End of Year Musical Interlude — Kamasi Washington and band performing “Change of the Guard”

Named one of Paste’s 20 Best New Bands of 2015, Kamasi Washington is part of the “West Coast Get Down” jazz music collective.  He is both a natural and educated musicologist, picking up his father’s sax at the age of 13 and going on to earning his chops through the renowned Hamilton High School Music Academy, where he excelled and earned a full scholarship in ethnomusicology at UCLA.  He has been followed from his earliest years as one of the brightest lights in modern jazz music, bringing together disparate sounds and traditions, molding them into a unique sound of his own making.  He released a three-CD album entitled appropriately The Epic earlier this year.  Hailed by music critics across many musical genres, he has brought back a modern big band sound that combines straight-ahead jazz, strings, feedback, turntable breaks, rap, funk, acid jazz, chamber jazz, R&B, eastern music, naturalistic and electronic sounds, and choir into a cohesive mix that sometimes teeters into chaos, returning to structure, and taking off again into another dimension.  Here he and his band is at Jazz Night in America performing “Change of the Guard.”  Absolutely breathtaking and inventive.

Saturday Music Interlude — Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga in Brussels and in the Studio

There is not much more that can be said about Tony Bennett.  He is a living treasure.  Since “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” I have followed him on his musical odyssey and then later, as a man in my 30s, explored the rich musical legacy of his earlier years.  It is hard to believe that Tony Benedetto of Astoria, New York, is 88 years old.  The surprise for me on the duets these artists have performed is the wonderful instrument that is the voice of Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta of Yonkers, New York).  It is almost as if her musical career was destined to lead her to this album.  Her powerful voice is both expressive and enveloping, tuned perfectly to the tempo and the register of the music.  I am only disappointed that there is no video of “Lush Life” performed by Lady GaGa solo which critics have described as one of the best renditions of this difficult song.  This collaboration, which began life from a benefit concert in New York, plows no new ground for these jazz standards.  But big things always start out with small steps.  Lady Gaga has always been known for her ability to handle vocal gymnastics and jazz music is a gold mine of challenging songs that would suit her voice and attitude.




Saturday Music Interlude — Ruthie Foster singing the blues

As a relatively young nation (still) the United States has few forms of music that it can claim as its own.  American folk, bluegrass, and country have their roots in Scots-Celtic and British folk forms of expression.  Many of the songs currently performed today even reprise traditional themes and melodies, but graft onto them American concerns and limitations for a rich fusion of the traditional and modern.

Two forms of music, however, that are uniquely American are blues and jazz, which eventually gave rise to Rhythm & Blues and early Rock & Roll.  The blues are the folk music of a people enslaved, given the hope of freedom, enslaved for all intents again, and–as the country has progressed–achieving full citizenship and freedom in law if not fully in practice.

Jazz, of course, which is based on the blues, is America’s classical music.  Despite attempts to straight-jacket it, as European classical music has been straight-jacketed–where variation from an accepted form based on the tastes of a privileged economic elite is the rule–jazz continues to develop and improvise.  This is to be somewhat expected.

The various forms of European classical music was financed and supported by royalty and robber barons–and continues to be financed by an economic elite which tends to expect uniformity.  The music, while among the greatest forms of human musical expression, has had over the years been allowed only so much freedom within the established boundaries of approval by a ruling class.  The genius found within it is to hear the rebellion under the surface, borrowing from folk forms where it can be masked from disapproving ears.  The subversive music from Mozart’s Barber of Seville, among others, comes to mind.

Jazz, however, is based on a democratic ideal–that the players working together, each given improvisational freedom within a structure, will create something new–a synthesis of old and new that drives the music forward.  Segregation allowed African Americans to freely express themselves and to do so in ways that ran under the surface of society.  The brilliance of the musical expression was soon realized and the mainstream of American society adopted many of its forms of expression and the lifestyle that often accompanied jazz and blues life.

Thus the core belief in both jazz and blues is progression–driving things forward, to a better day; not as individuals who work against each other and who strive against the success of the other–which would undermine and destroy the composition and the music–but together.  Only then can the music succeed.  Thus, while jazz is the music that speaks of the ideal of democratic society, blues speaks the story of the individual in society which can be cruel and unforgiving without love, compassion, decency, forgiveness, and more than a little bit of luck.

Ruthie Foster is an effective purveyor of the blues.  She started singing in her church choir and, leaving her rural town, continued to perform while on active duty in the U.S. Navy Band.  Since leaving the Navy she has taken the blues community by storm, winning multiple awards since her first release in 1997.

One can hear her background in her songwriting and singing.  On her newest album, Promise of a Brand New Day, the song “Let Me Know” contains the familiar call-and-response structure, though a chorus never enters into the song, the instruments providing an effective substitute for the anticipation of the response to the powerful instrument of her voice.  Here she is singing some selections from her new album.

Saturday Music Interlude — Humming House, Little Hurricane and Laura Mvula

The 2014 edition of the SXSW Festival showcased so much talent that it is hard to choose the standouts.  Now we’re well into music festival season with the New Orleans Jazz Fest just concluded.

Music, as all of the arts, is a rough business.  For every band that “makes” it with a modicum of fame, there are hundreds just as talented that operate just below the surface of popular culture.  Having spent significant parts of my life in and around New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and other cities in the United States, for me it is those performers–just a step away from recognition–that stitch together the strands in the fabric of civilization.  For it is these people who live for the art, for the love of the thing.

Having been a jazz enthusiast for virtually my entire life, I have listened to, watched, and met performers of the art of that uniquely American form of improvisational music dedicate themselves to excellence in their craft.  Most of them are unknown to the great majority of the populace and their recordings have been heard by very few that have been fortunate enough to have had that opportunity.  Yet they press on.

One day I met a saxophone player who was the featured musical artist at a poetry slam that combined poetry readings with improvisational jazz.  During the break we talked about The Music and he told me about a time when he had the opportunity to play with the great Art Blakey at Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio.  “I played the best music of my life in that set,” he said.  “But then Rudy looked over at us and he realized that the recording equipment had malfunctioned and hadn’t recorded anything.”  Though I was a stranger–a mere fan listening to the story of a malfunction many years removed–I felt distress for the man before me at hearing his story.  “Weren’t you disheartened?” I asked.  He smiled then.  “No, because we weren’t doing it for the recording.  We were doing it for the thing.  When you do it for the recording, for others to hear you, then that’s just ego and that ain’t nothin’.”

I realized then that he was right, and that his admonition that when you pursue “just ego…that ain’t nothing” applied to other pursuits and not just to music.

Since that day when I walk down Frenchman Street in NOLA and come upon a group of young people in an ad hoc brass band I know–I feel–that they are doing it for “the thing.”  When I go to Nashville and come upon artists plying their music at the local bar and at the street corners I know they are doing it for “the thing.”  Walking down Venice Beach, in the clubs of San Francisco, in the neighborhoods of Philly, the boardwalk on the Jersey shore, outside Santa Fe with the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the distance, remembering the Hoboken of my youth, and the music I heard in Spanish Harlem and in the Cuban section of Miami, on the old Steel Pier in Atlantic City, in the jazz bars of Manhattan (or what’s left of them), I heard that same thing–that voice, that joy, that playfulness, that anger, that sadness, that blues, recording who and what we are; recording the human experience and human emotion in all of its hues in ways that only music can accomplish: “the thing.”  Then, given this knowledge, when you find those artists that combine the heady admixture of originality, genuineness, and musicality, it is a transcendent experience.

All of this is simply preface to three very different talents that I’ve come upon and who stick in that part of my mind that says:  “here is something.”

The first is Humming House and, full disclosure, I came upon them via WordPress when they responded to one of my previous musical posts.  So I decided to check them out.  What I found was a group of talented performers communicating absolute joy through their music.  Working out of Nashville, Humming House is one of those bands that seem to open for every first rate act and whose music can be heard in many mediums while never quite breaking through.  Their genre is American roots, folk, country and pop.  They performed in Austin and the following is a SXSW Showcasing Video.

The next band also turned some heads at SXSW and the following video is from the Jam in the Van franchise.  They are a rock and dirty blues outfit from San Diego, California consisting of two members:  Celest “CC” Spina on drums, and Anthony “Tony” Catalano on guitar.  On the following song “Superblues,” Catalano’s vocals are electric with Spina propelling the music forward using an idiosyncratic drumming style that still manages to work.

Finally, the last artist is from the U.K. but was mentioned as the standout first timer to the New Orleans Jazz Fest.  Her name is Laura Mvula.  Her voice is an impressive instrument that she manipulates to remind one of singers as different as Nina Simone and Sade.  The performance that follows from a U.K. music program is simply electric.


Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Miles Davis Edition

Wisdom can be found in all of the arts, some of them visual, some written, and some using sound.

Fifty-five years ago in March and April 1959 the Miles Davis Sextet entered the studio at 30th Street Studio in New York City and recorded the album that would be known as Kind of Blue.

The reason I believe this album and, in particular, the song “So What” resonates is that it is an amalgamation of its time, taking into itself the entire history of jazz and jazz culture, which is American culture, and the potential that is American culture when all of its elements–its best elements–come together.

In the 1950s United States that brought Miles Davis and Bill Evans together, one black and the other white, the Civil Rights movement was just getting into swing against both Jim Crow and aggressive racism in the South, and the less obvious discrimination in housing and job opportunities in the north.  There was a tension between white jazz musicians and black jazz musicians based on the conditions where white musicians were able to get well paying union gigs, play in studios, in television, and other mediums that allowed them to make a living plying their art, but which denied those same opportunities to the originators of the jazz form.  Black musicians felt that many of the more popular white jazz musicians with few exceptions were co-opting their culture.

For jazz is a particular kind of art–an art that speaks of history, of the blues associated with a people who were enslaved, brutalized, escaped enslavement, disenfranchised, and oppressed for the color of their skin, but who overcame these indignities, embracing the blues, finding the wonder in small things, finding joy in living life.  It is a particular American voice forged in the underbelly of a society that espoused lofty goals that expressed the hopes and desires of all of human history–to human dignity, to the equal worth of each human life, to freedom, against the strong dominating and devouring the weak–but which fell far short of its goals in practice.

When Bill Evans was introduced to Miles Davis by George Russell there was a tension in the air where they played, especially in black clubs in Harlem, Brooklyn, and elsewhere.  The two men had much in common despite the different hues of their skin.  Davis had overcome heroin addiction that was the drug of choice in ’50s jazz culture, throwing himself into his music, pushing the urban-inspired form of jazz known as bebop to new frontiers.  Evans, a New Jersey boy who fully immersed himself in the jazz life with Russell and Charles Mingus, also had experimented with narcotics and become addicted to the drug–a struggle, which for Evans, would last the rest of his life.  But when he played the feelings expressed through the keyboard communicated a musical vision that has been described as the reflection of light from a sun-dappled waterfall.  It was this quality that drew Davis to Evans, the style deeply influenced by the French impressionists.

Davis tested Evans by taking him to venues that he knew would challenge his sensitivities and make him aware of the black-white dynamic.  Since the 1920s New York City was home to the jazz club and turned a blind eye to integrated audiences and couples.  Benny Goodman had integrated his jazz band in the 1940s.  But the societal undercurrent was everywhere the band turned.  White society denied black people opportunities and dignity.  In Davis’ band this dynamic was reversed–Davis was the leader and Evans the sideman.  Reverse racism caused by years of oppression was everywhere Evans turned within the black subculture but Davis would have none of it: “Crow Jim is what they call that. It’s [got] a lot of the Negro musicians mad because most of the best-paying jobs go to the white musicians playing what the Negroes created.  But I don’t go for this, because I think prejudice one way is just as bad as the other way.”  Years later Evans spoke about those years, “It makes me a bit angry. I want more responsibility among black people and black musicians to be accurate and to be spiritually intelligent…to say only black people can play jazz is as dangerous as saying only white people are intelligent.”

So near the end of their collaboration it should not be surprising that these men forged what is considered to be by many the best work of music to be produced in the 20th century.  For they arrived at the same place from different origins, they harnessed their love for the jazz form to not only express the past but to express what was possible in the future from the place they stood, pointing the way to enlightenment when others could only see the barriers in front of them.

I believe nowhere did they express that vision better than in the song “So What.”  For even the title expresses their shared vision, so what? that they were of different skin colors, so what? that the structure of the song was a break from the bebop structure, so what? that they had to get there by overcoming barriers, some of their own making and some not.