Sunday, May 17, 2015

The King is dead, long live the blues

BB King by Naiel Ibarrola

BB King has died, and it feels like the end of an era. There are artists who seem to have been "always there"; in King's case, he was already playing when my father was a toddler; when he released his first hit, "Three O'Clock Blues", Elvis was 16. He's also the last world-wide known bluesman to have come from the cotton fields of Mississippi, where he was born in 1925. He certainly is the last bandleader to have gone from playing the "chitlin' circuit" to packing the most select venues in the world.

It is the end of an era.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A couple of books about jazz in Spanish

Being one of the most spoken languages in the world, both in terms of people and geography, Spanish has a bibliography about jazz that would need libraries equipped with an ICU. And if we don't take translations into account, one shelf would do. A small one.

That is why it is so newsworthy that we have several new original works about jazz in Spanish, which may interest English-language readers. First of all, history professor and journalist Sergio A. Pujol has just published Oscar Alemán—La guitarra embrujada (Oscar AlemánThe Haunted Guitar, Planeta, Buenos Aires, Argentina), his biography of the great Oscar (stress on the last syllable, /osKAR/) Alemán, which promises to be a great read. Besides the author's proven abilities (he's the author of a history of jazz in Argentina, among other books), his subject, the guitar virtuoso Oscar Alemán (1909-1980) is vital to appreciate how early and far jazz travelled throughout the world (Alemán's heyday was as Josephine Baker's featured star in Paris, France), mainly as music for dancing, when record labels carried the title and the name of the dance that went with the music (like "stomp" or "fox trot").

You can go here for a wide-ranging sample of Alemán's music.

Argentinian paper Página 12 carries an excerpt of the book here.

The publisher's page for this book can be found here.

Some time ago I wrote this about other far and wide travels of jazz in the past.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hard bop repertory — a suggestion

(For Ira Gitler.)

The central position of hard bop in what is widely considered as the mainstream of jazz is an interesting phenomenon. It is paradoxical how despite its pervading presence, the lingua franca, thanks to the enormous recorded legacy, and even today, among students at music schools, there is very little literature about it. Whatever the reason, there are few biographies of musicians relevant to that genre — some don't amount to much more than listening guides —, but, for instance, no biography of Art Blakey! There's no definitive treaty of the music either (Rosenthal and Mathieson's books are clearly not enough), which, given that it would have to deal with African-American heritage more so than any other branch of jazz, it should be seriously considered by one or several scholars.

Going back to the first point, given the numbers of musicians who play in or around the hard-bop genre, among them many music students fresh out of schools, at least some of them must really like the music (in spite of all the cynicism by old farts who've seen it all). So here's my suggestion to those looking for a less-trodden path in that realm: why not explore Hank Mobley's compositions?

Hank Mobley at the Soul Station recording session, Sunday, February 7, 1960
(photography by Francis Wolff)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Recommended jazz recordings: a list of one


We are smack dab in the middle of Jazz Appreciation Month — pretty meaningless for some of us, but still a nice try at giving exposure to a sophisticated, exciting, and unlikely art form that cuts through class, racial and national considerations. In practical terms, this means events, photo-calls, blurbs, smiling faces... and lists of recordings. Of these we have many, past and present, and they tend to rely more on received wisdom and hype than on critical value — fine if you're OK with "this is great", but not so much if you need "this is great because...".

Besides, there's the wishfulness of recommending more than, say, five records to someone who's not really into jazz at all. With all the incredible stuff around us today, all kinds of music, books, films, TV... either physically or through the internet, an hour of undivided attention has become a luxury.

Because of that, and the fact that recommending anything above five records is an open door to political correctness (of all misconceptions about jazz, the one about its cultivated, unprejudiced listeners is the funniest) and, frankly, a way out for wimps, let's see if I can cut through all that background noise by telling you one (1) jazz album you should have.

It won't be anything by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, or John Coltrane. Those are extraordinary musicians, genres unto themselves, which are not representative of jazz. Say what? No, they're not. Go for any of those by all means, but don't think for a second that the rest of "jazz" is at the same level as the best of their recorded works; bear in mind their excellence and avoid future disappointments. And although many wouldn't admit this, you wouldn't be alone if your first impressions are that Kind of Blue is too slow, or Giant Steps is too overpowering (and don't get me wrong, those are masterpieces).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

RIP Juan Claudio Cifuentes, 'Cifu' (1941-2015)

(For once, this entry is not a parallel translation of its Spanish sister)

After all the arguments and bickering — which, yes, it's better than many other things, but we could do without most of it, really — there is something about intense music fandom, including jazz, that benefits your health. Case in point would be the dean of Spanish jazz commentators, Cifu who, even as a septuagenarian and having survived two cancers, never lost the enthusiasm for the music. I would introduce him to new, unknown, talent with zero commercial value, and, if he liked it, he would push it harder than Samson in the temple. Last time we spoke, it was about Gigi Gryce and his looking forward to doing a series of programmes with the complete recordings of Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five. We never got around to finishing it.

Cifu by Jaime Massieu, October 2014

Cifu is how friends called Juan Claudio Cifuentes de Benito, who's died earlier today, having suffered a stroke last week. He was husband, father, grandfather, friend... but for a gigantic amount of people in Spain and beyond he was the face and voice of jazz, judging from the reaction in social media (and he didn't even like computers).

Monday, March 16, 2015

Carmelo Bustos at 90 and the sax in Chile

In Chilean jazz, there are two ruling instruments. As expected, the guitar is one, not only for its prevalence in 20th century popular music, but for it's standing in folk and other local musics (think Violeta Parra and Víctor Jara).

The other one is the saxophone. That happens everywhere in jazz, yes, but in Chile it goes way past the average. Besides shooting stars like the tragic Alfredo Espinoza (Valparaíso, 1942), the younger generations are astonishing. Melissa Aldana may have taken a lot of headline space lately, and deservedly so—not just for winning the Thelonious Monk competition—, but there is much more to Chilean saxophone. One of my first impressions in Chile was seeing Franz Mesko (Santiago, 1989), barely 20 at the time, tearing it up on tenor at a jam session in the old Club de Jazz de Santiago. Besides, or before, rather, a salient feature of these musicians is their attention to language. To wit, this recent video of Agustín Moya (Santiago, 1981).



Don't take it from me. None other than Loren Schoenberg, saxophonist and über-expert on Lester Young approves, and rather enthusiastically at that, of Moya's playing. And don't be mistaken, Moya is his own man, with three albums of original compositions under his belt.

More names to take into account: Claudio Rubio (Santiago, 1976), a keen student of Lennie Tristano, as he proves here (and a surprisingly funny guy to boot). And to keep things short, Andrés Pérez and Cristian Gallardo (both Santiago, 1983), either together as the front line of Contracuarteto, or in their separate projects, of which Gallardo's first album, Sin Permiso, less-than-perfect-sound and all, is a keeper.


Let this rather long introduction serve as a long drum roll to introduce a man without whom there wouldn't be such a rich tradition of the saxophone in Chile: Carmelo Bustos, who is 90 today.

Carmelo Bustos (left) and Marcos Aldana

Monday, March 2, 2015

Steve Brown & Guillermo Bazzola

STEVE BROWN & GUILLERMO BAZZOLA
Una Pequeña Alegría
Brown Cats Productions (BC9508)

Guillermo Bazzola, Steve Brown (g).

Recorded on April 8, 2013. TT: 58:36

This record, "A Little Joy", is the latest by Steve Brown and Guillermo Bazzola, an unlikely duo of pares inter pares (the notes don't state who plays what) for its great gaps in age — rare but irrelevant — and geography: Brown is based in Ithaca, NY, whereas Bazzola lives in Madrid, Spain. Perhaps for this reason this was recorded as in olden times, in one day.

The guitar duo has a long tradition in jazz, but it's a tricky format. There's the sameness in sound, even with imaginative arrangements, and the unavoidable technical pyrotechnics. In this instance, the first notes here are not really promising: both guitars are close in timbre, a rather conventional clean jazz sound, and the tune is a bossa nova, a trap that can be either beautiful or terribly inconsequential.

Although pretty and with a certain weight, like many first tunes at live gigs, the opening "Caminhos Cruzados" (a Jobim song) works well but it's not representative of this record; the other bossa, "Esencia" (by Spanish pianist Alberto Conde) is played with more verve. It is with the second track, "Los Mareados" ("The Dizzy Ones"), where Brown and Bazzola do get down to business. This is an old tango brought to the session by Argentinian Bazzola, and its theme is performed with sensitivity and elegance. This a highlight of the record together with the other tango of the session, "Nada" ("Nothing"), whose beautiful melody is framed by the minute rhythmic nuances, the way the comping guitar falls ever so slightly behind the beat.