R.I.P. Jens Winther

Danish trumpeter, composer and arranger Jens Winther died in his sleep while in Geneva on Thursday Feb. 24. Jens was 50 and had been living in Berlin since forming the JW Berlin Quintet in 2009. I only saw him perform three times: first with drummer Ed Thigpen’s Scantett at the Toronto Jazz Festival, then with his own group at the Nordic Jazz Festival in Washington D.C., and finally at the late night hotel jam session during the Vancouver Jazz Festival. He liked to hang and talk music, and he always seemed to be reaching into his bag to hand me a CD of his latest project. Jens sounded good in every setting, from big bands and funk to intimate ballads. But I loved to hear him do his hard-bop thing. Here’s a clip showing Jens backstage in his red jacket jamming with fellow trumpeter Tom Harrell and bassist Anders Christensen. The video quality is amateurish but worth watching, especially after the first 30 seconds. It captures his command of the language and his playful, soulful spirit. Thank you, Jens.

 

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Before & After: Drew Gress

Drew Gress is one of the busiest bassists in New York, leading his own two groups and working with Ravi Coltrane, Fred Hersch, Dave Douglas, Don Byron, Tim Berne, Uri Caine, Erik Friedlander and others. As a composer, he studied with Hank Levy and spent time ghost writing for the Hanna-Barbera cartoon studios. He was artist-in-residence at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia, and he’s received grants from the NEA and Meet The Composer. Asked about the pressure to break new artistic ground, Gress says, “I don’t think it’s worth doing another project unless you have something else to say. That‘s why mine are so few and far between.” His fourth and latest release as leader is The Irrational Numbers (Premonition).

1. Duke Ellington & Ray Brown

“Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” (from This One’s For Blanton, Pablo). Ellington, piano; Brown, bass. Recorded in 1972.

Before: Ray Brown has a characteristic place where he places the beat. It’s insistent and very steady. I think he also prided himself on the strength of that beat and his being the pivot for that rhythm. I’ve spoken with a few drummers who’ve played with him and they say that he will assert his supremacy in the first few moments as far as where the beat will be played. The pianist could be Hank Jones, but that’s a total guess. There were some voicings he played that reminded me of a bygone era, perhaps ways of playing and harmony that maybe the younger players of today don’t go to school on, in the same way as the influence of Chick and Herbie and McCoy.

After: Duke. Yeah, I should know this better than I do. My favorite record with Ray Brown is Way Out West. I think it’s important for a bassist to hear that recording because it’s a textbook example of how to fill out a song by yourself, really, with just one additional improvising musician. And the way the songs are presented with such clarity and inside counterpoint, it’s a textbook in how to maintain interest with a minimum of means.

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Before & After: Cedar Walton

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It’s no surprise that the best players rise to the top very quickly. When pianist, composer Cedar Walton arrived in New York City in the mid-1950s, he immediately began working and recording with many of the greatest musicians of the time, including Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Kenny Dorham, J.J. Johnson, Lee Morgan, John Coltrane and the Jazztet. He was virtually the house pianist at Prestige Records in the 1960s, and was a founding member of two highly regarded cooperative groups: The Timeless All-Stars and Eastern Rebellion. Walton has led his own trios, quartets and quintets, worked with singers Abbey Lincoln and Ernestine Anderson, and his arrangements for the 1994 release “Mystery Lady” helped Etta James win a Grammy. As a composer he’s received a commission from the Monterey Jazz Festival and his catchy original tunes, like “Bolivia,” “Mode For Joe,” “Ugestsu” and “Mosaic” have become a part of the standard jazz repertoire. Recent releases include a compilation “Naima” (Savoy Jazz), “The Latin Tinge” (High Note) and three Japanese imports. I arrived at Walton’s hotel at the appointed hour on a brisk November afternoon and woke him from a deep sleep. He said he was dreaming of Monk.

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Can Jazz Matter? Dana Gioia on Jazz and the NEA

In light of the recent move to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts  Jazz Masters Awards, I’m sharing an interview I did with Dana Gioia, previous Chairman of the NEA who during his term expanded the Jazz Masters Awards.  Chairman Gioia was a guest on my radio program one night during which he played some of his favorite recordings and talked about his love of jazz. This interview originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of JazzTimes under the title “Dana Gioia and the National Endowment for the Arts: Can Jazz Matter?”

Jazz Conversation with NEA Chairman Dana Gioia

Chairman Gioia may, at first glance, be an unlikely advocate for jazz. He is best known as a poet, anthologist and critic, especially for his controversial 1992 book Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and Popular Culture (Graywolf). He received a B.A. and an M.B.A. from Stanford University and completed an M.A. in comparative literature at Harvard University where he studied with the poets Robert Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bishop. In 1977, Gioia moved to New York, and for the next 15 years he worked as a business executive before leaving in 1992 to become a full-time writer.

Since his February 2003 appointment to head the NEA, Gioia has hit the ground running: working to expand the audience for jazz, doubling the number of artists receiving Jazz Masters fellowships and adding a touring program, television broadcasts and CD releases.

Let me start by asking about something you said: “I want to expand the country’s awareness of jazz, to use it to combat the cultural impoverishment that threatens us.” How does the awareness of jazz combat cultural impoverishment?

You’re asking a very big question so I’ll give you a very big answer. I worry that we live in a culture where the number of things that we pay attention to gets smaller and smaller each year. We’re surrounded by this nonstop intricate web of commercial, electronic entertainment, and it really focuses on about seven or eight things: politics, entertainment, weather, traffic, celebrities, sports and money. In the average week, local traffic gets more airtime than all the arts, education and ideas combined. I think one of the most important things that we can do is carve out some space in our society where other conversations can take place, other types of art can be presented.

I worry about the generation of Americans that are growing up now. My son Ted is 15, and I’ve tried really hard to make sure that he’s exposed to a lot of things, but I see a lot kids-really smart kids, well-educated kids-and they know nothing about so much of life. They can probably name 200 baseball or basketball players, a hundred hip-hop artists and 200 television personalities, but they probably could not name a single living jazz artist, poet, painter, sculptor, choreographer, architect, biologist or physicist. I’m really concerned about expanding the audience for all the arts in the United States, with jazz being foremost because jazz is not only one of the greatest American art forms, it’s one of the defining American art forms.

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Eric Alexander at Chris’ Jazz Cafe

 

While in Philadelphia this past weekend, I stopped in to Chris’ Jazz Cafe to catch saxophonist Eric Alexander with Harold Mabern. Here is a bit of the first song (The Night Has a Thousand Eyes) from the first set on their opening night. Note Eric’s gestures to the sound man, and the audience talking loudly throughout. I wish I had a better angle  from which to shoot Mr. Mabern.