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The Virtuoso of Joy

Jaco Pastorius: Truth, Liberty & Soul

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“Virtuoso” is used promiscuously, without much thought for the actual thing it is describing.

Here’s an example: Lang Lang is considered a virtuosic pianist. He plays at fast tempos and does so with a lot of demonstrative physical flourishes. He also has terrible technique, constantly fudging passages and in the times I’ve seen him unable to maintain a consistent pulse or tempo. I’ve also never heard any ideas from him, so his ability to play the piano and think about music are both questionable to me. There’s nothing I see in him that’s virtuosic, other than perhaps public presentation.

Then there are musicians like Oscar Peterson, or Jascha Heifetz, or Al Di Meola, who can play the hell out of their instrument but, to my ear and heart, do nothing more than spin out polished notes—they have nothing to say. Admiring their technique only goes so far.

Virtuosos to me are musicians who have technique that supports thinking, and the insight and depth of their thinking is so grand that it needs astonishing technique to speak. Think beyond mere dexterity to phrasing, the clear articulation of complex music, the expressive use of timbre. Think Glenn Gould, Django Reinhardt, Anne Sophie-Mutter.

And think Jaco Pastorius. Jaco was an astonishing, jaw-dropping player, the kind of musician who has you at first not quite believing that the things he is doing can actually be done. That thought is immediately swept away by the utter wonder of his music making, the grand pleasure. With Jaco, that was an enveloping universe of funk, soul, jazz, beauty, and, above all else, joy.

Jaco still elicits vituperation (check a couple of the comments on this post from 2010), which mystifies me. I press my sympathetic imagination, and I just can’t find any thinking that would reject the sheer social pleasure of his playing. You have to have a hardness in your heart to sneer at the gifts Jaco offered.

Yes, there are purists of all types, who are ideologically against things like electric instruments, rock beats in jazz, what they see as the mongrelization of styles (which is pretty damn ignorant in a mongrel culture like ours), or even that, under Jaco’s hands, the bass was a lead instrument.

He played the bass as a lead instrument because that was his personality, and you don’t need to have known him to see that in his playing—that spirit that came through every note was irrepressible and full of a particular and worthwhile purity, the pure joy of making music for others. Live or on record, Jaco’s primary expression was something like: “playing music for you is the greatest thing in the world, man.”

Underneath was Jaco’s imagination, which was capacious, articulate, and disciplined. His self-titled debut album, which is still great, starts famously with him playing “Donna Lee” on the bass (that set a lot of musicians on their ears), and then immediately segues into the tight funk of “Come On, Come Over,” with Sam & Dave. The jazz police charged him with a felony, I think it’s fabulous and it hits the body so hard that one would have to consciously wall off and reject a sense of fun.

Debut albums in jazz are generally made to show the listener what the musician can do, and Jaco is no exception. Although it is in the sense that what Jaco could do was both unfettered by convention and tightly focussed on a seamless blend of American vernacular music. Jaco came out as a jazz musician, but he was fundamentally just an American musician—he came up professionally playing soul, funk, rock, and R&B along with jazz, the last one of the range of American vernacular musics. And playing professionally before he became a star, he was a superb ensemble player.

Listen to him that way, from “Donna Lee” to “Come On, Come Over” to “Third Stone From the Sun.” Listen past his playing, if you can, to his composing and arranging, which were tremendous, from the abstract riffs of “Teen Town” to the gorgeous, formally sophisticated “Three Views of a Secret,” to the charts for his exceptional Word of Mouth big band, and then to the deep, open-ended beauty of his essential Word of Mouth album. And of course, “Portrait of Tracy,” not just a showpiece for what Jaco could do with the bass, but a haunting and lovely piece of music. It was, as Charlie Parker said to Symphony Sid, “all just music.”

He was a masterful musician in the old sense (before industrialization, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and academic/professional specialization) of the composer-musician, creating in every aspect of his practice. Everything he did was deeply musical. As he told Guitar World magazine, “I have never tried to play fast in my life.” You can hear this: even churning out funky 16th-note bass lines, everything is both clearly articulated and musically meaningful, even the briefest note has a thought and a purpose behind it. Few musicians can claim that.

This new archival release continues the joy and spirit of Jaco’s music making. It comes in the typical beautiful package from Resonance, and is the usual labor of love and devotion from producer Zev Feldman. It adds on to the somewhat confusing discographical legacy of the WOM band: Invitation is a distillation of a Japan-released two CD set, Twins I & II, while The Birthday Concert is a separate gig from December, 1981. If your budget dictates only one of these recordings, make it Invitation, which is tight, punchy, and a great representation of this period. Ideally, you want to have the Twins and then add this live concert from the old Avery Fisher Hall in 1982. The recording is clean and rich, though oddly the sound quality seems to mellow the mood. Not that this is a bad thing, but the WOM band had a jauntiness that flowed from Jaco—hearing less of that is a bittersweet reminder of how tragic his life turned out to be, and why his loss still feels so raw for those who appreciate joy.



UPDATED: Fixed Spotify embed

2016: The Last Word In Jazz

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We critics have spoken, and here’s The 2016 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll : The Record : NPR.

I am happily surprised to see Henry Threadgill hit the top of the poll—it is generally slightly more forward looking than the Downbeat polls, but still skews to the mainstream. While his disc was not my absolute favorite for the year, it’s superb and represents not only his achievements as a unique and formidable composer of modern music (Henry’s idiom goes well beyond jazz) but also as a mark of his stature. He has been at the forefront of contemporary music for decades, but the Pulitzer win seems to have impressed a lot of people, and if he’s become the recipient of some default votes, he more than deserves that.

I’m also happy to see that Wadada Leo Smith’s America’s National Parks turned up. This was not on my list because I have not had the chance to give it the concentrated listening it deserves, but his recent compositions have been hugely ambitious and successful, and his playing is ridiculously strong—again, this is a mark of his stature and he deserves every bit of attention.

Also nice to see Resonance earn so much attention for their excellent run of reissues.

Listening proceeds apace, and before the year came to a close I got to considerably more jazz (thanks to the lull in classical concertizing). My Top 10 list remains the same, but I also want to add these recordings to the list of worthwhile 11s:

You can’t go wrong with anything on my lists, or the one at NPR.

Things To Come

Things will not be great in 2017 if you are an ordinary person, especially if you’re not a man and not white. Things will be great for certain people, those who have the right balance of melanin and money. For example, things will be good for non-punk rock musician/Weimar-ignoramus/privileged emigrant Amanda Palmer. But not everyone can be Amanda Palmer, most of us could never measure up to her level of self-regard and selfishness.

Predicting what will happen in the arts is foolish. For every idea inspired by anger—and there will be many—there will be the corresponding obstacles of lack of money and increased social corrosion. But certainly artists will persist, the first step in resisting the swamping backwash of history. Musicians, ones who emphasize substance over social media skill, are already putting out some invigorating protest music:

Noah Preminger, an excellent jazz musician with a deep, personal commitment to expressing his values through his music, is putting out a new record on January 20 (you know what day that is), Meditations on Freedom. Check out this excellent sample track, and order the album at his website.

Best Reanimations 2016

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The depth and range of 2016 reissues and archival releases was not as great as previous that of previous, years (especially 2015), but there were a small handful of such releases this year that were of rare quality and importance.

The most notable was Decca’s release of their Mozart 225 complete edition of his works. I’ve gone into more detail on this release here, and the short version is that this is the greatest collection of some of the greatest music in human civilization. The choice of performances is superior throughout, and if there is an emphasis on the new thinking that has come out of the Period Performance Practice movement, there is also a generous selection of wonderful performances that are historically important due to their sheer, exalted, quality. Round that out with fragments, works with unclear provenance, a good, short, hard-bound biography, and a new Köchel catalog, and this is a cornerstone collection for a serious classical music lover. But yes, it is expensive, and even with that cost it’s not perfect—my copy has a misprint in the booklet for opera and theater music. At this price, that type of quality control error should not happen, and it’s unclear to me if Decca will replace it, they don’t seem to have anything in the way of customer service.

(Note: Amazon price as of this posting, $340, is the best I’ve seen since it was released, and very close to the best pre-order price that had been available)

(Billboard reports that this is a surprise best-seller, moving more CDs than anything else released this year. This is misleading because they are multiplying the number of boxes sold—6,000 or so out of a total of 13,000 in this limited edition—by the 200 CDs contained within.)

For those sensitive to their budgets, there are still some amazing releases out within a wide price range. My favorites are:

Classical

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There were some good Bruckner boxes out this year too, but I’ll be writing about them in January.

Jazz

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  • Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: Bootleg Series Vol. 5. On the surface this might seem to be only for the specialists—the complete tape from the session that produce the great Miles Smiles album. But that means you are there while arguably the greatest ensemble in jazz history puts together a classic recording on the fly. An indispensable look into jazz as process, full of invaluable insights into what made Miles such an unsurpassed band leader. It’s tremendously exciting and makes the original album sound even better.
  • The Complete Savoy Be-Bop Sessions, 1945–49. Savoy is best known as Charlie Parker’s label. But these 10 CDs from the vaults have everything else on the label from that period, vintage early bebop excursions from Dexter Gordon, Milt Jackson, Stan Getz, and many more. One marvelous track after another, complete with alternate takes and the typical excellent documentation from Mosaic.
  • Sun Ra, The Singles Volume 1. Sun Ra’s singles are more than just fodder for condescending hipster lifestyles, they are a Rosetta Stone that decodes American popular music. If you don’t already have the original Evidence collection, absolutely get this. And if you do have it, this new set from Strut has plenty of additional tracks recently unearthed.
  • UPDATED (Can’t believe I forgot this): Peter Erskine Trio: As It Was. This is a 4 CD collection from ECM, everything that this trio produced. Taken together, this series of albums from the 1990s make for a pinnacle of modern piano trio jazz, and the late English pianist John Taylor is simply outstanding on every track.
  • Arthur Blythe: In the Tradition/Lenox Avenue Breakdown/Illusions/Blythe Spirit. Four albums on two CDs, for $20. Lenox and Illusions are two of the greatest albums of the post-fusion era, testaments to the beautifully creative and vital music made on the Loft Jazz scene.
  • Searching for You: The Lost Singles of McVouty (1958–1974). On Resonance, Zev Feldman produced two important archival releases this year, covering Larry Young and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. He had his hand in this one too, and there’s little this year I enjoyed as much.

Everything Else

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  • Harry Bertoia: Complete Sonambient Collection. A marvelous box from Important Records. This beautifully remasters and documents the records sculptor Bertoia made playing his Sonambient sound sculptures. Hours of rich, mysterious, beautiful, and immersive sounds.
  • Machine Gun: Jimi Hendrix: The Filmore East First Show 12/31/1969. The complete first set of Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. An amazing performance and unintended culmination of Jimi’s musical world: blues, soul, funk, and rock.
  • Led Zepellin, Complete BBC Sessions. While it might be hard to imagine you would want to hear five different performances of “Communications Breakdown” in the same collection, the playing here is so exciting and powerful that you will enjoy every one. Some spectacular moments in Zepellin’s history.
  • Hey Colossus: Dedicated to Uri Klanger. A compilation of fairly recent music that had limited release previously, this should serve as an ideal introduction to this noise band. Their sound is heavy and warm and completely exhilarating. Not a dull moment to be heard.

2016 Notes and Tones

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After listening to what is now close to 500 recordings with a 2016 release date, I feel like I’ve discovered some themes. Some of this is the elusive zeitgeist, what is on the minds of musical artists; some is longer term trends having to do with technology and pop culture; some may just be coincidence. But all were noticeable and satisfied my arbitrary criteria for a sample size.

Jeff Parker

Nothing sub rosa here, Parker has been around for a while and has been one of most interesting guitarists on the scene, creating his own niche in between jazz, rock, neo-soul, and improvised music. He’s living testament that there’s no real line between the popular and the avant-garde in African-American music, it’s all on a spectrum, and a pretty compact one at that.

His album The New Breed (International Anthem) made the most noise this year, and it is solid. I don’t love it though; the intentionally fragmented nature, while interesting, doesn’t really satisfy—the record wants to be both experimental and neatly controlled, and those are contradictory goals.

But there are two other recordings to his credit that are fine. One is a seemingly modest but actually deep solo record, Slight Freedom (Eremite), which has Parker exploring his own fascinating art. The other is drummer Matt Mayhall’s Tropes (Skirl), a tight, strong debut based around the trio of Mayhall, bassist Paul Bryan, and Parker (with various guests). Parker’s contributions are integral to the success of the disc, which is the best jazz debut of the year, and my regrets that I did not get this out of the pile for listening until after the deadline for Francis Davis’ Jazz Critics Poll. Both these are strongly recommended and on my extended list for best new releases.

Guitars

There’s been a longer term trend in the proliferation of terrific guitarists—and please don’t think of just jazz. Many of them play jazz, but they are playing in every sort of style and tradition Some are relatively new on the scene, others are established, and they keep putting out one solid record after another (or, like Parker, are important sidemen on other musicians’ records). Here are recordings from guitarists that I enjoyed this year and recommend:

Ask me on a different day, and any and all of these could be on my list of 52.

Singers

First, I want to express some disappointment. As someone with a man-crush on Kurt Elling, his appearance on Branford Marsalis’ Upward Spiral never captured my attention, and I find his Christmas disc hard going. But there were other fine releases from singers that had the balance of artistry and creativity that I seek—I want my singers to be good musicians! Try these, they are all terrific:

Seriously swinging, musical singing from all the above. Everyone should hear Bertault sing “The Peacocks“ in French.

Labels

This was a strong year for Sunnyside records. I have several of their releases in my top 52, and you’ll find a couple of the vocalists there. Other keepers are Andrew Cyrille and Bill McHenry’s duet album, Proximity, Dan Blake’s tough-as-nails The Digging, and two records with a south of the Trump wall flavor, Edward Simon’s Latin American Songbook, and Argentum from Carlos Franzetti.

ECM is by default one of the major labels, but their output this year took nothing for granted and was impressive even by their consistent standards. I do go against some of the consensus favorites, like Michael Formanek’s The Distance, which I found wan, but they had a run of fine records in that typical ECM style that carved out a space between improvisation and contemporary classical control. Along with the release on my best of list:

ECM also had several excellent classical and new music releases, those you will find in a forthcoming post.

52 Pick-Up: Best NewMusic 2016

52 of the best new releases of the year, 52 out of the the 430 (as of this writing) new releases I listened to. Every year I fiddle with how to make and present these lists, and the idea here is obvious; one record to every week. For this I used the criteria of releases that I would gladly listen to, non-stop, for an entire week. That is, music that not only satisfied critical thinking, but that was a complete pleasure in the way it swamped critical thinking and just occupied the pleasure centers of my mind and body. Each note or sound was like a brick in a marvelous structure, and I wanted to hear it being built, piece by piece, over and over again. I could add an “honorable mentions” list with recordings that could move in an out of my 52, depending on mood, but I’ll that for the comments section, if anyone cares to discuss this.

I’ve placed this in rough genres that should be self-explanatory (“Popular” is any music that can be placed in a popular music category, from metal to hip hop; “New Classical” is music in that classical tradition that was both composed in the last generation or two and newly heard on recording). If you compare the Jazz/Blues below to my best jazz post, you’ll see some differences: the previous post was for Francis Davis’ categories, here I’m using mine, and I differentiate between musicians playing jazz and jazz musicians improvising in non-jazz idioms.

(Note that these are unranked because the criteria gives them equal value. Also note that I will have a separate list of for reissues and archival recordings.)

Ambient/Drone

Classical

Electronic

Improvisation

Jazz/Blues

New Classical

Popular Styles

Again, this list could be longer, but without limits I never would have gotten to the end. There are more worthy releases this year that I’ll get to in an upcoming post on notes and trends of 2016. Happy listening.