Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Classical Violin and Heavy Metal

RACHEL Barton Pine walks both sides of the fence -- a classical violinist who plays a 1740s instrument but also rocks out to Black Sabbath and Guns N Roses. I get into her wide range of musical passions in the latest of my Influences column in the Los Angeles Times.

The violinist, by the way, plays this Sunday at one of the most amazing places I've ever seen chamber music -- UCLA's Clark Library in the West Adams district. Most of the time, the place is an important repository of rare books, 18th century English history and material related to Oscar Wilde. But the wood-lined room in which the chamber series takes place is intimate and resonant -- and very hard to get into.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Making of The Artist

SOMETIMES it takes the French to appreciate the best aspects of American culture. Whether it's jazz, detective novels or the films of Howard Hawks, the Gauls have often seen something in our own art that we've overlooked.

The silent, black and white movie The Artist is the latest example. It's an homage to American cinema of the '20s and early '30s. I wrote an extensive feature HERE for the Hollywood Reporter that looks at how an outlandish idea by director Michel Hazanavicius became a damned fine movie and a credible Oscar contender.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Roots of Preservation Hall

THE latest installment for my Influences column is Ben Jaffe, son of the founders of Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the New Orleans institution's current leader. (My story is here.)

Jaffe, who marched in carnival parades as a 9-year-old and later attended Oberlin College, described classic  Crescent City figures -- Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong -- as well as some lesser known musicians and a few wild cards, including Andy Warhol.

The group will be at Walt Disney Concert Hall next Tuesday, in collaboration with a contemporary dance group, the Ben McIntyre Project.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Kenny Burrell and The Future of Jazz

LAST week I wrote a story about the jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, who celebrates his 80th birthday with a concert at Royce Hall on Saturday. In the course of it, I corresponded with music historian Ted Gioia about Burrell and some related issues concerning the past and future of the art form.

I've included here our exchange. Gioia's The History of Jazz, on Oxford University Press, was recently published in a new edition.

1) Two of his Midwestern contemporaries -- Wes Montgomery and Grant Green -- had signatures: Octaves and an expanded harmonic sense for the former, a churchified single-line style for the latter... Does Burrell have anything as immediately recognizable? What defines his playing?

Younger jazz players pride themselves on their skill in mimicking different styles or approaches, but Kenny Burrell embodies the jazz tradition.  He is a master of the blues.  He understands Ellington, bop, hard bop and cool at a very deep level.  When I hear him, I feel as if the best of the music's past is channeled effortlessly through his guitar.
I sometimes think that phrasing is a lost art in jazz, and perhaps especially among guitarists.  Even first rate performers can end up playing with their fingers, when they ought to be guided by their heart and ears.  But Burrell knows how to shape a phrase, where to place the proper emphasis, how to construct a solo.  He has unerring instincts -- like a great boxer, who has a feel for right move at the right moment.

2) He's outlived those two, and most musicians of his generation. Has his style evolved or his playing deepened since then, or did he sort of peak around the time of Midnight Blue?

Burrell has made outstanding recordings in every decade.  His early albums, such as Guitar Forms and Midnight Blue, are probably the best known, and rightly praised.  But check out his 75th birthday album, which shows him still at the top of his game.  And don't underestimate the poise and self-confidence Burrell demonstrated during the fusion period and after, serving as a champion for the jazz heritage even while his peers imitated the theatrics of rock.   With his mastery of the guitar, Burrell would have been forgiven for watering down his music in exchange for a taste of rock auditorium fame, but he stayed true to his own core values.

3) JL Collier describes the guitar as being unusual among jazz instruments in being pioneered and defined largely by white players -- Lang, Django, and on. (It strikes me that today's Big Three are also all Caucasian.) Is there anything to this, and if so, what do we make of a player, like Burrell, who is so consistently drenched in the blues. There's something interesting, isn't there, about his use of an African-Amer form for an instrument that has not been defined by African Americans.

The African-American tradition in the development of jazz guitar is much stronger than Collier's comments may suggest.  No one had greater influence on the role of the guitar in jazz than Charlie Christian, and the whole blues guitar tradition -- which strongly shaped the jazz sensibility -- is almost entirely the contribution of black players.  The more interesting  change happened later.  With the rise of rock music, the electric guitar entered the mainstream as a default instrument of Middle American teenagers and the defining sound of popular music.  Burrell came of age during this period, but he held firmly to his own tradition, his own approach, his own set of values.  In any era, jazz artists earn praise by channeling their own personal vision through their instrument, but Kenny Burrell did this at a time when there were many, many ways for a jazz guitarist to go astray. 

4) Burrell faults the classical establishment for not embracing jazz as "America's classical music," leaving this stuff to be crushed by the pop world...He admires Wynton's formal take on jazz and his assertion of jazz's status as an art music that needs the kind of support and concert halls as orchestras/chamber music. I recall this battle from the early '90s and founding of Jazz at Lincoln Center. How do you come down?
I feel that much of the hostility aimed at Jazz at Lincoln Center or Wynton is misguided.  We need institutions to preserve the tradition.   This does not come at the expense of those who want to move the tradition ahead.  Blowing up the Mozart Festival does nothing to enhance the opportunities for modern composers.  Burning old books doesn't get people to read new ones. 

5) Because of the number of talented and well-trained players leaving universities to find limited playing opportunities, Burrell wants to launch an LA based big band (18 pieces) that will start small but eventually have a real season and become a West Coast version of Jazz at Lincoln Center and inspire similar projects in other cities. Does this seem at all feasible?

You need more than great players to create a vibrant jazz scene, you also need the right institutions.  People who only know Kenny Burrell as a guitarist probably aren't familiar with all the work he has done off-stage to support and advance jazz on the West Coast.  His vision of a LA-based counterweight to JALC is very much in accord with his other efforts over the years.  I hope he succeeds.

6) I imagine Burrell, who has taught at UCLA since 1978 and founded the jazz program in '96, is to some a symbol of the move of jazz into academia. Does this transition from brothels and commerce into universities seem to have helped the music at any level?

If I can compare the jazz scene today with the situation when I was coming of age during the 1970s, most of the conditions have worsened.  There is less jazz on the radio today, less jazz on TV, fewer jazz clubs and less visibility of jazz in the broader culture -- but the single area that has changed for the better is the growing support of jazz from universities and arts institutions.   Many complain about jazz turning into an academic discipline.  But those of us who remember what it was like when jazz was excluded at universities find it hard to see this as a negative trend.  

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Remembering Spalding Gray

THERE'S a new collection of journals by the great actor and storyteller Spalding Gray, with a tribute event tonight at the Laemmle Sunset 5. (More detail here.)

Soon after Gray's 2004 disappearance -- it was eventually deemed a suicide -- I spoke to several theater and performance figures who walk in Gray's footsteps. I wrote:

With his mix of despair, humor, preppy shirts and New England dryness, he was sometimes called "the WASP Woody Allen." But many of those inspired by his techniques went in very different directions. Some created aural collages; some explored their ethnicity; others became ranters. John Leguizamo, Danny Hoch and Eric Bogosian, at various times, did all three.

HERE is that story, which includes discussions with Anna Deveare Smith ("He introduced me to the idea that normal human behavior is performative") Julia Sweeney, Tim Miller and Eric Bogosian.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Kenny Burrell and the Jazz Guitar

RECENTLY I had the pleasure to walk down memory lane with one of my musical heroes, who marked his 80th birthday over the summer and is still going strong.

Here is my story on jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, who will mark that milestone with a concert on Saturday Nov. 12. Burrell's playing is a very elegant and disciplined take on the blues.

Burrell told me a lot of interesting stuff -- including that his original inspirations were Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, and that he's generally more influenced by horn players than other guitarists.

Burrell's record Midnight Blue, which has Stanley Turrentine on tenor, was one of the first jazz guitar records to really turn my head around. (I can play the line from its opening track, "Chitlins Con Carne," a little bit.)

One bit I didn't have time to get into the story: When I asked Burrell what the most important thing for him to do when he improvised was, he said, "I listen."

More later.

Wild Flag at the Troubadour

THERE was so much buzz about Wild Flag – the indie super group made up of members of Sleater-Kinney, Helium, Quasi and the Minders – that the question going into Thursday night’s show at the Troubadour, the second of two packed Los Angeles shows, was whether this would be a good night of indie rock, or something transcendent.

The answer turned out to be, a little of both.

The Portland/DC four piece is a kind of back-to-basics girl-group garage band. There’s also a bit of jazz-damage to the guitar playing – Helium’s Mary Timony, who took up more space onstage than I expected and seemed to smile a lot more than I recall from the 1990s, has aways played chords that were harmonically strange and arrayed up and down the neck of the guitar. With Carrie Brownstein, in an outgrown Joey Ramone haircut unleashing rockstar kicks and Pete Townshend windmills, this was a band – despite a keyboard replacing the bass – harkening back to the great two-guitar groups of punk New York.

So it’s hard not to miss with this combination, and Brownstein was a killer frontwoman and oddly friendly host. A New York Times review from early in the tour described the band as having trouble syncing up – that was certainly not a problem last night.

When the show was only good, or perhaps really good, the songs were simple three-chord stomps, with some great guitar freakouts near songs' end. But they were a little straightforward and easy to predict.  Of two new songs, one was not quite ready despite a cool bridge.

The very best stuff – the two opening songs ("Black Tiles" and "Electric Band," both from the very fine debut LP on Merge) and few tracks across the middle of the set, and the triumphant encore – made clear why we're all so excited about this band. These songs saw one of the best drummers in the business, Quasi's Janet Weiss, kicking it hard, and a weirdly affectionate combat between the two guitars evoking memories of Verlaine and Lloyd.

The encore made these roots explicit: Television’s See No Evil (above), the Stones’ Beast of Burden, and a Ramones-inspired Do You Wanna Dance. The Fiery Furnaces' Eleanor Friedberger (who I seem to be running into a lot recently – she hangs at my coffee shop when she is in town) came up to sing the last two songs.

Let’s hope this band has a long and rich career. They’re not enough to save indie rock, but they might save a few souls, one night at a time.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Philip Glass With the New York Philharmonic

COMPOSER Philip Glass is making his debut this week at the New York Philharmonic. Yes, you heard that right. Let's move on -- it's awkward for everyone involved. But he's glad to be there now.

Glass's appearance is with his own ensemble and the orchestra itself, playing behind Godfrey Reggio's film  Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, the score for which may be the composer's best-known work. (I saw Glass and company perform this at the Hollywood Bowl a summer or two ago -- truly kickass, and this film about technology's impact on our lives seem even more pertinent now, I think, than it did when it appeared in the early '80s.)

I spoke to Glass -- who I seem to running into a lot lately -- for a story in the Playbill. Here it is. Glass was happy to look back at what became his first feature film score and one of his first big pieces.

(For all my West Coast partisanship, wishing I was in New York right now.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Digital Parasites

THE Internet has brought us lots of good things; it's also put an enormous number of people out of work, especially members of the creative class who've been turned into underpaid, unstable content providers. Information, after all, wants to be free.

"It's tempting to believe that the devaluation of creativity we've seen over the last decade was somehow inevitable," writes former Billboard editor Robert Levine, "that technology makes information so easy to distribute that any attempt to regulate it is futile."

Levine's new book -- Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back -- argues that it didn't have to be this way. Various industries -- music, newspapers, publishers -- swallowed a lot of b.s. about how the Web was going to make everyone rich, and now they're living with the consequences.

I spoke to Levine for today's Salon here. It's part of the Art in Crisis series I'm writing with a number of other scribes. Please check it out.

UPDATE: And here is a review from Sunday's (27 Nov) NYT Book Review, calling this book an important statement.