Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Step into the realm

I was browsing around the Columbus Circle Borders last night when an announcement came over the PA that there was an event. Singer Chrisette Michele would be performing songs from (and signing) her new CD, and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson would be speaking. I didn't know Michele, but I've leafed through some of Dyson's books and heard him on various talk shows, and he's a very strong orator with an eloquent analysis of current hip-hop culture.

Michele exceeded my very low expectations. Despite various mix issues between her vocals and the tracks she sang to, it was obvious she was actually singing, and singing well. A very charismatic performer, she engaged the audience and retains an air of humility despite her limelight associations with Jay-Z, Nas, Beyoncé, et al. She brought to mind early Erykah Badu, with that hint of gravel that most automatically associate with Lady Day. Her melismas never overwhelm the song, and I feel that her shortcomings - mic technique, most prominently, and lyrical prowess - will be eclipsed as she matures. (And she hinted at her lyrical ability with a verse she spit, a cappella, during the Q&A.)

Dyson's turn quickly became a symposium of the elite black intellectuals, as Tavis Smiley, Roland Martin, Cornel West, Marcia Dyson, and Susan J. Taylor each took the microphone and gave persuasive, provocative speeches on the state of the Black community in various forms. There was an additional speaker, a professor from some established university, whose name, position and institution escape me. It felt very much like being in the church ceremonies I've always dreamed of witnessing, with audience/congregation hollering in response to each turn at the pulpit. Unsurprisingly, Dyson is an ordained Baptist minister. I didn't always follow the threads of each speaker; West, though compelling, was the most obtuse to me, but then again I'm completely unfamiliar with his work. One of the overarching themes of the evening, and the gist of my question, was the relationship between artist and community. Speakers emphasized the duties of love, leadership and service (Smiley especially so), and I believe that artists must be entrenched in their communities (be they artistic, cultural, financial or otherwise) not only to make distinctive art but to affect change.

My question, which spurred Dyson on a great monologue but didn't conclude in the answer I'd sought, was: Given the cleavages within it, what is the state of the hip-hop community? And what is the artists' responsibility to it? It amazes me that gangly kids from Switzerland know more and respect more of the tradition and history of hip-hop than many kids in the actual community. And the communal nature of hip-hop seems to be dwindling - Chappelle's Block Party and the annual Under Pressure convention in Montreal are anomalous; and aside from shouting out one's crew on every single track (which Dyson seemed to think is an acceptable substitute for real community...), a large majority of hip-hop is focussed on strict individualism and self-gratification. But hip-hop at its best, in my mind, is indebted to a community, or at least a collective.

A couple of causes were brought up by the speakers and by audience members, which deserve broader attention:
- Essence magazine is a driving force behind a New Orleans Day of Presence on August 29, 2007. Excerpts from an e-mail from Ms. Taylor follow:
[A]s the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, the situation in New Orleans remains dire. Some 250,000 people are yet displaced throughout the nation, unable to return because they have no homes, no jobs nor the financial means to rebuild. Two years later, 70 schools in Orleans Parish are still closed. There are no mental health services and no hospitals to serve the uninsured poor. The $1.175 billion in federally appropriated funds for the Katrina rebuild and relief effort are being held up by FEMA.

Enough is enough! It's time for our community to stand up and take action. There must be a national outcry, a day of outrage, a day of protest, prayer and possibility that the media cannot ignore; a day on which we demand that our national decision makers redirect our tax dollars away from war and war profiteering to create a regional Marshall Plan that restores New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

This is our call to action:

1. We demand our national leaders redirect tax dollars away from the war to create a regional Marshall Plan that restores New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
2. We demand funding for the rebuilding of the levees, for the safety of the people of New Orleans.
3. We want to return to New Orleans and need expeditious housing and job assistance to come back home.
4. We demand adequate health care. No displaced child or adult should go sick, untreated or without medication because his or her state-based medical insurance is not valid in the state where they've been temporarily relocated.
5. We need government funding for mental health counseling and support services for those dealing with the aftermath of their loss.

This is what we're asking you to do:

1. Stand with us on Wednesday, August 29th, in New Orleans as we take to the streets for a massive demonstration and march, 10 AM - 4 PM, on Convention Center Blvd, directly across from the Morial Convention Center's Hall D.
2. Call your congressional and state representatives and the White House to demand the immediate restoration and betterment of New Orleans, Gulf Port, Biloxi and the entire Gulf Coast region. The toll-free number for the congressional switchboard is: (888) 226-0627. You can also email your Congressmen and women and senators by logging onto and, respectively.
- Old news in the hip-hop community, new news to a dabbler like me: The birthplace of hip-hop, 1520 Sedgwick in the Bronx, is the latest victim of gentrification in the Big Apple. More at NYT. Someone announced there would be a demonstration to protect it as a cultural landmark. Hip-hop is more NYC's cultural export of the last 30 years than new music and avant-jazz (even if the latter is closer to my heart), and 1520 Sedgwick is as much worth protecting as Tonic. We must prioritize the rejuvenation and protection of culture.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Yoron Herman/François Bourassa (07/01/2007)

I walked into Spectrum as Israeli-French pianist Yoron Herman, framed in an often angelic lighting scheme, was in the middle of an exploration of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing.” He played with a strong, insistent left hand pattern and marvelous invention in the right. His hand position was almost Jarrett-esque, not to mention his posture and intermittent vocalizations. He continued with a rendition of Bill Frisell’s “Throughout,” a piece that is far too dear to my heart for me to comment further. Suffice it to say that if I were to play it solo piano, I’d want it to be done the way Herman did it. He started his version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” inside the piano, strumming and plucking the strings with great precision, knocking the lid and playing the soundboard much like a conga drum. After an unknown ballad, he played Sting’s “Fragile” with a sing-song quality over highly powerful bass, which evolved into a vibrant montuno towards the end. He closed his set with the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” over an incredibly powerful D minor drone. It was transcendent and delivered with massive amounts of emotion. Herman had said earlier in the night it was his first visit to Quebec and, ill at ease on the mic, he’d much rather play. His sentiment and pride of performance came through in those moments.

It is always fascinating to hear an instrumentalist whose playing is inextricably tied to his writing to play other people’s music. This describes both local pianist François Bourassa and alto saxophonist David Binney who joined forces for a tour de force set. Bourassa started with his usual quartet of saxophonist André Leroux, bassist Guy Boisvert and drummer Greg Ritchie. They started with a Monk-ish original of Bourassa. It was my first time hearing the huge tenor tone of Leroux, a gruff post-Trane tenor who was also impressive on flute and soprano throughout the night. The first guest Bourassa welcomed, before Binney, was an African percussionist who contributed well on djembe and talking drum. The constant dialogue between all the members of the band brought to mind Wayne Shorter’s current quartet, though Bourassa’s band was more beholden to his compositional forms. Bourassa’s tunes were immensely energetic, getting a rise out of the Spectrum crowd unlike any reaction I’ve heard for a local artist at Jazz Fest. Boisvert switched to 5-string electric for the funky “Fa Do Do.”

It’s easy to hear what unites Bourassa and Binney – a penchant for driving, odd metered, ostinato driven pieces. But what’s more fascinating are the differences – Bourassa’s penchant for swinging melodies with large intervallic ranges and leaps and a sense of off-kilter phrasing; Binney’s space and airiness inherent to his chord voicings and melodies. There’s a sense of atmosphere around Binney’s music; a sense of space even in his densest moments. Binney really dug into Bourassa’s music, and the bass-heavy ostinati served as launching pads for highly creative solos.

(An abridged version of this review appears at Panpot. Tickets provided by FIJM.)

Antibalas/Femi Kuti (06/30/2007)

Antibalas’ set was drawn mostly from their album Security, though they did end with a Fela Kuti cover that I couldn’t place. They’ve grown musically over the years, pushing the boundaries of what Afrobeat can contain – there were moments in the solo spots that so captivated my attention that I had to momentarily stop dancing. Victor Axelrod’s keyboards channelled Congotronics-esque lo-fi experimentation as much as classic Afrobeat organ. They grooved at lower dynamic levels, which is quite the accomplishment. The horn mics didn’t cut over the drums and bass enough, and I found myself wanting Antibalas to have a more uniform stage presence – Amayo’s a very strong frontman, but the rest of the musicians (especially the horns) had such disparate stage behaviour.

Femi Kuti’s band, Positive Force, came out blazing, with a five-man horn section and ample rhythm section, clad in blue, red and white gowns, complemented by three dancers/backup vocalists. The band has obviously checked out Earth Wind & Fire and James Brown, not solely through Afrobeat’s assimilation of those rhythms but also through their choreography and horn riffs. I thought I heard some elements of new American gospel, like Kirk Franklin, in the mix as well, though that music is also a derivative of EW&F big band funk. Kuti has grown greatly as a musician, playing saxophone with far more confidence than on record. He’s also a charismatic showman and bandleader, cueing the band at all times. The band attacked the rhythms and syncopations with drive, authenticity and fervour. I left after the band’s outstanding cover of “Water No Get Enemy,” as the relentless groove and stifling temperature of Metropolis became too much to handle.

(An abridged version of this review appears at Panpot. Tickets provided by FIJM.)

Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood (06/28/2007)

A far better example of integrating a guitarist into a pre-existing trio is the addition of John Scofield into Medeski Martin & Wood. The quartet’s relationship has vastly grown over the years. 1998’s A Go Go saw MMW functioning as the Booker T. & MGs to Scofield’s dominant frontman to becoming a group of four equal partners with a symbiotic relationship as documented on 2006’s Out Louder. To my ears, Scofield has rarely sounded more inspired; his usual bag of licks and tricks of string raking and muted strumming were noticeably absent – he was truly engaged and imaginative. The phrasing between Sco & Medeski tight on the unison passages were exceedingly tight.

The trio of MMW themselves have matured a great deal since I last saw them – Chris Wood’s stage presence has become more active and brighter, replete with impromptu James Brown footwork. Billy Martin is still the groove machine he always was, with an ear for the right percussive touch at the right moment. Instead of constantly subverting the groove as in years past, the balance was far better – tunes were separated by interludes of brilliant open improv and colour. It was a treat to hear Scofield in this freer setting, rarely documented in the past.

Last time I saw Sco, with the Uberjam band, he was in the teething stage of incorporating additional pedals and effects in his rig. He has since learned the tricks of his pedals and how to use them effectively. Most tunes in the set were pulled from Out Louder. Late in the set, though, Scofield started the signature strumming pattern of “Chank,” from A Go Go. This was a far dirtier and funkier version, with everybody digging in for a more aggressive rhythmic feel. Sco kicked in an envelope filter, further colouring his sound, and Medeski’s Hammond drawbar manipulations are unparalleled. His new combination of Hammond and a small Wurlitzer organ were great complimentary sounds. The tune ended with a series of killer punches. For a respite from the hardcore jam, the quartet indulged in their cover of the John Lennon tune “Julia.” Medeski showed his understated gospel side, reminiscent of his early century work with The Word and Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I’ve rarely heard Scofield play ballads and his melodic phrasing was truly gorgeous. The encore was a darkly funky version of “Hottentot,” from A Go Go, delivered in a manner similar to Miles Davis’ funkier ’70s moments or even those of P-Funk keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell.

(An abridged version of this review appears at Panpot. Tickets provided by FIJM.)

Mike Stern & The Bad Plus, 06/28/2007

I made my way inside for the first concert of the Invitation series: guitarist Mike Stern temporarily joining the ranks of the Yellowjackets and The Bad Plus. I was skeptical about this concert, as collisions between disparate bands look intriguing on paper and result in disaster. TBP opened with “Mint,” from Prog, a demented, swinging line courtesy of pianist Ethan Iverson. Having never seen TBP live, I was struck by the facility of each player. David King gets a bad rap for being a loud drummer, and while he can unleash the holy power of John Bonham, he’s also got great touch and an ear for the whole kit – rims, shells and all. Iverson has incredible technical prowess and independence of hands, with boundless harmonic knowledge and imagination. Bassist Reid Anderson is the glue of the band, and an unabashed melodicist. It became clear during the set why Ornette Coleman has shown his appreciation for the band, and how TBP is a fairly direct descendant of the “harmolodic” lineage, from Ornette through the Keith Jarrett American Quartet of the ‘70s.

Mike Stern came out and immediately the set became awkward for me. He has no pick attack in his tone; it’s all note, which wouldn’t be so bad if his sound wasn’t drowning in chorus and delay, inviting comparisons to Andy Summers. Starting with his tune “Play,” Stern unleashed a solo full of pentatonics, string bending and a few closing choruses with trebly distortion, an archetype for many of his solos to come. He trampled over the solos of each member of TBP, though it was fascinating to hear the band play on more standard forms – Iverson’s version of “crazy experimental freedom” “funnelled” into the context of a minor blues, for example. King has a tremendous swing feel, putting him in the line of that generation of drummers around the NYC club, Smalls, during the mid-to-late ’90s (Ari Hoenig, Jeff Ballard, etc.) Jazz Fest has a history of doing a disservice to pianists, and this night was no exception. The piano sounded boxy in the house, almost as if it were a bad digital keyboard. Ethan's body language seemed especially disconcerting, often standing up while playing, or sitting on the bench, laying out during the first choruses of Stern's solos. It boiled down to the fact that Stern’s vocabulary is entirely different from TBP – made especially evident when he tackled one of their tunes – and a consensus wasn’t reached.

(An abridged version of this review appears at Panpot. Tickets provided by FIJM.)

Friday, July 13, 2007

Royalties killed the radio star

It's a brilliant time artistically to be a musician, but not only are venues closing, the organizations that are supposed to protect our interests (copyright organizations and musicians unions) are aiming to kill off one of the only avenues available for the dissemination of creative music: Internet streaming radio. SaveNetRadio has lost their stay.
"This is a setback, but it is certainly not the end of the road. More than 70 million Americans listen to internet radio and tens of thousands of artists depend on webcasters to promote their music; webcasters aren't going to simply give up the music they love without a fight," [a spokesperson] said.
I hope he's right.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Shattered dreams and shuttered doors

Well, it seems no city is safe. In addition to the pending closure of Spectrum to make way for a Best Buy, it seems that Main Hall (Mile End Cultural Centre) could be slated for the chopping block as well, due to permit issues and noise complaints.
We have been informed by the City of Montreal that our existing “Salle De Reunion” permit for the Main Hall does not allow for the usage of “Spectacles” and or ticketed concerts events. As of immediately, we have been told to cease all events for such usages. We must adhere to the city’s request otherwise we will face a review, and possibly a cancellation of our liquor permit by the Regie des Alcool cours et Jeux.
To be an affordable arts venue for Mile End and Montreal artists of all disciplines, our Centre relies on beverage sales revenues from music events. With the cancellation of events over the summer Mile End Cultural Centre’s survival is in jeopardy. ...
Unfortunately, the recent opposition to our request for the Salle de Spectacle permit by principally one local resident is causing our existence as a cultural centre to be called into question. We believe, as the issues regarding noise leakage have come only in last month, we should be allowed some weeks to correct the problem.
Noise complaints on St Laurent are fallacious, to me; if you have a place on St Laurent, you should know what that entails. Peace and quiet are to be found on many other streets in the city; The Main isn't one of them. I had some musician friends who lived across the street from the Fringe Festival, on St. Laurent & Rachel, and were victims of frequent noise complaints when they weren't louder than the Fringe Pop stage, or the hundreds of Portuguese soccer supporters honking incessantly during Euro Cup 2004.

The only show I've seen at Main Hall was Jason Sharp's Mobius CD release with People for Audio. I hope that won't be my last visit to the club. It's described as a loft-style room, similar to La Sala Rossa but a bit smaller, and one of the better mid-size venues in the city. The booker and soundman is Matt Lederman, of Moondata Productions fame - to have a room with a soundman who knows what they're doing is a rarity, and to have a booker who's also a musician and intensely supportive of the local scene is a treasure we must preserve at all costs.

Montrealers, ex-Montrealers, and anybody who cares about the protection of culture in North America, sign the petition to save the Mile End Cultural Centre here.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Many streams to cross

Dave Douglas has responded to Ethan Iverson's astute jazz in the '90s essay. While I earlier wrote that my perspective on jazz in the '90s is a little skewed and out of sorts, I agree with both these essays in different ways. My following opinions are coloured by the fact that I worked with Dave out at Banff a couple of years ago - easily a watershed moment in my musical development that still heavily influences my work today. I also recently interviewed Ethan and his TBP cohorts during the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Ethan's main point, for those late to the party, is this:
I believe that the tributaries that these two trios from 1996 represent are equally important considerations for the young improviser today. It hasn't really happened yet -- Joe Lovano comes closest -- but when players can eat up "Cherokee" with Jeff Watts and create free harmony with Barre Phillips at an equal level, that will really be something.
Ironically enough, both Dave and Ethan are too close to their own music and possibly too humble to state it, so I will: they are embodiments of authenticity in both streams. I mentioned this in my forthcoming review of TBP with guitarist Mike Stern at the Festival, but it was really fascinating to hear them go beyond their usual setting and work with new musicians and new forms. Ethan mentioned during the interview of having an identity crisis in soundcheck, of being principally a member of TBP or principally playing with Mike Stern. I'd argue he split the difference admirably. My respect and awe for Dave escalated tremendously after his appearance at the on-campus pub jam session at Banff, blowing the shit out of bebop changes and on sax faculty Mike Zilber's Coltrane-matrix-laden tunes on the weekly concert.

Dave is right that a musician bases their sound on choices of context, but his catalogue is proof that choosing a context can vary from project to project (and ideally should). What I think both of them try get at is that many artists choose a context in exclusivity, and throw other practices out with the bathwater. In the dichotomy Ethan presents, there's often a hesitancy among younger musicians delving into the other "stream" (for lack of a better term here), and in the surge of institutionalized jazz education, the free-harmony side of the spectrum gets short shrift. In practice, I find more and more musicians addressing free music and composition-based music equally, in interesting ways. There are still those who choose one over the other.

One musician who is an astonishing practitioner of both is Toronto guitarist Reg Schwager. When I was growing up in Toronto, Reg was the straight-ahead player par excellence, with a sweet, warm tone and heavy swing. He toured with George Shearing for a while (and still might, I don't know.) Then, through Panpot, a disc arrived in the mail: Québécois saxophonist François Carrier's entirely improvised Noh, with drummer/percussionists John Heward and Michel Lambert (another player equally at home swinging like mad or abstractly contributing to new musical conversations), and Reg. As I mentioned in my review of Ribot, my knowledge of the avant-guitar spectrum is limited at best, but Reg fit amazingly well with the rest of the musicians. Unlike some other, more "energy music" style releases I've reviewed, Reg and the others are listening as much as they are playing - and that seems to be the key skill that's often missing in a player's formation. We all study how to play, but rarely do we study how to listen. (Turns out he's also an aficionado of Brazilian music.)

There's any number of musicians who are equally at home playing free or playing tunes (many of whom appear on Ethan's post): John Hollenbeck, Jason Moran, Benoit Delbecq, Ben Monder, Vijay Iyer, and locally, fellow Banff alums pianist Marianne Trudel and bassist Miles Perkin. In my own musical life I've found it necessary to be involved with a number of disparate musical genres at any given time - writing for big band one day, playing free in a William Parker workshop the next, and gigs with R&B and jambands in the offing. When any one of those elements is missing from my schedule, I feel somewhat incomplete.

NB: Banff marked the first time I had ever played free with any sort of consistency or duration. While I may not be the next rising force in the actuelle scene, free improvisation has definitely informed how I approach the rest of my music and figured heavily in the Indigone Trio + Strings project.