Sunday, April 27, 2008

Benefit post-mortem

The Andrew D'Angelo benefit concert last night went well. We postponed the start until the Habs-Flyers game was over, after which an intimate but loyal crowd of friends came up to listen and donate. Big thanks to Anna Webber for suggesting the idea and co-organizing it, the gang at La Brique for hosting us, and to all the musicians who gave their time, energy and spirit. Special mention to Phil Melanson, who played drums in all three groups!

Indigone Trio kicked it off. It's been so long since we've played as a trio, sans strings, that it was nice to dust some of the "trio-only" book off, including a new tune I wrote for Andrew called "Tonglen." I might post it here or on the MySpace in a few days. Anna's quartet with J-S Williams, Erik Hove and Phil followed - her writing has really opened up and her tenor playing has grown in leaps and bounds. She's still killing as ever on flute, too. Pianist/composer Malcolm Sailor's new klezmer-punk-jazz group The Youjsh capped the evening with an energetic set full of songs dedicated to one Steve Day ("You Are the Steve Day of my Life," "On the Sunny Side of Steve Day," "Help! I Can't Stop Writing Songs About Steve Day!"). Trumpeter Gordon Allen led a closing improvisation with journalist/clarinetist Marc Chenard, The Youjsh's Adam Kinner on soprano saxophone and drums, as well as yours truly and Alex Mallett from Indigone Trio.

People asked me last night why we organized it, whether I knew Andrew personally or not. I don't know Andrew personally - I've never met him, I've never seen him play live. Quite frankly, that shouldn't matter. We're very lucky here in Canada to have public health care, and it's a difficult enough path to dedicate one's life to the pursuit of creativity and truth through art - any art - that to be sidelined by something as huge as what Andrew is currently fighting is something I sympathize with dearly. The community of musicians is small enough that it feels like a global community - all for one and one for all. If we band together, art really can make a difference.

Skirl Records was kind enough to send up a box of Andrew's new CD, Skadra Degis. We sold a few at the concert but I'm going to hang onto the box for a little while longer. If you're in the Montreal area and would like a copy, contact me. If you were unable to come to the concert and would like to donate, the information for that is here.

On a related note, I don't want the plight of Scott (Scotty Hard) Harding to go unnoticed either. As a fellow member of the Ropeadope family, and a fellow Canadian, this one hits home too. In brief, Scott was in a car accident in February that left him partially paralyzed. He doesn't have health insurance, either, and has been recuperating for the past two months in hospital. For more information go to Work Hard, Pray Hard, Scotty Hard and check out Ropeadope's Hard Wear shirts.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

This is our music

When Kurt Elling emphasized the notion of change at the 2008 IAJE conference, I doubt that the organization filing for Chapter 7 (dissolution) protection is what he had in mind. Along with the reiteration of the fact that attendance was down in Toronto this year, allegations of fiscal mismanagement and other nefarious deeds are coming to the fore. While it's a blow to the jazz education community, I'm not sure that IAJE's folding is entirely a bad thing.

I've enjoyed the two conferences I've attended (New York 2006 and Toronto 2008), and I've gotten a lot out of them. IAJE's greatest asset were its talent recognition programs - the ASCAP, Gil Evans, and SOCAN commissions, the Sisters in Jazz and other collectives of high school and college musicians. That is the greatest loss in all of this and I sincerely hope other organizations assume this responsibility in IAJE's absence. However, the conference is marked by its insular nature, as Andy Barrie noted in my CBC interview. If the IAJE's purpose is (was) to be an advocate for jazz, preaching to the choir isn't the best methodology to use. I'd love to see it turn into something more public, like Canadian Music Week or South by Southwest (which have their own issues, to be sure). Open the showcases to the public - hell, all the performances should be public. And not by sticking Myra Melford and Marty Ehrlich in a hotel lounge, either.

As a conference-goer and participant, I think the conference and organization would be better served by scaling back and having more focus. I prepared my schedules for each conference weeks in advance, and had to make gruelling decisions on what to see and what to miss. It's so easy to get lost in the embarrassment of riches, and some players and speakers get unduly lost in the shuffle. A conference with a select few but consistently amazing events would be welcome. Roberta Piket's comment on Willard Jenkins' blog is dead-on, too - the same organization that claims to advocate for its practitioners takes advantage of them. I'd willingly pay an artist-discounted rate for a conference fee if it meant that I didn't have to worry about travel and accommodation arrangements. I know musicians who never applied to showcase at the festival because costs were not (or just barely) covered.

The biggest accusation hurled towards IAJE is that they're out of touch, on many levels, and it's hard to disagree. Manhattan, Kansas is by no means a major centre of jazz and improvised music, and it's thereby quite easy to function in a bubble. There's many tributes paid to well-renowned established artists - as there well should be, don't get me wrong - but I feel like we should honor Henry Threadgill in the same way as Ornette Coleman. The conference and organization could serve to hip really interested students, musicians, listeners and educators to the people who don't get talked about all the time. And it serves as great exposure for the lucky few who get to perform every year, and while some "underground" artists get the nod (Darcy, Les Projectionnistes, John Hollenbeck, Vijay Iyer), there's many others that don't surface on the radar (why wasn't Tyshawn Sorey in T.O?).

As someone commented in Willard's blog, we need a 21st-century jazz organization to deal with 21st-century jazz. The circumstances under which this will occur are not ideal, but I hope we're at least on the path to making it happen.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Sitting at the drawing board

Joe Phillips of Pulse has posted a new series of questions in his Composer's Salon. This comes after a discussion with a friend and colleague who's now looking to study composition more seriously, feeling that the emphasis of jazz education is more on style and less on the basic building blocks of form, development, etc.

But to me, style is the key variable. It determines the kind of melody (or lack thereof) that one will write, the ways in which a composer will develop material and hence determines the form of the piece. A lot of the music I've been writing lately - for big band, for trio + strings, even for the trio - has moved away from head-solo-head structures. I've been inspired by the way Maria Schneider and Joel Miller just let their melodies unfold, without necessarily constricting them with pre-determined forms. I hear the same thing in the music of Milton Nascimento.

I remember Don Byron's and Dave Douglas' composition seminars from Banff. Each piece has its own character and it's important to determine that character before you start writing. (Michael Philip Mossman talks about this in his arrangement process, too.) But the character is stylistic. I think the only piece I've written lately that's had any sort of pre-determined form is "Bella," a text setting of a Pablo Neruda poem. There's nine stanzas, so I knew there would be nine sections. But other than that, I worked from the flow of the poem and the melody. If I wind up with odd numbers of bars in my phrases, so be it. But I don't intentionally set out to have 13 bar phrases.

I. Composer Daniel Lentz says, "style is really just learning how to repeat yourself, sometimes endlessly. If you keep changing your language and what you do, which is a very noble thing to do, nobody will know who you are?" Do you agree with this statement or not? Do you strive for a €œcoherence or singularity€ in your musical language? What characteristics would define your own personal style?

I don't entirely agree with this. I definitely have my preferences and my bag of tricks, but I think expanding and changing your compositional palette is necessary on many levels. Depending on the ensemble, the purpose of the piece, the intended audience, etc. my compositional language may evolve and change. It also depends if you're working with external references - painting, film, text - and how the relationship between the music and those other components functions.

II. If this is true, what characteristics make each individual work a Picasso? What makes your own compositions consistent (or 'you') from piece to piece? Or do you seek 'unity in diversity'? Does it matter to you?

I try to write the best piece I can possibly write, and I never worry about how much "me" is in there. I set up certain criteria for the piece and my artistic measure of success is 1) whether I've fulfilled those criteria and 2) whether it emotes and communicates anything. There's a moment in one of the new string pieces, "Heraclito," that's the emotional centre of the entire piece. With those two bars alone, I've done what I set out to do. Of course, I have certain harmonic predilections - chromatic bass motion and shifting chord qualities - that occur in many pieces. Basslines or other ostinati seem to feature prominently too.

III. One salient feature of today's composers is an incredible access to diverse music from all throughout history and all throughout the world. ... How do you feel about this statement? What other ways/techniques are composers (including you) grappling with such diversity and access (and excess?) of influence?

I embrace it. It allows me to be able to set up criteria for pieces that vastly differ from one another. They're like synopses of books that I scrawl in the margins of my music pads - the goal for "Blue Hole" (my BMI piece) read: "Reggae melodies without the rhythm section ever playing reggae." The initial idea of "Bella" was that I heard the voice of Caetano Veloso singing the poem in my head. This goes back to my attitude towards "new standards": if I adore a melody and feel that it can serve as an appropriate and inspiring canvas for the trio to express ourselves, then I don't really care where it comes from. Nor am I always necessarily concerned with folkloric or genre-specific authenticity: often my pieces, as Kyle Gann wrote, are "about" these other diverse influences and not in the exact genre itself.

IV. With practically anything now permissible in music and art, is the notion of a 'style' still relevant? Do terms such as jazz, classical, ˜alternative, world music really mean anything in our hybrid, hyphenated culture of today? Are those terms representing a living language or are they the Sankrits and Latins of music (i.e. once common languages that are only used today in specialized ways)? If those terms are not relevant, how can we discuss the music of today?

They're relevant to a point. I have no problem calling myself a "jazz musician." The core of my training is in jazz and I hear and process music through that lens. When performing, though, I do try to approach each different genre I play in on its own terms. I'm not going to drown an R&B tune in jazzy extensions if they're not called for, but the way I approach interacting in a rhythm section definitely comes from jazz. I hear classical harmony moving in certain ways that are common to jazz. The labels serve a purpose for the industry. As I immerse myself in music journalism, I prefer to think of the big umbrella labels - jazz, rock, "world," electronic, etc. And sometimes one umbrella fits under another - I play a lot of electronica-influenced world music on World Skip the Beat, but I rarely air ethno-hybridized jazz on Jazz Euphorium.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

April showers

There's a lot of things on the immediate horizon that I'd like to share with you:

  • April 11, 2008: My old friend Ronley Teper returns to Barfly (4062 St. Laurent) with her witty cabaret folk songs and perhaps sock puppets as well. I might play on a few tunes.
  • April 12, 2008: The Red Bull Music Academy information session at Jello Bar (151 Ontario E.) with hometown boy A-Trak dropping knowledge among the masses. Prospective DJs, producers, musicians, vocalists and MCs that want a shot at two weeks of musical paradise in Barcelona should get in touch with Scott C.
  • April 14, 2008: Kids Eat Crayons @ Quai des Brumes (4481 St. Denis). An intimate get-together with your favourite genre-busting jazz/metal freaks 'n' geeks.
  • April 15, 2008: Stephen Johnston Group @ Jello Bar. 2 sets of R&B, reggae, jazz and pop.
  • April 17, 2008: Vocalist Julie-Claire Carter presents her final bachelor's recital at Tanna Schulich Hall (527 Sherbrooke W.). She's chosen some interesting tunes, and it's a great , swinging band. Philippe Bouffard - tenor; Dave Goulet - guitar; Nic Bédard - bass; Karl Schwonik - drums.
  • April 26, 2008: I couldn't in good conscience not be part of an Andrew D'Angelo benefit concert. Anna Webber came up with the idea first. We're hosting a show at La Brique (6545 Durocher, #402) with Anna's new quartet, Indigone Trio, The Youjsh, and Gordon Allen. $10 at the door, all proceeds go to Andrew. We have limited copies of his new CD for sale as well (thanks to Skirl Records).
  • April 30, 2008: KEC @ La Sala Rossa. We're opening for the multi-talented transplanted Icelandic singer-songwriter Nista (aka Stina Agust). It'll be a fun night!
Finally, April 24-May 1 is CKUT's funding drive. Celebrating 20 years between your ears, you can start pledging now to win prizes! Two passes to the Suoni Per il Popolo festival will be given away on the Jazz Euphorium show April 30 (8-10 pm EST). I'll be along for the ride on World Skip the Beat's funding drive extravaganza April 28 (noon-2 pm EST).

There's some more big news on the way but it'll have to stay under wraps for now.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Montreal New York: Guitars - 04/04/2008, Théâtre la Chapelle

Guitarists indulge in seemingly endless amounts of gear in the quest for their individual tone. It was a rare occurrence to see five commanding, unique stylists - Montreal's Tim Brady, Antoine Berthiaume, Bernard Falaise, and Gary Schwartz with New York's Kevin Gallagher - seek a common sound in a chamber group. They achieved this blend surprisingly well. The group pieces were prefaced by solo excursions by Gallagher and Brady, demonstrating the role of touch, nuance and sonics in electric guitar music. Gallagher opened with the evening's earliest piece, Scott Johnson's Epiphany Machine, a minimalist piece enhanced with pitch-shifted delays and volume swells. He then performed two movements from Urban Mosaic, written to exploit various guitar techniques - the first featured the E-Bow, and the second featured fingerstyle guitar. The eBow movement elicited controlled caterwauls to brilliant effect.

Brady followed with Misfit, composed by sound designer Monique Jean. It was unclear how much of it was processed guitar, and how much of it were samples being triggered either by Brady or Jean. As there were no program notes for any of the pieces, I wasn't sure how the guitar and electronics were interacting. It was intriguing from a "how'd they do that" perspective, but it left me a little unmoved. Brady's 57 Ways to Play Guitar was in a similar vein, although the various samples and "tape" loops were clear in how they interfaced with Brady's live guitar.

The second half of the concert were all premieres. Brady opened with O is for Ostinato, another delay-and-distortion-laden exploration of the guitar. Antoine Berthiaume's piece was episodic, ranging from very clean interlocking parts to a haunting 4-eBow chorale, and Brady thrashing his guitar, exclaiming "You call this a guitar solo?" Elements of Berthiaume's trio playing and the avant-western of his group Rodéoscopique were brought to bear here. Professor Gann's piece, Composure, was easily my favourite of the evening. Eminently beautiful with Brady delivering a great reading of its melody and some subdued rhythmic complexities. The concert closed with Falaise's Parcours, a series of directed improvisations that allowed for the full range of guitar
textures - from reggae skanks to prepared guitar, eBows to overdriven, delay-soaked post-rock goodness. A truly engaging concert in an intimate venue.

The Bradyworks Voyages: Montreal-New York Series continues through April 6. Tickets provided by the performers.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

I'm not there, that's not me

This started as a comment, which the MySpace gremlins ate, on Matana Roberts' blog post about Radiohead, new standards, misconceptions of art, etc., which in itself is a response to this review of her Chicago Project album.

Firstly - I don't want to open the Europe vs. America can of worms again, but let's keep in mind that this review was written for the Beeb, who do love their Radiohead. And if he's looking for frigid straight-eighth jazz, he's barking up the wrong tree with Matana's lineage of Great Black Music à la AACM. It's a tradition he seems to be unfamiliar with, or at least unwilling to explore in great detail.

As an artist as well as a critic, I try to approach each concert and record I review on its own terms, without bringing bias or preconception to the party. Some people (musicians and critics alike) have dismissed the "x-plus-y-meets-z" formula of description as lazy. I've used it before, though I'm trying more consciously to avoid it now. It has a certain validity - to describe to the reader who wasn't at the concert or is unfamiliar with the artists on the discs by utilizing certain external touchstones. However, once the art is out there, it's open to the audience's interpretation. Matana and I have discussed this before - in a review of her Coin Coin performance last year I deemed it "theatrical." While it's not Matana's intent to create a piece of theatre, it is a dramatic, emotional and interdisciplinary work, and theatre is maybe the shortest, if not best, way of encapsulating that. Ultimately, artists can only satisfy ourselves - we have to be content that the piece has fulfilled our requirements, whatever they may be. They can, and often do, take on lives of their own that are entirely unforeseen to us.

As for the "mandatory Radiohead influence," it took me a long time to get into them, though now I am a convert. I got into it eventually through Brad Mehldau and Geoff Keezer covering their tunes. The 1990s developments in rock never really happened to me - adolescent angst didn't steer me towards Nirvana or My Bloody Valentine, but rather Monk and Medeski Martin & Wood. I think the jazz covers allowed me to hear through the production into the core of the songs. The melodies of certain Radiohead and Björk tunes are just undeniably strong and powerful. Mehldau has cornered the market on Radiohead and Nick Drake covers, and as much as I love Radiohead and Drake I'm hesitant to cover either of them anymore. I was being compared to Mehldau even before I truly appreciated him, and I'm none too eager to further those comparisons by echoing his repertoire.

I'm ambivalent about the idea of "new standards." Part of it reeks of marketing ploy, part of it pains me that artists who seek to expand their repertoire get painted into corners, but I also agree with it in the sense that we shouldn't regard the Great American Songbook as closed. In the Trio, we currently cover Stevie Wonder, Ornette Coleman, Björk, le Mystère des voix bulgares and Djavan, for no other reason that they serve as vehicles for our trio sound. I don't really care what the provenance of a good song is if it works in the group. In this case I'm not concerned about authenticity when it comes to ethnic music. We don't play "Erghen Diado" like a bona fide Bulgarian group because, well, that's not the point. The point is to use it as a canvas for our own expression, the same way we would a standard or an original composition.

Joe Jackson - 04/02/2008, Metropolis

I grew up on piano pop, and it has a dear place in my heart. I've also missed Joe Jackson live on his previous tours, so I jumped at the chance to catch him at Metropolis. It's the first time I've seen them set up cabaret-style seating at the venue, reminiscent of its older sister venue, Spectrum. I snagged the very front table to check out the trio of Jackson on piano and vocals and his two longtime compatriots, Graham Maby on bass and Dave Houghton on drums.

Let's get the geeky nitpicking out of the way. Houghton played a set of Roland V-Drums complemented with a real snare. He's the first live touring drummer I've seen using an (almost) exclusively electronic kit. There was a certain audio-visual disconnect because the sound was coming from two different places at once. I sometimes felt the V-Drum samples didn't allow him to really drive the band as necessary - there was a certain gloss and lack of punch in the louder sections. The songs that used auxiliary percussion and tighter, more processed drum sounds benefited from the presence of electronics, and toward the end I noticed it less. It was still just somehow strange. Jackson's piano, assuredly a real honest-to-goodness piano with some newfangled pickup/mic system, sounded not much better than a digital piano, with some bizarre digital aliasing sounds in the higher register. It wasn't as noticeable with the band in full throttle but on "Solo (So Low)" and in quieter parts of trio tunes it was really exposed.

Elements of artifice aside, the band is tight. The three-part vocal harmonies were lush, and the trio has a solid pocket. Jackson played majority of new album, Rain, in addition to tunes drawn from across his back catalogue, including the rarer albums Body and Soul and Laughter and Lust. The setlist (below) was rounded out with an entirely un-ironic ABBA cover. He seems to have finally unified his penchant for driving rock with the later tinges of jazz, Latin music and classical song cycles that characterize his later work. The new tunes feature the driving New Wave-y piano pop Jackson's identified with, as well as some sharp harmonic turns in his interludes and bridges that bear resemblance to his late 90s endeavours of Heaven and Hell and Symphony No. 1. I thought I heard sly quotes of Nat Adderley's "Work Song" in "Too Tough" and Eddie Harris' "Cold Duck Time" in "Uptown Train." Lyrically, he's tempered his sardonic wit ("Solo/So Low," "Too Tough") with a sense of innocence and sentimentality ("Rush Across the Road," "A Place in the Rain"). And of course, it's great to hear those older tunes live. He mentioned, by way of trying to politely discourage requests, that they've amassed a huge library of tunes to play, and it's impossible to even play half of them on any given night. So we got "On Your Radio," "Not Here, Not Now," and "Stranger than Fiction." I heard multiple requests for "Nineteen Forever" (which he hasn't been playing on this tour); for my part I was hoping for "Obvious Song" and "Hometown" (which he has been performing lately).

It's been years since Jackson has appeared in Montreal, and he spoke to the crowd in a mixture of English and "BBC French." He had no idea what to expect, in his modesty joking that there could have been an empty room, and that he no longer takes audiences for granted. I guess he's unaware of Montreal's love of all things prog, so when he announced that they had a Frank Zappa cover in the book the crowd went nuts. After the final chord of "A Slow Song," Jackson appeared truly gracious and surprised at the amount of support he had here.

The opening act, Philly singer-songwriter Mutlu, served up a set of innocuous acoustic pop. I liked it in a guilty pleasure sort of way, but he's no different from the other people I know who do the exact same thing. Expect his full-length record, out this summer, to be in many college dorm rooms next school year.

- Setlist: synth drone -> Steppin' Out; Invisible Man; Too Tough; Not Here, Not Now; Rush Across the Road; Goin' Downtown; Stranger Than Fiction; On Your Radio; Solo (So Low); The Uptown Train; Knowing Me, Knowing You (ABBA cover); It's Different For Girls; Take It Like a Man; You Can't Get What You Want; One More Time; A Place In the Rain. Encore: Dirty Love (Zappa cover); Is She Really Going Out With Him?; A Slow Song