The Month In Jazz – December 2021

David Salafia

The Month In Jazz – December 2021

David Salafia

Tom Breihan wrote a terrific obituary for writer Greg Tate, who died on Dec. 7. I offered a brief comment on his story, but I want to expand on what I said there, because when I think about the importance of his writing to me, I arrive at the same words Dizzy Gillespie used about Louis Armstrong: “No him, no me.” It’s that simple. If I had not read Greg Tate’s writing, I don’t think I would be where I am today. And at a few crucial moments in my “career,” he was there, providing the support that I needed.

I grew up in suburban New Jersey, and I started reading the Village Voice in the late ’80s (I graduated high school in 1990). The paper had a deep roster of music critics, but the two who grabbed me immediately, the ones whose bylines I sought out every week, were Greg Tate and Gary Giddins.

Giddins had a jazz column called Weather Bird, and he covered a pretty broad range, but Tate might be writing about Michael Jackson, the Bad Brains, Wayne Shorter or anybody else. Whatever had drawn his attention, it was bound to be fascinating once you saw it through his eyes, heard it through his ears. And while a lot of the tributes to him have focused on how he wrote about hip-hop, taking it more seriously than others did at the time and elevating the game by example, I didn’t need him for that. I was already listening to Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions and Ice-T and Eric B. & Rakim and Big Daddy Kane pretty much daily. It was his equally passionate love of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago and Herbie Hancock and Cecil Taylor and particularly Miles Davis that got me.

Tate was an incredible writer on a sentence-by-sentence level. He rebuilt the art of criticism in his own image, and his thoughts on the artists he covered left your head spinning. From Giddins, I learned how to listen to jazz, and what to listen for; from Tate, I learned how to draw non-historical connections between seemingly unrelated songs, albums, and artists, and how far you could stretch the English language to make it do what you wanted to do. This was something I knew already, from Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs and to a degree, I guess, Lester Bangs, but Tate’s writing had more vitality and heart than any of theirs. And more important than that, his work taught me about Black genius from the inside. He talked about the artists he covered in a way that no one else did, never condescending to them or treating them with a reverence they hadn’t earned. He gave their work enough thought that he convinced you, the reader/listener, that they were worth your serious attention. Tate’s writing opened a portal into a new world, and provided a road map.

Amazingly, he had that effect on his peers, too. In an NPR tribute, Giddins wrote about how Tate inspired him to re-hear Wayne Shorter. “I had responded emotionally to a few of his pieces, like ‘Infant Eyes,’ the teeming ‘The All Seeing Eye,’ and the heartbreaking version of ‘Dindi,’ but found most of his work brainy and cool, even the unforgettable melodies like ‘Footprints’ and ‘Orbits’; I admired him more than I loved him,” he wrote. “Tate’s writing changed my assessment, brought me closer to the heart of his music, so that I listened deeper and with far greater returns.”

Somehow, my small, very white town’s library got a copy of Tate’s 1992 anthology Flyboy In The Buttermilk, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it took the top of my head off. Pieces on King Sunny Ade and Cecil Taylor and Miles Davis were revelations. The Davis piece, a lengthy two-part essay that originally ran in DownBeat in 1985, was particularly amazing because at that point, in the era of You’re Under Arrest, nobody was giving Bitches Brew serious consideration, never mind On The Corner or Agharta. But there was Tate saying things like “by 1975 Miles, through his decades-old practice of paying cats to practice on the bandstand, had created the world’s first fully-improvisational acid-funk band — by which I mean one capable of extemporaneously orchestrating motifs from Santana, Funkadelic, Sly [Stone], Stockhausen, Africa, India, and the Ohio Players (check how their 1974 hit ‘Fire’ gets revamped on Agharta‘s first side).”

Tate’s way of drawing connections you didn’t catch yourself made you want to go listen to more music, in order to come back and hear more clearly the second time. Reading one of his pieces was like hanging out with that older friend who’d go to the record store with you and approve or amend your selections: “Yeah, you need that; you should hear this one, too; have you heard this yet? Nah, skip that; the album before that one’s better.”

One perfect example of that is how this four-sentence half-paragraph from Flyboy cracked Cecil Taylor’s music open for me. Tate wrote, “The basic building blocks to many a Cecil Taylor solo performance or improvisation (improvised composition) are two types of motifs I’ll label Figure A and Figure B. Figure A consists of randomly hammered discords which come off like beginner’s luck. Or maybe at best like 1930s monster movie music. Figure B is a variable-speed tone spiral usually shadowed by melodic variants. This figure I believe Cecil finds kind of romantic; I know I do.” Tate expands on that monster movie analogy throughout the rest of that paragraph, and elucidates more aspects of Taylor’s playing. But those four sentences are more than enough; try listening to any solo Cecil now without hearing it through Tate’s ears.

As a journalist/interviewer, his mental processes were just as fascinating. Flyboy included a profile of Ornette Coleman that was all about his clothes and the importance of visual presentation; its 2016 sequel Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader contained an interview with Wayne Shorter that found the famously gnomic saxophonist revealing more about his childhood and his non-musical life than I’ve ever read in any other piece on him. Those types of features taught me that when you’re interviewing an artist, you shouldn’t worry about what you think might make for a good story later — you should just ask them what you want to know, and take the conversational ride wherever it goes.

At the turn of the century, Tate — who had co-founded the Black Rock Coalition and led a few bands in the past — launched his best-known musical project, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber. I was obsessed with their music, which combined jazz, funk, soul, rock, hip-hop and more in a swirl of conducted improvisation, from the first time I heard it. I saw them live at the Vision Festival twice, first in 2005 (their performance was recorded for the live double CD If You Can’t Dazzle Them With Your Brilliance, Then Baffle Them With Your Blisluth; an excerpt is above) and again in 2012. I included them in the final chapter of my 2005 book Running The Voodoo Down: The Electric Music Of Miles Davis, as descendants of his work, and interviewed Tate about their methodology and aesthetic. Astonishingly, he agreed to blurb the book, too. Having someone whose writing had meant so much to me, and opened up so many mental doors, lay a figurative hand on my shoulder and say that I was on the right track in my own work felt incredible. Two years later, I edited the anthology Marooned: The Next Generation Of Desert Island Discs, a sequel to the 1979 book Stranded, in which notable rock critics picked the one album they’d take to a desert island. Tate contributed a piece on Bitches Brew that was short but brilliantly incisive and autobiographical. His presence once more felt to me like a stamp of legitimacy.

A few years after that, I gave a talk at the annual EMP Pop Conference about Miles Davis’ 1980s albums, and Tate was in the audience, listening. We spoke, too briefly, in the hallway afterward. The last time I saw him in person was in 2017, when Harriet Tubman and saxophonist James Brandon Lewis’ trio (with Anthony Pirog on guest guitar) played at the Cell Theatre. Again, we only talked for a few minutes, but Tate always seemed like someone who’d be around forever; I’d see him somewhere down the road. People say “never meet your heroes,” but I wish I’d spent more time with Greg Tate. There’ll never be another like him.

Jazz suffered another major loss this month, as pianist Barry Harris died at 91. Born in Detroit, he began recording at 21, and moved to New York a decade later. Since the late 1960s, he had lived in a house owned by the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter; Thelonious Monk also lived there during his final years, and he and Harris became friends.

Harris devoted his entire life and career to bebop. He had no interest in electric instruments, nor in free jazz or any other developments past the early 1960s. His style had a lyricism, harmonic complexity, and melodic sophistication that was almost magical, and never devolved into dinner music. He played on some amazing albums, including Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder and Dexter Gordon’s Gettin’ Around, and highlights of his own catalog include Live In Tokyo, At The Jazz Workshop, and Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron. Like Charles McPherson, whom I interviewed in May’s column, he saw bebop as the music’s ultimate form and spent decades exploring it and, more importantly, passing on what he learned to others. Though he was never a formal educator, he held master classes and workshops for decades, and generations of jazz musicians came to his home or to wherever he was to study with him. In a world where every young player seems to have a master’s degree, the direct apprenticeship model of older musicians communicating the knowledge to the next generation on the bandstand and in the studio is largely lost, and with the passing of Barry Harris, something very real is gone.

And now, new music!


Adam O'Farrill - "Inner War"

Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill is a scion of Latin jazz royalty, as one of the two sons of pianist Arturo O’Farrill, and a grandson of legendary composer and arranger Chico O’Farrill. He and his brother Zack, a drummer, have been playing together since childhood, and/but their music pulls from all sorts of sources. The opening track on Visions Of Your Other is by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and another track bears the title “Kurosawa At Berghain” (the legendary Berlin techno club). “Inner War” really lets the quartet — the brothers, tenor saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo, and bassist Walter Stinson — stretch out. It begins with a staccato unison melody, short notes tossed into a cloud of reverb, with a droning bowed bass figure beneath. When the drums come in, they’re light and spare, but the kick exerts reserved authority. The horn lines become more complex, one man leading while the other harmonizes, even during solos. (From Visions Of Your Other, out now via Biophilia.)


Kahil El'Zabar - "Eddie Harris"

Percussionist Kahil El’Zabar has long been one of the most fascinating musicians in Chicago, resolutely pursuing his own path which encompasses a deep knowledge of and reverence for jazz history and traditional African forms. On his latest album, he’s leading a quartet featuring trumpeter Corey Wilkes, saxophonist Isaiah Collier, and keyboardist Justin Dillard. As its title indicates, this track is a tribute to saxophonist Eddie Harris, who composed “Freedom Jazz Dance,” a piece Miles Davis made famous, but was also well known for his own records, which fused R&B, funk and soul and often showcased his Varitone electric horn. The quartet lays down a soulful groove, with the horns tossing lines back and forth and harmonizing on a bluesy riff, as El’Zabar sings in a passionate growl. (From A Time For Healing, out now via Spiritmuse.)


Joaquin Muro - "Nadie Nos Baila Lo Quitado"

Contracara is Argentine trumpeter Joaquin Muro’s second album of 2021, following Oximoron, which came out in June. It was recorded at the same session, with the same band: Camila Nebbia on tenor sax, Pia Hernandez on piano, Diana Arias on bass, and Martin Freiberg on drums. This is a much more free and aggressive album than its counterpart; it’s almost like a long exhalation, the players shaking off the concentration of the previous session and just letting it rip. As “Nadie Nos Baila Lo Quitado” opens, the two horns are squalling at each other like two babies fighting in the same crib, but Nebbia quickly cedes the floor to Muro, who takes off on a series of extremely fast, bebop-ish runs. When the saxophonist returns, she starts slow as though to draw a contrast, before showing that she can play every bit as fast and furious as he, while also digging deep into a David S. Ware/David Murray bag of tricks, emitting piercing squeals and low roars. Hernandez, Arias and Freiberg also get spotlight turns on this short but potent piece. (From Contracara, out now via Ears & Eyes.)


Mike Pride - "Greedy & Pathetic"

Most of the time, when jazz musicians explore punk, you get something John Zorn-ish, fast and furious blasts of noise. And that can be great. But drummer Mike Pride comes in from the exact opposite angle on his album I Hate Work, and it’s even more thrilling. Pride was the drummer for legendary hardcore band MDC (Millions Of Dead Cops) for a while in the early 2000s, and on this album, he’s reinterpreting songs from their 1982 self-titled debut as piano trio pieces, with Jamie Saft (who’s played with Bad Brains, so he knows from hardcore) at the keys and Brad Jones on bass. Multiple guests turn up, including Krallice/Orthrelm guitarist Mick Barr, J.G. “Foetus” Thirlwell, MDC frontman Dave Dictor, and singer Sam Mickens, whose work on “Greedy & Pathetic” takes the track in a fascinatingly art-jazz direction. His soft, tender voice has a lounge-act looseness, and when Barr kicks off a guitar solo that almost sounds like an electric banjo, things only get weirder and more exciting. (From I Hate Work, out now via RareNoise.)


Rodrigo Amado Northern Liberties - "Activity"

Portuguese saxophonist Rodrigo Amado has a few long-running groups and a pool of frequent collaborators, but this album brings him into an entirely new context. On it, he’s collaborating with three Norwegian players: trumpeter Thomas Johansson, bassist Jon Rune Strøm, and drummer Gard Nilssen. It was recorded at the ZDB club in Lisbon in 2017, and for a first-time encounter it’s remarkably cohesive. “Activity” is the third track of four, a twelve-and-a-half-minute trip into orbit that starts out cautious and exploratory but before long is swinging hard. Nilssen is one of the best drummers around right now, an absolute jackhammer operator, whether in his own Acoustic Unity band or the roaring jazz-rock outfit Bushman’s Revenge, and he’s absolutely driving the tank here, barreling the music forward as Amado and Johansson take turns up front. (From We Are Electric, out now via Not Two.)


Malcolm Jiyane - "Ntate Gwangwa's Stroll"

“Tree-O” is not a punny way of spelling trio. It’s an indication that this is music with deep roots and sprawling branches. Malcolm Jiyane is a trombonist and sometime pianist who’s part of the more adventurous wing of the South African jazz and avant-garde music scene, participating in Spaza and other projects. This is his first album as a leader, and he’s joined by trumpeters Brandon Ruiters and Tebogo Seitei, saxophonist Nhlanhla Mahlangu, pianist Nkosinathi Mathuniwa, bassist Ayanda Zalekile, drummer Lungile Kunene, and percussionist Gontse Makhene. They play five tracks, each of which is dedicated to an important figure in Jiyane’s life or South African jazz generally, or both. “Ntate Gwangwa’s Stroll” is a tribute to the late trombonist Jonas Gwangwa. It’s a slow blues, driven by a Zalekile bass line that reminds me of Marcus Miller’s playing with Miles Davis in 1981-82. Seitei takes an excellent trumpet solo, and Jiyane can be heard shouting encouragement to Mathuniwa as he dives deep into the guts of the Fender Rhodes. (From Umdali, out now via Mushroom Hour Half Hour.)


William Hooker - "Right Speech"

William Hooker is a human avalanche of a drummer, but he’s also a gifted and thoughtful composer. His pieces run the gamut from gentle, atmospheric placidity to convulsive, Art Blakey-gone-free jazz explosions, and everything in between. His new double LP features a large and varying cast of players, including two saxophones, a flute, three different keyboardists, bass, and percussion. It’s sort of a suite in that the compositions blend together, though there are fadeouts to keep the tracks separate. “Right Speech” is built around a kind of Latin vamp, though it starts with a massive, almost dubby bass line from Jai-Rohm Parker Wells; piano and some electronic noises ping and clang into place behind, accented by fast handclaps and some synths mimicking a string section. The music grows like a forest as it progresses, and by the end Hooker, who’s been letting percussionist Jimmy Lopez do a lot of the work, begins unloading massive, machine-gun rolls that build up to an absolutely apocalyptic drum eruption. (From Big Moon, out now via Org Music.)


Chelsea Carmichael - "All We Know"

The debut album by saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael is also the first release on Native Rebel Recordings, a label founded and overseen by Shabaka Hutchings. The label has a vision; their website says they record their albums in three days at London’s RAK studio with no pre-rehearsal, and “to consider the rehearsals part of the recording.” If that’s the method they used here, then good for them, because the music has an extraordinary vividness and vitality. Guitarist Dave Okumu, bassist Tom Herbert, and drummer Eddie Hick (who’s also in Sons Of Kemet) are a tight unit who lay down deep, dubby tracks over which Carmichael, who’s also part of alto saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi’s excellent Seed Ensemble, floats in meditative bliss. On “All We Know,” Okumu creates a massive storm cloud of sound, sometimes sounding like a synth and sometimes like an escapee from a psychedelic noise-rock band. Carmichael, like Hutchings, favors repetitive, riffing sax that nods to Caribbean parade and dance music, and Herbert and Hick are an ideal rhythm team for her, throbbing and bouncing along in a deep, deep groove. (From The River Doesn’t Like Strangers, out now via Native Rebel Recordings.)


Christian McBride & Inside Straight - "Gang Gang"

Bassist Christian McBride formed Inside Straight — a quintet featuring saxophonist Steve Wilson, pianist Eric Reed, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, and drummer Carl Allen — for a week of gigs at the Village Vanguard in 2007. The shows were so well received that McBride signed to Mack Avenue and made two studio albums with the group, 2009’s Kind Of Brown and 2013’s People Music (by which time Peter Martin had taken over the piano chair). Live At The Village Vanguard was recorded in 2014, and features versions of three tracks from each of their studio albums and one new piece, “Sweet Bread.” On almost every track, they stretch out considerably, and “Gang Gang” is the most extreme example; a seven-minute piece from People Music becomes a nearly 15-minute burner. Wolf wrote it, so it’s no surprise that it begins with an unaccompanied vibes solo, but when the band comes in, they set up a loping Latin groove and dive deep. (From Live At The Village Vanguard, out now via Mack Avenue.)


Ayanda Sikade - "Amawethu"

Drummer Ayanda Sikade is one of the crucial figures on the South African jazz scene. He began playing at eight, and as a young man became the drummer of choice for a number of key players in that country, most notably saxophonist Zim Ngqawana. Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini was also part of that group, and he and Sikade formed a strong musical bond — the drummer has appeared on several of Makhathini’s albums, and they’re working together on this disc as well. It’s only Sikade’s second album as a leader, and the first took forever to appear: recorded in 2010, Movements wasn’t released until 2018. In addition to Makhathini, Umakhulu features 23-year-old Simon Manana on alto sax, and Nhlanhla Radebe on bass. Sikade is a subtle, tasteful and precise drummer whose work reminds me of Andrew Cyrille at times. He’s not someone who launches epic, crushing solos, but rather a player who nudges the music along gently, so it feels like the band got where they were going all on their own. “Amawethu” begins at a breathless tempo, Sikade and Radebe sprinting along in lockstep, and for much of its running time Makhathini lays out, letting Manana take the spotlight as leader of a trio. His alto sound is gentle but assertive, and the melody he’s exploring is romantic with just a hint of bite. (From Umakhulu, out now via Afrosynth.)

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