Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Gary Burton & Makoto Ozone @ The Blues Alley, March 2, 2017

Gary Burton has announced he is retiring and that this is his farewell tour. Born in 1943, he’s been touring for nearly six decades and made his recording debut in 1960 at the age of 17. Not that anyone would think that he’s getting old hearing him play, seeing his tall frame bent over the vibraphone, chuckling at his good natured commentary between the tunes. Burton has chosen to carry out his retirement tour with his long-term musical partner MakotoOzone. They’ve known and played with each other for 34 years. The duo played in front of a full house at the Blues Alley in Georgetown for two nights, with two shows each night in the beginning of March.

Gary Burton is possibly the most accomplished vibes player in the history of jazz (the only possible competition would come from his seniors, Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson). He has recorded more than 60 albums as a leader and received about half a dozen Grammies – a rare feat for a jazz artist. He pioneered the four-mallet technique on the vibraphone, which has since then been emulated by many musicians. One of the hallmarks of his career has been collaboration with many leading innovators on the jazz scene, including ChickCorea. His collaboration with Makoto Ozone is a good example of this collaboration.

The concert started with a Chick Corea composition honoring the pioneering bebop pianist Bud Powell. This was an icebreaker that allowed the audience to get into a full jazz swing, with Ozone providing a solid rhythm occasionally breaking into stride piano. The early part of the concert was overall defined by more straight jazz than one would often hear from Burton. The evening would grow more varied as it progressed. The Burton-Ozone sound is quite different from that of the more famous Burton-Corea duo.  Ozone uses his left hand to a rhythmic effect and plays often thick chords on the right. He is a superb pianist, but his style is somewhat heavier than that of Corea’s. In many ways, it fits well in this duo format where there is no bass or drums to provide the base. Neither is needed or missed, although one could imagine an innovative double bass player fitting into the format.

One of the highlights of the evening was ‘Remembering Tano’, a piece composed by Burton for the legendary Argentinian composer, leader and accordionist Astor Piazzolla, with whom Burton recorded. Naturally, the piece is in a tango format, oozing with dark passion and tension amidst complex rhythms, while the bridge seamlessly shifts into a brighter major key only to soon return to the original melancholy mood. It provided an excellent opportunity for Ozone to dwell in the drama, which seems to come naturally to him.

In 2002, the gentlemen recorded an album, ‘Virtuosi’, with arrangements of classical pieces by Brahms, Gershwin, Ravel, Scarlatti and others. At the concert, they explained how they had sat together in a café in Phoenix, Arizona, coming up with the idea. Interestingly, the album would go on to receive a Grammy nomination in classical music category. This night they played the Prelude from Ravel’s ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’, providing one of the most beautiful moments of the show.

Back to jazz history, ‘Opus F’ by Benny Goodman followed. The up-tempo tune displayed some amazing fast soloing by Burton and gave Ozone another opportunity at stride piano. A fun interlude in the varied program.

Several years ago, Gary Burton was recording an album and had requested Makoto Ozone to write two original pieces for it. As Ozone recalled it, he had made very little progress and not really gotten into the task because of other things to do. One Sunday Gary called him over to his house. Makoto arrived and was promptly closed off into the basement alone with a piano and kept there until the two pieces were done. We heard one of them at the concert. The composer had written much space for piano in it and it displayed clearly his classical background. Makoto Ozone still today performs as a classical music soloist with symphony orchestras in Japan and the USA.

After the concert I spotted Gary Burton chatting with some patrons and I joined them. I told him that I had first seen him in Helsinki sometime in the 1970s. Gary’s reaction: “Oh, then we go way back!” I remember the concert quite well and mentioned that Eberhard Weber had been part of the group.  Gary acknowledged that he had played a lot with the German bassist and they were still in touch. Unfortunately, Eberhard can’t play anymore as he’s had a stroke.

I am very glad that I was able to catch Gary Burton on one of his last gigs. I understand his wish to quit touring, which must be very hard work – and it’s always good to quit while you’re still winning – but I hope that we will still hear from this master also in the future.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Psychopath TestThe Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very well researched account of what the author calls the madness industry. Written in a highly entertaining style, the book provides a thoughtful critique of how psychology and psychiatry are practiced, and how pharmaceutical companies push for more and more severe diagnoses to peddle their products. In the book we meet an interesting cast of characters -- sane and truly insane, psychopaths and not so, incarcerated and sitting in boardrooms. Looking at these serious phenomena through the concrete and varied cases provides a most vivid and absorbing approach. Along the way, Jon Ronson also examines his own sanity and role as a journalist.

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Adios Gato & Jeremy

The year that just ended can hardly be described as a good one. The carnage of the civil war in Syria
and the siege of Aleppo are on top of our minds – or at least should be. The situation in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen remains precarious. Natural disasters caused an estimated US$175 billion in damages around the world, with floods in China, hurricanes and typhoons in the Philippines and Haiti, earthquakes in Japan, and many others. Terrorists attacked Nice, Berlin and Istanbul (right on New Year’s Eve!) – not to mention Baghdad. The influx of refugees hardened attitudes towards foreigners in Europe and voters in the U.K. opted for BREXIT. Russia continues to flex its muscles – as concretely personified by its often shirtless leader – flaunting human rights, threatening its neighbors and even influencing the US elections through hacking. And partly as a result, the worst disaster of the year, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States supported by millions of misguided and misinformed people in this post-fact world.

The rock music world experienced many notable losses, as well, starting with David Bowie who died on January 10 at age 69, ending with George Michael passing away on Christmas Day at just 53. In between, Prince’s death on April 21st (at 57) probably received the highest attention, as did that of Leonard Cohen (November 7th at 82). Other notable departures from the popular music scene included the pianist Leon Russell (November 13th at 74) whose sound was more influential than many listeners realized; another highly influential behind-the-scenes force, Rod Temperton (October 5th at 66); the laid back southern pianist/singer Mose Allison (November 15th at 89); and Greg Lake (December 7th at 69), the fabulous bassist, vocalist and composer of King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame. Others, such as the Belgian-born harmonica master, Jean ‘Toots’ Thielemans (August 22nd at the tender age of 94) whose music everyone has heard, whether they realize it or not; the magical Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos (March 9th at 71), and the legendary drummer Alphonse Mouzon (also on Christmas Day at 68) were great losses to the musical world. Finland lost one of its more prominent jazz musicians, bassist Make Lievonen (December 14th at 69). Although I grieve for all of these fabulous artists, I will here briefly focus on two forceful creators who were amongst the most important to me personally: Gato Barbieri and Jeremy Steig.

The saxophonist Leandro ‘Gato’ Barbieri (b. November 28th, 1932, in Rosario, Argentina; d. April 2nd, 2016, in New York) was my hero during my teenage years. I remember the first album I heard from him, ‘El Pampero’ (1971). It completely blew my mind. It still holds a central place in my record shelf. This was a live recording. The tunes were long – just two to a side – with nearly constant soloing by Gato against a South American beat provided by three percussionists, Bernard Purdie, Sonny Morgan and the above mentioned Nana Vasconcelos. The band was completed by electric bassist Chuck Rainey and Lonnie Liston Smith whose piano added freer fills into the mix. I was sold. Especially, the tune ‘Mi Buenos Aires Querido’ with the gorgeous saxophone intro caught my heart and made me long for the sensuous capital of tango on Rio de la Plata. Gato in his trademark black fedora hat was the coolest cat I knew (apologies for the pun). Even my mother warmed up to his warm, huge and highly distinguishable sound on the tenor sax.

I immediately went back to look for his earlier recordings to find that they were mostly free jazz, inspired by Ornette Coleman. In the mid-1960s Gato divided his time between Rome and New York performing and recording with Don Cherry, Carla Bley and others in the avant garde movement. Only with the 1969 album ‘The Third World’ did he find the voice that would combine elements from Coltranesque jazz with tunes and rhythms from South America. Other recordings followed, including ‘Bolivia’ (1973), which brought forth the lyrical side of Gato, with melodies borrowed from the South American jungles and pampas. Mind you, this was not what you would normally call ‘Latin jazz’, because Gato’s music never flirted much with salsa or even bossa nova. His roots were more firmly in the music of his native country, Argentina.

This was most clearly demonstrated by the film score Gato made for Bernardo Bertolucci’s scandalous ‘Last Tango in Paris’ (1972) for which the composer won a Grammy. The dramatic and sexy score became an international hit record with Gato’s powerful tenor at the lead accompanied by a tango orchestra featuring a bandoneon and strings. Its melancholy laments of forbidden, fleeting love pulled my heartstrings more than most other music ever. The legend has it that Bertolucci had planned a role for Gato in the film but the latter turned out to be such a wooden actor that the plan was scrapped. Nevertheless, when he made a cameo appearance as a stranger practicing the saxophone, whom the lovers, the middle aged Marlon Brando and 19-year old Maria Schneider, could see through a window, I was I heaven.

"Always in the tango is tragedy — she leaves him, she kills him. It's like an opera but it's called tango … The lyrics and the melodies are very beautiful. It's very sensual," Barbieri is quoted as having said in 1997 (Billboard, April 2, 2016).
Then followed in rapid succession the series of Chapter albums recorded for Impulse!: ‘Chapter One: Latin America’, ‘Chapter Two: Hasta Siempre’ and ‘Chaper Three: Viva Emiliano Zapata!’ (1973-1974). The third introduced a large orchestra arranged and conducted by Chico O’Farrill, and some truly beautiful music, such as a version of the classic ballad ‘Cuando vuelva a tu lado’. A fourth in the series, ‘Chapter Four: Alive in New York’, released in 1975, was as the title suggests a concert recording.

Not all Barbieri records were masterpieces. Having earlier recorded for the jazz labels Flying Dutchman and Impulse!, his new label, A&M took Gato to a more commercial smooth jazz direction. I could still find great merit in records like ‘Caliente!’ (1976), even if I missed the earlier rougher productions. The intensity, lyricism and warmth never disappeared from Gato’s playing. His collaboration with Carlos Santana on a rendition of the latter’s composition ‘Europa’ can still bring tears to my eyes.

There was a long hiatus in his recording after a dispute with the record label in 1982. During the 1980s he released a couple of albums that received little attention. Throughout the period he toured extensively performing around the world. His wife of 35 years, Michelle, died in 1995, and he himself went through the first of his bypass heart operations. His comeback album after the break was the 1997 ‘Qué pasa.’ By that time, Gato had married again, to Laura, with whom he would spend the remaining two decades of his life. During the 2000s he would only release a couple of albums, but he continued to perform in concerts. I last saw him at the Blues Alley club in Washington, DC, more than a decade ago. He was in great form performing the music that he loved, not the smooth jazz version of it.

"Music was a mystery to Gato, and each time he played was a new experience for him, and he wanted it to be that way for his audience,” Laura Barbieri is quoted as saying (Rolling Stone, April 3, 2016). In 2015, Gato Barbieri received a lifetime achievement Grammy Award from the Latin Recording Academy. He is greatly missed but the consolation may be that there is no better way to remember him than through his sensuous, melancholy music.

Another artist and human who made a huge impression on me was Jeremy Steig (b. September 23, 1942, in Manhattan; d. April 13, 2016, in Yokohama). I also started listening to him as a schoolboy in Finland in the 1970s. I often biked over to my friend Timo’s house on afternoons to listen to music. We’d have a wide scale, ranging from Edgard Varèse to Eric Dolphy to Frank Zappa, as long as it was novel and interesting. Timo was the one who introduced me to the records of Jeremy Steig and the music hit me like a rock from the very beginning. Both Timo and I were aspiring flute players, so discovering a rare jazz flautist who was as versatile and creative as Steig was a real treat for us. At that time, almost all jazz flutists were primarily saxophonists who doubled on the smaller instrument, but Jeremy Steig was a flutist first. The first record I remember hearing was ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ (1971), which featured a small group of leading contemporary jazz musicians, such as Eddie Gomez and Don Alias, but playing to a funky rock beat. The music was free in a loose format with largely improvised interplay. Again, I went back to older albums by Steig, such as the 1968 ‘Jeremy & The Satyrs’ which embodied the psychedelic spirit of the era.

Jeremy Steig had grown up in the straight jazz tradition and had been on the New York scene since the early-1960s. He released his first album as a leader, ‘Flute Fever’, in 1963. The album featured a traditional piano trio with young Denny Zeitlin. His greatest claim to fame in mainstream modern jazz was, however, ‘What’s New’ recorded with the pianist Bill Evans, backed by Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell, in 1969. The song list consists of standards, such as ‘Straight No Chaser’, ‘Lover Man’ and ‘Autumn Leaves’ but the treatment was novel and the playing enormously creative and interactive. Jeremy later told me how in those days, there were no fancy music schools for jazz musicians to take a shortcut to fame; the only way was just to practice and play and try to get the chance to be accepted to sit in with the established stars in clubs. To me, one of the best collaborations was the rather free form album ‘Outlaws’, recorded in 1976, with just Eddie Gomez on bass and Jeremy Steig on flute and alto flute.

Jeremy Steig’s flute playing was truly unique. He had perfected his jazz chops but then moved more towards a crossover style, adopting techniques that incorporated singing into the flute and ample use of overtones. What contributed to his special sound was a motorbike accident at 19 that left a side of his face paralyzed. He re-learned to play and rebuilt his face muscles, but never fully recovered from the damage. In the 1960s Jeremy would sit in with both jazz and rock groups at live performances in New York’s Greenwich Village. He observed that he could still solo “with integrity” over the funky beats of rock bands. “We decided that we’d invented jazz-rock … Of course, there were about 50 other people who had come to the same conclusion,” he later mused (New York Times, June 2, 2016).
It was in Greenwich Village where I caught Jeremy Steig on one of his rare live appearances in 2007 (see my review of the gig). The gig was amazing, with Jeremy playing as innovative music as ever, alternating between the regular and alto and bass flutes (one of his last records – the 2007 ‘Pterodactyl’ – consisted of only overdubs with flutes of different sizes from piccolo to bass). After the show I went to talk with him and his wife Asako who was acting as his manager. We established a good rapport and followed up with a dinner in a nice restaurant in the Village on another evening not long after. A common element was found in the fact that we both had spent a lot of time in Japan. As it happens, Asako hails from Morioka, not far from my wife’s hometown in the same northern Japanese prefecture, Iwate. Asako and Jeremy established a home in Yokohama, which is where Jeremy passed away.
Over the long dinner we discussed many matters, around and beyond music. Jeremy considered himself retired, “senior citizen”, as he repeatedly mentioned. He hadn’t made new records since the above mentioned ‘Pterodactyl’ and the excellent 2007 quartet recording ‘Flute on the Edge’, both produced and released on his own label. He seldom performed but he continued to paint, which had long been his other artistic passion. In fact, he produced the cover art for several of his albums and lately he and Asako created a series of ‘digital picture books’ with his art. Jeremy’s interests were wide and included politics. I remember him raving about the book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, which detailed how American firms had taken over developing countries by convincing them to take huge loans for construction and infrastructure projects.

Sadly, Jeremy Steig never became a household name, even amongst jazz aficionados. Still his music was highly influential in many respects. He made appearances as sideman on recordings by famous artists ranging from Art Farmer and Urbie Green to Johnny Winter and Tommy Bolin. One of my favorites is his performance on a rather obscure, but lovely pop tune, ‘Hurricane’ by Dee Carstensen. As Jeremy would tell, the most money he ever made through his music was in 1994 when the Beastie Boys sampled his 1970 ‘Howlin’ for Judy’ for their hit ‘Sure Shot’.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in AsiaThe South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia by Bill Hayton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bill Hayton has written an important book about a world hotspot that receives far too little attention in the United States and Europe now obsessed with Islamic terrorism, the refugee crisis and the mess in the Middle East. In the meantime, the South China Sea region continues to grow importance as a global economic powerhouse, while tensions mount between the increasingly aggressive China and its neighbors. The importance of South China Sea goes far beyond the region. For example, US$5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (Armed Clash in the South China Sea). Of this, U.S. trade accounts for US1.2 trillion. According to security expert Robert D. Kaplan, almost 60% of Japan’s and Taiwan’s and 80% of China’s crude oil imports are also transported through the relatively narrow sea lanes in the region. As China flexes its political and military muscles in order to secure the mineral and other resources in the South China Sea to itself, it is imperative for the rest of the world to ensure that the international waters in the area remain open for navigation. Hence the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” when Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State.

South China Sea directly borders a large number countries, including China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, and the Republic of China (Taiwan). In addition, countries like Japan have an important stake in the sea. As a semi-enclosed sea, there is considerable scope for overlapping claims for territorial waters in the area. China has unilaterally established a “nine-dashed line” – known as the “cow’s tongue” – that usurps most of South China Sea to the big brother in the region. In 2009, the Chinese government attached a map of this “U-shaped line” to its submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. At stake are island groups, such as the Paracels (claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam) and the Spratly Islands (disputed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam), and their presumed resources, from oil and minerals to fishing. In 2013, the Philippines brought the case under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to the International Court of Justice, which in June 2016 ruled in the Philippines’ favor on seven of the aspects in the case (stating that in other seven submissions it was not able to provide a ruling). Needless to say, China has not accepted the ruling. Hayton in his book gives extensive background to the disputes and China’s attempts to use both the notion of territorial waters under UNCLOS as well as historical arguments to justify its claims to most of the sea area.

In the first lengthy chapter, ‘Wrecks and Wrongs: Prehistory to 1500’, Hayton provides a comprehensive historical overview of the waxing and waning empires – including the Champa, Angkor and Srivijaya – in the South China Sea area and the importance of the Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication Network (using the term coined by the archeologist Wilhem Solheim). This analysis convincingly refutes the notion of any single nation having unique historical claims to the sea. In the following chapter, ‘Maps and Lines: 1500 to 1948’, the book moves on to the era when the European colonial powers played a significant role in the region, until the times in the 1930s when the Chinese government turned to map-making in trying to exert its control over the region. Hayton demonstrates how new Chinese names were invented for many of the islands and reefs, sometimes just translating the names that the French and the British had given to them (like in the case of North Danger Reef in Spratly Islands, which was simply translated into Bei xian), to give legitimacy to the historical claims. The French geographer, François-Xavier Bonnet has also shown how China has planted archaeological evidence on the islands in the South China Sea to bolster its territorial claims (Archeology and Patriotism: Long Term Chinese Strategies in the South China Sea, 2015). Following Mao’s revolution, the Communists adopted the policies and maps of the predecessor government.

China, however, has not been the only regional actor trying to ensure access to South China Sea and its resources. Others, not least Vietnam and the Philippines, have been active, too, sometimes using inventive tactics to expand their control. For example, both countries established garrisons on deserted islands in the North Spratly Islands trying to outmaneuver each other. Despite earlier conflicts, these garrisons are now on speaking terms and have even organized football and basketball matches between themselves. One of the core strategies of all the actors has been to try to establish a permanent foothold on uninhabited (and often uninhabitable) islands or mere rocks, so as to be able to claim territorial waters around them. Hayton gives detailed and interesting accounts of these efforts. Placing permanent structures and settlements for military personnel unfortunate enough to be posted in these hostile environments is hard when a rock is unable to support food production or is part of the year submerged under water. These claims can’t be accepted under international law, but it hasn’t stopped China and others from establishing bases on them. This strategy may be dissolved in water when rising sea levels due to global warming fully submerge the geological formations.

Among the key actors in the fray have, naturally, been many energy companies hoping for a bonanza on the hydrocarbons supposedly lying under the South China Sea. The extent of these, as well as the technical and economic feasibility of extracting them, is still somewhat unknown. Still multinationals, such as BP and ExxonMobil (and many of their subsidiaries, some established just for this purpose), as well as national energy companies like the Sinopec (China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation) have entered the geopolitical game as active players. Surely the Secretary of State nominee, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, will be able to advice the incoming President Trump on the intricacies of the situation.

In the sixth chapter, ‘Drums and Symbols: Nationalism’, Hayton discusses how the countries in the region have used sovereignty issues around South China Sea to boost nationalistic sentiments, often to divert attention from domestic problems. Equally obviously, all countries in the basin, as well as outside, such as the United States, use political carrots and sticks to convince others, including those in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), to support their position. China’s diplomacy, which alternates between economic incentives and military threats, is especially powerful in this regard. Towards the end of the book, chapter 8 focuses on ‘Shaping the Battlefield: Military Matters’, outlining the military buildup in the region, as well as the role of the United States armed forces providing security guarantees to its allies, notably Taiwan, but also others.

Last but not at all least, the South China Sea is significant in terms of its environment. Apart from fisheries, Hayton does not spend much time discussing environmental issues. The fishing issue is big enough in itself, given that the 500 million or so, largely poor, people living on the shores of South China Sea depend on fish for their protein. In the last chapter 9, ‘Cooperation and Its Opposites: Resolving the Disputes’, Hayton discusses the declining yields caused by overfishing and development in the sea. There has been a steady increase in the number of fishing operators (from 584,000 in 1980 to 1.8 million in 2002) and the fishing fleets’ power, size and ability to operate far offshore has equally increased. Over the same period, the average catch of a small inshore fisherman has fallen from 20 kg to 2 kg, which barely allows for subsistence. Again, China is the biggest culprit and as its fishing boats have ventured further away, this has led to clashes with other nations’ coast guards. Recognizing the problem, China has attempted to establish periodic fishing bans to allow for the fish stocks to recuperate, but this is not enough. A better solution would be to establish permanent marine protected areas, but this obviously requires agreement and cooperation by all countries in the region.

Apart from the fisheries, the South China Sea basin is a repository of globally significant ecosystems and biodiversity in mangroves, seagrass beds and the like. These are threatened by coastal development, extensive aquaculture, land-based sources of pollution and many other human-induced stresses. The project, ‘Reversing Environmental Degradation Trends in the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand’, funded by the organization that I work for, Global Environment Facility, and implemented by the UN Environment Programme, is a major effort to fight these trends – and it was the first regional program of its kind in which China agreed to participate. I was delighted to see the program getting mention in Hayton’s book.

The South China Sea by Bill Hayton is a good complement to Robert D. Kaplan’s fine 2014 book Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. In fact, where Kaplan focuses on military and security issues (while giving geography and politics fair coverage), Hayton’s approach is broader. Especially the historical chapters are amongst the best in the book, bringing new information in a consolidated form and putting the current issues in perspective.

South China Sea is an area with high risk for conflict, even if a shooting war between China and the U.S. would be unlikely. Just earlier this month, a Chinese navy ship intercepted and confiscated a U.S. submarine drone in international waters causing tensions between the two countries. Lynn Kuok, in an opinion piece published by the Brookings Institution this month, advises the incoming administration about the importance of the region for US and global strategic interests (“America first” cannot mean “America alone”: Engaging Southeast Asia). If the US withdraws from the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership), ignores ASEAN, and waffles on its interests and commitments in the region, this will only benefit China as the hegemon of the region. Others, like Susan Shirk, head of the China policy center at the University of California San Diego, have argued that the US interests in the South China Sea are limited (see China’s Great Leap Backward by James Fallows in The Atlantic). Then again, as Kuok wrote in June 2016, “The South China Sea dispute is about much more than mere ‘rocks.’ It concerns maritime rights and the preservation of the system of international law. More broadly, how the United States and China interact in the South China Sea has important implications of their relationship elsewhere and on other issues” (The U.S. FON Program in the South China Sea).

In my opinion, the South China Sea issues are so important for regional stability, freedom of navigation, food security, and the global environment, that they deserve the full attention of the world at large.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

DC Jazz Summer 2016

The Nation’s Capital is a cultural town with the best museums and the Smithsonian Institutions that are all free, the Kennedy Center with its top class performing arts, and a generally well-educated and wealthy populace who take advantage of the opportunities (admittedly, the education and wealth are highly unevenly distributed). In jazz, however, the city can’t compete with New York. Looking back, the summer of 2016 was nevertheless highly satisfying.

Every June sees the DC Jazz Festival in full swing with lots of concerts and live events in different settings. My season started on June 18, when I caught the Mika Mimura group as part of the Jazz Fest. The concert took place at the Japan Information and Culture Center, which has a medium-sized hall styled like an old-fashioned theater. Mika Mimura is a marimba and vibraphone artist born in Osaka, Japan. She has released two CDs under her own name consisting mostly of her own compositions, ‘Precious’ in 2009 and ‘Dreamii’ in 2014. At the JICC she played with a group consisting of the Argentinian guitarist Ignacio Hernandez, and her compatriots Kuriko Tsugawa on bass and Ken Yanabe on percussion. Mika Mimura displayed some impressive mallet work on pieces like‘The Flight of the Bumblebee,’ but was somewhat overshadowed by her mentor, Warren Wolf, whom she had invited to make a guest appearance at the concert. Wolf, a much in demand musician and teacher from Baltimore, displayed such grace, musicality and relaxed charm that his act was hard to compete with. I was also particularly taken by Tsugawa’s bass work that was both subtle and musical. Educated at Berklee College of Music and based in New York, she is a composer and leader in her own right. All in all a highly satisfying evening.

On the following night (June 19) I headed to the Hamilton for a double booking with two of today’s finest Hammond organists, Cory Henry and Joey DeFrancesco. The Hamilton, close to the White House, is one of the best music venues in DC area and, indeed, anywhere. It’s a fairly large space, with tables in front of the stage, a bar on the side towards right, and another bar up the stairs right in front of the stage. The latter is my favored location, but the advantage with the venue is that no matter where you are seated or standing, the view to the stage is unobstructed and the acoustics are very good. So I ordered some wine and got comfortable waiting for the show to start. Cory Henry was a new acquaintance to me but his turned out to be the better part of the evening, at least for me. As the name of his band, The Funk Apostles, would suggest, we were in for some serious funk that night. But the point is that this was not just rhythm music to make you move. Cory Henry’s music is imaginative and creative, the compositions are often complex with intricate harmonies and chord changes. On top of that, Henry’s own playing is both funky and sophisticated at the same time.

As a longer established musician, Joey DeFrancesco was billed as the main attraction of the evening
and the performance was very good. Unfortunately, the more traditional organ trio sounded a bit sedate after the riotous Funk Apostles. DeFrancesco’s organ sound fits well in a nightclub setting and his sidemen, on guitar and drums, performed in a highly skilled fashion in the standard jazz genre. A couple of times the leader would add to the nightclub atmosphere by singing some mellow jazz tunes or taking up his soft blown trumpet. The intensity picked up when he introduced his new tenor sax player. The evening closed with a lengthy jam session when Cory Henry joined the DeFrancesco band on stage. This final interplay with the two virtuoso keyboardists egging each other on was definitely a highlight of the night and received a roaring response from the full house.

On June 22nd the Finnish Embassy hosted an event with Nordic jazz. The modern building on Massachusetts Avenue is exceptionally beautiful, with a high ceiling, simple light wood fixtures and tall windows giving over a forested lot that was still the light green color of early summer. The embassy is also an excellent venue for music due to its good acoustics (and the open wine bar at the side).

First on stage was Sigmar Matthiasson NYC Quartet. The New York based bassist and composer is one of the best known jazz musicians emerging from Iceland. His multinational NYC Quartet consisted of Taulant Mehmeti on guitar, Baden Goyo on piano and Ayman Boujlida on drums. The music was contemplative and dreamlike, broadly in the category that is exemplified by ECM records.

The second performance of the evening was somewhat rougher. The Finnish pianist and composer Mika Pohjola presented a trio with Kyle Struve on drums and Jerome Sabbagh on tenor sax.  The lack of bass took some time to get used to but Mika’s strong left hand was mostly able to fill the void.

On the last week of June I had to travel to Canada for work and subsequently spent three weeks in Japan in July, so there was a month during which I missed whatever Washington could offer music-wise.

Soon upon my return, on July 31, I headed to the Blues Alley in Georgetown where the great  LA-based Poncho Sanchez was making a rare East Coast appearance with his Latin Jazz Band. He told the audience this was his first performance in DC in the past 30 years. I myself last saw him perform in Hollywood in the late-1980s, so this Georgetown reunion was long overdue. This was his last sold out night after several evenings of performances and it turned into a fabulous show. The venerable Blues Alley is a small and intimate venue – Dizzy Gillespie is said to have called it the finest jazz and supper club in the country. It worked perfectly for Poncho’s band, with the leader on congas, percussion and vocals, backed by Joey De Leon (timbales), Rene Camacho (bass), Rob Blake (trumpet and flugelhorn), Robert Hardt (alto and tenor saxophones, flute), Francisco Torres (trombone), Angel Rodriguez (bongos, congas), and Andy Langham (piano). Francisco Torres also serves as the musical director of the band. Blake played some very good trumpet and a lovely solo on the flugelhorn. Hardt shone on the tenor sax, especially in a blues number by Albert King, but it was his beautiful work on the alto sax that particularly caught my ear. He also played one excellent flute solo (I would have liked to hear more). The most innovative player, however, was Andy Langham who was as avant garde as you would ever hear a Latin pianist play. After the show I was so hyper that I couldn’t make myself go straight home. Instead, I crossed M Street and walked up Wisconsin Avenue to El Centro D.F. to wind down with a couple of more glasses of wine in a Latin setting.

On Saturday August the 13th I decided to leave town and headed to the Chesapeake Bay and the small resort town of North Beach. The traffic was heavy as many others had had a similar idea, but I reached the shore well before lunchtime. The weather was brutally hot and humid. The temperature hit +36oC that afternoon and there was absolutely no wind. I was sweating profusely when I found a popular Mexican place, Plaza Mexico, in which to cool down. After my break, I wandered around the beach and watched people swimming in the bay. Then I stumbled upon what was labeled the 1st Annual North Beach Jazz Festival. I entered the small and cozy courtyard – the Yard at 7th Street Market – where the action was. There was a tent where cold beer and hot BBQ were sold. A few tables and chairs were scattered in front of a small stage where a band was playing. There may have been twenty or thirty people in the audience. I found a shady corner and set to listen to the music. 

The first band was fronted by a trumpet player backed by four gentlemen on electric piano, guitar, bass and drums. The music appealed to the audience, myself included, as it swung in a relaxed manner in the summer heat. The predominant mode was 1970s-80s style rock jazz, as exemplified by a decent rendition of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Cantaloupe Island.’

After a short break, another band set up on stage. This one was led by local guitarist, DeonCleanCutt. His two sons belonged to the band as well, the younger playing the drums and the older teenager the trumpet and flugelhorn (he clearly had adopted some of the cool mannerisms of Miles). The fourth member of the band was a bass player from California who was visiting his friend here on East Coast. The bass player no doubt was the most accomplished of the musicians, having performed with such jazz stars as David Murray. The music played by this family group relied more on straight blues and jazz. 

All in all, the festival was an extraordinarily sympathetic event, even if the local bands were nothing spectacular. Mental note: make sure to find out when the 2nd Annual North Beach Jazz Festival takes place next summer.

On August 18, I again got the urge to listen to some live music, so I checked the schedules of the known places in the city to find out that Cyrus Chestnut would be performing at the Blues Alley. So I headed back to Georgetown to catch the later show at 9 pm. Am I ever so glad that I did! The piano trio is a versatile format that gives ample space for the players to stretch out based on their abilities and musical imagination. These are qualities that Cyrus Chestnut is not short of. The sensitive, innovative, open minded, creative, genre bending pianist seems totally unhindered by trivial matters like technique. In his hands, original numbers as well as standards get such a breathtaking treatment that the audience can only gasp in amazement. Again, it was impossible for me to return home without stopping at a bar to calm down.

Then on August 27 it was back to the Hamilton. This time the attraction was Al Di Meola whose Elegant Gypsy meets Romantic Warrior tour was making a one-night stop in the capital. The two-hour musical trip that Al Di Meola treated us to rekindled my enthusiasm for the music of this amazing artist whose music I have to confess I hadn’t really listened to since the 1980s. Despite the complexity and virtuosity, the music at the concert was always warm and lyrical. The band played a lot of new material, including from Di Meola’s fresh album ‘Elysium’ (it is an excellent and beautiful one), although fans would get treated to many of the old favorites as well. 

The concert was divided into three segments. The first part focused on fusion numbers that displayed some of the most advanced playing of the evening. A key member in the band was a tall young black man playing some very inspired electric violin. The second part saw Di Meola switching to an acoustic guitar and the mood changed. The final part was again electric but the focus was on more straightforward jazz rock. The set opened with a powerful version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ in which a wailing violin played the part of Robert Plant. Some beautiful Santanaesque Latin beats followed. The Hamilton’s high ceiling was again raised when the band, which played like a dream, received several standing ovations and a raucous call for an encore, an encore that was highly rewarding.

September 2 was a night that I had prepared for. I had bought the tickets months ago as they became available. Despite the threat of rain, Chicago drew a crowd of some 7,000 to the Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia. Still going strong, Chicago played a two-hour non-stop show to an enthusiastic audience. The band was fronted by the three-man horn section consisting of the original members: Lee Loughnane, James Pankow and Walter Parazaider. The gentlemen have aged graciously but still put up a very vigorous performance, each playing inspired solos as well as the section parts that were as tight as ever. Old tunes from the band’s earliest albums, like ‘Make Me Smile’ followed each other. The original keyboardist, singer and composer Robert Lammm was there, although his role was somewhat more low key than in the past when his distinct keyboard and vocals defined the Chicago sound alongside the horns. The “new” members have not changed the Chicago sound noticeably. The keyboardist Lou Pardini (who joined the band in 2009) played a major role, also as a singer, but more as a substitute for Lamm. The drummer Tris Imboden (joined in 1990) was powerful as Daniel Seraphine in the original setting. He was supplemented by the biggest innovation in current Chicago: a percussionist. Walfredo Reyes Jr., was fabulous and some of the most exciting moments included his solos. The guitarist, Keith Howland (joined in 1995), spent much time upfront creating fiery solos, without copying the original guitarist Terry Kath (who accidentally shot himself in 1978 – what an American way to go). We also heard big hits, such as ‘If You Leave Me Now,’ performed by the bassist Jason Scheff, who channeled Peter Cetera almost perfectly both on vocals and the bass guitar. To me, a much more important ballad was ‘Color My World’ sung by Lee Loughnane and featuring Walter Parazaider’s classic flute solo, which all of us aspiring jazz and rock flutists at the time emulated. The two-hour concert ended with two of the band’s biggest hits from the early period, ‘I’m a Man’ and ’25 or 6 to 4.’ Needless to say, the multitude in the audience went crazy.

As if by some divine intervention, the rain had held itself throughout the concert, but at the moment the music ended the skies broke into a torrential downpour soaking us as we walked out of the park. It was futile even to try to stay dry as the paths and the roads soon turned into ankle-deep wildly flowing streams.

Once I get started it’s hard to stop. My jazz summer continued well into September. No more concerts by big visiting names, but there is local jazz talent who can attract a decent crowd to some of the locales around town. On the day after the Chicago concert, I ventured into Columbia Station, a long-standing club on 18th Street up in Adams Morgan and enjoyed a couple of sets of modern quartet jazz led by Knute, a local tenor sax player. 

A couple of weeks later, on September 24th my regular neighborhood haunt Acacia Bistro hosted a jazz marathon with several local bands. My choice was to listen to Jordon Dixon, a solid tenor saxophonist playing very good post-bop backed by a guitar, bass and drums trio. I had never seen my favorite neighborhood joint so packed.

By now the summer is but a memory and it is hard to imagine the heat as the cold winter winds chill one’s bones. But although the summer is gone, the music remains. Washington, DC may not be New York and one has to make more of an effort to find music, it still is a fine city.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Chick Corea - The Leprechaun at 75

Last June Chick Corea turned 75 and the famous Blue Note club in New York is celebrating the prominent composer, pianist, band leader with a series of nightly concerts between October 19 and December 11. On November 6, as I had meetings in New York the following days, I decided to go one day early and took the Delta Shuttle from the Washington Reagan National airport to La Guardia on the Sunday afternoon with barely time to stop by my Midtown hotel, take the 6 train down to the Village and walk over to the West Side to meet my friend Alan and his kids Emma and Ian at the club. We arrived early to secure good seats at the bar from where we would have an unobstructed view of the stage.

The Chick Corea series at the Blue Note celebrates the many faces of Chick Corea and features a broad cross section of the different combos he’s led and played with, including his famous Elektric Band, acoustic quartets and quintets, piano duets with Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, two evenings with Gary Burton and the Harlem String Quartet, another two evenings with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, an evening with John McLaughlin (his partner from Miles’ Bitches Brew album), ending with four nights of Return to Forever meets Mahavishnu. Corea’s versatility and scope are indeed amazing.

 Over the past few decades I’ve caught Corea in various formats, starting with his 1970s performance at the Pori Jazz Festival in Finland with the original Return to Forever band. This was pure magic to me. Corea had previously worked with Miles Davis on a number of electric albums, which were path breaking in their hypnotic psychedelia. He had also made his own music in a more traditional piano trio format (his 1968 Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, featuring Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous, was a breakthrough). But the new band was something entirely different, something that no-one else had done before. It featured Corea on a Fender Rhodes, Joe Farrell on the flute and soprano sax, Stanley Clarke on bass and Airto Moreira on drums and percussion. Their regular singer, Airto’s wife, Flora Purim had just had a baby and was replaced by a less impressive male singer, but this hardly mattered. The band played music from their eponymously titled first album, which I had recently purchased and had hardly listened to anything else since then. Stanley Clarke was barely out of his teens then, but his work on the big bass was amazing and his interplay with Airto – unusually behind a regular drum kit beating a flat ride cymbal – made the music soar light as a feather (the title of their yet-to-come second album). I was just a kid, sitting on the floor in front of the stage in Pori Theater, and I was totally mesmerized (I can still remember the feeling). I could not imagine anything more beautiful than the ringing sounds of the flute and the Rhodes conjuring exotic soundscapes.

The last time I saw and heard Chick before this latest night was a couple of years ago at New York City’s Highline Ballroom, that time with an acoustic trio featuring Brian Blake and Christian McBride. This more conventional setting was anything but, as the three innovators created new music on old instruments. I was also there one night for the master’s 70th birthday celebration, also at the Blue Note. That evening the band featured Hubert Laws, the amazing flautist who was one of my greatest idols in my teen years.

This time it was the Leprechaun Band, named after the 1976 album. The band featured two other legends in addition to the maestro: Eddie Gomez on bass and Steve Gadd on drums. They had a frontline of three horns: Steve Wilson, Michael Rodriguez and Steve Davis. As per the commemorative program booklet, the evening found them “reimagining the game-changing music from The Leprechaun, My Spanish Heart and The Mad Hatter.” These three were among my all-time favorite Corea albums (although it’s hard to say, as most of them are excellent). Chick himself was in superb form alternating between acoustic and electric pianos and synthesizers (no Rhodes, though). He remains as boyish as ever and it would be hard to believe him to be his age.

Apart from his trombone, Steve Davis was in charge of the horn section, which worked together perfectly. Michael Rodriguez played crisp trumpet, although there was a debate between Alan and Ian about the merit of his solos, with the son defending Rodriguez’ work against some skepticism from his father. No-one could disagree, however, that some of the most beautiful solos were produced by Steve Wilson. Again, I was enthralled by his flute work. Where does Corea find all these stunning flutists? As a flute player myself, I have always appreciated the prominence Chick Corea gives to the instrument in his compositions.

Some of the most memorable pieces included ‘Friends’ from The Mad Hatter and ‘Reverie,’ a ballad that featured a gorgeous alto sax lead by Steve Wilson and beautiful unison work by the three horns. The set ended with a rendition of Pino Daniele’s ‘Sicily.’ This was a lovely homage to the wonderful Italian musician, composer and singer who passed away only last year at the age of 59. Needless to say, the audience that packed the Blue Note did not relent before an encore. And we got an incredible treat: ‘Spain’ as a duet between Chick and Steve Gadd. This, perhaps the most famous composition by Chick Corea, now performed only on grand piano and drums sent us to the cold New York City night radiating heat from the inside.

Monday, July 4, 2016

A wonderful and learned book about the Sundarbans

The Hungry TideThe Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

OK, so this is one of the best books I've every read. So, now I've said it. It's also the fourth I've read by Amitav Ghosh who has by now become one my favorite authors.

The Hungry Tide takes place in the Sundarbans, a vast river system with endless mangroves in the southern part of the Indian state of West Bengal. Moving between the 1970s and the present, Ghosh tells a compelling tale of the place, its people who are some of the poorest in India subsiding on small-scale fisheries, the natural system dependent on the strong tides prevalent in the area, and the tropical cyclones that destroy the island settlements at regular intervals. At the heart are the story of an illegal Bangladeshi refugee settlement in one of the islands, the official efforts to get rid of it, and the conflict between poor people and conservation in this land of man-eating tigers and riverine dolphins. The story, told from the contrasting perspectives of a New Delhi man of letters, a young American-Indian cetologist, an elderly social activist and her late revolutionary husband, and fisherfolks on the islands, is fascinating and absorbing. And most of the setting is based on historical facts with accurate depictions of the social and natural dynamics. Amitav Ghosh, who holds a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford, has done thorough research and knows what he is writing about. Apart from that, his characters are multidimensional and one can understand their differing viewpoints.

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