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Five Must-See Bands at the 2011 Newport Jazz Festival

It’s coming up fast, and as veteran’s know, you have to have your map laid out in front of you if you want to catch all the good stuff. Which there’s plenty of, by the way – this is another well-curated program for the Fort Adams affair. Ambrose Akinmusire, Randy Weston, Miguel Zenon – there are lots of big talents taking the stage in Newport (check this wider list). Here are five groups that need to be circled in advance. Grab a ticket and head to the Ocean State this weekend. Can’t make it? The heroes at NPR bring it to your ear-buds (donate to your local station this year!).  Here’s the Spotify list

1. John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

Wow, a working big band. Meaning they may have charts in front of them, but they play often enough to bring a true immediacy to the table – there’s always lift-off when they take the stage. That’s key, because the percussionist-composer’s detailed pieces sound best when all the nuances are being appreciated. The title track from Eternal Interlude (Sunnyside) offers flashes of swing-based history and allusions to pulse-driven minimalism, and the subtleties need to be attended to. The who’s who of NYC improvisers that comprise the outfit usually do their boss proud.

2. Steve Coleman & Five Elements

Can a band be simultaneously skittish and stable? Coleman’s rigorous M-BASE antics – an amalgam of precise zig-zag melody lines and intricate cross-rhythms – offers a resounding “hell, yeah.” Led by the  revered alto saxophonist, they’re one of the most self-assured outfits you’ll ever see, exploding the concept of counterpoint, stressing individuality while proffering collectivism, and making the funk woof in an idiosyncratic way. Saw them last month, and was reminded of one thing: their precision is devastating.

3. Wynton Marsalis 

He has a way of making raucous and rowdy morph into sweet and sultry, and if you’ve seen his small ensemble of late, you might agree: his version of swing encompasses so many of jazz’s outre impulses it’s impossible to mistake how widely inclusive his approach actually is at this late date. Terrific musicianship and judicious sense of experimentation? I’ll take it over one-dimensional radicalism any day.

4. Mostly Other People Do the Killing

Trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, drummer Kevin Shea, and drummer-composer Moppa Elliott have been together long enough to let their cohesion be represented by swagger. The cover art of their latest disc sticks out its tongue at Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert – a wealth of deep thoughts that finds the pianist judiciously gauging each note. Cagey and cavalier, MOPDTK has a blast plopping a cream pie in the face of such sobriety, romping through their sets with an agitated informality. Their rambunctious freebop is built on a manic esprit that’s proud of its entertainment skills.

5. Apex: Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky Green

Twenty five years ago, Steve Coleman hit NYC talking Bunky Green, Bunky Green, Bunky Green. The 70-something educator is an idiosyncratic alto man who bends the norm to suit his needs and comes away with solos that burst with singularity. Ten years ago Mahanthappa, himself a singular alto firebrand, also stressed BG’s skills in conversation. Now they’re a wily intergenerational front line, winning accolades for their fervent exchanges and clocking critical awards for the very impressive debut disc, a record that storms in several different ways while wafting strains of South Indian music into the mix.

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Fathers Day in Jazzville

Must be a treat to play music with a parent. In this case, a dad. A recent Facebook chat with a pal reminded me of seeing Dewey and Joshua Redman share a stage at a jazz fest outside Boston back in the late ’80s. I believe it was the first time I’d ever heard Josh play live (also heard him play last night, as fate would have it). There are several sons who have chosen to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, and several of them have had the opportunity to work together with their dads. Hats off to those who are furthering the family tradition. 

1. Ornette and Denardo Coleman,  The Empty Foxhole  

2. Joe and Mat ManeriThree Men Walking 

3. Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, Jason and and Ellis Marsalis 

4. Dewey and Joshua Redman

5. Jackie and Rene MacLean 

6. Bucky & John Pizzarelli

7. Von & Chico Freeman

8. Dave & Darius and Chris Brubeck

9. John & Ravi Coltrane

10. Thelonious Monk & Thelonious Monk Jr.

The Marsalis Men: Working With Dad

Happy Fathers Day to all the dads out there. Here’s a chunk of a recent chat I had with the Team Marsalis for DownBeat magazine. 


DB: Sounds like in the back of your mind you knew that’s what your dad would’ve wanted you to do: take care of family.


Wynton: Nah, he wasn’t like that. My daddy was taking care of his situation. Plus, he’s not the type of person to force you do stuff. He did what he was doing. He was a man and you were a boy. It was always clear. He wasn’t going to live his life through you. Like, “You do your thing, I’m doing my thing, and good luck. If I can help you I will. If not, God bless you.”


Ellis: No, I was never a stage door dad. I’m not sure what conditions would have had to existed for me to been a stage door dad. If the music we were trying to play had been in a popular vein, say like Joe Jackson and the Jackson 5, and money was involved, well, who knows?


W: Damn sure there was no money with us. There was less than money.

We were cheap labor, the guys who carried the Fender Rhodes. Like “Okay, pick up this end, let’s move this thing.”


Branford: About 110 lbs, remember?


E: People used to ask all the time: why don’t y’all have a family band? I never wanted no family band. And sometimes it sounded like “Oh man, you’re jealous of them.”  And it’s, “no man, that’s not what it’s about.”


DB: Ellis, do you remember these guys playing together?


E:  I used to go to some of those gigs.


W: He sat in. It almost killed him.


B: He’d just sit and laugh. It was at my high school. We were playing the Crusaders, “Keep That Same Old Feeling.”


W: He came up and played it with us and we’d hit the bridge with all these changes on it, and we’d be bullshitting on the changes and he be like, “Oh, no, no, that’s not the way it goes. You gotta deal with these changes, baby, here it is…”


Everyone: Hahahahahaha!


W: Cats would say “Yeah, man, your daddy can play!”


DB: Were you guys wincing, going “C’mon dad, what are you doing here?” Were you embarrassed?


W: We were so happy to see him show up a gig. And the cats in our band were happy. “Get him to play with us!” They loved it.


B: That’s what I didn’t understand, that strange thing I’d see on TV all the time, like “Jesus, dad, what are YOU doing here?” or “Mom “C’mon, get out of here.” We didn’t have that vibe with our parents. We were happy to see them.


W: Plus, when he sat in, He made something clear.


B: Yeah, “I can play and y’all can’t.”


DB: When did truly realize that he was heavy?


B: When I was 1 year old, 2 years old.


W: We always knew he could play – that was never a question. He’d practice. Plus, when we started playing ourselves, and realized what it actually took, we really knew he could play. Because you hear him and you could hear yourself. No comparison, right? And he was cool about it, so you’d had to be cool too.


E: I think that a lot it had to do the philosophy of teaching that evolved over a period of time…


W: This is before the teaching. I remember clearly. It was in the ‘60s and I remember a gig with the Xavier University band and he played bass on the gig. The bass player didn’t show and they called him up. I might have been nine years old, and we were sitting in the audience because [a friend of ours] Fernandez had some fine daughters, so we were always there.


B: He sure did…


W: And we’d be the only kids at the concert. We said “Damn man, daddy’s playing bass!” I remember it like it was yesterday.

B: Yesterday Cedar Walton told me: “The first time I met Ellis he was playing bass and I was playing piano. It was in 1951.” He can play sax, too.

W: I remember being in bathroom one day and hearing a sax playing Charlie Parker. I said, “Damn, Branford finally learned how to play that thing?” I came into the living room and it was daddy.

B: Lots of kids would say, “Hey, my dad’s a drag.” I’d say, “My dad’s kind of cool.”

DB: Ellis, you were known for trying to play modern jazz in a world where trad was king.  

 E: There are lots of father/son things in New Orleans. I remember a banjo player named Albert French. He played with the old guys. His oldest son was around my age. I knew the family from when we lived in Gert Town. We ran into each other occasionally, and once I saw Papa French and he said “Your guys need to come out and learn how to play this music.”  

 W: My father’s contemporaries, not us kids. French wanted ‘em to play the traditional stuff.  E: He said, “Some of these old guys are passing on, and the younger folks don’t know how to play this music. And I said “Yeah, Papa French, you’re right.” But to myself I was saying, “I don’t want to play that crap.” I was about 40 years old before I really understood the early connection of jazz and what we were trying to do in a more modernistic vein. It wasn’t really that far apart, but when I heard it at the time, well, let’s just say you want to deal with your peers. The reason I got a saxophone, in high school, was because of Roy Brown and the Mighty Mighty Men and Lee Allen playing the tenor with Fats Domino’s band. There were no girls listening to no cats playing bebop, but I could hear it. I could hear the music and do a few little parts. We’d go play the dances.

READ THE ENTIRE INTERVIEW 

The Marsalis Gang: Growing Up To Become Masters

Recently reread this story I wrote for DownBeat on the Marsalis family. Fun! The time spent together was short that morning – their big National Endowment of the Arts concert took place that night – but the guys were up for some reminiscing. I like the part where Ellis schools Wynton and Branford on the rigors of playing the changes to a Crusaders tune, and get a kick out of Branford meeting up with Michael Steele’s “blue suit and red tie” aid. Here’s the start of the show. Jump to DB for the full Q&A.

Jason Marsalis looks serious as he fiddles with his drum sticks at  Manhattan’s Apple Store. He’s sitting at his trap set, paces away from his dad, pianist Ellis, getting ready to hit. But then again, Jason often looks serious. Perhaps the snap he brings to his music demands it…or perhaps not. As the father and son start to ignite with bassist Jason Stewart, the drummer begins to get his grin on. The spry way he delivers his swing pretty much demands a smile or two. Goading his dad’s glide over the keys, he helps bring an élan to the room. The Marsalises have a way of quickly connecting.

But with five busy careers in play at once, the Marsalises don’t manage to connect all that often. So this evening is somewhat special. During an informal set celebrating the iTunes arrival of Ellis’ An Open Letter To Thelonious, the pianist’s other sons jump up and blow a bit as well. Trombonist Delfeayo, saxophonist Branford, and trumpeter Wynton arrive at the store one by one, taking the stage in a casual way, and enjoying the heck out of standing shoulder to shoulder while kicking around some standards. All of a sudden, those grins are everywhere.

The quintet did something similar in a much more formal setting two summers ago at the D.C.’s Kennedy Center, a show that was turned into Music Redeems, a live disc benefitting the nearly-complete Ellis Marsalis Center for Music back in their home town of New Orleans. That was a year and a half ago, and the five musicians haven’t been in a performance together since. This little Apple gathering, which found Delfeayo throwing down some exquisite ‘bone lines, came about because they were all in town to participate in the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters ceremony. Along with Hubert Laws, Dave Liebman, Johnny Mandel, and Orrin Keepnews, the five Marsalises were receiving the prized designation and performing at a high-vis concert the following night at Lincoln Center. You could call this a rehearsal of sorts. And yes, it was worth it. They rather killed with some high-flying polyphony when the big night came and they smoked their way through Jason’s “At The House, In Da Pocket.”

During this two-day stretch, all the Award-winners, especially Team Marsalis, were part of panel discussions, photography sessions, and interview spots that examined the impact of their careers. DownBeat thought it was a great time to grab the guys, who span in age from Ellis’ 76 to Jason’s 33, for a chat about family dynamics and the way jazz has impacted their lives. Convened in a meeting room adjacent to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the guys laughed and chatted. Ultimately, it turned into a trip down memory lane while managing to include a bit of controversy, too. I began by addressing Ellis as “Master Marsalis,” echoing a fawning audience member who made a mark at the panel discussion the day before. Some brothers cracked up, some winced. Dad had the final word, though. “It’s cool if you call me that…as long as I don’t believe it.”

DownBeat: You guys went to the funeral service for Dr. Billy Taylorlast night. Was it thought provoking?

Wynton: I thought it was extremely soulful. The diversity of the people who showed up? Wow. He did a lot to unite people. I knew him, but I didn’t have a real understanding of the ways he touched people until I saw that community come together.
Branford: When you grow up in New Orleans, people talk about death all the time. Some of my boys used to go and hang out at the St. Louis Cemeteries in the middle of the city, and ponder why roaches used to sit on the sides of the tombstones, you know?

READ THE FULL INTERVIEW

Branford Marsalis, Alexander Glazunov, And The Commodores

Steve Smith says Branford Marsalis brought a “gracious poise” to Glazunov’s “Concerto for Alto Saxophone And String Orchestra” last week at a New York Phil show. A few weeks prior, when I sat down with the five Marsalis men who are working musicians, the subject of growing up with the Glazunov cropped up, too. Patriarch Ellis, a longtime educator and superb jazz pianist, ruminated on the rigors of addressing classical works. And then Branford and brother Wynton weighed in with a quip or two. The entire Q&A is coming out in the April issue of Down Beat, due in two weeks. Here’s part of the piece that had to be edited out for space reasons.

Ellis: When I was teaching at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, I began to notice the level of professionalism. There would be competitions for high school students, and Wynton would be working on classical music. He’d play the different concertos, either the Hummel or the Haydn. The people who were making the choices weren’t interested in the Glazunov or the saxophone, because they had a lot of kids who were playing different instruments and could make it as a part of the symphony program.  Later, there was a strong sax player at the school. He had a good shot at playing the Glazunov with the orchestra. Whereas when Branford auditioned with the Glazunov, they didn’t even want to hear that.

Branford: I played it like crap, too. That had something to do with it. It’s hard to play the Glazunov when you spend your time listening to Sly & the Family Stone and the Commodores.

Wynton: Actually, he just played the hell out of it again this summer with the Philharmonic.

Branford: But I ain’t listening to the Commodores no more. So it’s a different story.

Here’s the family dodging the Glazunov at a rehearsal for their NEA Jazz Masters show.

Marsalis’ Armstrong Dream: Silence Is Golden

Wynton Marsalis’s jazz has long boasted cinematic qualities. His 1992 album Citi Movement was presented as a tone parallel to the dynamics of urban life, and that Pulitzer he earned for Blood on the Fields reminds us that dramatic narrative can be conjured by a small orchestra as eloquently as it can by a libretto. So when the trumpeter and his 10-piece ensemble play their original music to Dan Pritzker’s Louis, a silent-film homage to Louis Armstrong, the coordination between the eyes and ears should be jake. The film, which screens Monday at the Apollo as part of a five-city American tour, imagines the young Armstrong as a wide-eyed naïf who battles a Chaplin-esque villain in boudoirs and backstreets while assisting a damsel in distress and yearning to show off his horn prowess. Call it the Armstrong Story told in dreamscape cinematography that’s as fetching as Marsalis’s poetic motifs. Hit the Voice for details. The Times has more backstory.