Friday, November 21, 2008

Ahmad Jamal: A national treasure speaks

Ahmad Jamal by Frank Capri
Pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal is a man of letters. He has one from President Bill Clinton congratulating him on being named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1994. In 2007, the French government made him an Officier de L'ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Officer, Order of Arts and Letters) and the Kennedy Center dubbed him a Living Jazz Legend. He holds a Duke Ellington Fellowship at Yale.

Earlier this year, he brought home a Best International Album award from les Victoires du Jazz, France's Grammys, for his latest release, "It's Magic" (2008). Here's the title track.

Home for Jamal is Salisbury, Conn., where I reached him earlier this week by phone. On Monday-Wednesday, Nov. 24-26, he will perform six sets at the Dakota. Expectations are high, and rightly so. Profoundly influential, endlessly innovative, majestic and gracious, Jamal is a national treasure.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1930, he started playing piano at 3, studying seriously at 7, performing professionally at 14 and touring nationally at 17. At 21 he formed his first trio, the Three Strings. Producer John Hammond heard them play in New York and signed them to Okeh Records.

'Poinciana' a jukebox hit
At 28, Jamal, bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier recorded Jamal's arrangement of the song "Poinciana" at the Pershing Lounge in Chicago. It became a jukebox hit, charting for more than two years and allowing Jamal to open his own restaurant/club in Chicago, the Alhambra. How long was it open? "One day too long," he laughs.

Miles Davis recorded many of Jamal's songs and arrangements and instructed his pianist, Red Garland, to play like Jamal, with spacious phrasing. Even if you don't know Jamal, you have probably heard him play — on the soundtracks of the films "M*A*S*H" and "The Bridges of Madison County."

Vibrant and elegant at 78, Jamal is traveling the world, writing new music, performing to sold-out audiences, and planning his next CD on the French label Birdology (distributed in the US by Dreyfus). He's a man of strong opinions and thought-provoking views. For the rest of this post, he has the floor.

Ahmad Jamal on why he chose jazz, which he calls American classical music:
I don't have that separation of music [classical vs. jazz]. It's either good music or bad music. I was playing Lizst when I was 10 years old, Duke Ellington when I was 10 years old. Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson — we have to know the best of both worlds. I have been playing good music all of my life — the body of European work, the body of American classical music. … When you're 3, you don't make choices. Music chose me. That's the way it has been all my life, even now.

On creativity:
We can only reflect creativity. We're not creative people. When I write something, it comes to me. What we have to do is make ourselves available. We're receiving vessels. We can't make a raindrop or a snowflake; those are the articles of creation. All we can do is reflect on the beauty of the raindrop or snowflake.

On distractions:
If you fill your life with too many distractions, you're going to dull your senses. People who have dulled their senses are walking around dead. When you dull your senses, you're not being receptive. A great artist doesn't allow himself to be distracted. As Duke Ellington said, "Music is my mistress."

On silence:
I spend time every day away from all of this flurry of activity. I have moments when I steal away, get away from the chaos that we bring upon ourselves: cell phones, Blackberries, strawberries, TVs, DVDs. If you want to call it silence, I'll accept that word. But it's more than silence. These are very profound moments, a very profound series of things I do when I steal away from this world.

On 'American classical music' vs. 'jazz':
It's a culmination of thinking about what this music is, and the terminology that is used to refer to it. … What happened was we sophisticated a very unsophisticated term ["jazz"], which now has many definitions that have nothing to do with the music. The word is used very loosely. … We all play classical music. The best of both worlds. It's an affront to go up to Wynton [Marsalis] or me and say, "I play classical music." We are the superior practitioners. Nine times out of ten, a man who's playing first chair in a symphony can't play "Happy Birthday."

On the space he brings into his music:
I never called it space. I call it discipline. … If you don't have discipline you can't have freedom. People say they're completely free, but when you see a stop sign, you have to stop or you'll crash. There's no such thing as complete freedom. You have to practice the rules that govern this earth and govern living. When you don't have discipline you have disorder.

On free jazz:
Free jazz, unfree jazz, this jazz, that jazz … Ballet, opera, hip-hop, rap … There's good and bad in everything. We have a wonderful mechanism called the human brain. It's the best tool you'll ever have, whether you're reading a book, looking at a painting, or listening to Mr. Jamal. The human brain can siphon good from bad. Just reflect a little and your mind will tell you.

On Jazz at Lincoln Center, for which Jamal opened the 2008-09 season in September:
It has one of the best orchestras in the world. What makes that orchestra so good is it's laced with the proper humility, the proper philosophical outlook. They're all gentlemen. You can't play music if you're arrogant. … Wynton [Marsalis] is a gentleman and one of the great American classical musicians. … The new Lincoln Center structure, this place that Wynton helped put together, is what is proper for housing this music. This is what it should be, in keeping with the cultural contribution this music has given to the world.

On his own recordings:
What's my favorite record? The next one. My best record? The next one.

On his hit "Poinciana" — does Jamal ever tire of playing it?
Not ever.

What: Ahmad Jamal with bassist James Cammack, drummer James Johnson III, and percussionist Manolo Badrena (some might call this a quartet; Jamal prefers "small ensemble")
Where: The Dakota
When: Monday-Wednesday, Nov. 24-26, 7 and 9:30 p.m. ($20-$40)

Originally published at, Friday, Nov. 21, 2008

Sean Jones rules

The Dakota threw a party for A-Trainers last Sunday and trumpeter Sean Jones flew in from Pittsburgh to play. He was joined by a "local" (hah!) rhythm section: Tanner Taylor (piano), Gordy Johnson (bass), Phil Hey (drums). This video by Don Berryman says it all. Please keep in mind it was a party, therefore more talking/ambient noise than usual.

Ahmad Jamal: More from the MinnPost interview

• Main article: Ahmad Jamal: A national treasure speaks

Earlier this week
I had the privilege and opportunity to interview Ahmad Jamal, an artist I have long admired. I was more than a little starstruck when I picked up the phone and dialed his number (he’s in CT, I’m in MN). He was enormously gracious and behaved as though he had all the time in the world to speak with me.

The main interview appears on MinnPost. Here are a few more moments from our conversation.

Ahmad Jamal on camaraderie between musicians:
An endangered species…. Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City, East St. Louis, Detroit: These are cities where camaraderie existed when we were growing up. We had wonderful memorable jam sessions then. There were rooms where you could stay and become artist-in-residence.

On mentoring young musicians:
Today you don’t have anybody, or very few people, launching young careers. Record companies don’t want to do it. Too much money. [I’m mentoring Venezuelan pianist] José Manuel García of the International Groove Conspiracy. [Korean pianist and composer] JooWan Kim. [Japanese-born pianist and composer] Hiromi, one of the most spectacular talents in the world. [French jazz singer] Mina Agossi. It’s quite a load. [Note: All share the same manager, Ellora Management in Lakeville, CT.]

On “American classical music” vs. “jazz”:
For clarity, I’m not paranoid about the word “jazz”…. If you want to change the lingo, the language, in any direction, it should be done by the practitioners. If you want to change the language of the music business, it should be a musician…. This business of wrong terminology irks me sometimes. It’s up to us musicians to define and sophisticate, to form a language that interprets and gives proper meaning [to what we do].

On the rules of music (and life):
Observe rests. Observe dynamics. You can’t just play loud all the time, you can’t just play soft all the time. That’s a violation of the rules if you have one dynamic all the time. You can’t do that. Life is like that…soft, loud, crescendo, diminuendo, rest. Without these rules you have chaos.

On Randy Weston:
Randy Weston is one of my favorite Martians. His son, Azzedin Weston, is on Jamal Plays Jamal, which came out on 20th Century. One of my favorite recordings.

Randy is coming to his own finally, after going to Morocco, living in Africa, going overseas for years. He is finally been given some of the recognition that he deserves. We share the same agent…. I went to his nightclub in Morocco. That’s when I met Azzedin. The rest is history….

Not all of us have million sellers. Dave Brubeck, “Take Five.” [Jamal's] “Poinciana.” Herbie Hancock. Miles Davis. All of us have had big hits or a cumulative amount of records sold. Horace [Silver] has had a lot of exposure. Not like Elton John, the Beatles, a different genre altogether. When it comes to instrumental music, there are very few of us who have the recognition of Henry Mancini, Burt Bachrach, George Shearing, “Lullabye of Birdland,” Joe Zawinul’s “Birdland,” another big hit.... Randy didn’t have a million seller.... [I mention how much I like “High Fly.”] “High Fly”! That’s not Randy’s anymore. He gave it to me. Like Jimmy Heath gave “Melodrama” to me. That tune is the essence of Randy.

On what’s next for him:
Only the Creator knows what’s next. That’s as accurate as any human being can get. We plan, but God is the best of planners. Sometimes we overthink ourselves. We think ourselves into trouble. If we do the right things, life takes care of us. If we’re snoozing, we’re gonna lose….

I’m thinking now of going into the studio, taking my time, doing another record next year I’m looking forward to being my best. “Paris After Dark.” Maybe we can play that finally correctly. A section piece, “After JALC.” [Jazz at Lincoln Center.]

On his “proposed autobiography” (mentioned on his Web site):
No news! I don’t think that’s going to happen. Too personal. I don’t want to sell books. I want to live a life that’s not based on selling books.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Skirts, corsets, tighty whities: The Royal Winnipeg Ballet does Orff

When: Saturday, Nov. 8, 2008 • Where: Northrop AuditoriumWho: Royal Winnipeg Ballet

High in Northrop Auditorium’s vast balcony, where the air is thin, I held my breath for nearly two hours last night. A metaphor for the awe I felt watching the Royal Winnipeg Ballet perform Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco (to Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor), choreographer Shawn Hounsell’s led (a pas de deux set to Arvo Pärt’s Für Elina), and RWB's resident choreographer Mauricio Wainrot’s Carmina Burana (to music by Carl Orff).

I don’t know much about ballet but do recall a Swan Lake when I dozed off as the corps de ballet was making its way onto the stage (one ballerina at a time, one step at a time, step...step...step...step...zzzzzzz). We had tickets to this performance because Orff’s Carmina Burana, like Mussorgsky-Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition, is a big old crowd-pleaser. (Also because, for the first time, Northrop made it easy to order tickets to events in their dance series at the same time I ordered the jazz series.) But mostly because I thought HH would like it.

The Balanchine, originally written as a ballet exercise, was gorgeous. Ten women, one man, all dressed in simple practice clothes, interweaving and posing, leaping and twirling on tippy-toes. What is more lovely than a line of ballerinas dressed in white and fluttering en pointe? The Toronto Sun said “It was a little like watching a snowfall through a kaleidoscope.”

The six-minute led was choreographed for RWB Principal Dancer Tara Birtwhistle and soloist Dmitri Dovgoselets. The music—piano and the sound of human breath—was fascinating, the dancing exquisite.

So I was already happy by the time the curtain opened on Carmina Burana and “O Fortuna” blasted up to the Northrop’s dusty rafters. For part of the time, everyone in the company, including the men, wore long jewel-toned taffeta skirts. At first they looked silly. Then the dancers spun and the skirts lifted and bloomed into sculptures, like inverted bowls with deep vertical edges. Fabulous.

There was a rather silly part—dancers brought out music stands bearing what looked like small patches of grass instead of music (representing spring, I suppose)—but other than that, it was an hour of ravishing beauty. Some of it was danced in corsets (the women) and tighty whities (men), distracting at first, then not. The hour seemed over almost as soon as it began. I wanted them to come back and dance it all again.

Skirts photo from Danza Ballet. Corsets photo from Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine Online.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Poncho Sanchez: More from the MinnPost interview

• Main article: Pancho Sanchez: Latin jazz con soul

Master conguero and Latin jazz bandleader Poncho Sanchez
brings his Latin Jazz Band to the Ordway next Wednesday, Nov. 12. I spoke with him earlier this week for MinnPost and he was one of the most enjoyable interviews ever, full of stories and enthusiasm. I had listened to an earlier interview with him on KFAI Radio and learned that all I had to do was stay out of the way and let him talk.

His latest CD, Raise Your Hand (2007), features guest artists Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper (among others). Sanchez told me how they first met:

“We were in Italy, on a tour in Europe of major jazz festivals. We got on a bus and the driver told me, ‘I have to stop at another hotel and pick up four musicians playing the same festival you’re playing, okay?’ I said sure, we have a big bus. I had no idea who they were.

“We pull up at a hotel and here’s four guys. I say, ‘Wait a minute! That’s Booker T and the MGs!’ They didn’t know who we were, they just knew some bus was coming. They didn’t know too much about me, or Latin jazz—that was about 22 years ago. It was a four-hour bus trip. We talked to them and got to know them.

"Many years later, a year and a half ago, I was talking to the VP of Concord, John Burk. He said, ‘Concord owns Stax now, is there stuff in the old library you want to look through?’ I said, ‘I got all that stuff.’ ‘Want to do a record with Booker T and those guys?’ ‘Sure, I met them in Italy on a bus.’ When they came to the [recording] session, we were like brothers.”

Although the story of how Cal Tjader discovered Sanchez is Latin jazz legend by now, it’s still a treat to hear Sanchez tell it:

“My older brothers and sisters had all of his records. I used to look at the album covers, at this white guy who played Latin music. He sure played good. My brothers and sisters would see him play in L.A. from time to time. I thought, when I grow up, I want to see him. As soon as I grew up, I went to the old Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California, a famous jazz club for many years. I would see Cal play there. Howard Rumsey used to own that club. He was a jazz bass player. He ended up leaving that club and opening another in Redondo Beach called Concerts by the Sea. A nice club downstairs, underneath the pier. We started going there to see concerts—Mongo [Santamaria], Willie Bobo.

“What happened is, I was playing with a local band here in L.A., married, out of high school, my [first] son was two years old. I was playing with a local band at a predominantly Latin club, mostly Latinos. We played top 40s stuff, Tower of Power, Chicago. One night a white guy walked in with a hat and cigar. He stood out like sore thumb. Just a little odd. The guy sat at the bar. When I took my break, I went up to the bar and the white guy said, ‘You sound really good. Want a drink?’ ‘You buy it, I’ll take it.’ He told me he’s a personal friend of Cal Tjader’s. I thought, yeah, right. We made small talk. I said, ‘Don’t forget to tell Cal Tjader about me.’ I told the band and everybody’s making fun.

“One week later, I went to Concerts to see Cal Tjader. I’m walking down the stairs and that guy is standing next to Cal at the front door. I put on the brakes and told my wife, ‘Remember? There he is!’ He looked up at me and told Cal, ‘There he is. There’s the guy.’ Now I was nervous. I thought, this guy isn’t lying. I went down and he said, ‘Poncho, this is Cal. Cal, this is Poncho.’ Then I was shaking. I met Cal Tjader! I had seen him play many times but hadn’t talked to him.

“He asked if I would sit in. When? ‘Tonight! I’ll call you up.’ I’m not a professional musician yet, I’m just 24 years old. In the middle of the set, he called me up, I sat in, played a number, the crowd exploded. He liked me. After the set, he wanted my name, address, and phone number. ‘Maybe I can use you when I come down to L.A.’ "

Two weeks later, Tjader called Sanchez to play a gig at the Coconut Grove on New Year’s Eve. He became a member of Tjader’s band on the first night and stayed with him for 7 1/2 years until Tjader’s untimely death in 1982. He still calls Tjader “my musical father.”

Sanchez named his first son Mongo, for Mongo Santamaria. He named his second son Tito, for Tito Puente. I asked, “No Cal?” He said, “I should have had one more boy.”

Photo from the Poncho Sanchez MySpace page.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

MinnPost's First Birthday

Several reviews need writing--Dennis Spears on Halloween, Rick Germanson, and shows from even earlier--but those will have to wait. For now I want to mention that it's MinnPost's first birthday. There's a party on Sunday, Nov. 9 from 4–7, at the St. Anthony Main Event Centre (219 SE Main St., Minneapolis), open to members only (new members can join at the door, or online). MinnPost, as many people don't yet know, is a nonprofit. There are annual membership categories but the truth is almost any amount will make you a member. For nonprofits, numbers of members count almost as much as the amounts they give.

What the one-year marker means to me (apologies for being self-indulgently self-referential here) is I have now written about jazz every week for a year. During the planning stages, someone (Joel Kramer?) at MinnPost decided that jazz was worth reporting on regularly. Fellow MinnPost writer Susan Perry recommended me for the job. I said yes without knowing what I was getting into; I had never written a weekly column before. I've had the benefit of an excellent editor (Casey Selix) and the privilege of interviewing many jazz artists I admire. (I spent 45 minutes on the phone just yesterday with Poncho Sanchez, and who wouldn't want to do that?) It's a learning curve, a lot of work, and a pleasure.

And that's all I'm going to say about that. Happy Birthday, MinnPost! Here's to many more.