While alto saxophonist David Sanborn has made his reputation playing Pop-Funk on record and in the studios, his first association was Jazz. In this first person account for Ethan Iverson’s Do The M@th website, he recounts how hanging out in his St. Louis home town’s bohemian section as a teenager allowed him to play with and meet musicians who formed the nucleus of the city’s Black Artists Group (BAG). They included saxophonists Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill, trumpeter Lester Bowie and especially drummer Phillip Wilson. Naturally gregarious, and someone who would “talk non-stop”, according to Sanborn, Wilson and he became fast friends and the older musician talked others into letting the younger player sit in on many straight-ahead and avant garde Jazz sessions. One Sanborn particularly remembers was the four gigs where “I was the third alto in a little Hemphill band with Lake, me, Phillip and a local bass player.” Later Wilson, who was playing with the Butterfield Blue Band which recorded his composition “Love March”, got Sanborn a job with that combo as well. As a drummer, Sanborn says that Wilson was a colorist with deep soul who “understood the pocket”, a trait best heard as he uses an odd-meter beat on Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. LP. Yet Wilson could also play in the Chicago blues style, the saxophonist adds. “He had a certain touch, kind of light like a Jazz drummer, but also heavier like Rock. He could be really solid but loose on top, sort of like young Tony Williams and Buddy Miles at the same time.”
Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor
NEWS FROM ELSEWHERE
Obviously predictions can be a mug’s game, but The Jewish Insider’s Mathew Kassel tries to discover what could happen to New York’s thriving Jazz club scene once the Corvid-19 epidemic is over and they can reopen again. Both Deborah Gordon, owner of the legendary Village Vanguard, which has presented such important musical figures as bassist Charles Mingus and saxophonist John Coltrane since its founding in 1935; and Spike Wilner, who owns Smalls and Mezzrow in the West Village, two night spots known for presenting jam sessions by younger improvisers; are less than optimistic. General expenses and rent costs continue to mount they say, but there’s no income with the clubs closed in compliance with the state’s social distancing directives. Even when the pandemic has passed, adds Gordon, the Vanguard will be at a disadvantage since its reputation means that many foreign Jazz fans and others are crammed into the basement room every night. Meanwhile musicians such as pianist Fred Hersch, who has often played and recorded albums at the Vanguard, fears that its potential closure, and/or that of other clubs could adversely affect the scene.
While response to the coronavirus has resulted in a shut down in performances venues throughout the music scene, the hiatus is particularly difficult for older players, reports The Chicago Tribune’s Howard Reich. For 80 and 90-year-olds the cancelled gig may have been the last they ever play. But in interviews with Jazz survivors such as pianist Erwin Helfer, 84, guitarist George Freeman, 93, trumpeter Bobby Lewis, 84, and others, Reich reports they’re upbeat and keeping busy. They’ve been through many tough situations over the years. For veteran professionals like Freeman, part of the First Family of Chicago Jazz that included his older brother tenor saxophonist Von Freeman and his nephew, saxophonist Chico Freeman, staying at home means he can practice more, especially the technical aspects of his instrument, and compose new tunes. Freeman had to forego his annual mid-April birthday celebration at a local club, where he was planning to unveil some new and different concepts, but he’s thankful that others are helping him get by during this difficult period. Still, he admits, “I miss playing jazz clubs … I’m very anxious to play in the clubs and very anxious to play with other musicians.”
Milwaukee jazz fans still talk about the music trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophone John Coltrane played as part of the former’s March 1959 gig in at Izzy Pogrob’s local Brass Rail club. Trouble is the gig never happened. Immersing himself in archival investigative journalism, On Milwaukee’s Bobby Tanzillo finds that despite newspaper ads to the contrary, at the last minute the week-long booking was cancelled. While the club was allegedly mob-run – less than a year later Pogrob was found in a ditch with nine gunshot wounds to his head – the official reason was musicians' illness. But further research finds that during that week Davis was rehearsing with the Gil Evans Orchestra; Coltrane and quintet's bassist Paul Chambers were recording tunes destined for the the Giant Steps session; and quintet pianist Wynton Kelly was also featured on two LPs. Tanzillo figures the real reason was insufficient money upfront. Yet today, even the site of the club, which had booked major Jazz talent before that, has been torn down and is now part of a long deserted lot. So nothing remains to memorialize the gig that never happened.,
Although British pianist Pat Thomas seems a touch too concerned with emphasizing the oppression of African-American musicians and playing up their links to African mentoring traditions in this Wire essay, he does offer some insight into the influence of the late American pianist McCoy Tyner on music in general. First he lists some of the negative generalities whites came up with in the 1960s when faced with experimental Jazz. Then he outlines Tyner’s piano apprenticeship. His theory is that the older pianist's interactions with innovators like bassist Jimmy Garrison, multi-reedist Eric Dolphy and especially saxophonist John Coltrane's constant experiments helped shape Tyner’s own career as player, bandleader and composer. For himself, Thomas cites 1973’s “Enlightenment Suite” featuring Tyner with tenor saxophonist Azar Lawrence, drummer Alphonse Mouzon and bassist Juni Booth as a favorite. Besides his views on Tyner, note what Thomas thinks about John Cage’s music.
While New York-based trumpeter Jaimie Branch keeps most of her personal background and musical history close to her during this interview with Reverb’s Nick Millevoi, by inference some insight into her creative process comes out. Regularly recording and touring has become an expected activity for the trumpeter since 2017 when interest in her first solo session allowed her to quit her (unnamed) day job after many years. She's now able to keep working with other New York and Chicago-based, players of her generation like cellist Lester St. Louis, bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Chad Taylor. Finding a studio space to commute to and practice in many hours a day gives her the routine, she needs, Branch reveals. Also she can turn her attention to learning the synthesizer and drum machine as well as playing trumpet, composing tunes and even writing lyrics and vocalizing them to be part of future discs and tours. The trumpeter, who studied visual art as well as music in university, now designs her own album covers. But she admits that she finds musical creation and recording more pressured than art. She isn’t trying to compose the perfect tune, she says, but “I'm trying to write music that I want to be playing for the next year and a half or two years and have it be loose enough where it can transform (over time)”.
A rather short and sketchy profile of New York bassist, bandleader and composer William Parker by Jazz Trail’s Filipe Freitas at least offers some background about the first musical interests of this constantly busy musician. Pegged to a remounting of Parker’s project, Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield, the interviewer asks the bassist to itemize how this version differs from an earlier one with Amiri Baraka. By inviting poet Thomas Sayers Ellis to read some of Baraka’s texts, beefing up the horn section and adding backup singers for lead vocalist Leena Conquest, he answers. However when Freitas tries to pin him down as to the relative merits of poetry verses music and to list his favourite musicians and albums, Parker does so, but notes that the list changes every day, adding that “all forms of creativity are equal and complement each other.” What is most important, he insists, is how music can heal people. He came to that realization from experience after he decided to make his contribution to the improvised music world at 17, after taking up the bass under the influence of Percy Heath, Charlie Haden, John Lamb, Jimmy Garrison and David Izenzon. Oddly enough though, he reveals that his initial musical education started with trumpet lessons and moved on to playing trombone. But this brass-path was followed even though he was first drawn to Jazz by hearing saxophonists like Paul Gonsalves, Don Byas and Gene Ammons.
Tape Op’s Steve Silverstein seems slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more studio razzle-dazzle involved in the mid-1960s recordings of the first LPs by Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) members in Chicago. However he supplies a fascinating and unusual take on how such sessions as Roscoe Mitchell Sextet's Sound, Muhal Richard Abrams' Levels and Degrees of Light, Joseph Jarman's Song For and a couple each by Lester Bowie, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre and Anthony Braxton were captured on tape. Speaking to producers like Chuck Nessa and Bob Koester, who supervised those discs, he finds out about studio details, instrument set up and placement and the width of tape used in the recordings. Silverstein also discovers from these sources that as well as the technical expertise efforts of Stu Black, who engineered most of the discs, the general recording philosophy was to interfere as little as possible with the musicians’ concepts; to not try to replicate a live performance in the studio; or conversely to use studio refinements to alter the group's basic sounds.
Now comfortably settled in the Bay area after 16-years teaching improvisation and composition at the University of California, Berkeley, pianist Myra Melford tells San Francisco Classical Voice’s Jeff Kaliss that being in an academic environment has inspired her own musical practice. Not only is working with students in ethnomusicology as well as those studying improvised and notated sounds helped change how she approaches her sound, but the institute also gives her a forum in which to play with and present other musicians in concert. Speaking of the university Melford says: “I’ve seen an openness and embrace of improvisation as a valid and important form of music-making and the nurturing of musicians who are both composers and performers”. She adds that she's able to teach classically trained chamber musicians to begin improvising partially because she has been thinking of her own music as chamber music since the 1990s. Meanwhile she’s able to invite such musicians as saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Tim Berne plus pianists Kris Davis and Matt Mitchell to give duo concerts at the school. Additionally, with her advanced student ensemble, the Berkeley Nu Jazz Collective opening, she can play her own and compositions by Rova Saxophone Quartet members Steve Adams and Jon Raskin with Rova in a special university concert. As an aside, Melford states that some of her ensembles' names and composition titles reflect her ongoing obsession with the art of painter Cy Twombly.
While some of the details discussed about patches and performance ratios used in modular systems may be a little too technical for the non-specialist, Philippe Petit’s interview with Tom Djll for his MODULISME radio program does provide an overview of how the Bay area composer/performer works. Someone who also plays trumpet and has been involved in acoustic projects with the likes of percussionist Gino Robair and guitarist John Shiurba, Djll has a parallel career working with modular systems in groups featuring Robair, Tania Chen, Clarke Robinson, Cheryl Leonard, Andrew Raffo Dewar and many others. Initially influenced by Jazz-Free Music theorists like saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, Djll soon discovered the electronic sounds of programming pioneers like Richard Teitelbaum, Hugh Davies, Pauline Oliveros and Sun Ra which lead him to build and experiment with electronic systems on his own. Today what he calls his brutalist modular system has been designed and tweaked with loops, samples and voltage to fit his particular needs. Still, Djll insists that any interested musician should be fearless in experimenting with modular equipment and that there are no wrong ways to do so.
Trying to create a comfortable interface among composed and improvised music plus solo and group playing, has been a preoccupation of New York-based saxophonist Patrick Brennan since his youth in Detroit in the 1970s. He tells Perfect Sound Forever’s Daniel Barbiero that this idea was developed over years of study. It started with hearing primary influences like the Contemporary Jazz Quintet with drummer Roy Brooks or concerts featuring bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones in Detroit; studying scores and counterpoint from earlier European and non-Western musics while studying music in college; attending gigs by saxophonist Sam Rivers, various AACM members, pianist Cecil Taylor and trumpeter Don Cherry in Manhattan; and finally spending most of the 1990s living and playing with local improvisers in Lisbon, who had a different method of dealing with the notated-improvised situation. All this allowed him to conceive of a novel way of working with dialogue and conflict. Brennan explains the technical aspects of his interactive musical strategies at great length, which may be a bit difficult for non-musicians to follow. However listening to his recorded work, especially a recent CD with Portuguese guitarist Abdul Moimême, or his live performances, can be most enlightening.
Master drummer Andrew Cyrille knows how to tell a story, and The Austin Chronicle’s Michael Toland is knowledgeable enough to let him talk before upcoming dates in the Texas city with groups featuring guitarist Bill Frisell or tenor saxophonist Billy Harper. Recalling his learning experiences touring with Blues singer Nellie Lutcher, tenor saxophone avatar Coleman Hawkins, and playing Bop and for dancers, Cyrille still insists that the 11 years he spent in the ever-changing unit under the leadership of pianist Cecil Taylor allowed him to do whatever he felt he needed in the moment and defined him as a innovative percussionist. In demand to play in numberless groups in Europe and the U. S., the veteran drummer is looking forward to upcoming gigs with tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann or trumpeter Enrico Rava, as well as a nightclub stint with the cooperative Trio3 featuring bassist Reggie Workman and alto saxophonist Oliver Lake. Meanwhile Cyrille jokes that he’s glad his honed-over-the-years percussion style isn’t universally loved or he wouldn’t have any time off.
One of the most notorious books in the Jazz canon – and the basis for an equally salacious film – Lady Sings the Blues, Billie’s Holiday’s so-called autobiography was recently reissued to mark its 50th anniversary. The problem, explains SFGATE’s Jesse Hamlin, is that very little of the book is completely true. Put together by journalist William Dufty from interviews with Holiday, who needed the money because as an ex-felon she couldn’t work in New York clubs, the book contained enough prurient details about heroin addiction, heavy drinking, racism and the steamy underside of nightlife to satisfy the most morbid square. But Dufty was no fact checker and the picture of relentless misery the book recounts is seriously tainted. Instead it should be interpreted as artistic role playing, the way Holiday did when she seemed to be relating the lyrics of some of her most famous songs like “Strange Fruit” to her own experience. Both of the singer’s two godchildren, politician Bevan Dufty and singer Lorraine Feather, concur with this view. Dufty, whose mother Maely Dufty was at one point Holiday’s manager, and Feather, whose father Leonard Feather was Jazz critic and friend of the singer, remember her differently. "She was a very strong person who lived a vibrant, tough life. She never felt sorry for herself," says Dufty.
Exhaustive and almost exhausting, Bill Shoemaker goes through nearly every recording date, performance and opinion of Pat Thomas, the Oxford, UK-based pianist, electronics manipulator and bandleader in this extended Point of Departure feature, including several unwarranted detours into other areas. An anomaly on the British scene, Thomas is a UK-born child of Antiguan parents, who has since adopted Sufism, and is most concerned with acknowledging the Arabic and Muslim roots of Jazz and improvised music as well as its African beginnings. First prominent when he was featured with guitarist Derek Bailey’s Company Weeks in the 1990s, he subsequently worked with other Free Improvisers like saxophonist Evan Parker and drummer Tony Oxley. Yet he also detoured into standard playing with the likes of saxophonist Lol Coxhill, titled his CDs with Arabic phrases and eventually put together the band Black Top with vibraphonist Orphy Robinson that melded African and Caribbean influences with free playing. Besides recently receiving a prestigious award for his composing, Thomas is a member of still other groups, including those which match him with many continental players such as Swedish bassist Joel Grip and French drummer Antonin Gerbal.
Trying to characterize an improviser’s lifestyle and connections, the Vancouver Province’s Stuart Derdeyn devotes most of his article on Gordon Grdina noting the number of New York players with whom the Vancouver guitarist and oudist now collaborates. Itemizing the many Manhattan bands under Grdina’s name, Derdeyn reports that the connecting factor is working out a group identity so each sounds like a band, not players thrown together. While the Burnaby-born string player started off in Blues bands, Grdina is now a committed Jazzer, interested in composing and playing tunes that highlight each musician’s individual talents. That means that his trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black shouldn’t sound like his quartet with reedist Oscar Noriega, pianist Russ Lossing and drummer Satoshi Takeishi, and neither should resemble the music of those ensembles in which he plays the Middle Eastern oud. While these configurations are ongoing projects, the scheduling challenge is that each involves playing a few warm-up shows in New York, touring for a few days and finally going into the studio to record.
While Jazzwise’s David Gallant seems to spend a little too much space grilling New York acoustic double bassist Thomas Morgan about the type of strings he uses, the brands of basses jhe knows about and his opinion of electric models, some basic information about the musician comes through. Essentially the Bay area-native became interested in string instruments as a child, played in local school orchestras and finally studied at the Manhattan School of Music. Now known for his work backing the likes of pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, drummer Paul Motian and guitarists Bill Frisell, Morgan fondly remembers one early experience, when he convinced his great influence, legendary bassist Ray Brown, to give him a lesson. Brown taught him the importance of left-hand pressure in making a full sound. Self-effacing, Morgan says he’s still learning, especially playing regularly with guitarist Frisell, night after night. Oh and by the way, he’s used the same bass since he started playing in 1994.
Now known for his distinctive rhythmic contributed to ensembles as different as the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) and those lead by drummer Makaya McCraven, double bass player Junius Paul tells Chicago magazine’s Areif Sless-Kitain that his inspiration comes from two, perhaps contradictory, sources. They’re the result of his two decades plus playing bass in his local church and his experience in the house band at the now defunct Velvet Lounge, the legendary south-side club run by the late tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson. Along with the great number of well-known musicians who participated in the club’s Sunday night jam sessions, including Paul’s mentor drummer Vincent Davis, as he discovered during church services, the bassist would find the music lifting all the players higher and higher without a comedown. Those experiences and others made him confident enough to now tour with the likes of veterans such as the AEC’s multi-reedist Roscoe Mitchell and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye.
Usually the most unprepossessing member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC), drummer Famoudou Don Moye, 72, is given a forum to philosophize by Jazzwise’s Kevin Le Gendre on the occasion of the AEC’s 50th anniversary tour. The Rochester-born Moye explains how he joined the band, then consisting of saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, plus reedist Shaku Joseph Jarman, trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut -- the last three of whom have since died -- in the early 1970s, because of his percussion skills. Moye, who played in marching bands as a teenager and whose honorific is a tribute to Guinean master drummer Famoudou Konaté, an early mentor, insists that the influence of elders: parents, grandparents, artists, activists, campaigners, thinkers and leaders from preceding generations are what aided the band in concocting its synthesis of Great Black Music from many areas. Over the years the AEC has assumed many sizes, while playing with guests ranging from Cecil Taylor to Sun Ra, so he welcomes the band’s present large touring ensemble, including trumpeter Hugh Ragin, flutist Nicole Mitchell and bassist Silvia Bolognesi. His recommendation for succeeding in music is the same as succeeding for life in a difficult world: “You have to be positive. The shit can’t get no worse. All you can do is say 'it’s gotta get better'.”
Jazz history is filled with romantic figures that could have, or should have, become famous, but didn’t. In this piece for Vinyl Me, Please magazine, Ben Ratliff, adds another name to the list: Hasaan Ibn Ali. A singular piano stylist like Herbie Nichols or Charles Mingus sideman John Dennis, the Philadelphia-based Ali spent his time during the 1950s and 1960s practising all day and then “gigging” at local fans’ houses for coffee and cake. Although he made one trio LP with drummer Max Roach, who sponsored him as "The Legendary Hasaan", and bassist Art Davis, mostly he jammed with, influenced and passed on his musical theories to the small group of better-known players who frequented the sessions that took place in the front room of his home. They included such later notable figures as saxophonists Odean Pope and John Coltrane and bassists Jimmy Garrison and Jymie Merritt. Although as the article relates, he had worked in clubs with R&B bands during the 1940s, the mature playing of Ali, who died in 1980, was so uncompromising and his personality was so otherworldly, that he made other advanced stylists like Thelonious Monk, who was known before him; Cecil Taylor, who came to prominence after him; and his contemporary Nichols seem like careerists.
Many musicians today also work or have worked as academics, but Argentinean-born clarinetist Guillermo Gregorio, 78, is one of the very few whose teaching career encompasses theories of architecture and design. Growing up during one of Argentina’s periodic dictatorships, the Buenos Aires-born Gregorio divided his time between his experiments in contemporary music and improvisation and his studies and later teaching career at the universities of Buenos Aires and La Plata, as he tells Point of Departure’s Jason Weiss. Since any sort of non-conformity was suspect at that time, despite his interest in the music of Ornette Coleman; seeing soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s famous Buenos Aires quartet concert; and regularly playing the music of local avant-garde composer Juan Carlos Paz and others, he concentrated on keeping his university job. After he left the country, and finally settled in Chicago, where he taught at Columbia College and the Art Institute of Chicago until 2015, he began playing seriously again. His association with figures like Austrian trumpeter Franz Koglmann and Americans such as pianist Pandelis Karayorgis and violist Mat Maneri eventually led to the recording of his own music and interpretations of works by Cornelius Cardew, Red Norvo and Anthony Braxton.