Posts Tagged ‘jazz’


Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

After a wonderful evening of listening to free improvisation at the Outpost in Cambridge last night, I took part in a discussion about the phrase “you have to learn the rules before you break them.” It was agreed that it was a relatively meaningless phrase. However, the beauty of the music that proceeded the discussion showed that certain rules were indeed in play. Perhaps a better way to describe it is that they all shared a language that allowed everyone there to mine possibilities and construct some rather varied “instant compositions” without unintentionally stepping on the feet of the other musicians. I say unintentionally because there was some rather purposeful stomping going on. I guess the idea is that you have to know which rules are in play to take advantage of them, because—whether you like or not—there are always rules.

A Concert in Cambridge by a Dane Recommended by Swedes

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

We are certainly living in a different world. Why did it take a heads up from friends in Sweden to know about a gig at a venue I frequent? Poor advertising? Certainly.  But it’s also a story of how we share information these days. It’s not just friends around the corner, but those in different parts of the globe that often provide us with timely missives about things they know about. As my wife says, we are truly living in a transnational village.

The concert? Jacob Anderskov on piano with the Americans Chris Speed on sax and clarinet, Michael Formanek on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. They played pieces from last year’s Agnostic Revelations, released on the ILK label. Squeezed in between a couple of other performers, they managed about 45 minutes of telepathy and interplay. Anderskov’s somewhat angular, and at times economic, style pointed to his Scandinavian jazz roots though the group clearly has forged their own identity. If you didn’t make the gig—and there weren’t many us there—get the album, and look for his name next time he comes around.

Honk if you love…street bands!

Saturday, October 9th, 2010

It’s been a good fall so far for music in the Boston area, especially when you take into account the free concerts that have been presented outdoors. What’s made that even sweeter is the weather we’ve had. A few weeks ago I went to the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival. Okay, not all of it was jazz, but we were able to hear the likes of Greg Osby play some pretty straight-ahead stuff, Alex Acuña’s disappointing new band, and Victor Mendoza—the Mexican vibraphone player who teaches at Berklee—with his tight new latin jazz group. They all fit the description.

This afternoon I went to HONK!, the annual festival of “activist street bands” held in Davis Square in Somerville. This is the fifth one they’ve held and the third I’ve attended. As the festival has increased in popularity, the distance bands are willing to travel to participate has also grown. What has emerged as well is a wider gap in ability. What all share, however, is a commitment to intrude on the usual. It is impossible to be in the presence of one of these bands and not feel moved to respond to a kind of instantaneous communal heartbeat. A quick reminder that one is alive!

Festival literature describes these bands as finding musical inspiration from many sources—“New Orleans second line brass bands, European Klezmer, Balkan and Romani music, Brazilian Afro Bloc and Frevo traditions, as well as the passion and spirit of Mardi Gras and Carnival.” We heard all those, and more.

Other interests manifested themselves in many ways. As you can see from some of the photos, there was a pretty much do-it-yourself approach to costumes, even within the same band. Instrumentation was not limited to wind and percussion instruments—when was the last time you saw an electric guitar being played with the amp strapped to the player’s back in a street band? Politics were liberal and more than that—the Leftist Marching band from Portsmouth delighted us with their very well played Charlie Haden/Carla Bley arrangement of El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!

But politics had the last word at the Bread and Puppet Circus Band’s performance. After a few songs, the Rotten Idea Theatre Company was introduced as part of the “show.” It consisted of five people in giant masks and a young narrator who proceeded with some tired agitprop. A woman who appeared to be in her late 60s stopped the show with a yell: “Hey…Hey, that’s really boring! I’ve seen that a million times!” She was absolutely right, but not kind, especially given the spirit of the day. The music resumed after the departure of the thespians, but it never really quite  found its footing again. Luckily, there were five other bands playing at the same time, so I took a stroll…

Abbey Lincoln: More Than You Realize

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

I’d like to call your attention to an era barely mentioned in any of the obituaries of the great singer songwriter Abbey Lincoln, a time when she literally found her voice. Even Wikipedia is silent on what she was doing between 1970 and 1990, but I know she was working hard, because I saw her perform in New York City five or six times in the 1980s. You may have heard the expression “command a room,” but if you did not see Abbey Lincoln sing at the Village Vanguard in those years, you do not truly understood what that means.

As for recordings, this period begins with People in Me, an album recorded in 1973 but released in 1978 on Inner City Records. Recorded in Japan with Dave Liebman, Al Foster, James Mtume and some local musicians, this was her first album since 1961’s Straight Ahead. People in Me represented her first somewhat mature steps as the artist we would come to know—wholly original poetic songs, a beautiful and fully confident voice, an approach that made no bones that she was the unquestionable “owner” of her current repertoire, and a rhythmic pulse she was unafraid to use in order to shape a song and push her fellow musicians into following her.

The next decade found her working with a range of musicians and releasing some of her most interesting recordings. Golden Lady, released on Inner City Records in 1981, features Archie Shepp and a number of compositions that would become standards in her own oeuvre: “Painted Lady,” “Throw It Away” and “Caged Bird.” This album also hints at her ability to identify material by others that she would make her own, like Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” and Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady.” That same year, Maestro, an album by Cedar Walton on Muse Records, featured her vocals—her version of “In a Sentimental Mood” is so convincing that you’d swear it was written for her.

In 1984, she released the album Talking to the Sun, issued on the German label Enja. Here she was totally in charge, picking young New York-based musicians as her band and doing the arrangements. As she says in the liner notes: “Everything I sing about deals with some kind of freedom. Mostly it’s freedom of the spirit.” I’m guessing that’s what led her to record two live discs of her singing songs associated with Billie Holiday in the late 80s. Though occasionally marred by the recording and some of the playing, it is still a joy to hear Lincoln’s takes on some of these classics.

This decade laid the groundwork for the successful recordings released later by a newly invigorated Verve Records. Though popular, some of these albums do not feel as though she were always in charge. That is not meant to knock some of the really terrific recordings issued after the decade in question—You Gotta Pay the Band with Stan Getz is required listening—but these would not have existed without her “lost” era. We’ve lost a real original, and that’s what matters.