Two pieces at The Root on Finding Your Roots

On Episode 1

And on the searing Episode 3

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At WSJ on the new Ches Smith disc




‘The Bell’ Review

‘The Bell’ is the latest offering from drummer Ches Smith, whose diverse musical credentials range from indie rock bands to Haitian percussion groups.

Mat Maneri, Craig Taborn and Ches Smith, whose new album, ‘The Bell,’ is out Friday. ENLARGE
Mat Maneri, Craig Taborn and Ches Smith, whose new album, ‘The Bell,’ is out Friday. Photo: Paolo Soriani/ECM Records

Drummer Ches Smith is renowned in several music communities. He has drummed with

indie rock bands, most notably Xiu Xiu; he performs in Haitian percussion groups; he has played in heralded jazz ensembles led by guitarist Mary Halvorson and in the group Snakeoil led by saxophonist Tim Berne. His own projects include Congs for Brums, a solo percussion setting with electronic accompaniment, and These Arches, a quartet with Ms. Halvorson, multi-instrumentalist Andrea Parkins and saxophonist Tony Malaby. Yet none of those diverse activities effectively preview the subtlety, texture and elegance of his new group, a trio with keyboardist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri. Mr. Smith’s new recording “The Bell” (ECM, out Friday) features this group in a program of eight stunning originals. The band will play the Winter Jazz Festival in New York at the New School Tishman Auditorium on Friday and tour nationally Feb. 14-28.

The title track, which leads off the recording, begins with a gentle rumble of Mr. Taborn’s piano clusters, plus long, pungent notes from Mr. Maneri and accents from Mr. Smith on vibraphone and timpani. There are long swaths of silence as the band languorously settles into a riff—but the silences are charged, as if they constitute a fourth member of the group. And the band settles into an understated groove by the end of the track, with Mr. Smith on drums. He is an avid fan of the music of Thelonious Monk, who used silences to similar effect.

As if to confirm Mr. Smith’s interest in space, the second composition is titled “Barely Intervallic,” and it features compelling group interplay highlighted by Mr. Smith’s drumming and Mr. Maneri’s gripping bow work. “Isn’t It Over?” features a tighter narrative and riveting group improvisations. “I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth,” a sly reference by Mr. Smith to a classic Pink Floyd recording, features fascinating riffs driven by the leader and smartly accented by Messrs. Taborn and Maneri.

Mr. Smith, who is 42 years old, was born in San Diego and studied music at Mills College in California. His mentors there were the composers Alvin Curran, Pauline Oliveros and Fred Frith. If there’s a link on his résumé to the music on this recording, it could be in the music of those three. Ms. Oliveros’s work is often meditative; Mr. Curran is kinetic, but often in a subdued manner; and Mr. Frith is a master of working with unusual rhythms. Mr. Smith played in various settings on the West Coast before moving to New York in 2008 in search of more opportunities to play his music. He quickly became a first-call drummer in some precincts of the jazz community.

For decades, jazz recordings led by drummers featured thunderous roars of percussion, but in the past few years a different approach has emerged. Billy Hart leads conventional groups that feature a more conversational tone. Jeff Ballard has a trio that engages in subtle interplay. Tyshawn Sorey wowed critics with 2014’s “Alloy” (Pi), a disc that brought contemporary classical effects to the genre. Mr. Smith is following in those footsteps; “The Bell” is an impressive chamber work. When I first heard Mr. Smith several years ago in a band led by Ms. Halvorson, his drumming was assertive and cantankerous, as if he couldn’t wait for his sounds to reach the ears of the audience. His new music is so nuanced; he has mastered the fine art of drawing the listener to it.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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You Can’t Call it the Leastern Conference Anymore

NBA-Basketball-07-08-SeasonIt’s one of the best stories of the NBA season so far, but it’s rarely commented upon. It will have a bigger, more lasting impact that the Golden State Warriors winning streak or Kobe Bryant’s retirement tour, but people don’t trust the reality of the situation. That is, after years and years and years of dominance by Western Conference over the Eastern Conference, we have suddenly—very suddenly in fact—achieved parity. The Eastern Conference has held anywhere from a slim to solid advantage in games over the Western teams all season. We’re past the first trimester of the season; this isn’t a small sample size fluke. Instead this is a historic realignment and how it has happened will have far reaching implications for the Association.

First of all let’s look at the context of this sea change as it’s absolutely staggering. In every season this century except one, the Western Conference has dominated the East by margins that suggest the need for relegation or at least some sort of playoff realignment. In the sixteen seasons to conclude since 2000, the West has won an *average* of 64 games more each season over the East, and that factors in the 2008-’09 season when the East somehow eked out a 12 game advantage. The West quickly restored order winning the interconference matchup by 42 games the following season and 72 the season after that. The West dominance reached a peak in ’13-’14 with a 118 game advantage and the left coasters held a plus 76 mark last season.

How did this change happen so quickly? There are a few structural reasons, all of which point to this being sustainable.

Coaching Matters

The work of the Steve Kerr/Luke Walton duo in Golden State is remarkable and I’m sure the Hall of Fame has a spot ready for San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, the next echelon of great coaches are in the Eastern Conference. Mike Budenholzer of Atlanta and Brad Stevens of Boston are widely recognized as two of the brightest minds of the game, and several veteran coaches like Dwane Casey, Frank Vogel, Randy Wittman and Steve Clifford have adapted their strategies to fit the contemporary pace and space game.

The 2003-’04 Detroit Pistons Loom Large

When you think of the Pistons of mid ‘00s, it’s easy to bog down in a debate over who had the best Afro of that era, Ben Wallace or Questlove, but the Pistons have a greater significance. They were the last ensemble cast team, i.e. no superstars, to win a title. Several teams of that ilk have come close, most recently the ’14 Indiana Pacers and the ’15 Atlanta Hawks, but for the most part the NBA is thought of as a superstar league because most of the title teams boast a player who is of household first name only caliber renown (LeBron, Steph, Kobe, etc.). The problem is that there are maybe ten such players and 30 teams. The standard strategy has been to tank and hope the next LeBron lands on your roster, but several teams have decided to just go ahead and build a team. After all superstars want two things shit tons of money and a chance at a ring. The Carmelo Anthony experience in New York has probably persuaded a lot of top players that they alone aren’t going to rescue a struggling franchise. With the NBA salary cap about to rise vertiginously, these ensemble teams may become far more attractive destinations for potential free agents. It’s a lot easier to go from 47 wins to a title than 17. Furthermore, elite talent can be found in the middle of the first round (see Leonard, Kawhi) or at the end of the first round (see Butler, Jimmy) or even in the second round (uh hunh, see Green, Draymond). The virtue in losing is diminishing fast, so why not try to win.


When SB Nation did it’s 35 under 25 Survey of top young basketball players as part of its season preview, the balance was striking. 17 were from the Western Conference 17 were from the Eastern Conference and one, Ben Simmons was still in school. It’s meaningless, but an East v. West rookie game would be fun and close. The Eastern teams have gotten better at talent development and drafting.

The reason this story gets overlooked is that Golden State and San Antonio are still the best teams and Philadelphia is still the worst. However, of the 27 teams in the middle, the Eastern Conference is by far superior. One barometer of the West’s success is that it was routine for the ninth or tenth seed in the West to be a top six playoff team in the East. These days that has reversed. Detroit, the #10 in the East would be the Western Conference sixth seed if the boundaries were redrawn.

Perhaps the best indicator of the change is the play of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder, by most reckonings the third best team in the West if not the league has a record that is emblematic of the change afoot. The Thunder are 23-10 overall; 16-2 versus the West, and 7-8 against the East. Yeah, it’s probably time to lose those caveats about the Leastern Conference or how unfair it is to play in the West. It’s last year’s news, literally.


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Two stories at The Root on The Color Purple



2139_Jennifer Hudson and the company of THE COLOR PURPLE photo by Matthew Murphy 2015



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At WSJ on Tinariwen’s Live in Paris

‘Live in Paris’ by Tinariwen Review

Songs that long for peace and independence sound as if a group of Otis Redding acolytes were singing in a West African language

Tinariwen in the concert recorded for their latest album. ENLARGE
Tinariwen in the concert recorded for their latest album. Photo: Antoine Carlier

Tinariwen combines familiar sounds with an unusual origin story.

Live in Paris


The group, whose name loosely translates as “Deserts,” comprises eight or nine members (its size varies) of the Kel Tamasheq (aka Tuareg), a nomadic people who have inhabited the Sahara on land now within the borders of Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Tinariwen’s sound is utterly mesmerizing; it features layers of rhythmic clapping; a deep grooving bass line; hand drums; ringing, bluesy guitar lines and gritty male harmonies. It’s as if a group of Otis Redding acolytes were singing in a West African language. Their songs are about longings for peace and independence.

Their new recording “Live in Paris” (Anti-) documents the final show of a 130-stop tour, and it captures their concerts’ energy vividly. The recording features Lalla Badi, the 75-year-old Tuareg singer, on three tracks, and her husky voice makes a nice complement to the various lead singers and harmonies of Tinariwen. Two other highlights are “Tamatant Tiley” and “Toumast Tincha,” each a track that combines the group’s appealing rhythms with stinging, pungent guitar licks reminiscent of early tracks from Neil Young and Crazy Horse. These numbers are emblematic of the appeal of Tinariwen; they embrace musical traditions ranging from Algerian Raï and Malian Takamba to classic rock and soul with the greatest of ease.

Tinariwen was founded more than 20 years ago by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who became obsessed with guitar after seeing one on TV in a western. He built his first instrument using a tin can, a stick and a bicycle brake cable.

During the late ’70s, Mr. Ag Alhabib fell in with a group of musicians exploring local music as well as that of international acts like Led Zeppelin, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Santana. The Sahara is an area plagued by episodes of sectarian violence, and Mr. Ag Alhabib spent much of the ’80s engaged in military action. After the Tamanrasset Accords, a 1991 peace agreement, he and several friends put down their guns and took up music full time. During the ’90s, they gained a following in the Tuareg communities of North Africa. After a cassette reached producers in France, they became popular world-wide in the past 15 years. They have recorded six albums and attracted such collaborators as guitarist Nels Cline, violinist Fats Kaplin, and members from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, TV on the Radio and Chavez. Their 2011 recording, “Tassili” (Anti-), won a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album.

Each of Tinariwen’s recordings have been compelling, but their live shows are magical celebrations.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on A Love Supreme The Complete Masters







‘A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters’ Review

A new perspective on jazz legend John Coltrane’s seminal album.

‘A Love Supreme” (Impulse!) is the masterwork of saxophone great John Coltrane and a cornerstone recording of any jazz collection. In a concise 33 minutes, the 1965 release ranges from solemn and introspective to ecstatic and flamboyant, and it features some of the finest playing of Coltrane’s signature group, a quartet that included pianist McCoy

Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison; they are often called the classic quartet. To celebrate the album’s 50th anniversary, the Verve Music Group has just released “A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters”—three discs that show some of the inner workings of the band making the recording, reveal some previously unreleased tracks with an expanded group, and offer the only known live performance of the work by the quartet.

‘A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters’ features previously unreleased takes from John Coltrane. ENLARGE
‘A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters’ features previously unreleased takes from John Coltrane. Photo: John Coltrane Estate

All too often, landmark jazz reissues are only an opportunity for obsessive fans to parse a musician’s thinking on certain tracks. Alternate takes give a glimpse into whether a solo should follow one path or another. But “A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters” goes well beyond that, capturing Coltrane at a pivotal moment. The music on these discs offers a rare opportunity to hear the transition from the most revered part of Coltrane’s career into its most controversial period when he embraced the many tenets of the jazz avant garde.

The three discs deliver a potent narrative of a

great musician looking inward and outward. The four tracks of the original recording, “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance” and “Psalm,” trace Coltrane’s inquiry into the root of his creativity, a subject that had fascinated him for many years. Recording began on Dec. 9, 1964, and the reissue includes some alternate takes from those first sessions, but the revelations begin with the material from the following day. Coltrane added a second bassist, Art Davis, and saxophonist Archie Shepp. This reissue includes six takes of “Acknowledgement,” four of which were previously unreleased, that show both the increased rhythmic intensity from the bassists and the looping sound of the second saxophonist. The interaction of the two horn players prefigures the new group Coltrane would form over the course of the following year that featured a second saxophonist, Pharoah Sanders.

That direction is underscored on the third disc, which features the only known live performance of the work by the classic quartet. On it, Coltrane’s solos veer into riveting dissonances, and the solos by Garrison, Jones and Mr. Tyner are forceful and compelling. They expand the range and emotion of the original.

“A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters” offers an impressive range of material that enlarges a canonical and popular work in new and exciting ways.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At The Root on Artist Leroy Campbell

At The Root on artist Leroy Campbell’s stunning work.

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