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.

Ambrose Akinmusire: An Emergence of Truth

Photo by Demandre Ward

Ambrose Akinmusire was born in 1982, a symbolic and transformational year in jazz.    Wynton Marsalis had just released his self-titled debut album on Columbia Records, while he was still a part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.  This album would prove symbolic, as it represented what was to come; a desperately needed re-emergence and preponderance of acoustic and straight-ahead jazz.  This revitalization during the 1980s produced several pivotal artists who bridged the cultural gap, and served as the catalysts who incited the current generation of jazz musicians.  Now, almost exactly thirty years later, Oakland native Akinmusire is at the apex of a similar potential revival.

Winner of the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition, Akinmusire has been on the jazz radar as a paramount player for a few years now.  Fast forward to the present… Downbeat Magazine named Akinmusire both Rising Star Jazz Artist of the Year and Rising Star Trumpet in their 2011 Critics Poll, in addition to giving his Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, a glowing four-star review.  The Los Angeles Times named Akinmusire one of their 2011 “Faces to Watch” and The New York Times has also hailed the virtuoso, placing him on everyone’s it-list.  Now this time, the critics are unanimously on the money. Akinmusire and his quintet have emerged as a force with which to be reckoned; raising the stakes when it comes to individuality, intent, vision and modernism.

Unlike the respective eras of his predecessors; when Blanchard, Payton and Hargrove exploded onto the scene, Akinmusire has arrived at a time when there is so much disparity, discrepancy and downright indifference about jazz.  Follow any social media threads about the genre and it’s instantly apparent that there are a lot of disparaging sentiments toward the general state of jazz and every imaginable (and sometimes unimaginable) sub-context.  And whether you agree or take issue with what’s on the table, the underlying truth is that people are frustrated, making Akinmusire’s advent that much more substantial.

Much of the jazz audience proclaims an air of stagnation, lack of inventiveness and compromise of the art form.  Akinmusire agrees.  These subjects are compounded by matters of race, culture and the overall state of the music industry, making the waters for diagnosis conveniently murky for most, but not all.  “I don’t think many people are doing it,” Akinmusire blatantly states.  “I think a lot of people want the approval of critics, so they end up dumbing their shit down.”

For Akinmusire, the intent is first and needs to be established long before getting on the band stand.  His quintet is made up of close friends and long-time collaborators: tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Harish Raghavan and fellow Oakland native, drummer Justin Brown.  Growing up in Oakland, Akinmusire’s philosophies about loyalty and community are entrenched in his artistry.  “I try to be as honest as possible with myself.  I try not to hang out with people who I don’t like.  I try to trust my instinct.  In five seconds of being around somebody, I know whether or not I can really vibe with them.  So, I think that’s related to the music too.  I try to surround myself with musicians who I feel challenged by as opposed to musicians who are just killing.  I try to surround myself with musicians who I don’t know how they’re going to sound six months from now, or five years from now, or ten years.   If I hear somebody playing, and I can say OK, twenty years from now, I know exactly how they’re going to sound; I don’t really fuck with them. I think all of that is related.”

From the opening track of When the Heart Emerges Glistening, there is a relentless fire which rages from the band, causing a neck-snapping reaction from the listener.  It is reminiscent, but only in the sense that you are transported to a time when jazz as a whole was courageous and bold.  The telepathic nature of the band’s interaction and the ensuing execution is mind-blowing.  “I think that everybody in the band is extremely hard on themselves; they’re never satisfied,” says Akinmusire, as he tries to put their chemistry into words.  “Like, if we had the best performance ever, and you come backstage, we’re all gonna be sitting there with our heads down like ‘Man, that sucked I need to practice.’  Everybody is constantly shedding and trying to move forward.  And there are no egos in the band at all…at all.  Nobody ever gets mad at the other person for messing up or changing parts or anything like that.  So, I think there’s that and also we’ve known each other for so long.  I grew up with Justin.  I met him when he was in middle school.  I’ve known Walter since 2001.  Harish, I’ve known for maybe 6 years.  Gerald, I met when he was still in high school, and Sam Harris (the new pianist in the group), I went to Manhattan School of Music with him.  And I just grew up like that.  I grew up in North Oakland and there’s this saying that you stick with your crew from the beginning to the end, even if there have been some weird, funny development issues, it will eventually…you know…it’s like family.  No matter what, you’re supposed to have their back.  I think that everybody who I have in the band has the same sort of outlook and I think you hear that in the music.

To co-produce the album, Akinmusire called upon his mentor, fellow Manhattan School alum, and Blue Note label mate, Jason Moran, to help translate the magic which is so essential to the band, to record format.  “I didn’t have to explain anything to him; that’s why I picked him, because he’s all about hitting and being real honest…he embodies that in his art,” explains Akinmusire, who wanted the album to feel as raw and in-the-moment as possible.  “It was just a constant reminder to come out of the booth and see Jason sitting there.  It was like, I gotta be about the music.  I can’t be like I’m on Blue Note and stressing about this shit.  He helped to relax me and helped me to remember my purpose as an artist.”

This element of intangible guidance and rearing from Moran is quite familiar to Akinmusire.  Having never had a trumpet lesson until he reached college, he honed his skills as a trumpeter in a very unconventional fashion, especially for these days of extreme institutionalization of the music.  Akinmusire recalls, “I went to a jazz camp… I don’t know how we heard about it.  Maybe there was a flier at the school, and I went.  And all these old-school musicians were teaching there and they sort of became my mentors.  Bassist Herbie Lewis… I met him, and then Donald Bailey, who played with Jimmy Smith and all these people.  They just sort of started mentoring me.  They would pick me up from the house, and take me record shopping or bring me on their gigs, and I would just sit there.  Some taught at college. They would pick me up and take me to their college classes.  They really just started mentoring me.  I never really had a teacher.  I didn’t sit there and play rudimental studies, and stuff, it was really ‘groid’, like ‘Here’s a trumpet and I’m going to teach you about the history…about the music.’  Just through stories, just old-school style.  Like, most of these guys, they were old-school.  They didn’t know shit about classical studies, they just picked their shit up and played…smoked weed; some of them were ex-Black Panthers, like real ‘groid’, you know?  I mean, I would get with Roy [Hargrove] and Nick [Payton] when they came into town like, ‘Is my embouchure OK?  Yeah?  OK, cool.’  But I never had a lesson.”

This crucial piece of Akinmusire’s story is no doubt the principal component of the development of his prodigious voice.  It also manifested as an expected point of contention, when he got to the collegiate juncture of study.  “By the time I came to high school, I already knew Billy Higgins, I knew Joe Henderson.  So you got these cats [at Manhattan School] telling me blah-blah-blah, and I’m thinking, ‘That’s not what he was just telling me.’  So there was a lot of arguing.”

The institutionalized setting in which jazz has found itself engulfed, is one of the most debated issues, with most viewing the predicament as a double-edged sword.  The argument being, that while the formal setting of jazz in schools gives exposure to young people who may not have otherwise discovered the art form, in a time where venues for jazz are closing at record speed, and pop-culture is eerily dominating, the flip side is an ill-appropriate, overly-Westernized approach to jazz, stripping it of its most essential elements; otherwise known as its “Blackness”.

We’re all being honest here, right?

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

The overall discontentment with jazz is comfortably enigmatic, until you dig deeper and realize this “thing” everyone is missing, is the part which is most ancestral and least able to be captured in a school setting severely devoid of Black people.  Consequently there are two broad views:  One which has many Black people arguing that they are being written out of the jazz “present” and conversely, the other has many people strongly, but naively believing there is no room or relevance for race in a discussion regarding jazz.  Akinmusire’s take is based on neither premise, per se and as in his music, Akinmusire’s honesty is no bullshit.

“I don’t think you can take someone’s culture,” he explains.  “Once something becomes tangible, then you can take it away and that’s because we don’t have it here in our hearts.  So maybe that’s why I don’t understand [the first viewpoint].  It’s like, I’m Black; you can’t take that away from me. I live jazz; you can’t take that away from me.  If we have a whole community who understands that it’s here [points to his heart], you can’t take that away from us.  That’s the way it was with the be-boppers, before jazz education came and made it this tangible thing and a lot of people started believing it.”

The moment he said that to me, my vision cleared.  Honestly, it never really dawned on me that the onus might be on the Black jazz community, or lack thereof.  Akinmusire was born to a Mississippi-raised mother, and a Nigerian father; neither of whom were musical or very familiar with jazz.  The first musician on either side of his family, who was discovered by jazz, and not the other way around, Akinmusire truly speaks from a rare and untainted perspective.

“To say ‘this is ours’…that’s a known thing, we don’t need to necessarily say that, and saying it is not necessarily  going to make people not want to take it away if that’s what they’re trying to do.  It’s just going to exclude people like, ‘Oh I can’t do that.’  And those people might have valid things to say and contribute to the music.  I think if you just live that…like, to me, Mark Turner is like that.  He’ll never say a word.  Or, like Marcus Gilmore.  These cats don’t talk, but if you get on the band stand with them, you know you have to deal, and that’s some black shit.  Like yeah, this is our music.  But if you’re not stepping up to the plate and playing like that, then yeah you have to talk ‘They’re taking it away.’  You think Trane had to say that?  He didn’t have to say nothing. You think Lee Konitz was going to get up there with the John Coltrane Quartet?  You don’t have to say nothing.”

BOOM.

It was a bucket of ice water thrown to the face, but I’m wide awake and that’s a good thing.  The truth is, Black art forms have been habitually and historically compromised, but there comes a time when the discussion has to lead to a diagnosis and the diagnosis has to lead to a treatment and then, the treatment has to begin and Akinmusire, through his words, but ultimately through his music, has given jazz a serious bedside visit.

“George Wein hit me up last year and was like, ‘I want you to play at Zankel Hall,’”  Akinmusire tells me as we stroll down a Williamsburg street on a sunny Brooklyn afternoon.  “He wanted the quintet.  I said, ‘How about I do a big band…an all-black big band?’  He was like, ‘Yeah it’s cool!  Is that because you want to reclaim the music?’ I said, ‘No…it’s just that I want the community;  I miss the community.’  When I was coming up it was really inspiring.  I used to go out and see Roy Hargrove, Eric Lewis, Marcus and EJ Strickland, Bilal…that shit was so inspiring for me to come to New York and see all these great Black musicians just really trying to push themselves and now that doesn’t really happen and I think that the music is suffering because of the lack of community of Blacks.  If we don’t have a community, we can’t really complain, so I think that’s what needs to happen first.”

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

 

That sense of community also influences Akinmusire’s writing, as he composes specifically with his tightly knit quintet in mind. He says of the interwoven nature of his band, “It’s a blessing and a curse because I can’t write for anybody else, because I’ve been playing with Walter for so long. Justin is the only drummer I’ve been playing with consistently for the last thirteen years.  I mean there was Zach Harmon, when I was working at the Monk Institute. That was two years.  But really, with all of my compositions, I’m hearing Justin.  So when I play with other people, when they try to interpret their way it just doesn’t feel right… same thing with Walter.  He has such a specific sound and tone and way of phrasing and you know, we phrase together so when I play with somebody else and they’re not really getting it, I find myself feeling uneasy and getting upset… same thing with Harish.”  Akinmusire penned twelve of the thirteen songs on When the Heart Emerges Glistening, his pieces as distinguished and refreshing as his playing.  The album feels cinematic, in part with a theme-like pensiveness throughout. There is nothing surface about this album, but it never compromises its accessibility.  It is one of the most modern statements to come along in a while, with the culmination of history that is obviously Akinmusire’s foundation clearly not acting as a hindrance to his singular voice.

 

“I feel like people who consider themselves traditionalists are ignorant, and that comes from a lack of understanding that whatever it is you’re analyzing is related to the history of that time,” says Akinmusire about the strongholds which many so-called jazz purists have cemented in their expectations.  “So bebop was relating to what was happening at that time and it was modern at that time.  So I just try to play the music that’s of the now right now and that’s related to me and I just try to be honest with who I am.  Today I feel this way and tomorrow I may feel another way and I think it takes courage to say what I thought yesterday was wrong and I think a lot of people are scared to do that.  That’s one thing my girlfriend has taught me.  She’s very honest and she will die for honesty, and that’s something that has affected my music… same thing with my mom.”

 

What is most treasurable about Akinmusire is that like the title of this record, which represents a stripping down of all that is apparent to expose what is really important in life, he himself, stripped of the critical acclaim and accolades is, at his core, the epitome of an artist.  The word honesty or a variation of such is used in this piece alone fourteen times, not because of redundancy on my part, or naïveté on Akinmusire’s.  But because it’s the engine of innovation; the thing which will help elevate jazz to its purpose once more.♦


 

Orrin Evans: On Big Band and Taking Bigger Stands

Photo by Angelika Beener

Last week, I caught up with Orrin Evans for an interview for Alternate Takes.  The pianist, composer and band leader was in town for a gig at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village with his much-buzzed-about big band.  A couple of songs into the second set, Evans turns his famously hospitable energy toward the audience, as he introduces the band.  “Welcome to Captain Black Big Band.  For those of you who have read my recent Facebook rants, Captain Black is the tobacco my Dad used to smoke,” Evans defends.  “…but I am wearing a dashiki, so it can mean whatever you want it to!”

He proceeds to introduce the tune the band just played – “Captain Black.”  He then jokes encouragingly to his predominately White audience. “Come on guys, you can take it,” speaking of all of the “Black” references being tossed in their laps at lightning speed.  It is classic Orrin Evans fashion to make his audience laugh, think and cringe, all at the same time.  His honesty, though sometimes tough to hear (depending on where you’re coming from) is distinctively wrapped in warmth and convincingly well-intentioned.

Evans’ recent “Facebook rants” about Blacks mobilizing in the jazz industry in terms of an increased level of participation and ownership on the business side, among some other topics, have received some heated backlash from a few, and even apprehension to concede from some of his Black contemporaries.  For Evans, his philosophies are ingrained; the result of a household filled with robust cultural awareness and exposure, education, and a fierce intention to raise a child who was keenly aware, and secure with his identity.  “My father was Professor of African American Studies for 30 years at Trenton State College, and Professor of English at Princeton University, and I grew up in the Black arts movement because he was also a playwright.  Then I grew up with my mom who was an opera singer who came through Opera Ebony and Opera North which was the Black opera company, so in my house it was constantly ‘hold you head high.’”  When it came to the cruel names his dark-complexioned sister was taunted by, Evans reflects on his parents’ response, citing just one of the countless teachable moments that they would take advantage of throughout his upbringing.  “My father would grab all the kids in the neighborhood, and sit them on the steps and say ‘Check this out.  This is Africa and this is why there are different complexions…’  So that’s how I grew up.  So I can’t do anything different.”

Orrin Evans grew up in Philadelphia, PA, and emerged on the New York City jazz scene in the mid-90s after attending the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. A flourishing time for young jazz musicians, he was quickly recognized as an exceptional talent, and released his first album as a leader in 1994, and has at least ten more albums under his belt, to date.  He has dozens of recording credits, and has played with an array of jazz and popular artists like Bobby Watson, Pharoah Sanders, Antonio Hart, Roy Hargrove, Mos Def, Common, Dave Douglas, Brandford Marsalis, Sean Jones, Ravi Coltrane, and The Mingus Big Band.  He is a label executive, producer, arranger, educator and most recently, a big band director.

Posi-Tone Records

Captain Black Big Band is comprised of a combination of local and renowned jazz musicians from the Philadelphia and New York area and has included Ralph Bowen, Wayne Escoffery, Tia Fuller, Jaleel Shaw, Tatum Greenblatt, Brian Kilpatrick, Tim Warfield, Stafford Hunter, Frank Lacy, Brent White, Todd Marcus, Luques Curtis, Anwar Marshall, Gene Jackson, and Donald Edwards – – to name some.  The album, which bears the same name as the band, is comprised of original tunes by Evans, Ralph Peterson, Gianluca Renzi and Todd Marcus.  It is a joyous and meaningful assemblage of music, life and love, captured via live recording dates in both NYC and Philly.  I was caught off guard when Evans explained the genesis of such an ambitious project.  “The idea behind it was just boredom,” says Evans.  “That’s the truth.  Sometimes living in Philly, and that two hour commute to New York…I just wanted to do something.  And I had just gotten back from Portugal where I led this big band of college students, and I thought, wow, that was kind of fun, and I said well maybe I’ll do this during my down time in Philly. Nothing more.  But then when it started, I said this is really coming together.  And I have to admit, I married the right partner.  My wife was like alright, you’re bullshitting, we’re gonna do a record; gotta do the record.  I just did this to be doing it, and it kinda grew into something.  I called on other friends to fill in where some of the college students who were in Philly couldn’t handle.  I called Gene Jackson and Donald Edwards, and a lot of other people.  And I’ve never arranged for a big band.  And the thing is, people think that I did all these arrangements.  Charles Mingus didn’t do a lot of arrangements for his big band.  I wrote the tunes and then I was blessed to have Todd Bashore do a pile of arrangements and so the band started coming together.  And my thing is, what I’ve realized was like, New York…actually the industry…they want something to talk about.  So, here it is; Orrin Evans’ next thing.”

If you’re trying to keep up with Evans — good luck.  High on energy and ideas, he’s already working on the next big band album, as well as a new release from his group Tar Baby; a trio that includes bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits.  Based on a concept from African-American folklore, Tar Baby represents a powerful message.  “I grew up with Uncle Remus.  My father, like I said, was a playwright and used to read Uncle Remus stories.  The story of the tar baby is pretty much that Br’er Rabbit wanted to trick everybody and you can grab the tar baby and you’re stuck on what is real.  So we all got into a thing that tar baby is jazz. These other musicians — black, white, purple, green — don’t wanna grab onto.  They don’t wanna get stuck on the concept that this is Black music.  So there it is, and Tar Baby was born.”

Last year, Evans also released Faith In Action, which received critical acclaim.  The album is a tribute to one of his most important mentors, Bobby Watson.  A bold and inspiring homage, Faith In Action is a strong argument for playing the music of the living; a seemingly lost tradition in jazz today.  “I’ve recorded Duane Eubanks tunes, a Chris Beck (a 20-something year old drummer from Philly) tune on my last record.  A big part of it is that I have never forgotten where I came from.  Everybody came through Bobby Watson, I don’t care who you are.  If you’re in the same age range as me — between 32 and 55 – you came up through Bobby Watson.  Frank Lacy came through Bobby Watson, Chris McBride.  Roy Hargrove; his first recording date was with Bobby Watson.  Benny Green.  I mean, I can go down the list.  Regardless of what people may think.  People may say ‘Bobby’s cool…’ and Bobby is cool.  Bobby may not be John Coltrane.  Bobby may not be Kenny Garrett; I don’t really care.  The point is, how did I get in the door?  The problem is a lot of us forget where we came from.  I remember being in the Metronome, and I was playing with Rodney Whitaker and Ralph Bowen.  And remember seeing Bilal, Robert Glasper…all of them were there checking out the music.  They’ve always been checking out the music.  They will always talk about that time.  That time meant something to them.  The problem now is a lot of younger musicians are like ‘I’m just here,’ like they’re in Star Trek and they pressed a button and they morphed here.  I cannot deny that I got in the door through Bobby Watson. He opened the door and let me in. That’s all that record was about.  Let me play his music.”

From L-R: David Gibson, Bruce Williams, Orrin Evans, Conrad Herwig, Andy Hunter, Tim Green. Photo by A. Beener

Like so many before him, Evans has kept with the tradition of not just paying homage to those pivotal figures in his life, but utilizing jazz music’s vital role as a means of social commentary with his stirring composition, “Jena 6.”  Songs like Ambrose Akinmusire’s “My Name is Oscar” and “Jena 6” are unfortunate reminders of the world we live in.  I asked about the importance of telling these stories in jazz.   “Now it’s important to tell the story through the music and dot-dot-dot…whatever medium that is.  And when you get the microphone and on Facebook and on Twitter, ‘cuz others need to hear that story.  You never know.  Like today is my mother’s birthday.  But that’s important for me to tell tonight because I’m 36 years old and don’t have either one of my parents.  But I still feel empowered.  So, I tell that story because someone in that audience that I’m gonna play for tonight might have lost their mother, or may have lost their father.   So it’s important for me to play “Jena 6,” because I’m telling a story just like Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.”  Just like Max, or Miles, but I can’t let it stop with playing a song.  Because sometimes you play the song and nobody knows who Orval Faubes was.  Nobody knows that he’s the dude who prevented desegregation in schools, so you have to say it, too.”

It is perhaps the “saying” that many of today’s musicians are struggling with, especially in the shrinking music industry climate.  “There’s tons of people that come to mind that are really willing to speak up.  But there’s also a lot of people that are scared.  They’re really scared because they’re all grabbing for the same thing.  There’s four booking agents, there’s four managers, and those people are in control of… you look at the top jazz people who I love and respect.  They’re like, if I wanna play there, I need to be cool with this person, so everyone is holding on to the little bit that they have.  That’s number one.  They don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”

For reasons understandable, Evans takes the relationships with his band mates seriously; especially off of the bandstand.  The social climate seems to suggest that bringing up truthful points — not opinion — is enough for an artist to be labeled with unfair and assumed agendas or platforms.  For Evans’ supporters (or supporters of any other Black jazz musician that dare have a mind to speak), there is an understanding that there may be consequence for any level of an agreeable attitude.  To illustrate, two artists (whose names will not be mentioned here) have had their record labels contacted, and were specifically asked not to comment on Evans’ Facebook comments.  Though Evans’ fans and supporters far outweigh the few who are taking issue, the horror of what that kind of action symbolizes in the grand scheme of things is worthy of the dedication of an entirely separate post.  But for Evans, it is quite simple.  “My lead alto player calls me an hour before you got here and couldn’t make it [for the Zinc Bar gig tonight].  So I’m thinking, is there a shortage of lead alto players in New York?  No.  Is there a shortage of lead alto players that are comfortable with my rants on Facebook?  That have known me, known my wife, are familiar with my kids, and know where I’m coming from?  Yes.  So I’m like, shit.”  Of course, Evans gets his altoist before the end of our time together, but his point is well taken.  “I just need family around me.  I wanna look at every person on that bandstand, and they know me.  They know my family.  That’s really important to me.  Not just ‘cuz you the baddest cat.  I can call the baddest cat.  We all can.”

On his way back from Texas to New York to meet me for this interview, Evans’ described his appreciation for the flood of phone calls and text messages he received from an array of jazz industry figures as he walked through Newark airport.  For Evans, the abundance of messages of hopes that he’ll continue to do this all important — if sometimes unpopular — enlightening, is motivation enough.

In terms of music, Evans is proving to be more prolific than ever.  Recently placing in this year’s DownBeat Critics Poll in the Big Band category, and releasing the gorgeous and relentlessly swinging Freedom (Posi-Tone) and several projects coming down the pike, Evans is still one of jazz music’s top contenders. ♦

Remembering Michael

“There have been others, but never two lovers like music…music…and me.”

Michael Jackson

It has always been slightly unsettling for me to celebrate or commemorate an artist around the anniversary of his or her death.  After all, it is what a particular artist accomplished or inspired during their lifetime that is being remembered, and only logical that we therefore reflect upon them during their coming into the world, and not their departure from it.  But when it comes to Michael Jackson, it’s a different story — at least for me, and I believe, for many.  I think this is because Michael’s actual death was so profound.  The gaping hole left in the hearts of millions symbolized that losing Michael Jackson was the single most culturally impacting event of our lifetime.  I’m sure you know exactly where you were and what you felt when you learned that Michael was gone.

I was either so young, or not yet born when we tragically lost musical giants like John Lennon, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Lee Morgan.  Furthermore, my mom was pregnant with my older brother when both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and had already mourned the previous deaths of JFK and Malcolm X.  America has undoubtedly suffered terrible loss of artistic, cultural and political icons within the scope of our lifetimes.  But, the interesting thing about Michael’s death, which is so distinctive, is that because his career spanned over 40 years, our parents and even grand-parents loved him just the same as those of my generation, and for all intents and purposes, actually “knew” him first, as much as the Thriller generation loves to claim him as being “really” ours.  (I’m guilty).

Michael’s impact is so far beyond music, and the various contexts through which he can be intensely studied and analyzed are indicative of that.  One thing that deeply affected me upon his death was that for all who thought that Michael Jackson forgot that he was Black…well, the media had not.  But thankfully, neither did Black folks.  Michael was celebrated and memorialized most appropriately by his people; without the damper of controversy and distractions, which were exacerbated by the media.  The beautifully relentless home-going celebration at the Apollo Theater in Harlem was the most brilliant example to the world that Michael not only understood his roots, but he was the embodiment of Black culture.

That being said, Michael’s indelible influence on the world is unprecedented and I cannot even grasp the totality of what that really means.  It surpasses any sort of quantification.  In a sense, like Michael himself, his influence is not to be understood but simply appreciated and respected.  There’s nothing else to do with such an other-worldly gift we are so blessed to have experienced.  Here, some of the most prominent artists in modern jazz have taken a moment to reflect on what Michael Jackson means to them.  Besides, Michael’s musical influence reaches every corner of every genre of music; a lesser discussed topic as it relates to jazz, but perhaps one of the most important angles to look at.  Enjoy.

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“To me, Michael Jackson is important as an artist because not only did he understand the role of the artist in society — he went far beyond it.”
Ambrose Akinmusire

“One thing that’s great about Michael, which isn’t often discussed or recognized, is that Off The Wall and Thriller are, for lack of a better word, Jazz records. The chordal structures, melodic content, string and horn arrangements, the Blues, the drive and swing of the rhythm section are all hallmarks of the so-called Jazz idiom. They represent, so far, the pinnacle of success for Black Popular Music and it is of no coincidence that those two records coincided with the return of the music otherwise referred to as straight-ahead Jazz. These records did more than just turn people on to Michael Jackson or R&B, they made people fans of music at a time when the industry was in a slump, much like so-called Jazz did around the turn of the century. ‘Thriller’ and ‘Off The Wall’ are essentially a continuum of the work first established on the ‘Hot Fives’ and ‘Hot Sevens’ by the world’s first Rock star, Louis Armstrong.”
– Nicholas Payton

“Michael Jackson proved that music and dance are probably the most powerful uniting forces in this world.  His style continues to cross genres, religious beliefs, class systems, and political and racial divides more than any other artist to date.  Everyone in every corner of the world knows his name and image.  And all of this came from this simple fact of how unique and great his music and dancing really was.  It was produced, executed, and recorded to the highest level, and it will keep on influencing peoples’ lives beyond our years.”
– Mike Moreno

“MJ is an icon. Unbelievably talented and devoted his life to his passion for art and humanity.  So hugely influential and groundbreaking, and seemed like such a beautifully gentle, caring soul.  Growing up on his music, I think we all felt a personal connection.  He makes us want to sing along, get up and dance, lay down and cry, stand up and shout, reflect upon and then actively do something.  That’s what art should do.  I will forever shake my head in amazement at his singing, his dancing; he was the greatest entertainer who ever lived and quite possibly ever will.  No one can touch that.”
– Gretchen Parlato

“The feeling I always got from MJ’s music is that he never hid or second guessed his inner voice and passion.  You undeniably feel every word and every dance move.  So overwhelmingly inspiring.”
Casey Benjamin

“I believe Michael Jackson was here to show us how small the world really is, and his vehicle was his talent as an entertainer.  No matter where one is from, when one is born, what language one speaks, what doctrine one reveres, etc… most of the world that existed during or exists post his life has been moved deeply by Michael’s talent.  This is evidence of something much larger than fame.  It is evidence of what is possible.  Genius, in my opinion, is not measured by mere talent.  It is measured by what those talents have contributed to the world.  His impact on us was so huge because he constantly had a vector, a purpose for the talents he was given.”
Marcus Strickland

“Nobody has been MEGA famous for as long as he has.  Also, with the ability to change and be a pioneer in each change.  He is a master vocalist-performer-dancer and just has a musical sound of his own.  Not to mention he has inspired everyone, and is hands down, the most famous person to walk the Earth.”
Robert Glasper

“Michael Jackson was clearly an artist of the highest order. Perhaps the quality that he possessed which stood out to me most was his ability to convey a particular message with utmost sincerity, sophistication, character and execution. His influence is seemingly infinite and his legacy will live on forever. I am truly grateful that I was born during his lifetime.
– Marcus Gilmore

“MJ was an extension in the evolution of Black entertainment.,  He pulled from James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jackie Wilson, making him the greatest in his time.”
– Jesse McB
ride

“Michael was a beacon for excellence as an artist.  He was always looking for the next level of perfection.”
– Kendrick Scott

“MJ is the epitome of timeless.  His influence on my generation is profound.  From his music to the ‘Beat It’ jacket.  You wanted to sing, dance, and be like Mike.  And that impact is just as strong on my 5-year old.”
– Keyon Harrold

“Michael Jackson was a great inspiration to me for many different reasons, but there are three that stand out.  One, he checked out and absorbed everything. If you listen to songs or look at videos of MJ when he was young, he knew James Brown, Ray Charles, and all the legends that came before him.  He knew many genres of music and appreciated them.  I even saw a video of him tap dancing to Mingus on You Tube.  The beautiful thing is that you can hear all of these influences in all the music he did.  Two, he was a true activist/humanitarian. He wasn’t afraid to speak out about the bad things that were going on in the world.  He wasn’t passive and he put his thoughts in his music. He wasn’t trying to be politically correct and didn’t care what others thought.  Three, he was all about moving forward.  If you look at MJ throughout his career, he always surrounded himself with those that were current and had something fresh to say. He reminds me of Miles Davis in that way.”
Jaleel Shaw

“Michael Jackson single-handedly squashed every stereotype in music.  His God given ability, style, and personality are the blueprint to date.”
– Kenneth Whalum III


I loved the cartoons in the Thriller record sleeve.. The one of MJ and paul mccartney pulling the girl was particularly memorable.. Seeing that image, it was hard to hear the song and not laugh! That record and the album art were definitely a highlight of the Vasandani family record collection.
– Sachal Vasandani

“MJ for me was and still is the total package of an entertainer.  He had everything: the voice, moves and the charisma.  He was always striving to better himself as an artist.  He never took his talents for granted.  He always knew where he was going and what steps to take to get him there.”
– Johnathan Blake

Thank you, Michael.

My Name Is Oscar

When listening to trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s new album, When The Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note) I purposely skipped track 9, as a matter of practice.  “My Name is Oscar” is a tune written by the Oakland native in tribute to Oscar Grant III; an unarmed Black man who was murdered by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer.  The officer shot Grant in his back while he lay in a defenseless face-down position on the train platform in the early morning hours of New Years Day, 2009.  Being a New York native, and living through so much police brutality, it was a song I didn’t want to face.  But I did today.  I needed to face the song.  I’m not sure what compelled me to do this, but I knew that the murder had been documented by several witnesses, and I watched the video while listening to the song.  That was a good and a bad idea.  A bad idea simply because it was so very hard to watch (I had avoided the unbelievable horror of the footage until now).  But a good idea because it put the issue of police brutality in my face in a way I have never dealt with.  That’s not to say I had never seen Black men terrorized by the police.  Much to the contrary.  But I think dealing with Oscar Grant’s death was so important, especially living in a pseudo-post-racial society.  In the last three decades, I was able to reflect on the countless racially-inspired murders of Black people, committed by officers paid to serve and protect them.  Grant, Amadou Diallo, Timothy Stansbury Jr., Sean BellAiyana Jones and on and on and on and on and on…..

And just last week, The Pleasantville Police Benevolent Association honored the officer who shot and killed Danroy “D.J.” Henry, an unarmed, Black college football player in 2010.  The officer was honored for the “dignified and professional manner [he’s] conducted himself throughout his career and this ordeal.”

Killing Black men is dignified and professional in America.

Oscar Grant III

On “My Name is Oscar” drummer Justin Brown (also from Oakland) emits a brilliant and emotionally rousing performance while phrases like “live,” “don’t shoot” and “we are the same” echo in the folds of the solo.  When I listened to the song, it reminded me of how jazz has always narrated the human struggle.  From John Coltrane, to Max Roach to Branford Marsalis, and now to Mr. Akinmusire, jazz musicians have always been fearless about putting the Black struggle in the face of their audience.  This is the most commendable and important work.  To make people think differently about the world they live in, and to inspire change, is the best work.

Perhaps because I’ve seen this happen and go unpunished too many times to count. Perhaps because I have a brother named Oscar.  Perhaps because I’m raising a Black child in America.  Or probably because of all of the above…I must say that “My Name Is Oscar”  is one of the most important anthems of our generation.  Check out Mr. Akinmusire’s website, and he and his band are not to be missed whenever in your area.