Piano and Piano

Currently streaming: Aaron Diehl plays Mary Lou Williams “Zodiac Suite” with the New York Philharmonic and Tito Muñoz. I believe this original orchestration hasn’t been heard since the premiere in the 1940s. Recommended.

I interviewed my former teacher Fred Hersch to preview his March 20th streaming concert for the Leuven Jazz Festival. The video is about 15 minutes long.

Like all my peers, I have healthy respect for the outstanding pure jazz pianism of Dave Kikoski. Students, check it out, a new book of Kikoski improvisations, transcribed and analyzed by Andrew Luhn.

Orrin Evans leaves The Bad Plus. I’ve always admired Orrin…I never listened to TBP MK II, but will keep my eyes and ears alert for Orrin’s future sounds, for he is a *major* voice on the instrument.

Mark Morris recently told me about Dana Suesse. I’ve played the old standard “My Silent Love,” but didn’t know it was from a longer formal composition “Jazz Nocturne.” Suesse is also a wonderful pianist, somewhere in the Gershwin-to-Confrey constellation.

Mwandishi Time

Thanks to Bob Gluck for writing You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band. I’ve been meaning to read this book since it came out in 2012, and finally just got around to it. Gluck has given us a invaluable resource; indeed, this is a landmark in jazz criticism.

The members of the famous ensemble — Eddie Henderson, Bennie Maupin, Julian Priester, Buster Williams, Billy Hart, and Patrick Gleeson — were interviewed for the book. Along with reasonably conventional historical detail, there’s an astonishing amount of technical analysis and musical notation.

Read Gluck for in-depth appraisal. Here are my slender notes on the three studio albums (simply to help organize the titles and the sessions in my own brain).


— Ostinato (Suite For Angela). Not a suite, but a long 15/8 vamp (kinda E-flat sus) with two drummers (Ndugu Leon Chancler joins Jabali). Hancock’s keyboard solo is amazing. Actually it’s incredible the keyboardist is so damn comfortable in 15. In 1970 this must have been rather alarming to people like McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett.

— You’ll Know When You Get There. This is a lyrical tune in the vein of “Speak Like a Child” and “Maiden Voyage,” except that it is much more stop and start, with many cadenzas and a kind of “groupthink” that creates spontaneous structure, although a reassuring Thad Jones/Gil Evans “shout” ends each solo. Eddie Henderson shines in an extended feature. Maupin plays on flute and Hancock’s solo boasts an abstract and even “childlike” duo with Hart.

— Wandering Spirit Song. Ready for 21 minutes of a Julian Priester composition with “Wandering” in the title? No, not me either, not really, but I owe it to these masters to give another attempt. Reading Gluck is good, he explains what is going on step by step. Four minutes in, the (boring) opening drone resolves into a nice jazz waltz. Billy Hart’s contribution is undeniable. The composer takes a long lyrical solo; the trombonist could maybe be a shade hotter in the mix. After another head, the piece breaks into noise and Maupin gets a ferocious say on bass clarinet. The rhythm section swings hard in the waltz, but then plays the rubato burn just as well. That was surprising at the time, and to some extent remains novel today (at this point, more people are comfortable with the rubato burn than the swinging waltz). Hart told me he really loved the concluding duo of Hancock and Williams. The duo is in waltz-time, mostly, with effects and a general air of searching for extreme possibility.


— Sleeping Giant. A 6/8 drum fanfare with all hands on percussion begins a side-long suite. Hart still plays some of these solo patterns on the gig today. Eventually Hancock settles in for some extending musings in A phrygian. As on the previous LP Mwandishi, the first proper blowing heard on the album is a wonderful workout by the leader. In both cases, the keyboard solo has undergone a certain amount of post-production, where key phrases get underlined or dialed back via studio magic. It works. Some aspects of these LPs might be dated today, but not the keyboard solos. Written material is introduced; the piece moves through styles ranging from spacey avant chorales to the most hemmed-in and rigorous funk. The “doubled” (via electronics) Bennie Maupin cadenza with Buster Williams in fervent support is something that should be heard at least once. As a whole I can’t say “Sleeping Giant” is really to my taste, but it’s certainly going for something fresh. Gluck loves the aesthetic unconditionally, and his analysis of “Sleeping Giant” goes on for over six pages.

— Quasar. The other two tunes on Crossings are by Maupin. The big change is the addition of Patrick Gleeson on synthesizer. (The three studio LPs divide neatly into three sides with Gleeson and three without.) One of the most profound aspects of this band was how earthy the band was — deep blues, swing, funky for days — while also able to conjure a landscape suitable for science-fiction. Total Afro-Futurism. Hancock begins with a few lovely polychords on acoustic piano before a chorale with synthesizer takes over the narrative. The main tune is features a D-flat ostinato in 7/4, but that texture is under constant attack. I’m not sure all the synth stuff really holds up today, but the best of it is great. There are a lot of vamp-heavy early-70s jazz LPs that are far more ponderous and unlistenable than anything from this band.

— Water Torture. A synth-intro gives way to one of the most attractive pieces in repertoire, with a beautiful, spacious, even menacing hi-hat groove under tightly arranged horns. Free interludes alternate with that wonderful groove. This is genuinely mysterious music.


— Rain Dance. This is the only track where Gleeson’s primitive synth provides rhythmic information. Gleeson’s vamp is attractive enough, as is the first noisy blast of horns. The body of the track has Hart and Williams actually playing patterns in tandem with the sequencer. It works, I guess. More to my own taste are the absurd low synth drones that accompany Williams’s fabulous bass solo.

— Hidden Shadows. When I was first assembling a record collection, Sextant was the only LP from this era of Hancock I could find. “Hidden Shadows” was definitely my favorite track, with a mesmerizing odd-meter funk groove offered by Williams and Hart. Jabali plays a cowbell here, a comparatively rare occurrence. The out-of-key unison horn lines have a vaguely Ornette Coleman-esqe cast. Beautiful. Eventually Hancock brings in the acoustic piano for a rather shocking improvisation, full out, wild bitonal chords up and down the piano, almost as if he’s playing a fancy modernist concerto.

— Hornets. Another side-long jam, a cool funky riff underpinning diverse explorations. The horns solo but it is fairly collective in intent, an ethos only extended by Gleeson’s surreal contribution. When the clouds part a bit, eleven minutes into the track, Hancock delivers another devastating solo, this time on keyboards treated with a welter of post-production effects. The pianist was in his early 30s and actually at a kind of a peak as a player. The horns are all great, the collective ethos is compelling, but every time the leader takes total control of the narrative with an extended improvisation the music soars to an even higher level.

The band toured a lot and many bootlegs exist. The live setlist frequently included “Toys,” a swinger of the old school introduced on Hancock’s classic Blue Note LP Speak Like a Child. “Toys” gave Hancock, Williams, and Hart a spectacular chance to shine in a way quite different than most of the Mwandishi repertoire. In conversation, Hart and Williams have both cited the July 21st, 1971 version of “Toys” in Nice as something special. Here’s the scorching extended piano solo from that gig. All praise Buster Williams, for the swing is so damn profound in the bass.

At the end of the excerpt, the trio plays a special “break” for the next soloist, Eddie Henderson: a beautiful detail.

Gluck describes some of the bootlegs but You’ll Know When You Get There is a big book already. At some point a listener’s guide to the complete Mwandishi bootlegs would be helpful. I just learned that Brad Farberman is doing some of that research already on Twitter; the threads can be accessed from Farberman’s website.

Lady Day

New from The Nation (my second byline there), about Billie Holiday, at this point an underrated technician, especially since the high profile movies all focus on other things.

Thanks to Darcy James Argue for texting me the sentence, “One of the first things director Lee Daniels told his composer was that he doesn’t care for jazz.” I had idly contemplated writing about Holiday in light of the new movie but that text was the true starting gun.

Also, Mark Stryker reworked the opening for me, making it much better. Like WAY better. Additional thanks to Hyland Harris and Loren Schoenberg. However, the faults of the article are mine alone, not my helpful readers…

Getting to it

Thomas Morgan and Andrew Cyrille join me Monday at Smalls. Repertoire list includes


I’ll Keep Loving You
Dance of the Infidels
Bouncing with Bud
Reets ’n I
Bud’s Blues


Monk’s Mood
Well You Needn’t
Ask Me Know
Off Minor
Criss Cross


52st theme (Monk)
Nice Work if You Can Get It (Gershwin)

The Ed Enright cover story for DownBeat is now online.

Bang on a Can

Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace by William Robin is a riveting history of art and business in the 80’s and 90’s. It reads like a thriller: recommended.

While reading I also caught up with more of the extensive repertoire composed and curated by David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, that was good to do as well.

Robin occasionally pans out from BOAC to the larger spectrum; the chapter how the hit recording of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony affected the record industry was revelatory.

Alex Ross has more on Industry, as does the relevant Robin webpage.

It was good to read Industry ahead of the Bang on a Can watch party I’m moderating tomorrow, featuring the video premiere of Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, performed by Vicky Chow. The video is by Souki Mehdaoui.

In 2018, I wrote about Sonatra for the New Yorker Culture Desk.

Another important streaming event: Alvin Singleton!

From Schott email: “Eight soloists from the Curtis Institute of Music’s Ensemble 20/21 will perform composer-in-residence Alvin Singleton’s complete Argoru series of solo masterworks on Saturday, March 6 as part of a “Portrait of Alvin Singleton” concert. Click here to register for a link to view the performance online. Additionally, on March 7, the concert will be broadcast from the Curtis Institute of Music’s Facebook Page and student performers who were coached on the Argoru series by Mr. Singleton himself will respond in real-time to questions from the audience.”

DTM: Interview with Alvin Singleton.

The Third Symphony, that omni-present standard bearer of “holy minimalism,” may have obscured the rest of Górecki’s canon. Mark Morris introduced me to the short Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra, comprised of two shocking and delightful movements.

Important to Watch

Piano Quintet by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, streaming in performance by pianist Sarah Rothenberg with the Daedalus Quartet. This is a production of Da Camera in Houston, where Rothenberg is artistic director. This film premiered on Friday and is up for a week, so act fast.

Weinberg is not a familiar name but I was thrilled by this Quintet. He was an associate of Dmitri Shostakovich, and there are certainly similarities, but Weinberg is a shade more subtle in his harmonic flow, perhaps a bit more “Brahmsian.” The film is beautifully recorded and quite riveting overall. It’s a substantial work in five movements but the time just flows by. At some point I’d like to sit with the scores to three great Russian piano quintets, Shostakovich, Weinberg, and Schnittke, and study them properly as a set. Wonderful music.

Much more context and commentary in Rothenberg’s program note.

Suite à l’ancienne (Suite in the old style) by Marc-André Hamelin, streaming in performance by pianist Rachel Naomi Kudo. This is truly exciting! Hamelin is developing slowly into being one of the great composers for the piano — this is, of course, in addition to being one of the finest performers in the instrument’s history. Kudo is a young star and the winner of the 2008 Gilmore Young Artist award; this stream premiered Friday, produced by the Gilmore, and will be up for a month.

J.S. Bach wrote fair number of dance suites following a certain pattern: French suites, English suites, and Partitas for keyboard, cello, and violin. Eventually later composers wrote their own collections of Allemande, Courantes, Gigues, and the like. Grieg’s Holberg Suite is in the active repertoire; notable romantic pianist-composers Eugen d’Albert and Ernst von Dohnányi both recorded sumptuous Suites in the old style; modernist offerings include a dodecaphonic Suite from Arnold Schoenberg and a dissonant but neoclassic Partita from Yehudi Wyner.

Hamelin’s own piano scores all directly engage with the past. So far I’ve heard a stunning Prelude and Fugue, a torrential set of Etudes, two sets of Variations, a Toccata on old tune…One gets the sense of a general surveying his vast forces before almost casually deciding which battalion to update for the 21st century: “Ah. Now it is time to deploy a Suite in the Old Style.”

Hamelin’s set includes:

Air avec agréments
Gavotte et Musette

It’s classic Hamelin. The harmonies glisten with subtle, almost “jazzy” dissonances, the general air is good humored, the virtuosity required is formidable. Kudo has the measure of the score; it is simply thrilling to see two generations meet at the piano like this.

It’s still Sunday morning in Brooklyn, so perhaps I just have time to re-watch Kirk Franklin’s Tiny Desk (Home) Concert, which aired under the auspices of NPR earlier this week. I know little of modern gospel but this intimate performance is seriously grooving. Shaun Martin is on second keyboard, Matthew Ramsey plays bass, Terry Baker is the drummer.

Much is Happening

Tomorrow: Jazz from Detroit, a Virtual Music Marathon, hosted by Mark Stryker, featuring Charles McPherson, Robert Hurst, Regina Carter, and many others.

Next Sunday, March 7, I’m moderating a Bang on a Can watch party for the video premiere of Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, performed by Vicky Chow. The video is by Souki Mehdaoui.

In 2018, I wrote about Sonatra for the New Yorker Culture Desk.

I’m also currently reading Will Robin’s new book about BOAC, Industry.

Back to Babbitt (with Erik Carlson)

In formal notated music, it is the job of the interpreter to make a case for the composer. “Here’s why you should be listening to this.”

It’s just over a decade since Milton Babbitt passed away. Not every composer has much of a post-death performance existence. To live on, a composer needs advocates.

Babbitt has his advocate, an unassuming genius named Erik Carlson, a conceptualist and virtuoso violinist who teaches at UC San Diego.

On Bandcamp, Carlson offers a work in progress, the Slowly Expanding Milton Babbitt Album. Each work is done perfectly. Score in hand, with much editing if need be, Carlson realizes flawless performances of classic Babbitt works.

It makes sense. One of the reasons Babbitt explored the RCA Mark II Synthesizer was simply to hear his music played correctly. In Carlson’s hands, Babbitt’s acoustic music is heard correctly.

I’m frankly a little surprised it makes a difference. In my early 20s, under the guidance of Pat Zimmerli, I listened to a fair amount of Babbitt, for example the early classic of serialism, Composition for Four Instruments from 1948. This music is profoundly disjunct. Part of the composer’s point is to be “as weird as possible.” I liked it, but never thought the interpretation mattered all that much. I figured that “close enough” was “good enough.” I mean, it was just a bunch of mathematically generated atonal notes.

I was wrong. Carlson’s fresh recording with Rachel Beetz, Joshua Rubin, and Michael Nicolas draws me in. There’s a kind of crystalline beauty that causes my eyes and ears to open in wonder. Thanks to Carlson, I’m even listening to the Babbitt string quartets, something I never expected to do…

Unlike many atonal composers, each phrase in Babbitt is reasonably lean. There’s rarely a fiercely dissonant pile-on. Some Babbitt pieces even offer obvious major and minor triads. Joshua Banks Mailman recently published an astounding online essay, “Portmantonality and Babbitt’s Poetics of Double Entendre,” which dives in to the issue of Babbitt’s tonal “puns.” Incredibly, Mailman includes score samples and audio clips so that one can instantly hear the “puns” while reading. Talk about the future of musicology…

The ensemble Babbitt piece I know best is All Set, which I always keep on hand when arguing about how intellectual jazz should be. (The older I get, the grumpier I become, and the more I think we all need to look at Mary Lou Williams’s jazz tree every day and make sure our jazz stems first and foremost from a soulful perspective.) Whenever a student brings in 12-tone jazz or other complicated charts with a notated drum part, I play them All Set, for Babbitt kind of closed the book on that stuff all the way back in 1957.

There were formerly two familiar recordings of All Set. The first had actual jazz musicians like Art Farmer and Bill Evans, while the later one was with Speculum Musicae. When I interviewed Gunther Schuller, Schuller had a lot to say about the process of rehearsing All Set, and we even compared the two recordings.

On the new Erik Carlson-produced issue of All Set, the musicians are

Ryan Muncy, saxophones
Samuel Ewens, trumpet
Dave Nelson, trombone
Kathryn Schulmeister, bass
Andrew Munsey, drums
Sean Dowgray, vibraphone
Aleck Karis, piano

The credits include these cryptic notes:

Recorded by Erik Carlson, Andrew Munsey, Ryan Muncy, Dave Nelson, Samuel Ewens, Sean Dowgray, and Kathryn Schulmeister

Critical listening: Matthew Barber, Ellie Moser, Michael Caterisano, and Jim Baker

This track just showed up recently on Slowly Expanding Milton Babbitt Album, so I suspect All Set has been one of Carlson’s pandemic projects. It is the best All Set so far. The speed is faster than before and each note sings. Perfect music, perfectly realized.

At first glance, the vast page on Carlson’s website, “Recitals,” seems to be a bit in the fictional style of Jorge Luis Borges…except that these conceptual pieces apparently have actually have been “performed,” or will be “performed” in the future.

“patterns, algorithms, sonifications, objects, concepts, etc.”

One example, currently “postponed”

A polyrhythm 1:2:3:4…999:1000, with a single full cycle equaling 1 year in duration

I will play an hour excerpt in real-time, assuming the cycle began at midnight on January 1


(Re) Stream

photo by Desmond White

“LIVE” AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD: The Billy Hart Quartet will available to watch all weekend long, starting tonight 8 PM EST. Originally streamed on June 14th, 2020, the quartet features Billy Hart on drums, Mark Turner on saxophone, Ethan Iverson on piano, and Ben Street on bass. This was the first band to stream at the Vanguard. The re- broadcast will be available to purchase until Sunday at 8 PM EST.

Village Vanguard website.