Gigsalicioius Rex

On February 4, I’m going to perform a new through-composed piece, Dance Sonata, at Halyards in Gowanus. This work was commissioned by Dance Heginbotham and will get a proper premiere at Jacob’s Pillow this summer with choreography by John Heginbotham.

Dance Sonata is in four movements — Allegro, Andante, Scherzo, Rondo — and is completely written out. The piece may be played solo piano but will be even more effective with bass and drums; I will be joined by Dylan Reis and Vinnie Sperrazza both at Halyards and at the Pillow. (To be brutally frank, we are making the demo tape for John the next day and a little Brooklyn gig will be a good opportunity to tighten up the polyrhythms.)

The aesthetic of  Dance Sonata will be no surprise for those that have heard Pepperland or Concerto to Scale. I guess I have truly arrived at “my style” when it comes to formal composition. Well, I turn 47 in February, so it’s certainly about time!

At Halyards, Dylan, Vinnie, and I will also play some normal jazz to fill out the hour. We start at 8, Diego Voglino takes over for the second set. Donation.

Easter Weekend, Friday and Saturday April 10 and 11: Ethan Iverson All -Star Quartet Featuring Al Foster, Chris Potter and Ben Street at Iridium.

The blurb:

Ethan Iverson was a founding member of The Bad Plus, who the New York Times said was, “…Better than anyone at melding the sensibilities of post-60’s jazz and indie rock.” Iverson has released two acclaimed albums on ECM in the last two years: Temporary Kings, a duo recital with Mark Turner, and Common Practice, a live quartet featuring Tom Harrell. He is a member of the Billy Hart Quartet and composes scores for the Mark Morris Dance Group and Dance Heginbotham. An interest in combining the very new with the very old led Iverson to start the website Do the Math, a beloved repository of wonky analysis and musician-to-musician interviews, and surely one reason Time Out New York selected Iverson as one of 25 essential New York jazz icons: “Perhaps NYC’s most thoughtful and passionate student of jazz tradition—the most admirable sort of artist-scholar.”

For this special engagement Iverson is joined by a truly formidable cast. Chris Potter is everyone’s favorite tenor saxophonist, a player who commands any idiom with style and virtuosity. Ben Street has joined Iverson in many collaborations and is widely regarded as one of the most swinging bassists in New York. However, the real star is Al Foster, the legendary drummer who was a key sideman with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, and many others. Iverson and Foster have played as a trio with Ron Carter, Christian McBride, and Larry Grenadier, but this is their first meeting in a quartet. Watch the sparks fly! The repertoire will include toe-tappers from Duke Ellington and Count Basie, steeplechases like “Giant Steps” and “Moment’s Notice” selected just for Mr. Potter, and new music written especially for this one-time-only engagement.

Gene Ammons on TV

It’s distressing how many masters lack video representation in the archives, but once in a while something turns up. Mark Stryker has alerted me to a newly-rediscovered tape of Gene Ammons, AKA “Jug.”

According to Stryker, the Chicago band includes King Kolax, George Freeman, Wallace Burton, Chester Williamson, and Bob Guthrie. At times Jug is hooked up to a Varitone, which is — actually kind of cool? Purists may dismiss such a move but I kind of dig it. At any rate it was a conscious way to keep up with the times. (It’s always worth remembering that these masters didn’t regard their styles as immutable.)

Josh Redman told me that Dewey Redman gave a lot of credit to Ammons. I really see that in this video: The abstract phrasing on the opening ballad, the hunt and peck on “Jungle Strut.” Total Dewey!

Nothing beats the jazz tenor saxophone. NOTHING!

Related DTM: Mark Stryker and the Saxes.

New York Concerts in Review

On January 11, the AMOC offered a chamber music program at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation on the lower east side. The Foundation is a beautiful art gallery, and the recital room was packed to hear five players from the American Modern Opera Company perform four pieces without pause. It was a conceptual and theatrical event, with recent work arranged around a piece of core repertoire, the Charles Ives piano trio.

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Emi Ferguson, Miranda Cuckson, Jonny Allen, Conor Hanick, Coleman Itzkoff

An expanded arrangement of Three Études by Matthew Aucoin began the program. Pianist Conor Hanick played one “straight” before being joined by flautist Emi Ferguson and percussionist Jonny Allen. This music was solid, disjunct, of the moment; a good opener.

The Ives trio was essayed by Hanick, violinist Miranda Cuckson, and cellist Coleman Itzkoff. It’s one of Ives’s best pieces, a classic by any standard, and it was thrilling to hear a high level performance up close in a small room.

I was sitting next to Scott Wollschleger, the composer of Secret Machines, Nos. 1 & 2. Many of Wollschleger’s compositions are slow process pieces, quite dissonant, even “punk,” but underneath the groaning and moaning lurks a truly refined sense of harmony. Now united as a full band, the five musicians bent to the task and the room reverberated with controlled chaos. Scott’s a friend, as is Miranda (I wouldn’t have been aware of this concert otherwise) and I experienced a moment of self-conscious pleasure simply by remembering that I knew some of the hippest people in town.

The tension was released by Robert Honstein’s Unwind. All the musicians stayed onstage and unspooled mellow polyrhythmic counterpoint in pure diatonic harmony. It was just what we needed, almost a “rock and roll coda.” I hadn’t been to an AMOC concert before but they frankly blew me away.

Lenny White is 70, and celebrated with a bevy of gigs at the new joint in Park Slope, Made in New York. I finally got there for the last set, a trio with George Cables and Alex Blake. White called this the “hood trio,” as they grew up playing in Queens together.

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Alex Blake and Lenny White

It was a high-energy set of burning modal jazz: Business as usual since about 1968. They even played Cables’s famous “Think on Me,” a song that entered common-practice repertoire on Woody Shaw’s Blackstone Legacy featuring both Cables and White.

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George Cables

Nobody is getting any younger but everyone sounded up on their chops. Lenny White is a swinger — at this point, he is much closer to Big Sid Catlett than so many young players only comfortable with even eighths — but, of course, he owns funky beats and stuff to make the steady syncopations pop, just the way he did for Return to Forever or on Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay.

White’s an interesting personality. One of his most outrageous discs is The Adventures of Astral Pirates (which includes Alex Blake on bass). My buddy Guillermo (a real connoisseur of the genre) considers Astral Pirates one of the greatest fusion LPs. Fusion has kind of returned to the New York scene in recent years, so it’s good to go back and remember how big and bold this stuff was back then. Hell, this stuff is still just impossible….

In general I approve of the bookings at Made in New York: It’s great to have a new joint in Brooklyn for masters of the tradition.

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Porgy and Bess has been a unqualified hit for the Metropolitan Opera this season. I hadn’t seen a staged version in decades, so it was refreshing to enjoy such a high-end production. This is indisputably George Gershwin’s best concert music, and the score is also full of songs (“arias”) that are as familiar as the hit Gershwin tunes birthed on Broadway. 

The opera is essential Americana. I suppose it is also almost by definition “problematic” from a few different modern viewpoints, but music this good has a way of carrying the day over all objections. It was nice to see so many black people in the audience. There are always a few at the opera — more then you might think if you never go — but naturally, when it’s an all-black cast, the audience responds.

Eric Owens and Angel Blue were wonderful in the leading roles. Janai Brugger, Latonia Moore, Denyce Graves, Frederick Ballentine, Alfred Walker, and Donovan Singletary all had moments to shine. David Robertson conducted and the production was designed by James Robinson.

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I ran into pianist Bill Charlap at the interval. Bill is famously a deep student of American composers, so I joked to him, “I guess you are checking out these voicings.” He looked at me solemnly and replied, “This score has every voicing you will ever need.”

Apparently extra performances of Porgy and Bess have been added thanks to overwhelming demand.

R.I.P. Jimmy Heath

Jimmy Heath was not just a musician. Jimmy Heath was a lifestyle, a mood, a way to make sense of the world.

The last time I saw Jimmy play was in 2016 at the Village Vanguard with Jeb Patton, David Wong, and Al Foster. I never heard a set of Jimmy Heath where there wasn’t some down ‘n dirty blues, and that night he was particularly inspired on Sonny Red’s “Bluesville.” The snaky tenor lines burst through the air like soulful sparkles. It was a good reminder that Jimmy was the same age as John Coltrane, and that Jimmy and Trane had learned the blues together as teenagers in Philadelphia.

Jimmy was the middle child of one of the great jazz families. Percy was the elder, a major bassist for Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and eventually the bottom end of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Tootie was the younger, a quicksilver swinger who has played comfortably with everybody from Wes Montgomery to Don Cherry. For a time they joined together as the Heath Brothers, a band that must have appeared at every major jazz festival in the world.

When Jimmy, Percy, and Tootie played together, it was a conversation. Not just musically, but literally: They would talk to each other, the whole time, the whole gig. It was hilarious. They’d talk about who looked funny in the audience and who had the better hotel room that night. One time I saw Tootie play a loud cymbal crash during a piano solo, prompting Jimmy to yell, ‘That was a big one!” Tootie yelled back, “It had to be done!”

All the brothers had amazing verbal skills, they were all born comics and could riff like nobody’s business. After “Winter Sleeves,” one of the pieces in the Heath Brothers book, Jimmy Heath would address the audience in rhyme:

That piece was called, “Winter Sleeves”
based on a song called, “Autumn Leaves”
so I could collect the royalties
for my melodies.
Please!

The most familiar of Jimmy’s many compositions is probably “Gingerbread Boy,” thanks to a classic performance of Miles Davis with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. The tune’s jagged themes just sort of hang there, a set of questions and answers. Conversation in music, conversation on the bandstand. Miles recorded a few Jimmy Heath tunes and didn’t always give credit. “Miles! Could I have the royalties for my melodies….please?”

I Walked With Giants is Jimmy’s autobiography. It’s a valuable read, but no jazz master gives up all their secrets. Now that Jimmy is gone, he took a big part of what was living history with him.

Tootie told me a great story recently: While Jimmy was serving time at the Lewisburg Penitentiary, he put a band together that included William Langford, better known to jazz fans as The Legendary Haasan. When Langford decided to quit the prison band, he wrote Jimmy a letter to explain that he didn’t want to do it any more. Of course, Haasan saw Jimmy all day long, every day, at chow and exercise time etc. Still, Haasan sent Jimmy a letter.

I’m not sure what this story proves, exactly, except that it’s another reminder that when Jimmy played the blues, it was the real blues.

Jimmy Heath’s extensive discography deserves a serious critical overview. There’s a lot there, and most of it isn’t nearly as well known as it should be. As I type this, I’m listening to the truly brilliant composition “Six Steps” from Swamp Seed. The orchestration includes two french horns and tuba. Harold Mabern (also recently gone) gets the first say, Donald Byrd is supremely tasty, and then Jimmy himself tells it like it is. His brothers Percy and Tootie are in the rhythm section. Family, community, conversation, mystery, the spiritual, the unknowable, the slick, the smart, the surreal: Whatever I love about jazz, it’s all right here in this fabulous track.