Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor

NEWS FROM ELSEWHERE

Kahil El’Zabar spreads the word about Spiritual Jazz

While Melodic Distraction’s Toby Taylor seems to think that Spiritual Jazz is an entire genre unto itself, he does give Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (EHE) leader percussionist/ Kahil El’Zabar space to suggest that with much contemporary Jazz performance sterile and academically oriented, there’s a need for bands like the EHE. The EHE aims for a higher form of expression as well as acknowledging the musical history of different communities of African descent.  Influenced by the sounds he heard growing up in Chicago, El’Zabar first organized the EHE in 1973 and it has gone through many permutations as a trio or quartet since then to settle on the present line-up of himself, baritone saxophonist Alex Harding, trumpeter Corey Wilkes and cellist Ian Maksin. Explaining that the EHE consistently challenges the harmonic and sonic capabilities of modern sounds, El’Zabar credits his capabilities to his parents who exposed him to Jazz ranging from Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker to John Coltrane and Sun Ra with special emphasis on local legends like saxophonists Von Freeman and Gene Ammons. El’Zabar, who is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians cites other AACM members like pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Steve McCall as crucial to his individual musical development.

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How and Why Philadelphia Became the Sun Ra Arkestra’s Earthly and Permanent Base

Forced by rising rents to relocate the Arkestra to Philadelphia in 1968 after the ensemble had finally become accepted as part of New York burgeoning avant-garde community, Sun Ra did so grudgingly and gradually. According to Red Bull Music Academy Daily’s John Morrison, the enigmatic bandleader-composer-keyboardist, who was then part of Manhattan’s Black Arts Movement along with poet Amira Baraka, pianist Cecil Taylor and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, only moved to what was described as “death’s headquarters” with its then racist and hostile police force, because the band acquired a house in the Germantown neighborhood from Arkestra alto saxophonist Marshall Allen’s father. But it took three years before Ra formally joined other band members to become a permanent Philly resident. Once there Ra found regular weekly gigs for the band in local clubs, began a relationship with visual artist Leroy Butler to design LP covers, and helped Arkestra baritone saxophonist/flutist Danny Thompson set up Pharoah’s Den grocery store in the neighborhood. Most importantly Ra began adding Philadelphia musicians to the band. Today despite Ra’s earth-leaving in 1993, the Arkestra is still based in Philly where its influence affects the city’s cultural life. Besides the likes of trumpeter Heru Sabaka-Ra, who plays in the Arkestra, as well as his own Sirius JuJu band, the Ra philosophy and showmanship is acknowledged by local performers like DJ and producer King Britt and poet and musician Moor Mother.

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Vanity Fair Discovers that Women Play Jazz

With great fanfare – and about two decades too late – Vanity Fair magazine discovers there are a whole bunch of women playing Jazz. Writer Abigail Jones does outline the music’s long history of sexism and reputation as an exclusive boy’s club where club owners and fellow players are still surprised that a woman plays rather than sings. Pointing to more gender-free jam sessions and increase in female enrollment in formal jazz-study hubs, she reports on some improvements in her interviews with those on the scene, though the focus here is still on “the freshest faces of 21st-century jazz: women instrumentalists who have sizzle right now”. The list of hair and manicure stylists at the article’s end doesn’t much help defining existing situation, nor do some of the more flowery photos included. But at least glossy mag readers are introduced to among others, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, pianist Kris Davis, arranger Maria Schneider and guitarist Mary Halvorson, the last of whom has some of the piece’s most trenchant comments.

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Jazz Goes to Church: James Falzone

Writing for the “Classical Music” page of The Seattle Times, Tom Keogh emphasizes the background in religious-oriented music of clarinetist James Falzone. Chair of music at the city’s Cornish College of the Arts, Falzone’s then-upcoming concert at the school’s Chapel in the Good Shepherd Center, featuring pianist Wayne Horvitz and bassist Abbey Blackwell, linked improvisations with liturgical music composed by Falzone. Pointing out that the clarinetist was music director at Grace Chicago Church for 16 years, when he lived in Illinois, Keogh notes how that experience helped shape Falzone’s ideas about composing and arranging as a form of service to others, and broadened his definition of liturgical music. At the same time the writer emphasizes that the clarinetist, who spends as much time playing secular as scared music, is only one of the Jazz musicians who teach or have taught at Cornish, including trombonist Julian Priester, Horvitz and French hornist Tom Varner.

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A Trumpeter’s Turnaround: Jaimie Branch

While the Portland Mercury’s Robert Ham seems most concerned with how many metaphoric and poetic references he can ascribe to trumpeter Jaimie Branch’s life and career, he does manage to reveal something about her music in this Q+A. Ham explains how the trumpeter first drew attention in Chicago as part of bassist Jason Ajemian’s band and later moved to Brooklyn, organizing her own combo as well as the well=praised duo Anteloper, with drummer Jason Nazary, who also played in Ajemian’s group. Branch strongly supports a D-I-Y attitude, and notes how her music has helped her overcome many drawbacks including addiction and family alienation. But she’s also adamant in insisting that despite Anteloper's use of loops and processing with its links to so-called post-rock and ambient music, the result is still as involved with improvisation as her more Jazz-oriented projects.

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Big Five Chords That Lead to Unique Music

An affectionate if somewhat shortened yarn, Jazz Times’ Mike Shanley manages to trace the interconnections that make up different groups featuring Austin guitarist Jon Lundbom and New York-based saxophonist Bryan Murray. Both originally from the Chicago area, the guitarist’s short New York sojourn led to other young musicians, involved in their own bands, like saxophonist Jon Irabagon and bassist Moppa Eliott also playing on the initial Big Five (BFC) CDs when the band was formed. Lundbom, who says he was influenced by players as disparate as Ornette Coleman and Stan Getz, as well as a D’Angelo’s Jazz-Hip Hop record, leads other local groups as well as BFC, all of which hold to his idea of maintaining a groove, but without repeating the head at the ending. Meanwhile Murray spends part of his non-BFC time creating unprecedented multiphonic sessions using a “balto!” an alto sax with a baritone mouthpiece, whose sound he describes as “loud, disgusting and out of tune.”  

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Japan’s Free Jazz Heyday Remembered

Although the article is rather like the result of looking at a photo of a photo of a photo, Pierre Crépon’s review of Teruto Soejimabook, Free Jazz in Japan: A Personal History, gives some idea of that country’s fertile experimental music scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Appearing in Point of Departure now that the 2002 book has been translated into English, the review introduces a gallery of Free Jazz pioneers who were responsible for presenting and disseminating the sounds, first in Tokyo, then in other parts of the country, and with middling success, overseas. A few names, such as trumpeters Itaru Oki and Toshinori Kondo, pianist Masahiko Sato and saxophonists Akira Sakata and Kaoru Abe, may be known by non-Japanese Jazz followers mostly through their expatriation to Europe and collaboration with similar, far-sighted, usually German or French players. Abe is a special case though, because of his short-lived self-destructive lifestyle. Anything but the last word on the subject, Crépon’s scholarship about the contemporary political and societal situation in Japan at the time and Soejima’s personal knowledge of what happened, provide a good introduction. Further, more rigorous scholarship on the subject is needed though.

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Heather Leigh: The pedal steel guitar is an extension of me

A little weak on details – musical and otherwise – this Spanish-English interview with steel guitarist Heather Leigh by Loop’s Guillermo Escudero tries to explain the appeal and mechanics of the American-in-Scotland’s instrument and situate her playing within the Free Jazz scene. However Leigh, whose ongoing work, live and on record, in a solo contest and with drummer Chris Corsano and tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann has brought her unique sound to those most familiar with improvisation seems to spend much of the interview musing about her influences, speaking about rock bands and pushing her most recent disc.

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Anthony Davis Creates a Controversial New Opera

With the blinders typical of those in the so-called serious music field, “award-winning “international arts journalist” Victoria Looseleaf writes an entire article on composer/pianist Anthony Davis’ newest opera for San Francisco Classical Voice without ever mentioning his parallel history in improvised music. Ignoring Davis’ long-time collaborations with the likes of tenor saxophonist Jason Robinson and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith among others, the article still manages to provide a fair retrospective of Davis’ career up to the present day. It mentions his early interest in creating operas, and his subsequent, highly praised breakthrough productions such as X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X and  Wakonda’s Dream, based on the trial of Chief Standing Bear and leading to The Central Park Five, which was just premiered at Long Beach Opera. An interesting sideline is how Davis got the inspiration for the character of Donald Trump, featured in the opera, and how he instructed the tenor soloist who plays the president in the production to act during the performance

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Anna Webber: From Coffee Shop to Cerebral Music

Even after achieving graduate music degrees from Montreal, New York and Berlin univerities, British Columbia-born saxophonist/flutist Anna Webber was at first still working part-time at a coffee shop when she returned to Manhattan, she tells Jazz Right Now’s Cisco Bradley. But soon she was able to organize groups to play her music in which the cerebral and emotional are equal. First she convened a trio with drummer John Hollenbeck and pianist Matt Mitchell, and later organized a septet for her more scholarly and intellectual scores, featuring Mitchell and herself as well as reedist Jeremy Viner, trombonist Jacob Garchik, cellist Chris Hoffman, bassist Chris Tordini and drummer/vibraphonist Ches Smith. Now she’s at the point of having the big band she co-leads make its first CD. Webber, who also teaches music at different levels, also speaks about the lack of gender parity in Jazz and the music education and female socialization situations that contribute to this.

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Transforming Literature into Music: Lisa Mezzacappa

Although not much of Improvised Music or Jazz has usually been programmatic, Bay area bassist/composer Lisa Mezzacappa has spent the past several years adapting literary works into musical statements. In this article for ArtForum, Phillip Greenlief describes how Touch Bass, her newest project with choreographer Risa Jaroslow, involving  three double basses and three dancers, is just the latest in the bassist’s interest in stretching beyond expected musical tropes. For instance Avant Noir from 2014 consists of pieces that take cues from characters in novels by Dashiell Hammett and Paul Auster; Glorious Ravage from 2015 is a song-cycle inspired by Victorian-era women who abandoned social norms to travel the world; and 2018’s Cosmicomics draws on an Italo Calvino's story collection, using science in an to attempt to explain human interaction. With these projects and other performances, Mezzacappa has worked with a cross section of West Coast artists, including dancers, moving image specialists and sympathetic musicians such as guitarist Fred Frith, pianist Myra Melford, flutist Nicole Mitchell and bassist Mark Dresser.

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Established Jazz Festival Goofs by Booking A Jazz Group

Somehow this snarky satire hits close to home as Canada’s The Daily Bonnet publishes an un-bylined article reporting the shock by promoters who found out that an actual Jazz group had been mistakenly added to the line-up of a popular Jazz festival. With a place-line of SK, not making it clear whether the made-up festival is in Slovenia or Saskatchewan, the sardonic piece highlights the reality that about 90% of the so-called major Jazz Festivals around the world would rather feature Rock, Pop, Soul, Metal or World Music acts than anything resembling Jazz or Improvised music – and the majority of the audience members don’t care.

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An insider and an outsider: Jamaaladeen Tacuma

Philadelphia-native Jamaaladeen Tacuma achieved his greatest popularity in the 1970s and 1980s when as part of the Punk-New Wave-Jazz scene he played regularly in New York in groups with tenor saxophonist David Murray and others, most especially as part of alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman's band. But as the electric bassist tells Philadelphia Weekly’s A.D. Amorosi, he never left Philadelphia and is always featured in the city’s annual Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival. While some of the stories he tells about growing up in the racially divided city may be a little too Philly-centric, Tacuma, who now also plays acoustic bass, offers a quick rundown of how the city’s demographics have changed over the years. His early bands were ones of the first to adopt the same hippie attire and attitude as white rock bands. Today there’s more integration between African-American and White artists, to the extent that even his interest in regularly adding continental African sounds to improvised music is accepted.

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Very Into American Jazz: Håvard Wiik

Although he doesn’t reject the marketing term Nordic Jazz, Berlin-based Norwegian pianist Håvard Wiik tells DownBeat’s Brad Cohan that American music and Jazz has been an influence on him since he first started playing. Explaining that while the newest disc by the co-op band Atomic takes its name from a Beach Boys tune, the veteran Scandinavian quintet idea of  playing other people’s music included tunes from the likes of committed Jazz musicians clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and tenor saxophonist J an Garbarek from their most experimental period. At the same time Wiik says that the compositions he writes for his own trio with drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen and bassist Ole Morten Vågan are more personal and reflect a certain sound the three have created together over the years.

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No Place for The New Thing: Cleveland in the 1960s

He’s been imam of Cleveland’s Masjid al-Mu’min mosque since 1970, but before that Mutawaf Shaheed was a bass player who worked around the city with tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler and other first-generation avant gardists. In this Wire interview, Shaheed tells Pierre Crépon and Richard J. Koloda how the concept of Free Jazz and Black Nationalism influenced the city's music community at that time. Travelling with Ayler, and his brother, trumpeter Donald Ayler to Sweden, New York and other locations, the bassist saw the music developing and was also associated with other sound explorers like baritone saxophonist Charles Tyler, trumpeter Norman Howard and even drummer Sunny Murray. Yet his Ohio hometown was always hostile towards The New Thing and Albert Ayler in particular, a situation which Shaheed said eventually drove the saxophonist towards a simpler, more Rock-oriented sound. Among the revelations here are the real origin of the composition “Witches and Devils”; how and why Tyler wouldn’t play with white musicians; and how Donald Ayler's mental state was fragile long before he began playing his brother’s music.

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Still Ferocious in his Eighties: Archie Shepp

Although The Washington Post’s Lauren Du Graf seems a little too glib in linking tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp’s intense Free Jazz and provocative Pan-African, Black Nationalist sentiments to contemporary academics and rappers he does give the 81-year-old elder statesman a forum to speak his mind. Mentioned are Shepp’s stance as the purported heir and extension of the musical ideas of his mentor, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, and the many challenging the influential discs made by the saxophonist, as well as his dramatic spoken word interludes. Shepp, who now divides his time between Paris and Massachusetts, where he taught at the Massachusetts University at Amherst for 30 years, and still constantly tours, may have promoted a world view to his students as well younger Jazz players like pianist Jason Moran and percussionist Makaya McCraven, linking subsequent advances in the arts in Algeria to Shepp’s stand-out concert at the famous Pan-African Festival in 1969 may be giving the musician more credit than he wants.

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Uri Caine: Balancing Jazz, Classical and Electronics

Although Keyboard magazine’s Jon Regen, probably because of the publication, orients some of his questions towards elaborations of gear used and advice to younger players, he does present a succinct overview of pianist Uri Caine’s career. Open to all sorts of influences, the Philadelphia-born Caine recounts how early on he mixed his straight-ahead Jazz playing with saxophonist Bootsy Barnes and drummer Philly Joe Jones with forays into Jazz-Rock Fusion on multiple keyboards with electric bassist Jamaaladeen Tacoma among others, as well as studying notated music at the conservatory and the university level. Since then his initial gigs as a versatile pianist who played with New York downtowners like alto saxophonist John Zorn and trumpeter Dave Douglas took a left turn when he recorded a series of CDs that re-imagined music by so-called classical composer such as Gustav Mahler and Johannes Bach. Caine, who composes string quartets and other non-improvised works, also continues to play acoustic Jazz in bands with the likes of bassist Mark Helias and drummer Clarence Penn, seems to be comfortable in all his musical worlds.   

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A bassist’s journey with Albert Ayler: Bill Folwell

Although known, if at all, in Jazz circles for the brief period he spent backing tenor saxophone visionary Albert Ayler in the late 1960s, bassist Bill Folwell had a Jazz history before and after that period, dabbling with Art-Rock, Pop and Blues-Rock and Blues music and has recently returned to active playing. In this interview with Point of Departure’s Marc Chaloin, the Rochester, N.Y.-raised Folwell tells how a friendship with clarinetist Perry Robinson introduced him to Free Jazz and how shortly afterwards Ayler hired him to play in his band with drummer Beaver Harris and brother, trumpeter Donald Ayler. Folwell says the trumpeter never matched the saxophonist’s talents. “He was babysitting Donald, pretty much,” he recalls, and remembers the less-than-enthusiastic response to some of the group’s concerts in Europe, New York and even in Ayler’s home town of Cleveland. Folwell began playing electric bass around that time, which would eventually lead to a less-than-happy tenure with the psychedelic Rock band Ars Nova and other pop groups. Ayler’s encouragement of using his electric bass line, stemming from the saxophonist’s desire to become popular, would eventually result in Folwell, Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine, keyboardist Call Cobbs, horn sections and vocalists such as Mary Maria playing simple Rock-type sounds on Ayler’s final and most controversial LPs.

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A Personal Memory of Joseph Jarman

Among less personal memories about multi-instrumentalist Joseph Jarman following his death at 81 earlier this year, was this one published in ArtForum from his long-time Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) reed partner, Roscoe Mitchell. Going back to how he and Jarman first met in 1961 and expanded their musical palate through membership in Muhal Richard Abrams' Experimental Band and later recording together, Mitchell recounts how Jarman came to join the AEC. Sadly it was following the death of two members of Jarman's own group. Luckily the multi-instrumentalist was able to join with Mitchell, bassist Malachi Favors and trumpeter Lester Bowie to make the famous 1969 trip to France which cemented AEC’s reputation as sound explorers. Besides being inspired by Jarman’s musical interests over the years, Mitchell also recounts how Jarman’s poetry recitations during AEC concerts notably changed how the band's so-called Free Music music was presented and appreciated. And note Mitchell recounting of who Jarman’s unexpected duet partner was at an early Chicago concert.

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An Academic Conference on Cecil Taylor’s Influences

Giving the late pianist-composer the serious attention he deserves, New York University’s Graduate Center and the Hitchcock Institute for the Study of American Music at Brooklyn College is sponsoring an academic conference on the art of Cecil Taylor. Scheduled for October 24 to October 26 of this year, the conference will build on and amplify the scholarship available on Taylor’s musical and poetic works. Keynote speakers already scheduled include Nahum Dimitri Chandler, David Grubbs, Fred Moten, Fumi Okiji and Ben Young. The conference will celebrate Taylor the educator by hosting an ensemble workshop led by bassoonist Karen Borca, who will pass on a composition dictated to her by Taylor. Additionally one evening will feature a concert and discussion by drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp. Until May 3 the Conference will accept other proposals to present papers, music etc. during that weekend.  More details:

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