Tag Archives: make it new

MAKING IT NEW: DAN BLOCK, GODWIN LOUIS, ADAM BIRNBAUM, JENNIFER VINCENT, PETE VAN NOSTRAND (Fat Cat, May 31, 2016)

DAN BLOCK by Limoncino Oliviera

DAN BLOCK by Limoncino Oliviera

My title comes from Ezra Pound, whose serious instruction to hopeful modernists was MAKE IT NEW.  In its own way, jazz has always been about making it new; even when one generation was paying tribute to preceding ones, the act of homage was in some ways grounded in newness.  If, in 2016, one decides to play note-for-note recreations of an Alcide Nunez record, that act is bound to have 2016 sensibilities and nuances built in.  But what animates Dan Block is much deeper than that.  Dan, who embodies an extraordinarily wide range of music, is one of the most imaginative shape-changers I know.

For his most recent gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Dan assembled a surprising quintet: himself on clarinet and tenor saxophone; Godwin Louis on alto; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; and for this rehearsal-session, Pete Van Nostrand, drums (Alvester Garnett played drums at Dizzy’s on June 7). The videos here are from an informal session held at Fat Cat on May 31.  I present them here with Dan’s encouragement: although the crowd was its usual boy-and-girlish self, the music was spectacular.  The band was advertised as “The Dan Block Quintet: Mary Lou Williams and Benny Carter Meet Hard Bop.” Intriguing, no?

Dan took half a dozen venerable songs from the Thirties — with connections to Chick Webb, Fletcher and Horace Henderson, Edgar Sampson, Mary Lou Williams, and Benny Carter — and reconsidered them, as if he were a very imaginative couturier. Take the song down to its sparest elements: strong melody, strong rhythm, familiar harmonies, and ask, “How would this look in lime green?  What about a very short denim jacket?” and so on.  As if he were fascinated by the essential self of the song — that which could not be harmed or obliterated — and started to play with the trappings — new rhythms, a different approach, new harmonies and voicings — to see what might result.

What resulted was and is terribly exciting — a blossoming-forth of exuberant energies from all the musicians.

HARLEM CONGO (from the Webb book):

PUDDIN’ HEAD SERENADE (Andy Kirk):

HOTTER THAN ‘ELL (Henderson):

BLUES IN MY HEART (Carter):

LONESOME NIGHTS (Carter):

BLUE LOU (Edgar Sampson for Chick Webb, then everyone else):

I think the originators, who were radical for their time, would certainly approve.

As an aside: everyone’s a critic, and cyber-communications have intensified this feeling.  If readers write, “I like the original 78 versions better!  This is not the way these songs should sound!” such comments will stay hidden. I revere the originals also, but I won’t have  creative musicians I admire be insulted by comparisons of this nature.

May your happiness increase!

WITH ELEGANT TENDERNESS: MICHAEL KANAN, GREG RUGGIERO, NEAL MINER at MEZZROW, MARCH 23, 2015 (Part One)

Pianist Michael Kanan is one of my heroes, someone whose musical and aesthetic instincts I trust without question.  I met him through the most respected saxophonist Joel Press, and once I’d heard Michael play a chorus I knew I was in the presence of a deep yet light-hearted sensibility.  He can be eloquent and touching but he never sells emotion to an audience in capital letters; he is witty but never comedic, and he has perfect taste without being fussy.  Michael also is a splendid compass needle pointing to the finest players and singers.  So when I read some time back that Michael was leading a session at Mezzrow, I sent in my money and was there about ninety minutes before it began (listening to the splendid guitarist John Merrill) to be sure I’d get to sit in the proper place.

Michael brought with him Neal Miner, that peerless string bassist and composer, and someone new to me, the lyrical and sure-footed guitarist Greg Ruggiero. Here’s the first part of the music they made that evening: graceful yet deep, intensely melodic but never heavy-handed.  Some viewers might think, “What can you do in 2015 with two venerable standards and a blues?”  I will say only, “Observe and marvel.”

ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET (which starts in another direction — and I could be content with the first chorus alone):

Neal Miner’s BLUES OKURA:

BODY AND SOUL:

It was an astonishing evening at Mezzrow, but so far I’ve had no other kind there.  I’ll be back there for sure on April 14th to hear Barbara Rosene and Ehud Asherie — another special night to come.

And I promise you more performances from the exalted Kanan – Miner – Ruggiero ensemble.

May your happiness increase!

WITH FEELING: CHRIS DAWSON at the PIANO

Ezra Pound said — as an artistic manifesto — MAKE IT NEW.  He never heard the master pianist Chris Dawson, but I think he would have nodded appreciatively at what Chris does.

I know there are people who strive for novelty, thinking “Why play those familiar old tunes again?  I don’t want to hear ROYAL GARDEN BLUES or DON’T BLAME ME — give me esoterica, like MAKE MY COT WHERE THE COT-COT-COTTON GROWS, or give me nothing.  We must have new material to improvise on so that our improvisations will in themselves be new.”

Hooey, says I.

Of course, a pedestrian performance of an overplayed song is going to be formulaic and tiresome.  But great improvisers can embody deep truths through the most banal material: think of Louis, Bechet, Django, Jack T., Benny, Lester, and a thousand other players.

In conversation with Jon-Erik Kellso last night (and he knows!) he said that when you have someone like Henry “Red” Allen take on BILL BAILEY, it’s a whole new world.  And for my part, I repeated the words of the Sage, Hot Lips Page: “The material is immaterial.”

So when Chris turns his attention to two of the most familiar classics of solo jazz piano, ALL OF ME and BODY AND SOUL, it is an occasion to marvel at his gentle thoroughness.  The melody and chord changes are treated lovingly — his touch is superb, his voicings splendid — but he isn’t just walking through familiar territory, half-asleep because of the familiarity of it all.  Rather, he is acting on Pound’s dictum of making the familiar seem fresh, of playing the most familiar chord changes and turnarounds as if they were brand new — of imbuing the “traditional” with great emotional power — joy or despair — by believing in it.

ALL OF ME:

Crystalline, from that dancing introduction on — lighter-than-air but steady, with a great deal of breathing space.  (Unlike some other pianists, Chris feels no need to fill in all the empty spaces.)  Chris doesn’t strive for dissonance, but his subtle harmonic vocabulary is large; his bass lines varied; his rigth-hand ornamentations never predictable.  And his improvisation is full of small suspensions — so that the light stride patterns never become mechanistic.  For me, the test of satisfying music is, “When it’s through, have I had enough, or do I want to hear it once again right away?”  You know the answer to that one: these two performances don’t reveal all their beauties with just one listening.

BODY AND SOUL:

Apropriately darker, with more dense harmonies to offer emotions more complex than the simple joy of ALL OF ME.  But BODY AND SOUL — that song of deep romantic self-immolation and abasement — never becomes morose, and the rhythmic engine beneath it never sputters and dies.

How does he accomplish his singular balance between restraint and forward motion, between delicacy and strength?  All I know is that once I said something to him after a particularly Dawsonish miracle of music, and he said, wryly, “People don’t know how hard it is to do that,” or words to that effect.  I am sure that it is the fulfillment of a lifetime of study, practice, listening, feeling — and swinging empathy.  When will the rest of the world discover that Chris Dawson is an utterly stylish improviser?  Soon, I hope.

I wish that he, Janice, and Jack lived in the apartment next door to mine — I would never complain about the music, but I probably would get nothing done because I would be listening and grinning all the time.

KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA

It’s possible that you haven’t heard of Ken Mathieson, the leader-percussionist-arranger of the Classic Jazz Orchestra, but this post is designed to remedy this omission right away.

For Ken Mathieson is a truly ingenious man who has made the CJO an equally flexible, innovative orchestra. 

The CJO has been working since 2004, and Ken is a veteran leader, arrangger, and drummer with impeccable credits.  For fifteen years, he was the resident drummer at the famous Black Bull Club near Glasgow — where he supported and learned from Bud Freeman, the aforementioned King, Mr. Carter, Wild Bill Davison, Sonny Stitt, Art Farmer, Bobby Hackett, Al Cohn, Johnny Griffin, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison,  Teddy Wilson, Tal Farlow, and more.

And he’s offered his own solution to one of the problems of classic jazz performance.  Suppose the leader of a “classic” jazz ensemble wants to pay tribute to Ellington, Morton, Carter, or Armstrong.  Commendable enough.  One way is to transcribe every note and aural flutter on the great records.  Then, the imaginary leader can gather the musicians, rehearse them for long hours until they sound just like a twenty-first century rendition of this or that hallowed disc. 

Admirable, but somewhat limited.  Emerson said that imitation is suicide, and although I would love to have my own private ensemble on call to reproduce the Morton Victors, what would be the point?  (In concert, hearing a band pretend to be the Red Hot Peppers can be thrilling in the same way watching acrobats — but on record, it seems less compelling.) 

Getting free of this “repertory” experience, although liberating, has its disadvantages for some who take their new freedom too energetically.  Is POTATO HEAD BLUES still true to its essential self if played in 5/4. as a waltz, as a dirge, by a flute quintet?  Is it possible to lose the thread? 

Faced with these binary extremes — wanting to praise the past while remembering that the innovations we so prize were, in fact, innovations, Mathieson has steered an imaginative middle course.  On three CDs, he has managed to heed Exra Pound’s MAKE IT NEW while keeping the original essences.

Ken and the CJO have an open-ended and open-minded approach to jazz history and performance.  The original compositions stay recognizable but the stylistic approach to each one is modified.  Listening to the CJO, I heard not only powerful swinging reflections of the original recordings and period idioms, but also a flexibility that suggested that Mingus, Morton, Oliver Nelson, and Benny Carter were on an equal footing, respectfully swapping ideas.

The CJO has an unusual instrumentation which allows it to simulate a Swing Era big band or a hot trio: Billy Hunter plays trumpet and fluegelhorn; Ewan McAllan or Phil O’Malley, trombone; Dick Lee, soprano and alto sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Keith Edwards or Konrad Wiszniewski, tenor; Martin Foster, alto, baritone, and bass sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Paul Kirby or Tom Finlay, piano; Roy Percy, bass. 

And what’s most refreshing is that both Ken and his players seem to have made a silent pact with the music to treat it as if it were new: so the solos on CORNET CHOP SUEY do not emulate Johnny Dodds and Kid Ory; the ensemble work on SORRY doesn’t hark back to 1928 Bix and his Gang; the sound of BOJANGLES reflects on 1940 Ellington without copying it.  And the solos exist in a broadly-defined area of modern Mainstream: thus, you are much more likely to think of Roy Williams or Scott Robinson than of Clarence Williams or Prince Robinson. 

I’ll leave the surprises on these three CDs to the buyers and listeners.  But in almost every case I found myself hearing the music with a delighted grim, thinking, “Wow!  That’s what they’re doing with that old chestnut?” 

(Ironically, one of Matheson’s triumphs as an arranger is the wisdom to leave well enough alone.  So one of the memorable tracks on his Louis CD (with the glowing Duke Heitger in the lead) is a very simple and touching AMONG MY SOUVENIRS.) 

The experience of listening to these discs was as if my old friends had gotten new wardrobes and hairstyles — immensely flattering but startling at first.  And Ken seems to have the same playful idea, for his Morton CD is called JELLY’S NEW CLOTHES.  On the back there is the famous portrait of Jelly, his arms raised to conduct, wearing a suit with six huge buttons and pressed white trousers.  On the front, Mathieson has reinvented Jelly as a twenty-first century hip teenager, wearing a short-sleeved yellow t-shirt, earbuds around his neck, the cable leading to an iPod, baggy denim jeans, running shoes.  And Jelly looks happy!

Their three CDs are KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA SALUTES THE KINGS OF JAZZ (Lake LACD 261), JELLY’S NEW CLOTHES (CJO 001), and CELEBRATING SATCHMO, featuring Duke Heitger (LACD 286). 

Details of the CJO’s history and current performing schedule can be found at http://www.classicjazzorchestra.org.uk/diary.htm

Information about their Lake Records CDs is available here: http://www.fellside.com/Shop/Results1.asp?Category=2