“In Canada once, a student asked me, ‘How do you reconcile what you want to play with what the audience wants to hear?’ And I said, ‘Man, as I get older, I really want to play music that people want to hear.’ I don’t even understand what the question is.”
Wayne Shorter was a hero to everyone in the jazz world, a visionary composer and an unequalled improviser who retained a childish sense of wonder and play. There was no one like him. I’m so glad I got to see him play live with his quartet at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2012. Here’s how the piece began:
An hour before pianist Danilo Pérez went onstage with the Wayne Shorter Quartet on April 28 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, I asked him what the group would be playing. He laughed. “We never know, man.” Well, how did it go last night? “It was exciting—and scary.”
It was an honor to celebrate the innovative pianist/composer Geri Allen on her induction into the DownBeat Hall of Fame. For this article in the August 2022 issue, I spoke to her manager and close friend, Ora Harris, who generously shared many wonderful stories with me; her collaborator and friend, the masterful drummer and composer Terri Lyne Carrington; and Jana Herzen of Motéma Records, her last label before Geri’s untimely passing at age 60. Thanks to DownBeat Editor Frank Alkyer for the assignment.
For Charles Mingus’s centennial, DownBeatasked me to do a deep dive on the composer, bassist and singular American cultural figure. In this package of three pieces, I explore the place Mingus occupies in the popular imagination, by all accounts well-deserved, as a force of nature, an iconoclastic truth-teller, a volatile, emotional man with a violent streak. But his many friends and fellow musicians, people who knew and loved him, remember a different side: the spiritual seeker, poet, esthete and philosopher; the bandleader who took pains to treat his musicians fairly; and, above all, the artist he was right down to his bone marrow. Among the artists and critics I interviewed: Christian McBride, Charles McPherson, biographer Brian Priestley, and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Vincent Gardner, who served as musical director for JALC’s Mingus centennial tribute. The main article is here. A sidebar on the making of “Epitaph,” Mingus’s magnum opus, is here. Another piece about new Mingus recordings and tributes is here.
Imagine if Sarah Vaughan played saxophone like Dexter Gordon. That’s approximately the effect when the 35-year-old singer and tenor saxophonist Camille Thurman performs. She told me about her struggles with sexism and crippling self-doubt in my interview with her, from the March 2022 @DownBeatMag.
Charles Mingus – prolific American composer, bass virtuoso, memoirist, poet, notorious truth teller, and all-around badass – would have turned 100 years old this year. I was delighted when @DownBeatMag asked me to write an appreciation of Mingus and his place in jazz history – delighted, and a bit intimidated. How on earth could I summarize his life and contributions to jazz in six magazine pages, give or take? You can judge how well I did soon. My story will be in the May issue, hitting the streets approximately April 1.
What a beautiful experience it was to be among the first wave of American tourists coming back to Italy last week. I was there to attend “A Night in Anzio,” an invitation-only jazz party in the seaside town south of Rome, assembled by Polish saxophonist Sylwester Ostrowski. Here are my impressions of the experience on Downbeat.com. The line-up included four great tenor saxophonists – Ostrowski, Igor Butman, Alexander Beets and Camille Thurman – Green. Take a look at the video here:
More than a gifted pianist, organist, and 20-yr member of James Taylor’s band, Larry Goldings is also the brilliant comic mind behind the viral CPAC “national anthem” video and, as most jazz fans know, the madcap “Hans Groiner” character, an “expert” on Thelonious Monk’s music who “improves it by making it more relaxing and less offensive to the ear.” Many thanks to Mac Randall of JazzTimes for publishing my interview with Larry. (BTW, don’t miss the priceless “Groiner interview” – an Easter egg embedded within the article.) #LarryGoldings #HansGroiner #JamesTaylor
I think it’s safe to say that Stacey Kent is the only jazz singer to have a Nobel Prize-winning novelist writing lyrics specifically for her voice. That novelist is Kazuo Ishiguro. Stacey, Ishiguro and Jim Tomlinson, Stacey’s musical director and husband, are the subjects of my piece in Jazziz Magazine. (Free trials of Jazziz are available if you’re not a subscriber.)
What a pleasure to interview Sergio Mendes, one of my musical heroes since I was a kid. The article appears in TIDAL Magazine, the highly readable online publication of the TIDAL streaming service (owned by Jay-Z).
Here’s one bit that didn’t make the final piece:
“Mas Que Nada” – Sergio’s signature song since Brasil ’66, a song that became the first-ever worldwide hit in Portuguese. The title means, approximately, “Yeah, right,” sarcastically, in Brazilian Portuguese. Sergio recalled when he heard the song for the first time:
“It was in Bottles Bar (the legendary Rio jazz hangout that witnessed the birth of Bossa Nova), maybe ’61 or ’62. This young kid, Jorge Ben, came in with his guitar and started playing it. It was so different from the very melodic stuff Jobim would do, a different vibe. But a great chant! When I play it in Japan, the Japanese sing along with it – it’s like the national anthem!”
I asked if he had any idea the song could become such an enormous worldwide hit in its original language. “Never!” he said. “When I first heard my record of it on the radio [in 1966], I called Herb [Alpert, his producer at A&M Records]. He said, “Sergio I think we’ve got a big hit here!”
“There’s something really exhilarating about doing something terrifying,” she said, talking about her latest project, Ogresse, her song cycle/performance piece, which she is trying to turn into an animated feature film. For my vocal jazz column in Jazziz Magazine (Jan. 2021 issue), the supremely talented @CecileSalvant, a recently minted MacArthur fellow, spoke to me from Miami, where she was spending the holidays. A beautiful person and artist.
Last summer, with the club and concert scene in the US and Europe shuttered and fear rampant, the sensational 30-year-old pianist @EmmetCohen managed to organize a tour of Europe for his NYC-based trio. Everywhere they went, they were told they were the only American band that had come over and performed. How did they do it? My news piece in DownBeat.
My latest for JazzTimes — Pianist @JohnBeasley is the Zelig of the jazz and pop music world, playing with everyone from Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock to Steely Dan, Carly Simon and Rickie Lee Jones, arranging music for American Idol, playing on James Bond movie scores, and serving as musical director for Jazz at the White House and International Jazz Day. But it’s his brilliant writing for the Grammy-winning MONK’estra that has won him his greatest acclaim. And he’s got a few stories… https://jazztimes.com/features/profiles/john-beasley-reflects-on-miles-herbie-and-of-course-monk/
I recently had the pleasure of talking to singer/arranger Amy London of the Royal Bopsters for Jazziz Magazine, then reviewing their new album Party of Four for DownBeat. The Bopsters – soprano London, alto Holli Ross, tenor Pete McGuiness, and bass Dylan Pramuk – specialize in the vocalese of the bebop era and beyond. On the new album, they perform songs by Billy Strayhorn and Tadd Dameron, standards and more modern stuff, including one by Wayne Shorter. They all get the Bopsters’ treatment: twisty, 4-part close harmonies and effervescent scatting.
Since the DownBeat review had rather strict space limits, here’s the full, unabridged version.
The Royal Bopsters
Party of Four
Motéma Music MTM0372
No jazz vocal group in the 20th century cast a longer shadow than Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. They had so many things going for them: their skill as arrangers and entertainers; their ferocious swing; their ability to channel horn or sax sections; and Jon Hendricks’ ingenious way with vocalese lyrics.
All those qualities are echoed in the work of The Royal Bopsters. Their first album, which included guest appearances by Hendricks, Annie Ross, and three other all-time jazz vocal greats, Mark Murphy, Sheila Jordan, and Bob Dorough, conveyed the sense of a torch being passed. Now, after a five-year hiatus, the Bopsters – Amy London (soprano), Holli Ross (alto), Pete McGuiness (tenor), and Dylan Pramuk (bass) – are back, and their sophomore release is an entertaining gem.
The new CD is like a master class for jazz arrangers and vocalists, with Pramuk and McGuinness steering the artful arrangements, while London, Ross and Pramuk contribute clever lyrics. The album is dedicated to the memory of Ross, whose life was tragically cut short last May after a three-year battle with cancer.
Ms. Jordan and the late Mr. Dorough (in one of his final recordings) return as guests, with delightfully free-spirited vocals. Uber-bassist Christian McBride, who presented the group at the 2019 Newport Jazz Festival, adds his deep pocket to two tracks. Pianist Steve Schmidt, bassist Cameron Brown, drummer Steve Williams, and percussionist Steven Kroon, provide first-rate support throughout.
Among several extraordinary tracks, Pramuk’s arrangement of Tadd Dameron’s classic “On A Misty Night” is a standout. It’s based on two previous records: Dameron’s big band arrangement from his The Magic Touch album; and a lyric written by British singer/keyboardist Georgie Fame to a Chet Baker trumpet solo from yet another recording. The whole album is peppered with such Easter eggs for jazz and vocalese fans.
The late Ms. Ross’s version of Tito Puente’s hit “Cuando Te Vea (When I See You),” for which she translated the lyric with the permission of the iconic Latin bandleader, is another highlight. It features McBride’s compelling tumbao and an uncanny mouth-trombone solo by McGuiness, but they don’t overshadow Ross’s impassioned vocal, a fitting valediction for a terrific singer gone too soon.
Party of Four: But Not For Me; On A Misty Night/Gipsy; How I Love You (Let Me Count The Reasons); Lucky To Be Me; Why’d You Do Me The Way You Did; Day Dream; Cuando Te Vea; Baby, You Should Know It; Our Spring Song; Rusty Dusty Blues; Infant Eyes; My Shining Hour. (58:42)
Personnel: The Royal Bopsters (Amy London, Holli Ross, Pete McGuinness, Dylan Pramuk), vocals; Steve Schmidt, piano; Cameron Brown, bass; Steve Williams, drums; Steven Kroon, percussion (7,11); Bob Dorough, vocals (8); Sheila Jordan, vocals (4); Christian McBride, bass (2, 7).
I’m excited that so many of my favorite artists and interview subjects are nominated for 2021 Grammys! The list includes John Beasley; Kurt Elling, featuring Danilo Perez; Kenny Washington; Becca Stevens; Chico Pinheiro; Maria Schneider; Alan Broadbent; Chick Corea; Christian McBride; Brian Blade; Terri Lyne Carrington, and Jacob Collier (album of the year, no less!). Big congratulations to all. And stay tuned for my upcoming portrait of John “Killer Beas” Beasley in JazzTimes.
2. Album Of The Year Award to Artist(s) and to Featured Artist(s), Songwriter(s) of new material, Producer(s), Recording Engineer(s), Mixer(s) and Mastering Engineer(s) credited with at least 33% playing time of the album, if other than Artist.
CHILOMBO Jhené Aiko Fisticuffs & Julian-Quán Việt Lê, producers; Fisticuffs, Julian-Quán Việt Lê, Zeke Mishanec, Christian Plata & Gregg Rominiecki, engineers/mixers; Jhené Aiko Efuru Chilombo, Julian-Quán Việt Lê, Maclean Robinson & Brian Keith Warfield, songwriters; Dave Kutch, mastering engineer
BLACK PUMAS (DELUXE EDITION) Black Pumas Jon Kaplan & Adrian Quesada, producers; Adrian Quesada, Jacob Sciba, Stuart Sikes & Erik Wofford, engineers/mixers; Eric Burton & Adrian Quesada, songwriters; JJ Golden, mastering engineer
EVERYDAY LIFE Coldplay Daniel Green, Bill Rahko & Rik Simpson, producers; Mark “Spike” Stent, engineer/mixer; Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion & Chris Martin, songwriters; Emily Lazar, mastering engineer
DJESSE VOL.3 Jacob Collier Jacob Collier, producer; Ben Bloomberg & Jacob Collier, engineers/mixers; Jacob Collier, songwriter; Chris Allgood & Emily Lazar, mastering engineers
WOMEN IN MUSIC PT. III HAIM Rostam Batmanglij, Danielle Haim & Ariel Rechtshaid, producers; Rostam Batmanglij, Jasmine Chen, John DeBold, Matt DiMona, Tom Elmhirst, Joey Messina-Doerning & Ariel Rechtshaid, engineers/mixers; Rostam Batmanglij, Alana Haim, Danielle Haim, Este Haim & Ariel Rechtshaid, songwriters; Emily Lazar, mastering engineer
FUTURE NOSTALGIA Dua Lipa Koz, producer; Josh Gudwin & Cameron Gower Poole, engineers/mixers; Clarence Coffee Jr. & Dua Lipa, songwriters; Chris Gehringer, mastering engineer
HOLLYWOOD’S BLEEDING Post Malone Louis Bell & Frank Dukes, producers; Louis Bell & Manny Marroquin, engineers/mixers; Louis Bell, Adam Feeney, Austin Post & Billy Walsh, songwriters; Mike Bozzi, mastering engineer
FOLKLORE Taylor Swift Jack Antonoff, Aaron Dessner & Taylor Swift, producers; Jack Antonoff, Aaron Dessner, Serban Ghenea, John Hanes, Jonathan Low & Laura Sisk, engineers/mixers; Aaron Dessner & Taylor Swift, songwriters; Randy Merrill, mastering engineer
31. Best Improvised Jazz Solo For an instrumental jazz solo performance. Two equal performers on one recording may be eligible as one entry. If the soloist listed appears on a recording billed to another artist, the latter’s name is in parenthesis for identification. Singles or Tracks only.
GUINEVERE Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah, soloist Track from: Axiom
PACHAMAMA Regina Carter, soloist Track from: Ona (Thana Alexa)
CELIA Gerald Clayton, soloist
ALL BLUES Chick Corea, soloist Track from: Trilogy 2 (Chick Corea, Christian McBride & Brian Blade)
32. Best Jazz Vocal Album For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new vocal jazz recordings.
ONA Thana Alexa
SECRETS ARE THE BEST STORIES Kurt Elling Featuring Danilo Pérez
MODERN ANCESTORS Carmen Lundy
HOLY ROOM: LIVE AT ALTE OPER Somi With Frankfurt Radio Big Band
WHAT’S THE HURRY Kenny Washington
33. Best Jazz Instrumental Album For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new instrumental jazz recordings.
ON THE TENDER SPOT OF EVERY CALLOUSED MOMENT Ambrose Akinmusire
WAITING GAME Terri Lyne Carrington And Social Science
HAPPENING: LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD Gerald Clayton
TRILOGY 2 Chick Corea, Christian McBride & Brian Blade
ROUNDAGAIN Redman Mehldau McBride Blade
34. Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album For albums containing at least 51% playing time of new ensemble jazz recordings.
DIALOGUES ON RACE Gregg August
MONK’ESTRA PLAYS JOHN BEASLEY John Beasley
THE INTANGIBLE BETWEEN Orrin Evans And The Captain Black Big Band
SONGS YOU LIKE A LOT John Hollenbeck With Theo Bleckmann, Kate McGarry, Gary Versace And The Frankfurt Radio Big Band
DATA LORDS Maria Schneider Orchestra
35. Best Latin Jazz Album For vocal or instrumental albums containing at least 51% playing time of newly recorded material. The intent of this category is to recognize recordings that represent the blending of jazz with Latin, Iberian-American, Brazilian, and Argentinian tango music.
TRADICIONES Afro-Peruvian Jazz Orchestra
FOUR QUESTIONS Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra
Milton Nascimento is one of the most singular Brazilian singer-composers of the last century. Antonio Adolfo, Rio’s great pianist, bandleader, and arranger – and no slouch in the composing department either – has explored his old friend Milton’s evocative harmonies and haunting melodies in an exquisite new album, made with the participation of some of Brazil’s most accomplished jazz musicians.
The album has been number one on jazz radio in the U.S. for three straight weeks, an unexpected and delightful surprise (to me, at least). Here’s my interview with Mr. Adolfo in DownBeat (including links to the music), just out today.
DownBeat recently asked me to review Capitol’s re-release of Frank Sinatra’s 1960 mid-career classic Nice ‘N’ Easy, now in an expanded edition for the album’s 60th anniversary (https://downbeat.com/digitaledition/2020/DB20_08/single_page_view/48.html). A slightly “expanded edition” of my review is below. Diving back into that New Frontier world with Frank and Nelson Riddle – both of them at their artistic peak – proved a soothing diversion from the pandemic and the anxieties and outrages of the 24/7 news cycle. I heartily recommend it.
Nice ‘N’ Easy (60th Anniversary Expanded Edition)
Capitol/UMe Records B0031729-02
Ol’ Blue Eyes to the rescue: In these troubled times, a classic album of Sinatra love songs might be the ultimate sonic comfort food.
Especially this album. Nice ‘N’ Easy was recorded in 1960 when Sinatra was at the height of his vocal powers. At age 44, no longer the carefree young crooner, his voice had deepened and matured, reflecting the agonies of his tempestuous six-year marriage to Ava Gardner. After two ballad collections (No One Cares and Only the Lonely) featuring torch songs near-suicidal in tone, Sinatra wanted to record love songs with a lighter touch.
The newly minted title track, by Lew Spence and the young Alan and Marilyn Bergman, was the only mid-tempo number. Sinatra had previously recorded the other 11 songs, all classic ballads, for Columbia in the 1940s. Now he intended to produce the definitive versions, with peak Nelson Riddle arrangements, this time in hi-fi and stereo. The 1960 versions are deeper and richer; the arrangements are more modern but timeless.
With his honeyed timbre, marinated over the years by booze, smoke and heartaches, Sinatra is the romantic hero of each little three-minute drama, the voice always intimate, now confiding, now confessing, sometimes just wryly commenting.
The new stereo mixes are breathtaking, and the bonus materials are invaluable: two session takes illuminate Sinatra’s process in the studio, recording take after take with full orchestra. There’s also an exquisite “The Nearness of You,” the album’s original title track.
Riddle was the best, and Sinatra knew it (“Nelson is the greatest arranger in the world” he declared). His orchestrations, particularly his writing for woodwinds and strings, are a heavenly combination of romance, classical know-how, and judicious use of jazz harmonies. If you don’t get goosebumps when Frank sings, in “That Old Feeling,” “…and when you caught my eye, my heart stood still,” as Riddle’s strings start to soar, check your pulse.
Nice ‘N’ Easy: Nice ’N’ Easy; That Old Feeling; How Deep Is The Ocean; I’ve Got A Crush On You; You Go To My Head; Fools Rush In; Nevertheless; She’s Funny That Way; Try A Little Tenderness; Embraceable You; Mam’selle; Dream; The Nearness Of You; I’ve Got A Crush On You (session takes); Nice ‘N’ Easy (session takes). 57:15
Personnel: Frank Sinatra, vocals; Nelson Riddle, arranger and conductor; orchestra includes Plas Johnson, tenor saxophone; Al Viola, guitar; Felix Slatkin, violin; Bill Miller, piano.
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