True Stories

Highly recommended: T-Rex, a mighty documentary about the first truly great female boxer, Claressa Shields. Claressa is from the hard luck town of all hard luck towns, Flint, Michigan, and the documentary is profound comment on the American condition. T-rex concludes with her first Olympic victory in London; Claressa just won her second gold medal in Rio.

T-Rex is currently streaming on Netflix.

My wife, Sarah Deming, has a cameo in the opening scene of T-Rex and cheered on Claressa from the stands in Rio. She profiles Claressa in a forthcoming major boxing anthology from University of Chicago Press and yesterday just got her first byline in the New York Times:

“How Boxing Got Me to Face my Fears.”

Another valuable related piece in the Times is by Jaime Lowe: “Women’s Boxing has Been In the Shadows for Too Long.”

Steinway, Sweeney, Paulson, and Trump

Halfway through an evening of comedy, Victor Borge would pause and offer a kind of quick commercial related to his inability to properly play the instrument onstage:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Steinway people would like me to announce that this is a Baldwin piano.”

The hedge fund founded by John Paulson, Paulson and Co., owns Steinway pianos. Paulson has supported Donald Trump for some time and was recently named an economic adviser to Trump. As far as I know, this post is the first to make the Trump/Steinway connection explicit to an arts audience.

It is also the right place  for a few words about former CEO Michael Sweeney, who oversaw the recent revitalization of Steinway, loved jazz and art, but left because he and Paulson couldn’t get along. 

From Fortune:

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From Bloomberg:

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(…)

Bloomberg 3

(…)

Bloomberg 4

This past spring Steinway and Sons opened a beautiful new showroom just north of Bryant Park. Piano mavens mourned the loss of the old building on 57th street (“where Horowitz first played for Rachmaninoff!”) but insiders were actually cautiously enthusiastic about the palpable currents of reinvigoration coming from the staid standard bearer of excellent pianos.

Jazz musicians were especially excited, because Steinway’s CEO Michael Sweeney was obviously interested in diversity. When I met Sweeney late last year I was rather dumbfounded to be in the presence of a major corporate player who was always talking about artistic exploration and achieving excellence by any means necessary.

Sweeney had been a successful entrepreneur in a variety of situations but this was his first time working with an instrument company. He sure seemed to catch on fast. You could ask Sweeney anything about pianos and he had a detailed answer at the ready. He loved the factory in Astoria and all the legendary workers there.

Getting just the right kind of wood for the soundboard was seemingly a point of real passion for Sweeney. Bill Sadler, the best piano technician in Minneapolis, met Sweeney when Sweeney came up and asked him about a Steinway Sadler was working on before a classical concert. “How’s the piano? How’s the wood?” was Sweeney’s greeting. Sadler gave a curt answer, at first not knowing who Sweeney was. By the end of the discussion, Sweeney had managed to win Sadler over entirely to the CEO’s point of view: Sadler reproduced all the talking points about Sitka spruce to me in conversation months later.

At the opening night showroom gala, Yuja Wang played. A safe choice: she’s awesome and very popular. Sweeney introduced her as “one of the top classical pianists in the whole world” and he wasn’t wrong.

The other musical guests were a duo of Jason Moran and Robert Glasper. To my jazz readers that may seem also like a safe choice, but actually at a classical event this was rather radical. At one point Glasper got up and asked for a wine glass from the front table. He proceeded to stick the glass straight into the innards of his instrument — undoubtedly one of the “top pianos in the whole world” — possibly in part to prove that the more street-wise elements of Houston were representing at this frankly rather absurd gala for the 1%. (There was good musical reason for the wine glass as well: Glasper got a nice percussive sound from it.)

Sweeney was responsible for the programming of the gala, and he wasn’t just having a one-night stand with jazz, either. Sweeney was taking his time and learning more about the scene. At his suggestion, the two of us went to see Craig Taborn at the Jazz Gallery where he showered enthusiastic praise on Henry Threadgill when we were all in the elevator together.

Steinway is eagerly hawking the Spirio these days (mentioned in the Hamptons article above, the item J. Michael Evans wants to sell “to the Chinese, online.”) The Spirio is a fabulous toy for the ultra rich: a concert piano with a computer inside that reproduces a live pianist “exactly.” It’s a profound 21st-century upgrade of a player piano.

Sweeney explained to me: “A concert pianist will take two years with us picking out their B. It’s a once in a lifetime purchase for them, and we are delighted to take the time with whatever they need, that’s what Steinway is for. With the Spirio, though, a businessman walks in, sees the demonstration for 10 minutes, and writes a check for $110,000 on the spot because he’s buying for his mother or his kids.”

Sure enough, that weekend when I was at the Met Opera, the program had a prominent ad for Spirio for Mother’s Day. I mean, if you love your Mother, surely she deserves a Spirio!

To his credit, Sweeney was eager for his artists to figure out reasons for the Spirio to exist unrelated to the upscale market. Those “art” reasons aren’t entirely obvious, because the sound of Tatum or Horowitz coming out of the Spirio is less exciting than Tatum or Horowitz on record, simply because the soul isn’t present. Still, there is surely potential in the Spirio for creative exploration — Glasper and Mark Bradford got a shot at an unprecedented collaboration — and as an educational tool the benefits are manifold. Watching the keys move is especially mesmerizing when it is a jazz performance, perhaps recalling the days when everyone had to learn James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout” from a player piano.

My own tentative idea for Spirio was to transcribe and record some classic boogie woogies by Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Jimmy Yancey, and Big Maceo Merriweather. I’d make formal scores suitable for classical musicians eager to replace that silly Morton Gould “Boogie Woogie Etude” with something more authentic. At any rate it would be great practice for me and a way to shine a light on master American musicians rarely mentioned around high-end pianos. Perhaps I could record into the Spirio accompanied by a fabulous drummer to help me swing harder and give the (drummerless) final track another kind of mysterious human element.

I suggested this to Sweeney, who immediately asked, “Which drummer?”

“I dunno: Nasheet Waits?”

“Great. He’s a Ludwig artist, and we need some good drums in the building anyway. Let’s get a set he likes and keep it around.”

The CEO of Steinway was saying his offices needed a good set of drums on hand! This may seem like nothing much, but trust me, this was a revolution.

Well, hopefully that revolution will continue and Sweeney’s ideas will still have sway at the company, but Sweeney isn’t at Steinway anymore. Last week he moved on, citing differences with the owner, John Paulson.

At the opening gala, John Paulson’s speech was comprised of the kind of self-congratulating “Wow, we’re great!” material that is standard issue from most rich people who appreciate rare art mainly for exclusive status and commercial potential. That didn’t bother me, because God knows us artists need our corporate sponsors. However, afterwards a friend warned me that there was a dark side to Paulson’s hedge fund activity before the housing crash.

Two weeks ago Paulson was named to Donald Trump’s economic team. Democracy Now! covered the news with a bit called,  “Trump’s All White Male Economic Team Includes ‘Financial Crisis Villain’ John Paulson”:

Democracy

There are those that don’t regard a fervent lefty like Matt Taibbi as a flawless source. Indeed, for many financiers, Paulson is essentially a hero for bucking the odds and betting against the house. The 2009 Devin Leonard New York Times review of Gregory Zuckerman’s The Greatest Trade Ever: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History is compelling, perhaps especially in conclusion:

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At it turned out, Paulson has gone on to be a serious philanthropist, with massive gifts to the Central Park Conservancy ($100 million) and Harvard ($400 million), although neither of those benefactors were “on the wrong side of his trades.” (Both gifts had pushback from the left, with Malcolm Gladwell tweeting amusingly about the latter.)

There also is an argument that Paulson’s involvement with Steinway is almost a kind of philanthropy. Steinway seems genuinely committed to excellence first and foremost. Some say their current pianos are better than ever. I’d doubt that Paulson himself is overseeing it all personally, making sure that only the finest materials are on hand while crafting this most deluxe of tools, but he certainly hasn’t done anything to harm the brand. Considering how often a new corporate owner destroys the value of a beloved arts or entertainment icon, “not harming the brand” is actually doing a great job.

(I’m curious to see how this all goes forward without Sweeney around. In the timeline, Sweeney got there before Paulson and he was promoting the artistic mandate before the purchase by Paulson and Co. On the other hand, while I was obviously impressed with Sweeney, I have no idea if Sweeney was really doing a good job as CEO for the company in general.)

As we all know, the politics around big money are usually pretty bad. In music, probably most of the major instrument makers, record labels, festival production companies and colleges make corporate decisions that range from mediocre to despicable when considered in strictly humanitarian terms.

Still, getting into bed with Donald Trump crosses a line. Recently I wrote my community in the newsletter Floyd Camembert Reports:

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When Paulson bragged about buying Steinway in the New York Times, he sounded like Trump. It’s easy to see how they might get along:

NY times 1NY Times 2

With the Paulson/Trump alliance in full effect, I can’t in good conscience keep asking promoters to go out of their way to provide me with Steinway pianos.

I’m not calling for others to automatically follow my lead. Hey, if I played Rachmaninoff concertos for a living, I probably would regard a constant supply of exquisite pianos a necessity, not a luxury. And I hasten to add that everyone I’ve worked with at Steinway is qualified and helpful, and am sorry to lose a couple of nice professional friendships with this post.

As a bohemian jazzer it is easy enough to go back to cheerfully accepting what’s in front of me every night with equanimity. In the end, a piano is just a tool. Whenever I’ve been confronted with a bad instrument, I’ve asked myself, “Would this low-grade tool stop Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, or Paul Bley from creating miraculous human art?” (I know the answer is “no,” because some of their greatest records were made on terrible pianos.)

While on verge of becoming a full-scale Steinway artist I enjoyed some nice privileges, like getting a cheap rate for a magnificent D for the latest Bad Plus record It’s Hard and a good deal for my nice Boston at home. However, the piano on TBP’s Made Possible is a top-notch Yamaha, and it surely does the job. In fact, many of our fans think that is our best record.

As of today, it seems that Trump is doing everything he possibly can in order not to get elected, so perhaps I’m overreacting. But I do think my fellow pianists should at least be aware of this jarring dissonance at the top end of Steinway’s (pay) scale.

After all, while we all love beautiful things, part of our greater worth is the company we keep.

(UPDATE, a few days later: In interviews, reporters have been eager to nail down my relationship to Steinway. Was I a Steinway artist? To clarify: No, I was not. In pre-Sweeney years I was at Steinway picking out pianos only twice for ECM recordings with Billy Hart. The only piano store I had a relationship with for decades was the indie shop Klavierhaus, who supplied a few Faziolis to gigs and a Steinway for the TBP Rite of Spring record. Gabor Reisinger was my friend there, and sadly and shockingly he passed away at a very young age.

A year and a half ago Sweeney attended a night at the Village Vanguard where I played with Jason Moran, Stanley Cowell, Kenny Barron, and Fred Hersch. Sweeney wondered why I was the only one onstage who wasn’t a Steinway artist and gave his staff a mild mandate to make me one. He also became personally friendly with me and began bending the rules so that I would have Steinway benefits.

However, no one can become a Steinway artist unless they own a Steinway. I went to the factory but couldn’t afford the Steinway I really wanted, so I settled for a Boston, also thinking I would save up and trade in for a real Steinway in a couple years. Sweeney told me I could ask for pianos whenever I wanted for gigs and recordings, so I expected everything to be gravy.)

(SECOND UPDATE: At the last minute before posting I added an anecdote about “Bill Sadler, the best piano tech in Minneapolis.”  I didn’t fact-check the anecdote (I checked everything else I could) and apparently misremembered some details. Apologies to Bill for dragging him into the limelight in the context of a political piece. I deleted the anecdote. He really is a master piano technician. )

Modern Composition (Guillermo Klein, Tim Berne, Marc Ducret, Jason Moran)

In the past couple of months, the internet has offered a bounty of valuable articles about classical music, all at least somewhat interconnected:

Will Robin’s dissertation on “indie classical.” Unusually for a dissertation, this is a riveting read chronicling recent history.

A conversation with Paul Griffiths by Matt Mendez. I’ll have more to say about Griffiths on DTM in the future; Mendez impressed me very much with his liner notes to Peter Lieberson Vol.3, reviewed on DTM here.

Kevin Volans on the state of the modern classical composer. Some hated this but I found much food for thought, especially the detailing of government involvement in the careers of Boulez and Stockhausen and the crucial idea of “vocation.”

Philip Clark on the end of the great composer. Clark is onto something, but his attempt to take down Thomas Adès a peg or two is bewildering. (Probably best to chalk that up to some kind of byzantine perspective impossible to understand unless you come from England.)

Joshua Kosman’s rebuttal to the two above pieces. (Understandably, Thomas Adès tweeted approvingly of Kosman’s article.)

Joe Phillips looks at “indie classical” from the vantage point of race. Unsurprisingly, the news is not good. There’s something to be done here, a think piece going from Volans’s famous (and now perhaps dated) string quartet White Man Sleeps into Phillips’s essay….

“Reflection on Risk” by Ashley Fure. Darmstadt, a key town for 20th-century composition, is the provenance of this compelling analysis by a significant young composer.

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Four recent releases by artists in the “jazz” category show how much modern improvising musicians are concerned with composition.

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Anyone excited about the idea of “indie-classical” should rush to hear Guillermo Klein’s masterful Los Guachos, V. There’s all the tuneful rhythmic drive anyone could wish for, in this case seen through the prism of Argentinian folklore. Some of the greatest living jazz musicians are in the orchestra, so everything lays right, not least due to the presence of drummer Jeff Ballard.

There’s not so many improvised solos to be heard on V. Guitar hero Ben Monder gets to shred on “Si No Sabes 4/4” and Diego Urcola blows some tart trumpet on “Si No Sabes 9/8” but that’s about it. The focus is on detailed composition throughout.

However, Klein would not be able to get the effects he does without a committed band of heavyweights. Everyone has been in Los Guachos for years and years at this point. They honor the composer but they also play the music like leaders themselves.

Two suites dominate the disc. The first three pieces are a marvelous deconstruction of the changes to “Back Home Again in Indiana,” better known these days as “Donna Lee.” The second is a long exploration of a few key generative ideas in Suite Jazmin. (Speaking of dissertations: unpacking Klein’s compositional devices is a worthy topic for a talented scholar.)

Steve Reich is a common inspiration these days, but what makes the difference on V is Guillermo’s command of jazz harmony. More accurately, it is simply harmony: the movement of the 12 pitches through keys. V is where process and phase music needs to go! True masters of harmony like Klein — even Reich isn’t quite there on the harmonic tip — are needed to rescue post-minimalism (especially “indie classical”) from dead ending into banalities.

After the heady suites there’s a surprise, a straight cover of unconventional jazz icon Andrew Hill’s anthem “Ashes” that smoothly transitions into Klien’s own ballad “Quemando Velas.” This unlikely pairing shows the distance Klein is trying to cover with his personal conception of twisted romance.

I’ve been a fan of Guillermo’s for a long time. However this album might be the first one to really capture the magic of seeing the band live on a good night. Klein is also obviously still growing as a composer. The future awaits.

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High modernism did its best to kill off the personality of the performer. God bless those specialists that strive to execute every dot, dash, and dynamic marking in Babbitt or Boulez.

Perhaps one of the most successful general uses of high modernism is in avant-garde jazz, where an improviser can summon a similar kind of discontinuity with off-the-cuff ease.

I asked Tim Berne how many originals he had recorded. He grunted and said, “I have no idea.” I’m going to guess it is about 250 pieces over the course of something like 40 records. Talk about a working-class composer! He just produces and produces his beautiful and crazy music.

There’s been an evolution in Berne’s artistry but there hasn’t been that much evolution. He’s a pure spirit.

Around Tim the bands change. Snake Oil with Oscar Noriega, Matt Mitchell, and Ches Smith is flexible chamber ensemble. High modernism is second nature to Mitchell, and Smith doubles on vibes and expanded percussion, so at times the group really has a “classical” kind of cast.

However, unlike some avatars like Henry Threadgill or Steve Coleman, Berne would never tell his players how to select pitches to use while improvising. As a result, the “composition is begun when the players are selected,” as Duke Ellington might have said.

Berne’s latest record is the deluxe package Spare, which includes a burning CD of a ferocious live Snake Oil gig (hello, intoxicating Matt Mitchell solo rumination that opens the album!) alongside a thick book of photos by Berne and art by long-time collaborator Steve Byram.

It is a lovely punk coffee table book, but the music is what matters most. Listening I’m reminded of Tim’s vast influence. Hundreds of musicians play this way today: cadenzas, duos, and free-for-all improvs linking thorny material in suite-like fashion. Tim himself comes out of Julius Hemphill and the AACM, of course, but Berne’s own fierce set of solutions is what others others have emulated time and time again for so many decades now.

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Certain musicians in Europe have been some of the strongest purveyors of high modernism in a jazz or improvised context. Thanks to Tim Berne, I’ve become aware of six recent CDs from brilliant guitarist Marc Ducret. The covers of Tower volumes one through four make a little interlinking art project when you lay them next to each other. Tower-Bridge is pair of live gigs from the related tour.

Everything is based on Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada and the related short story “The Vane Sisters.” Ducret himself explains:

Marc Ducret Tower project

This project initiated in 2008 is an attempt at transposing in the musical world a short chapter from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Ada”, in which the writer weaves a whole labyrinth made of mirrors, memories and correspondences, eventually building a form which in turn leads to his other books, themes and emotions. I wanted to use only musical means to “transcribe” this process, without having to quote excerpts of the book or literary explanations; therefore I chose to write music for three different bands, following the “design” of the mentioned chapter.

The first group, “Real Thing #1”, is a Franco-Danish quintet with Kasper Tranberg (trumpet), Matthias Mahler (trombone), Frédéric Gastard (bass saxophone), Peter Bruun (drums), and myself on guitar. The band performed its first concerts in a French-Swiss tour in May 2010. The music was recorded during two days in the middle of the tour and published by Ayler Records as “Tower vol. 1”. Since then the quintet has been presented by such festivals as Copenhagen Jazz Festival, Pori Jazz and Jazzdor Berlin. New concerts are planned on the first half of October 2013.

The second group, “Real Thing #2”, is a Franco-American quartet with Dominique Pifarély (violin), Tim Berne (alto saxophone), Tom Rainey (drums) and myself on guitar. The quartet toured in Germany, Luxemburg and France in September 2010. The band recorded “Tower vol. 2” at the Studio Sextant (Malakoff, France) during that tour.

Each of these two groups plays one half of the music; the third band, “Real Thing #3”, is a sort of “chamber” ensemble including Fidel Fourneyron, Alexis Persigan and Matthias Mahler, on trombones; Antonin Rayon on piano, Sylvain Lemêtre on percussion and myself on guitar. This group gives all the musical “solutions” to the first two halves played by #1 and #2, commenting their music and putting it into a new light. The sextet played for first time in October 2011 at Le Triton (Les Lilas, nearby Paris). “Tower vol. 3” will be recorded in December 2012 and published in the spring of 2013.

The three groups have played separate concerts and can also be superimposed, with endless possibilities of different arrangements of the same basic musical material – presented in the same concerts or in two evenings.

The whole Tower project reached a new dimension with the Tower-Bridge orchestra. This name has been given to the three groups together, i.e. twelve musicians playing extended versions of the whole music. The band was premiered at La Cave Dimière (Argenteuil) on November 9th 2012. The concert served as an opening for a tour consisting of ten concerts across France.

Marc Ducret, July 12th 2013

The albums are quite dissimilar in effect. This is a lot of music to digest, and my notes are merely first impressions:

Vol. 1 thrashes around with heavy drums and blistering guitar solos over odd-meter vamps. Ducret’s command of modernist composition is undeniable.

Vol. 2 Berne and Ducret are close associates, so this quartet with all-weather companion Tom Rainey makes sense from the get-go. The first thing we hear is about five minutes of subway background noise and feedback. Violinist Dominique Pifarély is a new name to me, but what a soulful player.

Vol. 3 is the most immediately charismatic disc of the bunch, and possibly the most through-composed. Berne told me he thought it was one of the greatest albums of recent times. The lack of conventional drums gives the icy sonorities an unusual transparency. Stravinsky’s Agon and Requiem Canticles come to mind (bells and trombones) and perhaps also the hocketing horns of Louis Andriessen.

Vol. 4 offers Ducret solo. The whole disc is fairly thorny and discontinuous until the end, a very brief cover of a Joni Mitchell tune, a superb WTF? moment.

Tower/Bridge combines all the musicians. While the scorching free-for-all moments are expected, it’s good to hear that the compositional integrity is maintained. The themes are clear and it is really fun to hear the interlocking vamps beefed up into a little big band.

Taken as a whole the series is entirely successful. As this music gets closer to classical composition it makes sense to create on a larger and larger canvas. I can’t think of anything else filed amongst my “jazz” records with the sort of ambition displayed by Marc Ducret’s Tower project. Bravo.

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Jason Moran has been busy storming the castles. He’s been so impressive, winning awards, getting elite positions, connecting the dots.

Indeed, I was a little worried that he might be neglecting the piano. I’ve seen other great instrumentalists like Yo-Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis become a little less interesting after taking on the whole world.

A few months ago I went to the Park Avenue Armory — where, of course, Jason was curating a series of heavy concerts — to see his solo piano set. Frankly, I was astonished. This was one of the best solo piano gigs I’d ever seen. (Much better than Keith Jarrett’s at Carnegie Hall a couple of weeks previously.)

Afterwards I joked to Jason, “Better put this out fast, before I steal some and release it first.” Well, The Armory Concert is out already as a download from Bandcamp, and I am definitely not listening to it much more: I just don’t have time to be swayed so easily by a charismatic contemporary.

Among other things, Jason impresses with a full set of original music that prizes organic development. Melodies and harmonies appear and reappear but the argument always moves forward. Actually, a fair comparison is Jarrett’s Facing You, which remains one of Keith’s greatest discs, and (as far as I know) the only Jarrett solo piano album that takes complex pre-conceived sketches as a starting point.

What separates Jason from the rest of the music on the above page is the Afro-American experience. I don’t think there needs to be black stuff in improvised music, but it certainly doesn’t hurt — although if you use it, you need to own it.

When Jarrett played a casual slow blues at Carnegie Hall, it sucked. At the time I thought it wasn’t just the innate laziness of the pianist that was the problem: the glorious full concert Steinway on a major stage was also the problem.

The canonical Philadelphia drummer Donald Bailey once told me, “I don’t like grand pianos. Upright pianos are better for jazz.”

I wouldn’t go as far as that, but it’s true the music of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell is not conceived for elite concert situations. They sound great on a concert grand in a big hall, of course, but they sound just as great or even better on an upright in a noisy club.

(Undoubtedly Keith would sound great playing the blues in somebody’s living room at a party. Getting him there to do it would be the only problem.)

At the Armory Jason had some serious Steinway to work with. He even tweeted the number: 415. Jason really has to double-down to play the blues on that motherfucker, and delivers the goods on a lacerating “South Side Digging.”

On the other hand, “All Hammers and Chains” is in the style of a relentless Ligeti etude, a feat of virtuosity that was undoubtedly aided by a piano that gave so much back.

Among other projects, Jason has begun a magazine about jazz: LOOP. There are only 500 copies, so I ordered mine before spreading the word.

It’s really a little art mag, with much attention to photography and layout. Indeed, the highlight may be Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s utterly disarming essay about the boutique black men’s clothing store Tacuma runs in Philadelphia. Other contributors include Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Matana Roberts, Greg Tate, Walter Smith, J.D. Allen, Eric Revis, and Kendrick Scott. I read LOOP avidly: when I set it down, I was only disappointed that there wasn’t much more. Fortunately, it says “Issue No. 1” on the cover.

Floyd Camembert Reports

Just a quick reminder to sign up for the very best Iversonian personal anecdotes, photos, and gig spam at my TinyLetter.

This coming Saturday, August 20, I’m going to be doing a rare solo event in the Midwest. Free masterclass from 4-6, $20 gig at 7 at The Dunsmore Room just outside of the Twin Cities.

This will almost certainly be the first time the Hall Overton Piano Sonata has been played someplace besides NYC. Also on the program: DTM-related stuff like “Carolina Shout” plus standards and originals…

End of an Era

Friday, August 5: It’s the last day Ben Ratliff is working at the New York Times. Tomorrow he is a free man! Congrats Ben! Take a break! You deserve it after almost exactly 20 years of service to New York’s music community!

NY Times Popcast: A Send-Off for Ben Ratliff w. Jon Carmanica.

A few months ago I discussed Ben’s latest book on DTM. There’s also tentative plans for some follow-up questions: watch this space.

I know Ben, of course, and we’ve talked a fair amount over the years. He’s reviewed me quite a lot. I’ve never gotten a pan but he’s always called it like he saw it. After the opening night of trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian at the Vanguard, Ben was slightly skeptical in the next day’s paper. Charlie called me right away, furious. I waited out Haden’s diatribe against jazz critics, knowing that Ben was right to withhold fulsome praise. (That gig jelled more towards the end of the week.)

On the other hand, I received a different phone call from Billy Hart when a set at Fat Cat was reviewed in the Times. “How does he know all this?” was Billy’s simple question. Billy was unused to a jazz critic who could write clearly about how the drums fit into the history of the music.

One night at Birdland, I said hi to Motian, who responded, “Did you see what the New York Times said about me? They said I’m spooky!” (The Paul Motian interview in The Jazz Ear is one of the best documents of Motian in his own words.)

I could go on with Ratliff anecdotes. Truthfully he was an incredible asset for not just the three members of The Bad Plus but also for other musicians in our circle: Bill McHenry, Guillermo Klein, Jason Moran, Masabumi Kikuchi, many others.

Perhaps I’m biased, but it’s hard for me to imagine that there’s not a better way to understand New York jazz from 1998 to 2008 than starting with Ratliff’s coverage for the Times.

Giants kept dying off: the biz shrunk: Ben’s interests crystallized. In recent years Ben made a real shift, giving his attention mostly to various kinds of comparatively popular music. I personally care much less about all that stuff but reading Every Song Ever gave me tremendous respect for his vision.

It’s Ben’s own choice to leave the paper, and with the success of the recent book Ben is poised to become an icon among general music critics. Excelsior! And, thank you.

 

Cookin’ and Steamin’

Three quick gig announcements:

Tomorrow, Saturday, Sam Newsome is leading a striking cast of all-stars in a Steve Lacy birthday gig, 7 PM at the Jazz Museum of Harlem. 

Tonight through Sunday Joe Lovano has an incredible band at the Vanguard with Tom Harrell, Anthony Cox, and Billy Hart. The Vanguard recording from their previous engagement in is one of my favorite Lovano records; I was there in ’94, and will be going again before this week is out.

This coming Wednesday and Thursday I’ll be at Mezzrow with Ben Street and Tootie Heath. There are still plenty of seats but Tootie hasn’t played in NYC much recently and his fans are sure to come out.

Wednesday reservations

Thursday reservations