Our Man in Jazz: Sonny Rollins at the Kimmel Center Monday, Nov 27 2006 

This Friday, legendary tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins will bring a new variation of his sextet to the Kimmel Center (260 South Broad Street on the Avenue of the Arts). Rollins’ recording career was born alongside the rise of hard-bop in the early-1950s. With a seemingly endless set of ideas vibrating out of his reed, Rollins was well suited to the open space and extended improvisations that characterized the new sound. Never a revolutionary voice, Rollins’ 60’s recordings followed jazz’ progression outside of conventional chord changes and song structures, but never ventured far enough to scare off jazz purists. An enormous output, Rollins’ early recordings feature some of the best know jazz standards (Saxophone Colossus and Tenor Madness are two of the best selling jazz records to date) and more adventurous records that remain accessible (East Broadway Run Down and Freedom Suite are about as good as it gets). WSRN (wsrnfm.org, Swarthmore College Radio Network) will be celebrating the first 20 years of Rollins on record this Thursday night through Friday morning, all night, starting at 2 in the morning. You can also podcast the set if you’re not nocturnal.   

            Following your night-long history lesson, turn into WSRN at 8 Friday morning to hear Rollins’ latest effort, Sonny Please (2006, Doxy Records). There is a big gap between Sonny, Please and the early recordings. Following his brilliant 60’s work, Rollins fell into the trap that many conventional jazz artists succumbed to: the 70s. In the 70s it was innovate or lag. While many jazz artists beautifully fused world music, free improvisation or hard electricity into 70s recordings, those who pounded out the same formula tended to soften their initial ideas, loosing life through repetition. Rollins took the worst of both routs, keeping diluted traditional jazz structures and adding innovative but nigh unlistenable soft electronics.  While Rollins’ tenor sound has always been a solid attraction, most of his recordings from the 70s through early 90s are best forgotten, synthesizer washes and all.  

            But the last ten years have been good ones for Our Man in Jazz. Most of his sidemen from the 70’s and 80’s recordings detracted from the beauty of Rollins’ tenor work. But working in intimate small-groups and blowing passionately to get his sound back, Rollins’ recent recordings are back to solid. They’re no revolution in sound, but Rollins has never gone that way. Instead, your getting solid jazz, good on record and far better in person. His most successful recording from the last ten years, 99’s Live at the Village Vanguard, documents this fact. Given the relative merits of the studio-recorded Sonny, Please, his upcoming show at theKimmel Center comes with a Silent Way Stamp of Approval.

            The title track on Sonny Please is the money track. Good, hard drumming backs extended solos from Rollins and trombonist Clifton Anderson. The structure of the tune is a bit corny, and the electric bass and guitar could use an old-fashioned switch to upright and piano, but the sidemen provide about as good a venue to hear Rollins’ still inspiring tenor work as any since the 60s. When the record slows down, like on Someday I’ll Find You and Stairway to the Stars, the record sounds dated, but if you’re willing to follow him, Rollins will lead you to some sweat sounds. It’s puppy petting jazz, but it’s good enough. Rollins demonstrates his lingering blues chops on Nishi and his clever, quoting side on Remembering Tommy and Park Place Parade. Recorded on Doxy, Rollins’ new, independent record label, Sonny Please is a decent enough effort. But many of its flaws are unlikely to be found on stage. It’s overly produced, which couldn’t be a problem live. It’s a little soft, smooth and slow. But even in his old-age, Rollins is renowned for the energy he brings to live performances. This man still knows his craft, and there is no better venue, and possibly no future chances, to see him working live.

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Found Music: Harlem Arts Ensemble and Mat Maneri Wednesday, Nov 22 2006 

harlem homecoming   mat maneri

Most “super groups” come together at the behest of the record company, sit down in the studio for the lesser part of a week and milk name recognition for sales. Saxophonist and flutist Samil Washington’s Harlem Arts Ensemble is not such a group. Many of the 14 musicians on the Ensemble’s latest recording, “Harlem Homecoming” (UJam Records, 2006), are well-known bandleaders in their own right. But for one night a week, these musicians leave their solo projects behind and come together at Harlem’s St. Nick’s Pub.

The unique sounds that have formed at this extended gig are a product of time, and the ease with which Washington’s compositions bend all the standard bases of traditional jazz comes as much from his knowledge of his fellow musicians as from his compositional skill; Duke Ellington’s famous line that “you can’t write music right unless you know how the man who’ll play it plays poker” rings beautifully true throughout this session. Flowing easily from the lazy-Sunday charm of “Morning is the Time for Miracles” to the old-style New Orleans fun of “Harlem Homecoming and Country Walk” to the distinct, Harlem elegance of “Maestro Joe” and “Horace T,” the Ensemble’s effort is as pleasant a listen as you’re likely to come across on the New Jazz shelf. Turn on WSRN tonight from 2 to 4 a.m. to hear the record, or check out the trusty podcast at http://www.wsrnfm.org to hear the music at your leisure.

Mat Maneri weaves together sounds ranging from trudging classical threnodies to looping wah-wah meditations and full-on breakbeats and sass, and his music is at least as abstract as this opening sentence. But there is a forward-looking quality to his most recent album, “Pentagon” (Thirsty Ear Recordings, 2005), that separates his efforts from the tedious and unwashed mass of “avant-garde” music, an irony-laden genre that has sounded basically the same for half a century or more. With vaguely ominous track names (“The War Room,” “America”) and the album’s terse and vapidly mournful liner notes (“don’t shoot before you see the whites of their eyes”), the album first appears to be yet another political polemic ready to clutter the racks. But going beyond the unfortunate album art and emptily suggestive track names, the music isn’t concretely political. Instead, Maneri is a musical sponge, sucking in the sound of the techno club, the beatboxer, the overly soulful soul singer, the street-corner scat singer … All of these sounds wash in and out over a background of dreamlike disillusionment, with melodic strings and spooked piano that would sound equally appropriate in a horror film score or a contemporary art gallery. Probably pretentious but certainly good, Maneri’s latest effort is worth absorbing. Clearly schooled in the detached and introverted electric jazz of the late ’60s (Miles Davis’s “In A Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” were likely early influences), this music demonstrates the continued relevance and possibilities of early jazz experiments. A worthwhile addition to Thirsty Ear’s wonderful Blue Series, a collection of collaborations between jazz and hip-hop artists, Maneri’s Pentagon Ensemble is not to be missed on its frequent trips through Philadelphia and regular gigs in New York City. Tune into WSRN tonight at 2 a.m. or podcast the album at any time throughout the semester.

Age and Beauty: Randy Weston’s “Zep Tepi” and Rashied Ali Quintet at Olde Club, Swarthmore PA Wednesday, Nov 22 2006 

zep tepi rashied ali

What a drag it is getting old. Pete Townshend should have kept the great promise of his generation and died, or at least hung up the six string, after Keith Moon went six feet under in 1978. And while the Rolling Stones still fill up arenas, it’s always a good idea to buy bleacher seats. When Mick Jagger looks no bigger than a prancing dot, it’s easy to get into the decadence. But when you can see the folds of skin hanging underneath his ecstatically waving arms, it’s easy to understand why rock is a young man’s game. He’s a man of wealth, but he hasn’t had taste in 30 years.

An entirely different perception of aging is applied to the blues musician. Mississippi John Hurt was forgotten for over 30 years after his brilliant but brief stint with Okeh Records in 1928. But the new wave of folkies that gathered at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 yearned for the authentic. Playing many of the same songs he had recorded in the ’20s, Hurt was able to inspire young audiences from his big break in 1963 until his death in 1966. Nobody questioned why he hadn’t innovated in decades, and the wisdom that comes with age was seen to lend great strength to his work. Listening to the raw beauty of his final version of “Nearer My God To Thee” makes questioning the value of his mature work nigh unthinkable.

The aging jazz musician has a difficult role to play between these two extremes. Jazz is abstract music. It’s not about the decadence of youth and it’s not about the wisdom of old age. But it is a music that demands great technical prowess and constant innovation, and both demands become more difficult to fulfill with time. Many romantic jazz fans have remarked that John Coltrane’s death in 1967 was a blessing and not a curse. Unlike Miles Davis, who fooled around with commercial repetitions for the last few decades of his life, Coltrane was said, like Charlie Parker or Eric Dolphy, never to have played a bad note. But some jazz musicians need not burn out in order to avoid fading away. Last Friday’s Olde Club show featuring 71-year-old drummer Rashied Ali was a relatively successful example of the importance of music made by jazz’s elder statesmen. Seventy seven-year-old pianist Randy Weston’s most recent recording, Zep Tepi (2006, Random Chance Records) is an even more beautiful example.

Drummer Rashied Ali surrounded himself with young musicians and fresh compositions from the band. Too much of the show focused on his diminished abilities as a soloist; there will never be a 71-year-old drummer who can keep up with musicians 50 years his junior. But Ali was still able to do what he has always done best, pulsing behind the abstract explorations of the soloists and pushing the musicians outside the confines of the composition. In these more subdued moments Ali showed a mastery of his craft, a skill developed during the development of free jazz itself and continuously displayed on his almost impeccable body of work as a leader. It would be an exaggeration to say that the taste displayed by Ali could only come from a lifetime behind the set, but it is an impressive achievement that Ali can teach and lead yet another generation of musicians.

Pianist Randy Weston has released one of the best jazz records of 2006. His rhythm section has been around nearly as long as Weston himself, and many of the compositions on the album have been around for 50 years. Although he was never a classically inspired pianist known for his virtuosity, Weston has lost some of his technical skill. But the album suffers from none of these potential flaws. Instead, percussionist Neil Clarke brings an entirely new sound to the group with his intricate and propulsive hand-drumming, and Alex Blake’s strumming bass work is constantly driving and at times hypnotizing. Weston himself plays sparsely, but the timing of his restrained playing is reminiscent of Thelonious Monk at his best. Weston once remarked that Monk “was the most original I ever heard [and] played like they must have played in Egypt 5,000 years ago.” After years of searching, Weston has arrived at an equally remarkable sound. Turn on WSRN tonight at 2 a.m. to hear a set of Weston and Ali, or podcast the time slot and listen at your convenience.