The Independent Ear

Crate Digging with Reuben Jackson

CRATE DIGGING with Reuben Jackson
Reuben Jackson

Reuben Jackson is a music scholar, poet, broadcaster, journalist and an all-around very thoughtful man. Long a resident of DC currently residing in the lush greenery of the Burlington, Vermont area, Reuben spent over 20 years as curator of the massive Duke Ellington collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s American History Museum. His patient assistance proved invaluable to this writer on numerous occasion when a writing or other assignment demanded extensive research, whether through the Ellington collection or other of the Smithsonian Archives Center’s incredible holdings, including the collection of the family that owned and operated the Apollo Theatre during the height of its legendary existence. It was through Reuben that I spent many hours marveling at Frank Schiffman’s meticulous boxes of index cards, where he hand wrote his nightly impressions of various Apollo performers, including how they did at the box office, how they performed, their onstage and backstage demeanor, and whether it would be a good idea to book them again.

Reuben has contributed music reportage and criticism to the Washington Post, Washington City Paper, All About Jazz, Jazziz, and NPR’s All Things Considered. Since relocating to Vermont he has been host of Vermont Public Radio’s “Friday Night Jazz” show. Throughout all of this experience Reuben has maintained his great curiosity for recordings of great variety, making him an ideal contributor to our occasional series on Crate Digging – the intrepid hunt for desired vinyl recordings that still befalls many of us, this writer included.

Back in the mid-1980s when CDs began their market domination, some hasty music lovers liquidated their vinyl collections. I’m sure you know such misguided individuals. Considering that you may have been a happy beneficiary of such haste – likely through some local old-vinyl purveyor or other – was that folly or prescient move?

I’ve always been a bit suspicious where record companies are concerned. Maybe that is a result of being such a jazz lover. What I mean is that I’ve never assumed that a particular beloved recording or recordings would be reissued in the format of the moment-especially if it wasn’t exactly a zillion seller . Of course there are classics which people get rid of for many reasons. I feel for them, but I’ve been more than thrilled to give them a happy home. You know, mine…

What is it about vinyl recordings that continue to hold such fascination for you?

What do I love about vinyl? First an AARP answer: I am middle aged, and farsighted. It’s easier to read the liner notes! Surely there is a nostalgic element to this as well. I learned so much about music in my parents’ basement. We had 45s, but mostly vinyl. Finally, I still feel that more than a few vinyl incarnations of –well, fill in the blank, sound better. Simple as that.

Now that MP3 is a reality – not to mention whatever formats the technocrats may cook up in the future – has vinyl receded even further in the rearview mirror, ala the 78 RPM format?

Reuben Jackson 2
Has the Mp3 been relegated to the cheap seats? I don’t think so .. If you live long enough, you see the carousel come around again. A lot of my younger music-loving friends crave vinyl. It’s –well, cool.
Like Cuban cigars. It seems to have become radical-ancient to the future. I walked into a bookstore the other day, and saw a few racks of Vinyl. I felt both young and old.

As you go about merrily crate diving for old vinyl recordings, what kinds of things attract your attention?

Truth be told, I sometimes buy albums I have no interest in-musically speaking. I love kitschy, sometimes politically incorrect covers. Shots of, say, 1940’s New York, stuff like that. I have more than a few of these in my music room. Then, of course, there is the endless search for titles I keep in my internal bucket list. I don’t usually find them, but I love the hunt. Oh,the hunt.

Bluebook and other ratings systems in terms of the “book” value of supposed rarities aside, what in your gaze truly constitutes a “rare” vinyl record find from your collector’s perspective?

For me, the value is generally always musical/historic. There is nothing like finally getting hold of some gorgeous Blue Mitchell recording, say-
after years of searching and pining…
Blue Mitchell

Besides the rare items, when you hit the stacks do you generally have a “wish list” in mind or are you so intrepid that you simply delight in the process purely in hopes of uncovering some useful nugget or another?

I tend to be a dive in the water and swim kind of collector. I do have stuff I’d love to find in mind when attending vinyl conventions, but I never let that drive me to the point of anxiety or despair. (If you don’t find whatever it is …) To quote Tom Waits- “the pursuit and never the arrest.”

What have been some of your recent vinyl “finds” and what it is about that/those record(s) that attracted your interest sufficiently enough to cop a purchase?

The last thing I found wasn’t (or isn’t) especially rare, but it is a collection I’ve wanted for my show. Cannonball Adderley’s “Lovers.” It wasn’t finished by Cannon. He had a stroke and died before the sessions were completed. But I love the music . The stuff on which he is featured, and –well, the whole collection.

What have been your favorite sources or retail outlets for vinyl record crate diving – whether that be store(s), private collection(s), garage sale(s), record convention(s), or some other source?

I really love record conventions, but I’ve also found a great deal of joy combing through yard sales here in Vermont and across the lake in New York State. That’s really about it for me. I remain an ardent collector, but not the rabid young collector I once was.

What would you recommend to those with an interest in seeking out rare vinyl recordings?

Seek help immediately! Just kidding. I’d say cultivate a network of fellow travelers- even if it’s just one. I find it’s more fun when you can share the hunt/capture with a bud. Most importantly, have fun… Music is a damn wonderful thing. I think of collecting the way I think of walking through a dark, foliage-laden forest: a truly wonderful thing. An aural smile. This was fun….

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Playboy & the Music

Playboy Swings

There is no more relaxing activity than laying out under the sun with the inviting surf mere feet away, absolutely chilling with a good book. Just in time for family beach week, arrived an informative, page-turning new read on the legacy of Playboy magazine’s once expansive enterprises and its rich music legacy. Playboy Swings (pub: Beaufort Books), by Patty Farmer with jazz vocal specialist Will Friedwald, is ostensibly about the considerable contributions of Hugh Hefner and his Playboy enterprises to the music scene, with robust coverage of Playboy’s important stake in jazz. Though the book provides many fine details on how Hefner and his cohorts love of specifically jazz morphed into the former Playboy Magazine Jazz Polls (including some resulting “all-star” recording sessions and a less-than-successful record company venture), the now-annual Playboy Jazz Festival, and the once far-flung Playboy Clubs, this is not purely about jazz… or music. Some of this book’s finest revelations and insights are about the vast booking and presenting policy of the Playboy Club chain, not only as it pertains to musicians (with an emphasis on singers), but also numerous insights and revelations about the role and work of comedians and what might best be dubbed variety entertainers on the Playboy Club circuit. Playboy Swings also offers a definitive insider look at the development and execution of Hefner’s two television shows – Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark, each of which had a kind of hang-fly, informal quality that was trailblazing in their own right. Not least of Hefner’s efforts was his dismissal of the color barrier that plagued much of 20th century America (still does). He willfully provided platforms for many African American performers of the day, clearly a well-earned arrow in his quiver.

Apropos one of the book’s forwards is contributed by NEA Jazz Master George Wein, the dean of jazz festival presenters. As ongoing producer – via one of his ace right hands Darlene Chan – of the annual Hollywood Bowl weekend known as the Playboy Jazz Festival, the signature such event in Southern California, Wein was right there when Hefner determined to present this keynote event annually. But first came an extravaganza that the late critic Leonard Feather once dubbed the “greatest three days in the history of jazz” – the original Playboy Jazz Festival. Each of these enterprises is balanced by the prevailing social mores of their day, mores which often found certain parts of the country looking askance at Playboy’s unique juggling act balancing its high class skin mag proclivities, including its loosey-goosey promotion of a supposed “playboy lifestyle”, with its promotion and presentation of some of the finest music and comic artists of primarily the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

Ms. Farmer paints a fascinatingly detailed portrait of the first-ever Playboy Jazz Festival. Held in the magazine’s original headquarters city of Chicago, Hefner & company’s first festival faced down several obstacles, in addition to the ongoing theme of certain conservative perceptions of the parent magazine. The odyssey of its chosen venue is detailed, ranging from Hef and company’s original intent to present at Soldier Field, which was shot down by the looming specter of the Third Pan-American Games, to be staged later that summer at that very stadium. Eventually the event landed at what was then known as the old Chicago Stadium, the city’s indoor basketball and hockey palace. The event ran the weekend of August 7, 1959 featuring a virtual who’s who of the music: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Sonny Rollins, Pee Wee Russell and a host of others. One funny anecdote about that festival concerns Frank Sinatra.d
Playboy Jazz Festival 1959

Seems the Chairman was too busy in Hollywood at the time to play the festival, though history has many of the fans believing they’d actually seen Sinatra perform among the incredible array of talent. One thing led to another and a Sinatra impersonator was casually dropped into the middle of the festival, strolled onstage and sang “Come Fly With Me” with the Basie band, to wild response! The emcee for that day was the comic Mort Sahl, who informed the author that “…the crowd went crazy cheering” for what they thought was Sinatra. “They booed me when I took the mic and let them know it wasn’t Sinatra they’d just heard!” Despite Sahl’s disclaimer, many left the stadium that day glowing from what they thought was a Sinatra sighting. This book is loaded with such rich anecdotes and remembrances.

Later in the book, during the extensive and finely detailed chapters on the development of what became a vast network of Playboy Clubs literally across the globe, Farmer details a hilarious scat singing jam between Jon Hendricks and Sammy Davis, Jr., who’d dropped by the London club after finishing his evening performance of Golden Boy. “He challenged me to a scat exchange. And of course, I accepted!,” said Hendricks. “He gave me a trip du challenge!”

Equally fascinating is Farmer’s detailed chronicle of how, ironically given the company’s male-centric composition built on its highly successful magazine platform, one woman who’d been featured in a Playboy pictorial in October 1970, became a key Playboy Club performer and actually took over management of the L.A. Playboy Club at a time when much of the Club enterprise had begun floundering with the changing entertainment mores in America. The story of singer-actress Lainie Kazan‘s Playboy Club trajectory is textbook stuff in a sort of serendipitous marriage of talent and enterprise, much of it larded with good jazz.

Subtitled “How Hugh Hefner and Playboy changed the face of Music” this book certainly has the goods to back up that lofty contention. And through it all Hefner remains a steadfast jazz enthusiast who frequently put his money where his artistic interests lay. On the clubs, development of which are detailed in this book from soup to nuts, this passage is particularly definitive:
The Playboy Clubs were at the center of an iconic period of our cultural history and they helped define it as a carefree, liberated time when boundaries were pushed – and sometimes broken. Over nearly three decades, the impact of the clubs on musical taste and entertainment standards is undeniable. They provided a home, a school, and a livelihood for a multitude of musicians, singers, comics, and restaurant personnel – all the while helping to topple the color barrier in entertainment. You could say that they trained a generation of audiences from around the world to appreciate good music, good food, and good company.”

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Is improvisation intimidating?

One of the central music tenets that distinguishes jazz music is the art of improvisation – though we must emphasize here that improvisation is not a practice exclusive to jazz music. And make no mistake about it, the ability to create, to “make up” cogent statements and variations on a theme on the spot can indeed be intimidating to some, mysterious to most. What of the student musician, how does he or she gain a comfort level with the art of improvising, of seemingly making coherent statements on the spot. And of course there’s the notion of some who may be new to jazz music, that skilled practitioners somehow manage to “make it up” on the spot, to seemingly seize lines of music out of thin air as they go about their craft. It does take a special mind and years of arduous work before a musician can evolve to being an exceptional improviser; then once that skill has been achieved to varying degrees, the improviser must acquire the confidence to figuratively throw away the preconceived rules and allow improvisation to flow naturally from their chosen instrument. Indeed this can be a source of great frustration, even downright intimidation for some.

Recently, via (the parent or host of this site) we discovered the ongoing efforts of a young musician seeking to bring a new improvisation teaching tool to the music education marketplace. Scott Hughes says he has the Tonic. We recently sought out Mr. Hughes to learn more about he and his motivation to simplify the improviser’s education; clearly a few questions were in order.

Scott Hughes

Give Independent Ear readers some background on Scott Hughes
I’m a musician and entrepreneur based in Philadelphia, originally from Pittsburgh. All my life I’ve been interested in improvisation, but have had trouble finding teachers who could help me.

I started playing piano as soon as I was tall enough to reach the keys, and became obsessed with the blues and jazz from an early age. In college I studied music and while I loved the fact that I was able to spend so much time playing, I felt out of place. Music school was a competitive atmosphere, and while it drove me to work harder at times, it ultimately was an anxiety-inducing experience.

I often felt overwhelmed by the amount of information that I was taking in. Every teacher was talented and well-meaning, but everyone was telling me to practice something different. One might say I should be transcribing Charlie Parker solos, while another would suggest I transpose Real Book tunes into every key. And yet other teachers were trying to expose me to 20th century classical music

Talk your new project Tonic.
Tonic is a game that helps musicians practice improvisation. Using cards and dice, it’s a stress free way to experiment with improvisation. Each card has a clear but open-ended instruction that asks you to create a short piece of music on the spot.

It’s not a traditional game, since there is no score and the rules are relaxed. But Tonic will challenge you to rethink your approach and gently push you out of your comfort zone, which will help you grow as an artist and musician. The entire game is available for free at, but I’m also running a Kickstarter campaign to produce a professional version with high-quality cards and dice.

Tonic is based on the idea that improvisation should not be a serious endeavor — that improv should be playful and fun. For many people, myself included, the idea of making up music on the spot is difficult. It can be a source of stress and anxiety: “What do I play? Does it sound good enough?” And so on.


But when you look at the most masterful improvisers of all time, you don’t see that. You see easy, unbridled expression and confidence.

My goal is to bridge that gap and bring an element of playfulness to a subject that can be intimidating to beginners and experienced players alike.

What disparities in jazz education, and the way people learn to play jazz, did you detect that inspired your development of Tonic?
When you think about it, all musicians are improvisers. All composed pieces of music in history — every song, symphony, or solo– began as in improvisation. They must have been; because when you’re creating something new, there is nothing written down!

Somewhere along the way, we got lost. We started teaching students that in order to play jazz, you need to learn scales and chords. You need to study the Real Book. You need to listen to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

These things are all important, but they are intimidating to the beginner. The learning curve is too steep. A beginning musician needs to focus on simpler ideas: How do I create a piece of music from beginning to end, no matter how simple? How do I express myself? How do I make it fun?

Tonic addresses these questions head-on.

What would you say are the most practical applications of Tonic, and who/what is your target constituency?
Tonic is for any musician who wants to become a more creative and confident player. It’s deliberately designed so that musicians of every background and instrument can play and challenge themselves as artists.

The original version is available now on Kickstarter, and can be downloaded for free as a file which you can print at

Musicians who are high-school aged or older will get the most out of it, because they have enough experience with music to understand some of the concepts and terminology. But I have made an effort to keep everything accessible to even complete beginners. There are detailed instructions and a glossary included.

Tonic is not intended as a comprehensive solution. If your goal is to learn to improvise at the organ or at a jazz club, you will most certainly need a more structured and detailed approach. But Tonic is something that can be used in conjunction with these methods to encourage a more carefree and unconventional approach that will help them retain the spirit of “play” as they work through a more rigorous training program.

Ultimately what do you envision as the evolution of Tonic?
I envision Tonic developing into a community of individuals and educators who recognize that improvisation is something that all musicians, even if they aren’t doing it in a performance setting. Improvisation cultivates a fearlessness and a boldness that cannot be attained any other way.

The rewards go far beyond the actual practice — even if you’re a classical player and you never once play a note that isn’t written on the page, you will grow as an artist and as a person if you feel comfortable with improvising and expressing yourself through structured improvisation.

The beauty of Kickstarter is that it allows a creator like me to get feedback and test a new idea and see how people in the real world are using it. I have already begun to develop extra add-ons for Tonic, and will continue to refine and develop new ways to help students and educators, in hopes that Tonic will encourage improvisation to play a larger part in music education everywhere.

Tonic 1

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Sights & Sounds of Festival International de Jazz de Montreal ’15

Montreal Plas des Arts
Festival International de Jazz de Montreal may well be the most family-friendly of all major jazz festivals

Perhaps the world’s largest such event, Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, recently celebrated its 36th running June 26-July 5. The festival occupies approximately one square mile of the city’s prime downtown real estate. With the handsome arts venue/shopping mall/Musee D’Art Contemporary (the contemporary art museum)/Metro station complex on rue Ste-Catherine known as Place-des-Arts as its hub, the festival operates five huge outdoor satellite stages (designated as Scenes) on adjoining streets and the adjacent plaza that sits atop the mall plateau. At one end of Ste-Catherine, across the street from the Maison Du Festival (festival headquarters) building – which also houses a festival gallery/hall of fame, two club spaces which presented throughout the festival, and at street level Le Balmoral Bistro de Festival restaurant – next to one of two extensive festival merchandise boutiques (located at each end of the festival grounds) sits Jazz bars Heineken, a semi-open beer garden tent which hosted performances throughout the day. You get the drift, this is a massive event, with a kind of noon-to-midnight jazz-based street fair atmosphere. Adding to that street fair mentality are strolling brass bands, stilt walkers, and all manner of family-friendly diversions, including an extensive area on the plateau devoted to children’s pleasures. Consequently I cannot recall another festival that caters more directly to entire families, which turned out in abundance throughout the festival.

With the exception of the venues of Place-des-Arts, which include four modern, woody, acoustically superior concert halls, the vast majority of the action around the plaza, including the Scenes stages, is free. In addition to the Place-des-Arts halls, where the highest profile artists of the festival performed, the ticketed concert spaces also included a venue in the Hyatt Hotel across from Place-des-Arts, the two clubs in the festival headquarters building, and several indoor venues in easy walking access around the festival perimeter, including Club Soda, and two favorite venues, the lovely church Gesu, and Monument-National on the cross street Saint-Laurent. And that’s just a sketch of the festival geography; so if you get the sense of a jazz festival on a massive scale, you’ve got the picture. Drawing approximately 2 million celebrants over its 10-day run, Festival International de Jazz de Montreal has a $25M operating budget.
Montreal Plas des Arts1
As is customary with large-scale jazz festivals, this event offers a fair share of presentations that are either beyond the broadly-defined borders of what we know as jazz, or what might otherwise be seen as musical offshoots or sisters of the jazz tradition. The name of that tune is one festival presenters and producers know all too well, but it is precisely that broad sense of the music which draws the kind of aggregate numbers Montreal can boast with civic pride. Certainly if that broad music menu is what enables this grand event to present among many others the jazz mastery of the Wayne Shorter Quartet, Dee Dee Bridgewater, a quartet led by John Scofield & Joe Lovano, Vijay Iyer Trio, Abdullah Ibrahim (for 3 separate evenings!), Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dave Douglas, The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, the emerging South African pianist Kyle Shepard, Marc Cary‘s Focus Trio, John Pizzarelli, Eliane Elias, Johnny O’Neal, Dave Douglas, John Medeski (solo), or the by equal turns elegant & burning new acoustic quartet known as Heads of State, and dozens of other variations on the jazz groove… then so be it!

On Friday arrival night, armed with a pace-yourself sense of the immense scope of this festival from prior experiences, we eased into Montreal mode with a stroll across the festival byways absorbing the sights & sounds (including the startling artistry of David Altmejd at Musee D’Art Contemporary). Eventually we settled in at the 9pm performance by the young trumpet ace Theo Croker (grandson of the great Doc Cheatham) at Le Club, the street level venue at Maison Du Festival. Breathing fire from the jump, with another of DC’s impressive coterie of young bassists Eric Wheeler on acoustic, Croker piloted a nice, tight unit that clearly enjoyed playing together. Croker, who plays eyes shut tight, boasts a nice middle register and growing fluency, which he displayed to good measure on a solid program of originals, and jazz familiars, including a second set opening foray on Joe Henderson‘s “A Shade of Jade,” the leader impressively delivering his hard bop bona fides. Elsewhere he lent a puckish smear to his theme statement on Stevie Wonder‘s “Visions,” and expressed new found love for Hugh Masakela, skillfully navigating the South African’s “Bone Masakela, a particular feature for Wheeler’s supple bass solo.

After a day of pleasant retail strolling, Saturday evening brought the Stanley Clarke Band to Theatre Maisonneuve, the leader largely on acoustic bass save for his bass guitar opener and encore. Clarke’s quartet (with the volatile young drummer Mike Mitchell) essayed material ranging from his late pal George Duke‘s “Brazilian Love Affair,” to a gorgeous reading of Joe Henderson’s “Black Narciussus,” which brought out the nuanced craft of the excitable Mitchell’s trapsmanship. All these years later, Stanley Clarke’s acoustic bass facility remains astounding.

As the Monday evening dinner hour approached and folks began jockeying for tables at the inviting sidewalk restaurants and cafes aligned on one side of rue Ste-Catherine with a view of much festival action, a robust crowd gathered a block away at Scene TD (TD Bank is a major festival sponsor) for Toronto-based saxophonist-flutist Jane Bunnett‘s latest Afro-Cuba immersion, the all-women ensemble Maqueque. The young sister at the piano elicited obvious shades of Chucho Valdes in her rippling facility, and throughout their set Jane’s sinewy soprano and attractive flute cut distinctive figures as focal point of Maqueque’s Afro-Cuban percussive exuberance. Their Justin Time album “Jane Bunnett and Maqueque” copped the prestigious Juno (Canada’s music awards) for Jazz Album of the Year. Here are a couple of video clips to give you some sense of this fierce assemblage:

That evening presented one of the week’s heartiest menus. Following Maqueque’s set, at 8pm it was on to Theatre Maisonneuve for the imposing John Scofield/Joe Lovano Quartet, with their locomotive integration of tenor and guitar, buoyed by the distinguished rhythm section of drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Larry Grenadier. Lovano rolled out his bristling tribute to recent ancestor Ornette Coleman “Ettenro”. The animation in Lovano’s performance was particularly vivid as his portable mic enabled him to do a deft soft shoe around his place on the stage in deeply concentrated reaction to the music.

At 10:30 we made our way around the corner on rue De Bleury to the lovely chapel Gesu for a new assemblage of masters known as Heads of State: Gary Bartz, Larry Willis, Buster Williams, and Al Foster (don’t sleep their new release on Smoke Sessions). Grace and deep swing defined this assemblage as they dipped into the book of McCoy Tyner for “Passion Dance” and “Search for Peace,” stopping along the way to honor Monk with Bartz “Uncle Bubba.” What a veritable sonic buffet, and all that in one evening!
Tuesday evening’s happy hour brought the charming Brazilian chanteuse Joyce Moreno (known largely on records as simply Joyce, in that typical one-name Brazil parlance) at Club Soda, seated comfortably at a stool, legs crossed to accommodate her accompanying guitar, with piano-bass-drums trio. Her sublime solo take on Jobim’s “Waters of March” (“Agua de Beber”) was worth the visit alone.

Eleven year old Joey Alexander opened the 8pm Wayne Shorter Quartet concert at Maison Symphonique with solo aplomb and a maturity belying his youth. Technically facile it will be intriguing to watch his development once he’s lived more of life’s vicissitudes. Shorter’s set, with the familiar Danilo Perez/John Patitucci/Brian Blade unit, unfolded like a mystery, befitting the Mysterious Traveler aspect of the master and reflecting his noted cinematic immersion. These days Wayne remains seated, shifting seamlessly between tenor and soprano as the feeling strikes him, playing in bursts, deftly reflecting the “we always solo, we never solo” credo that’s been his since Weather Report days. Shorter listens intently, particularly to Danilo who is the central nervous system of this band.

The next evening following a day of strolling among the city’s numerous delights and (an ethnic coincidence I assure you) lucking into a beautiful Indian meal after lack of reservations denied entry to another boîte, it was on to Monument National to climb the steps for the Vijay Iyer Trio, with Stephan Crump on bass and the eminently musical Tyshawn Sorey on drums. There’s an architectural quality to Vijay’s tune development, particularly evident on two potent covers he delivered – on Monk’s tricky “Work” (which appears on his current ECM release), a reading of Henry Threadgill‘s “Little Demons”, and the leader’s own “Our Lives.” In his outro to the first seamless medley of tunes, Vijay deftly likened the set to a DJ mix tape.

The next two evenings were spent in the agreeable, street level confines of Le Club. But first we stopped over at Gesu for the first of three evenings of Abdullah Ibrahim, one of the festival’s two special Invitation Series artists (the other was guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel). A true mark of distinction for this festival, the Invitation Series invites multi-faceted artists to perform in different contexts for a series of evenings. Ibrahim chose to open his 3-evening series solo, which was quite enchanting. He followed the next evening with a trio performance that never seemed to click, his trio mates on bass & cello, and drums seemed attached tightly to a veritable string and the interaction never meshed. There simply wasn’t much joy onstage that puzzling evening. The music seemed to amble from through-composed pieces to improvised forays. A familiar fragment would peak through now and then, but with tantalizingly disappointing briefness. Ibrahim’s final evening found him in the company of his Ekaya Septet, but alas that was travel day for us.

After Ibrahim’s solo set, Le Club presented the East African singer Somi, whose artistry seems to grow exponentially with each sighting, reflecting both her origins and her immersion in Nigeria. She quite effectively channeled Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, and even Fela… though the end result was pure Somi and not the least bit imitative. And she has good taste in rhythm sections, with DC’s own Ben Williams on bass and Otis Brown lll on drums, ample evidence that this is one singer who is not the least bit intimidated by mixing it up with her equal turns crafty and complimentary band members.
Montreal Somi

Still puzzling over Ibrahim’s trio effort, ironically our last evening closed with another keyboard-bass-drums trio that thoroughly meshed, in the person of Marc Cary‘s Focus Trio. There was plenty of tension and modulation in the ebb and flow of Cary’s unit, with yet another young DC bassist, Rashsaan Carter, and drummer Sameer Gupta‘s distinctive groove, leavened with East Indian textures via his tabla set-up. Cary is a consistent carrier of the flame, from the moment he struck Harold Mabern‘s incendiary “The Beehive” Cary, no stranger to the groove factor on his Fender-Rhodes keyboard, which acted up a bit technically, offered a Gnawa groove inspired by his time in Essaouira, Morocco at the great Gnawa Festival. He even surprisingly served up Hermeto Pascoal‘s mini-gem “Little Church,” with a nice outro anecdote about a chance encounter with Pascoal on a trip to Brazil. With much of the music based on his latest Motema release “Rhodes Ahead Vol. 2″, Marc Cary beautifully capped off our Montreal experience.

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The best Billie read of her centennial year

Lots of inertia surrounding 2015 as the centennial year of the birth of American music immortal Billie Holiday. The tributes have included several recordings, most notably Cassandra Wilson and Jose James separate re-imaginings of Lady Day. From the literary perspective on Billie comes John Szwed’s very worthwhile new book Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth (Viking). John Szwed is a longtime professor (notably director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, one of the more unique jazz studies programs, with its focus on the academic rather than the pedagogical side of jazz studies), jazz critic, and author of exceptional biographies of Sun Ra, Miles Davis, and the intrepid oral historian Alan Lomax.
Two recent prints bore wildly divergent viewpoints on Szwed’s treatment of Billie. In his monthly JazzTimes magazine column, The Gig, New York Times critic Nate Chinen (multiple JJA Awards winner for jazz journalism), after listing some of this centennial year’s recorded homages to Lady Day, writes this” “She was a fount of swinging ebullience and a doyenne of dirges: Our Lady of Sorrows. She was vulnerable and flinty, a tragic case with little use for your pity. “All those who have attempted to write about her have discovered that there are many Billie Holidays, ” John Szwed writes in the introduction to his slim but illuminating book Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (Viking), the most rewarding bit of Billieana to surface in any form this year.”

Meanwhile in the May 22 edition of the Washington Post (Style section), Matt Schudel’s rather churlish review includes the following: “Holiday, who was often called “Lady Day,” would seem to be a natural subject for a first-rate biography, but for some reason that has not been the case. The best of a mediocre lot is perhaps Donald Clarke’s “Wishing on the Moon,” published in 1994.” So in one fell swoop Schudel dismisses at least two very worthy treatments of La Holiday, notably by two of Szwed’s Columbia colleagues: Robert O’Meally’s Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (1991, Arcade), and Farah Jasmine Griffin’s If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday (2001, Simon & Schuster)! Or perhaps he slept those fine editions to the Holiday bibliography.
Schudel goes on to say: “In a sense, Holiday’s life was one long spiral toward tragedy, but Szwed seldom takes biographical advantage of the rich documentary material he finds.” One must assume by that passage that Mr. Schudel would have preferred heaps more lurid details, dirt, and a chronicle of Holiday’s long slide down the degradation tunnel of drug addiction, poor spousal choices, and new sexual affairs revelations. Later Schudel declares: “The most interesting sections of this diffuse and poorly conceived book are two chapters in which Szwed analyzes Holiday’s singing style.” Frankly, that level and depth of analysis is one of the real hallmarks of Szwed’s approach to Billie, and the author’s central purpose! One wonders if Schudel ever got far enough in Szwed’s treatment to read this end game Szwed declaration on p. 197 of his 219 page treatment: “I set out to write a book that cast new light on the extraordinary artist who was Billie Holiday. My intention was not to deny or gainsay the tribulations and tragedy of her life, but to shift the focus to her art. The consistency and taste she brought to nearly every performance, even those when her body was failing her, display a discipline, an artist’s complete devotion to her work, and a refusal to surrender to the demands of an insatiable world.” That pretty much says it all about John Szwed’s approach to his subject, particularly when one considers that the lurid details of her life are at this point so much ad nauseam, which is one reason this writer found Szwed’s take both refreshing and illuminating.

Instead of chapters on, perhaps the initial dabble with heroin spiraling into addiction, or her various affairs and assorted smarmy details, Szwed chose to write detailed chapters on a re-examination of the often dismissed William Dufty co-authored autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, in which Dufty himself is treated more kindly than previous examinations of the book that led to Berry Gordy’s entertaining but hack film of the same name. Holiday’s arc as a singer and a musician are explored, with very real delineations between those two sides of her artistry. Perhaps the most exhaustive Szwed chronicle of all is the songs Billie chose and why she chose those vehicles. Above all his is a sensitive, intelligent, and musicological detailing of this most unique of all singers, and as such is highly recommended.

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