Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Discenchanted Evening: Trump's collapsible rally in Tulsa remembered in song

Here’s my cut-rate Emile De Becque and flea-market Ezio Pinza, pressed into the service of memorializing the President’s Disenchanted Evening in Tulsa.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Monday, June 22, 2020

Omer Avital and Qantar bring Israeli sensibilities to the American street

Avital at work and play
From the opening track of "New York Paradox"(Zamzama Records) to the finale, bassist Omer Avital and Qantar look backward and from an oblique angle at some of the more vigorous jazz recorded circa 1960. My references are to "Shavazi," a kind of Israeli "Better Git It in Your Soul," and the determined if dour "Bushwick After Dark," which unfolds with the laid-back suavity of "Killer Joe."

Backward glances at the way jazz was recorded by Atlantic and Blue Note  (my song references are to Charles Mingus and the Farmer-Golson Jazztet) are to me not regrettable in 2020 if the personality behind the legacy-boosting is fresh. Talk about "advancing the music" should never obscure the value of decanting new wine into clean old bottles.

And so it seems to be the revived niche the 49-year-old Israeli-American bassist and his quintet called Qantar can idiomatically occupy. Based in Brooklyn, with a performance and recording outlet at Wilson Live in their neighborhood, Amital and his mates are a lesson in canny assimilation, projecting the richness of Israel's jazz orientation while reflecting the absorption of the American mainstream.

In addition to the assertive harmonic underpinning and deep flashes of brilliance from the leader's bass, Qantar is characterized by a two-saxophone front line: Asaf Yuria is heard on alto and tenor, while Alexander Levin is a tenor specialist.  The group is completed by pianist Eden Ladin and drummer Ofri Nehemya.

Amital wrote everything on "New York Paradox," from "Shabazi," the opening track that distantly evokes the Mingus hard-charger mentioned above, through the concluding piece, which is distinguished by a flamboyant yet elegant bass solo. Otherwise, the title track is as good a place as any to elucidate what Qantar is all about.

The paradox of New York City, which makes everything possible and many aspects of daily life next to impossible, is reflected in the way frequent trilling and a shuddering ensemble capture the metropolitan anxiety. There's a picturesqueness to the tunes that avoids the literal. So after you've noticed that the characteristic phrasing of "Just Like the River Flows" matches the words of the title, you're free to let your mind drift downstream along with the band.

I'm not sure of the reason for the French title of "C'est Clair," but it sounds as if, with lyrics, it could have been a Charles Aznavour ballad. And "Today's Blues" brings back the dueling-tenor format from days of hard-bop yore. To double down on the tune's assertiveness, Amital's bass line behind  Eden Ladin's piano solo is more than substantial, and a Nehemya drum solo leaves no doubt that yesterday's blues have infused Qantar's up-to-date version. When it comes to digging into musical roots, this band shows that transplanting what they come up with across a couple of big ponds works splendidly and can flourish.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Buddy movies in sound: Stryker eases into Mintzer arrangements with WDR Big Band

Dave Stryker and Bob Mintzer are seasoned bandstand colleagues.
Among the well-established indications that jazz has long been reliably exported and given a native hue of resolution abroad is the WDR Big Band.

WDR stands for "Westdeutsche Rundfunk" (West German Radio) and the last syllable of the full name suggests to Americans that such an ensemble can take care of business. ("Funk" is a highly charged word, as Beethoven fans know from the line "Freude, schöne Götterfunken" in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony. "Joy, spark of the gods," indeed!)

The band brings it off expertly in "Blue Soul" (Strikezone Records) which has its shared of funkiness as it showcases guitarist Dave Stryker, guesting with the band at the invitation of director and tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer.  Mintzer's arrangements are skillfully negotiated, and the master of the revels picks up his horn now and then, too, while yielding most of the solo space to Stryker and, variously, to the band members.

True to Stryker's recent series of "Eight Track" releases spotlighting his distinctive interpretations of pop material, "Blue Soul" pays a lot of attention to others' hits (versions commonly known as "covers," a term that has little value in jazz, as much of what a jazzman plays covers songs introduced by, or most associated with, other musicians).

The set begins smartly with Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man," with Stryker's solo clearly profiled and the band's presence significant but never obtrusive. That's pretty much the procedure throughout the set. The WDR ensemble gets plenty to do, but the writing isn't showy or assertive. Mintzer knows he's writing for a band that can play anything and doesn't need to be ostentatious.

A treat for Indianapolis jazz fans is the inclusion of Billy Test on piano and organ, especially prominent on the latter instrument in "Trouble Man," "What's Going On," and Stryker's "Blues Strut." Test was a finalist in the 2018-19 American Pianists Association's competition, and made a strong impression, as he does here.

Stryker's tone normally has a matte finish, which lends a subtle color palette to Prince's "When Doves Cry."  He can bring a glow to it for expressive purposes, suiting the atmosphere of 'Wichita Lineman." That number also features one of the best solos by a WDR member, trombonist Andy Hunter, who glides among registers with surprisingly relaxed virtuosity. Flavorful solo turns by alto saxophonists Karolina Strassmayer and Johann Hörlen contribute much to "What's Going On" and "When Doves Cry," respectively.

Tempo choices always seem fitting, and the support from the drum chair by Hans Dekker makes such a clean-featured swinger as "Shadowboxing" especially exciting. His cagey fills between phrases evolve into a deft solo. "Stan's Shuffle," a closer that pairs Stryker and Mintzer in the spotlight, poises the saxophonist's lanky, virile style, slightly rough-edged, against the sparkling side of the guitarist's sound. The rapport is solid, and the bar-walking pace is just what's called for to round out an attractive release.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

On shouting for peace first: suggestions for a social-justice road map in King's 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail'

“No justice!” they shouted. “No peace!”

So ran a line in a Washington Post account of the protest demonstration in the nation’s capital at the beginning of the month. It was an odd recasting of the slogan that is usually printed as “No justice, no peace,” sometimes with one exclamation point at the end.

Mug shots of Dr. King from the jailing that led to his famous letter to white pastors.
The Post version may have inadvertently evoked the kind of stalemate that America’s stubborn racial struggles have reached. If you separate the phrases by more than a comma, as the Post did, you place them as neighboring pillars with no implied link between them.

Maybe that’s what we have now: no justice in one silo, no peace in the other. With next to none of either quality, and no interaction between them, we’re stuck.

Of course, the slogan “No justice, no peace” as normally chanted and felt implies causality: If the protests don’t establish justice, then there will be no peace. Consequence is necessarily implied, as in the legendary sign warning customers in Chinese laundries: “No ticket, no laundry.” A condition for getting a desired result is laid down; if the condition is not met, you go home without the shirts you had delivered to be cleaned and pressed.

I want to propose that America could do with a period of reversing the chant, like this: “No peace, no justice.” That’s because it may be necessary for some kind of authentic social peace to be in place before we even know collectively what justice might mean as a way out of our current dilemma.

Thus, any sign of peace in the struggle – as long as it is not the kind that solidifies an oppressive status quo – should be celebrated. Without acceptable peace conditions, the hard work of establishing justice is distorted and perhaps lost in the haze of conflict.  We now seem to be too distant from consensus on peace to negotiate steps toward realizing justice.  Thus, there’s a tangle of proposed fixes to policing that vary from structural reforms through prohibition of certain techniques (no-knock entry, choke holds, etc.) to “defund the police,” a phrase that has been relentlessly parsed since it entered common parlance just a few weeks ago. 

Where along this spectrum is justice? We can’t know. Nor can we know, in order to establish justice,  how much renaming of military bases and other institutions is necessary, how many statues supporting discarded values should be torn down, or how many black and brown faces need to appear in group portraits of boards of directors. And that’s because we are purporting to know, from a variety of perspectives, what justice is when we have no common basis for defining and enacting peace.

Some activists have used Martin Luther King Jr.’s  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as a foundational text for the current slogan. I believe his remarkable essay better supports my revision of it.  Yet I readily acknowledge that he saw in April 1963 considerable overlap of the two concepts, and he privileged the inclusion of justice within a peaceful starting point that would allow movement away from the conservative talisman of “order” in the Jim Crow South.

In a long plea for the understanding and support of white pastors in Birmingham who had paid for the New York Times ad condemning civil-rights activities led by King in the Alabama city as “unwise and untimely,” the imprisoned activist sets the justification of the sustained protest in the broadest possible context, always with nonviolence and a search for common ground at its core.

For example, right after stating that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” which may seem to set down justice as a necessary condition for peace, King says: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” I submit that enunciating such a value is central to King’s ministry and his activism.  The common destiny provides the foundation for a peace achieved only with the acknowledgment of that mutuality. It is what he calls “a positive peace,” from which “the myth of time” is rejected. This striking phrase alludes to the Southern moderate’s insistence that justice can only emerge over time. As King pungently says, too often this means that the counsel of “Wait!” amounts to “Never!”

Through example as well as sustained tension, King lays out four basic steps in any nonviolent campaign: “1) Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive. 2) Negotiation. 3) Self-purification and 4) Direct action.”

Three out of the four steps are manifestly peaceful. The fourth one, prepared for by adherence to the first three, can be seen as the most threatening to the power structure, but it at least makes the needs of justice explicit. Before direct action is undertaken, the vision has been honed, and the means to the desired end has been subjected to constant discipline. “Over the last few years,” King says in his peroration, “I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”

This clarion call for peace as a default position in the agitation for true equality is not as popular to quote today as “…freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” but the latter quotation doesn’t really depart from King’s full description and justification of the Birmingham campaign in his jail letter. The demand proceeds from the indelible notion of a positive peace, propounded through negotiation and steady communication of a positive message.

As a rallying cry, “No peace, no justice” is unlikely to galvanize well-meaning crowds in the streets.  But as a condition for the progress we so desperately need, “No peace, no justice” ought to be the thought that fortifies progressives against the extremes that promote rickety, ill-conceived, conflicted and sometimes dangerous notions of jerrybuilt justice. The edifice of true justice requires the scaffolding of peace.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Young Canadian composer Daniel Hersog shows individuality in big-band debut

Now in his mid-30s, Daniel Hersog seems to have drawn much from his education at Boston's New England Conservatory to take back to his hometown,Vancouver, B.C. Now the trumpeter-composer has built his first big-band CD, "Night Devoid of Stars" (Cellar Music), around the participation of two of the men he got to know there: tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger (classmate) and pianist Frank Carlberg (teacher). 

His imagination is highly charged enough not only to be worthy of his guests, but also to have inspired the 14 other participants in this set of seven tunes, all of them originals except for "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," the Otto Harbach-Jerome Kern evergreen from 1933.

On that tune, Carlberg particularly displays the wry sensibility he can bring to melody and harmony. The familiar tune is refracted from a bent perspective at first in a solo introduction, but it becomes clear from the way the ensemble is used after it enters that Carlberg is reconfirming the arranger's approach. The way the band is nestled in behind the piano shows a surprising maturity, as if Hersog has been writing this sort of thing for years..

Trumpet is his ax, but he lays it aside in "Night Devoid of Stars." 
Apt settings for soloists seem to be a mainstay of Hersog's originals as well. The picturesque "Cloud Break," which opens the CD, presents a well-lit ensemble to shed extra light upon trumpeter Brad Turner's soaring solo. Later when the clouds suggested by the title darken, the sound proves to be just what Preminger's tenor sax needs, its glowering features underlined by Carlberg's insistent work in the background.

Carlberg also sets the mood by channeling gospel piano style in "Motion," with the funky sound deftly brought back from the edge of  cliche by the pastel tints in Hersog's arrangement, with the band smoothly sustaining the low volume level in a way that evokes the bandleader's admiration for Gil Evans. A wide-ranging Preminger solo crowns the performance.

The tenorman's guest appearance seems especially appropriate  in "Makeshift Memorial," in which his wide-ranging improvised melodies always hang smoothly together.  Here and in "Night Devoid of Stars," Hersog gives space for his explicitly stated political worries, though he has the good sense to allow his musical notions to flesh themselves out in a manner that doesn't require a particular interpretation. The title tune opens with an air of mystery, and the way it moves toward a free-jazz episode sounds unforced and, from Carlberg, casts a firm view toward another side of his artistry— the full-canvas dissonant sonority of Cecil Taylor.
An indication that Hersog's music isn't dominated by dour thoughts comes in 'Indelible," where he provides a setting for clarinet soloist Chris Startup that indicates a puckish sense of humor from the one to the many and back again.

Throughout, the band is a nimble communicator of Hersog's diverse ideas, and, if not for some trumpet figures that sound rather hackneyed near the end of "Song for Henrique," a tribute to a Brazilian musician, the listener's impression that a fresh voice in big-band writing has introduced himself will be sustained.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Jory Vinikour's Couperin disc "L'Unique": Change and stability in landmark solo harpsichord music

Cedille Records has been vital in giving wider exposure to Chicago musicians, and the international stature of Jory Vinikour has been enhanced by his brief discography on the label. Modern harpsichord concertos were the focus in a crystalline presentation last year, and that succeeded an illuminating  account of J.S, Bach's violin-harpsichord sonatas two years ago with Rachel Barton Pine.
Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour (photo: Hermann Rosso)

With concentration on Francois Couperin on a new release, Vinikour gets to the heart of his substantial training in French clavecin music. He presents three of the books (ordres) by which the French baroque master cemented his reputation as both teacher and canonical exemplar of how the repertoire should be performed.

David Fuller concludes his Grove's Dictionary essay on Couperin "le Grand" with these words: "If elsewhere he may at times have matched the wit, the urbanity, the somber passion, the easy charm, the melancholy or the high spirits of his harpsichord music, in no other medium did he combine those qualities to so remarkable a degree."

The listener to "L'Unique," the title given to Vinikour's presentation of the sixth, seventh, and eighth books, will consistently note how vividly these qualities are brought forward.

The rhythmic acuity, with crisply turned ornaments being essential to the expression, is remarkable. The timing is varied to suit the expressive import of the varied phrases; the daunting thicket of notes on the page takes on a translucent clarity in Vinikour's interpretations.

The sound of the harpsichord (Tony Chinnery, 2012) is bright and flexible in tone color. The lower register occupies its share of the spectrum creditably, notably in the piece everyone knows best, "Les Baricades Mysterieuses," with its intriguing air of artfully blocked striving toward the treble. The miking seems close but never stifling in a recording made a year ago at the University of Chicago.

In the seventh book, a generalized group of character pieces titled "Les Petits Ages," a kind of harpsichord equivalent of Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man (though Couperin contents himself with four), displays insight into the composer's probing, sensitive wit. The innocence and wide-open appetite for experience of the newborn passes into the restlessness of early childhood. Sonorities appropriate to Couperin's rendering of those early stages of life give way to the bumptious glare of adolescence, brilliantly outlined in Vinikour's playing. "Les Petits Ages" is crowned by the mellowness of "Les Delices" (the delights).

Less abstract portraiture is also engaging: In the sixth book, "Les Bergeries" offers a glimpse of pastoral life decorated by twittering birds, and the two pieces  that conclude the set dip into the world of people and insects: "La Commere" clatters just enough to portray the lively tediousness of gossip, and "Le Moucheron" darts and dips, with trills buzzing, in deft imitation of the fly in its title.

The focus on dance forms in the eighth book, doggedly rooted in B minor, exemplifies the formal acumen also evident in Couperin's chamber music. The Passacaille that concludes the ordre, and brings this disc to a glorious conclusion, exemplifies Couperin's ability to put his signature on the technical and expressive resources of the harpsichord when the aim was to make a received form personal, just as his younger contemporary J.S. Bach did with such dance forms in his suites.

Along the way, as in the same book's "Sarabande: "L'Unique" that gives the disc its title, Couperin  creates an attractive structure that's like a palace with an integrated decor scheme that magnifies the whole. Vinikour is a docent of incomparable insight, commitment, and thorough preparation.