BLU NOTES
Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

BLU NOTES: Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

Shoulda Been in NOLA: The Glory of (and Troubled Backstory to) St. Joseph’s Day

People who talk about New Orleans from afar, who long to be in New Orleans and get there whenever they can—people like me—talk about Mardi Gras. They talk about jazzfest. They book their flights and set their sights on hitting the ground running for these and other moments.

My sacred pilgrimage?

St. Joseph’s Day, once the sun is setting and on into the night. When Mardi Gras Indians do the inscrutable, essential and brilliant things they do, and have been doing for a long time.

It’s been that way since I first experienced the event in 2006.

And it’s killing me that, for the first time in nearly a decade, I didn’t make it on Thursday night. Luckily, a lot of friends and associates sent photos, including the one above, from Bryan C. Lee Jr, at the Arts Council New Orleans, and this one below, from Katherine Cecil, a wonderful filmmaker and photographer.

The best context came via an article in The Advocate by Katy Reckdahl, who has deep knowledge of her city and its culture (and how the two relate), and is my favorite reporter to read on any topic concerning New Orleans. Her piece begins with some unfortunate but important history: Continue Reading

“Oye Cuba! A Journey Home,” Documents Arturo O’Farrill’s Personal Search and His Grand Vision Through Film

photo by Damaso Reyes

I’ll never forget the trip I took to Havana in 2010 with Arturo O’Farrill and his family, chronicled in a Village Voice cover story. At the start, I was focused on a very personal quest. As I wrote:

The dream was simple, really. Through the support of his Alliance organization, Arturo wanted to bring the orchestra he leads in his father’s name back to Cuba, which Chico left for good in 1959. He had toyed with the idea for some time, but it became a firm goal, a mission, in 2002, after his own first visit to Cuba. “I’m going to do this,” he’d told me toward the end of that trip. “And even though Chico never made it back to the island physically, his music will be played there. I feel like he’ll be there with us. The people will embrace his music. And somehow, to some degree, all will seem right with the universe to me for just a split-second.”

Yet by the end of trip O’Farrill’s focus, and mine, grew grander:

“I’ve been thinking long and hard about this,” Arturo said. “The reason I went was not to canonize my father. I did want to hear his music in Cuba and to see my mother there. But there’s another thing: I want jazz to stop dying this awful death, this strangulation. I think the future of this music has to do with the acceptance of a larger picture of it, which has always been the deeper truth anyway.”

Fresh off his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s second Grammy win, O’Farrill prepares for a landmark cross-cultural concert at Manhattan’s Symphony Space May 1 and 2, and readies his next CD, recorded in Cuba last year. Both are titled “The Conversation Continued,” which, O’Farrill told me, was inspired by the ending of my Voice piece:

“That final Sunday night in Havana, after the premiere of his new piece, the Mella’s massive brown curtain drew slowly shut, until finally only Arturo was visible. He was speechless. He simply waved. The curtain closed. The door had been thrown open, the larger conversation to come.”

Little did we know how the context for all this would change.

During that 2010 Cuba trip, director and producer Diane Sylvester had her cameras focused in the same direction as my pen. Like me, she’s stayed on O’Farrill’s story. Her remarkable film, Oye Cuba! A Journey Home,” six years in the making, is nearing completion. It traces both an intimate personal tale and a transformation of culture, attitude and politics that has far-reaching implications—that continuing conversation.

I can’t wait to see the scenes she’ll screen at a celebration and fundraiser on March 23rd at Drom, 85 Avenue A, in Manhattan’s East Village. O’Farrill will also make play a rare solo-piano set at the event.

TO PURCHASE TICKETS IN ADVANCE:

VIP Benefit Reception at 8pm & Concert 9pm | $150

Purchase VIP Reception Tickets here.

General Admission Concert & Screening 9pm | $50/ $25-Student & Senior

Purchase General Admission Tickets here.

“I was first moved by Arturo’s story and that of his father,” Sylvester told me, “and what seemed like such a tragic loss on their part in terms of their ability to connect with their own history. What Arturo ended up championing and creating was an incredible movement; he was among the leaders of artists who pushed to move history and policy.”

In a way, the arc of Sylvester’s project has mirrored O’Farrill’s work of late. Continue Reading

80 Years On, Still in the Vanguard: Reflections on a Celebration, and Comments from Jason Moran

The Village Vanguard celebrated its 80th anniversary last week.

The occasion made me recall what Lorraine Gordon told me a decade ago, when the Vanguard was turning 70. She’s been running the jazz club since 1989, after Max Gordon, the Vanguard’s founder, died.

“I like the coziness of the room when it’s full, when the people seem happy and they’re at one with the artist,” she said. “There’s just a certain feeling you get because it’s small enough to reach out and back and forth between the audience and the artists. So, that’s a palpable feeling. I feel it myself when I sit in the corner and I see everybody’s face is absolutely glued to the stage. It’s like a painting but it’s real life, every night.”

The real life of jazz, as it plays out—set after set, night after night—and the picture it paints for those who care to listen would be unimaginable in New York (and based on the many iconic recordings made at the club, anywhere) without the Vanguard as incubator and home.

Lorraine was sitting there, in her customary spot in the corner, on the way to the kitchen (which stopped being a kitchen long ago, and serves as both green room and office). Beside her most of time was her daughter, Deborah, who runs the club with her and, hovering nearby, Jed Eisenman, the club’s longtime manager.

To celebrate turning 80, the Vanguard turned to Jason Moran, a pianist and bandleader half the club’s age. Moran is a musician who has demonstrated, both on and off the bandstand and in various ways, that he has a singular and secure grasp of the connection between what has preceded him and where he (and we) are headed—and on the intellectual and artistic streams that have always informed and been fed by the scene at the Vanguard and the jazz scene in general. Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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).

Continue Reading

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

Continue Reading

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