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(Above: Ornette Coleman jams with the Roots. Improbably, people respond positively to the non-traditional collaboration.)

By Joel Francis

In 1958, Danny and the Juniors sang “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay.” Although the genre was only seven years removed from the its birth on the “Rocket 88” single and three years from its explosion into the mainstream with Elvis Presley, Danny White was right. Sixty years later, it is hard to imagine American culture without rock and roll.

It is also hard to imagine what the malt-shop teens and leather jacket hoods of the Eisenhower administration would have thought about auto-tune, power pop and nu-metal. Although the seeds of today’s rock were planted in the 1950s, the resulting flora has blossomed into hybrids that bear little resemblance to the original crop.

Picture how different today’s musical landscape would be if anything that varied from the pre-British Invasion strains of rock and roll were bastardized. If songs bearing the touch of John Lennon and Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were decried as impure for straying from the “true” roots of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.  Or if anything after the summer of punk and the rise of synthesizers was kept at arm’s length and segregated from the great Rock Cannon.

Would we expect our children to dig out old Bill Haley and Beach Boys albums if this were the case? Teach them “Fun Fun Fun” and “Maybelline” as historical exercises? Of course not. They would shrug, pay us lip service and invent their own confounding strain of music. The ties to existing music would be obvious – nothing emerges in a vacuum – but nothing we couldn’t dismiss as the impure follies of youth.

Why, then, do we place the same parameters around jazz and feign surprise with then inevitable occurs?

It seems every year a new study comes out showing the median age of jazz listeners climbs while attendance drops. The latest is a National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted through the U.S. Census Bureau. Predictably, the self-appointed Guardians of Jazz like Wall Street Journal columnist and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout are freaking out. But all this hand-wringing is like an ordinary bicycle enthusiast fretting while the chain-driven model populates the streets. The vehicle is still very much alive, it’s just been modified and influenced by culture.

Too many jazz museums and concert curators suffer from WWWS: What would Wynton say. Would Wynton Marsails, the genre’s most prominent performer and steadfast caretaker, approve of their exhibit or event? While Marsalis is a talent trumpet player who deserves every bit of his fame and credit for bringing jazz to the masses, he is conservative and traditionalist to a fault. Museum directors and concert promoters should be following their own muse and vision, not looking to someone as restrictive as Marsalis for tacit endorsement.

The growth of jazz from Dixieland to big band to bebop is celebrated, but somewhere along the line – about 1965, shortly before John Coltrane’s death, when free jazz and fusion started to creep into the mix – a line was drawn. In shorthand, acoustic Herbie Hancock playing with Miles Davis and recording for Blue Note is “good” jazz; synthesizer-rocking Hancock’s best-selling “Head Hunters,” though, is “bad.”

If directors and promoters must get the thumbs-up from a Marsalis, could it please be Branford? Although a lesser celebrity, the tenor saxophone player and older brother of Wynton has equally distinguished jazz pedigree. He’s also allowed jazz to grow, branching into pop with Sting, serving as musical director for the Tonight Show and working with hip hop artists.

If the stodgy stylistic caretakers turned up their noses when jazz artists, the highest pedigree of musicians, started dabbling in rock and funk, they have completely ignored most jazz performers slumming with rappers in a genre oft-maligned for possessing the lowest level of musicianship.

The elitists are missing the point. At their best, jazz and hip hop are better together than chocolate and peanut better. The improvisational aspect of jazz fits the free-flowing poetry delivered by a great MC. The swing of the instruments matches the swagger of the beats. Dig the way DJ Logic’s turntable work complements Medeski, Martin and Wood’s “Combustication” album, how Mos Def and Q-Tip’s rhymes soar over Ron Carter’s live basslines, or how Roy Hargrove’s trumpet pushes and accentuates Common’s poetry.

Teachout and Wynton Marsalis’ simplified stances ignore the long history of jazz in popular culture. The enduring standard “Someday My Prince Will Come,” was plucked from Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Although both Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong released albums of Disney material, it is doubtful Wynton Marsalis would record a song from a children’s cartoon.

The Chicken Little jazz forecasts don’t show that jazz is less popular or interesting today. The news they bring is even more disturbing: hard evidence that the standard-bearers of the genre are increasing ignorant to how their beloved music has grown, changed and been embraced. They’re the ones missing the party, but don’t worry – their numbers are dwindling.

(Below: More Ornette Coleman with the Roots for all the alarmists. Note how well the musicians play together despite being from the disparate worlds of jazz and hip hop. Surely this is a sign of the apocalypse.)

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By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Guitarist Derek Trucks was 12 years old when Bob Dylan asked him onstage during a show to play “Highway 61 Revisited.”

For Trucks, it was just another gig. The look on his dad’s face, however, told a different story.

“I knew who Dylan was because my dad was a massive fan, but it didn’t hit me then like it would have now or even 10 years ago,” Trucks said. “But even though I didn’t realize the significance, I could see it in my dad’s eyes that this was life-changing.”

Trucks and his father were both right. Playing with Dylan was just another encounter for the prodigy who would go on to play with Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and numerous others. But it also opened the door to other possibilities.

Trucks, who turns 30 in June, now helms his own eponymous group (performing Friday at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge) and also plays in the Allman Brothers Band. He returned Dylan’s favor with his supercharged blues cover of Dylan’s “Down in the Flood,” which opens his sixth and newest studio album, “Already Free.”

“I try to pick covers with some connection to the band,” Trucks said. “Part of that is Dylan is such a good songwriter with a great amount of tunes, but on top of that I figured after Katrina and the flooding in Iowa, the title and the lyrics were just a great metaphor for all that.”

Trucks didn’t go into the studio planning on cutting a record. Finding himself with downtime at his Jacksonville, Fla., home – atypical for a man who averages 300 shows a year – and a recently completed home studio called Swamp Raga Studio, Trucks and his band decided to lay down some tracks just to see how the room felt.

“The first day we wrote and ” Trucks said. “The next thing we recorded (the song) ‘Already Free,’ knew there were a dozen, then two dozen songs. We started calling people from (wife and blues guitarist) Susan (Tedeschi)’s band, Doyle (Bramhall II), Warren Haynes, Oteil Burbridge, to come in.”

The resulting release has a laid-back yet focused organic vibe that inhabits the best of the Allman Brothers’ Capricorn albums.

“It’s the most natural record I’ve done,” Trucks said. “It was very comfortable recording, and I think you can feel it. We captured tunes hours after they were written. There’s a freshness that comes across when songs are captured so quickly.”

Unsurprisingly, Trucks wanted to translate that urgency to the road as quickly as possible. The Derek Trucks Band tour kicked off last week.

For someone who has seemingly played with everyone, Trucks had the opportunity to encounter another legend and influence last year.

When you record two John Coltrane numbers on your debut album, and the opportunity to play with Coltrane’s longtime pianist McCoy Tyner arises, you don’t say no.

Still, Trucks was intimidated. Especially when he walked into the studio and saw bass player Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

“Those guys are legends in their own right, but McCoy is on his own level,” Trucks said. “He was such a sweet guy. He really made it feel comfortable.”

Trucks entered the studio with a list of four songs he hoped to play with the trio, but as the last guitarist on the session, some of his choices had already been recorded.

“My first choice of song was ‘Contemplations,’ but (jazz guitarist Bill) Frisell had already recorded it,” Trucks said.

The two-day session yielded collaborations with Trucks, Frisell, Bela Fleck, Marc Ribot and John Scofield. Trucks was the only “rock” guitarist invited, but he works well on his two featured cuts, “Slapback Blues” and “Greensleeves.” Trucks’ presence in the company of such eclectic legends is unsurprising given the range of covers his band performs – everything from Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Delta bluesman Son House – and the diversity of the band playing them, which contains a four-decade age span.

Trucks said his innate musical curiosity has not only expanded his palate but has also given him a level of comfort playing with nearly anyone.

“It started at such a young age. I was always around musicians, so I’d try to pick their brains and see what influenced their music,” Trucks said. “A huge part of being able to stay on the road and on top of the game is to keep finding inspiration. You keep finding different things that turn you on, things that tweak different parts of the brain. In the long run you’re a better musician for it.”

Trucks hopes that same level of comfort and curiosity extends to his home Swamp Raga Studio.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with Willie (Nelson) in Maui, and anywhere he is has a clubhouse vibe. I can see that communal feeling. Wherever you are with him – on his bus, in his home – he makes sure everybody is absolutely comfortable,” Trucks said. “That’s kind of what it’s (Swamp Raga) starting to turn into in the month and a half we’ve gotten into it.”

Swamp Raga is not only musician-friendly but environmentally friendly as well.

“The beauty of building from scratch is that you can think about stuff ahead of time,” Trucks said. “When I figured the electric bill would be double, not only was that a financial hit, but psychologically I started feeling guilty because of all the energy we’d be using. We went out of our way to be conscious of that. We made it a point to do everything as efficiently as possible.”

To that end, Trucks and Tedeschi installed 26 solar panels on the studio and their home. And in the months when the family is out on tour, the local utility company pays them for the energy their panels generate.

“Sometimes our bill comes in right around zero,” Trucks said. “By doing the right thing it actually works out better in the end.”

Despite such 21st century enterprises, Trucks believes his band and his music are a throwback to a time where wooden instruments were hand-crafted and stepping onstage meant being ready to cut some heads.

“When you get on stage, you have to bring it,” Trucks said. “I get a sense from new music that the idea is to outsmart your audience or be so ultra-hip you can pull one over on them.

“With a band like ours, we try to represent a more honest music. We’re musicians representing our craft first and then trying to connect with people.”

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(Above: The Dave Brubeck Quartet “Take Five” at the Ottawa Jazz Festival.)

By Joel Francis

In a belated post-script to The Daily Record’s series on 15 jazz greats to emerge in the past 20 years, we look at five artists who are still significantly contributing to their legendary status. Although their reputations were cemented generations ago, it would be criminal to overlook their most recent works.

Roy Haynes

At the 2005 Newport Jazz Festival, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Christian McBride, Joshua Redman and several others all paid tribute to drummer Roy Haynes on the occasion of his 80th birthday. These musicians honored Haynes not only for his resume, which includes stints with Lester Young, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Sarah Vaughan, but because he has allowed the younger artists to grow and learn under his guidance. Haynes has released six albums this decade, starting with “The Roy Haynes Trio,” which recaps his career through new performances, “Birds of a Feather,” a tribute to his former bandleader Charlie Parker, and the strong live set “Whereas.”

Dave Brubeck

One of the most important – and popular – jazz pianists of the post-War era, Dave Brubeck landed on the cover of Time magazine and became a legend with his groundbreaking, yet accessible, work with saxophonist Paul Desmond. Although the 16 years Brubeck and Desmond played together in the Dave Brubeck Quartet form the crux of his catalog, Brubeck has built an impressive resume in the 40-plus years since.

Brubeck’s current quartet, consisting of drummer Randy Jones, bass player Michael Moore and saxophonist/flautist Bobby Militello, may be the best ensemble he’s worked with since his mid-’70s pairing with Gerry Mulligan. Unlike many of his contemporaries, there has never been a Brubeck comeback; there are no lulls or low periods in his catalog. Brubeck has continued to write, record and perform regularly well past his 88th birthday. Of the nearly dozen albums Brubeck has released this decade, three stand out. “The Crossing” kicked off the 21st century with nine strong, new selections, including an ode to longtime drummer “Randy Jones,” Militello’s delightful solo on “Day After Day” and the title song, Brubeck’s interpretation of a chugging ocean liner. Brubeck blends old and new songs on “London Flat, London Sharp,” and the his quartet sizzles on the live album “Park Avenue South,” which mixes standards and favorites with more recent material.

Wayne Shorter

After two years of auditioning other horn players, Wayne Shorter’s saxophone turned out to be the piece missing in Miles Davis second great quintet. An alumni of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Shorter not only filled the spot vacated by John Coltrane, but contributed many key songs to the group’s repertoire. As if that weren’t enough, he was simultaneously cutting magnificent solo albums on Blue Note. Shorter followed his bandleader’s path into fusion, but took a more pop approach in Weather Report, the group he co-founded with keyboardist Joe Zawinul, another Davis alum. Shorter floundered in the days after Weather Report’s demise in the mid-’80s, but his three most recent albums are among the most inspired of his career. After a 12-year absence from recording, Shorter returned with “Footprints Live,” which documents his reinvigorated 2001 tour. He fronted an acoustic band for the first time in over a generation on “Algeria,” which paired Rollins and his “Footprints” rhythm section with Brad Mehldau for several selections. Shorter’s hot streak continued with his most recent album “Beyond the Sound Barrier” and his inspired playing on Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning “River: The Joni Sessions.”

McCoy Tyner

More people have probably heard McCoy Tyner than know who he is. The backbone and counterfoil in John Coltrane’s masterful quartet for six years, Tyner’s piano has graced well-known recordings like “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme.” Tyner also put out several stellar albums under his own name on Blue Note and Impulse in the 1960s. No less active today, Tyner collaborated with Bobby Hutcherson for the live album “Land of Giants” and played tenor Joe Lovano and the awesome rhythm section of Christian McBride and Jeff “Tain” Watts for 2007’s  self-titled release. Tyner’s latest album, “Guitars,” was recorded over a two-day span that paired Tyner, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette with several of six-string luminaries, including John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Bela Fleck and Derek Trucks. Uninformed fans should stay away from 2004’s “Illuminations,” however. A dream pairing on paper of Tyner, McBride, Terence Blanchard, Lewis Nash and Gary Bartz, the performances are ruined by a glossy production that smothers the quintet’s interplay and is suitable only for shopping for a sweater at Nordstrom with your mom.

Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins’ legacy includes recordings with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell and Clifford Brown – and that’s just in his first decade of playing. In the half-century since then, Rollins (along with contemporary John Coltrane) established himself as the preeminent post-Bird saxophonist. Although the pace of Rollins’ releases has slowed considerably, what he has put out have only added to his reputation. Recorded in Boston just four days after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City, “Without A Song” is an emotional listen finding Rollins channeling his conflicted emotions through long solos. “This Is What I Do” continues Rollin’s penchant for transforming b-quality songs into must-listen melodies with the Bing Crosby standard “Sweet Leilani.” Rollins’ most recently release, “Road Songs, Vol. 1” mines the archives for several cherry-picked performances that prove that the passion on “Without A Song” was no fluke.

Keep Reading: 15 Jazz Legends to Emerge in the Last 20 Years

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

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Above: Students at the Berklee School of Music break down the Roots’ “Water.”

By Joel Francis

The New York Times jazz and pop critic Ben Ratliff participated in a very enlightening Q and A with readers yesterday. It seems Kansas City jazz fans, like our friend at Plastic Sax, aren’t the only ones obsessed about the state of the genre.

Several people asked Ratliff why jazz didn’t have a bigger audience, what the media’s responsibility is to promote jazz to a larger audience, if there is a stigma against jazz in mainstream culture and, most bluntly, whether jazz was dead.

Similarly, several readers were concerned about the legacy of today’s jazz artists. They asked which contemporary artists have the best potential to join the pantheon of innovators like Miles and Duke, and whether the current crop of players are pioneers or regurgitators. One bold reader actually called out the elephant likely hiding behind many of these questions. “Pretty much all jazz sounds the same today,” he said.

It seems that just as baseball fans can’t wait to compare Albert Pujols to Stan Musial, jazzheads love debating the merits of John Medeski to Jimmy Smith or Joshua Redman to Sonny Rollins. They (we) are forever insecure that our moment in the sun won’t measure up to the established legacy. They are right. Just as no contemporary president will be as lauded as the Founding Fathers, and no slugging outfield can surpass Babe Ruth’s mythology, there is no way that the abilities of Jaco Pastorius or Christian McBride can exceed the monumental achievements of Charlie Mingus and Ray Brown.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t all be enjoyed. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove hasn’t redefined the instrument the way Louis Armstrong did in the Hot Five and Hot Seven, but I think his playing on D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” and Common’s “Like Water For Chocolate” is inventive and unique. There is no comparison between the works, because they can’t be compared. They exist in different worlds. And questions about “is it jazz” are as silly and insignificant as whether or not poker or Nascar are sports. It doesn’t matter.

One of the elements I enjoy most about jazz is watching how it absorbed in reinterpreted in new contexts. One can hear the free jazz influence of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders in both the Stooges and the Soft Machine, but what they did with it was drastically different.

Ironically, “fans” might be the only ones worrying or arguing about these issues. Just as Hargrove had no problem working with Common and D’Angelo, I’m sure Ron Carter didn’t hesitate before recording with A Tribe Called Quest and Black Star. Artists make art, not distinctions.

To these ears, pieces like “Water” from the Roots’ album “Phrenology” or Mos Def’s “Modern Marvel” from “The New Danger” embody the spirit of jazz as much as anything Rudy Van Gelder recorded for Impulse or Blue Note.

Just as folk music survived the birth of the electric guitar (and Bob Dylan plugging in), and Sacred Harp has peacefully coexisted with gospel, jazz will survive. It will not be preserved in amber, but it is too indelible to be erased from American culture.

Although Ratliff’s answers were thoughtful and informative, he failed to pass along one key piece of advice to the Chicken Littles so worried about the future of their art: Pick up a horn and do it yourself.

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