Monday, February 25, 2008

Charles Mingus, Bigger Than Life, Real and Unreal

Kelly Rossum assigned Charles Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog as the first of four texts for Jazz Book Club at MacPhail this semester. It’s the only autobiography of the lot which otherwise includes books about Strayhorn, Coltrane and the Blues. We’re a group of nine adults so the fact that the Mingus book would carry an X rating from school librarians is irrelevant.

No one claimed to enjoy the book when we discussed it last week, and several readers had more extreme feelings about the way Mingus carried on about…. carrying on, as well as the quality of the writing and the relatively small amount of commentary related to his iconic status as a jazz artist.

On the other hand, I actually did like the fact that I had been “forced” to read it. Not that I found it particularly entertaining it but Mingus’s words, unlike the words of a typical biographer, have no equal in providing insight into the man and his music, explicitly stated or not. And Mingus is as complex a figure in music as one can find. No wonder his autobiography goes where no one else would dare.

About two parts Mark Twain to eight parts Henry Miller, and throw in a little Homer perhaps, Beneath the Underdog is clearly not an effort to accurately detail a life, but an eccentric, schizoid array of distortions and excesses that grew out of fear, anger and identity confusion. Mingus’s racial heritage was mixed and so were his feelings about race and inter-racial relations. He wasn’t able to really identify as white nor was he able to fully embrace an African American identity, yet he fell victim to prejudice from all sides. His fantasies from early childhood were warped by abuse at home and abuse (emotional if not physical) within the community. That he wrote about himself in the third person as if an alter ego perhaps reflected dissociation as much as a literary “trick” in which his rantings to his psychiatrist are jumbled with memoir.

About two thirds of the text are sexual fantasies presented as factual exploits, not exactly an innovative theme in 20th century literature and not particularly literate in presentation by Mingus. It seems to distract from the core elements of his story and frustrates our desire to learn more about his music. But it also allows the reader to move quickly—you’ve read about one sex act, you’ve pretty much read about them all. More important, taking it all as a whole, you really do learn a lot about the origins of the music. Like his strange and powerful fantasy life, Mingus’s music is big, energetic, multi-layered and challenging, both to play and (often) to listen. An orderly, linear mind would never develop such symphonic chamber works that swirl and spin off in all directions, works that feature dense phrases and spiraling themes, simultaneous dissonance and melody. Mingus used few filters in either life or music, somehow everything got thrown into the melee. And somehow so much of it makes sense artistically.

Reading what I soon realized had to be an exaggerated if not an outright hallucinogenic tale, I had to seek a more reality-based picture of Mingus. I found it in Gene Santoro’s My Life When I Am Real, an insightful biography drawing on both Mingus’s own writings and interviews with almost every major character from Beneath the Underdog. Santoro starts out by putting the autobiography in context, less we think that this was Mingus “when I am real.” But Santoro also makes it clear that the voracity of Underdog is not the issue but rather the documentation of disorder and genius. Together, both visions of Mingus give us a more rounded, three-dimensional view of one of the strangest, most prolific, and most gifted musicians of modern times. And for me, this viewpoint brings sanity and logic to the music of Charles Mingus.

Beneath the Underdog was strange reading, and I thank Kelly Rossum for making it—as well as several Mingus recordings--a part of my jazz library.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Taking Jazz to School

This morning I watched six mostly suburban teenagers introduce about 100 inner city fourth, fifth and sixth graders to jazz. The irony did not escape me—jazz, born in the cultural maelstrom of urban life, was now being reintroduced to its city offspring by its many generations-removed and far more privileged “country” cousins.

But it wasn’t irony that brought the Dakota Combo sextet to Richard Green Central Park School on Minneapolis’ near south side. The Combo was initiated in fall 2006 through the joint efforts of the Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education and the MacPhail Center for Music. High school jazz artists are selected through open auditions and spend the year studying improvisation and the art of ensemble playing under the direction of trumpeter/educator Kelly Rossum. The inaugural combo (a septet of mostly city students from St. Paul and Minneapolis high schools) performed at the Dakota Jazz Club with renowned guest artist, Bobby Watson, and later had a gig at the Nomad World Pub and a final set at the summer Twin Cities Jazz Festival. Now those musicians are pursuing music at such schools as Berkelee College of Music, Manhattan School of Music, and the Brubeck Institute. The new crop selected last September includes one student from Minneapolis South and the rest from such suburban programs as Apple Valley and Minnetonka. This year the program expanded to a full year of rehearsals, more performances, and a day of school visits.

It was important to Kelly Rossum and to the Foundation that the Combo visit a range of schools, reflecting not only diversity in student age but in student circumstance and access to music education as well. Thus the day included the K-8 Richard Green program and Southwest High School in Minneapolis, and north suburban Spring Lake Park High School, which not coincidentally is the home school for the Combo’s drummer, Matt Roberts. It’s not a bad thing to have an opportunity to be a star in your own neighborhood.

Green was the first stop of a long day. Jan Parrish, school principal, was at least as excited as the students to have her school selected for this program. “We just lost our instrumental music program,” she told me. “We had to fund more classes for ESL (English as a Second Language).” It’s tough for the language of jazz—or music generally—to compete with the need to learn the basic language of the classroom and community. But Parrish is determined to bring the arts in all forms into her school, even if not part of the regular curriculum. For as little as an hour, projects like the Dakota Combo help fill the void created by shrinking school budgets and declining enrollments.

Parrish introduced the band and asked the students if they knew anything about jazz. Most likely, very few did, but what these kids lacked in experience they quickly deduced from observation—jazz must be “saxophones, drums, guitars.” “Is jazz art?” asked Parrish. They weren’t sure. Soon they had a good idea, as the Combo played the music of Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus, as well as a tune composed by bassist Corey Grindberg. Now they had questions, which the teen musicians fielded comfortably, warmly. “Can you sing?” (a resounding “No!”)… “How long did it take you [Corey] to write that song?” (“Five minutes.”) And to the delight of their attentive, nearly squirm-free audience, the Combo musicians each offered a quick lesson in the virtues of their instruments, complete with demonstrations. And they got a bit competitive, Stephanie pointing out that the sax did not need an amp like Geoff’s guitar, Jake pointing out that his trumpet could play much louder and much higher than Stephanie’s sax, Matt boasting that he could get lots of volume from his drum kit without any microphone. Each demonstrated what made his or her instrument special. Clearly they all were treasures.

It seemed that a week’s worth of attention and wonder went into that forty minutes. “So what did you learn about jazz,” asked Principal Parrish as the Combo students ended the first leg of their “tour.” “There’s lots of instruments.” “Jazz means you can mix it up with anything.” And is jazz art? Oh yes.

I have to think that somewhere tonight, in South Minneapolis, there’s a ten-year-old telling his mom, her dad, someone…. “I want to learn to make music like that!”

We surely need to fund ESL programs in our schools, because so many of our children are immigrants whose only chance of success is fluency in English. But why should learning English cost them the opportunity to learn music?

Photo: At Richard Green School, Geoff Lacrone (guitar, Minnetonka High School) fields a question from an eager young listener; Jacob Wittenberg (piano, Henry Sibley High School) and Matt Roberts (drums, Spring Lake Park High School) considered how to answer. (Photo by Andrea Canter)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Strumming My Heart With His Fingers -- A Night With Alex Blake

Alex Blake is a magician. He doesn’t work underwater with locked boxes or pull white rabbits out of his hat. He performs astounding feats with the most unwieldy of instruments, the upright string bass.

A long-standing member of piano legend Randy Weston’s African Rhythms trio, Blake, like most bassists, is the unsung hero of the ensemble, less familiar than the rightfully acclaimed leader, less of an obvious crowd pleaser than conguero (and magician in his own right) Neil Clarke. But his performance with the trio at the Dakota earlier this week was simply mesmerizing. To take your eyes off the bassist for more than a minute was to miss an Olympian gymnast twist on the still rings, turn on the parallel bars, catapult across the vault—all without leaving the ground, of course. But if his feet were anchored to the Dakota stage, Blake’s hands were somersaulting through thin air and earning perfect tens.

All three of these musicians are percussionists. Weston has a fluid but assertive approach to the keyboard that conjures McCoy Tyner with softer shapes, and an improvisational sense that flits from Ahmad Jamal’s bare essentials to Abdullah Ibrahim’s elegance to Thelonious Monk’s quirky excitement. At 6’ 8”, he doesn’t so much sit at the piano as he surrounds it and holds it prisoner to his art. Neil Clarke is of course a percussionist, the man behind the congas who infuses power and joy with every swat of his hand, and who generates thunder and fury with such speed that you might miss the grace behind every move.

But Blake, sitting center stage where the light barely illuminated the contours of his hands, commanded attention to the instrument that too often is ignored, or worse, disrespected as the backdrop, as the intermission between soloists. The bass was as much a drum as were Clarke’s congas. Within a given piece, Blake struck the strings in every way conceivable for bare hands, and perhaps in many ways inconceivable—flat on, full palm, strumming fingers, back of the hand, fingertips, lightly caressing, aggressively slapping. And that was just his right hand. Equally mystifying was the left hand as it moved like a slinky up and down the neck, providing its own percussive effects as well as producing sliding glissandos and popping staccatos. I’ve never heard such a range of sound from a bassist without once using the bow. The bow would have been superfluous—every sound as well as some new creations was present.

I had the best seat in the house. Front row, on top of the stage, a clean sight line to Alex Blake.

Be still my heart. That’s the sound of one bass scatting.

Photo of Alex Blake at the Dakota on February 18th, waving the wand of the magic hand. Photo by Andrea Canter.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

New Sounds for the New World

Anyone with any affinity for jazz cannot visit New Orleans without at least one evening of music. I recently organized a jazz night for fellow visitors at Snug Harbor, the city’s premiere venue for national as well as famed local performers. Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of the First Family of Jazz, plays nearly every Friday night at Snug. Other great performers with Big Easy connections are often on the bandstand of the small, acoustically perfect club—the younger generation of Marsalises, Astral Project, Donald Harrison, Nicholas Payton, Dr. John. But we selected Saturday night and were introduced to Afro-Peruvian jazz through young trumpeter Gabriel Alegria and his amazing sextet.

Traveling to New Orleans to hear Afro-Peruvian music seems incongruous until you think about the origins of jazz in Crescent City at the turn of the 20th century. Where did jazz come from? From African slaves mixing it up with the indigenous Creoles who themselves were cultural hybrids. Parallel to the musical jambalaya of the Delta was the somewhat earlier collaboration on the west coast of Peru of African slaves, indigenous Indians and the European upper class, leading to the growth of a celebratory music that shared some of the joy and blues of American jazz while developing its own unique rhythms –not the son and meringue or salsa beats to the north, but very different, complex rhythms of festejo and lando.

While Peruvian folk traditions have enjoyed renewed interest in the past decade or more, most of what we hear these days are the flutes and drums of Andean origin. Gabriel Alegria, who grew up in the privileged class of Lima, has studied the Afro-Peruvian music and culture of his country’s central coast while also seriously studying American jazz through programs at the University of Southern California and CUNY. Over the past few years he has developed a unique blend that is truly hemispheric, sounds as diverse as Gershwin and Miles Davis layered over the beats of lando and festejo.

At Snug Harbor, his sextet was equally mesmerizing whether playing “Summertime” and “So Near, So Far” or any of Alegria’s original compositions inspired by childhood memories and special locales. Expecting to hear the clavé, the rhythmic core of much Latin music, I was unable to find the beat, finally realizing that there was no clavé but instead a more complex, forceful polyrhythm, trumpet or flugelhorn conversing with bass, guitar, percussion. Freddy “Huevito” Lobaton was nearly a one-man show himself, perched on the cajon (a hollow box) and beating it into submission with the flair of a master conguero. Young Leandrea Leguia sang through the tenor sax with incredible grace and assertiveness, while leader Alegria most often picked up the flugelhorn, which he alternately squealed with a fluttering hand mute and evoked pure majesty with a burnished vibrato.

Snug Harbor is an ideal setting for an intimate encounter with any music. The adjacent restaurant serves excellent (and quite reasonable) New Orleans cuisine from garlicky broiled shrimp to rich etouffé; the bar effectively separates dining from listening; the club itself is quite small such that there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Six of us squeezed into one far corner where we had great sightlines and unobstructed sound, particularly suited to observing the interplay among all combinations and most enjoyably a duel that evolved between percussionist Huevito and Alegria’s new bassist, Ramon de Bruyn, on the first set closing tune, “Buscando a Huevito.” Our only regret was that Huevito did not play the traditional quijada—a real jawbone from a rather large animal―during the first set.

A few days before I left for New Orleans, I heard from pianist Geoffrey Keezer about his new project (“Aurea”) through Artists Share. Keezer, known as Art Blakey’s last pianist (when he was a mere 18) and subsequently a purveyor of inventive post bop, typically in trio settings, has been composing and recording with a new, larger ensemble of culturally diverse musicians in celebration of—Afro Peruvian music. It’s not Geoffrey’s first foray into global folk traditions, having recorded with a Hawaiian slack key guitarist and recently with Okinawan folk artists. And among his many musicians, he shares one in common with Gabriel Alegria—drummer Hugo Alcazar, who is serving as percussion master in tandem with Keezer’s regular drummer, American Jon Wikan.

Like many of us, Geoffrey was not aware of the Afro-Peruvian music until a recent trip to Peru. Now, he is fascinated, noting that “it's the beats that really inspire me, the ‘festejo,’ ‘lando’ and others. They're unique to Peru and playing inside that rhythmic context really opens up my ears and creativity…”

And you don’t have to be an acclaimed jazz pianist or master of the cajon to appreciate the sonic energy and complementary rhythms of coastal Peru. You might just be a visitor wandering through the French Quarter, not far from where jazz was born as an amalgam of African and New World musics, stumbling upon a parallel universe where African traditions endured in and revitalized another New World culture, to be uncovered and transformed through modern jazz language by the likes of Gabriel Alegria and Geoffrey Keezer.

You can listen now to Gabriel Alegria and his sextet on Nuevo Mundo (2007, Saponegro). Visit to link to Geoffrey's project site on Artists Share.

Photo: Gabriel Alegria, courtesy of Saponegro Records

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Place to Play in the Big Easy

I had not visited New Orleans in at least six years, maybe seven. It seems every time I go—and that’s five or six times over the past 25 years—the main reason is to attend a conference, and every time that means four or five days in a big hotel adjacent to the French Quarter. In some ways one can not ask for a better location—if you have to be based in a big anonymous hotel, at least be in a city that understands the concept of “hospitality.” And if you have to be based in a high-tourist destination, at least be in an area where one can quickly move out of the stream of revelers and trinket hunters and find the colorful gables, odd rooflines, exquisite ironwork and occasional snoozing cat that give the residential areas of the Quarter its true charm and sense of history. And if you are confined to the urban south, be a spitting distance from where the finest oysters, shrimp and pompano are pulled from the water and invariably served as Cajun nectar.

Hurricane Katrina devasted a city and its culture, but not the spirit of New Orleans. Two years later, there is much rebuilding ahead and some parts of the city may never get that far. The Quarter was largely spared in terms of physical assault—many buildings were dilapidated pre-Katrina, and some now sport new paint and other improvements. Many remain on lists of Historic Preservation societies and many look to be beyond preservation or caring. By and large, the French Quarter remains charming in its combination of Old World elegance and New World funkiness, streets clean and clutter free only a day past Mardi Gras, catching its breath for a couple of days before the weekend brings a new wave of conventioneers and off-season tourists to check out the din of music on Bourbon Street and the slurpy tang of oysters on the half shell.

I expected to see more remnants of Katrina enroute to my convention’s service project, the building of a playground at an “uptown” elementary school. The neighborhood had few resources, few bright spaces, but a schoolyard full of enthused teachers, AmeriCorp workers and volunteer school psychologists –including many graduate students-- in town for our national convention (of the National Association of School Psychologists). Turned out this was not an area particularly overwhelmed by the hurricane but more basically hit by poverty. A large area that should have been a playground was a mass of cracked asphalt with a few rusted basketball hoops. About five hours later, that asphalt would be covered with bright primary colors marking off game areas and Four Square courts, a thick layer of mulch would cushion an area around slides and climbing apparatus. KaBoom! is a nationwide project that provides designs, training and supervision for the construction of playgrounds for children who otherwise have few options for outdoor fun. They find a sponsor like the NASP Children’s Fund to provide the financial resources and manpower.

We drove back downtown trying to imagine the moment when several hundred youngsters would burst out the school door and see that special gift for the first time. I would have loved to have been a bird on the swing come Monday morning.

Photo: Volunteers transformed barren asphalt into kid-friendly spaces at Live Oak Elementary School in New Orleans. (Photo: Andrea Canter)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Full Monty (Alexander)

The best gospel-informed jazz I heard in the past few days was not from the Ramsey Lewis Trio when they appeared at Ted Mann Concert Hall Saturday night, which is not to discredit the NEA Jazz Legend or his very able cohorts. Their efforts were swinging and at various points the audience was appropriately swaying, even without the addition of the scheduled Hammond B-3, which was unfortunately swapped for a dysfunctional electronic keyboard. Would-have-been organist William Kilgore was left with little to do.

No, the most passionate purveyor of America’s indigenous music was Jamaican Monty Alexander and his equally swinging partners, bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer George Fludas, on stage at the Dakota. Pianist Alexander stopped here in 2005 while touring in support of his second Bob Marley project, Concrete Jungle. There might be advantages (at least to the audience) when an artist tours without the immediate expectation of promoting the latest release. While Alexander is the interpreter nonpareil of Marley in a jazz context, he is at least equally in his element, and at the top of the periodic chart, when it comes to good ol’ American bop and blues, his trio’s simpatico artistry in the vein of Nat Cole and Oscar Peterson.

My friend Mike noted on the way out that “we won’t likely come this close to Oscar Peterson again.” Alexander certainly has the same joyful and dazzling approach rooted in stride and swing, but with a gentler touch than the late OP and an ever-present tendency to slip into a Caribbean rhythm in any situation. In fact the late set last night was all about rhythm. Regardless of the fare, be it Alexander originals, a medley of hard bop favorites (“Angel Eyes,” “Work Song” and “Fly Me to the Moon”), a Basie blues (“Little Darlin”) or Marley himself (“Running Away”), the trio reinvented the rhythm, turning blues into reggae, swing into blues.

Monty and company brought us the world, from the American South to Jamaica to rhythms that might originate east of the Nile, but joy was the constant, eye contact and smiles communicating as much as flourishes from the keyboard or thunder from the trapset or glissando from the bass. Straight-ahead seldom sounds simultaneously so modern and so rooted in our history as it did throughout the set as the Monty Alexander Trio filled the night with (mostly) familiar melodies set aglow with elegant improvisations that sang out from here to Kingston.

The Jamaican bop preacher reigned in the Kingdom of Jazz. Hallelujah!
Photo: Monty Alexander at the Dakota on February 4, 2008. (Photo by Andrea Canter)

Sunday, February 3, 2008

If Tatum Walked Through Time, He Would Meet Jean-Michel Pilc

My primary inspiration to attend last night’s gig of the Ari Hoenig-Jean Michel Pilc Project at the Artists Quarter was to again sit spellbound by the alternating grace and frenzied antics of drummer Hoenig. Not that Pilc was not a draw by himself, as the transplanted French pianist has amazing chops. The duo impressed anyone within earshot of their AQ debut last March (supported by a very compatible Anthony Cox on bass). But most memorable for me was Hoenig. Within a few moments of any tune on the setlist, you can’t help but imagine him as a toddler, sitting on the floor of his kitchen in Philadelphia, surrounded by pots and pans and an array of utensils, probably driving his parents toward sonic insanity with his percussive and playful ingenuity. That child-like abandon marks his attack today as one of the most acclaimed drummers of a generation of young giants. Sticks or brushes or mallets (or any combination simultaneously), Hoenig rises above his own arsenal with a variety of “voicings” – if one can describe percussion with such terms. He scrapes the brush handles across the skins, moistens his fingertips to draw a buzz or squeal; he pounds the sticks with the determination of CPR; and strokes his cymbals with the very lightness of being. Last night, as last March, the often maniacal grin that crossed his face left no question that Ari Hoenig was both relentless and ecstatic in the musical moment.

But also in that musical moment was Jean-Michel Pilc, whose technique conjures none less than Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, while his imagination spews forth no one but Jean Michel Pilc. His technique and imagination forged a ferocious partnership that left the AQ audience breathless and light-headed. It hardly mattered if the trio (with nimble-fingered Hans Glawischnig on bass) was free-associating through a cover or original composition, as each segment of the set became a sonic playground in which each musician grabbed his turn, pushing and pulling the notes like elastic before gleefully declaring “you’re it!” For Pilc, that playground was the AQ’s Yamaha, every inch of it, inside and out. One minute he would spin gold filigree with a brush of his fingertips, then launch an all-out assault with flying palms in a sudden burst of pugilistic fury. Of course this was outside the piano—on the keyboard. Reaching inside, Pilc found another orchestra--twang, thud, plip, zing, even coaxing elegant melody without stroking a key.

And the amazing hands are connected to the creative brain, a mind that boppishly rearranged Robert Schumann, futuristically recreated Nat Adderley, and danced through what I have to title “The Kitchen Sink Suite” as it contained everything but – bits of Mozart, Bizet, movie and television scores and unending classical themes to be recognized subliminally. Pilc goes well beyond quoting, inserting endless ideas and then weaving them into the surrounding fabric.
Later, heading home, my CD player cued up Oscar Peterson. And I heard Pilc’s roots in the take-no-prisoners flurries of notes and hand-over-hand barrage of chords. What if Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson had grown up with rock and post bop instead of stride and swing?

Online, I found the following from a Jazz Improv interview, quoting Jean-Michel Pilc: “…When you are an artist, everyday has to be the first and last day of your life, same for every concert. I also like the great Stravinsky quote: ‘My music is understood best by children and animals.’ It says it all!”

Joyous abandon, wild and instinctive. Pilc –like Ari Hoenig-- says it all with his music.

Photo composite by Andrea Canter of Jean Michel Pilc and Ari Hoenig, from their March 2007 gig at the AQ. Pilc requested no photos this time.