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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

Inspiration serves as a powerful engine in the creative process, and paying tribute to mentors and past masters provides common source material for all the arts. So trumpeter and composer Nate Wooley’s decision to write a work in honor of Ron Miles is not unusual, but it yielded unexpected results on May 16, as Wooley’s Columbia Icefield debuted new material before a full house at CitySpace’s Blue Room in Easthampton, MA.

 

The Jazz Shares concert, featuring Wooley alongside Ava Mendoza, guitar, Susan Alcorn, pedal steel guitar and Ryan Sawyer, drums, used bits of melodic material gleaned from Miles’ recordings and performances refashioned and expanded by Wooley’s fertile imagination.

 

Wooley was familiar with Miles’ music even before he spent the late 1990s in Denver with the late cornetist. In his pre-concert remarks, he called Miles’ My Cruel Heart one of the greatest recordings of all time. This was not the first time he has used Miles as inspiration. Wooley’s group Argonautica gave him a chance to perform with Miles, and “A Catastrophic Legend”, part of Wooley’s 2022 release, Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes, was penned as a love letter to his mentor.

 

“I spent a lot of time with Ron,” Wooley says in an interview in PostGenre. “I don’t think he would have ever allowed me to call myself his student, just because he was incredibly humble. But even without the label ‘student’, I learned so much from him. I watched him devote his life to the sound in his head. Sometimes these came across as long conversations about trumpet technique. He was incredibly virtuosic. I’m not sure most people truly knew how gifted he was on the trumpet. Ron was also constantly curious about not only music but also art, books, and really anything he could find a way to incorporate into his music. I think what I learned most from him was to be a good human being first. Work at treating people ethically. Be a good friend. Care for other people. Bring love and joy into the world. Those things must come first before you work on your music. I always got the feeling that was the order of operations for Ron. I try to live up to that example.”

 

Wooley told 75 audience members that the concert was a meditation on loss and the ways we mourn, both quietly and loudly. He began his evening-length suite with an understated unaccompanied solo that only hinted at his prodigious ability to extend the conventional parameters of his instrument. It was a subdued and heartfelt soliloquy. Over the course of the evening the band filled the Blue Room with rock intensity, complete with back-beats and fuzz guitar. At other times, pedal steel twang and cicada-like maracas held our attention. One of the themes the band explored was “Wildwood Flower”, made famous almost 100 years ago by the Carter family. The country classic was a favorite of Miles, and Columbia Icefield dealt at length with its beautiful melody. The concert ended as it began, with delicate trumpet eloquence.

 

The members of Columbia Icefield inhabit a transformed hybridized space. Alcorn has taken an instrument firmly rooted in a very specific genre and catapulted it into a completely new realm. Mendoza, whose parents are Bolivian and Bosnian, and Sawyer, who has Mexican and Anglo roots, are artists able to mix multiple styles into a joyful blend. Whether it is Mendoza’s 21st century progressive rock vibe on her new recording, Echolocation, Alcorn’s mash-up of Chilean folk and nueva cancion with free improvisation on her new recording, Canto, or Ryan Sawyer’s cassette releases, Baby Rattle and Death Rattle, where he plays maracas exclusively, these are musicians who are comfortable operating in in-between places.

 

The band was in Philadelphia and New York before coming to Easthampton. They were making their way to Toronto and Quebec’s Festival International de Musique Actuelle in Victoriaville. There are plans for the quartet to reconvene in the fall to record the material we just heard. While on a personal level it is important for Nate Wooley to memorialize the legacy of Ron Miles, making sure the jazz public understands Miles’ contribution to the music is equally critical. This project will have the added benefit of solidifying the reputation of one of Miles’ most important progenitors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even though our Jazz Shares season was chock full when drummer Dan Weiss asked if we’d be interested in hosting his trio, I immediately said “yes”. After all, he was proposing a concert with alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and pianist Matt Mitchell in support of his new recording, Even Odds. I can’t think of three more creative and virtuosic musicians on their respective instruments, and since we specialize in presenting the best of the best, we squeezed them in. The 95 people who filled Newhouse Hall at the Community Music School of Springfield on April 29 were glad we did.

 

Since his 2015 appearance with Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble, Weiss has visited western Massachusetts with Michael Dessen’s Trio, Jon Iragabon’s Quartet and, in a mind boggling duet,  guitarist Miles Okazaki. Weiss is more than a talented drummer. He is a composer and conceptualist, who constructs frameworks in which to pour his ideas.

 

Many composers build pieces from the piano, where chords and key changes can be explored. For this project, Weiss did most of his composing from his drum kit, where he first established the rhythmic scaffolding. Originals titled “Bu” (a tribute to Art Blakey) and “Max Roach” illustrated his reverence for past masters. Weiss encouraged us to check out Roach’s eight-bar drum break on Charlie Parker’s "Klact-Oveeseds-Tene", which inspired his piece. Weiss is a connoisseur of recorded jazz and a student of its history. He spoke about gigs at The Bop Shop, a Rochester, NY record shop and venue, where he spent considerable resources beefing up his collection.

 

The exceptions to Weiss’ unique compositional process were the two gorgeous ballads we heard: “The Children of Uvalde” and “Fathers and Daughters”. Both highlighted the round, burnished tone of Zenón’s alto, who used simple declarative statements at modest volume to convey maximum emotion. Zenón, who in the past week added a prestigious Doris Duke award to his Grammy, MacArthur and Guggenheim honors, is a modest, self-effacing genius who seemed unfazed by the accolades. These days, Zenón rarely appears as a sideman, but I’m guessing he committed to this nine-day tour that took him to Springfield, MA, New York, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Toronto and Philadelphia, because of the respect he has for Weiss and Mitchell, and because of the challenge and reward the music provided. It was a great honor to meet and host Zenón, who is now an Assistant Professor of Music at MIT, and one of Puerto Rico’s great gifts to the world of music.

 

Like Weiss, and seemingly half of all Jazz Shares musicians, Matt Mitchell lives in Brooklyn, and like Weiss, he has been a regular visitor over the years. The pianist performed in 2012 with Dave Douglas’ Quintet in Jazz Shares’ first season, and has made subsequent trips to the Valley with Anna Webber’s Simple Trio, Jon Iragabon’s Quartet and Miles Okazaki’s Trickster. On two of the more complex, up tempo pieces: “It Is What It Is” and “Five To Nine”, Mitchell provided the backbone and a dazzling display of hand independence. Like his bandmates, he is a superb technician who only uses his prodigious talent when it serves the music. Nate Chinen’s description of him as “a pianist of burrowing focus”, is apt and accurate, and it’s hard to argue with Will Layman of PopMatters, who called him "the most complete and well-integrated improvising pianist of the last 15 years."

 

Weiss leads Starebaby, an unconventional amalgam of doom metal and electronic music, featuring Craig Taborn, Matt Mitchell and Trevor Dunn. He is an accomplished tabla player, who has translated his studies with his guru, Samir Chatterjee to drum kit (see Tintal Drumset Solo - and Jhaptal Drumset Solo). He has led big bands of original material (see Sixteen: Drummers Suite and Fourteen). That’s all in addition to a slew of leader credits in more conventional settings, and a busy schedule of sideman work with some of the leading lights of jazz. With the possible exception of Ches Smith, Weiss has a wider musical palette than any current improvising drummer. I’m confident prestigious awards will be coming his way, and glad that we get to experience his evolution on a regular basis. 

 

 

On Friday I met with jazz scholar, radio host and record producer Ben Young, who gifted me albums recorded in the 1960s and 70s by Archie Shepp, Ted Daniels, Sirone and others. They were “free” jazz records made entirely by men. The next night, March 30, Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares presented vocalist Sara Serpa at the Institute For the Musical Arts in Goshen, MA. The juxtaposition of these two events in my life underscored the sea change that has taken place in both the music and those who make it.

 

In the past 50 years, and especially in the last 20 or so, the number of women who have taken jazz’s center stage has exploded. Of course, even back in the day women like Mary Lou Williams, Alice Coltrane and Carla Bley had major impacts on jazz. But now, the number of female jazz artists working in the field has grown so great as to seem unremarkable (although more work remains). In the past five weeks alone, for instance, Jazz Shares has presented bands led by Tomeka Reid, Kris Davis, Ingrid Laubrock, Anna Webber and Sara Serpa. These artists were not hired to fulfil some random women’s history month quota, but because they have thriving careers making music on a high level. And they are far from alone.

 

Serpa, who performed with her husband, guitarist André Matos, and keyboardist Dov Manski, gave us a set of ethereal originals that filled the barn at IMA with love and creative energy. The material, all written by either Serpa and Matos, were drawn from a series of fine recordings they have produced, the majority from their most recent, Night Birds (2023). Utilizing the wordless vocal style that is her trademark, Serpa’s voice is precise and evocative, conjuring a tensile strength with an angelic disposition. Manski played both acoustic piano and synthesizer with understated authority, his bass-like lines on synth providing a nice bottom to the proceedings. Playing electric guitar, Matos gave the music its melodic backbone and compositional contour. Although all three musicians were highly proficient, none of them flaunted their technical skills. Instead, they let these simple pieces shine in beautifully direct ways.

 

For the last two numbers, the group invited tenor saxophonist Nathan Blehar to join the trio. Blehar, who owned Northampton’s The Dirty Truth from 2008 – 2017, now lives in Warwick, MA, and is a long-time friend and colleague of Matos. On “Carlos”, a beautiful piece that seemed to be constructed of a series of two-note commas, he soloed convincedly and gave the ensemble a velvety depth.

 

Serpa, who was born and raised in Portugal, has used her career success to advocate for women and social justice. She is a charter member of the We Have Voice Collective, a diverse group of musicians, performers, scholars, and thinkers who are shifting the cultural landscape by fostering awareness, inclusion, and the creation of safe(r) spaces for all. She conceived and composed Recognition (2020), a multi-disciplinary work that traces the historical legacy of Portuguese colonialism in Africa. Serpa (along with fellow musician Jen Shyu) is the co-founder of Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³), an important non-profit organization created to empower and elevate women and non-binary musicians. On “Degrowth”, one of two originals with lyrics, Serpa exhorted us to “fly less, drive less, walk more, slow down, buy less, waste less, look more, listen more.”


It was entirely appropriate to have Saturday’s concert at IMA, a women-centered recording studio and retreat space best known for their rock and roll camps for girls. Serpa and IMA co-founder Ann Hackler had a lot to talk about over dinner and our post-show reception.

 

Serpa and Matos’ lovely 10 year old son Lourenzo came along for the trip. We ate food cooked by Priscilla Page and yours truly, the musicians stayed in the home of Dorothy Nemetz and John Todd, who were at the dinner and concert, and we shared conversation in the home of Ann Hackler and June Millington. Along with the good vibe of the performance venue (dubbed “the musical queendom”), the evening was an exercise in relationship building.

 

The increase in the number of women in jazz has coincided with the proliferation of jazz studies programs on college campuses, the Me Too movement and the fight for equal rights more generally, and the presence of powerful role models like Geri Allen, Nicole Mitchell and Terri Lyne Carrington. It makes perfect sense that the higher profile of women in jazz manifests itself in how musicians relate to each other, how they are treated by the industry and perhaps even the very shape of jazz to come.

 

Jazz Shares Thanks Its Business Sponsors for this Season
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