The Independent Ear

Dicey weather aside Newport soldiers on

Ron Carter
Swinging grace personified: Ron Carter at the bass

Has it been 60 years already? Founded in 1954 by George Wein and an old money Newport couple as a means of broadening the inviting summer hang-out, the Newport Jazz Festival celebrated its unprecedented history with a lineup that reflected many facets of the broad-based aesthetic umbrella that jazz has become. Friday afternoon was perfectly suited for toting the old lawn chairs and scavenging out a good vantage point on the great lawn facing the main, or Ertegun Fort Stage at Fort Adams State Park. The day was notably dominated by artists and bands who’ve largely arrived in the 21st century, starting with the Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors, a student ensemble directed by pianist Danilo Perez and featuring guest tenorist David Sanchez. They were followed on the main stage by composer Darcy James Argue‘s Secret Society, the miraculous vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, and that excitable young gent Jon Batiste & Stay Human, the leader’s yellow suit and pied piper mentality being cause enough for mass revelry in the sun. He closed his raucous set, melodica in mouth, marching his band through the lawn chair brigade, hundreds of smart phones capturing selfies all the while. Someday, after Jon Batiste’s stage & screen career is aloft (watch for it…) a youngster will be leafing through his granny’s keepsake images and ask “Grandma, is that Jon Batiste you’re hugging in the funny-looking yellow suit with the keyboard in his mouth, and what’s Grandpa drinking from that jug?”

On the Quad Stage in the inner courtyard of the old fort, John Zorn held court with several of his Masada cohorts for what amounted to a 2-1/2 hour marathon, one which included the trumpeter Dave Douglas and his boundless well of ideas. Over on the Harbor Stage alto saxman Rudresh Mahanthappa premiered his Charlie Parker Project, promising among other intrigues, Bird in an odd-metered environment. The Old Home Week allure of Newport and the revolving sets/multi stage layout make for a happy madness that is a central part of the festival experience, for it seems only those determined to dig into an advantageous sightline at the MainStage, or plop down in an agreeable festival row chair at the Harbor or Quad stage area are likely to catch entire sets, and even those hearty, determined souls are swayed by the occasional midway snack, crafts fair retail stroll, or one or another of nature’s calls. But at least on this lone day of the three, disagreeable weather wasn’t a culprit if you by chance missed some measure of your chosen sets, as did we.

The impressive throwback/futuristic chanteuse Cecile McLorin Salvant, with the startling pipes (still only 24, no other singer of her generation approaches the extravagant wealth of her lower register and ability to soar upwards with the chops of a vocal Charlie Parker) and proclivity towards Jim Crow era and turn-of-the-20th century lyrics, surely made some new friends that afternoon and on her subsequent Quad Stage performance Saturday afternoon. Fellow writer-photographer (and Ain’t But a Few of Us correspondent) Bridget Arnwine shot some photos standing next to a guy new to Salvant’s artistry who likely summed up many a first Salvant impression: “I’ve never heard her before; she sure does sing some weird songs…, but man she’s great!” Following Cecile was a tough task, but altoist Miguel Zenon impressed at the helm of his “Identities” Big Band, though despite playing a program of complex originals conveyed by largely young guys this audience had likely never heard before, Zenon chose to only address the audience at the end of his program; big mistake for someone establishing himself as a large ensemble leader in this milieu.

The science of meteorology has advanced over the decades to an uncanny ability to predict the weather (yeah, I know, not exactly profound…). Remember when some storm/inclement weather pattern or other would be predicted and you’d think to yourself ‘that may or may not happen.’? Not anymore, these folks nail it now and our advance check of weather.com predicted mad rain for Newport’s Saturday afternoon proceedings. Sure enough from the time we crossed the bridge and entered the queue of traffic slowly snaking its way through the quaint streets to Fort Adams, the rain was relentless, coming down like Trane at full throttle and destined for all day. The complimentary yellow school buses transporting festfans from remote parking lots to the grounds could not arrive quickly enough to stave off many celebrants starting their day soaked like some pet pooch left out in the rain. The ride back to the hotel couldn’t go quickly enough for coaxing off the shoes, wringing out the socks and a complete change of clothes. Missing the Robert Glasper Experiment and Gregory Porter‘s storytelling charm whilst slogging our way in, umbrellas, rain parkas and lawn chair placement later the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra gave a platinum accounting, arrangements including Horace Silver‘s “Señor Blues” and trombonist Vincent Gardner doing his best Jimmy Rushing blues. Wynton on a mission, as always, and in fine fettle at Newport, no quibbles. Alas Saturday was a day more fit for seeking shelter and socializing under some cover than braving the elements to catch what was an exceptional and stylistically expansive day of artists; Dan Melnick is a skilled artistic director indeed. The tented shelter of the Quad Stage (seating is also tented at the Harbor Stage) did beckon, and some substantive sizzle from Cubano conguero Pedrito Martinez’s from-deep-in-the-gut small band was the truth.

Vijay Iyer Vijay Iyer courtesy Matt Merewitz
Sunday did provide a measure of relief from Mother Nature, with only gray skies and intermittent drizzle, but the allure of the Quad and Harbor lineups proved irresistible, particularly as opposed to scoping out a spot in the Main Stage area. The Cookers were followed on the Quad Stage by Vijay Iyer‘s inspiring unit, including Mark Shim on tenor sax and some Haynes family fire, with Graham Haynes on cornet and his nephew Marcus Gillmore on drums. Fils Roy would have enjoyed this set! At one point Iyer broke it down to a deep groove orientation that drew many a nodding head. Surveying the crowd, one experienced a refreshing youngish sector that belies concerns about the graying of the jazz audience. These kids, raised on hip hop, locked into Vijay’s groove with intense familiarity and deep approval. In fact that entire weekend was a breath of fresh air as far as the overall age demographic, recalling an earlier impression that what the younger audience seeks is a portable experience, where they’re not locked into a club table or auditorium seating for two hours, but one where they can freely socialize, move around, keep their smartphones active, and lacking the restrictive nature of those good intention/bad idea pre-show admonishments against photography, snap away at will with their devices.
Graham Haynes & Marcus Gillmore
Uncle Graham Haynes checking out dad Roy’s grandson Marcus Gilmore’s adept and dashing drum work

From Vijay it was a slow drift over to the Harbor Stage to lock down for the next three sets. (Oh boy, Suz found us some front row seats!) Having seen Ravi Coltrane the week prior in Santa Fe with Jack DeJohnette‘s Trio (scroll down for that impression), it was a refreshing contrast to hear his original composition-laden, piano-less quartet featuring the adventurous trumpeter Ralph Alessi. The driver’s seat was industriously occupied by the rambunctious DC-raised drummer Kush Abadey, whose polyrhythmic pallet gave contrasting lift and gravity to Coltrane’s music.

Ron Carter Trio
Elegance came knocking with a velvet glove as NEA Jazz Master Ron Carter‘s suavely, deeply swinging trio filled the Harbor Stage with the kind of élan that never gets old. Time stood still as Carter coaxed a gorgeous “You Are My Sunshine” that was a triumph of pure subtlety over the sometimes disruptive winds of big event jazz. Impeccably draped in matching dark suits and yellow ties, reminding all that Ron Carter is proudly “old school” (and ‘you wanna make something of it’?), guitarist Russell Malone and pianist Donald Vega boast remarkable lines of communication, achieving as full a band sound as any ensemble that weekend. Carter, a warm man and one about whom the old saw “doesn’t suffer fools easily” also fits, agreeably played “My Funny Valentine” as a dedication to a gentleman intending to propose to his beloved right then & there at the Harbor, which he did to the oohs & ahhs delight of Carter’s audience. The temperature rose agreeably as the ebullient pianist-composer and Prince of Panama Danilo Perez played his “Panama 500″ program, significantly buoyed by the presence of the percussionist Roman Diaz in the ensemble. Nothing like some intelligent fire to close a good weekend! Nothing we can do about the weather and despite that lack of cooperation, Newport 60 was a blast!
Danilo
Danilo

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The Albuquerque/Santa Fe jazz trail

Were it not for jazz festivals, which flourish across this country during the summer months, one shudders to consider what the nature of our aggregate cultural calendar would resemble. Two recent experiences further substantiated the importance of these events to our collective cultural psyche, at least for those who enjoy creative music. The distance between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Newport, Rhode Island is practically as far as the eye can survey a map of this country. Yet the earnest presentations of the New Mexico Jazz Festival and the old warhorse Newport Jazz Festival could not be more closely aligned in terms of artistic intent, not to mention diligent presentations of both the classic and the contemporary spheres of the music. So the gulf between their respective chronologies is not as distant as you might think when you consider the mission of each event.

NMJF

Admittedly pleasant Work and responsibility awaited in New Mexico; a road trip, an extended weekend away, and the prospects of seeing friends & colleagues beckoned in Newport. In each case, the magnetic pull and prospect of splendid performances provided common threads. Ongoing work with the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters program compelled a crack-of-dawn Friday morning (July 25) wake-up call, a Metro to DCA for a 3-1/2 hour flight aboard American Airlines – which operates arguably the least accommodating seating (particularly if you’re 6’7″) of any domestic carrier – to Dallas/Ft. Worth, two-hour layover, hour & 45 minutes to Albuquerque, NM and a pleasant 60 mile drive across mountainous desert terrain to high country Santa Fe (elevation 7K+), I-25 bearing zero resemblance to the daily multi-culti/aggressive driver chaos of the dreaded Beltway. Courtesy of the NEA Jazz Masters Live grant program, whose funding renewal is currently in a state of suspended animation (write/call/text your congressman), a site visit was in order for the New Mexico Jazz Festival’s engagement of the NEAJM drummer-bandleader Jack DeJohnette. (In what I suppose is perhaps a reflection of the old adage espoused by Miles Davis and others that the most important member of any band is the drummer, named an NEA Jazz Master in 2012 DeJohnette preceded Charles Lloyd (class of ’15) – leader of the classic 60s quartet which introduced many to Jack’s budding mastery – and his Lloyd bandmate Keith Jarrett (class of ’14) with his induction into that ring of honor.)

Layovers sometimes reap unexpected pleasures. Strolling the busy DFW corridor of the flight concourse on arrival, aimlessly seeking some measure of refreshment, I heard my name called. Who could that be? Spinning around and spotting a fellow aimless layover victim, it was yet another splendid drummer – Terri Lyne Carrington, and two of her Mosaic Project band members, bassist Josh Hari and guitarist Matt Stevens. Realizing we had the same destination, airport small talk turned to mild concern for the whereabouts of the band’s piano-keyboard player, Rachel Z, who was apparently trapped in some airline delay vortex that might leave a missing link in that evening’s Mosaic Project concert. Ah yes, the vagaries of musician travel. Upon Albuquerque arrival we went separate ways – they to their presenter pick-up, me to my rental car and… “See ya’ll this evening.”

The New Mexico Jazz Festival (2014 was its 9th running; a little brother as these things go, with grandpa coming up the following weekend in Newport) is a collegial partnership of three NM presenters – the Albuquerque-based Outpost Performance Space (under the stewardship of saxophonist-composer Tom Guralnick, one of the real princes of the creative music presenting business), Santa Fe’s multi-discipline presenter the Lensic Performing Arts Center, and the Santa Fe Jazz Foundation, whose founder & president is retired rancher/current restaurateur and old friend Bumble Bee Bob Weil. Considering the cutting edge proclivities of Guralnick, the mainstream sensibilities of Weil, and the multi-discipline presenting of the Lensic NMJF is a unique partnership that works, this running featuring 10 performances in Albuquerque (including 6 at Outpost, a converted/redesigned storefront in the manner of a spiffy, southwest-style loft) and 5 in Santa Fe over the course of its 16-day run. Oh yeah, that early morning Eastern time zone wake-up and the arrival in Mountain time did facilitate a mid-afternoon arrival in Santa Fe, just in time to head over to Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill for the world-class fish tacos and some catch up time with Bumble Bee himself over a scrumptious coconut flan desert.

Outpost

That evening at the Lensic, still short Rachel Z’s empty piano chair, TLC’s Mosaic Project soldiered on in high style, the drummer occasionally gazing stage left and joking with the audience for the pianist’s imminent arrival. The Mosaic Project emphasizes female mastery, Stevens and Hari being the gender exceptions. You could not find two more stylistically diverse vocalists than Lizz Wright and Gretchen Parlato, but somehow TLC’s Grammy-winning project makes that vocal diversity work as each took turns in the lead. On alto & soprano saxophones were two youthful and fresh voices, the precocious, rapidly maturing Grace Kelly and the promising Berklee Global Jazz Institute alum Hailey Nischwanger. Matt Stevens is a guitarist with a full and distinctive sound who lends significant voicings to whatever setting he graces, including the modernistic landscapes of trumpeter Christian Scott (Christian a Tunde Adjuah)’s band and drummer Jamire Williams‘ Erimaj. He was particularly effective shading Parlato’s understated stylings. The singers are at the core of this project, Parlato with a subtle and supple approach like none other and the Holy Ghost that always emanates from deep within Lizz Wright, an old soul who must have been here in a previous eon. An unlikely pair to be sure but clearly TLC knows what works in service to her music and she brings the two together in seamless fashion. Arriving straight from airport pick-up to her piano chair, Ms. Z brought added heft to the ensemble following intermission.

From the beginnings of the NMJF Guralnick has engaged author-poet and retired NEA executive A.B. Spellman as the festival’s scholar-in-residence. An engaging, informative inquisitor Spellman conducted a Saturday afternoon Meet The Artist interview for a robust house at the Lensic with Jack DeJohnette. Cannily beginning the session by noting the recent passing of Jack’s fellow NEAJM Charlie Haden, Spellman elicited warm remembrances of Haden/DeJohnette encounters past, including the “80/81″ Pat Metheny ECM record session they shared and reminiscences on the essence of the unique personage of Charlie, whose warm legacy obviously touched many in light of the outpouring of love at his passing (scroll down for the Independent Ear’s remembrance of Charlie). The Spellman/DeJohnette conversation touched upon their shared experiences at Slug’s Saloon in Jack’s early New York days, including performing with the NEAJM Sun Ra who enjoyed a lengthy Monday night residency at the noted Alphabet City dive, and Jack’s first prominent New York gig with NEAJM Jackie McLean, who inaugurated Slug’s live music policy. Particularly vivid was Jack’s recall of an opportunity to sit in for NEAJM Elvin Jones in the monumental John Coltrane Quartet. DeJohnette informed the audience that early 2015 will see the release of the stellar Chicago Jazz Festival concert he made last year with NEAJM Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, and bassist Larry Gray as part of the drummer’s 70th birthday year.

Jack & A.B

John Coltrane was a looming presence in DeJohnette’s NMJF residency. That evening’s concert featured his rangy trio with Ravi Coltrane on saxophones and Matthew Garrison, son of Trane’s long time bassist Jimmy, on bass guitar. In an interview with Garrison at his hotel, following the Spellman/DeJohnette session, the bassist spoke of the free nature of this trio and how their sets wove familiar themes within a largely edgy context that inevitably reached standing ovation audiences despite the unbound nature of much of their performances. The evening opened with DeJohnette manipulating his vocal mic and crash cymbal to gong-like effect, Garrison playing atmospheric bass guitar with live electronics, thoughtful Ravi alternating tenor and soprano saxes, both orbiting around the drummer’s rhythmic core. The set included DeJohnette’s “7th D”, Trane’s “Spiral”, Joe Henderson‘s classic, spacey ballad “Black Narcissus”, and the drummer’s lovely tribute to his wife of four+ decades “Lydia”. Then DeJohnette sat down at the piano, where one gains a clear connection with his drumming style. A finely spun “Blue in Green” compelled Ravi’s soprano, followed by an unexpected “Sidewinder” cleverly invoked by Garrison’s bass, sparking some knowing audience recognition of Lee Morgan‘s soul-jazz anthem by the jazz vets in the house. This was some of the most successful trio music one might experience these days, especially on an agreeable night in Santa Fe.

Jack's trio

NEXT TIME: the 60th anniversary Newport Jazz Festival…

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A friend remembers Charlie Haden

Charlie Haden

Some regular Independent Ear readers may recall our piece on the exceptional Washington History volume released by the Historical Society of Washington, DC last spring titled “Jazz in Washington.” That project was a labor of love for author Blair Ruble and his co-editor/publisher, Georgetown University Professor, author and cultural warrior Maurice Jackson. Prof. Jackson is a longtime friend and colleague from DC jazz circles and beyond, including our membership in a thoroughly unique DC-area jazz enthusiast/jazz scholars collective known as The Listening Group. Maurice has often talked about his warm and abiding friendship with the NEA Jazz Master Charlie Haden, who recently ascended to ancestry. Ruth Cameron, Charlie’s widow, invited Maurice to speak at Charlie’s private memorial service, where the good Professor delivered the following lovely remembrance of one of the most unique artists this music has ever known. I had to chuckle at a few of the references, fondly recalling Charlie’s telephone calls to our house where even if it was my wife answering the standard greeting was something along the lines of “Hey man, its Charlie.” Maurice has graciously consented to our publishing the remarks he delivered at Charlie Haden’s July 10 memorial service in Los Angeles.
Maurice
Professor Maurice Jackson

Remembrances of Charlie Haden
By Maurice Jackson
July 20, 2014

I first met Charlie Haden in the late 1970s. He was playing at the One Step Down on Pennsylvania Ave. with the pianist and arranger Joanne Brackeen. Later he had duets there with the noted DC pianist Reuben Brown. The One Step was a cozy spot with booths and a long bar where I sat. After the gig we struck up a talk — not about music but about radical politics —and we kept talking, most often on his frequent calls to me (except when he was on the road), for over 35 years.

By the time I met him he had already gained an international reputation as a member of the legendary Ornette Coleman Quartet. And I had every record that I could find by Coleman’s group and had Charlie’s first recording with his Liberation Music Orchestra. I was just a young activist. We spoke that first night about the songs of the Spanish Civil War and the men and women who fought to defend the Spanish Republic in the 1930s that he recorded. He had interspersed some of their songs including “Los Cuatro Generales” the “Four Generals.” He became excited when I told him that once at a rally in Moscow I saw Delores Ibarruri—the famed “La Pasonaria” of the Spanish resistance. Like Ben Webster or Lester Young on the tenor sax her voice was so powerful that she seldom needed a microphone and she could belt out a speech so resonant that one could hear her in whispers on the front row or loudly in the rear, of a rally, with the same intonations.

Charlie was a man of the world who cared deeply about the world — and its environment and peoples. Too often people, especially artists, like Charlie or scholars like me — know very little of the plight of everyday human beings. Many, as the late historian and social activist, W.E.B. Du Bois once said know a lot about humanity but know little of men (and women). Charlie was different and I try to be.

Whenever he would call and even if my wife or children answered the phone they would always be greeted with the same refrain “Hey man, Its Charlie.” Over the years the topics changed. When the hearings on Clarence Thomas and his suitability for the Supreme Court were held — Charlie was glued to the proceedings. He wondered how a man who had been so convincingly portrayed by Anita Hill as a sexual harasser could be nominated for the land’s highest Court. Charlie felt the discrimination suffered by women, especially African American women. He had a deep appreciation of their role in history and in music. He loved playing with DC’s own Shirley Horn, and with the Howard University trained pianist Geri Allen who joins us today [at Charlie's services]. He was close to and recorded with Abbey Lincoln and with Alice Coltrane the widow of John Coltrane, and a grand musician in her own right. He had a special relationship with their son saxophonist Ravi Coltrane who he also taught at Cal Arts, where he founded the jazz program.

Over the years when any big political event occurred he would call. Because of his disdain of US policies in Latin America especially during the Iran-Contra hearings he recorded another album with the Liberation Music Orchestra, “Not in Our Name.” He also recorded partly at my own suggestion the Chilean resistance song “The People United Will Never be Defeated” and the anthem of the African National Congress, of South Africa “Nkosi SikeleL’I Afrika.”

Charlie helped me understand the role of jazz in changing society and I regularly teach a course “Jazz and Human Rights” at Georgetown University about the social origins and the effect of the music on society. He and Hank Jones recorded “Spirituals, Folksongs and Hymns,” (1995) and “Come Sunday.” (2012) I was honored when he asked me to write the liner notes for both CD’s. He performed these songs twice at Georgetown, in 1995 with Mr. Jones and in 2009 with NEA Jazz master Kenny Barron and I accompanied he and Hank when they preformed them at Duke University in 2007. It was always a pleasure being with Hank and Charlie both NEA jazz masters and Downbeat Hall of Fame inductees. They were both teetotalers and would tell the corniest jokes, and we all fell out laughing with them.

I wrote a letter to the National Endowment for the Arts to nominate Charlie for the NEA Jazz Master’s honor. He did not receive it the first time. He asked me not to bother with submitting a letter the next year. I ignored him and the next year he was inducted at a grand ceremony at the Lincoln Center chaired by its musical director, Wynton Marsalis. Charlie was ill and could not attend so his daughter Petra, the singer and violinist, read a message from him. The noted NY Post columnist and Charlie Parker biographer Stanley Crouch said introductory words for Charlie. Some time later I got a message from an old friend in NYC who sent me an article, in the NY Post, by Mr. Crouch in praise of Anthony Benezet, the French born Huguenot turned Quaker (1713-1784) who had fled France, gone to Philadelphia and became an international leader against slavery and the slave trade and founder of a school to educate Blacks. I had written a book Let this Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet Father of Atlantic Abolitionism about Benezet and Charlie quietly made sure that Mr. Crouch got a copy. Charlie, for me, was made of the same cloth as the antiracist Quaker, Benezet. In the parlance of Black people, like me, who have witnessed so much inequality, poverty, hatred and bigotry and have seen too few whites willing to fight for justice “they were 2 good white men.”

As he grew weaker our talks became less frequent. Often I would just call his number to leave a voicemail and his wonderful wife Ruth would let me know that he got it. In some of his last calls he would play ,over the telephone, an unrecorded tape, of one of his bands, or recordings of Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Piano Trio Number 2 in D Minor” or Maurice Ravel’s “Concerto in G Major” or some other favorite, or especially a Bach Etude.

Near the end he called and at the conclusion said, “I love you man.” While I have always told my wife and our kids how much I love them, it caught me by surprise when a white man, my senior, spoke those words to me. After all I grew up in the horrible Jim Crow south, worked as a longshoreman and rigger in my native Newport News, Virginia and worked in the “movement.” I felt battle scarred from my years growing up in Jim Crow Virginia and Alabama and from my many years in the “movement” where I indeed saw too few good white men. I see too few in the arts and academe today.

On a recent radio program paying tribute to Charlie I was asked to suggest several songs with him playing. The last song I played was the Cole Porter classic “Every Time We Say Goodbye” … “I die a little.” It was recorded by he and pianist Keith Jarrett in 2007 but just released in the last month or so. In those last calls each time I said goodbye to Charlie “I died a little….. I cried a little.” To paraphrase the words of Khalil Gibran, Charlie’s kindness “touched my silent heart and made it sing.” I love you man and I will miss you immensely.

[Maurice Jackson is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University and Chair of the District of Columbia’s Commission on African American Affairs. He is coeditor with Blair Ruble of Jazz in Washington, D.C. in Washington History, Journal of the Historical Society of Washington, ªApril 2014
contact: jacksonz@georgetown.edu]

Charlie

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The Intrepid improvising biker

There is so much to be done
on earth, do it soon!
I cannot carry on the everyday life I am living;
art demands this sacrifice too.
Rest, diversion, amusement -
only so that I can
function more powerfully in my art.
Ludwig Van Beethoven, 1814 (from The Quotable Musician by Sheila E. Anderson)

In my work with artists and as a presenter I’m forever seeking new angles and advanced means of bringing creative music to the public. A recent post from trumpeter-composer Taylor Ho Bynum, whose work I know primarily from his participation in NEA Jazz Master Anthony Braxton‘s projects, detailed what I found to be a unique effort at engaging more people and potentially new audiences in his original music expressions. It seems Mr. Bynum is something of a cycling devotee… so much so that he is about to embark upon a West Coast tour, traveling literally from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico, armed with his bike, his gear and his trumpet. Along the way he’ll make strategic stops at an array of venues to engage with resident artists in various configurations, spreading the joy of music on the pedal. This was too good to pass up, I had to ask some questions.

Taylor Ho Bynum 1

How did you come up with this bike tour idea? Will you be traveling alone and how did you plot your travel route?
Partly the bike tour idea happened simply because I love playing music and I enjoy biking. But there are a lot of other inspiration/instigations. The usual experience of touring as a musician is rather surreal – you visit wonderful places, but you only see the airport, the venue, and the hotel. You never have a chance to really experience the areas you’re playing in. By traveling by bicycle, you really get to feel the geography, the people, the vibe of a place. And the creative mind is so much fresher after traveling through forests, beaches, mountains, then if you spent the whole time in a plane or car; it opens up a different kind of meditative/contemplative/aware improvisational mindset. Also, there are so many places in the US where I never get to perform; this gets me out of the big cities and meeting and playing for people in other locales.

I will be traveling alone, though happy if someone tags along for a day or two. I’ll be hooking up with musician friends in many of the larger cities (Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Bay Area, Los Angeles) for some of the concerts, but will also be playing a lot of spontaneous solos in whatever interesting places I find myself.

As far as plotting the route – once I settled on the West Coast (I had also considered cross country, but there are such long stretches without any kind of gig possibilities that way – I also like the symbolism of border to border as much as coast to coast) the route is pretty self-evident. Though I did take the advice to ride north to south, supposedly the headwinds are much in your favor in that direction.

Once you determined that this was viable, how did you build your schedule of performance activities?
I reached out to various musicians all along the coast, either old friends or folks I was interested in playing with for the first time, and while not everyone I hoped to collaborate with was available, many of them were, and that formed the basic skeleton of the tour. I also had some nice anchor gigs that solidified the itinerary – in a bit of luck, the Angel City Jazz Festival in Los Angeles coincided with my tour plans, and they were interested in both my group and Anthony Braxton’s ensemble that I play in, so that helped define the endpoint. Then much of the schedule is still undefined – I look forward to the surprise moments of music along the journey.

This is such a thoroughly unique idea – at least in my experience – but from the photo I saw of you on your bike, clearly you’re an experienced cyclist. And obviously this is not suitable for someone who just rides in the park on weekends or some musician who pedals down to Sam Ash for a box of reeds to avoid rush hour traffic. What’s been your training regimen for this tour?
I love biking, but I must admit I’m not one of those hard core guys with the fancy gear and super fast bike. I’m kind of a slow and steady rider rather than a speedy one. So my training (which I have to say, has been harder this time around as I’m pushing 40 – among other things, this experience is helping me come to grips with the realities of not being quite as young anymore) is basically just getting on the bike a lot, taking long rides around my hometown of New Haven. Ideally I should be doing at least 150-200 miles a week by now, with a freelance musician schedule it’s hard to be totally consistent but I’m getting there.

Taylor & Braxton
Our intrepid biker is a frequent collaborator on NEA Jazz Master Anthony Braxton’s projects

Given the variety of musical collaborations you have scheduled along your tour, what do you ultimately hope to achieve musically with this Bike Tour?
I’m really thrilled by the artistic variety of this trip, so many musicians I’m looking forward to collaborating with, and I love mixing it up from orchestra compositions to small ensembles to solos. But in a way, I see the entire 5-weeks and 1800 miles as a single composition – I often like composing suites, so this is the biggest, longest one I’ve ever tried. Each concert is its own movement, but I like the idea of the whole musical experience, however diverse each section may be, coming together under one overarching idea/concept.

Would you recommend other artists look for such unique ways to bring their artistry to diverse communities?
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend for every musician to jump on a bike, the particulars of this project just happen to fit my interests and aesthetic. But I do think it is past time for us as musicians to be as creative in the context of how we present our music as we try to be in the music itself. We need to experiment with new ideas in where we play, how it is presented, how we got to the gig, what kind of audience we’re playing for. For me, doing this kind of tour gives me the chance to connect to a new audience, gives me the chance to talk about my music in a different way, to help a new listener understand the analogy I see between the process of taking a long bike journey and the process of improvisational navigation through structured compositional form. My ideal audience is one that comes to the music free of preconceptions but open to explore a new experience – if the story of me biking to the concert helps them embrace that mindset, the project is a success.

Taylor Ho Bynum Bike Tour schedule (as of 6/27/14)
Thursday, August 28: Sunset solo at Wreck Beach, Vancouver, BC

Friday, August 29: Duo with Francois Houle (clarinet). The Apartment, 119B E Pender St, Vancouver, BC.

Saturday, August 30: Ensemble with Lisa Cay Miller (piano) and other musicians tba. China Cloud, 524 Main St, Vancouver, BC.

Wednesday, September 3: Quartet with Cuong Vu (trumpet), Carmen Rothwell (bass), and Dylan van der Schyff (drums). The Royal Room, 5000 Rainier Ave S, Seattle, WA.

Sunday, September 7: The Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, 12-piece ensemble led by Douglas Detrick (trumpet). Central Hotel, 8608 N Lombard St, Portland, OR.

Friday, September 12: Duo with Gregg Moore (tuba), Arcata, CA. House concert, rsvp required.

Tuesday, September 16: OrcheSperry, 14-piece ensemble led by Phillip Greenlief (saxophone). Berkeley Arts, 2133 University Ave, Berkeley, CA.

Wednesday, September 17: Quartet with James Fei (saxophone), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), and Jordan Glenn (drums), performing the ‘70s quartet music of Anthony Braxton. Duende, 468 19th St, Oakland, CA.

Friday, September 19: Duos with Myra Melford (piano).Center for New Music, 55 Taylor St, San Francisco, CA.

Saturday, September 27: Anthony Braxton Trio, with Braxton (saxophones, electronics) and Kyoko Kitamura (voice). Angel City Jazz Festival, Zipper Hall, 200 South Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA.

Sunday, September 28: 7-tette with Nicole Mitchell (flute), Michael Dessen (trombone), Jeff Gauthier (violin), Jeff Parker (guitar), Mark Dresser (bass), and Alex Cline (drums). Angel City Jazz Festival, Barnsdall Art Park Gallery Theater, 4800 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA.

Monday, September 29: Duo with Mark Dresser (bass).Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Pkwy, Mission Viejo, CA.

Tuesday, September 30: Sunset solo at Border Field State Park, San Diego, CA.

Wednesday, October 1: Sunrise solo, Playas de Tijuana, Mexico.

Here’s a performance from a previous Taylor Ho Bynum “Acoustic bicycle tour:

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The Inspiration of Margaret Walker spawns new composition

Randy Klein 1
Composer Randy Klein has been inspired by the poetry of the great Margaret Walker

Jazz composition and what motivates composers is a source of endless fascination for me, as one who appreciates composition on the same scale as inventive improvisation. A recent communication with pianist-composer Randy Klein revealed his current composition project, inspired by the poetry of Margaret Walker. Believing firmly that music composition motivated by a significant achievement or body of work from another art form is always worth investigating, the Independent Ear sought out Randy Klein for some insights into this new project. It should be added here that Klein is also an enterprising musician with his own record imprint, Jazzheads – yet another point of interest, perhaps for further conversation down the road.

Randy Klein: As far as a goal for For My People, it is for the work to become an actively performed work chosen by concert venues to be performed. Of course, I would want to hear it performed at the Kennedy Center or some other equally famous venue. It deserves to have a life. It is worthy. Recently, I have begun to envision it as a performance piece with a through line narrative. This is yet to be achieved. For now, the work is a major choral piece that should be performed a lot. I hope you will see its merits as well.

What first intrigued you about Margaret Walker’s poetry?
Margaret Walker
A young Margaret Walker and one of her watchwords

My attraction to the poetry of Margaret Walker was the result of a New York City subway ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan around 1998. Printed on a placard from the Poetry In Motion series was a poem by Ms. Walker, titled Lineage. It began, “My grandmothers were strong.” As the subway train rumbled on I was lost in the words of this heartfelt poetry. A few days later, I again became aware of the placard with Lineage on it. This time I scribbled down the poem on a piece of paper, got home and composed music for it.

I played the piece for my friend and collaborator, Madison Davis Lacy, who suggested I might want to read more of her poems. I purchased her book, This Is My Century and started to select additional poems to write to. It was a very natural and organic sort of thing. I had no mission or purpose to do this. I simply liked the work and the way she wrote. It connected to me and to the way I compose music.

Margaret Walker’s world is that of an educated southern black woman, raised in pre-civil rights era of our country’s history and mine is of a white Jewish kid from Fort Lee, NJ, sheltered and blind to any of the tribulations that were going on in the rest of the world. And, truthfully, at the beginning, I wasn’t even thinking why her poetry touched me. It was simply, that I liked the way she spoke and I was having fun setting her words to music. It wasn’t until much later in the process that I realized that she spoke of the separation of the classes, the human condition, racism, and social injustice. And, she was speaking out about those subjects by condemning the people who were causing the situation and at the same time she was not afraid to admonish her own people for allowing it to happen to them. It is this universal approach that she so carefully put into words is what I have since learned from the work. It is this universal message that speak to me now and should be heard by all.

Of Ms. Walker’s poems how did you select those particular poems you chose to write music to and what was it about those particular poems?
Margaret Walker 1

There was no particular order to my choosing the poems that have been set. In fact, it was quite random. I was aware from reading through the poems, that Margaret Walker had a few topics that the poems could be classified under. One was obviously human injustice and the other was more anecdotal tales of people she may have known or observed. The story telling aspect of the latter were a natural attraction to me.

Writing music to poetry isn’t like writing a pop tune. Each note is carefully selected to hopefully match the intent of the author. More on this later. The writing of music to the first 10 poems took about a decade. At that point, I decided to take on the challenge of composing the music to Margaret Walker’s most famous poem For My People. This iconic poem has many sections. It took about a year to finish it. When performed, it is a nine minute work. It can be performed as a stand alone work.

I have one more poem to set. This will be written this summer. It is titled, I Hear A Rumbling. Then I feel the work is complete.

What do you mean when you say “her work is more timely now than when she first penned those poems”?

The subject matter of the poems ranges from inflation to Medgar Evers to street demonstrations to the variation in color of the Afro-American’s skin, to the battering of women, to the history of the struggle of civil rights, to outright racism and to wanting to speak for her people. I would say, the subjects haven’t changed much since she first wrote these works.

I think it is the honest approach of Margaret Walker’s words that makes this work ring with more truth now then when first written. Yes, we see evidence that we have come a long way since then, but have we really? Inflation and separate class values, along with civil rights of all is in the subtext of most subjects today. These words are as timely a subject as they were then. WJ…I promise, I am not going to get preachy here. Again, it wasn’t my intention to be the spokesperson for this, but sometimes you don’t choose your calling.

When you present your work “For My People” your commissioned work will include the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa and Michael Harper. What is it about their poetry that resonates with you?

My friend, Dr. Joanne Gabbin, the director of the Furious Flower Poetry Conference called me to ask if For My People and another work Ballad Of The Free could be performed at the conference this September 2014. She told me that this year they were going to honor Mr. Komunyakaa and Mr. Harper. She asked me if I would be interested in writing music to two of their works. I hadn’t read their poetry at the time. I asked her to help me select the work to be set. Out of the poems she sent to me, I was attracted to Facing It by Mr. Komunyakaa, because it spoke so candidly about the Vietnam experience from the point of view of a Vietnam Veteran. I didn’t get drafted because my lottery number was high. I was lucky. But, I have always been always to this subject and I was able to find the voice of this poem.

Dear John, Dear Coltrane by Mr. Harper was a natural for me to choose. The music of the great John Coltrane has influenced my life and I hold it dear. I enjoyed the writing of this work and I hope I found the musical voice for it.

Both of these works took about a year to complete. We are currently working on the choral arrangements. I eagerly look forward to hearing them.

What’s your overall sense of the complimentary relationship between creative music and poetry?

This is a subject for a doctorate in music. My background is in songwriting. I have written more than 1300 songs and I teach songwriting. For every genre of song that exists, there is a technique that needs to be learned. Writing for a character in a musical theatre song is quite different than writing a song for PBS children’s educational shows, and different from writing a pop dance song. Similarities exist of course, they are all songs, but each has its own skill set.

Writing music for poetry is a very advanced form of songwriting. The composer has to be able to read the poem and capture the poet’s way of speaking it. For the most part, poetry and music is a tough match. My feeling is that most tone poems don’t speak in the poet’s voice. It takes a special type of ear to be able to really hear the voice of the poet. There is a saying in songwriting, ‘The lyric dictates the music and the music dictates the lyric’. In the case of poetry, the way the words speak dictate the music. In all honesty, it is the most difficult form of songwriting. Maybe this is why it took me over a decade to finish For My People.
Margaret Walker books
One of the classic works of Margaret Walker.

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