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BEST OF / YEAR END December 22, 2013

Jeff Dayton-Johnson's Best Releases of 2013

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Every year the list gets longer and more heterogeneous. There are blockbusters and obscure little gems, loud jazz and quiet jazz, hip hop and kora music, some of it downright unclassifiable. Which is fine. “Junku," a 1984 track anthologized on Herbie Hancock's spectacular box set below, is in fact both hip hop and kora music! In an interview with the New York Times earlier this year, Hancock said, “The thing that keeps jazz alive, even if it's under the radar, is that it is so free and so open to not only lend its influence to other genres, but to ...

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INTERVIEWS October 7, 2013

John Hollenbeck's September Songs

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John Hollenbeck's productivity would be astonishing in its own right, but the uniformly high quality of this high output places the drummer among the top tier of jazz (and not only jazz) musicians. Hollenbeck's recordings, compositions and performances defy certain expectations. He can be as seriously intellectual as a stereotypically stuffy classical musician, but his music is interlaced with humor and fun. As befits a 21st century drummer, he is rhythmically complex but the music is underlain with a deep groove. He borrows ecumenically from a diversity of musical (including the rhythms of the spoken word) sources and manages to ...

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Kanye West: Yeezus

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Ben Jonson said of his dead child, my sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy. We too easily take what the poets write as figures of speech, as pretty images, as strings of bons mots. Sometimes perhaps they speak the truth. --Margaret Drabble, The Millstone (1965).Every time I write these words they become a taboo Making sure my punctuation curve, every letter is true Living my life in the margin and that metaphor was proof I'm talking poetic justice, poetic justice If I told you that ...

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Chris Kelsey & What I Say: The Electric Miles Project

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Trumpeter Miles Davis' post-Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970), pre-hiatus (1975-1981) electric music--dense, loud, dark, funky, vast--has posed problems for musicians. The Yo Miles! collective, led by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and guitarist Henry Kaiser, gamely approached it as a repertoire: these are songs, they seemed to say; let's just play them (and so they did, on albums like Upriver, Cuneiform, 2005). Bassist/impresario Bill Laswell, meanwhile, approached the releases of the period as post-performance collage, woven together from miles of Ampex tape; thus he remixed the original recordings rather than re-performing the tunes (on Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis, 1969-74, Columbia, ...

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EXTENDED ANALYSIS February 28, 2013

Orchestre National de Jazz: Piazzolla!

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The Argentinian composer, bandoneón player and tango revolutionary Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) was no stranger to jazz. As a music student in Paris in the mid-1950s, he was inspired by the joyous improvisation he witnessed in the effervescent Left Bank jazz scene. He would go on to collaborate with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan (Summit/Reunion Cumbre, Erre, 1974) and vibraphonist Gary Burton (The New Tango, Atlantic, 1986). Indeed, Piazzolla integrated jazz sensibilities into his music over a span of decades. On the evidence of this recording by France's National Jazz Orchestra, it seems that jazz would do well to return the favor. ...

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INTERVIEWS February 5, 2013

Donny McCaslin: Lightness and Gravity

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Saxophonist Donny McCaslin seems like a young player, given his energy and inventiveness. But he has been playing jazz for three decades. As a child, he was part of his father's jazz ensemble and a member of his high school jazz band. He led his own bands after moving to New York from his native California, but also did considerable sideman duty. In particular, McCaslin broke into the highest ranks of critical acclaim thanks to his turns with bandleader Maria Schneider and trumpeter Dave Douglas. Highlights of McCaslin's tenure in these groups include his solos on “Bulería, Soleá y Rumba," ...

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INTERVIEWS January 28, 2013

Bob Belden: Jazz Adventurer

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Bob Belden is a jazz renaissance man: a flutist and saxophonist who began his career with Woody Herman's big band. He's also a composer and arranger, who has orchestrated jazz treatments of Puccini's opera Turandot as well as the music of The Beatles, Sting and Prince. His pair of tributes to trumpeter Miles Davis--Miles from India (Times Square, 2008) and Miles Español: New Sketches From Spain (Entertainment One, 2011)- -are conceptually and sonically rich high points in a crowded discography as arranger- impresario.As a producer, moreover, he has led the compilation and reissue of several milestone jazz recordings ...

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MULTIPLE REVIEWS December 12, 2012

Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura: Emotional Intimacy, Musical Breadth

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Natsuki Tamura & Satoko FujiiMukuLibra2012Gato LibreForeverLibra2012Pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, wife and husband, maintain a staggering productivity, in terms of quantity, quality--and, most incredibly, in terms of variety. At one moment, they lead a powerful post-free ensemble; When We Were There (Polystar , 2006), with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black, is a particular high water mark in that vein. At another, they perform freely improvised duets (as on Chun (Libra, 2008).And then there's Gato Libre, the couple's quartet, ...

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BOOK REVIEWS July 31, 2012

Derrick Bang: Vince Guaraldi at the Piano

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Vince Guaraldi at the Piano Derrick Bang 390 pages ISBN: 978-0-7864-5902-5 McFarland Books 2012 Based on Derrick Bang's encyclopedic biography of pianist Vince Guaraldi, you can draw two perhaps surprising conclusions about the subject's contribution to jazz. First, Guaraldi arguably hipped more listeners to this musical form than anyone else since the heyday of the big bands. He did so by means of “Cast Your Fate To The Wind," three minutes of piano-trio jazz that reached #22 on the Billboard hit-singles chart in February 1963; more decisively, Guaraldi provided the musical ...

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BOOK REVIEWS June 26, 2012

RJ Smith: The One - The Life and Music of James Brown

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The One: The Life and Music of James Brown RJ SmithHardcover, 464 pagesISBN: 978-1592406579Gotham Books2012James Brown (1933-2006): singer, bandleader, composer, impresario, self-made man-- Amiri Baraka called him “our number one black poet." Brown describes himself, in the pages of RJ Smith's biography, as “75 percent businessman and 25 percent entertainer." Readers may quibble with the percentages, but if by “business," Brown referred to “show business," then it is hard to argue with the claim that he was all business. Smith devotes particular attention to his capacity to enthrall ...

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Wadada Leo Smith: Ten Freedom Summers

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Wadada Leo SmithTen Freedom SummersCuneiform Records2012Trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith's Ten Freedom Summers is four and a half hours of music, spread over four compact discs. The mind struggles to make coherent sense of so large an undertaking. Smith has said that there are no recurring musical motifs; the nineteen pieces--most of them fully-developed suites in their own right, three of them stretching over twenty minutes--stand on their own. Two groups--Smith's two-drummer Golden Quintet and the nine-piece ensemble Southwest Chamber Music led by Jeff von der Schmidt--perform, sometimes separately, sometimes together. ...

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BOOK REVIEWS January 26, 2012

Kathy Sloane: Keystone Korner - Portrait Of A Jazz Club

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Keystone Korner: Portrait Of A Jazz ClubKathy Sloane 220 pages; audio CDISBN: 978-0-253-35691-8Indiana University Press2012 Photographer Kathy Sloane's Keystone Korner: Portrait Of A Jazz Club is a love letter: a love letter to something more than just a business, to something less than a generation. It's a love letter to a relatively short-lived community that coalesced around a jazz club in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood: the people who worked there, the characters who frequented it, the musicians who played there. If Sloane's act of authorship is ...

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MULTIPLE REVIEWS January 18, 2012

Miles Davis: 1986-1991 The Warner Years

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Miles Davis1986-1991 The Warner YearsWarner Music France2011 Warner Bros. was trumpeter Miles Davis's last record company, and the five years covered by the five-disc collection entitled 1986-1991 The Warner Years, pale in comparison to the 30-year, 70-disc box set of Davis' complete recordings for Columbia Records, released in 2009. So the quantity is far lower: how does the quality compare?Davis' detractors typically divide his output into the early, good years and the late, bad years: at some point, they say, Davis simply went too far. They only disagree about ...

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Now's the Time: Miles Davis 1945-1989

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Franck Bergerot's Miles Davis: Introduction à l'écoute du jazz moderne (Seuil, 1996) suggests that you can hear a lot of Davis' musical world in his 45-second solo on Charlie Parker's “Now's the Time," beginning at 1:45. This is one among many dimensions of Davis' musicianship--nocturnal, blues- tinged, largely without the mute, alternating between a tenderness and a kind of aggression, as on the desultory attitude toward the composition on “Stella by Starlight." The spacious, ethereal nature of the 1945 solo is echoed in Gil Evans' 1950 arrangement of “Moon Dreams," but also in Davis' 1989 playing on “Mr. Pastorius."

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