Archive for July, 2015

Give the Drummer Some… NCCU Jazz Percussion Faculty and Alumni Concert

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Come swing with North Carolina Central University’s alumni drummers and Thomas Taylor as they start the school year off with a Bang.

Jazz drummer Thomas Taylor and some of the Jazz percussion alumni will present a jazz concert and fundraiser in the B.N. Duke Auditorium on the campus of North Carolina Central University on Sunday, Aug. 2, at 6 p.m. Earlier in the afternoon, there will be music and percussion-centered workshops starting at 2 p.m., followed by a silent auction starting at 5 p.m. Auction winners will be announced before the final group performs in the evening concert.

All proceeds will go to the Jazz Studies scholarship fund. The concert is free and open to the public and Jazz Lovers!  For more information, contact Thomas Taylor in the Department of Music at North Carolina Central University.

Guitarist Garrison Fewell — The Master of Searching for Something More

Monday, July 6th, 2015

The Boston music scene has suffered another loss with the passing of the beautifully accomplished guitarist, author, and (at the Berklee College of Music) teacher, Garrison Fewell. He was 61. Last year we talked in his Somerville apartment. We were in his music room, where he sat in front of a wall of LPs. “Vinyl makes friends,” he joked to me. (Over the years we had spent afternoons together hunting for records in Manhattan.) His career was varied and in some ways unexpected. Its beginnings, though, were almost inevitable. When I asked about his musical upbringing, he waved at his record shelf, with its alphabetized recordings from Cannonball Adderley to Attila Zoller. He had listened to the hard bop recordings of his era: the Blue Notes, Riverside, and Prestige recordings. Still, starting at age 11, he was also playing the blues, imitating the sounds of John Hurt, Fred McDowell, and Gary Davis.

He was a committed pacifist in the middle of the Vietnam war. At the age of 18 Fewell left the country. He started off living at a kibbutz in Israel and then travelled with his guitar and a friend who played the harmonica to Afghanistan. When he learned he had been drafted, he decided to stay overseas. In the Bamiyan Valley, standing next to the ear of a giant Buddha, he had his first encounter with Buddhism, which he would practice for the rest of his life. It was, as he describes it, a mystical experience. Then he returned to go to the Berklee College of Music, where, having focused on what his peers called “chicken-pickin’ music,” and feeling that the music of Coltrane and Charlie Parker were beyond him, he studied bossa nova. He would graduate in 1977. In 1992 he led his first recording, A Blue Deeper Than Blue. He was already well known in Europe. Guitarist Larry Coryell predicted that this recording would make him an idol here as well.

He spent the next decade teaching and playing his particularly gentle, often humorous compositions in prestigious clubs, including New York’s Birdland, where he recorded Birdland Sessions. He found the time to write two respected guitar manuals: Jazz Improvisation for Guitar: A Melodic Approach and Jazz Improvisation for Guitar: A Harmonic Approach. During this period he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with some of the competitive aspects of the jazz scene, which he referred to as “the world of hungry spirits.” (The “hungry spirits” were “the musicians who were always trying to get another gig, another review.”) He had, he said, changed inside, and his music also had to change. He began to work on freer improvisations.

The breakthrough, or breakup as some of his unhappy bebopping fans thought, came in 2003 at Cambridge’s Regattabar, where he played so freely it even disturbed his bass player. He was on his way to experimenting with group improvisation. Later he would work with Danish saxophonist John Tchicai, who had appeared on John Coltrane’s Ascension. Last year he published Outside Music, Inside Voices (Arts Fuse review), his compelling book of interviews with free jazz players, who explained their commitment to their approach, often in beautifully evocative language. His fans will remember his performances in recent years, sometimes in his house concerts or in small venues around Boston. They were challenging, and yet often charming. Sometimes they just took off.

He described to me the best parts of his recent performances: “At a certain moment, even in the midst of chaos, a ‘sound unity’ will occur—you can hear it happen—where individual and collective exploration converge and the music becomes connected to a greater energy. The vibrations in the room become more intense, the overtones more pronounced. It’s a physical as well as emotional energy that unifies body and mind. When it’s over, everyone in the room knows something happened. But what? The question remains to be answered by the performers and audience, but from a player’s point of view, I can say that it never happens the same way or in the same place twice.” He made sure it didn’t. He never settled for the second rate or avoided a challenge. His illness was his latest obstacle: through it all he wrote his book, played as often as he could, and continued to chant every day. When I visited him recently, he gleefully showed off the contents of a guitar case full of odds and ends, hunks of metal, a violin bow, and whatever, with which he modified the sound of his guitar. He had decided to live in the moment, and it proved rewarding.

The music, and his own playfulness, sustained him. When he first became ill, he stopped playing for three months. Then he was invited to perform an improvised concert at the Outpost. Fewell told me about the experience:

I was really weak coming in there. We improvised. There was no rehearsal. We hadn’t talked about anything about what we were going to do. We played and at the end of it, something so incredible happened. It was like . . . what did Steve Lacy say? Something about lifting the band off the bandstand. We were in another dimension, and so was the audience. The overtones and the sound filled the room and it was intense and it was just blasting at the end and then it was just Boom! Just done. That changed my life. From that moment I knew, there’s something that’s beyond. No matter how far you’ve thought you’ve gone, or what strengths you may or may not have, there’s something more to this music. That began my process of healing.

In 1995 Fewell made a recording, Are You Afraid of the Dark? The title seems prophetic. Diagnosed with cancer, he faced the darkness and then turned away. In an interview with me, he spoke about waking up from his first operation and immediately realizing that he had a decision to make. Before the surgery, he felt that he had a number of problems to deal with: “But when you are facing life and death, because they haven’t found a cure yet to make my illness a chronic disease like diabetes or HIV, you only have two choices. It becomes very simple. You go down one road, there’s darkness and death down there. Or you go down another road, which is positive and light and joy and really being in the moment and appreciating every single moment that you have. I have to make that choice . . . it’s just between those two.”

An inspiring man as well as a brilliant musician, Fewell had the courage to turn away from the darkness and to embrace the light. We shall not forget him.

By Michael Ullman
Originally published on

Ornette Coleman

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

Early on in his career, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, recorded an album entitled, The Shape of Jazz To Come. It might have seemed like an expression of youthful arrogance – Coleman was 29 at the time – but actually, the title was prophetic. Coleman is the creator of a concept of music called “harmolodic,” a musical form which is equally applicable as a life philosophy. The richness of harmolodics derives from the unique interaction between the players. Breaking out of the prison bars of rigid meters and conventional harmonic or structural expectations, harmolodic musicians improvise equally together in what Coleman calls compositional improvisation, while always keeping deeply in tune with the flow, direction and needs of their fellow players. In this process, harmony becomes melody becomes harmony. Ornette describes it as “Removing the caste system from sound.” On a broader level, harmolodics equates with the freedom to be as you please, as long as you listen to others and work with them to develop your own individual harmony.

For his essential vision and innovation, Coleman has been rewarded by many accolades, including the MacArthur “Genius” Award, and an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letter. an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, the American Music Center Letter of Distinction, and the New York State Governor Arts Award.

But the path to his present universal acclaim has not always been smooth.

Born in a largely segregated Fort Worth, Texas on March 9, 1930, Coleman’s father died when he was seven. His seamstress mother worked hard to buy Coleman his first saxophone when he was 14 years old. Teaching himself sight-reading from a how-to piano book, Coleman absorbed the instrument and began playing with local rhythm and blues bands.

In his search for a sound that expressed reality as he perceived it,

Coleman knew he was not alone. The competitive cutting sessions that denoted ‘bebop’ were all about self-expression in the highest form. “I could play and sound like Charlie Parker note-for-note, but I was only playing it from method. So I tried to figure out where to go from there,” Coleman said.

Los Angeles proved to be the laboratory for what came to be called free jazz. There began to gather around Ornette a core of players who would figure largely in his life: a lanky teenage trumpeter, Don Cherry and a cherubic double bass player with a pensive, muscular style named Charlie Haden, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins also joined the intense exploratory rehearsals in which Coleman was honing his vocabulary on a plastic sax, despite the lack of live gigs.

But simply by persisting, Coleman’s creativity attracted champions. Bebop bassist, Red Mitchell (an old associate of Cherry’s) brought the saxophone player’s to Contemporary Records’ Lester Koenig, originally intending to sell him some of his compositions. After realizing the difficulty musicians were having in playing the music Koenig asked Coleman if he could play the tunes himself. The meeting led to the Coleman’s debut 1958 album, Something Else.

The energy and electricity that had been building around Ornette and his players exploded during a now legendary season that Coleman played at the Five Spot jazz club in New York in November, 1959. Intrigued by rumors of the unorthodox young Texan’s approach, buzz preceded the shows and as the initial two weeks extended to a six-week run, the revolutionary Coleman quartet became the must-see event of the season.

And yet, as writer and long-time Coleman associate, Robert Palmer, observes in his notes to the Beauty Is A Rare Thing box set of the Atlantic years (Rhino/Atlantic), “The present day listener will most likely hear these pieces as well conceived and superbly realized works on their own terms and will again wonder what all the controversy could have been about.”

Coleman soon began to study of the trumpet and violin expanding the scope of his always prolific composition to include string quartets, woodwind quintets and symphonic works. Coleman used a Guggenheim Foundation grant to write a symphony, Skies of America.

Coleman went on a journey to Morocco in 1973, to work with the Master Musicians of Jajouka in their mountain villages. Following he also visited villages in Nigeria. Soon upon his return Coleman created with a new sound that was a full frontal harmolodic attack, a double whammy of drums and electric bass, dubbed Prime Time.

Coleman’s 1986 collaboration with jazz-rock guitarist Pat Metheny, Song X led to a tour and a new audience. Ornette moved into the broader public consciousness in the late 80s by performing and recording with the Grateful Dead and their hippy virtuoso guitarist, Jerry Garcia. The affection and respect which Coleman and the late Garcia had for one another was captured in the sessions for 1988’s Virgin Beauty (CBS/Portrait).

The new autonomy heralded a season in which Coleman began to reap consistent accolades for his continued adventures in music. He formed the Harmolodic Label and began an association with Polygram France. Over the course of the decade Harmolodic released a number of works beginning with Tone Dialing, on which a Bach prelude is rendered harmolodically.

One of the ultimate American accolades, the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, was awarded to Coleman in 1994. In general, rather than simple concerts, Coleman’s performances had by now become big multimedia events that both reflected and impacted on the host town’s community, lasting for several nights at a significant location.

Lincoln Center provided the backdrop for Civilization 1997. A four-night event at Avery Fisher Hall. It began with two nights of Kurt Masur conducting the New York Philharmonic together with Prime Time. Perhaps the most eagerly awaited aspect of all four nights was the first New York appearance in two decades of the Original Quartet, performing all new material. Hearing the familiar, still stimulating blend of Coleman, Haden and Higgins was an emotional experience for many listeners, who found in the depth of the players’ empathy a yardstick of their own lives and the fulfillment of dreams they had when they first heard the Quartet shatter conceptions of music.

A metaphysician, philosopher and eternal student, Coleman continues to confound categorization. His Harmolodic world continues to expand along with the concepts of an artist beyond boundaries. “Most people think of me only as a saxophonist and as a jazz artist,” he once stated, “but I want to be considered as a composer who could cross over all the borders.”

Bio originally published on