Saturday, December 27, 2008

The NBA Xmas Day Marathon

I saw the danger, but didn't anticipate it. There were five NBA games scheduled for Christmas Day and I planned to be in most of the day housecleaning and cooking (the fish came out nicely; the veal chop was a revelation but the brussels sprouts roasted in maple, lemon and fresh thyme was the screaming down the lane 360 degree spin slam dunk of the day). I planned to watch Boston-L.A. and figured I'd watch bits and pieces of the other four games if they were interesting. For the most part, they were. As a result I spent Christmas with the tube on NBA for nine straight hours and feel better off for it. Some notes.

Boston - L.A.
Well, I certainly wouldn't mind seeing these two teams meet seven or eight more times. While watching the game and checking popcorn machine later, it seemed that the difference was that L.A.'s bench badly outplayed the Celtic bench, and that Fisher and Allen neutralized one another, which is a big advantage to the Lakers. Not that this is a big surprise, but Jackson outcoached Rivers. Several of those Gasol baskets down the stretch came after Doc subbed Eddie House for Perkins. Doc should have kept the small lineup on a short leash. The Lakers big men had had subpar games to that point, but Jackson didn't forget that they were in the game.
Lastly, I was intrigued by Kobe. Several times during the contest he called for the ball but didn't get it. Then with the ball in his hands repeatedly down the stretch of a close game, he passed to Gasol who had a better shot.
Make plans for February 5 when these teams meet again in Boston.

Phoenix-San Antonio
One point games come down to lots of things but in this case, the final play, in which Roger Mason nailed a three at the buzzer is what matters most. Plain and simple: Jason Richardson, who is an asset to the Suns, made a bonehead play rotating off of Mason to double team Tony Parker. Mason is lethal from behind the arc. Parker was already bottled up by Grant Hill.

The Wizards played like they had this game circled on their calendar for a long time. They didn't look like a 4-22 team. If Mike James plays half this well going forward, the Wizards will be respectable for the last two thirds of the season. Cleveland was the beneficiary of several hometown calls; Cleveland, welcome to the elite.

The Mavericks are a better team than they are given credit for and if healthy, they will scare the beejeezus out of someone in the playoffs. Jose Barea is the best backup point guard in the West and he may have the Mavs dreaming of life without Jason Kidd's salary on the books. New coach Rick Carlisle has done a good job of mixing and matching from a bench full of young inconsistent players.
The Portland offense is designed to have a dominant inside scorer. On nights when Greg Oden isn't that guy, they are going stumble a bit. They shouldn't; there's talent on this team to play in a variety of styles, but Nate McMillan doesn't seem interested in offensive diversity right now. Maybe if Denver wins a few in a row...

Orlando-New Orleans
I flipped it on near halftime and was happy to see that it was a rout. Otherwise, I would never have gotten out and exercised.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Thursday night double bill

It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I was going to work somewhat late, then bounce to Jazz Standard for the late set of the Dave Douglas Sextet and follow it with an even later evening excursion to the Village Vanguard for the Adam Rogers Quintet. It didn't work out as planned but it was okay.

Walking into Jazz Standard to hear Douglas, I was reminded of the last time I heard him there. I went with an old pal, who has been in and around the biz for years. Douglas group played a fine set to my ears, but my friend was unconvinced. "Some of those solos," he said. "I feel like I heard them too often at Knitting Factory."
It's been years since Douglas was a regular at the Knitting Factory though I first became acquainted with his work when the performance space/club was on Houston St. So the remark carried some weight. Did Douglas spend so much time varying the groups that he plays in that his solo style had ossified.
The Sextet Douglas presented Thursday night was proof of his still restless mind. DJ Olive was on Turntables, Brad Jones played an acoustic bass that was amplified to give it a mean rip snorting sound that might be more at home in a funk or backwater country band, Marcus Strickland was on tenor saxophone, Gene Lake laid a ferocious backbeat, and Adam Benjamin supplied the necessary Fender Rhodes keyboards.
The Fender was necessary as the music often feels like an updating of those rare few but utterly vital early '70s electric jazz recordings. Olive works more as an additional source of percussive sounds rather than textural ones. With Benjamin, Strickland and Lake all clustering short staccato figures over Olive's beat and Jone's atmospheric grunts, the music had a techno feel that should delight any fan of LCD Soundsystem (James Murphy fans would also like Bad Touch the cooperative quartet featuring drummer Ted Poor, saxophonist Loren Stillman, guitarist Nate Radley and keyboardist GaryVersace).
Did the solos sound similar to last time, initially yeah, they did. But as the set wore on the performance began to take on a personality all of its own. Douglas soloed but in shorter bursts than before. It was terse music that needed to generate excitement to work and with each of the six working within the surprising novel framework of the group, they did. I almost skipped the Vanguard just to let this music echo in my head.
But I'm not one to quit while I'm ahead (actually I'm not one to quit period).
A quick cab ride later, I was in the Vanguard for Rogers, a guitarist who has had several standout sideman gigs. My favorite in fact is a live at the Village Vanguard date with saxophonist Chris Potter called "Follow The Red Line." This week is his Vanguard debut as a leader and he brought along a stellar band, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Scott Coley, saxophonist Mark Turner, and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts.
Rogers music offers bright clear melodic lines at the outset of each tune, but they retreat gently into abstraction by mid song. His tunes come with titles like "Confluence" and "Continuance." These aren't pieces about deep laments and emotional highs; they are about abstract thoughts about emotive highs and lows. Most bands would have struggled with the complex music, but this quintet brought it off nicely. Watts was consistently a pleasure (made me wonder if he's exerted an influence on the exceptional young drummer Tyshawn Storey), there were great duet moments between Tain and all three members of the front line. Colley matched wits well with Rogers on two occasions. However, by midset there was a sense that this was one of those nights were the band was--cliche alert--a little less than the sum of its parts. I could see what frustrated Nate Chinen on the night he attended.
Rogers and his bandmates make powerful but proudly insular music and some of that insularity is prevented me from fulling appreciating the force.
It was an awkward nightcap but two sets of music like this is never a bad time.


Sunday, April 6, 2008

A fun discussion

The Root asked me to write the music piece for their 40th anniversary of the MLKing assassination package. I was flattered. It enabled me to talk about where I'm from a bit more than usual.

The list is out

A few days before Easter, I was asked by New York magazine to cull a list of the six to twelve most New York jazz recordings of the last 40 years for a segment they were doing called the New York Cannon. It's part of the magazine's 40th anniversary celebration.
The list with edited prose is on page 75. The full list is below.
I spent a lot of time wrestling with the assignment before coming to the conclusion that the list should be idiosyncratic and personal. Ask twelve critics each to do a list like this and you'll probably come up with 144 different albums. I kept having to remind myself that this isn't intended to be the 12 "best" albums of the last 40 years, just the 12 most indicative of the city. Of course New York City is the jazz capital of the world, so that makes it tougher. The 40 year cutoff made it very tough too since Coltrane's Vanguard sessions, Sonny Rollins on the Bridge, and other key NYC events took place in the years before 1968.
Also its idiosyncratic because what New York City means changes from New Yorker to New Yorker.
Nonetheless it was a fun assignment and I'm delighted that it ran so vividly.

Ornette Coleman – Of Human Feelings (Antilles, 1979)

The last track is called “Times Square,” but other tracks could have been called “Chelsea,” “Harlem,” and Soho. This 1979 masterpiece from the saxophone legend and his electric band Prime Time brims with urbane energy and New York rhythms, part funk, part African, part Latin and all jazz.

Arthur Blythe – Lenox Avenue Breakdown (Columbia, 1979)

In the ‘70s, Soho was full of musician-run performance spaces in lofts and it abetted a scene where great small group experiments took place. Given a budget by a major label, Blythe showed how diverse and exciting a loft-inspired large ensemble could sound.

Miles Davis – On The Corner (Columbia, 1972)

The cover looks like a caricature of 125th St. circa 1971, but the music sounds like a funkified urban jungle, broken down subways and all. Miles last great studio album is a polyrhythmic monster that screams get down or get out.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra – Live in Swing City Swingin’ with the Duke (Sony, 1999)

Until Lincoln Center started a jazz constituent, most repertory bands were just weak shadows. This orchestra gets the rehearsal time and space to nail the elegant sophistication and debonair tone of jazz’s greatest composer.

World Saxophone Quartet – Live at BAM (Black Saint, 1985)

Born in the lofts of the ‘70s, WSQ was equal parts soulful pop energy and avant garde elusiveness; they prefigured the entire late ‘80s/early ‘90s Knitting Factory scene, Medeski, Martin and Wood, and Sex Mob.

Brad Mehldau – The Art of the Trio 3: Live at the Village Vanguard (Warner Bros, 1998)

When pianist Brad Mehldau started doing Live at the Village Vanguard albums, jazzheads wondered WTF? With his third volume, he proved worthy of the mantle of Evans, Rollins, Coltrane, and the many others who have used that title. Also with a repertoire that began claiming creative pop as grist for improvisational flights, he pointed jazz toward a post-millennial future.

Jerry Gonzales and the Fort Apache Band – Rumba Para Monk (Sunnyside, 1988)

During the ‘80s, you had to live in a pretty exclusive part of Manhattan to not hear great Latin music at least in passing, and this top flight band showed exactly how much Bronx and Barrio was in jazz’s most idiosyncratic composer.

Dave Holland Quintet – Prime Directive (ECM, 2000)

The precise arrangements of this stellar combo vividly recall the panoramic gleam of Wagner era midtown and the sun drenched Saturday mornings of contemporary Greenmarkets with equal ease.

Abbey Lincoln – Abbey Sings Abbey (Verve 2007)

On a record where jazz’s best living singer proves she’s also its best living songwriter, spare arrangements liberate vocal jazz from the ballroom and the cabaret and move them to a quiet corner of Central Park.

John Zorn’s Masada – Vol. 2: Beit (DIW, 1995)

In the early ‘90s, John Zorn created the ultimate downtown music: the Ramones at CBGB meet Ornette Coleman at The Five Spot and play with Eastern European ghetto harmonies and melodic structure. The only thing more bizarre than the recipe is how well it works.

Jason Lindner – Premonition: (Stretch, 2000)

Jazz isn’t learned on the bandstand anymore; it’s studied in conservatories. In the mid ‘90s, just as those institutions were flooding Gotham with its graduates, Mitch Borden started Small’s in Greenwich Village so the best could really get schooled. Jason Lindner’s big band was one of the first bands to establish themselves and create the new downtown sound.

Jenny Scheinman – Crossing the Field (Koch, 2008)

An album that grew from jam sessions in Red Hook squats and became the epicenter of the new Brooklyn jazz scene in Park Slope, Scheinman’s disc is full of weird combinations on the bandstand and irresistibly creative and eclectic music.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Chris Byars at the Village Vanguard

Although technically, a Teddy Charles gig, the set I saw at the Village Vanguard Sunday night belonged to saxophonist Chris Byars.
Byars is a concise and pithy improviser and his three recordings on Smalls are stellar. It was his 2006 release Night Owls that made me take a greater interest in listening to all of my mail. With no foreknowledge of him I put it on. It just happened to be on top of the stack and I was floored by the arrangements for his octet. Meticulous and lush, the group captured the luxurious veneer of '50s jazz without sounding stuck in that period. The solos took advantage of contemporary rhythmic edges and abstractions. His next release, Photos in Black, White, and Gray offered equally stunning work for a quartet. The smaller setting allowed two of his bandmates, pianist Sasha Perry and bassist Ari Roland, a chance to shine. I haven't given his third disc, Jazz Pictures at an Exhibition of Himilayan Art, a fair shot yet, but it's near the top of the stack.
Byars gig at the Vanguard, was constrained mostly by the presence of vibist Charles, a veteran of the jazz wars who turns 80 in April. Like many a veteran he's played with everyone and at one point Byars read a list of the luminaries with whom Charles has played.
See the problem? Byars was too enamored of his bandmate to just let loose. The set included much fine playing, particularly on Gigi Gryce's "Sans Souci" and Charles' s "Arlene," but overall the band felt like it was stuck in a gear just shy of burnin'.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Drew Gress at Jazz Standard

The trumpet-saxophone-piano-bass-drums quintet has been a cornerstone of small combo jazz for more than 60 years. At Jazz Standard Wednesday night (March 26) the Drew Gress spin on the format, a group he calls Seven Black Butterflies performed a set that wandered through that history with such an elegant progression it was almost a narrative.
Gress is a bassist of the first call depending on who's in your phone. He's worked as a sideman with his 7BB bandmates, saxophonist Tim Berne and trumpeter Ralph Alessi as well as such notables like pianist Uri Caine and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. In addition, he's played behind a good many novelty acts.
I first saw Seven Black Butterflies last fall at CIM in Brooklyn and they played music that owed to third stream tonalities and just left of center structure that made me wonder if he'd played with Andrew Hill. At Jazz Standard, they took a different tack, showcasing Gress's compositional talents and gently moving forward with esthetic and historical progressions.
The opening tune was a gentle hard bop piece that relaxed the groove (i.e. when I say hard bop, think Golson's Along Came Betty, not Timmons.s Moanin') and offered solos that recalled pastel blends rather than the blunt basic colors that hard bop often traffics in.
I thought that this might be his way of telling the nearly full house that he knows the tradition but has his own ideas of how to articulate it. But I may be underestimating the crowd. I think the current jazz crowd is too young to feel a sense of betrayal by modernity and avant garde tendencies in jazz. Going to an expensive nightclub like Jazz Standard now is all part of taking in music that more challenging (thankfully) than the conventional fare be it Amerian Idol or a hotel bar pianist churning out standards.
The second piece moved forward and westward. It began with a collection of spare notes from each of the five that took their sweet time cohering into a abstracted beat that melted into a fiery solo by pianist Craig Taborn. Drummer Tom Rainey, a master of nuance and subtlety but not a banger, followed along with Taborn but got blown down by his ferocious gusts. It seemed a tribute to the Chicago avant garde of the mid '60s, Taborn's solo was very Muhal-esque.
The rest of the set moved gently forward. There were pieces that echoed the early '70s free-ish fusion, late '80s traditional jazz with a few pop resolves sneaking in, and the set closed with a piece that felt very now, unusual rhythms dissolving into duos and trios and finally the band working out on a beat that sounded completely new and yet accessible.
Much of the music was from Gress' new disc, The Irrational Numbers (Premonition), which was produced by Gress and David Torn. It captivated me when I first heard it earlier this year, but I didn't stay in its grasp long. Now, it's going into heavy rotation.