Live in New York, it’s jazz beyond jazz

Presentations of jazz that break all sorts of bounds, pushing far beyond stale conventions — jazz beyond jazz — are so prevalent in Manhattan that the energy expended just being on the scene can leave me too drained to report on the good stuff. Five shows in the past month — Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Mali project at the Blue Note, Myra Melford‘s new quartet at Roulette, Richard Bona and Lionel Loueke in the Allen Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center, James “Blood” Ulmer with Vernon Reid’s neo-blues band at the Jazz Standard and an evening celebrating the AACM chronicle and music of George E. Lewis at the Kitchen — while different as can be, barely hint at the range of what’s happening here and now.

I should have posted these one at a time, as I experienced them, but here goes: 

  • Hard to imagine a more dynamic woman singer than Ms. Bridgewater, at age 58 describing herself at age 58 as a “sexy grandma” but embodying much more. She’s a relentlessly exciting presence, heroic bandleader and dramatic interpreter of melodies and lyrics alike, gifted with a roaring rich voice, and seemingly as indomitable as forbearers like Betty Carter, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, of the legacy founded by Bessie Smith. Gracious to a full house at the Blue Note on Monday night, October 6, Bridgewater began her set drawn from her latest album Red Earth: A Malian Journey ( it features West African Lansine Kouyate use uses an unusual bank of balafons tuned to chromatic scales and kora soloist Habib ‘Dia’ Sangaré, Puerto Rican-born pianist Edsel Gomez and upright bassist Ira Coleman, among vivid others) with a version of “Afro Blue” (composed by Cuban conguero Mongo Santamaria, made more famous by John Coltrane, with lyrics by Chicago griot Oscar Brown, Jr.), included a tour-de-force version of Simone’s theatrical  “Four Women” (rather different from the version Bridgewater delivered at the Chicago Jazz Festival last Labor Day weekend) and ended with a scathing “Compared To What” (music and words by Gene McDaniels, circa 1968), ultra-relevant with couplets including “President he’s got his war/Folks don’t know just what it’s for/Nobody gives us rhyme or reason/Have one doubt, they call it treason.” Want a taste? Bridgewater hosts the National Public Radio series Jazzset, which offers her ensemble’s complete Kennedy Center performance for free.
  • Keyboardist and composer Myra Melford, sustaining an ambitious tour schedule while serving as Assistant Professor of Improvisation and Jazz in the Music Department at the University of California at Berkeley, premiered her new nine-movement suite “Happy Whistlings” with a brand new quartet comprising AACM alto saxophonist Matana Roberts, electric guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Harris Eisenstadt to open the 20th season of the adventurous Interpretations series on a bill with AACM reedist-composer Henry Threadgill’s band Zooid at the non-profit downtown performance space Roulette on October 2. Melford is a good friend of mine, and I’m quite partial to her idealistic, emotive expression, her astonishing piano chops and bluesy grounding even when she’s working far out. Eisenstadt, another pal, provided nice flow, Halvorson pulled intriguing tricks from a deep bag of original ideas, Roberts hung in with a modest, yearning sound — and together they achieved collective cohesion despite having had just one rehearsal. That’s professionalism — but don’t take it just from me, The New York Times’ Nate Chinen admired both Melford and Threadgill’s efforts. The Image of Your Body is just one of Myra’s albums I recommend.
  • Guitarist-vocalist Lionel Loueke, sideman to Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard and lately a leader, who came to the U.S. from Benin (via Ivory Coast) in 2000 and electric bassist-vocalist-songwriter-bandleader Richard Bona who emigrated from Cameroon (via Paris) in 1995 have retained native West African sensitivities while embracing up-to-date and wide-open musical freedoms, as they demonstrated at Lincoln Center’s Greek theater-like Allen Room on Saturday night, September 27. As companionable with each other as they were gently entertaining for an curiously mature audience, charm was a big factor in their duet, but so was  quiet, confident musicality. Loueke is a serious underplayer — you almost have to lean in to catch his nuanced lines and time suspensions. Bona is a fabulously clean and funky bassist, and a singer whose pure upper registers seem to accept no ceiling. One regular reader of this blog suggested it was the only jazz concert of the year (at least) to never venture over ppp dynamics. And the mellowness emerged unforced, organic, even when Bona borrowed Loueke’s electronic effects machine to multi-layer parts over which he improvised, unfettered.
  • Harmolodic guitarist and converted-to-the blues warbler James “Blood” Ulmer was considerably rawer and louder, backed by electric guitarist-producer Vernon Reid‘s hand-picked hard-core instrumentalists — keyboards, violin, harmonica, bass and drums — at the Jazz Standard barbeque & music joint Friday, September 12. Earlier known for his ’80s string of avant-gutbucket albums, Blood has a scratchy, erratic yet droning electric guitar style that’s as compatible with Ornette Coleman’s liberated musings as with Mississippi Delta-originated styles; he was born in South Carolina and emerged as an organ-trio guitarist in Detroit but often picks like a brother to Fred McDowell or John Lee Hooker. Blood’s family was into gospel, and though he’s messed around with punkish rock over the years, he’s taken on the Willie Dixon songbook, as recorded in the ’50s and ’60s mostly by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf on Chicago’s Chess Records, with the participation of Reid, Black Rock Coalition founder and spine of Living Colour and the Yohimbe Brothers. Theirs is a fine partnership: Reid delves devotedly into the true blues, playing more of his ax than he gets to in his other situations, while Blood’s growling of “Little Red Rooster” or “I Just Want To Make Love To You” are appropriately raunchy, veering towards dangerous. Their “Memphis Blood Blues Band” members add idiomatic detail and variety true to the vernacular. It’s a bit odd to hear hard-core urban blues in a comfy supper club, but that’s a comment, not a complaint about the Jazz Standard’s ribs or pulled pork. This contingent has recorded four albums; Bad Blood In The CIty, which reflects on the fate of New Orleans, is my pick of the lot.
  • To call George E. Lewis multi-talented is a severe understatement. A MacArthur Award recipient (2002), he is the Edwin H. Case professor of Music at Columbia University, where he directs the Center for Jazz Studies, as well as a significant innovator in computer music, one of the world’s very best improvising trombonists, and author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. This almost 700 page book does for the jazz-descendant individuals who united in the mid 1960s to advance “creative music” into territory formerly reserved by a rather arch elite for themselves what Tostoy did for the Russian aristos caught up in the Napoleonic Wars. No kidding: it’s the only book I’ve ever read that recounts in voluminous and fascinating detail, evenhandedly though with an insider’s perspective, the struggles and successes of an artists’ collective that has survived more than 40 years, its chief adherents (Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Anderson, Roscoe Mitchell and his cohorts in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, above-mentioned Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Thurman Barker) garnering international renown despite commercial marginalization, and a surprising number of high level academic posts. On Saturday, Oct. 11, for the second of two nights at the Kitchen Center (where he was music curator in the early ’80s) Lewis contributed live electronic washes as surround sounds to a chamber music orchestra called Wet Ink playing one of his works, and also spotlit dazzling flutist Nicole Mitchell (current co-president of the Chicago chapter of the AACM) and aforementioned Matana Roberts in quartet with drummer Chad Taylor and pianist Craig Taiborn. Given another long chamber work by Wadada (who wasn’t in the house) and a briefer, more affecting trio for chamber players by Ms. Mitchell, it was an exhausting evening. My ears were stretched.

I know I missed many other new and unusual performances over the past weeks (and not just in Manhattan), some by musicians I know of and some by musicians I haven’t discovered. But when you’ve lived in New York for 25 years you come to accept you can’t be everywhere, witnessing everything. Too damn bad. But I trust there is a reasonable multiple of active, searching listeners in this city as there up ‘n’ coming composers, improvisers and players. If the attendance of some gigs is thin, musicians take heart. Your tree will not likely fall completely unheard, considering the population density of this metropolitan forest.
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