Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor


The Engineer who recorded Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane … and Many Others

While The Red Bull Music Academy’s Jeff Mao wants to get in so-called war stories from engineer Baker Bigsby’s about his  work with the likes of rock stars like The Rolling Stones, The Band and Sly and the Family Stones, Bigsby himself says “one of the most important things I did [was] the early ’70s revolutionary, avant-garde jazz”. Weaned away from rock music by producer Ed Michel, he engineered important discs by, among others, saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, violinist Michael White, and Sun Ra Arkestra’s Space Is The Place LP, which necessitated bringing in extra electronic equipment.  Still some of his best experiences, he says, came from recording Alice Coltrane’s devotional music, often with her just playing organ and singing. READ

Tear Down Paradise: The Story of 501 Canal Street

One locus of New York’s Free Jazz scene in the early 1970s, the crumbling industrial building that was 501 Canal Street was finally torn down in 1983 and, following the trajectory of Joni Mitchell’s song, became a parking lot for years until a luxury hotel was  built in its place. But in his article for the New York Times, Nabil Ayers recalls that time in his early childhood when the area was dirty, dangerous and drug-ridden but 501 was  a cheap place to live. Ayers was on site because his uncle, saxophonist Alan Braufman, welcomed Ayers and his mother, Braufman’s sister, into the building. Once there, the child witnessed the daily practice routine and weekly concerts of his uncle plus other residents, including such future Jazz luminaries as pianist Cooper-Moore and saxophonist David S. Ware, who also lived in the building. One part of this story is how Valley of Search, Braufman’s and Cooper-Moore’s recently reissued debut LP was actually recorded right in the building. READ

Homeless, Unappreciated and now Dead: Dewey Johnson

Known, if at all, for his playing on two seminal 1960s Free Jazz LPs: saxophonist John Coltrane’s Ascension and pianist Paul Bley’s Barrage, trumpeter Dewey Johnson (1939-2018) was a shadowy figure most of his life, dying at 78 in June. But as The Wire’s Pierre Crépon points out, the Philadelphia-born trumpeter was an important transitionary figure in exploratory Jazz, first in San Francisco, where he mentored alto saxophonist Noah Howard and played with saxophonist Byron Allen; and later in New York with bands that included saxophonists Giuseppi Logan and Pharoah Sanders and drummer Rashied Ali. A nervous breakdown, subsequent periods of homelessness and a series of menial day jobs made his presence on the scene iffy after 1967, although he did play with on-and-off with The Music Ensemble featuring drummer Roger Baird, saxophonist Daniel Carter, violinist Billy Bang and bassists William Parker and Earl Freeman; and in the early 1980s a group led by drummer Paul Murphy, with pianist Mary Anne Driscoll, saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and bassoonist Karen Borca. More serious illnesses and homelessness was his lot for next three decades until his recent death. READ

Doing something I’ve never done before: Chad Taylor

A versatile percussionist, New York-based Chad Taylor is best-known for his long-time membership in various permutations of the Chicago Underground group with cornetist Rob Mazurek. But, as he tells Jazz Right Now’s Cisco Bradley, his musical flexibility came about after he turned from classical guitar to studies at the New School with the likes of bassist Reggie Workman and saxophonist Arnie Lawrence that helped him to become a professional Jazz musician. He then became part of the the open Chicago music scene, where Avant Rock. Free Jazz and other genres crossed naturally. Although never an AACM member, Taylor did play regularly with Fred Anderson at the Velvet Lounge and was also mentored by him. Furthermore as it evolved, The Chicago Underground began encompassing the use of electronics and post-production studio reworking of already recorded material into the band's CDs. Besides his other affiliations, Taylor says he learned the most from being in the Digital Primitives trio with tenor saxophonist Assif Tsahar and multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore, who taught him more about the music business and even encouraged him to sing. His best playing he adds, is when he feels he has created something he has never done before. READ

Matthew Shipp Speaks Out

Looking forward to an even busier year than usual recording and perfuming his music, New York-based pianist Matthew Shipp discusses his political, mystical and musical philosophies with downbeat’s Ron Hart. Along the way he explains the divergence between the sessions he records for a label like ESP-Disk, with discs featuring the likes of multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter and Polish saxophonist Mat Walerian, and the multiple series of CDs he has recorded for Leo Records with Brazilian saxophonist Ivo Perelman. Comparing the societal ferment of today with that of the 1960s, he also muses about the varied political and social commitments of earlier Jazz icons such as saxophonists Archie Shepp, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. The one thing he’s sure about in 2018 though, he says, is: “I don’t want Donald Trump anywhere near my music.” READ

The Apprenticeship of Cooper-Moore

Now established as a pianist and multi-instrumentalist, Cooper-More has been for many years a constant presence on New York’s so-called downtown scene. But in this transcribed memoir by Sound American’s Nate Wooley, he outlines his early life and how he evolved musically. Growing up in rural Virginia his first introduction o Jazz was through the LPs of Ahmad Jamal and Charles Mingus. While attending university in Washington D.C, and Boston – as a flute specialist [!]– he had a chance to see John Coltrane’s band with Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Rashied Ali and Jimmy Garrison, which convinced him that what he calls “Power Music” was what he wanted to play. He also listened to discs by other advanced musicians like trumpeter Bill Dixon and pianist Burton Greene. Encouraged by players like drummer Cleve Pozar, who had already recorded, Cooper-More dropped out of school, surviving as an organist playing with commercial bands. Later he put together advanced groups with the likes saxophonist David S. Ware and percussionist Juma Santos. However his first opportunity to record came when he moved to a musicians’ cooperative on New York’s Canal Street with Ware, and Ware’s then floor mate, tenor saxophonist Alan Braufman, asked him to record what became the Valley of Search LP. (Includes sound samples). READ

Matana Roberts: Unafraid and Exploratory

Perhaps it’s that her interviewer is fellow saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, but New York-based composer/alto saxophonist Matana Roberts goes into much greater detail than usual about her background and ideas in this dialogue found on Shaw’s blog pages. A Chicago native from a family obsessed with music, Roberts was playing both so-called classical clarinet and Jazz saxophone by the time she was in high school. Soon afterwards she expended her interests in a mixture of players such as Cannonball Adderley, Earth Wind and Fire, Bob Dylan, and Donna Summer even wider to include a variety of other sounds such as those from composers like Morton Feldman, John Zorn and John Cage, saxophonists like David Boykin, Fred Anderson and Von Freeman, singers like Jeanne Lee, and hip hoppers like Nas and  A Tribe Called Quest, These musical influences, plus the writings of Roxane Gay and Jane Jacobs, her quest to experience the natural world, plus her involvement in yoga, movement and swimming, encouraged her to conceive of her Coin Coin project. This is envisioned as a 12-part recorded examination of Black American history, parts of which she performs solo. Right now her other major ambition is to play with older musicians in order to understand some of their received wisdom READ

Nicole Mitchell Itemizes her Influences

Unlike the usual fluffy “blindfold test” conducted by most magazines, where participants merely guess the identity of their closest musical associates, Jazz Times' George Varga challenges California-based flutist and Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM) stalwart Nicole Mitchell with sessions relating to all facets of her burgeoning career. Not only does Mitchell nail the identity of such contemporaries and influences as bassist Mark Dresser and trombonists Jimmy Cheatham and George Lewis plus flutists James Newton, Hubert Laws and Robert Dick , but she also articulately elaborates what each player meant to her as a maturing improviser and how some helped her find her place within the ongoing Jazz tradition. Oh and dig her experiences when she first met mercurial pianist/bandleader Sun Ra. READ

Brötzmann looks back at the Machine Gun session

Fifty years after the Jazz world was shocked by the release of German tenor saxophonist Peter Brötznann’s epoch LP Machine Gun, the German reedist tells downbeat’s Andrew Jones about the session’s origins and intent. Unlike American players such as saxophonist Albert Ayler, who believed that love would heal the world, European musicians of the time were angry and wanted to get rid of the old structures, the saxophonist says. Since some of the members of the Octet – which included future major players like the UK tenor saxophonist Evan Parker, Dutch drummer Han Bennink and saxophonist Willem Breuker and German bassist Peter Kowald – weren't that familiar with each other's work, Brötzmann composed what he terms “a Charles Ives thing: solo, solo background, solo”  to have “the most freedom possible, but to give some structure to hold on to” for the recording date.  As for the LP title, it came from trumpeter Don Cherry’s description of Brötzmann’s ferocious playing. READ

The brains involved in Michael Musillami’s Musical Life

Troy Collins’ Point of Departure profile of guitarist Michael Musillami rightly deals with his newest disc, composed and recorded after the guitarist’s successful recovery from surgery following an unexpected brain hemorrhage and unrelated brain tumor. But besides discussing that CD, recorded with Musillami’s long-time collaborators bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller, Collins deals with the challenges facing him as a creative musician and label owner. Starting out playing in organ trios with organist Richard “Groove” Holmes and others, the guitarist had an early association with the likes of reedist Thomas Chapin and bassist Mario Pavone and since 1999 has headed Playscape Records, on which the trio alone has recorded almost 100 compositions and also showcases other leaders such as Pavone and pianist Peter Madsen. Describing himself as a “dinosaur… (who) really enjoys the process of writing every note by hand,” the guitarist says that “emotion” would be one word to describe his music, adding “I’m playing the blues even when I’m not playing the blues”, unlike the neoclassical forms some players now bring to improvisation. As well, he notes, changes in the record industry have meant that Playscape initially presses fewer CDs than in the past with the music also available in digital stores, but not on streaming sites. READ

Brother Ah: Teacher, Traveler, Jazz French Horn Player

Born as Robert Northern and brought up in the South Bronx, Brother Ah got his nickname during his years teaching at Dartmouth College. His affiliation with Ivy League and other post-secondary institutions was just one of the many firsts he logged as a Black French Horn player starting in the 1950s, he tells Open Sky Jazz’s Rusty Hassan. Best-known for his contributions to important recording sessions by Thelonious Monk (Orchestra at Town Hall), Gil Evans, John Coltrane (Africa/Brass) and Miles Davis, the hornist also studied and worked in Europe early in his career, and later was part of the orchestras at the Metropolitan Opera and many Broadway shows. Years later when he regularly spent time in Africa in Ghana and among the Massai people, he found many of the sounds he heard were similar to those Sun Ra created for his Arkestra. Brother Ah played on-and-off with Ra for a decade after 1964, following an experience hearing the group and shouting because the music was as profound as that of contemporary European composers. Brother Ah then decided he had to work with the Arkestra himself, and did so. (Interview is in two parts) READ

In Defense of the CD

Despite the current faddish mania for collecting vinyl records and the constant pressure from streaming services to abandon physical formats altogether, James Toth writing in The Quietus says the CD is still very viable and gets a bad rap for no good reason. The CD is convenient and provides superior sound quality. Meanwhile streaming services push their delivery model because they can make more money charging the consumer monthly for music he or she could own forever if purchased. Additionally, at this time transmitted sound isn’t that good as on CDs. Vinyl records’ sudden popularity has meant that the manufacture of new LPs has become an expensive proposition, he adds. Plus a new LP is basically a big,  costly CD with added vinyl noise, which once it ages makes pops, hisses and crackles part of the listening experience as LPs did in the past. Toth also asks how you can properly split into two LP sides the all-of-a-piece improvisations of say Chris Abrahams, Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton of The Necks. And what about the extensive catalogues of most Jazz issued between 1988 and 2002, including sessions by John Zorn and Matthew Shipp? Should that music be discarded if it's not transferred to vinyl or streaming services? READ

Carla Bley: I Wanted to be Serious

Although almost overboard laudatory in his judgements, Ethan Iverson’s New Yorker profile of composer Carla Bley is still fair and informative, giving the 82-year-old pianist enough space to explain her influences, triumphs and missteps. Best known for composing classic tunes for icons such as clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and (her-then-husband) pianist Paul Bley, Bley also arranged much of the mashed-up musical repertoire of the radical Liberation Music Orchestra, led by bassist Charlie Haden, whose tastes dovetailed with her own. Her later larger bands with second husband, trumpeter Mike Mantler, that mixed Jazz, Gospel, Blues, Rock and other sonic strands; and her creation of the seminal rock-jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill, added to her status as a composer/arranger. Bley reveals that her Escalator influences included the Sgt. Pepper LP and the playing of  tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, who was “maudlin in the most wonderful way”; and that so many Rock and Jazz stars, ranging from vocalists Jack Bruce and Linda Ronstadt to trombonist Roswell Rudd and tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, were featured on Escalator because anyone who asked was invited to play. Recently Bley, has also tuned more to playing herself, along with her partner, bassist Steve Swallow and sometimes plays with trumpeter Dave Douglas’ new band that's inspired by her compositions. READ

Double Bassist Dave Holland’s Long Relationship with Experimental Music

Although National Sawdust Log’s Steve Smith appears most concerned with getting master bassist Dave Holland to plug his new CD with saxophonist Evan Parker, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Ches Smith, the veteran British musician gets space to share stories of his first exposure to Free Music in 1960s London. Holland was a participant in many of those early musical experiments along with the likes of fellow bassist Barry Guy, drummer John Stevens, guitarist Derek Bailey and Parker. In England Holland also took part in some seminal EuroImprov recording sessions, the concepts of which he brought with him when he moved to the United States to play in trumpeter Miles Davis' group and with others. He also kept up with the changing currents of that scene through his long-time friendship with Parker. Holland reveals how players like himself and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler in their so-called Free playing never went as far away from the Jazz tradition as many others, and he also insists that Parker’s John Coltrane influence makes his work closer to Jazz than many realize.   READ

We do what feels right to us, says Aussie Oren Ambarchi and Canuck crys cole

Personal as well as professional collaborators, sound artists Oren Ambarchi from Australia and Canadian crys cole try to work and travel together as often as they can, although they're often separated for up to six months at a time.  In this interview with Niels Latomme for Kraak's The Avant-Guardian, the concepts of what is needed to create a successful performance and recording are discussed by the two. Describing themselves as extremely stubborn, the musicians say that by taking time from other projects, their  duo recordings arise organically as if, as cole says, they are "a  diary or a photo album”.  Although some tracks subsequently recorded evolve from what the two have tried out on stage, any input can be used.  As Ambarchi explains “I’m always inclined to use whatever is necessary to make a piece work.” READ

One Pianist Discusses Another: Alexander Hawkins on the Influence of Cecil Taylor

Shortly after Cecil Taylor’s death at 89 earlier this year, young British pianist Alexander Hawkins wrote this essay in The Wire discussing the venerable American avant-gardist’s influence on modern music. Moving on from the classic keyboard concepts of Earl Hines, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, among others, Taylor constructed a rigorous, ever-changing, subtly organized sound that was both brutal and romantic. Not only was he able to create a general language for himself and members of the ensembles who worked with him such as saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, but he also enabled other pianists, including Americans Marilyn Crispell and  Matt Mitchell, Swiss Irène Schweizer plus the UK's Pat Thomas and Hawkins himself to affiliate with Taylor’s ideas without remotely recreating his highly individual style. READ

The Ugliest Jazz LP Record Covers Ever

Many of Jazz’s most enduring classics were recorded during the first LP era that lasted about 50 years, following the invention of the long playing disc in 1948. But while many fans recall with fondness the covers of the albums which drew them to the music, not all were done with the artistic flair some designers and photographer  showed. In this article in the LondonJazzCollector for instance, the blog, with help from is readers, selects some of the worst looking covers, a few of which masked decent music. Among the offenders are LPs featuring Jazz masters such as alto saxophonist Gigi Gyrce, trumpeters Clark Terry, guitarist Wes Montgomery, saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, cellist Fred Katz, flutist Buddy Collette, pianist Paul Bley  – and even trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonists Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. While Savoy Records was deemed to have offered the least imaginative art, the hands-down winner of the person with most unappealing LP covers was, by universal consensus, Pop-Jazz flutist Herbie Mann. READ

Remembering Cecil Taylor’s Wide Artistic Influence

When protean pianist Cecil Taylor died at 89, in April, after more than half a century of unparalleled creativity, he left a massive space in the arts that won’t easily be filled. When musicians such as bassists William Parker and the late Buell Neidlinger, drummer Pheeroan akLaff and vibraphonist Joe Locke spoke to Bedford+Bowery’s Frank Mastropolo about their experiences working with Taylor, they recalled his intellectualism, range of interests, insistence on pure improvisation and ability to communicate his ideas. But his influence ranged farther still.  Taylor's performances always included distinctive poetry recitations, as poet Tracie Morris testifies; while dancer Dianne McIntyre notes how the pianist, who had a particular interest in dance, went out of his way to create music in order to collaborate on several special projects with her dance company. READ

Poland’s Short-Lived, Early, Post-Soviet, Punk-Jazz Scene

The situation in the early 1990s that resulted from the gradual splintering of the Polish People's Republic and the subsequent creation of a democratic state, led some local musicians to create groups that owed as much to Punk Rock as Free Jazz. As Wojciech Oleksiak writes in CULTURE.PL,  players such as Antoni “Ziut” Gralak, Tomek Gwińciński, Jacek Buhl, Jacek Majewski and Sławek Janicki formed theatrical anti-establishment bands with mocking names, and ever-changing line-ups, including one which managed to record with visiting Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter Lester Bowie. Unfortunately, as times changed early in the 21st Century, many of the groups broke up , with a good number of the participants disappearing, except for a few such as saxophonist Mikołaj Trzaska, who continue as active players. This link includes audio, video and photographic examples. READ

The Stories behind Charlemagne Palestine’s Stuffed Animal Collection

The Brooklyn-born pseudonymous composer/pianist Charlemagne Palestine has long been thought of as an eccentric, especially since he began performing in concert with his massive collection of stuffed animals. But Palestine, who now lives in Belgium, and whose unclassifiable sounds allow him to play as easily with notated composers like Rhys Chatham as well as improvisers such as Ignaz Schick and Burkhard Beins, tells The Guardian’s Geeta Dayal that the 18,000 toys he sometimes brings to his shows creates a unique, soothing atmosphere. They also relate to Hindu polytheism and remind him of the stuffed animals he had as a child. He says the display could be part of his religion he calls Meshugahland READ