Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Center vs. The Margins

I was going through my CD rack, looking for something to strike my listening fancy, when I came across Change of Time (Omnitone records). It's a trio date consisting of Russ Lossing on piano, Adam Kolker on reeds and John Hebert on bass, putting their spin on Bartok's Mikrokosmos. It came out in 2001, and I realized I hadn't come across Lossing since. 

I little digging reassured me that Mr. Lossing has releases on HatHut and appeared on Michael Adkin's Rotator CD (reviewed on this blog), but that got me thinking about how jazz musicians market themselves and stand out in a crowded field. It seems that those who are considered avant-garde, like Anthony Braxton and Matthew Shipp, carve out a very distinct "territory" for themselves. There are a devoted set of fans for that genre, with attendant blogs/magazines and even a store, Downtown Music Gallery, basically catering to that audience. (DMG also carries other genres, but is known for music on the "margins.") On the other hand, musicians who are closely identified with the mainstream (the other margin), like Eric Alexander, also have labels and fans that offer support.

But what about those in the "center," musicians like Lossing who don't fall into either extreme? It seems a potentially perilous place to be, in the way that a product without a distinct brand identity can be lost in a sea of choices. After all, belonging to an extreme has its advantages. For example, I don't keep up with guitar players generally, but I know about Mary Halvorson because she has apprenticed with Braxton, has a disc coming out on HatHut, and has been mentioned in DMG's email newsletter.

There are many, many mainstream-modern jazz musicians out there who probably deserve more exposure than they're getting. Even as the Internet has opened up the possiblity for artists to have a relationship with their fans, a musician has to attract the fans in the first place. I'd love to hear how musicians keep their careers viable, playing this music that we love that is outside of the predominant tides of pop culture. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

4/21/09 What I'm Listening To

Brad Mehldau, Songs

Charles Mingus, East Coasting

Charles Mingus, The Jazz Experiments of Charles Mingus

Saturday, April 18, 2009

4/18/09 What I'm Listening To

Tristano/Marsh, Intuition

Hal McKusick, The Jazz Workshop

the nommonsemble, Life Cycle

Evan Parker/Keith Rowe, Dark Rags

Satoko Fujii Trio, Junction

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My Favorite Cecil

Howard Mandel's blog, Jazz Beyond Jazz, had a couple of posts about Cecil Taylor's 80th birthday, and following a comment I wrote he asked me to name my favorite Taylor recordings. That's a serious undertaking, but here's my list in chronological order:

The trio recordings with Buell Neidlinger and Dennis Charles that first appeared on The World of Cecil Taylor. These sides show his connection with post-bop jazz and the rhythm section gets him.

Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come, with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray. Just sublime playing by all; if only the damn piano had been in tune!

Leaf Palm Hand, the duets with Tony Oxley. Taylor has worked with some great drummers, but Oxley reacts and anticipates him like no other.

2 Ts for a lovely T, with the Feel Trio of William Parker and Oxley. Fantastic interplay, plus I'm a sucker for box sets.

Nailed, with Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Oxley. Just try to catch your breath after this one.

The Tree of Life. Cecil solo.

Almeda, with an eight-piece ensemble. This size unit gives the music more space to breath than Cecil's larger ensembles.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


A great place to meet and exchange thoughts with fellow enthusiasts is, specifically their Forums section called Speakeasy. I used to post there regularly a few years ago, and I recently rejoined. Some real characters hang out there!

4/12/09 What I'm Listening To

Happy Easter everyone!

On this day I'm listening to:

Steve Lantner Trio, What You Can Throw

Michael Adkins Quartet, Rotator

Simon Nabatov Octet, A Few Incidences

Denman Maroney Quartet, Gaga 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

First take: Michael Adkins Quartet, Rotator

HatOLOGY 660

Michael Adkins, Tenor Saxophone
Russ Lossing, Piano
John Hebert, Bass
Paul Motion, Drums

This is the first in what I hope is an occasional series of CD reviews based on an initial listen or two to the recordings. (If I waited until I listened several times before I wrote a review, it might never get written!)

Tenor saxophonist Michael Adkins is a new name to me, although he's been based in New York City since 1998 and recorded a previous album in 2000. I don't know what he's been up to during the last decade, but overall Rotator is a very impressive (near) debut album. Adkins style is contemplative with bluesy overtones and a hint of Jan Garbarek's plaintiveness. I also hear echoes of Keith Jarrett's 70's quartet with Garbarek in the ways themes are sometimes stated in unison by the sax and piano. The rhythm section is not one in the traditional sense; there's a near telepathic interplay among all four and an elastic sense of time. Pieces seem to expand and contract as they evolve, and there's a sense of events unfolding in a logical way. If I have a quibble with Rotator, its that many of the performances are taken at roughly the same medium-fast tempo; it would have helped to have a little more variety. This slight homogeneity also has me wondering if Adkins is a one-trick pony. If he is, however, than it's a mighty nice trick. 

Rotator comes highly recommended for the organic group sound that the quartet generates, and I'm interested in what Mr. Adkins does next.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Remembering Sun Ra

My earlier post about seeing Cecil Taylor live got me thinking about other jazz artists I caught in concert. One memorable occasion was seeing Sun Ra with a 100-piece orchestra in NYC. 

I was living in New York around 1985-86 when Sun Ra rented out an abandoned ballroom on the Lower East Side and put on this extraordinary concert. I had a friend named Liz who, although not into jazz, was up for the adventure and accompanied me.

I don't remember what the building was called, but it was a great space for a concert, with a large main room featuring ornate balconies. The band was set up on one side, with the audience sitting on the floor on the other side. I don't think it was the tightest performance that I've ever heard, but it was great just seeing that mass of musicians at one time.

The best part of the evening occured after the show. Liz and I decided to explore the space so we went up to the balcony area. And who should we find sitting there than Mr. Sun Ra himself! He was very gracious as we engaged in some chit-chat. At one point his two dancers came in and rubbed oil on his feet! (I wonder if one was June Tyson?)

I'm glad I can say that I met the enigmatic Sun Ra in person.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Usual Sources

Readers who are long-time jazz fans are probably already aware of these companies, but I wanted to recognize three great sources for jazz and improvised music recordings: Downtown Music Gallery in NYC, the Jazz Loft in Bellevue, WA and Cadence in upstate New York. All three offer extensive catalogs and great service. 

Through April 19, the Jazz Loft is offering 10 HatHut titles of your choice for $35! The entire HatHut catalog is not part of the special, but there are some great titles up for grabs.

The One Record I Play More Than Any Other...

I've got a lot of Jazz albums and CDs; I've been collecting since I was 13 and I'm now...well, never mind. But in spite of my love for the avant-garde and specifically Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill and others, the album I've probably played the most over all the years is In Concert Volume Two, which was released in 1974 on CTI Records. 

The two discs are culled from all-star concerts recorded in Detroit and Chicago with a front line of Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine. Specifically, I listen to Interlude and Hornets from Side 1, which features a quartet of Herbie Hancock on electric piano with Eric Gale, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette. Hornets simply smokes; Herbie pours on the intensity and then keeps taking it higher. DeJohnette is with him step for step, and there are points where it starts to veer into free playing, as there seems to be an implied pulse, but not a set rhythm. Gale throws in some nice commentary, and Carter holds tight to the initial riff. 

I've never seen either volume on CD, but Volume 2 especially is worth the price for some very loose, inspired blowing from all parties.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Guilty Pleasures

Everybody has 'em. My jazz-related guilty pleasures usually revolve around 70's fusion, as it gave (and gives) me a chance to "rock out" without the brain-dead rock lyrics or plodding musicianship. A few records come to mind:

Return to Forever: Where Have I Known You Before and Romantic Warrior

Herbie Hancock: Thrust

Eddie Henderson: Sunburst (although this is much less of a guilty pleasure compared to the others I listed: the record holds up very well today.)

Add yours in the comments!

Happy Birthday Cecil!

March 15 (or 25, depending on the source) was Cecil Taylor's 80th birthday. Of all the jazz and improvising artists out there, Cecil's catalog is the one I've most obsessively collected. 

The first record of Cecil's that I heard was Silent Tongues, the live solo recording from Montreux, when I had only recently begun to listen to jazz. In spite of my lack of knowledge about jazz in general and free jazz in particular, that record blew me away. I followed that up with Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come and I've never looked back.

I've only seen Mr. Taylor in concert once, on a double bill with the Art Ensemble of Chicago at The University of Houston around 1978 or 79. He had his sextet with Ronald Shannon Jackson, Ramsey Ameen, et al that recorded the two New World Records releases. The Art Ensemble went first, and I hate to admit that by the time Cecil's Unit came on stage, I was feeling the effects of a hurried trip down from S.M.U., where I was in my freshman year. Because of that, I didn't give his performance the attention it deserved. I would love to see him again. 

There's a complete sessionography for Cecil Taylor located here.

Improvised Addiction?

A few years ago I read an interview with drummer Gino Robair in which he stated that people who liked free improv recordings often had what was akin to an addiction. Fans needed to buy one CD after another to satisfy their need. Gino's comment struck a chord with me, although I don't exclusively buy that genre. I may like a CD, but I want that new one I just read about; there is that hunger to feel like you're up-to-date with the latest. That's partly the reason why there are many CD's in my collection that I know I haven't listened to enough to fully appreciate. Anyone else experience this?

Nuscope Love

I've always been impressed with the output of Nuscope Recordings and I'd sing their praises even if they weren't based in Dallas. I once met Russell Summers, the founder, at a Gerry Hemingway concert and he's a great guy. The label has been around since 1998 and I haven't encountered a bad release yet. 

My perception is that the label doesn't get a lot of attention, even though it's distributed through the usual sources such as Downtown Music Gallery, JazzLoft and Cadence. Nuscope has recorded heavy hitters such as George Graewe, John Butcher, Barry Guy and Mat Maneri, but it seems other records from those musicians get more publicity. I've always wondered why that is.

Upcoming Eskelin

Tenorist Ellery Eskelin recently announced on his website that his group with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black will be releasing a new live recording on April 24 entitled One Great Night...Live on hatOLOGY. It's hard to believe that the band has been together for 15 years! If you haven't tested the waters and listened, it's time you did; it's one of the most important small groups of the last few years.

Welcome to improvised!

Welcome to a new blog about all things concerning jazz and improvised music.  My name is Craig, and I've been a jazz fanatic since I was 13 and heard Dexter Gordon's Blues a la Suisse on Willis Conover's Voice of America shortwave broadcast.  (I'm a lot older now, but we'll skip the details.) I enjoy the entire tradition of jazz, from big band swing to completely improvised performances. I plan to use this blog to review recordings and comment on current players and the state of jazz music. Please share your thoughts and comments; let's build a dialogue!

4/04/09 What I'm Listening To

Yes, I know I ripped this feature off of Jazz Corner's forums, so sue me! It's a good way to get a look at what I like, and hopefully you, dear reader, will add your current obsessions in the comments. Here goes:

Cecil Taylor Ensemble: Almeda

Now Orchestra and Marilyn Crispell: Pola

Anthony Braxton: Nine Compositions (DVD) 2003

Kaufmann/Gratkowski/de Joode: Unearth