When students and faculty discuss The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, the same phrases recur. Creative collaboration. Artistic freedom. Mutual respect. These phrases could be taglines for the pedagogical approach of Dr. Keller Coker, who assumed the deanship of the school in March 2017. Eighteen months in, Coker has already helped the school manoeuver several shifts in direction, including the influx of many prestigious faculty members; the relocation of the experimental jazz club, The Stone, to the school’s campus; and the rollout of new academic opportunities for students both stateside and abroad. These initiatives all facilitate Coker’s vision for the New School’s jazz program—to give students what they need to be leading-edge musicians in the 21st century.
In 1936 the Moscow Children’s Music Theater commissioned composer Sergei Prokofiev to write a symphonic fairy tale to help young audiences learn the instruments of the orchestra. In his Soviet-era opus Peter and the Wolf, the unique sounds of the different instruments conjure up the many characters of the story, which serve as mnemonic devices for children. Earlier this year, the New England Jazz Ensemble (NEJE) released their own commissioned version of the Prokofiev work, this time using the instruments of a jazz big band and multiple jazz grooves to tell the classic tale. The eponymous self-produced recording, which contains four other Peter-related compositions, is more than an educational tool, however. Like the original, it’s a masterful work of art in its own right.
Indianapolis-based alto sax player Amanda Gardier finds musical repetition calming, and she uses the technique quite often in her compositions. On her debut album Empathy (Green Mind Records), she experiments with drone-like harmonies, repeated riffs, and cyclical melodies—to deceptively soothing effect. As a listener, it’s easy to settle into the lustrous tones and elegant structures in her compositions, remaining only subliminally aware of the tension that runs throughout her music. But that would be to miss the thrill of it.
Bassist/composer Adi Meyerson not only hears music, but she sees it. “I have this thing called synesthesia,” she said during a recent interview at Jazz at Lincoln Center, explaining that her brain is wired to link sound with colors, letters, and numbers. Arguably, a synesthete’s approach to music may not be ordinary, but Meyerson is not an ordinary musician. Intuitive and perspicacious, she displays a musical maturity that belies her newcomer status.
To say that French alto and soprano saxophonist Émile Parisien is doing well in Europe would be an understatement. In 2016, he received his third Victoires du Jazz Award, the French equivalent of a Grammy, in the album of the year category for Sfumato (ACT), his quintet’s latest studio recording. Earlier this summer, the bandleader released a concert version of the album, Sfumato Live In Marciac (ACT), which features a guest spot by Wynton Marsalis. Parisien recently spoke with DownBeat by phone about the album, his views on contemporary jazz and his childhood connection to the legendary trumpeter.
When Jon Hendricks passed away last November at the age of 96, he left a vast legacy to the world of vocal jazz. He popularized vocalese, raised the bar for scat singers, showed vocalists how to write hip lyrics, and proved (yet again) that the voice could be a force to contend with in a jazz ensemble. This month several singers pick up the baton that Hendricks so deftly handed off to them.
The first instrument that bassist Corcoran Holt ever played was the djembe, a West African rope-bound drum. As a child playing with a Washington, D.C., dance troupe, Holt came to appreciate the spiritual connection that existed between himself and the instrument, the other players and the audience. Even though Holt’s career now embraces a multitude of different performance settings, this connection remains fundamental to his music.
In 2012, three years before he died, Pulitzer-prize winner and U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine began performing his poetry to the accompaniment of saxophonist Benjamin Boone and a tight ensemble of jazz instrumentalists. Levine’s voice was sure and smooth, his poetry sharply evocative. The 14-track collection that grew out of the collaboration—The Poetry of Jazz (Origin), released earlier this year—demonstrates how well carefully crafted language and improvised music complement each other.
Less than a decade old, London-based Whirlwind Recordings gives modern jazz a fresh, new face. The label’s inspired roster of talent bridges genres, instruments and generations—a testament to founder Michael Janisch’s insight into not only where jazz has been, but where it’s headed. The following recent releases stand as a portent of the label’s promising outlook.
Iconoclastic singer Barbara Dane always knew that music could help to change the world for the better. Now 91, she’s spent a lifetime proving it.
In 2004, Billie Holiday became the first singer inducted into the Erdegun Jazz Hall of Fame at Lincoln Center. Since then four other singers have made the cut. This number might seem small until we note that JALC has only held inductions six times in the intervening 14 years and each year the list of nominees has grown ever shorter. Notably, this year Nat King Cole and Nina Simone claim two of the three spots for new inductees
It wasn’t until trombonist/alto flugelhornist Scott Reeves moved to New York City in 1999 that he began to compose and arrange at the level he’d always envisioned. “I’m either a late bloomer or a slow learner,” he joked after the release concert for Without a Trace (Origin Records), his second big band album, at Small’s in New York City on May 12. Or maybe he’s the best kind of band leader—one who’s learned how to do it all.
One could take the title of drummer McClenty Hunter Jr.’s debut album as a leader, The Groove Hunter (Strikezone Records), in two ways. Either Hunter is the one chasing the groove to conquer and subdue it, or he himself is the groove. It’s a tough call to decide which interpretation is more apt.
Sheila Jordan, the musical descendent of icon Charlie Parker and an ever-burning flame among jazz singers, pioneered the bass-voice duo in 1977 with the SteepleChase album Sheila, in collaboration with bassist Arild Andersen. She went on to solidify the bass-voice exchange as her signature sound, most notably with Harvie Swartz (Harvey S) and Cameron Brown, producing multiple recordings and scores of performances throughout the ensuing decades. Today, the heir apparent of these musical duo explorations is singer Kavita Shah.
Pianist/composer Monika Herzig opens her March 2018 album SHEROES with a tribute to her mentor, the late Third Stream composer David Baker. You can hear the Baker influence on “Time Again, D.B.” as Herzig and the SHEROES band move in and out of different meters, blaze through intricate solos, and sync up effortlessly on the tune’s compelling melodic theme. What you can’t hear is that all of the compositions on the release are written, arranged, and/or played by women—the female heroes (or “sheroes”) who collaborated with Herzig on this timely recording.
Paul Jost had already enjoyed a successful, decades-long career as a drummer, sideman, and leader when he decided to work solely as a jazz vocalist. Switching from player to vocalist mid-course is not a typical career path for a musician. But Jost’s quick rise as a singer over the last six years—he made his debut at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola just a few weeks ago—is a testament to his innate talent, his precision as a musician, and his distinctive vocal sound.
Singer/composer Sara Serpa, whose shimmering straight-tone vocals and wordless melody lines distinguish her as a leading musician in experimental jazz, raises the bar ever higher with Close Up (Trem Azul). As she writes in the liner notes, Serpa is always seeking to “find the place for [my] human voice.” The album provides just such a place through the musical exploration of different sensate states: the loneliness of motherhood, the wonder of a nighttime mountain sky, the inspiration of poetry.
Lauren Lee is one of a new breed of singer-songwriters. She has all the bona fides of a traditional jazz singer and pianist, but she needs to do things her own way. As an artist, she gives her imprimatur to cross-cultural experimentation and off-the-beaten-track forms of vocal expression, never straying far from the post-bop mother ship.
The weekend of March 23-25 the mist lay heavy on the mountains, fjords, and frozen lakes surrounding Vossevangen, Norway, the setting for the 45th annual Vossa Jazz Festival. Despite the town’s diminutive size—Vossevangen and its broader municipality claim only 14,000 inhabitants—each day hundreds of ticket holders crowded into the festival’s several venues, all just a short walk from each other along a picturesque center street.
“You play good, for a girl.” Every instrumentalist on the Jazz and Gender panel discussion at The New School on April 4 had received this backhanded compliment at some point in her career. The panel, comprising pianist and educator Monika Herzig and five players from her all-women SHEroes band, was convened to address how gender bias affects female musicians’ training, career opportunities, and self-image. View the post to learn more.