Heads up. Ornette Coleman’s group is playing at the Town Hall in New York City on March 28. If you have any interest in modern jazz (or modern music, period), you should buy a ticket now before they sell out.
I saw the Vijay Iyer trio at Birdland in midtown Manhattan two weeks ago. It was a great show. Most of the songs were from the band's new CD, Accelerando (which I raved about in my March 31 blog post), some were from earlier albums; all were riveting. The trio weaves in and out of patterns with a swinging agility. Iyer plays piano with precision yet gusto; he could have been a master interpreter of Liszt or Ligeti, had he chosen that direction. If you have a chance to hear this group live, take it.
But my main purpose here is to correct something I wrote in that earlier post about the album's sonics, namely that "the drums have that digital swish (I'd like to hear the ride cymbal ring and the bass drum boom once in a while)." Well, after watching the group in person, I have to conclude that the drummer, Marcus Gilmore, doesn't like to hear those things very much. He tightens his drum heads more than any drummer I've seen (he re-tightened them several times during the show), to the point where banging them (or the cymbals, which I didn't see him tighten, but he must have before the set) produces almost no decay. He seems to aim for razor-sharp control of his share of the rhythm.
In other words, the drum sound you hear on Accelerando, like it or not, comes quite close to the sound of Gilmore live. The real thing swishes forth a bit more air, but the difference isn't huge; if I'd known what he sounds like in person before hearing the disc, I wouldn't have criticized anything. Apologies to the engineer, Chris Allen.
The wondrous drummer Paul Motian died Tuesday morning at the age of 80 (he didn't look much older than 60), and New York, the only city where he ever played for the past decade (and he seemed to be playing somewhere all the time), feels a little emptier.
Speakers Corner Records, the German audiophile vinyl reissue label (distributed in the U.S. by Acoustic Sounds), has one of the more diverse jazz catalogues, drawn from a variety of golden-age labels (Verve, RCA, Impulse, Columbia, among others). Three new additions are worth mining:
Soon after raving over Fred Hersch’s new piano-trio album, Whirl, I learned that it was also available on 180-gram vinyl. I’ve since obtained a pressing and can report that, good as the CD sounded, the LP sounds considerably better.
Among the many compelling jazz pianists still around, Ran Blake may be the oddest (and the most unjustly, though understandably, obscure). He can’t swing for more than a few bars; he tends to change keys at random intervals; for this reason, he usually plays solo, figuring that few musicians have the patience for his quirks (though some of his best albums—The Short Life of Barbara Monk, Suffield Gothic, That Certain Feeling, and Masters from Different Worlds—were collaborative efforts, involving such established artists as Steve Lacy, Clifford Jordan, and Houston Person). Yet there’s magic in Blake’s music; his chords, dissonant but heartfelt, seem to waft out of a dream. Now in his 70s, a longtime teacher at the New England Conservatory, Blake has called himself a filmmaker who doesn’t know how to hold a camera, and his albums all have a cinematic flavor. (Many years ago, he recorded the soundtrack of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and told me afterward that he could see scenes of the film in his head while he was playing.) Even when not playing movie themes, his songs possess a narrative impulse; he’s a very instinctive pianist (by his own admission, he’s not a strong sight-reader), and he seems to have some weird synaptic nerve that translates images in his brain to chords and intervals in his fingers.
It’s risky, to say the least, for John Coltrane’s son to take up the tenor and soprano saxophones as a profession, yet that’s what Ravi Coltrane has been doing for 25 years, 15 of them as a leader, and his latest album, Spirit Fiction (his first on the Blue Note label), is his triumph.
It’s been several years since I saw Branford Marsalis play live, but if tonight’s late set at the Jazz Standard is anything to go by, let’s just say that his last few albums don’t begin to capture the peaks he’s scaling. He started the set with a slow pure-tone simmer of “Violets for Your Furs,” switched to a raucous original, and, at one point, lit into long, zigzag takes on Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning,” treating it alternately as a funk fizz, a samba, a syncopated frenzy, and a straightforward Monk tune, each switch ripe with wit, adventure, and wry references reminiscent of Dexter Gordon’s (the deftest were two lines from “Jitterbug Waltz”). He blows hot and cool, intense and insouciant. At 48, the onetime wunderkind (and Wynton bro’) has grown fully into his promise and beyond. Another star of the evening was his drummer, an 18-year-old high-school senior from Philadelphia named Justin Faulkner, who’s replaced the longtime Jeff “Tain” Watts. Faulkner is incredible, klook-a-mopping the trapset with ferocious energy and gigantic ears, picking up on every twist from pianist Joey Calderazzo, expanding the spaces left open, then filling them with endless variations. He has a tendency to play louder as the music grows more intense, but hey, he’s 18. There’s a hint of a budding Elvin Jones here. Go watch and listen. The quartet plays through Sunday. The house was jam-packed.
One drawback of the New York-centric jazz world (and I say this as a New Yorker) is that musicians who live elsewhere too often go ignored. Oral histories are full of tales about some tenor saxophonist in Mississippi, or a guitarist in Nevada, who influenced someone who influenced everyone else. And so you should definitely check out the Denver trumpeter Ron Miles’ riveting new CD, Quiver (on the Enja label).
The first thing that strikes you about A Life in Time: The Roy Haynes Story—a 3-CD (plus a bonus DVD) box-set that spans the career of drummer Roy Haynes—is just how wide and varied a span it is. It opens in 1949, with Haynes as a sideman to Lester Young, proceeds to sessions with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan, and Nat Adderley; moves into ‘60s avant-modernism with John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean, Andrew Hill, and Chick Corea; and cruises into the ‘70s and beyond (he is still very active at age 82) with bands under his own leadership.
One of the things I admire most about the folks at Music Matters Jazzthe audiophile house that reissues classic Blue Note albums at 45rpm, the tracks spreads out on two slabs of 180gm virgin vinyl, tucked inside handsome gatefold coversis that they focus on the label's later avant-garde titles as well as on its earlier hard-bop chestnuts. Highlights in that realm to date: Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, and Jackie McLean's Destination Out.
Now add to this list of treasures Sam Rivers' Fuchsia Swing Song. All four of those albums were . . .
I would never have placed Marc Cary and Matthew Shipp in the same category of jazz pianists, but their superb new solo discsCary’s For the Love of Abbey (Motema) and Shipp’s Piano Sutras (Thirsty Ear)find them converging toward close points from different angles.
Sonny's Crib, by Sonny Clark, one of the most tragic and still-underrated pianists in jazz, is one of the greatest blowing sessions on a labelBlue Notethat specialized in blowing sessions, especially in the mid-to-late '50s, when this was laid down.
September 1, 1957 was the recording date, and that's not a gratuitous factoid. First, 1957 marked a pinnacle in Clark's brief career; he recorded 18 albums that year, most of them Blue Notes, as either leader or sideman. (He would die from a heroin overdose in 1963, at the age of 31, and the only surprise was that it didn't happen much earlier.)
Sonny Rollins played at Central Park tonight, as part of the Summer Stage series, and what can I say. A month shy of 78 years old, the man is still a titan, a force of nature. Of course, nature has its cycles, and typically, Rollins in concert takes some time to crank up—you can almost see the gears grinding, then sliding, then grinding, then finally whizzing and swirling with jaw-dropping speed, effortlessly, pulling spins and loop-de-loops as they go. Tonight he hit one such peak in the second song, “Valse Hot,” where he shifted into sheets-of-sound, a la early-‘60s Coltrane. Amazing. Then the concert coasted for a while, sinking into occasional longueurs, the latter due (as usual) to his band, which simply isn’t in his league. It would be fine if they just comped along—kept up the beat, laid down the chords, plucked out the bass line—while Rollins soared to the stars and back. But he’s a very generous man, so he gives them way too much to do. Sometimes they get by (trombonist Clifton Anderson played really well), sometimes they don’t. Twice he traded bars with a bandmate—once with the drummer (who, when his turns came, played the same thing each time), once with the percussionist (who, puzzlingly, played nothing at all). A drag. But then an hour into the concert, the earth moved, as it often does at least once or twice at these events, which is why we keep going to see Sonny Rollins whenever we can. During his solo on “Sonny Please,” he locked into the rhythms of the cosmos and rode them in a dozen directions—a bop cadenza for a couple dozen bars, then an Aylerian wail, then intervals that sounded like something out of Berg (if Berg could do jazz), then something like the brushstrokes of a de Kooning action painting if de Kooning had played the tenor sax instead of the paintbrush, and on it went for 10 or 15 minutes, never repeating a phrase—except when he returned to blow the theme for a couple of bars every now and then, just to keep the rocket in orbit—all the while never losing his grip on the essentials: beauty, wit, swing, and the blues. There’s nothing like him.
I reviewed Sonny Rollins’ Carnegie Hall concert last Tuesday for the New York Times. Short version: The first half, when Rollins played in trio with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride, was wondrous; the second half, with his usual sextet, had its moments but was comparatively a drag. I only hinted at this in the review, but the concert typified the puzzle that is Rollins’ career: why, in the past 40 of its 50-plus years, has this titan of the tenor saxophone—the most inventive living improviser in jazz—chosen to play so often with musicians so clearly beneath him?