Sunday, June 26, 2016

wake up!

This blog is the story of a dream, and sometimes you get a wake-up call. Those were the days, you had a phone service and you could put in for a wake up call. Someone would 'pull your coat' as the saying goes and then sometimes it takes 40 plus years for reality to set in. My last record is my last record as the saying might go. And IN JERUSALEM  is most likely my last record. It is a fitting end, something I wanted to do and was given the opportunity to do. Go to Israel and make a record. I had a logic conference to go to in Corsica and an argumentation conference to go to in Amsterdam and 10 days in between. So I went to visit my friend Menachum in Jerusalem. Menachum introduced me to Steve Peskoff. Steve is an ex-pat New York guitar player and he was watching over an old Arab house in the German Colony and using it as a studio. We played a few times in this idealic setting and gave a performance for an audience of one, my very old and dear friend Lisa Levine. It was wonderful. The music flowed and I decided to come back and make a record. I got a small grant from my university to do some work with Arab and Israeli educators and asked Steve to put together a quintet. Steve's son was a great drummer and a percussionist I knew from New York, Gilad Dobrecky, was living in Israel. Add one bass player and we have a band. I asked Steve to chose some Hasidic tunes and write originals. I would contribute half of the album and Steve half. We listened to some music together and we both felt there would be no problem recording, as usual with little rehearsal and long days in the studio.

As is usual with such disconnected projects we didn't come fully loaded, Steve contributed one original and 2 nigunim (Hassidic melodies). I contributed two originals, one dedicated to my parents and a tune I called Meir's Nigun (Meir is my Hebrew name) and I picked a classic Nigun, "Mizmor L'David." that is generally sung at the Yizkor service, the service to remember the dead. We played it as a pulsating 6/8 with modern chords. When my Rabbi heard the track he asked if we couldn't put spaces between the notes to slow it down. The date was a hard one. We were underrehearsed and the tunes were complex harmonically and rhythmically. We had to develop a solution to the basic concept of the tune and how it was to be laid out. This is something I have done with most of my recordings, but the musicians I generally record with are selected to make the process of creating a recording in the studio easy. I recorded most of my albums with little more than some tunes selected. Given the musicians I record with, Pedrito Martinez and his crew on Timbassa, making an album right there, on the spot, is a long and intensely joyful effort, (16 hours straight for Timbassa), recording that way is not only possible with the guys I use but an inspiration to creating great music. The guys I hire, have years of playing together in countless performances and recordings. Romero Lubambo, Nilson Matta, Paulo Braga, Cyro Baptists. the greatest Brazilian musicians playing in New York. Going into the studio with them, letting myself luxuriate, feeling the magnificence of such players, playing freely, music that they love, and at my disposal. That is heaven. Although my recording session are sometimes stressful, mainly because I have to play at my best to be up there with these great musicians, they go like clockwork. You put in the musicians and the music comes out. My job is to give them the opportunity and motivation to play their best. The basic problem of constructing an album out of whole cloth is, as they say, no problem.

Not so in Jerusalem. The guys were great players, but everything took too long. Too long to set up the studio (the engineer used a dozen mikes on the drums and then put the acoustic bassplayer with one mike right next to the drummer). Too long to get the arrangements together. Too many pit stops for 'inspiration,' just like the good old days. You rehearse, take a break, someone smokes a joint, you come back, you forget the arrangements. Too many false takes. And so by the time each tune was credibly recorded things had gotten a bit stale.

I left Jerusalem unhappy. I moved on to another project, Latin Jazz Underground with Aruan Ortiz. That project had its problems. The concept, free jazz with an Afro-Cuban percussionist was in interesting one and Aruan had put together an exquisite group of musicians. Roman Diaz is the mentor for all of the great Cuban drummers in New York and has has a depth that should have been able to integrate with the expressive drumming of Gerald Cleaver. But despite it all I didn't feel that the album swung. We spent hours in the studio with Roman, overdubbing percussion over the tracks, searching for a way to play with the free drums, and creating conversations among the layers of percussion he developed. We had multiple tracks of percussion to play with in the mix and Aruan and I searched for the best possible combination. But although the playing on Latin Jazz Underground is superb, I felt it never got off the ground. And what's more, my choice of soloing strategy, playing long rhythms across the time let me give in to my inner Miles Davis, but didn't help the swing situation.

So here was my last two albums. I had gone to another record company Zoho records, and Jochen the owner was happy with both records and they got decent reviews. Here is a review to In Jerusalem with a track you can hear:

It also has a link to a video I made some time ago for the NFA competition. Going along with the mood  of blog entry, it is not among my best efforts.

After I recorded Latin Jazz Underground, I met my wife Dasha.

That is not where I met her, although she is Mongolian. I can tell sad stories about music, but I don't have a kick coming when it comes to my wife. She is an Angel that fell from the reaches of Outer Mongolia right into my waiting arms. But that is a digression, but a great picture and a great wife; unbelievable that at 72 years old I could be gifted with such an amazing women. But on with the story. Dasha had come to New Jersey to be with her daughter who was on a Fulbright at my college. She had to return to Mongolia to teach (she is a professor of genetics). But we had fallen in love and she decided to come back the next year and Glory Be To God, she remained in the US and married me.

The year she was gone I had to deal with In Jerusalem. I asked Jochen if he would be interested in an album recorded in Jerusalem and played him my Jewish record Shifra Tanzt to convince him that I could put a working band together even though the Israeli musicians were not available to me (Jochen's contract required a good faith effort to have a working band). So I took that tracks recorded in Jerusalem and went into the studio with Phil Ludwig, the only engineer I have recorded with for the last decade. He worked on the tracks until he got a decent rhythm section sound and I started working. I rerecorded every note I played on the date with the exception of one bass flute line on the free track that ends the album. It is a nigun that I sing with my Rabbi and his class before we begin to study Zohar.  I lay tracks on top of that to give the feeling of a group singing, so even that track isn't as it was recorded. So everything I played, the final attempt to reach my inner voice, playing the music of the religion that has increasingly occupied my life for the last 30 years, music that I got to play in Erezt Yisroel, is a studio reconstruction. But if truth be told I played as good as I have ever played. My sound was together and I had plenty of time and material to find just the right takes to present myself as a great flute player. How can I ever show my face. I am a total illusion.

After I redid my playing I had to confront the rest of the music. I cut solos, including my own, spliced sections with miraculous success given Phil's genius and the joy of working with pro-tools. The music felt right but the album still didn't sound right. We figured it out, the bass was pitchy and so the actual sound of the music was compromised. The bass player, Gilad Abro was a young player of virtuoso potential, but sadly his pitch was not reliable. Pro-tools to the rescue, we put automatic tuning on an acoustic bass and eureka the sound came alive. I have never done that before, because the bass has slides, but for whatever reason the bass sounded fine. 

I think the album is a good album, and shows all of the players in their best light. All of the musicians and I include Phil contributed to a record that turned out just fine. Chris White, a great bass player and master teacher who I knew in Brooklyn in the 1950's and later when we both taught at my university, gave me a crucial insight at a formative stage of my flute playing. He said that when you make a record it is a record. And In Jerusalem is a record of me and those guys trying to make music, with all its travails and studio reconstruction. Jerusalem was a good hang with great guys and I deeply appreciate their contributions. But like so many of my recordings my real work was done alone with Phil, Phil's home studio where I overdub, edit and mix is the place where I lived the fullest. It was the place where my music was created. The long sessions when I frolicked or fumbled with those great rhythm sections was the place where I tasted everything I missed. Hanging out with the guys and being a musician. But my music, my flute playing, was created alone with my friend Phil Ludwig. 

That isn't the way it was supposed to be, not according to me. I'm supposed to be a total master of my craft. And I have really high standards. But there it was, or better, there it is. For better or for worse. And so my last record is out and I think it is time to wake up. I'm married to a women I dearly love and have financial responsibilities that make recording a burden I can no longer afford. I'll be 76 in a few days. My first album on flute, Seasoning, came out when I was 56, so that's twenty years of chasing my dream.  I recorded a bunch of records and did everything I possibly could to make the music as good as it could be. I swallowed my pride and over-dubbed. Me and Phil created my playing mix and match. The best statement of the melody and multiple takes of my solos, always finding the best shit so that my solos were as excellent as they could be using the raw materials of a number of versions. Generally I would use a second take as the basis, but I'd usually record 4 or more takes of each tune, then sit with Phil and put together my solo, while I rested my chops. Then on to the next tune. Whatever it takes!

And so I'm left with a closet full of CD's that I can't give away. A number of years of recognition, reviews and radio play, Down Beat Rising Star, Jazz Journalists Association nomination, 'best latin jazz' for a number of my albums and hopefully a sense among musicians that I existed and that I played. Musicians,  I really haven't felt like one of them since I was a a trombone player in the 60's. The best guys would record with me, but that was that. Everyone was always glad to see me. But I wasn't really there doing the musician thing, 'doin' our thang' as it was said. At the end I realized that being a musician isn't only making good music, it is living a musician's life, with other musicians. You need a minyan to pray effectively, a prayer community. And musicians form a community and I was an outsider.

So wake up and smell the roses!

I still practice and play in my synagogue a few times a month. But I turned down performance opportunities for the first time in my life and I think I'll sit the rest of the dance out.

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.