The Jazz Universe Inside My Head

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Charlie's New Trio

Charlie Hunter Trio

Last June (I didn’t want to say it but I will – it was 6.6.06 – the DAY of that ‘ol devil) I walked into the 8X10 down in Baltimore and was blown away by a fresh sound that I a-third-of anticipated. Charlie Hunter was there but the rest of his usual trio, saxophonist John Ellis and drummer Derrek Phillips, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was drum-destroyer Simon Lott and keyboardist Erik Deutsch.

Throughout the years, maybe since ’98 for me, Charlie Hunter shows had always been right on, but somewhere the trio got too good. That’s usually not a bad thing, I’ll admit. For Charlie’s sake though, I always thought that he was too outstanding to become a contemporary act - something that was enjoyed but expected. I wanted to see some daring turn and on that night in the Charm City I got my wish.

The driving force behind this new big bang is drummer Simon Lott. Ask anyone who’s heard the new trio and they’ll tell you the same thing. At that show last June I watched him and Charlie channeling. The end result was the finest show I’d heard out of the amazing guitarist in recent years.

I caught up with Simon before the trio’s gig at the Iron Horse in Northampton, MA on April 14 to talk about the trio, amongst other facets of his life.

Me: How did you get to be playing with Charlie and Erik?
Simon: John Ellis recommended me for the gig. I had played with Erik a couple of times beforehand.

When I saw you guys for the first time down in Baltimore at the 8X10 Club last June I was blown away by your energy (seriously), the way you and Charlie fed off each other, and just the whole band. I was like, where did these guys come from?
Baton Rouge!!!!!!!!

What's it like playing with Charlie?
It’s a whole different experience!! Haven’t played with anyone quite like Charlie.

I loved Charlie's old trio but I felt like they were so comfortable playing with each other that Charlie needed a new challenge, a new approach to the tunes…a new way to write music. Together, you guys sound so fresh and hungry. I'd have to say that I think this is the best trio he's had. How do you feel about the way that you guys are melding?
Well thank you. I like what we’re doing: there’s a serious pocket and lots of colors. Haven’t really heard a group doing what we’re doing: grooving this hard, but still getting really creative.

One thing that amazes me about you, Erik and Charlie is that you guys have an abundance of projects going on at all times. How do you work all that?
Well, we’re not on the road super-often, so it gives us all time for other projects.

Could you tell me about some of your others joints?
Well, where do I begin? I’ve got this group Renwicke that gets into some really humorous free improve. Four horns and drums. And then I’ve got a duo with this amazing guitarist Mike Gamble called Pain Relief. I’ve been playing with this group out in Oakland called The Dark Smile with saxophonist Joshua Smith and bassist Kurt Kotheimer. Sometimes we add this great trumpet/organist named Gene Baker too. I also play regularly with this great guitarist and singer David Mooney; we both moved up to New York from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I’m also doing a couple of recordings soon that I’m very excited about. One with bassist Todd Sickafoose and includes some great musicians like Shane Endsley, Allison Miller and Adam Levy. The other is with vocalist Monika Heidemann, who always brings a fresh, creative, raw energy to her interesting works. Erik will be on the recording with Monika H.

What's your musical relationship like with Erik?
We had played a couple of times before we started with Charlie and I like his approach. He can really stretch. He’s into all kinds of music and he’s a great listener.

What have you been listening to (new, old, whatever)?
Lots of electronic artists like Nobukazu Takemura, Paul Lansky, Autechre, Takagi Masakatsu; and then I’m always listening to the New Orleans music (The Meters, Professor Longhair, George French, Willie Tee). That music always makes me happy.

Who are your main influences that helped develop you as a player?
All the people I play with and interact with on a daily basis.


Kenny Dorham Una Mas
Kieran Heloden and Steve Reid Tongues
Ornette Coleman The Art Of The Improvisors
John Coltrane One Up, One Down: Live At The Half Note
David Axelrod The Edge: David Axelrod At Capitol Records 1966-1970

Friday, April 06, 2007

Dilla's Year

J Dilla

Ruff Draft
Year: 2003
Label: Mummy Records
Reissue Year: 2007
Label: Stones Throw

The Shining
Year: 2006
Label: BBE

Year: 2006
Label: Stones Throw

Though I’d listened to Dilla before he passed away last February, I never heard him ‘til a few weeks after Donuts was put out. That’s just over a year now -- not that long ago in real time but when sounds are so good it seems that time passes slower, like you’re really enjoying every moment to its fullest.

Donuts is simply one of the most emotional records that I’ve ever experienced on every level. The story behind it – Dilla creating the masterpiece while dying – only adds to the plethora of feelings the instrumental album rides.

So quickly the record moves through certain passages that will hypnotize as they move. Like the trembling flow of “Waves” to the heavy bump of “Light My Fire” to the laid-back mood of “The New,” then WHOA!, the sorrow beauty of “Stop!” J gives up the perfect amount of time to each track, usually a minute or so.

One of the wicked cool things (yeah, I’m from Massachusetts) that I’ve found about this album is that you can often times hit rewind when a song ends that you don’t want to stop listening to and it feels like it never lost a beat! So many times I’ve been entranced for 10 to 15 plays in a row, especially the brassy “Gobstopper,” and R&B swirled “Time: The Donuts of the Heart,” among others. The under 45 minute album has many times clocked in at well over an hour!

Other tracks that really got me on this album are the piano-lined deep beat of “Mash” the Jackson 5 tweaked-elevation of “Two Can Win” and mysterious “Hi.” Check out the sickness Dilla on the downer “Walkinonit.” But this isn’t your singles record; it’s a continuous flow of all life’s feelings and must be listened start to finish for full affect.

If ever an album needed a serious dark-room-headphone-listen, where you could here each and every layer of sound, Donuts is that record. And so many of the tracks that you first heard on Donuts would get the royal treatment by Ghostface, The Roots, Common and D’Angelo.

The next big Dilla release of 2006 was The Shining. A spectacular record in so many ways, it sees many of J’s closest people taking the mic to his sweet beats. The first hotdog comes early with Common on the bouncing “E=MC2.” The soulful Pharoahe Monch knows what “Love” means and Dilla’s production is at its finest flash.

“Baby” finds Guilty Simpson at his most romantic:

You can catch Guilty Simpson at a rave with babes
Packing a ’38 snub and a razor blade…

And when the shit’s smokin’ where the logo’s at
And the witnesses won’t tell the po po jack
That’s how it is when we fuck shit up
Keep the girls horny and the blunts lit up

The Roots’ Black Thought is given a mellow production with a percussive clattering and dazzles the mic on “Love Movin’.” There’s also a couple of nice instrumental passages in “Love Jones” and “Over The Breaks.” But what most blazes on The Shining is the all Dilla on “Won’t Do.” All I can think about is having a blast under water in the 70s, which I think I missed the point of the song because J is trying to tell me that he needs many women in his life to be satisfied. Anyway, it’s the man at his highest!

The Shining is a great album, suffering only because it sometimes feels like an All-Star team of friends getting together to pay tribute to Dilla. And in reality that’s what it is – a great record that was almost done when Dilla passed away that was glazed with love of his deepest friends.

To cap off the year of celebrating an extraordinary life, Stones Throw reissued Ruff Draft, a work that Dilla had released in 2003. All I had heard from the short work was “Nothing Like This,” which pretty much blew my mind the first time I heard in on the Stones Throw compilation Chrome Children.

Before just a few weeks ago, the work was an out-of-print vinyl only rarity. On this project Dilla was proving that he wasn’t a one-trick dude as he takes the mic on his amazing productions. As J explains in the intro:

“Before we get this started, let me explain it. It’s Ruff Draft. For my real niggaz only. DJs that play that real live shit. You wanna bounce in your whip with that real live shit. Sound like it’s straight from the ma’fuckin’ cassette! Ruff Draft... Let’s do it.”

Although there aren’t even a lot of actual full length tracks on the disc, what’s there is sure-fire classic. “Let’s Take It Back” sprinkles keyboard with that Dilla bounce. “Reckless Driving” is just a sick ride. It flashes that Dilla vocal mash that’s got so many sonic sound layers. His production sometimes reminds me of a martial arts master, boasting all elements of concentrated perfection.

When Dilla gets “The $” it’s a smooth synthy-beat affair, best rhymes and all. I love it when he says:

Dealin’ with the gangsta shit
(Now let me say it again, and say it with feelin’)

Dealin’ with the gangsta shit
Hit it spits the flame, hit it get the bank and split

Another track that just kills is “Make’em NV.” With a simple beat, a spinning vibe line and more Dilla swirls it’s the darkest cut on the record for sure. “Wild” is sampled with some little kid ranting off the chorus of Slade’s “Cum on Feel the Noize,” with some claps and a short guitar line. Quite a clever idea and it wasn’t even available on the original vinyl.

Last November at the Stones Throw 10th Anniversary show in Baltimore it was plain to see how much that crew missed Dilla. EVERYONE misses him, including me, who never met him, and really just began listening to him in a sense. Hopefully there will be many more releases in the future so the fun will never stop!

You can find Dilla’s work on these from the last year:

Ghostface Killah “Whip You With A Strap” and “Beauty Jackson” from Fishscale
The Roots “Can’t Stop This” from Game Theory
Madlib “Take It Back” from the Chrome Children compilation
Guilty Simpson “Clap Your Hands” from the Chrome Children compilation
Busta Rhymes “You Can’t Hold A Torch” from The Big Bang

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Dark Star?

I was just listening, or actually still am, to a classic "Dark Star" from Copenhagen, Denmark that was recorded on 4/14/72, which made me think of how deep the Dead were, are and will forever be...and on and on.

Have you ever spent the time to understand "Dark Star"? It's something special...jazzy and spaced out...I'll be back in a little bit to give a break-down of a few faves.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Thinking About the Beginning…For Me

Miles Davis
In a Silent Way
Year: 1969
Label: Columbia

You know, I was just thinking back to the day that I first “heard” jazz…it’s cemented forever as a golden moment. I was probably in the 4th grade, maybe 5th, when my father gave me a record player, receiver and some old speakers.

(I remember distinctly tapping into a Cleveland station, somehow gettin’ to listen to the Cavs for a few nights on the radio with Price and all them…Nance, Hot Rod, Daugherty, Ehlo…my second fave to the Celts. Someone turned that knob enough to never touchdown again!) What a blast!

I went through my parent’s records and took what I thought would be cool…some Doors…CSNY…Black Sabbath’s Paranoid…shit, a bunch of classic, heard-a-thousand times material (that’s not a bad thing Ma and Pa). Along with all that, I grabbed Miles’ In a Silent Way, only because his name was in household terminology, even in West Brookfield, MA. It was my Ma’s by the way.

I put it on one night, late…like I should have been sleepin’ already...a long time ago. It was the perfect soundtrack for a hyperactive boy’s bedtime. It reminded me of a bright blue sky with puffy clouds moving unhurried. It was beautiful, long, not anything what I expected Davis to sound like…and I don’t mean that in a bad sense. It’s just that when you’re a kid, you get this stereotype of what jazz “is.” It blew my mind!

Another aspect of the discovery was the album cover itself. I mean, what the hell is a kid supposed to think when he sees Miles’ paranoid eyes beaming up to his own name and album title. Not to mention he was sporting the same turtleneck that I was going to wear to school the next day. I sat and stared at it…never forget that.

To this day it’s my favorite album of all-time (or at least most significant – a contender for most adored) and I appreciate the fact that it was found at such a young age. So, thanks Ma and of course much love to Miles and the rest of the crew that opened the doors to the jazz world in such a celebrated fashion.

Here's What Has Been In Heavy Rotation:

Gabor Szabo Spellbinder
Lonnie Smith Think
Alice Coltrane Lord of Lords
Larry Young Lawrence of Newark
Keith Jarrett The Survivor's Suite

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Bad Plus at the MFA

The Bad Plus
Sunday February 25, 2007
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

It was very difficult to explain The Bad Plus to my mother before taking her to see them at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). I said things like, “Ma, they’re a jazz trio but they’re looked down upon in the traditional jazz world because they cover Queen. They’re amazing!” Then I thought to myself about how weird that sounded, what she must have thought…and my dislike for Queen.

It’s those kinds of ridiculous situations you get yourself into when describing The Bad Plus sound but that’s, aside from the musicianship and songwriting, what makes seeing the band so much a momentous occasion. The sold-out MFA show was powerful!

The band jumped right into pianist Ethan Iverson’s “Mint” and it was apparent, particularly because his drums were wiping out the piano and bass, that drummer Dave King was going be his usual Animal improviser. I looked over to my dear Ma during a smash fill, reading her smiling lips say, “This is intense.” That’s when the band had made a new fan. She loves good music, my ma!

Bassist Reid Anderson’s “You Are” followed. It’s such a lovely tune, one of his most delicate. A song like this shows that band is fearless to their traditionalist disapprovers. This is the present and The Bad Plus are moving forward in so many ways at the same time, like jazz always has directed. King continued to crash down…

“Big Eater,” written by Anderson with the bands heavy appetite in mind, is a fierce piece. It’s impossible not to mention King’s destructive beauty at the peak of a driving climax. His approach is addictively heavy.

They’ve covered such ranging artists including Blondie, Black Sabbath, Björk and Burt Bacharach. That’s just some the B bands. At the MFA they threw in a random T group when they eased into Tears for Fears' “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” I imagined the look on Wynton Marsalis’ sunken face. Listening to that 80s number jazzed out is bizarre because they make it sound as if that’s the way it was intended.

King’s “Thrift Store Jewelry” was solid as always. The lit-up toy buzzer scored the lead role of the drum solo. “Anthem for the Earnest,” another Kinger, is always a heart-pumping race with quick turns to make it exciting! If a beautiful ballad about self-maneuvering bonsai trees from Buenos Aires was what you wanted, Ethan just happened to write one called “Casa Particular,” probably having experienced the scenario most elegantly.

The band ran through a new Anderson piece called “Veril” and I’d have to hear it again to explain, seriously. “Old Money,” a creative-piece-against-this-current-US-government, moved into the Canadian rockers Rush anthem, “Tom Sawyer.” All these new covers are, I don’t know, unexpected…funny…making me kinda like “Tom Sawyer”…by The Bad Plus that is.

Then as a classy set closer, “Prehensile Dream,” reminded everyone of how chillingly haunting the trio can build, become free while keeping melody with crashes, and then calm back to sublime eeriness. Throw in a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” encore and you’ve got possibly of one of the most diverse sets ever played.

Look out for the new album coming out in May entitled PROG. Many of the tunes they did at the MFA will be appearing on the next record. Also I’m not too close too close to any of these spots (bumma!), but here’s the upcoming show list for the band, according their official website:

MARCH 2007
11 ITHACA, NY -- Cornell University (TBP only)
14 ITHACA, NY -- Cornell University (w/ Mark Morris Dance Group)
15 ITHACA, NY -- Cornell University (w/ Mark Morris Dance Group)
16 PITTSBURGH, PA -- Manchester Craftsman Guild (w/ Joe Lovano Quartet)
17 PITTSBURGH, PA -- Manchester Craftsman Guild (w/ Joe Lovano Quartet)
18 SOUTH ORANGE, NJ -- South Orange Performing Arts Center
19 RICHMOND, VA -- University of Richmond, Camp Concert Hall
20 RICHMOND, VA -- University of Richmond, Camp Concert Hall
21 ALEXANDRIA, VA -- Private Event
22 ALEXANDRIA, VA -- Private Event
23 MIAMI BEACH, FL -- Arturo Sandoval Jazz Club
24 MIAMI BEACH, FL -- Arturo Sandoval Jazz Club
MAY 2007
06 COLLEGE PARK, MD -- Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
07 COLLEGE PARK, MD -- Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
08 SAN DIEGO, CA -- Saville Theater
10 OAKLAND, CA -- Yoshi's
11 OAKLAND, CA -- Yoshi's
12 OAKLAND, CA -- Yoshi's
13 OAKLAND, CA -- Yoshi's
14 SANTA CRUZ, CA -- Kuumbwa Jazz Center
15 LOS ANGELES, CA -- The Mint
16 LOS ANGELES, CA -- The Mint
17 SEATTLE, WA -- Dimitriou's Jazz Alley
18 SEATTLE, WA -- Dimitriou's Jazz Alley
19 SEATTLE, WA -- Dimitriou's Jazz Alley
20 SEATTLE, WA -- Dimitriou's Jazz Alley

What I’ve Been Hearing:

Eric Dolphy Last Date
Billy Bang 6.16.06 Vision Festival, NYC
Charles Lloyd The Flowering
Clifford Brown & Max Roach At Basin Street
Grant Green Live At Club Mozambique

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Classic Review

Charles Lloyd
Forest Flower: Live in Monterey
Year: 1966
Label: Rhino

My friend Matthew, who always hooks it up, gave me this Charles Lloyd live record, Forest Flower: Live in Monterey, and told me with true passion in both his eyes and vocal delivery that it was out of this world. After the first spin, I walked over and started it over again in a gleeful trance. Its feeling is dizzyingly beautiful…playfully elegant. I don’t know. It feels real nice listen after fresh listen.

First off, the band on that day at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966, a young one at that, is bouncing off one another in joyful moods. Sometimes it’s intense and the music makes you awake high, while other instances could relax you to sleep. Keith Jarrett, who had just turned 21, Jack DeJohnette, at just 24, and Cecil McBee couldn’t have rounded off a better quartet for Lloyd’s bright excursions.

The album opens with “Forest Flower: Sunrise,” which really sets up the pent up explosion of “Forest Flower: Sunset.” The first few minutes of Lloyd’s sax on “Sunset” is elevated melodic bliss to put it simply, so beautiful it must be heard! Jarrett takes command after Lloyd’s peak and lays down an amazing range of rolling sprinkle keys. The band fades out slowly into the sunset in sweet affection…

Jarrett’s “Sorcery,” is a commanding track that really builds into a whizzing fling of Lloyd’s flute that flys and high-low dissonance from the young pianist. After the album’s opening intensity, McBee’s “Song of Her” slows the mood down perfectly. Jarrett especially shines in the sincere ballad! Pick that pace right back up with the swinging freshness of “East of the Sun.” DeJohnette provides nearly nonstop tapping with great time changes and McBee lays down a sweet solo.

The album ends off with “Forest Flower ’69,” which serves as an intense bookend to the album’s opening suite. DeJohnette blows up near the beginning and Jarrett jumps into the rubble to lash out like you know he does. Jarrett’s amazing! Lloyd enters to lead; then DeJohnette shows his sick chops. It’s all fine playin’. A good-old steady groove heats up and then settles down to loud applause. This is just one of the most intelligently fun, yet significantly sophisticated live jazz albums of all time!

Some Tunes I've Been Soaking In:

Chico Hamilton The Dealer
Ornette Coleman Something Else!!!!
The Bad Plus Blunt Object: Live in Tokyo
Paco De Lucia Entre Dos Aquas
Booker Little Out Front

Monday, February 05, 2007

Alice Coltrane

Alice Coltrane

On January 13, 2006, a strikingly warm winter Sunday in Massachusetts, I woke to the chilling news that Alice Coltrane had passed away the day before of respiratory failure. At that moment many thoughts shot through my head. I’d lost someone who spiritually led me forward in life.

I first heard A Trane back when I was working at a small tavern. They had a bunch of shit CDs, mostly smooth jazz and some snobby Sinatra. The management told me they were trying to manufacture that comfortable dining atmosphere. I wasn’t comfortable.

Before I discovered that I could bring my own arsenal to the stereo, a jazz sampler was my savoir. It had a Miles’ tune and some other nice stuff that I can’t remember. My favorite track, though, was this Alice Coltrane number dubbed “Blue Nile.” It was certainly the first time I heard a harp in jazz, not to mention it was the tracks lead instrument. It swirled and I followed each gentle stroke.

I was hooked. I went out and bought Ptah the El Daoud, which had “Blue Nile” on it. What a beautiful album of Coltrane’s warm piano/harp and the always right on playing of Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Ben Riley. That album was my impression of A.C. for awhile. Listen to the serenity of “Turiya And Ramakrishna.”

That’s until I got Universal Consciousness a short time after, an album that was heavy on my immature jazz ear. But I listened on like a slaving student seeking musical freedom.

I began to hear Alice’s music as one of a kind, comparable to nothing in jazz that I’d heard. Was it jazz? The Eastern meditative blending of strokes, keys, swirls, drum and tamboura touches made me stop and appreciate the moment.

Universal Consciousness showcases amazing interplay from drummers Jack DeJohnette, Rashied Ali and Clifford Jarvis, bassist Jimmy Garrison and tamboura player Tulsi, along with string arrangements written by Ornette Coleman. But the album does not have the normal competitive feel jazz musicians so often reach for. Coltrane was peaceful, not boastful.

Of course I scattered around and got the rest of her discography and much to my amazement, at around the time I was embracing Alice as a major inspiration in my life, she released Translinear Light, her first album in over 25 years. I remember a friend telling me that John Medeski couldn’t stop listening to it. Then I heard it and I felt the same way.

From the opening notes of the rebirth of “Sita Ram” I was hooked. There aren’t many musicians who put out work past the age of 60 that sounds fresh, but A Trane never lost the loveliness of the music that came through her. It was always there; she just put it into other facets of her bighearted life during her musical hiatus.

“Triloka,” like so much of Alice’s work, is a realization of how graceful the world is even in times of strain, trickling on with beauty. I believe that’s what she wanted us to feel when we turn her on the stereo or the headphones.

I was lucky enough to catch her in performance in Newark, New Jersey just months before she passed away. Although she seemed frail and almost too quiet from afar, the music and crowd response was enormous. I’ll never forget the way she made me feel in my heart. This Trane is bound for glory. Bye Alice.

I've Been Listening and Studying:

Alice Coltrane Journey In Satchidananda
Keith Jarrett Bop Be
Gabor Szabo The Sorcerer
Pharoah Sanders Black Unity
Charles Lloyd Dream Weaver