The Jazz Universe Inside My Head

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Spring Break in Paris

While the majority of students on spring break probably sought out a warm weather getaway, I froze my ass off on the Appalachian Trail. A group of friends and I drove about two hours south to Paris, Virginia and hit the trails for an 18 mile hike. My parents still think I went to the other Paris. I’ll tell them someday.

For the first time in many years I didn’t listen to any music for more than a few hours (in fact, no tunes for three days). That gave me a lot of time to think about life’s possibilities and just how much my body hurt from walking so damn far with excessive weight on my back.
We’d wake up at dawn, eat breakfast, get in gear, and then walk for the entire day. Once the hike was done for the day, we’d then make a much needed fire, make some dinner, drink some wine, then pass the f*&k out. If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m really not. It was a ball.
On the last night in the woods, we met a gentleman by the name of Jason. He was from York, Pennsylvania and had already hiked over 200 miles south on the famous trail. Just then it started to snow big fluffy flakes. Jason was on his way down to Georgia, planning on arriving at his destination in the middle of June. We talked all night and it was truly a special experience.
In the morning we exchanged numbers with Jason. I gave me a copy of The Alchemist, a good book for finding your individual destiny and he was off. We finished our hike. Then we were back on the road to Baltimore. It was a nice way to spend the break.

Billy Bang Quartet at An Die Musik

Billy Bang Quartet
Saturday March 25, 2006
An Die Musik, Baltimore

There’s something very special about Billy Bang. His music, his message, his presence, and his emotion all transcend peace through his violin in a way that is at times chaotic, while in other instances purely serene. It’s not just music. He brings a greater sense of a movement towards a peaceful land. Bang and his quartet were in Baltimore at An Die Musik this past Saturday for a couple shows.
Bang seems to have taken a liking to the small venue. He was in there at the end of 2005 with Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual. This time the soulful Bang brought along bassist Todd Nicholson, pianist Andrew Bemkey, and drummer Darrell Green.
An Die Musik is a gem of a place to see a show. Catering to the jazz, classical and improvisational world of music, the place seems more like a museum than a venue. There’s room for about 80 people and everyone in the house is there for the music. It’s a good bet that if someone were talking during a performance they would be asked to leave.
Bang and company took to the stage with a loud applause. “We’re going to play a lot off my Vietnam recordings,” Bang told the attentive crowd. A veteran of war, the violinist was profoundly affected by what he experienced overseas. They jumped right into “Tunnel Rat (Flashlight and a 45).” The song, taken from the Vietnam: The Aftermath album, combined a beautiful Asian feel with explorative jazz swing. There’s no real way to describe the ferocity that Bang takes to his instrument. He channels the likes of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman through the violin.
Moving away from the Vietnam theme, Bang and his mates went Cuban. “I really like to play this one,” Bang explained before hitting the first notes of the Buena Vista Social Club’s “Chan Chan.” This tune fit perfectly into the set, really focusing on the interplay between Bang and the tickling of Bemkey's piano.
This would be a good time to comment on the level of the band that Bang brought to town. They were outstanding. As mentioned, Bemkey's piano was amazing. He seemed to beat his instrument, looking half crazy as he smiled and slammed his hands on the keys. Although Nicholson never really took off (he had one long solo that let everyone know he was the man), he kept the rhythm for the rest of the band. But perhaps the most pleasant part of the group, aside from the obvious Bang, was Green. The young man started playing professionally when he was five. Probably in his mid-to-late twenties presently, just imagine where his skill level lays. Yep, you got it: Relaxed, tight, and sounds coming from every direction.
Every time Bang would take a solo the place would shatter into applause. “Bien Hoa Blues” settled in like a storm, with Bang making noise unknown to most of man/woman. The violinist page homage to a mentor of his, Sun Ra, with the angelic “Jupiter’s Future.” Bang played with Sun Ra in one of the pianists famous Archestras.
Before you knew it Bang was thanking the small crowd for coming out. Everyone in the joint bounced up, hands clapping, and shouted for one more. “Alright,” said Bang, “We’ll play one more. Here’s a classic of mine, ‘Rainbow Gladiator.’” The slow ballad let everyone down easy, as if putting the wide-eyed to bed with a sweet lullaby. It can still be felt days after the show.

What I’ve Been Listening To:

Tina Brooks True Blue
Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio Big Cliff
Sound Directions The Funky Side of Life
Duke Ellington Money Jungle
Sun Ra Atlantis

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Look Back

Newport Jazz Festival
Saturday August 12, 2005
Newport, Rhode Island

I thought it might be a good idea to reminisce about of great day of jazz. Oh, the memories. It was this past summer that I hit up Saturday at Newport Jazz Festival. It’s a crime that I’m from Massachusetts and never went until recently. I would have stayed for Sunday but the lineup didn’t do too much for me, plus I was low on cash flow. Anyway, Saturday’s lineup did do a lot for me and it was the festival’s 50th year in existence.
Left Friday morning from Baltimore. Drive took a long time (probably four hours longer than it should have). So long, I was possibly cranky. Got to Newport. Ate food, drank wine. Relaxed. Went to bed. Got up, refreshed. Went outside.
It was a hot, sunny-blue day in small city of Newport, close to 100 degrees if I remember correctly. Even more than the nice weather, I remember that the town was buzzing with jazz peoples; they came in all different forms. It was something witness. To get to the festival I, well, everyone had to take a water vessel to Fort Adams State Park; it was a beautiful little island. I was in a boat with maybe 12 others. Approaching the small bit of land, I could already hear notes in the salty air.
While in line to get through the gates, I spotted a sign that read “No Alcohol.” A lot of people were getting busted for trying to smuggle in booze. Even though I would have a little red wine had I the chance, it was a smart move on the part of the festival organization. In that kind of heat, you’d only be asking for trouble.
To the music, I know. There are three stages at the Newport Jazz Festival: The large JVC Jazz Stage, the smaller Pavilion Stage, and the even more miniature Guitar Stage. Unless in between bands, the music continues on all three spots. That means you have to pick and choose what you’re going to see and hear. I had my plan.
I first went to the Pavilion Stage to catch Carla Bley & Lost Chords. She’s a weird composer, almost classical in a sense of the way she writes sections. With the sun beating down, the audience appreciated everything she did with loud applause. I had just gotten into her a little before the festival and I thought it was a nice way to start off the day. Looking back, I stayed with the Pavilion for most of the day and never really made it to the Guitar Stage. The tunes on the Jazz Stage were a little more geared towards older folks in my opinion.
Next up under the Pavilion was the T.S. Monk Sextet. T.S. is Thelonious Monk’s son and a great drummer-bandleader. He takes a lot of inspiration from his father, playing off the late-great pianists more popular songbook. In between songs he talked about being at Newport Festivals with his father when he was younger. They were a fun band, swinging upbeat. It was a moving set of music for sure.
After Monk, pianist McCoy Tyner hit the stage and served up what I considered to be the day’s highlight. He is an old dude but could still play his ass off. He is most known for being Coltrane’s pianist in the ‘60s. He had a great solo career as well. Check out his ‘60s Blue Note catalog. Anyhow, Ravi Coltrane, John’s son, was on saxophone that day and you could hear, like T.S. to Thelonious, the inspiration coming from the father. In this case even more. The area around the Pavilion was crowded and the band went off. Truly a great musical moment in my life.
After the Tyner set, I moved over to the Jazz Stage to catch Medeski, Martin & Wood. They could be my favorite live act in the world. I wondered how they would play their funked jazz fusion for the socially elite. They answered my free thought with true class, hitting moments of electric space, then moving to the more comfortable rhythmic acoustics. There were about 25 or so devotees dancing near the stage. Everyone else soaked it up while sitting on their beach chairs with a smile on their face. Great set, indeed. Afterwards, I stood in line and got the band to sign a CD I bought. Pretty cool.
At about this time, the heat was still coming fierce. People had already started to leave the island to go and grab some dinner. I wanted to stick around for Trio! Trio! consists of the amazing bassist Stanley Clarke, equally amazing banjoist Bela Fleck, and again, equally amazing violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. They played tunes that bounced in a way like a journey home after a long day, perfect for the mode the heat made us all feel. I left a little early and listened to the music as I stood in line for my boat. Then I left the island sunburned and fulfilled.
It was the best day of live jazz that I can remember. If you ever get the chance to get to Newport at the end of summer you really should.

What I've been listening up on:

Ornette Coleman The Shape of Jazz to Come
Dizzy Gillespie Afro
Medeski, Martin & Wood 2/26/06 Potsdam, NY
Miles Davis Nefertiti
Electric Masada At the Mountains of Madness

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Phil Cunneff Trio at the Cat's Eye Pub

The Phil Cunneff Trio
Mondays at the Cat’s Eye Pub
Fell’s Point, Baltimore

Phil Cunneff represents the essence of improvisational music in the Fell’s Point neighborhood. He’s a local multiple percussion instrumentalist who plays in his city and about it. The URL to his web page is; that says a lot. His latest trio album, Levi, features a nighttime shot of the Fell’s Harbor, displaying all its urban beauty. So, it’s no wonder that you’d find Phil with a couple of other players down at the Cat’s Eye Pub. On Sunday afternoons he’s laying down the rhythm for Steve Kramer’s Bluesicians and on Monday nights you can catch him stretching out jazz numbers with his own Phil Cunneff Trio.
Joining Cunneff in the trio is Ben Frock (trumpet, flugelhorn and cornet) and Jeff Reed (upright bass). The beer at the Cat’s Eye is expensive and good but the music is free and outstanding. The combined ages of Frock and Reed probably equal that of the elder Cunneff and this creates a positive eagerness in the band’s play. The younger fellows look to the drummer for guidance, while Cunneff seems to improvise freely off their youthful energy. There is a loose but all together sound on stage.
There never seems to be more than 15 people in the Cat’s Eye on any given Monday. That is no reflection on the band whatsoever. That fact can be attributed to American society and its need for terrible music. Anyway, it is an extremely intimate place to be if you enjoy good jazz and supporting your local musicians. The band hits a sweet spot with their renditions of tunes like Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” Ornette Coleman’s “Una Muy Bonita,” The Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Django,” among other classics. Members of the audience howl. In addition to standards, the trio explores some of the originals off Levi.
Between the three sets of music, Cunneff, frock and Reed chat with friends. The young guys drink beer, while Cunneff prefers bottled water. Like his drink of choice, the drummer’s playing is pure. If you’re ever in Fell’s Point and you want to hear some great music you should check out Phil Cunnef and Co.’s scene.

At home, in my car, and on walks I’ve been listening to:
Albert Ayler Holy Ghost: Rare & Unissued Recordings (1962-70)
The Bad Plus Somerville, MA 10/1/05
Jimmy McGriff Electric Funk
Wayne Shorter The All Seeing Eye
Bobby Hutcherson San Francisco

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Benevento/Russo Duo

Benevento/Russo Duo
Friday March 3, 2006
Recher Theater, Towson

The Benevento/Russo Duo is not really a jazz band but they are…if that makes sense. They create a melting pot of sound that takes its influences heavily from jazz, rock, ambient, techno, among others genres. The band is a mutt of music, taking the best elements from each breed and making it into their own syle. They were in Towson this past Friday at the Recher Theater demonstrating their unique meld.
The duo is made up of keyboardist Marco Benevento and drummer Joe Russo. How much sound could possibly come from just two guys? Well, a lot is the answer. You should someday see for yourself. Arriving a few minutes late (because of work), the author of this page could feel the band’s vibrations coming from the Recher a few blocks down York Rd. When inside the venue, the floor rarely stopped pulsating, as the two friends resembled mad scientists behind their instruments. Russo must have smoked a pack of cigarettes. The noise is gigantic, at times graceful and serene, but in other instances quite dark and frightening; it shifts seamlessly through inner emotions without hesitation. At one point the room was spinning with the sound of warped loops that flew around.
The band kept a fairly upbeat mood for much of the show, running through numbers like “Play, Pause, Stop” and their most known piece “Best Reason to Buy the Sun.” When Benevento hits a climax in a song it sounds as if there is a full quintet on stage. The bass rumbles, multiple keyboards are in distorted effect, and Russo is always right with him keeping the beat down. The mood was energetic and joyous, as mentioned before, for most the night. Then Benevento made a transition into another realm. The melody from Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” was slipped into the soundscape and the audience stopped dancing. The band will often slip in song teases, sometimes introducing the middle of a tune first before arriving at the beginning. This was a good example of that trait as they turned “Android” into a building epic, weaving in and out of the song before it exploded at the end. And just like that it was over. An hour and a half set seemed like 10 minutes; it was that good. Don’t miss these guys if they come your way.

This past week I’ve really enjoyed:

Ornette Coleman Change of the Century
Gene Harris and the Three Sounds Live at the “It” Club
Ahmad Jamal Legendary OHEH and Epic Recordings
Medeski, Martin and Wood Jazz Café, London, England 9/15/05
Sun Ra Other Planes of There