BLU NOTES
Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

BLU NOTES: Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

Phillip Johnston’s Many Moods (And The Microscopic Septet, in Three Acts)

photo by Andrew Cowen

Composer and saxophonist Phillip Johnston has been living in Sydney, Australia for the past decade. Yet his music still speaks of and to downtown Manhattan, of an attitude that had little use for convention and that grew out of a scene full of willing co-conspirators. This wide-ranging music was first heard some 30-odd years ago in now-defunct clubs, yet its sound and attitude endures.

Through the years, some critics have seemed to overlook Johnston’s obvious talent and his large and fascinating body of work—his unusual blend of early-jazz elements and late-breaking ideas; the casual, even grudging sense of humor that never hid the seriousness of his accomplishment; the ways in which he’d bond tightly with a single musician (like accordionist Guy Klusevcek) or lend coherence to a wild amalgam of players for large-scale pieces. It was as if Johnston might as well have been living in, well, Sydney.

Maybe now, as he arrives in New York City for an extended March run beginning tonight, Johnston can be celebrated as a returning hero. Or just an extremely talented and motivated guy with a soprano sax (he also plays alto, but the soprano horn is his signature), a bulging bag of original compositions, a loosely connected set of wild ideas, and enough ensembles to them all justice. A guy whose music never really left town.

The core of what might be an extended 60th birthday party for Johnston here in New York City is his weeklong residency at John Zorn’s club, The Stone, presenting twelve different musical offering over 6 nights, from March 3 through 8. These will include both new and old collaborations, ranging through solo soprano saxophone, a series of duos and trios, and some medium-sized ensembles. While Johnston is primarily known for carefully notated compositions, many of these evenings will feature improvisation, both free and structured. Some of these will be groups that have not performed together for quite a while, ranging from Phillip Johnston’s Idea, a band from the punk-funk days in New York in the 1980s that used to play at venues like CBGB and Tramps, to his duo with Guy Klucevsek.

An annotated schedule is here.

I first got to know Johnston through the group he co-led with pianist Joel Forrester, The Microscopic Septet—a wildly idiosyncratic, devastatingly accomplished ensemble that, from first stirrings in 1980 through dissolution in 1992, built a small, devoted following and a big catalog of brilliant tunes. (Yet the Micros seemed never really to die…)

One centerpiece of this March Phil-apalooza is a mini-festival of sorts focused on the possibilities within the Micros chemistry. Continue Reading

Funeral For Clark Terry Articulates a Jazz Hero’s Gifts

Outside Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, after the funeral service for Clark Terry/ photo: Wolfram Knauer/Jazzinstitut Darmstadt

The gatherings that follow a renowned jazz musician’s death honor musical greatness we already knew about. They also reaffirm a sense of community we too easily forget.

That community is bound by musical values first and foremost but also by other things, including a sense of shared purpose and common history. The musical greatness in celebration itself generally has to do with far more than talent and charisma, though trumpeter Clark Terry, who died at 94 on Feb. 21, had those qualities in abundance.

What lends these events special power, more so than the solemn beauty of the music played, are the reflections of character, discipline, boldness and compassion, seriousness of mission and lighthearted humor, and the resonant lessons that run through generations and radiate well beyond music.

Such was the case on Saturday, a week past Terry’s death, at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. This funeral, like the man being laid to rest, was hard-hitting yet also serene, elegant but casually disarming, funny despite deep and even hard truths.

Trumpets sounded at both beginning and end. Continue Reading

Remembering Clark Terry

Tomorrow morning—Sat. Feb. 28—at 10am, Manhattan’s Abyssinian Baptist Church will likely be packed, as Reverend Calvin Butts leads a funeral service for Clark Terry. There’ll be top-notch jazz musicians, and those from the many walks of life who were touched by: the sweetness and clarity of Terry’s playing on both trumpet and flugelhorn; his decades of bold work as sideman and bandleader; his pioneering and compassionate work as a musician and educator, and by the casual, natural charm he exuded through careful conversation or just singing nonsense syllables, as he did on the 1964 tune, “Mumbles,” that grew into a signature hit.

Terry, who died at 94 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on Feb. 21, was one of jazz’s formidable talents as well as a memorably uplifting soul.

“He left us peacefully, surrounded by his family, students and friends,” his wife Gwen wrote on his Facebook page Saturday. Her earlier post, after Terry had entered hospice care on Feb. 13, suffering from the effects of advanced diabetes, led to an outpouring of appreciations worth reading here.

During his career, Terry led or co-led more than 80 recording dates and played on more than 900 sessions by the time of his last session in 2004.He was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1991 and was given a lifetime achievement award by the Recording Academy in 2010.

Yet these numbers and honors only scratch the surface of his impact and presence. There has hardly been a figure in jazz that spanned more of the jazz’s musical contexts while performing, nor one more beloved offstage. His accomplishments and demeanor personified his frequently offered mantras to “keep going by keeping going,” and “getting on the plateau of positivity.” Continue Reading

Constructing an Identity, And Delving Deeper: Rajna Swaminathan On Making Music With Vijay Iyer

Rajna Swaminathan/ photo by Jaimie Milner

I’m looking forward to pianist Vijay Iyer’s performance on March 7th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; there, before the dramatic Temple of Dendur, Iyer will display the deep rapport and driving sense of exploration that makes his new trio CD, “Break Stuff” (ECM), his most accessible recording to date as well as his most daring.

If the most popular distillation of Iyer’s aesthetic is his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, his music flows in multiple streams. And it absorbs various streams of influence. As I wrote in a Wall Street Journal piece last year:

Mr. Iyer places himself more within lineages than genres. “I’m here because of a series of generous African-American people who let me be here,” he said, particularly those connected to Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who shared musical concepts and a larger sense of artistic ambition.

There’s another lineage into which he, the son of immigrants from India, was born. That influence, overt in some other projects, is finely ingrained even in sections of the new album. He seeks a perhaps radical yet logical unity of these heritages—his note to one trio album cites “the Brown and Black Atlantic.”

Listeners could immerse themselves in several of Iyer’s modes of musical expression, swim in more than one of his streams, during his recent six-night stand at The Stone in Manhattan’s East Village. I caught only the opening set, which included Rajna Swaminathan on mrudangam (a percussion instrument in Carnatic music); Anjna Swaminathan (Rajna’s sister) on violin, and Graham Haynes, playing cornet, and sometimes triggering electronic sounds and loops from a laptop.

After the set, I asked Iyer about the combination of piano and mrudangam, whose rhythmic and tonal qualities seemed especially complementary. Iyer told me he’d been thinking about that blend for a very long time. I ended up having an email exchange with Rajna Swaminathan, simply out of curiosity. Her replies were so focused and revealing about the nature, pleasures and challenges of such collaborations, that I’ve included it here in full, with her permission.

Her replies speak about much more than cross-cultural collaboration. Yet, were I an editor, I’d be deciding between two as to which is the perfect pull-quote:

I would say that working with Vijay has rather resonated with me on the level of our mutual experience as Indian Americans, and that sense of community pervades the music we make. I think that’s a deeper connection and purpose—it’s not just about nostalgia or emotion for Carnatic music, but about constructing an identity and experience around us.

With any two traditions, it’s not hard to find the outer layer of “affinity”- but when you delve deeper, you find the nuances that reflect the great contrast in perspectives.

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Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Orchestra Wins Grammy With Gorgeous Collage

Rolling Stone’s website gives the only complete list of Grammy Award winners I can find. Once there, you have to scroll all the way to the bottom to get to the listing for Best Latin Jazz Album, won this year by Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s The Offense of the Drum (Motéma).

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Jazz Hung At The Museum—”Jazz & Colors: The Masterworks Edition” At The Met

Chelsea Baratz, playing tenor saxophone with The Brandee Younger Jazz Harp Quartet in the Met's Asian Art Gallery/ photo by Marc Millman

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Bo Dollis, Big Chief Of The Wild Magnolias, Dies At 71

Anytime a Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief dies, there is cause to gather those immersed in this perhaps least-widely understood and yet most essential tradition—in order to slap tambourines, and sing ritual songs like “Shallow Water” and “Indian Red.”

In the case of Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis, the longtime Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias, who died at his New Orleans home yesterday, at 71, the mourning, honoring and celebrating should reach deep within the local community and well beyond : Dollis was a Big Chief on the streets of New Orleans; he was also, in 2011, awarded a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.

I’m hoping to get funeral and memorial information.

I’m sure there will be an outpouring in print and online, remembering Dollis, For now, there’s been a nice package of coverage about Dollis at the website of the Times-Picayune, Nola.com: Continue Reading

Danilo Pérez’s Dream for Panama Keeps Growing

Danilo Pérez Jr. (left) in performance with Danilo, Sr. (right) at the opening of Danilo's Jazz Club in Panama City. image courtesy of American Trade Hotel by Doug Bruce, 2014.

I was pleased to see Melena Ryzik’s piece in today’s New York Times, reporting on the Panama Jazz Festival founded by pianist Danilo Pérez 12 years ago.

In it she writes:

…here he was, at 1:30 a.m. Friday, sitting behind the grand piano in the intimate Danilo’s Jazz Club, the city’s only performance space dedicated exclusively to jazz, now packed with friends and visitors. He was joined by John Patitucci, the Shorter quartet bassist, and a host of international musicians and students, eager to improvise alongside the masters. Nêgah Santos, 24, a Brazilian powerhouse in denim shorts, gave her congas a workout; Samuel Batista, 24, a Panamanian in his third year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, drew full-throated cheers with his saxophone. The jam lasted until closing time, and afterward Mr. Pérez gathered his young charges at a cocktail table to dispense encouragement and wisdom. “This kind of thing wakes you up, right?” he said, grinning.

Pérez’s festival is itself a wake-up call about several things: the pan-American identity of jazz; the role of Panama within that legacy; the role musicians, concerts and music education can play in civic uplift, economic development and cross-cultural relations; not to mention the aesthetic future of the music he makes.

As I wrote in The Wall Street Journal, when I reported on the third edition of Pérez’s festival:

Mr. Pérez, who is 48, is not alone in seeking a deepened and more detailed understanding of the influences throughout the Western hemisphere that have shaped jazz. Yet he is among the most diligent and talented of his generation to take up that task. And he has highlighted “the almost hidden voice of Panama,” he said, “which was always present.”

Pérez’s current playing and his outlook about if is profoundly influenced by more than a decade as pianist in the wonderful quartet led by saxophonist Wayne Shorter. But the inspiration for his festival, and for the arc of his own music is rooted in earlier mentors. Continue Reading

Message At Charlie Haden Memorial: “Hey, Man—We’re Family”

Carla Bley (at piano) led The Liberation Music Orchestra to end a memorial concert for its founder, bassist Charlie Haden/photo: Jacob Blickenstaff

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New Year’s Resolution for New Orleans: Create Laws In Tune With Jazz Culture

One of the things I’m looking forward to in the New Year is some movement in the right direction when it comes to cultural policy in New Orleans.

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