Sunday, March 30, 2014

Is there a problem with jazz?

Nowadays there seems to be a lot of criticism directed towards jazz. "Jazz is dying" or "There is no audience left for the music" seem to be common critiques toward jazz.

And even jazz musician Branford Marsalis wrote an article called "The Problem with Jazz" for the Seattle News in 2011:

Is there a problem with jazz?

The lack of melody in jazz:
One thing that struck me about this article was that Branford talked a lot about the importance of melody:
"In jazz we spend a lot of time talking about harmony. Harmonic music tends to be very insular. It tends to be [like] you're in the private club with a secret handshake." 
And yes, a lot of jazz seems to be very complex, and even mathematical. But, in my perspective, there are so many artists devoted to melody, and devoted to writing music for today's audience.

The first example of this I thought of was "James Farm" featuring Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Matt Penman, and Eric Harland. I had the amazing opportunity to see them perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2011. This group has a very modern sound, but also has such a catchy rhythmic drive. Here's "1981" off of the album "James Farm":

I also thought about seeing The Bad Plus a few of weeks ago at Scullers in Boston with some of my friends:

This jazz trio combines jazz elements with rock and pop elements. They take songs from bands like Nirvana, Black Sabbath, as well as by Ornette Coleman and arrange them for their group sound. They also play a lot of originals. Here's The Bad Plus's version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit":

Selfishness in jazz: 
Branford Marsalis also talked a lot about the self fulfilling needs of some jazz musicians:
"Everything you read about jazz is: "Is it new? Is it innovative?" I mean, man, there's 12 notes. What's going to be new? You honestly think you're going to play something that hasn't been played already?" 
And, yes some jazz musicians are obsessed with being new, new, new. Yet, there are plenty of jazz musicians dedicated to connecting with their audience and making the concert experience entertaining.

One person I particularly thought of is Anat Cohen, who is a clarinetist and saxophonist originally from Isreal. Here is a video of her playing at the 2012 Newport Jazz Festival (I actually got to sit front row to see this act and was laughing and dancing the whole time!) I love how the clarinets trade solos, and engage with the entire group while they play. Their solos are based off of melodic lines that made the audience really have an enjoyable time:

The limited audience: 
Branford Marsalis talked about how limited the current jazz audience is:
"So much of jazz, it doesn't even have an audience other than the music students or the jazz musicians themselves, and they're completely in love with virtuosic aspects of the music, so everything is about how fast a guy plays. It's not about the musical content and whether the music is emotionally moving or has passion."
And yes, a there are jazz musicians that seem to play a short melody to then only go off into a long, disconnected solo. Yet, there are still many jazz musicians that care about connecting to the audience and their own band.

One person committed to the modern audience is Esperanza Spalding. She was the first jazz musician to win best new artist at the Grammys (she won over Justin Bieber in 2011). She plays with top jazz musicians, (Like Joe Lovano in the band US Five), and also has a prominent solo career playing both electric and acoustic bass and singing original songs and covers. I was excited to see her perform songs from her album "Radio Music Society" at the 2013 Newport Jazz Festival. Here's a video of her playing:

Another person that I think embodies the modern audience is Robert Glasper. I previously wrote a blog called "Hip Hop in Jazz" about him, and I really do think his music is accessible for not only jazz fans, but people that like R&B and hip hop. Here's his take of the jazz standard "Afro Blue" from his Grammy winning album "Black Radio": 

Final Thoughts: 
Even though some people may argue that jazz has many problems connecting to people nowadays, I think that there are still a multitude of musicians devoted to today's modern audience, presenting old and new material in a fresh way.

When I go to concerts I have been seeing a lot of people my age. And I think the fact that younger people are going out to hear music in large numbers shows that the music is actually thriving.

And I'm not saying that Branford Marsalis's opinion is wrong, I'm just saying that it's pessimistic when there are so many wonderful people playing and supporting this music.

Leave a comment below saying some current jazz artists that you connect with!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Peaceful Jazz Songs

I like listening to a lot of energetic music- music that is positive, upbeat, and rhythmic. Yet, at the same time I really love peaceful, calming music. Whenever I want to relax and just want peace I oftentimes turn to jazz or classical music.

Here's a list of some jazz songs that help me find peace:

Peaceful Jazz Songs
1. "Peace Piece" Bill Evans
This song is from Bill Evans's album "Everybody Digs Bill Evans". The piece is very simple harmonically, and repeats the same chords as a sort of ostinato. By doing this, the piece becomes very meditational. Evans plays with a spectrum of notes over these chords, some that clash and create tension, and some that blend well and create peace. It is said that even though Evans received many requests to play this song live, he would not play it since he believed the song's magic was in that exact moment.

3. "Flamenco Sketches" Miles Davis
This song is from Miles Davis's album "Kind of Blue", the best selling jazz record of all time. This piece actually starts off with the same chord progression as "Peace Piece" by Bill Evans. This song has no defined melody, but rather chords that the musicians solo over using different modes. I love the interaction between all the musicians. Cannonball Adderley plays so sweetly over this song, and his ideas seem to flow lucidly.

3. "Peace" Horace Silver
This song is from Horace Silver's album "Blowin' the Blues Away". The horn section melds together very nicely, and creates a sort of arc for the entire song. Horace's chords behind them are very lush and thoughtful, they seem to be played at the perfect moments. Horace Silver's solo is pretty energetic, like his normal style of playing, which brings contrast to the song.

4. "East of the Sun" Paul Desmond
I love Paul Desmond for his subtle melodic ideas. Everything he plays builds off everything else. He has a very sweet, light tone and Desmond once described his tone as him trying to sound like a "dry martini". He is from the "cool school" of jazz and is most known for his work with the pianist Dave Brubeck.

5. "Autumn in New York" Billie Holiday 
Billie Holiday is one of the great jazz vocalists. She has a gentle swing, and she emphasizes the meaning behind every lyric. She was known to take standard songs and make them her own by her interpretation. Even though "Autumn in New York" is not her own song, the way she emotes the lyrics in her own personal way makes it divinely Billie Holiday. 

Final Thoughts: 
Peace is a difficult thing to come by, but music can help bring you to a state of tranquility. And finding that state of tranquility makes the rest of your day much more satisfying.

Comment below with a jazz song that brings you peace! 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Concert Experience- Vijay Iyer and PoemJazz

This past Friday I went to Sanders Theater at Harvard to watch The Vijay Iyer Trio with special guest Robert Pinsky/ PoemJazz.

Vijay Iyer is an acclaimed pianist and composer. He became a professor of music at Harvard University early this year. Iyer constantly wins critic polls in magazines like "Downbeat" and "Jazztimes" and was awarded a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship. He has been influenced by the greats of jazz piano, including Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor, among others. He has collaborated with many jazz greats, leads an acclaimed trio, and is an acclaimed solo pianist. 

Here's a recording of his trio playing "Human Nature": 

A Concert Experience- Vijay Iyer and PoemJazz

I have to say, I had no clue what to expect from this concert. I had heard a lot about Vijay Iyer- he has some great solo piano albums. Yet, I didn't know what "PoemJazz" was. 

So I arrived at Sanders Theater, and I have to say it is a very beautiful place. I have been to Sanders for different classical concerts, and once I went there to see a jazz concert- and saw Roy Haynes and Benny Golson! 

After finding seats, Vijay came out with Robert Pinsky. On the program, I learned that Pinsky has been the United States Poet Laureate for three terms. He has published numerous poems, including Selected Poems (2011) as his most recent volume of poetry. Pinsky has lectured at Princeton, and founded the "Favorite Poem Project (FPP)" to share poems from across America. Pinsky believes that poetry has a strong presence in American culture, and PoemJazz is his most recent project that showcases the reading and performance of poems along with variety of jazz improvisation. 

The first poem was entitled "Horn", and told the story of Charlie Parker, a jazz musician. I actually really liked PoemJazz. It reminded me a lot of contemporary classical music, where a composer writes for instruments and a narrator, and the narrator tells a story with musical accompaniment. It was amazing to think that Iyer was improvising everything underneath the poem! 

I do like poetry, but sometimes I find it very boring. Yet, with the improvisation behind it, it seemed very fresh. Pinsky's love of poetry was apparent in his delivery of the words- there was so much energy exuding from him. Even though it is the same poem, the mood of the improvisation shifts the way he inflects the words. Sometimes based on Iyer's improvisation, Pinsky would add a longer pause, or give a harsher pronunciation to a word. Also, Pinsky's shape of a phrase would allow Iyer to compliment him with different rhythmic hits or lush chords. There was a natural call and response between the two that made the poetry come alive. 

Here's a video of Pinsky's PoemJazz: 

After a few poems, Pinsky left and Iyer's trio entered the stage. Iyer's trio consists of him on piano, Stephen Crump on bass, and Marcus GIlmore on drums (who I learned is the grandson of jazz legend Roy Haynes!). The trio played with a lot of freedom, and it seemed like everyone's primary focus with listening and complimenting each other. I did not like this portion of the concert as much, because I really liked the poetry half, but I did like the trio's sound. 

Vijay played "Blood Count" by Billy Stayhorn as a solo piece, and it was absolutely gorgeous. I love that piece, and the way he re-imagined it was beautiful. Near the end, Pinsky came out for one last poem, with the trio backing him. 

Final Thoughts: 
I really liked the idea of poetry with improvised music behind it. It made both very fresh and new. It was inspiring to hear such inventive poetry, at the same time as hearing inventive music. It was a completely new experience for me! 

Comment below with a concert experience you enjoyed lately! 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

More Favorite Jazz Albums- Jazz Saxophone

On a previous post of my top five favorite jazz albums, I neglected quite a few of my favorite jazz albums. I love so many, so these lists are just going to be albums I really love at the moment.

Here's some more of my favorite albums for you guys to check out. These five are some of my favorite jazz saxophone albums:

More Favorite Jazz Albums
Jazz Saxophone

1. Hank Mobley "Soul Station" 
Hank Mobley was a hard bop saxophonist. I love his playing for its subtlety and melodic ideas. He has an amazing soulful tone. When he improvises there is a definite logical order, and he interacts with the rhythm section a lot by repeating ideas so the rhythm section can catch on and respond to him. I especially love this album because of the personnel: Hank Mobley on tenor saxophone, Wynton Kelley on piano, Art Blakey on drums, and Paul Chambers on bass. Everyone in the band has a lot to say, and they all communicate well.

2. Lee Konitz "Live at the Half Note" 
I never really listened to Lee Konitz until last summer when every week I made a playlist of a jazz artist that I didn't know much about, and listened to them for a couple hours a day. Lee Konitz was the first musician I did this for, and I discovered how much I love his playing. Lee Konitz is known for being part of the "cool school" of jazz, and also for his work with pianist Lennie Tristano. This particular album has Lee Konitz on alto saxophone, Bill Evans on piano, Warne Marsh on tenor saxophone, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Paul Motion on drums. I love Lee Konitz for his lovely tone and melodic, rhythmic solo ideas.

3. Dexter Gordon "Ballads" 
This albums is one of the most beautiful albums I have ever listened to. This albums is a set of standard ballads, yet Dexter Gordon brings so much life to each song. His tone is big, and vocal-like. It is said that once Gordon stopped playing a song at a performance and apologized to the audience because he forgot the lyrics- which shows how much he genuinely cares about emoting the intention of the song, What I enjoy about this album is that when he improvises over the ballads, there is so much care and love for each note.

4. Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane "Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall" 
Lately all I want to listen to is Thelonious Monk. I love Monk's compositions, and his very individual style of playing. Monk's songs are very simple, and repetitive, but also very edgy. I love this particular album because Coltrane and Monk have such a unique partnership. Coltrane flies when he improvises on this album. Monk has many melodic ideas, and plays with such rhythmic intensity. A lot of the time he keeps on repeating his ideas, and sometimes he purposely clashes with the harmony or the set rhythm just to emphasize an idea.

5. Sonny Rollins "The Bridge" 
In 1959, Sonny Rollins took a three year hiatus from performing in order to hone in on  his playing. He would practice up to sixteen hours a day on the Williamsburg Bridge all alone. After this time of seclusion, Rollins came out better than ever, and made this album. I also really like Jim Hall on guitar on this album- he has a very clean sound. My favorite song on this album is "Without a Song", and I have listened to it so many times I can sing Rollins's entire solo. Rollins has such melodic ideas, a clear sense of time, and a beautiful tone- I just love listening to him!  

Final Thoughts: 
There are so many saxophonists that have influenced jazz music. The greats have such an individual voice, so it's fun for me to listen to each of them. It's also fun for me to find biographical information on jazz musicians, and try to see how their lives and personality affected their style of playing.

Leave a comment below saying your favorite jazz saxophone album!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Rediscovering Jazz Artists

I like listening to a lot of albums. But sometimes, I like listening to a genre radio- like the jazz genre radio on Spotify. This allows me to hear songs at random that I may not listen to instinctively, and gets me exposed to new artists and albums that I haven't listened to a lot or haven't heard of.

So this past week I was listening to the jazz radio on Spotify, and I heard "Ain't Misbevin" by Fats Waller. I have listened to this song before, but I haven't listened to a lot of Fats Waller. After listening to this song, I went home and listened to a lot of his recordings. So I guess this week I really "rediscovered" Fats Waller, even though he was a jazz stride pianist from 1904-1943!

Rediscovering Jazz Artists 

Fats Waller "Ain't Misbehavin" 
I like Fats Waller's playing because it is very pretty, but also very comedic. Whenever he sings he really tries to be a show person, and make people laugh. I like this song because when I listen to it, it is very easy to sing along to, and it makes me smile because it is so laid back and happy. 

This particular video is from the 1943 movie "Stormy Weather": 

Fats Waller "Honeysuckle Rose" 
One reason I'm very happy about "rediscovering" Fats Waller is his solo piano playing. He plays stride piano, which was a style of early jazz piano from New York in the 20s and 30s. This song is another original composition of his. "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Ain't Misbehavin" are two of Fats Waller's most famous songs. 

Here is Fats Waller playing solo piano: 

Fats Waller "I'm Gonna Sit Down and Write Myself a Letter" 
Along with rediscovering Fats Waller- I discovered a lot of "new" jazz songs that I have never listened to. One of these is "I'm Gonna Sit Down and Write Myself a Letter". This song is very pretty, and Fats Waller's singing seems very honest and from the heart. I also like the extra instrumentation, like the trumpet and the clarinet in this version. 

Here's Fats Waller's version of the song: 

More Information: 
Here are a couple of websites for you guys to learn some biographical information about Fats Waller and stride piano: 

1. This website gives some biographical information, as well as a discography list: 

2. This website has a lot of information about Fats Waller, with a lot of pictures from his life: 

3. Here's an NPR article about stride piano (it also talks about other noteworthy stride pianists from Fats Waller's time): 

Final Thoughts: 
When I discover or rediscover a jazz artist, I like to go and listen to a lot of their music. I also like to look up their biography, and learn about the style of music they played and the time period they played in. I think this helps me understand the music more and learn about the many different styles of jazz. Then I can go and listen to other musicians from the time period and style. 
Leave a comment below saying any jazz artists that you have discovered or rediscovered lately!