Although nearly forgotten today, New Orleans-raised Connee or Connie Boswell was a major influence on Ella Fitzgerald and one of the first mainstream singers of the 1920s and 1930s with Jazz inflections, She was even cited by composer Gunther Schuller in his book on the Swing Era for her diction and syncopated swinging. In this brief piece for New England Public Radio’s Tom Reney outlines the career of Boswell , born 115 years ago, and her sisters Vet and Martha, whose close harmonies defined the style which was later carried on by singing groups like the Hi-Los and even the Beach Boys. Although the trio eventually split up, Connee maintained a solo career until her death in 1976, frequently duetting with Bing Crosby and appearing in Hollywood films, even though she was disabled and sang seated in a wheelchair. This article includes clips of the sisters performing and an excerpt from a PBS documentary on the trio.
Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor
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Although various phases of the UK’s public lockdowns to halt the spread of Covid has almost decimated London’s live music scene, some canny players have explored other options. One person is trumpeter Charlotte Keeffe. In this profile by Point of Departure’s Bill Shoemaker, the trumpeter, who usually plays with her own groups, the London improvised Orchestra (LIO) and other ensembles, outlines her adaptations. Keeffe has organized Zoom and bandcamp concerts featuring LIO members and players who are part of the Mopomoso concert series. Logging in to play with the likes of “singer Maggie Nicols and keyboardist Steve Beresford was amazing,” she says. “I think freely improvised music is really resilient in that context”. Someone who was drawn to modern playing after experiencing trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s feeling and energy, was strongly influenced by her undergraduate classes on improvisation l with pianist Keith Tippett. As lockdowns eased Keefee was able to play and tour with other players such as multi-instrumentalist Martin Archer, percussionist Martin Pyne, bassist Dominic Lash and cellist/percussionist Mark Wastell. But it remains to be seen how new Covid variants and new regulations to combat them will change the situation.
Self-taught British musician Mark Wastell tells the Felt-Hat Reviews’ anonymous interviewer that he began playing improvised music after he first heard and was moved by it in the early 1990s. He was, inspired by the experience of painter Robert Ryman, another autodidact who became a fine artist after exposure to art in New York. Playing cello and percussion instruments such as tam tams, Wastell has been part of many ensembles including IST with harpist Rhodri Davies and the late bassist Simon H. Fell and The Sealed Knot with Davies and percussionist Burkhard Beins. Wastell also founded the Confront record label in the '90s., Besides releasing a slew of CDs featuring many innovators improvisers, Confront’s Bandcamp site offers the same music in digital form. The cellist, who says: “My classroom was the club space and the concert hall. My tutors, the musicians,” also makes it a point to play with as many other improvisers as he can, whether the results are fully successful or imperfect works in progress. As for collaborators, he adds: “There is always something exciting about a new combination but I also get a lot out of long-standing relationships.”
Although the Albany Times Union’s headline writer doesn’t know the difference between a trombone and a trumpet, writer Jim Shahe does a good job explaining how trombonist Joe Fiedler is able to transform some of Sesame Street’s songs into improvised music. Fiedler has been music director of the iconic kids’ show since 2009 while maintaining his career as a busy New York player. As for this project, he says by morphing the rhythms, textures and harmonies “you can give the listener a way in, then when you take it pretty far out, they’re still with you.” On the show itself he’s beefed up the band and figured out ways to deal with the styles of the many musical guests who play everything from R&B to country music. The trombonist, whose Open Sesame band includes such Jazz players as trumpeter Steven Bernstein, saxophonist Jeff Lederer and drummer Michael Sarin, also leads other groups like the trombone-oriented Big Sackbut. But after so many years with the show he insists that his touring Sesame Street musical extension is no cash-in gimmick. .
Perhaps a little inside for non-musicians, Brooklyn-based trombonist Jacob Garchik’s outline of his practice regime for News from the Shed’s Jake Wunsch is an object lesson on how to be a versatile professional player. The trombonist, who leads his own bands and has recorded with among others saxophonist Anna Webber and clarinetist Oscar Noriega, also teaches trombone and arranging. But he still practises every day. playing major scales, Bach Cello Suites and for inspiration playing along with records by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. His advice for learning to swing is to listen to and play with as many people of possible, especially drummers; while the key to improvisation, he says, is to learn to manipulate aspects of harmony, rhythm, texture, register, tone color, tempo and genre. He also reveals his favorite music by fellow trombonists J.J. Johnson, Roswell Rudd and even Si Zentner playing Klezmer with Mickey Katz.
From his days as a Bay-area teenager playing gig with local saxophonist Bishop Norman Williams to his present high profile in bands with the likes of saxophonist Tim Berne and guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, 63, has been constantly busy. In this Q + A with Point of Departure’s Troy Collins, the bassist, who also taught music at the conservatory level, points out that his adaptability playing sounds from big band to straight-ahead to Latin to so-called avant-garde has always allowed him to work. Formanek, who in 1983 made a decision not to take work on electric bass, admits that “the more ‘avant-garde’ the music I play is perceived, the smaller the touring world has become.” Still over the years he has worked in music as different as that played by saxophonist Dave Liebman and flutist Herbie Mann. There was even an extended European gig where a band he was with had both Cool Jazz’s Jon Eardly and sound explorer Markus Stockhausen on trumpets. Formanek, is a fan of physical media, since “people like taking something home with them after a concert they enjoy”, says that over the past 20 years most of his touring has been in Europe. Explaining that the political situation and the pandemic has recently altered the music scene, but he continues to follow his own ideas. “My goal was always to make the music the best version of what it could be, period”.
Although the thrust of Culture.Pl’s Filip Lech’s survey could be better informed, he examines many crucial albums by trumpeter/flugelhornist Tomasz Stańko (1942-2018), arguably Poland’s best-known exploratory musician. Beginning with early sessions the tyro trumpeter recorded with Polish modern Jazz pioneers, pianists Krzysztof Komeda and Andrzej Trzaskowski, he highlights the brassman’s first leadership disc in 1970 that featured other young local musicians such as alto saxophonist Zbigniew Seifert, who later made his name as a Jazz violinist. Moving through Stańko’s detours into recordings that focused on Rock, Reggae or Middle Eastern rhythms, Lech suggests hearing the trumpeter’s collaborations with European improvisers of his generation, like his 1976 meeting with British. bassist Dave Holland and Finnish drummer Edward Vesala. Finally, he delineates Sańko’s late career flowerihg in the 1980s, 1990s and aughts when he recorded either with the backing of New York pianist David Virelles, bassist Ruben Rogers and drummer Gerald Cleaver or a Polish rhythm section of Marcin Wasilewski on piano, Sławomir Kurkiewicz bass and Michał Miśkiewicz percussion.
Should you be able to work your way through the thickset of ads and coming attraction on the Quietus’s main page, Claire Sawers’ article on American electric harpist Zeena Parkins does offer some insights about her experience and her expectation when performing. Parkins, who has collaborated with numerous exploratory musicians including Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen and British guitarist Fred Frith, insists that in performance she doesn’t “batter” the harp or piano when she plays them/ Instead, explains that the instruments are "being approached and sounded in unconventional ways" as part of a reconsideration or expansion in relationships among performers listeners and the spatial qualities of a particular space. The harpist, who has also played with artists unconnected to improvised music such as Björk, Yoko Ono and Merce Cunningham, fuithermore says she’s open to working with anyone who hears things and reconsiders materials in alternative ways.
Dedicated to the seeking out as much recorded music as he can, Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson’s interview with Perfect Sound Forever’s J. Vognsen often come across as a record collectors guide. But Gustafsson, who over the years has recorded numerous important Free Jazz records, says he needs to constantly listen to music for sanity and inspiration. He explains that he listens to music every day in a concentrated way, but also while cooking and even driving, but not sounds that get him“too carried away emotionally ... risking the lives of other drivers,” he cautions. He also states that “nothing compares to going on a vinyl hunt with your best discaholic buddies” and he’s always adding to his record collection which he admits at this point is getting close to weighing three tons. While musical genres like schlager, electronic dance music and muzak him sick, physically “like an allergic reaction”, he claims, sounds from saxophonists like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Frank Wright or early Peter Brötzmann makes him feel great. He adds: “Almost every day there is a reason to play Rahsaan Roland Kirk and early Sun Ra makes me smile and dance.”
Perhaps it relates to the fact that the earliest music making California-born guitarist Nels Cline made was in collaboration with his twin brother drummer Alex Cline, but he’s continued to bring his talents to different collaborative efforts ever since. In this somewhat cerebral Q+A from the Fifteen Questions Website, Cline, who has played with everyone from saxophonist Vinny Golia to Wilco explain that his first and second “ah ha” moments that made him become a guitarist and then a free improviser were hearing Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” and then saxophonist John Coltrane’s “Africa”. Mostly sidestepping the somewhat pretentious questions about philosophy and studio techniques asked by the anonymous interviewer, Cline, who modestly thinks of himself as an arts worker, rather than an elevated artist, traces how his musical interests have evolved past the psychedelic rock bands of his youth. Today they encompass appreciation for bands like Sonic Youth, Indian ragas, Brazilian rhythms and West African-inspired grooves; composers like Harry Partch and improvisers such as trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith; plus what he calls the compelling forces of unconventional guitarists like Fred Frith, Hans Reichl and Keith Rowe.
Now acknowledged as a major composer, player and band leader, Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii describes her musical apprenticeship and creative methods to Fifteen Questions' unnamed interviewer. Dealing with more cerebral questions that most Q+As, the pianist admits that even after years of playing it was when she studied with Canadian pianist Paul Bley that she became comfortable with herself and her own creativity. Now she sees music as an essential part of life. She and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, spend every morning until noon composing and practising, and do even more of that later if they feel the need. To her, composing and playing are like cooking, cleaning or having a conversation and she can do both while involved in these other activities. With what she calls her special way to hearing, her compositions which involve time, sound and silence can be influenced by many things from a flower, to a breeze or just her imagination. Fujii, who has recorded in configurations from duo to big band, says her most important large ensemble work is “Fukushima”, dealing with the 2011 Japanese nuclear power plant accident, that she had to wait five years before being able to calmly compose.
After following a decade-long curvilinear Jazz career, a combination of poor working conditions and what he calls “barely perceptible, surgical and very well-mannered” British racism caused UK vibraphone player Cory Mwamba to retire from full-time music a couple of years ago. But as Point of Departure’s Bill Shoemaker notes, Mwamba's decision soon tuned into a full-time job, as host of his own BBC Radio Jazz show. Although the story is disjointed, as the writer injects record reviews into the narrative, it tells how the child of educated Zambian immigrants, who had never heard those sounds before, decided to play Jazz after hearing “Mood Indigo” on the radio and later seeing British vibist Opry Robinson in person. Despite organ lessons and some drumming experience Mwamba felt he could best express himself as a vibist. With a chemistry as well as a music degree, Mwamba was also employed elsewhere, but managed to work and record with the likes of saxophonists Martin Archer, Tom Ward and Jason Yarde among others. He does say that his decision to live and play in Derby instead of London affected his decision to quit as much as “working in places that were, disrespectful and hateful, where you’d get called out by someone in the audience.”
A minor brouhaha in a beer mug occurred last month when American late night TV host Jimmy Fallon achieved some cheap laughs by playing an excerpt from German tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s Nipples album. According to Stereogum’s Peter Helman, the sniggering Fallon, who seemed never to have heard Free Jazz before, was excited as a child repeating the 52-year-old album's title, then after playing a brief section, commented that it sounded like a guitar shop on a busy Saturday. The audience guffawed. What was Brötzmann’s response? “The world is full of ignorants and stupidos, one more or less, who cares," he said. "This little snippet I got from friends all over the world and my reaction was laughter. The only thing that annoys me a bit is that this 1969-made piece is a milestone in at least European free music history.” So much for culture on American TV.
Supposedly informing readers about director Tom Surgal’s documentary Fire Music, which deals with the origins and spread of Free Jazz, the Guardian’s Jim Farber takes up more space listing the music’s negative reception than its wide appeal. While he does touch on some of the music’s initial major figures – alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, tenor saxophonists Albert Ayler and John Coltrane and pianists Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor – he appears to relate all the revolutionary sounds to the 1960s and 1970s or as to how the music influenced Rock musicians. Name checking pop stars like Roger McGuinn and Paul McCartney and younger Rock musicians such as Thurston Moore who were supposedly influenced by Free Music, Farber seems ignorant of the many other bands that followed Free Jazz's development. Furthermore, except for throwaway mentions of pianist Keith Tippett and the AMM group with guitarist Keith Rowe and drummer Eddie Prévost, the wide influence Free Jazz subsequently had on European improvising musicians isn’t noted at all. Maybe the best idea is just to see the film.
Sunik Kim’s Zoom-conducted interview with French improviser Jean-Luc Guionnet for the Tone Glow blog is close to amateur. But it does get across how the musician who studied musique concrète and artificial intelligence applies those concepts to his solo saxophone playing and improvisations on church organ. Discussing his newer conceptions for spoken words and for the large ONCIEM orchestra, directed by his Hubbub associate pianist Frédéric Blondy, his idea is to transform electronic concepts to acoustic ones and to reach an arbitrary sonic position. Although he’s concerned with philosophy and politics, Guionnet states he dislikes music that is subservient to its message, political or personal. Instead he’d like to work with the capabilities of various microscopes and in the studio creating artificial electronic music. While the Q+A sometimes gets bogged down in overlong abstract theorizing, Guionnet notes he still has a connection with Jazz – and an admiration for American alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe – and these influences often come out, especially when playing saxophone with someone with similar interests like Australian percussionist Will Guthrie.
While some may find the dialogue a bit too detailed and inside, the answers from Anna Webber to News from the Shed’s Jake Wunsch’s questions about her practice routine are revealing. The British Columbia-born, New York-based tenor saxophonist and flutist has generated praise for the music she’s created in a big band with fellow Canadian-in-New York Angela Morris, who also plays tenor nor saxophone and flute, and with her so-called Simple Trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck. But she insists that such skill comes from what she calls “hyper-organized practice time.” Dividing her time between her instruments and working on various aspects of her playing she practices two hours a day, using her cell phone as a metronome. This is a steep drop from the eight to 12 hours daily she used to practice as a student. As for composing, she also does that every day, whether she’s inspired or not. “Just remember that every great composer did not write great music all the time,” she explains, “and not every piece needs to see the light of day.”
Turning from despair and urban terrorism to improvised music re-energized the life of Vietnam veteran Billy Bang in the late 1960s after he found a violin in a pawn shop while buying guns. At least that’s what Bang (1947-2011), recounted to Bandcamp Daily’s Andy Thomas. A survey of the violinist’s recording career, with embedded examples, the article recounts how Bang’s musical skills were subsumed in bitterness and substance abuse following a stint in Vietnam. Then the pawnshop violin “calling” him brought Bang back to music. Studying with pioneering Free Music violinist Leroy Jenkins, Bang was soon part of, and then a band leader in, New York’s so-called Loft Scene playing regularly with the likes of bassist William Parker, clarinetist Henry Warner, trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah and during a 10-year stint in Sun Ra’s Arkestra. While utilizing his gritty sound to lead or co-lead a series of groups over the few years, early in this century he finally recorded two CDs reflecting his time in Vietnam. One was with fellow American advanced players like tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe and trumpet Ted Daniel, and the other, on-site, with local Vietnamese musicians.
Reflecting on the first collaborative improvisation of Understory, a series of virtual programs, trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud violinist Parmela Attariwala and percussionist Germaine Liu explain the new monthly series’ background and goals to I Care If You Listen’s Padideh Aghanoury. Curated by Rampersaud, Understory aims to use technology to build a fertile creative community within Canada, welcoming participants from throughout the country whose background encompasses experience in many genres of music including Jazz, notated and ethnic. “It’s an artistic situation that reflects the reality of life in the Canadian polity,” says the trumpeter. Since the online format creates a level playing field, discussion that wouldn’t happen in a real-time, in-person performance can be broached and addressed. Coming together virtually means the performers' imaginations help create new systems of creativity. Understory will take place once a month, every month until January 2022.
Equally influenced by Persian traditional music, the compositions of Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk, and the mystical side of JS Bach, California-based tenor saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh creates hyper-original music which is a mélange of these influences. Also a music professor at San Francisco State University, Modirzadeh tells San Francisco Classical Voice’s Jeff Kaliss how it took many years to get musicians trained in the Western tradition of just intonation to play his compositions. His work is based on eight tones from the scale's middle register that depend on microtones and original tuning. Still these concepts have been adapted to the piano by Kris Davis, Tyshawn Sorey, and Craig Taborn, the stylists who play on his most recent CD, despite that instrument’s association with colonialism and capitalism. As for playing thismusic on the saxophone, Modirzadeh says it was Sonny Stitt, of all people, who first showed him alternate saxophone fingering. “You’ve got all these keys and sound holes, and just by opening or closing a tone hole, you can create a shade, or a muted sound,” he explains.
Already known for his work in the US on saxophonist John Coltrane’s Ascension LP and co-leading the New York Art Quartet with trombonist Roswell Rudd, alto saxophonist John Tchicai returned to his native Denmark in the late 1960s and organized the large Cadentia Nova Danica band. Its success, according to Margriet Naber, author of a book on the saxophonist excerpted in The Wire, led to a 1969 invitation to an avant-garde concert in Cambridge, UK. Besides committed international free musicians such as saxophonists Willem Breuker, drummer Louis Moholo and bassist Barre Philips, vocalist Yoko Ono was also invited. With John Lennon playing feedback guitar, Ono performed a brief set, finally pushed at the end towards some melody by Tchicai’s saxophone lines and John Stevens’ drum beats. Both players are heard on the LP Ono and Lennon subsequently released of that concert, although neither was ever paid. Later, back in Denmark Tchicai put together multiple pro-amateur free-form ensembles which featured and inspired younger local free-form players like guitarist Pierre Dørge.