  Mr. Hekselman, 28, is a wonderful guitarist, and he's only getting better. 

Last November, I had the chance to interview Mr. Hekselman between sets at the Upstairs Jazz Club in Montreal.  He was playing with bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Ari Hoenig--who both also sat in on the interview.  If you're interested, find my review of the show here and the interview here on Nextbop.  Mr. Hekselman stands out as one of the more quiet, humble, and thoughtful musicians I've interviewed in the past.

Here's a quote from the interview, about jazz in Israel, Mr. Hekselman's homeland.

"So there’s definitely a lot of great education, and I think the emphasis in Israel is on really good things: like a lot of tradition, a lot of 'check out where the music comes from' and stuff, so you know, in that sense, I think it’s great. And also, in the last few years, I feel like things have also started to open up. When I came to New York, I was like a total hard bop-head. You know, I was pretty much…I was still trying to be original, but I was almost only checking out like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and stuff…"

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dead Cat Bounce

Dead Cat Bounce

I hadn't heard of Dead Cat Bounce, the Boston-based jazz sextet, until I wrote a short review last week of their latest album, Chance Episodes, for the Canadian music magazine Exclaim!.  The review was just put up on their website, and if you'd like to read it, you can find it here.  I liked this music a lot, even more than the band name.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

SFJazz Collective

SFJazz Collective

For those of you living in or near the Princeton area, I highly recommend you check out the SFJazz Collective at McCarter Theatre tomorrow, October 5, at 8 p.m.  It should be good.  Follow this link to read a short preview I wrote of the show. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

An Interview with Eric Harland

I'm now working as a part-time freelance writer for Mercer County's Community News Service.  The managing editor knows I like jazz, so he asked me last week to write up a little pre-show feature  for the SFJazz Collective concert on October 5, at McCarter Theatre in Princeton.  I gladly agreed, all the more happy to do it because I would get to interview a member of the group.  

So yesterday, I talked over the phone with drummer Eric Harland for about 45 minutes.  He was a very gracious interviewee.  The writeup for the show is due Monday, and I'll post that when it's up.  But most of what Mr. Harland said won't go into that.  So, with his consent, I've posted an edited version of the interview, in a sort of narrative form, below.

Eric Harland
"It’s totally leaderless, it’s a collective, hence the name.  It was purposed that way so that it could be something that is continuously evolving," Eric Harland told me about the eight-piece SFJazz Collective, which is supported by SFJazz, the Bay Area organization.

"Usually an all-star band happens for a season or two and it dissipates," Mr. Harland said.  "This is the first time that something like this has been introduced in the music, and it's just so great to be able to compose, to rehearse, to play, to tour.  Pretty much, you're an artist in residence every year."

Every year since 2004, the members of the SFJazz Collective--different members go in and out--have each been commissioned to write one original composition and to arrange a piece of music from the songbook of a jazz icon.  Past arrangements have included those of the compositions of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman. 

For Mr. Harland, being a member of the collective (he joined in 2006, when he was 30) has given him the chance to write music. 

"For me, it was an opportunity to write, and see how I felt about being a composer," he said.  "The band catered to my musical growth, and the direction I needed to go."  "Plus, it’s great to be commissioned," he added.  

This year, the members of the band--including alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, tenorist Mark Turner, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Matt Penman, and Mr. Harland--have interpreted the songs of Stevie Wonder.  They already toured in the spring, with their 16 new songs, but are starting a fall tour in October.  And of course, Mr. Wonder is not a jazz musician through and through, but that is no impediment. 

I asked Mr. Harland if he thought this year's collective might get more attention, because of the Stevie Wonder connection.

"We came to Stevie because he himself is such a great composer and a great musician. Some people who don’t pay attention to jazz, there’s just something about hearing Stevie Wonder’s name that causes them to look in that direction," he said.  "But I think over all we just wanted to see—it was just pretty much an experiment—a new direction to see how it would sound.

"It’s music and the beauty about jazz is that you’re open to trying other things, not necessarily trying to always come up with the perfect solution—it’s about the journey, the experience.

"And because it’s all music, why wouldn’t you have Stevie in the same line as Coltrane, or Tyner or Ornette? It’s only we who come up with genres—it’s really music, it’s just expression.  Music has different languages, but at the same time, if something is groovy, it's groovy, and it doesn’t matter what the type is. It’s just music."

"The beauty about the band is that everyone is bringing in a different dynamic of the music, and they seem to balance each other out: uptempo, medium tempo, ballads, groove, orchestral," Mr. Harland said, when I asked him how the band planned its arrangements.  "It just happened, we didn’t discuss what kinds of tunes we would make."

And how much did they tweak the arrangements in rehearsal?

"When you’re writing, it’s more like you're sketching ideas, and sometimes in rehearsal some ideas work and some don’t, so you take them with a grain of salt," he said.

Is Stevie Wonder aware of the music they are making?

"Hopefully he’s listening to it and enjoying it," Mr. Harland said, admitting that he had not yet heard anything from Mr. Wonder.  "I’m hoping that he feels honored and that he feels the love that we put into the music.  I hope he feels the appreciation we have for him," he added.

Did he listen to Stevie Wonder growing up?

"I mean, who didn't listen to Stevie growing up?" he said.  "Everywhere I went, it was always Stevie.  His songs just relate to everybody.  I think his music reaches everybody in the world.  It’s so moving and so fulfilling.  I couldn’t imagine not listening to Stevie wonder.  Probably in the generations to come, there might be a lot of people who will be like, 'Stevie who?'  But there’s so much honesty in his music and lyrics that has become a part of the American vernacular." 

Why did he choose to arrange Mr. Wonder's song "Do I Do"?

"I chose 'Do I Do' because it has that fantastic Dizzy Gillespie solo in it," he said.  "And what jazz trumpeter is not influenced by Dizzy Gillespie?"

At this point in our conversation, I had pretty much gotten what I needed for the short article I'd be writing, but Mr. Harland seemed more than willing to keep talking, so I continued with a few more questions.  I asked him about how it is playing in the Charles Lloyd Quartet, with Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and that elder statesman of jazz, Charles Lloyd, on saxophone. 

"I love an honest gentleman," he said of Mr. Lloyd.  "He's a great friend, and the band is really great.  You can’t beat that chemistry in the band."

If you didn't know, there are jazz musicians pouring out of Houston into New York every year--great jazz musicians.  Mr. Harland is one of them, so is Jason Moran, and others include the pianist Robert Glasper, the drummer Kendrick Scott, and the guitarist Mike Moreno. 

So I asked Mr. Harland how he feels about that, if it's at all surreal, if he's shocked that he grew up with so many of his colleagues. 

He told me that Jason Moran's grandparents' house was ten houses down from where he grew up, though he officially met him in high school, at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

"On a certain level, we all just wanted to play music, and we didn’t think about any other option," Mr. Harland said, comparing the environment of the school to "Fame," a musical film from 1980 about a group of students in the New York High School of Performing Arts.

"It was a school filled with artists and you just worked on your craft all day," Mr. Harland continued. "And we had fantastic teachers to keep us in that realm of music and we had each other and were motivated to play all the time and to check out all kinds of music—the archive at the school is just great.

"And we were just digging in and checking it out and having opinions about the music and having discussions—and that’s something your don’t normally see in high school.  But by having that in high school, it allowed us to be more present with the music.

"Then there's the competition factor—you know, friendly competitiveness.  If your friend is doing well, you feel like you have to rise to the challenge, and we all kind of motivated each other.  We also knew that it was important to be an individual, to force yourself to be an individual.

"And the product of that is what you see today, all these fantastic musicians, everybody doing their own thing, nobody borrowing from somebody else's success.  It's like a Houston magic, something you cultivate down there.  And outside, people pay attention to it for some reason.  I think it really is something special; it's real.  And everything is real, you know, but I don’t know, there's something about it.  It's definitely love. 

"When I hear my colleagues play, I'm always moved, and I can't say I'm always moved by everything I hear.  I like something that moves me, whether it's intellectual, in the heart, chills in the spine, I want to feel the experience of music.  Houston is just pumping 'em out every year.  I think every city should have that dynamic, just that appreciation for each other.  I know Philly has a really strong brotherhood, and a lot of great musicians come out of Philadelphia."

Mr. Harland now lives in Pennsylvania.  He has a family, and enjoys the bucolic side of life.  "I like living in Pennsylvania because there’s a lot of countryside, and a lot of time to relax, and just be," he said.  "It’s beautiful."

By this time in our conversation, I had to go, and was surprised that Mr. Harland was still talking to me.  He seemed completely willing to go on for another hour.

Before I hung up, he said he hoped I'd do my best in whatever I do.

I told him I'd try.

"We’re all trying," he said.  "Its not about achieving perfection--it’s about the experience, which is a little different."

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Enjoying Jazz

This week I interviewed for a freelance reporting job at a local newspaper in New Jersey.  There's a preponderance of jazz-related writing experience on my resume, and the man I was interviewing with pointed this out.  Most potential employers do.  I expect them to, but I'm never completely ready to explain why, or how, it's all there.

I'm also never really sure what posture to take.  Just because I've done a bit of writing on jazz doesn't mean I know anything substantive.  Should I drop a name?  Go into a little history?  Say which critics I like?  What I do is wait to see what they say.  If they ask me a question, I'll try to answer it.

This man asked me who my favorite jazz musician is.  This is a particularly tough question for me to answer.  I love and respect so many jazz musicians--dead and living--including Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Paul Motian, Ethan Iverson, Benny Goodman, Al Grey, Jason Moran, Joshua Redman, Johnny Griffin, Red Garland.  I could go on, for a while.  In this situation, I said that, lately, I really enjoy the music of the clarinetist Anat Cohen.  He hadn't heard of her.  I then went on to explain that, although I don't consider myself a jazz critic, I mainly listen to jazz with critical ears now.  I don't really enjoy it in the way that I used to, I said.  

What was that way I used to?  Well, in high school, listening to jazz, for me, was an exciting process in which aspects of the music were revealed by degrees as I continued to purchase CDs and listen and read the liner notes and memorize the personnel.  I wasn't only learning about the music itself; it was teaching me something, about the importance of paying attention, of subtlety and grace and precision.

I started this blog after a summer spent writing and studying jazz criticism with Ben Ratliff, the New York Times music critic.  Also that summer I took a course at the Rutgers Jazz Master's Program in Newark with the jazz historian and musician Lewis Porter.  I was breathing jazz after I'd finished my work with Ben and Lewis.  I wanted to continue thinking and writing about it.  Yet at the same time, I didn't want to lose my innocence, if you understand.  I didn't want to become too conscious of my consciousness of jazz, to make too much of a good thing.  I thought that might make the music less enjoyable.

Ultimately, it didn't, because writing is important to me, and I want to become a better writer; and jazz is important to me, so I write about it, among other things.  I also play the drums, and I'm usually the most refreshed after I listen to a good jazz drummer.

When I started this blog, I wanted to leave some of the mystery of jazz intact.  It lured me in in the first place--I owe a lot to mystery.  That's why I write so much about my life and how it relates to jazz.  That relationship is hard to figure out.

So it's a different kind of enjoyment that I get from this new partnership I have with jazz, and music in general, and for that matter, almost everything.  Yet it's fruitful. 

Sometimes I can't tell what a piece of music has told me, or how it's made me feel, until I sit down to write about it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Business of Jazz

Is this news?

In June, I went to the Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards.  I had a great time, and although I was slightly intoxicated (who serves 9.4% beer, for free?) for a chunk of it, I made some good connections.  I met Howard Mandel, the president of the Association, and David Alder, past editor of JJANews.org.

It was agreed that I would become the new editor of that website's news stream, and I was, for a couple of weeks.  I wrote some news stories on jazz, but the editorship turned out to be too much work for one person working remotely from a computer.  So I stepped down.

About a week ago, I got in touch with Howard, to offer my services again.  We concluded that I could not handle the editorship on my own, and wouldn't.  But I could still contribute to the website in some way.  He decided that we should add a section to the website that aggregates stories of interest to those in the business of jazz and music--to musicians, academics, journalists.  I'll be managing that section.

This doesn't mean human interest stories (though I do love them).  Patrick Jarenwattananon does a great job of that with his weekly "Around The Jazz Internet" roundup at A Blog Supreme.  So does Tim Wilkins with his "Morning Cup of Jazz" over at WBGO's website.  And, when he was doing it, Eli Aleinikoff's "This Week in Jazz Blogs," on the JazzTimes website, was pretty good.

I'm going to start an RSS feed, to try to keep track of all the jazz-related esoterica that will pop up around the Internet.  But I might need some help.  We're looking for news as it relates to the business of jazz music.  A new television series on jazz is being created?  Someone bought Jazz.com?  Ethan Iverson got a book deal to edit that jazz and race reader he keeps on talking about?  We'd like to know about it.

So if you think you know of something in this vein, post it in the comments section, or email me at matthew.kassel@mail.mcgill.ca (excuse all the dots).  I look forward to hearing from you.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pourquoi, Montréal?


You may have noticed, if you follow this thing, that I've been pretty inactive with the posts this summer.  I suspect it's because I've been so preoccupied with finding a job.  It's consumed me, and made it difficult to focus on other pursuits I find worthwhile--notably reading and writing.  But I'm sick of scouring Craigslist ads for unpaid internships and writing cover letters to irresponsive employers.  The Internet has made a fool of time and opportunity.  It also allows me to blog.  So here I am. 

This summer, I was working as a (paid!) intern at a New Jersey news and information website called NJ Spotlight.  It was my first legitimate foray into reporting.  I was going down to the New Jersey Statehouse on a semi-regular basis, attending Governor Chris Christie's press conferences, driving out to school board meetings in Newark, writing news articles, interviewing regular New Jerseyans and higher-up politicians about their views on the state's fiscal and political future.  I enjoyed it because, finally, the state of New Jersey is intriguing on a national level, what with Christie's controversial stature.  (As my boss said, even though Christie may be messing things up, "It's good for business."  As in, journalism.)

So the posts I've written on this blog since June I wrote in New Jersey, my home state.  Now I'm back in Montreal, my surrogate home, for a few weeks.  When I started this blog a little over a year ago, I chose to call it Cold Jazz for two reasons.  One, it was a play on "cool" and "hot" jazz.  Two--and this is the primary reason--Montreal gets very cold--and so snowy--and I would be writing in Montreal, about jazz.  It was that simple.

It doesn't look like I'll be staying in Montreal permanently, though.   For an aspiring, Anglophone (as they say here) writer, it's extremely hard to find a steady job in writing unless you are very well established.  The province of Québec teeters on a linguistic seesaw, and although Montreal is a bastion of both English and French speakers, the English language, to me, always feels like an imposition here.  (Read Mordecai Richler's "Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country" if you want to know more about this complex tension.)

You never know, I could come back.  I do love this city.  I had a good four years here.  But I think I've got to move on for now.  I'm keeping the title Cold Jazz the same as a vestigial reminder of why I started this blog.  I'll have to change the About Me section, or parts of it, though I'll keep it the way it is for the time being.  And I hope you'll continue to follow me as I slowly figure out my life. 

In the meantime, I'll be in Montreal probably until the end of August or early September, and I hope to write a few more entries before I go. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Music as Medicine

I've been feeling a little off lately, for reasons I won't get into.  Below is a list of some of the songs I  listen to when I don't feel quite right.  They're also songs I would listen to anytime, and do.  Most of them make me feel wistfully, yet hopefully, romantic.  The feeling doesn't last long, and it's not a cure, but I'm often surprised that I can get it. A lot of these songs I've returned to again and again through the years. 


    I'm sure you could all make your own lists--and you're welcome to include some of your favorite songs in the comments section.

    Sunday, July 24, 2011

    Wine and Jazz



    I'm a romantic.  But I'm also a cynic.  It's a confusing combination to live with--but not, I imagine, an uncommon one.

    I've had a boring day, in which I really did nothing, which just made me tired.  I'm alone at home right now, sitting in my kitchen, sipping on a third glass of wine, which I thought might loosen my nerves.  I just listened to two painfully beautiful ballads:  "Till There Was You" sung by Etta Jones and "The Masquerade is Over" sung by Nancy Wilson.  Perhaps it was the wine, but listening to those two songs just now made me feel good.  I was getting really into how good I felt, and then I caught myself, like I usually do when I enjoy something.

    I looked around me: A half-finished bottle of wine and a freshly poured glass on the table; Nancy Wilson filling my ears with her mellifluous voice.  What is this, 1950?  What other 23-year-old male from New Jersey is doing this right now?  I thought.  Then I felt cool:  This could be a movie right now, what I'm doing.  Then self-deprecating:  You think you're cool enough, special enough, to be in a movie?

    I looked around me again:  I was sitting in my kitchen, at a brushed stainless steel counter top, with my Sony head phones on, which were plugged into the MacBook playing music from Grooveshark.  Definitely not 1950.

    This thought process is not new to me (which leads me to believe it's not primarily due to the wine).  It happens a lot when I listen to jazz.  I care deeply for the music.  I don't listen to it because it might make me cool.  But it does make me feel cool: because I care so much about it and because it can be academic and irreverent and earnest, all at the same time.

    Listening to Nancy Wilson tonight, I felt special that I appreciated the beauty of her voice so much.  And then I felt sort of snobby, because I felt special.  To me, enjoying jazz--on one important level--is a sort of perpetual balancing act in which I am constantly reevaluating how I perceive myself in relation to the music and to others who don't listen to it.  It sounds tiring, I know.  Luckily, though, it's worth it.

    Does anyone else feel the way I do?  Perhaps at least similarly?  Comments are always appreciated.  (Also, for the Talmudists: Of course, Wilson recorded "The Masquerade Is Over" with Cannonball Adderley in 1961, but I hope you saw what I was getting at.)

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011

    Art and Sadness

    Today I took out a collection from my local library called "The Best American Essays of the Century," edited by Joyce Carol Oates.  It's a good collection.  I was just flipping through it and found an essay titled "Bop" written in 1949 by Langston Hughes.  It's only a little over two pages.

    In the essay, Hughes (or I'm assuming it's him for the purposes of this entry) meets a black guy on a stoop and they discuss the origins and meaning of bebop.  Hughes says bebop reminds him of scat from the 1930s:  "'All that nonsense singing reminds me of Cab Calloway back in the old scat days..."  Then he calls "Be-Bop" "Re-Bop".  The other guy, named Simple, disagrees.  He says that "'Re-Bop was an imitation like most of the white boys play.  Be-Bop is the real thing like the colored boys play.'"

    They talk for a little about race, Hughes reluctant to make the distinction Simple is pushing.  Then Simple says where the name bebop came from:  "'Every time a cop hits a Negro with his billy club, that old club says, 'BOP! BOP!...BE-BOP!...MOP!...BOP!'"

    "'That's where Be-Bop came from, beaten right out of some Negro's head into them horns and saxophones and piano keys that plays it,'" Simple says.  That's heavy stuff.  And Hughes doesn't really want to accept it.  "'Your explanation depresses me,'" he says to Simple.  But Simple says: "'Your nonsense depresses me.'"

    That's how it ends.  Sorry to give it away.  I recommend you read it because it brings to light some of the complex--and often frustrating--historical issues that you can't really avoid if you delve into jazz.  I think it says more about America than jazz, though.  That's probably why it's included in the book of essays.  But it also says a lot about art itself, and how people perceive art.

    Simple's explanation of bebop depresses me, too--because it's sad, but also because it doesn't seem right.  Here's some critical theory I've got:

    In an essay from 1954 titled "The Honesty of Goya," John Berger writes: "The despair of an artist is often misunderstood.  It is never total. It excepts his own work.  In his own work, however low his opinion of it may be, there is the hope of reprieve.  If there were not, he could never summon up the abnormal energy and concentration needed to create it."  He goes on, but what I've put is, I think, sufficient.  And it makes a lot of sense.  People like to romanticize the sad, hopeless artist.  They shouldn't.  Hopeless artists probably aren't going to make good art.

    To apply it specifically to jazz, here's something from a book by Ben Ratliff.  The book is called "Jazz: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings."  And if the title actually described the book, I probably wouldn't like it.  But the book is really a well-rounded, thoughtful collection of essays on jazz.  In one of them, number 14, he gets to talking about Lester Young's sadness.  (If you didn't know, Lester Young was very sad and that sadness is usually attributed to his army service.)  Here's a paragraph-long passage:

    "Young's remarkable playing has a sort of wise-zombie quality to it; if an actor embodied it, he'd have Peter Lorre's enormous, haunted eyes, hooded with hipster anomie.  The art critic Arthur Danto once wrote of Francis Bacon's screaming-pope paintings that they present a philosophical impossibility: a picture with such high formal composition and high-religious symbolism depicting screaming just doesn't add up.  You cannot say, 'I am screaming' while screaming.  That gets at the conundrum here: if a man were really this sad, how could he also be this expressive?"

    When I first read that, I was like, "What?"  But I've thought about it on and off for about four years--maybe longer--and I think it's such an important question he's asking.

    If you're sad, fine.  If you make art that makes me sad, fine.  But maybe I shouldn't associate your sadness with the sadness I feel from experiencing your art.  There's distance between the two.  Creating a piece of art--whether it be a painting, a composition, an essay, a sculpture--takes such a profound leap of faith.  One might say the best--and saddest--artists are the most hopeful of us all.

    Friday, June 24, 2011

    Support Nextbop

    Trumpeter Christian Scott

    Dear Reader,

    If you've come here before, you probably know that I've written a number of jazz concert reviews from Montreal.  Well, those reviews couldn't have happened without the support of Nextbop, whose founders, Seb Helary and Justin Wee, got me free tickets whenever I wanted them.  If you enjoyed those reviews at all, or discovered an artist you like through them, then the gratitude should be directed primarily toward Nextbop.

    Which brings me to my point:  Nextbop has been operating for almost two years without making any money.  They have produced a t-shirt, featuring trumpeter Christian Scott (pictured above) on its front, and they need your support to keep the site going. So if you appreciate my blog, the reviews I wrote, Nextbop, jazz, or just want to make a contribution because you appreciate hard work, then buy one of their t-shirts.  It's pretty dope.  Plus, if you appreciate Christian Scott, who is a pretty dope player, then you'll be supporting him too just by wearing the shirt.

    Follow this link to buy the shirt, and this one, to find a personal message from Seb.

    Thank you for reading.

    Wednesday, June 22, 2011

    JJA News

    Falling piano.  Is it news?

    A piece I wrote on the JazzWeek Summit was just put up on the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA) News website.  It's not breaking news, but it's news nonetheless.  Check it out if you'd like.

    Tuesday, June 21, 2011

    Designer

    Designer

    In the introduction to his 1975 collection of prose, "Picked-Up Pieces," John Updike listed his five rules for literary criticism, adding what he called a "vaguer sixth," which has to do "with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser."  "Do not accept for review a book you are...committed by friendship to like," he went on.

    I think you can apply that rule (and his preceding five rules, in some way slightly altered) to music criticism and reporting.  And as much as I love and respect Updike, I'm going to break his last rule, sort of.  

    This is not a review, but a recommendation.  Last Friday, I went to see my brother's band, Designer, play about an hour set at the World Cafe in Philadelphia.  They were releasing their first CD, which they recorded on their own.

    I won't describe their music, but if you're interested in a band with cello, piano, drums, trumpet, and occasionally guitar and bass, then check them out.  I'm sure they would appreciate your interest.

    Sunday, June 12, 2011

    Associating with Jazz

    When I'm critical of jazz, I'm very careful about it.  That only makes sense: I don't want to misrepresent or misinterpret anything.  So far, all the jazz concert and CD reviews I've written have been well received.  By that I mean no one has challenged them.  That's really what I fear (and why I'm so careful): that someone will try to make a fool of me, will disagree with what I've written and take it personally.  This fear springs from my sense of legitimacy as a writer and a thinker.  No one has yet hired me to write about jazz, or much else, really.  That is, I make no money doing it.

    Few do.  I guess that's one reason why there are so many jazz blogs.  There is a lot of good writing on jazz, though.  And yesterday, at the Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards, I met many of the people who produce it.

    A couple of weeks ago Alex W. Rodriguez, of the jazz blog Lubricity, asked me if I was interested in managing the Association's Twitter account throughout the Jazz Awards ceremony: tweeting the winners as they were announced on stage at the City Winery in New York.  I'm no longer in Montreal, have returned home to New Jersey for the summer, and was close enough to volunteer.

    It was a very easy job.  I got there an hour early, figured out everything I would have to do, and sat back waiting for the journalists to come pouring in.  I was sitting in the back with all the tech and managerial people, including JoAnn Kawell (who probably worked harder behind the scenes at this event than anyone else), so I had a good view of the venue.

    The nominations for the ceremony included some big deal jazz musicians--Jason Moran, Joe Lovano, Kurt Elling, many more--and I wondered if they would come.  I wondered how cordial the relationship between the journalist and the musician can be.

    In her probing and controversial book, "The Journalist and the Murderer," Janet Malcolm wrote, in the first sentence: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."  "The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject," she continued in the second paragraph of the book.  That idea is harsh, but to apply it to criticism, I was certain that some of the journalists at the award ceremony had, at one time or another, written in unfavorable ways about the jazz musicians nominated for awards.

    In an article for JazzTimes in Novermber 2008, New York Times jazz critic Nate Chinen (who was at the awards ceremony) wrote: 

    "To be a critic, of course, is to face a perpetual crisis of impartiality. And with no way to prove it, I’d suggest that this is especially true in jazz, where the scene is small, the cause is noble and the struggle is often great. There are some jazz critics who would flee a room to avoid social interaction with a musician, and there are many others (too many) who routinely allow that interaction to flourish past the point of prudence. Good relationships are an asset in this profession, but cozy ones are a liability, and it’s not always easy to discern the middle."

    In that article, he was writing about Facebook, and why he felt uncomfortable, as a critic, using it.  Of course, all this ethical stuff is what you get over if you want to be a journalist.  It's a job, and you do what you have to do with respect and honesty--or I hope that's the way it works.  But as I was sitting in the back, watching people file in, I couldn't help thinking of that frustrating and embarrassing altercation between Mtume and Stanley Crouch.  Mtume and Stanley Crouch were supposed to be here (neither of them showed, to my knowledge).  

    Then I looked to my left and saw Candido, the great Cuban conguero, sitting casually at a table in the corner, his three congas resting beside him in a stand.  Candido?  I thought.  He seemed quite civil, happy even.  It made me more comfortable.  I scanned the crowd, and caught sight of Larry Grenadier, Henry Threadgill, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Darcy James Argue.  I hadn't expected all these great musicians to be here.  But perhaps I just don't know how things work yet.   

    During a lull, when I could take a break from tweeting, I decided to go down to the bar and rub elbows--or try to, at least--with the jazz glitterati, the journalists and bloggers and broadcasters whose work I am so familiar with.  That sounds like an oxymoron: jazz glitterati.  Jazz exists on the margins: if there was any glitter, it would probably be too dark to see.  But to me, they are a big deal, so I felt pretty timid and nervous when I walked over.  

    I saw Patrick Jarenwattananon, who runs the the godfather of the jazz blogs, A Blog Supreme.  I had been in contact with him by e-mail before, but I'd never met him, so I went over and shook his hand.  We talked for a couple of minutes about jazz, and Montreal, where I have lived for the last four years.  When I ran out of things to say, I commented sarcastically on how I was probably the youngest person in attendance.  Which was probably true, but I kicked myself inside.  Talking about your age at a jazz event is, to me, as lame as talking about the weather with an acquaintance you've run into on the street.  Still, he took my comment seriously, engaged it, pointed out the twenty-somethings in the room.  Nice of him.  My cue to get back to tweeting.  

    The event continued (it was four hours) and I continued to tweet and circulate through the room.  JoAnn told me to get a beer from the bar if I wanted one.  Of course I did.  I went down again to the elbow rubbing area and asked for a Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale.  Took a sip.  Tasty, I thought.  Strong, but tasty.  I had really only eaten breakfast (barring a few hors d'oeuvres going around at the Winery) and at this point in the event it was about three, so the beer hit me pretty quickly.

    I looked at the alcohol content:  9.4%.  Jesus, I thought, this is like two beers in one.  I just graduated from McGill University, in Montreal, and I drank a lot of beer there.  Not often such strong beer, though.  It would be easy to get glassy-eyed off two bottles of this stuff, I thought.  I kept my cool, drank it slowly.  

    Finished it.  Was feeling good.  The event almost over, and tweeting responsibilities fulfilled, Alex led me around the event, introducing me to journalists and publicists.  A woman walked up to us as we stood near the bar.  Alex introduced me to her.  I asked who she was.  Terri Hinte, she said: Sonny Rollins's publicist.  She gave me her card.  I gave her mine.  (The first card I've ever given.  I was surprised I even had a card.)  Wow, I thought.  That was easy.

    Terri walked away, and we walked up to Matt Merewitz, who runs Fully Altered Media.  Alex mentioned my blog.  Matt said he knows it, it's on his RSS feed.  Go figure, I thought.  People actually read it.  I gave him my card.  (Who knew I had another one?)  Feeling better.  I grab another beer from the bar.

    We continued on to David Adler, a journalist who also teaches jazz history at Queens College.  I told him I had read some of his articles and complimented his writing.  Then he gave me his card and I gave him mine.  We moved on to Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association, with whom I've been in contact through e-mail.  We didn't say much.  He was very busy that day.  We exchanged cards, though.  Then Michael Jackson, a regular writer for Downbeat, boisterously walked up.  "Who the hell is this?" he said half-jokingly in his thick English accent, looking at me.  

    Maybe it was the beers talking, but..."I'm a person," I said softly.  "I exist."  He quite liked it.  Hugged me, even.  I complimented an article he wrote on Fred Hersch for Downbeat.  He thanked me and asked for my card.  I gave it to him (last one).  Then I asked for his.  Cards exchanged, I walked on.  By now, the ceremony had ended, and the staff of the City Winery was asking everyone to leave.  So I did: grabbed my bag and walked out.  As I was walking down Varrick, I pulled out from my pocket the nice little stack of business cards I had accrued.  I looked through them, happily noting that they were, indeed, real, legitimate.

    I've been thinking a lot about legitimacy these days.  About how much my ideas matter.  If what I think makes any difference to anyone--to me, even.  At the Jazz Awards, I was very careful not to make a fool of myself--in front of journalists or musicians.  I don't know how I would have, but I still feared doing it.  

    When I got home from the city last night, feeling lethargic from the beer I'd had, I took out my acquired business cards and placed them in a little pile on my dresser.  I went on the computer, looking up the people I had met that day, perusing their websites, seeing what they had written and accomplished.  Then I joined the Jazz Journalists Association.  

    Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    Ibrahim Maalouf at the Savoy

    Ibrahim Maalouf
    Follow this link to find my review of trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf's show at the Savoy in Montreal on May 7.  May 7, you ask?  Why so long ago?  Well, there were some logistical problems--namely that Mr. Maalouf didn't really mention the names of the songs he was playing at the show, or the name of the French silent film remake he wrote the songs for.  The problem was resolved, (most of) the information obtained, and the review was written.

    I hope I didn't get anything wrong.  It definitely served to my disadvantage that I had to write the review so much after the show took place.  But at the same time, because I knew I would eventually have to write about it, an idea of the show solidified in my mind throughout the two weeks or so I had to think about it.  And of course, I had my notes to rely on.  

    Socalled's Sleepover


    I recently reviewed "Sleepover," the latest record from Josh Dolgin (who goes by Socalled when he performs), for a Montreal-based online Jewish magazine called Shtetl.  This is officially the first non-jazz record I've reviewed.  It took me a while.  I'm glad I did it, mainly because Josh Dolgin lives in Montreal and it made me feel more connected to the city I live in.

    Most of the jazz musicians I see in Montreal are just passing through from New York.  It's always a pleasure to catch them.  But sometimes it can feel discouraging that they're leaving the next day.  So many people want to be in New York.  I often do.  Yet I love Montreal. 

    Though I just graduated from McGill, I don't feel any pangs of wanderlust.  I feel like I might want to stay here and try to make a living, for a little while at least.  It's nice for me to know Josh Dolgin can.

    Also, here's Josh Dolgin's best music video:

      

    Monday, May 2, 2011

    Anatole Broyard and Bebop

    I used to scorn hipsters. Then I realized that posture might make me a sort of reverse hipster.  I live in Montreal--whose Mile End neighborhood, near where I live, might pass for modern day Williamsburg, or perhaps SoHo in the 1970s--and having just gone through four years of university, I'm well acquainted with notions of hip.  Yet they're changing constantly.  They have been for a while.

    I recently read Anatole Broyard's probing "A Portrait of the Hipster," first published in 1948 for the Partisan Review.  It's an easier read than Norman Mailer's "The White Negro," another important take on the hip, published in 1957 for Dissent.  In both essays, the writers associate the hip with jazz.  Writes Mailer:

    "But the presence of Hip as a working philosophy in the sub-worlds of American life is probably due to jazz, and its knife-like entrance into culture, its subtle but so penetrating influence on an avant-garde generation—that post-war generation of adventurers who (some consciously, some by osmosis) had absorbed the lessons of disillusionment and disgust of the Twenties, the Depression, and the War."

    Later, he writes:

    "For jazz is orgasm, it is the music of orgasm, good orgasm and bad, and so it spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, 'I feel this, and now you do too.'"

    Maybe.  I mean, I wouldn't have wanted to be on Mailer's bad side, but I have to say that his valuation is reductive.  I'm intrigued by his association of the hipster with the psychopath--which is a big point of his essay--but this is a jazz blog.  I'm more intrigued by Broyard's essay, because it made me reconsider how I value a music that I respect.

    Anatole Broyard--who was the daily book critic for the New York Times for 15 years--lived in Greenwich Village in the 1940s and "A Portrait of the Hipster" is probably a critical response to his environment.  In his book "Kafka was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir," published in 1993, he wrote: "In fact, one of my problems was that I was alienated from alienation, an insider among outsiders.  The young intellectuals I knew had virtually read and criticized themselves out of any feeling of nationality." 

    So the essay comes off as diagnostic, and it seems as though he is writing fact.  An impression of ambivalence often comes to override any value judgments he might be making.  And his word choice is so precise--and disarming--that you'd want him by your side in an argument (l'esprit de l'escalier be gone!).  You can see the nascent critic within him.

    That's why I furrowed my brow when I got to his valuation of bebop, and jazz in general.  He offended me, in a good way--in a way that the film critic Pauline Kael could.

    Of jive, he writes: 

    "Since articulateness is a condition for, if not actually a cause of, anxiety, the hipster relieved his anxiety by disarticulating himself. He cut the world down to size—reduced it to a small stage with a few props and a curtain of jive. In a vocabulary of a dozen verbs, adjectives, and nouns he could describe everything that happened in it. It was poker with no joker, nothing wild."

    This relates to Broyard's supposition that "the hipster longed, from the very beginning, to be somewhere."  By cutting his world down to size, he could keep it in check.  Then Broyard locates jive in music, making a chronological and evolutionary distinction (three stages of jive music) between, first, the Blues, then jazz, then bebop.  The Blues, Broyard writes, "represented a relatively realistic or naturalistic stage of development."  Of jazz:  "Blues turned to jazz. In jazz, as in early, analytical cubism, things were sharpened and accentuated, thrown into bolder relief. Words were used somewhat less frequently than in Blues; the instruments talked instead."  I imagine he's talking of the big band era here.

    I find this appraisal deterministic, reductive, and devaluing.  But it works for the purposes of his argument.

    Then he gets to bebop: 

    "Bepop, the third stage in jive music, was analogous in some respects to synthetic cubism. Specific situations, or referents, had largely disappeared; only their 'essences' remained. By this time the hipster was no longer willing to be regarded as a primitive; bebop, therefore, was 'cerebral' music, expressing the hipster's pretensions, his desire for an imposing, fulldress body of doctrine."

    I can dig that.  I bet a lot of people in the 1940s liked bebop because they thought they should, not because they really did.  "That which you heard in bebop was always something else, not the thing you expected; it was always negatively derived, abstraction from, not to," writes Broyard, explaining how the hipster perceived bebop.

    Broyard presents bebop not as a manifestation of hipsterism itself, but as a music which offered hipsters what they needed, which could mirror their solipsistic world.  Yet that presentation does cheapen bebop. 

    It will never be proven--though it is contested--whether bebop emerged as a revolution or through evolution, whether it was a reaction against and break away from the artistic confines of the big band era or if the big band era contributed to bebop--with its dissonant melodies, breakneck tempos, complicated chord changes.  I'm partial to the latter, which is why I find Broyard's argument too simple.

    "All the best qualities of jazz—tension, élan, sincerity, violence, immediacy—were toned down in bebop. Bebop's style seemed to consist, to a great extent, in evading tension, in connecting, by extreme dexterity, each phrase with another, so that nothing remained, everything was lost in a shuffle of decapitated cadences," writes Broyard.

    Remember that he's making a distinction between jazz--which "was almost always coherent and its intent clear and unequivocal"--and bebop.  I know Broyard is writing in 1948.  Listening from 2011, I don't associate bebop with evading tension.  I often picture bebop as a tightrope walk: It's difficult and dangerous if you don't know what you're doing and takes a lot of practice to get right.

    But Broyard might have me there:

    "[Bebop] presented the hipster as performer, retreated to an abstract stage of tea and pretension, losing himself in the multiple mirrors of his fugitive chords. This conception was borne out by the surprising mediocrity of bebop orchestrations, which often had the perfunctory quality of vaudeville music, played only to announce the coming spectacle, the soloist, the great Houdini."

    It is true that bebop orchestrations are often predictable, and the chief template for jazz jamming, which can leave the listener bored.  But I like this music for the same reason that Broyard seems to criticize it: the soloist.  Charlie Parker.  Dizzy Gillespie.  Max Roach.  Bud Powell.  They found their voices.  I can identify them on a record almost immediately.

    "Bebop rarely used words, and, when it did, they were only nonsense syllables, significantly paralleling a contemporaneous loss of vitality in jive language itself," writes Broyard.  Yet I recognize Lester Young or Cootie Williams or Louis Armstrong in the same way that I recognize the musicians associated with bebop.

    "Associated" is an important word.  Because bebop is just a name--a category--and in the end, names reduce.  The point of Broyard's essay, however, is not only to associate bebop with the hipster.  Broyard concludes that the popularization of the hipster's alternative way of life returned him to the mainstream:  "He was in-there...he was back in the American womb. And it was just as hygienic as ever."  But that never happened with bebop.  If one thing is certain about jazz, it's that its popularity has been dwindling since the 1940s.  Which makes this music ripe for appropriation by any alternative culture, by aesthetes and sophisticates and dilettantes and, of course, hipsters.  Yet which reinforces the authenticity of jazz as a sturdy, viable art form that remains un-cheapened.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011

    Ella and Janis: An Observation

    In late February, I was at a bar in Montreal, called Snack'n Blues, which plays jazz and blues music all night.  There are William Gottlieb photos on the wall and unidentifiable clips of Japanese movies projected above the bar.  I like it, because they have an inexhaustible supply of free chips and pretzels and chocolates, they have beer, and I can listen to jazz.

    The night I went, there was some Billie Holiday playing for a while at first, pleasantly soporific.  I didn't expect to hear anything recorded after 1975, and I didn't, really.  "Birdland" by Weather Report, from 1977, came on, which didn't surprise me.  So did "Chameleon" (1973).  But those funky, fusion-y songs came later in the night, at a time when Billie Holiday can't compete with the rising din of drunken chatter.  In between Billie and Weather Report, Ella Fitzgerald came on.  They played a few of her recordings.  The one I remember the best is her live recording of "Sunshine of Your Love," which she did, I think, at Montreux in 1969:



    I don't find it very good.  I don't think the rock rhythm suits her.  It feels forced and maybe too clean and a little desperate.  But I was struck by her voice that night.  It seems less striking now, but pay attention to her monologue interlude, starting at about 2:49.  Does it remind you of Janis Joplin at all?  The voice, I mean--the tone and texture.  Like when she says "the sunshine" for the second time, at 2:56.  She's not saying it loudly, but she's straining to make it sound quiet and raspy, something I think Joplin was good at.  Also, at 3:15, she really gets me: "I'm ashamed of myself," she says, half-coy, half-confessional, looking down at the ground.  Where does that come from?  Why should she be ashamed?  The song is not about shame.  For some reason, I believe her when she says it.  I feel sorry for her.  This all in about four seconds.  Because at 3:19 she takes it back up--"But I'm lookin' for my baby in the sunshine"--and you have no reason to feel sorry for her.  That's something Joplin could do, too. 

    You can see that she's improvising the lyrics, as some of her word choices seem a little unnatural.  But she settles into a groove with the tune of "Work Song," the band picks up on it (unless they planned it beforehand) and it basically loses its semblance of "Sunshine of Your Love" after that.

    My comparison with Janis Joplin might be superficial.  But listen to "Cry Baby," from Joplin's last album, "Pearl," recorded in 1970, and think about it some more:



    I love Janis Joplin.  For me, it's her pathos--that she can give me shivers.  On "Cry Baby," listen to her repeating "come on," starting at 2:59.  The fifth and last one, where she goes down, sounding possessed, always gets me.  Sort of in the way Ella gets me by contrasting that "I'm ashamed of myself" with the force and determination of her succeeding lines.

    Originally my comparison between Ella and Janis was going to be based only on their voices. But I think the reason I was surprised that I heard some Janis in Ella that night at the bar was because I have never associated the emotion of Janis's blues rock with Ella's jazz.

    I remember last year I was sitting in my living room with my friend Karl, and I put on some jazz.  Karl is a curious guy, appreciates music, but doesn't feel jazz.  I don't remember what I put on, it doesn't really matter, but Karl asked me if I found it moving, if I felt the emotion in it.  Because he couldn't, and he was wondering how I could.  I told him I did, but couldn't really explain how.  It's hard to do that because preferences are so primal.  I could explain how it worked, but not why it worked for me.

    At that time, I didn't find much music besides jazz moving.  I still struggle to do that.  But as I get older, I think my capacity for acceptance and understanding is widening.  There are many kinds of emotions to be conveyed.  Throughout her career, Ella expressed a lot of them.  I think, to Karl, jazz is a little too refined.  It's not dirty enough.  It's too cerebral.  Clearly that description is reductive and untrue, though it could be true, in certain cases, of any music.   

    I know a lot of things, but I don't always feel them.  Feeling them is important to me.  It can complete understanding.  So I need both Janis and Ella to help round out my understanding of music and of myself. Sometimes Janis is as soft and sensitive as Ella in a ballad.  Sometimes Ella is as raspy and winded as Janis in a confession.  It goes both ways.

    That night in the bar, I was struck by that.  It's not much more than an observation.  Sometimes observations don't stick.  I think that's the point.  The ones that do might just be a little bit more.

    Tuesday, April 5, 2011

    Winters Ago

    Below is, I assume, the last article I will ever have published in a student newspaper--at least as an undergrad.  It's not related to jazz, but I thought I'd post it here because I think you might like it.

    Four winters ago, after class on a clear day in December, my friend Jack and I hiked up the northeast side of Mount Royal in the snow. It was cold, but the ascent was steep—we were making our own path—and we warmed up fast enough, enjoying deep breaths of crisp, coniferous air.

    Actually, Jack was making the path. He had gone up the week before and invited me to join him for a second go. Arriving at a decent vantage point, we took a break to look out on the city: a vast swath of the upper Plateau whose vanishing point, from that angle, happens to be the Olympic Stadium, oddly beautiful from the mountain.

    As we stood there, a chickadee alighted on a tree branch close by. We called him in, and to our surprise, he flew closer, jumping cautiously from branch to branch, chirping with curiosity. Beckoning him further, we held out our hands. He jumped into my palm first, then Jack's, then to a branch and away. He felt weightless.

    That was my first winter in Montreal, and my first year at McGill. Now that it's my last semester, I've been feeling reflective, sorting through my memory for cherishable moments—trying to make sense of my time here.

    Last Sunday, I went up the mountain alone, along the northeast side. I hadn't been up that way since first year, with Jack, and I wanted to revisit the experience. I think I was trying to sanctify a memory by reliving it in some way. But that isn't very realistic. It felt a little bit like acting, artificial. As I made my way up the snowy mountainside, along a narrow path few had walked, I stopped and stood there and tried to drop the self-consciousness.

    The forest was remarkably still and quiet. I had forgotten how calming that kind of stillness can be. At that moment, I heard a chickadee chirping above. Following his voice, I found him high up in an oak tree and called him in.

    He came, cautious as the other, jumping from branch to branch, cocking his head, sizing me up. I put out my hand, waiting for the moment. But he didn't jump. I waited as he waited, and finally, he flew up and away from me, high above into the same oak.

    I could have tried to call him in again. But I walked on toward the chalet lookout, which overlooks downtown Montreal. I have been there too many times to count. Entering the chalet, I bought a hot chocolate and sat down at a table to think. Then I walked outside to the lookout and leaned on the balustrade, viewing the city on a clear, windy day before the snow had melted.

    I know this city much better now, four years and millions of steps later. I looked down at McGill, its frosted green roofs glistening in the sun—quite a vantage point for reflection and nostalgia, for the retrieval of memory. I kept on looking, just able to make out the little bodies moving slowly through campus, going somewhere. Montreal looked so self-sufficient that day—the city made sense.

    I don't know if I'll ever make sense of my memories. I do remember vividly how weightless that chickadee was that landed in the palm of my hand four years ago. I can't forget. Memory is also weightless.

    And winters from now, I will remember winters ago, when I hiked up the mountain alone and called in a chickadee. Because he would not land, I will remember him for his weightlessness, too.