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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

Although artists like Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams had incorporated religious themes into their music for decades, the concept of “spiritual jazz” gained steam after 1965 when John Coltrane released his epic, A Love Supreme. At the same time, artists like Albert Ayler, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders were reaching for the ecstatic in their quest to imbue the music with spiritual uplift.

Tenor saxophonist Andrew Lamb is cut from that same cloth. The 64 year old tenor player follows in the hallowed footsteps of those ancestors, as well as musicians like Lonnie Liston Smith, Azar Lawrence and Don Cherry. Lamb’s performance with drummer Newman Taylor Baker on Saturday, December 3 gave us new insight into the power of sound to cleanse and renew the soul.

Their hour long flight at CitySpace’s Blue Room in Easthampton was an unvarnished, unbridled and unapologetic foray into the free jazz universe; days later, the vibrations still reverberate. The unleashed energy had a cleansing effect on this listener; it was catharsis by fire music.

Baker began the evening in a low patter that built towards Lamb’s entrance, which was rough and full-bodied. That pattern held throughout the performance: a solo statement on drums, then the saxophone would join. Perhaps it was a stamina thing. Lamb moved slowly and sat down when not playing.

When he was playing, the music bounced off the room’s tin ceiling and swirled around the space with no need for on-stage amplification. A fusillade of notes, covering the entire range of the horn, came with little mooring to mode or melody until well into the concert, when Lamb started to testify with the blues at his back.

But within the gale force was a softness, expressed especially by Baker, who used nuance and subtlety during much of his alone time. He played the drums by hand for an extended period, creating swing patterns at modest volume. He slapped his thighs, arms and chest, a technique called “hambone”, at an even lower volume. At a whisper, he made his cymbals ring celestially. We listened.

Baker, who turns 80 next year, has led a full life in music. He has recorded extensively with Billy Harper, Matthew Shipp, Henry Grimes and Billy Bang, and has history in music theater, having collaborated with Diedre Murray on multiple projects, including the Obie Award winning, “Running Man”. Other theater credits include work with Ntozake Shange, Leroy Jenkins, Jeanne Lee and Henry Threadgill.

Baker was in Threadgill’s Sextett in the late 1980s. He told me that after getting off the road with Threadgill, his chops would be noticeably better. Reading down complicated drum parts, learning patterns he wouldn’t necessarily have come up with on his own, expanded his vocabulary, which he brought to other situations.

Until he discovered the washboard in 2010, Baker was the quintessential side man. His deep dive into this 19thcentury tool of drudgery gave him an opportunity to organize his own concept. Using expended shotgun shells on four fingers of each hand, customizing the physical instrument and adding microphones, effects pedals, and amplifiers, Baker has extended the washboard language, which he’s used in all manner of jazz, world, blues and new music contexts.

Andrew Lamb is a special individual. He is soft spoken and full of love. His spiritual essence is unassuming, but palpable. His playing felt like a quest, a search for attainment. Tracing a lineage through saxophonists like Charles Gayle, David S. Ware, Frank Lowe and back to Coltrane, Lamb intoned cascading lines of psalm-like notes, playing with energy and feeling.

Growing up in Chicago and Jamaica, Queens, he alluded to being different than most children, and being bullied repeatedly for it. He told me that one of the reasons he loved to play football, was it provided a socially sanctioned way of exacting pay back to his tormentors. Lamb is quick to credit the Creator in liner notes and in conversation, and although he is by no means ascetic, he has a religious air about him that fits him naturally. Now residing in Nyack, NY with his wife, Lamb has forged his spiritual stance through plenty of real world experience.

He has worked steadily, if quietly over the years. He first came to my attention in the mid-1990s with the release of Portrait in the Mist, a wonderful Delmark recording featuring Warren Smith (on vibes), along with Wilber Morris and Andrei Strobert. Subsequent recordings on Engine and NoBusiness Records kept him on my radar. He had a critical reputation but was only peripherally in the public eye, making him a perfect candidate for inclusion on the Jazz Shares schedule.

The joy of being able to provide an appreciative audience, some money and respect to artists like Andrew Lamb and Newman Taylor Baker, is why we do what we do.

“There are eighty-eight keys on a piano and within that, an entire universe,” wrote pianist and writer James Rhodes. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Valley audiences heard three distinct points in the piano macrocosm, as Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares presented “A World of Piano” at the Arts Trust in Northampton. Lafayette Gilchrist (Nov. 17), Ron Stabinsky (Nov. 18) and Marilyn Crispell (Nov. 19) each gave breathtaking solo recitals, filled with intrepid improvisation at all levels of intensity and complexity.

“A World of Piano” was a revival of a series I first produced for the Northampton Center for the Arts in 1995 (Jaki Byard, Stanley Cowell, Paul Bley) and every year from 2003 to 2012. After a final concert by Dave Burrell in 2013, the Center lost their Old School Commons space and the series went dormant. Until now. Kelly Silliman, Program Director of NCA, was excited to partner with Jazz Shares to bring the series back to life, and so we began the further exploration of the piano-sphere.

I had known Lafayette Gilchrist primarily through his work with the great tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist David Murray, with whom he has worked since the turn of the century. “He plucked me from obscurity,” Gilchrist told me. The long time Baltimore resident played with rhythmic assurance in multiple styles, much of it imbued with the blues. His playing brought to mind Jaki Byard and Dave Burrell, two expansive pianists who draw from the entire history of jazz. I loved his tendency to play a phrase then stop for a split second, adding drama and giving our ears a chance to catch up. It made me think of Artur Schnabel’s words, “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides!” His program of originals was full of ear catching melody drawn from the piano lineage. Gilchrist is a beautiful soul, open and easy, and he made lots of friends on his first tour through New England, which also included stops in Boston and Portland, Maine. Thanks to jazz protector Ann Braithwaite for her help in organizing his visit.

Ron Stabinsky, unfamiliar to the vast majority of concertgoers, is best known in the jazz world for his work with avant-garde trumpeter Peter Evans and Moppa Elliot’s ensemble, Mostly Other People Do the Killing. For the past four years, he has been a member of the influential rock band the Meat Puppets, and is one of the most in-demand classical pianists in central Pennsylvania. Stabinsky, who possesses enormous technical skill and plays convincingly in many genres, is a charming and disarming music nerd. From the stage, he told us he was going to improvise like he does at home, and not like he is performing for an audience. He seemed to be able to play whatever was in his head, which was by turns, florid, eruptive, swinging and emotive. His work straddled contemporary music, romantic-period classical, blues, swing and other styles. He ended the program by playing two of his favorites: Horace Silver’s “Peace” and Thelonious Monk’s “Introspection”. Stabinsky is a long-time fan of “A World of Piano”, having made the four-hour trip from his home near Scranton to see pianists Matthew Shipp, Cooper Moore and Dave Burrell, along with his Northampton friend, Dick Moulding. “I really can’t put into words how deeply I enjoyed playing on this reintroduction of my favorite piano series,” Stabinsky wrote. Even though his visit was short, (he returned home after the show for an early Puccini rehearsal), the chance to meet his partner Mary, and his friend Doug, gave us a chance to get some insight into a really nice, very talented individual.

Marilyn Crispell is also a fan of the piano series. She played it in 2004, and for the last two years she’s been a dues-paying member of Jazz Shares. Her protean talent was on display at 33 Hawley St., as she wowed a crowd of 75 with her piano explosions. Shareholder Ron Freshley told me he felt the vibrations through his chair. But there were also periods of aching beauty, reinforcing Frederick Chopin’s insight that, “After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Her improvisations seemed fully formed, as coherent as any written music, with ideas coming in torrents. Crispell is a self-effacing person. Her hair, like that of her upstate New York neighbor Carla Bley, obscured her face while she played. Her preference to angle the piano and lower the stage lights, emphasized her modesty. When Jazz Shares live streamed her trio, Dreamstruck in October, 2020, she insisted the cameras focus on her hands. Long-time Jazz Shares member Julie Orfirer’s solution to the lack of “face time”: “I just closed my eyes and followed the paths.”I love that Crispell’s demure on stage demeanor sits so comfortably with her loud, disruptive playing. Priscilla Page and I are so happy to call her a friend.

Gilchrist and Crispell stayed at chez Siegel/Page, and Jazz Shares board members Nancy Goldstein and Marta Ostapuik had the musicians in their homes for delicious pre-concert meals. We are western Mass. ambassadors, ensuring our region remains a welcoming place for cutting edge creative musicians, and their music. Three concerts in three days gave us a needed boost of piano bliss, which we hope to continue annually.

  • Glenn Siegel

William Parker is the most important jazz musician to emerge in the last 40 years. That view is entirely disputable, of course, and subject to all kinds of varied responses. But that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.

So when someone suggests I produce a concert that includes Parker, I almost always say “yes”. The Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares event on October 29 at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, featuring The Griots Speak, was the 14th time I’ve produced the great bass player live. If you add his Valley appearances under Michael Ehler’s aegis starting in the mid-1990s, the number of times Parker has performed for Valley audiences exceeds two dozen.

Parker was the lynchpin that held the Griots together, just as he’s been the coalescing force within New York’s creative music scene since the 1980s. On Saturday, Parker’s mates were underground legend Juma Sultan (percussion), NY stalwart Daniel Carter (saxophone, flute, trumpet, piano) and the Valley’s own Charlie Apicella (guitar, percussion). The pairing was the brainchild of Apicella, who put together the idea after meeting Sultan’s daughter through the music education organization, The Blues and Beyond.

Parker turns 71 years old in January, so now is the right time to step back, assess and give praise. It’s hard to underestimate Parker’s influence as a player, organizer and friend. He’s a phenomenal bassist, whose work with Cecil Taylor, David S Ware, Charles Gayle, Matthew Shipp and Peter Brötzmann is well documented. He has 75 recordings as a leader or co-leader, where he plays donson’goni, shakuhachi and other non-western string and wind instruments, in addition to composing and playing bass. Taken together his music paints a portrait of an expansive soul, who despite his free-jazz cred, is blues rooted and grounded in deep, deep swing.

Parker’s biography, “Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker”, by Cisco Bradley, was just published, and Parker’s own writing, including “Who Owns Music?” and “Conversations”, is both profound and straightforward, the way enlightened beings do it. He and his wife, Patricia Nicholson, have built Arts for Art (which includes the Vision Festival) into a national model for musician-centered presenting, all while quietly helping hundreds of musicians and others in need. William Parker is a spirit driven pied piper, who put a whole music on his back and carried it across a period of steep financial decline.

At Wistariahurst, Parker’s bass lines, insistent, forceful, constantly shifting and always swinging, served as the evening’s anchor. He gave the audience something we could hang our hats on, and provided the band a direction, a tonal center, and a set of rhythms to work with. If not for him, the music would have meandered off the proverbial cliff.

There was no written material, and except for Parker’s sturdy backbone, no real signposts guiding the music. Sultan’s playing, on hand percussion and a large, African two-headed drum, was elemental and straightforward. Carter’s work on flute, tenor sax and trumpet added a tasty top that provided a modicum of melody, while Apicella switched between a madal drum, an instrument integral to Nepalese folk music, various bells and shakers, and electric guitar.

With no one particular in charge, the music often sounded unmoored, wandering without forward momentum, listing from side to side.

The presence of 80 year old Juma Sultan was a cause for celebration. Sultan was a close associate of Jimi Hendrix, performing with him at Woodstock and appearing on a dozen recordings with the great guitarist. His work on bass and percussion in the 1970s with his Aboriginal Music Society and others, is collected on a beautiful Eremite Records box set, Father of Origin.

Carter, 76, has a long history with Parker. He was on Parker’s first record as a leader, In Search of the Mystery Peace (1980), and they have played together since the late-1970s in the co-operative quartet, Other Dimensions in Music. Carter shows up on Thurston Moore, Yoko Ono and Yo La Tango records, and has a fondness for western Mass that was cultivated when he had a college girlfriend at Smith.

At the end, the 80 people crowded into the elegant Music Room at Wistariahurst stood to applaud, as much to acknowledge more than 150 years of collective experience, as to show appreciation for this one night only musical experiment.

Jazz Shares Thanks Its Business Sponsors for this Season
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