“In our eagerness to wipe out crime we create a bigger crime.”
- Al Capp
“The composition is the listening.”
- Pauline Oliveros
For many, jazz has been viewed as a dirty word, particularly among musicians. Roland Kirk preferred to call it “Black Classical music.” Duke Ellington said there’s only two kinds of music, good and the other kind. Mingus hated the term, as did Max Roach and so many other great composers/musicians.
The idea of putting a label on what most of these folks preferred to just call music is in a way absurd. Like me being called a jazz poet or beat poet or street poet or intuitive poet. I don’t know if I’m even a poet but what I do know is that I write poetry, or at least that’s what it seems to be.
The word jazz, for many, has lost much of its meaning. Become so defuse. Misused. Overused. Abused. Misunderstood. Applied to so many variations of the music that it’s both mind-boggling and disappointing there are so few examples where it’s used with integrity. And there are still venues that carry the word proudly.
One such case is the Jazz Gallery, founded in 1995 by Dale Fitzgerald—who sadly passed on—and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and currently under the brilliant artistic direction of Rio Sakairi. It has been a staple for good music and simple atmosphere. And along with the music, the walls are graced with jazz artwork from many prominent, as well as lesser known, artists.
I first encountered the venue when it was on Greenwich and Spring (not far from where the old Half Note used to be). Their latest location is Broadway between 27th and 28th streets, on the fifth floor of an unassuming building. The new space showcases seasoned veterans like Lee Konitz, Randy Weston, Tim Berne, and Henry Threadgill, while presenting talent that has emerged in the past few years, such as Jason Moran, Tomas Fujiwara, Tyshawn Sorey, Eric Revis, Ingrid Laubrock, Kris Davis, Mary Halvorson, and Ches Smith, offering short residences as well as commissioned works and thus expanding opportunities for collaboration, discovery, and refined creativity.
Though known primarily for inside music, the venue also presents a wide array of outside music. Recently I saw two extraordinary concerts in the same week, both of which I would have to admit were two of the best so far this year. The first was a trio lead by drummer/percussionist Ches Smith, with violist Matt Maneri and pianist Craig Taiborn—their recent CD, The Bell, was one of the best of 2016. The music ranged from minimal to maximal, shaken, shaking, and shook up, consisting of soft laments, painful agonizing moans, and fierce cathartic strength. There were chaotic structural changeups and mixed tempos, from marching band to battle cry, solemnity of ferocity and sudden velocity. Rhythmic. Arrhythmic. From excitement to frightening beauty and primal agony, Smith’s bowing caused his instruments to vibrate the room as Maneri shifted from microtonal grooves to Indian and Spanish tinges, and Taborn provided both long and short, interwoven, and often blurred lines. The set was mighty, yet not macho, with at times a precise and purposeful clumsiness. Smith announced: “We’ll play one more, which is appropriately titled ‘One More.’” Maneri growled. The audience laughed. He said, “Yeah, you got it. You got it.”
After Smith’s gig I headed to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, where I experienced another great set, this one from the Andrew Cyrille quartet, featuring Ben Street, Richard Teitelbaum (at times on piano, indeed a rarity), and Bill Frisell. Teitelbaum started off on computer, creating backbeats, bells, and all manner of gurgling sounds. Frisell came in single-noted, scattering vibrance throughout the room, followed by Cyrille’s impeccable waves of sound. Street’s sparseness added to what became a luxurious opening. The first piece was from a longer early recording Cyrille and Teitelbaum had made together for Silkheart records. This segued into a rendition of “Coltrane Time,” which Cyrille said he learned from Rashied Ali. It is one of the centerpieces for his recent ECM album.
The set continually created tension and release and remarkable cooperation. The tunes included a sweet, beautiful one by Frisell titled “Kaddish.” At times it sounded as if there were three different meters going on at once. Cyrille spoke a lot, describing the history of many of the pieces as well as his relationship to the other members in the band.
One tune was a duet between Cyrille and Frisell entitled “Bu,” which Cyrille had written for Art Blakey. Cyrille’s extended drum solo was exceptional and mature. Other pieces included Streets’s “Sanctuary” and a tune tilted “Hurky Jurky,” which certainly lived up to its name. The set ended with a mid-tempo, bouncy piece dedicated to Manfred Eischer, founder of ECM.
Both sets exhibited very different types of magic: unlimited freedom as well as comfortable discontinuity and uncomfortable continuity, all very purposeful.
A week later the Jazz Gallery presented an incredible trio consisting of Henry Threadgill, Vjay Iyer, and Daphnis Prieto. What made it shine extra bright was Threadgill in a pared-down group in which he was not exclusively the leader. As a result he stretched out more than usual. The other two did not fall into step with Henry’s language but maintained their own styles, voices, and compositions. Once the group coalesced, they flew to new heights.
The set was one woven-together hour, and titles were never announced. It began with Henry on flute and included some fine solos by Iyer and Prieto. Threadgill, one of the most distinct, powerful, and intricate voices, played alto exclusively for the next forty minutes, with very little breaks in his blowing.
Another club containing that heavy burden JAZZ in its name is the Jazz Standard—I’ve mentioned it before. Founded in 1997, the Standard also features old and new talent presenting music nightly, either for one night stands or one week runs. It serves great food from its parent restaurant, Smoke, but offers no pressure to eat or drink. It is mainly a venue for inside music and most who play there are some of the few left of the old guard. Weston again, who did a week for his ninety-first birthday, with Candido on board at 96, and folks like George Coleman, Charles McPherson, the Liberation Music Orchestra, Ralph Towner, and the Mingus Big Band and Orchestra’s long time residency.
Singer/songwriter and founder/editor of Culture Catch Dusty Wright has a new CD out on the PetRock label titled caterwauling toward the light. In the grand Americana tradition of dark love songs begun in the ’50s, Wright “pushe(s) on toward the light…,” (to) “weather the storm.” It is a no frills, down to earth, easy rocking production. No gimmicks, just honest music. Wright intones, “How do you measure a man?” I’d say by the pathos, joys and sorrows that pour out of his heart and into his songs “between the do’s and don’ts and the might-have-beens”.
American-born, long-time Paris resident, poet, performer, and blues singer Moe Seager’s extraordinary new book of verse, WE WANT EVERYTHING (Onslaught Press 2016), should be absorbed by everyone. Even his darkest images will bring you up. Wake you up. Make you think. It is full of music. In fact it might very well be music. “Jazz is / a way in to a way out… a man down and out…a spoon in tune…a riff that walks me home…a gas, a liquid… a family…a free country.” He gives us the truth of the times beyond the sad, saccharine world we live in. “I wish I could write poems / Vague, abstract, whims to present at wine & cheese parties…I am damaged goods trying to justify myself in misspelled words to a tune in B-minor…I wish I were a singer / a song says more than a poem will ever know.” “Witness those drowning in the empty vessels of themselves…perhaps it will rain tomorrow.” “The day James Brown died I lowered my head and bowed.” There is pathos, resolve, location, history, humanity, inhumanity, and questions: “How many jobless…homeless… homeruns… insults…lies… bullets… cops… love songs…blues songs…jazz riffs.”
Seager takes us with him wherever he travels and we should do the same with him. “I trek to the club…I see more than entertainment. More than art for art’s sake. I come looking, listening for consummate satisfaction. Jazz.”
“Sound and music should be approached with respect and humor. Humor and respect. That’s very important.” – Pauline Oliveros