Wednesday, February 23, 2011


A few days, after you won the Grammy for best new artist, I had a debate with several jazz musicians and respected jazz authorities on facebook. Esperanza, we agreed you are a wonderful bassist with a promising future, but we disagreed when I commented you are not a jazz musician. That sparked the debate. The pointed I tried to convey was you did not deserve the Grammy because you have been on the music scene since 2006, and you have released three albums “Junjo,” “Esperanza,” and “Chamber Music Society”. None of which are jazz albums.

Esperanza Spalding
During the discussion, your supporters overlooked those points. They focused on my questioning you. Some cited your work as a side-woman with saxophonist Joe Lovano proves you are the real deal. One musician stated Lovano hired you because you are a great jazz bassist. I countered the saxophonist hired you simply because you are a competent bass player. Many jazz fans were hyped when Herbie Hancock's album "River: The Joni Letters" won the Grammy for album of the year.

They believed Hancock winning the Grammy was good for jazz. Believing that was silly. Although the album was flawless, it was not a jazz album, and Hancock given his crossover track record is no long regarded a jazz musician. Years before he won that Grammy, many record companies closed their jazz division, leaving many jazz musicians without deals. 

Because Hancock won the coveted award did not alter how the music industry treats jazz. Those record companies never reopened their jazz divisions or resigned the jazz musicians they fired. Jazz is still viewed as the bastard child of the music industry.

A few weeks ago, pianist Vijay Iyer ended his performance at the Power Center in Ann Arbor, Mi with Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”. Playing that song did not make Iyer a pop artist. On James Carter’s live date “Out of Nowhere”, Carter and sax man Hamiet Bluiett battled on R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”. Doing so did not qualify the saxophonists as R&B artists. Herbie Hancock performed with Christina Aguilera on one of his cross over recordings. That did not make the pop star a jazz vocalist.

 Esperanza, the discussion about you lasted most of the day. We remained at loggerheads. However, I believe you are a dynamic bass player and good vocalist. You are still searching. The music industry and maybe even your handlers want to pawn you off as the next Norah Jones. For the record, Jones is not a jazz musician either.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Bunky and Rudresh I was thrilled you guys decided to test-drive your jazz quintet, Apex, in Ann Arbor Saturday evening as part of a double bill with the Vijay Iyer trio. Man, want an inspired night of music. Many jazz aficionados were excited about it. You and Rudresh have similar styles, and I now understand  Bunky’s influence on Rudresh, Greg Osby and Steve Wilson. Their styles are rooted in hard bop with a touch of free jazz. Of the three alto sax players, Rudresh sound has more of a tangible free jazz dynamic.

Rudresh is the first alto saxophonist I’ve heard in a long time who chews up chord changes as greedily as the great Charlie Parker. Saturday evening, he made switching tempos on the spot and playing counter-melodies seems effortless. Moreover, his way of composing is akin to Iyer his musical soul mate of 15 years. The pianist had an awesome opening set.
alto saxophonist Bunky Green and Rudresh Mahanthappa

Did you and Bunky catch Iyer’s take on Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”? How about the young drummer Marcus Gilmore and his sophisticated phrasing. Also, bassist Stephen Crump gave a solid performance. Crump has a sensual way of handling the bass almost as if he’s seducing it. Rudresh and Iyer have to be the most imaginative jazz composers in the game. Their composing is multi-layered and intricate a la Charles Mingus. Rudresh and Iyer love to load their compositions with an abundance of counter-melodies and tempo alterations.
On Rudresh’s originals, for instance, “Welcome,” The Summit,” and “Playing with Stones” the band made it seem as if they were playing mini-compositions within the main composition. Iyer is guilty of the same on his originals “Cardio,” and “Abundance”. Iyer’s phrasing is gentle, and his fingers seemed to be made from cotton. On medium and quick tempo numbers, he has a rambunctious streak. Bunky, I guessed you and Rudresh were going to open for Iyer, but the pianist played the first set. Iyer explained the trio had to split after the set and the autograph signing. They’re scheduled to perform at the Grammys' pre-show Sunday. Apex had a wonderful piano player as well.

Detroiter Craig Taborn is a quite the jazz rebel. I became a lifelong fan when Taborn was a member of saxophonist James Carter’s band. Apex’s drummer Damion Reid, who Rudresh jokingly referred to as his rhythmic instigator, sounded as if he made his bones in a funk band. He was plenty loud and powerful. At times, he overpowered Taborn because of Reid’s banging and clanging. At 74, Bunky, your sound still has that hard bop grit, and on your signature tune “Little Girl I’ll Miss You”, which the late Abbey Lincoln wrote lyrics for, sounds new every time you perform it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Tain, allow me the opportunity to welcome you to my blog I Dig Jazz, and to congratulate you on becoming the Artist in Residence for the 32nd Detroit International Jazz Festival. I hope you know what you’re in store for. Your predecessors Mulgrew Miller, John Clayton, Christian McBride, and Regina Carter set the bar high. They worked non-stop. I’m not trying to frighten you, Tain, so I’m get to why a invited you over. Last night, at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, I caught your two-hour concert, and I want to discuss it with you. It ranks as the best concert I’ve attended this year. I know we’re only two months into 2011, and there’s a super concert tonight at the Power Center in Ann Arbor, MI, featuring a double bill with pianist Vijay Iyer’s trio, and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s band. Many regional jazz geeks expect it to be one of the top jazz concerts of the year. I admit I’m excited about it as well.
Drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts

Anyway, your concert last night was the second annual Freedom concert celebrating African-American history month, and it was better than last year’s spectacle at this mega church on the eastside of Detroit. I forgot the name of church. Bassist Christian McBride wrote the music and arrangements, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but there was too much overkill with the big gospel choir and the recitations of excerpts from speeches by Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Ali. Tain, your gig was small in comparison although I was disappointed you took the least number of solos. The concert was half over before you unleashed your inner swinger. There’re other shortcomings worth mentioning.

I never thought I would write this but the concert had too much music. The second have was unnecessary. Frankly, Tain, it wasn’t as thought out as the first half, the vocalist Mavis Swan Poole had an Erykah Badu vibe, and Poole wasn’t in the same league as the other members of the band pianist Geri Allen, bassist Robert Hurst, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and alto saxophonist Wessell “Warm Daddy” Anderson. The second have felt rushed and thrown together. However, the highlights outweighed the shortcomings.

Tain, you were right praising Hurst as the top modern jazz bassist. The bassist is the workhorse the rhythm section and responsible for all the grimy chores. The jazz world is overstocked with run-of-the-mill bass players, but Hurst sets himself a part. Anderson earned his keep as well with some pointed soloing on “Return of the Jitney Man” and “Dancing for Chicken”.

Anderson is as one of the top jazz alto saxophonists working. Allen is a great jazz pianist, and she released two fine albums last year, which made many notable jazz critic’s best jazz albums of 2010 list, but last night Allen, a respectable and economical, improvised, was inhibit. I waited and waited for her to let loose of inner swinger. She never did. Nevertheless, there’s a noteworthy moment where you and Allen traded measures like a brother and sister trade insults. The star attraction was Payton. He hit a high note while soloing on with “Dancing for Chicken” that literally lifted the roof off the museum. Payton is from a remarkable lineage of New Orleans trumpet players. They have something special other trumpeters lack. Tain, save for the rushed second set, the concert was a fitting inauguration for your post as Artist in Residence.

Monday, February 7, 2011


Trumpeter Miles Davis
At Orchestra Hall Friday evening, the lady seated next to me asked midway through the "Four Generations of Miles” concert how I felt about the performance. Drummer Jimmy Cobb not announcing the tunes bothered me. She told me she has attended one of your concerts years ago. To her surprise, you played with your back facing the audience. I explained you did that whenever you chastised your band-mates for messing up. I read that in your autobiography. 

Anyway, Miles, I said the first half of the concert was cool, but it petered near the end. It was impolite the band, which included trumpeter Wallace Roney, bassist Buster Williams, alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune and pianist Larry Willis never acknowledged the audience or announced the tunes they played. The latter did not bother the audience. They knew every selection, so maybe they felt introducing every number was unnecessary.

The band performed songs you immortalized years before you crossed over. Or, as jazz critic, Stanley Crouch, characterized your playing pop music selling out. Labeling you a sell-out was unfair. You had every right to make any kind of music. However, I do agree with Crouch that making big bucks was your real motivation.

For many years, Roney copied your style. I wondered if he would ever find his own voice. Roney is a wonderful trumpeter, and Friday night his soloing was decisive. He can still channel your spirit at will, which he did on “So What”, and “Kind of Blue”. Williams soloing was noteworthy as well.

When jazz journalists and critics talk about great jazz bass players, Williams’ name is rarely mentioned. Williams has always been a superb bassist, and he has played with many jazz great of our time. Friday evening, the man was more than a timekeeper. He was the crowd favorite, handling the upright bass like a masseur a tense body. He carried Willis, who solos were basic at best, the entire night.

Miles, I wondered who assembled the band. Save for Cobb the others only had a passing relationship with you. Fortune played with you a year. I also wondered if the band would have been more exciting with musicians that spent more time with you.