The Month In Jazz – September 2021
Just as live music is starting to come back, one of the most important figures in live music history has departed. George Wein (pronounced ween), the producer of the Newport Jazz Festival and many, many other events, died September 13 at 95.
Wein produced the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954; the lineup included singers Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Oscar Peterson, among others. It barely broke even; Wein later claimed it turned a profit of $142.50 (about $1450 in 2021 dollars) and that was only because he waived his own fee. The following year, Miles Davis gave a performance that got him signed to Columbia Records — the label had reportedly been reluctant to take a chance on him because of his drug habit — and in 1958, photographer Bert Stern filmed the festival for the documentary Jazz On A Summer’s Day, which features performances by Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, and Chuck Berry, among others. Perhaps the most famous performance from any Newport festival came in 1956, though, when Duke Ellington’s band performed “Diminuendo Ad Crescendo in Blue” and tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves delivered an absolutely stunning 27-chorus solo:
Over the years, Wein’s empire grew; he also ran the Newport Folk Festival (where Bob Dylan famously “went electric,” pissing off many people and thrilling many more) and the New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival. By the early ’70s, his company, Festival Productions, was staging events and tours all over the world via large-scale corporate partnerships: The JVC Jazz Festival ran for more than two decades. Matthew Shipp told an interesting story on Facebook, writing, “at one point George tried to franchise (not sure if that is the correct word) and sort of colonize all New York jazz festivals and put them under his kingdom — of course he wanted to get the Vision Festival under him, so he asked Patricia Parker to lunch and she asked me to join her being that he had dealt with me before and I had played Newport — we had a great lunch and George was an extremely charming host, but of course the Vision Festival was not going to hand over control.”
There will never be another George Wein, and the jazz world as we know it today would not exist without him. And/but it’s important to remember that he did everything out of a genuine love for the music, from refusing to take a fee for the first Newport Jazz Festival to bringing in corporate sponsors that allowed jazz to flourish all over New York City during festival season. Yes, some musicians, like Charles Mingus, thought his bookings were too conservative, ignoring the most forward-looking players on the scene, but come on; it’s impossible to argue that having such a powerful advocate for so many decades wasn’t a net positive for jazz.
Speaking of the jazz avant-garde, Tom Surgal’s documentary Fire Music premiered this month in New York, Los Angeles, and a few other cities. I saw an earlier, shorter cut (running just over an hour) in 2018 and didn’t like it much. Surgal jumped from subject to subject, let seemingly tangential musicians talk at length about not much, and seemed to spend as much time on Charlie Parker as on free jazz. This new version is 90 minutes long and is much improved. But it still has some major flaws, which it pains me to report, because I love this kind of music and want to see it well served on film.
The subject is far too vast to be covered in 90 minutes, let’s just specify that right now. What Surgal has attempted to do is cover a lot of the important milestones of free jazz history in a manner not unlike what Ken Burns did with his Jazz TV series in 2000. Among the subjects discussed here are: the rise of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor in the late 1950s/early 1960s; the October Revolution in Jazz in 1964 and the formation of the Jazz Composers Guild by Taylor, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp and others; the mass artistic migration to Paris in 1968-71; the AACM in Chicago and the Black Artists Group in St. Louis; the loft jazz scene in mid-’70s New York; the rise of free improvisation in Europe; and more. Individual artists like Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, and Eric Dolphy are spotlit as well. (The testimony from European musicians who witnessed Dolphy’s death from undiagnosed diabetes is horrifying and tragic.)
There’s a lot of great footage here — Surgal shot a ton of interviews, many of them with musicians who are dead now, like drummer Rashied Ali and saxophonist Noah Howard. But he also rounded up performance video by Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, the Sun Ra Arkestra, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, the Globe Unity Orchestra, and many other individuals and groups. He also snips fascinating interview clips out of other films, allowing players like Taylor and Bill Dixon to be heard.
But just as with Jazz, there are big omissions. For example, the ESP-Disk label (for which Ayler and many others recorded crucial free jazz documents in the 1960s) is never mentioned at all. Perhaps more consequentially, the movie seems to argue that free jazz died out by 1980, because nobody making this kind of music in the present day, like Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Ivo Perelman, Jaimie Branch, James Brandon Lewis, or Irreversible Entanglements, to pick just a few examples, is interviewed. There’s no footage from the Vision Festival, a week-long (or longer) event that celebrates free jazz every year.
And honestly, the music that is included is undercut by the movie’s format. A typical free jazz performance is quite long, often running 15-20 minutes. Many Cecil Taylor performances were an hour long, never stopping from beginning to end. Peter Brötzmann, seen in the movie, frequently goes off for a half hour or more at a stretch. And you can’t really understand what an artist is doing in this idiom unless you ride with them all the way from the beginning of a piece to the end. But Surgal will show Albert Ayler blasting away, or the Art Ensemble Of Chicago in the clattering, honking middle of a piece that likely started with a thoughtful unison melody and ended with a chant, and expect it to reveal something meaningful about their music… and make an uninitiated listener want to hear more. It winds up giving the false impression that this music is just about screaming and wailing as hard as possible, when in fact there’s real depth to it. The more you listen, the more you’ll hear.
And now, new music!
Logan Strosahl - "Act I: The Wager"
Back in 2017, saxophonist and composer Logan Strosahl released Book I Of Arthur, the beginning of a projected trilogy. The music incorporated elements of 16th and 17th century polyphony, but also had the anarchic energy of free jazz at times. I said it was “crazy, but it’s also kinda great, and I am 100% on board for Books II and III.” Well, four years later, Book II has arrived, and just in time. Like the new movie starring Dev Patel, it retells the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This time, Strosahl has expanded the music’s scope, employing the 12-member Charles Rosen Ensemble (two flutes, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, two violins, viola, cello, and bass), conducted by Michael Cohen-Weissert; Leo Gerstner is on drums, and Khadim Ndome plays glockenspiel. The nearly nine-minute opening track sets a suspenseful mood and establishes what will ultimately be a three-act structure. The first album in the series had narration, but this one is a pure tone poem. You can listen while reading the poem, if you’ve got a copy in the house, or just listen to the weird, hypnotic music as it cycles through motifs and moods. (From Book II Of Arthur: Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, out now via Sunnyside.)
Nala Sinephro - "Space 4"
Caribbean-Belgian musician Nala Sinephro is connected to the London jazz scene, but she’s doing something on this, her debut album, that sits at a slight angle to anything else you may have heard coming out of the UK in recent years. She plays analog synth and pedal harp, and is joined on each track here by a different set of guests, who add gentle tinges of spiritual jazz. More than anything, it may remind you of Promises, the collaboration between producer Floating Points and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders that was released earlier this year. That’s especially true on “Space 4,” when Nubya Garcia appears, along with bassist Dwayne Kilvington and drummer Eddie Hick. The three of them seem to climb an invisible ladder as the intensity of the music grows and grows; meanwhile, Sinephro’s shimmering synths drift in and out, an electric piano-esque line creating an anchor as more spacey clouds of sound wrap around everything like a pink haze. (From Space 1.8, out now via Label.)
On Our Own Clock - "Good Are Good"
The original plan for this trans-global musical meeting was for musicians from South Africa and Senegal to travel to London to record with musical kindred spirits there. But then the pandemic came. So during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, smaller groups of musicians recorded in their home cities and sent the results across the ocean. Some time later, they went back in to respond to what they’d heard. There were seven single-day recording sessions in Johannesburg between July 2020 and March 2021, and two days in London in July and August 2020. The results are pretty astonishing — emotionally raw music that has an almost gospel flavor at times, blending rhythmic and melodic concepts from Africa with jazz improvisation. “Good Are Good” features saxophonist Alexander DePlume, Danalogue from the Comet Is Coming on piano, Asher Gamedze on drums and Yahael Camara Onono on djembe, Theon Cross on tuba, Zoe Molelekwa on Wurlitzer organ, Tebogo Austebza Sedumedi on deep, Bill Laswell-ish electric bass, and Nosisi Ngakane on wordless, mournful vocals. The playing is seamless, conjuring an all-encompassing mood that transports you outside yourself. (From On Our Own Clock, out now via Mushroom Hour Half Hour.)
Amir El-Saffar - "Concentric"
Trumpeter Amir El-Saffar formed the Rivers Of Sound Orchestra in 2015 as a way to combine jazz with Arabic music in non-kitschy, forward-looking ways. This is the group’s second album, following 2017’s Not Two, and El-Saffar’s voice as a composer has only grown deeper. The ensemble on this record is 17 members strong, including him, and combines Arabic instruments with horns and a lot of different strings, plus a standard drum kit and a variety of other percussion. One of the things that gives the music its power is the way the instruments combine to harmonize in unexpected ways. “Concentric” is one of the shorter tracks on the record, but it’s also one of the most vivid and striking. It begins with a kind of scalar fanfare, but then El-Saffar puts down his horn and delivers an absolutely hypnotic solo on the santur, an Iraqi hammered dulcimer, with Tim Moore playing hand drums behind him. (From Rivers Of Sound: The Other Shore, out now via Outhere Music.)
Sisonke Xonti - "Sinivile"
The compilation series New Horizons: Young Stars Of South African Jazz lives up to its name. The two volumes contain previously released material, but most of it is from albums that are really hard to find outside South Africa, and the music covers a broad range, with the expected crossover of personnel from track to track. There’s big band stuff, singer-songwriter material, and a ton of the kind of spiritual jazz infused with indigenous rhythms and languages that the country’s known for, as heard in the work of Nduduzo Makhathini, Ndabo Zulu, Linda Sikhakane, and others. Saxophonist Sisonke Xonti’s “Sinivile,” from his album uGaba The Migration, is a highlight of Volume 2. Xonti sings on the track, with a male chorus backing him up, and switches from his usual tenor to soprano, floating over piano, deep bass, drums, and hand-held percussion, giving the song a deeply emotional, almost ceremonial feeling, even if you don’t understand the words (which I don’t). (From New Horizons: Young Stars Of South African Jazz Vol. 2, out now via Afrosynth.)
David Sanford Big Band - "Subtraf"
Composer and arranger David Sanford has been leading his big band since 2003. He’s won a variety of awards over the years, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. This is his first album for trumpeter Dave Douglas’ Greenleaf Music, and like much of the work on that label, it emphasizes exciting, boundary-stretching compositions performed in a vibrant style. The group numbers 20 in all, including guest trumpeter Hugh Ragin, who contributes the title track. But all the other pieces, except for a version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Dizzy Atmosphere,” are by Sanford. “Subtraf,” the album’s second track, is a big, ominous blues that showcases grinding electric guitar from Dave Fabris and moaning, crying trombone from Mike Christianson, as the band stomps the groove into the floor and screams like an anguished chorus. (From A Prayer For Lester Bowie, out 9/24 via Greenleaf Music.)
Jazzmeia Horn And Her Noble Force - "Title"
I’m not a big fan of jazz vocals, generally. But a couple of singers have cracked the wall of my resistance in the last couple of years: Cecile McLorin Salvant, and now Jazzmeia Horn. Horn’s from Dallas, and she’s got a kind of Billie Holiday-via-Erykah Badu thing happening, but rather than being just an interpreter like so many jazz singers, she writes some sharp, perceptive material of her own. Each of her first two albums, 2017’s A Social Call and 2019’s Love And Liberation, released on Prestige and Concord respectively, were Grammy-nominated, but for whatever reason, she’s put out her third record on her own Empress Legacy label, and it’s an ambitious big band project. She’s assembled a 15-member group anchored by her live band: pianist Keith Brown, bassist Eric Wheeler, and drummer Anwar Marshall, plus alto saxophonist Bruce Williams. Some of the tracks are conventionally swinging and bouncy, like her version of “Lover Come Back To Me,” but it’s material like the eight-minute “Let Us (Take Our Time)” that makes the album worth hearing. It’s a slow-burning blues that features both sung verses and a poetry/spoken-word interlude in the middle, and makes it all work while also leaving plenty of space for the band to stretch out, creating an after-dark mood that occasionally surges romantically. (From Dear Love, out 9/24 via Empress Legacy.)
Maurice Louca - "Higamah (Hirudinea)"
Egyptian composer Maurice Louca’s 2019 album Elephantine was one of the most surprising and thrilling releases of that year. Using a 12-member ensemble that included Swedish saxophonist Anna Högberg and Egyptian vocalist Nadah El Shazly, he created a six-track suite that traveled from North African desert blues to squalling free jazz and back, like a Middle Eastern Charles Mingus. His follow-up uses a smaller group, and the music is softer and gentler. “Higamah (Hirudinea)” is the album’s coda, a slow, meditative piece built around drones from upright bass and cello and various percussion instruments, many from the Indonesian gamelan family. Louca himself plays acoustic guitar in an almost Delta blues mode, and as the piece goes on, electronically manipulated trumpet comes in and out, sometimes sounding like birds crying over the ocean and other times like a troll grumbling to itself as it searches for something it lost in the forest. It feels like an unfolding dream, as does the album as a whole. (From Saet El Hazz (The Luck Hour), out 9/24 via Sub Rosa/Northern Spy.)
Weedie Braimah - "Ships Come In (A Lullaby)"
Like many people, I suspect, I first heard Weedie Braimah on albums by Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. His percussion — mostly the djembe, but other instruments as well — served as an African-diasporic anchor for the trumpeter’s horn, which was otherwise often surrounded by clouds of synth. It turns out Braimah, born in Ghana and raised in St. Louis, is the son of drummers Ann Morris and Oscar Sulley Braimah, the latter of whose song “Bukom Mashie” is a highlight of the 2002 Soundway Records compilation Ghana Soundz. He’s also the grand-nephew of legendary jazz-funk drummer Idris Muhammad. The Hands Of Time is his debut album as a leader; it’s also the name of his band. “Ships Come In (A Lullaby)” features Scott on trumpet and synths and Elena Pinderhughes on flute, and could easily be an outtake from one of the trumpeter’s albums. But E’Lon JD’s electric bass and the extra African drums played by Munir Zakee and Magatte Sow give it a deep rhythm that will transport you to other realms. (From The Hands Of Time, out 9/24 via Stretch Music.)
Henry Threadgill Zooid - "Beneath The Bottom"
I saw Henry Threadgill and Zooid at the Jazz Gallery a couple of years ago; I believe they were working on the music from this album at the time, prior to entering the recording studio. The group, which has been in existence for well over a decade, currently includes Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar, Jose Davila on tuba and trombone, Christopher Hoffman on cello, and Elliott Humberto Kavee on drums. Because of that combination of instruments, and Threadgill’s unique compositional voice, their music has a strange, rattling looseness when it gets rolling, but in its quieter moments, it has the pastoral calm of chamber music. “Beneath The Bottom,” the middle track on this relatively short (five pieces, 38 minutes) album, showcases both sides of Zooid. It’s primarily a spotlight turn for Davila, who’s the lead player throughout. At first, the whole band is together: Threadgill on flute, Ellman and Hoffman harmonizing, Kavee tumbling across the kit. But after a short drum roll, everyone drops out and the trombone begins a slow solo journey like an elephant meandering across the landscape with no real goal and in no hurry. When the others come back, they’re shadowing him, not attempting to inspire momentum or raise the energy level. Everything is hushed and exploratory. About five minutes in, a rhythm appears, and they finish the piece in a kind of jangling, foot-tapping swing mode that seems loosely inspired by 1920s jazz, with some persistent bebop hi-hat to take it all out. (From Poof, out 9/24 via Pi Recordings.)