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Wining Spins By George Kanzler
Three disparate poles of the jazz vocal spectrum are represented in the pair that comprises this Winning Spins. On The Royal Bopsters Project, the tradition of the vocal group, which goes all the way back to earliest jazz and boasts exemplars in every era from the Roaring 20s through the Swing Era, bebop and beyond, is intertwined with the vocalese tradition and scatting: singing lyrics or improvising wordless vocals either to, or to emulate, instrumental improvisation.
Another aspect of jazz vocals, the singer-songwriter (presaged by vocalese singer-writers), has grown prominent in more recent decades, as singers have looked beyond the classic standards or pop songs of their day to create their own material. Carmen Lundy, who has been largely writing her own original music since emerging on the scene in the late 1970s, is represented with one of her strongest discs to date.
The Royal Bopsters Project, London, Meader, Pramuk & Ross (Motema), melds the vocal group harmonies and delivery of the quartet of Amy London, Darmon Meader, Dylan Pramuk and Holli Ross (LMP&R) with five pioneers of modern jazz vocalese and vocalizing: Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Sheila Jordan, Annie Ross and Bob Dorough.
The CD, originally conceived by London—who co-produced it with Meader—as a tribute to/showcase for her friend and inspiration, Mark Murphy, has become a paean to not only Murphy and the other guest Royal Bopsters, but also to the spirit of bebop-inspired vocalese and vocal groups like the Hi-Los, Four Freshman, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and Manhattan Transfer.
All four LMP&R members contributed vocal background, additional lyrics and new vocalese lyrics to the songs on the album and the results are terrific, especially in rejuvenating new versions of Royal Bopsters standbys like Murphy’s take of Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay (On the Red Clay).” Hendricks, wisely, sticks to scatting on his vocalese rendition of Gigi Gryce’s “Wildwood (Music in the Air),” ceding the lyrics to the vocal quartet.
Jordan delivers a poignant interpretation of Silver’s “Peace” with surprising fluidity, cushioned by the quartet’s horn-like backgrounds.
Annie Ross employs parlando to speak-sing “Music is Forever,” her rollcall of jazz immortals, while London does her proud in voicing her lyrics on “Let’s Fly” in an ebullient quartet finale.
The quartet also enhances a hip Dorough rendering of his “Nothing Like You Has Ever Been Seen Before” which he originally recorded with Miles Davis. London contributes new vocalese lyrics to Charlie Parker’s “Chasin’ the Bird (Bird Chasin’),” with Murphy replicating his innovation on his classic Bop for Kerouac LP by reciting from On the Road.
Also not to be missed are the vocal quartet’s takes on Gryce’s “Basheer’s Dream (Basheer, The Snake and the Mirror);” Holli Ross’ vocalese lyrics and vocal group tour-de-force on Roger Kellaway’s “Just Step Right Up,” and Meader’s irresistible “Invitation.”
Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross, Bob Dorough, Sheila Jordan and Andy Bey joining London, Meader, Pramuk & Ross are at Birdland Sept. 15-19 to celebrate the release of The Royal Bopsters Project.
Coming next Carmen Lundy’s Soul to Soul.
Marion Cowings: Storytelling with Song By Seton Hawkins
A performance by master vocalist Marion Cowings could feature anything from hard-driving blues to gorgeously soul-drenched jazz ballads. If you’re not sure which side of Cowings you’re about to see, look to his hat. A white, wide-brimmed chapeau, guarantees a blues performance in which Cowings shows off his ample pipes with a sound that draws equal parts from Joe Williams and Jimmy Reed. In alternate headgear, Cowings transforms his performances to a classic jazz sound that amply demonstrates his love of musical storytelling while highlighting his magnificent baritone voice as well as a rhythmic and lyrical suppleness that recalls his youthful training with the legendary Jon Hendricks.
To be sure, Cowings boasts a musical versatility that few artists can match. However, he’s also trying his hardest to bring the competition up to speed by serving as a vocal teacher dedicated to training the newer generations of singers to effectively lead bands, find their unique styles and infuse their performances with the notion of musical storytelling.
Born in the Bronx to a shopkeeper and a schoolteacher, Cowings began singing at an early age and found himself in a one-of-a-kind professional debut: singing for Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Copland’s “Second Hurricane.” “I was very fortunate to have had such doors opened for me,” Cowings recalls. “Bernstein was effusive and ebullient. He was interested in what we were doing—he was, to my surprise, a snappy dresser for a classical musician!—and he showed me from an early age the importance of properly conducting a band.”
As his singing career progressed throughout his teens, Cowings encountered a watershed moment discovering the music of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and would ultimately become a star protégé of Jon Hendricks. “When I first listened to the group I thought it was the most astounding thing I’d ever heard,” he explains. “I began memorizing all of their music and copied it in my own performances. One day I got a call from Jon Hendricks who said he wanted to meet me! Then it really started!” The young Cowings undoubtedly impressed the elder musician, as shortly afterwards he joined the group as the replacement for Dave Lambert.
Although Cowings moved into R&B performances during the 1960s, he ultimately wound his way back to jazz and, in the process, increasingly found himself drawn toward teaching. Having been mentored by master artists, Cowings saw an opportunity and need to pass along the lessons he learned. Slowly but surely, he codified a pedagogical style that all vocalists can apply to their work.
“Unfortunately, today’s music schools are graduating many students without properly preparing them for the real world,” he says. “It’s a real problem because singers, for all our missteps, are the ones who hire the instrumentalists! So if singers don’t have the tools to conduct the band, this will fall apart. All skills and ranges of singers need to know how to lead a band, so we can interact meaningfully. That’s why I began teaching and I hope it may be my legacy.”
Central to Cowings’ methodology is the notion of storytelling in song and he places particular emphasis on internalizing lyrics by speaking them conversationally. “Americans are eclectic in our musical tastes and we embrace many styles,” he notes. “We often get caught up in considering what style we want to perform in, and so I try to get singers to go inside the lyrics and practice them as speech. This draws the words away from the rhythm of the music and into a natural pattern. When you do that, you develop a unique interpretation of the song, your own fingerprint, and it allows you to find your own style and not simply copy others.”
For Cowings, the ability to embrace a unique style and tell a story is the crucial factor in becoming a successful vocalist. “The most frustrating thing as a performer is when nobody listens to you,” he explains. “And that’s on the singer. You can have the greatest outfit, the greatest technique, the greatest vibrato, but if you don’t get across the footlights telling stories, you’ll walk away knowing you didn’t get to them. I want to help singers reach the audience.”
Marion Cowings offers a vocal masterclass every Sunday at 1 p.m. at Smalls Jazz Club. He is also be at the Steve Getz Music Hall Sep. 18.
Not to be missed next: Chuck Redd celebrating his mentor.
Another Reason to Celebrate By Elzy kolb
Listening to pianist Orrin Evans’ new release The Evolution of Oneself (Smoke Sessions) could be compared to turning the pages of a family photo album. It contains tunes written for loved ones such as his 90-year-old godmother (“Ruby Red”) and a mentor Sid Simmons (“Sweet Sid”), two compositions inspired by his son Miles (“For Miles” and “Tsagli’s Lean”), along with vocal contributions from his wife, singer Dawn Warren Evans, and an electronic track provided by his son Matthew.
Even the personnel is personal. Evans has deep connections with bassist Christian McBride: “We’ve played with the idea of doing something together for 20 years;” and Karriem Riggins: “We moved to New York together; we were roommates. We hadn’t talked in years until we reconnected on Facebook.”
“Everything is composed for or about people in my life,” Evans says. “That’s what fuels my music, the people I came through this life with, as you go through the seasons of your life. Everyone in your life doesn’t go through all of these seasons with you, but they’re still there, part of your evolution, and this is how I recognize them.”
Evans predicts one tune on the CD will surprise some listeners: “Wildwood Flower,” written by country music icons the Carter Family. “I’m open with who I am as a person, about my history, as a man, as an African American, I talk about it a lot. This will keep people guessing; it’s the last thing they expect from me—a country tune. Just when you think you know me, I throw one at ’em!” However, the song wasn’t chosen to provoke; once again, there’s a deeply personal link to the music. “Drummer Matt Wilson introduced ‘Wildwood Flower’ to me; I fell in love with it and I wanted to do it. It was his wife Felicia’s favorite. He lost her just over a year ago,” Evans explains.
The album also contains some nonstandard arrangements of the standards “Autumn Leaves” and “All the Things You Are.” According to Evans, “The goal was to see what else we can do with the songs. When I first got into music, a lot of bands had a formula when you saw them live; that’s not my thing. I grew up in theater, so I was used to having a show have a form. What drew me to jazz is it didn’t have to have the same form every night. There are still familiar tunes I like to play, but reharmonizing, rearranging them gives me the opportunity to try them out a different way.”
Join Evans in celebrating the release of The Evolution of Oneself at Smoke on Sept. 10-13 with Luques Curtis on bass and Clarence Penn on drums, plus special guests each night, such as Antonio Hart, Steve Wilson and Mark Whitfield. Though the players are different from on the CD, “We’ll be respectful to the vibe, to the direction the trio’s going, to the tunes and to the idea of evolution.”
Hot flashes By seton Hawkins
Musician-Club Owners Corner
Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona has never been one to adhere to expectations. A first-call collaborator to a dizzying array of artists, including Manu Dibango, Salif Keita, Larry Coryell, Mike Stern, Bobby McFerrin and Branford Marsalis, Bona has consistently defied genre conventions in his music, drawing instead on a massive array of styles and applying them in unique fusions with a ferocious bass technique that many liken to Jaco Pastorius. Now, as he prepares to launch his namesake venue Club Bonafide, Bona intends to apply his lifetime of innovative thinking to revolutionizing the club scene.
Bona views the club as an opportunity to present an improved business arrangement for performing artists. “As musicians we are missing something,” he explains. “We compose, we write and we create music, but when it comes time to sell it, we give it to someone else. And if we do that, we own nothing. This has been bad for us: costs have tripled and quadrupled since I came to New York 21 years ago, but salaries for musicians have not gone up. I went to a club to see a friend release his record and I found out that he had to pay $600 to even play in the club! When I saw that, I thought ‘Why must every cost go up, but artists’ fees go down?’ So I considered how we can get out of that, and I decided to create a club where the musicians can make money playing, where they can sell their CDs and get 100% of the revenue. I want to do something different and I believe we can run a club where everybody can make money.”
Taking over the site once occupied by the Somethin’ Jazz Club, Bona now prepares for the opportunity to present new solutions to the industry and bring a much-needed respect to artists.
On the horizon, Bona envisions increased outreach for the venue through subscription-based streaming services, the profits of which can be given to the performing artists. Additionally, he views the club as a vehicle for reigniting an openness within venues both by doing away with exclusivity clauses and by looking to instill a more genre-blind booking. In this way, Bona hopes to encourage a celebration of live music and an environment of collaboration that he views as crucial to building a scene. “Charlie Parker was performing on 52nd Street every night,” he notes. “And that’s part of what made him great. The artists have to be able to perform, and it helps no one if a great musician can only play in New York at a major club maybe three times a year.”
To be sure, opening a new place anywhere is a risky endeavor, and particularly so in New York; however, Bona does not view it that way, and counters that new thinking and a focus on artist ownership are paramount to success. So far, preview events at the club are extremely promising, as the beautiful space boasts a dedicated listening area with outstanding sound equipment and an exciting set of artists on the horizon. Bona’s vision offers an enticing picture of a quality venue that can properly serve and celebrate artists, one that with luck could inspire other establishments to follow suit.
Richard Bona performs at Club Bonafide Sept. 9-11. Learn more about the club at www.clubbonafide.com.
Latin Side of Hot House By Emilie Pons
Carlos Henriquez returns to the Bronx
Jazz at Lincoln Center’s bass player Carlos Henriquez is about to perform in the Bronx, his home borough. “It’s a great feeling to be able to head back home to the Bronx. I’ve never left the Bronx,” Henriquez says. “I still have family in the Bronx, friends. My association with the Bronx is the closest thing to Jazz at Lincoln Center right now.” The concert will feature music from The Bronx Pyramid, Henriquez’s new album―with the collaboration of Ruben Blades, vocals; Bobby Allende, percussions; and Ali Jackson, drums, among many―which comes out on Sept. 18. Special guests to the show include Allende and percussionist Marc Quiñones.
Wynton Marsalis, one of Henriquez’s mentors, will also be a guest. Henriquez started playing with Marsalis when he was about 15 or 16. “Working with him has taught me so much,” he explains. “How to be a professional, how to put things together, how to make decisions, how to sacrifice in life. Knowing that with patience, things come, and giving a lot of respect to the music, which is the main thing.”
In 2010, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra recorded the album Live in Cuba, with the label Blue Engine Records and Henriquez was music director. “Sometimes the music director is the one that did the arrangements and in this case, for the Sept. 12 show, I am writing and arranging all the pieces,” the bassist explains. “The music director has to make sure that everything goes right: he’s basically the captain of the ship.”
Henriquez feels close to percussion players, “especially the congas, just because the bass itself is an extension of the congas, especially in Latin music,” he explains. “And in African music, the bass is a very powerful instrument―not the string bass, but the function of anything that’s a bass or the foundation of the music is very powerful.”
Henriquez’s talent and expertise also stem from his teenage apprenticeship alongside the most important Latin performers: Celia Cruz, Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente. Their professionalism is what Henriquez has learned from the most. “They were showmen, entertainers and musicians who were really powerful on stage,” he recalls. “And musically, they knew what they were doing. They knew what they wanted.”
Respecting mentors has always been one of Henriquez’s trademarks. “I met so many great bass players at a young age that I was able to fall in love with the instrument very fast,” he remembers. Some of those luminaries are Victor Venegas and Joe Santiago, who played with Mario Bauza and many other great bands. Henriquez also looks up to the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Count Basie band and Mel Lewis’ band.
Henriquez would love to play with Pat Metheny, Roy Haynes and Keith Jarrett, but he is also aware that balance is necessary to a touring musician’s life. It’s good to try and “make as much money as you can,” he says, but also to spend time at home. “It’s a fun life, but very heavy on decision making.”
Bassist Carlos Henriquez and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform on Sept. 12 at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts.
Bridge Crossings By Cary Tone
Saxophonist and composer Ole Mathisen has more than 100 recordings as a sideman to his credit. In 2009 Mathisen received the New Jazz Works Grant from Chamber Music America with the group FFEAR, and in 2013 his composition, “Tone Poem: The Mind’s Eye Inverted,” was read by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Mathisen is the Assistant Director of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program at Columbia University, where he also teaches saxophone and directs ensembles. He has a new recording whith his Outlier Ensemble called 7 Seconds to Sundown.
What would you be doing if you weren’t playing music?
I was pretty nerdy growing up―doing science projects and practicing my saxophone when my friends went to parties. So I probably would have become a chemist, like my Dad. I talk about this in the liner notes to my album, Periodic Table, which I dedicate to him.
One gig or recording of yours you can’t shake?
Two years ago my band, Outlier Ensemble, with Julian Pollack and Marko Djordjevic performed at the Nublu Jazz Festival. Nublu doesn’t have a lot of seating so the audience was standing around the bandstand. We had a ferocious gig and the audience was dancing! They weren’t dancing to the beat exactly, but more to the phrasing and shape of our lines. It was probably one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve ever had playing music and it was encouraging to connect on this level, as “danceable” is not the first adjective that comes to mind when hearing my music.
Favorite place in the world to play, public or private?
I favor playing anywhere, period, but Porgy and Bess in Vienna and The Cotton Club in Tokyo are great venues.
What sort of intelligence do you think playing, appreciating jazz requires?
Just being open to exploring sound.
What do you know today that you didn’t know ten years ago?
That microtonal playing is a lot of fun! And that I really enjoy teaching.
Is jazz music a political statement?
Don’t know if jazz is political in and of itself. However, like all forms of art, it can certainly be used to highlight injustice and draw attention to political issues. My new album, 7 Seconds to Sundown, is a rallying cry to tend to the environmental difficulties facing the planet. Not releasing this album on a label or involving any of the download or streaming sites could be construed as a political statement as well. It certainly is a commentary on the state of the music industry today, but also one of simple arithmetic. If I were to go through the usual channels, my effort and investment would most likely go up in smoke.
More musical ideas come to you from dreams or the news of the day?
Most musical ideas come from external sources, things I’ve read and experienced etc., but recently I had a dream that I attended an orchestra concert. The music sounded awesome to me and I still remembered it vividly when I woke up so I decided to try to recreate it, and ended up writing and orchestrating the piece pretty much as I recalled it. I even kept the ridiculous title from my dream: “Bicycle”!
Why did you relocate to NYC, was it your first stop in the U.S., was it the right move, why?
I moved to Boston to attend Berklee right after graduating high school in Norway, the reason being that I was not accepted into the only conservatory jazz program in Norway at the time. I got upset and wanted to leave. I stayed in Boston for nine years. It was a wonderful period of growth for me and I ended up working a lot with one of my mentors and all-time favorite drummers, Rakalam Bob Moses. An impetus for moving to NYC was a call I received in the early 90s to come play a recording session with Omar Hakim (of Weather Report at the time), Darryl Jones (from Miles Davis’ group) and Hiram Bullock. We even recorded a tune I had co-composed. Not only that; while in the studio that day, Mike Mainieri (of Steps Ahead) called to get together for a meeting! I thought, ‘Wow okay, New York is definitely the place to be!’ This was the first and the last day I felt on top of the world. That said, moving to New York was the right thing to do.
Was there a teacher or mentor who told you something about music that you’ve never forgotten?
Bob Mintzer let me know that my sources of inspiration were too few and too narrow in scope. Sometimes it takes a person you really respect to set you straight. Joe Viola advised me to think of my sound as a blue balloon swaying gently! I’m still contemplating that one. He also said, maybe the world is waiting for you. Maybe it is the word “maybe” that is holding me back!
What do you struggle with in your creative life?
What I’m trying to do with my current group is to break down the traditional soloist/rhythm section relationship, as I’m jealous of the intimacy you find within a piano trio. As Julian, Marko, and I operate on very similar wavelengths, this is getting more attainable; and since Julian also plays synth bass, we still retain the sonic possibilities and variety of a quartet. It becomes a continuous dance between the instruments and the written material, which we are referencing constantly.
Your favorite or most important recording of yours to you?
The last one is probably always going to be the most important, as being a jazz musician and composer is about growing and deepening your expression. On 7 Seconds to Sundown, the music is presented to the musicians as classical writing. There are no chord changes or vamps like one would normally find as vehicles for improvisation. Periodic Table with Tony Moreno, Kenny Wessel, and Francois Moutin is also important to me. I believe we did something unique as the melodies and bass lines are placed within different ratios to the original tempo, much like Canlon Nancarrow’s music.
What’s the last truly great piece of music you listened to live or recorded?
I experienced a truly mesmerizing performance in Central Park by Ensemble LPR and Simone Dinnerstein, performing the 23rd Mozart piano concerto. Georg Friedrich Haas’ premiere of his string quartet No. 8 with the JACK quartet at Miller Theatre is a strong second.
Your favorite musician of all-time? Your favorite playing or composing today?
John Coltrane hands down! Wayne Shorter and Henry Threadgill are two of my favorite artists working today. Both have a unique and complete artistic expression in my opinion.
What are a few pieces of music that made you the person or musician you are today?
“Quartet for the End of Time,” Olivier Messiaen; “Doin’ It Again,” David Liebman; “Oceanus,” Ralph Towner; “Every Day (I Thank You),” Pat Metheny; “Quartet No. 2,” Chick Corea.
You’re having a dinner party and can invite three musicians. Who would they be?
If they could be from the past, I would invite Charlie Rouse, Jim Pepper and George Adams. They are three of my favorite tenor players, but people I know very little about.
Ole Mathisen’s Outlier Ensemble celebrates the release of 7 Seconds to Sundown, on Sept. 3 at Spectrum.