Highs & Lows 2011

In this online supplement to our January/February Year in Review issue, our editors detail the best, the worst and the weirdest of the past 12 months in jazz.

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Don Byron New Gospel Quintet at Winter Jazzfest 2011
By Greg Aiello
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Esperanza Spalding receiving her Grammy award
By Ian Fong
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Wynton Marsalis, Eric Clapton & Taj Mahal at Jazz at Lincoln Center
By Julie Skarratt
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JAZZ: The Smithsonian Anthology
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Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
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Chris Dingman
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Eddie Palmieri
By Ben Johnson
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2011 Monk piano competition winner Kris Bowers
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Warren Wolf
By Anna Webber
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Terri Lyne Carrington
By Michael Goldman
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Tony Bennett at L.A.'s Capitol Studios, February 2011
By Josh Cheuse

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Spalding: 1; Bieber: 0

At the 53rd annual Grammy Awards, held in Los Angeles on Feb. 13, Esperanza Spalding made history when she became the first jazz performer to win Best New Artist, a category that included teen sensation Justin Bieber, hip-hop/R&B artist Drake and alternative acts Mumford & Sons and Florence + the Machine. The victory was considered an upset to much of the Grammy-viewing masses, who saw Bieber as a shoo-in and Spalding as an attractive, gracious-sounding young woman they’d never heard of. Spalding took all sorts of online flak from Bieber’s teenybopper cult. (Giving credit where it’s due, he handled his loss with grace, even if he was too hands-on with the hair.) Pop star Bieber, of course, was featured in a primetime performance with his mentor Usher while jazz’s Spalding was left to do the real work: hosting the pre-telecast awards presentation with Bobby McFerrin (and killing it, by the way) and background-jamming on TV with a Grammy Jazz High School Ensemble.

In the aftermath, Spalding was profiled by what seemed like every magazine and morning show on the planet. Jazz people were ecstatic with the win, except for Harry Connick Jr., who admitted on The View that he’d never heard of Spalding and thought Bieber should have won. (Harry, man, we’d be glad to put you on the comp subscription list.) For the most part, it seems, Spalding hasn’t jumped the jazz ship following this mainstream recognition. Her forthcoming record, Radio Music Society, explores R&B and pop songcraft (as its title indicates loud and clear), but with expert jazz personnel, and her two Newport sets, which featured friends like Ambrose Akinmusire, were serious business.

End of an Era

One of our very favorite people, Marian McPartland, officially stepped down as host of one of our very favorite radio programs, Piano Jazz, in the fall. It was a historic run, to be sure: McPartland, 93, began hosting the show in 1979, and it is now broadcast on more than 200 stations across the country, according to the New York Times. McPartland will stay involved as the artistic director of a new show, Piano Jazz Rising Stars, hosted by Chicago pianist Jon Weber. It premieres in January.

Monk Institute: 25 Years & Counting

In September, the Thelonious Monk Institute celebrated its 25th anniversary with a piano competition and gala concert for the ages. The level of competition—not just the finals, but the semi-finals, especially—seemed absurdly high: You could have imagined almost any of these young competitors going into the studio that evening and coming out with something worthy of a label-backed release. But in the end there can be only one, and the $25,000 scholarship and Concord contract went to L.A. native Kris Bowers.

Bowers, who is currently based in New York, was especially inventive with his requisite Monk tunes. At the semis, his “Blue Monk” began as a near-dirge and worked into a raucous saloon shuffle; at the finals, he reinvented “Shuffle Boil” with rugged grace. Overall, Bowers was confident, fluid and aesthetically homed-in: obviously sharp in terms of harmony and technique, but with a great feel for the blues and the pocket. He also avoided overplaying—pointless exhibitions of chops being the bane of many a Monk competition performance. If you weren’t there, try and check this show out.

Before Bowers’ victory was announced, the Institute pulled out all the stops for its anniversary concert. As we wrote in the fall, there was “a logistical mastery on display that deserved accolades: a lot of people onstage at the same time, somehow making sense and often generating real excitement in an institutional setting.” There was something for everyone. For the actual jazzheads: a well-arranged medley of Monk staples featuring past competition placers, and Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter playing a duet from their 1 + 1 album. For the execs and politicos and others who wouldn’t know “Epistrophy” if it smacked them in the face: a surprise appearance by Jennifer Hudson. And for anyone who cares about American music, or American culture, or the human spirit: Aretha Franklin, gala tributee and the recipient of the 2011 Maria Fisher Founder’s Award, singing “Moody’s Mood for Love.”

Sophisticated Ladies

What began as drummer/composer/educator Terri Lyne Carrington’s mission to make a jazz album featuring only women evolved into one of the year’s most talked about releases. The Mosaic Project (Concord Jazz) featured an all-star lineup that included, among others, Cassandra Wilson, Anat Cohen, Esperanza Spalding, Nona Hendryx, Sheila E., Dee Dee Bridgewater and Geri Allen—each a headliner in her own right. In a JT cover story, Carrington explained her raison d’etre. After working with Spalding, Carrington said, “I realized how many great female musicians I had played with over the years.” Inspired to create an album restricted to female instrumentalists and vocalists, she began assembling The Mosaic Project. “I doubt that anyone in a Blindfold Test would be able to figure out that all of the players are women … The album is a great way to document this stage of my career, and while I could have done it with all guys, the same excitement wouldn’t surround it.” JazzTimes’ writers were among those excited by it, voting the album number 14 in the yearend Critics’ Picks.

Good Vibes

It’s not every year that a group of young vibraphonists crops up and helps guide the scene. Three players in particular saw their profiles raised in ’11, and for very good reason. The virtuosic Warren Wolf, from Baltimore, released his self-titled debut through Mack Avenue, a collection of primarily fiery postbop showcasing the vibraphonist’s Milt Jackson-indebted chops. (The record is excellent, but Wolf’s impressively physical technique really needs to be experienced live.) At the artier and more lyrical end of the spectrum was Chris Dingman, whose Waking Dreams (Between Worlds) was more concerned with ensemble statement, composition and ambience than chops, even if Dingman’s got ’em. Chicago’s still-emerging vibes great Jason Adasiewicz was busy in ’11, too, releasing the critical favorite Double Demon (Delmark) with his Starlicker bandmates Rob Mazurek and John Herndon, and putting out his own Spacer (Delmark), a disc featuring his Sun Rooms (with bassist Nate McBride and drummer Mike Reed). A disciple of the ’60s avant-garde and a superb self-editor as a player and composer, Adasiewicz has the Midas touch.

Lost Latin Jazz

In early April, NARAS, the organization behind the Grammys, announced the elimination of 31 awards categories, in an effort to streamline and improve the application and awards process. Among the squelched categories were Best Latin Jazz Album and Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Protests abounded across all genres, but perhaps no community felt more betrayed than the Latin-jazz folks. Eddie Palmieri, who worked hard to have the Latin-jazz album award introduced in 1994, made his dissatisfaction known in no uncertain terms. And in the summer, four musicians—Bobby Sanabria, Ben Lapidus, Mark Levine and Eugene Marlow—filed suit against NARAS, claiming the elimination of the category would prevent them from winning a Grammy, thus damaging their careers.

North, South, East & West Corea

Most septuagenarians are at least contemplating retirement, but that’s not Chick Corea’s style. The prolific and ubiquitous keyboardist, who turned 70 in June, spent the entire month of November at the Blue Note in New York, where he gave more than 40 performances with 10 different aggregations. The run began with two nights of unplugged Return to Forever—with Stanley Clarke, Lenny White and Frank Gambale—and continued with duet sets (Bobby McFerrin, Marcus Roberts, Herbie Hancock); a Miles tribute with Eddie Gomez, Jack DeJohnette, Wallace Roney and Gary Bartz; the Five Peace Band with John McLaughlin, John Patitucci, Kenny Garrett and Brian Blade; the original Elektric Band with John Patitucci, Eric Marienthal, Dave Weckl and Gambale; a flamenco show featuring Nino Josele, Carles Benavent, Jorge Pardo, Jeff Ballard and vocalist Concha Buika; and more. After November, Corea just kept on going, playing in Seattle with Hans Glawischnig and Brian Blade. Early 2012 sees him traversing Europe with Burton and releasing a new album, Further Explorations (Concord Jazz), with Gomez and the late, great Paul Motian.

Chick, Redux

Corea was hardly idle prior to his November NYC marathon. In the spring, he announced another incarnation of Return to Forever, who launched a lengthy tour that began in June in Northampton, Mass., continued in Canada and Europe through July and then, after a one-off in Israel, made its way around the U.S. in August and September. Calling the band Return to Forever IV—to differentiate this particular lineup from previous RTF configurations (including the ’08 reunion lineup that included Al Di Meola, who released the terrific Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody in ’11)—Corea, Clarke, White and Gambale were joined for the sprint by the legendary violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. Blogging about the band’s set at the Montreal Jazz Festival, Russ Davis wrote, “This is electric jazz at the highest level. … Chick is on his game as much as he has ever been.”

Well-Preserved

2011 marked the 50th anniversary of New Orleans’ Preservation Hall, whose touring Preservation Hall Jazz Band continued its reign as the most popular “crossover” act with a repertoire containing 90-year-old music. The band released the aptly titled American Legacies in the spring, a remarkably seamless and inspired collaboration with bluegrass’ Del McCoury Band. The bands performed the music at some very special dates, among them the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn.

Actually, and as we noted in our review, Pres Hall was everywhere at Bonnaroo this past summer. Photographer and filmmaker Danny Clinch premiered the very fine Preservation Hall: A Louisiana Fairytale in Bonnaroo’s cinema tent, and the band followed the film with a brief live set. They also backed the rock band My Morning Jacket—a good bit of the film is dedicated to that unlikely but effective pairing—and led a late-night second-line that followed another Bonnaroo highlight, Dr. John and the Meters performing the Doc’s Desitively Bonnaroo (the 1974 LP after which the festival is named).

For more on the history and legacy of Pres Hall and the band, check out Tom Sancton’s fantastic new Vanity Fair piece. The band is performing at the McKittrick Hotel in New York City this week, and will hold a star-laden anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 7.

Winter of Our Newly Content

Ah, Winter and Undead Jazzfests. So many incredible bands and performances at such cheap ticket prices. It all seemed too good to be true, and apparently it was: An artist petition demanding a minimum pay rate and “other conditions” was made public in June, only days before the start of the 2011 edition of Undead. Among the petition’s signatures were Steve Coleman, Marc Ribot, Jason Moran, Mary Halvorson and more.

Discussions between event organizers and musicians began, and in the meantime Undead expanded and mostly thrived. Spread across four days rather than two, the festival opened at the typical Winter/Undead haunts in the West Village on June 23, before moving on to Brooklyn and some, let’s say, alternative venues. (A piercingly illuminated gymnasium? Sure. A skateboard park? Absolutely. Anything goes when presenting adventurous jazz.) Attendance wasn’t as strong as that of Winter Jazzfest, due most likely to the additional nights and the midsummer timing. The 2011 Winter Jazzfest, held last January over two nights in the West Village, sometimes felt like an endurance challenge, especially on the first night, when the spacious Le Poisson Rouge closed after Chico Hamilton’s 9:15 set, leaving the masses to huddle into Zinc Bar and Kenny’s Castaways. But in the end, a few logistical kinks don’t amount to much in the face of such an incredible lineup of music: Looking back nearly a year ago, Don Byron’s New Gospel Quintet and the Nels Cline/Norton Wisdom project, “Stained Radiance,” still seem like revelations experienced last weekend. And at Undead: Jamie Saft’s New Zion Trio, with Larry Grenadier laying down basslines suitable for Lee Perry remixing; Darius Jones’ timeless take on the avant-garde; the list goes on.

We can’t wait for Winter Jazzfest 2012 (Jan. 6-7), which, thanks to those Local 802-aided discussions, will take place under new-and-improved conditions, which reportedly include better pay, longer sets and longer set breaks. And admission is up just $10 from last year ($35 single-day passes; $45 for the weekend). The new contracts also include a profit-sharing system to benefit the artists, should the festivals gain some sponsors and actually start making money. Pepsi, are you there? Verizon? Panasonic? Pizza Hut? Anyone?

Repeat After Me: ah-kin-MOO-sir-ee

Talk about a meteoric rise: Prior to the spring release of When the Heart Emerges Glistening, the young trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s Blue Note Records debut, only the most tuned-in aficionados would have noticed the build-up that was in motion. Akinmusire first came to attention when he won the Thelonious Monk Institute’s trumpet competition in 2007. A 2008 indie album release, Prelude (to Cora), went largely unnoticed, but by 2011 the word was out that this was an extraordinary new voice, as both improviser and composer.

In June, the Jazz Journalists Association named the young musician from Oakland, Calif.—who also kept busy as a sideman—both up-and-coming artist and best trumpeter of the year. By the end of the year, Akinmusire’s album was sitting at or near the top of many a critic’s year-end list, including Nate Chinen, who wrote of Akinmusire’s “bracingly original style” in the New York Times and called Glistening a “smart dispatch from the new postbop frontier.” Prior to headlining at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall in December, Akinmusire was asked how he felt about all of the attention, especially by the jazz press. “It does make me proud, I can’t lie,” he said. “I would love to be one of those jazz musicians who say they don’t care about the critics, but it’s great to be appreciated.”

Virtual Fightin' Words

If you’re a Facebook or Twitter hound—and admit it, you probably are—you’re undoubtedly accustomed to seeing offensive/nutty/moronic/confusing posts all the time. For instance: “Happy Fuck You Friday!!! There are too many of you to list, so I stick my universal middle finger out to y’all collectively.” That tweet wasn’t from your teenage daughter’s unsavory boyfriend. Rather, it’s typical Twitter fare from the supremely talented, nattily dressed and by most accounts gentlemanly trumpeter Nicholas Payton.

So what’s up with that? Payton (@paynic), whose Twitter bio line reads “Mothafuckas chillin’ on my nutz!!!,” is among a faction of jazz musicians who brought some heat to social media platforms and the Web in general in 2011. Whether they’re joking, analyzing, philosophizing or (most often) complaining, pundits like Payton took on all sorts of topics—including jazz—in language that wasn’t always suitable for minors. More engaging for us were Payton’s modern R&B project, Bitches, which finally saw official release, and this poem/manifesto.

Kurt Rosenwinkel ruffled some feathers in late August when he told his thousands of Facebook, “yo- most jazz now sucks,” and asked them to “take care of it. please! FWiW MF’s thx k.” Bassist Dwayne Burno responded to Rosenwinkel’s post with an extended tirade of his own, in which, among other things, he lambasted “all the kids with masters degrees that can’t play a blues, rhythm changes, a standard ballad, sit at a piano and comp two choruses of swinging blues, or just flat out SWING on their instrument” and tossed in a dig at the “dickheads at BEATDOWN and JazzTimes or any other pompous publication” for good measure.

In the end, we agree with Vijay Iyer, whose forthcoming trio disc, Accelerando, is the polar opposite of “suck.” “You know what I think sucks?” Iyer wrote on his Facebook page. “Any conversation about how much jazz sucks.”

It’s From Smithsonian, But Is It an Institution?

When JAZZ: The Smithsonian Anthology dropped in March, the six-CD collection garnered closer scrutiny than your average compendium of historically significant jazz tracks. The imprimatur of the Smithsonian Institution holds outsize weight: By choosing to represent an artist’s work on an official document, the venerable archive of all things American was essentially passing judgment, saying that a given piece of music was worthy of recognition (and, conversely, a piece omitted may not be). But JAZZ: The Smithsonian Anthology had another, tougher job: It had to justify its existence in comparison with The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, a 1973 release that has been nearly universally praised.

Reactions to the new set were indeed mixed: While some fans and critics felt that the box set’s 111 tracks offered a fair capsule history and a wide cross-section of jazz’s many styles, hitting on most of its major players, there was, of course, some grumbling about omissions and missteps. Some felt that the music’s earliest days were short-changed, while others felt that the current state of jazz might have received more consideration. Some found fault with the sequencing of the tracks, complaining that the set made for a disjointed listening experience. Others saw some troublesome check-listing in practice, where very important names were covered with middling, non-representational work. Complaints aside, JAZZ: The Smithsonian Anthology now settles in as, in effect, the official word from the United States of America on one of its most valuable and beloved cultural contributions—until yet another panel rethinks it a few decades from now.

¡Viva Cuba!

In January 2011, the Obama administration eased restrictions on travel to Cuba by American citizens, making it easier for academic, religious and cultural groups to visit the long off-limits island. American jazz musicians got an early start in late 2010. Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra made a high-profile trip to the island in October of that year, accompanied by Morley Safer and a 60 Minutes crew, who documented the journey. Marsalis later told JazzTimes that for him, similarities between Cuban and New Orleans culture were a prime reason for making the trip: “Afro-Cuban music is such an integral part of our music; we have an intertwined history,” he said. “New Orleans is the little sister to Havana.” In December of 2010, Arturo O’Farrill, the Cuban-American pianist/composer whose late, Havana-born father, Chico, is one of Cuba’s musical legends, also visited. Although this was not O’Farrill’s first time in Cuba, he brought along his own family this time, and unveiled a new composition titled “Fathers and Sons: From Havana to New York and Back,” which, he said, was “dedicated to the return, and the further progression, of musical interchange between the United States and Cuba.”

In further Cuban-American exchanges, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, tenor saxophonist David Sánchez and trumpeter Christian Scott released Ninety Miles, a project recorded in Havana with some great young Cuban musicians, while saxophonist/composer David Murray and his Cuban Ensemble released Plays Nat King Cole en Español, which the group recorded in Argentina and performed in New York and San Francisco. Meanwhile, we at JazzTimes have also done our part to facilitate Cuban-American artistic exchanges by partnering with Insight Cuba to develop music-intensive programs that meet the government’s guidelines for legal travel to Cuba.

Tony Bennett: Setting Records & Stirring Up Controversy—at 85

Late-bloomers, take solace. You can be in your 80s in jazz and still run the show—just ask 81-year-old Sonny Rollins, 86-year-old Roy Haynes or 85-year-old Tony Bennett. When Bennett’s latest album, Duets II (Columbia), dropped in September, it moved 179,000 units in its first week. The sales granted Bennett his first No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, and there’s more: The Astoria Kid set a record for being the oldest performer in history to receive that charting honor. It couldn’t have hurt that the record featured duets between Bennett and both Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse, in the latter’s last recording session before her tragic death. But even non-believers who’ve heard Bennett recently would have to admit that he’s still got it.

Heck, America even forgave him for some controversial remarks he made on the Howard Stern Show in September. “But who are the terrorists?” the singer asked, when discussing 9/11. “Are we the terrorists or are they the terrorists? Two wrongs don’t make a right. … They flew the plane in, but we caused it. Because we were bombing them and they told us to stop.” (Bennett even went on to say that George W. Bush had confided in him and told him he thought the war in Iraq was a “mistake.”)

Bennett backtracked on his 9/11 comments soon enough, issuing an apology in which he said he’d made a “tremendous, tremendous mistake. There is simply no excuse for terrorism and the murder of the nearly 3,000 innocent victims of the 9/11 attacks on our country.”

Blues Brothers

Although they’d collaborated before, Wynton Marsalis (who turned 50 in October) and Eric Clapton celebrated their mutual blues obsession with stunning results in April, with three concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. (The first of those shows was Jazz at Lincoln Center’s spring fundraising gala.) Sure, it was an arrangement that’d make many self-righteous Downtowners and Brooklynites scoff, but, wow, did it click. Clapton chose the tunes and Marsalis arranged them, in a deft way that managed to showcase Old Slowhand while allowing him to entangle with a 10-piece, King Oliver-styled band consisting almost entirely of JALC personnel. The program comprised a balanced selection of old-timey fare, including “Joe Turner’s Blues,” “Careless Love,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” (sung by guest and opening act Taj Mahal) and “Joliet Bound” (sung ably by trombonist Chris Crenshaw). Marsalis’ arrangements expanded music of folk concision, allowing for extended solos and gorgeous trad-jazz polyphony. Clapton sounded more in the jump-blues mold as a guitarist and delightfully grizzled as a singer. And on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Forty-Four,” midcentury Chicago and jazz-age New Orleans met with stomping aplomb.

But what really impressed about this whole enterprise was how it didn’t exploit the star power and pop history onstage, with one glorious exception: “Layla,” delivered with New Orleans funeral pathos, in a rendition to rival Clapton’s MTV Unplugged performance. And if you missed it, no worries: Reprise and JALC released the program as a download, CD and CD/DVD set.

Howard Levy: Back in the Saddle

When Béla Fleck and his Original Flecktones—newly rejoined harmonica player and pianist Howard Levy, electric bassist Victor Wooten and his brother, “Drumitar” virtuoso Roy “Futureman” Wooten—released Rocket Science (eOne) in May, the general consensus was that the reunion wasn’t one based in nostalgia but rather that the group had picked up where it had left off and taken the music to a new level altogether. (Levy replaced saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who’d replaced the late LeRoi Moore in the Dave Matthews Band.) As Levy told JazzTimes, “For all of us there’s been a tremendous amount of life experiences and musical experiences [in the past 20 years]. What made the band exciting in the beginning was that everyone brought their own things to it, so in a certain way the dynamic has not changed at all.” Béla Fleck and the Flecktones will resume touring in March.

Justice for All (Jazz Musicians)

Do jazz artists get a fair shake from the venues that employ them? Many say no, and late this year a campaign to change that gained steam in New York. Nat Hentoff reported on the snowballing movement for musicians’ rights in a Final Chorus column this past summer, detailing the Justice for Jazz Artists campaign, a push for pension benefits and a minimum wage for musicians. Todd Bryant Weeks, Jazz Business Representative of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, told Hentoff, “The vast majority of sidemen who appear in NYC jazz clubs have no protections, no pension, no health insurance, no social security and receive substandard wages. Busboys make more money than most jazz musicians.”

Members of the movement had made their presence known outside of NYC’s Blue Note in 2009, and earlier this month, they did it again. As the New York Times reported, the union members handed out leaflets and explained their position. The Times article also stated that jazz club owners have resisted the union’s efforts for five years, and quoted one proprietor as saying that he sympathized with the musicians’ position but did not know how such benefits might be implemented.

Originally published in January/February 2012

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