Metropolitan Room / Hot House Jazz magazine 2015 award ceremony.
August 2016 Hot House Jazz Guide Now Available!
Another Reason to Celebrate by Elzy Kolb
Attitude of gratitude
Just naming a fraction of the people Danny Mixon has performed with proves the versatile pianist can play practically anything. He’s made himself at home in the bands of everyone from blues and R&B stars Big Maybelle and Patti LaBelle, to jazz icons as diverse as Charles Mingus, Betty Carter, Art Blakey, Hank Crawford, Yusef Lateef, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Grant Green, bagpiper Rufus Harley, and even tap dancers including Savion Glover. Plus, Danny has gigged and hung out with luminaries such as Ben Vereen, Tony Bennett and Liza Minnelli.
“I was a kid on the fast track, that’s part of my history. All those people in my life gave me guidance—good and bad!—and made me the Danny Mixon I am today,” he shares. “I became well-rounded in the jazz world because I was raised by the community of jazz musicians. I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. I was blessed to be around the original, authentic people of the art. They did the raw part of it, and the end result was beautifully polished.”
Danny describes saxophonist/composer Frank Foster as “my spiritual father. He was a genius, he took me under his wing and I worked with him in all his ensembles, from the big band to small groups.” Bassist Chris White was another early mentor. “He paid for my lessons and books so I could study with Sir Roland Hanna.”
The pianist still lives by words of advice he picked up early on. “Some young players can be so full of themselves. But the older cats took me aside and told me to make a statement with my playing; you don’t have to do everything you know on every solo. In your music, have a conversation with the band, with the audience.”
Danny turns 66 on Aug. 19 and will celebrate on that day with an outdoor concert at Jazz Forum Arts’ series in Tarrytown’s Pierson Park. Expect the veteran pianist to play originals, including tunes he wrote for McCoy Tyner and Antonio Carlos Jobim, plus standards and material from his new CD, Pass It On. Vocalist Antoinette Montague is “joining me for a song or two. We’ve been working a lot together in my world or in her world.”
He turns philosophical in talking about his birthday, pointing out that “still being here” is more important than anything else. “Music was in my blood from an early age and I was blessed to have taken the gift and worked with it. Some have gifts and throw them away and I’m fortunate not to have done that. I appreciate the gift and will continue to pass on what I’ve been given.”
Photo Credit: JC PhotoGraphics
Pianist Peggy Stern has a nomadic streak that has taken her to quite a range of geographical and musical locales, from Philadelphia (classical music) to San Francisco (Latin) to Seattle (jazz) to Austin (Texas swing), with other stops in between. “I’m kind of genre-free. My Latin is jazz Latin, when I play jazz I can mix a lot of classical in there; Texas swing gave me jazz roots I might have missed. I just keep moving forward,” she relates.
But regardless of where this fearless traveler calls home or what genres she visits, she stays in close touch with her inner landscape, as she shares on her new CD, Z Octet (Estrella). Peggy views Z Octet as her most personal recording to date. Each of the ten original compositions offers a glimpse into her life: “Zinfandel” is the name of Peggy’s aging pet (“She’s a good person, for a dog”); “Phille” is a recent piece, written after the pianist’s mother died (“I would just sit at the piano and play that over and over”); “The Elephants’ Tango” takes its name from the Elephant Room, a club in her current home base, Austin.
While some of the material is new, she dug into her archives for other pieces. “Some were written in the ’90s; they’re so beautiful, but they got short shrift, they never made it onto a record. The sound I wanted for this was more of a classical mini orchestra sound, with all acoustic instruments. No saxophones—I wanted the sweetness of the clarinet. It was a wonderful project to work on; I loved the writing of it. It was written on piano and I assigned an instrument to each of the voicings in each chord,” Peggy explains. “And there’s a lot of free improv in “Jury Duty” and “Red Bug Slough,” there’s a complete departure from the written parts.”
Joining Peggy for her CD release at Jazz at Kitano Aug. 25, are Harvie S on bass, Su Terry on clarinet and Tony Moreno on drums. “I can’t do an octet at Kitano, but this music translates to smaller groups nicely, so we’ll do it in quartet form,” Peggy says. “This will be way different, live. In performance the music gets a whole new lease. That’s the beauty—if they’re good vehicles they’re going to change with time; they’re going to stand the test of time.”
And in case you’re wondering where Peggy might land next, she’s planning to spend more time in New York soon. “I miss it; I'm homesick,” she says.
Photo Credit: Brenda Ladd
Hot Flashes by Seton Hawkins
Contemporary Jazz Cruise Artist Spotlight: Robert Glasper
Few names loom as large or as dominant in today’s jazz scene as Robert Glasper’s. As a pianist, composer, producer and bandleader, Robert has risen to incredible acclaim in the past decade as a genre-defying maestro whose varied projects include stints not only with Russell Malone, Roy Hargrove and Christian McBride, but also Maxwell, Jay-Z, Common, Kendrick Lamar and Bilal. Leading a number of his own groups, notably his trio and the larger Robert Glasper Experiment, Robert has traversed and incorporated these many musical worlds into a strikingly unique vision.
While Robert’s trio records (especially Canvas, his 2005 Blue Note debut) first brought him acclaim among jazz audiences, his 2012 Black Radio and 2013 follow-up Black Radio 2 projects with the Robert Glasper Experiment caught much wider attention.
“I was playing trio and we were getting a crossover audience and I wanted to take that further,” Robert recalls. “You can only take that so far with the trio format and I wanted to change up the vibe. So I brought in a band that was leaning even more into the hip-hop and R&B concept. With them, I came up with Black Radio to bring in these artists I had been working with—I had always straddled the worlds of hip-hop, R&B and jazz—and mesh the worlds together.”
Purists were nonplussed, but Black Radio and Black Radio 2 were undeniably exceptional and unique, offering a musical portrait of an artist who refuses easy categorization. Finding new fans and a larger audience after those projects’ successes, Robert made even more changes.
“After I had acquired this new audience, I wanted to do something different, so I went back to the trio,” he explains. “What was interesting was that some of the hip-hop/R&B audiences began buying my trio records and so I wanted to do a different trio approach. I didn’t want to do a standard jazz trio, so instead I did an album of cover songs, but done in a jazz trio format.”
The result, Covered, incorporates songs by John Legend, Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, and more alongside Robert’s originals in a CD that, while on paper is a return to his trio format, in sound is a melding of the trio and the Experiment’s aesthetics. “I’ve never been one to make the same record twice,” Robert explains.
Indeed, Robert’s commitment to following his unique vision led to one of this year’s wonderful surprises: Everything’s Beautiful, a Miles Davis-driven offering inspired by Robert’s work on the Miles Ahead soundtrack and featuring a singular take on the notion of a tribute project. Drawing at times on Miles’ playing in sample, as well as Miles’ literal voice in spoken moments, the album manages to pay tribute to Miles and celebrate his work while still remaining a unique statement on Robert’s part. Such an achievement is no easy feat, but is also one entirely appropriate for a CD released on the trumpeter’s 90th birthday.
“I didn’t want to do a ‘remix’ project. I wanted this record to be about more than Miles’ trumpet, so the way I did it was bringing in people who had a genuine love for Miles, and I wanted to bring in his compositions, his speaking voice, his swagger, everything about him. He is so much more than the muted trumpet.”
Robert Glasper performs in the Contemporary Jazz Cruise in February 2017. To make a reservation, visit www.thecontemporaryjazzcruise.com. For more information on Robert Glasper, visit www.robertglasper.com.
Bridge Crossings by Cary Tone
Joe Morris has established his voice on guitar in a free jazz context for over four decades. His influences range from Miles Davis to the AACM, from West African string music to Messian and Ives. He is on the faculty of the New England Conservatory and tours extensively as a leader and sideman on both guitar and bass.
Q- You came of age in the era of iconic rock guitarists. Which ones have stuck with you?
A- My favorites were George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Winter. I like certain things by other people back then, but I like everything these guys played.
Q- You say you're mostly self-taught. Can you describe your learning process?
A- I had about eight lessons. I listened to everything, worked hard on my ears and learned a lot off of records. I practiced out of books, read every article and book on the subject of improvisation I could find and spent eight hours a day on the guitar for years.
Q- What was your entry point to jazz/improvised music?
A- My sister brought Coltrane's record Om home from college when I was 15. To me that was the thing beyond Hendrix that I needed. That sent me looking into jazz, which meant that I had to learn about changes, scales, modes, etc. Om also, along with a lot of other input, led me to Ornette, Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Ayler and the AACM.
Q- When you lived in Boston, early in your musical life, you organized a collective, Boston Improvisor Group (BIG). Tell us a little about that time in your life?
A- I moved to Boston in '75 when I was 20 years old. I was "studying" on my own and playing a bit with some people. Boston was hard for me because I wasn't in a school. I was an outsider with a lot of drive and passion. Eventually I met some great musicians who were like me: a great drummer named Tim Roberts, the bassist Sebastian Steinberg, Samm Bennett the percussionist. There were so many great musicians there and once I got it going I got to know them better. There were a lot of places to play but not many for Free Music and very little support of the kind that would suggest that we mattered. I plugged away regardless and released my first LP in 1983, Wraparound (riti). Although I was living there and committed to the place I always made a point to connect with people in New York and elsewhere. I went to Europe with no work in 1981 and got a gig the day I landed. I was very intrigued by the idea of collectives in Chicago, St. Louis, NY and by the growing scene in New Haven when I left that city to go to Boston. Seeing how well organized the scene in Amsterdam was—a city the same size as Boston and similar in many ways—made me think that I should go back to Boston and organized a collective. Boston was full of musicians doing interesting things, who were competing with each other. Frank London and I put BIG together as an umbrella to pull it all together. It worked for a while, but the competition idea won. Later I regretted going back to Boston instead of moving to NY. I have a weird relationship with Boston. I finally moved out of that city for good in 2001 after a couple of tries. But that same year I started teaching at New England Conservatory in Boston. So I still go there all the time but I've lived in Connecticut for 16 years.
Q- In the past 15 years you've been performing/recording on bass as well as guitar. How did you make that decision?
A- I always wanted to play bass and finally after a couple of failures I bought a bass in 2000 and just started playing it, determined to stay with it. For years my focus as a composer was on what the bass did in the music. I was fixated on how the bass and drums worked in Free Music. My heroes were mostly bassists at that time. I love the idea of just doing what I want to do and I wanted to play the bass. I thought I knew enough from listening to it so studiously for so long that I'd be able to play it. It's worked out pretty well.
Q- Favorite place in the world to play, public or private?
A- My favorite gig ever was a four-night run with my quartet in 2000 at the Hot Club of Lisbon Portugal. I love playing The Stone in NY. I like small rooms. I did a week at the Old Office at the Knitting Factory years ago and that was great. Small rooms fit my idea of sound. I like the intimacy of small rooms. The Stone is incredible and I love playing there.
Q- If you weren't playing music what would be occupying your time?
A- I hope I would be either a painter, or a fiction writer. Both of those things are in my head for the future and part of me thinks quitting music to try both or either of them would be great. I like the idea of walking away from music even though I love making music. It seems that a respectful way of ending my music career would be to walk away and do something totally different.
Q- Do you think playing, appreciating music that is mostly improvised requires a certain kind of intelligence?
A- Not really. If I can do this, anyone could. I reject the idea that there is a correct way to understand improvised music or a standard for how it should be done. I hold to the possibility that the next best, most interesting thing will come from a person who seems to know nothing, but knows something no one else knows. I suppose it would challenge the perception of who is smart, and maybe that's the point. Although I think listening to music that has improvisation and studying improvisation all these years has in fact made me much smarter. It's a route to engagement with formulated abstraction. I don't know if you have to be intelligent to begin or if beginning and going into it makes you more intelligent.
Q- What do you know today that you didn't know 20 years ago?
A- Plenty! I know how to teach. I can play bass. I wrote a book called Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music (riti pub), it came about from my years of teaching, which started because of my interest in the topic of the book. I feel that it works very well as a new starting point for Free Music. I understand its value as a future forward set of ideas that are based completely on what has already happened, when I work with young musicians who are trying to grasp the enormity of Free Music so that they can participate. And for me, it's like a guide to everything I know and how to get past that.
Q- How have your listening habits changed with technological changes?
A- I listen less than I use to, but I don't think that's because of technology. I think it's because I am mostly focused on the music I make and the music made by the people in my circle. That circle is big and very diverse, but doesn't include what I used to listen to very much.
Q- What do you struggle with in your creative life?
A- Feeling like I am not the kind of musician I'm supposed to be. It's a lifelong battle to feel good about who I am and believe in myself and deal with the expectation to conform. Feeling like a failure. If I spend too much time thinking about what other people do, I get very down. I know who I am and why I do this. And I know that my determination to be myself is my life's adventure, but it's never easy. Otherwise I am very fortunate. My life has been like a miracle. So I'm quite grateful that I found music to frame all of these years. I no longer expect much from music except the luxury of making it and sharing the experience with people. The world is full of horror and sadness, music is a balm for that, and a signal to anyone interested that life is amazing. Imagine if all the intensity that results in violence was turned into music instead. We would all be better off and no one would complain about making money with music.
Q- What's your current impression of jazz education?
A- I teach in a great Jazz Department at NEC. I have a lot of pride in our department, which is extremely open and encouraging to the creativity of our students. I hear people gripe about jazz schools all the time. Most of them studied at one of them, but I never did. There is so much to learn. It's such a deep subject that it makes sense that young musicians would want to study. We can't expect that all of it would be good, great or perfect. You never hear people ask why anyone would study writing, or expect that everyone who does would graduate and be a star author out of school. School prepares you to go to the next place with your craft. It's up to the graduates to assert where they believe the music should go. Jazz education and its critics too often have expectations for jazz students that are restrictive. I feel that students should study somehow, someplace and do whatever they want with that knowledge and those skills. I didn't do what I was "supposed" to do and I've had a very interesting life so far because of that. I did what I believed was necessary. Jazz students should do that even if no one agrees with them, or if they risk failure, or if it's completely commercial and that's the route they feel is necessary. It's up to the new musicians to make their own music.
Q- Is there anything you'd rather be doing than making music?
A- Actually I would love to be a billionaire philanthropist who gives money to poor people. Seriously. What could be better than that?
Q- If there's an afterlife, one piece of music you heard here that you'll remember there?
A- Maybe either "Single Petal of a Rose," Axis: Bold as Love, or "Little Wing"? On second thought "I'll See You in my Dreams" from 1935 Django and the Hot Club of France, Lester Young playing "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" or Charlie Parker playing "Bird of Paradise." Any of those would be fine.
Q- Your favorite musician of all-time? Your favorite playing or composing today?
A- I can't choose one. Either Albert Ayler or Django Reinhardt. My favorite composer is Anthony Braxton. He is continuing to dissect all the bits of sound and process he can and find ways to turn those bits into one gigantic composition.
Q- What are a few pieces of music that made you the person or musician you are today?
A- Jimmy Lyons' "Jump Up," Anthony Braxton "Comp 23-j" and "Comp 40-O," Leroy Jenkins "Chicago," Jerome Cooper "The Unpredictability of Predictability," Ornette Coleman "Science Fiction" and "Body Meta," Django Reinhardt "Minor Swing," John Coltrane "One Down, One Up," Albert Ayler "Spiritual U.nity," Don Cherry "Where's Brooklyn?" more generally, Hendrix, West African string music, Delta Blues.
Q- You're having a dinner party and can invite three musicians. Who would they be?
A- Ayler, Braxton and Dolphy at one table would be pretty entertaining. Hendrix, Albert Ayler and Braxton? John Coltrane, Braxton, Hendrix? Either group would take the conversation to the deepest place. I'll wait at the table. Surprise me.
Joe Morris brings different bands for a week-long residency at The Stone Aug. 16-21.
Photo Credit: Rob Miller