Friday, January 3, 2014

a new year

This is my first post in a long time and as usual it marks an event. My next record, Latin Jazz Underground, is coming out in May. The photo is of the guys at the session. Left to right, Aruán Ortiz, who co-produced, arranged the date and, of course, played piano, Rashaan Carter, bass, Gerald Cleaver, drums and Román Diaz, percussion. This record is a landmark in many ways and it reflects the complexity of my relationship to music on many different levels. On a musical level it is a radically departure from my recent albums, starting with Jazz Brasil my records have been increasingly lyrical. Jazz Brasil is a more mainstream album than the Brazilian jazz albums the I had already recorded and El Cumbanchero was a luscious transformation of my Cuban recordings, from percussion heavy quintets to the lush string quartet settings of charanga melodies. This lyrical phase reached a climax with Todo Corazon, a romantic offering to my sweet wife Dasha (more of that in a minute). I really loved Todo Corazon, a poured my heart in soul into unabashed romanticism and it was well received as you can see from one of its many reviews.

But although I had been moving up in the world, making the Downbeat Rising Star list, I felt that I needed to make a stronger statement if I was to get the attention of the reviewers who write for the major jazz periodicals. Aruán had a suggestion. If I did something completely different that extended my records in a more provocative dimension people might see me as more than a flute player who makes lovely Latin jazz recordings. His idea was prompted by his own interest in the avant grade of the 70's and the potential, rarely explored, to marry free jazz attitudes with deep Afro-Cuban roots. I had tried that in 1967 with the original Cuban Roots. As a trombone player in the 60's I was part of the developing free jazz movement, playing with Bill Dixon, among the freest of the free jazz musicians and playing at jam sessions with some of the giants experimenting in New York at the time. I had always loved Sam Rivers, and his recent passing, along with the passing of Andrew Hill, for whom Aruán had deep respect, suggested to both Aruán and myself that an album moving Latin jazz into a free harmonic and rhythmic environment might be worth doing at this point in my career.

The result, Latin Jazz Underground, is a radical departure from everything I have recorded so far, and it is unique as far as I know, the first real attempt to merge free jazz with clave. The music on the album includes tunes by Sam Rivers, Don Cherry, Andrew Hill, two originals by Aruán, one of my tunes and a standard. It contrasts complex unison melodies with free improvisation, changing time signatures that somehow get reconciled with Afro-Cuban patterns and virtuoso performances by all of the guys. The album is coming out on Zoho records who captured the concept of the album perfectly with the album cover.

I had originally offered Algo Mas to Zoho in 2004 and they turned it down. Jochen Becker, the owner of Zoho records liked it at first and offered to release it. But then he called back and asked me whether it was possible to remove Pedrito's vocals. I said I couldn't. The vocals were prayers and were crucial to the concept behind the project. I sent the recording to Jazzheads and that became the first of 9 albums I recorded for the company. I kept running into Jochen at various music happenings and he know about my recent recordings. In fact it was his suggestion that I record a tango album, which turned out to be my 2013 release, Todo Corazon. And he suggested that I contact Pablo Aslan who records for Zoho; Pablo co-produced and arranged the album for me. I was worried about how Jazzheads would respond to the record of experimental Latin jazz after my last three records. And in any event I felt I needed a different level of exposure than I was getting with Jazzheads. I wanted more of a focus on press and less on radio and I especially wanted strong exposure in Europe, where Zoho had very strong market presence. And then there was my perennial battle with my lack of a performing career, the reality of my age (73) and the pressing professional and academic commitments that constituted my other life.

If you have been following my blog my ambivalence about not being a working musician has been an undercurrent throughout the ongoing saga of my 'dream' to make a contribution as a jazz flutist. This culminated with my last post, where I exposed my other life and admitted to the strong attraction to academic work that my recent book represented. Since my book was published I have cut way back on my psychological involvement with music. I have been practicing a lot less and writing philosophy with real engagement. I have written a number of papers and a chapter for a book on the periodic table that is being offered to Oxford University Press. I was invited to submit the chapter and was both surprised and pleased at the invitation from two exceptionally gifted scholars who are editing the volume. Writing academic papers has a strong attraction to me and has a calming effect, contrary to music which is always a source of strong anxiety and often even stronger regret as I face the reality of all that I have missed by not being a working musician. The camaraderie, sheer joy of performing and the shared sense of sacrifice makes jazz musicians one of the strongest psychical communities I have ever been a member of. Being a musician among musicians is one of the great joys of life and being a jazz musician is a great gift, whatever the price that jazz musicians have to pay for the privilege of playing the music. The taste of it that I get when I record is just enough to make my ache for what I'm missing, and going to Zoho offers me the hope that I may yet get a chance to perform, since, among other things, Zoho expects it of me. But I'll have to see how the record is received and if my relationship with Aruán can develop into performance opportunities. Although I am happy to just put out the record and enjoy life, since my life has recently become exceptionally enjoyable.

Last April my sweetheart Dasha came back from Mongolia and decided to stay with me in the US. We were married August 28th.

So things are looking bright for the New Year.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

my other life

Well there it is, my other life on display. The book is something that has taken an enormous amount of energy over the past year and a half. I started working on it around that time I finished Todo Corazon and was involved with it the whole time I was recording my next album with Aruan Ortiz. The working title of the album is FREE. It is Afro-Cuban free jazz, 70's style, with tunes by Sam Rivers, Don Cherry, Andrew Hill plus originals by Aruan and some surprises. Like most of my albums it is me and a rhythm section. Aruan played piano, Rashaan Carter, bass, Gerald Cleaver, drums and Ramon Diaz on conga. It is a strange album, especially after my last three which have been increasingly pleasant to listen to.

My tendency is to go back and forth between albums that are more familiar and albums that try to stretch the music in the direction that reflect my aspirations since the late 60's towards the avant garde. After all, the original Cuban Roots (1967) was way ahead of its time. After my first album on flute, Seasoning, (1996), I recorded Jazz World Trios (1998) which in many respects is still among my most adventurous albums, followed by Three Deuces (2000) which is mainstream. Another example of my switching back and forth are O Nosso Amor and Lua y Sol (Brazilian, inside and out) and Con Alma and Timbasa (Latin jazz, mainstream and cutting edge). But getting back to my last three albums, Jazz Brasil with Kenny Barron was certainly very much in the pocket and although El Cumbanchero is strikingly original in many respects it still references the charanga tradition in available ways. And Todo Corazon, whatever its novelty is luscious and easy to listen to. That built up a lot of musical gravity on the side of me that likes to make music that people want to listen to. And so there was a lot of pressure building on me to bolster my avant garde credentials with something to counteract all the sweetness of my recent work. Well, for better or for worse, that is my latest, FREE, hopefully to be released next year (Jazzheads hasn't heard it yet). FREE is even hard for me to listen to. When I played the rough mix for some musician friends I prefaced it by saying it is the kind of music that makes people hate jazz.

But, whatever my anxieties about the album being accepted I felt it was necessary to make a statement that situated my music back towards the direction of artistic riskiness. And there is a risk.  Both Jazz Brasil and El Cumbanchero were at the top of the radio play charts, while Lua y Sol and Timbasa, although well received, never got as much play or attention. And my most innovative album, Tales From the Earth with Omar Sosa, received little or no play and has pretty much disappeared from view (it is a great album and I am very proud or it, nonetheless). So my next album is "out there." What has that to do with my new book?

Well I'm going through a really strange period and I am afraid that my attitude towards my life and music has been impacted. For the past 20 years I have been balancing my musical aspirations with my professional commitments as an academic. I published lots of papers, made a reasonable reputation in the field in which I published and was well enough respected that I was asked to write the book for a new but prestigious press that is publishing important work in logic. But although I think I have something important to say about logic, my heart and and my ego has been all tied up in music. I defined myself as a musician. That is where I felt I had to prove myself and that is where I saw the real value of my my life, my contribution -- what made my almost 73 years on this planet more than just taking up space. But then I wrote that book. The first thing is that it is really fun to do. I mean fun! I really enjoyed the process of pulling my thoughts together and I had to read some modern logic that stretched my abilities in ways that are more common to logicians in there 20's, not some old guy in his 70's who hasn't kept up with the field for a really long time. But I managed. I read some really hard stuff, figured it out and incorporated it into my ideas and came up with some interesting results. I really like my book. And for the past 6 months, while I was putting the finishing touches on the book, after if had been accepted for publication (even though I was asked to submit a manuscript, it had to go to readers who review it for the publisher) something really strange happened. I started to practice less and less.

Ever since I started to play the flute and no matter the ups and downs of my life playing the flute was my first priority. I was notorious at academic conferences because I always found a place to practice, frequently outside of the conference residence (conferences are frequently on college campuses). There is a major conference in my field (argumentation theory) in Amsterdam every four years and I spent more time playing the flute in Vondelpark then I ever did at conference events. Playing in Vondelpark is one of my all time favorite things to do and whatever the value of presenting at the conference for my academic career, it was getting nicely toasted and playing the flute that was the main attraction of the Amsterdam conference for me. But when I was writing the book, I would wake up, put my flute in the stand and get ready to practice, but the book would grab me. And once I started working on it the day was finished. I would put up to 8 or more hours of steady work into the book without even realizing it. And the day would go by without my touching the flute. I would then force myself to play for a few hours, but even that got less and less. And for the first time in over 40 years I went to days without touching the flute. The irony is that I started having a little flurry of gigs during the last 6 months, so I was preforming more than usual, but something had changed in my head. The flute was not the most important thing in my life.

But then it got even crazier. After the book was finished, I still didn't practice all that much and I had another conference paper to write. Instead of just putting something together I got deeply involved and wrote something really special. And I started to practice less. I really don't know what is going on. And I am writing this blog to come clear to myself. With FREE I think I may have said everything I want to say as a musician. I'm sick of looking at boxes of unsold CD's. I'm sick of fighting for space in a field crowded with great musicians for whom being a musician is all that there is. They struggle to make a living, the successful ones (the guys I record with) are on tour all over the world and their music is taken seriously. I'm a weird out-sider, a professor who makes records. The latest review for Todo Corazon even identifies me as a logician. And maybe that's what I am. Maybe I'm a professor who plays that flute, rather than a flute player who supports his music as an academic, like so many jazz musicians and other creative artists for whom a full-time teaching gig is the ticket to artistic independence. Well we will see. Anyway the book is available here in case you are interested.

Meanwhile I have to put the finishing touches on FREE and get it ready to present to Jazzheads. And I have another album almost finished. The album of Jewish music I recorded in Jerusalem last summer. That still needs a lot of work so I will remain engaged with music. Meanwhile I'll have to see what is happening in my head. I guess it is time to stop writing my blog and practice for a few hours.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Todo Corazon

Well there it is. The tango album, or at least the cover. The album itself will be out early in 2013. I finished mastering yesterday and have to listen to it once more before it is official. But going through all of the tracks, doing a bit of final adjustments to the mix and then balancing the entire CD for volume gave me a chance to really listen to what me and the musicians accomplished. For those of you who don't want to dig through earlier blogs on the project a quick review.

The idea of the tango album goes back a few years when Jochen Becker of Zoho records met me at a conference and in conversation recommended that I think about doing a tango album. I have had a long friendship with Jochen, surprisingly based on his turning down my album Algo Mas, recorded in 2004. I have approached Zoho at the suggestion of Bobby Sanabria who played an important role in that record by suggesting that I contact Pedrito Martinez who ended up co-producing the record with me. I had asked Bobby who was the guy in NYC that knew the most about folkloric Cuban music and who had the most open mind. Bobby told me that Pedrito was the guy, and he couldn't have been more on target. Pedrito organized the drummers, sang and played and picked the toques de santo that constituted half of the album (the other half was rumba).

In any event, when Jochen heard the music he loved it, but felt that with the folkloric vocals is wasn't right for the label. That's when I connected with Jazzheads, forming the productive relationship that has resulted in 8 CD's on the label so far, with more to come. Jochen was very friendly with me ever since, which reflects what a great guy he is and who supportive many of the independent record company's are of each others efforts to survive in the abysmal music market of recent years. I asked Jochen who he knew that could facilitate a tango recording and he suggested one of his recoding artists, bassist Pablo Aslan. Pablo has had a number of successful tango albums, winning nomination in both the Grammy and the Latin Grammy.

Pablo agreed to the project and selected classic tango material including tangos written in the early 1900's. I've discussed the process in earlier posts and included some photos from the session that I hope you will check out. But for now I just want to post the liner notes which give you another perspective on the material. They are by jazz critic and tango historian Fernando Gonzalez.

Mark Weinstein Todo Corazón

Mark Weinstein does things his way.
Even a cursory look at his personal story and professional career suggests a mix of a curious, restless mind and the talent and determination to build on his choices.
Not surprisingly, Todo Corazón is not a conventional tango album.
It is framed by the tango tradition. It features a classic, unimpeachable repertoire and a terrific ensemble comprised of musicians who not only know the vocabulary  of tango but its old ways and backstories. And the settings echo the very beginnings of this music — the first ensembles at the turn of the 20th century featured flute, violin and guitar — but also play to its present, as tango continues to open up to the harmonies and improvisation in jazz.
And then, to all this, Weinstein brings his own vision and his own sound.
“When I play music, I want to feel I have the absolute freedom to put myself into that music, whatever the style,” he explains. “I never try to copy or mimic what other people do. I try to get inside the music and take ownership as an improviser.”
As he once explained to Chip Boaz in an interview: “I don’t play Cuban music; I play jazz to Cuban music. I don’t play Brazilian music; I play jazz to Brazilian music. … I don’t play Jewish music; I play jazz to Jewish music. What I mean is that I keep the form completely intact, but then have the freedom to do whatever I want.”
As for his flute playing, Weinstein, a former bass and trombone player, picked up the instrument at 34, at a time he was transitioning from full-time musician to graduate student for his PhD in Philosophy. He is completely self-taught. 
In those days I was playing the flute to take a break from writing my dissertation,” he says. “I never took a flute lesson. Nobody showed me the fingerings. I just did it.”
He doesn’t have the rounded, tightly focused classical sound or a conventional jazz approach. If anything, his sound is closer to that of Jeremy Steig, one of his role models, than Hubert Laws or James Moody.
“I haven’t been able to get that classical sound. I wish I could — but I can’t,” he says. “But because of it, what I do when I record is play with a range of sounds and a generally warmer sound.”
After years of exploring African, Brazilian and Caribbean music, Weinstein saw an opportunity in tango. Playing and recording drum- and percussion- heavy genres inevitably limits flute players to the high register and takes away the more nuanced, expressive possibilities of the instrument.
On the other hand, playing in a drum-less setting has its own challenges.
It’s not only that there’s a different way of setting the groove and driving the music but, in tango, the melodies and the dancing, true or implied, are often what sets the tempo and its variations.
Still, for Weinstein, recording a tango album was a chance for the flute to be heard.
“For better or for worse, it was an opportunity to put my flute sound for people to hear and approach the songs in different ways, with different sounds.”
As a showcase, bassist, arranger, co-producer and Grammy and Latin Grammy nominee Pablo Aslan chose a rich program.
It includes gems such as “La Viruta,” written by Vicente Greco in 1912, or “Los Mareados,” a 1940s classic by Juan Carlos Cobián and Enrique Cadícamo, but also “Onda Nueve,” a piece by New Tango master Astor Piazzolla composed in 1972.
And, smartly, Weinstein is set here with a mixed approach: some tracks are craftily arranged and some are a la parrilla,  (literally “grilled”), which is tango’s version of a head arrangement and, in the limited way of the traditional style, improvising.
Weinstein plays off his strong supporting cast featuring pianist Abel Rogantini, Latin Grammy winner bandoneonist Raul Jaurena, guitarist Francisco Navarro and Aslan.
Their tango playing sounds grounded, lived-in, and Weinstein lets them account for the tradition, not only when presenting the pieces but in their improvisations. Meanwhile, he takes a personal tack: not quite staying strictly within the boundaries of the tango vocabulary, but not forcing bebop on it either.
He plays it close to idiomatically on the title track and “El Llorón,” taken here with a canyengue feel, a hard-driving approach that goes back to the rough, early tango dance styles. He builds a delicate filigree in “Cristal” and whispers darkly on the bass flute in “Gricel,” a rare love-story-gone-right.
As a whole, his playing is distinct and hard to classify.
What this recording is not is an intellectual exercise.
This is all about the heart. It´s about the permission for “unabashed romance,” as Weinstein puts it, that tango grants. It’s right there in the title.
What you hear, front and center, is Todo Corazón.

Fernando Gonzalez

Fernando Gonzalez is a writer and critic whose work appears regularly in The Miami Herald, JazzTimes and The International Review of Music. He is the translator and annotator of Astor Piazzolla’s autobiography A Memoir (Astor Piazzolla: A manera de memorias) as told to Natalio Gorín.