Bud Powell in the 21st Century

New album out today on Sunnyside Records! (Bandcamp.) This is concert performance of a suite commissioned by the Umbria Jazz Festival. The Umbria Jazz Orchestra is augmented by Ingrid Jensen, Dayna Stephens, Ben Street, Lewis Nash, and myself.

Review by Brian Priestley in Jazzwise.

Review by Filipe Freitas in JazzTrail. “….A record that, sealed with Iverson’s unique creativity, opens up a glorious new phase in his career.”

Interview about the album conducted by Tryan Grillo.

TG: How would you describe your relationship to Powell’s music? 

EI: I like knowing the text. When The Bad Plus played The Rite of Spring, I played it just like Stravinsky wrote it. If I play Tadd Dameron with [drummer Albert] “Tootie” Heath, I learn Dameron’s original voicings. At one point I transcribed Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” for The Bad Plus. My brain gets really excited by the details. I like to sit there and ask myself what really happened here. I can dive in, think about those details, transcribe and appreciate the subtleties. 

There’s also this other side of creativity. I’m confident everything I do has a personal sound, that it sounds like me and part of that sound is wild and woolly. The fantastical or surreal comes in pretty naturally with Bud. At the end of the day, Bud Powell was an avant garde musician. Had the project been dedicated to the music of Dizzy Gillespie or Benny Golson, it might have been harder to find a way in to do something personal. But there’s a surreal glint in Bud Powell’s eye, so that’s a fit for me as well. 

Grand Pa

“Performance in the age of social-distancing” is a hot topic, and it’s time for me to unveil my own contribution, Grand Pa.

Choreographer John Heginbotham made up a dance for Gus Solomons Jr to an orchestral recording of the famous “Grand Pas de Deux” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. I listened to the track (to ensure the timing was right) while improvising my own creative interpretation. Zoom and camera phones were the bare-bones technology; Maile Okamura put the pieces together in post-production.

Note from Heginbotham:

Grand Pas de Deux, Adagio: Gus Solomons jr no comma no period, is a phenomenal dance hero (other words which often and appropriately live near Gus’s name include “legend”, “icon”, “royalty”). I’ve known Gus officially since he and I began our perennial collaboration on another beautiful part of my life, Works & Process at the Guggenheim’s Peter and the Wolf, directed by, designed by, and starring Isaac Mizrahi. Gus plays the Grand Pa in Peter. Genius composer, pianist, friend, and adored DH collaborator Ethan Iverson provides the beautiful music. GRAND PA (de Deux).

Thank you to Nathan Cottam and Manakin Dance for providing the impetus for this work.

If you dig it, please encourage the algorithm by liking, commenting, and sharing. I’m quite proud of this project; indeed, I think it is one of the best things I’ve ever done.

RIP Frank Kimbrough

Word has come that jazz pianist Frank Kimbrough has died of a sudden heart attack.

A few memories:

One of the very first concerts I saw in NYC in the fall of 1991 was a trio of Frank, Ben Allison, and Jeff Williams at some obscure venue in the East Village. It was really great, in part because Frank was clearly influenced by Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, and Paul Bley. I was interested in these sort of approaches as well…it was sort of validating to arrive from the cornfields of Wisconsin and hear such a good trio playing just the kind of repertoire I wanted to hear.

A few years later I had an informal lesson with Frank; he didn’t actually call it a lesson, but he showed me a few things when he dropped by my apartment one day. We played a duo version of Sonny Rollins’s “Pent Up House” and I was appalled by how much better he played the changes than me. That was the real lesson.

In 1998, Frank couldn’t make a rehearsal with Maria Schneider and sent me in his place. I showed up thinking it would be not very hard — big band piano is usually not too taxing — but then Schneider’s score turned out to be a complex dance suite in mixed meter with a fast and exposed piano part. I’m a good sight-reader but I doubt Schneider formed a positive impression of me that day. That was another lesson.

Frank was part of the Jazz Composers Collective, a group with Ben Allison, Ted Nash, Ron Horton, and others. They programmed original music at a series held at the Greenwich House Music School. One of the best sets of the many I heard there in the ’90s was a trio with Frank, Ben Allison, and Jeff Ballard. The opening piece was unforgettable, where Frank offered some bluesy triadic piano riffs before the bass and drums came in with controlled chaos. When I told Frank how much I liked that piece, he suggested I check out Andrew Hill’s Strange Serenade with Alan Silva and Freddie Waits. In time I’d record “Strange Serenade” duo with Nasheet Waits; my first piano gestures are certainly less purely Hill than an interpretation of what I heard from Frank at that Greenwich House Music School gig.

After Paul Bley died, I organized a memorial concert on the Greenwich House Music School stage. Frank was the Paul Bley expert, and he showed up with a stack of Annette Peacock music. In a way I wish I had made the concert more about playing those Peacock and Carla Bley melodies; some of the best stuff that night was simply Frank reading through “Nothing Ever Was, Anyway” and “Butterflies” at the soundcheck.

Frank said the most virtuosic Paul Bley piano performance was “Blood” on Live in Haarlem. Frank said the best Barry Altschul on record with Bley was “Mazatlan” on Touching.

As a leader, Frank’s recorded legacy includes a nice trio album with Masa Kamaguchi and Paul Motian and a complete (!) survey of Thelonious Monk with Scott Robinson, Rufus Reid, and Billy Drummond.

His unaccompanied performance of Motian’s “It Should’ve Happened A Long Time Ago” is an appropriate memorial listen.

Handful of Keys

New DTM page, “Two-Fisted on 33 1/3 RPM,” a listen to many piano LPs.

Earl Hines Tea For Two
Earl Hines Quintessential Recording Session
Jaki Byard Family Man
Earl Hines/Jaki Byard Duet!
Erroll Garner Afternoon of an Elf
Erroll Garner Gemini

Donald Lambert Meet the Lamb
Hank Jones This is Ragtime Now!
Hank Jones Solo Piano
Ram Ramirez Rampant Ram!
Dick Wellstood One Man Jazz Machine…
Ralph Sutton Off the Cuff
Herman Chittison Piano Genius
Claude Hopkins Crazy Fingers
Jim Turner Old Fashioned Love: A Tribute to James P. Johnson
Hank Duncan Hot Piano: A Tribute to James P. Johnson and Fats Waller
Eubie Blake The Marches I Played on the Old Ragtime Piano
Eubie Blake The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake
Eubie Blake Volume 1 (featuring Harold Browning)
Luckey Roberts Ragtime King
Johnny Guarnieri at the Stereo Piano: Piano Dimensions
Charles Thompson The Neglected Professor
Sir Charles Thompson Portrait of a Piano
Doc Cheatham and Sammy Price Black BeautyJoe Sullivan New Solos by an Old Master
Burt Bales New Orleans Ragtime
Paul Lingle Dance of the Witch Hazels
Paul Lingle The Legend of Lingle
Ellis Larkins A Smooth One
Hazel Scott After Hours
Sir Roland Hanna Sir Elf
Sir Roland Hanna A Gift From the Magi
Hampton Hawes The Challenge
Tommy Flanagan Alone Too Long
Keith Jarrett Facing You
Geri Allen Homegrown

RIP Stanley Cowell: A Universe of Music

There are not too many authentic jazz heroes of Stanley Cowell’s stature left.

Cowell first came to prominence in the late 60’s, when he was playing with the leading lights of the tough NYC scene. Max Roach’s Members, Don’t Get Weary from 1968 is one of Roach’s greatest albums, a sublime mix of old and new, and features the first recording of a signature Cowell composition, “Equipoise,” a luminous, contrapuntal melody accompanied by relaxed modal harmony.

In the same period Cowell appeared on Bobby Hutcherson’s Spiral and Patterns at the time when Hutcherson and Harold Land were finding a fresh take on modal music.

Hutcherson’s Total Eclipse with a similar line up — but with Chick Corea in the piano chair — is better known, partly because Spiral and Patterns didn’t come out until later. Rumor has it that Miles Davis had trouble deciding who was going to follow Herbie Hancock into the Davis band, Cowell or Corea; a comparison of the pianists with Hutcherson suggests that Corea and Cowell were equals in terms of being virtuoso soloists in McCoy Tyner/Herbie Hancock lineage. Total Eclipse begins with wonderful “Herzog” and wonderful Corea on piano — but there’s also spectacular video of “Herzog” with Cowell. Again, an interesting comparison.

The most abstract themes in the Hutcherson/Land book are by drummer Joe Chambers, who also appears (with Hutcherson) on one of Cowell’s first albums, Brilliant Circles from 1969. At this time, these musicians were very concerned with atonal European concert music. (Chambers’s brother Talib Rasul Hakim would have a notable career as a formal composer: Cowell appears as piano soloist on the outrageous “Placements,” covered elsewhere on DTM.) Tyrone Washington’s remarkable through-composed “Earthly Heavens” on Brilliant Circles effectively closes the book on a certain era of 60’s high modernism played by serious black jazz musicians. This track is one of my favorite things of all time. (The group is completed by Woody Shaw and Reggie Workman.)

In the early 70s, Cowell joined forces with Charles Tolliver and created Strata-East, to this day one of the few African-American-owned jazz record labels. The two volumes recorded at Slugs’ with Cecil McBee and Jimmy Hopps are exemplary documents of post-Coltrane churn; the piano solos are typically brilliant. “Drought” begins in deep space but soon enough the music turns into blazing swing. Jimmy Hopps is not such a familiar name but he delivers the goods.

There was a lot of forward motion from this tough swinging NYC black music in the late 60s and early 70s…but, the scene changes. The death of Lee Morgan at Slugs’ was a devastating blow. Within a few years Strata-East backed off operations. It was weird all over: Some of the leading lights plugged in and added rock beats, others quit the game entirely.

Artistically, Cowell had an intriguing second string to his bow. When Cowell was a boy, Art Tatum stopped in at hometown Toledo and played “You Took Advantage of Me” for Cowell’s family. As much as he knew about Tyner, Hancock, and the avant-garde, Cowell always remained interested in a kind of old-school two-fisted approach. At times he worked to bring that kind of big piano into modern jazz in esoteric ways, for example “mirror” improvising, a way to cover the piano keyboard in total symmetry, a specialist approach that can be heard in Cowell’s shocking composition “Cal Massey” on Clifford Jordan’s Glass Bead Games. Listen hard to hear how Cowell’s left does everything his right does — but in reverse. (Bill Lee on bass and Billy Higgins complete this outstanding quartet.)

A more conventional use of big piano in the Tatum lineage was stride. Like Jaki Byard and Roland Hanna, Cowell could unashamedly leap into stride piano on a “normal” jazz gig. I just learned from Mark Stryker that Cowell actually started his recording career this way, dealing out some avant-ragtime with Marion Brown on “Spooks” from Three for Shepp in 1966.

Cowell was careful to temper this potentially old-fashioned approach with modern black music with a populist bent. Some of his gospel solos rank with the supreme examples of the form. J Dilla would end up sampling “Maimoun” from Musa: Ancestral Streams.

After Tolliver and Cowell parted ways, Cowell spent a lot of time on the road with the Heath Brothers or Roy Haynes. In both bands Cowell was a bit of an X-factor, someone who could pull the band into something more contemporary or more old-school depending on what else was happening. On the uptempo “Dr. Jackle” with McBee and Haynes in 1977, some of Cowell’s phrases are more like bebop, some are more like modal burn, there’s a few avant flourishes along with something from the swing era.

When Cowell played solo, he usually included a rhapsodic rendition of “‘Round Midnight” that incorporated it all from Tatum to Tyner and further, not to mention a way of phrasing the melody that “evaporated” from a struck chord. On a 1993 trio rendition, after the bass and drums come in, Cowell plays the melody with the left hand while offering wild flourishes on top. (The only other jazz pianist I heard do much of this kind of thing used to play in the Bad Plus.)

Eventually Cowell got off the road and became a celebrated educator. However, that didn’t mean that Cowell stopped practicing. Many pianists who could stride when younger would give that up that merciless discipline some point, but that side of Cowell’s thing got stronger than ever. A lovely late record with Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits, Dancers In Love, has a marvelous rendition of the Ellington title track.

I knew Stanley slightly; when I asked him about making a record with Jason Moran’s crew, he smiled and said that Taurus and Nasheet were, “pure magic.”

Stanley was the piano faculty when I was at the Banff workshop in 1991; Among other things, I remember him pointing out that first chord of a Charlie Parker blues could be a major seventh (not automatically a dominant), which was kind of an incredible revelation.

Much later, he joined a bunch of us (including Ted Rosenthal, Aaron Diehl, Ehud Asherie, Christian Sands, Jacob Sacks, and Adam Birnbaum) at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, where we all played James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout.” I programmed Stanley last, and that was a wise decision, as he simply walked over the rest of us in terms of basic command of the language.

I’ve been staring at this page for an hour, trying to think of a final paragraph, a summation, a button, really just anything positive to conclude this slight memorial post. Once again, as is usually the case when an American jazz master passes, I am possessed by inchoate frustrations. As rich as Cowell’s legacy is, he should have gotten more love and appreciation from our society, creating a feedback loop that would have enabled Cowell to have gone from strength to strength in the manner of a talented (and funded!) European composer. Still, the best records are here, and future generations will always have a chance to see how a single pianist could command a whole universe of possibility.

Under the Xmas Tree

WBGO has a jazz gift guide worth checking out. Here’s a few DTM selections, many of which are “in the family” or “locally sourced.”

Two things on the WBGO list I have a personal connection to:

I wrote an extensive essay for Charlie Parker: The Mercury & Clef 10-inch LP Collection, a set of glorious music in a deluxe package. Harry Weinger put this project together, and he proved to be an excellent editor as well. This is a box for the ages and I’m honored to be a part of it. Excerpt from my notes:

As Bird became established as his own bandleader, microgroove 10-inch LPs became a new format for the music, part of an industry-wide shift in recording techniques and commercial prospects in the late 1940s. Jazz producers, like Norman Granz, could now deliver 10 minutes of music per side; the electrical 78 rpm single, the dominant format for nearly three decades, maxed out at three minutes per side. Record companies were also dabbling in the 12-inch microgroove LP – short for “Long Player” – mainly for classical music, presuming jazz and pop fans would prefer the smaller package of a 10-inch, closer in size and cost to a 78 rpm “album” folio. By the mid-1950s, however, the companies wised up and moved all LP product to the 12-inch. The 10-inch LP became obsolete.

Granz had been releasing 78s for a while. He started out in 1944 producing concerts billed as Jazz at the Philharmonic — famously, he cancelled performances at venues that wouldn’t relax rules about audience segregation — before moving on to management and the record business. Eventually he’d produce a slew of JATP recordings first through Mo Asch’s label before settling in with Chicago-based Mercury Records in the late 1940s. He would soon place releases on his own Clef imprint before forming Verve and taking his catalog with him.

Granz had often featured Bird at JATP events. Signing him as a solo artist, Granz in the studio tried to present Charlie Parker as a recording artist for the general audience. He succeeded, at least in part: Bird with Strings remains Bird’s best-selling album. South of the Border also offers something specifically aimed for a casual listener. 

This 10-inch collection balances those heavily arranged dates with some of Bird’s best unfettered studio performances: a hardcore bop session with Gillespie and Monk, and Quartet tracks with pianists Hank Jones or Al Haig.

In the Parker box, it’s nice to see my byline next to David Ritz, a writer I really respect.

Another writer I admire is Kevin Whitehead. I reviewed Whitehead’s massive overview Play the Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film for Noir City. Excerpt:

Whitehead has unique qualifications for this monumental task, for he has spent decades in the trenches as a jazz critic. He loves the music and has personal relationships with major practitioners. His previous books include an insightful exploration of Amsterdam improvisation, New Dutch Swing, and a worthy general history, Why Jazz? 

An insider’s perspective is required, for many of the movies included in Play the Way You Feel are not especially loved by serious jazz fans or musicians. Of course, painters don’t love movies about painters and newspaper reporters don’t love movies about newspaper reporters. When the topic is too close to home, a fictionalized story rarely satisfies. However, jazz may be particularly messy in how it colors outside the lines: art vs. entertainment, improvisation vs. composition, the steady drumbeat of racial politics: It’s all a bit hard to sum up on the back of the box. If you know, you know. If you don’t know, you don’t know.

Whitehead “knows,” the films usually “don’t know.” However, that doesn’t stop Whitehead from  setting aside his prejudices and taking each film on its own terms.

I shamelessly recycled some of this commentary for a forthcoming essay about Pixar’s Soul (with nods to Whiplash, La-La Land, and Green Book) for The Nation, which should go online just before Xmas…

Kids still read! On the YA tip, the great Daniel Pinkwater has a new book out, The Adventures of a Dwergish Girl. It’s classic Pinkwater, one of his best. Yes! God bless Daniel Pinkwater. When I was a kid, I treated Alan Mendelsohn, Boy From Mars and Lizard Music as manuals of style. I will always owe Pinkwater a great debt.

Pinkwater is an influence on my wife, Sarah Deming; when he blurbed her first book Iris, Messenger, it was a coup. Sarah’s Gravity from a year ago was critically acclaimed and remains a perfect gift. She’s hard at work on her next project, more on that in 2021…

Of course, some adults still read as well. I’ve just finished Alex Ross’s Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, the music book of the year. I will be interviewing Alex for DTM soon.

While prepping for the interview I also re-read Alex’s The Rest is Noise, a general history of twentieth-century classical music. I admired The Rest is Noise first time, but if anything enjoyed it even more the second go-round. It’s from 2007 but there’s nothing dated about it in the slightest, it’s still an ideal gift for, say, a college student seeking to open their mind to fresh sounds.

On a more serious note, two books about politics help answer the question, “How could 70 million Americans vote to re-elect Trump?”

These aren’t perhaps “fun holiday reads” but I feel better after my exposure to them: It is always better to know than stay in the dark.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean is an unsettling read. Prize-winning economist James Buchanan is not as familiar name as Charles Koch, but it turns out Koch’s fiefdom of smart lawyers, judges, and activists fighting for the rights of the wealthy owe a lot to Buchanan. Incredibly, Buchanan advised Pinochet and the other Chilean leaders in the early 70s; to this day, people on the Buchanan-to-Koch spectrum regard Chile as a success, a case where the money got to protect the money. MacLean draws a straight line from this to the Flint water crisis, as the undercutting of state programs results in America being just like a third-world country.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson looks at why poorer citizens seemingly vote against their interests. The answer, of course, is tribalism and fear. Wilkerson compares racism in America to the caste system in India and Nazism in Germany. Sadly, the parallels are not as much of a stretch as one might think, for the desire to keep the old ways in place is almost a religious war for many Americans.

“How could 70 million Americans vote to re-elect Trump?” MacLean solves the money side, Wilkerson solves the subconscious side. I’m going to be a little less surprised by my fellow voters in the future…