Showing posts with label Jazz. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jazz. Show all posts

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Remarks on Wynton Marsalis

The shame of it all is that Wynton Marsalis has come to represent everything a public considers to be the 'art' of jazz, and as he continues to proffer tame music, the adventurous stuff, the "out" playing that keeps the music alive remains unheard and alien to the curious listener. That there is a Jazz Canon that needs to be preserved is not disputed, it's just that Marsalis acts as if all the innovation is now past tense. He believes it is. His style is conservative and chiseled after his heroes, Miles, Clark Terry, Clifford Brown. Their music, though, came as a result of extending their technique into areas that were unknown in the culture. Marsalis has done none of that. He is cheating himself and boring the rest of us to death. The distinction between an ongoing spotlight between jazz musicians defining musical sensibilities among themselves, at work, and that of Marsalis discussing such things is that Marsalis has the spotlight, the media, and the audience goes to him, and it is there where the debate, this debate begins. We disagree as to the role of critics, but I think the ghettoization of jazz is too laid precisely at the feet of white writers and intellectuals. 

Amiri Baraka is a great man and an important critic, and presented jazz as a continuous aesthetic of liberation, and correctly defined African American music as music about freedom and struggle, and the search for new knowledge, the extension of the voice, the exploration of the soul into new knowledge. As Baraka socialist, a brave and lonely vantage in a culture that thinks a free-market can resolve permanent problems in the human condition, I don't think it accidental that his views are ignored, and frankly unknown to most. Marsalis William Bennett-ish view, that jazz should embody virtues conduce to conduct in a democratic society, is a valid one, and we may understand it's broader appeal, but really, bebop purism is needed in an art like jazz, as art, any art, cannot remain a living thing, generation-to-generation, if the past is not known. Simply, Marsalis is part of a generation of artists and intellectuals in the African American community who are no part of the mainstream dialogue in America. Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, Cornell West, bell hooks, Gerald Early--these are actually first-rate thinkers, agree or not with their conclusions, but the fact of the matter is that we require more high-profile cats like Marsalis, from every facet and corner of the black community, to debate, to clamor, and to insist on jazz being a great American art form they created, and thus claim their rights Americans. Again, Marsalis is not my favorite player, and I think his dalliance in two camps, classical and jazz, dilutes his performances in both, but he did get us arguing something that really matters. I will say it again, for that much, he deserves our thanks. The issue for is that though jazz is a quintessential American creation it is the creation of Black-Americans, who forged the music, who have been its prime movers, and who continue to be the innovators who define what the music will be. 

Someone with the high visibility of Wynton Marsalis who takes it upon himself to speak for jazz is a resentment waiting to happen, but doubtlessly Marsalis knew this, and went ahead and ran his mouth anyway. But his project is a noble one. He recognizes that jazz is the premier American contribution to world culture, and that it is a black art form as well, but also that the black community, it's young people, were forgetting about the culture that is their right to claim. Leaving specific utterances aside, specific feuds unmentioned, let's just say that his insistence on the black accomplishments in jazz, technical, social, moral, spiritual, have made numerous white people nervous, as we white people tend to become whenever educated black men and women take back the discourse about black culture.Marsalis is something of a cultural conservative, a William Bennett sort who has his own 'Book of Virtues' agenda in his educational projects and with his directorship of the jazz program in Lincoln Center, and that I view his music as less than the fiery blaze of Freddie Hubbard (a better trumpeter than Wynton, really) and a less composed texture than Ellington. But who says there has to be a consensus in the debate. To the degree that Marsalis has opened up the discussion to the larger culture, he has rendered a service to the state of jazz. To the extent that he has gotten many people's dander up, well, I think that is a good thing too because in the hands of dusty musicologist moon lighting as critics, jazz has seemed a gasping, brittle artifact, like old furniture in a museum display, that one appreciated for its former glory, for all it's accumulated history. Whatever stripe you happen to be, Marsalis implies, jazz is not past tense, it is not a thing of history, it is a living thing that has history. 

Like anything else in this world of manufactured concerns, jazz has many streams, rills, eddies and currents, all of which keep the pulse alive and relevant, breathing right along with us as we hear it, and in turn become inspired to create it anew. No one that I've read here has come close to saying anything like that, and to think anyone is paranoid, I am afraid. But we're not here to re-write the history books, nor even to indulge in the fetishism revolving the arguments of well-fed men, white and black. Rather, the original topic seen at the top of the page, the final question, really, was about our take on Wynton's promotion of the music, and the word promotion is the key. Because really, before his being on the scene and making a racket over jazz, bop or otherwise, the topic had been as dead as shoe leather. But now as to what jazz is or is not having become something for a wider debate, and into this debate, it draws whites and blacks into conversations with one another more so than they have been in years. And it is, by rights, one that blacks are at last debating in the larger arena. It is no longer a white man's game to define anymore. 

Friday, July 1, 2022


 City, Country, City-- Jason Ricci and Joe Krown

Jason Ricci is easily one of the greatest blues harmonica players in the world, a master of the difficult "overblow" technique that allows this New Orleans-based musician to produce full chromatic scales on a modest folk instrument that's usually limited to the diatonic range. Briefly, through modification of the harmonica reeds and practiced application of novel approaches to em brochure, Ricci transcends the limits of blues structures and improvise with a particular complexity and brilliance and melodic invention that brings his playing closer to a good number of fleet jazz masters from who Ricci takes inspiration. Jason Ricci, make no mistake, is a blues harpist with both feet solidly in the tradition of Sonny Boy, Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, or Blind Owl Wilson (of Canned Heat), a gritty player who makes the harmonica howl, growl, yowl, cry, and moan. There's the sweat and urgency of blues feeling, but one also notices on his frequent extended improvisational extravaganzas a fluidity of ideas, quotes from Coltrane and Django Reinhardt, high-octane bluegrass riffs alternating with Parker-era bebop flourishes, dense chord constructions, rapid fire train patterns. Ricci is a supremely fast player, to be sure, making the diminutive harmonica in his harmonica thunder ahead with the instrumental command of a spotlighted lead guitarist or divinely blessed jazz trumpeter.

 But like the best musicians noted for technique, speed of ideas and precision of performance, JR's long improvisations are master classes in solo building; he builds mood with a few notes, a partial duplication of the melody, and then ventures forth, filling out the ideas, playing  on, before and after the beat in playful investigation, surely moving toward a wondrous and prolonged stretch of cadenzas that deconstructs and reassembles the composition at hand. It's the stuff of wonder to behold Ricci start with bluesy aggression before eventually venturing off in various musical side roads to see if he can produce musical moments no one expected. Classical phrases, jazz chromaticism, fleet bluegrass pentatonics, hard power-trio blitzing, softer, lyric acoustic interludes are the elements this player has mastered, and which give his harmonica power. Jason Ricci, incidentally, played on Johnny Winter's Grammy  Award-winning album Stand Back in 2014, was invited by former David Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer to play on "Born In Chicago" for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in   2015 (broadcast on HBO), and has released twelve albums with several  musical alliances including the scorching New Blood, with singer-songwriter J.J. Appleton, and most recently with the visceral Bad Kind. 

All that said, Jason surprises us again by stepping back momentarily from the manic tones that are his usual fare and brings now the superb City Country City. His partner in this endeavor is organist and fellow New Orleans resident Joe Krown, the sound rear is something of a throwback to an early jazz era of hard-bop, and organ trios, a domain of jazz grooves characterized by a solid rhythm and blues feel, a music grounded in funk. Bolstered by the unfailingly swing and verve of Big Easy drummer Doug Belote, this is a trio well grounded   in all the traditions, have all the right moves and add moves of their own to keep this gumbo percolating, popping and jiving. The title track “City Country City” many will recognize as being the instrumental from the band War for their 1972 The World is a Ghetto disc. The Ricci/Krown reimagining picks up the pace from War’s original, smooth and mellow inspiration. Ricci plays the supple intro figure as Krown supplies gorgeous chords, swells, and swelling tones, and each take steadfast, sharp solo breaks over Belote’s tight, on the note beats. It’s a terrific hook into a session of ancient school playing with a very contemporary edge. Soon enough, Krown and Ricci give themselves license to show their wares in full on the sexy and savvy strut of “Down and Dirty.” Krown takes the first chorus, blending gospel phrases and swift, skidding runs that make you think of Jimmy Smith in his bluest mood. Ricci then takes up the cause after his partner hands it over to him, making his serpentine harmonica work resemble at times other horn instruments; the angelic high notes of a clarinet, the throbbing undulations of a baritone saxophone, the hard and rapid cadenzas of a feverish trumpet player are suggested  Ricci mixes up the ideas, varies his attack, modulates his tone and his pacing as the solo progresses through its conventional blues progression. He keeps it intriguing; he brings you in, he keeps on the hook. The tune rocks like nothing else. From the opening bars, a jaunty theme that could be used as a jazz march, drummer Belote keeps things tight and moving along. The record as a whole is like this, full of Southern fried funk, edgy city blues, jazz fantasias of all sorts. “Jimmy Smith Strut,” “Don’t Badger the Witness,” “Good Clean Funk” are other highlights from this inspired trio. Jason Ricci is very much the best of the best in the blues harmonica world, and this trio collaboration with the estimable Joe Krown and Doug Belote is a grand place to become acquainted with the grace, power, and beauty of this artist’s playing.

Those intrigued about Ricci's other music should additionally seek the 2008's  Rocket # 9, credited to Jason Ricci and New Blood. Anyone with a strong need of hearing some of very fine and blistering blues harmonica work by a player dedicated to extending that small instrument's capacity to surprise a listener, I'd recommend getting the new disc by Jason Ricci and New Blood, Rocket Number 9. Ricci is one of those musicians where you can hear the influences of players he's "gone to school" on (sounding to me like a sweet blend of Paul Butterfield, Little Walter, Sugar Blue, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howard Levy, and a smattering of mainstream saxists ala Paul Desmond)who has blended what he's learned into a vigorous, original style. Rocket Number 9 is a glorious and tight blues rock album, with plenty of sharp guitar work, a rhythm section that balances tightness and an appealing, shambling looseness, all of this highlighting Ricci's serpentine harp improvisations and ragged-but-right vocals. What becomes obvious is that young Ricci is not stuck for an idea, and it's a wonder to hear his solos rage and soar and then transform into jazzier lines; one would have a hard time to finding another harmonica player with a better grasp of his technique and imagination or who makes as much of an effort to present fresh notions, configurations, and twists into his playing. There's a naturalness to what he brings forth, a sensual joining of his lines that is remindful of Butterfield at his most prime; rather than seeming like an upstart perfunctorily playing his warm-up licks before launching his super chops too soon and too often, Ricci, like Butterfield, has a jazz-players of dynamics. They're the rare skill of building and releasing tension that keeps on the edge, motivated by the band's virtuoso rhythms and the lead man's sober unpredictability. New Blood, as I said, is a tight, rocking, funkified band.

 Jump Children --the Scott Silbert Big Band

Little else existing gets the blood pumping faster than the pulverizing rhythm of big band swing. Limbs twitch, hands beat a tempo on table tops, feet tap then turn and then twist in acrobatic dervishing as the ballroom floor fills with the righteous joy of dancers moving to the galvanizing pace of trombones, trumpets, and saxophones galore joined in a righteous 4/4 stride. In its prime in the 30s, 40s and up to the 50s, it was the music supreme. Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Harry James, the Dorsey brothers, and many others filled the ballrooms, the concert halls, and  radio airwaves coast to coast. 

It was rebellion, rhythm, pot, secret hooch in pocket flasks, riffs romance, the music of a Nation on the go on the dance floors, in the factories, on the march in the War to End all Wars as America seduced the world with the sweetest sounds this side of heaven. I'm nearly 70, born too early in 1952 to remember what monumental big deal the big bands were, but decades of speaking to elders kind enough to share their memories and record collections with me, I think it would be safe to assume that collectively those telling me tales of big bands, tour buses, and bandstands thought that this was a glorious thing that would never end. But it did. The eventual ascendancy of Elvis, Chuck Berry and rock and roll in general in the 50s, to make a complicated tale too brief in the telling, was a principal reason the Big Bands were pushed from the center spotlight. Though never completely out of the public mind, jazz in general and big band jazz in particular became marginalized. Efforts over the years to restart interest in the Swing Era brand of brassy sass have mixed results over the years. In a general way and in the interest of keeping this review concise, suffice it to say that college big bands, various sorts of revivalist ensembles and especially that faddish "Swing Revival" of the late eighties-early 90s, to varying degrees, struck me as academic recreations at best, gimmicky opportunism at worst. You couldn't help but wonder if anyone would happen along, unexpected, with a blazing take on this grand tradition, not as an ancient thing that needed to be refurbished or rehabilitated instead as a life force that can make the nervous system jump again in an age where modern music seems determined to deaden our wits.  

Jump Children by the Jeff Silbert Big Band is a choice step in that direction, a session of hard-rocking swing music, fueled by propulsive drums, two fisted piano chords and sharp, superbly textured, rapidly applied horn and reed arrangements. Silbert, a jaunty and fluid tenor saxophonist and arranger and a member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, proceeds here as though Big Bands never went out of style. He's assembled a formidable fourteen-member band, players who lock together in common cause to move the listener through deep, brash colors, and intricate time signatures. There's abundance of ensemble electricity here. Or, more like an embarrassment of hot, very hot jazz.

A bold statement, but the music's galloping swagger is  evidence that enthralls and rattles the senses. The album opener and title track "Jump Children", a tune recorded in 1945 by the International Sweethearts of Rhythm (an all-women and integrated unit that found a measure of international acclaim) is  given a blasting, endearingly fidgety treatment here, with fine solos from trumpeter Josh Kauffman on trumpet and Grant Langford on tenor sax swiftly and lightly darting over and around the cut time horn arrangements, all of which boosts Gretchen Midgely's already animated vocals to heights of finger snapping jive. This collective of virtuosos through a rich swath of known and less known tunes from the period, performed with a superb rhythm section that makes the music move with a youthful flair you might not have expected. There is nothing dated here. There are many sweet spots, but I would point out two especially catchy numbers, the first being an intrepid  iteration of  1939's "In a Persian Market" by Larry Clinton indulges in magnificent stop-time fun after the main theme is stated. Second, the Silbert Big Band's treatment of Mercer Ellington's "Jumpin' Punkin" from 1941 is an elegant jaunt, a spare set of horn charts laced together with sublime statements from multi-reedist on clarinet and Leigh Pilzer on baritone sax. The album concludes on a stratospheric note, the warhorse tune "Stompin' at the Savoy" (composed by Chick Webb and  Edgar Samson), the trademarked horn charts soaring over a brutally effective swing section while a round house of soaring and succinct solos from Kauffman (trumpet), Jen Krupa (trombone), Silbert (tenor sax) and Ken Kimrey switch off with the unison horn lines in a melee of musical chatter.

Blue Kind of Miles --Peter Sprague

It's an odd situation when there's a jazz artist giving tribute to history's most acclaimed jazz trumpeter who proceeds with a band lacking what you'd assume is the  most essential instrumentalist. Yes, we're speaking of a Miles Davis commemoration that exists and moves forward without a trumpet player in their ranks. Odd, yes, but no quandary need apply here. In Guitarist Peter Sprague’s recent offering, Blue Kind of Miles, the absence of a trumpeter is strategic artistry. A reinterpretation of Davis’ music from his landmark 1959 album Kind of Blue, Sprague and longtime comrades (brother Tripp Sprague on sax, flute, and piano; Mack Leighton on bass; and Duncan Moore on drums give themselves the luxury to play with Davis’ seminal compositions. Anyone awaiting the chance to distract with useless complaints about how a younger horn player goes about playing the music of someone whose oeuvre many think invaluable can take the day off. Blue Kind of Miles, highlighting Sprague’s delicate arrangements of Davis’ mystical, modal, and near minimalist tone poems, allows the music to breathe with the fresh breath of this quartet’s sublime collective personality. 

Far more than compensating in place of a trumpet is versatile reed man Tripp Sprague as the album’s secondary soloist, and throughout the disc he reveals what he knows about tone, phrasing, and constructing a soulful message. He fills his solo space with a bevy of melodic ideas on the album’s opening number, a high-stepping rendition of the Davis classic “So What.” His sound is warm and full. His relaxed yet agile playing commands close attention. Peter, as always, combines a precise lyricism to his guitar work; his ensemble work approaches a world-beating classicism, but as those who’ve followed his diverse career since he first appeared on the scene with Dance of the Universe in the seventies, there is an innate swing to his playing. Samba to bop to a bluesy funkiness, all embodied in this improviser’s statements. The haunting flamenco inflections of his spotlight section on Davis’ “Blue and Green” moves you in a way usually reserved for the saddest lyric poets.

“Freddie Freeloader” is a funky conversation among Tripp, Peter, and bassist Leighton—short, bluesy phrases and clipped riffs, something said, a pause, a quizzical response, an emphatic reassertion, another pause, and a musical shrugging of the shoulder. The band then finds the shuffling groove and makes it move steadily with sway and sass, led by Leighton’s fleet bass outing, making the bass run and skip through its walking paces and maintaining the feeling of a rag shop boulevardier seen in all his street corner majesty. Tripp and Peter provide their solos in seamless order; Tripp’s reed work is a moaning blues mosaic of deep-toned exhilaration, laying down a rhythm and blues inflected hard-bop grit he manages with  dexterity and lightness of touch. Peter’s foray into sharp notes, deft runs, and graceful octave work, following the bass line closely, hewing close to the spare theme, but lacing fleet lines at unexpected intervals. The proverbial sound of surprise. “All Blues,” likely the most covered Miles Davis composition, gets a shrewd modification in this outing, with a brisker than usual pace and some additional and tricky changes before the improvisations commence. It is to be expected, I’d say, given the universal familiarity of the original motif. Odd, but most of the versions I’ve come across over the years don’t alter Davis’ spare construction very often. This arrangement provides the atmospherics for a twisting pair of extemporization from the Sprague brothers, followed by a remarkable, rich bowed solo from Leighton. Drummer Moore, a champion on all the tracks as he performs wonderful rhythm section duties with Leighton, cannot be praised enough. Pulse, groove, flawless shifts in tempo, the man behind the traps keeps this session grooving the particularly provocative paths that Miles Davis laid out. Blue Kind of Miles is an intriguing and innovative tribute to the man’s singular vision as an improviser and composer.


Sunday, March 22, 2020

finding good music

Image result for Miles Davis and Sonny Stitt

n the seventies, while a young man appropriately bored with the slamming two-dimensional dynamics of late-period jazz-rock (which had morphed into a stylized arena of tick-rock riffing termed "fusion" that was monotony incarnate), I ventured forth into older jazz forms, bop, swing, big and, Ellington, Davis, Mingus, people who swung over unpredictable tempos and fantastic chords. It was a love affair that never hasn't stopped yet. Curiously, though, I formed jazzbo attitudes about artists I hadn't heard, a phenomenon not uncommon among some of us desperate for a hip reputation. You followed the herd-thinking. What I heard was that alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt was nothing but a low down Charlie Parker imitator, technically adept and adroit in extemporizing over a 6/8 time breakdown of a popular tune, but he was a technician only, without a soul. I went with that for years and dug into my Miles Davis phase, a long binge over a the late eighties and nineties on as Much MD as I could afford, everything from what he'd done as a sideman with Bird and through his various labels as band leader, from the hard bop session he'd done, through the modal experiments and into the blistering jazz-rock he created., noting , as well, the history of his saxophone players, a fine fettle of reed geniuses: George Coleman,Cannonball Adderley,Gerry Mulligan,John Coletrane, Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, Dave Leibman. Nothing but the best for Miles. 

I was one of those who scoured the used CD bins, looking for my preferred artists and one day, lo! I came across a record titled "Walkin':A Jazz Hour With Miles Davis" on released on the now-defunct economy label Laserlight. Featuring a previously unavailable live performance in Europe in the Fifties, this was not the classic earlier studio album "Walkin'" (a one of MDs many masterpieces) , but so what, it was Davis live and on sale. Reading the personal, all seemed worth the purchase despite the misdirection of the title, as it highlighted, worthies like pianist Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers on drums, Jimmy Cobb on drums, on saxophone...Sonny Stitt?? The plagiarist , the rip off artist, the Parker wannabe? The man I relegated to the minor leagues without endeavoring to hear what he played like? With Miles? 

This wasn't so earth shaking a revelation as I might want to make it sound and , of course, I didn't ask myself that sequence of disbelieving questions presented in incomplete sentences. I was curious and bough the record. I was more than pleasantly pleased with the hard bop brilliance of the band--Miles Davis of this period is essentially flawless as he applies to his muted, modulated, middle register approach to the hard charging changes this fine band challenges him with--and came to the conclusion that Sonny Stiff had been given the short shrift as a musician. The resemblance to Parker are there, undeniable, and it's understandable how jazz snobs of the time, wanting to consecrate jazz as America's art music in opposition to the tradition of European classicism and establish both canon and criteria for our best gift to the world, would deride particular players, diminish them in stature without fair estimation in an effort to create standards for an emerging aesthetics. 

Understandable and unfair, because what I discovered was a musician of envious fluidity and lyric invention within his scope as an improviser who could negotiate steeple-chase tempos and obstacle course chord progressions with precision and yet never, or at least rarely lose a song's melodic nuance ; for all the high-velocity bravura bop-related jazz musicians are known for, Stitt had a ribbony, sweetly undulating method of teasing notes and shading their sounded presence with variations within the pitch, a legacy from the blues that maintains a vocal quality, a sharp note of surprise as the solo unfolds. 

Stitt, however, wasn't a soulless technician.Whatever debt he owed to Charlie Parker is nearly besides the point; the style is something Stitt took possession and made it his means to express something that, in itself, was beyond race, economics and the general ugliness mere existence weights us with; it is simply beautiful and exciting music made by a musician who deserves to be reexamined for his best recorded moments.


Friday, July 6, 2018

Sue Palmer rolls it out

Sue Palmer | Gems, Vol. One
GEMS, Volume One - Sue Palmer
San Diego’s Sue Palmer is a pianist known to the world as the Queen of Boogie Woogie, and throughout the 20 selections on her dealer’s choice anthology, Gems Volume One, we find the sobriquet is hers alone to wear. A constant and vital presence on the local music scene for 30 years plus, Palmer’s energized style of blues, swing, and jazz has delighted fans with keyboard work that is a wonder of rhythm and delicacy, two-fisted swagger and moaning blues holler, straight ahead improvisation and sweet doses of country and torch songs to make the evening’s entertainment a diverse delight. These tracks are choices Palmer has selected from the 20 albums she has recorded since 1980, recorded with a broad array of superlative musicians including Rob Thorsen, Candye Kane, April West, Gilbert Castellanos, and a slate of other players who add their distinct personalities to Palmer’s dedication to swing, stop and boogie.

There is a mad stride boogie mania of the opening track “Down the Road a Piece,” with Palmer’s left hand maintaining a rock steady baseline on the keyboard, and the right hand irresistibly trilling, riffing, and gliding along over the changes. Simple and elegant, against a backbeat of drums and bass that will not let up until Ms. Palmer says it is. Johnny Viau takes a fine honking saxophone solo, growing, wailing, gruff in all the right ways. What makes Gems so engaging is that the tracks and styles catch you by surprise as they play through; more than a revivalist, more than curator, Palmer, and her bandmates are practitioners of the diversity of the blues, swing, and boogie traditions, and will, at times, throw you a left curve that delights gloriously. In this case, it’s the rousing gospel of “I’ve Been Walking,” with a soul-stirring vocal by the irrepressible Missy Anderson, a pumped-up band creating waves, a solid rhythm and fleet beat for Palmer’s thick, rich chord work and percussive phrasing.

Blues, boogie, and swing, the core of Palmer’s musical soul, are a music often associated with the woes of the road, with hard traveling and the search for a place to rest, if only brief. Perhaps coincidentally, two very fine tracks involve hospitality, hotel, and motel, first with a sly rendition of the chestnut “Heartbreak Hotel", a doleful reading of a tune the song combing the laconic fatalism of a good country ballad and the mournful minimalism of the most despairing, dead-end blues. A bit later, we drive past the track “Motel Mambo,” a lament, a confession, a tell-all in lithe mambo syncopation. Deejha Marie’s sexy, casually jaded vocal outlines the characters and their storied comings and goings. Gilbert Castellanos takes a scintillating trumpet break, fast tonguing and rattling trills that give this song a short and inspired moment of scorch, taking full advantage of Palmer’s rattling piano work. All told, Gems, Volume One is a 20-course meal, the work of a fine musician dedicated to the genius of the blues. Blues, swing, blues, country, gospel, it’s all here, a diverting collection of what Sue Palmer considers her best work since 1980. 

San Diego jazz pianist Sue Palmer, the Queen of Boogie Woogie, the Sultana of Swing, the Lady Who Skates on the 88s. That is to say Ms. Palmer has been an invigorating presence on the live music scene in our busy burg, hustling and bustling her infectious blend of rhythm, riffing, boogie woogie, and barnstorming boogie in bistros, clubs ,cafes and concert halls. Her style, two-fisted, elegant, and rocking without fail, has been captured live and in the studio on a stomping array of over 14 albums, aided with the inestimable brilliance of some of the area’s best musicians.
Her 2018 release Gems, Vol. 1, was a fine-tuned selection of her best tunes from her CD releases over the years. It was a potent 20 songs in a variety of styles—rich in blues, hot in jazz, mournful and soulful as the mood dictated, all of it graced with the signature left hand-right hand keyboarding of Palmer, who never forgets to swing. Elevating with contagious energy, it’s a choice introduction to Palmer’s work and the players who help make the music sizzle like steaks on a hot grill.
And now we have Gems, Vol. 2, a new collection of syncopated savvy. For the blues lovers among our readership, “Soundtrack for a B Movie” fills the room with a blues saxophone chorus punctuated by Palmer’s rattling on the keys and Steve Wilcox’s bittersweet guitar fills, brief but very soulful. “Dark Eyes” is elegant, lilting and emboldened by trombonist April West’s shimmering tone. The band moves smoothly over the walking bass, with Palmer ringing in a spry and lyric solo. Johnny Viau rounds matters out with a smoky saxophone sortie.
“Bricktop” raises the ante with jump blues, the band riding the bass and drums in perfect sympathy, with piano and trombone framing the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross-like chorus that invokes the vagabond spirit with a loose-fit precision. David Mosby takes a sauntering vocal turn on the Jimmy McHugh-Dorothy Fields’ classic “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Mosby’s voice is big, declarative, embracing, and fitting for the tune’s good cheer, an idea accented with Palmer’s sparkling chord work and an ebullient solo.

The 20 tracks on Gems Vol. 2 are impressive in stylistic range and performance, and the work of the many musicians that Palmer has worked with through the years have created a body of work that succeeds in that rarest quality. That quality is that she and her bandmates are “old school” in the eras they draw from, with none of the moldy aura of mere revivalism. This collection of tracks isn’t destined for the museum where artifacts languish. This music lives when played by the right combination of players committed to keeping things lively on the bandstand and on the dancefloor.

This was originally published in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Chick Corea and Friends pay tribute to Bud Powell

I've been a avid Chick Corea fan since meeting him (as a listener) on the M. Davis Bitches Brew, where he tag-teamed with fellow keyboardist Joe Zawinul to give that masterpiece its funky, layered, modal fever dream grounding. Corea since revealed in his solo and collaborative efforts to be a peerless pianist, fluent, fast, inventive, unflagging, and one of his generation's protean composers. It wasn't that,as a composer, he could merely switch styles with acceptable aptitude; his excursions into rock, classical, pop, and Avant Gard were full throttle, probing, finding more similarities than one might expect, and when there weren't elements so similar, relishing in the contractions and producing intriguing music all the same. 

I am not one to say, perhaps, but I would say that Corea's body of work as a jazz composer match up against the greatest the Canon has awarded us with. That said, it's a pleasure to listen to Corea's tribute to one of his central influences, both as composer and improviser, Bud Powell, with his "Remembering Bud Powell" release from 1997. As a pianist, Powell's fingers knew precisely how to be dynamic when and where it counted; as his tunes were melodic but hooky, full of sudden but smooth shifts in tempo and direction, BP seemed to extemporize the composition at will. Matters beheld are unfailingly evident by the energy and the inventive required by Powell's nicely involved songs. Corea, in tribute, positively swings on this session; lithe, percussive, bright. His band--Wallace Roney on trumpet, Ray Haynes on drums, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride on bass, Joshua Redman on sax--take the opportunity to swing this batch of progressions and augmentations for all the marvelously flowing improvisations they can collectively muster.

This Corea Bud Powell collection is notable for, besides dense and cutting improvisations, is the quality of Powell’s' compositions. Corea resists the temptation to Latinize or fusio-nize the material and instead plays the charts straight--Powell’s' sense of harmonic build-up and resolution is loopy, easing from sweetness to tart dissonance. All of which is the canvas for some good blowing. Corea reins in his extravaganzas and weaves around with a now untypical sense of swing. The efforts of Garrett and Redman are a reed lover’s idea of heaven. Roney has a cool, crystalline tone, and his phrasing is meditative, reserved, nicely so, though one desires a Hubbardesque scorch at odd times. Haynes and McBride are champs. Straight
 ahead jazz fans need to purchase this fine album, and then treat themselves further by acquiring recordings of the florid and exhilarating Mr. Powell himself.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Chet Baker's return home in 1977

Image result for you can't go home again chet baker
You Can't Go Home Again-- Chet Baker
Trumpet player Baker has a cool, lyrical, muted style not similar that of Miles Davis from his Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain period. One ought not stop with the maybe too obvious comparison , as Baker is fairly much his own man when it comes to speaking in the hushed , muted tone that Davis also preferred in his best period. Baker's riffs are his own,personalized medals and scars of good looks and good loving gone bad due to women, whiskey and heroin. Baker did eventually succumb to a drug related death, a repeating tragedy among artists as it is among the rest of us , but his particular album was made during one of his periods of getting clean and commencing to make music again. It's a good one, seductive, alluring, not perfect and a bit frayed around the edges of Baker's improvising; some notes are harsher than you know he intends, some ideas are a little clammy in this mood  inclined project. But it works, soulful, intuitive, honest.   You Can't Go Home Again (released in 1977) , applies himself more tactfully and imaginatively than a dozen other flashier players could, Freddie Hubbard (Liquid Love ) included. The music is generally lyrical and moody with heavy orchestration by Don Sebesky (whose career as CTI house arranger has converted many a talent into a white faced, mass market commodity) , but Baker's pensive, searching emotionalism transcends the limits, as well as the efforts of a superb group of sidemen, including drummer Tony Williams, saxist Michael Brecker, bassist Ron Carter, guitarist John Scofield, along with other famous names like Hubert Laws, Paul Desmond, and Alphonso Johnson. The group playing is infectious and allows for a number of sparkling moments, particularly in the solos of Scofield, Desmond and , Brecker. The lyricism here is terribly handled, without  sentimentality. Emotionally, this music is tougher stuff. Baker's power seems to come from a deeper; each note, even when he quickens his phrases as the rhythm section doubles and triples the time, seems like a hard won victory of expression. Today, pain , heart ache and the series of self inflicted wounds that constitute Baker's non-music playing life, cannot quiet this man's need and ability to create a terse and jarring poetry.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Better art through chemistry? Torgoff on Jazz, Beats and Drugs

Jazz, Race, Drugs, and the Beats
By Martin Torgoff
(Da Capo Press)

Image result for bop apocalypse martin torgoff
(This originally appeared in
The San Diego Troubadour.
Used with kind permission).
Bop, Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, Drugs, and Jazz is a  large and lumbering  subject, jazz musicians, drugs and the Beats, but author Martin Torgoff soft-pedals his main thesis--that drugs were an essential ingredient in the creation of bold new music and writing from black musicians and white writers--with a mostly light touch.. Instead of weighing his subject an overarching and cliché- burdened theory, Bop Apocalypse at its best provides us with an anecdotal history, a narrative that jumps through time, cutting between jazz musicians and beat writers, in a series of essays and recollections that seek the precise moment when the artists were introduced to drugs and, more emphatically, how drugs motivated musicians and poets alike to challenge themselves to create new, nerve rattling work.  The book doesn’t quite escape the grasp of received perceptions about creativity and the need of the outsider genius to derange themselves to achieve perceptions greater than the masses could collectively handle—you suspect at times that Torgoff took Aldous Huxley’s utopian dreams in Doors of Perception at face value and since  operated as if that author’s erudite daydreaming had become an actual fact of existence – but if one can suspend cynicism even slightly, there are some good stories to read here.
Those expecting a continuous timeline will find this book a bit exasperating, as Torgoff prefers to present his history and his argument in something of a cinematic style, with jump cuts, flashbacks and fast-forwards. There is the sense of him attempting an impressionistic approach to how particular events are linked to creating the mythos we've come to create hip culture. It's a fractured, frustrating but fascinating narrative all the same, dealing with the creation of an outlaw culture with the federal criminalization of Marijuana by the efforts of Harry J. Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics back in the day and the efforts of law enforcement agencies, local and national, to depict African American jazz musicians as deviants, criminals, moral reprobates due their drug use, and the emerging generation of white writers who took to drugs both as a meat to escape a crushing conformity of the Eisenhower 50s and as a way of expressing words that could capsize the old rules and in return truly feel something genuine from the experience. Anslinger is revealed as the unwitting creator of the modern idea of hip, the aesthetic, the pose, the manner of being artists have assumed for decades since, the idea of the artist as outsider, as an outlaw, as an iconoclast. The American avant gard now had a hook to hang its bulky coat on.

 Readers familiar with Beat aesthetics--their emphasis on spontaneity, improvisation, a Zen mindfulness free of distortion and subterfuge --; will be relieved Torgoff goes lightly on the usual apologies made on the Beats behalf. Bop Apocalypse works best at the times when the stories are told of central personalities in the period at crucial moments in their lives. The joy is in the telling details to a chapter to writer Terry Southern (the novels and stories Candy, Blue Movie, Red Dirt Marijuana) and how he discovered pot as a kid, which grew wild on his cousin’s Texas farm, or how saxophonist was introduced to heroin, or Kerouac blitzing himself in clouds of marijuana while he rattled off On the Road    in a spurt of superhuman productivity.

Miles Davis, Hubert Huncke, John Coltrane, Mezz Mezzrow, Billie Holliday, William Burroughs, Lester Young and others have their tales told, some details well known and others likely apocryphal, the scenes from their lives revealing a similar scenario, their respective introduction to pot, heroin, amphetamines as a means of coping with their marginalized existence and of forcing their wits and instincts to the edge. There is an idea at work throughout these tales that Torgoff gently insists that there is that drugs. especially marijuana was critical to the helping the writers and musicians in this collection to create their work. He about comes out and insists, at the end of his chapter on Jack Kerouac, and makes the claim that the great many have given to Kerouac’s body of work would have remained unwritten had not taken up the tea habit. He has Kerouac remarking “I need Miss Green to write; can’t whip up interest in anything otherwise.” For myself, who has always found Kerouac’s fiction and poetry problematic at best, a writer who often mistook breathlessness for beauty, Torgoff’s association of being stoned with quality sounds more than a little daydreamy, likening the author’s body of work as that which would be considered to be “…likened to Proust’s, Melville’s and Shakespeare’s.”

This brings to mind something I’d read years ago in a Downbeat Magazine interview with jazz guitar virtuoso Joe Pass, talking about his drug addiction and his eventually getting clean. The interviewer asked if he thought he was actually better and more imaginatively when he was high. Pass gave a cautious answer all the same, to the effect that while he couldn’t say he definitely played better, and he certainly thought he was playing brilliantly while he was high. I kept this in mind reading this otherwise engaging and well-researched book,  and remain convinced that the gift to create music or to write poetry are aspects of a personality that exist separate from drug use. That someone can produce chorus after chorus of hard bop jazz ala Parker or compose a monumental poetic masterwork such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl has more to do with the talent that’s already in place, not because the drugs aided these artists to their particular style of genius. Torgoff does us the favor, though, of presenting the polemic even-handed, although there times when hyperbole gets the best of him.

 Raising Kerouac’s literary value to Shakespeare and Proust is an is an example, as is an incident related in a section about Charlie Parker. An intriguing chapter overall, with the sort of telling details of clubs, cities, characters of interest on the risks they took to pursue an art form on the   outskirts of what was considered the American mainstream, Torgoff relates the tale of jazz producer and promoter Norman Granz and his organization of a series of concerts billed as “Jazz at the Philharmonic” in Los Angeles in 1946. At this period in brief life, Parker’s behavior was erratic due to the complications of his heroin habit. Parker had barely managed to make it to the West Coast from New York. He quickly fell from sight, looking to score drugs in a city where he had no connections, and arrived late for the concert, which had already started. Torgoff writes:
”…having found what he was looking for, he showed up twenty eight choruses into ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ and stepped on the stage to play a chorus that brought the music to a whole new level and the audience to its feet, then he stayed on to play alongside Lester Young on ‘Oh Lady Be Good’…Bird’s choruses astounded musicians and jazz fans everywhere. Everything he played that night would become part of the basic syntax of jazz…”

This is the kind of overpraise even the most ardent admirer winches at, as curious readers are given soft-shouldered platitudes and proclamations instead of colorful, clear and precise explanations of what the artist is up to, an idea of the tradition a musician is breaking away from and how he’s creating new music based on the traditions he’s learned from. This is a gift jazz critic Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddens, vividly highlighting artistry and contribution over sensationalism, a subtler approach Torgoff does not take on. Worse for Bop Apocalypse is the not-so-subtle idea that the artists that matter,--the artists who break tradition, create new forms, innovators who’s avant gard experiments command respect and influences generations many decades after they’re deceased—have to be chemically deranged in order to have that latent genius become activated and find its fullest and fatal expression.  It should be noted that not everyone covered died tragically or fell prey to the foul clutches of permanent addiction—as the biographies of Coltrane, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Ginsberg and Burroughs attest—but Bop Apocalypse provides a constant suggestion that it’s not enough for committed artists to engage their craft to the best of their ability, but that in doing so one must knowingly risk their lives to achieve a genius level of expression the merely sober amongst us cannot.  Torgoff’s underlying premise crystallizes much of what is foul with the contemporary notion of romanticism, that the kind of lethal idealization of the drug-related deaths of writers and musicians creates an allure that is seductive and wrongheaded. It is, on the face of it, irrational to consider an early and preventable death of an inspired creator as confirmation of their genius.

Torgoff, though, brings a wealth of research to the subject and, despite the periodic wallowing in cliché and unexamined proclamations, creates an entertaining mosaic through an electric period of American history. What the book lacks insupportable thesis or in establishing how these artists actually to influence each other’s work is made up for by Targoff’s storytelling skills. Imagine this as a film by Robert Altman at his best, a diffuse but alluring tour of the rich details of an aspect of our legacy we must continue to engage.  One does wish, though, that the author avoided the unintended irony of writing about artists who changed the way we think about the world with old ideas that merely reinforce our worst habits of mind.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016


A great musician has passed. Allison's was a name that flew below the radar when one started counting influential singer/songwriters. It's in retrospect that you realize his style , his originality in an African American art form, were the epicenter of whatever legitimate Caucasian version of "cool" might have developed during his prime period. He didn't attempt to sound or act black in music or manner, and he didn't hide from his white, Southern background. His singing remains a godsend in an area of blues, the sort played by well intentioned white players , who mostly sounding like rude noises from an garbled idea of American culture. Allison's voice was cool, reserved, talk-sung with the barest hint of blues inflection; where others got loud and raspy when the emotions poured down thickly, Allison remained calm, his voice hanging as far to the edge of musical phrase while still remaining , in some way, on , before or just after the beat. This was he subtle insinuation of skepticism, reserve, of keeping a center amid the chaos of events and conflicts and contradictions around him. Part Southern Gentleman and part Sonny Boy Williams, it was a style of singing that was clear and articulate but still made you think that was the voice of a man heavily marked by experience. Like wise his lyrics, which were cool, ironic, sardonic, spare but full of implication. I don't there have been many other songwriters who displayed as much wit with so much rhyming brevity. He was, of course, a unique pianist, cross referencing classical and hard bop with a seamless elegance and energy.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Chick Corea and Friends pay tribute to Bud Powell

I've been pretty much an unreserved Chick Corea fan since meeting him (as a listener) on the M.Davis Bitches Brew, where he tag-teamed with fellow keyboardist Joe Zawinul to give that masterpiece its funky, layered, modal fever dream grounding. Corea since revealed in his solo and collaborative efforts to be a peerless pianist, fluent, fast, inventive, unflagging , and one his generation's protean composers. It wasn't that,as a composer, he could merely switch styles with acceptable aptitude; his excursions into rock, classical ,pop and Avant Gard were full throttle, probing, finding more similarities than one might expect , and when there weren't elements so similar, relishing in the contractions and producing intriguing music all the same. 

I am not one to say, perhaps, but I would say that Corea's body of work as a jazz composer match up against the greatest the Canon has awarded us with. That said, it's a pleasure to listen to Corea's tribute to one of his central influences, both as composer and improviser, Bud Powell, with his "Remembering Bud Powell" release from 1997. As a pianist, Powell's fingers knew precisely how to be dynamic when and where it counted; as his tunes were melodic but hooky , full of sudden but smooth shifts in tempo and direction, BP seemed to extemporize the composition at will. Matters beheld are unfailingly evident by energy and the inventive required by Powell's nicely involved songs. Corea, in tribute, positively swings on this session; lithe , percussive, bright. His band--Wallace Roney on trumpet, Ray Haynes on drums, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride on bass, Joshua Redman on sax--take the opportunity to swing this batch of progressions and augmentations for all the marvelously flowing improvisations they can collectively muster.

This Corea Bud Powell collection is notable for, besides dense and cutting improvisations, is the quality of Powell’s' compositions. Corea resists the temptation to Latinize or fusio-nize the material and instead plays the charts straight--Powell’s' sense of harmonic build-up and resolution is loopy, easing from sweetness to tart dissonance. All of which is the canvas for some good blowing. Corea reins in his extravaganzas and weaves around with a now untypical sense of swing. The efforts of Garrett and Redman are a reed lover’s idea of heaven. Roney has a cool, crystalline tone, and his phrasing is meditative, reserved, nicely so, though one desires a Hubbardesque scorch at odd times. Haynes and McBride are champs .

Straight ahead jazz fans need to purchase this fine album and then treat themselves further by acquiring recordings of the florid and exhilarating Mr. Powell himself.

Friday, October 7, 2016

SORCERER -- magic from Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams,Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock

Image result for sorcerer miles davis
Sorcerer --Miles Davis (Sony)
Sorcerer, the 1967 album from Miles Davis, has been in my CD player the last couple of days and, to pun badly, I've been more than a little entranced by how amazingly well these improvisers,all of whom are distinct and potentially dominating in ensemble efforts, work so cohesively as a group.There's a perfect kind of modal combustion here, with Miles Davis contrasting his spare and fairly angular sense of improvisation with the formidable resourcefulness of this album's principal  ensemble, Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (double bass) and Tony Williams (drums). The music is a unusual  combination of  the unforced and the aggressive, resisting the temptation to either go slack in their pace or stray toward the harsh vicissitudes of anguished, strident experimentation,  a pulsing course of off-accented rhythms, musical swaths of varying tones and colors, and ingenious interlacing between primary soloist Davis, Shorter and Hancock. Ensemble exploration at its peak, it seems, as the three of them actively listen to and anticipate each other's ideas during the respective solo spots. This is what the great Davis groups did, find unexamined nuance and moods in the musical tones. 

 Davis and Shorter in particular offer up a few exquisite moments of dialogue as they answer, query, interrogate and respond to musical propositions put forth by the other. As great as the previous occupant in the saxophone chair had been, the redoubtable and effusively  brilliant John Coltrane, Shorter was a better fit for Davis' ideas for the ensemble at the time,  1967, when this disc was recorded His solos are less galvanic than Coltrane's were, more composed, filled with lithe and delicate phrases , wonderfully respondant to the rhythms and pulse Williams and Carter provided and the full range of ideas underscores and textures the sound with.Davis is at his best, lyrical, on the edge of atonal, bracing when needed, the tone of his notes isolated and longing.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A fine saxophone blows this this

Image result for jc on the set james carter
JC on the Set--James Carter
Carter has a fat, honking sound on all the saxophones he uses, and this a good thing. He phrases wonderfully, and there is sass and a fast-quipping edge here, particularly in the galvanizing solo he takes on Ellington's "Caravan"; honks, blorts, grunts and street-crossing jabber make you think of a flurry of voices all singing into the same microphone. Ellington had made a name for arrangements that suggested "jungle sounds" ( so-called by critics who at the time still couched their praise in racist vernacular) , Carter keeps his notes crisp, sharp as pressed pleat or a knife's edge, nuance and edges of melodic creation and destruction timed with the lights of the Big City, a blues full of the funk of the city. Funk Carter has, as in the fatback workout of the title track. Did I mention that he lays out and reconfigures ballads with a rare artistry? 

This he does with the distanced eye of painter views a blank canvas and a palette of fresh paint. It's less important that he captures, after much labor and sweat and the semblance of agony, some questionable approximation of inner essences residing in the sweet notes that make up the melody than what he does to create new forms. There's a joyful aspect to Carter's playing that's perfectly contagious when he takes on the slower, more reflective tunes, and here one might guess that his soul is transformation, transcendence, recovering, a full swing of moods that he journeys through in order to regain the light of day. The playing on his exploration is marvelous, bubbling, never tentative. 

Carter excels here because he isn't afraid to mess with the material; these slow pieces are less sacred objects than they are sources of inspiration. One thinks that Carter's hand will come out of the bell of his sax and pull your face into it. That's a coarse image, perhaps, but it's another way of saying that the tone and phrasing are in your face (in the most pleasant way, of course), and is the sprite and fulsome virtuosity that won't let you ignore the grace and occasional genius emerging from the horn. The brunt of this man's playing is full-bodied blues and bluster. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Ron Satterfield Rises Again

Ron Satterfield. Photo by Michael Oletta.
Ron Satterfield.
 Photo by Michael Oletta.
(This originally appeared in the
San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).
It’s July 15th, and it’s jazz pianist/guitarist and vocalist Ron Satterfield’s birthday. Satterfield is preparing for a performance with flutist and long-time collaborator Lori Bell and versatile percussionist Tommy Aros at the cozy lounge just off the lobby of the Handlery Hotel in Hotel Circle. He’s diligently setting up the PA system, adjusting mic levels, securing a confusing cross section of wires and other attachments. The room is filling up nicely prior to the performance while Satterfield concentrates on perfecting the sound system just so. Bell greets us and provides a gentle warning… “Ron is in his operating mode before a performance, getting everything ready. It’s generally, not the best time to try and talk to him.” We repair to the bar, watch as the room fills even more, eager for the performance.

Satterfield’s due diligence with set- up pays off, noticeable when the troupe ( also known as Trio de Janeiro) works their magic. The sound is warm, bright, and fills the room comfortably. Nothing overwhelms the music. On guitar, Satterfield has the instincts and phrasing of seasoned pianist, not a soloist as much as he creates a feeling for accompanying the others. His chord work is delicate, off center, teasing various accents and melodic texture, linking with the sure, deft, and insistent percussion of Aros. Over this percolating combination of rhythm and melody is Lori Bell’s flute work, a combination of virtuoso precision and heartfelt swing—swift, jumping lines ranging from low bluesy swoops to exhilarating escalations in the high registers. With this come Satterfield’s vocals, a seductive combination of pop, jazz and Latin styles, a warm vocal instrument versed in the split-second wit of scat, the vowel stretching wonder of up-tempo vocals. He has mastered his voice, gracefully applied over a variety of styles. Pop tune to torch song, salsa to samba, blues to bosa nova, Satterfield does it all—distinct, swinging, and classy.

Ron Satterfield had a high profile in the bustling San Diego jazz scene in the 1980s when there were many lounges and restaurants that booked jazz regularly, and an impressive roster of local jazz musicians to play the engagements. It was a time when Elario’s, Chuck’s Steak House, the Blue Parrott, the Crossroads, and Our Place were alive with musicians like Peter Sprague, Charles McPherson, Hollis Gentry, Joe Marillo, Kevyn Lettau, Mike Wofford, Jim Plank, Bob Magnuson, and many others, Satterfield not the least of them. It seemed one could find a place to hear live jazz every night of the week and, as often as not, find Satterfield performing in one of the many musical combinations, singing, playing keyboards or guitar, as a utility player, a musician that brightened the stage. During the period I had seen him a dozen times by my estimation and was usually impressed at what he brought to the night’s music. Satterfield was a significant player in an active and rowdy music community, the special ingredient on the bandstand with whomever he was performing, bringing verve, a sense of swing and sway that transform many nights out into concentrated moments of transcendence. Like many of his contemporaries, he was a needed man to have around.
Satterfield was (and still is) prolific across the board, involving himself in a dozens of different combinations of musicians in a far stretch of jazz and jazz-pop styles, torch song to blues, scat to samba, more poppish, radio friendly songs, to New Age. He had an ear for finding the center of a groove, the soul of a chord progression, and the harmonies they underscore and create a host of sprite, inventive takes on whatever he decided to take on. His page reveals that he’s been featured on 28 album releases from 1986 through 2007 with a stellar string of musicians ranging from Dave Mackay, Lori Bell, Holly Hoffmann, Peter Sprague, and many others, and in four albums as half of the duo called Checkfield, a new age-Windham Hill-ish instrumental and vocal collaboration with John Archer. In his time, he was a busy man with large talents who, oddly, had all but disappeared from the local radar. As the 2000s commenced and the number of venues offering live jazz continued to recede, Satterfield disappeared from the scene as well. There was little jazz to be heard and virtually no Ron Satterfield among the few who could be seen playing live. So, what happened?
The original Joe Marillo Quartet at Chuck's Steak House, late 1970s: Satterfield, Marillo, Tim Shea, Gunnar Biggs. Photo by Michael Oletta.
An old story—drugs and alcohol—the curse of too many creative men and women who come to suffer. Falling prey to addictive substances, Satterfield was, by his own admission, a mess, a man doomed to an alcoholic death, a man with nowhere to go and no idea of what to do. Satterfield’s is a story of hitting a vulgar bottom, but it it’s also one of how he found help from a source he’d didn’t expect. But first, he had to hit what the recovery community terms “a bottom,” that point at which one has a moment of clarity, that one is truly powerless over drugs and alcohol, a point where they can begin a road back to the mainstream. Back in his East Village apartment on muggy August afternoon, Ron relates a crucial instance with long-time music partner Lori Bell. His voice trembles at times in the recollection.
“My decline was obvious because of my behavior. I feel I’m representing. I want people to know about the Salvation Army and that it’s available. I was a functioning alcoholic for a long time; I kept my drug use at home. It was something for when I got back home after a gig, when it was head phones, and I would snort away, smoke away, drink away, what have you, be it cigarettes, grass, alcohol. It never went with me. Cocaine had become impossible to find.
“Then I met with methself esteem and everything was about perfection. What I didn’t realize until getting sober was how much emphasis there was for approval and justification. Lori picked up on my lack of self worth.
“Back in the day many jazz musicians in were in the habit of overcompensating, that thing of saying, ‘I’m the best, I’m better than you,’ nasty sarcasm that always comes around. I always gravitated more toward female performers because I always got more love; I was terrified of men. Lori is very loyal, supportive to a degree that’s frightening. Once the meth came in, that was the first was the first time I started bringing alcohol with me to the gigs. It was in the car. Poor Lori would have to sit in the passenger seat probably terrified that I was drinking and driving. I had a little wine container that I carried my wine in; I tried 7-Up cans that didn’t work, and I finally came up with a coffee canister to hide my alcohol in; it looks like you’re drinking coffee. Alcohol, though, is really ethyl alcohol and it burns your liver; the first thing the liver wants to do is get it the hell out. It comes out of your pores, your breath, your pee, whatever it takes to get that stuff out of your body. I was bringing alcohol to engagements and I was not eating. I have a video of me doing a concert at Dizzy’s when it was downtown. I was emaciated because I wasn’t eating. I started drinking vodka with orange juice to rationalize that I was getting sustenance. I looked like an Auschwitz victim. Lori’s husband was telling her to be prepared, saying, ‘I don’t think Ron is going to be around much longer.’”
There was a fiasco in Carlsbad that was an instance of clarity for Satterfield, but his transition to a sober and productive life had a few false starts, among them a couple of “geographic cures,” the illusory idea among those struggling with their addiction that if they move to another city or state, they’d leave their problems behind. To coin a phrase, “wherever you go, there you are.” Satterfield sought his late brother’s help, who showed up in San Diego in 2007 to take him to a Kentucky asylum where they thought he could get the help they needed. Soon after he was admitted he realized it was a mistake.
“Every week I would I see the counselor who was ‘treating’ me, so to speak, and it would essentially be them asking me how I was feeling. I would tell them and they would write it down in the record and then say that they thought they should keep me a while longer.”
Realizing this was more a racket than a treatment for his malaise, he found out that he was entitled to a phone call, a privilege he used to call his brother to come back to the asylum and sign him out. Afterward, there were false steps and stumbling attempts to change his direction, more geographic cures and wavering attempts at being a truck driver. But for all his efforts to change his behavior with new locations and new occupations, his addiction was still active, and relapse wasn’t infrequent. In 2011, returning to San Diego from his last location in a car he’d borrowed from the late jazz saxophonist and mentor Joe Marillo, Satterfield received a suggestion that was the beginning of his return to sobriety and music making.
“I came into the Salvation Army program in 2011 because I had reached the place all people in addiction face: choose life or choose the street. I did the typical geographic, which didn’t work out; I went to friends and that didn’t work After losing everything, everything the last person I had a relationship with said, ‘I cannot help you, but I have one recommendation and that is the Salvation Army. I can’t think of any other place you can go and rebuild your life.’ That information was passed on to Joe Marillo, God bless him; I was coming back from Arizona with a car he had loaned me where I tried to build a life. After my final DUI, I realized I might as well come back to San Diego and give Joe back his car. I had no plan, had no idea what would happen, but I could do at least one thing right, which was to give Joe back his car. It was in God’s hands from there.
“On the way down I stopped off in Alpine because I ran out of gas. I had friends there, and a girlfriend from a past relationship said, ‘I have no money to give you, I have nothing to give you, I don’t really want to see you, why don’t you try the Salvation Army?’ Her daughter took pity on me and gave me enough money for gas; she bought me breakfast, and then I made a phone call to Joe. I called Joe and told him, ‘I am here, I’m on my way.’ I told Joe that I had gotten one suggestion about the Salvation Army and that I had no idea what to do with that information. Joe told me to make my way down to San Diego while he made some calls. God bless him, he made some calls. When I got to Joe’s, he said ‘Ron, I have some good news—I contacted a man named Steve Self at the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center. He said he doesn’t know what condition you’re in and you can’t go into the program unless you’re sober, so why don’t you crash here for a couple of days and sober yourself up and then we’ll take you down.’ That was April 21st of 2011, and that’s my sobriety date.
“I wasn’t as bad as I could have been, but I was beaten. But, Joe drove me down here. It turned out that we were so excited about the possibility of this that we got there almost two hours early before they even opened the doors. We had to go get some coffee and stand around and then, all of a sudden, the place starts to come alive and there were people flying up the hallways, down the stairs, and on and on and Joe’s saying, ‘Wow! These people are energetic!’ When I met with Steve Self, Joe took off, and the rest is history.
“I had no idea that this even existed. All this time help was available and I had no idea. Like everybody else I thought the Salvation Army was a place for homeless people, and they ha thrift stores, and they come out at Christmas with the Santa Clause suits, ring the bell, and ask for donations. This is a full-fledged six-month program. It has counseling, it has AA meetings, sponsorship, it has relapse prevention classes; the list of services is so wide, it goes on and on, and it was exactly what I needed. When you’re as far gone as I was, as much as you would like to go to family and friends for help, they cannot possibly understand your behavior and desperation, so coming to a professional environment with people who have the experience… what I got here was love and support, which I desperately needed.
“I was so filled with guilt and shame. This place is about life and rebuilding; they give you tools. I came here from the standpoint of desperation; it was a simple choice, the street or a program. It was exciting to realize that this was available. And this is free. They will feed you, they will clothe you. You need to have an open mind coming in here. Sometimes you have to go on a waiting list because there’s room for 100 people, but I lucked out.”
His two-year residence at the Salvation Army gave Satterfield the structure and order that he lacked during his seemingly endless battle with drugs and alcohol. Admitting that he was out of answers and weary of what awaited him if he didn’t try something different, he gave himself over to the program the recovery unit, making use of their many services of counseling, classes in relapse prevention, work therapy duties, 12-Step meetings, and, most tellingly, becoming part of the Center’s worship team. Spirituality and a reliance on God (or a Higher Power, as many 12-steppers prefer to say) is strongly emphasized in this path of recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, an element many new to recovery struggle with. Ron, however, had no qualms turning his life over to a power greater than himself. His struggle was something else.
“I never had a problem with the Lord; I never had a problem with religion. I’ve had a problem with organized religion, evangelists seeking financial contributions so they could have Lear jets, but I was brought up Presbyterian so I was pretty wide open. Religion for me was a personal experience. What I did have a problem with when I came into the program was that we were required to sing. It is devotion at seven in the morning, and then devotion later in the day. On Sundays and Wednesdays, they have other programs going on. It’s all about the Lord. The primary function is God and it’s very open; it’s not in your face, it’s to put you in touch with your higher power, your ‘wise advocate,’ however you want to address your Higher Power. What got strange for me was singing. My first experience was singing about God, and Jesus was kind of strange for me. I was so shut down that I didn’t want to sing. After a while, I would sneak down to the chapel, even though my hands were still shaking, and play the piano a little bit. I had to play the piano. Of course, somebody heard me and they realized that ‘this guy is a little more accomplished than our average rock band guy.’”
As a once-thriving jazz musician, Satterfield had reservations about playing music that praised and beseeched God exclusively, but in short order he was game enough to get beyond his prejudices and investigate the songbook used for the religious services. This was the beginning of his return.
“The resident manager at the time led the worship team and he was also a musician. He had a time of it. He was trying to work with me and I was so shut down. As time went on, I became more comfortable with the environment. We used to sit and talk over coffee and he asked me what I thought of worship music. At the time I was very opinionated, coming from a jazz background, and I said, ‘Well this ain’t Miles Davis, it’s not Bill Evans, what is this?’ And he asked what background I had, and I said ‘folk.’ And he said, ‘That’s perfect, that is where this all came from.’ The original worship music was people sitting around with guitars, singing about God, and now it’s grown into a contemporary thing. It’s amazing. All he had to say was folk music and that opened the door. I got beyond my reservations about the requirements of the program and started listening.
“That was when my musicianship and experience kicked in and I realized ‘oh my’ from a melodic and harmonic stand point that this is very well-crafted. I stopped listening to the lyrics and just listened to the music. I went to the piano and started playing the songs and got a completely different perspective on this. As fate would have it, the resident manager and music director got a new assignment, and he came to me. I was drafted; he asked me how I would feel about taking his place? I told him I was not up to that kind of responsibility, but I thought about it and wound up saying okay, but under one condition: if you let me get together with Major Dina Graciani and work with her one on one. She is now the head of San Diego Salvation Army, but at the time her husband, Major Henry Graciani, was. She is one of the most gifted singers I’ve ever worked with, a pure soprano. But there was one problem. My predecessor arranged all the songs in the key he was comfortable in, and Major Dina was singing in a key she wasn’t comfortable with. I thought this was unacceptable and told her we needed to change the book so she could sing in the keys that are natural for her range. She asked if we could do that. And I said yes, we could. Singing harmony became easier for me, I created the book with her. We started writing arrangements. Everything changed.”
Satterfield became more involved with the Salvation Army’s program, working full-time at one of their stores in San Diego County as cashier, receiver, and general retail duties, as well as organizing and directing the facility’s musical program for the weekly worship service. He reorganized the ‘The Book,’ the body of songs used for the services, giving them new arrangements, which allowed, as he explains, to do wonderful collaborations with Major Dina. He became close to both Majors Dina and Henry Graciani, a couple he came to trust for direction, advice, and wise counseling. He was becoming increasingly comfortable with his natural skill set as a musician once again, but there was a personality conflict he had with one of the workers at the store he worked in. The friction didn’t sit well with him, although, unknown to him, that would soon change.
“I was still working at the retail store, but I was having difficulty with the main person, the person who runs all the things in the store. I’d been talking to Major Henry about the experience. He said, ‘You’re going to be even stronger. Give it time.’ Lori [Bell] brought me in for a performance, my first live outing. She thought it might be fun to get together with [pianist] Dave MacKay, because he was getting older and it would terrific to play with him again. She was doing the Fourth Friday series at the La Jolla Community Center, so she booked the engagement. I invited Major Dina and Major Henry, telling Lori that I would like them to see the performance. I didn’t think they’d say yes, because what we’d been performing isn’t worship music, but they surprised me and said they would love to be at the performance. So they came down and were in the audience. Major Dina came back afterward and said, ‘I had no idea. How do you do that? I only know you from the worship music, but this… this is who you are.’ A little later Major Henry takes me aside. The show was over; everyone was milling around and he and I walked down a hallway. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘You have a gift. This is what you’re meant to do. I want you to do something for me. I want you to take a risk. I want you to leave the store you’re working in. Go back to your roots. I think you’re ready.’”
Fortune smiled on Satterfield, it turns out. Shortly after quitting his job at the Salvation Army store to focus on returning to being a working musician, he began receiving royalty checks. Unknown to him, his partner John Archer from the Checkfield days had converted their albums to “library format,” a digital conversion that allows for easier distribution of material. “The music is still out there,” he said, noting that there was a Japanese company that had a television show, which discovered Checkfield’s music. “They used the music, like 20 seconds here, a minute there, a two-minute dub on something else, and they paid. I started to receive quarterly royalties at about the same time I quit the store unconditionally. That went on for two years! That was extraordinary.” With the aid of Major Henry, Satterfield shored up his financial resources, continued his weekly duties directing the music for the Sunday worship services and ventured out into the world around him again, collaborating with the ever-creative and inspiring Lori Bell.
In fruitful collaboration with Bell, Satterfield hardly seems the shot-out shell of a man he described himself as, but is rather the picture of a confident, buoyant performer, a person with rhythm and wit and a contagious enthusiasm for the jazz music he performs. A look at the scheduled appearances with Lori on her website [] shows many dates, already played and forthcoming, which highlights a musician intimate again with his muse and finds himself once more in the mainstream of life.
The jazz audience in town should do itself a favor to seek out Satterfield’s work with Bell around San Diego. Evidenced by the many live performance videos that have been posted on YouTube, one may well, in a live performance, behold enthralling arrangements of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” or Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want,” two songs that are part of Trio de Janeiro’s set list. Syncopated, highlighting sterling solos, and a harmonies that offer a suggestion of just the right amount of complexity, Aros furnishes engrossing percussive accents. Bell carries the melody, leans in for sweet fills and short comments, and riffing echoes of Satterfield’s vocal lines, proffering a glorious bit of spontaneous composition with a solo or two, all of which underscores, showcases, and provides a frame work for Satterfield’s swinging vocals. One hears bits of influences in his style—strains of James Taylor, Kenny Loggings, Mel Tormé, and others, Satterfield has absorbed his influences, made them his own, and created his own, natural, swinging expression. His voice has a warm texture, malleable in the way it can be clear and precise in diction and then slide up and down the scale. The notes the chord progressions provide, animating the lyrics of bliss, yearning, and loneliness, with deftly applied emphasis on unexpected syllables, the percussive impact of consonants, and the soft, suggestive urgings of vowels. He finds the music tone in the sound of the words; he sings them to cohere with the pace and texture of the performance. More than a singer, Satterfield’s voice, on occasion, acquires a rare distinction: the transcendent quality of becoming a lead instrument.
I also suggest that jazz aficionados stay current with the local music calendars and seize the chance to attend a concert if they come across a listing featuring both Bell and Satterfield. Available also on YouTube are Bell and Satterfield in collaboration with pianist Dave Mackay and, elsewhere, with keyboardist Mike Garson. There is a stirring, Latin informed version of “Motherless Child” that highlights the rich, succinct lyricism of Mackay’s piano work, the left-handed chord work, and the hand accents and chord modulations performing miracles under the efforts of Bell. His solo, of course, is a wonderful combination of verve restraint. Also on YouTube is a wonderful reading of “Stella by Starlight,” highlighting pianist Mike Garson, formerly with David Bowie and Stanley Clark, along with Bell and Satterfield. It’s one of those renditions of a classic that makes it seem that one is not so much watching a musical performance as much as taking a journey. Here, Garson glides and persuasively guides the rhythm along, while Bell negotiates an obstacle course of rhythm and chords, segueing to a wonderful bit by Satterfield. He first offers a short guitar solo and then begins to sing, rhythmically matching his piano—suggestive guitar words to the flow of clipped language, creating harmonies one didn’t expect to emerge from a man with just a voice and guitar. And Garson, a musician for whom both impressive classical and jazz techniques are second nature, reveals a light touch on the keys, precise but not pristine on the fast runs, clean yet emotionally fulfilling.
What occurs to this writer is that at five years clean and sober, Ron Satterfield has found that the road he’s travelling is narrower than when he first began his journey into recovery. What may have seemed like a profession he couldn’t return to for fear of relapse and degradation worse than that he’d experienced previously is now an exciting and rewarding chance to recover his musical gifts and bring his art to the audiences of San Diego and, perhaps, the world beyond our zip code and time zone. Witnessing Satterfield live, it seems that one can only agree with what Major Henry told him: that he was ready to return to live performance, a day at a time, and a gig at a time. Ron Satterfield is a gifted and humble man, grateful to the good people at the Salvation Army and in the broader recovery community in helping him find his footing, find his sanity, find his voice again, a voice he brings to the audiences of San Diego. The gift he has recovered becomes his gift to all of us.