From the archives: Jazz

Or, if you'd prefer, return to the most recent posts.

Greenie’s Blues

Saturday, 11 July 2009 — 10:23pm | Jazz, Music

Prowlers of Wikipedic biographies may have come across the factoid that Alan Greenspan was once a Juilliard-educated jazz musician who played with Stan Getz. What you may not know, however, is that “Greenie” was allegedly a very good jazz musician—or could have been, were he not intimidated out of it by the best. As Joe Queenan reports in The Weekly Standard:

Napolitano was in the room the night Greenspan’s supernova career fizzled out. It was September 14, 1949, and Greenspan found himself in the same Greenwich Village club as John Coltrane. Coltrane, a convivial sort, went out of his way to be friendly to the youngster, but Greenspan was having none of it. Sax at the ready, he challenged Coltrane to an onstage showdown. It was a mistake he would regret for the rest of his life.

“Trane smoked his ass,” Parnell remembers. “Greenie foolishly tore into ‘Cherokee,’ Charlie Barnet’s old standby, but Trane knew that tune inside out from his days in Kansas City. Greenie tried to keep up, but no chance. Trane didn’t rile easily, but something about the way Greenie carried himself didn’t suit John. Trane took him apart.”

(No, it isn’t true. But, much like the Orson Welles film of The Bat-Man, it’s a story one wants to believe.)

Annotations (1)

You’ll know the real thing when you hear it

Monday, 6 July 2009 — 9:16pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Kenny Werner performed in Edmonton on Thursday with his touring quintet (Randy Brecker (trumpet), David Sanchez (tenor sax), Scott Colley (bass), Antonio Sanchez (drums)). I am pleased to say it was one of the most complete jazz concerts I’ve seen, full of vitality and character at every turn.

Let me put it this way. After Werner whistled along to his own piano outro at the tail end of his lovely, lovely composition, “Uncovered Heart”—which he introduced as the song he wrote on the day his daughter was born—my classical composer companion leaned over to me and whispered, “So I’ve decided on his behalf that he is going to have more children.”

In retrospect, were we unable to plead ignorance it would have been a callous remark. What Mr Werner did not tell us was that his beloved daughter had perished in a car accident two years earlier. I suppose he trusted the music to speak for itself—and it did.

The band played a set consisting mostly of originals from his 2007 album Lawn Chair Society (“New Amsterdam”, “Uncovered Heart”, “The 13th Day”), but in a wholly acoustic setting, plus an unrecorded tune (“Balloons”, a lilting piece that bobbed up and down in thirds) and John Williams’ signature melody for the Harry Potter films (“Hedwig’s Theme”).

One can go on forever about how jazz is the quintessentially American music, and nowhere is it more American than in its ideal of individual liberty as the wellspring of greater collective achievement. This was one of those bands where every musician was consistently interesting to listen to, yet never selfish. Brecker’s dizzying bebop lines were an ample foil for David Sanchez’s wide expressive sweeps, and Antonio Sanchez was a real listener who clearly thought in ideas much bigger than patterns and strokes. Colley was a discovery for me, particularly the way he used pizzicato bass to trace smooth legato shapes and do far more than walk. And of Werner’s facility for drawing singsong melodies out of the piano, the more said the better. Elsewhere he cites Joni Mitchell as his primary musical influence, and I believe him.

Werner’s quintet was current, situated in the here and now and doing something fresh, while staying within an accessible jazz aesthetic with traditional instrumentation. The funk-and-swing pastiche of “New Amsterdam” highlighted the continued richness of acoustic instruments in predominantly electric forms, and the screaming intensity of “Hedwig’s Theme” harked back, however distantly, to what John Coltrane did to “My Favorite Things” decades ago. (I don’t hear nearly enough John Williams in jazz: up to the 1960s the adaptation of iconic themes from contemporary cinema and Broadway productions was a matter of course, and one would think that Williams, the definitive composer of film music from 1970 to present, would elicit more widespread treatment.)

There’s plenty of good jazz in the world. But great jazz? You’ll know it when you hear it—and I heard it.

Annotations (0)

Hiromi and the hypercube

Friday, 26 June 2009 — 5:39pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Here is a rough approximation of what I saw at the Calgary Jazz Festival on Wednesday.

That was the ever-theatrical Hiromi Uehara playing the prototypical Gershwin bop standard, “I Got Rhythm”—and boy, does she ever—which she introduced in Calgary as a tribute to her “superhero” (and every other pianist’s), Oscar Peterson.

This is the odd thing about attending jazz concerts in the age of YouTube: you can go home and compare notes with the performer’s previous appearances. In a genre so reliant on improvisation, one of the most tantalizing mysteries in a concert setting is to sort out the spontaneous invention from the premeditated conspiracy of the arrangement. The magic of a great jazz band is that often, you can’t tell—and certainly not from one performance alone. Jazz collectors treasure alternate takes for precisely this reason. The only thing as surprising as the prevalence of well-practiced licks is the astounding synchronicity of a band’s adventures into the unplanned. So the experience of seeing a ghostly resemblance of what you just saw on stage squeezed into a browser window with lo-fi audio is, well, uncanny.

I also feel compelled to add that the performance approximated by the video above is about as representative of the rest of the concert as a musical photo negative. In other words, for the rest of their time onstage, Hiromi’s Sonicbloom (with Tony Grey on bass, Martin Valihora on drums, and David Fiuczynski on a double-necked guitar), playing selections from their 2007 album Time Control alongside standards like “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise”, “Ue wo muite arukuo” (“Sukiyaki”), and “Caravan”, sounded like anything and everything but Oscar Peterson.

Most instrumentalists can be said to trace a glutinous outline of all their forebears in varying concentrations. But Hiromi isn’t every jazz piano style rolled into one: she’s any jazz piano style at discrete pockets of time. She’ll stride into the scene like Erroll Garner, let the grand piano ring over a melodious staircase of Kenny Barron intervals, take a Chick Corea minute to sing and sob on all her pads at once, launch into a Herbie Hancock space-age funk, and top it off a dash of Ahmad Jamal’s crispy blues—sometimes all in the same suite, and with the sporadic slam of the fists or forearm on the keys to make sure you’re paying attention.

I would not call this “seamless”, a word that implies the continuity of a polynomial. The transitions are abrupt, the stylistic lineages unmistakable. Listening to Hiromi is like witnessing a cubist tour of jazz and rock piano with the edges sharpened and the innards bursting out of frame. And while I’m admittedly not too fluent with the evolutionary histories of the other instruments, I get the distinct sense that her bandmates are doing the same, pushing their axes to the limits of their prog-rock vocabulary.

As exciting as it is to listen to musicians who grew up on everything and decided to play it all, one has to wonder if there’s anywhere to go next. If the contemporary style is a collision of styles, where do we go from here? Collisions within collisions, or somewhere else? A sonic bloom, indeed.

Annotations (0)

Wednesday Book Club: Coltrane

Wednesday, 6 May 2009 — 2:41pm | Book Club, Jazz, Literature, Music

This week’s selection: Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (2007) by Ben Ratliff.

In brief: Ratliff’s carefully organized history of John Coltrane’s diverse musical stylings and its legacy in post-1960s jazz is a concise work of criticism that wisely puts the musical evidence front and centre. Its great success is its insistence on establishing Coltrane’s monumental importance instead of merely asserting it as the truth.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Coltrane, keep reading below.)

Continued »

Annotations (0)

Austin McBride’s piano comedy hour

Monday, 23 March 2009 — 6:27am | Jazz, Music, Pianism

It’s difficult in the age of YouTube, weblogs, self-publication, and the Cult of the Amateur, but I try my level best never to crap all over people who are bad at what they do. Not everybody has the talent to be worth their salt in what they like doing, but people on the cusp of development have room to improve, and it doesn’t do any good to put them down. I’m sure that by strictly professional standards, I’m not very good at what I do either. In fact, I believe quite strongly that one of the essential steps to the mastery of a chosen skill—creative, competitive, or otherwise—is when you reach a stage where you understand how far you have to go before you can honestly consider yourself among the experts, even (and especially) if the casual observer can’t tell the difference.

When a shockingly incompetent amateur poses as a professional source of wisdom, is oblivious to said incompetence, and puts it on display for everyone to see in the form of an instructional video—well, that’s comedy, and it is my duty as a responsible citizen to point and guffaw as hard as I can so no poor fool gets suckered.

Meet Austin McBride, the worst “jazz” “pianist” on the Internet.

Ever wondered what it would be like to hear Sarah Palin deliver a lecture about foreign policy? That’s Austin McBride.

There is a very real possibility that he’s a sick comic genius. The timing of his musical offences is almost too perfect: the consistent pattern in his minute-long videos is to begin with a mangled explanation that might sound plausible to the absolute beginner, and follow it up with a punch line of an “experimental” demonstration.

Who else could come up with gems like this:

But I’ve seen intentional jazz parodies. (Hans Groiner comes to mind.) Intentional parodies are musically literate enough to be deliberate about straying as far from the elements of jazz as possible, and leaving a trail of stylistic breadcrumbs to make it obvious. This fellow—well, I suppose he also offers tutorials on breakdancing and bouncing golf balls on clubs, but I’m still not convinced it’s a joke.

More likely, Austin McBride is a tone-deaf scrub who’s never heard a bar of jazz in his life. And if anything he’s doing is reflective of the general perception of what jazz sounds like—a bunch of nonsense licks and blues scales over repetitive block chords—we, as a civilization, are in a serious heap of trouble.

[Edit (9/29): Given the amount of traffic this page gets from people curious about Mr McBride, it behooves me to acknowledge that it has since become clear the whole shebang was a joke. If you are still on the fence, please consult this video, where he sports a deliberately ridiculous beatnik outfit and plays in five while counting in four.]

Annotations (15)

« Back to the Future (newer posts) | A Link to the Past (older posts) »