May 01, 2008

Unity Returns

Kareem_unity_larry_young_2 It's always a pleasure to share something that you find thrilling. The possibility that others might be the thrilled makes sharing such a pleasure. I recently got a bunch of Blue Note discs for my birthday and inside the package was a flyer that advertised t-shirts that featured retro album covers and one of those albums featured is one of my all-time favorites, UNITY. 

The Unity disc came out in 1966 or so and was giant step forward for the post-bop tradition. It features Organist Larry Young who is backed by Joe Henderson tenor sax, Woody Shaw on trumpet and Elvin Jones on drums. For me this disc distills the post bop sound that Blue Note was known for. All of the musicians are in their own right -first rate performers. Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw had been featured with Horace Silver's band, and Elvin Jones was one of the key contributors in John Coltrane's rhythm section, while Larry Young was an emerging voice on the organ. Organ players were so confined by the Blues and music of the black religious experience that it seemed to the music loving public that the organ would never be heard in any other context. Larry Young blew down the borders that confined the sound of the organ and stretched it out to include the visions of Bud Powell, Tad Dameron and Thelonius Monk.

I have heard people who are not necessarily jazz band fans rave about this disc and I'm sure that those of you who have not heard it will be thrilled to add it to their collection. The t-shirt is neat too! Enjoy..K

p.s. I will be moving my blog within the next two weeks to my website please follow me over to my site so you can continue sharing. 

April 22, 2008

Jazz Review: Nina Simone’s Protest Anthology

Kareem_nina_simone2_3     Jazz singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone once said, “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” Nothing reflects the turmoil of Nina’s times or her commitment to improving those times than her newly released album, Protest Anthology. This collection of eleven previously unreleased live recordings and interviews offers fervent fans and newcomers alike a glimpse behind the polished stage singer and into her raw heart of darkness regarding her hatred of racial and gender inequality. Yet, it also displays her versatility as a singer who could cross-pollinate genres creating hybrids of unequaled grace and power. Jazz, blues, soul, folk, gospel—Nina wore all those labels with pride and disdain. Pride in her success in such a variety and disdain for being labeled at all.

    Protest Anthology features some potent songs that reflect her days performing and speaking at civil rights marches throughout the 1960s. In fact, it’s practically a chronology of many of the major civil rights milestones of that time. Despite it’s sprightly tempo, “Mississippi Goddamn” (1964) addresses her horror at the 1963 murder of activist Medgar Evers and the bombing of the Birmingham church that killed four black girls. (The record was boycotted in several Southern states.) “Old Jim Crow,” released that same year attacks the Jim Crow laws that perpetuated segregation and hostility. Her cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” about lynching, is angrier and grittier than Billie’s eerie, more languid version. “Four Women,” written by Simone, laments the stereotypes of women of color. The simple melody played by the accompanying piano accents her increasing outrage as the song progresses. Her performance of “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead),” about the impact of Martin Luther King, Jr., is as heartfelt and touching as any song you will ever hear.

    Several of her standards are featured, including “Backlash Blues” (1967) by her friend Langston Hughes, and her adaptation (with Weldon Irvine) of her friend, Lorraine Hansberry’s play, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” This 1970 song had such an emotional impact that it became a civil rights anthem later covered by Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, and even Elton John. Although her performance doesn’t have the polish of her earlier recording, it does convey her inner passion and frustration.

It’s a shame that this magnificent album appears five years after Nina’s death. On the other hand, as she herself says in one of the interviews in this collection,

“When I go, I’m going to know that I left something for [my people] to build on. That is my reward.”

Fortunately, this is a reward we can all share.

(Album cover: Protest Anthology; Nina Simone)

April 07, 2008

Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters: Smooth sailing


It’s easy to dislike Herbie Hancock.  The man is 67 and looks 40!  (Someone needs to check his attic for that hidden Dorian Gray portrait.)  But then you listen to his music and you are immersed in a variety of emotions—love, melancholy, desire, thoughtful introspection—but none of them are alike.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  You experience such a broad spectrum of emotion that you feel even more connected to other people, as if you can suddenly fully appreciate and empathize with everyone else’s feelings.  If ever a musician was able to create a musical sense of community, Herbie has consistently done that in album after album.

Herbie’s latest album, "River: The Joni Letters," recently shocked the music world when it won the 2007 Grammy for best album of the year against more mainstream media darlings like Amy Winehouse, Vince Gill, the Foo Fighters, and Kanye West.  Jazz has usually been the tolerated stepchild of the popular music world, neglected and ignored, left to play in its room with a few of its misfit friends.  Despite that, Herbie’s jazz piano playing has garnered 10 Grammy awards, including two for other tribute albums to Miles Davis and George Gershwin.

It’s easy to see why Herbie was attracted to Joni Mitchell’s songs.  Not only is she a dynamic performer herself, but her portfolio of songs is  among the most influential in the last 30 years of popular music.  You can hardly read an interview with the most famous and respected songwriters of the last few decades without having them mention their debt to Joni.  In the movie "Love Actually," Emma Thompson tells her husband, played by Alan Rickman, that Joni Mitchell “is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.”  Using a variety of musical influences from folk to rock—and especially jazz—Joni taught a whole generation around the world how to feel.  The genius of Herbie Hancock is he’s using those same songs to teach us all how to feel again—but even more deeply, more richly.

Although all the song titles will be familiar to avid Joni Mitchell fans, some of the songs are more obscure to the casual listener: “Edith and the Kingpin” (with vocals by Tina Turner) and “Tea Leaf Prophecy” (with vocals by Joni Mitchell) to name two.  But some of her most familiar songs are also here, including “Court and Spark” (with vocals by Norah Jones), “River” (with vocals by Corrine Bailey Rae), and “Amelia” (with vocals by Luciana Souza).

Even when the song titles are familiar, the same can’t be said for Herbie’s interpretation.  His unique gift is for taking what the listener thinks he knows, and presenting it in a way that forces us to re-imagine the song.  Many musicians, even jazz performers, fall into the trap of producing an album in which the songs, when played all at once, start to sound disappointingly similar.  Herbie deftly avoids that trap by taking risks that defy listener expectations.  His interpretation of Joni’s “The Jungle Line,” with poet/novelist/musician Leonard Cohen reciting the lyrics, is one such example.  Yet, there is a musical thread that weaves all the songs together as if they were all well-crafted chapters in an intimate novel: the feathery brushing of the drum, the unhurried insistency of the piano, the soulful voices of the singers.  Joni says in “Both Sides Now”: “I really don’t know love at all.”  But listening to this tender and thoughtful album, we might all feel a lot closer to knowing love.

(Photo credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

March 05, 2008

Sonny Rollins, saxophone colossus


I received an inquiry in February from Jacques who wanted to know if Sonny Rollins plays the saxophone on the Rolling Stones' "Tattoo You" album.  The answer is yes.

It is always a pleasure to have a reason to reach out to Sonny and have a chat.  Sonny is a major figure in the evolution of modern jazz.  He was inspired to play the sax by the seminal figures Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker.  Sonny's talents were obvious very early in his career.  He recorded very important works with Bud Powell and Fats Navarro in 1949 when he was still 18 years old.  Sonny remembers waiting outside of Coleman "Bean" Hawkins' home in Harlem to get his autograph, and Bean was inspirational in Sonny's life.  This is evident in Sonny's choice of the tenor sax as his instrument. 

Sonny always worked with the best performers, starting with Babs Gonzalez and including Clifford Brown and Thelonious Monk.  Earlier in his career he had worked in George Hall's band, a distinction he shares with my dad.  Sonny became disillusioned with his art for a while and took time off to reconsider his direction.  During this time, he would practice at odd hours on one of the bridges connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn.  His first disc after his hiatus is entitled "The Bridge" and is some of his best work.  He was someone I looked up to for his professionalism and inventive curiosity.  I was inspired to be at my best after witnessing his performances while I was in high school. 

Even saxophone icon John Coltrane was inspired by Sonny, writing a song entitled "Like Sonny." Sonny's exemplary courage and leadership have inspired people in all walks of life.  Michael Caine had him write and perform the music for the movie "Alfie."  That soundtrack has become standard in the jazz vocabulary.  The remake of that movie, released a couple of years ago, omitted the best part of the first film -- its original score by Sonny Rollins.  Shame on them!  But Sonny marches on.  He still performs at jazz venues around the world -- a colossus striding the world stage.

February 26, 2008

Jazz lives

Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra

I recently had the pleasure of catching a performance of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which is now touring, under the direction of Wynton Marsalis.  They played at the Pepperdine University Performing Arts Center in Malibu, and really raised the roof.   In New York City, my high school was immediately adjacent to the Lincoln Center site, and I watched those buildings being erected during my four high school years.  At that time, I never thought that jazz would become a part of the permanent curriculum at Lincoln Center, but some forward-looking people finally got the idea that jazz should be included in Lincoln Center's calendar of events.  It was a natural progression and has put jazz on the map in a very meaningful way. 

The performance I attended was dedicated to the works of Duke Ellington.  Wynton is a dedicated teacher and historian, in addition to being a virtuoso performer.  His introductions to the various tunes are explained with eloquent and humorous asides that explain the context and historical framework of the music.  In his hands, this great musical tradition will reach new generations of fans and maintain its status as “America’s classical music.”  Lincoln Center has also responded to the needs of the music by building three rooms on Columbus Circle that will ensure performers have a venue where they can play.  The rooms go from a club setting to a concert ballroom, and the acoustics are world-class.  Lincoln Center has made sure that jazz has a home.

photo of Wynton Marsalis & the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra by John Marshall Mantel, AP

Captain Kareem

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is considered by many fans and sportswriters to be the greatest basketball player of all time. The 7-foot-2 Hall of Fame center, famous for his indefensible skyhook, dominated the NBA for 20 years, first with the Milwaukee Bucks then with the Los Angeles Lakers. Before that he was the star of the UCLA Bruins teams that won three consecutive NCAA championships. Kareem was the NBA's MVP six times, a 19-time all-star and set the NBA all-time records in nine categories. He is the NBA's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, a record that may never be broken.

Since retiring as a player in 1989, Kareem has balanced his love of basketball with his love of history. In 2002 he led a USBL team, the Oklahoma Storm, to a championship. Since 2005, he has been the special assistant coach for the Lakers, working with Andrew Bynum.

In 2008 he was chosen The Greatest Player in College Basketball History.

Kareem also remains intellectually active, authoring six bestselling history books intended to popularize the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history. His books include "Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement"; "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes"; "A Season on the Reservation," which chronicles his time teaching basketball and history on an Apache Indian reservation in White River, Ariz.; and the current New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance."

His audio adaptation, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Audio & Musical Journey through the Harlem Renaissance," is a four-volume compilation read by Bob Costas, Avery Brooks, Jesse L. Martin, and Stanley Crouch, and features private and fascinating conversations with dozens of icons, including Coach John Wooden, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones and Billy Crystal. He has also been written to L.A. Times, under the Sports section.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been appearing on various radio stations and TV shows, as well as the most relevant websites talking about his life and his new audio book, On the Shoulders of Giants.

All images are property of unless otherwise stated. All info copyrighted and owned by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not replicated without permission.

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