Category Archives: Downbeat

Remembering Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter at Jazz at Lincoln Center
(photo by Fran Kaufman)

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.”

My review in DownBeat.


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The Education of Camille Thurman (DownBeat, March 2022)

Thurman was the first woman to tour and perform full time with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. (Photo: Courtesy of Camille Thurman)

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.

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Coming Soon: A Mingus Appreciation

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.

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Siegel & Kinhan Serve Up “Vocal Gumbo” (Downbeat – April 19, 2021)

The Vocal Gumbo team: Lauren Kinhan (top left), Janis Siegel (bottom left) and Laurie Green.
(Photo: Laurie Green)

A little over a year ago, Janis Siegel of The Manhattan Transfer arrived home from an aborted tour. “At first we all thought, OK, I’m sure we’ll be back at work by the summer.” When that didn’t happen, Janis and her buddy Lauren Kinhan of New York Voices started figuring out a way to convert their monthly “Vocal Mania” shows at NYC’s Zinc Bar to a live-streaming online format. The result, they told me for DownBeat Magazine, is Vocal Gumbo. My interview with Janis and Lauren.

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Antonio Adolfo explores the music of Milton Nascimento

Antonio Adolfo

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.

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João Gilberto, the Voice of Bossa Nova, Dies at 88 (DownBeat)

“Look at the wind tearing out the trees’ hair … .”

“But trees don’t have hair, João,” said the psychologist.

“And some people have no poetry in their souls,” he replied.

For my DownBeat obit on the genius João Gilberto, I spoke with Eliane Elias and the legendary Wanda Sá.

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Filed under Bossa Nova, Brazilian music, Chris McNulty, Downbeat, Joao Gilberto, Music Writing and Clips, Stan Getz, Uncategorized

NYC – Still the Jazz Capital (DownBeat, Feb. 2019)

Smalls/Mezzrow impresario and pianist Spike Wilner.

For the lead story on New York City in @DownbeatMag’s 25 Greatest Jazz Cities package (Feb. 2019), I spoke with musicians who run jazz clubs, like Spike Wilner and Matt Garrison (Shapeshifter Lab); other musicians who live here (Anat Cohen, Kurt Elling); and jazz label execs Don Was (Blue Note), Barney Fields (HighNote/Savant), Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang (Pi).  Read it here.

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Filed under Anat Cohen, Barney Fields, Blue Note, Don Was, Downbeat, HighNote Records, Kurt Elling, Matt Garrison, Mezzrow, Pi Recordings, Shapeshifter Lab, Smalls, Spike Wilner

Kurt Elling asks “The Questions”

Kurt Elling has always been one of our most cerebral jazz singers, which is not to say he doesn’t swing like a mother. Over lunch and several glasses of Montepulciano at his favorite neighborhood pizzeria on the Upper West Side…

Kurt Elling and me, March 2018

…we talked for nearly three hours about his new album, The Questions (Okeh), which he describes as both a reaction to the era of division and vitriol brought on by the Trump Administration, and an attempt to rise above it and consider more cosmic matters. To that end, the album features shattering, modern interpretations of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and Paul Simon’s “American Tune;” it also includes lyrics he adapted from favorite poems by Wallace Stevens, Franz Wright, and Rumi, among others. The album, co-produced by Branford Marsalis, is one of my favorite discs of the year. Our discussion appears in the June issue of DownBeatbut you can read it here.

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Composer Maria Schneider takes on Google and the “Data Lords”

maria-schneider-2014_whit_lane_photo_b-w“If everybody gets used to getting their music for free, nobody is going to pay for music anymore,” says the Grammy-winning bandleader Maria Schneider. She is hopping mad at YouTube and Spotify, and she wants you to be hopping mad, too.

Schneider describes the current system of digital music distribution as one in which huge corporate behemoths reap billions in revenue, while leaving a few crumbs – tiny fractions of a penny per play – for the creators, and then lie about what a great public service they’re performing. “It’s been nothing less than a massive redistribution of wealth,” she told me in my recent cover story on Ms. Schneider for DownBeat. Everybody who makes music or listens to it – that’s all of us – need to hear what she has to say, then get involved to force Congress to change the Copyright Law – or else musicians won’t be able to survive. That’s the subject of the first half of the interview. In the second half, we talk about her sublime music and her muse.

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Brazilian Supergroup Trio da Paz Celebrates 30 Years with Album, Grammy Nod (DownBeat)

Trio da Paz – Romero Lubambo, Nilson Matta and Duduka Da Fonseca – are celebrating 30 years as the best known trio in Brazilian jazz with the group’s first Grammy nomination, for their album “30.” Here’s my interview with them in DownBeat.

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Gregory Porter: “I Started Being Me” (DownBeat, June 2016)

gregory-with-grammySince my first DownBeat cover story on singer/songwriter Gregory Porter back in August 2013, he’s come in first place in the male vocalist category of both the DownBeat Critics and Readers polls every year, ahead of such heavyweights as Tony Bennett and Kurt Elling.

His new album, Take Me To The Alley (Blue Note), has cemented his reputation in Europe, where he is already a top crossover star and major concert draw. Maybe 2017 will be his breakout year in the U.S. mass market.  In honor of his latest win in the DownBeat Readers Poll (December 2016) here’s my second feature article about him from the June issue. In it we talk about his booming career, new album, and how fame has changed his life.

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Hyman, Alexander Lead Celebration of Jazz Piano in NYC (, 9/28/16)

Stride piano master Dick Hyman at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Sept. 22, 2016

How 89-year-old Dick Hyman and 13-year-old Joey Alexander brought the house down at Jazz at Lincoln Center (along with five other brilliant pianists) – here’s my story, as published in

Can you call a 13-year-old a piano master? The question came to mind during last weekend’s season opener by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (known more simply as the JLCO). The show, entitled “Handful of Keys: A Century of Jazz Piano,” featured spectacular performances by 89-year-old piano master Dick Hyman and the astonishing Joey Alexander, now barely a teenager. It also included memorable performances by five other exceptionally talented pianists – Helen Sung, Myra Melford, Larry Willis, Isaiah J. Thompson, and the JLCO’s own Dan Nimmer – an embarrassment of riches.

Since the whole glorious history of jazz piano cannot fairly be assayed in a single evening, the concert was more of a grab-bag than a survey. The game plan seems to have been to allow the pianists to play some of their favorite music, with the result roughly representing many of the major styles of jazz piano.

Marsalis and company were celebrating the 29th season of the JLCO, which, since 2004, has performed its ambitious programs in the plush digs of the Rose Theater, part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s three-venue complex in the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle. During intermission, the sold-out crowd was invited to toast the anniversary with champagne in the recently renovated Atrium named for Ahmet Ertegun and his wife Mica. The new season will include centennial observances of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Buddy Rich, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Marsalis kicked off the evening with the Milwaukee-born Nimmer, introducing him as someone who “was born and lives to swing… We have embraced him and love him and we won’t let him go anywhere.” As he entered from stage right, the orchestra echoed those sentiments, greeting the boyish-looking 33-year-old with a standing ovation. Nimmer, choosing the upbeat “Temperance” from a 1960 album by one of his idols, Wynton Kelly, proceeded to emulate what he described as Kelly’s “happy feeling and driving swing.” Accompanied by a sparkling arrangement by JLCO trumpeter Marcus Printup that showcased the piano beautifully, Nimmer showed why he is one of today’s most versatile and under-appreciated pianists. It comes down to two words: great feel.

The next pianist, the preternaturally confident and proficient Isaiah J. Thompson, a Marsalis protégé, is only 19 and a sophomore in Julliard’s jazz studies program. He began with a fine homage to Monk, eloquently riffing on Monk’s off-kilter take on “Lulu’s Back in Town,” artfully arranged by trombonist Vincent Gardner. Afterwards, Marsalis observed, “He’s gonna get a good grade this semester.” On Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom” from the 1962 Night Train album, Thompson displayed a light touch and solid swing feeling that conjured the master.

The rising piano star Helen Sung followed, impressing with her physicality and polish at the keyboard and her stylistic range. She brought that whole-body approach to McCoy Tyner’s fascinating, rhythmically challenging “Four By Five,” in her own arrangement for the JLCO. The high-energy arrangement featured Victor Goines burning through an intense, Coltrane-ish tenor solo, and Ali Jackson, having a field day in one of his typically melodic drum solos. After that bracing excursion into modernism, Sung made a 180, with a beautifully nuanced, pleading blues piano solo on Percy Mayfield’s R&B classic “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” Played as a trio with drummer Jackson and bassist Carlos Henriquez, it felt like a warm bath.

NEA Jazz Master Dick Hyman, who must be tired of seeing his age in print, showed his ageless artistry in the first of his two appearances in the program. In a Benny Carter arrangement of “All of Me,” Hyman’s fleet, two-handed runs displayed undiminished skills and imagination. Marsalis and other band members seemed to hang on his every note.

The program’s second half began with the extraordinary Myra Melford, whose radiant, energetic presence and sense of humor belie her serious composing chops and a sheer physical domination of the piano that sometimes recalled Cecil Taylor. Of the seven pianists, Melford was the only one to perform her own composition; it was “The Strawberry,” from her acclaimed Snowy Egret album, in a daring, accomplished big band arrangement by saxophonist Ted Nash. After a gospel/bluesy intro, the piece segued into jaunty, Latin-inspired modernism that recalled Leonard Bernstein’s dance music in West Side Story. She followed up with a rhapsodic rendition of Andrew Hill’s “Images of Time.”

Journeyman pianist Larry Willis was greeted with the orchestra’s second standing ovation, in recognition of his long career as a musician’s musician. He continued the concert’s emphasis on the percussive side of the piano with another Monk tune, “Rhythm-A-Ning,” in a brilliant arrangement by saxophonist Sherman Irby that began with a glorious Ali Jackson drum solo, then showcased a dense, discordant, frenetic Willis solo and a wild trombone solo by Elliot Mason.

The stage was set for the evening’s most highly anticipated performance. Mr. Alexander may be diminutive, but he is like a stealth weapon. Introducing him, Marsalis proclaimed his genius, noting, “You will never hear another 13-year-old ever play on the progression he’s about to play.” The progression was that of “Very Early,” the first of two tunes written by or associated with Bill Evans. The idea that a pianist so young would embody the spirit of the great Evans was hard to wrap one’s head around, but he successfully evoked the master without sacrificing his own keen originality. In this, and a breathtaking version of “Who Can I Turn To?,” here at last was the celebration of elaborate and exquisite jazz harmony needed to round out the evening’s portrait of jazz piano history.

Perhaps the only finale that could credibly follow Alexander’s bravura performance was the return of the serene, Yoda-like Mr. Hyman, striding onstage with erect posture and a vigor that belied his 89 years. He proceeded, Samson-like, to destroy the place with James P. Johnson’s supremely challenging “Jingles.” In the finest rendition of a Johnson stride masterpiece that I ever expect to hear, he also made the 1930 masterwork sound like it had been written yesterday.

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Coming soon – my Q&A with YouTube sensation Jacob Collier (@jcolliermusic)

Jacob Collier YouTubeThis is 21-year-old British singer-songwriter, musical polymath and YouTube sensation Jacob Collier. Yesterday I spoke with him via Skype from London, for an interview to be published in DownBeat Magazine. He was charming and articulate, and offered many insights into his singular musical process. His first album, on Quincy Jones’s Qwest Records, is due out July 1 – and it’s killer.

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Bruce Barth Brings Eloquent, Hard-Charging Swing to Mezzrow

(from, posted 5/11/2016)


Bruce Barth demonstrated a refined, gentle touch and unshakable swing at Mezzrow in NYC on May 7. (Photo: Janis Wilkins)

The small, narrow listening room Mezzrow, with its strangely perfect acoustics, is an unlikely success in a city full of good jazz clubs, mainly because it is one of the best places in New York to hear jazz piano—usually in a duo with a bassist, guitarist or vocalist. In that, it is a worthy heir to Bradley’s, the late, lamented club that inspired it.

Since Mezzrow opened in 2014, many fine pianists have played its Steinway (currently a new Model “A”), but certainly none with more swinging authority than Bruce Barth, who appeared before a packed house on May 7, in a duo with Vicente Archer, a partner of similarly formidable skill. (Barth also performed the previous night in a duo with vibraphonist Steve Nelson.)

At 57, Barth may be playing the best piano of his career, which is saying a lot. He has often been referred to as a “pianist’s pianist,” while somehow eluding wider recognition, despite more than a dozen albums under his own name and long associations with top-tier instrumentalists including trumpeter Terence Blanchard and alto saxophonist/flutist Steve Wilson and singers like and Tony Bennett, Karrin Allyson and Luciana Souza.

A mainstream but modern piano master, his playing is distinguished by a combination of beautiful tone, ceaseless imagination and, especially, unshakable swing.

Barth and Archer came roaring out of the gate. From the first few notes of “Almost Blues,” a Barth original, one could sense an almost audible sigh of relaxed contentment from the audience, as if they were being massaged by these four hands. There was a palpable sense that the rhythm, so strongly established, would never falter.

“Almost Blues” was an apt description for this infectious, altered blues, with dissonances informed by the pianist’s love of Thelonious Monk. It became a showcase for Barth’s killer combination: on the one hand, a refined, gentle touch; on the other, a granite-hard swing.

Barth and Archer, who have worked together for years, seemed to breathe as one, creating an intensely locked-in sense of time. They embodied the fundamental principle that the rhythm is ever-present, like a subliminal river—sometimes fast-moving, sometimes leisurely—into which they dip in and out at will.

In this number and others, Archer, who regularly plays with Robert Glasper and Nicholas Payton, offered a textbook example of how to walk with authority on the bass, his quarter notes squarely on the fat part of the beat; his solos were bluesy, harmonically eloquent and perfectly articulated.

The duo played Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” in a jazz arrangement so natural it seemed as if the song had been written that way, Barth alternating lyrical passages with exuberant blues and gospel-flecked improvisation. His effortless mastery of tone and dynamics permitted him to do what is usually considered so difficult with the piano: He made it “sing” the melody.

On Wilson’s “Joyful Noise,” Barth produced gorgeous tonal clusters and ecstatic runs reminiscent of Bill Evans. His own gentle, melodic songs included the wistful “Softly In A Garden Path,” the Japanese-influenced “Yama” and the bucolic “At The Ranch,” a jazz evocation of the American West. Barth and Archer soared on a truly rhapsodic “I Hear A Rhapsody” and also on the set closer, a brisk “Rhythm-A-Ning” that played like Monk on steroids.

Barth’s performances tend to attract other pianists who marvel at his gifts. One such admirer on Saturday night, the estimable jazz pianist Leslie Pintchik, commented after the first set—with deep irony: “Now if he could only improvise and swing, he’d really be something,” she said.  —Allen Morrison

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Jane Monheit and Nicholas Payton do Ella Fitzgerald their way

Pristine-voiced @JaneMonheit joins forces with trumpeter/composer Nicholas Payton @paynic to pay homage to Ella on her first album on her own Emerald City label. An abridged version of this review appears in the May 2016 @DownBeat. Here’s the more expansive version.

Monheit Songbook Sessions

Jane Monheit

Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald

Emerald City Records ECR-001

★ ★ ★ ★

Nobody brought more joy or pathos to jazz singing than Ella Fitzgerald, inspiring generations of jazz vocalists. One of them was Jane Monheit, who grew up learning the American popular song canon from Ella’s “songbook” albums, as well as from her other idols like Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, and Judy Garland. Now Monheit repays the debt, singing favorite Fitzgerald tunes in an album filled with moments of startling invention and beauty.

Monheit’s pristine tone and formidable jazz instincts were recognized as a natural wonder when she won first-runner-up at the 1998 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. She doesn’t just sing a song, she ebbs and flows with it, breathing, sighing, moaning and caressing every syllable until it becomes her own. Over the years, however, Monheit has often had to prove that she was more of a serious jazz artist than the sexy image promoted by a series of record labels. Now on her own label, she has used her new-found freedom not only to record this long-gestating homage to Ella, but to do it her way, with help from the superb trumpeter-keyboardist-composer Nicholas Payton, who produced, as well as arranging eight of the twelve tracks.

The world didn’t need to hear Monheit or anyone else reiterate Ella’s definitive performances of these songs. The album’s opening notes – an odd, but alluring bass ostinato that paves the way for her sultry cooing of Duke Ellington’s “All Too Soon” – announce its intention to design adventurous new settings for these classics. The arrangements remain true to the indelible melodies and lyrics but roam freely around their harmonic structures.

Payton originally intended only to produce and arrange but ended up playing throughout the album, creating a fascinating melodic foil for Monheit. Their two voices entwine in gorgeous melody in a pairing of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” with “In a Sentimental Mood.” A brisk, carefree version of “Where or When” finds Monheit swinging in full Ella mode.

No singer could wish for more simpatico backing than Monheit gets from her longtime trio, Michael Kanan on piano and keyboards, Neal Miner on bass, and Rick Montalbano on drums. In particular, Kanan’s art as an accompanist is in full flower in a moving voice/piano duet of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” in which the pair elevate the Cole Porter standard to the level of art song.

Songbook Sessions/Ella Fitzgerald: All Too Soon; Somebody Loves Me; Chelsea Mood (Chelsea Bridge/In A Sentimental Mood); Something’s Gotta Give; I Was Doing All Right/Know You Now; Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye; Where Or When; Ill Wind; All Of Me; I Used To Be Colorblind; I’ve Got You Under My Skin; This Time The Dream’s On Me (58:42)

Personnel: Jane Monheit, vocals; Nicholas Payton; trumpet, piano (11), organ (11,12), arrangements; Michael Kanan, acoustic and electric piano, arrangements (3, 6); Neal Miner, bass, arrangements (7, 10); Rick Montalbano, drums; Daniel Sadownick, percussion; Brandee Younger, harp (5, 12).

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Bill Charlap Trio – A master class in class (from @downbeatmag)

BillCharlap2I wrote this review of the Bill Charlap Trio’s new album, Notes From New York, which appears (slightly abridged) in the May issue of DownBeat.  Here’s the full review.

Bill Charlap Trio: Notes From New York

Impulse! 006002547777911


Maybe it’s because he’s the son of a famous songwriter (Moose Charlap of Peter Pan fame), but nobody respects a songwriter’s intentions more than Bill Charlap. The universe of pianists who treat a tune with his kind of reverence, yet can also perform the kind of musical exegesis on it that Charlap does, is essentially limited to Charlap himself. He’s often described as the epitome of mainstream pianists, in the tradition of iconic players from Art Tatum to Ahmad Jamal to Hank Jones. But the term “mainstream” becomes meaningless when one considers the technical mastery, the subtlety of his feel, his risk-taking arrangements, and his unflagging melodic and harmonic invention – or should we say, re-invention.

Fresh from the critical and popular triumph of The Silver Lining, his Jerome Kern tribute with Tony Bennett, the new album with his finely calibrated trio (Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums) is his first for the newly revived Impulse! label. It delivers nine standards, only three of which are widely familiar (“I’ll Remember April,” “A Sleepin’ Bee,” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street”). The rest of the program is devoted to more obscure but delightful songs from the worlds of Broadway, film and jazz.

The title and album art couldn’t be more appropriate: Charlap is a quintessential New Yorker from a celebrated show business family, and his light touch and ultra-cool arrangements are the very embodiment of Manhattan sophistication and elegance. The cubist-inspired album cover perfectly captures the esthetic of Charlap’s approach, at once retro and modern.

The album is a master class in class. The opening track, “I’ll Remember April,” arranged to a fare-thee-well, is alone worth the price of the album. Starting with its intro, in which Charlap manipulates our perception of where the bar line lies, he plays with time and re-harmonizes the song in continually surprising ways. “Make Me Rainbows,” a nearly forgotten John Williams movie song, is a mid-tempo swinger that includes a leisurely two-bar rest for the entire trio, a silent stretch that feels so long you could rotate your tires. Other highlights include Thad Jones’ bouncy, unpredictable “Little Rascal On A Rock,” and a joyous excursion into bebop a la Bird with “Tiny’s Tempo,” which affords both Washingtons the luxury of stretching out in typically tasteful style.

Saving the best for last, Charlap’s solo-piano interpretation of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” challenges our notions of this most familiar song. Charlap plays it very slowly and thoroughly revamps its harmony, turning it into a wistful tone poem loaded with nostalgia for a bygone, more carefree era when such an optimistic song might be cheerily performed at a more sprightly tempo. The air of haunted regret will stay with you long after the last perplexing chord rings out.

Notes From New York: I’ll Remember April; Make Me Rainbows; Not A Care In The World; There Is No Music; A Sleepin’ Bee; Little Rascal On A Rock; Too Late Now; Tiny’s Tempo; On The Sunny Side Of The Street (54:01)

Personnel: Bill Charlap, piano; Peter Washington, double bass; Kenny Washington, drums.

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New Gregory Porter album: Take Me to the Alley

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“Miles Ahead” in the April 2016 DownBeat


My DownBeat Magazine cover story about the making of the new Don Cheadle film “Miles Ahead” has been mailed to subscribers and will be on newsstands next week. It includes interviews with director/star Cheadle, Herbie Hancock, composer Robert Glasper, and members of Miles’s family. Here’s the cover. To see a trailer for the film, go here:

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Filed under Don Cheadle, Downbeat, Herbie Hancock, Keyon Harrold, Miles Davis, Music Writing and Clips, Robert Glasper

Blue Note Stars Set Sail on Queen Mary 2

By Allen Morrison, from DownBeat, Feb. 2016

Blue Note Jazz at SeaFor seven days in late October/early November, one of the hippest jazz clubs on the planet was no jazz club at all, but rather Cunard Lines’ flagship Queen Mary 2, during the inaugural Cunard/Blue Note “Jazz at Sea” Festival, during a transatlantic crossing from Brooklyn to Southampton, England.

Accompanied by label president, bassist/producer Don Was, the musicians onboard included some of Blue Note Records’ biggest names: singer Gregory Porter, pianist Robert Glasper, and the Blue Note 75th Anniversary Band, an all-star group featuring Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer Kendrick Scott, guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, subbing for Ambrose Akinmusire. Other players onboard included drummers E.J. Strickland and Mark Colenburg, pianist Fabian Almazen, keyboardists Michael Aaberg and Federico Peña, guitarist Mike Moreno, and bassist/singer Alan Hampton.

Cunard has scheduled two more transatlantic crossings featuring Blue Note stars on the luxurious, 2,500-passenger ocean liner in 2016: westbound departing Southampton on August 1 and eastbound from Brooklyn on October 26.

The inspiration for the partnership was Cunard’s, according to Stanley Birge, vice-president of Cunard, N.A. By booking some of the world’s most prominent jazz artists, the passenger ship line, long known for its cultural programming, is trying to appeal to current customers but also to attract a new generation to the cruise line, he said.

The partnership was anything but inevitable, and success was not assured. The venerable British company, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary, is among the most tradition-bound of cruise lines, with a customer base that skews older and includes a high percentage of Brits. Blue Note, celebrating its 75th year, has a different kind of tradition, one of defying convention and expanding the boundaries of jazz. This made for some odd juxtapositions – for example, fox-trotting older passengers in formalwear in a ballroom immediately next door to a nightclub presenting forward-leaning jazz units led by Lionel Loueke or Derrick Hodge.

“Honestly, there was some fear, before we left the dock,” Was said in a shipboard interview, seated by a window in a quiet corner while watching the North Atlantic roll by. He described warily eyeing the passengers as they queued up to board the ship. “There was a disparity between who you’d perceive the jazz audience to be and who was getting on the ship. But it’s been incredible, man! The idea was to give people a taste of something exotic – but that didn’t mean they’d like the taste of it. There was no guarantee. But I think it’s been hugely successful,” he said, noting the growing numbers of passengers showing up for the nightly jazz sets and stopping him in the hallways to express their appreciation for the music.

The experiment got off to rather a shaky start after dinner on the first evening, on the stage of the ship’s 1,094-seat Royal Court Theatre, with the odd combination of a typical cruise ship revue and straight-ahead jazz. The show featured a decidedly un-hip quartet of singers in musty, English music-hall-style recitations of “The Good Life” and “Mack the Knife” (done mambo-style), performed to a canned Midi soundtrack; the big finish involved showgirls in extravagant feathered costumes. After about a half-hour, incongruously, Don Was appeared in his usual shades, dreadlocks and cowboy hat. “How many of you are familiar with Blue Note Records?” he asked. A smattering of applause. “How many are jazz fans?” Another smattering.

After explaining a bit of the Blue Note label’s history and assuring the audience that “you don’t need an advanced degree; jazz is a conversation,” he introduced the Blue Note 75th Anniversary Band, calling them “the best jazz musicians in the world.” (No pressure.) The atmosphere seemed a little tense as the band came out and silently took their places, no one knowing how this would fly with the cruise passengers. They launched into Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround,” with a series of playful solos that sometimes left conventional tonality behind. It was a statement, almost defiant, that there would be no compromises. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of the audience headed for the exits during the extended soloing.

Nevertheless, by the time they took the stage again a few nights later as the evening’s main performers, the 75th Anniversary Band had made a few adjustments, incorporating more familiar jazz standards like “So What?” and “In Your Own Sweet Way,” to meet the audience halfway. “I thought they were most generous in understanding that a large portion of the audience was uninitiated,” Was said. “They played half of Kind of Blue last night!” he laughed. “It was really fun. It’s not something they would normally play.” This time the audience remained for the whole show and responded warmly.

That response peaked over the next two nights with several appearances by Porter, the crowd-pleasing featured performer. He was backed by the 75th Anniversary Band, in a tight, soulful set featuring brief but tasty solos by the all-stars (a full review will be posted online). Other small group performances in various venues – a mid-ship lounge called the Chart Room, the G-32 night club, and a movie theater/planetarium – featured Glasper’s trio, and groups led by Kendrick Scott, Marcus Strickland, Loueke and Hodge, among others. They drew a growing audience of passengers as the voyage progressed, attracting both the minority who were jazz fans prior to sailing and many new converts.

On the question of whether the paring of Blue Note and Cunard would win new customers to Blue Note or help the label sell more CDs, Was was thoughtful. “My overall feeling, speaking not as a music fan but as a label president, is that selling records to consumers is not a viable business anymore. So I’m very interested in new ways to…monetize the music – or else it’s gonna end. So this is a radical, futuristic model for how everybody can make a little bread, and you can bring in new people to hear the music.”

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Filed under Blue Note, Blue Note Jazz at Sea, Cunard, Derrick Hodge, Don Was, Downbeat, Gregory Porter, Kendrick Scott, Keyon Harrold, Lionel Loueke, Marcus Strickland, Robert Glasper

A note to readers re: DownBeat server problem

Thanks to my friends who pointed out that many of my links to articles that appeared on are currently not working. This is due to a server problem at DownBeat’s web provider.  They are working to fix it, but it may take several days before it is resolved.  In the meantime, any new posts will be either self-contained or link to other verified sources.

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Filed under Allen Morrison, Downbeat