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Moment's Notice from Gregory James

As often happens, I've been so busy seeing great music the last week I haven't had time to write about it.  It started last Thursday with The ACS Trio - Geri Allen, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Esperanza Spaulding at SF Jazz.  Truly a supergroup, they are all brilliant leaders in their own right.  Geri has been a leader in forward music for decades, and Terri won a Grammy in 2011 for The Mosaic Project, which inspired this trio.  Esperanza of course won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011.  They are very powerful musicians, and it is wonderful to experiencee such strong positive energy.  They played almost exclusively from the Wayne Shorter songbook, in honor of his 80th birthday.  I've often said Esperanza is a cross between Ron Carter and Betty Carter; able to play and sing with an independence that brings to mind Jack Bruce (who plays with Cindy Blackman in Spectrum Road).  Appropriate for a post gender, post racial (wouldn't it be nice) world, Esperanza wore a black kimono like cape, riding boots, and a man's droopy grey fedora, like a pre-war Tokyo gangster.  Brava! 

Last night the great Dave Holland and Prism returned to SF Jazz.  Holland had a residency there in February, and Prism played on one of the nights.  It was a treat to see them again after only a few months.  They were both looser and tighter as a band, which is to be expected.  Holland and Eric Harland may be the best rythym section in improvised music right now (along with my own dear Kai Eckhardt and Deszon Claiborne!) and achieve a mind-blowing telepathy.  Harland can switch from straight ahaead to funk to latin to bossa in as many bars, and unlike most drummers who try this, a driving groove is always there.  Craig Taborn is sensitive and inventive, and reminds one of Chick Corea in Mile's band.  Kevin Eubanks is a little formulaic for my tastes, and sounded better in February using a Boogie Lone Star amp.  Last night it looked like a Galien Kruger with cheap pedals.  But he has a long history with Holland, and Dave is obviously fond of him.  It could be that Holland finds his icey, vaguely angry playing to be a contrast to his warm tone.  And Holland has one of the best senses of rythym is the world.  Think of the bass line in "It's About That Time" that segues from "Silent Way".  A living master, and treasure.

I could see him every night.



Last Saturday the great New Orleans composer, pianist, and vocalist Allen Toussaint played the Miner Auditorium.  If we give the first half of the 20th century to the Gershwins, Rogers and Hart and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Jimmy Van Heusen, Jerome Kern, and the other creators of the Great American Song Book, there is no more influential songwriter for the second half of the century than Allen Toussaint.  With equal amounts of Eurpean classical (particularly Mozart and the romantics) blues, gospel, jazz, New Orleans second line, and a swamp funk that he virtually invented, Toussaint is the embodiment of American music.  A consumate showman, twirling around the stage in his multi-colored tux, at one point throwing Mardi Gras toys to the audience, he made the two hour concert deem very brief indeed.  And it takes two hours to cover most, if not all, of his hits.  Perhaps the best way to illistrate the magnatude of his influence is to list some of his songs, and ask you to think of all the artists that covered them:  Java, Whipped Cream, A Certain Girl, Fortune Teller, Get Out of My Life, Woman, Working in a Coal Mine, Sneakin' Sally through the Alley, Yes We Can, Night People, and Southern Nights.  As with all great artists, the entire history of the music channels through him, leading us on to the future.  

Terence Blanchard played the SF Jazz Miner Auditorium for the opening of the fall season this week.  A very diverse and eclectic band, with Ravi Coltrane on soprano and tenor sax, Brice Winston on tenor also, Benin guitarist Lionel Loueke, Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan, Joshua Crumbly on bass, and filling in without rehearsal (presumably a sound check?) local Justin Brown on drums.  Born in New Orleans in 1962, Blanchard is blessed with the big tone and confident phrasing that trumpeters from the birthplace of jazz claim.  Touring with Lionel Hampton, and then replacing Wynton Marsalis in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Blanchard rose to prominence as a performer, teacher, and film composer.  Best known for scoring many of Spike Lee's films, one of my favorites is for the film Backbeat, a fictional account of the early Beatles.  Generous in praise and solo space for his bandmates, he claimed that he was the least accomplished of the crew.  While that is not quite accurate, his playing is rooted in the hard bop he grew up playing, and most of the modern ideas were provided by the young band.  The pianist Fabian Almazan has an abstract and terse attack reminiscent of Paul Bley, as did Lionel, sounding far more abstract and less African than he has with Herbie Hancock.  Crumbly and Brown were amazingly locked in and inventive, all the more so for not having rehearsed.  (Why rehearse when you can gig is one of my favorite sayings).  But the real revealtion was Ravi Coltrane.  Now 48, he resembles his father physically more than ever.  And he is playing with a confidence and freedom and joy that I haven't heard in the past.  I realized that he is no longer afraid of being compared to his father (he even played some 'Trane like channels through chords that he would have consciously avoided in the past).  He has found his own way - probably a lot harder than it is for most of us without a legend to live up to.           

I've often been asked by friends to use my blog for other posts besides just music - finance - world affairs - social issues.  And I've resisted, thinking that if readers want something more than music comments, there are many other sources to go to.  But i realize I haven't been blogging lately.  And the reason is that there are some truly horrible things going on in the world, and I haven't been thinking of art. 

And I realize that all of us who can speak out, should.  So, I'll start with Syria.  Having voted for Obama twice, like many supporters I have had my disappointments.  He has been dealt the most challenging deck of cards since FDR, and has probably done a better job than most of our past elected presidents would have.  But the lack of vision and understanding of the unraveling of the Middle East is a problem.  And it isn't going to go away by neglect.  There is an Arabic word for the Sunni/Shia schism "Fitna".  And an old Arabic curse "Allah's curse on him who awakens it".  We can of course blame the Bush administration for Iraq's civil war.  It's not clear they had ever heard of the schism.  But in truth Bin Laden and Zawhiri radically underestimated the depth of the schism also, perhaps because Bin Laden's mother is a Yemeni Shia.  It's not an accident that Shia minorities rule over Sunni lands, and vice versa.  This was set up by the French and English with the notorious Sykes-Picot secret agreement at the end of World War I to divide and conquer.  And it lasted almost a hundred years.  So the re-shaping, and reclaiming, of tribal lands is going to be a very long, torturous process.  There will be Shia lands, and Sunni lands, and Kurdish lands.  But genocide is genocide, and Assad is a second generation mass murderer.  His father slaughtered 40,000 or so in Aleppo, and junior was widely thought to be softer and gentler.  That has proved false.  We now have 100,000 dead, 2 million displaced, and Jordan and Lebanon destabilized. What more will it take?  200 dead children on a hospital floor?  3,000 gassed and over 300 or more dead?  This final incident will probably provoke some response.  It's not going to be easy, but one must try.  Putin wants his Syrian access to the Mediterranean.  Let him have it, in exchange for handcuffing, or eliminating Assad.  The Alawites will probably wind up with their coastal tribal lands anyway.  The English and French well underdstand their role in this mess, and can be of strategic help.  While China and Russia will doubtless veto UN action, a NATO no fly zone (yes, I understand it is more difficult than Libya) is feasible.  Saudi, the Egyptian military, and Israel all want stability.  The really hard lifting of diplomatic pressure needs to finally start.  Lobbing a couple of cruise missles, hopefully accurately, is not going to start to solve the problem.  In addition to a no fly zone, there needs to be a no shooting zone - and that is going to take Putin (and Putin pressuring Iran and Hezbollah) , and the Saudis' (and Quatr and all the rival Emirates) all on board.  I think John Kerry is up to the task.  It will be very difficult.  But to do nothing, is to lose our humanity. 

Once again I've been very busy but must mention last month's Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters show at The Greek Theater.  With guitarist Justin Adams (Tinariwen/Sinead O'Connor) keyboardist John Baggott (Massive Attack/Portishead) bassist Billy Fuller (Massive Attack) guitarist Liam Tyson (Men from Mars) Juldeh Camara on the Gambian ritti, a one string violin, and a phenominal young drummer from London, Dave Smith, Plant was able to re-invent his songbook by exploring the modern, and the deep past.  Plant has often said that the music of North AAfrica is directly related to deep delta blues.  Hence Black Dog was transformed into a grio dirge, Rock and Roll became a physchedelic delta blues, and so on.  Plant has big ears, as musicians used to like to say.  Like all music greats, he leads by listening.   

David Sanborn and Bob James played the Robert N. Miner Auditorium as part of SF Jazz last week.  The reason I was there was to see the legendary drummer Steve Gadd.  Very few drummers have the range of styles, and have played with as many diverse artists, as Gadd.  From Steely Dan (the break on Aja is the start of Gadd's legendary status) to Return to Forever to Eric Clapton, he has a complete mastery of American idioms from blues to bebop (he sat in with Dizzy at age 11!) to R & B rock and roll.  Oh, I almost forgot his work for the CTI label, usually with Ron Carter on bass.  Concierto, with leader  Jim Hall and Paul Desmond and Chet Baker, and Skylark, a Paul Desmond date with Gabor Szabo, are must-haves.  (The concept of a repetory label, with different players taking turns as leader, is a wonderful idea.  Record a few albums with someone, and you know them really well.)  David Sanborn has always been a soulful player, and the crowd delighted in the hits from the 80's, many of therm written by Marcus Miller.  Bob James only seemed to listen to the other musicians when he was soloing.  When comping he kept his eyes glued to the ipad atop the Steinway, presumably looking at the chord changes.  The bassist James Genus was locked in with Gadd.

Gadd's playing is very simple; almost evrything he does could be executed by a good amateur drummer.  The brilliance lies in the execution; the milliseconds of feel that separate a good musician from a great one.  The feel, the groove, the emotion.  The audience thought they were going nuts for Sanborn's impassioned wails - they were going nuts for the way Gadd built the grooves.  The Mel Torme' oldie Comin Home Baby was a standout of the night.  My next blog will mention another great drummer I just discovered, playing with Robert Plant!        

Last Thursday the one and only Ahmad Jamal played Davies Symphony Hall as part of SF Jazz.  Long acknowledged by Miles Davis as a major influence, he is one of the most influential musicians in the history of the music.  His sense of space and touch and dynamics are breath-taking.  And his long montunos, often at the begining and end of tunes, I believe forshadows modal jazz.  With Herlin Riley on drums, Reginald Veal on bass, and former Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena, the quartet achieves a telepathic level of rapport.  Invitation and Blue Moon were wonderfully re-worked, as was In Your Own Sweet Way, perhaps a nod to the Bay Area's own Dave Brubeck.  Almost all improvising musicians are adept at covering mistakes, or turning them into happy accidents.  With Ahmad there is no need - even at the age of 82, every note, every phrase, is perfect.  He walked out on stage to a standing ovation, and received several more for each encore.  The last piece, of course, being Poinciana.  Still fresh, still inspiring, still mysterious. 

I've been enjoying Miles! The Definitive Miles Davis at Montreux DVD Collection.  It's a 10 dvd set of performances from 1973 to 1991.  I had the privilege of seeing all these bands.  It's amazing how Miles draws the very best from all these fantastic musicians.  There are so many magic moments!  Special mention must be made of Al Foster on drums in 1973. From Miles' darkest period, just before his six year hiatus from music, the set bristles with an angry energy.  A very young Daryl Jones in 1984 and 1985 is fantastic, as is the late Bob Berg.  Robben Ford in 1986 is by far Miles' best guitarist (yes, I know who the others were).  They say Miles cried when Robben left.  His tone (the Dumble made the trip to Europe) is unbelievable.  My man Benny Rietveld in 1988 and 1989 is so funky and musical!  (I saw Benny's first gig with Miles at the SF Opera House.  More on that later).  And Marilyn Mazur on percussion - the only woman to play with Miles in a live band, is so powerful.  The 1990 band was his last one; I saw Miles's second to last gig at the Concord Pavillion with this band.  He was getting darker and edgier again.  And, as Betty Carter points out in one of the interviews, he went back to wearing suits!  A lavender silk tux with matching chartreuse tee shirt and suede shoes.  There is also a wonderful interview with the late Claude Nobs, who relates a hilarious story of finding Miles the right color Ferarri to drive around town.  A must have set for Miles fans.  As many times as I had the privilege of seeeing him, even I am continually amazed at how perfect and in the moment (even, or perhaps especially, when imperfect) he was.  Herbie Hancock tells of hitting a horribly wrong chord.  Miles paused for a moment, and then played some notes that made Herbie sound right.  Thank you Miles Davis!     

The great Tony Bennett played Davies Hall once again last Thursday as part of SF Jazz.  At the age of 86 he has more energy than most performers will ever have.  Every mature artist would like to smuggle the energy of youth into the wisdom of old age, but very few succeed. Picasso did, Miles did, and so has Tony.  Like Charlie Parker and Miles, he is a great singer of songs who knows the power of great lyrics.  His phrasing is the equal of the very greatest jazz masters.  And his marvelous tone!  He can still belt it out in the mid range, or whisper off mic.  And what an extraordinary, and not easy, life to draw from.  It takes a half hour to sing a medley of most, but not nearly all, of his hits.  The quartet of Gray Sargent on guitar, Lee Musiker on piano, Marshall Wood on bass, and Harold Jones on drums are the perfect accompaniment.  In an age where everyone from mediocre rock stars to opera singers are encouraged to take a shot at the Great American Songbook, it's instructive to listen to someone who owns it.  I'm a firm believer one has to grow up with a music to own it, which is why Sonny, and Herbie, and Tony are the best.  Fortunately art knows no politics; Speaker Nancy and Ron Pelosi where a row behind me, and Secretary George and Chalotte Schultz were in the front row.  More on Miles in my next blog. 


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