Tag: jazz

Steve Coleman Awarded 2014 MacArthur “Genius Grant”

Steve Coleman in his Allentown, Pennsylvania, backyard.

Steve Coleman in his Allentown, Pennsylvania, backyard. Image courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Composer and saxophonist Steve Coleman has been named a 2014 MacArthur Fellow.

A total of 21 innovators in a wide variety of disciplines have been singled out this year to receive the award, often referred to as a “genius grant,” which recognizes “exceptionally creative individuals with a track record of achievement and the potential for significant contributions in the future. Fellows will each receive a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000, paid out over five years. The fellowship comes with no stipulations or reporting requirements, and allows recipients maximum freedom to follow their own creative visions.”

The MacArthur Foundation noted that Coleman is a musician “whose technical virtuosity and engagement with musical traditions and styles from around the world are expanding the expressive and formal possibilities of spontaneous composition.”
Listen to Coleman, 57, speak about his approach to improvisation, the development of M-Base, and the role of mentorship and community building in his musical life:


Follow Coleman’s work online via his website, Facebook, and Twitter.
More about this year’s class of MacArthur Fellows is available here.

Sounds Heard: Andy Biskin Ibid—Act Necessary

Andy Biskin Ibid
Andy Biskin Ibid: Act Necessary
(strudelmedia 014)
Performed by:
Andy Biskin, clarinet
Kirk Knuffke, cornet
Brian Drye, trombone
Jeff Davis, drums
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The first thing that might catch one’s eye about the details of composer and clarinetist Andy Biskin’s quartet Ibid’s album Act Necessary is that there is no bass player involved. Rather, the ensemble contains clarinet, cornet, trombone, and drums. It’s a quirky group, playing some appropriately zany tunes, to the point where, if you close your eyes for certain tracks, it’s easy to picture a tiny cartoon marching band dancing its way across your field of vision. Such a lighthearted style—definitely Biskin’s forte, as evidenced by his extremely successful Goldberg’s Variations—which includes a deft fusion of New Orleans jazz, Tin Pan Alley, funk, and yes, polka, gives the music healthy doses of spirit and groove.

Apparently before Ibid came into existence, Biskin had also been experimenting with drummerless bands, which would naturally lend a more chamber-music feel to his music, but for this group he decided to turn things around by dropping the bass and adding drums. Because the arrangements are top-notch, my ears never found the missing bass to be an issue. There’s plenty to hear without it, and indeed, the treble-heavy lineup contributes to the sense of lightness in the music. The three melodic instruments work together to capture a satisfying sense of range, often going off in different directions to spin and whirl around one another, and then suddenly meeting at a common chord and progressing forward in rhythmic unison, like four friends on a scavenger hunt. Everyone has ample soloing opportunities, and they take them with creativity and gusto. Kirk Knuffke stands out in “Page 17,” a wonderfully energetic tune full of quick changes and surprises. As one might expect, trombone spends a lot of time filling up the lower range of the sound spectrum (check out the beginning of “Page 17′ for a good example), but Brian Drye shows his soloing chops in “Pretext” and “The Titans” while cornet and clarinet take on support roles. Also notable is that Jeff Davis’s drumming—mostly with brushes—always fits into the texture just so and is never overpowering. That you’ll likely be dancing within ten seconds of his entrance in “The Titans” or at the outset of “Just Like Me” goes to show that a great groove doesn’t have to be loud.

While all of the musicians on Act Necessary are clearly virtuosic performers, this is not so much a show-off-the-chops album, but more of a let’s-all-have-fun album, and that sentiment absolutely extends to the listener as well. The songs are complex and substantial, but never self-indulgent, with plenty of small details to be discovered upon repeated listening. While you’re dancing around the living room, of course.

Miya Masaoka: Social and Sonic Relationships


At the composer’s New York City apartment
May 13, 2014—11 a.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video recorded by Molly Sheridan
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner

Nine summers ago, there were tons of sound-producing gizmos on display during the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival’s “Homemade Instrument Day.” It was a fabulous way to introduce some really avant-garde music to a very broad audience. Perhaps the most mind-blowing thing people encountered that day was an installation by Miya Masaoka in which sound was somehow emanating from house plants. It was like some weird kind of Island of Dr. Moreau phenomenon. Yet it was also somehow both instantly engaging and musically fascinating as it unfolded over time. It involved a lot of brainy science—electroencephalography, data analysis, and computers—yet it was also extremely down to earth.
While it could have degenerated into a clever gimmick, it was much more than that because Masaoka manipulated the data from the plants to construct a very interesting sonic environment. But because it was all happening in real time, with a group of pots containing seemingly innocuous plant life, it became something much more than just a musical experience—it made the audience think about plants, and life in general, in a totally different way.

Masaoka has been making us look and listen to the world around us in totally new ways for decades. There has been a clear socio-political component to virtually everything she has done, but at the core level her work is ultimately always about finding new sounds. She first came to prominence in the Bay Area for her experiments with the koto, a multi-stringed zither which has played a prominent role in the court music of Japan for centuries. Though she was born and grew up in the United States, her Japanese family included traditionally trained musicians who were her earliest teachers on the instrument. While she initially immersed herself into gagaku and other classical Japanese repertoire, she soon found a way to make the koto a vehicle for a broad range of contemporary American music-making—bowing it, electrifying it, playing it in experimental improvisation combos, performing Thelonious Monk compositions and other jazz standards on it, etc. In so doing, she has made the instrument completely her own.
She has also done a great deal of sonic work involving the human body. She has created musical compositions using the brainwaves of audience members as well as data retrieved from participants via electrocardiograms. Her most provocative work has been a series of performance pieces involving groups of insects (bees, cockroaches) crawling over her own naked body; their motion triggering sensors attached to her which amplify the actual sounds the insects are making. Again, what could come across as gimmickry is viscerally powerful visual and sonic engagement, though admittedly probably not for the overly squeamish. (Although it isn’t to her in the slightest.) As she describes it, it is simultaneously politically charged and sound obsessed:

It’s the most amazing electronic kind of sound and it’s actually coming from a bug. Bees also have a very electronic sound component. But they were chosen not only for their sound abilities, [they were also chosen for] the idea of them maybe being individuals, maybe a colony. … I really wanted to understand and study their social relationships to each other. I’m not allergic to bees, so it’s okay. It was the idea of what the individual is, what our bodies are, and what the relationship is of our bodies to nature. It was searching for some kinds of clues to get closer to that. … Collaboration—whether it’s with insects or plants or people or musicians or the earth’s environmental sounds—is thinking about a sound world and how to enter somewhat of a psychological and sonic space.

In the last decade, Masaoka has concentrated somewhat less on performing and more on creating extended musical compositions for others to perform. She acknowledged when we spoke to her last month that her seeming shift in focus was partially a function of relocating to New York City and having a young daughter, but it’s also a way to channel her experiences and creative energy into larger scale projects that she would not have been able to perform on her own. And the results have been equally stimulating: For Birds, Planes and Cello, an all-encompassing sound-scape in which cellist Joan Jeanrenaud competes against a barrage of bird calls and airplane engines; and While I was walking I heard a sound…, an extraordinary choral piece involving three choirs and nine soloists spatialized in balconies which was premiered in San Francisco by Volti, the San Francisco Choral Society, and the Ensemble of the Piedmont Choirs. Last year, inspired by kayaking on a lake near the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, she completed her first orchestral piece, Other Mountain, which was performed by the La Jolla Symphony as part of the EarShot Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings. But she’s still committed to performing. Earlier this season, she performed at Roulette in Triangle of Resistance, a new interdisciplinary work she co-created with filmmaker/videographer Michelle Handelman featuring a score she composed for koto, string quartet, percussion, and electronics, and in a couple of months she’ll be returning to the studio to record a new album of improvisations with Pauline Oliveros, who has been a long-time collaborator and mentor.
After spending a morning talking with her about her music and why she’s made the choices she’s made, I’m even more convinced that whatever she does will continue to push the envelope in ways that are both intellectually challenging and sonically captivating.

*

Frank J. Oteri: You’ve done so many different kinds of things musically, but people always want to have a tag line, a one sentence sound bite. “Oh, Miya Masaoka, she’s the person who experiments with the koto.” Or “Miya Masaoka, she’s the person who does the music with plants.” Or, “the stuff with bugs.” These projects are all so different from each other and don’t even encompass everything you’ve done. So I’m wondering in your mind if there’s any through line that connects all of these things, something that informs the choices you make and shapes your identity as a musical creator.
Miya Masaoka: Identity is kind of interesting—the relationship between the individual and whatever social context is happening, whatever interaction with the outside world. So it’s really this interior versus exterior relationship, which is something we don’t necessarily have control over. I remember when there were only a few of us calling ourselves composer-performers; it was actually before you could get degrees in such a thing. These terms are really fluid, in a sense, like gender or ethnicity. They’re really social constructs. For example, when I think about what it means to be Japanese or Japanese-American—before my relatives were sent to the Japanese American concentration camps, it was decreed that you had to have 1/16 Japanese blood. This was a definition for if you were Japanese or not, to go to the camps. And so this is what my parents had to contend with. I certainly don’t have to contend with these kinds of blood percentages to define identities, but certainly the idea of aspects of sound, and relationship to architecture, and how pieces are exhibited, or whether there are instruments involved and what the relationship is to performing on that instrument or whether you create music for other instruments—those things are also really fluid and they change from piece to piece. So for me, whatever is fascinating for me and what I am obsessed with at the moment, drives me to create the next piece. I don’t consciously shape an identity. That’s not been so conscious. I wish, in a sense, that things were more narrowed down and could be in a sound bite, because then it would be much easier to do everything in a world that’s sound-bite driven. But I can’t stop myself.
FJO: Sound bites are sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they help explain work to people in a fast, straight-forward way, which can be very useful, especially when there is so much noise out there. But in terms of wanting to create the next piece, or actually wanting to create any new work, it creates limitations if it doesn’t conform to the sound bite—you know, that doesn’t sound like what that sound bite tells me it’s supposed to sound like! So it’s a constant battle between how you establish something so people have some kind of grounding in what you’re doing and how you can grow from there.
MM: That’s true. I also like it if I can find a sound bite. That’s how we organize our minds and organize the vast amount of data that we have for so many artists out there. The next piece I’m doing is using three dimensional objects, sculptural objects, as scores. In some ways, it’s a departure from some things I’ve done, but in other ways, it’s not at all. Then I’m coming off of writing for full symphony. It’s completely different to go in towards making these objects as scores, or scores as objects.
A common thread is this idea of a sound and how to think about sound—whether it’s using forces of musicians or whether it’s thinking of sounds in more of a visual sense, whether the pieces are using kinetic motion or a physicality. Are these waves that interact with air to create a certain kineticsm that we experience as sound? How does it deflect off whichever reflective surfaces are there in terms of the architecture? That’s true whether it’s a concert hall, or whether it’s in a gallery space, or an open air situation. So I think this element of experiencing sound is probably the common thread, and how that can be conceived and perceived and achieved in different angles in different ways.
FJO: Now one of the things that’s been a very long-standing interest of yours going back to the beginnings when you first became active in the Bay Area new music scene has been working with the koto. I’m curious about how you first got involved with the koto and what attracted you to it. Obviously you come from a Japanese background, but you grew up in the United States, you were born in D.C., you spent many years in the Bay Area. There aren’t a lot of kotoists here.

Laser Koto

Miya Masaoka performing on the Laser Koto. (Photo by Lori Eanes.)

MM: Well, my cousin and my aunt played koto, and one of them studied in Japan. I grew up playing piano. It was definitely coming from the Japanese American history of trying to be as American as possible because of the camps and the whole wartime experience. At the time in the Bay Area, there were different Asian American musicians like Jon Jang, Mark Izu, and Francis Wong who were keen about Asian American music and embracing these traditional instruments. So going back to these instruments was something that was a part of what was happening. I became a part of that, as well as having it in my family.
I studied traditional koto, and I also started the Gagaku Society. Gagaku is imperial court music. I did that for seven years in the Bay Area. Our master was from Japan and he was working at UCLA. So we flew him up once a month to work with us. And those concepts of structure, and how sound occurs over time, and how it unfolds and kind of builds up a propulsion and momentum were some of the most fascinating kinds of principles that I still live by.
But a turning point for me was when I was invited to play with Pharaoh Sanders for a few concerts at Yoshi’s. From playing with him and improvising with him, I also got introduced to other improvisers in the Bay area, like Larry Ochs and Henry Kaiser. So then I began collaborating with them, and that opened up this whole other door to what they would call non-idiomatic improvisation, free improvisation and that kind of thing.
FJO: There’s an interesting essay you’ve posted to your website that you wrote back in 1997 in response to Royal Hartigan’s issues about taking a traditional instrument that’s in a certain context and recontextualizing it to make it your own. There has been a lot of debate about this phenomenon. These are cultural artifacts of a specific culture which perceives of them in certain ways. So some would argue that to use them in ways that are outside of that culture are somehow disrespectful to that culture. But I find it interesting that the people who make those kinds of arguments about traditional Asian instruments, and also traditional African instruments, don’t make them for European instruments. It’s assumed that western instruments are somehow universal, that those instruments belong to everybody. You can do anything you want, say, with a piano or violin, but you can’t necessarily do anything you want with a koto, or an mbira or a ney. To exempt the West from cultural specificity seems like cultural imperialism and is really disconnected from 21st-century American cultural experience.
MM: I think some of those arguments that took place in the ‘70s and ‘80s have been really superseded by the internet—concepts of appropriation and taking these cultures from developing countries or from non-western countries and that it is somehow disrespectful or impure. Plunderphonics has come and gone, and there’s access to so many different rare cultures that it’s become a moot point to a certain extent. But I think whatever you do as an artist, whatever choices you make, there’ll always be people who will have issues with things. Especially if you’re doing something new and something slightly different, you’re going to have people who aren’t going along with it. So, that’s fine.
FJO: In the age of the internet, it does seem like everything from everywhere in every time is fair game. At this point to say that you’re continuing a tradition, it begs the question, what tradition? We have access to all the traditions, and we’re not necessarily continuing any of them, and not necessarily continuing “Western classical music.” The term seems meaningless to so much of the stuff that we’re all doing at this point.
MM: Tradition is something that people can personally embrace, whether it’s a tradition of American experimentalism, or a certain kind of tradition of minimalism, or certain kinds of traditions of time-based work, or some kind of performance, or generative electronics—modular synthesis has its own tradition. So there’re all these traditions that exist that are very historical and very meaningful, and we can embrace them in various ways, as individuals, to make them meaningful for us.
FJO: You mentioned playing with Pharoah Sanders. One thing that has certainly been a very important tradition in the trajectory of American music is the music that people call jazz. It’s a loaded word in some circles, but it is a tradition and it’s a tradition that you’ve interacted with in some of your work, though not all of your work. I love the trio recording you did with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille where you’re taking music by Thelonious Monk and completely reinventing it in a way that echoes traditional Japanese music, but that also really is jazz. It really does swing. It feels like Monk to me. So I wonder how you see your own music within the context of jazz traditions.
MM: Well, I grew up playing and listening to all different kinds of music and, of course, studying classical music, teaching myself folk music on the guitar, and studying flamenco music with a gypsy who lived in the town. Listening to rock and roll, listening to jazz—it’s really hard to escape that if you grow up in America. Jazz has this incredibly rich history of ways of being in music and ways of creating music. And I feel very lucky to have worked with some amazing jazz artists. And I continue to work with them.
I think at different times, there’s been a certain fragmentation and diffusion and at the same time a real boxing in of what jazz is into a kind of very boring and negative modality, which it certainly is not. I mean, the history is so expressive. It’s been so influential to so many parts of American culture. It’s had a rough patch, I think, and people like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor have kind of gone through and made it to the other end of that, the narrow definition of what would be swing or how to define jazz. I’m hoping that that’s going to open up again.
FJO: So taking on Monk. Monk’s compositions are iconic jazz repertoire even though he was an iconoclast. He was never conventional in what he did with rhythm. What he did with harmony was also completely unique. You hear a Monk chord, and you know instantly that it’s his. Yet those pieces have become canonic of a certain era in jazz. So to take that on and to do your own thing with it is very brave in a way because people have certain expectations about what that is.

CD cover for Monk's Japanese Folk Song

The CD cover for Monk’s Japanese Folk Song featuring Miya Masaoka with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille.

MM: Well, Monk did an album of Japanese folk songs, so I kind of did a version of him doing a version of Japanese folk songs. And then, like you mentioned, the rhythms are asymmetrical; they’re very spiky and they’re very interesting. It’s definitely very interesting repertoire to dig into. So I thought it was challenging and would be a fun project to do. It’s funny, when I go to Japan, sometimes I still hear it in some of the jazz clubs. They play that record; it’s wormed its way in.
FJO: You did another project that is probably even more clearly jazz sounding—What is the Difference Between Stripping and Playing the Violin?—which for me is definitely coming out of big band music, but it’s also referencing a lot of other things, too.
MM: That was a long time ago. But there was some jazz in there definitely, quotations from Duke Ellington and things like that. I had a big orchestra and I was doing actually something I made up that I called tai chi conducting where I would try to get the energy from the musicians. I used some of the Butch Morris sign language. I also invented some of my own at the time. There were people in that group like Vijay Iyer and Carla Kihlstedt, tons of incredible artists who were living in the Bay Area at the time.
FJO: The more non-jazz improvisatory stuff that you’ve done also in some way connects to jazz’s greater contribution to American culture—this notion of work that’s collaborative in some way, the idea that a group of people can participate in the making of something in real time by responding to one another. It’s not just one person’s vision—I did this piece and now you peons, here are the precise rules you need to follow. Rather you have a group of people who are listening to each other, and they’re responding to each other, and the work becomes what it is because of those interactions. No one necessarily knows what’s going to happen at the end. Something can become completely different from what you had initially envisioned it being.
MM: That’s true. I mean, you know, I’d definitely been open to what kinds of things could change and how that could be meaningful. I did this piece with Joan Jeanrenaud—For Birds, Planes and Cello. Joan was playing the cello and also listening and also looking at some graphic ideas of what to play while she was listening. This was a piece with basically an uncut film recording of the planes at the San Diego airport starting out at six in the morning, and slowly there would be more and more of them. And the birds were in these natural canyons so they were in this enormous kind of sound amplifier; the birds were so loud they sounded like they were being amplified artificially. Whenever a plane went by, they would start screeching with the plane, and then as time went on, there was just more and more sound and it built up to a structural climax with the schedule of the planes kind of dictating that. So in a sense, it’s a kind of a collaboration with the earth, the birds, and the scheduling and creating and taking these kinds of environments and finding some kind of coherence and structure and meaning from them.
FJO: What I find so interesting in terms of the whole sound bite phenomenon is that collaboration has been a hallmark of your work through the last several decades, but the people you collaborate with have been extremely different from each other. So, because of that, the music that results from those collaborations is always very different. I’m thinking of the trios that you were a part of with Gino Robair which can be very frenetic versus, say, your work with Pauline Oliveros, which is often much sparer and much more introspective. I’m curious about what makes you choose a collaborator to work with because obviously those different identities are both you since you’ve done both of those things. They’re both extraordinary, but they’re very different from each other.
MM: Collaboration—whether it’s with insects or plants or people or musicians or the earth’s environmental sounds—is thinking about a sound world and how to enter somewhat of a psychological and sonic space. And a spiritual place you could even say, like with Pauline Oliveros. We’re going to be going into the studio again in a couple of months, actually. She’s an icon, and I’ve been so honored to be able to have worked with her and to work with her in the future. To answer your question about sparseness or density, those kinds of things can be preconceived or not preconceived. Things with Pauline can be sparse or not sparse, or this or not that; it’s working towards a larger whole to a certain extent. There are so many parameters that are a part of getting there.
FJO: So in terms of choosing these collaborators, how do these relationships happen? Who initiates them?
MM: It changes, and it varies. This time this one with Pauline was initiated by Issui Minegishi, a player of the traditional one-stringed koto called ichigenkin. With Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille, there was someone from Germany who said, “Who do you want to work with?” I just named these two names and he got them. It really varies. I often do a lot of just working by myself.
FJO: There is that fabulous album you did of composition and improvisation which is almost completely solo except for the last track that has flute. Once again, from track to track, the music is extremely different. One solo project of yours, although perhaps you might not think of it as solo, is the work you’ve done with bees and Madagascan cockroaches. I find it remarkable, but I have to confess that I also find it unbelievably disturbing, and I think that that disturbance might be an element of why you did it. I’ve never experienced these performances live. I’m not sure I could. I’ve watched the videos online, and I had to stop the recordings repeatedly. It got through my skin, as it were. I felt like these insects were crawling on me.
MM: Well, that piece was about the Japanese American experience. Around that time, they had just come out with some new studies of DNA and the differences with gender and race; people were something like actually 99 percent the same. And it’s really this small miniscule amount that we thought we were different. So I was going back to the 1/16th Japanese that you had to be to go to the Japanese camps. So the idea of the naked human body, as it is, without these ideas being fostered onto it… These large bugs crawling on it, kind of just discovering the terrain, as if it’s for the first time, and seeing this as a blank slate. Now we can buy that or not, you know, in terms of blank slates, but the idea was just having a very kind of cold viewpoint of the human body as the canvas—that was the idea. And then taking the sounds of the bugs, and amplifying them, and making samples of them, and having them create the structure of the piece. So I would be sending an array of lasers over my body, and they would break the beams, and that would trigger the sounds of the piece. The sound worlds are based on their movements.
FJO: So how were you able to do this?
MM: I went to this amphibian store. At the time they were legal to buy and I bought 12 of them. Later somebody took care of them for me and would send them through FedEx to the different places that I would play in Europe.
FJO: But how were you able to have bugs crawl all over you? How did it feel? You don’t move at all during the piece; how were you able to get yourself into that zone?
MM: It’s the idea of the body being this passive canvas that society pushes things upon. And you know, you just do it. I mean, it’s discipline. It’s like anything else. It’s, you know, you just do it.
FJO: What were audience reactions like to that in different venues around the world?
MM: Well, that piece became very popular. It also got picked up by some kind of syndicate in Canada and played a few times. And these Madagascar cockroaches later became much more popular in lots of popular culture. This was before that happened. But, how things get received? I don’t know. I should probably pay more attention to that. I think at the time, people weren’t used to seeing anything like that. Some people thought it was interesting, and some people thought it wasn’t, I’m sure. I can’t have my ear too much to the ground as to how things get received or not received, because it can just get me in the wrong frame of mind.
FJO: I have to confess, before I experienced it, I thought the idea was sort of gimmicky, but then after looking and listening to it, though at times I found it really disturbing, it was also viscerally powerful. But I’m curious about what it means to you as music, because a lot of it is a visual experience, including what you were saying about the body being a blank slate. But it was conceived of as a piece of music, right?
MM: Yes, as a performative semi-installation with music, because that’s my background. I did these collaborations with cockroaches, but their sound sounds like white noise. It’s the most amazing electronic kind of sound and it’s actually coming from a bug. Bees also have a very electronic sound component. But they were chosen not only for their sound abilities, [they were also chosen for] the idea of them maybe being individuals, maybe a colony. I think it’s very fascinating to have a blur of something that’s a whole. Ants are that way, too, but ants don’t have the same kind of obvious sound possibilities as these other ones. I really wanted to understand and study their social relationships to each other. So a lot of pieces from that period have to do with inquiries into the nature of society and culture and politics and sound.


FJO: Now with the bees, there’s the added layer of danger. Cockroaches tend to make people flinch, but with bees you can actually get stung and be physically injured. Is putting yourself in harm’s way part of the aesthetic here?
MM: No, not at all. And I’m not allergic to bees, so it’s okay. It was the idea of what the individual is, what our bodies are, and what the relationship is of our bodies to nature. It was searching for some kinds of clues to get closer to that.
FJO: I found it very interesting when we were talking earlier on about collaborations that you included the insects along with your collaborations with some of the most iconic human musicians. But insects, unlike people, don’t necessarily create a work of art of their own volition, so it’s a different kind of collaboration.
MM: Well, from my point of view, I really try to give the cockroaches agency by having them crawl and their movements create the sound structure for the piece. So I really try to imbue a certain agency for them.
FJO: But they’re not necessarily cognizant of their agency. Or are they?
MM: I have no idea.
FJO: But unlike collaborations with other people which are the creative work of the entire group collectively, certainly work for which you’d all share royalties, you don’t have to share your royalties with these bugs! Ultimately, it’s exclusively your work as a creator.
MM: Correct. But let me tell you about these cockroaches. I would be in the hotel room with these cockroaches night after night, travelling with them, and they were in a shoebox. I stopped taking both males and females, because the males would just attack too much, constantly going after each other and fighting each other. So I ended up with just one male cockroach, and the rest females. But I would just watch the way they interacted with each other for hours and hours in the hotel room, you know, after the performance. They did amazing things—very, very tender things with their antennas to each other, really very dramatic, very erotic things. When they would have sex, the things they would do with their antennas were fascinating. And how they would manipulate each other for food, and keep food from certain other ones. The whole thing was just fascinating. And for me, it was also part of the piece in a certain sense.
FJO: Now, to take it to plants. One could argue that even if insects may not be engaging in the same aesthetic processes that you are in the pieces that you involved them in, they certainly have will. Most people don’t think of plants as having will. I think that what you’ve done with plants is particularly fascinating, because it’s trying to address the living qualities of these life forms that we take for granted.
MM: I don’t think of plants as having will, but I will say some plants are very different from each other, even in one species. Some will be very responsive and some won’t be. I use EEG sensors on leaves, so I can monitor activity, and some plants are really responsive. You can get good readings on the sensors from the ones that are semi-tropical with very sebaceous leaves. If they’re in the jungle, they have to think which branch am I going to have to wrap myself around. Aristotle said the difference between humans and plants is plants can’t move, and human beings can. But actually these plants in the rain forest can actually go several miles by living on the treetops, and then shooting roots down. When they want to go somewhere else, they kill the nutrients off and then they move and get new roots in another location. But there are these plants, of course, like a lettuce, that just open and close; they are kind of like a toggle switch. Other plants grow quickly, and their vines shoot in directions where it’s most beneficial for them. So there’s definitely a lot of going there. These root systems can be considered somewhat like a neuron center of some sort.
FJO: So how does this all translate into music?
MM: Well, they give off mini-volts, which is one millionth of a volt. They recently discovered that plants have ultraviolet sensitivity, which is something human beings aren’t even able to discern. There’s a lot going on there. But it’s like any kind of data piece, whether you’re taking the information from earthquake activity, or wind activity. But my plant pieces were in real time. Often data pieces are not. They’re just taking a splice of something that happened and then interpreting that data. It started from my taking data from people’s brains in concerts, going from brain-activated pieces to using plants’ data. For some reason, those pieces got farther along for me than the brain pieces.

Masaoka performing with plants

One of Miya Masaoka’s performances with plants. (Photo by Donald Swearington.)

FJO: But it’s another one of these things where, if one were to hear it without knowing how those sounds came about, what would be the difference in the experience? And this begs the question of where does the music lie in this for you in all of these pieces—the plant pieces, the insect pieces. What is the musical issue that’s coming out of it for you that led you to create in this way?
MM: Well, they’re very different in a certain sense because the ones with insects are taking the actual sounds of the insects, but the ones with plants are taking their relationship to voltage output. A lot of it is negotiating what’s going to happen, whether it’s an installation, or whether it’s something that’s an eight-minute piece that goes from beginning to end. That’s a challenge for those kinds of pieces, to take the data and to make it interesting. I guess there are different ways of thinking about data, how pure this relationship is to the scientific frequencies coming out or whether that can be interpreted or manipulated for compositional purposes. I always err on the side of artistic license to really take the data and then apply it so that there is some sonic interest and development and satisfaction.
FJO: So how do you know when these pieces end? What is an ending?
MM: For long durational pieces, I think there’s the question of my own attention span and the attention span of the audience, the perceiver, the listener. I’ve been to India many times and have experienced seven-hour concerts, as well as [extended] durational concerts by different composers, like La Monte Young. There’s something very beautiful about this kind of eternity and things going on and on, but I also like something that you can kind of experience and then you have to go back to the memory. Once the piece starts, you start listening to it and then you go back to the memory of what you listened to. It’s like reflecting upon whatever just happened in a time-based way. The last event that happened that was meaningful, maybe you return to that. And then there’s a new meaningful event. And then you return to that along the timeline. And it kind of goes like that. And after a span of time happens, you reflect on the whole experience, and find what was meaningful or satisfying, or maybe what was not. For me, there’s kind of a ratio of attention span plus time plus satisfaction equals end. I just made that up right now. [laughing]
FJO: That’s good! You were talking about using raw data versus manipulating it for aesthetic ends. Even though we’re now in the 21st century, we’re still playing all these games with binaries. It’s either this or that. Either it’s about structure or it’s intuitive. One of the things I was trying to think through for what could be the sound bite to describe your music is its corporeality. At the onset of our talk you described your interest in physical moving sound. There’s a physicalness to most of your music, much more so—at least it seems—than the working out of a rigid process. You do all these experiments, but they’re really about how sound exists in the world more than how it exists in your brain. Is that fair?
MM: Anything’s fair. I think that’s an interesting way of thinking, and that sounds like an approach.
FJO: Here’s where it becomes a loaded gun thing—a lot of recent debates about aesthetics contextualize creative choices in terms of gender. The argument goes that men like to create all these rules which result in highly structured pieces, whereas women are more intuitive and they respond to things. Reality is a lot more complex than that, but this binary is something used to explain, say, why there are no 90-minute symphonies by women composers.
MM: Even 40-minute symphonies, why aren’t there those? They don’t have to be 90 minutes.
FJO: Well, I can think of at least ten 40-minute symphonies by women, but I can’t think of any 90-minutes ones. But is this related to gender and is this kind of thinking an issue for you in your own music making? When we talked about identity before, we didn’t talk so much about gender. How important are those questions for you?
MM: Those questions are very important because they have to do with how we function in our social context. So that’s very important. Some things are just done out of necessity. I would often do lots of solo things, especially in the earlier days, because I didn’t have the funding and the resources to hire people. Then whenever I did get funding, the first thing I would do was create more structured pieces to include more people and hire them. That’s always been something that I’ve done consistently. And there’ve been scores and rules for all of my pieces that have to do with larger groups because it’s too unwieldy otherwise. I think that serialism was kind of an extreme, and certainly it broke down, not just for women, but for men as well, but still there are certain things that are very interesting about serialism. For me, it’s more a question of access, being able to have musicians and being able to get your work performed. These kinds of things are more important to me than thinking that this is generalized for this gender or for that gender, which really is not very helpful for anybody.
FJO: But one thing that certainly is helpful to someone who is creative, especially during one’s formative years, is being able to have role models. While there have always been women composers, they did not really have much of an impact on the greater trajectory of music history until composers of Pauline Oliveros and Yoko Ono’s generation. Before their time, the role models were pretty much all men. I know that Pauline Oliveros is somebody who has been very important to you as a mentor. And on your website you include a fascinating talk you did with Yoko Ono, who also created work that blurs the line between sound and vision and performance.
MM: I don’t consider her a role model per se, but she’s definitely been an iconic artist.
FJO: So who are your role models?
MM: Well, Pauline Oliveros, Kaija Saariaho, Olga Neuwirth… I get very inspired by visual artists as well, like Kara Walker, and writers.
FJO: Everyone you mentioned is a woman.
MM: Well, there are men, too, but they get mentioned a lot. I like to mention people who aren’t mentioned as much.
FJO: The person you chose as your life partner, George Lewis, is also an iconic composer and musical thinker. I’m curious about how having the central person in your life also be a creator has impacted your own work. I know that the two of you have collaborated in the past.
MM: Not for a long time. We have a really separate artistic life, I’d say. We buy different pieces of equipment, even if it’s the same a lot of times, because it just makes it easier. You have your equipment, and no one’s going to mess with it. And then when you need it, it’s going to be in the exact same state in which you left it. Those kinds of things are important. And we have different places where we work. But it’s so enriching, because when we do get a chance to sit down and talk about different things, there’s always something interesting to say. So, I really appreciate that part of it.
FJO: It’s interesting. You were such an important fixture in the Bay Area new music scene, and now you’ve been in New York City for over a decade. Since so much of your music is about the physical world around you, I’m curious about how being in a different place has affected the work you’ve done since you’ve been here.
MM: The work I’ve done here in New York is focused more on composition. I just finished this string quartet. But in some ways, it all somewhat follows a life trajectory to a certain extent, since I’m not in my 20s and 30s anymore. I’ve got a small child. There are these kinds of interruptions of life to a certain extent that affect things. The Bay Area was, too, but New York is such a stimulating place to be, so I love being here every minute.

Score excerpt from "Survival"

An excerpt from the score of “Survival”, part 3 of Triangle of Resistance. Copyright © 2013 by Miya Masaoka. Reproduced with the permission of the composer.

Triangle of Resistance

From the world premiere performance of Miya Masaoka’s score for Triangle of Resistance at Roulette on November 17, 2013: Jennifer Choi and Esther Noh, violins; Ljova, viola; Alex Waterman, cello; plus Satoshi Takeishi, percussion; Miya Masaoka, koto; and Ben Vida, analog modular synthesizer. Conducted by Richard Carrick. Video projections by Michelle Handelman. Direction by Brooke O’Harra.

FJO: You also recently wrote your first orchestra piece.
MM: It was a piece called Other Mountain that was performed by the La Jolla Symphony last year.
FJO: Is that something you’re interested in exploring more now?
MM: Well, the large forces of a symphony are a learning experience, and it’s also a very intriguing way of thinking, how the sounds from each individual instrument work together. It’s something new for me, and it’s been endlessly fascinating. I don’t know really where the future goes with that, but it’s really an incredible thing to be able to have done.

Other Mountain orchestral score excerpt

From the orchestral score for Other Mountain Copyright © 2013 by Miya Masaoka. Reproduced with the permission of the composer.

Profiling the Jazz Police

Jazz Police badge

From Old Skool Hooligans’ Jazz Police t-shirt; image used with permission.

The scene: Sweet Basil, New York City, 1994. The occasion: a swanky CD-release party for a young lion that burst on the scene a few years before. The remark: a Brooklyn-by-way-of-the-Midwest jazz singer introduces me to her friend. “Hey, I’d like you to meet Eugene Holley, Jr. He writes for Down Beat and JazzTimes,” she says. But after I shake her hand and turn away momentarily toward my table, I hear my vocalist friend say to her friend in a hushed voice, “Yeah, he’s one of the jazz police, but he’s cool.”

That’s when I first heard the term “jazz police.” At first, I paid it no mind. I thought it was one of the many linguistic inventions and dimensions spawned by musicians – one of many verbal turns of fancy that have weaved in and out of the jazz lingua franca from New Orleans to Manhattan.

But as the years moved on, I started hearing that phrase “jazz police” in more ominous terms. It usually refers to a belief among musicians that there is a cabal of jazz writers, reporters, and critics who influence, undermine, and control jazz musicians. They stifle the true expressions of the music by deciding who gets five-star reviews and who doesn’t, who gets the big recording contract and who’s forced to stay at the indie label, who wins the Grammy award and who gets the big non-profit grant, and who ends up playing their hearts out in the subway for next to nothing.

Really?

As someone who has had the tremendous privilege of working as a jazz writer, reporter, radio station music/program director, documentarian, and essayist for 25 years, I can honestly say that no such cabal of jazz police exists.
After all, policemen have salaries, vacations, and unions.

But, notwithstanding that admittedly feeble attempt at humor, the belief in a jazz police has become very toxic these days. So I’d like to offer the perspective of one who has been lumped in with that sordid circle. I want to add some harmony to the discord that exists between musicians and writers. I strongly feel that we need to deal with this myth of the jazz police; otherwise the future of our music will continue to dwindle in the coming years.

Now, just because I say that there is no jazz police doesn’t mean that writers haven’t exercised power to make or break careers. Of course that’s true. Jazz history is replete with writers whose whims, tastes, likes, and dislikes—for good or ill—have determined who is a star and who is not—as evidenced by the critic Martin Williams’s dismissal of the great Ahmad Jamal as a “cocktail pianist,” which other critics echoed for a very long time.

But I have some good news for musicians. While yes, a critic with an influential newspaper or magazine column might have been able to sway the public to like or dislike a jazz musician of his or her choosing back in the day, today no writer or critic has that kind of power. In the 21st century, the explosion of social media, blogs, and online listening services have irrevocably reduced the once-powerful pronouncements of writers and critics to, at best, well-informed observations and opinions.

A critic could write that a musician’s new CD is not his or her best work, but a few clicks and you can hear for yourself whether you agree with the writer’s opinion. A consumer can also share his or her opinions about any musician with other like-minded listeners in an instant. This type of democratized discourse did not exist thirty years ago, and I suspect it’s here to stay. And while sites like Facebook and Soundcloud feature fan reviews and accessible sound files, respectively, the democratic accessibility of that data does not guarantee that opinions offered by fans are any less biased than the professional critics. We are still in the Wild West stages of this phenomenon. And while writers and record companies have been taken down a notch, their digital demotion may be a pyrrhic victory, because it still rings with the spirit of “us” versus “them.”

And nobody wins that contest these days.

This digital age has also changed the power relationships between the jazz musician and the record industry to a large degree. If musicians have access to the internet, they can become their own record company. Artists can create their own websites, complete with gig updates, biographical information, audio samples, tour dates, and videos.

But for all of the aforementioned advances available to jazz in this era, there are still a significant number of musicians who speak of a jazz police.

As someone who knows and is in awe of the power and artistry of jazz musicians, I understand the frustrations, outrage, and disappointment they must feel when they have put their hearts and souls into a gig, a record, the road, and a career, only to see their careers marginalized by shrinking media coverage, unless they die and/or are featured in a PBS documentary. I particularly marvel at the young people, who become jazz musicians knowing what may befall them.

But let me get a little personal here. While I don’t claim to have met every major jazz writer in the years I’ve been on the scene, I have had the profound privilege of knowing quite a few of them: Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddins, Gene Seymour, John Murph, Willard Jenkins, Kelvin Williams, Jackie Modeste, Guthrie Ramsey, Robert G. O’Meally, Greg Thomas, A.B. Spellman, and two giants who left us recently—Albert Murray and Amiri Baraka. I have never seen them huddle to block anyone’s career. Musicians may not have liked everything they wrote, but I will go on record to insist that, at least with the people I mentioned, I saw no evidence of the jazz police some musicians talk about.

Yes, it is true that negative reviews—however crude, ill-informed, and distasteful they may be—do sell magazines and, in many cases, help establish the writer’s voice. Terry Teachout’s acerbic and condescending biography of Duke Ellington is one recent example. However, the notion of a jazz police that profits off of the misfortunes of musicians is downright unsupportable. I know a few known and unknown bards who are the antithesis of a jazz police; individuals who, without notoriety or fanfare, made great sacrifices for this music.

William A. “Bill” Brower of Washington, D.C., is a writer, concert producer, and former stage manager for the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival and Classic Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The late Bobby Jackson was the former program director of WCLK-FM in Atlanta and jazz programmer of Cleveland’s WCPN-FM.

Skip Norris is an intrepid Detroit entrepreneur who produces swinging gigs in the Motor City.

Zoe Anglesey and Tom Terrell, who both left us far too soon, and Arnold J. Smith are three Brooklyn-based, all-around guardian angels whose writings and work in the record industry have illuminated the scene.

If musicians want to search for a jazz police, they need look no further than themselves. The same digital revolution that has diminished the power of music critics and heavy-handed record producers has also exposed how some jazz musicians undermine and sabotage each other. Without naming names, writers have heard horror stories over the years: A musician sends someone to the wrong gig for an audition for a major jazz group. A group of sidemen on a recording session don’t like one person they’re playing with, and they purposely play badly to ruin the session. And most recently, a jazz pianist won a MacArthur grant and some musicians actually posted on his Facebook page the reasons why they didn’t feel he deserved the award.

My purpose is relating these examples, is not to hurt or embarrass musicians. But, as corny as it sounds, it’s to encourage musicians to treat each other better; and to emphasize that today, in an age where all jazz artists in America are underrated, musicians should know that, in my opinion, the overwhelming majority of jazz scribes and other individuals in the jazz infrastructure are there to help them, and, more importantly, the music.
We’re all trying to swing.

 

***

EugeneHolley
Eugene Holley, Jr. contributes to: Publisher’s Weekly, Purejazz magazine, Philadelphia Weekly and NPR: A Blog Supreme.

Doris Duke Artist and First-Ever Impact Awards Announced

Doris Duke Artist and Impact Award recipients

Top (l to r): Oliver Lake, Steve Lehman, Roscoe Mitchell, Zeena Parkins, Craig Taborn, and Randy Weston. Bottom (l to r): Muhal Richard Abrams, Ambrose Akinmusire, Steve Coleman, Ben Monder, Aruán Ortiz, Matana Roberts, and Jen Shyu

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has announced the first-ever recipients of the Doris Duke Impact Awards and the third group of individuals to receive Doris Duke Artist Awards. Both awards are part of the Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards, a special, ten-year initiative of the foundation to empower, invest in, and celebrate artists by offering flexible, multi-year funding in response to financial challenges that are specific to the performing arts.

Doris Duke Artist Award recipients receive $275,000, and Doris Duke Impact Award recipients receive $80,000. Since commencing in April 2012, the program has awarded a total of $18.1 million to artists in the fields of jazz, dance, and theater.
American jazz trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire, a recipient of the Doris Duke Impact Award, said, “I was shocked and grateful to be recognized by my peers for my work, which is so personal to me. There is a lot of pressure to be commercial and not to take risks. This award will allow me to take more risks in my work, and to embark on collaborations that I’ve long wanted to do with other artists but that wouldn’t otherwise be financially possible for me.”
This year’s recipients in jazz are:
2014 Doris Duke Artist Awards in Jazz

  • Oliver Lake
  • Steve Lehman
  • Roscoe Mitchell
  • Zeena Parkins
  • Craig Taborn
  • Randy Weston

2014 Doris Duke Impact Awards in Jazz

  • Muhal Richard Abrams
  • Ambrose Akinmusire
  • Steve Coleman
  • Ben Monder
  • Aruán Ortiz
  • Matana Roberts
  • Jen Shyu

Each recipient of a Doris Duke Artist Award receives $275,000—including an unrestricted, multi-year cash grant of $225,000, plus as much as $25,000 more in targeted support for audience development and as much as $25,000 more for personal reserves or creative exploration during what are usually retirement years for most Americans. Artists will be able to access their awards over a period of three to five years under a schedule set by each recipient. Creative Capital, DDCF’s primary partner in the Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards, will also offer the awardees the opportunity to participate in professional development activities, financial and legal counseling, and regional gatherings—all designed to help them personalize and maximize the use of their grants.

Each recipient of a Doris Duke Impact Award receives $80,000–including an unrestricted, multi-year cash grant of $60,000, plus as much as $10,000 more in targeted support for audience development and as much as $10,000 more personal reserves or creative exploration during what are usually retirement years for most Americans. Artists will be able to access their awards over a period of two to three years under a schedule set by each recipient. Like the Doris Duke Artists, Doris Duke Impact Award recipients have the opportunity to participate in professional development activities, financial and legal counseling, and regional gatherings through Creative Capital, DDCF’s primary partner in the Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards. By the end of the ten-year awarding cycle, 100 artists will have received Doris Duke Impact Awards.

Doris Duke Impact Award recipients were nominated by previous Doris Duke Artist Award recipients. Nominators were required to identify multiple artists who have influenced and are helping to move forward the fields of dance, jazz and/or theatre—but may or may not be artists in one of these particular fields. In addition to these criteria, they were encouraged to consider artists, including dancers, actors, and non- composing musicians, who are not eligible for the Doris Duke Artist Awards. A separate anonymous panel of artists then selected artists from this larger nomination pool.

More information about the awards and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is available here.

(from the press release)

Sounds Heard: These Just Out

The Puppeteers: The Puppeteers

It’s a charming, slightly romantic notion that musical collaborators who began their friendship at a much-loved performance space would later unite to form a group after that venue has come and gone as a tribute of sorts, but that’s exactly what The Puppeteers have done. In memory of the Brooklyn club Puppet’s Jazz, which closed its doors in 2011, drummer Jamie Affoumado, pianist Arturo O’Farrill, bassist Alex Blake, and vibraphonist Bill Ware have all thrown their creative ideas into the same hat and recorded their self-titled first album. The release is also the premiere recording offered on their new label Puppet’s Records.
All of these musicians have individually made so much music with so many different and amazing groups that I’m not going to venture to list them (although in the “we are all connected” department, it is worth mentioning that Bill Ware was a 2003-4 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute participant), but suffice it to say that the strength of this album lies in the fact that everyone has contributed their own tunes; there is no bandleader. Because the musicians have played together so much, the music is varied without seeming disjointed, and the balance between instruments—especially the agility with which the instruments move between background and foreground to allow for the featuring of solos and prominent lines—is so fluid that the listener barely notices such shifts of texture until they have already taken place. From O’Farrill’s blazingly fast piano lines and Ware’s similarly propulsive vibraphone playing to Blake’s quiet, tuneful scatting over bass improvisations and Affoumado’s exacting-yet-still-relaxed drumming, it’s easy to hear that the four are having a blast playing together, and it’s most definitely a fun and energizing listening experience.

Buy:


Michael Gordon: Rushes
Hitting the streets just today is a commercial recording of Michael Gordon’s composition Rushes for seven bassoons. Named after the tall grass that is reminiscent of the materials from which bassoon reeds are manufactured, Rushes is a triathlon—the piece is written in three parts; two 20+ minute sections sandwiching a short seven-minute movement—of constant musical motion; wave upon wave of repeated tones constantly wash over one another in a multilayered tapestry of darkly beautiful harmonies. It is at first warm and then, over time, becomes somehow electronic-sounding, but without losing the sense that humans are behind the music. (And don’t forget to check out the score and assorted insights into the production of the work.) Like his previous composition in the same vein, Timber, this piece is intended to evoke an ecstatic, trancelike state, and also to “expand the boundaries of a single instrument’s repertoire into hitherto unknown (and at times, otherworldly) spaces.” Mission accomplished.

Buy:
Order from Cantaloupe Records

Joseph Kubera: Book of Horizons
With more than thirty years’ worth of musical contributions to the American contemporary experimental music scene, pianist Joseph Kubera has pretty much played, well, nearly all of it. He is known for unrelenting precision, stamina, and patience—qualities all required to master some of the most challenging piano works of our age, such as those by Feldman, Ashley, and numerous pieces by John Cage, to name just a few. He also has wide-ranging tastes, which are demonstrated on his new album, Book of Horizons released by New World Records. Two of the works, “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s 1994 composition The Drifter and Michael Byron’s 2009 Book of Horizons, were written especially for Kubera, and he has grouped them with Julius Eastman’s Piano 2 and Stuart Saunders Smith’s Fences, In Thee Tragedies. The music spans the lush to the thorny, and the textures range from sparse to brick wall density; the recording below of the first movement of Michael Byron’s Book of Horizons conveys the sonic cognitive dissonance of unceasing tangled fingerings that nonetheless sound strangely effortless.

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Sounds Heard: Things You Already Know

It’s always exciting to find a “new” favorite piece of music or music maker, and when a genre’s emphasis is on the innovative, that perhaps lays the foundations for a particularly blinkered focus. I almost passed up the three discs below for that reason, because while they were new, I had covered these artists in some measure before and felt obliged to keep my ears moving. But then I heard Kamala Sakaram in her interview this month suggesting that there is so much to be gained by digging past the premiere, and I decided to apply that to my listening.

Once this idea slapped me in the face, Chris Campbell‘s Things You Already Know (poetically appropriate, no?) metaphorically hit the other cheek. In this case this was not music I already knew but rather Campbell playing around (as he explains in his CD or vinyl-accompanying note to the listener) with dialog across his own internal and external realities. While much music might be traced in one way or another to a similar root motivation, here the work wears its intention on its CD sleeve and it led me to consume the tracks as a sort of tour though the composer’s aural memory palace, several doors left temptingly unlocked and the drawers open for ready snooping. With the assistance of musicians drawn from various genre specialties in the Twin Cities and a colorful collection of unusual and/or processed instrumental timbres, it’s a rewarding journey—particularly Water Variations, with its exotic string instrument collection. Campbell himself sits at the piano at key points offering reflective commentary until the listener is beckoned to peek behind the next swaying curtain.


Buy:
David T. Little’s Haunt of Last Nightfall was stuck in my head for nearly a month after our Spotlight interview, and it has taken up residence there yet again in anticipation of the commercial release of a recording on New Amsterdam (out today!). It’s not always comfortable sonic material to host in one’s ear. The history which Little explores through the music—the massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador in December 1981—draws on a full palette of extreme content stretching from horror to prayer. What particularly impresses me about this piece, however, is how rich and gripping an emotional experience Little, Third Coast Percussion, and guest musicians Eileen Mack, Mellissa Hughes, Andrew McKenna Lee, and Toby Driver are able to conjure—particularly in the percussion-only sections the work offers. A visceral reaction to a driving electric guitar is perhaps not an experience to brush aside, but it’s the timbral interplay of the various percussion sounds that bring a remarkable exploration of the events to light and one that won’t easily be shaken even after the last sounds fade.


Buy:
Saxophonist Aaron Irwin is a bandleader whose projects sometimes catch my ear even before I realize his name is attached, but they tend to stick around in the rotation long enough for me to do my liner note research and get my credits straight. His latest release, Ordinary Lives, is sure to take up similar residence. In addition to Irwin on alto, this outing features Danny Fox (piano, Fender Rhodes), Sebastian Noelle (guitar), Thomson Kneeland (bass), and Greg Ritchie (drums), and the men are clearly well at home in one another’s company. The tracks are filled with too-easy-to-eat hooks, seductive gestures, and, well, regular injections of joyful lick playing that neatly keep things from getting tedious and ruining the party. It’s a warm and welcoming recording that quickly rewards attention.


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Jamie Baum: Jazz Diplomacy


For flutist Jamie Baum, the formula for what she calls a “complete musician” consists of three parts: performing, composing, and improvising. In her mind, these three activities combine in an organic way to create a rich, full musical life, and she does it all—and more—in spades. Since the 1990s, she has been composing music for her own ensemble, playing with top-notch musicians such as Paul Motian, Randy Brecker, and Fred Hersch, leading workshops on a number of topics including improvisation for classical musicians, and presenting her music to audiences around the globe.

Much of Baum’s work has been inspired by elements of 20th-century classical, Indian, and Afro-Latin music, worlds between which she nimbly moves as a performer. Her 2004 album Moving Forward Standing Still takes musical cues from Stravinsky, Ives, and Bartok, all composers who were important for her during her early composition training at the New England Conservatory. The music on her most recent release, In This Life, is deeply influenced by a tour through South Asia, and specifically by the music of Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. In both cases she deftly weaves elements from diverse musical sources through her own prodigious artistic imagination to create compositions that sound highly distinct yet perfectly natural at the same time. Her ensemble, the Jamie Baum Septet, is comprised of flute, piano, trumpet, French horn, alto sax doubling bass clarinet, drums, and bass, and expands with the additions of guitar and hand percussion such as congas and tabla to form the Jamie Baum Septet +.

Baum says that one of her musical goals has always been to make the flute a primary ensemble instrument, rather than simply an instrument for doubling or a secondary textural element as it is sometimes viewed within a jazz music context. The somewhat unusual instrumentation of her group is intended to help give the flute more weight within the ensemble texture and to provide different musical coloring options than the standard grouping of trumpet, alto, tenor, and baritone sax or trombone. However, never having been one to save all the big soloing opportunities for the leader of the band, she is happy for the flute to become an inner voice and allow other instruments plenty of creative freedom when it comes time to solo. No doubt this sense of openness and her willingness to collaborate is part of what has kept the membership of her group stable for over 14 years.
In addition to a bustling composing and performing schedule, Baum also leads a variety of intriguing musical workshops centered upon improvisation and fostering creativity, including ones entitled “A fear-free approach to improvisation for the classically trained musician” and “Jazz flute technique is not an oxymoron,” intended to teach classical flute and double reed players techniques appropriate for jazz performance.

Through the practice of her own “complete musicianship” Baum has become an integral player in the jazz tradition, without becoming confined by it; she keeps her ears and mind open to whatever external influences might play a role in expanding her writing, performing, and composing.

NewMusicBox Mix: The Jazz Edition

NewMusicBox Mix: The Jazz EditionThis edition of the NewMusicBox Mix is drawn from the many different sound worlds of jazz. Focusing primarily on recent releases (as current as today!) there are some familiar names, as well as a few you may not have heard from yet. Whether you are a serious jazz buff or a curious listener, you’re likely to find something to pique your interest among these tracks.
Each piece is streamed separately on this page, with information about the recordings and purchasing links to encourage further exploration and continued listening. These artists have very generously donated their tracks to this project, and we encourage you to support them by purchasing their albums and letting them know if you enjoy what you hear!—AG

Brooklyn Babylon cover
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, The Neighborhood
Brooklyn Babylon
New Amsterdam

Capricorn Climber
Kris Davis, Pass The Magic Hat
Capricorn Climber
Clean Feed

Nourishments cover
Mark Dresser, Not Withstanding
Performed by the Mark Dresser Quintet
Nourishments
Clean Feed


Synesthesia
The Kandinsky Effect, Johnny Utah
Synesthesia
Cuneiform

No Morphine No Lilies
Allison Miller, Waiting
Performed by Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom
No Morphine No Lilies
Foxhaven

Polebridge
Rob Mosher, North By Northwest
Performed by Rob Mosher’s Polebridge
Polebridge

Sun Pictures
Linda Oh, Shutterspeed Dreams
Ben Wendel, saxophone; James Muller, guitar; Linda Oh, bass; Ted Poor, drums
Sun Pictures

Songs from The Ground
Mara Rosenbloom Quartet, Small Finds
Songs from the Ground
Fresh Sound

Inner Chapters
Jen Shyu, Elliptical / Wayward Son
Inner Chapters

Bandcamp

Ten Freedom Summers
Wadada Leo Smith, Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada
Ten Freedom Summers
Cuneiform

Chants
Craig Taborn Trio, Saints
Chants
ECM

My Bill Evans Problem–Jaded Visions of Jazz and Race

“I never experienced any racial barriers in jazz other than from some members of the audience.”—Bill Evans
Vinyl
In the early ‘80s, I was working in a Washington, D.C. record store when I heard Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’s midtempo, modal masterpiece of an album that for me, and many others, was an initiation into the colors, cadences, and complexities of jazz. Transfixed by the many aural shades of the LP’s blue moods, I made it a point to get every recording the musicians on the album had ever made. But it was the poetic and profound pianism of Bill Evans that haunted me the most. When I listened to Evans’s studio LP Explorations—with drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro—my Evans-induced hypnotic trance deepened; and so did my problem.
What was the problem? Bill Evans was white. And I am black.

When I got into jazz, I was in my twenties. As a child growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I was a beneficiary of the Civil Rights Movement, and, more importantly, I grew up in a period of American history when, thankfully, black pride was taken for granted. I had black history courses beginning in the first grade and continuing through middle school, and black contributions to world music were a natural extension of that education. I attended Howard University (the so-called Mecca of historically black colleges and universities). Throughout my life, it had been drilled into me that jazz was created by blacks and represented the apex of African-American musical civilization. I learned about the great jazz heroes – from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie to Charlie Parker – and of America’s refusal to give these Olympian musicians their proper due as the revolutionary artists the world knows them to be. I came to know something deeper: in many cases, white jazz musicians achieved more fame and were given more credit for the creation of the music.

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The cover of the November 8, 1954 issue of Time magazine.

There are enough examples of this in jazz history. Paul Whiteman was the King of Jazz. Benny Goodman was the King of Swing. Duke Ellington knocked on Dave Brubeck’s hotel door, to show the white pianist that he made the cover of Time magazine in 1954 before he did. (Brubeck, for the record, was hurt and embarrassed.) Then there was the 1965 Pulitzer Prize snub of Ellington. In the ’70s, President Carter presented jazz on the White House lawn, with Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz as featured artists. President Carter asked Getz about how bebop was created, with Gillespie standing right there.

Against that historical backdrop, I also practiced a form of racial profiling of musicians. Though I was wrong about the racial identities of the Righteous Brothers, Average White Band, and Teena Marie, I knew what black musicians “sounded like” via Motown, Stax, and Philadelphia International records. Though no one stated it specifically, there was a “black sound” and a “white sound.” To like a “white sound,” or worse, a white musician who “sounded black,” was cultural treason. Without realizing it at the time, this inhibited me on many levels, especially as a clarinetist and pianist in high school. When I was studying classical music, and I allowed myself to be moved by it, I feared that some of my black peers would see me as an Uncle Tom.

It was Bill Evans’s love of, and application of, European classical styles, approaches, and motifs into jazz that was so attractive to my ears, as evidenced by the azure impressionism of “Blue in Green” on Kind of Blue, the intoxicating melodicism of “Israel” from Explorations, the lyrical logic of “Peace Piece” from Everybody Digs Bill Evans, and the chamber timbre of “Time Remembered” from the 1966 album Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra.

So it was in that hot-house atmosphere of well-meaning—but ultimately immature and xenophobic attitudes about music and race—that my Bill Evans problem existed. The problem manifested itself in many ways. I would often hide Bill Evans albums when talking about jazz musicians with fellow black jazz fans for fear of being “outed” as a sellout, given a look of disapproval, or asked, “Why are you listening to that white boy?” The fact that Evans was lauded by white critics because he was white and his classical pedigree didn’t help.
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Slowly but surely, my perceptions about jazz and race began to evolve and change. As my jazz historical studies deepened, I learned that music is a cultural, not a racial phenomenon. Black Americans at the turn of the 20th century created jazz by combining elements of European classical instruments, harmonies, and song forms with African, Afro-Caribbean, and American rhythms and melodic structures. As Ralph Ellison noted, “blood and skin don’t think.” Or to put it a different way: jazz didn’t come into existence because black people were simply black. Its creation was the result of history, geography, social conditions, and, most importantly, the will to create something of artistic human value. To believe anything else plummets us into the foul abyss of pseudo-racist demagoguery that still plagues us on so many levels today.

Specifically, I asked myself, “Why would Miles Davis, a proud, strong black man, hire someone who was white like Evans?” The answer was simple: the artistry of the musician mattered more to him; not his or her color. Davis hired and collaborated with many white musicians throughout his career, from Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz in the historic Birth of the Cool sessions of the late ’40s and his extremely popular mid-1950s recordings arranged by Gil Evans to his later fusion bands which included Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, and even British guitarist John McLaughlin. So Davis chose Bill Evans because (in his own words, as recounted in Peter Pettinger’s biography Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings): “He can play his ass off.” Davis was more specific in his autobiography (Miles: the Autobiography, co-written by Quincy Troupe): “Bill brought a great knowledge of classical music, people like Rachmaninoff and Ravel. He was the one who told me to listen to the Italian pianist Arturo Michelangeli, so I did and fell in love with his playing. Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano.”

In addition to Davis, other black jazz superstars hired Evans. He recorded on bassist Charles Mingus’s East Coasting, a superb and elegant recording from the ’50s, and on alto saxophonist Oliver Nelson’s ’60s masterpiece Blues and the Abstract Truth, which also featured Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard. Evans was the featured soloist on arranger/composer George Russell’s arrangement of “All About Rosie,” and on his third stream-meets-bop Jazz Workshop album. He also worked with bassist Ortiz Walton, the author of the book Music: Black, White and Blue. My further explorations revealed that Evans was not the lily-white suburban racial recluse I stereotyped him to be. He was heavily indebted to Nat “King” Cole and Bud Powell (Evans described Powell as “the most comprehensive talent of any jazz player I have ever heard presented on the jazz scene”). So much for being the “great white devil” or the “white hope” black and white critics made him out to be.

So what does my former Bill Evans problem say about jazz and race today? For one thing, it is firmly and correctly established in music education, and in society in general, that jazz is an African-American art form: blacks have gotten their due as the art form’s primary creators. No credible critic, musician, or music curriculum would state otherwise. At the same time, it is equally true that white musicians have made and continue to make great contributions to jazz. While the role Evans and other whites have played should not be exaggerated to move the music’s black known and unknown bards to the back of the bus, giving Caucasians appropriate acknowledgment does not threaten the African-American creation of the music.

If anything, jazz at the beginning of the 21st century is appropriately black, brown, and beige; with every global musical/cultural ingredient embellishing, extending, and enriching it. This is a good thing. More importantly, youth around the world—white youth included—want to play it, despite the fact that in the United States you barely see jazz on TV, radio stations that play it are shrinking, and print coverage of it is dwindling.
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The declining significance of jazz in the media and marketplace has, in my opinion, increased the unfortunate crabs-in-a-bucket mentality that plagues the jazz infrastructure, which by default can cause the racial aspect to become more prominent. I see this in two distinctly different, but related aspects. The first is the notion of the “Crow-Jimmed” white musician who has been racially discriminated against by blacks, the record industry, and white critics who are guilt-tripped into adopting an “exclusionary” black agenda to support a kind of affirmative action for black musicians. This was the primary gist behind the 2010 publication of trumpeter Randy Sandke’s controversial book, Where the Dark and Light Folks Meet: Race and Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz. Sandke, a New York-based musician whom I first met when we shared a panel on Louis Armstrong at Hofstra University in 2001, sees today’s jazz scene as a retreat into a cult of racial exclusionism that betrays the integration of black and white musicians who played together in the same groups going back to the 1930s. It was a phenomenon which lessened in the ‘60s and which was largely forgotten during the so-called “Young Lions” era of the ‘80s when young, African-American musicians such as the Marsalis brothers rose to prominence.
“Having once been in the vanguard, jazz has fallen prey to the same racial divisions that have plagued the rest of American society,” Sandke writes. “The overwhelming racialization of jazz has not only denied outside musical influences, stifled creativity, and pitted group against group: it has also overlooked the crucial role that white audiences and presenters have played in disseminating and promoting the music.”

I think, with all due respect, Sandke overdramatizes the plight of the white jazz musician. Yes, the Young Lions phenomenon was overwhelmingly black and young, and Sandke is partially right about the market-driven motives of record executives who wanted to hype black musicians to an extent, but their actions pale in comparison to how whites have promoted musicians of a paler shade for centuries. In the end, there is a big difference between the jazz intelligentsia’s attempt to right an historical wrong and the willful promotion of a reverse apartheid for white musicians. Sandke’s views are ironic, because many black jazz musicians and writers complain that African Americans—who, according to the 2010 CENSUS, are 12% of the population—do not frequent jazz venues in sizable numbers.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Nicholas Payton: a New Orleans-born trumpet player and son of bassist Walton Payton. Payton has enjoyed a critically acclaimed career, earning a Grammy for his 1997 collaboration with the great Doc Cheatman. In the past decade, he has recorded two challenging and creative CDs: Sonic Trance and Into the Blue. Now Payton feels straight-jacketed as a jazz musician, and he has created #BAM – Black American Music—in response, a movement that is “about setting straight what has been knocked out of alignment by mislabeling and marketing strategies,” according to his website. What started out as a provocative essay from Payton entitled “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore” has degenerated in some posts and tweets into finger pointing and name calling that advances nothing. To be fair to Payton, he is not saying that you have to be black to appreciate or play #BAM. “Black American Music just acknowledges the culture from which it sprung forth. You don’t have to be Black to appreciate and play it any more than you have to be Chinese to cook and eat noodles,” he writes on his website.

While, as an African American I have some sympathy for Payton’s views, I have the same reservations about his conclusions as I do Sandke’s views. Payton suggests that black jazz musicians cannot change the status quo of their current stature if they call their music jazz. Payton also ignores or diminishes the fact that, as I stated earlier, everyone in the jazz infrastructure acknowledges blacks as the creators of jazz. Yes, jazz artists are hampered by market-driven definitions, but that is nothing special to them. Every musician regardless of genre complains about this.

Just as my Bill Evans problem obscured my early development in my appreciation of the music, adopting verbatim the thoughts and opinions of musicians like Sandke and Payton could do the same for young people just getting into the music, whether as musicians or as fans. It would be quite Pollyannaish of me to tell someone to “simply ignore race.” I (and we) live in a racialized world, and jazz is a part of that world. But if the music teaches us anything, it teaches us that we can keep racial distinctions and distortions at bay.