The Month In Jazz – March 2021

Don Was

The Month In Jazz – March 2021

Don Was

In 1960, Amiri Baraka (then still known as LeRoi Jones) wrote an essay called “Jazz And The White Critic.” His argument was that critics of the time were fundamentally misunderstanding jazz because they were attempting to interpret it as music alone, instead of thinking about it first and foremost as the artistic expression of Black people in America. He wrote, “We take for granted the social and cultural milieu and philosophy that produced Mozart. As Western people, the socio-cultural thinking of eighteenth-century Europe comes to us as a legacy that is a continuous and organic part of the twentieth-century West. The socio-cultural philosophy of the Negro in America (as a continuous historical phenomenon) is no less specific and no less important for any intelligent critical speculation about the music that came out of it.”

This is an intellectual and emotional leap that a lot of critics, in every artistic realm, often fail to make. They write about a piece of art by filtering it through what they believe are universal standards, without thinking very deeply at all about what in the artist’s background might have inspired those creative choices. I’m not talking about the “Which ex-boyfriend is this Taylor Swift song about?” line of inquiry that’s actually all too common in pop criticism. I’m talking about trying to walk in the artist’s shoes, and ask yourself why they might have made particular instrumental or arranging choices for a piece of music. Or to look in the mirror, metaphorically speaking, and really think about why you react to a certain musical choice yourself. Are there certain sounds, certain instruments or rhythms, that repel you instantly (for me, it’s the soprano saxophone), while others draw you in? Why? How did you develop your taste — from family, friends, music you grew up hearing, music that made a big impression on you as a teenager, music you adopted in college? And what does that say about you and how you listen/what you listen for now, as an adult? How do you define “good music” and “bad music”? Why do you think a musician would make music you think is bad? Do you automatically assume they just did it for the money, or are you willing to concede that maybe they think that music is good? And if so, are you willing to relisten and reconsider the idea that maybe they’re right and you’re wrong? Or that there’s no good or bad, only artistic choices?

Baraka continues, “Most jazz critics were (and are) not only white middle-class Americans, but middlebrows as well. The irony here is that because the majority of jazz critics are white middlebrows, most jazz criticism tends to enforce white middlebrow standards of excellence as criteria for performance of a music that in its most profound manifestations is completely antithetical to such standards; in fact, quite often is in direct reaction against them. (As an analogy, suppose the great majority of the critics of Western formal music were poor, “uneducated” Negroes?)” This is a condition that maintains today. All the editors of major jazz magazines are white. I am white. I have been listening to jazz for over 30 years, and am friendly with many musicians, but they have life experiences which fuel their art that are totally foreign to me, just as the experiences which feed into the things I value in art and life might be totally foreign to them.

For this reason, I’m finding it more and more important not just to read Black writers on jazz, but also to read artist-to-artist conversations. At the moment, I’m reading Baraka’s Blues People (again, published as LeRoi Jones) and A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives In The Bebop Business. (Baraka and Spellman first met as students at Howard University, and remained friends.) The latter contains what may be the single most important and perceptive piece of writing on Cecil Taylor, and it was written in 1966! But two other books may be more important to jazz history than either of those: Arthur Taylor’s Notes And Tones, and Jeremy Pelt’s Griot.

Notes And Tones is a collection of interviews conducted by Taylor, a well-known jazz drummer, with his peers, including Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Nina Simone, Betty Carter, and two dozen others. He self-published it in 1977, and it created an immediate sensation, so Da Capo Press picked it up in 1982. It’s a fascinating and eye-opening book, because all the musicians Taylor interviewed were Black, like himself, and he discussed the music with them from a musician’s perspective, and also discussed the role of Black musicians in white society, in stark and uncompromising terms.

Griot is also self-published, and it’s very much intended as a sequel to Notes And Tones. Pelt, a trumpeter I’ve featured in this column before and interviewed several times over the last decade, conducted fifteen interviews with Wynton Marsalis, Robert Glasper, JD Allen, Terri Lyne Carrington, and others. They’re significantly longer than the interviews in Notes And Tones, and go into serious depth about the musicians’ lives and work — not breaking down specific performances or recordings in the way a critic might, but discussing how one’s style develops, and how one decides what to express. Pelt is particularly interested in what his subjects think about the condition of being a Black jazz musician in America, and the answers they give are thoughtful and thought-provoking. As a fan and a critic, this is one of the most important books about jazz I’ve ever read. I knew I had to ask him about it, so I called him up.

“I had been completely entranced by Notes And Tones as soon as I read it, which would have been in college,” he said. “And it was also a book that I’d come back to every once in a while, because it meant something different every couple of years.” The idea lingered in the back of his mind that somebody should do something similar for his generation of players, “and eventually it went from ‘somebody should’ to ‘I should.’” He began conducting interviews in 2018, trying whenever possible to do them at the musicians’ homes or neutral zones like restaurants, rather than backstage at a gig or in a hotel room, in order to keep the mood both friendly and personal, rather than professional, and that sense of peer-to-peer dialogue comes through on every page.

Pelt’s original intention to document his own generation of players went by the wayside pretty quickly; he’s 45, but the first two people interviewed for the book were drummer Warren Smith and bassist Paul West, both of whom were born in 1934. “My concern when I first started came from … the disconnect that I felt between the youth that are coming up playing this music and the older generation, in particular the Black youth and the Black older generation, and the other thing was, I wanted to do whatever I could to shed some type of light on an army of older generation musicians that nobody really talks about, that didn’t get their ink.” West, for example, is not a bassist with the profile of Ron Carter or Jimmy Garrison, but he worked with Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Weston, Erroll Garner, and singers like Dinah Washington and Carmen McRae, as well as Petula Clark and Charles Aznavour. His conversation with Pelt provides some fascinating insights into life on the road and how musicians bounced from gig to gig, band to band, in the 1950s and 1960s.

The book also includes a long — nearly 30 pages! — interview with Wynton Marsalis, in which you get to see a side of him that he almost never presents on his own. Pelt draws out the street kid from New Orleans, rather than the jazz ambassador from Lincoln Center, and Marsalis talks freely about his own limitations, both musical and philosophical. It’s a truly fascinating conversation. “There were things that he was saying, especially towards the end, that were surprising, that reinforced that people — everybody’s human, and goes through a natural state of maturation where what they might have thought about 20, 30 years ago might have changed a bit, or drastically. So there were certain assumptions [when] I went in to interview Wynton that were just completely turned around. So it was a fun interview to have, just to learn more about how he’s thinking and what led him to where he’s at right now, mentality-wise.”

This is the first in a planned series of volumes; the book contains 15 interviews, but he had 35 complete when he decided to self-publish the book in December, and he’s now got over 50 in the can. You’ll need to buy it directly from him, but it’s definitely worth it.

The book shares its title with Pelt’s new album, Griot: This Is Important!, recorded with pianist Victor Gould, vibraphonist Chien Chien Lu, bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Allan Mednard, and percussionist Ismael Wignall, all of whom appeared on his 2019 album Jeremy Pelt The Artist. Harpist Brandee Younger also plays on one track. Excerpts from his interviews with Paul West, saxophonist JD Allen, pianists Larry Willis, Bertha Hope, and Harold Mabern (Willis and Mabern both died in 2019), vocalist René Marie, and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire are interspersed between the musical performances, and there’s a direct compositional and thematic relationship between the two. Pelt told me, “By the time the middle of 2019 came about, I was like, you know what, I’m gonna pick some of these sound bites and write music to [them].”

Pelt, who went to school for film scoring, has always written in a lush and lyrical manner, so it was easy for him to allow his interview subjects’ words to paint a picture and tell a story. As a result, Griot is not only one more in a long string of extremely beautiful, artful post-bop records, but a full-throated declaration of jazz as Black art within a long tradition of same.

We spoke not long after the death of drummer Ralph Peterson, whose whole life was about preserving the jazz tradition. He was recruited into Art Blakey’s big band as the second drummer, toward the end of the older man’s life, and was a thunderous, hard-hitting player himself, very much in the Blakey tradition, even recording albums with other Jazz Messengers alumni years later. He also spent much of his career doing something similar to what Blakey had done with the Messengers, forming bands stocked with younger players in order to teach them how the music and the business worked. One such group featured Pelt, saxophonist Jimmy Greene, pianist Orrin Evans, and bassist Eric Revis; they made three albums — The Art Of War, Subliminal Seduction, and Tests Of Time — between 2001 and 2003.

“Ralph was a tireless hustler, a tireless worker,” Pelt recalled. “He was in search of something that was going to get him to a point where he felt he should be in the jazz canon. One of the things that I learned from Ralph was, even if a lot of people would disagree with how you see yourself, it didn’t matter, because you have to have the vision for where you see yourself, and other people can choose to fuck with that or not. But you have to have the vision to see yourself where you think you should be. He always saw himself as being at the forefront of the music, and he led with that.” The present-day jazz industry isn’t all that interested in recognizing drummers as leaders. (Tyshawn Sorey is the obvious exception, but he’s often seen as a composer who plays the drums, which is different.) This is something against which Peterson struggled throughout his lifetime, and Pelt finds it baffling. “Drummers are always natural leaders.”

Investigate the Ralph Peterson discography. It encompasses trios, the adventurous music of the clarinet/vibes/bass/drums Fo’tet, big band projects, and more, and though he was the hardest-hitting drummer since Jeff “Tain” Watts, and only Johnathan Blake approaches his avalanche-like force now, he was also a sophisticated and subtle composer and player, who showcased everyone in his bands at their best.

The Grammy Awards were given out this past Sunday; in case you weren’t paying attention, here are the winners in the jazz and jazz-adjacent categories:

Best Jazz Instrumental Album: Chick Corea, Christian McBride & Brian Blade, Trilogy 2
Best Jazz Vocal Album: Kurt Elling feat. Danilo Pérez, Secrets Are The Best Stories
Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album: Maria Schneider Orchestra, Data Lords
Best Latin Jazz Album: Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, Four Questions
Best Improvised Jazz Solo: Chick Corea, “All Blues”
Best Instrumental Composition: Maria Schneider, “Sputnik”
Best Contemporary Instrumental Album: Snarky Puppy, Live At The Royal Albert Hall

And now, new music!

10

Jihye Lee Orchestra - "Struggle Gives You Strength"

Behind the scenes, Darcy James Argue has become one of the most important figures in a particular niche of modern jazz. His own postmodern big band, the Secret Society, has made several amazing albums, and lately he’s become a mentor to several younger artists with the ambition and skill to compose and arrange for large ensembles. Jihye Lee is one of them. Her debut album, Daring Mind, was co-produced by Argue, and features nine original compositions performed by a 16-piece band that includes a couple of ringers, most notably trumpeter Sean Jones. He’s showcased on “Struggle Gives You Strength,” soloing beautifully throughout. The piece begins as a quartet ballad, pianist Adam Birnbaum following him as he steps slowly but confidently into the spotlight. After a minute or so, the orchestra rises up behind him in Ellingtonian splendor, and before long the music is a lush garden and he’s the sunflower standing tall in the middle of it. (From Daring Mind, out 3/26 via Motéma Music.)

09

New Life Trio - "Empty Streets"

Brandon Ross is one of the most adventurous guitarists around, constantly challenging himself and listeners with his shape-shifting, complex musical concepts. He’s recorded with Archie Shepp, Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake, Butch Morris, Don Byron, Cassandra Wilson, and more, and is currently a member of the power trio Harriet Tubman, the guitar/bass duo For Living Lovers, the electronic project DarkMatterHalo, and probably more besides. New Life Trio was one of his earliest projects. The group, which featured bassist David Wertman and drummer Steve Reid, released its sole album in 1979 on the tiny Mustevic Sound label, and these days an original LP will set you back $899 on Discogs. Fortunately, it’s being reissued on LP and digitally. “Empty Streets” is the opening track, a short and gentle intro that also features Ross’s soft vocals. It leads beautifully into the rest of the LP, which is a kind of twanging, freeform but riff-based music that bridges the gap between loft jazz and the No Wave jazz-funk of the early ’80s. (From Visions Of The Third Eye, out 3/19 via Early Future.)

08

Reggie Quinerly - "Reflections On The Hudson"

Drummer Reggie Quinerly is originally from Houston, Texas, where he attended the High School Of The Performing And Visual Arts, which has also produced fellow drummers Kendrick Scott, Chris Dave, and Eric Harland, as well as pianists Jason Moran and Robert Glasper, saxophonist Walter Smith III, and many more. He’s been based in New York since 1999, though. This album, his fourth, represents his farewell to the city, as he’s now in Los Angeles. The music, all of which he wrote, is performed by a quintet that includes trumpeter Antoine Drye and tenor saxophonist John Ellis, who’ve been playing together here and there for 30 years, and pianist John Chin and bassist Sean Conly, who’ve been working together for over 20. Consequently, there’s a relaxed comfort to the way they all slide together; it’s like watching an old-school R&B group perform dance steps as they sing. “Reflections On The Hudson” is a midtempo piece led by the rhythm section, with a solo from Drye that sounds like you’re watching him straighten his tie and lint-brush his suit in a full-length mirror. Ellis is equally smooth, and while Chin starts out glib, he takes things in a choppy direction before returning to the pumping main riff. Quinerly keeps the beat bouncing the whole time. (From New York Nowhere, out now via Redefinition Records.)

07

Dave Stryker - "Inner City Blues"

Guitarist Dave Stryker’s been on the scene for decades; he’s made 30 CDs as a leader, and worked with saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and organist Jack McDuff, so you know he’s a soul jazz/funk pro. But he’s not just a Grant Green imitator; he’s got his own thing going on. On this album, he’s joined by saxophonist Walter Smith III, organist Jared Gold, and drummer McClenty Hunter. On their version of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” they add percussionist Mayra Casales to the lineup. Hunter and Casales lay down a head-nodding groove, while Gold churns away in the back (he’s surprisingly low in the mix, but it works, especially when he comes floating in with some Larry Young-esque space sounds before his solo). Stryker’s playing is bluesy but also adventurous, and he perfectly sets up Smith, whose solo is basically a tribute to Grover Washington, Jr., who also recorded this tune. (From Baker’s Circle, out now via Strikezone.)

06

Kevin Richard Martin - "I Cut Off My Wings"

It’s not a major part of his artistic vocabulary these days, but Kevin Martin, aka the Bug, started out as a saxophonist. His frenzied blowing can be heard on the now-out-of-print albums by his first band, God, and on a wild version of “Pulp” from a Godflesh Peel Session. But as he got deeper and deeper into electronic music, he put the horn down. Well, pandemic isolation puts ideas in one’s head, and Martin has returned to the saxophone for two Bandcamp releases, Red Light and White Light. The albums consist of sampled saxophone recordings, filtered through so many effects and layers as to be often almost unrecognizable as the product of breath through metal tubing. “I Cut Off My Wings,” which opens Red Light, has some of the most obviously horn-like sounds of the entire set, and even then the notes have been stretched and manipulated, echoing and reverberating through canyons of light until it all becomes a wavering haze perfect for drifting away, or deep into oneself. (From Red Light, out now via Intercranial Recordings.)

05

George Ohtsuka Quintet - "Loving You"

George Ohtsuka, who died in 2020, was a legend in Japanese jazz. He had a 50-year career that included many albums under his own name and collaborations with well-known Western artists, including saxophonist Phil Woods, bassist Miroslav Vitous, and others. This 1975 album was recorded with a quintet featuring saxophonist Shozo Sasaki, keyboardist Fumio Karashima, bassist Mitsuaki Furuno, and percussionist Norio Ohno. Extremely rare and therefore expensive on the collectors’ market, it’s now been reissued on vinyl and CD, and is a prime slab of mid ’70s mainstream jazz: part bop, part fusion, and part funk, as evidenced by the soulful seven-minute version of Minnie Riperton’s “Loving You” that closes the album. Sasaki is absent, but the ensemble settles into a thick groove, Karashima’s Fender Rhodes floating atop a meaty bass line from Furuno as Ohtsuka chops up the beat. (From Loving You George, out now via Wewantsounds.)

04

Logan Richardson - "Black Wall Street"

Alto saxophonist Logan Richardson is extremely hard to pigeonhole. While his early albums, Cerebral Flow and Ethos, sat in a brainy post-bop zone that didn’t do much for me, his 2015 album Shift, with a rare sideman appearance from guitarist Pat Metheny, changed my mind about him. His 2018 release, Blues People, was just as powerful, mixing modernity with a deep sense of the blues and a powerful backbeat. Afrofuturism is a personal, instantly identifiable, and fascinating album. Richardson’s tone on the alto is tough; he doesn’t make it easy on you, though there’s romanticism and real beauty here. He’s created a lot of the music himself on synths and drum machines, though there’s a band present at times, too. On “Black Wall Street,” Ezgi Karakus adds string arrangements that give the piece a mournful, brooding feel as Richardson’s piercing horn lines sear the ear. It reminds me of Ornette Coleman’s soundtrack to the David Cronenberg movie Naked Lunch, where he filtered the blues through Howard Shore’s string arrangements to create an otherworldly feeling. (From Afrofuturism, out now via Whirlwind Recordings.)

03

Pino Palladino/Blake Mills - "Ekuté"

Bassist Pino Palladino may be best known for his work with D’Angelo, though he’s played with John Mayer, the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Pete Townshend, Chaka Khan, and about a thousand other people in a career that goes back to the ’80s. This collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Blake Mills is a fascinating collection of sonic collages built from bits and pieces found and reworked, with various collaborators coming in and out as needed. Somehow, it coheres into an album of instrumental vignettes that draw on jazz, funk, North African music, and more. “Ekuté” features Mills on multiple instruments, Chris Dave on percussion, Andrew Bird on violin, and Marcus Strickland on bass clarinet and saxophone, and has a feel somewhere between a Shabaka Hutchings project and West African highlife. The groove is slow and mellow, but it’s repeatedly disrupted by ominous bass clarinet rumbles and fierce saxophone whinnies, as well as a thick fuzz riff (guitar? synth?) and, later, an almost industrial hip-hop beat. (From Notes With Attachments, out now via Impulse!.)

02

Marcus Joseph - "Arrival Of The Giants"

Alto saxophonist Marcus Joseph is yet another high-energy performer newly emerged from the still booming UK scene, and his album Beyond The Dome features a clutch of performers whose names will already be familiar to readers of this column, including trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, tuba player Theon Cross and his trombone-playing brother Nathaniel, and drummer Eddie Hick (a sometime member of Sons Of Kemet). The music has an Afro-Caribbean bounce similar to SOK, Ezra Collective, or Kokoroko, and Joseph gives as much space to other members of the ensemble as he seizes for himself. The opening track, “Arrival Of The Giants,” sets the tone with a strutting beat from Hick and prominent, anchoring tuba from Cross — the group has no bassist — over which the horns dance and shout. Joseph’s voice on the alto is deep and resonant, closer in spirit to Arthur Blythe (who himself worked with tuba player Bob Stewart for many years) than Ornette Coleman. This is a bouncing, head-nodding track that virtually demands to be danced to. (From Beyond The Dome, out now via jazz re:freshed.)

01

Dr. Lonnie Smith - "Sunshine Superman" (Feat. Iggy Pop)

Iggy Pop’s self-reinvention as a jazz crooner is one of the most genuinely unexpected left turns of the last decade. On his own albums Préliminaires and Après, and his collaboration with organist Jamie Saft on 2017’s Loneliness Road, the former punk-rock wildman has adopted a weird but appealing mellowness. He’s got a nice baritone voice, and can float on a groove. So hearing him cover Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” with turbaned organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and his band (guitarist Jonathan Kriesberg, drummer Johnathan Blake, and percussionist Richard Bravo) actually works really well. They jam out on the song for about seven minutes, Iggy drifting in on the breeze to offer a verse here and there or to shout “Make that organ talk!” from the back of the room as the Dr. is soloing. It’s one of those musical meetings of the minds that looks impossibly weird on paper, but somehow winds up a lot of fun, and perfect for the warm weather that’ll be here soon enough. (From Breathe, out 3/26 via Mack Avenue.)

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