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"Geri Allen, an influential pianist and educator whose dense but agile playing reconciled far-flung elements of the jazz tradition, died on Tuesday at a hospital in Philadelphia. She was 60.
Her publicist, Maureen McFadden, said the cause was cancer.
Perhaps more than any other pianist, Ms. Allen’s style — harmonically refracted and rhythmically complex, but also fluid — formed a bridge between jazz’s halcyon midcentury period and its diffuse present.
She accomplished this by holding some things constant: a farsighted approach to the piano, which she used both to guide and to goad her bandmates; an ability to toggle between artistic styles without warping her own sound; and a belief that jazz ought to interact with its kindred art forms across the African-American tradition.
‘The music of most African societies integrates all of the arts, particularly dance,’ Ms. Allen told Marc Myers of the website JazzWax in 2012. ‘By doing this, the entire culture is embraced, not just music and musicians. The result is that audiences have a more vivid sense of music’s importance. The cultural embrace of music has been a big part of my reality and my art.’
Continue reading the main story Ms. Allen first came to prominence in the 1980s, when she moved to New York after receiving a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh. She soon became a part of the loosely configured M-Base Collective, which united rhythms from across the African diaspora with a commitment to experimental improvising.
She also established a long association with the bassist Charlie Haden and the drummer Paul Motian, both veterans of the jazz avant-garde of the 1960s and ’70s, and played with the drummer Tony Williams and the bassist Ron Carter, former members of Miles Davis’s quintet.
She later became one of the first pianists since the 1950s to make a commercial recording with the free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, who typically found piano players too harmonically restrictive. Around the same time, she filled the piano chair in the vocalist Betty Carter’s quartet, demonstrating an ability to play expressively in a relatively traditional style.
‘She could go anywhere, and she wasn’t in a box,’ the drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who first played with Ms. Allen in the 1980s, said in an interview. ‘She would talk about things like putting water on chords — not technical terms, but terms that are visual and deal with the other senses. That’s the kind of player that Geri was.’
Ms. Allen was the rare jazz musician of her generation to have an academic background in musicology as well as in jazz performance. She went on to spend 10 years as an educator at the University of Michigan, becoming a sought-after mentor to young musicians, and in 2013 she returned to the University of Pittsburgh as the director of its jazz studies program.
In 2014, she helped found the All-Female Jazz Residency, a summer program at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center for young jazz musicians in their teens and twenties.
Ms. Allen’s academic training and her upbringing in Detroit — a hotbed of black music of various styles — both helped guide her development. On ‘Twylight,’ an album of original compositions released in 1989, she and a band of Detroit musicians used African percussion instruments and newfangled synthesizers. On ‘Grand River Crossings’ (2013), Ms. Allen performed solo piano interpretations of Motown songs, vesting them with a shimmering breadth.
Along the way, she cut a path for a younger generation of pianists — among them Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn and Courtney Bryan — who have incorporated their own personal histories into an expansive, globally minded experimentalism.
Reviewing a performance by Ms. Allen’s trio in 2011, Nate Chinen wrote in The New York Times: ‘Her brand of pianism, assertive and soulful, has long suggested a golden mean of major postwar styles. She just as easily deploys the slipstream whimsy of Herbie Hancock, the earthy sweep of McCoy Tyner and the swarming agitation of Cecil Taylor.’
Geri Antoinette Allen was born on June 12, 1957, in Pontiac, Mich., and grew up in Detroit. Her mother, Barbara Jean Allen, was a defense-contract administrator for the United States government; her father, Mount Allen Jr., was a principal in the Detroit public schools.
Ms. Allen, who lived in Pittsburgh, is survived by her father; her brother, Mount Allen III; two daughters, Laila and Barbara; and a son, Wallace. Her marriage to the trumpeter Wallace Roney ended in divorce.
By the end of middle school, Ms. Allen knew she wanted to be a jazz pianist. At Cass Technical High School in Detroit, she studied with Marcus Belgrave, the influential jazz trumpeter and educator. On graduating, she attended Howard University, where she became one of the first students in the university’s jazz studies program, under the direction of the trumpeter Donald Byrd.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Ms. Allen moved briefly to New York, then accepted an invitation to study at Pittsburgh, where she also worked under the pianist Nathan Davis and the Ghanaian musicologist Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia. For her master’s dissertation she wrote a musical analysis of the iconoclastic saxophonist, bass clarinetist and flutist Eric Dolphy.
Ms. Allen graduated in 1982 and moved back to New York, where she joined up with the saxophonist Steve Coleman, a founder of the M-Base Collective. ‘She had a grasp of what came before, but she was trying to extend that in different ways,’ Mr. Coleman said in an interview. ‘We talked about music from all over the planet, and we talked about music from all eras.’
He featured her on his debut album, ‘Motherland Pulse,’ beginning a long association.
Her own debut, ‘The Printmakers,’ a 1984 trio date with the drummer Andrew Cyrille and the bassist Anthony Cox, is a startling display of rhythmic and melodic mutability, as well as her inventiveness as a composer.
It was the beginning of a recording career that spanned about 20 albums as a leader, including dazzling solo piano records; collaborations with choruses and tap dancers; and an array of small-group albums that range from acoustic jazz to avant-funk.
Ms. Allen also used her academic background to explore the repertoire of Mary Lou Williams, a pioneering bebop pianist, and in 2006 released the album ‘Zodiac Suite: Revisited,’ reinterpreting Williams’s most famous work.
She received an array of accolades over the years, including a Guggenheim fellowship; Denmark’s Jazzpar Prize (she was the first woman to win it); the African-American Classical Music Award from Spelman College in Atlanta; and the first ‘Lady of Soul’ prize for jazz, awarded by the television show ‘Soul Train.’
In her final years Ms. Allen released a triptych of solo piano albums on Motéma Records, and played often with two trios, both with Ms. Carrington: one including the saxophonist David Murray, the other featuring the bassist Esperanza Spalding. In both of those ensembles, Ms. Allen was wont to cut things loose, subverting the tempo or abandoning a song’s structure..
‘Audiences aren’t always given credit for being emotionally aware,’ she said in the interview with Mr. Myers. ‘I’ve found that most people are quite capable of internalizing emotions that are stimulated by music and art, even if the music isn’t immediately familiar.’
Wednesday, June 28, 2017
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
"Geri Allen, a widely influential jazz pianist, composer and educator who defied classification while steadfastly affirming her roots in the hard-bop tradition of her native Detroit, died on Tuesday in Philadelphia. She was 60, and lived for the last four years in Pittsburgh.
The cause was cancer, said Ora Harris, her manager of 30 years. The news shocked Allen’s devoted listeners as well as her peers, and the many pianists she directly influenced.
In addition to her varied and commanding work as a leader, Allen made her mark as a venturesome improviser on notable albums with the saxophonist-composers Ornette Coleman, Oliver Lake, Steve Coleman and Charles Lloyd; drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr.; bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian; and many others. Her recent collaborations with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, in separate trios featuring bassist Esperanza Spalding and tenor saxophonist David Murray, found her in a ceaselessly exploratory mode, probing new harmonic expanses and dynamic arcs.
Allen’s solo piano work, from Home Grown in 1985 to Flying Toward the Sound in 2010, reveals an uncommon technical prowess and kaleidoscopic tonal range. The subtitle of Flying Toward the Sound claims inspiration from Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock specifically, but on this and other recordings we hear Allen, unfailingly distinctive. From Home Grown, the track “Black Man,” with its looping, interlocking pulses and forward momentum, points clearly toward a rhythmic sensibility heard today from such celebrated pianists as Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer."
Geri Allen, Brilliantly Expressive Pianist, Composer and Educator, Dies at 60 | WBGO
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
"Arthur Blythe, whose brawny alto saxophone sound and independent spirit made him a standard-bearer of the New York jazz avant-garde in the late 1970s, died on Monday at a retirement home in Lancaster, Calif. He was 76.
The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Queen Bey Blythe.
When Mr. Blythe arrived in New York from California in the mid-1970s he was already well into his 30s, with a trenchant, vibrato-thickened saxophone style and a reputation that preceded him.
‘It was pretty much undisputed that Arthur Blythe was the best alto saxophonist out there on the West Coast,’ the tenor saxophonist David Murray said in a phone interview.
Mr. Blythe quickly became a leader of the newly ascendant loft jazz scene, centered on musician-run venues in Lower Manhattan. Within three years, he had a deal with Columbia Records, making him a spokesman for jazz’s Afrocentric vanguard at a moment when the music’s future was far from certain.
Continue reading the main story His first two albums with the label, both released in 1979, bespoke the breadth of his vision. On ‘In the Tradition,’ he performed compositions by Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and John Coltrane accompanied by a standard rhythm section of piano, string bass and drums. ‘Lenox Avenue Breakdown’ featured tuba, electric bass, flute and assorted percussion and consisted of four giddy, hotfooting originals that opened up into extended improvisations.
In 1982, the critic Francis Davis wrote that Mr. Blythe ‘may well prove to be the magic figure of reconciliation, the force for consensus, that modern jazz has been looking for in vain since the death of John Coltrane in 1967.’
That was not to be. Within a few years, a young crop of neo-traditional musicians had seized what spotlight remained for jazz. Mr. Blythe left New York at the end of the 1990s, and his playing career tapered off.
‘I would love for everyone to accept my music, and I would love to make money, but only by keeping my music on the cutting edge,’ he said in a 2000 interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Arthur Murray Blythe was born on July 5, 1940, in Los Angeles, the middle child of three sons. (A fourth brother died as an infant.) His father was a mechanic, his mother a homemaker and part-time seamstress.
His parents soon divorced, and when he was 4 he moved with his mother to San Diego. At 9, inspired by the rhythm-and-blues and swing records she often played, he asked her for a trombone. She gave him an alto saxophone instead.
He studied with Kirkland Bradford, who had played with the Jimmie Lunceford big band, and developed a trilling style reminiscent of postwar saxophone stars like Earl Bostic.
Mr. Blythe worked in R&B bands throughout his teens, learning to cut through the volume of electric guitars while maintaining a romantic lyricism. That mixture of sultry and strident came to define his style.
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In 1974, frustrated with the Los Angeles jazz scene’s limitations, Mr. Blythe left for New York, determined to make his mark.
He arrived with a nickname that reflected his self-affirmation and his uncompromising spirit: Black Arthur. He was known in Los Angeles for his racial pride and his willingness to speak boldly on behalf of other black people, despite an otherwise understated demeanor. Mr. Murray recalled him standing up fearlessly to police officers who had hassled him.
Mr. Blythe embraced the nickname, even calling himself Black Arthur Blythe on the cover of a 1978 album, ‘Bush Baby.’
Soon after arriving in New York, he began assembling bands with unusual instrumentation. When not playing with a straight-ahead quartet, he favored chunky, percussive backdrops that offset his tuneful improvising.
In 1977, The New York Times critic Robert Palmer praised Mr. Blythe, writing, ‘He is sly; he teases the beat, toys with polyrhythms and leaves gaping holes in the fabric of the music, only to come roaring back in with plangent held tones or crisp, punching riffs.’
Even after signing with Columbia, Mr. Blythe insisted on creative autonomy, releasing nine albums across a range of styles. He continued to record and perform regularly, often with the tuba player Bob Stewart and the drummer Cecil Brooks III, after Columbia declined to renew his contract in 1987.
He moved back to California in 1998 to take care of his children after his second marriage ended. He performed less frequently but released a handful of albums on the Savant label in the early 2000s before failing health eventually forced him to stop performing.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Blythe is survived by his daughter, Odessa Blythe, and two sons, Chalee and Arthur Jr., all from his second marriage; two half brothers, Bernard Blythe and Adrich Neal; and a half sister, Daisy Neal. His first two marriages ended in divorce.
‘The music that I deal with has elements of bebop to ballad, swing to sweet, blues to boogie, and pop to rock,’ Mr. Blythe told the musician and oral historian Ben Sidran in 1986. ‘If I have the ability to do that, I should be able to do whatever I want to do in those areas — because I am dealing with the tradition, and my culture, and my heritage.’"