Not a Top 10 - Eleven Albums for 2011

In no way should my best of the year be taken as anything other than a statement of my taste and the result of what music I managed to listen to and have the opportunity to write about this year.  I missed more than I caught, I’m sure.  But here, in alphabetical order by artist, are my top 11 jazz (for lack of a better term) albums of 2011.

Operation Long Leash, Dead Kenny G’s
That’s How We Roll, George Goodwin’s Big Phat Band
90 Miles, Stefon Harris, David Sanchez & Christian Scott
Unsung Heroes, Brian Lynch
The Dancing Monk, Eric Reed
Tito Puente Masterworks Live!!!, Bobby Sanabria and the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra

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PN Unscripted - John Connolly - 'The Infernals' and 'The Burning Soul'

Prolific Irish writer John Connolly talks about two new books -- 'The Infernals' and 'The Burning Soul' -- folk tales, and how to maintain your creative freedom.

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Review: Nica's Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness - David Kasten

The first blurb on the back of the dust jacket of Nica's Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness comes from none other than Robin D. G. Kelley, author of the excellent biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.  While I have a general protest with the subtitling of biographies through various combinations of the words life, times, legend, and/or man/woman, the author of Nica's Dream, David Kastin has produced a fine book that does its best to present the narrative of a person whose life was ostensibly public, but really quite private -- even after 200 plus pages of narrative.

Kastin wisely opens his book with a treatment of the persistent and unkind rumors (now myths) surrounding Nica -- the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter -- and her involvement in the death of Charlie Parker.  Although Kastin doesn't completely convey the chaos that Parker's life had become in the weeks before his death, he does establish that much of the mystery surrounding Nica's actual involvement Parker's death were largely a function of her usual mode of operation.  She was a generous patron of jazz, always willing to open her home, her purse, her kitchen (or room-service), and the door of her Bentley convertible to those musician who might need a place to sleep, a little money, some food, or even transportation.  One gets the sense that Parker could have expired in any one of a dozen living rooms, in the state he was in, and that the hype surrounding the particular circumstances of Bird's death had more to do with sexism, antisemitism, and cultural paranoia about "race mixing."  With all he Bird bunk largely debunked, Kastin can get on with Nica's story.

Briskly and entertainingly evoking the family background of the elite British Rothschild family, Kastin evokes the young Kathleen Anne Pannonica as a bright, adventuresome person who has a taste for the fullness of the world and, by the age of twenty-one, has flown her own plane.  Married to the French aristocrat, Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, the couple plays a daring role in the French Resistance, and by the time the war is over and the Baron has settled into the staid post as a diplomat, Nica and he had four children.  None of that stopped her from running off to New York to pursue her true love -- jazz.  It's the death of Parker and the perception of scandal surrounding it that gives the Baron occasion to divorce Nica.

For the better part of three decades, "the Jazz Baroness" played a central role in supporting scores of musicians in the New York scene -- Coleman Hawkins, Jon Hendricks, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, among others.  Most famously, of course, Nica was a friend and essential supporter of Thelonious Monk, whose "'Round Midnight" set her on the path to New York, and whose "Pannonica" was written in her honor.  At time, Monk's presence in Nica's world is so prominent, Kastin's book reads at times like another version of Kelley's Monk biography.  Having read both books, I venture to say that Kastin's book does a slightly better job of evoking Monk's final years, suffering from mental illness, living largely as a recluse in a room in Nica's modernist house overlooking the Hudson from its perch in Weehauken, New Jersey.

Kastin doesn't do too much needless psychological probing into the Baroness and her motivations for hanging out so much in the world of jazz musician.  As a modern, she understood the music; as a seeker of freedom, she understood very well what largely African-American artists were seeking to achieve through their work; as a generous and kind soul, she could provide what was needed to those for whom so much was denied.  Also admirable is Kastin's avoidance of speculation about Nica's romantic liaisons, which would have quickly diminished her importance as a serious patron of the music.

Frustrating for both the reader and, no doubt, Kastin, was the relative lack of access to Nica's family members, who were reluctant to go on the record about the Baroness.  In a similar way, but much more profoundly for jazz scholars in general, is the unheard archive of tapes -- hundreds made over many years -- the Baroness made of the conversations, jam sessions, and works-in-progress that happened in her hotel suite and Weehauken house.  No doubt in years to come the Rothschild family will be more cooperative in interviews and in letting scholars examine that huge audio archive. For all the significant limitations to primary sources that Kastin appears to have encountered, he's done a fine job of distinguishing the life of Pannonica de Koenigswarter from the legend of Nica.  Read in conjunction with Kelley's biography of Monk, Nica's Dream completes a close portrait of a profound artistic friendship, as well as a broad landscape of the New York jazz scene in the 1950s and 60s.

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PN Unscripted - William Kennedy - 'Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes'

William Kennedy talks about working in Miami and Cuba in his earlier years as a newsman, his new novel, and what it was like to hire Hunter S. Thompson.

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PN 176 - Big Savings

From 2006, it's a Passing Notes classic -- clipping coupons, searching for discounts, and memories of the Island of Misfit Toys.

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Reader's Notes - Black Friday Myths

Not that the mad genius-types at Cracked need the extra traffic, but if you haven't seen this week's piece about Black Friday myths, you really should give it a read before heading out to the stores.  Me, I have Christmas lights to put up.  Thousands and thousands of lights. Shiny!

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PN Unscripted - Chuck Palahniuk - 'Damned'

The author of Fight Club, Choke, and Lullaby talks about his new novel, Damned, his favorite demon, Gulliver's Travels, and watching people pass out during his readings. (20 minutes)

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Miami Book Fair - Talking and Tweeting

It's the time of year once again for the Miami Book Fair, which brings to down hundreds of writers, editors, booksellers, and publishers -- as well as thousands of readers and, most importantly, book-buyers.  If you're not in South Florida this weekend, you can usually check out coverage of Book Fair highlights on C-SPAN.  I have a full schedule of interviews to do, and will be stopping by the WDNA table from time to time.  I'm very pleased on Sunday to introduce a panel by the name of "Remembering Harvey Pekar," and I look forward to an interview with Pekar's widow Joyce Brabner.

I'll do my best to tweet whatever seems interesting from the fair, so if you'd like to know what's up from the world of Passing Notes, you can follow all the details on Twitter, @markehayes.

Hope to see you there!

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PN 175 - Chuck Palahniuk - 'Damned'

The author of 'Fight Club,' 'Choke," and 'Lullaby' talks about sending a little girl to hell in his new novel.

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Join Palahniuk's website, The Cult.
See the author at the Miami Book Fair.

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PN Podcast - Stick It In Your Head

Passing Notes has been podcasting in one form or another since 2006, when I contributed each week to Flak Magazine's audio content -- now available as FlakRadio.  After my infant-and-toddler-induced hiatus, I made the decision to return to work on the radio, on the web, and as a podcaster, leaving my previous life as a print freelancer behind.

At this point, I've got the technical dimensions of podcasting pretty much figured out, and I'm very pleased to announce that Passing Notes is now available through the excellent Stitcher platform.  With Stitcher, you can just download the app to your device of choice and listen.  For those of you still using iTunes for your podcasting needs, Passing Notes is there as well.

I'm planning to make much more audio available in the Passing Notes Unscripted format, which is a "lightly edited" version of the long interviews I have as part of producing the Friday radio show.  So, most weeks, you should be able to download the 5-minute radio feature, as well as a 20-40 minute extended interview a few days later.  Thanks for reading -- and listening!

If you want to support Passing Notes, as always, the most useful step you can take is to leave a review, provide a rating, or otherwise create some form of feedback for the podcast.  Much appreciated.

For a taste of things to come, here's a list of guests from past episodes, linked directly to the audio files. . .
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PN Unscripted - James Gleick - 'The Information'

Regrettably -- and perhaps ironically -- the interview I did with James Gleick, that is, the digital recording of the interview, has had its file structure corrupted to the point where I am unable to salvage it.  Trust me -- nobody is more frustrated than I am.  As a replacement for the interview, please accept my humble review of The Information, posted earlier in the year on Passing Notes.  Do not miss Gleick's appearance at the Book Fair this Saturday.

Listen to Gleick with Tom Ashbrook's On Point.
Visit Gleick's website, Bits in the Ether.
See Gleick at the Miami Book Fair.

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PN Unscripted - Dava Sobel - 'A More Perfect Heaven'

Award-winning science writer Dava Sobel discusses her new book exploring the life and work of Copernicus -- as well as her earlier works Longitude and Galileo's Daughter.

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Visit Sobel's website.
See the author at the Miami Book Fair.

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Playlist - Jazz Cafe 11/13

Here's a list (and covers) of the books I mentioned on this morning's broadcast.

Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice, Tad Hershorn

Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry, Clark Terry with Gwen Terry

Nica's Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness, David Kastin

Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues, Mitsutoshi Inaba

Preachin' the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House, Daniel Beaumont

Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues, Philip R. Ratcliffe

And below is a full list of the music played this morning, as well.  Thanks to those who tuned in!

Song, Artist, Album

Our Love Is Here To Stay, Kayla Taylor, You'd Be Surprised
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Alex Lopez, We Can Take This Boat
Pretty Ugly, Axel's Axiom, Uncommon Sense
Ghost Riders in the Sky, Ryan Davidson Trio, Ryan Davidson Trio
Booker's Waltz, Carol Morgan Quartet, Blue Glass Music
Mood Indigo, Matt Baker, Underground
Just Desserts, Emmet Cohen, In The Element
La Mulata Rumbera, Mark Weinstein, El Cumbanchero
Nica's Dream, Stan Getz, Voices
Panonnica, Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Alone in San Francisco
Frankie, Mississippi John Hurt, Martin Scorcese Presents the Blues
Death Letter Blues, Son House, Martin Scorcese Presents the Blues
Built for Comfort, Howlin' Wolf, His Best
Makin' Whoopie, Ben Webster, Soulville
I Get a Kick Out of You, Ella Fitzgerald, The Cole Porter Songbook
Mumbles, Oscar Peterson Trio with Clark Terry, Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One
Donna Lee, Clark Terry Quintet, Serenade to a Bus Seat

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Guest Host - Jazz Cafe 11/13

It's time for my usual monthly guest hosting of the Jazz Cafe (thanks as always to Ed Blanco) on WDNA, and tomorrow's show is all about new books and new music.  Early birds, we start at 7:00 am and go until 9:00.  In the first hour, I'll  be playing music and talking about new books on Panonnica de Koenigswarter (the Jazz Baroness), Norman Granz, Clark Terry, Willie Dixon, Mississippi John Hurt, and Son House.  In the second hour, I've got a great mix of jazz from all of the fall releases that have come to the home office.  I'll also talk a little about the coming week's slate of literary guests in advance of the Miami Book Fair.  I'll be podcasting interviews with Dava Sobel (A More Perfect Heaven), Karen Russell (Swamplandia!), and James Gleick (The Information), and Friday's Passing Notes broadcast features Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk on his new novel, Damned.

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Mort-Vivant Walks Alone!

With my fall break over and done with, I've been hard at work listening, watching, reading, and lining up interviews for Passing Notes.  Rather than jinx any developing pieces, I'll let them appear as they will week-by-week, although you're free to sign up for the Passing Notes weekly newsletter to get a hint of things to come.  There's links of all sorts to the right and below if you want to follow the Notes regularly.

Today, I'm officially spinning off the zombie blog, Mort-Vivant, with a review of George Romero's 1985 movie Day of the Dead, to be followed tomorrow by a piece on Return of the Living Dead.  After that, I'll be reviewing in quick succession each episode of Season One of AMC's series The Walking Dead, all in preparation for the Season Two premiere on October 16.

I'll continue to write about books and music several times a week here at Passing Notes, and the Friday radio feature will continue as always.  Be well!

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Monty Alexander - Harlem-Kingston Express Live!

Monty Alexander – Harlem-Kingston Express Live! (Motema 2011)

Monty Alexander is one of the elder statesmen of jazz who, coming to the forefront of pianists in the 1970s, seems to have been around forever and, at times, may be taken for granted.  Ever since leaving his native Jamaica while still in his teens to pursue a jazz career in the United States, Alexander has steadily turned out album after album, most of them excellent, all the while balancing his bop chops with the influences of his Caribbean roots.

It seems though that Alexander has never forgot his apprenticeship back in Kingston, playing on endless recording sessions in Studio One.  While Alexander has in the past has touched on a broader, island sensibility in his “ivory and steel” projects, it’s clear that over the years he’s been increasingly drawn to a blend of jazz and reggae – if the two styles can be said to go together.  Alexander, at least, makes it work on albums like Yard Movement (1996), Stir It Up (1999), Monty Meets Sly and Robbie (2000), and Rocksteady (2004) – often in collaboration with the legendary guitarist Ernest Ranglin, his buddy from the old island days.

Alexander’s latest album, Harlem-Kingston Express Live!, continues to find common ground between jazz and reggae, with Alexander personifying the bridge.  His role as a link is made clear in a featured photo in the CD booklet, which shows Alexander and his two rhythm sections set up at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.  To his left is the jazz group: Obed Calvaire on drums, Hassan Shakur on bass, and Yotam Silberstein on guitar.  To his right, the reggae ensemble:  Karl Wright on drums, Hoova Simpson on electric bass, Andy Bassford on electric skank guitar and Robert "Bobby T" Thomas on hand drums.

As the set progresses, Alexander’s arrangements take a couple of basic approaches to the mixing of jazz and reggae – the switch and the mix.  The first two songs set up the switch, beginning with a lovely, dreaming reggae version of “Strawberry Hill,” with Alexander laying out some very rich chords; the second track is an upbeat, boogie-woogie rendition of “Hi Heel Sneakers” which features some excellent swinging from the jazz group.  The mood is light, playful, and open to possibilities, with Alexander fully presiding.

The next tune, “King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown,” switches as well between the mellow, stripped down dub style – King Tubby’s domain – and a brief but energetic latin jazz passage, but is memorable for Alexander’s work on the melodica.  Following this, a floating Alexander original, “Eleuthera” mixes the two rhythm sections most effectively, and it’s one of the tunes where the two bands play more as a single unit than two separate ones.

The standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” gives the jazz guys a chance to really open up, and they attack the tune with a real ferocity, spurred on in part by the percussionist Bobby T from the reggae side.  A most interesting blend happens on “Freddie Freeloader Riddim,” taken at a faster tempo than the Kind of Blue original, but it is so brief that there’s almost no room to explore the possibilities of the arrangement. 

Bob Marley’s “The Heathen” moves through its mostly reggae paces but offers a few brief but wide open “free jazz breaks.  The ballad “Compassion” finds the reggae unit out front on a tune that features Alexander at his virtuoso best on both the piano and melodica.  Marley’s “Running Away” makes for one of the most dramatic and, at times, effective settings for the two groups to work together, but it highlights the difficulty that Alexander’s entire ensemble must face in trying to find space for two drummers, two bassists, and two guitarists – too many great musicians have to lay back too often.  The old mentotune “Day-O,” made famous by Harry Belafonte, is a fun closer, loose and an informal occasion for Alexander to call to the audience to sing along.

All the minor unevenness is forgotten on the album’s spectacular closer, an almost perfect version of Marley’s “No Woman No Cry,” which, although it clocks in at over seven minutes, has not a dull moment.  Alexander’s playing at the start is sparse and almost formal, but both groups build the dynamics as the song goes from stately, to bluesy, to driving, and finally to its spiritual resolution.  It is an epic take on a simple song that is devastatingly effective.

Taken as a whole, Harlem-Kingston Express Live! finds Monty Alexander at home in two genres, surrounded by the best of musicians, working hard to find common ground – both in the careful arrangement of material and in the spontaneous moment of playing.  Rarely failing and most often succeeding (like the best jazz), Alexander is at the peak of his powers on this recording, ready to delight and surprise from moment to moment.  Regardless of how one might try to classify the music, it is jazz in the purest sense – a music that is open to possibility and all the more exciting because of it.

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PN 164 - A Year's Passing

Reflections on the loss of a loved one.

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Vacation Notes

The Labor Day weekend is upon us, and Passing Notes marks its (fuzzy) one year (reboot) anniversary.  A year's worth of writing this blog and producing my radio show and podcast has shown me the ups and downs of those 52 weeks -- what times are busy, what times are leisurely.  Passing Notes is a labor of love -- I earn a very small income from it -- and most of the reward comes from the people I get to talk to and the books and music that arrive at the home office.  An aspiring culture maven's work is never done.

My civilian job is teacher, and I've been at it now for 20 years -- good grief! -- so I'm used to the marathon of Labor Day to Memorial Day.  And, if you do it right, being a teacher is very hard work; don't let anyone tell you otherwise.  What I've come to understand in a full year of balancing family, job, and my Passing Notes pasttime is that there are periods when they all simply can't be balanced.  That being clear to me now, I'll be taking fairly predictable breaks from the Notes -- at least online.  The radio show should continue year-round.

I just completed my start of the school year break.  There'll be another one coming in the days between Thanksgiving and the end of the first semester.  Likewise, I'll be off for some time in May and June when the second semester ends.  With a break to look forward to every few months, I think Passing Notes will be better than ever.

The Miami Book Fair always brings the big names to town, so this fall looks to be strong in terms of guests and music and books. Next month I'll be spinning off my new zombie blog, Mort-Vivant, just in time for the start of Season 2 of The Walking Dead.  So, we're back in business, with more posts coming very very soon.  Thanks for reading.

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Listener's Notes - From the CD Stack

The title for The Dead Kenny G's Operation Long Leashcomes from the clandestine CIA operation in the late ‘40s to fund Abstract Expressionism as a means for Western culture to undermine the ideals of the Soviet Union during the early years of the Cold War.  Politics grabs the attention with the DKG's, but you'll stick around for the music. Skerik (saxes and keyboards), Mike Dillon (vibraphone, tabla, percussion), and Brad Houser (bass, baritone sax) provide a humorous, heady mix of jazz, funk, and (let's say it) heavy metal.  The group's second album continues the development of tight playing from these multi-instrumentalists, best evidenced in a song like "Black Truman (Harry the Hottentot"), which starts at the circus, brings on the funk, turns to a spy movie soundtrack, takes a run through the jungle, and comes back to the groove in the end. This album is filled with challenging, invigorating writing and playing that draws on the very widest range of influences -- with a big sound and a bigger sense of musical imagination. 

In its follow up to 2009's outstanding El Viaje, the Pedro Giraudo Jazz Orchestra has released Cordoba.  Featuring compositions and arrangements from the Argentine bassist, both the songs and the charts are intricately put together, made all the more listenable by the exemplary musicianship.  These twelve musicians manage again and again to sound like a full jazz band, with the added bonus of their soloing, which is aggressive and adventuresome.  A song like "Duende del Mate" moves wonderfully through all strengths of the group -- lush harmonies, interlocking rhythms, and fine individual musicianship within the whole.

Almost every track on Mace Hibbard's latest, Time Gone By is a standout.  Based in Atlanta, Hibbard is joined in his quintet by  Louis Heriveaux (piano), Marc Miller (bass), Justin Varnes (drums), Melvin Jones (trumpet), and it's evident in every bar that these guys have been playing together for some time.  Of the dozen songs on the CD, all but two are Hibbard compositions, each one interesting and memorable in both musical ideas and performance.  "Hollowed Ground," which seems at times to take its cue from the work of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, has a wonderful melody and break, with some gorgeous open-voicings and an exciting build in both Hibbard and Melvin Jones' solos.  The more you listen, the more you keep finding things to like.  Time Gone By is an album you should not let slip by unnoticed this year.

The title track from Itai Kriss' The Shark tells you about you need to know about this flutist and composer:  the Israeli-born musician draws very much on wide range of musical influences -- jazz and classical, as well as Latin and even Middle Eastern sounds, all within the flexible framework of a top-notch band.  With Aaron Goldberg on piano, Omer Avital on bass, and Eric McPherson on drums, Kriss has a tight, confident context to present his writing and improvising. Better still, both John Ellis (tenor) and Avishai Cohen (trumpet) make appearances on The Shark, and Kriss' virtuoso chops are in fine shape as he more than holds his own -- he commands attention with the woodwind, bringing it to the front of things, which, with apologies to Ian Anderson and Herbie Mann, has not usually been the place for the flute.  But Kriss does it right.

An interesting release comes to the CD stack from Germany, a group led by violinist Natalia Brunke called The High Fiddelity and their release Tell Me!  With all the compositions on the album by Brunke, there is still a sufficient variety of tempos and textures to keep the listener engaged from beginning to end.  Brunke seems to go out of her way to use the violin in a number of different ways -- as a lead instrument, as accompaniment, as percussion -- in each song, the most effective of which is "Desperation."  At times, one wonders why the Brunke-led group felt that it needed to lean so much on vocals -- which are perfectly fine, by Marina Trost -- as the arrangements and playing in instrumental sections is more compelling than the lyrical content.  Brunke would do well in her next release to simply play a little more, compose a little less, and let the strings and skins do the work.  Listenable, certainly, but falling a little short here and there.

And finally, from among the scores of albums from one singer or another that arrive at the home office, a noteworthy release comes from Aimee Allen.   Based in New York, Allen is a private attorney by day, and is a jazz singer by night.  Winters and Mays, while Allen's third album, is likely to appeal to a wide audience -- mixing a handful of well-chosen familiars ("Peel Me A Grape" and Sting's "Fragile" being the strongest) with Allen's own strong compositions.  Cool and swinging throughout, Allen's voice works well with her backing ensemble of piano, guitar, bass, and drums.  A song like "Eden Autumn and Noah, Too" displays both Allen's strength as a writer and her skill in swinging across tempo.  With a great voice, great intonation and control, and great musical intelligence, Winters and Mays is a great album for any season.

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