Thursday, March 29, 2007

Late additions the blogroll, that is. I've belatedly added Peter Breslin's Stochasticactus to the list; like me, he's a musician/radio jockey, and often brings up quite challenging issues in the state of improvised music. Also stirring the pot is The Improvising Guitarist (whom I long thought was the alter ego of Stanley J. Zappa - my apologies to both of them), with a fabulous cache of essays on gender, race, and identity within music.

A non-music blog (blasphemy!) has been added: Freshwater Mermaid, a fellow Montrealer with acerbic wit and great insight into local, national and international issues. If you dig deeper into the blog, you'll find excerpts of a novel-in-progress. It may well be complete by now, I'm not sure.

The mighty Helen Spitzer, who helmed CBC's Brave New Waves for 8 momentous weeks before the show's untimely demise, has left the blogosphere for now. Jesse Jarnow is on vacation. Under the Mediatrics banner, a belated welcome to Hank Shteamer.

Steve has word that Tonic will shut its doors mid-April. When that headline popped up in my RSS feed, I was stunned. Tonic had become an integral part of my NYC experience, and I will miss it terribly. I'm working on a eulogy for PanPot right now.

The final show of Indigone Trio's March residency is tonight at Le Parc des Princes. We've broken in drummer Phil Melanson admirably. 8:30 pm, 2 sets of original compositions by ourselves and other people.

The other night, I was working on a new piece for BMI at my local Second Cup, and it was easily the strangest crowd I've ever experienced there: two tourists, above and beyond expecting waitresses at a Second Cup, spouting the most disjointed conservative rhetoric I've heard outside the O'Reilly Factor (accusing the recent Quebec election of not having issues - I suppose health care and education aren't issues enough - as well as accusing Canada of being a lefty-pinko land of lollipops and roses sufficiently out of touch with the reality of the rest of the world as the US sees it)*; two women rather loudly gossiping about the ineptitude of the returning officers and other scrutineers; and one guy who, after intently watching me work, started rambling at me about various quasi-related subjects.

* - the true irony: these guys were sitting right beside me, while the piece I was working on was catalyzed by my friend organizing the benefit concert for Darfur.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Jot notes

- My review of the Boxhead Ensemble's Nocturnes (featuring V5 cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Atavistic stalwart drummer Frank Rosaly is up at Panpot.
- Tonight marks the last of the dinner/cocktail-hour Indigone Trio sets at Le Parc des Princes (5293 ave du Parc, between Fairmount & St. Viateur). Next Thursday, we start at 8:30.
- Tomorrow, Kids Eat Crayons come out of the sandbox and invade O'Hara's Pub (1197 University). Our drummer/composer, Dennis W. Lee, leads a second life as a ska guitarist in Stepper, who will be joining us.
- Saturday marks another edition of Groove Night, featuring Indigone Trio bassist Alex Mallett making a rare appearance on electric. That's at Bar L'Oblique (1669 St. Hubert).

Les speakers feed et crachent

I went to see Karkwa last night, continuing the tour behind their album Les tremblements s'immobilisent. The last time I saw the band was before Les tremblements came out, so it was interesting to see what two years (give or take) on the road have done.

Karkwa's always been a tight band, and they've only gotten tighter. Guitarist Louis-Jean Cormier is still coming out of a sonic school of guitar playing reminiscent of the Edge or Jonny Greenwood, but his voice - as a singer and a songwriter - has gotten stronger. Their first album, Le pensionnat des établis, owed as much to Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers as to Radiohead. Last night proved they're developing an original sound, and they've moved away from the funk-rock à la québecois (which they did admirably, I must say) and adopted an indie/post-rock vibe similar to their Montreal cohorts Patrick Watson, People for Audio and Pawa Up First (the latter counts Karkwa percussionist Julien Sagot as a member). Keyboardist François Lafontaine was impressive as always, adding to Cormier's textures and occasionally unleashing an actuelle-inspired rip or two.

Most of the music was drawn from Les tremblements, along with some new songs introduced and "Hold-Up" from Le pensionnat. I was impressed by their consistently creative harmonies and their willingness to extend their song forms. Both sets were introduced with soundscape creations (d)evolving into one of their tunes, and they tacked on an intriguing coda to "La marche."The penchant for odd meters has turned into an embrace of 3/4 or 6/8, and the genre-jumping of their first album has matured into a better synthesis of various influences. From the new songs they played last night, I look forward to Karkwa's future.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The color of memory

As have been rightfully linked throughout the jazz blog world, Mwanji's two essays on jazz and race are fantastic and important reading. I want to touch on a tangent of it that comes up in Matana Roberts' blog, especially in the comment from Jaleel Shaw. He writes:
I believe there are many reasons why we don't have more blacks at our shows. One is education. When I look back to my education in the public school, I wasn't taught about my culture at all. When I think about most of my fellow students, most of their parents weren't either. When I was coming up playing the horn, almost all of my music teachers in public schools were discouraging. They tried their best to make me quit and definitely didn't want to see me make it. ... So if most of the kids today aren't taught about their culture, their music, where are they going to go? What are they going to gravitate to?
There's two points in here that need to be addressed: the lack of respect or awareness of cultural history; and the accessibility of the music.

On one of my recent trips to NYC, my hostelmates were a bunch of gangly Swiss teenage (or early-20s) males. They were graffiti artists, with an arsenal of spraypaint bottles and Sharpie markers, sketching on pads at every turn. They were also avid hip-hop listeners, having gone on a crate-digging trip earlier in the week and playing tunes from their iPods when I got to the hostel. I asked them about the popularity of hip-hop culture in Europe, and they said that it was more popular there than in the States. Now, I'm talking about the totality of hip-hop culture here, the four elements that KRS-One and the rest of the old-school refer to: breakdancing, MCing, DJing, and graffiti. (The debatable fifth element would be beatboxing.) The Under Pressure festival here in Montreal every summer is essentially a block party celebrating those four elements, and at the best of times the crowd is half-and-half, but predominantly white. This is not a rhetorical question, this is one I would love an answer to: what has gone on in black communities that has prohibited them from respecting, admiring, and honouring their own cultural history?

MuchMusic (the Canadian relative of MTV) runs a 30-second spot every Black History Month, flashing the faces of pioneering black artists in jazz, soul, hip-hop, and rock. The idea is that without them, there would not have been any of these genres. It closes with a black kid saying "No way," and fades out to "kNOw the history." It's a travesty that anyone would have to be reminded of Prince's or Hendrix's contributions to modern music. At a certain point, it ceases to be strictly Black History and is more generally History, that shouldn't have to be relegated to a certain month. Christian McBride and ?uestlove both worried, in the wake of James Brown's death, that younger generations will remember Mr. Brown through Eddie Murphy's impersonations. James Brown was and is the lifeblood of so much music - funk, soul, and hip-hop to name but three - that it seems like a ludicrous possibility to me, but it may be a reality.

Shaw also brings up your boy, Flavor Flav, indulging in various incarnations of "minstrelsy" reality-TV style, in the 21st century, and Matana argues that he's essentially tarnishing the legacy of Public Enemy. I agree. Chuck D is still active, but on the fringes; Flav is a household vision, Viking helmet, clocks and all. Shaw and Roberts raise the question: can we no longer recognize minstrelsy? Do we no longer care? Why do so many hip-hop videos propagate the clichés of bling and sex, and any MC with real things to say gets lumped in the "conscious" camp? And this is in hip-hop, the lingua franca of modern African-American culture for 20-odd years. It doesn't bode well for jazz.

I remember something Branford Marsalis wrote a while ago, on his website I believe, essentially saying that jazz was something upwardly-mobile black people were supposed to like once they reached a certain age. That very well may be true, and it would also explain the "'black jazz is stuck in the mainstream and/or past' sentiment." There's a certain type of jazz upwardly-mobile 40-something Blacks are supposed to gravitate towards, and young Black avant-garde artists don't fit that bill.

The second issue is one of accessibility, which I've written about before. Never mind the interest or ability (or lack thereof) to teach students the history of African-American music, instruments cost money. Music lessons cost money. Conservatory training costs a lot of money. LaTasha Diggs responds to Matana's post saying that she had to pass on the Alice Coltrane concert because it was too expensive. Yes, artists should be paid, but I'll reiterate my belief that cover charges plus drink minimums add up to a cost that can be prohibitively expensive for the most interested listeners. It's necessary to supplement these concerts with lower-cost community involvement, like going to the high schools or community centres or whatever the case may be. If the listeners won't come to the musicians, the musicians need to go to the listeners. I remember in elementary and high school we would sometimes have visiting performers that would put on shows that dealt with some sort of knowledge or awareness. From what I've read about Matana's Coin Coin project, a modified version of it would be fantastic in schools. Jazz has to get out of its non-social aspect and engage its communities. That's where the AACM has succeeded.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Tomorrow is the question

Much is being made in the blogosphere of the current state of jazz, vis-à-vis education and marketing. I dealt with some of these issues earlier; re-reading it now, some of my statements about my own education are a bit unduly harsh, but the generalities of it are still true. There's a definite "meta-narrative" (to borrow Dan Melnick's term) being propagated among most jazz educators and students that is rarely deviated from.

Whenever debates about the state of jazz, or music in general, arise, I tend to balk at the amount of overly pessimistic rhetoric. It's not the music itself that's the problem: in fact, on a purely artistic and creative level, I think it's a fascinating time to be a musician. Every time I walk into CKUT, there's a steady stream of great music sitting in the New Release bin. Many of my colleagues are creating original music on a very high level. The problem lies in how music is presented, and as far as jazz and classical/"new music" goes, recruiting from outside.

Pat's right in accusing the IAJE of being insular. I think the annual conference would benefit from being run a little bit more like South by Southwest, in terms of being more open to the public. To attend the IAJE conference, one must be a member, or sign up for a membership upon registration. Music and musicians need to connect to the outside world and the community at large, and I think that's where the jazz/classical-industrial complex is faltering. Increasingly relegated to ivory towers and elite concert halls, it loses touch with the layman - and even a lot of students. Cover charges and drink minimums are often cost-prohibitive for a lot of interested listeners. The Village Vanguard has student discount prices, and I think that needs to go across the board.

I think a lot of people find jazz intimidating - not merely musically, but socially. The sense that prior knowledge of the music is a pre-requisite, that you have to know when to applaud, etc. To combat that, jazz needs to be brought to the people if people are not being brought to jazz. Indigone Trio's played gigs recently to audiences that never would have come to hear us before - in empty "rock" bars or at a quarterfinal of an a cappella competition. In each case, we have reached listeners with our music - not because we dumb it down but because we merely made it available to them. If jazz wants to cultivate younger listeners, bands need to get out to the high schools. Exposure is a wonderful thing, with amazing power. IAJE itself has even proven this -- in 2006 there was a percussion ensemble of middle-school kids ripping the crap out of intricate arrangements of "Spain" and "Caravan," and they had fun doing it! I soared with hope for the future generations.

Hope which is increasing chiselled away as arts education funding in Canada and the US is slashed left and right. I was discussing this with an educator friend, currently teaching at a high school in Montreal. I can't count how many studies have been done showing the importance of music in education, how it improves students' capacities in all areas, etc. Not to disparage maths and sciences, but it's not the be-all and end-all of education. There's a definite decline in the appreciation of culture, and maybe it's due to the lack of attention it receives in the media. I'm drawn to Frank Zappa's quote: "Your children have the right to know that something other than pop music exists."

There's also an underestimation of the potential audience, as listeners and as students. There's these "eureka" moments in music - very strong, almost visceral reactions. The opening of A Love Supreme, for instance. I can only hope to give someone that same feeling. And there's something about the "eureka" moments that arise from improvised music - be it jazz, freestyling MCs, or "jambands" - that are unique; the feeling I got from A Love Supreme was different than how I felt listening to Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin for the first time, but they were both very much epiphanal listening experiences. It's amazing what kids will latch onto if they're given the chance. I was 13 when I heard T.S. Monk's Monk on Monk big band - sitting third row, with the saxophone bells in my face, it was easily one of the best Hallowe'ens I've ever had, and kickstarted my serious interest in jazz.

And people need to be shown that jazz is alive and well today. Monk's music was being played, and re-energized, by living musicians - my introduction to Monk was not merely an artifact, and I think maybe my interest would have been less if it had been. As Darcy mentioned in his comments to Doug Ramsey's post, the biggest detriment to the music is protecting its past without presenting its present and future. [enter your own comment about Ken Burns here] This 13-year-old drummer I met at Cleopatra's Needle a few weeks ago is highly engaged with musicians that are working now; he's far more knowledgeable about the modern state of jazz than I was at 13. Let's hope there are more like him lurking out there in the morass of cultural apathy.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Linkage galore

- Via Dan, an incisive and insightful Vijay Iyer essay at All About Jazz. Finally, someone who can thoughtfully talk about the state of jazz (or any music) without resorting to apocalyptic hyperbole. I take some issue with the idea that music-school graduates are inherently more prone to "safe" music, and that if one struggles one is immediately validated as a musician (which Iyer himself equivocates).

- Via Ropeadope, Peter Costello's layman explanation of new tariffs on Internet radio in the States. Sadly, SOCAN wants to institute a similar thing here, called Tariff 22.

It seems that these changes serve to cast a wider net in order to implicate music sites, audio webcast, webcasts of radio station signals, audiovisual webcasts, webcasts of television station signals and game sites. Tariff 22 proposes a fee of the greater of either 7.5% of the Gross Revenues earned by or 7.5% of the Gross Operating Expenses of the site or service, with a minimum monthly fee of $200.00 for stations in our sector. It is also proposed by SOCAN that these fees be retroactive to January 2006. [...]
Tristis [Ward, National Campus and Community Radio Association representative] says that she agrees with SOCAN in the sense that all art has a value. Artists should receive royalties for the public performance of their music. She believes that stations are diligent about paying the fees to SOCAN. The problem occurs when SOCAN moves to ignore the artists’ desire to have their music promoted — something that stations naturally provide by webcasting their regular feed. The reality of the campus and community radio sector is that stations, faced with increased monthly fees, will simply be forced to pull their Internet feed. Some stations have already done so.
“Royalty collectors should recognize this,” says Tristis. “Stations in our sector are not in it for the money, often the people who are playing and promoting the music are volunteers. There just isn’t any fat to trim to pay for this extra fee.”
She also believes if artists knew about the proposed tariff they would not be in support of it.
“The kind of artists that are played on community and campus radio stations often have few other forums to get their music heard. Most of the time, new artists get exposure because of us. The webcasting offers a broader audience for the
artist but does not bring the station more money.”
Americans, write your Congresspeople. There was an e-mail address at CKUT on how Canadian musicians can protest Tariff 22. I'll get it soon and edit it into this post. Campus/community radio, and Internet radio, is the last bastion of creativity on the airwaves and we need to protect the multiplicity of broadcast voices at all costs.

- Speaking of campus/community radio, my latest Jazz Euphorium playlist is up.

- Indigone Trio hits tomorrow evening at Le Parc des Princes (5293 Parc, between Fairmount & St-Viateur). Our repertoire is growing and we're breaking Phil in quite nicely.

- We're also going to be the judging panel music at the ICCA quarterfinals at Redpath Hall on Saturday night. Two out of the three McGill a cappella groups - Soulstice and Tonal Ecstacy - are in the running this year; Effusion is sitting out after making the finals the past two years. It's always a kick to see what the other groups are doing: last year a group from York University did Kurt Elling's "The Uncertainty of the Poet," and as the judges took exceedingly long to deliberate and Kweku and the Movement exhausted our set, a vocal percussion jam ensued.

Friday, March 02, 2007

As a rule, I have tried to keep this blog apolitical. There's many great resources out there, far more knowledgeable and engaged than I am (like Lindsay or Craig). However, via Darcy, I've come across two very important pieces of legal/political news concerning musicians and artists that bear repeating.

Quick one first: An AFM bulletin encouraging musicians who have had run-ins with damaged gear or unruly airport officials while travelling with their instruments to email with details. Doesn't matter if you're a union member or not, the more voices they have to present to US Congress, the better. I hope this extends to other countries, eventually. I feel especially sorry for any double-reed players who have to explain why they need to have gougers and knives and all sorts of sharp equipment on them when we're no longer allowed to fly with toothpaste in a carry-on.

A more intricate, and more disturbing story, courtesy of Carl (Zoilus) Wilson and Naomi Klein: Music being used as torture at Gitmo, and possibly elsewhere. I'll admit that when I first read inklings of this a few months ago, I laughed at the irony of the US government playing Rage Against the Machine, in any context. But Carl's right - now that torturous music is no longer a metaphor, but very real, it's no longer funny.

Unlike some European legal systems, the anglo-saxon tradition doesn't include droit moral, the "moral rights" of a creator over her work, which (among other things ) includes control over any use of the work that offends the artist's sensibilities. And I'm generally glad that it doesn't. Once a work of art is released into the public sphere, I believe, it becomes part of the collective unconscious, of popular/folk culture; compensation and copyright issues are trickier, but on principle images and ideas should be available for resuse, recontextualization, satire and even misappropriation. I don't think that the Catholic Church should control what artists do with icons of the Virgin Mary, or Muslims the image of Muhammad; and so I don't think Bruce Springsteen should have been able to stop Ronald Reagan from inverting the meaning of Born in the USA for propaganda purposes, though I wish people hadn't been careless enough to fall for it.

But musicians and music lovers' deeper moral rights are violated when the story goes beyond a figurative abuse of cultural discourse to the literal abuse of human subjects. [...] Perhaps the music industry could follow their lead, turning their attention from the "monetization" of music to the weaponization of it for a few heartbeats.
Some artists and composers do have somewhat of a droit moral, though, in the ability to refuse licensing, and I do not begrudge them that. In fact, unlike Carl, I think individual artists should be able to prohibit the use of their work in contexts they do not approve. There's a difference between a specific song and a global folkloric/religious icon like the Virgin Mary or Muhammad. The latter are concepts or models that artists work with - a figure in an artist's original creation, as opposed to an outside institution or corporation using an artist's work verbatim and wholesale. In other words, a more apt comparison would be using a reproduction of Caravaggio's Death of the Virgin for... I don't know, a cocktail mix label or something.