Category Archives: Downbeat

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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Filed under Branford Marsalis, Downbeat, Kurt Elling

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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Filed under Downbeat, Maria Schneider, Spotify, YouTube

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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Filed under Downbeat, Duduka da Fonseca, Music Writing and Clips, Nilson Matta, Romero Lubambo, Trio da Paz

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 (DownBeat.com, 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 DownBeat.com.

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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Filed under Dick Hyman, Downbeat, Helen Sung, James P. Johnson, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Joey Alexander, Myra Melford, Piano, Wynton Marsalis

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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Filed under Downbeat, Jacob Collier, Music Writing and Clips, Quincy Jones

Bruce Barth Brings Eloquent, Hard-Charging Swing to Mezzrow

(from DownBeat.com, posted 5/11/2016)

bruce_barth_by_janis_wilkins

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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Filed under Bruce Barth, Downbeat, Mezzrow, Music Writing and Clips, Vicente Archer