Syndicated Jazz columnist. A literate take on a great American art form now gone global.
Posted in Short Story on February 16, 2017
It was as if every trial from the year at an end jumped onto my shoulders. Piled upon, I could barely stand and had no energy nor desire to go out and tip my cup to the start of a new number on the calendar.
I was waiting an hour or so more into the night before putting my bathrobe on as to avoid becoming the cliché of the hermit. I had just put on some Pres when there was a knock at my door. Lucinda often refused to recognize my self-imposed exiles regardless of the reason.
She wanted to take me out as no one could remember when they had last seen me.
“I like the music…is this…”
She said the wrong nick-name.
“Well, I am much more honky-tonk” showing a toothy smile.
I felt like a little kid, the world of childhood where there is a set schedule for everything and any deviation is cause for upset. Four O’clock is graham cracker time regardless of where the child may be. The music played, a sense of anxiety briefly flashed across the face as I prepared to beg off until some abstract time in the future. I was told that just the fact I had become so apprehensive was an indication to her that I had to go out with her.
She started driving, away from the city as to hinder my ability to beg off after one round and head home. Every third beautiful woman I met outside of the city proper who had no compunction about being barefoot at any social gather turned out to be one of Lucinda’s cousins.
I only seemed to run into them outside of the city and only ever when with Lucinda. Despite this, they all seemed to know everyone that I did. This cousin was a part time chef and although I instantly forgot it, her name perfectly suited her and had that ring of tradition to it like all the rest of the fruit on the family tree.
We sat on a couch which initially to me looked beat to hell but turned out to be rather comfortable. The cousin came back with some dull silver tulip shaped ice-cream dishes.
The cannonball sorbet got its heavy, vertigo inducing power from the white Jesus that the Loganberries had been soaked in. Always, for seven days as it seemed biblically appropriate.
Although I prided myself on tolerance for drink, it very quickly became a bit much. Lucinda had grown up on the stuff, or at the very least its relatives. So, when she described its effects, they differed drastically from those of mine.
For her, it was more like a heavy velvet curtain of such a rich, dark hue as to hide all the dust slowly descending after the last act of a play, the plot of which the audience had already forgotten.
It was not that I was uncomfortable in our collective silence but I had to do something to temper how the walls kept rippling towards the center of the room then back out again like cheap sheets of plastic.
I flipped through the records and found Mozart’s clarinet concerto with a cover so faded I could not tell who the orchestra was. It had been her father’s and although she never listened to it, she had kept it.
The music started. The beauty was almost too much, the beauty caught in my throat. Elbows on knees, chin in palms I covered my face with my hands. Lucinda’s hands went to my shoulders.
“Shhh..there you go, there goes last year, say goodbye.”
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Posted in Review on December 28, 2016
I travel a lot and I find myself in the same cities, always at the same times of year. I look out the window of my temporary studio. The day is ending and although I am shortly to be among others for drinks and shop talk, here in this city during this hour I always choose solitude.
Soon it will be dark and the city will wrap the delicate sheen of snow around itself, a thin veil put on in the false hope of a little warmth. I stand at the oversized window with my hands clasped behind my back in a painterly pose.
Now it comes, the hiss of the sun as it sinks down into the encroaching shadows on the outskirts of town, it is a requiem of sorts. I should think less in terms tinged with a finality. If I must stay within the parameters of a fatalisim, then perhaps it should be more akin to Strauss’ “Transfiguration” as to combine the beauty of finishes with poetics that never truly cease.
I had read an article once, the gist of which was that by the time one was old enough to appreciate things such as oysters, chanterelles and good single malts our taste buds are on the decline, not as vibrant as in our youth. An irony of taste, when we could more dynamically physically appreciate certain gastronomical sensualities we do not feel the appealing call of such things.
Age not only fosters culinary sophistication though. A much younger me in Vienna was going to the Zentralfriedhof cemetery in Vienna to see Beethoven’s grave which I thought the height of sophistication.
In my tunnel vision rush to see Herr Beethoven I tripped over the somber balanced cube of Schoenberg’s grave. Lifting my knee up, I shook the injured foot the way a cat does when first trying to walk after being given a bath. I did not take a moment to contemplate Schoenberg’s grave, not knowing then that down the corridor of time he would be far more important to me than Beethoven.
Youth or just starting out in one’s raison d’être does not automatically connotate lack of depth or substance however. Twenty-five years ago, in the nascence of his career bandleader/musician/composer Patrick Zimmerli created Shores Against Silence.
The album originally was passed around without any kind of official release ala variation on the migration of a bootleg. Now twenty-five years later Songlines Recordings has released it commercially as a companion piece to its current musical sibling, Clockworks.
It is a young work, an artist at the start of their career. However, Patrick eschews the inherent dangers of many works created during such a phase, the over fecundity of ideas which can slacken a work’s tension. There is the element of him wearing some of his influences on his sleeve but this is not meant as a pejorative statement.
Such 20th century composers as Elliot Carter and Charles Ives are easily seen to be Patrick’s artistic forefathers. The liner notes, which are informative in relaying the works’ genesis and history mention Carter. This is no mere lip service in putting forth one of the artistic banners under which he rallied. Many of the pieces would not be out of place on a program which included Carter (“Night Fantasy”, “Piano Concerto” or “Variations for Orchestra”).
The first five of the six tracks are programmatic. The album’s centerpiece is “The Paw” whose name was inspired by a slightly misconstrued concept of artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Duchamp had started out as a traditional canvas painter but quickly grew bored with the restrictions and expectations of the medium. He steadily shed what it meant to be an artist, how an artist was viewed and the definition of what was “art”. Concept and perception became key components of his work as he shed what in French is colloquially known as la patte (the paw, the discernable touch and voice of an artist). It was not about ridding the individual in art so much as fostering an inexhaustible freedom brought forth by abandoning long established precepts. This proves to be an apt title for the track as the music is genre defying, bursting forth Juno like from forward thinking jazz’s head.
“The Paw” begins with a lone descending bass, the piano merges into the introspection, both picking up the tempo, cajoled by the drummer’s cymbals. When the saxophone appears, it does not so much join in as with its long ethereal lines rise out of the contemplative air of the piece. The aspects of the piece changes but never feel Frankenstein(ed).
Patrick’s sax varies delivery of its emotional cadence via initially changing to rapid clusters of notes and then towards the end of the piece collaborative dissonance with the piano. The piece ends with the horn fluttering away on murmured breath and the soft chime of some final piano notes.
“Conceptualysis” was inspired by Pierre Boulez who stateside became better known as a conductor. Initially though he was one of the young lion composers though who took a cue from the freedom first hard won by the likes of Schoenberg and Stravinsky.
Boulez’s early work was dense and contemplative, aspects of which are utilized in Patrick’s composition. Percussion heralds the piece’s start, the sound of something tumbling, animating everything that it comes into contact with as it slowly tumbles downward.
There are frequent tempo changes which lend a protean air to the piece. The bass is the steady purple-blue of a night sky over a city whose ambient source of illumination is not visible. The luminescence is mirrored by the jagged angular slashes of saxophone.
Within all of this teetering on the verge or discordance the piece leaps in and out of aspects of what would more traditionally be thought of as a jazz piece.
The bright rapid chime of piano is the path dissolving under one’s feet regardless of whether they wish to go up or downtown.
The middle section features a rolling effect percussion punctuated by ringing of piano. Cresting atop this pattern is the saxophone which eventually finds itself left alone to murmur of its journey. The piece ends with a sudden sped up tempo and shout of finish from the saxophone.
A compliment and endorsement which I can give Patrick, and his works, is the fact that this early work makes me want to seek out his recent ones to see how he has built off of these ideas; what has been added to and what has been dropped.
The sessions were originally recorded on DAT tapes, copies of which made the rounds or New York downtown/loft scene. While getting hold of them back then must have been exciting as it would feel to be a membership into a secret club Songline Records has done a great job with issuing it officially. The sound has warmth and intimacy. The liner notes are informative in explaining the ideas behind the works. The cover image looks like a Rothko slowly moving through a light fog.
In my last few articles I have delved into artists whose works are genre defying. With a possible encroaching zeitgeist which could look down upon or even curtail freedom it is important that we foster it where and whenever we encounter it. While also not forgetting that freedom is not necessarily about rebelling but equally about taking advantage of all of the things which are available to us.
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Posted in Uncategorized on November 20, 2016
Late morning, November. I stroll along one of the paths in the park. The sun is bleeding through the variegated fan of leaves which illuminates the faintest blush of last summer. My hand goes into the pocket used for the specific purpose of a vice, to check. The cigarette money is all gone, on the pavement are the cracked lines of a map leading to all of yesterday’s dreams.
I was just killing time until the festival tonight. Alone, I walk alongside my musings as I alternated in rapid gear shifts between melancholy and exaltation.
There has always been a greater enjoyment for me in going to the cafes frequented by the locals. In patronizing such places, one feels not merely a tourist moving through the superficial strata of an area but fully in the stream of life.
There was the desire for tea but no café did it right, even when it was a quality brand. The water was always too hot and so devoid of oxygen being of muted flavor at best. I did not want coffee either but there was the desire to sit and people watch. As I worked, pen in hand no matter where I was in the world, I could not use the justification of “vacation” for so early a bout of day drinking.
Out on the sidewalk was Sidonie. She liked my accent, insisting nearly every time on me saying certain words not for what they meant but how I said them. There was the smile which I took as a sign to stop at her place and nurse a coffee anyways. All along this street too, the cafes and boutiques were preparing for tonight’s festival.
I sat down at a corner table outside and watched. It was her job to hang the fruit shaped lights from the lower branches of the trees. Even though the café was well staffed she had volunteered herself for the task.
It was not so much that she desired to be helpful but that the job allowed her to linger in front of windows, pantomiming the untangling of cords as she watched how others lived. Of course, I was simpatico.
When she could no longer linger without people knowing of her sham, she finished and cautiously climbed back down her ladder, folding it closed the way a musician would their instrument after a performance.
As she had spent so much time doing the lights she felt it only fair to go back inside, asking me to come in for a chat before I left.
My coffee was gone and the flow of people going by had reduced down to a trickle. Compulsively I ate the little chocolate covered almond which had been seated on the saucer and melted somewhat from the espressos ambient warmth.
I went in to chat. The dry voice of the radio sings a song from yesterday. Her back had been turned to me and I had heard her tonelessly sing along in her husky voice for a moment before becoming aware of my presence.
“Do you know this song?”
I nodded. She seemed somewhat surprised. For lack of anything new to talk about, she asked me about my taste in music.
“Mainly jazz and classical, Stravinsky, Carter, Piston, the twentieth century guys.”
The classical composers I knew would be pointless to go into with her as the names would seem a parade of babble. We talked of jazz, a favorite professor had turned her on to some of it. She wanted to know what I thought good.
I still treasured those whose names comprised my list of favorites but it got me to thinking. Music is a ritual, a place and a moment. Only the latter managing to remain completely alive as it is ever in flux, constantly shedding its skin to the song of the charmer.
An important component of all jazz is that “in the moment” element. This applies not just to the performers though but also to the sonic vernacular. When Sonny Rollins initially covered Broadway tunes such as “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” or “Mack the knife” or when forward thinking artist started embracing African and Mideastern elements, this was jazz as a living thing, still growing, expanding outwards as it pulled new things into itself.
There is still much joy to be found in hearing a Duke tune played live or a young gun tearing up “Cherokee”. However, if one is to really contemplates what is being heard then regardless of what spontaneity the soloist’s statements may constitute, it is akin to hearing a pianist conjure Schubert.
If it is to remain true to its spirit, then what we consider as jazz being created now, need not have some subgenre label slapped on almost as a caveat. Just call it all jazz. Jazz as a living thing, working off the zeitgeist would incorporate world music, modern classical and even turnbulism. The previous incarnations can still be revered but the verbiage of categorization keeps a lot of the current generation, looking to make statements not in the language of their forefathers but rather their own, marginalized and thus harder to find.
Multi-instrumentalist/band leader Jon Armstrong’s new album Burnt Hibiscus is a prime example of continued artistic evolution of the form. He eschews concern over genre label for the restless curiosity which has always served him well.
Burnt Hibiscus is for a ten-piece ensemble which includes vocals by Sheela Bringi (who also plays an eclectic selection of instruments including Celtic harp, Harmonium and Bansuri flute throughout). There are seven tracks on the album for which Jon incorporated different classical Indian ragas and scales, one for each song. This combined with the combination of the ensemble which is comprised largely of lower end brass and bass clarinets gives the work a cohesive feel and distinct cadence.
“There They Are” starts off with a solo lament from trumpet which would not sound out of place in a New Orleans dirge. It is joined by the voice of a harp, this melancholy beauty conjuring up a possible vision of a jazzman standing at the pearly gates, the trumpeter now not having to sing for his super but to reiterate why he is there.
The vocals have an ethereal quality to them, delicate and plaintive. The lyrics are put forth in a somewhat opaque manner, which is all right as there is an intimacy to them that fosters emotion. The song has the sad beautiful quality to it as if witnessing the first few petals to fall off a flower.
The songs are all various tempos. Depending upon the mood I was in, I found myself gravitating towards one over the other but there are no weak moments of execution.
“Apricot” starts off with Jon’s lone saxophone. With a laconic tone, it is the inner musing thoughts that serves as a type of prelude to weight and motion. There is a descending bass drone of tuba and the flurry of percussion over which long lines of vocals unfurl, mirrored now by the saxophone. Sonically, a feeling, denizens of the downtown sound floating upon lotus leaves. This song shows off to best effect the interesting instrumentation of the ensemble and how densely compelling a pattern they achieve.
“Flat Water”, clocking in at a little over ten minutes is the longest track. It starts off trance inducingly slow, giving the effect of something happening steadily, a little bit at a time, such as rain dripping off leaves. There is an elemental and contemplative feel to the section where reeds are introduced. This piece could be modern classical as done by someone like Lou Harrison who drew from the idiom of other cultures.
The album does not seek to be “authentic” in its use of ragas nor does it merely slap such inflections onto extended jazz numbers. It incorporates and draws inspiration from not only them but elements of 20th century classical. This is in the spirit of jazz.
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Posted in Review on September 27, 2016
There is a whisper in my heart, echoing down a dead end street full of disregarded desires. The brief moments in which we allow ourselves to enjoy the small pleasures of life are akin to a treasure that is never accrued. I had not been intent upon anything other than dipping my toe, swimming in the stream of life for a few hours before once again taking up the pen.
She sat a few stools down from me with no other strangers between us serving as a buffer zone. I watched her absent mindedly in much the same way one would contemplate a painting in an empty museum. The ice in my drink was the priceless gem that I wanted to give her.
We talked. Our taste in literature was too different for one of us to not appear as judgmental. Switching to music, I nearly appeared more closed minded than I am by thumbing my nose at the mention of certain standards that she enjoyed.
Collecting our glasses with a smile, the bartender found a good luck charm for the night. Eventually though, the empty glass will look like all the others. The velocity of her kiss made me dizzy, carrying me home quicker than she could hold me.
I lay on my side, looking at the elongated reflection of myself in the goldfish bowl which I kept on the night table for emptying my change into. In these fleeting hours before dawn I am made pure once again by my solitude, an encroaching ecstasy as experienced by the lonely.
The sun rises and I walk on the first few pale rays which pierce through the window into the kitchen to make some coffee.
I sit at my desk since my stomach is not yet ready for toast. The coffee is strong and hot, its seeming perfection making me feel that it should be accompanied by some music. I reach for the new release by Greg Murphy, Summer Breeze. I do sometimes miss records with their soft pop, a fire about to start that would precede the music, regardless of genre.
In thinking of our conversation last night, I had known from the get-go that she was right but had been interested in hearing her defense of standards and covers.
Regardless of how far afield one goes in life or geographically, we carry our homes in the music that we listen to and the food that we cook. There can be a favorite dish, cooked over the course of traveling or a lengthy stay somewhere. The ingredients and equipment used to execute the dish may vary but the essence remains the same. Songs too are like that, whether by the original artist played over the span of a career or their peer(s) for whom it provided inspiration.
The inspiration emanating from one artist to another. When not used as a lazy shorthand, this is what is meant when an artist’s name is used to describe another’s tone or way of playing.
Greg over the course of his career has played in all different types of ensembles. Some of his influences are detectable but in a way which makes him an artistic “son of” as opposed to mere stylistic parroting. For his new release his choice of material is a mix of originals along with some covers whose style resonates simpatico with the program of music.
The players on the CD are his regular band along with some guest stars to expand the ensemble’s sonic possibilities.
‘Fall”, a great Wayne Shorter tune, retains the spirit of the original while letting his bands’ identity shine through. I have always been a fan of Greg’s playing on slower pieces as it really gives one a feel for his cadence, his crystalline tink-plink. For this piece he utilizes space in a way that it is as important as what he is actually playing. An intentional stutter of beauty. This is one of the pieces which features Josh Evans on trumpet. His tone is mid ranged and round. There is an unhurried elegance to it, all soft angles of a night where no matter what happens, it will be good.
“Tsk” is an original, written by Greg. It starts off as a sort of sanctified lament that slowly unfurls into a three-way conversation, murmured by keyboard, bowed bass and trumpet. The piece if not suite like in construction, is so in intent with its shifting moods and tempos all; revolving around an established aural theme. A beautiful mid-section showcases Eric Wheeler’s vociferous bass pulses and drones over Kush Abadey’s brush and cymbal work. When Greg returns to the song his keyboard serves as punctuation marks for sentences of varying length exclaimed by trumpet and staccato bass. Elements of fusion when it was not overblown are incorporated into the second half of the song. All the sonic forward motion is brought to an end by the squeak of a trumpet and piano strings being caressed so that they sigh akin to a hand dulcimer.
“Cedar Salad” is another original written by Greg. It has late era hard bop in its DNA. Eric Wyatt sits in on saxophone and the interplay among the musicians never betrays that he is not a regular member of the band. It is a cooker without having to resort to merely playing off of (blues) heads. There are some great lines played in unison by trumpet and saxophone. A fullness of sound exists on this piece which despite a quicker tempo, never lapses into mere cacophony.
Malou Beauvoir does guest vocals on several tracks including the cd’s namesake. The most successful track is a cover of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady“. This song has been often recorded both as an instrumental and with vocals. While there are many amazing versions, it is a standard that does not have the one definitive singer/version. Despite familiarity with the song, part of its unending brilliance is to serve as fertile ground for each singer to make to it what they will, a sonic Rorschach test.
The song starts at a slow tempo with muted trumpet shadowing the vocal lines. Malou has a strong voice which never lapses into an over showy dinner theater cadence. It is lower and warm, sometimes verging on horn-like. Both the ability of the band and the singer make it an organically perfect fit.
Rather than trying to make the song her own or sing it in the manner of one of her predecessors had, her approach is to do a highly enjoyable execution.
The last half of the song has a quicker tempo accompanied by a latin tinged feel. Some may feel it an odd choice to what is often interpreted as a paean to melancholy, however the original version was instrumental (1932) and had a sunnier program having been inspired by three of Duke’s teachers that would summer in Europe. The song ends with Malou who splits her time between Belgium, Paris and New York murmuring in French.
Summer Breeze is Greg’s debut for the label Whaling City Sound. The sonics are spot on with nice ambient warmth throughout.
I drink coffee, the ink flows the music plays. Each sentence is a kingdom. Those things left unsaid, the words which lay in wait, the space between the heavens to be revisited again and again like a good song.
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Posted in Uncategorized on September 1, 2016
My thoughts move like the needle of a compass slowly setting on a position. It was all those years ago, when we had first arrived in Paris, well before we found our footing, living over in the eighth. The excitement of being in Paris, walking the same streets as that of all of my heroes. At night, lying in bed, I would go down the long list; all the names forming a sort of prayer.
Of course I could not sleep. Powered by nervous energy I could not even manage to walk at a normal pace, which would have allowed me to take more in. Every café called to me. Initially I could not sit still long enough to be noticed and then become categorized as a regular. No surprise either that I suffered from insomnia.
There was a heat wave, my heart raced; I wondered what happened to everyone that I used to know. Even those whose fates I had long ago stopped caring about. It was just a temporary malady. The heat also messed with all the birds too. They sang, their calls coming at the wrong hours, mixing worry and confusion, groups of three or four voices echoing from the treetops and balcony flower boxes which clung to black wrought iron railings.
My head felt like it was going to crack open as I sat in the tub; hands clasped, arms around my knees which were pulled up to my chest. You rubbed a cold cloth down my back. I am thinking of horses. Momentarily I had thought that maybe I was going crazy. Years later, after everything else, I now know that had not been the case as I had actually been enjoying the sensation.
Now, I recline in a tub, several arrondissements over, Mallarme and a tea balancing on the lip. I wet a face cloth and put its hot weight on my forehead. I pull at its edge with my fingers, draping it over my nose. Still damp but no longer dripping, It forms a rough hewn royal blue shroud that bears a resemblance to me. I slowly exhale through the cloth and try to imagine who wonders what ever became of me.
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Posted in Uncategorized on August 27, 2016
The sad passing of one of the most important non-musicians in the world of modern Jazz.
Posted in Short Story on August 2, 2016
I did not require service every day which I think was secretly appreciated.
One day my timing was off, I got back from lunch before my room was ready. So patiently and unobtrusively did I stand in the corner that the maid soon forgot my presence.
As she was making up the bed she paused and looked out the window. I was the voyeur receiving knowledge for my discretion.
How long would she look? Despite being younger than I, for her there was no longer any dreams of escape but now merely that of brief distractions.
Once again aware of my presence, she blushed, backing out of the room, pulling her cart after her.
Without having sought to, she influenced me. Out of curiosity I let my gaze drift out the window, not necessarily interested in what I would see but rather what I would think in thoughts drifting.
Not meant in the same way as used to describe a maudlin holiday special, talking to you on the phone with the curtains drawn is timeless. There seems to be, as the conversation ambles, all different aspects of me and not just me as I am, but also as I had been and will be that take turns rising to the foreground.
What times is it there?
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