On August 17, 1959—50 years ago exactly—Columbia Records released Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which became not only the best-selling jazz album of all time but also one of the best jazz albums, period, the spearhead of the “modal” revolution.
Just back from seeing the Bobby Bradford Quintet, featuring David Murray, one highlight among many of the Dave Douglas-curated New Trumpet Music Festival at the Jazz Standard in New York City. One of the most invigorating sets of jazz I've seen in a long time, the sort of exuberant, "free" but highly disciplined music that the city heard plenty of in the 1980s through mid-'90s but rarely anymore. More about that later. Meanwhile, the quintet expands to an octet tomorrow (Sunday, Oct 4). I can't make it, but if you can, get tickets now!
Henry Threadgill should be better known than he is. A topnotch musician on alto sax and flute, one of the more innovative composers in jazz, a veteran of the Chicago avant-garde and a revivalist of ragtime improvisational styles (the two are not so contradictory, as he was the first to demonstrate), Threadgill started out on small labels, briefly landed contracts at RCA Novus and Columbia during their brief flirtations with experimentalists (in the late ‘80s and mid ‘90s, respectively), then went back to the indies—all the while retaining, even advancing, his spirit of adventure and his restless but disciplined innovation.
Attention, last-minute Christmas shoppers: No gift could be more welcome to a jazz lover than a copy of Herman Leonard’s last book of photographs, titled, simply, Jazz (Bloomsbury, 320pp., $40 retail).
Leonard was the consummate jazz photographer, a true artist as well as a chronicler, whose black-and-white pictures—most of them taken between the late 1940s and the early ’60s (though with a remarkable reprise in the late ’80s and ’90s)—captured, even visually defined, the passion of the music, the intimacy between the musicians and the moment, the spirit of the times.
A quick, final word on Fred Hersch’s week of piano duets at the Jazz Standard. His early set last night with Jason Moran was one of the most enthralling concerts I’ve seen in a long time. At its peak moments (and there were several of them), the two settled into such a head-spinning groove, they sounded like one pianist playing magically with four hands. Moran, as I’ve noted in an earlier entry, may be the jazz pianist of our times, the supreme post-modernist who appropriates everything around him—musical traditions from Schumann and Jelly Roll Morton to Afrika Bambaata and Jaki Byard, as well as random sounds from movies, streets, and Chinese stock-market reports. Hersch matched his intervals, leap for leap. It’s been well over a decade since Hersch could be tagged a merely “lyrical” pianist in, say, the vein of Bill Evans, but even so, it was a jolt to see him tackle a frantic tune like Mingus’ “Jump Monk” (a natural Moran pick) with such finely disciplined abandon. It was an equal delight to watch Moran delve into the rhythmic crevices of an old-hat standard like “If I Had You” with such swaying jigsaw strokes.
A week ago, I went to see Chris Potter lead a top-notch quintet at the Jazz Standard. It was a great set. Potter’s big tenor-sax sound keeps getting more swinging, more virtuosic, yet at the same time tonally subtler. Joining him were Steve Nelson on vibes, Paul Motian on drums, Craig Taborn on piano, and Scott Colley on bass. Potter was smiling a lot during their solos, as if he couldn’t quite believe that he’d assembled such a crew.
A powerhouse trio is playing at the Village Vanguard through Sunday—Ethan Iverson on piano, Charlie Haden on bass, Paul Motian on drums. I saw them last night, and if you’re a jazz fan who lives in the Tri-State area, you need to go see them, too. Haden, who made his mark 50 years ago in Ornette Coleman’s original quartet, remains one of the supplest and most instinctively musical bassists around. He knows just when to hit the fundamental of a chord, when to spell out the arpeggio, when to walk the scale, or when simply to evoke the mood of a song. The last time I saw him, playing duets at the Blue Note in August, he’d recently had a hernia operation, and while the notes he played were spot-on, in their customary surprising ways, he couldn’t play very many of them; I wondered, in this blog, if age (he was 70) might finally be taking a toll. Last night proved he’s fully recovered and plucking full-throttled. Motian, who has played off and on with Haden since the early ‘70s (he was also the drummer in Bill Evans’ 1961 trio that played at the Vanguard on Waltz for Debby), is, to put it plainly, a magician. Nearly each bar, he attacks his drumkit, usually with brushes, in a completely different way (the Motian Variations, you might call them), sometimes in a way that seems at odds with what his bandmates are doing (double-time is one thing, but is there such a thing as one-and-a-half time?), yet it all merges and converges perfectly. Iverson is best known as the pianist for The Bad Plus. I like that group a lot, but he goes leagues beyond on his own, excavating hidden patterns, rhythms and motifs from jazz standards, while preserving their lyricism or blues or swing. The set I saw, the trio played mainly ballads and blues, including Bill Evans’ “Blue in Green,” Haden’s “Silence,” and a couple Charlie Parker tunes, which generally aren’t up Haden’s or Motian’s alley but they swung hard and clear and just a bit intricately off the beaten track.
Jaki Byard’s Sunshine of My Soul (High Note) has come to my attention a bit late, otherwise it would have made my Top 10 list at the end of last year. Yet another long-lost concert-tape dug out of the vaults, it takes us to San Francisco’s Keystone Korner in June 1978, where Byard is flying barrel-rolls solo. Byard—who died in 1999 at 77, gunned down on his doorstep for still-unknown reasons—was a pianist both virtuosic and rowdy. His left hand is rock-solid, his right hand fleet with fury. Imagine Willie “The Lion” Smith pressure-cooked by Mingus (Byard played in Mingus’ band through most of the ‘60s), and you get some idea. He was a teacher to Jason Moran and Fred Hersch, two of today’s most versatile jazz pianists, and you can hear much of his influence in their work as well, especially Moran when he cruises through stride licks.
Jason Moran’s Ten (Blue Note) commemorates the 10th anniversary of his trio called Bandwagon (with Tarus Mateen on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums), and it’s by far the group’s best recording, maybe Moran’s best all told, which, if so, would mean it surpasses his 2002 solo disc, Modernistic, which is saying a lot. Whether it does or not (I’m still mulling), this is a great album, that much is certain.
Jason Moran finished a week at the Jazz Standard in New York City last night and confirmed his standing, at age 32, as the jazz pianist of our times. A few years ago, I saw Moran playing in duet at Merkin Hall with Andrew Hill, one of his mentors, more than twice his age. Afterward, a friend of mine, a trumpeter just a little older than Moran, made a sharp observation about their respective generations: Hill, a leading avant-gardist from the ‘60s then undergoing a renaissance, played in one style, his style; Moran played in many styles, all styles. Though he didn’t put it in these terms, Hill (who recently died of cancer) was the jazz equivalent of an abstract expressionist painter (say, Franz Kline or Robert Motherwell), while Moran is the supreme post-modernist (say, Robert Rauschenberg) who appropriates everything around him, including ready-made objects, and somehow makes it all his own.
I was listening to Radiohead’s new album, In Rainbows. It’s really as great as all the rock critics say. More than that (from this blog’s angle), it’s as harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated as just about any work of modern jazz. (I’m not saying it’s like jazz; rather, that on any musical level, the purest jazz purist has no grounds for looking down on it.) The album sent me to my music closet to take another listen to Brad Mehldau’s cover of Radiohead’s “Knives Out,” from his trio’s 2005 CD on the Nonesuch label, Day Is Done. I listened through all 10 tracks—which include, besides two Mehldau compositions, Lennon & McCartney’s “Martha My Dear” and “She’s Leaving Home,” Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie,” Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and the title tune by Nick Drake.
I’ve just found out about a new, and unlikely, place to go hear jazz in New York City: the Cacao Bar at the Chocolate Factory, a.k.a. MarieBelle. Most of the time, it’s a chi-chi caf—on the 2nd floor of 762 Madison Avenue, between E. 65th and 66th Streets—that serves hyper-rich chocolates, exotic drinks, and (so I’m told) killer short ribs. But on Wednesday nights, from 7:30 to 10, jazz musicians—a pianist and usually just one or two others (there’s no room for more)—come in and play.
The Jazz Journalists Association held its 2010 awards bash at City Winery, a warm, spacious eatery (with an excellent wine list) in the SoHo section of New York this evening. Below are most of the winners, followed by the musicians for whom I cast my ballot. The awards covered the period from April 15, 2009, to April 15, 2010.