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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” So wrote George Bernard Shaw in his 1905 play, Man and Superman. But pianist Ran Blake and vocalist Dominique Eade, who have spent much of their adult lives teaching at the New England Conservatory, can also do. That much was apparent to 60 listeners who braved heavy rain on May 20 to bring down the curtain on Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares’ 11th season.

The concert at the Community Music School of Springfield, in Blake’s hometown, took place almost four years to the day of their last visit in 2019. Due to illness, Blake had hardly performed in the interceding years, but the venerable 88-year old iconoclast was in fine form on Saturday, as was his running mate, Dominique Eade. Blake seemed genuinely grateful to be performing again in Springfield.

Their beautifully paced recital was grouped in small sets of three or four compositions. Each of the six sets (with an intermission) were medley-ed, with songs moving seamlessly from one to another; the music flowed like a dream.

At Ran’s urging, he and Dominique supplied programs, which both helped us identify melodies and get a sense of Ran’s life in Springfield, MA, where he spent his early years. He titled the concert, “Storyboarding Springfield”, and dedicated it to Classical High School (now condos). The program thanked many of his teachers, family friends, neighbors and musical collaborators by name, and included little reminiscences’ like, “Spiral Staircase and Red House at Art and Capital Theatres”, and “Mulberry Cemetery late at night”. Before the concert, Blake and Eade visited his childhood home at the corner of Union and Mulberry, which was sold by Ran’s family to the Parker family, who occupy the home today.

There was a deep simplicity to the music, but the bare essentials were all we needed. Ran was never florid in his playing, and on Saturday he chose his notes carefully, played them emphatically, and, of course, they were all the right notes. There was adventure and risk taking in the music, with Dominique darting around melodies, leaping octaves and displacing beats, while taking liberties with Gershwin, Arlen and Lane.

The highlights were many. “Portrait”, music and lyrics by Charles Mingus, unfurled slowly with blues inflections. “Painting my own pictures in tones/I’ve painted all mother earth”, Eade sang at the lower end of her register. There were country music heart tugs like “Lost Highway” and “The West Virginia Mine Disaster”, and a set dedicated to Thelonious Monk’s benefactor, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, including “Pannonica” (Monk), “Nica Noir” (Blake) and “Nica’s Dream” (Horace Silver).

Dominique’s solo performance of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”, accompanying herself on thumb piano, was stunning. Her rendition of Rogers and Hart’s “To Keep My Love Alive”, a humorous song from A Connecticut Yankee about a wife murdering a succession of husbands, was period-appropriate coquettish.

Not only can Dominique Eade do it, over more than three decades she has taught many others to do it, too. Among her former students at NEC are Roberta Gambarini, Michael Mayo, Rachel Price, Sofia Rei, Sara Serpa, Luciana Souza, Naledi Masilo and Aoife O’Donovan, all great and very different singers. “The key is showing people what is possible, not how to sound,” Eade said in a profile on the NEC website.

Ran Blake has been synonymous with NEC for over 40 years, where, with Gunther Schuller, he started the Third Stream Department, now known as Contemporary Musical Arts. The number of illustrious musicians who have been touched by Blake is too large to list. In an extensive interview with Robin DG Kelly, Blake shares details of his life: his early years in Springfield, MA and Suffield, CT, meeting vocalist Jeanne Lee at Bard College, his time at the legendary School of Jazz in Lenox, MA, working at Atlantic Records, his admiration of Monk, Houston Pearson and Abbey Lincoln, his work for Soul Note Records and his career at NEC.

Most of Blake’s great recordings have been in solo or duo contexts. (The Short Life of Barbara Monk, a 1986 quartet date, being one exception.) His memorable duo records include collaborations with Anthony Braxton, Jaki Byard and Enrico Rava, and especially with great female vocalists like Jeanne Lee, Sara Serpa, Christine Correa and Dominique Eade.

“If you’re lucky, you experience brain wave alignment, which is something that you feel profoundly in a duo,” Eade said in her NEC profile. Stars and brain waves were certainly aligned for Ran Blake and Dominique Eade on Saturday, as they taught us all lessons on creativity and perseverance.

There’s a tendency in the jazz world, and elsewhere, to focus on the newcomer, the next discovery, the fresh voice. That allure has appeal. But it’s equally thrilling to hear musicians who have spent decades refining their craft and honing their skills. Unlike the aging ballplayer who still understands pitch sequences but can no longer catch up to a fastball, old pro musicians can still get it done physically and have developed a refined aesthetic touch.

It’s always exciting to be in the presence of veteran musicians. Their accumulated knowledge is impressive, they are unperturbed by unexpected circumstances, and they have lots of stories to tell. When four seasoned artists are in the same band, well that can be a transcendent experience.

Such was the case on May 6, when Erik Friedlander’s quartet, The Throw, performed at Hawks & Reed in Greenfield, MA. The cellist was joined by Uri Caine, piano, Mark Helias, bass, and Ches Smith, drums. All but Smith are over 60.

Their 80-minute set (including an encore) featured a generous amount of material from A Queen’s Firefly, released last year on Friedlander’s Skiptone Records. Each of the pieces, all penned by Friedlander, had strong melodies, distinct rhythmic contours and specific points of view. Most featured multiple changes of tempo, including generous helpings of swing. The concert, attended by over 70 happy listeners, flew by.

Cellist Erik Friedlander, now 62, has been leading ensembles for almost 30 years, and has released 25 recordings under his name. He has been a close collaborator of John Zorn since the 1990s, and has extensive experience composing for film and TV (“Oh Lucy!”, “Thoroughbreds”, “The Romanoffs”). His father is the acclaimed photographer Lee Friedlander, and Block Ice & Propane, the first of his 15 recordings on Skiptone, captures cross-country family vacations built around his father’s work. Friedlander is an expressive soloist on cello, an instrument as present as it’s ever been in jazz. He is a consummate composer and a bandleader with a knack for constructing ensembles able to convey his musical thoughts.

I first met Uri Caine in 2002, when he presented his brilliant, expansive version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as part of the UMass Magic Triangle Jazz Series. His sly take on this piece of the canon was both reverent and subversive, and I became an instant fan. This work, and Caine’s other classical music reimagining’s, can be found on Winter & Winter. In 2001, Caine and fellow Philadelphian’s Christian McBride and Questlove produced The Philadelphia Experiment, which was funky in the extreme. And when you consider his fusion trio, Bedrock, and his “straightahead” jazz chops, you realize you’re dealing with an artist who can play whatever music the moment demands. On Saturday, there were flashes of his prodigious technique, but he spent much of the evening providing just the right riffs and voicings to show off the contour of each composition.

The Magic Triangle Series presented the Mark Helias Quartet in 1997, by which time I was already familiar with the five outstanding Enja recordings he produced between 1985-95. Helias has been a regular visitor to western Massachusetts over the years, appearing as the Marks Brothers with fellow bassist Mark Dresser, with Joe Lovano and Tom Giampietro in a tribute to Ed Blackwell, BassDrumBone (with Ray Anderson and Gerry Hemingway), the Michael Gregory Jackson Trio and the Jane Ira Bloom Quartet. It was great to have the hip, loquacious, (and important) bassist back in the Valley. The 72 year old veteran provided a deep, soulful bottom that sounded wonderfully resonant in Hawks & Reed’s fourth floor space, called The Perch.

Although forty-something drummer Ches Smith is of another generation, he has already logged a ton of credits as a sideman and a leader. His two most recent releases, both on Pyroclastic, were blockbusters: We All Break – Path of Seven Colors, captures a groundbreaking amalgam of jazz and traditional Haitian drumming and singing, and Interpret It Well features Smith’s trio of Mat Maneri and Craig Taborn, with special guest Bill Frisell. Everything Smith played was full of life and seemed essential to the music. At a couple of points, his drumming became purposefully loud, bringing welcome attention to his prodigious skills.

Discovering new talent is always a joy, and this season Jazz Shares was thrilled to have introduced to our region younger musicians like Mali Obomsawin, Allison Burik, Patricia Brennan and Beth McDonald. But wine needs to age before it peaks, and there is nothing better than watching veterans like Erik Friedlander and his bandmates share the fruits of their years spent sharpening their craft.

The passing of knowledge from one generation to the next is terribly important to the evolution and continuity of jazz. The history is full of stories of future standard bearers being shaped by formative interaction with their elders. Before the explosion of college-based jazz programs and the simultaneous shrinking of performance opportunities, most of that mentoring took place on bandstands and in the hours getting to those bandstands.

So it was heartening to watch 58-year old saxophonist and clarinetist Ken Vandermark lead a band of musicians half his age in concert at Hawks & Reed on April 20. The Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares event was part of an eight-city U.S. tour. The band has a European tour scheduled for the fall.

It’s hard to overestimate how valuable this kind of practical schooling is for emerging artists. The young musicians, Erez Dessel (keyboards), Beth McDonald (tuba) and Lily Finnegan (drums), are a few years out of college (undergraduate and graduate), and they absorbed Vandermark’s musical lessons a like dry paper towel. Vandermark remarked what fast learners they were, and how quickly they were able to inhabit his complicated compositions. At the same time, they were also soaking up soft skills: how to carry themselves, how to talk to sound engineers and interact with audience members, how to pack for the road.

Vandermark, who booked and managed the tour, also had to stay flexible and nimble. His original vision, called Edition 55, was a quintet with cello, bass, tuba and drums. Two months before liftoff, health and other unforeseen circumstances necessitated a reconfiguration into Edition Redux. Beth McDonald and Lily Finnegan were holdovers, while pianist Erez Dessel was a late addition. Vandermark had to rewrite parts and teach the newcomer his system for utilizing his compositions.

The music, which will be recorded and released on Vandermark’s Audiographic Records, had sections of dense, driving, unison playing juxtaposed with portions of open, meditative music. It had a suite-like sweep, and like all of Vandermark’s work, it was compelling and coherent and inspired by heroes of the composer. We heard pieces dedicated to the American-Mexican composer Conlon Nancarrow and the French filmmaker Robert Bresson.

We were glad to provide Dessel with an acoustic piano, his first of the tour. Although he sounded very good on his Korg keyboard, the piano sounded grand, expansive. A recent New England Conservatory graduate, he was music director of the Savanah (GA) Music Festival Jazz Academy, where he learned about the work of Georgia-born saxophonist Marion Brown. During show-and-tell at the post-concert dinner, we showed him Brown’s hard to find book, “Recollections”, and an original painting he did while living in western Massachusetts. Dessel is currently the community engagement coordinator for the Chicago Philharmonic.

McDonald had a big fat satisfying tone on tuba that was augmented by a bunch of pedals and effects. She gave the music its bottom while also providing drones, rumblings and a bit of mystery. Like the rest of the band, she studied in Boston (NEC) and lives in Chicago. Like the rest of her bandmates, she was curious and gracious in equal measure.

Finnegan got her masters degree from Berklee School of Music, where she was part of the Global Jazz Institute and the Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice. Her career has been greatly advanced by Terri Lynn Carrington and Kris Davis, who put her to work and put her in touch with folks who can advance a career. She is now back in her hometown of Chicago, where she is the record store manager of Catalytic Sound, an experimental music cooperative that Vandermark is involved in.

Ken Vandermark, an important figure on Chicago’s jazz scene since 1990, learned from elders too, of course. These include Hal Russell, the idiosyncratic, multi-instrumentalist, tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, the owner/operator of Chicago’s jazz finishing school, the Velvet Lounge, and German reed man Peter Brötzmann, a leading figure in the European avant-garde. His father, jazz writer Stu Vandermark, also had an early impact. He and Ken’s mom, Sue, were at the Greenfield show, as well as the concert the night before at Rob Vandermark’s Seven Cycles bicycle factory in Watertown, MA.

So it goes, from generation to generation. Ken Vandermark is a humble guy with high standards and an expansive understanding of music; he’s providing a perfect conduit of jazz knowledge. Lending expertise and encouraging youth is the ultimate expression of hope, and insures a future steeped in past accomplishments.

Jazz Shares Thanks Its Business Sponsors for this Season
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