The Jazz Journalists’ Association held its annual awards bash this week, honoring musicians and their work for the period from March 2008 to March 2009. Here’s who won in each of the major categories, followed by who got my vote and why.
Joe Lovano’s Folk Art, his 22nd album on the Blue Note label, is an odd, sometimes jarring record—it took a few hearings before I found my bearings—but once the fragments snap into place, it’s a rousing pleaser, bursting with indigo moods, heart-skipped romance, and free-flow funk riffs. Lovano plays all kinds of reeds—tenor sax, straight alto sax, clarinet, and, on one song, the aulochrome, a Hungarian-built horn that’s a double soprano sax (attached to one reed), each side tuned to a different key, so that you blow melody and harmony simultaneously. He plays with a somewhat hardened tone, reminiscent of Sonny Rollins, but with a more soulful sensibility, stemming from his Midwestern roots (his father was a tenor blues saxophonist in Cleveland), though over the past couple decades, he’s played with, and gleaned ideas from, a wide variety of masters, including Hank Jones, Gunther Schuller, and Mel Lewis, to name a few.
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.
It’s one of those lineups that almost promises too much: McCoy Tyner, the pianist from Coltrane’s “classic” early-‘60s quartet, leading his own quartet with Ravi Coltrane, John’s son, sitting in on tenor sax. And yet, at tonight’s first set, they pulled it off, which is to say, they seemed natural, the music was simply very good--better than that--and not some cockeyed freak show like, say, Paul McCartney teaming up with Sean Lennon. The band was playing in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room—a wonder of concert-hall architecture, at once spacious and intimate, with a grand view overlooking Central Park—and Tyner, now 70 and recently ailing, was in ultra-fine form. He banged out the set’s first notes, and there they were—those clanging block chords, forceful, percussive, the sustain-pedal meshing their overtones into a shimmering sonic bouquet. It sent shivers. Then entered Coltrane the younger, now 43 (he wasn’t quite two when John died of liver complications at the age of 40), sounding increasingly like his father—that plangent tone, the sinuous, fluent lines of sixteenth-notes, broken up by abrupt hesitations and jagged rhythms—but not as insistent, adopting more the tone of a balladeer. (Check out his new album, Blending Times, on Savoy Jazz, for a tasty sampling of what might be called intense lyricism.) Midway through the set, he and Tyner took a big risk—it literally took my breath—when they dashed into “Moment’s Notice,” John Coltrane’s uptempo anthem from his 1957 LP Blue Train, but Ravi navigated the brisk rapids with aplomb. (It may have helped that Tyner never played that song with Coltrane pere—the album was recorded a few years before he joined the group—so they were both, in a sense, interlopers. If they’d started wailing the first movement of A Love Supreme, well, that might have been too eerie.)
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.
There’s been much hand-wringing among the aficionadi over reports that George Wein may call off his JVC Jazz Festival this year, leaving New York City bereft of such an event for the first time in decades. I’m not so bothered.
Sky & Country (on the ECM label), the new CD by Fly—the trio that consists of saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jeff Ballard—is a deeply pleasurable album. It’s a tricky thing to improvise sinuous, crisscrossing lines over the span of an hour-long record, with neither a piano to lay down harmonic signposts nor a second horn to pick things up when the pace slacks off, yet still manage to keep a listener’s attention. Some have done it, and brilliantly: Sonny Rollins (A Night at the Vanguard and Way out West), Lee Konitz (Motion), Ornette Coleman (At the Golden Circle and Sound Grammar), and David Murray (The Hill), among others. But this list only amplifies the scope of the challenge. Sky & Country is nothing like any of those albums, but it’s harder to describe what it isn’t than what it is. It doesn’t have much in the way of distinct melody, but neither is it the slightest bit atonal. It’s low key but not mellow, cool but not insouciant. Turner plays the sax in a style reminiscent of Warne Marsh: without vibrato, even-keeled, endlessly inventive but not at all showy about it. (Josh Redman and Branford Marsalis also have pianoless-trio albums out now, but among the three Turner is the only one who doesn’t resort to riding scales or extending arpeggios when he gets stuck in a spot; he always finds ways in and out without lapsing into clich.) Grenadier and Ballard are the bassist and drummer in Brad Mehldau’s piano trio—which is to say they can take anything and shoot it right back while supplying support. Fly is as pure a jazz trio as I’ve heard in a long time; no player dominates, all contribute equally but in very different ways; the strands stream off in several directions at once, yet they seamlessly cohere, like some musical equivalent of superstring theory. I can’t figure out quite how they do it, but they do. The sound quality, by engineer James Farber, is superb: tonally true with plenty of airy ambience.
I have an article in the Arts & Leisure section of today’s New York Times about Andy Warhol’s album covers. Everyone’s seen the covers he designed for The Velvet Underground & Nico, with the banana that peels, and the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, with the zipper that unzips. But who knew that the pioneer of Pop art designed over 50 covers over the entire span of his career, and not just for pop albums but also for jazz, classical, and opera? His work, often signed, appeared on Blue Note, RCA, Columbia—all the giants—and echoed, or often anticipated, the style that he would cultivate not just as a commercial designer but as a gallery-and-museum artist (though he rarely distinguished between the two). A new, lavishly illustrated, fastidiously documented book, Andy Warhol: The Record Covers, 1949-1987, lays them all out. Read about it here. Buy the book here.
I've been listening with great pleasure to Verity Audio's Parsifal Ovation loudspeakers the past few years, so I was intrigued to hear the company's step-up model, the Sarastro II. At 150 lbs each and $39,995/pair, the Sarastro II weighs and costs nearly twice as much as the Ovation. Would it sound twice as good?
Not the least astonishing moment of President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Europe (and for my more serious thoughts on that diplomatic voyage, click here) was when Michelle Obama met Carla Bruni and appeared her peer in every way, not at all outclassed. Ms. Bruni, of course, is the Italian-born French model and chanteuse who last year married French President Nicolas Sarkozy and, soon after, dazzled, nay seduced, every world leader she met at diplomatic soires. Mrs. Obama’s one-upmanship in London in no way shoves Ms. Bruni aside—the pairing marked, more, the reemergence of a French-American cultural entente, and we are all the headier for it.