BLU NOTES
Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

BLU NOTES: Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

Manhattan: Subrosa’s Soft Launch Hits Hard

Pedrito Martinez/ photo: Michael Weintrob

The bad news: If you’ve never caught the Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez leading his quartet at the midtown Manhattan restaurant Guantanamera, where he held court for nearly a decade, you never will.

“At first we played traditional Cuban songs, but then we decided 
to just play what we love and let people get used to it,” Martinez told me for this feature story I wrote about him in 2012.

People got used to it—enough so that the gig became a scene, drawing players from all walks of music, from Wynton Marsalis to Eric Clapton.

But that gig is done.

The good news: Martinez’s residency lives on—now transplanted to Subrosa, a new venue in Manhattan’s newly fashionable meatpacking district. Subrosa is owned and operated by the Blue Note Entertainment Group, a company anchored by its namesake Greenwich Village jazz club. The new club, which seats 120, feels intimate without seeming cramped, elegant yet not slicked-up: white-painted brick walls and cafe tables give way to a horseshoe-shaped bar in the rear.

By now, Martinez’s mesmerizing talents as singer and percussionist have made him as potent a force on New York’s music scene as there has been in many years, sparking new attention to and possibilities for Afro-Cuban tradition. If Thursday night’s first set was any indication, the high energy, deep musicality and spontaneity of his former Guantanamera residency continues apace.

Continue Reading

Guitarist Marc Ribot: The Future, As Streamed, Look Grim

I’ve been talking to guitarist Marc Ribot lately about the ways in which cultural policy, or lack thereof, challenges the creative music community of which he is a shining light—about musicians and venues being essentially priced out of downtown Manhattan neighborhoods they helped put on the map through cultural achievements. (If you want some background on those issues, try this Youtube clip of a City Hall demonstrationfrom 2007.)

I’ve also been listeningto Ribot’s CD, “Live at the Village Vanguard” (Pi), which should make many Top 10 lists, and through its inclusion of bassist Henry Grimes and its allusions to the legacy of Albert Ayler, speaks of the legacy Ribot taps.

But Ribot’s music and his activism is wide-ranging in its considerations and its reach. As president of the Content Creators Coalition (c3), he is conducting a study of the economic impact of Spotify and other streaming services on their artist members.

Which led to  the following post by Ribot’s to The New York Times online opinion pages, titled: “If Streaming Represents the Future of Music, Then My Own Future is Looking Grim.” Continue Reading

Harry Shearer On What’s Funny About Nixon And What’s Not In New Orleans

At Manhattan’s Slipper Room on Wednesday night, Harry Shearer spent two hours on a stage discussing the role he considers his defining one.

Not the megalomaniacal Mr. Burns, who he voices on “The Simpsons,” nor Spinal Tap’s affably insecure bassist, Derek Smalls. The character Shearer has lived with longest is Richard Nixon. His latest take on the 37th president, “Nixon’s the One,” can be seen in weekly episodes through Nov. 25 on YouTube.

With the Nixon historian Stanley Kutler, Shearer combed through thousands of hours of the tapes Nixon secretly recorded in the Oval Office, then staged re-enactments of key moments as if captured by hidden cameras, remaining “faithful to the words, the rhythms, and even the pauses,” he said. Even so, he said, “it’s not a history show, but a character comedy series.” My interview with Shearer about all that ran recently in The Wall Street Journal.

After that Slipper Room performance, Shearer, who lives in New Orleans, and I spent some time discussing an issue that just now seems defining for anyone who understands and adores New Orleans indigenous culture. And is distinctly unfunny. Continue Reading

Herbie Hancock Talking Possibilities

Here I am, reading a bit from the beginning of Herbie Hancock’s new book, “Possibilities,” (Viking) written with Lisa Dickey, at the start of our public conversation last night at Barnes & Noble on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The upstairs room, less than a dozen blocks from the apartment Hancock live in decades ago, was overflowing. When the time came to field questions from the audience and Hancock waded into the seats, microphone in hand, the staffers looked concerned: But Herbie was just doing what he does—engaging people, and improvising.

I began our talk by reading a bit from his book set in the mid-1960s, when Hancock was a young musician in Miles Davis second great quintet, playing alongside Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams.

“Miles starts playing, building up a solo, and just as he’s about to really let loose, he takes a breath. And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from—it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit….” Continue Reading

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

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

Continue Reading

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:

Continue Reading

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