At WSJ on Akua Dixon

‘Akua’s Dance’ by Akua Dixon Review: An Ode to the Cello’s Versatility

On her latest album, the cellist offers a wide range of originals, jazz repertoire and pop tunes.

Akua Dixon

Akua Dixon Photo: James Rich

For decades, the cello has been on the fringes of jazz. The outstanding bassists, Oscar Pettiford and Ron Carter, occasionally recorded on the instrument, and cellists like Abdul Wadud,Diedre Murray and Fred Lonberg-Holm have been cornerstones of avant garde recordings and groups. Akua Dixon has forged a solid career playing and arranging string sections and with her own innovative recordings. Her latest, “Akua’s Dance,” out Friday on her own Akua’s Music imprint, features unique ensembles and stunning arrangements on a wide range of originals, jazz repertoire and pop tunes.

On several tracks for this recording, Ms. Dixon swaps out her cello for a baritone violin, a similar instrument with a slightly larger body and a deeper, richer tone. On the first track, the briskly paced original “I Dream a Dream,” her sound is reminiscent of the trombone lines heard in the Juan Tizol/Duke Ellington classic “Caravan.” The resemblance may not be coincidental; Ms. Dixon wants her instruments to be heard as natural lead voices in a conventional jazz ensemble. Her band features guitarist Freddie Bryant, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Victor Lewis, with guest appearances by guitarist Russell Malone and by Mr. Carter, with whom Ms. Dixon performed on the 1972 Archie Shepp recording “The Cry of My People” (Impulse!).

Ms. Dixon’s gambits are among the recording’s highlights. “The Sweetest Taboo,” which was a pop hit for Sade in 1985-86, is played straightforwardly by the ensemble here—capturing its slinky vibe until Ms. Dixon’s captivating solo elevates the tune, taking it into new dimensions. Ms. Dixon sings the lead on Abbey Lincoln’s plaintive “Throw It Away,” and her tone broadens the defiant and reassuring words. Her tracks on cello with Mr. Carter on bass are telling. Ms. Dixon’s lines alternate from puckish and crisp to gentle elegance, providing a distinctive contrast to Mr. Carter’s cashmere tones.

Ms. Dixon, who is 68, has ruminated about doing recordings like this for decades. She cites playing with James Brown at the Apollo Theater and as a founding member of the Max Roach Double Quartet as helping her realize that the cello could adapt to jazz phrasing and should be a lead voice. She led Quartette Indigo, a string quartet, but found herself in bass-like roles in that ensemble. With this recording, Ms. Dixon joins the ranks of Jane Scarpantoni in rock and Maya Beiser in classical music—performers who have expanded the range of their instrument and made an indelible mark on their genres. “Akua’s Dance” will show younger cellists the possibilities for their instrument in jazz.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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Bullish 02.12.17: Are Chicago Sports Fans Spoiled?

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

                When I was growing up, roughly the md-late ‘60s until the early ‘80s, it seemed like the Gods of the sporting world were playing some sort of cruel joke on Chicago and the fans of its sports teams.  Teams in the other major metropolises, Los Angeles and New York, won titles, often in dashing fashion.  Teams in other major Midwestern cities like Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee (and by extension Green Bay) won titles.  But all fans of the White Sox, Cubs, Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks knew was disappointment and often bitter ones.   Only the 1971 and ‘73 Blackhawks made it to a Finals.  The White Sox of 1967, the Cubs of 1969 and ’73 and the Bulls of ’73 and ’75 bowed out earlier and in far more ignominious fashion.

That’s what makes the current Chicago sports scene such a jarring delight.  The Cubs are World Series Champions and seem poised to spend the next several seasons at the forefront of the championship conversation.  The Blackhawks have won three titles since 2010 and the most dominant sports team of the decade.  Three of the Hawks four non-title seasons have ended in one goal losses in a Game 7.  In other words they are a reasonably good bet to go all the way until they are eliminated.  The Bears and White Sox after tolerating several seasons of mediocrity have finally embarked on full scale rebuilding efforts that during the current phase, talent accumulation has gone really well.

Which brings us to the Bulls, after five years in contention, they were mediocre last season and they are mediocre again this season.  In other words, to borrow Bill James dichotomy, they aren’t selling their fans hopes or wins.   And this situation is in stark contrast to the other four Chicago teams.   It’s created a contentious environment where dust ups turn into major drama.

The drama obscures the fact that the Bulls don’t fit into the conventional cycle of team building.  They are trying to rebuild from the middle, a difficult feat that only among NBA teams only Utah, Houston and Indiana have done particularly well.  The reasons why they have chosen this path is simple: for one the team has a superstar already in Jimmy Butler and he’s still in his prime so why not try to build around him.  Secondly the team is enormously popular.  The Bulls, struggles and drama notwithstanding lead the NBA in attendance and have led the NBA in attendance for seven straight seasons. They have finished first or second in attendance every season since a 23-59 team in ’03-’04 finished third.  That team could bask in the shadow of Michael Jordan and six titles in the ‘90s.  A 23-59 team now has no such luxury.

The Bulls suffer in comparison to the Cubs and Blackhawks as they simply aren’t anywhere near as good.  They suffer in comparison to the Bears and White Sox as the organizational game plan isn’t anywhere near as clear. And they suffer via their own bad free agent signings and poor ability to communicate with the media.

It would have been inconceivable for me to think this 40 years ago, but it’s possible that we’ve reached a moment where Chicago sports fans are spoiled.  Two teams are winning and two teams have clear rebuilds.  It makes the fifth team, the Bulls, look very bad by comparison.

In reality, the current Bulls are well within the tradition of Chicago teams like the Dave Wannstedt era Bears, the early ‘90s Cubs, or just about any White Sox team that didn’t qualify for the postseason.  But all of those teams seem like ancient history now.  The current situation narrows both the window for demonstrating a clear vision and for making progress.  The upcoming trade deadline will demonstrate whether or not the front office gets it.  The odds aren’t good but I certainly never thought I’d see the day where the White Sox would engage a wholesale rebuild.   The Bulls don’t need to do that, but they do need to show attention to the standings and not the bottom line.

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At WSJ on Theo Bleckmann

‘Elegy’ by Theo Bleckmann Review: A Jazz Vocalist for the 21st Century

With his clear, crisp diction and use of digital effects, Theo Bleckmann makes some of the most interesting music in recent history.

Vocalist and composer Theo Bleckmann has been a leader or collaborator on some of the most interesting jazz and new-music projects of the past 25 years. He has clear, crisp diction and can render a lyric poignant during a straightforward reading, but Mr.

Bleckmann is unusually tech savvy and often uses delays and other effects to create an ethereal dreamscape. He has taken vocalese into the 21st century.

Theo Bleckmann’s new album is ‘Elegy.’

Theo Bleckmann’s new album is ‘Elegy.’ Photo: Lynne Harty

Mr. Bleckmann has brought his unique approach to a remarkable range of source material. He has performed albums of Las Vegas standards, Weimar art songs, and songs by art rocker Kate Bush. He collaborated with the electric jazz collective Kneebody for a collection of rearranged music by Charles Ives, and he is a member of the Refuge Trio, which takes its point of departure from the Joni Mitchell song “Refuge of the Roads.” He has been a core member of the Meredith Monk Ensemble for more than 15 years. He brings all of those interests and experiences to his new release, “Elegy” (ECM), out Friday.

“Elegy” is an unusual recording for a performer known for his vocals, as they are not at the center of each tune. Some are instrumentals, and on others Mr. Bleckmann contributes elegant scatting to the work of his stellar band: guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Shai Maestro, bassist Chris Tordini and drummer John Hollenbeck. In the notes to the album, Mr. Bleckmann says that the unifying theme of the new recording is songs about death, but less in mourning than as a meditation on transcendence. For instance, he wrote the lyrics of “To Be Shown to Monks at a Certain Temple” in response to a Zen poem that sees death as a sign to the living to keep moving. Stephen Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight” is the showstopper of the recording. On it, Mr. Bleckmann slows the tempo to a crawl, accentuating minute differences between the “r” sounds in “familiar” and “peculiar.” In the first verses he’s backed only by restrained play by Mr. Maestro. Mr. Bleckmann gives the song a complete and stunning makeover that showcases his vocal ability. On the other tracks he demonstrates the versatility of vocals within an ensemble.

Photo: ECM

Mr. Bleckmann, who is 50, was born in Dortmund, West Germany, and originally pursued ice-dancing. He was a junior champion before turning his ambitions to music after meeting the stellar jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan at a workshop in Graz, Austria. He moved to New York in 1989. He quickly won acclaim in both jazz and contemporary classical music circles, collaborating with leading lights like Anthony Braxton,Steve Coleman,Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. He created the alien space language for characters in the film “Men in Black.”

On Feb. 7 Mr. Bleckmann begins a brief tour with his quintet at Jazz Standard in New York. His performances are typically full of charming wit, dazzling technique and unexpected humor. Today’s jazz is often as much about texture as it is about virtuosity, but in Mr. Bleckmann’s music it’s about both.

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Bullish 01.11.17

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

I spent the holidays thankful that I *wasn’t* a beat writer covering the Chicago Bulls.  Sportswriters, bloggers, podcasters and the like were up in arms about the team, and my only response would have been to suggest that they calm the fuck down.   Seriously.  Let’s look at the charges.

The Team is Mediocre

This isn’t news.  Vegas put the Bulls over/under to start the season at 38 wins, i.e. a 38-44 season.  Many prognosticators took the under.  Nate Silver’s 538 site picked the Bulls for 45 wins, which Electoral College jokes aside, still isn’t a formidable record.  The Bulls have hovered at or just below .500 lately.  Why is this a surprise?

The Rajon Rondo Signing Isn’t Working Out

Rondo was once a leading NBA point guard but in the last three seasons, he’s worn out his welcome in Boston, Dallas and Sacramento.  He can’t shoot from distance; 29.2% for his career from behind the arc, which makes him an especially bad fit in the pace and space offense that Fred Hoiberg was hired to implement.  He’s a clubhouse cancer as illustrated by his recent itinerary.   Only Bulls GM Gar Forman thought this was a good idea.  That Rondo wouldn’t last half a season as the Bulls starting point guard was one of the safest bets in the NBA.

That led to this aggravating conclusion

It’s time to blow it up!

This is code word for its time to trade emerging superstar Jimmy Butler, which would be idiotic.  First of all why trust a rebuild to Forman, a personnel executive, who thought contrary to all conventional wisdom that signing Rondo was a good idea.  Secondly, the point of rebuild is to find a young superstar to anchor the team.  Butler is 27.  In other words they have a cornerstone already.

Thirdly, and this is the most important point, the Bulls won’t tank as they have done that and it didn’t end well.  From 1999 until 2005, the team drafted in the upper echelons of the lottery, and those picks didn’t turn out too well.  Here are a few highlights

Marcus Fizer

Chris Mihm

Eddy Curry

Jamal Crawford

Tyrus Thomas

Ben Gordon

Kirk Hinrich

Luol Deng

Admittedly, some of these guys had honorable NBA careers and were stellar role players, but that’s the low end of what you want from a high lottery pick.  Meanwhile the team suffered through six of the worst seasons in franchise history.  Most key members of the front office remember that era and have no stomach to risk repeating it.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

At the end of last season’s 42-40 campaign, the Bulls were an aging and broken down roster in decline.  I thought the goal was to maintain some relevance in the standings while transitioning toward a younger core of players.  The signing of Dwyane Wade helped maintain the relevance but the Rondo signing didn’t.  It takes minutes away from Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine and the recently added Michael Carter-Willliams.  Their development as well as that of frontcourt players Bobby Portis, Niko MIrotic, Paul Zipser and Doug McDermott is the barometer of the team’s success.  The sooner the team begins making that clear the better.     The games since “the crisis” especially the 101-99 loss to the Wizards on January 10, show that narrative taking hold.  The success of the season will be its sustainability.

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Winter Jazz Festival 2017

Winter Jazz Festival Marathon Musings

My 2017 Winter Jazz Festival Marathon began and ended with arguments.

No, they weren’t stylistic or about the nature of social awareness (one of the WJF 2017 themes) and music.  The disagreement was more fundamental.  It was 9:30 on Friday night and I’d just finished a workday that featured four hours of journalism followed by eight more of retail.  My bones and muscles insisted that home, a ten minute walk, was the only option.  My ears were just as adamant, the New School buildings, an epicenter for the Marathon, were also a ten minute walk away.

The ears won and off I went toward the New School, where in one venue I heard a program of Joni Mitchell, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone ably performed.  It was motivation to go further west where Mike Reed, a great Chicago based drummer was presenting his Flesh and Bone.  There was a poet and wild and cool declamations but the highlight was hearing Reed’s sextet.  His sound is a counterfactual.  What if the scenes that produced soul greats Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield and bluesy jazz giants Johnny Griffin and Clifford Jordan and the AACM, the musical collective that has nurtured dozens of contemporary music’s leading lights intermingled more than balkanized.  As with Reed’s group, People Places and Things, the results with Flesh and Bone are tantalizing.  It was telling that many Chicago journalists in town for other events stopped by to hear the hometown hero.  Even in a marathon taking place in nearly a dozen venues with more than 100 acts, there couldn’t have been much better going on.

Saturday, with only about six hours of journalism on my shoulders, I was more energetic, though still centered around the New School campus, and for six hours I bounced eagerly between three buildings.  The highlights began right away with the quartet of Michael Formanek, Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and Gerlad Cleaver recreating their magic from their ECM recordings of a few years ago.  The magic increased with John Herbert’s Rambling Confessions, which featured Jen Shyu tearing up “Alfie” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and making those classics hers.  I could have listened to them all night but my friends were eager to run upstairs and catch what we could of the Mary Halvorson Octet.  The theater was packed but the organizers left the door cracked and from outside I could hear the complex rhythms and nimble harmonies meld into a charged, intense beauty.  One of my pals wanted a dose of something more straight ahead so three minutes later we were in the 12th St. Auditorium watching drummer Ralph Peterson Jr. lead a rip roaring band through tunes like Eric Dolphy’s “Iron Man.”  My pals decided that venues on the southern edge of Greemwich Village might satiate their sudden desire for energetic eclecticism.  I stayed in the New School area to investigate Adam O’Farrill and he happily lived up to the hype with a quartet named Stranger Days that deftly navigated its way through repertoire by Kenny Dorham and some knotty originals.

There are many moments during WJF where one yearns for the science fiction power to replicate yourself temporarily so that you can be in two places at once.  That wish was powerful as 11:00 approached, I was sitting in the Glass Box Theater utterly mesmerized by Ben Allison’s Think Free, a group that was turning minor key blues into finely textured musical weaves with pianist Frank Kimbrough zigzagging through the fabric.  My ears wanted to stay.  But my ears also wanted to go upstairs to hear another bassist, Chris Lightcap and his group Superette.  I went (one of Lightcap’s other group, Bigmouth is one of my favorites), and it was quite the contrast.  Lightcap’s group, two guitarist s and a drummer wailed.  Someone needs to double bill them with Jenny Scheinman’s aptly named Mischief and Mayhem.  Post millennial rocking jazz rock usually has a foreign accent; Lightcap’s group had a powerful twang.

My WJF marathon ended nicely where it had started 27 hours before, in Tishman Auditorium, this time for Nik Bartsch Mobile, a quartet that trafficked in sublime, gently wrought textures and rhythmic lines.  It was as if Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians had been written for a European jazz quartet with a pianist, bass clarinetist and two drummers.  My ears were eager to trek east for Brandee Younger, but by then I wasn’t only tired but I was hungry so my body won that argument.

For all of that music wonder, the real highlight of the marathon took place outside a concert hall.  After Halvorson, I encountered a high school teacher from Long Island with a diverse dozen or so of his students.  He told us that he brings a crew to WJF every year; meanwhile his students enthusaistically debated which venue would be next.  It was heartening to see the artistry and ambition presented on stage matched by someone in audience development.  I had a bunch of hip teachers in high school, but that dude was in a completely different league.  I almost envied the students.

jen-shyu

Jen Shyu, a highlight at WJF 2017

 

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Nat Hentoff R.I.P

When I was a teenager starting to buy my own jazz records, rather than borrowing my parents LPs or making cassette tapes of my siblings, my father took note and bought me a copy of Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Is. I read it and reread it almost immediately. He was capable of lionizing jazz greats *and* analyzing them. I was fascinated as previously I had thought that the act of scrutiny inherently reduced the subject. It made me want to write like that too.
About 25 years later, I began writing for the Wall Street Journal, I knew that Hentoff wrote for the same section of the paper but I couldn’t imagine that he might read my pieces. Then about two years into my time there, my editor emailed me the day a review of mine ran, and I cringed. I feared I’d botched a detail. Nope, my editor was writing to convey Hentoff’s praise. Then about a year later, it happened again, and a couple of years later, again.

Each instance put me on cloud nine for weeks, but what also impressed me was which articles he commented upon. The stories about Sonny Rollins or Duke Ellington, artists that Hentoff had written beautifully about, weren’t the ones that impressed him. He was a big fan of the 2004 story about the then up-and-coming Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. He liked the 2009 article about Mary Halvorson, Taylor Ho Bynum, Jessica Pavone and Tomas Fujiwara. In other words, his ears were still open and eager for information on new music. It made me that much more interested in finding new and exciting musicians. Impressing my editors wasn’t easy, but impressing Nat, now that was the gold standard.
Nat’s gone now, but I’m not going to stop trying to impress him. That’s what Jazz Is, right? He taught me with his words and his actions.

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At WSJ on the Kamasi Washington Effect

 

 

I’m glad this could be said.  Washington’s impact on the jazz scene will be felt for years to come and the success of his colleagues should do wonders to highlight how decentralized the jazz scene has become.  I know there’s a Bay Area and Chicago sound.  I bet in coming years we’ll hear sounds from scenes well outside the current mainstream.

How Kamasi Washington Revived Jazz-Funk

Jazz musicians are returning to the hybrid style, putting their own twists on the 1970s genre in records with crossover appeal.

Kamasi Washington in July ENLARGE
Kamasi Washington in July Photo: James Mccauley/Rex Shutterstock/Zuma Press

The rise of Los Angeles-based saxophonist Kamasi Washington was easily the biggest jazz story of the past 18 months. Following the release of his aptly titled three-disc recording, “The Epic” (Brainfeeder), he brought his exceptional live shows to venues across the country and spurred recordings by his associates that have updated jazz-funk, a hybrid style popular in the early ’70s and intermittently since. His ascent and his coattails have brought attention to the extremely fertile Los Angeles scene that is rapidly becoming an important jazz epicenter, and on the increased eclecticism among jazz musicians.

The 35-year-old tenor saxophonist performs in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 30 and 31, in San Francisco Jan. 6-8 and Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 12.

Mr. Washington plays a variant of the hybrid that is much heavier on the jazz part, but still very much rooted in the nascent funk of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The abundance of small percussion instruments, the addition of flutes and other sinuous instruments, and a more propulsive backbeat show the influence of such cornerstone discs as Pharoah Sanders’s 1969 recording “Karma” and Billy Harper’s 1973 album “Capra Black,” but it was Mr. Washington’s work on Kendrick Lamar’s superb 2015 hip-hop recording “To Pimp a Butterfly” (Interscope) that was his big break. When Mr. Washington’s debut recording was released a few months later, he became a

surprise crossover success. In the tours that followed, he played in large, sold-out venues to predominantly young audiences who were probably more familiar with J. Cole than John Coltrane, one of Mr. Washington’s most important influences.

Two of Mr. Washington’s colleagues—saxophonist/producer Terrace Martin and trumpeter Josef Leimberg—and MAST (a project by L.A.-based multi-instrumentalist Tim Conley) delivered stellar jazz-funk recordings this year. Mr. Martin, who also contributed to Mr. Lamar’s recording, released “Velvet Portraits” (Ropeadope), which has been nominated for a Grammy. His disc draws equally from the earthy grit of vintage R&B and the slow, relaxed grooves of such archetypal early jazz funk as Roy Ayers’s song “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” Mr.

Leimberg’s recording “Astral Progressions” (World Galaxy) is more atmospheric but heavy on virtuosic jazz solos from Mr. Washington and others. “Love and War” (Alpha Pup) from MAST adds another effective element to the mix, electronic dance music, and it offers an engaging panoply of sounds that are both of the moment and suggestive of a jazzier version of some early drum ’n’ bass from the late ’90s.

These are not the only L.A.-based artists making their way onto top-10 lists. “The New Breed” (International Artists) by guitarist Jeff Parker and “MONKestra Vol. 1” (Mack Avenue) by pianist John Beasley have also scored end-of-the-year accolades. The eclecticism displayed on these discs and many others of note this year highlight a growing trend toward ambitious experimentation and blends of jazz with other musical styles. Much of that vibrant activity took place in Los Angeles, a place not known, until recently, for its jazz scene.

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