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The music of the last half century is literally built on master Ron Carter’s supple and syncopated basslines. As the Guinness Book of World Records confirmed, he’s the most recorded jazz bassist in history, with more than two thousand recordings with everybody from Eric Dolphy, Jim Hall and Freddie Hubbard, to Antonio Carlos Jobim, Grover Washington Jr. and the rap group, A Tribe Called Quest. From 1963 to 1968, Carter was a member of Miles Davis’ celebrated second quintet with Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock. He also has many albums as a leader, including Blues Farm Spanish Blue, Peg Leg, The Golden Striker and his latest, My Personal Songbook, recorded in Germany with the WDR Big Band.
So what is the secret of Carter’s swinging success? “I try to do a few things every time my bass comes out of my case,” Carter says. “One: I always try to have a good sound, a sound that’s my sound. Two: I try to be professional, that means getting to work on time, keeping my instrument in tune. Three: have the feeling that I belong [at the gig]. And four is to be everybody’s friend.”
Carter’s professionalism, superior sound and work ethic will be on full display as he celebrates his 79th birthday on May 4 with a week at the Blue Note showcasing his nonet, quartet and his Golden Striker Trio.
“The nonet is my sound library,” Carter says. “It consists of four cellists, Donald Vega on piano, Payton Crossley on drums, Rolando Morales-Matos on percussion and marimba, Boots Maleson on bass and me on piccolo bass, which is tuned a fourth higher than a regular bass. The quartet will be Irene [Renee] Rosnes on piano, Morales-Matos and Crossley. And the trio features Vega and Russell Malone on guitar, and its patterned after the classic trios without drums, like Ahmad Jamal’s and Oscar Peterson’s trios. My [compositional and arranging] imprint is all over the place.”
The set list at the Blue Note is sure to include selections from My Personal Songbook, which features the full range of Carter’s canon, from “Eight,” featuring his Miles Davis-mooded, 4/4 number; his ethereal ballad, “Doom Mood;” “Blues for D.P.,” Carter’s tribute to composer Duke Pearson; and the bouncy, bossa-samba selection “Ah, Rio.”
Carter made his most commercially successful recordings for the CTI label, which, much to the chagrin of the jazz critics, released a string of well-produced, elegantly designed LPs that were structured with the grammar of jazz, but spoke to the larger crossover audience, as evidenced by the R&B, Latin and gospel tinges of Carter’s canonic Blues Farm, Spanish Blue and All Blues.
“Most of us who were a part of that musical time were dismayed that other jazz labels didn’t see fit to monitor the processes we were going through at that time,” he says. “They didn’t borrow from the ideas the label was championing at the time—to great success I might add.”
The source of Carter’s musical openness and prowess emanates from his hometown, Detroit, where he graduated from the famous Cass Technical High School, which produced dozens of jazz greats from Gerald Wilson to Geri Allen to Regina Carter.
“All of the high schools in Detroit had great programs,” he says. “Cass Tech is probably the most renowned of them all, but Northeastern, Northern High School… they all had great musical operations going on in the schools: marching bands, dance troupes, opera societies, orchestras. They had full-fledged music programs.”
Ever since Carter arrived in New York in 1959, buoyed by his superior Detroit musical education, and augmented by his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Eastman School of Music and Manhattan School of Music, he’s reigned as the bassist supreme, and he shows no signs of slowing down. On May 9, he’ll receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Gallery and he will serve as Artist-in-Residence for the Detroit Jazz Festival.
“They invited me to present my groups that represent my thoughts,” he says of his hometown festival. “So the first night is the nonet. The second night is the quartet. The third night it’s the trio. And on the fourth night, which is Labor Day, the Great Big Band from New York comes in. And I’m excited because all of the guys who made my original record, with Bob Freeman doing the arrangements, are going to be in the band… it’s kind of overwhelming.” As is his stellar six-decade career!
Ron Carter performs with his nonet, quartet and trio for his 79th birthday celebration at the Blue Note May 3 through 8.
Photo credit: Fran Kaufman
Since moving to New York City from Southern California in 1998, Cecilia Coleman has humbly formed a singular identity as a composer, bandleader and educator whose understanding of the jazz lexicon manifests in an artistic statement that is attributed equally to her name and the names of her heroes.
Coleman started playing piano when she was five, but it wasn’t until high school that she began pursuing jazz in earnest. “I found that I was good at the pop feel, which was different from the kids who were trained classically,” she says. “In high school, we had a very good jazz band and the teacher was very supportive.”
After graduating from high school, Coleman enrolled at Cal State Long Beach where she studied with vibraphonist Charlie Shoemake. “I studied the transcriptions of everybody: all the real staples. And so after stopping [her studies] with Charlie, I still to this day, love to transcribe. I still love to sit and figure out what people are doing,” Coleman says.
Shoemake played a key role at the beginning of Coleman’s career, hiring her for gigs and bringing her in for recording sessions: “There’s a picture of me with Phil Woods at the rehearsal for the recording and I was playing piano,” she said of a recording date with Shoemake. She graduated in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in music. Soon after, Coleman began teaching jazz piano at her alma mater.
She then formed a quintet with Eric Von Essen on bass and Kendall Kaye on drums. The group played steadily in LA, but over time, Coleman decided to seek out a greater challenge, which prompted her relocation to New York in 1998. During her first 15 years in New York, she was flying back to California every ten days to teach at Cal State. However, in order to have a more active role in the New York scene, she left her job at the university to immerse herself completely in New York.
Besides her own projects, she now plays frequently with English tenor man, Benn Clatworthy, whom she met in LA when she was 18. The two formed a group and, in 1992, made Thanks Horace for Discovery Records, which was Coleman’s recording debut.
Coleman has found herself in a wide range of musical settings over the years. She remembers playing in Jimmy Cleveland’s group and sitting in front of Dizzy Gillespie. As inspiring as the music was to the young pianist, she recalls being as enthralled with the people making it.
“The music was great, but it’s the people making it—they have such a love of life. And that’s what keeps me intrigued. There’s just something about creative people that’s a little childlike. There’s an innocence and it’s magical.”
Of the transition from leading a small group to leading a big band, Coleman said, "It was not intentional in the slightest." After a concert with her small group in LA, an impressed listener approached Coleman telling her that her music reminded him of Don Sickler, famed trumpeter and publisher, and the fan suggested that she write Sickler. Coleman did, and on Sickler’s next trip to LA, the two met and he listened to some of Coleman’s small-group recordings. Sickler liked what he heard and so began their composer-publisher relationship.
After many years of working together, Cecilia mentioned to Sickler her desire to compose and arrange for big band. She brought him her first scores; Don saw they had promise and he encouraged her to keep writing. Coleman quickly assembled a band and, consequently, her big band has toured extensively and released two albums: Oh Boy in 2011 and Who Am I? in 2013, both on PandaKat Records.
Coleman speaks fondly of everyone in her band: “It’s one big family and we all get along usually,” she said. Bobby Porcelli plays lead alto: “Bobby is a true bebopper and that’s been a fortunate and good friendship for me,” says Coleman. She is reluctant to speak about any of the band members individually because she appreciates them all deeply: “They’re all such good musicians and good people,” she says.
Additionally, Coleman works at a rehabilitation treatment center for teens called August Aichorn, where she coordinates afterschool time for the 56 children living there. “They’re kids who have maybe not had the best upbringing, or any upbringing, and I get to give them things; I love it!” In addition to teaching music, Coleman brings in professionals from other fields in order to expose the children to possible career paths and help them find their passion.
Although Coleman brushes it off as a non-issue, her success as a woman in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field speaks to both her confidence as a female and her direction as an artist. On the back of her most recent recording, Who Am I?, Coleman is the only woman in a picture of her ensemble. Coleman has forged an impressive career and brought joy to listeners and students in a number of settings. At the very least, her success will inspire young women in jazz to pursue their dreams.
The Cecilia Coleman Big Band performs on May 11 at Saint Peter’s Church at 1 p.m. The program will feature some of the band’s older material as well as new charts which they hope to record this year.
Photo credit: Maureen Sickler
Drummer Allison Miller was looking forward to being a mom; but two years later, she’s still surprised by how much the experience has influenced her music and creativity. “She’s brought out new ideas, and compositions have just poured out of me,” Miller says of two-year-old Josie. “I don’t have time to obsess and I don’t worry so much. I’m having fun.”
After a lifetime of composing on piano, while writing for her new Boom Tic Boom album, Otis Was a Polar Bear (Royal Potato Family), Miller also used bass, vibes, drums, guitar and mini-keyboards. “I secretly want to be a bass player,” she declares with a laugh. “My more adventurous writing comes from bass. I don’t know what I’m doing, so I have no self-imposed boundaries. Todd Sickafoose informs me as a composer—I play bass pretending I’m him!”
The drummer wrote all the tunes for the new CD specifically for members of her all-star band: bassist Sickafoose, pianist Myra Melford, violinist Jenny Scheinman, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, and clarinetist Ben Goldberg.
Boom Tic Boom has been together for eight years, a rarity in 21st Century terms and even more unusual since so many of the players are West Coast-based and Miller lives on the East Coast.
“I love playing with all the musicians and I appreciate their loyalty and determination,” Miller acknowledges. “Everyone is a good friend of mine; everyone enjoys playing the music, so I’m lucky.”
A Chamber Music America grant supported rehearsals and a series of pre-recording concerts, during which Miller could tweak the compositions and work on parts that weren’t sitting right.
“With the larger ensemble, it’s important to have space, to showcase duets and trios within the band to keep the listeners’ ear attuned. In 2016, it feels like a lot of spaces are being filled in all the way—people’s brains are not getting a chance to rest. Every chance to meditate and have space is used. Music can get very dense; I was creating space.”
Miller was inspired to write “Fuster,” the opening tune on the CD, after visiting Cuba and seeing the work of folk artist Jose Fuster. The composition “honors the traditions and pushes boundaries, melding Cuban and klezmer music and three or four other things. That’s how Fuster’s art feels to me.”
Her travels also inspired “Pig in a Sidecar,” an unexpected sight she actually beheld in the Philippines. “In some ways the groove is a little awkward in how it hobbles around; it's unorthodox in how it moves, kind of like a pig in a sidecar.”
Boom Tic Boom focuses on music from Otis Was a Polar Bear May 5, at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. “I’m really proud of the record and feel very connected to it. I want people to feel they went on a journey—it’s accessible, a party, a celebration.”
Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez
Wilderness survival skills are unlikely to top most lists of talents that might come in handy on the bandstand. However, drummer Scott Neumann sees a correlation between negotiating rough terrain while backpacking and the ease and sense of adventure he and saxophonist Tom Christensen share musically. Besides playing together for almost a quarter century and co-leading a quartet, they’re longtime hiking buddies who have clocked a lot of miles on remote back-country trails.
“Music and trekking both require awareness, compassion, looking after one another, staying together, working together, and a level of concentration and telepathy,” Neumann says.
When it comes to traversing musical terrain rather than topographical, it’s clear they enjoy writing for each other, playing together, and have a knack for intuitively knowing where the other is heading.
In other words, once a guy has pulled you out of glacial quicksand when you’re 40 miles deep into the Wyoming wilderness—as Christensen did for Neumann—trusting him to have your back on a gig or in a recording studio is a no brainer. “I was very close to getting hypothermia, but Tom helped me get out of that quicksand,” Neumann recalls.
On firmer terrain, the two have solid musical backgrounds. Multi-instrumentalist Christensen studied privately with the great Joe Henderson, earned degrees at Eastman School of Music, and has performed and recorded with Toshiko Akiyoshi, Joe Lovano, Rufus Reid, Don Sebesky, the Gil Evans Project, Maria Schneider and many others.
Neumann credits his drum teacher and junior high band director, Kermit Tanzey, with helping him turn pro in his early teens, doing gigs in places like state mental hospitals and penitentiaries and working with country bands. The drummer went on to North Texas State University, and the Banff International Jazz Workshop, where he studied with Dave Holland, Kenny Wheeler, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Muhal Richard Abrams and Dave Liebman. Neumann has played with the Woody Herman Orchestra, Madeleine Peyroux, Brother Jack McDuff, Grady Tate, Rufus Reid, Kenny Barron, Pete McGuiness’ Grammy-nominated orchestra and Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band, as well as numerous Broadway shows.
Christensen and Neumann’s collaboration is fueled by a love for tenor and drum duos. “That sax and drum interplay like Sonny Rollins and Philly Joe Jones, or Ornette Coleman and Billy Higgins, or John Coltrane and Elvin Jones—those were some of the cornerstone relationships we listened to while growing up,” Neumann explains.
On their new recording, Spin Cycle (Sound Footing), guitarist Pete McCann and bassist Phil Palombi join the drummer and saxophonist on ten original tunes written specifically for the band members, and stylistically running the gamut from a straight-ahead swinger to a punk rock/surfer tune to what Neumann calls “contemporary, urban New York jazz.”
“We didn’t have a theme or a common thread; we didn’t want it to be all cerebral,” he continues. “We have a lot of fun playing together and we want to impart that to the listeners. We draw from all of our past and present influences, including contemporary writers, world music and free playing. Both Tom and I grew up with funk rock; we wanted to tip our hat to all that. In co-leading this band, we’re still exploring and covering a lot of terrain.”
Join the quartet at Smalls May 6 to celebrate the release of Spin Cycle. In addition to material from the CD, listeners can expect to hear some standards and brand-new originals.
Photo Credit: Dennis Connors