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.



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.

Free Love for All Valentines!

So the folks at WXPN, 88.5 FM in Philadelphia and everywhere at, have put together a playlist of love songs by local artists to honor that designated day of love. They’re giving these songs away here! Astoundingly, Moon Hotel Lounge Project is in the playlist, alongside the tremendous Pete Donnelly and others…

Please spread the word about this cool outpouring of free love, and please enjoy “Powerful Tonic” from Into the Ojala. Because love, given freely, is the most powerful tonic of all….

Who Will Be The Next Clare Fischer?

When the pianist, composer and arranger Clare Fischer died last week at the age of 83, there were the usual laments from the usual places – liner-note-reading oldtimers and music-biz insiders and musicians who regard his “Pensativa” as a classic, alongside a few unlikely mourners (Questlove from the Roots tweeted a link to Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon, which Fischer scored).

The public at large likely never heard of him.

Fischer was another example of a vanishing breed in music – a “significant unknown” whose coloristic brass, flourishes of wild strings and unusual harmonies made countless records better. (For proof, listen to the scenic psychedlia of “I Wonder U” from Prince’s Parade.) Fischer was also a pianist with an original “sound” and approach – his lines were delicate and graceful, his chordal accompaniments richly shaded and delivered in terse bursts. As a pianist, Fischer was another branch on the tree of Bill Evans; the great Herbie Hancock describes Fischer as a “major influence on my harmonic concept.”

Crucially, Fischer was also an omnivore: In the course of his long career, he delved deeply into jazz, Brazilian music, Latin jazz and other styles, while also writing his own classical works and arranging sweeping orchestral accompaniments for countless pop recordings (everyone from Paul McCartney to Celine Dion hired him). He’d studied classical composition and wasn’t afraid to draw on that vocabulary at any time, in any setting. A quote on his website articulates his philosophy: “I relate to everything. I’m not just jazz, Latin, or classical. I really am a fusion of all of those, not today’s fusion, but my fusion.”

That quote got me thinking. In this age of hyper-specialization, when aspiring musicians are trained to gain proficiency at one bankable skillset, who will become the next Clare Fischer? Is it possible to be curious and conversant the way he was? To enter a room and engage with whatever music is happening and lift it up, just on ears and wits and broad experience? Is there even a place for that kind of renaissance man anywhere in current musicmaking?

A Few Highlights from Fischer

Cal Tjader Plays The Contemporary Music Of Mexico and Brazil (1962), piano and arrangements.

Dizzy Gillespie: A Portrait of Duke Ellington (recorded 1960). piano, arrangements.

Joao Gilberto: Joao (1991), arrangements.

Prince: Parade (1986), arrangements.

Clare Fischer: Salsa Picante (1978), piano, arrangements.


Moment of Silence X2

And now some quiet.

First for Johnny Otis, the great bandleader and composer of “Willie and the Hand Jive,” who died on Tuesday at age 90. (Obit here.)

And then for Ms. Etta James, one of Johnny Otis’ signature discoveries, who died today. (Obit here.)

It’s striking and maybe even a little eerie that we’ve lost these two legends — who first met in the early ’50s, when James was still a minor and singing on streetcorners in San Francisco — within the same week. At least both left troves of great music — to quickly appreciate James, skip over “At Last,” which will be played endlessly this week, and seek out “I’d Rather Go Blind” from Tell Mama. It’s one unassailable triumph of soul singing.


Shadow Classic: Black Talk! by Charles Earland


(Prestige, Recorded 1969)

When organist Charles Earland snagged a day in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio with his sextet in December 1969, he was already participating in a rapidly evolving jazz debate – about whether, and how, to embrace the songs and rhythmic styles of rock and R&B. He ’d been a regular in the band of alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson for more than a year, contributing a crisp, rhythmically percussive approach that made Donaldson’s bands stand out among the many groups slinging instrumental blues and sassy-backbeat soul jazz.  The purists called what they did selling out. The younger musicians regarded it more as an inevitable step, an engagement with the modern world. (Versions of this debate persist….).

Like Donaldson, Earland recognized the ear-candy value of material that was familiar to ordinary listeners, not just jazzheads. The covers on this record – “More Today Than Yesterday,” “Aquarius,” and “Eleanor Rigby” (which is significantly and satisfyingly overhauled as “Black Talk!”) – fit that mold, and advance the debate ever so slightly. The spry arrangements provide excellent platforms for soloing: Check trumpeter Virgil Jones peering through the mists on “Aquarius,” and Earland swinging fiercely on “More Today.”

The track that destroyed me on this wasn’t a cover, however. It’s the effortlessly flowing tavern blues called “The Mighty Burner,” after Earland’s nickname. Here is a means of teleportation back to the no-artifice jazz playing that happened in small lounges throughout urban America in the 1960s: Once the comfortable medium tempo is established, Earland just snaps off chorus after chorus of vital and wonderfully melodic improvisation. He’s not trying to change the world – he’s just rolling through some blues, having fun, playing the kinds of lines he knew could connect with people who don’t have advanced music-calculus degrees.

20 (or so) Peak Moments on Records Released in 2011

I’ll dispense with the usual preamble about how it was a great or horrendous year for music – it was both at the same time, of course. (These days there’s so much output coming from so many microslivered scenes, it’s ridiculous to make broad proclamations anyway….). They’re in no particular order – as Bob Dylan likes to say, it’s all good. Enjoy!


Tom Waits: Bad As Me . These songs start from a place where everything is broken, honor is long gone and everybody’s locked in the grand drain-circling swirl of destiny. Then the band kicks into its higher gear, stomping out lusty if slightly preposterous marches, rambles and elegies. Waits’ characters fall right in, and though they’re well acquainted with futility, they press on, endearingly, lost in the search for love, hope, and redemption. Which they do not typically find. Doesn’t matter.

Miles Davis: Live in Europe 1967.   The Paris version of “Masqualero,” on disc three of this collection of mostly unreleased live performances, lasts ten minutes. That’s all it takes to develop renewed awe for the astoundingly interactive on-the-fly genius of this ensemble. Davis’ stark melodies are set against lovely watercolor chords and endlessly elastic metric machinations – check out how often these five supremely alert musicians completely transform a mood in the space between downbeats. 2011 was a solid year of creativity in jazz – or, in the parlance of the latest Facebook “movement,” Black American Music (please, let us know when the fences and tollbooths are in place!) – but somehow everything current sounds anemic next to this.

Bon Iver: Bon Iver. Fragile songs riddled with questioning and doubt, rendered in spectacularly harmonized falsetto floral arrays. (The solo vocal tunes, deep into the record, are pretty great too….).

Wilco: The Whole Love. Here’s the balance between daydreamy folk-rock confessional and adventurous avant-downtown dissonance Wilco has been aiming for on the last few records. It seems clinical when described this way in words; in music, it sounds like pure giddy genius.

Black Keys: El Camino.  Bachman-Turner Overdrive roaring out of the classic-rock deep freeze on a nasty tequila bender.

Jonathan Wilson: Gentle Spirit.  Speaking of the ‘70s, here’s a slice of idyllic, gorgeously poised (and wondrously nostalgia-free) Laurel Canyon rock. Framed by intertwined guitar leads and lit from within by trance-state melodies, Wilson’s songs occupy a zone of warm, open-hearted reflection.

James Farm: James Farm. There was lots of new orchestrational thinking in improvised music this year, and among the most pleasant examples is this debut from a quartet that sounds like a real band. Imagine that.

Adele: 21. File this one under “admiration, not love.” When I first heard it, I felt that the plush production rounded off some of Adele’s crucial sharp edges. After endless repeat exposure to the songs, my quibbles with the production remain. But I have to give it up: There is just no denying that voice.

Radiohead: The King of Limbs. As with pretty much everything the band has done, this record opens genuinely new doors, suggests new combinations of texture and emotion, offers new takes on the peculiar alchemy of a rock song.

Drake: Take Care. Lots of prominent rappers kvetch about the trials of fame – Eminem dines quite well on that theme, and Kanye West blew it to  smithereens on the ultra-dense My Beautiful Twisted Fantasy. Drake goes in a brutally honest introspective direction here, singing and rapping as though he’s just emerged from a meditation retreat where he discovered all kinds of loathesome things about himself. Along with Undun, below, this feels like a necessary (and overdue) course correction for commercial hiphop.

The Roots: Undun. This is the record to play for your friend who complains about the rampant ego glorification that dominates so much hiphop discourse. A musically exuberant, lyrically sobering tour through the mind of an average tortured urbandweller, Undun represents a storytelling peak for the Roots, but that’s not all: Its sung refrains (“Tip The Scales”) give voice to the sad disillusionment that settled in after those Obama-led “Yes We Can” chants died down.

The Decemberists: The King Is Dead. After unleashing a sprawling prog-rock opus, what else is there to do but create a series of diabolically focused little songs that strive for the sorrow-filled, world-weary tones of the great Hank Williams?

tUnE yArDs: Who Kill. Technology has come a long way since Solex’ monstrously inventive Low Kick and Hard Bop from 2001, and this album, which is the spiritual heir to that one, harnesses it brilliantly, dropping listeners into the middle of an African ritual one minute and a beautifully layered Joni Mitchell confession the next.

My Morning Jacket: Circuital.  Epic journeys and existential mindgames coalesce into the most consistent set of songs from the band that is arguably the most consistently rousing live act on the road.

Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What. Worth hearing just for the title track, which captures the thoughts of a numb Everyman as he struggles to comprehend the unhinged opinions and unwelcome advertisments, the trash and transcendence and “look at me” ravings that constitute the modern media assault.

Bill Frisell 858 Quartet: Sign of Life . These pensive etudes glide right across the territorial lines that divide jazz, bluegrass and chamber music, describing an elusive and endlessly fragile shadow world.

J.D. Allen Trio: Victory!  This year some tenor player put out a record proclaiming The Triumph of the Heavy. It wasn’t. This is.

Various Artists: El Barrio: The Ultimate Collection of Latin Boogaloo, Disco, Funk and Soul. Fania Records was never just the incubator of New York salsa – the label was also responsible for some monstrously energetic backbeat music. Surveying commercial hits and influential album tracks, this four-disc compilation shows how the flirtatious Latin-soul boogaloo pulse of the ‘60s evolved into muscular, utterly unique strains of funk.

Gretchen Parlato: The Lost and Found. Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding snagged all of this year’s jazz love in the media. But several people in her circle – most notably the singer Gretchen Parlato – made far more interesting records than her cluttered Chamber Music Society. Parlato has a great sense of space and impressive  command of a carefully controlled stage whisper; on the best moments here (“Still,” a delightfully loose version of Wayne Shorter’s “Juju”), she kills softly.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Amos Lee: Mission Bell; M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming; Iron and Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean; Lisa Hannigan: Passenger; The Weekend: House of Balloons; The Beach Boys: Smile!; The Rolling Stones: Some Girls.


Addicted To Demise

Suddenly, there’s an epidemic of demise essays. They’re everywhere and I am binge-inhaling them. You know the species – an expert (whatever that is anymore) steps up to the podium and delivers a laundry list of troubling portents, each pointing to the death of a beloved form of expression. The novel has been discussed this way for decades, with good reason. Jazz, too – one prominent practitioner recently concluded, after much thought and discussion with elders, that his chosen mode actually died in 1959. It’s been on cultural life support ever since.

Lately it’s been film. Last week in the New York Times, critic A.O. Scott sounded the alarm with a perceptive rant about the general decline in quality of onscreen storytelling. Along the way, he referenced related observations by New Yorker critic Anthony Lane and critic emeritus Roger Ebert, whose The Sudden Death of Film is a symphonic opus of handwringing from one whose disposition is usually cheery. There’s a tendency among critics, whose discipline is in an alarming freefall of its own (get ready for a raft of “Death of Criticism” essays), to look around and mourn the state of things. Maybe this goes with the territory – we spend our days absorbing the latest works, with very little chance to have a perspective-providing encounter with a certifiable classic.

When we do, we become like the GPS lady after a wrong turn: Recalculating! This happens all the time, in part because critics are human and also because the context for art is constantly changing: When compared with every contemporaneous new hiphop release, that tiresomely overhyped collaboration between Jay-Z and Kanye West was certainly impressive. But put it next to Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and the story is somewhat different. It’s become almost a given in this age: Even if a new release like Watch the Throne seems powerful and invincible upon arrival, it doesn’t take long before the luster wears off, the songs are exposed as thin windbag gruel, and the emperor is seen scurrying for undergarments. A little context can be a dangerous thing.

The timing of demise-speak is interesting. While these well-documented declines seem to be independent, they are progressing along similar routes, if not running in parallel. Many essays about film glance at the dismaying and unrelenting dimness of current pop music and shudder: Look what can happen when the chokehold of top-down distribution is broken! Film is surely next! The questions start with “What happens when anyone can pirate a feature film?” and usually quickly run to “What is the impact on creativity when pirating is common practice?” Add up all the specific woes in specific realms, and what you have is a lamentation chorale in the key of quiet panic, a collective alert about the relative health of creativity. And, by extension, civilization.

The essays usually touch on the impact of technology, how the tools that enable people to create stuff rapidly and easily are also responsible for changing – often, cheapening — the final cut and how an audience experiences it. Some demise essays have noted the role of polling and “creation by committee” as happens at the large studios; it’s clear this is an age where the artist’s iconoclastic vision is subordinate to the concerns of those in charge of managing the big bankroll. The tragedy of that type of decision-making is evident in just about every would-be blockbuster: Cue up another explosion, Gretchen, we might have a few interminable seconds of quiet in there.

Group-think, that perpetual enemy of art, has taken root in the entertainment industry to a scarifying degree; it surely is a factor in all this death talk. For one example, just tally up the times the Broadway Spiderman has been through the dance of rewrite and revision and focus-group “testing.” The process may yet yield “acceptable” (read: financially successful) show, but for those who grew up respecting the singular vision of U2, it represents the sad incremental suffocating of idealism, a regrettable moment when once-fierce heroes capitulate to marketplace demands. Somebody’s probably already working on a master’s thesis about this highly visible implosion, and what it says about the creative process when the stakes get high and the deep pocket types get nervous.

What is striking about these mourning exercises is the way they focus on the state of the art and to some degree ignore the state of the audience. If we are witnessing the death of film, it is in part because we are living in age of flamboyant and widely accepted inattention, a time when every daily interaction is threatened by competing signals. If audiences are no longer inclined to follow an extemporaneous narrative created by a jazz musician over ten gingerly carved choruses of a tune, it’s partly because that requires some mental engagement, a mind that can stick with a single thought and not dart from one microburst status update to another. The malady known as Too Much Information has implication for all manner of discourse, the arts included.

The critics’ concern about how digital tools are changing the forms is, in some way, misplaced: Why bother worrying about the general health of an art form when members of its intended audience show up indifferent and harried, too stressed to bring any meaningful energy to a work? It’s a “Here we are now, entertain us” world. It’s a “I don’t have all day to wade through exposition, I want action!” world. Anymore, the expectation is that said entertainment will deliver thrills in short order and at regular intervals. Watch a few recent Hollywood movies on fast forward, and patterns begin to emerge: Though circumstances are different, the crucial moments of action seem to arrive according to a schedule. The same formula, in miniature, prevails within the architecture of Lady Gaga songs, too.

Then there’s the technology-fueled arrogance of the audience. A man toting a smartphone into a theater is a powerful individual, with command of infinite resources and the expectation that he can get anything he wants or needs with just a few clicks. This person has been trained by his technology that his choices reign supreme – his device stores his Favorites, his Playlists, and those, he is told endlessly, are the only art that matters. The device puts him in touch with more creative works than the mind can fathom, but it also can put him farther away from the state of receptivity – and, crucially, the patience – that’s sometimes necessary when encountering something new. The delightful smart little box is a portal to all kinds of worlds, each of them requiring some level of agency on the part of the user; anymore, people who live inside that lifeline may not be inclined or mentally equipped to suspend their own endlessly chattering narratives in order to follow someone else’s as expressed in art. It’s no accident that most people don’t listen to entire albums anymore: We’re seeking choice moments, not a more complete picture of an artist’s vision. Life is a process of culling the ultimate greatest-hits collection now: The folks cuing up for an encounter with a musician or a filmmaker are, to an alarming degree, not willing to grant the artist time enough to create a world or make a case. This may sound harsh, but it comes up constantly in conversations with artists: The relentless flow of “pushed” information, from texts and updates to shopping offers, has compromised what might be called the fullness of attention. Artists worry, with good reason, about the indifference of the distracted end-user, about the challenge of captivating the over-stimulated masses. They begin a project knowing that even the most spectacular special-effects scene might not be enough to pierce the blasé armor. Joe Smartphone User may have sophisticated tastes, but he’s also increasingly living explosion to ear-rattling explosion, numb to subplot and subtlety, disinclined to follow a story’s slowly winding path. Possibly unable to focus on any expression that lasts more than six minutes.

That’s not the fault of any artform. It would be the case whether said form was thriving or deeply enmeshed in the death spiral many have been ranting about. The problem right now seems to me to be less about the health of individual disciplines, and more about the health of the audience. That’s because the implicit pact at the root of all arts – the creator offers up what he knows to the best of his ability, and in so doing, expects the chance to earn a modicum of sustained attention – has been shattered, replaced by a zillion little blips, attention hogs all, claiming precious brain nanoseconds  in an undifferentiated stream of endless updates. If the creativity on offer in any particular form amounts to a fractured mess devoid of uplift or even the skeleton of a coherent narrative, maybe that’s because art is doing what it always does: Imitating life itself.

Now, a moment of silence followed by the unmistakable skipping sound……

of a ride cymbal played by Paul Motian.

implying a vision of time, shaving off little bits of time and spinning them out into separate orbit, defining the pulse so as to encourage every possible option. each strike opening into newness. opening up everyone within range. opening everything.

this accomplished at pianissimo, with no excessive force, and no screaming “look at me.” and crucially no guessing. all clear, all smudges intentional. hear one measure and you experience time as a force to be respected and harnessed and worked with. time as something absolute and at the same time endlessly mutable. time refracted through a complex language of pings and chops, an entire orchestra of colors and sonic variations eminating from one humble cymbal. never just a flat stock ping but a palette of them, each signifying slight, microslivered difference while still connected, by sometimes thinnest of threads, to the almighty downbeat.

we have lost not just a visionary musician but an entire orientation, a way of shaping and coloring music. probably gone forever. a taste of it is here.

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!