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  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


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.