Jazz Plus: Nashville’s indispensable Ron Wynn introduces his new jazz and blues column

This week marks the debut of Jazz Plus, a weekly column covering predominantly jazz and blues, but also sometimes touching on R&B, soul and gospel. This will be a mix of reviews, interviews, commentary, and miscellaneous material. The midpoint of each month will include reviews of international/world music releases.

CD  Reviews

Across The Imaginary Divide
Béla Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio
(Rounder)
marcusFleck, the finest improviser currently active on banjo, joins with sometimes revivalist pianist Marcus Roberts for a session that’s anything but a thematic step backward. The program’s completely original, with Fleck and Roberts splitting compositional duties almost evenly (Roberts six, Fleck five and one joint venture). Aside from the finale “That Ragtime Feeling,” where Roberts revisits his Joplin leanings and Fleck intersperses Scruggs-like answering refrains, they push the music ahead for either lush (“Some Roads Lead Home,” “The Sunshine and the Moonlight,” “Across The Imaginary Divide”) or intense conversations (“Let Me Show You What To Do,” “Kalimba,” “That Old Thing.”). Bassist Rodney Jordan’s use of space and nicely focused rhythmic underpinning, plus Jason Marsalis’ steady, imaginative drumming, are bonuses in a quartet session that never becomes predictable, tedious or dreary.

Into The Air
Jeff Coffin & The Mu’Tet
(Ear Up)

coffinThe Mu’Tet’s paired down to quintet size for this latest excursion, whose leanings are more populist than anticipated. Soul-jazz, fusion (in its best sense) and even jazz-rock are the idioms explored on a 10-song date that includes humorous works (“8 Bit Goggles,” “Backin’ Up”) alongside sentimental pieces (“Beautiful Flower”). But neither the jam session environment nor occasional romantic leanings negate Coffin’s characteristic hard blowing tenor, alto and soprano sax solos, nor the edgy accompaniment provided from his corps unit that includes Bill Fanning (trumpet/flugelhorn), Keff Burbridge (unusual keyboard/flute double), Felix Pastorius (electric bass) and Jeff Sipe (drums). Coffin, who also handled production duties, adds intriguing contributions on a range of instruments both known (bass clarinet on “U Don’t Say”) and unknown ( eventide eclipse harmonizer on “Slow Glass” and “8 Bit Goggles, Q-tron envelope filter on “Ride (redux)”). Other special guests are guitarist Lionel Loueke, who brings some funk, soul and verbal forays to “Lucky 13” and “Loueke,” plus percussionists Caleb Mitchell and Gavin Knight.

Show of Strength
Michael Burks
(Alligator)

burksSadly, Michael Burks was just hitting his stride as a player and composer when he passed away last May, only a few weeks before his 55th birthday. What was intended to be a showcase release now also serves as a final testament to his powers as a vocalist, dynamic bandleader and accompanist, and outstanding contemporary blues songwriter. He could pen either assertive pieces (“What Does It Take To Please You”) or introspective ones (“Take A Chance On Me Baby,” “Since I Been Loving You,”). Burks also modified or accelerated his leads to fit the occasion. Guest Scott Dirks’ biting harmonica lines fortifies “Little Juke Joint,” while his backing band of organist/keyboardist Wayne Sharp, bassist Terrence Grayson and drummer Chuck “Popcorn” Louden ably push or assist him on other top numbers like “Storm Warning,” “Valley of Tears” and the masterful finale “Feel Like Going Home.” Burks was unconcerned with whether he was a “star,” but he was clearly among the finest players in his generation. His death was a huge loss, but “Show of Strength” provides a worthy last recording.

Mary Lou Williams – The Next 100 Years
Virgina Mayhew Quartet
(Renma)

marylouwilliamscdMary Lou Williams ranked among jazz’s premier composers and pianists, and this 2010 date (just recently released) celebrated what was then her centennial. Thankfully, it was neither a somber occasion nor one where the players were primarily concerned with communicating the bare essence of her tunes. Instead, it is a joyous workout that honors the spirit of Williams’ accomplishments while letting the musicians put their stamp on every number. That’s certainly the case with five pieces that feature trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, a marvel on uptempo minor blues “Medi II,” a vintage swing era standard (“What’s Your Story, Morning Glory”) and a Mayhew tribute number (“5 For Mary Lou.”) Besides astonishing speed and range, he’s a master with the plunger, and superb during choruses and exchanges. Mayhew has a full, rich tenor sound that can be tart, engaging or fierce, and guitarist Ed Cherry, bassist Harvie S and drummer Andy Watson make an ideal rhythm tandem.

Music book review of the week
The Fan Who Knew Too Much – Aretha Franklin, the rise of the Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church, and Other Meditations
By Tony Heilbut
(Knopf)

fanAuthor and record producer Tony Heilbut’s landmark ’70s volume “The Gospel Sound” was a definitive examination of that music’s vital legacy, particularly in terms of its impact on American culture as a whole, and the black community in particular. But Heilbut, the holder of a doctorate from Harvard in English and a scholar in many other areas, really comes out firing in his newest work. It’s a book that covers a host of interests and takes aim at some major targets, both secular and theological. The Fan Who Knew Too Much profiles with verve and opinionated flamboyance gospel and blues vocalists, European writers and intellectuals, radio soap opera actors and network moguls. The main theme linking these subjects: much of what people think they know about cultural phenomenon is inaccurate, incomplete, and in many cases misguided and twisted.

Both his opening and closing sections,  “All God’s Sons and Daughters” and “The Fans Who Knew Too Much” respectively, attack homophobia within the church and gospel communities, skewering the rampant hypocrisy that has kept Gay and Lesbian performers in the closet for decades. Heilbut doesn’t hesitate to name names, cite details, and offer ample proof of his contentions. He peels back the covers on a world where many of the most passionate and deeply religious people have been forced to hide their true identities. As an insider who’s produced award-winning albums by some of the music’s greatest singers, as well as a confidant and friend to numerous gospel greats, Heilbut’s testimony is a powerful counter to the harsh, anti-Gay rhetoric emanating so often from sanctuaries and pulpits.

The middle section “Not Quite At Home” mixes literary and political criticism with a wide-ranging look at the bygone world of radio soap opera. How much interest readers have in this portion will depend on their fondness for the subject matter. Heilbut’s analysis of Jewish and other ethnic writers backgrounds, family life, philosophies, etc. is thorough in these sections. He traces the roots of neoconservatism among Jewish intellectuals one moment, and dissects Thomas Mann’s prose the next. Likewise, you’ll seldom read a more exacting discussion on radio soap opera, the backgrounds of its stars and writers, or its reach into the culture. Heilbut’s preference leans more toward the radio version, where the audience’s imagination was stimulated by vocal dexterity and writer ability rather than the physical attributes of the performers championed by the television shows. Today, daytime soap opera is almost dead. Both ABC and NBC are down to one show apiece, and CBS is the network leader with a mere two (neither Fox nor the CW ever got into the daytime arena).

Still, it’s Heilbut’s reporting and commentary on gospel music that makes his work so valuable to music fans, even though that’s far from its only virtue. Anthony Heilbut’s impressive knowledge – and his stunning ability to relay it in an appealing manner– makes The Fan Who Knew Too Much a delight.

Commentary
barberCatching Rahsaan Barber’s Everyday Magic group at the Jazz Cave recently, I was once again struck by how much the Nashville Jazz Workshop goes unappreciated by the national jazz press. While it has certainly gotten its fair share of local publicity (and deservedly so), it should have been the featured story in one of the national publications’ education issues long ago. The job Lori Mechem and Roger Spencer have done, both in putting together a curriculum and faculty, and in presenting regular high caliber concerts, would be an impressive one in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans, or any other place with a long track record of jazz achievement. It’s even more amazing when you consider it’s happening in Nashville. While the Music City jazz legacy is far more extensive than many realize, this wouldn’t be the first city that rolls off anyone’s lips when the subject comes to improvisational fare.

Barber’s ability and willingness to be a marketer as well as a musician is also a trait that needs to be more widely duplicated across the land. I don’t think in Nashville we have too many musicians who aren’t interested in communicating with audiences, but that has historically been a problem within the jazz world. While being fully supportive of the notion jazz is a great artistic idiom and its musicians deserve the same praise and stature as their classical counterparts, I don’t know many jazz players who want exclusion and isolation to also be part of the deal. That’s the other great thing about Barber and every band I’ve ever seen at the Jazz Cave. They enjoy playing for audiences, and it shows in their music.

I’m under no illusions jazz will ever be what it was from the 20s until the ’50s, a major part of the popular music fabric. Given what’s happened to the music industry and who controls the airwaves these days, that might not be such a bad thing. But there’s always room to grow the music, and always new people out there who can become jazz fans. It’s good to see modern-day jazz players able and willing to be recruiters without doing anything to subvert or distort the values that have made jazz special throughout its history.

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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.