Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor


Rare Blue Note LP Found: Elvis Sings Monk

Pianist/composer Thelonious Monk was pretty selective in his choice of collaborators, although arranger Oliver Nelson and flugelhornist Clark Terry were some of his more unusual associates, along with more famous stylists like saxophonist John Coltrane, French hornist Julius Watkins and drummer Frankie Dunlop But until the London Jazz Collector (LJC) discovered the unreleased test pressing, few knew about Monk’s early 1960s one-off session with singer Elvis Presley. Revealing details about the hitherto unknown disc on its page, that includes LP cover pictures, song titles and Matrix numbers, the LJC explains that this project was an attempt by the singer to broaden his range by recording vocal versions of some of the pianist’s compositions. However the disc was subsequently rejected for release by Blue Note’s Alfred Lion because he didn’t think association with an untried singer would help Monk’s career. The LJC was even able to send copies of this rare disc to interested fans who read this important news story published on April 1. READ

British Free Music’s Hidden Comedy Link

Although improvisers such as saxophonist Lol Coxhill and drummer Han Bennink are known for their comedic bits, the idea of comedy playing an important part in Free Music seems an anomaly. But according to The Wire’s Clive Bell, in the United Kingdom at least, there’s a lot more connection than most realize between comedy and Free Improv. Besides obvious example like drummer Mark Sanders accompanying a bingo game and trombonist Alan Tomlinson playing in the middle of a country stream, he cites other, lesser-known instances, such as when saxophonist Evan Parker, trombonist Wolter Wierbos and Bennink accompanied with wide musical burlesque, British comedian/singer Vic Reeves on a recording. READ

Tomasz Stańko: From Jazz Hedonism to Nordic Purity

Arguably Poland’s best-known Jazz musician, trumpeter Tomasz Stańko has been involved in all facets of modern improvised music in his home land, from Hard Bop in the 1960s to today’s neo-Nordic ECM sound. Writing in Culture.PL, Wojciech Oleksiak traces the brassman’s evolution from intuitive sideman to composer Krzysztof Komeda through his experiences with Free Jazz alongside the likes of cellist Peter Warren and drummer Edvard Vesala and his later immersion in the so-called clean sound of ECM records. Although Stańko is clean now, he still insists that his periods of being wasted on drugs and alcohol during Poland’s Communist past helped his creativity. “You didn’t work much under that [Communist] system,” he said. “Everybody was a hippie.” READ

Visualization and Music: Tony Malaby

Known for leading his own bands, plus membership in high-powered trios involving bassists such as Mark Helias and William Parker, New York-based tenor and soprano saxophonist Tony Malaby tell Point of Departure’s Troy Collins that he catalogues for future use images and sensations that he visualizes when he plays. Unsurprisingly Tucson-born Malaby originally studied drawing and painting before concentrating on the saxophone. Involved with creating a unique group vocabulary for each of his bands, Malaby says his ideal saxophone sound is produced by himself without electronics or add-ons. He also admits that his TubaCello quartet with tubaist Dan Peck, cellist Christopher Hoffman and percussionist John Hollenbeck is, in part, a reaction to playing in so many double-bass centred ensembles. READ

This Just In: Dave Douglas Makes Money from Jazz

The focus should be expected coming from Bloomberg Business, but Devin Leonard has crafted a surprisingly informed article on how trumpeter Dave Douglas manages to make a living as a Jazz musician. Citing Jazz CD sales which have fallen from 23 million to five million in the decade; and how major so-called Jazz labels have become mere Adult-Pop imprints, Leonard points out that Douglas running his own Greenleaf label is one reason he stays solvent and adventurous. Unsatisfied with a major label stint, Douglas, through Greenleaf, now offers his music in a variety of formats, leads a series of bands and even records other players such as guitarist Nels Cline and saxophonist Donny McCaslin for the imprint. To give him and the label extra exposure, Douglas, with an associate, bassist Michael Bates, even hosts Noise From The Deep, a weekly podcast of music and interviews with players from throughout the Jazz spectrum. READ

Program Meets Probity: Matana Roberts’ Major Project Examined

Three CDs into Coin Coin, her epic 12-album program of musical meditations on American power and color, Rolling Stone has finally discovered alto saxophonist Matana Roberts. Although the magazine’s Christine Lee, a self-described chronicler of Atlanta’s hip-hop scene is sympathetic, it seems that Roberts’ concern about someone coming from a “colonialist or patriarchal aesthetic” interviewing her may be correct. Pointedly, it seems that Roberts’ interpretation through sound and songs of color distinctions in Coin Coin is nearly buried under the weight of Lee's more mundane questions. READ

Did the Birth of The AACM “Save” Jazz?

That broad thesis appears to be the opinion of The Chicago Tribune’s Howard Reich. But in this article celebrating the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM)’s upcoming 50th anniversary he makes a strong case for how this self-help group helped strengthen Jazz’s roots in the community while also creating original sounds. Citing information from such AACM founders as pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and the late tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, Reich explains that rather than being revolutionary, the Windy City musicians’ initial idea in 1965 was merely to create work opportunities for improvisers in a shrinking local scene that was increasingly turning to pop music. Since the ACCM wasn’t confined to any style or idiom, all sorts of concepts were, and continued to be welcome. And this lack of musical cant is why such disparate AACM figures as multi-reedist Anthony Braxton, flutist Nicole Mitchell and saxophonist Henry Threadgill, among many others, ended up becoming respected world-wide.   READ

Preserving All the Traditions – David Murray

Celebrating his 60th birthday in New York with a series of concerts, tenor saxophonist David Murray tells The Washington Post’s Giovanni Russonello that he tries to share experiences with all musicians whose work grows out of the African Diaspora. Russonello, who appears surprised that Murray can play with a rap-poet one set, a clarinet choir the next and a trio with pianist Geri Allen, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington on the third, sees Murray as the link between the harmonic sparseness of John Coltrane and the lyrical style of Don Byas. He also seems to think the saxophonist brought “blues humor and playful ironies” to the so-called avant-garde. Then again Russonello's ideas may have come from interviewing neo-con Stanley Crouch, with whom along with radical Amiri Baraka, the saxophonist maintained long friendships. READ

Monk’s Link Man: Steve Lacy

On the 10th anniversary of American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s death, Point of Departure’s Stuart Broomer surveys the saxophonist’s early work, pointedly noting that it was Lacy – and his associate, trombonist Roswell Rudd – who were most responsible for creating a niche for pianist Thelonious Monk’s so-called difficult compositions in the Jazz tradition. Although Lacy (1934-2004) continued to play Monk tunes and allude to the pianist’s canon in his own improvisations until his death, the band he, Rudd, drummer Denis Charles and bassist Henry Grimes organized in 1963 first gave the prominence to Monk’s music that the Jazz establishment, including even the respected Free German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, wouldn’t adopt for 40-odd years. Broomer also points out that Lacy’s expatriation to Europe in the late 1960s helped expand interest in Monk compositions among a generation of Continental pianists including Holland’s Misha Mengelberg, von Schlippenbach, Swiss Irène Schweizer and Berlin-based Japanese Aki Takase. READ

Remembering Trail-Blazing Records from the West Coast New Thing

New York’s Free Music scene, and the innovators who arrived in the Apple to expand it, is the usual focus of histories of 1970s Avant-Garde Jazz. But, as Mark Weber points out in his blog, LPs on tiny labels by experimental players who eventually became known elsewhere, were also being recorded in Los Angeles at the same time. Among the discs that reflected the burgeoning local scene there, were first efforts by veterans such as clarinetist John Carter, cornetist Bobby Bradford, flautist James Newton and pianist Horace Tapscott. Weber also speaks to multi-reedist Vinny Golia, whose Beverly Hills-based 9 Winds imprint also began in the 1970s to record younger experimenters with similar advanced ideas. READ

A Plea for More Experimental Films About Experimental Music

Although British filmmaker Stewart Morgan writing in The Wire admits that film techniques such as editing detract from the spontaneity of free music, he argues that a thorough understanding of both mediums can result in superior products. Morgan, who made a documentary about AMM percussionist Eddie Prévost, prefers stylistic videos such as Helen Petts' take on saxophonist Lol Coxhill to more orotund efforts such as Shirley Clarke’s Ornette: Made in America about saxophonist Ornette Coleman.   More to the point, he declares that there’s much filmic territory left to explore. Considering that inventive filmmakers from Norman McLaren to Luke Fowler have been influenced by Jazz, he insists that with the right tools, more creative music films, both features and documentaries, can be made. READ

Jazz Fusion Pioneer Julian Priester Has No Regrets

While Dave Segal of The Stranger blog spends a little too much time quizzing veteran trombonist Julian Priester about his now-popular 1970s Fusion LPs on ECM, the interview does provide a good overview of Priester’s career. Someone who also was also in groups led by Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Lionel Hampton and others, the trombonist reveals that his interest in electronic sounds didn’t arise from his crucial membership in Herbie Hancock’s pioneering Mwandishi Fusion band, but from his gigs with Sun Ra's ever-evolving band in his hometown of Chicago. Although he recently played on a Sunn O))) track, the trombonist remains a road-tested, committed Jazzman who didn’t make more ECM sessions 40 years ago because the producer demanded too much control. READ

Connecting Many Scenes in Dallas: Stefan González

Son of Texas’ most experimental Jazz trumpeter, but with a history of playing in Metal and Punk units, drummer Stefan González tells the Dallas Observer’s Jonathan Patrick how he isn’t content to limit himself to any one scene. A drummer since the age of four, with lessons from, among others, Alvin Fielder, very early on González began playing other music, along with being part of the Jazz trio, Yells at Eels with his older brother Aaron González on bass and his father Dennis González on trumpet. Not only is he also part of other bands including a Jazz-Rock trio, a Free Jazz quintet and a Latin-Fusion, Hip-Hop band, that also includes bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, but his solo voice-and-percussion project, Orgullo Primitivo places him firmly within the city’s burgeoning Noise Music constituency.   READ

The Right Man Once in the Wrong Place: Bobby Bradford

Cornetist Bobby Bradford, 80, has been playing superlative Jazz for more than 60 years, but there’s one “might have been” that haunts many music followers: he was asked but couldn’t participate in the recording of alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s seminal Free Jazz LP in 1961. Bradford was writing his final teaching certificate exams then and couldn’t get away. He had known fellow Texan Coleman for years, worked in his group – Don Cherry took his place – and was later a part of another Coleman ensemble. Bradford doesn’t regret missing the date, he tells Wondering Sound’s Kevin Whitehead. Since then as well, his reputation has been confirmed with his trail-blazing work in a quartet with the late clarinetist John Carter, plus collaborations with many like-minded European musicians such as the late British drummer John Stevens and an almost 30-year partnership with Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad. READ

Joëlle Léandre: An Improvised Philosophy of Music and Life

The questions from The Bomb’s Whitney Curry Wimbish are this side of naïve, but this Q-and-A-via-Skype interview with French bassist Joëlle Léandre gives the latter plenty of space in which to express her opinions about music, life and tradition. Léandre, who over her 40 year career has done everything from interpreting the works of John Cage to improvising alongside the likes of reedist Anthony Braxton and trombonist George Lewis, insists that her music isn’t elitist but for everyone. “With improvisation, there is no gender, no hierarchy, you can have every musician dialoguing together, she says. Conservatory-trained Léandre delineates the historical tradition of improvisation, maintaining that sophisticated composition and improvisation are closely linked. READ

The “Next Big Thing” wasn’t even notated music (in 1974)

Now that it’s been 40 years since Deutsche Grammophon decided to issue a three-LP box of Free Improvisation, The Wire’s Philip Clark looks back on what was then DG's commitment to new music – notated as well as improvised – regardless of bottom line rewards. That box, which featured the sounds of Iskra 1903: trombonist Paul Rutherford; guitarist Derek Bailey and bassist Barry Guy as well as New Phonic Art 1973 with clarinetist Michel Portal and trombonist Vinko Globokar, was supposed to interest listeners in modern improvisation and link it to modern sounds by the likes of Stockhausen, Ligeti, Kagel or Nono. But there was no Free Music follow up. Furthermore, according to his thesis, ever since DG has become part of the giant Universal conglomerate its idea of contemporary sounds has become the likes of inoffensive music from composer Elena Kats-Chernin made famous in a bank commercial; and rocker Sting's noodlings; rather than the creations from those Clark would deem serious composers. READ

The Unknown Who Knew Everyone: Will Connell, Jr.

Although virtually invisible to the average Jazz fan – even those involved in the Free Jazz scene – Will Connell Jr., who died late last year at 75, was a consistent link among many strands of so-called Downtown music. In this obituary for All About Jazz, John Pietaro puts together the pieces. A saxophonist and music copyist with a radical bent, Connell was first a member and music librarian for Horace Tapscott’s Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension big band in Los Angeles. After he moved to New York in 1975, not only was he a part of large bands led by the likes of bassist William Parker, cornetist Butch Morris and reedist Henry Threadgill , amomg many others; but his music copyist skills were frequently in demand, most famously in disseminating  the score for Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America. Over the years Connell's playing associates raged from rockers such as Talking Heads and James Chance to younger Free players such as saxophonist Ras Moshe and cellist Tomas Ulrich. READ

Free Music is Part of Québec’s Distinct Culture says Ellwood Epps

A former Torontonian, who now divides his time between Montréal and New York City, trumpeter Ellwood Epps explains that the attraction of Canada’s second city to improvising musicians isn’t just the cheap rents, but also the acceptance of distinctive art, which helps to contribute to a so-called distinct society. Epps tells écho!’s Nicholas McGrath that the number of free improvisers moving to Montréal has increased four-fold over the past decade. Epps, whose experience ranges from duo gigs with alto saxophonist Yves Charuest to membership in Niolas Caloia’s large Ratchet Orchestra, admits that while larger Toronto attracts musician from everywhere, most are from a single generation. Free players in Québec on the other hand, range from the very young to those players 50 and over such as drummer John Heward and alto saxophonist Jean Derome, who ply their craft with players of every age. READ

Kenny Wheeler’s Long-time Canadian Links

When trumpeter Kenny Wheeler died last year at 84, most commentators mentioned that the long-time London, England-based trumpeter was Canadian born. But The Ottawa Citizen’s Peter Hum points out that the Toronto-born, St. Catharines-raised Wheeler always maintained close ties to his native land. Famous for his sidemen stints with everyone from saxophonist Evan Parker's small groups and Johnny Dankworth's big band to American composer Anthony Braxton ground-breaking quartet, Wheeler influenced local musicians not only through performances at venues like the Ottawa Jazz Festival, but during the years he regularly taught at the Banff Centre’s jazz workshop in Alberta. Experiencing Wheeler’s music was both a “life-changing experience” and a “religious experience”, says respected Toronto multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson. READ

The Critics Have Spoken: 2014

Jazz and improvised music went through many changes in 2014, with some new musicians coming to the fore and older masters maintaining their innovations. You can get some idea of that from National Public Radio’s annual survey of the best albums of the year. The 140 well-informed critics managed to cite varied sessions that ranged from younger stylists including alto saxophonist Steve Lehman (at #1), tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and pianist Jason Moran to elder statesman like trumpeter Wadda Leo Smith (at #2), tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins – and of course John Coltrane’s Offering as the top reissue. Follow further links to Francis Davis’ analysis of the year’s music as well as further breakdowns of individual ballots. The curmudgeon view from this perch however is the glaring exclusion of most non-American and experimental players from the results. READ