Sunday, 14 December 2014

Quick Trip to Madagascar

Deux chevaux rounds a corner in 'Tana
Last week, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in one of the world’s less-visited backwaters, Madagascar − probably better known for the eponymous cartoons than for anything going on there these days. The Red Island is a quiet throwback to 1962. Antananarivo, the hilly capital, is one of the last remaining outposts of colonial France, evidenced by the ubiquitous presence of bald-headed, board-shorts-wearing 80-year-old Frenchmen sporting desperate local nieces in every hotel lobby. The city has a grungy charm despite obvious deep poverty. The taxis are mostly deux chevaux that have long seen better days, now kept alive with wire and duct tape, usually started with a push. Unfortunately, visitors to ‘Tana have no chance to see Madagascar’s iconic lemurs and baobabs in their natural habitat, as those few that remain on the largely deforested 21st century island are far from the city.

Two popular modes of transport in Madagascar
Happily, Madagascar does have some jazz, unlike much of nearby East Africa; there is even a jazz radio station in ‘Tana (granted, playing mostly tinkling lounge music and doobie-doo vocals). The popular outdoor restaurant Buffet du Jardin in Place de l´Independance posted handbills for an upcoming live “Madajazz” event which featured photos of a local altoist. I can only hope he’s advanced his listening beyond 1980’s David Sanborn since I had to leave before I heard the show. A lively venue, although every time I visited the police stopped me and shook me down for ‘tea money’ upon departure. On the positive side, one beneficial legacy of French colonialism is that great food is everywhere.

The trademark instrument of Madagascar is the valiha, a stringed instrument belonging to the zither family, constructed from a large bamboo tube with strings of various lengths from end-to-end around the circumference. Valihas of various sizes are available in local markets for around $10; I am certain that more are sold to tourists to hang on the wall than are actually played by locals these days. As in most of today’s Africa, rappers with big sunglasses dominate the local music scene, with nary an instrument to be heard beyond guitar, electronic keyboard or drum machine when you turn on the TV or radio. Nonetheless, last summer I picked up bootleg DVDs of Dexter, Hawk and Rahsaan as I strolled through the park near Place de l´Independence. Somebody in Madagascar knows the good stuff.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Remembering Keystone Korner

Picked up the book Keystone Korner: Portrait of a Jazz Club yesterday, although I still have trouble calling any e-version a proper book. I was attracted to the book because it reminded me of visiting the famous San Francisco music haunt a few times back in late 1977 or early 1978, when I was newly out of college and hanging out with my engine-nerd brother in the Bay Area. Last laugh is on him, I guess, as he is an early-retired millionaire while I am still down at the steel mill chucking steel like a slave.

I remember it as a relatively small, unremarkable space where I could always manage to get front row seats. Cover must’ve been about 8 bucks then since it was before both jazz and San Francisco became exclusive domains of the upper crust. At that price I was able to see and hear some great acts, usually either going alone or with my long-lost friend Dave, another young jazz-obsessed white guy saxophonist who played some tenor. I played alto in those days. Wonder what ever happened to Dave? I can’t even remember his last name or I could Google him up. What I do remember is the rat on the floor under the bed when I stayed over at his Oakland apartment after one late night performance.

Back at Keystone Korner:

Cecil Taylor on solo piano. Cecil played that piano like he had three hands. I am not a big piano fan but he was amazing. Last I heard of Cecil, now an octogenarian, is that he was 419’d last year out of something like half a million dollars.

Max Roach, the greatest jazz drummer in history, with his second great quintet featuring smokin’ Billy Harper on tenor and Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet. This band is relatively unsung but probably second only to the Clifford Brown-Sonny Rollins group of the mid-50’s (kind of like Miles’ mid-60’s Wayne Shorter band in comparison to his late-50’s group with Trane). Max was professorial. Billy Harper never played a bad note then and still hasn’t, one of the best tenors alive and one of my perennial favorites.

Dewey Redman, at the peak of his creativity. This was Ear of the Behearer-era, all originals before he (like many masters who must get frustrated with their own creativity) regressed to playing standards. At the time he was at the top of my list of active tenor players and I really looked forward to hearing him live. Unfortunately, Dewey was not friendly.

Dave, where are you now? Do you still play tenor?

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Jackie Hits the Daily Mail

Not quite music, but Jackie's first month at St. Andrews has been memorialized in the UK tabloid The Daily Mail:

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Shola Emmanuel - Paris Recording Session

I awoke in the middle of the night to a rooster call from my fancy new hand phone, a call from an excited Shola Emmanuel announcing that he had just returned from a recording session in Paris. In the fog of sleep I couldn't catch too much detail, but in the morning I found a link to a professionally-produced YouTube video in my email. Here it is, kind of a chamber-jazz thing with a French rhythm section. I am promised that there is more to come; a new album is being mixed.

The musicians in the video are:

Shola Emmanuel : Alto Saxophone
Matteo Pastorino : Clarinet
Jean-Baptiste Pinet : Drums
Rafael Paseiro : Double Bass

Recorded at Bopcity Jazz-Studio, Paris, June 2014.
Other tunes were recorded at the same session with additional musicians and instruments:

Bertrand Beruard - Double Bass
Femi Paul - Alto Sax
Michèle-Anna Artiste - Vocals
Michael Williams - Drums
Johan Blanc - Trombone
Ruairidh - Bagpipe
Shola also played tenor sax, baritone sax, clarinet, trumpet, and piano.

In this day and age where every music school student has more recordings under his belt than some of the historic saxophone legends, I truly hope that Shola's European adventure gets  him some international exposure and leads to some gigs outside of Nigeria. He is one of the only contemporary Nigerian saxophonists playing original improvised music as well as music in the tradition of the Parker-Coltrane axis, swimming against the tide of crappy hip-hop and African MTV big-sunglass videos. I've known Shola for more than six years now and he was already introduced to me as "the best saxophonist in Abuja" on day one. I will update with more video and sound files as I get them.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Tempus Fugit

“We know you've got talent, but do you have the natural ability?”
Soloing on Tenor with
Dalat's Concert Band

Jackie garnered three major all-school awards at Dalat International School’s end-of-year awards ceremony this morning – two in the performing arts plus an academic one – along with two course awards. Later in the evening she was awarded a scholarship for the performing arts, completing ten awards today overall. Talk about proud dad (and no doubt engendering some green glances...).

Jackie was honored with the Band Director’s Award as Dalat’s outstanding instrumentalist for her saxophone performances in both concert band and jazz band; she started on alto five years ago and progressed to learn both tenor and baritone, tenor being her instrument of choice these days. She then won the school’s Fine Arts Award for her triple – no quadruple – threat in singing, dancing, and acting on top of playing mean horn. She recently played and sang the lead in Dalat’s musical theatre production Boardwalk Melody, not only acting but also contributing to the original script and music. I actually think she is more talented as a vocalist. To cap off the day she was named the recipient of the school's Doug Brokaw Memorial Scholarship for further study in the performing arts, presented by one of her musical mentors, Valeri Brokaw. One of the course awards was in digital media which means she understands how to use technology as well as create quality content. Wow.

Out on a Gig on Alto
I started taking Jackie out on gigs when she was 14 and she just started to improvise on stage in performance situations. She never did have stage fright and has become a comfortable if self-critical performer. I've never had to force her to practice, she just likes to play. She already understands that the journey is its own reward.

Some heavy duty rites of passage happening at the moment as she graduates high school and moves on to university, probably in the UK. But I really believe it is onward and upward for this girl who has always been good at everything she does but humble and in-touch as a person.

It’s nice for her to be recognized so highly but I truly believe you ain't seen nothing yet, and I'm looking forward to watching her flourish in a wider, higher level environment with even more creative performance possibilities in both theatre and music. 

Bud Powell’s crazy tempo 1949 piano composition nails it: time flies. Just yesterday she was first picking up the instrument. I'm looking forward to jamming with her later today. Go girl!

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Jazz in Transit - Zurich

May 12, 2014, 8:00am Central European Time. Getting most of my jazz in transit these days. On my way from Africa to Europe, transiting through Zurich this time. Like a different world in cleanliness, orderliness, efficiency and population density from the day-to-day world I inhabit. “Africa Rising” has a long way to go.

Stuck in an early morning change of planes, the only place to get a coffee was the “Montreux Jazz Café” in Terminal D. Only airport I have ever been to that has a 3-meter-high photo of Miles on the wall (granted, a near-death Miles in a track suit and big sunglasses caught eating a sandwich). I sat down and had a $25 latte and baguette. Am I really out of it or has money lost its value – particularly the dollar?

There was a wall-sized TV playing video from the 2012 Montreux Jazz Festival. Most of the acts were far from my idea of “jazz”, but I did manage to catch one clip of Dave Liebman playing a Trane tribute with Swiss pianist George Gruntz. Liebman looked like Bad Grandpa on soprano but sure sounded sweet. Almost everything else I saw consisted of middle aged white men wearing black, lots of vocals, stuff I would call pop/lounge with little improvisation (other than the memorized kind of course), swing, or dissonance/blue notes.

Well what do I know? Picked up the program for the upcoming 48th Montreux Jazz Festival in July and Stevie Wonder is one of the headliners. A couple of decent acts – Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette with John Coltrane’s and Jimmy Garrison’s “kids” in his band (both now older than their fathers when they tore up the sky), Dr. John – great but not jazz. But about 50 other rock, pop, and lounge acts. Ugh.

Aha – a jump-suited Herbie Hancock now on the video playing Chameleon on some kind of toy-looking shoulder-slung electronic keyboard. I guess he knows what side his bread is buttered on because what I am watching is far from groundbreaking. Bar band music for a big paycheck. Borderline embarrassing. Herbie – Nooooo!

I am carrying my horn today for the first time in a while so somehow feel compelled to stand up for the music for its own sake. A ticket for Montreux this year? An All Music Pass “valid for standing room access during the entire festival”  is a mere CHF 2,000 – more than $2,200! Festival sponsors include SOCAR – the state oil company of Azerbaijan, a friendly family dictatorship (where is Rain Sultanov, then, Azerbaijan’s premier horn man?), and UBS, the bank famous for assisting money launderers worldwide that has paid huge sums to the US Government to settle tax evasion charges.

Has jazz just become another way the self-appointed elites of the world express their exclusiveness and erudition? Another form of classical music? So far from its roots in exactly the opposite – the cry of freedom. Where is the cry of freedom in jazz today? How do we purge the music of its conservatory-trained enfants terrible, doobie-doo vocalists and middle aged men cashing their checks? How can auditorium-loads of human beings sit through this pap – especially at ticket prices higher than the annual GDP per capita of most of the countries I work in? How did these acts get on the bill in the first place? And I just read that last year’s Montreux Jazz Festival attracted 250,000 visitors. George Clinton might ask, where is the funk?

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Brief Encounter with Guitarist Nels Cline at Istanbul Airport

Standing in the passport queue at Istanbul Airport - modelled after a Disneyland switchback and just as crowded - I noticed a group of four or five arty-looking Americans in the row in front of me, two of them carrying guitar gig bags on their backs. It is easy to spot Americans when travelling internationally these days, not because of their loud mouths as in days of yore, but because we are few and far between in airports bursting at the seams with first time travellers from the so-called 'emerging world'. Anyway these Americans truly looked like artistes among the crowd of laptop, hand-phone and iPad twiddling tourists and businessmen.

The queue stalled endlessly and the tallest of the lot, a thin 50-something guitar-carrying traveller, stopped in front of me with the name tag on his gig bag dangling in my face: "Nels Cline. New York, NY". Nels Cline - Nels Cline Singers - guitar not my musical bag but he is known for creativity and my Google search a day later showed him playing alongside Ellery Eskelin and William Parker, Julius Hemphill and Tim Berne. Apparently he has hooked up with a rock band called Wilco (whom I have neither heard of nor heard), apparently a big deal which has exposed him to a much larger audience than his avant-garde jazz playing ever did. I've listened to his music without paying enough attention.

Ron: I see being a famous guitarist doesn't help you get through the passport line any faster.
Nels: No.
Ron: Its not easy travelling carrying your instruments and stuff.
Nels: Its not too bad.
Ron: Well anyway, congratulations on making it to this point in life playing music for a living.
Nels: Its the only thing I've ever wanted to do. Thank you.

Security opened the gate and let the line pass; he was gone.

Well, maybe I have to give his music a serious listen now. Humility and talent seldom go together. As Jackie said when I told her about the incident, "reasons to like musicians 101".

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Shola Eml – Jazz Africa Fusion

I phoned my sax playing buddy Shola Emmanuel in Abuja a few days ago to wish him Happy New Year and he asked me if I got the link. Link to what? A mystery until this morning when his email arrived.

The link inside led to an excellent three-minute video of Shola and his music shot by French filmmaker Libero Films. I don’t know too much about the clip’s genesis – possibly waiting for TV – but wanted to get it out as soon as possible. Apparently there is a second part in the works. If you are not familiar with altoist Shola from previous posts, we first met in Nigeria six years ago and have been on the same musical wavelength ever since. He is gifted with one of the quickest ears I've ever come across.

View Shola Eml – Jazz Africa Fusion below, or watch it in your browser by clicking the link here.

Shola’s web site Rhythm and Sax has a contact form if you'd like to get in touch with him directly.

You can read about Marseille-based Libero films here (French language site).