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.

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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.”

Nice Work If We Can Get It: Women Writing On Jazz

An Open Letter, A Thank You Note, and Pulling the Card On Jazz Journalism and Gender Bias

I’ve never really been one to write rebuttals, or counter-statements to articles that have peaked my interests or plucked at my sensitivities. However, when I read music journalist Nate Chinen’s recent piece on the lack of women writing critically about jazz, I couldn’t resist the opportunity. Not to rebut, as he’s actually a strong proponent for women journalists, and a thoughtful querier of why there is such inadequacy in the field, but to offer my perspective in hopes of shedding some light on the matter. Characteristically, most of the responses to Chinen’s article, thus far have been from men, underscoring his point. The male response has been positive and in line with Chinen, agreeing that the lack of women jazz critics is not only fundamentally disturbing, but a disservice to the documentations and observations of jazz as a whole. I concur. I don’t suppose that I can diagnose the entire problem; it’s an intensely layered and webbed subject. But as a woman, a writer, and a jazz obsessor, I can certainly put my hand on a few maladies.

I got my first taste of working in the music business when I was about nineteen years old, and I knew immediately that I would never do anything else. I’ve always loved jazz, and I’ve always loved to write. Separately, these loves are relatively harmless, but put them together and I am suddenly playing a man’s sport. In fact, throughout my career, before writing became my main focus, once it became obvious to my colleagues and associates that, accompanied by my love for jazz, was a deep understanding of jazz, I went from being a novelty to a threat. Not only do I know “All the Things You Are”, but I can groove to Mehldau playing it in an odd time signature, and “Ooh and Aah” in all the right places over those ridiculous chord progressions in the vamp. Being Black added a complexity. Now they were utterly confused. How dare I know anything about my heritage? Nothing feels creepier than a huddle of White guys having musical orgasms over Mark Turner, and turning their noses up at me and my attempt to casually join the conversation. There is an odd love/hate dynamic when it comes to Black culture, and Black people. Somehow, in the eyes of some, they are different. The assumption? I’m not cultured enough to appreciate my own damn culture. But I digress, a little.

Unlike any other genre, jazz is described for better or worse, as an intellectual art form. And just like there are issues with accepting Black culture and Black people as synonymous, I think there are still stigmas that make it difficult for people to view women as critical thinkers in such a male-dominated art form. Much like the sports industry, where jokingly or not, the all too often assumed capacity of a woman’s understanding is that, “the green team is beating the yellow team,” and that “#42 sure knows how to fill out a pair of shorts”, I think the jazz police have summoned women to the microphone and the audience. Non-vocalist women jazz musicians have it hard enough, let alone someone who actually wants to critique the music.

But I find it that more women are writing about jazz in other contexts. Women like Michelle Mercer and Farah Jasmine Griffin are both compelling authors, who write about jazz. Analytical, probing, and thought-provoking? Yes. However, critical? Not as much. The “bully pulpit” that Chinen passionately encourages women to stand behind is likely less appealing to women. It is for me. I think the reason many musicians don’t like jazz critics is not because they may have received a less than glowing review from one, but because of the presumptuous, unwarrantedly authoritative opinions, which I find are often riddled with reflections of their own personal insecurities. This is not to lump all critics in a jerk pile. There are no anomalies in life, and certainly none in this conversation. Like Chinen, and John Murph, and some others, there are journalists who are informed, respectful, and tactful.  Yet, we have not gotten away from the historically hyper-judgmental jazz critic model. This may be another reason women are slim pickings in this profession. To begin, motivationally, I don’t think many women are coming from this seemingly bitter standpoint. I think women are quicker to ponder than they are to pummel, and unfortunately jazz critics have created that sort of bad rap which women may find to be a bit of a turnoff.

I find myself in the middle of these two styles.  I’m not a critic by any means, but I am pretty fearless when it comes to writing about uncomfortable yet imperative subjects within jazz, which is motivated by my own experiences coming up in this industry, and the glaring issues within it that get talked about behind the scenes but rarely on a public platform.  Writing about these topics is healing, for one.  But beyond my own edifying gratification, the real benefit is when folks are willing to have an honest dialogue, which can be tough.  But that’s when there is growth.  If the music has to grow, then surely we have to.  Jazz journalists cannot stay in a bubble.  And just like the modern jazz musicians of today can’t (and should not be expected to) compete with their deceased predecessors, some journalists have to move on from the fact that they may have interviewed some of them.  It doesn’t give their work any more credence, especially when they think those fortunate experiences equal a right to be imperious and egotistical.

In his article, Chinen sites trumpeter Nicholas Payton as one of the notable musicians who hires and collaborates with a significant number of women (for his big band) without patronizingly doing so.  Chinen follows up this point with the question, “Have we seen a well-considered review of Payton recently from a female jazz critic?”

Ironically, I’d say, “Yeah, from me!”  Well, it’s not a review per se, but it’s a gutsy ass piece, nonetheless.  And at the end of the day, that’s what Chinen is really calling for…(right Nate?)  Although critics, by very nature of the definition, don’t exactly evoke warm and fuzzy thoughts, they don’t have to make us cringe. Criticism, when done right, should actually inspire, inform and intrigue.  It doesn’t have to be wrapped in a big, pink bow…the idea is not to love everything, of course.  But taking the time to seek out the interesting aspects to write about is what separates a critic from a jerk.  (For example, don’t slam someone because you don’t know what else to do!  Trust me, I’ve seen it).  Simply put, let’s do an overhaul of what it means to be a critic by finding inspiration in the really good ones, and I’ll bet we’ll see more women.  And that would be great.

Thanks, Mr. Chinen, for inspiring me to think about this subject a little harder.

This is a blog post, and not a study.  I kindly ask that you not assume that I am making any sweeping judgments about any one group (women, men, critics, Black folks, White folks, etc.)  I am not.  I welcome your feedback.

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.” ♦

 

John Coltrane @ 85: A Jazzy Girl’s Retrospective

There isn’t a person outside of my immediate family that has had more of an indelible influence on my life than John William Coltrane.  Sounds weird, right?  But it’s true.  I never knew him personally…but I’ve known him spiritually since I’ve been alive.  You see, my first memorable musical encounter (at about 18 months old) was hearing John Coltrane.  In fact, my earliest memory at all is hearing John Coltrane.  I remember the feeling I had when I first heard his music.  My mother would play two Trane records the most: Ballads and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane.  In fact, I am named “Angelika” after the tune of the same name (different spelling) on the latter mentioned record.  I thought that she was doing something magical when those albums came on.  As soon as the needle hit the record, and the sound would travel through our Bronx apartment, I was transported to another world.  Sometimes the music would move me to tears.  My family would come over, and they’d think I was sitting off to myself crying because I couldn’t have something I wanted, or because it was time to go to bed and I was objecting, when what it really was, was taking in how beautiful Trane played “It’s Easy to Remember”.  I was a pretty different kind of toddler, to say the least, and I still marvel at how 2 minutes and 45 seconds can bring that much beauty into the world.  But it didn’t end there…the music of John Coltrane would follow me throughout my life, and see me through every good and bad thing.

I guess some would call it an obsession.  Maybe.  But if I had to name it (which I’d rather not do) I would be more inclined to label it as a connection.  I think in some way, we are all connected to something bigger than us…and that is not to say that John Coltrane, the man, was larger than life.  I read that a man once compared him to God, and it really upset and disturbed Coltrane.  He did not think of himself as above any man.  But his art…that is what is larger than life.  And that is what I fell in love with, and remain in love with.

When I was seventeen, I bought two albums: Ballads, and Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind.  I had grown up hearing both of these, but now I was a senior in high school, and I could buy my own music.  This was a big deal to me!  Somehow, hearing Ballads on my own…it was a rediscovery of sorts.  I felt more alone…more of myself…maybe I was just getting older.  A huge Stevie Wonder fan, I remember laying out on my living room floor, listening to “Send One Your Love” from The Secret Life of Plants album, and flipping out when I heard the Coltrane influence in the song, known sometimes as “Trane Changes”.  At around 19 years old, I was into Giant Steps BIG TIME, and I was obsessed with the changes, the legends upon legends of stories about how he came up with them, how long he worked at developing them, and all of the inflated but majestic stories about the recording, in between.  At about 20 years old, I had this incredible full-circle moment.

I was working as a P.A. at the Essence awards, and Stevie Wonder was one of the artists slated to perform.  I was determined to see his rehearsal, and did!  So he’s warming up, right?  All of a sudden, he segues into “Giant Steps”!  I lost my head!  Here was my favorite musician, playing the music of my favorite, FAVORITE musician…without an audience…stripped of any fanfare, or glamor.  And I was there to witness it.  Incredible.

From my late teens, and throughout my early-to-mid twenties, I listened to Coltrane religiously.  New Prestige box set coming out?  It’s mine.  New book coming out?  I’m all over it (until I get pissed at the author for saying some dumb shit.  Thanks, Lewis Porter, for getting it right, though).  I would listen to My Favorite Things on the train on the way to and from school ev-er-y day.  I loved to listen to Mr. Day on the train also…the energy and pulse of that song used to make me feel invincible.  I listened to and absorbed this music like my life depended on it…and I suppose in a way it did.  It was my spiritual food. But then in 2004, I had a tremendous opportunity to give thanks for all that I had received.

Me, psyched! (2004)

I don’t remember exactly how I found out, but somehow I learned that Coltrane’s last home in the Dix Hills section of Long Island, NY, was in danger of facing demolition.  There was a contact name and number to call and an email address for the public, if they wanted to get involved and help.  I was working at a recording studio in Manhattan, and I remember sending that email at the first chance. This was the home that Coltrane and his family lived in from 1964, where he conceptualized A Love Supreme.  This was a looming travesty that needed immediate attention.  I corresponded via email, and then by phone with a gentleman named Steve Fulgoni, who was heading up the grass roots efforts to contact the town officials and make the case for the home to be deemed a historical landmark.  Letters and support poured in, and I was overwhelmed to be getting involved.  This was a big deal. I wrote my humble little letter, and thought that my contribution would end there.  But when I was asked to read the letter in front of the Huntington Historical Preservation Commission… WHAT???  Well, you know I did.  There was a wonderful showing of support, including that from Ravi Coltrane, and Matt Garrison (bassist Jimmy Garrison’s son).  I got to meet Mr. Fulgoni, and his lovely wife, and most importantly witness when the board voted for the home to be saved and deemed a historical landmark.

You see, it’s kind of funny sometimes.  I think the beauty of art is that it is not to be simply received, it’s to be shared.  And that sharing can come by way of a lot of opportunities.  I’m so grateful that even in some small way, I helped make a difference in the honor of someone who made all of the difference for me.

I think ultimately the biggest impact that Coltrane has had on me is how to be a dedicated person.  When you listen to Trane, whether it is one song, or an entire anthology, you hear his unfailing dedication.  And that is something that has come to me more and more as I get older.  Coltrane’s life was very short, unfortunately, and because of that, it’s really easy to see how unbelievable he was.  I think about what he was accomplishing at the age I am right now…he was only a few years from his death at my age.  Yet, he was changing the world.  If that’s not inspiration…

It’s beyond the ridiculously killingness (yep, that’s a word) of his talent and gifts.  I think his sense of commitment is ultimately what makes Coltrane so incredible.  On this day, John Coltrane’s 85th birthday, I’m really thankful.  And still awe-inspired, like the little toddler sitting off in the corner.

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This song is dedicated to the memory of Troy Davis.