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 of 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, offer 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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Lots of Miles Between Us

Finding myself home alone for a long weekend, I was determined to play as much of Miles Davis albums from my collection as time would permit. There was not enough time to hear all 42 titles. Which was fine since many of these albums are played frequently, with Jack Johnson, Seven Steps to Heaven and Miles Ahead at the top of my usual playlists. This allowed me to focus on CDs that had not been heard in a long time. For the half-dozen albums that contain two, or more, CD’s I just played the first disc. That list included Circle in the Round, Agharta, Big Fun and the Bootleg Sessions.

The experiment was a raging success and there will be some changes to the usual suspects that end up in my car and office over the next few months. For today’s Jazz-Notes I’m going to make some observations, many likely to be inflammatory for hardcore fans.

A Journey into the Miles Davis Albums

Miles Davis albums - Modern Jazz GiantsThe best surprises were two of Miles Davis albums separated by thirty years; Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants that included recording sessions from 1954 and 1956, and Tutu from 1986. We’ll start with Jazz Giants since it needs some context. There are, in fact, two albums with this name, both released by Prestige and recorded by Rudy Van Gelder. The first was recorded during two separate sessions in 1954 and ultimately titled Bags Groove (though the actual song title is Bags’ Groove) with Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke. A reissue in 1987 included multiple takes of Bags’ Groove and But Not For Me. A terrific album, but less impressive than the album released in 1956 with cuts from one of the 1954 sessions and another from 1956. It was remastered in 2008 by Rudy Van Gelder.

Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants provided an unexpected jolt. As happened often over the weekend, a song would pop out and send me to the liner notes. Here the line-up on a single tune, ‘Round Midnight, was John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones. The difference between the sound of the earlier session in December of 1954 and the ‘Round Midnight session of 1956 was incredible. If there was ever a question regarding Miles ability to evolve intelligently, it is answered by this album. The journey to Kind of Blue seems inevitable.

Surprises from the Miles Davis Collection

Tutu, on the other hand, is more about the destination than the journey. Having played this early in the listening session, and being so impressed that it was the only album Miles Davis albums - The Man with the Horngetting a repeat during the weekend, it was clear how this music resolved problems with songs during that difficult transition period post-Bitches Brew. Specifically, the wildly uneven album The Man With the Horn saw some of its best moments finally realized on Tutu. With Marcus Miller as the undisputed sideman on this CD (with props to George Duke), we have a masterwork of jazz featuring brilliant elements of funk and fusion. And the striking photography of Irving Penn is a breathtaking bonus.

Miles Davis albums - AghartaAnother surprising contrast was the live album Agharta followed by Porgy and Bess. Recorded in 1975 during an appearance in Japan, Agharta defines the crazy shit Miles was doing with percussionist Mtume and guitar great Pete Cosey. For critics of Bitches Brew, this had to be the ultimate insult. In fairness, Miles was dealing with some serious health issues at this time which had to have influenced his performance. But this album, which I enjoyed again immensely, is an acquired taste and challenging piece of work.

Porgy and Bess was just a great listen, and a gentle reminder that Miles wasn’t selling-out anything by covering Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper thirty years later. Being one of the best-selling of Miles Davis albums; Gil Evans does a yeoman’s job in scoring and directing a full orchestra in support of Miles’ rendition of this Gershwin classic. Show tunes have never sounded better.

An Outlier and a Touching Finale of the Journey

Miles Davis albums - Ascenseur pour l’echafaudA light also needs to be shined on another outlier from the collection of Miles Davis albums, Ascenseur pour l’echafaud was the soundtrack from a movie made in 1957. There are twenty-six cuts on this album with all but four lasting less than 3-minutes each. Ultimately, ten of these improvisational works were edited to create the soundtrack for a movie by French director Louis Malle. A beautiful, haunting album sounding very much like a single song, it makes anywhere at any time become 2:00 am in a sketchy jazz bar near the wrong part of town. Every time I hear this CD I wonder why I don’t play it more often.

All of the live Miles Davis albums were disappointing. Setting aside the quality of the actual recordings, which varied across a nearly inconceivable range from really good to truly terrible, there was something missing in these CDs. For all the grief Miles has received about turning his back on the audience or wandering off the stage during sideman solos, I have always enjoyed watching his concert footage, and do frequently. Today I watched a 1988 performance of Tutu from a short-lived TV show hosted by David Sanborn that was terrific. But the live recordings felt disjointed and seemed to be missing some element to give the performance the intensity of recording sessions. Hard to explain, but play the concert My Funny Valentine adjacent to Miles Stones, and think about this missing link.

Miles Davis albums - Miles & Quincy Live at MontreuxIn A Silent Way and Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux played as I wrote this summary. The first of these two albums saw the final break for Miles from his storied past as he moved into the new world of jazz fusion, and like Jazz Giants is a magical example of Miles as an innovator. The second – reviewed below in detail, if you are interested – was recorded just a couple of months before Miles died in 1991. It was the first time he had revisited the music created with his early partner, Gil Evans, in almost forty years. The music from Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess features prominently in his touching final performance.

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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, were the amazing arrangements 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 where 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 40’s and 50’s 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 takes 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 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 heavy weight 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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