Tuesday, July 30, 2013

CD review: Nancy Harms' "Dreams in Apartments"

Nancy Harms by Lisa Venticinque
Today is the official release date for Nancy Harms’ new CD, “Dreams in Apartments,” and I wish she could be here in Minneapolis to launch it. I’ve been a Nancy fan since April 2008, when I first heard her sing one song after Arne Fogel, whose gig it was, invited her up to the mic. Later I wrote this brief summary: “I like Nancy’s voice and her broad, open vowels, and her red hat.” Looking back five years, I remember that night very clearly, and what really happened: Nancy’s voice snared me like a velvet rope and has never let go.

Nancy has those qualities I find most exciting in a jazz singer: singularity (she doesn’t sound like anyone but herself), authenticity, and integrity. Also the ability to take a song, turn it inside-out, and stamp her signature on it. Like Stacey Kent, Nancy sings two notes and blows her cover. Like Patricia Barber, she inhabits her own world of sound and invention and interpretation. She’s not as well-known as Kent and Barber, but she should be. She has a genuinely beautiful voice (that velvet rope) and a spacious yet precise sense of timing. She knows how to tell a story and make a lyric spark and hum with emotion and truth. She has courage, and she means business.

“Dreams in Apartments” is Nancy’s second album under her name. “In the Indigo” came first, in 2009, with its killer opening track “Bye Bye Blackbird.” She appears on trombonist Wycliffe Gordon’s “Hello Pops!” (2011) and pianist Jeremy Siskind’s lovely “Finger-Songwriter” (2012), with its knockout “Vanished Music, Twilit Water (for Seamus Heaney).” She’s in a group called “Double Bass Double Voice” with singer Emily Braden and bassist Steve Whipple, which ignores its own limitations and makes enjoyable music. Now living in New York, where she moved in 2010 after four years in the Twin Cities, she’s performing at places like Birdland, Kitano, and Smalls. Once upon a time, not that long ago, she was teaching elementary school in Milaca, Minnesota, population 2,934. Before then, she grew up in even smaller Clara City. She was living the life she thought she was supposed to live, then one day she jumped off the train and began reinventing herself.

Everything Nancy sings, whether live or on recording, is part of that reinvention process. So it’s not really surprising that “Dreams” starts out with an original, “Weight of the World,” co-written with Arne Fogel. The lyrics are telling: “Shake it off and start all over again.” It’s spirited and energetic but not giddy. It has an edge. She could be singing, “Get out of my way.”

“Dreams” is a mix of originals and standards. All of the standards bear her stamp. “It Could Happen to You” is sigh and suggestion tempered with world-weariness. It could happen to you, but don’t hold your breath. In “Mood Indigo,” a co-arrangement with pianist Aaron Parks, Ellington’s easy-going swing has been replaced by a 9/4 time signature that changes the song so much I cling to the melody like a life raft. I’ve heard this arranngement before, sung live, and while I admire it, I don’t get it. Except that what Nancy does with the word “die” (“I could lay me down and die”) is to die for.

“Never Let Me Go” is simply gorgeous. Slow and wistful, with occasional well-placed embellishments. She’s accompanied by soft brushes and guitar. This is dangerous late-night listening. When she sings the question, “You couldn’t hurt me, could you?” you want to beat up anyone who would even try. Here’s Nancy reinventing herself as vulnerable. “From My First Moment” isn’t a standard, nor is it an original. Based on Satie’s Gymnopedie for Piano No. 1, with lyrics by Sam Babenia, it was first recorded by Charlotte Church. That version is unimaginative, the arrangement overdone. (I can picture Satie’s performance instructions: “Get those strings out of there!”) Thank goodness Nancy is a jazz singer. She shares arranging credits with Jeremy Siskind, with whom she has recorded (“Finger-Songwriter”) and toured, and her version is about ten thousand times more interesting.

“Midnight Sun” is sung through a smile, illuminating Johnny Mercer’s lyrics: “Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice … The clouds were like an alabaster palace … Each star its own Aurora Borealis.” Such juicy, tasty words: moonlit veil, nightingale, stardust, ember, crystalline. Nancy draws out the ending, then draws it out even further, because no one wants this night to end. The final standard on “Dreams,” also the last track, “While We’re Young,” is lilting and hopeful. Nancy ventures more into her higher register, adding lightness to lyrics that aren’t really about being young; they’re too wise. The song is a sweet farewell, for now.

The originals, most co-written by Nancy and Arne Fogel, hold their own in strong company. At first, I thought “And It’s Beautiful” was a standard, that I’d heard it before. Here, as in “Weight of the World,” the lyrics seem personal and autobiographical: “Stepping into your life a stranger/A shell of a former you/A distant memory of what life used to be/But there’s a fighter that lives within you.” Wycliffe Gordon takes a guest turn on trombone, and his horn and her voice sound like old friends.

“Out of Comfort” is the track I keep returning to. For me, it’s the centerpiece of the album, a blend of revealing lyrics (“I step out of comfort and there I go/No safety net to catch my fall”), dream-sequence vocals, and an improvised midsection powered by John Hart’s electric guitar. It's the most experimental. Nancy’s voice, absent almost all vibrato, is like water flowing downhill. It disappears, then returns to repeat the opening line in a new key.

“Something Real” is a song of anger, frustration, and dismissal (“I’m not your wide-eyed little girl/Not here to orbit round your world … I’m looking for a shred of authenticity”). Too much New York? It’s sassy, assertive, and probably the most pop-radio friendly, thanks to Hart’s guitar. At first it seems out of place. It’s another reinvention.

I’ve mentioned Hart’s guitar and Wycliffe’s horn, but I’ve been remiss in giving props to all the musicians. The rhythm section – Aaron Parks on piano, organ, and Fender Rhodes; Danton Boller on bass; R.J. Miller on drums – is sensitive and supportive, and the musicians have plenty to say. Parks contributes several beautiful solos. Putting the right band together is daunting, and Nancy faced a special challenge when the young pianist she originally had in mind, Shimrit Shoshan, died unexpectedly from cardiac arrest on August 22, 2012. Nancy and Shimrit had performed together at The Bar Next Door two weeks earlier. 

“Dreams in Apartments” is about dreams in strange places and anonymous spaces that don’t yet feel like home. It’s about restlessness and change, the need to keep moving, the awareness that time is short, a life in flux and on the cusp. Another line from “And It’s Beautiful” could be the theme: “Every step is a new creation.” Well-planned and well-paced, Nancy Harms’ second album – only her second – has moments of real magic. 


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Keith Jarrett, get help

I've been reading articles about Keith Jarrett's performance last week at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, the latest being Thomas Conrad's for JazzTimes. There are things I don't understand. Why would anyone pay up to 120 Euros for the likely chance of being walked out on and verbally abused by the artist he or she came to see? Why does Jarrett continue to perform in public? Does he need the money? Another brilliant, eccentric pianist, Glenn Gould, played his last public concert at the age of 32. Why doesn't Jarrett just stay home? Or record only in a studio? Or, if he needs the presence and energy of a live audience to create masterpieces like The Koln Concert and, more recently, Rio, what about relaxing his own unreasonable expectations for the audience's behavior?

Like countless other jazz and music lovers, I'm enchanted by Jarrett's piano playing. I have seen him live, but only once, on November 7, 2001, at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. (I'm reasonably sure that was the date. He also played Orchestra Hall three times in the 1980s.) That was an indoor, controlled environment, one where photography is forbidden, and back then there were no iPhones with cameras and flashes.

If he returned to Minneapolis today, I wouldn't go to see him. The risks outweigh the potential rewards, at least from my perspective (and I'm sure there are plenty of people who don't agree with me on this). I'm happy to buy his recordings (a whole shelf full, so far). I'd rather see him live, because live music is always better, but I wouldn't go.

When did Jarrett start melting down at the merest hint that someone might be taking his picture during a concert? It might have been November 6, 1982, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England. The unofficial Keith Jarrett website (there is no official Keith Jarrett website) includes these comments:

The concert was interrupted because of someone taking photographs. Comments from David: “It was a cold rainy Manchester evening, a sparse audience, some jaw dropping solos, but the evening was sadly remembered mostly for an extremely insensitive photographer on the balcony (during a particlarly sensitive section of a solo) blasting off a sequence of images on a motordrive, and Keith just slamming his hands on the keyboard marching over to the man and saying, ‘Do you realise what it takes for me to build up to preparing for this piece of work and then to perform it?’ He then told him to get out of the theatre, which to his credit he did.”

Most famous (or infamous) was the scene in Perugia in 2007, when Jarrett asked "someone who speaks English" to "tell all these a**holes with cameras to turn them f****** off right now. Right now! No more photographs ... If we see any more lights, I reserve the right (and I think the privilege is yours to hear us), but I reserve the right and Jack [DeJohnette] and Gary [Peacock] reserve the right to stop playing and leave the goddamn city!" The Festival declared they would never invite him back, but they did. And this time, as Conrad reports, Jarrett demanded that the stage lights be turned off. The trio played in the dark in case, God forbid, someone tried to take a picture.

Jarrett has walked off the stage because people were coughing, because he didn't like the piano, but most often because he saw or thought he saw a camera. He has refused to play an encore, telling the crowd, "Because of this [a camera sighting] we're not playing an encore!" Like an evil despot, he punishes the many for the sins of the few. He expects one hundred percent compliance from audiences of thousands at outdoor festivals, where there will always be someone who ignores the announcer's pleas for no photos, or forgets the ban on photos, or decides to see if he or she can get away with taking just one photo, or maybe even thinks, If I take a photo and Jarrett sees me, I can shut this concert down. That's power, to some. Jarrett may think he's calling the shots (no pun), but he's letting his audience decide if he'll play or not.

On the Amazon website, Jarrett has posted his own highly personal liner notes from the Paris/London: Testament recording (released in October 2009). He writes about his Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, how energy-sapping it is to play solo concerts, how "the amount of preparation work, mental, physical, and emotional is probably beyond anybody's imagination" and "it is NOT natural to sit at a piano, bring no material, clear your mind completely of musical ideas, and play something that is of lasting value and brand new," about his second wife leaving him for the third time and how he "quickly scrambled to stay alive," his "incredibly vulnerable emotional state" and having "lots of physical ailments ... plus stress, plus an emptiness that was overwhelming." Reading this, it's impossible not to feel compassion for a man who is genuinely burdened by genius, and gratitude for the absolute beauty he has given us.

But the scenes have to stop. Is there no one close to him who can intervene with kindness and love?

Next Friday, July 19, Jarrett and his trio play the Theatres Romains De Fourviere in Lyon, France., a large, open-air theater built on a Roman ruin. Good luck with that.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Holding good thoughts for composer Stephen Paulus

Greg Paulus (l) and Stephen Paulus (r)
Photo by John Whiting
This photo of composer, producer, and musician Greg Paulus and his father, composer Stephen Paulus, dates from late August 2011. It was taken at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis during a rehearsal of "TimePiece," a new work for jazz soloists and orchestra written by Greg and Stephen that would open the Minnesota Orchestra's 2011-12 season.

Stephen gave us permission to attend the rehearsal and handed me a score when we arrived so I could follow along. He was warm and welcoming and generous.

I'm posting this photo here and now because on July 4, Stephen Paulus - St. Paul-based composer of operas ("The Postman Always Rings Twice"), chamber music, choral pieces, music for orchestra and more,  over 450 works to date - suffered a stroke.

On July 9, when his family went public with the news, he was in critical but stable condition in a Twin Cities hospital, in a medically induced coma. Today he was able to breathe on his own - a positive sign.

The family is journaling his progress on a CaringBridge page, and friends are leaving messages of support.

You can hear several of Stephen's compositions on Spotify, but not "TimePiece." You used to be able to download that from the Minnesota Orchestra's website, but during the labor dispute that resulted in the lockout of the orchestra's musicians on Oct. 1 and continues to this day (with no end in sight), downloads were removed, so it's no longer available.

His choral works seem especially appropriate now, like the lush, hushed and luminous "Loving-Kindness."

May he recover fully. There's more music to be written.

Related: Behind the scenes of "TimePiece for Jazz Soloists and Orchestra" by Stephen Paulus and Greg Paulus

2014 NEA Jazz Masters announced

l2r: Jamey Aebersold, Anthony Braxton,
Richard Davis, Keith Jarrett
From the Dept. of Better Late than Never: the National Endowment for the Arts has announced the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters, the nation's highest award in jazz.

I'm always genuinely happy to read this list of names, and not only because the Jazz Masters program was in jeopardy as recently as February 2011, when it was eliminated from President Obama's 2012 budget proposal, to be replaced by a lame-o, all-purpose American Artists of the Year honor. We could have said goodbye right then to any significant recognition for jazz artists that didn't have Doris Duke's name attached, or occasionally MacArthur. But then the House Budget Committee did a surprising thing in June 2011 and directed the NEA to restore funding for the Jazz Masters. So Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette, Sheila Jordan, Jimmy Owens, and Von Freeman, who took the Jazz Masters honors in 2012, weren't the last class after all. They were followed in 2013 by Mose Allison, Lou Donaldson, Lorraine Gordon (owner of the Village Vanguard), and Eddie Palmieri. They in turn will be followed in 2014 by Anthony Braxton, Richard Davis, Keith Jarrett, and Jamey Aebersold.

What a wonderful thing it is to be acknowledged and applauded as a Jazz Master. By the time most Masters are named, they are late in their careers. The award carries a $25,000 prize, a lot of money for most jazz musicians. It opens the door to more high-profile appearances, some funded in part by the NEA Jazz Masters Live program managed by Arts Midwest in Minneapolis. It's an honor that never expires, for which the glow never fades. (Had the program been axed in 2012, that would not have been the case.) It's something every jazz artist can aspire to. As Kurt Elling said during an interview in 2012, "When we talk about awards, that's the kind of thing people like me need to see in place so there is another thing to shoot for."

Probably for budget reasons, the annual number of Jazz Masters seems to have settled at four, down from five in 2012 and as many as eight in 2010 (nine in 2011, if you count the individual members of the Marsalis Family, which was given the honor collectively). Four is an okay number. Six would be better.

Visit the website for features, profiles, biographies and more.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Opportunity for young male jazz vocalists (18-35)

From JazzTimes:

Manchester Craftsmen's Guild Jazz announces auditions for the next great male jazz vocalist

The Gentlemen Sing: Three Generations of Song featuring Allan Harris and Ernie Andrews is missing its next generation singer.

This brand-new curated project by Marty Ashby and MCG Jazz [Manchester Craftsmen's Guild Jazz] features Allan Harris, Ernie Andrews and a brand-new artist that will be chosen by nationwide search. MCG Jazz opens the search with a nationwide call for submissions from young male jazz vocalists, followed by live auditions here in Pittsburgh with Allan Harris and Freddy Cole. The project will culminate in a two-concert presentation showcasing Allan Harris, Ernie Andrews and a brand new jazz star!

MCG Jazz invites young male jazz vocalists, ages 18 to 35, to submit resumes and videos and compete to win the ultimate prize: a 2-show live concert appearance at MCG Jazz on February 28, 2014 with superstar Allan Harris and living legend Ernie Andrews.

Every entry must include the application (downloadable at MCGJazz.org), a resume and a 5- to 7-minute video that includes the individual singing “It Could Happen to You” in a medium tempo and one tune of his choosing. Submissions are being accepted electronically beginning July 1, 2013.

Submit your video online via YouTube using the tag “MCGGen3” and email your application to kfriedson@mcg-btc.org. Alternatively, you may send a DVD with your application to:

MCG Jazz
Attention: Kahmeela Friedson
1815 Metropolitan Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15233



July 1 – August 1: Online submissions accepted. Mailed items must be postmarked by July 20 to ensure timely delivery.
August 1 – September 15:  Round One of the online voting period.
September 23 – October 30:  Top 20 online vote-getters posted on the MCG Jazz YouTube channel for Round Two of voting.
November 15:  Final Three contestants announced. (Final Three chosen by combination of online votes and producer discretion.)
December 15:  Final Three contestants travel to Pittsburgh for a live to the public “sing-off” with the winner announced that evening.
February 28:  Three Generations of Song with Allan Harris, Ernie Andrews and our newest jazz star debuts at MCG Jazz.