Friday, November 30, 2007

Revitalizing the Banjo as a Jazz Instrument

I must have heard a banjo before the first episode of The Beverly Hillbillies but I don’t recall the circumstances or if it even registered as “banjo” in my young brain. But it was shortly before I became infatuated with the Kingston Trio and particularly banjoist Nick Reynolds. My seventh grade girlfriends and I bought identical striped shirts, begged our parents for guitars, and spent summer afternoons trying our hands at folk songs. Even then we overlooked the banjo’s role in the Trio, concentrating on what looked like an easier route to stardom through the guitar. By 8th grade the Kingston Trio gave way to Peter, Paul and Mary, and soon after, the Beatles. I didn’t think about the banjo again until the famous “Dueling Banjos” track pushed the film Deliverance to the top of the soundtrack charts in 1972.

My immersion in folk music was fairly short-lived, and after brief encounters with every other genre in my 20s and early 30s, I found my way back to my earlier delight in jazz. The banjo did not come along—neither did that guitar that I never really learned to play. I was vaguely aware of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and despite a Pete Fountain record dating back to my tenth birthday, I was even less aware of the role of the banjo in early jazz bands.

This past summer, I received a review copy of the delightful duet recording from Bela Fleck and Chick Corea (The Enchantment, aptly titled). It didn’t sound anything like bluegrass or 60s folk. Then I got an email from jazz banjoist Cynthia Sayer, inquiring as to my interest in reviewing a CD she had just issued with a distinguished cast including guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, trumpeter Randy Sandke, and multi-reedist Scott Robinson. Given the company she was keeping, I felt it would be worth my while to check out the recording. It was. But the value of Attractions (Plunk Music) was not limited to the dozen tracks of swing, hot club magic and even a tasty transformation of Franz Liszt—Cynthia convinced me, through her music and our email exchanges, to look into the history of the banjo and its current status within jazz.

The banjo has not always been regarded as a historic novelty or Appalachian string. At the cusp of the 20th century, it was even considered a most proper instrument to learn and provide entertainment at tea or whatever was consumed in the Victorian parlors of American “society.” At least for a while, it seemed that an instrument that was first played by slaves and the “real” hillbillies had shed its cloak of “poor man’s music” and gained respect as a tool for “real music.”
The new music emerging from New Orleans, particularly ragtime, provided another niche for the banjo, which was now splitting into two instruments –the original five string and the new 4-string or “plectrum.” Well, actually there were two types of four-string banjos as Cynthia recently pointed out to me: In addition to the plectrum, "the other kind is tenor banjo... initially used in the jazz bands (pitched and tuned like a viola). The plectrum was initially evolved as a soloist instrument, and was heard playing everything from classics to comedy on vaudeville stages, etc., but soon they were interchangable, and to this day both kinds play jazz, do solo work, etc." With one less string and strings now made of steel, the banjo could be heard in the midst of the horns of “Jazz Age” bands. Unfortunately, when America’s financial fortunes plummeted in 1929, so did the fate of the banjo. Parlor music was now unaffordable; big bands hired guitarists. And it seems everyone forgot that the banjo was once a popular jazz instrument.

The banjo has made a comeback of sorts, dating back to the new interest in folk music and bluegrass in the 50s and 60s. Then along came Bela Fleck, who as a young guitarist was inspired by—of course--The Beverly Hillbillies and Flatt & Scruggs to pick up the banjo, and by Chick Corea to bring the banjo to bebop and beyond. Meanwhile, or maybe a while later, 13-year-old pianist/violist/singer Cynthia Sayer asked her parents for a drumset and instead received a banjo. It may have seemed like an odd alternative at the time, but Cynthia was sufficiently intrigued. Today her credits read like “everyplace you could possibly play a banjo”—with Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band, as the official banjoist of the New York Yankees, as a guest on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, as the soundtrack to numerous commercials and film scores. But jazz is her passion, even if, among the jazz community, the banjo is still clawing for respect.

Cynthia Sayer isn’t just another pretty face in front of a microphone. She’s a true jazz rebel, a “freedom fighter” hoping to convince audiences and musicians alike to give the banjo its due. And she’s fighting a double-edged sword of prejudice. Women still lack parity with men as jazz instrumentalist. If a woman says she is a jazz musician, the usual assumption is that she sings. And if not a singer, maybe a pianist. Few women have entered the upper echelon of jazz as saxophonists, trumpeters, trombonists, bassists or drummers… and certainly not as banjoists. And gender aside, the banjo today is seldom heard in a jazz context save Bela Fleck. One would think that a musical genre that has embraced the harmonica and accordion would have room for the banjo.

Pick up a copy of Attraction to hear Cynthia reinvent swing. The banjo is as well suited to Berlin and Arlen as to Flatt and Scruggs.

Visit the Jazz Police website for my review of Attraction, at And learn more about Cynthia Sayer at

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Everywhere, Accordions

In the past year or so the accordion has been haunting my jazz listening. Yes, the resurgence of hot club music (aka “gypsy jazz”) has created a lot of work for local squeeze box talents, notably with the Parisota Hot Club and Café Accordion. But the accordion is also popping up (bellowing out?) in mainstream modern jazz and the avant garde. Gary Versace, not content to handle the common keyboards, brought along the accordion for his gig at the Dakota with Matt Wilson’s Arts and Crafts last winter. Curtis Stigers’ latest recording features Larry Goldings on accordion on several tracks.

The Walker Art Center’s World Jazz series recently featured Norwegian accordionist Froda Haltli, who shattered all remaining stereotypes about the instrument, using it as his own personal orchestra that pretty much negated the need to involve his cohorts on clarinet and Hardanger fiddle, although they came along in the back seat for some added color and intrigue; more involved with often peculiar results was vocalist Maja Ratkje, who seemed to compete more than complement her husband’s accordion.

And last weekend, friends hosted a jazz accordion party, a gathering of curious listeners who were treated to the boppish and swinging efforts of one Larry Malmberg, an elderly but energetic musician who clearly sees no boundaries in the repertoire of his instrument or any contradiction in the term “jazz accordion.” Name your decade, Larry played the jazz hits of the day, sometimes accompanied by an acoustic bass and sometimes on his own, it really didn’t matter because the accordion seemed to have all the notes, colors, and voicings of a big swing band or a modern bop quartet. Inevitably, someone requested “Squeeze Me.”

I have determined that the accordion is an instrument that defies analysis by the uninitiated listener or observer. That means I can’t figure out how it produces all those sounds simply by watching and listening. I think I need a dissection kit, an x-ray, or at least a hands-on version of Show and Tell. It would be easier if all accordions looked alike. They don’t. Some have keys like a vertical piano. Some have rows of buttons that look like sheets of those “dot” candies we used to get at the corner grocery in the 60s. Some have both keys and buttons. It seems that the two hands operate somewhat like those of a pianist, left hand comping and right hand zipping out the melody. But does it really work that way if there are only buttons and no keys?

Then there’s the bellows—clearly the compression and release of air allows the sound to soar and change direction, but is there any sound if the bellows are still?

Actually I find the design and décor of the accordion as interesting as its sounds. I remember the French accordionist who accompanied Dee Dee Bridgewater a year ago when she brought her Paris project to the Dakota. Simply, it was a beautiful object. It belonged in a museum with its intricate design.

In August I happened to be visiting a friend north of San Francisco when we learned that it was the weekend of the famed Cotati Accordion Festival. Cotati is a small town near Petaluma, a bigger town not far from even bigger Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa is known as the home of cartoonist Charles Schultz, and Petaluma is the home of the mythical Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, the birthplace of Snoopy. But Cotati—it’s the home of a mammoth accordion festival that draws a few thousand every year for a weekend of nonstop accordion gigs, instrument displays, and a large polka tent. Barbara and I decided it would be a fun way to spend an afternoon even though neither of us had any real knowledge or even much interest in the accordion per se. And it was fun—we heard 14 accordion enthusiasts join together to play “Lady of Spain.” There was a young man from (maybe) Vermont who made the polka sound halfway exciting, but was even more adept at the trumpet. And there was Tony something or other, apparently a very big name in the world of traditional accordion, who offered a set of Italian swing. The polka tent was the scene of action from morning til midnight but the two accordionists in that venue looked bored compared to the enthused dancers.

There were several displays of accordions—maybe hundreds of accordions. Red ones, white ones, black ones; accordions with fancy keys and colorful rows of buttons. Little boxes and large ones that looked impossible to support without straps and O rings.

It was the accordion’s answer to the Minnesota State Fair.
Photo: Two "Ladies of Spain" at the 2007 Cotati Accordion Festival (Andrea Canter, August 2007)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Jazz Survivors

Jazz is not dead. In fact, for some of its finest purveyors, jazz is not only alive but it seems to ensure their personal longevity.

Recently I came across an article about Marian McPartland, soon to celebrate her 90th birthday. The Britain-born pianist has been broadcasting her acclaimed “Piano Jazz” series for nearly 30 years on NPR, a series of interviews and duets with a diverse list of guests from Oscar Peterson to Steely Dan. Not content with radio performance, Marian still can be seen live on stage, noting that even her arthritis seems to disappear when she touches the keyboard. And throughout her career, Marian has been known for her long-standing committments—an 8-year run at the Hickory House in New York, over 50 recordings for Concord and, of course, the longest-running program in NPR history.

A few months ago I attended a concert by the Dave Brubeck Quartet at a small theater in Santa Rosa, California. The 87-year-old pianist has outlived his original quartet, but has now been working with this current ensemble for over a decade—already a longer-standing collaboration than most groups working in jazz today. On this occasion, Dave had a slight limp, the remnant of a leg infection earlier in the year. But there was nothing slight about his music which has retained all of the beauty, all of the invention and most of the speed that has defined his career. And he entertained his audience with a few stories about his recent gigs, situations where the feats of an octogenarian pianist had apparently startled the critics. So perhaps did the release of a new recording a few weeks earlier.

In New York recently I saw performances by the Roy Haynes Quartet and the Jimmy Heath Big Band. Roy’s “Fountain of Youth” band is aptly named, not only for the three 20-something musicians who Roy has nurtured into one of the tightest small bands in modern jazz, but for master Haynes himself who, at 82, knows no limits to time, in tempo or in life itself. Jimmy Heath had just celebrate his 80th but, on stage, saxophone in hand and leading a large ensemble of largely up-and-coming New York musicians, he was a brash and exuberant leader who dared the youngsters to keep up with him.

Here in the Twin Cities, we have our own jazz survivors: There’s 88-year-old Irv Williams who, in addition to blowing his tenor sax every Friday night during the Dakota’s Happy Hour, has released three recordings in the past three years despite some health challenges. Frank Morgan has proven himself a survivor several times over, from his battle with drug addiction that derailed his career for nearly 30 years to his resurgence as one of the most eloquent altoists of his generation—a generation he apparently intends to outlive and outplay as he roars through his eighth decade. And then we have Jeanne Arland Peterson, who probably did not even notice when she passed 80 a few years back, but continues to play the piano with the power and finesse that has entertained Twin Cities’ audiences through a career in radio, baseball, and as head of Minnesota’s “First Family of Music.”

But perhaps the most amazing story of survival in jazz is that of another, much younger Peterson. This past weekend, Jeanne’s daughter Patty celebrated a special birthday with a gig at the Artists Quarter, the singer backed by mom on piano and brother Billy on bass. Nothing unusual about that, and Patty told the audience that this was not one of those “big birthdays,” the ones that end in a zero and make us shudder and count the new wrinkles. For Patty, this birthday was the miracle, the one that followed the ruptured aorta last February. Few survive such a medical catastrophe. John Ritter didn’t. Patty somehow managed her own 9-1-1 call. The fact that she lived to celebrate another birthday was remarkable. The fact that she was singing on the Dakota bandstand four months later was mythical. She sounds better than ever.

Jazz, and music in general, has survived many challenges in terms of adapting to changes in culture and technology, finding an audience, and attracting new pools of talent. Jazz musicians, as well, have survived many challenges to their longevity—the “ordinary” battles of mortality, the fatigue and frustrations of travel, the ups and downs of self-employment, the struggle to maintain chops as years of use and abuse accumulate and, for a disproportionate number, the tragedy and displacement of Hurricane Katrina.

Yet jazz historically has been about surviving and rejoicing. As consumers, we used to dance to the music; now we sit back and listen, as Ornette Coleman said, “dancing in our heads.” For those who make the music, it’s hard to tell if it is their survival keeps jazz alive, or if it is the music that prolongs their survival. Surely music keeps the planet spinning.
Photos: (L) Patty Peterson with brother Billy at the AQ. (R) Jeanne Arland Peterson. (Photos by Andrea Canter on November 17, 2007)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Tributaries of the Third Stream

I always enjoy hearing pianist Larry McDonough and his quartet. One minute they’re running through a standard like “Night and Day” and the next minute it’s Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”—in either case, you can be sure Larry has wreaked havoc with the meter and created something fresh and delightful. Of course Beethoven seems like an odd choice for a jazz band, owing nothing to African roots, syncopated rhythms or “in the moment” improvisation. Yet European forms and elements have been flavoring jazz for decades. Modern music icon Gunther Schuller is credited with adding the term “Third Stream” to our glossaries of musical terms in the 1950s, defined by the Guinness jazz compendium as music that seeks to “bridge the gap between European disciplines and forms and the attitudes and techniques of jazz.” More generally, Guinness further notes that the term has been applied more generally to “the process of breaking down barriers between one form of music and another.”

“Bridging the gap” implies a dichotomy, a wide DMZ of Atlantic Ocean separating continents of European and American music traditions. Yet from early days of jazz, European music and audiences have influenced jazz, from the army bands of James Reese Europe (living up to his name?) playing for the Allies during World War I to the influx of young modernists like the Swedish trio of Esbjorn Svensson and company (E.S.T.). Listen to the orchestral works of Gershwin and the majestic suites of Ellington and it is clear that European music was not far from the minds of the greatest composers of 20th century “jazz.” Decades later, Maria Schneider is creating a substantial body of orchestra works that have direct lineage to Ellington, melding forms and harmonies straight out of western classical traditions with the swing and improvisation of New Orleans, Africa and the Caribbean.

In the past week or two, I’ve heard a lot of music that may not meet Schuller’s definition of Third Stream yet clearly flows from related sources. The John Abercrombie Quartet (at the Dakota), and particularly violinist Mark Feldman, presented engaging compositions that alternately soared and buzzed, a fusion to be sure, but a mélange as strikingly classical in harmonies as it was jazzed and beyond in meters and deconstructions. Part of the Walker Art Center’s New World Jazz Series, Norwegian accordion master Frode Haltli—with partners on clarinet, Hardanger fiddle and voice—created an innovative weaving of Scandinavian folk and free jazz that at times strangely (or not so strangely) evoked Grieg. And playing this week in the car stereo, I continue to marvel at Sky Blue, Maria Schneider’s latest Artist Share release that deserves “Jazz Symphony of the Year” status—a tapestry of western hymn, big band arrangement and deep south blues, as well as Fantasy, in which the Bill May’s Inventions Trio creates inspiring collaborations for piano, flugelhorn and cello, building classical harmonies with post bop rhythms.

Bringing Beethoven into the Dakota, the Larry McDonough Quartet simply followed a thread that, like time and melody, seems to have been there all along. Third Stream? Fusion? Jazz? Neoclassical? As Louis Armstrong said years ago, “There is two kinds of music, the good and bad.”
Photos: (L) E.S.T. ; (R) Larry McDonough Quartet (photos: Andrea Canter)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Classical Music Meets the Jazz Ear

I grew up hearing classical music, probably from the womb. My parents tell me that Schubert was spinning on my little record player as a toddler. I never deliberately moved away from Beethoven and Schubert, in fact I have held season tickets to the famed Schubert Club series for at least 30 years. But as my ears turned more and more toward jazz, I found myself growing more restless at a chamber recital. Wouldn’t that etude be more fun with some improvisation? Why can’t that pianist veer off that so-familiar-it’s-trite melody and rework the chords into something new?

Once in a while I’ve heard a classical artist come pretty darn close to these fantasies. A few years ago, Alpin Hong*, an amazing young pianist, took a detour in the midst of a classical recital at the University of Iowa, ripping through Rhapsody in Blue with more inventive spirit than I’d encountered with any “jazz” pianist. But of course Gershwin begs to be jazzed.

Maybe the vocabulary of jazz is as much a function of the listener as the performer. Tonight I heard (for maybe the fifth or sixth time) the great cellist, Yo Yo Ma. Yo Yo of course is known for an eclectic repertoire, and the program tonight at Ordway, marking the Schubert Club’s remarkable 125th anniversary, was as eclectic as Schubert Club can be—Schubert (of course!), Shostakovich, Astor Piazzolla, Esberto Gismonti, and Franck, plus encores that included a snippet of Gershwin’s Prelude in F. Probably no other classical artist would even think up such a program. But on the surface, this was a more classical recital than I expected. Rather than the Brazilian choro music hinted at in the program notes, the Gismonti sounded much closer to the Shostakovich than to the Piazzolla; the Piazzolla (Le Grand Tango) was so thickly layered it seemed more symphonic than tango.

So what did I hear? The Schubert (Sonata in A Minor) is filled with theme and variations, and if not spontaneous improvisation, it surely hints at what could be the foundation for some off-the-cuff play. The middle movements of the Shostakovich (Sonata in D Minor) had the unexpected turns and twists of bop masters, and Yo Yo and his marvelous pianist, Kathryn Stott, while undoubtedly sticking to the script, conjured considerable spontaneity in their exchanges. And shortly after the initial passage of the Franck (Sonata in A), I was struck by the similarity of its melodic structure to the earlier Schubert. Ah-hah, the Schubert was in A minor, the Franck in A—but the early segment is definitely minor. My jazz brain shouted “chord changes!” I don’t really think Franck based his themes on the chord changes of Schubert. But give a jazzed ear the notes within the same key and something happens, a connection is created even if there is no intention. What else? Surely everyone noticed that throughout the Franck, particularly in the third and fourth movements, themes from earlier sections are recalled and revised.

Jazz was born from many sources, East and West, Europe and Africa, and the New World. Sometimes we overlook the thread of the European tradition. But these threads run both ways. Schubert and Franck, of course, did not live to hear the sounds of jazz. But who knows what Dimitri was listening to in 1934?

*Alpin Hong, by the way, in addition to extensive touring, curated an artist-in-the-schools program in Harlem titled “Kitchen Sink Music After School,” and enjoys skateboarding and snowboarding in his spare time. Next time I hear him, I fully expect a reharmonization of Brahms.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The World On Four Strings

Somewhere between a Bach Partita and an Aaron Copeland symphony, with whiffs of Stravinsky along the way, lies the violin of Mark Feldman, the secret weapon of John Abercrombie’s quartet. Mistakenly dubbed The Third Quartet (the title of their most recent CD, not the name of the band), this is a foursome that defies classification, crossing genres in mid-verse and weaving back and forth among forms, tempos and harmonies without losing their way or the rapt attention of their audience. The late set at the Dakota was reasonably well attended for a chilly Monday night, and a quick look around indicated that the crowd included a number of local musicians—always a good sign. Yet I doubt many were prepared for the depth and diversity of the music, each piece its own world of sound and texture, neoclassical here, bluesy funk there, now downright country. Drummer Joey Baron directed the choreography with graceful sweeps of sticks and brushes, letting loose with a flurry of staccato pops only at a few key break points; bassist Scott Colley seamlessly switched from arco to pizzicato throughout the set, taking an extended doubletime solo in the finale; leader and guitar master Abercrombie was sublime from start to finish. But the show belonged to Feldman, if not by design then by sheer virtuosity. If Heifetz had only stumbled upon Ornette Coleman or even Coleman Hawkins….but more likely even he would have yielded the bandstand to Mark Feldman.
I wouldn't mind hearing his take on Bach.
Photos (from the Dakota, 11/5/07): 1) John Abercrombie; 2) Mark Feldman, Scott Colley and Joey Baron; 3) Improvisation on Mark Feldman. (Photos by Andrea Canter)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Priming the Pump

You’d think after four days of jazz in Manhattan that I would be ready for an aural vacation. Not at all. Sometimes I think that the experience of the modern era’s epicenter of jazz (and perhaps most other things cultural and gastronomic as well) enhances one’s sensitivity to future encounters. I can hear one great band after another in New York and return home to the Twin Cities primed for even more. Fortunately in the past ten days, neither the Big Apple nor the Mini-Apple fell short.

In New York—in Midtown to be specific—for the inaugural Jazz Improv “Convention & Festival,” I enjoyed live jazz as I have never been able to at the much larger IAJE (International Association for Jazz Education) convention. The quality of the music was at a similar (galactic) level but 700 or so jazz fans trying to find a seat in a 1000-seat ballroom is far more inviting than when thousands are lining up for the same available seats. In fact, when IAJE comes to New York as it often does, my evenings are generally spent in the clubs. For this relatively small confluence of jazz fans and musicians, the evening programs were easily accessible to all, and the music was mythical. Over five hours in one evening alone:
· Geri Allen, with her trio and special guest, tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. Allen proves that women can command as much power at the keyboard as their male counterparts, and the additional element of tap provided a visual component to improvisation, as young drummer Kassa Overall engaged equally young Chestnut in multi-media “trading fours” breaks.
· Jimmy Heath Big Band. Spry octogenarian tenorman, composer and bandleader Jimmy Heath managed a New York herd that featured the hot Jeb Patton on piano and sublime Lewis Nash on drums, pleasing the crowd with his tribute to Coleman Hawkins (“The Voice of the Saxophone”) and “Project S” which, as he told the audience, “that means Swing!”
· McCoy Tyner Quartet. If the great McCoy—percussive and rhapsodic as ever--wasn’t enough, consider the polyrhythmic pulse and dynamic contrasts of drummer Jack DeJohnette and the ever-surprising acoustic bass of Stanley Clarke, joined tonight by the soaring alto and soprano sax of Gary Bartz.
· Pat Martino Quartet. By the last set, the music was nearly 90 minutes behind schedule, but who was leaving? One of the modern monsters of jazz guitar, Martino kept us all awake with help from the marvelous Rick Germanson on piano, Paul Gill on bass and Scott Robinson on drums. Germanson mentioned he was not thrilled to follow McCoy Tyner but this frequent visitor to the Artists Quarter had no reason to worry. He has his own sound and deserves the spotlight.

The rest of the two-day event was hardly hit and miss—several ensembles from the Manhattan School of Music, modern romantic saxman Don Braden, the always-exciting and inventive Frank Kimbrough, the choreographer of bass, Avery Sharpe, the dynamic and timeless Roy Haynes and his young lion quartet, the effervescent Womens Work Quartet led by Judi Silvano, the avant creativity of young singer/composer Katie Bull, the global grooves of Ralph Ravello’s Intercontinental Express… And then there were my two club nights that bookended Jazz Improv: a truly magnificent big band tribute to Wayne Shorter, led by David Weiss and featuring Wallace Roney at the Iridium; and Steve Turre’s “Keep Searching Ensemble” featuring vibist Stefon Harris and the unique Akua Dixon, who plays a mean jazz cello and sings a down and dirty blues (not at the same time!) on stage at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.

Back in Minnesota, a more relaxed pace? My ears were primed, and for the next few days I enjoyed Al DiMeola’s World Sinfonia at the Dakota and two back-to-back nights of Laura Caviani—with her trio and the always-inventive vocals of Lucia Newell at the unlikely (and often acoustically challenged) Crave Restaurant in Galleria; and a Saturday night with her trio and the majestic voice of Carole Martin at the Artists Quarter. And in between Al and Laura, I sat in on an early rehearsal of the new edition of the Dakota Combo—six of the area’s most talented young jazz artists led by Kelly Rossum and cosponsored by the Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education and MacPhail Center for Music. Their first public gig will be December 1st with guest artist, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. But the real stars are these 16-17 year-olds who already have some of the key ingredients to long-term success in this business—open ears, self-discipline, and that inner joy of creating music. Sometime I’ll be in New York watching a band and remembering when I first saw that trumpeter, that pianist…

There’s never too much jazz, wherever you live or wherever you visit.
Photos: 1) The 2007-08 edition of the Dakota Combo after rehearsal. 2) McCoy Tyner cut loose at the Jazz Improv Convention in New York. (Photos by Andrea Canter)