The Story of the Wind

How lovely to have some light shown on pianist/composer Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou by Kate Molleson in the Guardian: There’s both an essay and a radio documentary with Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou speaking in English.

Ethiopian music is a vast subject that I know comparatively little about. However, there does seem to be an agreement (from those that know much more than me) that Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is absolutely unique.

My own experience must be fairly common. One day several years ago I was at Pete Rende’s house. Pete put on the 21st volume of Francis Falceto’s Éthiopiques series, my eyes widened in shock, and I ordered my own copy that night. (It turned out later that many Brooklyn jazz cats are hip to Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, but she was new to me.)

As far as I know, that CD is the only digital issue of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s music. It’s a must-own for those interested in the possibilities of the piano.

The first track, “The Homeless Wanderer,” is quite involved with something akin to a one-chord blues.

However, this seven-minute lead-in also might give the wrong impression about Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s music in general, for most of her compositions are comparatively complex harmonically.  (I accept the Guardian‘s headline, “The Honky-Tonk Nun,” only if it gets more clicks on Molleson’s work.)

“The Mad Man’s Laughter” is noticeably chromatic.

The reference that I hear is European piano music. Not exactly the biggest names like Liszt and Chopin, but rather turn-of-the-century drawing-room composers like Moszkowski and Chaminade. These two maintain a place in the repertoire today mostly with a handful of encores, but all of their music has high finish and a perfect understanding of the instrument. Both were also wonderful pianists. Sadly there are no recordings of Moszkowski, but Chaminade has to be heard to be believed.

One flaw with comparing Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou to Moszkowski and Chaminade is that Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is a deeply spiritual artist. Her music has never been played for profit: Indeed, she has perpetually given all proceeds to the poorest of the poor.

Also, the rhythms and melodic phrasing from Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou are not European, for example the “free” (but actually precise) melodies over a habanera bass in “Homesickness.”

However, I stand by my comparison to Moszkowski and Chaminade because there is something so antique about the way Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou handles the piano. Even though the recordings on the CD are from 1963-1972, they somehow sound like a historical piano track from the 1920s .

Recently I heard Yolanda Mero’s 1926 disc of a once-popular encore by Vogrich.

I’m convinced that Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is in this same family. The piano seems to just play itself, with immense technical skill allied with a reservoir of pre-20th century charm.

Even some of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s titles are like those one could find in a old anthology of intermediate-level European piano music tucked away in your grandmother’s piano bench. Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska’s “The Maiden’s Prayer” was a huge hit in about 1890: Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s (much more soulful) work is “A Young Girl’s Complaint.”

My casual speculations are perhaps veering into nonsense. Anyway, thanks again to Molleson for the recent Guardian pieces. It’s wonderful that Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is still here (now in her mid-’90s) and still modeling a selfless, profound, and personal way to live. And that music!




In Good Hands

Saw two excellent gigs last night. At the Jazz Gallery, Cory Smythe offered selections from new release A U T O TROPHS, where a modernist compositional aesthetic meets piano virtuosity and playful electronics. Frankly I was floored, this was an amazing gig. A finely-wrought and controlled meeting of composition and improvisation has been en route for so long that I was beginning to wonder if it was ever going to show up. Maybe Smythe is the next true advance.

At the Drawing Room, Jacob Sacks led a quintet with Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby, Mike Formanek, and Dan Weiss. All Jacob’s tunes for a recording to be done today (I think). In a way these are our masters now: Eskelin, Malaby, Formanek: there’s so much depth to their abstract improvising. Jacob has done really incredible work integrating the sound world of Conlon Nancarrow into jazz, and Dan Weiss can always learn it all, remember it all, and play the dynamics of the room perfectly.

TBP News!

It’s true: At the end of the year I will no longer play in the Bad Plus. Orrin Evans, a great pianist, great guy, and long-term associate of Reid Anderson, will take over the piano chair.

Sign up for Floyd Camembert Reports if you want me to keep you posted on forthcoming non-TBP gigs. A lot of stuff is going to be happening in 2018.

A couple of common practice hits, near and far: In Brooklyn on Sunday with a pair of legends:


And in Portland in a couple weeks with two big local talents:


Buck Hill

Washington Post obit.

At one point, jazz was sharply defined by the local communities in the major cities. Billy Hart is from Washington D.C.: I’ve heard Billy talk about Shirley Horn, Butch Warren, Joe Chambers, Andrew White, and others so much I feel like I know them myself.

Billy’s own most most important mentor might have been saxophonist Buck Hill, who gave Billy his first Charlie Parker 78s.

On the surface the two Buck Hill albums recorded in 1981 at North Sea with Reuben Brown, Wilbur Little, and Hart are nothing special: veterans going through their paces. But if you really know how to listen to straight-ahead jazz, these discs show a specifically Washington D.C. way of handling the common practice repertoire.

Reuben Brown isn’t well known but he was a big talent who had a year-long trio gig with Butch Warren and Billy Hart in about 1960. Wilbur Little was also a member of the D.C. scene around that time.

These are all well-educated musicians, but there’s also an element of jazz as folk music.  When teenagers of that generation got interested in jazz there was no manual. If the local gatekeepers thought a youngster had potential, they were indoctrinated into the mysteries mostly through the oral tradition.

In this circle the queen was Shirley Horn, who eventually gave Hill his biggest exposure on a few of her later major label releases. I hear something similar in Brown and Horn: Herbie Hancock also got some of the same information because Miles Davis had Horn double bill with Davis at the Vanguard. The intro Brown plays on “Easy to Love” is not quite “normal.” It’s some D.C. stuff. Horn probably invented some of those voicings, and Herbie grabbed at least one of them too.

As for the tenor solo, what can you say? This is it, this is the mid-century Afro-American tenor saxophone tradition stretching from walking the bar to Interstellar Space. It’s not Hill’s best playing but you only need to hear a phrase to know that that truth is being spoken. Now that Hill’s gone, that once vital branch of American music, old-school tenor saxophone, has that much less of a connection to modernity.

Arthur Blythe, the Generous Avant-Gardist

Farewell to the wonderful Arthur Blythe. “Black Music: Ancient to the Future” was a slogan coined by the Art Ensemble of Chicago but embodied by many provocative musicians of that era. With a huge lyrical sound and blues for days, the connection of Blythe to 40s-era R&B saxophonists like Earl Bostic was obvious. That was the “ancient” part, but Blythe was also a consummate modernist concerned with “future.” In 1991 I saw Blythe at the Village Vanguard with Kelvyn Bell, Bob Stewart, and Bobby Battle. It was so weird and fresh: definitely ahead of its time.

Blythe’s reputation was secured by a series of valuable and high-profile discs made for Columbia from 1977 to 1986. While it’s an important legacy and absolutely part of the canon, I admit that the band aesthetic can be a little too chaotic for my own taste. For example, In the Tradition is considered a classic but whenever I go back to it I come to the same conclusion: I wish I could have heard Blythe, Stanley Cowell, Fred Hopkins, and Steve McCall live at the Tin Palace. Undoubtedly the right set would have made me a lifelong believer.

Regrettably the next wave of stars to get a push from major labels, the so-called Young Lions, tended not to be so aware of the “future” side of the continuum. The way (for example) Arthur Blythe receded and (for example) Wynton Marsalis ascended has still not been worked through in our history. To this day many of us are reactionary against one side or the other.

As a teenager the Blythe disc I listened to the most was the now-obscure 1986 album Mudfoot by the Leaders with Chico Freeman, Lester Bowie, Kirk Lightsey, Cecil McBee, and Don Moye. Frankly this rhythm section is a little more transparent than on most of Blythe’s own records. A comparison of Blythe’s own tune “Miss Nancy” on Mudfoot with the earlier Blythe quartet version on Illusions is a clear illustration. And, damn, does Blythe take a great solo on this song with the Leaders. It’s all there: the honk, the surreal, post-Coltrane pentatonics, even nailing the hard parallel changes when needed. Yeah!