Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dave Holland John McLaughlin Open The 50th Monterey Jazz Festival

Fans arriving at the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival, presented by Verizon, were greeted by colder than normal temperatures rain. The rain would stay thoughout the evening, but the temperature got a little hotter when Dave Holland & Friends took the stage as the opening act in the main arena.

Holland is most often seen backing some of the most well known artists in the music. What gets lost is he is also a very accomplished composer. On this night, as he is doing more frequently these days, he led an extraordinary group of young musicians. His regular quintet saxophonist, Chris Potter, was joined by Gonzalo Rubalcaba on piano and the incredible Eric Harland on drums.

Holland's last appearance here was with his big band, performing a
commissioned work. This time he did what he is most often seen doing, delivering some hard driving, straight-ahead jazz with intricate compositions and innovative musicians. As usual with Holland, he stays subtly in the background. Chris Potter was in fine form, doubling on both tenor and alto. Rubalcaba, on the other hand, was on fire. In his first appearance on the main stage at Monterey, He was bringing the kind of performance that has come to be expected by first time festival artists. His energy level was much higher than I've seen in previous settings, even as a leader. Eric Harland is one of the most captivating young drummers out there today. He's every bit as much fun to watch as he is to hear. Together, these guys set the evening off to a roaring start.

John McLaughlin is most known for his time with Miles Davis, and for his Mahavishnu Orchestra. His performances are usually toward either of those two extremes. His 4th Dimension band played what is best described as a cross-section of both worlds, with a MJF audience flavor. It was jazz, with the expected English rock guitar that has been the signature of this legend. the compositions were fresh, as were the faces in the band. Fresh faces or not, they came with passion, they came with fire, and they came with a very tight performance.

McLaughlin, of course, was still the show. The East Indian flavored side of his
musical repitoire may be for select audiences, but the 4th Dimension selections were pleasers for the entire crowd. Well aware of the historic nature of this year's festival, McLaughlin cleverly injected his solos with quotes from many of the classic recordings he's bee a part of, and others that are considered fusion classics. A Miles Davis reference here, a Chic Corea reference there, a little Al Di Meola and John Coltrane sprinkled in here and there, and you had a salute to the many legends that have graced the Jimmy Lyons stage.

Two great performances to open a weekend of great performances. Neither of these legends were promoting a new CD. They were just there to play and honor the great history of the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Monterey Jazz Festival - 50 years of Magical Moments

The third weekend in September is always a special time on the Monterey Peninsula. Jazz fans from around the world descend on the County Fairgrounds for the Monterey Jazz Festival, presented by Verizon. This year was particularly special as the festival celebrated the 50th edition of the longest, continuously running jazz festival in the world.

Festival General Manager Tim Jackson and the entire festival organization are keeping founder Jimmy Lyons dream alive for fans and musicians. Make no mistake, it's just as special to the musicians to be invited to play this event. Each one that plays here manages to bring a little something extra to their performance. The most memorable of these performances are forever remembered as "Monterey Moments".

The festival also continues Lyon's primary objective of the festival; to support jazz education in schools, and begin to develop the next generation of great jazz musicians. This year, the festival's Next Generation Jazz Orchestra played several concerts around the country. They also played a four-day run in Paris, showing international audiences the results of the investment in America's youth before coming home to the audience in Monterey.

More than a few of the long-time patrons have attended every festival since the 1958 inaugural. Irene Washington is one of those veterans who remembered the early days. "You could bring the whole family out here for just $7", she told me. "It was wonderful". Ms Irene is one of the festival's most recognizable fans. She strolls the aisles of the arena wearing a pair of giant sunglasses and carrying two "Texas Size" fly swatters she uses to clap with.

The crowds were record setting. Grounds tickets for Saturday sold out earlier than ever. That's considerable given a rumored additional 10,000 grounds tickets added for each of the three days. Festival logo merchandise booths were mobbed the entire weekend. The festival added two new venues and several exhibits chronicling the 50 year history of the event. The atmosphere was as electric as ever. There a feeling that comes over serious jazz fans the first time they step on the festival grounds. Visions of the performances of Miles, Billie, Dizzy, Duke, Sarah, and hundreds of other legends come to mind as this is the place many a historic live recording was made.

A special treat was announced a month before the festival as Monterey Jazz Festival Records was launched. Almost all the arena performances have been captured on tape. Thanks to a large grant, those tapes have been converted to digital media, and selected performances are being released on CD. The first releases include Miles Davis (1963), Dizzy Gellespie (1965), Louis Armstrong (1958), Sarah Vaughn (1971), and Thelonius Monk (1964). The quality of these early live recordings is excellent, and the recordings are a must have.

There's a lot more to talk about on this year's festival, but that can wait 'til next time. Each of the artists I covered deserve their own piece, and that's just what I'll give them. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Joe Zawinul - In Remembrance

The mailing list posting on from the Jazz Programmer’s Network on August 5th couldn’t have been more ominous. It simply said Joe Zawinul had been hospitalized in Vienna with an undisclosed illness. It was the “undisclosed illness” part that was the most troubling. That phrase is not meant to instill hope; it’s meant to tell you to prepare for the worst.

Personally, I wasn’t prepared for the worst. I first saw Zawinul’s name on the liner notes for Cannonball Adderley’s album with Nancy Wilson in the late 60’s. He really got my attention with the hit he penned for Adderley, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”. I shared the same question with many jazz fans. Who was this strange little man from Austria whose self-admitted dream as a teenager was “to come to America and music with Black musicians”? Zawinul realized that dream in 1958, went on to become one of the greatest keyboard players in the history of the music.

Maynard Ferguson hired Zawinul right out of the Berklee School of Music in Boston. He went from there to playing with Dinah Washington before joining Cannonball Adderley’s band. It was with Cannonball that he became noticed. From there, he went on to play with Miles Davis. It was his writing and playing on “In A Silent Way” and one of the two best selling jazz albums of all time, “Bitches Brew” that would cement his name in jazz history. For Zawinul, he was just getting started.

In 1970, Joe Zawinul and another Miles Davis alum, Wayne Shorter, started the band Weather Report. For 15 years, Weather Report set the standard for what a jazz-fusion band should sound like. Zawinul’s compositions and self-designed keyboard sounds introduced jazz fans to what would eventually be called ‘world music’. Many of the members of Weather Report would go on to become legends in the music as well. Following the breakup of Weather Report, Zawinul picked up where he left off with the band he would lead for 22 years, the Zawinul Syndicate. Over the course of his carrier, Joe Zawinul would be voted Best Keyboardist, in Downbeat Magazine’s annual Critic’s Poll, an incredible 30 times.

All that describes the Zawinul everyone knew. Upon hearing the news of his hospitalization, I thought of the man that looked a bit like Albert Einstein. Considering the genius of his compositions, how he conducted his band, and how he played, the analogy fits perfectly. The sparkle in his eyes and his mischievous smile let you know he was up to something. That something was what he planned to bring to his audience, the next time he was on stage.

There was the highly customized keyboard rig that included four physical keyboards, and an unknown number of rack mounted synthesizers. Keyboard players, both amateur and professional, would arrive early to Zawinul Syndicate shows to marvel at the setup that also included three homemade boxes of unknown purpose with a variety of knobs and switches. Then there was the arc of nine separate volume pedals for precise control of the dynamics of his sounds. Those sounds were programmed by Joe to provide very specific voices and sounds. Some were meant to emulate the very first instrument he played as a young boy in Vienna, the accordion.

This was the man I shared more than a few bottles of wine with backstage at Yoshi’s, along with Gary Poulson, Victor Bailey, Manolo Badrena, and Paco Sery. It had to be fate that my wife and I decided to have dinner at the sushi bar in Yoshi’s before his Friday night show. We sat down and looked to our right, and there was Joe. No entourage, no security or special seating, just Joe. We talked for what seemed like forever about his early days, and of playing with Cannonball and Miles. Although he was a big part of creating that music, he spoke of it with the passion of a lifelong fan. He made a rare mention of his wife of over 40 years, Maxine. He spoke of their wonderful vacations on his infrequent gaps between tours. I remember his recommendation to visit Porto Maurizio, Italy, his pick for one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

He talked of his new band that featured former Zap Mama vocalist, Sabine Kabongo, drummer Nathaniel Townsley, and bassist Linley Marthe. He spoke with glowing praise, not unlike a proud parent. He loved nurturing and presenting young, talented musicians. That was his way. I would see him just once more, at the 2006 SF Jazz Festival. On that visit, I couldn’t stay for the second set, and didn’t get to spend time with him as I usually did.

After five weeks of no news at all came the news the jazz world dreaded most. The mad scientist of fusion had been called home, joining his beloved Maxine who made that journey earlier this year. Josef Erich Zawinul was born on July 7, 1932, Earth time, and again on September 11, 2007, Eternal time. The void created by the passing of his physical presence may never be filled. His music, his passion, and his influence on generations of musicians that affectionately called him “Pops”, lives on.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

"Pops" has gone home.

With the possible exception of Wayne Shorter, every musician who came through the many incarnations of the Weather Report, or the Zawinul Syndicate held his mastery of the music in the highest regard. To them, he was "Pops". To us, he was Joe Zawinul. He was born July 7, 1932, Earth time. He was born again on September 11, 2007, Eternal time. There aren't enough words to express the magnitude of this loss. Next time, an attempt to put together words to celebrate the time he shared with us on this earth.

Monday, August 13, 2007

All news is not good news.....

The news sources available on the internet are and incredible resource. The speed and coverage breadth of the World Wide Web has all but eliminated delays in reporting news events happening just about anywhere on the planet. Everyone has access to stories they may never had heard about ten years ago. Of course, not all of it is news you really want to hear.

August 7th's home page for Google News displayed a headline that not only stopped my entire multi-tasking train of thought, it set an unusually contemplative tone for the whole day. It was a small piece, with no small significance. The headline read: "Joe Zawinul hospitalized in Vienna". The article itself offered little but ominous information. Hospital officials declined to confirm reports that Zawinul was seriously ill, saying the musician had requested that his rights as a patient and a private person be respected. This and every other related news piece referenced an 'undisclosed illness'. There's been no news since.

For many a jazz musician, even the most well known, news like this tends to stay local. More than a few of them have passed on, leaving most of us to say "I didn't even know he was sick". Zawinul, however, has spent 25+ years traveling the far corners of the world with Weather Report. He then retraced those steps, and added new ones, with the more world music based Zawinul Syndicate. This is an artist that is well known, everywhere. Still, we were lucky to get even this little bit of information.

Unfortunately, follow-up or ongoing reports are not likely to be forthcoming. There are tens of thousands of fans that are following the developments quite closely. Very few of them are reporters, and even fewer of them are close to the situation in Vienna. We now start the cycle of not hearing any news, good or bad, until something significant develops. The most likely are Joe is either back in the studio or back on tour, or the word that the greatest fusion keyboardist of all time has departed this earth. His next scheduled tour date is November 1st, at his Birdland club in Vienna. Let's pray the opening night is a great success.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Christian McBride Situation - Yoshi's Jazz Club, Oakland, California - July 27, 2007

Open sessions of pure jazz improvisation were common back in the day. By “back in the day”, I mean the mid-seventies. You could catch these on Sunday afternoons at a number of clubs on either side of the bay. Frequently, top artists headlining at the marquee clubs would stop by, and you’d witness something truly special. The Christian McBride Situation represents an updated version of those sessions.

At the 2005 Monterey Jazz Festival, McBride was without two of his usual band members due to scheduling conflicts. McBride brought Ron Blake and DJ Logic to the festival, to be joined by Patrice Rushen, who was appearing with Lee Ritenour. Backstage following her set with Ritenour, Rushen asked “What are we going to do?” referring to the set list. Christian replied: “I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out”. That, along with another pre-performance conversation that included Blake and DJ Logic, was the rehearsal. What happened on the stage will go down as another of those legendary Monterey moments.

The version of the Situation that came to Oakland featured Rushen, once again, was on keyboards, and Bay Area saxophonist Dave Ellis. DJ Jahi Sundance manned the wheels of steel. Like the Monterey situation, there was no rehearsal, no charts, no set list, no plan, and no fear. The songs would be created, in the moment.

Sundance led off with a spoken word piece, then launched a beat-loop flavored somewhere between Afro-Cuban, Old-School Funk, Electronica, and Techno. After a moment of contemplation, McBride jumped in and created a fierce bass line that established the groove, and a counterpoint to the rhythms. Rushen was next in with complementing chords and riffs, setting in yet another style on top of the groove. Dave Ellis treaded cautiously at first, but soon realized the only way into this mix was to use a crowbar, as he pried his way in and took the first solo round.

It took all of 30 seconds to create an incredible flight of reckless, yet controlled fancy. Chord and key changes would come without warning, and many times, without a cue. They were usually initiated by Patrice, who gave no real visual or musical hint that they were coming. Ellis would watch her intently in anticipation. McBride had to be using a sixth sense. Which way was the change going, up or down, and by how much? They hit every change perfectly, the whole night, like they were following a chart. This was incredible to watch and hear.

The only way to describe the music is to say, you had to be there. After exhausting an idea, they transition into something new. McBride or Sundance would start, and the others would fall in with what they felt would work, or lay out until they had something that fit. I don’t know if a pre-show audience member about a Julian Priester Tribute that McBride participated in had any influence or not. Okay, it was me and Julian talking about that night in 1999 when the members of Herbie Hancock’s legendary quintet were reunited (minus Billy Hart, who had a conflict). Besides Herbie, there was Benny Maupin on sax and bass clarinet, Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Julian Priester (who wasn’t expected to play, so soon after a liver transplant), and Buster Williams on bass. Subbing on drums was Terri-Lynne Carrington. They had just finished “I Have a Dream”, and Buster was leading with a trance-inducing intro to the next piece. When he started the opening vamp and the packed house audience realized what he was leading into, every jaw in the room dropped to the floor. It was “Ostinato, a Suite for Angela Davis”. Christian and I both recall standing in the wings, just losing it. With the Situation that night, McBride did something similar. However, he kept circling back to a phrase that was based on the bass line chorus of “You’ll Know When You Get There”, also from “Mwandishi”. It evolved into the only truly structured song of the set, a deeply moving rendition of “Maiden Voyage”.

McBride has scheduled more “Situations”, with a variety of personnel. Hopefully McBride will tape the various Situations, and releases a live compilation. Kudos to Christian McBride for having the courage to take on such a high risk venture, and bring back something long considered a lost art.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Welcome to Polyrhythms

This is my internet soapbox to pontificate about all things jazz, and a little bit beyond. Who am I? If you found your way here, I’m going to make the leap assumption that I’m just like you, a lifetime fan of the music. I also happen to be a jazz photojournalist, covering the scene in the San Francisco Bay Area. I am a staff writer for CityFlight, a Bay Area eZine, and provide reviews of CDs, DVDs, and concerts here in the area.

In those capacities, there are necessary and understandable filters in place. There are also space constraints, so a lot of what I’d like to put out there, I can’t. Here, I get to rant or rave about whatever I think might be interesting. A sounding board, so to speak, and a forum that I hope will bring things to light you are likely to otherwise miss.

Whether you know it or not, whether you choose to accept it or not, we in this country are losing this music we call jazz. I personally am not willing to say that jazz is dying. There are many places in the world that are starving for more jazz, and not the watered-down “smooth” jazz that is neither smooth nor jazz. If you don’t believe it, then you’re ignoring all the signs. Fifteen years ago you could find a 24-hour all-jazz station in every major city in America. Today, if you don’t count satellite, there is only one, and it’s on life support. Take a look at the lineups for jazz festivals that are over ten years old. You are likely to find more non-jazz artists than jazz artists. Here on the west coast, there remain only three jazz clubs that play host to the music’s top tier talent on a regular basis. Shockingly, not one of them is located in Los Angeles. Do you have a large local record store (sorry, CD store just doesn’t sound right) with a well stocked jazz section? If so, have you noticed it’s shrinking, fast?

Polyrhythms is my own personal effort to help keep this music alive. It means a lot to me. A whole lot. Jazz is playing in my house 24/7 and will be until I leave this world. If I sound emotional, it’s because this music is emotional. To quote Jon Hendricks “This is intelligent music. There are no dummies listening to this.”

Please come back from time to time. I promise to keep it interesting.