Thursday, October 1, 2015

“Trio New York” Live at the Willisau Jazz Festival

Some years ago I got a call from my friend, drummer Bobby Previte, asking me if I knew that there was a poster with my name on it hanging in the architecture and design gallery of the Museum of Modern Art here in NYC.  In fact I hadn’t known and thought it rather odd and unlikely.  Bobby said it was from Willisau (Switzerland), a poster for a concert I did with Dutch drummer Han Bennink.  So I gathered the family and we walked through midtown, found our way to the gallery and there it was. Turns out the poster was made by Niklaus Troxler.  Niklaus Troxler has produced countless concerts in Willisau over the past four or more decades.  And he’s made his own concert posters for each one of them as well.  I knew they were wonderful posters but I did not realize that Niklaus’ work was showing in galleries around the globe.  In fact he has won many awards for them over the years.  And so here were some of his posters on view at MOMA.  I was impressed and flattered that one of my own concerts was represented.  Taking a moment to assure that my young son (he was about nine or ten at the time) fully appreciated the import of this I looked over and said, “so what do you think of that?”  Without missing a beat he replied, “that’s nice, can we get something to eat now?”  Keeping priorities in order.

Photo of Trio New York by Adrian Baer, NZZ

I first played the Willisau festival in 1997 with a group formed to perform music associated with the great saxophonist Gene Ammons (with Marc Ribot on guitar and Kenny Wolleson on drums).  We recorded “The Sun Died” for Soul Note records (which is available on iTunes).  I’ve played in Willisau at least a dozen times, as I was reminded by Niklaus this past August.  The forward looking festival is now produced by his nephew Arno Troxler, who had invited me to bring “Trio New York” to perform on the festival this year.  As we were sitting down to dinner Niklaus proudly showed me a book titled “WILLISAU AND ALL THAT JAZZ - A Visual History 1966 – 2013” which was recently published chronicling the scene there since 1966 containing over 700 pages with many beautiful photographs as well as his concert poster reproductions.  It simply amazes me that a small town in Europe can host, nurture and develop such a deep and long running celebration of musical art and culture and document it in a way that so often eludes us here in the States.

We see many friends and familiar faces each time in Willisau and it’s always nice to reconnect with folks over the years.  This very warm and relaxed feeling combined with a heightened energy and awareness of the special nature of this annual event makes playing there very easy. One of the nice things about the festival is that it is not maxed out with so many bands that one is overwhelmed or unable to hear everything that is presented.  When it was our time to play we hit the stage and started in on the music without even thinking twice. I formed “Trio New York” in 2010 along with Gary Versace on Hammond B3 organ.  The drum chair has been occupied by a great many wonderful drummers; Tyshawn Sorey, Ted Poor, Tom Rainey, Nasheet Waits, Gerry Hemingway, Jochen Ruckert, Rudy Royston and Gerald Cleaver (who is on both of the band’s recordings). Each of these musicians brings a different chemistry to the band. For this occasion I invited Gerry Hemingway to reconnect with the group. I have about twenty years of experience playing with Gerry and so that’s a pretty deep bond to draw from. The concert was recorded for Swiss Radio and the combination of good vibes and good technical acumen on the part of the recording engineers resulted in a document that I think is worth sharing.  We’re already underway with getting that mixed and mastered for a spring release on hatOLOGY records. I’ll be making plenty of noise about it when the time comes so do stay tuned…



posters by Niklaus Troxler

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Summer 2015 - Listening to the Audience…

Enjoying the summer here in New York City. Consciously taking a slower pace. This helps with daily saxophone practice. It also serves to deepen my engagement with everything that is right in front of me.

In May I traveled to Australia (for the first time) with pianist and composer Marc Hannaford (his group with trumpeter Scott Tinkler and drummer Tom Rainey). Marc and Scott are both from Melbourne although Marc has been living in NYC for the past couple of years pursuing his PhD at Columbia University. We recorded a program of Marc’s music in 2014 and this tour was our first real opportunity to develop the music over the course of multiple performances. We played Melbourne, Hobart, Canberra and Sydney. The music scene in Australia seems vibrant and audiences were very enthusiastic all around.  The same could be said for Aussie folks in general.

Also had the chance to do some teaching workshops which I find to be an increasingly rewarding and important aspect of propagating the art. I enjoyed all of the workshops however there was one, at Monash University in Melbourne, that was particularly memorable. A question was asked about free improvisation. I can’t recall the question exactly but I think it had to do with a perceived problem about just what was being communicated in performance, particularly with a potentially challenging type of music. It was one of those questions that is too general for a pat answer and yet it was a sincere question and I could sense that this student was somehow stuck or troubled by it. So I responded by posing my own questions about the nature of music making from a performers standpoint and from a listener’s standpoint, eventually arriving at the question of “what is the essential quality that makes for a great communicator?” Students responded with their ideas and I kept asking more questions, attempting to design a line of inquiry even if I was not completely sure where we would wind up. This process gained some traction, more and more students began to offer ideas and at a certain point one student became so excited she decided that the only way to address the discussion was to play something at the piano. Unable to hold herself back, she invited the student who posed the initial question (a drummer) to join her.

At this point the inquiry went from being an intellectual process to an experiential one. And were there any answers? Hard to say since I can’t even remember all the questions. But with a clear and directed intent our pianist got her point across to everyone in the room and our drummer seemed to have gotten his head around something that he may not have completely understood but definitely felt. And what I do remember, very vividly, is sharing with the students this experience of “finding out” through doing something, together. Doing the workshop (teacher and students), doing the line of inquiry (speakers and listeners), doing the music (musicians and listeners). It was during this process that I realized the entire workshop could be summed up with one word.  Attention.  That’s what we were really talking about and that’s what we were really doing. That was the lesson. Whatever the original problem was, it was faced directly. Whatever that essential communicative quality is, shared by great musicians or great orators or great actors, it has everything to do with attention. The attention of the musicians guides the attention of the audience.  The attention of the audience guides the attention of the musicians. It’s in this space that our questions got addressed, in a deeper, non-verbal way. I might have described such a process to them but what good is that really? Limited at best, just like this blog post. But it is interesting, in that this process does not stop when the music is over. Our attention guides every aspect of our lives, from the smallest things to the largest.  In thinking about the role of music in the world, in the context of so many urgent issues, it seems we may have a potential model for how to approach things.

To play music is an act of giving. And likewise, to listen to music is also an act of giving. The idea that I, as a listener, am to be completely satisfied in terms of getting what I want is limited. I’m there to participate, to serve the situation. And the idea that I, as a musician, will play only for myself is also limited if not absurd. We’re both, musicians and listeners, looking for some form of truth as experienced together. As listeners we often say to the musicians, “thanks for the music”. And the musicians usually respond by saying “thanks for being here”. A simple recognition of an interdependent dynamic. I grew up in Baltimore and often played in African American jazz clubs where this dynamic was always in full effect. Listeners were active, physically and vocally. Participation was essential, you could hear and feel the audience helping the music along.  And it made you play better. And if you didn’t play well you’d hear about it. I was about nineteen years old the first time I went to the Bird Cage Lounge to sit in with saxophone great Mickey Fields. I thought I was really showing everybody something only to have a member of the audience tell me “you need to slow down!” I was a little taken aback but I knew it was coming from a place of love for the music.  And it was a larger lesson as well, showing that it wasn’t just about me, it was about every person and everything that was going on in that room. And there was a lot going on in that room. Everyone played their role. I just happened to be the guy with a saxophone. We were at each other’s service. And we were all at the service of the music. And the music was at the service of our lives. I considered it a privilege to be there.

And that’s a word that has come to the fore recently in our shared national conversations, although in a different context. Privilege as it relates to inequality, insensitivity, injustice. But there is a connection I think. I don’t pretend to offer any answers but I can think of some questions. What’s important? Where is our attention? Using music as a model to frame this issue may be of limited usefulness. But music is an essential aspect of being human, even if you don’t play it. So I think it’s OK. I’m a musician, that’s my skill, that’s what I do, that’s all I’ve got. I sometimes ask myself if that’s enough. Trying to see the bigger picture is never ending. There are blind spots. Like where you think you are and where others may see you from their perspectives. In playing music, we keep track of what we’re doing at the same time that we keep track of what the music is doing. That’s the only way things can function. Outside of music, in society, our attention needs to be engaged similarly. We have to keep track of what we’re doing at the same time as we keep track of what’s going on around us. And in fact there’s really no separation between the two. Except by virtue of blind spots, inadvertent or willful. And the consequences can be dire.

Again, no answers. I really don’t have much to say. We've all got our own work to do, our own part to play. Better to pay attention and be engaged, because every situation is fluid. Getting back to music, some audiences are more demonstrative and some less so. When I started to travel and do concert tours I used to think that quieter audiences were somehow not digging the music. But I would always stick around afterwards and chat with people only to find that there was a multitude of responses and that often times these quieter audiences were deeply engaged in listening. So I had to learn how to listen to them during the concerts as well. I had to change my perspective, not think of the audience as separate. We’re all individuals with our own thoughts and feelings. And yet when we do something together we often get a glimpse of that larger picture. All it takes is our attention, at all levels and across every interaction, large and small.

Gerry Hemingway Residency at The Stone, NYC

I first heard drummer Gerry Hemingway playing with Anthony Braxton’s quartet (along with pianist Marilyn Crispell and bassist Mark Dresser) at the Knitting Factory in the early 1990s.  I was later introduced to Gerry musically through Mark Dresser and from there I was invited to play in Gerry’s newly formed quartet (with Mark Dresser and trombonist Robin Eubanks) beginning what would be a long and continuing relationship right up to the present day.  Gerry has always seemed to thrive on the “full plate” concept of juggling multiple projects complete with all of their attendant responsibilities. Writing tons of music, extending himself in every way, getting things organized, booking his own tours, mixing his own recordings.  I get dizzy just thinking about it.  But I’m grateful that he finds these kinds of situations to be so energizing as so much great music has come out of his efforts.

Gerry will be doing a week long residency at The Stone in NYC from July 28th to August 2nd.  I’ll be taking part in four projects during this week, the final one being my own group, “Trio New York” with Gerry on drums.

Thursday, July 30th at 8 pm, “Songs” 
Lisa Sokolov - voice
Michael Winsch - piano
Terry McManus - guitar
Brad Jones - bass
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Gerry Hemingway - drums & composer

Thursday, July 30th at 10 pm, “Riptide” Quintet 
Oscar Noriega - alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Terrence McManus - guitar
Brad Jones - bass
Gerry Hemingway - drums & composer

Saturday, August 1st at 10 pm, “Quartet” 
Herb Robertson - trumpet
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Mark Helias - bass
Gerry Hemingway - drums & composer

Sunday, August 2nd at 8 pm, “Trio New York”
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Gary Versace - organ
Gerry Hemingway - drums

See the entire schedule on Gerry's Website.

Summer Festivals in Europe

JazzFestival Willisau (Switzerland) & Saalfelden Jazzfestival (Austria)

Both of these festivals have been important annual events presenting contemporary jazz since the 1970’s. Both take place in small, beautiful European towns and draw an international audience. I'm looking forward to revisiting each of these festivals, seeing old friends and making new ones. For anyone traveling the continent this summer either of these events would be worth going out of your way for.

Friday, August, 28th
Willisau, Switzerland

      Trio New York 
      Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
      Gary Versace - Hammond B3
      Gerry Hemingway - drums

Saturday, August 29th
Saalfelden, Austria

      Angelica Sanchez Quintet

      Angelica Sanchez - pianist and composer
      Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
      Marc Ducret - guitar
      Drew Gress - bass
      Tom Rainey - drums

More hatOLOGY catalogue available…

I mentioned some time ago that all of the recordings I’ve done for the hatOLOGY label would eventually become available on iTunes. As of now, almost all of them, otherwise long out of print, are waiting for your ears

on clean feed records:
Mirage - Ellery Eskelin, Susan Alcorn, Michael Formanek

on Soul Note Records:
Figure of Speech - Ellery Eskelin, Joe Daley, Arto Tuncboyaciyan
The Sun Died - Ellery Eskelin, Marc Ribot. Kenny Wolleson

on Songlines Recordings:
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black - Jazz Trash

on prime source recordings:
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black + Jessica Constable & Philippe Gelda / Quiet Music

on hatOLOGY records:
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / One Great Day
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / The Secret Museum
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / Five Other Pieces (+2)
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black + Erik Friedlander & Joe Daley / Ramifications
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / 12 (+1) Imaginary Views
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black + Marc Ribot, Melvin Gibbs & Jessica Constable / Ten
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / One Great Night...Live

Forms / Ellery Eskelin, Drew Gress, Phil Haynes
Vanishing Point / Ellery Eskelin, Mat Maneri, Erik Friedlander, Mark Dresser & Matt Moran
Dissonant Characters / Ellery Eskelin, Han Bennink

still to come:
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / Kulak 29 & 30
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / Arcanum Moderne

I also have physical copies of some of these titles as well as “Trio New York” and “Trio New York II” which are only available in CD form.  You can order those directly from my web site.

New Projects Department...

I also want to call attention to a new and developing project from bassist and composer Stephan Crump. This band shows great promise.  We’ll be playing at Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, NYC on Saturday, October 10th, 2015.

Stephan Crump’s Rhombal

Stephan Crump - bassist and composer
Adam O’Farrill - trumpet
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Tyshawn Sorey - drums

photo by Bonnie Wright

Saturday, May 16, 2015

SOLO Live at Snugs / 61 Local

New Release...“Live at Snugs / 61 Local”…now available by direct mail order from my website…

The hatHUT label (based in Switzerland) has been steadily producing recordings since 1975, nearly forty years of documenting the creative music scene. I’ve released over a dozen projects with the label since 1996, representing the bulk of my recorded output. Continuing in this relationship I’m very pleased to present this new release, a live solo saxophone recording made this past December in Brooklyn, NY as part of the Snugs concert series at 61 Local, produced by Anabel Anderson.

My first solo concert took place in 1992. In developing these performances over the years I often explored some of the further reaches of the saxophone. This solo performance represents a somewhat different approach, giving me a chance to work more deeply with the instrument’s core qualities, taking inspiration from the words of Hector Berlioz after hearing the saxophone for the first time:

“La voix du saxophone…Son principal mérite, selon moi, est dans la beauté variée de son accent, tantôt grave et calme, tantôt passionné, tantôt rêveur, ou mélancolique, ou vague, comme l’écho affaibli d’un écho, comme les plaintes indistinctes de la brise dans les bois, et mieux encore, comme les vibrations mystérieuses d’une cloche, longtemps après qu’elle a été frappée. Aucun autre instrument de musique existant, à moi connu, ne possède cette curieuse sonorité placée sur la limite du silence.”  Hector Berlioz, Le Journal des Débats (21 april 1849)

“The voice of the saxophone…Its chief merit, in my opinion, is in the varied beauty of its accent, sometimes serious and quiet, sometimes passionate, sometimes dreamy or melancholy or vague like the faint echo of an echo, as indistinct laments breeze in the woods, and even better, as the mysterious vibrations of a bell, long after it was hit. No other existing musical instrument, known to me, has this strange sound placed on the edge of silence .”  Hector Berlioz, Le Journal des Débats (April 21st, 1849)

Order ELLERY ESKELIN - Solo Live at Snugs / 61Local on CD, from the website for world-wide mail order via Pay Pal.  Price is $15 USD.

~limited time sale offer~

For a limited time we are offering a “2 for $25” sale. Order a copy of SOLO LIVE AT SNUGS and chose any other item on the order page and get both for $25. Be sure to use the “2 for $25” Pay Pal sale button. Then simply mention your second choice item in the additional notes field of the Pay Pal order page.

Click here to go to the website and order your copy.

Watch the Promotional Video and listen to an excerpt of “Unwritten Rule” from SOLO Live at Snugs / 61 Local:

Ellery Eskelin - Solo Live at Snugs / 61 Local
Recorded live at 61 Local in Brooklyn, NY by Jon Rosenberg on December 1st, 2013. All selections by Ellery Eskelin.  Tuhtah Publishing/Suisa.  Produced by Ellery Eskelin.  Executive production by Werner X. Uehlinger. hatOLOGY 731 CD.

Turning a Phrase 13:52
State of Mind 11:25
Unwritten Rule 10:29
Weave / Warp and Woof         14:40
Total Time 50:29

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Spring 2015...

Meredith Monk and Friends at Carnegie Hall

Composer, performer, director, vocalist, filmmaker, and choreographer (and maybe more, I’m not sure) Meredith Monk has been creating work in New York City for fifty years.  To my mind she has created an entire artistic world of her own and yet it is a world that speaks beyond stylistic or aesthetic conventions and connects to the world at large in a very direct engagement with our senses and emotions. When I was first confronted with her music (WNYC radio played her music often in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s) I did not understand it nor did I connect well with it. That’s embarrassing for me to say but it’s the truth. Her music utilized the voice in ways that I had never heard in any musical context before, sometimes sounding silly and childlike other times exaggerated and humorous and other times startling and nearly frightening. Her music also made heavy use of repetition, something I was not used to and in fact rather resistant to. But every time I heard her music it took possession of my entire attention.  I could not ignore it.  On one level I wanted to reject it and tried to justify thinking that it was somehow not valid. But the problem that it presented was too big to dismiss.  I couldn’t rationalize it away.  But I still couldn’t figure it out and it remained a somewhat frustrating experience whenever it came on the radio.  I listened to WNYC almost daily at that time and her music was being played regularly so this went on for some months.  Then one day, for what reason I’ll never be able to say, the whole thing changed.  Her music came on unexpectedly just as it had many times before.  But this time it made total sense.  Not only that, it spoke to me on a direct and emotional level that cut through any questions or intellectualizations. It wasn’t necessary to figure any thing out, it was OBVIOUS! How could I have missed it? What was my problem? From that point on her music made total sense and opened up a whole world of new issues with which to work through in my own music. Reexamining the role of memory, perception, time and proportion (things I had previously taken for granted) have led to a deeper appreciation for and awareness of the potential for music to resonate in ways I had not known possible. It’s even influenced my own compositional process.

This kind of musical awakening does not happen frequently. I think of myself as open minded and accepting of possibilities even if they do not particularly resonate with me. So it’s rare that I hear something and react with strong aversion.  Before that it was probably my first encounter with John Coltrane’s recording “Interstellar Space”. I was probably 14 years old and had been playing the horn for three or four years. I had already heard “Giant Steps” and loved that. But I had never heard music like he and Rashid Ali were making and more to the point, I couldn’t imagine why he was making a lot of the same kinds of sounds that I was trying to avoid making on the saxophone. I couldn’t understand how that was intentional. So I put the record away for a few years and kept practicing. At some point in high school I decided to revisit this record and gave it a spin. This time I heard the music. And it was a musical experience unlike anything I had experienced before. I realized he was making use of every potential sound he could get out of the instrument, maybe even trying for some that didn’t quite come out but you could feel what he was feeling. That level of communicative power was astonishing and revelatory.  It was as if he was confronting the big questions of life right there in the moment of playing the saxophone.

Likewise, in Meredith Monk’s music the use of the voice was deceptive at first, due to my expectations. In retrospect I think it was a recognition that the voice was being used like an instrument that changed my perspective that day. Not that she uses the voice to imitate instruments, in fact quite the opposite.  She embraces the most fundamental and essential qualities of the voice and yet organizes the sounds and events in ways that reflect abstract processes often used in instrumental music. Because vocal sounds in general are so personal we often regard them differently than instrumental sounds (which ironically often strive for a vocal quality). And in Meredith’s case, the way she structures her music seems to distill these personal essences, heightening their potency.

These kinds of moments are powerful and memorable. Sometimes we tend to equate a certain greatness to the music because of the power of these experiences. But that would be a bit of a trap. The music is what it it is. What changed was my relationship to it. And over time my feelings for Meredith Monk’s music and John Coltrane’s music has deepened such that it helps me connect with that thing that we all have in common even as we express it it different ways, though different cultural experiences and different traditions. Our shared humanity. It would be tempting to associate these unnamable qualities with particular sounds or approaches but the beauty of music is often encountering the unexpected. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out someone or something comes along and turns it all on it’s head. Then again, not all music does that and it would be a mistake to place a certain value (or lack of value) on the fact that you got your world rocked or not.  So I appreciate these moments even as I do not want to be trapped by chasing them. I may never have another experience like those, which is fine. To expect that would be an imposition on music and on myself.  These moments were simply sudden openings, personal to me at the time. Yours will be different. The fact that they were dramatic should not influence my expectations on other music heard at other times.  To do so would be to miss the opportunity to open in those moments. So the lesson is not to attach to the opening, but to continue to be open and continue to learn. And so for that continued opportunity I say, thank you Meredith!

I mention all of this in order to provide some background regarding a recent concert that I participated in at Carnegie Hall.  First off, it was my first time performing there so there’s that. And I live close enough so that I could walk to the gig, that’s always cool. But the real thrill was to be able to participate in a large scale presentation of the music of Meredith Monk along with a broad cross section of New York’s musical community, all of whom are deeply inspired by her work over these many years. Participants included Bang on a Can All-Stars (Ashley Bathgate, Cello - Robert Black, Bass - Vicky Chow, Piano - David Cossin, Percussion - Mark Stewart, Guitars - Ken Thomson, Clarinets), Don Byron, Future Quest (Theo Bleckmann, Vocals - Ellery Eskelin, Saxophone - John Hollenbeck, Percussion - Tony Malaby, Saxophone - Erik Deutsch, Organ), Ha-Yang Kim, Lukas Ligeti, The M6, Missy Mazzoli and Victoire, Courtney Orlando, Cynthia Powell, Lee Ranoldo, Todd Reynolds, Nadia Sirota, DJ Spooky, Young People's Chorus of New York City (Francisco J. Núñez, Artistic Director), John Zorn, Cyro Baptista and was hosted by John Schaefer of WNYC radio. And of course Meredith Monk performed as well.

The project I participated in is called “Future Quest” and was put together by percussionist John Hollenbeck and vocalist Theo Bleckmann, both of whom have been members of Meredith’s ensemble for many years.  Erik Deutsch played organ and Tony Malaby and myself played saxophones. This is a group of improvisors at heart and yet there is little improvisation involved in the music. Improvisors usually want to take existing material and work with it, often dramatically changing the material in the process. But in this case we wanted to stay as close to the essence of the music as possible. The lesson for the improvisor in a situation like this is to learn how to inhabit the material, how to inhabit a melody, how to deliver it simply as what it is, not with additional commentary or ornamentation. Future Quest first performed at the Whitney Museum in 2009 as part of a similar presentation and has performed a number of times since then and I’m always reminded of this important lesson.  It’s consistently been one of the most rewarding musical experiences I’ve been a part of.

(Photograph of Future Quest by Steven Pisano)

Down Under...Australia 

In a previous post I mentioned a new project led by pianist Marc Hannaford that we recorded here in New York City.  This group will soon be heading to Australia for a two week tour of concerts and teaching engagements.  Here’s the rundown, mate…

Marc Hannaford - piano, compositions
Scott Tinkler - trumpet
Ellery Eskelin - saxophone
Tom Rainey - drums

Wednesday, May 27th - Hobart Conservatorium - Concert and Workshops
Thursday, May 28th - Sydney Conservatorium - Workshops (day)
Friday, May 29th  - Sydney Conservatorium - Workshops (day) + Sydney Improvised Music Association performance at Foundry 616 (evening)
Tuesday, June 2nd - Melbourne International Jazz Festival - Artist Workshop
Wednesday, June 3rd - Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Bennetts Lane Jazz Club
Thursday, June 4th - Melbourne International Jazz Festival - Artist Workshop, Monash University Music Auditorium
Friday, June 5th - The Street Theater - Canberra

Here’s a track from the recording, “Framed”.  Available at BandCamp.

Out West...Denver, Colorado

This past February I spent some time in Denver, Colorado doing workshops and teaching at Metro State University and University of Denver. Saxophonist Mark Harris is professor of saxophone and improvised studies at Metro State, trumpeter Ron Miles is the coordinator of Jazz Studies.  At University of Denver saxophonist Art Bouton is professor of saxophone and chair of the woodwind department.  Art and I attended Towson University in Baltimore together when Hank Levy ran the band.  Hank was a great writer with a signature sound and the band played his music exclusively. In fact, it was one of Hank Levy’s compositions, “Whiplash” that was used in the recent film of the same name. I hesitate to even mention that since the film portrayed a bizarre kind of boot camp - music school that in no way resembled anything that I could personally relate to in terms of learning and playing music.  Athletic, quasi militaristic and devoid of any joy or humanity and I’m not particularly sure what the point of the film was.  In any event, our time at Towson was rigorous but rewarding and joyful and there was a lot of love for Hank on the part of a great many people. He brought out the best in his bands in all of the most positive ways. I can only hope to bring some of that positive spirit with me when I visit music programs as a guest artist. Music has changed a bit since we were in school but music making is the same. I enjoyed the time in Denver, the students were very much engaged and enthusiastic.  Very easy to relate to and work with.  I’m also encouraged to see an awareness on the part of these programs that the needs of students today is also a bit different than in years past. As music changes, as the business of music changes, music programs need to serve these realities and offer solid foundational study with opportunities for creative and eclectic activity.  So kudos to both of these programs.

I also had the great fortune to connect with pianist Art Lande for two concerts in Denver, one at Dazzle Jazz Club and one at Metro State.  I’ve been aware of Art’s reputation for many years and so it was great to have this opportunity to make some music. Having never played together before I was hoping to have a chance to get together before the first concert and see how things felt, decide how we wanted to structure things.  But given the schedule we only had a brief amount of time at the club to do this before the actual concert.  Our plan was to improvise freely utilizing standards, something that I’ve been also doing with my group “Trio New York”.  Once the piano was set up and the stage cleared and ready to go Art played a few notes and I joined in.  Within five seconds I was completely assured.  It was as if we had been playing together for years.  Art and I both try and play with very clear phrasing and clarity of intent, mixing and matching ideas off of each other and never falling into default roles of solo and accompaniment. There were some almost telepathic moments that surprised us both. All in all a wonderful experience.  Thanks to everyone in Denver for making this happen!

And while I'm thinking of it, here is a rendition of Hank Levy’s composition “Whiplash” as performed by the Don Ellis band in 1973 (that’s more than forty years ago!)

Spirits Rejoice

Jason Bivins, musician, writer and professor of religious studies at North Carolina State University, has written a new book on the subject of jazz and American religion called “Spirits Rejoice” (named after the Albert Ayler recording).  The relationship between secular and sacred musical traditions in the United States runs deep and yet it’s generally not directly addressed in most musical criticism or discussion.  Given the potential complications it’s perhaps easy to see why that is.  Yet this is a deep part of our history no matter where you may see yourself in relation to the subject.  As such, I think a fuller understanding of this music requires that we look at this history in order to better understand where we are and how we got here.  Jason has done some considerable research and has reached out to the community of musicians (of which he is a part) for some fascinating insights into the many differences and commonalities of approach among musicians.  In the process we gain some insight into the music as well as the many traditions of religious practice taking place in America through the lens of improvisation.  I’m only half way through it but I can already sense that this is a necessary book.

I should mention that Jason and I got together one afternoon a few years ago for a discussion, which is referred to in the book. As much as I see and feel the connections between music and what we generally refer to as spirituality I’ve never been quite comfortable in compartmentalizing some experiences or activities as spiritual and others not. I get hung up on words and intellectualization. One of the beauties of playing music is that it’s non-verbal and even if there are lyrics involved there is a complexity of ideas and emotions that resists a completely literal interpretation. Jazz music in particular is one of the only things that made real sense to me in the world, something I recognized early on in life. As such my identity has been completely enmeshed with being a musician. If I had a religion it was jazz music. I’ve been playing long enough now that I can begin to entertain the idea of asking "who" it is that is playing. But I still don’t like to name things. At it’s best music is experiential and unnamable.  Same with life. I’ve sometimes struggled in order to create a music that integrates my perspectives and experiences, experiences that sometimes seemed at odds. But over time things seem to come together. You realize the continuity and reality of your life and you write your own story. To do that in the context of American music is to also be connected to a deep and powerful tradition, born out of the African American experience and yet speaking to our shared humanity as Americans and as world citizens around the globe. To talk about that story and that history invokes a great deal of pain.  But it also demonstrates the strength of the human spirit in both suffering and in joy. Given that American music and American religion have an inextricable and complex relationship it seems impossible to talk about the music without addressing or at least being aware of the relationships. Jason’s book should move this conversation forward in a positive, productive and meaningful way.

Different But the Same

I’ve written before about “Different But the Same” (Dave Liebman - tenor saxophone, Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone, Tony Marino - bass, Jim Black - drums). We’ve been playing now for over ten years. We had such a great time on the last tour playing without any written music that we decided to go into the studio and do the same. Always good to document the growth of a band, we’ll see what happens with this. I’ve known Dave now since 1981 and so it’s been rewarding to see his continued artistic trajectory over these many tears, a true keeper of the flame. Dave was honored with a NEA Jazz Masters award in 2011 and recently there has been a book “What it Is - The Life of a Jazz Artist” that chronicles his life. It’s a rewarding read and offers a vivid portrait of New York City in the late 60’s and into the 70s.

More hatOLOGY on iTunes

I mentioned in a previous post that my catalogue of recordings done on the hatOLOGY label (over a period of more than ten years) will eventually be available in full on iTunes.  The first title “One Great Day…” (1996) has been up for some months and now there is also “One Great Night…Live” (2009).  Additionally two of the titles I’ve done in collaboration with fellow saxophonist David Liebman in the group “Different But the Same” are available.

One Great Night Live
Different But the Same - Renewal
Different But the Same - Non Sequiturs

The Art of Street Photography - Lee Friedlander

In one of my previous posts I mentioned seeing Lee Friedlander on the street here in town one morning. I’ve been a big fan of his work since seeing his retrospective at MOMA back in 2005. On that morning, passing him on Eighth avenue I wondered what he was seeing, what he was shooting. After all, he's been shooting urban portraits for fifty years. Given the almost romanticized filter through which we might see images from the 1960s the comparison to today's street scenes is jolting. In earlier photos of the city there was more of what we might call independent culture (shops and business) while today we see more of what we might call mass culture (chain stores, corporate advertising) such as we see all over the country and even abroad. Not to mention people on cell phones. Because of my attitude surrounding these things I sometimes recoil at the idea of taking photos in the city, especially in midtown. But there was Lee Friedlander with his camera doing just that. So I really wondered what he was shooting and would have loved to have seen whatever work he did that day.

This morning in the New York Times we got a chance to see what that might have been. In the Sunday magazine section there is an article on Friedlander (by Teju Cole) with about a dozen street shots, all centered on people and their cell phones. Here are a few quotes from the article that resonated:

“The Friedlander effect is properly encountered not in a single photo but in a group.”

This is something that struck me deeply when I saw the Friedlander retrospective. Sometimes the images seem chaotic or unintentional, dense with information and it may not be easy to make sense of what you are confronted with. But in seeing a group of his photos it becomes easier to see what is going on in common, his “voice” if you will.

“What makes Friedlander’s photos distinct is the scrupulous inclusiveness. He shows us the tangles, the interruptions, the mess, the disorder — all of it. His photographs should fall apart, but they don’t: The catholicity of optical description, and his wide-angle lens, large depth of field and subtle middle tones, hold them together. Everything is seen with a kind of ecstatic candor.”

But I disagree with the author on the following point: “But this time, out there on the street, he’s just another American glued to his gadget, thrilled by the passing scene. Like his subjects, Friedlander is not distracted but rather is deeply absorbed in the task at hand. He is a part of the flow that he records.”

In fact, there is a major difference in that Lee Friedlander is paying a great deal of attention to what’s going on around him. The people he is photographing on their phones are not. He is tuned in, they are tuned out. And that's something I find admirable beyond my respect for Lee Friedlander as an artist. How often do we really see what is in front of us, without interpretation and bias? Of course a great photograph does offer a point of view, an opinion. Maybe even a truth. But in order to find these things the photographer must be able to strip away their own attitudes and conditioning to see simply what is. In doing so they open the possibility of discovering something that they did not know was there. In seeing such work we are often astonished at what we miss in our everyday walks and travels. This is one of the reasons I love photography.

Getting close...

I’ve been mentioning the upcoming solo saxophone release “Solo Live at Snugs” for some months now.  We’re actually getting quite close to having the discs in hand.  I expect that to happen sometime in the first week of May.  Once I receive the shipment I’ll be making more noise about it and letting you know how to get your hands on a copy.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Welcome to 2015…

Going to start the year off with a short post regarding some recently released recordings. As many of you are aware, since 1996 I’ve recorded more than a dozen projects for the Swiss hatOLOGY label, which is celebrating it’s 40 year anniversary this year.  As they were pressed as limited edition CDs most of these titles have been out of print for quite some time and so I’m pleased to report that in the coming weeks and months they should each become available again, now on iTunes. The first project “One Great Day” (from 1996) is now ready.

This past November I had the pleasure of touring Europe with a promising new project led by keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin and featuring Dan Weiss on drums. Our first recording, entitled “Trust”, is now available from Yolk Records.  You can also find "Trust" on iTunes.  Plans are in the works for upcoming tours and a followup recording. You'll be hearing more about this band.

Also recorded last year is “Can You See with Two Sets of Eyes” by pianist Marc Hannaford along with Scott Tinkler on trumpet and Tom Rainey on drums.  This is currently available on BandCamp and I’m told that physical copies are also on the way in the very near future. This group will be traveling to Australia in the spring, more news then. I wrote a bit about both of these new projects in the Spring / Summer 2014 post below.

I’ve been mentioning the pending solo saxophone recording on hatOLOGY and am happy to report that were are on track for an April release.  There will be a promotional video and further information on this release as we approach the street date. In the meantime you can have a look at the cover. I took the photograph while traveling in Belgium some years back.

Finally, just revamped the website for the new year. Appearances are always updated and recordings are available for mail order. More news to come...