Saturday, December 19, 2009

Back Again to the Two Questions: Pre-Holiday Edition


In this latest post, the familiar "two questions" have been answered by the versatile drummer, Mauricio Zottarelli, born in Brazil but for the past few years another fellow resident of Astoria. Mauricio has been a sideman with musicians such as harmonica player Hendrik Meurkens and keyboardist Hiromi but is currently focusing on his own music. There was the recent release of his CD, 7 Lives, and on Tuesday, December 22, he and his band will be gigging at Zinc Bar, located at 82 W. 3rd St., in Greenwich Village, NYC. The first set begins at 9:30 p.m.

Now let's read what Mauricio has to say:


1) Why did you decide on a career in music?

Deep question. Well, I don't think I actually had a choice. You know I think it's kind of a cliche and people say that all the time, but I did try to do other stuff before being a full-time musician. But I always did music, even, you know, as a hobby during weekends and things like that. I was always involved. And according to my parents, I was always playing drums since I was 2 or 3 and I didn't even know what I was doing, but I was always banging on stuff and interested in music from early on. My dad is a keyboard player and mostly by instinct--he didn't really go to school for music, but he loves jazz, and it also seems to be a common thing that happens with all the musicians. People have their parents as a reference and whatever they were listening to in their homes. So that's kind of what happened to me too, but I didn't get into jazz until much later on.

2) What is it you love about jazz that made you decide to focus on that type of music?

Well, basically, I love the freedom that jazz gives us and what you can do with it, and it's a lot more liberating in a way than playing other types of music. You know, it's deeper and it's something that when I started, I was playing heavy rock and I was interested in other types of music, not so much into the jazz thing that my dad was listening to. Then when I went to school and I started to understand more of what was happening, that really switched for me, though I still love heavy rock and still love all sorts of other music. But jazz is really interesting because of that freedom, and because of how you can express yourself in such a way that I don't think you have that freedom in other types of music. Maybe you do but it's a different thing, and that's what I really love about playing improvisational music. Sometimes you can do just anything and you can leave it open to whatever happens. It can be a great experience; it can be frustrating, but that's what I love about it. It's not having to plan everything out beforehand.


For a preview of Mauricio's music, watch his recent video at You Tube by clicking here. Also, be sure to check out his website: www.mzdrums.com.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Back to the Two Questions


In this current blogpost, the two questions have been answered by the incredibly-talented Russian-born jazz pianist and composer, Misha Piatigorsky. Actually, his music is about more than just straight-ahead jazz. It also encompasses elements of classical, Brazilian, rock, funk, and World, plus he's a darn good drummer too! Misha performs with many types of bands, in particular, his trio, his septet and the more rock-oriented Sketchy Black Dog. Furthermore, he's been the music director for Mark Murphy since 2002. Misha recently released the CD, "17 Rooms." It showcases his versatility as he, ably assisted by Boris Kozlov on bass and Ari Hoenig on drums, performs mainly originals, such as "Ballade of Edward vs. Edward Opus 23," "Kindred Spirit," and the title song, along with a few songs by other composers, such as John Lennon's "Imagine."

With all these projects, it's amazing that Misha had time to answer my questions. But he did, and his answers now follow:


1) Why did you decide on a career in music?

Well I think it's not a matter of choosing to make music my career. Making a decision that this is all I want to do. So a career or no career--that's a subsidiary sort of occurrence. I decided that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. This is what I want to do everyday all day long. This is my hobby. This is my love. This is my food. So you do what you need to do and if you can work out a situation to make some money doing it, then you're in business.

2) What is it you love about jazz that made you decide to focus on that type of music?

Well I've always heard jazz in my house growing up and I was a classical pianist until I was about 16 years old or so. Besides hearing jazz I heard a lot of Beatles, because that's what my parents were really into. But my dad always played Oscar Peterson albums and different kinds of stuff--George Shearing albums--and I just got incredibly into it. When I was about 17, I started checking out different albums and different pianists, and I realized I really want to learn how to do that and how to make that happen. And the more I examined, the more infatuated I got with different pianists, with different horn players, musicians--just the sound of jazz. And there is such a round and open art form from so many different generations of great jazz musicians. And I started just eating everything up, you know--starting from anything from eating up the way Count Basie plays, to falling in love with Monk, Duke, you know, and then falling in love with the way Bill Evans plays, falling in love with the way Kenny Barron plays, falling in love with the way Chick Corea plays, Keith Jarrett. So I just started to focus on whoever I was infatuated with at that moment. If I heard something I was crazy about, I just needed to understand it and devour it.


To see videos of Misha Piatigorsky with his octet at the Iridium Jazz Club, as well as videos of his earlier gigs, click on this link.

For even more information about Misha Piatigorsky, check out his site at http://www.mishamusic.com/.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Justice for Jazz Artists

Justice for Jazz Artists is an organization attempting to get pensions for all jazz artists who work in NY clubs. Thanks to its lobbying the NY State Legislature, two years ago the 8.375% sales tax on admissions to jazz clubs was repealed. This money was to be redirected into pension payments, which would thus cost the clubs nothing but benefit the artists who perform in them. (Please note, however, that Musicians’ Local 802 does have collective bargaining agreements with Jazz at Lincoln Center and the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. Also there are several member-leader agreements already in place that provide pension and health benefits to jazz musicians.)

Justice for Jazz Artists has been attempting to get as many names as possible on a petition encouraging the NY jazz clubs to do the right thing. On September 29, a rally was held at Judson Memorial Church. I had the privilege of being a part of this event. Great music was contributed by artists such as Jimmy Owens, Bob Cranshaw, Benny Powell, Bernard Purdie and Keisha St. Joan. Speeches were also made by some of them, as well as by Amiri Baraka and Councilman Alan J. Gerson. Then all the musicians in attendance who had brought their instruments picked them up, some of those without instruments picked up signs with slogans about our cause and we all marched, New Orleans-style, out into the street. Our destination was the Blue Note, for the purpose of presenting a copy of the petition to a representative of the club. We slowly proceeded there, using a carefully delineated route under the watchful eyes of some of New York City's Finest, the petition was dutifully presented, and we all returned to Judson Memorial to the accompaniment of one of Monk's songs as rendered by our marching band.

Those of us who consider jazz important feel it is a travesty that its practitioners have long been denied the right to a comfortable retirement. If you agree and want more information about Justice for Jazz Artists and its efforts, you can go to its site by clicking here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fat Cat


Been a while since I've done a post, mainly because I've been waiting for more of my jazzy friends to step forward with answers to my "two questions." (Hmmph!) As a result, my blog has been idle for too long. Therefore, I decided to do my latest post on a strange but interesting venue I've started going to when I want to hear good jazz but not break the bank, Fat Cat.

Fat Cat is located at 75 Christopher Street near 7th Avenue in NYC. Once I go down the stairs, the first one to greet me is a guy who takes the $3 cover (cash only). I pass the bar area, then head over to a small section filled with couches near what you might call the "stage." Meanwhile behind me are dozens of pool tables, ping pong tables, foosball tables, tables with chessboards and checkerboards on top, etc., as well as people loudly involved in the different activities. All this makes for an interesting non-musical accompaniment to the jazz, which bands of various sizes are attempting to play for whoever is seated on the couches and trying to listen.

The gigs I generally check out at Fat Cat are those with reed man extraordinaire Peter Brainin on tenor and soprano. One of the most memorable also included Mark Soskin on piano, Boris Koslov on bass and Mike Clark on drums. Great music played by some of the greatest musicians on the planet--it doesn't get any better than this! (Definitely not an upscale kind of club like Blue Note or Birdland, but with jazz of this caliber at wallet-friendly prices, who cares? Plus I kinda dig the weird atmosphere of the place!)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mark Murphy at the Kitano in NYC


On July 31 and August 1 Mark Murphy had a gig which proved why the legendary vocalist's club appearances are still such exciting events. Although he is now 77 years old, his voice is still strong and surprisingly flexible, his phrasing, scatting and sense of swing are impeccable, and his sense of drama is masterful. The singer was accompanied by some of the finest musicians around today: Vinny Valentino on guitar, Jon Cowherd on piano, Boris Koslov on bass, and Willard Dyson on drums. (Personal note: when Mark sang "My One and Only Love," his performance was so profound it moved me to tears.)

The Kitano was sold out for two nights and a majority of the audience members were other singers, including ones who had participated in workshops which Mark conducted over the years. The love for the great legend was palpable and there seemed to be a long line of admirers who wanted to convey their good wishes during breaks. Everyone agreed that we had all witnessed a true musical miracle in the fact that Mark had managed to make his performance during all four sets even more moving than any of us had expected. A perfect example of a true jazz singer who doesn't let age stand in the way of continuing to develop as an expressive and powerful artist.

To see videos from the gig, click on this link, which will take you to a You Tube channel featuring videos by various artists. Go to "see all" at the right of the page, and a brief search will lead you to performances by Mark Murphy at the Kitano.

(Photo courtesy of The Jazz Paisan)


Special Note: For a discussion of Mark Murphy's entire career, go to my post from May 17, 2009, "The Fearless Singer."

Friday, July 24, 2009

And Still More Answers to the Two Questions


The latest responder to my two questions is yet another talented Astoria neighbor, Carol Sudhalter. Besides having great chops on baritone sax, tenor sax and flute, she is the leader of groups which include the Astoria Big Band and the Astoria Jazz Band. With these ensembles she has showcased the music of Women Composers of Queens such as Emme Kemp, Sarah Mclawler and Julie Mandel in a series of concerts supported by grants awarded to her and her band from local and city-wide arts organizations including the Department of Cultural Affairs. Thanks to another grant, Carol's band also presented a Jazz History of Queens, which was narrated by Leonard Gaskin. Furthermore, she has presented several fine Italian jazz performers in the U.S., some of whom are currently working in New York.

Now on to my questions and Carol's answers:


1) Why did you decide on a career in music?


I had NO intention of going into music. My family were all jazz musicians and I think I didn't want to be in their shadow. I loved jazz and followed jazz bands around a lot and had little flings with musicians. But in college I was a biology major with intentions of having a career in science writing. As a kid, I was a birdwatcher and insect collector. The music in my house was Chicago style jazz: Bix, Frankie Trambauer, Bud Freeman etc. Later, in college, I linked into Django, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong. My tastes and exposure were not 'modern'. Even bebop came much later.

When I was between my junior and senior years of college, I had an emotional meltdown and began the long and painful road of psychotherapy. There, I discovered my center, and 6 months later, realized that what I wanted to do was PLAY music rather than follow bands around. I borrowed a flute from a classmate and started picking out the notes and playing along with records as I had always seen my brother and my father do. Soon I was sitting in with local bands. Like everyone else, I had been bitten by the bug, and it was straight downhill all the way, from there! A wonderful, rewarding, creative life with no material gain to show for it. I took up sax much later: first tenor, then bari and alto.

2) What is it you love about jazz that made you decide to focus on that type of music?

Jazz is what I heard at home since I was born. I studied classical piano and sang in glee club in both high school and college, and studied classical flute for 15 years, but always felt that being able to hear lines of improvisation in my head was something that not everyone had, and that if one had to choose, it was best to focus on that special ability. I try not to compare myself with others...Just try to bring out the ideas that are inherent in me, unique to me. I love playing classical flute when I get a chance! In another life maybe I'll do more of that.

I'm excited about my new CD to be released between September and December, recorded with several of my most highly esteemed Italian artists including a very savvy and accomplished 19-year-old pianist from Bari, Carlo Barile; and several New York artists from both U.S. and Japan, such as pianist Joe Vincent Tranchina and woman drummer Kaori Yamada.

The most exciting thing about this project was discovering a studio right here in Astoria with a brilliant engineer who handled the whole thing. It is at 30-80 33rd St. -- walking distance from my house -- the engineer, Slau, handled the whole thing, with kid gloves, lots of TLC, amazing ears and incredible professionalism. I recommend him to anyone. BeSharp Studios, 718-932-3660.


To see an example of Carol in action, click on this link.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More Answers to the Two Questions


This post features responses to my two questions from yet another fine jazz artist, vocalist Giacomo Gates. Rather than elaborate further, I'll just let him do the talking:

The first question: Why did you decide on a career in music?


I didn't wake up one day and decide to become "a jazz singer."
I had been involved with music as a kid, singing a song at the age of six, in front of a class of tap dancers.... 'cause I didn't want to dance.... I chose to sing!

I took guitar lessons from the age of eight to fourteen or fifteen, and played into my twenties. I played and sang "for fun".... self enjoyment...did gigs here and there, but never "chased it."

I got into the construction business and traveled around the U.S. going wherever the big jobs were....Alaska, Washington State, Arizona, Louisiana. I was reintroduced to the music, while attending a two week workshop at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival 1987. Headliners were Steve Allen and Sarah Vaughn.

I was encouraged by several of the instructors and also felt it was time for a change. Having been a fan of the music since 10-12 years of age, it just felt like it was time. I always enjoyed playing, singing, learning, and performing this music...Great American Songbook and the music that was then called Modern Jazz.

I moved back to the East Coast and began to sing locally, regionally, clubs, festivals, wherever I could. I actually just took another route for a while, and got an education that money can't buy, nor would I trade it for anything."

The second question: What is it you love about jazz that made you decide to focus on that type of music?

There's another kind of music? Norman Mapp wrote it, Betty Carter and Joe Lee Wilson sang it.... "Jazz Ain't Nuthin But Soul"


To get a virtual experience of Giacomo doing his thing (although this only hints at what a fine performer he is live), click here.

To learn more about the world of Giacomo Gates, go to www.giacomogates.com.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Two Questions (and Some Answers)


I recently sent an e-mail to various jazz artists who are good acquaintances and asked them two questions: 1) Why did you decide on a career in music? (2) What is it you love about jazz that made you decide to focus on that type of music (although I do realize that many of you also play other styles, like World and Classical. btw--I am including Brazilian under the heading Jazz. Or do those of you who play sambas, bossa nova and choros feel it should be a separate category?)

Sporadically, I'll be posting the answers I've received from those who have responded. My first subject is a fine bassist who is currently my Astoria neighbor, Thomson Kneeland. His answers follow below:


1) I've played music and loved it since I was a kid, so it was quite natural for me to always be involved in the art form on some instrument or other. Since my music teachers painted a bleak picture of being a performing musician and "making it", I originally went to school for engineering and physics for a year and a half. I was always dedicated to creative music in whatever form, and I didn't want to become a music teacher, so music school didn't seem to be the answer. On top of that, my first acoustic bass was a high school graduation present from my father, so I didn't even start playing my "career" instrument until after high school. Well a year later, I was making a meager living performing jazz; since I already had some prerequisite knowledge, I just needed to learn my instrument and grow. I saw it could be done, dropped out of school at 18 and took it from there.

2) All in all, I consider myself a musician who specializes in "improvisation", with a focus on jazz. I do mainly find myself on jazz gigs these days, but also have done a lot of crossover with Balkan stuff, Indian music, as well as classical chamber music. I had my hands in many more styles in New England, but have been specializing more in the "jazz" realm for the past few years, simply out of the contexts I've found myself in. But I find that simply saying "I'm a jazz musician" pigeonholes me, because people are so categorical in terms of thought. So when the average person asks, I stick to something like "improvised based music with an emphasis on jazz".

For me, jazz and improvisation provide a freedom of choice that no other music does (and it therefore also requires an enormous responsibility to use that freedom wisely). I liken it to Hermann Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game", for anyone in the literary realm. A high artistic expression fusing visceral groove, emotion, mathematics, athletics/body movement/coordination, and freedom of choice...all taking place in real time. More than anything else, it's the fusion of these things...playing your ass off (and listening to a group that does) is an uplifting experience. And that can be combined with any level of intellectual sophistication one wants. For me, it's the highest artistic expression that I can think of. And for me, it's the biggest challenge I've ever faced in terms of a discipline. Becoming a great musician requires complete mastery on so many levels: mental, physical, emotional, and psychological.

Other art forms utilize various elements I've mentioned, but music encompasses more than many, and in real time. Perhaps the closest comparison would be improvisational dance. Or improvisational theater, utilizing language instead of sound....but I think the latter is pretty rare. I'm very curious about the Asian Noh Theater and other traditional forms that have combinations of all these things in real time with musical accompaniment, but I havent had the time or opportunity to learn. Which is not to denigrate any art form or set music/jazz above it, but I can't think of any other discipline that requires so many facets to be mastered intellectually, physically, and more. If anyone has any other thoughts on this, I'd love a perspective!

And finally, regarding jazz...I just love the music, as is, and from an historical perspective! That's the main thing when it comes down it...the spirit of the music, whether swing from the 50's and 60's, fusion, or modern chamber jazz without any hint of "swing" context. No rhyme or reason about it, it just kicks ass!


There are quite a few excellent examples of Thomson's playing on You Tube. Click here to see him perform "Solar."

For more information about this amazing bassist, go to www.thomsonkneeland.com.

Friday, June 5, 2009

A special post about Kenton


Stan Kenton--there is no middle ground for this bandleader. Jazz aficionados either love his music and consider it constantly innovative or else find it bombastic and excessive. Have to admit, I'm definitely in the former camp, although I admit there are cringe-worthy performances such as the draggy version of "September Song," which includes a vocal by the band which frankly, sounds like they were lobotomized and forced with cattle prods to sing it. On the other hand, fine sidemen like Shelly Manne, Stan Getz, Art Pepper, Lee Konitz and Zoot Sims were among Kenton's personnel at certain points in their careers. Furthermore, Pete Rugolo, Shorty Rogers, Bill Russo, Bill Holman, Johnny Richards, Chico O'Farrill and Lennie Niehaus contributed exciting, hip arrangements that kept the sound of the orchestra fresh and forward-reaching. Lastly, don't forget that Anita O'Day, June Christy and Chris Connor were among Stan Kenton's vocalists. Guess the rule of thumb for listening to Kenton is this: with a few exceptions, try to avoid tracks which feature Kenton's piano-playing and charts and focus on most of those involving the musicians and/or arrangers noted above. Also, my own favorite period of the Kenton band's long history was the 1950s, when the influence of that decade's jazz innovations could often be heard in the contributions of the younger guys who had come onboard.

I realize I'm breaking my own rule by including a link to a Soundie of "Tampico" from the 1940s, but there don't seem to be any good examples of Kenton's 1950s orchestra at You Tube. Anyway, I've always loved this particular song, and it's great to see June Christy singing during her prime. Click here to check it out for yourself.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Monk Lives


This is one of those weeks when I've been having trouble deciding on a topic for my latest post. As I'm typing this, Thelonious Monk is playing "Think of One" on Music Choice. Monk--one of those artists who can take a listener feeling dragged to the ground and lift them up with just a few notes of his audacious but endearing playing which sounds like nobody else's. He could do an entire album of Duke Ellington songs and play them in a way that made them seem more Monkish than Dukish. Then there are his original songs infused so deeply with his unique personality that no matter who plays them, Monk is always there in spirit.

Monk's music has remained such a vital part of the jazz landscape that even Sun Ra, former citizen of ancient Egypt who migrated to Saturn before visiting earth, had his own turn at "Round Midnight" with a female vocalist singing the lyrics. Bill Evans performed "Blue Monk" and "Round Midnight," utilizing overdubs, on his album, "Conversations with Myself." More recently, I've heard new spins on Thelonious' songs by such younger pianists as Misha Piatigorsky and George Colligan. Definitely not slavish imitations of the Monk sound, but reflecting the musical visions of each of these artists while still maintaining respect for the original compositions. I think Monk himself would certainly approve.

It's always an incredible experience to watch Thelonious Monk performing. Click here to see a video of him doing just that, with Charlie Rouse on sax, Frankie Dunlop on drums and Butch Warren on bass. The song is Evidence, in a film recorded in Japan during 1963.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Jazz Styles


A friend suggested that I devote one of my posts to definitions of various jazz styles. Actually, no definition in words could fully give a true impression of what each style sounds like, plus sometimes the styles may dovetail to create a kind of jazz hybrid. Also, there are many jazz performers who made important recordings in several styles. At any rate, I'll attempt to give brief descriptions of many of the different types and at the end of each section, I'll have links so you can hear (and in most cases see) performances which illustrate them.

New Orleans or Dixieland originated, logically, in African-American communities of New Orleans and combined elements of African and European music. King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton are among those who performed in this style, but probably the best known performer was Louis Armstrong. For a film of the trumpeter in his prime click here.

Swing, which is generally performed by big bands, had its heyday from the 1930s through the 1940s. It incorporates a brass section made up of trumpets and trombones, a reed section made up of saxophones and clarinets, and a rhythm section made up of piano, bass and drums. Sometimes there is also a guitar or violin. Vocalists are also often utilized. This type of jazz is known for its swinging or flowing rhythm, as well as brisk tempos. However, slower tempos may also be used, in the case of ballads. Generally, swing has been popular with dancers and led to the creation of the lindy and fox trot, among other dance styles. Some of the bands which were popular have included Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman and Benny Goodman. Since it is currently Benny Goodman's Centennial, it seems appropriate to include a performance by his orchestra. To watch it, click here.


Bebop tends to be more soloist-driven than swing, and stresses virtuosity in playing and harmonic improvisation. Among the best-known proponents of this style are Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. A video example featuring Parker and Gillespie can be seen by clicking here.

Hard Bop is a harder-edged extension of bebop, incorporating r&b, gospel and the blues (although the latter could to a certain extent be sometimes found in Bebop as well). Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Art Blakey are among those who made major recordings utilizing this style. For a video of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers click here.

Often the term "Funk Jazz" is used similarly to the term "Hard Bop," but the one musician who generally comes to mind as one of its innovators is Horace Silver. A fine example of his playing can be seen here.

Cool is generally perceived as more relaxed and less aggressive than Bebop, and superficially seems like a more-refined style of jazz. Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh and Miles Davis, often with Gil Evans, are often identified with this style. To see a video of Miles with Gil, click here.

West Coast, which refers to the jazz played in California, actually includes many types of jazz, but is usually thought of as part of the Cool Jazz movement. Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Shorty Rogers and Bud Shank are among the major musicians associated with this music. For a video of Shorty Rogers click here.

Free is an attempt to go beyond the conventions of jazz in melodies, tempos and chords. As this style was developed it tended to go further and further into abandonment of set structures. Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and late-career John Coltrane are among the ones who pushed the music to the limits. You can see Cecil Taylor playing solo piano by clicking here.

Third Stream, an amalgam of classical music and jazz, is often associated with the composer Gunther Schuller. To hear an example of a piece by the reed player Jimmy Giuffre as performed by Gunther Schuller's Orchestra, go here.


Fusion is yet another merger of jazz improvisation with other musical forms, in this case rock, funk and r&b. It generally incorporates the use of electric guitars, basses and keyboards. Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Weather Report, John McLaughlin and Herbie Hancock have been major performers of this style. Click on here to watch a prime example of "electric" Herbie.


A detailed discussion of the various genres and sub-genres of jazz could go on for many posts, but I hope that this very brief overview will give you a good idea of the many developments which have taken place throughout its history.

(Photo courtesy of The Jazz Paisan)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Fearless Singer


I had planned to begin posting about various individuals who are doing their part to make sure jazz remains a thriving and developing music. This current post focuses on a performer who has done just that for most of his life, changing as the music has changed but never ceasing to be true to himself.

Mark Murphy began as someone who seemed to be out of the Sinatra, Bennett, Damone mold. He appeared on album covers wearing a red and green checked shirt with his arms folded, while leaning on a stool, or in a typical late 1950s style suit while posed on a piano and surrounded by slinky ladies. He was featured on The Steve Allen Show three times. Within a few years the singer morphed into a kind of collegiate hipster, then traveled to England in the 1960s, while the Beatles were leaving it to tour. After spending the rest of the decade in Europe singing, acting, and doing a pilot for a series in which he portrayed Jesus, Mark returned to the USA and began recording for Muse Records. He sang standards, pop covers and originals, then ultimately discovered the unique vocal style that would be his breakthrough. He recorded classics like "Stolen Moments", "Bop for Kerouac" and "Beauty and the Beast" and did gigs at clubs, theatres and festivals. Mark's look kept changing, from Indian cotton shirts, jeans and Afros, then less traditional suits, with his hair styled in a mullet, on to shiny brightly-colored shirts and dress pants or dark suits with turtlenecks, and medium-length hair. As the look changed, the singing became increasingly more adventurous.

Mark had always paid great attention to clear diction and masterful singing, with a little scatting on the side. As time went on, the scatting became more extravagant, with swoops, shifts of pitch, yodels and growls. The songs themselves were transformed with non-traditional harmonies and tempos. The actor in the singer created a sense of drama through careful emphasis as he came to particular sections of the songs, as well as in the way his expressive hands rose and fell during the performance. Mark had no qualms about letting his voice sound a bit harsh and un-pretty, if he felt it fit the particular mood he was trying to get across.

Mark always surrounded himself with equally-wonderful musicians such as sax players Richie Cole and Michael Brecker, trumpeters Randy Brecker, Tom Harrell and Claudio Roditi, and pianists Bill Mays, Benny Green and Lee Musiker. Most recently he has performed with trumpeter Till Bronner on CD and pianist Misha Piatigorsky at live gigs. In each case, Mark has treated these artists as collaborators, rather than just members of the bands accompanying him.

Many younger jazz singers have based their own vocal approaches on Mark's innovations. One in particular, who for the sake of discretion shall remain nameless, has "stolen from the best," as he has sometimes gotten credit for innovations that had been originally created  by the older singer. One thing most of these "musical children" will agree on, however, is that Mark Murphy is still the one who's always ahead, never performing his familiar songs in a safe, routine manner, but always expressing his own truth.

For those who want a profound experience of the legend, click here.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

All in Our Beginnings


Even though I heard my first jazz performances on 78s from my dad's collection, before I even started grammar school, I didn't begin falling in love with the music until my high school years. In 1972, thanks to a friend with an extra ticket, I attended my first ever live gig, one of the concerts during the summer the Newport Jazz Festival moved to New York. This was, I believe, the year after the riots at Newport, Rhode Island, which resulted in George Wein moving the event to the Big Apple. The relocated festival was heavily promoted on tv shows both afternoon local and national late night, and I tried to watch as many appearances by participating artists as I could. Therefore I was thrilled when that friend invited me to go with her to a concert at Carnegie Hall. I recognized the names of a few of the performers: the Modern Jazz Quartet and Stan Getz. (Heck, after hearing Girl from Ipanema so often during the mid 60s, everyone seemed to know who Stan Getz was!) But there were two who were new to me: Gary Burton, who would be performing with Stan, and Pharoah Sanders, who would soon introduce my inexperienced ears to free jazz.

The big night came and my friend and I, all dressed up to go to the "City," traveled on the RR train to 59th Street and 5th Avenue. (We were so naive we didn't even realize that we could have gotten off at 57th Street and 7th Avenue, right near Carnegie Hall itself.) When we entered the venue, I immediately bought a program which was like a Who's Who of those on the scene at that point in time. (It became something I read and re-read constantly for about a week, trying to absorb as much information as I could about the music.) Ultimately my friend and I headed to our box in the mezzanine area, where we both eagerly awaited the beginning of the concert. Finally, the MJQ came on the stage, dressed so neat and proper that they probably made some members of the audience feel underdressed. To be honest, however, even though I enjoyed their sophisticated but swinging chamber jazz, I didn't completely get it. After all, the jazz I'd heard most up to this time had been big band sides, Hamp shouting "Hey-Ba-Ba-Re-Bop" and Shearing playing "Lullaby of Birdland" with a vocal chorus. After the MJQ's section, Getz and Burton came out and my friend and I liked the combination of tenor sax and vibes, although once again I'm sure I missed much of what was going on. After 37 years I don't remember when or if there was an intermission, but I do remember that the last musicians to hit the stage were Pharoah Sanders and his band. I now know why they were chosen as the closing "act." The majority of the audience seemed to have come to Carnegie Hall to hear jazz that was familiar to them. After that was out of the way, it was time for those few with more adventurous tastes. When Sanders began playing my friend and I figured he was tuning up, since we didn't hear anything approximating a melody. My friend decided that would be a good time to go to the lobby for a smoke (not yet forbidden inside certain areas of theatres). I left our box with her (just so we could talk--I've never smoked even one cig) and the two of us discussed the music we'd already heard. Finally the cigarette was history and we went back to our seats. The tuning up hadn't turned into a recognizable melody yet and after about 15 minutes my friend and I realized it never would. That was our cue to head for home, since we knew this particular style of jazz was wayyyy over our heads.

I attended just one more jazz gig with that friend, a solo appearance in the 1980s by Joe Pass, at the long-defunct Lush Life in Greenwich Village. I kept on learning about the various styles of jazz and gradually developed an appreciation for all of them--well most of them anyway. (Kenny G and most smooth jazz is still something that could drive me screaming from any room where they're played.) However, free jazz is now something I enjoy, since I've learned how to really hear and understand what's going on. Ornette Coleman has become one of my favorite jazz artists and the Sun Ra Arkestra at Iridium one Halloween night was one of my most fun experiences at any jazz club. Kind of makes me wonder what would have happened if I'd been able to listen to 1972 live Pharoah Sanders with my 2009 jazz ears!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Once more with feeling...


As a follow-up to my prior post on Vinodivino, here are links to a couple of You Tube videos showcasing members of the Jed Levy Trio: Jed himself, as well as two other members who played at the wine bar very often, pianist Misha Tsiganov and bassist Thomson Kneeland. In these videos the trio has been expanded into a quartet with the addition of drummer Alvester Garnett.

Featured are two examples of Jed's own wonderful compositions, "Two Tears" and "Giuseppe's Borgo," both of which I had the privilege of hearing live quite often at Vinodivino.

Click on this to see a performance of the first song and on this for the second one.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Life is Impermanent...


I had planned to do my second post about a local wine bar, Vinodivino, which featured jazz from the Jed Levy Trio on most Wednesday and Friday nights. Notice I used the past tense. As of last week, this was an ongoing gig. As of today, that gig is no more.

For about one and a half years, you could enjoy great wine with great music from Jed, along with a rotating group of talented pianists and bassists. In the beginning, the trio played mainly the Great American Songbook and jazz standards, along with a few of Jed's own fine originals. Over the months, the gig morphed into an unofficial workshop for the tweaking and perfecting of the new music. And every week, you could generally find me sitting at the table directly behind the one used by the musicians.

It got to the point where I was treated like a non-playing member of the band, rather than just a fan. During the set breaks, the musicians and I would talk about music, politics, current events, general likes and dislikes, and details of our lives. Any walls between listener and performer were completely dissolved. We became like a family initially formed through our mutual love of jazz, and as a result, I also came to know some of these artists' parents, spouses, children and close friends.

Another wonderful benefit was that I developed "educated ears." The music became more alive for me. Watching and listening very closely twice a week for so many months opened up a fuller awareness of the nuances and subtleties of whatever was being played. Furthermore, I became more cognizant of the individual approaches to solos: the differences in touch and tone or improvisations based on different chords and modes, plus a whole slew of other things that seemed like magic to a non-musician like me.

Fortunately, even though this venue is gone, I am still in contact with many of the musicians and since I can catch them playing at other gigs, the music continues. It's just that there was something special about having it right here in my neighborhood, going on while the citizens of Astoria went about living their daily lives which I witnessed through the wine bar's windows. That somehow made the jazz more grounded for me, not a rarified artform meant to be isolated, but something that interacted with and enhanced my world. No concert hall or basement club can ever duplicate this.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The First Post


For decades I have been very serious about my love for jazz. Now I'm not talking about the watered-down smooth variety or the embalmed big band creations that cater mainly to non-adventurous audiences. The jazz I'm referring to is a living music that is still being created anew, even in this age of corporate pop and rap, by performers who want to express themselves without just copying what has been done before. Their influences encompass more than the expected varieties such as swing, bebop or fusion and include world music and rhythms, instrumental classical and opera, or even folk music and bluegrass. They dare to go at times beyond the Great American Songbook and reinterpret, through the filter of jazz improvisation, music by nontraditional sources like The Beatles, Van Morrison, Blondie, Nirvana and Coldplay. They write their own original compositions and create unique charts that redefine what jazz standards should sound like. And through some miraculous force that has blessed my life, I have had the privilege of experiencing the live music of such iconoclasts in venues as small as wine bars and as large as concert halls. In many cases, these artists have even become my friends and acquaintances.

Through future posts, I'll attempt to introduce you to many of these talented instrumentalists and vocalists. Some of them are young enough to be my children. Others have been around for many years but may not have gotten the attention they deserve. However, there is one thing they all have in common: each one is unique, and they truly love the music they have dedicated their lives to. I hope their stories will make you anxious to listen and learn more.