Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor


An Academic Conference on Cecil Taylor’s Influences

Giving the late pianist-composer the serious attention he deserves, New York University’s Graduate Center and the Hitchcock Institute for the Study of American Music at Brooklyn College is sponsoring an academic conference on the art of Cecil Taylor. Scheduled for October 24 to October 26 of this year, the conference will build on and amplify the scholarship available on Taylor’s musical and poetic works. Keynote speakers already scheduled include Nahum Dimitri Chandler, David Grubbs, Fred Moten, Fumi Okiji and Ben Young. The conference will celebrate Taylor the educator by hosting an ensemble workshop led by bassoonist Karen Borca, who will pass on a composition dictated to her by Taylor. Additionally one evening will feature a concert and discussion by drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp. Until May 3 the Conference will accept other proposals to present papers, music etc. during that weekend.  More details:


Flutist Nicole Mitchell’s Influences and Influence

With a more far-ranging approach than usual to the music offered to the musicians to discuss in a Jazz Times’ Before and After listening session, George Varga manages to elicit memorable comments about mentorship, experimentation and craftsmanship from flutist Nicole Mitchell. Mitchell, an academic and former Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) chairperson, listens intensely and discourses on such subjects as the use of electronics and extended techniques after hearing tunes by flutists Robert Dick and Matthias Ziegler; how the far-ranging thinking and writing of trombonist George Lewis and flutist James Newton helped shape her idea of how to be a musician after hearing a session by the two playing together; and after listening to a later humorous cut by Sun Ra, relating an incident when at 19 she attended a concert by keyboardist/orchestra leader and finding that his and her ideas on Afrofuturism jibed so closely, that she figures she would have accepted his invitation to join the band in Philadelphia if she hadn’t moved to Chicago and joined the AACM.


Exploratory Jazz’s Place on the Boston Scene

While Bandcamp Daily’s Tzvi Gluckin seems a little too concerned with mentioning the number of Jazz-Fusion musicians and groups that came from Boston over the years, he does offer a quick history of the roots of the city’s avant-garde Jazz scene here. With educational institutions like the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory as attractions, exploratory musicians such as pianist Cecil Taylor and multi-reedist Makanda Ken McIntyre were making local sonic waves as early as the 1950s. Although today venues to work in may still be small, out-of-the-way and often pay-to-play, a group of non-mainstream performers continues to evolve their sounds in Beantown, some of whom teach music at the post-secondary level. Besides veteran tenor saxophonist George Garzone and the Fringe trio, others making notable contributions include pianist Pandelis Karayorgis; alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs with his trio and his Fully Celebrated Orchestra; and Timo Shanko, who excels both as a bassist and a tenor saxophonist.


When Experimental Film Making met Experimental Music

While Lithuanian-American film maker and critic Jonas Mekas who died at 96 in late January was best-known for his championing of experimental cinema starting at the mid-1950s, The Wire’s Alan Licht reveals the filmmaker’s links to experimental music during the same period. While Mekas was promoting avant-garde poetic, erotic and sometimes irritating personal films being made by the likes of Jack Smith, Maya Deren, Joseph Cornell, Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger, some of the ideas for these films came from his and other movie makers’ interaction with exploratory players and composers. These include the nearly infinite music composed by La Monte Young, and soundtracks or intermedia events featuring the Fugs and future Velvet Underground members Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison and John Cale, plus contributions Tony Conrad, who later became film maker and educator as well as a musician. In later years younger players such as Licht and Lee Renaldo would use some of Mekas’ film as the background visuals for improvised performances.


Nicole Mitchell’s New Educational Challenges

Although The Pittsburgh Current’s Mike Shanley appears slightly overawed interviewing flutist Nicole Mitchell about her new position as The University of Pittsburgh (UP)’s Chair in Jazz Studies, he does manage to present some of her history and concept of Jazz education. Joking that at one time, no school would want an adventurous artist like her near the jazz department, Mitchell outlines her commitment to the Jazz tradition and helping students find their own voices. The piece also traces her career that includes her membership and later presidency of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Slyly she also notes that while she never played In Pittsburgh, a few years ago, while teaching in California, she was part of a telematic performance that also featured AACM trombonist George Lewis in New York, and pianist Geri Allen, who then headed UP’s Jazz Studies program. Allen succeeded saxophonist Nathan Davis, who created the program in 1969.


Clarinetist Perry Robinson’s personality and legacy

Although known as a linchpin of the so-called avant-garde Jazz scene, clarinetist Perry Robinson, who died at 80 in January, was much more than that, both musically and personally, explains The Jersey Journal’s Jim Testa. Although famous for his associations with the bands of bassist Charlie Haden, saxophonist Archie Shepp and an experimental unit of pianist Dave Brubeck, Robinson, son of left-wing composer Earl Robinson, grew up with the likes of singer/songwriters Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger performing around the house. Living the final part of his life in Hoboken, New Jersey, his early interest in all musical forms meant he would often sit in with local Country, Funk or Rock bands, sometimes with another FreeJazzer, alto saxophonist Mark Whitecage, and even collaborate with supposed anti-folk singers like his cousin Jeffrey Lewis. Robinson was also the dedicatée and original soloist for composer Gary Schneider’s Concerto for Jazz Clarinetist and String Orchestra. His friend Robinson was “Hoboken’s most famous, non-famous person in music,” says Schneider.


Different Methods of Dissemination: Fielder, Jarman and the AACM

Although the recent deaths of multi-instrumentalist Joseph Jarman and drummer Alvin Fielder have led to new appreciation for their celebrated musicianship, NPR Music’s Howard Mandel, points out that each man's contributions went past mere playing. Both nascent members of Chicago`s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in the early 1960s, both demonstrated their exploratory playing skills with, in Jarman’s case, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell bassist  Malachi Favors and others who later made up the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC); and in Fielder's case with the likes of saxophonist Mitchell, Fred Anderson and many others. But it was Jarman's interest in theatrical trappings – he always performed in face paint and a hat and recited poetry –  that encouraged new listeners to appreciate the AEC's style and those of subsequent AACM performers. Meanwhile, relocated to Mississippi, Fielder helped organize activities to bring experimental music to the region, with opportunities expanding even further when Dallas trumpeter Dennis Gonsález joined and followed a similar course in his area. Initiatives like these helped organize groups and a network of sympathetic venues that provided opportunities for later generations of AACM members, from now-established bandleaders like drummer Kahil El`Zabar and saxophonist Ernest Dawkins to relatively young ones like trumpeter Corey Wilkes and cellist Tomeka Reid. READ

Anthony Braxton and the future of Opera

The New York Times’ Seth Colter Walls seems more concerned with showing how much he knows about other experimental opera created by the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen, and seems amazed that composer Anthony Braxton is still creating important, exploratory music at a frenetic pace as he nears his 75th birthday in 2020, but he does supply some information about the newest chapter of the composer’s Trillium L opera project. With a slightly condescending tone,Walls emphasizes Braxton’s honors such as his MacArthur “genius” grant and NEA Jazz Master designation before praising the composer’s justly famous Jazz-oriented quartet of the 1990s; his influence on other composer/performers like saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock; and finally noting where other important works like the recently released 12-album Ghost Trance Music set are available. Audio examples embedded may add more to understanding Braxton’s work than the article.


The Value of Musical Process: Lloyd Swanton

Evolving a musical concept based on process rather than completion is how Australian trio, The Necks evolved their unique style. In this excerpt from an interview with The Strand’s Andy Hamilton, Lloyd Swanton, who has played bass with the group since its beginning, talks about the thought process that went into forming the non-idiomatic Free Music ensemble in the 1980s with keyboardist Chris Abrahams and percussionist Tony Buck. Further details demand a download, but the link includes a 48-minute video of The Necks in concert.


The Best (Local) Band You Never Heard (Of)

Out of town – and even in Europe – individually these musicians are headliners, but in Chicago locals can catch sets by the Extraordinary Popular Delusions (EPD) quartet every Monday night in a pass-the-hat situation. In this brief preview for an upcoming gig, The Chicago Reader’s Bill Meyer reports on the ESP evident in the EPD’s improvised performances. That’s because its members – Mars Williams on alto and tenor saxophones, percussion, zither and toys; Jim Baker on electric piano, synthesizer and viola; Brian Sandstrom, who play bass, electric guitar and trumpet; and Steve Hunt, an expert on drums, percussion and waterphone  – have had a weekly quartet gig at one or another Chicago nightspot since 2005. All of the players have extensive experience on their own or working with one another in bands like the NRG Ensemble. The only fact missing in the story is that tenor saxophonist Ed Wilkerson Jr. regularly sits in for Williams when the latter is unavailable. READ

Blue Note Records’ German-Jewish roots and ethos

Nazi persecution forced two German-Jewish Jazz fans –Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion –to flee Berlin in the 1930s and relocate in New York, an action which inadvertently led to the founding of Blue Note, one of the music’s most iconic, and fondly remembered labels. Reviewing It Must Schwing (sic), a new film about the duo and the label, Playbill’s Barry Singer posits that Wolff’s and Lion’s experiences with European prejudice led them to champion Jazz and its African-American practitioners who were then frequently exploited by American record companies.  During its 1939-1965 heyday, Blue Note recorded such important Jazz stylists as Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane. Besides highlighting other parts of the tale in the film, interviews with some of those still-living innovators recall the original owners’ enthusiasm and fair business practices as well as the  lingering shock many still feel when, because of ill-health, the two sold the label to a large corporation in 1965, which altered its familial methods. READ

Tracking Contemporary Avant-Garde Jazz in Poland (Sort of)

Although Bandcamp Daily’s Nate Patrin somewhat tenuously tries to link the 100th anniversary of Poland’s  creation as a modern state and pianist Dave Brubeck’s combo's visit to the country in the 1958 with the freedom that lead the subsequent growth of Jazz in the country, he seems to be ignoring a significant group of modern players today. While Brubeck’s example may have encouraged now-revered early modern Jazz icons like pianist Krzysztof Komeda and trumpeter Tomasz Stańko to follow uncompromising paths despite the political climate, with a couple of  exceptions, Patrin appears to think that their successor are players who draw more from  hip-hop samples, ProgRock,  Krautrock, drone, and ambient rhythms than Jazz improvisation. Perhaps cross-over bands like EABS and  Niechęć may one day became famous among those who object to Jazz contaminating their pseudo-Jazz programs, but even when Patrin mentions more exploratory players such as clarinetist Wacław Zimpel and guitarist Raphael Rogińsk, he suggests listening to tracks they recorded that aim more towards mainstream instrumental Pop than anything more challenging. READ

Sunny Murray’s Early European Career

Celebrated overseas, but scuffling for work in the United States, drummer Sunny Murray’s musical life in the late 1960s-early 1970s set the pattern for his eventual permanent relocation to Paris, where he died in 2017. Although The Wire’s Pierre Crépon spends a little too much time trying to cram Murray’s experiences into concepts developed from physicist Erwin Schrödinger (!) and scientist Herman von Helmholtz (!!), he does manage to discuss some of the musical highlights of Murray’s career after he parted ways with pianist Cecil Taylor. Besides legendary 1968 European concerts, where Murray played alongside older drum-innovators Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey, Crépon lists a number of important late '60s, early '70s sessions in which Murray participated. They include as a member of  bassist Alan Silva's Celestrial Communication Orchestra; BYG sideman gigs with tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, pianist Dave Burrell and trombonist Clifford Thornton; with the drummer’s own band featuring little-known Free Jazz saxophonists Byard Lancaster and Kenneth Terroade; plus one exceptional 1971 Intercommunal Music LP on which the drummer’s working band joined forces with the group  of "official" leader, French pianist François Tusques,  for an historic release. READ

Praise for William Parker’s Voice (s)

While The Nation’s David Hajudu may think that bassist William Parker has reached an apogee in his music because the writer can now relate to all the songs on the bassist’s three-CD set, Voices Fall from the Sky, he does give readers of this progressive political publication some idea of what he calls Parker’s boundless inventiveness. Hajudu, who admits that he only discovered (!) Parker when he mistakenly (!!) attended a performance of pianist Cecil Taylor’s sextet at a defunct New York night club in 1983, has since then seen the bassist, band leader and composer perform dozens of times in New York with the likes of pianist Matthew Shipp, tenor saxophonist David S. Ware and violinist Billy Bang. While he acknowledges but doesn’t seem to really understand how the bassist’s Free Jazz prowess has given Parker international musical stature, Hajudu describes this three-CD set as a late-career blossoming since he’s impressed by Parker’s music and poetry performed by vocalists such as Leena Conquest, and especially AnneMarie Sandy– interestingly enough, the most classically trained of all the singers involved. Still this unbridled praise may hopefully encourage others to explore Parker’s instrumental work on other CDs cited. READ

The Advantages of California: Myra Melford

One of the many musical innovators who have relocated to California to take up teaching posts, pianist Myra Melford assures National Sawdust Log’s Steve Smith that after working for 20 years in New York, she's still in a nourishing and supportive environment on the West Coast. A professor at the University of California, Berkeley since 2004, the pianist admits that not only has the move been beneficial to her financially, but it has allowed her to, for instance, in residency at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, involve youth in improvisation. Participating in many musical groups as well, Melford's Snowy Egret quintet for example has recorded pieces she composed based on visual art by, among others, Cy Twombly and William Kentridge. Also, long before the #MeToo hash tag, she has been a part of  with two international ensembles that still play together frequently: MZM with kotoist Miya Masaoka and harpist Zeena Parkins, and the Tiger Trio with local flutist Nicolle Mitchell and French double bassist Joëlle Léandre. With the number of advanced improvisers now teaching at various California institutions, she adds that young players can now receive similar opportunities and/or education to what they might have gotten in New York 20 years ago. READ

From Avant-Garde to Electronics: Mazette Watts

Done midway through his prolific, if under-recognized career, this previously unpublished interview with Mazette Watts (1938-1998) also offers a profound snapshot of the experimental music scene in 1974. Speaking to Jazz Magazine’s Chris Flicker on a tape transcribed, edited and introduced by Pierre Crépon and published in The Wire, Watts who had been involved in the initial flowering of the 1960s New York New Thing in association with Sonny Sharrock, Byard Lancaster and others, saw the music in decline in the US after the deaths of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. Lack of decent venues, no major label support, fruitless DIY projects and players’ expatriation and complacency are cited, with Watts only singling out Cecil Taylor, Frank Wright and Sam Rivers for praise. Someone who had taught, traveled internationally and worked as a recording engineer/producer, Watts instead saw the future in terms of merchandising finished products and more importantly, synthesizer programming and computers. At the same time he maintained few users, except for Terry Riley and Roger Powell were using the syntheizer to its full capacity and has harsh words for the Sun Ra, Stevie Wonder, Paul Bley, Herbie Hancock and even John Cage. READ

Reports of a venue’s imminent death aren’t exaggerated

Next month will see the demise of SuperDeluxe, which has been one of the pillars of Tokyo’s experimental music scene for the past 16 years. The (familiar) reason: the building is earmarked for demolition. The Japan Times’ James Hadfield goes into detail about the club's comfortable ambiance, flexible, DIY ethos and (lack of) amenities, comparing it to better-known experimental hangouts in other cities. He also itemizes some of the important gigs he’s witnessed there including sets by German tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, Japanese guitarist Keiji Haino and American bass/baritone saxophonist Colin Stetson. However he doesn’t deal with the deeper question of where non-mainstream musicians will be able to play in the future as more out-of-the-way venues in major centres become victims of demolition and/or gentrification. READ

Takin’ Care of Business: Steve Swell

Although known as a creative trombonist and band leader who has worked with, among many others bassist William Parker and pianist Cecil Taylor, Steve Swell tells Point of Departure’s Troy Collins about the compromises and sacrifices one has to make to survive as creative musician in the New York City area. Although he now teaches regularly – something he admits he didn’t like at first – and has enough connections to gig regularly in North America with his bands featuring saxophonists Jemeel Moondoc or pianist Cooper-Moore plus in Europe in projects with saxophonists Peter Brötzmann, Gebhard Ullmann or Jan Klare, he still has to handle all day-to-day business himself. Now that he's freed from earlier day jobs such as driving a taxi or tempory proofreader at financial and law firms, he still must divide his day into one-hour intervals in keep track of his tasks. Without his own PR person, personal manager or a booking agent, he has still developed contacts over the years and like his music he manages to improvise his schedule as he goes along. READ

Putting Fire Music History onto Film

Conceived of, in a way, as a riposte to Ken Burns’ arch-conservative PBS Jazz series, Tom Surgal has directed a film entitled Fire Music, which presents the history of so-called Avant-Garde Jazz purposely ignored in the Burns’ series. Rolling Stone’s Hank Shteamer notes that the documtary is really comprehensive, because it not only focuses on major New York figures involved in 1960s-1970s revolutionary improvised music, but also many of the era's lesser-known players. Luckily made before some of the interview subjects passed on, Fire Music includes commentary by among others, trombonist Roswell Rudd, trumpeter Bobby Bradford and reed players Prince Lasha, Noah Howard and Sonny Simmons. Although Shteamer faults Surgal for not including the history of equivalent musical experiments taking place in Europe and Chicago, for instance, he admits that the omission makes the film’s narrative much more manageable. And note the story of how Californians Lasha and Simmons immediately decided to head to New York after listening to new Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy LPs in a record store. READ

Our Culture is starved for Silence: Travis Laplante

Known for his work in Battle Trance, Little Women and other Jazz-oriented groups, Brooklyn-based tenor saxophonist Travis Laplante explains to Madison, Wisc.'s Grant Phipps in this wide-ranging radio and Tone Madison Web page interview that he’s as involved with composing as he is with improvisation. Deeply committed to Subtle Degrees, the improvisational duo he co-leads with drummer Gerald Cleaver, with whom he has been playing for 15 years, Laplante also spends time composing for interpretative modern dancers, the JACK string quartet and Yarn/Wire a two pianos/two percussionist New music ensemble. Someone who admits to be equally influenced by Beethoven’s later string quartets and John Coltrane, Laplante wants to inject more space into his music. As he says: “I just feel like silence is really the most beautiful sound. I hope to use it more in some senses in the future.” (Also includes two samples of Laplante's recorded work ) READ