Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mike Westbrook: Art Wolf at 75

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine a jazz composer who began with Ellington and then moved on through Mingus. He soon encompassed rock music, Kurt Weill, Rossini, the traditions of English church music and the pastoralism of Vaughan Williams and Holst, but still found a place in his music for The Beatles, European political cabaret and The Great American Songbook.

And what if his inspirations ranged from painters like Paul Nash, Caspar Wolf and J.M.W. Turner to Lorca, William Blake, Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon and Bertolt Brecht, and his subject matter took in war, life and death, the decline and fall of European culture, the Ballet Russes choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, man's fall from grace, the '69 moon landing, the Greek muses and the irresponsible song of the little Sedge Warbler. Now add that he's performed everywhere from street corners, political demonstrations, factory canteens and geriatric hospital wards to circus tents with acrobats and fire-eaters to West End theatres and some of Europe's finest concert halls.

Doesn't really sound like one guy, does it? Actually, it's two cats but that's two other stories we'll come back to later. But answer me—how does that sound to you? A bit difficult, a bit too much trouble? You need to try harder. Then maybe you're saying to yourself, "That's cool—heavy but cool," and "Who is this guy?" and you don't mind the jazz police coming around taking names. Well, I'm talking about Mike Westbrook and I'm talking about Kate Westbrook, his musical partner of nearly forty years.

It was fifty years ago today that Sergeant Westbrook taught the band to play—not quite, but not far off either. It was down in Plymouth, in glorious Devon in the early sixties that Westy started his first band. Westbrook turned 75 this year and can look back over a career that began in that miraculous era of British music that saw the creation of some of the finest pop, rock, folk, jazz and contemporary music ever. And his music was right at the cutting edge of British jazz.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Manfred Eicher: Through the Lens

It begins in silence, always silence. Since the 1990s, all ECM recordings begin with five seconds of silence, and so, too, do directors Norbert Wiedmer and Peter Guyer open their feature film on the heralded German record label and its enigmatic founder, Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher. As longtime ECM recording artist Keith Jarrett's performance of G.I. Gurdjieff's "Reading of Sacred Books," from the pianist's Sacred Hymns (1980), begins in the background, the film fades in on Eicher, sitting on a simple wooden chair beside an equally unadorned table, steeped in thought. Dissolving to the film's title, an impressionistic car ride suddenly leads to a view from an airplane window, one of many that Eicher experiences as producer of the majority of the label's 40-50 recordings each year. A generally introspective man who, nevertheless, shares plenty of warmth when engaged with the artists on the various sessions represented in the film, Eicher leads an itinerant lifestyle that would be a solitary one, were it not for the demands of the professional life he leads, where the music is all about interaction and engagement.

As a producer, Eicher is a rare entity, an endangered species, in fact, in a time of DIY recordings; he's also unique amongst the vast majority of producers, whose roles are more about ensuring that a recording comes off on-time and on-budget. Eicher makes sure these things happen as well, but his involvement in the music goes beyond mere practical facilitation; he's an active producer, who becomes directly involved in the very creation of the music, from arrangements to track sequencing...even providing the occasional uncredited musical contribution. Originally a double bassist, he rarely plays anymore—though he has been known to pick up a bass, play a little piano or strike a cymbal, every now and then, if it helps him to communicate. Being a musician may not be an absolute prerequisite, but there's little doubt it allows for a common vernacular that's all the more important when mother tongues are, as often as not, different, and when artists from around the world are regularly placed together in new, globe-spanning combinations.

Providing more than just an objective ear, Eicher tacitly but invariably increases the number of musicians in any given ensemble by one, so collaborative is the nature of his involvement. Eicher's strong interest in film leaks into the oftentimes cinematic nature of his productions, and he considers his role more akin to that of a film director. He has even said, to further that analogy, that he views the responsibilities of recording engineers like Jan Erik Kongshaug, James Farber and Gérard de Haro to be the audio equivalent of the director of photography, bringing technical knowledge and trained ears to bear in order to help the director and actors—Eicher and the musicians—more fully realize their vision.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Brian Adler: A World of Percussion

Brian Adler is truly both a drummer and a percussionist—in his world, the drum set coexists peacefully with a dizzying array of ethnic percussion instruments as equal partners in a myriad of musical possibilities. His work with vocalist Sunny Kim in the Prana Trio—which also includes a rotating cast of guest artists such as Frank Carlberg, Stomu Takeshi, Carmen Staaf, and Jeremy Udden—is a case in point. His nimble, sensitive approach to the drum set is matched only by his similarly accomplished work on cajon, tablas, and a host of other ethnic percussion instruments. Never getting lost in his own chops, always totally plugged in to his surroundings in the moment, Adler is the sort of player who always makes the musicians he's playing with sound better. As a composer, he exhibits many of the same characteristics—his writing is consistently intriguing but not overly elaborate. His music is not simple, but there's an economy and a sparseness to it that invites listeners in.

Brian's latest project is something of an anomaly in the jazz world. The Helium Music Project (Circavision Productions, 2011) is an ongoing, download-only compendium of music created with different musicians in different locations all over the globe. So far, just three tracks have been released, with two more to come in October, 2011. As with all of Brian's other projects, the music is soulful, incredibly diverse, and played with passion and virtuosity.

All About Jazz: Tell us how you got interested in music, and how you decided to make it your profession.

Brian Adler: I became interested in music at a young age through kirtans, and began taking drum lessons on an Indian drum called a mridung. As far as making it a profession, I am not sure if I had a moment when I decided; it has always been a big part of my life. And I have a very supportive mother who taught me to reach for the stars. When I was a sophomore in high school, my drum teacher asked me if I wanted to pursue music as a career, and I remember being surprised by the question. I guess I thought it was so obvious that I did.

AAJ: Your early involvement in non-Western music is not a typical pathway to the drum kit—though it provides insight into your uncanny mastery of all sorts of hand percussion. So tell us about kirtans, the mridung, and how you came in contact with them as a youngster?

BA: Kirtans are Indian devotional chants or mantras that are sung in a call-and-response fashion. They can be performed with several chanters or sometimes with several thousands of people chanting, and there is typically one or two drummers, a harmonium player, and a cymbal player accompanying them.

I grew up in and around a meditation retreat center where chants like these were performed regularly. It was not uncommon for the kids there to learn how to play the mridung or one of the other instruments.


Contributor News: November 2011

We made several refinements and additions to the website in October and we are looking for your feedback and assistance moving forward.

Newsletter topics include:

1. Expansion Plans—We Need Your Help
2. Welcome Aboard!
3. CD Reviews Wanted
4. Books to Review
5. Contributor-related Improvements
6. Archiving Older Interviews and Columns
7. Feedback wanted: How are we doing?


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

CTI Celebrates Kudu Legacy: Lonnie Smith, Johnny Hammond, Hank Crawford, Esther Phillips

CTI Masterworks' 40th anniversary reissue program has, until now, focused on producer Creed Taylor's primary label. Two multi-disc sets and 24 single discs have made available on CD cherished CTI LPs by artists such as trumpeters Chet Baker and Freddie Hubbard, saxophonists Paul Desmond and Stanley Turrentine, guitarists George Benson and Kenny Burrell, vibraphonist Milt Jackson and pianist Randy Weston (the little known 1972 masterpiece Blue Moses). Classy affairs all, on which, typically, Taylor blended strong material, top drawer (if, mostly, abbreviated) soloists, solid backbeats and lush orchestral backings.

The final batch of reissues—four discs originally released between 1971 and 1974—turns the spotlight instead on CTI's funkier imprint, Kudu. Here, while Taylor remained the producer (and Rudy Van Gelder the engineer), the aesthetic was more streetwise than CTI itself—even though Taylor and, on some albums, arranger Bob James, continued to stir in their trademark sweeteners. With Kudu, Taylor struck a fine balance between soul jazz and raw, jazz-inflected funk on the one hand, and sophisticated orchestral arrangements, often including string charts, on the other.

The 40th anniversary's four featured Kudu artists are organists Lonnie Smith (pictured above, more recently) and Johnny Hammond, alto saxophonist Hank Crawford and singer Esther Phillips. Four decades on, their discs still have legs.


Pete Townshend: "Rock Music is Junk", iTunes is a "Vampire" and "What's Next is Already Here."

The BBC invited The Who's Pete Townshend to give a lecture in honor of iconic UK broadcaster John Peel. During the wide ranging, smart and often amusing speech, Townsend professed his love of streaming music and called iTunes a vampire. But that was just the start...

Pete Townsend:

Firstly, I'm honored to have been asked to do this first lecture in the name of John Peel. John and I were never close friends, and I know he was not always an unconditional Who fan, but through his long-time producer John Walters—who was a great friend to me and to Who drummer Keith Moon—I followed John Peel's career with the sense of a family insider. I don't want to kick off this series of annual lectures with any po-faced intellectualism. Nor do I want to talk about pop music as art—hard for me because music as art is my favorite subject. Neither do I wish to try to make this lecture amusing, or light-hearted or even ironic in the tradition of the sixties and post sixties pop era Peely and I shared. I don't want to try to celebrate John Peel, nor make this into any kind of memorial. That's all been done. So what do I want to do?

I have limited time. Looking at what John Peel did with his show on radio for many years is worth looking at. But I must assume that most listeners will know what he did. Annie Nightingale once told me that John was one of the few deejays at Radio 1 who would take home everything left in the in-tray cubbyholes at the end of each week. More than that, he listened to it all. Sometimes he played some records that no one else would ever have played, and that would never be played on radio again. But he listened, and he played a selection of records in the course of each week that his listeners knew—partly because the selection was sometimes so insane—proved he was genuinely engaged in his work as an almost unconditional conduit between creative musicians to the radio audience.

So he listened. And he took chances with what he played.

And he is gone.

Why was John Peel's system important? Why is listening important? Why is being ready to give space to less polished music important? Will John Peelism survive the internet? Or is John Peelism thriving on the internet without many of us realizing it?

So we have John Peel. The BBC. And—for the purposes of this lecture—iTunes. All enormous icons in music.

Let me introduce you briefly to my inner artist, then I will put him back in his box.


Monday, October 31, 2011

All About Jazz Improvements: October 2011

We've made several improvements to All About Jazz over the last four weeks. Here are just a few:

Scrollable archive on all landing pages

We've made it easy to access the archives from our article, CD reviews, news announcement, MP3 download, calendar, upcoming album releases, and guides pages. Just scroll to the bottom of any of our landing pages and look for the numbered scroll bar. You can scroll to page 731 on our CD review landing page in an instant!

Hot CD Reviews

We identify our top read CD reviews in the last seven days with a flame icon.

New member profile page

We improved the appearance and have plans for added features and functionality soon. Please make sure your profile is complete.

Improved Private Message functionality (PM)

We now include the reply message on the reply form.

Improved MY AAJ page

Update your member profile with your zip code (and city), your favorite jazz genres, your favorite writers, your favorite article types and follow musicians from their profile pages. Setting your preferences will determine what appears on your MY AAJ page.

Improved content readability and page performance

You should notice that pages are loading faster and are more readable thanks the new template we are implementing.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Alice Coltrane and The Flowering of Astral Jazz

The launch of Impulse! Records' 2-on-1 reissue series—which packages two original LPs on one CD—includes six key albums from the glorious first flowering of the astral jazz forged by pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders on Impulse! towards the end of the 1960s.

The style emerged following saxophonist John Coltrane's passing in 1967, when Alice Coltrane and Sanders—both members of John Coltrane's later groups—repositioned at center stage the African and Indian percussion instruments and song forms with which John Coltrane had colored his music during his final years. They married these with hummable melodies, trance music-informed ostinatos, ambient-rich improvisations and, on Alice's albums, harp. The Indian drone instrument, the tamboura, a stripped-down version of the sitar, was emblematic, as were chanted, often wordless, vocals.

Astral jazz continued in full bloom until the mid-1970s, when, in hands other than those of Coltrane and Sanders, it degenerated into cliché and, ultimately, into a blissed-out sub-genre of the fusion movement.

The 2-on-1 reissues are Coltrane's Huntingdon Ashram Monastery (1969), Universal Consciousness (1971), World Galaxy (1972) and Lord Of Lords (1972), and Sanders' Wisdom Through Music (1972) and Village Of The Pharoahs (1973). All these albums have previously been rereleased, but their availability has been patchy and often on relatively expensive, limited editions.

Unlike some of the tackily produced reissues which have been visited on the Impulse! catalogue by a succession of corporate owners since the 1970s, the 2-on-1 series has been put together with care. The LPs' original gatefold sleeves are not used, but they are reproduced in their entirety in the 12-page booklets included with the discs. You may need a magnifying glass to read the original, lengthy liner notes for the Coltrane discs, but read them you can (and it is worth the trouble).