December 19 - 26, 1 9 9 6
[Arts 1996]
| art | cellars | classical | dance | fiction | film | home | jazz | non-fiction | pop | theater | tv |

Of musical lions young and old and gone

Don Byron

The clarinettist/composer/bandleader brought his Afro-Latin ensemble Music for Six Musicians to the New England Conservatory, his poetry & jazz ensemble Existential Dred to the Middle East; and he released both the live No Vibe Zone (Knitting Factory) and Bug Music (Nonesuch), his exquisite take on the music of Raymond Scott, John Kirby, and early Ellington. All these projects argued convincingly that jazz is a critical attitude more than a clearly defined style. And all were great music.

[Medeski Martin and Wood]

Medeski Martin and Wood

The keyboards/bass/drums trio released Shack-man (Gramavision), an uncategorizable blend of funk grooves and collective improvisation, and sold out the Somerville Theatre twice to jazz fans and Phish-heads. Reveling in the brainy spontaneity and physicality of jazz performance, these guys are galvanizing disparate audiences as well as disparate genres.

Box sets and the biz

Miles Davis/Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (Columbia) embodied all the paradoxes of the jazz record industry. It was at once a ripoff and a masterpiece. Here was all the commodity fetish appeal of reissues -- a lavish packaging of established classics of the jazz canon. The six-CD set was more than 50 percent alternate and rehearsal takes, including studio chatter. And yet, all of it was surprisingly listenable, and the 1957 Miles Ahead was essentially a new recording -- restored to its never-before-released full stereophonic glory. Meanwhile, though such reissues have been a key component of the jazz boom of the past few years, sales in '96 went flat.

Indie jazz

The local avant-garde scene took a boost from native as well as imported talent. Dave Douglas's Tiny Bell Trio made Balkan-flavored jazz at Ryles, and he joined John Zorn for some Jewish-flavored Ornette jazz at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Along with Masada, the ICA also brought in the likes of Henry Threadgill and the Far East Side Band as part of its New Histories exhibition. The local avant-garde released a spate of top-shelf recordings by guitarist Joe Morris, father and son Joe (reeds) and Mat (violin) Maneri, and Debris. And loft-style jazz came back to the revived Playground at the Zeitgeist Gallery.

Lions in winter

Sonny Rollins, by consensus the greatest living improviser, yet known for his spotty albums, released Silver City, a best-of culled from his past 25 years on Milestone. It also happened to be his best album in 25 years. Meanwhile, Ornette Coleman, the greatest living jazz revolutionary, released two albums with an acoustic quartet (including acoustic piano!), Sound Museum Three Women and Sound Museum Hidden Man (Harmolodic/Verve), that showed him still in top form.

Alan Dawson (1930-1996)

This master percussionist was a mainstay of the Boston scene for more than 30 years before he succumbed to leukemia in February. He played all kinds of jazz with power, technical finesse, and wit. He was a joy on the bandstand, an influential teacher; and he's irreplaceable. The George Alan Dawson Scholarship Fund was established with the help of a benefit concert in September and will, one hopes, sustain his legacy. (Donations can be made payable to the George Alan Dawson Scholarship Fund and sent to the Boston Jazz Society, Box 178, Boston 02134. Call the Jazz Society at 445-2811 for more info.)

[Danilo Pérez]


Danilo Pérez's PanaMonk (Impulse!) was a personal breakthrough for the fine Panamanian-born pianist/composer. Along with David Sanchez's Street Scenes (Columbia), Conrad Herwig's The Latin Side of John Coltrane (Astor Place), and that indomitable maestro Eddie Palmieri's Vortex (TropiJazz/RMM), it proved that the Afro-Latin sound is still on the cutting edge of jazz creativity.

Billy Strayhorn

David Hajdu's Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) brought renewed interest to Ellington's right-hand man, as did a handful of recordings. Hajdu himself curated Lush Life: The Billy Strayhorn Songbook (Verve), featuring everyone from Sarah Vaughan and Stan Getz to Steve Lacy and Cecil Taylor. The Dutch Jazz Orchestra paid tribute with Portrait of a Silk Thread (Kokopelli), and the man himself (as pianist and vocalist as well as composer/arranger) was featured on Lush Life (Red Baron) and The Peaceful Side of Billy Strayhorn (Capitol).

Bill Frisell

The 45-year-old guitarist/composer has become, like Coleman and Threadgill, a genre unto himself. What do you call his hybrid of gospel, country, jazz, rock, and Copland-esque Americana? On Quartet (Nonesuch), he's taken music that he originally wrote for films (by Buster Keaton and Daniele Luchetti) and TV animation (Tales from the Far Side) and arranged them for a quartet of guitar, trombone, trumpet, and violin or tuba. It's melancholy, humorous, tuneful, and all Frisell's own.

Ella Fitzgerald (1918-1996)

She was both pop singer and jazz singer, a vocalist who got her start as a teenager with big-band leader Chick Webb in the heart of the swing era but whose dauntless scatting was a match for any bebopper. Along with other purveyors of what's become called "The Great American Songbook" (Frank Sinatra being her most notable contemporary), she made the lyrics paramount. She was a supreme technician often criticized for her lack of feeling, but her readings were never colorless, and always alight with dancing movement. What's more, her versions of "standards" by Cole Porter or Rodgers & Hart or the Gershwins have become the standard. Her Best of the Songbooks (Verve) has now been on the Billboard jazz charts for more than 150 weeks.

-- Jon Garelick

| What's New | About the Phoenix | Home Page | Search | Feedback |
Copyright © 1996 The Phoenix Media/Communication Group. All rights reserved.