Sunday, April 26, 2009

half empty, half full

I wonder how much this blog should be a true reflection of my feelings, or like so much of what I have written, self-aggrandizing recollections and pleas for acceptance. For what lies behind this blog, especially at this time, is the question that drives me. Am I a good musician? I hide that behind, do I play good music? Which stands behind, when will I get the recognition I need to answer the other two questions? Which hides behind, how much is the recognition I have received really worth? Which hides behind my whining complaint, when will I get the recognition I crave? So I guess even if I expressed all of my doubts and fears about my worth as a musician that would not be any truer than anything else. But, to be perfectly honest, it feels like shit. I need to know whether I play good music and I don't have a clue. 

In part that is because I am unwilling to compare myself to anything other than the internalized standards I derived from listening to the great musicians of my era (the 50's and 6o's). And I mean the greats! Miles, Trane, Sonny Rollins and Bird. Not to mention, Mingus, Monk, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Jellie Roll Morton, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Albert King. Believe it or not, that is a fairly comprehensive list of the musicians whose records I revered and listened to over and over again. I never listened to normal great musicians, just the super giants. That way I never have to confront whether I play as good as the thousands of guys who are competing with me to be noticed. I know they are out there every time I hear the young guys at jam sessions, or when someone makes me listen to a record of some normal decent jazz musician. I was having dinner with an old musician friend, Victoria, and she played a record with a fine tenor player, Eric Alexander, on it. He sounded great. If I knew how to compete I would be competing with him for gigs. But as intimated in earlier blogs, I'm not very effective in competing for the gigs that Eric gets, the New York jazz clubs that might be the first step in getting me to my goal. The holy grail that might convince me that I am playing music worth listening: success at jazz festivals.

My not paying attention to the level of contemporary successful musicians is connected to my only listening to Trane et. al. If my standard is the super-giants of jazz, I immediately fail, no matter how hard I try, since genius like that is beyond the reach of mere mortals like myself. And so I can try to focus on what I alone can contribute. Holding the standard of genius inside of myself and doing everything I can to create the very best music I am capable of producing. But am I a good enough musician? Is the dedication to my own creation, very narrowly construed, as how I improvise on the albums I create as vehicles for my flute playing, totally wrong-headed because I am not even in the running to be a contributor to the developing language of jazz. That's why I can't compare myself to other ordinary marvelous musicians, for if I don't measure up to the sax players around me, there is no point in my even attempting to make a contribution. And I am unwilling to stop trying, no matter what. 

I want to make a contribution to jazz. And because I play flute I get enough of a pass to make a contribution possible. I want to be to the flute what the greatest jazz musicians were to their instruments, someone who showed others unexplored possibilities for excellence in jazz improvisation, that is, defined a concept for their instrument that included a sound, a style, a harmonic vocabulary and an approach to time and improvisational structures. That's why I wouldn't play sax if you paid me. To make a contribution on sax is to rise to an impossible standard. And that means that contributions to the sax are going to be a long time coming. But flute! There is a shot for flute as the least developed wind instrument capable of playing jazz (God bless the few bassoonists, and french horn players and forget about the oboe and tuba). Even the flute barely makes that cut as a jazz instrument given its lack of power in the bottom register. But flute does have something to offer to jazz, even with all of its limitations compared to the saxophone. It has degrees of freedom, technical and expressive that marks a niche of its own in jazz. I believe Herbie Mann pointed the way, but he had such essential weaknesses as a jazz musician and flutist, that despite the influence of his music on flutists (or perhaps because of it) flute remains relatively unexplored if your model is the harmonic and expressive range of the saxophone.

This creates the deep insecurity that drives my crazy. Am I a good enough musician to grasp the opportunity of the last undeveloped jazz instrument, and thus make an end run to the holy of hollies of jazz: to make a contribution. Naturally, all of this is due to the aftermath of my latest album, Lua e Sol. That's the team from the recording in the picture. Phil, my engineer, Cyro Baptista, me, Romero Lubambo and Nilson Matta, who co-produced the album with me. My relationship with Nilson goes back to 2003 when I recorded Tudo de Bum. Nilson knew about Jazz World Trios with Cyro and Romero and we were both so disappointed with the controlled vibe of the album's producer, Richard Boukas, that when he suggested that we co-produce a blowing  Brazilian jazz record I jumped at the opportunity. Cyro was unavailable, but Romero was willing to do the date, along with Paulo Braga . The result was O Nosso Amor. Nilson and I became close during the project and whenever we worked together I would proudly introduce him as my co-producer. Co-producer was both a favor to me and a paycheck to him. So it was no surprise that we recorded two more albums, Lua e Sol that hit the street October 2008 and an album with Kenny Barron that will probably not be released for another few years. I am over-recorded. This coming October the Berlin album, called Tales From the Earth, with Omar Sosa (my second blog entry) is coming out on Ota records. But even though it is coming out on another label, Jazzheads is holding back my next album with Pedrito Martinez (discussed a few blogs back) until after the first of the year. The album with Nilson and Kenny is next (hopefully before 2011) and then finally an album of tangos and Cuban danzones that I am currently working on. This complicates my relationship with Nilson who, as always, is looking for recording opportunities. And I don't have any for him in the near future.

Jazzheads started radio promotion on Lua e Sol after the New Year and it has been on the Jazzweek world chart ever since. It peaked at #5, but is hanging around (14 weeks so far). It was voted best Brazilian Jazz Album of 2008 on the Latin Jazz Corner.  So I should have no complaints. Except I have a complaint and that is what this blog is all about. Lua e Sol is what I wanted to record ever since I first played Brazilian jazz in Jazz World Trios. It reunites Romero and Cyro, who along with Nilson Matta bring the creative energy of Jazz World Trios to a broad and representative range of Brazilian forms. Nilson and I picked great material. I rerecorded two of my favorite originals, Estralinha and Lua e Sol (first recorded as duets on Three Deuces) and it captures much of what I want to say in recording jazz with Brazilian music. The tunes range from the light-hearted sambas, Isuara, and Upa Negrinho, to a free form version of Lua e Sol;  a Flamenco-like take on Estrallinha and a time shifting composition by Nilson, Floresta. It includes two Pixinginha choros as well and some really interesting and deep compositions reflecting the spiritual side of Afro-Brazilian music, Canto de Ossanha and Emorio, as well as a heart-breaking ballad by Ary Barroso. 

More important, the guys play incredibly. As always the session was without any rehearsals. Nilson and I picked the tunes and we went to the studio to see what would happen. Giving those three guys complete freedom in the studio resulted in magic. The arrangements were spontaneous and the material compelling. Cyro brought room full of drums of every sort. Here is a picture of Cyro and his drums that can give you some sense of what that is all about. The sounds he makes are amazing. But most important without a trap drummer the concept of how rhythm is played becomes totally free. There are textures and surprises, happy swing and deep drama, and that is just the percussion. Romero plays magnificently, wonderful solos, perfect time and rich harmonic structures. Nilson  is at his most lyrical as a soloist and an ever-changing voice, both anchoring and inspiring the soloists and statements of themes. The interactions of the three rhythm players reflect the decades that these three musicians have played together, their perfect grasp of Brazilian forms and the total confidence that each had in the abilities of the others. This album is as good as anything I have ever recorded and deserves all of the excellent reviews it received and more!

When I had a final mix I sent pre-release copies to the three guys telling them how happy I was about the record and telling them that I would be thrilled to play with any of them on any occasion. Nilson got back to me, congratulating me on the result and told me that Romero loved the album. When the album was released I sent them all copies and yet another note reminding them how great it would be to perform this music live. I have been in contact with Nilson a few times, since he is always looking for additional projects. But with so much unreleased product I have nothing to offer him. Meanwhile the three of them work all of time and use other instrumentalists on their recordings and gigs. But not me! Me and the Maytag repairman. Those guys could really help me if they wanted to. They have the reputations and connections to hook me up with club-owners and booking agents. But they don't. What are they trying to tell me? I love the music I record and so do the musicians who record with me, or so it seems. Yet nobody is willing to give me a hand up, nobody is willing to let me use them as a stepping stone towards my dreams. And so the deep anxiety. Maybe I am really not that good a musician after all.