At Timeline on Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland at 50

One of the reasons I love writing about music is that it forces me to live inside the music for a while and allow the music to live inside of me.  I’m constantly curious about who I am now and what today’s music says to me, which is why I mostly cover the new stuff, but this project was fun.  I first heard Electric Ladyland 39 years ago and was able to parse what it meant to me then as well as what it means to me now in the context of evaluating its overall impact, which I think is as powerful today as it was in 1968.

Have a read!

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At WSJ on Kris Davis and Craig Taborn’s Octopus

‘Octopus’ by Craig Taborn and Kris Davis Review: Diving for Deep Listening

Live recordings of the jazz piano duet offer insights into the roots of the players’ technique.

‘Octopus’ is the new album from jazz pianists Craig Taborn and Kris Davis
‘Octopus’ is the new album from jazz pianists Craig Taborn and Kris Davis PHOTO: PETER GANNUSHKIN

Piano duet recordings are rare in jazz compared with trios or solos, yet they offer huge rewards. A duet of artists with contrasting styles—say, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock or Cecil Taylor and Mary Lou Williams —enables listeners to find surprising common ground between the performers and appreciate the idiosyncracies more. Duets pairing pianists with similar approaches—as on the albums featuring Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan or the one with Muhal Richard Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers —offer insights into the roots of their technique and often take listeners into unexpected sonic territory. The latter is the case with “Octopus” (Pyroclastic, out Friday), a splendid document of live recordings featuring pianists Kris Davis and Craig Taborn.

With their lean, restrained and abstract music, both Ms. Davis and Mr. Taborn often remind me of the painter Paul Klee in their embrace of the modern trends that recently preceded them. In addition, their style is bright but not sunny, like the flavor of a Sancerre. “Octopus” consists of two compositions by Ms. Davis, three by Mr. Taborn, and two covers—the Carla Bley jazz standard “Sing Me Softly of the Blues” and Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space.” The recording opens with Mr. Taborn’s “Interruptions One,” a spare, lyrical piece in which both pianists skillfully interact with silences as capably as they do with each other. The proceedings heat up a little on Ms. Davis’s “Ossining,” which is named for the town in the Hudson Valley, a region where she and many other musicians now live. The pace quickens and each pianist layers cluster over cluster, with Ms Davis playing prepared piano in parts to exhilarating effect. Their reserve gives Ms Bley’s composition a wistful air; they find a soulful edge with the music of Sun Ra.

“Octopus” is compiled from concerts in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Columbus, Ohio; and San Diego, when the duo toured following the Ms. Davis’s 2016 album, “Duopoly” (Pyroclastic), which featured duets with Mr. Taborn and such other jazz luminaries as guitarist Bill Frisell, clarinetist Don Byron and saxophonist Tim Berne. One stop on the tour, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, can be found on YouTube, and the variance is instructive. There are elements of the compositions found on Octopus, but many are taken in substantially different directions. Both pianists are restless improvisers with enormous arsenals of ideas.

Mr. Taborn, who is 47 years old, has had notable sideman gigs with saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Chris Potter as well as bassist Chris Lightcap, but his recent work as a leader on three recordings for ECM has solidified his reputation as one of the leading pianists in jazz. Ms. Davis, who is 38, has been a standout in bands led by bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and others; she leads the acclaimed quintet Capricorn Rising and several other bands. She will perform nightly in various configurations at The Stone in New York from Jan. 23-28.

Ms. Davis and Mr. Taborn, as well as many of their contemporaries, are elevating jazz beyond the limiting continuum of accessibility and abstraction. Long rhythmically intense stretches of “Octopus” are easy to grasp, yet so too are the austere sections. It’s music that is defining its own terms rather than shoehorning itself into categories like tradition and avant garde. The audience gets it; the enthusiastic ovations that punctuate the recording border on ecstatic.

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At WSJ on Tim Berne and Snakeoil Incidentals

This is my pick for best jazz recording of the year.  I think it got a little overlooked because it isn’t news anymore that Snakeoil makes great music, but the way their sound has advanced in recent years is astonishing.

‘Incidentals’ by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil Review

An outsider who challenges traditional jazz structures is finally gaining recognition.

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne and Matt Mitchell
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne and Matt Mitchell PHOTO: LYNNE HARTY/ECM RECORDS

Saxophonist and composer Tim Berne and his group Snakeoil make compelling, complex music, but his career arc is simple. He’s an outsider’s outsider who has found success and recognition after many hardscrabble years.

Mr. Berne, who is 62 years old, has twice started imprints—Empire in the ’70s and Screwgun in the ’90s—to record his music, and he has worked in record stores to make ends meet. He has doted on figures like saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill, whose rare ability to fuse gutbucket blues and avant-garde jazz is often overlooked. There are no “Berne Plays Thelonious Monk ” recordings that might endear him to the jazz mainstream. Yet for the past five years Mr. Berne has recorded for ECM Records, a prominent label, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Since joining the ECM roster, he has released four excellent recordings with Snakeoil—the latest, “Incidentals,” ranking as one of the finest jazz albums in an exceptional year.

Snakeoil features a core of Mr. Berne, pianist Matt Mitchell, clarinetist Oscar Noriega and drummer Ches Smith ; on occasion the group has expanded to include guitarist Ryan Ferreira. Mr. Ferreira doesn’t take unaccompanied solos on the recording; instead he adds texture, as does guitarist David Torn, who also produced “Incidentals.”

Mr. Berne’s compositions challenge the theme-solo-theme structure of most jazz. Rather than return to a theme, each solo tends to take the music to a new juncture; the shifting rhythms in the play of Mr. Mitchell or Mr. Smith function as a guide to the direction of each piece. Mr. Berne is interested in collective improvisation, and the members of Snakeoil have developed a phenomenal rapport that enables each member to be heard clearly even during those moments.

Mr. Berne’s composing mettle is particularly evident on “Hora Feliz,” the 10-minute track that leads this 64-minute program. The piece starts softly with horn murmurs over firmly struck single piano notes amid atmospheric sounds from the guitar. It drifts into subtler and subtler combinations before shifting, four minutes in, to a muscular ensemble piece that is very nearly toe-tappable. It’s as if the drink of choice at happy hour shifted from Chardonnay to bourbon. Much like Hemphill’s or Arthur Blythe’s , Mr. Berne’s saxophone sound is dark, and his angular play is a good contrast with Mr. Noriega’s smooth, lean lines. The centerpiece of “Stingray Shuffle” is a collective improvisation focused on texture whose layers of sound are the sonic equivalent of a napoleon. “Sideshow” is longest piece on the recording and it features catchy themes and superb solos from Mr. Noriega, Mr. Torn and Mr. Smith; ardent fans of Snakeoil may recognize it as the second half of “Small World in a Small Town,” which appeared on the band’s 2015 release, “You’ve Been Watching Me.”

The results are entrancing. Few groups are as adept at drawing listeners in and enticing them to follow discrete musical statements that morph into bigger group declarations.

With his run of Snakeoil recordings, Mr. Berne has joined the ranks of elder statesmen from the Lower East Side scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Musicians like Bill Frisell, Steve Coleman and John Zorn were seen as stylistic rebels then, but their music has become a part of the jazz establishment. Younger musicians like Mr. Mitchell, Kris Davis, Jonathan Finlayson, Tomas Fujiwara, Steve Lehman, Dan Weiss and many others are eagerly following in their footsteps.

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At WSJ on Matt Mitchell’s A Pouting Grimace

‘A Pouting Grimace’ by Matt Mitchell Review: Crossing Stylistic Borders With Ease

The pianist and composer offers his most complex and sprawling work yet on an album that showcases the influence of con

mporary classical music and unique harmonies.

Pianist and composer Matt Mitchell
Pianist and composer Matt Mitchell PHOTO: RICH DORAN

Pianist and composer Matt Mitchell makes some of the most interesting and complex music on the New York jazz scene, yet he’s a recent arrival. He spent nearly a decade working at the University of the Arts library in Philadelphia, coming to New York only as gigs required. He finally moved to Gotham in 2015 and since then has become one of the city’s most in-demand sidemen, an integral part of bands led by Tim Berne, David Binney, Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, Jonathan Finlayson, John Hollenbeck and Rudresh Mahanthappa. This may prove to be Mr. Mitchell’s breakout year. “A Pouting Grimace” (Pi Recordings), his second recording as a leader to be released in 2017, showcases two of the most compelling trends in jazz today—the influence of contemporary classical music and the creation of unique harmonies—and pushes them into new and unexpected territory.

“A Pouting Grimace” is Mr. Mitchell’s most complex and sprawling album by far. He often cites the electronic-music pioneer Iannis Xenakis and the great jazz pianist Andrew Hill as formidable influences, and the recording shows this.

Four of the tracks offer solo ruminations from Mr. Mitchell on electronic instruments. And like Xenakis’s most compelling work, several of Mr. Mitchell’s solo pieces are spiky and lithe. I could easily imagine a choreographer who favors athletic movements building a work from “Bulb Terminus,” the 70-second track that leads off the recording, and from two other short bursts, “Deal Sweeteners” and “Squalid Ink,” that appear in the middle of the 47-minute program. ”Ooze Interim,” which concludes the recording, is slower, darker and more ethereal.

Although Mr. Mitchell grew up idolizing piano deities like Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, and their sway can be heard in his solo style, Hill is a cornerstone. YouTube has

Mr. Mitchell’s poignant solo piano rendition of “Dedication,” from Hill’s signature 1964 recording, “Point of Departure.” The ensemble pieces on “A Pouting Grimace” are reminiscent of that Hill recording in their unusual textures and harmonies. Mr. Mitchell employs such exotic instruments as bassoon, bass saxophone, contrabass clarinet, glockenspiel, tabla and timpani to create finely layered rhythms and bright, lustrous harmonies. On the album’s “Plate Shapes,” for instance. Jon Irabagon’s work on sopranino saxophone intertwines with Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon over a foundation of the leader’s piano, Patricia Brennan’s marimba, Kim Cass’s bass, Kate Gentile’s drums and Ches Smith’s vibraphone. Mr. Mitchell’s group compositions typically begin with off-kilter beats that are played with such drive and intensity that they sound completely normal by the end of the track.

Mr. Mitchell, who is 42 years old, grew up with an understanding that the ’60s jazz avant-garde and ’90s eclecticism were parts of the genre’s tradition rather than outsider movements, and this is apparent both in his improvisations and in his compositions. He has created music that almost casually crosses stylistic borders; it’s an accessible, personal sound that feels rooted in the past but very much of the present.

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Can You Have a Relationship in New York City Without Dating


This spring I met somebody…somebody special.  But we’re both New Yorkers and these days you have to work almost 24/7 to keep a job and keep your head above water.  We like each other a lot but there’s been almost no time to do things like, well, date.  So what has resulted is a developing relationship on an emotional level without the nuts and bolts of dating.  How’s that?  Well she’s a bartender at a craft beer bar and I’m the craft beer buyer for a fancy grocery store and a veteran NYC barfly.  In other words we have lots to talk about when we’re not just dreamily gazing into each other’s eyes.  In addition, I cook for her since she’s a foodie and rarely gets to eat home cooked meals.  It was a way of proving that I was more than just a regular customer.  I started writing about it a few weeks ago, and here are the installments so far.

It begins with chili

It continues with craft beer

Then we muse about the new middle age

Then I question my manhood relative to her potential expectations

Episode 5 is all about cooking

Episode 6 is about an unlikely source of wisdom in this adventure, finance bros

In Episode 7 we finally plan our first date.

In Episode 8, I weather the Aftermath.

In Episode 9, We deal with the Aftermath.

Three more episodes are written and this could go 20 or 30.  Ultimately, it’s about food, love, craft beer, NYC 2017 and life these days.



View story at

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It’s Different This Time

Yes, I’m saddened that the Chicago Cubs season ended with a thud on Thursday night, but now that there’s a title in the bag, the ending feels different.

For one, their opponent was the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The question entering the postseason was whether the 91-39 Dodgers of the first 130 games or the 13-19 Bums of the final month would show up.  Ask any Diamondbacks fan to confirm, it’s the former.  .The Dodgers have now won seven of eight playoff games. 
For another, the Cubs are still very much a work in progress.
Consider the data.
Age 23
Albert Almora Jr. 1.0 WAR
Addison Russell 2.0 WAR
Age 24
Javier Baez 2.9 WAR
Kyle Schwarber 0 WAR (but 30 HR)
Age 25
Carl Edwards Jr. 1.5 WAR
Willson Contreras 3.9 WAR
Kris Bryant 6.1 WAR
And oh yeah, Age 22, Ian Happ 1.8 WAR
Other key performers like Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendricks, and Jason Heyward are all younger than 29.
All the position players appeared in 115 games or more.  Edwards, the principal set up man appeared in 73 games and Hendricks made 24 starts.
For another this is a season where lots of things went wrong.  Russell and Schwarber didn’t hit til August.  Baez struggled in the first half too.  Every pitcher in the rotation both struggled and spent time on the DL.  The team never really settled on a fifth starter until the Quintana trade in July.
And yet 92-70.  49-25 after the break.  
They just ran into a buzzsaw
Wait til next year isn’t defiant optimism anymore; it’s a logical projection.
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At WSJ on Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt

‘Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg’ Review

Drummer and composer Matt Wilson’s new album does more than wed words to music—it points toward a new kind of jazz recording.


Drummer and composer Matt Wilson
Drummer and composer Matt Wilson PHOTO: JOHN ABBOTT

Poetry and jazz seem like natural allies. The elegant brevity of the words would appear to be a perfect match for the abstract tones of the instrumentation; after all, the Great American Songbook is full of poetic lyrics that are rendered best by jazz musicians. Yet, in practice, projects that blend poetry and jazz have been a mixed bag. All too often the cadences of the words don’t mesh well with the accompaniment, resulting in a combination that is less than the sum of its parts.

But not “Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg ” (Palmetto), the new recording from drummer and composer Matt Wilson. Not only does it succeed in wedding words to music, but it may point toward a new kind of jazz recording.

Mr. Wilson, who is 52, is unusually well suited for this project. He grew up in Knoxville, Ill., near Sandburg’s native Galesburg, and verses by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and biographer have been part of the drummer’s cultural diet from an early age. After Mr. Wilson moved to New York in the late ’80s, he found in Sandburg’s work both the spirit of home and, in the poet’s free verse, inspiration for exploring all varieties of music. Mr. Wilson’s debut recording as a leader, “As Wave Follows Wave” (Palmetto, 1996), is named for a Sandburg poem, and his ensemble also performs the great poet’s “Wall Shadows” on his 2003 release, “Humidity” (Palmetto).

The drummer began his Sandburg project in 2002 after getting a grant from Chamber Music America, and he’s divided the new recording into three sections—poems with urban settings, those with rural themes, and those that mix the two—plus an epilogue.

In the first section, the music is big and catchy. A rambunctious and soulful beat drives “Soup,” while “Anywhere and Everywhere People” is funky and puckish. Some of the words are sung by guitarist Dawn Thomson, but on “People” Sandburg’s verses are recited by bassist, radio host, festival director and renowned jazz personality Christian McBride, who adds clever inflections to the prose.

The great poet’s words are recited by a host of well-known figures in the jazz community, including Carla Bley, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano and John Scofield ; in addition, actor Jack Black recites “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz.” A recording of Sandburg himself is featured on “Fog” accompanied only by Mr. Wilson’s drums. The percussion initially surrounds the recitation, but Mr. Wilson’s percussive phrases become tighter and tighter until, in the last verse, the drums accent each word of the poem. It’s emblematic of how well the music fits the verses overall. Mr. Wilson will present this project at the Jazz Standard on Sept. 19

fits the verses overall. Mr. Wilson will present this project at the Jazz Standard on Sept. 19 and 20 and at various venues in California, New England and Seattle this autumn.

Mr. Wilson has built a formidable reputation as one of jazz’s leading drummers. He plays with an effusive swing reminiscent of jazz great Art Blakey. Besides the Carl Sandburg Project, Mr. Wilson leads a quartet under his name, Arts and Crafts and Christmas Tree-O.

Although Mr. Wilson’s music spans a wide range of territory, it never feels as if it’s solely for jazz geeks, and that’s an important strength of the new disc. Jazz musicians are creating an extraordinary amount of great music these days, but most of it is buried inside the genre’s niche. Recordings like “Honey and Salt”—and “Find the Common, Shine a Light” by Ryan Keberle and Catharsis, which dealt with protest songs, and “Hudson” by the all-star quartet of Mr. Scofield, drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Larry Grenadier and pianist John Medeski, which focused on Woodstock-era rock—point toward a broader audience without musical compromise. These recordings are not solely for specialists; their music builds a bridge.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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