2008 Year in Review: Highs & Lows
Year of the Chameleon
The year started off with a big surprise in the music industry: Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters (Verve) broke out of the jazz category and won Album of the Year at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards. The competition was fairly fierce, popularly speaking—other nominees included Foo Fighters, rapper Kanye West, Amy Winehouse and country artist Vince Gill. As Hancock himself pointed out during his acceptance speech (after giving presenter Quincy Jones a bear hug), this was the first time a jazz album had won Album of the Year in 43 years, the last being Stan Getz and João Gilberto’s Getz/Gilberto in 1965. Can’t wait to see who wins in 2051.
Hancock celebrated his win on the “River of Possibilities” tour, a lengthy, high-profile excursion that stopped at major jazz festivals and featured an all-star ensemble—saxist Chris Potter, guitar upstart Lionel Loueke, drummer Vincent Colaiuta, bassist Dave Holland and prodigal vocalist Sonya Kitchell were onboard—playing everything from Hancock’s inventive Joni Mitchell covers to Loueke’s “Seven Teens” to Hancock staples like “Absolute Proof,” “Chameleon” and “Cantaloupe Island.”
If You Want the Job Done Right, Call a Jazz Musician!
Several prestigious institutions have hired prominent jazz players in recent years as artistic directors, charged with making creative decisions and furthering community outreach. Bassist extraordinaire Christian McBride holds artistic director posts at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass summer program and the Dave Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. As artistic director of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, trumpeter Jon Faddis leads master classes and workshops. And most recently, Irvin Mayfield, already the official Cultural Ambassador of the City of New Orleans, shifted his focus to the north country when he accepted a one-year post as the artistic director of Jazz at Orchestra Hall, the jazz series of the Minnesota Orchestra.
Whole Lotta Low-End
Imagine a show with just bass solos. Actually, no need to imagine it. Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten brought the fantasy to life with the SMV recording, Thunder (Heads Up), and a tour in which slapping and plunking came front and center. Dream come true or nightmare come alive? You choose.
Hey, Jazz People: We Kid Because We Love (But Not You)
Mike Luba of Live Nation Artists committed a major faux pas last year when he announced a moratorium on jazz. “We’re doing everything we can to eliminate jazz from American culture,” Luba said at a June press conference for the planned Live Nation music festival in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Calling itself “the future of the music business,” Live Nation is the world’s biggest promoter of live music. Luba said the comment was made in jest, and the company never issued a formal apology for the foot-in-mouth moment.
Rocker-Cum-Crooners Make Good
Aging rockers like Boz Scaggs, Southside Johnny and Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall proved that jazz can be a very nice resting ground when that long hair thins out and those tight pants get even tighter around the middle. The scary thing is that each of their records—Scaggs’ Speak Low, Southside’s Grapefruit Moon: The Songs of Tom Waits and Hucknall’s Tribute to Bobby (that being blues icon Bobby “Blue” Bland)—is actually very good. At presstime, the word on the street is that Keith Richards has recorded a collection of easy-listening material and is considering an official release. Finally, someone in the Stones is beginning to act his age.
When Bill McFarlin stepped down as executive director for the International Association for Jazz Education, it was the beginning of the end for the 10,000-member organization and its annual conference. Despite its best intentions to assist jazz educators and students, the organization announced Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April. Fingers were pointed and blame apportioned, but in the end employees of the organization and the jazz community were left out in the cold. Other organizations tried to fill the void, including the Jazz Education Network, IASJ, MENC and Jazz Improv magazine, but thus far none have been able to recapture IAJE’S mojo.
Neil Young & Peter Buck Do Jazz
That’s Neil C. Young, a guitarist from the U.K., and Peter Buck, an L.A.-based drummer. Yes, they fooled us too for a few seconds into thinking that CSNY and R.E.M. were taking a different creative direction. This year, we’re looking forward to releases from pianists David Matthews and Jon Mayer.
Long Solos Encouraged
Keeping history alive and reviving the true spirit of jazz, organizers at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City held a 48-hour jazz marathon on the weekend of July 4, with hopes to create a jazz museum commemorating the origins of bebop and jazz at the historic Harlem lounge. Founded in 1938, Minton’s featured nightly performances by Charlie Christian, and later jam sessions with Charlie Parker’s collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke.
The Jazz Navy
Gigs on land may be tough to find for journeymen jazzers, but at sea the opportunities abound. The Jazz Cruise folks have added to their lineup with cruises hosted by Dave Koz and Wayman Tisdale, as well as a Playboy Jazz Cruise, with Marcus Miller as host. With Jazz Party at Sea and a big band cruise also leaving port, jazz fans have been able to commune in luxury with their heroes. Personally we think the Playboy event should be named in honor of Bunny Berigan.
The Hub Returns
Although no one was pretending that his creative powers were a match for what they were decades ago, the return of Freddie Hubbard was a triumph nonetheless. Hubbard lost years of his career after suffering a split upper lip in the early ’90s, among other health problems he incurred, but he picked up playing again after encouragement from New Jazz Composers Octet trumpeter and arranger David Weiss. Hubbard celebrated a new recording, On the Real Side (Times Square), and his 70th birthday with four days of concerts at NYC’s Iridium.
Back in Circulation
ECM, ESP-Disk and Porter Records all re-released albums from their eclectic and time-honored collections. ECM revisited albums from artists like Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, launching its stellar “Touchstones” reissue campaign. In honor of the label’s 40th anniversary, the series plucks 40 important albums from the acclaimed back catalog and restores their original art work. ESP reissued piles of eclectic and invaluable music, ranging from oddities like the infamous Charles Manson recordings to classic 1960s avant-garde titles and compilations of rare Billie Holiday and Lester Young recordings. Porter Records also unveiled some never-before-heard recordings, including titles from Henry Grimes and Rashied Ali and a collection of out-of-print Odean Pope material.
Funked Up at Bonnaroo
Following the success it had with a Blue Note-sponsored tent stage in 2007, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival hosted the Somethin’ Else-New Orleans stage in Manchester, Tenn., for its June 12-15 event. The venue was specifically modeled after NOLA clubs like Preservation Hall, Tipitina’s and the Maple Leaf. Acts that performed included Porter-Batiste-Stoltz, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, Henry Butler and the Game Band, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Anders Osborne, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, Soul Rebels Brass Band, and Morning 40 Federation.
Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah
Jazz musicians need summer jobs too. Maybe that’s why jammin’ jazzers Medeski, Martin & Wood hosted a summer camp for musicians of varying levels and ages last August. The five-day camp allowed students ages 16 and up to develop their technique and sound and pick up some tips from keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood. Come to think of it, jazz musicians also need spring jobs sometimes, hence Gerald Veasley’s Bass Bootcamp, planned for March 27-29 at the Sheraton Reading Hotel, Reading, Pa. Not quite the same as pitching a tent in Yosemite, we know, but funkier for sure. We here at JazzTimes are holding out for the Art Blakey Jazz Messenger fantasy camp.
Is This Jazz Country?
Bassist Charlie Haden revisited his distant past and unleashed a classic Americana sound on the jazz audience with his Decca album Rambling Boy. The record was a family affair—Haden’s wife Ruth Cameron acted as co-producer, and his four children contributed vocals and various instrumentals on multiple tracks. Featured players included Pat Metheny, Vince Gill, Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and Haden’s son-in-law, actor Jack Black. And, in one of the surprise hits of the year, country artist Willie Nelson teamed up with Wynton Marsalis for Two Men With the Blues on Blue Note. The album was recorded during two nights in January at Jazz at Lincoln Center—a somewhat legendary concert with the two crafting a sonic blend of blues, jazz and hillbilly music. All we want to know is, did Wynton get hot-boxed on Willie’s notoriously pungent tour bus?
Art Tatum Lives!
Art Tatum died more than a half-century ago, but thanks to a new technology developed by Zenph Studios, a classic concert by the piano genius was brought back to life last summer. The technology “re-performs” live recordings using computer-generated files; technicians can replay each note with exact timing and fill in missing segments. Piano Starts Here: Live at the Shrine recreated Tatum’s 1949 gig at the L.A. venue in near-flawless fidelity. Taking the concept one step further, Zenph brought Piano Starts Here “live” to New York via “an original (Tatum) character-driven musical stage experience” at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre.
“I was surprised! I didn’t expect it at all,” the young jazz saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón told JazzTimes when it was announced in late September that the relative newcomer was a recipient of the 2008 MacArthur Fellowship, a no-strings “genius grant” of $500,000. Zenón, who also won a 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship, wasn’t the only one in the jazz world who felt that the honor came out of the blue. The Puerto Rican native, although undeniably talented, had many a jazz journalist wondering, why him and not, say, (fill in the blank)? As K. Leander Williams wrote in a JT guest column, “It’s hard not to see Zenón’s award as premature, especially since jazz is an idiom where genius has been as well-documented as it has been neglected and overlooked.”
90 is the new 50
90-year-old pianists Bebo Valdés, Hank Jones and Marian McPartland all have strong recent albums. Valdés released Live at the Village Vanguard with Javier Colina in Europe in late ’07, a concert recording from a 2005 performance at the legendary jazz venue, and Hank Jones teamed with James Moody for Our Delight. McPartland’s aptly titled Telarc disc Twilight Years was her first studio album in nine years, and came out right on her 90th birthday. Not to be outdone, Les Paul, 93, continues his long-running weekly gig Monday nights at Manhattan’s Iridium. Paul was also the subject of an exhibit that debuted at Wisconsin’s Discovery World in June: “Les Paul’s House of Sound” surveys the inventor and performer’s story in full; it includes a replica of his 1920s living-room workspace in Waukesha, Wisc., and a number of rare and historically important guitars, and even allows guests to take and record a guitar lesson or jam with a virtual Paul using green-screen technology.
Barack Obama, Jazz Cat
Bill Clinton may have played the saxophone, but his taste ran more along the lines of Fleetwood Mac. The new President-elect, however, is an avowed jazz fan. Last summer, Barack Obama divulged the contents of his iPod and pundits noted that Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker were among those represented. Also, in an earlier article, published on Slate.com, an old friend of Obama’s recalled a visit to a record store, where, he said, Obama meticulously combed through the entire jazz section.
Jazz Brings Woody Allen Off the Island of Manhattan
Famed filmmaker Woody Allen performed at the Montreal International Jazz Festival last summer. Allen, who plays clarinet, performed with the New Orleans Jazz Band during the festival, a rare gig away from his usual haunt, New York’s Café Carlyle, where Allen has had a long-running residency.
Back to the Drawingboard
Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval had plans to be the host and namesake of a new jazz venue in Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. But Sandoval pulled out of the deal, telling the Miami Herald that with the rising cost of resources it wasn’t the best time to take the risk. Sandoval previously owned and operated a club in Miami Beach’s Deauville Hotel for two years until it closed in March.
BM (Barbara Morrison) Does BM (Big Mama)
Just about everyone has heard Elvis’ “Hound Dog” and Janis Joplin wailing “Ball and Chain,” but most probably don’t know that it was the late blues and jazz vocalist Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton who introduced those songs to the world in the early ’50s. Last summer, jazz vocalist Barbara Morrison—whose résumé includes backup gigs with Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett and Etta James—shined a light back on Big Mama by starring in Ball and Chain: Howlin’ Blues & Dirty Dogs, in North Hollywood, Calif. The show told Thornton’s story through music, dancing, comedy and drama.
For the Record
We thought we still had a lot of those old curiosities called records sitting idly on our shelves, but Morton Savada clearly had us beat. The family of the Manhattan record-store owner, who died in February, donated his collection of approximately 200,000 78-rpm recordings to Syracuse University. The collection, said to be second in size only to that of the Library of Congress, includes jazz, blues, Latin, spoken word, radio broadcasts and other genres, dating from 1895 to the 1950s. The records, which weighed about 50 tons, were valued at more than a million bucks. Hope they used a lot of bubble wrap.
Oh, Say, Can You Hear?
Not since José Feliciano caused an uproar with his folkie-dirge take on “The Star-Spangled Banner” has a singer gotten so much flak for taking liberties with the national anthem. Colorado-based singer René Marie stirred things up last summer when she performed her own creative interpretation of the national anthem at Denver’s State of the City address. Without advance notice to the organizers, Marie sang the lyrics of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” to the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Some were outraged she had the audacity to “change” the national anthem; others, like our Nat Hentoff, pointed toward the First Amendment. Marie received thousands of e-mails, many of the hate-mail variety. Even Barack Obama weighed in with criticism. Regardless, Marie stood by her choice and refused to apologize, saying that her version of the anthem reflected how she felt as a black American. In turn, the Denver mayor told local papers that it was “close to impossible” that Marie would ever perform for them again. Apparently, free speech doesn’t apply to song.
Hook ’Em While They’re Young
Unless you’re the parent of a very young child, you’re probably not familiar with the popular Nick Jr. TV series Wonder Pets. But if you do have a young’un who fancies the program, don’t be surprised to hear the tyke humming a jazzy melody. On a recent episode titled “The Wonder Pets Save the Cool Cat and the Hip Hippo,” vocalist Kate McGarry proved she has “the right stuff” when she sang the Wonder Pets theme song in a scat style. The episode also featured the legendary Eartha Kitt as the Cool Cat and famed jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks as the Hip Hippo.
Fletch Lives at JVC-Newport
For the second year in a row the producers of the JVC-Newport Jazz Festival tapped comic actor Chevy Chase to host. Chase, who once played drums in a band called the Leather Canary—whose members Donald Fagen and Walter Becker did slightly better when they went on to form Steely Dan—managed to get through the entire event without succumbing to the tantrums that turned an entire SNL cast against him.
Visitors to New York’s storied—and wholly renovated—Plaza Hotel had better appreciate jazz because they will be surrounded by it. In April, the hotel unveiled an installation by Ariel Blumenthal, the founding director of Sentient Music for Media, that embeds the composer’s original music throughout various sections of the structure. Employing 73 musicians for the project, among them members of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and soloists Avishai Cohen (trumpet), Anat Cohen (sax and clarinet), and Misha Piatigorsky (piano), Blumenthal cut over three hours of sound, ranging from Sinatra-style vocals to electronica. Kind of gives new meaning to the term elevator music.
The New “It” Girl
Esperanza Spalding was heralded as the up-and-comer of the year. The 24-year-old Portland, Ore., native took up the acoustic bass at age 15, began taking college classes the following year, and by 21 had become an instructor at Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music. Her 2005 debut as a leader, Junjo, exposed Spalding’s prodigious talents and the variety of styles in which she was fluent, ranging from Brazilian and Latin to swing and bop. But it was this year’s self-titled release on Heads Up that thrust Spalding into the jazz limelight for real. Again she displayed a panoply of interests: funk and soul, Afro-Cuban and traditional jazz, singer-songwriter showcases and more.
The media, for the most part, ate it up: Spalding received rare mainstream coverage from late-night TV stalwarts David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel. But has a backlash already begun? Some critics weren’t buying it, complaining that Spalding was spreading herself too thin and trying too hard to prove she could be a winner at everything she takes on. The New York Times’ Ben Ratliff wrote that Esperanza’s “vamps and grooves are a little obvious” and said the album tilted toward “grandiosity.” We’ll all be watching to see where this obviously talented young woman goes from here.
Kind of Gold
At or near the top of any list of landmark jazz albums you’ll usually find Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. The recording—which also features Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb—turns 50 in 2009 and Columbia/Legacy Records got a head start on the celebration in ’08 by releasing a lavish, expansive collector’s edition to celebrate the anniversary. The set includes two CDs (the original album plus assorted ephemera), a live take of “So What” from 1960, a DVD documentary and a blue-vinyl recreation of the original LP.
Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art explored the connection between jazz music and film in a big way with Jazz Score, an exhibition featuring a gallery installation, panel discussion and extensive film series. Films obscure and acclaimed ran from April through mid-September, offering a much-needed re-examination of small-scaled masterworks from auteurs like Shirley Clarke and Larry Clark.
Everybody Loves Hank
The “Henry W. Jones” who stood with President Bush in the White House in November is better known to jazz aficionados as Hank.
Jones, previously named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, was at the East Room ceremony to receive the 2008 National Medal of the Arts “for his exemplary artistry as a jazz pianist and composer spanning well over a half century.” A press release published by the NEA further stated that Jones’ “versatile performances blend swing with elegance and sophistication.” Veteran jazzers have, of course, known all that for decades: Jones, who turned 90 this year—and is the older brother of two other jazz legends, Elvin and Thad Jones, both now deceased—continues to perform and brushes off the notion of retirement. Jones can add his new medal to a long list of honors that also includes a 2008 Jazz Journalists Association Award, Congressional Achievement Award and induction into the International Jazz Hall of Fame.
DJ Haynes, Jam-Band Legend
Drummer Roy Haynes reached new (read: young) audiences in a virtual cameo appearance in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV. Haynes, 83, appeared as a guest voice for a DJ on JNR 108.5 in the game.
At the seventh edition of the Jammy Awards at Madison Square Garden in May, Haynes played with younger jazz greats and Page McConnell of the legendary jam-band Phish.
Lionel’s Banner Year
Benin, in West Africa, has never exactly been known as a hotbed of jazz activity, but guitarist Lionel Loueke is well on the way to changing the small country’s status single-handedly. Although he’s been on the scene since the late ’90s, and made his initial Stateside splash working with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, Loueke broke through in a big way this year as a leader and as a featured member of Herbie Hancock’s touring unit, supporting the keyboard great’s Grammy-winning Verve album of 2007, River: The Joni Letters. The Berklee-trained Loueke brought his unique guitar stylings, informed by his initial jazz hero, George Benson, as well as various African, European and American forms, to Hancock’s sets. But Loueke also opened the Hancock shows with a set by his own trio (Ferenc Nemeth, drums/percussion, and Massimo Biolcati, bass), and often received reviews that equaled or even surpassed those of the headliner. “Working with capricious harmonic movement and serpentine grooves, they made music of engrossing intricacy and ambition,” wrote Nate Chinen in the New York Times.
The release in May of Loueke’s major-label debut, Karibu (Blue Note)—which includes guest spots by Hancock and Wayne Shorter—furthered his rising-star rep. Not to be overlooked, though, is the second release by Loueke’s trio under its alter ego of Gilfema. Gilfema + 2 (ObliqSound) is more of a group effort than a Loueke showcase, but it offers further evidence that Lionel Loueke is one of few artists taking jazz guitar someplace new.
Chick Corea: JazzTimes Artist of the Year
In his 67th year, Chick Corea maintained a whirlwind pace, shifting gears from one project to the next as easily as most mortals change clothes. With free-spirited colleagues and fellow virtuosos Bobby McFerrin and Jack DeJohnette, Corea engaged in some daring, purely spontaneous playing (with an emphasis on the word “play”) in a short tour during the spring (including one memorable evening at Carnegie Hall).
The summer of 2008 saw the spectacle of Return to Forever re-forming after 25 years and going out on a triumphant worldwide tour, energizing the fusion-hungry masses in packed concert halls throughout Europe and the United States. By fall, his creative juices still overflowing, Corea went on to tour Europe with the Five Peace Band, a supergroup he formed with guitar legend John McLaughlin, bassist Christian McBride, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Corea closed out 2008 with three Grammy nominations for The New Crystal Silence, his stunning collaboration with vibraphonist Gary Burton and the Sydney Symphony.
Looking back on his prolific output for 2008, Corea said, “There’s nothing that pleases me more than to create and be part of new music projects. I’m very fortunate to have the friendship, confidence and good will from so many people in my life.”
Corea does admit that there are challenges in maintaining such a restlessly creative lifestyle. “The only real stress that touring creates is the pure physical stress of constant travel, and not getting quite enough rest or good food. The nightly music-making is always invigorating and the fun of doing that plus seeing so many people enjoy themselves is the payoff. As long as the projects are one at a time, I can focus in on each new one as it comes.”
Preparation, he adds, was a key to the success of each major project that he undertook in 2008. “Different projects require different preparation. Preparing for RTF, I had to develop a new keyboard setup; I had a lot of music to gather up, distribute and commit to memory. There were rehearsals with the band and other logistics to work out in advance with a larger crew. With Bobby and Jack, it was the opposite. No preparation at all, in that we all agreed to do this set of concert dates with no pre-arranged set list. In fact, we played no ‘songs’ or ‘familiar melodies’ but improvised each show, 90 minutes straight, from beginning to end. Having completely different ways of approaching music keeps things interesting for me.”
Looking ahead, Corea already has several irons in the fire for this year. February will see the release of Duet, a two-CD live performance with up-and-coming pianist Hiromi, recorded at the Blue Note in Tokyo for Concord Records. The Five Peace Band tour, commencing in the States on March 19 (with drummer Brian Blade replacing Colaiuta) will take him up to the summer, and then he has plans for a solo piano tour in July in August. “I’m looking forward to playing some solo again,” he says. “I’ve been listening to Art Tatum these past months. What an inspiration that man is!” In the fall, Corea is going to be making some trio music with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. “We started talking about that during the RTF tour. What a great feeling it was to play in that rhythm section again.”
RTF Returns Jazz-Rock to the Big Time
Jazz-rock fusion legends Return to Forever reunited for a major summer tour coupled with the release of a new anthology. Nostalgia aside, the quartet of Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Al Di Meola and Lenny White proved to be a critical and commercial success. As Lenny White said at various stops, “This isn’t a boy band … it’s a man band!” We’re not ones to count other people’s money, but 100 shows with ticket prices averaging $75 at halls of up to 10,000? Now that$ entertainment.
Bush’s Best Decision
With its emphasis on bipartisanship, the new Obama administration sure could have used someone like Dana Gioia—say, as chairman of the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). But that won’t be happening now—Gioia, who is a Republican, announced this year that he would be stepping down from that very position, which he held since 2004. Gioia was, perhaps, an unusual choice to head up the NEA during the second half of the notoriously anti-arts Bush administration: He is a poet and a composer, a critic and a champion of literature.
Even while some of his fellow GOPers called for the NEA to be abolished, Gioia won a $10 million increase in the agency’s budget and rallied support for the institution from members of both major political parties. Gioia, who greatly improved the NEA’s Jazz Masters program in a number of capacities, has even described himself as a “populist elitist”—in other words, the very type of person that Obama’s opponents railed against during the campaign. The Democrats now in charge will have their work finding someone with the commitment and innovative skills of Gioia when they turn toward the NEA chairmanship.
Originally published in January/February 2009