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EXCLUSIVE The historic jazz label Okeh, soon to be brought back to life by Sony Classical, has signed John Medeski of the jam band trailblazers Medeski, Martin and Wood, for a solo piano release A Different Time recorded on a French period Gaveau piano, an instrument known for its crafted cases manufactured by a company originally founded in the mid-19th century. A Different Time is to be released in March 2013, the label has confirmed. The tracks are: ‘A Different Time’; ‘I’m Falling’; ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow’; ‘Ran’; ‘Graveyard Fields’; ‘Luz Marina’; ‘Waiting at the Gate’; ‘Lacrima’; and ‘Otis’.

Medeski, 47, formed MM&W in the early-1990s and got swept up in what became known as the jam band phenomenon, basically a US version of acid jazz, often with Hammond organ leading the swelling youth-friendly grassroots movement as at ease in indie rock clubs and outdoor festivals as it was in jazz spots. MM&W despite sounding like a boutique law firm had a kind of a campervan mentality, and was always on the road, and with other bands embracing psychedelia and challenging the boundaries kept true to its jazz roots making an inspired partnership as the band developed with John Scofield particularly on the record A Go Go.

Medeski has an exciting sound, on the organ in the Jimmy McGriff vein, on piano Oscar Peterson-inspired initially. In more recent years over the past decade Medeski has forged a solo identity or a featured guest with The Word, Trey Anastasio Band, and the great Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead.

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Okeh have also signed 45-year-old Dhafer Yousef with a release expected in May 2013. The oud player and singer is recording in the next few weeks, the label has said, and Youssef’s band will be joined by guests Nils Petter Molvaer and Eivind Aarset.

Born in Teboulba, Tunisia in 1967, Youssef is known for his work with Renaud Garcia-Fons, Markus Stockhausen, Carlo Rizzo, Nguyên Lê, Wolfgang Puschnig and Christian Muthspiel, among others, with his music rooted in the Sufi tradition. His earlier acclaimed albums include Divine Shadows, Digital Prophecy, and Electric Sufi, and his music has the ability to embrace both middle eastern classical styles, electronica, and dance grooves within a cutting edge improvising prism.

Stephen Graham

For more on the rebirth of Okeh see http://marlbank.tumblr.com/post/34825030411/9284

John Medeski top and Dhafer Youssef, above

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Monday sees the slightly delayed release of the four-CD box set Special Edition, which collects the output of Jack DeJohnette’s band of the same name between 1979 and 1984 spread over four albums.

Recorded, with the exception of the second one, in New York, the four, that’s Special Edition, Tin Can Alley, Inflation Blues, and Album Album, are a kind of secret story these days and in terms of the 80s, the very antithesis of the debilitating conservatism in jazz that characterised a blithely selfish decade.

While DeJohnette is widely revered as the greatest jazz drummer alive (the only possible other contender being Roy Haynes), these albums have got lost a bit in the mists of time. So, because they are very fine, nuanced, spirited, free form and original in terms of writing and performance, ECM has done you and me (as listeners) a big service in putting them out once more but properly curated, and in such attractive livery in an Old & New Masters Edition.

The music is housed in a sturdy little box, with albums in slim sleeves emblazoned with black lettering on white backgrounds, and a 36-page booklet is also thrown in with carefully chosen artist pictures, so the music isn’t just left to speak for itself. The passage of time also means the music needs some context. New York writer and promoter Bradley Bramberger has written a long, eminently sensible essay that appears in the booklet, which sets the scene for the music, and as part of which DeJohnette, recently in the UK for a 70th birthday tour (http://marlbank.tumblr.com/post/32873499206/40688), contributes his thoughts about the ‘open time’ the character of the period these recordings belong to. “Personality-wise,” DeJohnette says, “all these guys in Special Edition were characters, man – and they only sounded like themselves.”

And, of course, you hear just this with David Murray brilliantly wild and fresh on the two albums he’s featured on, while as Bramberger says the more “transparent sound” of Chico Freeman shows through, as well as its characterful bluesiness, on such marvellously raucous numbers as ‘I Know’ on Tin Can Alley where the music opens up, and ‘out’ becomes ‘in’.

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While the personnel changed rapidly throughout this short span of years, with only DeJohnette on all four albums, Special Edition had strong horn players at its heart and tough ones at that, who DeJohnette, whether they play loudly or not, holds in the palms of his hands, as a rider might control a strong willed stallion, but lets the band, above all, run free.

Highlights and surprises? Well there’s ‘Zoot Suite’, the two versions of which on different albums allow a clear indication of DeJohnette as an ideas man. Why this tune, an Ellington tribute, isn’t standard repertoire I don’t know. Another of DeJohnette’s tunes, ‘Pastel Rhapsody’, has a lovely air of mystery courtesy of John Purcell’s flute, and taps the spiritual stream DeJohnette likes to navigate, also delivered unpretentiously when DeJohnette switches to piano. The reeds arrangement on ‘The Islands’ (from Inflation Blues) is very subtle and warm, reminiscent of the mood of an Aaron Copland piece, another indication of the sheer scope of DeJohnette’s musical interests.

As for surprises, well it’s the realisation that despite two fine bassists in Peter Warren and Rufus Reid involved, playing separately, in the course of the band’s existence the way the music runs it could often dispense with a bass instrument, even the tuba later of Howard Johnson. The “multidirectional” music DeJohnette espouses instead relies on the ancient and modern rhythmic imperative, and a horn, above all, in full and glorious cry.

Stephen Graham

Going my way? Jack DeJohnette (top), with the box cover artwork (above)

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Documentary maker Norbert Wiedmer, who co-directed Sounds And Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher, has now teamed with Enrique Ros on new documentary El Encuentro to be released in January by ECM on DVD.

The two films share the charismatic figure of bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi and cellist Anja Lechner in common, but El Encuentro (‘The Encounter’) has a different focus, primarily on how the Argentinian pioneer of provincial tango, and chamber musician Lechner, formerly with the Munich Rosamunde Quartet, approach music and life.

It’s under an hour long, but despite the short length manages to pack a lot in. There are travels in Armenia, and Argentina, as well as stop-offs in Switzerland, ultimately finishing with a concert in Amsterdam with conductor Jules Buckley leading the Metropole orchestra included.

Saluzzi comes across as a pater familias, the head of a family band, and someone who as he says himself uses “doubt” to channel his musical ideas like a car needs petrol. It’s almost a Jesuitical concept, and Saluzzi in a fictional form could be the  main character of a Graham Greene novel.

The Armenian sections, while fascinating, don’t really fit in to the overriding narrative thrust but the sections with composer Tigran Mansurian are worth watching with brief beautiful glimpses of two duduk players performing his music.

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Swiss pianist and bandleader George Gruntz, who did much to introduce Saluzzi to European audiences when he was director of the Berlin Jazz Festival, makes a fun cameo that’s again of strong interest, a fine reminder of one of the giants of European jazz who turned 80 this year.

The film is good at capturing the spirit of rehearsal and how the preparations knit during the process leading up to the concert that formed part of the El Encuentro album recording issued three years ago. Lechner, is a dynamic interested presence who breathes life into the documentary, although somehow the film makers haven’t quite got to the heart of the matter. They perhaps needed to tease a little more out of Lechner especially. Saluzzi tends to dominate, and this film like the earlier Sounds and Silence increases our understanding of what makes this significant composer and performer tick. But he’s still, nonetheless, something of an enigma.

Stephen Graham

Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner, above in performance early in their collaboration together in 1991, plus the cover of the DVD edition of El Encuentro

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This coming Monday sees the release of this beauty Modern Jazz Quartet: Original Album Series in a line that values two things: one, respect for the integrity of the original albums; and two simplicity in design. There are more on the way, including one featuring the music of Billy Cobham to look forward to, timely with the current focus on the music of Massive Attack the trip hop pioneers who sampled ‘Stratus’. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/dec/06/massive-attack-blue-lines-review

The MJQ couldn’t be further away from Cobham, the jazz-rock of the 1970s and Massive Attack. They stood for something that a recently reprinted Benny Green review was scornful of in 1959:

The Modern Jazz Quartet is one of the most astonishing cultural phenomena of the postwar period. For the last five years, four men have sought with painful eagerness to transform the racy art of jazz into something aspiring towards cultural respectability. The photographs on the covers of their bestselling albums show three bearded men and one bespectacled man in morning coats, looking at the camera with the studied gloom of four eminent Victorians who have just heard about On the Origin of Species.

The attempt of their pianist, John Lewis, to make jazz socially acceptable is an excellent idea. Better morning coats and gloom than tales of Al Capone and bootleg days. The snag is that this courting of respectability has drained away so much of the vitality of their music that there is little left but a few flickers of animation from the brilliant vibraharpist Milt Jackson and occasional passages reminiscent of Bach, of all people.

The group’s instrumentation is piano, drums, bass and vibraharp. The sound is necessarily so introspective that 10 minutes after the opening of their concert in the Festival Hall last Saturday one became acutely conscious that the quartet had only two degrees of dynamics, soft and very soft. The earthiness of jazz has been replaced by a fey tinkling.

Lewis’s integrity as a jazz musician is unquestioned. He has vast experience as a musician with most of the outstanding soloists of the last 10 years. He has decided, however, that jazz must become international in the sense that it must be made to portray people and places generally considered incompatible with jazz. Most of his theme titles are French. The one essential element in any jazz performance, the preservation of the illusion of improvisation, he has cast to the winds, pursuing instead rarer and rarer refinement.

There was one moment when the irony of the situation would have been enough to make a cat laugh. The group played a tune written by Duke Ellington called It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing. The tune is one that respects the edict of its own title, being constructed in such a way that provided it is taken at the intended tempo, it cannot possibly be played in a dull manner. Or so I would have thought. The quartet did a better job of demolition on Ellington’s theme than any other group, band or orchestra I have come across.

The reaction of British audiences has been hysterical, audiences comprising the same people who abandoned Ellington to half-empty houses last year. My own feelings coincide with those of a fellow musician I met later on Waterloo Bridge. “It suddenly occurred to me," he said, “that there were three thousand of us sitting there watching a man with a small beard hit a small bell with a small stick."

         The Observer

But the MJQ were misunderstood, and still are, so this reissue is important. These albums: Pyramid, Third Stream Music, MJQ and Orchestra, Lonely Woman, and The Sheriff, show in one place (listen to them at one sitting, draw the curtains, switch off your phone, they’re better than the TV), that they were (if you like) experimenting with tradition, with European classical music, and their own interpretations of small group jazz.

In a way it’s the advanced exemplification years on, without a distracting and limiting jam session ethos, of Jazz at the Philharmonic, which Norman Granz developed for the swing giants in the 1940s.

All four of the band as we know it (Kenny Clarke was the original drummer but left to forge a career in France), that’s of course John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Connie Kay, began in Dizzy Gillespie’s late-1940s band, with the MJQ beginning in 1951.

The quartet, with many breaks and stops and starts, recorded under that name for some 40 years following. The pick of the albums collected here is Pyramid for me. ‘Django’ is as significant a piece as ‘Take Five’ or ‘Round Midnight’. It’s as cool as they come, with the poise of the night air, the contemplative quality of a thought you wish you’d had and want to cling on to, and the knowledge as a listener that the tune has a depth it’s your duty to discover. The MJQ put the onus on you, as it’s challenging music, doubly so because it uses forms and structures that are familiar but refashioned in their own image. It’s like recognising the face of a friend but having to look closely into their eyes to really know what they’re thinking. That’s hard. Sure there’s recessed bebop here, and this thing called “third stream" that nearly everybody misunderstands but really should only be applied to MJQ and Gunther Schuller’s ideas of the day as he came up with the term.

The MJQ didn’t create a hybrid music that shackles jazz to classical music. That’s the big lie. They used classical music as a writer might use a dictionary, and their music like the best repository of words is a well of knowledge and an inspiration still, unlike the cheap insult of someone a critic happened to meet on Waterloo Bridge and took as their mantra. 

Stephen Graham

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Well what’s to think about the Grammy nominations just announced? I know what you’re saying: they don’t really have much bearing on jazz certainly on this side of the Atlantic but whenever anyone is nominated suddenly everything changes! And I must say when singer Norma Winstone was nominated a few years back it certainly made a difference at least in perception terms and the continued faith of her record company. Anyway here’s my take on who will win and who should win when the big day comes around.

Best Improvised jazz solo

‘Cross Roads’ Ravi Coltrane. Track from: Spirit Fiction Blue Note

‘Hot House’ Gary Burton & Chick Corea. Track from: Hot House Concord Jazz

‘Alice In Wonderland’ Chick Corea. Track from: Further Explorations (Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez & Paul Motian) Concord Jazz

‘J. Mac’ Kenny Garrett. Track from: Seeds From The Underground Mack Avenue Records

‘Ode’ Brad Mehldau. Track from: Ode (Brad Mehldau Trio) Nonesuch

Pretty good choices. A return to form for Garrett for sure. This category is probably the most subjective of the jazz ones, and it’s interesting that all the artists play in the post-bop domain and with the exception of Garrett record for major labels. The Grammys are in many ways all about the big labels. Will win: Chick Corea. Should go to: Kenny Garrett

Best Jazz Vocal Album

Soul Shadows Denise Donatelli Savant Records

1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project Kurt Elling Concord Jazz

Live Al Jarreau (And The Metropole Orkest) Concord

The Book Of Chet Luciana Souza Sunnyside Records

Radio Music Society Esperanza Spalding Heads Up International

Donatelli is a surprise inclusion, unknown outside America, and it’s good to see Souza long on many people’s radar getting recognition.

Will win: Esperanza Spalding. Should win: Esperanza Spalding

Best Jazz Instrumental Album

Further Explorations Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez & Paul Motian Concord Jazz

Hot House Chick Corea & Gary Burton Concord Jazz

Seeds From The Underground Kenny Garrett Mack Avenue Records

Blue Moon Ahmad Jamal Jazz Village

Unity Band Pat Metheny Unity Band Nonesuch

A strong list. Chick is a Grammy darling and you can’t rule him out here especially as his reimagining of Bill Evans on Further Explorations was such an imaginative exercise, and a poignant reminder of the much missed Motian. But, the big but, with Pat Metheny also in the running (the most beGrammied jazz musician ever) and more importantly the sheer vitality of his “with sax" Unity Band quartet he’s nominated for this time the Academy might just be swayed once again in his favour. It should be Ahmad Jamal’s year, but let’s not hold our breath even though the album is a credit to the great Pittsburgian and a wake-up call to pianists half or even a quarter of his age.
Will win:
Unity Band. Should win: Blue Moon

Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album

Centennial: Newly Discovered Works Of Gil Evans Gil Evans Project ArtistShare

For The Moment Bob Mintzer Big Band MCG Jazz

Dear Diz (Every Day I Think Of You) Arturo Sandoval Concord Jazz

Bit of a ho hum selection (and only three names), although they’re all class acts. The Evans album is also up for a Jazz FM award in January. Will win: Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans. Should win: Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans

Best Latin Jazz Album

Flamenco Sketches Chano Domínguez Blue Note

¡Ritmo! The Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band Clare Fischer Productions/Clavo Records 

Multiverse Bobby Sanabria Big Band Jazzheads

Duos III Luciana Souza Sunnyside Records

New Cuban Express Manuel Valera New Cuban Express Mavo Records

Hard to predict this one but Domínguez is the coming man with the primatur of no less a figure than Wynton Marsalis in his back catalogue, although Sanabria could get the nod. Will win: Flamenco Sketches Should win: Flamenco Sketches

In other major categories Gregory Porter is surely a shoo-in for ‘Real Good Hands’ in the best traditional R&B performance category (why’s he not in jazz vocals?), and Hugh Masekela is up for a world music nod (again, categories, categories). Robert Glasper again is not in a jazz category but is up for best R&B album for Black Radio and best R&B performance for the Ledisi track ‘Gonna Be Alright (F.T.B)’, a sign the way his career is perceived to be going, and Dr John is nominated for the very fine Locked Down in the blues category. Finally, the category no one wants to be in and what a grisly list. I give you the pop instrumental album nominees with Gerald Albright & Norman Brown, Chris Botti, Larry Carlton, Arun Shenoy, and of course Dave Koz, all vying for the accolade no-one surely can want. Shhh, it’s mostly smooth jazz.

Stephen Graham

Pictured above: Kenny Garrett up for two Grammys

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Well what is there to say that won’t be said a hundred, a thousand times today and tomorrow and then the day after and beyond, about Dave Brubeck whose death at 91 following heart failure has been announced? The subject is vast and the analysis will be long and needed.

Along with only a tiny number of jazz musicians (Louis Armstrong chief among them) his name transcended music and was public property, in Brubeck’s case mainly because of ‘Take Five’ the instrumental hit Paul Desmond wrote and the quartet played to such effect, achieved with the slightly unusual time signature, impatient feel, and a melody that has permeated the very sinews of every street corner you’re likely to chance upon. A “living legend" the US Library of Congress put it, he passed away in Connecticut but his music was not of a place, more of a state of mind. A gentle reverie a generation of college educated Americans in the late 1950s and 60s will feel was synonymous with their youth, and which will remain.

Above Dave Brubeck on the cover of Time magazine

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Pianist and composer Neil Cowley has been named musician in residence in Derry for next year’s UK City of Culture festivities in the city.

Backed by the PRS for Music Foundation, local venue the Nerve Centre, and the City of Culture artistic team, Cowley, whose latest trio-plus-strings album is The Face of Mount Molehill, will be working with local musicians to perform new music primarily at the Nerve Centre.

The Cowley trio is known for its strong hooky melodies and energy-laden riffs, which appeal to rock and jazz fans alike. “What we do live is perhaps a step up from the record,” Cowley told legendary US jazz magazine Downbeat in the autumn ahead of his well received Barbican date when the basic unit was augmented with the Goldsmiths strings for Cowley’s biggest UK jazz gig to date. “We’re very much about a collective output. We’re about melodies, and the collective energy we produce.”

Cowley, who turned 40 last month is also known for his work with superstar singer Adele and was pianist on the smash hit ‘Rolling In The Deep’. The Cowley Trio is a popular draw on the international festival circuit, and toured in the US recently. At the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, Cowley presented newly arranged versions of songs from his debut, the BBC award winning album Displaced, including a magisterial version of the tune ‘How Do We Catch Up’. Cowley’s trio is built around what’s been dubbed an “Estuary sound" and with the pianist are original drummer Evan Jenkins, who is from Wellington in New Zealand, but who has lived and worked in the UK since 1994, and recently recruited Australian bassist Rex Horan, who replaced Richard Sadler, the player who appeared on the first three albums with Cowley and Jenkins. Horan has been living in the UK since 1997 but met Jenkins four years earlier in Western Australia, when they were both students in Perth. They then hooked up with various bands and now with Cowley make a formidable team that should enliven the Derry scene during a very special year and bring jazz to the fore.

Neil Cowley, pictured above

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The Jazz Café in Camden Town may have just been sold by its owner HMV along with nearby venue Barfly, a big Manchester venue the Ritz, and the east London Groove Armada-associated festival Lovebox in a £7.3m deal to a soul-less private equity firm.

But that won’t make any difference to the soulful legend set to appear at the venue next week. It may even spur her on. Because in a swan song, maybe, for a club that has become a fun plaything for corporate financiers in recent weeks, it’s the great soul and R&B singer from Detroit, Bettye LaVette coming in to play a rare date.

She’s celebrating 50 years in the music business as a performer, released a pulsatingly different new album Thankful N’ Thoughtful, and she’s written a gripping autobiography A Woman Like Me, with David Ritz.

A librarian she is not. Like Jimmy Scott, who Ritz has also written about, Bettye LaVette has had more than her fair share of ups and downs over the years and was a star and then wasn’t, then kind of became one again for a variety of reasons which the book goes into readable detail about.

On Thankful the Detroiter teams with Craig Street, the producer who turned Cassandra Wilson’s career right around in the 1990s when he worked with the Mississipian on the superb Blue Light Til Dawn in the 1990s on which Wilson moved beyond her comfort zone for the first time to absolutely devastating effect. His touch, and that voice, makes LaVette’s latest ready-made for jazz fans to dip their toes in soulsville once more.

LaVette because of the nature of the kind of soul and R&B she thrives on (roughly Tina Turner land) maybe didn’t have to make such a leap with Street, and as she dips in and out of different styles gives each of them her own emotively compelling life force.

The tracks are an astute mix of genre-denying tunes, and I have been hitting replay on Bob Dylan’s ‘Everything is Broken’ and the leftfield folk singer Patty Griffin’s song ‘Time Will Do The Talking’, which is just remarkable. Who would have thought such alchemy could have been achieved? It’s the measure of LaVette as an artist that this has occurred at all.

There are plenty of other goodies rattling around on the album including material by the Black Keys, Tom Waits and Neil Young, and LaVette manages even to breathe new life into Gnarls Barkley’s done-to-death ‘Crazy’, in itself a neat trick.

LaVette’s band on the record is Chris Bruce, guitar; Jonathan Wilson guitar, banjo; Glenn Patscha, piano, keys; Jennifer Condos, bass; JJ Johnson, drums, percussion; Steven Bernstein of Sex Mob on ‘Yesterday Is Here’; and Douglas Wieselman, reeds on the same track.

I’m not sure who her band in Camden will be on the night just yet. Doesn’t really matter to an extent. But do yourself a favour: and get down to Parkway before the equity fund people ruin the place for good. With the festive season and January gloom around the corner, and before changes kick in at the venue, it might just be the last time.

Stephen Graham

Bettye LaVette pictured top. Photo: Marina Chavez

Tickets: http://venues.meanfiddler.com/jazz-cafe/full-listings/featured-gigs/7673/bettye-lavette