Limited in activities because of Covid-19’s social distancing, drummer/composer John Hollenbeck is still involved in many musical projects. As he tells Night After Night’s Steve Smith, besides practising more, he’s preparing for remote teaching in his position at Montréal’s McGill University, where he has worked since 2015, and has just completed a vocal-oriented CD with singers Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann, a big band and keyboardist Gary Versace. While Hollenbeck usually composes original music for projects such as those with vocalist/performer Meredith Monk, large and small ensembles and his own bands, especially the Claudia Quintet, he says arranging pop and rock songs for the new CD wasn’t that dissimilar since “I take something that I call a cell, and manipulate it in so many ways, so it sounds different ... the difference [here] is that the cell does not come from me.” The session is on his own brand-new Flexatonic label which he organized as a non-profit to reissue his earlier recordings on other imprints and to release albums when he wants to. The one major pandemic drawback, he admits, is that the Claudia Quintet can’t tour since with members like saxophonist/clarinettist Chris Speed in Los Angeles and bassist Drew Gress in upstate New York, they can’t physically connect.
Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor
NEWS FROM ELSEWHERE
When British double bassist/composer Simon H. Fell died of cancer in late June a series of remembrances were published celebrating his contribution to the world of Improvised Music. Although this article by The Wire’s Julian Cowley may err towards the personal and is somewhat sentimental, it does point out Fell’s great versatility. Someone who was equally at home playing theme-based Jazz with drummer Paul Hession and tenor saxophonist Mick Beck and noise-improv with guitarist Stefan Jaworzyn and reed player Charles Wharf, Fell was also dedicated to creating delicate acoustic improvisations with the band IST featuring harpist Rhodri Davies and cellist Mark Wastell. While these performing opportunities were taking place, Fell was also working on his PhD thesis, which he completed in 2017; overseeing his own record label, Bruce’s Fingers; and most importantly, writing and recording expansive orchestral works like Composition No 62. The concept behind it and others like it was, as the bassist once said, if musical ideas from composer Richard Strauss, Jazz pianist Stan Tracey, saxophonist/theorist Anthony Braxton and improvising guitarist Derek Bailey could be combined in one composition, with arrangements suggested by Henry Mancini’s soundtrack orchestrations.
With her most recent Festival concert at the Toronto Jazz cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic, New York state-based Canadian pianist Kris Davis still gets to express her ideas to The Toronto Star’s Mike Doherty in this profile. Now widely praised by American outlets like the New York Times, Down Beat and National Public Radio, Calgary-raised Davis started her jazz apprenticeship in the Jazz program at the University of Toronto. While she found some of the teaching too traditional, she picked up the basics, and while attending university had a regular gig in a hotel lounge; was part of a local funk band; and, along with many other neophyte musicians, played sessions at the Rex hotel. She has widened her scope since moving south in 2001, because as she says, musically she wants to simultaneously occupy “all these different spaces.” She’s certainly doing that. Besides teaching music at the college level, she works regularly with musicians such as soprano and tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, famed drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and guitarist Mary Halvorson and in 2016 even started Pyroclastic, her own record label, to release her music and discs by other players she admires.
More concerned with the technical aspects of playing than most interviews, this piece by The Brooklyn Rail’s George Grella has pianist Matthew Shipp discuss the nuts-and-bolts of his style. Conscientiously musing about his approach to rhythm, melody, and harmony, the pianist talks about building structure, manipulation of sound blocks and how a separate process has to exist when considering the results as a recording artist or as a live performer. “Recording something is one of the most important ways of keeping jazz alive,” he notes. Since, as Shipp says, “the bottom line is that I’m playing myself on the piano”, sometimes he admits his best improvisations appear out of a dream-like state, jolting him with the realization that he’s creating sounds he’s never played before. Shipp, known for his frequent association with the likes of drummer Whit Dickey and tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman, reports that some of his playing relates to concepts pioneered by Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, McCoy Tyner and even the "bizarre" individualism of Chopin’s piano music. However “Bud Powell is always my guy.” Shipp also reveals that when he first started listening to music as a child he was a big Jackson 5 fan. “I wanted to have a big Afro like Michael did but my father wouldn’t let me.”
Cerebral but disjointed is this article, since it consists of e-mail responses to Twenty Questions posed by the web site of the same name to guitarist Joe Morris. Someone who has made his living playing Free Music as a mostly self-taught musician for 45 years, Morris’ musings encompass history as well as defining encounters with his mentors. Initially interested in 1970s pop music until it turned into “bad showbiz rock nonsense”, his involvement in New Haven’s creative music scene included playing with violinist Billy Bang and drummer Andrew Cyrille. He also developed a long-time partnership with legendary avant-garde pianist Lowell Davidson, who perversely insisted on playing double bass with Morris. Although Morris says he was influenced by guitarist Derek Bailey who “out of the blue invented a whole new way of playing”, he never tried to sound like him. Morris later recorded with multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, despite playing with a broken finger; had one levitating gig with drummer Sunny Murray; but despite his admiration for pianist Cecil Taylor’s ideas and wanting to become part of the latter’s group for many years, “the closer I got the less it seemed to matter,” he admits. Morris has curated concert series in New Haven, runs his own Riti record label and written and published a book called Perpetual Frontier: The properties of Free Music, is still fully committed to what he calls “music made any way people want to make it.”
Starting Tao Forms, his own record label, this year has given drummer Whit Dickey another way to disseminate the Free Jazz he’s been playing for the past 40 years. In this interview with Aquarium Drunkard’s anonymous questioner he insists that he’s still growing at the age of 66, and, after a period of illness and study, has decided to become more active musically. While Dickey’s membership in tenor saxophonist David S. Ware’s seminal quartet is only briefly mentioned, he does go into greater details about his vibrational theories on the yin-and-yang of music; his early studies with percussionist Milford Graves; and how consistently listening to the vibrations from tenor saxophonist John Coltrane’s music provided the impetus to create Tao Forms. Since his improvising is idiosyncratic in itself, Dickey explains that he can find novel sound areas to explore whether it is, as on his newest discs, with musicians he has worked with for many years such as pianist Matthew Shipp – he played on Shipp’s first recording – and alto saxophonist Rob Brown, or newer, younger associates such as bassist Brandon Lopez.
Mystical is often used to describe many Jazz musicians but only a few have ever reached a genuine level of otherworldly playing like tenor saxophonists John Coltrane or Albert Ayler. One is guitarist Sonny Greenwich. But because of his age and nationality, Greenwich, now 84, and long based in Montreal, never received the international recognition he deserved. In these excerpts from Of Stars and Strings: A Biography of Sonny Greenwich, published in Point of Departure, Canadian author Mark Miller tries to explain why. Despite brief sojourns in the United States and with praise for his work with the likes of saxophonists John Handy and Hank Mobley, Greenwich was not able to establish a professional foothold there. In Montreal, while he was involved as a frequent player at the Jazz Workshop, which brought avant-garde players such as pianist Paul Bley and alto saxophonist Marion Brown to the city, the more conservative climate limited his local opportunities to work elsewhere. Besides testimonies to Greenwich’s unique talent by such long-time associates like pianist/bassist Don Thompson, the piece also offers a brief history of how so-called psychedelic Jazz fared – or didn’t – during its heyday in late 1960s Montreal.
A little late to the party, DownBeat finally publishes a small feature on New Orleans’ tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan just after his 85th birthday. With another hook that Jordan’s most recent CD was recorded the day before Corvid-19 infection fears closed down the entire city, writer Cree McCree stresses the adaptability of Jordan to any situation. Besides educating thousands of young musicians like saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Donald Harrison in colleges and the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp, and playing R&B gigs on baritone saxophone, the saxophonist has also been the standard-bearer for Free Jazz in the city for more than half a century. Heavily influenced by hearing first Charlie Parker and later John Coltrane in person, over the years Jordan has played with such avant-garde avatars as saxophonist Ornette Coleman and pianist Cecil Taylor. Like them he keeps performing advanced music his own way, even if it empties the room at clubs and during festival sets, he jokes. Open to all sorts of sounds, Jordan once attended performances by composer John Cage and trumpeter Louis Armstrong on the same evening. As for the future, the saxophonist’s plan is to keep playing the music he loves as long as he can..
Known if at all as the older, weirder brother of saxophonist Wayne Shorter of Miles Davis and Weather Report fame, trumpeter Alan Shorter (1932-1988) was part of the Free Jazz movement in the United States and France, who recorded little and died in obscurity. Point of Departure’s David Grundy’s exhaustively researched essay is an attempt to provide a biography. Unlike his brother, who first played Hard Bop with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Alan Shorter was fully committed to new music. His mid-1960s New York tenure featured recordings with saxophonists Archie Shepp and Marion Brown and pianist Dave Burrell among others, and even a solo LP featuring tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri. But criticism of his so-called strained technique followed him then and during the six years after 1968 he spent in France. While he recorded his second - and final - leadership disc there alongside tenor saxophonist Gary Windo, as well as LP sideman appearances with Shepp, bassist Alan Silva and pianist Francois Tusques, his on-stage behaviour described as either “militant” or “suicidal” led him back to the US. Although he never to played professionally again, a 1990s interview suggested that a cache of his novels, plays and other manuscripts exists and could be published.
Celebrating his 80th birthday and more than 60 years as a professional musician, British tabletop guitarist Keith Rowe elucidates some of his philosophy in a wide-ranging interview with The Brooklyn Rail’s Todd B. Gruel. Although one of the founding members of two ensembles dedicated to electro-acoustic improvisation, the UK's AMM in the mid-1960s, and the international MIMEO in the late 1990s, Rowe follows his own path. This individuality also encompasses his visual art as a painter and affiliation and disengagement in various philosophical and political groups over the decades. Rowe’s discontinuous relationship with AMM, whose most constant members have been pianist John Tilbury and percussionist Eddie Prévost, and his similar history with the much larger all-electronic MIMEO, which has included Phil Durrant, Rafael Toral and Thomas Lehn, is part of this tendency. While encouraging the groups’ departure from melody, harmony, and rhythm, Rowe says he’s also interested in projecting sounds that are daring and playing “anything disruptive”. Furthermore as his music evolves, he’s continuously working on stripping away all redundant material from his improvisations as well in his performance setup.
Although he recorded two well-received LPs for ESP-Disk and one sideman appearance during the so-called New Thing’s highest profile in 1964-1965, after years of substance abuse and psychiatric hospital stays, by 2008 multi-reed player Giuseppi Logan (1935-2020) was living on New York streets and busking for spare change. Then he met younger multi-instrumentalist Matt Lavelle at a music store. This piece from Lavelle’s No Sound Left Behind blog recounts what happened during the next few years. Knowing of Logan’s 1960s sessions with the likes of drummer Milford Graves. trombonist Roswell Rudd and others, Lavelle gave him a bass clarinet and began getting the older musician to gig with him as well as alongside other advanced musicians such as bassist William Parker, drummer Warren Smith and bassist François Grillot. Thanks to help from the Jazz Foundation of America Logan finally was able to rent a room on the Lower East side. He subsequently recorded a couple of new CDs with Lavalle as well as older players such as pianist Dave Burrell. and was even the subject of a documentary film. However a few years later Logan badly hurt his hip and ended up in the hospital. Later on he was transferred to a nursing home in Queens where he spent his final few years, still playing reeds and piano, but unable to take jobs. Logan died in mid-April, and this article describes Lavelle’s fond memories of Logan and his influence on the younger man on personal, musical and mystical levels.
Although he lost thousands of dollars worth of jobs when the Covid-19: pandemic forced the cancellation of multiple outside gigs, Berkeley, Calif.-clarinettist Ben Goldberg has enhanced his creativity by composing, he tells San Francisco Classical Voice’s Andrew Gilbert. More than that, he’s writing a new tune every day and posting his playing of each on Bandcamp. The music, which he posts under the general title of Plague Diary, has evolved as well. Rather than just performing on Bb clarinet, he now also uses an effects pedal, keyboards, loops and lower-register clarinets. “I’d never really recorded myself before so this is new to me,” he admits. The process allows him to use ideas he’s had in notebooks but never completed, or showcase tunes he’s already recorded with the likes of pianist Myra Melford, cornetist Ron Miles and drummer Ches Smith. Since Mid-May the course on improvisation at UC Berkeley he was also teaching online was wound up due to a state-wide shelter in place order, so the Plague Diaries not only give him focus and deadlines, but allow him to try composing in a new way rather than note by note and chord by chord.
Now 82, Paris-based François Tusques was, in the early 1960s, one of the first musicians to play Free Jazz in France, and Bandcamp Daily’s Marcus J. Moore offers a brief but comprehensive rundown of the pianist’s prolific career. An early associate of American trumpeter Don Cherry, Tusques’ recorded his eponymous 1965 Free Jazz session with future local Free Music standard-bearers like saxophonist/clarinetist Michel Portal, trumpeter Bernard Vitet, flutist Francois Jeanneau and bassist Bernard “Beb” Guérin. Within a few years, the pianist was also moving into other areas, exploring a mixture of improvisation and ethnic musics with the tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen and others; and even composing the sound track for director Jean Rollin’s horror film, La Reine Des Vampires. Tusques is still playing, and while Moore neglects to mention his later day collaborations with younger Gallic stylists such as saxophonist Alexandra Grimal, he does highlight collaborations the pianist has been involved with on and off over a 50 year period featuring pioneering American Free Jazz drummer Sunny Murray.
While a few of the 11 groups recommended to website Culture.PL by Dwójka radio presenter Przemek Psikuta as representing Poland’s most accomplished new Jazz musicians play rather conventional music, he does offer some other intriguing choices. Putting aside those bands which specialize in expected mainstream or Fusion sounds, a focus on innovative players is also expressed. For example Psikuta writes about new CDs by Warsaw-based alto saxophonist Maciej Obara, whose Polish-Norwegian quartet deals with filmic themes; Wroclaw trumpeter Piotr Damasiewicz, whose Power of the Horns large, multi-instrumental ensemble works hard to tour the entire country; pianist Piotr “Piano Hooligan” Orzechowski, who is also experimenting with adapting electronics to his music; and the cooperative RGG trio made up of pianist Łukasz Ojdan, percussionist Krzysztof Gradziuk and bassist Maciej Garbowski, who have also recorded with international Free Music avatars such as saxophonist Evan Parker.
Someone who forged an original style of improvisation starting in the late 1960s, one facet of Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer’s informal Jazz education was hearing the exiled South African players who settled in Zürich in the 1960s. In this The Wire excerpt from Harald Kisiedu’s newly published European Echoes, he recounts how during that time the pianist would frequently jam after hours in a Swiss club on the vigorous African melodies the South Africans introduced to the city. Her associates were members of the South African band, the Blue Notes, including drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana and trumpeter Mongezi Feza. At a contemporary Swiss jazz festival her group at one point included Moholo Moholo and at another time Makaya Ntshoko, another South African drummer. Later on though, she expanded her musical interests when she made important connections to the leading German improvisers of the day, especially when she and Swiss drummer Pierre Favre formed a trio with German bassist Peter Kowald. Still later she crystallized her advanced musical concepts when she joined all-women playing collectives such as the Feminist Improvising Group (FIG).
Many facets of the diffuse career of pioneering electronic musician Richard Teitelbaum are examined by NPR Jazz’s Nate Chinen in this thoughtful piece published after the musician’s death at 80 last month. While known as a composer with an interest in world music, Bard College’s director of the Electronic Music Studio and a pioneering Moog synthesizer player, over the years Teitelbaum had an equally fruitful relationship with Jazz musicians. This link dated back to the 1960s, when, as the first person to bring a synthesizer to Europe, he joined with Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV), which also included composers Alvin Curran and Frederic Rzewski. MEV also used Teitelbaum's electronic signals to perform in Milan and elsewhere with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and vocalist Irene Aebi. Adamant about his non-Jazz background, Teitelbaum. from the 1970s on still recorded frequently with woodwind player Anthony Braxton, as well as playing and recording since that time with other experimental improvisers such as saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, trombonist George Lewis, violinist Leroy Jenkins, bassist Joëlle Léandre, drummer Andrew Cyrille and pianist Marilyn Crispell.
With Café Coda, his locally acclaimed night spot unable to operate because of the state’s safer-at-home order, Madison, Wisc. club owner Hanah Jon Taylor is using the club’s Facebook page to stream live concerts by local improvisers. Taylor, a flutist, tenor and alto saxophonist was gigging in other states and touring with the Sun Ra Arkestra when he recently returned home to discover the restricted business order. The way to continue getting the music to the people, he tells Isthmus’ Michael Muckian, is by presenting these streaming performances. With the club’s page set up to accept GoFundMe and PayPal pledges, any money contributed during the online performance will then be divided equally among the artist, the technical crew and the club. Taylor’s Cool School, his pro bono work teaching young musicians about Jazz through the local school system, will also now take place on the café’s website every Saturday using Zoom technology. Astutely, the reedist plans to continue online performances even after the club reopens to help offset income shortfalls.
While alto saxophonist David Sanborn has made his reputation playing Pop-Funk on record and in the studios, his first association was Jazz. In this first person account for Ethan Iverson’s Do The M@th website, he recounts how hanging out in his St. Louis home town’s bohemian section as a teenager allowed him to play with and meet musicians who formed the nucleus of the city’s Black Artists Group (BAG). They included saxophonists Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill, trumpeter Lester Bowie and especially drummer Phillip Wilson. Naturally gregarious, and someone who would “talk non-stop”, according to Sanborn, Wilson and he became fast friends and the older musician talked others into letting the younger player sit in on many straight-ahead and avant garde Jazz sessions. One Sanborn particularly remembers was the four gigs where “I was the third alto in a little Hemphill band with Lake, me, Phillip and a local bass player.” Later Wilson, who was playing with the Butterfield Blue Band which recorded his composition “Love March”, got Sanborn a job with that combo as well. As a drummer, Sanborn says that Wilson was a colorist with deep soul who “understood the pocket”, a trait best heard as he uses an odd-meter beat on Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. LP. Yet Wilson could also play in the Chicago blues style, the saxophonist adds. “He had a certain touch, kind of light like a Jazz drummer, but also heavier like Rock. He could be really solid but loose on top, sort of like young Tony Williams and Buddy Miles at the same time.”
Obviously predictions can be a mug’s game, but The Jewish Insider’s Mathew Kassel tries to discover what could happen to New York’s thriving Jazz club scene once the Corvid-19 epidemic is over and they can reopen again. Both Deborah Gordon, owner of the legendary Village Vanguard, which has presented such important musical figures as bassist Charles Mingus and saxophonist John Coltrane since its founding in 1935; and Spike Wilner, who owns Smalls and Mezzrow in the West Village, two night spots known for presenting jam sessions by younger improvisers; are less than optimistic. General expenses and rent costs continue to mount they say, but there’s no income with the clubs closed in compliance with the state’s social distancing directives. Even when the pandemic has passed, adds Gordon, the Vanguard will be at a disadvantage since its reputation means that many foreign Jazz fans and others are crammed into the basement room every night. Meanwhile musicians such as pianist Fred Hersch, who has often played and recorded albums at the Vanguard, fears that its potential closure, and/or that of other clubs could adversely affect the scene.