The Jazz Universe Inside My Head

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Monday, April 24, 2006

Miles from the Mainstream

Miles from the Mainstream
The State of Jazz as Seen by Baltimore Musicians
(This story began in 2005, got put down, and recently finished)

Jazz has gone through many changes since the 1950s when local Pennsylvania Avenue spots like Club Tijuana and The Comedy Club pulsated with pure energy. Along with baseball, jazz used to be considered a national pastime in the United States.
As it continued to evolve, though, the genre slowly descended off the mainstream map. The decline has been steady for the last 20 to 30 years, while some say even longer. Culture has shifted away from the traditional sense and jazz has suffered immensely.
There is a lot of discussion about the jazz timeline, the current state and what the future holds for jazz.
Miles Davis had this to offer before he passed away in 1991: “I never thought that the music called “jazz” was ever meant to reach just a small group of people, or become a museum thing locked under glass like all the other dead things that were once considered artistic.”
Here are three Baltimore musicians, each from highly diverse backgrounds, who wanted to share their thoughts on the current state of jazz:

The Charlie von Nordeck Quartet could lose its Wednesday night gig at Café Troia if they don’t start attracting a bigger audience. The tables are almost filled on this May evening but there is still ample space in the bar for listeners. More must show in the future if they intend on remaining employed says the owner.
The guitarist and his band, Richard Dorsey, saxophone; Jamie Hopkins, bass; and Tim Ghiz, drums - have been scorching through standards and originals at the Towson eatery for almost two years.
“We play some tunes by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins and Larry Young, as well as standards and a couple of things I’ve written,” Nordeck explained.
Why is the band having trouble producing an audience?
“On a local level, (jazz) it’s worse than I have ever seen it,” asserted the bandleader, a local, himself, who has been on the scene for years. “There is a distinct lack of venues to play jazz in the Baltimore area. During the 70s and 80s there were several clubs around town where live jazz was featured four, five, six or even seven nights a week.”
“Even if you weren’t ‘working’ at a club, you could go and sit in,” he explained. “Musicians could go there and hone their skills, see other musicians and ‘network’.
Today he says jazz is going through “a sort of soul searching process.”
Nordeck, who is in his 50s, began listening to jazz at the age of 15. “I used to hear it at night on the radio, and watched the TV show Peter Gunn,” he said. “When I became aware of jazz it was just something that really became a constant in my life.”
The guitarist began playing in bands and was a music major at then Towson State College, now Towson University. “Since my 20s I have played in the music business and worked for the record business, both in wholesale and retail,” Nordeck explained.
Having been on several sides of the music for over 30 years now, he knows the business and has a lot to say about jazz’s decline.
“I guess that in the last 20-30 years jazz has become a victim to pop culture,” Nordeck voiced. “Most people don’t want to have to do any real thinking when they listen to music.”
“The major media and entertainment companies are all profit driven, and quick profits,” he asserted. “They are not into the long picture.”
He even says smooth jazz, which is the most mainstream version of the genre today, is in most cases merely instrumental R&B with only some of jazz’s elements.
Though it may sound so, not everything modern has been bleak for the jazz musician. Technology has made getting local music much more accessible.
“It is now possible for a musician to record his own CD, and sell it online while completely avoiding the conventional music distribution channel that was once necessary,” Nordeck explained.
But jazz is said to be an experience that must be witnessed live and attracting an audience to embrace the music is the challenge.

Trombonist Jim McFalls is what you would call a schooled jazz musician. At 14, he played professionally in local jazz combos in his southern Pennsylvania hometown. After high school, the horn player joined the U.S. Army Band, only to be accepted into the more elite U.S. Army Field Band soon after. That was the school.
He has toured 17 years with the Jazz Ambassadors; had a 3 year run with Chuck Brown; appeared on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien; played at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Montreux Jazz Festival; and toured and recorded with a lot of important people in the business; etc…
In addition to his hectic performance schedule, McFalls serves on the faculty at Towson University, the Peabody Conservatory of Music, the University of Maryland and Gettysburg College.
He says that jazz is more than a type of music. “It is, first and foremost, America’s only true art form,” McFalls explained. “Personally, jazz allows me to express myself more than just about any other thing I do.”
Mcfalls has an optimistic and professional view about the genre’s youth. “Various jazz education programs, which were non-existent 30 years ago, are helping to expose players to this great music at a much younger age,” he said. “This is helping to produce a wealth of superb young players.”
But his brightness dulls when speaking of current state of jazz, though. “Steady work as a musician, however, is becoming more and more difficult to find,” McFalls said. “I’m talking about work that is artistically meaningful and financially fulfilling.”
“The live playing opportunities for jazz, at least here in the Baltimore/Washington, DC area, have dwindled significantly,” McFalls explained. “These types of club settings, where young players could go to a jam session and rub elbows with older, more experienced players, offered an educational situation not found in colleges.”
He doesn’t blame the present situation on a decline in jazz but a decline in culture, an idea he says has a much more broad impact. “Folks now have a plethora of ways to entertain themselves that gives today’s society the instant gratification that is desired.”
He cites digital cable, the Internet, on-demand and other electronics as choice entertainment. “All this comfort of home without driving to a jazz club, paying the extravagant cover charges and after a two-hour set, driving home,” he explained.

Originally from Prince Frederick in southern Maryland, Charles Funn, 53, first came to Baltimore to study jazz trombone at Morgan State College in 1970. After receiving his bachelor and master’s from Morgan he began teaching at the elementary level, later shifting to high schools, where he remains today.
His playing credentials aren’t that bad, either: “I’ve been fortunate enough to play behind Sammy Davis, Jr., Billy Eckstine, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, not to mention a lot of people who I listened to growing up on those things called records.” These days Funn plays locally in Gene Walker’s big band.
An educator at heart, he notes that he has been fortunate to have been able to start a lot of people on what he calls their musical trail. “Not only do you have to create an audience, but you have to create the musicians also. So basically what I did, I started organizing a jazz band here (in Baltimore city).”
His award-winning Dunbar High School Jazz Band has played with Wynton Marsalis at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and at the prestigious International Association of Jazz Educators convention in New York, to name a couple.
Like McFalls, though, Funn is apprehensive about after his students leave his knowledgeable nest. “What I’m finding out is that we need to provide some kind of outlet for the kids who are coming up playing.”
“Because unfortunately there aren’t enough places for kids to play, and you don’t want kids who are in high school going out and sitting in nightclubs where alcohol is being served,” he continued.
But as far as a decline in jazz, Funn had this to say: “It tickles me how every five years or every ten year’s there’s always a critic that’s talking about the resurgence of jazz. But to me jazz has never died. It’s a thing where people might think that it goes into hiding, but the jazz musicians are still playing.”
He agrees that the jazz community isn’t as strong as it could be. “But it can’t be better, not unless we create an audience for it and create musicians for it,” Funn explained. “I mean, there is an ignorance about it, and the only way of overcoming that ignorance is through educating the public, which is what I’m trying to do with the jazz band here.”
“But as far as the music is concerned, I just hope that it will live on forever.”

*Charles Funn quotes from

Monday, April 17, 2006

Medeski, Martin & Wood

Medeski, Martin & Wood
Saturday April 7, 2006
The Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA

After an hour and a half drive to Philly, and another hour and a half to find a hotel under $200, I was ready to relax to some good music. Good thing the reason I made the trek was that MMW was playing an acoustic set at The Kimmel Center and I had a ticket. The venue is a fancy place, the host to many classical shows, and I knew the trio would sound great with the fine acoustics of the establishment. I wasn’t disappointed.
The band jumped right into a groove, led by pianist John Medeski. He looked like a mad scientist behind the keys. It was something that I had never heard before. It was a rush of sound, as all three of the members splattered improv with one another at a cute rate speed. Drummer/Percussionist Billy Martin seemed to be using all he had for sound, which is always numerous sorts of instruments that I have no idea the name for each. I’m talking like drums from the motherland. He was all over the place.
The stage was set up in a way that gave a great view of the entire band. I’m so used to going to see MMW having my head kinked up, looking over people’s shoulders. Looking down from the third tier was great.
After the opening jam, the band went into “Tuttie Ma.” Again, Billy Martin was everywhere. You could here people around laughing that amazed laugh that is sometimes the only way to appreciate a master and his instrument. Oh yea, bassist Chris Wood was on as well. Jumping back and forth from the upright and his Beatle bass he seemed to let the other two take the spotlight, complementing both of their explorations. Medeski tucked in perfectly Miles' theme “In A Silent Way” during one of the tunes. I can’t remember which one, though.
The band went into an extended version of “New New Orleans,” a song I haven’t heard that much even though they have been playing it often. After that, and never stopping the music, they went off into frantic piano, bass, percussion pounding, letting each other take a high energy solo. The audience ate that up, loudly clapping after each turn. After “New New Orleans” the band went into more new improv for my ears. They ended the set with “Chubb Subb” and encored with a beautiful version of “Paris.” A great set from one of the best bands around.

What I’ve Been Listening On:

Oliver Nelson The Blues And The Abstract Truth
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers Indestructible
Bobby Hutcherson Oblique
Booker T. & The MG’s Melting Pot
John Coltrane Meditations

Monday, April 03, 2006


Stones Throws Records

One of the great elements about jazz is that everyone has their own interpretation on it. People who really try to search for a new land take their chosen instrument and expand the genre further into infinity. That same philosophy is the same for hip-hop, and when you put the two together a beautiful relationship is often times the result.
Think back to Guru’s Jazzmatazz in the ‘90s. The first two volumes are out of this world. Today, though, the reining master of the merger has got to be Madlib, coming at you with his entire arsenal of alter egos. Let’s see: Madlib is Quasimoto, part of the Lootpack, half of Jaylib, half of Madvillian, the entire band Sound Directions, the entire band Yesterday’s New Quintet, among various other projects, along with being the one of the most sought out hip-hop producers today. His real name is Otis Jackson, Jr.
He's made "hundreds of records that y'all haven't heard. When you buy the records that come out, that's not even my favorite stuff," explains Madlib. Ideally he'd like to put out a record "every week." Here’s a little taste of the complexity on the more jazzy side of life.
Madlib connection to jazz is deep, so deep that he was given full access to the storied Blue Note archives for a remix album that Blue Note was to put out. In 2003, Shades of Blue was released and featured the mixer’s interpretation of such classics as Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” Donald Byrd’s “Stepping into Tomorrow,” and Bobby Hutcherson’s “Montara.” It’s a perfect album of subconscious grooves.
Closely related to the Shades of Blue project is Yesterday’s New Quintet. Don’t be fooled by the thought that there has to be five people in a quintet, it’s not true, at least not for Madlib. Although the albums says that Malik Flavors is on percussion, Monk Hughes thumps the bass, Otis Jackson, Jr. hits the drums, Joe McDuphrey plays the keys, and Ahmad Miller dances the vibes, it’s all Madlib (Otis Jackson, Jr., that is). Using instruments in his studio to create the sound, Madlib then samples and arranges the results.
The “quintet” dropped Angels Without Edges in 2001. Nic Kincaid of All Music says, “This is a hip-hop record made with jazz principles of improvisation, spacy cut-and-paste passages of drifting solos, and periods of vamping grooves that are layered handsomely with uncut breaks that build on top of themselves, eventually creating what may be the Bitches Brew of the new millennium.”
After that, Yesterday’s New Quintet put out Stevie, an instrumental tribute to Stevie Wonder. It’s a dreamy take on such classics as “Superwoman (Where Were You Last Winter),” “You’ve Got It Bad Girl,” “Too High,” and “Golden Lady.” Legend has it that Madlib was not very happy with the results of the album, so he gave it out to record stations and a select pick of critics who ate it up entirely. After he realized that everyone loved the album, he released it with a bonus track, “That Girl.” Smart man.
Just this past winter, Madlib put out an album by Sound Directions (AKA Madlib) called The Funky Side of Life. It’s 30 minutes of purely energized instrumental funk hip-hop that’s full of layered horns, Madlib’s keys, odd percussions, steady beats, and bumping bass lines. In many instances free jazz is prevalent. It’s like a pocket-sized version of The J.B.’s that is enjoyable all the time. Listen to tracks like “The Horse,” or “Play Car” and you’ll see.
That’s an overview of Madlib’s most jazzy stuff, though he incorporates it throughout all his projects. Madlib is a true lover of jazz and says before you check out his stuff you should pay homage to what got him to where he is today. I say do it all at the same time if you haven't begun yet. Download Madlib spinning at a Santa Monica radio station here: Free Music

What My Ears Have Heard Lately:

Art Ensemble of Chicago Live in Paris
Sun Ra Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy
Akia Sasajima & Ron Carter Akioustically Sound
Bobby Hutcherson Montara
John Coltrane Lush Life