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Moment's Notice from Gregory James

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. 

One of the most enjoyable things to me about the creative process is being open to new ideas, and re-evaluating old opinions.  I was not a huge Led Zeppelin fan the first time around.  By 1970 Jimi and Janice were dead, with Jim Morrison to follow the next year.  Rock felt tired to me.  And there were exciting things happening with Miles, Weather Report, Mahavishnu, and music from Fela, Paco, Shakti, Ravi and the whole world music explosion.  It was impossible not to be aware of Zep, of course.  Stairway was played in every Guitar Center on Saturdays to the point of actually being banned.  And their musicianship was obvious.  But there was something about the big hair, bare chests with no muscles, and cigarettes dangling from lower lips that felt posed and old to me.  And so I remained blissfully ignorant, until no less a musician than my dear friend Benny Rietveld said to me a few years ago: "Greg, Led Zep were the ones!"  Like Saul thrown from his horse on the way to Damascus, it was a revelation to me.  I had assumed the debate was still Stones vs. Beatles.  And then I realized that Benny, who with Santana has the honor of playing with the best rhythm section in the world to my view, was speaking of Zep as a totality, especially Bonham and John Paul Jones. I became a huge fan on the spot.  By the time Walking into Clarksdale was released, I was also a fan of Plant and Page's post Zep projects.  And I've written earlier of all the amazing studio work Jimmy did before Zep.  So now I'm the happiest late convert on the planet.  Benny, by the way, is also an extremely gifted writer, and recently published an extensive essay on Bond film music in the Herald de Paris.

As my dear late friend Butch Morris remarked, "As long as I'm a black man playing a cornet, I'll be a jazz musician in other people's eyes.  That's good enough for me.  There's nothing wrong with being called a jazz musician".  Amen.  In the history of Afro-American improvised music, most of the greats have stressed that they don't play jazz, they play Louis Armstrong, or Duke Ellington, or Miles Davis music.  "Call it whatever you want". as Miles said pithily after his performance at The Isle of Wight.  Cecil Taylor was denied a birthday celebration at Jazz at Lincoln Center years ago for having the temerity to say he didn't play jazz, he played Cecil Taylor music.  Readers of my blogs know how impressed I am by Christian Scott.  Young, angry, brilliant, the New Orleans trumpeter is the real deal, and the true successor to Miles.  Incorporating everything he hears, and not afraid to go outside and beyond the "tradition", including rock, hip hop, and classical music.  In his latest recording, the self-titled Christian Atunde Adjuah, there is a lengthy and brilliant essay "Letter to a Future Artist".  His main point being that "you can descibe me as a jazz musician, just don't define me as one.  Definitions being limited, and truly creative music of the time will transcend definition.  I think Butch would second that sentiment, and I imagine he would like Christian's directions in music.  The recording is a must have, and a must read.

I've been busy starting new recording projects (including TVP II) and realize I still need to write about the brilliant Bay Area debut of Dave Holland's Prism in February at SF Jazz.  Holland has been at the forefront of new music for over 40 years, and is still fresh, challenging, and inventive.  Originally discovered by Miles playing at Ronnie Scott's in London, he replaced Ron Carter in the Quintet.  With Chick Corea on electric piano, and Jack DeJohnette on drums, within two years the music changed from the still largely acoustic Filles de Killimanjaro, to Silent Way, to Bitches Brew.

A new cd/dvd set live from Europe in 1968 demonstrates just how powerful this "missing" Quintet was.  And Holland was at the very core of the change - even recommending former roommate John McLaughlin to Miles.  After Miles, Holland recorded Conference of the Birds with Sam Rivers, Barry Altschul, and Anthony Braxton for ECM, which marked another major change in improvised music.  On both acoustic and electric bass he has been on countless important records.  Two of my favorites are So Near, So Far - Joe Henderson with John Scofield and Al Foster, and Hands, with the great flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela.

Prism features Kevin Eubanks on guitar, Eric Harland on drums, and Craig Taborn on acoustic and electric piano.  Freed from the constraints of his long time gig on the Tonight Show, Eubanks was fiery and inventive; nearly harmelodic in a Blood Ulmer way.  Harland is majestic and wildly creative, and Taborn was a revelation.  Souful, funky, and with a mastery of harmony, Taborn is a perfect foil for the continuously creative Holland.  Always a very generous leader, Prism performs compositions by all the members.  Past, present, and future all are a split second away when Holland plays.  And if it is somewhat reminiscent of the best of 60's fusion, it should be.  Dave helped invent it!

Mariza is my pick for the most dynamic performer on the planet.  I first saw her years ago at the Henry Kaiser Auditorium in Oakland.  The usually jaded Tom Waites was weeping a few seats away from me.  And I have tears in my eyes from the moment she takes the stage.  How much is her amazing stage presence, how much the notes I know will be coming, how much some triggering of my Sephardic blood, I don't know.  But she seems to have this effect on most of her audience.  Fado is by nature heart wrenching, and Mariza is blessed with a huge voice and incredibly  intuitive musicianship.  From full blast to a whisper, every note is a revelation, every note a sweet arrow in the heart.  Every nuanced move, dance step, hand gesture, intensifies the theme of the song.  One is reminded of Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis (a great singer of songs, as Gil Evans said) with the rare ability to project duende with a note, a gesture.  She has been playing large halls for years, and I was apprehensive the intimate Robert Miner Auditorium would be too small a venue.  Many a great artist overplays a small room.  "Ah, this reminds me of a taverna".  She walked through the audience, whisppered to them, sang without a mic.  Mariza, African and Portuguese, born in Mozambique, and raised in Lisbon, was raised in her parents' taverna singing fado from the age of five.   For this series of concerts she has Jose Neto on guitarra, Pedro Joia on guitar, Nando Araujo on bass, and Vicky Marques on drums. They played with an understated elegance, obviously delighted to be playing for such a gifted performer.  In a black beaded backless gown, and a royal blue belt cinched at her long waist, Mariza is the epitome of fado.  Her performance of Amalia's Primavera, "My great passion" was riveting.  If you never see another performer live, see Mariza.
Last month I attended my first performance at the new SF Jazz Center Robert N. Miner auditorium.  Bob was a dear friend of mine, and he loved jazz.  While a very private guy, I think he would have thought it pretty cool to be remembered this way.  Is is a beautiful and intimate hall.  I'll write more about the first concert,which was Dave Holland's Prism, in my next post.  Last night's concert was Zakir Hussain, and it was amazing.  Zakir is perhaps the most accomplished musician of any genre currently living (as was Ravi Shankar).  Staggering technique, a great listener, a deep spirituality, and a sense of humor and showmanship allow him to chaarm and amaze even those unfamiliar with Indian classical music.  The purpose of this concert was to introduce young musicians to the west that Zakir believes are the leaders of the future.  Rakesh Chaurasia (the nephew of Hariprasad  Chaurasia, who I saw perform an amazing concert with Ravi and Ali Akbar Khan at Berkeley Community many years ago) on bansuri  (bamboo flutes) Niladri Kumar on sitar, and Ganesh Rajagopalan on violin.  As Zakir stated, it is an unusual instrumentation for Indian classical music.  Each instrument was featured in a raga.  They would start with the traditional alap, and then expand and build tension and tempo.  There was a distinct western edge to some of the themes, and occasionally a music cue would trigger a rehearsed unison band line, ala Weather Report or late 60's Miles.  And like Miles, it was obvious that Zakir was there to listen to his young players.  Often with eyes closed and hands folded in his lap for the alaps.  And then, with the flick of a wrist, a world of explosive percussion would wash over the audience.  Aficionados and novices alike are stunned by his virtuosity.  He reminds us that  time and polyrythyms are infinite.  As Charles Mingus said, he plays around the core of the beat, without ever having to state it.  Niladri hit harmonics and double stops (which aren't used in Indian music) and bent notes in western blues and rock scales, as well as the traditional rags.  The second set took on an even more overt western tinge, with quotes from Smoke On The Water, and the theme to The Good, The Bad, and Thge Ugly (which even Zakir quoted).  These players have mastered their music, and feel free to incorporate other musics within the framework of their art.  Just as jazz and rock and roll have influenced young flamencos, and of course Indian music has influenced rock and roll, and jazz, for over 50 years.  Bravo Zakir!

I first met Butch Morris in New York around 1980.  He was part of a new wave of artists, many from the West Coast, that included David Murray, Arthur Blythe, and James Newton.  There was a revolution going on, and I wanted to be part of it.  Butch was still playing cornet at the time.  They say you only regret the things you don't do.  I had wanted to record with Butch, I had an idea to call it Blue Flute Clan.  By the time I had my own label in the early 80's, Butch had left the coronet and was doing his conductions exclusively.  We would meet with mutual friends over the years, usually when I was visiting New York.  My producer Cookie Marenco also knew Butch through Dino J.A. Deane, a long time collaborator of Butch's.  Dino was one of the very first samplers, and Butch would incorporate that into his conductions.  A couple of years ago Butch was awarded a residency at Montalvo, and Cookie and I had several meetings and dinners with him.  Butch was looking for a label to release his film score to L'Amore Cache, and one of his music box pieces, Nowhere Everafter.  We agreed my label would release them.  We spoke of perhaps doing a live recording to DSD of his Nublu Orchestra, perhaps with myself and/or Emily Palen.  While never famous in mainstream media, Butch's influence among musicians and composers is immense.  He was such a gentle soul, and had a wonderful sense of humor.  Like Harry Partch and Lou Harrison, he was extremely prolific in spite of not receiving the recognition and rewards he deserved.  I've always considered that persistence an act of great bravery, and I am inspired by it.  Vale, Butch, it was a privilege, an honor, and a blast to know you.  Thank you for all the music.  That will be with us forever. 

I've always said that next to New York, the Bay Area has the most diverse and deep live music programming.  Cal Performances often rivals SF Jazz for improvised and world music performers.  The other week Angelique Kidjo came to Zellerbach.  I've seen her many times, and she is always inspirational.  Born in Benin, and forced into exile, like her mentor Miriam Makeba, she is a symbol of freedom and emancipation.  Influenced deeply by Benin culture, and pop, rock, Latin, and jazz, she is a cross cultural icon who overtly calls her audience to liberation, enlightenment, and unity.  I've often described her as an African Female James Brown, but that doesn't really do her justice.  With just Dominic James on guitar, Magatte Sow on percussion, the Brazilian Itaiguara Brandao on bass, and New Yorker Daniel Freedman on drums, she creates a huge, beautiful world music orchestra that is impossible not to dance to.  And dance the audience does, including the ritual packing of the stage for the last few numbers.  And as commanding a stage presence as she is, it is her voice that has made her world famous.  She has a huge range, and can sail over a band like Santana's guitar (with whom she has recorded and performed).  She is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and has founded the Batonga Foundation to provide African girls with secondary and higher education.  To see her in performance is to become, if only for an evening, a true citizen of the world.   

I've been very busy lately, and haven't been posting about a lot of great music.  In mid October the great Marcus Miller played SF Jazz at Herbst Theater.  Playing songs from his latest recording, Renaissance, with the same band members: Alex Han on sax, Lee Hogan on trumpet, Adam Agati on guitar, Kris Bowers on keys, and Louis Kato on drums.  Marcus will always, and rightly, be best known for his work with Miles: Tutu, Amandla, and Siesta.  Probably the most recorded bass player of his generation, ala Ron Carter, another Miles alum, Marcus has also put out 16 recordings as a leader.  Milliseconds define a great bass player, and Marcus is amazing.  Han and Hogan, while young men, know the whole history of the music, and can slide from funk to bebop in a heartbeat.Only Marcus can transition from the lovely ballad  "S'Wonderful" on bass clarinet to straight ahead, to slamming funk, in one seamless meditation on Afro American music.  (As Christian Scott says, "You can describe me as jazz, just don't define me."  More on that important point, next time.

Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler played the Greek Theater in Berkeley last Friday, and, as with every Dylan concert I've seen (and I've seen many) it was both memorable and revelatory.  Knopfler was perhaps the most worthy opening act for Bob since Paul Simon in 1999.  (On that tour they took turns opening, and covered one of each other's songs.  I somehow knew Dylan would cover Sounds of Sillence).  Knopfler is a guitarist's guitar player, and was marvelous.  Clear, precise, and courageously simple, he frails like a banjo player with angelic clear tone.  I was struck by the depth of Celtic music he has mastered, and the whole lexicon of Americana from blues to folk to spiritual to jazz to Tinpan Alley.  Rock is often majestic, (Henddrix, The Who, Led Zep, Crazy Horse) but Knopfler may be alone in producing chamber music.Dylan, as always, is brilliant, exasperating, and galvanizing all at once.  While playing nothing from his excellent new recording, Tempest, there were many allusions to water and floods. I've never heard him play so many of the hits, and so recognizably.  Charlie Sexton, who normally plays fiery lead guitar, was relegated to background riffs, and Stu Kimball, who I usually think of as a fine second guitar, took the leads.  Bob's piano is primitive at best.  But this night he jabbed chords out of tempo, and often skipped or added beats ala the early country blues men.  A nod to the bassist Tony Garnier would be all the cue the band would receive if a 12 bar was about to be extended, or shortened.  His voice on Tempest appears to be in final decline, but live it was clear and strong, and the best I've heard him in the last 10 years.  The Grammy sits atop the keyboard, the stage persona moves slyly between river boat gambler, replete with hat, and finger snapping, harp playing  lounge daddy, channeling Leonard Cohen through Bobby Darin.  The great repository of American music, from Celt roots through Appalachia, work songs, spirituals, blues, jazz, rock and roll.  It's all there.  Now.    


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