Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Film: I Called Him Morgan by Kasper Collin (Kasper Collin Produktion, 2016)

This was a thoughtful and well done film that describes the relationship between the great jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan and his common law wife Helen and the events that led up to the fatal shooting that took place at Slug's Saloon in New York City in February 1972. There were giants of the jazz trumpet walking the earth when Lee Morgan's career began with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in the late 1950's but it soon became clear that Morgan was a special talent that had a very bright future for himself in music. After leaving the Gillespie ensemble, he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers during one of their most exciting and productive periods. He was also cutting solo records as a leader for Blue Note records at this time which were prime examples of the hard-bop sound that had developed during that time period. It was at this time that Morgan fell under the spell of heroin and he fell hard. Some sources say that Blakey, the functioning addict, may have introduced him to the drug. Regardless, Morgan hit rock bottom, neither playing or recording or even at times having no shoes to wear. It was at this period, in the early 1960's that Helen enters the picture in the beginning as an almost maternal figure as she was several years older than Morgan. She helped him get into a treatment program and come out clean, and worked tirelessly as a de-facto manager, helping Morgan rebuild his image as a responsible and sober musician and bandleader. The mid to late 1960's were the salad years of their relationship, Morgan had found massive success with his recording "The Sidewinder" and a series of popular albums followed. They were able to tour the west coast with Helen on some of these trips as a straw boss, and for all appearances things were going well. That started to change when Morgan began to take an interest in a young woman he had met in Atlantic City, and they began to spend more and more time together, stoking Helen's ire. Ironically, this woman states poignantly that their relationship was rarely intimate since Morgan's period of intense narcotics usage led to ongoing health and stamina issues. Everything came to a head the night of a raging blizzard in New York City. Helen had originally planned to decamp to Chicago, but decided to come to Slugs to see Morgan play. Morgan was accompanied by his young partner, and the friction between the three was becoming toxic. At one point Helen was thrown out of the club without her coat, and the pistol she kept for protection fell out of her purse and clattered onto the sidewalk. She picked it up, re-entered the club tapped him on the shoulder and and shot him in the abdomen upon turning around. Police responded quickly and placed Helen in custody, but it took the ambulance over an hour to navigate the snow clogged streets to the club and Lee Morgan was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital, dead at just 33 years of age. Helen was convicted of second degree manslaughter, and was released after spending a comparatively short time in custody. She returned to her North Carolina roots, becoming very active in the church, and was taking classes to further her education when she met Larry Reni Thomas who was a jazz DJ in addition to being a history professor. Several years later and shortly before her death in 1996, Helen sat down with Thomas for a lengthy interview. This squeaky old cassette tape opens Helen's backstory from being a young unwed mother in North Carolina who fled for New York City, and became known as a character around town, someone who always had an open door and a pot of food on the stove. This was the time period where she met Morgan, he was at his lowest point and she helped him to get back on his feet and spur him on to some of his finest performances. But there was bitterness building, and Helen did not wish to be a kept woman while Morgan saw other women and circumstances and missed opportunities led to that tragic night when one of the leading lights of contemporary jazz was cut down by someone who was shattered and immediately contrite. But the damage had been done and the history of jazz was irrevocably altered. The structure and format of the film is straightforward and works well. Some famous musicians like Wayne Shorter, Billy Harper and others lend thoughtful and pithy comments and Thomas plays excerpts of the taped interview with Helen in addition to providing commentary and context. There is some wonderful footage of Morgan playing in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and then leading his own group for a local television station in New York City. This was a well done and compassionate film that tells the story in an organic manner, never getting in the way of the musicians and other friends and family, allowing them to tell their own story. The film does have a melancholy or elegiac air, but that is fitting given the subject matter. It is highly recommended and easier to find, now that it is streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

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Monday, July 24, 2017

Riverside - The New National Anthem (Greenleaf Music, 2017)

Following up on their debut release from 2014, Riverside is a collaborative group featuring Dave Douglas on trumpet, Chet Doxas on clarinet and saxophones, Steve Swallow on electric bass and Jim Doxas on drums. This album has very impressive instrumental playing and interaction along with interesting compositions. The album was recorded in the summer of 2015 and begins with "The New National Anthem," which has a choppy melody of bass and drums leading into "Old Country" which bursts open colorfully with strong brass punctuated by sharp percussion and electric bass. Douglas contributes a concentrated trumpet solo set to pulsating accompaniment before Doxas's saxophone joins in for a keen collective improvisation and a solo spot of his own. "King Conlon" has a crisp full band theme statement which is punchy and exciting evolving into a powerful trumpet solo over bass and drums. Chet Doxas switches to clarinet and swoops in unexpectedly over rolling drum accents, and the whole band comes together with excellent interplay. Hollow sounding clarinet and punchy brass push forward on the following track, "King Korn," making for a taut and exciting performance. Solo electric bass opens "View From a Bird" building a medium tempo and adding languid saxophone and trumpet along with subtle brushes. Shimmering cymbals and trumpet join in to frame the bass with eddies of sound and motion. "Enormous Tots" has a funky and friendly feel to it, with the horns strutting and swaggering over strong rhythm. They joyously chant a nonsense vocal before embarking on a sharp melodic improvisation, sounding like modern day hot jazz with billowing saxophone and drums. The music on "Demigods" slows back down to a medium tempo, with sympathetic musical motifs at hand. Subtle bass and percussion builds to a slow groove, gaining pace as the saxophone and brass open the music further over a subtle backbeat. Finally, "Americano" ends the album in excellent fashion, with strong bass and drums setting the pace for the stylish horns to enter. Douglas unleashes an excellent trumpet solo over tight bass and drums, then makes way for a fine saxophone feature over a gleefully primal beat. This was a good album, the band is really tight and makes the most of their experiences to create wide ranging music. This is a bright and accessible album that should be well received. The New National Anthem - amazon.com

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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Charles Lloyd New Quartet - Passin' Thru (Blue Note, 2017)

Tenor saxophonist and flutist Charles Lloyd has had a long career filled with highlights, from his popular early recordings on Atlantic that led to him playing psychedelic ballrooms in the late sixties to a lengthy purple patch with ECM in the nineties and oughties. Now on Blue Note, he reconvenes the New Quartet, featuring Jason Moran on piano, Ruben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. The opening track, a near eighteen minute version of the Lloyd classic "Dream Weaver" was recorded live at last year's Montreux Jazz Festival, and it encapsulates the leader's musical history in a suite-like performance that includes elements of blues, spirituals and more open-ended improvisational elements. The album's remaining tracks were recorded in Sante Fe beginning with "Part 5, Ruminations" which has a gentle and meditative melody that develops into a thoughtful and gentle improvisation which allows the rhythm section maximum freedom while Lloyd swoops and sways around them, building a thoughtful and lilting statement all his own. "Nu Blues" is a more recent composition, one that hints at the rhythm and blues of his hometown of Memphis, while encouraging the music to move into a little more intense state of being with crisp rhythmic playing and full throated saxophone soloing. There is a wistful, balladic feeling to "How Can I Tell You" and the band paces itself nicely developing a soft and patient performance that rides on the thermals of air in an organic improvisation that moves with the grain of the music. "Tagore On The Delta" opens up the throttle, making the most of the availability of space and time, taking a composition out of his past, and moving it completely into the moment with excellent piano playing and elastic bass and drums making an excellent construct. Lloyd's music has always had a deeply spiritual quality to it, and this is firmly demonstrated on the concluding piece "Shiva Prayer" which develops a hard won serenity showing all that he has learned during his long and successful career. He carries the rest of his band with genial authority, completely at home with the younger musicians who continually respect and challenge him. Passin' Thru - amazon.com

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Downbeat Readers' Poll Ballot 2017

Downbeat Magazine is accepting ballots for the 2017 Readers' Poll. My choices are as follows:
Hall of Fame: Sam Rivers
Jazz Artist: Ivo Perelman
Jazz Group: Lean Left
Big Band: Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra
Jazz Album (Released June 1, 2016, to May 31, 2017): Rodrigo Amado / Goncalo Almeida / Marco Franco - The Attic (NoBusiness Records)
Historical Album (Released June 1, 2016, to May 31, 2017) David S. Ware and Matthew Shipp Duo, Live in Sant'Anna Arresi 2004 (AUM Fidelity)
Trumpet: Amir ElSaffar
Trombone: Steve Swell
Soprano Saxophone: Sam Newsome
Alto Saxophone: Steve Coleman
Tenor Saxophone: Peter Brotzmann
Baritone Saxophone: Mats Gustafsson
Clarinet: Anat Cohen
Flute: Nicole Mitchell
Piano: Matthew Shipp
Keyboards: Craig Taborn
Organ: John Medeski
Guitar: Brandon Seabrook
Bass: Ingebrigt Håker Flaten
Electric Bass: Jamaaladeen Tacuma
Violin: Mark Feldman
Drums: Paal Nilssen-Love
Vibes: Jason Adasiewicz
Percussion: Hamid Drake
Misc. Instrument: David Murray (bass clarinet)
Male Vocalist: Theo Bleckmann
Female Vocalist: Leena Conquest
Composer: Roscoe Mitchell
Arranger: Nels Cline
Record Label: No Business
Blues Artist/Group: Joe Louis Walker
Blues Album: Gary Clark Jr., Live North America 2016 (Warner Bros.)
Beyond Artist or Group: Richard Thompson
Beyond Album (Released June 1, 2016, to May 31, 2017): Sleater-Kinney - Live in Paris

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Peter Brotzmann / Steve Swell / Paal Nilssen-Love - Live in Tel Aviv (Not Two Records, 2017)

This is an excellent meeting of three of the most exciting musicians in avant-garde jazz with Steve Swell on trombone, Paal Nilssen-Love on drums and percussion and Peter Brotzmann on saxophone and clarinet. This album was recorded live at Leontin 7 in Tel Aviv, Israel October 24, 2016. These musicians have played with each other countless times in many different configurations so the trust level they have is very high and they have no problem letting their guard down and playing for the sheer love of the music. That affection comes shining through on the main track, wonderfully titled "The Greasy Grind" which begins with an all out collective improvisation that is very exciting. Nilssen-Love's crashing drums and cymbals make a fine foundation for guttural saxophone and smears of brass that hit with raw physicality but are also played with great tact and depth. The music stretches out for a thirty minute exploration of the disparate sonic terrain, with spaces for solos and duets as well as the superb trio interaction. The music exists at many levels, whether it is a muscular free jazz blowout or an abstract sound collage with varying colors and strokes evoking a wide range of emotion. The second and shorter piece is called "Ticklish Pickle" is also aptly named, because the trio creates a slower, prickly performance that is gritty and focused on the granular level of the music. Brotzmann plays clarinet, and the hollow, woody sound of the instrument is perfectly placed to improvise the with long rough tones of brass and skittish percussion. It takes a great deal of patience and trust to pull off a performance like this, and you can almost sense the audience hanging on every note as the trio navigates the thickets and underbrush of the music, emerging triumphant after ten minutes of risk taking on the edge creativity. This is another excellent entry in the collective discographies of these three great musicians. Playing wide open, unfettered modern jazz, they provide a beacon of hope and demonstrate what real freedom means. Live in Tel Aviv - amazon.com

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Monday, July 17, 2017

Evan Parker - City Fall: Live at Cafe OTO (Fundacja Słuchaj, 2017)

It's an interesting feeling to listen to the great British avant-garde tenor and soprano saxophonist Evan Parker on fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Coltrane. Parker has spoken at length about his debt to Coltrane, but he repays that debt in the best manner possible, not by covering the great man's compositions, but be creating his own spontaneous improvisations that take the baton from Coltrane and show the way forward for the saxophone in free jazz or free improvisation in the twenty first century. Parker has released many live albums and I am far from an expert on his music, but this seems to be one of his finest, recorded during September of 2014 at the Cafe OTO in London. He is in an excellent form, accompanied by friends and colleagues Mikołaj Trzaska on alto saxophone and bass clarinet, John Edwards on bass and Mark Sanders on drums. They open with a massive spontaneous composition "Hunting Moon" which they play with a headlong rush of ecstatic music. With the two reed players intertwining as they reach for the heights of the musical creativity, and an ever shifting rhythm from the bass and drums keeping the music hurtling forward. It's the fractured and unpredictable nature of the rhythm that keep things so interesting. Where the saxophones may skitter and squeal and the bowed bass casts stark shadows the percussion skips and jumps to its own accord. They all come together to create a massive blast of creative energy that is most impressive. This continues on "In Case of Fire" in which the musicians complement one another, producing a soaring, optimistic sensibility as if the band is giddy with excitement at the possibilities of their music. The improvisation is emotionally direct, and structurally sound and the quartet is deeply attuned to one another as the reeds make a wide range of sounds and the four players are utterly focused. The quartet develops dynamics with the sound moving from soft and open against full and brash, and using this structure to create powerful momentum. They can play with thunderous force, lashing gales of saxophone and bass clarinet against buttresses of stoic bass and drums, to a triumphant conclusion. The audience erupts with music deserved applause and the trio returns with the shorter performance "Eternity For a Little While" which acts as a coda and a capstone to a remarkable performance. City Fall: Live at Cafe Oto - amazon.com

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Anat Cohen and Trio Brasileiro - Rosa Dos Ventos (Anzic Records, 2017)

This album is the most recent foray into Brazilian jazz by clarinet and saxophone player Anat Cohen. She is joined on this album by the members of Trio Brasileiro: Douglas Lora on guitar, Dudu Maia on mandolin and Alexandre Lora on drums and percussion. The band is inspired by Brazilian choro music, which combines European musical forms with African and South American rhythms to make a fertile playground for improvisers. "Baião Da Esperança" opens the album with a jaunty and rich tune, one that the listener can easily imagine dancing to. The interplay of the strings is nimble and fleet, incorporating the percussion in a deft manner and allowing Cohen's deeply swinging clarinet to move at will. Stout guitar and mandolin introduce "Ijexa" with shaken percussion joining in to develop a very strong rhythmic foundation. The music swoops and sways in an intoxicating manner, coming together to develop a deep groove that Cohen solos over in a plaintive and emotional fashion, picking her spots, and not overwhelming the music or disrupting the feeling it has. After a dynamic downshift to a more melancholy setting, the musicians regroup and push forward to a grand conclusion. "Valsa Do Sul" has hollow sounding clarinet in open space, probing and setting the mood for the trio to jump into an grow into a charming melody. The way the strings and percussion can interact with one another is very impressive, weaving and building textures that are perfect to either encompass or challenge the clarinet in their midst. The light and nimble music is like a fluttering hummingbird, hovering between flowers as a soft breeze flows around it. Clarinet and percussion develop a choppy rhythm on "Sambalelê" which is quite exciting as they improvise beats and notes, channeling the swing tradition of pre-war jazz and the expansive history of Brazilian music. "Choro Pesado" is a lightning fast collective improvisation for the full quartet, with the percussion and strings developing an exciting rhythmic basis for the music that is thrilling to hear. Cohen is deeply intertwined within the music, and the sound she develops further aligns the scope of their improvisation, and allows it to become a whirling dervish of colorful sound. The quiet and thoughtful ballad "Lulubia" ends the album with subtle guitar and mandolin developing a memorable melody, aided by slight percussion, and eventually joined by Cohen's soft and supple clarinet with frames and engages with the other instruments beautifully. This album worked quite well and it is clear that this was a full meeting of the minds rather than soloist with accompaniment. The quartet traverses various styles and traditions of Brazilian music, but also keep in mind the improvisation based nature of the jazz tradition. Rosa Dos Ventos - amazon.com

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