Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

BLU NOTES: Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

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

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