Archive for the ‘Jazz’ Category

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.

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.

Jump jazz keeps the kitchen hopping

July 9, 2008

The Mighty Blue kings: Meet Me In Uptown

The kitchen boombox is nothing if not eclectic. Depending on my mood, energy level and even what I’m cooking, it can be playing anything from opera to punk to avant garde jazz to you name it. When I’m looking for high-energy fun to get me going, this album always delivers.

The Mighty Blue Kings debuted in 1995, opening for Junior Wells at Buddy Guy’s club Legends. They soon had a weekly gig at Chicago’s vaunted Green Mill. A renewed interest in jump jazz and swing dancing was just heating up, and these boys were nailing it. Ross Bon’s spot on period vocals backed by tight horn and rhythm sections perfectly captured a vintage sound as they performed a mix of old songs and original tunes that seemed right out of the 40s. The vibe of their live performances was loose-hipped fun.

Soon they were touring more than they were at the Green Mill, and when they did get back to Chicago, the Green Mill was too small to accommodate their crowds. These YouTube clips are from a performance at a larger Chicago venue, Metro. They’ll give you a sense of their style and sound, if not of the energy of those nights in Uptown at the Green Mill.

There are 14 tracks in all on Meet Me In Uptown, a fun mix of uptempo swing and boozy ballads. Together, they’re guaranteed to get me and any visitors to my kitchen moving. You’ll find new and used CDs on Amazon as well as downloadable MP3s. Give them a listen—I think you’ll want to bring a little Uptown to your kitchen too.

Miles Davis—in a silent, electrified way

June 11, 2008

Miles Davis: In A Silent Way

This album has languished in our collection for some time. It was bought with the best of intentions, to explore Miles’ own explorations of electric music, particularly keyboards. As jazz critic Andrew Bartlett put it, “Legendary as a kind of line in the sand challenging jazz fans during the ascendance of electric, psychedelic rock, In A Silent Way hinted at the repetitive polyrhythms Davis would employ throughout the early 1970s.”

Unfortunately for me, it just didn’t catch my ear when I first heard it. Always a fan of Miles’ earlier work, I would occasionally haul it out to try again, only to put it away after a cursory listen.

Recently, though, I pulled it out again and popped it in the kitchen boombox. And this time, it took. Probably as much as anything because I’d been exposed to a similar sounding Miles tune, Spanish Key, used in the soundtrack of the movie Collateral [an excellent film, by the way, whatever you think of the increasingly weird Mr. Cruise].

I listened to the two-track, 1969 release In A Silent Way over and over, each time anticipating the arrival Miles’ long, clear trumpet solos over the layered textures of multiple electric keyboards and dreamlike electric guitar, bass and drums. At that moment, the music would come alive, yet another birth of the cool for Mr. Davis.

But ultimately and interestingly, the album worked best when I had it on in the background and was listening passively. Usually, it’s while actively listening to an album that I find the music most interesting. When I listened actively to this album, though, I quickly became frustrated. Especially when I looked at the liner notes and reminded myself of the personnel. Besides Miles, there are seven other musicians on this disk, including jazz giants Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea on keyboards, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax and Dave Holland on bass. But when Miles isn’t soloing, no one else emerges to pick up the conversation. They all just swirl around each other in this hypnotic mishmash of sound, what Bartlett describes as “part ambient color exploration, part rock-inflected energy and vibe.”

And even Miles’ solos, as lovely as they are, err on the side of repetitive and somewhat expected. By way of comparison, I listened to one of my favorite Miles Davis tracks this evening, his 1964 recording of the standard My Funny Valentine. In it, he plays exactly 12 notes of the original melody faithfully before taking off in all kinds of amazing improvisational directions. Throughout the 15-minute track, everyone is improvising non-stop, having a true jazz conversation. And only occasionally will someone play maybe a bar or two of the original melody, as if to say, “This is what we’re playing, remember? Now try and keep up.”

All that said, In A Silent Way will stay in my current jazz rotation a while longer—and return more often. But I think it will be when I want a cool groove in the background. And that’s not a bad way to enjoy it, I think.

Groove globally, listen locally

May 21, 2008


There has perhaps never been a better time for listening to music. There is so much variety out there. Good, cheap technology is making it possible for more and more people to make and share music. And everyone from Amazon to iTunes to MySpace is making it easy to get our hands—and ears—on a dazzling array of music from every little corner of the world.

In some ways, this bounty mimics what’s going on in the food world. Increasingly, formerly exotic ingredients are making their way to supermarkets and home kitchens. Seasonality be damned, if you want asparagus in January, it’s being grown somewhere in the world and chances are, you can find it in the store. I can already hear the locavores groaning. What about carbon footprints? What about protecting local, small farms? What about embracing seasonality and absolute freshness? All valid points.

I’d like to suggest the same thing for music—kind of a locahear movement. You know, supporting local musicians by showing up for their gigs, paying cover charges or dropping something in the tip jar. And by buying their CDs.

I did that this past Friday night, catching a too rare performance by Chicago jazz combo Soulio at Nick’s, a friendly no-cover bar in Wicker Park. Soulio’s website describes their sound as “bluesy, groove-based jazz, hard bop, funk and soul-jazz.” Down Beat magazine’s Jeff McCord calls it “an amalgam of loping funk, Blue Note-like hard bop and a blues-driven vibe reminiscent of the Jazz Crusaders.” And Brad Walseth of labels it “good time straight ahead soul-jazz that is meant to be enjoyed by listeners or dancers alike.” Having heard Soulio live a few times now, I would say their sound is D.) All of the above.

I picked up their self-titled CD too that night, for a mere $12.99. Soulio is 11 tracks, about an hour of loose-hipped but tightly played jazz, a mix of pieces by the greats—Dexter Gordon, Eddie Harris and Freddie Hubbard, for example—two originals by sax player Matt Shevitz and two ’60s tunes, Sunny and Grazing in the Grass. Proving once again that familiarity does indeed breed contempt, these two tracks are my least favorite on the disk. But if I force myself to tune out the “heard that a thousand times” factor, what they do with even these songs is quite nice.

The basic group is a quintet, led by trombonist John Janowiak and rounded out by a sax player, guitarist, bassist and drummer. Given the sometimes hardscrabble nature of local music, personnel sometimes changes. Various friends guest on some of the tracks on the CD—a trumpeter, a keyboard player and an additional drummer. When I saw them this past weekend, they had an excellent trumpeter sitting in with them.

Which brings me back to my ad hoc locahear movement. Making music is a hard way to make a living, especially at the local level. A bass player friend of ours in St. Louis says that you get paid for hauling equipment and you play for free. When I talked to Soulio’s trombonist during a break Friday night, he said they all play in a number of groups, including a corporate/wedding band. He didn’t say so, but I’m sure most of them also have day jobs. For every White Stripes or Mariah Carey or Common who strikes it rich, there are countless hardworking, talented musicians who barely get by [often with the support of an understanding spouse gainfully employed at a place with benefits]. But they do it. They make music because they love it. And we’re all richer for it.

Support them. Get out there and hear some music. In a club, a bar, a coffeehouse… hell, even the lounge of the Holiday Inn out by the airport. At the very least, you’ll have a little fun. You might find something truly transcendent, like Soulio. And I guarantee, the musicians will be glad you came.

Stay tuned—the delight of discovery on the radio

April 30, 2008

Teddy Edwards & Houston Person: Horn to Horn

I love my iPod. I really do. It’s compact and there’s no need to fumble with—or haul around—CDs. And I admit it, there’s something very cool about wearing those iconic white earbuds. As one technowonk put it, leave it to Steve Jobs to make a hard drive sexy.

But there’s one thing it’s missing. A radio. Yeah, I know you can download podcasts, but that’s not the same. There’s no random element in that—you’re still listening to something you’ve chosen. What the radio gives you is surprises. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard something on the radio, usually in the car, and have called the radio station to find out what it was, who did it, what album it was on. I’ve made some amazing discoveries this way. Jack O’ Fire, for instance. Brit punk rockers Wire too.

And this gem of an album, Horn to Horn, with the twin tenor saxophones of Teddy Edwards and Houston Person. The track that caught my ear on the radio [our ears—Marion and I were driving to work] was an inspired rendition of Gene Ammons’ Red Top. It was reason enough for me to buy the disk. Funny thing, though, as much as I still like Red Top, it was immediately supplanted as my favorite by the first cut on the album, Coltrane’s Equinox. They come out swinging hard, and you feel like you’ve walked into a little out of the way jazz club on a very good night indeed.

Released in 1999, the album is a tribute to eight tenor sax legends. There’s a track each for Ammons and Coltrane as well as Ben Webster, Lester Young, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.

For me, the album works best on the uptempo tracks, despite the fact that Edwards and Person were both self-professed lovers of ballads [Edwards passed away in 2003]. The ballads just feel a little too consciously pretty to me at times. But after multiple active listenings, I’ve started getting into some of the complexity of the jazz conversation going on in them.

Okay, full disclosure time. I’m listening to the album as I write this and have been discounting the ballads even as that old warhorse of a jazz standard, Hawkins’ Body and Soul, is playing. It is amazing. Disregard the previous paragraph.

As much as I’m excited by the avant garde movement in jazz these days, Horn to Horn makes a strong argument for the pleasures of straightahead jazz. It also makes a very strong argument for listening to the radio for that occasional surprise.

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.

Big band giant thinks small, plays big.

March 26, 2008


Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

Writing about a Duke Ellington big band album a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned an album I’d discovered in the process, a collaboration with John Coltrane. At the time, I said I thought I’d be buying it soon. Turns out I was right.

Ellington’s name being synonymous with big band, the mere existence of this album stripped down to a quartet setting—piano, sax, bass and drums—was a surprise to me. This despite the fact that I’d heard the opening track countless times, perhaps the most beautiful recording of Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood ever made. I guess I just hadn’t ever stuck around to hear whatever radio DJ read the credits. But according to noted jazz writer A.B. Spellman, late in his life, Ellington started “having collaborations with some of the other musicians who were of his stature, particularly some of the modernists.”

interstellar_space_sm.jpgAnd Coltrane was arguably the quintessential modernist. Even though he died in 1967, there is music of his I would hold up against the most out there avant garde saxophone being played today. The adventurous—even savage—all out blowing on Interstellar Space, for instance. But he was also capable of heartachingly beautiful lyricism, and Ellington brings it out in this fine album. Coltrane himself said of the recording date, “I’d really like to get into all Duke’s songs. I’ve a feeling there’s a lot to find out in his music. He has covered so much ground, and if you could work at it you maybe could really relate to it in five years or so.”

For the 1962 recording date, Ellington and Coltrane each brought their own rhythm sections. Bassist Aaron Bell and drummer Sam Woodyard for Ellington, bassist Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones on drums for Coltrane. Accomplished musicians all, they swapped out rhythm duties from track to track. More finely tuned jazz ears than mine can and have pointed out differences in their playing on the album. For me, the bigger marvel is just how seamless it all sounds.

And the sound? The best of straightahead jazz, tinged with the understanding and love of blues both giants had. Duke Ellington & John Coltrane is a mix of jumping uptempo tunes and stellar ballads. My only serious complaint is it’s over too soon, clocking in at just under 40 minutes.

The saxophone is such a dominant instrument—and Coltrane such a dominant sax player—that it’s easy to overlook Ellington’s contributions on this album. Especially when it’s on the kitchen boombox and you’re busy slicing/stirring/measuring/mixing. And throughout much of the music, Ellington is happy to remain in the background, giving Coltrane his head. His role is more that of composer and instigator. Five of the seven tracks are Ellington compositions, in fact, including a tune written specifically for the session, Take the Coltrane [as one writer said, “get it?”]. One of the two remaining tunes is by longtime Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn, the other by Coltrane.

But active listening yields beautifully spare, modern solos by Ellington. And his playing in support of Coltrane’s solos is brilliant, beautiful but restrained, never getting in the way, but—in true jazz conversation—sometimes nudging his saxophone in certain directions. Small wonder then that noted jazz critic and historian Gene Lees said that Coltrane’s playing may have “undergone another spurt of rapid evolution” as a result of this relatively brief association with Ellington.

For my part, my appreciation of these two jazz giants has undergone its own spurt of rapid evolution since buying to this album. Use this link to listen to some samples of Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. You just might undergo an evolution of your own.

Rock-based jazz and Dick Cheney’s hidey hole

March 19, 2008


Ben Allison & Man Size Safe: Little Things Run the World

At last. An actual new release on the kitchen boombox. The 2007 Little Things Run the World is the latest release for New York jazz bassist Ben Allison and his quartet Man Size Safe. They were in town last weekend in support of the album, and we caught a performance at the Chicago Cultural Center.

We lucked into going to this performance when I came across a glowing write-up in the Chicago Reader; jazz critic Pete Margasak had named them his Critic’s Choice for the week. Here’s what he had to say:

What sets New York bassist Ben Allison apart from nearly every other jazz composer active today isn’t the influence of African music, electronica, and funk on his work—it’s the way he’s internalized the introspective melodicism of contemporary rock. (Here I’m thinking specifically of Radiohead.) His compact tunes are consistently so catchy and propulsive that you could easily overlook their subtlety and rhythmic elasticity: the new album from his band Man Size Safe, Little Things Run the World (Palmetto), may be his hookiest and most rock flavored yet, but the grooves he pounds out with drummer Michael Sarin constantly change shape and tempo, belying their rugged directness. The improvisations by trumpeter Ron Horton, saxophonist Michael Blake, and guitarist Steve Cardenas (who maintains a cool tone and attack even when it’d be easy to crank it) seal the deal—this is jazz all right, and played on a very high level. It’s a treat to hear soloists this good challenged by material this strong.

And if all this praise weren’t enough, the show in the Cultural Center’s intimate, acoustically wonderful Claudia Cassidy Theater was free. How could we not go?

Allison and his group delivered on the promise and then some. They stuck to tracks from the new album for the hour and change show, with the exception of a single tune. The music was smart, complex and engaging, if more melodic than the avant garde jazz I tend to seek out these days. And while the group’s leader is a bassist, he resisted the urge to play frontman with his rhythm instrument, always a potential danger with groups led by bassists or drummers.

On the other hand, because of his leadership—and the great work of drummer Michael Sarin—rhythms and tempos shifted freely from piece to piece and within individual tunes, often veering off in exciting directions. This, coupled with great performances by guitarist Steve Cardenas and sax player Michael Blake and particularly by trumpeter Ron Horton made for an excellent show. It also gave me plenty of reason to but the album.

Even without Pete Margasak’s comments, there’s no missing the rock influence on the music. Occasional fuzz-toned moments in Cardenas’ guitar solos make the point, as do the driving bass lines by Allison. But a real giveaway is Sarin’s drumming. A rock drummer friend once talked about trying to sit in at a jazz jam session. He lost his nerve when he saw that the other drummers rarely touched the pedal for the bass drum, a staple in rock drumming. Sarin’s bass drum sees plenty of action.

Another hint that rock informs their sound? The only cover on the album is John Lennon’s Jealous Guy. It’s also one of the standout tracks. With all this talk of rock helping shape the sound of the group, let me make one thing clear: This is not jazz fusion. That particular musical travesty is all but dead, I’m happy to say. This is solid jazz, beautifully performed.

Is it possible for a song with no words to be political? The tune that gives the band its name, Man Size Safe, refers to just such an object in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. The music begins with solo guitar picking out a melody line that is pure 60s caper film; it smacks of darkness, imminent danger and nefarious activity. Jewel thieves, spies and crooked dealings. You would feel this even without the back story. Allison describes the song perfectly in his entertaining liner notes: “Part of my ongoing Dick Cheney Suite. Dick—a modern corporate man steps off a plane, his scarred heart crackles and fizzles. He must believe his own psychosis. Sneering secrets create empires. The business of war drives the economy. It all makes sense in his mind. After all, he’s the policeman policing himself. But I can’t help wondering what the man size safe in his office is for.”

The album isn’t without its problems. Saxophonist Blake, who played an integral part in the musical conversation at the show is only a guest on the album, meaning that, on too many of the eight tracks, the trumpet has to do too much of the heavy lifting solowise. And sometimes when musicians get into the studio, there is a tendency to polish and tweak and produce the life right out of the music. For me, the recording lacks a little of the energy and edge that the live performance had.

Then again, maybe this is just one of those recordings that demands active listening, much like the show itself. I find when I put Little Things Run the World on the kitchen boombox, it tends to slip too easily into the background as I get involved in cooking. But listening to it in the car or on my iPod, it takes center stage, and I find myself delighting in complex moments and subtle exchanges.