Saturday, April 14, 2007

Bobby Naughton, Mallet Master.

Bobby Naughton. Zoar. OTIC Records 2002

I have long been a fan of this most African of instruments. From the balaphone of the West African forest lands it spun into marimba, xylophone and vibes. Bobby Naughton has to be one of the most under appreciated mallet masters of our time. It will resound to the credit of the Connecticut Commission on the Arts that someone there saw fit to fund this recording on November 15th, 1983. And it was pretty cool of Yale to provide a chapel for the recording.

He recently launched his own website,
where you can purchase his work directly from him and one of the joys of having this sort of blog is that luminaries of this caliber sometimes come out of the cyber woodwork to participate in it.

His site offers this bit of background for the unfamiliar.
"Bobby Naughton is self-taught as a performer and composer. After playing in rock-and-roll groups he took up the vibraphone in 1966, and in the late 1960s played with Perry Robinson, Sheila Jordan, and others. He continued to work intermittently with Robinson while recording as a leader from 1969 on his own label, Otic; in 1971 he wrote a score for Hans Richter's silent film Everyday (1929). He played with the Jazz Composer's Orchestra in 1972 and Leo Smith (from the mid 1970s), and joined the Creative Music Improvisers Forum in New Haven, Connecticut. Naughton's vibraphone playing, like that of Gunter Hampel, emphasizes the instrument's role in group improvisation rather than its possibilities as a solo vehicle. He plays fluently with four sticks, exploits the vibraphone's overtones, and sometimes controls manually the instrument's vanes (which vary its sound intensity). His piano playing (which may be heard on the first of his own albums) has a melodic strength and terseness reminiscent of Paul Bley." Roger Dean, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, copyright Macmillan Reference Ltd 1988

Pretty impressive, no? So much of jazz biz is a yucky arbitrary thing. Joe Public with some vague handle on the idiom is far more likely to know of the soporific Gary Burton who is the sonic equivalent to a whitebread tuna sandwich way overloaded with mayo.And Zoar is proof that jazz deserves to be examined in some depth to avoid the fate of mistaking it for Weather Channel Forecast background music, the new and proper home for Pat Metheney.

1. Pomperaug Diversions. (Bobby Naughton). This hints at a march. Joe Fonda has an ability to coax low end horn sounds from an upright bass that can stun and surprise as if the thing turned into a tuba. Bobby is in his own distinct class among mallet masters with a crisp meticulous staccato method and some mildly miraculous tone bending. As a composition, Pomperaug Diversions has some echo of 'futuristic' music envisioned by film composers such as Raymond Scott.Randy Kaye readily demonstrates a mastery of dynamic range control with kit work well fit to his trio colleagues.

2. Vashkar. (Carla Bley). Carla Bley's composition is far more striking in an austere trio reading then one might find in the more color loaded ensembles she generally uses. Joe Fonda signals the start with a few fat bass tones.The piece has the reflective quietude of a still forest pond in a dreamscape. Bobby makes deft switches from short legato phrase segments to his more challenging precision of tight tiny tones wrapped in equally tiny silences. Randy wraps it in well fit brush work subtleties and Joe Fonda rises from the ensemble texture toward the last third with a bracing pattern of ear opening double stop plucks contrasted by fleet note runs also using space with confidence and finesse.

3. RPDD. (Ornette Coleman).
The trio tackles Ornette in spirit and to the letter in an exuberant sprint with seemingly effortless negotiation of Coleman's signature melodic angularity. Colemanisms readily rise from the vibes and Joe handles his bass with a jaunty exuberance suggesting this is the sort of thing these guys do for fun the way kids do cannonballs off the diving board in a swelter day swimming pool.

4. Shepaug Strut. (Bobby Naughton). Mr. Naughton brings the Strut to life with a few big tones. It has a searching quality about it with a commendable blend of a march and a nocturne as it does make me think of sunsets and pondering days ahead.The Fonda contribution is a tempo contrast to create an engaging rhythmic tension marked by more examples of a distinct love of tone bending as if he had a whammy bar. The vibe tones float in roomy silences and Mr. Kaye skillfully creates the percussive biome for it all to come alive.

5. Zoar. (Bobby Naughton). Here we find a cerebral composition design balanced by a visceral delivery informed by a big heart. Thus the three elements of creativity are humming together well. It bounces somewhat and could almost be a subtle space age allegory to something like"Bouncing With Bud" while having no melodic or structural similarity whatever. It is an ambitious composition well fulfilled by all three participants and is a good pick for a title track. It is a particularly good spot to hear the versatility and imagination of Randy Kaye as he gets a pretty fat bit of time/space to run a solo. His approach is to make the hat/cymbal/snare core a consistent center for free time pulsed excursions all over the kit.

6. Goodbye. (Gordon Jenkins). A wistful beautiful closer once used to end Benny Goodman shows from the Broadway and Film composer Gordon Jenkins. Mr. Naughton gets it out of it's swing era zoot suit and gives it a modern outfit, spare and comfortable that allows it to shine in a newer day. I bet it has some resonance with the trio's childhood and a connection to things liked by parents honored well. Mr. Fonda is strikingly elegiac here and there is a stirring yearning to it all.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Great Divide.

The Great Divide. Studio 234 CD002.
Glynis Lomon:Cello, voice.
Blaise Siwula: Alto and Tenor Sax.
Eric Zinman:Piano.

with William Buchanan: Drums, (on cuts 2,5 and 6.)
and Hugo Manuschevich: Drums, (on cuts 3 and 4.)

Writing about some of the regions of ensemble improvisation is a flat handful when one wants to describe it as it stands. There are few familiar structural markers and each lucid effort is a stand alone world. I began to feel a bit at sea over it all so Mr Zinman graciously provided this lucid effort.

And come to think of it, that is probably the most fitting thing for a scribbler to do when lucidity is wanted.

From Eric we have the following thoughtful illuminations.

All the players I work with do "noise". I love it. I've always wanted to incorporate all these elements from the simplest basic aspects of music to the most complex. Like many musicians, I want it to sound like we're talking singing and even screaming sometime and this is as much a part of the tradition as it is avant garde.

Everybody always emphasizes the most polite aspects of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane because some of the records allow you to do that.

The titles of course were an afterthought. My thinking about the title was suggested to me by Blaise because I was hooked by a statement that Glen Gould made when he heard Cecil Taylor for the first time.

"That's the 'Great Divide' " he said.

There is always a divide between culture and art. Art speaks to you and I, but "culture" speaks to us, so artists are always at war with 'culture'. As an art rises to a position of hegemony we feel the stronghold exerted by the
culture on art sometimes as 'nationalism'. America wants 'embedded artists' like they want 'embedded journalists'.

You talk about Boston being 'music school land' so Boston is better understood as a hotbed for ' culture' but not art. 'Culture' is better understood in Europe by governments which is why there is more funding because historically it plays a more obvious role in the power structure of these countries. That doesn't make them better or more 'cultured' but they are used to the idea of 'culture workers'.

In the US perhaps this is more subtle as in the tour of the Vice Presidents house done by Lynn Cheney, or less subtle like Lou Greenwall singing "proud to be an American", but the last concert I saw at the White House was the Marine Band, so in my opinion the US does not put up much of a front.

But you can notice from the past as in the case of certain artists like Baryshnikov, who after accepting certain invitations was quite a "darling" who they wined and dined including posters saying "Baryshnikov for America's Libraries" at the time of the "so called" end of the cold war. Certain artists like Nureyev would have refused to do that based on US foreign policy so some artists have a conscience.

Of course this is philosophical/ideological and has very little to do with the music in some ways. Though it must be said that music is always ideology.

Glynis did not like my argument about 'the Great Divide and found it negative and so I persuaded her with the nature imagery which, of course I also relate to in a deep way.

So you can take it both ways. I suppose it's transcendental. It is through nature that I've been able to retain my sanity and there is an incredible force or power within the natural world that suggests music and a fierce music at that. I don't think the titles are especially strong but they suggest an atmosphere which I try to create in the music.

The "consistent flow pattern" you refer to is probably what I like. I don't want the energy to be disrupted but I want it to develop and build. In music there is hunger and fulfillment just like in life. There must also be continuity and exquisite form.

If you scream all the time it gets boring so I want to work up to that to create a reason for the climax, but basically I want to keep the listener listening.

Like many musicians I don't use the words dissonance and consonance. I prefer tension and release. Like in all arts, if there is too much tension we get annoyed, if there is too much release we get bored. So all art seeks to find a balance. All the NYC players I've worked with play this kind of density. I am still in love with it. Blaise definitely has his own sound.

I feel that Glynis and Blaise and myself are all real ensemble players and that's what makes playing with them so much fun and even easy. I always felt Blaise and Glynis try to link everything together when they play in a group.

Blaise to my mind is an original player with the alacrity of a gust of joyful wind that is inspirational with a wide emotional range and like many great saxophone players he projects with force from the bottom to the top of the horn.

I have had a chance to hear different aspects of his work and realize that like myself he has tried many different ways of organizing music . His longstanding duets with guitarist Dom Minasi offer a different view into his musical thinking and construction.

These pieces though fixed in some way have a simple tasteful elegance to them that is perhaps related to the music of Monk and Ornette Coleman. But at this point this is old history. I think musical intuition which is communication is very strong in Blaise and this carries into every recording I have heard with him.

In my conversations with Blaise he has a broad awareness of the music and what other saxophone players have attempted to do and though very informed, I can't say that Blaise sounds like anybody else. He is also an organizer for what I would call 'improvised action' in NYC with C.O.M.A. (Citizens Ontological Musical Agenda) and as such is a positive force in this music that has brought many people together. I am grateful for his efforts whether they succeed or fail.

Glynis's playing is very controversial. People either love it or hate it. She has figured out her own way of playing the cello and I consider her a genius that most are not ready for. I know her pretty well and I can tell you she does everything a musician is supposed to do but she can use the instrument in a way that most are not capable of doing because of the way their trained.

She is not a refugee from the symphony orchestra like most string players. I was disappointed a little that I didn't play more around the piano in a solo sense on this recording but I realized that what I did made the ensemble sound better and that's what I want to do in an ensemble.

Glynis likes Glissando a lot which is of course natural to the instrument. She hardly plays scalar sounds. You may notice that she gets an incredible variety of timbres on one note. The approach of most virtuosos in formal concert music like Yo Yo and others is to have a "sound" or "the sound" which is the only sound they make, but Rostropovich never played that way.

I heard a composition by Glynis' mom recently at the congregational church in Harvard Square and the cello part had some great glisses in it that
blended with a siren that was used in the piece to evoke the holocaust.

Ruth Lomon, Glynis' mom, is one of Boston's best composers. So you see she grew up with interesting music. But Bill Dixon really turned her around and showed her that you could play the cello another way so Glynis can play with any instrument and imitate its sound so she's great with percussion and can sing like a horn. Of course "culture" dictates that a string player should always use lots of vibrato, but Glynis just has more control over it and often uses no vibrato.

The piano in many ways is the "odd instrument out". It relates most easily to the percussion instruments. I try, however, to do all the things that the piano can do in an ensemble situation and of course the balance between the pedaled and unpedaled sounds is crucial as is the use of space. I realize again that I didn't do any fancy thunderous line playing on this recording but the way this ensemble plays in my mind is 'untouchable'.

I focus my energy on different instruments and you can hear me playing duets with the drums just as you hear Glynis and Blaise playing duets so....double duets happen at certain points.......I recall there is a piano/cello duet as well, but as I said before a good musician never violates a situation and always tries to "integrate" as you say. I started noticing the 'bell tones' that you refer to in the upper register which I thought sound like broken glass on the piano.

To get back to the density thing........I mean this really shouldn't be a special case.......there is supposed to be heat when you play this music...(even Beethoven).....I don't want to mention names but a lot of what I see around Boston is way too polite.

I realize some very interesting music can be done in a very narrow dynamic range. It doesn't keep my attention too long because I eventually get distracted by other sounds in the room or outside the room. I think this concept is more successful in a grand piece of architecture where the audience is allowed to move freely through the space rather than seated.

Cage took great delight in this concept, but the idea of the audience being captive in a seat for this is only so interesting. Feldman's music is not light in this way and grabs your attention through sudden spaces and resilient blending. The audience is not expected to be seated during certain incidental pieces. I bring this up in light of the fact that Cage in particular considered much of his later work to be improvisation.

Perhaps my role in that increased on this recording or perhaps because of the instrumentation. The piano has so much information right in front of you. This is naturally reduced in this recording.

Maybe this is what Monk taught but I try not to listen to anything these days except my own just gets in the way. Though one interesting thought. People always talk about the explosive "fire" music of Cecil Taylor which has people screaming like its the "Beatles".

Well they never say ANYTHING about how Cecil uses space which is pure magic much the way a dancer defines their space on stage. I mean its not really metrical;its a human impulse that transports you somewhere else.....pure energy.

I try to use the whole piano and you can perhaps hear that if you choose the right register then the orchestra seems fuller or thicker or perhaps like 8 instruments instead of four.

1.There Were Frogs in the Fog.
The beginning involves the entire trio initially understated. Blaise rises from the texture with a dry timbre singing to Lomon bow swoops and a Zinman soundcape of sparse bell tones, The texture thickens by midpoint with groups of Siwula flutter phrases set against an interlocked lope rhythm texture setting Eric cluster voicings or chordal wringing against a zagging cello zig. The increased density is built of this flutter ring exchange between horn and piano with Lomon contrasts of longer tones and deft stabs rising through.

2. Forests.
A run of long Siwula tones set against William Buchanan hat work launches Forest. Eric drops ringing clusters separated by spaciousness and Glynis bends tones and rubs creaking sheets augmented with percussive clickery from cello and horn.Soon the entire Buchanan kit works its way around the ensemble subtly There is a steadfastness to the cello gravity and it ends as it with wavered Siwula long tones.

3. The Great Divide.
Madame Lomon leads the way for the Great Divide with a run of pensive bow whorls and the whole ensemble soon follows with Siwula vibrato and kit ranging courtesy of Hugo Manuschevich. It is a Novemberish thing with swirling winds rustling dry leaves in little eddies with storm fronts approaching and lots of ensemble churning in juxtaposed vortexes. Mr. Zinman makes his part an exposition in miniature of the pianistic elements he has been building over the years.

4. Falcons.
Some slap tongue bellishness alternated with short birdlike phrases from Blaise is paired with deft kit work from Hugo.Eric phases in with staccato note bursts alternating with neo vamps as Glynis makes a glissando framework with focus in the lower range end and nifty echoing of what the drummer's up to. There is determined evasion of tonal resolution conventions leaving a sense of suspense that ends in a collective ensemble sound swoop.

5. Rio Verde.
Eric Zinman leads with a few low end tone and cluster segments soon joined by Blaise on tenor and William as Lomon rises soon after. All in all it is a contemplative piece of a subtle complexity.There are allegories of balladry in Siwula's phrase groups and Zinman adds a sense of tonal remoteness in his approach to comping. There are interesting sub-pairings of cello drum interactivity as the piano has some engagement with the tenor.The end is signaled by Blaise tones that hint at a muezzin doing an evening prayer call in some timeless levantine mosque.

6. Windswept Circus.
Ms. Lomon adds her voice to this one as another instrument which must be a handful on top of bowing a cello.The piece has her at the drivers seat for a good part of it with some of her most striking participation on the disk. She seems to be having a ball with this pinnacle and works well with Blaise alto meanders. Eric and William create the framework for it all.

The Great Divide is available from Eric Zinman.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Eric Zinman Ensemble.

Eric visited my holdfast not long ago and left me with two striking discs that typify the small subset of real jazz here in music school land. Charlie Kohlhase also left me five examples of what he's been up to for the past seven years so there will be a number of descriptions of this body of work as I have time to give it the hearing it deserves.

The Eric Zinman Ensemble release is out on Cadence, CJR:1187 and available at

It features two of Boston's great and locally neglected masters, Bassist John Voigt and Drummer Laurence Cook. Both get lost in a milieu shuffle of careerism that rewards shameless self aggrandizement over music merit.

But both go way back in the annals of exemplary participation. John has done journeyman work since the days of Boston's old Playboy Club and worked with everyone from Jan Hammer to Thurston Moore.

He is a keen musical thinker and put out a self produced lp in 1976 of an overdubbed bass quintet blended with ambient sounds of a bingo tournament at a time when his contemporaries were avidly hopping on the bombastic and forgettable fusion bandwagon. He also did a puckish offshoot of the music minus one practice records for improvisers and a fine solo bass cd with hand painted covers.

Laurence was an early graduate from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and made a recording in the 60's with the relentless noise band, the Godz on ESP in addition to work with Bobby Naughton, Bill Dixon, Lowell Davidson and Joe Morris.

He is joined by John on a Thurston Moore release, "Fuzz against Junk".

Eric studied with Bill Dixon at Bennington College, spent some time at NEC and has worked with Raphe Malik, Sabir Mateen, Blaise Siwula,Glenn Spearman,Tatsuya Nakatani, Luther Grey, Glynis Lomon, Mike Lopez, Greg Kelley, Christoph Irmer, Libba Villavechia and Mario Rechtern and continues to keep an eye to fruitful collaborations with musicians, visual artists and dancers.

The recording opens with a Zinman composition, "Mystery" that offers groups of melody phrases rising and receding amid an environ of drum and cymbal brush strokes and interwoven bass pluck at a serene tempo that throws the considered piano phrases into vivid relief to contemplate and absorb.

The confident rendition of Ornette Coleman's piece, "Eventually" follows with a flight like briskness to the initial exposition followed by solo highlighting from Laurence with his signature array of sonic allegory phasing flawlessly into John's pointed cluster plucks all over the fret ran range to meet a Zinman enthusiasm for the fun of the melody potential fulfilled.

A slightly subdued restatement closes as if to thank Mr. Coleman for his years of contribution to musical imagination everywhere.

The beautiful Lowell Davidson melody of "Small Begger" is expressed as a ballad vector with Eric's bright cluster punctuations and sinuous bow motion from Mr. Voigt enveloped in Mr. Cook's percussive atmosphere of evocation to recall a lost friend to them all.

"Respective Duets" and "Short Story for Bill Dixon" are two more Zinman compositions.

The former is one of his more intricate works and demonstrates his ongoing interest in composition/improvisation union. Cook and Voigt begin with Laurence's array of 'little instrument" sound colors matched by vigorous register ranging bow work from John with Eric's ringing block chords, melody clusters and glisses close at hand. It is a sequence of deft textures from duet sub units of the trio with a full ensemble finish.

"Short Story..." is a ballad shaped miniature thanking Eric's majestic mentor and teacher, Bill Dixon, still full of vigor in his eighth decade of stunning trumpet science with a huge heart.

"Swing, Swang, Swung" from Mr. Voigt has interesting echoes of Gil Evan's "La Nevada" without the mass of horns and filtered through a more austere economy of means and a newer way of framing sound. John begins with the essence of a walking bass line with crisp Zinman voicings close at hand while the indomitable Cook briskly taps the tempo with hi hat and snare.

"Straight Up, Straight Out" is a work of the departed and utterly under recognized Glenn Spearman. It is a running ball with Zinman pianistics as the launch pad for a tight group sprint.

"Channeling Paris, 1870" is offered by Laurence Cook and is a great facet of his allegorical approach. When Cook is your drummer, you never waste time rehearsing with technical drummerspeak. You come up with some metaphor to fire his imagination like "Laurence, channel Paris" and the reverie of ensuing associations is the resulting shape of the piece.

He carries over his background with pigment, other brushes and canvas to make sound paintings in the moment, in real time. I'm not sure if music schools will ever figure out how to impart that method. It is also balladish and deft.

"Little Jimmy K.,(the White Hipster)" is an example of John Voigt's literary side and a piece of spoken word micro music theater.

He improvises stories as well as sounds and they tend toward wry commentary on human foolishness in a voice redolent of Bob Dorough on the old Miles piece "Blue Christmas" wedded to Hanna-Barbara cartoon characters like 'Baba Louie', the burro sidekick of 'QuickDraw McGraw'.

John has a growing number of these and they would easily make a stunning album in their own right, another facet of real jazz that may not work well with music school orthodoxy.

"Elephant Paws" is the final contribution of Eric's wide ranging array of composition invention. It opens with a rumbling ringing sing of the keyboard soon joined by John's plucky jog to a Cook march time metaphor followed by expansive alternations between cluster densities and rippled long tones enhanced by a Cook texture marked by wood block and cymbal wash leading to a duet world of bass and drums and a Zinman flourish as a close.

"War and Peace" ends the disc as a group improvisation of striking density as Laurence Cook channels these extremes for Eric and John to enhance. It is an up tempo weave of laced piano melody duels with upper atmosphere bow flow from Mr. Voigt.

All in all this the epitome of what music can be in the Boston area when not preoccupied with career fears and the dead weight of orthodoxy and I'm thrilled it somehow saw the light of day. Would there were more of it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Jazz and "World Music".

There is a wonderful continuity between jazz and the many planetary traditional musics. Both forms make extensive use of 'sound color' or timbre.

An aspiring jazz player will find many chances to extend technique by making sound allegories of the methods used around the world.

And more than the sounds themselves, the context of living close to nature as a particular form of reverence, is an essential commonality between this American and those long gone West Africans who yielded up their magic in a field recording decades ago.

If you look at instrument classes as phenotypes, and search for correlations between cultures and favored instruments, you make many stimulating discoveries about human inventiveness applied to sound shaping.

For example, microtonal double reed instruments were wildly popular in many Islamic cultures of the middle east, often in large mass ensembles.

The ancient pocket violin, the lira or kemence shows up in various forms along the line of Alexander the Greats march toward India.

The cultures of South East Asia near the Indonesian archipelago have many varying kinds of Gong ensembles from the Gamelan of Java and Bali to the Kolintan groups of the southern Philippines.

The Andean Cordillera is home to a number of flutes and panpipes. Mexico has many regions where huge harps, once used as a substitute for organs in church music, are now common in folkloric groups from Veracruz to Oaxaca.

It could be suggested that much of the inventiveness in jazz is part of a search to make a bridge to the homelands through these sonic allegories.

Iconoclastic Jazz.

The so called 'Avante Garde' 'Out' or 'Free' jazz really grew from a deliberate attempt to move to a more African based aesthetic and away from mastery of Euro based values prevalent in the earlier, 'Common Practice' phase usually broken into 'the Swing era, various forms of 'Bop' and also called 'Mainstream'.

There were a tremendous variety of approaches to Iconoclastic Jazz, often rooted in a particular community of origin. Thus there was one approach among native born New Yorkers, another from Midwesterners such as the AACM in Chicago or the BAG from St. Louis and then there was another from L.A.

As circumstances eventually drove artists from all these far flung communities to New York, a gateway to work overseas, some blending occurred.

To my mind, a most significant element of this profoundly diverse period was a commonly held belief that method should be subordinate to purposeful expression and , in the most compelling instances, the expression intends to be a deep union with the mysteries of the natural world and a capacity for allegory through sound.

This is often the meta intent of the most compelling work and the great wealth of technique extension on nearly every facet of sound craft is almost a happy bonus to the real core value of the work.

And that sense of reverence for the natural world, that readiness to embrace the mysteries and that readiness to live a disciplined uncompromised life despite the added weight of challenge it puts on shoulders will always, to my mind mark the idiom at its very best.