Category Archives: Opinion

Thoughts About the PBS Documentary “Greenwich Village: Music That Defined A Generation”

Last night, PBS aired “Greenwich Village: the Music that Defined A Generation,” a 2012 documentary about the synergy of the cultural milieu of mid-century Greenwich Village and the ascension of the singer-songwriter aesthetic that flourished there during that period. As one who grew up on Bleecker & Thompson Streets during those years, I am still pissed off at its assumptions and omissions. Not that it isn’t well done, nice footage, good interviews — very professional. But it has to be said that it’s a one-sided, smug, whitewashed, monochromatic interpretation of the subject. I missed the first 15 minutes and didn’t watch the last 15, so perhaps I missed something, but the hour that I viewed made no mention of jazz, and barely any of the blues except as practiced by white acolytes. Where’s Nina Simone, who was on the singer-songwriter track well before any of the people mentioned? Where’s Miriam Makeba? Indeed, except for light doses of Buffy St. Marie, Odetta and Richie Havens — and smidgens of Len Chandler, and Bill Cosby — I saw scant mention of any African-American musicians,whose presence seems proportionate to the ways in which they influenced the white folkies and rockers whose story the documentary chronicles.

If the subtitle had read “The Folk Music That Influenced A Generation” or “The Singer-Songwriters Who Influenced A Generation,” you might excuse the absence from the narrative, however ill-advised, of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, Albert Ayler, Paul Bley, Ahmad Jamal, and Bill Evans. All were leading bands in the Village during the documentary’s timeframe, making music that it’s no stretch to describe as generation-defining and world-changing. For sure, none of their music sounds dated, or targeted at post-adolescents. That’s not the case for 80%-90% of the sounds that “The Music That Defined A Generation” uses to represent its thesis. That the title is what it is speaks volumes about the director’s self-referential hubris — and that of the lovefesting musician interviewees bloviating on the glory of their times.

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A Few Thoughts on “B.A.M.” and “Jazz”

I’m sure that no one who reads this blog is unfamiliar with the lively debate that’s recently transpired in social media in response to Nicholas Payton’s declaration on his blog that jazz died in 1959, and that the music that he and his peer group are playing should henceforth be described as “Black American Music.” He’s followed this salvo with a series of fascinating posts, erudite, impassioned, antagonistic, soulful, profane — just like his tonal personality. Last week, to offer a little context to anyone who’s interested, I posted an article that I wrote about NP in 2001 and the proceedings of a radio interview that we did in 1995. (By the way, some of the liveliest and most civil discussion has transpired on George Colligan’s superb blog, Jazz Truth.)

My own two cents is that, however rough the linguistic signifying, this is an extremely healthy dialogue. Whatever nomenclature you prefer  — “jazz,” “Great Black Music,” “BAM,” “Pan-American Music,” “creative music” — the music that emanates from the people of the African diaspora whatever the idiom, is about using notes and tones to tell a story, map identity, speak the truth. Why should we settle for anything less in the discourse about this abundant, vital, very-much-alive art form, one of the crown jewels of 20th and 21st culture?

As for Mr. Payton, he’s been a BMF for a very long time, latest evidence coming from that Victor Goines Quartet youtube from 1991 with Brian Blade on drums that was posted on Facebook yesterday. I’ve heard him destroy some of the best and brightest on several bandstands (though they held their own), and not one thing that he said about his abilities is incorrect. He is qualified to call his music whatever he chooses to.

In his most recent post, NP wrote, “With all due respect, until I hear Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff sit in at Smalls and rip everybody in the club to pieces, nothing they say matters.”

Now, I wouldn’t put myself in Nate and Ben’s class, and I will never destroy anyone on the stage at Smalls or Cleopatra’s or anywhere.

But for what it’s worth, I’ve listened to jazz and its offshoots very seriously for a very long time, and talked with at length in public and private and written about many of its practitioners over the years, including NP. Although I’m not crazy about the term, I intend to keep using it.  If I had my druthers, I’d call the 2011 edition “Creolized American Music With African-American, Euro and Latin and Asian Elements Animated By Trans-African Aesthetics” (CAMWAAEALAAEABTAA…that rolls trippingly off the tongue, doesn’t it…).

I also don’t think the “colonialist” trope holds up…as Jeremy Pelt and Wallace Roney stated, the context has shifted from the original usage. Not sure how “Black American Music” denotes what NP is doing when he plays the shit out of “E.S.P.” or “Con Alma” or “Prototype” with a completely distinctive voice over a swinging, interactive rhythm section , as he did as a sideman on a recent recording that I’m writing liner notes for.  Should I think of these soulful, sophisticated, virtuosic declamations, each a grandmaster exposition in the art of improvising, in the same breath with, let’s say, L’il Wayne? With “The In Crowd”? (All respects to Ramsey Lewis.) With “The Signifying Monkey” (all respects to Dave Bartholomew) or the Dirty Dozen or the Wild Tchoupitoulas?  Don’t think so, though someone else might.  For me, these  solos place NP directly in the conversation with any of his trumpet influences. Any trumpet player under 30 will have to reckon with them. If this is “jazz,” the form sounds pretty alive to me.

But then, I’ll repeat that I think that “jazz” is the crown jewel of 20th and 21st century culture on the international playing field.  It’s a big umbrella, one that for me includes this component of NP’s musical production but also many other ways of “getting there,” from Jelly Roll to Anthony Braxton and Tim Berne and Jerry Gonzalez. It doesn’t adequately describe any single one of these musics, but I can’t think of anything better…except for CAMWAAEALAAEABTAA.

NP describes Bitches as a “post-Dilla Modern New Orleans album,” and, from one-off listens to five youtube clips (I don’t have a hardcopy, and I’m in the middle of a lot of writing assignments), that sounds about right.  I like each track. The lyrics are honest and poetic and deft. The production is spot-on. He plays all the instruments — drum-beats, basslines (love the groove on “Stole Your iPhone”), keyboard harmony, trumpet — at the highest level.  He interweaves jazz elements, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not, with other Black American music forms (second-line,  post-Grover soul jazz, urban/hip-hop, soul, Caribbean), each of which he obviously knows intimately. The rhythms are intoxicating. To my ears, a couple of tunes could use a little trimming, and I’m not sure if it’s Here, My Dear, but it’s pretty damn good. Congratulations to NP for putting his money — and his heart and soul — where his mouth is.

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The Pile (#6): Orrin Evans, Freedom

Over the past few weeks, via Facebook, I’ve been communicating with a cohort of people, all but a few of whom are complete strangers, who share with me the singular experience of spending our childhoods and teen years  in Greenwich Village during the 1950s and (in my case) the 1960s.  Several of them are musicians, and a few among that subset, I discovered from a thread this morning,  studied with Barry Harris at various points along their timeline.

This  led me to look at a profile I wrote about the maestro in 2000 for DownBeat, which concluded with these reflections: “The more you find out about music, the more you believe in God.  This isn’t haphazardly put together.  This stuff is exact.  It’s a science, and part of the music is science.  But we think there’s something above the science part; there’s something above the logic.  There’s a freedom at both ends of the barrel, man.  There’s a freedom in anarchy, but there’s another freedom that comes from knowledge, then another freedom comes that really is the freedom we seek.  That’s what all of us want, is this freedom.”

Something like this notion is what I think the Philadelphia-based pianist Orrin Evans had in mind when he decided to give the title Freedom to his excellent new release on PosiTone. Recorded a year ago, and dedicated to Philly jazz  icons Trudy Pitts, Charles Fambrough, and Sid Simmons, each of whom had recently passed away, it’s an incisive, 9-piece recital (7 trios with Dwayne Burno on bass and either Byron Landham or Anwar Marshall on drums, 2 quartets with Larry McKenna on tenor saxophone), animated by dictates of groove and harmonic logic, which become ever more open as the proceedings unfold.  Often predisposed on prior recordings to navigate the high-wire in satisfying ways,  Evans here plays throughout with old soul concision and deep focus worthy of his dedicatees.

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An exchange with Hank Shteamer on my “Reflections On NYC’s 25 Jazz Icons

Hank Shteamer graciously took the time to respond to my little screed yesterday. Since he hasn’t been able to get his remarks into my comments section, I’ve created a fresh post for those who are interested.

I’m leading with my response to Hank’s note directly below.

Hank -

Before I get into some particulars on the “groove and swing” question, I want to be clear that I have a great deal of respect for the musicianship of everyone on the list.  One of my issues is whether or not they deserve to be called “icons” at this moment in time.  The other has to do with criteria.

Since you mentioned him, I’ll state my feelings about Jon  Irabagon’s recordings (I don’t know Matana Roberts’ work well enough to comment; I’m a big fan of Jason Moran and Bandwagon, who probably deserve the designation, and of the Fieldwork group as an entity as well as each of  its individual members, though I’m not sure I’d call it “iconic”.)

Irabagon is a gifted musician, fluent on several instruments, and obviously a restless spirit. I had issues with Foxy — and also have issues  with MOPDTK — that have nothing to do with the abilities of the musicians in question, but with the parodic qualities that you mention.  I’m not sure how the musical contents of Foxy — yeah, the cover’s a hoot the first time you see it — denote direct engagement with Sonny Rollins. Basically,  Irabagon blows non-stop  for 50-55 minutes and barely takes a breath over freebop ametric pulse from Barry Altschul…it’s a great feat of endurance and instrumental derring-do, but I don’t see how you construe it as addressing groove or swing. If you’re engaging with Sonny Rollins, you need to engage with melodic development  and song-like phrasing (Sonny’s very operatic, very lyric), and I don’t hear that on Foxy. Did you ever hear Sonny’s version of “Four” from Denmark, 1968, where he blows  40 minutes straight without ever repeating an idea? If not, check it out, and you’ll see what I mean. (btw:  The Outsider — which I’m sure Irabagon felt he had to do the way he did it, given the label — shows that  he’s a very skilled “inside” player; but he didn’t seem to have his heart in it. I really liked Outright, though, where Irabagon contextualizes his formidable instrumental skills within an ensemble context.)

I have similar issues with MOPDTK. It’s certainly a virtuosic band (there doesn’t seem to be anything that Irabagon and Peter Evans can’t execute), and the music is well put together. Sometimes I enjoy the humor — but the parodic element ultimately turns me off. Maybe it’s a generational thing — I know a lot of people under thirty are into mashups, but I’m not a fan of appropriation.  But my feeling is that if you’re going to bring the tradition into the mix, then deal with it directly. (I had similar issues years back with John Lurie’s band and the Jazz Passengers — that’s just me.) Otherwise, follow the AACM example and present original music.  (Which MOPDTK does, for the most part, on Forty Fort.)

My remark about “groove and swing”  referred to NYC Metro Area-based musicians like Christian McBride (39) and Roy Hargrove (40) and James Carter (41 or 42 — to him, the lineage runs, in a very literal way, from Sidney Bechet to Roscoe Mitchell and Braxton), or Geri Allen (ask Jason or Vijay about their regard for her), who have dealt with the tradition from the bottom up and swing from the perspective of people living in 2011, while retaining the deep humanity and communicative qualities of their antecedents. They are not xeroxing anything. They have influenced large numbers of musicians around the world.  They have a big NYC footprint. What do they need to do to be considered “NYC jazz icons”? Ditto other NYC-based musicians like Potter, Binney, Taborn, Lynch, Elling, Mehldau, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Adam Rogers,  or Ravi Coltrane, or  others I mentioned in the earlier post, who have accumulated extraordinarily diverse, forward-looking oeuvres, and whose names denote to an international community a sound, an approach, an aesthetic?

I guess I’m objecting not  so much to the inclusion of certain people within the canon, but to the absence from it of others, and the reasons for that absence. What in your view is missing from the output of the people I’ve cited above?

Thanks,

Ted,

Thanks for posting the comment. For the record, I posted an expanded/clarified version here: http://darkforcesswing.blogspot.com/2011/06/unpacking-25-nyc-jazz-icons.html.

I understand what you’re saying about the dangers of privileging the outré over the bread-and-butter. And I’m very familiar with the history of, e.g., Motian, and what led him to his more abstract late work. At the same time, I don’t feel like anyone that Steve and I championed can be accused of ditching tradition in favor of novelty or lofty conceptualism.  Take your description below:

“…artists who work within groove- and swing-based contexts, who put some blues into their expression, and who endeavor to let their imagination and creativity operate within the idiomatic parameters of jazz and Afro-Caribbean traditions — not to recreate or xerox those traditions, but to deal with them in a present-day context on their own terms.”

When I read that, the very first artists I think of are players such as Jon Irabagon, who engages in a very direct way with Sonny Rollins in his “Foxy” project and has a record out with Kenny Barron (“The Observer”), one of the elders whom you cited as an omission on our list. Additionally, the Mostly Other People Do the Killing band, of which Irabagon is a member, is one of the most historically minded jazz ensembles in NYC, right down to their parodies of classic cover art and liner notes. Or I think of Matana Roberts, whose “Coin Coin” presentations seem to me like a very conscious engagement with the work of Mingus, Max Roach and John Carter (and maybe even Wynton Marsalis), artists whose work grapples with cultural history and sociopolitical reality. And Jason Moran’s ties to Byard, Hill, Abrams and others—not to mention Monk and the stride tradition—are well-documented. To their credit, I think a lot of the younger players who have been captivating the critics are doing so precisely *because* they’re demonstrating a very deep awareness of what came before and doing so in very novel, personal ways.

There’s definitely such a thing as throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to jazz “innovation,” but I’d happily defend all the artists on our list (and again, I’ll concede that “icon” may have been too strong a word—in the end, though, the choices and the text are the real content of Steve’s and my piece) against such accusations. You’ll find tons of groove, swing and blues in the work of the Irabagons, Robertses and Morans of the scene.

Thanks,
HS

Thanks, Hank. Had you said “representative critical cross-section” rather than “icon” (and I realize that this is an article for an civilian magazine) I would still have disagreed with a number of the selections, but wouldn’t really have had a good reason to express high dudgeon. To call someone an “icon” denotes influence, of being an artist with acolytes, who has influenced a stream of musical expression or found a sui generis path from deep R&D on the fundamentals.

Nomenclature aside, your “Time Out” list raises a broader point, the “sore spot” I mentioned towards the end of my post, which is the exclusion from the canons of all too many of my brother and sister journalist-critics of artists who work within groove- and swing-based contexts, who put some blues into their expression, and who endeavor to let their imagination and creativity operate within the idiomatic parameters of jazz and Afro-Caribbean traditions — not to recreate or xerox those traditions, but to deal with them in a present-day context on their own terms. The “mystery men” who fascinate you reached that point through long apprenticeships spent working through these vocabularies (or, as Henry Threadgill discussed with Ethan, the various tributaries of European music and other American and World vernaculars) and allowing their voices to emerge in an organic way.

Greetings Ted,

I appreciate your thoughtful response. Leaning too “avant” or “progressive” was a concern of mine, but in the end—and I speak only in terms of my contribution to the project—I had to go with my gut, as well as with what I know. I make no claim to a 360-degree viewpoint. When it comes to jazz in our wonderful city, I keep up with as much as I can, but obviously I have my biases and blind spots.

In a way, I was hoping for exactly this sort of naming-names rebuttal. Some of the artists on your list (Binney, Lovano, Reid, Ribot, Eskelin, Morris, etc.) are very familiar to me and came up during Steve’s and my discussion leading up to the final selection. Others (Harrell, Malone, Lynch) are less so, and I look forward to doing some research.

As far as the use of the word “icons,” maybe there’s some hyperbole there. I guess that, word choice aside, what I was hoping for was a kind of representative cross-section. And per my admission above, we may have failed in that. In our defense, though, I think we made strong cases for our inclusions, leaving aside those we may have excluded; in a way, maybe that’s the best a list-maker can hope for.

To address one specific point, the Marsalis ranking wasn’t intended as begrudging at all—No. 3 was simply where we felt he belonged. Another point re: the nitty-gritty of the rankings: To me, the most enjoyable aspect of making the list was the fact that Steve and I each independently arrived at Paul Motian as our No. 1 when this project was still in its nascent phase. In a way, that fact should tell any reader of the list where we’re coming from. A list on which, say, Wynton placed first would be a list written from a very different perspective, and it’s a perspective I totally welcome—if anyone wants to make that list, I’d love to see it! But going back to that issue of bias—let’s just call it taste—as anyone who’s stopped by my blog could probably tell you, I make no bones about my deep love for the mystery men of jazz (Andrew Hill, RIP), of which Motian is probably our greatest living example: http://darkforcesswing.blogspot.com/2010/10/mystery-man-paul-motian-and-unfair.html

Anyway, our chief goal was to incite discussion and—if not ire—at least enough controversy to fuel some impassioned responses. I greatly admire your work, and I’m sincerely honored that you took the time to write up a thoughtful rebuttal to what we put out there. The fact that there’s disagreement signifies that we are surveying an extremely broad landscape re: “NYC jazz 2011.” On that note, I echo Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff—http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/03/arts/music/jazz-festivals-in-new-york-undead-vision-blue-note.html—in saying, more or less, bring on festival season! (I caught one of our TONY “icons,” Lee Konitz, kicking off the June jazz rush in high style this very evening at the Blue Note, on the recommendation of Jim Macnie, a writer who I bet could make an NYC-jazz-artists list to put us all to shame.)

Thanks again, Ted, and welcome to the blogosphere. Icons aside, these blindfold tests you’ve been posting are blowing my mind.

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Some Reflections on Time Out New York’s List of New York’s “25 Jazz Icons”

It seems churlish to criticize the omissions in a piece so thoughtfully put together as Time Out New York’s list of New York’s 25 Jazz Icons, which covers a cohort of gifted musicians from an admirably inclusive menu of jazz food groups.  But in the spirit of their generous offer (“We focused on continued creative vitality (where these artists are at today, not just their past glories) as well as sustained live presence, influence, conceptual ambition, stylistic range and other intangibles. We admit to our biases, but feel that these 25 picks make a compelling case for why New York jazz is in the midst of a new golden age. We gladly welcome your comments, questions, gripes and rebuttals.”), I’ll say my piece.

In my view — and it’s only my view — a few too many of the choices privilege an aesthetic of recondite hipsterism.  Tom Harrell, in an efflorescent period, probably didn’t even make the short list. Where are Jim Hall and Kenny Barron, both truly iconic and creative. Or Ron Carter? Jeff Watts and Roy Hargrove and Chris Potter are deeply influential. So are Peter Bernstein and Russell Malone. George Lewis has transformed jazz education through his tenured sinecure at Columbia, not to mention his extraordinary musicianship. Kurt Elling lives in New York.  So does Brad Mehldau.  So does Robert Glasper, as conceptually ambitious and influential as any of the younger musicians mentioned. You could say the same for  Miguel Zenon. Then there’s David Binney.  Geri Allen and Christian McBride live in the same part of New Jersey as Bill Charlap (who belongs on the list). Joe Lovano and Steve Coleman, both true jazz icons, live far enough out of town that I can understand why they aren’t here (though Coleman, when not on the road, is a weekly presence at the Jazz Gallery). But Brian Lynch is a pioneer in synthesizing African-American and Afro-Caribbean vocabularies and an educator of increasing influence. Who’s more conceptually ambitious than  Dafnis Prieto? Or Eddie Palmieri, for that matter? Or  Uri Caine? (Ok, Uri, an Upper West Sider,  doesn’t play NYC that often.)

Don’t  get me wrong. I admire all the musicians mentioned. But I can think of 5 or 6 (and I won’t name names) who can in no way, shape, or form be described as “jazz icons.” Musicians who will make a mark? Sure. Is their musical production interesting and out of the box and virtuosic? Sure. But “jazz icons”? Really? How about Ellery Eskelin? Or Roy Nathanson? Where’s Marc Ribot? How about Vernon Reid? Jen Shyu? Butch Morris?

By the way, Wynton Marsalis, who gets a seemingly begrudging #3, is anything but a figurehead. I challenge anyone to name a more conceptually ambitious piece than “Swing Symphony,” not to mention “Congo Square” from a few years ago.

Again, it’s just a list. But when such  lists appear in the establishment media, they become the default playing field for “civilian” evaluators.  And can anyone under 50 who likes to swing or groove meet Hank and Steve’s criteria for “conceptual ambition” and “stylistic range”? Is it possible to be equally creative within an idiom?

I’m starting to get worked up, so it’s time to stop…

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