Monday, August 31, 2015

John Fedchock's New York Big Band - "Like It Is"

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Cheerful syncopation, served with spit-and-polish precision."
— The New York Times

"John Fedchock's New York Big Band commands your attention and holds it."
— DownBeat
"An unabashed celebration of the large band format."
— The Chicago Tribune
"Tantalizing big-band Jazz, served New York-style."
— Cadence

“Big band music has made some dramatic changes over the years, and even though many embrace this evolution, there seem to be plenty of folks who'd prefer everything just remain like it was. But truth be told, some of the best things in music have come from combining the "like it was" with the "like it is", melding the greatness of the past with a fresh perspective using today's ears, approaching each piece like a drawing of familiar images sketched in an abstract form. ….

Over these past many years, I like to think the band has evolved in many ways. Those changes may not have been dramatic, but I do believe we've always done what we could to honor both the "like it was" and the "like it is". I hope you enjoy this recording. We had a great time making it for you.”
- John Fedchock

Ann Braithwaite and her fine team at Braithwaite & Katz do a lot of nice things for Jazz, not the least of which is to own and operate a media relations firm that distributes sample music and detailed press information on behalf of Jazz artists who are releasing new CDs.

Every so often I try to return the favor by posting her narratives to JazzProfiles.

Such is the case with the following annotation which Ann sent out to accompany the August 7, 2015 release of Like It Is,  trombonist John Fedcock’s New York Big Band’s latest CD on the MAMA Foundation [MAA 1048].

You can be find out more about John and his big band at and sample the tracks from his new CD at

Order information is available through most online retailers.

If you are into big band Jazz, give yourself a treat as John’s latest effort is a corker. He is a major force in Jazz orchestration today and an arranger and composer who interposes elements of his own innovations into the Jazz tradition thereby keeping it alive and robust while at the same time helping to move it forward. Somewhere the spirits of Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman and Benny Carter are sure to be smiling and no doubt wishing him well.

© -  Ann Braithwaite, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The John Fedchock New York Big Band's Like It Is - to be released by MAMA Records on August 7, 2015 - is the fifth album for the 16-piece ensemble and Fedchock's eighth as leader. This pristinely recorded studio session showcases Fedchock's compelling compositions and arrangements as well as the band's exceptional musicianship. The group, which has been together for over two decades and recorded four previous releases on Reservoir, sets the standard for modern, post-swing large ensembles and has brought Fedchock to the GRAMMY finals for his notable arranging skills. Like It Is features five Fedchock originals and five arrangements of jazz and American classics.

Having first made a name for himself in the 1980s as chief arranger for the legendary Woody Herman, Fedchock has continued to develop his writing style over his 35-year career, and this recording shows his inventive flair in meshing the old with the new. His comments regarding the evolution of the genre explain the album's title: "Even though many embrace the big band's evolution, there seem to be plenty of folks who'd prefer everything just remain like it was. But truth be told, some of the best things in music have come from combining the 'like it was' with the 'like it is', melding the greatness of the past with a fresh perspective using today's ears." He backs up his words with what might be his most ambitious work to date, expertly melding fresh new colors with iconic traditional elements and skillfully interweaving those sounds to underscore the progressive solo voices within the band.

There are plenty of chances to hear the band's profusion of solo talent. Eleven different soloists grace this recording, and all are New York City stalwarts. Saxophonists Mark Vinci, Charles Pillow, Rich Perry, Walt Weiskopf, Gary Smulyan and Scott Robinson; trumpeters Scott Wendholt and Barry Ries, pianist Allen Farnham, bassist Dick Sarpola and drummer Dave Ratajczak all contribute contrasting solo statements perfectly complementing the music. Bobby Sanabria's Latin percussion joins the band on three tracks, lending a strong dose of excitement.

Fedchock's multifaceted trombone playing is also showcased on six tracks, all displaying a different side of his abilities. From speedy and aggressive runs on "You And The Night And The Music" and "Ten Thirty 30," to medium-tempo post-bop forays on "Just Sayin'" and "Hair Of The Dog," to more mellow and soulful statements on the ballad "Never Let Me Go" and in his Cuban bolero original "Havana," Fedchock thoroughly covers the stylistic gamut. Through it all, flawless technique, a melodic approach, and a warm, lush tone remain the trademarks of his improvisational style. Coming on the heels of his critically acclaimed 2015 Summit Records quartet release Fluidity, about which Kirk Silsbee of DownBeat magazine wrote, "one wonders how the trombonist would have sounded next to Clifford Brown.” Fedchock confirms his status as an A-list horn stylist.

The material Fedchock chose to arrange on Like It Is represents a special balance of familiar themes and fresh, original works. The opening track, "You And The Night And The Music" embodies Fedchock's thought process in blending past and present. "My goal was to mask the original structure of the age-old classic while keeping things familiar enough to flex into a more standard context for the soloists/' the bandleader explains. Other classics that receive Fedchock's updated look include Cedar Walton's "Ojos de Rojo" as a full-fledged Latin flag-waver, a tongue-in-cheek version of the Gaines/Ellington classic "Just Squeeze Me" and a pair of lush ballads from the American Songbook: "Never Let Me Go" and "For Heaven's Sake."
Also included in this outing are five Fedchock originals.

The title track harkens back to the sound of 1960s boogaloo and funky cha-cha but is approached from a modernist's perspective, and the quirky blues, "Hair Of The Dog" creates a somewhat programmatic journey. "Havana" transports the listener to a warm Cuban evening; the jaunty "Just Sayin'" shows off an impressive brass section; and "Ten Thirty 30," commissioned for the Clifford Brown Symposium, displays thematic material drawn exclusively from Brown's music and solos updated into a compelling closer. The title comes from the simple abbreviation of Clifford's October 30,1930 birthdate.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Fedchock began his career in 1980 as a jazz trombonist with the legendary Woody Herman Orchestra, serving as featured soloist, musical director and chief arranger for Herman's last two Grammy nominated albums. Herman said of Fedchock, "He's my right hand man. Everything I ask of John he accomplishes, and I ask a lot. He's a major talent." Fedchock has also toured with Gerry Mulligan, T.S. Monk, Louie Bellson, and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, and has performed as a featured soloist, composer and conductor around the world.

With the release of Like It Is, the next chapter has been written for the John Fedchock New York Big Band. As with his previous recordings, this project showcases Fedchock as an artist who will continue to have a hand in guiding and shaping the direction of big band music for years to come.

The following video features John’s exquisite orchestral shadings on the ballad For Heaven’s Sake featuring Barry Ries on flugelhorn.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Blues for Pablo

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Say the name “Pablo” in the context of 20th century Arts and Letters and the name “Pablo Picasso” springs to mind. It did for me as you will no doubt see when you view the video montage that closes this piece.

But as Stephanie Stein Crease explains in the following excerpt from her definitive Gil Evans: Out of the Cool - His Life in Music, Gil Evans had a different “Pablo” in his thoughts when he composed Blues for Pablo, the theme for the music that accompanies the video.  

"Blues for Pablo," written in tribute to a fallen fighter in the Spanish Civil War, successfully uses alternating themes and rhythmic feels — in this case, Spanish bolero and swing — a practice that would become more common in jazz as the 1950s progressed. The composition juxtaposes a Spanish-inflected minor theme and an extended major blues, swinging loosely from a half-time feel to straight 4/4 and back. The opening theme, complete with tremolo, derives from the opening measures of [Manuel de] Falla's Three-Cornered Hat (this theme also appears, somewhat altered, in the ending of Evans's arrangement of "La Paloma"). A Mexican folk song inspired the other main theme. To Gil's astonishment, the musicians found the quirky rhythm difficult for improvisation. "Now, the kind of rhythmic changes that tune went through are very common in jazz. But at that time, I remember bringing in a number in 3/4 and someone said, 'I couldn't improvise in three'—my goodness!" [The quotation is drawn from Gil’s interviews with Stephanie].

To the best of my knowledge, Blues for Pablo first appeared on Miles Ahead which was also released as Miles Davis + 19 [Columbia CL 1041; CK 40784], although with the work of Ryan Truesdell which seems to continue to “unearth” troves of Gil Evans’ earlier manuscripts, who knows, there may still be an earlier version hidden away out there. Blues for Pablo encapsulates much of what I find intriguing about Gil Evans’ writing, especially the melancholy feelings it seems to evoke.

Gil discusses his penchant for pensive sadness and other aspects of his arranging style in the following excerpts from a 1986 interview that aired on Ben Sidran’s NPR radio program [Ben’s interview with Gil along with 42 others are available both in book form an on CD as Talking Jazz: An Oral History]:

“[I joined Claude Thornhill’s band in 1946]. It was a wonderful workshop for me.
It had three trumpets and two trombones and two french horns and two altos, two tenors, baritone and a separate flute section, right? Three flute players, didn't play anything but flutes. And a tuba. So it was a big nut for him, and he finally had to give it up.

Ben: Was it Claude's idea to include the french horns and the tuba, initially?

Gil: The french horns were his idea, yeah. But the tuba, I got that in there. And the flutes. But the french horns he had quite a while. He had them before the war, too, you know.

But the band sounded like horns anyway, even before he got them. It was one of the first bands that played without a vibrato, you know. Because the vibrato had been "in" all the time in jazz, ever since, well, Louis Armstrong, you know, that vibrato. But then Claude's band played with no vibrato and that’s what made it compatible with bebop. Because the bebop players were playing with no vibrato. And they were interested in the impressionistic harmony [French composers Debussy, Ravel, et al], you know, that I had used with Claude. The minor ninths and all that.

That's how we got together, really. That's the reason we got together. Because of the fact that there was no vibrato plus the harmonic development. Because up until that time, with the swing bands, mostly the harmony had been from Fletcher Henderson, really. Where you harmonize everything with the major sixth chords and passing tones with a diminished chord, you know. So that was how things changed with bebop.

Ben: Also, the addition of the french horns and the tuba got the arrangements out of the more traditional "sections" — brass section, woodwind section — and made it more of a continuous palette for you.

Gil: Well, when Miles and I got together to do the Capitol record [Birth of the Cool] we just had to figure out how few instruments, and which ones, we could use to cover the harmonic needs of Claude Thornhill's band, you know. Naturally with a big band like that, you have a lot of doubles. But we just trimmed it down to the six horns. Six horns and three rhythm, and those six horns covered all the harmonic needs that we had. ...

We talked a lot about harmony. How to get a “sound” out of harmony. Because the harmony has a lot to do with what the music is going to “sound” like. The instruments have their “wave” form and all that, but the harmony means that you're putting together a group of instruments, and they're going to get their own independent waveform, right? You can't get it any other way except as an ensemble together. So Miles and I talked about that lots of times. And played chords on the piano. And that's how it happened.

Ben: The "sound" that you did come up with so perfectly suited Miles' sound that it almost seemed like one gesture.

Gil: That's right... 

Ben: You talk about the extension of the Thornhill sound. You once said about the Thornhill band that "the band was a reduction to inactivity, a stillness..."

Gil: Oh, it was. That's right.

Ben: And "the sound would hang like a cloud." Gil: That's right. Oh yeah. ...

Ben: When you finally went in to record Miles Ahead in 1957, again the arrangements were "seamless," and they were almost a translation of Miles' "sound" into orchestral terms. At the same time, I remember some little things that you did that were very distinctive. For example, at the end of the song "Miles Ahead," there's an ensemble trumpet figure that's used almost as an acoustic guitar, a Spanish guitar. There were a lot of things like that in your writing that were very unusual, very deceptive.

Gil: Right. People used to think there were strings in those albums. Even somebody as knowledgeable as Gordon Jenkins. Now you know he wrote for strings all the time. He called me up to tell me how he liked it, and he thought there were strings. And I thought, "Gee, that's funny. Imagine him thinking there are strings." Because he wrote for strings, wow, I've seen him. And he had such a feeling for those things. He'd have a big string section, and they'd all be playing an ensemble that he'd write for them with Louis Armstrong in mind, you know?

Ben: You said that in the interim, from 1949 to 1957, you were waiting for Miles...

Gil: I was waiting for Miles, basically, I was.

Ben: It's so romantic. It sounds like a love affair when you say that.

Gil: I know.

Ben: Much has been made in the past about how Duke Ellington would write for an individual, as opposed to just bringing different people to his notes. Is this in that tradition?

Gil: You know, I never knew Duke. But one day, he called me, you know. To tell me that I was his favorite jazz orchestrator. It was really nice. It really made me feel good. But we got some very bad reviews on that album too, you know. The Miles Ahead album, when it first came out. Wow. They called it the "anti-jazz" album. Stuff like that.

Ben: Well the Birth of the Cool sessions got the same sort of reaction too, didn't it? Critics said it was "devoid of emotion."

Gil: Yeah. We're all victims of the terrible habit of convenience, right? And when you are used to hearing a certain type of music or a certain “sound” of music, and it changes, and you are not with it, or don’t follow it any more, you’re home and you stop going out to clubs and all that … we all suffer from an overdose of convenience at the expense of passion, right?” …

Ben: … with your charts, I have to say, they don't sound dated. Whether we hear one that was done in the '40s or one that was done in the '80s, there's a continuity that relates more to the man than to the historical era.

Gil: Yeah. They're all melancholy. That's one of my characteristics.

Ben: Perhaps that's at the heart of your great compatibility with Miles. Miles is, the voice of melancholy.

Gil: That's how we got together, basically. Really. The "sound," you know. The "sound" is the thing that put us together immediately, and it's always been like that. It's still the same way today. Even if we don't see each other very often, we're still life-time friends. On account of the "sound."”

The following video features Henk Meutgeert’s treatment of Gil’s Blues for Pablo as performed in 2009 by the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw at The Bimhuis in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wim Both does the honors on trumpet. Henk reorchestrated Gil’s original arrangement because the JOC’s instrumentation was different than that used on the original 1957 Miles Ahead recording.

It is no less delightful.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Gary Giddins - "Rhythm-a-ning" [From the Archives]

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The most stimulating young Jazz journalist to surface in years. Giddins combines and exhilarating style with rare insight, standing nearly alone in relating Jazz to allied fields of pop and rock. Highly recommended.” 
-Grover Sales commenting on Gary’s Riding on a Blue Note

I was reared on the Jazz of what was then referred to as the “modern era” - the music as played from about 1945-1965 - so it was not easy for me to transition to the Jazz of the 1980’s.

It didn’t help that I was otherwise preoccupied and essentially away from the music for much of the intervening decade-and-a-half [1970-1985].

What helped me get “caught up,” so to speak, was a beat-up edition of Gary Giddins’ Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation [1986 Oxford University Press] which has since been replaced by a new Da Capo paperback version of the book [2000].

Gary’s many chapters on the musicians he saw in performance, primarily in the early 1980s and reviewed for his column in the Village Voice, retrospectively guided my way back into the music. His work along with the then burgeoning CD reissue industry afforded me an opportunity to fill-in-the-blanks and to move forward with some newfound favorites.

His stated purpose in writing Rhythm-a-ning can be found on page 279:

“Critics should be chroniclers and not prophets. It's not our business to predict trends and scout rookies, praising or damning them in an instant, and taking sides on the future as though art were a sport, and arts critics a breed of scoop-crazed journalists. When I assembled the essays in Rhythm-a-ning, my intention was to make the diversity of subjects illustrate what seemed to me the central phenomenon of jazz in the past decade or so: a neoclassical groping for form that rejected the romantic expressionism of the 1960s, raised the composer to at least a level of parity with the improvisor, and sparked a degree of receptiveness to the music of previous generations that had no precedent in jazz's short history.”

With Gary’s writings, one is always going to school about Jazz. He takes this stuff seriously and gives it much thought before he writes about it.

And how well he writes about it is evident in what his colleagues have to say about him and the book:

“A brilliant collection …. With refreshing insight, wit and a readable style much too rare in this field, Giddins has assembled delightful and instructive pieces that can be returned to again and again.” [Grover Sales, The Los Angeles Times]

“Giddins is the John Updike of Jazz criticism, a writer whose descriptions are so precise and evocative that he enables you to hear the music as you read about it.” [Ken Tucker, Philadelphia Inquirer]

“Giddins writes about Jazz as music, and he gives everyone who loves music a little pang in the interior of the belly which can only be interpreted as a hunger for Jazz.” [Evan Eisenberg, The Nation]

Gary not only hears Jazz in a very discerning manner, he has the ability to convey in writing what he hears in such a way so as to enhance your appreciation of it. The music is ephemeral but the written impressions that Gary forms about it are enduring.

And then there is the snap-your-head-around wit which adds a touch of spice to his reflections and helps keep them from becoming pedantic and lifeless.

Jazz is about excitement and emotion and so are Gary’s observations about the music. They are full of juice and passion - just like the best Jazz.

"Where other critics see deadness in jazz, Giddins sees the youthful spirit of revision and revolution. Giddins is a minutely sensitive listener, and brings to his analysis of new jazz a sweeping sense of historical recall matched by a gift for making imaginative leaps in rhythmically charged prose." [Norman Weinstein, Idaho Statesman]

"[Giddins] is thoroughly at home with virtually the entire jazz tradition. His writing is lively, sophisticated, opinionated yet generous, without eccentricity and with a minimum of nostalgia. . . Rhythm-a-ning is a most stimulating book."                                           [John Litweiler, Down Beat]

"Gary Giddins is the best Jazz critic now at work. . . Giddins's loving, encyclopedic knowledge of the past makes one trust him: ….  I read him to correct my ignorance and for his prose. He's an elegant enthusiast." [Walter Clemons, Newsweek]

"Whether describing a concert, defining a style, or tracing an artist's evolution over several decades, his essays are as pithy as a blues by Thelonious Monk, and every bit as persuasive." [Dean Robbins, Isthmus]

"Rhythm-a-ning has verbal wit and vision and, while deadly serious, it is also infinitely entertaining. . . The reader is enhanced." Roberta Metz Swann, The North American Review]

The following introduction to the book which Garry entitles Jazz Turns Neoclassical was particularly helpful as a point of departure from which to view what Jazz had become in the decade of the 1980s.

© -  Gary Giddins, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“We hear frequent talk of a renaissance in jazz. Musically, the signs are unmistakable; nevertheless, jazz remains nearly subterranean, a thing apart, a private cultural zone. Its state of alienation is frequently blamed on the Hydra that is variously known as the avant-garde, the new thing, the new wave, and free jazz—that is, the contemporary post-modernist jazz of the past twenty-five years. Avant-gardists are depicted, not always inappropriately, as musical Jackson Pollocks spewing sounds into the air without benefit of formal or narrative guidelines. Their music is considered esoteric when it isn't impenetrable, and erstwhile jazz fans, now repulsed by the gladiatorial anarchy that used to attract them, ask accusatory questions: where's the beat, the melody, the beauty? Musicians and critics continue to wonder when free jazz (allowing the supposition that free jazz is jazz—the debate here is unceasing) will be assimilated into the mainstream. In other words, when will Joyce become Dickens, and Bartok Mozart?

As I see it, the avant-garde has been studiously aligning itself with mainstream jazz for some time. The resurgence of jazz means in large measure the resurgence of swing, melody, and beauty, as well as other vintage jazz qualities such as virtuosity, wit, and structure — not that they've ever been entirely absent. If jazz, like other fine arts, had to be relearned in a period of avant-garde extremism, it has long since—and with a vengeance—turned neoclassical. Musicians weaned on the free jazz of the '60s now sift '20s’ classicism, '30s' swing, '40s’ bop, and '50s’ soul for repertoire and expressive wisdom. They are, in effect, going home again.

From 1960 to 1975, adventurous jazz often meant indulgences on the order of 20-minute solos, or freely improvised polyphony, or endlessly repeated ostinatos layered over a single scale. Though the great figures of that period — John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and a few others — could bring off the most demanding improvisational conceits, at least as far as the knowing, sympathetic, and determined listener was concerned, they spawned imitators who mistook freedom for license and justified excess with apocalyptic rhetoric. A backlash was inevitable. Not only were many listeners yearning for restraint but a younger generation of jazz musicians, many of them trained in conservatories, expressed horror that formalism appeared to be vanishing. Jazz has always been a dialectic between improviser and composer: when the improviser gets out of hand, the composer emerges with new guidelines, sometimes borrowed from the distant past.

A couple of years ago, while teaching at a university, I found— for the first time—a way to kindle students' interest in the new jazz players (they need only exposure to appreciate classic players). The course began with a survey of such jazz precursors as spirituals, marches, blues, and ragtime; I simply provided symmetry by concluding the course with treatments of those precursors by avant-garde musicians, including Arthur Blythe's version of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," Anthony Braxton's march from Creative Orchestra Music 1976, "Blues," by Leroy Jenkins and Muhal Richard Abrams, and Air's arrangement of Scott Joplin's "Weeping Willow Rag." Nor was it necessary to stop there. Having traced the evolution of jazz from the beginnings to the present, I might have retraced it with modernistic but idiomatically satisfying interpretations — all recorded since 1975 — of nearly every school and style. Indeed, I might have brought the course full circle by playing the Art Ensemble of Chicago's avant-garde parodies of the avant-garde. Jazz is so eclectic these days that you can find in it almost anything you please.

Jazz modernists rarely investigated the music's past before the avant-garde blew the old jazz truths out of the water. The composers and players of the era immediately following World War II ignored the traditional repertory, and when they did pay homage to the ancients (ragtimers and New Orleans-style players), whatever regard they may have felt was often soured by condescension. Modernism, after all, was a rallying point, and a political movement — a transformation of mere entertainment into art. The genius-leaders of the movement — Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk—knew better, of course; the traditions live in even their most volatile experiments, whereas their disciples, more obsessed with the propaganda of the new, were inclined to dismiss as pass£ the sweetness of Johnny Hodges or the showboating of Louis Armstrong. Still, what both the geniuses and their disciples propagated was new. By comparison, the neoclassicists of the '80s may seem to be offering, at worst, nothing more than half-baked historicism or, at best, an inventive reappraisal of the jazz repertory. In this regard, it's useful to remember that one saving grace of neoclassicism is its impatience with nostalgia. Whereas a modernist of 30 years ago might have used a plunger mute to demonstrate bemused affection for an outmoded style, a neoclassicist of today uses the mute because he knows that it can convey singular and immediate passions.

When all the post-modernist styles—expressionist and neoclassicist alike—are considered "avant-garde" (as, rightly or wrongly, they often are), they constitute an enduring sub-genre in jazz, one that dates back over 25 years. It has its own thesis ("the new wave") and antithesis ("the jazz tradition"). The distinction was made frustratingly clear to me by my students, who were enchanted by the contemporary restatements of classic styles, but resisted the unsettling innovations (works by Taylor, Coleman, etc.) of the '60s. I'm almost resigned to this response. Maybe only in a period of national tumult are people willing to listen to music for the pleasure of being battered and tested. The avant-garde, by definition, has no right to an audience larger than its true believers. Besides, the violent expressionism of the '60s made the current wave of neoclassicism possible; it freed the present generation to look on the jazz tradition with agnostic curiosity. And this generation—virtuosic, ambitious, and disarmingly unpretentious—has no axes to grind about the claims of art over entertainment or of freedom over form, except for the conviction, apparently widespread, that the future of jazz lies in a rapprochement between those putative opposites.

Still, when we talk about a renaissance in jazz, we are talking about a wealth of interesting music, not a broad-scaled awakening of interest in that music. Most of the neoclassical ventures discussed in this book are unknown outside the small enclave of New York clubs and European festivals. For, as all but the most provincial fans know, American jazz musicians are largely invisible in their own country. Few educated Americans can name even five jazz musicians under the age of forty. Jazz is virtually banished from television and commercial radio, and is usually conflated with pop in the press, when acknowledged at all—Time runs a Christmas music wrap-up that lists the best in classical and rock, as though jazz didn't exist. In four decades of prize-giving, the Pulitzer Committee has never recognized a jazz composer (the jurors who voted unanimously to award Ellington, in 1965, were overruled by the Advisory Committee). Booking agencies and record companies no longer scout for serious young jazz musicians. Even colleges, which once provided a network of concert halls for the Modern Jazz Quartet or Gerry Mulligan, now house lab bands that perform standard orchestrations but fail to book active innovators. Most significant jazz recordings of recent years were made abroad for labels like Black Saint in Italy, Hat Hut in Switzerland, Trio in Japan, Enja in Germany, SteepleChase in Denmark, and BVHAAST in Holland, or by tiny American labels, some of them little more than vanities; they are distributed in only a few American cities.

Yet, despite what amounts to a media blackout, jazz somehow manages to replenish its audience and its musicians with every generation. Jazz festivals proliferate, at least in Europe, and so do independent labels and reissue series. Mail-order companies, from the Smithsonian Collection to Time/Life, have found a bonanza in jazz. The music may be in exile, but it isn't fading away. I intend to help spread the news of the increasing accessibility of swing and melody and beauty in the jazz of the '80s, but I'm fully aware that the bounding line between jazz and the mainstream of American life is a tradition unto itself. In 1965, Dwight Macdonald wrote an account of an arts festival at Lyndon Johnson's White House that unwittingly embodied the problem. Macdonald, who was rarely unwitting about anything, complained that "no composers of any note were present." Several paragraphs later, he observed parenthetically that the "best thing at the festival" and "the only really happy-looking people, in fact, were Duke Ellington and his bandsmen." That's the way it is now, only more so. Nobody here but us happy-looking jazzmen, boss.”

In addition to an Introduction and an Afterword, Rhythm-a-ning is made up of fifty-eight [58] chapters and six subchapters.  I read it episodically and usually with the music of the artist under discussion playing on my CD changer.

While doing so, I tried to keep the following thoughts as drawn from Gary’s introduction in mind so as to let them serve as guiding principles in helping to move my ears in new directions:

[1] “The resurgence of jazz means in large measure the resurgence of swing, melody, and beauty, as well as other vintage jazz qualities such as virtuosity, wit, and structure — not that they've ever been entirely absent. If jazz, like other fine arts, had to be relearned in a period of avant-garde extremism, it has long since—and with a vengeance—turned neoclassical. Musicians weaned on the free jazz of the '60s now sift '20s’ classicism, '30s' swing, '40s’ bop, and '50s’ soul for repertoire and expressive wisdom. They are, in effect, going home again.”

[2] “Jazz is so eclectic these days that you can find in it almost anything you please.”

[3] “ … the violent expressionism of the '60s made the current wave of neoclassicism possible; it freed the present generation to look on the jazz tradition with agnostic curiosity. And this generation—virtuosic, ambitious, and disarmingly unpretentious—has no axes to grind about the claims of art over entertainment or of freedom over form, except for the conviction, apparently widespread, that the future of jazz lies in a rapprochement between those putative opposites.

I hope these beacon points serve you as well as they served me in pointing the way to Jazz as it had become in the 1980s and beyond.

When Gary Giddins is giving them and the subject is Jazz, the “directions” are usually sound and accurate.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Ultimate Organic Tenor Groove Experience [From the Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

We put this feature together essentially to pay homage to the venerable tradition of the jam session.

As defined by Gunther Schuller in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, the jam session is:

“An informal gathering of jazz musicians playing for their own pleasure. Jam sessions originated as spontaneous diversions when musicians were free from the constraints of professional engagements; they also served the function of training young players in a musical tradition that was not formally taught and accepted in music schools and academic institutions until the 1960s.

In the late 1930s jam sessions came to be organized by entrepreneurs for audiences; this under­mined their original purpose, and by the 1950s true jam ses­sions were becoming increasingly rare.

However, in the 1970s and 1980s the concept of "sessions" has made a comeback among younger jazz musicians, especially those trained in con­servatories. An "open" session is one in which anyone who is more or less competent may take part. The so-called loft scene of the late 1970s in New York may also be seen as a quasi-commercial offshoot of the jam session. (B. Cameron: "Soci­ological Notes on the Jam Session," Social Forces, xxxiii (1954), 177) - GUNTHER SCHULLER “

And Paul F. Berliner, in his wonderfully informative, Thinking in Jazz, The Infinite Art of Improvisation, offers these observations about the jam session:

“As essential to students as technical information and counsel is the understanding of Jazz acquired directly through performance. In part they gain experience by participating in one of the most venerable of the community's insti­tutions, the jam session. At these informal musical get-togethers, improvisers are free of the constraints that commercial engagements place upon repertory, length of performance, and the freedom to take artistic risks. Ronald Shannon Jackson's grade school band leader allowed students to conduct daily lunch-hour jam sessions in the band room. "During those years, I never saw the inside of the school's official lunch room."

Ultimately, sessions bring together artists from different bands to play with a diverse cross section of the jazz community. "New Yorkers had a way of learning from each other just as we did in Detroit," Tommy Flanagan says. "From what I heard from Arthur Taylor, Jackie McLean, and Sonny Rollins, they all used to learn from just jamming together with Bud Powell and Monk and Bird. Even though Bird wasn't a New Yorker, he lived here a long time and got an awful lot from it."

Some sessions arise spontaneously when musicians informally drop in on one another and perform together at professional practice studios. Improvisers also arrange invitational practice sessions at one another's homes. Extended events at private house parties in Seattle "lasted a few days at a time," Patti Brown remembers, and they held such popularity that club owners temporarily closed their own establishments to avoid competing for the same audience. Guests at the parties "cooked food and ate, [then] sat down and played," Brown continues. Musicians "could really develop there. Sometimes they would really get a thing going, and they would keep on exploring an idea. You would go home and come back later, and it was still going on.... [Improvisers] some­times played a single tune for hours." Other sessions were similarly very re­laxed: "Everybody was in the process of learning. Some guys were better than others, but it was always swinging, and the guys went on and on playing. We played maybe one number for an hour, but nobody ever got bored with it.”

Jazz organizations such as the Bebop Society in Indianapolis and the New Music Society at the World Stage in Detroit, where Kenny Burrell served as president and concert manager, promoted more formally organized sessions. Others took place in nightclubs, especially during weekend afternoons or in the early hours of the morning after the clientele had gone. In Los Angeles, according to Art Farmer, opportunities abounded for young people. "During the day you would go to somebody's house and play. At night there were after-hours clubs where they would hire maybe one horn and a rhythm section, and then anybody who wanted to play was free to come up and play. Then these clubs would have a Sunday matinee session. We used to just walk the streets at night and go from one place to another."

Musicians distinguish some sessions in terms of the skills of participants. The New Music Society would have a group "the caliber of Elvin Jones, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, and Kenny Burrell," and then they would have "the next crew of guys" like Lonnie Hillyer and his schoolmates, who rehearsed a couple of weeks in advance to prepare for their own session. The youngsters "wouldn't interfere" with those involving "the guys of high caliber." At times, the arrival of musicians from out of town intensified session activities—artists like Hampton Hawes and John Coltrane "who'd be working in some band and had that night off. It was a hell of a playing atmosphere going on there.”
Likewise in Chicago, musicians knew that the session "at a certain club down the corner was for the very heavy cats and would not dare to participate until they knew that they were ready," Rufus Reid recalls. As a matter of re­spect, "you didn't even think about playing unless you knew that you could cut the mustard. You didn't even take your horn out of your case unless you knew the repertoire." At the same time, naive learners did periodically perform with artists who were a league apart from them. David Baker used to go to sessions including Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray "when they came to Indianapolis." He adds with amusement, "I didn't have the sense not to play with them."

Although initially performing at sessions in their hometowns, musicians from different parts of the country eventually participate in an extensive net­work of events in New York City, "mixing in with players from everywhere." In the late forties and fifties, they made their way each day through a variety of apartments, lofts, and nightclubs, where they sampled performances by im­promptu groups and joined them as guests during particular pieces, a practice known as sitting in. In addition to having pedagogical value, the sessions served as essential showcases. As Kenny Barron points out, "That's how your name got around." Count Basie's club in particular "was like a meeting ground" during Monday evening sessions, as was the renowned club Birdland, although the latter was difficult "to break into without knowing somebody.”  There were also well-documented sessions at Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Up­town House in Harlem.

Tommy Turrentine's fondest memories of the mid-forties concern Small's Paradise Club "in Harlem.... Everybody used to come there." Spanning four musical generations, the artists included trumpeters Red Allen, Hot Lips Page, Idres Sulieman, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Clifford Brown; saxophon­ists Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, and Stan Getz; pianists Bud Powell, Walter Bishop Jr., Walter Davis, and Mal Waldron. The house band was led by Big Nick Nicholas, who knew "every tune that's ever been written." Nicholas was, in fact, an important teacher of the community for his role in challenging players to expand their repertories by constantly choosing unfamil­iar compositions on the bandstand. Within the context of such a rich and varied repertory, the improvised interplay, night after night, served as inspiring learning sessions for Turrentine and his friends. "That was Paradise University. You would hear so much good music each night that, when you went to lay down, your head would be swimming!"

Rivalry among the participants added spark to an already charged atmo­sphere. "During that time, there was somewhat of a mutual respect among the musicians, and they had cutting sessions. They would say, “I am going to blow so and so out.' It wasn't with malice. It was no put-down; it was just friendly competition." Turrentine goes on to describe actual events. "Maybe two tenor players would get up; maybe there would be about seven horn players on the bandstand. Everybody had the sense to know that saxophones was going to hang up there tonight — they was going to be blowing at each other — so we all got off the bandstand and let them have it. Maybe the next night, two trumpet players would be getting up there at each other; then there would be drummers. I have seen it many times. It was healthy really, just keeping everybody on their toes."

Interaction with an increasing number of musicians in these settings pro­vided aspiring artists with stimulus for their own growth as improvisers. Don Sickler speculates that one renowned trumpeter "became so great" because he was aware of the competition around him: "Booker Little was born just a few months before him, and Lee Morgan was just a little younger. He really had to work hard to keep up with that level of competition."

Of course, any instrument was generally welcomed in a jam session, but somehow, to my ears, at least, the tradition of the jam session is best exemplified by the sound of “battling” or “dueling” tenor saxophones.

Over the years, there have been many such pairings including Lester Young and Herschel Evans; Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster; Illinois Jacquet and “Flip” Phillips; Don Byas and Buddy Tate; Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray; Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt; Al Cohn and Zoot Sims; Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott; Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin; Frank Foster and Frank Wess; Pete Christlieb and Warne Marsh.

The title of this piece gets its name from two Dutch tenor saxophonists – Simon Rigter and Sjoerd Dijkhuizen – who along with guitarist Martijn van Iterson, organist Carlo de Wijs and drummer Joost Patocka – revived the jam session tradition with their appearance on August 18, 2006 at the Pure Jazzfest which was held at De Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague, The Netherlands.

For their performance at the Pure Jazzfest, the group adopted the name -  The Ultimate Organic Tenor Groove Experience – and I have absolutely no idea what the “organic” in the title is in reference to – sign of the times, maybe?.

By way of background, Simon and Sjoerd enjoy a major presence on the Dutch Jazz scene as both perform with The Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw and with the Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra. Sjoerd can also be heard regularly as a member of drummer Eric Ineke’s JazzXpress.

Martijn van Iterson has his own quartet and often wroks with The Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam.  Carlo has also performed with The Metropole Orchestra, Lucas van Merwijk’s Cubop City Big Band and alto saxophonist Benjamin Herman’s group to which drummer Joost Patocka also belongs.

Both in their late thirties, Sjoerd Dijkhuizen and Simon Rigter formed their own quintet as an outgrowth from their appearance together with the late Dutch pianist Cees Slinger on his "Two Tenor Case" recording. In addition to their work in The Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw,” they are also a part of a group called "The Reeds,” a sax ensemble and rhythm section.

As  far as I can determine, Simon and Sjoerd in combination with Carlo, Martijn and Joost made only one public appearance together and that was at the 2006 Pure Jazzfest.

You can view images of all the members of The Ultimate Organic Tenor Groove Experience in the following video montage which is set to the group’s performance of Dexter Gordon’s Sticky Wicket.

As we’ve noted before, straight-ahead Jazz is alive and well – in Holland!