Thursday, August 30, 2012

Tour Diary: Sushi in Moscow

When I was in high school in the 1980's, during my junior year, I remember that a new class was offered: Russian. I remember there were signs posted on the walls touting the new elective course: "Peace Through Understanding: Learn Russian!" This was towards the end of the Cold War; although as Americans living under the duress of the Ronald Reagan Regime, we tended to think of the Soviet Union as the Great Big Red Enemy of Freedom. And although there was one Russian family who lived on my block in Columbia, MD (I think they defected or something), my concept of "The Russians" only went about as deep as Sting's tune off of his hit 80's classic "Dream Of The Blue Turtles."
The fact that I've been lucky enough to get to see the world for free as a jazz musician is something of which  I am constantly reminding myself. I've now been to Russia a total of six times, and it's always been a learning experience. I've been to Western Europe countless times, and Eastern Europe a fair bit. Mother Russia is, as some of my Russian friends say, "special." This country has a rich, complicated history; it's still suffering from the economic turmoil of the end of Communism. However, it's also becoming very Western in some ways. That might be good or bad. (At least in Moscow, a lot of the trappings of our modern technological commercial society are slowly becoming ubiquitous. However, take a trip 4 hours outside of Moscow on a train, and you can forget about WiFi, Starbucks, hot water, and heated rooms.)Still, with great suffering comes great soulfulness, and that's what I always take away from Russia; a sense that the Russians I meet, despite their stoic exteriors, have a deep sense of joy and emotion. (Think about the great Russian classical music: Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Stravinsky....their music is some of the most passionate music ever conceived, in my opinion...)

Eugene Ryaboy
Although two of my trips to Russia were with American bands ( Lenny White, Mingus Dynasty), my subsequent trips have been with Russians. I met drummer Eugene Ryaboy on my second trip to Russia( a quartet led by Alex Sipiagin); Ryaboy was able to hook me up some gigs in Moscow and a little bit of touring in Russia a few years ago. We even went to Belarus on one of the trips.(Belarus is a former Soviet territory, not that far from Poland.) Ryaboy is a wonderful jazz drummer; he actually makes his living as a studio musician, and has the chops to play any style. He's also one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. He's extremely hospitable, and he's a great conversationalist, always having a tale or a joke at the ready. He was one first musicians during Soviet times to attend Berklee. (He said he was one of the first in Moscow to use the jazz slang word "gig.")

Karina Kozhevnikova
Last week, I made my first trip to Russia since 2008. Ryaboy booked me a repeat performance at the Hermitage Jazz Festival, which is held in a really beautiful park in the middle of Moscow. He also booked me a gig at a place called the Durov Art Cafe. This was to be a double bill with an incredible Russian singer named Karina Kozhevnikova. The last time I was in Moscow, I recorded an album with Kozhevnikova, but apparently, it has not been released yet. It's too bad, because Kozhevnikova is really talented and I hope more people will get a chance to hear her. She is greatly influenced by Ella Fitzgerald; her vocal vibrato bears a striking resemblance to Fitzgerald's. Kozhevnikova is also a really great improviser and arranger.I was looking forward to working with her again.

Russian visa, which is mostly written in Russian
I must mention that Russia is one of the handful of countries I visit where a visa is required.(Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Belarus are some others.) You have to send your passport to New York, and they have to process it in advance. I assumed I had filled out all of the forms correctly and I sent my passport Fed EX to the processing company. I got it back and the visa was stamped into my passport. I figured everything was OK until I arrived at the Moscow airport. On my way through immigration, the officer told me to wait. I waited, not knowing why. Finally, I tried to figure out the problem. Apparently, someone had put me down as "Female". The officer was pointing to the mistake, which was written in Russian Cyrillic; I speak very little Russian, and I read Cyrillic not at all. I was told that a Delta representative would have to bring my passport to another terminal, and that they would correct the mistake. I was pretty cranky after traveling for 15 hours or so; however, throwing a tantrum in an international airport surrounded by immigration officers is not what I would call a wise decision.

So I sat down on a nearby bench and watched a movie on  my ipad and ate almonds for a while. I had to call Ryaboy, who had said he would pick me up at the airport, to tell him the situation. (I'm guessing that a 2 minute phone call in Russia with AT&T roaming was probably 30 dollars!) It was weird not having a passport and sitting in this holding area; I felt like the guy from that movie "The Terminal." Finally, they came back with my passport and everything was fine. This is one of the potential pitfalls of being a jazz musician; we have to travel internationally to work, and things like visas and work permits have to be dealt with correctly. otherwise, you might find yourself in hot water.(I've heard horror stories of folks being sent back to the U.S. at their own expense, being questioned by local Police for 6 hours, and I've heard of folks being banned from entering various countries for a year or more-some have even been banned FOR LIFE! The moral of the story is to take the visa or work permit stuff seriously, and obey local laws and customs!)

Andrei Dudchenko
After a long drive in Moscow traffic, Ryaboy dropped me off at the Golden Apple Hotel. I caught an hour or 2 of zzzs and then got picked up to go to the Durov Art Cafe. It was a bit of a jet lagged haze, but we had an excellent performance and an welcoming audience. The bass player(who also played with us on the Hermitage concert) was Andrei Dudchenko, who is Karina Kozhevnikova's husband. He's a solid bassist; he's got a nice swing feel and surprised me with some slick improvised solos. It was a good warm up for the Hermitage "gig."

The bulk of the musicians performing on the Hermitage Festival are local Russians; however, there were a few outsiders besides myself; Hendrik Muerkens was performing, as well as a band from Austria which featured pianist Renato Chicco playing Hammond B3 Organ. There was also a band called Opus 5, which was almost like the Mingus Dynasty without any Mingus tunes; this group featured saxophonist Seamus Blake, trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, pianist Dave Kikoski, bassist Boris Kozlov, and drummer Donald Edwards. It's a nice mix of local and international talent. I think they've been having this festival for about 10 years.

Our performance went well, although we had some sound issues in the beginning. Here's a clip:
I'm hoping that they will post some more clips soon.

Eugene, Natasha, and Shura
After the performance, I had a delicious Japanese meal with Ryaboy and his wife Natasha and his daughter Shura. They told me that Japanese cuisine is a very recent development in Russia; it's only been within the last 10 years that you could find sushi, and then only in Moscow(again, venture outside of Moscow and it's a very different world-in someways, much of Russia hasn't changed in over 100 years.). I remembered that there was a time when we didn't have sushi restaurants on every corner like we seem to now in America; in the 80's sushi was only a special occasion. Now it seems like every grocery store has sushi.

Oleg and Natalia Butman, eating Japanese food
I had a day off in Moscow. I thought I would sleep after our dinner, but the 11 hour jet lag was working it's evil spell on my sleep pattern. I tossed and turned, did some reading, and then went down to breakfast. The gym in the hotel was a very lonely room with a treadmill, a elliptical, a stationary bike, and two dumbells that didn't match. I ran hard on the treadmill( I did three runs during my stay here; I wouldn't dare run through the streets of Moscow. I'd probably still be there now, trying to find my way back to the hotel...) and then went upstairs to pack. My plan was to check out of the hotel, but leave my luggage until the wee hours of the next morning; my flight was at 5:30 am , which meant I would not be sleeping in the hotel-I would be leaving for the airport at 2:30 am. So I had a few lessons scheduled, then dinner-more Japanese food- with drummer Oleg Butman (and his wife Natalia and a guitarist named Alim Nastaev), and then I would go hear Opus 5 in the park.....then go to the jam session.

Kikoski, Blake, Sipiagin, Edwards
Most jazz festivals have jam sessions after the main gigs. It's usually a pretty cool hang; sometimes it's a cool way for the international musicians to meet and play with the local cats. When I was in Moscow in 2008, the jam was pretty raucous. I'd say it was a bit more low key this time, but I did get to play a few tunes on piano. On one of the tunes, I happened to look up to see Dave Kikoski over my left shoulder. Kikoski's one of the baddest jazz pianists on the planet, so I must admit, I was a little nervous in front of him. Later, I got to play a tune on drums while Kikoski played piano, which was a thrill.

The jam session was led by a pianist named Yakov Okun; he's one of the best pianists in Russia. He's got a great feel for jazz, and he's not a bad drummer, which is probably why his time feel is so good. Here's a youtube video of Okun:
It's a long way to go for such a short stint, but it was satisfying to get a chance to play and see old friends. I hope to go back next year. Hopefully they will not make any mistakes on my visa next time.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tour Diary: Sleepless in Seattle

Seattle....Just like I pictured it....Space Needles.... and Everything.....
When most people think of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, they think of Seattle. Although Portland has gotten more attention recently thanks to Fred Armisen's "Portlandia" TV show, Seattle has a bit of an edge in terms of name recognition. I've been to Seattle a bunch over the years; now that I live 3 hours away, it would make sense that I'd be doing some gigs in Seattle now and then. Earlier this month, I was offered a 4-night stint in Seattle, thanks to Seattle native Matt Jorgensen. Drummer, bandleader, and Origin Records impresario Jorgensen is well tuned in to the Seattle jazz scene; I was glad that he was able to hook up a healthy chunk of work.

Seattle traffic
And since my wife and son had never been to Seattle, we decided to make a family vacation out of it. We rented a townhouse in Northwest Seattle, in a neighborhood called Crown Hill. It was a little farther out from downtown Seattle than we had anticipated. We drove up I5 and through downtown Seattle to arrive, drop off our luggage, and then head back into rush hour  to make the first gig in Seatac. (After driving around Seattle for 5 days, we found the traffic situation at times to be almost Los Angeles-like horrendous; especially compared to Portland, which, although not a public transportation paradise, still has viable options like the streetcars, Max train, and buses to relieve potential congestion. Ironically, I downloaded a 90's movie called "Singles" which takes place in Seattle; one of the major plot lines deals with a character who is trying to develop a "Supertrain"which would alleviate the traffic problems. In reality, Seattle is known for a lack of investment in public transportation infrastructure. There are buses, true, but it's not nearly enough.And don't ask about the Monorail; while it's a good tourist attraction, and my son enjoyed riding it twice back and forth from downtown to the Space Needle, it's nothing more than a novelty. If you are planning a trip from Portland to Seattle, you might want to consider the Bolt Bus. I've taken it twice and it's super cheap and super easy to deal with.)

Mark Taylor, Matt Jorgensen, Thomas Marriott
The first leg of the tour was a nice Friday night outdoor concert at the swanky Cedarbrook Lodge with Jorgensen's band called Human Spirit. Jorgensen co-leads this band with another great Seattle musician, trumpeter Thomas Marriott. The band's repertoire is mostly originals by Jorgensen and Marriott, with a few tunes by alto saxophonist Mark Taylor, who also plays with Human Spirit. I was to play the role of the Hammond B-3 organist (the role of the Hammond was played by a Nord Electro, of course) for the evening. I rarely get to play organ gigs these days, so it's always a fun challenge to get an opportunity like this one. Human Spirit's repertoire is fun to play; it's easy to get a music vibe going right away. Some of the tunes feel almost like jazz standards. I felt like this was a good warm-up gig; I was a little distracted by the fact that the performance went a little beyond my son Liam's bedtime, so we had to rush out to get him back to the townhouse and hope that he would acclimate enough to sleep. Of course, he didn't sleep much over the entire weekend, and of course, neither did Kerry and I!

Egan's Ballard Jam House
The next performance, Saturday night,  was at Egan's Ballard Jam House, which wasn't too far from our rented townhouse. The band was again Human Spirit. Egan's was packed to capacity and the audience was attentive and enthusiastic. After the previous night's warm up gig, I certainly felt more comfortable with the music. And Marriott, Taylor, and Jorgensen played in a no holds barred fashion. It was an intense evening of music. And the fact that it was an early gig meant that I would be able to get back to the townhouse early and try to get some sleep. After spending the morning and afternoon doing touristy Seattle stuff (Pike Place Market, Monorail, various toy stores, Carkeek Park, driving in downtown weekend tourist traffic), I needed a rest.

The shirt makes me look much faster than I really am......
What I neglected to mention before is that I had also entered a half marathon on the Sunday morning of our trip. I've lost about 30 pounds since March, and I've been stepping up my running and exercise. I had been looking for a half marathon in the Portland area, but I was unable to find one that fit my schedule. I managed to find the Mud and Chocolate Run in Sammamish, Washington. Sammamish is about 45 minutes from Northwest Seattle. (It's a well manicured upscale neighborhood. It seemed like it would be a little on the snooty side. The race organizers seemed pretty laid back, as did the other runners...) This would be my first half marathon; I ran cross country in high school- in the 80's! And over the years, I had definitely let my fitness level sag. However, my weight loss and better diet had given me confidence. What I didn't realize is that this half marathon was a 13.1 mile trail run. When they say trail run, be prepared for what's more of a wooded obstacle course than a run; there are rocks, branches, quick up and downs, fallen trees, and so forth. If you don't keep your eyes on the trail, you will trip and fall, and it will hurt. It might even knock you out of the race. Indeed, as the race started, right out of the gate, folks were falling down and not getting up right away. My goals were as follows:

1. Finish the Race
2. Not Trip and Fall On My Face
3. Finish in under 2 hours.

I accomplished all 3; I finished, I did NOT trip(although I came close), and I finished in 1:58. At the end of the race, they had a table with plates filled with various chocolates and chocolate cookies. I heartily indulged; I hadn't eaten chocolate since March, so I figured what the heck. In terms of the run, really wasn't as bad as I thought. I'm considering training for a full marathon; however, my longest run so far in training has been 18.8 miles. The thought of adding another 8 miles is extremely daunting at the moment.

Sunday evening was a trio performance at a place called the Copper Gate, also not far from our townhouse. Matt Jorgensen was of course the drummer, and the bassist was another Seattle resident named Jon Hamar. This was another small, intimate room; again, the small audience was intent on hearing some good jazz. I actually felt invigorated after my run, and the first set was pretty intense, considering we had never played in this configuration before. Hamar is an excellent bass player, and his musical flexibility really livened things up. Later in the evening, we had a stellar trumpeter named Chad McCullough sit in. We even had a little trumpet battle( I had my pocket trumpet with me) on the Joe Henderson classic tune "Isotope". I had never played this tune on trumpet, so I resolved to add this tune to my list of tunes to practice.

Eric Alexander
Monday morning began with another day of touristic endeavors; the Seattle Aquarium, another jaunt on the Monorail, some bounce houses for Liam, more time in Carkeek Park, and failed attempts to get Liam to take his NAP! I was exhausted, but I had enough energy left to play two heavy sets at Tula's Jazz Club with the great tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. I hadn't played much with Alexander, and the last time I had played with him was probably at Augie's in New York(which became the great Smoke Jazz Club). Alexander is a virtuoso hard bop master; indeed, we began with Dexter Gordon's "Cheesecake", a minor tune which doesn't seem to get played very often. Alexander is influenced by players like George Coleman and Sonny Stitt, and yet he's got the ability to stretch out his solos almost like John Coltrane. It was a taste of New York style jazz in a West Coast venue; we ended the night with a super up-tempo version of "The Way You Look Tonight". I was especially impressed with bassist Chuck Deardorf's ability to play so fast and yet so relaxed. Playing truly fast tempos seems to be somewhat of a lost art among younger musicians; those who were trained in the old school at least have the concept of what "really fast" means.

Liam and I at the Seattle Aquarium
I'm eagerly anticipating my next trip to Seattle, which will be a two night stint at Tula's as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival. The dates are October 19th and 20th, and I'll be playing a real Hammond B3 organ. Joining me will be Seattle based drummer John Bishop and Portland based guitar hero Dan Balmer. Hope to see you then!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

You'll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and The Mwandishi Band- by Bob Gluck

One of my Facebook friends is a pianist and professor named Bob Gluck; he's the director of the Electronic Music Studio at the University of Albany. I happened to notice that he had just published a book entitled "You'll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band." I immediately ordered it (I believe it's only available though the University Of Chicago Press) and tried to find some time to read it. Finally, on my recent trip to Moscow, I had some down time on the various long flights and in my hotel between concerts to get through it. I was intrigued that finally, someone would talk about this great period in the career of Herbie Hancock, one of the greatest living jazz musicians. Most people know about the Headhunters,"Rockit", and "Speak Like A Child", as well as his work with Miles Davis. But the Mwandishi band was a pivotal, albeit brief, chapter in jazz history.

I remember when I signed "Sextant" out of the library in the mid 80's. I have to admit, I was interested, but not as moved as I had been by 'Headhunters" or "Thrust". A few years later, I heard a record called "VSOP LIVE"; what I didn't realize until later was that one of the bands featured on this recording, the Herbie Hancock Sextet, was actually the same band on "Sextant". Much later in my life, I went back and heard "Fat Albert Rotunda" and "Crossings". And even later, I was fortunate to get some opportunities to perform with four of the members of Mwandishi: trumpeter Eddie Henderson, drummer Billy Hart, multi-reedist Benny Maupin, and bassist Buster Williams, who I worked with on and off for 10 years and still play with occasionally now.

Herbie Hancock, Buster Williams, Billy Hart
Mwandishi is in some ways a transitional band, much like the earliest Weather Report recordings, or even Chick Corea's first inceptions of Return To Forever. In the last 60's and early 70's, many changes were occurring musically, socially, and politically. The rise of psychedelic Rock, African American Consciousness, the Hippie Movement, and a general anti-establishment in America, made jazz musicians want to change along with the tide. Many jazz musicians were tired of playing standards and swing rhythms and conventional chord changes. Jazz musicians wanted to mix together a multitude of influences, from the Avant Garde to Funk to Rock to Brazilian to Contemporary European Classical Music. Electric Bass, Fender Rhodes Piano, and Electric Synthesizers gave musicians new sound possibilities beyond what acoustic instruments were thought to be capable of. Mwandishi was right in the thick of that.

Gluck's book discusses his initial exposure to this band and it's compelling experimental sound. He talks about the original members and their Swahili names:(Mwandishi means "The Composer") much of Hancock's early career as a classical piano prodigy.through his exposure to jazz, blues and gospel music, and his early career as a young New York sideman and eventually, as the regular pianist with the Miles Davis Quintet. Even during his tenure with Davis, Hancock was doing his own projects, and was developing as a composer and bandleader. Gluck describes the first time Hancock played a Fender Rhodes. Quoting Hancock in Chapter 4:

When I walked into the recording studio to record with Miles one day, I didn't see an acoustic piano.So I asked Miles: "What do you want me to play?" And he pointed at the corner of the room and said, "Play that!" And it was a Fender Rhodes electric piano. In my head, I was thinking: "He wants me to play that toy over there?' I had heard about the Fender Rhodes electric piano from some other musicians, piano players, and they were saying: "It's not an acoustic piano." So I went in with that kind of skepticism, which was kind of negative. But I had never heard it. So I said: "OK." I turned it on and played a chord, and much to my surprise, I liked the sound.

Clearly the rest was history; if not for Hancock (and maybe Chick Corea), many of us would never have been interested in playing the Fender Rhodes.(Truth be told, my first gigs as a pianist were actually on Rhodes. I've always loved the sound. Never liked carrying them, though.)And although this is an example of Davis making an executive decision as a bandleader, the prevailing wisdom, mentioned several times in the book, is that Miles Davis rarely told his sidemen how to play. He preferred to let them thrive in their own way. Naturally, Hancock would "lead" Mwandishi in a similar fashion, which is why it was, at least musically, more of a collective.

Gluck goes on to talk about some influential albums which led Hancock in the Mwandishi direction; his participation on Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay", Joe Henderson's "Power To The People", and Hancock's own "Fat Albert Rotunda" , and to some extent Hancock's "The Prisoner" were links in the chain. Hancock was also beginning to tour his sextet in the late 60's, with a not yet permanent line up. When the personnel of Henderson, Hart, Maupin, Williams, trombonist Julian Priester, and synthesist Patrick Gleeson( as well as their sound engineer Billy Bonner, whom they called Fundi), the Mwandishi band, no playing for some very enthusiastic audiences, became a real family, on stage and off. The music was funky but free, using odd meter ostinatos and sound effects. The music was so intimately creative that it became impossible to have subs in the band: everyone was a vital member. And Gluck is fortunate that all of the members of the band are still around to give first hand history of the time period.

Bob Gluck
Gluck has a lot of technical analysis of the band's few yet classic recordings, which might go over your head if you aren't a trained musician, or have never heard this music. I found myself trying to listen along to the recordings as I read; after all, the music is the music.(I've included a few youtube links below to some of the relevant music.) However, that being said, I think fans or those who are curious about the deeper history of Jazz Fusion and Herbie Hancock will get a kick out of this book. I've included youtube links to some of the relevant music. I highly recommend this book and kudos to Gluck for his thorough research, and for finally talking about this somewhat forgotten period in jazz history.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Ralph Peterson: The Duality Perspective

Ralph Peterson is one of my favorite drummers. He's hopefully one of yours, as well. But to call Peterson a "drummer" is such a small part of the equation; like many of the great jazz drummers, he's a "musician who plays the drums." He is a prolific and creative composer, and also plays trumpet better than most trumpet players! He's not a bad pianist and bassist, and is a confident and authoritative bandleader in the tradition of the greats. Peterson has been a tenured professor at Berklee College of Music for many years, and judging from the young drummers I hear who are trying to sound like him, is doing a wonderful job as an educator.

Peterson always seems to have a new recording coming out; his latest is called "The Duality Perspective." The name seems to mostly come from the fact that here Peterson equally features his two working bands: the Fo'tet and the Sextet. It's a cool idea; I like  the fact that you have the variety of two very different sets of instrumentation, and yet it's still got a certain cohesiveness to it. Of course, much of the cohesiveness is driven by the unmistakable drumming and writing of Peterson. Peterson understands form, harmony, and melody; but without his enthusiastic interpretation, the music would most likely have a much different flavor. And Peterson's writing has developed over the years. There's still a lot of swing, but there's also a more intense poly-rhythmic element, as well as a great sense of architecture; every tune feels like a real event. There's no filler here, it's all 100 percent beef.

"One False Move" is a musical magic trick; the opening vamp would have you think that the pulse was based on something in 5, but it's kind of like a big 5 in the bass over a big 6, although what Peterson plays on the ride cymbal might make you tap your foot on 12 beats( I haven't seen the score....). And the vibraphone ostinato is 5/8 (I think) superimposed over of that. Furthermore, Peterson adds triplets on the snare, which add to the swirling ferociousness. And we haven't even gotten to the melody yet! The clarinet theme floats above it all, keeping with the C minor pentatonic flavor, with a slight detour of using the natural 6th. After feeling hypnotized by all of this activity, there's a sudden break, and then a new section which feels like 3 bars of 5 with some suspended Kenny Kirklandish chords. A little "One Finger Snap"ish lick and we are back to the original vibe(no pun intended). In a way this tune is like if Steve Coleman wrote a tune for Art Blakey's band.

Felix Peikli
The sound of the Fo'tet, while filled to the rim with rhythm, is a softer sound than a horn-based group, due to the rare mix of vibraphone and clarinet as the lead. ( I say rare being fully aware of the work of Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton. I can only imagine what they would make of this music....) I'm impressed with the improvisational efforts of Joseph Doubleday on Vibraphone and Felix Peikli on clarinet. And of course, bassist Alexander L.J. Toth has got to get props for being able to hang with Peterson.

Since I've known Peterson, he's always seemed to have an interest in Afro-Cuban rhythms. His arrangement of Theolonious Monk's "Four In One", in a 7/4 mambo, feels surprisingly natural.(What is it about Monk tunes that always makes them work seamlessly in Afro-Cuban clave?) There's some nice percussion work by Reinaldo DeJesus, and Bryan Carrott, a former Fo'tet member, adds a nice Caribbean flavor, and also takes a nice solo further into the song.

"Addison and Anthony" is a pretty waltz lullabye. The melody is gorgeously presented by Peikli's bass clarinet. Harmonically, this tune mixes simple major chords with some sneaky poly-chords(C/Bb in the 8th bar, and A/Bb in the 2nd bar of the bridge, for example, are somewhat shocking next to chords which are much gentler sounding), and is a nice change of pace from the excitement of the previous two pieces. "Bamboo Bends In the Storm" is another impassioned improvisational vehicle. It's kind of a hybrid fusion of Latin and Fusion, with just a hint of percussion. The chords with moving inner voices and the bass melodies accentuated by the bass clarinet make me think Wayne Shorter's later writing. "Princess" is a nice burner to close out the Fo'tet portion of the CD. No one matches Peterson on these kind of tunes, for my money. Peikli is super confident as a soloist, and can handle anything rhythmically that Peterson throws at him.

Zaccai Curtis
"Coming Home" and the rest of the CD features a completely different band. The Ralph Peterson Sextet is Luques Curtis on bass, Zaccai Curtis on piano, Sean Jones on trumpet, Walter Smith on tenor, Tia Fuller on alto and soprano saxophones. This tune reminds me of some of Don Braden's compositions; it makes great use of the horns in terms of coloring the harmony (Peterson and I did play with a short lived sextet of Braden's a few years back, come to think of was called the Contemporary Standards Ensemble, and we did one recording for Double Time Records...). I had only heard Tia Fuller play alto previously, but she's really impressive on soprano. Zaccai Curtis takes a piano solo which leans towards Kenny Kirkland(which always wins points with me!)

"Impervious Gems" adds percussionist DeJesus and another named Edwin Bayard for an Afro-Cuban 12/8 piece. Sean Jones combines power and finesse into a great solo, which leads us from the 12/8 naturally into a 4/4 swing. Walter Smith's solo contrastingly heads into an up tempo mambo, which gives him a chance to musically spar with Peterson. Zaccai Curtis does a great job as a soloist, and also as an accompanist on this one.

Tia Fuller
"The Duality Perspective" is another nice waltz, although much different from "Addison and Anthony"; it's got denser harmony and more depth of emotion. Smith and Fuller, the latter back on alto, are both featured nicely here. "You Have Know Idea" is a nice lyrical piece which again makes great use of the percussion. There are some cool bass and piano left hand unisons, which are contrapuntal against some interesting horn lines. "Pinnacle", which is a serious up tempo burner (and again features an unstoppable Peterson in his unique post modern swing element), is a great way to end the CD."The Duality Perspective" has a flow of two complete sets of music in one CD; if there has been a gig with both bands, it would make sense to play the 5 Fo'tet pieces and stretch it into one hour, take a break, and then have the second set be the sextet and do the same thing. In that sense, the CD is actually very concentrated material; it really is like getting two CDs in one.

I downloaded this CD from Itunes. I tried to find a link from Ralph Peterson's website, but it took me to a CD Baby link that said it was down for maintenance. So I would go with Itunes. "The Duality Perspective" has something for every jazz fan; great rhythm, great solos, great writing, and a great feeling. This is one of Ralph Peterson's best albums yet.

For a little sample of the current Fo'tet, check out this video.....

Bob Dylan: We Are The World?

This was sent to me recently. I think whether you are a Bob Dylan fan or whether you'd rather listen to a chorus of dying cats sing, you'll enjoy this video.
I think this video brings up a number of issues, and not all of them are bad. First of all. it is pretty cool to see Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Lionel Richie, and Quincy Jones all in one room. And it's cool to see Quincy Jones "produce" the session. I'm sure he had to manage a LOT of egos throughout the session. (If you don't remember, or you were born in the 90's:"We Are The World" was the song, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and featured the singing of a boatload of 80's music icons, which sold as a single, the proceeds of which went to help famine in Africa.)Also, it's kind of unbelievable to watch Stevie Wonder act as "rehearsal pianist" for Bob Dylan. And when Wonder sings the melody....let's just say that the contrast between Dylan's "style" and Stevie Wonder's GOD-LIKE voice is pretty amazing.

I've never really been able to get past Bob Dylan's voice. I'm not a vocal snob; I think distinctive individual character can be more important than having pipes of gold. For some reason, Dylan's voice never appealed to me. However, I think his "interpretation" of the melody in this case is kind of cool. (I mean, I'm thinking that after watching this thing a few times.) But can we agree that, if Dylan isn't actually high in this video, that he does look somewhat lost, or at the very least, rather intimidated. (When the modulation UP A HALF STEP happens, he goes, " uhhh....What's THAT?") And it's also fascinating to see how Jones and others are cheering him on. (It feels a little over the top at times.)

I sort of wonder whether Dylan's interpretation of this was conscious. When you hear Wonder sing the melody, it's the correct melody. I wonder if Dylan is just trying to sing along the best he can, or if he said to himself, "I'm going to sing it my way." It's true, what he sings works, although it is pretty much based around one note. But it is kind of blues-y.

It seems like they wanted him to sing over the modulation, and this is where I start to wonder if Dylan is tone deaf. And then everyone hugs! With all respect to Bob Dylan's career and influence, I think folks who had never heard of this song might be mystified as to why this leather-jacketed man was being asked to record in a room where Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie were sitting idly by.

I've been telling myself for years that I'm going to try to figure out how to like Bob Dylan. Maybe this will finally be the day. I think one great thing about American music is that we have a lot of singers who aren't really great "singers" but have a sound of their own. Indeed, many of the Blues and Jazz greats maybe didn't have the prettiest sounds, but they made it work because they had something to express. And certainly, Dylan sounds the best doing his own stuff. You tell me, how does this sound?

Whine, Whine, Whine.....

I recently related this story to one of my colleagues. It's totally true, and I believe it is a lesson in how some of us, especially yours truly, tend to take things for granted. And it's also a lesson in how yours truly is a spoiled baby.

San Sebastian, Spain
Back to 2006: I was on a tour with the Mingus Big Band in Europe. We had three concerts booked. The first one was in San Sebastian, which is in the north of Spain. The second was in Almeria, a sunny coastal town in the southeast of Spain. The final concert was in Nantes, a rainy place on the western coast of France. Obviously, we flew from New York to the first concert in San Sebastian. If my memory serves me correctly, we had to leave San Sebastian a few hours after the evening concert to drive through the night to Almeria. We were told that we had a "nice" tour bus.(In this case, 18 one- way airline tickets from San Sebastian to Almeria would have been ridiculously expensive.)

Now- "Tour Bus" in my previous experience usually meant a bus with actual "bunks" for people to sleep on, not to mention a toilet on the bus. (Some tour buses even have lounges and televisions.)Well, the bus that pulled up to the hotel was not at all a "tour bus" in the sense that I had been accustomed to. It was pretty much a normal bus, sort of no frills, with no toilet. The driver insisted that the seats could be reclined enough to sleep. I recall that about five of the seats could be arranged so that someone could awkwardly lay down and try to rest. The other seats were extremely uncomfortable. Maybe if you were driving from Port Authority to Newark Airport, it would have been fine. But this was very unpleasant; not only did most of the seats recline about as much as a marble column , but they were covered with some weird itchy fabric that some Spanish bus designer in the 1970's probably thought looked really cool.

I had a really bad feeling about this impending bus trip.  I knew that the inability to lay down vertically, plus having to worry about bathroom stops to accommodate 18 people, meant that I and the band would not get anything resembling a good night's sleep. Plus, I hadn't slept on the flight from New York(I normal can't sleep on planes) so I was already extra jet lagged and extra cranky. ( And to be fair, I wan far from being the only one in the band complaining!)After a lot of dramatic complaining and wondering if Dave Holland's big band( they were also playing in San Sebastian) had a better bus than we did(ha!), 18 of us reluctantly and somewhat angrily boarded the bus for our more than 10 hour trip to the south of Spain.

At this point, some people reading this might say, "Hey, I toured with (insert Ghost Big Band name here) and all we did for three years was travel on buses like the one you're describing."  Indeed, I aware of the fact that, although I have paid a substantial amount of dues on the road and as a working musician in general, I have avoided many of the indignities (extended cruise ship gigs, touring with low paying Big Bands, playing in the New York subway) that other musicians have. ( I did work in food service in the 80's, but that's another story....) Also, I think if you are are a teenager, or in your twenties at least, any kind of travel is exciting, even if it's slightly less comfortable than you would care for. I was in my late 30's at this point in the story. Also, I'm a white suburban soft spoiled American crybaby.

Almeria, Spain
We arrived sweaty and sleep-deprived in Almeria the next afternoon. We checked into a hotel by the beach-although no one was interested in anything beach related; everyone wanted to try to sleep before the concert. Fortunately, after this concert we would get a full nights sleep, so that, finally, we could be somewhat rested. However, the next day would include a 24 hour drive from, yes, the south of Spain to the Northwest of France. After the concert, I went right to my room; I didn't want to waste any moments that could be spent in an actual bed. That night, I dreamed that the science fiction concept of teleportation had just been invented, making it possible for Scotty from the USS Enterprise to beam the Mingus Big Band from Almeria to Nantes in a matter of seconds.

The next day, I got up, had breakfast, and walked around the Spanish beach town. The crappy Mingus Band bus was scheduled to leave in the mid-afternoon. I was somewhat in denial about the impending full day bus ride. As lunchtime approached, I started to wonder if there was a way out. How much would booking a last minute flight cost? How would I even arrange this? Would anyone at the front desk of the hotel speak enough English to help me? I was beginning to be of the mindset that I would pay any price not to have to sit on that dingy, sweltering, crowded, toilet-less bus for 24 hours in a row.

It turned out that there was an alternative. A train was my way out; actually, three trains to be exact. I would have to take a 3PM train to Barcelona, then an overnight train from Barcelona to Paris, and then another train from Paris to Nantes. The overnight train had a private car with a bed. Well, actually, the completely private cars were sold out. I would have to share a room and  a bunk bed with a stranger. I decided that having an actual bed, AND access to a bathroom, even with an unknown roommate, would be far superior than that godforsaken bus. So, with a clearly better alternative, I gathered my bags and hailed a taxi to the Almeria train station.

I plunked down a wad of Euros and boarded the train from Almeria. I made it to Barcelona easily. I was a little nervous; I've traveled in Europe alone, but I had never strayed from an band itinerary out of the need for comfort. Part of me wondered whether the other musicians would think I was some kind of "diva", liked I needed to "travel in style", or something. Maybe they thought that I believed I was "above" traveling with the band. Honestly, I just wanted to sleep, or at least not feel like crap for 24 hours. And I was spending my own money. I was just hoping that some unforseen snag, like getting on the wrong train, or a train breaking down (it's happened to me in Spain before), or some other problem, would cause me to miss the gig in Nantes. I tried to stay optimistic while I waited in the Barcelona station for the overnight train to Paris.

Finally it was time to board for Paris. I found my compartment. A young man, my roommate for the evening, was already in the compartment, moving some of his things around the small area. He said "Hello" in what was clearly English, and also with what I detected to be a slight Southern accent. I said, "Oh, you are American?"

"Yeah, I'm from Atlanta. What brings you to Europe?"

"I'm a musician. I'm touring with a band."

"What band? What kind of music?"

"It's a jazz band. You probably never heard of them. The Mingus Band."

" in Charles Mingus?"

"Wow, that's right. Yeah"

"Yeah, I'm into a lot of different music. Is the whole band on this train?"

"No......see, I'm taking this train because, well, it's a long boring story......we were in  San Sebastian, and we had to ride on this crappy bus to Almeria, and then they wanted us to take the same bus to Nantes, which is a 24 trip.....I just didn't want to be on that bus for 24 hours, so I splurged and took this train on my own. That bus was so uncomfortable. Uhh......what brings you to Europe?"

"Well, I'm in the Army. I've been serving in Iraq for a year and I have 6 weeks of leave time."

At that moment, I felt like the worst person in the world. Here is was, complaining about a bus, and this young man had just come from HELL. I've had the great fortune of getting to travel, for free, all over the world, mostly in pretty decent circumstances. And only because I can noodle around on the piano. There's musicians way more talented and accomplished than I who never get to even tour Europe. I've been extremely blessed. I've earned a living playing Jazz music since 1990. And all I can do is look the gift horse in the mouth. I wanted to smack myself right in the face. I was certain that this young infantryman had seen death up close more often than he would care to admit, much less been in situations much worse than a moderately substandard tour bus.

Serving in Iraq for a year, he says. Just my luck. I felt like a complete schmuck.

I haven't had so many interactions with anyone serving in Iraq (although my cousin Cordis served as an Arabic translator), so I thought this was a great opportunity to hear about what's really going on in Iraq. I invited the young man, whose name was John, to the dining car. We had a nice conversation, although John didn't want to talk about Iraq so much. He seemed pretty calm for somebody who had essentially just come from the front line(not that it's a front line as in Normandy Beach, but still.....). What I gathered from John was that the War in Iraq is very different from what we think it is. And that a few days before coming to Europe, his convoy had been blown up and some of his regiment had been killed. Other than that, he seemed to prefer to talk about music, or anything else besides War. I also got the feeling that he was not a fan of George W. Bush. He had come from a military family; although he was not totally gung ho about it, he served because everyone in his family had served.

I think I sent John a few emails after that trip, but I didn't stay in touch with him. I wonder if he made it out of Iraq. I think about him often; meeting him really made me put my life in perspective. Anytime I feel a huge whine coming on, I remember that experience. Most of the time, your life could be a lot worse than you think. Sure, it's normal to complain every now and then, but I try to keep it in check.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Newport Jazz Festival

Proof that people STILL like jazz!
It's interesting that, while many of us are constantly and annoyingly lamenting the state of jazz and lack of venues and listeners. there remain a large number of jazz festivals, not only in the United States, but all over the world. Festivals are great to be a part of because it really feels like a special event, and hopefully, there are large enthusiastic crowds. Jazz Festivals are one of the few places where jazz musicians can almost feel like a rock star! Also, being a performer but also a jazz fan myself, I get to hear a bunch of bands that I wouldn't normally get to hear-for free! Plus I get to see many old friends and colleagues, if only for a few minutes of conversation between the dressing room and the stage. Sometimes it's a bit overwhelming, and honestly, I'm not sure why you would want to have more than one show happening simultaneously, where folks have to either choose between two great artists, or walk back and forth between multiple venues; it feels a little like when I used to go to Tower Records in New York and they would have 5 different televisions all showing music videos, none of which were related to the music piped through the speakers! Still, I'm glad that festivals are still in existence, maybe even thriving, or at least surviving. And I feel lucky to get to do them occasionally. Festivals are probably the most prestigious, and therefore competitive venue in jazz. (I've sent material to MANY a festival and been turned down.)

Cathedral Park Jazz Festival
There are the huge jazz festivals like The North Sea in Holland, Monterey in California, and Montreux in Switzerland; however, there are countless smaller festivals all over the place which, if they are well organized, are also fun to be a part of. I recently got not one but three chances to play on the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival in Portland. I had heard that this festival had some problems last year. Thanks to organizers Paul Evans and Mary Sue Tobin, this year's inception of the festival was from my and all other accounts a huge success. Cathedral Park is in North Portland, right in a lovely neighborhood called St. John's, and right in front of the Willamette River. I played three sets: one with trumpeter Farnell Newton and some of our PSU students, one with saxophonist Pete Peterson and his group, and then I closed the day as the headliner with my quartet featuring David Valdez on alto, Chris Higgins on bass, and Alan Jones on drums. It was a long day in the sun, but the audiences were large and enthusiastic. I'm looking forward to hopefully being a part of it next year.

Elaine Lorillard, showing Duke Ellington some hipper chords, no doubt
One of the more prestigious and historic jazz festivals in the world is the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. The festival was founded in 1954 by a lady named Elaine Lorillard. She and her husband Louis helped to pay for the festival for years. They brought the famous presenter George Wein to produce the festival. Wein brought the biggest names to Newport for may decades.(I believe that Wein now plays an advisory role to the festival; Dan Melnick is now the Artistic Director. )

A mansion in Newport, which is much like the house I grew up in, only much smaller
The Newport festival was originally billed as" First Annual American Jazz Festival." In the early years, there was tension between the festival organizers and the wealthy residents of Newport. The upper class folks didn't want the "commoners" coming into their community. Also, the fact that many of the featured musicians were black didn't help things. They were also concerned about the traffic on the small streets of this beach town (which is admittedly, still a problem.)

Newport is noteworthy because Duke Ellington's performance there in 1956 is regarded as the concert which revitalized his career. They made the concert into a very successful recording ("Ellington at Newport "). It's also worth noting that the 1969 Newport festival included jazz groups as well as rock and soul groups like Blood Sweat and Tears, and Sly And The Family Stone. Miles Davis, who also performed that year, observed the energy from the new music and the response from the younger crowd; supposedly, this is what led him to record the pivotal fusion album "Bitches Brew."

I've been lucky to perform at Newport five times(if you include my two performances yesterday). My first time was with Cassandra Wilson in 2000; I performed there in 2002 with Ravi Coltrane, and in 2009 with Christian McBride and Billy Hart. I'll never forget my first time because of the variety of bands, and also the fact that audience, even when it started raining, sat through all of it. The lineup, besides Cassandra Wilson, consisted of Celia Cruz, Maceo Parker, John Zorn and Dave Douglas, and finally ended with Boney James and Rick Braun. So we got to hear Latin Jazz, Funk Jazz, Free Jazz, Mainstream Vocal Jazz, and Smooth Jazz all is one "sitting".

Yesterday, as I mentioned, I got to play twice; first with Jack DeJohnette's working band (Dejohnette, yours truly on keys and pocket trumpet, Rudresh Mahathappa on alto, David Fiuczynski on guitars, Jerome Harris on basses). I have to admit, it was a blur; I took the Jet Blue Red Eye to Boston to make the gig, and I didn't sleep at all on the flight, so I was pretty gone. However, there is a recording on NPR, so I can go back and listen to it and see if I was playing the right chords! In all seriousness, it's always an honor to play with this unit, and since we have played together many times over the past three years, we have a musical rapport which trancends any physical or technical distractions.

Jason Moran
I got to hear some really nice groups between sets; I heard a bit of Christian McBride's Inside Straight, James Carter's Organ group, and The Bad Plus featuring Bill Frisell. I also had the fortune to see a short but powerful duo set of DeJohnette and pianist Jason Moran. They did two freely improvised pieces which were both marvels of spontaneous interplay. (When you see pure improvisation on that level, it makes you wonder why anyone would ever try to have any preconceived notions about music at all! Why would we ever rehearse? If you can get on stage and "talk" to each other, save it for the concert!) And I got to see some folks that I rarely see. I actually had a nice conversation with Moran about our respective kids(he has three!), and New York living versus Portland living. (Moran has previously admitted that he reads and enjoys jazztruth! I'll have to get an interview at some point.)

Maybe in the future, I'll have to bring my family and make more of a weekend out of Newport, so I can take in more music and be more relaxed. I think when my son is a little older, it will easier to travel with him, and he'll be able to come and see a great jazz festival. (He came to the Saratoga Jazz Festival last year, but he was so little then. I think he enjoyed some of the music, but I doubt he remembers. Although I and my wife remember when he vomited in the car on the drive back to New York, because he was so cranky from missing his bedtime...)

The second set was another Jack DeJohnette performance, this time with a totally different cast: Christian McBride on acoustic bass, Lionel Loueke on guitar, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Tim Ries on tenor and soprano saxophones, and Luisito Quintero on percussion. I had never played with this particular configuration, and I had only played the repertoire once in January for DeJohnette's 70th birthday celebration at the Blue Note in New York. But what the heck; I took my chances and figured, as long as I have McBride's booming bass in my monitor, I'll be able to figure out what's going on harmonically. I was especially impressed with Loueke and Palmer, who I had never played with before. It seemed like DeJohnette was really warmed up now, and the presence of Quintero next to him on the stage really fired him up. Quintero and DeJohnette were constantly creating a percussive dialogue while everything else was going on. One great thing, among many great things, about playing with DeJohnette, is that he never let's you down; he's always aware of the energy, and he's always pushing you to play your best, without overpowering or distracting. And it's kind of mysterious how much intensity DeJohnette gets out of the drums and cymbals, yet he looks like he's barely holding the sticks!(Here's a link to the concert, which opens with the duo of Moran and DeJohnette, and then features the full group.)

Again, it was a true honor to be asked to play with two groups for the Newport Festival. I hope to return someday in the future. And hopefully next time I will be more awake!