The Independent Ear

Jazz Congress & Winter Jazzfest: a great week in NYC

Despite the crispy weather chill, early January is a vibrant time to be in New York; it’s arts conference time in the City. The fulcrum is the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters, or APAP Conference at the midtown Hilton Hotel. With thousands of arts presenters, from small community presenters to big boys like the Kennedy Center, as well as arts funding organizations ascending upon the city at conference time – including the Chamber Music America conference and its ongoing embrace of jazz as a chamber music – artists and artist managements scramble to present all manner of new works, complimentary concerts, clue dates, and showcase performances at spaces and pop-ups around town. For those of us in the performing arts, despite the customary January weather challenges, the first weeks after the holidays are a great time to be in the City.

Several years ago, in response to APAP conversations and encouragements surrounding jazz music, the Jazz Connect conference was developed; held at St. Peter’s church, long known as the “jazz church” stemming from its traditional jazz vespers service and the developments of the late Rev. John Gensel, including hosting many jazz masters homegoing services. One of the principle partners in the Jazz Connect schematic was JazzTimes magazine, which as many know once hosted its own Jazz Times Conventions, which were eventually embraced as the jazz industry tract sector of the huge former International Association of Jazz Education (IAJE) conferences. From the ashes of IAJE’s ignominious downfall has arisen the Jazz Education Network conferences, also held in January but presented in a different region each year, much in the manner of the former National Association of Jazz Educators conferences, before the organization’s ill-fated decision to go International. Unlike its predecessor IAJE, JEN (whose 2018 conference was January 3-6 in Dallas) has determined to concentrate on the jazz education field, which left the other sectors of the jazz community (working musicians, radio, records, journalists & publications, managements, jazz presenters, clubs, etc.) to the Jazz Connect conference. Conference dizzy yet? There’s more…

For this year JazzTimes partnered with the Jazz at Lincoln Center organization to morph Jazz Connect into the Jazz Congress, hosted at JALC’s immaculate facilities in Columbus Circle. Panel discussions and professional development sessions, as well as college and university jazz ensemble performances in the Atrium, commenced Thursday, January 11th and Friday, January 12th. The keynote address was potently delivered by NBA legend and lifelong jazz enthusiast Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

Among the sessions this writer sampled that delivered real sustenance were Jazz and Race: A Conversation with Wynton Marsalisand pianist Ethan Iverson, moderated by artist manager Andre Guess. Gender and Jazz, moderated by journalist Michelle Mercer, was a particularly timely exchange in light of the #MeToo and subsequent nationwide allegations of sexual harassment making headlines. The discussion highlighted both well-documented and what for some may be the less-documented challenges faced by women jazz artists. Particularly poignant testimony was offered by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington (Bruce Lundvall Visionary Award-winner), and bandleader Ellen Seeling. At the Learning from Large Jazz Organizations I posed a question to SF Jazz Organization founder Randall Kline about the challenges of wearing his artistic hat along with now being in the real estate business courtesy of their exemplary headquarters/performance space.

L to R: Ethan Iverson, moderator Andre Guess, and Wynton Marsalis discuss Jazz and Race matters

L to R: Gene Dobbs Bradford (Jazz St. Louis), Randall Kline (SF Jazz Center), Amy Niles (WBGO) expounding on the life of a large jazz organization

What Does New Orleans Mean Today? was passionately moderated by journalist Larry Blumenfeld, who like me shares the peculiar “ownership” of the essential prominence of that great city shared by those of us who’ve lived there for even the minute that Larry and I coincidentally shared in ’07/’08. Given the questionable approach to jazz performance of certain younger musicians where it concerns stage deportment, the session “Why performance matters: stagecraft masterclass” ought to be repeated at jazz education programs and conservatories as a vital curricular addition.

Drummer-educator Ralph Peterson dropping science on a participant in Jazz Congress’ Ask the Experts roundtable; think speed dating for jazz consultations

Perhaps the warmest, most engaging session of all was the “Jazz legends roundtable”, which brought together three stellar jazz master pianists: Kenny Barron, Joanne Brackeen, and Harold Mabern for a wonderful bit of reminiscence. Hearing Joanne Brackeen recount how she pretty much stumbled upon her opportunity to become the first and only female member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers was priceless, as was the wit and wisdom of Mabern and the erudite Kenny Barron. Though there was a piano standing by, the three masters had no intention of playing – at least not until an audience member asked if they’d grace us with some playing, which solicited beautiful interludes from the trio of practitioners.

Elsewhere there was a Jukebox Jury with jazz radio programmers listening to tracks and being quizzed on whether the selected music stood a chance of making their respective playlists; a session on Jazz in film and TV soundtracks, Building partnerships in secondary markets, The power of crowd funding, Audience development: casting a wider net, New models for jazz education, Jazz vocalists and repertoire, and The artist-manager relationship, among the four rooms of simultaneous sessions running from 9:30am-evening each day.

Despite obvious rewards for the open-minded to be garnered from attending various sessions, the truest value of a conference like Jazz Congress is connecting with others in the business, including various reunions of folks who only see each other annually, catching up with old friends and meeting new, and being introduced to some of the more useful trends in the jazz industry, and particularly in this case, sampling the incredible mosaic of live music offerings across Manhattan that week. That’s the foundational platform of such annual confabs – just as it is in other business pursuits.

The scene at Jazz Congress conference registration

Of equal value is being in New York City for that sumptuous fortnight amidst a veritable flood of tantalizing performance opportunities large and small. Thursday evening after the concert proceedings yielded an amazing set by pianist-visionary Vijay Iyer‘s Sextet at Birdland. Powered by the commanding traps of the much-discussed Tyshawn Sorey, with a remarkable frontline of saxophonists Mark Shim and Steve Lehman, and cornetist Graham Haynes, and bassist Stephan Crump anchoring the bottom, Iyer pilots one of the most deeply engrossing ensembles in modern music, which largely gave wing to the originals on Vijay’s current ECM release, Far From Over.

Chief grocer responsible for that week’s overflowing shopping cart full of goodies is the annual Winter Jazzfest. Running this year from January 10-17, Winter Jazzfest was originally developed in response to the city’s annual influx of performing arts presenters swarming the APAP conference from across the globe. From a jazz perspective that swarm includes the European jazz festival presenter collective and the Western Jazz Presenters, each group in town for their annual meetings to discuss block booking, special project opportunities, and shared presenting perspectives. With all that in mind, presenting the fertile marketplace that is the Winter Jazzfest during the second week in January makes perfect sense.

Founded and produced by the gifted and politically woke Brice Rosenbloom, Winter Jazzfest plays multiple downtown spaces, including clubs, a hotel, and several spaces at the New School, as well as one evening at Town Hall in midtown. The Friday and Saturday evenings of WJF are designated as festival marathons, with simultaneous performances cooking in all of the festival venues. Not for the faint of heart, the temptation for the adventurous is to map out a strategy to catch as many performances as the shoe leather will allow over the course of the two evenings, which begin as early as 5:30 and cap with 1:00am sets.

After a couple of years endeavoring to make as many tantalizing sets at however many spaces that strategy required, discretion yielded the better part of valor. That measure of prudence required a careful scan of the WJF schedule to determine which space offered the most tantalizing aggregate lineup, arriving early, scoping out good seats and basically camping out for the evening. And being a – ahem – seasoned jazz advocate, guaranteed seating is no small requirement; here it should be noted that depending upon arrival time and crowd shifting patterns, certain WJF spaces usually require standing – including one of the primary WJF venues, Le Poisson Rouge, where standing is the rule.

Of the three WJF evenings your correspondent caught, Wednesday, January 10th was the only one which braved seating disparities. But after awhile standing up on creaky knees at Le Poisson Rouge for an evening billed as “Gilles Peterson Hosts British Jazz Showcase,” hosted by the noted UK record producer and re-mixer, I yielded to the call of The Baylor Project at the Jazz Showcase, where seating (and a good menu) is guaranteed. Disappointment at not catching the chief reason for visiting the challenging Le Poisson Rouge, the tantalizing saxophonist Nubya Garcia, aside, shifting to the Jazz Showcase proved a good move. Before the split, vocalist-guitarist Oscar Jerome showed evident skills, including some rapping propers, was followed by the spacey exploits of trumpeter-composer Yazz Ahmed to open the evening.

The Baylor Project proved an infectious, engaging alternative. Drummer/co-leader Marcus Baylor had impressed mightily at the traps driving Kenny Garrett at last June’s memorable DC JazzFest appearance. It was the vivacious vocal half of the project, Jean Baylor, who thoroughly captivated. Ms. Baylor, blessed with a full measure of the Holy Ghost in her vocal timbre, positively inhabits a song! Tenor man Keith Loftis was quite impressive, and as always trumpeter Freddie Hendrix blew heat and fleet of finger; going beyond namesake obviousness he’s an inheritor of a certain measure of the Freddie Hubbard mantle of audacious trumpeters. Given the Baylor Project’s soulful expressions, it’s not surprising that they’ve scored Grammy noms in both the jazz and contemporary R&B categories, despite the fact that theirs is no question a sensibility born out of the art of the improvisers.

The two most thoroughly tantalizing and essential evenings of WJF are their Friday and Saturday night marathons, with simultaneous sets at 11 venues, which for the intrepid seeking the lost chords requires both street map and accommodating kicks. As mentioned earlier, a few years ago I adopted a one venue/camping out for the evening mentality where it concerns these two marathons. As was the case last year, that meant the relatively comfortable confines of the New School’s Tishman Auditorium.

Friday evening also brought good friends Pat and (vocalist) Allan Harris‘ annual Harlem After Dark house party/artist showcase way uptown from WJF’s downtown haunts. After catching a few showcases it was Uber downtown to 5th Avenue and 13th Street for Tishman Aud. That meant missing Steve & Iqua Colson’s Music of Protest & Love (dedicated to Muhal Richard Abrams) and vibraphonist Stefon Harris‘ latest edition of Blackout, with Casey Benjamin, but that was made up for in part by catching a taste of Stefon’s latest muse at manager Karen Kennedy’s subsequent Sunday brunchtime showcase. Next up was guitarist Marc Ribot‘s Songs of Resistance, which could have benefited mightily by the engagement of a vocalist to handle Ribot’s deservedly snarky political screeds, which singled out #45 for some well deserved vinegar. But alas the guitarist-composer chose to handle the vocal chores himself, decidedly a bit less than satisfyingly – more howl than honey.

Flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell, this year’s WJF artist-in-residence, more than rewarded the lengthy trek downtown. She served up a compelling program wrapped in the poetic irony of the late, great Chicago laureate Gwendolyn Brooks. Two sisters served up Brooks’ prose amidst a succulent melange of Mitchell’s original music, which was bolstered by the ever-rewarding presence of Jason Moran at the piano. Few are serving up the 21st century flute with quite the panache and originality of Nicole Mitchell.

On Saturday afternoon the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA) presented its JJA Media Summit at the Jazz Gallery. What ensued were lively and often informative panel discussions before a good audience, including Women in Jazz Journalism, moderated by Michelle Mercer, followed by Black Lives Matter and other Social Justice Issues in Jazz Journalism was moderated by Don Palmer, where I served as a panelist. Rounding out the day was Beyond the Immediate: Photographers, Broadcasters on Extending Outreach, moderated by Howard Mandel. The other panelists and moderators (including some good friends) I knew from past interactions and encounters. I was delighted to meet Jordannah Elizabeth, a bright young sister writing on the music from Baltimore, who served on both the Women and social justice issues panel and brought fresh perspectives to the very worthwhile summit.

A view from inside the JJA Media Summit and the social justice issues panel L to R: moderator Don Palmer and panelists Larry Blumenfeld, Jordannah Elizabeth, Russ Musto, Willard Jenkins, and Greg Tate at the Jazz Gallery

Day 2 of the marathon delivered a healthier portion of the goods, ranging from impressive young vocalist Jazzmeia Horn‘s positive inhabitance of the Betty Carter legacy, to electrified saxophonist James Carter (think Eddie Harris on steroids)’s Electrik Outlet, and the trio Harriet Tubman’s Free Jazz deliverance. In the tradition of Ornette’s freedom principle, Tubman was joined by the flame throwing saxophonist James Brandon Lewis‘ trio, including DC’s own Luke Stewart doubling the bass quotient with Tubman skronkster Melvin Gibbs, and horn work from alto man Darius Jones and the increasingly-discussed young trumpeter Jamie Branch. To paraphrase writer A.B. Spellman, this performance completely cleared my sinuses of whatever congestion the week’s wintry chill might have brought on. If I had head hair, it might have stood on end from the ensuing musical maelstrom! The Sun Ra Arkestra closed the evening performing a live score to Ra’s film “Space Is The Place.” As has been customary with certain WJF evenings, this one brought back potent memories of trolling the downtown lofts in the 70s.

Sunday afternoon surrendered a raft of ultimately engrossing APAP showcases, including Stefon Harris’ aforementioned “informant” – his designation – related to the leader and some of his sidemen seated audience front speaking to his musical sensibilities – playing some, talking some and engaging the invited brunch audience at the Yamaha studio space. Shifting a few blocks westward to APAP’s HQ hotel, the Hilton, yielded the second of the enterprising Pat Harris’ annual showcase afternoons. Among other goodies, Pat served up the charming husband-wife led quartet of pianist-vocalist Svetlana Smirnova and drummer Oleg Butman, two new friends from the November trip to St. Petersburg, Russia for the inaugural Jazz Across Borders conference. Vocalists Brianna Thomas and Rochelle Rice brought their neatly contrasting, very gratifying vocal stylings and engaging delivery to the 4th floor showcase suite, whereupon Penn Station beckoned for the train ride back at the close of one of New York’s most performing arts engorged weeks of the year.

Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment

Jazz Across Borders

Operating in our truly international city has given the DC Jazz Festival a unique programming perspective that reflects what we refer to as The International Language of Jazz. DC’s vibrant community of foreign embassies has been a blessing in our efforts at broadening our year-round programming profile. Our Fishman Embassy Series, named after DCJF founder Charlie Fishman, who early on recognized the possibilities for engagement of DC’s embassy community, has established very fortuitous collaborations with a number of foreign embassies, including the embassies of Switzerland, France, Japan, South Africa, Colombia, Spain, Korea, Singapore, Italy, Finland, and Canada.

Those partnerships have enabled us to expand upon one of our ongoing festival themes, to celebrate The International Language of Jazz through presenting artists native to those countries. There was a time, particularly back in the 40s-through 60s, when U.S. jazz musicians were hungrily sought after overseas, and in many cases their acceptance at foreign ports far exceeded the level of acclaim and acceptance afforded them in their own home country. Fast forward to the 21st century and through those many foreign tours (particularly across Europe) the gospel of jazz has effectively been spread globally. In an increasing number of countries this has included development of conservatory-level jazz education programs, many with curricular consultation from leading U.S. music conservatories and jazz educators. Consequently jazz artists and actual scenes are available pretty much worldwide.

I got a nice taste of that recently when I was invited to participate in the first Jazz Across Borders conference, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Encouraged and supported by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, and spearheaded by the country’s leading jazzman, saxophonist-composer-bandleader Igor Butman, “Jazz Across Borders (JAB) is a professional platform designed to assemble international and Russian jazz community representatives.”

Igor Butman & the Moscow Jazz Orchestra

The core of the JAB conference was a series of panel discussions, round tables, workshops, and meetings of jazz industry representatives. Each late afternoon/early evening featured showcase performances by some of Russia’s leading and emerging jazz artists and bands in an atmosphere reflective of both the former Jazz Times Convention (reincarnated as Jazz Connect) and IAJE conferences. Also included were jazz club nights, and St. Petersburg does indeed have several vibrant jazz clubs, and a culminating gala concert that included performances by several featured Russian jazz artists and a collaboration between vocalist Kurt Elling and the Moscow Jazz Orchestra.

In somewhat the same manner of January’s Jazz Connect Conference (which in 2018 is being re-christened the Jazz Congress, in partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center) aligned itself with the big APAP performing arts presenter conference in New York City, Jazz Across Borders was held in conjunction with the larger (6th annual) St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum conference. Jazz Across Borders took place on the bustling floors of the St. Petersburg State Academic Chapel November 17-18.

Your correspondent was invited to participate in a panel discussion of festival presenters titled “Jazz Festivals: working with government and sponsors” that was moderated by Elena Zelentsova of Russia’s Skolkovo Foundation. Handheld translators with earpieces were provided as the dialogue shifted easily from Russian to English on the series of culturally diverse panel discussions. Our lively discussion included saxophonist Kent Sangster, producer of Canada’s Edmonton Jazz Festival; Michelle Day, vice president of the Thelonious Monk Institute detailed the history of the Monk Institute’s growing International Jazz Day observances, in 2018 to be held on April 30th in St. Petersburg, a point of obvious Russian pride; and our discussion was rounded out by two gentlemen from Russia’s burgeoning jazz festival scene, Andrei Levchenko, producer of the Kaliningrad City Jazz Festival, and Valery Korotkov, head of JIVE Group agency, which runs numerous festivals, concerts and club events in Russia.

Several other panelists were guests from around the jazz world, including such fellow U.S. participants as artist manager Pat Harris, booking agent Ina Dittke, JazzTimes publisher Lee Mergner, Berklee College of Music V.P. Dr. Larry Simpson, journalist Ted Panken, director of jazz programming at the Kennedy Center Kevin Struthers, international booking agent Katherine McVicker, and Adam Shatz, musician and co-producer of NYC Winter Jazzfest. Other guests in our group of international guests included Ros Rigby, president of the Europe Jazz Network, and producer of the Gateshead International Jazz Festival (UK), Carlo Pagnotta the founder and artistic director of Umbria Jazz (Italy), booking agent Catherine Mayer (Germany), Simon Cooke managing director of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (London), and Peter Gontha, founder & producer of the Java Jazz Festival (Indonesia).

The lobby bar at the Hotel Krempinsky in St. Petersburg was a convenient hang for our group of visiting conferees from the US, UK, France and Italy during JAB

Throughout JAB the energy in the venues and the hallways was palpably high and there were an impressive number of millennials in the house; all were quite eager to soak in the jazz vibe. The White Hall room which hosted the various forums and panel discussions – on global issues ranging from festival, concert and club presenter concerns to jazz media and jazz education panels, to such more specific concerns as panels on “The peculiarities of working on tours for foreign performers in Russia and Russian performers abroad,” “The specifics of promoting jazz artists in Russia and abroad,” and “Russia: New opportunities. Infrastructure of Russian jazz market: myths and reality,” to an overview of “the history and development of Russian jazz art fem the 20s till present,” a discussion that included Igor Butman among its speakers. On the roundtable discussion on promoting jazz artists in Russia, agent-manager Pat Harris suggested that from her perspective one thing the fall of the record industry has done is to level the playing field. In this modern paradigm there is no longer a certain class of artists blessed with that label deal leg up on the field. Throughout the two days these sessions were packed with genuinely eager-to-be-informed and attentive conferees.

Packed, attentive audiences like this were the rule during the Jazz Across Borders conference

The showcases featured many of Russia’s most talented ensembles, with a particular bent towards younger, emerging talent. The impressive LRK Trio (piano-bass-drums) concluded its set with the pianist strapping on accordion and the band adapting a traditional Russian folklore dance to its decidedly modern jazz perspective. Later, the Yakov Okun Quartet weighed in from a more traditional modern approach, in a relaxed, reflective manner. Throughout, the fresh, youthful energy of the attendees was quite refreshing, a sensibility which also permeated the clubs we visited, including White Nights Jazz Club. There was an energizing zeal for the music in St. Petersburg that was quite positively affirming. The showcase bands performed with a passion and desire to seek the original that was quite impressive. At the 6pm Black Hall showcase on Friday, Dock in Absolute brought the funk, opening with a nice balance of bass clarinet and electric bass with a fresh feel wrapped in old socks.

Dock in Absolute showcasing

The closing gala concert featured Igor’s exceptional brother and sister-in-law Oleg (drums) and Natalia Butman (piano & voice) in trio, conference guest John Beasley conducting the Moscow Jazz Orchestra through one of his (Thelonious) Monk’estra charts, and the evening’s featured set with the roaring orchestra skillfully framing and accompanying vocalist Kurt Elling’s set. before yet another deeply attentive full house in the big hall at St. Petersburg State Academic Chapel. Yes, jazz does indeed live a charmed life in Russia!

Kurt Elling and Berklee’s Dr. Larry Simpson chillin’ at the Hotel Krempinsky following Kurt’s conference closing triumph with the Moscow Jazz Orchestra

Posted in General Discussion | 2 Comments

Reverse thread: Q-Tip & Monk

Q-Tip forged a productive partnership with Jason Moran in the debut of the Kennedy Center’s hip hop program [Photo: Kyle Gustafson/WP]

The current era of jazz musician-as-curator is arguably owed to Wynton Marsalis‘ remarkable success in establishing and building the Jazz at Lincoln Center institution. Examples include the SFJazz organization’s successful engagement of a rotating cast of curating musicians. Trumpeter Dave Douglas founded and curates the annual fall Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT). Yet another trumpeter, Sean Jones, was recently appointed as an artistic adviser to Carnegie Hall, principally guiding their youth jazz orchestra project NYO, which comes with implications for Jones as curator. An auspicious fine arts crossover found bassist-composer-vocalist Esperanza Spalding recently curating the “Esperanza Spalding Selects” visual arts exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in Manhattan, an exhibit that will be on display through early 2018. Doubtless bassist William Parker‘s network of connections has played some curatorial measure at the annual Vision Festival, which is run principally by his earnest dancer-choreographer spouse Patricia Nicholson Parker. And as reported in a recent post in these pages, bassist Christian McBride, artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival, even had festival founder – and the father of jazz festivals in this country – NEA Jazz Master George Wein motoring around the grounds marveling at hearing artists he’d not previously experienced in McBride’s first full-blown NJF curation.

The Kennedy Center built its laudatory jazz program on the curatorial gifts of Dr. Billy Taylor, the foundation being a series of concerts where the good doctor’s trio played host to a series of guest artists for performances and Taylor’s graceful and deeply informative meet the artist interview component, a series captured for posterity by NPR. Considering Mr. Taylor’s senior status keen observers had to wonder what would happen with Kennedy Center Jazz when he inevitably succumbed to the vicissitudes of age. Thus when the beloved Billy passed on to ancestry in 2010, those of us who followed the program wondered aloud ‘what now’?

The answer arrived in November 2011 when Kennedy Center Jazz chief administrator Kevin Struthers and the institution selected pianist-composer Jason Moran as artistic adviser to succeed and expand on Billy Taylor’s vision. Throughout his career up to that point the Houston-bred Moran had shown an impressive depth of ideas with a balanced inside/outside perspective – from sampling a Turkish telephone call to improvising on an inspiring speech as found objects for composition, to assembling one of the signature trios in American music, the Bandwagon with drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Taurus Mateen, and challenging the band with fresh landscapes with every recording, to the record label Yes he is developing with wife Alicia Hall Moran, herself an impressive contralto vocalist.

Since building his Kennedy Center program Moran has significantly broadened the Kennedy Center’s definition of jazz, from engaging senior warriors identified with the so-called jazz avant garde who’d not previously played the KC, like NEA Jazz Masters Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Braxton in concert (a Cecil Taylor booking was waylaid by illness), to presenting series of next gen jazz contributors at the KC Jazz Club, to Concert Hall intersections with artists in dance and classical music, to a recent triumph with the KC-resident National Symphony Orchestra for a live recreation of Moran’s score for Ava Duvernay’s much-acclaimed film Selma. Viewing the film for a second time, in a big hall with 2K in the seats, Jason & the orch onstage, was a rich experience. No two programs better illustrated Jason Moran’s range than last week’s Friday/Monday sequence which found Moran inhabiting freestyle hip hop and the Thelonious Monk Centennial in succession.

In addition to his jazz program curating, Moran has obviously become quite the artistic force across genres at the KC. Hip hop auteur Q-Tip, best known for his frontman work with A Tribe Called Quest, which established it’s jazz influences early on with their notable second album collaboration with NEA Jazz Master bassist Ron Carter on “The Low End Theory,” credits Moran for his appointment as the new artistic director for hip-hop culture at the Kennedy Center; thus the KC becomes the first major fine arts center to adapt hip hop as a core program. October 6th marked the official launch of the KC’s hip hop program and it was a special night from several perspectives.

That inaugural program coupled Moran and Q-Tip in duo, a format which likely raised questions in Tip’s legion of followers, but they packed the house nonetheless. Significantly the venue, the redesigned Terrace Theatre on the KC’s penthouse level, which had long served as the primary home of the jazz program, was also being launched following months of reconstructive surgery. In her introductory remarks, KC President Deborah Rutter, whose grasp and warm embrace of the complete thrust and responsibility of the Kennedy Center to reflect a broad sense of the diversity of fine arts presenting has been impressive since her 2014 appointment, enthusiastically lauded the Terrace re-design and was obviously thrilled in anticipation of this launch of the hip hop program, whose administrator is Simone Eccelston.

Appropriately though the entire thrust of the program clearly illustrated true partnership, Q-Tip delivered an opening solo sequence that completely enlivened the full house, most of whom had obviously come for his artistry first & foremost. His DJ set displayed impressive dexterity on the wheels of steel and various sampling and looping effects owed largely to popular dance grooves, which by turns he verbally cued as disco breaks. The crowd, though a more mature house that one might encounter at the club, took a minute to warm up but once they did it was definitely on, Tip eliciting amens with familiar refrains & beats. Q-Tip cannily and warmly recognized the significance of hip-hop’s evolution from street parties and basement jams to fine arts center in his accompanying dialogue, citing pioneer Bronx scenesters of the form as DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Baambaata in his running monologue.

When Moran arrived onstage almost immediately the scene shifted to beats meets virtuosity as Q-Tip crafted his beats to undergird and challenge Moran’s pianistics. This landscape was best exploited when Moran launched into a cosmo-electro-acoustic update on John Coltrane‘s “Giant Steps.” Taking the mic Moran made it clear to Q-Tip’s audience that he was no tourist, telling them that while his generation was addressing the challenges of Thelonious Monk, they were also by equal turns taking on A Tribe Called Quest as artistic sustenance, tacitly informing the audience that his was the first generation of jazz musicians to grow up under the influence of hip hop’s nascent developments & full flowering as a global artistic force, and embrace the form as one of the informers of their jazz expressions.

While there were some in the crowd – particularly those for whom Jason Moran was a new flavor – who were a bit quizzical about the hang-fly nature of this kinetic duo, those who gave themselves over to the impromptu nature (though at certain points it was clear Moran had some pre-planned sketches at his disposal) of this program were duly rewarded by their openness. After their first segment, Q-Tip exclaimed in genuine wonder that they had just free-formed for “about an hour!”

Two nights later Moran amply displayed the breadth of his musical mindset in black suit and bowtie for the Thelonious Monk Centennial celebration in the KC Concert Hall. When the lights dimmed the sound serenading the audience was Monk himself, piano soloing his signature “Round Midnight.” From there Moran essayed the master’s “Bemsha Swing” and introduced NEA Jazz Master pianist Kenny Barron for some solo “Light Blue”. The two pianists played alternating solo Monk before WPFW jazz programmer Brother Ah – who as his given name Robert Northern had contributed his french horn stylings to Thelonious’ historic Town Hall orchestral concert – eased out to reminisce a bit about a great memory of Monk wheeling his old upright onto a Bronx playground to practice. Moran’s idea for the Brother Ah playground reminiscence was spurred by his impression of a museum piece of an urban playground scene, which served to further highlight another constant character on this superb evening a running video installation. The first half closer was a brilliant, slightly puckish 4-hands Moran/Barron performance of “Blue Monk.”

For the second half Moran’s Big Bandwagon – his trio augmented by trumpet (Ralph Alessi), trombone (Houston homie Frank Lacy), tuba (the redoubtable Bob Stewart), alto and tenor saxophone
(Houstonian Walter Smith III) – reimagined selections from Monk’s Town Hall Concert, including a superb reading of “Friday the 13th”. These re-imaginations were not afraid to employ some dissonance in Moran’s mix. And this part of the evening is where the video installation really asserted itself. At one point as the band played on, the video streamed an evocative reminiscence by Moran on his personal Monk epiphany, how he first came under the spell of Thelonious from his parent’s record collection and the Columbia Lp Thelonious Monk Composer. At other points the master himself entered the hall, courtesy of his voice in studio conversations with other musicians and producers. In each case the audio was clarified by the conversation conveyed in video graphics, just in case ya’ll didn’t understand Monk’s unique hipsterese. “In My Mind” was the theme of Moran’s reimagining of the Town Hall Concert, a mantra Moran repeated on the video installation by W. Eugene Smith, in much the way Q-Tip’s mantra became “options” during their Friday coupling. As opposed to slavish re-creations, this was a masterful program, one Thelonious Monk would have danced on.

Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment

Why NJF & MJF remain THE jazz festivals

I’ve been fortunate to make scores of what, to paraphrase sports parlance, I consider scouting trips to jazz festivals large and small ever since the early 1970s; always an important part of my own professional development – as a media person, an arts administrator, and an arts presenter. And of course, there’s big fun to be had at jazz festivals large and small. It was in ’74 that I embarked on what became annual treks to the George Wein-produced summer festivals in New York. Depending upon underwriting sponsorship those festivals fell under the names Newport New York, Kool, and JVC Jazz Festival.

The reason Wein’s Festival Productions team decamped in NYC in the first place was a result of controversial jazz festival intrigue. His Newport (Rhode Island) Jazz Festival operation had been – what turned out to be temporarily – suspended by town gentry outraged at the actions of an unruly crowd. This was at a time when Wein was broadening the scope of NJF by seasoning his lineup with assorted rock and crossover acts of the day, something that has become common practice of even the highest profile jazz festivals. In short, some audience members drawn to the tony burgh located on the south end of Aquidneck Island on the shore of the Narragansett Bay apparently arrived expecting free admission and subsequently stormed the barricades in protest. So in the mid-70s Festival Productions built those major NYC festivals in the stylistic image of Newport, at venues ranging from Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and Town Hall, to assorted clubs and university auditoriums.

Fast forward to the mid-90s when my 18-year tenure as artistic director of Cleveland’s Tri-C JazzFest commenced (which was augmented for a hot minute in the aughts by a couple of years artistic directing Boston’s Berklee-run Beantown Jazz Festival, an an advisory role in the development of the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival). Currently three years in as artistic director of the DC Jazz Festival, jazz festivals large & small have been a passion for over 40 years, including more festivals than I care to recount here, both domestic and foreign. Visiting jazz festivals has been both immensely pleasurable and highly instructive, to the point where trips to the two grandaddies – the Newport and Monterey Jazz Festivals – have become as mandatory as budget will allow. This year was no exception as we had another round of splendid and very instructive visits – actually they’ve become pilgrimages – to both.

The Newport Jazz Festival audience enjoying a brilliant, deeply heartfelt tribute to Geri Allen

The scene at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival Garden Stage

The Newport Jazz Festival (presented by Natixis Global Asset Management), which about a decade ago expanded its staging from the traditional big stage abutting Fort Adams and facing the idyllic bay, to add a courtyard stage and a harbor stage, is now artistic directed by one of the busiest men in jazz, bassist Christian McBride. The Newport lineup this year certainly reflected McBride’s Philly pride, from his own soulful big band to his occasional Philadelphia Experiment trio with Philadelphians drummer Questlove (McBride’s high school classmate) and keyboardist Uri Caine and guest DJ Logic, to the Benny Golson Quartet, to pianist Orrin Evans playing solo and as part of trumpeter Sean Jones band, to the Roots closing out late Sunday afternoon.

McBride and festival producer Danny Melnick laid out a tasty menu that also included in addition to the Roots, the crossover presence of Afro-Americana vocalist-banjoist Rhiannon Giddens, funk master Maceo Parker, and Jason Moran‘s Fats Waller Dance Party. The Maria Schneider Orchestra’s sumptuous harmonic universe played the main stage, while Cyrus Chestnut‘s ever-swinging trio, and a quartet of trumpeters gave a virtual state of the instrument on the harbor stage, including Sean Jones, Michael Rodriguez (co-leading with his brother pianist Robert), Theo Croker, and Cleveland’s own Dominick Farinacci. Sean (from Warren, OH) and Dominick are always points of pride as both participated in Tri-C JazzFest from their grade school days onward.

Branford Marsalis’ exceptional quartet played a robust set at Newport

The outer edges of the music were well-represented at NJF by Henry Threadgill‘s Zoid, pianist Marilyn Crispell, the Wadada Leo Smith/Vijay Iyer duo, and composer Amir ElSaffar‘s Rivers of Sound Orchestra. Branford Marsalis highlighted the wisdom of keeping a stable quartet (Joey Calderazzo, Eric Revis, Justin Faulkner), Cecile McLorin Salvant continued building her rather quirky book with ancient songs of politically incorrect origin (like the Mad Men era “Wives & Lovers”), and the super quartet Hudson (Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, John Medeski, Larry Grenadier) provided gourmet jam band food for the ears. A major highlight came in tribute to the sad recent passing of pianist Geri Allen. With Allen previously scheduled to join Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding to reprise their marvelous trio, instead TLC and Espe delivered a gorgeous, loving tribute to their partner with rotating pianists Christian Sands, Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer playing Geri’s compositions.

Young pianist Gerald Clayton joined his dad John and drummer Jeff Hamilton as MJF Artists-in-Residence

Difficult topping those Newport proceedings, right? Along came mid-September and the 60th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, which more than lived up to its superb tradition. The Monterey County Fairgrounds welcomed nearly 40,000 patrons to its main (Arena) stage and five grounds stages this year. Delights of the garden were plentiful, from three performances by Showcase Artist violinist Regina Carter (including her Ella Fitzgerald and Southern Comfort projects), to John Clayton‘s commissioned piece celebrating MJF’s 60th through the broad canvas of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. For that occasion Clayton was joined by son Gerald Clayton on piano, brother Jeff Clayton‘s tuneful alto saxophone, and partner Jeff Hamilton on drums stoking the fires. One artist common to both Newport and Monterey was Tony Award winning vocalist Leslie Odom, Jr. from Hamilton, who made scores of new friends with his gracious, sunny performances that included a Nat Cole medley. Another was Vijay Iyer, this time with his bristling sextet onstage at Dizzy’s Den to close out Sunday evening.

MJF Showcase Artist Regina Carter honoring Ella Fitzgerald on the Jimmy Lyons Stage

In the run up to MJF 60 I asked John Clayton about his 60th anniversary commemorative commission and his overall impressions of the festival. “There is a shortlist of components to the festival and my attachment to the festival informed my composition. The fact that this is their 60th anniversary, my interaction as an artist in the festival for so many years, the village/community vibe that permeates the festival grounds, and a general love of the area, all guided my composition.” Asked what makes the Monterey Jazz Festival such a unique experience, Clayton said “The down-to-earth quality is unique. It is one of the most un-stuffy festival environments one can find. People dress comfortably, eat with each other at picnic tables, shop in the open stalls… it’s not a jazz festival atmosphere that you can easily find. Actually Monterey Jazz Festival is one of a kind.”

Saturday evening on the Arena’s Jimmy Lyons Stage (named for the MJF founder) delivered a masterful tenor sax summit, with Jimmy Heath, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, and Joshua Redman honoring Sonny Rollins in royal fashion. Crossover delights came via rapper Common, who since his DC Jazz Festival appearance in 2016 has found a new home and creative environment on jazz festival stages, improvising his lyrical content to reflect the setting and giving ample space to the jazz-friendly soloists in his band, including one-to-watch flutist Eleana Pinderhughes. James Carter once again displayed his outrageous mastery of every saxophone nuance Adolph Sax could have ever dreamt up, Sean Jones made Roy Hargrove work hard for the money as guests on Kenny Barron‘s tribute to Dizzy Gillespie’s centennial, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen joined saxophonist Tia Fuller‘s hard driving quartet, bassist Linda May Han Oh (who had earlier collaborated with Fuller, Jensen, and Tia’s sister pianist Shamie Royston, DC Jazz Festival director Sunny Sumter, and moderator Suzan Jenkins for a Women in Jazz Panel that had the esteemed Angela Davis (a MJF regular) taking notes in the back of the room, delighted the Garden Stage with her quintet, and Angelique Kidjo joined Pedrito Martinez for a delightfully successful partnership of Afro salsa.

Four great tenors playing homage to Sonny Rollins

As has become MJF tradition, several first rate Bay Area bands delivered on Monterey stages, as did a nice slate of emerging units, including Monsieur Perine, Ranky Tanky, Con Brio, and assorted student ensembles. Sixty+ years into their respective illustrious runs, the Newport Jazz Festival and Monterey Jazz Festival proved once again why they represent the state of the jazz festival tradition.

What a treat it was to interview Dee Dee Bridgewater and Leslie Odom, Jr. in the Blue Note at Sea Tent on the subject of transitioning from a Broadway show to the jazz concert stage

Panelists for the Women in Jazz discussion L to R: Linda May Han Oh, Shamie Royston, Sunny Sumter, moderator Suzan Jenkins, Ingrid Jensen, and Tia Fuller. When Suzan introduced the great activist-professor Angela Davis in the audience, afterwards Angela came up and said she didn’t know she was gonna be called out, she was back there taking notes!

One of the MJF highlights came when Sean Jones and Roy Hargrove joined Kenny Barron for the finale in Kenny’s centennial tribute to Dizzy Gillespie.


Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment

Robert Fleming’s guide to roots reggae

NYC-based writer Robert Fleming has been a good friend for many years, dating back to our Cleveland days in the 1970s. We spent many moons in his 3rd floor flat on 143rd Street on the city’s east side cogitating on the latest record releases. Included in our collaborative experience was a quite memorable 1975 interview we did with Miles Davis at the old Eastwood Motel in the midst of Miles’ weeklong stint at the late and now-legendary Smiling Dog Saloon, a time when Miles was sporting a raucously murky 3-guitar band (Pete Cosey Reggie Lucas, and Dominique Gaumont). The latest entry in Fleming’s growing bibliography is the new book Rasta, Babylon, Jamming (The Music and Culture of Roots Reggae), about which we had some questions for good brother Fleming.

Independent Ear: I recall rather vividly one of those nights spent at your place after you had your first interview with Bob Marley. Was that encounter one of the seeds of inspiration for this book?
RF: As a I write in my introduction, I was introduced to the musical concepts of roots reggae through the words of Jimmy Cliff in the early 1970s. It was during my time at Scene Magazine. He was very candid with a clear vision of the politics and culture of the music. Cliff knew black music and the plight of American blacks during the age of Nixon. I enjoyed our talk.

Herb, dreads, and all things Jah notwithstanding, Bob Marley’s interview came later as I was really immersed in reggae. He spoke openly between spliffs about the need for global healing and the political chaos going in Jamaica. Some of the talk didn’t make it to the tape. I had no idea how sick he was at the time. Also, this bookis a tribute to my sea-faring grandfather, Will, who lived there in Jamaica before settling in Mississippi.

Inevitably when one makes the list choices this book offers its readers, including “Pivotal Reggae Pioneers,” “16 Essential Reggae Films,” and “Vintage and Modern Reggae Album Collection,” there will be either naysayers or those who decry perceived omissions or question certain choices you’ve made. How would you, or how are you prepared to respond to such criticisms?
I made those choices due to production costs and editorial restrictions. Nobody can say that I didn’t touch on the key
cultural, political, and musical themes of roots reggae. Garvey’s proud teachings, the influence of Selassie’s courage, Seaga vs. Manley and the CIA’s cunning reach. The omissions were deliberate because I didn’t want the text to be overly academic or long-winded. I’m prepared for criticism. This is a primer of the music. This is a survey of the Jamaican music of the 1970s. Nothing more, nothing less.

In the same way some of those perhaps less thoroughly immersed in the contemporary jazz scene might lament that “…ain’t been nothing new in jazz since (Pops, Bird, Coltrane, Miles, Ornette… pick and era”), as someone less thoroughly immersed in reggae who feels that contemporary reggae just doesn’t stand up to the music that Bob Marley and his generation made, how would you respond in your defense of the contemporary reggae scene, or are you of that “ain’t nothing happening since Bob…” mindset?
Roots reggae is when Jamaica found its musical identity. I wanted to reinforce the importance of this period as a golden age in this book. Before this historic period, all that existed there were the producers of Kingston’s
famed “Beat Street,” who only imported American R&B songs. Then something changed and more musicians embraced the spirituality and race pride of the Rastafarian faith. It truly translated into the music and culture of Jamaica.

The music of Marley, Toots, Steel Pulse, U-Roy, Peter Tosh, I-Threes,
Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru – set the standard. It raised the bar like Bird, Dizzy, and Miles did with Bop. Or Ornette. Or Trane. All of the ingredients were there. There were pivotal moments, and and some of what followed paled by comparison. But never fear. There are some strong performers there now.

What would you say is the current state of contemporary reggae music?
Jamaican music is going through growing pains again. It’s on the brink of banning dancehall music. The media is full of Fiyah Roiall, the prince of conscious hip-hop rap and young stars such as Vyby Kartel, Movado, Gaza Slim, Gyptian, Aidonia, Denyque, and Chronixx. Supposedly Yashae, the new pop queen, will someday rival Queen Bey (Beyonce). Folks are singing the recent creation of young Alex Morissey, the world’s first virtual turntable, Virtual Disc Jockey. It’s where you can log on and create music mixes. Tech rules!

Given a choice of one reggae album to place in a time capsule, what would you recommend?
It’s a tie! I would recommend two albums: “Exodus” by Bob Marley and the Wailers and “Entitlement” by Ijahman.

Here are some additional titles by Robert Fleming:

Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment