Sunday, August 10, 2014

Jazz, Life, and Enlightened Selfie Interest

 I’ve decided it’s time for a new Facebook profile photo. A friend and fellow shutterbug took the previous one I had posted, taken while we were pursuing photographic subjects, slipping and sliding on the wind-blown sand at Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve. I liked Dave’s shot and have used it for years, because for one thing, it tells something about me. Occasionally, I have looked around for a suitable replacement. But it is typical for me to dislike photographs of myself, and I liked Dave’s, so there it stayed. 

What changed is that I got a package in the mail from DownBeat, the world’s preeminent jazz and blues magazine. It contained a sharp B&W t-shirt commemorating the venerable music publication’s 80theightieth—birthday, sent to me as a gift as acknowledgement for participating in their annual critics poll. As the Senior Editor and a frequent contributor for the widely read jazz and blues publication (actually, the world’s largest) All About Jazz, I’m one of the 150+ critics on planet Earth who slog through the 18-20 pages of ballot and vote for the world’s best jazz and blues musicians. Each summer DownBeat publishes the final results in the DownBeat Critics Poll. As Joe Biden once said, it’s a big fucking deal.
Well, at least to the fans it is. The musicians who find themselves ranked at or near the top of each category (Best Arranger, Best Composer, Best Saxophonist) in DownBeat’s highly anticipated annual poll can, of course, feel professionally gratified and fantastically loved. But for the musicians who don’t win, place or show, several possible descriptions of the poll might apply: it is 1) stupid; 2) pointless; 3) out of touch; 4) sexist and chauvinist; 5) a beauty/popularity contest; 6) dismissive of anything not recorded in New York; 7) the product of a narrow-minded, mean-spirited old boys club; 8) without value, $1.85 short of the cost of a grande cup of undressed Pike Place Blend.
But it isn’t really any of those. An honestly administered poll, plain and simple, it is merely a slice of the big democratic pie, a valid  representative sampling of music writers, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the results. Public opinion is a bitch. Like any poll, this one has everything wrong with it that is wrong with a democracy. Meaning that, for there to be winners, there necessarily have to be losers and the potential of de Tocqueville's "tyranny of the majority," especially when the industry chooses to only shine the bright light of mass marketing on those few artists who are sure things who can yield adequate profits in the tiny jazz marketplace. For every Diana Krall or Michael Bublé, there are dozens and dozens of brilliant professionals who go unrecognized, people who are not “losers” in any sense of the word.
So I thought I try to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. Since the annual poll allows for write-in votes, for the last few years I’ve been doing write-ins for the people I know who deserve recognition (DownBeat publishes a Readers Poll every fall, too, where everyone can do likewise online). Nora Germain is an example of someone I’ve written in for a couple years, and this year she suddenly appeared on the ballot! Nora is a hard-swinging violinist from Los Angeles who graduated from the USC jazz program a few months ago. Just her appearance on the ballot has raised her profile with the critics who participated.
In the grand scheme of things, jazz may not rate that high on your list of concerns. But for me it is an avenue, a place to make a change and improve conditions. When I see a venue full of people walk out of a performance humming and dancing and chatting excitedly about the show they just witnessed, I know that those people up on stage have made a big contribution to their world. We are all having a rough year. Some are having a much rougher one than you or I will ever face. The difficulty can be in not knowing what to do to effectively help.
But I would suggest that you can start anywhere you like, beginning with treating the bagger at the grocery with respect, or calming down in traffic and not being a rude asshole. If you want to do something effective, do something for somebody else, or do lots of something for lots of somebody else, and be as creative as you like. Act. Speak up. Communicate. Vote. Participate. Contribute. And whatever you pursue, do it well. Take John Lennon’s advice and “join the human race.”
If you like listening to jazz or blues, don’t just watch/listen to some low-fi crap on YouTube. Instead, buy a CD and support the artist who spent a year of his/her life creating it. Save your change and drop a little coin on a live performance some Saturday night. And if you like writing about music, you can review the guy’s CD. Do it well enough, and it might get published and REALLY make some motion in the ocean. My contact information is on All About Jazz ( Write well enough and you might be writing in your favorite artists on a ballot soon.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Beatles, Oscars, Grammys & Overachieving: The Best Cliché Ever, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Among people competing for the various annual awards, one of the most popular topics of conversation is: OK, let's say I am the winner--what then?

Of those who believe they deserve the recognition (which is all of them) only those who have already received one of the honors know that the little statue at the top of the mountain doesn't really hold more career opportunities, more money, more love or better sleep at night. Which is okay, because the real payoff is something more valuable than all those things combined: the admiration of your peers. After a lifetime of being ignored, denied, rejected and invalidated, to have your hard work acknowledged at last means that you can go back to liking yourself again.

But some odd things can happen at the top of the mountain. Celebrity, for example, when the artist becomes the object of that admiration instead of the art.

The nominees for Record of the Year at the 17th Annual Grammys ceremony held on March 1, 1975, were:

Elton John - Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me
Roberta Flack - Feel Like Making Love
Joni Mitchell - Help Me
Olivia Newton-John - I Honestly Love You
Maria Muldaur - Midnight at the Oasis

Of the five nominees, only one of the songs failed to survive the 1970s. Four of the five got admitted to the big circus tent of "classic rock," which by now includes nearly any popular music (aside from gutbucket blues or straight-ahead jazz) written in 2/2, 2/4, 4/4 or 6/8 between 1955 and 2005, from jump blues to rockabilly to soul to R&B to rock & roll to folk rock to hard rock to progressive rock to grunge to whatever you call what Beck does. It includes every related musical form--from the sharpest on the edges to the smoothest in the middle--once played on AM and FM radio stations and now on their internet equivalents.

That song that was left behind won the Grammy in 1975 for Record of the Year. It was the sort of marshmallow-soft confection that no one ever seems to claim association with in retrospect. Call it pop, short for "popular," or pop as in the sound bubblegum makes when it deflates on contact with anything solid or pointed.

Throughout the wryly improvised shtick during their 1975 presentation of the award, John Lennon and Paul Simon heap the sarcasm and inside jokes on one and all while reading a bit of forced cleverness from the cue cards. But seen through the filter of our current age's obsequious political correctness, their unscripted cynicism and snideness about the evening's proceedings can be difficult to read. More difficult still, when Lennon finally announces that "I Honestly Love You" is the winner, and Art Garfunkel inexplicably comes out of the audience to accept the Record of the Year Grammy for Newton-John and her producer, John Farrar. The scene feels so surreal that Fellini would ask for a re-write.

It was a meeting of the Sgt. Pepper's No Love Lost Lonely Hearts Club.

Garfunkel and Simon had unhappily split up an act formed in high school just months after releasing their Bridge Over Troubled Water, for which they eventually accepted six Grammys and sold 25 million copies (by far their most successful album). In the same year as that notorious dissolution, 1970, John Lennon had of course sundered his famous relationship even less amicably with his mates Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. And four months after bidding adieu, the most artistically and commercially successful band in history posthumously released one of their most successful albums, Let It Be.

Learning to Let It Be
On the same day when that final Beatles album hit the streets, a documentary film of the same title was released. Produced by Apple and directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and filmed throughout most of January in 1969, it captures the agonies and ecstasies, the realities and unrealities, and the essential tedium of making a recording. Warts and all. It is probably the first time anyone had ever attempted to make such a document, and it succeeded so brilliantly that no one is ever likely to do it again.

In addition to the expected scenes of songwriting, jamming, rehearsing, improvising, arguing and clowning, the filmgoer is shown the grind of the long, long hours, the ill tempers, the artistic labyrinths, the endless cigarettes and cups of tea. We get to see the dynamics of a real, old-fashioned working band: four people who had ridden in the back of a van along with their equipment, stacked on top of each other like cordwood in order to keep warm on the trip to Hamburg; four people who had eaten, lived, and breathed the music together, non-stop, for ten years. And we are afforded the rare opportunity of peering under the surface at many of the qualities that defined the Beatles, the most uniquely gifted musicians of their generation, and how they produced music in the studio.

Paul McCartney and his charismatic personality had provided the de facto leadership of the band since Brian Epstein's death in 1967. Despite Epstein's strong presence and skilled management, and the respect he commanded from all the Beatles, he had failed to get them to perform live for nearly a year; after his death, the boys were inclined to hang it up altogether. So from that day forward, McCartney cajoled and wheedled them into carrying on, kept them moving forward one day at a time. His often pedantic approach is on full display in the film, as well as Lennon's loyal, vocal opposition and Harrison's introversion in the long shadows that those two cast, plus Starr's somewhat detached but rock-steady presence in the corner.

It wasn't a bed of roses. Camera-shy George Harrison wanted to get rid of the cameras and forgo the whole idea of doing a film. Family man Paul McCartney slightly breached the musician's creed of protected isolation at the recording studio by having his wife and daughter drop by, probably in response to Lennon's flagrant breach of letting Yoko Ono settle down next to him as though she were a participant in the session. Ringo looks alternately disgusted and stoically resigned to it all. And for the first time a guest artist, in the person of Billy Preston, was publicly employed as a participant in a Beatles recording session, though many others had done so anonymously over the years.

Lindsay-Hogg cut out much that deserved expurgation and even more at the Beatles' request, including footage of a short period during which Harrison resigned from the band and the others discussed who to replace him with. But the band had been unraveling for some time--even happy-go-lucky Ringo had quit the band for a while the year before; Lennon would tell the others of his decision to leave the band later in September, after which McCartney would retreat to a home studio and begin quietly recording a solo album.

I'm sure a few scenes that remain in the film are still somewhat unpleasant for the way they remind the surviving participants that those final days as a band were difficult. But as usual, despite all the drama and chaos, the band was as creative and exacting in their approach as ever. Lennon's later claims--that the studio tapes' substandard quality was the reason he had hired Phil Spector to do extensive post-production work on what Glyn Johns and Alan Parsons had recorded--could well be true, but start to finish everything in the film, from the rehearsals to those last live tunes filmed and recorded on top of the Abbey Road studios, documented a masterful chapter in their superb artistry. Through it all, despite drugs and disillusionment and every form of legal thievery and managerial interference known to man, they set the professional standards that every musician has been measured against since.    

So it was quite appropriate that the Beatles then received the Academy Award for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture for the outstanding music they had made for Let It Be. It was also a fitting accompaniment to the Grammy they had received for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture a month earlier.

But you would never guess it, not based on the way the Beatles responded to the honors. Note the film clip here from that Grammys ceremony, an earlier Fellini-esque time capsule that captures the moment when a sneaker-shod Paul McCartney and wife Linda, minus Lennon and Harrison, accepts the award from... can it be?...

John Wayne?

When a casually dressed McCartney and his wife come bounding out of the audience to accept the three Grammys from Wayne, Sir Paul takes one of the heavy little statuettes, has Linda take one, and jokingly offers the third to John Wayne. McCartney, clearly nervous and uncomfortable with the situation, offers only a two-word speech to all his admirers in the audience. "Thank you," he says, and gets off the stage quickly. 

Live And Let Die

The reason McCartney had showed up is because throughout it all he had always maintained a British sense of decorum and protocol. In his mind, an English gentleman doesn't win a Grammy and then just not show up to receive it. In many ways the film had been his project all along, as many things had been since 1967. But the album that had come from it was certainly a collaborative effort, all the post-production wrangling notwithstanding.

McCartney's sense of the Beatles' place in history meant he was quite aware that during the months since the album's and film's release, both were quickly being labeled as a chronicling of the Beatles' break-up. Never mind that it wasn't. The recording that began in February after finishing with the Let It Be sessions, and continued through August, was the last the Beatles did together. George Martin returned as the producer on the condition that he be allowed to control the proceedings as he had on Sgt. Pepper's, resulting in a disciplined session approach and more congenial atmosphere. Lennon and McCartney held it together despite disagreements on what material to do and how to do it, and Yoko was still a fixture, but... the sublime Abbey Road was the result. Shortly after wrapping it up, Lennon announced he wanted a "divorce" from the Beatles. Abbey Road was mixed and released a month later, but because of the involved post-production difficulties, Let It Be, both the album and the film, weren't released until the following May, several months after the Beatles' divorce was final. The stigma resulting from that coincidence of timing stuck.

The backbiting and nastiness visited by a community upon anyone who is thought to have deserted them is one of the primordial elements of social change. The Beatles were feeling the wrath of a fan base scorned. While many music critics were dismissing the recording as a poor effort, fans the world over were forming a lasting distrust of the inscrutably quiet, black-clad Yoko Ono. Her ubiquitous presence in the film quickly got her labeled as the agent provocateur responsible for the band's demise.

McCartney did just what he should have done in going to Los Angeles to accept the Academy Award. From Lennon's and Harrison's recent cathartic musical statements, it is certain they wouldn't be attending. Who knows what Ringo was thinking. Above all, McCartney knew, more than anyone outside the band ever could, the close relationship he and his friends had shared and the consequent anguish their recent separation meant. He fetched the Grammy for all of them.

Did the award make the difference or turn the tide of sentiment? Let It Be went on to become one of the Beatles' bestselling albums, so the music has certainly endured. But you haven't been able to buy a copy of that Academy Award-winning film since it went out of print in the early 1980s. If you're lucky and can find a used VHS copy on eBay, you'll pay a lot to own it. More than likely, you'll pay a lot for a crappy bootleg copy of a copy.

It's been out of print because the film's reputation as the chronicle of the breakup continued to grow unabated. The irony now is that people continue to accept this to be true, largely because they can't actually view the film and discover how incorrect the perception is. Instead it should have become known as the classic cinéma vérité that it is, with a killer last reel consisting of the band plus guest keyboardist Billy Preston, performing "Get Back," "Don't Let Me Down," "I've Got A Feeling," "One After 909" and "Dig A Pony."

Always sensitive to the reputation and legacy of the Beatles' catalog, McCartney and Starr, plus surviving heirs Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono, still view the film as having more negative than positive impact, and have never agreed to reprint it in any form. One or more of them feel that maintaining the fictional Hard Day's Night version of the band's image somehow serves the music's place in history better than Let It Be. But the longer it has stayed out of print, the more complex people's lives have become. The longer it goes on, the harder it will be to change that consensus. Personally, I think it is wrongheaded to serve up redacted, sugar-coated illusions as biography. As internet content balloons in this information age, the best way to deal with the inevitable disinformation attendant to PR and image-shaping, is to tell the truth. Even when the truth stings a bit as people discover the dirty little secrets of their hero(s), we move on. We can forgive anything, and always will, as long as it isn't kept secret any longer. The only thing standing in the way of redemption is a lie. The truth is never as bad as it seems. So what if George went off in a pouty snit and refused to talk for a few days? Who among us hasn't? Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg said in 2011 that there was a chance a DVD might be released in 2013. As of this date it hasn't happened, but it could.

The Competitive Edge

Competitors in any field are always looking for an advantage, something they can utilize to increase the odds of success. A clever wax specialist can help a skier beat everyone to the finish line on the same day that the leading contender has been slowed slightly with an injury, and win a medal. For a recording artist, a golden-eared producer can mean the difference in creating a sound that turns a great song into a dance hit, the same way a cutting-edge special effects team can turn a well-scripted movie into box office gold. Many would have you believe the biggest competitive advantage is a weak field. But they'd be wrong.

Because the single biggest advantage a competitor has (all things being equal--which they very often are--even in the fanatically measured world of sports, considering that .004 seconds on a luge run can mean the difference between fame and infamy, or worse, anonymity) is to not only be better or do better work than anyone else in the field, but to not be taken seriously by anyone until that critical moment when it is too late to fend him off. Every racer knows that the ideal place in a race is in the blind spot of the oddsmakers' favorite pick to win it, drafting the presumptive winner. It's the place where the spotlight isn't.

That moment when you step out of the shade of the mountain and suddenly make the final climb to its summit is the most deliciously advantageous moment of all. A great athlete or artist gets to experience it only once. The irony is that after that first taste, attempts at every competition thereafter, in order for the victor to defy nature and get that advantage one more time, are doomed. It is all downhill from the top of the mountain.

And nowhere are those odd contradictions and vicissitudes of celebrity more apparent than in the most serious competitions of all--the awards business--that vortex of desperate vyings for the position at center stage where all the love and adulation of one's fans and peers swirls the most deliriously.

And In the End, the Love You Take Is Equal to the Love You Make

Which brings us back to those bizarre four minutes of video with Paul Simon and John Lennon at the 1975 Grammys. It took a while to get here, but these two artists' story is what their snidely dismissive jokes are all about. Both had climbed to the tops of their respective mountains. Both had been repeatedly acknowledged by their peers. Both had fans numbering in the millions (maybe billions in the case of the Beatles--they probably were more popular than Jesus Christ at one point, but as Lennon also remarked, he'd never said that was a good thing). Both had held armfuls of gold statues in recognition of their magnificent accomplishments, songs which people will listen to and sing again and again, until the end of time. Both had bank accounts stuffed with money.

What ain't we got (as Ray Walston sang in South Pacific)? Hint: the answer is not "babes." Neither of them had a shortage of babes.

What neither John Lennon nor Paul Simon had many of at the moment was other mountains to climb. Certainly, they had other interests, but art for an artist is an activity, not a statue or a badge. And the worst pain an artist can experience is a shortage of that activity. If he (or she) has an artistic collaborator, a divorce or even a separation from that collaborator is the bitterest possible pill to swallow. Fellow artists, particularly fellow collaborators, are the most valuable assets an artist has. Being able to challenge yourself and keep going with your next artistic venture is the most energizing activity there is.

Many years ago I watched Charlie Rose interview Kenneth Branagh, the fine actor best known for his Shakespearean acting and directing. He's been nominated many times, but has never won an Academy Award or a Golden Globe. He had just completed writing and directing a film, A Midwinter's Tale I believe, and was describing the experience when Rose asked him why, after his recent success in films like Dead Again and Much Ado About Nothing, he was directing a small art film.

Branagh said he considered it a privilege to do his newly finished film--the darkly comical story of an out-of-work actor's quest for redemption by producing a play to raise money and save his sister's church from land developers--because in his mind, the definition of success is having the freedom to choose what he will do next. Money, he said, along with recognition or fame, simply provide the wherewithal to accomplish his artistic goals.  

So support your local artist. Whether he has a mantle bedecked with shiny awards or one adorned with candles he lights instead of cursing the darkness, go out of your way to acknowledge the work he does for the world, help keep him doing whatever is his next project. It's what he lives for.

Whether he has chosen to be a tailor in Kiev, a painter in Paris, a novelist in Seattle, or a cabinetmaker in London, support him. You're what he lives for, too.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Happy New Year Full of Jazz/Rock is Here -- Time to Party Like It's 1969!

(In case that headline is puzzling you... 1969 is the year Columbia released Miles Davis' In A Silent Way, and the year after the release of Filles de Kilimanjaro, when the Dark Prince got the party started and electricity started running through his veins.)  

Three weeks ago I received an email from Hungarian guitarist László Halper, asking if he could send me a copy of the CD he had made with his group, Band of Gypsys Reincarnation, called Electric Angelland. I get many of these requests and often need to decline them, but my instincts told me to accept his offer. I am certainly happy that I did.

After listening to it one time through, I can, at the very least, say it is some of the freshest and most innovative jazz/rock I've heard in a long while, all beginning and ending with László Halper's advanced techniques at making a guitar do nearly anything that Hendrix ever did, in a constantly unfolding series of compositional contexts. Halper says on his website that he founded the Band of Gypsys Reincarnation in 2007 with several leading jazz musicians in Hungary because, "through the sound of the band's music I wanted to create a bridge between the musical world of Jimi Hendrix, the jazz played by Hungarian Gypsies and traditional Gypsy music."  

I will be writing and publishing a complete review here and for All About Jazz ( as soon as I've had a chance to listen some more to this and his earlier CD, 40 Years After (2010), but I wanted to make a New Year's note that there is a discernible resurgence of interest in jazz/rock fusion coming, and László Halper's music is part of the reason why

In his liner notes for Electric Angelland, Halper writes that "It is widely known that Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis wanted to make a joint LP. The music they dreamed about together can never come about, obviously, but I still was intrigued by figuring out how that fusion of Hendrix's music with jazz would sound." Indeed, the meeting of those two great musical minds would have followed in logical progression from the music Miles had been making with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Tony Williams, Lenny White, etc, and the bigger, wider improvisational approach Jimi was beginning to take with his bands. 

It is sad indeed that Miles and Jimi weren't able to pull it off. But Miles' Bitches Brew-era personnel were the nexus of an era of magnificent changes that happened in jazz, and it is a vital and energizing tradition that has continued to this day.

Just recently here on Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing) I wrote about the tour of the jazz/rock supergroup Third Rail (George Whitty, keyboards; Janek Gwizdala, bass; Tom Brechtlein, drums) through Austria, Germany and Czech Republic, a European tour that was hugely successful and created quite a stir.

It is no accident that two other jazz monsters, drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Eddie Gomez, joined forces with Halper on Electric Angelland, and in 2010 for 40 Years After, it was the inestimable talents of trumpet master Randy Brecker.

Speaking of whom, the announcement of Grammy winners on January 26th is going to set off fireworks when the 761-yr.-old (1,850-yr.-old, if you accept the Ptolemy citation theory) city of Kalisz, Poland, celebrates its ancient birthday and the Jazz/Rock Fusion Renaissance of 2014 officially begins, as the magnificent recording Night In Calisia, performed by Randy Brecker, the Wlodek Pawlik Trio, and the Kalisz Philharmonic receives its well-deserved Grammy.

For the curious, Brecker and company's Night In Calisia competitors for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album this year are:

Babylon - Darcy James Argue's Secret Society
Night In Calisia - Randy Brecker, Wlodek Pawlik Trio & Kalisz Philharmonic
Wild Beauty - Brussels Jazz Orchestra Featuring Joe Lovano
March Sublime - Alan Ferber
Intrada - Dave Slonaker Big Band

But till then, Happy New Year! May 2014 bring you abundance in all things, love, joy, freedom, peace and prosperity.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

'Zat You, Santa Claus?

We Americans and our religious holidays are hard to figure, that's for sure. 

First, you hear us demanding tolerance and equal time for people who choose to affiliate with an anti-religious philosophy, or no religious practice at all. The next minute, we are decrying the absurd religious descrimination being exercised by a commercial enterprise like A&E Network with their top-rated television program, Duck Dynasty. Then you hear us defending our gay brothers and sisters. Then you see 360 choir members and 110 orchestra players gathering at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, for a Christmas celebration with people like the venerated newscaster, Tom Brokaw.

And then you see our celebrations of Christmas cheer with commercial television programming and advertising aimed straight at the affluent American consumer, accompanied by a flat-out affirmation of capitalism and its rewards, as we vocally sing our re-written, anglicized Christmas carols.

What gives? WTF? 

Here you go: it is the 237-yr.-old American commitment to the little guy, the underdog. As of 1776, all bets were off. Whether it had been the current British King George and his Anglican Church's haughty supremacy over the Empire, or the eventual President of the United States of America and his distinctly Protestant mindset, none had the power or dominion over another man's mind. A person's religious beliefs, no matter how absurd or disconnected from mainstream thinking, were his own and a sovereign choice. 

So when you hear Louis Armstrong singing "'Zat You, Santa Claus?," keep in mind that he did so of his own free will ... and that he could not have done it anywhere else in the world.

As for Christianity and its prominence in a Christmas celebration--do all religious adherents practice the principles of their faith without hypocrisy?... of course not. But the concept of love and tolerance and even forgiveness of your brother are its central tenets... and the central tenets of every civilization since the dawn of time. Only crazy people have a problem with that.

And as for the celebration of the winter solstice, the shortest day and the darkest night of the year, as a religious prophet's birthday and a time for a lights-out party? How are you going to argue with that?

'Zat you, Santa Claus?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Jazz/Rock Is Alive and Well--Third Rail in Zülpich Tonight, Cologne on December 7th, Prague, December 8th


Music fans in Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, etc., who are willing to do a bit of traveling, have the opportunity to hear the Jazz/Rock supergroup Third Rail tonight at the Live Proberaum in Zülpich, Germany, at the Altes Pfandhaus in Cologne, Germany tomorrow, December 7th, and at the Agharta Jazzclub in Prague, Czech Republic on December 8th.

Five-time Grammy winner and multi-keyboardist George Whitty (Herbie Hancock, Brecker Brothers, Carlos Santana, David Sanborn) is joined by drummer Tom Brechtlein (Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Jean-Luc Ponty, Al DiMeola) and bassist Janek Gwizdala (Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, Wayne Krantz, Randy Brecker) to do some serious Jazz/Rock fusing and shredding. 

These three guys can play, as you can see and hear from this video, filmed live at the Jazzclub in Minden, Germany. All three are veterans who have earned high marks in many musical fields, but what makes this grouping special is their willingness to not only touch, but embrace the proverbial third rail of jazz...

The bringing together of jazz and rock 'n' roll (and many other musics, ultimately) has been through some changes since Miles Davis first laid down Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968) and In A Silent Way (1969). When Miles recorded the revolutionary Bitches Brew (1970), he knew from the instant reaction of the music world that he had touched a nerve. He also knew from the harsh criticism he immediately elicited from many music critics of the day, that the old traditionalists thought he had ventured too far beyond the pale--or in other words, he had touched the "third rail." 

On an electric railway, of course, the third rail is one that runs parallel to the two that the railroad cars' wheels travel on. It supplies the very high-voltage electrical power that moves the train and its passengers and cargo at a very high speed. Just as was the case with the music of Miles Davis and the music that his personnel went on to create in the form of Mahavishnu Orchestra (John McLaughlin), Return to Forever (Chick Corea, Lenny White), Lifetime (Tony Williams, Larry Young) and Weather Report (Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter), the electrical power was real and physical, as well as spiritual and musical. This was music played in the tradition of jazz, with the power of rock 'n' roll.

In the case of a human being who comes into direct contact with the third rail on a railroad line, that human dies a sudden and violent death by electrocution. For those of you interested in the colorful history of the jazz idiom--beginning with that fiery cauldron Miles stirred up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the music brought such loud controversy, such harsh and bitter rhetoric from some jazz critics, that it felt much like one of those human electrocutions. At least, that's what the bilious condemnation intended for it to be.

But the joke is on the critics. It always is, isn't it? Jazz/Rock is still here. And the critics ... if they're not spinning in their graves, are awfully soft-spoken these days. The direction jazz took in 1968 is still a bit of a third rail for some people. But if James P. Johnson and Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong were around today, they would be innovating still. They would be trying everything they could to keep the music alive and vital and relevant. They would be all over the third rail.

They would be electric.

Jazz is the one musical form that embraces all other forms. Jazz can (and does) incorporate everything from klezmer and European classical to hip hop and blues and bluegrass. The imaginary third rail, the one that says you can't go exploring too far and can't try something, anything, because it is too radical a departure from what is currently considered acceptable, is a falsehood. It certainly has nothing to do with jazz, which can include anything. It's just like Duke Ellington said:

"Put it this way: Jazz is a good barometer of freedom… In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country."

George Whitty's band Third Rail is putting jazz and rock 'n' roll together at full roar and can take you for a good, long ride. George and Tom and Janek are keep the electricity flowing and the trains running on time. 


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Unpardonable Turkeys: the 2013 Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing) Listeners & Readers Poll

The 1st Annual Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing) Listeners & Readers Poll will commence in 7 paragraphs. You can SKIP THIS MESSAGE in 30 seconds, 29 seconds, 28 seconds ...
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I recently sent a note to my friend, Jeff Fitzgerald, a writer in Virginia who lives far enough from Washington, D.C., that he can find a free-range, guiltless turkey for today's feast, thanking him for the latest piece he published. I'm in the habit of doing this every so often when I read something that strikes me as exceptionally good. Jeff has published so many things that are so good that I thought it was time to say so. Shortly after hearing back from him, I realized that the writers I'd written to in recent months all had something in common, in addition to their choosing to spend time in solitary confinement while pursuing just the right word to turn a phrase: they all write humor, or employ humor so well they are known for it.

Jeff and another recipient of one of my recent notes, pianist Bill Anschell, write about jazz, or as Jeff calls it, "Our Music." Like most writers, Jeff writes about other things, too, movies and food among them. Bill spends the bulk of his time composing music and arranging it, and plays beautifully. But not coincidentally, I know each of them best as humorists who regularly publish articles with the same fine publication I do, All About Jazz--Bill with his "Mr. P.C.'s Guide to Jazz Etiquette," and Jeff with the "Genius Guide to Jazz." Not coincidentally, I say, because it is not a coincidence at all that the three of us, scribes who like to express our outrages and opinions through various forms of sardonic humor (often combined with a kind of sacrilegious disregard for proper jazz dogma), all found our way onto the pages of Mike Ricci's website. It is not wasted on any of us that his comprehensive coverage at All About Jazz has the greatest reach of any online jazz publication in the world. Humorists like to have an audience to laugh along with them. 

Jon Hendrickson, a friend I've known since we co-wrote a satire column for our high school newspaper several decades ago (simultaneously incurring the wrath of the school administration and the closeted adoration of the faculty), lives in northern California and writes about wine. His adventures while pursuing wine, women, song and more wine in the vineyards and pubs of the wild, untamed foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains pique my appetite so well that I want a glass of his discovery by the end of one of his articles. He also listens to jazz, more acutely than most.

Then there's Lorraine Feather. Lorraine is, in my not particularly humble opinion, the finest lyricist working in jazz. She sometimes gets embarrassed when I threaten to publicly compare her to contemporary writers like Dave Frishberg, Bob Dorough or Mose Allison, or the Broadway giant, Stephen Sondheim, all of whom have made contributions to Our Music that could (and should) fill a very large book. But right now, November 28, 2013, she is in her prime and on the hottest of hot streaks, as evidenced by this year's Attachments, or 2012's Tales of the Unusual (both released on Jazzed Media.) The humor in her lyrics, as is always the case, requires that the listener listen to what she is saying. And if you care to dive below the surface and read along with the printed lyrics while listening to one of her recordings, you will discover galleons filled with treasure at the bottom of her seven seas, including one of jazz's finest and most powerfully emotional voices. And one of the dazzling jewels in those blue depths is that she will very often make you laugh out loud.

I mention these writers because I don't get a chance to laugh out loud often enough these days. Details of why this is the case aren't necessary--you, dear reader, live on Planet Earth just like I do, but if you are from Mars, 10 minutes (more is not recommended) with the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal will tell you all you need to know.

Besides the daily fishwrap, I read a lot of jazz writing, jazz criticism as it is often called (for good reason). What has struck me this year is how onerous and lifelessly intellectualized these discussions have become. Whether in the form of short, snotty little dismissals of years' worth of an artist's hard work, or great, ponderous dirigibles full of sulfurous hot air, the writer seems to have taken himself so seriously and found so little joy in either the music or the task of writing about it, that biting into a dried-out, weeks-old fruitcake stuffed with rancid pecans and hard green things sounds preferable to sinking your teeth into this guy's treatise on the arcane ideas and oblique interpretations rattling around in his head--a guy who has the same number of ears that you have, but the seemingly relentless determination to prevent you from ever hearing the music.

So I thought to myself, "Self, we need a new kind of year-end jazz poll." One that rates, in addition to the music you listened to this year and liked (as with the Down Beat or JazzTimes poll), the music you heard and disliked. It also struck me that you should have the opportunity to rate not only the music you heard, but the reviews you read. A poll that allows you to be the reviewer. You know, and I know, that often a review is so completely off-base or wrongheaded that you'd like to tie the reviewer to a tree and blast a mix tape (on a nice, cheap Radio Shack cassette) of Barbra Streisand songs (including her rendition of John Lennon's "Mother" from her 1971 Barbra Joan Streisand) at him all day long, preferably on a 1980s model boom box with tiny speakers.

So here goes. Respond to any or all, as you wish (at the bottom of this Blogger post, or by email). The categories constitute the rating for any particular artist or recording that you care to mention, from the worst Unpardonable Turkey(s) to most Worthwhile Pursuit(s). If you feel inclined to rate any reviewers or reviews that you remember--or haven't already used as kindling in your fireplace--by all means throw them under the bus (or up top, if you liked one ... it could happen). And don't feel that you have to limit yourself to jazz. Our Music, as you know, incorporates all the other musical forms, so if you feel compelled to trash or deify a rocker or a hopper, feel free. Name names! Kick ass, or even heap praise! As Jesse Pinkman would say, "Whatever, yo."

Unpardonable Turkey(s)





Pardonable Sin(s)





Justifiable Caution(s)





Admirable Restraint(s)





Worthwhile Pursuit(s)





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