Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor


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.


Sun Ra – and the Arkestra – are discovered by the Pop Music crowd (again)

Composer/bandleader Sun Ra may have been on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1969, yet the magazine’s Brad Farberman now chronicles his legacy and the Arkestra’s continued existence because of all the pop stars who claim his influence today. Name-checking a collection of arena-fillers ranging from Solange and Lady Gaga to Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Phish's Trey Anastasio, Farberman rounds up enough quotes to explain how Ra’s music continues to influence others. At least he also manages to tell part of Ra’s saga and that of the Arkestra, which continues to tour with 93-year-old alto saxophonist Marshall Allen at the helm and featuring members like saxophonist Danny Ray Thompson, who joined the band in 1967. Additionally, saxophonist Scott Robinson’s Heliosonic Tone-tette CD, which salutes Ra’s Free Jazz period, is mentioned as a jazzer's response to Ra's music. Still,  Allen himself appears less than impressed by the sudden Ra fascination. “When you're a little bit ahead of your time,” he notes. “those people got to take a minute to get around to understanding where you’re at.” READ

Lou Gare: neglected AMM co-founder

An appreciation as much as an obituary, London-based saxophonist Seymour Wright writes in The Wire about the recent death of exploratory tenor saxophonist Lou Gare (1939-2017), who was less acknowledged than his fellow members of the pioneering British Free Music group AMM.  Perhaps it was because as a saxophonist with a Jazz background, Gare played the instrument associated with that music, from which other early AMM members  – drummer Eddie Prévost, guitarist Keith Rowe, and pianist/cellist Cornelius Cardew – were trying to distance themselves. But Wright also insists that Gare's multi-layered sound and organic style of playing was as much a part of the AMM sound as the others’ contributions. Gare left the band in the late 1970s, after spending half a decade in a duo with Prévost. Additionally Wright notes he personally has spent many years since he first saw Gare play – on a rare reunion gig with the AMM drummer and guitarist in 1989 – trying to figure out the contours of Gare’s playing and how he could adapt to it. READ

Jason Stein is a Jazz Bass Clarinet Crusader

Although Chicago-based bass clarinetist Jason Stein, 40, received media attention last year because his Locksmith Isidore trio with bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Mike Pride was actually playing Jazz as opening act for comedian Amy Schumer, he tells The Chicago Reader’s Peter Margasak he has no interest in moving into big-time show business. Schumer, who is Stein’s half sister, had been urging him to work with her for years. When he finally agreed, her shows were taking place in large arenas. Still, Stein played music no different than he would in a typical set in small clubs. Someone who only started playing the bass clarinet at 22, Stein’s proficiency soon had him gigging with multi-reedist Ken Vandermark in a band with drummer Tim Daisy, and bassist Nate McBride. Since then, with no doubling on any other reed, he’s managed to work regularly with locals such as saxophonist Keefe Jackson, bassist Joshua Abrams, pianist Paul Giallorenzo and drummers Mike Reed, adding to his income by giving private music lessons. Although the Schumer gigs allowed him to give up teaching, now that they've come to an end, he has no regret  returning to club work, playing uncompromising Jazz with new and older associates. READ

Author Geoff Dyer Loves The Necks

Acquainting the readers of The New York Times magazine with any improvised music group, especially one as accomplished as the Australian trio The Necks, is something to be noted and praised. But one wishes that Geoff Dyer, described as  the author of many books, would have spent more time speaking to The Necks individual band members –pianist Chris Abrahams, drummer Tony Buck and bassist Lloyd Swanton  – about their view(s) of the music  and less about his own feelings and experiences. As it is, besides cursory glimpses into the group’s 30-year history, first as an Aussie unit and then getting world-wide gigs, Dyer appears more obsessed with recording the many times he saw the band and heard its CDs and how he felt each time about the music. Considering he compares the trio’s work to variously the Krautrock of Neu, Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way's electric period, and asserts that he now looks as forward to each new CD from the Necks. (as) “ I felt waiting to hear London Calling by the Clash, Slow Train Coming by Bob Dylan, or, going even further back, Electric Warrior by T. Rex", perhaps someone with more knowledge of improvised music would have provided more insight into the group's appeal for the Times’ audience . READ

Dave Rempis defines Ballister’s Individuality

Away from his Chicago home base, alto, tenor and baritone saxophonist Dave Rempis is prodded by Lexington Kentucky’s Herald-Leader journalist Walter Tunis to define the differences between his Ballister trio and the other nine-odd groups with which the saxophonist is involved. Rempis, whose other bands include aggregations featuring drummers Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly among many others, says Ballister, featuring fellow Chicagoan, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love is a free energy band that aims for mutual expression rather than just being three separate people involved in on-stage improvisations. As someone who plays about 300 concerts annually, Rempis also says this trio, like his other groups, is based on the interaction of specific personalities. READ

Irène Schweizer is a Swiss woman who plays Jazz

That might seem like a bland statement in 2017, especially for long-time followers of improvised music. But The Village Voice’s Michael J, Agovino appears awe-struck by the concept. Luckily he traveled to Zürich to interview Irène Schweizer on her home turf. The 76-year-old pianist, he finds out has been part of the European Free Jazz scene for more than 50 years, playing and recording with everyone from drummer Günter Sommer to bassist Joëlle Léandre. Agovino touches on her versatility and some of the problems she has faced being a woman in the macho Jazz world, but he’s most impressed that she’s actually recorded a new duet session with an American – New York drummer Joey Baron. Considering that she has for years recorded many similar CDs with percussionists like Sommer, Pierre Favre, Han Bennink, Andrew Cyrille and Louis Moholo-Moholo, maybe the piece may prod more Americans to investigate her other work. READ

Michael Bisio Comes Home

Although reporter Lauren Halligan of the (Troy, N.Y.) Beacon appears more interested in bassist Michael Bisio’s connection to his home town when previewing a recent concert  there with his accordion-based quartet the Accortet, she does briefly outline his career. It’s also pretty obvious that the writer and publication would prefer to recount details about how many local relatives and friends of Bisio will be at the concert, plus his earliest musical experiences in the city’s school system where he discovered the acoustic bass, than discuss the music itself. However, Halligan mentions in passing Bisio’s close association with the likes of saxophonists Joe McPhee, Ivo Perelman and pianist Matthew Shipp, and there’s even a link provided to Bisio’s own website. READ

Acknowledging Roscoe Mitchell as a Major Composer

On the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, of which he has always been a member, and the release of his new small group CD, the New York Times’ Seth Colter Walls tries to position multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell as a composer in the western tradition. While Mitchell, who  also teaches at Oakland Calif’s Mills College, discusses his compositions for large and small, contemporary and so-called classical music ensembles in North America and Europe, he says he actually sees this work as an extension of the sounds he’s been creating in a Jazz context for many years. Citing how associates such as his students and players experienced in both improved and notated works like percussionist William Winant and James Fei on electronics help transcribe and convert major improvisational pieces so they can be interpreted by more formal groups, he also relates his concepts back to the work of venerable Jazz masters such as saxophonist Benny Carter.   READ

Loft Jazz Celebrated in (a) Volume

New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s may have been gritty and down at its heels, but it was involved with a lot more than the sex trade on The Deuce.  University of Pittsburgh ethnomusicologist/historian Michael C. Heller tells Perfect Sound Forever’s Daniel Barbiero how at that point a variety of factors led to the growth of Jazz’s so-called Loft Movement. Heller’s book, Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s, presents a comprehensive history of the period, which has subsequently been eclipsed by the celebration New York’s more fashionable Downtown music scene. However many venues that flourished during that period – now all unfortunately defunct – run by such figures as saxophonist Sam Rivers and drummer Rashied Ali, used the ideas of community outreach and Black self-help to create a non-commercial space for experimental musicians to work. This pioneering concept allowed these players to move on to better-paying gigs and more exposure in higher-end clubs and European festivals. The lofts helped maintain the careers of veterans such as saxophonists Sonny Simmons and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre and provided regular work for then-younger plays like bassist William Parker, saxophonist Arthur Blythe and violinist Billy Bang.



Kirk Knuffke Honors Ornette’s Sidekick

Although he’s managed to stay clear of Jazz’s Neo-Conservatives' mania for slavishly recreating the tunes of the music’s major figures, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, usually in the company of pianist Jesse Stacken or saxophonist Josh Stinson, has still managed to record music by many more exploratory older musicians. But as The Village Voice’s Francis Davis points out here, earlier efforts by the thirtyish, Colorado-born brass player, which dealt with the music of Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Albert Ayler, Steve Lacy and even Misha Mengelberg, were only a prelude up to his trio’s recent recorded salute to pocket trumpeter Don Cherry. Mostly know as the Sancho Panza to alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s Don Quixote, Cherry not only played with other major American Jazzers after leaving Coleman’s band, but was often overseas, helping to create a fusion with other musics and Jazz. Plus he was one of the first Yanks to regularly work with foreign musicians of the caliber of Argentinean tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri and German pianist/vibraharpist Karl Berger. READ

Speaking His Own Way on the Instrument: Milford Graves

A retrospective interview with Red Bull Music Academy Daily’s Hank Steamer that took place just after percussion master Milford Graves had recorded with electric bassist Bill Laswell, the Q+A ranges over a wide variety of topics. In a career that began with an apprenticeship as an Afro-Cuban hand-drummer, continued through stints with major Jazz players as well as 30 years teaching at Bennington College, Graves, who also practices the healing arts, has always been grounded with  his home base in Queens and concerned with providing for his four children. Saying that musicians must have the training of an athlete, the research skills of a scientist and  be involved with spiritual meditation, Graves has never compromised his art. Veteran of one-off gigs with the likes of pianist Cecil Taylor and composer Sun Ra, among many others, as well as a career-defining stint with tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler's group, he reveals that he  turned down offers from trumpeter Miles Davis to join the latter’s band because he felt his own duo with pianist Don Pullen allowed him to better express his thinking about musical culture. Graves is no super musician though. When he works with electric guitarists he asks them to turn down their amps, and reveals that the gig with Ayler was so intense that he often had to rest between sets. (Note: Page takes some seconds to load) READ

Finding Lost Jazz Pianist Jutta Hipp – and Losing Her Again

Although pianist Jutta Hipp was first welcomed when she arrived in the United States in the mid-1950s and soon was playing prestigious clubs and recording for Blue Note, by 1960 she had quit the scene and spent the rest of her life working in a Queens garment factory. Aaron Gilbreath in Longreads tells her story from the perspective of the Blue Note general manager, who met the then 76-year-old Hipp in 2001 to give her a cheque for $35,000 in unpaid royalties. The reticent pianist didn’t say much about quitting Jazz except that she thought she wasn’t very good. Despite some didactic detours into more general musings on racism and sexism, Gilbreath comes up with a different interpretation of her career. An East German refugee who was celebrated in post-war West Germany, Hipp’s U.S. sojourn was facilitated by a critic who was alleged to have romantic as well as well as monetary interest in her. While accepted by players such as saxophonist Zoot Sims and bassist Charles Mingus, she was resented by xenophobes for her European background and by some musicians for her race and gender. A change in her playing style once she was established in New York, plus self-admitted stage fright and lack of confidence eventually caused her to distance herself so far from the music that her 2001 visitor noted that she didn’t even own a piano. She died two years later. READ

I Lead Three Lives: Chris Brown

While some of the questions posed by New Music Box’s Frank J.Oteri become a little too technical when it comes the details of composing and improvising, overall this is a revealing Q+A with Bay area composer Chris Brown. Affiliated with Mills College, Brown terms himself an explorer who has moved among the nuts-and-bolts (literally) of Electronic Music, created New Music scores and improvises as well. Initially a so-called classical pianist, Brown’s interest in new modes of expression led him to study the works of John Cage and Henry Cowell, and after hearing pianist Cecil Taylor, to playing in an improvised context with musicians like keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and as a member of tenor saxophonist Glenn Spearman’s Double Trio. He admits he improvised in public even before he composed anything he still likes. Along the way Brown also learned to weld and solder in order to translate his idea into an electronic milieu with the band The Hub and in other contexts. Today Brown is becoming more interested in working with the song form, though that has nothing to do with the frequent telephone calls he gets at his Mills office from aspiring popsters trying to contact someone they think is actually chart-topping rapper Chris Brown. READ

Post-Apartheid Recognition: Louis Moholo-Moholo

Anytime Americans recognize there are Jazz masters beyond their borders is a good sign, and The Chicago Reader’s John Corbett uses drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo’s appearance at the Chicago Jazz Festival to discuss the outlines of the South African percussionist's career. Although he returned to Cape Town in 2005 and now tours with a young band including pianist Alexander Hawkins and saxophonist Jason Yarde, the article focuses on how the 77-year-old drummer is the last living member of South Africa’s legendary Blue Notes combo. An interracial band which fled its homeland after racial mixing become illegal, the Blue Notes' arrival in the United Kingdom in the early 1960s energized the local Jazz scene, led to the formation of Blue Notes pianist Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath big band, plus the intermingling of other band members with the likes of Free Music guitarist Derek Bailey. Now sll the others – trumpeter Mongezi Feza, McGregor, bassist Johnny Dyani and alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana are dead, with their music only accessible on record. As good as his 2017 sound is however, Moholo-Moholo refuses to compare his present band with his earlier ones READ

Interstellar Space’s Golden Anniversary is in Fashion

Tenor and soprano saxophonist John Coltrane’s wardrobe choices would probably make the editor of Gentleman’s Quarterly blanch, but at least writer Zack Graham is interested enough in the non-sartorial to devote a piece to the 50th anniversary of Interstellar Space, Coltrane’s breakthrough duo LP with drummer Rashied Ali. Although Graham does devote some space to analyzing the complex musical and improvisational underpinnings of the disc, since GQ is, after all, devoted to all that is contemporary in fashion, he posits Interstellar Space in terms of its influence on Pop artists such as Pan Sonic, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, READ

Oliver Lake’s BAG now includes strings

While Bandcamp Daily’s Seth Colter Walls seems to think that a Jazz soloist playing especially composed music with a string group is a new concept, interviewee, alto saxophonist Oliver Lake soon sets him straight. Still, as well as discussing the saxophonist/flutist’s recent collaboration with the FLUX Quartet, a contemporary-classical string ensemble, Walls does delve into some of Lake’s history going back to the formation of St. Louis' Black Artists’ Group (BAG) in the 1970s. Lake, who explains that he started seriously writing for strings when he regularly performed in a duo in New York alongside violinist Leroy Jenkins, says his first string writing was with BAG. His CD with FLUX includes material going back to the late 1990s. Lake also notes that BAG’s genesis came about after he and fellow St. Louis  alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill were impressed when they noted how musicians like trumpeter Lester Bowie, a St. Louis expat, were becoming successful within the more formal organization of Chicago’s AACM. Lake also reveals that his and Hemphill’s most famous ensemble, the World Saxophone Quartet, was organized in 1978 after tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan individually invited the saxophonists who would make up the WSQ to play for the first time as a quartet in New Orleans. READ