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Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Jazz Columns: Todd Barkan: Taking Care of the Music — By Sylvia Levine Leitch — Jazz Articles
Sylvia Levine Leitch interviews longtime jazz producer and presenter Todd Barkan about his life in service of jazz
In this latest interview in my series, "In the Service of Jazz," Todd Barkan—Director of Programming and, literally, the voice of jazz for Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center, as well as record producer, former club owner and musician—talks about his life in jazz. That life almost came to an abrupt and violent end February 13, 2011, when Todd was involved in a serious car accident driving home to the Bronx on the West Side Highway in New York in his trusty Mercury Sable from a night working with this music he loves. As he recalls from his hospital bed a week later, "An SUV travelling at least 100 miles an hour rear-ended me and propelled my car with such force that it smashed into a tree and landed back onto the highway facing the opposite direction." Todd suffered multiple fractures to his lower leg and to his clavicle, and serious bruises from the force of the air bag. "You know," he shared, "those air bags don't just inflate around you gently. They explode on impact." A kind taxi driver witnessed the accident, called the police, and stayed at the scene to tell what had happened—the SUV took off. And, in an odd twist, Todd's cell phone redialed the last call received before the airbag hit it. So pianist Monte Alexander was treated to a bizarre soundtrack of sirens in the wee hours of Sunday morning, he and his wife thinking it must be one of Todd's latest musical ideas. "They had no idea," Todd chuckled.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Cover of TutuCelebrating Miles Davis - 02/19/2011 | MiamiHerald.com
By the time of his death in 1991, trumpeter Miles Davis had lived several jazz lives.
Throughout a career spanning 50 years, Davis showed an acute sense for shifting musical paradigms and an uncanny ability to both absorb and transcend the musical trends of the day. Time and again, he reinvented himself as needed, and as he did, he also changed the sound of jazz.
Two sides of Davis’ music — one acoustic, featuring classic songs from albums such as Kind of Blue, the other electric, centering on Tutu, the most memorable studio recording of his late period — are the subject of Celebrating Miles, a concert featuring trumpeter (and Davis’ protégé) Wallace Roney, bassist-producer Marcus Miller, up-and-coming trumpeter Christian Scott and bassist Ron Carter, among others. The show, part of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art’s Jazz Roots series, takes place at the Knight Concert Hall at 8 p.m. Friday.
“It’s an honor to be part of a tribute to Miles, although I feel I pay tribute to him every time I play the trumpet,” Roney said in a recent phone interview. “I feel my own music is an extension of what he gave to the art form — but I think everybody’s music has been influenced by him.”
Roney’s career includes stints with Art Blakey, Tony Williams and Ornette Coleman, as well as 16 albums as a leader. He also won a Grammy in 1994 as a member of the Miles Davis Tribute Band, featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Carter and Williams. He will perform in the acoustic half of the concert, leading an exceptional group comprised of Billy Childs on piano, Donald Harrison on alto sax, Javon Jackson on tenor sax, Carter on bass and Al Foster on drums.
Roney’s own music includes distinctly contemporary elements including turntables and down-tempo grooves. But he won’t approach this show like a repertory player performing a role.
“Playing Miles’ music is as much me as playing my own music. Playing Miles’ music is how I grew up, it’s how I’ve learned,” he says. “So it’s me. I don’t have to think ‘Well, now I’m going to role-play.’ All I have to do is go to that part of me.”
Roney, who will be 51 in May, was already being hailed as a young jazz phenom when he met Davis at a tribute to the trumpeter at the Bottom Line in New York City in 1983. After hearing him play, Davis took an interest and became his mentor. “He heard himself in me,” says Roney, matter-of-factly. “ ‘You remind me of me,’ he told me. ‘You look at me like I used to look at Dizzy.’ ”
In 1991, Davis invited Roney to be part of his concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. That evening, working with an orchestra conducted by Quincy Jones, Davis revisited some of the charts of his classic collaborations with arranger Gil Evans. Roney was a featured soloist.
He chuckles as he discusses the perception and truth of Davis’ cultivated, forbidding persona.
“Miles had a vibe. He definitely had a vibe. He walked into a room and everybody would turn, and he knew how to use that to make people back away from him,” Roney says. “But he was a beautiful person. He was funny. He was friendly. He was generous. He was everything that people would love in a human being but, if you crossed him, oh buddy, ooooh buddy. Then you’d see the “Evil Miles Davis” — and I saw that, too.”
He says that often lost in Davis’ mystique is the fact that “this man was one of the greatest trumpet players of all time.”
“I got to hear his sound in my ear, and I never heard anybody sound like that in my life,” Roney says. “He had a sound that seemed to come from the clouds. I’m telling you. It was not from this Earth. It came from the clouds.”
For all of Davis’ tough posturing, his sound spoke with a touching vulnerability, which served him well in the ’50s and ’60s (just check his classic ballad playing), but also in the ’70s, as he stirred a witches’ brew of electric rock-jazz fusion.
A new groove
In Tutu, recorded 25 years ago this month, the deep humanity of Davis’ sound is set in a world of synthesizers and pre-programmed grooves. Here, he’s Everyman standing in a shiny, mechanical world of zeros and ones, smooth metal and plastic.
“That’s what I was hoping to get,” said Tutu co-producer Miller, 51, who wrote and arranged most of the songs, and played most of the instruments on the album. “To me it was the sound of someone who had been through so much, trying to make his way in this weird, technological world. Miles’ sound was perfect for that.”
The recording was strictly a studio affair. Co-producer Tommy LiPuma, then the head of jazz at Warner Bros., Davis’ new label, decided not to use a live band. To complement Miller’s work, additional musicians were called as needed. As for Davis’ involvement, Miller recalls that “Miles came in, heard the tracks and told me to call him when I needed the trumpet. That’s it. But he was involved the whole time. I was just making a suit he would put on, and hoping it fit well.”
Some of the songs in Tutu were later incorporated into Davis’ live show playlist, but the idea of playing the whole album top to bottom only emerged a couple of years ago, as a one-off event, part of a Miles Davis exhibit in Paris.
“I wanted to do a tribute to Miles, but I also knew Miles would absolutely hate the idea of going back in time and recreating something from 25 years ago,” Miller explains. “Miles never liked to look back. ... And then I got the idea: if I could find some young musicians who were babies when Tutu came out and introduce these great young musicians to the world and have them interpret it, now that could be something Miles would appreciate.”
Miller found New Orleans trumpeter Scott, who will be 28 in March; Louis Cato, drums, 25; Federico Gonzalez Pena, piano, 42, and Alex Han, alto sax, 22. The performance was a success, concerts promoters called, and the one-time-only event became a touring show.
“When we first played the music it tripped me out. Every note brought up a memory of when I was hanging with Miles, working on the music, so it was really emotional to play it,” recalls Miller. “But I really enjoyed playing it live, bringing it to life.”
“What you are going to get out of these shows is how much influence this guy had in our music, in all of us,” says Miller. “Because we are all kind of his children, his family. It’s going to be a beautiful thing to see how Miles still lives.”
- Jazz week: trumpet. Day 4, Miles Davis (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- Miles Davis- Perfect Way: the Miles Davis Anthology - review (guardian.co.uk)
- Don Cheadle: Time is right for Miles Davis Biopic (Reuters)
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Sir George Shearing, Gentle Jazz Piano Icon, Has Died : A Blog Supreme : NPR
Pianist and composer Sir George Shearing has died, at age 91.
Born blind, Shearing was a self-taught musician, the youngest of nine children of a London coal man. In a career spent almost entirely in the U.S., he won fame, fortune and eventually a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth for a lifetime of elegant jazz.
the fresh air interview
Remembering The Composer Of 'Lullaby Of Birdland'
Shearing will always be associated first and foremost with his composition "Lullaby of Birdland." He wrote the piece in 1952 about the jazz scene on 52nd Street in New York City. It was very quickly covered by jazz stars of all styles.
But he was far from a one-hit wonder. During a career that stretched from his native London during the blitz of World War II to his adopted home of New York — from which he toured the globe — Shearing projected not only graceful song but an elegant personal style. His touch was instantly recognizable for its nuance and articulation. His solos often employed rich block chords: harmonies voiced in notes played simultaneously, bunched together.
Shearing assumed no gap between classical technique and jazz swing, yet he never let virtuosity stand in the way of expression. His first big hit, a version of the song "September in the Rain," actually preceded "Lullaby of Birdland." It was recorded in 1949 and introduced a new attitude in jazz, which came to be called "cool."
While Shearing loved bebop — the fast, virtuosic style developed in the 1940s — he recognized there was a market for something less frenetic. He called "September in the Rain" an antidote to the the music he heard when he immigrated to Manhattan after World War II.
"We came in at the end of a very frantic era — the bebop era, where they take a tune like 'Indiana' [hums melody] and make a very complex [hums rapid improvisation]," he told NPR's Bob Edwards in 1995. "Make up a very complex melody out of it. And so, when you get to the end of this frantic era and somebody sits down with vibes and guitar and a well-written bass line and all in very good order, it's a lot easier on the ear."
Shearing's vibes, guitar, bass, drums and piano quintet popularized an easier, gentler jazz. But it was never cloying or "smooth" — always tasteful and musically substantial.
Within the commercial conventions of the 1950s and early '60s he was an experimenter, embracing Latin dance rhythms, working with new instrumentalists including vibists Margie Hyams and Cal Tjader, harmonica player and guitarist Toots Thielemans, and conguero Mongo Santamaria. He also forged enduring collaborations with musicians such as violinist Stephane Grappelli, bassist Brian Torff and singer Mel Torme.
Torme spoke highly of Shearing. "Georgie is absolutely right that we share a great love of things English," Torme said. "Georgie was English; he's as American as apple pie these days; and I'm American but I love the English ... This is one of the loveliest exports ever to come from over the sea."
George Shearing came a long way in life, from poor but honest beginnings in London to being celebrated on the international stage. He never allowed his blindness keep him from anything. Whether at the birth of the cool, playing Latin rhythms and conceiving chamber jazz, Shearing was a musician with a gift for reaching listeners beyond category.
Shearing died of congestive heart failure Monday morning in New York City, his management confirmed. But up until his death, at almost every performance, he played a certain lullaby.
Felix Contreras contributed to this report, and is the voice heard on air.
- Jazz pianist George Shearing dies in NY at 91 (reuters.com)
- George Shearing, 'Lullaby of Birdland' Jazz Virtuoso, Dies at 91 (nytimes.com)
- Jazz Pianist George Shearing Dies at 91 (abcnews.go.com)
Monday, February 14, 2011
Cover of Esperanza SpaldingEsperanza Spalding gets best new artist Grammy - chicagotribune.com
Sometimes, even the Grammys get it right.
In choosing bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding as best new artist, the Grammys not only miffed Justin Bieber fans but anointed a jazz musician of tremendous versatility and potential. Moreover, at 26, Spalding commands the rare ability to woo pop listeners and hard-core jazz aficionados, alike.
She proved the point last December, when she attracted a capacity audience to Symphony Center on a double-bill with violinist Regina Carter. But Spalding was the artist everyone was buzzing about, even before she sounded a note.
Throughout a mesmerizing performance, Spalding proved she's much more than just a bassist-vocalist. Music seemed to pour out of every corpuscle of her being, and she gave voice to it through deeply expressive bass playing, hauntingly ethereal vocals, self-styled choreography and unabashed performance art.
When Spalding is at her best, the music surges uninterrupted from the low notes of her bass to the stratospheric pitches of her soprano. As songwriter, she pens profound narratives (listen to her "Apple Blossom"); as conceptualizer, she fearlessly merges pop, jazz and classical idioms (check out her "Chamber Music Society" CD of last year).
Yes, Spalding has some technical challenges ahead, especially in improving the evenness and control of her voice. Even so, she's now positioned to bring jazz to young, pop audiences that otherwise might never encounter it. Bravo.
- Grammys Best New Artist? Not Bieber or Drake (theroot.com)
- Experts Weigh In On Esperanza Spalding's Best New Artist Sweep - MTV.com (news.google.com)
Cover of George ShearingJazz legend George Shearing is dead at 91 - Monsters and Critics
New York - The blind British jazz pianist and composer Sir George Shearing, most famous for his Lullaby of Birdland, died Monday at age 91.
His manager Dale Sheets said the cause of death was congestive heart failure. He died in Manhattan.
Shearing, whose parents were a coal worker and cleaning lady, moved to the US in 1947 after his first successes in Britain. Two years later he had an international hit with 'September in the Rain.'
His fame grew with his Lullaby of Birdland in 1952, later recorded by music greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Bill Haley and His Comets. His group, the George Shearing Quintet, performed for nearly 30 years before disbanding in the late 1970s.
Shearing performed at the White House for three presidents and for the British royal family. In 2007, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him.
'I dont know why I'm getting this honor,' the New York Times quoted him as saying after learning of his knighthood. 'I've just been doing what I love to do.'
- George Shearing, Jazz Pianist and 'Lullaby of Birdland' Writer, Dead at 91 (spinner.com)
- Jazz Pianist George Shearing Dies at 91 (abcnews.go.com)
- Jazz Pianist George Shearing Dies at 91 (cbsnews.com)
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Music review: Wynton Marsalis with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall | Culture Monster | Los Angeles Times
Image via WikipediaMusic review: Wynton Marsalis with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall | Culture Monster | Los Angeles Times
Wynton Marsalis thinks big — and he has the talent, drive and clout to carry out his ambitions. Hence “Swing Symphony” (Symphony No. 3), his latest omnivorous attempt to merge the history of acoustic jazz with a symphony orchestra.
First heard in Berlin, then in the New York Philharmonic’s season-opener in September, “Swing Symphony” reached Los Angeles on Saturday night as Walt Disney Concert Hall’s stage groaned under the combined weight of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Los Angeles received a bonus: The piece’s fifth movement, which was deleted from the New York performance due to TV time limits, was played here, making this the U.S. premiere of the complete work.
From a jazz point of view, Marsalis’ new work can be heard as a homage to his idol Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” — sometimes rather explicitly in sound. Yet Marsalis is also applying Mahler’s vision of what a symphony should be: an embracing of the world.
Like Marsalis’ “All Rise,” which the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Jazz at Lincoln Center big band performed and recorded in 2001, “Swing Symphony” is more of a suite than a symphony, in which a plethora of idioms jump-cuts wildly from one to the next. Marsalis arranges his six-movement, 51-minute cross-section of jazz history more or less chronologically, from ragtime to the Charleston, the big band era, bebop, Afro-Cubop and John Coltrane’s modal period (the fifth movement) before doubling back to a ballad for Ellingtonian saxophones. Clearly any developments beyond 1961 — the year of Wynton’s birth — remains out-of-bounds on the Marsalis jazz timeline.
Luckily, the piece has an irresistible vitality over its long span, and Marsalis does get the symphony orchestra thoroughly involved. Encouraged by jazz-attuned conductor Leonard Slatkin, the Phil could swing harder than its New York colleagues at times, and there were plenty of scorching solos from the Jazz at Lincoln Center band — including Marsalis himself, seated as always in his trumpet section. But there are many portions — the second movement in particular — in which there is just too much busywork, enough to keep this huge apparatus from fusing, lifting off and finding its groove.
In programming Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” — and what a delight it was to hear it indoors, for a change, instead of through outdoor amplification — Slatkin not only suavely illustrated the lineage of classical-jazz fusion, he let Gershwin make points of the virtues of self-editing, segueing, not overloading the texture, and, of course, one great tune after another. Shostakovich’s spiffy little Jazz Suite No. 1, with its Weill-like marches and impish humor, showed that the Jazz Age spread as far as Russia.
The audience responded wildly; only Gustavo Dudamel gets as big a hand at L.A. Philharmonic concerts as Marsalis got. As an encore, Marsalis launched an eloquently subtle blues jam, in which every member of his big band took a chorus.
- Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra developing its own sound (theglobeandmail.com)
- Wynton Marsalis in Cuba to "bring people together" (omg.yahoo.com)
Thursday, February 10, 2011
Album review: Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew Live' | Culture Monster | Los Angeles Times
The latest in a recent string of newly packaged music from jazz’s past, "Bitches Brew Live" combines only the second CD release of Miles Davis' 1970 performance at Isle of Wight (issued on DVD in 2004 and on recent complete catalog CD sets) and three previously unheard live tracks from the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival. Tempting stuff for Davis completists.
Given the music industry's ongoing addiction to reissues, jazz fans could be forgiven for suffering a bit of Davis fatigue. They recently have seen the release of two complete catalog sets, no less than eight boxed collections of album outtakes and, most recently, a sumptuous 40th anniversary edition of "Bitches Brew" similar to 2008's "Kind of Blue" collector's set -- and that doesn't even get into the many two-disc "Legacy Collections" out there. All in all, a pretty busy release schedule for a guy who's been dead almost 20 years.
The question is, does the average jazz fan need yet another Miles Davis set?
In a word, probably. In fact, this album could be the choice for anyone who's heard all the (justified) hype and acclaim behind the jazz-meets-rock amalgam "Bitches Brew" but hasn't been able to crack its dark and sometimes thorny code. Along with the six-disc "Cellar Door Sessions 1970," this recording beautifully showcases the fire-breathing power of Davis' band onstage.
Backed by an all-star band of Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette (weirdly, Wayne Shorter got stuck in traffic and missed this set), Davis' trumpet is a fluid, nimble presence on Newport's opener "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," which carries a more boisterous edge than the album's version recorded six weeks later. Holland can be tough to pick up here given that he was still on an acoustic bass, but his battery mate DeJohnette shines, playing off Corea's keyboard punches on the "In a Silent Way" track "It's About That Time" with the controlled fury of an oncoming train. The complete picture of "Bitches Brew" wasn't in place yet, but hearing Davis and his band open up the throttle in these early stages is often remarkable.
By the time the Isle of Wight set was recorded in August 1970, Davis' vision for merging jazz, rock and funk was in full bloom. Saxophonist Gary Bartz has taken over for the departed Shorter (whom you can hear on the 2001 live release from 1970, "It's About That Time") and the band has expanded to a six-piece with Keith Jarrett joining Corea as a second keyboardist and Airto Moreira adding percussive spikes and blurts.
The title track from "Bitches Brew," a tough sell for neophytes with its spaced-out trumpet flares on the 26-minute studio version, here reveals its heavy funk heart with Corea grinding out guitar-like tones from his keyboard over its economical 10 minutes. The swaggering groove of "Spanish Key" is highlighted by an unhinged solo from Bartz, and the duplicate takes on "Sanctuary" and "It's About That Time" hardly feel like the same song with the many new colors added by this lineup, underscoring the constant invention and reinvention of this period for Davis.
Certainly, it's easy to grow weary of all the reissues that have been scraped from the vaults over the years and targeted to deep-pocketed collectors. But when a single album documents a period this influential and sounds this good doing it, it's even easier to come back for more.
- Experience Miles Davis' music with all five senses (news.cnet.com)
Tuesday, February 08, 2011
Why We're Obsessed With Wayne Shorter : A Blog Supreme : NPR
he saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter is one of the few jazz musicians who can without a doubt be called a living legend. Many of his compositions are jazz standards; many of his records are studied endlessly. He's one of the artists who both musicians and fans obsess over — and even at age 77, he continues to reinvent his musical personality with every performance.
So what about Wayne Shorter gives him this towering, near-mythic profile? Why did people revere this man, and why do they continue to do so?
On Tuesday, Shorter starts a brief North American tour, stopping in Boston, New York, Durham, N.C. and Toronto. On the eve of this stint, I asked Michelle Mercer, author of the biography Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter, to help explain and appraise the phenomenon that is Wayne Shorter, both then and now. (Mercer is also an occasional NPR contributor.) I sent her a few questions over e-mail:
Patrick Jarenwattananon: So if you've never heard of him, why is this Wayne Shorter dude worth paying attention to? I know you have a whole book on this, but ... give me the roughly 150 word version?
Michelle Mercer: Here's the encyclopedia entry: Wayne is as strong and distinctive a composer as he is a saxophonist. His storied career encompasses 50 years of jazz innovation. Wayne was weaned on bebop in the 40s and went on to break new ground in the genres of hard bop, post-bop, fusion and orchestral jazz.
But here's why he's really worth a listen: At 77, an age when many musicians have settled into nostalgia, Wayne is writing and playing music that can stir people up.
PJ: It seems like Wayne could have had a place for himself in the jazz canon based only on his work in the late '50s and the '60s. What was special about those years?
MM: In 1959, Wayne joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, a group that toured widely for its time, representing jazz and America around the world. Wayne became Blakey's musical director and with his compositions helped move the group from straightforward hard-bop to sophisticated post-bop. In 1964, Miles Davis recruited him for his quintet with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, which was sort of "the right stuff" of jazz groups. Miles loved Wayne's composing as much as Blakey had. On the '60s quintet albums Wayne has as many composition credits as Miles, if not more.
And there were Wayne's Blue Note recordings. In the '50s and '60s Blue Note was the Bell Labs of jazz, blessed with a lucky conjunction of plentiful funding, smart management and strong talent. Bell Labs produced dozens of breakthrough inventions; Blue Note produced dozens of classic recordings. A few spring to mind: Horace Silver's Song For My Father, Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder, Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage, Dexter Gordon's Our Man In Paris, Freddie Hubbard's Ready For Freddie. Even in such a remarkable catalog, Wayne's Blue Note recordings stand out for their harmonic complexity and memorable melodies. Wayne recorded six albums for Blue Note in one 18-month period, and these albums — The All Seeing Eye, Speak No Evil, etc. — included tunes that have become jazz standards.
PJ: I haven't read as much celebrating his music between the '60s and '00s. Did people write him off for many years in that span?
MM: My goodness, A Blog Supreme, what a leading question. I'm tempted to just say yes.
First, I'll look at Wayne's accomplishments during these years, since you asked about his achievements during previous decades. In the early '70s he and Joe Zawinul co-founded Weather Report, a group that did a lot to define the sound and structure of jazz fusion. Weather Report played to packed stadiums, and featured long, muscular solos by Wayne. For the fans who missed Wayne's acoustic playing, and they were many, there was VSOP in the late 70s, a reformation of Miles's '60s quintet, without Miles. (First Freddie Hubbard played trumpet in the group, then Wynton Marsalis.) On Native Dancer (1974) Wayne and Milton Nascimento invented the first new sound in Brazilian jazz since Getz/Gilberto's jazz bossa. In the '70s, '80s and '90s, Wayne contributed classic solos on recordings by Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell, and on soundtracks like Glengarry Glen Ross and The Fugitive.
But Wayne did suffer a compositional drought in the late '70s and '80s, especially compared to his fertile writing of the '50s and '60s. In the early '70s, with his conversion to Nicheren Buddhism, Wayne decided to "put life ahead of music," as he often says. Though he remained Weather Report's co-leader for all 14 years of the group's tenure, Wayne was much less active in the group than Zawinul.
After Weather Report disbanded in 1984, Wayne made three solo records for Columbia. These '80s albums, Atlantis, Phantom Navigator, and Joy Ryder, as well as his 1995 Verve debut, High Life, were synthesizer-heavy, with some programmed backbeats. Wayne and his producers went with the sound of the times. For many of Wayne's fans these production values were a big obstacle to their musical appreciation. As Joni Mitchell put it in one of her typically vivid metaphors, the backbeats on these albums "put fence posts through the music."
Happily, for everyone concerned, over the past decade or so Wayne has been commissioned to rework some of those '80s compositions for orchestra or chamber ensemble. When these pieces are rearranged for broader instrumentation and performed in an acoustic setting, their strengths are easier to hear. Many of these pieces have several intertwined melodies, for example — and if you pull out any one melody, it's striking enough to serve as the primary one. Basically, the way I see it, in the '80s and '90s, Wayne was becoming a serious classical composer, but the style and sound of his records obscured it for most fans.
PJ: It seems like people "in the know" are still obsessed with him, even if they didn't like his electric recordings. Why are his performances still so anticipated? He's surely more than just a "legacy act," as they say.
MM: In the jazz world, the people most "in the know" are the musicians themselves. Early on, Wayne's unconventional character and original musicianship gave him a special cachet among musicians. Whether or not they've played with him, most musicians have a good Wayne story — or five. With the growth of jazz degree programs, more young musicians began formal study of Wayne's solos and compositions. Appreciation spread and spilled over to the cognoscenti.
That doesn't really explain the obsession, though. Here are some thoughts:
As Wayne remembers it, his mother encouraged his creativity and protected his playtime from the rude incursions of the real world: e.g. his father asking him to take out the trash. Because of this maternal influence, or just because, Wayne lodged comfortably in his imagination, finding richness of experience there. Part of him has never stopped looking at the world through his mind's eye. Wayne's composition and improvisation are windows into this imagination.
And Wayne has a deep musical memory. As he lived music over the decades, he absorbed it all: the Beethoven he studied at NYU, the rhythmic fusillades of Art Blakey, the runic phrases of Miles, the soundtracks to the movies he's watched constantly since he was a kid. Add all this to his own vast catalog of compositions, and he's got a lot of music at his fingertips.
Finally, Wayne's now had a serious Buddhist practice for 40 years, which has made him very awake. Though it sounds simple, I don't know a better way to say it. He's awake. Watching a movie or eating dinner or sitting in an airport terminal, Wayne can be extraordinarily alert to the unfolding of the phenomenal world. On stage, this translates to a keen awareness of what his band mates are playing in every moment.
So Wayne's live shows offer up his unfettered imagination, sharp recall of 20th century music and committed wakefulness, which makes for an unusual combination. Fans never quite know what they're going to get when he picks up a saxophone.
PJ: Tell me about how this current band formed. As jazz fans surely know, Brian Blade, John Patitucci and Danilo Perez — drums, bass and piano, respectively — are some of the most incredibly talented musicians in jazz right now. How did they all meet for this group?
MM: John Patitucci had played and recorded off and on with Wayne since 1987. In the late '90s, when Wayne's symphonic performances began, he'd play with a jazz quartet alongside the orchestra. (He still does.) Wayne tried a few different musicians for this quartet, including John on bass, then added Danilo and Brian at the 2000 Monterey Jazz Festival. It just worked. These musicians had what Wayne wanted and needed: exceptional musical intelligence and a spirit of adventure.
PJ: So what might one see at one of these quartet shows? How else might you describe where Wayne seems to be going musically these days?
MM: You've heard the phrase "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Describing this band's music is even more implausible: It's like swimming about brain surgery.
It's easier to start with what audiences won't hear. Even though this is an acoustic group, audiences won't hear tunes played in the style of Wayne's classic Blue Note recordings. They won't hear set compositions at all. The band will likely play a sort of stream-of-consciousness suite, seguing without break between musical ideas, which may even coalesce briefly into recognizable melodies.
Usually the leader of a jazz group is a protagonist, the central character in the music's story. Wayne rejects that role. This quartet is truly an ensemble cast, and makes good on Joe Zawinul's famous boast about Weather Report: "We always solo and we never solo." They are four equal players making it up as they go along.
There are some risks to this approach. While the band is casting about for an authentic idea, one worthy of development, a musical passage can lose tension or momentum. It may feel as if the band is stuck in quicksand. That's because the band is stuck in quicksand. But it doesn't last long.
Wayne's sound will probably be partly cloudy on tenor sax and mostly sunny on soprano. He may play slurred downward spirals of notes, or what the quartet's manager/engineer Rob Griffin calls "the Draino stuff." He'll lean into some ostinatos. If a distinct melody emerges, he'll probably improvise a counter melody. He'll leap around in wide intervals, lots of fifths and octaves, leaving plenty of space for the other guys to roam. He may whistle.
None of this explains the altered sense of time and space some fans, especially fellow musicians, experience during these shows.
The band's onstage demeanor is more elated than you might expect from a jazz quartet. Danilo and John will often shout out at a surprising musical gesture, especially if it's Wayne's gesture. Brian erupts into grooves with a force that would intimidate most rock bands. The guys are rarely out of eye contact. They laugh more often than jazz musicians usually do in performance, except maybe in New Orleans.
Something audiences won't see is how the band's pre-show conversation carries over into the night's music. Or how after the show, their banter picks up right where the music left off.
- Absolutely Live Entertainment Presents Wayne Shorter Quartet In Concert (theurbanflux.wordpress.com)
- Great moments in jazz: How Miles and transformed jazz...all over again (guardian.co.uk)