Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lest We Forget: Charlie Mariano (1923-2009)

Note: this article also appears in the August 2009 issue of All About Jazz New York in a shortened version.

Making a name for oneself in the cutting-contest world of bebop was a difficult thing in the 1940s, a ripe period when swing was giving itself over to the “new thing” of improvising on melodic-rhythmic changes. Modern jazz was, of course, a rich enough approach that many musicians found a lifetime of aesthetic achievement within that idiom. Yet there were players who came out of the bebop language who continued to invent, finding music itself a broad enough language that a single approach couldn’t contain their ideas. Saxophonist and flutist Charlie Mariano was one of those restless improvisers, though his body of work might be skipped over by a canon set to the changes of Coltrane, Miles and Mingus.

Mariano was born Carmine Ugo Mariano on November 12, 1923 in Boston, the son of Italian immigrants who had come over at the time of World War I. Mariano began in music very young, learning piano and becoming an excellent sight-reader. Under the influence of Lester Young, he took up the saxophone as a teenager, receiving an alto as a gift from his sister. Almost immediately, he formed a small dance-band combo and played locally; by nineteen, he had joined the union and was gigging semi-professionally. After a stint in the Army where he was stationed in Kansas and California, he returned to Boston and came under the spell of Charlie Parker. He told interviewer Lothar Lewien: “I wanted to be able to play like this. Hence I chased Bird's sound, his way of phrasing. I listened to his solos on recordings for hours, wrote them down, and played it. I'd been obsessed with this music, and Charlie Parker had been my God.” After a brief and, in Mariano’s words, unchallenging period with territory bands, he attended the Schillinger School (later Berklee) on the GI Bill, studying under Joe Viola. Music school opened doors, and Mariano worked in the bands of Nat Pierce, Serge Chaloff and Herb Pomeroy, as well as leading his first sessions for Imperial and, shortly thereafter, Prestige and Bethlehem.

By the mid-1950s, Mariano was leading the saxophone section of Stan Kenton’s band as well as arranging; an on-and-off position, he left the group for Los Angeles and drummer Shelley Manne’s quintet, for which he wrote a number of compositions and recorded five albums. In 1958, he returned to Boston and began teaching at Berklee, where met his second wife, Japanese-born pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi. Forming a quartet, the Marianos were busy, working in New York, recording for Candid and touring Japan (later resulting in a somewhat lengthy stay). Mariano’s sound had evolved past the Charlie Parker mold into a keening cry, analogous to a “cooler” Jackie McLean – something which Charles Mingus appreciated and used on The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (Impulse, both 1963). In 1967, Mariano went on exchange to Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, where he became interested in Indonesian and South Asian music, especially the nadaswaram (a South Indian double-reed instrument), which he studied with guru Muthaiah.

Mariano’s “second career” began to take shape after his months in Indonesia. After brief visits to Japan (where he recorded with Japanese saxophonist Sadao Watanabe) and the US, Mariano relocated to Holland and then Belgium, working with Dutch flutist Chris Hinze, pianist Jasper van’t Hof and Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine. His approach to alto and soprano saxophones and flute, with both an edgy keen and an understanding of Indian modes, was perfectly suited to jazz-rock. It wasn’t long before he joined the German prog-rock band Embryo and Dutch group Supersister, as well as forming Porkpie with van’t Hof and Catherine (also featuring drummer Aldo Romano and bassist J-F Jenny-Clarke). Mariano closed out the decade playing in German bassist-cellist Eberhard Weber’s group, Colours, and the multi-national United Jazz + Rock Ensemble. He also spent time in India throughout the decade, studying bamboo flute in Bombay.

From the 1980s onward, Mariano was based in Cologne, Germany leading his own combos and guesting with artists as diverse as Mal Waldron, Anthony Braxton, Kent Carter and Theo Jörgensmann. His renown and achievements are bittersweet, however – revered and downright “popular” in Western Europe, Mariano’s work (not many can boast Herb Pomeroy and Embryo on their resume) is certainly far less-discussed in American jazz circles. After a long illness, Mariano passed away June 17, 2009 at age 85.

Selected Discography:

Charlie Mariano - Boston All Stars - (Prestige/OJC, 1951-1953)
Toshiko Mariano Quartet - (Candid, 1960)
Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady - (Impulse!, 1963)
Charlie Mariano/Chris Hinze Combination - Blue Stone - (Black Lion, 1971)
Embryo - We Keep On - (BASF, 1972)
Charlie Mariano - Reflections - (Catalyst, 1974)
Edward Vesala - Nan Madol - (Japo, 1974)
Charlie Mariano - Jac's Group - (Horo, 1975)
Embryo - Life - (Schneeball, 1980)
Charlie Mariano/Mal Waldron - Autumn Dreams - (Alfa Jazz, 1991)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Nate Wooley, trumpeter, interviewed

The interview is available at Bagatellen, here.

I'm curious to know what you all think - I usually do phone, rather than email interviews so this was pretty interesting process-wise. Happy Wednesday!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

George Russell (1923-2009)

The sad news has been confirmed here, among other sources:

The composer George Russell, best known for his 1953 music theory The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization died yesterday aged 86. He had been unwell for some time and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. His ideas were at the time seen as some of the first major contributions by a jazz musician in the field of music theory.

In the 1960s he moved to Scandinavia and taught in Sweden and in Denmark and thanks to Swedish radio was able to record his compositions and undertake new commissions. He worked with Don Cherry and a young Jan Garbarek and then on his return to the States joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory. Later in the 1980s and 90s he formed and toured his Anglo-American group the Living Time Orchestra which featured Andy Sheppard among the soloists. His albums include the classic 1961 Riverside album Ezz-Thetics., Avant Music News, Jul 2009

I first heard Mr. Russell's music in the late Nineties, after picking up his excellent Stratus Seekers album with trumpeter Don Ellis, Dave Baker on trombone and tenorman Dave Young (among others). The arrangements were unique, solos burning, incredibly swinging but not like anything else I'd heard at the time. He had a great run on Decca and Riverside in the early Sixties, and his Scandinavian bands of the subsequent decade (late 60s-70s) were equally hot.

I don't pretend as a nonmusician to understand his theories, I just know that I've gotten a lot of joy out of his work. RIP, Mr. Russell, and thanks for all you gave.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Bits and Bobs

Not much news over the past week and some change. I'll be heading to Minneapolis, an old stomping ground, in a few days for my sister's wedding. Hopefully I'll have some time and spare change to hit up Roadrunner Records and Treehouse Records. Maybe even Hymie's.

It looks like a couple more interviews should be running soon - I'd expect them online in early August.

At All About Jazz, a confab with percussionist-improviser Weasel Walter will run as a full, unabridged interview. I had hoped this would be available before he went on tour in May, but I got slow and so it runs next month. As far as burning free-jazz skronk goes, I highly recommend his work, most of which is available here.

Bagatellen will soon publish an interview I did with trumpeter Nate Wooley, who has done some interesting work with Mary Halvorson and Reuben Radding in the group Crackleknob. Also the trio Hammer with Fred Lonberg-Holm and Jason Roebke. Also Transit, Harris Eisenstadt's Guewel, duos with Paul Lytton and Peter Evans... busy guy. Also one of the trumpeters out there really expanding on/extending the language qua Bill Dixon.

Tonight's listening: Christian Lillingers' Grund and Herculaneum III, both on Clean Feed.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Image copyright Mark Mahaney, courtesy of the Wire.

I know some people out there have heard me talk about a long-unpublished Bill Dixon article, one that was slated for Signal To Noise but for various reasons, did not get published. I won't go into those here, because there isn't much point and I still am part of that magazine's community.

Anyway, the lowdown is this: it will be running on All About Jazz by the end of the summer. They are very excited to publish it, especially because it will give, I think, readers & those both familiar and unfamiliar with Dixon's music a lot to chew on. Unlike most articles on him, this one will include some images taken from Mr. Dixon's broad range of visual work - paintings, lithographs, and photographs. Dixon will also contribute a short article on a subject of his choosing to go along with the main piece.

So in advance of the September release of a 2CD & 1DVD set on Firehouse12, this will be a pretty neat article. I'm glad to finally get it published, because it's been in the vault for over a year, and it concerns one of the most interesting artists on the planet.

And for those of you still on the fence about Dixon's 2007 collaboration with the Exploding Star Orchestra, they will be performing next month at Lisbon's Jazz Em Agosto. If you can't make it to Lisbon, the CD is available here and it is very, very fine. Happy listening, and I hope to hear from you once the Dixon piece runs.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lest We Forget... Bengt "Frippe" Nordstrom (1936-2000)

Note: this article first appeared in All About Jazz New York, March 2009. The image is a detail from the cover that Nordstrom used for his Bird Notes LP and EPs.

The mythologizing of a musician coming from seemingly out of nowhere to turn established forms on their heads is often given a purely American sort of credence—specifically in the work of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. In Sweden there was a saxophonist who experienced all manner of difficulty and misunderstanding throughout a nearly forty-year career, never quite reaping the benefits of grudging acceptance let alone love and adoration. That saxophonist was Bengt Nordström, known to Stockholm’s jazz public by the nickname “Frippe.” Nordström was born in Djursholm, Sweden, on July 13, 1936, and though he began as a drummer, switched to clarinet in his late teens, inspired by New Orleans and traditional jazz played in Stockholm by the likes of the Alligator Jazz Band. At nineteen, he started his own trad band and attended the Nalen Jazz School in Stockholm, studying alto saxophone with Rolf Billberg and Rolf Blomquist. The alto became his primary horn, though he also played tenor saxophone.

At 23, Nordström heard Sonny Rollins live in Stockholm. At the same time, he heard Ornette Coleman on Swedish radio, and these players supplanted Tony Scott and Buddy De Franco among his listening pantheon. Nordström is quoted in the liner notes to Meaningless (Blue Tower, 2003) as saying Coleman’s approach struck him as “more definite and physical” than the music he had been listening to. Nordstrom met Albert Ayler on the tenorman’s Scandinavian sojourn in 1962, and though they never played together, they spent hours listening to records in Nordstrom’s flat. Ayler’s gruff sound and wide vibrato had a definite affect on Nordström’s playing, but what is especially prophetic about their meeting is that it would result in Ayler’s first official recording, Something Different!!!, which Nordstrom recorded and released on his Bird Notes imprint. Ayler’s seeming disregard for the themes and forays far from tunes’ rhythmic and tonal parameters was an influence on Nordstrom’s aesthetic, as his small-group recordings from the period show. Most of these sessions were released in extremely small numbers on the Bird Notes imprint and some even featured Nordstrom himself playing solos over Miles Davis records.

In 1967, Nordström recorded Natural Music, joined on one side by bassist Sven Hessle and playing unaccompanied on the other. In fact, Nordström frequently played solo and had already released micro-edition recordings of unaccompanied saxophone music. Unhindered by an ensemble that wasn’t quite where he was, Nordstrom’s playing here is full of folksy whims, wandering but utterly committed to the moment and as harsh and braying as his tone might seem, Nordstrom is delicate and very lyrical. Though he appeared as a sideman with Gunnar Lindquist and Don Cherry in the late Sixties and early Seventies, his tactic of jumping onstage and playing his music at nearly every local jam session met with disapproval from Stockholm musicians. Still, he was able to find sympathetic ears and recorded an album of his own music for Dragon Records in 1982, Now’s the Frippe Time. Nordström remained somewhat active throughout the Eighties and mentored Swedish reedman Mats Gustafsson in addition to playing in a quartet with drummer Peter Uuskyla, bassist Bjorn Ålke, and violinist Lars Svantesson. After a decade-long illness, Bengt Nordström died in 2000 at age 63.

Selected Discography
Bengt Nordstrom - Meaningless (Blue Tower CD, 1962-1964)
Bengt Nordstrom - Natural Music (Bird Notes LP, 1968)
Don Cherry - Movement Incorporated (Anagram CD, 1968)
Gunnar Lundquist - Orangutang! (EMI-Odeon LP, 1970)
Bengt Nordstrom - Now's the Frippe Time (Dragon LP, 1982)
Bengt Nodrstrom - The Environmental Control Office (Ayler CD, 1988)