Reviews & Essays

  • Ladies and Gentlemen, Carla Bley.

    By Alec Hillyer

    “I think rock and roll is jazz, and jazz is classical music, and classical music has become rock and roll. They’ve all gone round one turn on the clock,” pianist and composer Carla Bley quipped in a 1972 interview with John Fordman. Her claim wasn’t that these genres were adopting traits of the others, but that the audiences that they served were beginning to shift, and by the early 70s the shifting was seismic. Experimental composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass were becoming the new mavericks of minimalism. Rock and roll was siphoning off many of the hip youth that only jazz could have staked a claim to before. Rock was becoming a culture capable of absorbing a myriad of influences and transmuting that material to wider audiences. Jazz had already proved its grace in such musical synthesis. Yet, composer Carla Bley came along in the late 60s to show us new ways to compose and incorporate many of the  sounds percolating through the culture. Her first act was to bring into jazz, long vaunted as a pure-performance art, the visceral power of rock and its fascination with studio-production technique, including some of the emerging baubles of recording technology. How much of this importing ended up compromising Bley’s early jazz output is up for argument.  But Bley’s knack for the unconventional would become evident quickly, and her first two major releases would act as proper introductions to the pianist and composer.

    Read more
  • Carla Bley- Walking Lottery Woman

    By Fritz Byers

    In the spring of 1980, I saw Carla Bley and her quixotic little big band in concert at Berkeley Performance Center.  I knew Carla’s work then only superficially and primarily in her role as the pianist in the Liberation Music Orchestra.  (With university lecture halls and dormitory common rooms at the time full of shrill and thrilling clamorings about real, imagined, and failed liberations spanning the Americas, the captive radio stations aired

  • Art Blakey's Jazz Message

       By Alec Hillyer

         Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers has had many iterations during its 35-year run. This wasn’t out of desperation, but out of design. Many musicians who played with the Jazz Messengers could have dedicated much more time to the group, but Art Blakey wouldn’t have it. He envisioned the group as a revolving door of young talent, with Blakey’s role as the permanent bandleader, drummer, and mentor. He would hire relatively unknown musicians, groom them to play with the mastery required to tour like Art, and then abruptly let them go. When pressed on the issue Blakey famously commented, “I’m gonna stay with the youngsters. When these get too old, I’m gonna get some younger ones. Keeps the mind active”. However, the band never sounded like a project for an idling old drummer, more a workshop for aspiring players and songwriters, as taught by a bebopping zealot. Blakey was steadfast in his mission to bring jazz to all audiences, and that unyielding  passion can be heard in Blakey’s technique. Blakey styled his drumming with an aggressive swing. He was graceful, but played with a muscular intensity, even when comping with subtle polyrhythms and fills. The sound of the Messengers was ultimately the sound of young cats forced to prove themselves on Blakey’s stage. Blakey would lead the outfit until it disbanded after his death in 1990.

    Read more
  • 2015: The Year I Gained Perspective in Jazz

    By Alec Hillyer

         It’s not like I was going in entirely blind. I was vaguely familiar with jazz music because of my obsession with sample-based hip-hop as a teen. I would yearn for that vinyl crackle that preluded the rapper, as the drum break was introduced. A wildly improvisational bass solo would be lassoed in to form a 4 or 8 bar melodic loop, with the drums and horns sourced from some other jazz or soul recording. These were artists creating music together although they may never have even met. The bricolage of sounds colliding in these appropriations created a quintessentially post-modern music, although I hadn’t been that acute at the time. These were my most formative years, and I gravitated towards sample-based music simply because I could hear the innovations in real-time. However, I noticed a strange allure to the often aged source material.

    Read more
  • The Frank Sinatra & Count Basie Collaboration

    By Kim Kleinman

    Francis Albert Sinatra’s birth 100 years ago this month is a chance to look at his music more closely.  I  have not given it the attention it deserves, so I take this opportunity to get to know his collaborations with Count Basie to overcome a rather serious lapse of taste and attention.

    Read more
  • The Best Selling Bootleg in Jazz

    By Alec Hillyer

         The shadows would have been getting long in Carmel, California, as the evening approached and the mid-September air finally began to cool. Audience members had filled an assembly hall at the Sunset School, anxious to witness the popular pianist Erroll Garner perform. The vivacious Garner, along with bassist Eddie Calhoun, and drummer Denzil Best, took the stage near dusk and played an intoxicating yet intimate set for the audience as the sun set over the Monterey Pacific coast. The event was promoted by radio personality Jimmy Lyons as part of his “Sunset Series” summer concert events, an early predecessor to the Monterey Jazz Festival. What transpired that night was captured on tape, and sold as an Erroll Garner live recording titled “The Concert by the Sea.” Lyons executively produced the recording, which was ultimately released by Columbia Records, but none of these parties initially intended for it to exist in any recorded form at all. Now after sixty years, this jazz recording gets a long overdue reissue, one that sheds light on much of what was presumed lost from the performance that evening.

    Read more
  • The Understated Stylings of Rotem Sivan

    By Alec Hillyer

          “A New Dance” (Fresh Sound Records) is the latest release from the Rotem Sivan Trio. Referred to by guitarist Peter Bernstein as “the next guitarist of our times,” Sivan is known to pack his improvisations, swelling the space of the song with notes. However, Sivan refuses to force his way onto the listener, preferring to play in an often refined and quiet manner. Accompanied by Haggai Cohen-Milo on upright bass and Colin Stranahan on drums, Sivan works out on seven of his original compositions and 3 standards, all reinforcing Sivan’s strengths as a pioneer in the modern New York City jazz scene. This release quickly follows last year’s “For Emotional Use Only,” an intimate and stripped-down live recording of the trio performing in New York City. Sivan seems to have something to prove on this record, exploring new territories of distortion, dubbing, and contemporary musical textures not present on previous releases. 

    Read more
  • Views: 403 Jazz Spectrum - Best of 2009

    BEST OF 2009

    Fritz Byers selects 50 new jazz recordings from 2009 that stood out for their innovation, virtuosity, and beauty.

    Read more
  • Views: 785 The Alchemy of Scott Lafaro, by Kim Kleinman

    The bassist Scott Lafaro's voice -- fresh, vibrant, and melodic -- transformed the instrument and its role in jazz.  Working with artists as diverse as Bill Evans and Ornette Coleman, created pure gold in a form of artistic alchemy. Kim Kleinman considers Lafaro's achievement.

  • Views: 802 Honoring Blue Mitchell, by Fritz Byers

    The trumpeter Blue Mitchell created a substantial body of tasteful, expressive, and affecting music, including a series of recordings in the 50s and 60s for Riverside and Blue Note that document a sensibility of consistent excellence and appealing reserve.  Fritz Byers honors Mitchell's memory.

  • Views: 631 Jim Hall - An Appreciation, by Fritz Byers

    For fifty years, Jim Hall has been making jazz.  His accumulated body of work is rich, fluid, and marked by sustained excellence.  It also reflects Hall's relentless inventiveness.  Fritz Byers considers Hall's career.

  • Views: 3040 On Dexter Gordon, by Kim Kleinman

    Kim Kleinman considers the achievement of Dexter Gordon, reflecting on having first encountered Gordon's grand sound on the live recordings of Gordon's mid-70s return to the United States, the pleasures of seeing him perform, and his enduring influence.

    To read Kim Kleinman's article, click here.

  • Views: 184 2008 Grammy Award for Latin Jazz

    The Recording Academy will announce the 2008 Grammys Sunday, February 8, 2009.  The contenders for Best Latin Jazz album are the Caribbean Jazz Project, "Afro Bop Alliance"; Conrad Herwig, "The Latin Side of Wayne Shorter"; Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, "Song for Chico"; Nestor Torres, "Nouveau Latino"; and Pap Vazquez & The Mighty Pirates, "Marooned/Aislado".  Fritz Byers surveys the field.

  • Views: 174 Best Jazz Releases - 2008

    Fritz Byers selects forty jazz releases from 2008 that made a deep impression, selected from among the hundreds of worthy discs that he listened to during the year.

  • Views: 197 2007 Grammy Award for Latin Jazz

    The contenders for the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz reflect the breadthy, vitality, and brilliance of the current Latin-jazz scene -- equal parts revered veterans and stunning newcomers.  Fritz Byers argues that who wins doesn't matter; listen to all five of these terrific recordings.

  • Views: 200 Best of Latin Jazz 2007

    A steady stream of stirring releases made 2007 a rich year for Latin Jazz artists: the Simon brothers, Mark Weinstein, John Santos, Paquito D'Rivera, Bobby Sanabria, and Roswell Rudd in collaboration with Yomo Toro.  Fritz Byers surveys the year.