Monday, April 28, 2008

Jimmy and the Clarinet

It wasn't a surprise when I received the news Saturday that Jimmy Giuffre had died. He'd been ill with Parkinson's Disease since the '90s, and it was a testimony to his inner strength that he'd survived for so long.

And equal testimony to the loving care provided by Juanita, his artist wife of 47 years. A mutual friend emailed me the next day, saying that Juanita had told her a few years ago that "there was no way she was going to take him away from their home and allow others to care for him." And she didn't.

The last time I saw (and heard) Giuffre was in 1994, when he performed in a duo setting with pianist Paul Bley. In the review I wrote for the LA Times, I described it as a courageous effort. But his playing clearly had been affected by the disease.

The obituary I wrote for the paper on Monday included all the applicable biographical information, an overview of his creative progression and a few applicable quotes from the files. What it couldn't include was my personal reaction to the passing of an individual who still hasn't been properly acknowledged for the significance of his creative breakthroughs. It's hard to think of many artists who traveled a journey as far ranging as Giuffre's trip from "Four Brothers" and the Woody Herman big band to the limitless improvisational spontaneity of his trio with Bley and bassist Steve Swallow.

The saxophone instrumentation he used in "Four Brothers" -- three tenors and a baritone -- had been tried earlier, by Gene Roland in his mid-'40s band and by Ralph Burns in "Summer Sequence" and "Early Autumn" for the Herman band. But Giuffre's high spirited bebop line was the perfect vehicle for the instrumentation's warm-toned timbres. No wonder it became the trademark sound of all the Herman Herds that followed.

Giuffre's move from that kind of big band scoring to the folk jazz intimacy of his '50s trios -- first with guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Ralph Pena, then with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and Hall -- was an extraordinary musical transition. And, like "Four Brothers," it was driven by a different timbre -- in this case, the sound of his clarinet. Prior to Giuffre, most clarinetists had enthusiastically explored the instrument's nearly four octaves of range, roving freely across its three distinct registers. Giuffre focused instead on the chalumeau register-- the lowest octave and a half, with its intimate, airy sounding, woody qualities. He may have been influenced by Lester Young's recordings on clarinet, which also emphasized the warm, lower register sounds. But, as always with Giuffre, he made the style his own.

A few years later, when the jazz world was buzzing with the adventurous forays of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Charle Mingus, John Coltrane, George Russell and others, his trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow took free improvisation concepts into areas in which the dividing lines between jazz and concert music disappeared. Sadly, that remarkable trio was largely ignored at the time, and it wasn't until their recordings were reissued in the '90s that their work slowly began to receive the recognition it deserved.

Giuffre was always receptive to new ideas. When I was playing with composer and mentor John Benson Brooks in the '60s, searching for improvisational possibilities in twelve note rows, he and Brooks went back and forth on whether such improvisation could be viable without losing touch with the essential qualities of jazz. And, when I was producing the jazz events in the annual New York Avant-Garde Jazz Festivals, Giuffre agreed to play on a couple of occasions, never receiving any more recompense than the minimal (or non-existent) payments that the other jazz players received. (One of those performances, by the way, was an intriguing Giuffre trio that included bassist Richard Davis and drummer Joe Chambers. And a professional recording of that performance, produced by engineer George Klabin, exists.)

Giuffre left the planet slowly, largely silenced musically for the last decade of his life. But the recordings remain, and -- if there's any justice in this world -- his achievements will eventually find their way into the consciousness of new, young players, guiding them toward the adventurous creative territories he worked so hard to reveal.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Live: Celebrating the Ash Grove Years

You can always count on UCLA Live to do intriguing programming. But last weekend’s tribute to a classic Los Angeles performance venue – “The Ash Grove 50th Anniversary” – was exceptional, even by UCLA Live’s high standards.

The premise was the golden anniversary of the opening of the Ash Grove, a now legendary Southern California venue that was, in the ‘60s, both a launching pad for the careers of performers such as Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, the Byrds and dozens of others, as well as a platform for the unfettered expression of the decade’s stunningly disparate musical currents. Among the room’s many headliners: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs, as well as Lightning Hopkins, Bill Monroe and Doc Watson..

Cooder was there to celebrate; so was Taj Mahal, along with the likes of John Hammond, Barbara Dane, Bernie Pearl, Michelle Shocked and numerous others. But the real star was the memory of a place in which so much music, so many ideas, and so many attitudes had the opportunity to come to full fruition. Like New York City’s Bitter End, Village Gate and Gerde’s Folk City, like the Fillmores East and West, like L.A.’s Troubadour – to mention only a few – the folk and rock music venues of the ‘60s were transformative places. On any given night, they offered the possibility of experiencing new, startlingly talented young performers and – perhaps more importantly – the opportunity to feel part of a generational movement.

But, sitting in the audience at Royce on Saturday night, feeling the sense of camaraderie in the crowd as the Freedom Singers delivered one spirited gospel song after another, I kept wondering. Was it all -- as in the Bergmans’ lyrics for “The Way We Were” -- just “Scattered pictures, of the smiles we left behind?” just another form of nostalgic reminiscence? It could easily have seemed that way, especially given the grey hair so liberally sprinkled throughout the crowd, and the memories that were being evoked by one performer after another.

But when Bernie Pearl and Taj Mahal reminded us of the classic blues that was so present in the Ash Grove’s early years, when Barbara Dane sang with a forthrightness that made us want to take to the streets again, when Bernice Reagon & the Freedom Singers vividly brought to life the most significant crusade of the decade, it was far more than nostalgia.

It was an unswerving reminder of a time when music meant something more than fast-cut videos, repetitious rhythm loops, concerts saturated with special effects and amateur hour television contests. It was a recollection of the power of song to bring about change. Above all, and at the same time the most distressing of all, it provided a compelling perspective on how much that power has been missed over the past few decades and, especially, over the past five years.

So here's a thanks to Ed Pearl, founder of the Ash Grove and producer of the concerts, to UCLA Live's David Sefton, and to the planning committee for the Ash Grove 50th Festival. A thanks for a pair of too-brief evenings in which the Ash Grove, and everything it stood for, came alive -- if far too briefly -- all over again.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

To Review or Not To Review Redux

Here's a brief follow-up to my April 4 post about a performance by Herb Alpert and his wife, Lani Hall, at REDCAT -- the Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theater -- in Los Angeles. In the post I noted that the REDCAT public relations representative had refused to provide review tickets for the program because, as she explained, no reviews would be allowed for the performances "at Herb's request." Although I attempted to purchase tickets on my own to review the program, regardless of "Herb's request," I was told the event was sold out.

I wondered (1) why Alpert would insist that there be no reviews, especially since the superb singing talents of Hall have been heard so rarely over the past few decades. And (2) why REDCAT would agree to refuse to allow reviews.

A few days later the Associated Press published the following:

LOS ANGELES (AP) — California Institute of the Arts is naming its music school after Herb Alpert following a new $15 million donation from the Grammy-winning trumpeter.

The grant will pay for three faculty chairs, student scholarships and music programs — including a student-run record label — at the newly minted Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts.

It didn't answer question (1), but it certainly explained question (2). Just to underline the point again, REDCAT is the Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theatre -- a venue included in Disney Concert Hall as the result of Roy Disney's desire to have a CalArts presence in the complex. And, of course, $15 million is $15 million.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Stories To Tell

Jazz musicians often use the phrase “He [or she] really had something to say” when referring favorably to a player’s improvised solo. The premise, of course, is that the solo possesses meaningful content. But it’s a meaning that has far less literal specificity than, say, a short story, play, a film or, for matter, a political speech.

Jazz improvisations, obviously, aren’t based on words or phrases. (With the possible exception of their very fascinating spontaneous use by vocal artists such as Bobby McFerrin, J.D. Walter, Rhiannon and others.) The only reference point for the listener is a sequence of chords or, perhaps, a set of modal phrases that provide a kind of subliminal feeling of pattern and structure. In so-called “free jazz,” where neither chords nor modes are present, the player’s “something to say” can flounder amid disjunct rhythms and flurries of seemingly disconnected notes.

But it seems to me that there also are other aspects to what jazz artists communicate. Other stories they have to tell.

And a trio of programs I heard over the past week and a half underscored both the elusiveness and the significance of those stories. The performers were three iconic jazz artists: tenor saxophone/flute player Charles Lloyd; tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins; and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Lloyd and Hubbard, performing a week apart at Catalina Bar & Grill, were celebrating their 70th birthdays. The subtexts for each player’s story included issues of both maturity and mortality, impacting what they had “to say” at this point in lengthy careers that now find them decades beyond their salad years.

Rollins, 77, making one of his rare stops in Southern California via an appearance at the Cerritos Center, had a particularly compelling narrative. Many of the extraordinary powers of his youth – a gorgeous, rich tone, an assertive articulateness, a constantly shifting approach to the links between melody and harmony – were clearly reduced in intensity. But, declining to compensate by choosing the reductive methods of, say, late Picasso drawings, with their diminution of grand ideas to minimalist lines, Rollins’ playing often reached into startlingly expansive exploration.

Setting aside the tonal and thematic orientation that characterized his playing of the ‘50s and ‘60s, he often revealed an improvisational vision that embraced the free flying methods more closely associated with John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. It didn’t always work, but when it did, Rollins’ story was an enthusiastic expression of his belief in the wide open “try it, you might like it” opportunities in what the French call Le Troisieme Age.

Lloyd’s story had more pastoral qualities. His playing – reaching back to the floating lyricism of “Desert Flower” – has always emphasized muted, pastel tones, even during his most aggressive, envelope-stretching periods. And this time out, he took a laid-back, pater familias approach, turning over much of the improvisational space to his gifted band – pianist Jason Moran, drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers.

When Lloyd soloed, it was with clarity and maturity. In the setting of his younger, vigorously inventive players, his story was that of a confident master, spreading his wings over a busily seeking flock of successors.

Hubbard’s tale, on the other hand, was touched with poignancy. The packed house crowd at Catalina’s was obviously filled with long-time Hubbard fans. Most were surely aware of the various physical and personal maladies that have afflicted Hubbard, and darkly impacted his music, over the past two decades.

After the band -- a version of the New Jazz Composers Octet -- played an opening number, the moment for Hubbard’s first instrumental appearance arrived. What story would it have to tell? Its narrative unfolded quickly – a perils-of-the-flesh struggle between Hubbard’s damaged lips and the hard metal mouthpiece of his flugelhorn. It was a struggle that Hubbard lost, at least in a musically explicit sense. But it also was an admirable display of both courage and accomplishment. Like the later performances of Frank Sinatra, Hubbard celebrated – through the essence of his phrasing and the emotions of his musical thrust – the presence of the still feral musical lion that prowls through his creative imagination.

Stories to tell, all different, all worth hearing, all examples of the capacity of jazz improvisers to create experiences that reach beyond notes, harmonies and rhythms and into the heart of life, itself.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Have You Ever Wondered?

- Why band leaders always seem to announce the names of the band members in the middle of loud applause? Can it be that they're worried that the band members might receive a better reception than they do? Let's hope not.
- Why every solo by every musician (and singer) is applauded? Granted that musicians deserve response from their listeners, why can't it wait until the end of the piece? At which time, the leader -- after the applause -- can give meaningful recognition to the soloists. The added benefit of that approach would be an opportunity to hear the subtle connections that good musicians make between solo passages -- a repeated riff, a variation on the previous player's concluding phrase. Good stuff, and most of it missed in the rush to clap, cheer, hoot and whistle.
- Why, if we're going to have so much applause, we can't also have some mass audience hissing directed at the fools who can't wait until the last note fades before they establish their presence with a whoop, a holler or an insightful, "Yeah!"
- Why the drum solo always has to wait until the last number? It's become like clockwork -- here comes the Dreaded Drum Solo and the intermission is next. Don't drummers deserve something better than a pro forma appearance as a kind of last minute afterthought?

Friday, April 4, 2008

To Review or Not To Review

It’s a challenge every week to decide what performances to cover with my reviews in the Los Angeles Times – given the wide number of choices. I’m well aware of the significance that coverage in a major periodical can have, even if it’s not completely positive. Every critic has seen the only laudatory words in an otherwise negative review resurfacing -- in bold face and 16 point type – in a press agent’s release.

But I’m also aware of the emotional impact that reviews can have, of the importance to a performer of “getting” what they do. I recently wrote, in celebratory fashion, about a performance by the great, veteran jazz singer, Ernie Andrews. And when I saw him a few weeks later, he was very nearly in tears as he thanked me for the sort of words that he should have received decades ago.

All thoughtful reviewers recognize the potential for that sort of impact, and the attendant responsibility that goes along with it. Every performance, after all, is a cliff-hanging experience for the artist, the risks and fears of crashing to the ground juxtaposed against the possibility of soaring weightlessly across the sky. Every plastic CD box I receive is packed with dreams and hopes and anticipations – with the irrepressible thought that this might be the time to actually catch lightning in a bottle (or a plastic box).

But what about the established performers – those whose CD sales are counted in the six figures and beyond, or whose iconic reputations are so well established as to place them beyond the perils of critical evaluation? Are they impervious to negative or positive remarks?

The fact is that I’ve seen every kind of reaction, from those who tell me they never read reviews to those who seem to have instant recall for every word I’ve ever written about them – dating back for decades. One of the most honest, and most whimsical responses I’ve had was from songwriter Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Pippin,” “Wicked,” etc.).

“I actually don’t remember the good reviews for very long,” Schwartz told me. “But with the bad ones, it feels as though every word is written in blazing lights on my forehead.”

(It wasn’t hard for me to relate to that, having once received a, shall we say, less than laudatory review for an off-Broadway musical I wrote. The critic, who will be nameless, writing in a New York weekly newspaper, which will also be nameless, described the show as “Shakespeare without poetry, Wagner without music.” Funny thing was that I actually thought the line was so cool that we should use it in the advertising. The producer demurred.)

All of which leads me to another slant on the “To Review or Not To Review” perspective -- something that happened just this week, in one of my more unusual review, or perhaps I should say non-review, experiences.

After receiving a press release from the Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theatre (REDCAT) announcing a two night booking by Herb Alpert and Lani Hall, I immediately added their first night’s performance to my review schedule. I’ve always respected Alpert’s commitment to the sustenance of fine music (he recently donated $30 million to the UCLA School of Music, which is now named the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music). And I’ve long felt that Lani Hall, his wife, was one of the underrated vocalists of the last few decades.

I scheduled the review, however, with a question lingering in the back of my mind. A few months ago, Alpert and Hall also performed for two nights at Vibrato – the Bel Air restaurant and jazz club Alpert has been financially supporting. But when I called the club’s music director to make a reservation, I was told that the room was completely sold out, primarily to Alpert’s friends and acquaintances.

So when I contacted REDCAT to arrange my coverage for this performance, and was informed that no reviews would be allowed for the shows “at Herb’s request,” I wasn’t especially surprised. At least not by the announcement, that is. But I was surprised that REDCAT would accept such a limitation. And even more startled that Alpert and Hall -- whom I’ve known and written about for decades – would be so resistant to a performance review. What, I wondered, were they afraid of?

But then I remembered that Alpert is one of that very select group that has sold records – as noted above – in six and even seven or eight figures (back in the days of the Tijuana Brass, that is). And who parlayed his early performing successes into the much larger successes of A & M Records, eventually selling the company for a reported $500 million dollars to Polygram.

Does that give him the option of refusing to allow reviews? Apparently it does. And since the show was reportedly sold out, I was unable to do what any good journalist would do – buy a ticket and show up to do a review, anyhow, with or without permission. Alpert and Hall are scheduled to perform in May at venues such as Joe’s Pub in New York City, Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. and Yoshi’s in San Francisco. Will they attempt to stifle reviews in those rooms, as well? And if they do, will they manage to control the situation effectively enough to prevent an enterprising writer from finding a way to reveal what it is that the Alperts prefer not to expose to critical review?

I hope not. And I look forward to reading the informed commentary of my esteemed East Coast or Bay area colleagues.