Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Tuesday, April 13, 2021
© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Not to demean other approaches to the music, but I have a preference for straight ahead Jazz: Jazz that you can pop your fingers to; tap your foot to; nod your head to. Its metronomic pulse - what some refer to as “swing” - creates a feeling of elation in me as I get carried away listening to the music.
And in this context, solo, duo, trio, and horn plus rhythm section are all enjoyable formats for this form of Jazz, although, I have a particular fondness for what I refer to as “ensemble Jazz;” Jazz as played by quintets, sextets and octets.
Multi-horn front lines allow for more use of harmonies which in turn produce more textures or sonorities in the music. To my ear, the music sounds richer and fuller
In the modern idiom, the most common form of ensembles are quintets headed-up by trumpet and saxophone combinations. But I was particularly intrigued by groups led by Art Blakey, Benny Golson and Art Farmer and Gerry Mulligan formed sextets that included the trombone as the latter provided a bass clef extension or vehicle for the harmonies used in their arrangements. More recently the Marsalis brothers sported such a group.
The traditional, straight tenor trombone is written in the key of C, and it is in "Concert Pitch." This means that trombone, unlike many other wind instruments, will have the same notes and note names as a piano.
This sets up a host of possibilities for the arranger in terms of creating “colors” when the trombone is combined with a trumpet and a tenor saxophone.
When powered by a hard-driving and swinging piano, bass and drums rhythm section, and in the hands of a composer-arranger who can take full advantage of the possibilities, such a sextet becomes a Jazz Juggernaut.
Enter tenor saxophonist Joan Benavent’s latest CD - Sunrise [SedaJazz Records V448-2020] - which pairs him with Pep Zaragoza, trumpet and Bart van Lier, trombone on the front line and a rhythm section made up of pianist Miguel Rodriquez, bassist Steve Zwanink and drummer Eric Ineke.
The album is made up of four originals by Joan and four standards from what is now commonly referred to as The Great American Songbook: Skylark, Mean to Me, Body and Soul and What Is This Thing Called Love.
In listening to the recording, I started at the end, so to speak, with What Is This Thing Called Love - an old standby which closes the album because its familiar melody gave me a chance to “set my ears” to Joan’s arranging style, and also because, I knew it would most likely by played as and up tempo tune in a straight ahead manner.
I wasn’t disappointed. Using Pep’s trumpet as the lead voice for the melody and the tenor to play the bridge, Joan beautifully integrates the sonorities of the instruments to explore the song as well as develop countermelodies and riffs off the main theme.
It’s a prime example of the way that the music boldly bursts forward on this recording as Joan takes advantage of the range of possibilities presented by this instrumentation.
The interplay of the textures afforded by the trumpet, trombone, tenor sax and piano is particularly evident on the recordings four originals, all penned by Joan: Sunrise, El Banca de La Serp, Tres Voltes Maria, and El Ogro Grogro [which is based on Benny Golson’s Jazz standard, Stablemates].
Joan takes great care in his treatments of the ballads on the recording. For example, Body and Soul has a rubato Intro by Joan with Miguel, Steve and Eric coming in at the bridge in tempo; Miguel plays the first solo with Joan coming in on the bridge to solo after which Miguel, Steve and Eric return to take it out. Miguel offers a brief introduction on Skylark, Joan states the melody with the rhythm section and the tune then becomes a vehicle for sensitive solos by Bart van Lier on trombone and Joan.
Skylark highlights Joan's ability to play a simple melody and get some feeling into it - a rare thing these days of overplaying and overblowing to the point that even familiar tunes lose all recognition.
Mean to Me is given a surprising twist when it’s played at an up tempo ¾ time and serves as a solo vehicle for Joan, Bart and Miguel.
Joan’s tone comes from Sonny Rollins with some harmonic helpings of Michael Brecker and Walt Weiskopf and he blends well with Pep, who has a brilliant solo with overtones of Freddie Hubbard and Jim Rotondi on the opener, Sunrise, and Bart, whose trombone style, while being very much his own, reminds me in places of Willie Dennis and Jimmy Knepper. Miguel’s solos are always informed, both rhythmically and harmonically, and bring to mind a young Herbie Hancock.
Chuck Israels the renown bassist, composer-arranger and music educator once stated that when he works with a drummer he expects to hear “wedding bells” - an obvious metaphor for the bassist and drummer locking in to drive the time feel. Well, Chuck would certainly be happy with the union that bassist Steve Zwanink and drummer Eric Ineke established throughout Sunrise as this fusion forms a “heartbeat” that keeps each of the tracks on the album alive, fresh and swinging.
The use of modes, odd time signatures, and tempo changes keep things interesting throughout and, with so much going on in the music, Miguel, Steve and Eric keep it moving straight-ahead by laying down the beat and staying out of the way.
Whenever possible, in the few reviews that I do bring up on these pages, I attempt to have the musician talk about the music on their recordings to bring you their perspective.
In this instance, I elicited some commentary by asking Joan the following questions which he was kind enough to answer via email.
I do have two questions for you - why did you decide to arrange the music for a sextet?
Also, why did you choose these particular musicians for your group?
“I decided to arrange for sextet because it's the largest small ensemble, and it gives the opportunity to have harmonic density in the melodies and arranged parts like solis or counterpointistic melodies without having the inconvenience of putting together a large band. That can be an inconvenience for the reason of matching agendas, because some of us were flying from Spain to record in Holland, so we had quite a short time for making the whole thing happen.
I've chosen these musicians because Eric and I were looking for a project that combined both jazz scenes, the Spanish and Dutch. So we have invited some of our favourite musicians and great friends that, at the same time, were representative from each of the scenes.
Miguel Rodriguez is an Spanish piano player that has been living in Holland since he moved there to graduate, nearly 20 years ago. Since then he became one of the most essential pianists in NL, playing with the top of the scene. The same happens with Steve Zwanink, a Canadian-Dutch bass player that moved to NL to follow jazz studies. Since he is around he has shared the stage with the most important local jazz musicians and with others from abroad that called them as a local sideman. Bart van Lier is probably the father of the Dutch jazz trombone, he is still active and kicking, as you can hear him. The same with Eric, sharing stage as a side man for some of the most important jazz cats in history when they came to Europe, and still burning. Pep Zaragoza is one of the top trumpeters from the young wave in Spain, awarded and claimed several times.
In my case, I also moved to NL to study jazz, then I met Miguel and Steve (as classmates) and Eric as a teacher first and my mentor afterwards. After seven years living there I moved back to Spain and since then I'm living happily making music in my place and coming back to NL every once in a while to play with these cats.”
Sunrise by Joan Benavent and his colleagues is another example of Jazz as a music without boundaries or as “the gift” that Dizzy Gillespie once described as - “If you can hear it, you can have it.” Thanks to Joan, Pep, Bart, Miguel, Steve and Eric, Jazz is well-heard in both Spain and The Netherlands.
Monday, April 12, 2021
© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“ ’Round Midnight” shows what it means to devote your life to music.
By Howard Fishman
The New Yorker
April 7, 2021
Jazz musicians play a club, in a scene from “ ’Round Midnight.”Photograph from Warner Bros. / Photofest
The jazz world owes a debt of gratitude to the filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who died on March 25th, at the age of seventy-nine. The French auteur’s career included such stylistically disparate films as “A Sunday in the Country” and “Death Watch,” but his signature work may be the moody, impressionistic “ ’Round Midnight,” from 1986, about an aging American jazz musician in nineteen-fifties Paris and the admiring fan who befriends and helps him. It’s ironic (and maybe fitting) that it took a foreign director to do justice to a quintessential American art form. “ ’Round Midnight” is the film that jazz deserves.
American jazz movies tend to resemble the “scare films” in driver’s-ed classes, cautionary tales that show what happens when we don’t follow the rules. From “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927, right up through this past year’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” the story that Hollywood has told about jazz is one involving over-the-top caricatures, the lives of its geniuses rife with criminality, runaway libidos, wanton self-destruction, and obsessive madness. If American cinema has a message to impart, it seems to be that jazz musicians are trouble—best observed from a safe (read: morally superior) distance. They’re exotic creatures, these movies say. They’re not like us.
“ ’Round Midnight” is the exception. Tavernier treats the jazz milieu with respect, subtlety, and restraint. (He also co-wrote the screenplay, with David Rayfiel.) There is no overheated drama to be found here. There is a love story, but, rather than a fraught tale of sexual misadventure, it’s a platonic one—and it’s between two men. That one of them is Black and the other is white doesn’t overtly factor into their relationship, a reminder that the opportunity for regular work was not the only reason that many great African-American jazz artists fled to Europe in that era. (The film was inspired, in part, by Francis Paudras’s “Dance of the Infidels,” an account of the pianist Bud Powell’s expatriate years in France.)
Tavernier’s elegiac film shows us scenes of musicians as real, three-dimensional people: plying their wares each night, talking about life, listening to records, sharing meals, taking walks. They’re funny and flawed, imperfect yet dignified. Some tropes do appear—the central character struggles with alcohol dependence, and there is a fast-talking New York manager (played by Martin Scorsese)—but these are treated with a soft touch.
Tavernier’s best decision was entrusting the lead role to the saxophone legend Dexter Gordon, who infuses every frame he appears in with a kind of insouciant gravitas. (His acolyte is played by François Cluzet.) Although only in his early sixties when the film was shot, Gordon was “very old for his age,” the film’s producer, Irwin Winkler, told me. He seems ancient, and not of this world. His character interacts with everyday reality as much as is required of him—to place an order, to introduce a tune, to offer some gentle wisdom to a small child. But whether speaking, playing, or simply in repose, what Gordon exudes most is philosophical detachment, the melancholy knowledge that the life he has chosen demands that he keep some part of himself separate, ready to heed the call of his muse when he takes the stage each night. “My life is music. My love is music. And it’s twenty-four hours a day,” Gordon’s character says. His heavyweight, world-weary performance is that of someone who knows that his days are numbered, like Robert Ryan, in John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of “The Iceman Cometh,” or Richard Farnsworth, in David Lynch’s “The Straight Story.”
Although Gordon portrays the fictional Dale Turner, we always know who he really is, and we’re lucky to have his magnetic performance captured for posterity. (Gordon died less than four years after the film was released.) When he’s heard invoking the names of some of his favorite tenor-sax players (“Lester Young . . . Coleman Hawkins . . . Ben Webster”) or when he rhapsodizes about Count Basie and Charlie Parker, these are stirring meta-moments that add to the film’s verisimilitude. Tavernier called the film “incredibly emotional to shoot, because the frontier between life and fiction was always completely thin.”
Gordon had never before played a dramatic role on film, and his only acting experience had been in a Los Angeles production of Jack Gelber’s play “The Connection,” a quarter-century earlier, in which he portrayed a jazz musician with a drug habit. But his widow, Maxine Gordon, told me that “Dexter always considered getting onstage as a performance and as acting. He was ready when he was selected for the film, and knew that he had to do what other great artists had never had the opportunity to do.” Gordon received an Oscar nomination for his work, and Marlon Brando wrote to him to say that it was the first time in fifteen years that he’d learned something new about acting.
The entire film is like a lazy, languid ballad performed by an ensemble of masters. In interviews that Tavernier gave after the film’s release, he spoke of the challenges of capturing “the bizarre, enigmatic way jazz musicians relate to each other. They make Pinter’s characters sound like . . . over-explainers.” He solved this by allowing Gordon and his fellow-musicians (a cast of jazz heavies that included Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard, and Billy Higgins) to set the tempo of the scenes. He let them relax. He gave them space, and then let them fill it up. Sometimes, there are long, empty pauses, “the same way that in the jazz the notes that the people don’t play are as important as the notes that they play,” Tavernier said.
All but one of the musical performances were shot live, and are gorgeously captured, with long swaths of camera stillness that linger over the introspective concentration of players who are creating in real time and the audiences that are admiring them. Tavernier was careful to populate these scenes with genuine jazz fans and people from that world rather than with movie extras, to allow for authentic reaction shots. “I wanted that kind of thing where nothing happens,” he noted. “Just people listening.”
It’s the sort of cinematic pace that has all but been done away with in the Netflix era; no swirling cameras or frenetic jump shots here—just long, pensive, slow takes of musicians at work. We see Gordon’s wordless gestures again and again, his reactions to what his bandmates play, the delight he takes in the colors they choose in their comping and in their solos. We see the joy of musicians simply making music together—the smiles, the eye contact, the body language. It feels authentic because it is.
“I was impressed with the approach,” Ron Carter told me. “So often, you see musicians played by actors who don’t even know how to hold their instruments correctly” (although he was quick to single out Chadwick Boseman for fingering his trumpet properly in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). To the untrained ear, jazz can sound as random as a Jackson Pollock drip painting looks, but the visual intimacy that Tavernier captures makes the mystery of a jazz ensemble universally accessible.
I was a teen-ager when “ ’Round Midnight” was released, just beginning to explore jazz as a listener, and I remember the revelations it held for me about the life surrounding this music, one so at odds with the values presented by my homogenous, upwardly mobile upbringing. These musicians didn’t make a lot of money, drive fancy cars, or have much in the way of creature comforts. They lived in small, sparsely furnished rooms, ate home-cooked meals, and lived modestly. But they were seemingly in possession of an inner calm that I found alluring. Their spirits seemed vital, their souls intact. I remember thinking to myself, “I want to do that.”
Having now spent most of my adult life as a musician and bandleader, I can say that just about every other jazz film I’ve seen depicts a reality I don’t recognize. Although it’s true that the history of this music is littered with struggle, misbehavior, and hardship, what profession isn’t? Humans are human. For every Buddy Bolden, Lester Young, or Anita O’Day, there are any number of lesser-known, less-celebrated jazz musicians as dedicated to their art, minus the self-torture. The ones I know—those with staying power, the first-call players who always have work—are mostly a quiet bunch, humble people dedicated to their craft. They’re good friends, devoted parents, loving siblings, and loyal partners who do their jobs with the positive attitude, solid work ethic, and healthy sense of humor that are the hallmarks of any career professional. The ones who unhappily subscribe to the Hollywood notion that great art requires suffering, those who engineer chaos when their lives get too placid, generally don’t last. As the violinist Charlie Burnham, a man who’s been doing this for more than half a century, said to me, “The jazz life is not that much different from any other kind of life.”
Revisiting “ ’Round Midnight” after all these years, I was stunned by how nuanced and true it still feels. Maybe it’s just the effect of this long year (and counting) of being unable to perform in small rooms, but the film viscerally evoked the best associations I have of my life as a bandleader: the cozy, unspoken camaraderie that can be established with a group of strangers each night. The daylight hours spent exploring the streets of a new city, breathing unfamiliar air, noticing a different quality of the light, internally reviewing the previous night’s show: what had worked, what had not, what could be added or changed—a different tempo or new song—to the set that evening.
But, more than anything, I was reminded of a feeling I’ve been fortunate enough to have known at the end of many of those long evenings on the stand. Having made myself completely available to the flow of improvised music, emboldened by the trust afforded me by my bandmates and our audience. Having followed unexplored paths, and discovered worthwhile things. Those nights walking home along the deserted streets of a dreaming city, with perhaps only a fistful of dollars in my pocket, my clothes reeking from perspiration and the stench of the club, but rich with a feeling I might call ecstatic peace—an awareness that I’d not only served my purpose that day as well as I possibly could but had even managed to somehow transcend the particulars of my individual life. A sense of being complete, of deep satisfaction, a kind of success not included in the American dream of cash and prizes.
I count these experiences as among the highlights of my life, a fulfillment of the promise I saw offered by “ ’Round Midnight” when I first watched it, thirty-five years ago. As Dexter Gordon himself asks rhetorically in “Sophisticated Giant,” Maxine Gordon’s account of her husband’s life, “Why do most jazz stories dwell on the negative side of this life? We are people who get to play music for a living. What could be better?”