Can we have a new spectacle now? Please?

Can we have a new spectacle now? Please?

The old one is about as tired as the power grid that serves the Superdome.

Somewhere in the middle of Sunday night’s 34-minute third quarter power-outage delay, as reporters on the sidelines scrambled to get anything resembling credible information, it occurred to me that this unusual drama was more engaging as “entertainment” than the super-polished, beautifully staged Beyonce performance just concluded. Not that there was anything specifically wrong with the halftime show – this morning’s reviews praise the singer as “electrifying” (haha) and on her “A game” (groan).  In the context of a normal Super Bowl, it was flawlessly rendered, with precise camera angles and lighting cues nailed down to the nanosecond.

But what followed wasn’t normal, and as soon as the TV commentators had to go “off script” and yammer to fill time, there opened up a moment to ponder, in a “is this all there is?” way, the megawatt extravaganza we’d just witnessed. A cast of thousands doing yet another update on the line dancing routines we’ve loved since Michael Jackson and Madonna. A star looking invincible in designer threads and heels while executing proto-robotic choreography. A perfunctory reunion of Destiny’s Child, Beyonce’s old act. Solid, once-engaging hit songs reduced to puree inside a whirlwind medley. Somehow, despite her beauty and starpower and abundant energy, Beyonce seemed trapped inside an utterly canned, inevitably contrived mode of performance. When, in conclusion, she said “Thank you for this moment,” it was less about whatever had just transpired musically – because, let’s be real, the needle on the Excitement Meter barely moved – and more about further validation, a crowning ego moment, another exclusive stamp in the passport of a megastar.

And that’s boring. The images of half a stadium in darkness held more suspense, sparked more curiosity – was it an accident or the work of hackers? A philosopher might argue that Americans, hotwired for movies with lots of explosions and music with blazing nonstop hooks, get the mass spectacles they deserve: This kind of relentless show might actually be the only remaining way to enchant numb, overly entertained audiences. Still, when the power failed you couldn’t help but wonder how far the spontaneity-free empty spectacle thing, with staging considerations clearly outweighing musical ones, can go.

There was no mystery, nothing even particularly human, about the halftime show. And what followed was all too human, riddled with an unsettling sense of “what happens now?” You know things are out of whack when the lights going off in half of a stadium turns out to be more compelling than a gazillion lights blazing to perfection, in dazzling computer-coordinated sequence, exactly the way they did in rehearsal.

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Two Shorter Scenes…..

Through an unusual release date confluence, this week brings the chance to hear saxophonist Wayne Shorter at two revealing points in his career – playing in Europe in 1969 as part of Miles Davis’ little-heard “third” quintet, and leading his own group at various European stops in 2011 on his first album for Blue Note in 43 years, Without A Net.

Taken together, the works offer a chance to zoom in on the evolution of one of the last remaining jazz mavericks, a masterful composer and improviser whose impact is impossible to precisely gauge. Without Shorter, who turns 80 later this year, the notion of composition in jazz would be very different. As would the notion of the compositional mood dictating what happens when the solos begin. Check out the version of “Footprints” from Live in Europe 1969: It’s got the upheaval we associate with that tumultuous year, it’s got Miles playing with more rat-a-tat fury than he ever did, and still, somehow, the melancholic brood of this durable tune prevails.

Jazz musicians leave status updates every time a performance is documented, of course, but few have done so for so long, and at Shorter’s level of inspiration. From very early solo recordings through his stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers through the Davis ‘60s quintet (the one with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams), through such solo landmarks as Juju and Speak No Evil through his work with Weather Report and subsequent solo endeavors, Shorter blazed a trail of profound and often disruptive originality. His discography describes rapid – and, as Without A Net demonstrates, still in progress – evolution.   Each band and each period seems to bring forth something different from Shorter: His solos on tunes from the 1960s are studies in scampering, impulsive-sounding runs (notice the torrents of blurry superfast lines on “Directions” from Live in Europe 1969). His ballads for Weather Report endure as brooding, stately elegies. His new tunes on Without A Net  have an insistent, keenly alert pay-attention quality – their beseeching melodies offer quirky, wonderfully ragged respite from everyday bebop proficiency.

Shorter has always been a meta-musician, his work a constant reminder that in jazz, a singular conceptual vision can be as important as technical acumen. In 1969, responding to the crisply chopped accompaniment from Chick Corea, Shorter plays at lightning speed – but he’s never slinging stuff he worked out practicing. Instead, he’s reacting to and trying to influence the frequently-shifting direction of the music. If you go right from the 1969 live material to the new work, which is also recorded live, the first thing you may notice has to do with energy: These guys in Shorter’s band (pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Pattitucci, drummer Brian Blade) are playing hard and fierce, with a lust for life that has been missing from just about everything sold as “jazz” in recent years. Exhilarating and alive, studded with rhythms that have great swing fluidity as well as the stomp of funk (sometimes all at once!), these performances expose the emotional bankruptcy of jazz as practiced by fussy scholarly preservationist types. Using wild lunges and pinpoint-precise gestures, Shorter’s group shows just how timid even great musicians are when interpreting his complex, endlessly challenging tunes. If it’s been awhile since you’ve been thrilled by improvised music, consider taking this two-part journey: Start with Davis’ little-heard ’69 quintet to hear the group’s high-speed chase scenes, pushed by Shorter to the brink of frenzy. Then flip over to the saxophonist’s new Without a Net to encounter a current group operating on the interactive frequency that was so prevalent in 1969 – except they’re using current vocabulary, and current notions about consonance and dissonance. Though recorded more than 40 years apart, these two ripping good titles somehow land in the same spot: This is music that puts you on the edge of your seat, and keeps you there.

http://www.npr.org/2013/01/30/170662462/a-1969-bootleg-unearths-miles-davis-lost-quintet

 

Things I’ve Learned Returning to the Discipline of Music

For the last two years, I’ve been splitting my time between journalism endeavors and active music-making, returning to the saxophone after a long period of not playing. I’ve had the chance to explore music with strong individuals who know exactly what they want to communicate and exactly how to do it. They’ve been teaching me. Music itself has been teaching me. It’s been an amazing journey, humbling every day because music is endless. A month or so ago, I stumbled upon a notebook I kept while working on Into The Ojala, a recording of my originals. (Sample available here.) It struck me that some of the small observations had resonance beyond my own situation, and that it might be interesting to share them once in a while. So, here goes…
People can become unnerved by music played at a whisper. It’s rare to encounter soft, pianissimo-style dynamics in clubs or taverns — anywhere, really. Maybe quiet music asks too much, demands more attention than a casual listener can give? Maybe the less-is-more aesthetic is another casualty of this too-much-information age?

A modest plea for the return of Frank Gattis’ ride cymbal

This past weekend, the extraordinarily talented Philly drummer Frank Gattis had his drum gear jacked. It happened at 1:30 AM, after he finished a gig at Boilermaker’s pub on 11th street. Urbandwellers know that this kind of crime – described often as “petty” by police even if the impact is significantly more than that to the victim – happens every day. Musicians are vulnerable, particularly if their gear requires several trips to load in and out of a venue, and especially at the end of a long night. What hit me about this one wasn’t just the bitter taste one gets when hearing about someone losing the tools of his trade – it was the sense that the loss of one special cymbal has repercussions for many musicians.

So before we shrug, say “what a shame” and go on with life, I’d like to make a small appeal for the return of the ride cymbal. Frank says he had a bunch of cool equipment, but the only piece of gear that really matters to him is a flat (ie, no bell in the center) ride cymbal – a design made by K. Zildjian for only a few years in the late 1960s.

Those who’ve been lucky enough to play with Frank over the years know that cymbal – it has a crispness and a perfectly balanced ping to it. It’s magical in a swing setting: Somehow, it transports players back to the hard-bop ‘50s, when titans like Philly Joe Jones laid down the law with nothing more than a firm, nuanced pattern on the ride. The cymbal has been part of lots of really special music – Frank used it on countless gigs with Philadelphia jazz musicians including the tenorman Larry McKenna, guitarist Greg Kettinger and the late pianist Sid Simmons. The other day he shared his theory about why so many musicians appreciated it: “It had a presence – and yet any chord voice could be heard through it.”

I’ve heard that cymbal countless times over the years. Still, it startled me when a few years ago I nervously turned up at Milkboy in Ardmore to sit in at the Monday night jam. Frank was the house drummer. I forget the tune – it was something uptempo. When my turn to solo came, I realized that I had no business trying to improvise at such a blazing clip. I was just barely hanging on. That cymbal was the lifeline.

Last night Frank and I played at Milkboy. We had a blast as usual, and afterward we spent a minute mourning the cymbal. It was like missing an old friend. I have no idea who stole the kit, or why. If I ever encountered that person, I’d just say this: When you took what didn’t belong to you, you didn’t just hurt one musician. You swiped a little bit of joy and delight from an entire community of hardworking people. Please give it back.

Audio from last week’s Jazz Casual….

so we’re slowly getting settled into the Tuesday routine for Jazz Casual, and last week for the first time I was able to have a recorder going…..if you’re curious about what’s happening at Milkboy Philly, please click here and check us out!

The band: Ryan McNeely (guitar); Tom Moon (tenor); Mike Frank (electric piano); Mike Boone (bass); Eli Sklarsky (drums).

The tune is a great gem “Ho Ba La La,” one of the few written by the amazing singer/guitarist Joao Gilberto. Please enjoy!

Things Learned at Jam Sessions, V. 1

Sometimes jam sessions have the temperament of an old-fashioned Wild West shootout, with hyperskilled musicians doing everything they can to stun and/or dazzle everyone within earshot. That energy, once unleashed, can be viral: One extravagant “lookie-at-what-I-can-do” solo sparks another even more flamboyant one, resulting in an endless Faster! Louder! death spiral.

Usually when this happens I sit down – I’m not wired for “faster,” never have been able to make my fingers go that way. The other night at Milkboy Ardmore, during a boisterous cluster of tunes at Mike Frank’s Monday night session, somebody suggested Benny Golson’s challenging “Along Came Betty.”  It’s often played at a comfortable medium swing tempo, but Jason Shattil, the phenomenally gifted pianist, wanted to take it up. Way up. We were into it before anybody could protest, shuttling along through Golson’s twisty post-bebop lines at near breakneck speed. When it came time for me to solo, I jumped in with my two left feet, rattling off chromatic lines that did not always land where they were supposed to. It was an unforgiving tempo, the kind that forces you to be “on” from the first note. All I had in my holster was variations on the theme of clutter.

Then Jason played. His first chorus was incredibly serene – and at the same time completely locked in. He approached the demanding tempo as though ambling down a country lane. As he navigated, he made everything sound easy: There was no frenzy in the cool-headed, wonderfully interconnected melodies. His improvisations grew more complex as he went along, but he never lost the easygoing aspect. For me, that was a huge lesson: Sometimes the way to engage listeners is to step back and take it easy. Even if things are moving at 100 mph. Especially then.

There are, of course, endless chances to apply these lessons. Tonight, we’ll do our best at Milkboy Philly’s weekly Tuesday happening, Jazz Casual. Music starts around 8:30 in the beautiful upstairs room, and tonight we’ve got Philadelphia legend Mike Boone as the special guest on bass! Also on board: Mike Frank (electric piano), Ryan McNeely (guitar), Eli Sklarsky (drums). Please come and sit in! Ballad players welcome!

 

A Different Kind of X Factor

Out of the spectacular disarray of the modern record business, several abiding truths have emerged, and a few have even taken root as gospel. One has to do with the primacy of the live experience: How, regardless of the genre, there is a certain “thing” that happens when a group of musicians gather to chase ideas together. At the risk of sounding New Age squishy, you could call it an “energy.” If at this juncture you require an illustration of this, track down anything from the new Miles Davis Quintet Bootleg Series Vol. 1, Live In Europe 1967. It’s frightening and intense and completely riveting. (I’ll scribble more on it in a subsequent post….).

In a sense, this energy is the eternal live-music holy grail, and it happens at all levels and in any size venue. You’re walking by a bar no bigger than a railroad car, and before you even process what song is being played, you can tell that some music of substance is going on – and you’re drawn to discover what the musicians are in the process of discovering. It seems effortless but is rarely accidental. There are environmental variables, and attitude variables, and also technical hurdles; sometimes even the most skilled players end up crashing and burning, while beginners stumble into greatness. There is, though, one X-Factor that seems to be a constant throughout many of these situations: Open-mindedness. Some players radiate the willingness to explore and try stuff, and just by their openness, they create conditions that are favorable for creativity. Possibilities seem to open up when they are involved. They lift everyone on stage up. People begin to listen at a deeper level. Connections just happen.

If there’s an aesthetic goal of Jazz Casual (the Tuesday night session at Milkboy Philly), it’s to develop a setting where those connections are possible. Even if it means playing very much in a back-to-basics temperment – especially if that’s what prevails. The & Friends band is wired that way, and so are the guests we’ve lined up. Last week, the pianist Mike Frank – a firestarter who is integral to an array of musical endeavors in Philly right now – tossed out ear-stretching, endlessly surprising ideas. This week, we’re lucky to be joined by vibraphonist Behn Gillece, who participated with Mike Frank and I in the Moon Hotel Lounge Project experiment. Behn plays a regular Tuesday thing at Small’s in NYC — we’re lucky to get him! — and leads a ferocious band of his own. You might have seen him accompanying Melody Gardot, among others. As I’ve learned hearing him play in many different contexts, Behn has a gift for sneaking subtle colors and shades into the musical landscape, responding in ways that seem to gently open up possibilities.

Check him out tonight at Jazz Casual! He’ll be playing with TM, Ryan McNeely (guitar), Mark Pryzbylowski (bass), Eli Sklarsky (drums) and some special guests! Begins shortly after 8 pm at Milkboy Philly, 1100 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. 215.925.MILK.

And then tomorrow at: www.behngillecejazz.com/

 

The Very Thought of You

so the other night at the first-ever Jazz Casual, we were joined by Pete Gaudioso, a great Philly drummer who has also become a mesmerizing singer. He did a version of Ray Noble’s 1936 standard “The Very Thought of You,” one of those great songbook tunes that hasn’t been over-exposed. (Though, sadly, Rod Stewart did take a chainsaw to it for one of those depressing latter-day records of his.)

I’ve had the song in my head ever since Tuesday night, and just did the obligatory YouTube search for some nice versions. There are hundreds, but these two just completely tore me up — the Nat King Cole for his easygoing, confessional phrasing, the Shirley Horn for the incredibly demanding glacially slow tempo.

Nat King Cole:

Shirley Horn:

Does a nightclub event need a mission statement?

No, really.

It’s not a joke question. In recent years I’ve become a convert to the notion of the “mission statement,” that succinct attempt to capture often elusive, abstract goals in words. Before starting on just about any kind of project, I usually make lists of objectives and all that, trying to stay away from the squishier ideas that might come under the heading “Hopes and Dreams” in favor of more concrete measurable goals. So now, as we’re gearing up for the start of Jazz Casual, I find myself wondering if there’s benefit to generating a mission statement for it.

I can hear the derisive laughter from the oldtimers at the bar already: “You overthink everything! Just play music! Make people happy! Go exploring with some friends and see what happens!”

I hear that too. So….mission statement? And if so, what might it be?

BTW, Jazz Casual with TM and Friends begins Tuesday 9/27 at 8 pm at Milkboy Philly, 1100 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. 215.925.MILK. http://www.milkboyphilly.com. Come hear Mike Frank (keys), Ryan McNeely (guitar), Mark Pryzbylowski (bass), Eli Sklarsky (drums) and guest luminaries from Philly music!

Lamenting the Facebook “Invite” System

OK, so as is evident by these posts, we’re in the midst of spreading the word about an event.

It’s natural to think that since Facebook traffics in “friends,” we should use their system to invite folks.

First problem: After being very careful about filling out the form, I discover that some of the key information — like who’s in the band and what time the event runs — didn’t make it.

That info, in bold for emphasis:

Tom Moon & Friends

Ryan McNeely (guitar); Mark Przybylowski (bass); Eli Sklarsky (drums).

With special guests: keyboardist extraordinaire Mike Frank (Fractals) and vocalist/drummer Pete Gaudioso.

Next problem: It’s impossible to simply invite one’s entire friend list. you have to go through and select/deselect each.

More absurd problem: For some reason, Facebook doesn’t let you do a recurring invite. Which means that my once-patient friends will now suffer through a series of potentially irritating updates regularly. It’s true that our info will change with different guests and themes and stuff, but still. There ought to be a system for weekly events like Jazz Casual. Or maybe there is and I don’t know it…..