Jazz died in 1959, and I can prove it (or Nicholas Payton can)

My good friend and bandmate John Venter just shared this with me.

On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore

Read it. Read it all.

It sums up a lot of the feeling that I have had, and shared, for a long time. Sure I love the sound of a good jazz band. But the real deal is that when, in conversation, I have compared it to a Society for Creative Anachronism event, or to Civil War reenactments,  Those statements bought me plenty of hairy eyeballs, but that is what I feel. As much as I love the music I could never throw myself into the act of learning jazz standards. Lord knows I have tried. I don’t have a problem with other people doing it, but I am not the man for the job. I want to act on my musical impulses, whether they are informed by jazz or not.

There have been many efforts to adjectivize the art form. The New Thing. Electric Jazz. Hard Bop. Smooth Jazz. Euro-Jazz. Afro-Jazz… For more than 60 years the focus has been on  “modern jazz”, and I think there is a case to be made that “modern jazz” is/was a label to keep the form from truly advancing, or was instantly an extinct idea. Maybe both. I still use “jazz” and “free jazz” when tagging my music when I publish on sites like Bandcamp. I use the label cautiously, but I use it because it is a known concept and can be helpful for listeners. But when you listen to one of my tracks, brother, it ain’t jazz, free or otherwise. I am informed by Jazz, and educated by jazz. But the music is hopefully a music of the present.

My exposure to Jazz goes back to infancy, if not the womb, and much of that early exposure was crossover jazz, like Bird with Strings, or Jamal at the Penthouse. Name players in front of a string section. It was a lot safer for suburban whites to consume than something like Monk or Art Tatum. When I started to check out “jazz” I immediately gravitated to the harder-edged, bluesy, emotional music of the early 60’s. The Hard Bop scene, especially Mingus and his circle of players and composers, has been a huge influence on me. Much of that was recorded from 1960 onward, and that is at least an anecdotal support for Payton’s premise. These musicians were taking jazz forward by bringing it back to the roots of blues. Moving the forms away from the conceit of advanced european harmonic concepts (i.e. “birth of the cool”) and toward the I-IV-V, the funky cousin of the ii-V-I. This pushed open the doors for modal approaches, and other less restrictive platforms on which to improvise. Jazz was dead, but there was no stomach for a new genre or label. They would be marketed as jazz, then as now as forever.

There is an even darker side to that exposure. The more I learned about Charles Mingus, and how he was “angry” and “volcanic”… the more I was convinced that the roots of his mania were planted in being shut out of being a classical cellist as a youth. He could have been one of the greats in American classical music. Why wasn’t he? There was no place for a black classical cellist in 1940’s Los Angeles (and there was no other venue for cello, truly). He switched to bass, and focused on Jazz, because it was accepted. While he had an amazing career full of powerful music, I can’t help thinking that his stature as a “third stream” artist is a way to put a happy face on the racism that pushed him into “jazz”. Jazz may have been dead much earlier than 1959. It could have been dead in 1941 if you want to push the concept.

The argument about what, and who, is “jazz” stretches into the Jazz-purity quest of Wynton Marsalis, and the sneering of Stanley Crouch. They want the body kept alive by any means necessary. They have the right, and they have the platform, and even the funding, to pursue that goal. But the story as seen in an objective light might accurately be that they were performing CPR on a corpse. Crouch lambasting Miles for not making more Kind of Blue is an apex example. Miles was not an observer, he was a participant, and had been present at the funeral. He knew it was dead. Crouch was looking to preserve his domain at the expense of an artist. “Sell Out”, he hissed.

The deal is that the 20th century is chock full of artists who have tried to use jazz as a launchpad and not a crashpad, and they have been routinely marginalized and misunderstood on purpose. Monk. Ornette. Sun Ra. Cecil. Pharaoh,  Roland. They were all held up to the light of Pops, or the Hawk, or even Bird (who was punk to the core, trying to blast jazz free by brute force). They were never allowed to occupy the next plateau, the next “jazz”. They were tethered to a pyre no less real than Jean D’Arc. And all the while jazz has been dead.

Name the most successful “jazz” artist today. Where can you hear their music? Where can you see them play? Is it truly the fault of an entire society that jazz has lost its relevance? Can it be, in an age where music and information are more available than ever, that this American art form from the cusp of the 20th century could be so roundly ignored and unprofitable? Or is it like trying to sell crystal radios to the iPhone generation? An anachronism, as beautiful as a tintype and about as relevant.

Enjoy jazz. It isn’t going away. I spent some time digging Angelo Debarre playing gypsy jazz in his hard-hitting and direct style just last night. It was beautiful. It still is today. It still will be forever. But it isn’t new. It is a photo of a corpse. A beautiful, romantic, hard-won, photo of a corpse.

A little venting about a little movie

I know where and when I was hit broadside by the realization that I was a bass player. I was taking bass guitar lessons at Creative Music in Wethersfield, CT. It was a big deal for me. Bass was the only instrument that I enjoyed playing. I had washed out of playing both guitar and drums, but it was pointed out to me that I played guitar like a bass. After taking some local lessons with a guitar player/teacher I got a chance to take a block of lessons at Creative, which was where you wanted to study if you were into jazz, and especially electric jazz. I had been playing a bad P-Bass copy for a year or so, and had a loaner double bass from the school system. Creative was a great shop with great teachers, but next-door was Integrity ‘n Music, an amazing record shop. It was there, waiting for my lesson slot, that I saw the self-titled Jaco Pastorius album. I knew his name because he was on the credits for my favorite Weather Report album “Black Market”. That album blew the top of my head off.

Within a month I had ripped the frets out of my bass, filled the slots with glue (aided by the use of a spotlight-cum-heatlamp), and I have been playing fretless bass ever since. That was about 1979 and was as close to my predecessor’s “saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan” apocrypha as I will ever get. I had a similar experience with Mingus’ music but I had neither the skill or the patience to do more than listen to those compositions. But Jaco, there was a cat you could get down with. I still have not a single Jaco-like lick in my bag. I never learned PoT, I never developed a harmonics workout… but I knew that you could play fretless bass and make it somehow your own.

Lately there is news afoot that bassist Robert Trujillo is producing a biographical film about the life of Jaco Pastorius. I am totally behind that concept. Recent movies like Standing in the Shadows of Motown have been heavily influential on both me and the music world at large. I just saw the HBO film about James Brown, Mr. Dynamite, and it was as good a 2-hour course in funkology as you will find. If a Jaco movie does nearly as well it would be a huge success. Jaco is undeniably a one-man genre and deserves this kind of recognition in spades.

My issue is not with the movie, but with Robert Trujillo’s place in the pantheon of bassists. He has been remarkably successful as a musician. He has played with the top names in heavy rock, and is immediately identifiable by look of not by sound. But he was at the center of one of the great scandals of modern rock history, and I can’t help thinking that it damages the concept of a homage to Jaco.

In 2002 Trujillo was the bassist for Ozzy Osbourne, and the event was the 20th anniversary of the Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman albums that put Ozzy back on the map after leaving Black Sabbath and then not having much to say. Ozzy was never a songwriter. He may have had a few lyrics to his name but he was a rock frontman first and forever. While the Sabs were inventing the power-ballad with Ian Gillian as vocalist (Born Again, underrated jewel), Ozzy was looking for a new band. What he had was guitar prodigy Randy Rhoads, and bassist Bob Daisley who were working on writing songs and finding a drummer. They found Lee Kerslake, a journeyman who fit like a glove.  The albums they produced are still staples of rock-radio airplay. Randy Rhoads became a guitar superstar. Ozzy was back with albums that were successful beyond his wildest dreams. You would think that he would have been kissing Bob Daisley’s feet…

No. When the 20th anniversary of those albums came out, Ozzy, with his wife Sharon holding the whip, decided to photoshop Bob Daisley and Lee Kerslake out of the picture in both artistic and financial terms. Robert Trujillo along with drummer Mike Bordin recorded new bass and drum parts for both albums, effectively eliminating the contribution of Daisley and Kerslake, and with Randy Rhoads dead, left all the credit and royalties to Ozzy/Sharon. Unsurprisingly the oblivious Ozzy can’t even decide if he knew about the decision. Sharon Arden Osbourne thinks she was at the Blizzard recording sessions, when she wasn’t, and denies making the decision to do this while everyone else says it was her idea/mandate. Her father was rock promoter/magnate Don Arden, so you can be forgiven for thinking that she has a feel for the darker regions of the music business.

I am not a huge fan of that genre, and have never been a big fan of Ozzy, but I feel like I know a good rhythm section when I hear one. Those albums had the power and swing to match heads with any Iron Maiden track or any Van Halen, Black Sabbath, etc… That band had a great sound. It was due to some excellent songwriting and excellent execution by the band. For Trujillo to have knowingly taken part in shanking a fellow bassist is, to me, unforgivable. In what should have been a victory lap for the songwriter behind two of the biggest selling rock albums of all time, it was a deeply shameful episode in a business full of shameful episodes.

SO while I think a Jaco movie is a great idea and hope for the best, I can’t help feeling that the project is tainted by this backstory. I have had feedback that Trujillo was just doing his job, just earning a paycheck, just a sideman, just, just, just… But he had a decision to make. He took the paycheck at the expense of the original artist. It makes me queasy just typing that. I hope the project succeeds, but while Trujillo is out looking for crowdfunding dollars to float the project, he won’t be getting penny-one from me. I should be breaking my wrist getting my wallet out of my pocket to help fund this, in the same way that I have for other projects ranging from the recent Wrecking Crew movie to a time many years ago when I contributed to a fund for Rocco Prestia’s health care (a situation that is re-appearing after many years, and I am sure I will help again). But I am reluctant, actually refusing, to support the producer of a project I would otherwise be all-in for, and it is not a good feeling. Jaco deserves the recognition, but I still think he deserves better than this.

Fuchsprellen Colog-nuh

A quick update on the adventures of Fuchsprellen. If this band is wrong I don’t wanna be right…

We secured a date at Cafe Nine in New Haven, on very short notice, and played a double bill with Light Upon Blight on November 9. LUB is Jeff Cedrone’s project, and I have been playing bass along with Peter Riccio on drums. Normally we would have Neil McCarthy on alto sax but he couldn’t make it for this gig. This means that the Fuchsprellen rhythm section opened as a trio under Jeff’s direction, then we switch back to Fuchsprellen mode with the Fuchsprellen Horns. This could go horribly wrong, but so far it has not. Jeff’s concept with LUB is heavier, darker, and more brutal than 90% of anything Fuchsprellen does. The result is improvised “doom jazz” in power trio format.

Note: this is an expanded version of the “Mother’s Day Debacle” show where LUB and Fuchsprellen played trio sets in the same way: LUB trio, followed by Fuchsprellen trio. Just as a musician can train for sight reading, or chord chart reading, or soloing over set forms, there is a strong New Haven area improvisational tradition that has New Haven Improvisor’s Collective at its core. All of the musicians I have been involved with through NHIC have improvisation backgrounds and ambitions, but the formalized work done at NHIC has helped with both vocabulary/skill building as well as providing context for musicians to launch their own projects, like LUB, and Fuchsprellen, among many. But I Digress…

We had a trio of reeds for the Fuchsprellen set: John Venter on tenor sax, Richard Brown on Alto, and Steve Chillemi on bass clarinet. The rhythm section is there to provide support for the horns, and keep them flying for the entirety of the set. One thing is for sure, these guys are ready to rock from the downbeat. The hardest thing we face is giving the rhythm section a chance to settle in before the horns get down to bid-nezzzzz. We did a great job at finding balance at this gig (audio to come, real soon now, and maybe video too).

Huge thanks to Michelle and the good folks at Cafe Nine, and all the people who turned out for the gig. We had an excellent crowd for a Sunday , and I expect that we will be back at the Nine over the winter. Hooo-Yeahhhhh!!!!

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Light Upon Blight – photo by Hank Hoffman

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The Fuchsprellen Horns – photo by Hank Hoffman

Can Politics ever really reach Bottom?

As the results trickle in from Connecticut’s 2014 midterm election I can’t help but wonder if the process can get any worse. It was impossible to find substantive discussion on either side. Republican candidate Tom Foley apparently spent the past four years in cryogenic suspension because he was less informed about every issue that he was when he ran four years ago. He either refused to answer questions about actual state policies, or admitted ignorance but made references to his problem solving skills, and gave no example of them but trust him they are impressive. Incumbent Democrat Dannel Malloy fell into a trap of taking the bait on nonsense issues. His record might not be the kind of thing that voters are thrilled about (sheparding a state back from a global economic meltdown without making things worse) but it is his record. His approach has worked, but it required state tax increases and a slower pace of deficit reduction in exchange for shielding the state’s 169 towns and cities from funding cuts. Since all property taxes are assessed locally this means that the citizens of Connecticut were spared mil rate increases that impact the poor and working poor especially hard.

Asleep yet? I wouldn’t be surprised. Malloy has stayed true to his “good government” blue collar roots. In return he has been largely tuned out by the electorate.

Foley had one pitch: “that stuff you don’t like, I wouldn’t have done that”. See. Easy to digest. No policy angle. You can go on with your day unencumbered by facts, figures, data, policy details, or anything else that can vaguely be pulled under the heading of “reality”. His track record is either sketchy, hazy, or negative. Six months heading the Provisional Authority in Iraq, where U.S. lucre was hauled away by the wheelbarrow load by… well, nobody knows who. But billions of dollars were unaccounted for. This was also over a decade ago, and the entire venture was largely undocumented. And he is a corporate guy. A business guy. All we really know about his corporate ventures is that he made millions upon millions of dollars and played hardball with labor.

But they had debates.That should have proved edutaining! Errrrr, No. The debates were like mud wrestling without the charm, and the voters found out nothing the really needed to know to make an informed decision. Nobody seemed to care. They were too busy staking out some imaginary high ground. There is no high ground. There is only swamp land.

So you have a showdown between a sitting Governor who was not that able to frame his policies in a way that appeals to voters, and a guy who has never held any elected office and who couldn’t remember his running mate’s name with three weeks to go before election day. Surprised that the election will be a nail-biter?

Good Night. Good Luck. Good Grief.

RIP ISO?

Digital cameras have become ubiquitous, to the point where it is almost impossible to be somewhere out of reach of someone’s camera. It has reached the point where Panasonic has announced a cellular phone with a 1″ sensor camera (actually, a camera with a GSM chipset), replete with Zeiss optics. Whether that appeals to you or not it is a sign of the widespread commodification of technology that was only available in specialized camera gear just a few years ago.

With that backdrop it has become truly rare to see an advance that changes your mind about where the technology will be in two years from now. For me, that happened when I watched this video:

Nice video, yes. But it was shot on a Sony A7s mirrorless camera, with a full moon as its only light source. Yes, f/1.4 optics and dizzying ISO numbers are employed. The author states that the bulk of the video, apart from the opening two scenes were shot at 1/30th, f/1.4, ISO 12,800 (I’m assuming that 1/30th is based on 30fps video). That is “bonkers” as we say in my neck of the woods.

Sony release their own video showing a dawn campfire scene, with similar dropping of jaws:

“Bonkers” aside, it points to a benchmark for the next generation of sensors that will be in cameras like my Oly E-M10, and not just in a $2500 USD Sony body. Not that $2500 is astronomical money. You would spend much more on the pro offerings from Nikon or Canon, and the good folks at Leica will gladly take 8,000 Tricky Dick Fun Bucks in exchange for a bare M8 body. None of those cameras will do what the A7s does in this video. The implications of this kind of high-ISO performance: Setting Auto ISO with an upper limit of 12,800 and actually using it, not paying a brutal price in terms of noise and digital “grain”, and not needing a shutter speed that would make Edward Weston weak in the knees… That is where this video points.

And as nerdly as that idea is, it has real implications for those of us who shoot primarily in available light. I might shoot with flash once a year. Maybe not even once a year. So rarely, in fact, that I started practicing with a flash for no reason other than I didn’t want to completely forget how to use one. It has implications for me personally as I shake down my E-M10 and compare images to both the geyser of images on the internet taken with similar mirrorless systems, and my archive of images taken with my Nikon D300.

Every camera system is a web of trade-offs. Your parameters are physical size, resolution, focus speed, max shutter speed, low light performance and other dynamic range considerations, firmware/processing/raw specs, and overall ergonomics. I’m sure there are more but those are the big ones that come to mind. Accessory issues like lens selection, flash system, compatibility with legacy lenses… those also play a part. But if you shoot in low light and want to be able to use normal shutter speeds without suffering with noisy images, then you really care about dynamic range and noise, and as long as you get a few good lenses you can call it a day.

So there it is. Sony, the company known for horrible user interfaces, worse software, and even worse tech choices (minidisc, beta-max…) kicks sand in the face of the cool kids over at Nikon, Canon, and Leica. Sure, those guys all use some of Sony’s sensors. But they don’t have this kind of performance. I give them  a huge amount of credit, maybe enough to put their camera on my wish list (I still have PTSD from some earlier Sony purchases).

How big is Micro-Four-Thirds?

I began to share my experiences with my Olympus OM-D E-M10 in two previous posts. The transitions from my Nikon APS-C gear has been a mixed bag. Technically it has been fairly easy. Artistically it has been more challenging.

My expectation was that the steepest part of the learning curve would be adapting my Nikon routine to a new system. And sure, the Olympus menu system is different, and in some ways more complicated/arcane. That turned out to be  a one time thing. How often do you really rework your everyday settings? For me, not often. I now know the Olympus menus well enough to get what I need most of the time. I have been thrown off a few times but once you remember that all the time/bulb/comp modes are in the manual shutter settings it solves most of those problems too.

The real joyride has been artistic, with a side of camera capability. The photos from the Olympus have a different look. The exposure curve is different. It does not demand a maniacal devotion to underexposure the way the Nikon does. I don’t think I ever intentionally used a positive exposure compensation on the Nikon. That would be suicide in anything other than deep overcast conditions. You would be asking for a world of blown highlights.

Conversely the Olympus seems to have broader latitude, and a more accurate matrix metering system. There is a caveat: areas of high tone seem to block up without being clipped. If I am shooting an area of white, like clouds or sea foam, the image will lose detail in that bright zone.

the SABINO, Mystic, Connecticut

Here is a photo of the steamboat Sabino. The image is not overexposed, but the chine of the hull is lacking detail. It doesn’t look awful, but it does lack depth. This would not have happened with my D300.

On the other hand, I took a few images at an indoor farm market, under mixed lighting, where I was not expecting much and the result is:

Wild Mushrooms, Matane Public Market

Beautifully saturated colors and crisp detail, without having to resort to much in the way of post-processing. That is the kind of image that has kept my D300 in the bag.

The difference between my two systems reminds me of the differences between color print films, or color transparency films. You liked Kodak, or Fuji. You probably did not like both. With DSLR you probably fall in with Nikon or Canon. I think of Nikon as Kodak and Canon as Fuji. You get more pop and saturation out of the Canon. You get a warmer, natural image out of the Nikon. If that is the case, then the Olympus is leaning more toward Canon. The images out of the camera look amazing. Sure, the M43 systems give up some resolution, and the images seem a little noisier. But the combination of the glass, sensor and firmware combines to generate some extremely pleasing images.

Speaking of glass, I sprung for a Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens and it is very nice. Sure, the automatic focus can be glacial, and the manual focus control feels like a greasy zoom control. However, the images are very good, very flat (in terms of distortion) and the focus speed only becomes an issue in low light. In combination with the OM-D it is a lot like shooting with my old Oly 35SP rangefinder: light, fast, crisp, and easy. What it leaves me wanting is a real old-school manual focus control, and having the aperture on the lens barrel would be cool too. At least I know what I want out of my next fast prime.

Fuchsprellen makes a small jump sideways

One of the things I push for in Fuchsprellen is to avoid having too much predictability. I want to be surprised by what the band members play, and be surprised by what I play. What started out as a few duo gigs with Peter Riccio morphed into a four-piece ensemble with Steve Chillemi and Richard Brown. That gave the band two multi-instrumentalists in front of a flexible rhythm section. For the August 28, 2014 gig I made a few changes. Steve and Richard were only playing reeds, we added John Venter on tenor sax, and Jeff Cedrone joined us on guitar and synth. I played an acoustic bass guitar, which sounds very similar to a double bass. Not identical, but similar.

These musicians have all taken part in some of the NHIC workshops (Richard, maybe not), and that has proven to be a very good place to build a foundation as an improvising musician. I spent over five years playing in NHIC workshops and ensembles, and have played in many NHIC “satellite” bands where the members can be traced back to NHIC projects. While the musicians are all very individualistic they have learned a type of common language. This can not be overstated: it makes a huge difference in the final product. You don’t need to know how to read, but you must be able to listen and play at the same time.

Fuchsprellen at Best Video, Hamden, CT

Fuchsprellen at Best Video, Hamden, CT

Without much in the way of warning, this performance turned into a freewheeling sextet with a pulsing Mingus-style backbone. Everyone jumped right onboard and we put together a propulsive performance.

After the gig I was doing my usual post-mortem and it was apparent that as good as the gig was, it was a proof of concept. We added another dimension to the Fuchsprellen palette. I wish I had been better prepared for an evening playing bass, but I know that wasn’t possible. I have not played a complete gig on bass in a while, and the best way to get back into shape is to jump into the pool and swim.

I can see this format progressing over the next few dates. It might even clear the bar for the “Fuchsprellen Rehearsal Rule”, aka the Prime Directive: If you call a rehearsal, it has to be for one hell of a good reason. I think we could use a rehearsal session to nail down a few themes, and lend a smidgen of organization to the proceedings. Wish us luck.

While you do that, here is a link to the second set from that show. The full set will be released soon, and the audio should be better. Until then, enjoy:

Eric Dolphy Was Punk Rock

  • Peter Riccio – drums
  • Jeff Cedrone – guitar, synth
  • Steve Chillemi – alto sax, bass clarinet
  • Richard Brown – alto sax
  • John Venter – tenor sax
  • Pete Brunelli – acoustic bass guitar, electronics