Although I’m ethnically and essentially Jewish and by informal inclination Sufi, when I scan civilizations as currently on offer I am grateful to have been born into a culture of predominantly Christian heritage and conformation rather than, say, the atavistic Muslim world or Israel as it seems determined to become. Yes, I am the grateful inheritor of a culture rich in individual privilege declining into lethal inanity, of once-functioning democratic institutions, a perforated barrier between church and state that originated in a subtly poised distinction between God and Caesar way back when, a fraying bill of human rights even including those, sometimes, of minorities, though we’d better not crack wise to to the police or make any sudden moves even if we’re ofays; where the rich eat the heart out of the rest of us and we don’t behead our infidels on TV but play War of the Worlds Martians in real life from a distance, without mussing our hair, though we’re free betweentimes to fret about filling village skies with fear 365/12/52/24/7 and blowing up the neighbors . . . So, while the seas rise and the beautiful species die as we roll over them in our sleep, here’s to Christmas and its birth of hope despite all. You think I’m being ironic about this? I’m not being ironic about this. True, Updoc would rather be living in Paris or Istanbul but the Brooklyn that shielded my family from the Holocaust will do, and the season’s music—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Bloomingdales’ window time—will feature Bach, the Eastern churches, maybe a couple of blues for humanity, wishing all well and hoping that grace may find us out.
There’s probably no surer way to scotch the chances of any contemporary mortal twelve-piece jazz ensemble than by playing an Ellington masterpiece immediately before it, but somehow five pieces selected from Marcus Roberts’ two-CD suite Romance, Swing, and the Blues, played by the dozen members of his Modern Jazz Generation, half students and half young lions, do just fine after fifteen minutes of Ellington at his finest on this week’s Updoc—8PM Friday and noon next Tuesday, Upper Broadway time. Roberts composed it in 1993 for the Lincoln Center big band but recorded it only this year, aided by a Kickstart, and Updoc’s selections steer clear of occasional Wyntonisms and even some Dukish pastiche to show off a fine ensemble playing fresh music, with special kudos to tenorist Stephen Riley, whose velvet fog fares better in a large group than at the head of a quartet, and bassist Rodney Jordan, who does even more than a fine Jason Marsalis to keep the swing coming. After that Miguel Zenón’s big band survives yet another sophisticated cloud of Ellington and then we see how Cecil Taylor’s obsessively structured units fare in the arena. Finally a youngster name of Bach provides a Partita for a few pianists to try their hand at until an oldster name of Gould deploys enough absurdist virtuosity to make me laugh out loud almost every time. And happy birthday Kip.
The 50th anniversary of the recording of A Love Supreme will ring its bell during the Tuesday rebroadcast of this week’s Updoc—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Van Gelder Studio time—but we’ll get a jump on it Friday night, playing the entire album buttressed by other Coltrane recordings from the period, some of them on the rare side. Since John Coltrane has had a greater effect on me than any artist in any medium, I try to say a few things about him on the show. For this promo I consulted the Brooklyn Oracle, and this is what She said: “Just as with Bach who, especially but not exclusively in his solo keyboard pieces, seems to be approaching all possible musical sounds and possibilities as a single sphere, visible and palpable to him, from which he then articulates any one of a probable infinity of its detailings, the part thereby suggesting the whole and the demonstration implying metaphysically the relationship between the primordial Unity of Being with any one of its infinite possible instancings; so John Coltrane, addressing the identical situation from within his stance as an artist seems in his most furious arpeggiations to be tearing from the face of that primordial sphere a skein of notes likewise suggesting the whole, this time not as a demonstration of radiant cosmic order but as revelation written in letters of fire. I don’t mean to suggest that these are the only two alternatives available to a divinely inspired artist, properly so-called, but they indicate a range of possibilities and impart a sense of scale.” She added that the music will supply any explanation needed.
Last week’s Updoc opened with a set featuring jazz newcomers who put out notable records in 2014. This week’s show—Friday at 8 and noon next Tuesday, Spanish Harlem time—expands the age bracket to accommodate new work by Brian Blade, Miguel Zenón, Pat Metheny, Oliver Lake, Tigran Hamasyan and the rebooted Preservation Hall Band. After that it’s Milton Babbitt’s perky and abstruse piece for jazzlike ensemble, All Set, originally premiered by Bill Evans and some hirelings in 1957, here performed to a fare-thee-well by Gil Rose’s formidable Boston Modern Orchetra Project with Lucy Shelton on piano, subsequently chased to Far Wells, Mill Valley by Charles Mingus. Branford Marsalis’ long evening with the Grateful Dead in 1990 has been around on bootlegs for years, but now it has gone legit on a Dead box set, and Updoc has selected the long jam on Dark Star as an example of how it went. The mix does not favor Marsalis, but if you squint your ears you should be able to make him out hardening his tone and asking John Coltrane for the loan of some alternate scales. He gets them. Once again we have induced Mr. Mozart to bat cleanup with one of his famous piano concertos, this one No. 25 as pitched by the nonpareil team of Argerich and Abbado. That’s all for this week, while I study up for the oncoming 50th anniversary of a Love Supreme, remembering what it was like to see and hear the universe broken wide open by four guys onstage at Birdland. I’m gradually coming around to the conclusion that music is a good thing to have around. Watch this space for further news.
There isn’t a single focus or overall theme on this week’s Updoc—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, East Broadway Rundown time—but I think the music’s good enough to stop by for: first a set of jazz newcomers who recorded notable albums this year—Alfredo Rodriguez, Oran Etkin, Melissa Aldana et al—and then a kind of mournful song-set built around a performance of Jeff Buckley’s Grace—live on TV, four-piece band, no tricks and yes he could really sing like a soaring angel contemplating his oncoming death unbothered. The brackets are two of the stunningest melodies I know, Purcell’s Dido’s Lament and Buxtehude’s Klag-lied, and after a dazzle of D-minor Bach, Jacob Druckman and an orchestra wish Nor Spell Nor Charm trouble his friend Jan DeGaetani’s lully-lullay, and please annul her early death. Maybe the show does have a theme: Herbie Nichols is up next, and his successor Andrew Hill, then along comes maybe the most famous early death of all. I’ve been featuring Mozart piano concertos to close recent shows but this time I got distracted by the extraordinary brilliance of his String Quintet in D, the fifth of the six he composed, less famous than the G-minor but I think the stunner of the set: for most of its length it sounds like Beethoven’s Late Quartets decades before the fact. The canonical recording is by Grumiaux & Co. but I found even more to love in a recording by the Zukerman Chamber Players. I can’t say enough about the glories of this music, so I’ll let words fail and just hope you lend an ear.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, when I was working on a profile of Jack DeJohnette, I got to watch Herbie Hancock in action at a recording session at the Power Station. It was an all-star Michael Brecker date, and Brecker, Jack, Charlie Haden, and Mike Stern or was it Pat Metheny did a lot of waiting around while Herbie showed up late, greeted everyone with his customary grace and politesse, dropped a Buddhist book on the control room table, then had to make a couple of long phone calls to the Coast. Pianist Don Grolnick was the producer, so he was able to take the band through the chart of the first tune, but then there was some more waiting around while Herbie disappeared to who-knows-where. Finally he ambled into the studio proper, took a first polite peek at the score on the Steinway’s music rack, and then the band hit the uptempo labyrinth of the tune. Herbie had the first solo and entered with a quick handful of notes, peeked at the score again, played a longer variation of his opening phrase and then sailed his thematic material into the heart of the music like a Cunard liner impersonating a cigarette boat. The whole band sprang to life and there were gasps in the control room. No one could quite believe the sudden wealth of inventiveness pullulating from the keybaord, and no I can’t play it for you on this week’s Updoc—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, Power Station time—because Grolnick, expecting a mere runthrough, didn’t turn the tape recorder on, thereby missing maybe 20 minutes of unrepeatable amazement. HH is much in evidence lately, with Harvard lectures and a new memoir and all, so the show presents a scattering of his music—he’s done so much it’s impossible to do more than that in two hours—with breaks for his worthy constituents Johann Sebastian Bach and Duke Ellington; and for a couple of funny Herbie Hancock stories I lacked the nerve to tell in full detail, but I trust you to get the pernt.
I wonder what it must be like to record a gobsmacking masterpiece version of Embraceable You and then tell the man you’d like to do another take. Well, you’d have to be Charlie Parker I guess, with a little phrase running through your head. Or maybe Bird had the idea handy, had been thinking about it, time to give it a try. This week’s Updoc—8PM on Friday and noon next Tuesday, 125th Street time—opens with the ‘lesser’ masterpiece version and then waxes philosophical through a saxophone set featuring Ornette Coleman (on the same tune); Stephen Riley; Dave Liebman in a blazing duet with Bob Moses; Julius Hemphill; and Arthur Blythe playing Monk. Then our contemplation switches to one of Leonard Bernstein’s finest early scores—for violin, strings and percussion—based on Plato’s Symposium on the varieties of Love: I found the Bernstein/Kremer version floridly overexpressed and made a date with Hillary Hahn when she was only twenty, chaperoned by David Zinman and some guys from Baltimore. After that, a jawdropping Sonny Rollins trio from Paris in 1965 can’t get started but knows three little words, and once you’ve cranked your jaw back into place and retrieved your eyeballs from the far side of the room, philosophy recommends a Mozart piano concerto to calm you back to a cast of mind in which you can contemplate all the varieties of Love now echoing in your soul. Murray from the Bronx delivers. Perahia, I mean. That’s him now, ringing you like a bell.
When Jack Bruce died at the age of 71 the other day, the grief and praise were equilateral—I didn’t hear sectarian sniffing about rock thisaway and jazz thataway from anyone anywhere: seems he was loved in all departments for his rock heldentenor, his bravura bassplaying in any number of idioms; and that indicates general recognition of the power of music pouring out of the man. Next week Kip Hanrahan, who worked with Jack on a number of projects over a thirty-year span, will clock in with a show more deeply felt and informed than anything I can provide, but I thought I’d get a memorial set in anyway—Friday at 8PM and noon next Tuesday, off-Broadway time. There’s some Cream and Lifetime but more than half of it scattershots Jack’s work with Hanrahan. There was not much precedent for the singing Kip asked Jack to do—unrhymed poetry of extreme intelligence, powerfully sexual, political and confessional while also lifting the lid on minds and souls all over the modern world, plus Latin percussion as not heard before, plus advanced jazz musicians finding their freedom in the mix—but Jack absolutely nailed it, then lifted it skyward. Sorry Kip but I have to say it: overall it’s one of the major accomplishments of modern American music. (And for my Mistake of the Week I kept saying Belfast instead of Glasgow.) Then it’s okay to present the brilliant young pianist Igor Levit taking leave of late Beethoven for Bach’s Partitas; he was Schnabelescent with LvB and I hear Lipatti this time out; but the cat can play and it’s a pleasure to hear a Bach pianist who doesn’t try to sound like Gould. Then two more from Branford at Grace Cathedral, chased though not chastened by Trane, and last another Mozart piano concerto, in which apparent thematic simplicity yields a dialogue of beauty and grace that is balm from Gilead and if you tilt your head just right will tell you everything you need to know.
I have the feeling I’m behind the curve on this one, and that a lot of my listeners have heard Flying Lotus, aka Steven Ellison, before I did; but at least once I heard his new album, some kind of funky tour of the Bardos called You’re Dead, I put a bunch of it on the first available Updoc—8PM Friday and noon next Tuesday. It’s his sixth record, he’s 31 years old and is related to the Coltrane family, and he composes, plays, assembles, mixes, and yes, raps, gets Herbie Hancock to collaborate, and doesn’t sound much like anyone else out there. I know, doesn’t sound like Updoc’s usual fare, and that’s good, even if after it we get onto Christopher Rouse’s pull-no-punches Concerto Per Corde, a 1990 an orchestral recomposition of his 2nd String Quartet, and then there’s a mostly ballad jazz set featuring Branford Marsalis live and unaccompanied at SF’s Grace Cathedral, more Haden-Hall and Barron-Holland duets, and before Carl Nielsen’s imposing 5th Symphony rattles the rafters with echoes of war—it premiered in 1920, when the echoes hadn’t faded—and sounds the prayerful longing for peace that drew many composers at the time, darkly though not entirely without hope. After that Sonny Rollins and Philly Joe Jones trade witticisms that provide a smile at the exit.
When the temperature outside cools down, the body may seek escape southward but the soul, it seems to me, orients itself to the north and begins to contemplate the areas of human experience corresponding to the cold and hard; at least that’s what happens to my listening habits, and this week I got as far as Finland, that nation of a mere 5.3 million souls contributing a disproportionate wealth of sound to first-rate modern ‘classical’ music. First Finn up on this week’s show—8PM on Friday and noon next Tuesday, NY Rangers icetime—is Kajia Saariaho’s Oltra Mar (Across the Sea) with its ice-crystal textures wrought in orchestra and chorus. Later on there’s Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto, which proceeds from icy altitudes toward melodic shelter, and in between the two youngsters the Papadaddy of Finnish music: Jean Sibelius represented by a towering performance of his tone poem The Oceanides. But that’s not all, folks: there’s jazz and more: newly released tracks of duet performances by Charlie Haden and Jim Hall in concert and by Kenny Barron and Dave Holland in the studio begin and end the show, with interstitial stuffing from Jason Moran’s newish tribute album to Fats Waller, the haunting though unhaunted voice of Aoife O’Donovan has me in its spell, twice, and then there’s some new Prince with his shadowband 3rdEyeGirl. You can’t ask for more than that, and if you can, I’d need more than two hours to answer you, so please set yourself down and take what you can get, with the blessing.