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Jazz Plus: Ron Wynn picks his favorite releases while considering the future of jazz

branfordbigBranford Marsalis Quartet
“Four MFs Playin’ Tunes”
(Rounder)

When they appeared last year in Nashville, the Branford Marsalis Quartet was performing rigorous originals. That’s the menu on their latest release. These aren’t short and sweet pieces, either. Three are nearly 10 minutes long, the best being “As Summer Into Autumn Slips” and “My Ideal.” Even the less lengthy tunes like “Brews” or the final bonus track “Treat It Gentle” (the set’s shortest at 4:16) contain fiery, energetic Marsalis solos on soprano and/or tenor. He’s moved away from the Wayne Shorter influenced tone and approach on both instruments. His tenor playing is fuller and more intense, and his soprano fluid and not restricted to upper-register forays. Pianist Joey Calderazzo has grown comfortable within the ensemble and is now a strong second soloist. The rhythm tandem of bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner easily anticipate the dips, darts and shifts made by the frontline. They also prove excellent soloists when given ample space. The Branford Marsalis Quartet clearly plays contemporary jazz, but their music’s not aimed at those who prefer lightweight melodies or updated revisions of recent pop hits. Their selections are muscular, ambitious and frequently humorous. It’s music from one of jazz’s finest units.

The Duke Ellington Legacy
“Single Petal Of A Rose”
(Renma)

deDon’t be fooled by the name into thinking this is another “ghost” band with players decades removed from the original orchestras cranking out stiff renditions with minimal emotion and involvement. The Duke Ellington Legacy was founded nine years ago by his grandson, and they don’t confine themselves to strictly performing the great composer’s works. Pianist Norman Simmons penned both the opening dedication (memorial piano solo) and spry original “Home Grown,” which boasts bassist Tom DiCarlo’s finest moments, and equally distinguished solos from tenor saxophonist Houston Person and trumpeter Jami Dauber. Tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Virginia Mayhew seems to thrive in these celebratory settings, having recently issued a superb Mary Lou Williams tribute disc. She is particularly exciting on “Love You Madly and “Johnny Come Lately.” Simmons wisely doesn’t try to replicate the Ellington approach, but still does a fine job on Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” and Ellington’s title track. However, the set’s revelation is Person, best known in the jazz world for his longtime collaborations with vocalist Etta Jones. During numerous solos, Person displays a command and authority that reveals he’s also done his share of swing and blues dates. He can hold his own alongside any other brass and reed players, just as surely as he ably supported Jones’ wonderful vocal renditions for decades.

Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things
“Clean on the Corner”
(482 Music)

mreedChicago drummer Mike Reed and his ensemble’s latest release (number four) blends classic tunes by both heralded (the Art Ensemble’s Roscoe Mitchell) and obscure (alto saxophonist John Jenkins) types with new material primarily written by Reed. Mitchell’s “Old” and Jenkins” “Sharon” spotlight the swirling, furious playing of alto saxophonist Greg Ward and tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman’s even more fierce responses. When the band’s size increases to add either pianist Craig Taborn (“Sharon” and “The Ephemeral Words of Ruth”) or cornetist Josh Berman (“House of Three Smiles” and “Warming Down”) the extra voices bring even more ferocity to the occasion, while also providing fresh options for Reed’s vibrant drumming and bassist Jason Roebke’s mixture of contrast and extension. Despite the Midwest setting, there’s more than a nod to the late ’50s Ornette Coleman dates as well as the Art Ensemble, as Reed’s People, Places & Things venture outside and beyond in a series of energetic, boisterous and tremendous performances that aren’t aimed at or intended for those who want light, easily accessible fare.

Booker T. & The M.G.s
“Green Onions”
(Concord/Stax)

greenIt was 50 years ago that a Memphis house band garnered a huge hit from what was supposed to be an afterthought. “Green Onions” was one of those late session jams where everything clicks. That includes organist Booker T. Jones’ resolute melodic lines, guitarist Steve Cropper’s tart guitar licks midway, and understated, supple backing from drummer Al Jackson Jr. and bassist Lewis Steinberg. Though a good bassist, Steinberg lacked the extra flair the M.G.s (Memphis Group) needed. That would come later with the addition of Donald “Duck” Dunn. But they still had a very good unit, one that created the blueprint for a host of later hits produced at Stax in Memphis. These 14 cuts (two bonus live dates from a 1965 show in LA reveal just how much difference Dunn made in the group’s sound) are an early glimpse into what became a legendary crew and their trademark approach. The CD’s mostly covers of what were then current R&B and pop numbers. The versions of “Lonely Avenue,” “Can’t Sit Down,” “I Got A Woman” and “Comin’ Home Baby” present a portrait of a unit beginning to jell, while revealing even in the band’s infancy what great musicians Jones, Cropper, and Jackson were.

Music Book of the Week
Ted Gioia
“The Jazz Standards – A Guide To The Repertoire”
(Oxford)

jazzbookComprehensive, well researched and definitive books have been a specialty of West Coast author/musician/critic Ted Gioia, and “The Jazz Standards” is a worthy addition to his already impressive legacy. Gioia covers 250 tunes, offering readers both a short history of every song’s evolution, and a list of what he deems the finest versions performed by jazz musicians. Gioia also provides an examination of the role played by the theater and film industries in shaping the nation’s popular song heritage. In addition, he gives reasons why these songs have become popular among jazz musicians and fans.

As a working musician, Gioia has played many of these numbers. His analysis is based on both personal taste and professional experience. He’s unafraid to say which tunes he does and doesn’t like. Many of his asides regarding composers, the fate of shows, and character flaws of musicians prove informative, humorous or sad (sometimes all these things in the same instance). He can explain why certain ones are tougher than others, and why songs that were once beloved are now forgotten.

“The Jazz Standards” can be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in music, but it will have special appeal to those who are either current or former players, or at least have a technical understanding of music. You don’t have to understand scales, notes, keys, modulation, etc., but it will definitely enhance your appreciation regarding the depth of Gioia’s achievement. However, there are plenty of wonderful stories, details, incidents and other items to satisfy the non-musician and casual fan just as much, even as the hardcore jazz lover and career player will find this volume an essential one they revisit on many occasions.

Commentary
Musician/journalist Dom Minasi has an intriguing column on the website All About Jazz this week that tackles a familiar question: “What Is Jazz?” While it’s frankly one I’ve long since tired of discussing, Minasi covers a lot of territory. There’s history about the impact of fusion, jazz-rock and “smooth jazz,” a discussion about the place of electronics in improvisation, and his opinion of the controversy trumpeter Nicholas Payton generated last year when he called for an end to the use of the word “jazz” (something Duke Ellington championed many decades ago).

donmMy reasons for finding a lot of this conversation beside the point at this time is right now, for me, the more crucial issues when it comes to jazz (indeed when it comes to anything beyond the generic pap that dominates pop radio) are audience expansion and survival. Jazz continues to take enormous hits across the country. Stations in such places as Boston and Chicago (as well as Nashville) have eliminated or greatly reduced on-air programming in favor of NPR syndicated news/talk shows. Many listeners now get their music via the Internet from Pandora or Spotify. I don’t watch “American Idol,” “The Voice” or any of those shows, but from what I see in stories written about them jazz doesn’t exist. Likewise, the Grammys long ago exiled jazz off its performing stages (as well as blues, classical, Latin and anything else other than Top 40 pop).

What jazz needs most is supporters of any and all colors, ages, genders, ethnicity, sexual persuasion, religion, you name it. I certainly understand, appreciate and acknowledge the need for jazz’s heritage to be celebrated. Likewise, anyone claiming to be a fan of the music should understand its black roots and accept the fact that its most innovative figures (some would argue all) were black. I also fail to understand those who claim to be jazz fans, but don’t hear the impact and influence of the blues, a central and integral part of the jazz idiom.

But all that said, right now the music needs all the fans it can get. I’ve made my reluctant peace with the smooth jazz set, even though it makes me cringe when I hear someone say they’re a jazz fan, then the first name out of their mouth is Kenny G. Still, at least with someone like that, you might have a shot at getting them to listen to Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong by mentioning that there are many other great players from numerous eras they might also appreciate. That tactic may prove infinitely more successful than telling them they are ignorant, lack taste, or don’t really understand jazz (even if that’s true).

I’ve never bought the notion that pop instrumentalists or an occasional left-field hit from a major figure would expand jazz’s popularity. At various times people have claimed Ramsey Lewis, Grover Washington, Jr., Bobby McFerrin, Herbie Mann, Eddie Harris, Les McCann, or Norah Jones would recruit a new generation to jazz. It never happened. Jazz hasn’t been part of the pop equation since at least the ’70s. Actually, it started losing its popular appeal in the ‘60s, at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. Some even stretch it back to bop and the demise of the big bands. Whatever the case, expecting jazz to again regain mass popularity is foolish.

But what it can and must gain is more fans, and here attitude and strategy must be considered. Those who dismiss conventional radio’s importance baffle me, because even in the iPod age there’s still lots of folks who listen to it. I’m an Internet/satellite radio junkie, but it’s still good to have jazz on so-called “free” radio. Every time we lose a jazz station it’s another nail in the coffin.

Lastly, and most importantly, rather than constantly being on the attack, jazz fans should seek kindred souls. Whenever we find them, irrespective of the amount of knowledge and sophistication they have, they must be cultivated. It’s not like there’s an excess of jazz audience out there. Dismissing   somebody because they haven’t heard of Cannonball Adderley might make you feel hip, but it doesn’t do the music any good.

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on ArtNowNashville.com among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.