Electricity, Miles and Byrd

Donald Byrd and Miles Davis

Electricity was in the air when trumpeters Miles Davis and Donald Byrd heard a buzz. Miles was first to noticeably respond to the stimulus with his 1968 release, In A Silent Way. Though George Benson had appeared on one cut from Miles’s previous album, Miles in the Sky (“Paraphernalia”), it was on In A Silent Way that the electric guitar of John McLaughlin made Miles’ jazz start to rock. The impact of McLaughlin being turned loose on Bitches Brew – along with three electric keyboards, and one electric bass – reverberates among jazz aficionados even today. No need to run down that voodoo here since the story of Bitches Brew and its aftermath is an oft-told tale.

Donald Byrd was also moving away from hard bop at this time, recording some exciting music equally as controversial if less remarked upon. With the 1970 release of Fancy Free (recorded in the spring of 1969), Byrd uses an electric piano (played by Duke Pearson) for the first time. Subsequently, it is often suggested that Byrd was mostly emulating what he heard on Bitches Brew with his exploratory album Electric Byrd in 1970. I disagree.

Miles Davis and Donald Byrd’s Drawn Influences

Donald Byrd Electric Byrd Album CoverThat many of Byrd’s sounds from the addition of electric instrumentation reflect some influences from Miles at this time is certainly correct. Yet Byrd was moving in a very different direction than Miles, as a critical listening of their music reflects clearly. Not only was the composition of the band’s instruments distinct, more important is the way each went with their subsequent output. And the case can be made it was In A Silent Way that Byrd referenced while recording Electric Byrd. Bitches Brew was released less than a month before Byrd recorded Electric Byrd, hardly enough time to have been an influence.  

Much is made, especially by Miles himself, of the impact musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone had on Miles’ music of this period. Yet for a guy who was reputed to have fired band members for “practicing” between gigs, Miles’ music doesn’t really reflect the sound of a Sly Stone or James Brown number, just their attitude. Byrd on the other hand, actually plays the groove, rhythm and funk heard on Sly’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Which, it should be noted, came out in 1971.

A quick look at “who played what instrument” on the two albums, Bitches Brew and Electric Byrd, make comparisons difficult to support. Byrd credits nine musicians, with one flute player appearing on a single song. Again, Duke Pearson on the electric piano is the only electric sound. Though it could be argued that Airto, an artist appearing on many Miles recordings, brought a certain sensibility influenced by Miles. Yet it only takes a couple of minutes to get past the space-rock to find a funky jazz groove in Estavancio”, Electric Byrd’s opening cut. Then along comes two flutes, reverb notwithstanding, to fully ground a jazz fan and later provide a Latin tinge. “Essence” plays with some of the Bitches Brew tropes, but without ever getting lost in them. The closer, “The Dude” speaks to what comes next in Byrd’s output.

The title cut of Bitches Brew has an entirely different sensibility. Nearly three times longer than “Estavancio”, “Bitches Brew” covers an extreme range of velocity and timing without ever finding a groove. Uncomfortable at times, the song glorifies an improvisational method that verges on cacophony as each musician blazes his own trail. Three electric pianos and a bass with McLaughlin again on electric guitar drive this crowd of thirteen. Oh yeah, and two drummers. The music on this album is magical, maddening, often incomprehensible, and cannot be hummed.  The biggest difference between these two pivotal albums is what happened next.

A variance in approach

Miles Davis Jack Johnson iTunesMiles chased his electric bunny down a hole most people had a hard time fitting into. His next recording, Jack Johnson, remains a personal favorite and is a more listener-friendly effort likely for being a movie soundtrack. As for Live-Evil and On the Corner, 1972, and 1973 respectively, history has not been so kind. I listen to a lot of jazz with a lot of jazz enthusiasts far more sophisticated than me, and I cannot ever recall somebody playing either of these two albums, even during Miles music marathons. Frankly, these albums don’t sound so good today, just harsh. This was not music for the hoi polloi, an audience Miles sought, but instead suitable mostly for the jazz cognoscenti and die-hard fans.

In contrast, Byrd next released Ethiopian Knights, where groove and funk moved back into the forefront. The addition of Bobby Hutcherson and Harold Land helping to move the dial back toward a more approachable jazz sound. In 1972 Byrd managed to find a sound that would drive his next musical phase with the release of Black Byrd. This album, panned in the community of traditionally-minded jazz fans, went on to become for decades the biggest selling album in the Blue Note catalog. With help from the Mizell brothers, Byrd started playing a music everyone seemingly wanted to hear – except hardcore jazz-heads.

Interestingly, a look at the time demonstrates that the 1969 album In A Silent Way was also a likely influence for other terrific musicians like Freddie Hubbard and Carlos Santana. Hubbard’s 1970 Red Clay is widely considered one of his stand-out efforts and features Herbie Hancock on electric organ and Ron Carter on electric bass. Santana’s 1972 release Caravanserai is considered a turning point in his career, jazz sensibilities clearly on display. In 1973 Santana recorded an album with John McLaughlin (famous for his edgy work on Bitches Brew) called Love, Devotion, Surrender that couldn’t stand in starker contrast to the electric guitar McLaughlin played while with Miles.

Donald Byrd understood that it was incumbent upon musicians – whether jazz, rock, or pop – to create pathways to their music using every means possible. Miles made music for his muse, ultimately at the expense of many fans. As he stated on the cover of Bitches Brew, his was new “Directions in Music.” For Byrd, this period was about bringing future jazz enthusiasts into the club, with a kind of music that’s inclusive, not exclusive.

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A World of Glass

Phillip Glass by Chuck Close

Phillip Glass by Chuck Close

|It was a presentation Glass gave while I was a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design that altered the trajectory of my intellectual pursuits.|

A recent rereading of his 2015 biography, Words Without Music: A Memoir, served up a reminder of the many ways in which Phillip Glass has had an outsized impact on my life. His music is, of course, fascinating and often very good. Though it really started with the movie Koyaanisqatsi which I had the good fortune to watch accompanied by a live orchestra playing the soundtrack, it was the discovery of the album Glassworks around the same time that kick-started a collection that has since grown substantially.

Personal favorites also include collaborations with Brian Eno and David Bowie, Low and Heroes, as well as the Concertos and other works conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, with the oddly titled Saxophone Quartet Concerto being quite engaging. However, despite the effort expended, his operas (like those of another favorite composer of both Glass and myself, Mozart) have just never found a place in my musical world.

Richard Serra, Phillip Glass, and Robert Fiore 1969

Richard Serra, Phillip Glass, and Robert Fiore 1969

The book describes in vivid detail what living in New York was like at a time when fine art and music were undergoing huge shifts in form and function.  Phillip Glass worked to pay the bills as a studio assistant with artists like Richard Serra. Glass did some of the heavy lifting involved with creating some of Serra’s early molten metal works. The involvement of Glass within the New York dance scene of the 1970s was a surprise. His subsequent visibility and ultimately well-deserved respect and commercial success were hard-earned and long in coming, with bills being paid by doing manual labor and driving a taxi instead of earning music royalties. An early interest in Buddhism and work with Tibetan refugees, set in motion passions that have endured throughout his life and career. Glass talks about his spirituality in an engaging manner that persuades without lecturing.

Philip_Glass_Florence 1993

Philip_Glass_Florence 1993

It was a presentation Phillip Glass gave while I was a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design that altered the trajectory of my intellectual pursuits. Coming a few years after the (relative) success around 1976 of his first major opera, Einstein on the Beach, he was at the time of the lecture working on another major project, the opera Akhnaten, which would debut in 1984. His discussion of Akhenaten’s life and place in history stoked the fires of both my imagination and intellect. That his account turned out to be more fanciful than factual proved unimportant. The life and times of Akhenaten remain an enduring interest of mine.

His conversation also provided a back-handed endorsement of the interest I had been developing in the Kabbalah. My mentor and friend Frank Gaard would facilitate a fascination within me of Jewish mysticism to the point that it is a formidable influence on my thinking about religion to this day. In tandem with Taoism – another topic that fully manifested itself during my time in college and resonates with Glass – thinking about the variety of religious experiences found a permanent place in my studies. I attribute these near obsessions in my life largely to Glass by accident, and Gaard by intent.

Glass narrates a life well lived and worth thinking about. The biography is accessible and highly recommended, as is a sampling of his music. Plus, Glass looks so very cool in so many works by artist Chuck Close.

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Bill Bruford

As a founding member of the rock band YES, drummer Bill Bruford subsequently went on to a sophisticated engagement with straight ahead and several of its iterations through his evolving jazz group Earthworks. Yet on his way to becoming a jazzman, Bruford left YES, played with the band Genesis (as a friend of Phil Collins), and joined King Crimson (as a nemesis of Robert Fripp). He tells his story in Bill Bruford – The Autobiographyoriginally published in 2009. This marks Bruford as more of a musical flaneur than journeyman drummer.

Journeyman Drummer to Musical Flaneur

That a jazz player engages with a rock band is not surprising. Sonny Rollins plays lyrically Bill Bruford Earthworks(and uncredited) with the Rolling Stones on Tattoo You and then there is Branford Marsalis’ extensive touring with Sting. Even a hootenanny is possible with Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson recording two successful albums together. Conversely, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea recording with Joshua Redman on Momentum shows the musical collaborations flow in both directions. But completely changing one’s skin is a different matter.

Though rockers like Peter White (collaborator with Al Stewart) and Craig Chaquiso (Jefferson Starship stalwart) both chose to pursue a different sound and enjoy influential smooth jazz careers. Even a rock legend, Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, has been a leader on several jazz albums (most recently with the Danish Radio Big Band). Yet Bruford’s evolution as a jazz musician has a different feel to it. I recently played the two albums Close to the Edge (YES, 1972), and Random Acts of Happiness (Earthworks, 2004), back to back. Perhaps Bruford’s career doesn’t ever really bifurcate with rock and pop segregated from modern jazz?

Bill Bruford’s first foray into Jazz

While earlier works such as Gradually Going Tornado from 1980 are often described as Bruford’s first foray into the jazz idiom, I’ll argue that the first, eponymous release of Earthworks from 1987 definitively marks the beginning of a career in jazz. My introduction to his jazz side came much later with If Summer Had Its Ghosts from 1997, featuring Eddie Gomez (bassist for the Bill Evans Trio) and Ralph Towner (piano and guitars).

I did not immediately make the connection between Bruford and YES on this recording. A bit quirky at times, this is nonetheless a solid jazz trio playing in a straight-ahead style.  There is a confidence in this music that often eludes earlier Earthworks recordings. A decade after Buford’s first Earthworks release, Ghosts marks a significant milestone in Bruford’s engagement with jazz.

Bill Bruford’s Jazz Career Highlights

Bruford would perform with several iterations of the band Earthworks, ultimately recording nine albums. Their fifth album, The Sound of Surprise from 2001 remains my favorite of the Earthworks catalog. Featuring Steve Hamilton on piano, Patrick Clahar on saxophones, and Mark Hodgson on bass, Bruford’s playing under-grids the music rather than driving it. Surprise unsurprisingly led the band to both financial success and critical accolades, particularly in America where concert opportunities for British jazz quartets were pretty much non-existent. The opening number, Revel Without a Pause, is a testament to the band’s jazz credentials. A live recording, as were many of the Earthworks releases, the playing is tight and forceful.

Finally, I’ll mention Random Acts of Happiness, 2004, with Earthworks now featuring Tim Garland on sax, joining regulars Steve Hamilton and Mark Hodgson. Garland plays a strong, muscular sax, flute, and clarinet making this the edgiest of Earthworks albums. In some ways, Random represents the many influences across the jazz spectrum that must have impacted Bruford. Compared with Close to the Edge from 1972 I was reminded of the quote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The distance between these bookends of Bruford’s career is both great and small.

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Does it taste like jazz or classical?

In a room full of people, are you part of a gang or alone in a crowd? The distinction between jazz and classical musicians, players, and composers, to their respective tasks, offers up an interesting question. The jazz musician has to adapt his playing to the boys-in-the-band, and usually on the fly, while the classical musician stays on task no matter what happens around him. Is there a musically definable middle ground?

With jazz, the focus is more often on what the player brings to a composition (consider old warhorses like Basin Street Blues, Cherokee, Body and Soul). Do you prefer Lester Young Jazz and Classical - John Coltraneor John Coltrane, Chet Baker, or Miles Davis? Sometimes it doesn’t even sound like the same song as musicians apply their personal touch to a tune. The acknowledged jazz greats known for their orchestral compositions and arrangements, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones come easily to mind, specifically describe thinking about particular players when writing or arranging for large ensembles. Consider Ellington and Hodges or Jones and Sinatra.

It seems to work differently within classical music circles.  Rarely do individual players achieve notoriety, such as Goldberg playing Bach or Yo-Yo Ma on cello. A specific Jazz and Classical - BOPSorchestra like the London Philharmonic or Boston Pops (aka, the Boston Symphony Orchestra) is more likely referenced when discussing a classical performance than their famous conductors, let alone the first chair violin by name. For example, we tend to think of Mozart’s music in relation to the instruments (Flute Concerto #2 in D), but rarely associate that same composition with a particular musician.

An Intro to Classical Music from a Jazz Enthusiast’s Perspective

Jan Swafford’s terrific new book, Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music inspired me to create a playlist of exceptional classical music. The first surprise was how much of the music Swafford recommended was already in my collection. Recordings by David Munrow with the Early Music Consort of London and the Goldberg Variations on Bach had been, regrettably, gathering dust. Conversely, lots of music by Mozart and Stravinsky are in regular rotation on my daily soundtrack. The complete Beethoven symphonies, well, not so much.

Going in chronological order, I added works by Berlioz, Ravel, and Bartok. Not among the music mentioned by Swafford that made my list is a personal favorite, Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time (context is important to fully appreciate this work, composed in a Nazi death camp, so check out this link). Finally, though Swafford probably wouldn’t approve, I finished out my seven-hour survey of classical music with some Phillip Glass, the Saxophone Quartet Concerto all movements. This playlist is an absolute delight to play, especially for friends not expecting classical music from a jazz enthusiast; and also another example of the intersection between elements of jazz and classical music.

So classical music was much on my mind as I recently watched an interview with Dizzy Gillespie from 1990 (during a made for TV documentary by Norwegian Jan Horne, To Bop or Not to Be: A Jazz Life).

A curious segue was provided by trumpeter Red Rodney as he explained why hard bop is the hardest form of jazz to play well (cut to Gillespie), “Because you got to think all the time.” Gillespie went on to observe that, “Classical musicians just play that (points to a sheet of music), period. No added notes, no nothing else.”

As Swafford closes his book, notable for being both erudite and entertaining, he describes recent American contributions to the classical canon as being predominantly in a minimalist and post-minimalist vein. I agree. Yet there is a line from the last page of Swafford’s book that shouldn’t go unremarked, “It (classical music) has also shown an ability to absorb into itself ideas and voices from around the world, and from popular music and jazz, while still remaining itself.” I disagree. After sampling far more of the classical music Swafford recommends than I finally ended up adding to my collection, in only one instance did I truly taste a flavor of jazz; Aaron Copland (with his magisterial Fanfare for the Common Man, a long-time favorite of rock fans). Not even Glass makes the cut here.

Jazz and Classical: A Gray Intersection

If we accept Gillespie’s distinction between technical mastery (classical) and improvisational excellence (jazz) what comes to my mind is the idea of an American Orchestral Music (AOM) distinct from Western Classical Music (WCM). Arguably missing from Swafford’s overview is the later orchestras of jazz icons like Duke Ellington, Oliver Nelson, and Gerald Wilson. With nothing in the real world simply black or white, I’ll suggest AOM occupies a definable, grayish intersection between jazz and classical. And what we hear is jazz showing the influence of classical music to a far greater degree than vice versa.

A stunning example of a straightforward intersection between AOM and WCM will be found listening to the relatively obscure 1960 recording by Duke Ellington (arranged by Billy Strayhorn) of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. The story is told that Ellington and Tchaikovsky met in Las Vegas where the classical guy gave his assurance to the jazz guy that a jazz treatment of his classical composition would be appreciated. No finer example of what classical music sounds like through a jazz filter is known to me.

Two other examples demonstrating remarkable fusions of jazz and classical are also worth a listen to for comparison. First, the album Creation, a 2001 release by Branford Marsalis Jazz and Classical - Branford Marsalisperforming with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Debussy, Satie, Ravel, and Milhaud, among others, get a gorgeous jazz-tinged treatment. Second, Nostalgic Journey: Tykocin Jazz Suite featuring jazz trumpeter Randy Brecker, the Wlodek Pawlik Trio, and the Symphony Orchestra of the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic in Bialystok. From 2008 we hear this moving and uplifting tribute to a family’s quest to reclaim their Polish heritage. We also hear a jazz soloist, a jazz trio, and a classical orchestra interacting in unexpected ways with modern compositions having clear WCM roots.

Jazz and Classical: Evolving Textures

In contrast to these suggestions, the extended suite A Tone Parallel to Harlem finds Ellington in a space uncomfortable for both jazz and classical enthusiasts. The music is daring and challenging as it moves over evolving textures inspired by the daily sounds of life in New York City. Frankly, this music is distinct even from other, more popular Ellington compositions for orchestra, such as The Liberian Suite. Harlem may most perfectly embody my definition of AOM. This is not background music, it is rarely played on the radio and never heard live, so again, another relatively obscure performance. The music here floats above any debate distinguishing the jazz and classical music chasm, comfortable in being neither. A circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.

These days the term Big Band is regularly used to reference orchestral performances in jazz circles. Heavy hitters like Roy Hargrove and Christian McBride have produced big band albums recently, and these recordings sound great as they carry on in the jazz tradition, but mostly without reference to classical music. With the compositions and arrangements created by Ellington and Oliver not so much heard these days, it is difficult to compare Big Band with AOM. Which is regrettable. The epic sweep of traditional classical music can most readily be found with a taste of jazz in the works of American Orchestral Music composers and arrangers, of which this millennium has not yet heard much from.

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The Evolution of Grachan Moncur III

The name Grachan Moncur III floats mostly unremarked through the music of post-bop jazz, not unlike his opening notes on the title cut of his second album as a leader, Some Other Stuff. Despite walk-on roles in biographies of Dizzy Gillespie and Wayne Shorter, and mentioned favorably in interviews with Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean, Moncur remains mostly a shadow from the 1960’s even with his trombone and compositions appearing on the recordings of not just McLean and Shorter, but also Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson and Art Farmer.

Grachan Moncur III: The Beginning of an Evolution

Grachan Moncur - evolutionDue to myriad problems both personal and professional, Grachan Moncur’s first and most satisfying album, Evolution from 1963, proved to be a high water mark. Until the new millennium, Moncur was only occasionally to be heard, and mostly on albums by artists such as Archie Shepp and Cassandra Wilson. While Moncur did have an important comeback with Exploration in 2004, featuring trumpeter Tom Hagans and reedman Gary Bartz, this album is hardly a simple reprise of his earlier success. Exploration requires a taste for the avant-garde and can be challenging for the casual listener. Which might also be said for much of Moncur’s music after Evolution. And just perhaps, is one of the reasons he has struggled to gain wider appreciation.

After high school, Grachan Moncur went on the road with the Ray Charles Big Band in 1959, a time he recalls fondly in later interviews. Leaving the band a couple of years later for health reasons, Moncur spent the next several months woodshedding and experimenting with other musicians. It was his friend, sax man Jackie McLean, who helped kick-start a journey of musical exploration still underway, Moncur now 79 years old. This turning point would be McLean’s 1963 Blue Note release One Step Beyond.

A Turning point for Moncur

Grachan Moncur - McClean One Step BeyondBoth McLean and Moncur were working to stretch beyond hard bop, yet perhaps without really thinking so much about just being different, as often suggested. Moncur recalls in an All About Jazz interview from 2003: “…when Jackie called me (about playing on One Step Beyond), he happened to call me on the same night that I had finished writing “Frankenstein” and “Ghost Town.” Moncur was also spending a lot of time jamming with vibes great, Bobby Hutcherson, who in turn had recently been playing with John Coltrane. Perhaps at Moncur’s suggestion, Hutcherson also appeared on One Step Beyond, his first time to record with McLean as well. The invitation to Grachan Moncur was, in fact, a gutsy move on McLean’s part.

Though McLean had first recorded as a leader in 1956, by 1963 he had around 20 albums to his credit. But the release of One Step Beyond was intended to live up to its title by allowing McLean to explore new ideas. Beyond choosing to record with a couple of relatively unknown players – and using Moncur’s edgy compositions for two of the four cuts – McLean was also experimenting by adding a vibraphone instead of a piano. With Tony Williams on drums and Eddie Khan on bass, this quintet swings hard, though clearly more so with the compositions of Moncur than those of McLean.

Evolving outside of the Mainstream

A few months later, given an opportunity to record under his own name on Blue Note, Grachan Moncur was explicit about his intentions with Exploration, demonstrated by the composition of both music and band. Other than the addition of Lee Morgan on trumpet and Bob Cranshaw instead of Khan on bass, the band remained the same. And the music continued to move toward a sound that could not be confused as simply variations on hard bop themes. Moncur had this to say about Evolution: “I had no thoughts in my mind of this being revolutionary. I thought the way I named the album Evolution, I was thinking of the music evolving from the mainstream.”

Grachan Moncur - Some Other StuffGrachan Moncur’s follow up album the next year, Some Other Stuff, saw a new, tighter line-up with heavy-hitters Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock joining Cecil McBee on bass and only Tony Williams remaining from the Evolution session. With the first track, Gnostic, the distance traveled between Moncur’s work on One Step Ahead and Some Other Stuff, is obvious. Listening to Wayne Shorter’s 1965 release, The All Seeing Eye, Moncur’s presence, if not his influence, abounds. Interestingly, the two had played together during Shorter’s college career in the band of Nat Phipps in Newark.

And it should be noted that Lee Morgan was also interested in stretching out, but was hampered by his unexpected popular success with the crossover pop hit Sidewinder, recorded a month after the Evolution session. Morgan reportedly commented that he considered the work with Moncur to be more advanced than his albums around the same time. Just prior to his senseless death eight years later at age 33, Morgan demonstrates his continued efforts to find new directions for his music. Morgan’s final album, The Last Sessions, was the only one to feature his longtime friend Grachan Moncur III.

Grachan Moncur’s Legacy

Grachan Moncur - Jazz of Physics BookColtrane and Ornette Coleman, among others, created jazz for audiences looking to be challenged. And while their avant-garde and free jazz works are inspirational beyond jazz circles – just check out the terrific new book The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander – this music arguably remains an acquired taste. It might be that Moncur moved forcefully enough away from mainstream jazz too early in his career, finding himself in a spot where there just wasn’t enough audience to go around. His free jazz playing with fellow trombonist Roswell Rudd and one-time Coltrane sideman Archie Shepp did more for their careers than his.

Ironically, despite the accolades for his two comeback albums in 2004 and 2007, Grachan Moncur III remains most often remembered for his playing with straight-ahead players in the early 1960’s like McLean and The Jazztet. With both Evolution and Some Other Stuff still easily available, this is a trip down memory lane sure to offer up some new paths to explore.

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Yes, jazz can be fun, too.

At one point there were a half-dozen women from the audience were dancing with the two professional dancers who were part of the show. A couple of little kids were also playing along on a tambourine and mariachis. Punctuating all this movement was pianist Jason Moran wearing a huge paper-mache mask of Fats Waller with a big grin and sleepy eyes. It was without a doubt one of the most memorable straight-ahead jazz shows I’ve ever attended.

The only downside to the Fats Waller mask was that I never did clearly hear the names of the band members, and only later learned the line-up included bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Charles Haynes. A bit of a surprise was the appearance of a dancer, who’s first appearance left me a bit confused since she, and later a second dancer didn’t seem to be dancing in sync with the music.

Only when she reappeared during a song featuring just Moran on piano and his drummer did I finally understand what she was doing. During a particularly aggressive drum solo, the woman began to move in a way that made it obvious she was playing her body like a musical instrument. The interaction between the dancer and the drummer was a sight to behold.

About half the songs featured vocals by Lisa Harris, plus a number where Leron Thomas set aside his trumpet and sang a deep, barrel-chested blues. One of the many magical moments during this show, again at the Carver, was the amazing arrangement of old standards that were, for all intent and purposes, unrecognizable. The music was terrific, the playing energetic and the show full of fun.

As I’ve complained in the past about the lack of showmanship typical of “serious” jazz performances, Moran’s playful vibe was a delight. Just before the encore started Jim turned to me and said, “This is the best show we’ve seen.” Agreed – and a great model for making jazz come alive.

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What does the audience want?

The fourth time I caught the SF Jazz Collective in concert, it was one of the best. Opening with a medley of classics from Wayne Shorter and McCoy Tyner, and including a powerful arrangement of “Crystal Silence” for the entire eight-piece band, they closed strong with “Song for My Father.”

So this additional part of my conversation should be understood in the context of the review of the Peter White show, discussed below: More reflections on the difference between just playing live music and providing entertainment.

From the first number, the band members were wandering, seemingly aimlessly, around the stage. Which makes their ability to suddenly appear perfectly synced at every play point all the more impressive. There was laughter, banter, grooving to the music, yet it also left an impression of a mild disregard for the audience. That many people in the audience had dressed up for what they seemed to consider a special occasion was all the more noticeable in light of the casual band attire. Yes providing a view of the bass solo mentioned below was appreciated, how things are done also impresses.

I was reminded of one of the saddest moments in my long history of attending live shows. It was during the second SF Jazz concert I attended, and toward the end of the performance when one of my all-time favorites, in mid-song, looked at his wristwatch wistfully. “When would the concert be over?” his attitude messaged. Perhaps the issue is that the expectations for catching a show at the Village Vanguard or Blue Note in New York encourages a bit of laid back. After all, the audience is sitting cheek-by-jowl with the performers. An auditorium venue is, perhaps, less appropriate for casual attitudes.

While the trend to wear stylish suits back in the ’40s and ’50s sometimes feels a bit awkward when looked at from today’s vantage point, nobody can deny how good Miles Davis and other like-minded bands appeared. At the other end of the spectrum is the contrast of seeing Pat Metheny in concert live, but more particularly the video of “The Way Up” recorded in Korea. While the dress was casual, the lack of movement unrelated to playing an instrument stands in stark contrast to many of the shows I’ve seen over the last year, or so. The seriousness with which Metheny and his bands take their playing is almost hypnotic.

Leaving the theatre, “Crystal Silence” was the song I heard being discussed most, and I’ll finish with some upbeat comments about that. Having seen this classic song by Chick Corea and Gary Burton performed live a few years back at the Portland Jazz Festival, the version played Saturday was a magical study in contrast. The horn section provided a special flavor while Warren Wolf on vibes did Burton justice. But pride of place goes to bassist Matt Penman – wow, what a solo. We can only hope when a compilation of the best from this tour is released on disc, this performance is included. And, hey, Neal, thanks for the Steely Dan tip – “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” indeed.

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“Where was the improvisation?”

There is a note below about the Souza show, and the Dr. Lonnie Liston Smith’s performance was a beautiful run of long, deep grooves (both at the Carver in San Antonio). And now we’ve seen Peter White, an early heavyweight in the smooth jazz arena that followed a career in pop music whose highlights included playing with Al Stewart (where I last saw him perform live). It was a very good show.

The intro act was a young trumpet player, Gabriel Johnson, clearly influenced by Miles Davis and the source of much-spirited debate that evening. There were four of us at the show, all with an appreciation for both traditional jazz as well as the smoother variety. After Johnson finished his set, the first question posed was, “Where was the improvisation?” There were solos, but no improvisations. This thread of conversation wove through the evening’s performances. Yeah, where was the stuff that doesn’t fit on a checklist? There wasn’t any. This didn’t make the show any better or worse, just obviously different from the other two, we’ve seen this year.

And this, we agreed, was due to this being a “show” and not a concert. Which likely speaks to the headwinds causing the popularity of traditional jazz to slow precipitously. The Peter White show was a near sell-out, making a comparison to the two concerts at the Carver something of an embarrassment. Both offered brilliant musicianship and terrific music. Yet with Johnson and White, the audience was offered an awful lot of familiar pop tunes performed to a jazz cadence with a bright light show and – my only complaint with the evening – far too many opportunities to “sing-along” with old favorites like Roberta Flack’s classic, Feel Like Makin’ Love. It was a carefully choreographed performance, not unlike a rock concert.

But it can’t just be that the songs were more familiar in the smooth venue. Souza, in particular, also played some well-known music. As did Miles Davis throughout his career, covering music from Porgy and Bess to Michael Jackson. And Miles was well represented in the set played by Gabriel Johnson, including a number from, well, Porgy and Bess. The difference between Souza and Johnson simply came down to a script. Souza’s band left the sheet music on the ground and played long segments of well-worn music that was not easily recognizable. Nobody colored outside of the lines at the Peter White show. There is room for both styles of jazz, but we shouldn’t underestimate just how different they really are.

In the end, it would seem the current crop of jazz aficionados aren’t so interested in being challenged when listening to music. During my time managing a jazz radio station, I experienced two uncomfortable realities. The first was the majority of the jazz musicians I interacted with – both local and national – had a very cavalier attitude about the audience. There was a distinct tendency for the artist to expect the audience to appreciate whatever moved them during a performance. To the point that I had to remind musicians during performances, they were not playing the flavor of music that had been advertised.

Perhaps more importantly, a majority of listeners at the jazz station wanted to hear what they already knew and liked – or at least something familiar. This flies in the face of how so much great jazz was originally conceived. There are those who argue that the decline of jazz began when individual players began to take precedence over music where the orchestra ruled. Sorry, I don’t agree or appreciate that we seem to have come full circle.

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