Tuesday, July 28, 2015

high hopes

That's Aruán Ortiz and me after we recorded El Cumbanchero (the hot link takes you to the title track). The picture was from a photo shoot, Aruán's idea. Aruán had great hopes for El Cumbanchero. I had given him the opportunity to created a modern charanga sound, that was both consistent with the tradition and uniquely creative. The album included classic compositions by such notables as Rafael Hernandez, Isreal Lopez (Cachao) and Cesar Portillo and reflected the original settings of a number of recordings by Arcaño y Sus Maravillas, the most progressive Cuban charanga ensemble in history. Reimagining the charanga tradition in his terms gave Aruán a unique vehicle for his creative talents and he saw great possibilities for performing with the ensemble. The photo shoot was the beginning of what Aruán saw as our connecting to move the music forward. That sadly was not to be. 

There were a number of reasons, a reflection of my entire career as an aspiring jazz flutist. There was the existential issue. I was 72 years old, financially comfortable, but with no money to spare after the expense of recording (musicians, studio, mixing, promotion, purchases of discs). And the money stream from my previous CD's was minimal in terms of my real life requirements. I am a college professor, tenured in a department of education (not music) have a nice house with a big mortgage in New Jersey and the usual obligations of middle class living. Music was my creative outlet, but was irrelevant, except as a drain on resources, to the practical exigencies of my life. Then there is the psychological issue, over the twenty odd years that I have tried to be a jazz musician I made a number of attempts to perform. And local clubs like Cecil's gave me a chance to play with from time to time.

Playing at Cecil's was always great, especially when Aruán was free to take the gig, but the gigs ended up costing me money. And many of the gigs I played in other clubs were a total drag. The local club that replaced Cecil's after it closed, the Hat City Kitchen, was noisy and unappreciative, and my long time local venue, Trumpets, was always a hassle, times changed, gigs cancelled and very little money. I could never figure out how to ramp up my performances and get gigs in the city. I didn't have a following to speak of and at my age didn't give the impression of being able to generate one. But the truth is I hadn't put any real effort into getting gigs in recent years and so I was not geared up mentally to join with a young hungry Cuban musician who was getting noticed both internationally and on the New York creative music scene. Despite the real warmth between us as is clear from the picture, my spirit was not strong enough to join with Aruán's. I did the photo shoot, would have been open to anything Aruán presented, but did not get involved with his musical life. Had I been younger, hungrier and especially braver I would have gone to his gigs, sat in, get to the meet the guys etc. Been there, done that! And it didn't do much good when I has in my fifties, nor did the albums I recorded when I was in my sixties lead to the kind of performance opportunities that would sustain a career.  And so I didn't do it; I didn't follow up on his initiative. But Aruán was motivated. He was convinced that our CD would get recognition in Cuba (it had hit the top of the Jazz and world radio play charts). But there were practical problems as well. There was no realistic way to recreate El Cumbanchero as a working ensemble.

We had recorded the CD in four sessions. We played through half of the tunes with just the rhythm section. Mauricio Herrera, playing timbales, Yunior Terry on bass and Aruán and me. That was a great time, magical, musical and full of rewarding moments,. Aruan's changes were exquisite to play on and although difficult in spots, the music flowed easily. Here are the guys.

But the center of the arrangements, the raison d'etre of the album, was the string writing that would extend the classic charanga tradition using a string quartet. And Aruan's interest was in classical string quartet writing rather than the more simple string writing associated with the Cuban dance bands. I had left town, when he recorded the string quartet, but was in touch with Aruán by phone. I called when the session was in its third hour and they hadn't finished one song. The strings finally managed to record two credible version of each of the tunes we had recorded, but none were adequate as they stood and so a job of picking and choosing, editing and pro-tools machinations was clearly in the cards. The same was true with the second half of the album. The session with me and the rhythm sections went well, but the strings were a slog. This of course impacted on Aruán's dreams of performance. There was no way we could perform this live without enormous amounts of rehearsal, and even then, the likelihood of getting it together to  meet the demanding standards of even modest venues in New York was nil. To perform the music we would need three percussion players (Mauricio did multiple overdubs) and a string quartet, eleven musicians in total. The whole thing was prohibitively expensive and Aruán had a classical string and flute project that he was moving ahead with. And so, like the rest of my dream of being a jazz flutist, what I had to show for my efforts was a CD. But Aruán didn't give up on me. Jazzheads, the company I recorded for, was having a small festival and Aruán had an idea for another album. 

His idea fit with a long-time wish I had. When I was just beginning to play flute in the early 1970's, I would walk by Sam River's loft on the lower east side, but although I was making jam sessions and playing small gigs, I never had the nerve to go in. But I had touched that scene when I was a trombone player, playing at jam sessions where that music was being defined and I now had the flute chops to make a contribution to the music that I missed in the free jazz scene of the 1970's. Music, that to me, was the epitome of what it meant to play jazz. Sam Rivers had just died as had Andrew Hill. Aruán's idea was to make a tribute album to the 70's jazz scene, mixing heavy Afro-Cuban drums with free jazz. We put a group together and did the Jazzheads festival. By the time we got to play the room was almost empty except for the musicians from Bobby Sanabria's band that played before us and the general sense was that we were doing something different. The drummer on the date, Francisco Mora- Catlett, couldn't make the recording, so we went into the studio with another drummer, Gerald Cleaver, and recorded Latin Jazz Underground.

Now the practical problems associated with the large ensemble needed to perform El Cumbanchero disappeared. A quintet was easily booked, we were close, but as it turned out, still no cigar. The music Aruán brought to the date the was frightfully difficult. The tunes were complex and the concept of playing Afro-Cuban percussion, which is always rooted in a pulse, with a free drummer had never been tried before. And as always in my recordings, there was no real rehearsal. Instead we had to work things out in the studio. The solution we came up with was for Aruán to play all heads on piano in unison with me so that the heads would not cause problems as I tried to lock in with him on the intricate and technically demanding music. That way, as in all my previous recording we could focus on the rhythm section and the groove and relying on my isolation to permit over-dubbing where required. But even that was not enough. The lines were so difficult that even Aruán had to first play with the section and then overdub the lines in order to articulate them adequately. Laying the heads against the complex pulse that was both in the arrangements and in the concrete musical realization was a real challenge. Gerald Cleaver was playing free. Román Diaz was playing just about everything he could think of and Rashaan Carter was holding them together while playing free himself. Just to give you an idea what the music looked like, check out one of Aruán's originals.

Now imagine that played against a clave, at double time. It works, check out the album. Aruán is a genius. Needless to say Latin Jazz Underground required significant overdubbing on my part. Could I reproduce it without the studio 'do-overs' not to mention pro-tools? I'll never know. Aruán's career is marching ahead. The concept of the album give birth to a band called Afro-horn that is making the circuit. The rhythm section is from my Jazzheads festival gig, but with three monster sax players including one of my local favorites, Bruce Williams playing alto. No 75 year old flute player required.

Latin Jazz Undrground was picked up by Zoho records and it has received strong reviews as you can see by going to the link. Zoho required a CD release party. But I never had the nerve to try to set one up. I just don't think I can play that music live. The record company understood and accepted another album from me, 'In Jerusalem.' But that is a story for another time.

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.