Guest Host - Jazz Cafe

Once again, I'll be guest hosting the Jazz Cafe this Sunday morning from 7-9 am on 88.9 FM WDNA in South Florida and online at wdna.org.  Since the start of the new year, I've received some 30 new CDs of music, so I'll be sticking closer to my buddy Ed Blanco's usual format new music in the second hour.  So, it'll be jazz, blues, and creative backbeats to start things off, and new music from Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, Brian Lynch, The Rempis Percussion Quartet, Marc Copland, Pablo Held, and the Pedro Giraudo Orchestra, among others.  If you haven't had a chance to tune in to listen to WDNA, bend an ear our way and see what's being threatened by Congressional budget-cutting.  Peace!

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Zappa: A Biography

     The late Frank Zappa has always been a frustrating figure in the history of 20th century music.  Was he a failure as a rock musician because he never had a truly widespread popularity?  Was he a genius who somehow couldn’t resist rubbing the nose of the public in his own apparent obsessions with vulgar language and shocking sexual behavior?  Was he a pop traditionalist with deep roots in doo-wop and rhythm and blues, or a compositional revolutionary along the lines of Stravinsky and Schoenberg?  In the end, Zappa was, it seems, all these things, and more.

            The prolific pop culture biographer Barry Miles – who’s written also about the lives of Paul McCartney, Allan Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac – has now turned his attention and his research staff to Zappa.  Miles’s new  book about of Frank Zappa is more useful than Zappa’s own 1988 autobiography in sorting out the facts of his life from the myths, but it falls short in many ways when it attempts to analyze the significance and meaning of Zappa’s creative work.

            Zappa’s parents were from a fairly traditional Italian-American background – which is to say, rather rigidly Roman Catholic – and Zappa grew up in a family that was strict and conservative, even perhaps by the standards of the 1950s.  Add to this the Zappa family’s tendency to relocate every two or three years – Frank’s father worked for the defense industry – and young Zappa found himself gravitating toward rock and R&B music as a means of escape and comfort from his family as well as a way to fit in among his constantly changing peer group.  By the time Zappa was a teenager and the family had settled (so to speak) in one of the desert suburbs of Southern California, Zappa was playing guitar in various bands.

            At the same time, Zappa began developing an interest in – what can we call them – serious 20th century composers like Edgar Varese and, in particular, Igor Stravinsky, and Zappa’s music teachers encouraged him to learn to write musical scores.  Zappa admits scribbling out music on staff sheets just in the sheer curiosity to hear what it all sounded like when a band or orchestra played it.  Zappa finished high school, but didn’t get much more than a few classes in music theory at community college before he left to pursue his interests in music full time.

              By time he began his career as an independent musician, he had already established several characteristics of his process of creation: first, Zappa always worked extremely long and intense hours; second, he had a knack for exploiting (for better and for worse) the talents and resources of those around him; third, he demanded complete creative control of every aspect of his work; and lastly, he rarely turned up an opportunity to shock or offend the establishment.  Perhaps because of these traits, perhaps in spite of them, Zappa managed to turn out a consistently bold and innovative rock music, as well as, in the end, a considerable amount of fascinating “serious” music written for the orchestra and the Synclavier.

            Miles does an admirable job of chronicling the private and public life of Zappa in his childhood, early years, and his peak creative years, which are in this reviewer’s opinion, from 1968’s We’re Only In It For The Money to 1975’s One Size Fits All.  People from the earlier years are perhaps more willing to go on the record about Zappa’s cold treatment of band mates or his often-denied marital infidelities or his disposition to be a prima-donna or an egomaniac.  In the later years of Zappa’s life, as he withdrew from touring, focused on his studio work, and eventually succumbed to cancer in 1993, he was surrounded by a close circle of family and friends who remain loyal and tight-lipped.  You can’t fault Miles for that.

            Those readers looking for another biography of Zappa might take a look at Neil Slaven’s Electric Don Quixote. People who want an analysis of the composer’s music and lyrics, should read Ben Watson’s excellent title The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play.

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Northern Sun, Southern Moon: Europe's Reinvention of Jazz

Jazz performer, composer, and writer Mike Heffley is also a freshly-minted professor of Ethnomusicology, and his book, Northern Sun, Southern Moon: Europe’s Reinvention of Jazz, argues that some of the most interesting music being made under the heading of J-A-Z-Z hasn’t been in its birthplace in the United States.

Heffley’s argument runs something like this: With the arrival of free jazz, under the influence of innovative American players such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor, and with the maturation of a second generation of European jazz players – those coming after Django Reinhart and Stephane Grappelli – European players seized upon free jazz and made it something their own. Back in the United States, the author writes, free jazz players like Coleman and Taylor, Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, Albert Ayler, Pharoh Sanders, and Lester Bowie were eclipsed by the more commercial fusion music of the 1970s, and then, in the 1980s, by the neo-conservative “classical” repertory jazz of the Young Lions, led, if you will, by Wynton Marsalis.

Both both fusion music and repertory jazz are less about art and more about making money, suggests the author, and free jazz, both in America and Europe, is where the music has continued to evolve. Filthy lucre is the problem, and, apparently, in Europe, says the author, where the arts receive more support, musicians can concern themselves less with what sells to in the market and more with what appears to their imaginations.

In addition to discussing the importance of American free jazz and avant-garde players, Mike Heffley presents those US musicians in their proper stature and influence in the various musical cultures of the nations of Europe. Nation by nation, the author traces the development of each country’s particular style of music, its prominent musicians, and its relation to the larger phenomenon of free jazz on the Continent. Often overlooked European players such as Albert Mangelsdorff, Evan Parker, Peter Brotzmann, Alexander von Schlippenbach, and Peter Kowald are all featured prominently as key figures in the distinctive development of Europe’s music.

Keep in mind that author Heffley is an ethnomusicologist, and that his book, I would guess, is probably some version of his doctoral dissertation. As much, it may be a little too technical or esoteric for some tastes. Frankly, I didn’t understand some of the theoretical passages. But Heffley does a very fine job in his narrative sections, and his research is impeccable. As a work that explores new territory and brings to light scores of musicians and the musical heritage of a dozen nations, this book is invaluable. Anyone interested in free jazz or the avant garde will want to take a look.

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Understanding Jazz: Ways to Listen

Although relatively young as national cultural institutions are concerned, Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, under the direction of Wynton Marsalis, has become the major force in the promotion and education of the art of jazz. Whether it’s the Center’s the weekly radio program hosted by Ed Bradley, or its PBS specials, or the regular recordings by its groups, or the innovative compositions it underwrites, or the many concerts and events it hosts up there in its home at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, JALC commands a vast array of cultural and financial resources for a non-profit arts organization.

It is not surprising, then, that the Center has produced a new book about the music, entitled Understanding Jazz: Ways to Listen. Written by the acclaimed music critic Tom Piazza, Understanding Jazz is a fine introduction for non-musicians as to how to understand some of what jazz musicians are doing in the midst of a live performance. Beginning with the sometimes paradoxical relationship of the individual soloist to the group – which Piazza explains as the relationship between foreground and background – the reader is taken through the basics, so to speak, of how to listen. Piazza clearly explains, for the lay listener, how the blues and other song forms are structured, as well as how musicians improvise in relationship to those forms and tell a story. Piazza is most effective in his discussion of rhythm, of time, and of that elusive element known as swing:

“Picture the arc of a common playground swing,” he writes. “Once you get into a regular rhythm on the swing, the amount of time it takes to get from one end of the arc and then back will be the same each time. But your actual speed as you traverse the arc is not constant; in fact, there is a curve of acceleration and deceleration – a speeding-up on the downward motion and a slowing on the upward part.... In a jazz performance,” Piazza continues, while every bar of music should take the same amount of ‘clock time’ – fill the same period – within those bars and groups of bars there is a constant sense of respiration, of infinitesimal accelerations and decelerations in the actual playing, even though the background pulse, the tempo, remains constant. A large part of the music’s meaning comes from playing with time, this sense of being able to operate flexibly, accurately, and freely within the implied lockstep of chronology—an affirmation, in fact, of the living body against the dead abstraction of time.”

This is all interesting and useful explanation, made all the more interesting and useful because the musical explanations in the book refer often to a companion CD that features seven distinctive jazz tracks. Artists on the CD include King Oliver, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, and Stan Getz – among others. Pizza very easily slips into specific musical references to Rollins’s “Mack the Knife” or Davis’s“Footprints” to help you hear what he’s writing about. Understanding Jazz is a book you read with the CD player remote never far from your hand.

At the end of each chapter on each particular music topic, Piazza also includes a rather haphazard discography, a feature which novices might find useful but will likely distract and annoy more expert listeners. Still, all in all, Understanding Jazz is an excellent way for the beginning fan of jazz to make significant steps forward in learning how to listen more carefully to this often complex music and with a more intelligent ear.

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The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis 1980-1991

British journalist George Cole, a regular contributor to Jazzwize, has undertaken the project of assessing the often overlooked period from Miles Davis’s comeback in 1980 to his death in 1991, a stage in the jazz legend’s life which has puzzled so many of his biographers. What are we to make of the music of Miles Davis’s final decade, full guitar pyrotechnics and synthesizers, with drum machines and overly slick production tricks? What in the world was Miles Davis thinking?

Many critics are dismissive of this last span of music-making, saying that Miles couldn’t go back to what he had done, but that he also didn’t know how to go forward, and so he went sideways. Others have argued that, a lifetime of creativity already accomplished, Miles chose to “bask in the sun and be the personality that he had become,” and that he simply wanted to be popular, summing up the music of his later years as nothing more than “an advanced form of instrumental pop.” All in all, the verdict on this music was quick and severe.

In his book, The Last Miles, writer Cole approaches the music and the man with vigor, directness, respect, and, most of all, an open mind. Cole gives Miles the benefit of the doubt, and his book is all the better for it.

After almost three decades of making jazz – as well as changing the direction of the music several times – by the middle of the 1970s trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis retreated from public life and retired to his New York brownstone on West 77th Street. Distracted by drinking, drugs, and women, suffering from health problems and, no doubt, mentally burned out after so many years of being at his peak creatively, Miles Davis lived like a self-described “hermit” from the years 1976 to 1980. After several years of this, a few of his friends – most notably Cicely Tyson, who later became Davis’s third wife – managed to help Miles clean up his act, stabilize his health, and, by the spring of 1980, get him in the spirit of making music again.

Having left off his musical development with the street sounds of 1972’s On the Corner and the fusion that can be heard on the 1975 live albums Agharta and Pangaea, Miles needs an album under his belt before he can get his chops back, but by the time he releases Star People and Decoy, he has returned to some semblance of his former self with musicians like bassists Marcus Miller and Daryl Jones, guitarist John Scofield, and briefly, saxophonist Branford Marsalis. A second set of albums, largely written and produced by Marcus Miller, feature Miles in a mostly digital domain of computer-created sounds – the groundbreaking Tutu, along with Siesta and Amandla. The album Miles was working on when he died, a fusion of hip-hop and jazz, called Doo-Bop, also receives serious attention from writer Cole, who, again and again, balances praise and criticism fairly within the context of taking all this music seriously.

All in all, Cole is meticulous in his research and interviews, and readers will have more than enough information about the writing, production, and performance of all this music – often from the people who worked with Miles first hand. Cole is at his best in telling the story of how each album came together and in explaining the new directions Miles felt he was taking. Cole also provides a particularly fine chapter on the evolution of Miles Davis’s live performances over the last decade of his life.

Summing up matters, Cole suggests that it is still too early to pronounce the verdict on the music Miles final years. Whatever he was doing – either resting on his laurels, seeking a broader audience, or continuing to explore new directions – any dismissal of Miles’s work seems premature. I know, for one, that the first Miles Davis album I ever listened to was 1983’s Star People – and I have become nothing less than a fan of all his music since then.

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Reader's Notes - How Radio Rocks the New Music Ecosystem

From the Future of Music Coalition, we have an article that establishes the value of public community stations in bringing new music to listeners.  While it might seem that, in the age of digital downloading, people find their own out-of-the-way music by browsing through billions of songs by millions of artists, but that's not necessarily so.  A look at any iTunes top ten list pretty much tells you what you need to know: "Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss." As the article observes, it's really independent forces that drive discovery of fresh new acts and music: "In addition to music blogs and social networks, non-commercial radio are tastemakers that help get the word out early about great music."  Full text of the FoM piece is here.

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