Archive for the ‘Free Jazz’ Category

Ornette Coleman: Change of the Century

July 16, 2008

Ornette Coleman: Change of the Century

I wasn’t always into avant garde jazz. In fact, Oliver Lake and his no-holds-barred free jazz actually put me off jazz for a good long while. So as I made my way back into jazz, I gave alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, one of the major innovators of the free jazz movement, a wide berth.

I’ve since embraced the avant garde, thanks in no small part to Chicago reed player Ken Vandermark. Still, Coleman’s reputation as an inventive and often challenging experimenter with sound is legendary. So when I came across an album of his titled Change of the Century, I was excited to see what all the, um, noise was about. I mean, we’re talking about a man who, early in his career, was assaulted after a performance and his saxophone destroyed.

What I found in this 1959 release was another example of the need for reliable, affordable time travel. My first couple/few listens, it was hard for my less than trained ear to pick up much difference from be bop being played at the time. I’ve heard enough of what has come since that this was just not the revolution I was expecting.

But what I heard from the first listen was really exciting jazz. And the more I listen to it, the more innovative and even angular some of it indeed sounds. Like much of the best jazz I’ve heard, the music is a true collaboration and conversation among all four musicians. There is no leader/sidemen vibe. You couldn’t ask for better collaborators either: Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. Small wonder that Amazon has named it an essential recording. Maybe Change of the Century isn’t quite what the name promises, but it is part of a sea change in music. Just as important, it’s some great, listenable jazz.


Well-mannered avant garde jazz

April 23, 2008

Dave Holland Quintet: Prime Directive

Prime Directive was the first album I wrote about here on the Kitchen Boombox. Through a technical glitch [or more accurately, human error on this human’s part] the post was lost to posterity. But the disk recently made it back onto the boombox, so I thought it was time I revisit it.

As I said in my original post, I’m always leery of jazz groups fronted by bassists or drummers. When they’re in charge, the mix often ends up a little heavy on drums or bass, surprise, surprise, or the rhythm solos run long and gratuitous.

Not so with Prime Directive. Listening to it, every player is so integrated into the sound, you’d never know that Holland plays bass. What emerges from this great line-up—Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson and drummer Billy Kilson—is not just a string of impressive solos, but a series of exquisite jazz conversations. And in the spirit of true collaboration, five of the nine tracks are by Holland; the four other band members each contribute one composition to round out the set.

The music is a nice balance of straightahead bebop and avant garde, that sweet spot I find myself seeking out when I listen to jazz these days. It stretches your ear and keeps you paying attention without challenging you with too much dissonance or flatout blowing. Not that I mind that either, but the melodic challenges and surprises are more subtle here. Now that it’s back in the rotation, it’s found its way into the car and onto my iPod.

At home, whether it’s on the kitchen boombox or we’re listening to it with dinner guests in the dining room, Prime Directive can stay nicely in the background without becoming wallpaper. And at some point in the proceedings, it will make its presence known just enough to make someone stop mid-sentence and ask, “What are we listening to?” I know I’ve used this analogy with other music featured here, but isn’t that what you want from perfect dinner music?

Revisiting the man who put me off jazz

April 16, 2008

Trio Transition With Special Guest Oliver Lake

The first time I heard Oliver Lake, I wasn’t ready for him. I was a teenager spending as many evenings as possible at the Circle Coffeehouse in St. Louis. Not only was it a way to not be at home, it was my introduction to a whole world outside my own at the time. Weekends were the best. Friday nights were given over to theater, improv and spoken word. Saturdays bands and singer/songwriters took the stage. And Sunday nights it was jazz.

The Oliver Lake Quartet was pretty much the house band for jazz at the Circle. They did not play standards or bebop or hard bop. They played flat out, out there avant garde. At this point I had had pretty much zero exposure to jazz, so for me, this was jazz. And as much as I tried to like it—I spent a good number of Sunday nights at the Circle trying to wrap my head around the often atonal, rhythm-defying honks and squawks and thumps and bangs they put forth—I just couldn’t get there.

So I let go of jazz for a good long time, ten years or so. Oliver Lake, in the meantime, went on to help form the World Saxophone Quartet and become a major figure in the avant garde jazz scene, even without my support.

Eventually, I wandered back into jazz, starting with big band, then moving on to jazz standards, then bebop and hard bop. And finally, I found avant garde again, through the music of Ken Vandermark, Dave Rempis, Tim Daisy and other Chicago musicians. This time around I was ready.

All of which got me thinking about Oliver Lake and those Circle Coffeehouse sessions, wishing I could go back and hear them with new ears. Or at least hear Mr. Lake again. I got my first chance almost two years ago when he played with trumpeter and freebop pioneer Malachi Thompson at the Green Mill. They played a little avant garde music, giving me a tiny taste, but mostly stuck to straightahead jazz.

Then last week at the library [remember me geeking out about libraries recently?] I found this album, Trio Transition With Special Guest Oliver Lake. At six tracks and just under 50 minutes, it delivers a satisfying mix of laying down solid, melodic structures and then coloring way outside those self-imposed lines.

For me, the music is at its most exciting when they’re pushing the limits, challenging the listener to keep up as one musician after another—Lake on saxophone, bassist Reggie Workman, pianist Mulgrew Miller and drummer Frederick Waits—heads off in one direction or another. Sometimes it’s only as they’re returning to the original melody that you can see where they’ve been. And that’s just how I like it.

Alas, Trio Transition With Special Guest Oliver Lake is a semi-obscure import album; you won’t find audio samples on The YouTube clip above will give you a little taste of Oliver Lake’s more melodic side; it’s a solo piece performed in Seattle in 1996. For some more samples, go to his website. If you like what you hear, you can even buy music at the site. I know I’m going to be doing just that. And this time, I’m ready for him.

Where John Coltrane went first

November 28, 2007


John Coltrane: Interstellar Space

I thought I knew how much avant garde jazz musicians owed John Coltrane. From the intricate, sometimes challenging, almost always breakneck-paced solos he would weave around the melody, even on ballads. And from the way he would suddenly veer off from the melody completely and leave you wondering where he’d gone until he just as suddenly returned, showing you where he’d been.

Yeah, I thought I knew. Then I heard this album.

Interstellar Space, recorded just months before Coltrane died of liver cancer, shows just how far he pushed the free jazz envelope. And just how much everyone since owes him.

As he ventured more and more into experimental improvisation, his renowned 60s quartet fell apart, with veteran sidemen leaving the group, most notably legendary drummer Elvin Jones. In response, Coltrane retreated into the studio where, as jazz critic Stuart Broomer puts it, he “reduced the idea of the group to its absolute minimum, a duo with drummer Rashied Ali. Without the fixed harmonic frame of reference provided by piano or bass, Coltrane takes each of his brief themes and submits it to extended testing—repeating, contracting, and expanding phrases until they melt into a new inspiration.”

That lack of a “fixed harmonic frame of reference” makes Interstellar Space a challenging disk, especially the first listen or two. It is all out and out experimentation, with no melodies or refrains or ensemble playing to push against—or to be anchored by. But on multiple listens, even my less than trained ear picked up on the patterns, rhythms and structure in the pieces here. Another reviewer described it thus: “In some parts, Coltrane is conducting a saxophone dialogue with himself.”

And drummer Ali was every bit the match for him. Often, a piece would begin with Coltrane giving him a bit of a melody and telling him he wanted to go in and out of tempo. Then they would begin. Ali described how all this experimentation still managed to hang together compositionally: “I’m not playing regular time, but the feeling of regular time is there. I’m thinking in time.”

The six tracks on Interstellar Space range from fierce to lyrical. And though recorded some 40 years ago, they remain as fresh, as challenging, as exciting as anything I’m listening to these days.

Free jazz as a true three-way conversation

October 24, 2007

Joe Lovano: Trio Fascination – Edition One


I originally wrote about this disk when the boombox was only a page on my main blog, and it got deleted as the page got too long. It’s an excellent album, though, and deserved reposting. Here you go:

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.

Lost sleep and no regrets

August 1, 2007


There’s just something about seeing music played live, especially in an intimate setting. Up close, you can catch all the nuances—musicians coaxing sounds from their instruments, interacting with one another as solos are handed off, feeding off each other’s direction and energy. Sure, you can sometimes sense this in recorded music, but there’s something absolutely magical about watching it happen.

So when I got an email that there was going to be a concert at the Jazz Loft, I was ready. The Jazz Loft isn’t a full time music venue—actually, it’s some guy’s Wrigleyville apartment. In the couple/few years we’ve been seeing shows there, the place has changed hands a couple of times. But each time it’s rented to someone new, there’s an understanding that jazz shows will occasionally happen there.

The shows themselves aren’t so much concerts as they are jazz parties. There’s no cover, it’s strictly BYOB, and the scheduled start time for sets is really more of a suggestion than a hard number. The music is always avant garde and usually features local musicians. But sometimes, touring musicians in town for a paying gig will be included in the line-up.

There were two acts scheduled for this past Saturday’s show. I got rolling later than planned and ended up trawling for parking for more than half an hour. So by the time I made it to the Loft around midnight, I’d missed the first set. The second act, The Engines, was just setting up to play. The members of this quartet are all major figures in Chicago’s improvised music scene, playing in numerous groups and projects and, especially in the case of saxophonist Dave Rempis, organizing music events such as those at the Jazz Loft and Elastic. Trombonist Jeb Bishop, drummer Tim Daisy and bassist Nate McBride round out the group.

The Engines’ set was a satisfying mix of apparent chaos and intricate structure, with energetic outbursts and quiet, introspective passages. Sometimes the Jazz Loft parties are packed. At this one, the audience barely outnumbered the musicians—but everyone there was totally into the music.

The show was being recorded. After the set, D Bayne, former Loft tenant and continuing host of the parties, told me it would eventually be released as part of an ongoing project of his. He’s doing small pressings—just 100 disks each—of ten shows. An artist friend is hand painting the CD clamshell cases. This fact alone could launch me into a discussion of how increasingly cheap, increasingly sophisticated hands-on technology is making such cool things possible, but I’ll save it for another time.

After the musicians had packed up, no one was quite ready to leave. Various conversations swirled around the room, sometimes overlapping and converging, much as the music had done earlier. When I finally headed out, it was around two in the morning. I had a ten-block walk back to my car ahead of me and knew we had plans for a family breakfast out in about eight hours that would mean no sleeping in [as if we ever sleep in]. All in all, it sounded like a fair price for the night I’d just had.

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Avant garde with a funk back beat

July 18, 2007

Spaceways Inc.: Version Soul
Atavistic Worldwide, 2002


Pawing through our music collection looking for something for the kitchen boombox this week, I was pretty much coming up with bupkis. Most of what caught my eye, I’d already written about. Some things I wasn’t in the mood for right now. And more than a few things, I hate to admit, gave me real what-the-hell-was-I-thinking-when-I-bought-this moments.

Public libraries to the rescue! I admitted to library geekdom last week. What can I say? They come through. I popped into the newish Bucktown-Wicker Park branch of the Chicago Public Library near my office and perused their miniscule but eclectic and well chosen collection of CDs. And I found this.

Ken Vandermark to the rescue! From the very opening of the first track, Back of a Cab, I knew I had stumbled onto something good. At the end of the last track, I was just as convinced.

I’ve written about this reed-playing genius [he was a MacArthur Fellow in 1999] in the past. By his own count, Vandermark has been involved with and/or led more than 30 projects or groups.

Spaceways Inc. is a classic jazz trio—sax [and occasionally clarinet], bass and drums. But what they play blows right past classic jazz. This is funk-driven free jazz, shaped by reggae, rhythm and soul. As John Corbett puts it in the liner notes, the trio whips “back and forth between nasty, back-beaten funk and swinging, exploratory jazz.” So unlike some of Vandermark’s more abstract projects, the music on Version Soul stays firmly rooted in jazz, even at its most experimental.

I’m generally not a fan of jazz trios—they’re usually too much front man with drums and bass. Other than the occasional solo, the drums and bass are encouraged to lurk in the shadows while the front man does all the heavy lifting. This can get real monotonous real quick. In Spaceways Inc., everyone’s an equal partner. Drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Nate McBride are right out front, nice and loud, mixing it up with Vandermark as he goes from tenor and baritone sax to Bb and bass clarinet. The album is full of true collaboration, improvised give and take, and the sound is richer for it.

Vandermark composed six of the tracks on this disk; the remaining three are by McBride, another example of the collaborative nature of the group and of Version Soul.

If you’re a jazz fan ready to dip your toe into the avant garde end of the pool, this is an excellent place to start. And if you’re already into avant garde jazz, dive in.

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The kitchen boombox goes out

April 18, 2007


Last week I wrote about my favorite avant garde jazz group, The Vandermark 5. This past weekend, they played at the Green Mill. Even though they’re based in Chicago, they rarely play anywhere locally these days, and here they were playing my favorite jazz venue in the city. I of course went.

The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge sits squarely in the heart of Chicago’s Uptown, on Broadway at Lawrence. Both the bar and the neighborhood have seen their share of ups and downs. Now, both are on the upswing again but stubbornly maintain just the right amount of seediness. Probably the neighborhood more so than the Green Mill, to be honest. But despite owner Dave Jemilo’s best upgrading efforts, the place has a welcoming scruffiness to it.

The place has been a bar for about a century now, but it hit its stride as a jazz club as a Depression-era speakeasy. Notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone frequented the place, and one of the partners allegedly helped orchestrate the Valentine’s Day Massacre in a southside garage. A door in the floor behind the bar now leads down to a beer cooler. During Prohibition days, it led to a tunnel that would deposit guests on the sidewalk some distance from the bar in case of raids.

All cool, interesting history, but what keeps me coming back is the music, seven nights a week. Weekends are usually for national acts—or local performers of national stature, like The Vandermark 5. Local [but internationally renowned] vocalists Patricia Barber and Kurt Elling have standing gigs Mondays and Wednesdays respectively when they’re not touring. I’m generally not big on jazz vocalists, but Kurt Elling is amazing—singers are sometimes described as using their voices as musical instruments. He is one of the few I’ve heard who live up to that description. And at the Green Mill, you can catch all three sets of this magic for seven bucks.

Tuesday nights feature the Deep Blue Organ Trio—after falling out of favor for a while, the Hammond B3 has made a huge comeback, and this group makes good use of it. Thursdays, the Alan Gresik Swing Shift Orchestra transports the audience [complete with enthusiastic dancers] back to the big band swing era. Fun music, but with a slightly self-conscious earnestness to it all, not unlike Civil War re-enacters. Sunday nights, music starts late as the Green Mill hosts the Uptown Poetry Slam, run by the originator of poetry slams, Marc Smith. Haven’t made it there for that yet, but everyone who does loves it.

Going to the Green Mill. A few tips for visiting this must-see club for jazz fans. First, bring cash or an American Express card, the only forms of currency accepted there. Second, get there for the first set. For some reason, the place fills up later with hipsters who don’t seem to give a rat’s ass about the music, but just want to make the scene—loudly. Then they get indignant when the door guy and the owner shush them. Still, their cover charges and drinks help keep the doors open, so I just tolerate them for the most part. And if you sit anywhere but way down front, assume that at some point, people will be standing in front of you and you won’t see the band. For that reason, I generally choose to stand.


But most of all, go. Friday night, Ken Vandermark smiled as he talked to the audience from the bandstand about playing there. He called it the best jazz gig in Chicago. He was right.

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No sleepy time music here

April 11, 2007

The Vandermark 5: Burn the Incline


I woke up in the middle of the night last Friday and couldn’t get back to sleep. My wife Marion and I had been to some gallery openings that evening, catching up with old friends, meeting some interesting new ones and seeing some really great local art. All of which stirred lots of ideas in the middle of the night.

Finally, I gave in and got up and poured myself a glass of wine. Rather than sit at the computer or turn on the TV, I sat in the dark in our new living room and popped this disk into my Discman. Big mistake.

From the first notes, it was clear that this was not the music to lull me back to sleep. Ken Vandermark is the MacArthur Fellowship-winning local jazz reed player and composer. He collaborates with musicians from around the world in a wide range of settings and styles, but to my ear, The Vandermark 5 is the most exciting.

Burn the Incline, a 2000 release, is a prime example. As’s Tad Hendrickson puts it, it features “a smart mix of noirish balladry, intense freetime improvisation, and snappy bop charts, but the quintet’s smart playing always manages to avoid giving listeners whiplash.” For me, while it doesn’t give you whiplash, it constantly makes twists and turns to keep you actively listening, waiting to see how a sudden curve of a solo will resolve back into the structure of the piece.

And it does it while staying solidly in the jazz genre. I find myself listening to a lot of improvisational and avant garde music these days. Some of it can go pretty darned abstract on you.

If you’re into free jazz—or if you want to stretch your ear a little—Burn the Incline is a great album to do it. Exciting and challenging, but accessible. Just don’t listen to it before bedtime.


Exploring ‘Your Brain on Music’—With all the shiny things it offers, the Internet has made magpies of all of us. Among the best is my friend Carolyn in St. Louis. She’s often sending me sparkly little links to catch my attention. Like this one, a link to an interview she heard on NPR.

In his book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, author Daniel Levitin writes about how the brain responds to sound. He says that our brains are prediction factories. Our neurons and synapses race ahead to predict what will happen next and plan for action we should take in response. Levitin said that people like music because it is predictable—up to a point. If it’s too predictable, we get bored. In the interview, he compares rapper Ludacris to Frank Sinatra in their ability to manipulate time, singing things a little early or a little late, stretching out words to play with the tempo. This unpredictability challenges our brains and keeps us engaged.

An interesting interview—give it a listen. Thanks, Carolyn.

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