A Piece Of Technology That Makes Listening To Jazz Better

Maybe you remember when you first realized that the rabbit hole of jazz was far, far deeper than you’d possibly imagined. That the same tenor saxophone player on Kind of Blue also made Blue Train and Giant Steps and A Love Supreme and Interstellar Space and dozens of other albums and who knows how many guest appearances, and that that was just what people recorded of John Coltrane. And that all those records involved scores of other contributors, who in turn played with scores of other people over scores of years. And that this hopelessly convoluted network reflected just a small slice of jazz history to begin with.

What allowed you to dive in was a guide to the data — maybe a book, or a radio broadcaster, or someone you knew who knew something. A voice who could translate the wilderness to human terms, and made it appealing to jump into.

The new Spotify app from Blue Note Records, released yesterday, isn’t the perfect guide. But as a music discovery tool, it’s a huge leap in the right direction, and it’s certainly the first digital music technology I’ve seen which begins to make sense of the dense jumble in which jazz fans happily abandon themselves. Continue reading

On The Future Of Jazz Among Black Folk

Every year, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation throws a concert and panel discussion as part of its annual conference. It’s notable not only as a musical event — this year’s show features drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s take on the classic album Money Jungle, featuring vocalist Lizz Wright, as well as alto saxophonist Antonio Hart’s quintet with special guest Jimmy Heath — but also as a cultural one. In this century, anyway, it’s become surprisingly uncommon to see documentation of black jazz artists performing for primarily black audiences.

By the time you read this, the concert will be transpiring or over. But earlier in the day, many of its star musicians and a few distinguished authors assembled for a forum in a cramped Washington Conference Center boardroom. Around 100 to 150 people — the majority African-American, in business attire and middle-aged — were in the house for a discussion titled “If You Really Are Concerned: An African-American Agenda for Jazz.” It took its title from a Billy Taylor song, the last stanza of which goes:

If you really are concerned, then show it
If you really want to help, you can
But you’d better start right now
By making changes when you’re able
Or your world will disappear

As one of the panelists, writer and consultant Willard Jenkins, said in his prefatory remarks, every time African-Americans are gathered to talk about jazz, the room sighs, as if it’s lost control over something which emerged from its community. “Nothing has been stolen — we’ve given it away,” he said. “And we’ve given it away through our neglect.” Continue reading

Why J Dilla May Be Jazz’s Latest Great Innovator

Visionary hip-hop producer J Dilla never found mainstream success during his brief lifetime. But in the seven years since his death, Dilla — who would have turned 39 today — has come to represent a major inflection point on hip-hop’s evolutionary tree. At his peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he suggested syntheses that hadn’t seemed possible. He played fresh games with texture and tone. He recast the sample as a malleable component, rather than the monochromatic backbone it had seemed to be. And he injected a softened, swaggering humanity into the rigid slap of classic hip-hop drumbeats.

His magnum opus, Donuts, was reissued on vinyl last month, and the posthumous Music From the Lost Scrolls Vol. 1 came out on Tuesday — the first in a series of previously unreleased recordings. In Detroit on Saturday, the rapper Talib Kweli, violinist and arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, and a handful of other artists will perform at the second annual Dilla Day, a concert celebrating Dilla’s career.

Dilla’s reach stretches way beyond hip-hop: For one, he’s recently cast a long shadow over contemporary jazz. He never belonged to jazz’s inner circle, but since his death in 2006 from a rare blood disease, his legacy has helped pull the genre back into kissing contact with modern popular music. Continue reading

Reflections On A Dozen Years With Abbey Lincoln

Marc Cary came to New York City to find and save his father. Instead, he found artists like Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln — and saved himself.

“I hadn’t seen my dad in 10 years,” Cary says over a recent lunch in downtown Manhattan. “He’s a percussionist, but he was living another lifestyle, and I came to rescue him. He was living at the Port Authority Bus Station.”

Cary was 21; he arrived with only $20 in his pocket. But he was also a talented jazz pianist. On the recommendation of a friend, he soon connected with the late Art Taylor, a venerated jazz drummer. Taylor was assembling a new incarnation of the Wailers, his own seminal jazz group.

“I called him that night, and he told me to come over immediately,” Cary says. At the time, Taylor lived a block away in Harlem. When Cary arrived, Abbey Lincoln was there; she lived next door. “[Lincoln] checked me out, gave me a lot of encouragement and told me that one day we’ll play together.” Continue reading

The Odd Jobs Of Dave King

Among musicians, drummers are the explorers, the tinkerers, the polymaths. They don’t just play one instrument, but dozens at the very least.

With so many jobs to hold down at the same time, drummer Dave King — best known as a member of the trio The Bad Plus — recently spoke to me about his work life. He was on his way from Chicago’s Green Mill to play the Village Vanguard with trio mates Bill Carrothers (piano) and Billy Peterson (bass). NPR Music and WBGO will webcast the group on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET.

Is being a drummer a lot of work?

In the pantheon of instruments? As someone who plays piano and also composes music, I have to say it’s a hard job. It’s one of those instruments that seems infinite. There are always so many more things to work on and so many ways to become more musical.

Then why do I have an image of drummers that’s completely the opposite of that?

Ha! Do you? That’s, of course, both funny and serious. There’s a deep ignorance of drums beyond meathead rock s—. It’s very simple to start playing, but it gets infinitely complicated. So I’ll counter the drum jokes by telling you to ask any serious musician if a band can be good when the drummer isn’t. If your drummer sucks, you suck. Like if your goalie sucks, your hockey team sucks.

As a Minnesotan, you probably know a thing or two about hockey. But what are your points of comparison about how hard it is to be a drummer in terms of the other jobs you’ve had? Continue reading

Soul From A Console: Jazz On The Hammond B-3 Organ

Musicians who play the Hammond B-3 — the electric organ found most often in jazz, soul and gospel — can forget about traveling light. The instrument weighs in at around 425 pounds and moving it is a little like schlepping around a refrigerator.

Californian Larry Goldings, who appears with trio-mates Peter Bernstein (guitar) and Bill Stewart (drums) on our Live from the Village Vanguard series tomorrow, was still trying to work out his Hammond moves when we spoke with him last week. He explains why the organ is worth it. Continue reading

After 18 Years Of Marriage And Two Children, A Couple Releases Their Debut Albums

The basic story behind drummer Rudy Royston’s first album sounds like that of many sidemen in jazz. He moved to the New York area. His talent got him into bands led by higher-profile artists like Bill Frisell, JD Allen, Ben Allison and Dave Douglas. And when it came time to document his own composing and arranging, he could rely on the network he had tapped into. Douglas issued Royston’s album 303 earlier this month on his own record label, Greenleaf Music.

But consider that Royston is 43, an age when similarly ambitious top-tier jazz musicians have often already waxed several recordings. In fact, he’s not even the first musician in his household to make a record under his own name.

In 2011, pianist Shamie Royston, his wife, recorded a trio date with Ivan Taylor on bass and Rudy on drums. The resulting album Portraits came out in 2012 with little fanfare, though it did catch the ear of the New York Times critic Ben Ratliff, who praised its maturity, calling it “a first album that probably would have been a second or third one 10 years ago.” Continue reading

Possessed By Joy: A North American Drummer In Cuba

In Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies, it’s common for participants to become possessed by spirits. All sorts of people are possessed: older ladies and teenage boys, lifelong adherents and new initiates. Most are handled expertly by other ceremony participants, who flank the person being “mounted,” make sure he or she doesn’t injure anyone, usher the person out of the ceremonial room and help him or her out of a trance.

In the 11 days that I’d been in the small, bustling, crumbling city of Matanzas, I’d already seen several ceremonial possessions. During my last night in town, I witnessed my fifth Santería ceremony, where batá drummers accompany liturgical song and dance. It was the most dramatic one yet.

There had already been several brief possessions at this last toque for Yemayá, the deity associated with the ocean. Suddenly, a man in his early 20s was mounted. He began to spin in place quickly, like a 33 rpm Sufi dervish played at 45 rpm. He placed his wrists on his hips and pushed his elbows back like a duck. His eyes were wild as he let out loud, periodic cackles, directed primarily at the sacred drums as the rhythms increased in intensity to a frantic but deeply grooving pace. The laughter, I was told afterward, symbolized enjoyment, not menace.

When I left an hour later, I saw the young man who had been escorted out of the building long before. He was still cackling, eyes wide, deeply in trance. Continue reading

Jazz As A Liberal Arts Education

For conservatory-trained jazz musicians, it’s a scary job market out there. Saxophonist Dave Liebman, an NEA Jazz Master and veteran statesman, paints a bleak picture:

In the current world of jazz education, the situation vis a vis graduating more and more of the most equipped musicians in history (every year more so) in stark contrast to the scarcity of paid performance and recording opportunities has assumed epic disproportion. To deny this would be like ignoring global warming. Serious educators are and should be concerned.

While some public conversations suggest addressing this crisis with more music business classes, or harsher financial reality checks upon entering school, or more holistic teaching methods — all of which are good ideas — Liebman points out one other thing: Jazz school prepares students to be citizens as well as musicians. In an AllAboutJazz essay, he lists how activities like soloing, learning a standard repertoire and entertaining correspond with other critical life skills. Continue reading