The Mosaic that Michael Cuscuna has produced

Although Jerry Jazz Musician’s Joe Maita seems unaware – or chooses to ignore – Michael Cuscuna’s role in producing sessions by Anthony Braxton and other advanced players like the AEC's Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell, he gives the veteran producer space to talk about the Jazz scene in general and Mosaic records in particular. Someone who worked in radio and for corporate record companies before starting the box-set oriented Mosaic records in 1981, Cuscuna realized the value of well-researched and well-organized product when he went on his own. Making one of the label’s ideals creating CDs that contain all of an artist’s work from a certain period, he started by adding unreleased Thelonious Monk tracks to those already in print. While the piece then does get somewhat bogged down in nostalgia for Blue Note records and the 1960s, it also talks about Cuscuna’s recording relationship with legends like tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, vibist Bobby Hutcherson and drummer Art Blakey. Plus there’s his comments about how downloads and streaming aren’t necessarily music’s future. “I don’t think packaged media is going to go away anytime soon. It is going to diminish and diminish, but people want photography, people want information,” Cuscuna says.

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Dave Rempis Makes his own Breaks

The article could have had a little less about The Chicago Reader’s John Corbett’s memory of first seeing the musicians play and more about the musicians themselves, but otherwise it presents a fair portrait of the musical life of Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis. Deciding early on that no one else was going to hustle to get him gigs, Rempis started booking a series of shows at one nightclub, then in other places in the city and later elsewhere in the US and finally throughout Europe. Meanwhile his self-financed record label Aerophonic was formed to preserve sounds that are, as Rempis says, “trying to reach the type of meditative depth in the music that we're going for [that] takes some time,” and ignores pop-song lengths or commercial considerations. The article also promotes one of the saxophonist’s most accomplished bands, a quartet in which he plays alongside keyboardist Jim Baker, drummer Avreeayl Ra and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten.

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A Different Drummer: Ronnie Burrage

Although not as well-known as other Free Music percussionists, Brooklyn-based drummer and educator Ronnie Burrage has been involved with many landmark activities, reports The Wire’s John Pietaro. They range from his membership in the Black Artists Group (BAG) in his hometown of St. Louis, to his current stint as house drummer at Brooklyn’s Sistas’ Place, with music director trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah. From a musical family, Burrage was playing with seminal BAG members such as saxophonists Hamiet Bluiett and JD Parran by his early teens. A subsequent New York move had him working in trombonist Joe Bowie’s Defunkt band and in various ensembles with genre-breakers like violinist Billy Bang, pianist McCoy Tyner and saxophonists Arthur Blythe and Archie Shepp. After an interregnum in Florida and Pennsylvania, he returned to New York to teach music at the graduate level, renew his outstanding playing career and record. Read about Burrage’s consciousness-raising experience in St. Louis and New York's Lower East Side; what he’s now trying to do to ease racial tensions; his friendship with and mentoring by poet Amiri Baraka; and how he nearly became a member of Weather Report.

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Ernest Dawkins Counters Local Violence with Music

Living in the middle of Englewood, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side better known for crime than creativity, alto saxophonist Ernest Dawkins is attempting to lure locals to music and away from gun violence. Supported by the MacArthur Foundation, his non-profit Live the Spirit Residency oversees a masters’ program for talented players, organizes informal drum circles for youngsters and seniors, and invites the entire city in the annual Englewood Jazz Festival, now 20 years old, explains the saxophonist/bandleader to The Chicago Tribune’s Annie Sweeny. While none of the program’s graduates have so far joined Dawkins in his most high-profile gigs, such as with percussionist Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, or in his own New Horizons Ensemble, founded with the late trumpeter Ameen Muhammad, a few have now gone on to become professional musicians.

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Defining Improv with Han-earl Park

Seemingly starting from zero when it comes to understanding improvised music, this un-bylined Improvised Music Company Q+A with British-Korean guitarist Han-earl Park tries to find explanations that aren’t forthcoming. Speaking before a Dublin performance with the trio Eris136199 that also includes fellow guitarist Nick Didkovsky and baritone saxophonist Catherine Sikora, Park’s wide-ranging answers attempt to describe the transformative qualities of group improvisation and outline conditions for an ideal free-music gig. He become a little more obscure when he reveals that right now his main musical inspirations come from contemporary politics, genre fiction and film and even the mechanical production of recorded pop music.

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Sun, Sin & Starvation: Sun Ra’s Strip Club residencies

Later famous for the otherworldly and enigmatic music he created for his Arkestra, bandleader/keyboardist/composer Sun Ra initially worked at every musical gig he could while creating his own visionary sounds. In this fascinating article from Lapham’s Quarterly John Corbett outlines the jobbing Ra and others had to take, especially in the Chicago area. Although many know about the band’s later struggles in New York, where for instance band stalwart tenor saxophonist John Gilmore joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers for a year and Ra and other Arkestra members played on limbo and Batman themed records, the musical heavy lifting had taken place in the early 1950s. For steady work and as a way to hone their chops, Ra and other committed musicians such as saxophonist Red Holloway and drummer Robert Barry among many others labored from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. in  sleazy, often dangerous Mafia-controlled strips clubs in Calumet City, Illinois, 20 miles from Chicago.

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The Musical Maturity of Matt Mitchell

Rather technical in parts and truncated in others, at least the interview JazzTrail’s Filipe Freitas conducted with Matt Mitchell does offer an introduction to the New York-based pianist’s career. Mitchell, 44, who has played with the likes of percussionist Ches Smith and saxophonists Chris Speed and Tim Berne, discusses topics such as his favorite albums, his Jazz and non-Jazz musical influences, and how he uses electronics. His idea for electronics is to program synthesizers and other gizmos to function as part of his ideas, not following technical paths. Mitchell, who says he wanted to be an astronaut when he was a child, is also put into the uncomfortable position of describing his original playing style. He does so in simple details, but stresses as someone interested in the unknown, that sounds now taken for granted will soon be upended and changed by younger and younger musicians. More seriously though, Freitas never follows up when Mitchell admits that it took him 20 years of playing before he finally became a full-time professional.

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Kahil El’Zabar spreads the word about Spiritual Jazz

While Melodic Distraction’s Toby Taylor seems to think that Spiritual Jazz is an entire genre unto itself, he does give Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (EHE) leader percussionist/ Kahil El’Zabar space to suggest that with much contemporary Jazz performance sterile and academically oriented, there’s a need for bands like the EHE. The EHE aims for a higher form of expression as well as acknowledging the musical history of different communities of African descent.  Influenced by the sounds he heard growing up in Chicago, El’Zabar first organized the EHE in 1973 and it has gone through many permutations as a trio or quartet since then to settle on the present line-up of himself, baritone saxophonist Alex Harding, trumpeter Corey Wilkes and cellist Ian Maksin. Explaining that the EHE consistently challenges the harmonic and sonic capabilities of modern sounds, El’Zabar credits his capabilities to his parents who exposed him to Jazz ranging from Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker to John Coltrane and Sun Ra with special emphasis on local legends like saxophonists Von Freeman and Gene Ammons. El’Zabar, who is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians cites other AACM members like pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Steve McCall as crucial to his individual musical development.

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How and Why Philadelphia Became the Sun Ra Arkestra’s Earthly and Permanent Base

Forced by rising rents to relocate the Arkestra to Philadelphia in 1968 after the ensemble had finally become accepted as part of New York burgeoning avant-garde community, Sun Ra did so grudgingly and gradually. According to Red Bull Music Academy Daily’s John Morrison, the enigmatic bandleader-composer-keyboardist, who was then part of Manhattan’s Black Arts Movement along with poet Amira Baraka, pianist Cecil Taylor and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, only moved to what was described as “death’s headquarters” with its then racist and hostile police force, because the band acquired a house in the Germantown neighborhood from Arkestra alto saxophonist Marshall Allen’s father. But it took three years before Ra formally joined other band members to become a permanent Philly resident. Once there Ra found regular weekly gigs for the band in local clubs, began a relationship with visual artist Leroy Butler to design LP covers, and helped Arkestra baritone saxophonist/flutist Danny Thompson set up Pharoah’s Den grocery store in the neighborhood. Most importantly Ra began adding Philadelphia musicians to the band. Today despite Ra’s earth-leaving in 1993, the Arkestra is still based in Philly where its influence affects the city’s cultural life. Besides the likes of trumpeter Heru Sabaka-Ra, who plays in the Arkestra, as well as his own Sirius JuJu band, the Ra philosophy and showmanship is acknowledged by local performers like DJ and producer King Britt and poet and musician Moor Mother.

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Vanity Fair Discovers that Women Play Jazz

With great fanfare – and about two decades too late – Vanity Fair magazine discovers there are a whole bunch of women playing Jazz. Writer Abigail Jones does outline the music’s long history of sexism and reputation as an exclusive boy’s club where club owners and fellow players are still surprised that a woman plays rather than sings. Pointing to more gender-free jam sessions and increase in female enrollment in formal jazz-study hubs, she reports on some improvements in her interviews with those on the scene, though the focus here is still on “the freshest faces of 21st-century jazz: women instrumentalists who have sizzle right now”. The list of hair and manicure stylists at the article’s end doesn’t much help defining existing situation, nor do some of the more flowery photos included. But at least glossy mag readers are introduced to among others, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, pianist Kris Davis, arranger Maria Schneider and guitarist Mary Halvorson, the last of whom has some of the piece’s most trenchant comments.

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Jazz Goes to Church: James Falzone

Writing for the “Classical Music” page of The Seattle Times, Tom Keogh emphasizes the background in religious-oriented music of clarinetist James Falzone. Chair of music at the city’s Cornish College of the Arts, Falzone’s then-upcoming concert at the school’s Chapel in the Good Shepherd Center, featuring pianist Wayne Horvitz and bassist Abbey Blackwell, linked improvisations with liturgical music composed by Falzone. Pointing out that the clarinetist was music director at Grace Chicago Church for 16 years, when he lived in Illinois, Keogh notes how that experience helped shape Falzone’s ideas about composing and arranging as a form of service to others, and broadened his definition of liturgical music. At the same time the writer emphasizes that the clarinetist, who spends as much time playing secular as scared music, is only one of the Jazz musicians who teach or have taught at Cornish, including trombonist Julian Priester, Horvitz and French hornist Tom Varner.

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A Trumpeter’s Turnaround: Jaimie Branch

While the Portland Mercury’s Robert Ham seems most concerned with how many metaphoric and poetic references he can ascribe to trumpeter Jaimie Branch’s life and career, he does manage to reveal something about her music in this Q+A. Ham explains how the trumpeter first drew attention in Chicago as part of bassist Jason Ajemian’s band and later moved to Brooklyn, organizing her own combo as well as the well=praised duo Anteloper, with drummer Jason Nazary, who also played in Ajemian’s group. Branch strongly supports a D-I-Y attitude, and notes how her music has helped her overcome many drawbacks including addiction and family alienation. But she’s also adamant in insisting that despite Anteloper's use of loops and processing with its links to so-called post-rock and ambient music, the result is still as involved with improvisation as her more Jazz-oriented projects.

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Big Five Chords That Lead to Unique Music

An affectionate if somewhat shortened yarn, Jazz Times’ Mike Shanley manages to trace the interconnections that make up different groups featuring Austin guitarist Jon Lundbom and New York-based saxophonist Bryan Murray. Both originally from the Chicago area, the guitarist’s short New York sojourn led to other young musicians, involved in their own bands, like saxophonist Jon Irabagon and bassist Moppa Eliott also playing on the initial Big Five (BFC) CDs when the band was formed. Lundbom, who says he was influenced by players as disparate as Ornette Coleman and Stan Getz, as well as a D’Angelo’s Jazz-Hip Hop record, leads other local groups as well as BFC, all of which hold to his idea of maintaining a groove, but without repeating the head at the ending. Meanwhile Murray spends part of his non-BFC time creating unprecedented multiphonic sessions using a “balto!” an alto sax with a baritone mouthpiece, whose sound he describes as “loud, disgusting and out of tune.”  

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Japan’s Free Jazz Heyday Remembered

Although the article is rather like the result of looking at a photo of a photo of a photo, Pierre Crépon’s review of Teruto Soejimabook, Free Jazz in Japan: A Personal History, gives some idea of that country’s fertile experimental music scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Appearing in Point of Departure now that the 2002 book has been translated into English, the review introduces a gallery of Free Jazz pioneers who were responsible for presenting and disseminating the sounds, first in Tokyo, then in other parts of the country, and with middling success, overseas. A few names, such as trumpeters Itaru Oki and Toshinori Kondo, pianist Masahiko Sato and saxophonists Akira Sakata and Kaoru Abe, may be known by non-Japanese Jazz followers mostly through their expatriation to Europe and collaboration with similar, far-sighted, usually German or French players. Abe is a special case though, because of his short-lived self-destructive lifestyle. Anything but the last word on the subject, Crépon’s scholarship about the contemporary political and societal situation in Japan at the time and Soejima’s personal knowledge of what happened, provide a good introduction. Further, more rigorous scholarship on the subject is needed though.

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Heather Leigh: The pedal steel guitar is an extension of me

A little weak on details – musical and otherwise – this Spanish-English interview with steel guitarist Heather Leigh by Loop’s Guillermo Escudero tries to explain the appeal and mechanics of the American-in-Scotland’s instrument and situate her playing within the Free Jazz scene. However Leigh, whose ongoing work, live and on record, in a solo contest and with drummer Chris Corsano and tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann has brought her unique sound to those most familiar with improvisation seems to spend much of the interview musing about her influences, speaking about rock bands and pushing her most recent disc.

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Anthony Davis Creates a Controversial New Opera

With the blinders typical of those in the so-called serious music field, “award-winning “international arts journalist” Victoria Looseleaf writes an entire article on composer/pianist Anthony Davis’ newest opera for San Francisco Classical Voice without ever mentioning his parallel history in improvised music. Ignoring Davis’ long-time collaborations with the likes of tenor saxophonist Jason Robinson and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith among others, the article still manages to provide a fair retrospective of Davis’ career up to the present day. It mentions his early interest in creating operas, and his subsequent, highly praised breakthrough productions such as X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X and  Wakonda’s Dream, based on the trial of Chief Standing Bear and leading to The Central Park Five, which was just premiered at Long Beach Opera. An interesting sideline is how Davis got the inspiration for the character of Donald Trump, featured in the opera, and how he instructed the tenor soloist who plays the president in the production to act during the performance

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Anna Webber: From Coffee Shop to Cerebral Music

Even after achieving graduate music degrees from Montreal, New York and Berlin univerities, British Columbia-born saxophonist/flutist Anna Webber was at first still working part-time at a coffee shop when she returned to Manhattan, she tells Jazz Right Now’s Cisco Bradley. But soon she was able to organize groups to play her music in which the cerebral and emotional are equal. First she convened a trio with drummer John Hollenbeck and pianist Matt Mitchell, and later organized a septet for her more scholarly and intellectual scores, featuring Mitchell and herself as well as reedist Jeremy Viner, trombonist Jacob Garchik, cellist Chris Hoffman, bassist Chris Tordini and drummer/vibraphonist Ches Smith. Now she’s at the point of having the big band she co-leads make its first CD. Webber, who also teaches music at different levels, also speaks about the lack of gender parity in Jazz and the music education and female socialization situations that contribute to this.

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Transforming Literature into Music: Lisa Mezzacappa

Although not much of Improvised Music or Jazz has usually been programmatic, Bay area bassist/composer Lisa Mezzacappa has spent the past several years adapting literary works into musical statements. In this article for ArtForum, Phillip Greenlief describes how Touch Bass, her newest project with choreographer Risa Jaroslow, involving  three double basses and three dancers, is just the latest in the bassist’s interest in stretching beyond expected musical tropes. For instance Avant Noir from 2014 consists of pieces that take cues from characters in novels by Dashiell Hammett and Paul Auster; Glorious Ravage from 2015 is a song-cycle inspired by Victorian-era women who abandoned social norms to travel the world; and 2018’s Cosmicomics draws on an Italo Calvino's story collection, using science in an to attempt to explain human interaction. With these projects and other performances, Mezzacappa has worked with a cross section of West Coast artists, including dancers, moving image specialists and sympathetic musicians such as guitarist Fred Frith, pianist Myra Melford, flutist Nicole Mitchell and bassist Mark Dresser.

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Established Jazz Festival Goofs by Booking A Jazz Group

Somehow this snarky satire hits close to home as Canada’s The Daily Bonnet publishes an un-bylined article reporting the shock by promoters who found out that an actual Jazz group had been mistakenly added to the line-up of a popular Jazz festival. With a place-line of SK, not making it clear whether the made-up festival is in Slovenia or Saskatchewan, the sardonic piece highlights the reality that about 90% of the so-called major Jazz Festivals around the world would rather feature Rock, Pop, Soul, Metal or World Music acts than anything resembling Jazz or Improvised music – and the majority of the audience members don’t care.

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An insider and an outsider: Jamaaladeen Tacuma

Philadelphia-native Jamaaladeen Tacuma achieved his greatest popularity in the 1970s and 1980s when as part of the Punk-New Wave-Jazz scene he played regularly in New York in groups with tenor saxophonist David Murray and others, most especially as part of alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman's band. But as the electric bassist tells Philadelphia Weekly’s A.D. Amorosi, he never left Philadelphia and is always featured in the city’s annual Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival. While some of the stories he tells about growing up in the racially divided city may be a little too Philly-centric, Tacuma, who now also plays acoustic bass, offers a quick rundown of how the city’s demographics have changed over the years. His early bands were ones of the first to adopt the same hippie attire and attitude as white rock bands. Today there’s more integration between African-American and White artists, to the extent that even his interest in regularly adding continental African sounds to improvised music is accepted.

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