With all the (belated) interest in pianist/bandleader Sun Ra during the 90th anniversary of his arrival date, many forget to mention that his Arkestra is still extant, constantly working under the direction of alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, 89, who was in the band from the early 1950s. Electronic beats' editors Andre Vida and Max Dax conducted an extensive interview with Allen touching on his own experiences, his years with Ra, a glimpse into Ra’s unique futuristic musical philosophy, and how commited Jazzman Allen doesn’t mind playing with other musicians – even rockers and those involved in electronics.
Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor
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Stepping into the quagmire of defining a music that has long had its fanatical partisans with exclusive points of view, is Sound American’s editor, trumpeter Nate Wooley. He dares to ask 50 contemporary improvisers to come up with their personal definitions of “Jazz”. Carefully outlining his methodology and strictures in the introduction and admitting he plays devil’s advocate throughout, Wooley elicits thought-provoking and sometimes unexpected replies from a group of committed players in Europe and North America who range from British saxophonist John Butcher and American reedist Darius Jones to German pianist Magda Mayas and Canadian drummer Harris Eisenstaedt.
Although his thesis seems to be that guitarist Nels Cline, now a 10-year veteran of the pop band Wilco, doesn’t fit the profile of a usual rock guitarist, The Los Angeles Times’ Chris Baryon tries to define him as an experimenter who happens to also play Rock among other sounds. Outlining the apprenticeship the guitarist and his twin brother, drummer Alex Cline followed in Los Angeles’ Free Jazz circles with the likes of violinist Jeff Gauthier and alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill, the guitarist’s non-Rock affiliations are also highlighted. There’s even mention of Cline’s own Avant-Jazz band with bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Scott Amendola.
One of the busiest double bassists in Free Jazz, London’s John Edwards tells Something Else’s Sammy Stein that Free Music is hated by so many because it’s the antithesis of political power: it lets people play as they wish without fear of making mistakes. Edwards isn’t afraid of staying away from commercial considerations either. Self-taught and someone who left school at 18, Edwards was a member of pop-punk-jazz bands like the Pointy Birds and B Sharps for the Poor, before committing himself to the group dynamics and social change implicit in Free Jazz. Today he works with everyone from saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist John Russell to saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and drummer Steve Noble. And, as he realizes he can still help change situations, he doesn’t even mind playing door gigs.
Cerebral and committed, British double bassist Barry Guy is celebrated for his playing, leadership of large Improv ensembles and his composing. This interview with Music and Literature’s Benjamin Dwyer mostly deals with Guy’s approach to composing, the teaching of improvisation, and notated composers' view of improvisation. As well Guy tells of the time he performed one of Iannis Xenakis' compositions for the composer himself. Along the way, the double bassist discusses his evolution from a Skiffle-style one-stringed tea-chest bassist, to after hearing Charles Mingus and further study, becoming a stylist equally at home playing Bach as well as improvisations with the likes of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and drummer Paul Lytton.
During the past half-century some discussion about so-called Free Jazz is that it’s an overly intellectual sham foisted on the roots Jazz community. Saxophonist Ras Moshe, who comes from East New York, dismisses this supposition in this interview with Jazz Right Now’s Cisco Bradley. Moshe, who has been curating a music series in New York since 2000, points out that while he was growing up in East New York exploratory musicians such as bassist Reggie Workman and tenor saxophonist Bill Barron were teaching at a music school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, while innovators like trumpeter Lester Bowie and violinist Leroy Jenkins lived in the neighborhood. Moshe, whose musical background includes Reggae as well as Jazz, says that playing Free Jazz was no stretch for someone from his background. Today he works with a shifting group of collaborators from around the city including trumpeter Matt Lavelle, bassist Matt Heyner guitarist Tor Snyder and many others without any sort of tension.
No gunslinger, but an art lover, bassist Damon Smith has made his presence felt on the scene since he moved to Houston four years ago. Writing on the occasion of a visit to his former home town, the East Bay (California) Express’ Andrew Gilbert discusses the influences that shaped Smith’s career, ranging from the Minutemen's Mike Watt to pioneering German Free Jazz bassist Peter Kowald. A valued presence as a collaborator, the article underlines Smith’s versatility that allows him to play alongside Punk-Jazzers such as drummer Weasel Walter as well as sophisticated composer/saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell with equal ease.
Playing up the musician’s Lone Star State background, The Houston Chronicle’s Andrew Dansby chronicles the long, productive career of Dallas-Fort Worth-area born trumpeter Bobby Bradford. A long-time Los Angeles resident and educator, Bradford has worked with fellow ex-Texans who advanced the music, such as alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and clarinetist John Carter. Unfortunately army service meant that Don Cherry, rather than Bradford was featured on Coleman’s revolutionary recordings of the early 1960s. Recently though, his prominence in bands with his former student, tenor saxophonist David Murray and now with Norwegian alto saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, shows that at nearly 80 Bradford is playing as well as he ever did.
Trying to find a way to build Jazz audiences by having more women appreciate the music, is a topic that gets New Music Box’s Willard Jenkins tied into some rhetorical knots. His thesis seems to be that if more women instrumentalists played Jazz, then more women would attend Jazz concerts as self-identification. Although he cites example of women players who have inspired others from trombonist Melba Liston to pianist Gerri Allen to bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding as well as educators who propose this concept, something rings false. Others speak about Jazz’s universal appeal and the danger of creating women’s-only ghettos within the music and still not increasing the audience.
Having recently turned 70, German pianist Joachim Kühn tells Deutsche Welle’s Stefan Rheinbay that he has liberated himself from everything but playing. Now living in the island of Ibiza, Kühn has no partner, children, pets or religion and his hobbies are painting – and playing saxophone. The first and best-known Jazzman to defect from East Germany in the 1960s, the Leipzig-born pianist, plus his clarinetist brother Rolf Kuhn, were already DDR stars, but he wanted to immerse himself in a less-restrictive environment. He did so, first in Paris as a Free Jazzer and later in Hollywood as a Jazz-Rock Fusion star; the latter which he regrets mightily. However it was a 1999 duet encounter with alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman which freed his thinking about music and led the pianist, who has never played standards, to concentrate on pure improvisation.
After many well-received ensemble sessions, California-based pianist Myra Melford has finally released a solo CD. She tells Luke Stewart of Capital Bop that it was recorded following the death of artist Don Reich, with whom she was to collaborate. Still using his paintings as inspiration, Melford speaks about working to distinguish her solo playing from that of master piano improvisers like Cecil Taylor, Don Pullen and Andrew Hill. Although she is initially from Chicago, and has worked with Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians-affiliated players such as alto saxophonist Joseph Jarman and violinist Leroy Jenkins, it's the AACM’s idea of community which most attracts her. She also notes that after studying in India and listening to much Latin American and African music, these non-American influences seep into her Jazz compositions.
From Fayetteville, Arkansas, but now located in Chicago, Keefe Jackson who plays tenor saxophone plus bass and contra bass clarinets, is the very epitome of the modern-day reedist. As he tells Point of Departure’s Troy Collins, he’s one of the many young musicians who have been influenced as much by non-Jazz as Jazz music. At the same time, in his projects – whether they be the all-star Fast Citizens group with, among others, cornetist Josh Berman and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm or the Likely So all-reed septet including Swiss reedist Peter A Schmid, Polish clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel and Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis – he tries to attain proper dynamics between notated and improvised music as well as integrating the same feel on live and studio dates. He is also so-called conservative enough to appreciate a physical CD or LP as an art object in itself, noting that the “sonic constraints of an LP or CD or cassette or whatever are really important” in the creative process.
Maintaining its now corporate role of reporting on music trends about a decade after they happen, The Village Voice has finally discovered the burgeoning DIY-music scene in Brooklyn. While writer Matthew Kassel seems to see the move from Manhattan clubs across the river as generational, rather than economic, at least he names some of the prominent new music spaces there as well as name checking musicians such as clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Jesse Stacken and trombonist Brian Dry who play at, organize or curate these grass roots locations.
The Wire`s Richard Thompson visits some of London`s Free Music venues after a lengthy hiatus and claims that most of them are dying, victim of high rents, unsympathetic landlords, new licensing laws and lack of promotion. Thompson, who at one point played with guitarist Derek Bailey in similar back-of-pubs music spaces, insists that the audiences are so small and the venues so out-of-the-way because no one bothers to properly promote gigs via social media. He says new commitments and strategies are needed as existed in earlier days with the London Musicians Collective the venues curated by the likes of Adam Bohman and his brother. E-mails (at bottom) disagree.
Baritone saxophonist/composer/bandleader Fred Ho may literally be dying of colorectal cancer, but that hasn’t stopped him from music making or intensifying his criticism of modern North American society. Ho, 56, who has been influenced by progressive jazz musicians like saxophonist Archie Shepp and trumpeter Cal Massey, explains NPR’s Kat Chow in this sympathetic profile, that he has never internalized his anger. Instead his works, which he characterizes as Afro-Asian Futurism, because he feels “jazz” initially denigrated Black musicians, strike out against the abuses of capitalism in musical form. While Ho will not live to see his concepts come to fruition, a band, directed by fellow saxophonist and student Ben Barson continues to perform his music. [Addendum: Fred Ho died of colorectal cancer at 56, at his home in Brooklyn on April 12, 2014 .]
While a good part of the post-Putin Russia appears to have accepted Western capitalistic values, in the main improvised musicians are still marginalized. You wouldn’t know this from the mostly positive article by Vasily Shumov in Russia Beyond the Headlines. While also chronicling the history of trumpeter Eddie Rosner, the Soviet Union’s best-known Swing musician who was arrested in 1946 and didn’t escape the Gulag until 1954, Shumov then insists acceptance of Jazz has steadily grown over the years. Mentioning some of the major improvisers of the 1970s and 1980s, including pianist/guitarist Sergey Kuriokhin, drummer Vladimir Tarasov, pianist Vyacheslav Ganelin and saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin, who he thinks is a vocalist [!], he seems unfamiliar with the most recent improvisers however. Some illuminating videos are embedded though.
One of advanced music’s most in-demand percussionists, Pheeroan akLaff has made his name in bands led by saxophonist Oliver Lake and pianist Cecil Taylor. But as the drummer tells Jake Nussbaum and Alex Lewis in this Destination Out interview, his real commitment to improvised music came after he left his native Detroit and spent time playing with musicians like trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and pianist Anthony Davis during a time in New Haven, Conn. At the same time akLaff, who changed his name to honor his so-called spiritual parents in New Haven, points out how his spirituality intensified as he began touring regularly in Japan, playing everywhere from night clubs to temples.
Should your interest in the LP format encompass the preservation of unique sounds in a time-tested way, then you probably ignore the “vinyl is back” hype. However as the Village Voice’s Nick Greene points out, these tales have become an annual staple of the business media. What that means is that writers and editors who wouldn’t know Cecil Taylor from James Taylor or Evan Parker from Ray Parker Jr. get to string together a series of clichés about the rebirth of vinyl. The stories describe the phenomenon in almost exactly the same fashion and slyly suggest that it’s the attraction of their parents’ old records that draws tweens and teens to LPs.
Saxophonist/flutist/composer Yusef Lateef was much more than someone who introduced so-called exotic Middle Eastern and Asian motifs to Jazz. In this article in New Music Box, one of his closest collaborators, drummer/composer Adam Rudolph shares his memories of the man who died at 93 in 2013. By the 1950s Lateef, a respected bebopper, was working to alter Jazz’s harmonic structure and his ideas were later collected in his book, The Repository of Musical Scales and Patterns. Lateef, who had a doctorate in Education, ran his own record label, taught in Africa, wrote novels, plays, poetry, performed worldwide and was an erudite speaker on many subjects. Like innovative saxophonist John Coltrane, one of friends, Lateef was always trying something new. This was made most clear when he was made an NEA Jazz Master. Refusing to perform his older music with Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, instead he played a duet with Rudolph utilizing bells, bamboo flute and other sound makers
Finally showing some interest in African-American musical history, The US Library of Congress has acquired 400 linear feet comprising the archives of drummer Max Roach. According to an article by Ben Ratliff in the New York Times, the treasure trove includes items such as recording contracts, correspondence with everyone from Nelson Rockefeller to Nina Simone and even an hour-long tape by Philadelphia pianist Hassan Ibn Ali recorded at Roach’s apartment. More important for Jazz history may be a collection of letters from Roach to bassist Charles Mingus about their artist-owned Debut record label plus drafts of an unfinished autobiography Roach was writing with the help of poet Amiri Baraka.