Saturday, April 25, 2009


Cecil Taylor, I have read, is ill and has canceled a concert tour. Here's hoping he has a speedy recovery. And without wishing to be morbid, I decided that now would be a good time to write something about this great musician, who is 80 years old; I don't particularly want to write a memorial piece about him, and I hope this doesn't turn out to be one.

I'm not sure if I remember the first what the first Cecil Taylor music I heard was. It may have been Indent, a protean solo piano piece from the early seventies. I picked up that album in a junk store, and I remember being awestruck with Taylor's ability to improvise atonally at such length, with such intensity, and with such logic. The music made sense to me right away, even if I didn't (and still don't) always understand the principles that guide the construction of CT's music.

And it's obvious that the music is carefully constructed, even when it's mostly improvised. Taylor has made it clear over the years that he considers the idea of "composing" music in the western sense to be a highly dubious concept. But at the same time, his music hangs together in a compositional way - he seems to control the predetermined and spontaneous elements of his music in such a way that they form a unified whole. I feel this, even if I am not always able to look back at a Taylor piece when it is over and describe how that compositional unity was achieved. And others who have attempted to analyze CT's music have made similar observations. There's a wholeness to his music, and a mystery as to how that wholeness is achieved.

I have been lucky enough to hear Cecil Taylor perform only once, when he presented a solo concert in Atlanta in 1986. Taylor is also a trained dancer, and he began the concert, as he often does, with a series of ritualistic movements that slowly brought him from the wings to the piano bench. (He has said that "you don't just walk up to a piano.") At the same time, he intoned words and phrases, sounds and poetry; some of these vocalizations were intelligible and some were not. When he reached the keyboard, he began playing fairly sparely, but the music quickly increased in intensity and complexity. After about five minutes of atonal piano fireworks, large parts of the audience gave up and started leaving in droves. The rest of us were enthralled.

Listening to the recorded music of Cecil Taylor presents certain challenges. It's intense, the pieces are usually quite long, and the recordings are often hard to find. His two mid-sixties Blue Note albums (Unit Structures and Conquistador) are usually easy to find and are excellent representations of Taylor's music. They both feature his longtime musical partner, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, and no piece on them is over 20 minutes long. Other Cecil Taylor recordings may feature one piece which lasts for an hour or two, spread over a couple of CDs or several LPs. Listening to these obviously requires an investment of time and concentration, which, however, is always rewarded.

It has struck me that the titles of Taylor's pieces can be seen as little poems, as mysterious as the music itself: "Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within)," "With (Exit)," "It is in the Brewing Luminous." The title which keeps coming to my mind, given the state of Taylor's health, is "One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Matt Perrine

New Orleans is full of incredible musicians who are hardly known outside the Crescent City. One of these remarkable musicians is bassist/sousaphone player Matt Perrine. With all due respect to Kirk Joseph, etc., Perrine is my favorite New Orleans tuba player, and with all due respect to James Singleton, etc., he is my favorite NOLA acoustic bassist – I try to hear him play every time I visit the city. On my recent trip (only four days long) to New Orleans, I heard Perrine play three times. That seems about right. Perrine plays regularly with several different bands and always seems to be playing somewhere with somebody. He is a member of the Tom McDermott/Evan Christopher Danza Quartet, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers brass band, Bonerama, and the Tin Men, which of course is “New Orleans' premiere guitar/tuba/washboard trio.” As busy as he is, Perrine doesn’t seem inclined to coast - whoever he’s playing with, and whatever kind of music they’re playing, Perrine's playing is imaginative and fully involved.

About a year ago I picked up the first CD under his name, Sunflower City. The cover actually put me off for a minute – it’s features a close-up photo of a large sunflower. I thought, “Great – this is just good-time happy music.” But then I looked at the picture again, and saw that in the background, to the right of the flower, you can see an “X” and some numbers painted on the front of a house. This, of course, is the code sign used by the search and rescue teams after Katrina; the “X” shows that the house was searched, and the numbers indicate how many living people, bodies, and pets were found in the house. Perrine has explained in interviews that sunflowers were the first wild plants to grow in post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s a great cover, symbolizing rebirth and renewal after disaster.

The music is, for the most part, joyous rather than happy, if that distinction makes any sense.* There is traditional jazz, straight-ahead jazz, Caribbean music, and even a touch of avant-garde. The opening track is the most elaborate arrangement of the hoary old New Orleans warhorse “Muskrat Ramble” that I’ve ever heard. The instrumentation and color of the track is constantly changing. But it works – it's one of the most enjoyable “Muskrat Rambles” I’ve heard. Perrine plays a stunning solo on this track; the range, technique, and conception of this tuba solo must be heard to be believed. I played it for a friend who is a low brass specialist, and he was convinced that it must have been played on a higher, four-valve tuba in E flat or F. He actually wrote Perrine to ask; MP confirmed that it was played, as were all of his tuba parts, on a standard double B flat sousaphone.

I definitely recommend hearing on of Matt Perrine’s bands when visiting New Orleans. He shouldn’t be hard to find.

*To me, “happy music” is mindless music. Much New Orleans music, however, is full of the joy of life, but seems to have an underlying awareness of how short that life is.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

New Orleans Report

I promised a report from New Orleans, but somehow I've managed to find better things to do than blog. But now I'm in my last 15 hours or so in the city, and I think I'm done. It's like when you eat a big meal and know when to stop, even if there's more food on the table. So here's my report:

Arrived in New Orleans around lunch time on Wednesday and checked in, for the first time, at the Le Richelieu in the French Quarter – nice place. After some red beans and rice, I headed to the Louisiana Music Factory and got some cool CDs and 78s, including some unreissued 78s on the American Music label. That night I caught a set by The Tin Men (Alec McMurray, Matt Perrine, and Washboard Chaz) at d.b.a. The band is “New Orleans’ premiere guitar/tuba/washboard trio,” and is very entertaining, though kind of lightweight. They played, among other things, “Palm Court Strut,” “You’re Feet’s Too Big,” and (my favorite of the evening), Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”

Then I headed to Preservation Hall to hear a band that, while not great, produced the best music I’ve heard at the Hall for at least four or five years. Carl LeBlanc* (playing Narvin Kimball’s banjo) led the a five-piece band: clarinet and trombone in the front line, but no trumpet until the German trumpeter Norbert Susemihl sat in for the last set. There was some ensemble confusion (who has the melody?) until Susemihl sat in, after which everyone seemed more comfortable. I like his playing a lot. Like I say, not great music, but for the first time in years, I left the Hall feeling better than when I walked in.

I should say something about Preservation Hall. There are those who view it as a tourist spot, with some justification. It's a place that visitors who don't know anything about jazz go. But I have memories (going back 20 years) of hearing some of the great second-generation jazz pioneers play here: Percy and Willie Humphrey, Narvin Kimball, Chester Zardis, Kid Shiek Colar. And when they were gone, the outstanding younger musicians they taught (Michael White, Wendell Brunious, Leroy Jones, etc.) still played here, and sometimes still do. But the quality of the music has greatly deteriorated greatly over the last ten years, and it sometimes seems pointless to walk in the door. But going to the Hall is part of my New Orleans ritual, even if the music is seldom very good any more. I could no more visit New Orleans without going to Preservation Hall than I could visit without eating gumbo.

Thursday night was devoted to the Evan Christopher/Tom McDermott Quartet at Donna’s, with Matt Perrine on bass and tuba and the King of Treme, Shannon Powell, on drums. Jesus god, what great music! Christopher and McDermott opened with a duet version of “Temptation Rag,” which was composed in 1909. It was as exciting and alive as any music I’ve ever heard. The full quartet apparently always opens with a tune they have never played together as a group; tonight’s choice was “When Dreams Come True.” (Have I even ever heard a live version of this tune?) It was a controlled brushfire. Perrine switched to tuba for “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” and played an incredible solo. The whole first set was amazing. A couple of European guys, including Norbert Susemihl again, sat in for the second set, and the music was much more ordinary and less compelling.

The next evening found me at what has to be the center of the universe on Fridays between 6:30 and 9:30: that’s when the Panorama Jazz Band has their weekly gig at the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street. I just love this band, as do all the locals, tourists, and barflies that hang out in the Spotted Cat. The PJB plays traditional jazz, klezmer, and Caribbean music, all with fire, imagination, and conviction. I spoke briefly to Ben Schenk, the clarinetist/leader, and admired saxophonist Aurora Nealand from afar.

After a couple of sets I returned to Preservation Hall – I wanted to see and hear what David Torkanowsky and Johnnie Vidacovich would sound like in this setting. Much to my surprise, I saw Evan Christopher and New Orleans’ foremost modern jazz trumpeter, Irvin Mayfield, along with trombonist Freddie Lonzo, taking the stand. I didn’t get the bass player’s name, but he didn’t know a lot of the changes. I heard the entire second set, which consisted of:

When My Dreamboat Comes Home
I Found a New Baby
Darktown Strutters’ Ball
Down By the Riverside
South Rampart Street Parade.

I stayed for part of the last set:

I’m Confessin’
a song about coffee sung (!) by Vidacovich
When I Grow Too Old to Dream

This was, potentially, the best gathering of musicians I’ve seen in the Hall for years. In practice, it didn’t work too well. Torkanowsky’s playing and bandleading seemed kind of “show-offy,” and he worked out arrangements on the fly (and gave the bass player the chords) kind of loudly. I may be reading things into the situation that really weren’t there, but some of the band members seemed kind of annoyed by him. At one point during “Confessin’,” Evan Christopher just stopped playing, turned to Torkanowsky and said, “That’s not how the song goes." At the beginning of the next chorus, he kind of took over the song, slowing it down and playing it in such a way that the melody and chords would be kind of obvious. For the next chorus he just smoked - took everyone to school. Christopher was phenomenal whenever he was given a chance to play; if I had any doubt that he is the best clarinetist in New Orleans, this evening removed it.

Saturday afternoon I went to a concert by the Society Brass Band, led by Barry Martyn on snare drum. The Society is the most traditional brass band in the city, and the only one that still plays dirges and 6/8 marches from music. The concert was very exciting – almost overwhelming; it was the closest I’ll ever get to hearing the long-gone Eureka or Young Tuxedo Brass Bands. The lineup was:

Trumpets: Clive Wilson, Burnell Brunious, Chris Clifton
Trombone: Paul Robertson; Tuba: Bill Yeager; E flat Clarinet: Chris Burke
Alto Sax: Tom Fischer; Tenor Sax; Joeseph Torregano
Snare: Barry Martyn; Bass Drum: Wayne Brunious
Grand Marshall: Andrew LeDeuf

“Sweet Fields,” “Westlawn Dirge,” “Salutation March,” and “Abide With Me” were all played from music. They also played (among other things) "Lord, Lord, Lord," "Panama," "Lady Be Good," and "It Feels So Good," that 1950's R & B song that the Young Tuxedo Brass Band used to play. I never thought I would hear a live performance of “Westlawn,” my favorite brass band dirge – it was played a little fast for my taste, but was still beautiful. Seeing this performance gave me a better idea of how the three trumpets in a traditional brass band were used; they all three played only on the first and last choruses; otherwise either the second and third trumpet or only the first was playing. I’ve always loved Tom Fischer’s beautiful sound on alto, so we talked vintage saxophones afterwards – he plays an early-20’s Beuscher. Again, a phenomenal experience.

So I don't think I'm going out to hear more music tonight. I'm going to get some dinner and take a walk through the Lower Quarter and Marigny. After Evan Christopher, Tom McDermott, the Panorama Jazz Band, and the Society Jazz Band, I'm full.

*Yes, the same Carl LeBlanc who played guitar in Sun Ra's band for years. A few years back he came back to his hometown and started playing music from his roots.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Jeffery's Three-Dot Column...

I'm in a hotel room in Mobile, Alabama, with my iPod going, and I haven't posted for awhile, so this seems like the perfect opportunity to write the blogging equivalent of a three-dot column. For those who don't know what that is, well, see, there used to be these things called newspapers...

Last Saturday, the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Ensemble played at a club in East Atlanta. Even with one of the horns missing, the gig showed how far we've come. Most of the tunes which we have played a bunch were precise, but loose. And the rhythm section* both responded to the horns and led them in unexpected directions. We played one tune for the first time ("Silver Wedding"), and it came out like I imagine all of our tunes did the first time we played them - sloppy and awkward. But the rest of the pieces showed where we might be headed...

Before I left Atlanta for my annual trip (or pilgrimage, as my wife accurately calls it) to New Orleans, Karen was in Denver for a few days. The first couple of day that I was a temporary bachelor, I was so busy/tired that I couldn't really take advantage of it. But yesterday, I was rested and she was at work, so I took advantage of the situation, in my own geeky way - I did some things that require attention, solitude, and repose. I have been reading lots of stuff by/about Samuel Johnson lately, but I finally read what is considered his greatest poem, "The Vanity of Human Wishes," which had always put me off by its length. I'm weird, I guess - I liked the bleak descriptions of the human condition, but was let down by Johnson's conclusion, which is basically "Trust in God." Soon I'll devote a post to Johnson, which might be more of a threat than a promise...

I love poetry, but it requires time, attention, and solitude, as does much of the music I like. My prime music-listening time is in the evenings, when my hard-working wife is watching what she herself calls "stupid TV." It relaxes her after a day of hard work, but it drives me crazy, so I listen to music with headphones. Well, some music just can't compete with the TV, even with headphones. But since I was on my own, I listened to Dave Holland's solo bass album Emerald Tears for the first time in years . What a record! Holland has incredible technique, taste, and sense of melody. I still think of Holland as a cutting-edge young bassist, but he's 12 or so years older than me. Time marches on...

I've got a piece of software called TransferMyDVD, which converts DVD content into iPod format. Unfortunately, it doesn't work with copy-protected CDs, which means it doesn't work with 99.9% of commercial CDs. Since I knew I was going to be on the road, I tried it with some DVDs which I thought were old or odd enough to work with it. Sure enough, I was able to load a Lennie Tristano concert DVD, a W.C. Fields collection, and Jivin' In Bebop by Dizzy Gillespie into my iPod. Tonight I watched/listened to the Tristano and the Gillespie. The Tristano was stunning, and makes me think that he's one of the geniuses of jazz. His opening version of the standard "Darn That Dream" is as avant-garde as almost anything I've heard...

The Gillespie movie is something else. We jazz folk think of bebop as art music - the jazz that, for the first time, was not dance or pop music. But this low-budget movie from 1946 or '47 has "Night in Tunisia," "Things to Come," and "Shaw 'Nuff" as background music to comedy and dance skits. Don't get me wrong - the scantily-clad, chunky dancer on "Night in Tunisia" does it for me - I never like the skinny super-model look - but it's funny to see/hear this great art music treated as an aspect of the entertainment business...

The next post will be from the City That Care Forgot, the Birthplace of Jazz..

*You guys are incredible, by the way...