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Toronto, eh?

Been in Toronto, Ontario, for three days now. And never would have thought it would be 70 degrees F, sunny and blue blue skies. It’s gorgeous. So is this wonderful city, for the most part. Toronto is an international city, large and cosmopolitan. Despite a pretty hurting jazz scene. Music, in general is rather weak here. Sorry, but Dan Mangan doesn’t get it for me. Radio is kinda lame, too.

One negative I was shocked to see was how dirty the city is. Litter, and in some areas, the stench of garbage and dog shit, was oppressive. And I am in the Bloor-Yorkville area, which is quite tony. But the charms and delights outweigh these elements.

As in Europe, fashion is taken seriously here to a large degree. Boots, especially. Makes sense, this place is, to my way of thinking, akin to Magadan 5 months out of each year. So, women’s boots are everywhere, and in sizes and styles not often seen in Louisville. (No shit; fashion flies over Louisville daily.) Knee length boots are prevalent. So are those ugly UGG things. Bet the person who designed Crocs, went on to commit the crime of UGG boots. But the boot stores are pretty fun to peruse. Almost as much fun as watching people from a cafe in the afternoon.

The University of Toronto is nearby and I’ve dug walking the campus, and meeting students. Hot dogs are supposed to be great here. Uh, they are an improvement over the dirty water death dogs found on D.C. streets, but I recommend a roll of Tums afterwards. Drinking Canada Dry ginger ale here seems like the thing to do.

More is consumed, beverage wise, to be sure. Beer is a divine right, I suppose. My favorite name of an establishment is “Ein Stein,” a beer joint right off campus.

I’ll have some photos to post when I return to the States. Once again, I neglected to bring my battery charger and download cord for the camera. Sucks, especially when I walked past the great neon sign for the famed El Macambo Club. Oh well, I’ll tell you about it in person, if desired.

Too bad I am not a hockey fan. The Maple Leafs won their opener last night, and folks are stoked. And The Globe and Mail’s sports pages are full of NHL news. Thankfully, the NYTimes is available.

Speaking of availability, cigarettes (yes, I smoke; save your sermon…) are hard to find. There’s a law here that forbids merchants from displaying cigarettes. It’s easier to sneak a peek at a nipple or bare ass on porn magazines in convenience stores, than to see, actually SEE, a pack of ‘grettes. It’s effective. And they’re priced at NYC amounts. Still, duMauriers and Macdonald’s are great smokes. Oh, and they have those cute death warnings all over them. Like 50% of the space on each pack. “Each year the equivalent of a small city dies from tobacco use,” trumpets one.

Well, I’m off for another Canada Dry and a duMaurier. Keep your eyes peeled for the photos soon, eh?

The Undertones: “Love Parade” & “It’s Going To Happen”

Man, this subbing at WFPK has been wonderful! Reconnecting with a lot of non-Jazz artists and music is a real treat. And one group I really just flipped over, because I honestly had forgotten about them, basically, is The Undertones. Feargul Sharkey was a one of a kind vocalists. And the group was a marvel in their day. Here’s the videos for two of my all-time faves of theirs, “The Love Parade” and “It’s Going To Happen.” Check out the last verse of the former, and Sharkey’s passion. Wonderful, eh?

Jawbox: “Savory”

I’ve been hosting a Noon to 3 p.m. shift on the radio station I produce and host a jazz show for, WFPK, 91.9 FM, in Louisville. It’s been a blast. Very revealing for me to run down new, and older, material I love. Artists like Pops Staples, Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab, Clifton Chenier, The Gospel Chandeleirs, Marisa Monte, etc. One thing really stood out to me. The sheer brilliance of Washington, D.C.’s Jawbox. Jawbox was a harDCore band from Washington, D.C.. Its original members were J. Robbins (vocals/guitar), Kim Coletta (bass guitar) and Adam Wade (drums). Bill Barbot (vocals/guitar) and Zach Barocas (drums) later joined the group, with Barocas replacing Wade. One of my favorite songs of theirs is “Savory,” from their brilliant release, “For Your Own Special Sweetheart (Dischord).” Lo and behold, there’s an “official” video for it.

So dig. Flex Your Head. . .

Jason Moran’s “Ten”

There is a danger in proclaiming a recording as Record of the Year (RoY) before, let’s say for the sake of argument, mid-December. Releases flood the marketplace in the last months, sometimes THE last month, jockeying for position for inclusion on important year end critic’s lists.

But there does exist the possibility that one release is so head and shoulders above the rest, that it arrests one’s attention, and qualifies for an early proclamation that it IS the year’s best. I think Jason Moran’s “Ten” is one such release.

Who is Jason Moran? Jason Moran (born January 21, 1975) is a jazz pianist who debuted as a band leader with the 1999 album “Soundtrack to Human Motion.” Since then, he has garnered much critical acclaim and won a number of awards for his playing and compositional skills, which combine elements of stride piano, avant-garde jazz, classical music, hip hop, and spoken word, among others. Growing up in Houston, Texas, Moran began playing the piano when he was six, though he had no love for the instrument until, at the age of 13, he first heard the song “Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk and switched his efforts from classical music to jazz. He attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and then enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music where he studied with pianist Jaki Byard. While still in college Moran also received instruction from other avant-garde pianists including Muhal Richard Abrams and Andrew Hill. He also currently serves on the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, taking over the position occupied by his former teacher, Jaki Byard.

The title, “Ten,” has to do with the decade-long experience of his trio, the Bandwagon, and his spectacular growth as a bandleader. Bandwagon is bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. The New York Times’ marvelous jazz critic, Nate Chinen, says of this trio “Their rapport, distinctive from the start, now suggests a model of lithe collectivism. Mr. Moran’s piano forms the core of the group, but its sound is inconceivable without the thumbprints of Mr. Mateen, with his nimble, nubby bass guitar style, and Mr. Waits, with his earthy mutable approach to rhythm.” Their collaborations are sturdy, confident and extremely imaginative, particularly when seen in performance. But one of the strengths of “Ten,” and why it stands head and shoulders above the rest, is how well they create in the studio.

There’s a number of wisely chosen covers on the collection: a reinvented player-piano piece by Conlon Nancarrow (“Study No. 6,” in two versions) and songs by the jazz pianists Jaki Byard (“To Bob Vatel of Paris”), Thelonious Monk  (“Crepuscule With Nellie”) and Andrew Hill (“Play to Live,” written with Mr. Moran). “Nobody,” a hidden track, was the theme for Bert Williams, the minstrel star. “Big Stuff,” a bluesy stroll, was composed by Leonard Bernstein for the Jerome Robbins ballet “Fancy Free” and recorded by Billie Holiday. The centerpiece, though, is “Gangsterism Over 10 Years,” which appears near the album’s midpoint. Moran has been revisiting this “Gangsterism” theme on each album, coming up with new approaches, yet staying true to the core idea. Each version is a “status report, but this one, with its retrospective title, doubles as a statement of principle.” (Nate Chinen—NYTimes)

I saw the trio September 11th at the Rosslyn Jazz Festival in Rosslyn, VA. They played selections exclusively from “Ten,” and it was a stunning performance, despite competing with the overhead flights out of National Airport. Mateen’s bass is a sturdy and organic pulse, working in total syncopation with Watt’s ever true rhythmic sense. And Moran? Ideas pour out of his fingers and dance across and through the listener’s consciousness.

“Ten” (Blue Note) is a release any fan of the jazz piano-bass-drum trio would do well to check out. I stand by my early statement, too. It is the Record of the Year for 2010.

Photo of Jason Moran at the Rosslyn Jazz Festival by Lee Mergner—JazzTimes

Elegy and Gratitude: Love to Augie

It’s been almost a week since I learned about Augie‘s death. Not a moment goes by where I am not in some small way carrying a part of her. I trust the rest of my days will be like this. Hopefully, I will learn to smile more when I think about her. Already, my mind races back in time over a decade ago, and sees the youthful dog many of you in D.C. and Louisiana knew. You know who and/or what “Ringo” means. And were probably vexed by it. Knew not to say “ball” or “squirrel.” Or “chippy.” It would set off a torrent of barking, as she locked into action, seeking some engagement with each of us. A way to please someone. That’s what Augie was all about.

The Augie who was mostly black! That all turned white about 5 years ago. Maybe the aftermath of our being uprooted from Louisiana’s stormy summer of 2005. Folks in Louisville don’t know that version, save family.

The outpouring of kindness from so many of you has been beautiful and much appreciated. There was Dr. Micheal White and Pat Lentz dedicating a “Blues For Augie/Second Line” to her memory, and me, at WFPK’s Live Lunch last Friday. Amazing. And the words of my friend Gary who said “Augie was probably the most sophisticated canine on the planet, having all those years of listening to tunes floating through the house.” She was surrounded by music. Rock and Roll and Hip Hop weren’t her faves. But Classical, Opera and Jazz, especially Jazz, were sounds she liked and would sit at my feet listening to while I was working.

I thought about this one day last week, when I pulled out Terence Blanchard’s “A Tale Of God’s Will (Requiem For Katrina),” one of those recordings I can always listen to when nothing else works. He offers a funeral dirge, in memory of those who perished in The Storm. And a song for his Mother, after they entered her house in the Lower Ninth. Both are beautiful, sad and moving. And the swells of his trumpet lines also offer a hope for a better tomorrow. They do for me at least. I hope for you, too.

Augie, 1993—2010

My beloved dog, Augie, died on Friday, August 13, 2010. She was 17 years old. An earlier post, celebrating her 17 years, told her “bio,” rescued as a shelter dog from Arlington, VA, and her gracing my life from the time she was several months old. She was with me all of her life, in Arlington/Metro D.C. area, Louisiana, to her final stop in Kentucky. My best friend, Chris, said it well yesterday, when he told me “she was a sweet, sweet dog.” So true. I think I can honestly say every human she met was touched by her unfailing sweetness and grace. She was an elegant, beautiful and loving dog. People never stopped asking me on the street, “what kind of dog is that?” and wound up always saying “she is so sweet!” She was. She was my best friend, through some of the worst storm I have weathered, literally (Hurricane Rita) and figuratively.

Old age claimed her, ultimately. The last 6 months of her life were a little rough to see, but I never heard the voice inside that said it’s time. My dear friends Jack, Laura, Tom, and dear dear Billy, did, alas. She once was the fearless “loud little dog,” who barked at the slightest movement. The animal whose eyes always moved first toward an unseen sound, before her head did. The very fast Whippet genes that propelled her across our front yard at the farm in Opelousas, LA, where she thrived in the vast open space of 120 acres, raised her curiosity about the newborn calves across the fence, and her endless quest to play ball, or her wanting to “go get Ringo.” At the end, her eyes were clouded with cataracts, her hearing, diminished, and an injured back right leg.

But her love for me, and her Grandma, was omnipresent. Augie was love, you see. Maybe I should have named her Dearie, I often thought. She was called Miss Thing, Boo, The Augster and the best thing that’s ever happened in my life. I shall miss her dearly the rest of my life.

I want to thank some people who played huge roles in our lives, and who reached out for me yesterday. To Chris and Jason, two of the best men on the planet, for beautiful words, written and spoken. To Barbara and Al, my true family in D.C., for steeling me for the inevitability of her death, and comfort when I broke it to them. Much much much love, todo años, sempre, to Andrea and Kyle (“remember who loves you most, Marco!”) for virtual or real arms that hugged me when I was heaving great sobs last night, and shoulders to cry on. And especial thanks and love to Jack, Laura, Tom and Billy for doing what I could not, after trying, I know, for a week to sustain her while I was away. You guys always made the gallery a home away from home for us both. Your love is unending for both of us. To my Mom, Augie’s Grandma, for her babysitting, and companionship for Augie. My two little old ladies.

And most of all, so much love to my Sister, Lynne. I cannot put into words how much your love for me and Augie means. I can only say I love you, Lynne.

And you, Augie, I miss you little girl. I will forever and ever. You were one of God’s greatest blessings to so many of us. Your Daddy Loves You.

The Silent Film, “Louis”

Nowadays, high-definition video, 3-D films, and instant downloading are the face of the cinematic experience, for better or worse. So when I heard someone was making a silent film, it felt somewhat revolutionary.

And that’s exactly what first-time director Dan Pritzker is doing with “Louis,” his movie about Louis Armstrong that is going on tour this week and has a one-time screening Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore, in Rockville, MD, outside D.C., where I have been the last several weeks.

The film stars Anthony Coleman as a 6-year-old Armstrong and Jackie Earle Haley as a corrupt judge in a mythologized version of the trumpeter’s early years in the Storyville district of New Orleans. When “Louis” premierss at Strathmore, the soundtrack, by L.M. Gottschalk and Wynton Marsalis will be performed live by Marsalis, pianist Cecile Licad and a 10-piece ensemble, including JALC stalwarts Marcus Printup, Sherman Irby, Carlos Henrique and Ali Jackson.

As cool as that promises to be, “Louis” itself promises just as much musicality as the musicians themselves. Filmed on location in New Orleans and on a sound stage in North Carolina, “Louis” has the sepia-toned hues of a bygone era, with flashes of contemporary wit. At once archaic and dynamic, the film’s visual design was conceived by Pritzker with production designer Charles Breen and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.

The challenge, according to the creators, was to make a movie with modern technology and make it look like it was shot in the 1920s. How much is borrowed from past materials and methods, and how much should it look like it was shot today?

I’ll let you know next week how it all goes down.

Blue Crab Blues

Blue crab larvae from Louisiana’s coastal waters are starting to turn up contaminated with oil. According to an Associated Press story earlier this week, marine biologists have been collecting larvae during the duration of the BP oil spill, and are finding large amounts containing distinctive orange oil droplets.
Blue crabs are quite prolific and are not likely to be wiped out, even with a die-off of this year’s larvae, scientists are concerned that the larvae will live long enough to be ingested by other marine life, and the oil and possible dispersants they contain will move up the food chain, effecting the Gulf of Mexico’s aquatic population for years.

Loyola University biologist Bob Thomas told the AP, “Something likely will eat those oiled larvae…and then that animal will be eaten by something bigger and so on.” Ultimately, the smaller creatures will be eaten by those at the top of the food chain, such as dolphins and tuna, which could get fatal “megadoses.”

Like us?

Photo: Associated Press

Things We Like: “From Gardens Were We Feel Secure”

From Gardens Where We Feel Secure is the title of the first Virginia Astley album issued on her own Happy Valley label and distributed by Rough Trade Records. (The original, and my preferred, album cover is shown. Astley switched out the cover art on subsequent releases.)  Virginia Astley is an English singer-songwriter most active during the 1980s and 1990s. From the start of her song-writing career in 1980, Astley took her inspiration from many sources. Her classical training influenced her as did a desire to be experimental with her music. Although more popular in the Far East, most notably Japan, she remains a cult artist in her native England.

The album was released in July 1983 and peaked at number 4 in the UK Indie Chart. The album was trailed by a couple of its tracks A Summer Long Since Past and It’s Too Hot to Sleep, my Haitian theme song, which were included on the 12″ of the earlier single Love’s a lonely place to be.

The album is an instrumental collection of tone poems that describe the cycle and mirror the moods of at summer day in the English countryside. It’s a bucolic and sincere collection of aural sketches, which totally captivated me around the time I was deep into D.C.’s harDCore scene.

The album began life as a series of demos produced by John Foxx at the Crépuscule studios, where he was working at the time. The album is notable for its structure, moving from dawn to dusk, and its use of natural, sound effects. In 1986, Astley and Ryuichi Sakamoto re-recorded “A Summer Long Since Passed” and included it in her 1986 album Hope in a Darkened Heart. “From Gardens…” was re-mastered and re-released by Rough Trade as a CD in 2003.

The album was praised by critics. Stewart Mason, writing for Allmusic, stated: Almost entirely instrumental, save for a few wordless vocals on “A Summer Long Since Past,” and featuring little instrumentation besides Astley’s piano and some subtle woodwinds, the album is a lovely 35-minute meditation built around field recordings Astley made of the ambient sounds of the rural English countryside. This description makes the album sound much more twee and insubstantial than it actually is; however, Astley is no mere ambient noodler. These nine songs are melodically rich and varied; mood pieces in the truest sense of the term.

It’s a gorgeous collection of music, possibly harder to find, but richly rewarding. In addition to a sample of music from “From Gardens…”, I’ve included a song from a subsequent release,  Astley’s rather scarce 1986 album Hope in a Darkened Heart, which features David Sylvian in a duet.

The Art of Seduction: Nick Cave

Holy shit!! A new Grinderman CD is on its way!! Oh man, the last one was just insanely good, but read what Los Angeles Times blogger Todd Martins has to say about the forthcoming (which I have not heard.) gasp!!

It comes near the end of the upcoming Grinderman album. Song No. 7, to be specific, for those who still believe in the grouping of musical numbers as a collective work. It hits like a blindsided strike to the face — a lyric that serves as a menacing put-down and an aggressively persuasive come-on all at once.

The vocals are hard to describe. Nick Cave doesn’t so much sing as leer. The guitars, likewise don’t riff so much as scrape. The instrument streaks over the predatory rhythm, at times sounding as if it’s mimicking a trumpet. It’s dark, sketchy and a little uncomfortable. If Cave wasn’t trying to seduce a married woman in her kitchen, it could be the soundtrack Darwyn Cooke’s graphic-noir adaption of Donald E. Westlake’s “The Hunter.”

“What’s this husband of yours ever given to you?” Cave wonders just as the drums move in for in for the kill. “Oprah Winfrey on the plasma screen?” Then the tone of the song, “Kitchenette,” starts to really get off the rails. At the start of the cut, Cave was digging into gingerbread cookies, but in a span of two minutes the pleasantries have long been forgotten. The lead guitar turns into a siren, and one braces for an explosion, but the music never gets too reckless.

The chaos here is controlled, moving at a crawl’s space. There’s no violence — the games are all in the head, and Cave is winning. He flashes his teeth even as he shows a bit of vulnerability, howling that he just wants the object of his affection to be his girlfriend, and then slams her children as “bucktoothed imbeciles” who happen to be the “ugliest” kids he’s ever seen. Amazingly, it gets Cave even closer to his prey. After all, her no-good kids aren’t her fault — just a reminder of her poor choice in men. And being nice? There’s no prize for nice in the world Cave is unraveling.

The album, “Grinderman 2,” is not all so warped and manipulative. The very next track, in fact, “Palaces of Montezuma,” is a thing of beauty, and could even be a slow dance at a wedding. It’s due Sept. 14 from locals Anti- Records, and Grinderman — a Cave-led outfit that’s a tad more lyrically direct than his work in the Bad Seeds — will bring the emotional whiplash to the Music Box @ Fonda on Nov. 30. Tickets for the show, which was announced Monday, will go on sale Aug. 20, but there are sure to be pre-sales.

— Todd Martens

Photo: Nick Cave in 2008. Credit: Kiko Huesca / EPA