Thursday, August 16, 2007

Max Roach

One of the all-time greats passed away today, Max Roach, the brilliant drummer, composer, activist and educator. My first exposure to Max was on Charlie Parker's recordings. What struck me immediately was the incredible precision of his playing. Unlike other boppers like Bud Powell and even Dizzy Gillespie who could, at times, sound very sloppy, Max's playing always seemed crisp and precise--like Bird himself. But it was his recordings with Clifford Brown, and the introduction to Max's melodic style of drumming, that won me over.

In 1990 I had the good fortune to see the Max Roach Quartet with trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater and saxophonist Odean Pope at Seattle's Jazz Alley. Again, what impressed me the most was his melodic approach to the drums. Now, while the drums in bebop had been liberated from mere timekeeping since WWII, there were few drummers who took advantage of that fact in the way that Max did. Unlike most drum solos where musicians need to count measures in their head to know when to come back in, Max would always keep the melody in the forefront of his playing. Even when stretching out, in the same way you can hear the underlying chords in a melody instrument's solo, you could hear the melody amid his percussion improvisiation.

My favorite albums among Max's work are the the two albums with Clifford Brown titled Study In Brown and More Study In Brown. I also really enjoy his disc with Hank Mobley on Chess records simply titled Max, and of course the disc with Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham that he recorded shortly after Brownie's death, Max Roach Plus Four.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Opening Pandora's Box!

Over the past few years I've tried virtually every Internet radio station/setup/site there is and nothing has impressed me in the slightest. I'd much rather simply listen to my iPod rather than attempt to figure out to make some of these stations work--never mind finding something I actually don't hate listening to. Well, I was blown away yesterday evening when I logged on to Pandora Radio. I couldn't believe my ears. But before I get to the great sounds, let me back up a bit.

In monetizing my site I have recently decided to play host to Google ads via their AdSense program, and one of the things you promise not to do in their agreement is click on any of the links. Okay, no big deal. But some of them do look interesting. So every once in a while I open a new browser tab and punch in the URL. Well, Pandora Radio immediately blew me away. It simply asked me to type in a song or artist I liked--I chose Horace Silver--and away it went. It immediately began playing "Kiss Me Right" from Horace's Doin' the Thing album on Blue Note, then followed it up by another Blue Note cut from Jackie McLean's Capuchun Swing album, a disc I don't own. Soon I began adding other artists and before long I had my own radio station. Just like that!

Now, while this probably sounds like one of those online-blogger-promo-for-money posts . . . It's not. I was just so completely floored by the ease and the sound--the entire concept, really, that I just had to share my good fortune with anyone who might stumble upon this post. The site picks tunes that match up with what you like, and it does a really nice job. You can decide if you don't like a tune and not only will it not play any more like that but it stops playing it immediately. Best of all, Pandora is absolutely free. There are add ons you can get to download songs, etc., but for me I just like cranking up my own radio station while I work. I can't say enough good things about Pandora. If you haven't already . . . get it!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The End of the (Jazz) Message

I've had a jazz DVD on my shelf for the better part of a year now, and I finally put it on last night and watched the whole thing in one glorious pass, stereo speakers blaring and a glass of wine at my elbow. The disc features taped performances of various European concerts from the 1970s with the likes of Kenny Drew, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Red Rodney and Dizzy Gillespie--though the addition of several songs by Willie Dixon also on the disc are an odd pairing with the rest. Sound and video limitations aside, it's about what you'd expect from aging boppers past their prime: wonderfully heart-warming, but nothing musically memorable. Nevertheless, there were some nice moments: a young Victor Lewis playing with Getz, outstanding trio work by Drew, and the Marsalis boys playing with Art Blakey.

The DVD is called Jazz Collection: The Legends Series, and as I watched Blakey and the other jazz giants it made me wonder again if there will ever be any jazz giants in the future. I know there have been numerous and frequent eulogies for jazz in recent years, so I'll resist going there, but the question remains. What will jazz be like in twenty years when everyone who ever played with Charlie Parker is dead? The "Young Lions" from the 80s--when the Marsalis boys were Jazz Messengers--never really panned out. Oh, there were some fantastic albums, Ralph Moore with the Ray Brown Trio, Mike Smith's second album for Delmark, and Christopher Hollyday's debut on Novus are still some of my favorite discs of all time. But that was twenty years ago!

Hollyday's brilliant Parker/McLean melange is now doing work in the service of Smooth Jazz (the acoustic jazz equivalent of Satanism), while Smith has disappeared almost completely, and Ralph Moore, god bless him, has taken refuge along with fellow Lion Kevin Eubanks in the Tonight Show band. With the end of the training ground for young musicians in the bands of greats like Blakey, Betty Carter, Ray Brown, and--for a short while--Horace Silver, it's doubtful that the great performing tradition of jazz groups crisscrossing the country will ever revive. Likely, things will revert to the way they were before recording came along, artists content to make a name for themselves locally--with, of course, the added 21st Century update of having their independent label recordings available world wide on the Internet.

The thing is, this is not like the passing of Arena Rock or Disco. Jazz has survived in the same basic combo form since Louis Armstrong, and so it's not the "style" that determines the music it's the intent of the musician. The willingness to learn an instrument so well as to be able to improvise should have more reward than the once-a-semester performance in a high school or college jazz band. So with the need to make an actual living coming face to face with the a black hole where once there were gigs to aspire to, it's no wonder that musicians decide not to pursue careers in jazz after college (not that I think college is a very good training ground for jazz . . . but that's another post.) Soon--if it hasn't already happened--the jazz message of Blakey, et al. will be nothing more than a faint echo and there will be no one left to take up the cry.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Sex, Death and Jazz

I occurred to me as I was attmpting to come up with a "commercially viable" blog post to instead ruminate on what exactly defines a "jazz fan." Is is someone who listens to live jazz on a regular basis, or can someone who only has access to recorded jazz still be considered a fan? And if the jazz fan can only be defined by actively seeking out and attending performances, where in the world are we supposed to do that? I live a hundred and fifty miles from the nearest A-list jazz club. And believe me, I love hearing the real thing as much as the next person, but when I see the sorry state of jazz in our country today it makes me want to throw up my hands and retreat back to my Tina Brooks CDs. That A-list club I mentioned--the only one in my state, by the way--is now top-heavy with groups like Tuck and Patti, Willie and Lobo, and Peter White. (I'm sorry, but I wouldn't go to see Peter White for free.)

In the most recent issue of Jazz Perspectives (May 2007) author David Borgo goes in-depth on the subject in reviewing a couple of the latest reissues by Coltrane and Monk. "But as a player, educator, and researcher, I continue to be concerned over the extreme canonization of jazz in our schools and the necrophilia that appears to be on the rise in the record industry." Saxophonist David Murray often described the listening to of jazz records, even his own, as necrophilia. (But then he even calls merely playing jazz standards necrophilia). Even so, have these gentlemen a point? Is jazz like sex? Is it all about that night's performance? What seems very apt about that analogy is that, like jazz, you never know on any given night just how well you or your partner are going to perform. It may be great, and it may be . . . well, not so hot.

Given that, who among us wouldn't love to have access to that ultimate in virtual-reality sex-tape loop from the film Brainstorm. Save your greatest perfomances on tape (I guess it would be digital now) and replay them when you have an off night. Doesn't sound a lot different to me than throwing a couple of Art Blakey dics on the changer (I guess it would be a playlist on the iPod now) after listening to a so-so quintet in your local B-list jazz club. The thing is, while the national labels are dead to jazz, I know there are still some incredible musicians out there playing incredible jazz under the radar, Jake Langley for example, but you have to mine your way through an awful lot of slag to find the gems these days. So much so, it almost isn't worth the effort.

So please, someone out there, give me some good news. Turn me on to someone great. And I don't mean some Ornette/Dolphy/Coltrane avant-garde wannabe necrophiliac, I mean someone still playing straght-ahead bebop and hard bop. As much as I'd love to spend the next two years listening to music samples on CDBaby to find one great disc, I just don't have the time. So, if you're already hip to something great, let me know. And I'll keep trying to do the same.