Archive for August, 2008

The Chicago Jazz Festival is coming! Part 2!

August 27, 2008

The 30th annual Chicago Jazz Festival is coming Labor Day weekend. I know I said that last week, but it is just. So. Cool. So again I’m revisiting an album I’ve spoken about before in anticipation. Sax player Joe Lovano is the front man on Trio Fascination—Edition One, but my primary interest is his bassist on this outing, Dave Holland. I wrote about Holland’s sublime album with his quintet, Prime Directive, several months ago. And I’m happy to revisit this fine disk here.

I’m not normally a fan of trios. They’re usually the work of a front man—on sax or piano, typically—and a rhythm section, typically a bassist and drummer. And what happens more often than not is the lead guy has to do all the musical heavy lifting, with the rhythm guys each getting occasional and often tedious turns in the spotlight. I much prefer quartets or quintets, where a couple of horns or a horn and a piano play off each other, often in overlapping conversation. Much more texture and interest to be had.

But Joe Lovano is a versatile, prolific sax player who has been called one of the brightest tenor players on the jazz scene today. And when I saw bassist Dave Holland and drummer Elvin Jones on the roster, I knew Trio Fascination—Edition One would be worth a listen. It is.

Lovano makes the most of this line-up. There’s no “just follow me, boys” front man/side men feel to this album—you get the kinds of conversations I look for in quartets and quintets.

The music [nine of the ten tracks are written by Lovano] continually blurs the line between straight bop and free jazz, always a good sound for me. There’s plenty of variety in the compositions too, not always a given when the tunes all come from the same source. The disk holds your attention start to finish.

The one non-Lovano track is the jazz standard Ghost of a Chance. Coming near the middle of the disk, it felt like the odd man out the first couple of listens. But the more I listened, the more it grew on me. Its languid pace and haunting, melodic treatment stick with you, and it serves as kind of a palate-cleansing intermission among the more angular pieces.

A caveat: If you go looking for this disk, do not get sucked in by Lovano’s Flights of Fancy, Trio Fascination Edition Two. On that disk, he hooks up with various musicians in trio settings, never as successfully as he does with Holland and Jones on this one. Worst of all, one of those musicians is harmonica player Toots Thielemans, on far too many tracks. I don’t know who first decided harmonica and jazz went together, but they don’t.

Listen up: The Chicago Jazz Festival is coming!

August 20, 2008

The 30th annual Chicago Jazz Festival is coming Labor Day weekend. Local and national jazz artists will descend upon Millennium Park and Grant Park for four days—and it’s all free! This year’s festival is bookended by headliners Sonny Rollins, the saxophone colossus, and Ornette Coleman, widely regarded as the creator of free jazz. Jazz clubs throughout the city will pick up where the festival leaves off each evening, with jam sessions and special events. We are so there.

In anticipation of this amazing jazz feeding frenzy, I’m revisiting a couple of jazz albums I’ve talked about before, this week and next.

When New York hard bop met West Coast cool

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley: Somethin’ Else. Bassist, composer and bandleader Oscar Pettiford was not what you’d call a people person. In fact, he was known for his temper and personnel problems throughout his brief career. So on that fateful night in 1957 at Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village when the sax player was late and a high school band teacher from Fort Lauderdale found himself up on the stage ready to fill in, Pettiford counted off I Remember April at a breakneck tempo, probably figuring he would send the country boy packing.

But this high school band teacher was Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, brother of cornetist Nat Adderley and a firm believer in the Charlie Parker school of thought that there was no such thing as too fast. As jazz historian Leonard Feather puts it in the liner notes, Cannonball “met the challenge with a long solo that just about knocked Pettiford off the stand.” Two days later, he was working full time with the band. Soon after that, he signed with the Savoy label.

Miles Davis regularly attended the band’s performances at the Café Bohemia. “Everybody knew right away that [Cannonball] was one of the best players around,” Davis said in his autobiography, Miles. He and Cannonball went on to play and record together. The 1958 album Somethin’ Else shows what a true collaboration it was—Cannonball was the bandleader, but he and Miles trade solos equally. In fact, when I first heard the disk, I thought it was a collection of Miles Davis repackaged under Cannonball’s name.

Also interesting is how well Cannonball’s hard bop approach and Davis’ cool sound mesh. As a major fan of hard bop’s energy and sharp corners, I can definitely hear the restraint in this album. There are none of the high-speed fireworks that made Cannonball an instant sensation that night at Café Bohemia. But there is amazing, beautiful music, created by two groundbreaking artists.

There is also a palpable sense of time and place, particularly on Davis’ Somethin’ Else and on Alison’s Uncle, a bonus track that didn’t appear on the original album. Close your eyes and you’re in a New York jazz club, probably in some cellar in the Village. The men all sport narrow-brimmed fedoras and Buddy Holly glasses. The women, off-the-shoulder cocktail dresses and Mamie Eisenhower bangs. Everyone is laughing and drinking and smoking, and it’s all in black and white. Yeah.

The Liars, or things we learn from our kids

August 13, 2008

They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, The Liars

The other night daughter Laurel and I were driving around, listening to rock music on the college end of the radio dial. Probably WNUR or WLUW. Normally, when I’m listening to this end of the dial, I’m looking for fast and loud. In fact, there’s a show on WNUR called Fast n’ Loud, and it’s one of my favorite things on the air.

But a song came on that slowly insinuated itself into my consciousness—you know how that goes, you’re driving, talking, thinking about your next errand and suddenly you become aware of the music playing. It was industrial sounding and hypnotically repetitive, but not in the overly synthesized way a lot of industrial dance music is these days. When I said it sounded “not uninteresting,” Laurel said she had a CD I might like, by The Liars.

I’d seen The Liars perform once before when they were touring with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. At the time, at least, The Liars’ lead singer was dating the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen Oh. Cute, right? I remember The Liars being good, but pretty much a funk-driven art school party band. A lot of fun in concert, but nothing memorable.

They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, their 2004 release, is not art school party music. It is industrial and dense and just as wonderfully dark as the title promises. According to one reviewer, it is inspired by a type of German witchcraft. Certainly the song titles bear this out: Broken Witch, for instance, seen in a live performance at New York’s Knitting Factory below. And There’s Always Room on the Broom and They Don’t Want Your Corn, They Want Your Kids.

Often I talk about actively listening to music. This album seems just as satisfying heard in the background—at home, driving, on the subway. Its layers of electronic sounds are balanced by almost feral instrumentation [simple, repetitive drum beats, in particular] and vocals reduced [or refined] to chants. The overall effect is like a disturbing movie soundtrack. In fact, the fifth track, We Fenced Other Gardens With The Bones Of Our Own, sounds like nothing so much as that moment in a dark thriller in which revelations have happened and one character is suddenly in determined, methodical pursuit of another. We know that soon one of them will die, violently.

Okay, I’m guessing none of this is making They Were Wrong, So We Drowned sound like the feel good album of the year. But it is a satisfyingly moody listen. According to Laurel, their latest album is similarly interesting. I think I’ll be exploring that one too. One of the great things about our household, in fact, is how we’re all bringing new—and old—music into the house and constantly learning from one another. A topic for another post, perhaps.

Johnny Griffin, Paris & six degrees of separation

August 6, 2008

Jazz tenor sax legend Johnny Griffin died in France last Friday at the age of 80. He died in his home in a village about 150 miles west of Paris [either Availles-Limouzine or Mauprevoir, depending on who’s doing the telling] where he’d lived either the last 18 or 24 years. His death was quite sudden, coming just hours before he’d been scheduled to play a concert.

Born in Chicago, the “Little Giant” [he stood barely 5-1/2 feet tall] saw saxophonist Gene Ammons play at the age of 12 and decided that was what he was going to do. And he wasted no time doing it. Three days after high school graduation, he joined Lionel Hampton’s big band.

Griffin’s speed playing bebop quickly gained him the reputation of the “fastest gun in the West.” And indeed, Griffin himself said, “I like to play fast. I get excited, and I have to sort of control myself, restrain myself. But when the rhythm section gets cooking, I want to explode.” But his gift was far more than speed. In his excellent New York times obituary, Ben Ratliff says his “speed, control and harmonic acuity made him one of the most talented American jazz musicians of his generation.”

In this YouTube video, we get a taste of Griffin’s legendary speed—and grace. He is backed by John Critchinson on piano, Ron Mathewson on bass and Martin Drew on drums.

Here’s another piece, a brief solo that gives you a sense of another, less frenetic side of his music.

And now, those six degrees of separation? I didn’t start out to write about Johnny Griffin’s passing. I had actually pulled out a CD by French jazz saxophonist Olivier Temime. Marion and I had bought the disk from Temime at Le Petit Opportun, a tiny jazz cellar in Paris. We’d seen his quartet there one night and had been so impressed we went back the next night. We were equally impressed with the club, a true cellar with vaulted ceilings and multiple cramped rooms, some with extravagantly bad sight lines. On the wall behind the musicians on the bandstand was a hand lettered sign instructing people to refrain from smoking while the musicians were playing. Everyone, including the band, ignored it.

In doing a little research on Temime I came across his name in a report of Griffin’s passing. He was one of the musicians slated to play with Griffin the afternoon of his death.

I may yet write about sax player Olivier Temime one of these days. In the meantime, here’s a little taste of his music, a 2000 performance on France 3 TV with Wynton Marsalis, Herlin Riley, Pierre Boussaguet, Franck Avitabile and Eric Prost.