Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor


Violin saved his life: Billy Bang

Turning from despair and urban terrorism to improvised music re-energized the life of Vietnam veteran Billy Bang in the late 1960s after he found a violin in a pawn shop while buying guns. At least that’s what Bang (1947-2011), recounted to Bandcamp Daily’s Andy Thomas. A survey of the violinist’s recording career, with embedded examples, the article recounts how Bang’s musical skills were subsumed in bitterness and substance abuse following a stint in Vietnam. Then the pawnshop violin “calling” him brought Bang back to music. Studying with pioneering Free Music violinist Leroy Jenkins, Bang was soon part of, and then a band leader in, New York’s so-called Loft Scene playing regularly with the likes of bassist William Parker, clarinetist Henry Warner, trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah and during a 10-year stint in Sun Ra’s Arkestra. While utilizing his gritty sound to lead or co-lead a series of groups over the few years, early in this century he finally recorded two CDs reflecting his time in Vietnam. One was with fellow American advanced players like tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe and trumpet Ted Daniel, and the other, on-site, with local Vietnamese musicians. READ

The Back story of Understory

Reflecting on the first collaborative improvisation of Understory, a series of virtual programs, trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud violinist Parmela Attariwala and percussionist Germaine Liu explain the new monthly series’ background and goals to I Care If You Listen’s Padideh Aghanoury. Curated by Rampersaud, Understory aims to use technology to build a fertile creative community within Canada, welcoming participants from throughout the country whose background encompasses experience in many genres of music including Jazz, notated and ethnic. “It’s an artistic situation that reflects the reality of life in the Canadian polity,” says the trumpeter. Since the online format creates a level playing field, discussion that wouldn’t happen in a real-time, in-person performance can be broached and addressed. Coming together virtually means the performers' imaginations help create new systems of creativity. Understory will take place once a month, every month until January 2022. READ

Creating with Alternate Tones: Hafez Modirzadeh

Equally influenced by Persian traditional music, the compositions of Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk, and the mystical side of JS Bach, California-based tenor saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh creates hyper-original music which is a mélange of these influences. Also a music professor at San Francisco State University, Modirzadeh tells San Francisco Classical Voice’s Jeff Kaliss how it took many years to get musicians trained in the Western tradition of just intonation to play his compositions. His work is based on eight tones from the scale's middle register that depend on microtones and original tuning. Still these concepts have been adapted to the piano by Kris Davis, Tyshawn Sorey, and Craig Taborn, the stylists who play on his most recent CD, despite that instrument’s association with colonialism and capitalism. As for playing thismusic on the saxophone, Modirzadeh says it was Sonny Stitt, of all people, who first showed him alternate saxophone fingering. “You’ve got all these keys and sound holes, and just by opening or closing a tone hole, you can create a shade, or a muted sound,” he explains. READ

When John Tchicai played with John Lennon

Already known for his work in the US on saxophonist John Coltrane’s Ascension LP and co-leading the New York Art Quartet with trombonist Roswell Rudd, alto saxophonist John Tchicai returned to his native Denmark in the late 1960s and organized the large Cadentia Nova Danica band. Its success, according to Margriet Naber, author of a book on the saxophonist excerpted in The Wire, led to a 1969 invitation to an avant-garde concert in Cambridge, UK. Besides committed international free musicians such as saxophonists Willem Breuker, drummer Louis Moholo and bassist Barre Philips, vocalist Yoko Ono was also invited. With John Lennon playing feedback guitar, Ono performed a brief set, finally pushed at the end towards some melody by Tchicai’s saxophone lines and John Stevens’ drum beats. Both players are heard on the LP Ono and Lennon subsequently released of that concert, although neither was ever paid. Later, back in Denmark Tchicai put together multiple pro-amateur free-form ensembles which featured and inspired younger local free-form players like guitarist Pierre Dørge. READ

Ari Brown: Giving a Jazz Journeyman his Due

One of the many high quality tenor saxophonists plying their trade as part of the Chicago Jazz scene, Ari Brown, 76, isn’t as high profile as some of the others, past and present. But in this Chicago Reader feature Steve Krakow succinctly outlines Brown’s career which has included appearances on over 75 albums; multiple Jazz, Blues and R&B gigs; and teaching at both secondary and post-secondary levels. Initially a pianist, Brown switched to tenor saxophone and began concentrating on Jazz improvisation around the time he joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1971. He has led his own bands since the 1980s, but wasn't featured as a leader of his own session until 1995. Before and during that period he also toured as part of drummer Elvin Jones’ band and was a founding member of percussionist Kahil El'Zabar’s local Ritual Trio. Still recording and gigging regularly, he's often featured in many Windy City clubs and concerts. READ

A Fine Appreciation of the late Burton Greene’s Artistry

Written for Jazz Times, Michael J. West’s detailed obituary of American pianist Burton Greene (1937-2021) who died in the Netherlands last month, avoids all of the usual hipster and fanboy clichés. Instead he evaluates the Chicago-born pianist’s place in Jazz history. Someone who evolved from playing mainstream Jazz to the so-called New Thing, Greene first developed his career in New York in the mid-1960s in tandem with bassist Alan Silva  – who later also expatriate, but to France  – and made the requisite ESP Disks. A racially tinged attack on him by Amiri Baraka, and general dissatisfaction with the lack of collective spirit on the American Scene, made him decide to decamp for Europe in the late 1960s. Eventually settling on a houseboat in Amsterdam’s harbour, Greene spread his musical ideas all across the continent and infrequently in North American, recording regularly for a wide variety of labels. His associates ranged from drummer Sunny Murray and clarinetist Perry Robinson to cellist Ernst Reijseger. Starting in the late 1990s, he also began fusing avant-garde jazz with Klezmer playing in groups with Syrian drummer Roberto Haliffi.   READ

Quentin Rollet: I play with the guts

Although you have to put up with personal asides and opinions from Continental Riff’s James Graham, this interview reveals the philosophy of idiosyncratic French saxophonist Quentin Rollet. Born hearing Free Music since his father Christian Rollet is the drummer of the Workshop de Lyon (WdL), a pioneering Free Jazz band of the 1970s, Rollet has never played any other way but free. However for someone who has been featured on more than 70 albums and run two record labels, his collaborations are very broad. While influenced by free improvisers WdL saxophonist Maurice Merle, as well as French saxophone iconoclast Daunik Lazro and American multi-reedists Anthony Braxton and Joseph Jarman, Rollet doesn't limit himself musically. He also works with avant-rock bands like Red Krayola and Nurse with Wound and is a member of Paris-based Mendelson, a local group dedicated to interpreting melancholy French songs. No matter what, though, the saxophonist insists that “I do the same thing with every project I play in. I only improvise.” READ

Pat Thomas: From Dubstep to Durable Jazz

A rather truncated profile of Oxford-based keyboardist Pat Thomas by Jazz Times' Dave Cantor. But at least it introduces non-Britons to a stylist whose inventive playing first came to prominence about 30 years ago. At that point he played with older British improvisers like guitarist Derek Bailey and soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill. But now Thomas, whose instruments of choice include piano and electronics, is allied with such younger players as alto saxophonist Seymour Wright, bassist Joel Grip and drummer Antonin Gerbal. Although some of Thomas’ more recent projects are more populist than explorations of pure improv, he rejects the suggestion that they’re in any way connected to the UK’s so-called Grime sounds which mix hip-hop with Caribbean rhythms. Starting out Thomas was in groups that played Grime’s precursor Dubstep along with Rock, Funk and Reggae, but he sees the new genre as marketing rather than music. After all as a young musician he turned from playing so-called classical music to immersion in Jazz after seeing Oscar Peterson on TV awakened him to the music’s African and American traditions. READ

Evan Parker’s Strange Views on Covid-19, Brexit and the European Union

One of the most respected figures in the international Free Music community, British saxophonist Evan Parker has recently been making statements that as he says make him appear to be  “a conspiracy, tin-foil hat, swivel-eyed loon”. As The Wire’s Tony Herrington reports, Parker has given odd interviews to Jazzwise magazine, to the Sons d’hiver (Sdh) festival and as part of a CD launch at Cafe Oto. At Oto he suggested that biologist Lynn Margulis deserved a Nobel Prize. Margulis claimed HIV was not an infectious virus, didn’t cause AIDS and also that 9/11 was a US government plot. During an Sdh interview Parker praised Kary Mullis another scientist/HIV sceptic, adding that “these statements ... were concerned with the AIDS epidemic, but they are precisely appropriate to the current Covid nonsense.” In Jazzwise Parker described Covid as a “sham”, “complete and utter bollocks”, intended to “harvest DNA and sell vaccines”, while the vaccine itself was “a piece of software they are injecting into you”. Parker added that the pandemic was the work of billionaire eugenicists “looking for massive depopulation, by hook or by crook”.  Earlier he linked his support of Brexit by stating the European Union (EU) is “a self-appointed oligarchy” and suggested reading The Nazi Roots of The Brussels EU, which claims that EU architects were Nazi-era technocrats and the EU resembles Nazi plans for a postwar Europe.  Followers pf Parker's distinctive music are perplexed. READ

Harping on and Hoping for Better Times: Gloria Galante

Although the number of harpists playing Jazz and improvised music is limited once those such as Alice Coltrane and Zeena Parkins are name-checked, Philadelphia-based Gloria Galante continues to play along with her other roles as university educator and licensed music therapist. Writing on WRTI’s Web site, Matt Silver reports that Galante has now used the enforced shutdown caused by Covid-19 and her anger about the death of George Floyd to compose Style de Verioullage: The Lockdown Suite. Arranged for harp, tenor saxophone and double bass, the suite will also feature tenor saxophonist Odean Pope, with whom she has performed frequently since 1998. Galante was almost immediately accepted into the Jazz fraternity years ago when she attended a local jam session. So impressed with her playing was bassist Tyrone Brown that he quickly added her to his band. Since then she’s also worked with other Philly jazzers like Pope, guitarist Monette Sudler and bassist Lee Smith. At around the same time Galante also met and maintained a friendship with Coltrane, and would lend the other harpist her instrument whenever Coltrane played Philadelphia. READ

Remembering Sun Ra’s Epoch Egyptian Tour

While it seems that Marcus J. Moore has come to Sun Ra’s music for the first time and must add almost superfluous explanations when writing about it, he does provide a succinct run-down of the Arkestra’s historic trip to Egypt in 1971.  Perhaps it’s because he’s writing for The Nation, of all publications, that  the sometimes gee-whiz detail is necessary. Still he does retell how cheap plane fares allowed Ra and 21 musicians, singers and dancers, then called the Astro-Intergalactic-Infinity Arkestra, to arrive in Cairo that December for its first African gig. Ra, who had long been committed to ideas of Afro-Futurism and the mysticism of ancient Egypt realized the trip was important. It was also important for the musicians of the continent. For while local audiences were initially puzzled by the sounds, which Moore appears to have trouble understanding, and the band's outlandish costumes, the Arkestra’s theatricism and songs eventually won them over. Furthermore the band’s association with Egyptian jazz drummer Salah Ragab, chief of military music in Heliopoli, cemented his commitment to Free Music, and those inventive concepts then spread to other Africa players over the past half century. READ

A Constant Student with a profound Philosophy: Wadada Leo Smith

More in-depth and considered than the usual radio interview, Jason Woodbury’s talk with composer/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, reproduced on Aquarium Drunkard’s Web site deals with the musician’s history and activities leading up to his 80th birthday. Mississippi-born and a sideman with bluesman Little Milton and others at a young age, Smith was also an early associate of the Chicago-based AACM, recording with violinist Leroy Jenkins, multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton and many innovative players. Smith, who composed his first tune at 12 “I discovered by writing music how to write music”, he says, is concerned with investing his compositions with spiritualism, drawing on concepts he's studied in Christianity, Rastafarianism Islam and Sufism. Smith founded his own record label in 1970, and has since recorded for many outlets, playing all manner of sounds with associates as varied as guitarist Henry Kaiser and electric bassist Bill Laswell. Smith explains that he knows from the first note they play together whether a collaboration will be successful or not. He also insists that he loves recording, since “I’ve learned how to make art in the studio”. Up-to-date enough to compose using his iPhone, he preserves his musical concepts and ideas with it before transferring them to computer musical software.         READ

Placing Sonny Simmons in Jazz History

Although best-known as a West Coast adherent of the so-called New Thing explosion of the mid to late 1960s, Marc Chaloin stresses many other facts of alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons’ musical career. The essay appeared in The Wire  shortly after the American saxophonist’s death at 88 earlier this spring.  Associated with urban settings like New York, Oakland and later in his life, Paris, Chaloin traces a foundation of simple faith, overt racism and ritual in the saxophonist's music resulting from Simmons early life in what he called “backwoods” Louisiana. This rural individuality mixed with more atonal sounds was present on his earliest recordings with saxophonist Prince Lasha and in many groups he co-led with trumpeter Barbara Donald. It even appeared in a pared-down form in sounds played by the Cosmosamatics, a late 20th Century collaboration with multi-reedist Michael Marcus. In fact  while resident of Paris for many years in this century, during which he recorded more complex sessions, as with harpist Delphine Latil, with electronic manipulators and in front of a large orchestra, he often preferred improvising on standards and the Blues with local pianists like Bobby Few and François Tusques. READ

Embodying and transcending Tradition: James Brandon Lewis

Although it seems a little distanced from the musician and the innovative circles in which he moves, Giovanni Russonello’s New York Times article on James Brandon Lewis does offer a factual introduction to the tenor saxophonist and his music. Born in Buffalo, N.Y. Lewis followed all sorts of local saxophone music as a youngster from the avant-garde of Charles Gayle to the pop of Grover Washington Jr. Since his father is a minister the tenor saxophonist also initially played in church circles and was immersed in that genre until graduating from university. Once in New York though, a connection through pianist Matthew Shipp, led him to bassist William Parker and participation in more free form sounds. Parker is part in Lewis’ most recent recording unit with cornetist Kirk Knuffke, cellist Christopher Hoffman and drummer Chad Taylor. Besides constructing his own tenor saxophone lineage that runs from Sonny Rollins through to David S. Ware, Lewis’ work is strongly connected to Black history. That new CD is a tribute to botanist, educator artist and musician George Washington Carver. READ

How his wife Moki Helped Don Cherry Evolve from Jazz Trumpeter to World Musician

By the time he died at 59 in 1995, American trumpeter Don Cherry was as involved in creating distinctive World Music as he was playing improvised Jazz. The Washington Post’s Andy Beta ascribes the evolution to the ideas of Cherry’s Swedish wife Moki Karlsson (1943-2009), an interdisciplinary artist and designer. When the two met in the early 1960s, the Los Angles-raised trumpeter had already made his reputation playing in groups with saxophonists like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and most famously as part of alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s quartet with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell. Although Cherry would go on to be involved in more Free Jazz sessions with other players including saxophonists Albert Ayler and Gato Barbieri, accepting Moki’s broader ideas about the world he increasingly turned towards what he called organic music. Using her art and collaborative concepts – her work is seen on the cover of his Where Is Brooklyn? LP – the trumpeter added strands of Brazilian ceremonial hymns, Indian ragas,  South African jazz, Turkish and South Asian melodies, along with the sounds of Chinese zither, Malian donso ngoni and Indian tambura to his performances. As American minimalist composer Terry Riley, who was involved in a similar music search at the time, says of Cherry: “I always thought of him as a medieval minstrel, a guy who was obsessed with music and played it all the time no matter where he was.” READ

Memories of Steve Lacy by Someone who often recorded Him

For someone who professes not to be a writer, Martin Davidson, owner of the UK’s Emanem label offers well-research, well-thought out, humorous, and opinionated memories of the musical career of American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy (1934-2004). Part of a book on Lacy published by Nantes based Éditions Lenka Lente and excerpted in The Wire, Davidson apologizes for so frequently invoking his own imprint. But that’s necessary since many of the saxophonist’s more characteristic discs were released on Emanem, including Lacy’s first solo saxophone session. Ranging from discussions of Lacy’s earliest modern jazz sessions with pianists Cecil Taylor and Thelonious Monk, Davidson offers a knowledgeable précis of Lacy’s work from his legendary 1960s quartet with trombonist Roswell Rudd, to his Free Jazz sessions with bassist Kent Carter in the 1970s, to his compositional and Free Music forays with musicians like saxophonist Evan Parker, pianist Misha Mangelberg and electronic pioneer Michel Waisvisz in the 1980s, and culminating in realized projects involving mostly Lacy’s working group, featuring vocalist/cellist Irene Aebi, saxophonist Steve Potts, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch. Besides telling how some of Lacy’s most memorable music was created, Davidson also reveals the nuts and bolts of what went into recording and releasing improvised music in the LP and later CD eras. READ

A Deep Dive into Julius Hemphill’s Music

Expanding on the recent revival of interest in the extensive works of American saxophonist/flutist/composer Julius Hemphill (1938-1995), British experimental alto saxophonist Seymour Wright discusses some of the late saxophonist’s most crucial sessions. In this The Wire guide, Wright adds autobiographical snippets to put the works of the Texas-born, St. Louis Black Arts Group organizer multi-instrumentalist, multi-media pioneer and theorist in context. Included are embedded audio tracks of the eight musical selections that Wright cherry picks from the 1970s to the 1990s to demonstrate Hemphill’s Blues roots and compositional sophistication. The sounds feature Hemphill playing in solo contexts, alone or with overdubbing, as well as leading  groups ranging in size from duos to sextets and featuring such players as drummers Philip Wilson and Warren Smith; poet Curtis K Lyle; alto saxophonist Marty Ehrlich; and the two partners with whom Hemphill played the most: cellist Abdul Wadud and trumpeter Bakida Caroll. READ

Curiosity Helped this Cat: Henry Threadgill NEA Jazz Master

Honored as one of 2021's NEA Jazz Masters, saxophonist/flutist/composer Henry Threadgill tells SFJazz’s Richard Scheinin that he developed his unique stylebecause he’s always been interested in playing and analyzing every type of music. A Chicago AACM member who moved to New York, Threadgill is best-known for Air, his cooperative group with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall; and his own bands with unusual instrumentation and distinctive names such as Very, Very Circus and Zooid. But while he also spent time in various Jazz ensembles with advanced leaders such as pianist Cecil Taylor and Muhal Richard Abrams there’s more than that in his background. In Chicago he played in marching bands every week; he travelled to tent meetings and sanctified churches with an evangelist preacher’s group; and he was in the house band of Blues guitarist Left Hand Frank. Simultaneously while studying at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music he took every course offered to understand theory and formal analysis. Travelling to places like Trinidad, Bali and Venezuela he also absorbed the local sounds. Because of the ACCM and the Free Jazz breakthrough he evolved a philosophy about music being particular to the time in which it’s made. “Better to do your own thing, because you’re not going to beat those other people” like Charlie Parker,” he says. “I don’t have to out-play Clifford Brown. I got to out-play me; the competition is with yourself.” READ

A Mixture of Memory and Devotion: the Music of Marion Brown

On the 50th anniversary of the release of the first of Marion Brown’s Georgia Trilogy LPs, The Bitter Southerner’s Jon Ross creates a poetic profile of the alto saxophonist who died at 79 in 2010.  Product of Atlanta’s Buttermilk Bottom neighbourhood, Brown’s composition on the albums Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, Geechee Recollections and Sweet Earth Flying, reflected the rural woods, urban alleyways and educational and religious background of that area. These 1970s sessions,  which featured contributions from, among others, vocalist Jeanne Lee, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, pianists Paul Bley and Dave Burrell and drummer Andrew Cyrille, also included echoes of African music, which Brown studied as an ethnomusicologist. Actually Brown, who made his reputation in New York, playing with pianist Burton Greene and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp in many bands, and later expatriated to Europe for two years, actually spent little time in Georgia after graduating from Clark College. But as a dignified Southerner, who, according to Burrell “understood the dynamics of social relationships,” he was able to give the musicians’ free reign to successfuky interpret the musical mixtures that informed his very personal compositions. READ

Coping and composing during the Pandemic: Olie Brice

With Five Hills, his Radar Commissions composition for trio that was only able to be performed as part of Jazz South’s Online Festival in April, British composer/double bassist Olie Brice tells Jamie Haber how his music has been affected by the Covid-10 pandemic. His advice for coping is to be patient, spend time outdoors and try to develop musically. Brice, whose regular musical associates include saxophonist Paul Dunmall and drummer Mark Sanders, is devoting much of his lock-down time developing his sound, technique and approach to arco playing and has recently become obsessed with Julius Hemphill’s composing. Five Hills, which is performed by himself, alto saxophonist Jason Yarde and trumpeter Nick Malcolm, is unusual in that he usually doesn’t write for that small an ensemble and was created by consciously avoiding adding any external influences. Besides telling Haber about interesting albums he's heard and exceptional gigs he’s seen, Brice reveals that his very first exposure to Jazz as a toddler was at a concert featuring saxophonist Alan Wilkinson, with whom amusingly he now plays regularly. READ