Monday, 27 October 2014

A Little Tiddy Boom Please?

Recently a small group of Canadians (and a few Yanks too) paid tribute to our dear friend Ross Taggart who left us far too soon. His ex-wife Sharon Minemoto was a rock during his illness and held it together through a very dffcult time. She was very generous to bring his ashes to NYC where Ross had expressed he be distributed. On a calm and clear Columbus Day morning we spread his ashes in Marcus Garvey Park where our friend Rudy Petchauer thought Ross would feel the good vibes. Many great cocnerts have taken place there, especially through the legendary organization Jazzmobile. It was a bittersweet occasion and a nice gathering of old friends. This memoriam connects to something quite positive for me which is the new CD of music I’ve dedicated to Ross coming out tomorrow on Sunnyside Records called Tiddy Boom. I have written several blogs about this project (just review the history in the menu below) so I won't get into the details of the music here but let's just say it is a work of mutual respect and admiration to several musicians that came along before us.

Ross and I spent about a year together in NYC when we were quite young. I was about 27 and he was 23. I had just gotten in the Lounge Lizards and was finally making a living. He was studying here on a Canada Council grant and going out to hear everyone he could. We saw a lot of great music together, listened to a lot of great music and we had a lot of fun. I was able to help Ross get an apartment and even a few gigs under the table. We bonded over most tenor legends but especially Clifford Jordan and Dexter Gordon. Ross was a remarkable pianist but he could also play the hell out of the tenor sax. So when I started working on Tiddy Boom it only seemed appropriate that it would be dedicated to Ross. I think this distraction helped me through the loss. 

That loss only piled up when another wonderful spirit and music lover left us. I met Holly Schneider through my ex-wife Elizabeth. I believe our first meeting was at the Filmore in San Francisco after a Lizards show. She had us over to her apartment and showed me her vinyl collection. I was floored and upon other visits I’d stay with her and her family and she’d hip me to all sorts of great music. A real mind opener was Quincy Jones’ Gula Matari. It’s hard to find but she gave me a rare vinyl of it. Years later while doing the musicians show on WKCR I  played a track from this (pops and scratches included) when the phone lit up. It was an elderly man who called to say that while he was doing time at Sing Sing Prison upstate he’d go to the library and listen to records to help him get through his imprisonment. Turns out that Gula Matari was one of those records and he thanked me for playing it. He said, “That music kept me alive”. That really blew me away…I believe that music is a serious healing force and it should remain something we respect and hold dear to us as individuals. Holly ended up playing drums and teaching music to kids. She was a remarkably kind and beautiful woman. I really miss Holly and it is unfair she became ill and passed away so unexpectedly. She’s left us with a great talent in her young son Ari and she lives on in our hearts. 

What a strange year for jazz in the media. In July The New Yorker published a satire about Sonny Rollins that to any sincere jazz lover was in bad taste and just unpleasant on many levels. Then the Wall Street Journal paid another young man to write an op-ed on the fact that we jazz musicians are simply wasting our time pursuing an unpopular intellectual indulgence, insinuating that the Rollins satire is a symptom of an art form on it’s last legs being played out by a bunch of college grads. FYI the writer is a disgruntled music school drop out! I didn’t comment much on these topics because I felt the best response was to ignore them. There's always room for good humor and jazz musicians certainly enjoy it as much as anyone else. All you have to do is search youtube for jazz robots, shredders or Hans Groiner

Recently the young and talented band Mostly Other People Do the Killing created a wave of controversy by releasing an identical copy of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’s seminal ‘modal’ album that has been the biggest seller in jazz for decades, called 'Blue'. Along with many of my generation, I found myself reacting quite strongly to this work. At first it was a, “Really?…oh man did they have to?” sort of groan of disapproval. However in MOPDtK's defense Jimmy Cobb - the drummer from Kind of Blue - was quoted giving it his approval, although he said it lacked feeling. Well yeah and how could anyone think you can transcribe that feeling? This could be a piece of art for observation or scrutiny but it’s not a new way of playing jazz or even a classical interpretation. All of us who grew up after music schools took on jazz had to learn by imitating other players. Ethan Iverson's piece on Lester Young has some great quotes of Lee Konitz saying how he and many of Lennie Tristano's students/peers memorized Lester Young solos. I’m not going to belabor this topic any further but if anything what 'Blue' shows us is that a new generation of jazz musicians and writers have entered a dimension of satire, analysis and research that has left some of us scratching our heads with clenched fists. I prefer hearing these guys and most anyone trying to create new music and facing the efforts of that type of challenge rather than projecting a post modern imprint of Kind of Blue on us. For the record I did say they may be among the first jazz 'aethiests' and the inventors of zombie jazz, in jest of course but maybe not so far off?  Remember what people said about trad, swing, bebop, modern jazz and the avant-garde! Whatever comes after is always a scandal and jazz is a young persons 'sport'. One thing is for sure, I don’t have the memory to play someone else’s music note for note, that’s why I chose to play jazz! 

Tiddy Boom is probably my most traditional album to date. I wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, rather show how well it still works. Like a big ‘ol American car I hope you enjoy the comfortable ride and the way it hugs the road. 

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Komagata Maru Blues

On May 23rd, 1914, the steamship Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver from Hong Kong carrying 376 passengers from Punjab, India. Only 24 passengers were allowed to disembark and after several months under lock down, the ship was forced back to India by exlusionists. Several years ago, upon learning that my Great Grand Uncle, then Conservative MP H.H. Stevens, was responsible for the detainment and eventual deportation of the passengers aboard the Kamagata Maru, I felt the urge to compose a work meant as a gesture of atonement and reparation for what was at the time a sad and regretful moment in Canadian history. On the other hand I think H.H. was acting in the best interest of 'white' Caandians and doing what his constituants asked of him. This doesn't mean I am embracing the connection with my relative nor am I trying to vilify him. In the words of Adam Gopnik, “Historical criticism, which is ostensibly about trying to understand things as they were seen then, too often spends its time hectoring the dead about not having seen things as we do now.” The music is resonating with a sense of adventure which suits the spirit behind any person who is willing to leave ones home in search of a good life in a new land. All of us who have done the same can relate to that experience and essentially that's what this music is about. 

Featuring an expanded instrumentation of my Vancouver group The Variety Hour, I'm proud to announce that I'll be premiering the piece at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival on June 22nd. Many thanks to both Coastal Jazz and Blues and Barking Sphinx Perfromance Societies for their support in the creation of this new work!

Coastal Jazz and Barking Sphinx Present:
Michael Blake's Komagata Maru Blues

Michael Blake - tenor and soprano saxophones
JP Carter - trumpet and electronics
Peggy Lee - cello
Chris Gestrin - piano and moog
Ron Samworth - guitar
Andre Lachance - bass
Dylan van der Schyff - drums

And Special Guests:
Emma Postl - vocals
Nellamjit Dhillon - tablas

After discovering that fellow Vancouverite and musician Neelamjit Dhillon was also writing a piece commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident, I rethought about how to approach the work. We chatted a bit on Facebook about the coincidence and spoke about each other's intentions. We both seemed to be heading in a similar direction. But once I knew where Neel was going and after further discussion with Barking Sphinx director Dylan van der Schyff,  I decided to take on a different perspective and rather than write music solely about the Komagata Maru I would treat the work like a series of musical 'essays' about assimilation and identity. This was a difficult subject matter to work with and I didn't want  to add insult to injury by sloppily fusing Indian music into my own work. Knowing that Neel had a much better knowledge and cultural right to express that side of the story helped me to dig down into my own thoughts and feelings about the immigrant experience. I'm honored that Neelamjit will be joining us as a special guest on tablas.

The great free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler once said, "Music is the healing force of the universe." Because I've chosen to work within the structures of jazz I think the art from and it's history serve as an excellent metaphor for acceptance, social democracy and believing in building a better society. After all I've spent most of my life playing a music that I assimilated. In my heart I feel that jazz is a universal music but it was built on the courage, genius and vision of African Americans. As a matter of fact at the time of the 
Komagata Maru incident a young Louis Armstrong started cutting his teeth on the streets of New Orleans playing what was to become jazz. After an art form is claimed outside of the culture responsible for its very existence, does it loose vitality or meaning? Is there a disconnect to its very source? As far as jazz pertains, when only whites were the first 'interpreters' this was a pretty common argument but it didn't take long for jazz to break loose from the confines of being a solely American music; as new sounds blended in from Cuba and Brazil and other cultures began to inject new influences into the music. For decades now jazz has become even more of an International music with leading players from South Asia, Israel, Europe and Latin America - and even Canada! - contributing new ideas and pushing the art form forward. And so I believe it is the same within a democracy, that is, when laws are designed to protect all of the people. Sadly at the root of the Komagata Maru there was a serious abuse of power led by H.H. Stevens; thwarting the efforts of anti exclusionist Gurdit Singh and reining in an era of discord that lasts to this day.

To me what the Komagata Maru incident makes me feel is akin to what I hear in the blues. I also hear that wail in the most socially assertive and progressive sound of what is known as free jazz. My ear and the affects of the blues was exponential in my early development. Naturally I thought it best to work within my element as that is where the title comes in and what the work means to me.

I've travelled a lot and through observation I find there are always common denominators in how different societies experience both intolerance and acceptance. Earlier works of mine touch on the 'fish out of water' story (Kingdom of Champa) and another was inspired by the pioneer spirit of early European settlers in BC (Amor de Cosmos). The music is all instrumental so the meaning behind the concept is really up to the listener to decode. This is the great thing about jazz. And what better way to express my/our respect for the victims of the 
Komagata Maru then to let their voices be heard through the spirits of sound waves. Waves seem play a big part in much of my music.

For those interested in learning more about the Komagata Maru incident, this is an excellent documentary by Ali Kazimi.

Recently I participated in a CBC radio special on the Komagata Maru incident that is availble for stereaming here. Anyone visiting Vancouver this summer should visit the Maritime Museum and see their marvelous exhibit . Unfotunately the link appears to be dead???! Another is at The Mueum of Vancouver and just out of the city limits is another exhibit at The Surrey Museum.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Contrasts in Individualim Pt 3

First of all I'd like to thank everyone who came out to hear the new work at Kitano in January. The premiere was on the heels of a trip to New Orleans and I was inspired to play the new music for all of you! Next week we will perform the music for the second time at Jazz Standard.

Tuesday, March 18th at 7:30 and 9:30pm
Michael Blake's World Time Zone A premiere of my new work "Contrasts in Individualism: Reinterpreting the Innovations Of Hawkins and Young"! Made possible with support from Chamber Music America's 2013 New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Michael Blake (tenor sax), Ben Allison (bass), Ferenc Nemeth (drums) and special guest Frank Kimbrough (piano)

Exploring the stylistic innovations of my heroes has been a truly humbling experience. This year I'm turning 50 years old and I still can't believe it. I've been really fortunate to make a life playing and composing music and despite the challenges I face in the music business I have no complaints about the business of making music. Things have changed a lot since I came to NYC in 1986. At the beginning I was completely lost as to what I should do... how to play, what tunes to learn, etc...Despite taking lessons with one of that eras strongest contemporary saxophonists I always felt like I didn't fit in to that mold. I found my niche working with the Jazz Composers Collective members and The Lounge Lizards. Both were made up up of completely different thinkers and that was just what I needed. I began t think for myself and work with sound and substance rather than style. I remember thinking back then that I was going to have to change the way I thought about getting my music out there. Fortunately I had a lot of support from several small labels that always supported my new releases and gave me a platform to sell and distribute my music. I am especially proud of my latest effort 'In the Grand Scheme of Things'. I have never  produced an album that doesn't absorb some concept otuside of the straight ahead jazz niche. I always felt that if I was going to make an album it should stand up to multiple listens and capture something fresh that is encircling my mind and imagination. But this time I'm setting aside the quirky instrumentations to record a mainstream jazz quartet album.

This music is about two incredible saxophone players and in order to pay them tribute I went into the woodshed and spent many hours reviewing the qualities that define their music. Ultimately I came out of the premiere relieved that all that work paid off. I wanted to play at my best and not choke while trying to measure up to my own expectations. A forthcoming album of the new music confirms in my mind that the cliche is wrong - you can teach an old dog new tricks. In fact just before the premiere I was working for my old friend Steven Bernstein and I received some friendly advice from him on what not to play in a secific situation. I was reminded that you are never too old to learn how to be a better musician. 
Back to work!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Contrasts in Indivualism Pt 2

The year got off to an interesting and challenging start for me. I was asked to fill in for the brilliant multi-instrumentalist/composer Peter Apfelbaum in Steven Bernstein's Hot 9 Band. This group contains the front line of his own Millenial Territory Orchestra, a long surviving band of brilliant characters who manage to both keep one foot in the past and another in the future while playing Steven's vibrant arrnagements in the present. Steven's new band has been backing up the truly amazing pianist Henry Butler. I had the pleasure of performing with them in front of a capacity crowd last fall at BRIC. Earlier this month at Jazz Standard Steven and Co kicked off the New Year with a week long stint before recording with the great New Oleans master. It was a thrill for me to sink my teeth into this music right before going to New Orleans myself. Not to mention that it also meant wokring with many of old friends (Doug Wieselman, Charlie Burnham, Curtis Fowlkes, Erik Lawrence, Matt Munisteri) and new friends Donald Edwards, Herlin Riley and Reginald Veal.

This experience was just what I could wish for a few weeks before premiering my new work 'Contrasts in Individualism' with my group World Time Zone. A few recollections from NoLa are obviously worth discussing. This video of clarentist is the best example I can share of just how deep the music is down there. Doreen Ketchens is screaming the blues through that clarinet with such power and intent that she might change the world for the better in one chorus. In fact a street artist pointed out that, "Down here a horn can save someones life". Now that's what I want to hear! In NoLa music not only provides meaning and connects locals with a sense of New Orleans history but it can also change the lives of anyone lucky and open enough to listen. You don't see it so well in this video but there's a young girl at the drums (around 12yrs old I think) and the drummer is sitting next to her on a break. She's keeping time and along the way he's pointing to different parts of the drum kit and teaching her on the spot what is the right thing to do. She switches to hi-hat for the sousaphone solo then at the end goes around the kit and chokes the cymbal at the end. I was really inspired to see this type of conduction happening ON THE STREET and it made me realize what Butch Morris's conduction was an extention of this technique. On the job training!

Lester Young
Lester grew up on the road but he was born in Algiers LA, a suberb of New Orleans. Ethan Iverson's blog Do the Math contains one of the best resources on 'classic' Lester Young performances I've ever seen compiled. Made even sweeter by Lee Konitz's comments and insights, together they should be able to turn every jazz lover into a 'Presophile' and anyone who already loves Lester will be in jazz heaven. Thanks to him I'm able to reference the famous early solos and use the samples he has so diligently transcribed.

My fascination with Pres began when my jazz history teacher played the famous small group session recordings of Count Basie ie Shoehine Boy and Lady Be Good solos. Plenty has been written expounding the genius of these gems but there are a few others that are equally sublime and one version of Lady Be Good is rather prophetic. In fact this solo inspired Ethan to go on his quest to uncover the mystery of Young's work, made even more interesing considering that critic have said this solo is a wasted effort. I agree with Ethan and believe this is the gateway to improvised music or 'free jazz'' in that Lester uses a chromatic rather than diatonic apporach to this solo. It's weird and wonderful in every way. The transcription is mandatory reading for any doubters. Check out the chromatic leading tones at bars 8-12! And then at the bridge, in a surprising burst of bravura, he rides a C major 7 arpeggio 5 times and then continues that phrase over the I chord (F > D7).  I love the lovely flourish at the end which is truly the icing on the cake.

A key moment of understanding of Lester's genius has to be this single chorus on the blues Fine and Mellow recorded on The Sound of Jazz for TV in the 50's. It captures him with fellow tenor giants Ben Wesbster and Coleman Hawkins. As good as they both are here, it's Pres's melancholy and achingly lyrical solo that stands out. Billie seems especially entranced by his vibe. It's almost a lost art, this way of developing a musical statement through melodic improvising.

Coleman Hawkins
The first time I heard Coleman Hawkins was on an album with Earl Hines that my father had bought as part of an incredible jazz collection that was sold before I came into my own. It's a live album from the 60's and he is swinging hard as ever. I started on the clarinet and I was immediately intrigued by Pee Wee Russell who my Dad always raved about after reading Whitney Balliet's essays on him in The New Yorker. I also liked Goodman, DeFranco, Guiffre and Bigard but for some reason Pee Wee was my man. Another standout was the New Orleans native Alvin Batiste who at the time (1980's) was one of the few clarinetists playing fusion. He appeared on a Billy Cobham album or two. Anyway, Pee Wee and Hawkins recorded together with famed trombonist Glenn Miller back in 1929 along with Red McKenzie on 'comb'. It's fascinating to compare these solos and hear the evolution from 1929 - 1963! Hawkin's solo on If I Could Be with you (One hour Tonight) from both periods are glorious in their own right. The big difference is in the phrasing and how relaxed his lines ahad become compared to '29. Might that be some of Lester's cool influencing Hawkin's own sensibility? The later solo was one of the first tenor solos I cherished and the entire album 'Jazz Reunion' is a gem. I transcribed Hawkin's passionate solo from All Too Soon off of this album and it still gives me goose bumps.

In Closing
While walking along Royal St a came upon a music store that had my first reed brand in stock - Rico Regular. I had been trying to find the best sound possible for this new music and I wanted to go back to my vintage set up and a cane reed. On a whim I bought a few for kicks and once back home I put one on my mouthpiece and gave it a blow. It was like an old friend came home to visit and I think I'm going to ask that old friend to stay a while because it all fits together now; Contrasts in Individualism is the culmination of 30 years of playing, working and studying music on the tenor saxophone. I'd like to thank all the musicians who have influenced and helped me along the way! Good music is timeless and I feel some relief knowing that the struggle and hardship these great jazz pioneers had to endure really does carry on for generations. New Orleans has shown me another side of America that every musician should discover. As a matter of fact I bumped into a pair of Danish hornmen on their way home after spending 2 weeks hanging out there. It was immediately apparent that they (like me) were aware that they had just spent some time in a sort of musicians fairytale. 

We premiered the work last Thursday at Kitano in NYC. There was a full house and the music came pouring out just as I had hoped it might. It was especially nice (that word always sounds so uncool) to be reviewed by Ralph Miriello. His article is up on the Huffington Post! Ben Allison, Frank Kimbrough and Rudy Royston brought exactly what I needed to pull it off, so many thanks all round.

We'll be playing the work again on Tuesday, March 18th at 7:30 and 9:30pm
Jazz Standard 116 E 27th St, New York, NY 10016 (212) 576-2232