Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor


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

A Lifetime of Jazz Appreciation: Kiyoshi Koyama

Although clichés about Japanese fans’ appreciation for all sorts of Jazz are legion, 82-year-old Tokyo-based Kiyoshi Koyama has done more than most in spreading the word. He’s been an important presence through most of the county’s post Second World War scene. In this article, Koyama tells Japan Times’ Katherine Whatley how despite having an English degree – his thesis was on the presence of the word “jazz” in American literature –  he has always worked in all aspects of the country’s Jazz scene. That included organizing coffee house listening sessions, writing for Japan’s major music publications, putting together historical box sets of recordings and hosting a weekly national Jazz radio program,. Along the way he famously interviewed saxophonist John Coltrane about spirituality and welcomed  saxophonist Ornette Coleman to his home for sushi. Someone who visited New York annually to check out spots like drummer Rashied Ali’s legendary club, he continues to keep up with cutting edge in Jazz. READ

There at the Birth of French Free Jazz: Noel McGhie

Part of the French Free Jazz scene for almost 50 years from his Paris base, Jamaican-born drummer Noel McGhie has been affiliated with some of the most visionary and uncompromising players on the scene, including stints in the bands of soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and pianist François Tusques. In this rambling Q+A with Point of Departure’s Pierre Crépon and Jochen Behring the drummer spins tales of how through constant study, the trained-as-an-electrician McGhie became a drummer after relocating to England when he was 18. In France a few years later, and ever since, Free Jazz was flourishing due to its fashionable support from the extreme left and McGhie was soon working steadily. The 74-year-old drummer recounts his experiences of that time, playing with the likes of saxophonist Archie Shepp, singer Colette Magny, trombonist Clifford Thornton and other subsequently famous or now unknown Free Jazzers. READ

Marc Ribot’s Musical Popular Front

Although best known as a masterful guitar improviser whose talents have been in demand by musicians as different as John Zorn, McCoy Tyner and Elvis Costello, Marc Ribot tells The Daily Beast’s Larry Blumenfeld that he has long been a forefront activist as well as a closet songwriter. Now his protest songs, which encompass Second World War Italian anti-fascist anthems, labor chants and Civil Rights and Vietnam-era protest songs, plus his own compositions are being released on disc. Ribot, who attributes his increased militancy to the election of Donald Trump, says that he turned to song writing when he first participated in peaceful demonstrations and found that younger people didn’t know traditional protest songs and had none of their own. A new series of Popular Front songs was needed, he decided. At the same time Ribot, who describes himself as “a boring old Social Democrat”, has been performing these songs in concerts with his own bands, featuring the likes of saxophonist Briggan Krauss, and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily. Crucially though, he also affirms that improvisation itself is a political act READ

The Engineer who recorded Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane … and Many Others

While The Red Bull Music Academy’s Jeff Mao wants to get in so-called war stories from engineer Baker Bigsby’s about his  work with the likes of rock stars like The Rolling Stones, The Band and Sly and the Family Stones, Bigsby himself says “one of the most important things I did [was] the early ’70s revolutionary, avant-garde jazz”. Weaned away from rock music by producer Ed Michel, he engineered important discs by, among others, saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, violinist Michael White, and Sun Ra Arkestra’s Space Is The Place LP, which necessitated bringing in extra electronic equipment.  Still some of his best experiences, he says, came from recording Alice Coltrane’s devotional music, often with her just playing organ and singing. READ

Tear Down Paradise: The Story of 501 Canal Street

One locus of New York’s Free Jazz scene in the early 1970s, the crumbling industrial building that was 501 Canal Street was finally torn down in 1983 and, following the trajectory of Joni Mitchell’s song, became a parking lot for years until a luxury hotel was  built in its place. But in his article for the New York Times, Nabil Ayers recalls that time in his early childhood when the area was dirty, dangerous and drug-ridden but 501 was  a cheap place to live. Ayers was on site because his uncle, saxophonist Alan Braufman, welcomed Ayers and his mother, Braufman’s sister, into the building. Once there, the child witnessed the daily practice routine and weekly concerts of his uncle plus other residents, including such future Jazz luminaries as pianist Cooper-Moore and saxophonist David S. Ware, who also lived in the building. One part of this story is how Valley of Search, Braufman’s and Cooper-Moore’s recently reissued debut LP was actually recorded right in the building. READ

Homeless, Unappreciated and now Dead: Dewey Johnson

Known, if at all, for his playing on two seminal 1960s Free Jazz LPs: saxophonist John Coltrane’s Ascension and pianist Paul Bley’s Barrage, trumpeter Dewey Johnson (1939-2018) was a shadowy figure most of his life, dying at 78 in June. But as The Wire’s Pierre Crépon points out, the Philadelphia-born trumpeter was an important transitionary figure in exploratory Jazz, first in San Francisco, where he mentored alto saxophonist Noah Howard and played with saxophonist Byron Allen; and later in New York with bands that included saxophonists Giuseppi Logan and Pharoah Sanders and drummer Rashied Ali. A nervous breakdown, subsequent periods of homelessness and a series of menial day jobs made his presence on the scene iffy after 1967, although he did play with on-and-off with The Music Ensemble featuring drummer Roger Baird, saxophonist Daniel Carter, violinist Billy Bang and bassists William Parker and Earl Freeman; and in the early 1980s a group led by drummer Paul Murphy, with pianist Mary Anne Driscoll, saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and bassoonist Karen Borca. More serious illnesses and homelessness was his lot for next three decades until his recent death. READ

Doing something I’ve never done before: Chad Taylor

A versatile percussionist, New York-based Chad Taylor is best-known for his long-time membership in various permutations of the Chicago Underground group with cornetist Rob Mazurek. But, as he tells Jazz Right Now’s Cisco Bradley, his musical flexibility came about after he turned from classical guitar to studies at the New School with the likes of bassist Reggie Workman and saxophonist Arnie Lawrence that helped him to become a professional Jazz musician. He then became part of the the open Chicago music scene, where Avant Rock. Free Jazz and other genres crossed naturally. Although never an AACM member, Taylor did play regularly with Fred Anderson at the Velvet Lounge and was also mentored by him. Furthermore as it evolved, The Chicago Underground began encompassing the use of electronics and post-production studio reworking of already recorded material into the band's CDs. Besides his other affiliations, Taylor says he learned the most from being in the Digital Primitives trio with tenor saxophonist Assif Tsahar and multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore, who taught him more about the music business and even encouraged him to sing. His best playing he adds, is when he feels he has created something he has never done before. READ

Matthew Shipp Speaks Out

Looking forward to an even busier year than usual recording and perfuming his music, New York-based pianist Matthew Shipp discusses his political, mystical and musical philosophies with downbeat’s Ron Hart. Along the way he explains the divergence between the sessions he records for a label like ESP-Disk, with discs featuring the likes of multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter and Polish saxophonist Mat Walerian, and the multiple series of CDs he has recorded for Leo Records with Brazilian saxophonist Ivo Perelman. Comparing the societal ferment of today with that of the 1960s, he also muses about the varied political and social commitments of earlier Jazz icons such as saxophonists Archie Shepp, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. The one thing he’s sure about in 2018 though, he says, is: “I don’t want Donald Trump anywhere near my music.” READ

The Apprenticeship of Cooper-Moore

Now established as a pianist and multi-instrumentalist, Cooper-More has been for many years a constant presence on New York’s so-called downtown scene. But in this transcribed memoir by Sound American’s Nate Wooley, he outlines his early life and how he evolved musically. Growing up in rural Virginia his first introduction o Jazz was through the LPs of Ahmad Jamal and Charles Mingus. While attending university in Washington D.C, and Boston – as a flute specialist [!]– he had a chance to see John Coltrane’s band with Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Rashied Ali and Jimmy Garrison, which convinced him that what he calls “Power Music” was what he wanted to play. He also listened to discs by other advanced musicians like trumpeter Bill Dixon and pianist Burton Greene. Encouraged by players like drummer Cleve Pozar, who had already recorded, Cooper-More dropped out of school, surviving as an organist playing with commercial bands. Later he put together advanced groups with the likes saxophonist David S. Ware and percussionist Juma Santos. However his first opportunity to record came when he moved to a musicians’ cooperative on New York’s Canal Street with Ware, and Ware’s then floor mate, tenor saxophonist Alan Braufman, asked him to record what became the Valley of Search LP. (Includes sound samples). READ