The Iron Rule of Sentimentality in the NBA This Summer

LeBron and Chris playing violin and singing.                Sentimentality is the rumpled trump card of sportswriting. The games are actually won or lost on the basis of strategy, tactical adjustment and execution, but that’s as dry as a brand new cardboard box. Better to tell the story on the basis of the star player thinking about his sick son as he nailed the winning shot. It also sets up better—or at least more usable—quotes. It’s why during the Olympics we rarely see stories about the physics that go into the amazing feat being attempted, but we do hear that the competitor’s kid sister overcame a vicious case of acne to be in attendance.

The surprise to me this offseason is how sentiment has ruled the transaction wire. The offseason is usually a paradise for sports geeks because sentimentality goes on vacation and it’s all about performance and money, salary caps and windows of contention.

Not this year in the NBA. LeBron James’s return to Cleveland was draped in “I’m Coming Home” angle of the Ohioan returning to unfinished business. It is such an archetypal western story that I’m surprised no one photoshopped a cowboy hat onto Bron. I can give James a little bit of leeway since the real story isn’t particularly diplomatic. His brand would suffer enormously if he told the truth which is his buddy Dwyane Wade is in serious decline, and Pat Riley, the mastermind behind his title run with his former team, the Miami Heat somehow thinks that Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger are the solution to an aged and ineffective bench.

Then Carmelo Anthony turns down offers from the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to stay with the New York Knicks for a near maximum deal of five years and 122 million dollars. He then put out a wordy statement with all kinds of loving words about the honor of being a Knick. The statement stopped just short of saying that he wished he could have been Willis Reed running out of the tunnel with a broken leg in 1970 to lead the Knicks to their first title. Again, it sugarcoats a less noble reality: 124 million was too much money to leave on the table. Due to the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, L.A and Chicago could only offer ‘Melo about 75% of what the Knicks did. What they did offer was a better chance of pursuing a title. But money is money.

Thank goodness, Lance Stephenson didn’t talk about how North Carolina is a cradle of basketball after leaving the Indiana Pacers to sign with the Charlotte Bobcats, er Hornets.

This week’s story is now about whether the Cleveland Cavaliers will trade their recent draft picks Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett to Minnesota for all star forward Kevin Love. It’s been fun watching the press search for a sentimental angle when there isn’t one. LeBron signed a two year contract. That means the window of opportunity is already closing. Waiting for Wiggins and Bennett to develop isn’t luxury the Cavs have. They have gone from promising young team to a group that has to win now.

The good thing is that NBA GM’s don’t seem to give a damn about sentimentality. So far, most the moves this offseason have been pragmatic. I don’t understand what the Lakers want with Carlos Boozer, but maybe someone will explain it to me. Otherwise it’s been so logical that it’s strangled everything else in the NBA news cycle.

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At WSJ on the new recording by Steve Lehman

la-et-ms-steve-lehman-octet-mise-en-abime-2014-001Usually when one of my curmudgeonly friends tells me there’s nothing new in jazz, I snap back what about Cassandra Wilson?  She’s one of many good choices; there’s also Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, and many original voices who have taken what came before them and distilled it into something entirely original.  Lately, I’m inclined to include Steve Lehman in that group.  Here’s my musings on his latest.


Equal Opportunity Studies

Saxophonist-composer Steve Lehman and the jazz road less taken.

June 30, 2014 6:28 p.m. ET

Steve Lehman’s octet is making some of the most exciting music in jazz today. Corbis

The road to renown in the jazz world typically goes through the bandstand: Impressions made playing at jam sessions often result in sideman gigs, which can open opportunities to lead a band. Saxophonist-composer Steve Lehman took a different path.

Mr. Lehman studied at the Hartt School of Music, earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Wesleyan University and a doctorate from Columbia; he was recently named a recipient of a Doris Duke Artist Award. Being in academia enabled him to work with two of his biggest influences, the saxophonists and composers Jackie McLean and Anthony Braxton. “I was looking for the set-up that would afford me the maximum amount of time to focus on music,” Mr. Lehman said in a telephone interview earlier this month. The Wesleyan and Columbia graduate programs are fully funded, with fellowships to help defray living expenses. The freedom from having to earn a living allowed Mr. Lehman, 35, to record impressive albums in trio and quintet settings, and he has created an octet that is producing some of the most exciting music in jazz today. That group’s debut recording, “Travail, Transformation and Flow” (Pi Recordings, 2009), made the “best of” lists of more than 30 publications; its second album, “Mise en Abîme” (Pi Recordings), was released last week.

The octet has a mesmerizing sound. Shimmering harmonies are densely layered, but in a way that seems transparent. There is a three-dimensionality to it that makes it seem as if there are many different lines being played at once, yet the music is surprisingly coherent. The rhythms are fluid and catchy.

The group’s unique sound is due in part to its unusual instrumentation. The members include tenor-saxophonist Mark Shim, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Tim Albright, vibraphonist Chris Dingman, tubaist Jose Davila, bassist Drew Gress, drummer Tyshawn Sorey and Mr. Lehman on alto saxophone and laptop. In forming the group and sculpting its sound, Mr. Lehman acknowledges the influence of trombonist Grachan Moncur III’s 1963 recording “Evolution” (Blue Note). Mr. Davila’s playing, which has both frontline and rhythm duties, recalls the music of Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus, another group that combined unique rhythms and innovative harmonies.

“Mise en Abîme” is a taut powerhouse that says a great deal in just under 40 minutes. The writing on this album is more complex than its predecessor’s. The harmonies are even more layered and the rhythms looser, yet the music is just as accessible and is played with a unique urgency. It often sounds as if all eight musicians are playing at once, each with an easily distinguishable line.

Remarkably, even though everyone in the band is in high demand, both octet recordings feature the same lineup. “I think everyone in the octet has a fair amount of overlapping musical interests with my own,” Mr. Lehman said, explaining how he managed to keep the roster intact. But he also attributes his good fortune to the group-leadership skills he learned from Mr. McLean, who taught him that choosing his collaborators is also an act of composition. “I give everyone a great deal of agency to shape the music; hopefully that fosters a creative environment that everyone goes out of their way to make time for.”

“Mise en Abîme” features three tracks that address the work of keyboardist Bud Powell, who was a mentor to Mr. McLean. “I think Powell is someone who looms large for everyone, both as a composer and as a conceptualist,” Mr. Lehman said. “It’s really astonishing what he was able to accomplish and how early he was able to do it. Compositions like ‘Glass Enclosure’ and ‘Tempus Fugit’ were decades and decades ahead of their time. And his introduction to ‘Autumn in New York’ is something that sounds ultracontemporary even today.”

Mr. Lehman’s innovative compositions are informed by spectral-music theory, an approach to harmony built around timbres rather than the usual tonal-atonal relationship. “I first turned on to spectral music around 1999 or 2000,” Mr. Lehman said. “I was immediately struck by the otherworldly sound of the music and the ways that Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey, in particular, work with harmony,” said Mr. Lehman, explaining that it “isn’t about being in tune or out of tune.”

Much of the literature on spectral music is in French. Although Mr. Lehman grew up in New York and lives in Hoboken, N.J., he received a Fulbright scholarship to study in France in 2002 and he is fluent in the language. He felt he had a special entrée into that world and began incorporating spectral ideas into his music.

Mr. Lehman continues to develop his sideman career. He said that just in the past seven months he has either recorded or performed with Jason Moran, HPrizm from Antipop Consortium, Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith. He said his time in academia and the opportunity it afforded him to develop a unique style reinforced his ties to his core community of musicians and mentors. “A lot of the sideman work I’ve done has come as a result of me being able to articulate a personal point of view through my ensembles and my music and not so much as a result of ‘being on the scene.’”

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.


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At WSJ on the Great New Recordings by Jeff Ballard and Billy Hart

HartMy job is a lot of fun sometimes, and this is definitely one of them.  These recordings are wonderful and were great to write about.


Leading With the Beat

June 2, 2014 5:34 p.m. ET

The Jeff Ballard Trio. Andrea Boccalini

Drummers don’t often lead jazz ensembles. But when they do, usually the sound is either bright, hard charging and rhythmically precise, as in the classic recordings of Art Blakey and Arthur Taylor, or big and propulsive, as in the work of contemporary musicians like Jeff “Tain” Watts and Cindy Blackman Santana.

Billy Hart and Jeff Ballard defy those stereotypes. Both drummers front bands that lean toward a more nuanced approach, and they create music that is more complex and texture-driven. The percussion leads the band, but in a gentler way. Both musicians released superb recordings earlier this year. Mr. Hart’s “One Is the Other” (ECM) features his quartet, with which he’s worked for nearly 10 years; on “Time’s Tales” (Okeh), Mr. Ballard is in a trio setting with guitarist Lionel Loueke and saxophonist Miguel Zenon. Mr. Hart’s group is on the road from Tuesday through June 20, starting with six nights at The Village Vanguard in New York, while Mr. Ballard’s is making select stops from Tuesday through June 12, beginning in Washington at Blues Alley and including four nights at New York’s Jazz Standard.

Mr. Hart, who is 73, has played with some of the major figures in jazz, including saxophonist Stan Getz, guitarist Wes Montgomery and organist Jimmy Smith. He also played with pianist Herbie Hancock from 1969 to 1973, which is widely regarded as one of the keyboard great’s most productive periods. Until the founding of this band, the drummer had rarely stepped into the foreground, but his work with his quartet, which features pianist Ethan Iverson, saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Ben Street, has won considerable acclaim. Their previous recording, “All Our Reasons” (ECM), made many “best of” lists for 2012.

It’s a sign of Mr. Hart’s reserved style that he isn’t heard until nearly one minute and 45 seconds have elapsed on “Lennie Groove,” the first track of the new recording. The piece was written by Mr. Turner as a tribute to pianist Lennie Tristano, and it begins with a long passage by Mr. Iverson before Mr. Hart is heard on cymbals. Tristano is sometimes seen as a fringe figure in jazz, but Mr. Hart regards his influence as universal. “Max Roach, one of my heroes, was influenced by Tristano,” Mr. Hart said by phone last week from Berlin, where the band was on tour. “Lennie’s influence is in all aspects of modern jazz.”

Another highlight of the recording is the quartet’s performance of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Some Enchanted Evening,” which Mr. Hart, a fan of movies and musicals, brought to the recording session. He aimed to highlight Mr. Turner’s sound. “Mark has one of the most lyrical styles of any saxophonist today,” Mr. Hart said. “It’s almost like he’s singing; he can do any ballad beautifully.” The drummer said that this band has lasted longer than any other group he’s led and attributes its longevity to the atmosphere of mutual respect. The rapport among the musicians is evident on the new recording; elegant and often austere, the band moves with stunning grace from solo to ensemble segments. Mr. Hart’s gentle propulsion serves as the unifying element.

Mr. Ballard, who is 50, is best known for his work in intimate ensembles. He is in the Brad Mehldau Trio, one of jazz’s most popular groups, and he joins forces with Mr. Turner and bassist Larry Grenadier in Fly. The drummer said that the smallness of a trio setting appeals to him. “It’s kind of like a tripod,” he said via email. “Each player (each leg) is responsible for keeping their side of things together.” He added: “So if anyone of us changes up their ‘role’ in the group, then it really has a powerful effect on the music.”

The trio on “Time’s Tales” was formed eight years ago, but Mr. Ballard estimates that it has played together for only about a month of that time. Still, the rapport between the bandmates continued to make the group a priority. “It felt right from the start that we all were coming from similar places musically,” he said, “so it has always felt like we have been playing together as a group forever.”

While Mr. Hart’s recording is pensive and complex, the sound on Mr. Ballard’s album is engaging, highlighted by diverse small percussion instruments. Mr. Ballard has collected various instruments from his global travels, and he employs many of them on the recording. The repertoire is also varied, ranging from George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” to “Hanging Tree” by Mark Lanegan and Alain Johannes of Queens of the Stone Age.

Many of the remaining tracks have distinct African and Latin musical flavors, fitting for a band with a guitarist from Benin and a saxophonist from Puerto Rico that is led by a drummer from California.

Mr. Ballard cites Mr. Hart as one of his idols, along with such other great drummers as Paul Motian, Ed Blackwell and Milford Graves, which suggests that the line of exceptional drummers who created a different approach is getting longer.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on the new Sonny Rollins Recording

Sonny-Rollins_cover_news-cut-314x233The new Sonny Rollins recording, Road Show Vol 3 (Doxy/Okeh/Sony Music Masterworks) isn’t as good as the previous Rollins disc, Road Shows vol 2. But it’s still an amazing disc.  Rollins now compiles his best live performances and releases collections of them from time to time.  It’s the optimal arrangement (sic).  Here’s what i said in WSJ about it.


The Return of Sonny Rollins ‘Road Shows’

May 7, 2014 4:52 p.m. ET

Sonny Rollins Corbis

There is little consensus in the often-contentious world of jazz, but most fans and critics agree that Sonny Rollins is the greatest tenor saxophonist alive. And, at age 83, Mr. Rollins is still in peak form. For decades, attendance at his concerts has taken on the solemnity of a pilgrimage. But for many of those years, none of his recordings were a match for the classics like “Saxophone Colossus” (Prestige, 1956), “Freedom Suite” (Riverside, 1958) and “East Broadway Rundown” (Impulse!, 1966) that established his reputation. The newer recordings lacked the intense probing on up-tempo numbers and the poignancy on ballads. Six years ago Mr. Rollins found the right approach to recordings—releasing compilations of his live work. Now his albums prompt a similar hushed level of anticipation as his performances.

On Tuesday, Mr. Rollins released “Road Shows Vol. 3″ (Doxy/Sony Music Masterworks), and it is the equal of its heralded predecessors “Road Shows Vol. 1″ (Doxy/EmArcy 2008) and “Road Shows Vol. 2″ (Doxy/EmArcy 2011). Each volume has a distinctive identity. Volume 1 spans 27 years of Mr. Rollins’s career; it includes the tracks of his remarkable 2007 concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of his first Carnegie Hall appearance. Volume 2 comprises material from 2010, the year of Mr. Rollins’s 80th birthday, including the superb Beacon Theater performance where he was joined by guitarist Jim Hall, drummer Roy Haynes, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist Christian McBride and—in a complete surprise to the audience—saxophonist Ornette Coleman. The new recording features material since the turn of the century, and its best parts reveal the strengths of Mr. Rollins’s working band rather than guest stars joining the performance.

Mr. Rollins combines a commanding tone with a ferocious, intense appetite for melodic exploration in his solos, and each volume is highlighted by an extended presentation of this tendency. Unlike “Blossom” from the first “Road Show” or “Sonnymoon for Two” on the second, the highlight of the third, “Someday I’ll Find You,” is a ballad. It also reveals Mr. Rollins’s newfound willingness to reconsider his previous work. The song was written as a ballad in 1930 by Noël Coward for his play “Private Lives,” but when Mr. Rollins first recorded it in 1958 he performed it up-tempo. Here, it is returned to its original pace. Following a terse, pungent solo by guitarist Bobby Broom, Mr. Rollins begins a lengthy exploration of the tune’s melody—working chorus after chorus, playing one affecting passage after another, building toward a remarkable finale. Such are the moments that have made Rollins concerts so esteemed. Fans can often cite particular shows where the saxophonist played a tune, perhaps an original or a staple of the American songbook, with extraordinary depth and intensity.

Other highlights of Volume 3 include the rugged but catchy “Patanjali,” named for the compiler of the yoga sutras. (Mr. Rollins’s interest in yoga predates the current fad by decades.) “Solo Sonny” captures a unique trait of Mr. Rollins’s playing. Performing unaccompanied, he seems to quote a dizzying series of tunes ranging from movie themes to Tin Pan Alley numbers to children’s songs. It’s the sort of madcap sequencing and pacing that usually requires the latest technology, but Mr. Rollins needs only a horn and a stage.

The most consistent criticism of Mr. Rollins’s concerts is that he cedes too much solo space to his bandmates, and that tendency mars the recording’s longest track, “Why Was I Born,” which quickly turns into an exchange between the saxophonist and drummer Steve Jordan. The percussionist’s part of the dialogue grows repetitive after a few minutes, though Mr. Rollins storms on, playing one inventive phrase after another.

Mr. Rollins is notoriously self-critical; in 1959, after releasing several widely hailed recordings, many of which are now regarded as classics, he retired from the music business until 1962; he felt he needed to work on his sound, and he was occasionally heard practicing his horn on the Williamsburg Bridge. He is also dedicated to performing. In 1986, during a concert in upstate New York, he jumped off of a 6-foot-high stage and broke his heel, yet he continued to play. Mr. Rollins and his wife, Lucille, who died in 2004, lived in Tribeca, not far from the World Trade Center, and had to be evacuated the day after the 2001 attacks, yet he insisted on making his performance in Boston three days later. That appearance was documented on “Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert” (Milestone, 2005).

Perhaps it is no surprise that Mr. Rollins is still going strong just a few months shy of his 84th birthday. During an interview in the mid-’80s, he told me that “the glory isn’t in grasping the ring; the glory is in reaching for it.”

At the time, I thought it was a veteran musician giving a young journalist a nifty quote. But evidently it really is Mr. Rollins’s modus operandi.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on the new recordings by Vijay Iyer and Regina Carter

2372 XIt isn’t often that two MacArthur recipients release jazz recordings on the same day, so that occasioned the pairing of two musicians who don’t sound remotely alike.

The inside story is that I listen to Iyer’s music all the time and had spent a good deal of time with Mutations and I didn’t get music on the Carter recording until 72 hours before I began writing (I wasn’t sure of the contact).  The Carter recording continued several thematic elements in her work, so it was easy to describe, whereas Iyer’s music wasn’t at all to my ears like his trio and solo work, so it was more of a challenge as a writer.  In addition, after the boilerplate and the Regina segment I had about 100 words to dwell on Mutations.  I’m not sure I did it justice.

Nonetheless, both are interesting musicians with interesting new recordings.  Here are my thoughts.

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At WSJ On the Rise of Local Itinerant Brewers

Waaa-aaay too much good stuff was left on the cutting room floor in this story, but that’s only natural when you have 2000 words of reporting in an 800 word feature. Twin

I’ll add some in later.

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Archives: The Return of Cibo Matto

A favorite group from the ’90s returns.

Miho and Yuka were very quotable and most of it made it into the story.

hotel valentine

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