Drum Poetry

I saw a great set of Peter Bernstein, Doug Weiss, and Leon Parker at the Village Vanguard tonight. I was particularly curious to hear Parker, who had moved away from New York for a time and just came back a year or two ago. He was kind of everybody’s favorite enfant terrible when I first got to town in the early 90s before vanishing to Europe for over a decade.

Well, Parker hasn’t lost a step. I loved watching him play a set of standards with two other world-class musicians. It was a relaxed and beautiful vibe.

Parker doesn’t use a high-hat. Very odd. He also just has one cymbal, and usually plays with matched grip. Looking at his kit before hearing him play, it would be easy to suspect he simply isn’t a straight-ahead jazz drummer, but more of a world beat or European conceptual type.


It’s an idiosyncratic set up but Parker’s a real swinger of the old school. His beat is precise, essentially metronomic, but it also has the roundness of placement that separates the groovy from the stiff. Perhaps Ben Riley is a reference for that driving, singing ride cymbal of Leon Parker.

Nothing Parker plays is that unusual, really, but the orchestration of the kit is by necessity unique. Parker has also allowed in non-straight ahead influences: mallet techniques from concert percussion and groove music from the planet at large. He’s certainly got enough power to play with anybody but in this situation he was restrained and tasty. A lesson all the way around.

It’s really a blessing to have Parker back on the scene. Peter Bernstein and Doug Weiss both sounded just great as well. Tonight was a kind of trio tribute to Jim Hall, tomorrow they start with Sullivan Fortner for the rest of the week. Essential NYC jazz of the best kind.




This week: Mexico w. Billy Hart featuring Dayna Stephens and Ben Street: Thursday in Mazatlan, Saturday Mexico City, Sunday Cuernavaca. Thank you DeQuinta Producciones!

December 5: The Year in Jazz: A Critics Roundtable led by Nate Chinen at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and also featuring Kira Grunenberg, Matthew Kassel, and John Murph.

And a couple of gigs in NYC:



London Overview


  1. “Ethan Iverson in London”
  2. “And on the Third Day” by Michael Gibbs
  3. “Afterglow” by Marian McPartland
  4. Early British Syncopation (Percy Grainger and Constant Lambert)
  5. Raising Hell with Henry Purcell

Bonus track: Time Tunnel.

I’d like to thank Richard Williams, whose blog The Blue Moment is a model of its kind. Richard will be joining me onstage Saturday as part of the “composers” night to discuss some of the many things I’m leaving out of this three-day overview. Richard also suggested “Doxology” for a John Surman piece — great suggestion!

Also thanks in advance to my collaborators Brigitte Beraha, Mandhira de Saram, Cath Roberts, Dee Byrne, Kim Macari, Olie Brice, Laura Jurd, Peter Wareham, Tom Herbert, Sebastian Rochford, Adam Fairhall and Alexander Hawkins,

OK, I’m headed to the plane. If you are in London this weekend, do come out! It’s going to be a one-time only event!

Raising Hell with Henry Purcell

[Fifth post about the forthcoming Ethan Iverson Residency in London]

One of my great artistic experiences was going to see Hamlet at the Globe Theatre. I was a groundling, where Mark Rylance shouted at us and we shouted back. A brass quartet played Tudor-style fanfares between acts. The last event on stage was a joyful “dance with death” accompanied by primitive percussion.

Using European classical music as a resource for improvisation is standard practice.  Generally speaking, the more avant-garde the jazz, the more explicit the references to the tradition of European modernism. In 2018, serious improvisors all over the world can make beautiful abstract music in real time, creating sounds that would have taken a midcentury composer weeks to notate.

Jazz and improvising musicians have done more and more literal performances of repertory classics. In the Bad Plus we played a faithful rendition of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Uri Caine recorded a thrilling set of Wagner in Venice with an unusual quintet.

Bach can be arranged for any instrumentation successfully but he is hard to deconstruct for improvisation. I am not really a fan of Jacques Loussier and his rather corny “Play Bach” stuff, I’d rather listen to the Swingle Sisters sing Bach straight with a hint of swing.

Earlier baroque fanfares might be easier to appropriate…or at least that’s my thinking for a night at King’s Place.

The AACM school is full of square marches that open up for chaos. Anthony Braxton’s Creative Orchestra Music “March” is famous.


Purcell was one of the great fanfare composers. The melodies are strong and beautiful, the counterpoint is simple, yet the emotions are as complex as a joyful dance with death. My contention is that these fanfares will offer a smooth gateway to improvisation in the manner of an AACM march.

(I am also influenced by the deconstruction of Angelo Beradi’s “Canzone Sesta” I participated in earlier this year with Josephine Bode and Dodó Kis.)

We have a wonderful singer, Brigitte Beraha, so there are not just fanfares planned for the set of “Raising Hell with Henry Purcell,” but I don’t want to give anything else away in advance (also we need to see what works in rehearsal). But here’s a quick (one take) voice memo recording of prelude I’m going to play on harpsichord with perhaps additional theatrical elements from the band. Purcell is damn quirky, that’s for sure. He offers a tune, bangs a drum, gets lost in arpeggios, and modulates to the subdominant only just before screeching to a halt. Great stuff. Looking forward!

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Early British Syncopation (Percy Grainger and Constant Lambert)

[Fourth post about the forthcoming Ethan Iverson Residency in London]

For “Ethan’s Rent Party” I am joined by two brilliant UK keyboard stylists, Adam Fairhall and Alexander Hawkins. I can’t wait to hear what Adam and Alex get up to. Among other things we are all playing a song by Ray Noble….

The following are notes for two of my own selections, “In Dahomey” by Percy Grainger and the first movement of “Piano Sonata” by Constant Lambert.

Black music from America went all over the world in the first part of the 20th Century. Eventually the 1920s would be called “the Jazz Age.”

The piano was central to the incursion, especially the notated ragtime of Scott Joplin. However Joplin never toured. African-American ensembles and shows were what made it to London. On the 16th of May 1903, Will Marion Cook’s revue “In Dahomey” played at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Percy Grainger was in attendance, and the resulting concert rag “In Dahomey” (based on themes by Cook and Arthur Pryor) is a rare example of exceptionally detailed notation in the service of a syncopated style. It also tries to emulate the slide trombone. Overall “In Dahomey” is of a piece with the transcription of folk elements exploited in so much Grainger, including what many consider his greatest work, “Lincolnshire Posy.”

Apparently Grainger worked off and on “In Dahomey” for six years, but then didn’t publish it. After Ronald Stevenson finally oversaw an edition in 1987, it has become one of Grainger’s most popular piano pieces. A brilliant concert pianist like Marc-André Hamelin plays it to the virtuoso hilt, but there’s also an argument for a more quotidian approach emphasizing dance rhythm and improvised variation. Incredibly, I had an exchange on Twitter with Mr. Hamelin about this very topic:

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Grainger’s exceptional recordings of Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” and Guion’s transcription of “Turkey in the Straw” have informed some of my stylistic choices.


Exactly twenty years after Will Marion Cook played the Shaftesbury Theatre, Constant Lambert saw Will Vodery’s black orchestra in the 1923 revue “Dover Street to Dixie” at the London Pavilion. Lambert immediately began trying to assimilate a syncopated influence in his compositions, including what remains Lambert’s most famous piece, “The Rio Grande.”

The “Piano Sonata” from 1929, written when Lambert was only 24 years old, is a shade over-ambitious, especially as the three movements get longer and harder as they go along. However, the first movement is reasonably self-contained and flows along in impressive fashion. It certainly is just as good (if not better) than other “concert” jazzy works from the era by George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, and a forest of lesser composers. I played it for my hip NEC students this past Monday and they were flummoxed.

My joke is that some of it sounds like things Danilo Pérez would play in the Wayne Shorter quartet. (voice memo recording w. Brooklyn construction in the background)

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Duke Ellington is a linking theme. Will Marion Cook and Will Vodery were two of Ellington’s teachers and mentors. Both Grainger and Lambert knew and respected Ellington. There’s a picture of Grainger with Ellington when Grainger invited Ellington to his NYU classroom in 1932. Lambert (who had a major career as a feisty critic) was one of Ellington most vocal supporters in the 1930s, writing in the famously caustic Music Ho! that Ellington, “…Has crystallized the popular music of our time and set up a standard by which we may judge not only other jazz composers but also those highbrow composers, whether American or European, who indulge in what is roughly known as ‘symphonic jazz.’”

Truthfully, most of Duke Ellington’s records are proving to be more immortal than most of the compositions of either Percy Grainger or Constant Lambert. However, all of us in this game strive towards better and better appropriations and synthesis. An opportunity to study and perform Grainger and Lambert is a wonderful and decidedly syncopated event!


Bonus tracks: I feel a special connection to Constant Lambert because I adore the twelve book sequence A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. Powell was close friends with Lambert and put him in Dance as composer Hugh Moreland. Lambert was also involved with literal dance: Indeed, some argue that Lambert’s greatest legacy was as the conductor of the Royal Ballet. Since I myself have been quite involved with the dance world (especially with the Mark Morris Dance Group and Dance Heginbotham), I relate to this side of Lambert as well.

While from this distance Grainger and Lambert seem to have a lot in common, I checked the indexes of the major biographies and they are barely name-checked in each other’s stories. They did meet at least once at a café table in France, in the company of composer Arthur Bliss, but that seems to be the extent of a documented connection. In the end, despite his reputation for English folk song transcriptions like the omnipresent “Country Gardens,” Grainger was a devout experimentalist, and pairs more easily with people like Henry Cowell or Ferruccio Busoni than most other composers of his era.  Lambert, for all his enfant terrible attitude in print, was actually more of an establishment figure than Grainger.