Category Archives: The Pile

The Pile, Oct. 8 — Wayne Shorter, “Emanon”

When I began this blog in 2011, I ran a few installments that I called “The Pile,” comprising primarily reviews of new releases. I soon abandoned this venture, but now I’ve decided — at least for the moment — to reinstate it as a way to keep up with material by artists I’m not writing about, and so might pass by. It sure beats yelling at the computer about the political events of the day.

These reviews are going to be mainly first impressions, based on one listening, so I’ll undoubtedly miss many nuances and subtleties. It also won’t be my best prose.

For the third installment of “The Pile” on this second go-round, here are my impressions of Wayne Shorter’s Emanon (Blue Note).

 

Wayne Shorter (Emanon) — (Blue Note):

 

During one of several conversations I had with Wayne Shorter in 2002 while reporting a long profile about him for Jazziz, he told me that, when he was a child in Newark, New Jersey, his mother referred to the time that he and his brother took for creative play as transpiring in “the imagination room.” That phrase is not an idle metaphor — it’s a great descriptor for the way Shorter has operated through 60 years as a game-changing tenor and soprano saxophonist and a prolific composer who significantly influenced the sound of jazz during the course of his still ongoing career.

Shorter’s imaginative mojo has never been more clearly presented than on Emanon, a 3-CD, 2-hour extravaganza, released six weeks ago by Blue Note to coincide with his 85th birthday. It’s the fourth of his five albums of the aughts that documents his sui generis quartet of almost two decades (Danilo Perez, piano; John Pattitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums), captured  in terrific fidelity in a particularly inspired performance at London’s Barbican Theater, where they follow their consistent practice of deconstructing Shorter’s detailed, highly orchestrated compositions, applying an egoless attitude and a telepathic “instant composition” spirit to their collective improvisations, which revolve around the leader’s preternaturally voice-like postulations on the soprano and tenor saxophones, like an 18th century philosophe‘s condensed discourse on the sum total of human knowledge. Emanon is also by far the most comprehensive presentation of the breadth of Shorter’s 21st century musical production and the philosophical and aesthetic armature that underpins it — the proceedings begin with four performances (“Pegasus,” “Prometheus,” “Lotus,” and “The Three Marias”) on which the quartet is enfolded into the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble that knows how to make  “textual” fidelity and improvisation coexist while interpreting the composer’s structurally unfolding compositions.

Shorter appropriates the album title from a 1946 recording by the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra of a medium-tempo Gil Fuller blues on which James Moody, himself a son of Newark, uncorked a much-listened-to 16-bar solo that established him as a pioneer in translating the vocabulary of bebop to the tenor saxophone. The recording — and the efflorescent years of bebop —  coincided with Shorter’s passage from adolescence to teen-hood; several years later, in a band of peers, he’d exercise his imagination muscles by playing on clarinet the trumpet parts from Gillespie’s contemporaneous, iconic recording of Fuller’s futuristic, prophetic “Things To Come.”

For Shorter, “Emanon” (“No Name”), stands metaphorically (but perhaps also literally) for a superhero (perhaps an alter-ego), whose adventures in several parallel universes (you could call them “imagination rooms”) are depicted in a 90-page graphic novel painted in High Romantic manner (William Blake and J.M.W. Turner come to mind) by the eminent  illustrator Randy DuBurke, whose deployment of light and shadow and command of line is a visual analogue for the narratives conjured by Shorter and company. 

Shorter has accumulated an enormous fan base over his sixty years in the spotlight. Not all of the individuals who comprise it relate well to this late period quartet of four masters of rhythm who eschew “swinging” on the grid for an open-ended, breathe-as-one conception  that involves subtle permutation of pulse and texture. I don’t mean this pejoratively, but the music on Emanon isn’t easy listening; it requires sustained concentration, with particular attention to what Perez, Patitucci and Blade are doing within the flow. 

To me, the effort seems well worth the reward. But if this music isn’t for you, there’s Shorter’s extraordinary recorded legacy since he left the Army in 1959 to join Art Blakey for a five-year run with the the Jazz Messengers during which he composed numerous songs in the “hardbop” idiom that are classics of the canon. There followed a 1964-1970 tenure as improvisational foil and primary composer for the Miles Davis quintet, during which he generated 11 Blue Note recordings of his original music that  stand among the treasures of the jazz canon. Then came 15 years of collaboration with Joe Zawinul in the more compositional, plugged-in, groove-heavy environment of Weather Report; and another 15 years in which Shorter stayed plugged in for the most part, making several  albums that further displayed his compositional prowess within the sonic context of instrumental pop.

Just remember that Shorter didn’t become who he is by looking backwards, and it’s a safe bet that he never will.  His  creativity during his ninth decade is Picasso-level. 

(That said, to hear Shorter applying his late period style felicitously within a swinging context, view these two sets at a 2015 Rose Theater concert at which he soloed on arrangements of his pieces by Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s stellar cast of in-house arrangers.)

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The Pile, Oct. 7, 2018 — Elio Villafranca’s “Cinque” Plus Interviews From 2013 and 2014

When I began this blog in 2011, I ran a few installments that I called “The Pile,” comprising primarily reviews of new releases. I soon abandoned this venture, but now I’ve decided — at least for the moment — to reinstate it as a way to keep up with material by artists I’m not writing about, and so might pass by. It sure beats yelling at the computer about the political events of the day.

These reviews are going to be mainly first impressions, based on one listening, so I’ll undoubtedly miss many nuances and subtleties. It also won’t be my best prose.

Having stated that caveat, here’s the second installment of the new “Pile” — my impressions of pianist-composer Elio Villafranca’s superb Cinque, released in the spring. Following the review I’ve appended two interviews that I conducted with Villafranca in 2013 and 2014.

Elio Villafranca (Cinque):

Without multiple listenings on the granular level, it’s not possible to do justice to the various layers that Elio Villafranca interweaves into his panoramic five-movement suite, Cinque (Artists Share), a major work that wears its erudition lightly. Roughly speaking, it’s framed around  the life and impact of Joseph Cinque (1814-1879) (a free man from Sierra Leone who was kidnapped into slavery in 1839, masterminded the capture of the slave ship Amistad in 1839, was imprisoned in the U.S., and was freed in 1841 to return to West Africa as a free man in 1841) and also the events of Haitian Revolution that preceded Cinque’s birth. These events are well-depicted in the extremely thorough program booklet, as are the Kongo and Gangá cosmologies that underpin the proceedings in an illuminating essay by the Ned Sublette, author of the essential Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo — the  value added contained therein is a good reason to eschew streaming and buy Villafranca’s self-produced, crowd-funded double CD package (if you’re equipped to play a CD, of course).

 

This being said,  you don’t need a scorecard to viscerally appreciate Villafranca’s vivid compositions, which reference an expansive gamut of jazz approaches spanning Ellington to Tyner to (Wynton) Marsalis, while using raw materials drawn from an array of Afro-Caribbean musics that surrounded Villafranca (a son of San Luis, Cuba, in the Pinar Del Rio region) during formative years. Villafranca came up through Cuba’s rigorous system of musical pedagogy, and graduated from Havana’s the island’s world-class conservatory, with separate degrees in composition and percussion. He’s a world-class pianist, who has made it his business since emigrating to the United States two decades ago to assimilate and attain fluency in an expansive array of dialects —- his solo declamations call up, at various points, vocabulary from the Maestro, McCoy Tyner, Monk, Hank Jones, Herbie Hancock, and Kenny Barron (check the “What If” motif that he uses on “Conga Y Comparsa”) — that he’s refracted into his own argot. Villafranca intersperses field recordings of master folkloric practitioners from his home region that contextualize the narrative and illuminate the Afro-diasporic interconnections between the hemispheres.

 

For the occasion, Villafranca recruited an ensemble of masters who have interpreted  his music for several years. The fulcrum is Lewis Nash, grandmaster of the trapset, who, given an opportunity to stretch out, displays his extraordinary ability to function both as a generator of idiomatic grooves in a coro  with four hand percussionists of Cuban descent and bassist Ricky Rodriguez, while displaying his creativity in dialogue with the exceptional  soloists. Steve Turre, a long-standing master at fusing African-American and Afro-Caribbean vocabularies, generates evocative timbres and primal melodies on conch shells, and applies his sui generis trombone conception on a range of muted and open-horn solos that range from J.J. Johnson-level hardbop to Lawrence Brown-esque romance). Tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy’s stirring declamation embodies the title “The Night Of The Fire”; Freddie Hendrix on trumpet, Vincent Herring on alto and soprano saxophones and flute, and Todd Marcus on clarinet and bass clarinetist contribute statements of equivalent panache and fire. Villafranca leaves space for two pithy, well-wrought solos by Wynton Marsalis, whose own interpretation of the Afro-diasporic message, as expressed in  programmatic suites like Blood on the Fields and Congo Square, has established an aesthetic template for ambitious cross-cultural works like Cinque. Indeed, Cinque debuted at Marsalis’ “house,” the Appel Room at the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex, during the 2014-2015 season.

On a more meta level, Villafranca’s achievement is emblematic of the maturation of the Cuban musicians who have claimed their position in the international jazz conversation since Gonzalo Rubalcaba left the island during the late ‘80s — a short-list includes Yosvany Terry (whose historical opera Makandal needs a commercial recording), Dafnis Prieto, David Virelles, Roman Filiu, and Aruán Ortiz. 

I’ve appended below two interviews I had an opportunity to conduct with Villafranca (who has since moved from Temple University to Juilliard) in which he discusses his personal history and aesthetics. The one from 2013 was conducted for a Jazz Times piece with several Cuban musicians (including all of the aforementioned) on their educational experience in Cuba; the one from 2014 was for a Downbeat web piece.

*****

Elio Villafranca on Cuba Education (May 14, 2013):

TP: A few basic things first. How old are you?

EV: I’m 44. (December 1968)

TP: And you’re from Pinar Del Rio, which is in the west of Cuba.

EV: Correct.

TP: Are you from a musical family?

EV: No. There’s no music in my family.

TP: Did you learn to play music in school as a kid?

EV: I went through the system that Cuba has. I started in the Casa del Cultura of my home town of San Luis, Pinar del Rio. I started painting first (that was the first thing I did) when I was very young, and then, from there I picked up the guitar. I studied guitar for about two years. Then I knew that there were music schools, that they were accepting people for music. Then I presented myself to do the test… I did the test without telling my family, actually, and then they accepted me, but they told me that they didn’t have room for guitar players any more, so I picked percussion.

TP: This was the regional school?

EV: Yes.

TP: Dafnis Prieto went to Santa Clara when he was 10 or something.

EV: Exactly. The same thing. But I did it in Pinar Del Rio. Every province had those original schools, where you get the general music education, and then you go to Havana, where it’s more like the high school kind of thing where you get the specialization on your instrument, and then I went to the ISA, the university of music in Cuba, in Havana. Then I did percussion, because they didn’t have guitar… Actually, I have two degrees—in percussion and composition. I picked up piano when I went into school. I didn’t play piano before I went to school, but then, since it was mandatory for me to play the piano, I was playing it all the time. Then I fell in love with the piano, and then I took it seriously, and then I devoted myself to piano playing.

TP: Was it at the regional school?

EV: That was mostly at the ENA. In Havana, that’s when I first was introduced to jazz, and I was like, “Wow,” and that’s when I started playing.

TP: Can you tell me something about the pedagogy in the regional school?

EV: It’s very intense. The whole system is like, you have double sessions, one session during the morning…from morning til noon you do the regular classes, which is math, physics or chemistry, and then in the afternoon you do the musical classes. At the regional school it was more focused on solfege and theory and piano, and a little on your instrument, the instrument that you were applying for, and also general history of music and music history classes, general, informative type of classes for general music and education.

TP: Dafnis said it was European music, classical music?

EV: Yes, it’s constantly European. My entire education… I think also for him… I mean, for our generation, it’s mostly in classical music. Like, my education, my training in percussion and in composition was fully classical music.

TP: Dafnis said he learned bongos and different percussion instrument, went to tympany, went to mallet instruments…

EV: Yes, exactly that. From my experience, I learned mostly classical. I didn’t know, like Cuban percussion, until I got to Havana. That’s when I started playing a little bit of Cuban percussion. But that was very, very simple information that they give you on that, because actually the courses were mainly classical music. They were following more like the Russian style. They used to see all the Cuban percussion as the lower form of music, basically. Then most of us, me in particular, learned all these other things more in the streets. I used to go and see bands play, and I would play with other groups sometimes on the street, I would go to jam sessions—but not because of education necessarily. Then there was a point in the ISA that they realized that it was a good business, because there was a lot of interest from Europeans and Americans to learn it, so then they started opening classes for foreign people and for the students, and then they opened the catedra of Cuban percussion, then I got a chance to learn from a lot of great masters in Cuban percussion when they were allowed to teach at the conservatory. Remember, in Cuba, for you to be teaching… Everything is through the government. For you to be teaching at the university level, the ISA, you have to have a degree that says you have a doctoral degree or masters degree so you can teach at this level. But most of the percussionists, rumberos and everything, they didn’t have anything.

TP: They’re street musicians.

EV: Exactly. Then there was this conflict for them to accept them in the school, because they thought, like, “oh, we…” It’s like an elite kind of thing. But finally, I think they decided, “We’re going to teach those classes.” Even though here was some tension between them, because it was kind of like, “Ok…”

TP: I can imagine what the tension was like with highbrow Russian teachers and these street guys…

EV: But you know what? Believe it or not, the tension was not between the Russian teachers and the Cubans. It was between the Cubans who had learned in Russia… A lot of my teachers… I had Russian teachers who didn’t speak Spanish enough, and I remember having translators in the classrooms, and then the other teachers were Cubans who studied in the conservatories in Russia. Those are the ones who thought, like, classical music is an elite thing, “I don’t want you guys to be playing any popular music, because that’s not really a good…” They thought that it was not really good music.

TP: You anticipated my question, which is where you picked up Cuban popular or folkloric music. I guess it was in the air, on the street all the time.

EV: Yeah, in the air, on the street, but I have to tell you also that… I just came to realize this in my later years, that actually I experienced my folkloric music in San Luis (?—9:28) for the first time when I was a baby, when I was born there. San Luis is the area where the Tambor de Yuka exists at this moment, and the Tambor de Yuka is a very rare form of Cuban music from the Congolese culture (the shape of the drum looks like a yucca). But it was very popular in Cuba throughout the slavery process because the drums are not sacred. They are the kind of drums that are played in the festive activities before the sacred music was played. It’s the drums that they… The slaves didn’t have to have a religious celebration to play them. They can play it whenever they want to play it. So it was a very popular form of drumming. In my home town, since I was a kid, I would always listen to those drums. I didn’t know what they were. I was more fascinated by the fire, because for you to tune the drums you have to make a fire, because they’re tuned by fire. For me, as a kid, that was the most exciting thing. Not so much of the drums, because the drums are kind of old-looking, kind of made out of those trees, a very simple form of making a drum. But then only when I went to the school I started realizing, “Oh, I see, this is what…” I’d been listening and exposed to that particular of Afro-Cuban music since I was at a very early age.

TP: Once you were in Havana, were you starting to play outside, to be a professional musician?

EV: Yes. When I was in Havana… One of the reasons why I took the piano very seriously was not only because I liked it… I mean, with jazz. I should say with jazz. Because with piano, I always liked it. I was taking it serious. I was taking classes and all that. But in the catedra of percussion, we used to do jam sessions. That was the only faculty that would do jam sessions. We would go there, jam, and it was great, a lot of fun. There were a lot of percussionists but no pianists. So every time I got there, all the instruments were already taken, and the only thing that was not played was the piano. Then I start sitting on the piano just to create like a real jam session, and then they start asking me to come and play the piano for the jam session. Then I realized, “wow, ok, maybe I should start taking it even more seriously,” to be able to play and jam and improvise and all the things on the piano. That’s the beginning of how I started to get into jazz.

Then, by doing that, I was hired by a few groups kind of as a pianist, but no pay—because when you are in the school, you are not allowed to be paid. Then finally, a group that I was hired for, that I was there with them for 8 years throughout my school, was with Carlos Varela, who is a singer-songwriter from Cuba who I am sure you’ve heard of—from the Nueva Trova. He is almost like the disciple of Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes. He was very famous, and I was joined his band, and I became his musical director.

TP: You had all the tools from the conservatory, but the feeling from playing on the street.

EV: Yeah. And then I did my own group, my jazz group which I played at jazz festivals all the time.

TP: How old were you when you started your jazz group?

EV: I was maybe 17. [1985]

TP: I saw Shawn Brady’s piece on you, which was built around the story that you had a teacher at school who told you that he’d come down hard on you if you had any jazz in the composition.

EV: Yes.

TP: Were you able to learn jazz at all in conservatory, or is that also a self-taught process?

EV: It’s a self-taught process. There were no classes on jazz. For example, even tunes—there were no Real Books. The only way we could learn tunes was either transcribing, or sometimes I would go to Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s home, because I knew he was traveling, or Chucho Valdes, or Pucho Lopez, or Harold Lopez-Nussa… Those are the people who I used to visit their home and say “I want to copy some standards.” I remember Gonzalo sometimes would say, “I have a book, but you can copy it here,” so I would bring paper, and handwrite the songs. I remember he used to have “Eye Of The Hurricane,” Herbie Hancock with Wynton…the transcription of Herbie’s solos. I’d sit down there and handwrite all these things while he was practicing. I was always listening to him practicing! I’d be writing from the book while he was playing.

At that time a cassette tape in the black market cost 15 pesos in Cuba, when the average salary was 150 pesos. My mother and my father would put together 35 pesos to give me to live for a month in Havana. Just relying on the food the school would give us, was not enough. Often when I return from home to the ENA some one would be selling tapes at the entrance of the school. The black market was the only place where you could buy cassette tapes, so I will use 30 pesos of my 35 (leaving me only with 5 pesos for the entire month to live off) to buy two tapes so I could record Chick’s music, or Weather Report, Egberto Gismonti, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie, Miles, Trane, Freddie Hubbart… on and on… So much music to hear. I would then ask musicians who were traveling out side of Cuba such as Chucho, or Gonzalo, Horacio Hernandez, Gonzalo’s drummer at the time, Ernan, to record some music for me. Some times I would team-up between a friend who also liked jazz, so that way we can trade recordings. I’m really proud of the choices I made between food or great music. Specially after been among the 5 pianist chosen by Chick Corea to play at his own festival this past May 16th at Dizzy’s, Jazz at Lincoln Center. That was one of the greatest feelings of a dream comes thru.

TP: What was it about jazz that appealed to you at that time?

EV: It’s freedom! Growing up in a system where freedom was not a common thing to have was difficult creatively at times…, and I’m not talking about politics only, also in music, therefore playing jazz was a very liberating experience. Having that freedom to express your self, when that lacked in politics and in society was intoxicating…

The very first group that really impacted me in jazz was Richie Cole. [alto sax] I remember when I first came to Havana, I didn’t know anything about jazz. I loved rock music. I was into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd—that was my music. And then, a friend of mine, who was already at the school, said, “You definitely have to go to the jazz festival.” I really wasn’t sure, because I didn’t know what it was, but I said, “Ok, I’ve got to go.” I went and Richie Cole did a concert there, and I was with my mouth open the whole night. After that night, I just decided I want to be a jazz musician. That was the first band that really impacted me. Then after that, I started digging. Then Chick Corea, Three Quartets and Crystal Silence, and all these beautiful things, and I also got into the Herbie Hancock vein. That’s when I first started noticing about Wynton, that album with Herbie, The Eye of The Hurricane. Then from that point on, I started reaching, reaching, reaching for new albums.

TP: When did you get out of school? At 21 or 18?

EV: Out of ISA, I was 24. I did two careers there. I was not allowed to graduate from the two careers in the same year—percussion and composition.

TP: By the time you graduated, you were playing in a number of bands. Were you able to start traveling at that time?

EV: Yeah. Even before I was graduated, I was traveling with my rock band, with Carlos Varela. We were going to Spain. We were going to Colombia. Actually, we coincided a concert in Colombia with Pink Floyd and Kool and the Gang. We were traveling. That band was good on that thing. That helped me to survive. Because I wasn’t allowed to get paid in Cuba, but I’d travel with them I would get paid, kind of a stipend kind of thing, and then I would bring that money back to Cuba, and then I would be able to survive on that.

TP: So by the time you were 24, were the musical ideas that we’ve heard from you for the last 10-15 years in the States more or less in place? How did things develop? How did the type of education you received affect the way things were developing?

EV: I teach at Temple, and I see sometimes some of the faults in the educational system here in terms of musical education. I feel like sometimes the students, they don’t really get a very extensive, full education in music. Not just in jazz or how to play bebop tunes, but in music in general. Maybe because I was in such a stiff kind of training in classical music that I was exposed to a lot of great music… I had a really fantastic education in Cuba in terms of classical music and music in general—solfegge and a lot of things. So that really helped me…it’s been helping me all this time, just even… When I write music and when I play, I don’t see music as just one style. I’m not a bebop player or a Latin Jazz player or a this player. I’m just a musician, and I have so many formations inside of me, from classical to, of course, jazz… I’ve been here long enough and I’ve been studying jazz since I was in school, on my own, and sometimes taking classes and stuff. But also, the Latin music, the background that I’m coming from. This all is inside of me. So I see myself as something that…I can only be in this way if I was raised in the way I was raised in Cuba. I don’t feel like… There’s no other way around.

TP: It doesn’t seem any other place in the world can really produce this type of musician.

EV: Yes. The other thing is, what I’ve told other people also… When you see a Cuban musician, what you see is a filter, a sort of filter, a very competitive filter…I don’t know what will be the next word… But what I mean by ‘filter’ is you see the people who made it after they went to the filter. I know a lot of people all my career that never made a musician. Because in Cuba, not only do you have to be very good, but you have to be very good to be able to get at the level that we got. I mean, at the level to be able to go to the ENA or be able to go to the ISA. At that time, there was only one ENA and there was only one ISA, and they only have limited space available for students. Let’s say, for example, in some of those years, when I went from the EVA, it’s called the EVA, “Escuela Vocacacional de Arte”…from the EVA to the ENA, Escuela National de Arte,” you have to do a test, a very competitive test where they say… There’s only 9 places for percussion, and there are 60 people applying for the same position. In Cuba, all the schools from all of the provinces used to go to Havana to do that test, to go into the ENA, because the ENA was only one ENA at that time and there was only one ISA at the time. Now I think there’s more ENAs around the country, but at that time there was only one—the one in Havana. So the people who made it there were the people who were basically the best of the best.

Then, when you get past the ENA, you have to do exactly the same thing for the ISA. Only one ISA. And in my year, I remember there were only five positions for percussion and two positions in composition. I did what everybody normally does, I said, “Well, I’m just going to do both,” because I knew that I did not want to go back to Pinar Del Rio. I wanted to stay in Havana, because I was already in that group, I was playing jazz, and I wanted to stay in the capital. So I did the test for both, and I was lucky enough that they accepted me in both, which created a kind of problem, because when they accepted me in both, that meant there was one person who wasn’t coming in. That meant there was one bed less for them to give away. They say, ok, there’s 5 beds for percussionist; 2 beds for composition. But that’s it. I had one bed technically on paper for percussion, and I was also taking one bed for composition. Then they were trying to figure out, “Well, you have to give up one.” But since I got first place in both tests, none of the teachers wanted to release me. They said, ‘I don’t want to give away my first place for another year.’ So they said, “You can start one career this year, and then in two years you will do the other one.” But no one wanted to do that. So then they decided, “Well, you have to do both at the same time.” I said, “Well, I’ll do both at the same time.” Then my father said to me, “you’re going to go crazy.” “Well, I don’t think so; I think I can do it.”

That’s what I did; I did both at the same time. But even though I did both at the same time, I was not allowed to graduate…for bureaucratic reasons, I was not allowed to graduate the same year in both. Because you have to spend one year creating a composition, one year creating the piece, and then present it in the following year, and then, in percussion, you have to follow the program and then graduate. That’s why I stayed longer in the school.

TP: Do you feel that, let’s say, movements (I use the word loosely) like timba or developments in popular music in Cuba in the ‘80s and ‘90s have anything to do with the conservatory system, or is that not accurate?

EV: Well, not quite. The timba movement started in the ‘70s, when the… Los Van-Van was one of the pioneers of that movement. It’s a process that, of course, was started at that time a little bit, and now into the ‘90s and then in the ‘00s, it becomes consolidated on what it is. But it started as far as that, and it has nothing to do with education. There were different factors. After the revolution happened, they decided, “ok, we’re only going to do music that belongs to the Revolution,” and then you see La Orquesta de Pello el Afrokan and all of that, and then also Van-Van comes out of that trend, too. The original Los Van-Van was after Fidel Castro’s speech, called “Van-Van,” the “que van van,” talking about sugar cane. So they did that, but then, at the same time there was a very strong influence from Rock music, coming from America, and then that, in combination with…

The government decided also, “Well, all the groups have to do an emphasis on Afro-Cuban music.” For some reason, they felt like Beny More and all these other bands represented an era they didn’t like, the era before the revolution and the big casinos and these big bands that played in those casinos disappeared. So they really pushed the bands to do an emphasis on Afro-Cuban music. But Van-Van did something very interesting. Van Van said, “We’re influenced by Rock,” but they did the rock side of music the Cuban way. That’s why they started the drumset without cymbals. Because with cymbals, it’s typical American Rock. So the first movement of songo will be that without the cymbals, because they used the bambu as the cymbals… They wanted their drums to sound very African, but it was an American drum. Then only with Changuito… Changuito decided, “I’m going to put back the cymbals.”

But that’s the whole movement of timba. It’s a combination of the rock that we were listening to at the time, and musicians trying to create new, different combinations and find different ways to create music, different from the music that was played back in the ‘50s and before the Revolution.

TP: I’m not sure I’m clear on whether you’re primarily a self-taught pianist, or received instruction, but it was outside the academy?

EV: No, I had a lot of instruction. The only thing that I am self-taught, to a point, is in popular Cuban music, and jazz. Even though I had several mentors once I got to the US.

TP: You’re a highly trained pianist.

EV: Yes, in classical music.

TP: Can you speak a bit to the ways in which pianists of your generation think differently about music than, say, pianists of Chucho’s or Emiliano Salvador’s generation? If it’s possible to say that, because obviously everyone is an individual. But if there’s anything you can say about the way you learned music in terms of the impact of the conservatory.

EV: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure if it’s really… I know Chucho’s playing and I know Emiliano’s playing, and I feel… It becomes a matter of choice.

TP: Or Frank Emilio or Bebo or Peruchin…

EV: I’ll compare it to the hip-hop movement here. The hip-hop movement here is like a social statement. Rather than to be a musical style, first rap came out as a social statement. The same thing for us. I know when I was in Cuba, this trouble of trying to match Chucho’s playing… Chucho came from a generation that was listening to a different type of jazz. I mean, when I came in, it was Weather Report, all of this electronic…the Chick Corea Elektric Band, and also the high development of… We were seeing Cuban music completely different than we were used to… The syncopation in the music was also different. In the ‘50s, the syncopation of Cuban music, you listened to, in groups such as Beny More, and even if you listened to Peruchin, even though it’s very highly syncopated music, was almost specific. Like a pattern, but when you start to listening to groups like Bamboleo, it’s like the syncopation has changed from a pattern idea to a more global inclusion of genres and rhythmic styles. Anything goes… We tend to add a lot of that rumba and Afro-Cuban mixes into the music, and also funk. I am saying this because musically it will affect us, the way we see music, the way we compose mainly…the way we compose, and also the way we think about the instrument, the piano in this case. But more than that, those musicians, you know, from Peruchin…they were also influenced by jazz music. Back in the ‘50s, they could travel to America… The bridge was way smaller than it is now. But for us, the fact that we weren’t close at that time, that we didn’t have access to that music any more, but we have to learn from underground to consume the music because it was illegal…to consume it underground, and all of that investigation that you have to do, the hunger to learn something that you were not supposed—that changed the attitude in how we approached the music, I think, than when you have it at hand.

TP: I’ve talked to Dafnis a number of times, and one issue he had in Cuba was the ability to find situations where he could play what he wanted to play, what he was hearing, not even because of the government, but just because there weren’t that many like-minded musicians. Was it your experience that you were able to fully realize the things you were hearing when you were in Cuba? Did things change… I’m not sure about your process of coming to the States…

EV: Exactly that. There were very few places in Cuba where you could play. The first time I played with a band that played jazz was with Bobby Carcasses’ group, at a club that used to be called the Maxim. That was maybe one of the two clubs, or the only club that was in Havana at that time. That was my very first experience playing with a band. But aside from that, for me to play, I have to just… That’s when I did my own band, because I wanted to be at a festival. But that was only a few times—once a year at the Havana festival, and then if I’d go to the Maxim to play some music, and the jam sessions that we would do at school. Definitely, there were a lack of places or situations where you can play jazz.

TP: The other question was the notion of developing your own vision, your individuality through music. Was that something you were able to do in Cuba? Did it become easier to do once you left?

EV: Yes. It became easier once I left, definitely. Being in Cuba, especially being a pianist… Chucho was a big cloud.

TP: He’s the king.

EV: Yeah. He still is. But he was a very huge cloud for any pianist who wanted to become their own particular voice. Because Cuba, it’s a system… Almost the same system that happened in politics is the same system that happened in music. There was only one voice, and that was the voice. And then, everybody else almost didn’t exist. Even Gonzalo had to struggle to become his own voice. Because there was always Chucho, and Chucho was—or is still—the favorite pianist. I mean, he’s an amazing pianist. But the system is like, “Ok, nobody can really match him; this is what we want.” Then in Cuba, if the government says, “This is the person,” that’s the person.

TP: He also had a lot of clout because Irakere was of such great value to the government.

EV: Exactly. Even since Irakere. So for us, for me, or a lot of pianists to become their own voices was really difficult. The whole thing that started when you move out of Cuba, and then you start realizing, “Oh, wait; there are so many different voices; it’s not just one thing…” You don’t have to play like Chucho to be heard. You can play the way you want to play. Then when I got here, I started informing myself. I listened to a lot of different pianists, took some lessons, did some sessions, and listened to a lot more records and played more. I think the process of creating your voice is a non-stop…

TP: Well, it never ends, but maybe the roads you travel become a bit more defined as you get older.

EV: Yes.

TP: So it seems that one consequence of so many of the Cuban jazz musicians coming out of the conservatory is that it’s a virtuosic music, and it’s a music in which you have a lot of options because of the breadth of their education.

EV: Yes. I think that’s one thing. The other thing is, we’re in a system where it was very competitive, and if you have Chucho as your high mark…or Gonzalo… You had Chucho and Gonzalo; those are two high marks. To compete with that in Cuba, it was not about choice. It was more like a competition. It was more like, “Ok, you have to play more than them to be able to be considered in anything.”

TP: By playing more, do you mean more virtuosic? Does it have to do with the athletics of it?

EV: Yes, there’s a lot of athletics.

TP: That is something that Cuban musicians have been criticized for—playing a lot of notes, being very busy, flash over substances. But it seems that this is much less of a criticism for players who’ve been here for… I mean, look at the way Gonzalo has pared down, going for simplicity and the essence of things. It’s like he’s trying to unlearn that almost.

EV: Exactly. Because once you leave that environment, then you start understanding that you can really do music without having to play a lot of notes. But it’s true. That process only was started once you leave Cuba. Not only because you’re in a different country, but then, when you start being exposed to and listen to other pianists, then you start hearing different music… But then it does help that you went through such a rigorous musical training, because then you have the mechanism to do whatever you want.

TP: You have all these tools to apply to the free marketplace of ideas, so to speak.

EV: Right.

TP: Like, in Cuba you wouldn’t be doing that Robert Ashley thing.

EV: No. Definitely not. I wouldn’t be doing that Robert Ashley thing. That would be too outside of the box. I don’t think they would consider that an opera, to begin with, then I’m not sure if they would appreciate all of this free improv stuff I do in that project. In Cuba, music tends to get very specific, and so is the way it is played. As a matter of fact, one of the last times I went to Cuba, the festival was happening, and I coincided with a few of my friends, musicians, and I went to a jam session. It was unbelievable, everybody fast and furious, loud and everything. Then one of my friends said, “Do you want to play?” I was like, “No, I can’t play; look at the environment.” Then he said to me, “Are you afraid?” I was like, “No” What, afraid? Music is not about to be afraid. It’s freedom of expression. I said: The only thing I could do there to impress anybody is just get a can of gasoline and light the piano on fire. That’s the only thing that was left to do.

TP: One last question. Do you feel that the musical production of the musicians who left Cuba is having an effect on the last couple of generations of musicians in Cuba, and on the conservatories, and the way musicians are being taught now? That the music that you or Gonzalo or Aruan Ortiz or Fabien Almazen or Dafnis or Yosvany or Gonzalo…I could name 15 more people…that the music you’ve created and documented is having an effect on younger musicians in Cuba, or on the pedagogy, or the way musical education is approached?

EV: I think so. When we go back home, people do comment a lot on the music that we are producing actually, like Dafnis and Terry and myself and Aruan… In a way, we always will look at the thing that we were doing… Because we are living outside of Cuba, when you get there, everybody wonders, “So, what are you doing?” Then once they find out the music we’re doing is different from what they would normally do or different from what they’re hearing in their country, they realize that they do have an apprciation of it.

Especially young musicians… It’s interesting when you go there and you meet a young musicians who hasn’t really met you, who is not from your generation, and they can talk about, “oh, we’re following you and we’ve listened to some of the things you’ve done.” It’s a beautiful thing.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

******

Elio Villafranca (Detroit—Aug. 31, 2014):

TP: You’ve been doing multiple projects for a long time, pretty much since you arrived here, and each recording seems to document a different sphere of activity.

Villafranca: Yes. I always had very broad interests in music. As you know from our earlier interview, I was playing classical music, and that training really opened my ears to many different things. I didn’t grow up in the traditional jazz per se. I listened more to classical music. From there, I got an interest in jazz and in popular Cuban music. But then, my early exposure into music was the Congolese traditions. So I always had the interest. The reason why I came here was because of that, because in Cuba I was only doing the Carlos Varela group, and then I couldn’t really do any other thing. I was playing at the jazz festival once a year. There was only one festival. There were not many clubs to play. So that has been my mission since I’ve been here, just to do a few different projects.

My first album, Incantation, was like the album that I did almost the date that I left my country. So I was going to do my first album; it was going to be pretty much all Latin music. I owed that to myself and I owed that to Cuba. Being in Cuba, that was the first thing I wanted to do. But after that, I realized that music is way bigger than that. I didn’t want to be stuck on just the Cuban pianist that’s only doing Cuban music and stuff like that.

This album, the Jass Syncopators, is almost the beginning of my explorations of music of the Caribbean and tying it in with classical music, and putting everything together with jazz and everything.

TP: Were the pieces all written for this as a project, or did the accumulate over the years?

Villafranca: There were pieces that were specifically written for this project, like “Caribbean Tinge” and “Sunday Stomp At Congo Square” and all so on, that were written specifically for that. “Flower By the Dry River,” “Mambo Vivo,” all these pieces were targeted specifically for this project, the band I had at the time.

TP: Give me the evolution of putting together a personnel like this.

Villafranca: I knew that in order to accomplish what I wanted to do, I needed to have two types of band in one band. I needed to have a band formed by American jazz musicians, fully fluent in the language of jazz, and I needed to have the other band, which is the Latin musicians who are fluent specifically in Latin music… I wanted to marry those two concepts.

The one thing different about this project is, like, before… I don’t know if you know this, but for us Cubans, it’s really hard to detach from the clave and to detach from the cascara and all these traditions. When I came to this country, it was pretty much like that. If I would rehearse a band, I would look for a drummer, I would look for a drummer who knew about cascara, clave, all of these things, and it was always challenging, because you don’t find that unless you play with a Cuban drumnmer, but if you play with a Cuban drummer, then sometimes the jazz language [makes spangalang motion with his right hand] can be a little bit compromised. I wanted really to have those two things. So I thought that if I get a bassist who has knowledge in Latin music, and myself and some percussionists who are knowledgeable in Latin music, that’s it. I don’t need any other thing. American drummers, if they study the tradition of jazz, they feel rhythm the same way we do. The tradition of jazz is pretty close to the same way as the tradition of Cuban music. Think about New Orleans and the rhythms and everything. I don’t have to tell the drummer, “You need to know the clave on everything,” because the clave is around us all the time.

TP: Well, the New Orleans beats are another way of dealing with the African root.

Villafranca: Exactly, which is the same source. Then I realized I just want to do something where I don’t have to tell anybody anything. Just, “this is the music; just feel it. Just feel the music. They’re going to do the thing. Just listen to what they do, and play what you think feels good at the moment.”

TP: Was this band tailored for the people who play on Caribbean Tinge? There are two great jazz drummers.

Villafranca: Yes. You don’t know this, but Billy Hart was the drummer in one of the initial versions of the band, and I also had Victor Lewis in the band. Actually, the first recording that I did with this band, which I donated to a company that creates funds to save children that are subject to abuse and starvation and all of that… They came to me and asked if I’d do a record to help raise funds to help children, and I said yes. So the idea was that all the money that recording would generate would be towards that mission. Victor Lewis did that session. The same with Pernell Saturnino (?—6:23) and Gregg August. So in my band, I have Victor Lewis, I have Willie Jones, III, who plays on the record, I have Billy Hart and I have Lewis Nash. The one thing that all of them have in common is that they feel the African music really deep inside. I didn’t have to tell them anything other than basically go through the music, and that’s that.

TP: How about the horn players? Are the pieces tailored to their sounds, or are they more interpreting parts?

Villafranca: It’s more like interpreting parts. When I first talked to Jazz at Lincoln Center, I wanted to do a concert, which I still will in the future… I wanted to do a concert that featured Wynton and Paquito. I wanted to have the two languages there, and I couldn’t think of anybody better to interpret the language from the Latin and Wynton from the jazz. Having those two great musicians together in a project was my first thing that I wanted to do with Lincoln Center. But then they were wise enough to say, “Just form your team, and don’t depend on anyone else,” and that’s when I started to think about finding people I know who have that language.

TP: We spoke about this when I was writing program notes for the Nuevo Jazz Latino concert. Is a new kind of music being developed by the Cuban musicians who have been coming here during the last 10-15 years, or a new variant?

Villafranca: Some people have mentioned that to me in the past. They feel there’s a new thing going on…

TP: You, Yosvany Terry, Dafnis Prieto, Aruan Ortiz, Roman Filiu will probably be developing some stuff…

Villafranca: Yes, I think maybe. History will be the judge of that, but it feels vibrant. I think everybody is doing their own interpretation of music. The common thing that we have is that we all came with a very strong classical background and classical training. That’s basically the whole thing we all went through when we were all in Cuba. We all listened to jazz like you wouldn’t even imagine. Really, we were eating jazz every day and listening to all these things. But we had limited access to jazz, and that informed us in a very particular way, too. And then, we were not just listening to the American jazz. We were listening to a lot of Brazilian music. Brazil was a really big influence on us.

TP: Wasn’t Carlos Masa a bridge for a lot of people.

Villafranca: Not so much for me, but he was for Dafnis, because Dafnis used to work with him. It’s true that he introduced a lot of things to some Cuban musicians, especially the people who played with him. Because he had the benefit that it can be in and out of the country. In a place where we couldn’t really go anywhere, anybody who would bring… The person who was very influential on me was Hernan Lopez-Nussa, the uncle of Harold Lopez-Nussa (his father is Ruiz Lopez-Nussa, the drummer). Hernan was one of the persons who, whenever I needed some kind of musical challenge or recordings that I didn’t have, since he was one of the people who was coming in and out of the country, I would go to his house, and I’d bring a tape, and he would record for me something new. I also used to go to Chucho’s house, and have a conversation with him about music. And Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Because in Cuba there was no real book.

TP: You’re 45, so you were born in 1968. Gonzalo was still in Cuba when you were in school.

Villafranca: Yes, Gonzalo was one of the kings in Cuba. I was fortunate… I don’t know if you remember that I told you this, but I used to go to Gonzalo’s house when he was practicing.

We didn’t have real books, so basically the only way we could get hold of some jazz tunes was by transcribing. Sometimes, we knew… I knew that Gonzalo had access to some books, and then I would go to his house and say, “Gonzalo, I would love to have some tunes,” and he’d say, “Oh, yes, fine.” He’d bring out some of the books that he had access to, and he’d say, “You can’t take it with you, but you can notate whatever it is.” I would bring this huge manuscript and I’d spend hours and hours writing tunes by hand while he was practicing.

TP: That’s a very interesting way to learn some music. It becomes a very personal experience.

Villafranca: Yes. I remember having my hand very sore, because literally I would spend in his house like 3 hours. I notated some of Herbie Hancock’s tunes, stuff like, at the time, “The Eye Of The Hurricane.” I remember when that album came out, we were really all over the place. We were all over it, and we really liked that album with Wynton Marsalis, and then the V.S.O.P. after it came out. We had Chick Corea’s Elektrik Band album. I had it in my head before it even was on the market.

TP: Did you just miss the post-Gorbachev years, when the subsidies ended?

Villafranca: No. I was right in the middle. Half my teachers were Russians, and I remember one day coming to school and all of a sudden there were no teachers. I was like, “what happened?” Then we were told that perestroika happened, which basically is when Cuba and Russia got into a dispute and Cuba kicked everybody out. Russia said, “You owe us money,” and Cuba said, “We don’t owe you anything,” and then everybody was kicked out. All my teachers left like overnight.

TP: And there were shortages and scarcities.

Villafranca. Oh my God. There was the “special period,” which I went through, and another period called the “Option Zero.”

TP: Didn’t you tell me that you had a certain allowance each month, and instead of buying food, you bought tapes?

Villafranca: Yes. My mom and my father would put together 45 Cuban pesos, which is almost half of a salary, for me to survive in Havana for a month. I’d go to Havana, spend a month, and then come back for a weekend. I’d go there, and then at the school you’d see… The Black Market was really at its height, selling everything, and they were selling cassette tapes. Each cassette tape would cost 15 Cuban pesos, which is a very high price in relation to salary. I would buy two, because I wanted to record two albums. Then I would go to Hernan’s or Chucho’s or Gonzalo’s or Pucho Lopez, and I would ask them to record something for me. Or El Negro, Horacio Hernandez, right before he left (he was playing with Gonzalo at the time). That’s the sacrifice we made in those days to learn this music.

TP: You’re the same generation as Yosvany, Dafnis is younger but he was in there, and Omar Sosa is a little older.

Villafranca: Yes. When I was in school, Omar was already really out there. He was music directing for Xiomara Laugart and other bands.

TP: In retrospect, what do you think the impact of those experiences has had on the way you approach your career in the U.S.?

Villafranca: I can’t think of any way other than to feel grateful. Even though we went through those hard times, even though we didn’t have all the materials to deal with the music… Like, we had one tape player that belonged to someone in the entire school, and then we had to take turns. Maybe my turn would be 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., whatever, and whenever it was, then I would use that time. But whenever I got my hands on that tape player, I would make sure that I listened to that music to my 100%. I would listen and listen, and go back, and listen again, listen again, listen again. That’s what made me get to this point today. It gave me a very strong… I mean, I still study for four hours. I grew up in that environment, and it’s really made me a better musician.

TP: I guess there was a lot of competition in the school also.

Villafranca: Extremely competitive.

TP: It was an opportunity for advancement, for social mobility as well.

Villafranca: But that also has a catch to it as well. A lot of friends of mine who were very talented didn’t make it, just because in Cuba it’s just got to be one person. If it’s one pianist, it’s going to be one pianist. It was Gonzalo and Chucho. But it was really hard, because there was no space for a different voice.

TP: Another aspect aesthetically of coming up in Cuba is that (I think I’ve heard you say this) that the competitive environment makes people treat music almost as a sport to the detriment of the artistic aspect, and that slowing down is a complex thing. I guess that’s a good thing and a bad thing.

Villafranca: That’s a good and a bad. You always have the good and the bad. It’s good for the people who made… For every musician you see on the scene right now, there are 20 or 30 of them that didn’t make it. Not because they were no good. It’s just because there’s only what we call dambulo, which is like a very open hole where only one or two people can just fit through. It’s a very strong filter, stronger than America here, where you can get musicians of all different kinds. The beautiful thing about this is you might get some people who are not that great or whatever, but they have the opportunity to express themself. In Cuba, if you were not the level that they think you should be, then you don’t get anywhere.

TP: You were saying at the beginning of the conversation (and other musicians from the Afro-Hispanic diaspora have told me this) that breaking away from clave and cascara and so forth is more complicated than might be readily apparent. How did that process work for you? What were some of the steps you took once you came here?

Villafranca: Basically, it’s a liberation thing. It feels to me like a liberation of the soul. What I mean by liberation is that I started to look at music in the more pure form, not in a very specific way. I am realizing that when the musicians have the freedom to express, they’re going to play better than if they have to feel tied to something that I’m giving them. If I wanted to play something that has a very strong Cuban accent, like charanga or something like that, I will get a musician who is very knowledgeable in that. I’m going to be play charanga music; we’ll play Peruchin’s music. When I do that, I want just to be 1950s. I want that. Right? But when I do jazz, like the thing with the Jass Syncopators… For example, I am premiering a suite at Jazz at Lincoln Center in February next year which is an expansion of what the Jass Syncopators is right now. That’s why I mentioned that the Jass Syncopators is just the beginning of something. I am very much interested in looking at Congolese traditions in the different regions of the Caribbean. I am done with Yoruba, because I’ve done that, everybody’s done that. My roots are Congolese, not Yoruban. Then I am looking at that tradition of Congolese music in the different areas. If I play you something from the Congo people in my hometown, there is no clave. It’s like something more traditional than that. These people don’t even know anything. They don’t know anything about clave, all they know how to feel… When I was interviewing them…

TP: You were a percussion major.

Villafranca: Yes. It was so beautiful to see them, when they start playing the drums, they don’t have it compartmentalized the way we do when we go to music school. Of course, when we go to music school, they teach us to compartmentalize everything, to analyze everything. I am trying to go away from that. I want it to be more like feeling the music rather than technically analyzing it.

TP: You need to be careful with that idea, though. It works for someone as highly trained as you, but…

Villafranca: True. But I’m not far from what Pat Metheny said when someone asked him why he covers all this melody? Well, he grew up in that environment, and that’s what he does. Yes, you’re right, I come from a very strong background in African music, but that could go two ways. You could either focus on that and try to play just like that, or you know that you have it, so open up and experience the moment. When I see my people from the Congo in San Luis, they don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about clave, they don’t talk about anything. It’s funny, because you ask them and they say, “No, this is what you do.” [plays rhythm with his hands] Then that’s it. You ask them, “Explain it to me,” they don’t know how to explain it. I want to be that way. I want to experience the music at that level, not from the analytical point of music.

TP: Tell me about the band you’re playing with today. You have a recording with Eric Alexander, The Source In Between, that celebrates the sound of swing and hardbop.

Villafranca: That record was the beginning, when I started… That’s why I chose the title, The Source In Between. I thought I could write music that could played in a Latin Jazz tradition with percussion, and also can be felt in a jazz tradition. For example, if you remember the album, the track called “Oddua Suite,” it’s like the music of John Coltrane but it’s just basically a Yoruban chant. Then I decided I’d have Eric, who is a very bebop-oriented person, but then I want to have Dafnis, who is very strong on everything, and then Jeff Carney, who is an American bass player who has nothing to do with Latin music. So I wanted those two poles. The Jass Syncopators is the expansion of the same content. That’s how I was thinking about this project.

I think it works, because when you think about music, it doesn’t have to be… As long as the musicians you’re working with feel the same way, they honestly feel what you’re trying to do, it’s great. Having Eric here with me today is so beautiful, because I haven’t played with him in a long, long time. I met him when I did a couple of tours with Pat Martino’s band. I was living in Philadelphia then.

TP: What you’re saying about Congolese traditions seems like a similar attitude Yosvany Terry is bringing to Arara.

Villafranca: He was initiated. I am not initiated. I am doing it because I grew up on that… Since I was a baby, literally.

TP: You were speaking about being done with Yoruba, and…

Villafranca: In Cuba, if you say “Yoruba,” then they say, “Havana or Matanzas?” It’s regional. You can talk about exactly the same tradition or exactly the same orisha, but you go to Havana, then they completely play it different, and the words…sometimes they’re using the chants in one way, and you go to Matanzas it’s completely different. He was initiated in an Arara casa in Matanzas, and Pedrito’s is from Havana. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that Pedrito might know what was happening in Matanzas.

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Filed under Cuba, Elio Villafranca, Interview, The Pile

The Pile, Oct. 5, 2018 – Kamasi Washington’s “Heaven and Earth”

When I began this blog in 2011, I ran a few installments that I called “The Pile,” comprising primarily reviews of new releases. I soon abandoned this venture, but now I’ve decided — at least for the moment — to reinstate it as a way to keep up with material by artists I’m not writing about, and so might pass by. It sure beats yelling at the computer about the political events of the day.

These reviews are going to be mainly first impressions, based on one listening, so I’ll undoubtedly miss many nuances and subtleties. It also won’t be my best prose.

So, these things being said, here are some thoughts on Kamasi Washington’s excellent double-CD, 4-LP summer release, Heaven and Earth.

 

Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth.

Kamasi Washington didn’t get where he is by thinking small, and his 2018 release is no exception, picking up where he left off on The Epic, his 3-CD debut, and upping the ante by a couple of notches. Augmenting his sextet with a strings-and-brass orchestra and a soulful choir, Washington presents a pair of 8-tune suites, comprising 14 of his originals, a piece by trombonist Ryan Porter, and a rhythmically jacked-up, harmonically simplified reading of Freddie Hubbard’s “Hub-Tones.” It’s arena jazz, and effective arena jazz at that.

 

Washington showcases himself for much the proceedings, which is a good idea, as he’s by far the most interesting soloist in his band. His big-sound, melody-oriented, broad-gestures, tell-the-story approach to playing the tenor saxophone, evokes – to these ears – a cleaner, more well-scrubbed Pharaoh Sanders-John Gilmore admixture on the mothership and Gene Ammons crossed with Teddy Edwards crossed with Eddie Harris in the urban lounge back in the early ‘70s. That period seems to be the source of much of Washington’s sonic and harmonic vocabulary, yanked into the present by the forceful refractions of the rhythmic cadences of hip-hop by paired-off drumsetters Ronald Bruner, Jr. and Tony Austin — both brilliant — on most of the tracks.  They listen intently to each other, and even though they don’t interact with the soloists in the manner of, say, their World Stage mentor Billy Higgins, which is what I usually want to hear (I’ll emphasize, that’s a matter of personal taste), Washington’s rhythmic prowess is so powerful that I don’t miss it here. Washington had ample opportunity to hone the ability to speak through his horn during a decade holding the tenor chair with the Gerald Wilson, whose ideas seem to infuse elements of the horn voicings and, more broadly, the programmatic, imaginary soundtrack attitude that seems to be Washington’s subtext for much of the notes and tones. Maybe it’s just me, but I hear hints of Terence Blanchard’s film writing as well.

 

My favorite track on disk 1, titled “Earth,” is “The Invincible Youth,” which opens with a free, Sun Ra-esque fanfare, and resolves into intense changes that Washington gobbles up with that stentorian, wailing, testifying sound. Bassist Miles Mosley, a groove-master, follows with a cogent, guitaristic solo of his own. I also like the disk-concluding “One Of One,” on which Washington utilizes the choir effectively during the opening section, then leads the sermon on a spirit-raising declamation that builds and builds and builds, before trumpeter Dontae Winslow builds it even more, propelled  by an unrelenting Afro-coro on which Robert Searight joins the Austin-Bruner drum tandem, intermixed with Kahlil Cummings and Allakoi Peete on hand drums — Steven “Thundercat” Bruner is drum-like, too, as the second bassist.

 

It’s hard to discern in what way Washington takes a different approach on the second disk, “Heaven,” though he does give the rest of the band a bit more space for self-expression. Cameron Graves (acoustic piano) and Brandon Coleman (keyboards) engage in fleet, quick-witted exchange after Washington’s turbulent solos on “Song For The Fallen,” which includes a lovely choral passage (you can hear echoes of Blanchard’s writing here). In concerts several years ago and on his Mack Avenue album, Graves tended to let his fingers “wag the dog,” as it were, and does so again on a fleet opening solo “Show Us The Way.” Washington fulfills that mandate on his solo, as he does on “Street Fighter Mas,” machine-gunning the notes to precisely choreographed, chant-like three-drumkit accompaniment. When asked to slow down at the top of the album-ending “Will You Sing,” Graves showcases his lovely touch and gift for melodic expression, counterpointed by the polyphonic drums and the ascendant choir.

 

It’s a strong, erudite, passionate recording, and sustains interest throughout. The participants stay cool-headed even at the most heated moments, and for the most part — not always — avoid the temptation to go for ‘house’ over musicality. Washington has a special vision that straddles past and present, populist but not watered-down, and has a band to write for that can convey his musical intentions. His ever expanding fan base shows how effectively knows how to project that vision. A BMF for real.

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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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The Pile (#5): “Sixty-Eight” by Billy Hart, In Residence at the Village Vanguard This week

Any Billy Hart sighting in the clubs of NYC is an event worth remarking upon, and this week’s run at the Village Vanguard with his working quartet of Ethan Iverson, Mark Turner, and Ben Street is no exception. On his current release, Sixty-Eight [Steeplechase], Hart convenes a first-class ensemble of individualistic young improvisers (Logan Richardson, alto saxophone; Jason Palmer, trumpet; Mike Pinto, vibraphone; Dan Tepfer, piano; Chris Tordini, bass) to interpret inside-outside repertoire from the first half of the ’60s by Eric Dolphy (“Number Eight,”  “Serene,” “Out There”), Sam Rivers (“Cyclic Episode,” “Beatrice”), Mal Waldron (“Fire Waltz”) and Jaki Byard (“Mrs. Parker In K.C.”) as well as Ornette Coleman’s “What Reason (could I Give)” from Science Fiction, and originals by Tepfer and Palmer.  As is Hart’s custom, his playing is consistently compositional in intent; he leads by facilitation and suggestion, creating felicitous environments for the solos, which are consistently interesting and spring organically from the ensemble.  Which makes it all the more fun when the old master does let loose, as on “Mrs. Parker” and Tepfer’s “Punctuations.”

Over the years, I had the honor of conducting several  conversations with Billy on WKCR, and in 1998 I had the opportunity to write the liner notes for an exceptional date entitled Oceans Of Time [Arabesque], with Chris Potter and John Stubblefield on saxophones; Mark Feldman, violin; David Kikoski, piano; Dave Fiuczynski, guitar; and Santi Debriano, bass.  Of the title track, I wrote: “Hart orchestrates and arranges the family whistles of his mother and father, who were from Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, respectively.  ‘When my mother wanted me to come downstairs to eat, or if she clapped her hands and I was at the playground, she had a whistle she’d use, and so did my father.  My mother was a Jimmie Lunceford-Count Basie fan, while my father was more of a Duke Ellington-John Kirby fan.  My mother always thought that the music he liked was a little too far-out for her — she liked music that really grooved.  They took me to the Howard Theater when I was little, and I remember shows by Earl Bostic, Bullmoose Jackson, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and the singers who came through with those guys.  In the last year or so I’ve thought how interesting it is that both my parents had family whistles, and I included this as a song to remember not only my mother, father, and brother, who are all gone, but members of my drum family who have left us in the last few years, like Steve McCall, Eddie Moore, Daoud Freddie Waits, Mel Lewis, Ed Blackwell and recently Tony Williams.'”

That was 1997. Circa 2011 Hart  has produced yet another date that evokes what I described then as his “uncanny ability to look steadfastly to the future while forgetting nothing of what he’s learned during four decades [now five decades] in the Jazz business.”

* * *

I wrote:

As an eminent pianist put it to me the other day, “Who doesn’t like Billy Hart?”  He’s just one of the hundreds of musicians who value the 56-year-old drummer’s penchant for finding an idiomatic tone to suit any function without cliche, his ability to play the trap drums across the entire spectrum of contemporary improvisation with authority, sensitivity and invention, earning him first-call status for a wide array of  live gigs and recordings.  To wit: Between 1962 and 1980 Hart served lengthy tours of duty with Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, Eddie Harris, Pharaoh Sanders, Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, McCoy Tyner, Stan Getz; a partial list of credits during the past twenty years includes the large and small ensembles of Frank Foster, Gerry Mulligan and Clark Terry, with Mingus Dynasty, the collective group Quest (Dave Liebman, Richie Beirach, Ron McClure), and the working bands of diverse progressive improvisers like James Newton, Joe Lovano, Tom Harrell and Charles Lloyd.  As I write, he’s working with Toots Thielemans for a week at New York’s Blue Note, and he’ll join the Ray Drummond Quintet at the Village Vanguard in a few weeks.

Hart’s visibility and importance as a sideman could overshadow the sophisticated aesthetic he displays when he has time to lead a band, how strong a compositional drummer he is.  These qualities are fully apparent on Oceans of Time, his fifth recording which, like the previous four, sounds unlike anything recorded contemporaneous to it.  As on the previous sessions, Hart employs an all-star group of individualistic, virtuosic musicians who probably would not play together otherwise, meshing their distinctive personalities through the intense dialogue he creates.  The compositions reflect Hart’s predisposition to play beautiful melodies within elaborate, contemporary structures; on each performance he functions as an idea-generator, a rhythmic fulcrum, developing thematically an intricate web of patterns and timbral relationships.

Hart hasn’t had a liner note since the 1976 Enchance (*****, Downbeat), so here’s a mini-biography for those who’d like to know how he got from there to here.

William W. (“Jabali”) Hart, born November 29, 1940, grew up with the ethos of versatility in a Washington, D.C. abrim with music.  He studied some piano as a child, and took up drums in a local drum-and-bugle corps at around 11. “Being from a Black community,” he recalls, “when you played in a drum corps, right away it had to swing.  Instead of having a book of Sousa marches, these cadences, as they were called, were passed down to me from the elders who had been in the corps before me — and they all had this kind of swing.  When rehearsals started, the kids came out and began to dance behind this marching band stuff; I immediately began to relate to the drums like that.”  Soon he had a drum set, and at 15 years old, “when all I knew how to play was these marching rhythms,” he met Buck Hill, who lived next door to his grandmother. “Just by fate I happened to meet him.  He saw me with my drumsticks in my pocket, and he handed me two 78 rpm Charlie Parker records.  They consumed me immediately.”

Not long after the chance meeting, Hart began playing for real at rehearsal sessions led by Eddie Warren, father of bassist Butch Warren, elder brother of guitarist Quentin Warren.  The latter, best known for his Blue Note recordings with Jimmy Smith, “used to come and listen to me practice outside of the basement without letting me know.  He suggested me for a rehearsal gig at Eddie’s house with the violinist Stuff Smith.  Once I took the drums out of the basement, it seemed like I could hardly ever get them back in.”  During high school, Hart served a comprehensive apprenticeship with rhythm-and-blues bands in local dancehalls and cabarets; later on, in the Howard Theater house band under Charles Hampton’s leadership, he backed the likes of Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Smokey Robinson and numerous others.  He and fellow McKinley High School graduates Reuben Brown and Butch Warren were the house trio at a local room called Abe-Art’s for nine months, backing Buck Hill on weekends; later he worked with singer-pianist Shirley Horn’s trio, and played Brazilian rhythms at Charlie Byrd’s club with people like Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto and Bola Sete.

Always the serious listener, Hart heard and emulated the numerous drummers who passed through town with Pop acts, particularly New Orleans Second Line extenders like Idris Muhammad with the Impressions, Clayton Filliard with James Brown, and Ed Blackwell and Earl Palmer with the Ray Charles band.  He’d see Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey and Louis Hayes when they were resident, and checked out accomplished Washington drummers like Charlie Buck (who preceded Art Blakey in Billy Eckstine’s first big band), Harry “Stump” Saunders, (“many guys would come to town without a rhythm section; Stump was the guy who would play with them”), Ben Dixon (“the epitome of one of those D.C. guys who could play with anybody; he was a composer who took solos in odd time signatures”), Jimmy Cobb (“I used to try to play just like him”), Buddy Mack Simpkins and Grady Tate, as well as contemporaries like Jimmy Hopps, Joe Chambers, Eric Gravatt, Bernard Sweetney, Hugh Walker, and Mike Smith.

Is there a Washington, D.C. style of drumming?  Hart thinks so.  “There was a definite dramatic way of swinging, where the music must swing and groove, be funky and soulful at all costs, or whatever word or emotion you want to use,” he asserts.  “Washington drummers tend to almost overemphasize that; they have a certain shuffle rhythm in their playing.”

Whatever the case, Hart’s impeccable backbeat drumming led to consecutive steady jobs with Jimmy Smith’s and Wes Montgomery’s crossover-oriented groups of the mid-’60s.  Throughout that time, he was looking for ways to extend improvisation.  “My grandmother was a concert pianist, Marion Anderson’s first accompanist; she had turned me on enough to the standard European repertoire for me to be attracted to the next contemporary step, like Stravinsky, Bartok and Messaien, and even Stockhausen and John Cage.  I’d be walking around listening to the stuff, while everybody is sort of thinking, ‘Boy, he’s pretty strange’ — particularly for a drummer.  Also, by the time I’m hitting the scene, remember that Ornette has already hit, and Coltrane, and Cecil Taylor.  I had gone to Howard University with Marion Brown, who went to New York, and comes back dressing differently, talking about, ‘Look, man, there’s different stuff going on’ — which he knows I’ll be interested in.  He said, ‘I know you like Elvin and Tony, but there’s a cat there named Sonny Murray that you really want to know about.’  Later, going through Chicago with Jimmy and Wes, I encountered Gerald Donovan, known as Ajaramu, a drummer associated with the AACM, who turned me on to Thurman Barker, Steve McCall, and Alvin Fielder, who were working with textural, timbral approaches — what Rashied Ali told me Coltrane called ‘multidimensional’ playing.”

After Montgomery’s death, Hart played a couple of years with the late Chicago reedman-sound scientist Eddie Harris, who encouraged stretching out within the groove. “Eddie liked an advanced Pop-rhythm concept, and helped me be more authentic with it.  His Bebop concept was clear and powerful, and his swing was so smooth, funky and soulful.  He sort of reminded you somewhere between Lester Young and Miles Davis on the saxophone.  He really helped me.”  Next was Pharaoh Sanders, where “for the first time I was able to really use the things I had learned from my relations with the AACM, and get into so-called ‘free playing,’ the new vocabulary that came from drummers like Rashied, Sonny Murray, Milford Graves and Andrew Cyrille.  I brought a lot of my experimental intentions into the Mwandishi band.  I think Herbie Hancock was one of the beginners of playing something I think will end up being called ‘World Music,’ expanding Jazz to be a World Classical Music, a concept starting with Jazz.  That band demanded some knowledge of African music, some knowledge of Indian music, and of course, all the American traditions, as much as I could have known at that time.  With McCoy I had to learn how to articulate in a clear, definite way the textural stuff I had put together with Pharaoh combined with the advanced grooves I developed with Herbie.  With Stan Getz I had to project that kind of intensity just as clearly at a much softer volume and get my traditional swing (or Bebop) vocabulary fully together.”

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The Pile (#4), and raw copy of Karrin Allyson’s Blindfold Test from About Ten Years Ago

Coming in from several weeks on the road to back a new Concord release (her 13th on the label), entitled Round Midnight, singer Karrin Allyson enters Birdland tonight for a Tuesday-Saturday run.  I’m a fan. Like her idol, Carmen McRae, Allyson plays piano with more than an arranger’s touch, as she demonstrates throughout the date (bassist Ed Howard and drummer Matt Wilson join her long-time guitarist Rod Fleeman in an impeccable rhythm section). Perhaps this is one reason for her uncanny, sodium-pentothal like phrasing, which certainly serves the repertoire on Round Midnight, comprised of blue ballads and reflective, elegiac songs. Allyson  conveys the oceanic emotions with minimal artifice and a complete absence of mannerism or excess or bathos; her husky, lived-in, pitch-perfect contralto conveys a starkness that’s an aural analog to her  Great Plains (Great Bend, Kansas; Omaha, Nebraska; Minneapolis; Kansas City) background. Along with Gretchen Parlato’s The Lost And Found, it’s my favorite recording this year by a female vocalist. All the more interesting that, when coming up, Allyson was known for the cyborg chops she displayed when scatting at fast tempos (to hear what I mean, listen to Footprints, from 2006, on which she displays those skills with Jon Hendricks and Nancy King).

In 2001, in conjunction with Allyson’s release Ballads, on which she sang down the repertoire from the iconic John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman collaboration of that name, I had an opportunity to conduct a DownBeat Blindfold Test with Allyson. Here’s the unedited version.

* * *

1.    Kurt Elling, “Say It” (from FLIRTING WITH TWILIGHT, Blue Note, 2001) (4 stars)

I don’t recognize the voice.  It sounds a little like Mark Murphy, but I know it’s not Mark Murphy. [LAUGHS] I like it.  It sounds good.  It’s a very focused version of “Say It Over and Over Again.”  Cool little horn things behind it.  I’ll give it 4 stars.  I don’t know who it is, though.  Unh-oh, this is Kurt Elling.  But it sounds older than Kurt; I don’t think it’s him.  Maybe it is Kurt.  I’ll bet it is Kurt.  Interesting.  I didn’t even know he’d recorded this.  I like it. [AFTER] As I said at the beginning, it’s a very focused thing.  It’s not terribly romantic…but at the same time it is.  It’s not the typical romantic sound.  You don’t hear many singers do this song.  That’s what turned me on about Trane’s ballad album, because it’s not a typically romantic sound.  Like I said in the liner notes, it’s a deeper thing than simply romance.

2.    Luciana Souza, “Embraceable You” (from AN ANSWER TO YOUR SILENCE, NYC, 1999) – (2 stars)

Sounds like a Cassandra Wilson disciple.  I don’t know about disciple; that might be a little strong.  But she sounds influenced by Cassandra Wilson.  It’s kind of a cool arrangement.  Her pitch is a little off for my taste, so I give it a 2.  I really don’t know who it is.  But it’s creative, and I like that. [AFTER] Many Brazilian singers do have that trait about bending the pitch a little bit, and I do like her feel very much.  But for me, if you’re singing an American standard, maybe I’m just a snot, but it seems like maybe paying a bit more attention to the pitch would be a good thing.

3.    Billy Eckstine, “I Want To Talk About You” (from COMPACT JAZZ: BILLY ECKSTINE, Verve, 1962/1989) – (5 stars)

Is it Arthur Prysock?  No?  Do I get another guess?  Is it Grady Tate? [LAUGHS] It’s not Billy Eckstine.  Is it?  Yes?  On the third guess, I guess I knew it was Billy Eckstine.  It’s a bit more operatic than I’m used to hearing him present a tune.  “Operatic” may be the wrong word.  Because of that 12/8 Rock feel… It’s lovely.  I love it.  It’s classic.  I’ll give it a five.  I never really cared for the choir in the background, however, but that’s a whole other story.  That’s not his fault.  That’s the producer!  And the time, the year it was done.  Nat Cole did all that stuff.

4.    Norma Winstone, “Prelude To a Kiss” (from WELL KEPT SECRET, Koch, 1995) (Jimmy Rowles, piano; George Mraz, bass) – (3-1/2 stars)

Is that Dena de Rose”?  No?  It’s interesting to take “Prelude To A Kiss” as a waltz and spread out the phrasing so much.  It’s hard to do that.  And she leaves space, which is nice.  Her pitch is pretty good.  I mean, it’s very good.  Nice accompaniment.  They’re providing a nice groove for her.  I might like it better instrumentally this way than I like it for a vocalist.  But that’s totally subjective for everyone.  It’s not an insult toward her; it’s just a taste thing.  And in that way, instrumentalists have it easy.  Not easy, but that’s an advantage they have over vocalists, I think.  Because lyrics, the way you present them… Like I said, she’s spreading out the phrasing.  Because there are a lot of words to get in, but when you spread  it out that much, it goes quite a bit slower, of course… I’m trying to get used to this version of this tune.  I have no idea who it is.    3-1/2 stars.

5.    Jimmy Scott, “All Or Nothing At All” (from OVER THE RAINBOW, Milestone, 2001) (Justin Robinson, alto sax) (5 stars)

Jimmy Scott.  I didn’t think he did anything up!  I love Jimmy Scott.  This is cool.  Beautiful.  He’s somebody who knows how to paint a picture.  I can even see him singing this.  And I’ve never seen him live, so that’s kind of interesting!  He’s an artist.  I wish I’d heard this before I recorded my version of this…or before I recorded Trane’s version of this.  I like the alto player.  He has a really unique sound on his horn. [AFTER] I don’t have a problem with vibrato unless it’s insincere.  It depends upon the age of the singer, too, in a way.  Because physiologically, sometimes singers can’t help but waver.  I’m not speaking about Jimmy here particularly; I’m just saying in general.  So that’s a whole nother matter.  But vibrato I don’t have a problem with if it’s well-placed!

6.    Sarah Vaughan, “Every Time We Say Goodbye” (from AFTER HOURS, 1961/199_) (Mundell Lowe, guitar; George Duvivier, bass)

[AFTER A MINUTE] Is that Sarah?  Is that early Sarah?  Am I totally wrong, or is that Sarah?  Mid period Sarah?  She’s having fun with that tune with the breaks in the melody…as if this melody needs any more!  It’s so unexpressive! [LAUGHS] Only kidding.  Sarah’s got one of those trick voices.  She can go wherever she happens to think about, and she can think about a lot of things, so therefore she can sing a lot of things.  And she contains so much… I mean, she’s playing with you at the very end there.  “Bye-bye, bye-bye,” she’s playing with you.  At the beginning it’s a little playful as well because of the breaks in the arrangement in the middle.  And she’s just singing it straight, it sounds beautiful.  5 stars.  Was the guitarist Herb Ellis?

7.    Tony Bennett, “Out Of This World” (from JAZZ, Columbia, 1964/1987) (Stan Getz, tenor sax; Herbie Hancock, piano, Ron Carter, bass, Elvin Jones, drums) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Tony Bennett.  I like this tune.  I used to sing this tune.  Trane did this?  I didn’t know that.  I may have to do another Trane CD!  What I like about Tony is his pretty much no holds barred approach to singing.  I suppose that’s the Italian Tenor in him.  But he’s not afraid of showing emotion.  5 stars.  There’s a lot of reverb on this recording, maybe a little too much for my taste, but that’s probably the time as well.  Is that Paul Desmond?  Is it a tenor?  All of a sudden I’m confused if it’s a tenor or an alto, for God’s sake!  Shame on me! [LAUGHS] I think it’s a tenor.  Is it Getz?  Okay, I never said Paul Desmond!  He was up there on that high register, though, with that tenor.  I have this record here!  I like Tony in this jazz context.

8.    Dena De Rose, “The Touch Of Your Lips” (from I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW, Sharp-9, 2000) (4 stars) (DeRose, piano, vocals; Dwayne Burno, bass; Matt Wilson, drums)

[IMMEDIATELY] That is Dena, isn’t it?  I just saw her at a gig, and she’s been in my consciousness.  I heard her on Marian McPartland’s show.  It sounds nice.  Is she playing piano for herself on this?  My first version of this tune was by Tony Bennett.  I love this tune.  I like singing it.  This version is faster than it needs to be, but it’s swinging.  It’s nice.  That’s cool when pianist-singers will double their own line.  I attempt that myself sometimes.  She’s a good piano player.  I know that was her first instrument.  A real inventive solo.  I like that very much.  Four stars. [AFTER] As little as I know about Dena, and I like her musicianship very much, I know that she will find, the longer she does this, that her voice is more a part of her than she might realize.  She’s an artist in progress, and she’s going to have a good run at this wonderful music.

9.    Ian Shaw “If You Could See Me Now” (from SOHO STORIES, Milestone, 2001) (3 stars)

One of my favorite ballads of all time.  Why is that singer starting on the bridge?  Just kidding! [AT THE DOUBLE TIME] Don’t sabotage this beautiful tune!  No!!!  Oh, well.  It’s nice, though.  It’s tricky sometimes.  We took “It Might as Well Be Spring,” as many other people have too…a beautiful ballad, and we samba-tized it.  So it’s totally a matter of taste.  I think it’s very important… And this singer is doing it.  He’s enunciating.  When you do a tune fast and it has a lot of lyrics, it’s very important to understand those lyrics.  It’s almost like he’s  trying to keep his rhythm section entertained or something.  I know it’s not Al Jarreau, but he is Al Jarreau-influenced, I think…a little bit.  Is he the pianist?  No.  I don’t know.  It’s a little frantic for me, this version of this beautiful ballad.  I’d give it 2.  Although the singer’s performance is better than a 2, so I should give it more.  3 stars.  It’s almost like this singer is a theatrical performer.  He’s got a great feel.  He’s a good singer. [AFTER] Now that I’ve discovered it’s Ian Shaw, I did hear him on a live gig once and really enjoyed it.  It’s just not my preference to treat that tune that way, but like I said, it’s totally subjective.  I said before I know who he was that this was more of a theatrical singer, and I got that impression when I saw him live, too.  Maybe it’s that English drama, the Shakespearean influence he has from being British.  I don’t know.  Maybe.  He’s a real showman.  He was just with a pianist the night I saw him, and you can only do so much with that.  And that’s  good sometimes!

10.    Betty Carter, “My Favorite Things” (from INSIDE BETTY CARTER, United Artists 1964/1993) (5 stars)

This is Betty Carter, of course.  I love Betty Carter.  Talk about bending the pitch; she does it, too.  Not too much on this.  Betty is an original, very unique.  I feel like I learned a lot from this influence… I don’t know if it would be evident to anyone else.  But I saw her many times live, and she was so integrated with her rhythm section.  Because I feel like I am part of the rhythm section, not only when I’m playing piano but when I’m standing up singing.  She may have felt a little bit like that, too.  I don’t know.  But she’s totally original.  I love her.  5 stars.  And not any singer could get away with doing this kind of… Good for her.  Do that Indian EEYEEYEEYEE thing there.  That ain’t Julie Andrews singing it!  Yeah, good for you!  She’s great.  Not every singer could get away with what she does.

11.    Jeffery Smith, “Lush Life” (from A LITTLE SWEETER, Verve, 1997) (3 stars)

Pretty voice.  I like the conversational style he has at the end of his phrases.  It’s nice. [SWING SECTION] Unh-oh!  I’ve never heard “Lush Life” swung by a singer.  Shows you how much I know.  Again, I liked it on the verse.  It’s beautiful.  I’m not crazy about swinging this tune as a singer.  But I mean, albeit it’s a waltz, but he’s swinging it.  He’s got nice pitch.  3 stars.  I was sort of really digging the verse in that dreamy state, and I know everybody doesn’t like it if they don’t swing or don’t do it in a different way, but it sort of turned me around a little bit on it.  It kind of ruined my mood.  But I suppose it’s a great way to do it in a club where it’s really noisy! [LAUGHS] I have been there and done that!  That’s where we come up with all our different versions.  Pure necessity is the mother of invention.  Or non-invention.

12.    Shirley Horn, “It’s Easy To Remember” (from I LOVE YOU, PARIS, Verve, 1994) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Shirley.  I was going to comment on the piano playing, but I should just wait… I love Shirley Horn.  I’ve never heard her do this either.  I love Shirley.  She’s another unique, beautiful interpreter of songs for me.  Her accompaniment, of course, is dreamy for her.  She takes a bath in her ballads.  She’s got all those suspended chords that always leave you…suspended as a listener.  5 stars

13.    Carmen McRae, “Speak Low” (from PRICELESS JAZZ: CARMEN McRAE, GRP, 1955/1997) – (5 stars)

Early Carmen!  I love Carmen.  She can do no wrong. [LAUGHS] Carmen has so much attitude in her singing and contains… She’s a little bit like Sarah, but Sarah is a little more on the romantic side — or can be.  But she can be sassy, of course, like she was given the name.  But Carmen has so much attitude in  her singing.  It contains all kinds of emotion within one phrase.  Yeah, I love Carmen.  Five stars.  I like this tune a lot.  I used to do it.  It’s a cool arrangement, too.  It’s fun.  I have no idea who it was.

14.    Billie Holiday, “Why Was I Born?” (from THE COMPLETE BILLIE HOLIDAY ON COLUMBIA: 1933-1944, 1937/2001) – (5 stars) (Buck Clayton, tp.; Teddy Wilson, piano; Benny Goodman, cl.)

“Why Was I Born,” obviously.  It’s not Louis Armstrong, is it?  Oh. [LAUGHS] Billie Holiday.  Of course.  Those are different changes at the end of the A-section.  It’s interesting.  Different chord changes than I know, anyway.  I never heard Billie’s version of this.  I guess this is THE version! [LAUGHS] I knew Coltrane’s version. [CLARINET SOLO] The Dixieland approach.  [When does this sound like it’s from?] The ’40s. [Who do you think the pianist was?]  Jimmy Rowles?  She used to work with him all the time. I have no idea.  Was it Buck Clayton on trumpet?  Was it Tommy Flanagan?  Teddy Wilson!  Oh, sure.  So you want me to give that a star rating?  5 stars. [LAUGHS] [So you’re more familiar with her later recordings.] Mmm-hmm.  Not so much the earlier stuff.  It’s a terrible thing to admit.  But I had to grow into Billie when I first started singing.  She didn’t hit me as quickly as Sarah and Carmen, Ella… Part of it is that I did hear her later stuff first, like Lady In Satin, things that now I really appreciate.  I think she’s somebody that you keep discovering.  She’s got layers.  She’s geologically got a lot of layers going on there.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Singers, The Pile

The Pile (#1)

As I’ve had a bit of down time recently, I’m trying to catch up on new releases, which arrive inexorably. It’s hard to make a dent—there’s only time to listen to a couple or three 60-70 minute recordings in a day, and that’s stretching it.   Then, too, as I’ve learned by experience from writing liner notes (not to mention just plain old common sense), recordings by serious master musicians demand multiple listenings to catch the nuances, the overall arc and intention. With that in mind, it’s important to self-remind that personal taste has nothing to do with the actual quality of the artifact. I may hear something that I’m not in the mood for, but two weeks later it’s just what I want to absorb.  Or perhaps the rhythmic feel aggravates me one time, but  resonates the next. One reason why I’m very cautious about making judgments — assessments are different — when I write reviews. I’m not a musician. I haven’t spent my life working up the knowledge/experience base that went into making this recording.

In any event, this is the first of hopefully a ongoing series of “Pile” columns (the accumulated stacks of CDs that are outside of my assignment purview pile up) on some items that have recently caught my ear. Unless the offense/offender is particularly egregious, I won’t go negative. That said, don’t assume that omission means distaste.

David Gibson, END OF THE TUNNEL (Posi-Tone)

A lot of individualistic trombone virtuosos emerged during the ‘70s and ‘80s—George Lewis, Steve Turre, Ray Anderson, Robin Eubanks, Conrad Herwig, Frank Lacy, Gary Valente…I could go on. But outside of Wycliffe Gordon, Clifton Anderson, Ronald Westray, and one or two others, trombone players don’t pop immediately to mind when you think of interesting slide improvisers over the last two decades. Maybe we’re in for a new wave. I’ve dug Marshall Gilkes in recent years, and Gibson has a similarly gorgeous sound and a solo conception that’s thematically cogent and also kinetic through a range of late 20th century food groups. Many dates that draw on the various mid-’60 Blue Note genres sound contrived and stale, but this one has a fresh feeling, as though the participants were recording something fresh contemporaneously — not unlike some of the bebop-oriented improvisers who’ve used Smalls as a base over the last 15 years.  In any event, Gibson dialogues throughout with the excellent alto saxophonist Julius Tolentino, his front line partner; organist Jared Gold, himself a leader on few Posi-Tone dates, combines point guard distribution duties with intelligent shot selection, laying down apropos comp and basslines but also creative solos; drummer Quincy Davis, an A-lister in my book, works the grooves with energy and taste.

James Carter, CARIBBEAN  RHAPSODY: CONCERTO FOR SAXOPHONE AND ORCHESTRA (Em-Arcy) – (composed by Roberto Sierra)

A tour de force. I can’t really review it properly without listening 3-4 more times, which I probably won’t be able to do without an assignment, but I can say that it’s one of the most synchronous collaborations I’ve heard between an orchestral (as opposed to big band…I hope I’m making myself clear) composer and improvising soloist—particularly a soloist as florid and adventurous as JC—that I can remember hearing. Sierra creates a series of felicitous environments in which Carter can soar, and soar he does, with ferocity and extraordinary craft on all the instruments.  I saw Carter at the Blue Note a few weeks ago with his organ trio, plus Nicholas Payton and Blood Ulmer, and was impressed by his complete command of his materials—the presentation and narrative arc came through as strongly as his considerable musical contents. Which can happen once a musician of Carter’s gifts and focus hits his forties and coalesces his various tributaries of expression into a clear path.

Gerald Clayton, BOND: THE PARIS SESSIONS (EmArcy)

Yes, I know, two EmArcy releases in one post…

I’ve dug Clayton for a couple of years, since  his trio was in residence for the entirety of the Perugia summer edition of the 2008 Umbria Jazz Festival, and I heard him play Duke Pearson’s “Is That So?” (Bradley’s denizens of old will remember that this was a John Hicks favorite) with complete idiomatic authority—he owned the language. Not long after that I heard him, at a Hank Jones festschrift concert, come out after Hank had played a few tunes, sit down with George Mraz and Willie Jones, and invent a variation on Cole Porter’s “I Love You” that I assumed had to be composed, everything was so perfectly in place and ingeniously constructed, but was told that he put it forth on the spot. That winter at Orvieto he did a series of duos with his father John Clayton that were on the very highest level of interaction and sophistication. So I know his scope.  Didn’t think he represented his breadth quite as effectively on his debut record, TWO SHADE, from 2009. BOND offers a much more complete portrait of his gifts—the beats are modern but also swinging, the trio has a one-voice flow, the new-jack originals and old-school standards interweave seamlessly. No showoffs here. In fact, it’s appropriate that he ends with John Clayton’s “Hank”; there isn’t really a discernible stylistic connection between Gerald and Hank Jones, but Gerald possesses a Hank Jones level of clarity and focus—an ability to cut to the chase and say something fresh in any environment. Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I love his solo on “Nobody Else But Me”—a major league left-hand and a melodic spirit. Like James Carter, Gerald is in complete control of his materials, and at 26 or 27, he’s already recognizable as himself while engaging with the tradition on its own terms. He’s one of the very few under-30 pianists out there (Manuel Valera is another, but he’s 30) whose concept would have enabled him to fit with ease into the Bradley’s rotation.  (That’s a good thing.)

Alexis Cuadrado, NONETO IBÉRICO (BJU Records)

A well-wrought program of 8 tunes composed and arranged by bassist Alexis Cuadrado, a Barcelona-to-Brooklyn transplant, each of them built on a different rhythmic structure of the Iberian diaspora. Needs three or four listens (which I don’t have time for now) to say anything meaningful. Suffice to say that the soloing (Loren Stillman, Avishai [trumpet] Cohen, Brad Shepik, Dan Tepfer, as well as Piraña and Blas Cordoba and Tomatito) is inspired throughout, and the arrangements are fresh and cohesive, with ever shifting colors and intoxicating rhythms (Mark Ferber on drumkit and Marc Miralta on cajon and percussion lock in beautifully with Cuadrado).  Thought of in conjunction with Wynton Marsalis’ excellent VITORIA SUITE, with Chano Dominguez, it shows that Flamenco Jazz now has its drivers license—that’s to say, it’s  reached adulthood as a genre and become a mature pan-generational, trans-national idiom on the worldwide playing field.

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Filed under Alexis Cuadrado, Bass, David Gibson, Gerald Clayton, James Carter, Piano, Review, Tenor Saxophone, The Pile, Trombone