A Concert Evening at Home

Unknown-1New CD + DVD set: “Jazz & The Philharmonic,” recorded in Miami, dozens of performers doing a lovely job with jazz, classical (with a modern twist), traditional music, beautifully produced and engineered. You may have seen it on PBS—last February—but if you are among the many millions who missed out, this is a gift that you might consider for this year’s holiday season. Notably, it is one of the last recorded works supervised by Phil Ramone, whose list of credits is among the most impressive in American music history.

Want a sample? Try “Simple Gifts,” a theme that you will recognize from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” The performance (Mark O’Connor on violin, Dave Grusin at the piano) and the recording are spectacular.

 

SimpleGiftsAlso on the web page (click on above), a straight ahead performance of Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves” by Bobby McFerrin with some solid scat. (Later, on “Soloings,” McFerrin plays with his voice and the audience.) Backing McFerrin on “Autumn Leaves” is Grusin, Chick Corea, and The Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra (they are the “Philharmonic” in this concert). Corea returns for “Spanish Suite,” based upon the familiar classical work by Joaquin Rodrigo, “Concerto de Aranjuez.” It’s easy to forget how terrific Corea can be—this is a lovely setting for his piano work. The wonderful trumpet player Terence Blanchard (he is the Mancini Institute’s Artistic Director) contributes an interesting duet with vocalist Eric Owens on Bach’s “Fugue in C Major.,” then joins in on “Spanish Suite,” and later, on “Solfeggietto” by C.P.E. Bach. It’s great to hear this work performed with soloists and a full orchestra—reminds me of the good old days when the Boston Pops showed up with celebrity soloists on public TV.

For me, this concert was an introduction to a modern classical piano player named Elizabeth Joy Roe. She performers with Blanchard on “Solfeggietto,” and with Mancini director Shelly Berg on a piano duet version of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Curious, I looked her up. Roe records classic music for Deutsche Gramophone, but she’s unique because she often performs duets. Not  just any songs—an intriguing combination of Michael Jackson, ragtime and classical. Her version—on her website, not on the Jazz & The Philharmonic CD/DVD includes an all-out duet with Greg Anderson on Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” The video is as much fun as the piano work. Watch this (now)! She’s someone I want to know more about.

Okay—sorry—easily distracted by great music—back to the main story. What have I missed? Actually, one track, and it’s terrific. It’s called “Mountain Dance,” and it’s performed by Grusin and O’Connor with the Mancini Orchestra. Why terrific? It feels great, especially on a fine-tuned stereo system where the bass is as clear as the high notes. Again, a tribute to a recording that sounds much better than most.

There’s more on the DVD—a second McFerrin “Soloings”, another piece by Chick Corea entitled “Armadas Rhumba,” and, why not, a rousing version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (you know, the “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme).

What fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Geri Allen: Smart and Wonderful

Geri-Allen-2-by-Dean-C.-Jones-copyGeri Allen is one of those extraordinary jazz musicians whose influence runs wide and deep, but somehow, has not become as well-known as it ought to be. She’s a pianist with a resume that begins with a serious educational foundation: a master’s degree in ethnomusicology that has served her well (easy for me to see this because I’m approaching her life’s work some 35 years into a very good story). Her professional work begins with Mary Wilson and the Supremes in the early 1980s, and Brooklyn’s M-Base movement not long after (here, she established a reputation beside Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby and other talented players). M-Base was a kind of updating of a jazz form, a structured modernist approach to improvisation. In 1988, she recorded a wonderful album entitled “Etudes” with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, followed by several more trio records with her two extraordinary (now, sadly, gone) creative partners, including Segments and Live at the Village Vanguard. (The best discography I could find appears on Wikipedia, part of a more complete story worth reading.)

UnknownThe awards began to roll in. Allen was in and out of the remaining avant-garde, which sounds much less radical now than in 1996 when she recorded “Hidden Man” with Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum. In fact, by 1999, she was sounding very comfortable in a commercial setting, recording her popular CD, The Gathering, with Wallace Roney on flugelhorn and trumpet, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Buster Williams on bass, and Lenny White on drums, and others whose names are well-known from mainstream jazz records. A 2010 record, “Flying Toward the Sound,” made it to the top of many critic’s best-of-the-year lists.

So that’s the beginning of the story. A very solid player, well-connected and well-regarded, a talented composer, comfortable in the mainstream and in the more experimental forms of jazz. Somewhat unusual to find a female musician in that role, but things are changing, and, well, it’s about time.

For much of this past summer, Ms. Allen has served as the Artistic Director of a special project at the NJPAC, New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center (and center of cultural life and city rebuilding) in Newark, New Jersey. The project is an All-Female Jazz Residency with a wonderful array of inspiring special guests including Marcus Belgrave on trumpet, Carmen Lundy on voice, and more. Ms. Allen has been Professor Allen for some time now; she is the Director of Jazz Studies for her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. She recently received an honorary doctorate from the Berklee School of Music. She’s got the performance chops, the compositional excellence and nowadays, it would be fair to say that Geri Allen is one of our nation’s most distinguished jazz educators.

Photo by Dean C. Jones

Photo by Dean C. Jones

As impressive as her professional accomplishments may be, there’s nothing quite like listening. Her latest work, recorded in 2012 and released last year, takes the pianist back to her home town, Detroit, Michigan (actually, she was born in nearby Pontiac but grew up in Detroit). Grand River Avenue was the big street that she crossed when she was old enough to do so. She describes “three years of intensive training by master teachers and Detroit artists in residence” at Cass Tech, on Grand River Avenue, then one of “the nation’s premiere high schools.” The CD entitled “Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations” is the third in a trilogy that began with “Flying Toward the Sound,” and continued with “A Child is Born.” In this case, the liner notes call her work “the new classical music” and state, quite reasonably and truthfully, that the music on the CD is “an exquisitely beautiful collection” based, largely, upon the Motown spirit. There are songs by Steve Wonder (“That Girl”), Smokey Robinson (“Tears of a Clown”), and Marvin Gaye (“Save the Children,” and “Inner City Blues”) and Holland-Dozier-Holland (“Baby I Need Your Lovin’”) but this is not an album of jazz versions of Motown standards. Instead, it is an intricate meditation on the musical themes and ideas that those composers expressed long ago.

Unknown-2Geri Allen has been one of those artists that I’ve wanted to know more about. Now that I’ve written this article, now that I’ve done some concentrated listening, I’m realizing that I am just beginning to understand what she’s all about. The latest album is elegant and wonderful, soulful and reflective, sophisticated and consistently interesting, but my collection is now woefully incomplete. I have listened to the two predecessors in the trilogy, but I want them for my very own. The same is true for the work she did with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden, and for the work she did in 2010 with her group, Timeline.

Another discovery. I keep falling in love. There is no better way to listen to music.

BTW: Don’t miss this NPR conversation between two beloved jazz pianists: Geri Allen and Marian McPartland.

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Goodbye Charlie

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Several days after his passing, bassist Charlie Haden’s website hasn’t heard the news. But I know. And a few minutes before midnight during the week after his death, I feel it in my heart. I suppose the sense of loss struck me when I listened to the first track of one of my two favorite Haden CDs. The track is a spare version of “Here’s Looking at You” from an album celebrating the songs of the 1940s, in contemporary settings. I especially like the track because it opens the album with lush strings, the simplicity of Ernie Watts’ plaintive, lovely, long tenor sax reaching from the past, nostalgic, perhaps the best thing that Haden and Quartet West recorded. Alan Broadbent, the pianist who arranged the strings, is every bit as lovely for his solo. And there’s Haden, subtle but always there, just enough bass for me to follow his line as Watts comes in for his second theme. Not quite visible, but always a presence.

Haden recorded in a lot of settings, but I think I liked him best when he played an album of spirituals with Hank Jones. Just the two fo them, sounding as if they’re in an old church in South Carolina or Mississippi instead of Radio Canada’s Studio B in Montreal. “Steal Away” is an album of “spirituals, hymns and folk songs.” It’s one of my very favorite albums, and after , their work together on “We Shall Overcome” gets me every time.

From the liner notes: “They were called ‘Sorrow Songs’ because ‘they tell of death, suffering and an unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways…” yet (W.E.B.) DuBois…knew that ‘through all of the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence.”

I listen to “I’ve Got a Robe, You Got a Robe (Goin’ to Shout All Over Heav’n)” and I find comfort in the music that Haden and Jones made twenty years ago. I listen to “Steal Away” and I hear the soul of a good man, a provocative artist whose range of experimentation spanned so many forms, a family man who carried a show business tradition, someone who made me think and gave me pleasure.

I hope you will be inspired to listen, first in a quiet room to the whole “Steal Away” CD, then to the joy-filled “Now is the Hour” by Haden and Quartet West.

Finishing up the article, I wandered over to the website. And I smiled. Two reasons why. First, it caused me to remember the dozen or so Haden CDs that are sitting on my shelves, and I want to listen to them all, again. Second, I realized that there were at least a dozen more CDs that I’ve never bought, never heard. So there’s more of Charlie Haden for me to discover. And that makes me very happy.

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Long Overdue

bobbywatson2colorBobby Watson is a musician’s musician, well-known in some circles, but not a famous jazz saxophone, at least not these days. Those who were paying attention in the mid-1980s, or who have done their research on the best jazz albums of that era, tend to love Appointment in Milano, and Year of the Rabbit; recorded and released nearly twenty years later, Horizon Reassembled is also terrific. Browse Watson’s All Music listing, and you’ll find a half-dozen superior albums by one of jazz’s best saxophone players. Watson’s Check Cashing Day surprised me by showing up in the mail last week. Made me happy. Made me think, too. You can listen to some samples here. Let me tell you more about it.

Recorded to remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech fifty years ago, Watson’s creative partner on this project is a fellow artist from Kansas City, Glenn North. He’s a spoken word performer, and poet who does his best to speak the truth (that second link provides a good example of his work—listen with your ears, and don’t worry about the so-so video quality). Mr. North is also the education manager at the Kansas City Jazz Museum, a kin with Watson who has doubled on the academic side for decades. North’s work is accessible with whiffs of hip-hop language and cadence, straight talk that carries the right messages:

Black is a flock of one hundred crows flying across the moon.

Black is hot water, cornbread and black-eyed peas served with a wooden spoon.

Black is the floor of the Atlantic Ocean covered with fifty million ancestral bones.

Black is the thundercloud over The Congo as the panther starts to moan.

Black is what was before before, when there was no time or space.

Black is the mistreated, the misunderstood, the magnificently beautiful race.

Black is a thousand midnights buried beneath the cypress swamp.

Black is four nappy-headed boys cruising in a beat-up Mitsubishi Galant.

Black is a thousand hornets ready to attack.

And even though Black ain’t went nowhere, tonight, Black is back.

Good poem, but so much better with the beautiful soundtrack provided by the sweet sound of Bobby Watson’s saxophone and the bowed bass so handsomely played by Curtis Lundy. This is what concept albums ought to be, maybe used to be, and I now understand that I miss them. Music with a purpose, a point of view, something to say, something well-said. Watson’s quartet provides some straight-ahead jazz tracks, perhaps the best of them is “A Blues of Hope,” but there are plenty more.

Check Cashing DayThe most ambitious track is Secrets of the Sun (Son) featuring wonderful vocal work by formidable performer, vocal arranger and composer Pamela Baskin-Watson (his wife), Glenn North’s spoken word at its confident best, and a splendid arrangement that allows the quartet to shine.

The more I listen, the more I appreciate what this ensemble has done. Sure, it’s a wonderful jazz album, but Watson does that just about every time. He’s a pro, he’s been doing this forever, and he’s gifted. But there’s a lot more heart and soul here, a coherent focus, a grown-up reflection on what has happened, and has not happened, and what has decidedly not happened, since Martin gave the speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. More from Glenn North, again presented with Watson’s spot-0n soundtrack.

I’m tired of welfare handouts and being played the fool.

I’m also tired of waiting for my forty acres and a mule.

Tired of being mis-educated in this country’s so-called schools.

Ain’t none of them teachers talking about my forty acres and a mule.

I bet you’d sing a different tune if it was me that owed something to you.

Save all the double-talk, and give me my forty acres and a mule.

You keep smiling in my face, but I know your heart is cruel.

Why else wouldn’t you give me my forty acres and a mule?

And why am I the one always getting arrested when you’re the one breaking all the rules?

You know my next question.

Where the hell is my forty acres and a mule?

I’ve been oppressed for over four hundred years, been the object of ridicule.

The least you could do is break me off my forty acres and a mule.

Compared to what you’ve done to me, what I’m requesting is miniscule.

You should be glad that what I’m asking for is forty acres and a mule.

The bill is up to four trillion dollars now and the man is way past due.

What do I have to do to get my forty acres and a mule?

The poet and spoken word artist Glenn North.

The poet and spoken word artist Glenn North.

After writing several articles about intellectual property and fairness, I hope this brief excursion into Glenn North’s poetry is okay with him (if it’s not, I hope he will contact me so I can remove it or otherwise change the presentation). I wanted you to get a sense of what this people have done, and because I think it matters, and because I think it ought to set the stage for more concept albums about important ideas, I provided more than I might otherwise have done.

Hey, this is good work, and it deserves recognition. If you’re trying to track down something interesting and different to buy for friends or family, this is a good choice to add to the list. Normally, I hate it when a website starts playing music when I arrive. In the case of www.bobbywatson.com, I had the opposite reaction. Turn it up and enjoy.

Three Old Pros

McBrideNow that I’ve written that title, let me check. Christian McBride qualified as a young lion in the early 1990s, but he’s just turned forty. He’s got some old soul, though, perhaps the result of coming up with Bobby Watson’s group, playing with Milt Jackson, J.J. Johnson, and Freddy Hubbard. He’s a master of control, a craftsman of the first order and an ideal mate for the his very talented pianist Christian Sands, himself a protege of old soul Billy Taylor. Rounding out the trio is an equally top-rank player, Ulysses Owens, Jr. The name of the CD, on Mack Avenue records, is Out Here, and it’s very satisfying, clean and varied with tight, focused performances. This is jazz composition and performance of the highest caliber. There’s a lot of strong material here, but McBride’s own “Ham Hocks and Cabbage” is especially fine. Oscar Peterson’s “Hallelujah Time” is wistful, pensive, and sweet, nicely played by Sands. Dr. Billy Taylor’s “Easy Walker” is another of the CD’s best tracks, mostly because of the strolling, gently swinging motion of McBride’s bass, and its interplay with the Sands’ piano. Best of all: McBride bowing his way through the sentimental melody, “I Have Dreamed.” Selecting individual tracks is fun for me because everything here is so well-constructed and winning, but the funk of “Who’s Making Love” is lots of fun–with McBride doing a bit of showboating on a tune that can easily handle it. If you’re beginning to think about gifts for the holiday season, this is one in the category of “you can’t go wrong.”

So who’s older: pianist Keith Jarrett or vibraphonist Gary Burton? Both musicians started their career in the early 1960s, both have recorded dozens of albums, both are veterans of the jazz fusion era and managed to forge remarkable careers as collaborators.

2200 XJarrett’s work is immediately magical, glorious in its improvisation and sonic exploration. He’s been doing these albums for decades, and yet, every time I put a Jarrett CD on (or, for that matter, an LP), I’m immediately transported into the filagree of his imagination, sipping a drink at an after-hours jazz bar where the player is extraordinary and I just don’t want the evening to ever end. Recorded live at the KKL Luzern Concert Hall, the CD called Somewhere begins with the  mind-bending “Deep Space,” and here, it’s Jarrett’s show with just the right additional color and light provided by double bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette; later in the track (the second part is Miles Davis’s “Solar,” their interplay moves the music into an even more interesting exploration, a testament to the extreme skill, experience and love of experimentation that these three musicians consistently offer. So that’s one track, again the first, and again, a favorite. (And I suppose I should mention that the sonic fidelity of these recordings is at such a high level, it would be difficult to imagine a disc sounding any better.) There are some favorite standards here (mine, anyway); it’s difficult for me not to be captivated by Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere;” and the less-often-heard “Stars Fell on Alabama” and the Jimmy van Heusen- Johnny Mercer tune, “I Thought About You.” Ooops–I’m listening to the wrong track–that’s really catchy, and less schticky than I remembered: “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”–well, a little schtick for me. Back to the dark night sky and mystery of “Stars Fell…” and my mind easily drifts to Perseids and stardust. What a lovely album.

GaryBurtonThe old guy in the crowd–Gary Burton is 70 to Keith Jarrett’s 68–opens with a Antonio Sanchez’s rocking drum, instantly establishing a more ambitious, brighter tone for the new Guided Tour, also from Mack Avenue. This is a quartet with Burton leading as one might do with a piano. Sanchez really drives this music. It’s a bigger sound than you would typically expect from a quartet. Burton is leading an exploration not entirely different from Jarrett, but more clearly articulated, more melodic, catchier. The difference is the way that Julian Lage is playing electric guitar, almost as if he’s playing in the style of Burton and his vibes on “Jane Fonda Called Again,” never passive or receding or relaxed, but instead, aggressive and punchy. Yes, they play pretty, too, working the pastoral mood on “Jackalope,”  and the Latin romance of “Helena” (especially nice guitar from Lage on this one), but it is so much more fun when these guys really go for it, with Burton playing fast and strong. Best example is probably the last track, written by drummer Sanchez, called “Monk Fish.” Scott Colley is the capable, but less showy, bassist; tough to get a word in edge-wise when the other players are clearly having so much fun. Far livelier than the other two CDs, Guided Tour is a terrific introduction to the Burton’s massive catalog.

What a great night of jazz listening. I haven’t enjoyed writing an article about anything in I don’t know how long. Thanks for the opportunity. Go–listen!

Before I Shelve These CDs…

It’s winter, so I’ve spent more time indoors than out. And that means weekend afternoons listening to lots of fine music. Before these CDs get lost on the shelves, allow me to share some recommendations:

Fahey Takoma

(Yes, I know this is vinyl, not a CD. Please read on…)

John Fahey was an acoustic guitar player with a nearly mythical story. He lived from 1939 until 2001. Beginning in the mid-1960s and until the early 1970s, Fahey recorded a remarkable series of acoustic guitar albums, each firmly rooted in the 1920s acoustic blues of the south, and yet, in their own way, contemporary and wholly original. For some time, these records were hard to find, but nowadays, there isn’t much music that’s hard to find. And in Fahey’s case, there is now a series of wonderful CDs available at popular prices. Two of my favorites are The Legend of Blind Joe Death and America. In time, I will make it my business to listen to most or all of his work. And, along the way, I intend to track down a film produced about Fahey in 2010. It’s called In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey, and it’s the source of the image at the top of this paragraph. Click on the picture and you’ll see the trailer.

Karl Jenkins. Be sure to search on his image on the web. This is a very conservative portrait of a very colorful guy.

Karl Jenkins. Be sure to search on his image on the web. This is a very conservative portrait of a very colorful guy.

When I was visiting the UK this past year, I stopped by Blackwell’s Music in Oxford and requested listening recommendations. I left the store with several Oxford choral CDs, and with a three-CD box by composer Karl Jenkins entitled The Platinum Collection. According to his website, he is “the most performed living composer in the world.” Who knew? I missed him completely, and again, I’m only now getting up to date. Jenkins came up as a jazz guy, playing at the famous Ronnie Scott’s club in London, then forming the popular jazz group Nucleus with Ian Carr, and then, as part of one of my then-favorite British progressive bands, Soft Machine. After a period of writing music for commercials, he composed Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary which is included in my box set. Like the other two discs, Adiemus combines a contemporary approach to choral music, a wide range of instruments (classical, jazz, rock, whatever works best), and a wonderful range of energy from contemplative to soaring. At first, I’ll admit that I listened to Jenkins as background music (bad idea). This is music that requires full-throttle listening, preferably on a top-notch sound system with the widest possible dynamic range, accuracy, and superior reproduction of vocal parts. Jenkins can be a crowd-pleaser in the sense of, say, music composed for the Olympics, but I found more nourishment when I listened carefully, and allowed myself the time to pay attention to these works in their complete form.

I’m equally intrigued by the Kronos Quartet, a forward-thinking classical ensemble I’ve been following for decades. I missed out on their 2009 2test-600x0release, Floodplain, and now that I’ve got a copy, I’ve been playing it a lot. It’s an album of music from various nations and cultures located in and near the Middle East, mostly instrumentals, some traditional, played with the deep knowledge that this music was composed in the part of the world where “human civilization was born and first flourished.” There is respect and beauty. Respect because this is not Middle Eastern music. Instead, there is “Lullaby,” which is Black Iranian but affected by other cultures, and there is “Wa Habini” a Christian devotional song sung on Good Friday, part of the sacred tradition of Lebanon. “Tew semagn hagere” (Listen to Me, My Fellow Countrymen) comes from Ethiopia, and it is played on instruments constructed for Kronos by their designer, Walter Kitundu, who hails from Tanzania. The album opens with a hit song, from the 1930s, from Egypt: “Ya Habibi Ta’ala.” In fact, many of the songs were hits long ago. This is music you’ll want to buy on CD: the liner notes add texture and important background to the listening experience.

Garth KnoxGarth Knox’s 2012 release, Saltarello, was released by ECM New Series in 2012, and it, too, has become a favorite. Knox performs on viola, viola d’amore, and fiddle. As he performs an interesting selection of old and very new music, he does so with the attentive accompaniment of Agnes Vesterman on cello and Sylvain Lemetre on percussion. The repetoire here begins with the early British composer Henry Purcell (“Music for a While”) and continues on the old track with Hildegarde von Bingen, and John Dowland. I like the idea that this music is contrasted with work by, for example, the contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, and that Knox manages to pull it all together as a cohesive whole. The Saariaho piece is challenging, extreme in its special effects. To be honest, I had to check the unfamiliar name–Guillaume de Machaut–to determine whether he was an old composer or a new one (he lived in the 1300s, and was equally famous as a poet whom Geoffrey Chaucer apparently admired).

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Well, I found this tapestry on the Wikipedia site for Machaut. Clearly, he is not a contemporary composer.

Andy Sheppard

Andy Sheppard (click on the link for a bunch of neat pictures of Sheppard at play.)

Also on ECM, and also from 2012, Trio Libero is an album that I’ve enjoyed time and again. It’s one of those albums with a distinctive series of opening notes that sounds wonderfully familiar, and causes me to follow the lead line all the way through the first song (“Libertino”). Here, I’m listening to a terrific saxophone player named Andy Sheppard (he also plays soprano sax). Sheppard’s solo leads to a long, comfortable bass solo by Michel Benita (who is a major presence throughout, moreso than one typically finds on albums by a sax trio). As I said, I’ve listened to this album quite a few times, and now that I’m listening while writing about it, there’s a smile on my face. It’s just really good jazz. It’s quite varied. There’s a nice tender rendition of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” on the third track, a Weather Report-like texture entitled “Space Walk, Part 1.” And, the more I listen, the more I come to realize how much I enjoy listening to a well-played soprano sax. This is one of those albums where everything comes together beautifully, and I encourage you to be among the (inevitable) few who come to enjoy it as much as I do.

Okay, everything on this list now gets placed on the shelves, making room for the new, or, at least, for music that’s new to me.

Music and Activism… A Master Class

In August, 1964, $70,000 was a lot of money (it would be worth over a half-million today). Harry Belafonte filled a doctor’s bag with small bills, talked his buddy Sidney Poitier into traveling with him, and they boarded a plane from New York City bound for Jackson, Mississippi, then hopped a small Cessna for Greenwood, then drove in convoy to the Elks Lodge where they delivered the secret cash. The money was needed to keep the volunteers on site in Mississippi to encourage the Black population to register and vote. The Klan and the local police wanted the volunteers to go home. Harry and his show business friends saved the day. Turns out, this was not an altogether unusual day for Mr. Belafonte.

When I started reading Harry Belafonte’s autobiography, My Song, I didn’t know much about him. His song makes for quite a story.

No surprise that the started out poor, and became quite rich. What he did with the money, and the power of celebrity, is remarkable.

And how things happened, even more so.

The first few chapters set the scene: an angry young man who discovers the magic of theater, then tries to become an actor in New York City. He talks his way into the Dramatic Workshop at The New School for Social Research, where his classmates include Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando, Bernie Schwartz (later known as Tony Curtis), and Brando’s motorcycling buddy, Wally Cox. His early acting adventures aren’t going so well, so Belafonte is crying in his beer at the Royal Roost, a Harlem jazz club. Saxophone player Lester Young asks, “How’s your feelings?” and Harry tells him, “My feelings aren’t so good!” and Lester says “Why don’t you ask (club owner) Monte (Kay) to give you a gig?” Kay says “yes,” and Lester gives his young friend a send-off by backing Belafonte’s little intermission gig with his buddies, including Charlie Parker and Max Roach. Belafonte becomes a pop singer, and later, a folk singer specializing in music from his native Caribbean Islands, and story songs. And the list of “firsts” begins–the first Black to play the Coconut Grove in L.A., selling a spectacular number of records (competing with Elvis for the number one records in 1956, etc.), appearing on Broadway and in the movies (he had a deep crush on Dorothy Dandridge, being the first Black performer to host NBC’s Tonight Show (which he did for a full week  in 1968 with guests including Bobby Kennedy, Paul Newman, Bill Cosby, the troublesome Smothers Brothers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) and as with any celebrity bio, the list of famous names is vast), and tremendous success in Las Vegas, first at the Rivera, then at the then-new Caesar’s Palace, and with that success, friendships with the mob.

And, then, in his words, “One day in the spring of 1956, I picked up the phone to hear a courtly southern voice. ‘You don’t know me, Mr. Belafonte, but my name is Martin Luther King, Jr.” So began a fast friendship and a very deep lifelong involvement in civil rights and social justice. With Paul Robeson as a role model, and Eleanor Roosevelt as an early friend in social reform, Belafonte agreed to perform at Carnegie Hall to raise money for the Wiltwyck School, where “mostly black children who had committed serious crimes but were too young to be incarcerated” were taught. With the Kennedy White House, his reach grew, providing guidance and often serving as a conduit between John, and more often, Robert Kennedy and the movement. He marched. He served in Martin Luther King’s kitchen cabinet, which often met at Belafonte’s Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan (Martin stayed there, too, and had his own bottle of Bristol Cream liquor for relaxing evening chats). He was King’s confidant, a close friend, and a principal fund-raiser for the entire Civil Rights movement. He was deeply involved in the SLCC and SNCC. He worked on the strategy side, and the movement benefitted from Belafonte’s gigantic rolodex and his ability to raise funds or contact celebrities for favors, often granted. He became deeply involved in improving life in Africa, first helping to build a (never built) performing arts center in Guinea, and later serving as a UN and UNICEF ambassador (replacing Danny Kaye), also with an African focus.

He introduced performers to American audiences, and helped Mariam Makeba (already a South African star) to build a powerful career. Much later, as a result of his encouragement, Fidel Castro established a facility for Cuban rap artists. But before that, it was Harry Belafonte who came up with the idea for “We are the World,” getting Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones involved, then fading into the background until the hard work of distributing funds to Africa was to be done, and he supervised. He helped to free Nelson Mandela, and then served as Mandela’s personal guide for his first visit to the USA, where he answered so many questions about the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

With the help of co-author Michael Shnayerson, Belafonte is a very good storyteller with a very good memory. At 84, he’s candid about his show business successes and failures, attempts to tell his version of the truth about civil rights and entertaining personalities, family matters, and his half century of therapy and shaky love and family relationships (TMI). The showbiz story is fun, but the book shines as Belafonte provides context and backstory about the day to day struggles of the American civil rights story. For that, this becomes an essential accompaniment to the Taylor Branch trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the equally remarkable (but lesser known) The Race Beat by newspaper reporters Hank Klibanoff and Gene Roberts.

Jack DeJohnette: One of The Best


Jack DeJohnette is one of those extraordinary jazz musicians whose career is largely unknown to those who do not follow jazz. Too bad. (Let’s do what we can to remedy the situation.)

Background: He came up through Chicago’s avant-garde scene, working as part of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians); played with John Coltrane’s quintet in 1966; then worked with a young Keith Jarrett in Charles Lloyd’s group; then made some history as a drummer on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew sessions (and on eight other albums from the early 1970s); soon, his circle included John McLaughlin, Chick Corea and Dave Holland. In fact, for 25 years, he has been a part of a trio with Keith Jarrett on piano, and Gary Peacock on bass–their series of Standards albums are extraordinary (watch them here). The complete list of DeJohnette albums and collaborations is a long one; fortunately, Wikipedia maintains a good list. As both a leader and a co-conspirator, DeJohnette’s portfolio includes so many albums, so much excellent work, that it may be difficult to know where to begin.

For starters, I’d suggest a 1984 CD called Album Album because it offers both an avant-garde sensibility and easy access for anyone willing to take the time to listen. The interplay between saxophones–the formidable David Murray on tenor,  the lesser known John Purcell on alto and soprano, and a young Howard Johnson on tuba and baritone sax–is consistently inventive, with a relentless flow of interesting ideas, varied textures, and explorations of old ideas made new. DeJohnette is the controlling influence, ever present, often leading the way. Plus, there’s this sense of style, short bursts in lavish settings, that provide the basis for an album released in 2009–that’s 25 years later–called Music We Are.

For DeJohnette, the melodica is an old friend: he played melodica on his first significant solo album, excerpted here on YouTube. On the 2009 release, the melodica provides a winning c

ombination of tango sensibility, bits of remaining avant-garde (sounding more mainstream here, perhaps due to the passage of time), and the kind of atmospheric soundscape that was central to Weather Report’s earliest work. The creative collaboration here is with pianist Danilo Perez, who explains, in the album’s liner notes, that he has been playing with DeJohnette since 1992, and that his first encounter with the famous drummer was listening to DeJohnette playing “some beautiful piano.” John Patitucci plays electric and upright bass. They work together beautifully. That is to say: this is a very special album, one that pulls together so many different jazz styles, so successfully, that it defies categorization. It swings, it makes you think, it makes you dance, it does a whole lot of stuff really well.

In fact, they explain how it all comes together on a 25-minute DVD that comes, free, with the Music We Are CD. This is a solid documentary, explaining the creative process from composition and performance through recording and editing. After watching it, you will wonder why every CD doesn’t include an accompanying “how we did it” DVD.

Hey, I was going to write about the newest DeJohnette CD, Sound Travels, but this article is probably long enough. I will write about Sound Travels soon, I promise.

Bill Evans: Last & Found

Late in the summer of 1980, pianist Bill Evans played several trio sessions at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner. Marc Johnson played bass. Joe LaBarbera played drums. Evans knew he was dying, knew that these would be his last sessions. Fortunately, the sessions were recorded. Two weeks later, he was gone.

Twenty years later, in 2000, Milestone released a box of eight CDs, one for each evening’s performance. For the past week or so, I’ve been listening to the discs. (You can, too: I just checked, and you can buy them on Amazon. The link is below.)

The performances are wonderful. Evans’ work has always been described as lyrical, poetic, introspective, relaxed, and a kin to European salon music.

Everybody Loves Bill Evans is one of his most popular single albums–perhaps a place to begin before buying the more expensive box. In a review from a long-ago book about jazz, I wrote: “Classic 1958 piano jazz, played by a musician so widely respected that Miles Davis, George Shearing, Ahmad Jamal, and Cannonball Adderley signed their written praises for use as the album’s cover art. Most songs are confident variations on jazz standards like Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo” and Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” is also a highlight. Bassist Sam Jones and (unrelated) drummer Philly Joe Jones keep things moving. More distinctive are Evans’s unaccompanied solos, particularly “Peace Piece” and “Tenderly,” both haunting because of the pianist’s light touch, tiny flourishes, patience, and willingness to allow the piano to resonate.”

In fact, I rediscovered the Last Sessions box after hearing one of Evans’ duets with Tony Bennett on the radio. When the albums was recorded, Bennett was just beginning to taste a possible comeback, and it was this album that led to his remarkable second-round success. I wrote: “Bennett was in his mid-fifties when he recorded this album in 1975. HIs voice is a tad husky and a bit light on the high notes, but his endless experience shapes and sells every word of every song. This adds meaning and depth to “Some Other Time,” “Waltz for Debby,” and other titles that had been in Evans’s repertoire for almost two decades. Evans’s accompaniment is perfect, and his solos are magnificent, fitting ever so perfectly between Bennett’s verses (“Some Other Time” includes a particularly fine example). Some songs such as “The Touch of Your Lips” and “We’ll Be Together Again,” are generally romantic and often sentimental.” The album was called The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album.

There are lots of Evans albums, and most are still available. But the more I listen, the more I favor the Last Sessions box, partly for its intimate club feel, partly because he speaks directly to the audience from time to time, mostly because the work causes me to sit up and listen because it is so clean, so well crafted, and so compelling. Nicely recorded, too.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B00004YLJR/qid=1057202581/sr=1-5/ref=sr_1_5/103-1025772-7999806?v=glance&s=music

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