History In the Key of Stevie

While most reviews and commentary from the media on last week’s all-star GRAMMY salute to Stevie Wonder has largely focused on Beyoncé’s “redemptive” performance, after her “Precious Lord” GRAMMY gaffe which was largely viewed as a grand misstep and dis to R&B songstress Ledisi, (who performed the song during her role as Mahalia Jackson in the movie Selma), there were far greater moments to ponder. And most of them had nothing to do with music. From slavery, to Nixon, to Black pride on primetime television, Stevie Wonder: Songs In The Key Of Life – An All-Star GRAMMY Salute, was a history lesson, and ironically, possibly the best Black History Month programming I’ve seen on television all of February.

Much like Prince, who snuck in a Black Lives Matter reference at the GRAMMY’s, or D’Angelo’s socially-charged SNL performance, the Stevie Wonder tribute, which aired about a week after the GRAMMYS, was full of under-the-radar references which speak to Black culture: its essentiality, its influence and its beauty.

From the opening of the program, Black folk were here to let America know we are dealing with royalty in saluting the 25-time GRAMMY winner. Host LL Cool J asserted, “If you make music in any way, you learned something from Stevie Wonder.” A slightly awkward pause was followed up by a flurry of applause, perhaps the majority of the audience discovering this truth for the first time. The hip hop legend, actor and recurring GRAMMY host went on to reminisce on a personal note about how his mother’s incessant spinning of “Living For the City”, from Wonder’s 1973 album Innervisions, taught him about the streets. LL, who hails from Hollis, Queens, New York City, would, like all young Black men, need to learn how to Survive While Black, especially in a city with one of the most justly criticized police departments in the nation.


The song, which focuses on economic injustice and its repercussions for Blacks is raw and jarring and brilliantly sequenced on the album. After all, just before it, we hear an ethereal and hypnotizing “Visions”, which although political in its own right, is aesthetically a complete 180-degree difference from what we hear next. “Living For the City” musical production is eerie and anticipatory, with Wonder’s vocals equally assertive and damning. When Wonder illustrates an innocent and somewhat naïve Black man being thrown in prison and slapped with a ten year sentence moments after his arrival to New York City, it sends shutters through the listener.

“Get in that cell, nigger,” says an officer as you hear the metal bars shut behind the brother from “hard-time Mississippi”. The lessons LL was referencing speak to the daunting and relentless tasks young black men must master to avoid such an encounter at all costs. His referencing of the song also reminds us of Wonder’s perpetual pulse on the brutality against innocent Black people, which has a particularly potent redolence, as we find ourselves currently in a cycle of protest and uprising against racially charged stopping, frisking, choking, beating and murdering.

Actress and comedienne Maya Rudolph touchingly reminisced about her late mother, Minnie Riperton, and the relationship she shared with Wonder, which she described as one with her “friend and musical soul mate.” To hear Minnie Riperton’s name on primetime television in 2015 was a victory within itself. An unsung musical goddess, Riperton’s range – both vocally and artistically – should not go unnoticed, especially as a Black woman doing what she was doing at that time, her blueprint forever the source. Rudolph then described Wonder’s tour de force, Songs in the Key of Life, as “the greatest album of all time,” before welcoming Lady Gaga to the stage.


Gaga’s ode to Wonder was heartwarming for sure, particularly her personal confession that his album was the first she had ever put into a CD player on her own at six years old. (Speaking of which, am I the only person who had their first I Feel Old Moment when she said “CD player”?) However, the choice/assignment of song was off the mark. “I Wish”, while a song which muses on the innocence of childhood, is so culturally nuanced that it felt almost inappropriate for the well-meaning Gaga. Watching and listening to her sing the words, “Looking back on when I was a little nappy-headed boy” was just… weird. (But it’s worth noting, Gaga has steadily gained my respect as an artist. My ears initially perked up this past fall when I heard her sing a rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”, during her PBS special with the masterful Tony Bennett. And although in protest, I did not watch the Oscars, I later watched Gaga smash that Sound of Music tribute.)

Almost as curious was country music group The Band Perry singing “You Haven’t Done Nothin’”: a song with a blistering message to then-President Richard Nixon, from Wonder’s 1974 Fulfillingness’ First Finale. But seeing as Nixon was a fucktard universal in his bigotry, it really doesn’t matter who serenaded this political gem. What was perfect about this selection was that it was performed at all, and that the inspiration for the song was made plain. Media mogul Tyler Perry described it as “one of his funkiest and most political,” before introducing the country band of siblings as, “three members of my extended family…The Band Perry,” which was an obvious tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of origins of surnames and the dark history attached as it pertains to African Americans.

In direct contrast to Beyoncé Knowles’ Vegas-style opener, I was particularly touched by the tribute from India.Arie, Janelle Monáe and Jill Scott. Singing one of Wonder’s most beloved classics, “As”, their reverence, awe and utter nervousness was palpable, and that was a good thing. For a Black girl like myself, who grew up sitting on the floor playing Wonder’s music on vinyl and levitating to musical euphoria every time, I appreciated the humility and almost girlish charm these women had as they sang to their idol. Those memories are attached to the cultural experience of growing up at that time. I knew a “Village Ghetto Land,” and experienced elements of it first hand. My grandmother entered the room of her surprise 60th birthday party to “Isn’t She Lovely”. Too many times to count, I sat in my den and ran my fingers across the braille on Talking Book in amazement, and had a spiritual connection with “Golden Lady” on a road trip in the back of my sister’s car as the sun pierced through the window. This music was my life, and it was the life of all of Black America, uniquely inextricable from our most foundational molding. I felt the spirit of that in their performance. From their unison stab at the famous “Al-Waaaayyy-aye-Ee-Yay-Aye-EE-YAY-a-YEE-Yay” riff that leads into the Rhodes (originally played by the great Herbie Hancock) solo and vamp, to Scott’s knowing spirit as she lovingly and timidly growled, “We all know…” their performance put me in the mindset of the wonder of Wonder, who, as Tony Bennett so elucidated, is often admired for being an entertainer but often underappreciated for the unending layers of his artistry. Although I am a self-proclaimed Stevie aficionado (and a production geek, knowing the musical ins and outs of most every Stevie Wonder song), before this performance, I had never seen… simply put, my sheer delight for Stevie encapsulated on television; that part of me that would raise my shoulder to my ear and make me cover my mouth at his presence because it’s FRIGGIN’ STEVIE WONDER.


Other noteworthy moments include the introduction of British superstar Ed Sheeran’s second performance, which referenced that his “Using the technology of the day…” builds upon the foundation that Stevie Wonder laid with albums like Music of My Mind, where Wonder played most all of the instruments himself. In these times, where seeing a Black artist hold and play an instrument on primetime television is akin to seeing Bigfoot, it was refreshing to have the masses be reminded that not only do we “play those things” but have a rich legacy of innovating instrumentally, with Stevie being no exception. To that end, it would be remiss of me to not praise the beautiful arrangements and impeccable integrity kept throughout the various renditions of Wonder’s music, under the direction of the great Greg Phillinganes; a most appropriate position for the former Wonderlove member and one of the most important session players of the last forty years.

While the accolades poured on for Wonder throughout the two-hour tribute, it was Jaime Foxx — who has his own hosting credits from another Stevie Wonder tribute in 2002 — and introduced Wonder to close out the show, who said it best… and funniest: “Stevie Wonder has more talent in his braids than most of the artists today. That’s why he’s been able to reign for decades.” Then, leaving nothing up for debate, asserted that Wonder is, “the most important figure in music of all time.”

As Wonder took to the stage, with his signature shirt and pants set (this time in all black with an adorning of gorgeous, clear stones) and his band tore into “Contusion” from Volume 1 of Songs in the Key of Life, Foxx’s proclamation was duly noted and it was clear that the king was in the building. Performing a medley of hits, ballads and party jams, Wonder elicited the gamut of emotions, with the camera capturing it in the faces of Gladys Knight, Tyler Perry, John Legend (who performed a beautiful rendition of the Wonder B-side, “I Believe When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever”), and Janelle Monáe, who was completely overcome when Wonder played the opening chords to “You Are the Sunshine Of My Life”. Who else but Wonder could make a GRAMMY tribute feel like a family reunion?

Closing his medley with the ever-popular choice of “Superstition” was classic and felt fitting. However, to my surprise and delight, the entire final segment was dedicated to Wonder’s essentiality in the movement to deem Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Cameos from Ambassador Andrew Young, Rep. John Conyers Jr., and singer and activist Tony Bennett captured an authentic understanding of Wonder’s use of art to, as LL Cool J noted in his introduction of the segment, “once and for all” call out those, including then incoming president, Ronald Reagan, who persistently pushed against the bill. “Once and for all” describes the inspiration for the opening lyrics of Wonder’s “Happy Birthday”, the movement’s anthem and single element that turned the tide on the matter, directing the nation’s laser focus on Congress.

You know it doesn’t make much sense

There ought to be a law against

Anyone who takes offense

At a day in your celebration

Wonder_ScottWonder’s activism in his music and in physical action has been consistent for decades, with countless songs that have brought awareness to the plights of Blacks in America and Africa, and even in both using and sacrificing his prominence by being arrested for participating in peaceful protest. Gil Scott Heron brilliantly recounted this period in his posthumously released memoir, The Last Holiday, which focused on his time with Wonder as the opening act on the Hotter Than July tour from 1980-81, which was strategically paralleled with the MLK Day campaign. In Heron’s poem, titled “Dr. King”, he writes:

I admit that I had never given much thought

As to how much of a battle would have to be fought

To get most Americans to agree and then say

That there actually should be a Black holiday

But what a hell of a challenge, how far would Stevie go

To make them pass legislation tabled 10 years in a row?


Wonder, along with several civil rights activists were relentless until the historic bill was passed on August 27, 1984. Dr. King would become only the second person in American history bestowed with a federal holiday.

In true Wonder fashion, he was gracious and full of gratitude for his honor last week, but swiftly turned his adoring fans’ attention to subjects away from himself, recognizing Dr. King’s infinite relevance and challenging artists to use their forces for good. “I encourage the songwriters…all of us as songwriters, to write songs about love, to inspire and encourage our family. And encourage our family as people in the media and press. Everywhere… to inspire…inspire this world…inspire this planet.”

The knee-jerk reaction for a Black person to tell you they are “blessed”, “too blessed to be stressed”, and other affirmations rooted in religious doctrine, is a complex one that forces us to look at how our unique experiences as enslaved people has shaped the way Christianity is viewed even today and used as a life source for Blacks. To see this part of the Black experience on network television outside of the context of faith-based programming was staggering.

Historically, Wonder has obviously not shied away from his Christian faith in his music, either. Songs like “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away”, “As”, “Have a Talk With God”, “You Will Know”, “Evil”, “Jesus Children of America”, “The First Garden”, and “Ecclesiastes”, among countless others, have directly and indirectly illustrated Wonder’s faith and he did not mince words on his tribute, while he had the attention of all of America. Quoting Matthew 18:20, Wonder added, “Because I believe that if we come together… as it is said, when two or more believe, than almighty God is between it.   Let us come together. Let us fool everyone that thinks it’s impossible…let’s make the impossible so very possible by loving. Love is the key.” His charge to songwriters for a higher standard of themselves was like a silent boom in that theater that had to be respected, but should not have come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about Wonder. (Remember his taking Lil Wayne to task over the rapper’s Emmett Till reference? Yeah.)

While reverence for The Eighth Wonder of the World, AKA Stevland Judkins Morris Hardaway, is universal because his message in life and in music is about humanity’s inhumanity to man, which we can all feel on various levels, I so appreciated how his folks, in particular, lifted Wonder to such deserved heights in a way so idiosyncratic and enriching. It makes me excited for whoever’s ears were truly opened before Stevie spoke, and what their pen may now be destined to say.

To echo Jamie Foxx, “The Academy…thank you.”


Thelonious Monk Society For the American Arts Launches With Major Art Exhibition in NYC; Celebrates Monk’s 95th

The Thelonious Monk Society For American Arts presents Reflections of Monk: Inspired Images of Music and Moods; an extensive multi-media exhibition, which features the work of forty-five nationally and internationally renowned artists including Romare Bearden, James Denmark, Paul Goodnight, Betty Blayton, Ann Tanksley, Verna Hart, and Chuck Stewart.  The exhibit, which honors modern jazz giant Thelonious Monk, opens at the Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba in New York City’s East Village.

The exhibition of original artwork encompasses a wide range of styles and artistic perspectives, reflecting the diverse dimensions of Monk the man and the cultural influence of his music.  Much of the work has been created specifically for this exhibit and to mark Monk’s 95th birthday, which coincides with the opening of the exhibition on October 10th.

Board Chair, T.S. Monk says, “The Thelonious Monk Society For American Arts is thrilled to present the work of these extraordinary artists. It is an exciting way to highlight the rich, legendary legacy the Society represents and to celebrate the anniversary of my father’s birth.”

Reflections of Monk: Inspired Images of Music and Moods, curated by Edward Sherman, is the flagship endeavor by the Monk Society. Mr. Sherman, who is also its Executive Director says, “The Society is making a rolling start by presenting this exhibition as a reflection of our mission and as a component of the programs we are developing to support our mission. We see it as an important first step in establishing the Society as an extension of Thelonious Monk through the work his family is accomplishing in his honor.”

Reflections of Monk: Inspired Images of Music and Moods is on display through December 8, 2012.  The majority of the art in the exhibition is for sale.

Important Dates:

Opening Reception ~ October 14th from 3 pm – 6 pm

Gallery Talk ~ November 3rd from 2 pm – 5 pm

All events are free to the public and will feature an array of participating artists and special musical performances.


About the Thelonious Monk Society For American Arts ~ The Thelonious Monk Society For American Arts is a nonprofit organization created by the Monk family to celebrate and foster American arts and culture by providing a platform for artists and venues to showcase creative work for the purpose of dialogue, community interaction and appreciation, and to leave an enduring and visible legacy.

About the Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba ~ Kenkeleba House has a long history of mounting exceptional historical surveys of American art. Kenkeleba programs are made possible with funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, celebrating 50 years of building strong, creative communities in New York State’s 62 counties, and also supported, in part by public funds from the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and many generous friends.

The Wilmer Jennings Gallery is located at 219 East 2nd Street (at Avenue B), New York, NY 10009; 212-674-3939; public hours are Wednesdays – Saturdays 11 am-6 pm (closed November 22). Corrine Jennings is the Gallery Director.




Jazz Gallery Director Rio Sakairi Produces Benefit Album For Disaster Close to ‘Home’

It is with great honor that I wrote the biography for this project.  Please take a moment to read about it and support.  We can make a difference.
— Angelika
“Call me romantic, but I believe in the power of music and its ability to heal and uplift,” proclaims Rio Sakairi, Director of Programming at The Jazz Gallery, an internationally recognized breeding ground for young musical talent in New York City. It is this sentiment that inspired her into action, when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011. Marking one of the worst natural disasters on record, the earthquake spawned devastating tsunamis and a subsequent nuclear crisis. The insurmountable destruction claimed tens of thousands of lives, and the world watched in horror. For Sakairi, it was more than an unfathomable tragedy; it literally hit home.

Born and raised in Tsuchiura, Ibaraki – just two hundred miles from the severely ravaged Sendai area – Sakairi acted immediately, calling upon an esteemed roster of friends and colleagues within the thriving jazz scene. They came together to create a gift to those who suffered such incredible loss. HOME – Gift of Music is an eight-song manifesto of hope from some of today’s most innovative musicians in jazz and beyond, including Gretchen Parlato, Doug Wamble, Becca Stevens, Alan Hampton, John Ellis and Claudia AcuñaReleased this month on Sunnyside Records, the singer-songwriter leaning repertoire captures the huge emotive capacity of the artists, with an intimacy as personal as a love letter. The fullness of their hearts is evidenced by the immediacy with which they were able to unlock their overflowing expression of compassion, empathy and, ultimately, optimism.

Sakairi’s reputation as a concert producer has placed her among the most influential figures in the jazz field. Her creative ideas, understanding of new trends, track record of discovering and nurturing new talent, and impeccable artistic standards have captured the attention of such seasoned experts as George Wein. Now stepping out as a record producer, Sakairi demonstrates her musical sensibilities and convictions as a philanthropist.

The musical and social camaraderie that Sakairi has so uniquely fostered over the last twelve years at The Jazz Gallery undoubtedly came into play during the recording. The artists donated their time and talents, penning personal songs specifically for this project. All proceeds from HOME – Gift of Music will go to Habitat for Humanity Japan, where volunteers are working tirelessly to rebuild homes for those affected. Studio time, engineering, artwork, graphic design, distribution, marketing and PR services were also generously donated.  “All of the songs were written with very short notice and there was no rehearsal,” says Sakairi. “It’s pretty magical the way everything came together. It was all done in just one or two takes.”

Rio Sakairi during the recording of “Home – Gift of Music”

Sakairi’s mentoring skills proved instrumental, pushing artists not only beyond the jazz realm, but for some, out of their comfort zones; most notably with the contribution of the multi-reedist John Ellis, who makes his debut as a vocalist on the pensively assuring title track. “I just knew he could do it,” says Sakairi, who has commissioned Ellis three times for The Jazz Gallery’s notable commissioning program. “Every time I push him, he rises to the challenge, delivering results above and beyond my expectations. It turned out to be great, exactly as I thought it would.”

Becca Stevens laces this track and others throughout the album with mesmerizing vocals, and also contributes two standout songs. Her Tillery bandmate Gretchen Parlato offers backing vocals on several tracks as well, and also sings two gorgeous duets with bassist/guitarist Alan Hampton and trumpeter Leron Thomas. Both Hampton and Thomas also shine as vocalists away from their respective instruments. Guitarist Doug Wamble‘s soulful, hymn-like anthem, “Fear Not the Fall” anchors the overall emotionalism of the album, while singer Sachal Vasandani‘s album closer, “Doves” stirs up hope for what is to come. The album also boasts a stellar band, including the pianist Taylor Eigsti, the saxophonist Dayna Stephens, the guitarist Adam Rogers, the bassist Ben Williams, and the drummer Johnathan Blake, among others.

Vocalist Claudia Acuña contributes the album’s only cover, a rousing rendition of “The Music Is The Magic”, written by the incomparable singer/songwriter Abbey Lincoln. The song’s lyrics, which embody Sakairi’s notions about the power of music, are a perfect fit.  “The music flowed,” says Sakairi. “Everything was easy. It felt good to be in the studio, and we were all happy to be there. There was lots of excitement and laughter and good will. Everyone brought their A game and it was so amazing to work with them. I don’t know how they do it.”

In the age of the five-minute attention span in media, and in a world with no shortage of catastrophes, Sakairi is working hard to remind everyone that, although the tragedy in Japan may not make the front page today, people are still hurting and the road to recovery is long and difficult. HOME – Gift of Music is a testament to the enduring spirit of the people of her native homeland, and to the ability of music to leave an ineradicable impact.  “Action is how we show that we love and we care,” says Sakairi.”Action is the only way to combat helplessness. I took on this task because this is my home.”


1. Gambare Nippon (0:24)
2. If It Was (2:50) By Alan Hampton
3. Coming Home (2:16) By Becca Stevens
4. Home (3:15) By John Ellis
5. The Music Is The Magic (4:02) By Abbey Lincoln
6. Tillery (5:34) By Becca Stevens
7. Fear Not The Fall (6:23) By Doug Wamble
8. Leave Rebirth (4:44) By Leron Thomas
9. Doves (7:38) By Sachal Vasandani


For more information on Habitat Humanity Japan, please visit: habitat.org


Marcus Miller: Suspending the Rules

As Marcus Miller catches me up on a major project he’d been working on over the last couple years, he stops mid-sentence to give me some background, humbly explaining, “I had produced an album called Tutu for Miles Davis.”

No big whoop, right?

When you talk to the bassist, composer, producer, arranger, and film scorer, his down-to-earth and disarming demeanor is center stage, while his illustrious career speaks volumes for itself. In the twenty-six years since that landmark album with Davis, Miller has carved out his own distinguished path, setting himself miles apart from the pack. His collaborative efforts include an esteemed list of trailblazers across musical styles and genres including Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Mariah Carey and Herbie Hancock. He has also positioned himself as one of the most highly sought after black film scorers in Hollywood while simultaneously enjoying a successful solo career. On Renaissance (Concord Jazz), his eighth studio album as a leader, Miller’s message away from his instrument is just as profound as the music performed by he and his fresh band of dynamic, young players. “I think that music is really just a mirror to whatever’s going on in the world, and we’re just in a time where people are kind of playing it safe,” Miller proclaims. “People are nervous; people are thinking about money all the time, so they’re not taking the chances they used to take. It’s difficult — even if you’re doing something interesting — it’s difficult to get people to hear it. Record companies are just trying to stay in business so they’re not really concerned with presenting new, challenging music. So it’s more like the business people are calling the shots more than they used to. Back in the day, it was the music lovers who called the shots, and then they’d have to explain it to the business people. Not a lot of guys around like that anymore. Everybody’s just trying to keep the doors open. Music and business has always been an uncomfortable relationship, but right now the music is really suffering.”

Miller’s effortlessness at being completely himself oozes out of every corner of Renaissance, and if it’s about risk-taking, he has accomplished said mission on an album which directly references a span of over thirty years of black culture, including songs from Michael Jackson, WAR, and Janelle Monáe.  Although for Miller, it’s just a day in the life of a musician bred in the thriving 70s music scene of Jamaica, Queens. “It’s a reflection of the madness in my mind, which sounds really normal to me. It all just sounds like soulful black music. It’s all so related, so I don’t really hear it as eclectic as other people do.” Miller also presents some of his most prolific writing to date, with eight original compositions that showcase his talented band which includes trumpeters Sean Jones and Maurice Brown; alto saxophonist Alex Han; keyboardists Kris Bowers, Federico Gonzalez Peña and Bobby Sparks; guitarists Adam Agati and Adam Rogers; and drummer Louis Cato. The band has been touring extensively over the last two years, and came together around Tutu Revisited, a project started in tandem with the French Miles Davis exhibit, We Want Miles.

“The museum curator who made the exhibit asked me if I would play all the music from Tutu for the exhibit. So I said I would really like to do something in conjunction with this museum. Miles wasn’t really a guy who liked to look back… I’m not sure he would have liked that, but I said maybe if I get some young musicians who could reinterpret it and turn it into something from today, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, so that’s what I did. I found Alex at Berklee, and he recommended a drummer, and the drummer recommended another musician, and next thing you know, I have this band of 20-something cats, and instead of two gigs, it ended up being two years on tour, because people started getting wind of what we were doing. I felt myself being re-energized with this band. The band before, I had for a long time, and I found myself playing different and playing with a different energy and I kind of got hooked on that feeling.” Like his iconic mentor, Miller now finds himself in similar circumstances — a source of inspiration, organically bridging the generational gap.

Marcus Miller and Kris Bowers. Photo by Bibi Green.

“Miles never talked about being a mentor,” says Miller. “I’m not even sure he was consciously trying to be a mentor but just being around him as a young person… that’s how young people usually learn from older people anyway. Not necessarily from hearing them run their mouths, but just observing them and seeing how they run their everyday lives, and I had the benefit of watching him for a little while and how he made decisions and was just getting through life and I think it really affected me. I couldn’t tell you exactly how. The only thing I know is that I try to get the best out of my musicians where they can shine. I try to put them in situations where they can discover something about themselves.”

To his point, Miller carefully crafted the exquisite repertoire found here with this specific group in mind and brought them in on the process, most notably on the arrangement of the 1971 classic, “Mr. Clean”, written by another early mentor and unsung cultural hero — the late, great “Young, Gifted and Black” composer, Weldon Irvine.

“I was born in Brooklyn, but at the age of ten, I moved to Jamaica, Queens, and started my musical life there,” Miller reminisces. “Eventually at about fourteen [years old], I started meeting these bad musicians from Jamaica like Omar Hakim, and Tom Browne and Donald Blackman… and when I first met them, every one of them would refer to Weldon. Weldon was the mentor of the Jamaica cats. He’d put together gigs, because all of us were too young, so he was the one to coordinate and call all the guys together to play, and he was the one after the gig who would have some of us sit in the back of his Chevy Nova and listen to it on cassette (because he would record everything). He’d ask us to explain ourselves… the musical decisions that we made. He’d make us tell him what we had planned for our lives…what our goals were. ‘Mr. Clean’ was like his theme song, and on every gig we’d do with Weldon, we’d play different versions of it. We’d do it really funky and nasty or really jazzy. We had an off day on the road while on tour a couple of years ago, and we decided to rent out a rehearsal studio and we just worked up our own arrangement. It was so great to see these guys discover something I discovered so many years ago.”

Vocalists Dr. John, Rubén Blades and Gretchen Parlato make memorable guest appearances throughoutRenaissance, with Blades and Parlato partnering up on a gorgeous rendition of Brazilian composer Ivan Lins’ “Setembro”. Dr. John is a stunner, dropping New Orleans-flavored rap verses on the Janelle Monáe smash, “Tightrope”.

“I was listening to that Janelle Monáe cut, and I was just like, man this is so sweet! I was listening to that bass line and I said that sounds like one of those New Orleans piano players from back in the day, sort of boogie-woogie. I said I want to do a version of this song and accent the New Orleans aspect of this song and show the roots of where it comes from. With Dr. John, as soon as he says one word, you hear New Orleans. So I called him up and asked him if he’d be interested in collaborating. I said, ‘One thing is you’re going to have to rap, so get ready.’ He said, ‘Man, I don’t know how to rap.‘ I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.’ So I flew to New Orleans and we worked on Big Boi’s rap, and it was a lot of fun.”

Though Miller is now of veteran status, he insists that the inspiration is reciprocal and he is just as passionate about learning from his bandmates. With a band whose members have worked with artists like Beyoncé, Kanye West and Mary Mary, Miller is seeing first hand how his reputation as a limitless musician is influencing the next generation of jazz players, who can sometimes struggle with a community which can be heavily divided at times on matters of authenticity and does not always reward the idea of boundary-pushing.

Marcus Miller and Kris Bowers. Photo by Bibi Green.

“I think the biggest thing to consider is that if Charlie Parker had listened to people like that, he would never have ended up playing the way that he did because bebop was so different from the music that preceded it,” Miller says. “And then you can go down the line: If Miles had listened to those people in the 50s, if Trane would have listened to those people, he would never have done what he did. [For] people who are a little less secure, it’s really hard for them to accept new music… because you don’t know the rules yet. All the jazz musicians who I admire like Sonny Rollins; he’s not scared of anything. Herbie Hancock; he’s not afraid. Miles wasn’t afraid. It’s just the kind of people who aren’t that talented and that open, who want to set up the rules because they feel uncomfortable; they know they can’t hang. I know jazz guys who put down funk music, and then I’ll be on a gig, and invite him to come sit it with us, and he gets his head blown off [laughs]! He can’t even get started, because funk music has it’s own set of rules. It has its own requirements. A lot of jazz cats don’t have the tools, and vice versa. Although funk cats are smart enough to stay off the stage! But I’ve played with Aretha Franklin. You wanna put down R&B as a jazz musician? Come with me and sit down while Aretha sings in front of you, and I dare you to pass judgement. Stevie, Luther Vandross, Donny Hathaway — come on! That is the top level of musicality. So you just have to respect these different languages. It’s like, stop being a snob, man.”

It would be impossible to have a career distinction as singular as Miller’s and not have such a philosophy, or at least something close to it. It would be even more unimaginable to be a product of the school of Miles Davis, and not push against the status quo. Miller’s ability to do so both unapologetically and authentically, will likely be a significant part of his legacy, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

“It’s people in America who still want their music to be like European classical music… because with European classical music, the book is closed. You can’t write like Mozart anymore, you can’t write like Beethoven. That all happened, so European classical music has a real structure to it now because the book is closed. Once the book is closed you can put music in categories because it all happened and I think that there are a bunch of people in jazz who would like jazz to be the same way. They don’t really feel comfortable with what jazz really is. They’d rather it be America’s classical music, and they’re taking that shit too seriously. They’re trying to make it classical music, and jazz isn’t dead yet. Once it dies then you can say, ‘OK, this is jazz, that’s not jazz.’ As long as you got people out here still making it, you have to suspend the rules.”

** Writer’s Picks: “Detroit”, “Mr. Clean”, “Tightrope”

Orrin Evans ‘Flips the Script’ With 19th Release As Leader

At an impressive nineteen albums in, pianist Orrin Evans sets out to do exactly as the title of his latest suggests.  Flip The Script (Posi-Tone), out this month, refers not only to a last-minute repertoire overhaul just before the recording date, but the turning of a new leaf in his career and personal life.

Orrin Evans

One of the boldest voices in the BAM (Black American Music) discussion, Evans is helping transform what he describes as, “this vision that certain people have in terms of what this music is supposed to be or who I’m supposed to be.”  It’s hard enough keeping up with the Philly-bred pianist, let alone pegging him, which I wouldn’t recommend.  Evans is a hard working composer and band leader — of both his trio and distinguished big band, Captain Black — a teacher, and a member of the group Tarbaby with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits.  The husband and father of two, Evans is also reveling in the next phase of life with his wife, Dawn, as their children approach nest-leaving age. “Dawn and I are finally like, ‘Hi, hey what’s your name?’” Evans jokes of their increased freedom, “because we spent the first seventeen years of our lives raising kids, and it’s now like wow, let’s go out!  Let’s hang!  I’m ‘flipping the script’ in all aspects of life.”

On his sixth trio record, Evans, with bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards, puts forth a gutty, undaunted project.  Flip The Script comes out swinging — both literally and figuratively — with a refreshing collective intensity, which Evans contends is a lacking component in some of today’s piano trios.

“I’ve always ran from trio records,” admits Evans, “and my goal is never to sound like all these other trio records.  They can be a little boring.  So my goal is to basically figure out how to do it and get a different vibe from it.  I used to listen to Keith Jarrett’s trio all the time, then I started checking out Jaki Byard, and Herbie and McCoy… all of them sound different, and my goal was to sound more like that versus some of these newer trios that can sound like background music. They can be very contrived.”

Edwards and Wolfe are beyond formidable on this record, and despite never recording together, their sound is as tight-knit as a most established group.  “Donald, I met almost 13 years ago, and he was a recommendation from Tim Warfield,” explains Evans.  “Ever since then, we have been playing together.  He ended up playing with the Mingus Big Band, and we just ended up playing in many different surroundings together.  The thing is, we’d never had the opportunity to document together; the opportunity never presented itself.  We played together on other people’s records, but this is the first time we’ve done a project together as a group.  With Ben, I played a gig at [the jazz club] Smoke and I called Donald for it, and I said, you know what, I am going to use Ben Wolfe, who I had never played with.  We knew each other but I never played with him.  Through the wonderful world of Facebook, I said, ‘We should do something.’  Not only has he become someone I really enjoy playing with, but he’s become a very good friend.”  Wolfe has also positioned himself as one of the prominent pro-BAM movement voices, and sat alongside Evans on a panel at Birdland earlier this year.

The range of music in this collection is a window into the various driving forces behind the passionate pianist.  “All these songs are pretty much about starting over,” he says.  Evans contributes six standout originals, with “Flip the Script” being among those written just days before recording.  “The Answer” is a gorgeous waltz which shows a more tender side of Evans’ compositional spectrum.  The Luther Vandross-penned “Brand New Day” from the 1978 movie classic The Wiz, is an example of Evans’ exploration of the R&B songbook and an aptly titled declaration, which is reconstructed into a modal exaltation, as inspiring as the original.

Don Cornelius

Among many impressive moments, Evans also performs a solo piano “homegoing” take on the Gamble & Huff R&B anthem “The Sound of Philadelphia”, otherwise known as the Soul Train theme song.  Slow, somber and haunting, Evans closes the album with a powerful reminder of the indelible influence of Don Cornelius on Black music.  “It was ironic that both Dick Clark and Don Cornelius passed right next to each other,” says Evans, “and then also how Don checked out and there was nothing really being said to me about it…there wasn’t enough. I mean, how many magazine covers do you remember with Don Cornelius’ face on it when he passed?  How many featured articles can you remember?  But the real deal is, without Don Cornelius, none of this other shit would have happened.  Like, you really want to get into BAM?  We wouldn’t even be having an argument about BAM without Don Cornelius, and we kind of just swept him under the rug, in my opinion.  It’s like, that’s all you’re going to say?  Oh, ya’ll are done?  And so basically I just wanted to do my little tribute to him.”

Increasingly, Evans’ statements away from his instrument are proving just as illuminative as those across the span of his fifteen year recording career, and after nineteen releases, he seems more assured than ever — both in his music and his individuality.

“Thank God, honestly, that all the gigs I’ve had have been gigs where I’m not on the road for two years straight or something,” Evans reflects.  “I’ve had the weird blessing of not working at times, which has given me time to focus on Orrin Evans.”

Orrin will perform “Three Shades of Orrin” at the Jazz Standard in New York City, July 17 – 19

The Modern Standard: What Is It?

Inspired by Spring’s indecisiveness a couple weeks ago, I decided not to brave the wind and rain this particular day, but to do some season-inspired cleaning instead. Thumbing through my music library, I settled on some classic Blue Note repertoire to help me through my chores: Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ Three Blind Mice, to be specific.  As the gorgeous and fittingly titled Freddie Hubbard waltz “Up Jumped Spring” played, it got me to thinking about the layers of musical camaraderie jazz music has always had.  Not just the cooperative nature of performing the music, but also in terms of what music was performed.  The vast landscape of jazz repertoire which includes Blues, Tin Pan Alley songs, show tunes, and pop songs, is most enriched by original compositions from jazz musicians themselves, which through the social contexts of the music, became standards in their own right.  Songs from Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Wayne Shorter had become modern jazz standards of their times because of their popularity and exposure within the jazz community.  I then started focusing on today, and my experiences at jazz performances.  Yes, the headliner is playing his or her original work, and yes the band, on some occasions, may feature a tune or two from a bandmate, but what were the odds that they would play a tune by a musical peer beyond their own band?  Slim to none, as far as I could tell.  Which got me to thinking: What is the modern jazz standard?

I began looking through the several Real Books laying around the house.  I couldn’t seem to find a song that was written in the last twenty years or so included.  With the plethora of prolific writers in jazz over this span of time, I found it odd.  What does this mean?  I started asking musicians for their take on why songs aren’t becoming popularized within the genre, and how this could affect their mark in history, if at all.

“People are so ensconced with doing their own thing, and don’t realize that it helps the music when we promote each other’s songs.  It helps the mentality,” says trumpeter Jeremy Pelt.  “For a long time, people have regarded standards as the test of one’s mettle and that tradition has stood the test of time for years and years and it was also something that was meant to rope in somebody who hadn’t heard you before, so that was the paradigm of which all modern jazz players were based off of, before you get into your own thing.”

Doing one’s own thing has never been easier.  The collapse of crucial major jazz labels, and a shift in the art of record producing has birthed a DIY era of record making which, while incredibly liberating, also has its share of considerable consequences.  “What’s interesting about the industry in any musical [genre] is that years ago — and I mean in our time — it was special to make a record,” says Pelt, who has just released his ninth album, Soul; a gorgeous blues and ballads project.  “Nowadays, I could put together a record right now on my Mac Book in an hour.  I don’t need a label to do anything for me, I just put it together, get my Logic going, and put it right up on my website and I will have a bona fide record.  So, the change in the industry and the mentality is such that it’s not a special thing anymore, and that’s, in essence, what makes it very competitive, number one.  You would think it’s less competitive now, but it’s actually more competitive because nobody’s shit is special anymore.  It’s all very ego-driven, and I think that a lot of young composers are always in a rush to push their agenda, and everyone is guilty of it at some point.  I think that with me, I made it a conscious decision, after doing records of my own material, to really cast light on some of my comtemporaries’ songs.”  Pelt, who has one of the few long-established quintets in the business, has recorded the music of Anthony Wonsey, Myron Waldon and Eric Reed. “If there was something I was drawn to in a song, I would record it and I think that it benefits the community at large.  I think people are afraid to do it because they feel like it will take the spotlight away from their compositions, which is a valid feeling if you’re insecure like that, but realistically, it’s not like there’s a whole lot of spotlight on the [jazz] industry in general [laughs].”

Pianist Orrin Evans, who is bringing a sense of community back to the jazz scene with his big band, Captain Black, is one of the few bandleaders today proactively featuring original music of not only his peers, but his proteges alike. “There’s such a need now for branding,” says Evans, “that even if you sit down with the best publicist in the business now, the word that’s going to come up is ‘branding’.  If you sit down with a manager, everyone is talking about branding, and that whole package becomes so self-serving.  A lot of people, when they get that moment, it’s like, ‘I gotta play my music, and do my stuff.’  But I honestly believe that I can still be who I am by how I interpret other people’s music.  It doesn’t need to be my music.  Who I am isn’t all about my songs or how I play my music, but also how I interpret music.”

Evans, who paid tribute to his mentor, saxophonist Bobby Watson, on his 2010 release Faith In Action, believes firmly in honoring his influences while they are still here; a philosophy which jazz has struggled to reckon with for the last several decades.  The genre seems to be contented (for better or worse) between two musical polars: an homage-obsessed one, and the other which seems, at times, completely musically isolated.

Guitarist Mike Moreno illuminates another set of possibilities of why artists’ tunes aren’t making the rounds as they did years ago.  “Today, there are far less jazz musicians being asked to record albums within a constricted period of time by record companies. Years ago, more musicians had record contracts that required them to record more often, demanding more material. So the artists might have been looking for more material if they didn’t have enough tunes written themselves for their next date. And now, for some of us, we write far more tunes than we have a chance to record. So we always end up playing what we wrote and don’t really have time on the date or gig to play so many of our peers’ original music. But another big reason, I think, is that jazz tunes have become more labor intensive to learn. Most of the music written now by musicians of my generation requires some pretty heavy rehearsing.  And there just isn’t enough time most rehearsals to rehearse your own music, and then another person’s hard music too. It’s better to just go with a standard that everyone knows to break the monotony of reading on every song during a gig or record date. Usually after about eight original tunes the band members start to hint at, ‘Yeah, and we can just throw in some standard tunes in between these.’  There is far more reading going on, on gigs now. And since most gigs today are mostly one nighters as opposed to playing for weeks at a time at the same venue, as back in 40’s 50’s and 60’s, with less sets, the opportunity is just not there to play a wider range of repertoire on gigs. But regardless, an original tune back in the day was no more than 32 bars, with maybe an intro, then the head, solo on the melody form, head out. Now a four or five page tune is no surprise. And the road maps through the sections can be really tricky. There is only so much of that, you can put in front of the band each gig.”

Moreno recently released his stunning fourth album, Another Way (World Culture Music), which features all original compositions, but is known for his uncanny ability to interpret standards, and has released two standards albums on the Criss Cross label.  “Before the Real Books came out there was a good grace period that determined what should be in there. Classic records were already classic.  The Real Book didn’t make Monk’s music popular, for example. Who would decide what should go in the newer real books if the records haven’t had a chance to become something yet? It would be nice if there was something like it, but who would buy it? I’m not sure publishers are really interested in that. After all, who buys Real Books anyway? Students who don’t really have the ear yet to learn the tunes from recordings and also need a guide of what to learn from the history of the music, or local musicians that just play background gigs with standards that they haven’t committed to memory.  That market of consumer usually buys the first editions Real Books to learn and play the “standard standard” material at their gigs.  The more advanced musicians usually have already studied that material, and then when they do want to play more modern stuff just transcribe it themselves and write out the charts rather than spending the money on a entire book to get a few tunes out of it.  I don’t think Real Books with newer music would make very much money for publishing companies, especially with current access to artist websites, in which the artists have taken their music into their own hands.  Fans or musicians who really want a newer artist’s original sheet music can just go to that person’s website and purchase the tunes they want now, or write the artist personally saying, ‘Hey, I really love this one tune, or this record, can you send me the lead sheets?’ I get those emails all the time. But, you can’t do that to Cole Porter, Miles, Monk, or even someone still current like Wayne Shorter or Herbie.  But a lot of times my favorite tunes were not in Real Books. I always transcribed myself. It might be more profitable for publishers to just put out individual songbooks by current artists. Few already exist. But, I don’t see any publishing companies really wanting to jump at this anytime soon, maybe down the line sometime. Then it might have an effect on the scene overall, making the records of today that will end up as classics documented as such. I think it is still too early.”

It just may be.  Yet, to Moreno’s point about the way the music of Monk, for example, was already popularized pre-Real Book era, I could not help but think about why and how much of the reason had to do with community and the role musicians play in getting their peers’ music out into the world.

“If you think about it, the Real Book hasn’t changed since probably 1993,” says Evans. “I haven’t bought one in a long time, but…that’s twenty years.  In that amount of time, we’ve had some monumental records, despite what people want to think or say.  We’ve got Crazy People Music from Branford [Marsalis], we’ve got Jason Moran’s records, Robert Glasper’s records, Kenny Kirkland’s records, which came out all within that time span.  Christian McBride’s first two records, during the time when the young lions — Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton — all of them had killing records, and you don’t see hardly any of those tunes in any of the Real/Fake books.  We have to keep playing the music.  Because if you stop playing it, for the next kids who come along, there’s no book.  I mean, granted, the reality is if we’re going to deal with it musically, all the old heads would say they should be learning it by ear anyway, but I’m talking about the business of it.  We’re not represented. Two decades of music is not represented in that book.”

“There isn’t really a linear sense of the scene in terms of progression, and in terms of community,” says saxophonist John Ellis, whose southern tinged Double-Wide quintet will be a part of the Newport Jazz Festival line-up this year.  People don’t necessarily  expectantly wait for so and so’s record, like they did for Miles.  We’re not connected to that era.  The people within the scene are disconnected from each other.  And I think all of that fracturing puts people in a whole different place.  I mean, that being said, I think Terence [Blanchard] has done a great job, very similar to Blakey, of showcasing his band members’ music.  I think there are isolated instances most certainly of that: of people building community within smaller groups.  When it comes to standards, for the most part, we’re talking about the Great American Songbook.  The ideal that there was a general, cultural knowledge of this music that jazz musicians interpreted, basically everybody knew those songs.”

“I mean, when I moved here there weren’t too many incubation bands in the first place that you could learn from,” adds Pelt, sighting the importance of musicians having experience not just playing music outside of their own, but also stretching out in bands beyond their own.  “Betty Carter was still alive but was getting ill, you still had Elvin Jones, we still have Roy Haynes, so there were a handful.  But there weren’t that many bands of that calibar to where you could get in and learn something.  So even now, fast forward almost fifteen years later, it’s like well now who is there really to play with?  And it forces today’s musicians to have to come up wtih their own situations because who else are they going to play with that they’re really going to learn from?”

“With the collapse of the major record label options for jazz for most people, it has made it such that everything is so diffused and spread out and then you juxtapose that with this incredible change of everything becoming institutionalized,” says Ellis who pointed out to me through an illustration about the cultural climate of jazz when the music was in Harlem, that the audience used to play such an important role in keeping the music contemporary and popular.  This begs the question: Who is the modern musician playing for?

“I think there is definitely something about Facebook and Twitter that makes people narcissistic, or encourages there inner narcissism, like everything I’m saying and doing is so important,” says Ellis. “Social networking…there is something sort of strangely anti-social about it, but on the other hand there is real potential to organize; it’s all about how we use it, I guess.  I do think there is some tension between this crazy connectivity and access to so much information and then how kind of isolating it all is.”

I guess there’s no easy or right answer or solution to the dilemma, and in fact the subject sheds more light on just how many achilles heels our musical community is plagued from. However, I do think we could benefit from more documenting and collective publishing of modern jazz compositions.  Collectivity has always made the music what it is.  The music being more than just the sum of its parts, as NPR producer Becca Pulliam said to me in a recent interview.  I just hope that by the time my son is in college, he’s learning the music of Jason Moran alongside the music of Art Blakey.  We can’t keep using the word “modern” to describe jazz, if we’re really referring to 1965.  That being said, I think at some point, it may be worthwhile to publish an updated book of modern compositions and start creating a rightful place for our generation in the spectrum of contributions.  There’s too much at stake to be overlooked in the end.

I welcome your thoughts on the matter.

A Playlist For My Mother: Reflections and Revelations

This post is dedicated to Sybrina Fulton, mother to Trayvon Martin, who is well within my heart and mind this Mother’s Day.


Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.  Last year, to commemorate the occasion, I dedicated a playlist to my mother, the woman I’ve often credited as the biggest influencer of my jazz inclinations.  You guys, the readers, seemed to really enjoy it, and so I wanted to make this an annual honor, and this year, I also wanted to reflect on my own experiences as a mother raising a child who, like me, is highly inspired by the music his parents play.

Coming in from my weekend errands a little while ago, I waved at neighbors, and admired the fruits of their gardening labors.  Spring is certainly here.  As I approached my house on this warm and sunny late morning, I hear the perfect syncopation of a beat that sounds like an ode to J Dilla.  Wait…it’s coming from my house.  I look up at the window.  I’m certain it’s my apartment…  and I’m floored that it’s my 3 year old son.  I knew he was good, but whoa.

As I come in the door, my mother, who came to spend some quality time with him, reports that he woke up demanding that before he eat or do anything else, he must play his drums.  Lo and behold, there he still sits, with his sticks (given to him as a gift from Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson), using his xylophone as the kick and a board game box which he propped on his piano as the snare, perfecting his set.  He instructs my mother to get on the microphone and sing, specifically, “Blue Monk”.  I can’t help but swell with pride at the honesty, genuineness, and frankly, at the incredibly budding talent exhibited by my dear son… and shake my head with reflection.  He’s me all over again.  I was the two year old tearing up behind the beauty of John Coltrane’s Ballads album, and singing Ray Charles’ big band arrangements verbatim.  Now, my son requests Monk, and has Thundercat, Sade, and Stevie Wonder in his mental Rolodex as sure as he knows “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”.  What a  trip.

When he was still baking…

Being able to have such a deep spiritual connection with my son which revolves around what we both treasure most… at this age, is something indescribable.  The gifts of parenthood are so unexpected. When he was coming into the world, all I knew was that I wanted him to be healthy.  You know, the ten fingers and ten toes cliche. Now, uncovering everyday that it is so much more…well, what more can a human being ask for?  This Mother’s Day, with my son’s serenade swirling in my head, I’m grateful.

Music is the gift which must be payed forward.  So, in honor of my mother, who started this musical ball rolling, here is this year’s playlist.  All songs that she played for me when I was growing up.  They’re being passed down to our son like the treasures they are, and he’s soaking in every note.

Mom’s Playlist:

Aretha Franklin – “Holy Moses”
The Jacksons – “Destiny”
Stevie Wonder – “You and I”
Carmen McRae – “Reflections”
Ray Charles – “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”
John Coltrane & Duke Ellington – “Angelica”
Mahalia Jackson –  “Didn’t It Rain”
Clifford Brown – “Willow Weep For Me”
Sarah Vaughan – “Trolley Song”