Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor


Always Going His Own Way: Martin Archer

Seemingly suddenly cognizant that British multi-instrumentalist Martin Archer is part of many other bands as well as working in a duo with singer Julie Tippets, author Debbie Burke sets out to find out more about him. Although her questions to the saxophonist and Discus label owner are only a step above the wide-eyed, we learn that Archer is mostly self-taught,  and came to improvised music after being influenced by records by the Soft Machine, Miles Davis, East Of Eden, Charles Mingus and Henry Cow. He started his own label, Archer explains, because he felt his music was “too unpredictable and left-field” for major imprints.  Today his bands include musicians like drummer Peter Fairclough, saxophonist/laptopist Herve Perez, pianist Laura Cole and trumpeter Kim Macari. Archer  says that from the beginning “I learned that being a good player didn’t count for anything unless you had ideas as well,”  and now feels that his ideas have allowed him to put his own spin on creative music. READ

Death of an (Almost) Nobody: Robert Barry

Demonstrating just how far out of local and international musical discourse Chicago drummer Robert Barry had fallen, The Chicago Reader’s Peter Margasak told readers of  his column that he had just learned of the drummer’s death at 85, almost two full months after it had taken place in a local assisted living centre. An unsung player, Barry kept a low-profile during a lengthy sideman career that stretched from the 1950s to the early 21st Century. Yet along the way he played with a good portion of the Windy City’s major talents, including soul/R&B producer/bassist Richard Evans and had an early membership in Sun Ra’s Arkestra at the beginning; then many years later collaborating with an entirely new musical generation like cornetist Rob Mazurek, trombonist Jeb Bishop and saxophonists Ken Vandermark. His most profound showcase though was a 2001 duo date with saxophonist Fred Anderson, a better-known, but fellow Jazz veteran. READ

Discovering the Possibilities in Jazz and Opera: Anthony Davis

On site for a university concert with long-time associate, bassist Mark Dresser, pianist Anthony Davis discusses his dual career as Jazz improviser and a composer of cutting-edge operas with The San Diego Union Tribune’s George Varga. Probably best-known for the Grammy-nominated opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, Davis, who earlier in his career collaborated with major improvisers such as alto saxophonist Oliver Lake and flautist James Newton, says that this background allowed him to bring improvisation into an operatic setting. Since X, he has created another half dozen operas which have been performed to acclaim everywhere from Chicago to Vienna. His latest project, an opera about the 1989 New York City Central Park Five case, will even include the representation of a younger Donald Trump as one of the featured characters. READ

Caricature and emulation: When Jazz arrived in Britain

Although the English and other Europeans frequently insist that (Black) American musicians and music initially gained more acceptance overseas that at home, that was not really the case in post-Edwardian England. As reflected in a London exhibition, Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain, The New Statesman’s Garth Cartwright points out that the country’s reaction to a form of Jazz that arrived in Great Britain with The Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1919 was mixed at best. Catherine Tackley, head of Music at the University of Liverpool and curator of the exhibition, recalls that while Jazz was welcomed by the young and dancers in general, and later inspired an outbreak of British creativity in painting, graphic design, fashion, journalism, textiles and ceramicists, issues of racial stereotyping and minstrel-style caricatures permeated the popular press and discourse. And these characteristics persisted even when Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington began touring regularly in the early 1930s. ” “Jazz certainly brought races together, particularly musicians, but also audiences, in a way that was problematic to some degree in this period,”says Tackley. Although “stereotype was never far away." READ

Spreading the Language of Improvisation: The AACM’s Douglas R. Ewart

Just before a recent concert in his home town of Minneapolis, multi-instrumentalist Douglas Ewart tells the Star Tribune’s Britt Robson how the move to Minnesota helped his career. A native of Jamaica, who was involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians from the time he moved to Chicago at 18, Ewart, who also builds his own instruments, commuted back and forth between the cities even after his wife got a Minneapolis arts administration position there in the late 1989s. But using his AACM-honed skills, once he moved to Minneapolis, Ewart was able to tap into arts funding and find proper venues to present his variants of improvisation, the most recent of which featured the multi-instrumentalist alongside long-time collaborators like saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and drummer Hamid Drake, plus local bassist Anthony Cox. READ

Dave Rempis: New Jazz and Network Building

Almost from the time he settled in Chicago two decades ago, saxophonist Dave Rempis has done more than play gigs with contemporary associates such as cornetist Josh Berman and drummer Tim Daisy. Taking as role models the likes of saxophonists Ken Vandermark and Fred Anderson he’s done paid or volunteer work on the scene as well as booked and managed a series of venues to give musicians more places to play. As he explains to The Chicago Readers’ Peter Margasak, people such as Vandermark – with whom he has often collaborated on record – Anderson and pianist Paul Giallorenzo had similar ideas, on which he has expanded to create a weekly series featuring deserving musicians. Now besides touring frequently with the many bands he leads, and recording for his own Aerophonic label, his regular club bookings have grown to expose Chicago audiences to out-of-towners, like Berlin saxophonist Silke Eberhard and Buffalo reedist Steve Baczkowski. If he could only come up with a way to make the Jazz audience younger, less male and more diverse though, he'd be more satisfied, he says. READ

Jazz Helps Michael Jefry Stevens Persevere

Although it sounds like a sob story that could have been featured as a public service announcement, Blue Ridge Public Radio’s Matt Peaked does manage to explain something about the trials of a jazz musician when interviewing pianist Michel Jefry Stevens, 67. Now living in Black Mountain, North Carolina, Stevens explains how compensation for playing Jazz hasn’t increased in the many years he’s been in the music business and how he earns more money performing in Europe than the US. The story notes how as a child loner with a stutter, Stevens’ interest in the music of John Coltrane, Mose Allison, McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans convinced him that improvised music was his future and he’s never looked back. That’s despite losing a kidney as a child, a New York mugging in his forties that almost killed him and having to declare bankruptcy around 2000. A positive outlook, a supportive wife and a belief in Sufism help him survive, he explains. READ

Joëlle Léandre calls out the French Jazz Establishment for Sexism and “Fogey-ism”

No one has ever accused Paris-based double bassist Joëlle Léandre of being a shrinking violet, or whatever the French equivalent may be. But recently, as The Free Jazz Collective and other media reported, she was so incensed by the results of 2017’s Les Victoires du jazz poll that named no one but males as winners, that she published an open letter on the subject. Translated from French, her note states that “Jazz doesn’t stop in 1950”. Discussing the creativity involved in making Jazz, she points to her 41 years of improvising, as well as her associations with, and the achievements of, other players like saxophonists Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton; trombonist George Lewis; and pianist Marilyn Crispell. How do polls like this that still ignore women and the young or not-so-young innovators come about she asks? READ

From Punk to Free Music: Damon Smith

Bandcamp Daily’s Brad Cohan certainly piles on the adjectives in this story, and seems a little lost when bassist Damon Smith connects the dots to show how his present improvising involving Free Jazz and Free Music had its roots in early Noise and Punk bands. But while explaining what the bassist is doing on his Bandcamp page, Cohan delves into Smith’s history and how the bassist’s “imposing and beefy techniques” has enlivened scenes first in his Bay area hometown, then in Texas and now in Quincy, Mass. A few of Smith’s sessions on his own Balance Point Acoustic label are linked, and the bassist has space to expand on his musical philosophy, which after study with improv bassist Lisle Ellis, has allowed him to move into situations where he has collaborated with a variety of unique players in the US and Europe, ranging from reedists Kidd Jordan and Wolfgang Fuchs to drummers as separated stylistically as Weasel Walter and Alvin Fielder. READ

Victim of the Internet: Cuneiform Records

Although the Silver Spring, Maryland-based Cuneiform record label has released a clutch of important contemporary Jazz and avant-Rock CDs over the past 30 years, label owner Steve Feigenbaum tells The Washington Post’s Mike Janssen that the label is going on hiatus – for at least a year, if not longer. The reason: the availability of free music on the internet. Cuneiform has been associated with some streaming services, but says Feigenbaum “made nothing”, since consumers have become used to not paying anything for their music. The situation creates a gap that had been filled by a label that during its history released sessions by, among many others, pianist Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, drummer John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet, projects featuring trumpeter Rob Mazurek or guitarist Mary Halvorson plus trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s America’s National Parks, a 2017 record of the year according to many observers. READ

Sylvie Courvoisier: Mixing Fundamentals and Free Form

Although Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier has lived in New York since 1998, her methods and concepts of playing date back to her conservatory training in her native Lausanne. While this article by The Village Voice’s Michael J. Agovino mostly deals with her new CD, recorded with the long-standing trio of bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen, he also cites her other influences as well. Besides formal training, there was the recently deceased pianist Geri Allen, who Courvoisier first saw perform in Switzerland when the later was 16. In the United States, Courvoisier: has also developed performing relationships with more exploratory so-called downtown New York players like violinist Mark Feldman, drummer Tom Rainey and electronics manipulator Ikue Mori. READ

Defining Improvised Music: Scott R. Looney

As part of an on-going series of interviews exploring the whys and wherefores of improvised music, Köln-based tuba player Carl Ludwig Hübsch speaks to Bay area musician Scott R. Looney, who is equally proficient as a pianist and using electronics. Looney’s concepts when it comes to quality improvisation, encompass the theories of communal creation, distinctive choice, understated humor and how to meet listeners' challenges. One master of these attributes, he declares, is veteran AACM saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell.  Meanwhile, two local associates he singles out who understand how to deal with in-the-moment timbral modifications are electronics manipulators Tim Perkis and Chris Brown. READ

Val Wilmer Speaks about Jazz and Photography

Starting in the late 1950s, British photographer Val Vilmer became a vital part of the Jazz scene in the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere, capturing on film what could be called the face of Jazz. Along the way she photographed just about everyone who was important in improvised and other forms of Black Music, ranging from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Joe Harriott and Sun Ra and on to Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. This two-hour talk/interview, recorded at London's Cage Oto, guided by The Wire’s Tony Herrington, encompasses her experiences taking photographs in the Jazz community; her stories about the musicians with whom she interacted and became friendly; the mechanics of photography; and as an ardent feminist, the challenges facing women in the male-dominated worlds of photography and music. READ

Does Baltimore’s Peabody Institute discriminate against Jazz?

That’s the situation which the Baltimore Sun’s Mary Carole McCauley investigates, following the recent acrimonious resignation of the school’s founding chairman, saxophonist Gary Thomas. Thomas, a native Baltimorean, who previously played with his own groups, the likes of trumpeter Miles Davis and many other bands, has claimed that resources for the Jazz program were consistently underfunded, and that scholarships for deserving students were less than those in the so-called Classical program. One of the three instructors who have left Peabody in the past 18 months, the saxophonist was also the first African-American department chairman in the conservatory’s history. Some students say Thomas’ on-the-job experience was the only reason they attended the school, while trumpeter Dave Ballou, who teaches at Towson University, maintains that in general there is often subtle disdain for Jazz players in many post-secondary music school environments. READ

A Love Supreme leads to Traditional Judaism

Jazz history includes some players whose faith induced them to stints as Muslim or Christian clergy, but saxophonist Greg Wall is one of the few improvisers who is also a rabbi. This article by Westport News’ Justin Papp describes Wall’s present-day routine, which blends his rabbinical duties at a local synagogue with weekly Jazz gigs. Known for his co-leadership of the Hasidic New Wave band with trumpeter Frank London, and affiliation with saxophonist John Zorn’s projects, Wall, who originally studied with drummer Max Roach and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, says that it was his admiration for tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and the latter’s seminal A Love Supreme LP that a couple of decades ago re-awakened his Jewish sensibility. Soon he was mixing traditional Jewish melodies with other influences into his music, made a decision to stop gigging on the Sabbath, and eventually to begin studying for the rabbinate. READ

So far Jazz is full of possibilities for Lisa Mezzacappa #2

Ostensibly an interview about Bay area bassist Lisa Mezzacappa’s recent large-scale multi-media project Glorious Ravage, Point of Departure’s Troy Collins manages to range far afield in the discussion. Highlighted are the apprenticeship and acceptance of women instrumentalists in Jazz; the lifespan and particular parameters of Mezzacappa’s various projects; and the differences between live and recorded contexts for the composer/bassist. Interestingly enough, Mezzacappa who is from the eastern US finds that many of her closest collaborators – with the exception of Californian Michael Dessen – are transplants such as bassist Mark Dresser, flutist Nicole Mitchell and percussionist Kjell Nordeson, all of whom spend much time elsewhere. However Mezzacappa despairs about the immient death of physical product. “It’s not enough to have my work only live online,” she states. “I don’t like that it has to be mediated by a corporate entity and … I don’t like that people end up listening to the music in a distracted or lo-fi state.” READ

A Personal View of Sunny Murray

British bass saxophonist Tony Bevan worked steadily with American Free Jazz drummer Sunny Murray (1938-2017) in the twilight of the latter’s career, from 2002 to 2017. In this piece in The Wire he remembers the drummer as a consummate musician and improviser. Even though it had been many years since Murray made him reputation in the then-revolutionary groups of pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Albert Ayler in the 1960s, Bevan recalls that the drummer was always able to enthrall the audience at any venue in which they played – even if it was anything but a so-called Jazz crowd. With Murray connecting one-on-one, sometimes verbally, with every audience member, all Bevan, and the other musicians involved, usually bassist John Edwards, had to do, was just follow along. READ

Muhal Richard Abrams: Visionary and Community Builder

Reflecting on the then-recent death of pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams, trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum tells the New Yorker’s august readership about the contributions of Abrams, acknowledged as the guiding force behind Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) from 1965 on. Besides expressing an admiration for Abrams’ seminal orchestral recordings from the 1980s and 1990s and acknowledging his “spiky yet subtle touch” on piano, Bynum commends Abrams as a community and consensus builder. The trumpeter’s experience attending an AACM concert where Abrams was selling tickets at the door, can be related to the pianist's  willingness to take on even mundane tasks to strengthen the AACM, plus his skill in organizing and keeping together an association whose members, including Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, had widely different ideas on how improvised music could be interpreted. READ

Trying to define Improvisation: Lisa Mezzacappa #I

Honesty, generosity and being in the moment are attributes of creating a successful improvisation opines Bay area bassist/composer Lisa Mezzacappa in this cerebral exchange with Köln-based tubaist Carl Ludwug Hübsch. Part of Hübsch’s ongoing series of musician-to-musician discussions about creativity, Mezzacappa also notes that while there is a “heightened sense of removing yourself as an improviser”, another important construct is connecting with other performers and the audience “and whether it sounds different in Berlin or in Berkeley”. Honesty about what is one’s life’s work is also necessary says the bassist who has played with many Free Music practitioners and composed thematic projects as well. “As improvisers there’s… the memory of everything you’ve done… heard done .. (and) seem done.” Additionally, while she insists there are “fantastic recordings of improvised music … the recorded experience really doesn’t come close for me in most instances, because of missing that being there in the moment as it’s created.” READ

One Week of Inspiration: Paris, August 1969

Subsequent years have revealed shortcomings, but as Red Bull Music Academy’s Britt Robson points out, at least 12 classic Free Jazz LPs were recorded for one label in Paris between August 11 and 17 1969. Organized by the fledging BYG record cpmpany, numerous American avant-gardists then domiciled in Paris, were given free hands – and a bit of money – to plan and record their own dates, with many musicians playing on each other’s sessions. Robson runs down some of the ground-breaking records, including three headed by tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, plus important statements by, among others, pianist Dave Burrell, bassist Alan Silva, drummer Sunny Murray and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, featuring saxophonists  Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and trumpeter Lester Bowie. BYG however over-reached and definitely overspent itself, so that the label went bankrupt a couple of years afterwards. While a legacy of exceptional recordings remains, so do tales of unpaid royalties, unauthorized reissues and embittered musicians, especially Murray.