Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

BLU NOTES: Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

Harvey Pekar, Paul Shapiro & Me: No Garden-Variety Jews

It was a distinct honor and the oddest of pleasures to edit Harvey Pekar’s work for Jazziz magazine in the late 1990s. When I saw the film based on his life and celebrating his work, “American Splendor,” I wondered if I was part of the composite editor Harvey referred to simply as “asshole” in a scene wherein Harvey can’t find his Ornette Coleman recording, and needed to file his review. I remember well the phone call in which Harvey called me a “garden variety Jew” in a combative tone when I queried his commentary about Sephardic musical themes, in a review about a John Zorn album.

Which brings me to Paul Shapiro, a wonderful tenor saxophonist I first heard during his long tenure with the Microscopic Septet. Shapiro is a player Harvey would love; I imagine Harvey wrote about him at some point. My point of connection for all of the above is that Shapiro has a new album, Shofarot Verses within the Radical Jewish Culture Series of Zorn’s Tzadik label, which interprets last of three sections of the Musaf (additional) service recited on Rosh Hashanah. Here, as in his other work, Shapiro reflects the seriousness of musical purpose, natural sense of humor and essential Jewishness embodied in Harvey’s work, too.

To celebrate, there’s a comic strip in the tradition of Pekar (this was his favorite mode of communication), written by Jeff Newelt, and drawn by Joseph Remnant. (both worked with Pekar on his final graphic novel “Cleveland”).

If you’re in New York City, there’a a “Shofarot Verses” launch concert June 19, 2014 at Eldridge Street Synagogue.

And all of this gives me good excuse to pull out an short piece in memory of Harvey that I filed for Jazziz after his death, in 2010, below: Continue Reading

Dr. Billy Taylor Way Honors A Pianist Where He Lived

Credit: William Gottlieb/ Courtesy Library of Congress via Flickr

New York City has quite a few streetsigns that honor iconic jazz musicians where they once lived. The corner of 88th Street and West End Avenue in Manhattan is “Arturo ‘Chico’ O’Farrill Place,” for the Latin jazz bandleader and composer who died in 2001. My favorite, at the cul-de-sac on West 63rd Street, off West End Avenue, is “Thelonious Sphere Monk Circle” (though it took a while for the city to get that one right).

Perhaps no musician is more deserving of such an honor than pianist Billy Taylor, because he quite literally brought jazz to New York’s streets in exalted and empowering fashion. Taylor will get his due when East 138th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, near where he raised his family, gets dubbed “Dr. Billy Taylor Way” through a ceremony from 4-6pm on June 21. (The page on the Harlem Cultural Archives website says “bring your lawnchair and enjoy the festivities.”)

That’s just the sort of invitation Taylor offered New Yorkers in all five boroughs through JazzMobile, the nonprofit music organization he founded in 1964 with arts patron Daphne Arnstein. Jazzmobile’s annual Summerfest stood as the city’s oldest continuous summer event devoted to jazz, reaching 100,000 listeners annually, mostly where they live. A wheeled float transported by pickup truck served as the stage at most sites, setting up shop for a night in one community or another.

Taylor, who enjoyed a storied musical career (he was house pianist at Birdland during its heyday) and served as arts correspondent for CBS-TV’s “Sunday Morning” and for National Public Radio), reflected on all that in 2010, just months before his death, for a Wall Street Journal piece.

As he explained, in 1964, after hearing of plans to reduce arts programs in New York schools, he used his then-daily radio show on local station WLIB as his pulpit. Continue Reading

A Son’s Tribute to the Father of Many Things: Celebrating Ornette

Ornette and Denardo Coleman, in 1969/ photo courtesy of the artist

The musicians who’ll gather Thursday evening (June 12) at the bandshell in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for Celebrate Ornette: The Music Of Ornette Coleman” come from all over music’s landscape.

Such range is fitting, as is the concert’s site. Coleman is most clearly identified as an iconic jazz master and a founding father of free jazz (a term that, despite its muddied meaning today, signified something as the title of Coleman’s 1961 LP). Yet as an alto saxophonist (as well as on trumpet and violin), and as a bandleader and composer, it’s fair to say that Coleman, now 84, is father to the ideas that drive and distinguish the best modern jazz (maybe even what makes it ‘modern’), and the most innovative music across a range of other styles. His music befits the rolling hills and trees of Prospect Park: It, too, is an engineered environment brilliant enough to celebrate what is natural and organic.

Ornette Coleman is also father to Denardo Coleman, a drummer who first played on one of his father’s recordings at age 10. Now 58, Denardo still generates from his trap set the firm but subtle pulses that define his father’s rhythmic sensibility; he’ll do so at the helm of a quintet that will serve as Thursday’s house band.

Denardo also projects both the air of compassion and dismissal of convention that are bedrock attitudes of his father’s work. Those two qualities more than any stylistic sense form the logical thread through the list of musicians on this program, presented jointly by Celebrate Brooklyn and the Blue Note Jazz Festival: Henry Threadgill, James Blood Ulmer, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Ravi Coltrane, Bill Laswell, Bruce Hornsby, Flea, David Murray, Geri Allen,  Bachir Attar and The Master Musicians of Jajouka and Thurston Moore, among others (perhaps including Ornette).

As a critic and journalist, I’ve written about Ornette Coleman’s music and interviewed him many times through the years. (Here’s one Wall Street Journal piece from a decade ago.) As a father, I’ve been able to share Ornette’s music with my boy, Sam. As a human being, I just like to live in the world this music calls up whenever I can: This concert promises to be a communion, onstage and off, of folks who feel the same way.

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New York’s Vision Festival Honors Its Heroes And Gathers Its Tribe

Charles Gayle will be honored for Lifetime Achievement on the opening night of this year's Vision Festival.

To call New York City’s annual Vision Festival this country’s essential gathering of avant-garde improvising musicians is both true and incomplete.

The music is world-class, sure, and never predictable or rote. As bassist William Parker, one of the event’s founding figures, told me for a 2010 Wall Street Journal piece: “The aesthetic isn’t so easy to define. Nobody does notated pieces. There is improvisation in each band, which sometimes comes out of jazz, sometimes blues or world music or European music or just what I call the X-factor.”

So there’s that X-factor.

There’s also dance, poetry, film, visual art, not to mention the one thing absent from most of the festivals that dot New York from June through August—a true and deep sense of community.

That community is filled with musicians who defy easy description. Some, like Cooper Moore, design and build their own instruments. Some, like Parker, don’t so much bend rules as craft their own systems for musical development. Even in such a context, this year’s honoree for Lifetime Achievement (there’s one showcased at each Vision Fest), Charles Gayle, stands out—for the peculiar beauty of his music and his unwavering pursuit of elusive truths through art. Not to mention his versatility: Gayle, a singularly expressive saxophonist, is also a compelling player on piano and bass.

On opening night of this year’s festival, which runs from June 11 through June 15 at Brooklyn’s Roulette, Gayle will play all three instruments in separate sets during an evening in his honor. The last of these features an all-star “Vision Artist Orchestra” that includes tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan. Jordan is revered as an educator and mentor in his hometown, New Orleans, yet his music is rarely heard and not often genuinely appreciated there. At the Vision Festival each year, Jordan is received in deserving fashion, as a conquering hero. Continue Reading

Dancing With Eleggua, Weekly, at Minton’s in Harlem

Percussionist Román Díaz leads a his new project, El Gallo Mistico, during “Jazz at the Crossroads: The Dance of Eleggua" at Minton's Supper Club in Harlem.

I’d not yet been to Minton’s, the new supper club that revives a storied Harlem name on 118th Street, until this week.

I can tell you that the cuisine, under the direction of executive chef Alexander Smalls, is both fine and creative. But a new series “Jazz at the Crossroads: The Dance of Eleggua,” which continues each Tuesday night through August, was the real lure for me.

This past Tuesday, alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry and his brother, bassist Yunior Terry, who were born in the town of Florida, in Cuba’s Camagüey province, and live in New York City, performed in a group that showcased their father, Eladio “Don Pancho” Terry. The elder Terry is a violinist the founder and director of the “Orquesta Maravillas de Florida,” an important band in the Cuban charanga style. He is, perhaps most notably, a master of the chekeré, the beaded gourd used for percussion; in his hands, it can direct a group with the authority and flair of drummer Roy Haynes’s trap set. The group at Minton’s performed a mixture of traditional charanga tunes and more modern jazz, some drawn from the books of Yosvany Terry’s brilliant and forward-leaning bands. Yet this was no survey or fusion; the set was an example of how Afro Latin music, grounded in traditional rhythms and flecked with modern jazz’s full stylistic palette, can flow pretty much wherever it wants without losing its spiritual heft and sense of musical purpose.

That’s what this new series is about, according to Dita Sullivan, whose recent credits along similar lines “New Dimensions in Jazz” and “A Cuban Drum Series,” both produced for Manhattan’s Jazz Standard. Continue Reading

In and Around Jazzfest, Fair Grounds for New Orleans Culture (and What That Means)

The sky was blue, the sun bright and the temperature comfortably cool on a late-April Friday for the start of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

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Jen Shyu Returns Home & Unpacks Her Ancestry

Time flies. When I got a call from Jen Shyu the other day, we realized it had been more than two years since last we spoke at her Bronx apartment for a Wall Street Journal story.

Here’s how I began that piece:

Lettered tiles crisscrossed the coffee table in singer Jen Shyu’s Bronx apartment, remnants of an unfinished game of Bananagrams—a sped-up, free-form variant of Scrabble. How fitting. A playful yet rigorous approach to language animates her stirring music. Sounding fierce at times, ruminative at others, displaying tonal precision and an intuitive rhythmic sense, Ms. Shyu is among New York’s most invigorating vocal presences. And perhaps the most enigmatic.

Yet it’s inadequate to call Shyu a singer. In a video for her new multi-media work, “Solo Rites: Seven Breaths,”—a collaboration with the celebrated Indonesian director, Garin Nugroho—she calls herself  “an experimental jazz vocalist and composer, a multi-instrumentalist, dancer and researcher”—which sounds like a mouthful yet also seems accurate.

When last we spoke, Shyu was about to leave for year in Indonesia, her great-great-grandmother’s birthplace, on a Fulbright scholarship to study dance and improvisational singing traditions. But her planned year in Indonesia turned into almost three, she explained, traveling also to South Korea, East Timor, and Vietnam, among other places, where she studied, composed, performed in villages, taught and, and collaborated with local artists.

Before she left, a friend urged her to watch Nugroho’s film, “Opera Jawa,” in which Shyu sensed the  “fresh marriage of tradition and modernity I was seeking in my work.” Continue Reading

When Cassandra Wilson Turned on Her Blue Light

The rapper Nas will be touring this summer, performing in full the material from his breakthrough 1994 recording, “Illmatic,” 20 years after its initial release.

Blue Note Records, through its new parent company, Universal Music, has released an remastered and expanded edition of singer Cassandra Wilson’s “Blue Light ‘Till Dawn.” The new CD bears a sticker that says “20th anniversary edition,” which is sort of a fudge, mathwise—the CD originally came out in November, 1993. Yet that doesn’t discount the fact that, like Nas’s album, Wilson’s was a game-changer for artists, listeners and music labels. (Wilson’s U.S. tour, on which she’ll perform “Blue Light” material, begins May 3.)

There are attitudes and aesthetics that might link Wilson’s and Nas’s 1990s achievements. There’s also blood.

Nas’s dad, Olu Dara, a musician I’ve written about several times, played brilliant and concise cornet on Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail,” on Wilson’s “Blue Light.” He’s from Natchez, Miss., not too far from Jackson, where Wilson was born and raised.

Dara lent Wilson more than just his distinctive tone: As she tol told me in an interview for Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal piece, Wilson gained from him this lesson—”to honor and not hide where I’m from.”

Part of Wilson’s awakening involved picking up the guitar she’d hidden in fear that “the ‘jazz police’ would come looking for it.” That one was a Martin acoustic. I like the photo above, because it shows her playing the red Fender she played recently for new project, Black Sun. Continue Reading

Between Jazzfest Weekends, New Orleans Honors Elders and Supports Young Musicians

The Louis Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp 20th Anniversary Concert Series Fundraiser (May 1) will showcase tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan

The good news: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival swung into gear last weekend with mostly sunny skies, moderate temperatures and three full days of music. On Saturday, you could have paraded through the Economy Hall tent behind the Treme Brass Band, caught Robert Plant deconstructing Led Zeppelin tunes with his fascinatingly weird Sensational Space Shifters band at the Samsung Galaxy Stage, and ended up at the Jazz Tent, where saxophonist Branford Marsalis’s band delivered a smart, tight and imaginative dose of jazz-quartet interplay. On Sunday, back at the Jazz tent, you could have heard singer John Boutté doing what he always does, just a little better.

The bad news: The day before jazzfest kicked into gear, the New Orleans City Council punted on a chance to rescind a shameful (not to mention unconstitutional) 1954 ordinance that declares: “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.” It was a sour note of legislative dysfunction in a city yet to discover quite how to support its indigenous culture.

(Here’s some background to that issue, and here’s Richard Rainey’s Times-Picayune piece reporting on that council meeting.)

I’ll have more to say about all that—the story’s far from through—and more to report from jazzfest, which continues Thursday through Sunday.

Often the best part of jazzfest in New Orleans is the stuff that happens in between weekends at the Fair Grounds, the horseracing track that becomes a multistage arena once a year. This year, some of these events are benefits. Here are a few: Continue Reading

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