Metropole Dance

You know the rap about symphonic orchestras playing jazz. Can’t swing. There to frame real jazz musicians in pretty strings.  Pops orchestra. Sure, Charlie Parker and Strings was great but strings without Charlie Parker? Are you kidding?

And then there’s the Netherlands Radio’s Metropole Orkest, directed by Connecticut-born Vince Mendoza. Mendoza’s had plenty of practice working with large and/or off-beat instrumentation. Listen to the full-throated brass of  “Anjelicus” with its three French horns, bass trombone and tuba  from his 1990 date Capitol date Start Here and you’ll know he was better than half-way there two decades ago.  Teamed with the Metropole since ’95, he’s proven that symphony-styled orchestras are great for the same reasons as any great big band: the harmonic possibilities, the infinite orchestral combinations, the size of the sound. And the Orkest not only swings, it bops, it comps, it gets funky. Tight percussive accents punctuate lyrical, beautifully-paced string lines. There’s not a weak section to be heard, even in numbers recorded live.

The Scofield date finds Mendoza and the orchestra dealing in depth and development.  Mendoza brings in a rhythm section and organist and picks up the sax.   “Jung Parade” opens with organ trio only, a familiar Sco’ format. Then, the brass starts dropping in counterpoint. The harmonics  bring tension and resolution, following the guitarist as he suckles up to the plenty. Over the bridge, the tune takes on chamber airs, a trumpet fanfare harmonized with the guitar. The ballads are rich in strings and brass honey. The funk tunes are vise-grip tight.

It’s surprising how well it works. Mendoza and Scofield have some history; that doesn’t hurt.  But its as if the orchestra were designed just for Sco’ and his electric contrasts. It kisses up during the ballads, blows through the rockers and hits some gritty beat-and-groove. Dig those funky, muted trumpets!  How the strings bring a dark, uncoiling undertone?  Then off come the mutes!

Even with a few ringers in the rhythm section, it’s all about the arranging, some of it by Mendoza, some by Jim McNeely and Florian Ross. On the Metropole’s recent tribute to Joe Zawinul, Fast City, Mendoza does all the arranging.  But it’s less the arrangement — Zawinul had already done a masterful job — and more the orchestration.  The harmonics make the music.

Again there are some ringers  — former Weather Report bassist Victor Bailey, percussionist Alex Acuna and drummer Peter Erskine — and for the same reasons. Bringing in the rhythm section guarantees the ethnically-expanisve Zawinul drive. Erskine is the only drummer who can pin the incessant rhythm like he does — those tom and hi-hat unison accents, the emphatic crescendos as the strings and woodwinds fade away, the sheer never-falter power of it.

Zawinul put a full range of symphonic sounds through his synthesizer and now the orchestra does it au naturel.  Mendoza doesn’t second guess Zawinul’s sound. Instead, he orchestrates the original with the Orkest’s acoustic instruments and just enough electric touches —  guitar, bass and of course synthesizers — to keep the music’s original spark. The oboe break in “Nubian Sundance” is straight off the Weather Report’s Mysterious Traveler album . That’s because it’s the perfect instrument for the part.

Unlike the Absolute Ensemble’s project with Zawinul, Absolute Zawinul, which chose more obscure pieces, Medoza picked stalwarts from the glory days of Weather Report; not “Birdland,” but the tunes from that era that were deep, thematically sophisticated and harmonized in their composer’s signature style.  Their familiarity is a reason the recording is so amazing; the Orkest and guests get the best from Zawinul’s compositions.  Guitarist Amit Chatterjee adds the vocal touches that so humanized Zawinul’s electric sound. There’s even a version of “In A Silent Way.”

It’s not all in Zawinul’s shadow. A trumpet solo bursts out of “Fast City” and the orchestra swings in hard-bop style that Weather Report didn’t visit (but Zawinul did at other times in his career, see “Cannonball Adderley”) before the tune turns back to its long, melodic theme. The strings on “Peace” are lush and lanquid. It could easily be mistaken for some 20th century concerto. And “In A Silent Way” has never been heard like this before, even if it’s appropriate a trumpet takes the lead.

So the jazz orchestra evolves. It’s not just bigger, it’s better (in its own way), too. And, as in some jazz-meets-symphony-projects,  it doesn’t forget the individual. Especially, the arranger.–Cabbage Rabbit

There He Goes…James Moody Interview

I thought something was wrong with me as a kid in Newark…I saw the way people of color were treated. Then I thought, Wait a minute.    There’s  nobody in the world that’s better than me. Nobody. And by the same token, I’m not better than anyone else.–James Moody

When James Moody died at 84 last week from pancreatic cancer, he left more than a musical legacy. We had mutual friends and I was honored to spend a number of evenings listening to his music and in his company (and that of his widow, Linda) when we both lived in Los Angeles.  The saxophonist famous for “Moody’s Mood For Love” was one of the nicest gentleman you’d ever meet, a person who treated everyone equally no matter their place or race. But he was nobody’s fool and was outspoken about racism in our country.

It should be remembered that Moody (he was always Moody to everyone and insisted he be called by his last name) served in the Army Air Force during World War II and that he expatriated to Europe in 1948 to escape, as he later told us, the way black musicians were treated in the States. “Paris saved me,” he said the last time we talked. “I went there to stay two weeks with my uncle and ended up staying three years. All my cousins there were studying math and physics, making something of themselves. Back in Newark, I never had that chance.”

Our discussion in April of 2008 was ostensibly about jazz festivals, particularly his experiences at Hollywood’s Playboy Jazz Festival. He spent time telling stories of hanging out back stage with old friends and making new ones, playing with his long-time compadre Dizzy Gillespie in a quintet that followed Weather Report. “They were like pow!pow!pow!,” he yelled. ” And then the stage turned,” he says in a whisper, ” and we were all shh! shh!. It didn’t take the audience more than a moment to catch on.”

But the political season was well underway. Controversial Pastor Jerimiah Wright of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, attended by candidate Obama,  had just made an appearance on Bill Moyers Journal and his remarks were being used to smear the candidate. Moody was quick to point out that much of what the pastor had said was true. “If you heard the whole thing he told the truth for America. The truth hurts and I don’t care how people hear it but the truth will set you free. Much of what this country hears, about this and that, is a lie.”

He had words on Iraq: “First of all, you can’t take something from someone because you have bigger guns then get all moral about it while you treat them like dogs. Don’t give me that “God Bless America” stuff when you’re doing that. You don’t have to wear a flag to be a patriot.”

But most of what concerned him was the racism that the election had brought out. “Things are very different now, but I’m not saying there isn’t still racism. Look at the news. They’re saying Hillary will get the white vote but that has nothing to do with it. There’s no difference between people, even between people of different colors. My wife is blond yet we have the same blood type.

“I was in the service in Greensboro, North Carolina and German prisoners of war would come into places with military police that I couldn’t even get into. And I was an American soldier. In Newark, I’d go to the Savoy Theater and I had to sit in the balcony and not on the first floor. There were two separate societies, white and black, and they were not equal.

“And it still exists today. We were on tour with the Monterey Jazz All-Stars and my wife was on my shoulder and they’d say, ‘You two together?’ We’d eat and I ‘d hand them my platinum card and they’d return it to my wife. We’d be sitting together and they’d ask if we wanted separate checks. These things are more covered up in the north but they still happen.”

“What’s all this have to do with music? It has everything to do with music. The reason jazz was called the devil’s music is because it was done by colored people. That didn’t stop people from listening to it, from enjoying it. The music, the sound, is what makes people feel good. It’s what makes me feel good and that’s why I bring it to them.

Moody said he wouldn’t want to be president, but things would be different if he were. “If I were, we’d have to be honest about everything. No more of this pretending things aren’t like they are, no more being hoodwinked. Everything would be honest. For one thing we’d have to start paying teachers decent salaries. It’s disgusting all these professional athletes and business executives, the money they make. Let’s pay people who are doing something for the kids.”

Moody was wound up, but he returned to his two over-riding, optimistic themes; education of all types (he was always a great supporter of music education) and the fact that people’s differences were often less than they imagined…or were made to imagine. “In my administration, I’d get people to see things the way they are, be honest with them and get them to do the right thing. I’d get people to utilize the talents they have, whatever they are. I’d get people happy about things. Look at all the potential we have, everyone — Korean, Polish, African, Arab, Chinese, English — all these different people who really are the same. I’d get them to do what they do best. Then we could really sing.”–Cabbage Rabbit

When Jazz Went Bad

The same old thing wasn’t going to cut it in the early 1970s. And just about anything recorded before Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, in other words before 1969, was the same old thing. That wasn’t going to grab the ears of the hip new audience Miles had attracted with his magnum opus. And record companies wanted that audience…bad.

The music collected on Bridge Into the New Age, all of it (with the exception of one cut) recorded between 1971 and 1974 documents attempts to bring jazz into the age of Aquarius. There are reflections of the political, social and cultural trends that influenced the music, mirrored by peace-and-love themes and cries of “Free Angela!” as well as attempts to meld Afro-centric rhythms and soul–the “bad” sounds of James Brown, Sly Stone and Issac Hayes among others–to an art form which was popularly seen as  becoming to intellectual and formless  (though this wasn’t necessarily so).

As Bridge illustrates, there was much about this movement that was successful. The period (and earlier) produced some great music, not all of it by Davis. Any comprehensive selection of the era’s hits would have to include Miroslav Vitous’ Infinite Search, Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi, Wayne Shorter’s Super Nova, Joe Zawinul’s Zawinul, Weather Report’s eponymous first album and a host of others. Bridge documents the Milestone/Prestige label’s attempts at staying current. That most of the music here is satisfying and timeless in its appeal speaks to the musicians on the label’s roster–Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Idris Muhammad, Gary Bartz–and their ability to maintain their individuality even as their approach to music changed.

The music reflects trends of the era: spiritual and ethnic-consciousness themes, electric instrumentation, emphasis on vocals, percussive color, accessible beats that supported strong and sometimes free-form solos, attempts to include non-traditional instrumentation into the mix, movement towards larger ensembles. Here, those trends are represented by drummer Muhammad’s eight-piece ensemble playing “Peace,” with two additional percusionists (occasionally augmented by saxophonist Clarence Thomas on bells) joining the drummer in rhythmic layering.  Larry Willis attaches echoplex and ring modulator to his keyboard for Henderson’s “Tress-Cun-De-O-La” with the leader’s vocal and guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer providing dissonant elements.  Alice Coltrane brings harp to Henderson’s “Fire.” Todd Cochran, performing then as Bayete, balances clavinet against the horn section on one of “Free Angela”‘s three sections. Gary Bartz sing lyrics from Langston Hughes before cutting loose on alto.  None of the tunes would be identified (except by militant purists) as anything other than jazz. Yet they all sound different than earlier schools of swing, be-bop, post-bop. New.

It’s impossible to tell if (or how much) this direction resulted from label influence (as it did from the Columbia label) or if it came from the artists themselves.  And not everything here is music to our ears. Compare vocals from artist themselves (Henderson, Bartz, Cochran’s chorus) to Jean Carn’s strong and convincing voice on Azar Lawrence’s tune that gives the collection its title, or her work on  “Mother of the Future” from Norman Connors’ Slewfoot. The one piece that stands apart from the rest–Jack DeJonette’s “Brown, Warm and Wintry”–was recorded in 1968. Maybe something from the 1975 Prestige date Cosmic Chicken would have better fit the program (his excellent1970 recording Have You Heard? on Milestone may have been too far out or its trio too underpopulated to be included).

Needless to say, much of this music’s positive direction lost out as jazz recording moved on to jazz-rock and fusion. Too bad. But the Rabbit, who owned all but one of these recordings as a bunny, remembers the hopeful feeling this music gave him…and the conviction it gave that there indeed was something new under the sun. Dumb bunny.–Cabbage Rabbit

He’s No Keith Jarrett

I once had a minor tiff with Brad Mehldau, an exchange of words in the pages of the L.A. Weekly that, I hope, ended up serving us both well. It started when I wrote up a plug for a rare Keith Jarrett appearance, saying that Jarrett had influenced a generation of young musicians. For proof one needed to look no further than Mehldau’s recorded rendition of “Blame It on My Youth”

BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO LIVE, Nonesuch Records

I once had a minor tiff with Brad Mehldau, an exchange of words in the pages of the L.A. Weekly that, I hope, ended up serving us both well. It started when I wrote up a plug for a rare Keith Jarrett appearance, saying that Jarrett had influenced a generation of young musicians. For proof one needed to look no further than Mehldau’s recorded rendition of “Blame It on My Youth” and compare it to Jarrett’s. Mehldau, of course, didn’t like the insinuation that he had mined Jarrett’s work—he claimed to have never heard Keith play “Blame It On My Youth”—and wrote a pointed letter to the editor saying as much, taking the time to belittle some of the other things I’d said in the Jarrett piece, including the fact that for me listening to the pianist and his trio over the years had become a near-religious experience.

Mehldau was playing the following week at LA’s Café Largo and the appearance gave me the opportunity to respond while making him the subject of my jazz pick column. I stuck to my contention that there were a lot of similarities even if they were accidental in Jarrett and Meldau’s takes on “Blame It on My Youth” (maybe the pointed melancholy of Oscar Levant’s lament made for a collusion of mood and approach). And, I argued, it wasn’t such a bad or unusual thing, especially for us godless sorts, to find inspiration, meaning and yes, reason to live in music as wonderful as Jarrett and Mehldau’s.

All (apparently) was forgiven—the keyboardist certainly had larger considerations in his life than what some alternative rag journalist had said about him—and we had a nice chat between sets one Sunday afternoon at a downtown concert sponsored by the Da Camera Society. Mehldau even granted me an interview a year or so later in which he espoused intelligently on his direction. The pianist is known to pontificate about art and his music. Some of his liner notes go to great academic lengths while dropping the names like Goethe, Foucault and Thomas Mann. While they may seem a little overblown at times, these insights are revealing. His notes to House on the Hill are one of the best explanations of the jazz form’s theme-and-variation concept we’ve read (you can find it here [http://www.bradmehldau.com/writing/index.html#]) and Mehldau continues to practice what he preaches. That he has a good intellectual understanding of what he does is a refreshing and educational change from what passes as exposition and criticism of art of any sort (this screed included).

I bring up the Jarrett story to make a similar, hopefully less foolish, Keith-and-Brad comparison. It strikes us that Mehldau is his generation’s Jarrett. The comparison is not so much musical–despite “Blame It on My Youth”–as situational. Both have a long-standing trio (drummer Jeff Ballard replaced Jorge Rossy in 2005) making the evolution of interplay between the three men as interesting as any other component. Both have impeccable musical tastes and an ability to do almost anything they like on the keyboard (which may be truer in Mehldau’s case, Jarrett’s forays into classical music aside). Both attracted young audiences, Jarrett in the ‘70s with his extended solo excursions, Mehldau with his renditions of alt-rock music and a certain rumpled hipster cachet which comes to him without him really trying. This is just the kind of fan recruitment that the so-called jazz world needs to maintain its audience, especially now. That Mehldau seems to do this without compromise—and what he makes of “pop” tunes isn’t a compromise—is all the more to his credit.

Brad Mehldau Trio Live makes Mehldau’s familiar case for opening up the jazz canon to worthy contemporary music even as it establishes a new level of greatness for the trio. (No, those cover photos aren’t of The Village Vanguard where the discs were recorded in October of 2006.) Who else could follow a Soundgarden tune with one by 1930s-era swing band leader Ray Noble and get away with it? Mehldau’s trio is able to pull this kind of thing off by finding a rhythmic core to the music and relating it directly to its mood. They get straight to the heart of a melody and then mess mightily with it (unlike the bits-and-pieces technique Jarrett uses). That they develop all this during the variation part of their theme-and-variation approach makes listening to the trio something akin to reading a good novel. This is one of improvisational music’s great pleasures: it’s as if you can follow what’s going on in their minds as you listen to what’s coming from their hands.

Trio Live gets right into this modus with Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” a rhythmically accessible way to enter the recording. Mehldau’s harmonically kinky assertions stretched across Larry Grenadier’s pin-point bass groove. Mehldau compiles lines on a descending left-hand line and his improv strengthens as it goes along, winding tighter and tighter on Ballard’s irresistible groove. Mehldau’s a master of resolution, able to find his way out of a tight spot as coolly as some action character in a spy thriller. Here it happens so seamlessly that you don’t see the bridge coming until he’s crossing it.

The rest of this two-disc set mixes jazz standards—“More Than You Know”, the John Coltrane vehicle “Countdown”—with Mehldau originals. Unlike Jarrett’s often droning originals, Mehldau pushes his own compositions all over the room, taking them to unexpected corners, stirring up dust and diamonds. Moods vary. There’s the quick and insistent “Ruby’s Rub,” the swing and grace of “B-Flat Waltz,” the romance and intimacy of “Secret Beach.” Mehldau’s sharp reading of Jimmy Heath’s “C.T.A.” cuts new meat from its bop-bones. If Mehldau’s solos seem to go on too long (see liner notes above), one must remember that the same thing was said of John Coltrane, especially in live performance. Like Coltrane, Mehldau has things to get off his chest.

The other comparison Mehldau has garnered, especially early in his career, was to Bill Evans. This came from his audible sensitivity, a quality lacking in the work of many emerging pianists, rather than any stylistic comparisons to Evans. That Mehldau is sensitive, thoughtful and melodically inventive is old news. Here, he finds beauty in a soft touch, melodic sense in even the roughest handling. His approach to “The Very Thought Of You” convinces one, true or not, that this guy knows the depths of love. No you wouldn’t and shouldn’t confuse Brad Meldau’s work with Jarrett’s (guilty) or anyone else’s. We wouldn’t be the first to say there’s no one like him. Highly recommended. –Cabbage Rabbit