Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor


Carla Bley: I Wanted to be Serious

Although almost overboard laudatory in his judgements, Ethan Iverson’s New Yorker profile of composer Carla Bley is still fair and informative, giving the 82-year-old pianist enough space to explain her influences, triumphs and missteps. Best known for composing classic tunes for icons such as clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and (her-then-husband) pianist Paul Bley, Bley also arranged much of the mashed-up musical repertoire of the radical Liberation Music Orchestra, led by bassist Charlie Haden, whose tastes dovetailed with her own. Her later larger bands with second husband, trumpeter Mike Mantler, that mixed Jazz, Gospel, Blues, Rock and other sonic strands; and her creation of the seminal rock-jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill, added to her status as a composer/arranger. Bley reveals that her Escalator influences included the Sgt. Pepper LP and the playing of  tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, who was “maudlin in the most wonderful way”; and that so many Rock and Jazz stars, ranging from vocalists Jack Bruce and Linda Ronstadt to trombonist Roswell Rudd and tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, were featured on Escalator because anyone who asked was invited to play. Recently Bley, has also tuned more to playing herself, along with her partner, bassist Steve Swallow and sometimes plays with trumpeter Dave Douglas’ new band that's inspired by her compositions. READ

Double Bassist Dave Holland’s Long Relationship with Experimental Music

Although National Sawdust Log’s Steve Smith appears most concerned with getting master bassist Dave Holland to plug his new CD with saxophonist Evan Parker, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Ches Smith, the veteran British musician gets space to share stories of his first exposure to Free Music in 1960s London. Holland was a participant in many of those early musical experiments along with the likes of fellow bassist Barry Guy, drummer John Stevens, guitarist Derek Bailey and Parker. In England Holland also took part in some seminal EuroImprov recording sessions, the concepts of which he brought with him when he moved to the United States to play in trumpeter Miles Davis' group and with others. He also kept up with the changing currents of that scene through his long-time friendship with Parker. Holland reveals how players like himself and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler in their so-called Free playing never went as far away from the Jazz tradition as many others, and he also insists that Parker’s John Coltrane influence makes his work closer to Jazz than many realize.   READ

We do what feels right to us, says Aussie Oren Ambarchi and Canuck crys cole

Personal as well as professional collaborators, sound artists Oren Ambarchi from Australia and Canadian crys cole try to work and travel together as often as they can, although they're often separated for up to six months at a time.  In this interview with Niels Latomme for Kraak's The Avant-Guardian, the concepts of what is needed to create a successful performance and recording are discussed by the two. Describing themselves as extremely stubborn, the musicians say that by taking time from other projects, their  duo recordings arise organically as if, as cole says, they are "a  diary or a photo album”.  Although some tracks subsequently recorded evolve from what the two have tried out on stage, any input can be used.  As Ambarchi explains “I’m always inclined to use whatever is necessary to make a piece work.” READ

One Pianist Discusses Another: Alexander Hawkins on the Influence of Cecil Taylor

Shortly after Cecil Taylor’s death at 89 earlier this year, young British pianist Alexander Hawkins wrote this essay in The Wire discussing the venerable American avant-gardist’s influence on modern music. Moving on from the classic keyboard concepts of Earl Hines, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, among others, Taylor constructed a rigorous, ever-changing, subtly organized sound that was both brutal and romantic. Not only was he able to create a general language for himself and members of the ensembles who worked with him such as saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, but he also enabled other pianists, including Americans Marilyn Crispell and  Matt Mitchell, Swiss Irène Schweizer plus the UK's Pat Thomas and Hawkins himself to affiliate with Taylor’s ideas without remotely recreating his highly individual style. READ

The Ugliest Jazz LP Record Covers Ever

Many of Jazz’s most enduring classics were recorded during the first LP era that lasted about 50 years, following the invention of the long playing disc in 1948. But while many fans recall with fondness the covers of the albums which drew them to the music, not all were done with the artistic flair some designers and photographer  showed. In this article in the LondonJazzCollector for instance, the blog, with help from is readers, selects some of the worst looking covers, a few of which masked decent music. Among the offenders are LPs featuring Jazz masters such as alto saxophonist Gigi Gyrce, trumpeters Clark Terry, guitarist Wes Montgomery, saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, cellist Fred Katz, flutist Buddy Collette, pianist Paul Bley  – and even trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonists Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. While Savoy Records was deemed to have offered the least imaginative art, the hands-down winner of the person with most unappealing LP covers was, by universal consensus, Pop-Jazz flutist Herbie Mann. READ

Remembering Cecil Taylor’s Wide Artistic Influence

When protean pianist Cecil Taylor died at 89, in April, after more than half a century of unparalleled creativity, he left a massive space in the arts that won’t easily be filled. When musicians such as bassists William Parker and the late Buell Neidlinger, drummer Pheeroan akLaff and vibraphonist Joe Locke spoke to Bedford+Bowery’s Frank Mastropolo about their experiences working with Taylor, they recalled his intellectualism, range of interests, insistence on pure improvisation and ability to communicate his ideas. But his influence ranged farther still.  Taylor's performances always included distinctive poetry recitations, as poet Tracie Morris testifies; while dancer Dianne McIntyre notes how the pianist, who had a particular interest in dance, went out of his way to create music in order to collaborate on several special projects with her dance company. READ

Poland’s Short-Lived, Early, Post-Soviet, Punk-Jazz Scene

The situation in the early 1990s that resulted from the gradual splintering of the Polish People's Republic and the subsequent creation of a democratic state, led some local musicians to create groups that owed as much to Punk Rock as Free Jazz. As Wojciech Oleksiak writes in CULTURE.PL,  players such as Antoni “Ziut” Gralak, Tomek Gwińciński, Jacek Buhl, Jacek Majewski and Sławek Janicki formed theatrical anti-establishment bands with mocking names, and ever-changing line-ups, including one which managed to record with visiting Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter Lester Bowie. Unfortunately, as times changed early in the 21st Century, many of the groups broke up , with a good number of the participants disappearing, except for a few such as saxophonist Mikołaj Trzaska, who continue as active players. This link includes audio, video and photographic examples. READ

The Stories behind Charlemagne Palestine’s Stuffed Animal Collection

The Brooklyn-born pseudonymous composer/pianist Charlemagne Palestine has long been thought of as an eccentric, especially since he began performing in concert with his massive collection of stuffed animals. But Palestine, who now lives in Belgium, and whose unclassifiable sounds allow him to play as easily with notated composers like Rhys Chatham as well as improvisers such as Ignaz Schick and Burkhard Beins, tells The Guardian’s Geeta Dayal that the 18,000 toys he sometimes brings to his shows creates a unique, soothing atmosphere. They also relate to Hindu polytheism and remind him of the stuffed animals he had as a child. He says the display could be part of his religion he calls Meshugahland READ

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