Throughout his 50-odd years of music making, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has not only been concerned with developing his musical language as a player but also as a composer. This BOMB interview with John Corbett was conducted following an art gallery exhibition of Smith’s graphic scores. Smith has long been aware of the artistic as well as the sonic dimensions of his scores, since they were first performed in the late 1960s by members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians such as multi-reedist Anthony Braxton, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and himself. But no matter how the score looks, he explains, every drawing represents a particular unit, meant to be always played in a certain way. In the same way by accepting other players’ interpretations of his scores, Smith has been able to have them played by any number of ensembles large and small.
Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor
NEWS FROM ELSEWHERE
Now that he’s become the first advanced Jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, multi-reedist/composer Henry Threadgill is finally deemed high class enough to be asked his opinions on various subjects. Here the Music Aficionado Web page asks the Chicago-born, New York-based Threadgill to list his seven favorite records and explain why he likes them. Surprisingly, in what he calls a “random” selection, there are no discs by his AACM colleagues. Instead he names classics from Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis. But equally surprising is that LPs from Alban Berg, Howlin’ Wolf and Edgard Varèse are also cited.
Growing up studying the orthodoxies of so-called classical and Jazz piano, Myra Melford initially felt too regimented for self-expression. But, as she tells The Ottawa Citizen’s Peter Hum, a concert by avant-garde, improvising violinist Leroy Jenkins finally allowed her to understand she could play the way she heard things. Since that experience, Melford has spent almost 30 years performing her own music which reflects Jazz, pure improv, Persian and Uruguayan poetry and Zen Buddhism, in the company of drummer Matt Wilson, cornetist Ron Miles and clarinetist/saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, among many others. Not only has she been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, but today she’s also a music professor at University of California, Berkeley.
Although Times-Picayune writer Alex Rawls doesn’t seem to know about the city’s Free Jazz tradition that stretches back from saxophonist Kidd Jordan to the 1960s and drummer Ed Blackwell and saxophonist Noah Howard, he does provide a broad sketch of those playing freer sounds in New Orleans today. Chief among his abstract music proselytizers is trombonist and university professor Jeff Albert, who cites Sun Ra Arkestra trumpeter Michael Ray as an inside-outside influence. But some may quarrel with Rawls’ supposition that gentrification opens up a scene to Free Music.
Arguably the only committed experimental musician to spend his life in New Orleans, Kidd Jordan is properly introduced to The Boston Globe’s readers by Bill Beuttler here. Touching on Jordan’s influences – John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman – his three-decade career as an educator –he taught Branford Marsalis and Donald Harrison among many others – and his journeyman’s chops – he gigged with the likes of Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland to name two – Beuttler points out that the 81-year-old tenor saxophonist is one of few musicians who simultaneously understands Traditional Jazz, Bebop and Free Music. Yet, in what Jordan calls “his later years”, he’s now exclusively involved with unbounded improvisation.
Although he’s been involved with hard-core improvised music since the mid-1960s – and has been playing professionally since he was 15 – Joe Gallivan is so under the radar he could be invisible. The Stranger’s Dave Segal tries to rectify this in a long interview. Part of Gallivan’s obscurity is that he has stuck pretty close to his Miami home base over the years, even though forays to London and New York had him working with everyone from Free Music saxophonist Evan Parker to Jazz-Funk organist Larry Young to Hard Bop pianist Duke Pearson – and even singer Wilson Pickett. He was also one of the first players to adapt Robert Moog's prototype drum synthesizer to advanced music. Apparently his music was so far out that then-president Richard Nixon had the power cut when Gallivan and Young played a concert in a park opposite the White House. Then there were the many rip-off artists and this-side-of-criminals he dealt with both on and off the bandstand. Today though, Gallivan is still committed enough to his own sound to play with such advanced musicians as bassist Paul Rogers in France and pianist Angelica Sanchez in the United States.
Free Jazz, and its major figures like German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, still appear to need a lot of explanation, at least according to Cincinnati City Paper’s Steven Rosen. But he gamely tried to probe the genre's essence at a time when Brötzmann and American-born pedal steel guitarist Heather Leigh are to play a concert in his city. Rosen gets his chronology a little muddled and insists on linking the saxophonist to experimental American musicians such as pianist Cecil Taylor, guitarist Sonny Sharrock and drummer Andrew Cyrille, all of whom were the German’s associates, but he neglects the reedist's equally important European collaborations. Still, Rosen does give Brötzmann enough space to affirm how he gives his all in every performance; and how even at 75, he wants to be challenged musically. Hence the unique affiliation with Leigh and her unusual (for Jazz) instrument.
Perhaps The Wire’s Derek Walmsley goes a bit overboard in his appreciation of “Saturn” by the 1956 version of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. More than an artifact of futuristic pop music, he hears one of the first recorded of Ra’s beyond-earth compositions as a “matrix of possibilities”. Interestingly enough though he has time to praise the band’s early Bop-oriented players such as drummer William Cochran and trumpeter Art Hoyle, but doesn’t comment on the work of saxophone avatars like Marshall Allen and John Gilmore who would remain with the band for many years and help take the sound even further out.
Composer/alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill’s winning of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Music confirms that this venerable institution is finally in touch with more than Euro-centric sounds. In this Chicago Tribune article Howard Reich, who has served on the Pulitzer jury in the past, outlines the contentious history of the prize which has been given since 1943 to little-noted, so-called classical compositions, bypassing major musical figures such as Duke Ellington. Ellington was refused a special citation in 1965, which famously led to the resignation of two board members. Recent rule liberalization has led to the prize going to Wynton Marsalis in 1997, as well as special posthumous citations to the likes of Thelonious Monk, Ellington and John Coltrane; with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, a finalist in 2013. Threadgill – and Smith’s – prominence at the Pulitzers also confirms the continuing influence of the Chicago-birthed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians of which both are long-time members.
The concepts advanced may come from the Indie-Folk and Indie-Rock world, but in this The Wire article, label owner Britt Brown advances some ideas which can lead to small label longevity. Brown, who has operated the Los Angeles-based micro LP and CD imprint Not Not Fun since 2004, suggests that the ideal situation involves artist loyalty, fluidity in musical definitions and having a concept of how recorded material may be perceived in the future. Oh, and unless the label is run by visual artists, musicians, not the company, should decide on their own release's presentation.
With her compositions like “Ida Lupino” now Jazz standards and having lead various bands for more than 50 years, at 80 pianist/composer Carla Bley is being celebrated as a Jazz “master”. Still, as she tells The New York Times’ Nate Chinen, she didn’t just want to be one of the woman of stature in Jazz – she wanted to be the only one. Gender politics aside, the article runs down Bley’s contributions to the music’s literature and her struggle to be accepted, touching on her Free Jazz association with pianist Paul Bley; her large group experimentation with trumpeter Michael Mantler; as well as her collaboration with bassist Charlie Haden in the Liberation Music Orchestra. Happily Chinen also mentions her more cerebral but still quirky small group work with electric bassist Steve Swallow.
Unfortunately Point of Departure’s Bill Shoemaker crams too much into this column tracking the birth and somewhat tepid acceptance of South African pianist Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath (BOB) band organized in 1970s London. The basic story of putting together a large Free Jazz-oriented ensemble with different aims and roots than the American model is described. Yet the piece tries to deal with too many subjects, including in-fighting among members of the original Blue Notes: alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, bassist Johnny Dyani and drummer Louis Moholo plus McGregor; the evolving state of British Free Music, which introduced saxophonists Mike Osborn and Evan Parker to BOB; the incursions into BOB of Jazz pros like tenor saxophonist Alan Skidmore and trombonist Malcolm Griffiths to gain mainstream legitimacy; detours into the problems of British government funding; plus the policies of British record labels hoping that a variant of avant-garde jazz could be the next big thing after Rock. If you can also put up with 21st Century reinterpretations of contemporary music writing and brief glimpses of almost forgotten Jazzers such as saxophonists Ronnie Beer and Kenneth Terroade, you will find some notable analysis of the BOB’s records among the essay's more than 7,600 words.
What would have been helpful is if Consequence of Sounds’ Ryan Bray had known – or looked up – the proper spelling of producer Bob Thiele’s name, who tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp speaks about here, or the correct title – Blue Haze – of the Miles Davis LP Shepp mentions; but Bray manages to transcribe some valuable thoughts the now-veteran Shepp has about his mentor, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. Shepp, who later worked and recorded with Trane, recalls that he first heard him play in his native Philadelphia, but didn’t appreciate the older saxophonist’s skill until the latter’s justly famous New York club residency with pianist Thelonious Monk. Shepp also reveals the he could have used some guidance about chord changes from Trane when recording Ascension, since the younger saxophonist had just had his musical concept turned around working with pianist Cecil Taylor, the master of unbridled musical freedom.
Point of Departure’s Troy Collins tries to put a handle on the myriad activities of trumpeter Nate Wooley and finds that the Brooklyn-based stylist is involved in everything from straight-ahead jazz with the likes of Harris Eisenstadt’s Canada Day band, tape and electronic music, to solo playing and as association with noise bands alongside Mike Pride and others. Wooley, who lucked into meeting a group of like-minded experiments when he moved from Denver to New York 15 years ago, insists that a musician has to use any means necessary to connect with people. He’s also adamant that musicians who can communicate in prose as well as music shouldn’t be criticized as being too articulate and told to stick to playing. Wooley, who says he wants his trumpet to sound like a voice, is open to situations that can range from working with Fender Rhodes specialist Jozef Dumoulin to being part of composer Anthony Braxton’s groups. Plus he has a unique take on why he surprised everyone by recording a whole CD of Wynton Marsalis compositions.
Enigmatic and forward thinking, composer and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams seems to confuse New Music Box’s Frank J. Oteri when he doesn’t ascribe the same importance to some of his compositions that the interviewer does. But the focus of Abrams’ autodidactic methods, that also lead to the formation of Chicago’s AACM, is that all music is sound and all sound is part of a continuum. Besides modestly downplaying his role as a leader and teacher, Abrams insists that notated music figures such as Rachmaninoff, Beethoven and Chopin improvised as well as composed and how he’s as influenced by their ideas as those of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington or any so-called jazz figures. Of course, as someone who taught himself to both play piano and compose an important body of work, inspiration and circumstances play roles in Abrams evolution as well. And don't forget stylists like Sonny Stitt and George Coleman with whom Abrams played during his apprenticeship.
Perfect technique and faultless reading don’t add up to the skills needed to be a top-flight improvising cellist, reveals Daniel Levin in this interview with Anne Yven for London Jazz News and France's Citizen Jazz. The ideal is not to be afraid to play something others find bad, dumb or obvious. At least that’s what Levin tells beginning improvisers. His commitment to improv came from an experience when he was 19, and since that time he has built up steady relationships with many other musicians, most notably in one group with alto saxophonist Rob Brown and in another band with violist Mat Maneri. Levin also relates how when he was studying formally with Joe Maneri, the teacher/reedist allowed him to play his tenor saxophone for a while so that Levin would become less inhibited in his own cello playing.
Throughout his years as bass player of choice for a variety of advanced Jazz combos, Joe Fonda has been known for the joyful body language he brings to his playing. The reason for this, he explains to Jazz’halo’s Ferdinand Dupuis-Panther, is his long association with powerful drummer such as Lou Grassi, Barry Altschul and Harvey Sorgen. Fonda goes on to tell how he evolved from being a teenage ProgRock fan to an improvising Jazz musician, the influence of Ornette Coleman on his music, and how he defines the musical essence of the groups within which he plays.
Short and to the point, in the interview, veteran double bassist Gary Peacock tells Westword’s Jon Solomon about how his style has changed over the years through the input of the pianists with whom he’s worked. In Denver for a gig with pianist Marc Copland and drummer Joey Baron, Peacock, 80, describes the appeal of piano stylists like Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans and Paul Bley, and what each one contributed to his musical evolution. He also reveals that he decided to become a professional musician in this early teens, but didn’t find his ideal instrument until he started playing double bass in 1955.
From its lofty height as arbiter of high-class culture, The New Yorker occasionally reaches down to profile someone from the popular arts. That seems to be the focus of Alec Wilkinson’s article on pianist Vijay Iyer. Newsworthy because he’s Asian-American not White or Black, Iyer who is described as often mistaken “for an accountant”, has a PhD, teaches at Harvard and is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s artist-in-residence. Besides the establishment credentials advanced, at least there is some mention in the story of his association with the radical Asian Improv group in California, his admiration for Thelonious Monk’s playing, his mentoring by saxophonist Steve Coleman and electronic musician David Wessel, and his on-going musical relationship with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, whose eclecticism defies standardization.