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”

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.

Growing Up Jazz: To The Roots

Photo by Angelika Beener

March is Women’s History Month, and personally, there isn’t a more fitting honor than talking to my mother for Alternate Takes’ Growing Up Jazz series.  As many of you now know, jazz has been my lifelong soundtrack.  There aren’t many things (if any) that have influenced me more than the artists and recorded music I grew up listening to.  For this series, I wanted to dig deeper — beyond my own experiences — to the source of my influence.  Through this candid interview with my mom, I’m able to have a greater appreciation for the gifts that have shaped my world, and hers.  From her culturally rich neighborhood, to the musicians who would have everlasting effects on her life, to her close relationship with her uncle, Thelonious Monk, my mother sat down for a rare interview to discuss the roots that are still impacting us, generation after generation.

Lyman Place…

Courtesy of Robert Gumbs

“Lyman Place was a very unique block,” Mom says of the one street long block, which she grew up on, in the Bronx, New York.  “There was so much talent.  You had people like Elmo Hope and Leo Mitchell. You had rock ‘n roll writers like Genie Kemp, who wrote ‘Church Bells May Ring’.  You had Larry Locke, who wrote a tune for Little Anthony and the Imperials, and producer Phil Spector was in my sixth grade class.  And we had lots of music venues in the neighborhood.  The two neighboring streets were Freeman Street and 169th Street.  On 169th Street there was Goodson’s Town and Thelonious played there. Shirley Scott, Jimmy Smith… they all used to play there.  A few blocks away, there was The Blue Morocco, where Nancy Wilson and Gloria Lynn and a lot of folks used to perform.  Then there was the 845 Club on Prospect Avenue, which was about four blocks up.  Everything was within walking distance.  Miles Davis played at the 845.  Thelonious would come by, but I think it was kind of a joke that he would never sit down and play, but he would participate as far as his presence, and it was a hang.  My friend Robert Gumbs, who was about the age of 17 at the time, and a couple of his friends were actually responsible for having regular jazz performances there.  They convinced the manager to bring in this type of music.  So the neighborhood was pretty rich.  And then Maxine Sullivan…”  Pausing, as though not to go on and on, mom seemed to be having her own revelation about just how much history ran through this four or five block radius.  “Tina Brooks grew up not far from me, on Boston Road, a few blocks up the street,” she continued.  “Then there was my junior high school, Junior High 40. A lot of musicians went there like Jimmy Owens and Larry Gales.  [General] Colin Powell went there, too.”

Growing Up Jazz (With Monk)

“That was my normal with Nellie and Thelonious,” she says of growing up under the love and direction of a jazz icon. “I didn’t spend a lot of time in other children’s houses, either. That wasn’t really allowed, so I didn’t start seeing any differences until the rare occasion when I would, and their houses just seemed… strange…. boring.  They didn’t seem very lively.  There was no house that I preferred to be in besides my own.  Most children want to go here or there, but everybody wanted to come to our house.  I can still remember seeing Nina Simone coming down the hall and sitting on the couch and my father making some of his smothered onions.  He could take the simplest food and make it so tasty.  I remember the laughter.  It was very normal, until people would speak to me in the street, and people would say, “How’s Monk?!”  Then we would see him in the newspaper.  But even going to the clubs, it was just Uncle Thelonious playing.  I can still remember my sisters and brothers and I, all seated there, and I can still see Coltrane in the kitchen area eating a peanut butter sandwich, and not really having very much to say.  But being the niece of Thelonious, it was always like it was their pleasure to meet us.  We always felt like we were somebody.  We were on equal par in that way.  Family was everything, and he made sure that everyone knew that.”

Monk’s Music

“One of my fondest memories is of “Played Twice”.  There are some [songs of Monk’s] that make me feel a bit melancholy.  When I would play that song, I would ‘play it twice’ and many more times.  And I used to like to dance to it, and one day — we very rarely asked him to play anything, he would just sit to the piano and we would enjoy — I asked him to play that for me, and then I started dancing to it. After he saw that I was enjoying the dance, he just took it out!  He just kept playing it, and he just started laughing and I started laughing… that was a real fun moment.

 

Timing Is Everything

“I had cooked some fried chicken livers, rice and gravy, and it must have been one o’clock in the morning.  There was no real schedule for anything… we didn’t do clocks [laughs].  But I’ll never forget it was the very next morning, which was really just about five or six hours later, and the food was still on the stove, and I threw it out.  And Thelonious came out of the room looking for the food, and I said, ‘I threw it out; it was out all night.’  And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well I figured it went bad.’  So he said, ‘So you make a turkey on Thanksgiving and you make all that food early in the morning…you eat that all day long, don’t you?’  I said, ‘Yeah.’  So he said, ‘Well, because it was nightfall you thought it needed to go in the garbage???’  And by the time he finished with that I felt silly [laughs].  Because we were actually talking about a few hours, and I had never thought about that.  I thought once you go to sleep and wake up… but when you think about time. He said, “Because timing is everything.”  And timing is everything.

Life Lessons

At a time where misogyny in jazz was so rampant,  Monk was a great admirer of women in jazz.  He also had a great reverence for the women in his personal life.  Musically, he paid endearing homage to his wife (“Crepuscule With Nellie”), his sister-in-law (“Skippy”) and his niece (“Jackie-ing”).  As part of the village who raised my mother, he also took great pride in this role. “He respected women musically, as mothers, teachers, guidance counselors, if you will, and he also respected their musical ear, which a lot of musicians for some reason, didn’t do,” Mom explains.  “I guess just like in sports.  This was before my time, but it carried on to where I would witness it: Whenever he would write a tune, he always took it to my mother for her thoughts.  That’s what he thought of her musical ear.  And so he respected women on every level.  He was also a great protector, and you always felt the security, which is very important in a woman’s upbringing.  It gave me a great sense of security and I always felt that I was somebody. Even in public, the way we would be addressed when we were with him, and without him.  And he carried himself in such a way that he could demand that kind of respect for us in his absence.  So I was always very proud.  He and Nellie would also explain his life to us as children and over and over again as we got older, so even though you didn’t totally understand what they were saying on some levels, when you heard it again… he was constantly feeding.  Because I guess he knew that we would hear a lot of conflicting stories, so no matter what came at us, we were bulletproof… I wouldn’t care what it was.  And even if it had validity to it, it didn’t affect us at all.  The negativity never affected us.  Thinking about it now, that was really something.  But… we were one.  We were strong, and it was like an unconditional love relationship to protect him as he protected us, and it’s just amazing to accomplish that.  They did a hell of a job in our grooming in that way.  And we stood very strong, and we still do to this day.  Through his teaching, we had an understanding of what money was, and what you should and shouldn’t do for it.  He would always say, ‘In life, be careful what you compromise.’  Always know in all directions.  Always, meaning forever and in all ways.  And had he not lived by those rules, he, of course, would not be who he is.  And so he could have made money many, many years before he started making money, but by not compromising, you really win in the end.  So, money comes when it’s right and for the right reasons.  And so in that kind of teaching, people have come to us — not just me, but my other brothers and sisters — with all kinds of ideas to write about him, [or ask about] “family secrets” and all the things they don’t know, which is a lot.  And it’s never been appealing, it’s never been a question or a waver.  It’s almost offensive for you to ask.  To this day, if someone asks a question about him, we’re reluctant to what we give up.  And so that’s in stone.”♦

A Message In Our Music Part 2: Christian McBride

Simply put, there are bassists, and then there’s Christian McBride.

With a career as a musician, composer, arranger, and producer, which began two decades ago, McBride has since set thee standard and captivated fellow musicians and audiences alike with his astounding technical superiority, his inventive, demiurgic vocabulary, and a sound which is as tremendous as the Philly native’s outgoing presence and infectious charm.  McBride is the most significant bassist to come along in the last twenty years, and is inarguably, one of the greatest to ever play the instrument.

In and outside of the jazz genre, McBride has collaborated, recorded, arranged for and performed with many of the most essential artists in the business: Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, McCoy Tyner, Roy Haynes, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Isaac Hayes, Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, Lalah Hathaway, Sting, Carly Simon, Bruce Hornsby, The Roots, D’Angelo, Queen Latifah, and Kathleen Battle.  You can also add the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, to this royal roll call.  (McBride is a self-proclaimed James Brown connoisseur and avid footage collector.  Don’t go there with the man.)

McBride has an illustrious recording career, with over ten albums as a leader, and his latest album, The Good Feeling (Mack Avenue), earned him a Grammy award this past week.  His first big band recording, McBride rallied an array of dynamic musicians including Steve Wilson, Ron Blake, Nicholas Payton, and Xavier Davis.

 McBride has a long history of making bold statements away from his instrument, an attribute which has resulted in the imploring of so many esteemed organizations and initiatives.  He spoke on former President Bill Clinton’s town hall meeting “Racism in the Performing Arts”.  His four movement suite, “The Movement, Revisited”, which is dedicated to civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was commissioned by the Portland (ME) Arts Society and the National Endowment for the Arts.  In 2005, he was also named co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.  Reminiscent of the protagonism of James Brown, McBride has an uncanny ability to use his musical stature to foster social awareness.  It was an honor to sit with him, especially for this particular occasion.

Check out our discussion about three of McBride’s most essential politically-influenced albums.

Sonny Rollins Freedom Suite

“Well you know, Sonny has been a master of his instrument and craft for so long,” says McBride.  “Particularly if you listen to Sonny in the 50s.  His sound, his vibe… everything about him was pure Harlem.  I bought this record when I was in high school… maybe 9th or 10th grade. The reason why I love the freedom suite so much [is because]…if you ask most Black folks our age, and maybe even a generation before, what the greatest protest album, or politically aware album is, they’ll almost always say [Marvin Gaye’s] What’s Going On.  And I don’t have a problem with that.  We all know that it’s an absolute masterpiece…an unquestionable masterpiece.  But I find that’s the only album most people know.  That was 1971.  Freedom Suite is 1958, and the jazz musicians have been ahead of the political/musical curve for a very, very long time.  The Birmingham bus boycott was only three years old, and to my knowledge, Sonny Rollins and Max Roach were the only two musicians from that generation really overtly dealing with it.  Even in Sonny’s liner notes, where he talks about the “American Negro”.  To think that Sonny was that aware, or jazz musicians were that aware and would make a record about it in 1958…that really says a lot.  And so we know that he was obviously very socially and politically aware and active but then the music, the piece itself…the Freedom Suite…man, that’s some of the greatest music ever.”

As likely with many of my readers, I have felt a sense of social and political abandonment in Black popular music and other artistic mediums, which is quite disheartening.  To think that we’ve “arrived” in any way, is a sadly misguided ideology, and one I believe to be very dangerous.  Struggle is not akin to weakness.  In fact, it is quite the contrary.  To me, struggle is action.  I asked McBride about this expression in jazz and whether or not this is something that has, as in popular music, been wiped from the musical dialogue.

“I think there are a lot of cats out there who are making some very serious music that is politically and culturally aware,” says McBride.  “It might not have the same impact as it might have in the 50s when it was still, relatively, an unheard of thing.  But I think there are some musicians now whose creativity is fueled by what goes on in our culture and our world.  People like Orrin Evans, Russell Gunn…I myself have written an opus which will hopefully be released this year on Mack Avenue.  I think there are a lot of cats out there who really know what’s going on.  How it would be accepted is another thing.  Because I think we’ve all gotten too comfortable.  And I don’t mean that in the sense that to be politically and socially aware, that necessarily means that you have to be angry, but you gotta at least speak up for what you believe needs to happen.  Like Nicholas [Payton] starting people talking again about Black American Music…and I whole heartedly agree with him 100%.  Especially with the part [about the] resistance anytime Black people want to claim something.  We take different approaches to how we convey the message, but the sentiment is exactly on the same page.”

 Max Roach We Insist!

I was really happy that Christian picked this album to discuss, particularly because of the presence of Abbey Lincoln.  As discussed with Jason Moran in Part 1, anytime a woman’s perspective can be added to the discussion of social justice in America, it is to the benefit of everyone.

“I got to play that piece once with Branford Marsalis; it was me, Branford and Brian Blade,” McBride reminisces.   “That was so much fun.  But anyway, Max is on the Freedom Suite, and Sonny of course, was in Max’s group with Clifford Brown in the 50s.  Once the movement really did become “The Movement”, Max Roach was there early.  Max was very outspoken; he was very politically active in the movement before it caught fire.  He and Abbey.  When you hear Abbey Lincoln singing “Driver Man”…she’s another one.  When it comes to the civil rights era, music and black females, sadly, I think she unfairly gets overshadowed by Nina Simone.  But Abbey…you’ve got to give her her props.  What she and Max did together for many, many, many years — not just on We Insist! either — was very much ahead of its time and very influential on a broad scale because we all know Max was tight with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, and Dr. King, and the Black Panthers later on.  Max Roach was actually part of J.Edgar Hoover’s file cabinet; somebody did a story about that a few years ago.  He was being followed by the FBI.  Max was deep, deep in it.  So an album like We Insist! really puts it in perspective.”

Duke Ellington Black, Brown and Beige

Since Black folks came to this country, I suppose the issue of approach to our freedom has been a debated one.  During the civil rights era, the level of militancy neccesary was a constant debate, and what is deemed “militant” was another.  Even in music, this has been and still is, a point of contention.  Here, McBride illustrates how.

“There was an interview that Duke did for a Black newspaper in the late 60s, and the writer asked Duke, ‘Well how come you don’t write music for the people?’  The arrogance of youth, [laughs]!  And Duke, in his usual, classy, elegant and sophisticated style says, ‘Well I think I address those issues with Black, Brown and Beige’, and the guy says, ‘Well, what is that?!’

I have a hard time believing anything considered modern or…when you look at how we’ve evolved allegedly as a people, it’s hard to think that we made strides that Duke Ellington hadn’t already made long before anybody was even thinking about stuff like that.  You look at Duke Ellington’s music from the 20s, through the 30s, through the 40s…Duke was always addressing the beauties, the victories and the pains of Black folk.  Always been there, always.  So Duke was very much a role model and an example of someone who understood that he had a greater responsibility than to just write good music for his band.  He was always about the cry of his people.

Duke was always somehow able to express and convey the feelings of Black folk without being angry.  You could feel the sadness, pain, angst, but it was always done through this filter, this lens of triumph in the end… or hope.  I think that’s what separated Duke from the rest of the pack.

Now, speaking of this album specifically, you’ve got Mahalia Jackson.  These are two titans arguably at the peak of their powers collaborating together.  When you talk about fusion, to my knowledge, I can think of no greater example of one of the earliest collaborations of jazz and gospel. I know Milt Jackson and Ray Brown did it with Marion Williams in the 60s, but Duke and Mahalia…it gets no better than that.”♦

Listen to Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra Wilson, and Dianne Reeves sing “Freedom Day” in honor of Abbey Lincoln on JazzSet live at The Kennedy Center.

Growing Up Jazz: An Inside Look at Family & Music

It’s Black History Month!

Photo by Angelika Beener

Though television programming which celebrates Blacks throughout the month of February has gotten leaner and leaner each year, and an increased amount of savvy and investigative skills are required to find ways to observe the 29 day spotlight, I hope to be doing my due diligence here at Alternate Takes via a couple of very special series.  I’m really excited to share this one with all of you.

Black history is both perpetual and personal, and we can look at the history of Blacks in America from the broadest or most intimate of lenses.  In this next series, we are going deep into the heart of the music, with Growing Up Jazz, a unique look at the family dynamic of a jazz musician, through the eyes of his children.

We learn the most about jazz musicians through their art, as it should be.  The music, after all, says it best.  However, the music industry, critical analysis and brand marketing tend to dehumanize and disconnect him or her from the element that likely inspired the very art we hold so sacred — the family.  The edification of family is not often the first thing to come to mind when most think about a jazz musician; drug abuse and other ramifications of societal dysfunction are more accessible concepts, founded or not.  Yet, the family is and always has been a great source of inspiration and strength to jazz artists.  We’ll explore just how.

It’s coming soon!  In the meantime, Part 2 of A Message In Our Music continues this week, with the unparalleled Christian McBride!

On the Rise: A Conversation With Kris Bowers

Photo by Gianina Ferreyra

At the start of the second set at Greenwich Village’s Jazz Gallery last week, pianist Kris Bowers played for a packed and eager house.  A packed, eager, young, and particularly diverse house, to be more exact, with a look, vibe and mood much closer to a college music festival than what the typical jazz audience tends to resemble.  For a brief moment, I thought I was having auditory hallucinations with the amount of hoots and hollers being emitted from young, female voices.  It is a rare occurrence within the jazz club setting.  In Bowers’ performance debut as a leader, that would not be the last series of eyebrow-raising observations.

Bowers’ band for the evening was an assemblage of up-and-coming fresh faces in jazz with saxophonists Kenneth Whalum III and Godwin Louis, trumpeter Mike Cottone, bassist Earl Travis, and drummer Joe Saylor. The band of twenty-somethings played with a fire and focus beyond their years, performing an impressive amount of original material.  Bowers, who is an orchestrator, founder of a music company, and appears on the most significant hip hop album of the 2011, closed the moving set with a song from Bon Iver, the cutting edge indie folk band, which has been riddled recently with Grammy nominations.  At twenty-two years old, it would be impossible to prognosticate a journey which is just beginning, but it is clear that Kris Bowers is setting a precedent of individuality, pushing the jazz envelope with a fierce, yet understated momentum.

If I’ve misled you to believe that his musical boundlessness and vast experience compromises his significance as a bonafide jazz musician, let me set that record straight nice and early.  He is a tremendous pianist, with a world of history underneath his fingers and a wise restraint balanced by a conspicuously original sound.  He’s a bad cat.  He convinced a panel of pianistic paramountcy (which included Herbie Hancock, Ellis Marsalis, Danilo Pérez, Jason Moran and Renee Rosnes) of just that, taking first place at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition earlier this year, beating out some of the best undiscovered pianists in the world.  An experience Bowers described as nothing short of nerve-racking, “I was nervous, definitely.  Because you know, those were like all of my favorites [on the judging panel].  I hadn’t really met any of them…I knew Jason [Moran] but other than that I hadn’t met any of them, so to be playing all this stuff that I pretty much got from most of them [laughs] I was trying to…play the best that I could.”

Like most musicians on the New York City jazz scene, Bowers hails from outside of the five boroughs, specifically Los Angeles.  Initially studying classical music, Bowers made an organic transition to jazz, which he studied at both Colburn School for Performing Arts and Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA).  After graduating in 2006, Bowers moved to New York, continuing his studies at the Juilliard School.  “The jazz scene in LA…I mean it’s kind of sad.  It’s pretty bleak,” says Bowers who is now a second-year master of music degree student in the Juilliard Jazz program.  “Mostly because of the geography of the city.  It’s so spread out, it’s kind of hard. Like, we don’t have an area like the Village where there’s a bunch of clubs you can go around to and to get together to play…it can take an hour to drive to somebody’s house, [for example].  And then unfortunately, a lot of the clubs are closing down, like The Jazz Bakery.  There’s just not many places to play out there.  I think most of the people want to come to New York once they feel like they’ve gotten to a certain level, or feel like they’re ready.”

Bowers’ New York state of mind has proven to be a wise one many times over.  If you’re going to be in the right place at the right time, New York is always a good place to start.  Twists of fate work their magic best in The Big Apple, as Bowers explains how a chance subbing gig landed him on the Kanye/Jay-Z magnum opus, Watch the Throne.  “Casey [Benjamin]  plays with Q-Tip and he was on tour with [Robert] Glasper, and he recommended me to do this gig at the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, and it just so happened that at that gig, there were special guests like Busta Rhymes, Black Thought, Monie Love, and Kanye, and at the time they were finishing up a couple tracks from Watch The Throne that Tip was working on, and they wanted me to play some string parts on one song, and to write some piano parts on this other song, so it kind of all happened in a matter of days.”

Writing string parts was likely no tough task, as you can add budding film scorer to Bowers’ resume.  “That’s something I definitely want to get into, honestly more than playing…especially eventually,” admits Bowers.  “I’d love to be able to dig into that.  I’ve always admired the role that music plays in a film and how it helps tell the story and how great music can enhance a film and bad music can ruin a film…just how much power the music has.  And also that it’s a literal translation of emotion; trying to compose and trying to write music that sounds scary, or sounds like this person is falling in love, or this person is angry…”

Photo by Gianina Ferreyra

With so many facets to Bowers’ career, and his vast musical inclinations, it’s exciting to think about what is in store in terms of his debut album, scheduled for an early 2013 release on Concord.  “I have a couple of ideas, a couple of special guests brewing who are pretty awesome,” says Bowers who is currently forming his band, something about which he is particular.  “The main thing I’m going for with the band is that I want to feature a band full of guys in our generation. Just because I feel like a lot of these guys with their first albums, it’s just [about] names and they have these veterans, and that’s understandable…but I feel like playing with the people I’m friends with and who I know are going to put as much energy [into the record] as possible.  They’re not just doing it for a paycheck.”

He elaborates further taking a cue from a master with whom he shared recent company.    “Like Herbie’s debut album Takin’ Off.  He had Dexter Gordon — he was a veteran — but everybody else on the record was around Herbie’s age. Even though now they’re jazz legends, at the time they were just like one of Herbie’s contemporaries, so I feel like what I want to do is play with people who are my contemporaries.”

There is certainly no shortage of worthy peers from which Bowers can choose.  The well of young talent in jazz today is startling; most notably on Bowers’ own instrument, particularly as it pertains to African Americans.  Not in the last fifteen years (at least) has there been such a surge of rising Black pianists, all making their mark in the same generation.  Bowers is in great company with the brilliant likes of Sullivan Fortner, Christian Sands, David Bryant, Joshua White and Johnathan Batiste, to name a few.  “It’s pretty great,” says Bowers of the strong representation.  “I remember even being in high school and kind of realizing that there were like three black kids in the jazz department…in an arts high school…in LA.  And when you think about the fact that this is our music…so yeah, it’s pretty great to see some young, Black piano players and all be kind of on the rise.”

And climbing fast.

===================

Getting To Know You…

AT: Who are your favorite pianists of now?

KB: Well, of people closer to my age, I would say Sullivan Fornter is one of my favorites, and also John Batiste.  Also, Lawrence Fields, Gerald Clayton, [Robert] Glasper, Aaron Parks…

AT: Do you have any favorite albums that came out this year?

KB: That new Thundercat album.  (Incidentally, that’s one of my favorites of this year also…but you’ll have to wait for the Alternate Takes Best of 2011 post for more details!)

AT: What are your favorite Hip Hop albums?

KB: The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest.  That’s definitely one of my favorites.

AT: The last thing you listened to on your iPod?

KB: Bon Iver

AT: Name one person you would love work with?

KB: Quincy Jones

Kris Bowers performs Saturday, January 28th at the TriBeCa Performing Arts Center at 199 Chambers Street; (212) 220-1460, tribecapac.org.


Geri Allen On First Christmas Album & Embracing It All

Photo by: Karl Giant

Geri Allen is, with all certainty, the renaissance woman of Modern Jazz. Musician (and more pointedly, instrumentalist), scholar, professor, woman, mother, and African American, Allen has deepened the possibilities of what it means to be a jazz musician. It is likely for this reason that she has been recognized in ways not characteristic of typical jazz commendation. She is the first woman to receive the Danish Jazzpar Prize, she is a Guggenheim Fellow for Musical Composition (2008-2009), she has received honors and awards from various universities, as well as receiving the first Soul Train Lady of Soul award for jazz and an NAACP Image award nomination. Her ever-enduring desire to teach and learn is immersed in her artistry. She is a professor by profession, but she is a natural scholar.  With Allen, nothing is surface. Her works are always layered with a combination of cultural homage, imagination, and inventiveness. The jazz master, whose recording career as a leader is just shy of thirty years, is still embarking on uncharted territories, with the release of her first Christmas album, A Child is Born.

“It was really organic in the way that it happened,” says Allen as we talked during her layover to Pittsburg on a busy travel day. “It found its genesis in the church at Bethany [Baptist Church, in Newark, New Jersey]. We did a concert there two years ago, and the choir embraced the idea of doing this music, and I was so embraced by the church, you know? I felt like I had to come back…and I did come back. I felt so very grateful to be a part of it. So the music really did grow out of that… it has its foundation there.”

Beyond a mere word or concept, foundation has been a guiding principle in Allenʼs career, and while there are many who believe, on some level or another, that leaning on foundation and tradition is a surefire way to stagnate jazz, Allenʼs example could not be a truer testament to the opposite. One of the most innovative musicians in jazz, Allen believes firmly in embracing the totality of her culture in order to arrive at the highest form of artistic expression. “I think people who are innovators…they just donʼt drop out of the air,” says Allen of the idea of separating innovation from tradition. “There is something in place, something that was developed from a body of collective work, something the field or the culture agrees to call innovation, a body of work which has to be acknowledged and evolved within and through, a living and breathing criteria which can then be defined as innovation. There is a foundation in every culture, a respect for its traditions which are celebrated within, and then shared with the world. These define humanity at its best. I donʼt think innovation exists without an acknowledgment of and respect for foundation or culture.”

Allen holds fast to this concept most endearingly on A Child Is Born. The granddaughter of a Methodist minister, she grew up in the church, and found “deep connection” in that sense of community and heritage. She also made a trip to Bethlehem a few years ago, an experience she says undoubtedly influenced the making of this album. “We played the first Jerusalem Jazz Festival, [so] as soon as we got off of the plane and set our bags down, we went straight to the Western Wall, where people are praying and leaving prayers on the Wall. I canʼt even express the feeling of that communion between the people there. And so we performed and then we felt we were so close to Bethlehem, there was no way that we were going miss the opportunity. So, we made the trip there twice, and it was an amazing…I mean,to go to the place where Christ was born, to be there in the cave, to spend time there in meditation, it was certainly life-changing.”

A Child Is Born (Motéma)

Far from a setlist of re-harmed holiday heart-warmers, A Child Is Born is, for one, powerfully thought-provoking, at times pensive, which is a most appropriate evocation of mood given the deeply historical framework of this project. Emory Universityʼs Professor of Music, Reverend Dwight D. Andrews puts it best in his eloquent liner notes for the album in saying, “Ms. Allen has managed to capture the wonder and mystery, innocence, beauty, and hope of the Christmas season.” Comprised of a thoughtful mixture of classic and original repertoire, Allen explores traditional and ancient themes with interpretations of “Imagining Gena at Sunrise” and “Imaging Gena at Sunset” supported by stunning cover art by artist Kabuya Pamela Bowens, which depicts the Black Madonna and Child. The traditional “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” includes stirring vocal samples from the women of the Quilt Collective of Geeʼs Bend, Alabama. Her own “God Is With Us” is based on Matthew 1:23; the angel coming to Joseph in a dream with the message that the Virgin Mary will give birth to a son, Emmanuel, whose name is the titleʼs translation.

Allen also breathes new life into familiar Christmas repertoire with songs like “Away In a Manger”, “Silent Night”, “Angels We Have Heard On High”, and most notably for me, the Thad Jones classic, “A Child Is Born”, a performance which she dedicates to the composerʼs late brother, the illustrious pianist, Hank Jones, who himself was a genius at infusing modern gospel chords and substitutions in jazz repertoire. Allen channels Jones with her exquisite improvisations, marinating in the allure of the song’s chord changes, (and irresistibly quoting the Morey-Churchill classic, “Someday My Prince Will Come”) before getting to the songʼs melody a little after the half-way mark. Allenʼs virtuosic execution, gospel warmth, and breath-taking improvisations on this musical celebration of Christmas are, like all of her work, layered with meaning and reverence, presented with modernism and beauty. It is a balance she strikes unfailingly. Then again, sheʼd have it no other way.

It would be almost impossible (and almost irresponsible) for me not to delve further into this issue of tradition and modernism with someone as brilliant and gifted as Ms. Allen, as she defies the notion that giving reverence to tradition and foundation not only isolates oneʼs artistry, but subsequently pits one against a younger generation of musicians. Beyond Allenʼs originative musical demonstration, she is also one of the biggest advocates and supporters of the next generation of jazz musicians, teaching, mentoring, and hiring them. At this past Monterey Jazz Festival, I caught some of the set from her much buzzed about group Timeline, which features along with bassist, Kenny Davis, the young talents of drummer Kassa Overall and dynamic tap dancer, Maurice Chestnut. “There is a basic issue of connectedness to the culture, and the musicians…have to make an investment in that,” says Allen. “For me, there are certain musicians that I always felt made a really clear investment in that, and when I was growing up in Detroit that was just the way we did things. I mean, the people would come out and dance to the music, they understood what it was about, and they were just in it, because it was a part of the culture, and I think thatʼs what Iʼve wanted to have; that experience within jazz.”

Photo by: Karl Giant

Dance, and tap in particular, is becoming a bit of an underrepresented art, making Allenʼs inclusion of this element of African American heritage in jazz all the more significant. “I think that those aspects of who we are, are what make our stories interesting and unique,” she says.  With a Masterʼs degree in Ethnomusicology from Pittsburgh University, Allen’s long-standing rep for infusing various components of African American history into the jazz element of the culture, is largely influenced by one of her greatest heroes, Mary Lou Williams.

Vijay Iyer, who I really appreciate,” says Allen, “had courage to make a comment some years ago in All About Jazz that basically says people…they go to school and they get degrees in jazz, and then they want to disassociate themselves with the musicʼs culture. They donʼt want to say that theyʼre playing jazz. Then they come up with these other descriptions that people use today [laughs] and he said, ʻWhen did jazz become something to get around or away from?ʼ I think Mary Lou Williams knew that.”

I found myself relating to what Allen was saying from a journalistic vantage. My frustration with the lack of diversity in jazz journalism, and subsequent disappointment in the coverage and acknowledgment of this generationʼs jazz musicians of color is a reflection of a consequence Ms. Allen so acutely discussed, offering a challenge that left me deeply affected. “There is a rainbow of talented, young people out here playing the music today, and that is wonderful, this music is and always has been all embracing. Looking at the next generation of African American musicians playing this music it is important that we continue to embrace these young people as well and encourage them to celebrate their roots, and if other people in the field are not acknowledging that, we should be. I think we have to continue on in the spirit of what Mary Lou Williams was saying, and Dr. Billy Taylor… our heroes would say, this is your culture, embrace it. You donʼt want to lose who you are. And thatʼs what happens when you donʼt embrace your culture…you disappear.  These aspects empower the music, when it remains connected to it’s source.”

I donʼt think Iʼve ever heard words on this subject that have hit me harder than those. Itʼs like I gained ten years worth of perspective in just those few sentences. Sure, the disconnect between Black youth and their cultural inheritance in jazz, is something that remains the major inspiration for this very blog. It is a serious problem. Yet, not until Ms. Allen framed the consequence so candidly, did it click on all cylinders. “Thatʼs what I impart to my students,” Allen continues, “and I have a very diverse and talented group of young people, and they are understanding that this is a music that is culturally based, and it is a music which comes from the African-American experience. If they really want to learn on a deeper level, then theyʼve got to embrace the culture, and I think thatʼs really where the heart of our conversation is. This is the norm with other world musics, you must deal with the cultural criteria. That premise is understood by artists, students, and scholars alike universally. Why is this language a problem when it comes to jazz, why does this idea rattle some people today?”

There may be a lot to fix, but Allen is optimistic — of both the future of jazz and its relation to journalism. She emits a gracious hope which is illuminated in her most recent work, but it is a characteristic she has always embodied.

“Itʼs OK for people to have opinions, thatʼs fine…and itʼs OK to publish opinions, and thatʼs fine. I feel strongly that there is a renaissance of amazing scholars in this area of African American music and culture. Iʼm looking at the writers, people like Farah Jasmine Griffin, people like Robin D.G. Kelley, and George Lewis…people of that ilk, who really are establishing a level of responsibility for how we will write about the music and how we talk about the music. And I just feel that these are the ways to look, [instead of] getting so upset about some of these other things that are not really dealing with the real core of what is happening in the culture. Like the book that Kelly did on Monk…that sets the bar of what the expectation of jazz scholarships should be…real, substantive research on the music, based on a respect for the cultural criteria accepted by the field … the folk. The music truly deserves this level of care. Ten years, you know, Kelly did that research. That kind of time and that kind of love and appreciation for the subject matter is where I want to go, personally, to find out what the facts were on a much deeper level. These discussions about our innovator’s contributions are thrilling. And I think weʼre going to see more of this.”

The beauty in Allenʼs resolution is that it includes and challenges everyone across race, gender and generations. Her powerful message to jazz musicians that true modernism is in the understanding, accepting, acknowledging and embracing of the entirety of the culture; not dismissing, deleting or wishing it away, is as bold and transcending as her life’s work. As journalists, it is this same message…this foundation…that will keep us honest, and tell it like it truly is, and that, says Allen, just like the blues, “is something that never goes out of style.”♦

Don’t miss Geri Allen performing the music of A Child Is Born at Bethany Baptist Church, in Newark, New Jersey on Saturday, December 17th.  Concert is FREE.  Visit her website for more information.  Additionally, partial proceeds from this recording go to the YMWCA of Newark and Vicinity (www.newarkymca.org), who, in association with Bethany, provide quality programs for children and families throughout the community, with emphasis on those in crisis. 

Ali Shaheed Muhammad: On Life and The Low End Theory

This past September marked the anniversaries of some of the most pivotal music of my generation.  It has been twenty years since Nirvana shook up the pop culture macrocosm with their momentous Nevermind album, turning indie rock into a mainstream phenomenon.  Pearl Jam has also reached the double-decade landmark with their album Ten, which was released just a couple weeks before. Growing up in the 90s, thirty-something music junkies like myself revel in these musical milestones, not simply for the nostalgia, but because of the actual genius of these ground-breaking stalwarts. However, there is one group whose essentiality matches that of their rocker contemporaries. Twenty years ago, A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory.  Hip hop would never be the same.

The Low End Theory was released on the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind in September, 1991. The similarities between these pioneering groups are quite noteworthy. Both bands were impressively polished and keenly focused before landing any big deals. Both bands released solid debut albums that helped build an eager following, and both bands subsequently blew the figurative roof off of the musical stratosphere with their sophomore follow-ups. Ultimately, both bands changed the way music could be perceived by melding aesthetics that had not been imagined previously. A Tribe Called Quest is undoubtedly the most innovative and musical hip hop group of the 1990s, and arguably of all time. Their heavy jazz influence would aggressively gift intricate harmonies, warm chord changes, and rare grooves to the genre. While the Marsalis camp pushed straight ahead jazz into mainstream relevance once again in the 80s, the early 90s would serve jazz to the collective young, Black community by melding more jazz-funk/jazz-soul leaning music with hip hop. Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues set off the decade with a major motion picture about the life of a modern day jazz musician, (with the help of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Robert Hurst, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Terence Blanchard as the actual band). The movie’s soundtrack included a jazz history lesson wrapped in rap, performed by the late emcee Guru of Gang Starr, who foretold accurately, in the last line of the last verse… “The 90s will be the decade of a ‘Jazz Thing.’”

Now let’s flip to the first line of the first song off of The Low End Theory, where A Tribe Called Quest unabashedly coined themselves on “Excursions”.  With pristine diction and his signature cadence, Q-Tip flows over a lone, fat, hard-grooving bass line about his father drawing correlations between hip hop and bebop. Fresh out of the gate, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were making a loud and clear statement that jazz was an integral part of their musical identities. I sat down with DJ/Producer Muhammad about their recording milestone, their recent documentary, and got some backstory on their love affair with jazz.

“My introduction [to jazz] came from Q-Tip, really,” credits Muhammad.  It wasn’t a hard sell for the Brooklyn native, who is a self-proclaimed musical sponge.  Muhammad grew up listening to a myriad of Black music: Blue Magic, Earth Wind and Fire, Teddy Pendergrass, Kool and the Gang, Parliament, Slave, and his mother’s personal favorite, The Spinners. Additionally, his uncle, to whom Muhammad was very close, was a bassist, and exposed him to the live local music scene. Jazz was just a heartbeat away and the progression was a natural one.

Courtesy of Ali Shaheed Muhammad

“There were a couple of other groups that were sampling jazz at that time,” adds Muhammad in terms of exposure. “Gang Starr, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Main Source, and even prior to us (at that point, we were the newer generation of hip hop), you had Stetsasonic, who called themselves The Hip Hop Band. This is before The Roots, but they were sampling jazz, and they even had a song called ‘Talking All That Jazz‘, which was a very historic moment in hip hop, [because] certain artists were not embracing what the artists were doing at that time by sampling jazz.  It was frowned upon.  You have Marley Marl, who was also a legendary, iconic producer, and someone who’s footsteps we wanted to follow; and he sampled soul and jazz.  So, there were a couple of people who introduced it, but I think the way that we delivered it was in such a way that had not really been done… in that capacity, in that manner, in that sound.”

Q-Tip, Phife, and Muhammad’s mixture of adventurous lyrics, rambunctious personae, hard beats and high-level musicality certainly set A Tribe Called Quest apart.  “One of the things that I think contributed to the success of The Low End Theory was actually the last single from People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and that was ‘Can I Kick It?’,” recalls Muhammad. “[That song] pretty much opened the doors of love from MTV and they really embraced us with that video.  It was sort of quirky.  The director had just done some cool things that I don’t think had been done [previously], and he kind of continued it with the videos from Low End Theory.  He was pretty advanced in his thinking.  But in any event, that album pretty much, I guess, had given us this sort of alternative hip hop kind of stroking that MTV liked at the time, which was a pretty big thing at that time.  It allowed for your video to be in heavy rotation and at that time, videos, in some sense, were dictating the popularity of artists and bands.  You know, we had kind of left off with that alternative style, but yet still hard with the drums [on] ‘Can I Kick It?’.  And we had come back with an album that wasn’t as…bohemian as the first album. It was actually a lot harder. So I think at that time, MTV was still willing to be a supporter of the record and I think the record just spoke for itself.  The strong artwork on the cover…and we just took our position and stood strong and the music just fell into people’s hearts the right way and the rest is history.”
Twenty years worth.

Photo Credit: Klaus Schielke

While by the 1990s, artists were proving that hip hop had staying power, there are not many groups who have evoked sentimentality, relevance, and a continued sense of modernism the way A Tribe Called Quest has.  Perhaps, it’s for this reason which they were the subject of a recent documentary, Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the first of it’s kind on a hip hop band, directed by Michael Rappaport. We learn a lot about the band, on both personal and creative fronts.  Musically, you definitely come to understand the universalness which jazz offers to any musical amalgamation.  The best example would be The Low End Theory’s “Verses From the Abstract”, which features bass legend Ron Carter, who gets a closing shout out from Q-Tip right along with Pete Rock, Special Ed, and Big Daddy Kane.  A Tribe Called Quest had an ingenious way of creating a platform which was devoid of generational or cultural hierarchy, framing instead, an incessant, streamed portrayal of Black culture.  On bringing Mr. Carter on board, Muhammad explains, “The whole idea of having Ron Carter playing on the record came from Q-Tip.  He just has a style of playing that is perfect, and I think Q-Tip admired that.  And as he does, [he would] come up with an idea of like, ‘You know what would be cool? If we do this, that, such and such.’  He came up with the idea, and that happened to be one of the ideas that really stuck and he was adamant about it.  One phone call from one A&R, one musician and engineer, and this person, an affiliate… and next thing you know he shows up with his bass!  And like the professional who a lot of those jazz greats are, you give the charts, that’s all they need, they read the chart, say, ‘Where do you want me to play?’ look it over, ‘OK play here?’, do it, and then they’re out [laughs].  No hanging out, no vibing, talking and kicking it… just real quick. We were just like, ‘Wow, he’s here,’ like little puppies [laughs], and so we were really excited about him being there and grateful that he loaned himself to this project.”

But hip hop wouldn’t be hip hop without a little drama, right? Muhammad says curiously, “I found out later on through this journalist, I think a European journalist… he said, ‘Ron Carter seems to be not too thrilled with you guys because he played on one song and apparently he’s all over the record,’ and we were like, ‘What?’ No. He played on ‘Versus From the Abstract’, and that’s the song he’s on.  Some people thought we had sampled his bass and twisted it up and chopped it up and put it on several other songs, and I think maybe he even got that idea.  Now, I have not spoken to Mr. Carter since, so I don’t know if that’s true, or just some crazy rumor that a journalist started but needless to say, he laid his signature slides down on ‘Versus From the Abstract’, and it was pretty dope having him on there.”

This golden era of hip-hop set an unyielding precedent for die-hard fans like myself who are now frustrated with the state of today’s mainstream so-called hip hop.  I asked Muhammad about his thoughts on the turns the genre has made, especially as of late.  In his careful and thoughtful fashion, he’s quiet for a while before he responds.

Photo Credit: Shino Yanagawa

“When you look at the so-called R&B charts, they’ve merged hip hop and R&B together so…this time in hip hop reminds me of the 80s; mostly 80s pop music,” he starts.  “A lot of groups like The Family, or songs like ‘99 Luftballoons’, and all these synthy Euro-pop bands.  That’s what a lot of the hip-hop reminds me of now.  I think it lacks a bit of soul.  It lacks warmth.  It lacks something that you can cling to.  I can’t speak for everyone else, but my love affair with music just comes from hearing what an artist is doing and being able to connect with them, and with their story and I understand the story of most of the rappers these days, but it’s so self-indulgent.  It’s not really talking about anything that connects us as human beings.  Even the music is just so cold.  Like, I love chords and chord progressions.  There don’t have to be any vocals there…like jazz music.  It just grabs your soul, and I feel like in popular black music right now, there aren’t so many groups in the forefront who have that kind of pull.” He ponders a while longer, before finally concluding, “I guess hip hop is always a reflection of life…I say that a lot.  And right now, I think people are cold.  They’re going through a lot.  They’re suffering.  We’re suffering…but we’re so disconnected from what I believe, is a spiritual connection.  When you have an absence of God in your life and the Creator, then everything goes cold.  Your soul just becomes dark, [and] you may not know why.  We’re in this vacuum just existing, soulless.  So it’s coming out in the music.”

Muhammad’s astute summation is rooted in both his Islamic faith and his experience in the music business, which he has often intertwined, creatively. Before releasing his 2004 solo project Shaheedullah and Stereotypes, an album which addressed head-on, his experiences being an American muslim post 9/11 and the core values of his Islamic faith, he was an intrinsic part of the necessitous and fecund neo-soul genre, which was sparked by a collaboration with the demiurgic D’Angelo on Brown Sugar.

Shaheed was introduced to the prodigious singer and multi-instrumentalist by his friend, mentor, and subsequent Lucy Pearl musical bandmate, Raphael Saadiq. “[Raphael] worked with D’Angelo, and wrote and produced ‘Lady’ and Saadiq is like an older brother to me,” says Muhammad. “Every time he came to New York, he would look me up, and one time he said, ‘I have to play something for you,’ and he played me D’Angelo. Once that happened, if we were in New York, we were together.  Or, we would go to Raphael’s house in Sacramento and just record just for fun. Not with the intention of really doing anything with it, but then it was like this stuff is really good, we should do something with it.” Lucy Pearl, Muhammad’s second band, was originally formulated with Saadiq and D’Angelo in mind as the other two-thirds. Though timing did not allow (D’Angelo was in the middle of recording his Voodoomasterpiece), Lucy Pearl did release a string of danceable hits, adding singer Dawn Robinson (previously of girl-power R&B group, En Vogue) to the mix.

Nowadays, Muhammad is knee-deep in his solo career, working simultaneously on three separate projects, and continuing on his never-ending quest to hone his skills as a musician. “As a kid DJ’ing, sampling, and looking for records, you just look for the best pieces, open loops, elements and parts that you can piece or put together, and now I don’t have to rely on that,” says Muhammad. “I can play a chord progression on a guitar. Sonically, I know how to make my drums sound like something that was played in 1960 compressed a hundred times over and put on vinyl. I know how to do that with a live set, so it’s like I’m really buzzing right now. I’m real happy, because I’m like, all this stuff sounds like a sample and it’s not.” Suitable on drums, bass and piano, Muhammad has just one of his long-term sights on learning the cello. “There’s still so much I don’t know, as far as theory. I want to be able to have that sort of understanding, that connection with music,” he says.

Photo Credit: Melissa Louise O'Neal

Muhammad’s tremendous respect for and admiration of jazz has obviously helped shape his career, but it also continues to be a source of inspiration. “With Tribe sampling jazz music, it definitely brought this turn around and I think this new love affair for jazz again,” he says. “There was this period — and I mean no disrespect to the legends and the greats who have paved the way, and are still staying true to the spirit of the genre — but there was this point where the face of jazz was very pop [with] smooth jazz, and Kenny G, and that was the thing, and I think that things were getting light. And here we come sampling the era and the period that was, for us, very progressive and it pretty much defined the…how should I say this… it defined the good conscious and the bad conscious of a person but put it to music. You know like, the mid to late 60s and early 70s period of jazz was really mean, and I think a lot of it had to do with the struggle, the civil rights movement, drugs, you know all these things… free love, and really taking a departure from that period of jazz that came before. Jazz musicians were really breaking off from sticking behind one strong front person and beginning to find their own voices, and individualities and it was a really rebellious things to do.  So that period of jazz is what we gravitated toward and we just felt it.  And by reintroducing it, but in our own way and adding our own little twist, I think it brought a greater interest back and what ultimately had come from that was this next generation of jazz musicians who grew up on hip hop, who also grew up listening to jazz. You know, you have guys like Robert Glasper who is clearly throwing it in your face [with] the stuff he’s doing, you know, covers on hip hop songs but with his twist on it. But you can hear even some of the spirits of Ahmad Jamal, like you hear all these things, but there is still a rawness and an edginess to it, and the same element that makes hip hop so loved is that element of, ‘I don’t care what you think, I’m not trying to impress you.’ Robert does it really well.  You [also] have Kendrick Scott, Brian Blade, Marcus Strickland, Chris Dave…there’s so many bad guys out there. I love seeing these guys play because it makes me feel like I’m in that, or of that era, when Miles was around or Max Roach…when those guys were coming of age and really leaving their mark on the art form, and on the critics, and the journalists and all that, and making the genre special, you know?  I feel like I’m in that period when I’m seeing these guys play.  And this is far from the lull point, this is like the beginning of what is, for lack of a better expression, starting some shit.  And I think it’s beautiful!  I think it’s so beautiful.”

The contention that sometimes exists between jazz authoritarians and hip hop artists is an ironic kind for A Tribe Called Quest, who transfigured the genre specifically by marrying the two.  “For all those people who were hating on hop hip, you know, the purists…at some point it’s like you know, we really gotta turn that around,” asserts Muhammad.  We all come from the same place, and we have the same struggle and damn anyone for frowning upon the of growth of a culture, the musicians, the art form.  So I think you can definitely look back to the 1990s era of hip hip and say it really changed the mood or spirit of jazz.  For anyone who says something different, they’re just fronters…they’re haters.”

Gretchen Parlato: On All Things Lost and Found

Photo by Angelika Beener

“Everyone has a story to tell, and it’s not about trying to sound like anyone else,” singer Gretchen Parlato said to me on a pleasantly balmy fall afternoon, as we sat under a colossal tree in my neighborhood park.  We talked about life, love and embracing it all, the good and the bad.  When she said those words to me, they resonated particularly deep, as such is true no matter what your career or path may be.  It’s a simple statement, but just like we discerned for ourselves that day, the older we get, the more those sagacious sayings take on real meaning.  For Parlato, her true understanding of those proclamations has been manifested in her latest work, The Lost and Found.

Her most personal and poignant project yet, Parlato has lived a lot more life, and it shows.  The Lost and Found is a story of vulnerability, heartbreak, endurance and revelation.  And as in real life, there is no resolve per se; the goal is not to necessarily make sense of it all, nor is it about wishing away the things that we’d rather not go through.

It’s just life.

“It’s actually braver to be vulnerable and let it all out,” says Parlato about the true meaning of courage, a quality she called upon most during her writing for the album.  “It’s moving through all kinds of emotions and tapping into love and life philosophies and…this process was all very healing.  There are stories behind every song, and yet some people will never know what it is I’m really talking about.  [We can be] kind of hesitant about how much we should expose of ourselves, but I think when it’s done in a productive and artistic way, but still kind of mysterious, people can really resonate with that. Nothing I do is really thrown in your face.”

Which brings us to the second part of Parlato’s initial philosophy; she certainly doesn’t sound like anyone else, her voice as understated and enigmatic as her story-telling phraseology.  There is a quiet intensity which is as captivating and resounding as voices three times her size.  She is a singer who doesn’t proclaim to be someone she’s not.  The flip side is that she doesn’t have to; who she actually is measures up.  “When I was first coming up, my repertoire was standards,” recalls Parlato.  “Swing or Brazilian standards…and so this is like fifteen years ago, or something.  People were like ‘Oh, you should do a standards album,’ and I always resisted that. I felt like I don’t know if I have a lot to say with that.  So from the beginning, I’ve been off the beaten path with that, so no one is assuming that I’m going to fill this traditional singer role.  Maybe that’s because of my natural voice.  I don’t really have this Sarah Vaughan or Dianne Reeves kind of jazz singer voice.  That’s not my calling and I think I always knew that’s not where my voice should be.  And it kind of makes sense to just find what is natural.”

Photo by David Bartolomi

Parlato was afforded priceless space to explicitly discover what her calling indeed is.  Born into a long line of entertainers, the arts were ingenerate and commonplace.  “Everybody…literally everyone in my family is a musician, or in the entertainment industry, or they didn’t pursue art as a career but they’re talented people,” explains Parlato.  “My dad, he’s a bass player and my mom, she played piano and violin, and now she’s a web designer.  And then her dad was a recording engineer; he built a studio in L.A. and recorded Ella [Fitzgerald] and Louis [Armstrong], and the Beatles, so it’s in the family.  My mom’s mom had a radio show in the 40s…kind of like a “Hollywood Gossip” kind of thing, and on my dad’s side his dad was a singer and a trumpet player.  So I just grew up with this knowledge that art was a part of everyday.  So it’s also cool to learn early on that it’s a valid profession.  There’s no one saying like, ‘You need to get a real job.’ No one was on anyone’s case about making money; it was always just about finding your passion.  No one was pushing art on anyone either, but my sister and I happened to both go into art.  She’s a graphic designer.  So it was just a nature/nurture thing that’s in my blood, and from birth, it was in me.”

As with any jazz musician, growing up listening to the giants is unquestionably influential and essential, but it was an introduction to the music of Bobby McFerrin which would change Parlato’s understanding of how a jazz musician could be perceived and defined.  “[From] very early on, I’ve never been a traditionalist, as far as what jazz has to be,” says Parlato as she credits this impressively matured discernment to her childhood experiences hearing McFerrin.  His one-man-band performance for The Cosby Show opening theme was particularly impressionable on her young musical pallet.  “I heard Bobby McFerrin use his voice in an instrumental way early on in my life.  Hearing him, I learned we can do anything with our voices. He shifted my definition of a jazz singer.”

The amalgamation of broad-minded perceptions about jazz and a distinctive approach to those perceptions produced an infectious musical styling, which is signally hers.  Sure, there have been other light, airy, velutinous voices that have enchanted us before, but just like Astrud Gilberto, Meredith D’Ambrosio, and Blossom Dearie, Parlato has set herself apart, developing a following that is as vast as her repertoire, and has critics predicting big year-end recognition for her latest album.

Photo by David Bartolomi

The Lost and Found combines jazz, Brazilian and pop aesthetics in one of the most organic ways I’ve ever heard.  Parlato credits co-producer Robert Glasper for helping to realize her vision.  “I thought, Robert and I have already collaborated on arrangements, and the band is like family to him, and he’s gonna understand what we’re trying to do, and he’s gonna enhance that and I wanted to work with him on some arrangements and collaborations, so I said let’s just see if he’s available, and it ended up working magically,” recalls Parlato.  She also enlisted the super-talents of pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Derrick Hodge, and drummer Kendrick Scott, musicians with whom she has long-standing musical relationships.  The album also includes guest appearances from saxophonist Dayna Stephens, and bassist Alan Hampton, who would contribute the warm and folksy “Still”, which featured Hampton on lead vocals and guitar.  “We really did it in two days.  It was a smooth-running, stress-free session just because everyone was really focused and everyone respects and loves each other and they all were there for the same goal of let’s just make beautiful music.  And Robert took on that producer role like a complete professional.  He would say, ‘Let’s get together maybe just with Kendrick and work on beats.'”

Courtesy of Gretchen Parlato

It is this mutual musical vastness that has resulted in some of her most surprising and beautiful covers.  Parlato’s nostalgic affinity for 90s R&B unlocked a treasure chest of possibilities for the modern jazz vocalist, when she covered SWV’s hit ballad “Weak” on her sophomore album In a Dream.  Glasper initially thought the idea to cover the song was a joke, but after Parlato put the lyrics to the lush “Glasperized” re-harms that are so distinguishably his, it was no longer a laughing matter.  “Weak” catapulted Parlato into the current soul music scene, introducing her music to a wider, younger, Blacker audience.  On The Lost and Found, Parlato struck gold again with the “Stevie Wonder-esque” Mary J. Blige classic, “All That I Can Say”.  But it was Glasper’s suggestion to cover a more pop-leaning song that would result in the dynamic album opener, Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years”.

“When Robert suggested ‘Holding Back the Years’, I thought, ‘Hmm…really?’  It’s such a song that everyone knows,” Parlato confesses.  “But he was like, ‘Exactly! Let’s do something that everyone knows, something that everyone will have a connection to.’ So he started playing his “Rob G” chords and immediately transformed the song.”

The song begins with Scott laying a drum groove; it sounds far away and vintage…kind of like when you can hear someone else’s music through their headphones (it’s actually from a cell phone recording).  As it fades up, Eigsti and Hodge join in with a gorgeous progression.  You can hear Glasper’s voice saying ‘Yeah…yep,’ warmly approving and encouraging the vibe.  Parlato is last to come in, interpreting the classic with a breathy angst.  One thing signature to Parlato’s performance throughout is that she’s never singing on top of her band, but always seamlessly intertwined.  It’s no accident.

L-R Dayna Stephens, Alan Hampton, Gretchen Parlato, Kendrick Scott. Courtesy of Gretchen Parlato.

“I’ve always enjoyed being a part of an ensemble,” says Parlato.  “When I was really young, there was a time when I was realizing that I could sing, but I was really shy as a child, and it freaked me out because I was like, ‘I don’t like all this attention.  I don’t like being the center of everyone.’  So there’s always been a part of myself that likes to be part of a team, that’s the first thing.  But then I realized being a singer is not about being in front of a band…it’s a band…it’s a team…it’s a joint effort.  It’s sounds and space and interacting, and you’re not alone there, so there was always this sense of we’re in this together and I like the fact that I could use my voice as a texture and not just out front.  And then beyond that, I was getting into trying to play percussion and get into locking into the rhythm of the ensemble too, so I think when you do that you have no choice but to back up and listen.  I can’t just get up there with my shakers and not listening to what the drummer’s doing, you know?  It’s about this whole collective sound, and every single person up there is very important and needed and I like giving people their space to be themselves.”

The album is journey provoking, and the songs flow without a glitch.  Musically, there are few ensembles that can match this one’s cohesion and finesse.  Lyrically, Parlato is so resonant that it’s hard to conceive that the songwriter’s pen has only recently hit the paper.

It was under the tutelage and encouragement of mentor Terence Blanchard that Parlato first tried her hand at writing lyrics.  While a student at the Monk Institute, her fellow classmate and friend Dayna Stephens suggested that the ensemble perform the Wayne Shorter masterpiece “JuJu”.  Blanchard, who served as Artistic Director, working closely with the band, assigned Parlato to the lyrics.  She rose to the occasion with a beautiful proverb-like mantra.  Now, on The Lost and Found, Parlato not only wrote much of the music, she also wrote almost all of the lyrics, including those to the songs contributed by the band.  In addition to “Still”, Parlato wrote the lyrics to the title track, a composition written by Stephens, who previously recorded the gem under his own name on his stunning debut.  She also graced trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s gorgeous “Henya” with hauntingly ethereal poeticism.

Gretchen and Esperanza Spalding. Courtesy of Gretchen Parlato

Parlato’s growth, like all of ours, is always birthed from treading uncharted waters; rising to an occasion when an opportunity presents itself.  For women, especially in jazz, those opportunities are not always so abundant.  I wanted to ask Parlato about women as we relate to jazz.  Ironically, even as a woman myself, I was careful not to come off sounding cliché, or more importantly, with a patronizing air.  It’s a presentation that I am really sensitive about, as I loathe the often condescending attempts at discourse regarding women’s roles in jazz that often result in the most meaningless and stupid suppositions ever.  Parlato welcomed the topic, almost seemingly waiting to embrace the opportunity to talk about it.  She is at the forefront of jazz singers today, and part of a growing group of female jazz artists at large who are showing women as collaborators.  Working frequently with singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding, and a member of Tillery, a vocal trio collaboration with singers Becca Stevens and Rebecca Martin, Parlato is making a huge statement about community, through her collective-minded approach with women, despite the all too convenient clichés about women – especially jazz singers – being catty and diva-like.

“Some people are like, ‘Singers are so competitive.’  It’s a game though,” says Parlato dismissing those banal traps.  “If you don’t participate in the game, it doesn’t exist.  I got that from my third grade teacher.  I remember, her response when another student complained, ‘Johnny is always chasing me at recess!’  The teacher said, ‘So, just stop running.’  The whole thing of being competitive in art is really so simple. Just stop. Don’t participate. That’s not acceptable to create a vibe where we’re against each other because this is a community. Think, what if we support each other and join forces, instead? And with the women I’ve worked with there have never been any issues.  With all these women, it is always complete love and let’s just come together and make music. There’s something much bigger and much deeper taking place when I sing with Esperanza, or Becca or Rebecca.  It’s just this woman nurturing thing that is kind of unexplainable, but as a woman you just get it.  It’s this whole enveloped ‘Blanket of Love’, as Rebecca says.  And it’s just very sisterly and completely dedicated.  It’s saying I’ve got your back in life and in music, and no one is trying too hard to prove themselves.  That’s what is needed in the music.”

Agreed.

Amidst all of these silly “Jazz Is Dead” conversations (that are thankfully getting old), there is a surge of modern and daring jazz which is free from the anchors of fulfilling nostalgic expectations, while remaining authentic.  There are excitable artists who are completely themselves, and continuing the momentum of their predecessors.  Parlato is among them with all certainty.

“I think for the most part, people have accepted what I do.  I’m sure there, of course, are those who don’t like it, but I believe there’s room for everyone.  Ultimately, that’s what art is and what it does. It causes a response and reaction. Good or bad, it makes people think and feel something. It triggers, inspires…allows us to reveal.  There’s always an audience for each specific artist, so we’ll be cool, we’re all fine.”

In other words…everyone has their own story to tell.  Right on, Geeps.♦

Gretchen is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Listening Party series this month.  Join her at JALC on Thursday, October 27 at 7:00 PM as she discusses her latest album.  Admission is FREE.  For more details, click here.

Marcus Strickland: Triumph of the Heavy

Triumph of the Heavy CD release party THIS THURSDAY, 9/29 at NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge.  Details here.

Photo by Angelika Beener

Musician, composer, producer, label executive and visionary, Marcus Strickland is a powerhouse, on and off of his instrument.  And on his seventh album as a leader, he’s more confident than ever.

Triumph of the Heavy Vol. 1 & 2 is jazz saxophonist Marcus Strickland’s fourth release from his Strick Muzik record label.  The double album features two of Strickland’s ensembles: his long standing trio of drummer and twin brother, E.J. Strickland and bassist Ben Williams, and his quartet which features the afore mentioned musicians, along with the fairly recent addition of rising star pianist David Bryant.  Scheduled for release this August, Triumph is Strickland’s second double-album; a necessity of format if you’re trying to keep up with the musical multifariousness that has become his signature.

Strickland, who has led trio, quartet, and quintet bands, produces hip-hop beats, and has an affinity for singer/songwriters, attributes his versatility to the partnership between his creativity and the boundlessness he has established on the business side.  “I’m always doing many things at the same time; making beats at the same time I’m writing jazz music.  And also I have my own record label, which kind of allows me to record whenever I want to.  So I don’t really have to go about it in a systematic way, as most artists have to do when they’re on a label.  I can be as spontaneous as I want to, with that freedom in place.”

Having created a brand for himself partly out of necessity, in a climate where major labels are shrinking, that freedom has produced four vastly different projects from Strickland, with four different bands and highly developed concepts.  He’s covered huge territory from Jacques Brel to Outkast, acoustic to electric, with spoken word artists and hip-hop production in between.  A prolific writer, he is undoubtedly going to have tremendous impact on future generations from a compositional standpoint. On Triumph Vol. 1, Strickland brings it back to his roots of the classic quartet, with what Strickland calls “a fresh approach to the piano’s role in the group” and a whole new set of originals. “David [Bryant] is like the first person since Robert Glasper that I played with and felt like ‘Wow this cat knows the art of comping.’  It’s such a lost art these days.  Comping is so important.  So on top of the fact that he’s an extremely incredible musician, he’s got the sensitivity that I’m looking for.”

Photo by: Dave Kaufman

In true Marcus Strickland fashion, he is also reaching beyond just musical versatility, introducing yet another set of skills, playing alto saxophone on almost half of Vol. 1.  “I’ve always yearned to play alto again because I started on alto when I was eleven years old, and by the time I got into high school and it was time to get a professional instrument, tenor was my main love because everybody I listened to was on tenor, so that’s when I switched to tenor.  But I always wanted an alto.  I have really been concerned lately with just the instrument itself.  The whole story behind the saxophone is just incredible.  The inventor of it, the many things going on sonically when the saxophone produces sound…it’s just incredible.   The pure execution on the instrument, that’s what I got more into.  So, I really started shedding on that; classical etudes, my own etudes, really getting into the sound, the harmonics, overtones and stuff like that. But you know, recently I got a saxophone endorsement, and one of the first things I asked them was to give me an alto.  And soon as I got it, I just started shedding it.”

Vol. 2 captures Strickland’s trio live at Firehouse 12, a studio in New Haven, CT.  “It may be that the only thing more powerful than a strong triangle of musicians is one that has performed for an extended period of time,” says Strickland of his seasoned trio.  “I was like man, I’m about to go back to quartet, but I wanted to capture the trio after touring so long.  It’s just a strong triangle.  That’s a strong sound there; just the bass, drums and the saxophone.  It’s just a very significant sound.  So I really wanted to capture that, but in a different light.  On Idiosyncrasies (the all-trio album released on the Strick Muzik label in 2009), we did a lot of covers and on this one I did mostly originals that I wrote as we started touring and everything. I started coming up with different vehicles so I wanted to get those down.  And to get it down in front of a live audience, that was great.”

Jelly & Stricks

Few of today’s jazz musicians have had clearer visions for themselves as artists than Strickland.  At 31 years old, Strickland’s career has already spanned a decade, gaining him leaps of perspective.  “I’ve recorded three records outside of Strick Muzik so that makes a total of seven so I think this is a point where who you are as an artist really gets tested.  Because you now have a body of work.  It’s not just one hit album that you’re trying to make.  It’s like, ‘OK I’ve had several records that have been very successful, what am I going to do next?’  When you get to a point where you have a body of work in your past, it can either take away ideas from you, like ‘Oh I’ve already done that, I don’t know what to do next.’  Or, it can give you more confidence than you’ve ever had before because I know that this is gonna be great.  I know that I’m capable of putting out some great music that’s very relevant and very important.  And that’s exactly how I felt when going into the studio.”

For Strickland, his substantial recording catalog is the result of his professed growing process which includes the need to document each phase of his course.  “I have to make it into a product in order to really get past it, and I really want to get past it because I’m always yearning for the next step, the next plateau.”

Named “Rising Star, Tenor Saxophone” in Downbeat’s 2010 Critic’s Poll, “Rising Star, Soprano Saxophone” in DownBeat’s 2008 Critics’ Poll and “Best New Artist” in the JazzTimes 2006 Readers’ Poll, Strickland has long commanded the attention of both fans and critics.  He released his first album, At Last (Fresh Sound) in 2001, and placed third in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz saxophone competition the following year.  He has been an integral part of bands of heavy hitters like Roy Haynes and Jeff  “Tain” Watts, and has a long resume of features, recording with Robert Glasper, Charles Tolliver, and countless others including Dave Douglas, another long-time employer.  With the release of album number seven, the “next plateau” may bring about endeavors characteristic of the symbolic number.  Strickland’s experience and savvy from a business perspective makes him a sagacious ally for the future of jazz recording artists.  “I think I want to step back a little bit after [this release] and look into trying to do some things for other people that, you know, many major record labels are not really interested in.  I really wanna take my time and think that through and get a very good plan for it.”

Inspired by his girlfriend’s epiphany about the substantive quality of jazz versus some of the dictates of popular radio, Triumph of the Heavy is appropriately titled; a testament to Strickland’s musical caliber, robust tone, and his rightful place as a titan of our time.  Whichever way you spin it, Marcus Strickland comes out on top. “I’m always taking chances, but I’m no longer afraid to do it,” asserts Strickland.  “I know I’m gonna be good on the other side.” ♦