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Year in Review

The Jazz Session: Oh, The Places You'll Go!


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It's been quite a year for The Jazz Session, my online jazz interview show: passing 300,000 downloads (and a few thousand away from 400,000 as I write this); forming a partnership with All About Jazz; adding more episodes per week; launching Facebook and Twitter pages; and just generally taking things up a level or two. I can't write a "best episodes of the year" roundup of my own show, at least not without feeling sketchy about it, so I thought instead I'd tell you about several of the places I ended up in this year in the course of recording interviews.

I traveled a lot more this year for The Jazz Session than was ever the case before, primarily because I now live much closer to New York City than I did when I started the show back in February 2007. Many jazz musicians live either in the city or between me and it, and that's made face-to-face interviews much easier. As a result, I've ended up in some cool places during the past year—or at least in some interesting places with cool people. Here, in no particular order, are some of the highlights:

Place: Steve Kuhn's kitchen

Let's put the fine point right on it: I conducted an interview at the kitchen table of a guy who played with John Coltrane. And who is no slouch himself. And he turned out to be one of the most gracious people I've met. Pianist Steve Kuhn welcomed me into his home earlier this year and we hit it off right away. Not to get corny, but there's just something cool about having someone as respected as Steve pour you a glass of water from the pitcher in his fridge. In fact, that's the single moment I remember most from the interview. A small, human gesture that made me feel right at home.

After the interview, I mentioned to Steve that my parents were coming up on the train from New York to meet me for dinner in the Hudson Valley town where Steve lives. He recommended a restaurant, then stopped by himself and chatted with my folks for a while. How cool is that? (Answer: pretty damned cool.)


Place: My parents' dining room (Carl Allen)

Speaking of my parents, they moved to Manhattan earlier this year, which was very nice of them, as their new location makes it quite convenient for me to travel to New York and stay for free. Shortly after they arrived I spent a weekend there conducting interviews, one of which was with drummer Carl Allen. He wasn't free until midnight, but I'm a night owl so we decided to do the interview anyway. Finding a quiet spot at midnight was the challenge, so I suggested he come over to my parents' apartment and do the interview there. My folks live within sight of Juilliard, where Carl works, so he agreed. (As it turned out, he was in Brooklyn at the time, a fact I didn't discover until later, and for which I was even more grateful to him.) We did the interview at my folks' dining room table while everyone else in the apartment slept.


Place: Tanglewood Jazz Fest

I was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, a fact I will never tire of telling you. I'm completely in love with my hometown, at least partly because I've now moved more than two dozen times and have a strong desire to feel rooted somewhere. Luckily for me, my hometown is a picturesque little New England village in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts, and it's home to Tanglewood, one of the great summer destinations for music. For the past two summers, I've spent Labor Day weekend at Tanglewood conducting interviews and MC'ing shows at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival.

For me, this gig is the ultimate combination of my favorite place on the planet (Lenox) and my favorite activity on the planet (working in the jazz biz). Plus, I get to wander unfettered around the grounds and through the backstage areas of Tanglewood, something I'd only dreamed of doing until two years ago.

The other great thing about this festival is that I meet wonderful people there each year. Two years ago it was Jo Lawry and James Shipp. I heard Jo and her band rehearsing for their press-party gig and was floored by her voice. (Jo defines intonation and taste). She and her partner (and percussionist) James and I have become friends, which makes me quite happy.

This year, I met two other fabulous musicians: vocalist Kat Edmonson and pianist Kevin Lovejoy. Once again, it was one of those instant connections that makes you glad to be where you are, doing what you're doing.



Place: A minivan parked outside the An Beal Bocht Cafe, 445 West 238th Street, Bronx, NY (James Shipp)

First of all, I'm including the address because you really should cancel the wedding plans and instead travel to this pub for their Sunday night Irish jam session, which is a thing of beauty. As for the minivan? That belonged to the aforementioned percussionist James Shipp, who was playing in the also even more recently aforementioned jam session. James is a man of many parts, and rather than segmenting his musical life into tidy boxes, he chooses instead to remove the barriers and let everything mix together. We're lucky that he does, because the result is James's brilliant band Nos Novo and their debut record, Strange Sweethearts In America.

I interviewed James during one of his breaks at the session. There really wasn't anywhere in the pub that was quiet enough to do the interview, and his van was parked right outside, so all three of us piled into it for the occasion. I say "all three of us" because my 7-year-old son, Bernie, was with me. I handed him my iPod Touch so he could play games while James and I talked about the record. That's how Larry King does it, right?


Place: The lobby and courtyard of Vijay Iyer's apartment building in New York

The minivan may have been an odd place to conduct an interview, but it was blissfully quiet. In fact, it was like an isolation booth at Capitol Studios compared to the loudest place I worked this year—the lobby of pianist Vijay Iyer's apartment building in New York.

We chose the lobby because he was afraid his apartment wouldn't be quiet enough, given that he has children. Well, unless they were practicing their jackhammering technique, they couldn't have been louder than the revelers in the lobby. Before we gave up and moved outside, I was able to record—quite clearly, as it turned out—the doormen; a couple lost tourists; a half-dozen small, screaming children; and two Fresh Direct delivery men who waited to yell things at one another each time they passed until they were standing directly behind us. I also have some very nice Inner-Sanctum-style audio of the creaking rear door of the lobby, in front of which I was sitting, and at which my microphone was apparently pointing. We eventually chose to carry my expensive recording gear out into the light rain rather than stay in the lobby.


Place: The green room at Le Poisson Rouge in New York (The Respect Sextet)

The 2009 Award For The Greatest Number of Musicians Stuffed Into The Smallest Interview Space goes to my interview with The Respect Sextet right before their May gig at Le Poisson Rouge, the adventurous club at the site of the old Village Gate. If you've listened to even one episode of my show, you've heard The Respect Sextet, because they provide the opening and closing theme to each episode. They were at LPR to play music from their smart, funny and eclectic 2009 recording Sirius Respect, which features the music of Stockhausen and Sun Ra. We jammed five of the six members of the band and yours truly onto one couch and two chairs, with two microphones, and somehow made it work. I said that the album is smart and funny, and so are the members of the band. Oh, and the trombone is a silly instrument. Look it up.


Place: The green room at Jazz Standard in New York (Terence Blanchard)

While we're on the subject of green rooms, let's turn to Jazz Standard, one of my favorite places in the city to see jazz, not least because it is under a barbecue restaurant. The green room here can hardly be called a room. It's more of an emerald closet. That was fine with me, though, because I didn't even notice my surroundings as I got lost in conversation with trumpeter Terence Blanchard. I've always liked Terence's music, but in the years since Hurricane Katrina, I've come to respect him even more for his tireless advocacy on behalf of his hometown of New Orleans. His past two albums—A Tale Of God's Will and Choices—have explored painful and necessary topics through the medium of music and the spoken word, and I found myself on the verge of tears during much of our conversation as Terence talked about what we've lost, and what is being regained, in New Orleans. Closet or no closet, it was a special hour.


Place: Marilyn Crispell's house

A few more houses and apartments now, starting with the interview that began 2009—pianist Marilyn Crispell. She lives in a picturesque little town in the Hudson Valley, and it was to her house that I traveled to restart The Jazz Session after my health had forced me to take 6 months off from November of 2008 until April of 2009. Like the other musicians I've mentioned above, Marilyn was extremely welcoming and kind. In fact, when the interview was over she came out to meet my wife and sons, who'd been shopping in town while we were talking.

That last sentence epitomizes the thing I love about 95% of the musicians I've ever interviewed—namely, they're just folks. They're extremely gifted, sure, but they'll also take the time to walk out and say hi to the family. Say what you will about jazz and its state in our culture, but it certainly seems to produce some friendly, well adjusted people, at least in my experience.


Place: Dom Minasi's dining room

Not all that far from Marilyn's place is guitarist Dom Minasi's northern hideaway, where he and his wife retreat from the fast pace of the city, and where he says he does his best writing. I spent the night before Halloween (All Hallow's Eve Eve?) with Dom, which seemed like an appropriate time of the year to hang with a guy who recorded an album called The Vampire's Revenge. Dom, however, is not at all spooky or Lugosi-like. Instead, he's a gregarious storyteller who could have filled five shows with tales of gigging life—both as a player and as a young man in the peanut gallery at New York's famed clubs. I know studios are pristine sonic environments with high-end equipment, but there's a lot to be said for talking to someone at their own dining room table over a plate of Milano cookies and tea.


Place: John Patitucci's dining room

John Patitucci likes John Coltrane. In fact, I think it's fair to say he loves Coltrane. How do I know? Because John has two photos in his dining room: his mother and Trane. I was at John's place on the same day I visited Steve Kuhn—not a bad day, right? He was extremely gracious and a great guest, too. I also got to meet his family and his very stealthy dog. I want to say the dog was named after a jazz musician, too, but I can't remember which one.


Place: Cooper-Moore's living room in Harlem

It's not generally a good idea to let a stalker into your home, but apparently multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore was unaware of, or unafraid of, my obsession with his music when he opened the door to his fifth-floor apartment in Harlem a few weeks ago and let me in. I told him I'd take 30 minutes of his time. I was there for three hours, during which time we recorded an interview, he gave me a private concert, and we discussed the finer points of Ubuntu Linux, the operating system we both use. All this while sitting under the beams in his living room, from which hung many of the instruments Cooper-Moore has either invented or built or both. He makes soup, too.


Place: A portable trailer behind the stage at the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival

I interviewed the members of the Dan Loomis Quartet in the trailer that served as their green room at the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival. (I think the festival actually has a longer, more corporate name now, but that's close enough.) The location was interesting enough on its own, but the sonic environment was made even more rich when the Dirty Dozen Brass Band started playing about 50 feet from where we sat. They are not, if I may understate the case, a "chamber jazz" group. We soldiered on, though, recording what I thought was a very insightful conversation with four intelligent and thoughtful musicians. (And to top it off, I interviewed veteran musician Roger Lewis of the Dirty Dozen on a hill near that same trailer.)



Place: Amy Cervini's office in lower Manhattan (Amy Cervini & Marty Ehrlich)

My final on-location recordings of 2009 were conducted in the office of Orange Grove Artists in lower Manhattan. That's the management firm run by vocalist Amy Cervini, and I went there to interview both Amy and one of her clients, multi-instrumentalist Marty Ehrlich. It had just snowed in New York City, and the curbs were piled high with the night work from the plows. (Or, in the case of Manhattan, the garbage trucks with plows on the front.)

Doing interviews back-to-back can be tricky. If you're off your game on the first one, the second one usually suffers, too. And sometimes it's a challenge to keep your focus for that long, and to be as smart and witty and engaging and handsome at the end as you were at the beginning. (Hey, nobody else is gonna write that last sentence about me, so why not?) In the case of the interviews with Marty and Amy, everything went swimmingly, helped in part by our proximity to one another. I set my recorder and the guest microphone on a music stand, and first Marty and then Amy sat on the other side of the stand from me, which meant we weren't more than a foot or two apart. Things can only go really well or really poorly when you're that cozy, and we lucked out.


Bonus Place: My back porch in Albany

The list above is not exhaustive. I conducted a few more interviews at Tanglewood; two at the ECM offices in New York (John Surman and John Abercrombie); one at a Unitarian church in Schenectady (Eric Alexander); another at a church in Pittsfield, MA (Barbara Dennerlein), and another in a hotel room in the same town (Andrew Durkin of the Industrial Jazz Group). I also traveled to Saratoga Springs, NY (Arturo O'Farrill) and Englewood, NJ (Joris Teepe).

Just about all the other interviews I did in 2009 were done by phone from what I call my studio, but is in reality the enclosed back porch of our rented house in Albany, NY. In the summertime, this is quite a lovely spot to do interviews, surrounded as it is by windows that give it a wonderful, open feeling. And unlike the on-location interviews, I can wear my pajamas while talking with famous people on the phone. (To be fair, I'm sure I could have worn pajamas for the interview with The Respect Sextet. And probably in James Shipp's minivan, too.)

And there you have it. A look back at a few of The Jazz Session episodes recorded on location in 2009. My first trip to New York in 2010 is already scheduled (to see The Respect Sextet at Le Poisson Rouge on January 12), and I'm sure it's the first of many. I also have plans to head back to the Hudson Valley for several interviews, and if all goes well, I'll be in the Berkshires once again next Labor Day weekend. Oh, the places you'll go with jazz!

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