Vertical Search: My Work at NPR

Sometimes a life changing moment happens and you know it immediately. That’s what it was like one morning in April 2020, when I awoke to an email from an editor at NPR. He wanted to know if I’d like to write for their music section, NPR Music. To that point, I had been writing about jazz for the Wall Street Journal and Jazz Times and about other stuff for the Brooklyn College website. This generated essential money but seemed to do little to advance my career. There were artists that I written about often who when I saw them asked me rather straightforwardly, “do you still write.”

That was because WSJ has a paywall, and I can’t post my reviews here until 30 days after publication. My work at NPR would face no such barriers. I read the email one morning on my phone as I was persuading myself that the world beyond my bed wouldn’t kill me. By the time I was halfway through my first coffee, I had two assignments. I was on cloud nine for the rest of the week.

Those two assignments which thankfully haven’t run (they were advance obituaries) have led to numerous other articles. Coincidentally, as this is the day that NPR turns 50, I thought I’d share them in a Vertical Search.

The first piece that ran was a quick turnaround appreciation of the late trumpeter Eddie Gale.

https://www.npr.org/2020/07/15/890776499/the-galaxy-expanding-peace-loving-trumpet-of-eddie-gale-hear-the-essentials

That led to an appreciation of the great bassist Gary Peacock the afternoon his passing was confirmed. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/07/910054995/gary-peacock-a-jazz-bassist-always-ahead-of-his-time-dies-at-85

I asked to write about some musicians that were still with us, and following the most recent long hot summer, I offered them a piece on the revival of black owned jazz labels from the ’70s and this was the result. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/22/915323876/rediscovering-the-enormous-social-and-spiritual-legacy-of-black-jazz-records

Then I kind of fell out of touch for a coupla months. There were no deaths that required my attention, and my ideas about jazz couples enduring the pandemic (instead of never being together, suddenly these couples were always together) and an idea on vibes were pocket vetoed. But for their end of the year package, I was asked to write a short piece on Sonny Rollins. It was kind of a big deal.

2. Sonny Rollins
Rollins in Holland (1967, Resonance)
Points: 133
Votes: 
60

In a 1985 interview, the legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins told me “the glory isn’t in grasping the ring, it’s in reaching for it.” Rollins in Holland, which gathers three separate Dutch settings by Rollins in 1967 with bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink, shows Sonny’s expansive ambitions and ardent pursuit with bandmates intent on pushing and hurtling cantankerously along with the leader. The late ’60s are an under-documented phase of his career, yet this is more than a welcome vintage, it’s a solid addition to the Rollins canon. –Martin Johnson

Then suddenly I was asked to write an appreciation of Jonas Gwangwa. This was becoming routine. https://www.npr.org/2021/01/23/959997781/jonas-gwangwa-south-african-musician-and-activist-dies-at-83

Recently, I was asked to write an appreciation of Sonny Simmons. https://www.npr.org/2021/04/13/986501724/sonny-simmons-fiercely-independent-alto-saxophonist-dies-at-87

This week, I wrote an appreciation of Curtis Fuller.

https://www.npr.org/2021/05/10/995507160/curtis-fuller-leading-trombonist-of-jazzs-detroit-wave-dies-at-86

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At WSJ on Let My People Go by Archie Shepp and Jason Moran

‘Let My People Go’ by Archie Shepp and Jason Moran Review: Way Down in Jazz Land

The saxophonist and pianist collaborate on an album featuring new duet versions of standards by John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.

Archie Shepp and Jason MoranPHOTO: ACCRA SHEPP

By Martin JohnsonFeb. 8, 2021 3:43 pm ET

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Saxophonist Archie Shepp and pianist Jason Moran are both jazz titans: Mr. Shepp, age 83, is an NEA Jazz Master and was an important protégé of John Coltrane ; Mr. Moran, 46, is a MacArthur Fellow and artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center. The two men met backstage at a Belgian jazz festival in 2015 and, despite the nearly four-decade difference in their ages, a musical relationship began. They played together whenever the opportunity allowed, and a common interest emerged—recasting the blues within the classic jazz and gospel repertoires. “Let My People Go” (Archieball, out now), a collection of duets, is their first progress report.

The music was recorded at two concert halls—in Paris in 2017 and in Mannheim, Germany, the following year—but much of it has a gritty, unvarnished quality, as if played in an out-of-the-way roadhouse. And the intimate duet format feels very of the moment, the Covid-19 pandemic having put a hold on many midsize and large ensemble recordings and having led to an abundance of solo, duo and trio performances.

Before their collaboration, Messrs. Shepp and Moran were on convergent paths; each had moved beyond jazz to establish a voice in other genres and disciplines. Mr. Shepp remains best known as a firebrand whose work, both as a leader and with the New York Contemporary 5, was a cornerstone of the ’60s avant garde, but he also recorded three remarkable duet settings in the late ’70s and ’80s with pianist Horace Parlan that focused on similar repertoire to that heard in “Let My People Go.” Those albums helped rebrand Mr. Shepp as a savvy veteran. Age has not robbed the saxophonist of his ambition. Last year he released “Ocean Bridges” (Redefinition), a collaboration with his rapper nephew Raw Poetic and the multi-instrumentalist Damu the Fudgemunk that found common ground between jazz, hip-hop and new millennium funk.

Since winning his MacArthur in 2010, Mr. Moran has been exceptionally active both in jazz and in the visual art world. His artistic activities, which range from paintings and drawings to installations that focus on the spaces in which music is heard, have landed him a solo exhibit at the Whitney Museum in 2019 and shows at many other internationally known venues. All of his recent recordings have been of solos, duos or trios, and when not working as a leader he has collaborated with elders like bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Charles Lloyd in small configurations. The pandemic seems to have done little to slow Mr. Moran down. In addition to “Let My People Go,” he recently released a solo disc, “The Sound Will Tell You” (Bandcamp). Made in conjunction with his show of the same name at New York’s Luhring Augustine gallery, which runs through Feb. 27, it was recorded in the first week of January and released on the 15th of that month. His larger, multidisciplinary production “Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration,” with his wife Alicia Hall Moran, toured major concert halls across the country in 2019 and is slated for performances this summer.

Messrs. Shepp and Moran’s 94-minute “Let My People Go” begins with a wistful, slow rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and each man’s instrumental solo heightens the sense of melancholy. Then Mr. Shepp sings for the final few minutes in a fragile tenor that further deepens the mood and effect. The next track, by contrast, is “Isfahan,” a Duke Ellington /Billy Strayhorn classic best known for its solo by the great saxophonist Johnny Hodges. In their elegant version, both Mr. Shepp and Mr. Moran echo aspects of Hodges.

“He Cares,” a Moran composition, was presented as a solo piece with electronic samples in Mr. Moran’s exhibit at the 2015 Venice Biennale; here he and Mr. Shepp perform it as an up-tempo piece redolent of open roads. Coltrane’s “Wise One” is played reverently—an optimal choice, as it allows Mr. Moran to display his passion for McCoy Tyner, an essential member of the saxophone great’s iconic quartet. The duo returns to Strayhorn for “Lush Life,” which is given two contrasting treatments. It is first played at a midtempo bustle, with Mr. Shepp jovially quoting Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” in his solo, as if the Strayhorn masterwork were exuberant jam session material and not a wistful evergreen; then it quiets to the original’s world-weary sensibility with Mr. Shepp singing at the end. The program closes with “Round Midnight,” the Monk classic that sparked Mr. Moran’s interest in jazz when he was growing up.

Even casual jazz fans will quickly recognize most of these numbers, yet the versions here are not overshadowed by past recordings. With Mr. Moran’s unique rhythmic conceptions and Mr. Shepp’s concise playing on tenor and soprano saxophone, this music feels effortlessly distinctive.

—Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Appeared in the February 10, 2021, print edition as ‘Way Down in Jazz Land.’

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Blast From the Past: At WSJ in 2010 on Iranian Film and Rock

I Shot, I Ran

Arash Farazmand in ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats.’MIJFILM

By Martin JohnsonUpdated April 15, 2010 12:01 am ET

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Bahman Ghobadi is one of Iran’s leading filmmakers, but after completing his most recent movie, “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” he went into exile in Iraq.

The movie, which opens on Friday, was shot without permission from Iranian authorities in 17 days, and tells the story of two young musicians forming a band and organizing a concert in order to raise money. The plot may seem somewhat mild by American standards, but most music has been banned in Iran since the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. As a result, there is an underground music scene with bands playing in many different styles. The film’s release and the situation depicted in the movie cast more light on the oppressive regime in Iran and its deteriorating relationship with a thriving artistic community.

Watch a clip from the Persian movie “No One Knows About Persian Cats.” Video courtesy of Network Releasing.

“It would have been impossible to get permission to make this movie,” Mr. Ghobadi said last month from Amsterdam, in a phone interview translated by Sheida Dayani. He feared that he would be imprisoned if the authorities were aware of this production and has said that he aged one year for each day of the shoot.

“No One Knows About Persian Cats,” which won the Special Jury Prize award at the Cannes Film Festival, features a wide range of musical performances as the protagonists search for bandmates, space for a concert and a fake passport to facilitate their escape to London, Berlin, New York or some other locale where being an aspiring musician is merely a economic struggle and not a crime. The musicians in the film routinely perform in basements, forests, atop construction sites and anywhere else that their music will not attract the wrath of the police.

The title of the film is a play on words, referring to the ban on bringing pets outside in Iran—yet Persian cats are cherished for their beauty. Mr. Ghobadi estimates that there are as many as 3,000 musicians honing their skills in secret. “They don’t only fear for themselves,” he said, “but they fear for their families.”

Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist who was imprisoned for three months on charges of espionage last year, is one of the film’s screenwriters. In an email interview last week, she told me of meeting a woman who gave voice lessons to her male students in her closet because it’s illegal for a woman to sing in the company of men.

“It’s a completely Orwellian situation,” said Raam, the one-named lead singer of the group Hypernova, an Iranian rock band that has been based in New York since 2007. “You have children who are being taught to report their parents’ actions and neighbors being told to report their neighbors’.” A reflection of this situation is that the members of the band don’t use their real names; they fear their families in Iran would suffer reprisals from the authorities for their actions in the West.

A scene from ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats.’MIJFILM

The music on the soundtrack of “No One Knows About Persian Cats” ranges from the driving synthesizer-based rock of Take It Easy Hospital to the furiously layered hip-hop of Hichkas. Some of the lyrics are in English, others in Farsi; some music would fit right into the American mainstream, and other tracks are ingenious fusions of Persian and Western styles. All of it bristles with urgency. Hypernova is living what is a dream for many of these bands. Its new recording, “Through the Chaos” (Narnack), was released last week; the band, whose lean and energetic music recalls aspects of Joy Division and Franz Ferdinand, will give several performances on the East Coast this spring.

Although Tehran residents’ cultural output is rigorously censored, Raam said it is commonplace for them to have satellite television and Internet connections. The underground scene is fueled by a black market of CDs and DVDs.

One of the DVDs in circulation in that black market is Mr. Ghobadi’s previous film, “Half Moon” (2007). It is a road movie that tells of a great Kurdish musician who organizes a band and heads to Kurdish Iraq for a musical celebration of the fall of Saddam Hussein. The film was denied domestic distribution in Iran because of its portrayal of women singing in the company of men.

Mr. Ghobadi and such other directors as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Mahmoud Rasoulof and Mohsen Makhmalbaf have created a stirring new national cinema in Iran, but it has been hit hard by the current wave of repression. Messrs. Panahi and Rasoulof have been imprisoned and Mr. Makhmalbaf has left the country. Mr. Panahi was jailed after openly siding with the green revolution, the widespread protests that followed the fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year; his wife released a statement earlier this month that said the conditions of his imprisonment amount to torture.

Ms. Saberi has just published a book, “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran” (Harper). She saw some similarities in the missions of her book and the movie. “They both show what happens when people in power try to impose their own views upon others through restrictions, intimidation, and harassment,” she said in her email. “Although these methods might in the short run succeed in driving people underground (like the musicians in the movie), it cannot silence or eliminate their voices or wishes in the long run.”

Mr. Ghobadi views his filmmaking and that of his peers as part of the movement to bring change to his native country. He cited the amount of film, literature and music that has been released by Iranians despite 31 years of rigid censorship, and he said he is devoted to making movies “that will fight this government until we have a better Iran.”

Mr. Johnson writes about music and the fine arts for the Journal.

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At WSJ on the great Code Girl recording, Artlessly Falling

Well, better late than never. I liked this piece and love the recording.

‘Artlessly Falling’ by Code Girl Review: Crooning Couplets

Guitarist Mary Halvorson branches out from her hallmark improvisation on an album that melds her poems and musical compositions.

Guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson, who fronts the group Code GirlPHOTO: JAMES WANG

By Martin JohnsonJan. 27, 2021 3:28 pm ET

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In 2018, when guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson released “Code Girl,” the first recording by her group of the same name, it seemed like a departure from the rest of her discography. Ms. Halvorson, an innovative and prolific guitarist, had built a stellar reputation for groups that showcased imaginative compositions and featured some of the top improvisers in jazz. At five members, Code Girl was a smaller outfit than the octet that had become her best-known ensemble, and “Code Girl” focused on songs that fused high-level improvising with experimental rock structures and original lyrics rather than on instrumental solos. Ms. Halvorson’s “Artlessly Falling” (Firehouse 12) is a superb recording by a larger iteration of Code Girl. The music reinforces Ms. Halvorson’s role as a prime mover in jazz and, with her penchant for layered improvisations and unconventional compositions, begins to connect the links between her ensembles.

In addition to the guitarist, this version of Code Girl features three members from the first recording: drummer Tomas Fujiwara and bassist Michael Formanek (who work with her in a collective trio called Thumbscrew) and vocalist Amirtha Kidambi (who is a master of both Western and South Asian styles). There are two new members, saxophonist and vocalist Maria Grand and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, and the recording features a guest appearance by vocalist Robert Wyatt, a pioneering figure of the English art rock scene of the mid-’60s. He is one of Ms. Halvorson’s idols, and she coaxed him out of retirement to sing on the recording. Her lyrics are in specific poetic forms.

Mr. Wyatt’s earthy croon is the first prominent voice on “The Lemon Trees,” the opening track on the 64-minute program. He sings lines Ms. Halvorson wrote in tanka form; its richly evocative description of people spiraling downward was influenced by the Lawrence Osborne novel “Beautiful Animals.” His voice is backed by wispy harmonies from Ms. Grand and Ms. Kidambi and trumpet accents from Mr. O’Farrill, which grow into a lead segment. The trumpeter’s style is a great fit, gruff with a hint of elegant underpinning, and he’s backed by Mr. Fujiwara, a concise percussionist, whose restrained drumming leads back to Mr. Wyatt’s crooning and closes with the other singers’ wordless vocals over Mr. Formanek’s sturdy basslines.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Contributing to the sense that the album’s eight pieces are part of one suite, “Last-Minute Smears,” the following track, begins with bass and blooms into Ms. Kidambi’s gentle rendition of lyrics written in response to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony during his confirmation hearings. There is a downcast, nearly taciturn air to the music, again with overlapping solos.

Ms. Halvorson’s brilliant guitar playing dominates “Walls and Roses.” When she arrived on the jazz scene, she was known for her artful use of feedback and power chords (like many guitarists, she loves Jimi Hendrix and cites saxophone deities like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy as primary influences), but she also plays slippery glissandos and can summon up the deeply evocative sound of a Bakersfield country band. She brings the full arsenal to this tune in between wistful verses sung initially by Mr. Wyatt and then by Ms. Kidambi.

Ms. Halvorson, Ms. Kidambi and Mr. O’Farrill are featured on “Muzzling Unwashed,” with lyrics in a villanelle style. The track builds into a stunning segment of wordless vocals from Ms. Kidambi backed by furious drumming from Mr. Fujiwara. The second half of the program presents longer pieces with more complex solos and group interplay. The recording closes with the title track, written as a sestina. The band improvises throughout, and Ms. Kidambi’s vocals soar and crest with the backing—but rather than bordering on cacophony, the song is the most sweetly melodic piece on the recording.

Since Code Girl’s first release, Ms. Halvorson has won a MacArthur Fellowship and maintained an unusually busy schedule, appearing on 18 recordings. Some are duets—often with fellow guitarists like John Dieterich (of Deerhoof), Bill Frisell and Joe Morris. And Thumbscrew has released three albums; its recording “The Anthony Braxton Project” (Cuneiform) was one of the best of 2020, and there’s another, “Never Is Enough,” set for release in February. These albums put the focus on her distinctive improvising. “Artlessly Falling” brings her compositional prowess to the fore.

—Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Appeared in the January 28, 2021, print edition as ‘‘Artlessly Falling’: Crooning Couplets.’

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New Writing

So far 2021 has been a very good year. Not just the new administration and new Georgia Senators, but my inbox has been overflowing with cool assignments. Here are a few of the ones that have run.

I spoke with George Wolfe about his film version of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

https://filmmakermagazine.com/tag/george-c-wolfe/#.YDu95WhKjIU

I did two Zagat Stories, one on brewer/chef Christopher Gandsy. https://stories.zagat.com/posts/baking-biscuits-and-brewing-beer-in-brooklyn

Another was on sommelier and entrepreneur Andre Mack. https://stories.zagat.com/posts/andre-hueston-mack-from-frasier-to-the-french-laundry

And I reviewed the new Michael and Peter Formanek recording for Jazz Times. https://jazztimes.com/reviews/albums/michael-and-peter-formanek-dyads-out-of-your-head/

And here’s a post from my blog about downward mobility in middle age.

I work in NYC retail specialty food. I guess this was inevitable. https://thegeoffreyowensexperience.home.blog/2021/02/28/life-on-aisle-2-this-is-what-plan-c-looks-like-episode-31-attack-of-the-karens/

This post needs an illustration so why not, Viola and Chadwick.

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More Writing: My Work at Wine Enthusiast

Seven years ago, I began writing about craft beer for the Wall Street Journal (nothing like starting at the top!) Over the course of three articles, linked here, I chronicled the early days of the New York City craft beer boom. Then in a 2016 bloodletting, the section I wrote those articles for, was reduced from 16 pages daily to two, and my editor was laid off. After that I blogged about the NYC beer scene for the website to the TV show Beer Geeks, wrote briefly for an Eater subsection, Drinks, and did a few stories for VinePair.

Last year, I was in a Twitter thread with my former Vine Pair editor (she had moved on to Wine Enthusiast), about the health of craft beer during the economy. Suddenly she sent me an email asking if I wanted to write for WE. Well, yes. These are the stories we’ve done so far.

This is on the craft beer business survives the pandemic.

This one is on the rise of sour beers

And this piece wonders if IPA freshness is overblown (it is by a tad).

There will be more.

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More Writing: NPR Music

Last April, I awoke to a strange email. It was from an editor at NPR. He wanted to know if I was available and interested in writing for them.

I went back to bed and woke up again. I thought I must be dreaming. The email was still there.

I got coffee and came back to the computer. The email was still there.

So I responded with an enthusiastic yes, and good things have resulted.

This is a piece I did on the importance of African American owned or run jazz labels in the late ’60s, early ’70s.

https://www.npr.org/2020/09/22/915323876/rediscovering-the-enormous-social-and-spiritual-legacy-of-black-jazz-records

This is a obituary/appreciation of the great bassist Gary Peacock

https://www.npr.org/2020/09/07/910054995/gary-peacock-a-jazz-bassist-always-ahead-of-his-time-dies-at-85

And this is a similar piece on Jonas Gwangwa

https://www.npr.org/2021/01/23/959997781/jonas-gwangwa-south-african-musician-and-activist-dies-at-83

As best I can tell, this is only the beginning.

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At WSJ on Exploding Star Orchestra’s Superb Dimensional Stardust

‘Dimensional Stardust’ by Rob Mazurek Review: Futuristic Big-Band Sounds

The cornetist and composer leads his Exploding Star Orchestra on an album that deftly incorporates electronics into its rich, contrapuntal arrangements.

Rob MazurekPHOTO: BRITT MAZUREK

By Martin JohnsonNov. 30, 2020 2:15 pm ET

Some of the best music by cornetist and composer Rob Mazurek is from his small groups—various configurations of Chicago Underground and of São Paulo Underground (he is from the former city and has lived in the latter)—and it’s feisty and tenacious. It’s as if his players were looking for other combos with which to rumble. Trumpet lines puncture the air in attack, the percussion rattles forth cantankerously. The Brazilian bands sometimes sound like they’ve wandered off a Carnival parade route to make their own merriment.

When Mr. Mazurek leads larger ensembles, he often takes a gentler, more measured—but no less rewarding—approach. The lines are softer, subtler, and the music draws you into its dense, gorgeous weave. This is the case on “Dimensional Stardust” (out now). It features Mr. Mazurek and 12 other leading musicians, many of whom also built their formidable reputations on the Chicago music scene since the ’90s. They include trumpeter Jaimie Branch, drummer John Herndon, flutist Nicole Mitchell, guitarist Jeff Parker, cellist Tomeka Reid, vibraphonist Joel Ross and drummer Chad Taylor —an all-star cast.

Mr. Mazurek, who is 55 years old and now lives in Marfa, Texas, is a prolific musician with more than 70 recordings as a leader or co-leader, most of them on smaller labels. This recording was made for International Anthem, a Chicago-based label that has documented much of the thriving music there, where Mr. Mazurek remains a pivotal figure, and it is being released via a partnership with Nonesuch. The larger label has put out four videos from the recording, each expanding on his themes; each can be found on its YouTube channel.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Mr. Mazurek formed the Exploding Star Orchestra in 2005 after a commission from the Chicago Cultural Center and the Jazz Institute of Chicago to assemble a big band that reflected the city’s sound. “Dimensional Stardust” is that band’s seventh recording, and all of them deal with futurist and intergalactic themes—fitting for a group led by a musician who was first inspired to pursue his art by seeing the legendary Afrofuturist band the Sun Ra Arkestra in 1981. Sun Ra’s work influenced the music for this new recording, and in the press notes Mr. Mazurek also credits Béla Bartók, Bill Dixon, Gil Evans, Pedro Santos, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He first presented these compositions with players from America and local musicians in Berlin in 2018 before returning to Chicago the following year for recording sessions with this band.

Most of the 10 tracks on the 43-minute program have a light feel. The dominant sounds are of cello, flute, vibraphones, guitar and small percussion instruments. “Sun Core Tet (Parable 99)” launches the album with a string introduction followed by vibes and flute to create a catchy theme. Mr. Mazurek was particularly interested in contrapuntal elements, and electronics offset vigorous play from the other instruments before Ms. Mitchell takes the lead for the remainder of the tune. “A Wrinkle in Time Sets Concentric Circles Reeling” uses a similar structure but adds a spoken-word intro; horns arrive toward the end to give the music a warmer feel.

Another highlight is “The Careening Prism Within (Parable 43),” which puts drums out front to drive a diverse mix of flute, horns, electronics and electric guitar, and the music gains heft without ruining the tranquil veneer. The title track features a foundation of vibes and bass with interlocking lines contrasted with drumming and horns. The magic of this music is that there are few long solos, yet the compositions and arrangements enable these virtuosos to shine in short compelling segments. In contrast to the scrappy sounds from many of Mr. Mazurek’s small bands, combos that recall hardscrabble streets, the music on “Dimensional Stardust” suggests a large ensemble performing in a richly textured garden.

—Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Appeared in the December 1, 2020, print edition as ‘Futuristic Big-Band Sounds.’

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At WSJ on Rez Abassi’s Django Shift

‘Django-shift’ by Rez Abbasi Review: Retuning a Guitar Legacy

An album from the forward-thinking guitarist offers muscular new renditions of the music of early jazz great Django Reinhardt.

Michael Sarin, Rez Abbasi and Neil AlexanderPHOTO: KIRAN AHLUWALIA

Michael Sarin, Rez Abbasi and Neil Alexander

PHOTO: KIRAN AHLUWALIA

By Martin Johnson

Sept. 5, 2020 7:00 am ET

During the past decade or so, Rez Abbasi has established himself as one of the leading guitarists in jazz. The musician—who was born in Pakistan, grew up in California, and attended college in both Los Angeles and New York—has become known for innovative fusions of jazz with Indian and Pakistani musical traditions, as well as for unique approaches to soundtrack music and a recording where he shared the frontline with a harpist. But he pushes boundaries in other ways as well. On “Intents and Purposes” (Enja, 2015), he drew his repertoire from the electric jazz fusion movement of the early ’70s but performed the music with his acoustic quartet. And now, on “Django-shift” (Whirlwind Recordings), he offers another set of reimaginings, playing the nimble music of guitar great Django Reinhardt with a brawny trio.

This project began in January 2019 with a commission for the Berkeley, Calif.-based Freight and Salvage Django Reinhardt Birthday Festival. Reinhardt (1910-1953), one of the founding fathers of jazz guitar, was a brilliant soloist and one of the first guitarists to lead a jazz band. Mr. Abassi felt that Reinhardt’s composing skills were often overlooked and, after a thorough review of his catalog, chose seven originals and two standards (“Anniversary Song” and “September Song”) that Reinhardt made his own.

“Diminishing,” the first track on “Django-shift,” begins with a sinewy intro from Mr. Abbasi before drummer Michael Sarin and keyboardist Neil Alexander kick in with sturdy support, yet Reinhardt’s melody is crystal clear as the band embellishes it throughout the performance. “Swing 42” is slowed from the original’s frenetic pace, which highlights the elegance of the melody. Then Messrs. Abbasi and Alexander engage in aggressive solos with Mr. Sarin’s enthusiastic accompaniment. “Django’s Castle” is faithful to the serene mood and easygoing tempo of the original, but the new version is deeper thanks to extended solos by Messrs. Abbasi and Alexander and subtle percussion from Mr. Sarin.

“Anniversary Song,” a waltz by Iosif Ivanovici, undergoes one of the most radical changes. Mr. Abassi converts it into a noirish piece, with probing solos—his improvisation is a highlight of the recording—and abstract ensemble sections. Kurt Weill’s “September Song” has been widely covered, and Reinhardt’s rendition is distinguished by bravura guitar flourishes. Mr. Abassi turns it into a meditative duet for him and Mr. Alexander that seems to refer to the television and movie soundtracks on which the song has appeared.

Much of Reinhardt’s music evokes the settings of its creation, the smoky cafes and nightclubs of Paris, while Mr. Abbasi’s renditions recall more modern venues—the upscale jazz clubs and small performance halls where the music might have been performed this year in the absence of a pandemic.

“Django-shift” adds to a growing number of recordings in the past five years that use classic repertoire as points of departure. Albums like Rudresh Mahanthappa’s “Bird Calls” (ACT Music), Jason Moran’s “All Rise: a Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller” (Blue Note), Adam Nussbaum’s “The Lead Belly Project” and “Lead Belly Reimagined” (both Sunnyside), and Anna Webber’s “Clockwise” (Pi) turn works in the canon into contemporary sonic portraits that mesh the old with the new. It is a wise tactic for Mr. Abbasi. Reinhardt’s solos are extraordinary; copying them would be only slightly less ridiculous than copying Jimi Hendrix. In “Django-shift,” Mr. Abbasi has found an exciting way to present legendary material in an up-to-date style.

—Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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Appeared in the September 8, 2020, print edition as ‘Retuning a Jazz Guitar Legacy.’

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At WSJ on Data Lords, the superb new disc from the Maria Schneider Orchestra

‘Data Lords’ Review: On Gigabytes and Garden Sights

Maria Schneider leads a big band on a two-disc release that explores the dominance of the digital world and the quest to preserve natural space.

Maria SchneiderPHOTO: BRIENE LERMITTE

By Martin JohnsonAug. 3, 2020 4:01 pm ET

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In 2015 Maria Schneider won Grammy Awards for two contrasting recordings. One was for “The Thompson Fields” (ArtistShare), an album by her orchestra, which has been her primary band since the early ’90s. The music was serene and richly evocative of rolling hills and tranquil fields; it was inspired by a visit to her native Minnesota. The other was for her arrangement of David Bowie’s “Sue (or in a Season of Crime),” a dark, ominous piece that suggested a dystopian urban future. On her new recording, “Data Lords” (ArtistShare), she expands and develops both sounds.

“Data Lords” is a two-disc set, and its themes explore the dominance of the digital world and the quest to preserve natural space, subjects that have rarely—if ever—received such an in-depth exploration in big-band jazz.

The first disc, “The Digital World,” features five compositions whose tension builds steadily. Long keening lines from guitarist Ben Monder and a lengthy, pointed solo by saxophonist Rich Perry highlight “A World Lost,” the first track, and the orchestral backing, especially drummer Johnathan Blake, conveys anxiety. This narrative builds further on “Don’t Be Evil,” a mocking of Google’s former motto; Mr. Monder, trombonist Ryan Keberle and pianist Frank Kimbrough intensify the sense of dread with stellar solos. On “CQ CQ Is Anybody There?” the rhythms are all taken from Morse code, and the solos by saxophonist Donny McCaslin and trumpeter Greg Gisbert (playing an electrified horn) evoke the sound of human call and digital response. The title track closes disc one and brings matters to a furious climax inspired by Stephen Hawking’s chilling claim that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

In the recording’s press release, Ms. Schneider discusses the need to disconnect from the demands of her technological devices and return to her natural sources of inspiration. Disc two, “Our Natural World,” is a celebration of those settings. “Sanzenin” depicts the quiet gardens of the Sanzen-in Temple north of Kyoto, which is more than eight centuries old, and it features a stellar accordion solo by Gary Versace. “Stone Song” takes cues from the whimsical pottery of Jack Troy, and features an intimate presentation of the orchestra—a soprano saxophone lead and solo from Steve Wilson and accompaniment from just four bandmates for most of the piece. The full orchestra is featured on the remaining four tracks, two of which build on the poetry of Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser, whose verse often focuses on the Great Plains. Another, “Bluebird,” reflects Ms. Schneider’s passion for birding.

Ms. Schneider, who is 59 years old, was born in Windom, Minn., and attended the University of Minnesota. She earned a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., before moving to New York City in 1985. There she apprenticed with the great bandleader Gil Evans and studied with the renowned arranger Bob Brookmeyer.

Since its debut recording, “Evanescence” (Enja), in 1994, her orchestra has honed a distinctive and innovative sound. In contrast to other big bands of the era that showcased blaring horn sections, her music was highlighted by unusual harmonies and lightness. Instead of bringing to mind swing dancers, her band conjured images of ballerinas.

Secret Society bandleader Darcy James Argue has said of Ms. Schneider’s work, “There is no question that Maria has, virtually single-handedly, changed the way people think about large jazz ensembles—what they’re capable of, their place in the culture, everything.” Other acolytes include Miho Hazama and M_Unit; Brian Krock and Big Heart Machine; and the Anna Webber/Angela Morris Big Band. In addition to her jazz Grammys, she won one for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for her 2013 release “Winter Morning Walks” (ArtistShare), a collaboration with soprano Dawn Upshaw.

Half of the members of the 18-piece orchestra on “Data Lords” have played with Ms. Schneider since the early ’90s, and most of the others have logged fifteen years or more with the band. This unusual loyalty enables her to write specifically for her musicians and tailor the tunes to their strengths. Ten years ago, Mr. Kimbrough, who has played with Ms. Schneider for more than two decades, cited the quality of her music and the generosity of her spirit as the root of her musicians’ loyalty. He added, “I think a critic put it best a few years ago when he said that the band played as though each of us would take a bullet for her.… It’s a funny thought, but not too far from the truth.”

—Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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