Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

BLU NOTES: Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

Much Noise About Sound: New Orleans Reforms (Maybe) Its Ordinances

A January protest over sound ordinances inside New Orleans city council chambers.

I’ve seen New Orleans jazz culture through fresh eyes this past week, those of my five-year-old son Sam: Sunday afternoon, perched atop my shoulders, looking down as the TBC Brass Band sounded off while members of the Pigeon Town Steppers Social Aid & Pleasure Club, one by one, came out the door of Silkey’s Lounge to begin their annual second-line parade; and Monday evening, sitting cross-legged on a front-row cushion at Preservation Hall, looking up as trumpeter Leroy Jones led a sextet through “St. James Infirmary.”

I’m also seeing it through eyes that have grown jaundiced—my own—by the tensions surrounding a culture that defines and uplifts New Orleans and yet seems always embattled. Such was my feeling as I sat on Monday morning at City Hall for a meeting of the city council’s Housing and Human Needs Committee and listened to public discussion of a proposed revision to the city’s sound ordinance. This particular matter, which has great relevance to the daily lives of brass-band musicians and other culture bearers as well as to property owners and club owners, has been the source of much controversy for nearly five years.

Sam and his mom are headed back to New York City. I’m staying put for another couple weeks. Before I head to the Fair Grounds this weekend for the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, I’ll be back at city council chambers tomorrow for what may or may not be a decisive moment regarding the city’s sound ordinance and its approach to cultural policy.

There’s a rich and urgent story concerning a constellation of ordinances that have long inhibited New Orleans jazz culture and a new groundswell of activism surrounding them, in a city still redefining its identity.

The current skirmish was sparked in part by an incident in 2010, when the TBC band was served notice by police shortly after setting up shop, just as they’ve been doing most Tuesdays through Sundays since 2002, on the corner of Bourbon Street and Canal, in front of the Foot Locker store. The band had run afoul of Section 66-205, which says, “It shall be unlawful for any person to play musical instruments on public rights-of-way between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m.”

Yet most of the lobbying and legislating in recent months have centered around setting acceptable decibel-level limits to sound—a laudable goal that has given rise to some fascinating science (chiefly from David Woolworth, whose Oxford, Miss.-based firm was hired to consult) and some serious local infighting. Continue Reading

Truth to Power: In Honor of Fred Ho (August 10th, 1957-April 12th, 2014)

When Fred Ho—a composer, saxophonist, writer, teacher and activist, died at his home in Brooklyn, New York on April 12, at 56, the music world lost an artist and thinker of singular vision and extraordinarily potent drive, one capable of playing the baritone saxophone with rare articulation and poise and of sharing a politically charged, spiritually driven ethos with the musicians who followed him. The world lost a tireless and true radical, who advanced an idea of Afro-Asian culture that was ahead of its time and of increasing relevance.

As Ben Ratliff wrote in his New York Times obituary,

Mr. Ho, who was of Chinese descent, considered himself a “popular avant-gardist.” He was inspired by the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and by the ambitious, powerful music of African-American bandleaders including Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Sun Ra and especially Charles Mingus. But he rejected the word jazz, which he considered a pejorative term imposed by Europeans.

Fred Ho’s  music will be performed in his honor Wednesday night, April 23rd at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, as organized by his student, friend and fellow baritone saxophonist Benjamin Barson.

One of the great benefits of my work is that I get to absorb the legacies—the fine details as well as the larger purposes—of musicians through other musicians, which is the richest way to do it. Ben Barson has deep and touching insights into Ho’s music and mind. I invited Ben to write about Fred’s spirit and legacy here. Based on his piece, I trust that my edit process was nothing compared to say, working in Fred Ho’s band (or, for that matter, his kitchen).

TRUTH TO POWER: IN HONOR OF FRED HO (August 10th, 1957-April 12th, 2014)

By Benjamin Barson

To understand the truth of baritone saxophonist and composer Fred Ho is to also speak truth to power. To be around Fred was to be around a very powerful human being, who administered truth gracefully at times and brutally at others, but always consistently.

One forceful evocation of  Fred Ho’s truth emerged early in my tutelage with the 5-10″ Chinese-American matriarchal ecosocialist (he believed in the political rule of mothers; and of a humanity retuned to the Earth’s ecosystems) after I set off Fred’s bullshit-detector: I showed up 20 minutes late to a lesson I had scheduled with him. Not a lesson on the baritone saxophone (I had been playing an old Buescher Aristocrat since 2008, and studying with Fred Ho since 2009) but on the stove: a cooking lesson. A lesson I specifically requested of him. He hovered over me, his eyes focused on my every chop of parsley, examining with perpetual disgust my clammy grasp of his magnificent custom-made blades, becoming frustrated at my failure to use the knife’s blade as a pivot (as he had so meticulously demonstrated before we started), and just exuding an undeniable odor of pissed-offness that he had to tolerate the inconsistency of a white male from a hippie school in the town he grew up (Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass.) who couldn’t tell his parsley from his mint, much less revolution versus reform. Continue Reading

Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans

Little else expresses the joys, pains, rhythms, passion and compassion of New Orleans life like a brass band in the street. In New Orleans, brass band culture is both a constant and a fluid thing.

OK, maybe the artwork of Willie Birch—who was born and raised in New Orleans and whose work resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney, among other places—captures the spirit of New Orleans life with equal force and beauty, including Birch’s indelible images of brass band musicians in action.

Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans,” a book by Matt Sakakeeny, who is an assistant professor of music at Tulane University, a journalist and a musician, benefits from both Sakakeeny’s deeply embedded documentation of the lives and times of brass band musicians (from the Rebirth, Hot 8, and others bands) and Birch’s uniquely evocative art. Together, Sakakeeny and Birch reveal the political and social contexts of brass band music, which, while always entertaining, forms both in-the-moment activism and commentary. The book is an artful telling of cultural history illustrated by important artifacts of that cultural history. Sakakeeny’s book benefits from the rich scholarly perspective of a seasoned ethnomusicologist but its greatest resonance is the truth in the streets, unfiltered. Birch’s work, like the music of the brass bands documented here, erases lines between folk and high art by sheer power of expression and seriousness of purpose.

The above cover features Birch’s “In the Sweet Bye and Bye (Mr. Dejan’s Funeral),” from 2002, depicting the jazz funeral for Harold “Duke” Dejan, best known as leader of the Olympia Brass Band. (Copyright Willie Birch, used with permission of Duke University Press.) For more of Birch’s art and an excerpt from the book, scroll down.

For those In New York, Sakakeeny will offer insights in person, free of charge, at a Book Talk sponsored by The Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. Details here, and below:

Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans

A book talk by Matt Sakakeeny

Wednesday April 9, 8pm

716 Hamilton Hall (near 116th & Amsterdam)

Sponsored by the Columbia Center for Jazz Studies

Because of a thriving brass band tradition, young black Americans continue to perform, listen, and dance to jazz in New Orleans today. Brass band musicians are celebrated as cultural icons for upholding the proud traditions of the jazz funeral and the second line parade, yet they remain subject to the perils of poverty, racial marginalization, and urban violence that characterize life for many black Americans. In Roll With It, author Matt Sakakeeny follows members of the Rebirth, Soul Rebels, and Hot 8 from back street to backstage, before and after Hurricane Katrina, always in step with the tap of the snare drum, the thud of the bass drum, and the boom of the tuba.

Matt Sakakeeny is an ethnomusicologist and journalist, New Orleans resident and musician. An Assistant Professor of Music at Tulane University, he initially moved to New Orleans to work as a co-producer of the public radio program American Routes. Sakakeeny has written for publications including The Oxford American, Mojo, and Wax Poetics. He plays guitar in the band Los Po-Boy-Citos.

Continue Reading

Stuff Arturo O’Farrill Said

Here’s the latest in my ongoing, occasional “Stuff Someone Said” series—the last one was on Henry Threadgill.

Arturo O’Farrill’s office in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York, not far from his home, has barely enough room for his baby grand piano and a small desk. We found space enough and time to speak for two hours recently, the bulk of which will appear as a long piece in the May digital issue of Jazziz magazine.

O’Farrill’s new recording with his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, “The Offense of the Drum” (Motéma Music), features guest artists from Cuba, Colombia, and Spain, reflecting an expansive aesthetic that has played out through commissioned pieces for the orchestra’s concert seasons at Manhattan’s Symphony Space. On May 10 at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, O’Farrill’s orchestra will perform both the “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite,” a landmark 1949 composition by his late father, the composer and bandleader Chico O’Farrill. On the same bill, he’ll premiere an original composition grounded as much in Peruvian and Colombian styles and in the adventurous attitude of one of his earliest mentors, Carla Bley, as in his inherited legacy. The Afro Latin Jazz Alliance (ALJA), the nonprofit organization he founded in 2007, contnues to evolve: It received a two-year, $450,000 grant from the Ford Foundation’s Freedom of Expression Program.

We talked about all those developments and the vision guiding it all. Here are some excerpts from that conversation. Continue Reading

Luhrig Augustine Gallery Now Represents Jason Moran, Urban Performance Artist

Jason Moran, wearing a papier mache mask created by Didier Civil during the Fats Waller Dance Party at Harlem Stage, New York City, 2011 Photo: © John Rogers

Nearly a decade ago, I ended a feature story about Jason Moran with this comment from him:

“I’m a straight-up jazz musician, no doubt. But I also like to think of myself as an urban performance artist who happens to play piano.”

Much of my work since then and all of Moran’s—which has earned him, among other honors, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and artistic directorships at The Kennedy Center and SFJazz—has been in some way an attempt to understand and celebrate the tensions within such duality.

So it made perfect sense when I learned on Friday that the Manhattan-based Luhrig Augustine gallery had signed Moran among the artists it represents.

“The new works I’m creating have started to bear objects for the gallery,” Moran explained. “It’s a natural progression.” The papier-mache Fats Waller mask, above, created by Didier Civil, is owned by the gallery. “I actually sold it in a gala auction for Harlem Stage three years ago, and Roland Augustine purchased it,” said Moran. “He’s a big Fats Waller fan.”

According to gallery representative Lauren Wittels, Continue Reading

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard Enters Online Fan-Funding Ring To Document His Jazz Opera “Champion”

Aubrey Allicock as a young Emile Griffith in Terence Blanchard's "Champion"/ photo courtesy Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

As trumpeter, bandleader, educator, and composer, Terence Blanchard usually projects supreme confidence. At 52, he’s a multiple Grammy Award winner whose influence upon jazz’s landscape is deep and elemental. His music has reached millions through his scores for more than 50 films and for Broadway productions.

Yet in the living room of his New Orleans home last year, he described to me how he felt before composing “Champion,” an opera based on the story of boxer Emile Griffith.

“What can you think, as a jazz musician, when somebody comes up and asks you to write an opera?” he said. “For a little while,” Blanchard said, “I was so intimidated I stayed away from it.”

He dove in, with winning results. “Champion” had its premiere last June at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis to great acclaim, and is nominated for Best World Premiere at the upcoming 2014 International Opera Awards (the only modern American opera so honored).

Bold and moving as is the staged tale of Griffith’s life and career—I’ll get to that—Blanchard’s music, taken on its own, says much and hits hard. It frames both Griffith’s unique story and Blanchard’s singular voice .

Now Blanchard has launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for a recording of his score by the original cast, which includes mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, with members of the St. Louis Symphony. He hopes to record in June at Powell Hall in St. Louis. The online campaign features many levels of participation—one offers a one-on-one music lesson with Blanchard—and closes on April 22.

Blanchard is not the only high-profile jazz musician to pursue and ambitious project through fan funding. Maria Schneider’s 2013 Grammy-winning work, “Winter Morning Walks,”  featuring two chamber orchestras and opera singer Dawn Upshaw, was funded through the ArtistShare site. And he’s not the only trumpeter composing music that challenges our notions of jazz pedagogy and social justice: Wadada Leo Smith’s recent “Ten Freedom Summers” paired jazz quartet and chamber orchestra to fill four CDs with a musical account of the Civil Rights Movement.

Yet Griffith’s story struck a personal chord with Blanchard, and fits within other legacies as well. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year: Continue Reading

Bright Stars (Some in New Alignments) to Highlight the Blue Note Jazz Festival

Aretha Franklin is among the headliners at this year's Blue Note Jazz Festival.

Back in the late 1980s—before I began writing and editing—I worked at the Blue Note jazz club in Manhattan. Even then, the club had an expanding empire, with franchises in three Japanese cities.

The company (Blue Note Entertainment Group) has continued to spread its wings and its headliner-booking might in other cities and in its hometown, New York City—especially through its multi-venue June Blue Note Jazz Festival, now in its fourth year (this year, June 1-30). Continue Reading

The Roots of Pianist Fabian Almazan’s “Rhizome” and The Tree That Worked

In my review piece in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, I discussed two new CDs by two brilliant musicians on the rise—trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Fabian Almazan. Each album involved a core small jazz ensemble augmented by a string quartet and other musicians as well as singers, and tethered to extra-musical ideas.

As I wrote:

These new recordings by Mr. Akinmusire, who is 31, and Mr. Almazan, 29, sound nothing alike. Neither artist adheres to standard notions of “jazz with strings,” which often involve little more than the sweetening and thickening of harmonies. If the two albums are emblematic of any trend, they reveal a generation of musicians with training in jazz, classical and other styles successfully chipping away at the walls between genres and cultures, or simply enjoying freedoms afforded by natural decay. Both CDs feature vocalists and original lyrics, integrated within mostly instrumental frameworks in ways that also suggest the erosion of the lines between sung songs and small-ensemble jazz compositions.

I’ll get to more specifics about Akinmusire in a later post. But here’s more on Almazan, who will celebrate the recent release of his CD, “Rhizome” (Blue Note/ArtistShare), at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard March 27-30. The music is compelling, suggestive of many things—here’s a link he sent to me with a filmed dance interpretation of some of this music.

Above is the new CD’s cover, which is meant to evoke both a rhizome—”the subterranean part of a plant that survives regardless of the conditions above ground, within a giant system in which what we see as separate is intricately connected,” Almazan explained—and the notion, also expressed in Almazan’s Spanish lyrics to his composition, “Espejos,” that “we are mirrors of each other, connected despite our differences.”

Here’s what Almazan wrote to me in an email about the album’s title: Continue Reading

How I Fell For Cécile

Photo by Rob Davidson/courtesy Jazz at Lincoln Center

I’d heard of her charms.

I’d heard her voice, so I knew her charms.

But not really. Not yet.

I’d resisted. Been busy. Besides, been burned so many times by singers who promised to take me to that place only real jazz singers can but then left me cold. Or worse, feeling nothing at all, like the problem were mine, as if I were hung up on singers that are gone (like Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter) or had made themselves scarce but still wonderful (like Cassandra Wilson).

They said she was from Miami. From Haiti. From France. (In fact, she is from all those places, by way of birth, heritage and study abroad.)

It’s not like I didn’t notice Cécile McLorin Salvant, like that time she copped top prize at the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition.

Yes, I was paying attention. I listened to her Grammy-nominated CD, “WomanChild” (Mack Avenue), on which I heard both the woman and the child, both born singers with something to say and century’s worth of less-traveled (and some brand-new) material through which to express it. Probably because I hadn’t caught her in live performance, I thought all that buzz around her was, well, just buzz.

I did nod when Ben Ratliff wrote, in his astute New York Times review of that CD:

“….to concentrate on Ms. Salvant’s song choices and all the bases she’s covering might gloss over the best parts of “WomanChild,” which is the precision of her wide voice and also her volatility, her tension between deference and extravagance, her willingness to play with sound and start rising to the higher atmospheres of improvising, where some of the greatest musicians get more mileage out of forgetting than out of remembering. And, too, her rich partnership with the pianist Aaron Diehl, who is also a kind of classicist at play…”

That connection she had with Diehl—that said nearly as much as the way she phrased a lyric, knowing and utterly in control. Continue Reading

John Zorn Closes the Book on Masada with “The Book Beriah”

John Zorn, last July, during the Lincoln Center Festival, after an a capella vocal-quintet performance of his piece “The Holy Visions”, sitting down at Alice Tully Hall’s magnificent pipe organ to play “The Hermetic Organ, Office No. 8”, stirring up a glorious din with childlike glee. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Were I in New York City on March 19, I’d head to Town Hall for the world premiere of John Zorn’s “Masada Book Three: The Book Beriah.” It’s the final installment in a 20-year project, bringing Zorn’s total number of Masada compositions to 613 (the number of mitzvot, or commandments, contained in the Jewish Torah).

Masada is just one element of Zorn’s musical identity, one frame within his composite portrait. Taken as a whole, it has made profound suggestions about both Jewish identity and musical possibility. Zorn will present this third book in a marathon “shuffle” concert at Town Hall, featuring 20 different bands and more than 50 musicians from wildly divergent backgrounds.

Here are some relevant excerpts from a feature story I did for The Saturday Paper, an Australian newsweekly, pegged to the last of Zorn’s 60th-birthday events, and his first-ever trip Down Under.

(You can find that story, which includes some of Zorn’s reflections on turning 60, on inane interview questions, and on General George S. Patton, here.)

….By the time Mike Patton’s trademark screams punctuated the high-voltage tremors of John Zorn’s Electric Masada group at Lincoln Centre’s David H. Koch Theater in Manhattan, it was past 11pm. A Masada Marathon, drawn from Zorn’s immense body of compositions employing the often-mournful sounding scales characteristic of Jewish music, had lasted more than three hours, with 12 bands delivering an equal number of musical styles and ensemble configurations. Among other things, we’d heard the Bar Kokhba sextet’s singular blend of violin, cello and guitar; surf-rock grooves as conjured by the guitar, vibraphone and electric keyboard of The Dreamers; a devastatingly elegant String Trio; and the Masada Quartet, which includes Zorn on his customary alto saxophone, trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron, and stands among the most expressive and cohesive small ensembles in modern jazz. That was 2011, when Zorn, an American composer of restless energy, had just completed his second book of Masada works. He recently finished Book Three, bringing the total of these compositions alone to more than 600, and culminating some 20 years of musical and personal discovery. And the Masada project is just one strand of Zorn’s story….

The massive Masada project began as simply “an attempt to write new tunes that I could play”. Yet it was also his “personal answer to what new Jewish music is”.  At that 2011 Masada Marathon, I felt a genuine sense of ritual enacted. When Zorn sat onstage directing (conducting isn’t quite the right word), his hand movements fleetingly reminded me of my grandmother kindling Sabbath candles on Friday evenings. It dawned on me that each half of the concert presented six bands playing three pieces each: That’s 18, a number that, in Jewish tradition, carries life-affirming mystical properties. Continue Reading