Thursday, 26 December 2013

Au Revoir, Yusef Lateef

I’m seriously getting tired of this. Seems like every horn man I admire has passed on. Maybe it is a function of the fact that I do not especially like neo-con jazz and do my best to avoid those young conservatory players who approach the music in the same way a classical violinist does, following the rules, loaded with technique but void of creativity and innovation. This week Yusef Lateef left the earth. At least Yusef made it to the advanced age of 93 – unlike most musicians of his generation, he must have had some health care.

Jackie mentioned to me last week that her high school concert band was chock-a-block with saxophonists and as one of the seniors she was asked to diversify and play either oboe or bari. At one time I played oboe in school and told her that my inspiration to do so was Yusef Lateef, maybe the only jazz player in history to do anything worthwhile on that cool-sounding but testy and inflexible double reed. I asked her to seek out some of Yusef’s music on YouTube. A premonition?

Yusef came up in 1940s bebop and blues when cities like Detroit had a thriving scene of their own; he was a tenor player at the core, but by the 1950s he began to introduce other instruments to his repertoire, pioneering what came to be labeled as “world music”. Unlike many pioneers, however, he was not shot dead in his tracks and survived to play music that nobody else had in their head. Like contemporary Rahsaan Roland Kirk, many admired him but nobody copied him. And he stood out from Trane’s mighty shadow.

In reading obits in the Detroit Free Press and New York Times, I find it ironic that Yusef gained academic music degrees only after he had already been one of jazz’ leading hornmen for decades. Who could possibly have been good enough to teach him? And subsequently, what became of his own students? Apparently he turned to academia to eat well, teaching at U. Mass. Amherst in the 1970s, a period when luminaries like Archie Shepp and Max Roach were on the faculty.

Although Yusef’s music took off for outer space, he was rooted in the blues, no better shown than in the 1960 recording 'Teef under Louis Hayes’ name on VeeJay, a straightahead workout which is a favorite of mine. I also particularly like Live at Pep's Vols. 1 and 2 on Impulse from the mid-60s. Yusef continued recording until earlier this year, his last, Light by the Universal Quartet, done in Denmark just this past spring at age 92.

One less legend around to inspire us. Jackie ended up choosing baritone.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Unfortunately, I Was Right About Stan Tracey

I wish there would be some news in the jazz world other than the greats leaving us one-by-one. My premonition last July was correct in the case of Stan Tracey, as I went out of my way while in Scotland last summer to see him at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, only to be disappointed when he was a no-show at his own gig. I thought it perhaps my last chance to see the legendary house pianist from Ronnie Scott’s, and unfortunately I was right; Stan passed away this week. No more to be heard from the man for whom accompanying the likes of Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster every night for seven years was like "Christmas every day" (shades of Elmo). See his lengthy Guardian obit here.

Jim Hall left us this week as well. Most notable in my book for joining Sonny Rollins’ 1962 re-entry-from-outer-space album The Bridge, Jim played subtle guitar with virtually everybody in jazz, proving that you don’t have to be a million-note-a-minute twiddler to be a great player. If only more would listen and adopt his approach. From his New York Times obit: Mr. Hall never took his mastery of the guitar for granted. “The instrument keeps me humble…Sometimes I pick it up and it seems to say, ‘No, you can’t play today.’ I keep at it anyway, though.”

To think that someone whose mastery of the instrument appeared so effortless was actually still intimidated by it after playing for 73 years. I don't feel so bad now on those days when practice seems like work and I feel like a small child picking up my horn for the first time.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, R.I.P.

A fallow period for me musically and a shame to break the blogging silence with a report on the passing of yet another one of my favorites, A.A.C.M. tenor saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, at the age of 77. I found the news in an obtuse reference on a music blog I occasionally visit, but haven’t seen an official obituary yet. Kalaparusha was the subject of the great Guardian video “That’s Not a Horn, It’s a Starvation Box” in 2010, which I have previously referenced in my rants about true musical creators being underappreciated. I've told my own stories about Kalaparusha on this blog before.

Kalaparusha, "Humility in the Light of the Creator", rest in peace. Your sound and your message did touch those who paid attention, and they live on.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Blue Lester

In Penang to see Jackie perform at Short + Sweet Theatre 2013, I phoned journalist-cum-harpist Kim Gooi and asked him to come watch the show at Penang Performing Arts Centre. Kim came down and we talked music of course; blues, blues, and more blues. Kim had the idea to invite guitarist Joe Goh up from KL for one of our epic jams. The Penang Blues Brothers ride again.
The Penang Blues Brothers jump and wail: Joe Goh, Kim Gooi, Ron Ashkin
Joe caught the Katy up from Kuala Lumpur last Friday. I dropped by Kim’s and the three of us spent the afternoon working out on only three tunes – T-Bone Shuffle, Kidney Stew, and Blue Lester – all from the mid-to-late-1940s. I was on a roll a couple of weeks ago in Lagos and transcribed T-Bone Shuffle and Blue Lester from the original records and this was my chance to play them with others.

I particularly have had an ear worm for Blue Lester and I just can’t get that 1944 slow F-blues out of my head, Count Basie on piano backing Lester Young just prior to his military nightmare. I had first admired the tune on Von Freeman’s The Great Divide, where he calls it Blue Pres, and had half-transcribed it at the time – Vonski plays it at an even slower pace than Pres. A few weeks back I pulled up the original on my iTunes and re-discovered 10 choruses of pure bliss – Pres blows two choruses on the head, a single solo chorus, back to the head again, then Basie enters for three and Pres takes it out with three more, not bothering to return to the theme. Freddie Green anchors the proceedings with his steady rhythm guitar. Not a sound wasted. Nobody plays like that these days, when apparently both pianists and saxophonists are paid by the note. I can’t get the theme and Lester’s first solo chorus out of my head. I've transcribed that chorus and find Lester’s note choices deceptively simple, making me feel like I've been over-thinking my own improvisations.
PPAC echoes (literally) with the sound of 1944.

Unfortunately I left my trusty Zoom recorder back in Lagos and couldn't catch our version on tape. But on Saturday night, the three of us were invited to play for the cast party after Short + Sweet closed and we had a chance to perform Blue Lester in public for the first time. The tempo was set a bit fast and a young crowd more attuned to hip-hop got up and danced. Lester Young’s 16 bars connected with 2013 ears in Malaysia just as they had almost 70 years earlier in WWII-era America. It was not just me with the ear worm.

As Kim is fond of saying, if blues was money, I’d be millionaire.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Jackie Awarded Best Supporting Actor (Female)

Best Supporting Actor (Female) 2013
...also Playwright and Director
Short + Sweet Penang 2013 culminated in an awards ceremony on Saturday night and Jackie won the judges' prize for Best Supporting Actor (Female) for her role in Mark Sasse's 'No' In Spite of Itself, despite her limited on-stage time. Congrats! Jackie's behind-the scenes role as director helped that play win Best Script for the series, helped out immensely by Ciera Nash and Joseph Stoltzfus doing strong work as the leads. Congrats to all.

The Penang Blues Brothers entertained with some jump and urban blues both before the performance and afterwards at the cast party. Special thanks to KL guitar hero Joe Goh and harpist Kim Gooi for the down home sound.

Here is the final night's performance of 'No' In Spite of Itself on YouTube:

Friday, 13 September 2013

Short + Sweet Theatre 2013 @ Penang

Joseph Stoltzfus and Jackie Ashkin
"You talkin' to me?"
Short + Sweet Theatre has returned to Penang Performing Arts Centre for the second year, with Faridah Merican and Joe Hasham overseeing production of a series of ten original short plays for a four-night run. Jackie’s original script Noticed was selected as one of this year's ten plays, and Jackie chose to direct another play and act in it as well. Her script Smart Phones Stupid People, which was so popular at last year's Short + Sweet in Penang, is being produced independently in Kuala Lumpur this year.

Ironically, although scripts were selected anonymously, the script Jackie chose to direct turned out to be written by her Dalat International School drama coach Mark Sasse, and Mark’s choice as a director turned out to be Jackie’s script.
Director Jackie takes a bow

This year's run began on Wednesday, September 11 and finishes on Saturday, September 14. Jackie made her directorial debut with ‘No’ In Spite of Itself and also plays a supporting role, with Dalat friends Ciera Nash and Joseph Stoltzfus as the leads. Hope to have some YouTube clips up before long.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Biodun & Batik Afro Jazz Band at Freedom Park - Audio Tracks

On Stage at Freedom Park in Lagos
with Biodun & Batik Afro Jazz Band
I was invited to Freedom Park on Lagos Island on Friday night to perform as the guest of trumpeter Biodun with his Batik Afro Jazz Band. Freedom Park is a relatively new venue on the site of the former colonial prison, an open air stage inside a walled prison courtyard that has been converted into a green space – an urban performance place in a sculpture garden surrounded by food stalls. I had heard of Freedom Park as the site of occasional Seun Kuti gigs, but it is relatively far from where I stay and I had not previously ventured down there. It is a very nice spot to spend an evening and I recommend it to music fans in Lagos. Biodun met me at the gate and introduced me to the park director, who turns out to be Fela Kuti’s son-in-law.

Biodun is a fine Hugh Masakela-influenced trumpeter – I wrote about him when we first met in May of this year. His pedigree includes stints with Fela and Lagbaja. At Freedom Park, he fronted his Batik Afro Jazz Band of keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, and occasional girl singer. I had met bass player Mike before at Biodun’s home studio, but the rest of the rhythm section was new to me, fairly young but highly competent players. When Biodun phoned me to make the gig, I asked for a set list. He said not to worry, no set list, they probably would not play any standards, just some pop tunes and highlife in I-IV-V progression, and I could just jam along.
Two Tenors -
With Saxophonist Seun Olota

I realized the morning after the gig that Biodun and Batik play an incredible diversity of music – from jazz tunes by John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter to reggae, Fela's afrobeat, Igbo and Yoruba highlife, Afro-pop, originals, 60’s rock, and even some requisite smooth jazz hits and pop covers by the likes of Whitney Houston. I played tenor on the jazz tunes, most of the highlife, and had my first experience performing a Fela tune live – Water No Get Enemy, which I learned from Showboy last year and actually remembered. During the second set, another tenor player, Seun Olota, joined the group, making it an octet. He and Biodun looked to be old friends and Seun fronted the band on two Fela tunes, singing and dancing Water and Lady to the crowd’s delight.

I have posted a few audio tracks from my Zoom: here are links to Water No Get EnemyFootprints, an Igbo highlife of unknown title, and Equinox (320 kbps MP3 sound files). That’s the good. The bad is that the sound system was not great, with the bass dominating, the snare drum too loud, and the piano down in the mix. The lead instruments were somewhat buried all night – especially the tenor sax, of course, which particularly gets drowned out by loud bass guitar since their frequencies overlap. But the music itself is nice.

There was no ugly.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Saxophone Colossus

My tenor-playing compatriot Alan Breen, now located in Phnom Penh, sent me the link to this noteworthy article about Sonny Rollins. Rather lengthy in this short-attention-span world, but definitely worth the read.

One of the first jazz LPs I bought when I was a college student was Saxophone Colossus, and I remember playing it sparingly because it was so great I was worried about wearing it out. Sonny is just the best ever. Imagine jamming with Bird while still a teenager and keeping up, and now at age 82 still having the urge to practice every day – to get better. One of the only times Bird recorded on tenor was alongside young Sonny on Serpent's Tooth in 1953 (try to pick out who is who on that record). Sonny has produced just too much good music through the years to credibly say that one piece, or one era, or one band, or one album is his best. I particularly love the story about the classic Tenor Madness session with John Coltrane in 1956 where Trane reputedly grumbled that Sonny was just messing with him.

Reviews of Sonny’s 1960s RCA recordings – including the article in the link above – usually focus on his comeback album The Bridge, which is a jewel but ultra-conservative for 1962. I prefer the band from later that year with Don Cherry on trumpet, and the album from the following year alongside founding father Coleman Hawkins, which I find incredible. Sonny took some unique approaches during that session – some reviewers describe them as odd – merely to emphasize that he was not Hawk. Not long ago I came across some bootlegs from Ronnie Scott’s in the mid-60s that are undiscovered fun, where Sonny shares the stage with Ronnie himself (recently-discussed master Stan Tracey is on piano).

I've had the chance to see Sonny live twice through the years; once in 1981-82 in Philly in a club where I sat so close I could have shined his shoes. That night he was smokin’. In the mid-90’s I caught Sonny at Symphony Hall in Chicago. The venue was just wrong, the sound was bad, and the tickets were expensive. That gig was a disappointment, an off night.

2011’s Road Shows Vol. 2, where fellow octogenarians Sonny and Ornette Coleman have their first-ever meeting, is notable because Sonny mirrors Ornette’s style when they play together. Unbelievable that they never performed on the same stage before this.

There is a wonderful photo of Sonny on Ellery Eskelin’s blog from about a year ago where Ellery met Sonny sitting in the waiting lounge of Detroit airport. Here is the living link to every major jazz player since Coleman Hawkins and a player who is on absolutely everyone’s best-tenor-saxophonist-in-history list flying coach class and sitting on a hard seat in the public area. This man should be up in First Class and in the VIP Room. A sad commentary on the economics of a playing horn for a living, even at the top.

According to Mark Jacobson’s article, Sonny is suffering from a lung ailment and hasn't touched his Mark VI for a couple of months. Not good news at age 82. Here’s a prayer that he makes it back. We can’t do without him.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Bands With Horns

Before I forget, a few words about the live music scene in Glasgow, which appears like a foggy memory now that I have been back to the hustle of Lagos for a few weeks. Glasgow is a town of pubs and many of them support live bands. While in Glasgow I stayed in the city centre district known as Merchant City, serendipitously the hub of the live bar band scene. There was a pub called Maggie May’s right downstairs from my hotel room with live music (where I watched a stand-up comedy show one night and confirmed that we are indeed two nations separated by a common language); on the next corner was Blackfriar's, where I saw a rockabilly band on a Tuesday night replete with lead singer in red cowboy hat.

Not all the live music in Glasgow is precisely to my taste but live music in pubs has an inherent value of its own, and Glasgow is a great place to visit if only for a sampling of one of the world’s best bar band scenes. Local music in 2013 is all the more valuable in light of today’s article in The Independent about so-called big name acts using pre-recorded backing tracks during their (well-paid) “live” performances…

My best memory of Glasgow’s bar scene came about on a night when Blackfriar’s was dark; I asked the mountainous bouncer where there might be live music and he directed me a few blocks away to McChuill’s Public House. It didn't look too promising from the outside, like just another neighborhood pub, but when I entered and turned the corner two tenor saxes and a trumpet were staring me in the face. One of the tenors was a Mexi-Conn. Bar band heaven. The group was Republic of Soul and they put down two sets that took me back to Chicago. Almost an entire set of Wilson Pickett. Wicked.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Mark VI Overhaul by Top UK Tech Bryce Ferguson

Bryce Ferguson cradling my freshly
overhauled Mark VI tenor
Just returned to Lagos after two and a half weeks in the UK, primarily up in Scotland where I was attending a professional training course at the University of Glasgow. Believe or not, the weather was spectacular; I heard it was the best weather recorded in Scotland for 200 years!

My Mark VI tenor has had its Eb spring broken off in the post for about nine months now and I've been playing that primo horn with a rubber band wrapped around the key ever since. Nobody in Nigeria could fix it as the spring stub had seized up in the post; attempts to repair it there damaged the horn worse. Once I knew I would be travelling to Glasgow I started looking for a tech who could repair it properly. I had an email exchange with Alastair Haydock, who owns Glasgow’s leading music shop, and Alastair was forthcoming enough to refer me to Bryce Ferguson in neighboring Edinburgh, saying he knew what my horn was worth and Bryce was the best sax tech in Scotland, better than his own repairmen. Edinburgh is about an hour by train from Glasgow so I schlepped my horn to Scotland from Lagos on the plane and then took the train over to Edinburgh after class one night to drop it off with Bryce’s apprentice.

Talk about the importance of trust in business: I had never met Bryce before and here I was leaving an instrument worth as much as a small car with him, based on a couple of Skype conversations where it was obvious that he loved horns and knew exactly what to do. Bryce phoned me in the morning with the bad news – the horn needed a complete overhaul in his opinion, not just a new spring and a few adjustments. Cost would be about as much as the last horn I bought. Oh well – it would be like arguing with a brain surgeon. I asked him to go ahead and do the overhaul. It would mean not having my horn with me for the remaining days I was in Scotland, and any chance of sitting in at a local venue went out the window.

Bryce with project horns, Selmer and Borgani
Got the horn back on Saturday. Bryce had disassembled it, fixed the bad spring and re-soldered the post, cut off the keys on two stacks and straightened the rods as much as possible (he said nothing on a Selmer is straight to begin with), laser levelled the tone holes, and did an ultrasonic clean of the entire horn. This horn sounds righteous so it has been played intensely throughout its life, but previous owners were perhaps not so careful with repairs and maintenance. Springs were mostly OK but corks and felts had to be replaced and the finishing touch was installation of a set of Prestini pads, which Bryce said are the best and should last ten years. Play testing, adjustment, settling in overnight, testing again, and final tweaks. The horn is now set up like a “modern” horn. It always played easily but now its quirks are gone, lazy keys and such. Funny, because it always played great to me and I never would have suspected that so much work needed to be done. My friend Dotun Bankole from Femi Kuti’s band always preferred playing my Mark VI to his, and that was before the overhaul. It now blows effortlessly from top to bottom.

Now I have to make up for about three weeks without practice. It will be back to running laps and doing push-ups for a while.

Here’s the link to Bryce’s shop in Edinburgh, Scotland, brassandwoodwind.co.uk.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

(Almost) Saw Legendary Pianist Stan Tracey in Concert

Brian Kellock (piano), Bobby Wellins (tenor sax), Clark Tracey (drums) in Edinburgh
I am currently in Glasgow, Scotland for a couple of weeks. Last Wednesday I brought my ailing Mark VI to nearby Edinburgh for overhaul by Bryce Ferguson, Scotland’s top woodwind tech. It has had a spring broken off in the Eb post since last September and was in general need of maintenance attention. Hope to have it back later this week. Bryce promises it will play amazing. If I thought it played well before...

Edinburgh positions itself as the world’s festival city and luckily this week is the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival. As such festivals go these days, it is large, well-produced, and well-marketed – but hardly any of the acts suit my taste in music. Wacka wacka.

Of all the acts on the bill over ten days, my choice was to see pianist Stan Tracey, legendary leader of the house rhythm section at Ronnie Scott’s club in London during the halcyon days of the 1960's. Stan has backed a virtual pantheon of saxophonists: Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Stan Getz, Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, and Ronnie Scott himself (quite a mean tenor player). Stan is 86 now and I figured I’d better see him now while I can. His regular quartet features tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins, one of Britain’s finest and up in years himself.

I took the 50-minute train ride from Glasgow to Edinburgh after my business was done for the day and went straight to the venue at 3 Bristo Place, a church converted to performance space. When I arrived, the doorman informed me that Stan had cancelled due to illness and pianist Brian Kellock would substitute, leading Stan’s quartet for the evening’s show. Hmph. Not my day. I heard that the organizers actually knew Stan has been ill for the last month and were hoping he would get well in time for the festival gig. Not to put Brian down, since he is a fine musician, but I stayed anyway, having travelled to Edinburgh specifically for the gig. Unfortunately the box office sold me a ticket for the same £17.50 that I would have paid to see Stan himself.
Age Mates:
Bobby Wellins and his BA

The show started and ended with Monk – Monk’s Mood was the opener and Blue Monk the encore. The highlight of the first set was Lover Man done as a fast samba. Bobby Wellins sounded his best and got the best audience response when he played a couple of straight-ahead blues shuffles. Bobby and his Selmer Balanced Action look to be about the same age.

The music was nice but frankly a bit too conservatory-perfect for me – well done, professional, enjoyable, musically correct, but it didn't get me up out of my seat despite the fact that I have been starved for good live jazz for ages. Maybe a bit too perfect. 8 out of 10. Bobby didn't even break a sweat, perhaps a function of playing for such a sedate and well-mannered audience. I was one of the youngest people in the crowd. Kudos to the sound engineers – the sound was finely balanced and crystal clear. Bassist Andrew Cleyndert was a standout. Well done.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Two of Jackie's Original Monologues on YouTube

Our YouTube channel has been rather dormant lately but today I convinced Jackie to post a couple of brief clips of her solo acting. Having been out of the country, I didn't get a chance to see these live; these two clips represent only a fraction of her theatre work this year. Both of these monologues are original scripts she authored. At risk of being labelled a dragon parent, I let the performances speak for themselves.

First, Fading River of Life


Next, Calypso's Prophecy:


Sunday, 16 June 2013

Visual Artist Gilbert Hsiao is Busy This Summer

My lifelong friend and music lover, the New York-based visual artist Gilbert Hsiao, is hitting his stride after about 57 years and has a busy exhibition schedule this summer. You can (and should) catch his work in the U.S., Germany, Holland, and Thailand according to the following schedule. This post comes by way of Gilbert's mailing list; you can subscribe by directly accessing his blog. Oops, I think we missed the first one.


UPCOMING SUMMER SHOWS (NEW YORK & VICINITY):

Lumen Festival, Staten Island, June 15, 6 PM-Midnight.

One night only, a quick walk from the Staten Island Ferry. This festival features installations, video and perfomance by over 60 artists, curated by David Terry and Esther Neff. I'll be spinning painted records on turntables under black light in public for the first time. This festival is a great excuse to take the Staten Island Ferry (check the times; the ferry is still free but runs on an hourly schedule). For more info go to the Festival website at http://statenislandarts.org/lumen-2/

Phaedo, Storefront Bushwick, June 28-July 28
16 Wilson Ave, Bushwick near the Morgan Ave Stop on the L (917) 714-3813

My first show in Bushwick. Looking forward to this; however I won't be at the opening because I'll be in Berlin (see below). With Emily Berger, Benjamin Echerverria, Nate Ethier, JJ Garfinkel, Elizabeth Hazan, Osamu Kobayashi, Dominic Mangila, Laruen Portada and Anne Russinof. For more info go to http://storefrontbushwick.com/

Dynamic Invention: Abstract American Artists at 75, Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, Brattleboro, VT.. June 29-October 30

This is the first exhibition of the 75th Anniversary Edition of the Abstract American Artists Print Portfolio, featuring the work of 48 of its members. Unfortunately, can't make this opening, either. For information on the Art Center, go to http://www.brattleboromuseum.org/. For Abstract American Artists, go to http://www.americanabstractartists.org/. For images of the portfolio, go to http://www.americanabstractartists.org/publishing/editions/2012/aaaprints1.html#adams

Doppler Stop, Parallel Art Space, July 13-August 18
1717 Troutman, Ridgewood Queens near the Jefferson stop on the L

The 2013 version of this show organized by Mel Prest. Last year this show was seen in a number of different venues in Europe. This year, I'm proud to have been asked to do my first wall piece to be seen in a NY gallery. Artists include Steven Baris, Richard Bottwin, Edgar Diehl, Kevin Finklea, Brent Hallard, José Heerkens, Gracia Khouw, Sarah Klein, Stephen Maine, Gay Outlaw, Mel Prest, Debra Ramsay, Albert Roskam, Karen Schifano, Iemke van Dijk, Henriëtte van 't Hoog, Ruth van Veenen, Don Voisine, Nancy White, Guido Winkler, and Patricia Zarate. For more info go to http://www.parallelartspace.com/Parallel_Art_Space/Current.html

FURTHER AFIELD:

Rituals of Exhibition II curated by Light Space Projects, H Gallery, Chiang Mai, Thailand, June 16-August 25

Truly international show featuring artists from four continents. John Aslanidis/Pedro Boese/Merric Brettle /Katja Brinkmann/Nate Ethier/Wolfgang Flad/Ludovica Gioscia/Brent Hallard/Nithiphat Hoisangthong/Jan Holthoff/Franziska Hünig/Mit Jai Inn/Isabel Kerkermeier/Jeremy Kibel/Andrew Leslie/Julie Oppermann/Rob de Oude/Mel Prest/Debra Ramsay/David Rhodes/Giles Ryder/Gunna Schmidt/Andreas Schmid/Alexandra Schlund/Mark Sengbusch/Jessica Snow/Elisabeth Sonneck/Nicola Stäglich/Michael Swingle/Klaus-Martin Treder/Tilman/Anke Völk/Nancy White/Patricia Zarate. For more information go to https://www.facebook.com/events/549256791793429/

Two Person show with Don Voisine, dr julius austellungen \ projeckten, opening June 27
60 Leberstraße, Berlin, Germany

I'm pleased to be returning to Berlin to show work alongside Don Voisine, whose work I have admired for a number of years. I'll be showing a wall painting. To our Berlin friends: Don and I will both be at the opening; hope to see you them. For more info go to: http://www.dr-julius.de/

the great BIG little graphic Art Show, PIT, Eindhoven, Netherlands, October 3-November 1

Curated by Linda Arts of Project Initiative Tilburg, whose work and curative endeavors I've always admired. In this first opportunity to work with her, I will show a piece from a series of prints done in 2005.

Unlikely Iterations of the Abstract, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, opening October 31

Curated by Bill Arning, who gave me my first solo show back in 1986 at White Columns. More spinning records.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

New Africa Shrine, Revisited

Being accused by one of my readers of not keeping my blog up, I feel compelled to post today. Sometimes we take things for granted. I suppose I fall into that boat about the New Africa Shrine, which is no more than 400 meters from my doorstep in the estimation of a colleague from London, who was simply amazed at the music coming out of what is ostensibly my neighborhood bar. I haven’t been going there so often lately as the show has become repetitive for me. However, on Thursday I had a contingent of work visitors from the U.K. and U.S. who wanted to pay homage at the Shrine, despite its rough reputation among the Nigerian professionals in our office. The Shrine’s star shines much more brightly overseas than it does locally.

The three foreign guests were simply stunned by the show that Femi Kuti and Positive Force put on at the Shrine that night. The glow of first experience. The place itself, the front-row table, the band rocking its warm-up set, the full horn section, the percussionists, the dancers both on stage and in cages alongside, the crowd, Femi’s star power, his rap, his circular breathing shtick on alto. All things that have become less impressive to me after dozens of times in the same seat over the past year or so. Time to take a fresh look. I will return tonight.

I saw tenor saxophonist Dotun “Dotsax” Bankole up on stage; he sounded excellent in his one solo feature during the first set. Dotun dropped by my house yesterday for a jam. He doesn't get to showcase his talent on stage as much as he might like and always cuts loose whenever I see him privately. We jammed for about an hour and a half before he had to leave for his far-away home in neighboring Ogun State. Free association, Lester Leaps In, and Milestones were all we had time for. As last time we met, we swapped tenors; we both have silver-plate Mark VIs of about the same vintage and he swears mine sounds better because the silver plate is gone and the bare brass resonates differently. Here is a brief track of Dotun improvising unaccompanied on tenor; he is working on a new album of originals which he expects to be complete in about two months.

Femi and the band will be leaving for a summer tour of the U.S. in a couple of weeks, beginning late June. Tenor fans, look for Dotun on stage if you want to hear one of contemporary Africa's best saxophonists.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Shola Emmanuel - The Man Is On Fire

Just returned from a week in Abuja where I caught up with alto saxophonist Shola Emmanuel a couple of times. Shola is, quite simply, the best saxophonist currently on the scene in Abuja.

The week started out with us being roused from my hotel room in the middle of the afternoon by a guest who complained about the noise. Claimed he was sleeping; we left the room to find another place to play and found the guy sitting outside talking on his hand phone. Mffff…playing jazz is not a crime. The hotel desk was apologetic. We ended up going to a public park and set up under a big umbrella where Shola wrote out a list of tunes he wanted to play and we jammed outdoors until 7:00 pm. Here is our a cappella version of  Rahsaan Roland Kirk's Black and Crazy Blues.

On Friday night, we ended up at the Transcorp Hilton, Abuja’s swankiest (and most expensive) hotel, where Shola’s bassist was fronting a piano trio in the bar. The rooms at this place are over $500 a night! Better luck musically, though. I brought my mouthpiece and Shola loaned me his tenor. We set up and the band let us sit in from 10:00 pm to midnight, enough time to cover about eight tunes, of which I played on six. Some standards I'd not thought about for years, although each seemed to be in a key different than I was used to and required that I not only dig deep into my memory for the melody, but also transpose in my head on the fly. Good exercise, I guess.

Shola was just on fire. He played the best I have ever heard him play. It helped that he knew the band, the repertoire and the keys well but that can't account for how fine his alto sounded that night. Unfortunately the crowd was sparse, which he said is a side effect of the insecurity in the capital city surrounding the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in the north. People just don’t want to go out to high-profile public places at night. The hotel has a full airport-style security setup in place at the entryway.

Musically, the night was a success. I got in a couple of decent solos out of the half-dozen I played, got some good feedback from the audience, and got to listen to Shola work his way through some first-rate improvisations with a nice young local rhythm section. He decried the lack of opportunity to play in Abuja and continues to work a day gig. A taste but not enough. Go hear this man and his Rhythm & Sax Orchestra any chance you can.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Jamming with Trumpeter Biodun Batik

Blowing tenor up on the roof at Bogobiri in Ikoyi, Lagos late last month, I was approached by a gentleman who handed me his business card – it said Biodun Adebiyi B., Department of Theatre Arts and Music, Lagos State University – and gave the “call me” hand signal. So I did; I called him the next afternoon. He introduced himself as Biodun Batik, trumpeter and lecturer in music. He had been playing downstairs at a jazz event with his band while I played upstairs. He heard the sound of a saxophone and came up to introduce himself. On the phone he identified himself a fan of Clifford Brown and we discussed music we liked in common – hard bop, Jazz Messengers... He invited me to his house to jam.

After work one evening last week I went to his place in Egbeda, another district of Lagos. On the map it was not far from where I work in Ikeja, but in the nightmarish Lagos traffic it took almost two hours of sheer punishment to get there. It was worth it, though. When I arrived at his house there was a full studio in semi-open air, with drum set, keyboards, and amplifiers. His guitarist Kazzy and bassist Mike were there too, set up and jamming. We had never played together before and didn't have a chance to discuss tunes. I pulled out Blues March based on our earlier phone conversation and we jumped straight into it in unison, Biodun showcasing his fluegelhorn. Really nice sound. He then went into Equinox on keyboards (without asking, how did he know it is one of my faves?) and switched to drums when I started my solo – his drumming is as impressive as his horn playing. We continued through a set mostly of my choosing since I had my book with me – stuff I am comfortable with like Watermelon Man, Night In Tunisia, Moanin’. We ended with Blue Train. I recorded the night on my Zoom and you can hear some of the tracks by clicking on the track names that are highlighted. I even had a go on the drums which is a blast and got me thinking I should buy a kit, which I’m sure the neighbors would appreciate (…not).

The next day I googled Biodun Batik and came to find out that he is one of Nigeria’s most famous and well traveled brass players. He spent two years in Fela’s Egypt 80 (alongside Showboy on bari), from 1989 to 1991, and has played and recorded with a virtual Who’s Who of Nigerian old-school stars including Sunny Okosuns and Tony Allen. Here is a long article in Nigerian Compass profiling him. Probably the best trumpeter I've had the pleasure of playing alongside. Hopefully more jams and some gigs to come. Again, unfortunately, he bemoaned the current state of the Nigerian live music scene and doesn't gig with his own band, Batik, as often as he would like. But he made his name in the heyday of Nigerian music and earned his stripes from the demanding master, Fela, who only selected the best sidemen.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Hidden Gems – Billie Harris and Joe Alexander

I've been listening to jazz and improvised music steadily since the 1970's and am constantly exploring new music with a heavy emphasis on saxophone players, especially tenor sax players. Many, if not most, of the players I like have absolutely no commercial following. Just when I thought I’d heard them all, last week I stumbled upon two hidden gems of saxophone playing – from different times and places, but great nonetheless and definitely worth seeking out and listening to. If players this great can go through life without having a visible impact on the music or attaining any sort of wide recognition, is there any hope for the rest of us minor league players?

The first hidden gem is Billie Harris of Los Angeles. I recently heard his album I Want Some Water for the first time, recorded in 1980 and released much later on Nimbus.

Billie’s album is dominated by legendary L.A. pianist Horace Tapscott, and in some ways it is as much Tapscott’s session as Billie’s even though Billie wrote all the tunes; Tapscott is just such a commanding presence. I'm not a great jazz piano aficionado but I find anything that Horace Tapscott comes close to worth a listen. Billie plays tenor, soprano, and flute. His tenor, from photos of the session, is a Martin Committee, which proves that you don’t need to play a Selmer to get that spiritual ‘Coltrane sound’. Photographer Mark Weber was at the studio that day, apparently Billie’s only time on record, and has memorialized the day on his web site. Billie Harris is still around, at age 76, and lives in Lancaster, California. Time for another studio date, better late than never? 

The second hidden gem is Joe Alexander, who spent his career in Cleveland and left behind only one recording of his own, the quartet session Blue Jubilee on Jazzland from 1960 (he also appears in a larger group setting on Tadd Dameron's Fontainebleau).

Apparently Joe had quite a local following but never broke out to the national scene. There is an entire web page dedicated to his story on the city of Cleveland’s web site. He is a tough hard bopper who doesn't make a single wrong move on his record, and was good enough a player that Cannonball Adderley produced Blue Jubilee with the rhythm section of Bobby Timmons, Sam Jones, and Tootie Heath! I wonder how many other players this great and unheralded graced America’s lounges and bar rooms in my father’s generation? Joe died at the young age of 41 in 1970. I'm sure being a saxophonist during the 1950's and 60's didn't come with health care. Check out his disc which has been re-released on Fresh Sound.

I find it refreshing that the music itself is so deep that after almost 40 years of listening, there is still plenty of great stuff out there waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Sitting In at Bogobiri, Ikoyi – Audio Tracks

After a year, I finally found a decent place to play in Lagos – Bogobiri House in Ikoyi*, one of the most interesting and friendly spots in this too-harsh environment. Bogobiri is a small boutique hotel tucked in a residential neighborhood that features an in-house art gallery and at least three live music venues on premise, decorated throughout with one-off Africanisms. Bogobiri celebrates Nigeria in a way that many of today’s consumption-driven wannabe hipsters wish to ignore. I found the place refreshing. Check out the web site at http://www.bogobiri.com (admittedly, more hotel- than music-oriented).

Last Sunday night, I was invited to sit in at Bogobiri’s outdoor rooftop stage with Jagger and his rock band. There was a local jazz event going on simultaneously downstairs. I came with my tenor at 4 to rehearse but a private party had booked the space and that didn't happen. I sat around for a couple of hours and simply took my chances when the gig started at 7. I haven’t gigged much at all this year but have taken Monk’s advice to Steve Lacy to heart, “Stay in shape! Sometimes a musician waits for a gig, + when it comes, he’s out of shape + can’t make it.

I had neither met nor played with Jagger before; there was no rehearsal, no sheet music, no set list, no notes at all. His music was rock, pop, highlife, reggae, and blues. I didn't know what the tunes were until I heard them. No pre-determined solos, no patterns to fit, no memorized parts; I had to find the key, listen to the tempo, the rhythm, the form, the cadence, the drummer’s signals, watch the eye contact. Spontaneous creation, I had to listen with my ears. The music only existed in that moment and can’t be repeated. After the gig, I thought about an interview I had read with the late saxophonist Bob Berg, where he expressed that no matter how good a musician he was, he constantly lived in fear of being discovered as a fraud since he was essentially “faking it” every time he improvised. But Sunday night, the feedback was good. 

This was the first time in ages that I actually liked some of the recordings. I've posted two tunes from Sunday that you can download and listen to – Kuchi Kuchi, a highlife tune, and Bob Marley’s Turn Your Lights Down Low. Although the equipment wasn't great and there were typical problems with mikes and cables, Jagger’s set up was clear and well balanced, and I also solved some technical problems with my Zoom recorder. In retrospect, it is like the music was playing itself for a change. 

* Shades of Fela’s Ikoyi Blindness from 1976 – Ikoyi is an expensive up-scale neighborhood in this nation of 90% poverty – Ikoyi Blindness refers to those social climbers whose behavior is oblivious to the situation all around them.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Easter Sunday Blues Jam in Penang



I travelled back to Penang for the Easter break, arriving just in time for an Easter Sunday afternoon jam at the Little Penang Street Market with an assemblage of the Penang Blues Brothers (plus one sister) – Kim Gooi and James Lochhead notorious among the bros. Jackie and I brought our tenors – I played my King Super 20 and Jackie her Kohlert 55.

We stuck to the common language of blues; struggles with Windows Movie Maker aside, here is a video of “Trouble, Trouble” on YouTube, featuring James performing his signature tune on keys and vocals. Interesting to compare this to the same tune done at the same venue about a year ago.


There were some nice photos as well. The players are James Lochhead, keyboard and vocals; Kim Gooi, harp; Russell Steadman, bass and vocals; Tapa, drums; Sid, guitar; Jackie Ashkin, tenor sax; and, Ron Ashkin, tenor sax.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Interview with Tenor Saxophonist Ellery Eskelin

Ellery Eskelin creates with a vintage Conn
New York tenor saxophonist and composer Ellery Eskelin was gracious enough to consent to an interview on Crazy Bent Brass Tube this week. Ellery is a consistently interesting improviser and he recently celebrated 30 years in New York doing what he loves. He is a prolific and creative recording artist as well as the author of the intelligent blog Musings from a Saxophonist. My questions are in bold (RA) and Ellery's answers follow (EE); I did not edit any of his responses.

Interview with Ellery Eskelin, April 7, 2013

RA: When did you make the conscious decision to follow music as a career regardless of the economic consequences? And creative improvised music to boot? Didn’t your parents want you to be a dentist or an accountant? 

EE: I've wanted to be a jazz musician since I was ten years old. That desire overrode everything else. My parents were very supportive of me being a musician although they did have concerns about the type of music I played. 

RA: How have you managed to stay fresh and creative for 30+ years? Most of the so-called “young lions” have never progressed and are stuck in a rut in middle age – downright boring to listen to. 

EE: The process is exactly the same as it was the first day I got the horn. Still trying to figure out what I can do on it. I'm not too concerned with style or idiom. There's too much music that pulls on me. Plus, the old masters set the bar so high that I'm constantly inspired to push myself every day.

RA: What is your creative “well” – where do you pull inspiration from day after day?

EE: I love what I do. And it’s the way I express myself in the world. Plus, there's so much to do and such a limited time to accomplish it in. 

RA: Do you have a specific approach or “strategy” in mind when you begin a solo? If so, can you give some insight? 

EE: Whenever I'm improvising I think about what the music needs and try and do that. It requires an immediate, in the moment, non verbal state of mind, so that usually necessitates a feeling of movement, a gesture or a sense of phrasing just as I'm about to play. Once I have an idea of a musical shape the notes come to me at the very last moment, as I'm playing. 

RA: How have you avoided recording “Ellery Eskelin with Strings”? (or have you and I am unaware?) 

EE: See "Vanishing Point" (hatOLOGY 577) recorded in 2000 with Mat Maneri: viola, Erik Friedlander: cello, Mark Dresser: bass, Matt Moran: vibraphone. Completely improvised music. I'm rather proud if it. 

RA: Have you ever been forced to play weddings and bar mitzvahs or teach 8-year-olds to stay in music? 

EE: I played weddings when I was coming up. At a certain point, the singers could no longer follow my solos without getting lost so I sold my tuxedo and got a day job (shipping clerk at a record label) until my touring picked up enough that I could let that go as well. 

I've not yet taught a young person but I think I would enjoy the opportunity to approach things a bit differently, more direct ear learning and an introduction to basic I IV V harmony and improvising as soon as they could get around the horn a little. 

RA: Your most ridiculous day gig? 

EE: Well, I was a weekend janitor in a shopping mall for a little while during my school years. I like to think of that as good honest work. Worked on a commercial roofing crew for a summer. All the guys would keep telling me, "stay in school if you don't want to wind up doing this for a living"! 

RA: How do you deal with the egos in the music business without it getting under your skin? Seems like a large proportion of talented musicians are not nice people. 

EE: Actually I don't find that to be the case. The large proportion of the musicians I've met in my life have been pretty down to earth. 

RA: Do you feel you are missing out on anything in life because you pursued creative music as your profession? What about your family – have they missed out on something? 

EE: No, but when I realized that the president was younger than me it did get me thinking. But ironically there is something about going deeply into a subject that teaches us about the world and deepens our appreciation of other people and their work. As for family, I am blessed that they understand and support what I do. I hope that my values and actions can point to some other ways of looking at things in general. 

RA: It appears that you have to be a virtuoso to play any of today’s jazz styles. This kills the music as a people’s music because it limits participation in the creative process. How can the music survive and progress without becoming another form of classical music dependent on the conservatory? 

EE: I don't agree that being a virtuoso limits the audience's participation. If anything a certain kind of demonstrable virtuosity is something that audiences often grab onto even if it's not always deeply artistic. But jazz has never been a popular music with the public at large. In my experience the best thing for any musician to do is commit 100% to their vision and play with the commensurate conviction required to evoke some kind of emotional feeling in the listener. And besides, virtuosity comes in many forms. I consider Ben Webster to be a virtuoso in his sublime delivery of ballads. 

RA: I have a talented 16-year-old who plays tenor. But music is not her only talent/interest. Any suggestions on how she can stay engaged as a performer? Most young people quit playing after school. 

EE: Not sure how to answer that question. But in as much as music is a social event (playing with other people and playing for other people) I would imagine that maintaining that social connection would be beneficial. 

RA: Do you have some recommended learning resources for those not interested in pattern playing or paid-by-the-note tenor styles? 

EE: The idea of "learning resources" in itself seems to imply some kind of organizational methodology that often runs counter to want you're speaking about (which to me has more to do with the nuances of one's delivery). I recommend modeling one's playing after vocalists as a way of avoiding calisthenics and the playing of too many notes. Concentrate on phrasing and the active use of silence. Personally I don't like to think so much in terms of "lines" as much as I want to think in terms of melody. Having a strong sense of what you're doing with (or against) the rhythm also helps. 

RA: Thank you, Ellery.

Here are links to Ellery's web site, blog, and Facebook and YouTube pages:
web site
blog
facebook
youtube

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Ellery Eskelin - New CD Release Announcement Trio New York II

Just received this in my email from Ellery Eskelin and thought I would take the opportunity to promote a really fine saxophonist.

TRIO NEW YORK II is NOW Available... Listen to samples on the website... See the promotional video on YouTube… Order on-line using Pay Pal for Immediate Delivery Worldwide...

Please visit the website and click the TRIO NEW YORK link for complete information and track samples
Have a look at the TRIO NEW YORK II video on Youtube. 
To ORDER NOW simply visit the Mail Order page. You’ll have the CD in no time!

ELLERY ESKELIN - TRIO NEW YORK II
prime source CD 7010

Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Gary Versace - Hammond B3 organ
Gerald Cleaver - drums

The New Yorker magazine recently referred to me as a saxophonist “with a romantic streak that runs parallel to his experimental leanings”. I like that. Romance is a descriptor that is rarely associated with the improv scene in New York City. And for the past couple of decades that is what I’ve been doing mostly. I’ve always thought of “Trio New York” as a free improvisation unit, in some ways a continuation of the type of work I’ve been doing all along, in other ways a distinct break from many of the concepts I’d been working with previously. For those of you familiar with our first recording, you'll know that we use the Great American Songbook as our source material.

“Trio New York II” is the second recording by this group and represents an evolution, the band having fine tuned it’s musical processes from gig to gig though our touring in Europe as well as performances in Canada and the US, most recently being the Detroit Jazz Festival. I’m very proud to be working with two of the great musicians of our time, organist Gary Versace (who knows his way around a Hammond organ and knows how to be creative with it) and Gerald Cleaver (who is both swinging and free, always with impressive dynamic sensitivity). This new release also coincides with the fact that as of this month I’ve been living in New York City for thirty years. A lot has happened during that time and I feel as though I’m finally in a place where I can truly integrate all my experiences into the music, from the early days up until today.

As for this recording, please know that it’s very important to me to take the extra time and expense to document this work and present it to you as a physical entity with the highest standards of artistic and technical quality possible. This documentation is not only central to my progress as an artist but I feel it is doubly important that as we are asking for your time and attention you should understand that you are getting a state of the art recording for your collection that you can value for many years to come. Trio New York II is released on my own “prime source” label.

Thank You,
Ellery Eskelin

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Two Original Tracks from Saxophonist Dotun Bankole

Tenor Saxophonist Dotun “Dotsax” Bankole dropped by my house the other night for a jam. He plays a 156k silver plate Mark VI which is about a year younger than the horn I've been playing lately, a 148k Mark VI that is basically bare brass, having been stripped of its silver plate a long time ago. The horns are brothers from the late 60's, although his has a high F# key and mine doesn't  Dotun really liked the resonance of my horn and we traded instruments for the evening. He is playing on a Jody Jazz metal mouthpiece which was given to him by the manufacturer while on tour in the States a couple of months ago with Femi Kuti.

Dotun was bemoaning the scarcity of jazz in present-day Lagos. There is not a single venue in this city of 17 million that features live jazz every day. I thought maybe it was just me because I have played out less this past year than in any year in recent memory, although I have been working in a city which is lauded in some media circles as one of the really happening places in the third world. Not really happening for jazz since there is practically no place to jam, even for excellent local players, and not much happening even for home-grown styles like afrobeat although the music press refers to afrobeat as being really popular worldwide – I've previously written about that paradox.

In any event, Dotun continues to improvise and create on his saxophone. Recently he has been working on two original tracks in the studio: Irawo Owuro and Aja Nti Ele, where he plays soprano sax rather than his more usual tenor. You can listen to these two works-in-progress here and look for and buy the CD when it is released. Click on the track names to download and listen. Meanwhile, you can catch Dotsax playing tenor behind Femi Kuti at the New Africa Shrine in Ikeja, Lagos, on Thursday and Sunday evenings.