BLU NOTES
Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

BLU NOTES: Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

Why I’ll Tune In To New Orleans City Council Tomorrow (& You Should Too)

Cover “The Mascot,” November 15, 1890. Cartoon by F. Bildestein

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Getting Jason Moran’s Grammar Down, Through Film

Jason Moran (3rd from left) and members of The Kenwood Academy Jazz Band in "Looks of a Lot"

In March, I wrote about pianist Jason Moran signing on as an artist represented by the Manhattan-based Luhring Augustine gallery, which also has an outpost in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.

“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.”

So I was intrigued by an invitation to a screening at the gallery’s Bushwick space of a new film based about Moran’s work, “Jason Moran: Looks of a Lot.” Its title was drawn from the name of a piece commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for which Moran collaborated with various Chicagoans, including sculptor and activist Theaster Gatesreedist and composer Ken Vandermark, and the students in The Kenwood Academy Jazz Band.

The film is on one level a documentary about the making of this cross-disciplinary piece. But it also functions on other levels, delving into Moran’s relationship with Gates and with the students, and into everyone’s motivations for making art. (You can see a video “sample sequence” here.)

“Looks of a Lot” is a window into a longer and more complicated film-in-progress from director and executive producer Radiclani Clytus, in collaboration with co-directors Gregg Conde (who also serves as cinematographer) and Anthony Gannon (editor). Moran’s music fascinates most of all for its distinct and often askew rhythms, as well as for everpresent layers of meaning and representation that sometimes build and sometimes clash; Clytus’s team captured, through intensive focus and deft editing, both these aspects.

The larger work, Clytus told me, is called “Grammar,” a reference to an overarching idea of jazz as “more or less the essence of creativity–its lingua franca as it were,” he said.

Here’s a brief interview, conducted via email, with Clytus about the project:

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In New Orleans, A Young Organization Fights An Old Battle For Culture (Happy Anniversary, MACCNO)

If you’ll be in New Orleans on Monday night (October 13), you’d be wise to get down to Café Istanbul. The musical lineup is reason enough—among others, singer John Boutté, drummer Herlin Riley, trombonist-singer Glen David Andrews, and the Treme Brass Band. The club, co-owned by Chuck Perkins, a spoken-word artist with a resonant voice and a big heart, is a particularly welcoming space with good sound.

The real draw is the Second Anniversary Benefit Party for the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO). For more details, look here.

If you’ve been reading my accounts of the fight for New Orleans jazz culture, you know just how important this young organization has been; if you haven’t, you can find some good context here and here. These days, as I try to track the machinations surrounding a new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance and other legislation that will directly affect music and culture in New Orleans, I regularly look to MaCCNO executive director Ethan Ellestad. Beyond its work in galvanizing a community and instigating activism, MaCCNO is a source of open and good information. Continue Reading

Harlem Stage Gets Very Very Threadgill

Photo: Nhumi Threadgill

I can’t imagine a better way to experience the promise of creative music rooted in jazz than to spend much of this coming weekend at Harlem Stage, which opens its season with “Very Very Threadgill,” a two-day festival featuring more than 30 musicians performing the music of composer, saxophonist and flutist Henry Threadgill, as curated by pianist Jason Moran.

The series is named for Very Very Circus, a 1990s band of Threadgill’s that, like nearly all of his ensembles, featured unusual instrumentation (that one blended tuba, electric guitar and, at times, French horn). This two-day festival spans Threadgill’s career. Saturday night’s lineup features music from his landmark 1970s-80s trio Air (as revisited by Moran and is trio, The Bandwagon), his 1980s Sextett (featuring an original member, drummer Pheeroan akLaff), and the powerhouse trio, Harriet Tubman, which includes longtime Threadgill associate, guitarist Brandon Ross, and singer Cassandra Wilson. Sunday night’s offerings move from solo, duo and chamber group to a culminating set by Threadgill’s star-studded Society Situation Dance Band.

I consider Threadgill the most fascinating and original composer of my lifetime. His singular musical language challenges listeners through layered rhythmic tensions and surprising sonic textures and yet soothes, too: Like sunrises and snowflakes, each Threadgill piece brings the sorts of glorious shifts of color and form that help make life rewarding and embody its flow—never the same yet part of some grander design, some continuum, we can live within but never fully grasp.

Threadgill was among the earliest members of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the 1960s and remains among New York City’s creative lodestars, which has been his home since the 1970s.

I interviewed him in January for a Wall Street Journal piece, just before he mounted “Old Locks and Irregular Verbs,” in tribute to the late composer and conductor Butch Morris, with a group that included two pianists, one of which was Moran. Threadgill and I met at DeRobertis Pasticceria and Caffe, not far from where Threadgill and Morris made their homes and established their artistic presences in Manhattan’s East Village decades ago. DeRobertis is the sort of place that exudes the humble dignity that results from clarity of focus—to sip espresso and eat sfogliatella there is to grasp what that means—and that for a century maintained its place on a street and within a neighborhood where gentrification has wiped away most of what once was. Unfortunately, it appears that the café, whose property is listed for sale, may soon be gone. And, sadly, Morris is no longer with us (“Old Locks” was Threadgill’s tip of the hat to his dear departed friend.)

Threadgill is still going strong, pouring and new music even as his past work assumes new relevance and influence. During our conversation, he told me he’d been admiring Moran’s music—“and the way he approaches his music”—for some time.

Soon after, I called up Moran, who was then looking forward to his first direct experience his Threadgill. Moran, whose acclaim includes a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, expresses himself in many way these days: through his Bandwagon band; as pianist in saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s quartet; via ambitious projects like “All Rise,” his new CD (an elegy for Fats Waller in collaboration with, among others, singer and bassist MeShell Ndegeocello); and through his programming for the Kennedy Center, SFJazz and Harlem Stage.

Here’s what he told me about Threadgill: Continue Reading

Arrows Into Infinity: Tracing Saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s Flight Paths

Lloyd celebrating his 75th birthday in concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, with pianist Jason Moran/photo Dorothy Darr.

I’ve long been fascinated with the music of saxophonist Charles Lloyd for its soaring beauty and unwavering focus and with Lloyd, the man, for his singular story. “Arrows Into Infinity,” a documentary about Lloyd directed and produced by his wife, Dorothy Darr, and Jeffery Morse, and recently released in DVD and Blu-ray formats by Mr. Lloyd’s longtime music label, ECM, open a window wide on these subjects, distilling inherent mysteries and complicated truths without diluting them.

Darr told me in an interview for my piece in today’s Wall Street Journal that she aimed to provide “a fuller picture of who Charles is as a human being and an artist, navigating his life and upholding his ideals.” This is no straight chronology. “It reflects Charles’s speaking style, which is not really linear,” Ms. Darr said. Continue Reading

Saxophonist Steve Coleman Named MacArthur Fellow

I had trouble rising and shining this morning. NPR was telling me about drone strikes in Iraq and I wasn’t sure of my sense of dread was related to world affairs or the state of the book I’m wrestling with.

But when my wife said, “Hey, Steve Coleman just got a MacArthur!” my eyes popped open.

Yeah…least something’s right.

Having just been named among this year’s recipients of a MacArthur Fellowship—often referred to as a “genius grant”—Coleman, an alto saxophonist, composer and bandleader, earns placement among 21 “exceptionally creative individuals with a track record of achievement and the potential for significant contributions in the future,” according to the MacArthur Foundation press release. He also joins a long line of jazz musicians—from Ornette Coleman to Jason Moran—previously honored. And he gets a stipend of $625,000 with no stipulations or reporting requirements.

I’ve already spilled out much in print and online about Coleman during the past 20 years. I first interviewed him in 1998 through a three-hour conversation that spilled into a 4,000-word piece for Jazziz magazine, of which I was then editor-in-chief. I can’t offer a link to that piece, or to another long Q&A for Jazziz in 2012. But here are links to a Wall Street Journal piece of mine on Coleman from 2010, and another on this blog last year.

I can’t think of a musician I’d more heartily endorse for a MacArthur Fellowship.

Steve Coleman came of age at a moment when the jazz world experienced a disheartening and somewhat disenfranchising schism. The standard bird’s-eye view of New York’s jazz scene in the 1980s and ’90s depicts a mainstream revival of 1960s tradition, a wild and woolly downtown, and nothing in between. Continue Reading

Manhattan’s Newest Jazz Club, Mezzrow, Sounds Like A Winner

“I guess I can always say I opened this place,” Johnny O’Neal remarked as he lit a cigarette in between sets on Wednesday night outside Mezzrow, Greenwich Village’s newest jazz club.

“Maybe that’s a piece of history right there,” he said.

It’s too early to tell if Mezzrow will establish such a legacy. But it’s already a welcome and distinctive addition to Manhattan’s jazz landscape.

The club may be named for Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, a clarinetist and saxophonist perhaps best known for his 1946 autobiography, “Really The Blues,” but it is without question a piano room first and foremost, meant for close listening to soloists and small groups. Since the closing of Bradley’s in 1996, Manhattan has lacked such a space—one that blends casual intimacy with seriousness of purpose, all emanating from a worthy piano. Continue Reading

John Zorn to Play Manhattan’s Village Vanguard

Last year, composer and musician John Zorn marked his 60th birthday with an international celebration that began in Glasgow, Scotland and ended with a sprawling four-night festival at Australia’s Adelaide Festival.

In New York City alone, more than a dozen events spanned four months and much of Manhattan. If these were grand statements, they also made for intimate experiences. There was Zorn in July 2103, during the Lincoln Center Festival, after an a capella vocal-quintet performance of his “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. Two months later, he wept softly on curator Limor Tomer’s shoulder as he and audience members walked from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur—where a trio of guitar, vibraphone and harp had played his “Gnostic Preludes”—to the gallery of Assyrian art, where cellist Erik Friedlander was to perform music drawn from Zorn’s immense body of Masada compositions, all part of a full-day Zorn marathon.

Zorn @ 60,” as that outpouring was dubbed, celebrated the depth, range and ambition of Zorn’s work, and it underscored the point that although his music early on helped establish an attitude and perhaps even a brand known as “downtown,” it has never fit such a limiting aesthetic and has long been at home everywhere along Manhattan’s cultural landscape, from Lower East Side clubs to uptown citadels of culture.

And yet I hadn’t realized that Zorn, whose own customary instrument is an alto saxophone, has never played one Manhattan musical shrine—the Village Vanguard jazz club—despite the fact that much of Zorn’s music extends quite clearly from jazz tradition and that his Masada Quartet, with trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron, ranks as one of modern jazz’s most stirring small ensembles.

Zorn’s Masada Quartet will play two sets at the Vanguard on Saturday, September 6, as part a six-night engagement showcasing the second and third books of his voluminous Masada repertoire, as performed by a dozen different bands. John Zorn’s Masada—Angels at the Vanguard.” (According to the club, Zorn will sit in on 10:30 sets Wednesday through Sunday nights; a full schedule can be found here, or below.) Continue Reading

Marking Time, and Making Time For Smart Cultural Policy, in New Orleans

Cover “The Mascot,” November 15, 1890. Cartoon by F. Bildestein

My son Sam turned six today. We’ll make a big deal out of it in our family, reflecting on remarkable growth that began in trauma (four weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit) and dreaming about his future.

Next Friday will mark nine years since the floods in New Orleans caused by the levee breaches that followed Hurricane Katrina. I suspect some locals will celebrate or conduct solemn ceremonies, while others entirely ignore the date. I doubt much national media will pay attention. I know there will be a big wave of coverage (mine included) next year, when that particular trauma turns ten: We tend to reflect most around round numbers.

I’ve been ambivalent toward these anniversaries based on my experience. I recall during the first anniversary of the flood, one Lower Ninth Ward family stood by and watched as an anchorwoman held her microphone in front of their devastated home: “The producer said he doesn’t want us in the picture,” the father told me, holding his baby in his arms. Point being: Pay close attention to—don’t ignore—the lives represented by each house destroyed and rebuilt or not, every neighborhood that comes back or doesn’t. (For what it’s worth, here are my accounts of August 29 in New Orleans, from 2007 and 2010.)

The conversations—often battles—of nine years ago concerning what would get rebuilt and wouldn’t and who would return and wouldn’t has in large part now given way to debates—and, again, battles—over the shape and character of a “new” New Orleans.

Those of us who remember the green dots on maps issued in January 2006 by then-mayor C. Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission—targeting certain hard-hit areas of New Orleans as future park space—know that the future of New Orleans, and the city’s character, has a lot to do with how its spaces are zoned and used. Amid the panic and fury of alarmed residents whose neighborhoods had been overlaid with those green dots, and who expected to return and to rebuild, that 2006 map quickly met its demise. Yet many of its ominous implications have played out anyway through obstacles to rebuilding and land-grabs.

On August 26, three days before the anniversary of the 2005 disaster, the New Orleans City Planning Commission will begin a series of public hearings regarding a Draft Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance.

According to the Planning Commission’s website:

New Orleans’ zoning ordinance no longer meets the needs of the city today and is an obstacle to creating the city of the future. The 1970s zoning ordinance—unsuitable for a 21st-century city—has been amended so many times and overlaid with so many changes that it is extremely difficult to understand and riddled with inconsistencies.

Public hearings on the CZO are scheduled for August 26, as well as September 2 and 9. Written comments must be received by 5pm, Monday, September 1, 2014. (For details, look here.)

What does all this have to do with culture?

A great deal. Continue Reading

When Culture Runs Into Trouble in NY and NOLA

I suspected—wrongly—that I was the only one drawing connections between the ordinances and enforcment measures that inhibit culture in New Orleans with those of New York and other cities.

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