To make a longish story short, we ran out of room in our new January/February 2011 issue, which just recently shipped to subscribers and will hit newsstands on Jan. 4. That issue includes plenty of great year-end coverage, including results for our annual Critics’ and Readers’ Polls, Brent Butterworth’s best-of-audio-gear column, and Nate Chinen’s picks for best gigs. But we had to cut the Highs & Lows section, our yearly excursion through the best, worst and weirdest in jazz. Here it is as an online supplement, with a noticeable emphasis on the “best.” That’s a good thing, we think.
We Did Inhale
JazzTimes wasn’t the only jazz thing that began in 1970. Miles Davis made jazz-rock official with his essential Bitches Brew, which Sony Legacy reissued earlier this year in a super-deluxe 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition as well as a more reasonable Legacy Edition; both packages include a must-see, previously unreleased DVD program featuring Miles with Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette in Copenhagen in 1969. Also in 1970, Creed Taylor launched CTI Records and created a sound and look that captured the zeitgeist of the ’70s and still resonates today. With Pete Turner’s vivid color photography on the gatefold covers and an electric funky sound played by who’s who of modern jazz artists, from Freddie Hubbard to George Benson, CTI albums proved to be huge sellers. A well-put-together box set, CTI Records: The Cool Revolution, and reissues like California Concert and other material from the ’70s, brought home the legacy of Taylor and his incredible stable of artists. But did they know what we used those gatefold covers for?
Our Men in Havana
It wasn’t quite the triumphant trip that the 1977 cruise was-the one in which Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and other jazz greats went to Havana during the Carter Administration-but it was still triumphant. In October, Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra traveled to Cuba and performed for and with the locals, in a cultural exchange that reflected a brief thawing of the embargo which had returned to Cold War levels under George W. Bush’s administration.
Earlier this month, Arturo O’Farrill took his orchestra to the Havana International Jazz Festival. And given that his late father, the Cuban jazz bandleader Chico O’Farrill, had left Cuba in the ’30s and never returned, that visit promised to be an emotional and cathartic one for the pianist and bandleader. In turn, Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés toured the U.S. for the first time in seven years, further reinforcing the value of cultural exchange with that little island 90 miles from our shores.
We Met Them in St. Louis
The Jazz Education Network rose from the ashes of the International Association for Jazz Education, but the educators who founded the nascent organization were determined not to fall prey to any of the financial trapdoors of its predecessor. The JEN leadership, including Mary Jo Papich and Lou Fischer, stressed a grassroots focus on education and an all-volunteer approach to organizational development.
In June, the new organization hosted a conference of lesser scale than the old IAJE conferences and in a less-than-jazzy location (St. Louis, Mo.). Nonetheless, nearly 1,000 educators, students and musicians came to host and attend clinics, talk shop and convene on jazz education matters. The organization is expecting much larger numbers for its second conference being held in January in New Orleans, a decidedly jazzier location certainly.
Marcus Has Miles to Go
As one of the architects of the sound of ’80s Miles Davis, Marcus Miller has certainly had the bona fides to toss off tribute shows or albums to his former mentor. However, it wasn’t until this past year, nearly 20 years after Davis’ death, that Miller saw his way to revisiting the material he produced with Miles. Inspired by a young band featuring trumpeter Christian Scott and saxophonist Alex Han, Miller reinvented the songs from the albums Tutu and Amandla during a tour of North America. Tired as we are of hearing jazz musicians quote the riff from “Jean-Pierre,” which seems to have replaced “The Flintstones Theme” as the most ubiquitous reference by jazz groups, Miller gets a pass for being there in the biggest possible way when Miles created that music.
Songs for Michael
PBS gave Michael Feinstein some serious face time with a three-part series that aired in October. Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook was produced by filmmaker Amber Edwards, who followed the singer/pianist around the country and captured him on and off stage, always in pursuit of the stories behind the songs we love. Among their discoveries? Two missing choruses by Irving Berlin for “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” I smell a new series for the Discovery Channel-something like “Song Sleuths.” Let’s do lunch.
Chick Is a Gig Magnet
Chick Corea cannot be stopped. He started off the year by collecting a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for Live by the Five Peace Band he co-led with John McLaughlin. Just months later he began touring with his Freedom Band featuring Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride and Roy Haynes. He also found time to perform shows in a trio format with McBride and Brian Blade, and in a duo setting with Stefano Bollani. He closed out the year with a tour with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra in Norway and Sweden. Yes, he got around. Although he didn’t have any new releases (on the heels of a year when he released three albums), there was a box of some of his most exquisite solo piano work recorded for ECM-a three-CD set featuring his Piano Improvisations plus Children’s Songs.
Perhaps even more impressive is how 2011 promises to move along at the same pace, with another Return to Forever tour in the works, this time with Bill Connors on guitar. An acoustic trio double-disc featuring Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, Forever (Concord), will be released in the U.S. in June 2011, and Corea has already scheduled duo concerts with Gary Burton. As evidenced in his tour with RTF personnel and McLaughlin, when Corea reunites with past collaborators he only has the future in mind.
A Purchase Both Sweet and Savory
Christmas came early for Loren Schoenberg, the executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Schoenberg acquired the collection of William Savory, an associate of Benny Goodman’s who recorded numerous jazz shows during a five- to six-year period starting in 1935. This treasure trove of ’30s-era jazz consists of 975 aluminum and vinyl discs, adding up to over 100 hours of material, from jazz greats such as Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Lionel Hampton, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and many others. Like something out of a spy novel or maybe a Raymond Carver story, Schoenberg picked up the material from Savory’s family in Illinois and drove it himself to NYC in a rented truck. The museum is currently in the process of transferring the material to digital format and is making much of it available to the public through listening sessions.
Size Does Matter
With many artists, notable and obscure, releasing just about everything they’ve ever played, it’s refreshing to see a few artists hunker down and produce major works using big ideas along with big ensembles. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Music, Wynton Marsalis is no stranger to the large-scale work. This year he premiered his “Swing Symphony” in the U.S. and released a recording of the Vitoria Suite commissioned by that European festival. Presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in November, Ramsey Lewis’ “Proclamation of Hope” featured his jazz trio and a wind ensemble in a symphonic poem inspired by the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.
Pianist Kenny Werner drew on a more personal experience, the death of his teenaged daughter, as the theme of his work for jazz trio, vocals and wind ensemble-No Beginning, No End, for Half Note Records. Finally, Gerald Wilson paid tribute to his hometown with a performance of his jazz suite “Detroit” (originally released on Mack Avenue in 2009) at the Congressional Black Caucus event in Washington, D.C. It’s good to know that composers and musicians haven’t scaled back their creative reach just because the record industry is struggling.
70 Is the New 40
If it seems like Herbie Hancock has been on the jazz scene forever, it’s probably because he’s been so active decade after decade. During his 70th year, Hancock kept up the pace with an ambitious concept album, The Imagine Project (Red), in which he collaborated with musicians around the world on anthems of peace and social change. He then proceeded to take that music back around the world on a lengthy tour that included a special birthday celebration concert at Carnegie Hall, where players from his past sat in, including Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Ron Carter and Wallace Roney. Lesson learned? You’re never too old to strap on that keytar!
We Wanted Miles (and We Got Him)
A massive multimedia exhibit was mounted in the spring at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal, Quebec. The show, “We Want Miles,” featured photography, art and artifacts from the late, great trumpeter’s life. The show had previously been mounted at the Musee de la Musique in Paris. There was also a lavish coffeetable book published as a companion to the exhibit, with the provocative if somewhat contradictory title, We Want Miles: Miles Davis vs. Jazz (a translation thing, apparently).
Written by Franck Bergerot, the editor-in-chief of JAZZ magazine in France, the book also included remembrances of Davis by Dave Liebman, writer John Szwed, Ira Gitler, George Avakian and others. However, the images comprise the main attraction here. Included is nearly every iconic image of the trumpeter, from Don Hunstein’s photos of Miles in the studio recording Kind of Blue, to Irving Penn’s stark and dramatic portrait for the Tutu album cover.
It was not enough that Davis was one of the music’s greatest innovators. As this exhibit and book demonstrated, he was also one of its more important visual stylists.
Ray Charles + Jazz = Genius
The folks at Concord Music Group had a busy year putting out all sorts of excellent music, including Definitive sets from Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck and John Coltrane. But perhaps the most surprising and pleasing of all was the reissue of Ray Charles’ Genius + Soul = Jazz album in a deluxe package that also included three other jazz albums from the legend. Those LPs, My Kind of Jazz, Jazz Number II and My Kind of Jazz Part 3, were released on Ray’s own labels in the ’70s. This four-album edition, with new liner notes from Will Friedwald, was released as a two-CD set. Charles never really got around to making a jazz record in his later years, though he often mentioned a possible collaboration with his old friend Milt Jackson. So this collection will have to suffice for jazz fans wanting to hear Ray swing, in this case with a kick-ass horn section of Thad Jones, Joe Newman, Clark Terry, Al Grey, Frank Foster, Snooky Young, Joe Wilder and Frank Wess. I’m no genius but that just sounds like a smart idea.
Fred Hersch: Healthy and Inspired
While jazz coverage in the mainstream media continued to dwindle, in January the New York Times magazine ran an outstanding profile of pianist Fred Hersch. The lengthy piece, written by David Hajdu, detailed the harrowing AIDs-related health problems Hersch experienced in 2007 and 2008, including a descent into dementia and, eventually, a two-month-long coma and loss of motor functions.
But Hersch miraculously rehabilitated and has returned to the scene with a vengeance. Hersch released Whirl (Palmetto), one of the year’s best piano-trio records, and began working again feverishly. He is currently laboring over My Coma Dreams, a multimedia project that will feature jazz instrumentation plus a string quartet and a speaker/singer. As Hersch told our David R. Adler, it is slated to premiere this spring.
In May, guitarist Kevin Eubanks announced that he’d be leaving his longtime post as the music director for the Tonight Show With Jay Leno to pursue his own music wholeheartedly. While Eubanks surely walked away from an extra-large salary, we at JT were glad to hear the news, and not only because of our pro-Coco stance.
Before he moved from the guitar chair to replace then-director Branford Marsalis in 1995, Eubanks was a leading young voice on the Blue Note roster and a standout guitarist, combining the Wes/Burrell/Benson bag with convincing rock and funk playing. Eubanks kept his chops up alongside Leno, but he also spent a lot of time chuckling at jokes that implied he was a pothead and a pervert during his off hours.
Well, he has returned, with a cooking comeback record, Zen Food (Mack Avenue), featuring his old Leno pal Marvin “Smitty” Smith. Fans of fusion and the edgier side of contemporary jazz take note.
Do the Robot
For our April issue, David R. Adler wrote a cover story on Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion project, an album and world tour in which the ambitious-going-on-batty guitarist brought a large ensemble to life via solenoid robots. The album, which made it onto our year-end Top 40, wasn’t as revolutionary as the process, which Metheny attributed to a long-running fascination with player pianos and orchestrions. The title suite could have been mistaken for a new long-form work by the Pat Metheny Group, and when the solenoids attempted to swing they sounded like, well, robots.
But the 2 1/2-hour live show was an essential experience-dare we say a once-in-a-lifetime gig. It was long, sure, but varied: solo acoustic numbers, would-be tutorials on why and how Orchestrion came about, live improvisations on Ornette Coleman’s “Broad Way Blues” and back-catalog repertory were included, in addition to a performance of the record. And the Willy Wonka factor alone was worth the price of admission: clanking cymbals, pounded pianos, blown bottles and more sounded without human assistance in plain view, as if operated by a (literal) ghost band.
Jazz Is Undead
Generalist newspaper reporters and their misled readers tend to know two things about jazz: that it’s dead and that it’s been co-opted by a vague and mysterious notion of purism. The next time these geeks start up with that noise, point them in the direction of Manhattan’s West Village, where in 2010 two grassroots festivals offered proof of life. In January, the annual Winter Jazzfest presented its typically smart and edgy mix of artists for attendees of the concurrent Association for Performing Arts Presenters convention. Critics like Ben Ratliff in the New York Times and our Nate Chinen commented on how healthy the scene was: packed venues and music equally overstuffed with influences and information.
The Undead Jazzfest, in June, was molded much the same, except that festivalgoers were sweating instead of freezing. At three tiny West Village haunts-Le Poisson Rouge, Kenny’s Castaways and Sullivan Hall-an imposing lineup justified the $30 two-day pass tenfold. Steve Coleman, Tim Berne, Matthew Shipp, Dave Douglas, Happy Apple and dozens more made for a couple of whirlwind nights. Winter Jazzfest 2011 runs Jan. 7-8 in New York.
NEA Jazz Masters*
With its 2011 Jazz Masters Award selections, announced on June 24, the National Endowment for the Arts broke new ground. The organization named the first Jazz Master of the baby-boom generation (and its youngest solo recipient ever), 64-year-old saxophonist Dave Liebman. As Michael J. West argued in the December issue, Lieb is a quintessential musician’s musician who deserves the award as much as anyone. With his illustrious career as a performer, composer and bandleader, not to mention his influential work in jazz education, the guy is pretty unimpeachable.
Another Jazz Masters first, however, arched a few eyebrows. Among the 2011 recipients are the Marsalises-plural, and not just Ellis, Wynton and Branford. The NEA went all in by inducting this New Orleans dynasty in its entirety, including trombonist and producer Delfeayo and drummer Jason. Observers like our Nate Chinen curiously and critically questioned the move, pointing to a gross inequity of achievement within the clan, a conflict of interest between the NEA and Wynton’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the great number of more deserving candidates, both alive and recently deceased.
Other major award winners in ’10 included Jason Moran, who received a coveted MacArthur “genius” grant. Anyone who has paid attention to Moran’s visionary work over the years-including the recent postmodern piano-trio document TEN (Blue Note)-could have seen that one coming.
And in August, Sonny Rollins became the first jazz musician and composer to receive the Edward MacDowell Medal. Rollins joined the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Georgia O’Keefe and Aaron Copland, all of whom are, like the saxophonist, artists who have “made an outstanding contribution to his or her field,” according to the MacDowell folks. The ceremony at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire included words from Gary Giddins and music by the Fred Hersch Trio.
Silence Is Brass
What’s old became new in 2010, with regards to the interaction of jazz and film. Trumpeter Dave Douglas and his peerless jazz-rock outfit Keystone lent their abilities to Spark of Being, a silent re-imagining of the Frankenstein tale by experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison. And guitarist Marc Ribot was likewise inspired by the idea of film scoring, releasing a haunting collection of solo performances titled Silent Movies (Pi).
But the main event was Louis, a fantastical tale of young Satchmo and his adventures in New Orleans. The film, directed (and underwritten) by Hyatt Hotels heir Dan Pritzker, had several special screenings throughout the country, with live accompaniment by Wynton Marsalis and a 10-piece jazz band.
Les’ Legacy Lives
After Les Paul died in August of 2009, Iridium Jazz Club, the guitar icon’s longtime Monday night clubhouse, began honoring his life, music and signature ax with weekly shows that matched Paul’s longtime trio with guitarists from all stylistic corners. Archtop masters like Martin Taylor and Bucky Pizzarelli made the dates, as did a remarkable lineup of high-profile rock players, among them Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Trey Anastasio (Phish), Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne) and Eric Johnson.
But the Paul homages reached thrilling heights in early June when British guitar hero Jeff Beck played two nights in the intimate space. The concerts, recorded for television broadcast and DVD release, found Beck taking a break from a tour with his working band; instead, he dug through the Les Paul/Mary Ford songbook and a host of rockabilly classics with the aid of Irish rockabilly singer Imelda May. On the first night, retro specialist Brian Setzer sat in with Beck, who participated in a special dedication ceremony. The second night saw a grip of famous onlookers, including Kiss’ Ace Frehley and Gene Simmons and Letterman sidekick Paul Shaffer.
Down in the Treme
Silent flicks are fun, but perhaps the best, most honest and most affecting intersection of jazz and the screen-big or little-arrived in April with HBO’s Treme. The series, which took place in New Orleans three months after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, followed a large and eclectic cast of characters, all of whom waded through the wreckage battling various demons: personal, political, bureaucratic, even artistic.
Our favorites were, of course, the musicians. There was Antoine Batiste, the car-less, skirt-chasing trombonist who hated himself for having to take hokey gigs on Bourbon Street; Delmond Lambreaux, the handsome young trumpeter torn between postbop dates at the Blue Note and the tribe culture embodied by his father, “Big Chief” Albert Lambreaux; busking violinist Annie and her troubled junkie boyfriend Sonny; and Davis McAlary, an erstwhile radio DJ, sometime musician and would-be songwriter, but really a slacker whose endless indignation and love for the city inspires him to run for political office. (With his big mouth, encyclopedic knowledge of the scene and unstoppable passion for the music, McAlary reminds us of some critics we know.)
The music, as in New Orleans, gave this series life. Parades, funerals, clubs, street corners, house parties-music was inescapable on this show, but you never wanted the tunes to stop. And, oh, the cameos did abound: theme-song singer John Boutté, Cassandra Wilson, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Galactic, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Elvis Costello, ReBirth Brass Band, Ron Carter-the list goes on. One of New Orleans’ fastest rising young talents, Trombone Shorty, appeared in conversation with the character Antoine Batiste; trumpeter and barbecue master Kermit Ruffins had a speaking part; and former JT columnist Stanley Crouch even showed up at an NYC cocktail party.
Created by David Simon (The Wire) and playwright Eric Overmyer, who accepted a Jazz Journalists Association Award on the show’s behalf in June, it seemed to please even the most discerning critics. New Orleanians loved it, and jazz heads, despite scoffing at a few corny lines about Wynton, swing and the like, shared their enthusiasm. (Kudos to NPR Music for their matchless coverage of the series.) Can’t wait for season two.
Bragging Rights at the Beacon
Every Sonny Rollins date is momentous, so when the saxophonist turns 80 and decides to celebrate at New York’s historic Beacon Theatre, look out. This Sept. 10 gig was advertised as a performance by Rollins’ working band, which now features the indomitably swinging guitarist Russell Malone, plus special guests Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove and Rollins’ ’60s compatriot Jim Hall. All that was delivered on, but it was only the beginning.
A stunning strolling-trio portion reprised the band from Rollins’ historic return to Carnegie Hall in 2008: McBride and drummer Roy Haynes. The three lamented through “Solitude” and swung gorgeously on “Sonnymoon for Two.” During that tune Rollins announced that a surprise guest was waiting in the wings to say happy birthday: It turned out to be Ornette Coleman, who sounded like his bluesy, beautiful, audacious self while the rhythm section tactfully adapted. As we wrote in our online review: “bragging rights to last a lifetime.”
We spent a lot of time in Newport this year, not only at the jazz festival but at the folk event as well. A constant presence at the latter was Jim James, frontman for the ruggedly intelligent rock band My Morning Jacket. James sat in throughout the weekend and communicated a profound respect for American roots music.
Of course, if you’d caught James at New Orleans’ JazzFest, or on MMJ’s spring tour, you’d already know that. Early in the year the Preservation Hall Jazz Band released a two-disc benefit project for its outreach program and for the hall itself; it featured the NOLA institution in collaboration with the likes of Tom Waits, Angélique Kidjo, Merle Haggard, Pete Seeger and other sympathetic name artists. Billed as his alter ego Yim Yames, James offered his best bawdy-house croon on “St. James Infirmary” and “Louisiana Fairytale.” For MMJ’s tour, Preservation Hall was booked as the opening act, and James accompanied the band on those tunes plus Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time”; Preservation returned the favor each night by providing horns on MMJ’s absolutely smoking cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.”
Home page photo of Steve Coleman at Undead Jazzfest by Greg Aiello