For years, I wrote the Jazz Today column at PopMatters, looking at trends and ideas from the community and culture of creative, improvised music. That music, uncomfortably called “jazz” for almost 100 years, doesn’t have any particular boundaries, as the musicians themselves have been saying, well, forever. I still use the word as a kind of shorthand, trying to explain that the music I am writing about emerges from the realm of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and their cousins. Notated or improvised, connected to the blues and music from all over the world, whether it be Western classical music or ragas from South Asia.
In this new monthly column, I will try to avoid both the “J word” and its orthodoxies. But I acknowledge that there will still be boundaries in my writing only because the work to break them (and vanquish my limitations) is ongoing. I still plan to contribute “long-form” reviews, essays, and interviews to this space, but in JazzMatters, I will explain:
- What I’ve been listening to as it reflects news in creative music: In My Ear
- Quick takes on some prominent new recordings – Fresh Wax
- A Can’t Miss of the month
IN MY EAR
Cornet for Your Heart: Ron Miles 1963-2022, Laughing Barrel (2003)
The sound of this gorgeous modern cornet player was nearly always beautiful, mellow, and thoughtful. If you first heard him playing in one of Bill Frisell‘s groups like I did, you might not have realized what a brilliant composer and leader he was. However, in recent years, he has made a set of hugely lauded recordings that have elevated his fame. I Am a Man (2017) and his 2020 Blue Note debut Rainbow Sign featured Frisell, pianist Jason Moran, drummer Brian Blade, and bassist Thomas Morgan, a band more than happy to travel to Ron Miles‘ home base in Denver to encounter his lyrical, episodic compositions. Both are extraordinary.
When I heard the news that Miles had passed at the age of 58 (very young, says this 61-year-old critic), I ran to an older recording with Brandon Ross on guitar, Rudy Royston’s drums, and bassist Anthony Cox: Laughing Barrel. Like so much of Miles’s work, it is exquisitely lyrical but willing to venture into areas of dissonance or abstraction. Check out “Jesus Loves Me”, which gives everyone a solo and is not afraid to open up into a collective improvisation at a shifting tempo. It is, I suppose, a “free” moment (if that word still means anything in improvised music). Still, I think it mainly serves to make us realize that the more structured part of the performance (that’s the say, the part that sounds like older, more harmonically, and rhythmically structured music) is also extraordinarily free and open.
“Sunday Best” is a hip melody that will help me to get over the loss of Miles’s amiable and profound talent. I think that “Psychedelic Black Man” – with its loosely utilized backbeat and slightly fuzzed guitar sound – could be the soundtrack for my appreciation of a musician who I suspect had much more to give us.
Baltimore Brilliant: Jessica Williams 1948-2022, The Art of the Piano (2009)
Pianist Jessica Williams was drawn to the piano and attended the prestigious Peabody Preparatory and Peabody Conservatory school in her native Baltimore, Maryland. But it was the music of horn players like Miles Davis and John Coltrane that inspired her. Perhaps she would have become a more imposing figure, generally, if she hadn’t moved to San Francisco, where she played in house bands at the old Keystone Korner with, well, everybody. But she was a favorite of Terry Gross, being interviewed and playing on NPR’s Fresh Air, and whenever you heard her play, you’d be transfixed.
Williams played in the modern post-bebop mainstream, but her mature style was broader than any cliche. She could rival Keith Jarrett or Fred Hersch in creating stunning, singing pianism, and she could swing a rhythm section and Wynton Kelly or Kenny Barron. And, in perhaps an odd comparison, her control over the individual struck strings of the piano – that is, her approach to the instrument itself as a tonal percussion machine – was as good as Uri Caine’s. She seemed to be doing things with the piano pedals that most pianists don’t bother with. In her hands (and feet), the big orchestra of 88 keys had a dazzling array of colors.
Williams recorded often, and I dare you to find any real duds. Her solo playing is extraordinary, so I have been listening to The Art of the Piano, a concert recording where she roams with wit, grace, and ease across piano styles. The opening blues is a tossed-off masterpiece, and her take on Satie’s “First Gymnopedie” is probably the best-improvised take on this lovely melody that I’ve ever heard. Turn back to Jessica Williams if you are feeling cynical about improvised music. Her spirit is generous.
Cecile McLorin Salvant Singing WEST SIDE STORY
This month, the dazzling singer has the new Ghost Song (see below). In listening back to her older recordings, I was struck by her recordings of “Somewhere” (on her duet recording with pianist Sullivan Fortner) and “Something’s Coming” (with a piano trio on 2015’s For One to Love). While Salvant is not alone in recording plenty of “show tunes”, West Side Story seems to scare off plenty of interpreters. Oscar Peterson had a hit when his classic trio recorded seven of these tunes with his trio in 1962. But there seems to be something about Bernstein + Sondheim that puts off the average interpreter.
Salvant is not average. She is probably the most brashly theatrical of singers in this music, and I think that isn’t always good. Salvant wriggles her vocals every which way at times, even though she is also exceptionally controlled when she wants to be. At the end of “Something’s Coming”, she slows the tune down to less than half-time and goes into a mock-operatic tone and phrasing. I’m not sure it works, but it is fearless. “Somewhere” is even more remarkable and rich, with Fortner and saxophonist Melissa Aldana bringing gravity to a song that probably should be on a list of the best things that the old 20th century came up with.
The other reason to be listening to these is that I just watched Steven Speilberg’s new film West Side Story. Musically, the movie is most shattering when it is most straightforward. That would be Rita Moreno’s plaintive, largely unadorned version of “Somewhere”, sung to her late husband. Doc. This is one of the movie’s changes: Doc’s soda shop is run by his widow in the new film. What Moreno brings to the song – a feat of singing and screen acting at once – makes it the perfect moment in a movie that has been radically underrated by people who might have loved it more had they been able to see it late last year instead of huddling at home during the Omicron surge.
Which Leads Me to Sondheim (and Allen Austin-Bishop)
In interviews, Stephen Sondheim tended to disavow too much association with “jazz”, which he claimed not to draw from. But his songs – with their slippery melodies, a general sense of abstraction, and unusual harmonic content – didn’t always agree with him. London-based but born in New Jersey, Allen Austin-Bishop named his first two albums after Sondheim songs, and he has a new version of “Wait” out, one of Mrs. Lovett’s songs from Sweeney Todd. Austin-Bishop has a cool, sandy baritone, and this recording is fascinating, with electric piano and synth whistling about in the air around his calm delivery. Better, I think, is his 2017 version of “Sorry-Grateful” from Company.
Company is in revival on Broadway right now, where I was lucky to catch it. With Austin-Bishop’s lovely reading in my head – accompanied by a discursive piano trio unafraid to move around and play with the song’s translucent, impressionist harmonies – I could wait to hear the tune again in its proper context. On stage, the lyrics remained brilliant (“You’re always sorry / You’re always grateful / You hold her thinking, ‘I’m not alone’ / You’re still alone”), but the song was slightly lifeless. I wanted to hear the band interacting with the voices, adding to how the lyrics probe ambiguity. And, in a way, on the musical’s shattering finale “Being Alive”, I also wished someone would stage Company with some of Sondheim’s straight-jacket loosened.
His passing last year has put Stephen Sondheim on many folks’ minds. I came away from Company in awe of Sondheim, as ever, and thinking that history is not through with his genius. I hope that he comes to be seen by improvisers as our most recent Cole Porter or Richard Rogers.