Tag Archives: art

ASKING THE UNANSWERABLE QUESTION IN SONG

I am not suffering from romantic despair, so I don’t know what drew me to revisit this performance (recorded slightly more than two years ago) but I find it so delicate yet powerful that I want to draw your attention to it.

It is a performance of a melancholy Irving Berlin classic by the singer Abigail Riccards and the pianist Michael Kanan — recorded at The Drawing Room in Brooklyn, New York, on October 6, 2013.  Abigail’s charades at the start made me giggle then and still do . . . but the mood turns quiet and serious quickly.

I think of this performance as a triumph of that indefinable quality called “phrasing” — how do musicians pace the notes and the words so that the message is clear without over-emphasis, keeping the melodic and rhythmic momentum going so that the song does not come to a stop?

And “phrasing” is always in tandem with other indefinables — “dynamics,” “interpretation,” “emotion.”  This performance could have become a dirge.  It could have become a protest, a near-shout of despair, of rage.  But here it is a translucent poem.

I do not know how Abigail and Michael do what they do, singly and as a team, but it moves me beyond words.  I blink back tears because of the quiet irrevocable gravity they create, yet I want to cheer because they remind me that such beauty is still possible in this world that sometimes seems to find beauty incomprehensible or irritating:

It was an honor to be there, a privilege to record this, and a deep experience to see and hear it again. And I would point you here to learn more about Abigail and Michael and her most recent CD, a trumph.

May your happiness increase!

LOVE IN BLOOM: RUMINATIONS by RAY SKJELBRED (July 8, 2014)

Creating beauty is not easy. In surroundings that may be hostile to it, the energy necessary for creation requires a particular focus and perseverance. The act of creation may seem quietly defiant. In their diligence, the artists tell us, “We don’t really need you all to sit in rapt silence; we will keep on our own paths — doing what we know how to do, doing what we live for — even if you don’t notice.”

Such was the case when Ray Skjelbred played solo piano last month at Pier 23. And since “jazz” is often characterized as rhythmically propulsive, engaging our senses through hectic energy, I offer Ray’s musings on three pieces that are, like the voice of Cordelia, “soft and low.” Two are defined as love songs; the third sounds like one as well, even though its title has no romance in it.

Listen closely. Beauty never goes out of fashion.

MARY’S SPECIAL (for and by Mary Lou Williams):

YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME (with echoes of Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Rushing, Lester Young):

LOVE IN BLOOM (for Bing Crosby and Jack Benny):

When I sent these three videos to Ray for his comments, he wrote back, “Many years ago when I first started playing piano and visiting Berkeley I used to stay with Dick Oxtot and I learned later that his daughter would quietly stand behind me while I played, look at the pattern in my Hawaiian shirt, then imagine stories that went with the music and the pattern. Your point of view reminded me of that.”

I encourage you to invent their own sweet narratives while Ray creates his own variations on love in bloom, a garden of sounds.

May your happiness increase! 

REVERE THE DEAD, EMBRACE THE LIVING

From an English formal garden, 2010, a flower that is very much alive. Photograph by Michael Steinman

When does deep reverence become a self-created prison?

With my video camera, I attempt to capture what I think of as emotionally powerful performances by musicians playing and singing in 2012.  I don’t expect everyone to share my preferences.  But a comment posted on a YouTube video of an artist who isn’t yet forty took me by surprise.  Here it is, paraphrased:

Younger Artist’s performance is alright but isn’t distinct enough. Where are the Xs, Ys, and Zs (insert the names of Great Dead Musicians here)?

My first reaction was annoyance on behalf of the Younger Artist, someone whose work I admire, being made tiny in comparison with The Heroic Dead.

And then I felt sad for the commenter, whose ears were so full of the dead artists he loved that he didn’t have room in his consciousness for someone living who sounded different.

Many of us who love this music have spent a long time entranced by the sounds and images of those people who have “made the transition,” who are no longer on the planet.  Charlie Christian and Jimmie Blanton died before I was born, and that doesn’t obstruct my admiration for them.  So a historical perspective — something to be cultivated — has a good deal of reverence for the dead as its foundation.  Otherwise the reader / listener / viewer chases Novelty: this is the best band because it’s the newest, and Thursday’s child is fairer of face than Tuesday’s.  What was his name again?

But for some listeners, the dark shadow of NOT AS GOOD AS hangs over their experience of this lively art.  So that Kid J, a wonderful musician, is somehow unworthy when compared to Bix, Louis, Bunk, Coltrane, Jo, Billie . . .  And because we can so easily acquire almost every note that Lester Young or Peggy Lee (to pick names at random) recorded, we can fill our ears and iPods with the almost three-dimensional aural presence of our Gods and Goddesses from morning to night.  Very seductive!

What if that idolatry closes the door on our ability to appreciate the men and women who are creating it LIVE for us in clubs, concerts, dance halls, videos, discs, and the like?  The experience of being in the same place as musicians who are improvising is not the same as listening to a recording or even watching the video clip.

The improviser or improvisers creates something new and tangy, something that didn’t exist before, right in front of us.  And if there’s no one recording it with a video camera or an iPhone, it’s gone into memory.  The people on the bandstand giggle, take a deep breath, wipe their faces, take a swig of water, and prepare to create something vibrant on the next song.

This williingness to take risks in the name of music is very brave and very beautiful, and we should embrace the living people who are attempting to make a living by making art.  There will be time to sit on the couch and listen to records or mp3s.  There will be time to make critical judgments that the Living aren’t as good as the Dead.

In the recent past, I have heard tenor saxophonists who made me feel the same way Ben Webster does, pianists who make me as elated as Mel Powell does . . . and I could keep both perceptions in my mind, honoring the living and the dead.

I am not, by the way, saying that Everyone has to like Everything.  My own range is narrow by many people’s standards.  But when I hear an artist I’ve never encountered before, and (s)he elates me, it is a deep reward.  It doesn’t mean I am being disloyal to the dead if I applaud a living musician, does it?  But I think some people live in the land of Either / Or and thus, unwittingly, cut themselves off from possible pleasure.

I imagine someone, seventeen or so, walking past the Greenwich Village club called THE PIED PIPER or the RIVIERA (the latter stands, although without music) in 1944, looking at the sandwich sign on the street, advertising James P. Johnson, Max Kaminsky, Rod Cless, Frank Orchard . . . and thinking, “Nah.  He’s no Fats Waller; he’s no Bix; he’s no Tesch; he’s no Jimmy Harrison,” and choosing not to go in . . . and having the next fifty or sixty years to regret his choice.

Artists (and people) are perhaps only Different . . . not Better or Worse.

May your happiness increase.

MAKING LIGHT OF OUR GRIEF

Why should someone happy sing a sad song?

This question has been part of my thoughts since Labor Day weekend.  At the 2011 Sweet and Hot Music Festival, I had seen Dan Barrett and Marc Caparone join Dan Levinson on the stand — very informally.  (Molly Ryan and Mark Shane were already there, and even though they are not the focus of this posting, they are dear to me and anyone who listens.)

Dan L. has long been making good things happen with the somewhat obscure Jimmie Noone repertoire, and he called READY FOR THE RIVER.  After the instrumental choruses, he  asked, “Want to do it as a band vocal?” — the three hornmen decided in the space of a few seconds that they all knew the words to the song, and this resulted:

I haven’t been able to get that song or that performance out of my mind.  Although my life is happier than it ever has been, at odd moments through the day I find myself cheerfully sotto voce singing about committing suicide.  Trying to plumb this mystery, I cheerfully told the Beloved once again about the song and sang it to her as we walked through Central Park this afternoon.

There’s no post-modern ambiguity in the lyrics.  The singer is planning to drown himself.  The lyrics to the bridge are “Made my will, wrote some notes.  Goin’ to keep on walking till my straw hat floats.”  But the paradox of the pleasure I am taking in this sad song doesn’t frighten me.  Rather, it opens out into broader vistas.

I could start with the simple pleasure of a catchy melody and well-crafted, surprising lyrics.  The song has an irresistibly simple melody: the “A” sections are within the span of an octave, and the bridge uses only four notes.  Easy to remember, to hum, to whistle, full of emphatic repeated notes.  They lyrics are clever: suicide never seemed so much like a nifty thing to do.  The contrast between playful melody and direly witty lyrics is intriguing in itself.  But I had heard the Noone record of READY FOR THE RIVER years ago with no particular compulsion to revisit it.  I didn’t sing it to myself when I might have had much better reason to take it seriously.

And this rumination is not entirely self-referential: two Dans and one Marc take great joy out of singing those sorrowful lyrics on the stand.  Watch them sing, and I believe you see three men singing a dark song — but they are so delighted with the music passing through them that they are having a hard time not giggling.

I am entranced by the performance and its implications.  We perceive three artists, united by common language, shared knowledge, simultaneous emotions, breaking into song — harmonizing on a shared theme.  They create a community that transmutes gloom.  In performance, READY FOR THE RIVER is so much more than sheet of music or a disc.

And, as with all improvisation, a transformation happens: something is created that did not exist before.  Marc Caparone inhales, passes his exhaled breath vibrating through the metal of his cornet, and what comes out perhaps twenty inches from his face is music.  He sends his notes out into the room — “This is what I have to tell you!” — and the sound bounces back to him.  Dan and Dan hear it; the three voices are triply individual and at the same time a choir.

In making a song about deep sadness, our feeling that nothing can be fixed, these artists turn the grieving darkness into something beautiful that will sustain us.  If we sing about ending our lives, perhaps we have defused the impulse and have purged the need to act on it.  If we can put our sorrows into song, we can endure the worst of them.  Grief that once weighed us down is now just a bubble.

Thanks to them, my straw hat floats.  Joyously.

*********************************************************

I had assumed that READY FOR THE RIVER dated from late 1929, a song naturally catching the mood of the country after the Wall Street Crash.  But I was mistaken: it was first recorded (according to Tom Lord) on March 27, 1928, by Emerson Gill and His Bamboo Garden Orchestra, vocal by Pinkey Hunter.

I’m always happy to have my assumptions refuted by evidence, and I now envision well-dressed men and women happily dancing to a snappy song about suicide.  I wish that the late Dennis Potter (of PENNIES FROM HEAVEN and THE SINGING POLICEMAN) were here to savor this image:

THE HEART OF THE SONG: ABIGAIL RICCARDS and MICHAEL KANAN (June 12, 2011)

Abigail Riccards and Michael Kanan inspire awe and wonder.

I experienced this first-hand in a small Brooklyn studio last Sunday, June 12, 2011, and share the music with you here. 

These two artists created music full of feeling but never “dramatic.”  Each song had its own pliant shape, with unaffected casual intensity and splendor. 

Abigail has a speaking directness.  Her mobile voice arches into long tones and soaring phrases; she lives within the lyric and the melody she is singing.  She makes each song full of small peaks of intelligence and emotion. 

Hear, for instance, how she handles the words “drop a line” in Wilder’s I’LL BE AROUND.  Her TOO LATE NOW is almost unbearably poignant yet it doesn’t whimper or carry on.  Her approach is at once serious and joyous.  BLUE SKIES cavorts. 

And although these songs are not new — each one has powerful ghosts standing behind the curtain to upstage the living artists — Abigail takes her own small liberties and makes them work, turning IN LOVE IN VAIN (one of the saddest songs I know) into something a little more resilient, in the same fashion that Billie Holiday recreated TRAV’LIN’ ALL ALONE as her own nearly defiant statement. 

Abigail’s singing touched everyone in the room: even in the videos here, you can feel their powerful quiet empathy and delight.  I hear a great artistry.

Michael is a poet at the keyboard with none of the pretense some have brought to that role.  I think often of Jimmy Rowles when he plays, and at times of the witty, pointed spareness of John Lewis.  Like Abigail, he never overacts, never calls attention to himself in some look-at-me way, but you can’t help but pay attention — both to what he is creating and what trodden ways he is wisely avoiding. 

His sound is lucent; his pauses are knowing and subtle; he is a master of light and shade and shadow.  At its most serene and quiet, his playing is resonant. 

The art of accompaniment might be the most arduous of endeavors, and Michael is the most generous of partners, sweetly creating just the right sound-shape to make the singer or players around him seem even better. 

And these two artists create a delicate yet powerful musical world in duet — their playful energies complementing each other.  They are gracious; they are polite; they don’t interrupt each other’s sentences, but together they make something wise and subtle and rich that wasn’t there a minute before. 

They offer and enact deep calm and brave experiment.

LUCKY TO BE ME:

TOO LATE NOW:

YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO:

IN LOVE IN VAIN:

THE MORE I SEE YOU:

I’LL BE AROUND:

I’M OLD-FASHIONED:

ALL THE WAY:

BLUE SKIES:

EV’RY TIME WE SAY GOOD-BYE:

Throughout this performance, I kept feeling it was an honor to be in the same room, a privilege to witness and record such art.  I still do.

“THE CAUSE OF HAPPINESS”: WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS

Ricky Riccardi’s new book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS (Pantheon), will be published in a week, and it has already gotten a glowing review in the Washington Post, with NPR and The New York Times coverage to come.  (You can read the reviews and Ricky’s interview in JAZZ TIMES by clicking here):

http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2011/06/more-news-and-reviews.html

Full disclosure: my name crops up in the acknowledgments, and I admired Ricky’s work long before this book came out.  But I would think this book was magical even if I’d never met its author.

On its surface, this biography depicts the last quarter-century of Louis Armstrong’s life — his years of global popularity as a beloved figure, the years of HELLO, DOLLY! and WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD.

But the real story in this book is the gap between public perception and essential reality.  “To be great is to be misunderstood,” Emerson wrote, and it rings true here.  Artists cannot defend themselves against those who choose to interpret their work.  There is often a huge gap between what artists create, how the “experts” and “critics” perceive it, and how the art is represented to the world.

There have been many books about Louis — the best of them have been Terry Teachout’s POPS, and LOUIS by Max Jones and John Chilton.  (I am passing over the other biographies, marred by their distance from the subject or by personal rancors.)

But Ricky’s book deeply and effectively faces the complex question of what it is to be a working artist in the modern world.  An artist working in the public world — not a painter or a poet in a studio, but a “performer” on television, on records, onstage.

Louis lived to make music, and to “lay it on the public.”  A musician needs a community, both on and off stage.  Louis was no recluse; he didn’t scorn his audiences.  He spent his days and nights, consciously and subconsciously, living for what would come out of his horn, how he would sing.

This was his quest, his joy, and his “hustle,” what he did for a living.  He didn’t demand to be taken seriously as An Artist, but he did know that he was creating masterpieces; he was proud of his art and the pleasure it brought and continues to bring.

Thus, when he began to be sneered at (and that’s not too strong a word) as an Uncle Tom, an “entertainer,” someone who had sold out, had lost his creativity, had turned his back on “the truth,” even “a good-natured buffoon,” these cruel misinterpretations turned Emerson’s words into knives.

Another artist might have turned his back on his critics and spent his last quarter-century in wounded seclusion.  Louis worked harder; he toured the world; he became “Ambassador Satch,” he created astonishing beauties.  The audiences understood this in deep spiritual ways, even if they had never read Gunther Schuller.

But it took this book — the new material in it and Ricky’s affectionate, dogged diligence — to bring Louis, complete and complicated, to life once again.  And here I want to move slightly to the book itself — and its author.

Ricky Riccardi is, first off, a fine writer.  Not fussy, not academic, but someone whose vigorous, human speaking voice resonates through these pages.  So the book is a pleasure to read: I rationed the pages I allowed myself each night so that it wouldn’t end too soon, as I knew it had to.  He has so steeped himself in the life of the man he is celebrating (and it is a celebratory book!) that his easy assurance illuminates every page.  But the reader never feels intimidated by an impending avalanche of facts and dates and itineraries.

This book places the living Louis Armstrong in front of us, seen anew — the man who had a very intricate relationship with his manager, Joe Glaser, but was in charge of that relationship, not its victim.  There is an astonishing long letter from Louis to Glaser on the subject of marijuana — a revelation not only in the tale it tells, but in Louis’s angry eloquence.

Ricky has delved more deeply into Louis’s private tapes than any biographer before him, thus the book is full of new insights rather than being a synthetic assemblage of what other people have written.  I was surprised and delighted (dee-lighted, really) on every page.  And while this biography is no uncritical fan letter, its affection comes through from start to finish — a fitting celebration of Louis, who created and felt “the love and warmth of a million people.”

As a working jazz musician, Ricky also understands much more about the music than many writers who have been on the scene longer.  Even though you don’t need to be a musicologist to read this book, and there is not one intimidating transcribed solo (just lovely photographs), the book never feels distant from Louis’s art.

Louis Armstrong lived “in the cause of happiness.”  Although he knew his art was unique, he wore his achievements lightly, “I’m not lookin’ to be on no high pedestal.  [The people who hear me] get their soul lifted because they got the same soul I have the moment I hit a note.”

More than any other biography of Louis Armstrong, Ricky’s book vibrates with those truths.  Even if you are someone who appreciates Louis Armstrong only casually, you will find in this book a deep, rewarding, honest portrait of a man, an artist, his century.

It’s an extraordinary biography and a wonderful book.  And it brings to same joy that Louis did.

MAYA HED LOOKS AND SEES: ART / JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHY

One of the consistent pleasures of having a jazz blog is that people you wouldn’t otherwise know of find you.  One of my most happy encounters of late in cyberspace has been with the young Israeli / American photographer Maya Hed, who is having her first solo exhibition in Israel, beginning May 19, 2011 (details below).  Maya chooses an approach different from many photographers and catches her subjects — jazz artists from around the world — in contemplative mode during the sound check.

The first photograph is a study of Tony Pancella from Italy, someone internationally known for his work with Larry Willis, Charles Tolliver, Lee Konitz, and many others. Maya told me, “The reason I chose this photograph is because I love the blue back aura that rises from behind Tony. For me this was a moment of pure “Nila” (Blue) Loving kindness, peace, and universal compassion — shown by the color of the Buddhist flag. The interaction between Tony and the piano is what interested me; when I took this photograph I could feel his thoughts before the music came to life with the help of his great knowledge.”

The second photograph captures the American drummer Joe Farnsworth, known for being a band member in ONE FOR ALL.  Maya recalled, “I remember taking photographs of Joseph and the band; I was about to get off the stage and then I heard someone laughing.  I turned around and saw the magical smiles of Joe and John Webber, the double bass player.  I slid onto the stage and took the photograph.  Each time I look at it I hear their joyous laughter and remember that great moment.”

The Israeli saxophonist Mel Rosenberg is the subject of Maya’s third study. Maya recalls, “Mel is the first musician I ever photographed and he introduced me to the Israeli jazz scene.  In this photograph what enchanted me was the interaction between Mel and the woman in the photograph behind him; she looks as if she is listening to the music and contemplating something. Her eyes are half-open and she is looking towards Mel’s saxophone, which was the source of the music playing when I took this photograph.”

Maya’s fourth study is of Stefano Bollani, Jasper Bodilsen, and Antonello Salis, musicians who hail from Italy and Denmark.  She told me, “This photograph was the birth of the title of the exhibition.  About a year ago I was looking at this photograph and this title came instantly into my mind: A MOMENTARY LAPSE OF REASON.  It’s not that I’ve lost my mind.  No, it’s what I would love my viewers to feel when they look at my photographs — a pure moment of relaxation.” I hope that some JAZZ LIVES readers can visit and immerse themselves in Maya Hed’s world. And on opening night, Mel Rosenberg and his band will give a concert.

Here’s the invitation:

and (by Shira Raz), portraits of the artist Maya Hed herself:

A Momentary Lapse Of Reason

Upcoming Exhibition May 19th -June 19th , 2011

From May 19th – June 19th, Maya Hed will present her solo photography exhibition, which captures exclusive pictures of extraordinary jazz artists from all over the world, during the sound check in opera houses and jazz clubs where the artists experience very intimate, secluded, and unique moments.

In this intimate series the viewer can experience through the photographic medium, the vivid expressive force of jazz music, echoed by the photographs that enable us to “listen” with our eyes.

Further, after enduring the black and white photography documentation of jazz music over the past years, Maya’s fresh approach presents many photographs in color in the belief that emotions and stage life come to light better in her colorful menagerie outlook.

The camera leads us behind the scenes with such luminaries as Stefano Bollani who overwhelmed Italian jazz culture, Tony Pancella — a very important figure in Italian Jazz, and Nicola Stilo, who played with one of jazz’s greatest artists, the notorious Chet Baker and many more.

Biography:

Maya Hed was born and raised in Los Angeles and moved to Israel in the late 90’s, where she studied at The Kiryat Ono College of Photography.

Maya specializes in photography of the arts, focusing on music and fashion.  She enjoys taking portraits and seeks to create a sense of freedom and relaxation for the viewer.  Her photographs shine with life and creativity and generate intrigue. Her photography transcends space and time, taking the viewer through an emotional journey of positive feelings.  Maya’s goal is to express her point of view and passion for life while giving the viewer a glimpse into her world.

Past Exhibitions:

On The Warm Sand at the National Maritime Museum in Haifa. January 2007.

60th Anniversary for Israel’s Independence at the University of Basel and moving around, 2007

PCK Group Exhibition at The College of Photography Kiryat-Ono, July-August 2008.