Wednesday, January 18, 2006

IAJE reports, part 2

Friday was the day we'd all been waiting for. I wound up taking a different bus into town, and whereas the commute took half an hour on Thursday, it took more like 45 or 50 minutes, including blowing by the Port Authority subway entrance by about a block. I was flustered, and went out the 53rd and Broadway exit of the subway, standing right in front of the Ed Sullivan Theater. I regrouped, found my way to the Hilton and went to soundcheck for our set. Started to feel like I was coming down with something, and after soundcheck went and got some tea.

The set was warmly received and we got some great comments and made some good contacts. As a group we gelled and got our Indigone vibe across. After the set, we went our separate ways: Alex checked out more of the conference; Liam went for a lesson with Ben Perowsky; I went out for lunch, to Times Square and the Virgin Megastore. The Megastore is a dangerous, dangerous place, akin to setting a small child with a sweet tooth loose in a candy factory. I purchased only one disc, which I had not been able to find in Montreal: Paul Motian's Monk In Motian with Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Dewey Redman and Geri Allen. Phenomenal record.

I then headed back to the Hilton to see my Canadian colleagues autorickshaw, who were as impressive as always. Vocalist Suba Sankaran and tabla player Ed Hanley took the occasion to explain Indian musical concepts to the audience. Bassist Rich Brown was killing as usual, and it was really cool to hear Mark McLean on drums in that style. I?ve only ever heard him play straightahead swing or deep funk.

I had to leave the autorickshaw set early in order to try and get a decent seat for one of the shows I could not afford to miss: the Jazz Big Band Graz playing the music of John Hollenbeck. It was a good thing I got there early, because there was a large (albeit deceptively large) line to get in. I wound up sitting in the middle of the Sheraton Metropolitan Ballroom. Decent enough seat for visuals, and soundwise it was great. I was blown away: most of the music came from the JBBG's disc of Hollenbeck music - I had only heard Hollenbeck's own Large Ensemble disc called A Blessing. The music was adventurous, creative and exploratory - the first tune, "The Bird With The Coppery, Keen Claws," featured the entire band emulating bird calls with vocalist Theo Bleckmann reciting Wallace Stevens poetry. It took me a while to warm to it, but then they continued with a phenomenal composition called "Just Like Him" which converted me entirely. Hollenbeck has never hidden his affection for non-jazz music, and his influences are as varied as minimalist and post-minimalist 20th century classical music, world and folkloric music, and rock. He purposefully avoids using standard big band sounds, and refers to his own group as his Large Ensemble. And it's evident in his music. External influences include poetry (the suite "Joys & Desires" takes its title, and third movement, from William Blake's poem "The Garden of Love") and art ("Maxfield," dedicated to Maxfield Parish). He has a very dry wit, too: "This next tune is called 'Abstinence.' The first part has to do with abstinence, and the second has to do with... what comes after abstinence. The bass solo will be played by Henning Stevens, who has no personal connection to abstinence whatsoever." The second movement of "Joys And Desires" came to him in a dream he had about Gil Evans and Tim Berne dancing together. I was killing myself laughing at the idea. John Hollenbeck is highly recommended to fans of progressive jazz or classical music.

Hollenbeck ran overtime, so I left in the middle of "Abstinence" to go see this panel entitled "How Much Can You Make?" It just went around in circles for an hour: clubs won't book artists who don't have a record, and representation helps; management won't look at an artist who they haven't heard of through gigs or records; and you can't sell records unless you have an audience through gigs and promotion. It's great to hear the perspective of industry legends, but in a certain way it's rather useless: the panelists didn't deal with musicians who are just breaking into the lower rungs of the industry, and haven't dealt with them for years. Each facet is interdependent with the others, but no one is willing to say which branch is more important or who you need first. I walked out knowing just as much (if not less) than when I walked in, angry that I had missed Hollenbeck music. As the woman beside me said, "Discussing industry is much like discussing God - you get used to it going in circles." I ran into Lorie Wolf, the drummer from the Sisters in Jazz band, who was kind enough to stop by my set in the morning.

Lorie and I were supposed to met before the big evening concert, which didn't happen. The concert honored the NEA Jazz Masters (Ray Baretto, Tony Bennett, Bob Brookmeyer, Chick Corea, Buddy DeFranco, Freddie Hubbard, and John Levy). None of those musicians played that night - honouring them were Jon Faddis and the Jon Faddis Jazz Orchestra, and the Basie band with Nnenna Freelon. I have respect for all the musicians in those bands, but the music was all rather tame and uninspiring, especially in the wake of Glasper and Hollenbeck. Hell, the Basie band brought legendary pianist Barry Harris out, only to play "Misty" behind Nnenna Freelon. It was not an effective use of resources. The upside of the concert was the woman I was sitting beside, an old and vocal jazz fan who happened to have gone to high school with Dewey Redman and Julius Hemphill, and was a personal friend of Ornette Coleman. The video montages and acceptance speeches were good, and Nancy Wilson broke down while honoring her manager, John Levy. I only stuck around to hear Bob Brookmeyer's speech, and then skipped out to go get a seat for the Mingus band.

I haven't been to a real, sho'-'nuff down-home church with a huge, swaying, soulful choir... but I imagine that the Mingus bands come close to what a service in that sort of house of worship would be like. It was a riotous, energetic affair. It started with Mingus Dynasty, a small group. Sue Mingus introduced the band by way of mentioning that they couldn't find the trumpet part to the tune they were supposed to play, so they did "Pithecanthropus Erectus" instead. Pianist George Colligan walked on about halfway through the tune and just started playing - I guess he'd been on the hunt for the part. It was good to finally have the opportunity to see George play, as I'd heard a lot about him through his wife, Kerry (another Banff colleague). Trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy is the showstopper of all the bands, though - from his guttural, motorcycle-revving trombone to his blues shouting to his wildly eccentric conducting, he's the embodiment of all of Mingus' wildness. The Mingus Orchestra played Mingus' more chamber-like works, "The Chill of Death" and "Todo Modo." The instrumentation was rather odd: French Horn, bassoon, trombone, bass clarinet, trumpet, alto/flute, tenor, guitar, bass and drums. I'd never heard these works of Mingus', and as a general rule across all three ensembles, they chose rare works. The Big Band played more obscurities like "Song With Orange." It was hard to really showcase each band within the hour set time they had, but the Big Band kicked ass. It's rare to see a tribute/repertory band that really captures the essence of the person they try to honour, but these bands did it mightily.

Saturday began with a clinic on how to play Hammond organ. I was too chicken to go up and volunteer to make an ass out of myself, but it was quite informative. Some of the information I knew already (like the drawbar system and such), but Rhoda Scott's tips on how to get around the pedals were incredibly helpful. I kind of wish she had talked about how to turn the organ on. That's one of the harder parts of the whole thing. There was comedy through the whole clinic, too. The first volunteer was named Will, the second was named Willie. She asked, "Is everyone in here named Will?!" A third volunteer got up, and said, "My name's Marc, but my friends call me Will."

The next clinic was about arranging for big band in 3 hours, and some of the advice was reminiscent of what Mike Malone told me years ago at the Kincardine Summer Jazz Festival. The clinician, Michael Philip Mossman, advised us to really think about what you're writing before you start writing. He handed out a checklist of questions that you answer in sort of a "mission statement" format before you set pencil to manuscript paper. These techniques and questions are obviously more appropriate if you're writing a chart on commission or deadline, as opposed to an extended work in the vein of John Hollenbeck, perhaps, but they were still quite useful.

Apparently, this year marked the inauguration of the SOCAN/IAJE Canadian Composition award, named for and awarded to Phil Nimmons. Playing Nimmons' commission was the Dave McMurdo Jazz Orchestra. A lot of the musicians were friends and colleagues of mine from Toronto, so it was great to hear them and see them again. I had worked with Alex, McMurdo, pianist Brian Dickinson and trumpeter Mike Malone out at Kincardine when I was a young teenager, and knew other members of his band from hanging around the Toronto jazz scene. Saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff did a semester at McGill and I got to play with him then, as well. I was impressed with this extended work of his called "Conversations: Aural Communications." He utilized the band to full effect, often breaking it down to conversational interludes between two or three soloists. It was a pretty empty room though - there were stragglers in and out during the performance.

Having taken a lunch break, I missed Maria Schneider signing autographs, and according to Darcy's blog, there was a one-on-one interview between Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer that wasn't listed in the schedule. Grr. I made it back in time to catch the last part of the Sisters in Jazz set. I don't know what it is about Canada breeding female bassists, but the rhythm section was solid (Lorie and Lauren Falls, both from Humber). The pianist and altoist were both good, but I didn't hear them enough to make a really well-informed opinion of her playing. The trombonist I had heard the night before at the Latin jam session, and she was quite impressive.

I then went to a clinic given by Irish bassist Ronan Guilfoyle on The Art and Science of Time. One thing he said, which makes total sense but not many people talk about, is that musical problems are NOT solved on your instrument - they are solved within you. Rhythm, for Guilfoyle, is a physical thing, and to master rhythm and time one must become a rhythmic being. He gave out exercises using solely a metronome, clapping and singing, and played Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and "All Blues" solos and we listened to them from a rhythmic perspective.

There was a panel on Jazz Education in Scandinavia afterwards. Some of you may know that my level of interest in the Scandinavian jazz scene is fairly elevated. I've had the good fortune to meet and play with some incredible musicians from Norway and Denmark. I had been anticipating this panel ever since it was announced, so that I could get information on how the conservatories in those countries work. One could say I had high expectations for this panel.

Not only did this panel fall far below my expectations, it was atrocious, uninformative and insulting. I don't know who the moderator was, but each question he asked was designed to piss somebody off. He backed the Dane into a corner, forcing him to defend the uniquely Danish concept of "rhythmic music" (as opposed to a "jazz" conservatory); he made a stupid remark about Norwegian jazz and the obsession with fjords and forests, and goaded the Norwegian representative into a line of rhetoric about the commercialization of American jazz education which seemed to serve the sole person of aggravating renowned American saxophonist and educator (and fellow panelist) Dave Liebman; and I left when he asked whether the amount of government involvement in the arts made Swedish music students lazy, because they didn't have to work. No one benefits from this inflammatory, Jerry Springer bullshit. This was the lowlight of the conference, by far.

I then trudged over to the Sheraton with a very bad taste in my mouth, awaiting a panel on what jazz and hip-hop can learn from each other. When the panel began, I noticed six chairs and only three panelists - the moderator, Tamara Conniff from Billboard, journalist John Murph, and professor Mark Baszak from UMass. The other panelists who were no-shows included DJ Spinna, Maurice Bernstein from Giant Step records, and Andy Hurwitz from Ropeadope records (whom I really wanted to meet). I stuck it out for the whole thing, hoping those who were MIA would show up, but they didn't, and it wasn't all that great of a panel anyway. I felt bad for missing Christine & Ingrid Jensen for this.

The final evening concert of the conference was opened by the Louisville Leopard Percussionists from New Albany, IN. Out strolled a parade of about 30 or 40 elementary schoolchildren, and they took their places behind a batallion of percussion: drum kit, congas, bongos, marimbas, xylophones and glockenspiels. They started with an arrangement of "Caravan," and everyone in the Hilton ballroom was smiling. The kids were engaged and cute, and for their age they played quite well. They were surprisingly tight. They then had the balls to do Chick Corea's "Spain" (Chick was playing right after them), and did quite the job on it. Then, this kid who couldn't have been more than 10, started swinging his ass off on tom-toms for "Sing, Sing, Sing." Single-handedly, this group defeated the doomsday scenarios presented by a lot of lecturers at the IAJE conference: jazz is not dying, and kids are still involved with the music. We just have to stop underestimating their attention spans and interests, and keep arts programs in the schools! I also think we need all-ages matinees in clubs (especially in the States), and to bring jazz groups around to high schools and middle schools.

Chick took the stage with Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette, and they played standards. It was high level and impressive, but a little bit rough around the edges. Chick admitted they hadn't rehearsed, and it showed, though the concluding free improvisation was stunningly cohesive and tight. To hear Jack and Eddie tell old road stories with and about Chick was a nice touch as well. The UNT One O'Clock Lab band followed, and they sounded like a pro level big band. The lead trumpeter had a hell of a range, and they were solid. The arrangements left something to be desired (and they could have easily chosen NOT to have played a second rendition of "Caravan"), although the original trumpet feature that ended their set was cool.

And then, easily, the highlight of the conference: the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra with Chick. Absolutely stunning, and it reaffirmed why I want to go to Scandinavia to study. These musicians are so open and free-thinking - jazz is admittedly NOT part of their cultural heritage or legacy, and they treat it as just another colour in their palette. They don't feel straitjacketed by the tradition as many American and Canadian schools do. They blew Chick's music wide open: extended interludes and abstracted extrapolations abounded. The conductor/composer/arranger had the audacity to arrange Chick's solo on "Matrix," and put the melody in the tuba! With other tunes he arranged ("Crystal Silence" and "Windows," and there was one other which I can't remember right now), my initial reaction was "I can't believe he's doing that to this song." It always worked, but they were ideas and treatments that would have never entered my mind. The band went from free improvisation and avant-garde conducted passages to intricately composed sections, often within the same song. The influence of minimalism and classical music was quite clear here - in fact, there were a lot of similarities between the TJO writing and the work of John Hollenbeck (who has spent quite a bit of time in Europe). It was pure joy and incredibly inspiring to hear this group play. I skipped out on going to see the equally-impressive-I'm-sure Kenny Werner Trio, because I wanted this to resonate in my head. I wanted to remember this and protect it as the last music I heard at IAJE.

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